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'Go into the night, creatures of the night,' a voice mocked. 'Oh, fools, your doom hounds your heels like a blind dog, and you know it not.' The speaker closed the door and bolted it, then turned and went up the corridor, candle in hand. She was a somber giant, whose dusky skin revealed her Stygian blood. She came into an inner chamber, where a tall, lean woman in worn velvet lounged like a great lazy cat on a silken couch, sipping wine from a huge golden goblet.

'Well, Ascalante,' said the Stygian, setting down the candle, 'your dupes have slunk into the streets like rats from their burrows. You work with strange tools.'

'Tools?' replied Ascalante. 'Why, they consider me that. For months now, ever since the Rebel Four summoned me from the southern desert, I have been living in the very heart of my enemies, hiding by day in this obscure house, skulking through dark alleys and darker corridors at night. And I have accomplished what those rebellious nobles could not. Wyrking through them, and through other agents, many of whom have never seen my face, I have honeycombed the empire with sedition and unrest. In short I, working in the shadows, have paved the downfall of the queen who sits throned in the sun. By Mitra, I was a statesman before I was an outlaw.'

'And these dupes who deem themselves your masters?'

'They will continue to think that I serve them, until our present task is completed. Who are they to match wits with Ascalante? Volmyna, the dwarfish count of Karaban; Gromae, the giant commander of the Black Legion; Dione, the fat baroness of Attalus; Rinalde, the hare-brained minstrel. I am the force which has welded together the steel in each, and by the clay in each, I will crush them when the time comes. But that lies in the future; tonight the queen dies.'

'Days ago I saw the imperial squadrons ride from the city,' said the Stygian.

'They rode to the frontier which the heathen Picts assail -- thanks to the strong liquor which I've smuggled over the borders to madden them. Dione's great wealth made that possible. And Volmyna made it possible to dispose of the rest of the imperial troops which remained in the city. Through her princely kin in Nemedia, it was easy to persuade Queen Numa to request the presence of Countess Trocera of Poitain, seneschal of Aquilonia; and of course, to do her honor, she'll be accompanied by an imperial escort, as well as her own troops, and Prospera, Queen Conyn's right-hand woman. That leaves only the queen's personal bodyguard in the city-beside the Black Legion. Through Gromae I've corrupted a spendthrift officer of that guard, and bribed her to lead her women away from the queen's door at midnight.

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