– NOVEL UPDATE – Nightstone – Chapter Two (Weekly Chapter)

Paul Bimler

Chapter 2

Three carriages sped towards the portcullis of the Tirthovaan. Manos peered out the window as the battlements came into view, and caught a flash of light from the mirror-tower. Uncle Tirthos’s keep, surrounded by its high walls, was like a miniature of Khatradesh, the seat of the Manu dynasty and capital of the realm.
Clattering into the courtyard, the newly-arrived convoy of carriages startled a few khatra who were drilling at swordplay. Tirthos’ two daughters, Tala and Arianna, stood at the foot of the stair that led up into the little temple.
Who is that old khatra beside them? Manos thought
It took Manos a moment to recognize his Uncle Tirthos. He had grown his whiskers out, just like father, and wore a self-satisfied grin as the carriages shuddered to a halt. The driver of each hopped down from his seat to open the doors for King Manu and his family.
“Uncle!” Manos cried as he stepped down from the carriage. The old man came forward to embrace his nephew.
Tirthos broke his embrace with Manos and looked the King up and down, shaking his head.
“Good day, my King! What has happened to you? Have you hurt yourself?”
The King frowned. “Old age does not agree with me, brother. All those battles are coming back to revisit me. This is what a forty-year reign does to a man.”
Tirthos shot a concerned glance at the boys. “Fifty, you mean.”
Manu’s eyes widened a little. Then he smiled. He reached up to tug on Tirthos’ moustache. “What in Hutha’s name is this, brother? You’ve finally given in to old age too?”
Tirthos laughed. “I thought you might like it. I was ready for a change.”
Tala and Arianna rolled their eyes as one.
“You need to get off that throne of yours more often, brother. Look at you, hobbling about like an old woman.”
The King went to respond to the jibe but instead fell into a bout of coughing.
“Oh, you’re a lost cause,” Uncle Tirthos joked, then turned to look over his five nephews who had all dutifully presented themselves before him. “Welcome my boys! It has been too long since I saw you last! Aaah, it is good to have some male company for a change! Sorry my daughters, but sometimes a man likes to swear and drink and fart and not have to apologize for it!”
Tirthos’ two daughters, Tala and Arianna, gave their father yet another withering look, then turned to the business of welcoming their Aunt, Queen Vishalya. Ignoring the boys, they bustled her off towards their quarters, bombarding her with chatter. Life in the country was quiet, it seemed.

After getting settled, the brothers visited the temple to pay their obeisances to Hutha. En route to the dining hall, Manos slipped away from the group, turning left as they entered the main building.
They didn’t even notice.
Manos entered the silent foyer, taking the stairs that wound up to a mezzanine level.
A reverence came over him as he emerged on the Warrior’s Walk. Rows of glass cases, filled with artifacts, stretched along each side of the wide gallery that ended in a passageway running left to right. More artifacts were displayed there.
Manos soon found something that captured his attention: a book, displayed on a small wooden stand, on the history of the Angowathi people, the first tribes. He gently took it off its stand and began poring over the yellowed pages..
“Aah, the book by Jullika,” Tirthos puffed as he mounted the final steps. Manos turned, surprised. “Yes, very interesting. And very rare.”
“How did you know I was here?”
“Where else would you be?” Tirthos replied simply. “Which chapter do you read?”
Manos shrugged, turning his attention back to the book. “Its about the legends. The Angowathi myths.”
Tirthos nodded. “Yes… they are all that remains of the Angowathi. Apart from their language, of course.” He was at Manos’ side now, leaning in towards the tome. “Ah yes. I do love this. The legend of Lokos, as taken from enscriptures in a Mountain Temple near Ai.”
“Northern Angowathi?” Manos asked, a little surprised. He was not aware the northern prehistoric people had such similar beliefs to their southern counterparts.
“Exactly. Some of their customs were different to southerners, but the legends – exactly the same. Here,” he gestured for Manos to pass the book to him. Tirthos scanned the page with his finger, supporting the large book with his other arm. “Ah here we are. The wording is a little flowery at times. But it has detail you won’t find in the other histories.”
Tirthos read.
“Hutha, the Sun God, had two sons, Manu and Lokos… Both were great Khatra-Rishas, warrior-sages, and great sons to a proud father. However, when the time came to assign roles for the stewardship of mankind, it was decided by Hutha that Manu and all his descendants would rule, and that Lokos would be his general and master of his armies, guardian of the realm. And Hutha gifted Manu with the Hutha-shila, the Sunstone, a symbol of his divine appointment as ruler.
This angered Lokos, and he brought all of the potency of his dakas (penance), which was formidable, to bear on his own father. But to no avail… Hutha, the Sun God, was unassailable by his son who was somewhere between a god and a mortal. However, Lokos managed to take the Sunstone from Manu, which angered Hutha . The Sun God let loose his fury on Lokos, demanding he return the stone, but instead Lokos fled, retreating to a distant island. There Lokos used the Hutha-shila to tame the beast Ta’mak, a great monster of the sea capable of swallowing whole vessels.. Lokos rode Ta’mak to his brother Manu’s abode, (the site of modern-day Khatradesh), and unleashed all the potency of his dakas on the stronghold there, raining down fire and lightning using the power of the Sunstone. But Manu, who was undiminished in dakas and honour, repelled the attack and subdued Lokos, his brother, with a sword of pure nightstone the only weapon that could subdue such a demon… With the help of his risha Vinrika, the Hutha-shila was reclaimed and the traitor Lokos was imprisoned deep within the earth in an underground fortress made entirely of hyulweh, and the great immortal sage Vinrika used up all of his dakas to bring forth a mountain range to lock the labyrinth within the earth, further safeguarding mankind from Lokos… Ta’mak was set free, innocent beast as he was.”
Manos nodded. “That is exactly how it is told by Mandrika, the library risha.”
“Of course. No doubt he has a copy of this also.”
“It is hard to believe, Uncle, that bit about Vinrika.”
Tirthos smiled. “We should not doubt the redaks, nephew. They are the literal truth of our history.” Uncle Tirthos handed the book back to Manos and turned, walking off along the row of displays.
“Does the sword of nightstone still exist?” Manos asked, closing the book and replacing it on its lectern.
His Uncle turned, surprised by the question. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “That was many, many dynasties ago, nephew. Those things are lost in time.”
“So how do you know it is even real, this nightstone?”
Tirthos smiled. “You can see it in Rishapada, nephew. In the ceiling of the main temple.”
Manos nodded. Rishapada. That’s so far away.
His face must have shown how he was feeling; Uncle Tirthos put a hand on his shoulder. “You will go there one day,” he consoled. “Plenty of time for that.”
The Prince shook his head. “I’m barely allowed outside the Huthavaan gates without an escort. I wish I could just… escape. You don’t know what its like for me, Uncle. I’m a prisoner. My blood means I have dominion over everything… but I’m not allowed to enjoy anything. Even experience it!”
Tirthos nodded, smiling. “One day you will be thankful for who you are, my boy. You come from a great family. And one day, you will be King.”
Manos ignored this comment, and turned to walk over to a display of beautiful ancient swords and armour, glittering softly under torchlight, blades dancing with a hundred golden stars. He stopped by a large, ornate helm. The style was unfamiliar, as were the characters that adorned the eye slits.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Tirthos remarked. “And in perfect condition. Go ahead, pick it up.”
“You don’t mind?”
“Go on.”
Manos lifted the helmet from its stand. It was uncommonly heavy, and large. Whoever wore this must have been a giant, maybe even bigger than Bhumos. Manos turned it this way and that, inspecting the detail. It was one piece of metal, bronze probably, with slits for the eyes and a row of small circles at the mouth to allow for breathing.
“Where is it from?”
“Far Shore,” Tirthos answered quickly. “An ancient Kingdom that invaded us around the time of the Matsos Dynasty.” He paused. “Put it on.”
“Pardon?” Manos thought he had misheard.
“I said, put it on.”
The Prince obeyed. It felt even heavier on his head.
“Yes, it belonged to a large man, no doubt. Perhaps everyone was a bit larger back then. Take these longswords, for example. They bear the same characters as that helmet.” Tirthos took two longswords from the wall, handing one to his nephew. “Feel the weight of that!”
Manos gauged the weight of the old blade, discerning that it was heavy, but perfectly balanced. Suddenly his uncle had the other in his right hand and was standing opposite, in battle stance. “Square up, my Prince.”
Manos tutted. “Uncle. Come now.”
“Nephew, please. Humour an old man. I may be old, but I still know how to use a sword. The one you kill with, and the one between my legs.”
Manos failed to stifle the laugh. “I’m surprised that still works.“
The sword came swiftly arcing down.
Manos watched his own sword rise to block the stroke, as if someone else were controlling it, but the force still made him step back. Quickly he moved to face his Uncle’s left hand side.
“Aaaahh, yess, there’s my boy,” Tirthos said as he adjusted his stance accordingly. He gave the aged old weapon a couple of twirls to warm his arm up. “You see, nephew, you have many generations of Khatra behind you. So, whether you like it or not…”
Without warning, Tirthos advanced quickly on him, and began raining solid blows down on Manos’ upheld sword. The Prince quickly shifted out of the path, pushed his uncle in the back with a foot and levelled his sword at the back of his head. When Tirthos turned, Manos’ blade was just under his chin. His Uncle grinned, breathing heavily.
“You are khatra,” he puffed. “It is in your blood, in your soul. Inescapable, my son.”
Manos lowered his blade, and held out his hand. “I wasn’t saying that, Uncle. I know I am khatra. I’m proud to be khatra.”
“Come on. I see it. I’ve known you your whole life. Your father, the King, is old. As am I. You know that your rule may come soon, and you feel it. It is clear as day, written on your face.”
Manos shrugged. “All I was saying was that I feel trapped. I want to get out of Khatradesh, see more of the realm, before ministers and generals are dogging my every step.” Placing the longswords back in the stand, Manos sighed. “Come, Uncle. Let’s rejoin the others.”
Uncle Tirthos shook his head at his nephew as Manos walked past and took the stair.
The stair wound down past a large window that looked out on Tirthos’ front courtyard. Night had descended. The lights of Tirtharya were visible to the south-east, and a range of low hills were visible against a blue sky to the south. As they descended the long, curving stair, they saw flashes coming from those hills.
“A beacon,” Tirthos remarked. He quickened his pace and Manos did the same. Walking out onto the front landing, he hailed the mirror-tower. “Reghos! Are you manning the beacon?”
“Yes my lord,” came the reply from across the courtyard.
“Bring the message to us, when you have it all.”
“Of course, my lord.”
In the dining room, the topic of conversation was as predictable as it was heated. Manos and Uncle Tirthos took their seats.
Not more politics.
“These mines you speak of are owned by merchants from Vishadesh, father,” Bhumos said. “They bought these mines from Manu the Eigth of the Matsos Dynasty, centuries ago. This is heirloom property, passed down for generations.”
“Certainly,” the King replied. “And if I want them, I can easily buy them back.”
Javos paused, weighing his words. “Not without angering our northern friends… I think we should tread lightly here, father. The situation in Muuthavarsha is complex. Our governance there hangs by a thread.”
“I think that is enough talk of politics,” Queen Vishalya said firmly, leaning forward. “This can wait. Manos and Tirthos are back, we should eat now. Then it will be bed, I think. We want to be back in time for Huthadin. Tara and Arianna will be inconsolable if we miss that!” The girls nodded vigorously at this, smiling gratefully at the Queen.
“And you, mother,” Drunos remarked quietly. Manos smiled, glad to hear him speak.
“Your mother loves a good festival,” King Manu enthused. He looked at Manos again, and they exchanged an awkward smile.
On cue, the dinner courses started arriving: three types of sharji and shaan, various filled and plain chupas spiced with seeds, rubbed with butter, whole legs of bullock and goat, aromatic fish stew, and an endless parade of pastries, soups, and breads. Manos was not hungry at first, but found his appetite when he tried a particularly fine nimba sharji, his absolute favourite. The others had soon all eaten their fill and barely a dent was made in the banquet. Bhumos was still eating heartily, of course, but everyone else had finished. Even Uncle Tirthos was loosening his belt as Manos’ huge older brother ripped the flesh from a spiced leg of goat, sauce dripping down his beard.
“This is excellent, Uncle,” Bhumos said through the mouthful of meat. “We may have to kidnap your cooks and take them back to the Huthavaan.”
“Ugh!” Arianna grimaced. “You eat like a pig, cousin!” Bhumos returned a sauce-stained smile.
“You’ll have to excuse my son, Arianna,” Vishalya said, smiling. “He does not know how to act around young ladies. Too many years spent in the company of khatras, I fear.”
Tirthos laughed. “I am looking forward to our stay in the Huthavaan, brother. The country is nice, but I miss Khatradesh. I’m looking forward to seeing what has changed.”
“A lot of building,” Javos said, leaning back in his chair. “Much expansion. A bit like your waistline, Uncle.”
Uncle Tirthos chuckled. “Yes, I think we have all eaten our fill.” He summoned a servant with a wave. “Take it all away. Leave the goat, though.”
Soon a contented calm descended on the table; the evening was winding to a close. The Princes leant back in their chairs, exchanging a quiet joke or story as the fire dwindled in the hearth. King Manu sipped his wine and the girls chattered to the Queen on the far side of the table. All had eaten and talked their fill.
The peace was broken by Reghos, Tirthos’ sentry on the mirror tower, who entered the room in a clatter of armour.
“You asked to be notified of the beacon,” Reghos said. The brothers, the King and Uncle Tirthos all turned their attention toward him.
“Yes, Reghos.”
“It comes all the way from the village of Rukos. The people there complain of a disturbance in the mountains.”
“Brigands?” the King asked.
“No, your Highness. Loud noises at night. They fear a demon of some sort.” Reghos exchanged looks with Bhumos, a quick smile; there was some secret joke going on there, Manos thought.
King Manu shrugged. “Well, I suppose we ought to send someone. I will send one of my own guard at first light, brother. You are light enough on men here. Thank you, Reghos.”
“Nonsense!” Tirthos said. “One of my men can leave immediately. He’ll be there by daybreak.”
“Very well, Tirthos,” King Manu said. “Send one of yours.”
“I will send Ghujos, my lord,” Reghos said, bowing his head.
Tirthos gave him a nod and a smile. “Yes,” he said, and stood. Reghos disappeared out the door, and a command was called.
“And now, to bed.” The old man turned and ambled off, followed soon after by the King, the Queen and her nieces.
The brothers sat at table until late, drinking and joking. As Manos felt his lids grow heavy, he thought, If I have them around me, perhaps I can be King. We can all be King.


CHAPTER ONE – A new chapter every Friday. The freshest fantasy fiction you MUST read…


Paul Bimler


In darkness, he waited.
He? Words lost both use and meaning after so many ages of man. Time meant nothing. Existence meant nothing. What there was, what he could count, was being¸ thought, and darkness. Everywhere, darkness.
Still, the word he was as good a word as any to refer to himself. For millennia he had explored this dark labyrinth with the tentacles of his mind, felt his way around every inch, every speck of these impenetrable walls. To no avail. It was sealed, impenetrable.
Sometimes he fell to wondering what the world was like now, outside. How man lived. If there was still a world, or man, at all. Perhaps there was only a void, and himself drifting around in the empty blackness within his prison, trapped for eternity.
He wondered. And he waited. Waited for the end… or perhaps, a new beginning?
In darkness, he waited.


Garathok hurried along the footway, head down, trying to blend into the night. He had always avoided this part of Vishadesh, the Winehouse Quarter as the locals called it. Those same locals – dirty, repugnant creatures that they were – would gut you in a blink for any manush jangling in your pockets. The stout, short-legged visha was eager to get business done and be gone.
He felt eyes on him. Sizing him up.
I should not have come here alone. Curse you Mantok!
And the smell – Muutha, the smell. Equal parts shit and piss, with a couple of barrels of wine and a rotting corpse thrown in for good measure.
He saw the sign, finally – Traveller’s Rest, it was called, rather optimistically. A brute stood guard at the door. Anxious to get off the street, Garathok approached the door, flashed a quick smile and made to enter.
A thick arm was thrust in front of him, barring his way.
“Nope,” the brute grunted, shaking his head.
“You won’t get past him,” chirped a small voice. The speaker was a rakish-looking boy, leaning against a nearby wall.
Garathok shook his head in disbelief. These people, these commoners. “The man I search for goes by the name Kartakos.,” he said wearily, rubbing his eyebrows, eyes closed. “Mantok Assei,” he pronounced slowly, deliberately, “sent me on this errand. You may have heard that name?”
“All right, all right,” the boy said, straightening up a bit, tapping the doorman on the arm. Muttered something in Tilan. The doorman backed off, clearning the way.
Smiling, Garathok moved cautiously inside the door and began descending the stair. The visha squeezed past various motley characters, some exchanging money or things unseen, a whore or two plying her trade. A roar erupted suddenly from below, the sound of a mob reacting as one. He took a stopped for a moment and collected himself. There was a crowd at the bottom of this stair. Another loud cheer erupted.
At the foot of the stair was a large room, cavernous, thick with bodies and dimly lit. The visha struggled to squeeze through the drunken throng. Smells of smoke, liquor, and all sorts of body odors made the air unbreathable. The mob jostled with each other, joked, fought and bargained, a sea of transactions.
Gradually he neared the centre and glimpsed a raised platform through the crowd. Two warriors paced, skin shining with sweat and blood. A weed of a man, wearing a ridiculous pointed blue hat, like that of a pantomime wizard, spread his arms, palms down, and addressed the crowd in a hollow rasp of a voice.
“My good brothers, I present to you, tonight’s champions of the Pit!” A roar erupted from the crowd. The hunchback called for silence once more. Garathok pushed his way toward the stage, craning his neck to see the action.
“Trained in the mountain highlands of Ravata, the Brothers of Ai-desh!” Another roar, slightly less enthusiastic. Northerners. Garathok squinted up at the two fighters who were being wiped down by a couple of dirty assistants. Maybe Kartakos is one of them, he thought. Thinking was hard in here, though; the heat was unbearable, the air thick and rancid.
The hunchback motioned for silence once more. “Now, friends, I am afraid that our next fighter has changed his mind about entering the Pit tonight. He has decided he cannot face either one of these brothers. What do you think of that, good people?” He put his hand to his ear, the better to hear the shouts of “Coward!” and, “Gutless wretch!” that swelled up from the insatiable mob. He paused for effect, took a breath, then yelled, “He will fight both of them!” The crowd roared its bloodthirsty approval.
The hunchback waited for the crowd to settle before going on. “This man is the most vicious fighter ever to enter the Pit,” he enthused, turning to face the opposite wall. “A disgraced warrior of Khatradesh, he once captained the roving parties that patrolled the islands, raping and burning and putting all to the sword, and finally dismissed from his company, and the Khatra-mangal, for unspeakable acts. Where is he? Come forth, Kartakos!”
Garathok could not see a thing. Hutha.
A sweaty drunk shouted into his ear, “Isn’t this amazing, brother? Have you ever seen such a show?” Garathok grimaced, giving the man a curt nod.
“Care to make a bet?” the drunk slurred, waving a handful of tickets in his face.
“No thankyou.”
The master of ceremonies was looking this way and that, growing more anxious as the hubbub grew. “He is an exemplary warrior with no equal…. I… We can’t seem to find him!”
“Disgraceful!” came the yell.
“Come on, Gajka! Give us a show!”
Suddenly Garathok felt something sharp pressing into his back. A hoarse command whispered in his ear.
A hand squeezed Garathok’s shoulder, steering him towards a dark exit at the side of the room.
They were halfway down the side passage before his abductor relaxed his grip, then an iron forearm was at his chest, slamming him back into the wall. The blade moved to his throat. It was too dark to see in the narrow passage. His captor was hooded, shrouded in blackness.
“Why are you here, visha? Why do you seek me?”
Garathok swallowed, trying to not to show his fear. “We want to employ you, ulkhatra,” he said, voice breaking. “We… we have a job for you.”
“Job? Doing what?”
“We know you were… are a great khatra. You would make a journey. A long journey, but the salary will be… plentiful.” Plentiful? “Generous.”
Garathok held his breath. There was no answer. He continued. “And you wouldn’t have to do this anymore,” he waved a hand back towards the crowd. “You would have more manush than you can dream of. Gold.”
The hooded warrior was silent, but sweat and heat emanated from him, through his robe, and he breathed heavily, like one possessed. The blade pressed in, just short of biting into Garathok’s soft, moist neck.
He has fought already tonight, his blood is up… Raksha, please… don‘t let me die.
“Why don’t I just cut your throat and take your gold?”
Garathok looked up, and glimpsed the face within for the first time. It was noble face, but disturbed, haunted, the mouth a tight line. “You could take my gold,” the visha said, struggling to keep his voice even. The blade bit in a touch more, it seemed. “But it would be but a pittance compared to what awaits, should you come under our employ. It’s up to you. But… I wouldn’t wait too long.” The knife again, pressing. “My Assei is not accustomed to waiting.” These last words took all his meagre courage to say, but he could not show weakness. Not now. He represented the Guild.
The ulkhatra was silent, considering. “Hmm. Your Assei.” The knife relaxed a little, the word forcing him to consider something new, it seemed.
Muscle can be bought.
“Why me?”
“Because of your reputation. You’re… well known…” Please let this be over.
Suddenly it was. The knife was gone from his throat. He looked and saw the ulkhatra’s back, moving away into the blackness of the corridor.
“I will find you soon,” he uttered as he disappeared from sight.
“Wait, ulkhatra… I-”
Garathok coughed, then reached up to massage his throat, breathing heavily.
The visha turned, looking back into the room he had just come from. Time to leave, he said suddenly to himself. Already he was thinking of home, a little glass of wine, a book and bed. Then he remembered.
The Assei had wanted him to report back as soon as he had contacted Kartakos, for better or worse. Garathok sighed bitterly. The portly little visha pushed his way back into the throng, grimacing at the smell of sweat, alcohol, bodies.
“We found him, brothers and sisters, we found him!” the hunchback yelled. Garathok turned in surprise, but could see nothing as a huge roar went up.
Muutha. Fighting his way back to where he was before, near the ring, would be near impossible now – the crowd was crushingly close, raucous and impatient for blood. And Garathok wanted out of there. A slap came from behind him as he shouldered his way to the door, followed by a roar of approval, then another slap, and finally a sickening thud, collision of body with body. He couldn’t see. He didn’t want to see.
Through the seething mass he spied a familiar face; the boy from the front entrance watched him from a little raised stool at the back of the room, smiling.
Little wretch. It was you who gave me up.
It all made sense now – he had been out of his depth the second he stepped through the door. He thought of going over there to thrash the little imp, but he was out of breath already. Garathok pushed his way up the stairs, back past the loiterers and whores, and out onto the street. The Quarter teemed with people now; customers of the Gods of flesh, fortune, forgetfulness. Desperate to leave, the visha flagged down the first scrappy little street carriage to pass.
As he climbed in he flashed his Guild Amulet once more, and croaked, “Port,” to the driver. The little carriage rattled off, and Garathok slumped back into the padded seat, mopping his brow and thanking Muutha that he still had all his parts intact.


A welcome silence had descended over the Port District. This was his side of town, and it was good to be home in these dark, deserted streets. How could he have let himself be ambushed like that? Really, it had been foolish to go to the Quarter on his own. Mantok should have sent an escort with him. But that was his lot it seemed.
Get Garathok to do it. All the dirty work. No harm, Mantok no doubt had a nice fat pouch of gold manush to reward for his troubles. You could say many things about the man, but he always rewarded those who did his handiwork. His pockets were deep, and money was as nothing to the Assei it seemed.
Garathok leant forward to the little window, which was open to the driver‘s seat.
“To the end of this street, and turn left.”
“No trouble, sir.”
The carriage rounded the corner into Wharf Street. It had been a long night. Time to report to the Guild, and then home for a well-earned rest. Maybe a goblet or two to wind down.
“Turn right here.”
“No trouble, sir,” the old crone repeated.
The carriage turned down the side of a building, a warehouse.
“Stop here.”
“As you please, sir.”
From his pouch Garathok took two gold manush. He paused a moment, dropped one back in, then pushed the rickety door open and stepped into the alleyway. Garathok tapped the driver on his shoulder and held out his hand. The driver received the coin with head bowed. When he saw the coin, his eyes widened. “Gold,” he whispered to himself. “Thank you, good brother, Muutha bless you!”
“For your troubles.”
“Thank you, you are too, too kind sir!”
Garathok nodded curtly. “All right, all right. Take your cart out the end of this alley, circle back round to Wharf Street. There’s another one of those for you if you wait to take me home.”
“Certainly, sir. Nothing better to do,” he laughed, surprised at his own good fortune. “Muutha bless you.”
Garathok waited until the cart had rattled off before he knocked on the door. A long pause, and then one more. It creaked open. No trouble gaining entry here. This was home. Well, a second home anyway.
“Thankyou, Tuchak,” he said as he walked inside. Garathok paced as quickly as his little joints would allow, past stacked rolls of fabric, to a door at the far end of the warehouse. He opened it and entered the book-keeping room, immediately catching Reechak’s familiar whine coming from the room at the far end.
“… in place as we speak, if he is following the schedule we have laid out, Assei. The deed will be done within the week, I have no doubt.”
“And if something should hinder him? If he should be caught?”
Garathok entered the back room, where Mantok, Ajjak, and Reetchak were sitting at a table, along with a young man and another visha taking notes into a ledger. The last two he did not recognize. There were always new faces around these days. Mantok nodded at his confidante. The Assei’s content, olive-skinned face sat at the head of the table, swarthy complexion offset by a crop of unkempt black hair. He was draped in a plush ochre robe.
“If that should happen, then there are others who can accomplish the task, Assei,” Reechak continued. “You know me, never one to put all my parches on one horse.”
“What of our mines, Ajjak?” Mantok asked. “How goes Barbos?”
“Barbos goes as it always has, Assei. Steady revenue.”
Ajjak grimaced. “One has shown a drop in revenue.”
“Dukapal,” Ajjak answered reluctantly.
Ajjak returned a blank stare for a second, then made a face. “Perhaps we cannot rely on these mines to return manush to us forever. Perhaps the mountains have yielded all their wealth to us?”
“Nonsense,” Mantok waved the notion away. Ajjak didn’t seem too put out. “We must investigate this. Choose someone to travel to the mine to act as overseer. Give him whatever he needs. I want accounts made, in a ledger. I want him to assess the situation from top to bottom, and if we cannot extract money from it, then we will simply close it down, and find another hole. There are enough holes in this realm that I can make money from, why should I waste my manush on a stope? We cannot afford a drop in revenue right now. All our assets must be returning. And the tyrant Manu will not stop exacting his levies, you can be certain of that.”
Ajjak made another face, shaking his head as he motioned to the visha at the end of the table taking notes.
“What about Tomek, Assei?” Reetchak put asked “He’s very good with ledgers, good numbers man.”
“He is, isn’t he? Yes, I will talk to him.” Mantok nodded silently, considering, tapping his fingers together. Then his eyes shifted to Garathok, still standing near the door. Mantok sat back, assessing the little visha.
“So, my friend. Were you successful?”
Garathok took a couple of steps into the room, but did not sit down. “Yes, Assei,” he answered. “I found the ulkhatra.
“He will work for us, I am sure of it.” Stretching the truth, possibly. He had to show something, though.
“What assurance do you have?”
Garathok took a moment to answer. “His word.”
“The word of an ulkhatra is meaningless, Garathok.” Mantok shook his head, and for a moment, Garathok thought he was lost. Then he reminded himself, this was Mantok’s way.
“You should have known that,” Mantok continued. “He is disgraced, faithless, loyal to no-one. Did you offer him gold?”
“I did, Assei. It did not seem to sway him at all…” Garathok chose his words carefully. “He is a brute, Assei, a killer. I don’t think he can be bought. But I piqued him, I am sure of it.”
A new voice spoke from the doorway behind Garathok, making him jump.
“Piqued, you say.”
No one had seen or heard the ulkhatra. Garathok felt his face turn red, a flush of embarassment and relief, not pleasant. In the light, the warrior’s features were more visible; a chiselled face which had been broken more than once, shoulder-length dark hair, and the build of a man who had done nothing with his life but fight.
Mantok laughed, clapping softly. “Aha! Oh, well done, Garathok. This is our man, doubtless. Doubtless.”