Chapter 17, Jessica

By the time Jessica returned downstairs, two fresh horses waited outside, their saddlebags stuffed such that the clasps strained to remain shut. Cesaro was already mounted on one, his hands gripping the reins and his mouth in a frown. With a sigh she mounted the second horse, a mare named Isabelle, one that Cesaro only let her use for missions requiring the greatest haste. She thought of her hot bath that still waited for her upstairs. It was a shame to leave it behind, but there was no time to enjoy it. Another day. Always on another day, she thought as the corner of her mouth twitched.

Once she mounted, the window of Cesaro’s office was only a few feet away, and she saw the light of a single candle burning within. Since she had first been to Cesaro’s estate, that candle had always been there, flickering in a position that could be seen from down the street. And for the first time, she did more than notice it, leaning in to inspect it through the glass.

Like the other candles Cesaro had shown her, cords of each type of magic entwined themselves about it, twisting around a core of Life Magic. They culminated at the wick, or where the wick should be, but rather where flame floated above the wax. But when she squinted, Jessica could see that there was a wick, an impossibly thin one: a human hair.

“Should I run back inside and put this out before we leave?” Jessica asked.

Cesaro shook his head slowly, his eyes glazing over as he followed her gaze.

“No, my dear,” he said. “I should like to see that one lit when I return.” Then he pressed his heels against the sides of his horse, setting off down the street at a trot, the horseshoes clicking on the stone. Jessica studied the candle for a moment more, its flame the sole light in Cesaro’s study, then urged Isabelle forward, the mare’s gray coat blending into the night. Mercifully, the rain had let up since she had arrived at the estate, and a thick fog had settled in its place, masking the streets ahead.

“I will accompany you to the gate,” said Cesaro when she pulled up to him, “and before I leave, I’ll be informing you of the details of your mission.”

“You’re not coming with me then?” she asked.

“That question brings us to the first detail. Querkus is a neutral city. If intervention from outside is discovered, or merely suspected, the backlash will be devastating. It would be grounds enough for Cryson itself, along with every creature hiding deep in its shadows that can be gathered, to launch a full scale invasion of the city. It could mean war for all of Corpia. So the first detail in this delicate situation, the primary detail, is that you cannot be caught. And I have a presence that others may recognize in Querkus, something that we can by no means risk.”

“Isn’t there a chance that I may be recognized as well?”

“A minor one, I suppose, but I’ve already taken precautions against it. Here, take these,” he said, reaching into a pocket of his overcoat, removing a small pouch and handing it to her. “These should mitigate the risk. By no means should you remove them, day or night, private or public. Wait until you’re a day’s ride outside of Querkus before you use them.”

Jessica opened the pouch, inspecting the two small earings within, their emeralds glinting at her from within.

“And what exactly will these do?”

“Just use them, my dear. It will be obvious after their application. Now, onto the second detail,” he said, taking a left at an intersection. “You’ll have to find the last survivor within Querkus, with nothing to guide you but his name. A name, mind you, that very well could have been changed or forgotten, or may even belong to someone not yet born.”

“In a city the size of Querkus? Cesaro, I don’t know if that’s even possible.”

“It has to be possible, considering the forces you are fighting against have already rooted out fifteen of them. We do have some more clues, based on the others on the list. So far, all have been of noble birth or at least were well known. A duke’s son, whose bloodline goes back longer than written history. The daughter of a merchant whose caravans stretch from coast to coast. An actress who could stir cities to tears. Each one seemed to have somepotential. Some power. Some sway over people. This leads to the assumption that he should stick out from the regular people of the city. He should have made a name for himself, or should possess a talent of some sort. And once you find him, your objective is to return him here unharmed.”

Jessica frowned, clutching her reigns, looking through the fog to the outline of the gate.

“So I comb the noble families, I inquire at the guilds, and I check among their military?”

“Conspicuously, but precisely. Now, on to the third detail. The most important of them all. The identity of those who will oppose you.”

The gate loomed above them now, and they fell into its shadow, a slightly darker patch of night. Jessica held her breath, and the raindrops started again, although the archway above them kept them dry for now.

“Yes?” she said. “The Shadows? The wielders of Darkness and Death?”

“Precisely,” said Cesaro, his voice low. “While I am sure you already know, I am obligated to remind you of the danger and to stress that you should use all caution. So far, ten of the fifteen deaths have been attributed to a single person, a single Shadow known as Rorcul. Of these ten, most of them were under heavy guard when they died, yet he still managed to surpass the defences, murder them and escape. Not much is known of him—we’ve only become aware of him within the past two years, and we have reason to believe he serves a greater lord in Cryson. Under no circumstances should you initiate contact with him, should you find him in Querkus.”

“What if Rorcul has the survivor, and I have to intervene to save him?”

“If he has the survivor, then the survivor is no longer a survivor. Jessica, let me stress this to you. Rorcul is a power that I do not know much about, but what I do know is disturbing. By no means do I intend for you to find out, because doing so would likely result in your death. Avoid him at all costs. Flee from him, Jessica. Flee from him as fast as you can.”

Jessica laughed, but at his cold stare it turned hollow.

“You’re serious, Cesaro? Even after my record, you still think he’s a threat?”

“I’m damn serious Jessica, and I don’t give a damn about your record. Do you understand me?”

Jessica paused, and the look on his face sent shivers down her spine that had nothing to do with the rain.

“Yes. And where are you going, Cesaro? Your saddlebags are packed as well.”

“There is other business to attend to. Do not mind me, Jessica. Keep your focus on your own mission. You’ll need it. Now, as to the name of the survivor.” He leaned toward Jessica, whispered a name into her ear, then slapped the back of her horse, causing Isabelle to start forward.

“Now go,” he shouted, as she entered the wall of rain, “and make all haste!”

Jessica pushed Isabelle forward, riding at full speed away from the gate, water seeping under her coat and chilling her bones. Isabelle kept her footing despite the rain, bits of rock and dirt flying behind them from her hooves. Ahead thunder growled, and lightning flashed. They rode deeper into it.

“Cinis,” whispered Jessica as they streaked along the road, committing the name to memory. “Cinis.”

Then she looked behind her to where Cesaro still stood under the gate. She could just barely make out him nodding to her, and a hand raised in farewell.

And even more blurred, fighting to be visible through the fog and the rain, she could see a pinprick of light from Cesaro’s estate. A pinprick of light flickering in his study window.

***

 

Chapter 18