Ruin followed the strange woman through the surprisingly large, ornate house. She had been held in the root cellar; they ascended the stairs into a large kitchen. It was deserted but for one of the hellhounds sprawled, sound asleep, by the servant's entry.
"Do you wish refreshment?" she asked, even as she stepped to the hearth, ladling out two generous bowls of something from the pot.
Whatever it was smelled delicious, and Ruin was embarrassed by her stomach's growling.
"I'll take that as a yes," she said, amused. "Come, we shall retire to my study, then. Even here, we are not without our, what do you call them, long ears?"
"Spies," Ruin said.
"Yes. But that is not a concern for you."
The study was on the second floor, just after what could only be a guardroom off the landing. It had the disheveled feel of many long nights and too few answers. Papers scattered across a desk, half burned candles sitting on every table, books stacked everywhere and on everything else. It all seemed very at odds with the mysterious woman who spoke with such formality and moved with the grace of a serpent.
They sat and ate first, Ruin grateful for the distraction. And the food, though it was little more than travel fare. Light broth with vegetables and, when lucky, a few bits of meat. Hare, in this case.
"This isn't your house," Ruin said, then inwardly cursed herself. She hadn't mean to say that out loud.
"Not originally, no. It was…given, to us." She took both their bowls and set them aside on yet another stack of books.
"Us?" Aside from the hellhound, she had sensed no one else.
"You do not recognize me?" She sounded genuinely surprised. "You are a magi, are you not?"
"No." What did being a magi have to do with it? She could hardly be expected to know someone garbed in a hood. She couldn't even place the woman's accent, and she'd been to most of the known world. The parts accessible by a port, anyway.
"Hmm. Interesting." The woman thought a minute, then reached up and pulled back her hood. She had pale skin, stark against midnight hair. She looked young and yet ageless. Her eyes shone strangely, clearly touched by something arcane. What really drew Ruin's eye, however, was the strange tattoo on her forehead that resembled a black eel twisted into the vertical figure eight of the infinitas, the symbol of infinity. "I am Jesira, the archmagi of the Order of the Black Eel. Or, as we have been branded by the Magi Order," her eyes narrowed with anger, "the Dark Brotherhood."
Just what she needed. Even Ruin had heard of the Brotherhood. The name was a curse in many parts of the world; just uttering it in Keeptown's borders was grounds for treason. It explained the hellhounds, at least. But only in part.
"If you are an enemy of the Order, why are you trying to help its disgraced master?"
"You speak as a soldier would. It is politics, not war. The Order is threatened by our presence, for we are magi beyond the control of their Circle. So they have demonized us and forced us into hiding. But that too, is of no concern right now."
"What do you mean?"
"I think you know. Even you must feel it. A sense of, of wrongness, in the air. I do not know what the Order is doing, but they must be stopped. That is why we are here. If the Master of the Keep has been cast out, he must know something of their actions." Jesira met her gaze, held it, her eyes hard and probing.
"He does. Better that you hear it from him. I scarcely believe it myself."
Jesira leaned back, apparently satisfied. "You do not care much for either Order, I see. Yet you are a magi yourself."
"I'm not," Ruin said, a bit more forcefully than she intended. Something about Jesira was irritating, like an itch she couldn't scratch. If anything felt wrong it was her.
"If you wish to believe that, so be it," Jesira said. "You will have to face the truth someday."
"What do you want from me?"
"Belmos. Your ruse worked so well my hounds have lost the scent. Bring him here."
Ruin stood, crossing her arms. "And if I refuse?"
Jesira smiled grimly. "Not an option." She made an almost imperceptible gesture. Ruin staggered back, choking, as something cold and slimy wrapped around her neck. It was so slippery she couldn't even grasp it to pull it away. After a moment the pressure eased and she found herself face to face with a black eel. It hissed, showing her jaws filled with double rows of needle-sharp teeth before slithering around her shoulders and sinking into her skin like a living tattoo. Queasy and horrified, Ruin felt her own magic roiling as it was cut off from her, tainted by the eel's presence. "Do not mistake my hospitality for kindness. Not all of the tales of my Order are mere fabricated shadows. I will not ask again."
"I'll do it," Ruin growled, teeth gritted against the not-quite pain of the eel.
"Excellent. Go, then."
"No. You'll get them back as payment for services rendered." Jesira stood and, deliberately turning her back, walked away.