"There is so much I do not understand..." Leeja sighed. Since coming to this place she had done everything she could to not attract attention and to listen, learn, get the lay of the land. She had taken a job in the Beast Pens in order to be inconspicuous. Stay out of her Aunt's sight. Then Bujilli showed up. He brought her out of the pens...right into the middle of a real mess.
"You are young." Mama Rudta laughed heartily, but was cut short by a coughing fit. She still was coughing-up a little blood. The invisible assassin's mercury-filled glass knife had really hurt her.
"Not so young. Mostly it is a matter of not knowing who is involved, who is pulling the strings, who is behind everything..."
"Ah. You have not been here very long. Answers take time. Knowledge takes effort. Experience comes at a price. This one--" Mama Rudta waved towards the invisible form tightly wrapped in Leeja's writhing white hair; "This one might have some things to tell you, if you wish to ask. I can reveal to you the answers carried in their blood, but such things will not set you at ease. Such things will only pull you further into their master's orbit to cross paths you do not even suspect as yet. People fear the unknown for good reason. But if you like, I can pull back the veil slightly and give you what I am able."
Leeja considered the offer. It might be a very good thing to know what could be learned from the assassin. On the other hand, getting dragged deeper into the behind-the-scene politics of Wermspittle daunted her. A child of Deep Dendo, she was all too well versed in the sorts of politics that involved as much violence as subtlety. But there, where she had been born but never accepted, she had grown up being taught all the rules, all the 'sides' and factions, all the movers and shakers to know or to avoid...here...she didn't even know what side she and Bujilli might be on...
"I.." She looked down at the invisible woman caught in her hair. Unlike Yushgra*, Morquin's wife, this person was wearing armor of a sort. She looked more closely. There was the scent of spellcraft here. She tightened her hair until the assassin's ribs cracked. Then she saw it. The spell was deeply ingrained, thoroughly integrated into the armor. Of course--the armor itself was Horla-hide. Intrinsically transparent even when tanned and converted into leather...but only a complete fool would risk the wrath of the Horla by doing such a thing. She examined the spell more closely. It was tightly woven, deeply imprinted, utterly magnificent in terms of construction--whomever had done this work had structured their spell in such a way that it was difficult to examine it even up close and using all Leeja's innate senses. The grammar underlying the spell was so crisp and clean that there were none of the usual loose-ends or dangling strands that most practitioners took for granted. There wasn't any of the usual flaws that the common forms of detection or warning spells exploited. This sort of thing was far beyond her capabilities. Orders of magnitude beyond anything she had ever seen before. The work of a master.
"It is good to look before you leap, when you have the luxury." Mama Rudta nodded sagely.
"Your spell...it will not reveal this one's master, will it?"
"Ah. No. You have looked into the truth, if only at a glance. Ask yourself; what kind of person would send something like this," she pointed to the assassin, "to attend to someone like me? Eh?"
Leeja nodded this time.
There had been multiple assassins working on concert. They had infiltrated the alley-camp and struck with complete surprise, despite all of Mama Rudta's wards and any other defenses the wanderers might have in-place. Despite Bujilli and his Counsel. Despite her own senses.
"This is not good..."
"No. Not good. Not at all."
"This spell you are offering to cast for me--this way you have to interrogate their blood--will it give me any real answers, or just leave me with more questions?"
Leeja considered the offer once more. Ignorance could get her and Bujilli killed, or worse. Then it occurred to her--"Whomever is behind this...they might not have known about us, about Bujilli and myself, prior to sending out their assassins. But..."
"But they most assuredly do know something, or more appropriately, someone interfered with their plans. We're fairly certain that at least one of them escaped. They will most definitely report back to their master." Niobe was staring into the cooking fire. She had been quiet, observing, assessing, like the old days.
"I doubt that this one will give up the identity of their master--"
"Bathurst. It's Bathurst."
"These Abseen killers were sent by Bathurst, or one of his flunkies."
"How do you know?"
"The bastard offered me a job not long after I arrived in this place."
"You mean when mother--"
"Yes. Back then."
"But why would they send these things out to kill Mama Rudta or her people?"
"If that had been their mission, no offense Mama Rudta, but if that was the case, then you'd be dead."
"Then what were they after?" Leeja had a sinking feeling in her guts.
"Me." Niobe closed her eyes. There was a slight glint. Possibly a tear.
"You have to go now." Mama Rudta sighed. Her shoulders slumped. She, too, shed a single gleaming tear. Her gnarly hand was a study of gristle and tendons beneath tautened skin.
"I know." Niobe rose from her study of the fire.
"But..." Leeja couldn't quite collect enough air to get the words out right.
"If you decide to interrogate this one's blood with your spell, its fellows will return to exact vengeance--Bathurst takes things of the blood very seriously. But if you allow me to return her to her master...well...that might give me some small measure of leverage. He detests failure."
Leeja didn't hesitate; "Take it then." She withdrew her tendril-like hair from the body.
"Our fire, our cauldron, our camp..." Mama Rudta stood up proudly and held out her wizened hand to Niobe who took it gently in her own; "You are welcome among us, like a daughter you have become to me. When you have settled things with this killer of women and children, come find us. This will show you the way home." She left some sort of talisman in Niobe's hands.
Niobe was speechless.
Leeja was jealous.
A damp log popped in the fire.
"Mishka!" Niobe called out the young girl with the red-streaked face.
"Yes?" She slid out of the dimness surrounding the cook fire.
"Take my sister to her lover. Make it quick. Then come back here and take my place while I am...hunting."
Bujilli slipped. His foot flew out into the darkness. He missed grabbing the rung with his hand. Twisted. The other foot slipped. He lost his grip.
There was nothing to grab on to...not that he could reach.
Then everything stopped. Abruptly.
Bujilli lay at a peculiar angle. It was dark. He tasted blood in his mouth. He was bruised. Battered. His shoulder was jammed up against the bottom rung of the corkscrew stair.
He closed his eyes and listened, tasted the air, let his senses tell him what they could before attracting any more attention by attempting to move.
It was quiet. Too quiet. Someone, or some thing, had been moving around down here right before he fell.
Now all was still.
"Scheiss!" He scrambled to his feet, then felt for a weapon.
It was close. He could smell the hot, rotten-meat breath of some predatory beast.
His head throbbed. He was stiff all over.
The tiger lunged.
Bujilli's manticore-pistol erupted with a blinding, deafening flash.
He fell back onto a tarpaulin-covered pile of metal-stock with the image of a slavering maw filled with sharp teeth filling him with primeval dread.
Scritch SCratch RiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiPPPPPPP!
The tiger was gone.
He holstered his pistol and climbed back up to the passage overhead. Then he got moving. He made it quite a ways before his adrenaline simmered down enough for him to cast Gloomlight again and he began to pick his way through the maintenance passage a bit more consciously. The panic passed, eventually, but left the stale taste of fear in his mouth, which overpowered the scent of clotted blood on his lips and in his beard.
The metal door was propped open with three iron spikes.
He passed through it into the night outside without realizing he had left the passageway. He clung to the balcony railing and looked down on the plaza to his right, the chaotic awnings and stalls of the market to his left. The cool wind felt good. The moon was a sharp crescent shining down upon him and him alone. Then the clouds drifted back in and hid the moon. It began to rain again.
Bujilli looked back at the spiked door. He considered going back inside, if only to re-load his pistol. Then he looked down at the market. He had things to do...
* We met Madame Yushgra and her husband Morquin in Episode 85 and Episode 86.