"Guards," Amara snapped.
"Six on the top floor," Rook said. "They'll come down the stairs and hold the only way to the roof."
"Where the prisoners are," Amara said. "We have to go through them."
"Right," Aldrick growled, and drew his sword. "Calderon."
Bernard already had his bow untied from the quiver on his shoulder. The weapon was already strung, since he would have had to use earthcraft to give himself enough strength to do so. He set an arrow to the string, then he and Aldrick started up the stairs.
Amara turned to Lady Aquitaine. "Can you counter Kalarus?"
"This is his house," Lady Aquitaine said in a cool voice. "A confrontation with him here would be unwise."
"Then we should hurry," Odiana said. "To the roof, free the prisoners, and leave immediately."
"My daughter!" Rook snarled. "She's on the level below the guard station."
"There's no time!" Odiana insisted. "They're coming, now!"
"He'll kill her," Rook cried.
The thud of heavy boots on the stairs below them began to grow steadily nearer.
"She isn't important!" Odiana shot back. "The prisoners are what matter. We have what we needed from the spy, Countess, and it is clearly your duty to-"
Amara slapped Odiana across the face, cupping her hand as she did, to make the blow sting and startle.
Odiana stared at Amara, utter shock on her face, which then immediately darkened with fury.
"Shut. Your. Mouth," Amara said in a quiet, cold voice, each word carrying acidic emphasis. Then she turned to Lady Aquitaine. "Take Odiana and go to the roof. Help them clear the way-but for goodness' sake, don't employ any overt crafting unless you must. If we don't have a clear path of retreat when the gargoyles waken, none of us are getting out."
Lady Aquitaine nodded once, gave Odiana a firm push to get her moving, and the two of them started up the stairs after Aldrick and Bernard.
Amara turned back to Rook to find the spy staring at her, eyes wide.
The Cursor put an arm on the woman's shoulder, and said, quietly, "There's no time to waste. Let's go get your daughter."
Rook blinked tears out of her eyes, then something steely slid into her features, and she led Amara up the stairs at a run.
Rook opened a door and hurried through it, though Amara lingered for a moment as steel rang on steel up the stairway. Aldrick had engaged the guards, it would seem. He was likely one of the three or four deadliest men in the world with a blade, a former singulare of the Princeps Septimus, which was doubtless why the Aquitaines had retained his service to begin with. But even so, the difference between an excellent swordsman and a world-class swordsman like Aldrick was very fine-and six excellent swordsmen might well be able to overwhelm even Aldrick ex Gladius.
Shouts came from above. They were answered from below, though they bounced around the stone stairway too badly for Amara to understand them. A moment later, she didn't need to understand-more guards were racing up the stairs, and they were not far away.
Amara cursed. She should have taken the fallen officer's blade while she had the opportunity, once their chances of a completely covert entry had gone to the crows. "Bernard!" she shouted.
Her husband came leaping down the stairs, bow in hand. "They're Immortal Knights Ferrous!" he called to her. "Aldrick's in trouble, and I can't get a clean shot!"
"He'll be in more trouble if the rest of the guards come up the stairs behind," Amara said. "You've got to hold them off."
Bernard nodded once, never slowing his pace, feet moving swiftly and silently down the stairs. A beat later, she heard the heavy, bass thrumming of his bow, and a cry of pain.
Amara wanted to scream with fear, for her husband and for herself and for all the people who were counting on the success of this mission. She ground her teeth instead and flung herself after Rook.
This level of the tower was a richly appointed apartment, the entry room a large study and library rolled into one. The woven carpets, the tapestries, a dozen paintings and several sculptures were all lovely enough-but they were put together with no sense of style, theme, or commonality of any kind. It was an insight into Kalarus's character, Amara decided. He knew what beauty was, but he did not understand what made it valuable. His collection was expensive, expansive, all of undeniable masterpieces-and that was all he cared about; the shell, the price, the proclamation of his wealth and power, not beauty for its own sake.
Kalarus did not love beauty. He merely had use for it. And the fool probably had no idea that there was a distinction between the two.
Amara saw why Rook had chosen their method of entry, their disguises as she had. It was a blind spot in his thinking, and since his control over affairs in his household certainly ran far deeper than any other High Lord Amara had seen, his own prejudices and idiocies could only be reflected and multiplied throughout it, including his tendency to assign value based purely upon external appearance. Everyone there was used to the sight of new slaves brought in to amuse the staff. Such a group of new slaves would be quickly dismissed and even more quickly forgotten.
Or would have been, at least, if Aldrick hadn't cut Eraegus's throat.
Rook frowned as she walked to the door to the next room. It opened at a touch, and she looked around a small sitting room or antechamber. Like the larger area they'd just come through, it was expensive and absent of the kind of warmth that would make it more than simply a room.
Rook paced to a plain section of expensive hardwood paneling and struck the heel of her hand firmly against it. A crack split through the panel, and Rook drew aside a wooden section that concealed a storage area behind it. She promptly withdrew a pair of swords, a longer duelist's blade and a standard, plain-looking gladius. She offered their hilts to Amara. Amara took the shorter blade, and said, "Keep that one."
Rook looked at her. "You wish me to be armed, Countess?"
"If you'd had it in mind to betray us, Rook, I think you've had ample opportunity. Keep it."
Rook nodded and carried the scabbarded blade in her left hand. "This way, Countess. There's only his boudoir and bath left on this level."
The next door opened onto a bedchamber at least as large as the study had been, and the bed was the size of a small sailing vessel. Hand-carved hardwood wardrobes were left carelessly open, revealing row after row of the finest clothing Alera had to offer.
The prisoners had been secured by chains attached to the stone fireplace.
Lady Placida sat on the floor, hands folded calmly in her lap, her expression regal and defiant as the door opened. She wore only a slender white undergown, and a rough ring of iron circled her throat, and was attached to a heavy chain, which was in turn fastened to the stones of the fireplace. She faced the door as it opened, eyes hard and hot, and then blinked in utter surprise as Amara and Rook entered.
"Mama!" came a small, glad cry, and a girl of perhaps five or six years of age flung herself across the room. Rook stooped to gather her up with a low cry and held the little girl tight against her.
"Countess Amara?" Lady Placida said. The red-haired High Lady came to her feet-only to be jerked up short by the chain, which was set at such a length as to make it impossible for her to stand fully upright.
"Your Grace," Amara murmured, nodding once at Lady Placida. "I've come to-"
"Countess, the door!" Lady Placida cried.
But before she had finished, the heavy door to the chamber slammed shut behind them with a power and a finality that could only be the result of furycraft. Amara spun to the door and tried to open it, but the handle would not turn, and she could not so much as rattle the door in its frame.
"It's trapped." Lady Placida sighed. "Anyone can open it from the other side, but..."
Amara turned back to the High Lady. "I've come to-"
"Rescue me, obviously," Lady Placida said, nodding. "And none too soon. The pig is returning sometime today."
"He arrived but moments ago," Amara said, crossing to Lady Placida. "We have little time, Your Grace."
"Amara, anyone who rescues me from this idiot's soulless little bower should feel free to call me Aria, " Lady Placida said. "But we have a problem." She gestured up the chain fastened to the ring on her neck. "It's not a lock. The chain's been crafted into place. It has to be broken, and if you'll look up..."
Amara did, and found four stone figures glaring down at her, carved shapes of hideous beasts that rested atop the stone pillars at each corner of the room. The gargoyles had to have weighed several hundred pounds each, and Amara knew that even though they would not move with speed any greater than that of a human being, they were so much heavier and more powerful than any human that it would make them altogether deadly to anyone who got in their way. One could not block the unthinkably powerful blow of a gargoyle's fist. One could get out of its way or be crushed by it. There was no middle ground.
"According to my host," Lady Placida said, "the gargoyles are set to animate if they detect my furycrafting." Her mouth twisted bitterly and she glanced significantly at Rook and the little girl. "Moreover, he assured me that I would not be their first victim."
Amara's mouth firmed into a hard line. "The bastard." More screams and shouts came to them from the central stairwell, muffled a low mutter by the thick door. "He's on his way up, by the sound of things."
"Then your team does not have much time," Lady Placida said. "He'll pull out his men and pour fire up the stairwell. He won't mind sacrificing a few of those poor fools in the collars if it means he gets to incinerate a team of the Crown's Cursors."
Amara coughed. "Actually, I'm the only Cursor. This is Rook, lately the head of Kalarus's bloodcrows. She helped us get this far."
Lady Placida's fine, red-gold eyebrows arched sharply, but she looked from Rook to the child, and an expression of comprehension came over her. "I see. And who else?"
"Count Calderon, Aquitainus Invidia, and two of her retainers."
Lady Placida's eyes widened. "Invidia? You're kidding."
"I'm afraid not, my lady."
The High Lady frowned, eyes calculating. "There's little chance that she intends to play this through entirely in good faith, Countess."
"I know," Amara said. "Could you handle the gargoyles if the child wasn't part of the equation?"
"I assume there's at least a chance I could," Lady Placida said, "or Kalarus wouldn't have needed to take the additional measure." She glanced at the child again, tilted her head at each of the statues, and said, "Yes. I can deal with them. But these are close quarters. There won't be much time for me to act-and I can hardly fight them if I am chained to the floor."
Amara nodded, thinking furiously. "Then what we must do," she said, "is determine exactly what your first furycrafting will be."
"One that will free me, put me in a position to destroy the gargoyles quickly, and allow you to leave the chamber so that I don't kill you both while I do so, " Lady Placida said. "And let us not forget that Kalarus will come for me with blood in his eyes if he realizes I'm free."
"It is my hope that you and Lady Aquitaine will be able to neutralize his crafting until we can escape."
"Gaius always did favor optimists in the ranks of the Cursors," Lady Placida said in a dry tone. "I assume you have a brilliant idea of some sort?"
"Well. An idea, at least," Amara said. She glanced back at Rook to make sure she was listening as well. "There's little time, and I'm going to have to ask you both to extend some trust to me. This is what I want to do."