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On the way home from the Palace I pass three corpses and numerous walking wounded. Two men demand to know who I'm going to vote for. I draw my sword.
"Put me down as undecided," I growl.
On the corner of Quintessence Lane a crowd has gathered. They're looking at the young guy who sells dwa there every day. He's out of business now, with a bolt from a crossbow embedded in his neck.
I have a strong appetite for four or five beers.
"How did it go?" asks Makri.
I note with disapproval that she has had her nose pierced.
"Palax and Kaby did it for me. Don't you like it?"
I shake my head. I'm too old for these outlandish fashions.
"Shouldn't you be trying to look normal, Makri, to get into the Imperial University?"
"Maybe," she concedes. "But I like having a ring through my nose. Do you think I should have my nipples done?"
"Who's ever going to see? You've never had a lover."
"I might have, if all the men in Twelve Seas weren't such scum. Do you think that Elvish healer will visit again?"
"Yes. But if he finds you with your nipples pierced he'll panic. Body piercing is taboo to the Elves."
Makri thinks she could probably change his mind. I refuse to discuss it any more.
"So what happened at the Palace? How's the Prince?"
I sigh. I can hardly bear to describe how he is. "All the stories about Prince Frisen-Akan are true.
Besides being as dumb as an Orc he's the biggest dwa addict in the city. Not to mention a stinking drunk, a thazis abuser, a hopeless gambler, a heavy debtor and all-round degenerate piece of rubbish. I look forward to his accession to the throne with great anticipation. Incidentally I'm setting out for the Fairy Glade early in the morning."
"To recover the dwa the Prince is bringing into the city for Horm the Dead."
I shake my head and tell Makri the full sorry tale. Not only has Prince Frisen-Akan sunk so deeply into drug addiction that he barely knows what he's doing any more, he's so deeply in debt to so many people that it's becoming impossible to hush up.
"So he was planning to sell the dwa to make some money."
Makri laughs at the thought. It is funny in a way. Some Prince.
"He was getting small amounts of the stuff from Cerius. Unfortunately that wasn't enough so he decided to try something bigger. He's putting up the money for this transaction. It's the behaviour of a lunatic—if the King finds out he'll exile him. Which wouldn't bother me a bit except the Prince dragged Cerius into this madness and if the story comes out then Cerius will probably end up taking the rap."
"Dump your client," advises Makri.
"I'd like to, but I can't. It's all got too complicated. If Cicerius's son goes to jail, Cicerius loses the election. If that happens, I lose my licence. Also, Cicerius has offered me much more money to intercept the dwa and bring it back safely. Or rather, bring the letter back safely."
"The letter the Prince sent authorising payment."
Makri gapes. I gaped too when I heard about it from the Prince who, in a rare moment of lucidity, did realise that sending a letter authorising payment for six sacks of illegal drugs, and signing this letter with his own seal, wasn't the brightest thing he could have done.
If the public learns about it they might as well cancel the election. The Populares will walk it. The people of Turai will forgive the Royal Family for many things but not wholesale drug dealing with a mad Orc Sorcerer. Particularly as the Princess is at this moment awaiting trial for killing the dragon. Poor Royal Family. I'm almost starting to feel sorry for them."
"You shouldn't get involved," says Makri.
"Cicerius is paying me six hundred gurans if I can keep Cerius and the Prince out of it."
"I'll go and sharpen my swords."
We hire a couple of horses and set off early next morning. I don't know who is taking the Prince's letter of credit to the Glade, so I plan to arrive there first and intercept it. Either that or attempt to make off with the dwa myself and swap it later. Makri has her usual assortment of weapons including some small throwing stars I've never seen before.
"Assassins' weapons aren't they?"
She nods. "I saw them on Hanama's belt that night we had the fight. I thought I'd try them out."
The streets are still empty save for one or two dead bodies from last night's gang warfare, and the ever present beggars. I'm fairly immune to beggars now, though some of them are so pitiful it's impossible to be completely unaffected; mothers with misshapen children, men back from the wars with no legs and no army pension, hopeless itinerants going blind with cataracts in their eyes. Turai is no place to be old, sick or without friends or family. Which gives me a slightly bad feeling about my own fate. No one is going to nurse me through my dotage if I'm crippled on a case.
The Fairy Glade is a good two hours' ride from the city, east through the farmlands and the vineyards that skirt the hills. It's some way inside the huge forest that serves as the boundary between Turai and Misan, our small eastern neighbour. Nothing much goes on in Misan, which is made up of small villages and clusters of nomadic tribesmen. After that it's a few hundred miles of increasingly wild and lawless territory before you reach the lands of the Orcs.
Glixius Dragon Killer is meant to collect the Choirs of Angels from the Glade tomorrow. It's being deposited there by Horm the Dead.
"Why is the pick-up point the Fairy Glade?" asks Makri.
"Glixius insisted. He knows that as Horm is half Orc he won't be able to get into the Glade. I imagine Glixius doesn't trust him completely and wants the stuff delivered someplace he can examine it in peace without fear of Horm double-crossing him or just stealing the Prince's credit note without delivering the goods. Somehow we've got to intercept that credit note."
Whether or not Makri can get into the Fairy Glade remains to be seen. Whichever guardian spirits protect it, they won't be used to anyone with Orc, Elf and Human blood. I've told Makri to keep smiling and to think positive thoughts. That always pleases the Fairies.
The countryside is parched and dry. Around the city the land is irrigated with a series of small channels fed by the river but further on the fields are barren. Much of this land has been overfarmed and is becoming infertile, which is one more thing for Turai to worry about. Some way on, as the land rises gradually and the trees become more numerous, the vegetation looks rather healthier. More rain falls on these hills than falls on the city. Astrath Triple Moon explained the reason to me once but I've forgotten what it was. The vast forest is now visible on the horizon. I glance at the sky. I don't like it out here. I feel exposed in all this space. I'm too used to the city. I don't ride much these days and I'm already sore in the saddle. Makri rides without a saddle, like the Barbarian she is. She seems untroubled by the heat, even in her leather and chainmail body armour. Her axe is strapped to her saddle and her two swords form a cross on her back. We're both carrying light helmets with visors.
A small copse is in front of us, then the forest proper begins.
"I've never been in a forest before," says Makri.
Horm the Dead rides out from the copse followed by twenty Orcish warriors.
"It might be a very short visit."
Another twenty Orcs ride out from the trees along with a few heavily armed Humans. They encircle us. I curse myself for my carelessness but I wasn't expecting to meet Horm in person. Certainly not this side of the Glade. He must have deposited the dwa and come this way to wait for Glixius, or whoever is bringing the Prince's credit note. Makri slips her helmet over her face, takes a sword in her left hand and her axe in her right, and prepares to make her death stand. I'm still hoping to talk my way out of it.
Horm rides up. His face is deathly white and his features, not unhandsome, are immobile, set in stone. His malevolent black eyes stare at me. His thick black hair hangs round his shoulders, with dark eagle feathers woven into his plaits and black and gold beads tied into their ends. Even in this heat he's wearing his black cloak. His aura is so powerful that it's intimidating just to be near.