The muslin curtain wafted gently in the midday breeze. It hung from the arched window of Achenar's chamber, its blue and white patterns rippling and warping as the stoat watched from the bed. He has the tip of his pipe lodged between his front teeth, idly smoking as he stared at the curtain. Pantaleon had been in earlier, winding down after a day of immaculate mathematical equations that Achenar barely understood, and meeting that young wildcat from the North. The stoat could scent the jasmine flowers that grew outside in one of the palace's gardens, as it mingled with the sharper scent of smoke, and the muskier traces of the room's occupant.
Achenar would have been content to lie there for some time, lazing on soft sheets and daydreaming. Duty called though, the stoat had to make the preparations for tonight's diplomatic dinner and dance. Heaving a sigh, the stoat allowed the faint recollections of his daydreams to waft away into the ether, and got out of bed to close the window. The wooden frame rolled down smoothly, and the brass lock gave a tidy click. It was only then, as Achenar turned from the window, that he saw he was not alone.
"Barranca's blade, Marlfox! How did you get in here?" Achenar yelped, visibly recoiling from the ghoulish apparition that was the Imperial Spymaster. Everything about the marlfox reminded the stoat of ash and smoke, from his dappled grey fur to the mottled cloak that shrouded him. His eyes were a pale blue, which might have unsettled Achenar, except that Pan's eyes were far more potent and enigmatic. The marlfox tilted his head, his gaze cool and indifferent to the stoat's discomfort.
"It is no feat of skill to open an unlocked door, Achenar," the spymaster said. His voice was deep, yet quiet enough that even standing next to him, Achenar had to prick his ears to catch every word. "Since His Grace has retired to his chambers for the afternoon, I reasoned that you were otherwise unoccupied."
"You reasoned it'd be a perfect time to creep in and snoop about, more like," Achenar shot back, scowling and folding his arms. He knew Pan would never put any spies on his case, but a lack of orders never stopped the marlfox from getting into everybeast's business. Creep was the right word for him, Achenar thought, creepy Kawldkan Marlfox, always wheedling gossip out of the guards and putting the screws on slaves for any whispers in their ranks. Thankfully the spymaster's quarters were well away from the stoat's, and Kawldkan seemed to spend a lot of time in his study in the dungeons anyway. "So, crawled up from your damp hole, have you? The kitchens are downstairs, I'm sure you'll find some raw meat in there."
Kawldkan smiled briefly. On his weathered, scarred features, the sudden flash of white jagged teeth only served to make him look more threatening. "If I wanted raw meat, stoat, I'd say I've found some already. Pleasantries aside, I have a proposal for you that may catch your interest."
Achenar rested a paw on the hilt of the dagger on his belt, staring into the marlfox's eyes. "I only take propositions from beasts with high standing. It's just my professional ethic, y'know? And if you want a slice of raw meat, marlfox, you'd best be careful not to get yourself cut."
"Oh, I'm used to making very precise incisions," Kawldkan replied, smoothly drawing back his cloak to reveal the shined silver throwing daggers sheathed in a neat line on his bandolier. "I'm sure I could take what I wanted unscathed, thank you. As for my proposal?"
"Not interested," Achenar snapped. The stoat and marlfox eyed each other, until Kawldkan's lips curled into a smile. And then, the spymaster began to sing, in a low and husky voice that made the stoat shiver.
"_The ring shined in the marten's eyes,
He stole it from a corsair's paw,
He gave it to a stoat one night,
Not knowing his messmate craved more.
Ten seasons the stoat wore the ring,
Keeping safe the pine marten's prize,
And when the thief did meet his gaze,
The stoat put out the marten's eyes.
Beware, beware, the greedy beast,
Who took a gift and never gave
When the debt was owed and trust gained,
He sent his messmate to the grave._"
There was silence in the room as Kawldkan's last notes died away. The marlfox's cold eyes stared into the stoat's warm brown ones, until Achenar had to look away, his body visibly trembling. As Kawldkan had sung the mournful tune, Achenar's tail had tucked itself further between his legs, as recognition of the melody's dark meaning had dawned on him.
Achenar bared his teeth, his breath came in shallow gasps. He was enraged, and sickened to his very core. He knew the song; it was a corsair's ballad sung from here to Terramort Isle. Yet the marlfox was singing it for a reason, and it made the stoat tremble and check his dagger was close at paw. "What the zhipperfriskers do you want from me?"
The marlfox tutted. "A more civil conversation, you curse as if you were still a sailor. I have seen His Grace's agenda for tomorrow. There is an important matter coming up, regarding the captaincy of the Smiling Seductress. His Grace will have to find a suitable candidate, considering the Seductress' misfortunes on the High North Coast last slaving season."
"You want to be captain? What are you going to do, flap your arms and magic up some wind, marlfox?" Achenar smirked bitterly, still smarting over the marlfox's song. Kawldkan might be the master of sneaking around the palace, but Achenar could best him at being a sailor any day.
Kawldkan stared back at Achenar, dead serious. "Don't tempt me. Anyway, I don't want to be captain, you fool, the Palace's intrigues are far more satisfying to unravel than the petty matters of the common corsairs. I want my candidate to be named captain."
"Now, why would you want one of your pals as master of a slaving ship? Looking for something? or somebeast?" Achenar narrowed his eyes. "No guarantees I can sway Pan's mind. He tends to be the one doing the swaying, if you catch my drift."
"It's not your concern what my reasons are, stoat. He listens to your opinion, regardless of what it's actually worth. If my candidate's name is not signed in the Seductress' log by tomorrow evening, I suggest your name be signed up for the first ship off this island. I won't come after you. I won't have to." Kawldkan smiled again, and this time Achenar had to look away, feeling the blood rising to his cheeks, even as his stomach seemed to sink even lower. The marlfox whispered the candidate's name to the four walls, and when the stoat looked back, the spymaster had left as silent and unseen as he had arrived. Freed from Kawldkan's scrutiny, Achenar slumped into a chair, buried his muzzle in folded paws across the desk, and began to weep.
A row of slaves lined up beside the long dining table. In silence, they laid out candelabras, silk doilies, fine porcelain plates, and the silverware. They set salad forks, dinner forks, oyster forks, cake forks, soup spoons, teaspoons, dessert spoons, dinner knives, fish knives, salad knives, and bread knives. Each guest's place had a salad plate, a service plate, and a small bread plate, two wine glasses, and a glass for their drink of choice. The napkins were folded elegantly. It looked simple enough, but the silverware was worth more than what most corsairs got in loot a whole season of plundering.
Achenar gazed at the display with a critical eye, and nodded. The table was ready, and the kitchen slaves were hard at work. He waved a paw, and the musicians filed in. There were four slaves, a string quartet of a violin, viola, 'cello and double bass. They took their seats in the corner, and began to tune up. Their lilting tones and minor pitch alterations made the stoat's ears twitch, so he hurried off to change into his evening wear.
Pantaleon strutted in front of the mirror, a proud smirk in his features. He had a short, dark red cape slung over one shoulder, its lining adorned with gold lace. The marten had brushed and pampered his fur all the way to the tip of his tail, making it smooth and gleaming. He had removed the fez; as much as he liked it, one simply did not eat and then dance with a hat on. Instead, he had chosen to wear a small gold circlet on his head, fashioned in the shape of olive leaves.
Pantaleon's guests would be arriving soon. There were a few beasts worthy of attending such gatherings, most of whom were in the slavery business. Slaves were the lifeblood of the island after all. His guest of honour, Captain Laverna, was also bringing a few beasts of her own. He hoped they knew how to dance, it was one of his favourite diversions.
The pine marten shivered, despite the balmy warmth of the Sampetran evening breeze, which wafted through the open windows. He sensed Kawldkan was close by, and a soft knock on the door confirmed his intuition. The door to the Emperor's quarters was the only door in the world on which the marlfox knocked. Everybeast else just had to suffer Kawldkan's presence, invited or not. The Emperor alone was given the courtesy of refusing to see his spymaster.
"Enter," Pan called. His heart jumped a step as the marlfox entered, dressed in his evening wear. Kawldkan preferred greys and blacks to match his unique mottled fur. His style of dress was quite conservative compared to Pan, which made him seem all the more exotic to the pine marten. Kawldkan had allowed for a splash of colour though, pleasing the Emperor; he wore blood red sash from his shoulder to hip, and a creamy white silk neckcloth was tied elegantly around his neck.
Of all the trophies that Pan had stolen, looted or enticed into his Palace from around the world, the marlfox was the rarest and most precious treasure of all. Redwall might have a magic sword, but what was such a trinket compared to a living, breathing magical creature of legend? There was only one other beast Pan knew had real magical powers, and that was himself. With his powerful gaze commanding the wills of beasts and Kawldkan's shadowy claws moving unseen to enforce his rule, the pine marten felt that nobeast could ever oppose him again.
"Your Grace," Kawldkan bowed his head. "I bring information about the Northlanders. All is not as it appears with the Hellebores."
Pan's ears pricked up, and he smirked. "Oh, good, I love secrets. What have you heard?"
Kawldkan raised his head, and spoke in a tone of detached calm. "The self-styled War Lady has yet to prove herself in any war. She murdered her sister, and left the Northlands with many armies. Armies that could have prevented the subsequent invasion by wolverines and other savages. Now the Northlands are overrun, her father is dead, and the wolverines will no doubt press further South until they start fighting amongst themselves, as is common when a Khan dies."
"Laverna left out the death of her uncle in her story, then," Pan mused, stroking his whiskers with the tips of his claws. "How did you hear this?"
"Sailors talk freely while on shore leave, Your Grace, and we knew of the wolverine invasion some time before the _Bloody Barracuda_ made port. One does not make refugees of the great wildcat clans and go unnoticed," Kawldkan said, raising an eyebrow.
Pan nodded and paced over to the window, to look down at the ships in the harbour, their masts swaying gently from side to side. "We don't trade with the savages; I have no use for necklaces made of bone or their crude weapons. The wildcat clans may have been brutal themselves, but they were civilised. They kept order in the Northlands. Wolverines don't make good allies, and if they sweep further south, they'll hurt my trade routes, kill my business partners, and get their grubby paws all over the jewels and treasures of the South that should be mine to appreciate."
"I agree, Your Grace. But Claudia Hellebore is little more than a child, out of her father's castle for the first time. The wildcat clans may stand together for now, but if she dies they'll fall back to warring with each other. It will be a risky investment to support her," Kawldkan murmured, watching the pine marten's back. Pan turned to face him, and smiled the deceptive, wicked smile the marlfox had come to know meant the Emperor had a scheme in mind.
"You just said the same about the wolverine Khans. Warlords rise and fall all the time, and their great empires with them. Loyalties wain, oaths break, armies flee. There's one thing we can rely on to come out on top, Kawldkan." The Emperor strode over to the marlfox, and extended his paw, showing the spymaster the rings of gold on his fingers, set with precious stones. "Silver and gold will always speak louder than solemn promises. It's all a matter of who to pay to make our problems disappear."
Kawldkan leant forward, and kissed the Emperor's outstretched paw, like he had done when he first swore to serve the pine marten. "I couldn't have said it better myself, Your Grace."
A figure walked up the main street towards the Palace. Beasts moved out of her way, eyes staring fearfully at her face. She was a ferret, with brown fur save for her white-furred head, but there was no beast on Sampetra that looked anything quite like her.
She had a mask of brown fur around her eyes, but only one of them was real, a pale blue-green eye that was fixed on the palace. The other was a gold orb, minutely detailed to look as if its gaze was real. She looked weathered and scarred, her ears were chipped and laden with rings. She wore a tunic made of finely made shark leather, and a silk cloth of royal blue was tied around her neck. Her paws were laden with almost as many rings as the Emperor. On her belt hung a cutlass in a jewelled scabbard by her left hip, and she had straight dirk by her right. She wore leather britches that matched her tunic, and sturdy boots up to her knees. Her tail was scraggly, but decorated with a thick gold ring. Beasts that looked close enough would notice she had two fingers missing from her left paw, and the tip of her middle finger on the right.
She turned her head as she passed Ryker, having heard him order his group of sailors to head for the Palace. Her golden orb seemed to stare into him as much as her real eye, her head tilting ever so slightly.
"You are going to the Palace?" she asked. Her voice was surprisingly low, and her accent was not typical of corsairs, Northlanders or those from Mossflower. It sounded exotic, with odd emphasis on certain sounds. She smiled, revealing many golden teeth. "Perhaps you will let Raziah come with you, yes? The Emperor has asked for me, but he sends no guards to escort me."
It took a moment for Ryker to respond, he had to stare a moment at her 'eye.' Had he not been so distracted by the solid gold orb, he would have mentally joked that for the first time in the history of male kind, a he looked a she straight in the eye for once. He had heard stories of beasts who lost eyes, and instead of simply sewing the lids shut and wearing an eye patch, they had fake eyes made for them. The cheapest were made from wood, while the far more expensive ones were made by masters of the art. There was no doubt that the one he gazed upon was indeed worked on by a true artist.
"Uuuuh. Yeah, we are. A friend of ours got into some… trouble. He got hurt because he was a witness to a robbery and Veska took him in for healing and questioning. We were told to come get him in a few hours, and now that the time has passed, we are going to get him..."
He wasn't telling the truth, but at the same time, he wasn't really lying either. He hoped that his 'crew' would play along. He realized he had failed to mention their captain completely, but that was the least of his problems. Taking the ferret with them meant that Pan would without a doubt hear of him and the crew, killing any chance of retrieving Perrin without drawing attention. If she was very important to the Emperor, there might be severe consequences for him if the seacat made friends with her along the way... then again, there might be the same consequences for refusing to take her along in the first place.
He made the decision quickly, hoping it was the right one.
"Anyway, sure. You could come with us. The more the merrier, as they say."