Author's Note: Here's the last chapter of book two! There are some announcements at the end. Most importantly (important enough to be said twice), thank you to all my readers and reviewers!
Book 2 Chapter XXIII: The Road Goes On
Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star...
– J. R. R. Tolkien, The Road Goes Ever On
Death's throne room was always silent. It was full of the sort of solemn, echoing silence that seemed to swallow up all noises made within it. Since the beginning of time no mortal soul, not even those who were most furious about their deaths, had been able to completely break that silence. Only one person could do that. Death herself. And she only reserved it for the most serious of occasions.
Right now was one of those most serious occasions.
"I demand an explanation. And I will get one, whether you want to give it or not." Her voice echoed all through the vast room like a crash of thunder. "How did you do this?"
Riyome bared her teeth in a mockery of a smile. "I will never tell you."
Death picked up her scythe and raised it threateningly. Riyome's friends shrank back with yelps and whimpers. Riyome herself didn't even flinch. She stared up at Death and continued to smile. Clearly threatening her would do no good. Death could not simply destroy a soul – or even condemn one to Hell – without a good reason. This fiasco was annoying for all involved, but Fate would never accept it as a good enough reason. Death knew it, and unfortunately Riyome obviously knew it too.
"You cannot have escaped without help," she said aloud, as if voicing her thoughts to herself. "No other personification would dare interfere with the souls in my realm. My Reapers would not be foolish enough to do something that I would inevitably find out about." Well, she hoped they wouldn't be so stupid. You never knew with those little pests. But better make the souls think she believed what she said. "So I ask you: who was it?"
Riyome snorted. She held her head up proudly and looked at Death as if she and not Riyome was the one being questioned for wrongdoing. "No one helped me. I did it all on my own."
That sounded exceedingly implausible to Death. "You, a mortal soul with no special powers of your own, found a way to break through the barriers between worlds. You successfully created a portal using skills in teleportation that you don't have. And of all the places in the universe, you managed against all the odds to arrive in the very place where my servants were sure to find you." She stopped and raised an eyebrow. "Just how stupid do you think I am?"
"I don't think you'd care to hear the answer to that question," Riyome retorted.
Death felt the sudden strong urge to hit her head against a wall. Her choice of words had practically asked for such a sarcastic retort, and she hadn't even noticed until it was too late. That did not bode well for the rest of the conversation.
"I have looked at that mirror," she said. "You couldn't possibly have created it. So who gave it to you?"
Riyome continued to look proudly disdainful. "No one did."
Oh, for goodness' sake. This discussion was like pulling teeth. "Then where did you get it?"
"I found it."
Highly unlikely. No one in their right mind ever just left such powerful objects lying around for any passing stranger to find.
"And where, may I ask, did you find it?"
Riyome shrugged and said nothing. Death waited. And waited. And waited. The other souls began to shuffle restlessly. Silence descended on the throne room again.
At last Death's patience ran out. "If you insist on not telling me anything, I can put you in the Void for a day."
Not even Riyome could stay calm in the face of that threat. The Void was one of the things most people feared because it was so utterly alien. It was not a place; it was the absence of a place. It was not inhabited by any recognisable creatures, yet it was inhabited. It was nowhere, but it was everywhere. It was even stranger than the Land of the Dead. Not even Death understood it. Even she was wary of its denizens.
"I found it outside my house," Riyome said. Her grim expression and the reluctant way she spoke indicated that this was most likely the truth. "It was among a dozen other mirrors. I don't know who put it there."
Death stared at her. "And why didn't you just say that in the first place?"
Riyome drew back like a cobra preparing to strike. "Because I refuse to let you demand any answers from me! You are a tyrant! You have no right to keep us prisoner here!"
"Believe me," Death said dryly, "I would be very happy to get rid of some of you."
Riyome apparently didn't think it was worth her while answering that.
The capital city of any empire was never quiet. It didn't matter how late it was, or what was currently happening in it, or how bad the empire's political situation was at the moment. There would always be people bustling around at all hours. Very few of them, from what Hailanyu could see, were out and about on respectable business. The bars – and there were at least two on every street – were full to bursting. Shrieks filled the air at random moments – possibly shrieks of laughter, but given the ramshackle and disreputable appearance of many riverside bars, possibly not. Drunken, off-key singing drifted out of the buildings. Figures staggered out of them and disappeared amongst the gloom of the rapidly-approaching night.
No one paid any attention to a small convoy of rowing boats drifting past at irregular intervals. There were still other boats on the river. People on the docks worked to load or unload boats moored there. The floating shops continued to sell their wares to any passersby who cared to stop and inspect them. A dozen different smells of food wafted from them. Hailanyu recognised the smell of chicken, pork, grilled vegetables, and what smelt suspiciously like seaweed. Those were mingled with other unidentifiable scents. They all filled the air until they made him want to sneeze. He held his breath as often as he could. The last thing any of them needed right now was to do something that would draw attention to them.
It wouldn't be just as bad, he thought as he rowed, if we weren't so far apart.
Nimetath had ordered them to stay at least ten feet away from the other boats. It made sense. People on the shore were less likely to look closely or assume they had something to do with each other. But it had the side effect of making him feel as if he and his three companions were completely cut off from the others. And being cut off from their help when Kiroshnoy was on his boat made an already stressful journey even worse.
"Why don't we row faster?" Kiroshnoy asked in a low voice.
She sat in the row in front of him and had the sense not to turn round, so Hailanyu could only see the back of her head. It was strange to look at her head and see black hair instead of blonde. He couldn't escape the disconcerting feeling that he was speaking to someone else.
"Because we don't want to make too much noise," Wenguoling whispered.
"And because we don't know where we're going yet," Hailanyu said.
Nimetath had learnt her lesson about letting them stay at the back of the group. Instead they were in the middle, a fair distance from the boats ahead of and behind them. Nimetath and her boat were at the very front of the group. They were searching for somewhere safe to land, somewhere without many people around to see them and ask awkward questions. No one had any idea where such a place was. Probably away from the docks and closer to the palaces.
Which meant they had a long, nerve-wracking journey ahead of them. It was at least two miles to the centre of the city. And then their troubles were just beginning. They still had to get to the royal palace itself.
Hailanyu firmly stopped his thoughts there, before they could get any more depressing. He was not going to become a constant worrier like Gialma. There were quite enough people like that in their family.
He craned his neck to look over his shoulder. The boat ahead of them was still moving along steadily. Even as he watched it suddenly slowed. Then it swung around so it was facing the right-hand riverbank.
"Stop," he said to the other three. "Something's gone wrong."
They stopped rowing. Their boat drifted on a short distance, until it was close enough to the other boat for them to speak without shouting.
"What's happening?" Kiroshnoy asked. She leant so far over the side of the boat that she made it rock dangerously.
"I don't know," someone on the other boat said. "Nimetath stopped, so we did too."
The creak of oars and the gentle splash of a boat moving through the water ahead of them made everyone look round. A shape appeared, at first indistinguishable from the darkness all around them. As it drew nearer it resolved itself into Nimetath's boat. Behind them the other craft gathered round.
"The docks stop just ahead," she said quietly. She waited while the message was relayed to everyone who hadn't heard her. "We have to be more careful now. We're going through the main city."
No one in the royal household was ever likely to forget the Midnight Battle of Zasordoth Palace. True, no one was ever clear on what it was all about. The people who had been there insisted it was against a group of fairytale monsters. Others thought it must have been a Malishese attack. Yet others believed it was an ordinary group of criminals. Some doubters refused to believe it was anything more than a few drunk guards with overactive imaginations.
Officially it was a secret training exercise gone awry. That explanation suited most people perfectly. Before long it had become just one of the many curious incidents that had happened in the palace over the centuries.
Only two living people knew the truth. And of course it was inevitable that they couldn't forget it that easily.
Gialma just wished that Qihadal would stop glaring at him like he'd planned the whole thing. She'd sent him a royal summons the day after the uproar died down. Now he found himself in the throne room, feeling rather like a schoolboy called before the headmaster for something someone else had done.
"How many times do I have to apologise?" he asked, with an astonishing lack of politeness.
"I do not want your apologies," the empress said icily. "Apologies are empty words. I want an assurance it will never happen again."
There was no chance of that. Death had personally removed the mirror. Gialma told Qihadal so. She gritted her teeth at the mention of Death.
"And there is no chance it will reappear in some other part of the city?" she asked.
"I doubt it," Gialma said. "Varan is hunting everywhere for portals, just in case there are some of them around here. I don't think this will happen again."
Qihadal pursed her lips. "I hope not." Abruptly she changed the subject. "I wondered about you. About why you were so strange."
Gialma felt slightly offended about being called strange. All right, so it was true. No one would ever deny it, least of all him. But it was still unpleasant to hear it said out loud.
"I should have realised you were like Tinuviel. It seems so obvious now."
"Like Tinuviel?" Gialma repeated. He couldn't think of any way he was truly like Tinuviel. Well, they were both prone to worrying about things. And they both hated the High Council. But that hardly made them alike. "How am I like him?"
Qihadal frowned. It wasn't an angry frown. It was more a bemused one, as if she could hardly believe he didn't know what she meant. "You are both too close to the other world."
Gialma thought of the most recent catastrophe. Then he thought of the Reapers, and the curious incident of finding Death outside his door all those months ago, and discovering Tinuviel was married to Death. "Aren't we all close to that world?"
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he sensed he had said the wrong thing. Again. Qihadal blinked at him, nonplussed.
"I suppose we are," she said slowly. "But most people don't like to think much about it."
He couldn't argue with that.
The closely-built houses of the main city gradually gave way to parks. Slowly the ground began to rise. Before long the assassins found themselves at the foot of the hill, with villas, mansions and palaces above them. At the very top of the hill stood the main royal palace.
Carefully and quietly they moored their boats at the side of the river. There was a small inlet there, just enough to give them some shelter. It would be useless if someone was specifically looking for their boats. But if not, there was a chance they would escape notice.
The entire group gathered their bags and scrambled out onto the shore. For the first time it dawned on Hailanyu that there was truly no way to get out of this now. They had to either kill the Iquisaal or die trying.
A winding paved road led up the hill. Not a single sound could be heard from any of the houses. There seemed to be no one else around at all.
In an orderly line the group set off along the road. Hailanyu took a deep breath and began to walk. One way or another, this would be over soon. If nothing unforeseen happened in the palace they would succeed in their mission. Then they could finally go home.
END OF BOOK 2
Second Author's Note: Announcement time! First, I'll write book three for either July Camp NaNo or for NaNoWriMo itself. More information will be put on my profile at the time. If you've any suggestions for book three, feel free to tell me and I'll try to work them in!
Next, my April Camp NaNo project will probably start being posted some time in early May. (Assuming I manage to finish it…) It has the tentative title The Power and the Glory and a very vague outline. You might remember Death complaining about a necromancer earlier in book two. This project will be about that necromancer.
Lastly, thank you again to everyone who's read, reviewed, followed and/or favourited!