The sweat standing out on his brow surprised him. His palms were wet, too, but he only noticed when he gripped the door handle and his skin stuck faintly to the cool metal. His heart pressed into his throat and he thought he might be sick, but when the door was opened, Fordrellon was not inside.
Instead, there was only a human, with sandy hair just starting to go gray at the temples and a scruff of beard just long enough to hide his lips in. He was tugging on the latter absently as he perused a messenger scroll.
Chard realized he was staring at the Lord Baenarn.
“Can I help you?” the human asked politely, but was he really a human?
They had always compared Sirith’s crimes to the Kingslayer Wars, though Sirith had never met a real akor’mar to tell if it truly had been comparable. His anxiety had driven him this far: he had been unable to sleep with the thought such a terrible threat was facing the peaceful farmlands again. So he had asked the farmer Saul for the week off to ride here, to the Glooming Tower, to see what he could see.
All these thoughts passed through his head in what felt like seconds, but the too-patient way the Lord Baenarn was looking at him told him it must have been minutes. If he was akor’mar, he was a very good actor as well as illusionist; his expression turned gentle and he leaned back in his chair.
“I believe I recognize you,” said Lord Baenarn, without a hint of foreign accent this time. “Chard, wasn’t it? One of Saul’s boys?”
His heart pounded, and slowly, deliberately, Sirith drew the kitchen knife he had nicked from Saul. He had considered getting close enough to Baenarn to plunge it into his back when the imposter wasn’t looking, but something about the human’s manner had dissuaded him. Not for the last time, he wished his magic hadn’t deserted him.
Baenarn sat up straighter, turning slightly so his legs were out from under his desk, but he didn’t get up. “Are you sure you want to use that?”
“Who are you?” Sirith demanded.
“My name is Ezran Baenarn,” said the lord.
“That means nothing to me.”
Baenarn squinted. “I was once the slayer of the Zilv’natha, and jailer of the Nathssysn. Does that mean anything to you?”
It did. Sirith squeezed the knife tight to keep from dropping it. “You speak in a strange tongue,” he forced out. “I heard you, as you were riding away from Saul’s place.”
“And you have a parentage strange to this land,” replied Baenarn evenly. “Shaving your hair was a nice touch, however. You could be a Yeni tribesman or a light-colored Nulst with your skin. Few of the farmers here know any different.”
That confirmed it. An akormar would recognize their own, after all. Sirith swallowed his last doubts and lunged forward.
Baenarn caught him, but he went over backwards in the chair from their combined momentum. Sirith was surprised by how scrawny he seemed, and they wrestled on the floor, Sirith stabbing wildly whenever he saw an opening. Yet the older man evaded him. There was a sudden, blinding flash of light, a hard hit on his chin, and the lord slipped out from under him. Sirith stabbed blindly at the floorboards, then quickly rolled away, expecting a kick or punch or choke-hold from behind.
When he could see again, he saw Baenarn twisting something under the desk. He tackled the old man again, but Baenarn turned faster this time. There was a soft click, and something hard and very sharp in Sirith’s stomach stopped him short.
He looked down. A tiny crossbow was pointed into his belly.
“It is cocked and loaded,” warned Baenarn. “The poison acts swiftly.”
“That’s an akor’mar weapon,” said Sirith.
“Who are you?” Sirith demanded again.
Baenarn relaxed. “I mean you no harm.”
“Judging by the bolt in my belly?”
“You were the one who attacked first,” said Baenarn wryly.
Sirith took a careful step backward. Baenarn raised the crossbow, pointed it just a little past Sirith’s head instead of directly at him, his finger just under the trigger. Sirith had to give him credit: the lord was cool as a glacier.
“I reckon we both have something we’re hiding,” said Lord Baenarn. “Isn’t that so… Sirith Stonewright?”
He thought about denying it. His life was probably forfeit anyway, for threatening the lord. Yet he might as well finish what he came for. “You are a liar,” said Sirith. “You claim you slew the Zilv’natha, but I have never seen you before in my life.”
Unexpectedly, Baenarn lowered the crossbow. “Both things can be correct, Sirith, for the Zilv’natha I hunted was your predecessor, not you.”
The moment stretched, and Sirith eventually realized what he had heard was real. “But you are a–no, that’s not possible. You–that assassin died!”
“So did you, or so I recall from the reports.” Baenarn gestured at the papers on his desk, then leaned on it. “Yet here we both are. You seem rather more reasonable than the last Zilv’natha however, and I’m afraid I’m not as strong as I was before. Would you prefer to talk instead?”
Sirith scanned the room. He had made a terrible mistake — again — and now he was paying for it. He glanced at an ornamental sword hanging over the mantle, imagined a much larger blade falling on his neck.
“I mean you no harm,” Baenarn repeated, “though you understand I cannot just let you leave.”
Sirith shifted his stance, stepping sideways, and Baenarn turned towards him, but he seemed reluctant to leave the support of the desk. Had Sirith fallen on him wrong? Baenarn kept his weight on his right leg, even when Sirith swung around to his left.
Behind came faint voices and feet tramping up the tower stairs. Sirith looked behind Baenarn, towards the large glass window at his back. Baenarn caught Sirith’s eye and also looked. The thought entered both their heads simultaneously.
Seconds later there was a crash and tinkling of broken glass. Baenarn limped to the window to look out, just as the aide from downstairs rushed into the room with his sword drawn.
“He’s left,” said Baenarn.
“Did he go willingly?” said the aide, staring at the broken window.
“In a manner of speaking,” said Baenarn, returning to his desk with the slow deliberate walk of a cripple forced to move too quickly for comfort in the moments before. “You can do no good here. You must warn the village for me instead.”
The aide nodded slowly with a swallow. “What exactly is the threat?”
Baenarn looked at him levelly, weighing his words. He decided on honesty. “The shade of the Lord Kobold still lives.”