Angel of Death, chpt 21
News Races Across the Continent
Tulmara scowled. "You have this on good information?"
"The best, mistress. Dondon told me he'd heard it with his own ears, and he's the most reliable informant we have."
Again Tulmara scowled. "So, the Viper is coming to town dressed as a target. We shall have to see if we can hit dead center."
* * *
Hamsetis grinned. "This is good news! The one we seek is arrogant indeed! I must contact Hodkamset immediately. If he again manages to get past them, he will stumble into my waiting arms, and this time he will not escape."
He paused, then looked down at his battle-scarred hands and smiled. "This time, I will personally ensure his capture."
* * *
"You will deliver this amulet to the barkeep at The Shining Cradle in Waterdeep within three weeks of your departure from this place, which will be in two days.
"You will begin in Calimport, and you will arrive in Waterdeep in the required amount of time. This is non-negotiable; please remember that your life hangs in the balance.
"This will serve as the first of the final tests I promised you would undergo once your training under me was completed."
Taking a medallion across the continent? This was a test? It was too easy, and Athos knew there was something more to it.
"Why not simply send me through the portal to Zazesspur? That would put me days closer to my destination."
"Why not use the portal directly to Waterdeep, while you're making it easier on yourself?" The Viper shook his head. "Because that is not the task I set you. Because this isn't about taking the easiest route. Because I require you to begin your journey at Calimport, that's why."
"No, you don't. But not going to clarify the matter. You have two days to prepare, and I suggest you use them wisely. In particular, I suggest you study the maps of the various cities you will be passing."
"I've already memorized them."
The assassin cocked an eyebrow. "I didn't know you memorized maps."
Athos gave him a cool look. "No, you didn't, did you? It's comforting to know there actually are some things you don't know - it shows that you're, in name at least, human."
The Viper gave a thin-lipped smile. "Cute. I'll let it pass, this time." He turned away, but Athos spoke again.
"You said that my training was complete."
"A long time ago, you told me you would clarify some details about my past when my training was done. You haven't done that yet."
The Viper was amused. "I did say that, didn't I? Are you certain you really want to know?"
Athos nodded, steeling himself. This was what he wanted; what he had always wanted. It was something he had to know, no matter how terrible it was. "Yes."
"Very well. You are the bastard son of Prince Alemander, son and heir to the last king of Tethyr. You are, with one exception, the last surviving member of that line."
Athos was stunned. "And... and the exception? I have a brother?"
The assassin shook his head. "An uncle, though he isn't much older than you. His name is Lhaeo, and he serves as scribe to Elminster, the archmagus."
Athos' mind was spinning. "You're saying... you're saying I'm royalty?"
"You are nothing, save what I have made of you. That is the past, the dead past, and you would do well to remember that." The assassin turned away.
"How does this affect your game?" called Athos. "How does my past help you? It must be one of the reasons you kept me alive all this time."
The Viper didn't halt. "Perhaps you'll puzzle it out, perhaps not. I've said all I intend to say."
A moment later he was gone, and Athos was left alone, confused and wondering.
* * *
Pook was agitated. So agitated that he was actually pacing the length of his chamber, halting occasionally to gaze out the window. He had even neglected his fruits and sweetmeats, which lay scattered on the table before his divan.
The news had spread like wildfire through the underworld - the Viper had made certain of that - and every thief and assassin, professional or amateur, was hoping to make his fortune by dealing a deathstroke to the bearer of the amulet.
Something is very wrong! The assassin would never take such a risk! The man is well-known for the the lengths he goes to avoid risk!
Pook shook his head. No, there was something else involved here, though he couldn't figure it out.
And that definitely concerned him.
* * *
"My underworld contacts have yielded some very interesting information." Thenedain was in a state of controlled excitement, just on the edge of cackling with glee. "They have managed to unearth something of the utmost secrecy - and it concerns your assassin."
Grimwalde put on an interested expression, schooling himself to patience. He knew that the streets were on fire with this news; he had known it days ago. "Really?"
"Yes, really. It seems that the Viper will be arriving soon in our city, bearing an amulet which will make him extremely easy to identify." He gave Grimwalde a harsh look. "The importance of that shouldn't escape even your puerile intellect."
Grimwalde gave him a blank look. "I'm not certain I understand. Do you have a plan?"
Thenedain turned away in disgust, but LaValle didn't miss the irony in Grimwalde's voice.
He knows something. He'll bear watching.
* * *
Hodkamset was pleased. "You have heard?"
Nekiset eyed him warily. "What do you mean?"
"Hamsetis has sent word. The man is competent, extremely competent. He has learned the the one we seek will come to us!"
"What do you mean?"
The high priest laughed. "The arrogant fool thinks to announce his coming, so confident is he!" He passed her the crumpled message he was holding. "This arrived today by special courier from Zazesspur. Hamsetis dispatched it with all speed. You will find what he has to say very interesting, I should think."
The priestess took the proffered paper, scanning it quickly. Her eyes widened, and she read it again.
"Well?" he asked, as the silence stretched.
She shook her head. "I don't understand. What madness would have prompted this? There must be some other explanation-"
Hodkamset whirled on her. "It is Set's divine will, woman! Do not think to question his methods, or you will find yourself on his alter!"
The priestess cowered back, averting her eyes. "As you say, blessed one," she said meekly. "Please forgive a fool's doubt."
Hodkamset gave a feral smile. "He comes into our grasp, and this time he will not elude us!"
* * *
Artemis craned her neck, trying to keep sight of him where he stood across the crowded street. "Athos!" she called again.
A moment past, she had caught sight of him across the bazaar through the haze of the midday heat, and shiver had run down her spine.
Her first instinct should have been to flee. This was a dangerous assassin - the protege of the Viper. A cold-blooded murderer with a history drenched in blood.
And yet... she stood rooted, held by his eyes.
They held a sadness beyond measure, a grief beyond bearing, and her heart ached at the hurt she saw there. But there was an iron determination behind them as well. Slowly he shook his head, turning away.
At that moment she made her decision. He must be warned! "Athos!" she cried, pressing herself urgently through the thronged street. "Athos!"
But he did not turn back.
"Athos!" she cried again, forced back as a pair of turbaned men bearing oval-shaped baskets pushed their way past.
And he was gone.
Desperately she hunted about for him, but he had melted into the throng, invisible.
It's what he was trained to do.
For a moment she simply stood, frustrated.
Then she knew what she must do.
* * *
Fool! thought Athos as he slipped through the crowd. Fool! To come here like this... what were you thinking? That life is not for you! She is not for you - and never was! You are damned - beyond redemption! Would you drag her into hell with you? Would you condemn her to share your fate? Fool!
A bare-chested man, brawny and darkened from the sun, shouldered past him. Not paying attention to where he was going, Athos had nearly walked into him. "Watch it, street rat!" the man growled as he past, giving a dark look.
Athos snarled. He delivered two quick strikes with the palm of his hand - the once to the man's throat and once to his solar plexus.
The man's eyes widened in shock and he doubled over, coughing and gasping for air.
Athos seized his shoulder and flung him backwards, sweeping his legs from beneath him. He landed hard on his back in the dusty street, the air forced from his lungs.
Athos went down on one knee, his fist rearing back in a killing strike...
And suddenly realized what he was doing. The crowd had moved back, stunned by the lightning-quick confrontation. The man at his feet stared up to him, mouth quivering and eyes wide.
Slowly Athos forced his fist to relax, and brought it down. He stood. "Sorry," he said. "I... sorry."
He turned and fled, forcing his way through the ring of onlookers.
Fool! he thought angrily as he ran. Fool!
* * *
"No," said Jitinder, for the third time.
"He's in danger," protested Artemis.
Jitinder shook his head. "You don't know that."
"You know I'm right! He's in danger, and we've got to help him!"
"You don't know that!" Jitinder insisted, "and it doesn't matter anyway. You know what he is! Why should we help him?"
Artemis was silent. "Who else will?" she said at last. "I will help him." Her voice was filled with quiet conviction.
Jitinder shook his head in wonder. "Sometimes, I just don't understand you. Why do you insist on playing with fire? If Athos is in danger, that is his problem."
"He must be warned, Jitinder."
Jitinder threw his hands up. "You don't even know he's the one who'll bear the amulet! Even if he is, how can you know he isn't already aware of the danger? This is an affair between the Viper and Athos - only a fool would step in the middle."
"He must be warned."
Jitinder's mouth worked in astonishment. "Why... ? What do you mean, 'why'? Haven't you listened to a word I've said? It's too dangerous, that's why."
"Athos isn't going to hurt anyone, and you know it! He avoided me because he's afraid I'll be hurt if I'm seen near him."
"Oh, very noble," said Jitinder. "Especially since it's true. You should show the same good sense, and keep away from him."
"Jitinder, I'm asking you... please."
Jitinder was quiet. "Artemis, I'm telling you - you can't save him from what he is."
"This isn't about that."
"You damn well know it is!"
"It's not," she maintained.
He gave her a hard look.
She sighed. "Maybe it is. Is that so wrong? Look, I'm asking for you help, not your permission. Will you help me, or do I go alone? I would be safer if you were there."
He weakened under the compliment. "I don't... No! We don't owe him anything!"
Jitinder looked at her. "I must be mad," he muttered at last. "Alright then, we'll warn him - and nothing more! We're not going to help him."
Artemis smiled. "Thanks."
"Wait a minute, what am I talking about? We're not going to do anything - you're staying right here where it's safe. I'll do the warning."
Her face fell. "What? But I-"
"No!" Jitinder held a finger in warning. "Not negotiable."
Artemis considered. "Ok," she said at last. "It doesn't matter... I mean, I suppose it doesn't matter anyway."
Jitinder gave her a wary look. "Then we're clear?"
"Yes, we're clear. Now get going."
Jitinder gave her a thoughtful gaze, as if surprised she had agreed so quickly. "Okay then," he said at last, turning to leave.
Artemis watched him go.
I'll just follow at a safe distance, she promised herself.
* * *
She followed for three blocks before he halted by a streetlamp and rested against it, arms folded. He seemed to be waiting for something.
She watched from a distance for some time, then approached.
"Hello, Jitinder," she said brightly.
"Waiting for something?"
"You. I knew you'd follow me. I guess you've decided you're going to be in on the search whether I want you to or not."
Artemis started to protest, but checked herself. "I suppose so."
"In light of that, I suppose I should at least try to keep you out of harm's way. You come with me."
Artemis cocked a half smile.
He didn't move.
"What are we waiting for now," she asked, after a pause.
"News. There's bound to be some soon, since everyone's after him. We're never going to catch up to him any other way."
"But he isn't due to begin his journey for another two days."
Jitinder nodded. "I know. Which means that we can't pursue him yet. Perhaps we ought to eat dinner in the meantime."
"But I just saw him today!"
"Certainly you saw him today. However, today he wasn't wearing that amulet which is going to make him into a walking target - if indeed he will be the amulet bearer at all. He's not likely to show up again until he's got to go through town wearing it."
"I see," said Artemis, even though she wasn't certain she did.