If you haven’t read part 1 yet of the story, please read that first.
Agathe rapped harshly on the great wooden door of the Stavros library, and Nicolaos opened it with a smile. “Tlalli!” he said. “And Agathe! What a pleasant surprise! To what do I owe this unexpected vis—”
The two women showed him their medallions, signaling that this was no simple social call. Nicolaos’s smile fell, and he fumbled in the folds of his robe for his own medallion. He glanced up and down the empty street, saw no one, and showed them his matching symbol: a triangle, surrounded by tentacles, supporting an oblong eye. He motioned them in, and locked the door behind them.
“You look troubled,” he said, leading them to a table and chairs surrounded by shelves full of scrolls. “What news of the Circle? Our ritual is tomorrow night, yes? Is all well?”
“That is precisely what we are trying to discover,” said Tlalli.
Nicolaos narrowed his eyes. “You suspect trouble?”
“I do,” said Tlalli, and Agathe nodded.
“Then wait a moment,” said the old librarian, and took a step toward a small side corridor. “If we are going to discuss trouble, I refuse to do it sober.” He shuffled out of the room, and Agathe looked at Tlalli with concern, one hand already moving to the hilt of her sword.
“Do you think he’s trying to run?” whispered the guardian.
“He is too old,” Tlalli whispered back. “He knows he can’t escape us by running. If he is the traitor—and I am not yet certain that he is—his plan will be more subtle. Watch him closely, and don’t drink anything he gives you.”
Agathe nodded, and the old man shuffled back into the room bearing a clay pitcher and three clay cups. “Dark red wine,” he said, setting the cups on the table, “spiced with cardamom and cinnamon. One of the most exquisite beverages I’ve ever encountered, though perhaps not exquisite enough to counter the bad news you seem about to give me.” He poured a measure into each of the cups, picked up the one in the center, and held it to his nose. “Delectable.” He sat down with a grunt.
Tlalli picked up her wine, smelled it, and tapped on the rim of the cup, her eyes never leaving the old man’s face. After a moment she set it back down, un-drunk. She sat, and Agathe did the same.
“I am concerned about the ritual,” said Tlalli.
“So I gather,” said Nicolaos. “And I can’t say I blame you. It’s a complicated little beast, isn’t it?” He took a sip of his wine. Agathe looked at Tlalli, as if trying to gauge her reaction, but Tlalli ignored the look and pressed forward with her business.
“There are five of us left,” she said. “And five components that must be gathered.”
“But all of them are in place, are they not?” asked Nicolaos. “We need the details of the ritual, first, which I have expertly provided. We need a confluence of planets, which you have assured us is happening tomorrow night. We need human blood, which Agathe is amply equipped to obtain, and herbs to treat it with, which Yafet has promised to procure. And we need enchantments cast upon it, which Caitlin has trained for a lifetime to perform. All seems to be perfectly in place.” He took another sip of his wine.
Yafet and Caitlin were also foreigners, Tlalli thought. Did they face the same thoughtless bias that she did? Did people doubt their ability or their expertise solely because their traditions and teachers were different?
“Tlalli is concerned,” said Agathe, but Tlalli put a hand on the young woman’s arm to silence her.
“I am concerned by a passage I read in your scrolls,” said Tlalli. “You have described the ritual well, and the components we need to carry it out. But there is another ritual, is there not? One that requires no components at all?”
Nicolaos looked at her, eyes wide, almost as if he didn’t understand her meaning. Tlalli merely looked back, waiting, and after a moment the old librarian shook his head, scoffing at the very idea. “You can’t possibly mean the Traitor’s Rites—”
“That is exactly what I mean.”
“It’s preposterous,” said Nicolaos. “You think we have a traitor in the Circle?”
“My brother is dead,” said Agathe.
“A tragedy, to be sure,” said the man, “but hardly the evidence of a plot to kill us all.”
“But it is possible,” said Tlalli. “The variant ritual can be done?”
“Possible but ridiculous,” said Nicolaos. “The Traitor’s Rites are mentioned in the texts, yes, but the strain of it—the sheer force of will it must require to summon and control a kraken all alone—it would kill anyone who tried it. We share the power because we have to share the effort.”
“You are not taking me seriously,” said Tlalli.
“Because you are talking nonsense,” said Nicolaos. “Everyone in the Circle is united in our cause. We will summon the kraken, and with it we will rule—Greece at a minimum, and the entire Mediterranean if we want to. And we all want to, so why would any one of us turn against the others?”
Nicolaos was starting to get agitated, but Tlalli answered him with flawless, studious calm. “Perhaps someone doesn’t trust us.”
“Everyone in the Circle trusts each other.”
“Then why won’t you tell me about the variant ritual?”
Nicolaos stopped, and his eyes went wide. “What? Are you accusing me now? Just because I won’t indulge your paranoid fantasies doesn’t mean I don’t trust you—”
“I’d like to know what else it means,” snapped Tlalli. “Either you don’t trust me with the knowledge, or you don’t trust me in general, and I don’t like the implications either way.”
“You want to know the alternate component?” asked Nicolaos. “Then I’ll tell you the component: the blood of a true friend. No herbs or spells or anything else to treat it—if it comes from a true friend, it’s enough. Which apparently takes me right out of the running, because the people I thought were my true friends have turned out to be a pack of faithless foreign harridans—”
“Excuse me?” asked Tlalli, surging to her feet. “Do you have a problem with who I am, Nicolaos?”
“I have a problem with your accusations,” said the librarian, rising to his feet as well. “But now that you mention it, yes, it has occurred to me more than once that there are an awful lot of interlopers in a Circle that used to be wholly Greek. At least with Agathe and Alekos I knew we shared our goals, but how do I know what you and Yafet and Caitlin want? How do I know you won’t destroy my country outright as soon as you get your filthy hands on the—”
Tlalli picked up her wine cup and threw it in his face, and his final words were lost in a sudden scream of surprise. The old man clutched at his face, and his surprise turned abruptly to a shriek of pain and terror. Agathe stood in alarm, and the two women watched in shock as the librarian’s face began to smoke and burn.
“Acid,” the guardian whispered.
Tlalli stepped forward, as if reaching out to help the screaming man, but he began to flail wildly, staggering first forward and then backward—upsetting the table, spilling the wine, and knocking a shelf full of scrolls to the floor. Tlalli flinched back, then reached out again, but Agathe pulled her back and pointed down—Tlalli’s foot was barely a finger’s breadth from the puddle of spilled wine, spreading slowly closer as it flowed across the floor. Tlalli didn’t resist, and Agathe pulled her further back, and Nicolaos shrieked and howled as his face and fingers melted into slurry. At last he collapsed to the floor, convulsing in pain, raw bone showing through the ravaged remnants of his skin and muscle.
“End his misery,” said Tlalli softly.
Agathe looked at her, either uncertain or unwilling. Tlalli gestured toward the body, and Agathe drew her sword, hesitated for a moment, and then pressed it firmly into his heart. Blood flowed out, and Nicolaos tensed before finally falling still.
“It was a mercy,” said Tlalli softly.
“It wasn’t your fault,” said Agathe. “There was acid in your cup—he was trying to kill you.” She couldn’t take her eyes from the mutilated body. “If it did that to his face, imagine what it would have done to your throat and innards.”
“I shudder to think,” said Tlalli. They stared at the body for a long, painful moment. “Wrap the body,” said the astrologer at last. “We’ll lock the library behind us, and the kraken will rise before anyone gets curious enough to break down the door and find the blood.”
“You think the ritual can continue?” asked Agathe. “Even with the traitor gone, we’re down to four—”
“I am not convinced that he was the traitor,” said Tlalli. “He had knowledge of the rites, and that says something, yes. What he did not have was access to such a poison.”
A look of pain swept over Agathe’s face. “Yafet did.”
“Yafet did,” said Tlalli. “Hide the body. We will speak to the merchant in the morning.”