Sammy stood alone in the gallery that led to the library. It was deathly quiet and Mehrak and the librarian had gone. She crept along the hallway. She didn’t know why she crept, but it felt as if she should. She had that tingling sensation that she wasn’t supposed to be there. It didn’t help that most of the lights were out and the portraits of former regents seemed to sneer down their snooty noses at her, like they disapproved of her being there.
She worked her way through the palace passageways until she arrived at the entrance hallway. It was deserted, so she crept behind a pillar. She didn’t know why she was hiding, but again it seemed like the right thing to do. Better safe than sorry. What now? The entrance doors were open but a lone guard stood in the gap, facing out into the Keep. She crept silently towards him.
“Intruder!” The cry came from behind.
Sammy turned. A guard on the staircase was pointing at her. Other guards appeared behind him, skittering down from the floor above, converging together in a spill of bodies, racing down the stairs.
She ran. The guard blocking the entrance turned in time to see her barrelling towards him. He froze as she charged head-first into his chest. He grunted and tumbled out of her way.
She fled down the stairs, taking two at a time, into the lamp post forest. She could hear the men behind her as she weaved her way through the posts. Lights flashed by, disorientating and dazzling. Why were they chasing her? No time to analyse the situation, she had to keep running.
She left the lamp posts and plunged into the relative darkness of the market district. Ghosts of the lamp post lights smeared her vision but she ran on.
The market itself was deserted, as were the suburbs and streets all the way to the lift site.
Sammy stopped at the steps to the lift and bent double, her chest tearing itself in half, desperate for oxygen. She straightened up, sucked in air. The palace guards were closing in. They rounded the corner of the street, racing towards her. Sammy staggered up the steps and onto the platform, then realised there was no one to operate the lift. She couldn’t get to the lever and back in time. She leant over the railing. Too far down to jump.
She sat up in her bed at the palace.
Hami was in the doorway to the communal room. “Get dressed,” he said. “It’s time to leave.”
Four palace guards in red pointed hats accompanied them through the lamp post plaza, carrying their luggage.
Sammy rubbed her puffy eyes. She couldn’t shrug off the dream. It had seemed so real until she woke up. It was the book that had done it; it had got to her. She hadn’t had time to tell Mehrak about it. Should she bring it up now? Tell Hami as well? If the magi knew most things about history, then Hami probably already knew what it said. She watched him as they walked. He looked back at her, then turned away. He knew. She could feel it. He knew that she was the child with golden hair; the child that was supposed to be killed. Then a thought struck her. Was he really taking her to the capital? She didn’t want to believe the things Mehrak had said about him, but she was beginning to convince herself. Did he really have her best interests at heart?
Mehrak was passing his grandfather’s book back and forth between his hands, which meant something was bothering him too. At least it wasn’t just her.
The streets in the market sector were empty. The traders hadn’t set up their stalls for the day and the shop fronts were locked down. Sammy gave the empty marketplace one last lingering look as they passed. Then it was gone and they were on their way to the lift site.
Narok was waiting for them at base camp when they stepped off the lift. Behind him, outside the campsite, thirty karkadann were lined up, shoulder to shoulder in the fog. The Marzban, dressed in navy combat fatigues and turbans, were saddling up the karkadann, loading supplies and fetching weapons.
“I trust your men have been briefed with the information I told you?” Hami said. He placed a hand on Narok’s shoulder.
“Yes, sir. Principal Hootan, I mean.” Narok took a deep breath. “I need to talk to you about something …” he began as Hami guided him from earshot.
Sammy left Hami and Narok to it, and followed Mehrak and the palace guards to meet Louis.
“… a magus and thirty Marzban?” a Marzban officer whispered to another as they hurried past Sammy. “I’m telling you, there’s going to be trouble!”
Sammy stopped. Mehrak had said something about the size of the entourage, too. She looked around to locate Hami and Narok. They were over by a secluded campfire, deep in conversation.
She ducked away from Mehrak and slipped into the shadow of a tent. She ran across to another, and proceeded to flank Hami and Narok’s position as quietly as possible. Hami appeared to be stressing something important. Narok nodded anxiously.
The Marzban were now forming a line by their karkadann, ready to mount. Base camp fell silent.
Sammy crept closer to the two men, remaining behind Hami and keeping out of sight of Narok. When she got as close as she dared, she slipped behind a tent and listened.
Narok was speaking urgently: “But you’ve told the Regent that we’re taking Sammy to the capital.”
“I’m well aware of what I’ve told him,” Hami said. “Our business is no longer his concern.”
“Principal Hootan, I really think …”
“I really think you should listen to the magi, given your past indiscretions.”
Narok flinched. He looked about nervously. “The magi told me I’d have a fresh start. I haven’t wasted the opportunity they gave me.” He gulped. “I’ve repaid my debt. I’m doing good work here. I keep Honton Keep safe.”
“Are you forgetting the agreement we made when we found you the position here?”
“That was ten years ago. I’ve more than proven myself.”
“Whether you have forgotten your obligations or not, you were a member of the Order and you owe us a debt.”
Sammy staggered. She snatched at a guide rope to steady herself.
Narok’s shoulders fell. “I have a family now. Children …”
“You will lead us and your men towards New Ecbatana. Then, on the second day, you’ll give orders to redirect to the new location I give you.”
“And you’ve agreed this with the other magi?”
Hami didn’t answer.
“Surely New Ecbatana is the safest place for the girl.”
“The crabmen are regrouping,” Hami said. “They’re expecting us to go there and they’ll be waiting.”
“Why though? What do they want her for?”
Hami turned and Sammy ducked down.
When Hami didn’t answer, Narok continued, “Principal Hootan, you have thirty of my finest guards. You’re putting their
lives at risk for this mission. You owe them some kind of explanation.”
“I can’t divulge any more than I already have, General,” Hami said. “I need your loyalty for this mission. Afterwards, consider your debt repaid.”
Narok’s shoulders slumped. He acknowledged the magus with a dip of his head and turned to leave.
“One last thing,” Hami said. Narok turned back. “Make sure your guards are prepped for battle.”