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Ilsa has suffered through the test of the Prince of Chogrum. She and her allies try to solidify a new alliance, while enemies wait in the shadows.
Fighting is not always the best option, especially in war.
Sometimes one must wait and listen, or even retreat to improve the odds when one returns to the fray.
Dawn’s light crept in under the slit of the door frame. Ilsa dressed in Chogrumian city clothes and concealed her ammunition belts under a skirt she wore over a pair of trousers. Yes, it looked silly, but she had seen people with the same sort of clothes the previous day. It would do well to hide the magazines. She kept the bullets loaded in one pistol. She felt confident she could produce the weapon easily, despite that complication.
Lemuel rose and went to the window. He pulled on his clothes, tucked a revolver into the waistband of his new black pants. She nodded to him.
“Let’s hope we won’t need these,” she said.
“Definitely,” he said. He pulled on his overcoat to hide the gun. “Let’s go make an alliance.”
They met Siuku and Blue along with Megalli at the suite upstairs. Ferdinand and Cass were on the roof, keeping an eye out for trouble in the skies over Chogrum.
So far, it seemed no battles had been fought on a large scale between the east and west. Not yet. Soon that would change if they did not do something.
The prince would meet them at the parliament building near the palace at the city’s center. Ilsa and the others took the tram to the north. Her pain had mostly faded. Only small hints remained.
She rode in silence. Even Blue seemed subdued, or maybe tense. She did not reach out with her mind and talk to Ilsa. They both knew the other was tense.
Her eyes watched the buildings passing outside. All of this should be protected, even if it was Chogrum. No, because it was Chogrum. It was so much like Dal where she had grown up, even with the many differences between the two cities. Ilsa swore to herself she would not let them destroy each other if she could help it.
The nomads too were hers to protect as long as she could. As long as she drew breath.
The tram turned away from the palace and toward the parliament building. The charged guiding wires over the track emitted a low crackle as one set disconnected and the next attached. Ilsa rubbed at her eyes to clear the last of the sleep dirt from them.
Blue looked across the tram at Ilsa. She wore her armor openly. “It’s been tough to sleep.”
“Today could be a moment of truth,” Ilsa said. “If we don’t succeed it may cost us the war.”
Blue leaned forward and folded her hands together. “It could cost the peace.”
“You’re right.” Ilsa frowned down the length of the tram.
Besides her and Blue, most of the others had come with them.
The young Okko and the veteran lightning catcher who had ridden into town with Ilsa, Siuku and Lemuel sat near the keeper. Lemuel was beside Ilsa. On his other side, Megalli fiddled with the spare buttons on her trousers.
Only Ferdinand and Cass were elsewhere. They had ridden out on separate striders to look for trouble ahead of the tram. Ilsa had barely had any time to talk to Cass since the mountains. They always seemed to be moving parallel to each other. At least they were going in the same direction.
The tram pulled to a stop at the station in front of the broad parliament building. Ilsa led the others down the steps and then up to the troupe of bonded palace guards fanned out on the ramp leading to parliament. The ramp was broader and less steep than the one to the palace. Her senses felt sharper. She could feel each of their bonds, two or more for each guard. Ilsa felt certain none of them were bonded to the spirit, and not just because her father’s technique was so rare. Somehow she could feel each of them had their shrine somewhere in Chogrum.
Ilsa suspected the guards were only here because of the prince’s presence, because groups of ordinary soldiers also patrolled the building, their radios sounding of static as two of them moved along the street nearby.
The leader of this group of palace guards, a big woman with a thickly scarred jaw, bowed to Siuku as the Keeper of Tenlyres walked toward them.
“Your Holiness of Tenlyres. Bless me, please.”
Siuku’s eyes narrowed. “You serve a different master, the Prince of Chogrum.”
“Indeed. But my family has often prayed at the Flowering Lyre. I have heard what you did in Atalem. You healed their wounds.”
Siuku’s eyes relaxed. “Then I bless you, servant of Chogrum. Proceed in the ways of the spirits.”
“Thank you, your holiness.” The guard leader turned to her squad as the rest of Ilsa’s group caught up with her and Siuku. “Allow them to pass. The keeper and the prince have words for parliament today.”
They climbed the ramp, past the first group of palace guards. Then past another set at the top. They passed through burnished doors painted with murals depicting Chogrum’s founding a thousand years prior. Ilsa fought the urge to marvel at the sights of the grand building. Dal has structures like this too, she reminded herself, though she had rarely seen them up close.
Okko did not resist the same urge. He craned his neck. “This is the biggest tent ever,” he said in the Oshomi language.
The older lightning catcher gave a disapproving click of her tongue and tapped the top of his head with her hand. “Keep your guard,” she said in the same language Okko had used.
He laughed at her. “There is an army around us.”
“An army, but not our army,” said the veteran lightning catcher. “Stay alert.”
“I’ll keep my eyes peeled.” He went on gaping as they entered a columned passage forty meters broad, the public corridor into the parliament hall. It was lined with more palace guards, but fewer than there had been outside. Wall mounts held bioelectric lights.
Someone snapped a photograph of them, the flash dazzling even in this bright hallway. Ilsa looked in for the source of the flash and found a cluster of news teams. Most had large pile cameras for video. As she turned to them, though, another series of bright flashes made her blink.
“The press is allowed in?” she murmured.
“Parliament exists for the people,” said Lemuel from beside her. “And the Keeper of Tenlyres has never visited the city in all of its thousand years.”
“You would know about that.” She smiled at him.
They reached another set of double doors, smaller and less colorful than the ones outside, but not by much. These, two large men, in uniforms not belonging either to the ordinary soldiery or the palace guards, hauled the gate open as Ilsa and the others drew near. Each of the big men wore a large battle ax on a baldric tied around the back of their deep green and gilded uniforms. Neither was a weapon bond.
She glanced at Lemuel.
“Parliamentary Lictors,” he said to answer Ilsa’s questioning look. “They are mostly ceremonial, have been since powder became more common.”
“Why the axes?”
“Chogrum’s founders are said to have lived for a time in the forest east of the plateau. Tradition holds that woodsmen served as representatives of the commoners in those days.”
They passed the lictors with their axes and entered the hall of Chogrum’s parliament. Ilsa looked out at a huge room set in muted tones, except for the rings of red tiles among the gray of the floor at the center of the ranks of desks.
“One hundred and twenty members. And nearly all of them should be in attendance because the prince is here.”
Ilsa nodded as she took in Lemuel’s words. Part of her did not like that she felt the power in this room. As if politics could accomplish everything it claimed.
On the other hand, democracy could be beautiful in the right circumstances. Ordinary people deserved more power than they had in Ayoch and many of the Morhoenese monarchies.
A pair of green-clad lictors led them down to the floor below the desks. “You will stand before the prince, in the sight of the people,” said one. “As foreign representatives, you may not sit during the proceedings.”
Lemuel sighed. “Never thought I’d have to hear that, personally.”
Megalli bounced on the heels of her shoes. “You keep foreigners off guard. I like it. I may have to do something like this once I return home.”
The lictors looked at her with solemn expressions.
Blue directed an unrestrained smile in Ilsa’s direction. “At least someone is going to benefit from our sore legs.”
Ilsa nodded. “How long do parliamentary proceedings last?”
“Hours, usually. For something like this, at least three or four. And it could be a lot longer than that,” said Lemuel.
Ilsa patted his shoulder. “Lean on me if you need to. I can handle it.”
“Four hours?” said Megalli. “That’s a lot of the day. How do these people have time for it?”
“The members of parliament are mostly ordinary citizens like me and Blue, but they receive compensation for their civic duty.” Lemuel glanced at Megalli. “Money means more in the city than in the mountains.”
Siuku turned to them. “These may be ordinary people, as you put it. But they represent our chance of an alliance.”
Megalli nodded, a little of her exuberance suppressed. She straightened her back a little. “I can be dignified too.” She pressed her lips into a line. “Just watch.”
Okko covered his mouth with his hand. His suppressed laughter still sounded too loud.
The lights above them dimmed. Then, a plain door, almost invisible when closed, opened in the center of the wall of the low part of the room where they stood. Two palace guards processed in, hands folded. After them came two lictors, and then the prince of Chogrum, flanked by two more lictors. He wore a white robe and carried the True Red staff. His feet were bare.
All six guards bowed their heads and stepped off to the sides of the room. The prince stepped into one of the two circles formed by red tiles and motioned for Siuku to stand in another near him. The members of parliament took their desks.
The prince tapped his staff on the floor twice.
From behind Ilsa, two bells chimed.
“Session begins,” whispered Lemuel.
They stood as the prince introduced the Keeper of Tenlyres to parliament. They stood as the heads of parliament responded to the prince. They stood for an hour as Siuku made her case to the people and bureaucracy of Chogrum.
Ilsa noticed that, though there were one hundred twenty desks, each one sat both a representative and a government bureaucrat to assist them. In the gaps between different representatives standing to speak and then sitting back down again, others conferred quietly with the bureaucrats beside them. The system struck her as sensible, with advisers for representatives whose jobs were not normally political.
Ilsa could not follow it all. She had been a mercenary and priestess for half her life. Her field of action was not here.
In the second hour, her legs began to feel stiffer and stiffer, though she did her best to shift them to keep from cramping. When the session ended, at last, it had been four hours, and she fairly lurched back up the steps to leave the room. This time, the prince walked with them. He moved slowly with the true staff of Hathani in his hand.
They descended the ramp outside the building. A plain black car waited on the street by the tram station, surrounded by a squad of palace guards. Ilsa wondered how dangerous the city would actually be for the prince, though she did not doubt the guard were necessary.
News-people took photographs and videos. Others shouted out questions, which the prince and Siuku ignored. Okko laughed and called out words Ilsa didn’t know in Oshomi, including one he repeated every time the cameras flashed.
Ilsa glanced at Lemuel.
He shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not an expert on Oshomi language.”
Megalli smirked at them over her shoulder. “It sounds rude.”
“It is,” said the dour lightning catcher walking close to Siuku. “You’re better off not knowing. Shut up, boy.” She tapped Okko on the back of the head.
“Bakasta,” he said and then gave a snort of laughter.
The older lightning catcher rolled her eyes, an expression of exasperation that existed across cultures. As they reached the car at the bottom of the ramp, Ilsa’s small smile morphed into a frown. There were weapon bonds on the sidewalk, and not all of them were members of the palace guard.
“Wait,” she said. “Somethings wrong.”
Lemuel glanced at her, as the prince reached his car, closely followed by a cluster of news people, held back by the presence of just a few guards. One of the news-people, an older woman with stringy white hair, looked strangely familiar.
Ilsa’s eyes went wide as realization struck her. The woman might be different above the brows, but other than the wig and the camera in her hand there could be no mistake. Black Powder’s first apprentice snapped a photograph of the prince.
Ilsa clenched her hand, preparing to draw her loaded pistol. She leaped from the last meter of the ramp toward the car. Her pistol appeared in her hand as she landed beside the prince. The guards began to produce weapons. Ilsa shouted in warning as First started to move a pistol produced in the hand not holding a camera.
For a second no shots were fired. Ilsa faced First down.
“What is the meaning of this?” bellowed the prince.
“This woman is one of Black Powder’s apprentices.” Ilsa kept her eyes on First.
The woman swung her weapon hand. She fired twice, and two of the guards holding back the news-people fell. Ilsa’s retaliatory shot hit First in the other hand, smashing through the camera.
Her father’s apprentice flinched backward.
People screamed. More shots went off, exchanged between the prince’s guards and more of her father’s hidden weapon bonds. The enemies emerged from their cover all down the sidewalk in front of the parliament building.
Ilsa put herself between First and the prince. She fired another shot. Then a third.
First ducked around the front of the car and evaded both bullets. Ilsa cursed almost as much as Okko as the bullets ricocheted off the pavement.
One of them hit a genuine newsman. He fell to one knee, his leg ripped in and out by the bullet. The man clenched his teeth and shouted in pain, but as he did he pointed behind Ilsa.
Ferdinand Thoss rode his white-furred great strider down the thoroughfare, towering over the low-built cars and even the tram. He thrust his long spear into one of the mercenaries who had just dropped a palace guard.
Ilsa called to the prince, “Stay close to me. We have to get back inside.”
A high caliber shot rang out from across the street and another of the guards fell. The prince ducked his head but raised his staff. “That looks to be a risky proposition at the moment, priestess.”
Caught on the end of Ferdinand’s spear, the weapon bond struggled with something under his bloodstained summer jacket. Ilsa smelled powder. A bomb.
“Ferdinand, drop him!” she called over her shoulder.
He did not hesitate but withdrew the spear into its bond. The wounded mercenary vanished in an explosive roar that sent shreds of his jacket flying through the air. Ilsa winced from the blast, surprised at the lack of blood with such a concentrated detonation.
First darted around to the street-side of the car, firing a pistol at the guards on the steps. The other mercenaries appeared to have fallen or retreated.
Ilsa scowled as she stepped around the prince. “Stay here, sir.”
“I am not eager to fight,” said the prince, hunkering down behind one of the car’s rear wheels. “Finish this attacker.”
With what pleasure there can be, Ilsa thought. “I will.” She snaked around the back of the car, moving to flank First.
The older woman shot another guard on the steps. She broke from behind the car just as a rusted van barreled down the street toward them.
Ferdinand, his strider now on the sidewalk, jumped down and joined the prince, Lemuel, and the rest of Siuku’s group near the car and the dazed members of the press.
One of them actually kept taking pictures. Apparently cooler-headed than the rest. Or crazier.
First reached the other side of the street and the van screeched to a halt between her and the guards on the parliament building ramp. Ilsa glanced at Ferdinand’s strider. The creature’s eyes glinted and swung his long body, sending one of the mounting lines flying to Ilsa. She grabbed the line and scurried up.
The strider swung back and she leaped off the line onto the top of the van. Her stomach roiled, and then shock ran through her legs. She took aim at First, who had just finished crossing the street.
Ilsa’s bullet hit her father’s sadistic apprentice in the leg and sent her staggering.
Beneath her, Ilsa could hear firearms being loaded. She gritted her teeth. More mercenaries, but she could tell where they were by sensing their bonded weapons. She fired the remaining rounds in her pistol through the thin metal roof of the van. She killed the occupants, all except one.
That one kicked out the windscreen and climbed out. He wore the same kind of hooded jacket of light material as the man who had blown himself up. And he leveled a shotgun at her.
Cass’s bullet hit him from behind. The red-haired priestess rode in from the end of the street opposite the way Ferdinand had come. He stumbled on the hood of the van, then pulled the cord of the explosive vest he wore beneath his coat. The blast burned through the van. Ilsa leaped from the roof.
She rolled onto the pavement two meters down, limbs and spine aching. Her arms had shielded her head from the worsts of the fall. She scrambled to her feet and went after First at a fast limp. One leg burned with pain from scrapes through the leg of torn pants. Her vision narrowed with intent.
Stop First from escaping. Find Tirica.
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