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Authors: Raymond E. Feist,Janny Wurts

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BOOK: Mistress of the Empire
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Their swords rose and fell, bright red. In seconds Ayaki’s killer lay hacked like a needra bullock slaughtered in a butcher’s stall.

Hokanu felt pity for the man. Through the blood, he
noted the short black shirt and trousers, the red-dyed hands, as the soldiers turned the body over. The headcloth that hid all but the eyes of the man, was pulled aside to reveal a blue tattoo upon the left cheek. This mark would only be worn by a member of the Hamoi Tong, a brotherhood of assassins.

Hokanu stood slowly. It did not matter that the soldiers had dispatched the killer: the assassin would have died gladly before divulging information. The tong operated to a strict code of secrecy, and it was certain the murderer would not know who had paid his leader for this attack. And the only name that mattered was that of the man who had hired the Hamoi Brotherhood’s services.

In a cold corner of his mind, Hokanu understood that this attempt upon Mara’s life had not come cheaply. This man could not have hoped to survive his mission, and a suicide killing would be worth a fortune in metal.

‘Search the corpse, and track his path through the estates,’ he heard himself saying in a voice hardened by the emotions that seethed inside. ‘See if you can find any clues as to who might have hired the tong.’

The Acoma Strike Leader in command bowed to the master, and issued sharp orders to his men.

‘Leave a guard over the boy’s body,’ Hokanu added. He bent to comfort Mara, unsurprised that she was still speechless, fighting horror and disbelief. Her husband did not fault her for being unable to keep composure and show proper Tsurani impassivity. Ayaki had been all the family she had known for many years; she had no other blood kindred. Her life before his birth had already been jarred by too much loss and death. He cradled her small, shivering body against his own, and added the necessary instructions concerning the boy.

But when the arrangements were complete and Hokanu tenderly tried to draw Mara away, she fought him. ‘No!’
she said in strangled pain. ‘I will not leave him here alone!’

‘My Lady, Ayaki is beyond our help. He already stands in the Red God’s halls. Despite his years, he met death courageously. He will be welcomed.’ He stroked her dark hair, dampened with tears, and tried to calm her. ‘You would do better inside with loved ones around you, and Justin in the care of his nurses.’

‘No,’ Mara repeated, a note in her voice that he instinctively knew not to cross. ‘I won’t leave.’

And though she did after a time consent to have her surviving child sent back to the estate house under protection of a company of warriors, she sat through the heat of the morning on the dusty soil, staring at the stilled face of her firstborn.

Hokanu never left her. The stinks of death did not drive him away, nor the flies that swarmed and buzzed and sucked at the eyes of the seeping corpse of the gelding. Controlled as if on a battlefield, he faced the worst, and coped. In quiet tones he sent a runner slave to fetch servants, and a small silk pavilion to offer shade. Mara never looked aside as the awning was set up above her. As though the people around her did not exist, she sifted torn earth through her fingers, until a dozen of her best warriors arrived in ceremonial armor to bear her fallen son away. No one argued with Hokanu’s suggestion that the boy deserved battlefield honors. Ayaki had died of an enemy’s dart, as surely as if the poison had struck his own flesh. He had refused to abandon his beloved horse, and such courage and responsibility in one so young merited recognition.

Mara watched, her expression rigid as porcelain, as the warriors lifted her son’s body and set it on a bier bedecked with streamers of Acoma green, a single one scarlet, in acknowledgment of the Red God who gathers in all life.

The morning breeze had stilled, and the warriors sweated
at their task. Hokanu helped Mara to her feet, willing her not to break. He knew the effort it took to maintain his own composure, and not just for the sake of Ayaki. Inside his heart, he bled also for Mara, whose suffering could scarcely be imagined. He steadied her steps as she moved beside the bier, and the slow cortege wound its way downslope, toward the estate house that only hours earlier had seemed a place blessed by felicity.

It seemed a crime against nature, that the gardens should still be so lush, and the lakeshore so verdant and beautiful, and the boy on the bier be so bloody and broken and still.

The honor bearers drew up before the front doorway used for ceremonial occasions. Shadowed by the immense stone portal stood the household’s most loyal servants. One by one they bowed to the bier, to pay young Ayaki their respects. They were led by Keyoke, First Adviser for War, his hair silvered with age, the crutch that enabled him to walk after battle wounds cost him his leg unobtrusively tucked into a fold of his formal mantle; as he intoned the ritual words of sympathy, he looked upon Mara with the grief a father might show, locked behind dark eyes and an expression like old wood. After him waited Lujan, the Acoma Force Commander, his usual rakish smile vanished and his steady gaze spoiled by his blinking to hold back tears. A warrior to the core, he scarcely managed to maintain his bearing. He had taught the boy on the bier to spar with a sword, and only that morning had praised his developing skills.

He touched Mara’s hand as she passed. ‘Ayaki may have been only twelve years of age, my Lady, but he already was an exemplary warrior.’

The mistress barely nodded in response. Guided by Hokanu, she passed on to the hadonra next in line. Small, and mouse-shy, Jican looked desolate. He had
recently succeeded in intriguing the volatile Ayaki with the arts of estate finance. Their games using shell counters to represent the marketable Acoma trade goods would no longer clutter the breakfast nook off the pantry. Jican stumbled over the formal words of sympathy to his mistress. His earnest brown eyes seemed to reflect her pain as she and her husband passed on, to her young adviser Saric, and his assistant, Incomo. Both were later additions to the household; but Ayaki had won their affection no less than the others’. The condolences they offered to Mara were genuine, but she could not reply. Only Hokanu’s hand on her elbow kept her from stumbling as she mounted the stair and entered the corridor.

The sudden step into shadow caused Hokanu to shiver. For the first time, the beautifully tiled stonework did not offer him the feeling of shelter. The beautiful painted screens he and Mara had commissioned did not warm him to admiration. Instead he felt gnawing doubt; had young Ayaki’s death been an expression of the gods’ displeasure, that Mara should claim as spoils the properties of her fallen enemies? The Minwanabi who had once walked these halls had sworn blood feud against the Acoma. Eschewing tradition, Mara had not buried their natami, the talisman stone that secured the spirits of the dead to life’s Wheel as long as it stood in sunlight. Could the lingering shades of vanquished enemies visit ill luck on her and her children?

Afraid for young Justin’s safety, and inwardly reprimanding himself for giving credence to superstitions, Hokanu focused upon Mara. Where death and loss had always hardened her to courage and action, now she seemed utterly devastated. She saw the boy’s corpse into the great hall, her steps like those of a mannequin animated by a magician’s spell. She sat motionless at the bier side while servants and maids bathed her child’s torn flesh, and robed
him in the silks and jewels that were his heritage as heir of a great house. Hokanu hovered nearby, aching with a sense of his own uselessness. He had food brought, but his lady would not eat. He asked for a healer to make up a soporific, expecting, even hoping, to provoke an angry response.

Mara dully shook her head and pushed the cup away.

The shadows on the floor lengthened as the sun crossed the sky, and the windows in the ceiling admitted steepening angles of light. When the scribe sent by Jican tapped discreetly on the main door a third time, Hokanu at last took charge and told the man to seek out Saric or Incomo, to make up the list of noble houses who should be informed of the tragedy. Plainly Mara was not up to making the decision herself. Her only movement, for hours, had been to take the cold, stiff fingers of her son in her own.

Lujan arrived near dusk, his sandals dusty, and more weariness in his eyes than he had ever shown on campaign. He bowed to his mistress and her consort and awaited permission to speak.

Mara’s eyes remained dully fixed on her son.

Hokanu reached out and touched her rigid shoulder. ‘My love, your Force Commander has news.’

The Lady of the Acoma stirred, as if roused from across a great distance. ‘My son is dead,’ she said faintly. ‘By the mercy of all the gods, it should have been me.’

Rent to the heart by compassion, Hokanu stroked back a fallen wisp of her hair. ‘If the gods were kind, the attack should never have happened.’ Then, as he saw that his Lady had slipped back into her stupor, he faced her officer.

The eyes of both men met, anguished. They had seen Mara enraged, hurt, even in terror of her life. She had always responded with spirit and innovation. This apathy was not like her, and all who loved her feared that a portion of her spirit might have perished along with her son.

Hokanu endeavored to shoulder as much of the burden as possible. ‘Tell me what your men have found, Lujan.’

Had Mara’s Force Commander been a more tradition-bound man, he would have refused; while Hokanu was a noble, he was not master of the Acoma. But the Shinzawai faction of the household was sworn to alliance with the Acoma, and Mara was in no condition to make critical decisions. Lujan released an almost imperceptible sigh of relief. The strengths of the Shinzawai heir were considerable, and the news Lujan brought was not cheering. ‘My Lord, our warriors searched the corpse to no avail. Our best trackers joined the search and, in a hollow where the assassin had apparently been sleeping, found this.’

He offered a round shell token, painted scarlet and yellow, and incised with the triangular sigil of House Anasati. Hokanu took the object with a touch that bespoke disgust. The token was the sort a Ruling Lord might give a messenger as proof that an important errand had been carried out. Such a badge was inappropriate for an enemy to entrust to an assassin; but then, the Lord of the Anasati made no secret of his hatred for Mara. Jiro was powerful, and openly allied with houses who wished to abolish the Emperor’s new policies. He was a scholar rather than a man of war, and though he was too clever to indulge in crude gestures, Mara had once slighted his manhood: she had chosen his younger brother for her first husband, and since that day, Jiro had shown open animosity.

Still, the shell counter was blatantly unsubtle, for a working of the Great Game. And the Hamoi Tong was too devious a brotherhood to consent to the folly of carrying evidence of which Lord or family might have hired it. Its history extended back for centuries, and its policies were cloaked in secrecy. To buy a death from it ensured absolute discretion. The token could be a play designed to throw blame upon the Anasati.

Hokanu raised concerned eyes to Lujan. ‘You think Lord Jiro was responsible for this attack?’

His query was less a question than an implied expression of doubt. That Lujan also had reservations about the placement of the token was evident as he drew breath to reply.

But the name of the Anasati Lord had pierced through Mara’s lethargy. ‘Jiro did this?’ She spun from Ayaki’s body and saw the red-and-yellow disk in Hokanu’s hand. Her face contorted into a frightening mask of fury. ‘The Anasati shall be as dust in the wind. Their natami will be buried in offal, and their spirits be consigned to the dark. I will show them less mercy than I did the Minwanabi!’ Her hands clenched into fists. She stared without seeing between her husband and her Force Commander, as though her detested enemy could be made manifest through the force of her hatred. ‘Not even that will pay for the blood of my son. Not even that.’

‘Lord Jiro might not be responsible,’ Lujan offered, his usually firm voice torn by grief. ‘You were the target, not Ayaki. The boy is the nephew of the Anasati Lord, after all. The tong assassin could have been sent by any of the Emperor’s enemies.’

But Mara seemed not to hear. ‘Jiro will pay. My son will be avenged.’

‘Do you think Lord Jiro was responsible?’ Hokanu repeated to the Force Commander. That the young Anasati heir still felt as he did, even after inheriting the mantle and power that had been his father’s, bespoke stubborn, and childish pride. A mature mind would no longer nurse such a grudge; but in vain arrogance, the Anasati Lord might well wish the world to know whose hand had contracted for Mara’s downfall.

Except that since Mara was Servant of the Empire, her popularity was too widespread. Fool Jiro might be, over
slighted manhood, but surely not so much that he would invite the Emperor’s wrath.

Lujan turned dark eyes toward Hokanu. ‘That bit of shell is all the evidence we have. Its very obviousness might be subtle, as if by calling attention to House Anasati, we might dismiss them at once and look elsewhere for the culprits.’ Fury coiled beneath his words. He, too, wanted to strike in anger at the outrage that had been committed. ‘It matters very little what I think,’ he finished grimly. For honor demanded that he do his Lady’s will, absolutely and without question. If Mara asked him to muster the Acoma garrison and march suicidally to war, he would obey, with all his heart and will.

Dusk dimmed the skylights in the great hall. Servants entered on quiet feet and lit the lamps arrayed around Ayaki’s bier. Scented smoke sweetened the air. The play of warm light softened death’s pallor, and shadow veiled the misshapen lumps of the injuries beneath the silk robes. Mara sat alone in vigil. She regarded her son’s oval face, and the coal-dark hair that, for the first time she could remember, had stayed combed for more than an hour.

BOOK: Mistress of the Empire
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