Once I’d had a good meal and an even better night’s sleep, I wasn’t exactly ready to take on the world, just the bad guys infesting my little corner of it.
After breakfast, Mychael arranged to have a bathtub brought up to my room and had it filled with steaming hot water complete with bubble bath. His healing had taken care of Rudra Muralin’s handwork, and his assurances that he was going to somehow get me out of this mess had made the rest of me feel better. A little. Promises and oaths were all well and good, but I knew he could only do so much. I had a feeling when it came time to put the cards on the table, it was going to be up to me.
I felt like everyone on this island knew more than I did. It was high time to play catch-up. No way was Rudra Muralin going to catch me with my magical britches down again. I put his books on the table next to the tub, then dipped my hand in the water. Perfect.
I started undressing. Whoever said ignorance is bliss must have died a horrible death with a really surprised look on his face. I needed to know what the bad guys knew, and I needed to know it now. Rudra Muralin was the biggest problem on my plate, but there were plenty of others to keep him company.
I was no closer to finding those kidnapped students, or why Banan Ryce had taken them. He didn’t do anything for free or without a reason. Someone had hired him, and chances were that someone was local.
I eased myself into the steaming tub with a groan of mixed pain and pleasure. What muscles weren’t still sore were in tense knots. The hot water made them feel better, and the bubbles made me feel better. Best of all, thanks to the small heatglobe bobbing among the bubbles, the water would stay hot for as long as I wanted to stay in the tub. You gotta love magic.
I reached for Rudra Muralin’s journal. I just had to smile. I would love to see Lucan Kalta’s face if he knew I was reading a thousand-year-old manuscript in the bathtub.
Muralin’s journal was filled with more smiting, conquering, and an awful lot of enslaving—and most of the slaves were elves. The majority of them were sent to Rheskilia to work in the goblins’ mines; choice captives were kept for the Saghred. I understood the physical act of sacrificing someone to the Saghred. I’d witnessed it firsthand last week with Sarad Nukpana—and gotten a history lesson directly from Rudra Muralin in Sirens. Blood and physical contact with the stone was all that was needed— the rock took it from there. But something I kept finding throughout the journal didn’t make sense. Muralin referred to himself as the Saghred’s “bond servant.” Believe me, I got that part. What I didn’t understand was that on occasion sacrifices were brought to Muralin—not to the Saghred— and he would “accept the gifts” on behalf of his master. The word “master” was used interchangeably with “Saghred.” And in two instances, Muralin was referred to as “the vessel.” Maybe my Old Goblin language skills weren’t as good as I thought, but from what I read, Muralin’s “gift acceptance” was always fatal to the poor, elven gift.
The next pages took something I already knew one big, scary step further. To use the Saghred, you didn’t have to be anywhere near the stone itself. I’d used the Saghred only twice before, last week in Mermeia. The stone and I were in the same city, within only a mile or two of each other. Yet according to Rudra Muralin, distance was no barrier whatsoever. As long as the Saghred was awake, Muralin could use it. Whether he was one mile from the stone or a thousand, it didn’t matter. Sometimes the Saghred traveled with the goblin armies; sometimes only Muralin did. The level of death and destruction never changed.
Rudra Muralin wrote that for all intents and purposes, he and the Saghred were one and the same. His link with the Saghred was that strong. I wasn’t a spellsinger, and before my contact with the Saghred, I was only a marginal sorceress, and I’d only been connected to the Saghred for a little under two weeks. Nowhere near long enough to forge the kind of bond that could level cities. Or was it? Was my link as strong as Rudra Muralin’s? And if not, just how strong was it? I didn’t plan on having the link long enough to find out.
When I finished Muralin’s journal, I put it on the table well out of splashing range, and opened the Saghred legend book that Muralin had written under his pen name. I started reading where Phaelan had interrupted me last time. There was more on the power of spellsinging to command the Saghred. Obviously you didn’t have to be a spellsinger to command the Saghred. It occurred to me that I didn’t know if my father was a spellsinger. Mychael probably would. I’d have to ask. The rest of the book was either things I already knew or had heard about, such as the Saghred’s preference for shamans or powerful magic users as sacrifices.
According to legend, shamans who had fallen from royal favor were fed to the stone. The shaman doing the sacrificing received enhanced powers, near immortality and eventual insanity. The shaman getting sacrificed had his soul trapped for eternity inside the stone. I couldn’t decide who got the worst end of that deal.
I finished the book and put it on the table with the journal.
I sank down lower into the hot, bubbly water. It took a while, but I felt myself finally start to relax, and caught myself dozing off. I didn’t try to stop it. I’d wake up before I drowned. Probably. I drifted between sleep and wake. When I opened my eyes, my room was kind of blurry.
Sarad Nukpana was in sharp focus. He was smiling.
“Mind if I join you?” he asked.
The goblin looked entirely too happy to be sitting in a chair next to my tub, my bubbles had become noticeably less bubbly, and worst of all, he had my towel.
The goblin saw my glance, and his smile broadened, a hint of fang peeking into view. “You can come and get it.”
I told myself I wasn’t going to be intimidated. Scared, I had no control over and it was too late for that; I was already scared. Intimidated I could do something about. My last encounter with Nukpana had proved that anything he could do to me, I could do worse back to him. Physically speaking, I’d fought while naked before. Once you got past the embarrassment, it was actually kind of liberating.
I took a slow breath and, trying not to expose too much of myself in the process, strategically arranged what bubbles I had left. Then I crossed my arms over my chest. It didn’t cover everything, but it’d have to do. Nukpana’s dark eyes hungrily devoured my every move. I guess naked female elves were a scarce commodity inside the Saghred.
I tried to ignore where that thought led and glanced around. “Not enough power left to repair your own bedroom?”
Sarad Nukpana trailed his hand in my bathwater, parting my largest cluster of bubbles. “You’ve seen mine,” he murmured, peering down into the water. “I wanted to see yours. By the way, this is your dream; I merely invited myself inside. Your bond with the Saghred allows me to exist in your waking thoughts or dreams. So I can come and go as I please.”
I resisted the urge to look where he was looking. He shouldn’t be able to be here. “The Saghred’s asleep.” I said it, but I suspected the cat was waking up.
“Merely conserving power.”
“By desire or necessity?”
“Both. Power is precious, little seeker. It should not be wasted on trifles.”
“I’m not a trifle?”
“You are a necessity.” The hand trailed deeper into the water, his fingers brushing my skin. “A most precious and desirable necessity.”
I forced down a shiver. It wasn’t entirely due to Nukpana’s hand in my bathwater. My heatglobe had gone out. “If you want to talk or gloat, get on with it. My water’s not getting any warmer.”
He grinned, exposing alarmingly sharp fangs. “You’re welcome to step out of the tub.”
“You’re welcome to go to hell.”
“Such vehemence, little seeker. And when all I wanted to do was congratulate you.”
“On your newfound skills. Even though I enjoyed your primitive dispatching of my shamans last night—inept though their attempt was—I have been truly impressed by your evolving contact with the abducted students.” He removed his hand from the tub, negligently flicking the water from his fingers.
I resisted the urge to slink down farther into the water. I didn’t know if Nukpana had continuous contact with me, or just got the information once he’d infested my dream. Either way it had to stop.
“What do you know about the students?” I asked.
“I have retained Banan Ryce’s unique services from time to time. He is most proficient at his craft, but he does have his weaknesses, most notably blondes. I prefer redheads.”
“One of your shamans apparently still has Banan’s business card.”
“My people are not responsible for Banan Ryce or your missing students.” The goblin’s smile held secrets he had no intention of sharing. “You’ll have to look among your own people for that. As to Darshan’s rather clumsy attempt against you last night, Primaru Nathrach gave him precisely what he deserved.” Sarad Nukpana nodded in grudging approval. “It was exceptionally well done. Darshan was an impulsive idiot. Now he’s a dead one.”
“So Darshan screwed up your orders?”
“That fiasco was on no order of mine.” Nukpana’s smile was slow and full of intent. “I have you exactly where I want you—as did Primaru Nathrach in that alley. You let a rare opportunity slip through your fingers, little seeker. It’s not often that an elf has a chance to taste goblin black magic.” His dark eyes lingered where my bubbles weren’t. “No doubt Primaru Nathrach found you utterly delectable.
You glisten with the Saghred’s power. He keeps you at a distance because if you get within arm’s reach again, he will take you. He will not be able to stop himself.” Nukpana laughed softly. “Once a dark mage, always a dark mage.”
I was sure there could be worse circumstances I could be in, but being naked in a tub with an evil megalomaniac sitting next to me definitely warranted an honorable mention. Too bad I hadn’t used bath oil instead of bubbles. At least Sarad Nukpana wouldn’t be able to get a grip on me should he decide to try.
He was using Tam to bait me. I wasn’t going to bite. “So the Mal’Salins set their Khrynsani lapdogs on me?”
“The Mal’Salin family controls the Khrynsani in name only. Their master is the one who has come to reclaim what your father stole from him.” Nukpana dropped my towel and picked up Muralin’s journal. “I always found his writing style to be rather pompous, though the content is entertaining enough. Old Goblin is hardly light reading suitable for the bath, little seeker.”
Tam had lied. His family wasn’t running the Khrynsani show. Rudra Muralin was. Or maybe no one had told the Mal’Salins that their attack dogs were answering to someone else’s whistle. Who knew what kind of tangled knot Tam had gotten himself tied up in. Goblins lived for intrigue, deception, betrayal, and all the backstabbing that went with it.
Nukpana leaned back in his chair. “I wish you luck finding Rudra Muralin. He was nineteen years old when he fell into the Great Rift. Mid is teeming with college students, many of them goblin.” Nukpana’s expression grew thoughtful. “What is that quaint expression involving a needle and a haystack? Perhaps while Grand Shaman Muralin is here he can hear my favorite nightingale sing.” He smiled. “Who knows? Perhaps he already has.”
Nukpana referred to Piaras as a nightingale. Piaras didn’t like it, and neither did I.
“Stay away from him,” I growled.
The goblin raised his hands defensively. “It’s Rudra Muralin you should be threatening, little seeker—but first you have to find him. Piaras’s skill is astonishing for such a young age. And the way he sang us all to sleep—the Saghred hasn’t received such a treat in years. Those with the sweetest magic are the most delicious. Is he being properly trained?”
I didn’t answer.
“I’ll take that as a yes. And considering his skill level, Ronan Cayle would be his voice master. I know of a master more suitable to develop his unique talent.” Nukpana smiled slowly. “Maestro Cayle should take care; he could soon find himself with competition.”
I sat up in the tub, sloshing water over the side. My remaining bubbles parted and I didn’t give a damn. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” My tone told him in no uncertain terms that if he didn’t answer, I was out of that tub with my hands around his throat, buck naked or not.
“If I told you, it would spoil the surprise.” He leaned forward. “And I can guarantee that you will be very surprised.” His black eyes shone in the half-light. “Was that response evasive enough to make you come out of the tub after me? I would enjoy that very much.”
I sat back, this time intentionally sloshing water over the side and soaking Nukpana’s feet. “Live with disappointment,” I said with calm I didn’t feel.
The goblin was staring in the direction of my bedroom door. I heard a distant pounding. Something or someone was trying to get in. Nukpana started to fade.
“Enjoy your freedom, little seeker. You will not have it for long.”