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Ferrets and Vipers

SUGAR WALKED INTO Shim’s chamber and immediately felt she’d made the wrong choice.

The room was lit only by candles. The windows had been shuttered and a thick drape pulled across so no sound could escape into the bailey. Shim, Eresh, the Creek Widow, and a number of the more powerful dreadmen were there, the candles casting odd shadows behind them. A woman stood at the table in the middle of the room. She had the kind of figure men liked, but her hair had been cut too short and ragged. And while her face might have been beautiful once, it was now crossed with lines and planes of pain and weariness. The woman smiled at Sugar and revealed she was missing a few more teeth than most.

Argoth followed Sugar in and closed the door behind him. “Our eyes arrive,” he said.

There were enough soldiers in the room to make a fist. She spotted Oaks, the only mature dreadman among them, and suspected that these were the men who had been selected to try to break into Blue Towers with her and assassinate the Skir Master.

She shook her head. A fist of men against patrols of dogmen and maulers and Walkers and who knew what else. A fist of men against five legions.

Deep down in the pit of her gut, her misgivings grew. Urban was right: Shim’s army had no chance against the might of Mokad. There was no way this mission could succeed.

Argoth walked up next to her and put his arm around her shoulders and gave her a fatherly squeeze. “As bold as the mother that bore her. She’s going to lead us in.”

Eresh turned the gaze of his one good eye upon her. “She looks like she’s about to faint. Are we really sure we want to trust all of our lives to some weak paste of a girl?”

Despite her misgivings, Sugar bridled at the insult.

“She’s not going into battle,” the Creek Widow said. “She’s going in to ferret.”

“She’s not going to do much ferreting if she wilts along the wayside, is she?”

Sugar spoke. “I’m not going to wilt, Zu.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m Sugar, Sparrow’s daughter. Wilting is not in my blood.”

“It had better not be,” Eresh said. “Because if you fail, we might as well throw our hats onto the water and go stand underneath them. There’s not going to be a second chance. If you fail, Mokad will rise in fury and devour us.”

“I’m Purity’s daughter, and I wear Purity’s weave. I will see us in.”

“Indeed she shall,” said Argoth.

“Perhaps it’s time to bring Flax into our circle,” Shim suggested. “He could be a great asset on this venture.”

“No,” Eresh said. “That is what we must not do. That snake is hiding something. Time after time, he slips my men. Where does he go? Who does he see?”

“He’s a spy,” Shim said.

“He’s more than that, my lord.”

“We don’t need him,” the Creek Widow said. “I can go.”

“You can’t,” Eresh said.

She gave him a withering look. “Do not presume to tell me what I can and can’t do.”

“No,” Argoth said. “He’s right. You know you can’t go. If something goes wrong, you need to bear off the Grove. We have enough dreadmen. We’ll make do. You and Eresh need to be ready.”

Eresh looked over at her and leered. “I’m ready, but is she ready for me?”

She groaned and rolled her eyes.

Eresh grinned. “I think that’s a good sign. I think she’s warming up to me.”

“Indeed,” said Shim, “there are nothing but twinkling stars in her eyes. Now, let us get to the matter at hand.”

Argoth motioned Sugar to the table. Upon it lay a large piece of linen. An outline of the Blue Towers fortress had been sketched upon the linen with charcoal. Argoth turned to the woman. “Let’s go through it again. Explain what you told us to Sugar and the other dreadmen.”

The woman stepped up to the table and pointed at a spot by the river. “Here,” she said through her missing teeth. “The rocks here hide an escape from the lord’s tower. Lord Hash often has guards posted at the corners of the fortress here and here. But there’s a way up the cliff between them.”

Cliff? Sugar thought, and her dread returned.

The woman said, “The way in is across the face above the cliff, into the secret door under the tower, then up to Lord Hash’s room.”

“Do we know how many soldiers accompany the Skir Master?” Oaks asked.

Shim said, “Our eyes say there are at least three thousand stationed in the fortress itself. Thousands more outside.”

A handful of men against an army.

They were going to die. There was no doubt about it. And Urban was going to sail away. And she could have been on that ship, both she and Legs. She could still be on that ship.

Sugar clenched her jaw and focused on her friends here. Focused on the fact that if she fled, all those that remained would die. But if she stayed, if she saw this through, if they could actually eliminate the Skir Master, then the thousands who followed Shim just might have a chance to survive.

She looked at the map. “And where is the Skir Master?”

Argoth pointed at a grand apartment down the hallway from Lord Hash’s chamber. “We’re fairly sure he’s here.”

“Fairly sure?” she asked.

“They are the best rooms in the fortress,” the woman said.

And if the Skir Master hadn’t taken the best rooms, then they’d have to find him in a fortress filled with three thousand dreadmen.

“Right,” said Sugar. “Let’s go through this again.”

They went through it again. And again. They talked about how they would cross the river below the fortress, where they would land, and the trail she needed to look for that would lead them up the steep slope above the cliff. They brought out other maps and talked about the escape. They talked about what to do if they were separated. And when Sugar and the others could recite it all from memory, they let her go to get some rest.

Sugar walked out of Shim’s chambers, down the stairs to the clerk’s table, and out into the sunlit bailey. She blinked in the sunlight.

A normal ferret was sent in to scare up rabbits into the teeth of dogs. But they weren’t sending her in to scare up rabbits. They were sending her into a pit of vipers. Fat vipers that would like nothing better than to swallow her whole.

* * *

Sugar found Legs in their cellar quarters, but the barrels had been moved out. All that was left was their bedding and the ferrets, which she was sure the ferret master would soon be along to pick up.

Legs had been sitting on the bed. He rose. “Where are they sending you? It’s something big, isn’t it?”

She thought about Urban’s comments about traitors in their midst and said, “I’ve been sworn to silence. I’m sorry.”

“Silence with even me?”

“I’m sorry,” she said, then moved over and gave him a hug. She looked down at him, his honest face and wild hair. “I love you, brother.”

“I kind of like you too,” he said.

A beat passed.

“I want to behold your face,” he said. “I want to see your hair. Will you let me try the weave?”

“We talked about this—”

“You might not come back,” he said.

“I need some sleep.”

“Just let me try.”

Everything was high risk, she thought. Why not give him this one thing? She couldn’t come up with a good reason, so she removed the necklace from the pouch she carried about her neck and handed it to him. She yawned. “Follow the thread,” she said, “and find the mouth.”

Legs tried for almost an hour. He found the thread easily enough, but the weave would not accept him. Every time he tried to feed it, he said it seemed to sprout thorns.

He tried once more, then yelped and dropped the weave to the cobbled floor. Tears sprang to his eyes.

“I don’t understand,” he said. He turned to the weave. “Mother, it’s me.”

“I don’t think she can hear you, if it is even her in there at all.”

“Why won’t it accept me?”

“I don’t know,” said Sugar. It was puzzling. “But I’d wager Withers would.”

“You must take me to him.”

She paused, then told him Urban’s opinion of their odds as well as his offer.

When she finished, Legs was disgusted. “Fat lot of good Withers will do us now,” he said. “The cowards.”

“We could join them.”

“What are you talking about?” Legs asked.

“Urban’s not a coward; he’s prudent.”

“He’s running when he’s needed most.”

“A mouse might pip and squeak at a cat, but the cat is still a cat, and the mouse is a fool not to run and hide.”

“Flax is staying as are all his men of the Hand,” Legs said.

“He told you this?”

“He thinks we can win. And I trust that Flax and Argoth and Eresh have experience we don’t.”

“Urban has experience as well,” she said.

Legs sighed in frustration and slumped. “What do I know? I’m just a blind boy. I sing and joke. And while Flax has been nice to me, I’ve no better friend than you, sister. If you think the right course is to run, then I will happily trust your decision. You’ve never led me astray before.”

“Oh? Not even that one time when I led you into that patch of thistle so I could ditch you?”

“Well,” he said.

Sugar reached out and stroked his hair, then held him close.

Her misgivings about her choice to stay and fight this fight had not gone away. If anything, her doubts had increased. She knew if she failed, she would lose Legs. And it wouldn’t be just to death.

In death, the soul separated from the flesh and was then free to find one of the Ways that led to the brightness of the Creators. Such a soul would face all manner of peril. But if that soul could overcome or elude the dangers it encountered in that new world, it would be gathered into the company of the ancestors.

With death there was possibility. But she was not walking toward death. She’d seen the skir collect the souls for their masters. She’d heard the horn. She’d felt it call to her. She knew what awaited her in Blue Towers if she did not come back alive. She was walking toward oblivion. They all were.

“It’s just my luck,” Legs said, “to lose the one man who can help me precisely when I need him the most.”

“There might be others who have similar wisdom.”

“I wanted to walk,” Leg said. “If I die, how will I even know what you look like to find you? How will I find Mother and Da?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “But we know one thing: there will be no finding anybody if Mokad is allowed to continue its harvest of the land.” The image of the souls trapped like flies in the hair along the bellies of the horrible golden skir rose in her.

She picked the weave up off the floor. “Don’t give up. I’m sure it just takes some practice.”

“Maybe Flax knows,” Legs said. “Maybe Withers isn’t the only one who can help.”

“Maybe,” Sugar said.

Next to them, one of the ferrets woke and yawned, showing its sharp fangs.

Sugar yawned as well. “I need a little bit of a nap,” she said. “Will you make sure I’m not disturbed?”

Legs rose. “I’ll slay anyone who tries to enter with my vast wit and charm.”

Sugar slipped her candidate’s weave over her arm to multiply her rest and fell asleep as soon as she hit the pillow.

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