Between the time he saw Steadholder Isana found by her people and the time the sun set, Fidelias had run more than a hundred miles and left the Calderon Valley behind him. The furycrafted stones of the causeway lent their strength to his own earth fury, and through it to Fidelias. Though he was a man of nearly three score years, the long run had cost him comparatively little effort. He slowed down when the hostel came into sight and walked the last several hundred yards, panting, his legs and arms burning lightly with exertion. Grey clouds rolled across the flaming twilight, and it began to rain.
Fidelias flipped his cloak’s hood over his head. His hair had grown even thinner in the past few years, and if he didn’t cover it, the cold rain would be both unpleasant and unhealthy. No self-respecting spy would allow himself to catch cold. He imagined the deadly consequences had he sneezed or coughed while inside the barn with Isana and her would-be assassin.
He didn’t mind the thought of dying on a mission, but he’d stake himself out for the crows if he would ever allow it to happen because of a petty mistake.
The hostel was typical of its kind in the northern half of the realm-a ten foot wall surrounding a hall, a stables, a pair of barracks-houses and a modest-sized smithy. He bypassed the hall, where travelers would be buying hot meals. His stomach rumbled. The music, dancing and drinking wouldn’t start until later in the evening, and until they did, he would not risk being recognized by bored diners with nothing better to do than observe and converse with their fellow travelers.
He slipped up the stairs of the second barracks house, and opened the door to the room furthest from the entrance and bolted it behind him. He eyed the bed for a moment, and his muscles and joints ached, but duty came before comfort. He sighed, built the fire laid in the fireplace to life, tossed aside his cloak and poured water from a pitcher into a broad bowl. Then he withdrew a small flask from his pouch, opened it, and poured a few splashes of water from the deep wellsprings beneath the citadel in Aquitaine into the bowl.
The water in the bowl stirred almost immediately, rippling, and then a long blob of liquid extruded from the surface of the contents in the bowl, wavering slowly into the miniature form of a woman in evening robes, striking rather than beautiful, apparently in her late twenties. “Fidelias,” the woman’s form said. Her voice sounded faint, soft, very far away. “You’re late.”
“My lady Invidia,” Fidelias replied to the image, inclining his head. “I’m afraid the opposition wasn’t overly considerate of our time constraints.”
She smiled. “An agent had been dispatched. Did you learn anything of him?”
“Nothing stone solid. But he was carrying a Kalaran gutting knife, and he knew what he was doing,” Fidelias said.
“A Kalaran bloodcrow,” said the image. “Then the rumors are true. Kalarus has his own breed of Cursor.”
She laughed. “Only a man of great integrity could resist saying ‘I told you so.’”
“Thank you, my lady.”
“It was a near thing,” Fidelias said. “When his first plan failed he panicked and went after her with that gutting blade.”
“The Steadholder was slain?”
“No. She sensed him just before he struck, and killed him with a pitchfork.”
The image’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Impressive.”
“She’s a formidable woman, my lady, watercrafting aside. If I may ask, my lady, what were the results of the League’s summit?”
The woman’s image tilted her head, regarding him thoughtfully. Then said, “They have elected to support and promote Steadholder Isana’s status.”
Fidelias nodded. “I see.”
“Do you?” the image asked. “Do you really see what this could mean? How it could affect the course of our history?”
Fidelias pursed his lips. “I suppose in the long term, it could mean an eventual state of legal and political parity between genders. I try not to think in terms of history, my lady. Only in practical cause and effect.”
“Meaning that the most immediate effect will be economic, and therefore political. The establishment of a woman as a full Citizen in her own right will have immediate effects on the slave trade. If it becomes as costly to sell and purchase female slaves as male, it will have an enormous detrimental effect on the economy of the southern cities. Which is why, presumably, Kalarus dispatched an agent to remove Isana of Calderon.”
“High Lord Kalarus is a debauched pig,” Invidia said, her tone matter of fact. “I’m sure he went into some sort of seizure when he heard the news about Steadholder Isana.”
Fidelias narrowed his eyes. “Ah. The First Lord knew precisely how High Lord Kalarus would react.”
Her mouth curled up in an ironic smile. “Indeed. Gaius rather neatly divided his enemies by introducing this issue. My husband’s alliance in the north, and Kalarus’ in the south-and if the Steadholder appears in support of him, he may sweep the support of the Dianic League from my husband, as well.”
“Would they not follow your lead, my lady?”
Invidia’s image waved a hand. “You flatter me, but I do not control the League so completely. No one could. My husband simply understands the advantage that the support of the League gives him, and they see what they gain in return. Our relationship is one of mutual benefit.”
“I assume your associates and allies are aware of the situation.”
“Very,” Invidia replied. “The woman’s fate will be a demonstration of my husband’s competence.” She shook her head wearily. “The outcome of this situation is absolutely critical, Fidelias. Our success will solidify my husband’s alliances while weakening the faith of Kalarus’ followers. Failure could fatally cripple our plans for the future.”
“In my judgement, the time seems premature for a confrontation with Kalarus.”
She nodded. “I certainly would not have chosen this time and place, but by granting Citizenship to this woman, Gaius has forced Kalarus’ hand.” She waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. “But confrontation with Kalarus’ faction was inevitable.”
Fidelias nodded. “What are my orders, my lady?”
“You’re to come to the capital at once for Wintersend.”
Fidelias stared at the image for a moment. Then said, “You’re joking.”
“No,” she said. “Isana will be presented formally to the realm and the Senate at the conclusion of Wintersend, in public support of Gaius. We must stop it from happening.”
Fidelias stared at the image for a moment, frustration welling up in his chest too sharply to keep it wholly from his voice. “I am a wanted man. If I am recognized in the capital, where many know my face, I will be captured, interrogated, and killed. To say nothing of the fact that the woman herself will know me on sight.”
The image stared at him. “And?”
He kept his voice bland. “And it may somewhat hamper my ability to move around the city.”
“Fidelias,” the image chided. “You are one of the most dangerous men I know. And you are certainly the most resourceful.” The image gave him a very direct, almost hungry look. “It’s what makes you so attractive. You’ll manage. It is my husband’s command as well as my own.”
Fidelias ground his teeth, but inclined his head. “Yes, my lady. I’ll . . . think of something.”
“Excellent,” the image responded. “Isana’s support for Gaius could cost my husband the support of the Dianic League. You must prevent it at any cost. Our future-and yours-hinges upon it.”
The watery image slid smoothly back down into the bowl and vanished. Fidelias grimaced at it for a moment, then cursed and threw it across the room. The ceramic bowl shattered against the stones of the hearth.
Fidelias mopped his hands over his face. Impossible. What the Lord and Lady Aquitaine were asking was impossible. It would be the death of him.
Fidelias grimaced. There would be little point in trying to rest this night, and even the desire to eat had vanished with the tension that had filled him in the wake of his conversation with Lady Invidia.
He changed into dry clothing, seized his cloak and his belongings, and headed back out into the night.