As far as Mira was concerned, the most important feature of the room they’d given her was the bed. She’d slept outside on the cold ground too many times to take that particular piece of furniture for granted ever again. It was a real bed too, not a narrow, flat cot like she’d had in the infirmary.
Mira walked past Maluk and flopped face-first into the bed. “Ungh,” she said into the blankets, “my clothes are still wet.”
She rolled onto her back and sat up. Maluk regarded her silently from the door, his eyes unblinking. “We are still investigating the assassination attempt,” he said. “For now, you are not to leave this room without me. Hopefully, we’ll have this matter resolved in a few days, and you will be free to move around as you like and begin your work with the Order.”
“So you’re my babysitter?” Mira asked.
Maluk cocked his head to one side. “I’m not sure I understand. I am your bodyguard.”
Mira sighed and stood up. “Well, guard me from the hall. I need to get out of these wet clothes and finish drying… oh damn it. I left my heartstone with that guard at the council meeting.”
“It will remain safe until you reclaim it later.”
“Yeah, but…” Mira paused. It was a struggle to put it into words. “I feel… unarmed, I guess, without it. We should go get it.”
“You are safe enough in this room,” Maluk said. “You need rest right now, time to recover from the journey.”
“I’d rest easier if I had it back. Is it possible to talk you into getting it for me?”
“I am supposed to be safeguarding you,” he said.
“I promise I will lock the door behind you and not leave the room.”
Maluk looked like he wanted to object, but he just said, “Very well. I shall return in a few minutes. Do not open the door for anyone besides me. I will tap a two-short-one long beat into the door when I return.”
Then he was gone. Mira slid the lock into place and dropped heavily back onto the bed.
* * *
It had been years since Maluk had been in the main headquarters of the Order. He remembered the way well enough, but other members kept trying to stop him to talk. He explained, quickly, that he was on the job and didn’t have time to catch up, then moved on. If any of them took offense, they did it behind his back and out of his hearing.
He retraced the route from Mira’s new room back to the audience hall where the Council had received her. The door was closed, but he tested it and found it still unlocked. Maluk passed through the waiting room and knocked on the door leading into the audience hall before entering.
The Council’s guards were prone to acting first, asking questions after. Maluk wasn’t interested in being pummeled by surprising whoever was on the other side of the door. He waited a few seconds before cracking the door open, long enough to give the guard time to react so that he didn’t instinctively lash out.
Gorgomach stood in the connecting hallway, hands spread and ready to lunge. He straightened up when Maluk poked his head through the door and nodded at the shorter demon. Behind him, the murmur of conversation could be heard between Councilmen.
Maluk pointed at the pouch sitting on a shelf off to Gorgomach’s side. The ogre demon lifted it up and bounced it into the air with his hand. He titled his head and held it out toward Maluk.
Maluk nodded, and Gorgomach tossed him the pouch. Maluk lifted his hand in thanks and retreated back into the waiting room. He closed the door behind him and upended the pouch into his free hand. The green vilraf heartstone Mira has been using tumbled out.
Maluk nodded to himself and stuck the rock back into its pouch. Before he could leave though, a sentence caught his ear. From through the door, he distinctly heard Councilor Grove say, “We already know how Mira’s ancestors were banished. It’s not possible to do it again.”
It wasn’t that Maluk was trying to eavesdrop. His senses were simply so sharp that a few walls weren’t enough to block out the conversation. Learning to filter out all the details his enhanced senses piled on him had formed the bulk of his training when he had been human, but he’d mastered his heartstone and used it to such an extent that it had bonded permanently with his own heart.
Hearing Mira’s name had caught his attention though, and he paused in the empty room. “It will give us time to work with her if she thinks we’re looking into it,” Alyr said.
“We could just be honest with her,” Grove argued. “There are other avenues we can look into. She seems like a reasonable young woman.”
“No,” Tahlana said, her voice clipped. Maluk could practically see the expression on her face. He’d been on the receiving end far too many times. That tone meant they’d had the conversation already and she wasn’t going to humor them by going through the motions again. “We can look for alternative means to fulfill her request, but she will be much more cooperative if she doesn’t know we’ve already ruled out the one way she thinks is a sure thing.”
“This is a waste of time anyway. Our primary focus should be on breaking Ilrot’s stranglehold over the North Velora region. We need to deny him access to those resources.”
That was Hald. He had a very narrow-minded view of the world. Things that didn’t advance his agenda weren’t worth considering unless they were obstacles, and then they were to be removed as efficiently and as quickly as possible.
He was Maluk’s primary suspect as the Councilman who might be behind the attempted assassination. If he’d found out that Mira had broken one of the seals, Maluk had no doubt she would become an acceptable casualty in Hald’s mind to prevent even the risk that he might someday recover it.
“Enough,” the dual-toned voice of Haze cut through the rest of the Council. “The girl will not be informed that her request is impossible. Grove will search for a different way to send her back to her home, but she will not be released even if he finds it until she has finished her work with Alyr. Some of you may be content in your bodies, but there are those among us who long for human form again.”
Maluk shivered. Of all the Councilmen, Haze was the scariest. They were one of the very few survivors of the early attempts to separate demon hunter and heartstone, one that had resulted in two people being fused into one consciousness. Their dual identities had resulted in several instabilities in Haze’s personality, but the drastic increase in their power gave Haze the clout needed to defeat all challengers.
Haze might have been mad, but they were a brilliant madmen at least. Unpredictability aside, it was difficult to distinguish between madness and genius, and Haze had proved right too many times to be questioned. They had undoubtedly earned their position as head of the council.
There were murmurs of assent from the rest of the council. Some, like Grove’s, were reluctant. Others were bored. The message was clear though, and politics aside, Maluk doubted any of them would openly cross Haze. Mira wouldn’t be informed that the Order already knew how her ancestors had been banished or that they couldn’t replicate the process.
That was interesting. Maluk wondered how long it would take her to figure it out for herself. He imagined that his job would become considerably harder once she did.
* * *
Mira answered Maluk’s knock wearing a blanket and nothing else. Her clothes were draped across the room’s meager furnishings, and while she’d hoped to find something dry to wear inside the wardrobe, she hadn’t been that lucky. So she’d made do with what she had and sat huddled on the bed.
It had barely taken Maluk ten minutes to return. Mira opened the door a few inches and looked out into the hall. “You have it?” she asked.
“Here,” he said, holding the pouch up.
Mira took it from him and opened it to find her heartstone inside. “Thank you,” she said, and started to close the door.
She stopped when she realized Maluk was staring at her. “Was there something else?” she asked, suddenly self conscious about her lack of clothes under the blanket.
“No,” he said, after a pause. “I will see you when you wake.”
Mira closed the door and climbed back into bed, the heartstone still in hand. “Well that was weird,” she muttered to herself.
* * *
Mira dressed herself in clothes that were dry, if not clean. She had no idea how long she’d slept, but no one had come to wake her up, and the only reason she’d gotten out of bed at all was because her bladder had driven her to.
She dressed in a hurry and opened the door to find Alyr standing there, Maluk behind him. He had one hand up to knock on the door, his mouth formed into an O of surprise. “What’s up?” she asked.
“It’s time to get to work,” Alyr said.
“Ok. Great. I need a bathroom first, then some food.”
“Ah. Of course. How thoughtless of me,” he said with a frown. “It’s been so long, I sometimes forget about human needs.”
They went off, the teenaged-looking demon in front, Mira in the middle, and tall and slender Maluk bringing up the back of the line. She suspected the formation wasn’t a coincidence. “Do you really still think I’m in danger?” she asked Alyr in a low voice.
“We can’t be sure,” he replied without looking back. “Until we know why you were attacked and if Lortas was acting alone or under instruction, we’re going to take steps to ensure your safety.”
“Fantastic. I thought the whole point of relocating was that I’d be safe here.”
“Safety is relative. You’re safer from outside threats, but there are different factions here, and you could be caught up in our politics very easily. I do not suspect you’ll wake up to assassins in the night again. The dangers here are more subtle.”
“Fantastic,” Mira repeated.
After finishing her business in the privy, Alyr showed Mira where to find food. Little of what was being passed out in the cafeteria was what Mira recognized as edible, but then again, very few of the people eating there looked even remotely human.
She settled for some thinly sliced meat and a chunk of cheese that she carved up to make pseudo-sandwiches out of. Maluk helped himself to a meat dish as well, though his was completely raw. Alyr just watched sadly and gave a wistful sigh every now and then.
“Now, we’re a little bit behind schedule, but I think we can make up for it,” Alyr said. “If you’ll follow me.”
“Where are we going, and what are we doing?” Mira asked.
“A place I’d rather avoid, were it not necessary,” Alyr told her. “When the Order was first founded, we made several serious attempts at reversing our condition. The results were unpredictable, but never came close to being successful. Some people died. Others lived but had to be put down. Some few lived but became… deranged.
“They’re reminders of our failures. Our best minds have studied them, tried to figure out where we went wrong, how to correct it for the next attempt. Even now, so many years later, we’ve still kept them alive. We think we have the solution, finally, but it came a century too late to be useful until we found you.
“We’re going to visit some of these people, and see if you can do what we hope that you can. It will be the first step in freeing us from this curse.”
Alyr took a deep breath and said, “We’re going to the asylum.”