The Pilgrim Star: Episode 2 – Chapter 3
SILK SLIPPERS slammed against marble as they ran, followed by two pairs of leather boots, hard heels cracking against mottled stone. Kao-Rhee, Prime Councilor to the Daeshen ascendancy, ran along the hall toward the high tahn’s bedchamber, two young guardians close behind him.
Kao-Rhee brushed a hand through his thinning and disheveled hair. The guardians trailing him had woken him from sleep moments before, each babbling over the other about an attempted murder of the high tahn, of pools of blood, and night-slayers dressed as sentinels. He had asked if the tahn lived, and they had only nodded.
Kao-Rhee would have rushed after them in his nightclothes had not his ever-thoughtful wife handed him a robe. He tightened the silken belt around his waist as he approached the four sentinels standing watch outside the high tahn’s bedchamber. Where had these men been when needed? How had night-slayers been able to enter the high tahn’s chambers? How had the palace guard not prevented this? He would determine the answers to his questions and hold those responsible to account.
He saw a body near the door to the high tahn’s room, a puddle of blood from the wound in the dead man’s throat staining the marble floor. The hilt of a dagger still protruded from the man’s neck. Kao-Rhee grimaced and braced for what he expected to see beyond the threshold.
The sentinels standing guard parted and opened the door to the bedchamber as he approached. A bright haze of light assaulted his vision and arrested his motion. The infrequent glow of the lanterns lining the palace halls had not prepared his eyes for the blazing light of the seven oil lamps lit around the sleeping chamber’s perimeter. A wall of odor stabbed at his nostrils, and he raised his palm to cover his nose against the scent of blood and urine and feces. In all, four dead bodies littered the floor of the room, their bowels released with the untethering of their inner spark. Liquid continents of red-black blood congealed along the floor around the bodies, a strange map of death, inked in an intermittent hand.
Four living men occupied the room among the dead. The high tahn, Tin-Tsu, sat at the edge of his canopied bed. Blood soaked his gown where he held his abdomen. Cuts marked his forearms and hands. He looked weary, but very much alive. The tall and always worried-looking High Commander Nedag-Tong of the palace guards stood beside the bed. His sub-commander, Tonken-Wu, stood a respectful distance behind him. Blood caked the sub-commander’s uniform, a still oozing cut slicing down his right cheek. To the other side of the bed stood Tigan Rhog-Kan, his arms crossed over his bearlike chest.
“Are you wounded, my tahn?” Kao-Rhee bent briefly at the waist, executing the customary bow as he spoke.
“A cut in my side, some scratches to my arms. Nothing serious.” The high tahn gave a wan smile.
“Has the palace physician been sent for?” Kao-Rhee turned to the high commander.
“Yes,” the high commander replied. “A runner has been dispatched.”
“I inspected the wounds myself,” Tigan Rhog-Kan added. “The high tahn is in no danger.”
“What happened here?” Kao-Rhee cautiously stepped around a puddle of blood, directing his query to the warden commander.
“I was just explaining to the tigan what seems to have transpired.” High Commander Nedag-Tong clasped his hands behind his back.
Kao-Rhee noted the phrasing of the response. Nedag-Tong always couched his replies in ambiguity.
“Sub-commander Tonken-Wu saved my life.” high Tahn Tin-Tsu nodded toward the sub-commander.
Kao-Rhee examined the warden. The youngest ever promoted to sub-commander, if he remembered correctly. Efficient, if somewhat unimaginative. Kao-Rhee appraised the man as honest, possibly too much so.
Sub-commander Tonken-Wu coughed quickly into his fist before speaking. He appeared nervous, likely at the prospect of explaining himself before his commander, the prime councilor, the tigan, and the high tahn.
“I was walking the halls, double-checking the duty postings, when I noticed only one sentinel outside the high tahn’s rooms. I questioned the man, and he attacked me. After killing him, I entered the bedchamber to find four more men with swords drawn.”
“I had been praying to Ni-Kam-Djen for protection, and the God of All sent me Sub-commander Tonken-Wu.” High Tahn Tin-Tsu reached out a hand to steady himself on the bedpost as he stood. The other men in the room reflexively bowed their heads.
“He bravely placed himself between me and the men come to murder me and killed them all.” High Tahn Tin-Tsu smiled approvingly at Tonken-Wu. “He is a most impressive swordsman.”
“Luck.” The sub-commander bowed his head again.
Kao-Rhee surveyed the room once more. Four dead night-slayers, all armed, and one more dead outside the door. Sub-commander Tonken-Wu had a reputation as an excellent swordsman, and this would extend it to legend. Were anyone to ever hear of it.
“The events of this night must remain with those of us in this room.” Kao-Rhee turned from the sub-commander to the high tahn. “Until we can uncover what vile forces put these murderous men in your chambers, my tahn, we must hold all knowledge of it tightly. Our adversaries will take advantage even from the merest hint of a near successful regicide on the eve of your coronation.”
“The work of the heretic Tanshen usurper, no doubt.” Tigan Rhog-Kan scowled. “We should prepare a retaliation for the inevitable verdict against his treachery.”
“I agree on both points.” Commander Nedag-Tong glanced at the dead men. “I will have the guardians and sentinels attending now sequestered until the coronation is concluded. I will also have these bodies disposed of and the room locked until we find the Tanshen agents responsible for breaching the sanctity of the high tahn’s chambers.”
“It would help if our eager warden had left one of them alive to question.” Tigan Rhog-Kan frowned at Sub-commander Tonken-Wu.
“My apologies, Tigan.” Tonken-Wu bowed his head once more. “I was … unskilled in my actions.”
“How did these men even come to be here?” the tigan’s eyes darted to High Commander Nedag-Tong with his query.
“I am afraid this is my responsibility as well,” the sub-commander said before his superior could reply. “The men the night-slayers posed as are missing. It is possible they are dead. It was my duty to make the watch roster in advance of the coronation. I should have placed more men at the high tahn’s door and at the cross halls. Had I done so, the night-slayers would have been discovered sooner and the high tahn might never have been in danger. I submit myself for discipline.”
Sub-commander Tonken-Wu lowered his head, his eyes locked on his feet. The young man’s sudden concessionary contrition left the others in silence. Kao-Rhee cleared his throat.
“Knowing who is responsible for the failure of the palace guards does not tell us anything about the men sent to kill the high tahn. The fact that you saved the life of the high tahn is commendable. However, by the admission of your own words, had you not failed in your duty, the high tahn would not have needed your personal protection.” Kao-Rhee looked to High Commander Nedag-Tong. “I will leave your punishment to your commander.”
“You will be demoted to junior guardian.” High Commander Nedag-Tong’s voice sounded stern.
Too stern to Kao-Rhee’s ears. The commander felt pleased, no doubt, to so swiftly have someone to fault for the night’s nearly calamitous fiasco. A blame that would not tarnish his own name.
“I’d have any soldier of mine whipped for such negligence,” Tigan Rhog-Kan spat.
“There will be no whipping,” High Tahn Tin-Tsu spoke loudly, bringing all eyes to his own, even those of Tonken-Wu. “Nor will the sub-commander be demoted. Until further notice, he will be my personal escort. He has proved himself exceptionally adept at protecting my person. He will accompany me at my discretion. Particularly today.”
“Are you certain this is a wise notion, my tahn?” Tigan Rhog-Kan said. “A man who has failed you once may fail you again.”
“This is not a notion, Tigan; this is my command.” High Tahn Tin-Tsu stood a little taller. Even in night slippers, he could look over the tigan’s head. “And he did not fail me. He saved my life.”
“Of course, my tahn.” Tigan Rhog-Kan lowered his eyes and his voice.
“It will be as you desire, my tahn.” Kao-Rhee noted how easily the high tahn, away for seventeen years from the palace and its subtle displays of power in search of advantage, managed to assert his authority with such ease. He had not expected it from a mendicant priest, even one of royal blood. Apparently, High Tahn Tin-Tsu had not forgotten all the lessons of his childhood. Kao-Rhee remembered offering some of those lessons himself to the soft-natured youth, tutoring him in the ways of statesmanship with his elder brother. While his brother, Fan-Mutig, had taken to the instructions of statecraft with enthusiasm, young Tin-Tsu had been recalcitrant, always more interested in poetry and the Kam-Djen scrolls than in the history of the realm and the means for its proper management. He wondered how the tahn had changed during his self-imposed exile. Could that once gentle boy have become a man hard enough to rule the dominion and defeat their enemies?
“There is much to do for the coronation, my tahn,” Kao-Rhee said. “Once the physician has examined your person, you may wish to rest before the day’s events overtake us with their inevitability.”
“I require little sleep,” High Tahn Tin-Tsu said. “And we have more to contend with than merely the coronation or murderers loose in the palace halls. Have you seen the sky?”
“The sky, my tahn?” Kao-Rhee had left his pillows and his wife to come directly to the high tahn’s bedchamber. While he had passed several windows, he had not thought to look through them.
The high tahn gestured toward Tonken-Wu. “Open the curtains.”
Tonken-Wu went to the balcony door and pulled back the drapes to reveal the night sky. A large red star sat above the rooftops beyond the palace gardens. Kao-Rhee had always thought of stars like holes in a blanket held up before the brilliant light of the sun. If the other stars were pinpricks, this star, this luminous nocturnal aberration, tore a rent in the fabric of the night.
Kao-Rhee recognized what the star implied. He had not had the dreams himself — a mind pure in the faith of Ni-Kam-Djen could not be swayed by the Dark Sight even in sleep — but he understood what its arrival portended for the future zhan and the dominion. It could not be coincidence the star arrived in the sky on the eve before the high tahn assumed the ascendancy.
“We must prepare for unprecedented chaos to attend the coronation,” Kao-Rhee said. “We must prepare wisely.”