It was a sound that awoke Ardeo. Not a particularly loud sound, just one out of place in a camp that had hunkered down for a good night’s sleep, excluding the sentries. Ardeo ran it through his mind quickly, his body moving silently from being on its side to being on its stomach, his arms braced under his body while the rest of him remained unmoving under the blankets, free to dodge without encumbrance. The typical sounds of a night camp. Snores, soft wheezes, coughs, light laughter and soft chatter from soldiers who should have known better and been asleep. The light jingle of chain mail, of sentries calling out the watch, the sound of noncombatants going about their chores, all of these were normal sounds, things that should not and did not impede on his consciousness. So why had he awaken?
The soft rasp of steel sliding out of a leather sheath told him. Eyes roaming along the walls of his tent, Ardeo finally located the shadowy shape he was looking for, flush against the back tent wall, nearest his own bed. A shadow that had not attempted to go in through the tent flap that served as a door, but that had lurked along and snuck in through the back. Assassin.
He had no light inside his tent, so he could not see when the assassin silently used his knife to pierce the tent. However, he had to strain his ears to catch the soft tearing sound of steel against cloth. Under other circumstances, Ardeo might have applauded the assassin’s ability, were he not the target.
He considered his options. Fight or flight. Both held their own risks and benefits, but Mircean blood flowed through his veins. Flight held no appeal. So he would fight.
As quickly as that, he made his choice, pride dictating his response more than a cautious evaluation of the situation. His assassin entered his tent silently, knife in hand. Which hand? He wasn’t sure. He would have to move as soon as the assassin came too close. He could not confront him on equal terms until he knew which hand.
“Now you die,” his assassin hissed softly.
Sensing the assassin begin to move downward to strike, Ardeo launched himself to the side, slamming himself into his desk but avoiding the assassin’s strike. Scrambling to his feet, Ardeo realized from the assassin’s hurried standing that the knife was in the left hand. Then he had no more room for thought as his assassin came for him again.
He just managed to catch the assassin’s knife hand before his assassin tried to punch him. He just managed to catch that attack too, but he was now in an unenviable position, legs pinned by his desk and his assassin, his dominant hand stalemated with his assassin’s dominant hand. He had to get out of this trap before a false move resulted in his premature death.
“Help!” Ardeo roared. “There is an assassin in my tent! Help!”
His shout for help startled his assassin. A slight slackening of his grip, a miniscule hesitation in his attack, an opening so slight most people would not have realized it. But Ardeo was as much soldier as general. He exploited the opening to knee his assailant in the groin.
His opponent groaned. The knife slipped from his grip as he instinctively tried to clutch his injured genitals. Falling backward onto his desk, Ardeo used his momentum and his legs to chuck his assailant over his head and out the tent flap. Breathing heavily, he stooped down, picked up the knife by its hilt, and walked outside.
His eyes alighted on a scene of chaos. A half-dozen of his men were struggling with his would-be assassin. Another dozen or so lingered around the edges of brawl, uncertain what to do. More men seemed to be arriving by the minute. Ardeo quickly snapped off orders. “Don’t just stand there! Cut off the area. I don’t want him getting out of here.”
Ardeo pointed out a half-dozen burlier soldiers. “You lot, go help your fellows put my assassin down.” Ardeo paused as he considered. “Keep him alive, and leave his face unmarked. Break whatever bones you have to, though.”
Looking around as his men complied with his orders, Ardeo recognized an Aimani officer. Walking over to him, he put his hand on the man’s shoulder. “Go bring the Archduke of Aiman here. Fill him in on the way, and make it clear he’s needed with the highest priority.”
Nodding once, the officer turned and ran off, heading in the direction of Odacer’s tent. Moving closer to the large fire that was in the middle of this section of camp, Ardeo studied the knife. There was no distinct discoloration on the blade that hinted it had been poisoned, but a few precautions would not be amiss in this situation. He removed a kerchief from around the neck of one of his uninvolved soldiers, and wrapped the blade with it.
Sighing, Ardeo pulled back from the fire, and watched the brawl continue. The assassin was giving a good account of himself, biting, clawing, punching, and kicking, but the addition of the half-dozen strongmen finally put a stop to his antics. The fact it had taken a dozen men to put him down gave a good indication of what he was.
Time seemed to drag interminably while he waited for his cousin to show up. He kept his eyes on his men, quick to rebuke the moment he noticed any slackening in their grip. When they started to react a trifle slowly to his censure, he promised dire punishment if the assassin escaped.
When Odacer finally arrived, Ardeo breathed a small sigh of relief. It had probably not been too long a time, but his nerves were frazzled, and he did not feel all that charitable at the moment. “What took you?”
“Yes, it’s a pleasure seeing you too, Ardeo,” the older man replied dryly. He gestured behind him. “I didn’t like the idea of being waylaid on my way, you see, so I asked my men if any wanted to accompany me. They rather wholeheartedly agreed to being my protection.”
Ardeo blinked in surprise when he followed his cousin’s movement. From what he could see from his vantage point, Odacer had brought a full troop of two hundred men as a bodyguard. To round off the fully armed and armored men, Odacer had also brought his Viantha along with him. Ardeo turned his back on his cousin and hid a rueful smile. It was as obvious an unspoken rebuke as it was ostentatious.
“Drag him here, into the light,” Ardeo ordered. “I want the Archduke of Aiman to see our uninvited guest clearly.”
The would-be assassin was dragged unwillingly into the light that the fire pit still gave off. The man was dressed in black, from tunic to boot. The ritual sash of Imperial scarlet was missing from his belt, but the haughty, aristocratic features could only belong on the face of a member of the Emperor’s Fianna.
“This man is an assassin,” Ardeo declared clearly. He handed Odacer the knife that had been used in the attempt on his life. “This is the weapon he attempted to use to kill me. I can also testify it took a dozen men to put him down and prevent his escape. It is my considered opinion that he is a Fiannan. I do not know if he attempted the deed on his own, or was sent under orders.”
Odacer turned the knife in his hands around, studying it in the light, taking care to prevent the blade from touching his flesh. It was a normal steel dagger, by all appearances, except for one telltale giveaway: the Imperial signet on the blade, near the hilt. “I suppose we shall find out soon enough,” Odacer replied quietly. “I sent for the cesar of the Fianna with us. He should be here momentarily. Get your men to move our friend here out of sight. I want to see the cesar’s reactions without having them tainted with the presence of this assassin.”
The wait was interminable. Ardeo paced back and forth while Odacer gazed grimly at the Fiannan assassin. Odacer’s Viantha seemed as unruffled by the whole scene as Ardeo’s Iyazans were disturbed. And Odacer’s “friends” had taken charge, roused up a full cohort of Iyazans to put the camp on lockdown. When the Fiannan cesar finally arrived, Ardeo was ready to burst from impatience.
Not that he got the chance to fly at the man. Odacer addressed him efficiently from the start.
“Do you know who I am, cesar?” he asked, politely.
The cesar, a tall middle-aged man with frosty hair, nodded, calm unimpaired. His stance the rigid languidness of a warrior-born. From his facial expression, being summoned in the middle of the night to face a casual inquiry was nothing out of the ordinary. “Yes, sir. You are the Prince of Swords.”
“And what does that mean, precisely, cesar?”
The man’s stance retained that same ease of violence. “In the absence of the Emperor or the Heir, any orders you issue that do not threaten the continued safety and well-being of the Emperor are to be treated as though issued by the Emperor himself.”
“Did I not issue orders to the Fianna that the Duke of Iyaza was not to be harmed in any way?” Odacer asked, the politeness gone from his tone.
The cesar tilted his head, clearly puzzled. “You did, sir. I issued that order to every man in the legions.”
“Then please explain why there was an assassination attempt on the Duke of Iyaza.”
The Fianna blinked, completely startled. For a rigidly self-controlled old soldier like the cesar to reveal so much spoke volumes. Fianna were not known to be skillful dissemblers, so the assassin was not carrying out orders from a highly ranked superior. Or at the very least, not from this superior.
“What assassination attempt?” the man asked dumbly.
Ardeo gestured brusquely to his men, who quickly brought out their captive Fianna assassin. “The assassination attempt made by this man,” he growled.
The Fianna cesar clearly recognized the assassin. His face scowled, then recovered its rigid mask. His voice, however, was anything but calm.
“That,” he said, his voice dripping contempt, “is a miserable vermin known as Kuso. He has always been dissatisfactory as a Fianna. When you issued your order that the Duke of Iyaza was not to be harmed, he had the audacity to attempt to convince me to disregard your order and try against the life of the Duke. I issued him a personal order to leave the matter alone, and not harm the Duke. Clearly, he did not deem my order worth obeying.”
Marching over to Kuso, the older Fianna struck him, hard. “I hereby expulse you from the ranks of the Fianna, and turn you over to the justice of the Duke of Iyaza and the Prince of Swords.”
Bowing to Ardeo and Odacer, he added, “I will make no protest in whatever you decide to do with him. His fate is in your hands. Kill him, punish him, do whatever you so wish.”
With that, the Fiannan officer stalked off into the night.