That One Time I Went On A Quest

Kastor applied for a job he wasn't qualified for and got it. His employer? A woman known throughout the Realms as the greatest dragon slayer in the world.

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22. Iborus (2/2)

The corridors of Iborus are actually a labyrinth of tunnels dug into the cliff. Hole-like windows are carved into the thick outer wall at intervals, letting in stray puddles of sunlight. Cloudy lanterns hang on the inner wall, their feeble glow barely reaching the stone-cold floor.

The commander's quarters is apparently four whole floors above my room. On the way up we pass by at least twenty doorways, some little more than gaping holes, others padlocked and heavily guarded. The maid names them without hesitation, as if recounting from a list: archives, finance, safe of little giants' schematics (four different locks on that door), Ink Scout dispatch, merchant's quarters...

Three sets of stairs later, the maid leads me into a corridor covered in red carpet. There is only one door here, a mahogany one at the very end. On it hangs a bronze plague with not a speck of dust:

   KAYRAN BELFAIR, FIRST APPOINTEE

ARKAI D'SHINGEN, SECOND APPOINTEE

Along the walls on either side are piles of various trinkets: broken sword handles, sashes, withered flowers...

The maid hurries to the door and puts up a hand to knock. Then she pauses. 'The Lady has attendance,' she whispers. 'Perhaps we should return later.'

Indeed muffled voices are coming through the door; the people inside seem to be shouting at each other. If it weren't for the thick stone walls the whole corridor would be filled with angry voices.

Wait, shouting? But Kathanhiel’s in there, and she’s sick.

The old Kastor – the one who got good at playing deaf at the dinner table, letting pointy words wash over him as if they didn’t hurt – would stand on this very spot with a pleasant smile on his face, so that when the door eventually opens the people inside might mistake him for having just got here. 

That coward doesn’t exist anymore.

I raise a hand to knock.

'Sir – wait!' The maid looks at me worriedly, her hand half-reaching out as if trying to hold mine back. 'Should we not come back later?'

It would be easy to agree with her: nod, turn around, walk down the hall, go to the canteen for food (Maker knows I'm starving), wait for the maid to tell me the shouting's over, and then come back with belly filled and courage renewed.

No one would reprimand me for that.

'But I would hate myself,' I mutter to no one.

Knock, knock.

The voices inside stops immediately. Then comes Kathanhiel's, cold as ice. 'We're not to be disturbed.'

'It's Kastor.'

Muffled footsteps. The man that opens the door is a six-foot myrmidon with angry black eyes and a jagged scar running down the left side of his face. He too wears the shiny raiment of the soldiers in the courtyard, and upon his pauldrons are two rows of golden symbols shaped like dragon teeth, polished to a tee.

He sees me and frowns, as if my face is confusing to look at. Instead of addressing me, he turns to look at the woman standing behind him. 'Is this him?' he asks.

The woman, with eagle eyes and a steel-cutting jawline, looks old enough to be my mother. She’s a study in vigour; even her wrinkles look taut and read to brawl. ‘Show some courtesy, Master Rukiel,' she says in the tone of a brooding queen, all prim and sarcastic. 'It would not please our Lady.'

Sitting cross-legged upon the austere four-poster bed in the centre of the room is Kathanhiel, wearing a loose nightgown that does a poor job at disguising her wasted figure underneath. Her shoulders, once so powerful and built, look shrunken as if drained of blood, and her one remaining arm has the yellow sickliness of the emaciated. Powder and makeup has kept the colour of her face intact, but those black bags under her eyes have only sank deeper since the last I saw her.

She looks like death.

'How are you feeling?' she asks with a faint smile.

How can she ask how I'm feeling –

I feel my mouth moving but only a choking gurgle comes out.

The man named Rukiel is speaking, but he's in my way so I edge past him, trying not to get hit by his stupid pauldrons. A hand grabs my elbow but for some reason it lets go instantly. Must be my disgusting sweat. As I walk past the woman she makes a tsk sound with her lips.

I draw close to the bed and see Kaishen lying on Kathanhiel's lap, sheathed in a fancy scabbard encrusted in jewels and gold and jade and whatever else. She’s not paying it any attention; she's looking at me and holding out her hand.

From behind me the man named Rukiel blurts out: 'be careful my lady he's still hot –'

'To you, no doubt.' Kathanhiel takes my hands in hers, and gives them a firm squeeze. 'Kastor, please forgive me for all that I have forced upon you. I knew your body's foundations were too fragile to withstand the Scouring but...I had no choice.'

Her hand feels cold. So cold.

This isn't the time to choke up but I do so anyway. 'I'm...I'm pretty alright but you're...you're...I don't want you to die.'

'Rest assured,' she smiles. 'Kaishen's fire still resides within me. It can be easily rekindled.' She looks over my shoulder. 'Introductions are in order. Rukiel, Head of the Mirror Phalanx. Tamara, Head of Logistics. This is Kastor, my esquire.'

I bow, and to my surprise, the two of them drop to one knee and put their right hands to their chests. 'They are my appointees,' Kathanhiel explains, 'and since you're my representative, Kastor, they will respect your judgement. In matters regarding Iborus however, Haylis is already rendering them assistance.’

'Thank you for bringing the Lady to us,' Tamara says. 'She has a tendency to…overexert herself. You stood by her side in the direst hour; for this you have my respect.'

'Likewise,' says Rukiel. 'All would have been lost had you not persevered. We – all of Iborus – are in your debt.'

It’s so very bizarre for them to be so polite after that first impression, but before I could come up with an amicable reply, Kathanhiel speaks up, her voice cold.

'I've no patience for such pretence. Speak your minds.'

Rukiel stands up immediately, his face set in stone. 'What more would you have me say, my lady? You drew the entire brood to yourself with no thought to the consequences; you chose an esquire so mortally weak a single use of the sword led him to the Scouring; and it is a miracle that you’re here at all, having set off with no plan, no escort, and no prior consultation with any of us. The Elisaad campaign wasn't like this. If I didn't know better I'd think you wanted this quest to fail.'

Tamara puts a hand on his shoulder. 'We've been through this.'

'And we'll go through it again and again until this stubborn woman gets the point,' Rukiel snaps. 'If you'd died – have you thought of that? – if you'd died, the thirty thousand souls of the Mirror Phalanx would be forced to follow an infant.' He points at me. 'Arkai had kept us up to date with the selection process. What in the Maker's name were you thinking? How can you settle for this when on the last campaign you had Talukiel – '

'What we mean to say,' Tamara interjects with a deep frown, 'is that you've made a number of unorthodox decisions, my lady, and to end up in your current state is blatantly irresponsible when the survival the Realms is hinging on your success.' Her voice turns soft. 'I know it's been hard, Kath, but you need to take care of yourself. This...recklessness...cannot continue.'

'I'll not be lectured by you, of all people,' Kathanhiel says.

Throwing up his hands, Rukiel storms to the other end of the room.

'We were prepared to die for you,' says Tamara. 'When the brood had Iborus surrounded, all of us took a vow of blood: to fight to the last man so that we could buy you time. You're the one who wields the sword of Ush'Ra...you and your esquire.’ She gives me a quick glance. 'If you fail, no one can take your place.'

From the far wall Rukiel grunts: 'she doesn't care. If she did her esquire would be trained to handle the sword.’

'Must I repeat myself?' Kathanhiel says. 'Kaishen was given to him in utmost desperation. Kastor will not take on Rutherford. That task is mine and mine alone.'

Tamara looks exasperated, the lines on her face deeper than ever. 'But you can't, not like this.'

A massive force shoves me aside; Kathanhiel has unsheathed Kaishen and gotten to her feet. With one lopsided swing she strikes at the tea cup on her bedside table. Tink. The cup wobbles once, twice, then becomes still. She swings the blade up to a perfect horizontal with not the slightest tremble.

On Kaishen's flat edge rests a flawless ring of porcelain the thickness of a finger.

'I am perfectly capable,' she says.

Tamara looks at it, then shakes her head. 'You've always been strong, stronger than all of us put together, but this is not about strength.'

'Kastor won't take on the Apex, I won't let him,' Kathanhiel says. 'Rutherford is mine.'

'But you will die.'

'So be it.'

My lips move on their own. 'No...no, wait a minute.'

How have I realised it earlier?

Picking the most useless esquire in the Realms, giving him next to no training or tutelage, setting off alone against thousands of dragons, and repeatedly choosing the most dangerous course for herself so that she has to call on Kaishen's power again and again until her body starts to fall apart...there's a reason for all of that.

Rukiel and Tamara are both looking at me. Are they going to tell me to shut up, that this is no place for an idiot to offer his worthless opinion, or are they waiting for me to point out what they've been skirting around all this time?

'Say it Kastor,' Kathanhiel mutters. 'I can see it in your face. Say it so we can move on.’

She lays Kaishen aside. The porcelain ring she returns to the rim of the cup, and so neatly has she lined up the scraggy edges one could hardly tell that it’s broken, but one little nudge…

'My lady I...I think...I think you want to die.'

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