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Shannon came storming into the conference room, took off one of her heels, and whipped it at the lamp. It made a splintering crunch and spilled onto the floor. "What--the fuck--do you damnfool hotheads think you're DOIN'?"
"Shannon, calm down," said Duncan.
"Calm *down*? I'm the one you damn near got killed!" She threw her other shoe at Duncan, who caught it. "Not only that, you do it in the stupidest, most ineffective way conceivable, and you dinna bother to tell me about it. If you'd *told* me you were plannin' on ambushin' the damn Siala I could have been there, made it look like I was in danger too, but no, *you* have to abandon me over a masterstroke that failed abominably. Now half the higher-ups are sure I'm a spy. All the damn masses are riled up. What is this you suddenly decide my advice sucks, my input on a new plan would be worthless, and my life's not worth a fairy promise? You can just get yourself a new crack agent and watch as they bloody well trip over their own--"
"Shannon, will you please calm down. We didn't have time to contact you."
"Well from now on you make time, you hear me? Or it's not worth the peanuts you're payin' me to keep a spy in the revolution. *I* could have told you your bloody great tower is outmoded as all hell. Who's the genius who didn't put any inhibitive magicks on MacLir?"
"*You* told us the resistance didn't have any mages," said Finn, unpleasantly.
She threw her arms out. "I told you they dinna have any mages worth countin' in on a fight! I told you they had nothin' Colleen and Math had to worry about, much less the King's High-Bloody-Mage! I never said they didn't have any two-bit hedgers who could do some moron teleport spell!"
"No one had ever done a 'port into the Tower before," mumbled Colleen, embarrassed.
"No one ever locked up a demagogue in it, either." She sat down deflated with fury. "I think it was a bad move to start with, but it was for damn sure a bad move if you werena goin' to carry it through. You've got egg all over your face now and you've already given this revolution far too much legitimacy. And my usefulness is hampered as all hell."
"Are you going to be able to go back?"
She spread her hands. "I dinna ken. I'm willin' to try. Dee still trusts me and I'll bet blood MacLir does. Did a lot of public weepin' over him. Demeanin' as all bloody hell."
"I'm sorry," said Duncan.
"Yeah, I'll bet you are." She gestured sourly at Ted. "Get me a drink."
"So where do we go from here?"
"You want my opinion? Lay low. And next time you decide to expend visible effort tryin' to uproot the thing consult me. The whole reason I'm followin' them is to keep you on top of little trivia like that."
"The military guard does not like informing you of every move it makes," said Finn.
"Then the military guard should go screw itself and not bother employin' an intelligence corps," Shannon snapped back. "As I recall your superiors approved heartily of my placement."
He eyed her. "I don't like MacLir. I think he's dangerous."
"He is dangerous. That's why we have to handle him carefully."
"I'll bet you do."
She gave him a withering look. "Don't get jealous now, MacAlpine."
"Cut it out, both of you," said Duncan, hard. "We have real things to worry about."
She sighed and scratched one of her eyebrows. "Okay. I suggest we ease off and let them make the first move. In fact I suggest you give me something non-essential to feed them, to get 'em trustin' me again and to get 'em overconfident. I thought this was goin' to peter out but what with the castle guard fightin' 'em like a legitimate enemy and you takin' and torturin' their figurehead--"
"You call that torture?" said Finn.
"Who cares what I call it? I dinna call anythin' that happens in one night torture. All I know is if you were goin' to execute him the morrow, which if you're dumber than I thought and planned not to don't even tell me, beatin' him doesna serve a damn purpose but to stir the people's blood. Don't tell me you got anythin' out of him I'd not told you already."
Finn didn't say anything.
"You catch more flies with honey than vinegar."
"I didn't have enough time."
"You werena *goin'* to have enough time."
"I enjoyed it," he said darkly.
She sighed and put her head in her hands. "Finn," she said. "You need to consider contingencies. He escaped, and he escaped lookin' like he had the crap kicked out of him by some guard just for the fun of it. That infuriates people. You dinna understand this."
"I don't think it's the end of the world," said Duncan.
"No, but coupled with all this other stuff it doesna help. You just gave them a free photo op." She pulled at her hair. "Never mind. Here's the deal. It's too late for me to diffuse this thing slowly. I really believe I could've done it, but they're too psyched up and full of themselves now. Tell you what I'll do is play it opposite, take the key players out against the castle within the year. I'll throw 'em a sop victory or two, somethin' expendable; get 'em overconfident and assault the castle proper. They have no idea the kind of magic we've got. I'll warn you about it ahead of time, I'll let you know how as we go along. If you're expectin' 'em it won't cost you but a few ground troops, and the Druids can't bitch at you for defendin' the castle. Take 'em all down with excessive force and the public will forget about these little bobbles. Okay?"
Duncan nodded approvingly. "Contained fire beats a wildfire any day. It makes a lot of sense. Are you sure you'll be able to contact us?"
"I'm the only intelligence they've got." Colleen snickered. "I'm more worried about being killed by a zealot, but I think MacLir will protect me." She paused deeply. "But this was my one screw-up, Dunc. I get implicated in anythin' again and you can kiss my ass goodbye. Do we understand each other?"
"We'll be careful. I'm sorry this backfired the way it did."
"Yeah, well." She chewed a piece of her hair. "It might have worked if you'd consulted me. My damages would certainly be smaller if you'd at least warned me to go with the Siala group. Don't go cuttin' me out of the loop."
"Don't worry, Shannon." Duncan smiled, unexpectedly. "We can't afford to lose you."
"That's the spirit." She grinned back. "Plan B sit all right with you, Finn?"
"All this waiting makes me nervous."
"Got a good, politic way to break into a Druid's house and kill the people takin' refuge there up your sleeve?"
"I read you." He leaned back in his chair. "Just understand that if I get my hands on pretty-boy again the last thing you're worried about is a photo op."
She raised her eyebrow at him, the corners of her mouth perking. "Let's not let our personal inadequacies get in the way of doin' this job right, hey?" she said, soft and wry, as if she were trying to keep from laughing at him. She was halfway to Deirdre's before she let the smile out, and it was an unpleasant one, curled with real amusement. "Finn MacAlpine," she said, smiling and shaking her head. She plucked a dandelion from the side of the road, turned it in her small precise fingers. "You just made the biggest mistake of your life." Shannon flicked its head off neatly with her thumbnail.
Shannon tiptoed barefoot down the stairs, and Dancer found himself impressed enough with her capacity to keep quiet when she so desired that he didn't announce her, just continued explaining the strategic situation and watched Alain's face. No, he didn't hear her. "It would be a trivial thing, really, for us to secure control over the warehouses," he said, his hand sliding inobtrusively to his throwing knife, just in case she decided to stab him in the back. You could never be too careful. "Once we had that kind of proximity to the castle we could--"
Shannon slipped her hands over Alain's goggles, and he turned his head as his vision suddenly cut off. She met his slight frown with her tongue. Dancer drummed his fingers. "Miss me?"
"You had to do it. I won't get a practical word out of him all night now."
Shannon laughed like bells, hanging around Alain's neck with her eyes glittering out from her sparkling red hair. "Tell me, Dancer, have you ever been laid in your life?"
"Not in a war conference. I'd advise against it, the adoring masses tend to think poorly of such excesses."
"We're hardly being improper, Dancer," said Alain, with the steady finality of a man who knew he was closing a subject. "Go on with the warehouses, I'm listening. If we can't take a few minutes the day to appreciate one another we might as well live with the government."
Dancer smoothed the tactical maps, shaking his head slightly; he looked at them, then back at Alain and Shannon. "At least you won't live long enough to see her old and ugly."
Shannon pursed her lips in comic indignation. "I canna believe the two of you work together."
"He needs me to run his army," said Dancer. "I need him to lead it. Ours is an honest and solid relationship that doesn't pretend its origin isn't in hard unspoken needs."
Shannon flinched back a little, screwing her face up. "Do you ever plan on getting laid at *all*?"
"I plan on living to be fifty."
"And I on living as long as I can to its fullest," said Alain, quietly. "Sometimes that involves faith."
"He's goin' to live forever," Shannon said, her nails tight on his shoulder.
"Straighten your skirt, Shannon, your needs are showing."
Something horizontal streaked past his line of sight and slammed into his windpipe, crosswise. The impact lost his breath and brought tears to his eyes. He lurched back and met a knee with his spinal column, ears ringing; went automatically for his sword, which of course wasn't there. Assassinated at a picnic. Dancer was going to die laughing. There was a dull chinging sound as a heavy metal object glanced off the feystone, just above his left ear; Alain struggled to his feet and smashed the lemonade pitcher over his head and back into something solid. The bar relaxed somewhat. "Run, Shannon!"
She backed off a few steps and watched with trembling fascination. Alain forced his fingers between the bar and his throat, straining from the shoulder; there was a tense second's tug-of-war, and then something exploded into the back of his head. Two of them. Alain smelled blood. "Shannon, get my sword," he croaked, trying to keep his balance. He pivoted his weight into the rod suddenly, swinging him and it back into his assailant. It was a burly stranger with a bald head. "Shannon!"
The mace clocked him in the side of the head again, and he slipped to his knee in the grass. *Damn* it. The bar caught his throat again, and he gritted his teeth and clawed at it. Shannon turned her face sidewise. "God damn ye," she said, soft, "finish it."
The end of a sword blade bloomed from Alain's chest, and he tilted his head down at it sickly. The world began to dissolve into background noise; he picked out Shannon's spirited sharp tongue dancing: "...when you've brought me back home y'll be gettin' the rest; I've done my part and plenty and you can bloody well pay me if it's thinkin' you are I am..."
"Shannon," he started, changed his mind, and died.
"Oh, let him alone," said Shannon, low.
"Can't leave a corpse unlooted, ma'am." He cracked a grin at her. "Downright unprofessional. Bet we can get fifty gold off those shades in the black market, what?"
Shannon punched him in the face.
The mercenary yelled and sprawled to the ground, taken completely off guard. His fellow roared laughter. "Shut up," he told him, unpleasantly. "You think I'm afraid to leave your body rotting here too?"
"Yes," she spat, standing over him with blood on her knuckles. "Because I havena paid you yet. Get up, shut up, and take me home."
He sat up sullenly, wiping his nose. "This was *your* idea, you neurotic bitch. Don't go playing holier-than-thou with me now. If we leave valuables here they're going to know it wasn't a robbery; they're going to say it was an assassination, and they're going to come looking for us."
"Then you're nine times an idiot, because they're goin' to say it anyway. Get me the hell out of here."
Behind them, slowly, a faint glow began.
Declan came in white as a ghost. "Dancer," he said.
The thin mastermind looked up and frowned.
"It's Alain MacLir. He's dead."
There was about three seconds of shocked silence and then Dancer's fist exploded into the table. "*Fuck*!" Rowan looked at Deirdre; Deirdre just stared. Branwen, of all people, started quietly to cry. "Why *now*? Dec, please tell me he died under torture or something."
Dancer exhaled. "Atta boy, Ideals, come through one last time. We can do this."
"Dancer--that psychic kid in your group tracked down one of the assassins." He licked his lips. "Shannon hired him."
"*Fuck*, I needed her!" Dancer hit his head sideways into the wall, more stressed than Rowan had ever seen him. Deirdre put her white hands on the table. "I would lose my martyr and my PR chick the same fucking day. All right, everyone knew she was a spy. This could be worse. A government spy just murdered a dissident orator and I'll bet blood the castle didn't consult the Druids. Deirdre?"
"I'll speak to the High Druid," she whispered. "He won't like it."
"We need to get the people up. What do you think are the chances of Shannon helping us rally if we don't tell her we know she did it?"
Branwen said a Gaelic word so rude that even Dancer didn't bother acknowledging it. "I don't trust her," said Rowan.
"I never trusted her, but I could use her help." He sighed. "Never mind. Rowan, congratulations, you're king of Brytannwch. Once Deirdre's done with the Druids you go talk to them and ally like hell. King Evered killed Alain MacLir. End of story. And get Shannon executed while you're there. She always was a bitch." He rubbed his nose. "We've got to hit the castle within the week. Two tops. The Druids are key, Deirdre, don't let us down."
"Yes, sir," she whispered. "May I be excused, please?"
Dancer looked up at her as though he had just noticed she was there. He started to speak, stopped, and then said "Just talk to them today, all right?"
"And you don't need the 'sir'." He looked at the military papers before him, and swept them to the floor like trash. "Your Highness."
Deirdre didn't answer at all, she just walked a little unsteadily from the room.
"Right. Bran, Declan, go and start spreading this. If you see that kid Praxis, send him to me. This changes everything, and we need to start planning today. Get the people furious enough that when Rowan calls they'll come."
"That won't be hard," said Branwen, harshly. "People loved him, Dancer."
"Then remind them of that." Dancer sighed and turned to Rowan. "Sorry, Row. You're the closest thing to a figurehead I've got now. The Druids had better go for this, we don't have a lot of time."
"Thank you," said Rowan.
Dancer paused again; maybe he was trying to think of a witty way to interpret it, or maybe he was genuinely confused. "For what?"
"For not saying I told you so."
Dancer made an exhausted grin. "Frankly, Rowan, this sucks, but we may well salvage something. MacLir had the grace to die in character, and we're fools not to use it. Evered can't fight a dead man."
It didn't strike her until she saw Deirdre behind him, tall and quiet and very much part of the background. The druid touched the stone of her torc, no expression in her grey eyes, and Shannon retreated a step. Deirdre. Deirdre knew.
Rowan spoke. "Brytannwch *will* be victorious, Shannon. We will be a free people. Your treacheries will not change that."
"Ach, Rowan, and it's a traitor you'd be callin' me now?" She wheeled on him. "Call me a murderer if you have to but I've done more for your goddamn revolution than any ten men. You know as well as I do I've not hurt the cause."
"I thought you loved me," said Deirdre, softly, almost imperceptibly.
Shannon rolled her head back, breathing.
"The High Druid has called for your execution," said Rowan, "as a government assassin."
She ignored him. "Deirdre, I can explain this. Let me explain."
Deirdre waited, tall and fragile. Her eyes were empty and grey. It was all over. Shannon tried twice anyway, her vision starting to blur. "Forgive me, Dee," she finally whispered.
She was silent a moment. "I am here to pass judgment."
"Deirdre!" She stumbled forward, choking, and fell at her friend's feet. "For the love of God!"
"We have chosen to be merciful," said Rowan coldly, behind her. "You may get up."
"FUCK you!" she shouted blindly over her shoulder at him. "You talk about the stupidest fuckin' things, Rowan, do you really think I care about them? What do I want with your bloody fuckin' *mercy*? Draw and quarter me, why don't you! I need--to be forgiven." She was shaking uncontrollably by now, and buried her face in the white robe. "Forgive me, Deirdre!"
Deirdre laid her hand slowly on Shannon's head. "The gods forgive you if they've grace enough," she said. "Alain's shade forgive you. I--wish I were big enough." She withdrew the hand. "By order of the High Druid, you are banished from this land, Shannon Cormyr. Set foot on this soil again and it shall swallow you into itself; should it fail, I authorize King Rowan of Brytannwch to carry out its command." She repeated herself in quick, harsh Gaelic, and stepped back from Shannon, safe in ritual. Shannon wiped her nose on her sleeve. "King?"
"We declared ourselves a nation this morning," said Rowan. "It was as good a morning as any. I accepted the title."
"Good luck." She stood shakily. "Do you want me to-- sign somethin'. I should. Confessin'. So it doesna look we've been victims of a coup."
Rowan looked shocked. "I hadn't--"
"--thought of that." She smiled sickly. "You should get someone--to think of these things for you--I'm leavin'-- you goddam heroes think--too highly of people--get yourself killed--" Shannon buckled over, her lips moving incoherently, and lapsed into unconsciousness.
Deirdre paced the room in jerky wooden movements, lighting candles and mumbling in Gaelic. Rowan sighed. "Dee. Please come to bed, please. It's been a long day for us all."
"No," she said, softly.
"Deirdre, I know you're upset." He crossed to her. "This hit us all pretty hard. But making yourself sick isn't going to change anything. He was a great man and now he's dead. We'll free Brytannwch for him, but it's all we can do. Please, come to bed."
"I have to prepare for the solstice."
"Deirdre, you've said the solstice prayers five times!" He took her by the shoulder and she turned on him screaming "Leave me alone!" The desperation of it drove him back a few steps, and she turned her back on him, shaking, she took a yellow candle up in her hand and held it harder than was necessary with her trembling fingers. "Deirdre," said Rowan. "Deirdre, there's nobody here but me. It's all right to mourn death. Even natural things can hurt sometimes." She watched the yellow wax trickle down her hand. "Dee, honey, look." He took her wrists from behind, gently but firmly, and she let him. She just stood there, still. "Deirdre, I'm sorry. I know how close you were. This will be so much easier if you just face it."
"I killed him," she said, very softly.
He paused a shocked second. "Oh, Deirdre, don't be--"
"I loved something terrible and he paid the price. I should never have brought her here."
"Dee, you couldn't have known."
"I did know." Her voice was flat and impossibly soft, he had to strain to hear her. "I always knew. I loved her anyway. I loved her because of it. Alain could never have seen it coming. He trusted too much. Oh my poor angel. How could I have brought her near to anything so pure?"
"Dee, Deirdre, honey, please, please put down the candle, sweetheart, please, please come with me."
"I should have killed her but I couldn't. I still can't. Oh, Shannon, Shannon. How could even you?" She set down the candle, gently. The prints of her fingers were swollen in its sides. "How could you?"
"How could you?"
"No," said Deirdre, softly. "She didn't betray Brytannwch. Just Alain, and me."
"We all knew she was a spy," Rowan said.
"No," said Deirdre. "You have to kill symbols-- publicly, and with--daunting law. Otherwise everything explodes." There was a fragile silence. "If she meant to destroy the revolution she would have. We are going to win this independence." She closed her hand. "By any means necessary, hey, Shannon?" The fingernail marks began slowly to bloom on her palm.
"Evered!" Duncan moved to the window, something in the furious pain of the cry rustling uneasiness in him. A single stone-pale woman stood in the courtyard, holding a claymore up over her head. "Evered!" she screamed again, like a bird. The mottled sky split, and a white line of lightning bolted to the sword. Duncan held the curtain in his cold hand. Even from the turret he could see her head blacken and feather. She was showing the goddess' head. The Morrigu was here to the death. "Evered," the beak screamed, a third time; one fist thrust out at a right angle, the great claymore trembled in one terrible arm. Duncan heard the deep eerie baying of a wardog, then another, and then the trees moved like people and the courtyard erupted in steel.
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