The bright night was cool as Tamao walked in and between the shadows of the small town’s streets and alleyways. The soft glare of a lamppost filled his eyes as he turned a corner and started walking uphill. The cobblestones under his feet must have been made of granite, for it glittered under the early full moonlight. Tamao came to a crossroads at the top of the hill and looked back the way he had come. He was almost there. Just another turn and he would be able to see his wife and children. He hoped Biron had kept them secret and away from prying eyes. His friend had saved Tamao’s family and for that Tamao was eternally in Biron’s debt. I will have to repay him somehow, Tamao thought as he watched a soft fog hissed up from the ground. It slightly obscured his view but made the scene before him ethereal. The small-town lay before him, quiet and sleepy in these late hours. The lights from lampposts glowed happily under the low clouds. The full moon was just beginning to shine in a sky littered with small clouds. The scene was peaceful. Tamao wondered what would happen if the people knew they were harboring a traitor in their midst. I’d not make it two leagues, Tamao thought, shaking his head slightly.
Tamao pulled his mottled grey cloak more tightly around him and turned away. His steps were quiet as he made his way through the darkness between sullen houses. The lights were out in all of them, families that had gone to sleep, save one door under which light creeped out. It was this door he came to. Reaching the solid oak frame he rapped two times in quick succession and once more a moment later. He heard bolts sliding back and the door popped open with a quick jerk. A large man clothed in the same color cloak stood by and jerk his head, motioning for Tamao to get inside. The house was larger than he thought. To his left was the dining room where a large oak table took precedence in the center. A fire burned in the hearth to the far side. Straight ahead looked like it led to the kitchen and cellar. To Tamao’s right was a stairway leading up to the next floor. Tamao turned back to the man and raised an eyebrow.
“Not too much to look at I know. But it has served well enough,” the man chuckled sliding the last bolt into place. They hugged for several moments before stepping back and shaking hands.
“Tamao. It’s good to see you friend. It hasn’t been the same with you gone,” Biron said.
“Do I see a tear in that eye?” Tamao grinned, “Careful, you’ve got your reputation to uphold.” Biron made a lazy swipe at him that Tamao dodged.
“Curse you,” Biron said good-naturedly, “come on,” he motioned to the stairs, “she’ll be wanting to see you.” Tamao felt a nervous sweat come over him and nodded hesitantly. Biron seemed to notice his discomfort because he pushed him towards the stairs, almost pushing Tamao over.
“Go you fool. She’s been waiting to see you for weeks now. Don’t keep her waiting any longer.”
Tamao did not believe it. “She has been waiting?”
“For you yes, hasn’t her letters told you so? It’s been all I can do to keep up with them. Go Tamao. Show her you love her still.”
Tamao looked at his friend and nodded. Biron grinned and strode over to the fire. “I just hope you don’t keep me up with any bed creaking.” Tamao rolled his eyes and thought about punching the oaf. But he turned to the stairs and took a deep breath before taking them slowly. He made his way up into a bare hallway with several doors on either side. Again, only one was illuminated firelight. He went to this door and paused, took a breath, and knocked twice.
“Come in, Biron,” a female voice quietly sounded from within. Tamao turned the handle and pushed slightly. The door swung open on oiled hinges making hardly a sound. A desk and a bed were all that was in the room. She was there at the desk seeming to have been writing a letter under the light of the lantern next to her. The woman wore short auburn hair, the ends having been freshly cut. She was not overly curvy but her breasts and hips would turn men’s gaze wherever she went. She had turned to face her visitor and her glittering green eyes widened. Her lip trembled.
He took a step inside and closed the door, “Sorry to disappoint you my lady, Biron is indisposed at the moment and I was the only othe—.” He had to stop as his wife’s lips entangled with his. Her force pushed him up against the door before he was able to return her fierceness. Many seconds passed before she separated, tears sparkling in her eyes.
Tamao kissed her forehead, “Surprised?” It earned him a shove.
“Yes!” Indra said thumping him on the chest lightly. Tamao chuckled as his wife dried her eyes with a sleeve and hugged him again. She drew back after a moment, “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming? Couldn’t you have given a letter to Biron like usual?”
Tamao shook his head, “I couldn’t risk another one. Biron has been good about finding ways to reach me but the crown is too close now. But everything is ready so we decided that it was time to risk my movement.”
She looked up at him sharply, “What do you mean?” Instead of answering, Tamao pulled a piece of parchment from a pocket in his cloak. The letter held a broken golden wax seal. The imprint was that of a bleeding eye. The pupil was a crescent moon. “What is this,” Indra said taking it and stepping away from him a little. She saw the seal and her eyes widened. “This is the sigil of Cornaria! Why do you have it?”
Tamao smiled, “Read it.” She glanced at him curiously before opening it. Her eyes swept back and forth; Tamao had always been surprised at how quickly she read. He saw mouth moving with the words and then stop.
“You were granted asylum,” she breathed. She gripped the letter tighter and her happy eyes found his. “The Emperor granted you asylum!”
Tamao’s smile grew larger, “He granted us asylum. We leave in the morning for the Ebony Gulf. A ship is waiting for us at Black Haven to take us away from Kheledron. I’ve been working with Biron to get everything ready.” Indra stood looking at the letter in her hand. It trembled.
“We leave tomorrow?” her face was unreadable. Tamao suddenly felt something was wrong. That was not the reaction he had expected.
“Yes,” he said moving towards her. She held up a hand to stop him from holding her. Yes, something was definitely wrong…
“Can’t you trust me? Like you do Biron?” The question cut like a blade through his heart.
Tamao moved forward, “What do you mean? I do trust you—“
“Couldn’t you have told me this sooner? I could have prepared the children, got them new clothes, new shoes. They have been settling down so well here. Tomorrow will shock them for sure.” Her green eyes bored into his.
Tamao glanced away from her, “I couldn’t Indra. I couldn’t risk you being recognized. It was best that you stayed hidden with Biron. We can get the children new clothes in Black Haven before we leave if it means that much to you.” He heard her sigh and looked back at her. She was looking at the letter in her hand.
“I’ve tried my best to live with your secret. Don’t you know I hate it? Being cooped up in here without you. Only getting small updates from Biron or the occasional letter from you?” She looked up with blazing eyes, “I know I hurt your trust by abandoning you when you had to leave but can’t you forgive me?” Tears started to run down her cheeks and onto the parchment, making some ink run. Tamao felt his heart wrench and took his wife in his arms again. So many regrets swirled around in his head. He had botched this whole thing, he realized. He should have let Indra in on his and Biron’s planning. She had the right to know what would happen.
“Yes, my love. I forgive you. I was a fool for not including you.” She looked up at him once more.
“Please, Tamao. I want to be a part of your life. No more secrets, no more hiding. I can help you, please let me.” Tamao studied her for a moment, taking in her sincerity. He nodded.
“From now on, I will trust you as a husband should. It was wrong of me to hide things from you, even if it risked your safety. I should have trusted your strength.” Indra laid her head on his chest and wrapped her arms around him.
“When do we leave tomorrow?” came a whispered question. Tamao felt his heart rise and he squeezed her quickly once.
“As soon as we can in the morning. Biron will have a stable-hand readying horses and a wagon for us at the edge of town.”
He felt her tremble and found her eyes again. “Please believe me this time. I will protect us with everything I have. I won’t let the Guild get to us again.”
Indra gave him a hard look. “You had better. Don’t you lie to me again.”
Tamao kissed her. “I won’t, my love. I promise.” She rested her head on his chest again and felt her sigh. Then he felt something entirely different, lower. Much lower. He glanced down at his wife’s wicked gaze and raised an eyebrow.
“What about seeing the children?”
“They can wait until morning,” she said. He grinned and picked her up moving to the bed quickly.
Much later Tamao traced the line of Indra’s jaw. She rested so peacefully in sleep. She was perfected at this moment. All of the pain of recent months did not show at all. He still had trouble believing he was here finally reunited with her again. She had taken him back. Even after everything he had done. It was everything he could have dreamed of and more. Tamao sat up slowly, careful not to wake her. He gazed out at the dark night. It had been a night like this that had ruined everything. Cold steel had pressed against his necked hard enough to wake him. He had glared at the hooded figure and shaken Indra awake. She had gasped.
“Go to the children Indra and stay with them until I come for you, go now.” His tone brooked no argument and Indra hurried to obey wearing nothing but a light gown. She closed the door to their bedroom softly. Tamao focused back on the intruder. The man had gotten in through the window. Tamao cursed himself for leaving it open. Their two-story building had served well in the tight city streets until now. He glanced at the blade at his neck and then back to the man. The blade bit a shade deeper, drawing blood before it was gone and sheathed at the intruder’s side. Tamao shifted in the bed so his feet were on the floor.
“Here? In my own chambers? Does the Guild not know what manners are called?” The man did not speak, only held out a small letter. Tamao took it. “What? Do the Masters send out mutes now?” His remark was met by silence. Tamao opened the missive and after a few seconds swore softly. His hands shook and he stood suddenly shaking the message in the other man’s face. “This?! This is what the Masters would have me do?!” he whispered, “murdering a prince?! You are fools and madmen.” The blade whipped to his neck and bit.
“Marinius Quintus Kheledron must die so that Kheledron itself may live.” The voice was low and breathy. Somehow it infuriated Tamao more.
“I refuse,” he threw the message at the intruder's feet, ignoring the cut of the blade slice deeper, “I refuse to be a part of your games any longer.”
“Then your family dies.”
“You would not dare.”
“Not I, the Masters.” Tamao rocked back on his heels.
“Tamao Insorda, you seem to have forgotten who you are after coming to Kheledron. The Guild enlisted you for information and blood. You belong to the Guild now. Your life is wrote by the Masters.” Tamao glared at the dog but a single man was one thing. An entire guild of assassins another. He had no choice. Tamao bent to pick up the missive slowly, crumpling it as he came back up. Then in view of the assassin he ate it and chewed thoroughly. The blade disappeared back into its sheath and the man strode to the window.
“You have two months. Make your kill by then and you and your family will be spared.” Tamao had cursed him with all of the oaths he could bring to his lips. But he had packed his belongings. Indra had not understood. Betrayal had flashed on her face and had hurt more than the blade when he had told her everything. That he was an agent from another country, Cornaria, the enemy of Kheledron. That he had lied to her, tricked her into giving him a needed cover. She had not listened to his pleas that he truly had fallen in love with her. The children had looked bewildered. In the morning he had hugged his children goodbye before stiffly kissing his wife on the cheek. He had left, turning back once to wave only to find Indra already ushering the children back inside.
Tamao shook the memory away and slowly got out of the bed. Grabbing his trousers he pulled them on before leaving his sleeping wife and making his way out of the room. He checked the other doors carefully and found his children on his second try. He stayed in the open doorway gazing at their peaceful faces. He wanted so badly to wake them up, hug them, tell them father was home.
“Angels, aren’t they,” Biron’s low voice came behind him. Tamao nodded.
“I should have been better to them.” He felt a hand on his shoulder.
“You had no choice Tam. You did all for them and Indra. It was a good thing you sent them to me after the Guild came for you.”
“I figured you were the only one left I could trust,” Tamao said turning to face his friend.
The big man winked, “They’re calling me uncle now. It’s rather endearing of them.”
Tamao smiled and turned away from his children, shutting the door behind him. He glanced at his friend. The big man had a merry glint to his eye. Tamao cocked an eyebrow. “What are you up to so late?” He heard clinks as Biron produced two mugs and a bottle of wine.
“I thought we could celebrate your return and successful evasion of the crown?” mirth stained Biron’s voice. Tamao could not help but grin.
“Just like old times eh?”
“Just like old times.” Soon they were on the roof gazing up at the dark sky. The clouds had been whisked away by the high winds and the stars twinkled slyly. The moon was a silver disk overhead. The town was stretched out before them. The lampposts had been turned out for the night and now the town slept. Tamao stifled a yawn and drank from his mug. He rested next to Biron, enjoying the presence of his friend. They had been through so much together, especially when training in Cornaria. Their coming of age years had been spent in the sanctums of the Arbolis, where all agents of the empire became daggers and whisperers for the emperor. They had spent many nights like this gazing at the stars on top of their cell-like rooms, dreaming of the day when they would be sent on assignment. That day had come for both of them and here they were ten years later, traitors to a country not their own.
Biron shifted in his seat taking a sip of wine. He let out a satisfied sigh. “Ah, I love this stuff. The finest red from Old Barry down on Lyr Street.”
Tamao chuckled, “I’ve always preferred white to red.” Biron pushed him and Tamao narrowly righted his mug before ruining his tunic. They both laughed softly before settling back in. A moment of silence passed them then. Biron was too quiet. Tamao glanced at him and saw pursed lips. “What is it Biron?”
“Ack, it doesn’t matter. I’ve been thinking is all.”
Tamao prodded him. “What about?”
Biron sat up and looked back at Tamao. “I’ve been thinking of retiring.” That was news. Tamao sat up as well and set his mug down on the wooden planks of the roof.
“Why have you been thinking that? The empire could still use you. They may not let you go in any case. They certainly have plans for me still.” He saw Biron look away back to the scene before them of the peaceful town. The big man sighed.
“Remember our dreams Tam?”
“Of course,” Tamao said, wondering where his friend was going.
Biron pointed out at the town. “Mara the baker lives there. She makes the best sweet bread you’ll ever taste. Like sweet clouds on the tongue.” He pointed to another area. “Jerald the furnisher gives out alms to the poor every Third-day. Says that it makes him feel like he’s contributing to the community.” He named several others before he seemed to tire and lowered his hand. Tamao waited for him to speak. After a moment his friend did slowly. “I’m tired Tam. Tired of the lies. I want to be a part of something like this,” he swept his arms out at the town, “I want people to know who I am, truly. I want to contribute to something like this.”
Tamao felt for his friend. They had joined the empire's agents too young to know what the world was like. What being a part of a friendly community was like. Biron had always had a soft spot for people. It was what made him a damn good informant. Tamao sighed and looked out at the town.
“Come with us,” he said after a moment. Biron looked back a questioning expression on his face. Tamao continued, “Come with us. Send your resignation after we reach port. You can always try. Maybe you can become a protection agent for a certain traitor of Kheledron fleeing back to his home country.” Biron smirked. Tamao smiled and stood up slowly, feeling the wine try and tip his balance. He recovered and glanced down at his friend. “You’ll come with us? You are welcome to. Maxis and Terin would love to have their uncle along.”
Biron looked out again at the city. After a moment he nodded and stood up slowly as well. When he faced Tamao determination was written on his face. “If you’ll have me I’ll come.” They shared a smile before hobbling back into the house and to their rooms. Tamao shook his friend’s hand once at the door to Indra’s room and bade the big man good night. Then Tamao crawled into the bed beside his wife and slept.
“Open in the name of the king!”
A pounding on the front door awakened Tamao in an instant. He leaped from the bed as Indra jerked awake and struggled out of the bed as well.
“What is it Tam?!?
Tamao was at the door and looked forlornly at his lover, “they found me. They must not have been as far as I thought.” Indra went pale and Tamao rushed to Biron’s opening door. The big man put his hands on Tamao’s shoulders.
“Quiet man or they’ll hear you. I planned for this. Get your wife and children and go to the kitchen downstairs.” Tamao nodded and rushed to obey. He thrust through his children’s door and went to Nia first. She was awake and reached for him silently. She didn’t how grateful he was to her at that moment. “Good morning love. Can you be quiet for father?” Nia nodded and sucked a thumb. Tamao grinned. A soft noise made him turn around to see Indra walking in to awaken Maxis and Terin. She had a grim set to her face and hardly looked at him. Tamao nuzzled his daughter, “mother is a bit angry at me.” Nia sucked her thumb and looked at him.
Tamao turned to see Maxis staring wide-eyed and Terin next to him rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. Tamao crouched, putting Nia on his knee. “Hey boys,” he said quietly, “your father is back but we need to leave now, can you be quiet for your mother and me?” Maxis nodded vigorously and Terin followed suit. “Good lads,” Tamao said smiling, “let’s move and watch your steps.” As he stepped from the room he felt a hug on his waist as Maxis came to him. Tamao reached down and tousled the boy’s hair and glanced at Indra. She gave him a hardy look but took a breath. Determination filtered through her countenance. She reached for Nia and Tamao surrendered his daughter. Then he led them all downstairs, wincing at every creak in the floor boards.
Another pounding at the doors came. “Open up or be forced open!” The children jumped at the noise and both Tamao and Indra looked at Nia. The young girl only stared back at them sucking her thumb. Tamao breathed a sigh of relief and ushered his family into the kitchen. Biron was there and had opened the door to the cellar. A lantern-lit the dark staircase that ended in a stone floor.
Biron looked at Tamao, “At the bottom, turn right and go until you reach the wall, there will be an opening. Take the lantern and go. Once inside the tunnel take the first left, then walk thirty steps and then make a right. Follow that out and you’ll come out near the stable-hand. He’ll take it from there.”
“It is enough thank you,” Tamao said softly rushing his family down the stairs. Indra and Nia went first, then Maxis and Terin. Tamao stayed a moment and caught Biron’s hand. “You’d better come find us.”
Biron smiled sadly, “Go, Tam. Don’t worry about me. Worry about that wife and those kids.” Still, Tamao persisted. Biron shook off his hand, “I’ll do what I can, go!” Tamao went, grabbing the lantern and slipping down the stairs as Biron closed the door. Reaching the floor he turned right, leading his family past barrels of wine to the wall. The opening was there, half-obscured by a tapestry. Tamao ripped it away and started to push his family through. Maxis, Terin, and Indra were already through when he heard Biron get to the door upstairs. Through the floorboards, he heard Brion start talking to the men outside. “Yes, yes, what is it—hey what are you doing?” there was a shuffling and a thud, “ ‘ey! what right do you have to be in my house?” Tamao had grinned sadly. Biron did cover his true voice well.
“Crown’s orders sir. We were tipped off this morning that you may be harboring a wanted criminal and his family. They are wanted for treason. You are under arrest until you are deemed free from suspicion.” Tamao cursed silently and handed Nia to his wife before turning back to the cellar stairs. A hand on his elbow stopped.
“You can’t,” he heard Indra whisper, “He’ll be fine.” Tamao turned to look at his frightened wife and reached out to touch her cheek.
“I can’t let him die like this.” He handed the lantern to her, “You know the way, I’ll be right behind you.” She looked at him hard.
“You better not be lying to me.”
“I’m not, go.” She turned and led their children into the dark. Tamao snuck back to the cellar stairs, his heart beating fast as the soldiers’ footsteps echoed on the floorboards and the above stairs. It would not be long until they searched the cellar as well. He heard Biron try to make peace with the guardsmen.
“I don’t know why you are all interested in my house. I got nothin’ in here ‘cept sleeping cots and child toys for my children.”
“I heard you live alone citizen.” Damn, they had him now. Tamao couldn’t let his friend die in a prison-like this was heading to. He climbed the cellar stairs quietly and pushed the door open a crack. A soldier was glancing around the kitchen. Tamao sighed quietly and the sound gained the soldier's attention. Tamao backed up just a bit, throwing himself into darkness. The door opened and the soldier’s eyes widened. Striking out with the side of his hand, Tamao jabbed the man in the throat. A wet sucking sound wept from the man’s shattered windpipe and Tamao caught him as he fell. Tamao wasted no time, grabbing a frying pan and dashing into view of the two soldiers apprehending Biron. Theirs and Biron’s eyes widened.
Tamao grinned, “Looking for someone are you?” Hefting the pan he threw it, striking one of the soldiers on the forehead. It resounded through the house with a bong. Biron whipped an elbow into the other soldier’s stomach and beat him to the ground when the poor man doubled over. He looked at Tamao with surprise that was short-lived as soldiers shouted upstairs and thundered down the steps. Tamao motioned at him, “Get out of here you fool!” Biron smiled and dashed out of the doorway. Tamao slipped back to the cellar door and down the stairs as chaos erupted above him.
Tamao found his way to the tunnel and dived in just as soldiers ripped the cellar door open and charged down. Shouts for light echoed but Tamao was already fleeing down the tunnel. He moved as quickly as he dared, taking the first left. A small light winked at him. Thank the gods, Indra had not gotten far. He caught up with them as Indra was making the right turn. She swung back to him hearing footsteps and breathed a pent up breath when his face appeared. Then her face swung grim and she handed the lantern to him tersely. Tamao accepted her anger and slipped past his family to take the lead. Terin started whimpering as they continued and Tamao heard Maxis whisper comforts to the younger boy. It wasn’t too much longer that light finally greeted their starving eyes. Tamao went out of the small incline first and turned around to help Maxis and then a sniffling Terin out into the early sunlight. Nia was next, who he handed to Maxis before Tamao turned back to help his wife struggle from the tunnel. They stood there breathless looking around. They had made it. He felt rather than saw Indra turn to him.
“You chose him. You put us in danger to save him.”
He turned to her, seeing her pain, “I had to. I couldn’t let him rot in a jail cell for my sins.”
Indra was silent for a moment. “I’ll never be what he is to you will I.” The simple statement caught him off guard and his heart fell. He could not answer. He could not deny it, yet could not bear to hurt her again. Tamao looked at his wife sadly.
“Sir?” came a timid voice. Tamao whirled around to see the stable-hand and the horses and wagon not twenty feet behind him. Tamao breathed a sigh of relief. The young man looked between Tamao and Indra. “My name is Ryan. Man Biron sent me to fetch you to Black Haven?” Tamao nodded and the young man seemed pleased a moment before a shadow fell on his features. Ryan looked behind them at the tunnel and then back at Tamao. “Is man Biron coming? He said he’d be here to wish you off.” Tamao shook his head and but smiled slightly.
“Biron regretted that he could not be here at the moment but said that you knew what to do. He will join us later on.”
Ryan nodded. “Come with me then sir, ma’am. We’ll get underway right away.” Tamao and his family followed the young man to the wagon. Tamao helped Indra into the bed of the wagon and lifted his sons and daughter to her. Then he climbed up beside the stable-hand.
“Let’s get a move on.”
Ryan grinned a toothily, “Yes sir.” He clicked his tongue and the horses set into motion. Soon enough they were rolling down a small dirt road in the backwoods beyond the town and the high road. Tamao was glad Ryan knew the way yet he wished Biron were here. He turned back once to glimpse the wooden rooftops above the trees and prayed his friend was safe. Then he turned to Indra.
“We made it,” he said, daring her to hope.
She looked back at the town and then at him. Her green eyes held unshed tears. “Yes. I believe we did.”