Avendor did not stop to think. The very instant he sensed the shadow, he did exactly what he had been thinking about just moments before. Trusting his instincts, he leapt backwards, landing in a defensive half-crouch so unorthodox it would surely have sent Colyn into fits. The ringing of steel echoed across the terrace as he tore his sword from its scabbard. He held the low, pointing its tip toward the ground as he measured the angles of the half-dozen most obvious attacks.
It was only in that moment of analysis that he realized that the stranger was unarmed. At the very least, he bore no visible weapons, though a short sword or belt of knives could easily have been concealed beneath the strange, sandy cloak that somehow managed to appear more like an insubstantial mist than proper cloth. Avendor recognized the cloak, and for a moment, he was sure he was dead. The stranger made no movements. A deep hood shadowed his eyes, but Avendor could see the faint trace of a smile on those lips.
“Captain,” came a voice from within the shadow. The stranger spoke in a calm and familiar manner as he reached up and pulled back his hood. When his face was revealed, Avendor felt some of the tension ease from his body—though he did not relax completely. It was always wise to be wary in the presence of the gandjai.
“Nix,” he responded in greeting. “How long were you listening?”
“Long enough.” The young man’s soprano voice rang with a musical timbre, as clear and bright as brass strings beneath the fingers of a master harpist. He was small, with a strong but compact body that lent itself exceedingly well to the tumbling acrobatics that he so favoured. With his quick smile and quicker wit, he had always seemed more like of a travelling mummer than one of the renowned gandjai. During certain festival times, Avendor had seen Nix leaping and tumbling for the entertainment of others. More often than not, however, his primary duties saw him play the role of spy or messenger. He had a natural affinity for reaching places that others could not, and for vanishing—or in this case appearing—without a trace.
There were those who liked to view that role, along with his affable nature, as a sign of weakness. Those who were foolish enough to challenge him seldom lived to regret their erroneous judgement. Nix was known to have an affinity for poisoned dart and, like all of his brethren, he was more than proficient with a wide range of blades—knives, daggers and swords.
“I bring greetings from my brethren,” said the gandjai. “May your feet always find their way.” Avendor recognized the ritual greeting, which found its roots in the both reverence to the Stranger and certain ancient mysteries of the Alns. As he understood it, pronouncing such a blessing was tantamount to swearing a binding oath of hospitality. Avendor breathed a sigh of relief. There had been a time when, by an inexplicable twist of fate, he had survived a confrontation with the gandjai. But he had been younger then, and faster. He was not foolish enough to believe that fortune would smile on him a second time.
“And may your shadow never deepen,” he replied. “How can I help you?”
“ I come with a warning, Virsha. The Voice in the Twilight has whispered to the One Who Hears. She has heard tell of a trident, with all of its prongs pointed at your heart. She bids you take heed of these three warnings, one for each of the the trident’s three points.
“The first is an arrow loosed in the dark. It races towards a target that none can see. If it strikes true, there will be flames. The second is a headless viper. Though bereft of its head, fang and life, it remains dangerous. Beware of its poison. The third is a man made of shadows. He is not what he seems.”
“Well that sounds unpleasantly ominous,” grumbled Avendor. “You’re sure she has nothing more useful to tell me?”
Nix smiled again. “Only that, with the warnings given, she has no worries for he who left his mark on the Jackal.”
“You know, I’d hoped to avoid talking about that.”
“Why? It was no small feat.”
Avendor snickered. “It was nothing more than a stroke of pure, blind luck. By all rights, I should be lying in some unmarked grave. I’m surprised he has not come to settle the score.”
“The Jackal bears you no ill will. In besting him, you managed that which had not been done in a great many years. Your mark is a constant reminder. It drives him, but also reminds him of the price of pride.”
“That’s not very reassuring.”
“I did not come to reassure you.”
“No, you came to warn me about this trident dream.”
“It is no dream. The One Who Hears listens to the Voice in the Twilight. How could she do so if she slept? But you are right in a way, for I did come to bring her warning. I also came to serve.”
“To serve who?”
“I don’t understand.”
“You are Captain of the Winged Guard, Virsha. You are sworn to the protection of our Lady, the Queen. We serve the same mistress and as a gesture of good faith, my brethren have always offered service to the Captain of your order. You did not know this?”
“No, actually,” admitted Avendor. “I didn’t. My ascension to Captain was somewhat…rushed.”
“That would certainly explain why you had not yet called upon us. Your predecessor was very keen to do so. Perhaps too keen. I cannot say that I was sorry to hear of his disposition.”
“There is no doubt that Edimus was an unpopular sort of fellow. Likely on account of his being a pompous ass.”
“I’ve always had a way with words.”
Nix’s laughter was like a ringing chime. “Well now you know. If you ever have need of us, just send for me.”
“Actually,” said Avendor. “There is something you might be able to help me with. Just what can I ask of you?”
“All that we provide for the Queen is also at your disposal. This is more than we offered Edimus. For him, we simply gathered information and delivered messages of a more sensitive nature. She Who Hears has a greater trust in you, Virsha. The only exception is that we will not take a life without consent from the Queen.”
“If I wanted someone dead, I’d deal with it myself.”
“Efficiently, I’m sure. Very good. How may we be of service?”
“I’ve heard it said that the gandjai can travel across vast distances quickly. Is there any truth to this?”
“There are those among us who know the secrets of running the Twilight Roads. We do not make practice of taking others with us, however. It is dangerous for those who are unaccustomed to the perils.”
“Understood,” said Avendor. The beginnings of a plan were forming in his mind. The uneasy feeling about the journey to Ronnex was still lingering in his mind. Perhaps there might be a way of distilling some of the uneasiness. “I’m wondering if you can keep an eye on someone for me.”
“That should not be a problem. Who is this person?”
“I’d rather not say here.”
Nix tilted his head to one side, eyes brimming with such curiosity that Avendor left with the vague impression that he was speaking to a cat. There was something else in those eyes too, a faint glimmer of amused cunning that suggested the other man already suspected more than he was letting on. There was nothing unusual there. In the year or so that Avendor had known Nix, the gandjai always seemed to know more that he made known. It was just one more quality that made him so dangerous.
“Perhaps another meeting? In a more controlled locale?”
“I would appreciate it.”
“Very well. Do you know the Three Cauldrons?”
“No, but I’m sure I can find it.”
“It’s located in along the Copper Way. Three buildings to the east, you will find a small residence with the sign of the Stranger over a simple red door. Knock three times at the first hour past midnight.”
“And this residence is free of watching eyes?” asked Avendor. He found it difficult not to be skeptical. In his experience, buildings within the heart of the city were always among the most difficult of places to hold a private conversation.”
“Not at all,” said Nix. “But from there, I can take you to a place that is. Agreed?”
The Captain hesitated. By agreeing to such a meeting, he would be putting his life in the hands of the gandjai. There was a certain danger involved there, but after brief moment of consideration, he decided it was minimal. Nix had offered a traditional blessing of hospitality. It was both unlikely and uncharitable to think that he would betray that blessing.
“Agreed,” said Avendor.
“Very good. Then I shall see you at the appointed time, Virsha.” Without another word, Nix raised his cloak and turned to his left. In so doing, he seemed to fill less space than he should have, as though he was somehow folding in on himself. Then he was gone. There was no smoke or dust to mark his passing, no trace that anyone had occupied the now-empty space. Nix had very simply vanished.
A useful trick, thought Avendor as he continued on his way. He glanced at the position of the sun in the sky. There were still several hours of daylight left, enough for him to at least make a small dent in his mountain of paperwork and take a light supper. Then it would be off to meet and greet more of the arriving Lords. At some point, he would need to sneak in a few hours of sleep before heading out to find the Three Cauldrons.
The Captain of the Winged Guard had plenty to keep his mind occupied, but as he walked along through the streets of the Upper City, three words continued to dance through his mind.
Arrow. Snake. Shadow.