The atmosphere had changed. When Toler closed his eyes and concentrated he could feel it. Mantis was right; they were on the other side. “How did you know about the hole and this tunnel? Razin would have told no one.”
“We don’t have time for this,” Mantis said, his face shining with sweat in the staff light, his eyes wide and nervous. “My plans have specific time-based deadlines. I explained this to your master!”
“You created the hole –”
“We have to keep going.”
“We should stay here and wait for Razin to come to us,” Toler said, panicked, his head reeling. “He knows it’s only a matter of time before we remove the barrier. He’ll be preparing to escape the palace through this tunnel.”
“We can’t take on Razin in this confined space while he has the Sultan with him, it’s too risky. We need to get to the Sultan before the gates give in and Razin prepares to leave. Right now, he thinks he’s safe because the gates are secure, security will be minimal. When we’ve rescued the Sultan you can go back for Razin. I shouldn’t have to explain myself to you. You’re the muscle, not the brains. I was told I’d get your full support. Just do your job!”
Mantis turned away but Toler grabbed him by the arm and spun him back round. “You should watch your mouth. I may be the muscle, but I know this isn’t the plan you agreed with the Association. I don’t know how you’ve tunnelled through the barrier, or why you kept this part of the plan secret, but if anything happens, I’ll feed you to the General!”
Mantis glared back at Toler, seething, but said nothing.
They carried on in silence, Toler’s stomach clenched in a knot of rage. The situation was all wrong. He should never have taken the job of guarding Mantis. It was because he always followed orders. Like when he’d been told to leave Fione and the girls. He was a ‘yes’ man. That’s what everyone thought at least. But they were wrong. He followed orders because he believed in the cause. Once the battle was over, he’d leave and the brotherhood would never see him again.
Toler watched Mantis, scuttling along in his creepy, snivelling way. He couldn’t really be a sorcerer. No one had more power than the brotherhood. Yet a hole had been made in their barrier; he’d felt them pass through it. The barrier had even seemed stronger than it had been under the brotherhood. Much as he hated to admit it, Mantis had power. It explained how he’d managed to amass his cult of followers and how he’d managed to gain Razin’s trust. But how had a man with all that power slipped by the brotherhood undetected? In the end, Toler supposed, none of that mattered. After today he’d never have to worry about Mantis again.
They followed the tunnel up a gradual incline to a stone staircase. At the top a solid wooden panel blocked their way.
“The hinge is on the left. It opens out,” Mantis said and grabbed Toler’s arm. “Please try to be quiet. We’re entering the Sultan’s, or should I say Razin’s, private quarters.”
Toler shook off Mantis and pushed the panel open. It opened into an enormous plush suite filled with beds and divans upholstered in multi-coloured fabrics and dressed in tasselled cushions. Every item seemed to be gilded, and all the surfaces were cluttered with vases or marble busts. The décor was a million stadia from the functional simplicity of Fione’s farmstead and Toler wondered how anyone could need all this pointless fluff. Children were starving in the ghettos outside Aratta and Razin was still extorting taxes and hoarding wealth.
“Where now?” Toler asked.
“We head towards the command room where Razin will be running battle operations. He’ll have the Sultan close in case he needs to flee, so we should check the adjacent meeting rooms.”
“How do you know the Sultan won’t be in the command room with him?”