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an extract from the novel
by Michael Cobley


Chapter Two

He gathered all the world onto a stage,
Rivers, forests, cities, all,
And let the savage capers of heroes,
Tell a timely tale of truth
- Epitaph on a poet's tomb in Adnagaur

Shadowmasque by Michael CobleyThe smoke of a hundred pipes and the main hearth's leaky flue hung in a grey veil across the high, crossbeamed common room of the Four Winds Inn. The place was warm and busy with evening custom and many drinkers were standing near the tap counter or in clusters by the massive fire, or along the balcony that hung off the streetside wall, right above the main entrance. Scores of conversations merged into one, continuous din of voices punctuated by laughter and coughing while in one corner a couple of musicians were playing requests on fiddle and whistle.

The Four Winds lay at the one of the main crossroads in north Sejeend, between Blueyard Market and the Earl of Westerbow dramahouse. Thus many trades had their representatives among its customers, farmers and merchants from the plains of eastern Khatris, drovers from further along Gronanvel, fur-trappers back from the shadowy gorges of the Rukang mountains, fishermen and oystercatchers, weavers and carpenters, soldiers and scholars. All were watched over by the senior tapsmen and a brace of brawny, hard-eyed men carrying weighted bludgeons.

Another observed the noisy crowd from a small table beneath the balcony, glancing up occasionally when those above stamped or danced or did something to cause the woodwork to creak audibly. Attired in a long, dull green coat over well-worn travelling clothes, Tashil Akri drank sparingly from her jack of small beer, lending an ear to some of the chatter going on nearby while keeping an eye on the main door. She had a mask, little more than a plain eyemask in red cotton, but it was pushed up to sit on her tangled brown hair just as several people within sight had done. In fact, almost no-one in the tavern was actually wearing their masks, apart from a tall gaunt man she glimpsed across the crowded room.

As people came and went, the big door swung open and banged shut repeatedly, admitting frequent gusts of cool air, but Tashil stayed where she was to be sure of catching Calabos as soon as he arrived. She had been at the safe house at Vannyon's Ford, having just returned from the Honjir Wall, when she received mindspeech contact from Dardan who was passing on an urgent message from Calabos recalling the senior Watchers to Sejeend. Dardan had not mentioned the reason for this, but since Magramon had died only a few days ago Tashil guessed that the two were not unrelated.

With her wicker-seated stool making cricking sounds, she took a generous mouthful of beer and leaned back against the wall, feeling the aches in her limbs. Without really trying she focussed her underhearing on the Treemonks kneeling by the fire, hearing their murmured rumours of the persecutions in north Anghatan and the torture of other monks in Casall ... then she shifted her attention to the head tapsman as he told one of the serving girls to point out a trouble-making customer ... then managed to overhear the short luck prayers that the dicethrowers were muttering under their breath before making a play....

Tashil relaxed, knowing that further temptation might lead to using the Lesser Power itself, and that would be foolhardy.

"You never know who might be listening," her old mentor Tregaylis once told her. "Being a Watcher means resisting the urge to use the Godriver in unwise situations. It also means being able to recognise such situations ... "

It also means learning how to wait, she thought wryly. Passing time while waiting for others invariably led to eavesdropping as a way of relieving the boredom, just as she was doing with the argument taking place in the corner behind her. Three maskless scholars from a northbank college were exchanging drolleries and retorts with a group of well-dressed students from the Imperial Academy. As a veil for her Watcher activities in Sejeend, she managed a small shop selling books, parchment, inks and stones, and recognised the three scholars from past custom, while the Academy student she knew not at all. The argument had opened with general insults concering each others' institutions and style of attire, then moved on to more erudite matters. The Academy students, it transpired, were dramaturgic seminarists and cast members of the Imperial Academy's annual production.

"I see," said one of the scholars, a handsome, golden-haired youth she remembered as Brondareg. "Then I imagine that you would have everything hired for you, theatre, stagehands, costumes -- and audience!"

There was a chorus of guffaws at this barb and Tashil edged round to gain a better view.

"You betray your ignorance with such low wit, ser," came back one of the Academy students, whose mask was a silvery affair decorated with eagle motifs. "Anyone of consequence would know that Academy plays are always well-attended. Why, last year's production of 'The Great House Of Hallebron' drew a full house every night."

Entirely true, Tashil thought. But since it was also sponsored directly by the crown, it would have been practically treasonous for any of Magramon's court nobles to not go and see it.

Brondareg nodded judiciously. "Hmm -- 'Great House...' is a good enough play ... "

"Whereas its sequel is by far superior," added one of his two companions, a short stocky young man in a threadbare brown doublet, whose name escaped her. "But 'The Fall Of The House Of Hallebron' is far too provocative for these times ... "

Another of the Academy students, his bronze and jet mask decorated with wolves, shook his head. "From your shabby demeanour and sneering tone I would place you as apprentice scoffers, or would-be pedantic tutors!"

Brondareg turned to his friend. "Why Ghensh -- this fine fellow seems to have heard of us!"

Then the two scholars gave exaggerated, hand-fluttering bows to their accuser, provoking more laughter from the onlookers. Meanwhile, their third companion said nothing, just lay slumped forward on their long narrow table, head resting on a couple of leather-bound books around which his arms were wrapped.

"Guilty as charged, good ser," said Brondareg. "Perhaps you could enlighten our meagre souls by telling us which work is the object of your Academy's ambitions this year?"

"'The Twilight Emperor'," was the lofty reply.

At which the third scholar sat bolt upright, a dark-haired young woman who glared across at the haughty Academy boys as they lounged against their own table.

"That overheated, bombastic muddle by Drusarik?" she said. "Surely not ... "

Tashil grinned -- the girl was Viorne and she was half-Mogaun, just like Tashil.

"You should keep a civil tongue in your head," snapped the eagle-masked student. "Our stagemaster is a direct descendant of Drusarik himself!"

"But 'The Twilight Emperor' has a ridiculous ending," Ghensh said. "Tauric and the Lord of Twilight duelling in the depths of the Void while hurling florid invective at each other ... .there is nothing in the historical record to even imply that is what happened!"

"Whereas others prefer to plod along behind the antiquarians," said Wolf Mask who then suddenly lunged forward and snatched away Viorne's books. "As I thought -- 'The Great Shadowking War' by Beltran Calabos ... .why, you're all disciples of the Noble Relic!"

Tashil had to force herself to say nothing in Calabos' defence. Amid the laughter, Viorne and Ghensh rose angry-faced from their seats but Brondareg gestured them to remain as he calmly got up, took a couple of steps towards the Academy students' table and, smiling, held out one hand. Tashil watched him lock gazes with Wolf Mask who held for a moment then shrugged and gave up the books. Brondareg in turn handed them back to Viorne who quickly stowed them away. Then he sat back down and took up his beaker.

"Not disciples, good sirs," he said. "Merely seekers after the truth, which Calabos pays more regard to than Drusarik, it must be said ... "

Tashil was finding the students' bantering quite amusing but as the next retort was uttered, she was distracted by a sustained draught of cold air. Turning she was in time to see a large, black-robed and hooded figure sit down at her table. She was about to object when the burly newcomer laid a familiar copper-inlaid, ironwood walking stick on the table before him then pushed back his cowl. Pale eyes that were both piercing and kind regarded her from beneath bushy eyebrows while a strong hand bearing a plain ring stroked a neat beard as grey and tightly curled as the hair on his head. Hanging below his chin was a half-mask made of plain, stitched red satin with no motif other than a third eye staring openly from the brow.

"Dardan informed me of your imminent arrival," he said. "So I decided to meet you myself. Besides, I haven't been here for many years..."

Tashil smiled, and indicated the still-squabbling students behind her. "You just missed a clash over one of your works -- 'The Great Shadowking War', to be precise."

Beltran Calabos frowned, then shrugged. "Were there any deaths or maiming as a result? No? Hmm, maybe I should revise it, after all ... " He caught the eye of a serving girl, ordered a pot, then leaned forward. "We'll leave shortly, once I've reminded myself what Hethu ale tastes like."

Once the tankard was brought, he sipped it a couple of times then drank off a great quaff of the dark brown beer. Wiping his moustache, he smiled and nodded.

"So how was your journey from Vannyons Ford?" he said so quietly that she could only hear him with her undersenses.

"Exhausting, master," she replied in the same way. "Two changes of mounts, and only this padded stool is allowing me to stay seated. Are you expecting anything...untoward?"

"Ilgarion returns in a day or two," said Calabos. "To claim his crown and issue more warnings about the 'Carver menace', no doubt. Meanwhile, all word and trace of the Nightkin has dried up -- we know that we did not kill them all that night on Redstone Beach a month ago, so they must be planning something...."

"Assassination?" Tashil said grimly.

"Or kidnapping, or blackmail or ... " He stared into his half-empty tankard. "Sooner or later we'll have to face whoever is behind the Nightkin, whether it's someone like that puppet-master we dealt with in Adnagaur last year or something else ... "

Tashil nodded, remembering how they had tracked the web of illusion, deceit and compulsion to a small village on the edge of Adnagaur where they confronted the grossly crippled sorcerer who had enslaved so many. But she also knew that Calabos had his own obsessions, chief among them being his belief that ancient fragments of the spirit of the Lord of Twilight were scattered all across the continent, being passed on through families and communities, a shrivelled yet immemorial evil that still posed a threat to civilisation.

Tashil was about to ask him about it, when a loud but steady voice cut through the babble surrounding them.

"I think that you've made a mistake, friend -- now why don't you return that pouch to the young master?" All went quiet in the corner as Calabos glanced up and Tashil looked round. Most eyes were fixed on a seated man who was holding out a bare, long dagger with the point pressing against the side of another man frozen in the act of walking past Ghensh, one of the three scholars. They, too, had turned to watch.

"You mystify me, ser," replied the accused, a scrawny man in shabby town attire. "I know not what you speak of."

The man with the dagger sighed and leaned forward. Tashil saw that he was a grim-faced, unshaven man in a long, shapeless coat and leather leggings. His black hair, tied back in a short tail, was streaked with grey while his features were those of a man in his prime. But his expression was one of steady, almost calm contempt for the other who stood before him. "Let me refresh your memory," said the man with the dagger. "As you made to leave you brushed against the young man there -- " He nodded towards Ghensh, "--during which you relieved him of his money pouch."

"Mother's name!" Ghensh cried, fumbling at his waist. "It's gone!"

The thief smiled weakly. "Ah, you mean the pouch I found on the floor ... I was about to give it to the head tapsman, but fortune allows me to return it to its rightful owner in person ... "

Dropping the pouch into the outraged Ghensh's outstretched hand, he bowed then disappeared into the crowd. As an excited din of conversation erupted, Ghensh offered thanks to the stranger who only nodded and went back to his ale. Tashil grinned and turned to see that Calabos had suddenly pulled his hood up to partly conceal his face while peering past her shoulder.

"Is something the matter?" she said.

"You might say that," he muttered. "I seldom feel calm when a face from the past suddenly appears in the middle of a crowded tavern."

"Ah, Ser Dagger, you mean."

He nodded. "Corlek Ondene, as I live and breathe."

Tashil shrugged. "Who?"

"Ten years ago, he was the youngest soldier ever to rise to a captaincy in the Iron Guard, the Emperor's personal bodyguard. But while he was an outstanding warrior, he was callow and careless in other matters -- he became entranced by the Emperor's daughter and bedded her -- "

"With her agreement, I assume," she said archly.

"No doubt. When Magramon found out he swore he would cut off Ondene's head himself, after doing the same to his manhood."

Tashil was both appalled and amused. "How did he escape?"

"Someone in the palace warned him and helped him climb down from one of the guard towers, and someone else spirited him out of Sejeend. That was the last that anyone saw of him, but the repercussions went on for months, years. Ever heard of a play by Momas Gobryn called 'The Trial Of Aetheon'?"

"I know the title but I've never seen a copy, nor seen it enacted."

Calabos' smile was brittle. "Nor would you while Magramon was alive -- Gobryn wrote it as an allegory of Ondene's folly..."

Suddenly Calabos paused, bowed his head and let the cowl fall forward across his face. Before Tashil could say anything, Corlek Ondene brushed past their table on his way to the door. He was now wearing a battered, wide-brimmed hat and while he did not look directly at either of them, Tashil saw a look of bleak despair in his features as he passed by. And there was something else, something that impinged on her awareness below the level of her undersenses, a minatory feeling that chilled her as if a beast made of ice had breathed on her. Glancing up, she saw that Calabos too had felt it, his bearded face seeming almost haunted while a fierceness shone in his eyes.

"What was that?" she said low and quiet as Ondene reached the door and stepped outside.

For long moments Calabos said nothing, then drew a deep breath.

"A forebodeance," he said. "Ondene is going to his doom. Come!"

Standing quickly, he snatched up his walking stick and made for the door, and Tashil had to hastily down the last of her ale before hurrying after him.

Outside, cold dense fog from the river drifted through the narrow streets, strengthening the trickle of dread within her. It was rare for her to experience a forebodeance so strong that it forced its way into conscious thought, the last time being two years ago when an elderly customer left her shop and promptly walked under the hooves and wheels of an oncoming wagon, dying instantly. Her old mentor, Tregaylis, had been visiting Calabos at the time and tried to assuage the guilt that she felt. "A forebodeance is not a message directed at us, commanding us to prevent what is about to happen," he had told her. "It is only a quality of the Lesser Power as it weaves in and out of the Void, a natural event like a scattering of raindrops or a cold breeze from the mountains. Doubtless, there were other times when some tragedy occurred but you felt little or nothing -- should you seek to shoulder those burdens as well?"

Tashil had been grateful for such counsel, but as she followed Calabos along from the Four Winds she started to wonder why he was so concerned about Ondene. Then her attention was diverted by voices as she crossed before the alleyway that ran up the side of the tavern -- a wedge of brightness spilled into the darkness half way along as two figures stumbled out and began trudging off to the other end, followed by a third who closed the door on the light and the chattering din. Listening a moment, she recognised the voices of the three scholars from earlier, then hastened to keep with Calabos.

The next building was the Earl of Westerbow dramahouse past which they walked until Calabos halted suddenly at the next corner to survey their surroundings. The light from a few porch lamps and street lanterns were smothered to weak, isolated glows by the fog. The grey roads ahead and to the left ran level while a rightward turn led up a hill. Of Ondene there was neither sight nor sound yet Calabos pointed to the right and said, "This way."

Matching her companion's gait, Tashil strove to focus on her undersenses and after a moment thought she could see signs on the cobbled road, faint outlines of footprints left on the fog-dampened stones, the spoor by which Calabos tracked their quarry. Once more, her curiosity came to the fore.

"So, how did you come to know Captain Ondene, master?" she said, recalling how Calabos had covered his face back at the tavern.

There was a dry chuckle. "I knew his father, Arnos, Baron Ondene, thus I knew the family -- 'twas I who helped the boy escape the city back then, but I could not save Arnos or his wife and older son." The humour in his voice had turned to bitterness.

Then his whole demeanour became more alert as he regarded the cobbles with unwavering intensity, pointing with his walking stick. Tashil could just see where other footprints had converged on the single set of tracks and formed a smeared muddle from which lines of scuffed marks led diagonally across the road towards a small, wooded park. Shadowy trees were were bordered by a low stone wall broken by an arched entrance through which the tracks progressed.

"They've taken him, and it was only moments ago!" Calabos said, breaking into a run. Dashing after him, Tashil could make out at the edge of her undersenses faint sounds of struggle, twigs breaking underfoot, foliage brushing against clothing....

As they hurried into the park and up a wide path amid the tangled gloom, Calabos gave his stick a twist with his hands, separating it into two pieces which he stowed away in his robe.

"I'll use Engulf to smother their lanterns," he muttered. "Then you'll move in and retrieve the unfortunate Captain. Agreed?"

"Yes, master," Tashil said as she sifted through her memory for an appropriate spell.

The wooded park was a shapeless, dark mass in the night, except for the fitful lamplight that glimmered through the trees and bushes from a point off the main path along which they now crept. Cruel laughter and grunts of pain reached Tashil's ears as she called up the thought-canto Leech and set it spinning in her thoughts, a loop of whispers, reverie-shapes and dream-tastes. Calabos was now standing a few feet away with both hands held before him, gripping each other. With her attuned eyes she could see the intense purpose in his features as he stared at his clenched hands.

"Ready?" he murmured without shifting his gaze.

Tashil breathed out her unlocking word, and the thought-canto flowed down into her hands which now flickered with an icy-blue web of power.

"I am now," she said.

Calabos nodded once, eyes fixed on the flickering lamp glows. Then his hands sprang apart as the Engulf spell burgeoned forth and an utter, pit-deep darkness rushed in, swallowing every detail and every gleam of radiance. Tashil was already slipping swiftly through the trees when blackness fell, but her sight was now firmly aligned to her undersenses, allowing her to see the surroundings as ghostly, webby forms and spidery outlines.

Moments later she reached a clearing where four wraith-like figures of men were either sprawled on ground, or struggling blindly against entangling roots and thorny vines, while giving out angry, baffled shouts and curses. But with her glowing hands she silenced them one by one, sending them into insensibility with a light and precise touch. All succumbed instantly except for one who was wearing a crescent-shaped amulet that hung down from his indistinct, dishevelled garments. The amulet resisted her thought-canto, brightening for a second or two before lapsing into dullness while its owner slumped into immobility.

Tashil did not realise how tense she was until she felt the relief that followed. She quickly turned to the figure of Corlek Ondene who, bound to a tree, had already suffered a beating. Untying him, she realised that he was scarcely able to stand so she was forced to half-carry him with one of his arms braced across her shoulders. She was struggling with him through the bushes when she felt Calabos' strong hands relieving her of the burden. By the time they stumbled out of the blackness and down towards the road, Ondene was completely unconscious and Calabos had to carry him over one shoulder.

"How long before those roughs start to awake?" he asked, breathing heavily.

"Not quite half an hour," Tashil said.

"Good." At the park's arched entrance he halted and lowered the unresponsive Ondene down to a seated position against the stonework.

"I have my horse and carriage lodged at a hostelry just a street away," he said. "If you watch over our friend, I shall return very shortly."

So saying, he departed at a run, leaving an apprehensive Tashil to shiver in the cold and stand over her charge while eyeing the dark wood behind her. Yet all seemed tranquil, the deserted park and street ruled by a chill, deadening silence. Then something disturbed the edges of her undersenses, a tenuous, uneasy feeling that she was being watched from shadows along the downward street they had climbed from the tavern. She turned her head enough to glance that way and began attuning her sight, reaching through the intervening distance with perceptions that made the grey veil of shadow and fog melt....

Then the clatter of hooves and wheels broke her concentration and a moment later a two-seater drew up, and Calabos clambered out. The moment of unease passed and Tashil bent to the task of helping to lift Ondene into the carriage, then climbed up and squeezed in beside him. Back in the driver seat, Calabos took up the reins and flicked the horse into motion. Great clouds of vapour fumed from the animal's mouth and nostrils as it hauled on the traces.

"Where are we taking him?" Tashil said. "The Watch-house?"

Calabos shook his head. "I think it would be better if we made for the townlodge -- we should be safe there."

Tashi knew that was certainly the case -- Calabos' lodge was build like a fortress. So she sat back in the hard seat as Calabos steered the carriage round to head down the other side of the park, towards the eastern districts of Sejeend.

From a shadowed doorway, a tall, gaunt figure stared at the horse-drawn vehicle as it rattled away from him. The timely intervention of the two mages had saved him the trouble of having to retrieve Ondene from his predicament, yet they struck him as suspicious, especially that powerful older man who at all times had a secretive air about him. The young woman may have been weaker in power but she was still able to perceive his presence, even this far back along the street.

He sniffed the cold fogginess of the air and was so reminded of sea mist that he smiled. He longed for a return to the Stormclaw's deck, but he and his companions had been entrusted with the guardianship of Ondene's mystery by the exalted Prince Agasklin himself, who hinted at mysterious lines from the Book of the Vortex. Thus duty commanded that he follow Ondene's rescuers and discover their destination, which would not be difficult given their nature.

Stretching, he rocked his head around to loosen the stiffness in his neck, then set off in trudging pursuit.

...continues in the print edition

© Michael Cobley 2005.

Michael Cobley's Shadowmasque was published in 2005 by Simon and Schuster.

Shadowmasque by Michael Cobley
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