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The NaNoWriMo is the National Novel Writing Month, and takes place every November. All you have to do is write a 50,000+ word novel in a month.

The seventh installment of the Have Sword & Sorcery: Will Travel™ series begins the final trilogy of the planned series (yes I have a plan). We start to see the build-up to a massive invasion of the northern countries led by religious fanatics, and the clandestine efforts of those on both sides to stop it before it's too late.

Book VII of the Have Sword & Sorcery: Will Travel™ series.
(If you enjoy these extracts and want to read the whole thing, you can buy it.)

Prologue    Preparations   History Lesson   Official Blackmail
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Prologue

It was a bright moonlit night on the southern reaches of Turnobae-Galorndan. Though the sun had set some three hours ago, it was not yet midnight, and the full moon was near its' zenith. The two shepherds, watching over their flock and sharing a flask of wine, were not really paying much attention to the grey mountains rising not far to the south. Then they heard the rattle of stones and the thump-rumble-thump of a boulder heading downhill. Landslides this close to the peaks were always a danger, but usually only after heavy rain. They looked round for the source of the noise, expecting to see just a few rocks loosened by a gust of wind.

What they saw was a man. He had fallen, prompting the descending rocks. He was on one of the paths out of the high peaks, a path that was little-used even in the best of times. The nearest village was several miles away, and small. On the other side of the mountains, in Demona, the nearest village to the southern end of the path was just as small and remote. The shepherds approached.

As they got nearer, they could make out more details. The man was struggling to keep moving, but the trip through the mountains had obviously taken its' toll. He was crawling slowly on his belly, each limb movement raising his posture closer to all fours. He was wearing rags, that may once have been quite good clothes. His skin was dark, but that was fairly normal coming from warm Demona, and he had no shoes.

"Easy there, friend," the lead shepherd said as he came close enough to kneel in front of the stranger. "Just lie down a spell, we can help you down to the road in a minute."

The stranger looked up, and from somewhere found the energy to leap into a crouch. "Where?" he croaked.

"Near Pepistrille," the shepherd answered, taken aback by the sudden movement and the desperate look in the man's eyes.

The man shook his head. "Wht country?"

"Turnobae. Turnobae-Galorndan."

The man closed his eyes, put his hands together and looked upwards, sighing. "Nrly there," he said.

"Nearly where?"

"How far to Darash? Or any city?"

The shepherds looked at each other and shrugged. They were not educated men, and they had never been more than ten miles from their little village of Pepistrille. "A fair distance, still," one said, when it became apparent the man needed an answer.

"I must get to a city, as soon as possible," the man said, and climbed painfully to his feet.

"Hey there, the state you're in, you won't be going anywhere for a while," the first shepherd pointed out.

The man glared at him. It was a harsh, piercing gaze, and the shepherds recoiled from it. "They are coming," the man said. "They are coming, and I must warn the right people!"


 

Preparations

"'The South rises. The desert is moving. Sands burn and winds crush. The paths will change, and the lights of the world will be relit with fire. Fire that shepherds the sword, the sword of M'hush, and none can stand against it. It must be stopped.'"

"That's ominous," Kenyon muttered. They were having an officer's meeting in a tack-room of the massive palace stables, while outside the stable yard was a hive of activity as The Burning Rose got ready to depart.

"It was way scary when Dashell was laying down the whole, fail-and-the-world-ends stuff back in the palace," Alys told him.

"What's it mean?" asked Kenyon.

"I have no idea," Alys replied. "Out job is to find out if this is accurate, and then try and do something about it if it is."

"I think I might recognise some of it," Morgan said. "I have no idea where from, though."

"Can you find out?" asked Cullan.

She shook her head. "Not without asking Mordlin, probably. In person."

"That's about six hundred miles in the wrong direction."

"And we leave first thing tomorrow," Alys reminded them. "How's the re-packing going?"

"Dalian's organising it," answered Kenyon. "He and Saggitta are making sure it's just bare essentials, and that we've got good strong horses pulling the cart, not oxen."

"So we won't be slowed down, good. How about the carter?"

"He's moaning, saying this wasn't what he was contracted for and so on," Kenyon said. "Probably wanted to get over to the nearest brothel as soon he could, and now we're making him go to a smaller city, where the brothels aren't as good."

"Offer him danger money as soon as the credit note gets here," decided Alys.

"It would make sense to get Takksys and Dalian to learn to drive the cart," Cullan said. "It's mostly their stuff on it, and there's always a risk of losing what's on it when we're fighting. If one of them could stay with it, it'd help."

"Dalian," said Kenyon, "Takksys can actually fight."

"It was bad enough persuading Takksys to get trained as an armourer," Alys reminded them, "I shudder to think what it'd be like persuading him to learn drive."

"Dalian's not useless," said Morgan, "he's just not as good as the rest of us."

"He gets the shakes every time a bandit farts in our general direction," Kenyon sneered. "It's pointless having him in a fighting formation. Why don't we leave him here? That's what we normally did when we had a mission, leave him at base."

"We may not have that option this time," Alys told him. "Dashell seemed to suggest that we might need to head into Ras Natara, and apart from Dalian speaking Nataran, he's really good at out-bureaucrating bureaucrats, and we know how sniffy both Demona and Ras Natara are supposed to be for that sort of thing."

"And he is the quartermaster," Cullan pointed out. "If he doesn't come with us, we'll have to find our own rations and beds."

"Alright, Dalian comes with us," Kenyon agreed. "Did Dashell say what else he was giving us apart from orders and a credit note?"

"No."

"I hope he at least lets us know the identities of the wizards who are supposed to relay messages to him," Morgan said. "I can't contact them if I don't know who they are."

"I'm sure he's smart enough for that," Alys assured her. "He uses dozens of enchanted trinkets every day for things, and the Mage Corps is tied closely to Intel, it's not like he's not aware of the issues."

There was a knock on the door, and Saggitta stuck her head round it. "Captain? Messenger from His Majesty. Says you need to sign for his packet personally."

Alys nodded. "Send him in."

Saggitta ducked back out, and a surprisingly shabby-looking man came in with a large sealed packet. Alys took it, checked the seal, and signed the receipts the man proffered. He gave one to her, and stuffed the others back in his pocket, swept a glance across their faces, and left.

"So he didn't leave all of Intel Branch back in Dentrassi," Cullan muttered.

"We're nearly finished outside, Captain," Saggitta said, from the doorway.

"We'll be there shortly," Alys told her. "Wait outside for us, please."

"Yes, Captain." Saggitta withdrew and shut the door again after her.

Alys looked at her fellow officers, then drew her knife and slit the packet open. Inside were four sheets of paper. The first was written in Dashell's own hand: "The bearers of this paper, known as the Armed Company of the Burning Rose, are Our personal agents in a matter of the utmost importance. We request and require that ALL agents, representatives, soldiers, officers, mages, messengers, consuls, ambassadors and merchants under the protection of or associated with the double crown of Turnobae-Galorndan render whatever assistance is required of them without hesitation, until and unless countermanded by Our personal order. We also request and require all agents, representatives, soldiers, officers, mages, messengers, consuls, ambassadors and merchants not so under Our protection to allow the bearers to pass without let or hindrance. Signed, Dashell II Rex, King of Turnobae-Galorndan."

The second was a royal treasury document. It wasn't a letter of credit, it was a royal command to any bankers or merchants owing allegiance to Turnobae-Galorndan to give the bearers access to any funds they deemed necessary.

The third piece of paper was a rundown of the reporting code words for the assignment. There were some ominous plain-phrases given, and an overall mission name of Sandstorm. There was also an encoded passage, which upon later examination by Cullan was revealed to be Dashell's worst-case-scenario itinerary.

The fourth piece of paper was a list of the names, addresses, aliases, descriptions, identifying marks and contact procedures of trustworthy agents in the vicinities of where Dashell expected them to go. There weren't very many, which indicated either that they would be going to places where Dashell and Kael's formidable intelligence network didn't have a strong presence, or that there were not many agents in-situ with a high enough security clearance to be trusted with knowledge of the mission. Four of the eleven names were marked with a pointy-hat symbol, which indicated they were magic users, and two of them had a star on the point, indicating a highly experienced wizard. There was a twelfth name added to the end - the name and address of their contact in Marisenne.

"How the creeping holy fuckshit did Dashell get all this together in twenty minutes?" Alys whispered in awe.

"You know Dashell," Cullan replied, "he probably had half of it prepared in advance just in case, and the rest he used magic items to scribble down his dictation."

"Only the order is in Dashell's hand though," Morgan pointed out, "a magically-dictated document uses the handwriting of the caster."

"Even through a magic item? He's not an enchanter."

"If he activated a magic item, he's the caster."

Alys shook herself and folded the papers up. "Right. Let's get to work." She slipped the folded papers down the neck of her enchanted chainmail haubergeon, under the cloth padding. She stepped out into the yard and started giving orders.


 

History Lesson

"Now, where to begin?" mused Saldan. "How much do you know of the Ascendancy of M'hush?"

"Bugger all," Cullan told him.

"Very well, I shall start at the very beginning.

"In the Time of Devils, there was chaos. Demons, spirits, magical creatures and unfettered chaos stalked all the lands. But among the chaos were the Gods. They also manifested on this plane, and did what little They could to protect us mortals from the evil that ran free. With so many supernatural occurrences everywhere all the time, it was taxing even to the capabilities of a God to intervene in every situation where a Human or Elf or Dwarf or Orc or Kobold was tormented by a devil. Then fifteen hundred years ago, a talented and lucky scholar formulated a ritual that would not only rid an area of the land of all supernatural manifestations, but also seal it off from those creatures for ever more. He miscalculated, though, and the ritual did not work as intended. Yes, it banished all Devils in an area, but it only needed a Devil from a neighbouring area to come into the cleansed area and the ritual would be negated! And though it could be bypassed by a Summoning spell, only beings of immense power could manifest of their own volition in a cleansed area. Beings with the power of a God.

"The scholar recruited an army of anyone with a shred of magical power and taught them the ritual, then sent them forth to perform it all over the land. It took two hundred years to cleanse the continent and the surrounding waters. Mortals were once again safe, except for instances when the greedy and arrogant Summoned beings to this plane, or when a God chose to manifest Themself and exert Their will.

"But what of the magical creatures? They were created by bored Devils, or random chance, and were mortal. Extremely long-lived, often, but mortal nonetheless. They were not banished by the cleansing ritual, but without the protections afforded them by the spirits, they were quickly hunted to extinction - or close to it.

"With the completion of the cleansing, many Gods found that they neither had reason or motivation to manifest on this plane. Juntor and his nephews and nieces did so whenever they could, but it took them so much energy they eventually stopped. Soon, only Juntor and his eldest nephew, Cajon, manifested with any regularity, and so the worship of all others dwindled. But six hundred years ago, Cajon's younger brother Pickt decided that Cajon was becoming arrogant, and needed a counterweight. He began manifesting again, and soon the followers of Cajon were questioning which God they should be following. Cajon and Pickt fought, not only in the celestial realm, but also on this one. Their favoured battlefield was in the desert of Ras Natara, as it was well away from the main concentrations of their worshippers they knew how dangerous a Gods' quarrel could be to mortals, and there was a danger that they could expend so much energy they would undo the cleansing ritual.

"Fortunately, that did not come to pass. But what did happen is just as terrible to contemplate: Cajon and Pickt woke the last basilisk. Contrary to what you may have heard the basilisk is not a small lizard with a gaze that turns all who meet its' eye to dead stone. A basilisk is a rhinoceros-sized lizard with a gaze that can turn all life, plant or animal, to dead stone. Where a basilisk lives, the landscape turns to a blasted wasteland as the monster burns the very life force from it to devour. The only way to defeat it is to cover yourself in metal, every last square inch covered! And then to behead it. Or, ask a God to do so.

"But the only Gods around were either fighting each other, or trying to stop the fighting. So the people of Ras Natara prayed, prayed to whatever God would listen, to come and save them from the basilisk. M'hush answered.

"M'hush is one of Juntor's nephews, but even when His family were manifesting regularly, hardly anyone paid Him attention. It is said that M'hush is hideously deformed, and hides His appearance behind a cloud of fire. No-one who has been honoured by M'hush's presence has been able to report the same appearance as anyone else who has been so honoured. M'hush visited Himself upon all the headmen and elders and councillors and sages of those who were raising their voices in supplication, and He made a bargain: Formalise and codify a system of worship for Him, as other people did for Cajon and the others of their family, and He would deal with the basilisk. M'hush kept his word, but not in the way many people thought He would. M'hush was wary losing of His corporeal body on this plane, so He used His powers to create a Sword that could move by itself and be directed by those who were devout in His worship. One year after M'hush's first manifestation, four priests, M'hush's first followers, went to the desert near where the basilisk was feeding, and called upon M'hush to give them the Sword. M'hush had told them that the Sword would protect them from the basilisk's gaze as they wielded it, and they were rewarded with His favour in this life and the next when they died, many years later. The Sword was good and true, and it slew the basilisk, and returned what little life the basilisk had taken back to the desert.

"It is said, that should the holy realm where M'hush began, the land now largely known as Ras Natara, be threatened with extinction by worshippers of the other Gods, the Sword will be made available for men's use again. It is also said, that M'hush spoke advice to the four men who first wielded the Sword that when the time is right, he would allow the Sword to be used to spread the worship of M'hush in an unstoppable wave across the world."

"And that's what's happening now?" Cullan asked. "Someone's found the Sword and is using it to raise an army?"

Saldan shook his head. "The Sword is not an actual sword. It is a creature, armoured and powerful, and birthed in magic. It is not a weapon that one man can wield, it is a terrible thing that can only be controlled by pure and unwavering faith."

"What is it?"

"No one knows," Saldan told them. "At least, no one I have met. Possibly, if your King Dashell has made arrangements already as you say, then he knows, or thinks he knows."

"I don't know if his education included instruction from Ras Nataran scholars," Cullan said, "but it's not beyond the realm of possibility. Is there anything still today that might tell us exactly what the Sword of M'hush actually is?"

Saldan shrugged. "I doubt it. I suppose, though, if anywhere has a record, it will be the Great Library of Beyol."

"Why there?"

"As you probably know, Beyol is the headquarters of The Knights of the Green Cross. Not long after the Ascendancy of M'hush, and the ending of the war between Cajon and Pickt, The Knights of the Green Cross decided that the country building itself around M'hushtlamism was an affront to their God, and decided to end it. They mounted several invasions, but amongst the sands of the Kcodi desert, they found no enemies or potential converts, only heatstroke and dehydration. Their expeditions returned to Demona with vastly reduced numbers, and a little loot. On one occasion, they managed to reach the Tomb of Ibrim, the last surviving handler of the Sword. It is known they desecrated it and if they also searched it for treasures beforehand, they may well have found a first-hand written record of the Sword of M'hush."

"Right then. If you can tell us why you believe the Sword is being readied for use, we'll go to Beyol and see if we can find out exactly what it is." Cullan looked round at Alys, who nodded in confirmation.

"Very well." Saldan sat back as far as the chair would allow. "About a year ago, I began to hear rumours that my Order were preparing for war with the North. These rumours came from peasants, tradesmen, farmers. Not soldiers or emirs or viziers, people who would know about and be involved in the planning of a major military expedition, but commoners the sort of people who worship at the temples regularly, and rely on the priests to tell them of the wider world. I was puzzled, and intrigued, so I asked my fellow Saracens if they knew anything of the preparations. They knew nothing, but the rumours persisted, and so did I.

"After nearly a month, my Chapter-Master came to me, and asked me if I really wanted to know about the preparations. I told him I had heard nothing but rumours, and from unreliable sources at that! He said that all things would be revealed in good time, but that I had to stop making indiscreet enquiries.

"That put my mind at rest for a while, but the rumours persisted, and they seemed to be getting wilder. I approached my Chapter-Master, and voiced my concerns: 'If I am not to speak of the coming operations, why are the common people allowed to do so without penalty or correction?' He told me that rumours should not be listened to, and sent me away. But that was different to his instructions the first time. Then, he had told me to stop asking about the rumours, as if there was something to find out that should not be found out by certain people. Now, he told me that the rumours were baseless gossip, implying that there was nothing to find out at all.

"If there had been merely a few rumours, that had come and gone like the tide as rumours do, I could accept being told to ignore them. But there were dozens of rumours, from hundreds of people. I began to actively seek out rumours my fellows at the Chapter thought my sudden enthusiasm for spending every spare moment of time in the darker districts of the town, where we are usually discouraged from going, was to meet a woman, or to meet several at a time."

"Are Saracen Knights allowed to get laid?" Cullan interrupted.

"Of course we are, we are not monks or Cajonic priests!" replied Saldan indignantly. "And it is just 'Saracen' 'Saracen' is the same as your 'Paladin', a holy warrior. 'Knight' is just a well-equipped warrior with no calling beyond his title and lands. We call them 'Sipahi'."

"Okay, so Saracens can get laid, just like Green Cross Paladins. What happened next?"

"I was mistaken in the number of rumours there were hundreds! Herdsmen had had their whole flocks bought at a pittance, with orders to drive them to a certain place in the desert, then stake them down and leave. Masons and carpenters had been asked to provide material and designs to build massive stables and barracks, to hold thousands of men and horses. Young men and women from remote villages had been rounded up in dawn raids by men wearing the Crescent, and taken away into the desert, their parents being tossed a pouch of gold as they left. Pilgrims told by horsemen wearing the Crescent, to change their route away from certain oases and ruins in the desert and a week later there was no prohibition, but the oasis was nearly dry, or the ruins marked by hundreds of campfires. Each story unique, but fitting the pattern.

"I returned to my Chapter-Master and again confronted him with my knowledge of the rumours. He remarked on my persistence, and advised me to become less persistent. The next night, when I went back into town to find more evidence, I was set upon by masked men. They beat me unconscious, and left my body on the steps of my Chapter-house. It was a warning."

"Wait, hang on," Alys interrupted. "Did you ever find out how much was in the pouch of gold these dawn raiders left?"

"Yes, I did," Saldan confirmed. "It was always reported as the same amount the amount the Crescent Legion pays as a bounty to families of new recruits."

"That's either a staged co-incidence, or the closest thing to proof so far that the Crescent Legion are involved in something big and secret out in the desert somewhere."

"Indeed," agreed Saldan, "but where? The Kcodi desert is vast! It is easily larger than Doronatha, and probably larger than this new double-kingdom we are in. You could lose a city in it an army!"

"So what did you do?" asked Cullan.

"When I recovered from my beating, I applied to my Chapter-Master for some leave, to 'reconsider my calling', I told him. He agreed, but, without telling me directly, warned me that I must not pursue my investigations into the rumours any further.

"I sent a message to my sister, also a Saracen of the Crescent Legion, to meet me at a certain fort on the edge of the desert. It was nowhere near where the rumours reported all the strange activity, so I did not expect the Legion to pay attention to me. It is impossible to follow someone in the desert without being spotted, and I was not followed, nor was my sister. When we met in the ruins, I told her about the rumours, and what had happened to me. It was the first she had heard of them she is normally stationed in Gerikka, just inside the border, whereas I am stationed in Hdayr, the capital. She agreed that it was worrying, and that I should not pursue my investigations for a few months, so that those involved would think I had given up. She said she would make what investigations she could, but so far from the source of the rumours, did not think she would accomplish much. We arranged a code to communicate any findings to each other, then went our separate ways.

"When I returned to my Chapter-house, all was seemingly normal. I did not go into the town when I was off duty, and I was not waylaid again. A few months passed, and every fortnight a letter would arrive from my sister, explaining that she had heard nothing of interest until two months ago."

"What happened two months ago?"

"I received a letter from my sister. It was brief all it said was, 'they are coming,' and a reference to a passage in our holy book. It was encoded, of course, so it would have been difficult for anyone to see the meaning in the message without the cypher, but still I was worried. I was worried because of what came with the letter.

"There was a piece of cloth wrapped inside the paper. It was the same type of cloth used to make the tabards that the Crescent Legion wear in battle. It even had our insignia on it. But there was a difference the insignia on the cloth was surmounted by a tiny representation of a sword, wreathed in flame. That is the method by which the Sword of M'hush has been identified in images since the Ascendancy.

"It was then that I read the passage my sister had indicated in the letter. I panicked. It was the text of my warning, and it could only mean one thing: My sister had found some meat to the conspiracy, and had sent me the proof as a last desperate attempt to bring it to light, before being taken by those she had unmasked. I wrote a letter of resignation and slipped it under my Chapter-Master's door, unsigned, but knowing he would recognise my writing. I packed as much as I dared, took the fastest horse in the stables, and headed north to find my sister.

"It took me a week to get to Gerikka, nearly killing the horse in the process. I went first to my sister's Chapter-House, but no-one there was prepared to tell me anything. I found a tavern she frequented, and asked after her, but again, no-one was prepared to talk. As I left, I was approached by two men in the Legion's livery. But I noticed the additional sword insignia and was wary. They called me 'brother,' and offered to take me to a house of ill-repute. I stood my ground and asked where my sister was. They didn't answer, they spewed platitudes and repeated the offer to take me to a brothel. I demanded they tell me what had happened to my sister, and they set upon me. I was beaten until I could resist no more, and dragged to a cellar nearby. They chained me to the wall, then left me there overnight. The next day a man came to see me. From his voice and bearing, he was an important member of the Crescent Legion, and he spoke of fire and betrayal. He asked me to join them. I feigned desperation, and agreed. As soon as they released my chains, I thrust them aside and made my escape.

"I barely made it. I managed to reach the shore, and swam three miles along the coast, before I found a place to hide. I stayed there until the following nightfall, then made my way directly north over land to the border. I climbed down the cliff, and resumed my journey somewhat more at ease. I found the road, and made my way here as quickly as I was able but ever since I left Gerikka, and until I first woke up in Pepistrille, I have not been able to shake the feeling that someone is watching me."

"Any idea who?" asked Cullan. "Or what?"

"I do not know," Saldan replied.


 

Official Blackmail

The day after tomorrow, Cullan, Morgan, Alys and two of the Company's axemen met Dibella outside the cathedral. She was wearing her armour and cloak, they were wearing their liveried tabards.

"I thought you said we needed to be discreet?" she asked.

"We have made some discoveries that suggested a change of approach would be better," Alys explained."

"Oh? What approach?"

"We need you to take us to see the Grand Master, John Prester, immediately."

Dibella's eyes widened. "I'm trying to avoid him! He's behind the ... difficulties I've been having!"

"We know," Cullan said. "That's why you're going to take some accredited representatives of your liege-lord to see him, to explain things."

Dibella looked at all their faces. The only one that didn't look particularly threatening was Morgan. "Very well," she said, "but I hope you have something up your sleeve if something goes wrong."

"Don't worry," Morgan told her in that creepyfying voice of hers, "we've got things covered."

Dibella stared shocked for a few moments, then let out her breath and nodded. "All right. Follow me."

Alys fell in beside her, and they marched in column of twos to the Sanctum, the two axemen bringing up the rear. They reached the gates, and Dibella knocked on a wicket. It opened, and the gatekeeper boggled at them. "What's going on?" he asked Dibella.

"They're with me," she told him, and pushed past, leading the group inside.

"They might be with you, but they're not Paladins, they can't come in without an escort!" the gatekeeper tried.

"She's our escort," Morgan told him. He shuddered, and stopped trying to block their passage.

Dibella led them across the parade ground to a grand-looking house built at the end of a row of barracks, with an impressive crest above the main door. At a hand gesture from Alys, the members of the Burning Rose got themselves out of sight of the door, and Dibella knocked. A footman, obviously a retired Paladin, opened it. "Yes?"

"Paladin Dibella, to see the Grand Master," she said, breathing nervously and trying not to look for the others out of the corners of her eyes.

"He's been hoping you'd come by," the footman said, "he's up in his study." He stepped aside.

"Thank you, I know where it is." She crossed the threshold, and the others fell back in behind her before the footman could close the door.

"Hey, hey! They can't come in!"

"Yes we can," Morgan told him. Like the gatekeeper, he stopped trying to hinder them.

Dibella led the way up to the Grand Master's study and knocked. There was a pause, then a voice called, "Come!"

Alys opened the door and went in first. A firm hand on the small of Dibella's back by Cullan was enough to propel the Paladin in, followed by the rest of the group.

"What is the meaning of this!?" John Prester thundered.

"Is that a far-glass?" asked Alys, pointing to a tube mounted on a tripod in a corner near an open window, and going over to it. "I've been meaning to get one for the Company, but we never seem to have the money." She ran a hand up it, knocking it slightly so it came to rest naturally again. "May I?"

"No!" She bent to look anyway. The presence of the axemen discouraged Prester from pulling her away, and he only jerked towards her rather than lunging.

"My my, Grand Master, that's a nice view of the cathedral bell tower you have. You even managed to find where they fixed one of their expensive glass mirrors to the wall they'll be pleased you found it for them." She stood up. "Dibella, wouldn't you agree that's a remarkable view?"

Puzzled, the Paladin came over and looked through the telescope. She straightened up, white with rage and shock. "The mirror," she hissed, breathing heavily, "lets someone observe Paladins sunbathing on the roof of the library."

"Oh really?" asked Cullan. "I did hear that you all sunbathed naked, taking it in turns so you don't see each others' bits. Who's up there now?"

"Women," Alys told the room. They all turned to glare at the Grand Master.

"What is this about?" he growled eventually.

"Well y'see, your Grand Master-ness," Cullan began, "we're here in this city on the business of His Majesty King Dashell of Turnobae-Galorndan. Nothing you need to bother yourself over," he reassured him, "just a glorified escort mission really. But the thing is, when Dibella here heard that we were representatives of her liege-lord, her being Galorndian and all, well, she wanted to talk to us."

Prester scowled at Dibella. "Is this true?"

"Mostly," she admitted, choosing to interpret "true" as "factual".

"Yeah," Cullan continued, "and, basically the upshot is, we know what you asked her for, and as representatives of her liege-lord, from whom, as I'm sure you're aware, she can ask protection from for things like this."

"And what exactly is this 'thing' that I am supposed to have asked one of my Paladins that she needs protecting from?"

"Well recently, I'm guessing you caught sight of her when she was sunbathing and here is where I stop guessing - and decided to offer her promotion if she slept with you. She declined, so you've been encouraging other Paladins to be horrible to her until she accepts. That's not very holy or noble or religious to my way of thinking, and Dibella happens to agree, as does Her Highness Princess Isabella. So that's what we're here to do protect her, by getting you to stop."

"And how do you propose to do that? I have my own sources of information; you're not going to be in Beyol for long, and when you're gone, I can ensure that Dibella eventually acquiesces to my request."

"Did your sources of information tell you what the penalty is for senior members of the Order of the Green Cross abusing their power for sexual favours?"

"I am aware of the archaic punishment, yes."

"Archaic? The last time a Knight Commander got publicly disembowelled and strung up over the front gate was less than three years ago!" Cullan said, having checked the dates with Fyrella last night. "You had taken up this office by then, yes? Princess Isabella won't be very pleased when we tell her, will she?"

Prester scowled for a moment, then said, "you'll never get the chance, you'll be dead before you leave the Sanctum."

"We don't need to leave Sanctum," Cullan replied, a big grin on his face. "Morgan?"

Morgan held up her hand, and a small model Eye appeared over it. With a gesture, it shot forward, smashed one of the leaded panes, and flew away towards the palace. She held up her other hand and an Illusionary image what the Eye saw as it flew appeared. "I can Mind-send to our people currently at the palace, waiting to pay our official respects to Her Highness, and they will relay this disturbing news to Her Highness."

"Or we could," Cullan leaned one-handed on the Grand Master's desk and looked him in the eye, "y'know, make this go away."

There was a tense silence. The Illusion showed the Eye getting closer to the palace, zooming over the gate, up the avenue, through the inner gate between the two guards stationed there, and stopping with a clear view of five people in the same blue tabards as Cullan, waiting to be admitted to the main audience chamber.

"How?" spat Prester.

"Simple really," Alys said. "Give Dibella permission to take us into the high security part of the library so we can look at a few old records and confirm some things about the person we're escorting."

"How will looking at old records help with someone currently alive?"

"He claims to be a noble with a complicated lineage," Alys said. "We need to know who he is properly because of various reasons to do with money, which we won't mention here because this conversation is sordid enough, isn't it?"

Prester stood and fumed silently for a few moments. "And when you've looked at these records? What then?"

"Then we go away, along with our knowledge of your transgressions," Cullan told him. "Of course, if we were to hear that Dibella had been subject to further horribleness, we might have to come back."

"And what guarantees do I have that you won't come back anyway?"

"Quite simply because it's not in Turnobae-Galorndan's interest for the head of an ally's royal guard to be humiliated," Alys explained. "We know the Order is not an official royal guard, but Princess Isabella doesn't have a separate royal guard and you do provide most of the usual functions."

"So what trouble is brewing that needs a trained fighting force not running around looking for a new head?"

"Who said there's any trouble brewing? It's simply good military sense. Far better for generals to be replaced in the natural course of time than to be ousted by scandal."

Prester glared at them again. "You're not bargaining from a position of strength," he decided. "Despite the positioning of your men, meeting your request is more important to you than removing me from office. There is something brewing to make a well-organised military force an imperative asset, and since Turnobae-Galorndan itself is not in a position to counter it, it is reasonable to assume that the trouble is brewing in Ras Natara. That means that Demona and Hadin must counter it, and for that you need the Green Cross in good fighting order, not squabbling over my successor. Your request is denied."

Cullan was instantly on the attack. "The more people who know about your 'habits', the more chance there is of someone informing Her Highness about them."

"And the only people who know are in this room."

"Plus your confessor, and a number of Galorndian Intelligence agents."

That made Prester pause, but not for long. "Your agents are not in a position to tell anyone and be taken seriously, and my confessor is honour-bound to confidentially."

"He's got a loose tongue in the presence of pretty women," Cullan told him, "and you can't replace him without introducing another person to the conspiracy. Morgan?"

"Who do I tell?"

"How about some of the ladies he was spying on before we came in? For starters."

Morgan nodded and went over to the telescope. She peered through it and put her hands to her temples. A few seconds later, she stood up, slightly red in the face. "Would you like another look, Grand Master?"

Prester stepped over and shoved her out of the way, and bent to look through the eyepiece. A few seconds later he stood up and faced the room, fury coruscating over his face. "They are in no position to do anything."

"Not at the moment, no," Cullan agreed, "but give them a few minutes to tell each other and put some clothes on, and you could have a real bit of trouble on your hands."

By now steam was practically coming out of the Grand Master's ears. "I will not be threatened in my own office!"

"Fair enough." Cullan turned to the two axemen. "Chuck him out the window, we'll threaten him in the courtyard."

The two axemen grinned and moved towards John Prester, who held up his hands. "Wait! Wait!"The axemen stopped. "Is that all you want, access to the high security archives?"

"Yes," Alys replied, "And the sooner you write us the permission, the sooner you can get out there on damage control."

Morgan peered through the telescope again. "News spreads quickly, there's no-one on the roof now." She stood up. "If I were you the first thing I'd do is remove the mirror."

The Grand Master fumed for a few seconds more. "Very well!" He returned to the desk, snatched a quill and parchment, and wrote authorisation for them to access the high security archives of the library. "Here!"

Alys took the parchment, read it, then handed it back. "Your seal, Grand Master."

Prester growled, took the sealing candle from a desk drawer, pulled out a tinderbox, then Morgan picked up the candle and lit it by hand before handing it back. The Grand Master snatched it, dribbled some wax on the parchment, pressed his seal ring into it, and blew out the candle. "Here! Now get out!"

Alys took the parchment. "With pleasure." At a gesture from her, the Burning Rose filed out of the office, followed by Dibella, with Alys last. They let themselves out, and gathered in the parade ground.

"I think that could have gone better," Cullan said. "He wasn't supposed to be that smart."

"We've done enough damage to be going on with," Alys said. "We'll leave Kenyon in place, just in case Prester decides we won't leave here after visiting the library. Speaking of which, let's go."

Dibella led them off across the parade ground. "What if he begins reprisals after you leave? What then?"

"We've arranged that you can take shelter in the Embassy for a few days," Alys told her. "We've also made arrangements with some friends of ours for you to be transferred."

"Transferred? Where? How? I like it here!"

"You'll be able to work on your tan in Marillion," Cullan said. "There's a couple of Paladins we did a job with there, Knight Commanders."

"I have friends here," Dibella protested, "how will I keep in contact with them?"

"I'm sure you'll be able to find another boyfriend. And there are such things as letters."