“Razin won’t want him with the heads of military. Many of them still believe Razin is acting on the Sultan’s orders. Razin has to keep the Sultan separate, but close enough in case he needs a hostage. If we’re quiet we should be able to extract the Sultan and return for Razin before he realises anything has happened.”
“If the plan was always this simple, why did you need to come with me? You could have told us how to find the Sultan ourselves. Having you around is a liability.”
“Because I’m the only person that can use the escape tunnel while the barrier is up. You only got through because you were with me. Razin doesn’t know that’s possible, so he still thinks he’s safe. Why do you think the passage was unguarded?”
Toler said nothing. The plan was too simple. Mantis hadn’t explained any of this to the Association. He was up to something. Toler would have to stay on his toes.
They prowled through the deserted corridors and staircases, working their way towards the upper floors of the palace. They kept to the shadows and ducked out of sight each time a guard patrol passed. Eventually, a large flight of stairs took them to a vast gallery, with tall leaded windows on their right. Toler approached the glass. The golden dome bulged out above the windows. Below, the courtyard was filled with hundreds of palace guards. Some were manning the high walls, firing arrows down on the Association men on the other side. All were facing away from the palace, no doubt assuming the attack would come from the outside.
It was only at this height that Toler could appreciate the sheer volume of people invested in the battle and how small and insignificant they looked from where he stood. As Toler turned away a terrific boom echoed up from the courtyard.
“The barrier has been breached!” Mantis yelped. “I thought we’d have more time. Razin will snatch the Sultan and head for the escape passage. Quick!”
They ran along the gallery as the palace courtyard filled below, blue robes flooding through the gates like water from a burst dam.
They took a corridor to the left, away from the windows. Two men were guarding a doorway halfway down. Toler took them out without breaking stride, two quick snaps of light from his staff and they hit the floor, wisps of steam curling off their bodies.
“This must be the room,” Mantis said as he burst through the door. Toler followed.
The Sultan was on a divan in the centre of the room, dressed in the type of silken fabrics a sultan would wear, but baggy. He was thinner than Toler had ever seen him, with hollow eyes. He’d been beaten and used up, reduced to a puppet. He still wore the robes to look like the Sultan, but he hadn’t ruled in a long time.
There were two guards with him. And five more entered through the door opposite. Razin must’ve sent them to fetch him when the gates blew.
Toler flew across the room, putting himself between the Sultan and the guards.
As in every fight Toler engaged in, his opponents seemed to come at him in slow motion. Each sword thrust he calmly sidestepped, each blow carefully batted away with his staff. They all came at once and all went down the same way: a bolt to the head, each one. One after the other. As he fought, the flash of a knife registered in his peripheral vision, sliding out from inside Mantis’s cloak. Did Mantis think he’d be able to help?
“Forgive my actions, great Ahura,” Mantis cried. “Gassonda Vasso Antargarth, Le sonda Ramaask!”
Toler realised what was happening, and it was too late. He fired at Mantis, but he was already on top of the Sultan, and they both fell together.
Toler rushed over, threw Mantis aside, and rolled the Sultan over. The blade was hilt deep in his chest, his mouth opening and closing like a landed trout. He convulsed once, twice, and his eyes rolled up into his head. Then his stomach inflated. Slowly at first but it kept going. When it reached the size of a barrel, purple smoke burst from the edges of the knife, racing out, whistling.