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Blackmark (The Kingsmen Chronicles #1): An Epic Fantasy Adventure Sword and High

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Jean Lowe Carlson

 

 

The Kingsmen Chronicles, Book One

Copyright 2016 Jean Lowe Carlson

First Shakespir Edition

COPYRIGHT

 

Copyright 2017 Jean Lowe Carlson. All Rights Reserved. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

First Shakespir Edition, 2016, updated 2017

ISBN 978-1-943199-20-4

 

Cover Design: Copyright 2017 by Yocla Designs. All Rights Reserved.

Maps: Copyright 2016 Jean Lowe Carlson, edited Matt Carlson. All Rights Reserved.

Chapter Graphics: “Typo Backgrounds” font by Manfred Klein: http://manfred-klein.ina-mar.com/ http://www.dafont.com/typobackgrounds.font?l[]=10&l[]=1. Free Commercial Use.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

 

To everyone who made this labor of love come true, you rock! Special thanks to Ben Rayack for helping craft languages and their grammar, to Anders Reis von Crooks for his dedicated proofreading and marketing ideas, and to Susanne Lakin for her wonderful critiquing on characters and flow. Many thanks to Carrie Petersen and Michelle Graden for their early-draft critiques, vast encouragement, and great suggestions. Love to my family Wendy, Steph, and Dave for their continued support, as well as my grandparents. Thanks to my friends Josh and Lela, Sam and Ben, and Anders and Nadine for letting me talk their ear off about fantasy books! Love to Amber, for letting me know that creativity is absolutely worth it.

 

But most of all, thanks to my incredible husband Matt Carlson. I honestly could not have done this without all your plot twists, fight scene suggestions, mapmaking abilities, heaps of encouragement, and so much more! You make my life worth it in every way, baby!

[++]

 

Join Jean Lowe Carlson’s New Releases newsletter and get a free book bundle, including _*Blackmark, The Kingsmen Chronicles Book 1._ [*Click here to get started:] http://jeanlowecarlson.com/promo1ef/

OTHER WORKS BY JEAN LOWE CARLSON

 

The Kingsmen Chronicles

Blackmark

Bloodmark

Goldenmark (Winter 2017!)

 

Three Days of Oblenite

Breath

Tears

Blood

 

Short Fiction

The Man in White

The Family

The Grasses of Hazma-Din

PROLOGUEELOHL

 

 

Black cowl raised against the windswept silence of the city, Elohl den’Alrahel darted through the night. Supple doeskin boots whispered over cobblestones as he doubled his pace, slipping through the darkness towards his quarry. Choked alleys loomed around him, hushed streets in the King’s City of Lintesh. The plaque of an alehouse creaked in a wind already freshened with the snowmelt scents of impending dawn. The rim of the sky to the east had begun to lighten, violet now against glacier-shrouded mountains.

Elohl’s stomach clenched in a bilious knot. The sound of his own heart filled the velvet night. Dawn was coming. He was running out of time. His people were running out of time.

He moved on, faster, silent.

Blending into the mute shadows of the unfamiliar city, he absorbed every nuance of the night. Scents of piss-pot and jasoune bloom marked a whorehouse. The rhythmic banging of an unlatched shutter spoke of a home abandoned. Anticipating touch with the senses that were his strange birthright and his alone, textures and solidity of objects formed a ghostly picture in a vast sphere around him, a spectral imprint of the city overshadowed by the embrace of the mountains. Without conscious thought, Elohl dodged an upturned barrel by a tingle to his feet, avoided a low roofline in the charcoal blackness by a pressure near his face.

A looming void at the end of the alley grew now before him, a sensational picture of towering stone, his destination at last. Cautiously, Elohl approached, heart racing as he spread his senses wider, fearful of being caught by Palace Guard. The outer palace wall coalesced before him, until he could hardly stand its burgeoning pressure. At last, his bare fingertips touched that inky darkness. And just as his sister Olea had told him, Roushenn Palace’s roughened wall had been hacked straight out of the southern face of the Kingsmount itself, leaving plenty of holds to climb.

Every block of Lintesh’s blue byrunstone granite was coarse, Elohl had found tonight, carved by wind and rain, snow and ice. Elegance had no place here, not like Elohl’s home in the Court of Alrashesh, hundreds of leagues away. Not like the Kingsmen’s graceful masonry, their carvings depicting both battle and thoughtfulness, values they held back to the founding of Alrou-Mendera.

A way of life that would soon be lost if his mission tonight went awry.

Elohl dug into holds in the granite by the same instinct that allowed him effortless grace in the darkness. The pitch-smeared tips of his boots found purchase, and he was climbing. His fingertips tingled suddenly, as an image of cracked bones lanced his consciousness. Without pause, Elohl passed that hold by, grasping a solid one instead. His foot throbbed as he stepped to a miniscule lip, sensations of falling urging him towards a different ledge, one strong enough to support his weight and push upwards. The textures of the byrunstone yielded their secrets until he was soon up and over three stories with ease. Sensing no disturbance of sentries, Elohl dropped the last two feet, landing in the vegetation on the inside of the wall. Drowned in the night-whisper of ferns, he slipped fast through the swallowing hush of the palace gardens, following the wall.

The stone arch of the gardener’s entrance to the palace proper was soon found, again just as Olea had said. Sliding into the arch’s shadows, Elohl removed Elsthemi-steel picks from a pouch in his leathers. His touch was softer than featherwisp as he eased his tension tool and pick into the door’s simple iron pin-lock. A jiggle here, the right angle there, he was nearly done when one of the ancient tumblers suddenly stuck.

Sound startled him as a pair of Palace Guardsmen crunched close upon the gravel walk out in the garden, only ten lengths away. Elohl froze, deep in the swaddling shadows of the doorway, chest clenched, fear lancing his gut. Discovery would mean an inquiry, a few nights in the dungeons for the crime of invading the King’s labyrinthine fortress. And though Elohl was no thief, any delay tonight would mean his people’s demise.

Without torches to mar their vision, the eyes of the guards swept the darkness, adjusted to the black and ready for intruders. But Elohl’s charcoal-black garb was meant for the night.

The guards passed on.

The lock clicked.

Elohl sighed in through the door, a moving shroud, though his insides were strung tight as tripwire. Torches guttered in iron sconces, licked by ghastly currents in the hall. His rushed breath echoed in the cavernous silence. Vaulted gables absorbed the sound and eased it back in whispers. Sweat slicked his short ruff of blue-black hair. His hands trembled as if the night wind blew through him rather than sighed through the ironbound door behind him. His nerves were besting him, even though he’d anticipated this.

Inhaling deeply, he breathed one slow, measured breath, just as he had been trained. One breath, sending steadiness into his hands, controlling his emotions. Only his success tonight could undo the vile summons that his people, the Alrashemni Kingsmen, had received just three days ago in Alrashesh. A summons that demanded each and every Kingsman re-swear fealty at Roushenn Palace or be charged with high treason for unspecified crimes. High Treason. A death sentence.

In a few short hours, the Kingsmen would arrive here en masse, clad for battle to show their outrage at the unfounded accusation. They would stand in the throne room and demand explanation from King Uhlas den’Ildrian, who had issued the decree for reasons unknown to any of Elohl’s kin, nor their allies among the nobility. An unprecedented edict of a secretive King known to keep his own counsel and trust few, though he had heretofore trusted the Kingsmen his entire reign, even having two dedicated to his person at all times.

Men and women who had sworn undying loyalty to the royal line of Alrou-Mendera for centuries. Who were the strength and heart of the nation, elite warriors and peacekeepers and negotiators for the King himself.

Charged with treason.

It was insanity.

And though Elohl was still the least of their number, a Seventh Seal with his training to be full Kingsman unfinished by a year yet, he moved down the echoing byrunstone hall, anger steadying his purpose. Two rights and a left, down a servant’s corkscrewing stair and then another, he twisted through the mazelike bowels of the palace. Burrowed out of the mountain, these corridors had been orchestrated to hopelessly confuse invaders, and it was this part of his task that Olea had quizzed him on. Turning corner after corner, he raced down passages and grand halls all muted in torch-lit shadows, slipping into niches to hide from the heavy boot-falls of approaching guards.

He tried not to think about what would happen if his people arrived here in a few hours, clad for war. If there was some secret the King held for which he foolishly wanted his peacekeepers arrested, annihilated. If he gave order to his Palace Guard to see it done.

Battle. Bloodshed. Death.

Finding his objective at last, Elohl halted before a pair of massive ironwood doors deep inside the mountain. Looking up at their height, he took in the imposing tableaux carven upon the doors, picking out the scene by the uncertain flickers of a nearby torch. A snarling wolf and roaring dragon curled around each other, locked forever in battle and ringed in flame. Stylized with hackles raised, the wolf’s fangs were sunk into the dragon’s neck, while the ornate, serpentine dragon had the wolf’s belly in its talons. But though both tore at each other, the tableaux’s circle was perfectly balanced, as if neither were actually winning.

Elohl had a moment of silence, his fears stilled in awe. No one really knew what the tableaux of wolf and dragon signified, nor why certain places in Alrou-Mendera were inscribed with this image and others had it not. An ancient sigil from before the Kingsmen’s time, it was not present at the Court of Alrashesh. And like many ancient mysteries in their nation, leftover from peoples long lost, its origins were much speculated upon, but overall unknown.

After a moment, Elohl roused himself, back to his task. Lingering any place too long tonight was unwise. Setting his attention to the lock, the chill ironwood of the Deephouse clicked open to his picks, revealing a looming black maw of natural stone behind the doors. A taproom for servants and guards, Elohl’s nostrils caught the acrid spice of hopt-ale and the syrupy pumpkin of mellon-blume wine as he stepped soundlessly inside.

But the seeping darkness of the cavern wasn’t as thick as he’d expected. Setting his back against a spectral stand of kegs, he peered around it towards the byrunstone bar. The hushed glow of a lantern confirmed his suspicions.

Someone else was here, and they shouldn’t have been, not this late.

Uncertainty filled him, and Elohl froze in the darkness. But deep within, fierce determination took him. Tonight, he would succeed for his people. If he failed, this might be the last dawn for his father, his mother.

All their kin.

Senses tingling, Elohl edged forward along the shadowy kegs. Four figures stood around a lantern upon the polished bar, surrounded by the yawning void. Heads down, the cowled four conversed in low murmurs, their ragtag leathers roughshod in the way of thieves or mercenaries. The edge of a knife caught the light as one gestured at a vellum spread upon the bar, a torn-edged schematic of a vast structure.

Elohl cursed internally. The highwall in the furthest depths of the cavern, his destination, could be accessed only by the vaulted natural arch behind the bar. Which was blocked by the nighttime agitators. To get to the arch, he had to maneuver right past those gathered around the lantern. Edging forward out of the deepest shadows of the barrels, Elohl kept low. Just out of the lantern’s luminescence, he crept towards a dark spot near the start of the arch.

“Ho, there! Halt!”

A war-roughened voice ripped the darkness. Elohl froze, just out of the light, the thunder of his pulse filling his ears. Heads turned, faces scowled. The burly man behind the bar cursed and drew a knife in a rush, as a slender weasel of a fellow hurried to roll up the vellum. A weather-chapped man half-pulled a sword. But the titter of a woman came suddenly, and the others paused. Blonde hair shone dully from beneath her thieves’ hood as her curvaceous leather-buckled figure rounded the bar.

“Yurgas! You’ve scared the poor Penitent half to death!” The blonde quipped. The dry-sour scent of cider reeked from her as she sidled close, her cloying perfume stronger than any true jasoune bloom could ever produce by the dead of midnight. Breasts heaved above her tight thieves’ corset with its many pockets, as she uncowled Elohl and put a soft black glove to his face, her half-smile lecherous in the sallow lamplight.

“So young for a Penitent!” Her blue eyes glimmered as she considered him. Her hand slid down his neck, stroking his jerkin’s high-buckled collar. “You’re built like a heron! So slender and tall. And with such lovely dark curls and storm grey eyes…What a waste in a Jenner!”

Elohl blinked, realizing her mistake, that she thought he was of the priesthood. The Jenner Penitents who brewed the concoctions filling the kegs of the alehouse. He adopted the ruse, placing one foot behind the other and dropping into a moderate bow, two fingers to his lips in the manner of a Jenner, which he had seen when they made deliveries to Alrashesh.

“My Lords. My Lady. Blessings be upon you in this late hour.”

He felt the nighttime agitators ease somewhat, believing him. But if they had ever truly looked at a Penitent, they would have known that the young man before them wore no Penitent’s robe. Elohl’s long charcoal-black leather jerkin was quadrant-split for fighting, with blackened steel buckles etched with the sigil of Kingsmount and Stars. His cowl was oiled leather rather than cloth, and flowed seamlessly into his jerkin to keep off rain.

And even though he’d not worn his sword across his back tonight, only dual longknives at his belt, to politicos and the elite it would have been unmistakable garb, the trappings of an Alrashemni Kingsman. But Kingsmen were a rare sight in the city, coming and going only on errands of negotiation and peacekeeping for King Uhlas, and often at night. And they were rare enough across the rest of the nation that the sighting of one happened not at all in some people’s lifetime. And so these brigands believed as they wanted to believe, and saw a Penitent walking his doctrinal Mercy in the early morning hours.

“Here lad.” The swarthy man behind the bar growled. “Have a pull and go. Bar’s closed.”

A thick glass tumbler slid across the polished blue stone, straight to Elohl’s bare fingertips. His nostrils caught the same dry-sour tang of cider from the blonde’s breath. His best option now was to play the ruse that the thieves had duped themselves with.

Adopting feigned guilt, Elohl gave a nervous laugh and picked up the tumbler. “Just a taste.” He murmured, like a young Penitent might if discovered coming down for a forbidden drink in the dead of night.

“Not so pure after all!” The woman laughed, lifting her hand to his, urging the tumbler to his lips. “Have a sip.”

Elohl gazed at the amber liquid reflecting the wan lamplight. He wondered if it would be his last drink this side of Aeon’s oblivion. Or if it was to be a mourning for his kin who might see oblivion upon the morrow. Either way, a drink would ease his nerves. Elohl lifted it to his lips, then tossed it back. He clapped the thick tumbler to the bar with a grimace. Merry jeers greeted his buzzing ears as he fought to not cough from the fumes screaming up his throat.

“Three whole pulls! He drinks like the High Brigade do!” The man behind the bar gave a rasping chuckle.

“Jenner can keep his liquor!” The weasely fellow who had rolled up the vellum sneered.

“Ain’t no Jenner.” The same battle-rough voice from the darkness that had noticed him initially spoke for the second time.

The place in Elohl’s gullet where the cider had passed in liquid flame now cooled in terror. His ruse was forfeit. His gaze flicked to the deepest shadows, to the man who had marked him. Elohl’s skin tingled, telling him to run, feeling the man’s penetrating gaze searing like molten glass. The uncaring viciousness of a predator in the darkness, with the uncompromising readiness of a war commander. Commanders defected sometimes, from the brutality of the Valenghian front, using their honed killing skills for nefarious purpose.

Elohl fought his panic and the resulting urge to flee, forcing himself to find the man in the shadows. As the mercenary stood, Elohl pinned him with a chill gaze, stern as any his father had given men who had yet to learn they were outmatched against a Kingsman. The man hesitated. But Elohl was young, and though he had his father’s strong, sinewed build, he was still only a Seventh Seal, untested, unfinished. He hadn’t lived his father’s life. He hadn’t the experience of commanding men to war. He hadn’t matched his skills against a hundred enemies, nor even one outside the training grounds.

Uncertainty filled him. The mercenary-commander saw it, and Elohl felt his hesitation break. He stalked into the lantern light, that bear-thick bulk tensed for violence, roped scars upon his left cheek twisting into a malicious snarl.

“If he’s a Jenner,” the man growled, “he won’t fight me. If he’s a Kingsman, he will.”

“Now, Yurgas!” The woman’s gaze flicked uncertainly between Elohl and the big mercenary. “The lad couldn’t be a Kingsman!”

“Oh, he’s a Kingsman. Young, but mark me.” The brute’s blue eyes were cold iron. “See that pride in his gaze. That ramrod spine. Pride and training. And Kingsman blacks, true as true, even tooled with the right sigils.”

“They’s on to us?” The skinny fellow rasped. “You said they got no clue what’s in for ‘em tomorrow! You said we do it all quiet! Tomorrow night, stealthy, just like we was told by…”

“Still your tongue or lose it!” Their commander barked.

“I only thought…” The weasel-faced man countered.

“You didn’t think.” The commander grated. “So shut your hole. This one’s barely of age. Twenty, ain’t you boy? Just shy of your blackmark. Oh, you look the part, but you feel… scared.” A cruel smile twisted the fellow’s scarred lip. “Pissing yourself. And where are your fellows? Where would they be, if your kin knew you were here, in a devil’s lair, listening to privileged information? They’d be here. Real Kingsmen would be carving out our hearts right now. But you’re alone. They don’t know what’s in store for them tomorrow, do they? All those networks they have, all those hidden spies for the King. And so they come unprepared, and your presence here is mere happenstance…”

Coiled readiness suddenly snapped as the mercenary lunged, a dagger in his thick hand. Elohl slipped sideways, the slash slicing only air near his neck. He launched to the byrunstone arch behind the bar, finding ancient iron fittings perfect for his fingertips. Guided by sensation, Elohl scurried up, climbing fast. The commander’s words tumbled through him, slurrying his veins with ice even as he climbed.

They knew what was going to happen tomorrow.

Something quiet. Something terrible.

“Get him, dammit!” The commander rasped below. “The Kingsman’s seen the plans! The Lothren will send us all to Halsos if tomorrow’s events play wrong because of a single lad!”

The marauders cursed in the palace’s ancient bowels. A tingle of instinct rippled through Elohl, a premonition of pain like flesh pierced by steel. He dropped his right hand from the arch, just before a thrown knife clattered against stone where his hand had been. Regaining his grip, he moved upwards again like the eloi lizards for which he was named. More knives went whirring upwards and Elohl dodged them. Below, two mercenaries began climbing, their clumsy scrabbling peppered liberally with grunts and expletive oaths.

As he angled up and over the stone bridge to the highwall, horror carved out Elohl’s gut, that he had missed unanticipated information about what was in store for the Kingsmen. He cursed himself for not looking at the schema upon the bar. For not concentrating on the mercenaries’ conversation. For having been too absorbed in his fear and his mission to have heard plans that no doubt would seal the fate of his kin this day.

Far below, sparks of fire caught his attention. Elohl scrabbled faster, realizing what was about to happen.

“Heave!” He heard down below. “Hit him, dammit!”

With roars of glee, liquor-bottles with spouts of flame went whizzing through the air. Smashing upon the stone, flaming spirits doused the wall to his right, then just below. Gouts of flame surged over the wall, smoke charred his nose. Another bottle smashed to his left, geysering flame. Corralled by fire, his only option was up, and fast. Another bottle came, smashing below his foot, flames missing him by only a hand span. Elohl climbed hard, pumping his lungs like bellows to get enough air, though smoke choked him now. Another bottle smashed, but down by the others. He was above their throws. But if he didn’t hurry, the smoke would asphyxiate him, and fast.

The item he’d come for was still here. Elohl’s companion Ghrenna had seen it; a talisman in this cavern that had the power to save their people from whatever was coming. And though she was as young as Elohl, her visions were never wrong, and the strength of her seeings was more than rare. Look for a ring of star-metal, of a dragon fighting a wolf around a drop of blood, Ghrenna had told him three days ago, her voice hollow from the pain of her trance, in the deepest black of the cavern.

Coughing through the smoke, Elohl opened his senses, feeling for the high inky corner where the item was supposed to be, seeing textures of rock with his body. And there, nearly at the top of the three-hundred-length climb, just below a rift that led out to the night, was the natural oval in the stone Ghrenna had described. Elohl climbed the last lengths fast, anchoring himself with fingertips and toes. Tucking his mouth and nose into his shoulder so he could breathe, he reached one hand into the gap, touching a wooden box. He fished the box to the edge. Coughing, smoke burning his eyes, Elohl snugged a fingertip under the metal clasp and flicked open the lid. His fingers touched a moth-eaten velvet lining, then a filigreed object of metal nestled in the velvet.

He retrieved the item, squinting at it in the shifting light of the flames below. An ornate metal clockwork the size of a medallion gleamed in his palm. Layered like a puzzle, made of precious metals, it had thirteen spokes like the Jenner Sun. Elohl’s gut dropped to his boots. His head reeled and his chest compressed. The box was right, just as Ghrenna had described it from her vision. But the object was all wrong. Not a ring at all, nothing but a worthless bauble.

As Elohl held it in his palm, a searing sensation suddenly went through him, like the clockwork was burning. Lancing up his wrist and arm like fire ants, it drove through his body, knifing his heart. Elohl gave a violent tremor, nearly losing his grip upon the wall. His heart clenched hard, then beat frantically, racing. His hand spasmed into a fist around the clockwork. A blistering feeling like rage surged through him, coursing his veins, emanating from the object. But just as quickly as the feeling overpowered him, it fled, leaving him shaky and breathing hard upon the wall.

And then, he felt the clockwork suddenly break in his fist.

A soft cry escaped Elohl, the despair of a man with all the gods against him. Quickly, he opened his hand, but the damage was done. It was in pieces. Smoke was thick, more cocktails thrown at the wall below. Elohl was choking, his throat burning, his limbs shaky and weak from whatever the clockwork had done to him. A boot scrabbled for purchase to his right, beyond the flames. The men were still pursuing. Elohl stuffed the clockwork pieces into his belt pouch. Lifting his chin, he scented for the rift, smelling the night breeze where it sweetened to dawn outside beyond the smoke. Muscles of his lean torso and thighs bunching, Elohl hurried up, slithered through the crack, and was out upon the roof of the King’s palace in the grey-opal light.

Doubling over, Elohl coughed hard, gasping for breath. Smoke choked him, his eyes watered. His limbs trembled, his breath a hard rasp from inhalation of burning vapors. Curses pursued him from the edge of the rift. Vaulting over boulders dislodged from the mountainside, Elohl hurried across the gabled palace roof. Suppressing his anguish for more immediate concerns of survival, he coughed hard as he ran to clear his lungs. He had to get back, had to return the item he’d found to Ghrenna. Perhaps her vision had changed in the hours he’d been away. Perhaps a new one had come to explain this unexpected turn.

That one frantic thought was all he had to spur him on.

Next to a grand dome, Elohl backed over toes first, finding handholds in the rough-hewn rock where the carving-out of the palace met the Kingsmount. It was hundreds of lengths to the ground from these upper tiers. Managing his breath and his shakiness, he made his way steadily down, letting his body guide him. A tingle in his left foot led him left, a pulse in his right foot led him back to the right, until he found a vertical crevasse that got him down to the grey paving stones behind a weaver’s shop.

Dawn’s thoughts blushed the eastern peaks of the Kingsmountains rich rose and gold. But the hopefulness of the lightening sky could not brighten Elohl’s despairing heart.

Elohl picked his feet up and ran, silence be damned.

A dark-cowled shadow melted to his side, Elohl’s twin sister Olea keeping easy pace as they streaked through the city. His twin was a soothing balm to his senses, bright patience entering Elohl’s sphere like sunlight upon his torpid lake of emotions. Darting through narrow alleys and beneath awnings, Olea’s shadowy form leaped stone benches with unsurpassable serenity. Longknives flashed in the blushing light, at perfect ease in her hands as she ran. A natural runner and fighter, Olea had talent at weapons to match their father. Elohl’s twin was as fine as her blades, her slender height honed into effortless grace.

“Did you get it? Was it there?” Never losing pace, Olea’s breath was unruffled.

“No.” Elohl did not break stride. “The box was there, but not the star-metal ring. These were there instead.”

Ducking into a shadowed alley, seeping with the acrid tang of a tannery, Elohl halted, unbuckling his small leather pouch from his belt, handing it over. Opening it quickly, Olea’s light-opal eyes narrowed to see his prize, her straight brows nearly forming a line in the wan light. She set her jaw, an uncommon scowl turning her lush lips down. Looking up suddenly like a deer on the run, she buckled the pouch to her own belt with fast fingers.

“We’ll discuss this later. Run. I can hear five men following. And… something else.”

“Five? There were only two following me out the top of the cavern…” Elohl glanced back down the alley, but Olea’s hearing was uncanny, keener than a wolfhound.

“Trust me.” Olea’s wry smile attempted humor, but the tension around her lips betrayed her. She led as they ducked down the alley, vaulting crates at the end, back out into violet-hued streets where rough stone workshops and taverns had abandoned their spectral forms of night. A sensation of his world collapsing inward pressed Elohl, dread of this day. Cold terror caused a gripping tension in his throat, breaths unable to be taken. He unbuckled the collar of his jerkin and tugged his shirt lacings open to get air.

The Inking upon the center of Elohl’s chest, the black Kingsmount crowned with five stars, was just visible in the wan light. He rubbed the marking as he ran, the skin yet raw, inked just three days ago. Elohl didn’t deserve it. Neither he nor the rest of the Seventh Seals had earned it yet.

They might be the last marks ever Inked upon any Kingsman or woman.

Elohl’s heart sank as he skimmed over the paving stones. They raced under the Watercourse Gate, guards still slumped in shadows, sleeping soundly from the pith-crest Olea had slipped into their ale. Elohl was breathing hard as they sped out into the chatter of the Elhambrian Forest just wakening to dawn. But Olea was born to it, pushing into effortless speed. Retracing their way, they streaked through the forest to the wooded grotto, its moss-covered quiet burbling with a natural spring. In a group of boulders, Elohl could see the byrunstone portal through which they had come, the man-height Alranstone covered in its arcane swirls and glyphs with three eyes carven into it. The eye at the top began to open as Elohl approached, some ancient magic transforming the gray-blue byrunstone to a gleaming inset of lapis. Elohl splayed his hand towards its hinder-blue iris, yelling his name and family lineage as he ran.

“Elohl den’Alrahel, den’Urloel, den’Alrashesh! Blessings to the Kingsmen! Blessings to the Alrashemni—

But before he could finish the words that would activate the Stone, Elohl suddenly felt something slide sideways into his mind. Not the rush and tingle of the Stone, this was something else, something he’d never felt. A smooth current slipped into him, arresting his mind like a tide’s flow takes a ship. It caught him, held him, causing the words of the incantation to fall from his lips as he stumbled to a halt right beside the Stone. Pulling at him, it caused him to turn like a nightmare and gaze toward the edge of the clearing.

And there, in the grey hues of dawn, a behemoth stalked them down. Olea was looking, also, rigid, captivated beside Elohl. Held by the presence approaching them. The black monstrosity chittered as it came, its massive claws clacking like language, its segmented legs punching the moss. In the growing light, its chitinous plates glittered like stars in the heavens, or like diamonds, black and horrible but with an allure that arrested Elohl. The creature moved forward, tail arching over its broad back, ready to strike, its high barb shining in the first rays of the sun with a drop of poison.

Towering over Elohl, towering even over the Stone in the grotto, it stalked near. And upon its high back rode a man. A man with hooded jerkin, gauntlets, and greaves in a herringbone weave with metal studs, their leather so black it ate the sun’s rays that threaded through the treetops. His face hidden in his black hood, he maneuvered his steed forward with only a touch of his hands gliding over its chitin, riding it bareback with neither saddle nor harness. An enormous longsword with a black-wrapped handle rode his back, undrawn. The man stared Elohl down, silent, his dark eyes barely visible in the shadows of his hood. The sliding sensation in Elohl’s mind swept him suddenly, rolling him in a massive wave.

His mind collapsed. He collapsed, one knee driving hard into the earth, his hand upon the Alranstone to steady himself from falling over completely. Olea fell to her hands and knees at his side with a sharp cry. Horror swept Elohl, fear, bleeding through his mind. He could feel it covering him, choking him, blanketing him like soft linen shrouds. And as he watched, captivated, frozen, he saw the man smile, deep within his hood.

And suddenly, Elohl felt the slipping inside his mind form speech. I can’t let you leave, boy. Not with what you may have seen tonight. Open for me. Open your mind. Spill for me what you saw of the plan… what you heard…

The sliding sensation slammed into Elohl, like a tidal wave hitting a jetty. Elohl felt his mind crumble, opening, starting to give up everything he had seen tonight, everything he’d endured. Desperation wracked him, his mind nearly obliterated. Frantic.

But suddenly, a surge went through him. From his hand yet upon the Stone, a presence went humming through Elohl’s body like the drone of a thousand bees. The Stone’s massive eye came fully open, flooding the glade with bright blue light. Words surfaced in Elohl, surging up on the wings of that droning, thrust into the front of his mind. The final words of the incantation. Using the last of his trembling strength, Elohl trapped Olea’s hand beneath his in the dirt, and screamed out, “Open, Stone of Alran, pass me free!

The Alranstone paused. A moment of shuddering terror gripped Elohl, feeling his mind break, feeling himself being shredded open for the man upon the scorpion. The man’s face contorted in fury. He vaulted from his beast, drawing that massive sword one-handed, his gaze sharpening, commanding from the depths of his hood. Elohl’s heart compressed in an aching thud. His body trembled like a populus leaf in high winds and he screamed as his mind was ripped open for the man in the herringbone leathers.

But suddenly, a warming glow filled him. The blue light that flooded the glade dimmed, as if the Alranstone had blinked in permission. The man in the black hood lunged with a roar, his sword swiping down to cut Elohl’s arm from his shoulder, to sever Elohl from the Stone. But he was too late. In a clap of thunder and a flash that left bright spots behind his eyelids, Elohl and Olea were threaded into the Stone’s core, torn away from the breaking of their minds, and into a new kind of agony. In a space that held an eternity of moments, Elohl writhed in pain. Innards wrapping through themselves with a searing wrench, his body twisted into a mobius. Sunbursts flared before his eyes. A smell like salt tears and detritus filled his nose. Emptiness filled his lungs in the place of air. Buffeting pounded his ears like being rolled beneath ocean waves, drowning. But before he could focus upon any one of these things enough to scream, they were spat out upon the other side, without a care to their flesh.

Elohl and Olea den’Alrahel stumbled to their knees in the high grass of a clearing far from Lintesh, breathless and retching.

CHAPTER 1 – ELOHL

 

 

“Kingsmount high.” Elohl den’Alrahel threw his hand of battered playing cards to the rough wooden table with satisfaction.

The seven weatherworn men around the table groaned, tossing their hands facedown with little grace. Elohl’s trump of Kingsmount and Plinth over a straight flush of black stars earned him a few drunken curses, and a number of incredulous grins. Elohl rubbed his short dark beard out of habit, then curried a hand through his cropped black curls. He leaned back in his chair, giving his weather-hardened frame a good stretch. Climb-hammered hands laced behind his head, he rolled the game’s tension from his shoulders.

“Pay up, louts.” A vaguely pleased smile lifted one corner of his wind-chapped lips.

His men chuckled with good humor as they swigged their ale. Cracking bitel nuts open now that the game was over, they flicked oblong shells to the straw-strewn floor of the alehouse, where they stuck in the tromped-in mud. A stray shell launched into the barmaid’s cleavage and she growled at the roughshod Brigadiers, picking it out as she huffed passed with thick trenchers of stew. An itinerant in homespun tuned the strings of his gourd-shaped oube on a stool in the corner by the quarried stone fireplace. There would be music tonight, lifting to the blackened rafters of the alehouse’s snow-shedding peak. Music was a rarity in the King’s Army during time of war, even moreso at the remote High Brigade basecamp in the mountains near the Valenghian border, and Elohl was going to miss it.

“Aeon’s prick, Lead Hand!” Russet-haired Ihbram den’Sennia, Elohl’s Second Hand, threw down his cards with an affable smile. “Couldn’t you let us win just this once? You are leaving today. Could at least give us a chance to win back all the coin you’ve fleeced over the last ten years.”

Elohl’s lips twitched up a bit more as he fastened the tarnished buckles of his worn dark brown military jerkin and adjusted his leather bracers. “You want your coin back? Play me again, Ihbram.”

“And give you one final chance to cock my ass?” Ihbram’s lance-sharp green eyes glimmered with humor.

“If you keep playing me, that might be your only chance to make some money.” Elohl actually smiled this time.

Ihbram grinned back, showing impeccable white teeth in his deeply sunburned olive skin. “Take your coin and get the fuck out of here. Asshole.” He gave a lighthearted laugh as he slid his beaten leather purse across the bitterpine table. The rest of Elohl’s climbing team did the same. Most accepted the farewell whupping from their superior officer with grins, more curses, and swigs of their ale in the rough, mountain fashion.

But there was one who was not pleased, and had never been pleased with his First-Lieutenant and Lead Hand. Wereth den’Bhariye, a wiry man with a face of steel surged to his feet unsteadily across from Elohl. A hateful scowl turned his graying mustachios down even more than usual.

“Den’Alrahel!” He slurred. “You can’t just take our coin and sail! You owe us!”

“Do I?” Elohl’s grey eyes were suddenly stone-hard as he raked his winnings into his leather belt purse. His gaze upon the man chilled the table to silence.

“Yeah, you damn well do.” Wereth snarled, leaning in across the table, challenging. “Go drown yourself on the Elsee. But not with my coin in your purse. I’ll have it back. Now.” Wereth’s wiry hand strayed to the hilt of the short rope-knife that rode his hip.

“Whoa, now, Wereth…” Ihbram den’Sennia’s clear voice was low and reasonable as he held out a hand, moving into a cautionary position between Wereth and Elohl. But Elohl moved around Ihbram, motioning his Second Hand out of the way with a subtle nod. Ihbram cocked an eyebrow, wary, but stepped back.

“I’ve put up with you,” Elohl murmured, “for nearly two years, Wereth. Ever since you were ousted from den’Mhessua’s team for falling asleep drunk on watch. For not protecting your brothers.”

“Fuck you.” Wereth sneered with disdain, fingers on the hilt of his knife. “You drink yourself into oblivion just like the rest of us, Lead Hand, you fucking suicidal cunt! You don’t even try to hide those wrist scars!”

“Whoa…!” Ihbram surged forward, but Elohl held his hand out over his broad Second Hand’s chest.

“You want a chance at me, Wereth?” Elohl dropped his voice, emptying his demeanor of care for the useless man in front of him. “Today’s your day.”

“Fucking Blackmark!”

The wiry man’s face was purple as he lunged, rope-knife in his hand fast as a keshar’s raking claw. But Elohl moved with the tingling speed of instinct, feeling the press of energy where the man would move. He whipped one longknife to den’Bhariye’s throat before the other could even come close, before the men of his team could so much as startle.

Low whistles sounded around the table.

Elohl’s team had seen how fast he could move, the precision his instinct lent him, the reason he climbed well and set true routes up the passes and kept men around him alive, both in battle and out of it. They had seen how Elohl earned his authority time and time again in blizzards, navigating around treacherous crevasses, saving a man from falling to his death by a fast anchor to the line. They had been saved by his longknives or his sword, thrust suddenly between them and an enemy when they were down and outnumbered.

No matter what kind of scars he wore.

But rarely did they see that fleet instinct used on a fellow Brigadier. His team had little understanding of what seethed in Elohl’s veins, beneath his careful crust of glacial calm. Elohl’s uncompromising gaze held den’Bhariye’s, daring him to even flinch. The moment stretched as Elohl’s authority bristled through the hushed tavern, his storm-grey gaze every bit his father’s now, but harder. Older.

Ten years in the High Brigade did that to a man. Ten years in a bitter and unforgiving war that might have been stopped had the Kingsmen had any say in it.

“Put it away, Elohl.” Ihbram den’Sennia muttered from his right. “He’s not worth a hanging. You’ve only two hours of service left.”

Elohl took a deep breath, the single breath of his training. Glacial ice slipped into place once more, sluicing his rage. Elohl slid his knife back in its sheath, as Wereth simmered before him. Hateful. Hateful, like so many were now against a Kingsman. Hateful because of an accusation of treason none could conjure evidence for. Hateful simply because common men needed someone to hate when their families starved from rations shunted to fighting armies.

Hateful to still be fighting in that endless war.

“I’m no traitor to the Crown,” Elohl murmured, cold. “And killing a soldier of the Crown would be treason. Even a shit excuse for one such as you. Kingsmen do not commit treason.”

Den’Bhariye snarled. His still-bared knife snaked up, fast.

But Elohl was always faster. He surged, a heron-smooth strike. The heel of his open palm caught den’Bhariye square in the chest. It was a blow to shame, learned long ago at the capable hands of Elohl’s father. Wereth went toppling backwards over his chair and sprawled out over the sodden, straw-strewn floorboards.

Elohl’s team erupted into laughter.

“Fucking cunt.” Den’Bhariye’s scowling mustachios scowled harder as he slunk away to the bar. And though he spit as he went, the man was broken. Satisfaction spread through Elohl as he turned to make his farewells, clasping hands with the veteran climbers of his team.

“Lead Hand.” A grinning Jovial den’Fourth put away his short knife now that the fight was over, though he’d been ready to dive in to protect his commander. He proffered his arm, mouth quirked with humor in his aquiline face. Jovial was a good climber and a friend, eight years on Elohl’s team, and as they clasped wrists Elohl felt a sudden pang, realizing he was leaving everything of his life behind, yet again.

Just like ten years ago.

“Jovial. Nice climbing with you.” Elohl murmured, masking any emotion.

Jovial slapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t be so sullen, Lieutenant! Maybe we’ll see each other again someday. Who knows? Until then, watch your back on the road. I can’t be ready to knife everyone who insults you in a tavern.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

A somber-eyed Harlis den’Sellen turned to him next, saying his goodbyes with respect for his First-Lieutenant, and the other six men on Elohl’s primary team followed suit. In the lazy, frozen way of the High Brigade, each saluted with two fingers to the temple and a nod. Elohl clasped Ihbram’s climb-corded forearm last, as the other men moved off, giving their commander and his closest friend space to converse in the thin daylight near one grimy glass-paned window.

“Travel safe, friend,” Ihbram muttered.

“Same to you.”

Elohl eyed his Second Hand a moment. He took in the older man’s weatherworn creases at eyes and mouth, the grey that streaked those roguish copper waves, braided back from either side of his face in the Highlands fashion. Ihbram had Elsthemi Highlands blood somewhere back down his mostly Cennetian family line, and remembered Highlands customs.

“Ten years of war in the highpasses might be enough for a man.” Elohl murmured. “Your serve is up, same as mine. You don’t have to jump right back into the fray, Ihbram.”

Ihbram den’Sennia shrugged, amused. He reached down for his pewter tankard, and swigged off the last of his ale. “Fifteen years of war for me, you forget.”

“You sure you want to join the lowlands campaign in Valenghia?” Elohl asked.

“Nah.” Ihbram chuckled. “But where is an old soldier like me supposed to go? Anyway, just ‘cause I’m going back to the lowlands doesn’t mean I’m joining the battle at the front. I might just use it as an excuse to sneak over… find a little silver-haired Valenghian gal someplace away from the fighting, with high bosoms and a good, roaring fire, know what I mean? Man can’t climb until his fingers bleed all the time.”

Elohl snorted. “Deserter.”

Ihbram grinned, baring very white teeth in the midst of his scruffy red beard. He’d always taken good care of his teeth. Highlanders did. “Go where the gold is, Elohl. Get a little of what I want for a change. Fuck these mountains.”

“Fuck these mountains,” Elohl confirmed. “Walk me to the pier?”

Ihbram nodded, and they fell into subtle military stride, at once possessing the clip of the soldier and the exhausted amble of a veteran Brigadier. The pair exited the alehouse, stepping off its creaking, waterlogged boards and into the three-inch mud that was ever-present in the heights of the Eleskis, except when it snowed and snowed and snowed. Now, it was raining, and when it rained in the heights of the Kingsmountains, it rained and rained, depressing.

Thick mud squelched up around the stout leather of their knee-high Brigadier climbing boots. They slogged on in their oilcloaks, stopping by the log bunkhouse so Elohl could fetch his packed rucksack with his belongings, which weren’t much. It struck him suddenly that his life had come to so little. Only functionality. Survival. A single rucksack filled with rope, ice axes and claw-feet for climbing, longknives to engage Valenghia’s Red Valor once the climb was over and the skirmish began. A military-issue longsword he now strapped to his back, heaving the rucksack over it but leaving the sword’s handle free, just in case.

And his Kingsmen greys, stuffed in the bottom of his pack, held on to all these years.

He had learned practicality in the mountains, how to be emotionless in bad times, and Elohl pushed emotions away now. They were always bad times, more or less. Elohl had seen a man have to cut off his entire hand when he got it wedged in an ice-slicked crevasse once. He’d made it off the climb, but hadn’t lasted the night.

And that had been a relatively good death, for a Brigadier.

Elohl realized now, surveying his empty bunk, how far he’d strayed from his youth. Though a talented fighter, the lad he’d been when he first came here had been used to comfort and education, love and ease. But that lad had become numb to hardship, quickly, mired in the routines of war. And now there was nothing else. The High Brigade of Alrou-Mendera had suffered skirmishes every summer, as the Valenghian Red Valor tried to find a way through the passes to weaken the border. And they froze every winter, snows thirty feet deep even at basecamp, relentless.

It was tiring, and Elohl was more tired than he had ever been. His tread was heavy in the mud as he stepped from the bunkhouse boards. Huddling in his worn oilcloak, he and Ihbram slogged through the sleeting spring rain to the lakeshore, Elohl trying to drown countless emotions beneath the empty glacial calm he’d perfected over the years. At the pier, the twin-masted sailing craft waited, to take him and the rest whose ten years were up over the Elsee, back the long, winding trek home.

Home. A place Elohl no longer had. Everyone in Alrashesh was now gone. Faces surfaced in Elohl’s mind. The laughing, bright grey gaze of Olea. His father’s stern jaw but kind ease. His mother’s sweet smile and soothing fingers. The hot rage of Dherran. Suchinne’s perfect calm.

Ghrenna. Twin lakes of cerulean mystery washed over his vision, the suddenness of it sweeping him away for a moment. Her eyes always came to him in times like these. Freezing on a ledge, half-buried, a vivid, dark blue would sweep his vision. As if Ghrenna were watching him from so very far. He could almost smell her pine-clean tundra fragrance, almost see her pale throat, the way tendrils of her white hair curled around her ears.

Elohl set his jaw and drowned that thought, too, under frozen lakes, surveying the dock rather than indulging in lost memories. There weren’t many waiting for the boat from the High Brigade, he noticed. Just two men Elohl recognized by face but not by name, having never ascended with them. Most of the climbing team he commanded still had a few years of service left, and no one from his original team had made it ten years, except Ihbram.

Not many made it home from the High Brigade.

“Where will you go?” Ihbram muttered at Elohl’s side. It was a trick he had, picking up on Elohl’s thoughts. Elohl and others had accused the man of reading minds, but Ihbram always laughed it off with a flash of his impeccable white teeth.

“Olea was in Lintesh, last I heard. So I go to Lintesh.”

Ihbram eyed him warily. “That was eight years ago, Elohl. Your last letter from Olea. That’s a big risk, going right back into the keshar’s maw, right back to the capitol. After everything that happened.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Elohl murmured, submerging sensations of failure, of loss so acute still that his throat gripped, though it had all been ten years ago. “I’m going back to Lintesh. If Olea’s not there anymore, I’ll follow her trail until I find where she went.” Drops of rain pattered off Elohl’s nose, chill, like he tried to make his heart.

“Your twin hasn’t written in all this time. You think…”

Elohl shot his friend a hard look, anger breaking through. “Don’t say it. Don’t even think it. Olea’s alive. She has to be. Just like… all the rest.”

Ihbram nodded, merely wrapping his oilcloak tighter as he watched the boatmen lashing down cargo, crates being loaded. After ten years climbing and fighting together in the High Brigade, living to keep each other alive, the two men knew each other better than Elohl knew his own twin at this point. And Ihbram knew when to let something go.

“I got a cousin in Quelsis,” Ihbram murmured at last. “Friend of mine is a friend of his. Ihlen den’Almen. He’d get you on your feet. Get you hooked up with a trade.”

“I have a trade.”

Ihbram stopped Elohl with a hand to the arm, just to one side of the pier. His bright green gaze was deadly serious beneath the hood of his cloak. “Kingsman isn’t a trade, Elohl. Not anymore. Your people are gone, disappeared, probably dead. Nothing you can do will bring them back. Whomever penned that Summons captured you and sent you out here to this company to die, all to keep the worst secret our nation has ever known. If you go back to Lintesh, they’ll be that much closer to ending you.”

Restlessness stirred in Elohl, of business unfinished. His heart clenched, trying to stir, trying to surface. “I have to go back, Ihbram. You don’t know what it’s like, living with this. Knowing I failed them all.”

“You did what you could.”

“I didn’t. I failed at Roushenn Palace and my kin disappeared and then I got caught. Olea got caught. Ghrenna. Dherran. Suchinne. All the Kingskinder. I failed them all.”

“They didn’t get caught because of you. Sheath those words. You’ve survived out here ten years. That’s an Aeon-fucked miracle, Elohl! Don’t be suicidal again, not like when you arrived here. Go get yourself a girl and a nice little farm and leave the whole damn Kingsmen thing be.”

Elohl regarded Ihbram a moment, his brother-in-arms for ten years, knowing his friend’s words for truth and yet unable to heed them. “I’ll be in Lintesh looking for Olea. Looking for the others.”

Ihbram narrowed his eyes. “You can’t stay put near people for longer than a fortnight and we both know it. You’re a ronin keshar if ever there was one. I give you two weeks before you leave the city and isolate yourself.”

“I’m a man of solitude.”

“You’re a man punishing himself for the past, Elohl. There’s a difference. Do you even know what you want? Out of life?”

Elohl was silent a long moment, feeling emotions try to melt through like a volcanic vent beneath a snowfield. Guilt, fatigue, wretched rage, woe, loneliness, separation, responsibility. He could name them all, but he didn’t allow himself to feel them. “I just want peace, Ihbram,” Elohl murmured at last. “Is that so much to ask? This turmoil I feel… I just need some peace.”

Ihbram held his gaze with a concerned levelness. “Peace comes at a price, Elohl. All men pay that price in war. The only way to find true peace is to allow yourself to live again. To move on.”

The bronze steerage-bell was rung from the ship. Elohl glanced over. Boatmen scurried up the masts, unfurling sails and loosing lines from the dock. He was going to miss his ship if he didn’t move, and there wasn’t another for two more months.

Elohl proffered one climb-weathered hand. “Keep yourself well, Ihbram.”

Ihbram den’Sennia grasped his arm solemnly. “Keep yourself alive, Elohl. I won’t be around to do it anymore.”

Elohl choked at that, emotions almost loosed at that brutal truth. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

They shared a long moment of silent understanding, of climbs weathered, battles waged, nights huddling close for warmth, death always a thin breath away. But at last, it was time. Elohl turned, striding down the long, rain-slicked pier, leaving his truest friend behind in the mud.

Mounting the chipped gangplank just before it was taken up, Elohl settled his pack at the railing for one last view of the storm-shrouded peaks of the Eleskis. There was no belowdecks for soldiers on the vessels that sailed the Elsee, but Elohl was used to weather in the Kingsmountains. The two coarse-bearded faces from the High Brigade saluted their First-Lieutenant as they settled their packs. Two veterans with scars as ancient as Elohl’s and the same empty-hard visage. Nodding, Elohl turned his face away. He wasn’t their First-Lieutenant anymore. He wasn’t Brigadier-Captain Arlus den’Pell’s steadiest ice-ax anymore.

He wasn’t anything anymore.

Elohl wrapped his oilcloak tighter, snugged the hood and hunkered upon his pack, not letting himself think any further into the future than getting to Lintesh. It was death in the mountains to think too far ahead. Weather could change, allegiances could shift, glaciers could melt. Emotions could surface and get you killed. Draping his cloak around himself, he arranged it to keep everything dry. The rain deepened as the marine crew lofted the sails and swung them about, wind driving the wet against Elohl’s beard-roughened cheeks.

If anyone had been looking, they might have thought some of those raindrops were tears. But no one was looking at a man with hard grey eyes who was no longer young, whose hands were roughened like the stone and ice they had climbed for ten years, whose weather-chiseled face could have been menacing, or placid, or sorrowful. No one was looking at a man who had drunk himself nearly to death time and time again, but whose hands were always steady when he climbed, or when he killed.

No one was looking at a Kingsman who bore the star-and-mountain Inkings, but who had never really been one.

No, Kingsman wasn’t a trade. Not anymore.

CHAPTER 2 – OLEA

 

 

Olea den’Alrahel took a single, deep breath. With eyes closed, she embraced the peace of dawn in the Roushenn Palace practice yards. One expansive moment to taste the new day upon her tongue, to hear it in her ears. A sliver of morning sunshine, just above the mountains now, streamed down through the cedars to warm her skin. Gravel crunched at the far edge of the yard as someone passed. Scents of lavender came upon the early breeze, from bushes that ringed the grounds. Mellow tones of lemon-balm, a damp smell of peat beneath the cedars. Camphor breathed out from the infirmary adjacent to the practice-yard and the trainees’ hall. A fat bumblebee rumbled like an oxcart past her ear.

No voices disturbed the yards this early, none of her Guardsmen risen yet. No one to bother their Captain-General before her rounds began and Roushenn Palace needed her to be on point for yet another day.

But today wasn’t just another day. Today was the day he was supposed to be discharged from service. High Brigade, a deadly assignment. A post men didn’t come home from. A post where men froze to death or starved to death or fell to their death upon a climb or simply got skewered by Valenghians in battle. And it had been ten years to the day since they had last seen each other. Ten years to the day, eight of those without letters, not knowing if he lived or had perished.

Elohl.

Olea erupted into motion, banishing all thoughts. Longknives flowing in her fighting forms as if they had been born in her hands, she moved like the breeze over fields. Strong and yielding, her slices and pivots were made to cut wheat from chaff, to separate limb from joint. But for all that, they were elegant. Dancing in the morning sunlight between the cedars, Olea never needed to open her eyes. Life was in the roll, the pivot, the lunge. Death was in the cut, the jab, the parry with her unseen foe. All of it done to a slow rhythm of breath, learned so long ago that it was innate.

A sound alerted her.

The softest sound; a boot scraping dirt, but it was all she needed. She honed in upon her oh-so-quiet opponent, eyes closed, knowing where he was without needing to see. Olea never needed to see. Her ears and sense of smell were all she needed to fight with. Fenton den’Kharel had stepped into the ring with her this morning. Her First-Lieutenant always smelled of peat and honey, a light musk that spoke of decades of living rough, fighting hard, and eating clean off the land when there was nothing else, the life of a soldier in the highpasses of Alrou-Mendera.

The slide of a careful boot over dirt would have been missed by anyone else, but Olea could hear it. Sometimes Fenton didn’t bother being quiet when he approached, but sometimes he did, testing her, seeing how well she could track him with hearing alone. He stepped into her striking distance, the barest crunch of dirt like cornstarch smudged by a single finger. His breath was smooth, like air moving through deep caverns. He drew his longknives as slow as he was able, leaving only the lightest whisper of steel over leather to attune her to his readiness.

Fenton closed the distance, only a creak of his leather boots betraying him. A soft dance they engaged of ripple and flow, Olea with eyes still closed. Though he wasn’t one, Fenton had learned the softest killing arts, the true movements of the Kingsmen, sometime during his long years as a soldier. They fought with dual longknives, but their dance had no aggression to it. No hit, no clash, no punch, no muscle. They flowed around and through each other like water forms eddies, moving around any obstacle and tearing each other down with subtle grace.

Olea moved without a contest of strength, sliding away, curling her body around Fenton’s blades as they sought to enter her flesh, rolling off his body and around for her strikes as fast as a whirlpool. And Fenton den’Kharel was just as deft, ever-causing their blades to slide past one another and for hers to never find a home in his flesh.

At last, Olea heard him step back. The crunch of his boots in the dirt was obvious on purpose, as he signaled a halt with a soft chuckle. His breath was easy and unruffled, though they had dueled for nearly an hour. Olea could see the change in the slanting light behind her closed lids, could hear the way the forest next to the wall of the practice grounds erupted more raucously into birdsong, the buzzing of a whole cadre of bumblebees in the lavender now. And the new recruits in the trainees’ hall, waking to a host of young men’s noise and early jeering.

She opened her eyes at last.

“Good morning, Captain-General.” Fenton had gathered both longknife hilts into one hand and was wiping a sheen of sweat from his brow with his bare forearm. His gold-brown eyes had a placid quality as he smiled at her, as if they had seen the future and the past and neither was anything to fear. Bared to the waist, his whip-lean stature was average, sword-honed sinew without any meat to spare. The morning sun picked out golden highlights in his brown hair, kept military short.

And though he seemed unnotable, the fighter in Fenton was unquestioned. The serenity of spirit that Olea’s First-Lieutenant possessed was not to be mistaken, nor ever taken for granted.

“I thought you’d be up on the ramparts already.” Fenton’s gaze glimmered with subtle mischief. “Don’t you have First Survey today up on the Tiers? Aren’t you late?”

Olea gathered her longknives in one hand. “Going to report me tardy, Lieutenant?”

Fenton laughed. It was a good laugh, the laugh of a calm man who kept a level head and lived for the best things in life. He lifted his eyebrows in invitation and cocked his head, and Olea nodded. They strode from the dirt ring towards the clothing pegs and the wash-trough by the palace wall near the infirmary double-doors. Olea wet a clean cloth from the pile under the eaves in the brisk water of the trough, then did one for Fenton. He nodded his thanks and they both set about sluicing off sweat.

The day was already balmy with the height of summer, and the cool wash-water was refreshing as it sluiced down Olea’s face and the back of her neck. The long rectangular quadrangle was just beginning to fill out with new recruits from the Guardsmen trainees’ hall. Shadows still lengthened over much of the practice yards from the line of cedars beyond the wall on the eastern side, but those were rapidly diminishing as trainees sauntered out from their gabled stone dormitory at the far west end. Shucking white shirts and cobalt jerkins by the washbasins in the sunshine, they took to the field as young men do, pushing each other and jesting.

Olea wasn’t supervising training today, but a number of them recognized their Captain-General as she washed in the sunshine. And became flustered at seeing her for the first time in short muslin training breeches that bared her from the thigh down, and a halter that left little to the imagination.

They saluted. They goggled. They flushed and said a hasty, “Captain!”

And every pair of eyes lighted on the center of her chest above the rim of her halter, at the Kingsmount and Stars inked in black. As many times as these recruits had seen it, always bared as it was above her shirt when she supervised them these past two weeks, they still stared. And even now, eight years into her tenure as Captain-General of the Palace Guard, men of her Guard who had known her from the first still stared.

Olea, not yet on duty, gave a curt, “As you were, gentlemen,” while donning her regular gear, ignoring the stares. None of her trainees were going to start trouble because of her Inking. They knew better. They had been warned what it meant to her, and what it meant in general.

That she would have their asses on the ground before they could blink if they challenged her about it.

Fenton was mostly dressed already, ahead of Olea, a half-smile of amusement upon his face. The man’s demeanor might have been placid, but Olea was almost certain he’d never dawdled in his life. His calloused swordsman’s hands were just finishing his last buckle and combing water back through his dark auburn hair. He wore the Guardsmen blue, his cobalt jerkin’s cross-over flap of buckles done up to the shoulder so the high collar was tight, a standard-issue white shirt beneath. His black breeches were spotless, just like his knee-high black leather boots, his sword and longknives hanging from his baldric just as they should.

Fenton glanced over as Olea finished dressing, his gaze flicking casually to Olea’s unbuckled jerkin. She was supposed to keep her cobalt jerkin done up in proper military fashion so that the collar cinched closed like Fenton’s. But Olea preferred to leave it open so she could breathe. Buckles gaping to mid-chest along with her shirt, Olea displayed a decent swath of cleavage in the already-hot summer morning. But her silver pin of office as Captain-General of the Palace Guard was upon her collar on the left.

That part, she never let slide.

“Don’t they have any standards for Guardsmen these days?” Fenton jostled her shoulder as he leaned in, murmuring in her ear so the trainees wouldn’t hear. It was his way of teasing. Light, subtle. Something in it reminded her of Elohl, the way he teased her so long ago, never mean, never to wound.

Olea smiled, unwinding her long blue-black curls from their messy braid and giving said curls a generous tousle, currying water through them. “I have standards for them, Fenton. If I don’t shine my boots, they just look the other way.”

“I think your boots attract the least attention, really.” The edges of Fenton’s lips lifted in an amusement as his eyes flicked purposefully to Olea’s cleavage, then to the recruits.

Olea looked up from sliding her longknives home in their twin sheaths on her baldric. A number of men looked away fast, blushes coloring more than a few cheeks, boots scuffing dust. They all looked so young, Olea thought suddenly, her throat gripping. Just children. Just like she and Elohl had been when they had been caught and pressed into military service ten years ago.

But these lads were here because they wanted to be. Every face smiling, every face eager to begin a new adventure in one of the most respectable and lauded positions the nation of Alrou-Mendera could offer.

There was a difference between how they began in the Guard and how Olea had begun.

A vast difference.

“All right you lot!!” Tow-haired, chisel-cheeked Second-Lieutenant Aldris den’Farahan was striding out from the infirmary towards the yard, wrapping his hands in cloth as he came, already bare-chested. “Staves! Quit staring at your Captain-General like guilty puppies that just pissed on her boots!! You think chivalry works on her? You think you’re the first to throw yourself upon your sword for her love? Think again! Get moving! Hup!!”

Aldris gave Olea a wink as he whisked a quarterstaff from the rack and strode to the nearest lime-marked sand ring.

Fenton laughed at Olea’s side. A good laugh, a low chuckle that was serene and true to his nature. “You’re going to set a bad example for the new men, leaving your buckles undone. They’ll think your mother only taught you how to be a hot mess.”

Olea shot him a sobering look, unusually moody today. “I’m always a hot mess. My mother had better things to teach me than primping, like about fighting and loyalty. And using what you have to your advantage. Observe. Fight well today, gentlemen!

Olea roared it suddenly, a snarl of combat in her voice, the gravel of a commander. Her raised voice arrested every ear in the yard, and heads turned. A measure of satisfaction filled her, that they were all looking at her, at a Kingswoman who still commanded true for the royal house. “Fight well, and the best man at his task, as judged by your Second-Lieutenant, gets the honor of having a drink with their Captain-General in the Deephouse tonight! My treat!”

Laughs went up in the yard. A few whistles, and a few more catcalls. Olea winked at Fenton, mimicking her normally passionate and far more lighthearted mood.

“Well, you heard her, gentlemen!” Aldris den’Farahan threw Olea a salute from the center of the sand ring. And then whipped out keshar-fast at the closest recruit, dropping the man to his ass with the end of the quarterstaff behind his knees. “Get your weapons! And quit thinking about fucking our Captain!”

“I get plenty of fucking, boys!” Olea called from the sidelines. “But not by you! Get moving!”

She turned as more laughs went up, feeling the surge of loyalty from her new recruits rise along with their humor. Men needed thoughts of sex and drinking to keep them motivated while they got bludgeoned all day. As they turned to walk inside, Fenton’s sidled close.

“Kingsmen.” He murmured by Olea’s ear. “Trouble, aren’t you?”

Olea smiled, wistful, as they moved into the high-gabled gloom of the infirmary. It was a joke between them, though a sobering one. Trouble was something they shared, something that had brought them together as friends ten years ago when Olea had first come to the Roushenn Palace Guard. On the surface Fenton was easy as a spring breeze and calm as a draft horse. But he was troubled, down deep somewhere, just like Olea. She could feel it sometimes. But Fenton den’Kharel didn’t talk about his past, and Olea never pried.

And he never pried into hers.

Olea turned suddenly, putting a hand to Fenton’s jerkin, needing something to banish this mood she was in, her brooding about Elohl. “Tell you what, Fenton. Play Ghenje with me tonight, after my rounds.”

Fenton’s gold-brown eyes lit with a sudden fire, positively twinkling with dark mischief. It made his plain handsomeness utterly delightful. His lips were made for smiling, and they curled up just a little at the corners, teasing. “You know you’ll lose.”

“I know.” Olea raked her fingers through her long tirade of loose blue-black curls. She grinned at her First-Lieutenant, displaying a show of lightheartedness. “But somebody’s got to cheer you up.”

“I’m not the one who showed up at dawn on the practice grounds to work off steam.”

“Best two out of three.”

Fenton narrowed his eyes, piercing. Fenton den’Kharel was terribly shrewd in his quiet composure. It was one of the reasons Olea had promoted him. And now he saw through the sham levity and bravado she promoted, down deep to the bitter dungeon that her thoughts paced today.

“You only lose at Ghenje with me when you need some serious distraction, Olea, and you rarely come out to the practice grounds at dawn. Only when something’s wrong. I know because I’m here every morning. Out with it. What’s up?”

Olea sighed. Her mood dropped like a stone, unable to be propped up anymore despite the bliss of fighting, the blithe day and banter. She pulled one longknife from its sheath on her baldric, running it over and over in her hands. Leaning against a stone column in the quiet infirmary, out of sight of the high windows that looked out onto the practice grounds, Olea resisted the urge to rub her chest.

“Elohl’s supposed to have been discharged today.”

“Your brother? Your twin?” Fenton straightened with interest, watchful. Stepping over, he came to lean beside her at the wide column.

Olea nodded, testing her knife’s edge with the back of her thumbnail, curling off a small shaving. Her appearance might have been shit, but her weapons were always impeccably cared-for, just like her mother had shown her. Olea could fight naked in the rain if she had to. But she couldn’t do it with dull or rusted weapons.

“I haven’t seen Elohl in ten years, Fenton. He stopped writing eight years ago. I don’t really even know if he’s alive.”

Fenton was silent a long moment. When he finally spoke, his voice was gentle. “High Brigade’s a tough company. If he made it two years, he made it ten. I should know. That was my company before I came here, you recall.”

Olea looked up, strangely comforted by those frank words. “Thanks, Fenton. I just… I don’t even know if he’ll come looking for me.”

Fenton paused. In a rare breach of decorum, he slid one hand out, gripping Olea’s fingers in the early quiet of the infirmary. He stood silent, gazing at their twined hands, their breach of military propriety something to be sacrificed in lieu of long friendship. “He’ll come. From what I’ve heard, Kingsmen don’t break their promises.”

Olea’s glance was sharp. “Don’t let anyone hear you talking like that.”

Fenton chuckled low and soft, and that old sadness haunted his smile. “What are they going to do? Kill me? Then who’s going to run half the Palace Guard…? Besides, they need me to keep you in check. Do you have any idea what you’ll do?”

“You mean if he doesn’t come?”

“Or if he does?” Fenton’s murmur was gentle, understanding.

“I can’t leave my post to go gallivanting off, hunting my brother on the road to the Elsee.” Olea dismissed. “I serve the royal family and the Dhenra Elyasin. This is where I’m needed.”

“But what if Elohl needs you? Would you abandon the palace, your Dhenra?”

Olea paused, her breath stolen. “Don’t ask me to make that choice, Fenton.”

“I won’t. But if Elohl lives… he might. He might ask you to go off, looking for…”

“Cease!” Olea hissed, hard under her breath. She hadn’t heard any footsteps nearby, but Roushenn Palace had a way of learning people’s secrets. “That is enough, Guardsman.”

“Captain.” Fenton’s demeanor cooled at her reprimand, though the change was subtle, only around his eyes.

Olea’s breath rushed out, realizing the wound she had dealt her friend in such selfishness. She squeezed his hand. “Fenton. Forgive me. I’m just… tight as tripwire today. That’s all.”

“Understandable.” He murmured, thawing, easy and kind once more. Fenton had a miraculous way of suddenly banishing anger. “I can’t imagine your position. What you’ve endured. That you’ve become the royal house’s most formidable ally says something about your character, Olea. Your determination to be true to what you are. And I respect that.”

Olea smiled, her mood easing for the first time all morning. She released his hand and pulled away, ready for the day at last. “I have to go. I should polish my boots before my shift.”

Fenton laughed then, a good laugh born of their long years as comrades. He glanced at all the scratches and worn places on Olea’s blue leather jerkin. “Fat chance. You need three days to clean all that up. Why don’t you give your gear to Aldris and make him do it for you?”

Olea let out a bark of a laugh. “I can just see his face! He’s going to school you at Stones and take all your pay again, Fenton. If I make him fix my gear and tell him you suggested it.”

Fenton chuckled, and that dark competitive light was back in his gold-brown eyes. “Yeah, but I whip his ass at Ghenje. I win it all back. And if you play me, I’ll win double. All because you won’t polish your buckles.”

“That’s why I have you.” Olea clapped him on the shoulder. “You’re utterly efficient and you set a great example for the men.”

Fenton chuckled, soft and low. “I just have good habits.”

“I know your habits on the practice grounds, Lieutenant. They’re far better than good. Who knows where you studied, but you didn’t learn how to fight like you do in the High Brigade.”

Fenton sobered suddenly, and his teasing died. There was a history there. In that moment, the fine lines at his eyes and mouth made him seem ageless, and Olea wondered, not for the first time, how old he was, if his history was as tumultuous as hers. But his age was a secret Fenton never divulged, along with much of his past. Fenton had come to the Roushenn Palace Guard already ruthlessly efficient, a veteran soldier. It was known that he’d been in the High Brigade before joining the Guard, and rumored that he’d served in the Fleetrunners before that. The Guard-Captain before Olea had seen Fenton den’Kharel’s vast promise and set him to training recruits and advanced guard right from the moment he started.

Fenton had been offered the position of Guard-Captain when the old captain had retired. But for some strange reason, he’d turned it down. And ceded that post to Olea, becoming her First-Lieutenant instead.

“Keep well, Olea,” Fenton murmured, still sober. “Bring your brother to meet me when he gets in.”

“I will.”

Olea clapped Fenton upon the shoulder, and he did the same. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but shut it again, then simply gripped Olea’s shoulder and let her go.

Olea put a hand to her sword to keep the scabbard from banging against the byrunstone of the column as she moved away, whisking through the massive chamber. People tracked her from a few occupied beds as she sidled around woven dividers towards the door, conversations at the palace apothecary station dropping low. One man in brown Palace Huntsman’s leathers, idling at the station drinking a medicinal tea, gazed at her appreciatively. But as she approached, his gaze flicked to the center of her chest, noting the black inking there.

And abruptly flicked away.

Fuck you, too. I’m not ashamed of what I am.

Olea gave him a hard look as she passed, the stare she gave her Guardsmen when they were severely out of line. The huntsman lifted his mug to his lips, trying to hide from her entirely.

CHAPTER 3 – GHRENNA

 

 

From atop the bluestone guard-wall, Ghrenna den’Tanuk’s hands conducted an unconscious inventory as she studied the ornate manse in the night. Hunkered next to her Guild-mate Shara den’Lhoruhan, beneath a hardy cover of eldunne branches, she checked her lock pick set, fighting and throwing knives, and the sleeping darts in a neat row on her buckled leather harness. She touched one glove to her braided bun of white-blonde hair, then checked the comb at her crown to make certain her dark hood remained in place over it. But the evening they had chosen was balmy, with no wind to betray their position to guard dogs, nor tease Ghrenna’s hair from beneath her hood. Both thieves wore dark leathers with cowls up in the moonless night, though Ghrenna wore her Kingsmen greys, a deep charcoal with ornate tooling upon the leather, Alrashemni emblems etched into buckles and steel.

Everything in order, Ghrenna took a long draw from her threllis-pipe, locked between her teeth where it would stay for the remainder of the evening. Visions came when they came, but when she had threllis they merely flickered across her sight, indistinct. And threllis was imperative to keep her from spasming when she had a vision, its numbing sedation just enough to keep her in control of her faculties.

And remaining in control of her faculties was a priority while she was at work.

But Ghrenna felt ready tonight, her muscles loose, her mind calm except the dull roar of a headache. Headaches plagued her because of her visions; this one was nothing notable tonight. Gazing at the hulking byrunstone manse that towered in the darkness, quiet as a fennewith-haze, she noted with precision everything about the manor. Only three guards maintained a perimeter, a poor detail. They pivoted at predictable intervals, their movements lax in the muggy night. The lone dog, a lazy wolfhound, gnawed at a carcass on the front stairs. Only four lights burned in the upper halls, and a few in the basement kitchens, to be expected.

And avoided.

Ghrenna made the proceed hand signal. Shara nodded, then lifted her dart tube and blew a round-dart with a white flag to the foot of the wall behind them. The two grapples Ghrenna had set suddenly had tension, and presently Luc den’Orissian and Gherris den’Mal, part of Ghrenna and Shara’s regular Guild, were squatting upon the wall next to them. Ghrenna waited for them to get settled at the top and haul up the grapples, her dark blue eyes flickering over the guards and the dog. They hadn’t changed their patterns. And they weren’t watching the wall.

She made a hand signal to the group.

Proceed.

No alarm was raised as they slipped over the wall and snuck through the dappled shadows of manicured greenery. A long row of cypress trees had been foolishly planted nearly all the way to the house, providing excellent cover. Ghrenna didn’t relish thieving. It was a poor profession in which to use her Kingsman training, slipping through the shadows like a common thug, but it was practical. She couldn’t hold a regular trade. She’d tried to apprentice with an apothecary once, right after she’d arrived in Fhouria. One seizure from a particularly strong vision had sent her crashing into rows of vials, glass bottles shattering everywhere.

Her levelheadedness was a boon in the thieving trade, however. Her ability to plan, to navigate situations and think things through, like for tonight. She halted them at the end of the cypress row, raising a hand, signaling for darts. Three properly blown sleeping-darts and the hulking guards collapsed softly upon the front steps, dreaming until tomorrow.

The dog had Gherris’ knife buried in its throat, which he strode forward silently to retrieve. Five years younger, Gherris was Alrashemni, a Second Seal when the Summons came. Excellent with knives, Gherris was an asset. But like a bricked wall, his emotions were unassailable. Ghrenna had never seen him smile. But his eyes flashed with pleasure to have made a kill, and something about it made Ghrenna shiver.

She nodded to him. He nodded back, his gaze hooded once more.

Key rings were removed, the guards looted and hauled into the bushes beside the door. Ghrenna made the proceed hand signal again, and Luc stepped to the front door. The door was unlocked and not in need of picks, but he bent quickly to squirt oil upon the hinges anyway, obsessive about the details. From where she stood with her back to the door, Ghrenna could see his merry green eyes lit with mischief beneath his dark hood. He saw her watching; winked at her and grinned. A born rogue, Luc was golden-handsome, a creature of the gutter. Street performing had graduated to hustles, relying upon his wit and tall good looks, which had matured into professional thieving. It was rumored that there was no lock Luc couldn’t pick, no man he couldn’t swindle, and no woman he couldn’t seduce.

At last, Luc hauled on the large iron handle, which opened without a sound. They were inside in a flash, melting into the darkened hall like graveyard mist. Luc stepped to the left wall with Ghrenna. Gherris and Shara took the opposite, their usual arrangement. Shara pointed the way she had scouted at the party, signaling upstairs, third floor, second door on right, lockbox.

Ghrenna knew Shara’s information was good. She nodded and took point. With a mind like steel, there was nothing Shara couldn’t remember. Ghrenna trusted her implicitly, her constant ally since they had abandoned the Fleetrunners together eight years ago. Memorizing layouts of buildings was Shara’s specialty, along with faces and names of their next possible scores. And tonight’s score was the lockbox, the family’s heirloom jewelry. Everything else was catch-as-catch-can.

Their journey up to the second floor was uneventful. No servants were about this late in the manse of Couthis Emry den’Thorel. Scouted at a masked ball the night prior, they had found that there were no other guards. The rumors Shara had elicited at the party were proving true. A wealthy addict, the young Couthis was lax in security. Careless with his possessions, he threw lavish parties to smoke fennewith, which sent even the hardiest addicts into languid largesse. Apparently, most of the manor’s retainers had taken severance pay and quit, not wanting to be associated with Emry’s antics. It was largely rumored that young Emry was going to get his throat slit some deep night, when he was high.

Ghrenna glanced over at Gherris. Already, her lean companion was toying with a small knife, itching for a kill as they paced to the third floor. Pausing outside the appointed door, two to each side, they tucked in next to a pair of ancient armor-suits. Looking down, Ghrenna watched the light that played beneath the ironbound door as Luc set to oiling the hinges. The flickers of light were strong, the blaze of a fire.

After a minute more of listening, Ghrenna decided to risk it.

Pick it, she signed to Luc. He set to, his skills needed this time.

Five minutes, she signed to Shara. Fighting, leave. Yells, leave. Silence, send Luc. Shara nodded again, and so did Luc, who was done with his lock picking. Gherris merely watched her, brooding. He wanted a kill. Ghrenna could practically smell it.

She nodded, slipped inside. The door was silent, thanks to Luc’s obsessiveness, shutting behind her with barely a click. Ghrenna froze in utter stillness, blending into the dark wood of the door, even though light from the fire played across her face. Her dark blue eyes roved the bedroom, absorbing every feature. She was a shadow in the dark, capable of pristine stillness. Invading hushed rooms abandoned by gaiety was her specialty. Sometimes her Guild-mates even forgot she was there, only a curl of smoke from her pipe, or a flash of her white-blonde hair giving her away. No matter how long Ghrenna needed to wait for the perfect score, she could.

Patient. Practical.

Courhe den’Byrune, she had been nicknamed by her team, the Heart of Byrunstone. In a trade often ruled by hotheaded men, Ghrenna was a valuable irregularity. Her efficient scores kept her in good with her threllis supplier, whose wares didn’t come cheap. Better yet, thieving was generally a profession without brutality. Especially if one was fast, quiet, and effective.

Unlike the war-front.

Ghrenna would never go back to the war. She had seen how women died upon the battlefield. Especially Kingsmen women. Never again would she wear the uniform of Alrou-Mendera’s army, conscripted as she had been ten years ago against her will. She would wear her Kingsmen attire until her death, recovered from Alrashesh after her desertion, come Halsos’ Hell and Burnwater. The Kingsmen had taken her in when she had been abandoned by her tundra-born parents, and though she was not Alrashemni bloodline, she would honor her oath to them until the end of her days.

But tonight, like nearly every night thieving, could be navigated without death, if she was careful. A whip-lean man lay sprawled upon the heavy canopied bed, shirtless. Even across the room, Ghrenna could see his breeches were undone, baring a white, emaciated abdomen. A naked woman sprawled next to him, her limbs pale by the light of the dying fire. Ghrenna’s gaze flicked around the room, noting two closed servant’s doors, a few empty sitting-chairs, and a lounging-couch by the fire. And the lockbox of solid iron with etched filigree by a writing desk, just behind the bed.

Ghrenna took a breath, sliding carefully over ornate Praoughian carpets, her sleeping dart-tube ready near her lips. She was nearly there when one of the side-doors opened. Ghrenna froze, blending into one of the tall ironwood pillars of the canopied bed with their dark velvet curtains, holding her breath. A worn-looking maid entered and approached the fire. She stoked it, added more logs, brushed her hands off noisily. The couple upon the bed lay still, drug-deep and dead to the world. She stood with a sniff as she glared at the couple, fists on her hips in disgust, giving Ghrenna a moment of heart-pounding fear where she stood by the bedpost in the maid’s line of sight.

But as always happened when Ghrenna was willing herself to be unseen, a strange coolness rose in her mind. And now it came smoothly, licking out like the spun tendrils of a spider’s webbing. Ghrenna felt something like a touch; a gossamer breath where her mind seemed to ease into the maid’s.

As if her mind spoke, whispering through the maid’s thoughts.

The maid’s gaze slipped past her, unseeing. Missing Ghrenna entirely, though she was in plain view. The maid went back to the door, then returned, and slammed a tray noisily upon the desk with a pitcher of water. She spun on her heel and left with a huff, closing the door.

Ghrenna breathed out, her heartbeats smoothing in relief. She had not been seen, and the couple on the bed still hadn’t stirred. She gave it another moment, then silently approached the desk, touching the lockbox, examining it. The thirty-bennel hasps were solid, but the locks were nothing Luc couldn’t handle. A rhennel-bolt, an uringle-puzzle, and a fhass-key, the three old-fashioned locks wouldn’t stall Luc. Ghrenna slid over to the bed, observing the couple. They were the problem. The uringle-puzzle would be noisy, no matter how much oil Luc gave it.

Ghrenna bent closer, removing her pipe from her mouth so the couple on the bed wouldn’t smell it, even though threllis burned nearly smokeless, her dart tube ready at her lips instead. She watched the slow rise and fall of the man’s chest, which she assumed was Couthis Emry, clearly heavily sedated. He had the look of the addicted bourgeois, his overall leanness too gaunt, a smudge of shadows beneath his closed eyes. He looked like he just might sleep through anything.

But the woman…

Ghrenna bent closer, watching the shadows of her ribs. Slowly, she reached out, placing two light fingers on the woman’s wrist. She was cold. Cold and very dead. She backed off, just as the door she had come through opened, and she heard the quick pace of Luc’s footsteps.

Ghrenna threw Luc a quick flurry of signing as he rounded the edge of the desk. Woman dead. Man drugged. Puzzle, key, and bolt. Proceed.

Luc’s blonde eyebrows lifted inside the shadows of his hood. You killed her? He signed back. Byrune. His wicked white grin flashed in the fire’s light.

Ghrenna shook her head. Drug-death.

Luc looked slightly crestfallen, then grinned again as he set to work. Luc loved a scandal, but not as much as he loved lock picking. The fhass-key he oiled and picked first with his long clever fingers. Then the bolt snapped back with a report Ghrenna was sure would have wakened the dead woman. But Couthis Emry merely snorted, one hand sliding down to fondle himself in his drugged haze. The puzzle-lock was noisier than either of them anticipated. Each time Luc turned the dial it made a groaning creak, which caused them both to wince and the drugged man to shift uneasily.

Luc paused, eyebrows lifting, then signed. He’ll wake. Cease?

Ghrenna shook her head. Proceed.

Luc turned the dial again, and it gave a hideous shriek. The man on the bed came awake with a deep gasp as if rising from the grave. Ghrenna had a moment to decide. If she hit him with a sleeping dart, the sedative could overdose him with that much fennewith already in his system. But then she saw his eyelids were fluttering, that he still languished deep in drug-addled dreams.

Cool with calculation, Ghrenna was on the bed in a flash. “Shh, Emry…”

Ghrenna laid a hand on the Couthis’ chest, playing the part of his dead woman. Pushing him back down to the mattress with a gentle hand, she willed him to see her as his lover, to feel her just the same. She felt the tendrils of her mind reaching out, smoothing into him, whispering. Emry went without a fuss, but his rapid blinking indicated hallucinations. Fennewith was famous for it. Ghrenna had no idea what his mind was conjuring, whether he would scream and wake the manse, or spin on in blissful abandonment. Either way, threllis would calm him, so she leaned in, exhaling threllis-smoke into the man’s mouth and nose. At the same time, she willed him to be calm, the tendrils of her mind pouring out towards him like the tide of her smoke.

His eyelids fluttered slower as he took a deep inhalation.

“Anjelica…” he breathed, running his hands up over Ghrenna’s buttocks. A stifled guffaw came from Luc, still clicking through the puzzle. She shot him a hard gaze, then turned back to the Couthis.

“I’m here, lover.” Ghrenna leaned in, wafting more smoke into Emry’s mouth and nose, then giving him a long, slow kiss, feeling her tendrils plucking at his mind. She reached down to massage his crotch, willing him to focus on the eroticism of the touch. Anything to keep him from focusing on the noise from the puzzle-lock and seeing that Ghrenna was not the girl who now lay next to him, cold.

“Mmm… threllis.” The Couthis pawed at Ghrenna’s throat. “Give me a draw, love…make me spin…”

Ghrenna held her pipe to his lips. He sucked greedily like a babe at teat, inhaling fully and holding it for a ten-count. A practiced addict.

“Mmm… Cheridwen Hills… where did you get Cheridwen?” The Couthis’ eyelids slipped closed, smoke sighing from between his flushed lips.

“I keep a little just for us, love.”

The clicking from the puzzle-lock stopped abruptly. Ghrenna heard a chunk as Luc pulled the lockbox open, and then the sweet slither of velvet cases and pouches as he began to raid it.

Emry’s eyebrows knit at the sound, and he struggled to pull his eyes open. “Is that Jhulinne? Aeon! Tell her to keep it down…! Give us another draw, love…”

Ghrenna gave him her pipe again, letting him hold it, taking deep inhalations, willing him to relax. She massaged his crotch and Emry moaned, low and obliterated. He did not fight her when she reached to reclaim her pipe, his arm falling limply to the coverlet. But as his arm fell, it brushed the dead woman, and he shied away.

“Ugh… who put a fish in my bed…?”

Ghrenna hastily pushed the dead woman over some, willing him calm. “That’s just the tray, love. Jhulinne brought us some cold khremm. Here, let me move it off the bed.”

Ghrenna shot a glare at Luc, who was nearly finished with his raiding. He played his part, right on cue, lifting the tray upon the table and setting it back, loud enough for it to clink.

“There, love,” Ghrenna murmured. “It’s on the table now.”

“Mmm… kiss me, sweetling…” Couthis Emry’s needy hands began pawing ineffectively at her harness and jerkin. “Kiss me again… you were so ripe at the ball… kiss me like that… are you dressed? Leather? I like leather… yes, let’s have sex again… let’s undo all this…”

Luc was finished, now waiting by the door. Ghrenna gave the drug-addled Emry another deep kiss, then stood, extracting herself. “Just a moment, love… I need to use the chamber-pot.”

“Go fast, love…” Couthis Emry settled into the lavender sachet-pillows, his words hardly a whisper and his stiffened ardor flagging. “Go fast…”

Ghrenna paced quickly to the door where Luc waited, grinning, vastly amused. He flicked her nose. She narrowed her eyes, and then they were out the door. Gherris and Shara were vague shadows in the hall, and fell into step as the quartet retreated. Watching for movement, the four made their way back out the front door of the manse, paced the garden quietly, and slipped up and over the wall.

Only once they were a good league away, moving through a forested swath north of town, did Luc start braying. “Ghrenna! You ice-hearted bint! Seducing a man half-naked and buried in fennewith! Next to a dead woman, no less! And right in front of me…?! Byrune!”

“We’re not exclusive, Luc.” It was her regular answer. Luc wasn’t the only man who warmed Ghrenna’s bed from time to time, though she knew he desperately wanted to be. But like usual, he laughed it off, his pride in being a womanizer too great to show hurt. Ghrenna wouldn’t settle for any man, and she’d made it plain to Luc these past few years, though only Shara knew the truth of it.

Ghrenna’s headache suddenly throbbed, lancing and vicious. A vision tried to surface, indistinct. Her stride paused as she blinked, trying to clear it, drawing deep on the threllis-pipe clenched between her teeth. A ship on a long lake, mountains rearing up into a cloud-heavy sky. A man, hunkering by the rails as wind lashed rain against his beard-roughened cheeks. His lost, empty grey eyes, as beautiful as the sea under storm-clouds.

Elohl.

The vision stopped her breath. Stopped her heart for just a moment. Just like her visions of him always did. Pacing in the darkness beneath the trees, her comrades hadn’t noticed.

Gherris shot Ghrenna a sour look. “You killed someone tonight?”

Ghrenna took a deep inhalation of threllis, forced herself to walk on. Her guildmates didn’t know about the visions, except for Shara. “The woman was already dead. Fennewith overdose.”

Gherris grunted.

“How much did we get?” Shara’s laugh was bright in the darkness.

“A good haul, ladies and gents,” Luc chortled. “A good haul. Back to our digs? Divvy it? You girls can take our tithe to the Consortium. I have an appointment I’d rather not miss.”

“Appointment?” Ghrenna glanced over. “Are you losing all your winnings dicing again?”

“Losing?” He tweaked her nose, tried for a kiss. Ghrenna batted him out of the way, her thoughts full of Elohl. Luc paced onward, as if he didn’t care. “I never lose, ladies. After what I saw this evening? Lord Luc feels lucky tonight!”

“You’re no lord.” Shara grinned.

“Am I not?” Luc turned to her, his smile rakish.

Shara gave him a false punch to the gut, which he mimed receiving. But Ghrenna was a thousand leagues away now. As if the tendrils of her mind had been pulled straight to Elohl, she could still see the boat in her mind’s eye, even though the actual vision was gone. She could still feel Elohl. The set of his jaw, the emptiness of his beautiful, commanding stare. A feeling of hopelessness rose in her, suddenly. A deep sensation of need.

Ghrenna took a tremendous pull from her threllis-pipe, pushing back the headache that now rose into a relentless hammering.

CHAPTER 4 – ELOHL

 

 

Elohl contemplated the sharp crags of the Eleski mountain range one last time as the boat pulled up alongside the short dock on the southwestern shore of the Elsee. Their jutted, snowcapped peaks faced him this morning, free of clouds. Their shining tips shone cold and bright, uncaring of the hardships of men. The morning had dawned glorious, but it had been a miserable night aboard the boat, sluicing rain. Elohl had huddled between the ships’ railing and his pack, trying to stay warm, unable to. Freezing, he’d slept fitfully between rings of the ships bell and shouts of sailors, until the sun finally came at dawn.

Muddled dreams had plagued him in the night. And now, they were half-remembered things as the day shone with sun, in strange contrast to the darkness of his nightmares. In his dreams, a door had loomed above him, snarling with a wolf and dragon fighting. A box, a puzzle, his throat choking with smoke. A steel-eyed man in herringbone leathers, a snarl of contempt upon his face as he broke into Elohl’s mind, dominating and sure. Lake-blue eyes watching it all, wrapping him in their chill tundra silence.

Elohl could still feel her. As if Ghrenna had stood just behind his shoulder, observing his nightmares, reliving them with him. Stepping down the gangplank now, Elohl rubbed a hand behind his neck, working out the kinks that stitched him. The sun was warm on his sodden skin, his breath misting like the vegetation by the lakeshore, putting off curls of steam where the sunbeams touched. Hefting his pack more securely upon his shoulders, he reached up, adjusting his sword for trekking. The touch of cool steel eased him. Something about it was like the memory of Ghrenna. Certain. Practical. Implacable.

Surveying the shore, Elohl noted that there were no wagons to cart him the rest of the way to Lintesh, just as he had expected. The handful of High Brigade who had been aboardship had left the boat at the first inlet, a cart-track through the mountains to Quelsis. Wagons waited at this stop for the Longvalley Brigade fellows, most of whom only served two years. Lord’s sons with a cushy post in a valley surrounded by impenetrable mountains patrolled by the High Brigade, they saw little of the Red Valor. The Longvalley boys were soft, muttering and moaning about the rain. Young faces with hardly a beard to them, they clambered up on the wains as if every bone ached.

But Elohl was a veteran, and hardship was familiar. He’d never had a wagon to cart his gear in the passes and he didn’t need one now. Shaking out his oiled raincloak, he slung it across his pack to dry, re-shouldered his burden, and took to his feet upon the shoulder of the byway. He heard the crack of a whip and a lowing of oxen as the Longvalley wains rolled out. One splashed through the slurried cart-track as it passed, spattering Elohl’s hazel-colored cloak with mud. One by one, the carts rolled by. No one offered the weather-beaten Brigadier a ride, and the teamsters didn’t slow.

At last, they were out of sight and he was alone walking the ruts. Sun flooded down through the scattering clouds, hot already. Signs of late spring were here in the lowmountains. Daffodils and red harlen-bush in bloom. The last of the crocuses gone. Leaves of leatheroak and shudder-maple unfurling past their luminous green and beginning to darken as the warm days dawned.

It would be full summer further down in the King’s City. Something about that thought made heat sear up his throat, clenching his chest. Elohl unbuckled his jerkin halfway and unlaced his shirt to bare his skin, craving the fresh air. His Inkings were plain to view in the dappled sunlight that cascaded down over the road. But there was no one to see him out here, no one to challenge him or call him Blackmark.

A creeping unrest itched over his flesh. Not just his bared skin, but all over his body, like ants devouring him to his fingertips. Elohl halted, gazing around, scanning every bit of verge, every shadow along the byway. But there was nothing, no one. Just a feeling of dread, a sensation of unease.

And suddenly, it hit him. He could see it all, just as it had been. Late summer, the leaves of the trees curling and browned. Cicadas thrumming in his ears. The creaking of the cart’s wheels as it bumped over the ruts. Chafing pain where the iron manacles bit his wrists, his ankles. Watching this very scenery, his heart full of anguish and his mind empty with astonishment. Astonishment and a young man’s consuming fear. That his world had crumbled, that his people were gone, that he was a captive and soon had a choice to make: serve the King as a Brigadier or be put to the sword.

He’d almost chosen the sword.

Elohl’s throat tightened, burning. He pulled his shirt open more, closing his eyes, inhaling deep, fighting for calm. Woods were just woods. A cart-track was just a cart-track. He’d breathed summer air for ten years after that day, and he lived to breathe it still. Nothing had changed. At last, the burning in his chest subsided. He opened his eyes, drawing a deep inhalation, feeling it all smooth back over, his inner lake glassy and placid once more.

Ten years had ended. Ten years were finally over. And now the path left him was to go to Lintesh and face his past, whatever might be found of it now. One hand reached up, touching the leather-wrapped pommel of his sword. The steel cross-guard slid beneath his fingers, smooth and cool.

Ghrenna’s presence rose in his mind. Calm. Controlled.

Elohl took a step forward, and his feet walked him on.

His morning passed, uneventful but for the sighting of a magnificent eight-point buck browsing by the roadside. Just as he was considering stopping for a noon meal of dried elk meat from his pack, Elohl spied a sprawling cottage near the road. A cheery affair with a byrunstone foundation and a wicker-woven porch, smoke drifted from the chimney welcomingly. As Elohl approached, he saw a sigil of Innship on a signboard out front. Halting his stride, he regarded the empty porch. Continuing on, there was no guarantee of an inn further down the road. And though he could sleep rough by the roadside, the promise of a real bed rather than a soldier’s cot or pine boughs, was alluring.

Elohl tromped up. He announced his presence by knocking mud off his boots on the porch boards, as he drew his shirt lacings closed to hide his Inkings. A pretty young woman with a long honey-blonde braid over one shoulder peered through the summer screen, paused, then opened it. Good smells of bread and hearth drifted out to churn Elohl’s belly. She looked him up and down, taking in the state of his worn military gear with an arched blonde eyebrow. “High Brigade?”

“Yes, milady.” Elohl nodded, suddenly conscious of how he must look to her, gruff and worn. For the first time in years, he found himself wishing he had stopped to shave and wash.

“Milady!” She laughed, her pretty heart-shaped face instantly more friendly. He saw the cordage on her wrist relax, heard the hollow thump of a cast-iron pan being set down just inside the doorframe. Her work-roughened hand came into sight, and she ushered him in.

“Not Milady! Goodness, do I look that old? Just Eleshen! Eleshen den’Fhenrir. Well? Come in! Eleshen’s Boarding Rooms, right here. I’ve got mitlass on the stove, though we don’t get many visitors. Those Longvalley lord’s boys never stop, you see, and all I really get are the Elsee fisherfolk and High Brigade fellows like yourself. Though not many of those, either.”

She clucked her tongue and henned over him in a motherly fashion, though she wasn’t any older than Elohl. Elohl slung his pack to the porch, leaving it in the sunshine to dry. He bent to unlace his sodden kneeboots, to leave them out also.

The innkeeper held out her hand impudently. “I’ll set your cloak up on the line to dry. I can take your jerkin and shirt, too, Brigadier. Just give them here, now!” Her hands reached out, trying to undo the last buckles on his jerkin.

“It’s fine, really… I’ll just let them dry as I eat.” Elohl moved her hands away.

But the feisty innkeeper wouldn’t have it. “No, they need drying, you are just soaked through!” Her fingers fussed and Elohl finally relented, letting her help him out of his still-damp jerkin. But when her feisty hands tried to pull his wet shirt from his trousers, he flinched back, not wanting her to see his Inkings and be upset by them.

“No, really, I’ll just leave it on.”

She eyeballed him, green eyes cool. “You’re going to take sick in a damp shirt like that, sunshine or no sunshine. Spring isn’t over yet up here. Or have you got the belly-blisters? Let me see, now… I have a salve for that.”

“No, it’s not that, just…”

“Just what? Shuck it, or you don’t eat!”

A flash of irritation lanced through Elohl, resistant of a woman’s fussing, and he blinked. He had forgotten what it was like, to have women in your life. How charming and demanding they could be. This woman didn’t care how often he had starved in a blizzard, rubbing his chest with blue hands to try to keep warm. She didn’t care that he could walk a hundred leagues in three days and still climb to a lookout. She didn’t care how many men had tried to knife him or cut his line, or had stolen in to slit his throat in his bunk.

She won’t care about my Inkings.

Elohl paused, then pulled his wet shirt off over his head. He heard the innkeeper’s sharp breath. When their eyes met, hers were full of pity. She held out her hand for the shirt, and he gave it up. But instead of taking the clothes away, she piled the wet laundry dismissively on a side table and grasped his hand, pulling him towards the fire in the kitchen.

“Sit, please! Please! My hearth is yours. Please, you must not pay for your meal, it wouldn’t be right. You must eat and rest the night. No charge.”

“I’m more than happy to pay… I can afford it…” Elohl murmured, embarrassed at her manner, thinking that he must look penniless with his worn gear and scruff of beard.

“No! No charge. I insist!”

“No, really, a Brigadier’s stipend is more —”

“I don’t get many Kingsmen here.” She interrupted, then blushed furiously to the roots of her hair and looked down. Then looked back up, bold. “Please. It’s the least I can do for your service. For your real service, I mean.”

Elohl blinked, surprised. Heat flared up his throat, clenching it. It had been a long time since someone had said such a thing to him, and it stung, to hear it now after wanting it so long. And here, in the house of a sweet stranger, he sat wordlessly upon the long bench at the rough table by the kitchen fire, succumbing to a tumbling riot of emotions too thick and fast to tease apart or even respond to.

And when she placed a bowl of mutton mitlass in his hands, he found his hands trembling. She held him, pressed his hands between hers for just a moment. Elohl’s eyes flicked up, meeting hers. And as he watched, he saw his own raw pain reflected in her visage. She flushed crimson at the cheeks and looked down, released his hands. Then bustled away, whisking up his laundry and marching out the back door of the guesthouse.

Elohl heard her singing a lilting march as she pinned his clothes to the line. An Alrashemni war-song. It dove into him, the rhythm a striking of swords on the practice grounds, a pounding of drums around the fire, dancing at the midsummer celebrations in Alrashesh. His chest burned, his throat tight. He watched the innkeeper’s movements through the open window, saw her pat her cheeks and rub her eyes as if she shed tears before stomping back up the porch. Inside, she was all business as if their moment had never occurred. Offering him fresh-baked bread to accompany his meal, she gave him good salt with rosemary and winter pepperberry, and sheepsbutter flavored with thyme. Hunkered by the fire, Elohl watched her as he ate, flooded with memories, wondering about her manner.

But the innkeeper said not another word. She bustled about her business with a quick smile, pouring a tot of ale for Elohl and leaving a flagon of well-water before hustling off to the backrooms. Elohl lifted the ale to his lips, swigging it back to drown a myriad of emotions that tried to surface. But where once drinking had drowned the memories, its effects over time was to simply make him brood, as it was doing now.

The innkeeper Eleshen returned, just as Elohl swigged the last of his ale and his stew. Whisking to the table, she swept up the dishes with a quick smile, then shucked them into the washbasin with a deafening clatter. Washing with gusto, her movements were sloppy and imprecise. Elohl found he couldn’t remain seated any longer. It was habit from the highmountains, taking care of his own messes, and it felt strange to have someone do it for him after all this time. He stood and approached, taking a dish and submerging it, scrubbing with a woven rag alongside her.

“Now, see here! You don’t have to… I mean… that’s not for you to…” Her gaze was upon the dishes, but Elohl saw her gaze flick to his upturned wrists as he scrubbed his dish. She made a small dismayed sound, seeing the twin ragged scars there, one at each wrist. Elohl quickly turned his hands over, still washing, mountain-tanned skin at the backs of his forearms showing now only rope-burns and fighting slashes he’d taken over the years.

“Aeon!” The innkeeper’s cheeks went positively crimson. She shifted her stance in a hasty, uncoordinated way. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to… I mean they were just there…!”

Seeing his self-inflicted scars had upset her. Elohl could feel it, like a wave pulsing from her body. The flustered innkeeper stepped backwards suddenly, still flushing, and stumbled over a wooden stool behind her, falling sideways and upsetting the washbasin. And though he’d had a bit to drink, Elohl’s reflexes were quick as a darting heron. With that uncanny instinct that had kept him alive far too long, he stabilized the washbasin with one hand and caught her around the waist with the other, pulling her close.

The pretty innkeeper’s breath was high above her woven corset and white blouse. Her weight felt good to Elohl; her slender waist fit nicely in the crook of his arm. A need stirred, something denied most of his years in the High Brigade. Cerulean eyes surfaced in his vision, cool, clear. But suddenly, the truth was plain to Elohl. If Ghrenna was alive, she hadn’t come to him. Hadn’t seen his whereabouts in any vision, or didn’t care to search. He was alone in the wilderness and those twin lakes were just that; lakes to drown himself in. Lakes he had drowned himself in for years.

Memories of a woman long gone.

But this woman here, now, was sweet and kind, and she smelled of rosemary bread and lavender honey. Elohl’s nose was in her hair, his lips breathing in scent by her throat. She made a low, obliterated sound, sinking into his body, molding to him like a cloak in the rain. His breath was fast; hers was faster. But Elohl wasn’t a rogue, and he wouldn’t take advantage. He inhaled slow and deep, as he had been taught long ago. Setting the innkeeper Eleshen on her feet carefully, he stepped back.

“Forgive me,” he murmured. “I didn’t mean to… you could have been hurt…”

But the words had hardly left his mouth when she moved forward, lips rising to his. His careful calm shattered with the shock of that kiss. How sweet she tasted, how warm she was. Elohl’s arms were around the pretty innkeeper, drawing her close, his heart full of need just as her lips were. And then they were sinking to the kitchen floor, finding a sudden and unexpected sweetness to round out the mitlass and the bright spring sunshine.

 

[ * ]

 

Eleshen lay in the crook of Elohl’s arm in the sunlight filtering to the kitchen floor, her blonde braid woefully disheveled from their lovemaking. Her fingers splayed across Elohl’s bare chest, tracing his Inkings. Elohl pulled her closer, scenting soap and lavender upon her hair with a contented sigh. The sweetness of the afternoon had eased him, melting something of cold mountain nights like a soothing balm.

He closed his eyes, relaxing back upon the pine boards. Something pulled at his mind. Deep blue drifted across his vision, backed by sunlight filtering through his eyelids, serenity infinite like a mountain lake. Elohl found himself gazing into those crystalline depths, the still water watching him back, as if eyes drifted up out of its fathomless blue. Scents of high tundra came to him; pine boughs and air so cold it tasted of wintermint across his tongue. A whiff of char drifted through his vision, acrid like pine resins aflame.

Suddenly, the innkeeper Eleshen sat up. “Oh, no! My bread!”

Launching to her feet, her half-bound corset spilling open, Eleshen practically flew to the byrunstone oven. Hauling the metal door open, she coughed at the scorch within. Elohl wrinkled his nose as smoke poured forth, coughed as Eleshen hauled four blackened rosemary loaves from the oven and unceremoniously tossed them into the kitchen fire.

“Well, that’s that.” Eleshen huffed, watching them burn. She looked back, her pretty face full of humor. “I guess I had better things to do this afternoon than tend bread.”

She came back and straddled him with devious intent. Elohl gave a satisfied sigh despite himself. Reaching up to stroke her messy braid where it fell over her breasts, he slid his other hand up her bare thigh, gripping the crease where thigh met hip.

“Bread is the least of our concerns…” He murmured, enjoying her weight upon his hips.

Eleshen leaned forward with a sweet but wistful smile, her fingers tracing his Inkings. “Are you really one of them? A Kingsman?”

Elohl found himself smiling at her kind touch, even though smiling felt foreign to his lips. “It’s nice to not be called Blackmark, for once.”

Eleshen snorted. “Blackmark. What a horrible slur for such a beautiful promise. A promise of everything you are… to your King.” Her fingers traced the mountain, the central star at its peak. Her touch stirred Elohl, deep below the marks, where he had tried to be cold and hard for years. Like little runnels of sunlight, she found his deepest ice, making things melt.

“Not just to our King, but to our kin.” Elohl corrected gently. “Alrashemni. Before we promised our service to Alrou-Mendera’s liege, we promised it first to ourselves. Before we were ever Kingsmen, we were Alrashemni, and still are.”

“But your oath goes hundreds of years back.” Eleshen countered. “To be the right-hand spear of the King. To be his to call, for justice on any matter. Be it through might of arms or through intelligence of negotiation. Did you learn the Kingsmen arts of intelligence? Peacemaking?”

“Some,” Elohl murmured, stroking her fingers, breathing into the soft curiosity between them. “I am Alrashemni, but I’m not a Kingsman. Not quite. I only reached my Seventh Seal by the time my people disappeared, a year shy of my full training. I don’t actually deserve to wear these marks.”

“Why not?”

“They’re worn after your Eighth Seal,” Elohl’s smile was soft, “at age twenty-one. When you become fully Inked and take the Oath of Allegiance to the King of Alrou-Mendera. Only then can you be truly called a Kingsman, rather than simply born Alrashemni.”

Elohl watched Eleshen trace his Inkings. “What do they truly mean, the marks?”

“You seem learned on our matters. Do you not know?”

She shrugged, tracing the rightmost star, near to an old blade-slash Elohl had gotten in his first year in the Brigade. “I know some things. Other things not so much.”

“Our Inking is called the Chirus Alrashemni.” Elohl murmured, indulging her. “Translated it means, Dedicated of the Land, a title we receive along with the Inking when we pass our Eighth Seal. The mountain is a double-reference, both to the Kingsmount itself, representing the nation, and also to the enduring solidarity of our vow to the King and his house. The five stars are for the five tenets of Alrashemni life. Strength. Flexibility. Wisdom. Knowledge. Patience.”

“The central star is larger than the others. Why?”

“The central star is wisdom. In all things, we are to be guided by our deepest intuition, the inner sight of the heart, which knows before the mind.”

“What do you mean, intuition?” Eleshen prodded.

“Intuition drives who we are,” Elohl murmured. “Allows us to achieve wisdom in mediation. Being a Kingsman is not truly about killing. It is about negotiation, peacemaking. Violence is and has always been considered a last option.”

“But you are trained killers. You learn killing arts nearly from birth.”

“Yes. The sword that is honed the sharpest pierces best when a rabid boar attacks.”

“Poetic.”

“Practical.”

“Had you killed anyone before you went to war? Did you kill the men who came to take you? How old were you when the Summons came? Twenty? You must be near thirty now…” Eleshen’s hand reached up to stroke Elohl’s short beard.

Elohl sobered. These questions plagued him too deep, dipped too far, upsetting his newfound sunshine, his tenuous ease. These questions dove inside him like knives, piercing, slashing. Opening wounds best forgotten. Too many memories surfaced from each slash. Too many failures. Elohl pulled her hand gently from his face, holding it to his chest instead, what had once been lithe and young now lean and hardened by rough living and too many tortuous ascents.

And scarred. Too many scars.

“It doesn’t matter now.” Elohl tried to keep his voice calm, but it came out hard-edged, final.

The pretty innkeeper’s lips pursed, fierce. “But your entire clan just disappeared after that Summons! That accusation of treason from your very own King…! And then they banished the Alrashemni children to the furthest campaigns like criminals!”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“But, they must have killed everyone, all your parents, all your teachers…!”

“I said it doesn’t matter!” Elohl rose from the floor and unsat her with a growl, lacing his trousers. The glacier that protected his heart had shifted from the bliss of their sun-drenched afternoon, and it shouldn’t have. Roiling emotions were too close, too surfaced from the deeps, fished up by the innkeeper’s uncanny acceptance, her torpid prodding. Elohl strode from the kitchen, his heart gripping him hard. He pushed out the back door, ripping his cloak and other belongings down from the wash line.

Eleshen was out the door in a flash after him, her shirt barely laced, her hands on his bare arms. “Please! Forgive me! I didn’t mean to upset you… Please, I just…”

“You should learn to keep your mouth shut!” Elohl snarled in raw passion. It was a man he didn’t know, a beast of pain long submerged pulling at him, a leviathan seeking to drown him beneath that formerly-placid blue lake. Cerulean swallowed his vision, just for a moment, and Elohl felt suffocated. He took the long, slow breath of his training, then yanked his shirt on over his head. He should never have come here.

He should never have tried to live again.

“The Kingsmen are dead! The Alrashemni courts are empty. Leave it alone.”

“I know, I mean, I just… Kingsmen saved my family!” Eleshen clutched her arms, at last keeping her hands to herself. “I wouldn’t be here but for them! In the raid, they were suddenly there in the night, protecting us…! My father was Dhepan of Quelsis. The King hadn’t sent aid, even though scouts knew Valenghian raiders had crossed the border. But somehow, the Kingsmen knew. They sent fifty, just fifty men and women. And fifty Kingsmen kept the city safe from hundreds of raiders.”

Elohl turned slowly. Suddenly he could see it, her pain, just as fresh and raw as his. All from seeing a Kingsman walk through her door this day. “The Raid of Quelsis. Fifteen years ago. Valenghians snuck through the Borderlands and burned Quelsis in the middle of the night. My father was among the fifty protecting the city.”

“Your father?” Eleshen stepped back, her gaze flicking over his lean, iron-wrought frame, his tall stature, his black hair that shone with highlights of blue in the sunlight, scruffy beard and grey eyes. “Urloel den’Alrahel … you look like Urloel!”

Elohl’s throat burned. “My father was Rakhan of the Court of Alrashesh. He led the defense at Quelsis.”

“He did. He talked at length with my father, readying the plan.”

A long pause stretched. Something had knit between them, a cord of pain, a cord of promise. Something thickened the air, of destinies intertwined. Elohl’s hand twitched. If his sword had been in his fingers, he’d have cut that cord. But though there was pain for him here, dredging up his past for a curious little innkeeper, there was also peace. Hadn’t he found it already? An afternoon of warmth and good sweat, shadows of sunlight filtering through his closed eyelids?

“Come back inside.” Eleshen pleaded, earnest. “I could… use some help with the pots.”

Elohl glanced at the road, noting the angle of the sun. It was long past mid-afternoon. The spring sun was already on its way down the mountain, and the shadows grew long and chill. A part of him howled, not wanting to go back out into what was sure to be a cold, hard night. Cerulean plucked at his vision. With a sigh, Elohl scrubbed a hand over his short beard, nodded his assent to Eleshen, and pushed the vision away. She reached out, taking him gently by the fingers, tentative. And with a subtle tug, led him back inside to the warmth.

CHAPTER 5 – DHERRAN

 

 

Pain exploded across Dherran den’Lhust’s face as he slipped a punch and was anticipated. Blood from his lip spattered the yellow earth of the summer-ring. It was the only blow that had landed upon him this fight. Cheers rang from the crowd, fists pumped in exuberance for some violence in the match at last. Eyeing the big man before him from between raised hands, Dherran allowed no more punches to land. Flowing out of the way of the next five swings, he moved with unfettered ease in the scalding summer heat. His opponent’s massive fists pummeled nothing but air, as Dherran moved by a hair’s breadth each time. Light on his feet, he avoided his opponent by a slight twist of the hips here, a minute shift of his feet there.

In the center of the dirt ring surrounded by spears, time seemed to pause. An eternity of noise flooded Dherran’s ears, even as he focused on his breathing. Rhaventia’s main square was packed for its annual summer celebrations, and the prize fights were the top attraction for the week. Pennants flew in the breeze from every gable and doorway. Awnings had been refreshed with gay stripes, reds and hot yellows that reflected the high-noon sunshine. Coarse farmers and laborers crowded around the ring of tall spears, the week one of idleness for the lower classes. Pressing in, their eyes shone rabid for blood. Swigging bottles of ale, their attention was upon Dherran and his hulking red opponent, both shirtless for the spectacle as they fought for the final title today.

But just as Dherran was taking the measure of the big man with the shockingly red hair opposite him in the ring of spears, he found his measure being equally taken. There was little to no weight behind each of the big man’s swings. The brute was biding his time in the sweat-drunk heat of the day. And so was Dherran.

A trickle of perspiration beaded down to Dherran’s eyelashes. He blinked it away.

“Come on! Hit the Blackmark! Get him again!” Someone in the crowd screamed.

“Rorouk!! Rorouk!!”

“Knock the treasonous whoresson on his ass, Rorouk!”

Shirtless in the spear-circled summer-ring, everyone could see Dherran’s black Inkings upon his broad chest. Everyone knew his training, Kingsman, a supposed traitor to the crown. And everyone hated him for it. It enraged his opponents, making them come at him furious and fast. Which was always a mistake.

Dherran’s solid bulk was loose in the high noon humidity, relaxed in his quick, small movements. His opponent already glistened with runnels of sweat, breathing hard with all his seeking punches. And still, Dherran slipped effortlessly from each punch, counting on exhausting his adversary. Dherran could hit the man and hit him hard, but it was far more satisfying to watch the lout’s fury mount, watch the veins in his temples bulge, see his face become blister-red with effort and embarrassment.

A satisfied smirk lifted Dherran’s lips. A soft snarl of pleasure as he did his best to ignore the vicious jeers of the crowd. This is what Dherran was good at. This is what he lived for. The pleasure of a fight, of working off his steam, of sweating it all out beneath the high summer sun in the clinging dust. This was where he belonged. A sense of rightness filled him as Big Red threw a stretch of punches that hit nothing but the breeze. Once upon a time, those sour jeers towards Kingsmen would have been enough to make Dherran livid like a raging boar in the ring, forgetting everything of his training. Once, they would have pushed him to cataclysmic destruction, to his own detriment. Once, such slurs would have been enough to give his opponent opportunity.

But time had taught him lessons. That rage got you hit, and hit hard. And so Dherran tuned out the slurs, the curses, letting himself enjoy the fury of the moment, the pleasure of knowing he was superior to his massive opponent. That he was a better man than all these louts who leered and jeered, spit and drank. That he was better, and he would show them all this day, right here, right this very moment and in every summer-ring all season.

Because he was a Kingsman.

His snarling smile of well-earned patience increased.

But suddenly, his opponent backed off a pace in frustration. Wrapped fists still up, his seething blue gaze fixed upon Dherran’s Inkings. “Come at me, you cocksucking Blackmark!” Big Red bellowed. “Come at me or I’ll tie you to a post and fuck your mother in front of you!! Royal Kingswhore!”

The man made a gesture that was hard to misinterpret.

And just like that, Dherran’s easy flow was gone. He felt his rage rise, until his ears rang with it. He felt it flash, seething and hot. Just as it had when he was young among his comrades on the training field, Elohl and Olea, Suchinne and Ghrenna. Back then, he would have been taken by that rage, and lithe Elohl would have gotten the best of him. But now, even in the grips of the red that washed his vision, he was able to find solace, a kind of peace in the middle of the burning. Rather than let it sweep over him like he once had, Dherran held his anger, cherished it, nourished it.

Fed it.

And now, the swing Dherran had been waiting for came. Big Red threw his weight behind a right hook. Dherran gave a quick twist of the hips, allowing the punch to flow past his chin. And then he put power behind his tight thrust to the man’s neck. True power. Rageful power. The power of the charging boar that knows no right and knows no wrong.

Only the sensation of charging with tusks raised, roaring.

Big Red crumpled, blue eyes rolling up in his head. He fell to the scuffed and bloody yellow dirt in a heap of thick flesh, out cold. Roars of irate disappointment filled the square. The quick, uneventful match had soured the crowd. Glass slit the dusty afternoon sunlight as thrown bottles of ale smashed near the center of the ring. Men shook fists at the margin of black-tipped spears. More bottles tossed in anger shattered off the spears behind Dherran in showers of glass.

“You Blackmark shit!”

“Bloody Kingsman!”

Dherran spat blood to the dirt, signifying his disdain for the men around him. Callous men, lowborn men, men who had never learned about honor. Fighting filled him, battle filled him, ferocious and livid.

“Have you gotten no pleasure from this fight today?!” He roared above the clamor of the crowd. Spreading his arms wide, Dherran let himself be taken by the grips of the red rage, buzzing filling his ears, red shrouding his vision. “Then I am pleased! You should have no pleasure for your bigotry!! Fuck you and fuck this whole fucking town!! May it burn!!”

Dherran turned with a florid growl of rage. His opponent still hadn’t moved upon the sand, and was being slapped to no avail by his support-team. The large bronze gong reverberated through the dirty heat of Rhaventia’s main square as Dherran strode from the ring. Red ecstasy took him as he strode along the spear-lined passage through the pushing and cussing throng to his ready-tent. With a roar, Dherran batted aside the heavy canvas flap, tearing at his handwraps as he strode into the stifling gloom. He heard the whisk of canvas behind him, the light, flitting steps of Grump, who raced forward to finish unwinding Dherran’s wraps with nimble fingers.

“Dherran, my lad, they’re piss-mad! Your first punch! You could have at least given Rorouk a chance. Fastest Final Match in Rhaventian history! And unfortunately, the most uneventful.” The lithe little old man chuckled cheerily, his rapid speech unconcerned as his clever fingers scuttled over the cloth strips. Dherran growled, resisting the urge to punch the little grey forestmouse of a man, which wouldn’t help anything, though his blood boiled.

“Fucking cunt had it coming! Did you hear what he said?! Did you?!”

Loosing his vicious rage at last, Dherran swung a fist, which Grump ducked nimbly. The punch connected with a stout beam of the ready-tent. The whole pavilion trembled. And when he pulled his fist away, it came bloody, a great dent left in the solid barreloak. Grump blinked, clucked his tongue in reproach, then fetched the water bucket, rinsing Dherran’s damaged knuckles and giving him the dipper. Dherran drank deeply, then dunked his head, simmering under the cool trickles of water.

“I heard, I saw,” Grump quipped, his breezy manner at contrast to his nickname, and to the increasing shouting beyond the pavilion. “Called you a royal Kingswhore. Then mimed fucking your face. What more do you want, Dherran? You’re talented, but no one likes you for it. Notorious.” Grump winked, then thumped him on the shoulder, a butterfly’s brush upon Dherran’s solid bulk.

But suddenly, his manner changed. Frighteningly alert like a sharper-hawk, Grump sucked his teeth, cocking his head. And in the ebbing rage from his ringing ears, Dherran heard the rising roar beyond the tent. Too much shouting. Too much volume. A sudden whiff of pitch and lamp-oil touched his nostrils in the heat of the afternoon.

Dherran ran both hands through his hair as a cold fear hit him, though it only sharpened his rage, honing it like a lance. “We have to get out of here, don’t we?”

“Well, my boy… you don’t exactly play the crowd.” Grump had gone still, listening. And then grinned with a shrewd, hard amusement. “It’s time for our little trio to move on, I think. Shall we make an unforgettable exit?”

Grump was suddenly in action, flitting towards Dherran’s gear upon the straw bales and wooden benches. Sinewed hands aflutter, Grump stuffed gear into saddlebags. Dherran erupted into motion also, his heart racing but not from the fight anymore. Rage fed him like a swift stream, adding fluidity to his motions. Quickly gathering his shirt, jerkin, sword belt, gauntlets, he cinched everything on with a speed that didn’t match his bulk. Alert to the sounds of a mob, Dherran heard a mass of people moving beyond his tent. Spears clacked outside, their vile lengths pulled from the dirt of the summer-ring, men banging them together in violence. A clamoring surge of voices boiled in drunken recklessness, though their words were indistinct through the heavy canvas.

And then he smelled something that made his rage focus, hard. Acrid pith-resin lanced Dherran’s nostrils as torches were lit. The mob was coming.

“Horses? Khenria?” Dherran’s gaze flicked to Grump.

“Through that panel.” Lithe Grump gave a flourishing bow, saddlebags slung over his lean frame.

“Let’s go.”

Dherran ducked out the rear flap of the long canvas tent, his rage deepened into a solid flow of wrathful lava towards the populace of Rhaventia. Their horses were tied close to the stout pilings of the pavilion’s rear entryway. Skinny Khenria was there, her homespun cowl up despite the mid-afternoon heat, in her usual men’s leather jerkin and pants with boots. Her fingers were flying to pull the lead-lines as Grump lashed saddlebags in place. Away from the ring, their escape was yet-hidden from the mob by the bulk of the tent. But just as Dherran was about to take his bay from Khenria’s nervous fingers, the first edge of the mob broke around the side of the tent.

“There’s the Blackmark!”

“Grab him, don’t let him leave!”

Dherran turned to face the mob. Grump was mounted on his grey gelding, and Khenria was up on Dherran’s bay. The horses snorted and paced as the crowd advanced. Hatred burned in the mob, hot summer sweat glistened upon their faces. Torches were hefted in a number of hands, despite the heat, and spears. Without pause, Dherran advanced. He dodged a wild spear-thrust from one untrained drunkard, hitting the fellow just below the ribs with his elbow, huffing him over in the dirt and taking his spear.

“You’ve seen me in the ring with fists!” Dherran bellowed, letting the rage in his hot green eyes be felt by the mob as he brandished the black-tipped spear. “Who will be the first to see what I can do with a weapon?!”

Fear took the faces of those at the front. They drew up short. Townsfolk, traders, farmers, none actually wanted to face their death. They saw Dherran’s lack of mercy. They saw how he held the spear, a weapon known practically since birth, a fact of Kingsman lore that even the most hateful people knew by heart. But those behind were pushing, pressing forward, unable to see. Frightened men backed up, colliding with drunken, rageful fellows in the back, who shoved those in front.

A punch was thrown.

And that was all it took.

Brother turned on brother like a forest fire jumping a dug trench. The melee gave Dherran his moment. With a running leap, he launched himself from a step-stump by the picket line, up over the rump of his stout bay behind Khenria. The horse whinnied in alarm at the perverse treatment, but it was used to Dherran’s getaways. Still with his spear in hand, Dherran reached around Khenria to grab the saddle-horn as he kicked the bay into motion.

Grump wheeled, kicking his stout grey into a gallop, taking the lead as he yelled back over his shoulder. “Harrow’s Road!”

Dherran roared like a lion, venting his fury, intimidating the populace as they galloped across the expanse of the broad flagstone square. Beneath the fluttering pennants by the trader’s stalls, merchants and townsfolk shied back from the pounding of horses’ hooves and Dherran’s death-roar. Dherran twisted in the saddle, hurling the black-tipped spear. It soared towards the raging townsfolk, skewering the ground right in front of the pursuing mob. Men flooded to the sides of it, pulled up short in sudden surprise. And like some great beast, the mob roared behind them, furious at their escape.

Gaining the dusty tracks of Harrow’s Road, they raced out of Rhaventia just as the late afternoon sun dipped below the tops of the mountains to the west. They ran the horses hard before Dherran felt the lather on his bay’s withers far too slick beneath his hand. He reined up to a walk, letting horses and riders catch their breath. His stout bay, Muk, was tired, but Muk and Merrow were not daunted by a quick getaway, and neither were Dherran’s traveling companions.

Dherran angled Muk off the road and into the forest, feeling Merrow follow, heavy footfalls turning into dull thumps as they reached the thick carpet of forest loam. Grump took the lead once they hit the forest and walked them away from the road a league, his sense of direction and distance unerring as always. Grump stopped their trio at a likely ring of balewick trees, with high, thick foliage to keep off summer thunderstorms, and slipped out of the saddle. Khenria dismounted, Dherran after her, tying his bay to a tree with enough lead for grazing.

Dherran turned, listening for any sounds of pursuit. But the forest was silent around them other than the usual. The chirp of hedge-sparrows, a scathing chatter of obscenities from a grey squirrel, whispers of wind through the leathery balewick leaves. Still wound tight from their getaway, Dherran’s insides could have strung a lute, but his tune was jangled and bitter in the ease of the forest.

“Doubt they have six horses between the whole lot of them,” Grump chattered, starting to gather fallen branches from beneath the trees. “We’ll be all right here, Khenria, mark my words! Uncle Grump has got us a fine fat purse, and we’ll be in the money for months yet! You want kipper-flisk, child? Uncle Grump will get it for you, next town we come to!”

“Assuming there are any towns left open to us. Bigoted assholes.” Dherran murmured hotly, unbuckling saddlebags and hauling them off the exhausted mounts, setting them at the edge of the flat, mossy camp.

“Now, now.” Grump piled his sticks by a balewick tree. “Plenty of places. Let’s see… we’ve got the entire swath of eastern provinces to visit yet. Vennet, Quelsis, Arodantia, Pleinne… plenty of places left to incite riots, my boy! The summer is still young.”

“They’ll remember me from last year,” Dherran mumbled, bitter. “They’ll keep us out. Because of the riots that followed my wins last summer.”

“Maybe, maybe not.” Grump dismissed, piling his sticks. “You’d be surprised how people forget certain things. And the faces that accomplished them. Memory is a fleeting thing, Dherran.”

“They didn’t remember you in Nevarre.” Khenria’s grey eyes were earnest as she bent to help Grump. Her short blue-black brush of curls was whipped into a crest from riding, her well-worn jerkin, shirt, and breeches allowing all movement of her skinny frame as she gathered. “And you didn’t cause a riot there. Your fighting doesn’t cause riots in every town.”

“Just most of them.” Dherran snarled. “That’s three riots already this summer. And it was only my fifth series of fights!”

“Last year was worse,” Khenria countered, not backing down from his temper. “You had five riots by midsummer. Maybe you’re losing your edge.” She looked up with a sly grin.

“My edge?” It took Dherran a moment of blistering anger to realize that her comment had been a joke. And suddenly, it broke him. Like water pouring over hot stones, his rage fizzled out into steam. Dherran’s exhalation came out as a soft laugh. Humor had always dissipated his heat, but it had to be the right kind. A subtle, caring sort of humor. And Khenria had it, just like Suchinne once had.

But his demeanor cooled further, remembering Suchinne. Thinking about how she’d lived always turned into thoughts of how she died. Of how Dherran’s regiment, the Stone Valley Guard, had been summoned to the Valenghian front, engaging a vicious battle in the foothills near Quelsis. He’d found Suchinne there, in the Quelsis Foreguard. Found her only hours too late as he picked through the dead, looking for the wounded. Speared. Raped. It was obvious in what order things had been done. The spear through her middle had been Valenghian, but when Dherran found a Menderian Lieutenant’s pin on the ground beside her, he’d snatched it up in a blinding, terrible wrath.

He’d found the Menderian soldiers who’d done it. Oh yes, he surely had.

“Dherran?” Khenria’s voice was small at his side. Dherran blinked, surfacing from red memories.

“Yeah?”

“Where did you go?”

He shook his head, banishing the past. “Nowhere. Don’t worry about it. I’ll get some more sticks for the fire.”

“I’ll come with you.”

“No!” Dherran took a breath, let it out. “Not just now.”

Khenria blinked at his rebuff, but something in her understood. She cocked her head, birdlike. Her slight hand settled to his forearm. Dherran looked down at it. Her bones were small and fine, just like Suchinne’s had been.

With a wry twist of his lips, he pulled away. “Be back soon.” Striding out from the ring of trees, Dherran made for a massive boulder hunkering beyond the clump of trees, a great elongated swath of stone bigger than ten barns. He approached the mass of hulking rock, taking deep breaths to cool his memories.

Taller than he, the behemoth of stone was covered in moss and last years’ leaf litter. Dherran’s inner turmoil eased as he considered it; its cool groundedness, its solidity. Shadows smoothed across the bluegrey stone from the balewick trees. The sun’s rays picked out emerald highlights in the moss that grew over shady patches like living hair. As he stared at those winking green glimmers, his vision began to expand from its hot, narrow spear. And at last, it opened up all together. Dherran inhaled fully, a breath without the constriction of his rage at last.

It had been Suchinne who had shown him how to study objects to cool his temper, especially out in nature. But this object was actually something of interest. Walking the near perimeter, Dherran found it had a peculiar shape, like a hand palm-down in the earth with five elongated fingers, knuckles slightly crooked. Laying as it was with massive fingers splayed out into the ground, the overgrowth of vegetation suggested it had clearly had been there for centuries, even a few trees now brazenly growing out of the top of the thing.

“Grump!” Dherran called. “Come look at this!”

Grump flitted over, a half-bundle of sticks under his skinny arm. His head cocked to one side as he sucked his teeth, grey brows knitting as Khenria danced up behind him. “Well, you’ve found something, boyo! Yes, indeed!”

“Looks like a piece of one of those monoliths we saw last year when we tracked along the Aphellian Way.” Dherran murmured, intrigued by the stone.

“It looks like a hand!” Khenria exclaimed. “A hand extended in warding!”

“Not from the Aphellian Way,” Grump murmured, reaching out to smooth one gnarled hand over the rough-bitten stone. “Those are all protected by a magic long lost. Some have been toppled by time but not broken. No, this probably came from far up in the mountains. See how big it is! Must be nearly fifty paces long!”

“The statue it came from must be around here somewhere,” Khenria chirruped.

Grump shook his head. “Believe me, I know these woods. No, stones like these are found stranded sometimes, left down in this valley from glaciers long receded. The mountains further up are riddled with broken pieces of ancient lore. Someone was here upon this continent, long ago. Long before us, at least. And they weren’t shy about leaving their mark upon this land.”

“Fantastic…” Dherran murmured, smoothing his hand over the mossy stone. Feeling the immensity of it, he imagined how tall the original monolith would have been. The thought cooled him further, the perspective of his woes and turmoil suddenly seeming small next to something wrought by such an ancient people.

“Look here, boyo!” Grump suddenly turned upon him, sharp. “You don’t get out of making camp just because you fought today and have a head for mysteries! Idle hands make an idle future! That’s what…”

“… Gramma den’Aldriye always used to say. Yeah, yeah.” Dherran murmured, stepping away from the enormous stone, brushing moss off his hands.

“Get to work, Dherran!” Khenria bent to pluck firewood from a clump of telmenberry vines in the shadow of the stone. “You don’t look so hurt from your fight that you can’t help. You only got punched once today!” She threw a stick at him, hitting him in the knee.

“Argh! Right in the knee. I can’t walk! Guess I’ll just have to sit here on this stone while you make camp.” Dherran faked a limp, grinning, letting levity take him at last. It always did, once his rage was gone.

“Hup, hup! The faster you gather, the faster you sup!” Khenria threw another stick, a bigger one. Dherran let it hit him in the chest. He saw how it pleased her even though she knew how fast he could have dodged it. Dherran grinned again, then ambled back to camp to unpack saddlebags and untie bedrolls from the horses. Laying out their cooking pots and utensils upon the moss, he suddenly remembered something.

“Grump. How much did we win today?”

Making a fire in the center of camp, Grump piled medium sticks into a cone with small tinder, grinning and secretive. “Guess.”

“Ten and thirty!” Khenria chimed in, lining a space for the fire with stones.

“Not even close! Up near twenty.” Grump chortled, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes betraying how obviously proud he was of his betting skills.

“Gods above, Grump!” Dherran glanced over, incredulous. “What were the odds against me? I already won five bouts in that town over the past week.”

“The odds were eleven to one, boyo, despite your winning. There are plenty who dislike a Kingsman and bet with their hatred rather than their brains. Blind men run themselves into deep wells. I put in everything we had and took a cut for the trades I arranged besides. But really, your opponent was a champion in three regions of Alrou-Mendera this year! Had a nasty right hook and sixty pounds on you. He was anticipated to knock you flat. Though I daresay I knew better.”

“He was fat and slow,” Dherran dismissed, embarrassed that the odds against him had been so bad.

“He was thick and fast,” Grump challenged. “You were faster. And because of it, I got us nineteen and eighty-two Rou. Best that, kiddos.” Grump was smug, striking flint and steel into his bundle of tinder and blowing on the flame.

Khenria laughed, jostling Grump by the shoulders. “Do I get a horse now?”

Grump waved her off, still blowing on his smoking bundle. “Anything you want, dear heart.” He came to all fours as he tucked his small flame into the tinder of the cone, blowing gently to get the fire licking upwards. “We have plenty now for a third horse, and a number of months room and board to boot. We won’t have to live out here in the woods over the winter.”

“Good thing everyone hates a Kingsman.” Dherran growled, pouring water from one of their bladders into a pot to make their evening tea. Something of his rage rekindled, thinking about all those hateful faces in Rhaventia.

“Not everyone hates a Kingsman. Don’t you ever say that.” Khenria’s voice cracked like a whip through the forest.

Dherran looked up, catching her dark look, feeling her intense stillness. They stared at each other, aware of each other’s simmering anger. Khenria had plenty of it, a match to Dherran’s in every way. Ferocity was always there in her set lips, in the defiant angle of her sharp chin, a hawk-eyed woman beneath her lanky youth. More and more, Dherran saw the steely strength of the Alrashemni in Khenria. And something in it cooled him. She was beautiful, in a vicious, young sort of way, very much like Suchinne had once been. Khenria’s dark grey eyes held his in the fading light of the forest, glinting now that the fire had begun to burn high and bright. Her brush-cut black hair caught the fire’s light, blazing with blue highlights, and Dherran mused for a moment on how utterly Alrashemni she looked, like Olea at that age.

“Not everyone hates you, Dherran.”

“I know,” Dherran murmured softly, his heart softening, something about her words causing him to ache.

“But sometimes you’re a git for getting us kicked out of nice lodgings.” Khenria’s lips quirked. And though the ache flushed deeper in Dherran’s chest, it was a calm kind of sadness, of delicate things lost and a safe way of living forgotten.

“I owe you a soft feather mattress, don’t I?” Dherran murmured, his joke more than half-true. He owed Khenria a lot more than that. Dherran himself didn’t look Alrashemni. He had his mother’s coloring, the straw-blonde hair with green eyes that was gradually drowning out the elegant darkness of the Alrashemni. But Dherran had Inkings, and Khenria had recognized them when she and Dherran had had their encounter at the stream two years ago. He was naked, soaking clean in the river. She had been hiding in the forest’s fringe, watching him.

But she had approached him because of those marks, because of the trust she put in them, the life she remembered. And from a solo journey of misery he’d lived since he’d defected from the Stone Valley Guard after Suchinne’s death, Dherran had suddenly acquired a family.

He owed Khenria everything because of it.

Especially the training she had been denied.

But Khenria took on a thoughtful cast at his comment, rather than laughing. And suddenly, Dherran thought he had said something wrong. Unlike Suchinne had been, Khenria was moody, sometimes ferocious as a keshar, sometimes playful, sometimes distant. She’d had a hard life after the Summons, a childhood of abuse and desperate living. Dherran felt distinctly uncomfortable now, as if he’d triggered something for her. His gaze broke from her hawkish steel, flicking around to find Grump.

But as usual, Grump had melted away once the fire had been started, to fetch the bounty of the forest. Dherran made himself busy in the awkward silence by pouring herbs for tea into the pot and watching it boil. Khenria was silent, organizing their bedrolls, erecting a lean-to of oiled canvas between the trees in case of rain.

At last, Dherran heard the tripping gait of Grump’s light feet returning. Grump could move without a sound in the forest, and only made his presence known for their sake. Dherran turned, noting that Grump’s gather-pouches were full to bursting as he stepped into the fire’s light from the evening gloom, two fat rabbits slung over his shoulder.

“Summer bunnies are out!” Grump shed the rabbits to the moss.

Finished with the lean-to, Khenria snatched them up, using her belt-knife to skin and eviscerate them with stunning alacrity. Dherran forgot, sometimes, that she had been starving and wild when Grump had found her at age ten, adopting her to his nomadic ways. She had escaped an abusive miller’s family and managed to stay alive a number of months on her own, but had been close to death as autumn had turned to winter. Grump had taught her woodscraft and kindness, and his sweet chatter had re-socialized her.

Somewhat.

“Soon it will be all bunny-stew,” Grump was picking through his gatherings, a number of wide leaves and a pouch full of yellow chandria mushrooms. “Bunny-jerky, bunny-pies, now that we have money for flour, and salted bunny-crunch wraps! Gotta wait for the dragon-snaps at the end of summer for that, though.”

Grump mumbled to himself now as he tended to the cooking, and Dherran smiled to hear it, helping slice up the mushrooms Grump had foraged, as Khenria tore up the bitter greens. They hardly ever needed supplies from town when they lived rough with Grump. Dherran was an adept hunter and occasionally went out with his bow, and Khenria had learned Grump’s foraging and edible identification. In a little while, a fragrant stew was bubbling heartily in the pot.

Khenria sat near the fire, honing her knife when at last Dherran motioned her up. She sprang to her feet with a brisk litheness, and Dherran tossed her the extra practice sword from his bedroll, which she snatched from the air like a cat. Dherran lunged, and their regular evening bout began.

Even in his youth, he had been an expert swordsman, a capable teacher of his peers when he wasn’t busy getting pissed off. He took Khenria through combinations to get her heated, until she was breathing hard and damp with sweat. At last, she gave him a wide opening from her fatigue, and Dherran moved in. One fist to her chest, he knocked out her wind, his blade sliding to her throat. But the little hawk was handy with steel, and even as she doubled over coughing, Dherran felt her well-honed boot-knife prick his ribs.

He laughed, stepping back. Khenria glowered, rage heated in her fine-boned features. Womanly and feral, it made Dherran’s chuckle falter. She continued to glower, cheeks hot with wrath until he inclined his head.

“Fair enough. It was a dirty blow. But you have to expect your opponent to fight filthy sometimes, Khenria. You did just right. When someone begins to fight like a caged keshar, you do the same. And if you really feel your life is in danger,” his hand whipped to a fly-blade in his leather jerkin, throwing it faster than a viper. Khenria reacted, slipping to one side as the knife brushed past her cheek and buried itself in the tree behind her.

Her lips dropped open, realizing what he’d just done. “You could have killed me!”

“But you felt it. Good job.” Dherran inclined his head. “We’re done here.”

He turned, making for the fire. But something, like a breath upon the wind suddenly, raised his hackles and honed him to lance-sharp readiness. Dherran spun, catching Khenria’s unseen attack upon his blade, sliding past her in a two-handed upward parry that left her spinning to an uneven seat upon the moss. Dherran whipped the tip of his blade to her throat.

Khenria’s eyes glittered coal-dark in the firelight. “I almost got you.”

Dherran’s sword-tip didn’t waver. “Test me, Khenria, and find out what I’m really made of.”

“I’ll test you,” she breathed. “Just you wait.” Her eyes had changed to a dark smolder that left Dherran rattled. He pulled his sword up and thrust it back in its scabbard. He didn’t offer Khenria a hand up, merely gazed at her a long moment.

“Stew’s ready! Come and eat.” Grump suddenly chimed in.

Dherran moved away and sat upon a spread hide on the moss before the fire. Khenria sat at his side, fetching her bowl and fishing for the ladle, portioning her fill. They ate in silence. Dherran suppressed the urge to glance at Grump and see if the man had noticed anything odd in Khenria’s demeanor. But Grump prattled on about nonsense, apparently oblivious of the sudden tension in their camp.

Dherran felt Khenria staring at him, venomous, and he felt like a rabbit beneath the gaze of a hawk. Suchinne’s gaze had pierced him like that, like talons. And now there was another hawk in Dherran’s life, a tempestuous one that was far less predictable. Dherran hunched his shoulders in the deepening night, and hunkered closer to the fire, draining the dregs of his bowl.

CHAPTER 6 – OLEA

 

 

Olea strode a straight route from the infirmary to where her rounds began at the West Guardhouse, down a few sets of grandiose staircases to a shortcut through the deepest labyrinthine halls that would avoid the palace bustle. Even at the height of the morning there were few folk about in the deepest halls of Roushenn, the labyrinthine corridors echoing and silent. Turning right, Olea entered the vaulted reaches of the West Armory, which had a passage that led up to the West Guardhouse on the far side.

It wasn’t an armory, merely a hall of antiquities from the martial history of Alrou-Mendera. Iron racks holding suits of armor, glass cases full of weapons and medallions of bravery, massive tapestries of lord’s crests adorning the walls. And though it was intriguing, all evidence of Alrashemni Kingsmen antiquities had been removed from the hall, and their absence was notable. Olea walked the vaulted space slowly, her soft footsteps echoing in the silence. Gazing at the armor upon their iron displays, she saw countless niches barren, entire suits having been removed from the hall. Sword-displays hung empty for ten paces. Glass cases were pocked with dented blue velvet where medallions of bravery and honor had once lain but had been removed.

Olea had never seen evidence of the Alrashemni honor here, even in her first year at the palace. All of it had been removed in the week after the Kingsmen’s disappearance. Gazing around now, a feeling of barrenness arose in Olea. An aching feeling of loss deep in her chest. Here had been evidence of how her people had served their kings, and now only their absence remained like a hole in her heart, and a hole in the heart of Roushenn. Kingsmen had been all but erased from Alrou-Mendera’s history, as if a hand of destiny had swept them from the continent.

Olea’s chest clenched. She turned away. This was no place to linger, not today, not with everything else she was thinking about Elohl’s discharge. He’d not be honored any more for his service, if he was still alive, than she was for being a Kingsman at her loyal post. And that was all too plain here, staring at her from every empty display.

She was about to leave the hall, when something like a sigh caught her attention, from far up in the hall and to the left. As she moved slowly toward the sound, she heard a hot curse issue from behind a suit of gold-plated armor. Close enough now to glance behind the iron-wrought stand, she saw a young woman in a long pale green silk gown sitting in the small niche. The woman looked up, startled and angry, but her milk-smooth features and fierce green eyes relaxed as she noted whom had found her.

“Dhenra Elyasin.” Olea dropped to one knee, bowing her head, her hand to her sword, just halting the other hand in time and moving it back to her side rather than pressing it to her Inkings. It was a hard habit to break, bowing like a Kingsman, even after ten years.

Elyasin den’Ildrian smiled ruefully, her tear-stained face splotchy and cheeks flushed, eyes all the more brilliantly green for the red that rimmed them. “Captain-General. As you were.”

Olea lifted her head, but did not rise. “Are you all right, Dhenra?”

“Oh, fine! Just fine.” The young woman laughed, harsh. She leaned her golden-blonde head back against the armor, her words biting. “Fourteen suitors who would be King, all of them trying to manipulate me with trade agreements. And whichever I choose provokes the chance of war with all the others! My father’s Chancellors, always in my ear! And Castellan Lhaurent, what a waste of my time! Why must I supervise the palace household when I have a kingdom to run and a war to manage!” Elyasin rested back upon the armor again. “Leave me. I wish to be alone.”

“You are unguarded, Dhenra.”

Dhenra Elyasin looked up, feisty and vicious, with the same rash temper her brother Alden had once possessed. “And who is going to accost me here? The Ghost of Roushenn? No one uses these halls… it’s why I come down here.” Scrubbing her fingers through her lush golden hair, she combed her bright waves over one shoulder angrily, then gave a vicious growl. “What am I going to do, Olea? A marriage? Aeon’s tits! This is harder than managing the war in Valenghia…!”

A tear leaked down the Dhenra’s face. She scrubbed it away. Olea knew that gesture. The Dhenra was in a temper and angry with herself. Elyasin had never enjoyed weakness. Olea was reminded of the high-spirited girl who used to stare upon the practice grounds, mouth open and gaping. Of when nine-year-old Elyasin, fascinated by Olea’s Inkings, had demanded to learn the sword and other arts of the Kingsmen. Olea had at last relented, and taught her Dhenra in secret.

A secret the two still shared twice weekly.

“Take your time. Consider your options.” Olea murmured gently, stirred by the rash fury of the young woman before her. “A Queen must be thoughtful when she has the luxury. Take the advice you require to gauge trade agreements. Walk among the people in Lintesh, ask what they need. Your coronation is still a month away at Highsummer. Even so, weddings and treaties can wait. Alrou-Mendera has had unwed queens before. Foster goodwill in the wake of your father’s passing, and your people will stand by you no matter how you choose to rule.”

“You say my father taught me?” Elyasin’s golden brows lifted, her tears drying. “I say you have. You give me the best advice, yet again. Unsought-for.”

“Kingsmen always speak truth to our liege, Dhenra.”

Elyasin had settled, and now was gazing at Olea, thoughtful. Shrewd. “Everyone wants something from me. All my suitors, the Castellan, the Chancellors. They all look at me as if I’m supposed to do what they say. They offer counsel expecting me to be their puppet because I’m young, and a woman. No one offers advice freely. So what do you want from me, Captain?”

The question took Olea aback. Her face opened in honesty, even the suggestion that she might be manipulating her Dhenra abhorrent. “I want nothing from you, Dhenra! All I’ve ever wanted is to see you succeed. You have strength and a keen mind. And I would like to see a powerful, outspoken Queen ascend the throne.”

The Dhenra smiled, wry. “Won’t that be the day? The dour suspicion of my father King Uhlas, followed by an outspoken Queen.”

“Your father was a man of deep and unfathomable plans, Dhenra.”

“And yet, for all his planning, I feel I am surrounded by wolves and not allies!” Elyasin snapped, rising in one lithe movement from behind the armor, her green silk gown pouring down her young body like water to puddle at her feet. One hand settled to the jeweled dagger that always rode her waist, her jade eyes flashing fire.

“I don’t even know who my true allies are, Olea! My father kept his own counsel and his secrets were known to none. And now I know nothing! And these past nine months, since his death, I’ve not known where to turn. Once the Kingsmen were allies to the Crown that could always be depended on, fighters, counselors! He spoke so highly of them when I was a child, calling them his truest vanguard! And then he reaped them down and no one knows why…!”

Olea went very still. Her heart was racing, hearing her soon-to-be-Queen raging upon this line of inquiry. It was one thing for the common folk to speculate on what had happened to the Kingsmen, but for the Dhenra herself to know nothing, that was dangerous. Everything inside Olea rose up in shock, in fear, her hackles high, that Elyasin knew so little of such a definitive event in her own nation.

Something must have shown upon Olea’s face, because Elyasin was watching her, her hard gaze every bit as shrewd as her deceased father King Uhlas. “Does anyone know why my father charged the Kingsmen with high treason? Do you?”

Olea knew she had to answer her Dhenra. But horrors were surfacing, burned into her mind as that awful time was resurrected. The clench of her stomach as she looked into Elohl’s belt-purse. The caving feeling of dread in her belly as they ran back to the Alranstone. Her mind being sundered by that man riding the scorpion.

When they’d returned to Alrashesh, fatigued and empty-handed, they’d found that the rest of the Alrashemni youths had already left for the safehouse, the fortified ruins of Kepsburg-on-the-Rhine, taking the livestock and provisions with them. Olea could still smell the dry peat of the yards, the empty silence of the stone battlements, the training quadrangles and the merchant circles. They’d run through the main training amphitheater to pack supplies, intending to trek back to Lintesh against their elder’s orders, when that Aeon-awful creak of a hundred bows drawn all at once had lanced Olea’s ears.

Bowmen had ringed the upper ramparts of the practice yard’s amphitheater. Hidden, and somehow also concealed from Olea’s hearing. Waiting for someone to make the vast mistake of coming back to Alrashesh. Someone who could tell them the location of the Kingskinder. Olea and Elohl and their companions had formed a bitter ring in the middle of the dusty training amphitheater, weapons drawn. And then, the same tall man in black foreign armor with a herringbone weave that had accosted them in the Alranstone clearing had stepped forward from the ring of archers and swordsmen.

And when he did, Olea’s world had been torn apart.

“Olea?” The Dhenra’s murmur broke into Olea’s memories of that bitter morning.

Olea took a long, single breath. “Forgive me, Dhenra. Today is the tenth anniversary of… when we were arrested and conscripted into service. It weighs on me.”

Elyasin blinked, caught her breath. Sadness lifted her brows. “Forgive me, Captain… I didn’t realize… But all the more that this be discussed! For ten years, our realm has been in the dark about what happened. I have been. So, what do you know of the Kingsman Treason? What have you heard?”

“What do you know about it?” Olea countered. “Let’s start there.”

The Dhenra tapped her fingertips on her gown, then indulged Olea’s query. “I found an annal in the library that describes the Summons of the Kingsmen more thoroughly than I was taught, or heard from my father. He was ever tight-lipped about it, even when my brother Dhenir Alden confronted him. I was so young, and Alden and I were away at the Summer Palace on the Elsee when it happened. But no one I ask knows what actually occurred here in the palace. Not the Chancellors, not Castellan Lhaurent, not the Guardsmen. And in all our training sessions, you’ve never once mentioned it. So I ask now. Do you know what truly happened that day?”

Bitter bile rose in Olea’s throat. Her fingers lifted to her chest, tracing her Inkings, thinking of that awful time. Nearly two thousand Kingsmen had been shown to rooms scattered throughout the bowels of the labyrinthine palace, and then… gone. Olea scowled, her straight black eyebrows furrowed. She had always assumed that when it was time for the Dhenra to become Queen, King Uhlas would have told his daughter what had really happened. But Uhlas had never told his son, Dhenir Alden, about the Kingsmen disappearance. Olea knew that much was true, as many days and nights as she had spent with Alden, and the conversations they’d had. But King Uhlas had never told Elyasin, either. And now he was dead and couldn’t tell anybody.

Olea traced her Inkings, pondering how much she should say to her Dhenra. How much was safe to tell a hot-tempered, untested future Queen with few allies.

“I don’t know… exactly what happened.” Olea murmured. “I was at our Court in Alrashesh when the Summons came. My brother Elohl and I were only twenty. We weren’t Kingsmen yet, so we weren’t Summoned for the Oaths of Reinstatement. Kingskinder under twenty-one were left behind. We were collected… afterwards.”

“The annals say that the Kingsmen are dead, but there was no public execution, no trial,” Elyasin murmured. “No one actually saw them die. They simply showed up here at Roushenn and were never seen again. Even the oldest maids and cooks remember nothing of the Kingsmen after their arrival. They were shown courtesy, taken to rooms, and then… nothing. In the morning, all the rooms were empty. The Kingsmen had vanished in the night, without leaving a single blade nor boot behind. Some writers say they abandoned their King, used magic to disappear into the mountains like wraiths.”

Olea scowled. “If that was the case, they would have come for us Kingskinder who were caught. But none of our elders ever came for us, Dhenra. The few Kingskinder I’ve been able to trace went to foster-families to learn a trade. Those past their Fifth Seal were split up into military service. I’ve discovered a few names in the lists over the years.”

Elyasin’s face twisted in disgust. “I read about that. The youths were pressed into service. Like slaves. Slaves in my own country, serving their lifeblood up to my father against Valenghia!”

Olea held her gaze, hard and honest. “It is my honor to serve the Crown, Dhenra.”

“Even after what my father did to your people?”

“You are not your father.”

“No, I am not. And I will find out what happened, and why. I dislike secrets in my realm.”

“Everyone in Roushenn keeps secrets,” Olea murmured. It was a common adage about the palace, labyrinthine fortress that it was.

But the phrase struck a violent chord with the Dhenra, who clenched one fist, a livid scowl upon her face. “Not from me, they don’t. Olea, if you know—”

“Your highness!” A smooth voice suddenly cut the air in the hall, like an oiled whip. Startled by the sound, Olea’s head whipped up, glimpsing the intruder. King’s Castellan Lhaurent den’Karthus moved forward down the armor hall with imperious efficiency in his tall, slightly stooped frame. Piercing grey eyes under dark brows rode his high cheekbones, his well-cropped black beard and hair streaked with grey. Immaculately groomed, the Castellan’s grey silken doublet, silk robes and breeches were always fresh. Silver chains of office hung from his doublet’s high collar, polished and shining. Rings in silver and gold bedecked every finger. A ring of a dusk-grey metal adorned the index finger of his left hand, with a ruby in the center, decoration around it. Everything about the man was polished and perfumed and well-oiled, down to his scented breath and buffed nails.

He gave Olea a cold look. “Captain den’Alrahel. Why did you not alert someone of the Dhenra’s whereabouts? She is needed in the Small Rotunda to meet Prince Ilkresh of Crasos, to discuss the grain embargo.”

Olea lifted one eyebrow and set her jaw. Castellan Lhaurent den’Karthus’ smooth baritone always irritated her. Whenever he approached, his soft-booted silence made Olea think of rain barrel eels slipping through dark water. Lhaurent had never given anyone specific reason to think he was disloyal, but Olea didn’t trust him. She’d never been able to accuse him of anything, but she had her suspicions. Thievery, perhaps. Embezzlement. Maybe plotting to murder someone to better his own station. Although he was absolutely indispensable as Castellan, running Roushenn with impeccable effortlessness.

“Castellan Lhaurent,” Olea growled. “The Dhenra wishes to be alone. I am sure she can manage her schedule to her liking.”

Lhaurent den’Karthus’ eyes narrowed upon Olea’s tousled blue-black mane, her undone buckles and laces, at the Inked star on her chest. Lhaurent had never been friendly, and he wasn’t about to pretend now. His tone dripped scorn. “You are a mess, Captain. It is a wonder anyone lets you remain in service.”

Olea was about to retort, when the Dhenra suddenly stepped forward from behind her suit of armor. Elyasin’s back was straight, her posture unassailable as she approached, imperious.

“Leave us, Lhaurent. I was in need of a report from my Captain-General before her rounds, and you are interrupting. You may tell Prince Ilkresh that I will be along presently. Invite him to music, wine, and delicacies in the Viewing Gallery. I will be no more than fifteen minutes.”

The Castellan betrayed a small surprise, but he gave a languid bow. “As my Dhenra wishes, so shall it be done.”

He turned on his heels and glided smoothly from the hall, as if his ego had never been bruised by his Dhenra’s sharp rebuke. The Dhenra watched her Castellan go, her posture still impeccable. But once he had turned the corner, Olea saw Elyasin fiddle with her knuckles. “Aeon, I never hear him coming! If I did, I’d be able to prepare myself better.”

Olea’s lips twitched in a snarl. “He’s like an eel, Dhenra. All that oil in his hair greases his passage.”

The Dhenra snorted. Her lips were still quirked in laughter as she turned upon her captain. “Olea! For shame. He is a loyal subject, both for my father and his father before him. Lhaurent is a fixture of this palace for the past thirty years, and he knows his business. No one runs Roushenn with such grace as he.”

Olea said nothing more, her teeth set with distaste. She never heard Lhaurent’s soft-booted feet approaching, either. And with her uncommonly acute hearing, it was one of the things about the man that made her immensely suspicious about him.

“What are you thinking, Captain?”

Olea mussed her blue-black curls a moment, then decided to shut her mouth on her wariness of the Castellan. “He’s just an eel. That’s all.”

Dhenra Elyasin’s lips pursed. “I suppose not everyone who is loyal is agreeable.”

But Olea was still watching where Lhaurent had gone. “Are you certain he’s loyal?”

It was out before Olea could take it back. The Dhenra’s smile changed suddenly, into something thoughtful far beyond Elyasin’s twenty-one years. A look like her father Uhlas might have had, shrewd and calculating. “Are you certain he is not? Do you know something about him, Captain?”

Olea’s eyes flicked to her regent. In Elyasin’s sharp gaze, Olea read the steady depth of Uhlas. Sometimes the Dhenra was as hotheaded as her elder brother Alden had been. But sometimes she was her father, flinty and calculating. And Olea could not lie to Uhlas’ daughter.

As a Kingswoman, she could never lie to her regent.

“My suspicions have no proof, Dhenra. Alden and I never had any proof of anything.”

Elyasin stepped closer, intent. “Suspicions and proof of what?”

“Treachery against the Crown.”

“Castellan Lhaurent?!” Elyasin looked shocked.

Olea shook her head. “Not necessarily. But someone who knows these halls.”

Elyasin raised one regal gold eyebrow, cool as stone. “Explain.”

Olea took a deep breath. It was time to tell what she knew. Elyasin had been denied the truth from so many sides, it was against Olea’s oaths as a Kingswoman to withhold any more. Even if it was dangerous, even if it placed her liege in a precarious situation, Elyasin had a right to know. She would be Queen in just four weeks’ time, and she was right. A Queen needed the truth from her allies. Olea’s chest clenched, feeling the pain of that time.

The pain of love still fresh even two years after Dhenir Alden’s death.

“Two years ago, just before he died,” Olea began, steadying her voice against a flood of awful memories, “your brother Alden and I were looking into the Kingsmen disappearance. It was one of the reasons we were spending so much time together openly. Looking into why your father was acting so paranoid, why he had become so secretive. We had just started to dig into some dire leads, when Castellan Lhaurent exposed our… intimate affair. For the good of the realm, he said, to bring our improper relationship before the Chancellate rather than speak with your father the King privately about it. It put your father in a terrible position, Dhenra, having such a shameful family matter of Alden and I’s indiscretion be made public. But what Lhaurent’s exposure of our affair truly did… was stop our investigation into the Kingsmen disappearance by separating Alden and me.”

Elyasin’s eyes had gone wide. “Two years ago. That was when the Chancellate voted for you to be beheaded because of the scandal. I remember that day.”

Olea nodded soberly. “Your father was merciful. He sent me to the cells instead. And put Alden on a trading ship to Ghrec with the merchant fleet.”

“The ship that crashed…” Elyasin’s face fell, infinitely sad.

Olea nodded, trying not to think about that horrible time. “That lighthouse should have been lit, Dhenra. That ship never should have crashed coming back into port.”

Elyasin’s green gaze flicked to Olea, sharp. “You think someone orchestrated Alden’s death? Darkened the lighthouse on purpose to crash the flagship that night? Because of what you two were investigating?”

Olea nodded. “Because we were investigating the Chancellate in regards to the Kingsmen Summons. And the palace household. And the Generals. There were whispers of rumor leading into all those arenas, Dhenra… rumors we had heard and were about to follow. But we were stopped before we could find anything conclusive. And then Dhenir Alden was killed on that ship. Only someone very powerful could have persuaded or bribed the lighthouse-master of Amlenport to darken his charge for a night when the ship of the King’s son was coming into the harbor.”

Elyasin was very pale. And very silent. Her fingers rubbed her knuckles. “Walk with me, Captain-General. I have a request to make of you.”

Olea nodded and offered her arm. The Dhenra took it regally, resting her fingers upon Olea’s sleeve just as she might do with any man. It was strange these days, to have a woman so high-ranking in the military. But there had been a time when it had not been, and Olea knew the rituals of respect that bound a Kingswoman to her liege. She escorted her Dhenra from the hall, starting down the labyrinthine corridors beyond the West Armory.

“Captain, I want you to re-open your investigation into the Kingsmen disappearance.”

Olea startled, but did not lose her step. “Yes, Dhenra.”

“Use what resources you must. I will give you a writ for the treasury and to excuse you from your regular duties, but keep your activities very discreet. You are trained in espionage?”

“Yes, Dhenra.”

“No one else must know, unless you can recruit someone to aid you that you absolutely trust. I must know why the Summons of Kingsmen Treason was dispatched, what led to it, and what happened afterwards, in detail. If possible, before my coronation in four weeks at Highsummer.”

“Yes, Dhenra. May I speak freely?”

Elyasin glanced over. “Always.”

“Why are you looking into this? If it got Dhenir Alden killed… why take it up now?”

The Dhenra paused and Olea halted. Elyasin’s golden brows furrowed. “Because I think the Summons of the Alrashemni was wrong. Everything I have read in the ancient histories speak of the Kingsmen with high honor, citing them as the Crown’s most trusted alliance, and most reliable weapon. But all the events of the past thirty years concerning the Kingsmen have been scrubbed clean. I am in the dark, captain, and I don’t like being in the dark. My father left me a vast kingdom, but he also left me vast worries, and an ongoing war with Valenghia. You have always been forthright with me, and my brother Alden loved and trusted you like none other. You have given me wise council without manipulating me, and you have kept every secret I have ever told you. If all the Kingsmen were like you, then I think my father’s Summons was amiss. And perhaps precipitated by… something else. Something that still may trouble our nation. And that I will not abide under my rule.”

Olea’s throat tightened. She dropped to one knee in the hallway, her head bowed in silent respect. Elyasin was proving wise beyond her years, but Olea couldn’t help but wonder if the Dhenra subjected herself to the same unknown tides that had ripped the heart out of the Kingsmen, and of her beloved Dhenir, Alden.

“You place yourself in danger if you pursue this, Dhenra. Like Alden did. Whomever is behind this… if they hear of it, they may try to strike you down before your coronation. Before you truly have the power to move against them, independent of the Chancellate.”

“Yes. I know.” Elyasin murmured. “And if we find that my father actually was the source of the Summons, and did something with the Kingsmen, something so horrible he could never tell me, then that is that. I will hate him for his decision, but it was his to make as King, for whatever his reasons. But if not…”

“The Summons didn’t come from Uhlas.” Olea breathed, head still bowed, knowing she had to tell her Dhenra everything.

Elyasin went utterly still. “What?”

“Alden and I found one thing out for certain with our inquiries.” Olea’s murmur was softer than specters in the looming hall. “That King Uhlas wasn’t at the palace when the Summons went out, nor when the Kingsmen arrived at Roushenn. He was in Valenghia, making a last-hour effort to stop oncoming war with the Valenghian Vhinesse. The signature on the document was a very precise forgery. Your father never gave that Summons. Someone else did. Someone, or someones, very close to him. And you have inherited all your father’s Chancellors, Dhenra… and his staff… and all his generals…”

“All those who were close to my father are now close to me.” Elyasin’s words were very quiet as she realized the terrible truth. Olea didn’t need to nod. Her heart sank like a stone. Fingertips brushed her shoulder and Olea knew her cue to rise. She came to her feet, gazing at the fierce, porcelain-boned Dhenra. Elyasin reached out, trailing her fingers over Olea’s Inkings.

“Find out what happened, Olea. I trust you, just as Alden trusted you. Find out what happened to the Kingsmen, and who was behind my father’s reign. And once we know…” Elyasin’s eyes went flinty. “I will clean out my own rule. And start fresh.”

“Be careful, Dhenra. I admonished Alden to be careful—”

“But my brother was not careful enough, was he?”

“Alden was never one to take care.” Olea blinked back a prickling of tears. Her heart twisted. She could still feel the closeness of him even now. His soft breath at her ear in sleep, the way his lion-rich laugh used to ring through the practice yard when she bested him. The warmth of him, so smooth and hard, in bed.

Elyasin reached up, stroking Olea’s wild hair away from her cheeks. The Dhenra’s face was sad, but the set of her jaw was uncompromising, just like her father’s. “Do this for me, Olea. I know I put you at risk, but I have no one else I trust…”

Olea breathed back her grief with a single, slow breath. She offered her arm. “I will not fail you, Dhenra.”

CHAPTER 7 – JHERRICK

 

 

Jherrick den’Tharn stared down into the glassy eyes of the dead boy.

The fey blue light of the Roushenn Palace Hinterhaft flickered uneasily over the boy’s pale features, accusatory like ghosts lingering at the edges of Jherrick’s vision. He hunkered by the body, the leather of his cobalt Guardsman jerkin creaking slightly in the cavernous silence. A catacomb-thick darkness filled the empty corridor behind the walls of Roushenn, but for the wisping globes of vague blue light that gently traversed the upper reaches of the Hinterhaft’s arched ceilings. Like dusky sand water swirled in a glass, the fae-wisps sometimes floated down towards the floors. Curious about death, their blue lights never lingered long from a corpse, inquisitive like fireflies. One wisped close to the boy’s face, lighting its sallow emptiness, those candlewax-smooth features. Just a bristling of beard starting there, on the chin. Purpled bruises around the boy’s neck standing out in livid detail. Four strong fingermarks upon each side.

Jherrick hadn’t killed the boy. Those weren’t his orders.

He waved one hand at the blue globe, and it wafted away.

In another place, in another life, the lad could have been Jherrick’s brother. They had the same straw-gold hair, the same fair skin, the same sea-grey eyes, a similar lean stature. Twelve or thirteen, the boy had been just on the cusp of manhood, that transition where a kitchen page starts to train at waiting table to move up in life, to become a proper servingman. Jherrick had started that way, before he’d been moved into Palace Guard by the ruse dealt for him by his true allegiance.

Deal with that. That’s what Castellan Lhaurent had said.

Deal with that. Like the dead youngster was just some nuisance, some rotten cord of wood to be heaped upon the slag-pile.

With a resolute sigh, Jherrick grasped the lad’s arm, hauling the dead weight up over his shoulders. Jherrick was lean for his twenty-three years, but it was all muscle, honed to perfection upon the dry side of a sword. Though most of his official time was spent reading through lists and ledgers with Guard-Captain Olea den’Alrahel, his unofficial time was spent doing odious chores such as this for the Khehemni Lothren, many of which required a fit frame and a hardened mind.

The boy’s slender form dangled across his shoulders as Jherrick moved at a brisk walk, sliding effortlessly behind Roushenn’s walls through the Hinterhaft corridor. The arched catacomb soon opened out into a massive space whose heights were lost but for the vapid blue globes. Jherrick traversed it diagonally, to a section of wall that saw little use. He pushed on the stone and some mechanism clicked. A section of wall pivoted away to reveal one of the little-used servant’s corridors of Roushenn. The torch-brackets were few and far apart this deep inside the mountain, and it had been the lad’s bad luck to have taken this particular shortcut with the delivery of spices he was making from one larder to another.

And his further bad luck to lean against this particular section of wall while adjusting his sack over his shoulder.

Not many stumbled upon the five sections of wall in all of Roushenn that could access the Hinterhaft. Four of them had been partially blocked by large armoires and bookcases, so that one had to sidle into a shadowy niche to give the wall a push. But this one, a little-used path between larders, was left unblocked for deliveries. And so it was now that Jherrick delivered the dead lad’s body back out the hidden door like a sack of grain, stealing along a quiet section of corridor that led to the east garden.

It was full night as he pushed on the garden door and into the soft warm night. Summer was here in full, and a peeping chorus of frogs followed his quiet movements, the only mourning that the poor dead boy would ever get. Unease gnawed in Jherrick’s gut as he pushed through a little-known door in the rear of the palace guard-wall, one that led directly to the Kingswood. Patrolled by Guardsmen of Jherrick’s own allegiance, he received only shadowy nods, a regular as he was through this door in the dead of night. Nodding back, he moved off down the path with his burden, his bootfalls a dull thump upon the thick loam.

The Kingswood should have been a place of solace. Shifting shadows filled the vegetation from a slivered summer moon. A low double-hoot of a bridge-owl reached his ears. The trickle of water spilled over rocks as Jherrick stepped carefully over a stream. The night was silent but for this music around him, a synergy most ignored. But not Jherrick. The night was his protection in his duty, and he had learned to take its solace when he could. Sometimes he thought he heard the night speaking to him, as if spirits lingered in the trees, whispering absolution in the rustling of the leaves. Salvation for a young life gone wrong. It made him come to peace to walk beneath the trees and believe it so, a kind of empty bliss where he could ignore the heavy burden across his shoulders.

But his midnight sojourn ended too soon for true solace. The cedar and barreloak hollow where the wolves knew to expect their meat loomed suddenly, a sallow slope of last-year’s leaves showing the deep rents and claw marks of constant scuffle over gristle and sinew. It was a dark place, riven with a desperate energy. The smell of death lingered here, the cloying stench of entrails ripped apart and bones cracked open, a latrine acridity that no midnight wind could scour clean.

Surveying the scene, so calm now in shifting grey shadows, Jherrick’s stomach churned into a gripping knot, knowing how it would go. Knowing how much torn flesh the dead boy’s body was about to become. Knowing how the wolves would prowl in, wary at first, sniffing for life. And when the meat was found to be unable to fight back, they would surge with yips and growls, teeth flashing into blue skin, worrying the dead boy’s body until sluggish purple blood coated their muzzles black in the night shadows.

A howl of expectation sounded, a little too near. Jherrick’s sword was in his hand, fast. And suddenly, he knew he couldn’t leave the boy there, not like that. Not to be ripped apart like all the others. His flesh was too young, too pure, too… something.

Too good to make a meal for wolves.

Backing out of the hollow, Jherrick moved away from the slope, his sword still out. Watchful eyes were upon him, glinting by the high moonlight above the boughs. He could almost hear the pack’s hunting tension in the dark, like bowstring pulled taut for a long shot. And they could feel his own readiness, his sword glinting in the darkness as much as their eyes, that he was a predator in the night as much as they.

Just as fast with his own kind of claw.

“Come try me,” Jherrick murmured to their tension. “Come for your meat if you dare. But this one’s not coming to you. Not this time.”

His legs were strong as trees beneath his load, his posture wired and fierce. He’d drop the body to fight if he needed to, but it wasn’t going to come to that. Jherrick could feel them, drifting away like smoke, back through the silver-dark cedars. A ready enemy was no enemy to fight.

“Smart choice.” Jherrick murmured to the rustling silence. He slid his sword away. Now that the possibility of a fight had passed, he let himself shiver, let his body shudder it out, relieved. Something he could only show to the night, this weakness. Not something he could ever show to the Lothren’s watchful gaze. Hefting the body more securely atop his shoulders, he thought of where to take it. And suddenly, he knew. The boy’s mother was a mushroom-hunter for the palace. Jherrick knew she went out every dawn from her modest cottage in the Second Tier, taking the same path through the Kingswood to her favorite spots. Jherrick angled for that path now, picking his way off-trail through fern and snake-vine.

Dawn was kissing the pale sky as he found the right path at last. Gently, he unloaded his cargo, settling the boy’s body in the middle of the cedar-strewn litter of the path. Unsheathing one longknife, he sliced the boy’s purse strings, took the leather pouch. He raided the boy of a lapis pendant that wasn’t worth much, and a stout ring of silver with a decent sapphire, probably once belonging to the boy’s father. The mother would find the lad, think he’d come to visit her as a surprise, and that highwaymen had gotten him in the night.

His gaze roved the scene, making sure it looked right. The boy looked almost peaceful like that, curled on his side, as if sleeping. Like a fire-yarn where a young boy stumbles into a ring of fae-caps and stumbles out years later, on the cusp of manhood, sleeping deep from his time dreaming in the fae lands. Jherrick was about to turn and go, when he suddenly paused. Something pulled at him; a memory of a peaceful life lost. A family, lost. He knelt, setting the ring upon a flat white stone in the path, as if it had been carelessly dropped. Where he knew the morning sun would find it through a break in the oaks.

Where he knew the mother would see it.

Slipping back into the thick vegetation, he hunkered beneath a madrona. A sense of rightness filled him, at what he had done. So beautiful the scene; so peaceful. Early-summer henianthus was in full bloom, and the bush he lingered behind was fragrant with pompous purple bells, their scent wafting forgiveness through his tired body. The glossy leaves and ostentatious blossoms would catch the eye, distracting from the waiting man behind.

A chorus of titwidget and bunting-sparrow erupted around him in their spring courting glory. And as the sunlight from the eastern side of the Kingsmountains dappled the forest, the mother finally came into view. She was still young, upright, with long blonde hair bound over her shoulder. A true woodswoman of Alrou-Mendera, strong like Jherrick’s own mother had been, she wore breeches and a fitted hunting-jacket, and boots for foraging. Her gaze swept the verge of the path, a basket upon her arm. And then swept the path ahead. She stopped. Gasped. Ran. Fell to her knees screaming. Weeping. Jherrick saw her glance at the flat white stone in the path, saw her pick up the sapphire ring, glinting in the sunlight. A long wail ripped through her, and she flung herself over her dead son.

It was somehow worse than the howl of wolves.

Bitterness twisted Jherrick’s gut. He melted back into the vegetation, a shadow lost in the underbrush.

 

[ * ]

 

“Has the lad been dealt with?” Lhaurent den’Karthus’s oil slick voice was smooth with a lack of care.

Jherrick stood at attention in the hard yellow lantern light of the octagonal room. Accessed through the Hinterhaft, this room had clearly been made for war-council during times of siege long ago, occupied by a massive octagonal table and throne-carven chairs going to dust. Hard-toothed iron chandeliers swept the highest gables, their candles unlit for eons. Lhaurent den’Karthus sat in the largest of the thrones in his impeccable grey velvet doublet and robe, pouring over a red-inked map spread upon the table.

Without looking up, he sipped a cup of tea.

“Well, den’Tharn?”

“He’s been dealt with.” Jherrick’s voice was colder than the iron in the chandeliers.

Castellan Lhaurent glanced up, his attention piercing Jherrick to the quick. “Do you have something you’d like to say, Khehemnas?”

Jherrick stilled his emotions, blank. “I serve the Khehemni Lothren. Whatever their bidding.”

Lhaurent kept him pinned for a long moment more. “Good.” He murmured at last. “Then I have another task for you.”

“May the Lothren guide me.” Jherrick knew the words. Although he wasn’t so certain about this particular member of the Lothren. The dead boy had not been Alrashemni, nor even descended. That hadn’t been for the Khehemni cause, killing that boy. That had just been murder, ordered by Castellan Lhaurent to keep the Hinterhaft of Roushenn Palace a secret.

Something in his tone must have pricked Lhaurent, because those steel-grey eyes were still watching Jherrick.

“Careful, my young friend,” Lhaurent murmured. “Sometimes the blood of innocents must spill to serve our larger function. Do not forget why you chose to swear allegiance to the Broken Circle. The memories of Khehemni are long, Jherrick. Remember the Kingsmen who slew your family and the reason your vows were made. And understand that the Khehemni Lothren guide you now to greater purpose. Sometimes, that purpose will show you the Broken Circle within yourself. Where you are tempted to be merciful, you must hone yourself. You have sworn to be the weapon of the Broken Circle, the tip of the spear for the Khehemni Lothren’s purpose. Remember that all we do, we do for you.”

“Yes, my Lothren.”

Lhaurent eyed him a moment further. He settled his teacup upon its fine gilt-edged saucer with a soft clink. “I believe you have rounds this evening in the West Guardhouse? With Captain Olea den’Alrahel?”

“Yes, my Lothren.”

“Then I have a new assignment for you.”

“Yes, my Lothren.”

“Keep a close watch upon your Captain-General. She is serving a purpose currently for the Dhenra Elyasin, something outside her usual duties, and the Lothren want to know what it is. You are dismissed from your regular interrogations and other tasks in the Hinterhaft until we know what Olea den’Alrahel is up to. If it’s something decidedly intrusive to our purposes… we will have to arrange a way of disposing of her. She has become… less than cooperative lately with me.”

“Yes, my Lothren.” Jherrick eased, knowing he was dismissed from interrogations and corpse clean-up for a while. But something inside him clenched at Lhaurent for having leveled a threat against the Guard’s Captain-General. Jherrick made his body serene and his face empty, in the way that he had trained now for so many years. Lhaurent would never know about that thought.

Nor would he ever know about Jherrick’s mercy with the dead boy.

“I will do my duty, sir.” Jherrick murmured.

Lhaurent gazed at him for a long moment. At last, he waved one regal white hand, his ruby ring catching the light and flashing red. “Dismissed.”

 

[ * ]

 

It was late afternoon, the sun well on its way down the western side of the mountain, but still bathing the city of Lintesh in a fair golden light outside the grime-smeared West Guardhouse window. The day had turned excruciatingly hot, and Jherrick was looking forward to the end of his shift, to a cooling dip out in the Kingswood. It was a long way to Elhambria Falls, nearly a ten-league run, but Jherrick was craving the pummeling of the water to work out the knots in his shoulders. Carrying a dead lad for nearly three leagues this morning had only worsened his general tension. Its ancient frame cracked open to get what little breeze there was today, the window by his stout desk suddenly afforded Jherrick a view of his quarry, Olea den’Alrahel.

Striding across the flagstones in front of the main gates of the palace, Olea moved with elegant purpose. Jherrick sat up, tracking her. His Captain-General was a fascinating woman. Olea den’Alrahel’s long and tousled curls caught the wind as she moved. Her hair was a shade of black so pure it gleamed blue in the hot afternoon light, and those grey-opal eyes gathered the sun as if she shone from within. She marched past, one hand upon her sword, purpose in her stride. Her cobalt jerkin was undone, and Jherrick caught a glimpse of the unmistakable star upon her chest. One of the Palace Guard marched past, saluting her, staring as most men did. Olea was hard to not stare at. A striking woman, she was clearly used to stares, and strode onward with a nod.

On her way to the West Guardhouse, the Captain-General would spend her evening drinking as she inspected the lists with Jherrick, and approve the payroll for the month before it was brought to Chancellor Evshein den’Lhamann. She had a few hours of reading ahead of her tonight, reports of behavior from her Guardsmen, considering promotions and demotions. Jherrick knew her schedule by heart, even though he couldn’t follow her by day. But the Lothren kept Jherrick close to her every evening at his position here in the West Guardhouse, perfectly poised to gather everything the Guard-Captain knew, and whatever she let slip.

Jherrick watched her slender swordswoman’s hips as she rounded the broad fountain, the market in the plaza nearly packed up for the day. She had picked up her stride and was about to make her usual leaping run up the steps of the guardhouse, when a brawny young man sauntered by. Jherrick saw the man’s gaze flicker over Olea’s Inkings, then narrow. He spit.

Olea rounded upon him. Jherrick saw her customarily blithe mood sour as she took the insult with her straight dark eyebrows pinched in a scowl. Jherrick slid from his desk with a grace he never exhibited in the guardhouse and slipped to the open door, watching their interaction from the shadows.

“Do you have something you’d like to say, fellow?” Olea den’Alrahel’s bell-clear voice rang out like a duelist’s challenge in the dusty heat.

The young man turned, challenging her. He was dressed in stonemason’s roughspun with the sleeves and ankles of his garb rolled up from a hard day’s labor. Blue byrunstone chalk covered his hands and smudged his clothes and face. He spit again near the Captain-General’s boots. Drawing up before her like a bear, the stonemason was nearly a head taller, though Olea was not a short woman.

“Blackmark bitch.” The mason growled.

Jherrick saw his Captain-General step closer, saw her go deadly still. Jherrick had seen Olea put men in their place upon the practice grounds. A small smile stole over Jherrick’s lips, watching the show, knowing what was coming. The stonemason had chosen the wrong Blackmark to insult.

“That’s Guard-Captain-General Kingswoman Blackmark bitch to you, mason. Do we have a problem here?” Olea’s voice was saccharine, her smile so sweet it burned.

The stonemason’s thick lips screwed up, as if he might spit again, and on her this time. Olea’s sword was out faster than Jherrick could blink, the tip nicking the mason’s stout neck.

“Give me a reason, fool.” She hissed, cold as a viper.

The mason flinched back, incredulous. “You can’t threaten a citizen!”

Olea’s dark eyebrows arched, those sweet berry-ripe lips set in a flat line. “An insult to me is an insult upon your Crown, fellow. Do you want to take that risk? I don’t have to kill you, you know. Only hamstring you and slice your wrist tendons and drag you down to the cells. You’ll never stand again, never work again. Never walk again.”

And though his beady eyes were furious like a raging bear, they also flinched. Olea was a ruthless bitch when she wanted to be. Jherrick’s lips curled up further into an eager, dark-edged smile his Captain-General had never seen from him, and never would see.

“You got any family who call you son?” Olea’s words wafted through the muggy thickness of the late afternoon heat, up the steps of the Guardhouse. The mason took a deep breath, but Jherrick and anyone else watching could see he was bested. Cowed. Such a big, thunderous man and Olea den’Alrahel had broken him, just like that.

Olea lowered her blade but didn’t sheathe it. “Go home.”

Jherrick’s gaze flicked around, but few were in the plaza now, the market packed up for the day. Few had seen the stonemason’s immense embarrassment. Without a word, the mason growled and turned, hulking back to whatever hovel he called home in the King’s City. Olea was putting her sword up when a man loitering just at the far edge of the byrunstone fountain caught her attention.

Olea halted, watching him. Jherrick stilled, eyeing the man also.

The brawny fellow had a casual appearance, sitting upon the lip of the wide fountain in the plaza. Broad arms were crossed over a muscular chest in a homespun flax shirt. He looked like a blacksmith, thick muscle with iron-hard hands, like he had spent a lifetime hammering iron or wielding it. And with his military-cropped dark curls and ragged scar down his face, he’d probably been discharged from serving in Valenghia, shoeing horses on the battlefield and wielding an axe on the side. The rugged fellow stared out towards a weaver’s shop across the way, but neither Olea nor Jherrick were fooled. Jherrick was certain that the big blacksmith had been staring at Olea not a moment before, watching her encounter with the stonemason.

Jherrick saw his Captain-General frown, narrowing her eyes upon the stout fellow at the fountain. He wondered if she knew the man. As Jherrick watched, the man’s dark gaze flicked to Olea. He nodded once. It was a small movement, nearly imperceptible, but it filled Jherrick with a strange electricity.

Here was a piece of mystery.

Lounging casually at the fountain, the man put his palm to his chest, and his other hand dropped to his side, where a sword should have hung. He nodded again. A thrill passed through Jherrick. He saw Olea go very still. She gazed at the man another moment, as he settled back into his casual pose upon the lip of the fountain, staring off at nothing.

Jherrick knew the man was waiting for Olea. He’d performed the Kingsmen salute, plain as porridge. Something chill passed through Jherrick. Something clenched within him, thinking about reporting this to Castellan Lhaurent, his Lothren representative. He should report it. That’s what he’d been charged by the Lothren to do, bring back news of any oddities concerning Olea den’Alrahel.

But the dead boy’s face suddenly rose in Jherrick’s mind. Countless innocent faces replaced it, shuffling through like a deck of cards, bodies he had disposed of for Lhaurent. The Castellan was Jherrick’s only touchstone within the Khehemni Lothren, as per the rules of hierarchy and secrecy within the organization, though he was aware of one other true Lothren member in the palace. Should he report this to someone else? What would Lhaurent do if he found he’d been side-stepped? Olea was a Kingsman. An Alrashemni. The enemy. She was of the clan who had killed Jherrick’s family.

But how many bodies had she asked Jherrick to dispose of?

Not a single one.

Jherrick slipped back into the dustmote-lit reaches of the Guardhouse before Olea could march up the steps. His mind was churning, his muscles clenched in thought as her bootfalls slapped stone. Each one caused a small thrill through Jherrick. She was an inspiring woman, and to be so close, so much of the day… But he had to report it. When she finally shucked her baldric with a loud clatter at her scroll-strewn desk next to his, he had gotten composure of himself enough to look around.

His captain flopped into her wooden chair, boots up on her desk atop the pile of papers. She made an exasperated grumble, currying her elegant hands through her long tumble of blue-black curls, mussing it like she’d just been fucked.

“Aeon-damned bigots,” she sighed.

“I’m sorry?”

Jherrick played his regular affable, mousey alter ego as he turned from the stacks of tomes that chronicled supplies ordered and inventory costs. It was a ruse he was comfortable with, this bumbling, uncertain, weak-bodied personality. But Jherrick’s mind was sharp enough to work at the ledgers and lists, and that was no ruse. One of the reasons he was fit to maintain this post, both for the Lothren and for the Crown. Jherrick paused with an open tome near his nose, blinking owlishly as if he couldn’t read the text, because he’d neglected to grab his sham spectacles from his desk before his captain had entered the room.

Olea grinned at him. She swung her boots off her desk and rose, fetching Jherrick’s wire-framed spectacles from his desktop. “Here. Don’t ruin your bloody eyes. They’re bad enough.”

She tossed the spectacles to him in a nice, slow arc. The kind of thing any lad of seven could catch. Jherrick fumbled the catch, dropping his tome with a thick slap of leather hitting stone, and bobbling the spectacles too. They fell to the stone with a clatter.

“Sorry…” He mumbled his words, allowing a scarlet blush to flame his cheeks as he hastily bent to retrieve both spectacles and tome, awkward.

Olea moved to him with a laugh, clapping him on the shoulder. “My fault. I should know better than to throw things at you. What have we got to do this evening, Jherrick?”

“The lists of the next batch of volunteers from all over Alrou-Mendera have come in.” Jherrick stepped into his usual ruse with fluid ease. Years of practice had given him an easy familiarity with Olea. One that he realized suddenly, was no longer feigned. “Plenty of families want to send starving children into the Palace Guard this year, Captain.”

Olea’s smile turned into a grimace. “How many?”

“So far? One thousand and sixteen. And the consideration deadline is still two weeks away.”

He watched Olea’s lovely face sadden, her full, merry lips fall. “So many. Aeon! I could use the men on the walls, but we can’t take even a hundred of those. Not with the rations we’ve got. This war… everything’s going to the Valenghian front. Every bushel of wheat. Every barrel of pears.”

“No one wants to send their sons to war, but all of them need the coin, Captain. The Palace Guard are the only faction not slated for border-holding against Valenghia or anywhere else. And we get three squares, plus extra coin to send home.”

Olea nodded, her bright demeanor covered in a thoughtful shroud. She heaved a sigh, then settled to her desk, boots up on a nearby footstool rather than her usual. She crossed her slender arms beneath her lovely breasts, a soft scowl upon her features.

“Read us the lists, Jherrick. We’ll sort through those thousand and see if we can’t find any with promise before they make a long trip here for the physical trials. I’ll not have starving families spending more coin to get their sons to the capitol if we can’t take them. Even if it takes all night, we’ll make a decision on them before morning and start drafting the proper refusal documents.”

Jherrick moved to his own desk, fetching the thick vellum sheaves with the names and skills he had tabulated. He remembered to put on the spectacles he didn’t need, then glanced over them at his Guard-Captain. She was gazing out the door into the wilting light of early dusk, arms crossed. Dustmotes swirled through the air, haloing her curls in a sliver of sunlight, making her hair shine like good obsidian. She mussed it absently. Jherrick’s body tightened for her. He had the errant thought that if she ever pulled a blade on him, he might just take a sword in the gut to hold her. He pushed it away. He would report her movements. It was his duty. A duty he’d taken an oath to uphold. An oath inked in blood to the Khehemni Lothren.

“First candidate,” he read from the vellum, peering through his spectacles. “Otis Altshi of North Cathrae. Aged seventeen. Ploughman, leather-binder, woodsman…”

CHAPTER 8 – ELOHL

 

 

Elohl and the innkeeper had scoured the pots and fetched dry laundry from the line. In a stretching silence they had folded it all, then sat once more in the kitchen, at the rough wooden table. Eleshen had served him winterberry and rosemary tea with a bit of honey, and its rare sweetness gradually began to thaw Elohl’s chill demeanor from her pressing inquiries.

He hadn’t meant to be so harsh with her. Captaining men upon the glaciers was all he knew of life now. But battle was now behind, and the warmth of a good woman beckoned. And when she slipped her fingers across the table, to touch his in apology, her pale green eyes smooth as good jade, Elohl paused only long enough to drain his tea.

Standing and moving around the table, he watched her rise from her bench with need tight in her body. They met slowly at first, her touch tentative, apologetic as she reached up to touch his jaw. Questions still roiled upon her lovely face, but they became drowned beneath ardor as Elohl pinned her close around the waist with one arm. Her cheeks flushed crimson; he heard her take a little gasp of breath. Sliding a hand beneath her hair he gripped her nape, an animal tension between them now. It tingled through Elohl’s senses, telling him to take, wanting him to break through the ice.

His lips fell open, feeling too much, feeling it all surface in his throat, an agony of heat and need. Eleshen held back, watching him. Daring him. Damnable little woman. And with a growl of frustration, Elohl gripped her neck hard and pressed her into his lips. Heat rioted through him with that kiss. Boiling, bitter, needful heat surged up his throat, poured into his mouth, flamed every nerve. It was hard and it was good and Elohl didn’t care. When blue eyes surfaced in his vision, he pushed them away. In a rush of need, Elohl scooped Eleshen up, carrying her in silence to the back bedroom.

It had been fast, a deed of forge-hot fury. But when it was done, they’d taken comfort in each other, languid kisses, the delight of suckling skin. And now the darkness was deep, chill with a night breeze off the glaciers. Eleshen had lit a candle when their lovemaking was finished, then snuggled into Elohl’s warm protection, curling up against his right side, his arm around her shoulders. Dozing in the hush of the spring night, Elohl languished in dreams, a deep blue lake behind his eyelids. On his back with his left arm up beneath his pillow, the tips of his fingers barely touched the longknife hidden there. Cold steel filled his dream, the depths of the lake’s water numbing. He was submerged deep, every nerve deadened, chilled. But as he languished, something began to wake, to heat, his senses turning hot like the lake’s cauldron had begun to boil.

Elohl’s body twitched, his hand clamping down on the hilt of the knife.

And suddenly, with lids still closed, he came fully awake, aware of something else in the room. Someone else. No board had creaked beneath an ill-placed footstep, no breath had disturbed the hollows of the room beyond the candle, and yet as he cradled Eleshen, he felt someone watching from the shadows.

Feigning sleep, Elohl allowed his body intimate relaxation, smoothing every muscle as if he yet slept. His breath was smooth and deep, his body ostensibly still dead to the world. And yet, every nerve was awake, on fire, his tingling sphere of sensation thrown wide. He didn’t need to watch the room with his sight. He could feel the fellow just there, to his left in the dark shadows near the open door. Candlelight flickered across his lids as a breath of air disturbed it, drafting out to the chill spring night. Peeper frogs chorused in the snowmelt darkness outside.

He felt the man’s presence intensify. Coiled readiness. A tension of violence about to erupt. Elohl’s fingers tightened around his longknife hilt.

Suddenly, his neck tingled. A vision lit his mind, Eleshen slashed, bleeding out, Elohl with a knife through the neck. The man came at him from the shadows in that moment, a stab at the side of the neck, to take his spine and jugular by the full width of the blade. Faster than thought, Elohl rolled to the right over Eleshen, perfectly timed. Protecting her, he thrust back with the longknife in his left hand as the intruder’s stab missed.

Elohl’s thrust had met soft resistance, his longknife driven deep into the fellow’s stomach behind him, angled up. The man grunted. Elohl’s right hand tingled. Flashing out, it was just in time to seize the man’s other wrist as a second slash came. Without thought, Elohl slammed the fellow’s wrist against the stout bedpost, hard, as he hauled his own blade up with his triceps, gutting the intruder deep. Hot blood poured over Elohl’s hand, his wrist, his bare back. A mortal wound. The man spasmed. Elohl smashed the man’s hand against the bedpost again, and that hand sprung open, one knife clattering away. Whipping his head back hard, he broke the intruder’s nose with a sharp crack. The man fell back with a grunting wheeze, hitting the wall and sliding down to the floor.

Elohl launched from the bed naked. An animal violence had taken him, his senses on fire with a need to survive, his body taking over as his mind fled to a primal place. Blood and gut-filth slicked him as he pinned the man’s knife-hand beneath his knee, then gripped the man by the face and slammed his head into the floor, again, and again, and again. The man released his second knife. Elohl kicked it away, pinning his own longknife to the fellow’s throat. Kneeling in blood and waste, Elohl had him. Filth was leaking fast and thick through the fellow’s fingers as he clutched his ruined abdomen, gasping with pain.

“Move and you die!” Elohl growled, blade poised to skewer the man through the throat. Some part of him registered that Eleshen was awake, shouting, taking up the candle from the bedside bureau and bristling with a knife of her own.

“I’m dead anyway.” The man rasped, blood trickling from his mouth as it gushed from his middle, his breath heavy with pain. Elohl’s strike had been thorough, up under the margin of the ribs, and deep. Not close enough to pierce the heart, but slicing enough of the lungs and large artery near his spine that the intruder wasn’t long for this world.

“Tell me who sent you.” Elohl growled, longknife poised, kneeling naked on the filth-slick boards.

The man’s coughing chuckle was full of froth. His blue eyes were fading, but they pierced Elohl with fervor in the uncertain candlelight. “Abandon your protector, Kingsman, and this is what you get… more of us…”

“What do you mean, my protector?! And more of whom?!” Elohl demanded. “Whom do you serve?! Tell me and I’ll end you with mercy.”

“I don’t want your mercy, Blackmark.” The assassin gathered blood and saliva, spit with the last of his ebbing strength at Elohl’s face. Elohl whipped his face aside and it went flying past. “I want you to suffer…”

“Tell me who you people are!” Elohl snarled, close, a bestial rage roaring through him.

A chuckle slipped from the man’s lips. His strength was ebbing, the spreading pool upon the floor a lake of shadow-black rouge. Limbs lax, head fallen back, he smiled a grave-ready grin. “Too late, Kingsman. Too thorough. Torture us next time, but the outcome will be the same. We’ll tell you nothing. And still… the Lothren will come for you…”

With a last bloody gurgle, the man’s eyes dimmed, lids falling half-closed. Elohl released him with a growl, slamming the assassin’s head back into the floor once more for spite. But the man had no complaints now, and nothing more to tell him.

Nothing. Just like all the others.

The quiet in the room roared in Elohl’s ears, a waterfall of thunder in the silent space. Sitting back upon his haunches in the slick warm blood, Elohl could feel nothing but the buzzing of his senses, the grip that tightened his muscles, ready for more fighting. More death. His chin lifted, an animal alertness, his entire body listening for more movement in the night. They’d sent two before, working in tandem, whoever these Lothren were. One to slash and sacrifice; one to try for Elohl’s back. But this time, the dark hall past the open door and the vegetation beyond the window was empty, not even the pressure of a doe’s heartbeat pulsing his ready-tuned sphere.

Peeper frogs took up their chorus once again outside. Chill air freshened the room from the open window. A shiver took Elohl from head to heels, sloughing away the readiness of his senses. He took a deep breath, the single breath of his training, letting his body shiver the rest off to the night.

Until, at last, there was true silence.

Methodically, Elohl hauled the dead man away from the wall by his soft black leather boots. The candle was high in Eleshen’s hand as she stood to one side. It trembled, throwing shivering shadows over the walls, over scarlet-black blood. Trying to only see the man before him as dead meat, Elohl began to strip the intruder of his boots, then his hooded assassin’s jerkin, then the rest. He was liberating the man of his trousers when Eleshen finally spoke, her voice only minimally breathy.

“What are you doing?”

“Looking for a mark.” Elohl shimmied the man’s pants off under his muscular hips, bent to his ankles and shucked them off, laying the assassin out bare upon the bloody boards.

“A mark? An assassin’s mark? Has this happened before?” Eleshen breathed.

“Enough times.” Elohl gestured for her to step forward with the candle, so he could see better. She did, claiming more bravery than he expected, kneeling just outside of the tacky black pool, squinting at the dead man’s pale skin.

“How many times?”

Elohl saw nothing upon the man’s flesh, no mark nor scar other than the regular ones born of battle. Reaching out, he let his fingertips peruse the man’s skin instead.

“What are you doing?” Eleshen breathed at his shoulder.

Elohl’s eyes were closed, fingers sliding over the man’s shoulder, his bicep, his arm, then back to his chest. “Searching.”

“For a mark only your fingers can feel?”

“Something like that. Something sewn in under the surface, maybe. Some scar that doesn’t show white.”

“Have they ever had a mark before?”

“No.” Elohl had finished with the man’s front, even scouring the sensitive bits. Thankful he was naked to do this, Elohl tunneled an arm through the sticky blood beneath the fellow and hauled him over upon his face. Entrails slipped out of the man’s belly, squelched as he rolled. Just an anonymous corpse now with his face down in the blood, it was easier for Elohl to see only dead flesh before him rather than a man. Starting all over, he scoured the fellow’s back with his gaze. Eleshen breathed softly at his side, her composure fierce, interested.

“You’ve avoided my question.”

Elohl looked around, to see a bitter humor upon her face in the candlelight. “What?”

“How many assassins have been sent after you, Kingsman?”

“I can’t be certain how many of them were assassins.”

She blinked. “What?”

“I’ve had my life attempted eight times since I entered service in the High Brigade.” Seeing nothing but the usual scars upon the man’s broad back, Elohl’s fingers walked over the corpse, up through his hair. “But I managed a kill like this, one of these fellows in black leathers, only thrice.”

“What about the other attacks?” Eleshen breathed.

“High Brigade fellows, whipped to anger over a perceived slight. Six came at me, once. Four jumped me in a bar another time. But whether they were roused to violence by their own means or by someone else…”

“But you didn’t kill those Brigadiers who attacked you.”

Elohl opened his eyes, held her gaze. “Killing a soldier of the crown is treason. Even if they do jump you six-to-one while your trousers are down in the privy.”

“Aeon…!” Eleshen murmured. “And the other times?”

Elohl held her gaze, glacial, his fingers idle now upon the corpse. “I’ve had my climbing-rope cut three times by men of my own team I thought I could trust, and found myself at the end of a blade at night in my bunk by fellows like this one here, all of whom bear no marks. I’ve been spat on and called Blackmark and traitor more times than I can count, and been lunged at by stupid fools in drunken rage. I’m anathema in my own nation, and praise falls not at all for the lofty marks I bear. I’m a honed sword press-ganged into service for a King that betrayed me. Is that what you want to hear? The beautiful truth? The romantic story of the Kingsmen?”

“I’m sorry… I just…”

“Being a Kingsman isn’t glorious, not like the old songs. There are no heroes here, and no one ever called me noble. Let us be plain, for you’ve seen now what I am. I’m a killer, Eleshen. And I’m tired. Marked, and tired.”

Eleshen was quiet a long moment, watching him. Elohl rose to his feet, finished with the corpse. There was nothing upon the man, just as before. And he knew that when he searched the clothes and weapons, there would be nothing there, either. Just like all the others.

Elohl glanced over. Somber, Eleshen clutched her nakedness loosely, as if protecting herself, though she’d not gone for a robe. Elohl sighed, compassion drowning his own problems somewhat. He bent, wiping his bloody hands upon the dead man until at least a few fingers were clean, then stepped around to her side of the bed where a homespun blue night-gown hung upon the tall bedpost. He lifted it off, returned, and draped it gently around her shoulders.

“You’ll get a chill.” Elohl murmured.

She shrugged it on, handing him the candleholder. “What about you?”

“I’m used to the cold.”

Her pale eyes softened, tension in her blonde brows easing. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“For what you’ve been through.”

Elohl stepped close, gazing down at her. The ice around his heart slipped. He reached out, cupping her jaw, smoothing a climb-roughened thumb over her chin, leaving a smear of blood in its wake upon her pale skin. “Don’t be sorry for dead men.”

“You’re not dead, dammit.”

Elohl swallowed, hard. His truth was too plain, just there in her candor, in what she had spoken so simply. Emotions rioted, all vying for dominance, all stalled, his throat a burning madness.

“I may not be dead. But I can’t live.”

Her body was warm as she slid closer, her robe gaping open from her shoulders. Her fingers stole up, touching his where they rested upon her face. “Why not?”

“Because the justice that I want… I can never have. The King is dead. And the secret of my people’s demise has gone with him to his grave. In all these years… I’ve found out nothing. Nothing. Not a breath of what happened. Not a word…”

“Word travels slowly to the mountains.” Eleshen murmured.

“But assassins travel fast.”

She breathed out, tension between them easing. Her fingertips slipped down, touching his Inking, sliding heedlessly through the blood that smeared his scarred chest. “Come to the kitchen. We’ll wash… stoke the fire. Have some tea. Figure out what to do with… that.” Her gaze flicked to the body, then back to him, down to the hardened plains of his lean-sinewed chest. Her eyes stopped at something. Her fingers slipped to a blistered scar just to the left of his Inking, over his heart. “This scar… no blade made this.” Her gaze flicked to his scarred wrists, then back to his chest. Sadness engulfed her. Comprehension. “You tried to burn it off. Your Inking.”

“Once. A year into my service.” Elohl’s gaze slipped to the cold hearth in the room, at the stand of iron pokers there. “But my body has other plans for me. I spasm when I try to inflict self-harm. It never takes. Just like my body never lets me lie still beneath an assassin’s blade.”

A soft silence filled the room. Elohl couldn’t look at Eleshen. He stared at the cold iron by the black hearth, feeling her gaze steady upon him.

“Do you still want it gone? Your Inking?” She murmured.

Elohl took a deep breath. He knew what she was really asking. Always it came to this. A stubborn heat flared, deep inside his body. “No.” He murmured at last. “I would like to earn it first.”

“Haven’t you already?”

“No.”

Silence shrouded the room, yet again. Elohl felt Eleshen shift, step back a pace. Her fingers slipped down to his hand, tugging. “Come to the kitchen. Please.”

Elohl heaved a sigh, nodded. Trailing at the ends of the innkeeper’s fingers like a mongrel dog upon the leash, he came to her call, his body a riot of feelings beneath a cracking glacial crust.

 

[ * ]

 

“So tell me why you never defected. Not sought out any Kingsmen over these many years to find out the truth of what happened.” Eleshen was gazing at him with utter frankness, cradling a bluestone tea mug across the table, her robe tightly closed and cinched over her pert little body. Elohl’s bare foot rested up on the wooden bench, the rest of him washed and clothed. They had wrapped the body in a sheet, and Elohl, still naked, had hauled the corpse out into the forest. Half the night had been spent scouring the floor of the bedroom, and only afterwards had Elohl cleaned up. Now, a damp-peat smell of dawn sweetened outside, the light violet beyond the kitchen windows. The hearth-fire had been stoked, the kitchen cozy once more.

Elohl’s clean fingers traced the rim of his own bluestone mug upon the table. “To leave the King’s army without proper dismissal,” he answered, “is treason. And since I am a Kingsman, it is still my responsibility to serve. I respect the promise I made when these Inkings were confirmed upon me, though the King did not respect his promise to me.”

“Such honor,” she murmured. “Even now, to a man who wronged you.”

“I have no honor.” Elohl scoffed, taking a swig of tea.

“But you’re a decorated Brigadier! And a Kingsman!” She argued, fierce.

“Eleshen, you have to understand,” Elohl murmured, fingers tracing his mug. “My Alrashemni Inking is technically unlawful. If any Kingsman or woman saw me, and knew me for one seal short of my full eight, my life would be forfeit. But my comrades and I made a choice, back then, to Ink ourselves though the five of us were too young to do so, because we feared the worst. We were desperate youths, and it was a desperate act we committed in the eleventh hour.”

“Who is we? What were you doing in such desperation?”

Elohl felt his manner chill. “For your protection, you will ask me nothing more.”

“What happened? You must tell me! How can you possibly keep something this dire a secret?”

Elohl sipped his winterberry and rosemary tea in its plain bluestone mug. Inside, the heat in his throat warred with the chill in his heart. One sought to rise, to flood out, breaking his dam and following an inevitable river that led straight into torpid secrets and dark memories. One was still, smooth, urging him to take his hard-won calm and leave all else alone. Practical. Ghrenna’s blue gaze surfaced in his mind. Elohl pushed it away. Silence stretched. He could feel the innkeeper simmering in her own righteousness, not comprehending his inner war, of whether or not to pick up a life long dead.

A life Ihbram wisely warned him against resuming. Especially considering this night’s events.

“I go back to Lintesh to seek my sister,” Elohl murmured at last. “Nothing more. Ask nothing more of me, Eleshen…”

Eleshen simmered a moment longer, but at last sighed. “Forgive me, Elohl. I didn’t mean to cause you pain. I am a stalwart supporter of the Kingsmen, I just wanted you to know that. When they were accused of high treason, my family did what we could to rally in their defense. We sent a delegation to the King’s City, but… there was never any trial. The Kingsmen just… disappeared. I thought you were one who escaped… whatever happened at the palace. I just want to know that truth. I thought that maybe… maybe you knew it.”

Elohl shook his head. “Our families had already marched. I never found it. I was too late…” He scrubbed a hand through his hair, then over his short beard, then took more tea, realizing all too late that Eleshen had wheedled him into saying too much. Visions surfaced in his mind, hot like volcanic fire. A black door in the night, a snarling wolf and dragon rising high before him. The glint of layered metals in the darkness, a puzzle now broken. A cerulean lake, eyes like deep blue flame as they gazed up at him, calm and passionate. A halo of hair so white it shone like pearl, spread over the emerald moss of the forest floor… moving with her, breathing the scents of pine tundra from her neck as she cried out his name…

He pushed the thought away.

Eleshen reached over and took his hand, an honest gentleness. “Would you tell me?” She murmured. “I would like to know what happened to you.”

Elohl’s grimace was wry, his voice rough and bitter. “If anyone finds out you’ve been speaking with a Kingsman about the Kingsman Treason… you’ll be a target.”

“Who is here to know?” She whispered, her pretty face lit by the hearth fire and lamps, cheeks rosy and lips sadly secretive.

Elohl took a sip of tea. “I was followed here, Eleshen. Someone might come for you. Torture you for information of me. I don’t want to place you in harm’s way. Not after… your kindness.”

Eleshen huffed, then sipped her own tea, a decisive swig. “Well. I’m already in harm’s way, or didn’t you know? After my family showed support for the Kingsmen, the Palace Guard came after us. We had to go underground, separate from each other. I came here with my father, rest his soul. My mother and two sisters went elsewhere.”

“Your father died?” Elohl blinked, stunned from his own sorrows. “I’m so sorry…”

Eleshen shrugged, her smile wry. “It’s been five years. I do well on my own.”

Elohl couldn’t help but soften as he reached out and grasped her hand across the rough table by the fire. He watched Eleshen gaze at her fingers clasped in his weather-roughened fingers. It was comfortable, holding hands with her. She reminded him of Alrashemni women. Unafraid, cocky. Eleshen didn’t have training, but she had spitfire. And Elohl was fairly sure she had used that iron frying-pan at the door on more than one occasion.

He smiled, a true smile. Chuckled.

“What?”

He glanced up. “I was just thinking of your fry-pan at the door.”

She flushed to her roots. “Oh. Well. Not all men as are honorable as you.”

“You just watched me kill a man tonight. How can you possibly say I’m honorable?”

“Why do you think you’re not?”

The question took him aback. “Because I’m a killer, Eleshen.”

“The sword that is honed the sharpest pierces best when a rabid boar attacks. That was a fairly rabid boar that invaded my rooms just now, wouldn’t you say?” Her pretty mouth lifted at the corner, daring him. A beat passed between them, a moment of understanding.

“You should have been one of us. Alrashemni.” Elohl murmured with a slight smile. “You’ve the wit for it.”

“Maybe I should have. But I was born into a different life. It doesn’t mean I care any less what happened to your people.”

“I suppose not.”

“So tell me a story, Elohl.”

“What?” He blinked.

“Tell me a story.” She leaned forward on her elbows, raptor-keen, cradling her mug. “Tell me of the Alrashemni. I’ve finally got one captive in my inn, and I want to know.”

“I’m hardly your captive, woman.” Elohl’s mouth quirked.

“So you say. But I’ll have my story. Something you can speak of. Tell me your history. Your people aren’t native here, are they?”

Elohl shook his head, tension inside him easing from her change in interest. “No, we’re not. But we’ve been resident in Alrou-Mendera for centuries. A thousand years, maybe.”

“Where did the Alrashemni come from?”

“From somewhere else,” Elohl murmured. “But the where of it is forgotten. Somewhere far to the south where sands cover the land, bleak and barren, ringed in mountains.”

“Why did your ancestors leave?”

Elohl settled, leaning upon one hand, stretching both legs out along the bench towards the fire. He sipped his tea, gazing deep into the livid flames, thinking about stories his mother had told him on cold winter nights, sitting around the fire in a kitchen much like this one. Burning rose in his throat and he pushed the memory away.

“There was a terrible war.” Elohl murmured at last. “We had to leave. We traveled a long time, before we finally settled here.”

“Your people didn’t stay to fight in the war? With all the battle-skills Alrashemni have?”

“Coming from such a harsh place,” Elohl murmured, “it’s true that my people developed skills we subsequently kept, but our skills weren’t originally intended for war. It’s said the Alrashemni are a race that goes far back, even further than that desert land. That we originally came from a continent to the east, beyond Ghrec and the Unaligned Lands, over a great sea. And that when we arrived in the mountain desert, we were literate, and gifted, arriving among nomadic desert peoples who knew nothing of mathematics and letters. We rose to leadership because of our learning and special inborn talents. But we became known for prowess in war from so many conflicts in that barren place, and for our clever negotiation and adjudication.”

“So how did your people become associated with the King here?”

“It’s said that the King of Alrou-Mendera made a pact with my people, an oath of fealty that they would use their formidable skills on his behalf, in exchange for us being left alone to govern ourselves. In the King’s hour of need he could call upon us, the most capable warriors and moderators available to him, and we would honor our oath. Loyalty means much to Alrashemni.”

“And such skills?” Eleshen spoke again. “Are they magic like the stories say? Are your people imbued with fae talents given to them by demons, like hedge-wives suggest with their harvest-time tales?”

Elohl chuckled, wry. “There’s no magic, not really, not like the tales. But we’re taught certain skills with such precision and thoroughness for them to seem magic.”

“Like spying.”

“Yes.”

“And assassination?”

“Sometimes.” Elohl chilled.

“Are there Alrashemni in other nations?”

“There were. I don’t know if there still are. I don’t know how far the purge of the Summons reached. It was once said that there were Alrashemni in Valenghia, serving in ways similar to us Kingsmen. And that Elsthemen was founded by Alrashemni. But if there are any Kingsmen from Alrou-Mendera left, they are probably hiding so deep that I have heard nothing of them.”

Elohl stopped, realizing suddenly how she’d maneuvered him. His eyes flicked from the fire to meet Eleshen’s, but her gaze was not crowing with triumph. Instead, a calm interest flowed from her, and in it, Elohl felt a promise of burdens eased. He gazed at her a long moment. In his mind, the deep roiling of a lake smoothed out. Something within him sighed, encouraging him to talk, to unburden himself. Elohl gazed back to the flames. He could feel his story ready to slip out, shadows long buried brought forth to illumination, like he’d only done once before, when he’d told his story to Ihbram den’Sennia.

“My sister Olea and I saw the emissary who came from the Palace with the Summons,” Elohl murmured at last. “It was one of the King’s Chancellors, den’Khenner. He came with a small guard, only a brace of twenty, but he bore the King’s banner. They rode in through the gates of Alrashesh just after the noon meal. My sister and I were in the yard, training at quarterstaves. My father Urloel was observing our bout. He stepped aside when the delegation arrived, spoke with the Chancellor. We thought it was a request for men to go to the Valenghian front with the military, as tension was high from constant raids over the border, and war was imminent. But my father’s face spoke otherwise. I have never seen him so angry. He kept his voice low, but his face was a thundercloud. He kept flexing his hands as if he was going to draw his sword right then and there in the yard. He showed them to the Receiving Rotunda, and my sister and I spied on the proceedings from the gallery.”

“What happened?” Eleshen’s voice was rapt.

“My father started shouting the moment they were inside and the doors were closed. He erupted into a tirade of cursing. I had never heard him curse except when having stitches sewn. He was livid. The Chancellor was just standing there, smirking, as if my father yelling was proving his point. When he finally calmed down, the Chancellor handed him a writ with the King’s seal and signature, and said ‘Three days. At dawn.’ And turned on his heel and left.”

“What was it all about?”

“It was the Summons. Apparently, the Alrashemni had been accused of high treason, for something my father was certain we had no part in. To prove our loyalty, we were to march to the palace in three days’ time, there to have audience before the King and re-swear our Oath of Fealty. It was a sham, and my father knew it. But he had to go. A summons from the King was a summons from the King. If he didn’t go to swear, it would have been high treason. All those past their Eighth Seal were Summoned, all those Inked. The Council of Alrashesh met, the decision was made to go. We fifteen between Fifth and Eighth Seal were instructed to take the little ones to a safe place in the mountains until the Inked returned.”

“But they never came back.”

“It was worse than that. They knew, Eleshen. Somehow, my father didn’t trust the Chancellor or the Summons, and the rest knew they were walking into something bad. They went heavily armed and dressed in the Greys, like they would for war. Us fifteen enacted the advance caution, and ten took the children out of Alrashesh. They went into the countryside, to a lake fortress in the mountains that was an Alrashemni secret. But five of us went on an errand, something that might have been able to stop the Summons. It failed. And when we came back, we were captured, and they forced the location of the other Kingskinder out of us. They captured all the children, split us up. I was sent under guard to the High Brigade that same afternoon, forced to swear military oaths or be put to the sword. I chose the oaths. Ten years of service, to the day. Yesterday.”

“And your twin?” Eleshen’s murmur was soft.

“She was made Lieutenant in the Palace Guard a number of years back, which is how she found me. I used to have letters from her, and I wrote her every month. I’ve been writing this whole time, but I haven’t gotten anything back for eight years.”

Elohl settled at the end of his story. Eleshen was silent a long moment, when suddenly he felt her hand at his inner wrist. Her fingers, perusing his jagged scar there. Elohl’s gaze slipped to his wrist. Lingered upon his weakness. And felt suddenly that he had to answer her unasked question. That he had to unburden himself of those events, too.

“I first tried to kill myself only a year into my service,” he murmured. “It seemed easier than to face everything I had lost, all the ways I’d failed. But all the times I tried… my fingers simply slipped upon the knife, spasmed away, didn’t cut deep enough. I could never quite seem to do myself in, no matter how many times I attempted it. And Ihbram… was always there to pull me back up from my fall.”

Elohl stared at his wrist in the firelight for another long moment. At last, he looked up, settling his tea mug to the table. Eleshen squeezed his hand. “More tea?”

“Please.” He nudged his cup forward with climb-hardened fingertips.

“You know what happened in Lintesh, don’t you, after the Kingsmen marched?” She poured them each another round of tea, then set the kettle back on its iron trivet.

Elohl took a single deep breath, grateful for the change of topic. “I’ve heard the rumors. Were you there?”

“Yes,” she nodded. “I was seventeen. Old enough to come learn statesship at court, so my father brought me along to Lintesh. The Kingsmen marched into the city in flawless formation, dressed in their finest, clad for battle. It was frightening, to see so many of them all together like that, like a sea of ravens. Rumor had already passed through the city of their treason, and most feared that they were going to make war upon the palace. But they didn’t. The Kingsmen didn’t make a sound as they marched. You could hear a dove’s wings in the Central Plaza, it was so quiet. It was like watching ghosts march. They flowed up the Palace steps, flanked by Guardsmen, then inside four-by-four. And when they shut the doors, that was the last anyone ever saw of the Kingsmen. My father and I waited in Lintesh seven whole days. But they had simply disappeared. There was never any trial. My father was livid, he sought a direct audience with the King, demanding to know what had happened. He never got his audience. Palace Guard came after us in the night at our lodgings. We had to flee.”

Elohl sighed. “My sister wrote to me that she had heard as much. Her letters stopped coming shortly after that. She said she hadn’t found so much as a trace of the Kingsmen within the palace. Not a knife, not a buckle. Nothing. She’d walked those labyrinthine halls from dusk to sunup every night, and in two years, she’d found nothing.”

“Vanished.” Eleshen murmured. “Roushenn keeps its secrets. Cursed stones.”

“Cursed.” Elohl rubbed a hand over his beard. Images surfaced in his mind. A snarling wolf, fangs deep in a roaring dragon, clawing the wolf in turn. His fingertips settled to his tea mug, tracing the rim, feeling its texture.

Eleshen fixed him with a piercing gaze. “You said you failed, Elohl. That you didn’t find it. What was it? What could you have failed at? Keeping the children safe?”

“Partly,” he sighed. “Partly something else.”

She gazed at his Inkings, just visible over the edge of his shirt. “How did you know to ink yourself? What was this errand you went on in the three days before your parents arrived at the palace?”

Elohl met her gaze, and his eyes were hard. “Too much, and not nearly enough.”

CHAPTER 9 – OLEA

 

 

The sun was high, the summer morning just as sweltering as it had been for the past week. Olea made her rounds at a languid pace upon the Seventh Tier battlements of the palace, hundreds of fathoms above the ground. The bustling marketplace below was miniscule, hulking wagons of firewood small as matchsticks, people tiny as poppy-seeds near the circular fountain before Roushenn’s main gates. Her gaze blurred, eyes raw from too little sleep. Olea blinked, pushing back exhaustion. It was the seventh day since she’d seen that hulking man give her a Kingsman salute at the fountain. Seven days since her charge from the Dhenra. Seven nights in a row that her nightmares of Alden had come, sweet nightmares of her and the Dhenir together. Devastating visions of them exposed, Chancellors staring in the Small Hall.

King Uhlas’ face of stone as Lhaurent divulged secrets Olea had been certain were safe.

The wind shifted. The shrill cry of a ferrow-hawk came to her ears from far up the crags of the Kingsmount, dragging her back to the walls. Up ahead, her Second-Lieutenant Aldris den’Farahan waited for her. She could already see mirth all over his chisel-cheeked face. He slouched against the stones in a way that showed off his honed body, one hand upon his sword, wind rifling his short golden hair. She glanced over as she came abreast of him, and he fell into step beside her with a winsome smile.

“Report,” Olea spoke briskly.

“All quiet on Tiers Five, Six, and Seven, Captain. We had a thief climb as high as Tier Five last night, but three of my men took him down. He’s been transferred to Undercell Four, if you’d like to question.”

“Damage?”

“None. We did a sweep of the Royal Galleries, the Dawn Room, the Throne Hall, and the Receiving Hall, but everything seemed in order. He had no valuables on him. Just a few weapons, grappling hook, lock picking kit.”

“Why was I not summoned?”

Aldris rubbed his short blonde beard, his green eyes teasing. “Pardon, Captain. When my men went to get you, they heard… sounds… in your quarters. I made the call to not interrupt you if everything was in order.”

Olea gave her Second-Lieutenant her sternest eyeball. “In the future, Aldris, you summon me for a disturbance inside the Fourth Tier, no matter what. Are we clear?”

“Perfectly, Captain.” Her Second-Lieutenant was attempting to be appropriately chagrined. He couldn’t quite manage it. Aldris never could. Perhaps five years older than Olea, Aldris had served in the Palace Guard since before her time. Still in his prime, he was a handsome man, of quick temper but quicker with charm, indulging in his blonde good looks. His wit was a test like a tiger’s claws, making sure his Captain-General knew the hearts of her men. He was as competent as they came, but today, his rare lapse of judgment had saved her from explaining things better left alone.

Olea sighed, tousling her curls. “Just come get me next time.”

“Yes, sir.” Aldris gazed at her askance, his tongue barely held and only because there were men of his garrison within earshot.

Olea gestured. “Walk with me, Aldris.”

He fell into step beside her. The Seventh Tier commanded a view of the entire valley. But Olea noted that Aldris’ gaze was all for her, furtive glances with a grin that said he didn’t know whether to tease her or behave himself right now. The heat was searing, still two hours before noon. Olea tugged her shirt open more above her half-buckled jerkin. A breeze rifled her shirt, Inkings bared. She was pleased to see Aldris grin more. It was always thus between them, innuendo without substance.

“Tell me, Aldris,” Olea gazed out over the byrunstone roofs of Lintesh as she walked the edge of the tier, “what do you know of the Kingsmen?”

“I know there’s a really hot one standing in front of me right now. Great ass. Nice tits. Black Inkings she likes to show off to get a rise out of people.”

Olea eyeballed him. “Don’t you have any respect?”

He rubbed his short blonde beard and grinned wider. “Not so much, Captain. I was a pain in the ass long before you came along to flog me with your good looks and charm.”

Olea’s mouth quirked. “So what do you know about the Kingsmen?”

“Besides what you’ve told me? Not much. I was never interested in politics. Women, sure. Drink, definitely. Doing my job when I was on watch and getting into brawls when I wasn’t? Definitely.”

“I know your sordid history, Aldris.”

“I was a hothead in my youth, Olea. What can I say?” He grinned wider, clearly enjoying their banter.

“You’re still a hothead.”

“Touché.”

“So what do you know of the Kingsmen?”

Aldris suddenly stopped her with a hand to her arm, turned to face her, his expression shrewd and deadly serious. There was a good mind inside Aldris, when he wasn’t testing Olea’s patience. And an even better swordsman. “What’s this all about? Why are you asking now after all these years we’ve been friends? I thought you didn’t like to talk about what happened to you…”

Olea’s eyes hardened in warning. “I asked you a question, Lieutenant. Answer it.”

Aldris scoffed. “You only take that tone with me when something serious is up. What’s going on? Olea. I’m your Third-in-Command. What are you looking into?”

Olea took a long breath. Aldris was like Fenton. Sharp as tacks and hard to fool. “I just need to hear what you know. What you saw that day.”

He gave her a wary eyeball, but finally began to talk. “It was surreal, you know? I saw them march into Lintesh, from way up here. All the men who were Seventh Tier with me at the time are retired or transferred on now. I was the youngest of the lot, but we started wagering. If the Summons was true, what treason the Kingsmen had committed, what was going to happen.”

“What do you recall of the Kingsmen?”

Aldris’ gaze flicked to her chest. “They were a hard lot. Hard, but… calm, you know? When I was a boy, I remember a bunch of Kingsmen settled a dispute among the grain merchants. We couldn’t get bread here in Lintesh, not for a week or more, because the merchant bank was bickering over the prices and the farmers wouldn’t sell their grain so low. But the Kingsmen came, and damn if that dispute wasn’t settled that very afternoon.”

“And the day they marched on the palace?”

“I don’t know much, sad to say. I remember going down to the barracks after my shift. I thought I would see a few Kingsmen wandering around the palace like a lot of folk do at night. But I never saw a one of them. Maybe they were just a private lot, sticking to their rooms, but I didn’t even see them in the kitchens for a late-nighter, or out on the grounds for a walk. And the next day, the maids said they’d all gone. Left in the night. Gone more surely than the Ghost of Roushenn does when the torches flicker. But how do so many people leave so suddenly? Strange, you know? It was too bad. I was hoping to see a few of them up close.”

Aldris’ clear eyes held Olea’s, and there was something angry in them before the teasing glint came back. “But now I get to see a Kingswoman up close everyday. And someone else did last night, apparently. Up close and personal from the sound of it…”

“Is there something you’d like to ask, den’Farahan?” Olea growled.

His lips curled up, wry, noting her sour mood. “There are many things I’d like to ask you, Captain, if they weren’t likely to get my head on a platter. Such as why you’re looking into the Kingsmen disappearance. But I know when to keep my mouth shut. So I’ll ask something safer.” Aldris’ husky voice was breathless as he stepped close. “Do you have magic thighs that men slip into and get lost in? Is that what happened to the poor fellow last night that the lads heard you sighing for in your rooms?”

“Yes.”

Aldris nearly exploded with laughter. Their banter ever turned this way, while drinking and dicing or walking the ramparts. He was a friend and he knew it, pushing the limits of innuendo. “Magic thighs, Aeon be damned! I figured. Who was the lucky fellow that got trapped in there last night and sealed his doom?”

“Stow it, den’Farahan.” Last night’s bad dreams were not something Olea would disclose. No man had graced her quarters for nearly two years. Not since Dhenir Alden’s death. But Aldris didn’t know that.

“Come on.” Aldris sidled close. “Who was it? Den’Rhashak? Den’Sulith? I hear he has a monstrous cock, nearly as long as all six feet of him. Or are you fucking the Black Ghost of Roushenn? Is that why no one ever sees these men entering or leaving your quarters? He just slips through the walls like mist into your bedchamber at night, sliding right in to his pleasure…”

Olea set her lips, but felt herself smiling anyway. Aldris was a boon, always teasing her out of brooding in black places. Her mood lifted, and at last she could feel the bright promise of the day. Fenton had been her safety, her right-hand man, keeping her calm all these years. But Aldris had been her partner in crime, quick with a laugh and an ale.

“I said stow it.” Olea grinned.

Aldris chuckled as he stepped away. “What other magic do you have besides your hot gates?”

“The kind of magic that can pick out a conversation all the way down there.” Olea nodded over the ramparts, down at the throng in the market far below. “If the wind blows just right.”

“That old tale again?” Aldris’ handsomely chiseled face made a tutting pout. “Would you swear it on your sword? Or better yet… on mine?”

“No playing with your sword up here while you’re on duty, den’Farahan. Or swearing. I’ll hear it.”

He grinned, enlivened. “I may just have to say some very specific things, Captain, to see if you can hear them.”

“Say whatever you like, Lieutenant, just be sure the wind is blowing in the opposite direction.” Olea turned to go, needing to continue her rounds. She turned her back and walked along the ramparts towards the stairs down to Tier Six. But she had not gone fifty paces before a whisper upon the wind caught her ears.

“Wish I was the Ghost of Roushenn…”

She turned, giving Aldris a raised eyebrow. Second-Lieutenant Aldris den’Farahan looked stunned for a moment, then burst into laughter so loud that Guardsmen all along the tier turned their heads to look.

 

[ * ]

 

Down in the West Guardhouse at the end of her day, Olea had been unable to concentrate upon the week’s supply lists. As Fourth-Captain of the Realm, it was part of her job to review lists not just for the Guard, but also the Lintesh reports for the companies at the Valenghian border before they went to the Chancellate. The tedious list blurred before her as she thought about Aldris’ disturbing report of the night the Kingsmen had disappeared. And of the man who’d saluted her at the fountain nearly a week ago, though she’d not seen him since.

At last, Olea gave up, signing the whole damn thing. The guardhouse had emptied after the change of watch, and she was alone with Corporal Jherrick den’Tharn, a young man who had proven himself whip-smart with just about everything. But just as Olea was about to dump all the week’s lists upon young Jherrick’s desk so he could do one last review before they went to Chancellor Rudaric den’Ghen, her attention suddenly alighted upon a curious discrepancy.

Olea hesitated at the edge of Jherrick’s desk, list still to hand.

“Something off, Captain?” Jherrick den’Tharn looked up with a frown, scrubbing a hand through his wheat-blonde hair. He blinked blonde-lashed grey eyes behind his spectacles, then took them off and cast them thoughtlessly to the desk. Jherrick, Olea had noticed, hated wearing his reading spectacles, and was forever fussing with them. Olea supposed it was considered weak for a Guardsman to need spectacles, and Jherrick didn’t wish to appear more physically inept than he already was.

Jherrick den’Tharn had only four years in the Guard. In the practice yards, he was atrocious, with balance so awful it was like both his legs had been put on backwards, his blade swings clumsy and wild. The palace serving-lad with no family had almost been cut from the recruits until Olea had found out he was learned with numbers and languages. She had needed someone with brains for the lists, and thankfully, Jherrick was exceptionally brainy. And so had secured his position at her side, day in and day out, other than his occasional duties in the Upper Cells.

“Jherrick…” Olea set the ledger down in front of him, her finger marking one spot. “Why is Lintesh sending two hundred barrels of dried plums to the Valenghian border every month when we’re only sending a hundred new recruits? The recruits only need a barrel apiece to keep their bowels regular when they get on front-rations.”

Jherrick blinked at the ledger, but did not put his spectacles back on. “Unusual constipation?”

Olea chuckled. “That would be some constipation, to need that many prunes.”

Jherrick sat back in his chair, put one boot up against the desk. Olea and Jherrick were casual in the Guardhouse when no one else was about. They often worked long hours pouring over lists, and in his last four years, Jherrick had proven himself of agile mind and wry humor.

“Maybe they’re feeding the new recruits too much wheat-mush when they get to the border. Stopping them up so they don’t shit themselves when they catch their first skirmish. Then they need more prunes to get everything out afterwards.” Jherrick was grinning like a younger version of Aldris, though something somber in his nature could never match Aldris’ levity.

Olea scuffed her boot on the floor, put her hands on her hips, chuckling. “Could be. But I doubt it. Check into it. It could be a calculation error, but that many prunes would imply that we’re sending far more recruits than we are. Unless there are magical troops appearing from nowhere to go fight for us at the border… then we’ve got some prune thievery going on.”

Jherrick chuckled, his eyes glinting with dark mischief. “The prune thief. Let’s see… whom do we know that is chronically constipated and would want to steal all the realm’s prunes?”

Olea made a face. “I know one person who could use some prunes. Lhaurent den’Karthus. Clean all his bullshit right out.”

Jherrick leaned his chair back on two legs, lacing his fingers behind his head, giving Olea a considering glance. “You really don’t like the Castellan, do you?”

Olea lifted an eyebrow. “Does it show that much?”

Jherrick chuckled. “As much as your Inkings do, Captain.”

Olea had to chuckle. Then she yawned. It was far too late.

“Tired, Captain?”

Olea nodded, with another yawn. “I didn’t get enough sleep. Double-check those numbers, make sure they are all correct before you run it up to Chancellor den’Ghen’s quarters.”

“Yes, Captain. And may I suggest? Chamomile, hops-bud, and fheldarin-seed. Works like a charm. Boil the seed and buds first, then add the flowers. The tea will take you right to sleep.”

Olea smiled, and it was natural. She was fond of the whip-smart young man, even though he was terrible with a sword. “Have a thing for herbs, Jherrick?”

He peered at her, thoughtful. “My mother was a master herbalist, Captain. I learned a thing or two. Before she died. That tea puts me to sleep every time.”

“Have trouble sleeping?”

Jherrick’s blonde brows knit in a frown. He sat back, evaluating his captain, arms crossed over his slender-muscled chest and his immaculate blue jerkin. Olea was reminded suddenly that Jherrick was not really young at all, but nearly twenty-four. Older than Olea had been when she first came to the palace.

“I mean no insult, Captain. But how I sleep is none of your concern.”

Olea nodded, mildly surprised at Jherrick’s frank rebuke. He was usually quite amiable. But looking closer tonight, she saw he had shadows around his eyes and tight lines at the corners, as if he hadn’t slept well, just like her. But as it was with Fenton, Jherrick was closemouthed about his life and his past, and Olea respected privacy.

Olea clapped him on the shoulder in conciliation. “I did not mean to pry. Have a good night, Jherrick. And I will try that tea.”

He nodded, breaking into an easy smile. “Goodnight, Captain. Rest up. More paperwork tomorrow.”

Olea tousled her curls. “Isn’t there always…”

Jherrick den’Tharn chuckled, then pulled the ledger in front of his nose and bent to, sans spectacles, as Olea strode out the guardhouse door and into the cool of the twilight. Traffic around the fountain had dwindled to the occasional tradesman out for the evening air, the markets packed up for the day, awnings of permanent shops around the plaza down, windows shuttered. Olea was about to turn left toward the palace gates, when suddenly a thrill passed through her.

There he was. The massive bear of a man with short black curls who had saluted her, leaning against the lip of the fountain, just as he had been a week ago. Olea saw him note her watching, a subtle change in the tilt of his head, though he did not look directly at her. With a grace uncommon for a man with such a blacksmith’s bulk, he rose from his place, striding off into the evening shadows.

He wanted her to follow.

Her heart thundering, breath in her throat, Olea slid through the shadows out-of-sight behind him. Not wanting to be associated with his passing, she used her hearing to pick his footsteps out across portals and down long byrunstone alleys. Keeping to the deepest darkness like he had been born to it, he strode a winding course through the city, down to the lower Tiers. At last, he turned right into a tight alley in the Tradesman Quarter. A lock and bolt snapped in Olea’s ears, the creak of a barn-door hauled open. She sidled around a shadowed corner, peering down the alley. The man had ducked through the double-door of a workshop with a silversmith’s sigil upon the signboard, leaving the door cracked behind himself, spilling warm lantern light near the alley’s blind end.

Stepping behind a stack of crates, Olea blended into the evening’s deep shadows. Watching the doorway for a space of heartbeats, she scanned the hushed alley and the darkened rooftops with her hearing. Closing her eyes, she honed her hearing further, waiting for a surreptitious footstep of any who might have followed her. But every clink of cutlery and howl of hungry babes and strum of a lute was as to be expected in a poor quarter of a city at suppertime.

Her heart in her throat, Olea strode forward with one hand upon her sword, heading toward the spill of light in the velveteen darkness.

CHAPTER 10 – GHRENNA

 

 

In the dream, the sun bore down into a blistering madness of high noon. Summer dust blew around Ghrenna’s boots, as she and Elohl and the others held their postures, weapons bared in a prickly ring of death. A dream of memories ten years gone, Ghrenna twisted in her sheets, feeling it all again.

The only sound upon the wind was their hard breathing, so scared. So young. So untested in war. Clad in earthen tones and forest greens rather than the traditional Kingsmen greys, Ghrenna’s dark blue eyes darted beneath her hood. They met Suchinne’s steady brown ones, then moved back to the cobalt-jerkined Guardsman before her. From all around the upper galleries of the practice yard’s amphitheater at Alrashesh, the click of arrows nocked to bows came to Ghrenna’s ears. Archers were fixed and ready, their attention steely upon the five Seventh Seals in their tight standoff in the dusty center of the amphitheater. The creak of leather and the crunch of steel came as swordsmen shifted their stances in a ring around the five Kingskinder, holding the standoff with blades bared.

A pair of ravens winged above, calling out in a cacophony of displeasure.

Sweat trickled beneath Ghrenna’s arms from the strain of holding her bow steady, her arrow trained upon the heart of the swordsman directly in front of her. Ultimate stillness filled her, tense fear. Pacing herself, Ghrenna counted each breath, trying to keep her mounting headache at bay, trying to keep her arms from trembling. The joints of her neck ached and the sun was too bright. One of her worst spells was coming. On its way because of their failure upon their errand at Roushenn Palace this past day, and now because of the trap they had stumbled into coming back to Alrashesh.

Her quiver chafed where it was slung across her back, from hard running returning from the Alranstone glen. Her longknives dragged her leather belt across her hips. Fighting the pain that was coming like a landslide, Ghrenna forced herself into further stillness, willing her arms to hold firm. She’d be a pincushion of arrows from palace archers in the upper galleries if she slipped and loosed her shot.

If any of them moved, she and Elohl and the rest would all die together.

“As I said,” the stocky Roushenn Palace Guardsman in his cobalt jerkin before Elohl rumbled again. “There’s no need to die today. Put down your weapons. We have only a few questions for you.”

“Bullshit!” Dherran snarled from Ghrenna’s left.

“We already told you.” Olea’s voice was reasonable to Ghrenna’s right, next to Elohl. “Our families marched three days ago for Lintesh, as they were supposed to for the King’s Summons. The younger Kingskinder have been sent to the Court of Dhemman while our families are away. Only us five Seventh Seals were left behind, to caretake Alrashesh while our elders are away at the palace renewing their vows. We were just out hunting this morning.”

It was a weak ruse. Olea had always been a terrible liar. The Guardsman before them chuckled. “Can’t negotiate your way out of this mess, girl. We’re here for you, and the other Kingsmen children. To keep you… safe for the King. Trust in him now while your parents are away and come with us.”

Dherran answered him with a hot-tempered bark. “You’re here to slaughter us! Our parents were summoned to their deaths! As traitors! By the hand of King Uhlas den’Ildrian! How can you say we should trust in him? The Kingskinder are somewhere safe, as planned by our people, and we’ll die before we give them up. So go fuck yourself. And your King.”

Dherran spat at the man, florid. He was working himself into a rage now, and once he did, even Elohl couldn’t stop him. He was going to lash out, and soon, breaking their tight circle of protection. But from the corner of her left eye, Ghrenna saw petite Suchinne step forward in her green forest leathers, her fingers falling lightly upon Dherran’s clenched fist where he gripped the handle of his leveled sword, white-knuckled. Dherran shivered. The raging boar broke beneath Suchinne’s steady dark gaze. And though he growled at her intervention, he stepped back, their ring solid and unbroken.

Ghrenna watched their tender interaction from the side of her eye, but something told her to run rather than stand here. Something rippled inside her, her headache drumming hard in her temples. Something was coming, something worse than the trap of Guardsmen they had stumbled into coming back to Alrashesh. Something she could feel in her mind, crackling with the energy of an oncoming storm.

The stocky Guardsman answered Dherran with a chuckle, resting his hands atop the pommel of his sheathed sword. “Where is the famous Kingsman patience I have heard of?”

Elohl stepped forward then, to stand in the sightline between the Guardsman and Dherran, whom Suchinne was still pacifying with a steady hand. Elohl was slender, but had an advantage of height on the blue-jerkined guard, and Ghrenna knew those grey eyes of Elohl’s were unnerving in the extreme, when he used them right. As he did now. The Guardsman shifted, uncomfortable.

It was Olea who spoke, her pacifying gestures well-practiced. “Please. We’ve told you everything. If your men are weary, you are of course welcome to rest…”

Lies.

A single word came from beyond the amphitheater, a strong baritone pummeling the summer air like thunder, rolling all the way to the edge of the vast practice ground. The voice seemed outside Ghrenna’s ears and yet not, a rippling, rolling sensation within her mind that tilted her equilibrium and made her stomach clench in a violent knot, sick. Summoned to that voice, Ghrenna felt the pain of a vision surfacing. Lancing erupted inside her head. An unstoppable firebrand thrust through her mind, splitting it from mid-brow to the back of her skull. Her legs turned to water, her eyelids fluttered. She collapsed with a cry, spilling to hands and knees in the dirt of the amphitheater, her bow dropped to the dust.

Her vision was horrible. Images ripped through her head. Vomit rose. She clenched her teeth. Vaguely, she was aware of Elohl, urging her to breathe as he pulled her into his arms and cradled her in the dirt. Of his hand cupping her brow, cool and gentle. At last, her spasms ceased and the images subsided. The pain began to roll back, but still beat with her pulse like an Elsthemi war-drum. The torture of the vision flooded her, every vile scene, every terrible promise of it. Something unescapable. A promise that voice had made inside her mind, triggering this brutality. The certainty that everything she’d just seen, everything she feared, was about to become reality.

Right now.

Through gritted teeth, Ghrenna was at last able to speak what she had seen. “They’re going to capture us, Elohl… all the Kingskinder. I saw it. He’s coming…”

“Who’s coming?” Elohl murmured gently by her ear, cradling her close. “What do you mean, Ghren? What did you see just now?”

Witch!” The big Guardsman growled, full of hate, his face ashen. A ripple of unease spread through the archers and swordsmen at his accusation. But that one word speared Ghrenna. That taunt from her early childhood in the frozen wastes of the northern tundra. So many people had spat that word at her, spat that word at a little girl who could only absorb the terror of their hate. And it had continued as she’d grown. Never from the Alrashemni, her adopted kin, but from villagers, simple people who knew only to hate someone different. Someone outlandish. Elohl had gone very still, cradling Ghrenna in the dirt. He knew what that word meant to her.

“Leave her be.” Elohl’s soft murmur carried to each and every ear on the tense silence of amazed men. His stillness pressed through the amphitheater of the practice yard like an icy wind. His words barely audible, their tone nevertheless carried unmistakable authority, just like his father. He helped Ghrenna to her feet, and for a moment, their eyes locked. Ghrenna felt Elohl’s chill tension. Everything had gone terribly wrong at Roushenn Palace this day. She didn’t have to touch him to feel his emotions, though touching made it stronger. Elohl was a chasm of stillness to most people, but Ghrenna could feel his turbulent currents, every boulder and eddy.

And right now he was drowning, drowning in a bleak, torpid despair. One quick glance showed his depths, more tortured than Ghrenna had ever seen them, confirming his failure. Despair that they would survive this. Despair that he’d not found the ring she’d seen in her vision, made of star-metal with a ruby like a drop of blood at its center, a dragon and wolf fighting around it. Despair now, that they were surrounded upon their return to Alrashesh and had few options left.

Despair that he’d failed to keep any of them safe.

But more than his torture, Ghrenna saw in Elohl’s storm-grey eyes the magnetism that drew them together time and time again. For a moment, neither could look away, though the world crumbled around them. It gave Ghrenna strength, and she quieted, finding that place of deep, emotionless stillness she needed to keep her pains at bay.

At last, she pulled away, able to stand on her own. She left her bow in the dirt, her arms trembling too much to draw it. Unsheathing her longknives instead, she settled into a ready crouch. Elohl turned to the stocky Guardsman, leveling his sword. Waves of rage rippled from him. Unlike his twin, Elohl was slow to anger, but once he did, it was glacier-cold.

Deadly.

“We have no quarrel with you, Guardsman, just as we have no quarrel with our liege King Uhlas den’Ildrian, to whom we Alrashemni Kingsmen are consummately faithful.” Elohl’s grey eyes bored into the guard, flat and merciless like chips of the Kingsmount. “But it’s up to us to protect the Kingskinder, until our families return. Not our King. So if you wish to die today, step forward to take even a single one of us, or threaten the Kingskinder again. And know, that any who slaughter a Kingsman or Kingskinder unjustly will pay the Fifth Price. This is the vow of our people.”

Uncertain glances were shared among the swordsmen. The big Guardsman chuckled, but beneath his bravado, fear showed. “An oath of vengeance? That you’ll come and kill five out of every six people we know? Isn’t that a bit extreme, lad?”

“Come for us, and see what Kingsmen truly are.” Elohl’s voice was cold. Ghrenna could see the fury that burned icy within him.

But the ranks of blades parted suddenly as an approaching figure from the edge of the amphitheater crunched to the front, his face hidden in the deep shadows of his hood. A sliding sensation moved through Ghrenna, a slipping feeling in her mind, churning her stomach. She knew suddenly, from whence that voice in her mind had come that had triggered her vision with but a single word. The Guardsman and the rest of his ilk in cobalt stepped aside to admit the unhurried man. His garb was of a foreign make, a herringbone weave of blackened leather set with metal studs forming his armored jerkin, his gauntlets and greaves the same. A two-handed broadsword rode his back, and his stature was enormous, towering even over Elohl, his torso and limbs mercilessly thick and strong.

“What have the Kingsmen gotten themselves into this time?” The man’s speech held a lilting accent from far to the east. His chuckle grated like fists over gravel. He drew his sword from his back in a long, slow arc, and came to lean upon the pommel with the tip planted nonchalantly in the dust. “Oh, my thousand pardons. Kingskinder. These ones are Inked, but they’ve not earned it yet, have they?”

Ghrenna felt something slide deeper into her mind upon the tide of that voice, like a snake slithering into her thoughts. Stiffening, she pulled her mind back, deeper into stillness as her headache flared miserably. A keening cry spilled from her lips, unstoppable, to the fury of her agony.

“Whatever you’re doing to her, stop it.” Elohl’s growl barely reached her.

“See my face, boy.” The man grated. “Know the one who will break your northern friend. And you.” The black-armored swordsman lifted one gauntleted hand, cast back his hood to reveal a strong-boned face deeply tanned. Full in his prime, he had thick lips and high cheekbones, grey streaks in his brown hair. The swordsman eyed Elohl from his towering height, and Ghrenna heard Elohl hiss in surprise.

“I nearly had you at the Alranstone this morning, boy.” The man’s lips twisted up in subtle humor. “But there’s no Stone here to wrest you from me now. The Stone thought it was being so very clever, defying me, but had it been more aware, it would have known that I have my own means of following my prey. Let us continue what was so rudely interrupted, lad. Show me now. Let me feel what you witnessed last night that you shouldn’t have… open for me…”

And then, Ghrenna saw something she thought she’d never witness. With a dire cry, Elohl fell to his knees in the dust, trembling violently. His gaze pinned to the man in herringbone leathers, sinew stood out in Elohl’s neck as he strained against whatever was happening, his breath hard and fast. His pulse pounded at the side of his neck. He cried out again, softer this time, shivering. He narrowed his eyes as if to close them, but they stopped, arrested, eyelashes trembling from strain, his jaw clenched in a rictus of pain.

The man in herringbone leathers cocked his head. And with a soft smile, he moved his chin, and Elohl was suddenly released. Panting hard, Elohl’s head fell, hanging, a cry of pain issuing out upon his breath. “Nothing,” the black-clad man murmured, bemused. “You overheard nothing of import, at least, in the palace. It is just as well. I do not welcome spilling the blood of Leith’s line from your throat today, boy. Thin though it is. But you.” And suddenly, the man’s hard gaze came to rest upon Ghrenna. “You are another matter, girl.”

Our kind get more than name-calling of witchery, you know. The man’s dagger-keen thoughts pierced Ghrenna’s mind, slicing through her carefully-woven protection. We get burned as children. Set to the torch. You should see my scars, northern girl, when my village tried to burn me for what we can do. Count yourself lucky that your family simply gave you away. Ah… but you don’t know yet what you can do, do you? If you did know, you could stop me. Open for me now. Open, northern girl… spill to me the secrets I want to know.

With an awful sneer of dominance upon his thick lips, the man’s consciousness slammed through Ghrenna like a fist. Her mind broke. Her barriers crumbled. She screamed as she fell to the dust, as his touch wormed into her, uncovering her thoughts.

Uncovering what she had just seen in her vision.

Ghrenna couldn’t stop him as she twisted in agony over Halsos’ Fire, writhing in the dust of the practice yard. Broken, her mind flickered through the images of her vision, revealing it all to the man in herringbone leathers as she babbled between screams about how he would find the location of the Kingskinder. About how he would find the trail to the ruined fort, by the old beech grove at the foot of the mountains. How he would find them all, catching every last child of the Kingsmen and clapping them in irons.

She was vaguely aware that her wrists and ankles were being shackled as she writhed and shrieked in the dust. That Elohl and the others were subjected to the same, though they only screamed nonsense in their twisting agony. That the man in the black armor had broken them all with a thought, rendered all their battle training useless as they curled into helpless balls from never-ending pain.

He laughed as he had them secured, hoisted like sacks of twitching grain over the shoulders of swordsmen. Ghrenna faded to darkness as she passed out, the man’s rolling laugh still in her ears.

 

[ * ]

 

Startling awake, Ghrenna came to in a sheen of sour sweat. Limbs flailing, she knocked her wine bottle and threllis-pipe from her bedstand with a crash. The bottle smashed upon the stone floor of the grotto, wine and pottery scattering with a skittering tinkle in the lamplit gloom. The glass blown pipe, fortunately, only bounced, then rolled beneath her four-post bed, deep under the tattered laces and ancient, mildewed sheers of the canopy’s drapes.

“Aeon’s fuck.”

Ghrenna’s curse was weak, her mouth full of cotton, her head pounding with a five-day ache. Blearily, she leaned over the side of the bed to find her pipe, but doing so raised her pain to a cascading fury. She keened and eased back to the tattered pillows, breathing raggedly in her sweaty silk undershirt.

A form stirred beside her. Honey-blonde Shara sighed, then blinked at Ghrenna blearily. She turned over, nestling back down into the tattered covers and pulling them up over her mussed golden locks. She was still good and drunk from a scouting party only hours prior. But Ghrenna’s inebriated ease had worn off during her endless nightmares. It went with the headaches. Ghrenna could drink and drink, she could smoke threllis until she was coughing and floating a league above her body upon clouds of pollen fluff, and always, she was sober as sober could get mere hours later.

And in exquisite pain.

Ghrenna pulled away the sweat-soaked covers, brushing back her damp white-blonde waves. She tottered to her feet, avoiding shards of broken pottery from the smashed wine bottle. Moving over the arcane white sigils set into the stone floor, she lurched to the tarnished silver washbasin along one edge of the vast byrunstone grotto. She made it just in time. Like clockwork, all the delicacies she had stolen the night before came up in a ragged rush as she vomited into the basin.

Ghrenna coughed, spat, blew her nose. Lifting the basin, she tossed the contents down the cave-abyss to her left, hearing it splatter on its way down to Aeon-knew-where. Far enough below that she and Shara wouldn’t smell it later. Rinsing her mouth with a cup of water from the pool of seepage near the basin, she spat over the abyss. Drinking slowly, she at last felt her headache roll back to a manageable thrum.

Her senses clearing, Ghrenna took in the cavern, monitoring for intruders. Silence echoed to a ceiling that could not be seen, despite lamps that burned near the bed and upon the bureau. Lace-filigreed stone extended upwards into the darkness, their curling room dividers like unrolled scrolls. Sigils tattooed the ancient space, the walls, the floor. Arcane glyphs in a languid script set in luminous white metal, they covered every inch of stone. The lacelike dividers melded into the walls, spaced by long-tarnished mirrors that flowed upwards to forgotten heights. Here and there, sigils and writing gathered in inset cupolas of doors. And though Ghrenna and her guildmates had explored the subterranean cavern of rooms beneath Fhouria over and over, they had never been able to disturb those sigil-laden doors, nor pry the precious metals from the wall.

Something protected this place, indestructible to the ravages of time. And except for tarnish and dust it held firm, like a fortress. All except the entry they’d found in Fhouria’s sewers, a stone door smashed into massive blocks, as if it had burst outward from within, long ago. Each block covered with whorls of blue, a monstrous sigil written through the sundered stone. They’d set the broken entrance with traps and snares, and for the past six years since Ghrenna had seen this place of safety in a vision, this cavern of rooms had been home not just to her but to all of her guildmates.

And never once had there been any unwelcome intruder.

She breathed a sigh of ease in her cavern, protected. She didn’t know what the sigils meant, but their magic was something strong, immutable despite the broken door. Silence breathed around her, echoing with Shara’s soft snores. In this safety, Ghrenna thought back over her dream. A dream at first, it had morphed into a vision. Ghrenna remembered that time ten years ago when they had toiled fruitlessly to forestall the traveling-out of their kin to the Summons. That dream had ended with the swordsman who haunted her nightmares.

But then everything had shifted to a place Ghrenna had never seen. A cottage with an Innship sign, in the mountains on a rough-track road. She’d seen Elohl, older and harder-worn than she had ever seen him before. The storm-grey of his eyes had been grim, and a short black beard had roughened his jaw. To anyone else, his weather-chiseled face would have seemed hard, closed. But Ghrenna knew better. He was in pain. Her heart flooded with an ache that expanded in her chest, pulsing outwards as if it could find him across the distance. Her very soul cried out for him, feeling his despair, just as strong now as it had been ten years ago. Time had not lessened it. Hardship had only made it more keen, more barren.

The spreading ache in her chest flooded her, and Ghrenna hitched a breath. She could still feel his arms around her. Protecting her. But now they were both alone in the wilds, barely surviving, and still she had never seen any clue in her visions as to where exactly he was. Still, after ten years of dreaming about him, she had no destination, no place she knew to go find him.

But he had been at ease this time, in the last part of her vision, a woman cradled in his arms. His heart was still barren, still aching, but soothed just a little by kindness. Ghrenna flushed, seeing her vision again, watching them make love upon pine planks drenched in sunshine. She heated, brushing a hand over her sweat-soaked silk, watching Elohl’s iron spar frame take this unknown woman, intense as he had ever been. And when it was over, she saw him standing bare-chested in morning’s dappled light, next to a Stone. Beautiful golden Inkings were writ upon his skin, and the little woman was touching them, admiring with her fingertips as if Elohl were hers.

Ghrenna watched this future, or perhaps this past, and found herself jealous, her ache of love hardening into cold anger. She dashed a hand over her eyes, then doused her face with water, rubbing away sweat.

“Ghren?” Shara’s sleepy murmur startled Ghrenna. She turned from the basin, seeing Shara sit up beyond an edge of filigree in the grand mildewed bed, lit by the low yellow lanterns. Shara gave a long, languid stretch, her beautiful curves the envy of all women.

“Just a dream, Shara. Go back to bed.” Ghrenna murmured, currying water through her long snow-blonde waves to sluice away sweat.

“Want to talk about it?” Shara yawned.

“No.” Ghrenna wandered back to the bed and sat on the edge, rolling out the screaming tension in her neck.

Shara reached out, brushing a hand down Ghrenna’s damp hair. Ghrenna stilled beneath that touch, and her thoughts turned to Elohl. He’d always done that when she’d had visions and their resulting headaches. A soothing touch, Shara’s concern was that of a sister, a mutual comfort they could always turn to ever since they had defected from the Fleetrunners together.

When they had run all night, and for three whole days, fleeing the horrors of war.

“Why don’t you tell me?” Shara murmured.

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It does. Dreams are important, Ghrenna. Tell me what you saw just now.” Ghrenna had still never told Shara that she had true visions, but Shara knew Ghrenna had vivid dreams, strange and often accurate. They’d never precisely discussed it, but after such a long association, Ghrenna was fairly certain Shara knew that she was a seer. Though she’d never told Luc and Gherris, and for that, Ghrenna was grateful.

“I saw Elohl.” Ghrenna relented at last. She collapsed sideways upon the pillows and drew her feet up onto the bed. Shara scooted close, cuddling Ghrenna’s back, stroking her hair.

“Again?” Shara murmured, her breath soft by Ghrenna’s ear. “How was he?”

“Living. Barely.”

“How many dreams of him does that make, now?”

“Too many.” Ghrenna absorbed Shara’s petting, her eyelids settling closed.

“You’ve not had as many dreams of your other Kingsmen comrades, Olea and Dherran. And still just the one of your little friend, right? What was her name?”

“Suchinne.” Ghrenna’s throat closed. She saw it again, as she did whenever she was disturbed. Suchinne, on the battlefield, run through the breast by a spear but not dead. Pinned to the bloodsoaked ground and raped by five of their own Menderian soldiers before she died, in agony until the light left her dark eyes. Suchinne, kicked like trash by the last man, furious that the Blackmark bitch had died before he was finished, plunging his sword into her dead body for spite.

Shara wound her arms tighter around Ghrenna. “Suchinne. May the All-Mother protect our sisters, who fall in battle.”

They shared a soft silence in the lanternlit darkness. Tears came, weak tears. Ghrenna shuddered. “I dreamed of Elohl released from battle, Shara. Released from the mountains, somewhere. He was with a woman, in a cheery inn. It smelled like pine and rosemary bread…”

Shara brushed a hand over her hair, smoothing Ghrenna’s white locks away from her face. “He’s still out there somewhere, Ghren. Waiting for you.”

“He’s not waiting for me.” Ghrenna choked back her tears, swallowed them down to a place of stillness. Crying would only make her head pound worse, which would make her smoke more threllis, which would cost more, which meant she had to thieve more. Which meant more lives got risked, which was something Ghrenna wouldn’t tolerate. It wasn’t practical to let her emotions run away with her.

Her attention strayed to the fat thieving-purse from a week ago at Emry’s mansion, her cut of the profits casually tossed upon her ornate gilded bureau by the mirrored cavern wall. Slipping from Shara’s arms, she rose, padding quietly to the bureau, her fingers playing out over the soft deer-leather purse. She dumped it out, ill-gotten spoils clattering upon the bureau’s top. A number of pieces of jewelry, a hefty sum of gold and banking notes. Ghrenna ran her fingers over a gilded amulet worked with a snarling wolf. She picked it up, scrutinizing it by the thin yellow lamplight. The wolf wasn’t the same as the one in her vision, the one on the ruby ring Elohl should have found in that niche.

Her seeing had been wrong ten years ago. The only one that had ever been wrong. The most important one, that should have been right. Elohl’s weathered face filled her vision. Ghrenna’s throat closed. She pushed the emotion back down to stillness.

“What is it?” Shara murmured from the bed.

“Nothing.” Ghrenna turned towards a gilt-worked teak table at the far end of the grotto.

“Something for the collection?” Shara’s voice held a mild amusement.

“Just an oddity.” Padding over to the teak table in her bare feet, Ghrenna added the wolf amulet to her collection in a wide basket upon the bureau. Her fingers roved the eighty some-odd pieces in the basket with disappointment. Jewelry depicting a dragon, or a wolf, none were the same as that ruby ring. Fine-wrought sundials in layered metals cluttered the basket also. Some with wound gear-mechanisms to keep the time, pieces from the Glockenzart of Praough worked by specialty jewelers, costly items. Mostly one just saw crude gears used in trebuchets or mill-wheels in Alrou-Mendera. These miniscule contraptions the Praoughians prided themselves on, with their cleverness of metalwork.

And yet, none of these pieces looked even remotely similar to the clockworks Elohl had found all those years ago. None were of the same caliber, the same intricacy and delicacy, nor made with such fine precision. That piece had been like this cavern, its true nature filled with a magic lost to time. Ghrenna had felt it, when she had touched the scattered gears in Elohl’s belt-purse, right after he and Olea had stumbled through the Alranstone. A tingle in her mind, of secrets.

Secrets they might never know, now. Secrets that were too late to uncover.

Ghrenna traced the wolf medallion in the basket with one finger. She turned from the teak table, padding back to the bed.

CHAPTER 11 – ELOHL

 

 

Elohl had stayed for over a week at the inn. Eleshen, with her feisty ways and perpetual humor had charmed him, the first sweetness he had truly enjoyed for over ten years. She had put him to work in various tasks, letting him take comfort in the regular work of innship. Days had passed of a small, comfortable life. Scrubbing laundry, hanging it up to dry. Chopping firewood. Thatching the roof of the small barn out back. With the routine had come a kind of peacefulness for Elohl, his days mellow and mild for the first time in ten years.

But restlessness had grown within him during his stay. A tingling sensation in his skin, an awareness of things left unfinished that made him lose all stillness, shifting with a subtle irritation in his tasks. Until finally, it was overwhelming. Elohl had blinked wide awake with the dawn this day, knowing his peace could not be found here, no matter how serene this placid life could be.

“You can’t come with me,” Elohl growled for what felt like the hundredth time this morning.

“Like Halsos I can’t,” Eleshen growled back, tossing her blonde braid defiantly, planted with legs apart right in the middle of the doorway. The frustrating little woman had packed some clothes and an overabundance of food the moment she saw Elohl making his own preparations to leave. And now she was standing in front of the door wearing men’s breeches and laced leather bodice, arms crossed and scowling, her petite, curvaceous form quite effectively barring his way to the road.

“It’s dangerous in Lintesh.” Elohl tried again. “I’m a marked man. You can’t come.”

Eleshen waved one hand dismissively. “It’s dangerous here. Your enemies, whoever they are, followed you. So like it or not, I’m already a target, Elohl. I’m safer with you.”

Elohl couldn’t lift a hand to forcibly move her from the doorway, even though irritation had risen hot within him. With a low growl, he turned, marching for the door to the back porch instead. Like a barbed dart, Eleshen scurried around him, chucking her pack in his way and thrusting her arms out ahead of him, so that he nearly bowled her over. And clumsy as she was, managed to trip over her own boots and fall into his arms.

Which he was starting to believe wasn’t entirely a lack of coordination.

But once Eleshen was near, Elohl caught her scent, all spice and lavender, and his frustration made it even more alluring. He meant to push her away. He meant to tell her to move, but he found himself shucking his pack to the floor. He drew her close with a growl, and then she was on her tiptoes, kissing him hard. Elohl wrapped his arms about her little waist, crushing her close, one hand stealing up to hold her by the nape of the neck as his lips strayed beneath her ear. Eleshen moaned, then pulled back and slapped his face.

“No!” She huffed, her cheeks hot and pale green eyes wrathful. “You don’t get to leave like that! Go now, or stay and make love to me. But you can’t have both.”

Fire twisted Elohl’s gut, hot iron. He pulled away and glowered at her.

“Go ahead,” Eleshen whispered fiercely, “Hit me. I’m a frustrating woman and I always have been and I know it. But you need a frustrating woman in your life, to keep you alive.”

Elohl’s arms dropped from her like he’d been burned by firebrands. Her words had been meant to sting, and sting they did, far too much like Ihbram den’Sennia’s. Elohl had been living like a dead man for ten years, his glacial calm a replacement for true feeling. And now that he had finally begun to thaw, emotions roiled, unpredictable and wild. And Eleshen baited that raw part of him, that thawed part, sinking her spice and temper into his ice and cracking it wide.

“You’re foolish,” Elohl growled. “You’ll be killed. Move aside and let me go alone.”

Eleshen planted her fists on her hips. “Make me.”

And then Elohl did something he hadn’t ever done before. Like a calloused cur, he put out one sinewed hand and seized her wrist, hauling her out of the way. He’d never handled a woman this way, but it was the only thing that would make sense to her stubborn temper. The only thing that could keep her safe, away from the plague of death that followed him.

Eleshen sprawled with a squeak of astonishment, falling across a side-table as Elohl walked on, banging out the door and tromping down the back porch. Rounding the side of the inn from the backyard, he marched without looking back, his weatherworn boots sending up puffs of dust on the sun-dry road, though the thawing part of his heart clawed at him for doing so.

But he’d not gone fifty paces before his expanded senses felt someone following. A scuff of dainty boots here, a sigh carried upon the breeze, the faint scent of spice. He walked on a few hundred paces without looking back, seeing if she would stop. It was a vain hope. She wouldn’t be deterred, whisking solidly on in his wake. At last, Elohl closed his eyes, taking the single long breath of his training and letting it out. He stopped and turned, eyeing Eleshen in his best forbidding manner.

“What?” She quipped peevishly, pursing her lips.

“You.” It was all Elohl could get out, and said everything he needed it to.

“Me?” She argued back, feisty. “What about you? You’re the one going the wrong way.”

He pointed down the road to the south. “I came that way ten years ago from Alrashesh, and I remember it like a nightmare. Go back to the inn, Eleshen.”

She didn’t budge, smirking like she had all the apples in the world stuffed in her blouse. “That’s the way to Lintesh for any normal person. But the way to Lintesh for a Kingsman is that way.” She pointed, some distance up the mountain to his right.

“No more games woman.” Elohl hefted his pack higher on his shoulders, turned, and marched on.

“I’m not playing, you great idiot!” She shouted. Elohl heard her struggling to run beneath the weight of her pack, huffing to catch up with him. Slowing his walk, as if she pulled strings that went directly to his heart, he sighed and turned.

“There’s no shortcut to Lintesh through the mountains.”

“Not for regular people.” Her eyes glittered, almost merry. “Only for Kingsmen.”

“An Alranstone?” He nodded up the mountainside, understanding filling him. “There’s one up there?”

Her smirk grew wider. “Perhaps. But you’ll have to let me come with you. Traveling by byrunstone would save you the time you lost dallying with me.”

Elohl stilled, remembering that last time he had journeyed in such a fashion. A wrenching sensation filled him, a twisting grip in his guts and limbs as if some great beast had seized him, trying to rip him apart. A grotesque rush and pressure like being drowned and threaded through a needle all at once. The thunderclap in his ears. All of it came rushing back, along with the searing heat in his throat, remembering his failure all those years ago. Of returning empty-handed, to an empty Alrashesh.

“No.” Elohl murmured softly to the dust and breeze.

“Why not?” Eleshen’s pretty heart-shaped face was surprised.

“It won’t work for me.”

“But you’re a Kingsman! Tales say that Kingsmen can travel by Alranstone any time they please!”

“The old tales are misleading.”

“Well,” Eleshen scuffed the heel of one boot through the dirt. “You could at least try it. It’s a half-day’s hike from here, up in a small valley just over that rise. There’s a bunch of tumbled ruins, a settlement. There’s a Stone in the middle of it all. We won’t be set back but a day if it doesn’t work.”

“Unmarked can’t travel by Alranstone. It will leave you behind if I go that way.” Elohl gazed up the sharp ridge, searching for a spot level enough to indicate an old road.

Eleshen pursed her lips. “That’s crap. I’ve heard they work for Kingskinder. They’re Unmarked.”

Elohl fixed her with his best glower. Eleshen pursed her lips more, like she’d eaten a sour grape. He put his bristling commander’s demeanor behind his posture, staring her down. She fiddled with her braid but didn’t look away, chin elevating like a defiant horse.

Elohl sighed, then gestured towards the ridge. “Fine. But if you get left behind by the Stone, leave it be. Don’t come following me all the way to Lintesh. It wouldn’t be safe for you to travel alone.”

“Any safer than it is for me to keep an inn alone?” Her eyebrows quirked. She smirked, then turned on her heel, marching down the road to the south.

Elohl hitched his pack higher upon his shoulders with a torpid sigh, then picked up his feet, trailing in her dust. Not half an hour later of mutual stubborn silence, they spied an offshoot from the road, little more than a deer-track sprouting off to the west through the ditch. But the levelness of the ground where the track went suggested ancient stones beneath all the verge, and as Elohl stepped from the road to scuff his boot down through a hummock of moss, he found flat flagstone beneath, almost a handspan down beneath the tilth. Squatting, he brushed mud and moss from the stone’s surface, noting how flat and even it was.

“This was a road, once. Well-traveled and fortified. Men don’t put this much effort into just any thoroughfare.”

Eleshen squatted next to him. “My father and I used to take this track up to the ruins. We discovered the trail shortly after we arrived. A fisherman mentioned it when he was passing through. Most of the local hunters and trappers know it, though people don’t really come here.”

Elohl gazed up the side of the ridge, the track winding upwards, switching back at long intervals just like a well-planned road would have. “But they do know about it?”

She nodded. “Yes, local legend says it was a keep, a stronghold. When we get there, you’ll see, the stones in the main foundation are massive. I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been a fortress. But it’s all fallen. It looks like it was badly sieged. Father and I found blocks of stone that we think came from the towers nearly a league down.”

“Probably just ripped downstream by snowmelt,” Elohl commented. “I’ve seen massive boulders taken some distance in the mountains by spring floods.”

Eleshen straightened, gazing back along the main road to the north. She shaded her eyes, squinting. Elohl rose from his crouch, glancing also. To see a lone man walking the road in the midday sunshine. His bearing was erect and his stature fit, and as Elohl squinted, he could make out the shape of a pack upon the man’s shoulders, and the cut of his jerkin and trousers spoke of the military. High Brigade, in fact. And as the man drew nearer, Elohl could make out the lively features and shock of pale blonde hair that was Jovial den’Fourth, one of his own climbing team.

“Trouble?” Eleshen whispered at his side.

“No.” Elohl shook his head, puzzled and unsure what to make of it. “One of my former men. But what he’s doing coming this way I can’t rightly fathom. He’s not due to be discharged for two more years yet.”

“Maybe he’s come to find you? Maybe the Brigade needs you back? Maybe there was a mistake with your discharge?”

Elohl cocked his head, dark brows furrowing. All of those reasons seemed logical, and yet. Something restive within him stirred, like a mongrel dog prowling around an uncommon scent. “Arlus den’Pell gave me a formal dismissal himself. There was no mistake. Unless there’s been a tremendous attack over the passes from Valenghia… but then they would have sent a rider after me. Stay behind me. I don’t expect trouble from Jovial, but he’s… lecherous.”

Eleshen blinked up at him. “What a gentleman. Or would you simply be jealous if he tries to kiss me?”

“Just stay behind me.” Elohl growled. She did.

Jovial was another minute approaching, hailing Elohl with a wave and a relieved smile upon his flawlessly-sculpted face, his blue eyes bright over his high cheekbones. “Lieutenant den’Alrahel!” He called. “Thanks be to Aeon! You’ve no idea how much of an ordeal it’s been, getting even one man through to you!”

“Jovial!” Elohl took a few steps forward, closing the gap as his man drew close. “What’s the matter? I was discharged with everything in order. Is there trouble in the passes?”

“Trouble for sure, that needs addressing, sir.” Jovial drew near, just a pace away now, slinging his pack to the dust of the road with a relieved groan, then moving forward with arm proffered in greeting. Elohl stepped forward, reaching out to clasp Jovial’s arm.

When suddenly, his entire right side tingled. The muscles twisted so badly that Elohl stumbled sideways, his hand spasming past his subordinate’s grip. Shock flooded Jovial’s face for a moment, at Elohl’s stumble. Elohl’s own surprise at his body’s reaction rushed through him.

But then he saw the knife.

Poised to take his kidneys, the short shank would have been thrust in from behind the moment they clasped arms in greeting. Eleshen’s shriek confirmed what Elohl’s body had already known. Jovial recovered, a snarl twisting his handsome features as he spun in, knife jabbing and swiping. A trained fighter, far better than any simple Brigadier, the man was a surge of mad intent. Shock flooding him, his senses on fire with tingling, Elohl recovered his equilibrium, blocking like wildfire. Slipping Jovial’s thrusts, he managed to get both hands to the longknives at his belt, protecting Eleshen with a growl upon his lips.

“Assassin!” He snarled, ready with his own blades at last.

“Don’t you know me, Elohl?” Jovial’s merry eyes were hard chips of blue as he threw down the short knife and pulled his own longknives. “Just one loyal Brigadier, come to collect his commander. Or rather, your body. There are some who would pay well to see evidence of your demise.”

“Tell me who you are!” Elohl roared.

“Why, I’m Jovial den’Fourth! And to you, that is all I will ever be.”

Jovial lunged; they clashed. Muscles strained in a clinch for a moment. Their breath was hot face to face as they struggled. Suddenly, Jovial slipped out, taking a nasty cut on his shoulder to do it. They began to fight close, slipping and swiping. It was fast; deadly. Though Elohl’s senses spared him anything deep, he already had a number of slashes in the first moments of the fight, shallow cuts above his thick leather bracers, his shirtsleeves shredded and nicks on his neck. Jovial was the same, his knives flashing. Elohl went silent, entering a space of uncaring precision. A cut swiped at his windpipe. Elohl blocked with a forearm and it went shallow. Lancing in, his knife dove for Jovial’s jugular. The man slipped sideways but Elohl’s blade left a decent gash. Compacting, Jovial drove a set of fast swipes at Elohl’s groin. Twisting, the swipes hit Elohl’s outer hips, scoring his belt and leathers. Elohl lunged, upsetting the assassin’s balance, swiping to scissor-gut him. Pivoting, Jovial kept his belly whole as his blade dove at Elohl’s flank.

Slippery with non-lethal cuts, both men’s white shirts seeped red in a number of places. Breathing hard, a musk-thick sweat rose from them, evaporating into the morning sunshine. The iron tang of blood flowing filled the air. But Jovial had been on Elohl’s team eight years. And there had been that time, high on a climb over Selten Pass, when an icicle had broken off and taken the man in the side of his left eye. Elohl took that advantage now with icy precision, slipping past, deep into Jovial’s blind left side. The man was fast, but not fast enough. Elohl took a bad swipe across his upper chest to get in and slice Jovial’s forehead. Blood poured into Jovial’s eyes. He roared in fury. Blind, he blocked too low when Elohl dug the knife at his ribs, thinking Elohl meant to shiv his kidneys. Unseen, Elohl angled his longknife in and up, burying the slender weapon deep between the ribs and straight into Jovial’s heart.

Accurate. Precise. And cold.

The man gasped. His knees buckled, but the energy of the moment made him keep fighting past the killing blow. He swiped again and Elohl took it across his back, feeling it score deep through his leather jerkin, parting flesh and muscle. Elohl shoved his blade deeper, slashed with the other longknife across Jovial’s throat. Jovial crashed to the ground and Elohl let him fall with the first blade still buried in him to the hilt. Only one sentence escaped him as he fell.

“Den’Sennia can’t save you now…”

And then he was gone.

Breathing hard, Elohl stood over the dead body. Emptiness blew in his heart like a chill wind off glaciers. His body vibrated with energy from the fight, barely feeling his wounds. Jovial had asked for no mercy and Elohl had shown him none. And now, gazing down at a face he knew like a brother, Elohl felt his throat grip at last. A man he’d once called friend lay dead before him, bleeding out in the dusty road, his bright blue eyes glassy and dull. A man he’d once trusted. A man he’d commanded, trained, stood side-by-side with upon the battlefield with snow up to his knees and blood up to his elbows. He crouched, his gaze lingering upon Jovial’s once-laughing face.

“Just another assassin… Just like all the rest.” The pronouncement knifed Elohl to his core, skewering his gut. How many more were there, out there, men he had once called friend now tracking him? How many more knew he was traveling alone after his discharge?

His gaze flicked to Eleshen. She was frightened, her breathing fast. But she’d stood her ground, her own boot-knife in her hand, ready just like the last time, her pack shucked to the dust.

“You would have fought for me.” Elohl murmured, something about her defiant manner touching him.

“Glad I didn’t have to.” She breathed back.

Elohl’s gaze flicked back to the dead man. Emotions warred within him. Disgust, rage, sadness. With a sigh, Elohl retrieved his knife, wiped it on the body. He couldn’t bring himself to shuck Jovial’s sliced and bloody clothes to look for marks. It was indecent, somehow, even though the man had been an assassin. But Elohl had seen him naked at the bath-houses of High Camp enough times to know he bore nothing but the ordinary scars of battle.

Elohl gazed at Jovial a moment more, then drew his glacial calm back into place. It was time to move on. He stood, wincing as he felt that nasty slash across his back at last, seeping with blood beneath his jerkin. The chest was bad too, runnels of blood making Elohl’s bracer slippery, coating his hand. But leaving the road was more important than his wounds. Elohl turned towards the trail by the roadside. “Up off the main road?”

Eleshen nodded, wordless for once in all the time Elohl had known her. Elohl grasped the wrists of the dead man, hauling him off the road and under a spreading cendarie that would hide the body from any passersby. He came back, scuffing dirt with his boots, covering the blood that had soaked into the road until it looked like a pack of wolves had simply brought down a deer, then drug it off to the woods to feast. Jovial would be wolf-meat soon anyway.

So much waste come from eight years of friendship.

Silence persisted as Eleshen and Elohl took the mossy track beneath its tunnel of ancient cendarie and pine, boxwood and birch. But Elohl’s wounds called, pulling and agonizing. After a few hundred feet, he shucked his pack at a stream. Pulling off his sliced-up shirt and jerkin, he washed blood away in the stream. He let Eleshen tend the deepest wounds on his back and chest with a salve, stitches, and a dressing, then fished out his jerkin and shirt of his Kingsman greys and put them on. Then up they climbed again in silence, listening to the chirr of tit-widgets as they switched back again and again, the trail ascending thousands of feet up along the snake of the ridge. And though it was grueling, sweat soon pouring from them both, Eleshen said not a single word as she tromped determinedly on, buried in thoughts of her own.

It was late afternoon by the time they gained the isolated valley beyond the top of the ridge. And now in the slanting rays, they found the secluded valley true to Eleshen’s word, a sprawling ruin nestled into the side of the mountains. The foundation-stones of a massive keep still lifted from the ground, though the forest had all but taken it back. A number of smaller foundations, houses and outbuildings, stood in precise semi-circles along more byrunstone roads out from the keep at the valley’s southern end. But enormous trees had worked their roots deep into the foundation-stones, some looking to be nearly three hundred years old, and all was quiet as specters beneath the spreading canopy.

Eleshen led the way, and at last, they came to a wide area that was still mostly a clearing of low grasses and dirt over flagstones. Angling steeply up the mountainside, it arced upwards in a series of semicircular tiers. At the bottom was a massive Alranstone. Larger than any he had yet seen, this byrunstone towered four man-heights tall. It had not two or three eyes amidst the whorls and carven sigils, but seven, one above the next, climbing to its pinnacle. All of which were lichen-covered and closed, serene in their everlasting sleep.

Elohl dropped his pack and approached, gazing up at the heights. He’d never felt drawn to a Stone before, had never really sensed them beyond the usual pressure he received in his sphere from normal stone. But this one felt different, compelling somehow. Elohl felt the rush of the Stone’s awareness as he approached within its boundary of Sight, his skin crawling and prickling his new wounds uncomfortably.

But something about it pulled at him, as if he could feel it in his mind, a burgeoning pressure, an importance. Entranced, Elohl stepped up, extending one hand to touch the rough-chipped surface. A twinge crawled across his palm and wrist, the sensation like a wind blowing through his body from that contact, up into his mind. Elohl blinked, trying to dispel a sudden feeling of disorientation, as if he looked out over the entire amphitheater and the ruins from very high up. He had the sudden urge to climb the damn thing, a need to sit at the very top of the Stone and stare out over the valley far below and the high mountains beyond.

Then, with a blowing whisper, the sensation was gone.

“So what do we do?” Eleshen murmured at his side.

Elohl blinked, pulled from his trance. He glanced over, to see her standing there with awe upon her face, gazing up at the Stone’s towering height. “Put your hand to the Stone with mine.” Elohl murmured. “I’ll say a few words, and then it should take us in. Don’t fight it. It will hurt, badly.”

“Hurt?” Surprise flitted over her features.

“Badly.” Elohl repeated, preparing himself with that word as much as her. Rolling out his shoulders, he readied himself for the pain. Memories rose of the last time he’d done this, gripping his throat. Elohl drowned them, deep underwater. It needed to work today, and the Stone had to feel him. Concentrating on the sensation of the rock beneath his palm, Elohl murmured, “Elohl den’Alrahel, den’Urloel, den’Alrashesh. Blessings to the Kingsmen. Blessings to the Alrashemni. Open, Stone of Alran, pass me free.”

A shivering tingle lanced over his skin. A moment of recognition from the Stone, that words had been spoken, that someone stood penitent before it. But then it was gone. Elohl looked up. He wasn’t even certain the damn thing had judged him. All of the eyes upon the towering column were still closed. Disappointment clenched his gut, but relief eased his shoulders. Elohl sighed, then stepped away, walking back to his pack and rummaging through it for something to eat.

But his fingers still tingled with an urge to climb.

“That’s it?! What was that? Are you jesting with me?” Eleshen’s hasty feet strode up behind him. Wordlessly, Elohl found some mutton jerky in his pack and a roundel of cheese. He tugged them out and sat down upon his pack, chewing slowly to moisten the jerky. When one found oneself stymied upon a climb, it was best to take a rest and feed the belly, use the time to think. Eleshen dumped her own pack next to his, the both of them staring up at the towering, silent byrunstone.

“I don’t get it,” she huffed at last. “You’re a Kingsman! Why didn’t it work for you?”

“Alranstones are unpredictable, Eleshen.” Elohl bit off another piece of jerky, suddenly hungry as if he’d been ice-ascending all day. He could feel his wounds now, a throbbing, searing menagerie of pain. “They’re a cautionary tale among the Alrashemni. Three hundred years ago, there was a war in one of the Valenghian border passes. Rakhan Tourliat den’Tharn led a great host to one of the Stones rather than towards the battle, because he thought they could make better time. But it wouldn’t open for him. Every man and woman in his host tried their hand, and the Stone remained quiet. They lost two days trying to get the bastard to open, then had to turn around and trek into the mountains. The battle was over when they arrived. The pass was lost, and they had to fight in the Longvalley. It was a bloody skirmish, lasting a full summer, when it could have been solved in days. Rakhan Tourliat lost his life that summer, as did most of the five hundred he led to war. All because of the byrunstone.”

“Aeon be merciful,” Eleshen murmured. “But you said you’ve traveled by one.”

Elohl gazed up at the seven eyes, still serenely closed. Emotions roiled him, deep down. And he still had the itching urge to climb the damn column and put his face right up next to that topmost eye. “Our need was great. It is said that need allows them to see you. But not always. Sometimes they’re asleep, so the stories say, buried so deep in dreams that they don’t recognize you. Sometimes they’re awake, but they deem you unfit to travel. Tourliat needed to protect the border pass for his King, but even the need of five hundred Alrashemni was not enough. And my need now? To find a sister who might be dead? To look for a scattered remnant of a people ten years gone? To escape a veritable flood of assassins that are apparently after me now? My need isn’t enough. Apparently.”

Eleshen’s hand settled upon his arm. “I’m sorry, Elohl. I didn’t know. Did you feel anything from the Stone? Anything at all?”

“I felt its awareness. But… it passed on.” But even as he spoke, the tingling speared his hand and wrist again, and the fingers cramped as if they were already climbing.

“Does this stone look like the one you used before?”

Elohl shook his head. “No. All the stories I’ve heard, all the sketches I’ve seen, the most eyes any stone has ever had were three. One to direct the awareness of the Stone, and one to focus the energy in some way, so two minimum. And there is a third, sometimes, that provides visions to those with seeing abilities.”

Ghrenna’s face surfaced in Elohl’s vision suddenly, her lake-hued eyes with their strangely long and curling eyelashes drowning him. Her white-blonde hair was back, gathered into a loose bun, a few wisps coming loose by her high cheekbones. Her head turned suddenly, as if she was listening, baring her slender white throat and fine jaw. The movement was at once elegant and alert, with the stillness of precision that had so drawn Elohl to her all those years ago. Her white-blonde hair was ornate, done in thick braids wound round and through each other like she belonged among the wild kings of the north.

But Ghrenna had never worn her hair in braids, not like that. Elohl blinked, confused. A wind blew through him suddenly, like a northwesterly over icecaps, and the image of Ghrenna passed.

“So what do the other four eyes do?”

Elohl shivered, unnerved by the sensations he was having near this Stone. He glanced over, to see Eleshen staring up towards the top, shading her sight with one hand from the late-afternoon sun.

“Truly?” Elohl gazed upwards also. “I have no clue.”

CHAPTER 12 – THEROUN

 

 

Chancellor Theroun den’Vekir gazed down at the map, blurred around the edges now by the fire’s mesmeric flicker. His jaw was tight and his green eyes strained from too many late hours studying trade routes, despite the lamp in its iron-wrought stand casting a steady illumination upon his plain cendarie desk. Rubbing a battle-hardened hand over his temples and down his grey-flecked blonde beard, he massaged out tension in his weatherworn face. His nights had become an endless tirade of this, here within his sparse quarters in Roushenn Palace. Though it was a familiar routine, staying up late as he’d once done upon war-campaign, pouring over supply lists and reports. But these were lists of trade items from Alrou-Mendera’s neighbors, not war reports. And Theroun’s job was cross-checking each painstakingly with the Houses who had come to court the young Dhenra Elyasin, searching for the Dhenra’s best advantage for an upcoming marriage and alliance.

Which was a ruthless sort of battle all its own.

“Tell me about the Tourmalines, Thad.” Theroun barked casually, in his usual manner. “The Islemen control the Straits of Luthor. How much of our spices come through them?”

Thaddeus den’Lhor, Theroun’s secretary-lad, shuffled through a few papers from a stack upon the far side of the stout desk. Papers were constantly flooding Chancellor Theroun’s desk these days. He rubbed the tension in his jaw again, with a once-calloused hand grown soft from too many years in Roushenn. His right side twinged. He shifted his posture at the desk, breathing smoothly into the pain. He still had most of his health, fortunately, despite this old wound. His body was lean, his diet rigorous. But that knife through his ribs had ended his career permanently. He wasn’t able to move like he used to. Walking was painful, mounting a horse almost impossible. Standing made his side ache from where his lung had collapsed with blood, but he wouldn’t sit. Battle-hardened with discipline, Theroun still moved through his sword forms daily, breathing into this wretched pain just as he was doing now.

What he wouldn’t give to be out commanding armies again at the Valenghian border. But here at the palace was where Theroun was needed, supposedly.

One old General put to pasture.

Thad, still attentive despite the late hour, snatched up a document, his spectacles reflecting the lamplight. “The Islemen send us thirty thousand bales of hopt-blume, fifteen thousand barrels of fennewith. Not to mention a decent amount of wesl-root and bitterbark. Most of the apothecaries in Alrou-Mendera are stocked at least half through the Straits. And the Tourmalines grow nearly all of our essenac and threllis. That’s a lot of healing-herbs, sir. And Jadoun controls all the seeproot, vheldan, and morris-blossom. Another quarter of your average battlefield apothecary gone, if we can’t get it through the Isles.”

Theroun ground his jaw, remembering how rampant fennewith-addiction had been through his ranks. Chewing enough for severe wounds made men lazy, useless in battle, not to mention hallucinating out of their gourds.

“So if the Dhenra turns down King Arthe den’Tourmalin of the Isles,” Theroun growled, “you’re supposing they’ll cut us off. That our regiments will take a hit in Valenghia. Dying soldiers unable to be healed because our herbs are controlled by the Isles?”

“Yes, sir.”

Theroun gave a harsh bark from his lean, battle-hardened frame, startling his apprentice. “How likely do you think it is that the Dhenra will accede to King Arthe of the Isles?”

Thaddeus blinked, owlish behind his spectacles. He scrubbed his wild blonde hair with one thin-boned hand. At twenty-two, he had never been a fighter, and his lanky frame showed it. But his green eyes were cunning, and the wit in that mind was something Theroun had wanted to see in his own sons, who had never reached their maturity.

“I don’t think likely, sir,” Thaddeus murmured at last. “King Arthe is too much like Uhlas was. He’s old and he’s been married once already. Marrying him would be like Elyasin marrying her own father. Sir.”

Theroun chuckled, scanning the trade routes through the Isles. “You’re all too right, Thad. But see here… the Islemen control trade from Luthor, Jadoun, and Perthe, to the whole Eastern Bloc. If they halted trade to us… well, let’s just say it’s most unlikely. Cutting off us would mean cutting off all the eastern nations. And what happens when official trade is halted?”

Thaddeus blinked. “Trade goes underground. Smuggling.”

“Yes.” Theroun agreed. “The ships that come through from Perthe and Jadoun are old smuggler’s vessels from the Perthian Rebellion. The men who captain them are practiced smugglers. The Isles would rather reap taxes by proper shipping through their straits, rather than force it to go underground because of a slighted marriage with Alrou-Mendera.”

“So we can do without the Islemen, if Elyasin chooses someone else?” Thad ventured.

Theroun shook his head. “Just because the Islemen prefer harmony doesn’t mean we can do without them, Thad. Control the Straits, control the Western Bloc, which they do. They are powerful allies. They make our lives easier in every way, from the wool carpets beneath our boots to the porcelain basins we use to shave, to the medicine we take. Careful alliances have been curried with the Isles, for generations. They are perhaps the strongest nation in our part of the world, despite having so few people and such little land.”

Thaddeus shuffled to another paper in the stack with his thin fingers. “They rely upon us for millet, silth, and wheat. And cendarie for ships.”

Theroun folded his arms over his chest as if studying for a battle. “The grains they might get elsewhere. But not cendarie. Does any other nation supply them with cendarie?”

Thad shuffled through a number of papers, glancing quickly at each one. He looked up, stunned, blinking through his spectacles. “No…”

A smile lifted one corner of Theroun’s mouth. “No. King Thronos den’Ildrian secured that trade, Uhlas’s grandfather. The Islemen can make ships out of leavonswood, bairn, and ironwood, but they prefer cendarie. The Elsthemi have plenty, but they have few accessible harbors, ice-bound half the year. Valenghia and Praough have inferior milling techniques for shipbuilding. Remember that, Thad. Control the wood for the ships, control the Isles. They’ll not abandon us if we turn down their King for an alliance through marriage. We already have a true alliance, stout as my desk here, and made from the very same wood.”

Theroun slapped one yet-strong palm upon the stout red wood of his desk, making Thaddeus jump. But the lad recovered well, only adjusting his wire-rimmed spectacles further up his nose in thought. After three years as Theroun’s secretary, timid Thaddeus was getting used to the martial manner of his superior. Thaddeus coughed discreetly, and Theroun understood the lad had something to say.

“Speak.” Theroun barked casually.

Thaddeus sat back, taking his spectacles off and dangling them from the fingers of one hand, lipping at the ends of the metal that wrapped around his ears. It was one of the lad’s few tics. Theroun liked that look. Thaddeus was being shrewd when he did that, and surprising things often emerged from his mouth.

It was one of the reasons Theroun kept him close.

“Sir,” Thad began, still lipping at his spectacles. “Why are we still in a war with Valenghia? We’ve had them stymied at the border for years. Neither army is really able to invade the other, we all know that by now. Your lance along the Aphellian Way was the greatest push forward into Valenghian territory in all ten years of the war. We’re exhausting men and resources on both sides, preventing mutually-beneficial trade. What for?”

Theroun crossed his arms over his chest, ready to test Thad’s wits. “If we cease our attentions at the border, the Vhinesse will invade us. She wants the borderlands.”

Thad shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. The border is poor farming. Just one bitter valley snuck right between two impassable bogs that stretch hundreds of leagues. And the Longvalley and Highmountains? Rocky soil, glacial moraine. The Vhinesse has plenty of ripe tilth, especially now that she’s annexed Cennetia and Praough. The city-states of both southern nations were weak in militia. We’re not. She’s wasting her resources attacking us. I think it’s something else.”

“Like?” Theroun pressed. He knew the answer to this riddle, but Thaddeus didn’t.

Thaddeus chewed his metal like a horse nibbling the bit. “Like… maybe there’s something behind the war?”

“Continue.”

Thaddeus shrugged, his visage taking a faraway cast. “I don’t know. Say, a secret cabal. Ever read the history of Cennetia? They had a secret order called the Illianti that manipulated the Centos of each city-state for hundreds of years, pitting them against each other to benefit the order. They were finally routed in 1120 by Centos Lugro Apante, who made an alliance with Centos Revio Duonti. Duonti provided the key, discovering the Illianti mark, a brand upon the inner ankle. Through Apante’s military might, they put the Illianti to the torch.”

“I’ve read Qentus Atolychi’s Inner Sanctum.”

“Oh. Sorry.” Thaddeus looked chagrined.

“Continue.” Theroun still wanted to see how far the lad would take it.

Thaddeus looked up. “Could there be something like that happening here, sir? On both sides… manipulating the thrones? To keep the war going?”

“Could be. What makes you think I know anything about it?”

Thaddeus shrugged. “You knew King Uhlas. Some speak of you as close as brothers. And you were on the Valenghian front for a long while, at his orders.”

“I was also removed from the Valenghian front at his orders, Thad. Dishonorably.”

Thaddeus blushed in the fire’s light, and chewed his spectacles. “Sorry.”

“No apologies necessary. I deserved to lose my station.”

A long silence passed between them, which at last Thad broke, his curious green eyes sweeping up to meet Theroun’s. “Were there Alrashemni Kingsmen in your army, sir?”

Theroun nodded. “Many. They kept it quiet, but there were those who wore the Blackmark, hiding in the military after the Summons.”

“Did…” Thaddeus licked his lips. “Did you have them crucified, sir? With the rest?”

“Strung up.” Theroun corrected. “Only some were crucified. Only in places where the Monoliths along the Aphellian Way had toppled.”

Thaddeus swallowed, but the lad had gumption. “You desecrated the Monoliths of the Way, so it’s said.”

“And so I did.” Theroun growled conversationally. “I strung up Alrashemni Kingsmen from both sides of the Aphellian Way, three to four on every Monolith. The effigies of the ancients ran red with blood for weeks.”

“Bronze that never tarnishes, copper that never turns green. Limestone that never erodes, and obsidian that never flakes. You defaced them, each and every Monolith, for leagues. They were stained brown from blood for years. Ancient holy effigies of worship, for peoples of three different lands, made by gods long forgotten, all along the Way. You defaced them… with corpses.”

“Most of the Alrashemni were still alive when I strung them up, Thad. Get your history straight.”

Thaddeus was silent a long moment. Theroun could see the line in the lad’s forehead as he weighed this information, and Theroun’s forthrightness about it.

“Did you kill Alrashemni from your own legion, sir?”

“Not many. But I would have. Most of our own Blackmarked Kingsmen deserted, fled in the night when they realized what I was doing. Most of the ones I managed to catch were Valenghian, as my army drove hard up the Thalanout Plain and deep into the Valenghian Vhinesse’s tilthland.”

“But you killed some of your own men. Soldiers of Alrou-Mendera. King Uhlas’ soldiers. That was treason.” Thaddeus went pale, his fingers jittery upon his spectacles. But Theroun was impressed with the lad’s courage. Thaddeus had never had the guts to ask Theroun before, about the details of the Aphellian Way. The young man was growing bolder in his statecraft.

“There’s a reason I got the nickname Black Viper of the Aphellian Way, Thaddeus,” Theroun murmured. “A viper will strike anyone when enraged. Friend and foe are not viewed separately to the viper. And the viper cares nothing for holy relics of a bygone age. A viper only reacts.”

Thaddeus met Theroun’s gaze by the fire’s light. “Do you regret it? What you did?”

Theroun had asked himself that question a hundred thousand times. There was really only one answer. “No. I do not regret lynching and crucifying Alrashemni, even the ones in my own regiment, after the bastards killed my family. But I regret how it pained King Uhlas. My heart was mad with rage, at the time. I thought it justified, that those who had been so treasonous to their King and escaped his Summons be punished for it, severely. And in my grief… well. Grief plus fever-wounds makes rage run hot like tundra-wolves.”

“And now? Do you still hate the Kingsmen?”

“The Kingsmen are gone, Thad.”

“Not entirely. Captain Olea den’Alrahel wears the Inkings. And if she’s alive… there are probably others. Hiding. Somewhere.” Theroun’s lips quirked in a smile, proud of his apprentice’s reasoning skills. Thad sat forward, intrigued. “They are. There are Kingsmen still out there! Hiding. Living ordinary lives?”

Theroun nodded, very small. His back was facing the wall, his face hidden in the shadows of the fire so only Thad could see. He knew Lhaurent kept an extensive network of spies in the palace. And like any palace, Theroun was nearly certain there were hide-holes for watching and listening, though he’d never had his suspicions confirmed.

“Holy Aeon,” Thaddeus cursed softly. “Where?”

Theroun smiled a little wider, a viper’s grin. “Where would you hide if you were one of the most elite warriors ever to walk this land?”

Thad blinked. “The army. Like the ones in your company. Specialty units that see a lot of action. High Brigade. Fleetrunners. Maybe the Stone Valley Guard…”

And again, Theroun nodded, very discreetly. “Smart, Thaddeus. A very smart theory.” He reached for a goblet of wine upon the table, had a long draught. He was about to invite the lad out for a walk to discuss the topic further, when suddenly there was a knock at the door.

“Come!” Theroun barked sharply. A lanky page peeked around the doorframe, clearly terrified of the once-General within. “Yes?” Theroun barked again. “Out with it, lad!”

The boy made a hasty, inelegant bow, trembling. “You’re needed by the Dhenra, sir.”

“At this hour?” Theroun scowled.

The boy nodded, terrified, squeaked, then tried again. “She wishes to run over the trade details of the Isles once more, sir.”

Theroun growled with displeasure. Elyasin needed sleep, not to be pouring over trade routes in the wee hours of the night yet again. But she was being careful, taking each suitor into deep consideration, and he respected her care despite her whip-quick temper. She was Uhlas’ daughter, after all, and had at least some measure of his thoughtfulness.

Theroun turned to the trembling, scrawny page. “Scurry off and tell the Dhenra I will attend her immediately.” The terrified lad was only too eager to oblige. Theroun turned to Thaddeus and gestured to the papers upon the table. “Lock these up in my desk. Attend me at seventh bell tomorrow, so we may ready for the Dhenra’s suitor negotiations.”

“Yes, sir.” Thaddeus knew the routine. He began to sort, stack, and carefully handle all the trade documents. But before Theroun could turn to the door, the lad suddenly piped up. “Sir? Before you go…”

“Speak.” Theroun barked casually.

“I was doing an inventory of the gemstones we trade for supplies from other nations, in case any of the suitors inquire, and I came across an abnormality.”

Theroun set one hand quietly to the desk. “Continue.”

“The emeralds from the Hallow Mines that get shipped out at Amlenport.” Thad went on. “The mines report almost thirty hecante of emeralds every month mined, but only fifteen hecante are reported shipping out from Amlenport to be counted and dispersed to our trade partners via the Isles.”

Theroun’s eyebrows rose. This was news he’d not heard from his contacts in the Khehemni Lothren, not from Chancellor Evshein, nor from Castellan Lhaurent. “That’s a lot of emeralds missing, Thaddeus. How long has this been going on?”

Thad shuffled, uncomfortable, but his green eyes were sharp. “I looked back through the lists. Almost seven years. Though it was only two hecante of emeralds missing at first. Then more, over time.”

“And who oversees the gemstone lists?” Theroun scowled.

“Chancellor Evshein, sir.”

Theroun was silent a long moment.

“Doddering old fool to have missed so many emeralds missing, sir?” Thaddeus ventured.

Theroun’s gaze flicked to the lad. And he saw that Thad didn’t believe his own question. “You’ve met Evshein,” Theroun growled. “Do you think he makes mistakes like that? Do you think there’s any infirmity in that withered old mind, Thad?”

“Not at all, sir.” Thad’s answer was decisive. “What’s Chancellor Evshein up to, then, with so many emeralds?”

“Not anything promising.” Theroun growled. “I’ll look into it. Dig no deeper, and do not approach Evshein about it.”

“Sir.”

Theroun turned to go, his hand upon the latch. It was a stunning amount of gemstones missing, and Thad was astute to have caught it. Theroun was going to have to ask his superiors in the Chancellate about it, or Castellan Lhaurent, and that wouldn’t be a cozy conversation. They probably wouldn’t tell him what it was for. Theroun wasn’t high enough up in the Khehemni Lothren to know most details.

They treated him like a lackey.

Theroun lifted the latch, wondering how far his trust of Thaddeus could extend.

It was a thought for another day.

 

[ * ]

 

Swirling his blood red vellas-wine in his silver goblet, one part of Theroun’s mind enjoyed the way the red rubies upon the chalice caught the firelight like flayed skin, while the red of the wine was more like blood fountaining from a neck slash. The other part of his mind focused on trade routes. He had returned from the Dhenra’s suites nearly an hour earlier, as Elyasin had finally shown fatigue and needed to be fresh in the morning for negotiations. Six suitors she had dismissed already, various lordlings from Alrou-Mendera who had tried their hand at courting without really expecting to win her. Beyond local private garrisons, and two with a decent fleet of merchant vessels, they’d had little to offer the Crown but gold.

The real trade negotiations would begin tomorrow, suitors with both wealth and power who commanded significant holdings, of benefit to a nation at war. Theroun’s bleary gaze drifted over Valenghia’s trade routes for the thousandth time. He took a sip of wine, enjoying the deep plum notes. It didn’t taste like blood, but that was fine. His habits of war spurred him along, driving him to pour over the document, to push himself. There had been nights upon campaign when he’d gotten only two or three hours’ rest, and woken fit in the morning, the first to march from his tent to set a good example for his men.

What I wouldn’t give to be out there again.

His red-rimmed eyes drifted to the Thalanout Plain, near the Valenghian border, thinking of those questions that Thaddeus had at last dared to ask. Memories crowded close, ghosts pressing in at the darkened edges of his stark room. Theroun staggering back to his command tent, knifed in the ribs by a blackmarked Alrashemni assassin while taking a piss outside in the darkness. Holding his bloody ribs and breathing bubbles, his agony exquisite. The tent too quiet. All of his guards murdered without any alarm raised, throats slit to the last man in the full moonlight. Throwing back the canvas flap to find his wife, daughter, and two sons murdered, their throats slit also, royal red in pools of their own blood by the light of the upset braziers.

Theroun’s fingertip rubbed the edge of his wine goblet where he held it by the rim. He took a deep drink, still staring at that swath of land between its flanking bogs. There had been no trace of the assassins by the time he’d stumbled to the nearest tent. That fucking Alrashemni Kingsman with black Inkings so brazenly displayed had gotten a knife in Theroun’s ribs, and he hadn’t even seen the man coming. Just like he hadn’t heard any of the rest of them.

But Theroun had gotten a blade in the assassin’s neck before he could strike again. General Theroun den’Vekir had always been fast with a blade. Fast like a viper. But his family had died that night at traitorous Blackmark hands all the same.

Theroun took a long, slow breath, feeling the twisting cramp in his right side more keenly, though somewhat dulled by wine. He let his breath sigh away, coming back to his duty. Valenghia, it seemed now, would enjoy unceasing war with Alrou-Mendera in perpetuity. Skirmishes fluttered at their borders. Raids dipped into the highpasses and valleys, like they had for over ten years. The Vhinesse’s army had even driven a neat wedge through the Lheshen Valley near Quelsis for a time, though they had been beaten back by a stunning drive from the Fifth, Eighth, and Ninth Calvary, attended by the Fleetrunners and Stone Valley Guard.

Theroun wished he had been at that battle. The river had run red for days.

But it was all a sham, a dupe. All the battles, all the skirmishes, all the drives and counter-drives against Valenghia. Theroun knew the truth of it now, the reason behind the war, unlike he had when he was simply a General out marshaling armies on the field. Not even Uhlas had known the truth, Theroun had found out. His thoughtful, stolid King had been duped like all the rest. The entire nation had been duped.

Nothing was simple anymore. And Theroun’s duty was no longer simple, either. He no longer served just House den’Ildrian, not like he’d done as a General in war. Now he had other masters, and it was his sworn duty to let the war rage, as long as it took to kill all the black-hearted, treasonous Alrashemni Kingsmen still hiding in the military.

Their own dedication to their damn Kingsmen oaths was going to kill them. Theroun sipped his wine, gazing at the fire’s embers now. A part of him felt bad for the surviving Alrashemni. These ones yet serving their nation in secret were a doggedly righteous lot, and they were going to get picked off for it, battle by battle. But they would have that glory, unlike him. Theroun’s only regret was that he couldn’t be out there. That he was here instead, dishonorably discharged and rotting away inside this palace, all his talents going to waste.

Fucking Evshein and fucking Lhaurent.

A knock sounded upon Chancellor Theroun’s heavy ironbound door. His grip tightened on his silver chalice. Only one man came to his quarters so very late.

“Come!” Theroun barked, stilling his irritation deep beneath the smooth, implacable iron of a professional war-maker. Castellan Lhaurent, speak of the demon himself, flowed around the frame of the door. Hardly pushing the door open, he thus hardly needed to close it. Theroun gave the tall, greying man his customary look. It would not do to glower any less or more than he usually did. He didn’t want Lhaurent or Evshein ever knowing exactly what he thought of them.

“What is it, Lhaurent? I’m busy and it’s past late, and the Dhenra has preparatory talks tomorrow with the Isles and Ghrec.”

Castellan Lhaurent den’Karthus cleared his throat smoothly, his beringed hands clasped graciously. His grey-streaked black hair was oiled back from his high forehead, his grey eyes calm, his silver chains of office hanging neat and straight. Always impeccably groomed in his grey silk, at least Lhaurent had that discipline in his favor, and he never fidgeted.

Theroun couldn’t stand fidgeting.

“My apologies, Chancellor. I am aware of the deepening of the hour. I have come with a change of petition from our mutual beneficiaries.”

“Speak.”

“You are to focus your attentions on the suit of Elsthemen. Convince the Dhenra that all the other suitors are less attractive than King Therel Alramir of Elsthemen.”

“Explain.” Theroun drew a long breath, scowling harder, trying to ignore the lancing in his ribs at this news.

Lhaurent gave a slippery smile. “Because the First Sword of Elsthemen is prepared to give his life for our cause if Elyasin chooses King Therel Alramir. So we are going to make sure she chooses the renegade Highlander wolf-King, and no other.”

Theroun ground his jaw. “What is this all about, Lhaurent? What is the First Sword of Elsthemen prepared to do if Elyasin weds King Therel?”

Lhaurent’s smirk became subtler. But his meaning was not lost on Theroun.

“He’s going to attack someone.”

Lhaurent gave an effete nod.

“He’s going to attack the Dhenra.”

Lhaurent’s eyes were grey velvet, smooth and deceptive. “At the coronation. Before she can wed King Therel. Therel’s First Sword has volunteered to kill her. For the cause.”

Theroun’s stomach dropped, stunned. His scar-ruined side twisted and bile rose to his lips. The Khehemni Lothren had demanded much of him over the years, influencing the Dhenra, using his position on the Chancellate to push Uhlas into endless counter-strikes against Valenghia. But this was madness. Theroun had had nothing to do with either King Uhlas’ nor Dhenir Alden’s deaths, but now, come again, was this familiar rotten flavor in his mouth like seven-day carrion.

“You fucking bastard.” Theroun seethed, jaw clenched. “You planned this, didn’t you? The Khehemni Lothren maneuver far, offing both the King and Dhenir as they did, but you… this brazen play has your stink all over it, eel. Just like Uhlas and Alden’s deaths did. Wiping out the King’s line. Ending the den’Ildrian reign.”

“War necessitates sacrifices, Theroun.” Lhaurent murmured mildly. “I thought you discovered that upon the Aphellian Way?”

Theroun’s side twisted in agony, thinking about being adjunct to slaughtering Uhlas’ daughter. “That was different.”

“Was it?” Lhaurent’s smile was smooth. “Because I do believe the objectives of those acts and this one are the same. Provoke war, to kill as many Alrashemni hiding in the ranks as possible…”

“You want a war with the Highlands. Killing the Dhenra is only a means to an end.” Theroun could see it now, the whole bloody strategy, despicable as the filth he wiped from his own ass. “King Therel of Elsthemen will retaliate if he’s blamed for his First Sword’s assassination, and we march on the Elsthemi border. He’ll fight, like a junkyard dog. And the Lothren-controlled Chancellate will push our nation to war, killing off yet more Alrashemni in the ranks, not to mention those up in Elsthemen.”

“Elsthemen is teeming with untamable blackmarked mongrels.” Lhaurent picked a piece of lint from his silk robes. “We simply aim to cull the pack, just as we did in Valenghia.”

“Will Alrou-Mendera cease war with Valenghia to engage one with the Highlands?”

“I think not. The Khehemni Lothren command us to engage both fronts at once.” Lhaurent’s answer was practiced, languid, his eyelashes lowered with false demureness.

“But Alrou-Mendera can’t sustain a two-front war!” Theroun erupted, slamming his fist into the stout table. “I don’t care what the Lothren say! We’ll be routed. The Highlanders have keshar they fucking ride to battle! Those tawny cats can leap fifteen feet, and bring down a horse at full gallop! Ever seen a man get his head crunched in a keshar’s maw? There’s little left but brain spatter, and those fangs can reach a heart through the shoulder. We’ll lose too many men, far too fast. The Khehemni Lothren are making a vast mistake. We risk losing the entire fucking country! Especially with the Dhenra dead!”

“Nevertheless,” Lhaurent continued, his hands still clasped calmly before him. “Our ancient enemies, the Alrashemni, are strong in Elsthemen. They are aware of the Khehemni, and pick us off like hawks do rats. They must be dealt with. And the Lothren have declared that this is as it must be. Just as it is with Valenghia. The hiding Alrashemni Kingsmen and Kingskinder must be pinned in the ranks between stone and stone. And we will never get it done with Elyasin upon the throne. She’s far too sympathetic to their plight.”

Theroun stared Castellan Lhaurent down, furious at what the secret ruling body of the Khehemni was going to cost the nation. “That’s a lot of good netting put to waste, to catch a few minnows. You’ll be condemning thousands of Menderian men to death by cat. Tens of thousands! Good men, loyal soldiers. Men who are not Alrashemni Kingsmen in the least. You’ll thin our ranks to the breaking point until the Valenghian Vhinesse gets the idea to really test Alrou-Mendera’s mettle. Start a two-front war, and the Vhinesse will seize her opportunity to smash through our ranks and drive straight to the capitol. She’s a bitch, and she knows her warfare.”

Lhaurent did not flinch. “The Valenghian Vhinesse is well in hand. She will not challenge the Lothren, nor push the war further than we wish her to. She knows her place.”

“Are you sure of that?” Theroun growled.

Lhaurent’s small smirk was eerie. “Yes. I am. Utterly.”

“And just how exactly has her loyalty to the Khehemni Lothren been secured?”

Lhaurent coughed discreetly, and his grey eyes shone with the pleasure of secrets. “That is something, I’m afraid you do not have the authority to know, my dear Chancellor. She is ours. It is enough.”

Theroun ground his teeth, and resisted the urge to shove a blade right through Lhaurent’s greasy throat. “She is the Lothren’s? Or yours, personally?”

Lhaurent’s small twitch of lips showed his vast pleasure. “What does it matter? She serves the Khehemni Lothren. And she keeps up a very expensive war for a very long time, because we wish it. Not to mention the… benefits she receives from the arrangement, which I assure you are ample.”

“What are you doing for her that convinces her to keep such a war going, Lhaurent?”

Lhaurent lifted a well-calculated eyebrow. “I am not doing anything, Theroun. I am merely following at the Lothren’s command. As you would do well to remember.”

“Is that a threat, Lhaurent?” Theroun’s fingers strayed to the hilt of the knife he always wore at his belt.

The Castellan actually smirked. “I do not make threats, Chancellor. When the Lothren of the Khehemni need information, or persuasion, or need someone dead discreetly, I simply supply. But right now, they need a lot of someones dead. In Elsthemen and Alrou-Mendera, in addition to what is already in progress at the Valenghian border. Which is your job. Push the Dhenra to yield to the suit of King Therel Alramir of Elsthemen. Tout their wealth, their bloodlines, their trade. There is much that is attractive about the Elsthemi, and about Therel Alramir. He is young and good-looking. And fairly well-behaved.”

“Except for that time he cut a maid up and stuffed her into a trunk in his rooms.”

Lhaurent coughed smoothly. “That cannot be proven.”

“Wouldn’t it be enough to simply wed them?” Theroun growled. “If she’s trapped by King Therel off in the Highlands, how much disaster for the Lothren could Elyasin be?”

“Plenty.” Lhaurent murmured smoothly. “She favors the Alrashemni, as her brother did. And once she has been bedded, she would regain that temper of hers, fighting in their favor. Besides, Therel is a known womanizer. Any pleasure between them wouldn’t last long. And once there is bitterness across the thrones, kings allow queens do whatever they want, all so that the King can get them to shut up and do what he wishes.”

“But isn’t King Therel aligned with the Khehemni, if his First Sword is?”

Lhaurent shook his head, gazing deep into the fire. “Therel is not aware of our agents, as far as we can tell, and it’s going to remain that way. The man is a rogue like Dhenir Alden was. He’s far too unpredictable to be trusted. But some of his men are very loyal to the cause. Three of whom are in his entourage right now. Including his First Sword.”

Theroun snorted roughly, eyeballing the well-manicured eel. “What about Arthe den’Tourmalin?”

A slight snarl curled Lhaurent’s mouth, then it was gone. “The Tourmaline Isles are giving us… a bit of a fuss. Arthe den’Tourmalin has proven unwilling to negotiate. Even the slightest hint of encouraging war with Alrou-Mendera causes him to speak sharp rebuke. One of our agents was careless, hinting too often, and Arthe den’Tourmalin sent him to the block, to make an example of the man. Den’Tourmalin will not provoke war with Alrou-Mendera. Dissuade the Dhenra from his suit.”

“But King Therel of Elsthemen is just rash enough to fight back in fury if Alrou-Mendera accuses him of having anything to do with assassinating our young Queen.”

“Precisely.”

Theroun was silent a very long time. Lhaurent did not blink and he did not fidget, his hands still gracefully clasped as if he was personally waiting upon the King. He appeared benign and servile, but Theroun knew he was far from either. Theroun wondered again just how high up Lhaurent was in the Khehemni Lothren. Far enough to know exactly what was going on, which Theroun himself didn’t. And yet, Lhaurent had surprising information sometimes, that Theroun wondered if he shared with the Lothren. Lhaurent’s network of spies throughout the northern nations and even the southwestern nations past the Isles were personally-recruited, Theroun knew that much.

And were intensely loyal to Lhaurent, for what reason Theroun couldn’t fathom. He wondered if those spies and servingfolk were even loyal to the Lothren at all. It wasn’t the first time he’d wondered it. Lhaurent den’Karthus was very closemouthed about his network.

“Tell me about the emeralds, Lhaurent.”

“Emeralds?” Lhaurent lifted his eyebrow, coy.

“Don’t bullshit me. You know where they’re going. And why. Evshein’s been signing off on the documents.”

Lhaurent gave a secretive chuckle. “Wars are expensive, Theroun. Chancellor Evshein is merely providing… a bit of pay. To recruit the men we need when war breaks out on the Elsthemi border.”

“Recruiting men from where?” Theroun’s fingers lingered near the knife at his belt.

“Abroad.”

“Where, you fucking sneak-thief?!”

Abroad.

Theroun ground his jaw. His fingers spasmed at the hilt of his knife as a lancing dart of pain ripped through his right side. “You’re an eel, Lhaurent. Someone’s going to put a sword through you someday and roast you for supper.”

The Castellan smirked, just the hint at one corner of his too-smooth lips. “Is that a threat, Chancellor? And here I thought you were the one who had been pinned in the rain barrel by a hawk’s talons. Or have you forgotten why you swore allegiance to the Khehemni, to the Lothren, just after your madness on the Aphellian Way? So many Alrashemni Kingsmen to kill… so little time before a man dies to see revenge done for his family’s death. Oh yes, and the fact that he is now a cripple. I’m watching, Theroun. Step wrong, tell the Dhenra, or do any little thing that compromises Elyasin’s demise and you will be pinned again, but not by a Kingsman. And that’s not a threat, my friend. That’s a promise. But play our little game, and see all your desires to annihilate Alrashemni Kingsmen bear blood-ripened fruit.”

You’re watching?” Theroun growled. “Don’t you mean the Lothren are watching?”

Lhaurent gave an oily smile. “Take my words as you like them.”

And with that, the Castellan turned smoothly on his heel, clasping the iron handle of the heavy door with one beringed hand and flowing around the frame. Theroun rubbed his jaw and scowled, watching the Castellan go. He hadn’t raided the banks of the Trius with only fifty men, slitting throats in the dead of night for this. To be disrespected by this silken cur; treated like a lackey. Those cream-smooth hands of Lhaurent’s hadn’t done a lick of work in his entire poufed life. Theroun thought he could smell eels in the man’s wake. Or perhaps it was just jasoune-bloom, reeking like a west wind through Lintesh. Bloody perfume for a woman’s bedchamber, not the smell of a man.

Theroun found he was gripping the hilt of the knife at his belt, hard.

He should have thrown it. Right into the Castellan’s back.

CHAPTER 13 – DHERRAN

 

 

Dherran gripped the woman’s hips hard, driving himself up into her deep as she straddled him. Vicious. Rageful. But this buxom brunette was a professional, and she knew how to take a man. She ground down upon him, green eyes flashing by the fire’s light in the inn’s small room, dominant. She gripped him with her thighs as Dherran gave her everything, holding her steady, punishing her. Leaning in, she absorbed it, arching. She raked her nails down his chest, and Dherran hissed through gritted teeth.

So very close.

But this woman was a professional. Reading his body like Dherran read others in the ring, she reached out, slapping him hard across the face. Dherran gasped at the sting of it, at the power in her, unleashed just for him. He came with a roar, spasming hard beneath her, reaching up to seize her by the neck and haul her down, crushing her into his kiss as he shuddered on and on.

And then it was over.

He released her, still breathing hard, the hot forge of rage inside cooled at last, empty once more. She ran a thumb over his lips, but Dherran was finished now, and he turned his head away. “Your coins are on the bureau.”

She arched one eyebrow as she rose, wiping between her legs with a washcloth from the porcelain basin by the bed. “You’re not one for lingering, are you?”

“Take your pay and go. We’re finished here.”

Her chuckle was scathing as she bent, lifting her gown from where it had puddled upon the plain floorboards, hooking the bodice closed. “You’re beautiful to look at Kingsman, and a pleasure to fuck. But you’re a bastard, aren’t you?”

Dherran rose from the bed, going to the basin to splash water on his face, curry it through his blonde hair. “You’re not my lover. You’re not my friend. So get lost.”

“Prizefighters. Figures.” She raked her coins from the bureau, primed her tousled mane a moment, then opened the door to Dherran’s room. Then looked back. “My name’s Cecilia. If you want me again during your stay, just talk to the landlady downstairs. She knows where to find me.”

Dherran met her gaze. He wanted to tell her no. He wanted to tell her he didn’t love her and that he never would, that his heart had been destroyed long ago. But those words didn’t come. He knew the truth about himself by now. He would need her again, tomorrow, and the next day. And she had been good enough, letting him rage deep inside her the way he needed to.

“Tomorrow.” Dherran murmured. “This time again.”

A small smirk lifted her lips, victory. She nodded and stepped out.

Dherran settled back to the bed, not bothering to draw the covers up. Summertime in Vennet was balmy, and the past two nights they’d been here proved stifling at this poorly-drafted inn. Their trio had money now, but it wouldn’t do to waste it, so their lodgings in the valley were modest. It was clean, and that’s what mattered. Dherran rolled to his back on the rumpled bed, turning his head to stare into the fireplace. The flames licked low. The room’s only window was open to let in the night breeze, full of ribbing frogs. Soothed at last, Dherran’s eyelids began to drop, fluttering closed.

Memories rose, of a fine-boned woman in his hands. Small, delicate, her skin supple and her muscles hard, riding him arched and beatifically silent, a smile of bliss upon her haunting face. Calm brown eyes half-closed, enjoying everything of their joining. Sighs licked at Dherran’s ears, the only sound Suchinne had ever made as he’d fucked her, as she’d quickened, climaxed for him.

As he came, roaring, for her.

Dherran drifted, feeling her, hearing the croaking of frogs outside and the snap of the fire. Time stretched, endless in this soothed space. But suddenly, he snapped awake, roused by the touch of steel at his throat.

“Got you.”

Dherran’s breath hissed, in relief and exasperation. “It’s the middle of the fucking night, Khenria. We’re not bouting. Go back to bed.”

The fire had dwindled to coals, and gave little illumination to her movements. But suddenly, Dherran felt her slide onto his bed atop him, her knife blade moving not a whit from his throat as she settled upon his naked body. Dherran’s breath caught to feel her lithe frame so close, so hot pressed up against him with only her thin cotton undergarments between. Khenria’s lips were close, her breath warm upon his face.

“I don’t want to go back to bed.” She murmured, husky, her voice low at his ear.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Dherran growled. “I’m not playing. Take your knife from my throat and get off me or get your wrist broken.”

“I’m not playing either.”

“Go back to bed.” Dherran insisted, betrayed by his rising intrigue, trapped right against her belly, where he knew she could feel it.

“Do you know where I go when we’re in the cities? Do you know where I was most of last night?” Khenria continued, brushing her lips across his. “To whorehouses. So I can learn. I’m not innocent, Dherran. I know you and Grump like to think I’m a girl, but I’m not.” Khenria had always been her own creature. Dherran knew she slipped away when they were in the cities, but hadn’t questioned her business. But now that he knew the truth of her errands, need boiled in his veins, the same surging tirade he had always felt with Suchinne.

But Khenria wasn’t Suchinne, and she never would be.

“Maybe you want to fuck, Khenria, but not with me.”

“But I do.” Khenria’s dark gaze gleamed in the fire’s low light. “When I watch you fight, I feel this vast animal inside you. I feel your rage, Dherran…and I want it.”

“My rage is only unleashed in the ring, Khenria. You can see it two days from now.”

Her answering smile was sly. “I see it all the time. I’ve watched through cracks in the door. I watched you tonight. You let it out with the whores, that magnificent rage, just at the very end. I want to feel it. I want to make you lose that perfect control… unleash that animal brutality upon me…”

The knife slipped away. Dherran felt it plunk to the covers beside his head. Khenria was close, her lithe body unfurled atop him, fingertips stroking his neck. “I want to fight like you do. I want to fuck like you do…”

Her lips brushed his, bold with desire.

“I can’t do this, Khenria.” Dherran pulled back, though his loins screamed at him for a fool. “I’m old enough to be your uncle.”

“But you’re not. Not my uncle, but one of my own. Alrashemni. A Kingsman, like I should have been.” Khenria’s slender fingers danced over Dherran’s bare chest, tracing his Inkings. “These. You came for me, didn’t you? I knew it, when I saw you that day in the river. You came to make it right.”

“I’m still trying to make it right.” Dherran murmured, lips starting to seek hers though his mind screamed, ever more feebly. “Your First Seal should have been at thirteen. I’m sorry, that I couldn’t give that to you. But I will. I promise. And I can’t if we do this. You’ll get hurt.”

“Maybe I won’t be the one who gets hurt.” She had begun to slide her hips over his groin, and Dherran’s body betrayed him. His lust was nearly as strong as his rage, and always had been.

“Grump trusts us. I can’t…” He breathed.

“Touch me, Dherran…” Khenria’s tongue flicked out to lick his lips. “Taste me. Train me, right now. Don’t say no. Not tonight. Tonight, you’re mine, not some whore’s, either with my knife buried in your throat or your cock buried between my legs.”

“Khenria…” But Dherran’s resolve was now as feeble as his excuses. He slid his hands around her slender waist, feeling her warm flesh beneath the thin undershirt, so good in his arms, so much like Suchinne. Dark-eyed, bird-boned Suchinne, whom he could wrap entire in his arms, who always came up fighting when she fucked him. Suchinne, who could still his rage with a touch, who could control this beast inside him with a glance.

Who would ask him to do better to control himself.

Dherran pulled back with a grieving growl. In one quick motion, he rolled Khenria to the bed, pinning her with his bulk. She hissed and tried to hit him, but Dherran pinned her wrists. This wasn’t the way, not with Khenria. She was his student and he her teacher, and this would only make things maddening.

“I’m not taking you, Khenria. You’re my student, not my lover. My lover is dead. Get out of my bedroll.” Dherran rolled off her to standing.

Khenria scuttled to her feet with a hiss. “Fine! If that’s the way you want it… fine! Fuck you!” With a scathing backward glance, she stalked to the door, opening it and slamming it hard behind her. Dherran tried not to give a damn about her feelings. She could hiss and splutter all she wanted. He’d refused her, and there was going to be hell to pay, but there was worse within Dherran’s own soul.

His heart twisted as he lay back down, remembering his own beautiful little hawk. Remembering her dark eyes and gentle touch, that had always soothed this awful need inside him.

 

[ * ]

 

Khenria’s movements around Dherran this morning were obvious, bitter and pissed. She banged her cup on the rough table, kicked out the bench to slide into a seat by Dherran, more than was truly necessary. She flipped her knife restlessly in one hand, her grey eyes pinning him, ignoring the breakfast bustle of the inn’s main room around them. Their trenchers of eggs and ham in gravy came and she didn’t eat as Dherran set to. The inn was a steady drone of sound around them, people talking, laughing. Their location was apparently known for the decent food, every table and bench-booth in the plain dining room full.

Suddenly, Khenria’s fingers flicked. Her knife flipped from her fingers, thunking point-down into the table a mere finger’s width from Dherran’s hand by his trencher. Dherran blinked, looking up to see her simmering with fury.

“Oops.” She mumbled.

Oops?” Dherran hissed, leaning towards her, trying to keep it quiet in the busy inn. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

“Practicing.” Her lips were tight, angry.

“Khenria. Aeon’s sack, girl!” Grump murmured from the bench across from Khenria and Dherran. The hard glint in his normally merry eyes spoke volumes. An angry glower flitted over Grump’s features. The steady gaze Khenria turned upon Grump in return could have ripped rabbits limb from limb. Grump simmered, something Dherran had never seen him do, then huffed and rose from the table.

“Grump!” Dherran called out after him. “Where are you going?”

“Just checking on the horses. I’ll be back.” He gave a distracted wave, then moved towards the main door, with a tightness to his shoulders that Dherran rarely saw.

“What the hell has gotten into you this morning?” Dherran hissed to Khenria. “What was that all about?”

“We got into a fight before breakfast.” Khenria smirked. Suddenly, her hand slid out, sliding over Dherran’s thigh to stroke at his crotch.

“Stop that,” Dherran hissed.

“Make me,” Khenria hissed back, nuzzling her face to his shoulder. Dherran moved one hand under the table, pressing down upon hers. “Stop, Khenria,” he murmured, his gaze flicking around the room, wary of drawing attention.

He said stop, but he also hoped she wouldn’t stop. Dherran had lain awake in his bed for the better part of an hour after he’d dismissed her, trying to remember Suchinne but twisting at memories that had been suddenly replaced by Khenria. Feeling her smooth skin, tasting her lips upon his. Those tight, slim muscles beneath his hands. And now she stroked him, cruel and challenging, and he rose for her just as hard as any man who wanted a woman.

“I said stop.” Dherran repeated, his mutter breathier than it should have been.

“I don’t want to stop.” Sidling very close upon the bench, Khenria nuzzled into his shoulder, her other hand tugging Dherran’s shirt from his trousers, slipping behind his belt, down. “I want you to take me like a real man. Like a Kingsman. And I’m not going to stop… until I have what I want.”

It was all Dherran could do to not moan in the bustle of the inn around them, to not give anything away. He breathed a single long, slow breath, fighting for control. “Being a Kingsman isn’t all about fucking and fighting, Khenria. It’s about negotiation, and balance.”

Her chuckle was purring, ruthless. “The only negotiation you ever do is with your fists. And your cock. So let’s negotiate.”

“Negotiation was never my strong suit. That was Olea.”

Her hands stilled. “Who is Olea? Someone you knew from… before?”

Dherran cursed himself. After Suchinne had died, he had sworn he would never mention the five Kingskinder and their past. And he hadn’t, not even to Grump and Khenria. With every punch, every drunken sousing, with every time Dherran roared at the slurs from the crowd and with every woman he fucked, he tried to forget that time. A time when he had been nothing but a young man with a quick sword, a foul temper, and a fierce bird-boned woman, who had always been there to keep him in check.

Her hand slipped out of his trousers. “Well?”

Dherran meant to sigh, but it turned into a sour growl. “Stop touching that.”

Khenria scowled ferociously, then ripped the dagger from the table and hurled it point-first into the floorboards, turning a number of heads. She wanted a scene today, public and brutal, and if she pushed him, Dherran was going to give her one. His eyebrows shot up warningly.

“Best two out of three, Dherran.” She snarled, not caring to keep her voice down. A few men nearby sniggered to hear the fight, and their women looked over with accusatory scowls.

“No. I won’t fight you when you’re mad.”

“Fuck you!” Khenria snarled. “Best two of three! And I want a wager!”

“I don’t want your wager.”

“Well I want one, dammit!” Khenria surged to her feet, shouting for all to hear. “I’m not a child, and he’s not my keeper!” She gestured angrily across to room towards the hearthfire, where Grump had reappeared without telling them, leaning against the stones of the fireplace and watching Dherran and Khenria’s interaction with hooded eyes. “He’s just a lonely man who found me out in the woods!”

“Khenria!” Dherran surged to his feet, flexing his bulk, intimidating. The little hawk had taken it way too far, and needed her wings clipped. “Apologize! Grump saved your hide, in more ways than you know!”

“It’s all right, Dherran.” Grump’s voice was sad as he sidled over from across the room near the fire. “The girl’s got to grow up sometime. I’m just glad she chose you, after all that gallivanting she’s prone to.”

“What?!” Khenria was agog at Grump, her mouth fallen open. Her gaze flicked around the dining room, suddenly noting how many people were staring at their public scene. Her face turned crimson. “How…?”

“How did I know?” Grump had that look that he got sometimes, like the world had failed him, sometime long ago. “You’re not so sneaky, girl. Uncle Grump has ears like a fox and footsteps thrice as quiet.”

“You followed me?”

Grump nodded, a quick dip of his chin. “Enough to know what you were up to, the first few towns you did it in. And you and Dherran weren’t particularly quiet when you crawled into his bed last night and he refused you. The walls have ears, sweet child.”

“I’m not a child!”

“So you said.” Grump sighed, careworn. The look he gave Khenria, of such fatherly kindness and heartache, almost broke Dherran apart. “A lonely old fool needs company. I was tired of being alone when I found you. I will understand if you choose to go with Dherran and leave me behind. I got along in the world before the both of you found each other, and I will do so again.”

“No.” Dherran’s voice was firm. “We’re a team, and a damn fine one. There’s a purse to be had here in Vennet, not to mention the wagers. We need you, Grump.”

“Two is pleasure, three is a pain,” Grump murmured, staring past their trio and out the open door of the inn, out to the bright morning sunshine.

Dherran’s eyes flicked to Khenria. “You’ve got us in a damn fine pickle, sweetheart.”

Khenria’s snarl was brutal. “Me? You’re the one who can’t keep your prick in your trousers, or so I’ve heard every night in every town we stay at.”

Dherran’s temper surged at her vile but truthful comment. And with it came lust for the brutal woman before him, thundering down upon him like boulders crashing down a mountain. Before he knew it, he’d raised his hand, as if to backslap her. And in that moment, Khenria glanced down, her lips curling into a sneer.

“Hot again already?”

“For fuck’s sake…!” Dherran arrested his hand. He scrubbed his fingers through his blonde hair instead with a roaring growl. People shrank back from him, staring, whispering all around. “What?!” Dherran roared at them, furious, heated and not caring who knew it. They shrank back. And number of people scuttled for the open door. But they needn’t have. Dherran took his temper and his forge-fire outside, knowing that if he stayed around people, someone was going to get hit. Defeated by his temper, his desire, and the sultry, bitchy, untamable little hawk, he strode to the door. Jogging down the steps, he made straight for a rain barrel at the side of the inn. There, in the cool breeze of the shade beneath a boxelder, he splashed his head with the cold water. Leaning on the barrel with both fists, he tried to focus on the ripples, tried to watch them to soothe himself.

Suchinne had been nothing like Khenria, he decided. She had been sweet and kind, while Khenria was a storm always thundering.

She’s like me.

The thought was like a slap in the face. And when Dherran glanced up to see the seething girl staring at him from the corner of the inn in the bright sunshine, he couldn’t look away. She gripped him, held him with a surging tide of such intensity that he was magnetized. She took his breath away. Her short scruff of curls was blue in the sunlight like a blackbird’s wing. Her eyes were penetrating, ruthless, piercing him deep into his heart. Her posture was defiant, the strength of the Kingsmen written in her very soul.

Dherran choked. Without another word, he pushed off the rain barrel and strode away, unable to face it. Aimlessly, he walked away from the inn without a care to where he was headed. Wandering the market in the dusty avenues between shops, he moved in and out of the shadows of bright awnings and rickety stalls. Destinationless, he tried to manage the roiling tension that filled his chest and cramped his muscles. Grump found him finally. Dherran hardly heard his footfalls, as if he was practicing being out in the woods again. And though he lingered at Dherran’s side, he was quiet. When Grump moved over to a tinker’s stand, looking over a kettle sized just for one, Dherran’s heart sank. Grump was purchasing supplies made to support only himself.

He was planning to leave their trio.

Dherran sighed, an empty feeling in his gut as he turned back to the leather stirrup-straps he had been looking over. He nodded to the saddle-maker. He needed some to replace his hard-worn ones. Money changed hands. A nice pair of braided reins caught his eye, and he nodded to those as well. When suddenly, he felt the small stature of Khenria at his elbow, nearly unnoticed in the bustle of the dusty market. A bootknife pierced Dherran’s ribs. Blocked by her body, no idle passersby in the market could have seen it.

“Well done,” he murmured. The saddle-maker smiled, giving him a deal on the reins, thinking the comment was for him.

Khenria stepped to his side, brushing the fingers of her free hand over a saddlebag with vines tooled upon it. The knifepoint disappeared. Dherran collected his things and turned from the booth. Khenria walked away, sashaying her lean hips on purpose. But something about it pissed him off, suddenly. Dherran reached out quickly, snagging her wrist and spinning her, forcing it up behind her back, bringing her front to his chest.

To anyone else, it would have looked like an embrace. But Dherran knew how much it hurt. Khenria hissed. He forced her wrist higher, straining her shoulder, wanting it to hurt more, wanting her to know how badly she had hurt him. She gave a squeak of alarm, struggling, but his grip was iron. Heat rising, anger blazing, Dherran crushed her close, giving her a long, deep kiss. A punishing kiss, for what she was doing to him, for how she was raising his dead memories. He could feel her struggling in his arms, between heady arousal and panic at being trapped.

He let her wrist go. She stepped back, breaking the kiss. The hot slap she dealt him could have nailed him to the ground if he hadn’t been ready for it. People were watching now with amusement, smirking and moving on. A lover’s quarrel was notable for gossip at the midday meal and spice for the afternoon siesta, but little more. Dherran massaged his jaw, tasting blood at the side of his lip.

“There’s more where that came from.” Khenria spat, but her body was hot with need in her every movement. Dherran decided to let her stay that way. She’d teased him enough for three lifetimes. If she wanted to punish him then he would damn well punish her. But he watched her sober suddenly as Grump caught her gaze from the tinker’s booth. “He’s buying his own supplies. Do you really think he’ll leave us?”

“You said some pretty hurtful things at breakfast, Khenria.” Dherran admonished, giving her the hard truth. “He saved you. You owe him. And you were acting like a spoiled bitch in there, without a care to his feelings.”

She sighed, looking more womanly than ever, perplexed. “I didn’t mean to. I just get this… heated feeling. And then I can’t control it. What I do or what I say.”

A sharp laugh escaped Dherran, hard and bitter. He had said damn near the same words to Suchinne, so long ago. Back when they had been barely teens. And now he could see so clearly that Khenria was just like him, not at all like Suchinne. Rash, impulsive, sexual, rageful. Dherran and Khenria were two fucked-up peas in the same goddamn pod, but something deep within him loved her for it.

Khenria glanced over sharply, scowling.

“I’m not laughing at you,” Dherran murmured, trying to pacify. “I’m laughing because you’re far more like me than you’ll ever know. You want to know how I fight so well? Because I can control that rage, that heat. I learned that the hard way. But sometimes it gets the best of you. Sometimes you need someone else to help you control it.”

Feeling calm and clearheaded from the revelation at last, Dherran started to walk back to their horses at the inn’s stable, and Khenria fell into step. “But I have you to help me control it.”

Dherran shook his head, suddenly knowing a part of the answer to the tempestuous riddle that lay between them. “You and I are likely to end up fighting each other to the death, Khen. We lose our control around each other. Sure, it’s like a pressure valve, letting off the steam, but…” Dherran nodded back over his shoulder in the direction of the tinker’s wares. “Grump is the kind of man who can help you control it. Not me.”

Back near the inn, they had reached the stable now, and Dherran stepped down the rows of stalls to his own horse. Ducking through the boards, he set about unbuckling his stirrups and threading the new leather straps on.

“You had someone teach you, didn’t you? How to control your rage.” He looked up, to see Khenria cool now, leaning against the wall of the stable, arms crossed.

“I did. A long time ago. Her name was Suchinne den’Thaon. Calmest person I ever met.”

“How did she die?”

Dherran’s hands paused at the stirrups, having not expected Khenria to be so perceptive. “She died in battle. On the Valenghian border. Suchinne wasn’t a woman to be taken down easily. She was sweet by nature, but that calm allowed her to be ruthless in war. In all the years we trained together, I never bested her.”

“You?” Khenria’s eyebrows shot up. “She bested you?”

“Constantly. And she was smaller than you.” Dherran smiled at last, thinking of how many times tiny Suchinne had thrown him ass-over-ears.

“How is that possible?”

“The same way it’s possible for me to best you.” He cinched the new stirrup tight, then made a flat knot with the extra leather, letting the leg-flap fall back into place. “You get angry when you fight. The only times you surprise me are when you’re cool and collected, planning your moves in a calm space. Like at the saddle-shop just now. But once I make you angry, you’re beaten.”

“I can beat you.” Khenria pushed off the wall, striding forward. Reaching down, she caressed his crotch, which responded instantly.

“I’m working on that.” Dherran twisted his hips away, then ducked under Muk’s neck to attend the other stirrup.

“Don’t you like me?”

Dherran glanced up, hearing something new in her voice, something uncertain, fragile. Khenria leaned into Muk, as if for comfort, her cheek to his muscled neck. The great bay turned his neck and snuffled her hair, lipping it. Dherran threw the stirrup-leather up over the saddle, reaching out and drawing Khenria close. She didn’t resist, all fight fled. Dherran lifted her chin, and found her roiling grey eyes red-rimmed, full of tears she was trying not to shed.

“Hey, hey…” Dherran murmured. It was alarming, to see her like this, so vulnerable. As if he’d broken something within her, something that looked strong but was fragile as glass. He leaned down to give her a soft kiss, a touch of lips. “It’s not like that, Khenria. I do like you, Aeon and all the gods bedevil me, I do. But…I have to be your mentor, not your lover. If we fuck, we’ll just think about fucking when we’re around each other, and I need you to be thinking about fighting. Someday you’re gonna get hot like you do, and face a real enemy. And if I haven’t taught you enough, fast enough… you’re gonna get killed. And then that death is on me.” Dherran kissed her again, softer this time. He didn’t want to pull away, and his own eyes were stinging, Suchinne’s memory too close. “I can’t have that. I can’t lose you like I lost her…”

Khenria snuggled close, burying her face in his chest. Breathing in deep hitches that weren’t quite sobs, she kissed his shirt over his Inkings. “I’m sorry, Dherran,” she murmured into his chest at last. “I’ve been awful.”

He stroked her short hair, kissed the top of her head. “It’s not me you need to apologize to.”

She nodded into his shirt, sighed. And with that sigh, all the tension went out of her. They held each other, calm and cool for a long moment, listening to the snuffle of horses all around, smelling sweetclover upon the dust. Feeling each other’s heartbeats. At last, Khenria pulled away. “Are you fighting this week?”

Dherran nodded. “I saw the festival lists last night. I’ve got the fourth slot in the last men’s bare-knuckle round. Six days from now.”

“Do you think you’ll win?”

Dherran paused, searching for words. And then the truth found his lips. “I always enter the ring like it’s my last moment to live. That’s how you stay alive to enjoy another one. That’s why I fuck like I do afterwards. My people may have died, Suchinne may have died, but I’ve got someone to live for. Now.”

Khenria’s eyes brightened, realizing what he meant. The moment expanded around them, and Dherran saw her fierce beauty shining forth, ready to be whatever she was born to be. And he had a sense of rightness, suddenly, that they had come together as they had, even though it was tempestuous like summer storms.

She was about to pull away, but Dherran held her fast, knowing it was time. “Khenria den’Bhaelen.” That stopped her, as it was meant to. She gazed up at him, surprised. “Are you ready to take your First Alrashemni Seal, your first step towards becoming a Kingsman?”

Her breath caught in her throat. She nodded.

“There’s a women’s amateur free-hand competition tomorrow, before my fights.” Dherran continued. “I saw the list yesterday. It still has room. No weapons. No cheating. No dirty play. Honest fighting, but any style goes. Win is by knockout, chokeout, or surrender. The purse is a straight hundred if you make it through the fourth and final round.”

Khenria nodded fast, hawkish and reckless. Dherran stopped her with a small shake. “As your mentor, I have but one condition for you to pass your First Seal, win or lose.”

“What?”

“You must control your temper. If I see you break a heat, you fail.”

The fierce little hawk placed her open palm to the center of her chest, ready to begin her Seals at last.

Long past due.

CHAPTER 14 – ELOHL

 

 

Elohl and Eleshen had laid out their bedrolls right where they had dropped their packs, just outside the ring of the byrunstone’s Sight. The creeping, itching sensation that had taken Elohl within the Stone’s ring had gradually subsided, until there was only the normal sensations of evening around the amphitheater’s grassy tumble. Ignoring his wounds, Elohl had gathered wood, then made a fire, and had been surprised when Eleshen returned from being gone nearly a half-hour with a brace of rabbits. When he had lifted his eyebrows at her, noting that she had no bow nor arrows, she had pulled a small sling out of a pocket of her breeches and grinned at him.

The rabbits had made an adequate meal, though they were tough and gamey, and Eleshen had pulled a small flask from her pack after their dinner, passing a few pulls of hopt-ale Elohl’s way. She had been remarkably quiet, but Elohl knew it wouldn’t last. And as peeper frogs began their evensong beyond the ruined glen, Eleshen’s insatiable curiosity at last got the better of her.

Rolling onto her belly upon her bedroll, she gazed at Elohl intently in the flicker of the fire’s light. “You said the Alrashemni have peculiar abilities,” she began, “and you are a very fast mover, Elohl. I saw you fight both assassins. Normal men don’t move like that.”

Elohl’s mouth quirked at her direct manner. It was more amusing than irritating, and for some reason Elohl felt inclined to storytell tonight. The evening was soft and violet around them, a fresh wind in the tops of the pines that licked smoke from their camp upwards through the break in the trees. He took a long draw from the flask, relieved that the liquor was dulling the pain of his knife-slashes, before handing it back. “I suppose I’ve hardly been able to pull the wool over your eyes.”

“Hardly. How do you move so quickly?” Eleshen’s attention was keen by the fire’s light.

“It’s a little bit talent, a little bit training, and a little bit—”

“Magic?”

Intuition.” Elohl countered. “When I move, I feel the pressure of things that are about to happen. When I climb or fight, my hands and feet can feel when something will threaten me, and I shift. Something unseen presses me, and I flow around it. Sometimes I spasm, as you saw today, but more often I shift… with it, rather than against it. I carried a record for safest lead-climber in the High Brigade.”

“Safest in how many years?”

“Ever. Three hundred and seventy years. I never set a bad route. It’s part of the reason I became a Lead-Hand right after I got to the mountains. And was raised to First-Lieutenant within two years. My instincts didn’t just keep me safe. It kept my men safe on a climb, and out on the glaciers, and even during skirmishes with the Red Valor. I held point, just for that reason. I was always the first up the ice, always the first over a chasm, and always the first into the fray. Always.”

Eleshen whistled softly. “And still, men wanted to kill you.”

“The Inkings carry stigma.” Elohl murmured. “I was marked as a traitor, no matter where I went, no matter what I did.” Elohl glanced past the fire, up over the tops of the trees to where he could just see the last glow of white glaciers in the faded light. “No matter how many men I saved out there.”

“Even though you’re not full-fledged Alrashemni.”

“Culturally, yes. Training-wise, no. But people see my coloring, they see the Kingsmount and Stars, and they spit, they glower. They call me Blackmark to my face. They don’t even know why they hate. They’ve just been told to.” Elohl’s fingers found a small stick near his boots and tossed it absently into the fire.

“And the others? What gifts do they have?”

“My twin sister Olea has incredible hearing. She’s honed it, of course, but she can hear footsteps a league off if the wind blows just right.”

“And the girl who had the seeing ability?”

Elohl glanced over, unable to resist comparing Eleshen to his memory of Ghrenna. Eleshen was as bright and unfettered a woman as Ghrenna had been a mystery, even after all the years Elohl had spent loving her. He felt he knew all there was to know about the feisty, rebellious innkeeper the moment they met, seeing into Eleshen’s heart as easily as his fingers read a route. But despite his love for Ghrenna, the deep pull that had caught them together again and again, Elohl felt he’d never really known her. Lake-blue eyes rose in his vision, the flash of long ornate Elsthemi-style white braids by a soft throat. Elohl’s brows furrowed, once again finding it strange that he remembered Ghrenna with her hair in Highlander fashion, a way she’d never actually worn it.

“Ghrenna den’Tanuk,” Elohl murmured at last. He felt somehow safe tonight, safe to talk of her, safe to think of her, comforted by her memory and the gentle night in this place. “She was an oddity. True seeing used to be more common, or so I’ve heard, but those who had the ability to see paths to the future have been historically shunned. Or killed. Ghrenna was adopted as a child into the Alrashemni. She was of the tundra people, far north of Elsthemen. She had a portent of someone’s death at age three, and her mother traveled all the way to our Court and dumped her, terrified that the child had caused it. Ghrenna was a contemplative girl. Secretive, quiet, but not malicious. But she would have terrible headaches whenever a vision came, that would leave her debilitated for days.”

“That’s awful. What happened to her?”

“I don’t know. My sister found her name in a military roster of the Fleetrunners, but there was a report that she vanished eight years ago, just before I stopped receiving letters from Olea.”

Their silence stretched, the hiss and crackle of green wood the only punctuation to Elohl’s thoughts about Ghrenna.

“What other gifts were there among your people?” Eleshen chirped at last.

Elohl settled back upon his elbows, stretching his boots to the fire, careful to not pull his back too much. “My father Urloel had a way of convincing people, when his tone was just right. They would do anything he said. But he had to control his anger in order to use it. Our fletcher, Fherrow, could call birds. He could call any bird, and it would come right to him, let him pluck as many feathers as he liked, and then he would snap his fingers and it would fly off.” Elohl chuckled, remembering the kindly, fidgety man, so much like a bird himself. “I asked him once how it was done, and he just winked at me. Then there was a woman, Shelhaina. She was very old, but she could control the flow of water. I’ve never seen anything like it. With just a finger in the stream, she could make it flow backwards.”

“Sounds like magic to me.” Eleshen was rapt, on her belly inside her bedroll with her chin in her hands, those long honey-blonde locks tumbling free since she had unwound her braid. Elohl found himself admiring those golden tresses, wanting to run his fingers through them. Eleshen’s easy sweetness was a balm, and despite her stubbornness, being with her was simple.

Elohl smiled, enjoying the feeling of peace he had tonight, sensations long forgotten. Despite everything that had happened today, despite having to fight a friend to the death, despite the reminder of his wounds, there was something about this place that soothed him. It felt safe, as if the fortress still stood, as if something held back the violence of the night, protecting them in its vigilance. Eleshen saw his smile, and smiled back brightly. She scooched her bedroll closer, worming it across the grass without leaving its cozy confines, until she was close enough to rest her head upon Elohl’s thigh. He reached out, climb-calloused fingers brushing her unbound hair, combing it back from her slender neck so he could see her lovely jaw.

“Shelhaina said it wasn’t magic,” Elohl murmured, continuing his tale as he listened to the night. “She could feel the currents of water. And when she could feel it, she could change it.”

“Strange talents, and a strange folk.” Eleshen sighed under the soothing care of his fingers, gazing at the fire half-lidded. “And what about your own gift? Has it ever betrayed you?”

A deep worry moved within Elohl, a fear that always lurked just at the edge of his consciousness, though it was smoothed tonight, indistinct. “I have to train hard, Eleshen.” He murmured at last. “Like you saw today, just because my body warns me doesn’t mean I can’t be damaged. If my opponent’s fast, or when I’ve exhausted myself… sometimes I can’t get out of the way quick enough. Muscles tire. Starvation makes a man slow. So does thirst. And if I don’t practice, all the time…”

“You might miss.”

Elohl let out a long breath. “I do miss. You’ve seen the scars I carry, from blades. You’ve seen my new wounds from today. I’m not untouchable, Eleshen. I’m fast, and my instinct gives me an edge, but sometimes my body fails even if my instincts never do.”

“Have you ever met anyone faster than you?”

Elohl shook his head, trying not to let that fear surface, either. “Not so far. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen someday.”

There was a long pause, as Eleshen absorbed this information. At last, she spoke again. “What other strange things have you seen, Kingsman?”

Elohl went quiet, thinking about it. “The high passes are riddled with ancient secrets.”

“Oh?” Eleshen became still beneath his fingers. “Like what?”

“Like palaces of ice.”

She sat up abruptly, blinking at him. “Are you toying with me?”

Elohl smiled. “No.” He reached out, fingertips skating over her jaw, admiring how her creamy skin looked like burnished gold in the fire’s light. “There are palaces of ice buried in the glaciers. All the High Brigade know about them. Right on the border, someone once tunneled magnificent citadels right into the ice, forming immense cathedrals, vast columned halls. Most are broken now, whatever magic that sustained them is long gone, their halls riven with the warping and flow of the glaciers over time. The halls are treacherous, mazes of cracks that go deep. But they’re there. Sometimes we used them as stop-overs, to weather particularly bad storms.”

Eleshen was silent a long moment, settled across his knees. “What else, Elohl? What other magnificent wonders are out there?”

Elohl sat back on one hand, the other caressing Eleshen’s soft neck, enjoying the simple touch. “Ruins. They abound in the highpasses, much like this. Old fortresses long forgotten, so destroyed they’re little but foundations. Monoliths. I saw a giant man sitting in a carven throne, facing east. He took up the entirety of the cliff face we were climbing. We climbed right up over his lips to his cheek. But the most incredible thing I saw…”

“What was it?”

Elohl smiled, remembering. “Beautiful. If I died tomorrow, I would go knowing I’ve seen perhaps the most beautiful thing in the world. A spire of white. The clouds cleared suddenly, when we were on a hard climb, about halfway. And across a valley of snow we saw it, like a needle piercing the heavens, at the top of a pinnacle so sheer I didn’t even know if I could climb it. It was blinding, reflecting the sun like mirror-glass. Illuminated so white it seemed to glow in the thin air. It stole my breath. I forgot I was climbing, forgot my own body, forgot everything but that radiance, just for a moment. And then the clouds closed in…”

“Did you ever see it again?”

Elohl shook his head, stroked her lovely hair. “No. Such a sight is blessed to a man only once in a lifetime.”

“Who do you think built such a structure?”

“Ancient gods.” Elohl mused, surprisingly whimsical tonight. “There was a fable in the highpasses, that once a godlike people roamed these lands, with haunting black-on-black eyes, like obsidian. That they built such monoliths, indestructible to the ravages of time. But so many of the ruins I saw were ravaged. Only this remained supreme, as if placed there to stand defiant in the face of time.”

“Maybe it was a marker.” Eleshen mused. “A reminder to all those who would come after… to never forget them.”

“But they were forgotten.” Elohl murmured. “Just like the Kingsmen will be, one day.”

“Do you think your kin will really be forgotten? All those strange abilities?”

“Maybe. But maybe other people have such abilities, they just don’t hone them into anything useful. Consider Ghrenna. Her visions when she was young were flashes, searing and random. But under tutelage, she learned to control them somewhat, to wield them until she was able to see a proper sequence of events. She predicted an early frost, saving all our crops. She saw a fire start in a barn, saw it spread through Alrashesh. The fire was stopped before it got past the barn. She saw a rape just as it was happening. The man was caught and brought to justice.”

Eleshen nodded to the Alranstone, now just a column of darkness beyond the fire’s light. “You said the third eye on plinths like that are for people like Ghrenna.”

“Yes, true seers. Like I said, they used to be far more numerous. We were lucky to have Ghrenna in Alrashesh. The other Courts had no true seer at all. Legends tell of seers being able to hone their skills using the three-eye Bluestones. But Ghrenna used to sit for hours before the one near our village, and nothing ever happened. She said it made her feel more calm, that sitting near it helped control the headaches, but that was all.”

“Are there any books back in Alrashesh about the Bluestones?”

Elohl gazed up at the dark Stone. “I doubt it. When we were taken, everything was looted by the Palace Guard. I don’t know where those volumes would be now, if they still exist.”

“Maybe inside Roushenn Palace?”

“Perhaps. But I would be risking my life to look.”

“That didn’t stop you before, from what you told me.”

Suddenly, Elohl’s peace fled. Thinking about his capture in Alrashesh and the looting he’d seen done to his city before he was taken away, twitching in pain and bound in manacles, had thrust him into that drowning feeling again. His new wounds seared as if responding to old ones. The beauty and solace of the night left him, leaving him simply feeling sore and tired from a day best forgotten.

“I think I’ll turn in, Eleshen.”

Elohl shifted his legs, forcing Eleshen to sit up. He kicked his boots off and rolled over on his bedroll. He heard Eleshen pause, most likely considering what to do about his untraceable moods. At last, Elohl felt her scooch her own bedroll up next to his. And then she was worming into his blankets, throwing her own atop them both. Eleshen snuggled in, smelling of spice and sweet lavender. Careful to not pull his wounds, Elohl lifted his arm, allowing her to curl around him as he cinched her close. She felt good, clean and soft, and the way she wrapped her legs around him and nuzzled her face into his chest made him feel his peace slowly return.

“Elohl?” She murmured sleepily.

“Hmm?”

“What are you going to do when you get to Lintesh?”

He gazed up at the overhanging foliage, lit a ghostly yellow by the light of the dying fire. “Try to find Olea, I suppose. Last I knew, she was in the Palace Guards.”

“Can I help you?” Eleshen murmured sleepily, “I want to help you. I owe the Kingsmen…your father…”

“What?” He murmured into her ear, confused.

“Your father.” Eleshen yawned, barely audible as she drifted towards sleep. “Saved… burning … the timbers were falling… jumped through…saved me…” She gave one last yawn and snuggled closer, and Elohl tugged the blankets about them both.

So my father saved her during the Raid of Quelsis. She feels she owes me a debt. He saved her, so she’s trying to save me.

Elohl’s heart swelled suddenly, feeling her simple love crack his cold glacier yet again. He pressed his lips to her forehead. “I don’t think I can stop you coming with me. I don’t think anything could stop you from doing exactly what you want.”

She sighed something unintelligible, and a smile curled her lips. Elohl kissed Eleshen’s forehead again and stroked her hair. She chirruped and twitched. Elohl stared up at the dark canopy, listening to the sounds of the deepening night.

 

[ * ]

 

It was long past midnight when Elohl startled awake. The fire was nearly burned out, just wisps of smoke in the chill darkness of the highmountain spring. Elohl strained his ears and spread the sphere of his senses wide for intruders. But the space around the amphitheater was quiet, feeling only of solid trees and small, flitting creatures. An owl hooted up in the pines. A rush of wings buffeted Elohl’s senses as he felt it dive, and the swift shriek of a mouse confirmed a kill.

Then all was quiet.

He was about to roll over and cuddle close to Eleshen when he felt it. And suddenly, he knew what had woken him. A thrumming vibration rippled through the ground, then ceased. Elohl snuck a hand out from between his blankets and pressed it to the grit-covered stones of the amphitheater. The thrumming came again, but this time, when it contacted his palm, it shivered through the bones of his hand. Lancing up his wrist all the way to his shoulder, it seared into his fresh cuts on his back and chest. With a hiss of surprise, Elohl snapped his hand back. He waited a moment, then carefully unwound himself from Eleshen. Slipping from between the covers, he came to a ready crouch, one Brigadier longknife to hand from beside his bedroll.

The shivering pulse came again. This time, it thrummed through the hand Elohl held pressed the earth as he crouched, and up through both legs. But it was more pleasant this time, like a rush of blood through his limbs after a good climb, or like sinking into a hot bath. He lowered his knife, confused, still feeling no malice in the night. Setting the blade down, Elohl pulled off his wool socks, crouching barefoot upon the grass-cracked stones, perfectly balanced upon the balls of his bare feet.

The thrum came again. Elohl’s head snapped up, fixing upon its origin, the towering dark Alranstone. Which he saw was not entirely dark any longer. Bright moonlight illuminated its high peak, bared as it was in the middle of the encircling canopy. Elohl squinted upwards, to discover that the hulking column was no longer entirely inert. The topmost eye was slit open, its glassy red half-orb reflecting the light of the moon.

Spreading the sphere of his senses to its furthest extent, feeling for treachery, Elohl kept low, scanning the surrounding foliage. Caution gripping him, he approached the column, hands ready, feet stepping quickly through the loam and grass. But nothing accosted him in the night, and indeed, the area around the byrunstone seemed empty even of wildlife. He gained the column, feeling the tingling of its Sight pass over him, then pressed one palm to its rough-hewn surface. Closing his eyes, tingling rushed through his body like a fire of ants. The Stone could see him, it was listening. The thrum came again, as if expecting him. More powerful now, it was like a roll of thunder in the night, and in its shivering pulse Elohl thought he heard a word.

Climb.

Limbs moving like a string-puppet in a mummer’s show, Elohl set his fingerpads to niches in the stone. Ignoring the searing in his back and chest, his bare feet and fingers found purchase. And as he had done thousands of times, he coordinated his movements, pushing upwards in a smooth, powerful flow. The stone was well-worn, chinks and niches aplenty to set his fingers and toes into. In no time, he was facing the great half-lidded eye right at the very top. Fire opal glittered through its iris, riven with fractured cracks of livid red and searing orange, as if made of living flame. As he watched, it seemed the lid retracted more, gazing at him, aware. And as the eye opened wider, he could see it was set with not just fire opal, but also deep black onyx for the pupil. Alive it seemed, like a man watching him, like an ancient King, searing and stern, judging him.

The shivering pulse came again, rippling through his bare hands and feet.

Climb.

Shuddering from the insistence of that word, feeling its command bury in the depths of his soul, Elohl bunched his muscles and flowed upwards again. At last, he reached the pinnacle, now drenched in moonlight at the center of the amphitheater’s clearing. Folding his legs, he took a seat upon the top of the massive column.

The entire campsite was spread out below, the amphitheater ringing the Alranstone. Determined grasses silvered in the moonlight where they punched up through ancient, well-fitted stone. Eleshen was safe asleep, nothing there to disturb her at the fire’s embers. The high mountain valley spread beyond through a gap in the trees. Austere glaciers lifted up behind him, along an impassable ridge. Moonsilver lit their white expanse, making them glow with a holy radiance, though Elohl knew the truth of those life-taking crevasses and sundering springmelt flows.

But even though his wounds throbbed from climbing, the world seemed peaceful from his perch as a brisk breeze caught the pine boughs and rustled them in a spreading ring around the Stone. Like the peace he’d felt all night, something here was protective, fierce in its nature, loving in that vigilance. For the first time in years, Elohl felt he could relax. Nothing would accost him here, not tonight, not in this place. It loosened his muscles, eased the low burn that always gripped his throat, and he gave a deep sigh. Heights had always felt safe to him, being able to see far, to see any enemy coming. But this perch was particularly satisfying, as if it was the only place in the world he was supposed to be. Here, he felt alone but not lonely, released and expansive.

You see far, Rennkavi, but not far enough.

Elohl startled, alertness rushing through his body, his heart pounding. No one was near, nothing imprinting his sensate sphere, and yet. A feeling of awareness pressed him. Someone was watching, looking at him. The words he’d heard rippled through his mind, repeating, churning over and over like waves breaking against a high rocky headland. An image flashed through Elohl’s thoughts, of pressing his fingers to the stone. An urge filled him, like a command, that he should do it. Slowly, he set his fingertips down to either side upon the uneven stone. And as he did, a shock pulsed him, rocking his limbs. Searing with heat-lightning, a sensation like summer forest fires filled Elohl. Crackling with energy like logs popping in a blaze, it blistered through his sinews.

The Alranstone began to pulse faster, moving waves of heat through Elohl. And then faster yet, acquiring the rhythm of a steadily-beating heart. Until he moved in an ocean of fire, pulled by its ebb and flow. And when Elohl thought he could take no more, it suddenly synched perfectly to his own heartbeat.

A blaze of scalding heat flooded Elohl, obliterating. As it did, he saw in his thoughts a man standing before him upon the stone, strong and tall with corded sinew for muscle, his eyes like umber flames. He wore little upon his golden-tanned skin, leather breeches and soft kneeboots only, his lion-red mane braided back from his face in the Highlander fashion of thick cables. A long keshar-claw pendant with a golden tip, inset with gold sigils, dangled on a fine golden chain about his neck. Fur-lined leather bracers graced his forearms, and a small ruby set in gold was pierced into the lobe of his right ear. A complex pattern of sigils tattooed in red and white spread over his chest and up over his shoulders, a mountain and five stars in black at their center. But the form of the mountain was different, not the Kingsmount at all Inked upon this man’s chest, but some other mountain entirely.

The man in his mind grinned, his umber eyes hard, a feral glint to them like a wildcat. His searing gaze was steady upon Elohl, holding all the command of a battle-lord, his face chiseled and ancient though still of middle years. White had begun to streak the bright russet at his temples, and though he had only a short stubble, white had begun to dapple that, too. His presence pressed into Elohl, undeniable, unforgiving, blistering. You have a lot to learn about the world, Rennkavi.

Elohl furrowed his brow, fighting to reply through the ravaging heat that filled him. Who are you? What is Rennkavi?

The man tossed back his head in a roaring laugh, at once cultured and rogue. He crouched before Elohl, reaching out battle-scarred fingers. Your community has not confirmed you. But I confirm you now. My confirmation is all you need. My name is Hahled Ferrian, Brother King of the Highlands. And you are Rennkavi of the Tribes.

Rennkavi? What do you mean? Tribes?

The man pressed his palm hard against Elohl’s skin, right at his Inking. Elohl gasped, feeling fingers of blazing light pressing through his body. Directly into his heart, the light rippled and rolled, flooding his flesh, searing his wounds, not fire anymore but a heat that glowed. A heat that dove deep into the glaciers that filled Elohl, consuming them, evaporating them in a rushing of wind and steam that left nothing in its wake but illumination. Like he’d been filled by the power of the white spire he’d seen so long ago, bliss filled him, radiating. Lifting his mind, it caused his heart to crack open, shedding all ice from that, too, until he was nothing but peace.

Elohl took a long, shuddering breath. Palms fallen open at his sides in ecstasy, his fingertips grazed the stone. Chin lifted to the night, all he could feel was expansion. Through closed lids, he could see the world, feel it for the first time, everything beyond himself. All the pain, all the pleasure. The beauty of the moon above pierced his heart so much that tears pricked beneath his closed eyelids. The wind that rustled the pines blew through his very pores, breathing, calling him to dance. The sweetness of Eleshen far below was a spear in his heart.

Blue eyes surfaced, far away. Calling. Oh, how she called him. Rivers of light poured from Elohl, flooded from his very soul, reaching for her. Calling back to her as if he stood from the tallest peak of the most austere range, flooded by all the colors of the rising dawn and by the illumination of his own beating heart. And just as he felt he nearly had her, nearly touched that deep stillness of cerulean, his light was suddenly lanced by fire, snapped back to the column beneath him and the stern barbarian of a King standing tall in his mind.

Focus! We have little time. I have been waiting for you, Rennkavi, searching for you, all throughout my long life. You didn’t come when we thought you would, when our hopes were so high and the time was so ripe. But you are here now, so now is where we must begin. Listen. The other has failed his Naming. He sunders all the Tribes when he should be uniting them. He had all the signs, the right bloodlines. I thought he was the one, when he came to me, but now I know I have made a grievous mistake. This must be repaired, and I can do little from here. You must correct my mistake, Rennkavi. Quickly. I have been waiting here, holding the Lineage for you like I did in life. Rennkavi is the Unifier of the Tribes. You must take it now… the other has failed and we have no time! You must take the Lineage…you must take your duty and the Goldenmarks!

Elohl eyes blinked open. He shivered in the light wind atop the column. The man’s presence pressed in upon his heart, until Elohl’s blood thundered in his ears, compelled by a force beyond his understanding. Those wild eyes scorched him, urgent. Demanding that he take what was offered, like a feral lion snarling its prey into submission. The man’s touch pressed, deeper, reaching for something. And as it did, something began to rise. Elohl began to shudder, seizing with a monstrous bliss. This was raw power, wild and tremendous, not coming from the man’s touch but rising up from within Elohl’s own soul. Rising to the touch that commanded it to awaken. A leviathan of light, it surfaced with the power of a hundred burning suns, flooding Elohl with agony and ecstasy.

The man pressed his hand deeper, his russet eyes searing. Accept it. You must accept it. Allow it to take you. For all our sakes…

Elohl took the long, slow breath of his training. Obliteration beckoned. Tipping into it already, he could see nothing but light, plunging him, filling him, expanding to every horizon. And suddenly, Elohl felt how beautiful it would be. To give himself to it. Let it take him, completely. Take all his pain, take all his despair, take everything that had chilled his heart for ten ravaging years. Gazing into that light, he felt himself begin to slide, wanting it.

Wanting such peace. Wanting obliteration.

And with that thought, he let go. The leviathan rushed up, engulfing him. And plunged into an ocean of molten light, the illumination took Elohl, completely.

CHAPTER 15 – OLEA

 

 

Olea entered the wide barn doors, to find herself in a cheerfully-lit workshop. The mountainous man she had trailed from the fountain stood at ease beside a long workbench. An acrid tang of metals and smelting reached her, a fire crackling merrily in a hearth big enough for forging and equipped with bellows. But rather than the larger tools one noted in a smithy, this workshop had careful racks of well-polished small instruments, and progressive magnifying apparatus upon every workbench. A display of fine silver and goldworks stood to one side of the doors, the collected bracelets and earcuffs and filigreed amulets pieces to show an artman’s craft. And the delicate filigree Olea spied within was very fine, its construction careful with thought.

Which was all at odds with the enormous man who now faced her, waiting stock-still a few paces inside the door, but not so close that Olea felt threatened. He watched her as she surveyed the room, noting every corner, every niche, then settled upon his massive physique. Olea gazed upon a long rent of scarring down his face, saw how it trailed down the side of his neck and over his collarbone. Leading to a patch of vicious scars upon his broad chest, just visible where his homespun shirt laced. His gaze traced her also, landing upon her Inkings.

“You are careful,” he said at last, in a rumbling basso like boulders colliding.

“I was trained to be careful.”

“Show me.”

“You first.” Olea narrowed her eyes upon him.

He sighed like trees falling down a ravine. And then began to strip off his brown leather jerkin. Pulling his white lambswool shirt off over his head, he relaxed his shoulders, careful to not rip the fine weave. His shirt he folded neatly and laid upon the bench as Olea perused his brutishly alluring bulk. The first thing she noticed was that he had no Inking, no trace of Kingsmount and Stars. The second thing she noticed was that the man was built like a bull. Rippling muscle moved in his arms, chest, and stomach, and it would have been intimidating but for the strange gentleness Olea felt in his nature.

But the scarring in the center of his chest was what truly caught her attention. Ruinous, they were where an Inking should have been, old scars whitened with time and puckered. If he had taken a sword through the heart so terrible as the scars suggested, it would have killed him. But no wound of battle had made those, nor the strange trailing scars that tore their way from the left side of his square-jawed face and down over his collarbone to his brawny chest.

“I burned it off.” The Kingsman rumbled at last, watching Olea. “It took seven applications of searing iron to get the whole Inking.”

Why?” Olea whispered, horrified and awed.

“It hurt too much, knowing I had failed our kin.”

Olea’s throat tightened, tears pricked. His statement, so simple, had touched her in a place so deep it had no name. And then her fingers were shucking her baldric from her shoulder, unbuckling her leather Guardsman jerkin, unlacing her shirt. And then it was all off, her trappings of palace life cast to the floor like so much rubbish. She stood, her woe and pride bared before the Kingsman, her kin, the only one she had ever met since the horror of the Summons. Olea breathed the metallic air of the workshop with her breasts and torso cold to the night air.

His eyes softened, taking her in, seeing what was written upon her heart in black Ink. At last, he gave a rumbling sigh. “You’re too young. You would have been a child when that was done.”

“I was twenty. I had my Seventh Seal.”

“And so you gave yourself your Eighth. Without the community’s approval.”

“I had my community’s approval.” Olea growled, dipping briefly to retrieve her shirt and pull it back on. “Five of us, all Seventh Seals, one of us who knew the Way of Ink marked us. We had the khemri venom. We had our Eighth Seal dreams. We survived them. And we did it because the rest of our community was about to die, Summoned by a traitorous King.”

They faced each other a moment, Olea bristling, angry. She had trained herself to be thick-skinned, but feeling a Kingsman’s disapproval was something else. But the stern, gentle mountain crumbled before her. Slowly, the big man came to one knee, the palm of his right hand settling to the mass of scars in the center of his chest. His other hand dropped to his side, where a sword should have been. He bowed his head, and in the light of the workshop lamps, Olea saw tears.

“Eighth Seal,” the Kingsman murmured in his rumbling basso. “Your community welcomes you. The Alrashemni Kingsmen welcome you. Awaken to your new life, Chirus Alrashemni, and to your purpose.”

Olea stood tall, her anger whisked away in a wash of ferocious pride. If he could have shattered any further, the Kingsman did, tears cascading down his square-jawed face. Olea strode forward, kneeling before the massive man, gripping his face in both hands.

“You welcome me… without knowing anything about me?”

“You are one of us. One of the last of us. How could I not welcome you?” The silversmith’s dark grey eyes were red with pain. Olea pulled his face close, driven by some unknown instinct. It startled him, and she felt him almost pull away. But then the Kingsman gave a great shuddering sigh. Their lips met, just a touch. A long moment passed, a touching of hearts, and then the moment broke and they both pulled back.

It wasn’t love, and it wasn’t lust. But it was like coming home.

Olea wound her arms up around his neck. And with great tenderness, the mountain of a Kingsman with a broken heart and burned-off Inkings brushed a hand over her hair, soft and slow. His thick muscles were solid beneath Olea’s hands. His half-bound black curls, so much like her own, shone in the lamplight above his scarred face. Olea hadn’t expected him to soothe her pain, long years of loneliness and woe, simply by holding her as they knelt upon the workshop floor. But when he finally helped her to her feet as he came to his own, he looked down at her with fierce pride, brightening her empty life. And for his part, he couldn’t cease stroking her curls with one massive hand, and Olea didn’t stop him. Her sword-calloused fingers reached up, tracing the man’s scars.

“Kingsman,” Olea murmured. “I don’t even know your name.”

He chuckled, relief flickering over his scarred visage. “Vargen. Vargen den’Khalderian. Silversmith.”

“My name is Olea den’Alrahel.”

“Alrahel?” His dark eyebrows lifted in surprise. “You must be Rakhan Urloel’s daughter, from Alrashesh.”

Olea pulled back a little, surprised that he would know of her. “I don’t remember any Vargen in Alrashesh. I would have remembered you.”

“I’m not from Alrashesh. I’m from the Third Court, from Dhemman.” The Kingsman was thoughtful, his face the chiseled wisdom of ancient gods. But his mouth was sweet, his demeanor kind despite the twisting line of his scar across his visage.

“I’ve never been to Dhemman.”

His massive paw touched her curls, reverently. “It’s in the mountains. We were Summoned, same as you. All the Courts met upon the Kingsroad. We marched upon Lintesh as one. When I survived and fled back to Dhemman, it had been emptied. Our children were gone. I traveled all that winter, to the First Court of Alrashesh, and then to the Second Court of Valdhera. They were the same. Abandoned. Looted. Empty but for crows and wolves and pikefish in the streams.”

“We were captured,” Olea murmured. “Split up. The younger ones sent to foster homes and the older ones pressed into military service.”

The Kingsman’s breath caught in his throat. “There are more? Safe? Alive?”

“A few, as far as I know. Did you… have a child?”

Vargen sighed, his stout fingers still touching her curls. “I did. A son. His name was Khergen. He was eleven when his mother and I had to leave him for the Summons. I’ve looked everywhere for him. Every year, I pick up my shop and move to a new city. But not so many of our children have the telltale Alrashemni look as you and I. Khergen was blonde like his mother, with green eyes. And now I don’t know what he might look like. I may never find him.”

“I’m sure he would remember his father. He will find you.”

The Kingsman Vargen brushed back her riotous tumble of blue-black curls. “It is kind of you to say, but I don’t hold much hope. Not after so long. But I pledge myself to you, as best I can, Kingswoman. Know that my hands are yours. My sword is yours, as I should have protected all our kin the first time.

“Do you even have a sword still?”

“I do. My own sword is in a trunk in the back. Along with everything else.”

Olea’s fingertips trailed over his scars, still visible above the edge of his shirt lacings. “So you burned your dedication away, but kept the trappings?”

“Men do things they don’t understand… when they grieve.”

“And the rest of your family?” Olea hated to ask.

The Kingsman’s deep breath told her everything she needed to know. That single breath of their training. That single moment, to feel everything of one’s emotions in a riot before stilling them beneath the calm for which Kingsmen were famed.

A single breath, in which to feel all the heartbreak of the world.

“My wife died. Elsiria died the night we came to Roushenn Palace. Along with all the rest of the Kingsmen.”

And suddenly, Olea knew what story he would tell. A story of heartache and pain, misery and death. In Vargen’s sorrowful grey gaze, she read that none of the Kingsmen had survived. That each and every one of them that had traveled to the palace for the Summons had met a horrible end. In his single breath, he had stilled a mountain of emotions for which there were no words.

A woe that was beyond weeping.

“Tell me,” Olea whispered at last. “Tell me everything.”

 

[ * ]

 

“It’s hard to say exactly what I saw,” Vargen murmured, cradling his tiny tea mug in his massive bear paws. They sat across from each other, fully dressed and sitting upon the high stools of his long wooden workbench, sipping a mellow tea. Mostly wintermint and elderbloom, it would calm and enliven the mind while they talked through what Olea expected to be the long hours of the night.

“Why is that?”

Vargen cradled his cup carefully in his big hands, as if its warmth could soothe him. “Because everything… moved. The walls, the furniture, the mirrors reflected walls that were impossible, even the chandeliers. The chandeliers!” He shook his head. “I’ve tried to recall it in detail, but specific memory still eludes me… the awful disorientation of that poison… those walls…”

Olea reached out, settling her hand over his. “Steady. Start at the beginning.”

He took a shuddering breath, and began again. “We arrived at the palace in full strength. Over two thousand Alrashemni came to the Summons, even elders who could no longer walk were carted through the city and carried up the steps of Roushenn. The King’s Summons had been explicit. All those past their Eighth Seal were to journey forth, or else there would be war against us. We were labeled traitors to the crown if we did not come, accused of High Treason, but without any specifics as to why the charge was being leveled. For what, I never did find out. But that was not my duty. I wasn’t Rakhan. My wife Elsiria and I marched at the front of the column. We were expecting conflict, but though King Uhlas den’Ildrian had amassed a presence of Palace Guard throughout the city, it seemed they were merely escort.”

“As if he was not expecting trouble.”

Vargen nodded, then sipped his tea. “And truly, I don’t think he did. Some were soothed, marching through quiet streets. Some, like myself and Elsiria, found ourselves suspicious. Why threaten us with High Treason, punishable by death? If the King had summoned us simply to renew our vows en masse, that’s all he needed to say. We would have come peaceably, without weapons.”

“But he didn’t. The Summons was a threat.”

Vargen nodded again. “And so we came armed, in our Greys. But the streets were quiet. And when the column arrived at the gate of the palace, a delegation came to greet us in the Great Courtyard. A few of the King’s Chancellors bowed and greeted us, but the King and his family were strangely absent. The Castellan invited us to overnight in the palace. Rooms had been made ready, for all of us. We were told we would see the King and renew our vows in the Throne Hall come the dawn, as all of us had done when we were newly made Eighth Seals. It was all very polite. We were invited into the palace, and a veritable army of servants escorted us in small groups to overnight quarters. I had not thought that Roushenn could hold such a mass of folk, but as we turned down this winding hallway or climbed that innumerable staircase, burrowing deep into the mountain, I realized that warren for what it truly was. A trap. You are Palace Guard, are you not?”

Olea nodded. “I am Captain-General of the Palace Guard and Fourth Captain of the Realm, behind the captains of the Fleetrunners, High Brigade, and the Whitecaps, our naval regiment. I report directly to the King. Or at least, I did. Now I report to his daughter, the Dhenra.”

Vargen’s brows rose, impressed. “You’ve done well, considering the charge of treason leveled against those who bear the Inkings.”

“I was given a chance by the late Dhenir, Alden den’Ildrian.”

“I suppose you were. In any case, you must know that palace was built to forestall a veritable army of invaders. I had not believed the tales, to look at it from the outside, but once we were within, I realized how far back into the mountain it truly goes. And how much of a labyrinth it was.”

“There are whole wings that are entirely closed off,” Olea mused. “Places no one goes, because the tunnels are too labyrinthine, and even servants invariably get lost. I heard an estimate from Castellan Lhaurent once that the palace could hold an army of ten thousand in its bowels. It doesn’t just carve into the mountain. It’s beneath the foundations of this city. Beneath our very feet. All the sewers of Lintesh run through shafts that sink deep beneath the extensions of Roushenn. The Unterhaft is a maddening labyrinth, almost all of it closed off. But it means that Roushenn has rooms and kitchens and storerooms aplenty, when there is a host to house.”

Vargen grunted, his dark eyebrows rising. “I had no idea it was so extensive.”

“Most don’t.”

“And did you know that the walls move? That there is a hidden palace behind the palace proper?”

Surprise lanced through Olea in a vicious strike. She had always known there was something amiss about Roushenn. A cold fury suddenly bubbled up in her gut, but not at Vargen. “That I did not know.”

“When I saw it, I thought I had gone mad,” Vargen murmured, gazing down into his tea dregs. “There were four of us in my room, including myself and my wife, but the quarters were spacious. Mirrored chandeliers, furniture good enough for any lord, with two bedrooms, each with a four-post bed. Mirrors were everywhere, set into the walls between stone columns, even some of the furniture was set with an inlay of tiny mirrors, like dragonhide. It was opulent, far too much for hosting us. Myself and my wife, and Khennir and his wife Rhenna were on our guard. But as the night wore on everything seemed quite regular. We were provided food and wine, and a servant to taste everything. The fireplaces were lit. Our beds were turned down. Until finally, there was nothing to do but go to sleep. Khennir and I agreed to keep a vigil and leave our wives to sleep. But that’s when everything became madness.”

“How?” Olea sat up on the edge of her stool, hands clasped tight around her mug, a twisting dread filling her.

Vargen fiddled with his mug. “I smelled something. Sweet but putrid, like oranges or lemons gone to rot. My world began to tilt and reel. I tried to stand, draw my sword, but it was like the room tipped on its edge. A deafening ringing began in my ears, my stomach roiled. You’ve been through the trials of poison and so have I, but this was like nothing we’ve trained for. But I saw what I saw, Olea. The walls began to move, involuting towards each other, sliding out of the way, rotating. Mirrors shifted, reflecting everything in a mass confusion. Furniture moved, doorways moved, everything was sliding and reshaping! I tried to lurch to the bedroom to find Elsiria, but in my fugue I realized I didn’t even know where the bedroom was! I supported myself upon a drapery, but the wall started folding towards the one next to it. I tipped and got crushed between the two walls as they came nearly together.”

Vargen lifted a hand to the scar that ran down the side of his face, down his neck and over his collarbones. “This was from getting crushed between the walls. Found out later that I had three broken ribs. But once the walls spat me out, I realized I was in a vast vaulted cavern, tinged with wan blue light, littered with free-standing walls and furniture. I turned back towards where I thought my wife’s room was, and realized I was looking through a mirror. Elsiria was on the other side, her room still changing, shifting. She had her blade out and was trying valiantly to stand, to fight, but she was as poisoned and disoriented as I. And then I saw a flash of … something. My mind thought it was a knife, but that wasn’t right. It was like five knives, like a hand of knives ripped across her throat. And I thought I saw…” Vargen shuddered and closed his eyes. Olea’s heart keened for him, for them all, nightmares still potent even after so long.

“Saw what?” She had to ask.

Eyes still closed, he took a long draught of his tea, rolling it around his mouth, swallowed. “I thought I saw a demon.”

“A demon?”

Vargen’s eyes opened. “I can’t really say. I must have been hallucinating from the poison in the air. But I thought I saw… some massive creature. Lanky, it was tall as two men, and stood upright just like a man does, but hunched over. Leathery black skin, barely visible in the darkness. With knives for claws. An abomination. Fear engulfed me, to see it. But such a thing is fable. No worldly creature looks thusly. It must have been a man in costume, with knives. And in my fugue I hallucinated… something else.”

“A demon.” Olea went very still, recalling a similar demonic creature she’d seen that same night, the giant scorpion ridden by the man in herringbone leathers. But this creature Vargen described sounded different. And Olea thought suddenly, that Vargen’s tale could be absolutely true. She had seen something, experienced something that night beyond her capacity to reason.

And so had he.

Vargen heaved a deep sigh. “I hope you never have to watch someone you love die,” he murmured. “I had seen my share of battle, and so had my wife. I had made peace with the fact that the sword might someday take her. But this was madness. I think my mind broke from it, seeing what I saw, from my terror. Everything ceased moving after she died. I hacked at that mirror with my sword and pummeled it with my bare fists until they bled, my ribs screaming agony. But nothing moved. Not for me.”

“How did you get out?” Olea murmured.

“I must have gone unconscious. I woke some time later, half-buried in a black curtain. I looked through the mirror, but her body was gone. There was nothing for me to do but find my way out. I can’t tell you how long I wandered in that fey blue darkness… like a staging area for a Traveler’s play. I passed mirror after mirror, rooms empty of people but full of furniture, jumbled like it had all been forgotten. It was like I was trapped in a dream world, behind the real one. At last, I passed halls where there were people beyond the mirrors, servants and Guardsmen, all going about their business. Palace folk, but no Alrashemni. They were oblivious to my presence behind the walls. No one could hear me, see me. Finally, I found myself heading down a plain tunnel cut into the byrunstone. It was utterly dark and I followed it by touch, until I waded through sewage, finally touching a ladder. I followed that up through a storm grate at the edge of the city. I had the presence of mind to shuck my jerkin and stow it, at least. Steal some clothes from a wash line. It wasn’t safe to be a Kingsman, not anymore. Somehow I knew the rest of us were dead. That what had happened in my quarters had happened to us all. Demon or man, we had been played false, right from the King’s own hands. And it was all done very quietly, arousing not a single voice of protest in the night.”

Olea sat silent a long time, both hands gripped around her cup, her heart cold like byrunstone. At last, she looked up, and her expression could have slaughtered an army. “Do you remember which storm grate you came up through?”

Vargen gave a tired, rumbling sigh. “Yes. But you have to understand, I was severely drugged. I didn’t count my steps in the darkness. I don’t know which turns I chose in the twisting sewers. I got out by luck. I’ve tried to get back in a few times, but I end up just slogging through shit and piss all day.”

Olea rolled her shoulders, trying to work out her tension. At last she sighed, her scowl bitter. “Lhaurent. I’m sure he knows about some of this.”

“The Castellan?” Vargen murmured. “I’ve wondered so, too, in dark nights where sleep eluded me. His smile when he greeted us at the palace gates had the feel of eels that night. All the Chancellors seemed that way. Composed. Calm. Welcoming. Do you think they knew about the back passages of Roushenn?”

Olea chewed her lower lip, considering it. “Those places you described aren’t on any map of the tunnels of Roushenn that I’ve seen. I’ve never seen a single wall move. But there are times… when I’m sure a different piece of furniture sat in a particular hallway the day before. Or when I walk a passage I’ve walked a hundred times, only to find that it takes a strange turn that I didn’t remember. I always come out where I’m supposed to be, but… sometimes the journey getting there is different. I mentioned it to Castellan Lhaurent once, and he sneered at me, said I had been drinking too much, believing tales of Roushenn being haunted with the Black Ghost and all. But after tonight…I have to find out. Maybe the Castellan and the Chancellate know about the walls and maybe they don’t, but the Dhenra’s safety is in my hands. And if what you say is true, then Roushenn is far from safe.”

Vargen drained the last of his tea. “Now that I’ve told you, what are you going to do?”

Olea set her cup carefully aside. “I’ve been charged by Dhenra Elyasin, to find out what happened to the Kingsmen and why. And I intend to do just that. If you’ll help me.”

“My life is yours. My sword is yours. I will do whatever needs doing. But this task… I want to do.”

Olea nodded, then rose. “I need a few days to think. Give me three days and I will return at nightfall. Thank you for the tea, Vargen. And thank you… for the truth.”

Olea didn’t mention their kiss, and neither did Vargen. It had been right at the time, two lost hearts finding out they were no longer alone. Olea stepped towards the door, her long stride purposeful. But a smattering of small metal pieces caught her eye upon a workbench, and she stopped suddenly. She changed course, walking over to a repair in progress, her long fingers trailing over a number of miniscule gears from a Praoughian wind-watch.

“You repair Praoughian clockworks?”

Vargen nodded, stoic. “I don’t get many, rare as they are, but yes. Why?”

“Can you look at something for me?”

His brows furrowed in confusion as Olea unbuckled a black leather pouch at her belt. Sliding out a small white silken bag, she dumped out from the silk a number of miniscule gears in brass and silver, gold and etched copper. Vargen motioned her over to a focus-lamp to get a better look at her treasures, training a series of lenses upon her palm.

“What is it? Those gears look like nothing I’m familiar with.”

Olea left her palm out for his inspection. “I don’t know. It’s a puzzle of some kind. My brother Elohl found it in the palace, the night before our kin died. He said it was all of one piece initially, but when he touched it, they fell apart. Can you put it back together? Can you tell me what it is?”

Vargen’s glance was deadly serious. “I can try. But what do you think they’re for?”

“It may be a key to why our kin were killed,” Olea murmured. Carefully, she returned the pieces to the bag and pressed it into Vargen’s palm.

“I will do everything I can.” Vargen closed his fist protectively.

It touched her heart. Stepping forward, Olea reached up, giving the Kingsman a quick kiss. But before he could say anything more, she opened the doors and fled out into the deep chill of the night. Olea took a single breath as she moved off through the dark-choked alley. One hand rested upon her sword as she picked up her pace to the silent street, the fingertips of the other playing across the topmost star of her Inkings, a seething rage burning in her gut.

CHAPTER 16 – GHRENNA

 

 

“Ghren? Ghrenna? Can you hear me?”

Ghrenna tried to open her eyes, tried to form words to respond to Luc’s question, but all movement failed her. The iron tang of blood filled her mouth from the chewed insides of her cheeks, but she couldn’t swallow it away. She tried her eyelids, but they stuck as if sealed shut with horse glue. Her hearing pulsed in and out like a slow tide. Memory was coming back now, through her fog. Crouching upon the estate wall, her jaw locking tight with a spasm, not even able to shriek. Her limbs suddenly turning to water, splaying out from beneath her. Falling. She had a vague impression of being caught in strong arms, a curse and a grunt. A flurry of motion and sound that her seizing mind couldn’t comprehend, but which must have been her guildmates rushing her away from the manor they had been about to rob. Moving through trees, watching silveroaks sway and dance in the crescent-moon dark. Her eyes coming unrolled as her body finally gave up in utter exhaustion, everything lax. Her head lolling over someone’s strong arm.

“What the fuck was that back there!?” Gherris’ voice was a raw snarl, sandblasting her ears.

“Shut up Gherris!” Luc’s voice rose with a fierce bite. “She’s had a Thren-Maule seizure. We need to get her to a physician.”

“At this time of night? Dressed like we are?” Gherris growled.

Ghrenna struggled to open her eyes, but only managed to flutter them. Their voices were too loud, too harsh for her still-pounding head. Someone had unbound her hair from its bun, and it fell over her ears, curtaining her somewhat. It had probably been Shara. Shara knew that when the headaches hit hard, every sensation was misery.

“Shut up, both of you,” Shara interjected. “She’s coming around. Ghrenna? Can you hear me?”

“I told you all that shit she smokes will be the death of her.” Gherris sounded sullen.

“It’s the only thing that keeps her headaches at bay!” Shara snapped back, hennish.

“A little threllis never hurt anyone,” Luc’s warm hand traced Ghrenna’s brow. “I’ve never seen it do anything like that. I don’t think it’s the smoke.”

“You’ve never seen anyone smoke as much as she does.”

“True,” Luc’s voice was considering. “But I’ve spoken at length with an apothecary who smoked nearly as much. They use it for chronic fugue-headaches and to forestall seizures. She vomits in the morning, doesn’t she? And her appetite is weak until midday? If she’s seizure-afflicted, I bet she’s never even without her pipe when it’s just the two of you girls around the cavern, is she?”

“How did you know all that?” Shara murmured.

Luc chuckled, wry. “I know a lot more that you give me credit for, woman. Come on, Ghren, here, whiff this.”

Something between the Sewage Canal and a dead porcuphensis wafted past her nose, its reek the stuff of a whore’s after-bath. But Ghrenna found her body suddenly gagging, and her eyelids finally popped open, to see Luc above her.

“There you are,” he breathed, fingertips stroking her face. Luc’s smile was grim, a fearful tightness to the corners of his green eyes. “You gave us a turn, woman. Don’t you ever fall off an estate wall like that again!”

Ghrenna struggled to sit up. Luc and Shara each took an arm, propping her up on pillows. She was back in the underground grotto, in her very own ruined canopy bed. Relief filled her, a deep feeling of safety, knowing that no enemy could accost her while she was weak. While she had been unconscious. Her vision rippled through her, flashing and receding, boiling up and fading. Hundreds of men in dark grey, standing defiant in a blue-cobbled plaza. Pennants fluttering in the breeze, from five different nations. So many colors of skin, from the pale redheads of the north to the bronze Cennetians of the south. And beyond that, massing at the city’s walls, an army the likes of which she had never seen. A vast host, filling the plain, ready to do battle.

Ghrenna took a deep breath, trying to stabilize her mind in the present, focus on returning to her pain-riven body, even though a part of her wanted to stay away in this astonishing and strange future she had seen.

“How did you get me home?” Ghrenna grated at last, her voice raw, throat still mercilessly tight.

“Luc carried you,” Shara murmured, stroking Ghrenna’s unbound hair, “all the way. He caught you, too.”

“Fifteen-foot fall, little Byrune.” Luc grumped, his demeanor consumed by worry. “Nearly wrenched my shoulder off keeping you from splatting like a ripe fig-melon.”

But Gherris was pacing, back and forth near the armoire and the black abyss that ran the length of the cavern. He rounded on them all, furious. “You’re a liability, Ghrenna! Always smoking! These headaches… and now this!”

Luc rounded on the younger man. “Like you should speak! You just can’t wait to slit a throat for your sick pleasure. Every damn night! You want to go be bloodthirsty, you sick fuck? It’s called the King’s army. Go sign the fuck up! I’m so tired of your bullshit—”

“Everybody calm down,” Ghrenna struggled up from the pillows to show she was hale. But sitting up made her head a cascade of misery, lancing so deep she keened out, “Can someone find my pipe?”

“Here, sweetie.” Shara had her glass-blown pipe already packed and lit from the copper threllis canister by the bed. She held it out. Ghrenna took it carefully, brushing her white-blonde waves out of the way, then had a long pull. The thunderous roil dulled some.

Gherris gestured at her angrily. “You can barely even move! And right to the smoke! Like an invalid. What the fuck is this?”

Ghrenna pinned him with her eyes. She put everything into that stare, letting him feel how little she cared about him, letting him feel that just because he was Kingskinder, she owed him nothing. Ghrenna had always made alliances of necessity, and Gherris was more liability than she was. It was time to tell him, to tell them all, and see what her guild would do.

To see if they, like everyone else, would call her a witch.

Alrashemnesh aere phelo Areseitya rhavesin.” Ghrenna murmured, empty, filling herself with stillness.

Gherris blanched. He trembled. “Areseitya?” He breathed. “Are you fucking with me?” Ghrenna did not comment, still pinning him to the wall with her gaze. “Fuck.” But shame was in his visage now, the rage in him retreated. He stared at her for a very long moment.

Luc cleared his throat, glancing from one to the other. “Um… what did I miss?”

Gherris spared him a cursory glance, then stared at Ghrenna again, peering at her as if she was a very dangerous species. “She’s says she’s a seer. The word Areseitya means True Seer, in Alrashemni. It’s used for people who have visions.”

Luc was staring at her now, his lips fallen open in astonishment. “Um…like… the Three Seers of Wyr? Like that old fae-yarn?”

But Gherris shook his head. “No. Fucking childish drivel. True Seers don’t have visions about lost chickens, Luc. True Seers have visions like, when the fuck we are going to die. Visions like, who killed the little girl found strangled in the street. Visions like, if there are any other Alrashemni left… right, Ghren?” His last words were a whisper, a flicker of hope in his young, cruel face.

“I don’t know that for certain, Gherris.” Ghrenna murmured. But she knew the color of that grey from her vision. And she had seen hundreds of them, massed for battle. Massed for war.

“Then what good are you?!” Gherris snarled.

“Good for a lot, I’d say.” Luc was appraising her now, thoughtful. “Did you see something, Ghrenna? Is that why you seized and passed out?”

“What was it, Ghren?” Shara was calm, taking it in stride, the only one of Ghrenna’s guild that knew Ghrenna was finally admitting the truth of who she was, and what.

“I saw Kingsmen.” Ghrenna’s gaze was still on Gherris. “Hundreds of Kingsmen. Alive. In the courtyard of Roushenn Palace and arrayed for battle.”

What?” Gherris startled. “But I thought all the true Kingsmen were dead! Are you saying there are hundreds alive out there somewhere?” Gherris was attentive at last, his manner sharp as he came over to lean upon the post of her bed.

Ghrenna took a long pull, eyeing him. “My vision could be wrong.”

Gherris’ eyes narrowed. “True Seers don’t have false visions.”

“And mine generally aren’t. Save for one, once. But it was something so important…”

“That now you don’t trust them.” Luc’s voice was somber beside her.

She glanced over. “Some I trust. They feel true. But there are others I can’t prove true or false right now.”

“About Alrashemni?” Gherris watched her carefully.

Ghrenna nodded. “Yes. About Seventh Seals, like me, friends I once knew. There were five of us. Four now, if my visions are correct.”

“Where are they?”

“One is in Lintesh. She’s Captain-General for the Palace Guard. One is a traveling prizefighter. One died in battle. The last I think was High Brigade, I always see him in the mountains, but he may have been discharged.” Ghrenna’s mind strayed as the threllis kicked in. She saw Elohl’s sinuous limbs again, saw him fucking that other woman with the honey-blonde braid. It sparked a bitter possessiveness. Ghrenna pushed it away, making herself still, empty. Getting angry would only heighten her current pain.

“Lintesh. That’s only a week’s ride,” Gherris mused, and Ghrenna could see the calculating wheels in his mind turning.

“We find my friend in Lintesh, and what? Your parents are suddenly alive again?” It was mean, and Ghrenna took a long pull from her pipe, angry, afraid. Gherris’ words had voiced a thought she had often had. But like every other time, she pushed it away. It was safer to stay here, in this beautiful tomb of whorls and silver sigils, slowly dying, than to go back there and face what she had done. How she had sent them off on a fool’s quest from a false vision. How she had spilled the whereabouts of the Kingskinder to the brute in herringbone leathers, who had broken her mind. It was safer to stay here, thieving, living like a rat, then to face what she feared. The truth and the judgment in Olea’s eyes, of how she had betrayed and ruined them all.

Or Elohl’s.

Luc was strangely sad at her unkind outburst, gazing at Ghrenna with a mixture of pity and concern that she found she couldn’t stand. A shocked silence filled the room, her guildmates all staring, Shara with her mouth open, Gherris flushed red as if holding back tears.

“They called me a witch,” Ghrenna murmured at last around the stem of her pipe, seeking to explain. “Age three. A witch. Be lucky that you had love for your parents, Gherris, because mine called me a witch and then gave me up. The only ones who would take me were the Alrashemni. But this possible future…” Ghrenna sighed around the pipe in her teeth, then had a long pull, settling back into the pillows and staring at the rotted lace of the canopy. “It was just a flash, Gherris. A future I have no idea how or when it will come, or what to do about it. We could go to Lintesh, find my friend Olea, and never have it come to pass. Futures are tricky. Most of the things I see are common-thread events, which means they happen right as I see them, or immediately afterward. I’ve only seen a few true futures, and one was wrong. Deadly, horribly wrong.” Her gaze flicked to her laudable collection of clockworks, feeling all her shame again, just as fresh as the day she’d been carted to the Fleetrunners.

Gherris’ eyes traced her attention. “Why all the clockworks Ghrenna?”

“Because I was wrong. And everything collapsed because of it.”

 

[ * ]

 

Conversation had turned to argument, had turned back into conversation, had yielded to a break for food, which had morphed back into argument. Tempers were frayed, everyone was worn from a long night. Ghrenna was able to pace about the grotto-room now, stretching out her tight limbs, while Luc lounged on her bed, his dusty boots carelessly up on her blankets.

“What would we tell the Consortium?” On his back, Luc stared up at Ghrenna’s frayed canopy, hands laced behind his head.

“Fuck the Fhouria Thieves’ Consortium.” Gherris growled, slouching against the bedpost. “We’re paid up. They get more from us in one night then they do from the other guilds in a month. I say we go to Lintesh to find this Olea woman and find out about the Kingsmen. And we can do some thieving while we’re there.”

“If it means adventure, I’m in.” Shara quipped reasonably, picking through some cheese on the bureau. “Besides, thieving comes easy in any city. As long as we stay together.”

Luc eyed her, and Ghrenna thought she saw a glimmer of anger there. “Lintesh is not just any city. You wanna tangle with Palace Guard? Be my guest. Only the best thieves work Lintesh, and their Consortium is a tight-knit bitchfest.”

Ghrenna paused to lean on one stout canopy post, her strength flagging after the pain and useless talk. “You grew up in Lintesh, didn’t you, Luc?”

He nodded, still staring at the frayed lace. “I left when I was twelve. I’m not going back.”

Shara sighed with irritation. “We go together or we don’t go at all. Split up, we’re useless to work the jobs we work. Luc can’t climb for shit, I can’t hardly lockpick, Ghrenna can’t work a party, and Gherris has no restraint. Unanimous vote, or we don’t go.”

Gherris threw a small knife to the stone without a moment’s hesitation. “I’m in.”

Shara paused, then threw her knife in also. “I’m in, too. The gentry are beginning to recognize me too easily here in Fhouria. They’re suspicious. I gotta move on.”

Ghrenna took a long draw on her pipe as her head lanced. Going to Lintesh would mean facing Olea, but this vision had been too important. If there was one person who was in a position to consider such an important vision, or to provide a current context for the political machinations of the Crown, it would be the Captain-General of the Guard. But going to face Olea would mean diving back in, deep into memories long made still within Ghrenna’s heart.

Ghrenna drew her knife, flipped it, put it away. “I have to think on it. Give me the night.”

“Luc?” Gherris was all tension.

Luc hadn’t moved on the bed, hands still laced behind his head. “Nope. I told you, I’m not going back to Lintesh.”

“Fucking ghennie!” Gherris snarled. “Throw your knife in, or so help me, I’ll gut you!”

“Nope. And your threats aren’t helping me change my mind.”

“Come on, Luc,” Shara wheedled. “We’re getting played out in Fhouria. You know it as well as I do.”

“Nope.”

Ghrenna sighed, exhausted, her mind constantly drifting to Elohl. Threllis helped her focus, but sometimes that focus turned to obsessiveness. And Elohl was not what she needed to be obsessing over right now. She took a long pull of her pipe. “Let’s discuss it again tomorrow. We all need sleep.”

“Fuck that.” Gherris’ eyes were wrathful ink. “I’m going out.”

“Going to go kill somebody to feel better?” Luc was still staring up at the canopy.

The tension between the two men snapped like a bowstring. Gherris was a flash of motion as he surged from the bedpost, but Luc was faster. His knifepoint pricked the hollow of Gherris’ throat mid-lunge, before the younger man could raise his own. Livid with rage, Gherris was frozen, not even a hair of his short-cropped black curls moving, breathing hard and trapped. Luc had only risen halfway from his reclining leisure.

“Back off, boy,” Luc growled, all trace of humor gone. Ghrenna was reminded suddenly of the killer that lived beneath Luc’s merriment. She had seen it before, and each time it was like Luc had ripped a mask from his face, to reveal a demon beneath. He was a man who rarely angered, but Gherris had just pushed his limit. Gherris lowered his knife, turning it slowly and sliding it back into his harness.

Ghrenna stretched out a hand, placing it on Luc’s knife, slowly pushing it away from Gherris’ throat. “Let’s just get some sleep.”

“Fuck that.” Gherris snarled, using the moment to pull away, hulking off towards the entrance to Ghrenna’s section of the grotto. She watched him go as Luc slid his knife away. Shara turned towards Ghrenna with a wry smile.

“Better to let him go work it out. Do you need anything, Ghren? Should I sleep in here with you tonight?”

Ghrenna shook her head. Her headache had dulled some, and the searing after-flashes of her vision were fading. “No. I’ll be fine. Go get some sleep in your own chamber. We can talk more in the morning.”

Shara gave an understanding smile. “There’s cheese and fruit over here on the bureau, if you need something.”

“Thanks.” A warm fondness for her guildmate’s thoughtfulness made Ghrenna smile. Shara always mothered, but sometimes it was welcome. Shara nodded, and with a pointed glance at Luc, something between a warning and reproach, finally turned and slipped silently from the cavern. Turning, Ghrenna found that Luc had settled to the bed, his boots back up on her covers.

“Are you going to be my keeper tonight?” Ghrenna murmured around her pipe, trying to tease.

He glanced over. Luc tried to grin, but it was tight, worried. “Your bed is a haven of comfort, milady. There is no place I would rather be.”

“You can go back to your chamber, Luc. Really. I’ll be fine.”

“Not with a problem like you have. Nope. Sometimes people who have seizures stop breathing when they sleep, after an episode. So I’m sleeping here tonight.”

Ghrenna blinked. “How do you know so much about seizures?”

He gave a wry smile. “No reason.”

“What are you hiding? Were you apprenticed to a physician, once?”

“Trying to pick into my past isn’t getting you sleep, Ghren.” Luc patted the coverlet next to him.

He was right. It was a query for another time. Already, Ghrenna’s limbs felt like lead, and her headache had rolled back enough that sleep was possible. Ghrenna picked through the cheese and fruits upon her bureau, having a few bites before she moved towards the bed, knowing hunger would make the headache blossom again. At last, she shucked her gear and leathers, everything down to her silk undergarments and crawled under, exhausted. Luc reached down to unbuckle his boots, then kick them off the bed finally. Ghrenna scooted backwards and Luc reached out, pulling her close, his front spooning her back. They didn’t often sleep together like this, for comfort, but every now and again Luc had nights he wanted her company not for sex, just for closeness. But this time, it was Ghrenna who was grateful. Pushing away stubborn images of Elohl that tried to surface, Ghrenna burrowed into her pillows, breathing in the warm scent of Luc’s sandalwood musk.

Taking it from her lips, Ghrenna set her pipe upon the bedstand, leaving it lit so she could breathe the last of the smoke as she fell asleep. She was nearly there, just drifting off to dreams, when Luc shifted with a sigh. He sat up. Ghrenna heard the clatter of his leather harness hit the grotto floor. Then his leather doublet followed, then she felt him shuck his shirt. He flopped back to the pillows, winding his arms about her middle again.

“Ghren? You awake?” One hand caressed her ribs.

“You’re being noisy.”

“Sorry.” A long pause. “I can’t go back to Lintesh, Ghren.”

Ghrenna blinked open bleary eyes, rolling a little to see Luc’s green gaze by the steady light of the lanterns. Frowning with an unusual moroseness, all his regular merriment had fled. As she gazed at him, he sighed in an irritated fashion and rolled to his back, staring up at the rotten canopy.

“You’re never this stubborn about anything, Luc.” Ghrenna murmured, rolling over to face him, worried about the way he was acting. “What’s got you so worked up about Lintesh?”

“My family will find me.”

Ghrenna blinked. “I thought you grew up on Lintesh’s streets. That you didn’t have any family.”

His grin was sour in the lamplight, more of a grimace. “Partly. My family didn’t have a lot of time for me, we’ll put it that way. I escaped to the streets whenever I could… to get away from them. Ever heard of the Lhorissians?”

Ghrenna rose up to one elbow in sheer surprise, ignoring the vicious throb in her head. “King’s Physicians. Are you saying you’re of the line of the King’s personal doctor? That you grew up in Roushenn Palace?”

“Yeah, don’t remind me.” His hard smile was pained. “But I’m not the firstborn son. Firstborn sons become King’s Physician. Second sons don’t get much. An apothecary post in some obscure township, sometimes a post in one of the bigger cities. I wasn’t the favored son.”

Ghrenna blinked at him, trying to take in the truth of the man lounging upon her bed. It made sense now, Luc’s haughty manners, his teasing demeanor that wouldn’t have been out of place in a court. His gambling, his strange idleness that ran undercurrent to everything he did, his more than competent ability with weapons. All habits he would have picked up young from living in a palace. “But the King’s Physician is knighted. And so are his sons, even if they don’t ascend the post. You are a lord…”

His chuckle was sad. “Yeah, Lord Luc after all… some lord I turned out to be. But I can’t go back there.”

“So your family will find you. So what? You don’t have to become King’s Physician.”

“Oh, but you’re wrong.” Luc rolled towards her, gazing at her with a bitter humor. “My older brother Arlas died four years ago. And a messenger came to find me recently, from Lintesh. He was nosy, asking around. Someone told him about me, described me. Sent the fellow to a tavern I gamble at. The messenger found me, told me my father died a number of months ago, just a few weeks before the King himself. I had to take him to a quiet alley and kill him, so he wouldn’t send word back about me.”

“So your father’s dead. What about your other brothers?”

“There are no more sons.” Luc murmured. “I’m supposed to ascend the position. And they’ll keep sending fellows after me, until they haul me back to Roushenn. When this messenger doesn’t return… the Chancellors will send someone more capable…”

Ghrenna pursed her lips in thought. “Could you do it? Do you know what you need to, to ascend the post of King’s Physician?”

Luc chuckled roughly. “Oh, I know it, all right. A thousand and one remedies for all the worst diseases. Drummed into me since I was three years old, usually at the end of a switch. But that’s not the reason I’m slated to follow my father’s line.”

“What is?”

“This.” Luc reached out, splaying his fingers over Ghrenna’s face in a light dance. And where they went, her headache rolled back to a dull pounding. She closed her eyes in rapture, drinking in ease for the first time in memory. Luc’s long fingers roved her head, stroking her hair, played along her jawline, smoothed tension from her brow, and traced gently over her closed eyelids, removing pain from her eye sockets like drawing blood with leeches. Ghrenna couldn’t open her eyes. It was bliss to be this relaxed, to have her head humming with peace. There was still a trace of pain, just a reminder, but it was far away, stuffed under pillows.

After a few minutes, he ceased. “Better?”

“Gods, Luc… what did you do?” Ghrenna sighed in a floating bliss.

His chuckle was wry. “What I was born to do. Only one person in three generations of den’Lhorissians has it. But the King keeps track of us, just in case one of us develops the healing gift. My gift showed itself when I was eleven. I escaped Lintesh shortly thereafter, but every now and again, I’ll get a messenger like the one who found me this time. They’re good with weapons, Ghren, and they don’t take no for an answer. What I did for you tonight will wear off, but every healing will make your headaches better and better. I’ll do it for you, but swear to me you won’t tell anyone. I’m not the King’s pet. And I never will be.”

Ghrenna’s eyes blinked open, no pain behind them for the first time in ages. “I swear, Luc. But… the King’s dead. The Dhenra is supposed to ascend the throne in a few weeks.”

Luc’s green gaze was fierce, mirthless in the lamplight. “I’m not her pet, either.”

Ghrenna was silent a moment. She reached out, touching Luc’s bright blonde hair. “You’re a lord.”

His gaze snapped to her, incensed at first, but then lit with humor. “Yeah, yeah, Ghren. Don’t rub it in, alright?”

And Ghrenna felt herself smile, for the first time in ages. “I always thought there was something peculiar about you.”

“I’m not peculiar.” Luc grumped, though his lips smiled now. “I’m handsome.” His hand settled at her waist, kneading her skin, stroking. His face went from teasing to stern suddenly, touched by fear. “You scared me tonight, Ghrenna. I thought I was going to lose you.”

“I’m not yours.” She murmured, their regular routine. Though in this moment, after what he had done for her, Ghrenna felt her stillness recede. Luc was a good man, for all his ways. And in his fierce gaze she saw what he’d never say. That he adored her. That he loved her. That he would do anything, including throwing himself into danger, just to keep her safe.

“Would you come to Lintesh?” Ghrenna murmured at last, half to herself.

His body tensed. But then he gave a sigh, and it seemed like the fight drained out of him. Luc rolled to his back, staring up at the mildewing canopy. “I guess I have to.”

“Why?”

“Because I can already tell you’re going.” He murmured. “I can see it in your eyes. You won’t be able to let this go. Not after tonight. I’d had my suspicions about your health for years, Ghren, but this? Visions?” He lifted his hands in a helpless gesture and let them fall. “I have to go. I have to go to keep you safe.”

“You don’t have to do anything for me.”

“That’s where you’re wrong.” Luc rolled to face her again. Reaching out, he trailed his fingertips down the side of her neck, slid them behind her neck to cup her nape. A blissful heat seeped from his fingers, deep into Ghrenna’s skin, down to her muscles, up into her skull. It was so thorough, so ecstatic, that Ghrenna found herself melting to his touch. Her head arched back until he held her, soft and firm by the neck. Her lips had fallen open, and she breathed softly, ease in every pore.

And hunger. Luc stared at her with a need she could never match. But tonight, soothed by his gift, her heart opened in an answering need. She reached out, stroking his jaw, smoothing her thumb over his lips, which parted to her touch. His green eyes burned, hard upon her, steady. He pulled her close, cinching her tight against his body, his hand where it touched the small of her back radiating bliss. Slowly, he lipped her thumb, sucked it deep into his mouth. Pleasure ripped through Ghrenna, partly a hot flare of his gift, partly his own nature, seducing her. Making her need more.

She came to him, languid and ardent, desiring something solid. Needing someone here. Right now. Pushing Elohl’s face from her mind, she melted into Luc, letting him draw her into a deep, radiating kiss. He licked pleasure into her mouth. He bit pleasure gently into her lip. He kissed it hard into her, and Ghrenna arched for him, needful, and far from still.

CHAPTER 17 – OLEA

 

 

Olea frowned in her dream, twisting in her sheets. It was the banquet again. Recalling everything with clarity, she saw it all as it had been nine years ago. The Throne Hall, bedecked with yhulen, their glossy spiked leaves and miniscule red berries catching the light of flames, throwing it back to Olea’s inebriation like they’d caught fire. The cavernous hall was clearing, the revelry nearly dead so close to midnight solstice. Roaring fires still filled every massive bluestone hearth, stoked by a veritable army of servants. The long trestle tables were filthy with spilled food and wine. The Soldier’s Ball, that first winter of Olea’s tenure in the Palace Guard, had been a merry event for most. Many had brought wives, fiancées. Dancing and drink and roast boar had filled the evening, revelry for the lower classes to feel themselves very fine in the King’s own hall. A number of Olea’s comrades had asked her to dance, but all had given up now, her snarl of temper less than alluring.

The hall was nearly silent now. Olea languished in her cups at a trestle-table near one hearth, simmering deep in her hate. Two foolish women giggled their way past, leaning upon the arms of the handsome Aldris den’Farahan. He glanced Olea’s way. Winked. Olea snorted in disgust, then regretted it as wine lanced up her nose, making her bleary eyes water.

Yet again, she pulled the piece of parchment from her jerkin and fiddled with it, a pressed charcoal nib to hand. She blinked blearily, fuzzy, spinning as she set the charcoal to paper. A rough scrawl appeared, then another. Hashed shading created texture, swirling movements became trees and hills. Strong marks created walls and turrets, a practice yard and amphitheater. Absorbed in her creation, Olea’s hearing numbed to a bitter buzz, blocking out the hall around her.

Going back to a better time, a better place, with every inelegant mark.

Dulled by drink, she heard the scrape of a boot behind her, too late. A hand fell upon her shoulder. She startled, her charcoal scrawling over the page in a thick black mar. Knocking the bench over, Olea sprang unsteadily to her feet, whipping one longknife from its sheath with a hiss. To find herself leveling it at her King. A quick inbreath came from the only servant left in the hall. The fires were ashes, glowing embers now in every hearth. The tables were cleared, the wine and meat gone. And Olea was alone in the hall but for her King standing before her, tall and stern at the end of her blade.

Clad in black jerkin and breeches, but for a white ermine set about his shoulders with a silver pin, he looked almost plain. But his bearing was regal, his deep-set grey eyes cold and steady, his body lean and sword-honed. Olea stood there, knife still brandished, hating him. Hating the way he stared her down, unmoved by the steel in her hand, hard as iron and chill like the north wind. Hating the way he didn’t react, like his heart was nothing but ashes. Like he cared nothing for the Kingswoman before him, and feared her skill not at all. Like she was beneath him. As if the Kingsmen had only been good enough to purge from the nation like rats.

“A cup of Arinul wine for my Guardsman, then leave us.” King Uhlas den’Ildrian’s voice was hard as his eyes and his grey-shot hair. The servant scurried to comply, and soon Olea’s knife-hand was filled with a cup, no longer with a weapon. She didn’t remember her King disarming her. But her knife sat there, inert upon the table and glinting in the low firelight.

King Uhlas den’Ildrian beckoned for her to sit. Olea sank unsteadily to the bench as he righted it, then sat next to her. He gazed at her drawing, pulling the parchment close. “Impressive. Is this someplace you know?”

“Alrashesh.” The word ground out like broken glass from Olea’s wine-ruined throat.

“I see.” King Uhlas sat back, regarding her. His gaze flicked to the parchment, studying it, then back to her. “I shall have to annex it, won’t I?”

Seething anger flowed through Olea’s veins. A hot, rash temper she’d cultivated since being carted to the palace in manacles six months past. “By the Serthas Code three-six-oh-three, you can do no such thing. The Court of Alrashesh is private property, belonging to the yet-living descendants of the Alrashemni.”

“You know your law.” The King’s face betrayed nothing.

“You’ve watched me in the Library Annals often enough. Stalking me, really.” Olea took a disrespectful mouthful of wine without asking her liege’s permission. But King Uhlas did not react, his ironshod gaze steady.

“You have poured through more tomes of law and languages in the past year than I think my Chancellate have ever seen. You dislike my Summons, don’t you? You think it unlawful?”

Fighting the spin of the room, Olea indulged in the looseness of her tongue, not caring if it put her in the stocks. “Your Summons was shit, you bastard! And someday I’ll prove it.”

King Uhlas’s iron-hard eyes pierced her. Gradually, a smile lifted the corners of his lips. “Yes. I’m sure you will.”

The dream shifted suddenly, the fire-lit gables of the hall diminishing until they were Olea’s own chamber. A single candle burned to push back the deep of the night. The air through the open window was clear with the sweet cool of morning, like fresh river water. Olea twisted in her sheets, still dreaming but no longer alone in her narrow bed. Alden was there, holding her, cradling her head on his well-muscled chest, the fingers of one hand tracing the side of her breast. Dhenir Alden den’Ildrian glanced at the window, his glorious dark hair and alabaster skin lit aflame by the single candle.

“Sun’s almost up. I should go.” But he didn’t move, his fingers still languid upon her.

“Stay.” Olea sighed, sweaty and spent.

“Father knows I’m not getting much sleep these days.” Alden’s mischievous chuckle could have made her ride him all over again.

“The rumors you’ve planted say you’re out whoring.” Olea snuggled in, and Alden cinched her close.

“Dhenirs can go out whoring,” Alden chuckled. “What they can’t do, is fuck Lieutenants in their Guard.”

Olea grinned into his chest. “So make me Captain-General, and then we’ll be all set. You gave me my original promotion six years ago.”

Father gave you your original promotion.”

Olea stilled in his arms. “What?”

She felt Alden twitch. He gave his seductive chuckle. “Whoops. I wasn’t supposed to tell you that.”

Olea raised up on one elbow to study him. Alden looked like King Uhlas, dark-haired, slender-muscled and tall. He was a near-perfect copy of his father except for the storms that roiled him, where Uhlas was nothing but calm precision. “I thought you promoted me, after I bested you that winter, my first year in the Guard!”

Alden chuckled again, reaching out to stroke Olea’s cheek. “I told father that the Kingswoman trainee had bested me, the day after you and I fought. He and I were on a hunt in the Kingswood. He reined his horse, looked me in the eye, and said Promote her. Just like that. And then he made me promise not to speak a word of it, even to you. Ever.”

“Why?”

Alden shrugged, in that careless, handsome way of his. “Who knows? Father has schemes within schemes, secrets within secrets. He’s always been that way. But he’s been different lately. I catch him pacing sometimes, gazing at the walls, the mirrors, as if he expects brigands to jump out of them. He’s taken to riding out to the First Abbey on a weekly basis, even if it’s just for an hour, and he never takes the same men. I think he’s becoming paranoid.”

“What does he do at the Jenner Abbey?”

Alden shrugged again. “Fenton has been with him a few times. He says they go to the compound. But father never lets any of the guards come in with him past the gates of the Abbey. He’s always met by the Abbess, Lenuria den’Brae. Sometimes he’s there a few hours.”

“Strange. But he’s always been secretive, Alden.” Olea settled back into the crook of Alden’s arm. “Did I tell you he used to watch me in the Library Annals?”

“Did he?”

“He watched me all that autumn, just after I got here, before you and I met. I used to go read to calm my mind.”

Dhenir Alden mussed her black curls affectionately. “You do need a lot of calming, Kingswoman.”

Olea bit him on his shoulder. “I’ll show you how much calming I need…!”

Alden laughed, full-throated and amused, that joyous, daring sound Olea so loved. “I surrender! No, but tell me, what did my father say to you in the Annals?”

“Uhlas? He didn’t say anything. Just watched me. I probably saw him there more than twenty times that autumn, all told.”

Twenty times? And he just watched you? He never said anything to you?”

“Not then, but he approached me at the Soldier’s Ball that midwinter. I was drunk. I pulled a knife on him. But he offered me wine instead of having me arrested for pulling a blade. I had been sketching Alrashesh, and he saw it, asked me about it. I got loose-tongued and told him I thought his Summons was unlawful, and that I was going to prove it. I actually called him a bastard, right to his face. I thought he would have gotten furious, hauled me off to the dungeons. But he didn’t. He just… smiled. It was the strangest thing. And then I met you on the practice grounds not two weeks later.”

“Huh.” Alden shifted next to her. “I’ve seen what father does to men who pull a weapon on him. Death is the least of their worries.” Suddenly, Alden sat up, forcing Olea to do the same. He settled back against the headboard, rifling a hand through his sweat-slicked black hair, then draped one arm casually across the headboard. A slight, incredulous smile played along his lips. “Father set us up.”

Olea blinked. “What?!”

A low chuckle rumbled in his chest. Alden shook his head, his storm-grey eyes incredulous. “Father set us up! He told me to go observe the first-year Guards that day on the practice fields! Said I needed to take stock of their mettle. He didn’t say that the most beautiful, dangerous woman I would ever meet was going to be there, half-clad in training halter and breeches, out in the snow and burning with passion.” His gaze flicked to her, seductive. “Which he knows I can’t resist.”

Olea’s brows knit. “Why would your father set us up to meet? Why tempt you into someone’s bed who’s not a royal?”

Alden chuckled, stroked Olea’s jaw with his long fingers, sexually. “Maybe I need watching. Maybe he wanted someone close to me… to protect me.”

Alden was joking, but Olea sobered suddenly. She sat up, the sheets draping around her naked hips. “Maybe he did. That whole first year you spent trying to woo me. And when that didn’t work, you set me in your personal guard. And for how long now? Five years. For five years I’ve been your shadow, always at your side.”

Alden chuckled, stroking Olea’s Inkings, the tops of her breasts. “Four of which I’ve had you all to myself, in my bed. What can I say? I can’t resist having the most beautiful Guardsman in the whole company near me. One who doesn’t give fuck-all about her Kingsman heritage and displays it proudly for everyone to see…”

“I’m the only Kingsman in the Guard.” Olea’s thoughts spiraled.

“You’re the most beautiful Kingsman in the Guard.” Alden leaned forward, wrapping his arms around her, pulling Olea in, kissing her collarbones.

Olea moved back, gripping his chin, forcing the headstrong Dhenir to look at her. “No. I’m the only Kingsman in the Guard, Alden. Your father knows it. He set us up to meet, if what you say is right. He set you up to see my Inkings when I was fighting that day on the practice grounds in just my halter. I bested you that day, and your father knew you couldn’t resist that. He set you up to take the only Kingsman in the guard into your bed. Don’t you see? To bind us close. Far closer than any of your other protectors. And Uhlas turns a blind eye to the things I’m teaching Elyasin… Fenton has told me Uhlas lingers in the shadows sometimes, watching Elyasin spar with me. He wants his daughter to learn Kingsman fighting… Kingsman arts…”

Alden had turned thoughtful. “He wants us both to be close to the Kingsmen. To the only one we know. You.”

“But it doesn’t make sense. Why Summon the Kingsmen and accuse them of treason, then cause them all to disappear if he wants his children to be close to a Kingsman now?”

“Unless he… unless my father didn’t give the Summons. Aeon’s holy fuck!”

“What is it?”

Alden scrubbed a hand through his short black hair, his rakish demeanor gone. He rubbed his hands over his face. His storm-ridden eyes were churning, a thousand miles away. “Den’Selthir spoke the truth…”

“Who? What?”

Alden’s gaze snapped to Olea. “You know how I went last month to the Valenghian front? To do inspections for father? Well, one of the local lords in Vennet put our company up for the night before we got to the Aphellian Way. A Vicoute, Arlen den’Selthir. He was a genteel fellow, but he had the way of the sword about him. Like an old commander. And indeed, we dueled at swords that evening for exercise, and he was probably the best swordsman I’ve ever come across. But as we sat in his steam-rooms that night, he told me something very curious. I was asking about the war, what he had seen come through his lands, how it had impacted them, being so close to the front. He told me my father had come through, just before the war broke out. That Uhlas had stayed with den’Selthir in secret, on his way through to Valenghia to treat at the eleventh hour with the Valenghian Vhinesse, in a desperate play to prevent war. But Arlen den’Selthir told me something else. That Uhlas had stayed with him the very night the Summons to the Kingsmen went out. And that Uhlas had ridden on to Valenghia the next day. I didn’t believe the man at the time… but now…”

Olea let her breath out, astonished. Her gut cramped, sick to her core. “If that’s true, it would have taken Uhlas two weeks of hard riding to make it back to Lintesh. He wouldn’t have been at Roushenn Palace at all when the Summons went out, nor when the Kingsmen arrived! When they disappeared… he wasn’t here!”

Alden looked green. “My father didn’t give the Summons. He didn’t want the Kingsmen dead. Someone else did. Someone else Summoned them, welcomed them here… and disposed of them. All before my father could do anything about it…!”

“Someone with access to his seals, someone close enough to copy his handwriting, identically. That’s what Uhlas meant, when I told him his Summons was shit and someday I’d prove it, Alden! He told me, I’m sure you will!” Olea gripped Alden’s wrist, hard. “He was haunting me in the libraries watching me hunt relentlessly for the truth. And he put us together… so we’d find it!”

Alden’s head fell back against the bed frame. “Aeon’s fucking mercy! He can’t tell the nation. He can’t tell anyone! My father can’t risk speaking about this, Olea. He doesn’t know whom to trust…! No wonder he’s been acting like a paranoid fuck for so many years! If whomever it is, is close enough to have access to my father’s seal and know his handwriting… it must be one of the Chancellors! Aeon’s fucking blade…”

“Or a few of them.” Olea’s voice was very soft.

Alden’s gaze sharpened upon her like a hawk. “What do you mean?”

“Alden. We’re talking about the disappearance of two thousand people. Impeccable fighters. All in one night, quietly. That’s not the kind of event a single person orchestrates.”

Alden den’Ildrian had ceased breathing. “There’s a secret group, opposing my father. Tearing down his support. The Kingsmen were his army, Olea. I remember him always telling me that when I was a boy. In dire times, summon the Alrashemni Kingsmen, boy. They will always do right by their King and country. They are sworn to. In dire times, they are the only ones you can trust to be your peacekeepers and your personal guard.

Olea’s eyes locked upon Alden’s. “So he made sure the only Kingsmen left that he knew would be by your side… night and day.”

“And Elyasin’s.” Alden reached out, stroking Olea’s Inkings.

“I’m not the only one,” Olea breathed.

Alden’s gaze sharpened upon her. “What do you mean?”

“I’m not the only Kingsman left alive. There are a number of the children scattered throughout the military. I’ve found some names in the lists.”

“Are there any fully-trained Kingsmen left?”

Olea shook her head. “Not that I know of.”

“Just children… like you were.” Alden’s fingers stole over Olea’s chin, his thumb brushing her lips.

“We all lost our childhood that day.”

Alden stared at Olea a long moment, his storm-grey eyes so very sad. And then, something in his gaze hardened. “I’m going to start asking around about the Summons. About what really happened. We need answers, and if my father’s afraid to go after them… well then we’ll have to.”

Olea gripped his wrist. “I don’t think that’s wise, Alden. Uhlas has clearly been cagey for a reason. He must suspect people very near to him. He acts like there are spies all around, Alden, and we should too. Because perhaps there are.”

“I’ll be careful.” Alden leaned forward, pulling Olea into his arms, kissing her.

“No, I mean it!” Olea struggled.

“I’ll be careful, my love,” Alden breathed, brushing his lips over Olea’s. “And besides… you’ll be by my side. Nothing bad can happen to me or Elyasin while you’re here. I’m just going to start quietly asking a few questions. Maybe I’ll start with the palace staff. Someone should have seen something that night. I’ll send a raven to Vennet. Have Vicoute Arlen den’Selthir come to the palace and tell us what he knows. We’ll get to the bottom of this, you and I. And then my father can rest easy.”

Carefully,” Olea admonished.

Alden brushed his lips gently over hers. “Carefully.”

 

[ * ]

 

“Alden!” Olea snapped upright, a bitter waking in her chamber’s darkness, her nightshirt soaked with sweat. She’d not known she’d slept until just now. Tears tracked down her face and made a puddle of wet in the hollow of her throat. Olea did not wipe them away, instead pausing, every sense prickling in the night. Honing her hearing, she listened a moment. Something had woken her, but now all was quiet, only soft whispers of air moving through her open window. Her dark-adjusted eyes took in every corner of her common cell, one hand ready upon the longknife in its sheath beneath her pillow. But there was no sense of an intruder, only these unsettled dreams from everything Vargen had told her the night before.

Suddenly, a soft sound came at her ironbound door, like the tap of a single finger. Knowing that it had been this small sound that had woken her, Olea rose fluidly, clad only in her thin undershirt and underwear, longknife to hand. Pacing quickly to the door, knife poised to pierce a throat, she threw it wide. Dhenra Elyasin blinked in the torchlight of the soldier’s hall, at the knife ready to take her throat.

“Forgive me, Dhenra!” Olea hastily lowered her knife, stepping back from the door. The Dhenra took a shaky breath, then just as hastily stepped inside Olea’s bare rooms, glancing furtively to either side as she entered. As a precaution, Olea checked the corridor also, but the Dhenra had timed it perfectly, avoiding the night-patrols. Although she had slipped her guards again. Olea made a mental note to give them a dressing-down, and put Aldris on the Dhenra’s watch personally until the coronation and wedding were over.

Olea shut the door. She struck a phosphor match, lighting three candles upon the mantle to push back the night. Setting her longknife upon the mantle, she turned to face her liege, sinking to one knee. But the Dhenra was distracted, pacing restlessly about Olea’s sparse quarters. Stopping in front of the only decoration in Olea’s simple room, she eyed a five-foot gilt-framed wall mirror. A gaudy piece, Olea had asked the Castellan to have it removed a number of times, and a number of times he had agreed with a demure smile, but it had never been done.

A gripping sensation hit Olea’s gut. She was certain, suddenly, that the mirror provided a way for someone to watch her rooms, just like Vargen had seen behind the walls of Roushenn. A deep fear shivered her. The Dhenra stared at the mirror now, watching her reflection. Olea wondered if someone were watching back. If someone could hear their conversation in this tiny room, entirely visible in that mirror’s spying oculus. And suddenly, she was very aware of her words, of keeping this conversation, whatever it was about, clean of anything that might threaten the Dhenra’s life.

“Dhenra, how can I serve at this late hour?” Olea prompted.

“Such starkness,” Elyasin’s gaze rested upon the mirror, seeing the entire room. “It is a wonder to me that you would choose to live this way, Olea, with but a single ornament upon the wall. But I suppose it was how you were raised, wasn’t it…?”

“Kingsmen have no need for idle treasures.” Olea murmured, then raised her voice formally, ready to ask Elyasin to walk outside somewhere. Somewhere they could really talk, where Olea could disclose everything Vargen had told her. “Dhenra. I—”

But Elyasin halted Olea with an upraised hand, and her next words were a surprise. “Did he come here?”

Olea’s eyelids flickered, and even that was far more than her training should have allowed. “Who, Dhenra?”

Elyasin’s gaze was chastising. “You know whom I mean.”

His face was near, his storm-grey eyes so close. Olea sighed, her dream rising to punch her in the gut. “Alden.”

“Did he come here? Did my brother spend time with you here?”

“Sometimes.” Olea sighed. This was ancient news, and if someone was listening, there was nothing here to threaten Elyasin. “He would slip his guards, just like you do, and put out the rumor that he was whoring and drinking in the King’s Quarter.”

“I miss him.” Elyasin sank down regally upon the bed. Her hand passed over Olea’s buckwheat-grain pillow. “I can’t believe his death was nearly two years ago. I miss him more than father. Sometimes, I feel like he’s just around the next corner. If I walk the right hall, or find the right suit of armor, Alden will be inside, waiting to surprise me.”

Olea’s mouth quirked despite the unshed tears that choked her. “Alden was a troublemaker and a rogue.”

“He loved you.”

Olea took one long, slow breath. When she had composure, she came to sit upon her hard bed next to Elyasin. “Elyasin. What’s this all about?”

The Dhenra flushed, her body tight with misery. “I miss him,” she murmured. “I miss him, Olea, and no one knew Alden like you. It should be him taking father’s throne, with you by his side, making him strong like you always did. How am I supposed to do this alone? Who will stand with me… to help make me strong?”

And suddenly, Elyasin was shattering, falling into Olea’s arms with renting sobs. The Dhenra was a proud woman and a fighter, so much so that Olea forgot she was still young, just twenty-one. Olea wrapped her arms around Elyasin, and the young woman reached up to hold her, just as they had upon receiving the news of Alden’s death. Tears threatened and Olea blinked them back. She leaned against the headrest with a sigh, cradling the Dhenra.

“I couldn’t protect him,” Olea whispered, her voice rasping. “I was supposed to protect him, so he could protect you. So he could be here for you. We both failed you… I’m so sorry, Elyasin…”

“It should be Alden ascending the throne. He was prepared to rule.” Elyasin’s words were soft in the night.

Olea sighed, stroking her Dhenra’s unruly golden locks. “He chafed at it. It was his duty, not his desire.”

Elyasin’s breathing had settled. She snuggled close, one cheek to Olea’s Inkings. “He only desired you. His protector. His Kingswoman.”

Olea’s hand paused. Their conversation had suddenly edged upon the deadly. “It’s late, Elyasin. You should be in bed. Guarded.”

“I am in a bed. And guarded.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Tell me about the day you met,” the Dhenra murmured.

“I’ve told you over and over, Dhenra.”

“Tell me again. It gives me strength.”

Olea sighed, her dreams too near. She resumed stroking Elyasin’s hair, the young woman cuddled close. Metering her words carefully, she spoke at last. “He first saw me upon the practice grounds nine years ago. I was twenty-one, and Inked, and placed in the Palace Guard from my ability with weapons.”

“You were very good with the sword, and with dual longknives. So Alden said when I asked why he had promoted you.”

“It’s uncommon for a Guardsman to receive a promotion from the royal house. Usually that’s left to the Captain-General.”

“Alden said you were a better swordsman than Captain-General den’Norrin. Even back then.”

“Did he?”

“He said you beat den’Norrin in three bouts back to back.”

Olea chuckled. “I did. And then slapped my Captain-General on the butt with the flat of my sword after the third bout, just for spite. I wasn’t a model Guardsman. But just before the captain was about to skin my hide, Alden stepped onto the field, bare-chested and ready with his own sword. He waved den’Norrin away and grinned at me. And he said, come on, then, let’s see what you’ve got.”

“He got more than he bargained for.”

“I beat him five for five.” Olea smiled, enjoying the remembrance. “He insisted upon it, even though he was getting weaker. I drove him to his knees on the last bout, got my blade to his throat. Den’Norrin was furious. He motioned ten men forward for raising a blade to my Dhenir, but Alden waved them off. He just knelt there, watching me. I couldn’t move, couldn’t take my blade from his throat. Fury coursed through me. I wanted to kill him. I wanted to take from King Uhlas what he had taken from me. But I was paused. Something about Alden was too beautiful, too fierce, too wild, and it held me. At last he whispered to me, and it was his words that broke me.”

“What did he say?”

“He said, do it, if you want to. I would understand. I dropped my blade. I couldn’t kill him, even though a part of me craved it.”

“For your people?” Elyasin’s voice was soft, murmured into Olea’s nightshirt.

Olea nodded. “I was angry back then, Dhenra. I cultivated rebellion and spite because I didn’t know what else to do.”

Elyasin cuddled close. Soft fingers stroked Olea’s Inkings, and Olea startled at the Dhenra’s touch. “You still aren’t, are you? A yhulen-thorn, father used to call you, like the story of the Yhulen-Thorn and King Trevius’ Sleep. He was furious when Alden promoted you. He gave Alden an earful in front of the Chancellate. My father never was very fond of you, was he?”

But Olea stared at the mirror, recalling her dreams. In the silence of the moment, she knew she had to tell her Dhenra everything that could be told, right now. Uhlas’ secrets had run them all into blind corners. Alden had paid the price for it, and so had Olea, then finally the King himself. And now it was Elyasin who was at risk. It was far past time, that she hear everything. As long as it didn’t threaten her current safety.

“Dhenra. You have to know something.” Olea murmured, taking a risk. “I thought Alden was the one who changed my life that first year, promoting me, giving me responsibility, trusting me. But I found out later that Uhlas had told him to do it, in secret. And Captain-General den’Norrin had secret orders directly from your father to tolerate Kingskinder, as did the other military Generals. We were not to be harmed in the ranks.”

What?” Elyasin’s head raised from Olea’s shoulder, one golden eyebrow arched. “I thought my father hated you! The scene he made in front of the entire Chancellate when Alden promoted you!”

“Was a ruse.” Olea murmured. “Your father and I were actually very close… in our way. Though we could never meet openly, we developed… an understanding. Over time.”

“What do you mean?” Elyasin whispered, her body tense.

Olea took another deep breath. “I first saw your father in the palace Annals, just a month after I came to the Guard. In those days, I was ardent to prove his Summons unlawful. I unearthed tome after tome of law. I was obsessed, believing there had to have been some mistake in the King’s Summons. But the more I looked, the less I found, just like you have noticed now.”

“The Annals have been scrubbed of any mention of the Kingsmen and any law relating to them for nearly thirty years.”

“Just so.” Olea agreed. “But as I lingered in the shadows of the archives, so did someone else.”

“My father.”

“Uhlas came many a night, dressed in black, perusing tomes like I did.” Olea murmured. “Guards never attended him. He never approached. But his attention gave him away. He was watching me. He approached me that midwinter’s eve at last, when I was drunk. We spoke of Alrashesh and his Summons, briefly. I was hotheaded, but he was cool, appraising me. Just a few weeks after that, he engineered for your brother and I to meet, to fight in the yards, so Alden would fall for me. And I for him, eventually. Uhlas knew our hearts better than we did at the time, Dhenra. And he did it to keep us together, to keep us both safe. He knew of you and I also, of you learning Kingsmen battle-arts from me, even as secret as we tried to be. And a few months after that… I found two slender tomes in the stacks. They’d been left in a pile of books I’d sequestered into my alcove. Uhlas was lingering nearby, watching, when I discovered them. He never spoke a word, but he smiled. He’d planted them for me to find. I’m certain of it. Two volumes from his personal collection…”

Olea’s gaze fell upon the ragged stack of books in the corner. Those two tomes, hidden deep in the pile, she had smuggled out of the Annals. Two slender cobalt leather volumes that spoke of the true Line of Kings, the original Alrashemni whose blood filled the veins of the Alrou-Mendera royal house. Uhlas’s veins, Alden’s veins. And Elyasin’s. All of them, Alrashemni by blood. Uhlas had known it, had pointed Olea to the proof of it, those two tomes that chronicled house after house, all the way back to the founding of the nation, when the Alrashemni immigrants finally made peace with the native Menderian tribes. A history that went all the way down the royal line, the Linea den’Alrahel. The Line of the Dawn. The Line of Kings.

Olea’s own family line.

Olea needed to move them. They weren’t safe in her quarters, nor anyplace in Roushenn, not like she’d once thought. But if she moved them, someone might see. Her eyes flicked to the gilt-edged mirror. The candles had burned low. A blush of dawn lightened her solitary window. The trill of a fhrel-wren blossomed somewhere outside.

“We have to get you back, Dhenra. You have courtiers to meet in a few hours.”

“But you’ve hardly begun telling me about my father! And what about these books he ensured you’d find?” Elyasin sat up, suddenly tempestuous.

“It’s not safe to talk here.”

“What?” Elyasin followed Olea’s glance, confused. “What do you mean?”

“I can’t say more now, Dhenra. Please, trust me. Invite me out for a ride tomorrow.”

“A ride?” Elyasin blinked. “I don’t have time for a ride tomorrow! My schedule is packed solid with meeting suitors and discussing trade!”

“Make some excuse.”

“Captain.” Elyasin pulled away, an angry formality settling about her. “You will tell me the rest.”

Olea’s stomach clenched. If someone was watching, listening, anything more she might say could mean her Dhenra’s death. And so Olea chose to abide her Dhenra’s formidable wrath, which she could feel coming like a thunderstorm. “Dhenra. With all due respect. I will continue my story upon the morrow. Invite me out for a ride.”

“You are defying a direct order from your liege, Captain.” Elyasin’s eyes tightened, her lips set in a grim line. Olea saw again, how similar the two royal siblings had been. One a panther in the dead of night, the other a lioness. Elyasin was capable, a born ruler despite the weakness she berated herself for. She had taken over the realm as her father went slowly senile after Alden’s death, becoming bedridden from his supposed madness before he, too, succumbed. Though Olea had her suspicions about Uhlas’ death, his King’s Physician killed only a month before Uhlas’ own demise. It was all too convenient to have been coincidence. Far too convenient. And now, there was only one thing the tempestuous Elyasin would understand.

Olea slid from the bed and knelt, one palm to her Inkings in a Kingsman bow. “Dhenra. Alden trusted me for a reason. Our hidden courtship had passion, but always I was his guard, even while we slept. I am your guard now. And I withhold information from you at this moment because I deem it unsafe to disclose.”

“If you are withholding information that is vital to my realm, Captain-General, I will have your head for it!” Elyasin raged, not to be undone by Olea’s plea. “My father kept secrets from me, and now I find Alden did, too. And you! You, whom I’ve always trusted, have kept secrets from me for years. Now I see the truth. Roushenn holds secrets deeper than the mountain, and from its liege! Secrets as elusive as the Ghost of Roushenn! I could have you thrown in the cells for hiding important information from me. The Kingsmen Summons is an issue of security. And finding out these secrets my father kept is vital to me holding my throne. You’ve raised my ire, Captain. Whatever secrets you and Alden found out, you will tell me. Now.”

It was a scathing tirade. But Elyasin had no idea the danger she would be in, should such information come out within the walls of Roushenn.

Olea growled, her temper flaring to match her liege as she rose. “Alden was sent to Ghrec with the merchant fleet to keep him safe! Far away from Roushenn! I was thrown in the cells because someone found out about us! And when Castellan Lhaurent revealed our affair before the Chancellate, Uhlas’ hand was forced. Whether it was Lhaurent who exposed us, or someone else who was spying, I don’t know. But either way, it forced your father to part Alden from his protection! And in that gap, both son and father were killed, one undone by treachery and the other by what I believe was a slow poison! So I withhold information from you now because I deem it unsafe, Dhenra. Please. You have to trust me. And we have to get you back to your rooms before anyone knows you’ve been here!”

Olea seized her Guardsman’s shirt from a nearby chair, yanking it on. Then her breeches, kneeboots, and jerkin. Her fingers raced up her shirt, lacing it nearly to her collarbones, covering her Inkings as she buckled her cobalt leather, then slinging on her baldric. Olea tousled her blue-black curls viciously, then turned, regarding her almost-Queen. To see a thoughtful woman now before her, Elyasin’s hot temper simmering, but less.

Elyasin’s gaze flicked to the window. It was going to be a hot summer day. Olea could smell it in the air, could hear it in the way a chorus of wrens and ululi had begun their tirade now in force. “Take me back to my rooms,” Elyasin murmured. “We will continue our conversation later.”

“As my Queen commands.”

But those green eyes flicked back, razor-keen. “I’m not your Queen yet. But when I am, we will have some frank discussions, you and I. And you will tell me everything I ask. And you will tell me everything that I don’t even know to ask. Are we quite clear, Captain?”

“Yes my liege.” Olea nodded, letting out a single breath to bleed off the last of her own temper. She had come close, tonight, to being thrown in the cells. She could see it in the vibrating tension that rippled through the Dhenra, that set Elyasin’s fine jaw, that made her temper flare.

Olea pushed it aside. Elyasin could be pissed that vital information was being withheld from her tonight, but she would be alive. Olea strode to the door, hauling it open, glancing both ways. She heard no boots to either length of the soldier’s hall, and Elyasin whisked out quickly when she nodded. Closing her door, Olea offered her arm, but Elyasin raised her chin and strode forward, denying Olea the honor of acting as escort. Suppressing a growl, Olea fell into step behind her liege. She had never been allowed to walk next to Alden, either, despite everything. Olea was just a soldier.

But once, monarchs and Kingsmen had walked side by side. And once, the kings of Alrou-Mendera had known they held Alrashemni blood. A secret that had pushed Uhlas into the shadows, that had made him paranoid after his Kingsmen had been tricked, fallen to treachery in his very own palace. A secret that Uhlas had trusted her with, and her alone, knowing that of them all, perhaps she was the only one who could do something about it. Who could protect what was left of the Alrashemni royal line. Elyasin. Herself. Elohl. Olea strode down the hall of low-burning torchlight behind her Dhenra. One hand touched her sword, scanning the niches and shadows for threats just as a true Kingsman should for her blood-kin liege.

CHAPTER 18 – ELOHL

 

 

Elohl’s eyes snapped open, awake to a yell from down below. His first thought was that he felt amazing, every sinew at ease despite having apparently slept all night atop the high bluestone column, out in the elements. And feeling the sunshine blessing his skin now with warmth, a sweet breeze full of spring foxglove and linden wafting around the column, his mind strayed to a place of deep ease. He felt good, such as he’d not felt in a long time. But his mind sharpened suddenly, alarmed as another yell came from down below.

Hey! Are you asleep up there?!”

Elohl’s tension eased. If Eleshen had been under attack, she’d not waste breath chastising him. And as he listened, he heard a muffled, “Dammit, Elohl, how do you climb so well…” waft up on the warming air.

A scuffling came from the base of the plinth. Elohl peered over the side. He watched Eleshen’s fruitless attempts at climbing for a few moments, finally unable to stop himself from chuckling. Like a thick canvas had fallen away from his mind, he found himself enjoying the brightness of the new day, and similarly enjoying Eleshen’s antics. She placed a bad foothold, and went sprawling on her pretty ass again, having ascended not even a foot above the ground. A natural, amused laugh rolled out from Elohl’s throat.

She gazed upwards, shading her eyes with one hand. “Very funny! Just sit up there all day and laugh at me bruising my ass! Ha, ha! What are you doing up there? And how the hell did you get up this thing?” Testy now, she slapped the stone with one hand.

Elohl chuckled again, loving how fierce she was, how unabashed. “Hang on, I’m coming down…” He stood and stretched languidly, breathing deep of the morning breeze. It was warm already, even up on the ridge as they were. Elohl blinked, trying to remember his dreams. Perplexed, he found them fleeting, just out of mind. All he recalled was a feeling of expansiveness so blissful that it lingered today, as if his heart was as wide as the sky, as light as the dawn. He thought back to waking in the night, remembered the pulsing of the column and feeling called to climb. But that was where the memory stopped, and Elohl supposed he had simply fallen asleep once he’d reached the lookout.

Rolling his shoulders, he shook out his legs and stretched his arms and hands, pushing worry away. It was too beautiful a day. He backed down over the side of the column. With graceful ease, he made it to the ground in moments, not a single hold out of place. Eleshen’s eyes were wide as he dusted his hands off at the bottom.

“Aeon’s brows, Elohl, where did you learn to do that?”

“You learn to climb trees fast when your twin is always hunting you down.” He grinned rakishly. He felt rakish this morning, and gazing at Eleshen now, he suddenly wanted to take her in his arms and kiss the Halsos out of her until she squeaked and hit him for mercy. He reached out, netting her at the waist, pulling her close, wanting her.

“Practice my ass.” Eleshen grumped good-naturedly, grinning at his attention, their argument of the previous day all but forgotten. Elohl knew that she was coming with him now, and that was that. And strangely, he felt fine about it this morning. Pulling her in for a kiss, their lips were just about to meet when Eleshen’s fingers suddenly flew to the neck of his shirt, pulling the laces open. “What the…? Elohl!”

Elohl chuckled, a very masculine heat in his body. “I know you’re coming with me, even if it means following ten paces behind the whole way to Lintesh. And I’m alright with it now, honestly—”

“No, Elohl! What happened to you?!” Her face was shocked, her fussy fingers all over his shirt, tugging it out of his breeches. “Take this off…!” Laughing, he moved his fingers to her bodice-laces, but she slapped them away. “No! Elohl, your skin! And your wounds are gone!”

“What?” Confused, Elohl glanced down at his chest where his shirt now bared a goodly patch of chest. There, where it should have just been his black Inkings and white blade-scars and the new red gash, whorls and scripts in gold flowed out from the black, up below his collarbones, disappearing beneath the fabric. Elohl shucked his shirt quickly. With the wind licking at his skin, he saw his body made anew. Like a spider’s filaments, his body was limned with tenuous filigree, sweeping arcs of gold as fine as Eleshen’s hair, radiating out from the Kingsmount and Stars, cascading across his chest, curling up below his collarbones, cresting up over his shoulders. Lines of gold dove down from his Inking, too, marking the centerline of his abdomen like the blade of a longsword, diving in thin lines below his belt and lower. And where the lines went, they formed patterns, arcane sigils surrounded by a flowing script in a hand so minute it was barely recognizable as language.

And all of his slashes from yesterday were utterly gone, as if they had never been.

“By Aeon’s hands…” Eleshen traced the markings of gold with light fingers. She wound behind him, tracing unseen markings from his shoulders all the way down his spine and up his nape into his hairline at the base of his skull. Her fingers lingered in the center of his back, tracing a pattern with a vaguely circular shape up over his shoulder blades and around his spine.

“Elohl!” She whispered at last. “It’s beautiful… the front is uncanny, but you should see the back!”

“What is it?” He murmured, too stunned, gazing at the lines of script upon his front.

“A dragon! And a wolf… fighting…” she murmured to the breeze.

Something in Elohl went cold, and the bliss of the sunny day dimmed. “Describe it for me.”

“They’re… well, they’re trying to kill one another! The wolf has the dragon’s neck in its jaws, and the dragon is disemboweling the wolf with talons, but it seems perfectly balanced…”

“As if neither is actually winning.” Elohl breathed. He could see it all, every nuance of it. Every part of it just the same as it had been upon the Deephouse doors of Roushenn so long ago.

“Precisely! But there’s more… they fight inside a ring of flame, but it’s more than fire, it’s the blaze of the sun! With thirteen flaming spokes, lighting their battle. Aeon, Elohl…! What do they mean? What happened to you up there last night?”

Elohl turned back towards the monolith, regarding the towering Alranstone. Standing behind it as they were, he could see nothing of the carven eyes upon the other side. Moving like a sleepwalker, he circled around, gazing upwards, already knowing what he would see. Already feeling it vibrating in his body, just there, like the hum of bees in a field so distant you have to listen to the wind to hear it.

And there it was, the corner of an eye open near the ground. He circled further, his breath catching. The lowest eye was fully open. All the eyes upon the massive plinth were wide in the morning sunlight. One had an iris of malachite, one an iris of flat jet. One was white moonstone, one a sunlight-flooded citrine. One was the red fire-opal that had gazed upon him before at the top of the column, one was blue lapis. And the center eye upon the column carried every color within its veins, reflecting a radiance so bright that it outshone diamonds.

Eleshen gaped next to him. “Well, they weren’t like that yesterday.”

“Were they like this when you woke?” Elohl breathed.

“Honestly, I didn’t look. I was too worried about where you had gone.”

Thrumming filled him, building in his sinews. Certainty. That somehow, this was his path, right here, right now, through this Stone. It was aware of him now. Aware, and docile. Elohl reached out a hand, placing it on the massive plinth. And when his fingers contacted the Stone, all seven eyes upon the column blinked.

Eleshen whistled. “Do that again.”

Elohl put his other hand to the stone. The column blinked again.

“Do you think we can travel by it now?” Eleshen whispered.

“Get your things,” Elohl murmured, “and get ready to travel.”

Eleshen nodded, one quick dip of her chin. Hastily, she moved off. Elohl heard sounds of her whisking through the grass, jangling her pack, stuffing away pots and bedrolls. And though he wanted to help her, something held him. He stood there, transfixed, eyes closed now, feeling the Stone, leaning into his palms. Almost, something came to him. A flash of a stern countenance, maybe. A feeling of purpose, like someone goaded him, challenged him.

And suddenly, Eleshen was back, one pack upon her, the other dragged across the overgrown flagstones. “Elohl? Are you all right?”

He blinked, realizing he’d been deep in trance. “Fine. Are you ready? Prepare for pain, Eleshen. This won’t be pleasant. And shuck your pack. Just hold it between your knees.”

She waved a hand dismissively, handing his pack over and then dumping hers, doing as he suggested. “Women know all about pain. Don’t worry about me. Let’s do this.”

He set his hands to the Stone again and she did the same. Elohl closed his eyes, digging into that trance, feeling the Stone’s sight crawling all over him, pulsing now, demanding. Demanding so many things, but first of all, that Elohl travel.

“All right, I’ll do it, you bastard…” Elohl breathed out at no one. “I’ll take it.”

He’d not known why he’d spoken those words, rather than the ones he’d been trained to since childhood, the words Alranstones supposedly responded to. But he needed say no more. In a clap of thunder that split Elohl’s ears, he was sucked in. Twisted through, folding and writhing, on the edge of screaming madness, pain ripped and gutted him. And just when he thought death had come, just as he was succumbing to it, it spat them out unceremoniously upon the other side, in a sprawling heap in the wooded grotto near Lintesh that Elohl remembered all too well. They sprawled into the tall grass. Gasping, Elohl could do nothing for a few moments, his body stunned. Feather-blume was in season, his mind noted from faraway, the tall wispy fronds obscuring the rest of the forest. Little keens of pain came from Eleshen at his side. But at last, his faculties returned, though everything still ached like it had been burned. He rose to his feet, offering Eleshen a hand. With a grimace of pain, she took it and rose.

“Let’s never do that again…!” She growled through gritted teeth, picking up her pack and slinging it on.

“What if we have to?”

Eleshen blinked, stopped, stared at him. “Do you have some plan you’ve not told me about since you dream-climbed that damn plinth? And got all those by some fucking magic no one will ever understand?” Her fussy fingers poked at his new markings, where they could still be seen above his jerkin’s high collar, a few tendrils creeping up the sides of his neck, though his jerkin’s cross-over flap was now buckled high and tight. “Yesterday, you were a gruff, troublesome man, Elohl. But today, you’re changed. Don’t tell me you can’t feel it. That Stone did something to you.”

He gazed at her, comprehending and yet not. A flicker of dream pushed through, suddenly. A man standing tall before him, decorated by sigils in red and white. But just as Elohl focused upon it, it slipped away. “Am I changed?” He murmured.

He hadn’t exactly been addressing Eleshen, but she nodded decisively. “I can’t put my finger on it yet, but you seem… lighter. More purposeful. Whatever that thing did to you, you’re less lost now, I’d wager my boots on it. Well? What now? What plan did that damn Stone dump into your brain? It better be a good one for all that misery we just endured!”

Elohl hefted his pack from where it had fallen on the ground when he sprawled through the stone. “I don’t have a plan, Eleshen. Other than collecting my pension and finding some Guardsmen to speak to, someone who might have known Olea. I’m a loyal Brigadier, honorably discharged. My name will be in the lists. I am instructed to pick up my papers of discharge at the West Guardhouse, and my discharge pay. So we’ll start there.”

Elohl started off through the copse of woods, angling left to follow the stream as it coursed out of the grotto away from the Alranstone, down the forest’s slope towards the city. He knew the way by heart, etched within him all those years ago, though his pain of those memories seemed distant today. As if the ice that lived within him had been sloughed, worn away, warmed. His long strides were easily matched by Eleshen’s short, quick ones. Soon, they were through the Kingswood, the sloped margins of the forest breaking to level fields as they approached the Watercourse Gate of Lintesh.

The gate was bustling with activity, people passing with carts and oxen, some higher lords moving through upon horseback. The land was dry this far down from the mountains, and on the edge of the Elhambrian Valley, it was hot with the sweeping fugue of summertime. Crickets chirruped to their passing. Cicadas whirred in the oaks that dappled the way at the edge of the forest. Elohl and Eleshen strode from the fields and onto the bluegrey grit of the thoroughfare, joining the activity that kicked up dust beyond the massive gates with their fanged portcullis high above, embedded into the towering guardwall of the First Tier.

The whole thing looked like a wolf’s maw to Elohl suddenly. He halted, staring at it, watching people moving in and out beneath those cruel iron fangs, engulfed and regorged by the beast, its jowls of stone wide. Eleshen paused at his side with a quizzical look. Elohl’s attention drew into his shoulder blades, the spot behind his heart humming, prickling. But it was only a vague discomfort, nothing that signified immediate danger.

Elohl squared his shoulders, adopting the pose of command he used with his climbing team. Glancing down, he made sure the crossover flap of his military jerkin was properly buckled. The thin lines of gold upon the sides of his neck would raise eyebrows, but only because it was unusual. Inking was not common in Alrou-Mendera, but there were places on the borders where customs had come from other lands. Soldiers were often Inked in various ways, especially if they had traveled.

He strode forwards, towards a knot of guards that stood by idly to keep the foot traffic and carts flowing. Fishing out his discharge notice from his leather belt-purse, he walked up to a likely guard with blonde hair and a stern, no-nonsense face, and a posture of strength that spoke of rank. The man noted his approach with cool interest, his eyes flicking over the small amount of gold that could be seen upon Elohl’s neck, before noting Eleshen with obvious pleasure.

“Business in the King’s City, Soldier?”

Elohl nodded and handed over his notice. The man scanned it, then looked up, his eyebrows raised with respect. “High Brigade? Honorable discharge of completed service? We don’t get many of these. Follow me, please, Lieutenant.”

The stocky guard left instructions and the rest saluted him, confirming Elohl’s suspicion of his position. He led the way, dodging and weaving through the mid-afternoon traffic of the Tradesman Quarter. Carts and people lingered at the colorful awnings of market-stalls all along the upsloped main avenue, leading towards the higher Tiers of the city, nestled in the embrace of the encircling Kingsmount. Pennants with the cobalt crest of House den’Ildrian fluttered in the hot breeze, lofted upon tall wrought-iron poles at intervals between solid buildings of ancient bluestone. Some of the buildings in this poorer Quarter were ornately gabled and fluted, carved straight from crags of the mountain, but the area was dominated by lower four-story affairs built of hewn stone blocks. Here and there were houses of thatch-and-beam, crammed in among the rest like an afterthought.

The broad avenues had been expertly designed long ago, their blocks tightly-fitted though deeply worn from the passage of traffic over time. Dust gathered, swirled up into the air with a reek that smelled of city, unclean to Elohl’s nose. Sweat and horse, shit and piss, the iron tang of smelted metals. Elohl swatted at a fly trying to lick sweat from his neck. But despite its brusque, impersonal nature, the city around the palace had the easy feel of summer. Wash lines extended from nearly every window, fluttering like festival flags. Folk laughed, worn faces smiling as they drank ale, listening to a bard belting out a humorous song on a tavern porch for the midday meal. A troupe of Travelers performed at the fountain ahead, tambourines chiming, drums pounding as a sextet of tumblers launched each other into the air.

Elohl stared around him, seeing such a different city than he remembered. That night it had been full of ghosts, but today, it was full of life. A life so hot and bright that something warm glowed in his chest. Something purposeful and good, that made him smile as he saw a tiny girl clearly enjoying the hell out of a ripe sour-melon. Bright green juice was all over her chubby little cheeks, being wiped at to no avail by her scolding mother.

Something bubbled up within him, and Elohl laughed. Eleshen blinked at him, stunned.

The soldier escorting them looked over, a grin upon his face. “Feel good to be home?”

“Lintesh isn’t my home. But it feels good all the same.” Elohl found he was smiling.

“So were you a rope-man, Lieutenant?” The solider spoke again.

Elohl shook his head. “Lead-hand.”

The man’s blonde eyebrows nearly crawled off his face. “Not many lead-hands make it ten years.”

“I’m the first in three seasons.”

“Seen some action?”

Elohl nodded. “Skirmishes the past few summers. But the Red Valor tend to not assault the border when the snows are more than ten feet deep in the low crags.”

“And in the high crags?”

Elohl smiled at the man. “High pass climbing is all snow, all the time. We pick our way up frozen gorges and waterfalls. Gotta watch out in summer, though. Usually the waterfalls aren’t as stout as they seem.”

The man blinked. “You are one ballsy—” he glanced briefly at Eleshen, “—gentleman.”

Elohl laughed, his heart soaring to the brightness and noise. He clapped the fellow on the back. “Whatever you say. I’m just glad it’s over. Time for me and the missus to settle down. Once we get my King’s Pension.” It was a light ruse, but one that was needed right now, just in case Elohl was still being followed.

The guard’s gaze slid to Eleshen, admiring, who smiled indulgently. “Are there any farms or inns for sale in the area, my good man?” She quipped, playing the ruse.

The Guardsman dipped his chin. “Not that I can say, missus. I just keep the gates. You’ll have to see the King’s Castellan, Lhaurent den’Karthus, about the buying and selling of property in the region. The King’s Household keeps all those lists.”

“And whom do I see about my pension?” Elohl asked, making conversation until he could delve deeper into asking about whether this fellow knew about Olea.

“The Captain-General should be in the West Guardhouse right about now. She’s the one to see. Her secretary can’t dispense funds without her present, so if she’s not there, you’ll have to wait a bit. But there’s plenty of shopping and amusement in the Central Plaza, good taverns, too. The White Wheat makes a great lamb mitlass, not to mention has a private contract with the Jenners for their best pale ale every season. Lots to do while you wait for Captain den’Alrahel.”

Elohl pulled up short, stunned. “Captain?” His mouth fought for words. “Your captain is a she?” His heart hammered his chest, his senses soared wide, hoping. Fearing.

“Yeah! Most beautiful goddess of the sword you’ve ever met! But don’t tell Captain Olea I said that. She’d gut me, knives fast as she has and temper three times as quick! And a word of advice? No matter your feelings on the Kingsmen Treason, don’t mention her Inkings. She got ‘em, she flaunts ‘em, and she’ll not give you your pension if you get nasty. I’ve seen it. Here we are! The Central Plaza. West Guardhouse is just there, across the way. Enjoy Lintesh, Brigadier! You too, milady.”

With a salute to Elohl and a bow over Eleshen’s hand, he turned away, threading off into the throng. Elohl was left with his gaze pinned to the main gates of Roushenn Palace, looming between two towers of stone. The Guardhouses were austere, made of solid bluestone carven out with arrow-slits, topped with niches aplenty for a whole host of archers to rain hell down upon any invader. The massive wall above the gate was crowned with trebuchets, more spaced along the turrets of the wall, all glinting in the sunlight, well-oiled despite having never been used in recent memory.

But it was not what caught Elohl’s attention. The throng that dappled the broad market-plaza with its sprawling byrunstone fountain might as well have not been. There, far across the plaza, standing at the foot of the steps to the West Guardhouse, was his life. His feet sped, swift over the cobbles. Sound died away. Thought died away. There she was, stretching in the sunshine like a cat, currying her fingers though her tangle of blue-black curls and fanning that river of hair from the back on her neck in the sweltering heat. His gaze focused past her Guardsman’s jerkin, to her Inking so brazenly displayed. To her slender-muscled height, beautiful as a sword. Closing the distance, he saw the sea-grey of her eyes now, so clear, so luminous.

Olea had always seemed that way, like her very being had been spun of pure light.

A smile Elohl hadn’t felt in ages blossomed over his face. He shucked his pack to the dusty flagstones. And in two final, running strides, he had closed the distance. She gasped, her eyes wide. But she had no more moments to react as Elohl scooped his twin into his arms, pulling her close, smelling her blue-black curls, feeling every part of her come back to him. Joy flooded him. Peace. Crushing her close, he felt her, all of her, so beautiful. Her body was thinner than he remembered, corded with sinew. He could feel ribs beneath her cobalt jerkin, as if she wasn’t eating well. He pressed his lips to her wayward curls, crushing her close. A sense of completion overtook him as he felt her lips upon his jaw. Elohl tasted salt. It took a moment before he realized he was crying.

“Elohl!” She breathed, her arms fierce around his neck. “You came!”

“Olea.” He murmured into her tousled hair. “Aeon… where have you been?!”

“I’ve been here! I’ve been here the whole time!” She squeezed him, fierce. “When you stopped writing, I… I thought… But your name never came off the lists, no one ever reported you dead or missing…!”

Elohl pulled back, gazing down into her lovely grey eyes, the storms in them roiling to match his own, but lighter, safer. His twin. A part of his being, a part of his very self and yet not. Emotion flooded out of him, drowning him, lifting him, cracking whatever remained of his ice in sheets and sending it shuddering through his veins in a blissful tremor. He seized her face, rough and tender, kissing her brow, pressing their foreheads together.

“I never stopped writing, Olea! Every month, I wrote…”

“What?” Olea pulled back, her eyes red-rimmed. “But… I stopped getting letters eight years ago!”

Trepidation rippled Elohl’s gut. “I stopped getting yours at the same time…”

Olea’s grey eyes suddenly went hard and flicked around the wide plaza. “Not here. Inside.” She hissed suddenly. “Hold your tongue until I say it’s safe. Too many people may have seen us.”

Olea stepped out of his arms, brusque, as if nothing had happened. She turned and leaped the stairs to the guardhouse in a few long strides. Elohl followed, perplexed, Eleshen quiet upon his heels. Once they were inside in the stifling gloom, it was all business. Olea accepted Elohl’s notice of discharge, filing it in one of the many racks of scrolls and tomes that ringed the ample first level. She returned with a formal writ, had it witnessed by herself and her young secretary and stamped with a seal, her manner still efficient, kind but distant. She left the room. Elohl heard the clanking of a lockbox. Returning, she handed over a King’s Note in Elohl’s name for the majority of his pension and the rest in gold and some smaller change in a leather pouch. Coin changed hands. A formal thanks was given in the thick heat of the guardhouse.

Olea was escorting him and Eleshen to the door, when she leaned in swiftly and murmured, “Follow the man at the fountain. I’ll be along.” Then she clasped Elohl’s arm as if they were strangers, and shut the guardhouse door.

“Some homecoming! What was that all about?” Eleshen growled.

“Not now,” Elohl murmured. “Follow me.”

She shrugged, then followed in his wake through the throng in the plaza. Elohl scanned the crowd, wondering whom Olea had meant. But before he’d so much as turned in a circle, he suddenly felt a prickling blossom through his sensate sphere. He was being watched. He turned, his gaze sharpening upon the near edge of the fountain. And there, lounging upon the rim and staring at a potter’s stall, sat a man who was clearly Alrashemni. Broad-shouldered, thick like a mountain, he was all stone and strength, his black curls shining blue in the sun.

The man at the fountain stood as they approached, his gaze skating over Elohl, then Eleshen. Turning, he moved his bulk off through the crowd, dodging carts with an ease that any other man his size could never have mastered. His movement confirmed what Elohl had already known. That he and Eleshen were in good hands.

He let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. Winding through quiet alleys, then dipping back into the city throng under the gate-portcullises, they wound their way back down through the Tiers to the Tradesman Quarter. The man disappeared down an alley, and when Elohl turned in, he saw the double-doors of a workshop open at the end. With a glance at Eleshen, who had been increasingly silent all this while, he strode forwards, feeling out for any threat. But there was none as they gained the end of the alley. Elohl and Eleshen slipped in the doors and out of the muggy heat into a cool, well-drafted workshop that smelled of silver tang. Inside, the mountainous man studied Elohl, leaning with arms crossed at a workbench. The forge-fires were unlit in his shop, a soft gloom suffusing the space, lit by a filtering of light down from high panes of smoky glass set all along the shop’s apex. At last, the man took one knee. He put a hand to his side where a sword should have been, and fingers to the scars upon his chest, where an Inking should have been.

Alrashemnesh ars veitriya rhovagnen,” he recited formally. “Alrashemni are welcomers of truth.”

Elohl shucked his pack by the door and took a knee also, making the same motion, one hand to a longknife at his hip as his sword was currently strapped to his back. The other palm went to his buckled leather jerkin, over his hidden Inkings. “Alrashemnesh ars veitriya rhovagnen.” He returned. It was a common start to Alrashemni negotiations. “I also welcome truth, and will speak whatever I can.”

The man rose, a kind smile lifting his scar-riven face. “You look just like your father, lad. Elohl, is it? Your sister said to expect you.”

A strange peace filled Elohl, gazing upon this man, knowing who he was, feeling the truth about him, shining and gentle. “You knew my father?”

He gave a small smile. “Some. Urloel was a great man. I hadn’t the occasion to meet him more than thrice, when he visited Dhemman to meet with our council, but he was tremendously wise, and patient. I’ve never seen such an accomplished negotiator. You should be proud, lad. He was a shining example of how we all should be.”

A choking feeling gripped Elohl’s throat, to hear such kindness, to feel it touching him, bolstering him. But there was no burn of anger anymore, and no freeze of calm. His emotions came naturally today, in a ripple that moved out from his heart and made him murmur, “Thank you.”

The big man nodded, stern but kind. “You’d be a Rakhan now—”

“I don’t wish to be.”

“Still.” The man’s deep grey eyes bored into Elohl. “It’s yours by right. By training. I can see the depth of leadership all over you, lad. I can feel it, deep in my heart. You’re Urloel’s son through and through. Hardship… has only honed it.”

Tears pricked Elohl. Eleshen was silent at his side. Her fingers stole out, clasping his lightly, a comfort. Elohl found he had nothing to say. Thoughts swirled in his mind of a time long gone, seeing how his life might have unfolded. Something must have shown upon his face, because the big man took a massive breath, then sighed it out.

“Forgive me.” He murmured. “I didn’t mean to—”

But just then, Olea strode in through the workshop’s heavy halberd-wood double doors, her curls wild. Elohl couldn’t stop himself from smiling with relief in his heart, singing his life like harp strings. She came straight to him, and Elohl wrapped his twin in his arms, fierce. She embraced him back, fervent, clutching him close.

“Elohl…” Olea breathed at his cheek. “Aeon be praised!”

“I told you I would find you.” He murmured in her ear, kissing her temple. “I told you I would always come for you. No matter what happened. No matter how far apart we are…”

He heard Olea’s choked sob, felt her shudder as she gripped him. “You don’t know how hard it’s been, without you…! Feeling that you were alive but without any confirmation of it!”

“When I find out who was waylaying our letters…” A fierce anger rose in Elohl at last, raging hot in his gut. Protective, he clutched Olea closer, never wanting to be separated from her again. And in this moment of fierce love, he felt a stillness wrap he and Olea both, a moment of calm emptiness. Olea heaved a massive breath, then sighed, pulling back at last. Elohl set his lips to her forehead and she leaned into his kiss, eyes closed, breathing quietly.

“I love you.” Elohl murmured, feeling it, all the ferocity of it, all the pain, all the bliss.

“I love you too, Elohl.” Olea murmured. “I love you so much!”

But rather than indulging her emotions further, it was Olea who pulled back, setting her hands to his shoulders, regarding him with a frank intensity that was frightening in it levelness. Elohl saw his own hardship, his own maturation staring back at him, ten years honed, ten years of Halsos’ Hell. Olea had weathered it, same as he. And come out fighting with a natural strength and righteousness, the presence of a commander and the steadiness of one. Elohl had always had to fight his inner rage, to be glacial and calm. But Olea had steadiness in abundance, the true leader for war.

Brisk and efficient, she gave him a small shake at the shoulders. “We have information that must be shared, Elohl. I’m afraid you’ve come home under a strange moon. The interference in us keeping contact is not the only atrocity that’s been brewed against the Kingsmen all these years.” Her hands fell from his shoulders and she turned, glancing at Vargen. “What did I miss?”

“We were just introducing ourselves,” Vargen rumbled gently. “But I didn’t get your name, milady?” He smiled, welcoming, to Eleshen.

Eleshen flushed noticeably. If she’d taken a step out to shake Vargen’s hand, Elohl was certain she’d have bumbled it. Even so, she flicked her long honey-blonde braid distractedly, managing to get it tangled in her pack-strap. She hauled it out, ripping a number of strands of hair, all with her wide eyes pinned to the big Kingsman.

“Eleshen.” She cleared her throat, speaking louder. “Eleshen den’Fenrir.”

“Welcome, Eleshen.” Vargen’s lips lifted. “Welcome to a Council of the Kingsmen. Though you bear no Inking, I can see you are a friend. But be warned. Anything you see, hear, or do in our presence may put you at risk. It should be your choice, to stay for our council or no.”

She cleared her throat again. “Well. Forgive me, big man, but I’ve already been involved in two assassination attacks on the road since meeting Elohl. And I’m thinking that I’m safer here with the three of you in this workshop than anywhere else in the nation! So. I’ll stay put. Thank you very much.”

“Assassination attacks?” Olea’s grey eyes were livid. “What? Who?”

“I don’t know who.” Elohl murmured, reaching out to steady her with a hand to the shoulder. “And I don’t know why. But my life has been attempted a number of times these past years, Olea.”

She blinked at him, perusing his face, his skin, his forearms where he had his shirtsleeves rolled up from the heat. He saw her note the blade-scars on the backs of his forearms from fighting, though his other wrist-scars were still hidden. Her gaze traveled up, noting how his jerkin was fully buckled, even in this heat. Her gaze lingered upon the sides of his neck.

She blinked. “Did you have yourself Inked with gold-leaf? Where in Aeon’s blazes did you have that done…?”

Elohl felt himself smile. “Those happened yesterday. Well, last night, actually.”

Olea raised her eyebrows. Elohl filled her in on the seven-eye tower and of his golden Inkings, giving her a succinct briefing as if they had never spent years apart. He watched Olea become more and more astonished with every word. When Elohl had finished, she reached out and touched the golden marks above his collar. Indulging her, he reached up, unbuckling the crossover flap of his leather jerkin, pulling it open, unlacing his shirt so she could see the pattern’s tendrils at their fullest, where they commingled with his true Inkings.

“Holy gods all above…” He heard Vargen utter softly.

“I always thought there was something special about you.” Olea had reached out, her calloused fingertips tracing the sigils and whorls of finest gold, lingering over the lines of minute script. “Mother used to say it. Protect Elohl, look out for him. He has a wyrrian way about him.”

“There’s more on my back.” Elohl murmured. “A sigil of a wolf and dragon fighting. Inside a flaming sun.”

Olea’s gaze flicked up to his, stunned. “Like the emblem in Roushenn’s throne room…! And upon the Deephouse doors.” Her grey eyes went distant for a moment, and Elohl saw thoughts burning through her like a wildland fire. Her brows knit. “Elohl. We need to speak privately. I have some… information I need to share with you.”

Vargen’s boulder voice interrupted them as he cleared his throat. “This conversation requires dinner and ale. Allow me to go out to the tavern down the street. I will fetch whatever we need tonight. Eleshen, would you care to accompany me?”

Olea’s smile was filled with relief at the Kingsman’s tact. And Eleshen for her part, flushed to the roots of her hair. “I’d be honored to,” she stammered, beaming. She glanced Elohl’s way.

“Go.” Elohl murmured. “You’ll be as safe with him as you’d be with me. Safer, maybe.”

She nodded, a complex emotion sliding through her. But when Vargen offered his arm, she took it as escort, and the two of them issued out through the double doors. Vargen glanced back to Olea and murmured, “Look for us within the hour. If we’re not back, ask the weaver across the alley. She has a reliable network of street lads, they’re good at finding people and gaining information.”

“I will.” Olea murmured.

Vargen nodded. He and Eleshen moved off, shutting the massive doors. Once they were gone, Olea turned back to Elohl, serious in the filtering gloom of the workshop. “Elohl. I have to tell you something right away. Other information about our kin’s disappearance will come out when Vargen returns, and you will hear everything that has so startled me these past few weeks, since Vargen and I made acquaintance. Since the Dhenra bid me re-open the investigation I was once making into the Kingsmen treachery with the Dhenir right before it killed him. But I have something else I must say first.”

Elohl blinked. It was a tirade of information, spilling from his sister’s lips. Startling information that made his heart jump, eager to know, eager to hear. “What do you mean? What have you found?”

“Later. For now, you have to know…” Her grey eyes shone with light, with ferocity. And with fear. “That you and I are of the King’s own line. That the surname den’Alrahel is ancient, and once it was blended with the crown. That men and women of House den’Alrahel, Linea den’Alrahel, have actually sat the throne, Elohl. And that House den’Ildrian is closely related. They have Alrashemni blood, Elohl. King Uhlas. Dhenir Alden. Dhenra Elyasin. And ours is no less royal.”

Elohl’s lips had fallen open. His mind roiled, denying it, wanting to forget what he had just heard. But like a storm, it built within him, churning, spinning, burning. A fierceness and a light came with it, a feeling of knowing. A face surfaced in his mind, a stern, wild face. Whorls of red and white Inkings.

Rennkavi.

Elohl’s legs turned to water. He stepped aside, sat heavily upon a workbench nearby. And like they’d been called, his Inkings began to itch and burn, searing upon his chest, prickling upon his shoulders and all down his back. “Royal?” Elohl whispered.

Olea had come to sit beside him. “King Uhlas told me. He knew. He gave me two tomes of the Alrashemni royal lineage, back to the founding of Alrou-Mendera.”

“But… our blood is thinned…” Elohl’s mind fought desperately for excuses, but his golden Inkings surged, thrumming.

“Not as thinned as Elyasin’s.” Olea breathed. “You and I still carry abilities, Elohl. Strange ways. Like the stories of the ancient Alrashemni. It’s the King’s line that has thinned out.”

“But they hold the throne. We’re sworn to them. The family who killed our people.” His eyes flicked to her.

She nodded. “So we are, Elohl. And I hold to it. I want no throne. I will never challenge Elyasin. She is our Queen-to-come, and I will fight for that with my very last breath. But this secret has been worth killing over. Someone knows. They’ve been trying to kill us all. The Kingsmen Summons was not given by Uhlas. He had nothing to do with it. He was deceived, as we were. I’ve had my share of assassination attempts, too. But they never get close enough, surrounded by Guardsmen as I constantly am. I’ve not told Elyasin about them…”

“Perhaps you should.”

Olea waved a hand. “She doesn’t know about all this. Not just yet. It places her in danger, and I can’t speak about it within the palace walls.”

“What do you mean? Because of palace spies? But you’d hear them coming, hear them hiding in the alcoves…”

“No. I don’t.” Olea’s gaze was frank upon him. “And that’s part of the concern. What Vargen will tell you when he returns is horrible, Elohl. Prepare yourself for it. Our kin did not leave Roushenn alive, of that I am now certain.”

“They’re gone.” He breathed softly. Some part of him had known. Some part of him had always known that it had been their last day, that morning he had escaped Roushenn.

“They’re all gone.” Olea murmured, reaching out to clasp his hand. “But we’re not. And the Dhenra’s not. Though someone wishes we were.”

 

[ * ]

 

Vargen and Eleshen had returned not long after, finding Elohl and Olea speaking quietly of her past with the Dhenir, of her life in the Guard, Elohl filling her in about his time in the mountains. Bottled ales of three kinds were hefted to a clean worktable and they all sat ‘round, tucking in to sandwiches of roast boar with cucumber sauce and a fruit salad of fresh melon with summer strawberries. Stories were told all around the workbench, late into the evening. Elohl heard Vargen’s wretched tale, all about the Kingsmen killings, the supposed demon, and the cursed back halls of Roushenn. He heard of Olea’s investigation with the Dhenir, and now her association with the Dhenra, and how she feared vastly for her liege’s safety, especially with a massive public event of her coronation upcoming at midsummer.

The conversation turned next to suspicions, of what King Uhlas might have known, of how paranoid he’d become at the end of his reign. Olea and Vargen’s suspicions that the Chancellate knew of Roushenn’s secret halls, and had perhaps ordered the slaughter of the Kingsmen. Of Olea’s suspicions that the Castellan or the Chancellors also had something to do with the King’s slow demise, and the Dhenir’s sudden death at the treacherous end of a darkened lighthouse. And as the conversation turned again, to Ghrenna’s vision and the mystery of the clockwork puzzle that Elohl had found in the box, Elohl suddenly sat up straight, blinking away stupor and drink.

“You still have the clockwork? Where?”

“I had a bad feeling before we returned to Alrashesh.” Olea nodded as Vargen moved to a side-bench and unlocked a drawer, pulling out a wooden cataloguing box and setting it upon the workbench where they sat. “So I hid your belt-purse in our log. The rotting one, in the forest hollow where we used to play pirates.”

An inebriated smile lifted Elohl’s lips. “Gods, I’ve missed you. So you’ve had it all these years?”

“I went back for it when I had some relief time for my service in the Guard. I went back to Alrashesh. It was still there. The leather had rotted, but the clockwork was just as pristine as the day we found it.”

Elohl gazed at the pieces in the cataloguing-box before him. Vargen had separated each piece of the clockwork into cataloguing squares. The silversmith brought out papers, each one corresponding to a numbered space in the box, depicting the sigils upon each wheel and fulcrum and pin copied in painstaking fashion.

“See here,” Vargen spread the papers out upon the main workbench, carefully pushing aside food and a mostly-drained flagon of ale. “I’ve tested each piece. Each one is wrought of either solid silver, gold, or platian, not alloyed. But there are thirteen pieces of rhoyanis. Rhoyanis is very rare, priceless, and is not indigenous to this nation. It comes from meteors that struck down in Ghrec and the deserts further south. You can only make something with it now if you melt down ancient artifacts, as all the natural rhoyanis has been used up. What you have here is a very expensive, very old puzzle, whose origins may be near Ghrec. I’ve been to the First Abbey and scoured their ancient southern language compendiums. Even asked a few Jenner scholars if they could make anything of those markings. They couldn’t. It’s not any language they’ve heard of. But unfortunately, lambsvellum scrolls deteriorate after about a thousand years, so they can’t say for sure the age of this script, or its origin. So, this is a deep mystery as well as a good puzzle.”

“Can you put it back together?” Elohl interjected.

Vargen glanced up. “I was rather hoping you’d give me that information. When you first saw it, can you remember which pieces were on top? What shape it was before it fell apart?”

“I can sketch it for you. When I held it, it… imprinted on my senses. I found myself drawing it in the snow for weeks after I arrived at the High Brigade.” Elohl reached for a sheet of paper. His weathered fingers began to sketch in careful, controlled motions. “It was rectangular, and fit in the palm of my hand. In the center was a dial with spokes like the Jenner sun. I think it was that rhoyanis piece there, I remember it shining even in the darkness of the cavern, like moonstone. Those long rods with the pinhead ends might be the spokes. The backing of the center wheel was like a teardrop… maybe that piece there.” He pushed his sketch back to Vargen. “That’s the best I can do.”

“I have something to start with at least. May I ask what this object is?”

Olea and Elohl glanced at each other in perfect unison. It was Olea who answered. “We have no idea.”

Elohl cleared his throat. “There was supposed to be something else in the box. Our comrade Ghrenna had a vision, that there would be a ruby ring within the box. And with the ring, we would be able to bring the Alrashemni justice. But there was no ring. Just this. The box fell to pieces when I handled it. Whatever this is, it was in there for a god’s age. Ghrenna was wrong.”

But he and Olea exchanged a look.

“What?” Eleshen quipped.

Olea fixed her with a steady gaze. “Ghrenna’s visions were never wrong.”

Vargen grunted. “So whatever she saw in the box was… what? A portent?”

Olea nodded. “Possibly. Who can say?”

“Or perhaps the clockwork is related to the ring.” Eleshen’s fussy fingers were hovering near the pieces, as if she might start picking them out. Vargen slid the catalogue cautiously out of reach, and she pouted.

Elohl blinked at her. “What?”

She slapped him lightly on the shoulder. “Well, clearly it’s magic! It fell apart when you touched it! But it’s withstood all of time’s other weathering? That just doesn’t make sense. Unless the clockwork has magic to it. Just like Alranstones awaken to your touch, Elohl, opening every damn eye upon a seven-eye Stone! And ink you in gold! Whatever it is, it’s tied to you. You’re the common link in strange events, I’d say. Maybe your mother was right. Maybe you do have a way about you.”

Elohl stared at her. He could feel his cheeks blushing, thoroughly embarrassed by her suggestions. He rubbed his short beard with one hand. “But that still doesn’t help us figure out why the clockwork was in the box and not the ring. Or what they do. Or how they are supposed to help us.”

Eleshen’s smug visage fell. She chewed her lower lip, frowning. “Well. Shit.”

Silence held court around the table. It was the Kingsman Vargen who finally spoke, his solid gaze resting thoughtfully upon Elohl. “Aeon above. She’s got a point. I can’t say about the clockwork, but I’ve heard something about this phenomenon with the plinth you came through, though, the opening of all seven eyes. Do you remember nothing of it, lad?”

Elohl shook his head. “Only the word rennkavi comes to mind. And sometimes I recall a part of my dream that night, just a man standing before me, stern, with red and white Inkings. What do you know of it?”

Vargen shook his head. “Well, the word and the man from your dream mean nothing to me. But, you say you had this dream atop the plinth. And then all seven eyes opened to you?”

“And they blinked for him.” Eleshen added. “What do you know that you’re not telling us, Vargen?”

“I know that seven-eye Stones were used for great teachings, so the legends say.” Vargen continued, taking a deep pull of ale from his mug. “I know that there are only three seven-eye towers in Alrou-Mendera, and a few scattered around the other nations. And there is a legend about them in the Jenner cannon, the parable of the Heimkellen. And the Uniter of the Tribes will open the eye of every septen Alranstone, from the mountain fasthold of Uhrkhennig to the Valley of the Ninth Seal. And all will come to him, refugees near and far. And the Lost Tribe will be found again. The heimkeller will celebrate at last, United.

Elohl blinked. “Where did you hear all that?”

A wry smile graced Vargen’s lips. “I looked into becoming a Jenner monk, for a time. Back when I was still… unsettled. History says that there used to be a religious sect among the Alrashemni, called Jhennik Alremani. They had strong opinions about god, and believed the Alrashemni to be a blessed people. They were unable to be impartial enough to act as moderators. So eight hundred years ago, they seceded from the Alrashemni proper. The Jhennik took over the Alrashemni’s ancient fortress in Lintesh and created the First Abbey, started brewing ales and leading a life of monasticism. I had one of their books of prayer and prophecy.”

Elohl leaned forward, intrigued. “The Jenners.”

Vargen nodded. “Just so. In any case, the Jenners consider themselves part of the heimkeller, the Ones Who Will Return Home. So they preach. And that there will come a person who can open the eye of every Alranstone, the Uniter of the Tribes, to get them there. It’s really more of a spiritual parable than something they actually believe. You know, the heimkeller are sinners who have forgotten Aeon, they will Return Home when one comes who teaches them how to live in brotherly love and unity and eternal bliss, that sort of thing. If you want to know more, you had better talk to the Jenners. But don’t tell them that you opened every eye on a seven-eye Stone, lad. It might break their minds, to hear a parable come to life.”

Elohl blinked. Something about Vargen’s words resonated with him, but he found his golden Inkings were quiet. And he felt, suddenly, that the information was right and yet it was far from right. Thinking deep, he took a swig of his ale.

It was Eleshen who perked to his right, sitting tall and saying suddenly, “Well. That’s it then. We’ll get some lodgings in the city and then go visit these drunk monks and see what they can tell us.”

“Jenners don’t drink.” Elohl heard himself murmur, remembering a dark alehouse deep underground, so long ago. Recalling the sigil of wolf and dragon upon the ironwood doors, seeming to roil and struggle as the torchlight guttered.

“Well. That’s just crap. Brewing all those ales? I’m sure they get soused, they just like to pretend they’re holy men.” She swigged off the rest of her ale. “So. Time to unravel this knot of wool and find out who’s hunting you.”

Elohl glanced over. Her determination showed in the stubborn set of her jaw. Eleshen was beautiful, in a no-nonsense way. He couldn’t help but smile. His fingers stole out, seeking hers. She gripped his hand. Elohl saw Olea’s gaze flick to it, saw her blink as if surprised, her gaze scouring his face before she finally smiled. He saw her sit back, taking it in. Taking it in that Elohl had found someone else. Someone other than Ghrenna.

Cerulean eyes surfaced in his vision.

Elohl pushed them away.

CHAPTER 19 – DHERRAN

 

 

The ready-tent was stifling inside, the high heat of the day baking through the thick canvas like a brick oven. Outside the tent, calls were going around, a susurration of voices raised in betting, wagering, drunk with liquor and anticipation. Grump was somewhere out in the rabble beyond, pushing men into wagering more, doing his regular, capable wheedling one last time for their trio today. Inside, Dherran could practically feel Khenria’s nervous tension flooding the space. She rolled out her shoulders stiffly, wearing her training halter, midriff bare. Her loose cotton pants bared most of her lean thighs, showing how skinny she was. Khenria was fighting at the strike of noon, and the day was sweltering already. Dherran’s own fight wasn’t for hours yet, fourth bell in the afternoon, but sweat had begun to glisten them both in the thick humidity of the tent.

“Remember.” Dherran stepped over with a dipper of water, noting with a twinge how lovely Khenria’s skin was and how much it was about to get bloodied and bruised. “No nasty tricks. If you do, you’ll be disqualified. Fight fair, but fight for your life if you have to. Sip. Hold it in your mouth and let it soak in. If you get hit, you’ll regret having a bellyful of water.”

She nodded, doing as told, fear widening her eyes.

“Have another.” She did, as Dherran continued his last-moment speech. “You’ll have this tent again if you win, to rest before the next bout as the other contenders take the ring to see who you’ll fight next. Second bout is twenty minutes after the first. First bout is easy. Second bout is hard. Your energy is sapped, you’ve had too much to drink, you’re heady from winning, and you’re hungry after your jitters have worn off. Second bout is where it counts, if you get there. One more sip.”

She did. The bell sounded, calling the women to the field. Khenria looked ready to jump out of her skin, terrified.

Dherran seized her by the shoulders, roughly. “Focus! You’ve done this a hundred times! Let her move first. Watch how she does it, even a footstep is enough to go by. Watch her balance.” He seized Khenria’s chin, shaking it, making her bristle. “Find her weakness and rip her apart, Hawk-Talon.”

That calmed her. Something about the name made her courage rise, every bit the little hawk, ready to fight. The bell rang again for the fighters to take the field. Khenria turned towards the tent-flap and Dherran slapped her on the ass, hard. She yelped, turning a fierce glower upon him.

“Go sink your talons in.” He shoved her towards the tent-flap.

“You bastard!”

“You’ll thank me later.”

“Fuck you.” Ferocious at last, she stood tall, stalking to the exit and ripping the tent flap back viciously. Dherran followed her out, but through another panel, trailing her along the spears, knowing she could feel his support even though her concentration was fixed upon the ring where it should be. Dherran shoved forward, pushing his way through men who cursed drunkenly until they saw Dherran’s brute size and his scowl.

Through the spears, he saw the two women face off, slight Khenria with an older blonde opponent. The bell rang. Khenria waited, watching the blonde carefully. The woman took a step, and Dherran saw Khenria note it, heavy, sluggish. And Khenria was as spry as they came. She took the blonde down with one swift unbalancing, letting the blonde’s own momentum carry her to the ground. The blonde didn’t know how to roll, and hit the hard-packed dirt of the fairway with a sickening thud. She scrabbled hard on the ground, trying to use her weight and muscle to her advantage, but Khenria had her trussed up neatly into a choke-out in moments. In thirty-eight seconds, it was over.

Khenria was all elation when she returned to the tent. Dherran massaged her out for a few minutes, as they listened in silence to the fight happening in the ring to decide her next opponent. There was cheering, then booing, then cheering again, and suddenly, a painful scream and the bell rang. Khenria startled, rattled.

“Breathe,” Dherran murmured. “Second bout is harder. Remember that.”

Khenria nodded, just as the bell rang again, calling the next match. She wasn’t as steady as she exited this time, but her head was high, proud. And just as Dherran had anticipated from that scream, the second bout was vicious. Khenria got hit four times right away, testing punches from a quick redhead who was all muscle. The redhead was fierce, and Khenria was resting on her laurels. A black eye and a nasty punch to her right jaw cured that, then another on her left ear that Dherran knew had rung her bell. Her eyes dazed. And then Dherran saw her rage rise. It surfaced like a demon, tearing through Khenria’s limbs, making them rattle and shake. She roared like an animal, making her opponent take a quick step back. And here it was. Khenria was about to make her worst mistake, about to step in close and let her rage best her.

About to get the shit beat out of her.

“Khenria! Focus!” Dherran roared from beyond the planted spears of the summer-ring. Others shrank back from him, cursing. His roars were famous, but this town hadn’t heard them in a year and some.

It had the intended effect. Khenria blinked, shivered like a horse in battle, then settled. The redhead stepped in. Khenria waited. The redhead threw another punch towards Khenria’s face. Like a hawk in mid-dive, Khenria feathered to the side, putting her weight behind a vicious uppercut that cracked the redhead’s teeth, then an elbow to the head. The redhead crumpled. Cheers rang through the crowd. Khenria’s face was all triumph as she thrust her hands high.

But Dherran was watching the woman on the ground. She was faking, taking a moment to rest, to gather herself. And before Khenria knew it, she was swept from her feet, hitting the ground hard. The redhead was on her, pinning, forearm to the throat, choking her out. Khenria panicked, beginning to kick, losing her coordination. But then Dherran saw her get control, tangling her legs in the other woman’s, twisting her hips, rolling the redhead off and to her front, getting her in a headlock. The redhead panicked, throwing a fistful of dirt up into Khenria’s eyes. Khenria shrieked like a falcon during the kill, but only locked her talons down harder.

The redhead choked out.

Khenria hardly waited to be named the victor. She strode from the ring, wiping angrily at her eyes, feeling her way out along the line of spears. Dherran met her at the tent flap, hastily leading her inside after hearing the verdict from the judges.

“Easy, Khenria! Sit here. Yeah, here, there’s the bench.”

“My eyes feel like glass! Fuck that bitch!!” Khenria hissed.

Dherran picked up a ceramic wash-basin and set it on the bench, guiding her hands to it. “Rinse them out.” She started to rinse at the ceramic wash-basin, winced and pouted at Dherran. Something about it was adorable and delicious, and he couldn’t help but chuckle. “Keep going. Rinse it out. It’ll be better by the time you do the next bout. You almost lost your temper on that one. Lose your temper, lose your First Seal.”

“Fuck her! She had all sorts of dirty tricks.”

“Some do. You have to fight them anyway, be the better woman. Not everyone is trained by a Kingsman.”

Khenria looked up at that, red eyes calming, thoughtful. “I never thought of it that way.”

“She was disqualified for it.”

“What?” Khenria rinsed her mouth with some of the water, spat, and winced when Dherran touched her cheekbone, then her jaw.

“Open your mouth. Any clicking in the joint? Blink hard. Ok, nothing broken. I heard the judges. Your opponent was disqualified for throwing sand.”

“Good. I would have torn that bitch limb from limb for it if the match hadn’t ended.”

Dherran moved to her shoulders, massaging them out. “Remember, Hawk-Talon. Fighting is only a part of what we do. Sometimes you have to negotiate. Study, learn, find their weaknesses and use them in the ring. Use the crowd to break them. Ready?”

She nodded, and the bell rang. Khenria had another sip of water, but they had no words for each other now. Dherran sent her out the tent with a nod. Her third bout was well-matched. The woman was of average stature, muscled but not thick, with a calm demeanor and a tight bun to hold back her hair. From his place outside the spears, Dherran could see that she was cool and calculating, and it actually brought out the best in Khenria. A number of test punches were thrown in both directions this time, some landing, some glancing, some missing. Their footwork was agile and challenging in the dust, both women breathing steadily to keep cool as the sun scorched down. But then, Khenria missed a punch. The woman landed one on Khenria’s already-damaged left ear. Khenria winced, dropping into a backwards roll to get some space.

The crowd booed.

Khenria’s eyes snapped wide, noticing the crowd for the first time. A rotten head of lettuce was thrown at her, then another. Dherran saw her hiss, then approach the brown-eyed woman again. This time, she let a punch land, a jab to the gut. She allowed her breath to flow as Dherran had taught her, and soon had the woman pummeled with a tight combination of punches. The brunette staggered backwards, rolled away out of reach.

The crowd booed the brunette now. Rotten pears were thrown. Khenria wasted no time. She rushed into her strike, surging on the momentum of the crowd, breaking the woman with a tidy collection of strikes. A last punch to her neck, and it was over. Khenria did not celebrate as the crowd cheered her, merely nodded to either side, spine straight and head high, glorious like a fucking Queen.

The crowd cheered harder. She nodded at Dherran, smirking at last.

He nodded back.

Khenria stalked off towards the ready-tent with a swagger, and it set Dherran’s loins pulsing. But he saw the scoreman beckoning, marking Dherran as Khenria’s trainer. He went to the scoreman, had a few low words, and finally made for Khenria’s tent.

He thrust the tent-flap aside, clapping, his heart expansive with pride. “That’s it. You’re done.”

“What?!” She was livid, snarling as she surged up from the wooden rest-bench. “What do you mean? I’m supposed to fight one more! That fight was clean! I didn’t use a single dirty trick! I can’t be disqualified!”

Dherran laughed. She was gorgeous, all beaten up, sweat-streaked, and vicious as they came. And suddenly, Dherran didn’t want to try so hard to resist her. She was a warrior, every bit as fierce as Suchinne had been, the kind of woman that made him hard, that made his heart swell. He surged forward and gathered her up, kissing her hard. She struggled with a muffled squeak, then relaxed into it, sagging in his arms.

She pulled away, flushed. “I have to focus… damn you… I’ve got one more fight…”

Dherran kissed her again, long and deep, and she melted into him, kissing him back until they were both breathless. “You’re done.” Dherran finally managed. “I told you. Your final opponent resigned.”

Khenria’s eyebrows shot up and she pulled back. “Resigned? I don’t get to finish it?”

“She’s got a broken foot, love. Finished her last bout, but that was all she could do. She’s out. You got the purse.”

Khenria blinked, cocked her head. “Do I get my First Seal?”

Dherran smoothed her sweaty ruff of curls back. “You do. Congratulations, Khenria den’Bhaelen, Hawk-Talon of the Bhaelen Alrashemni. Your First Seal is complete.”

And then he kissed her again, hard.

Grump swooped into the tent not a minute later, breaking up their kissing with purses rattling full of coins, both from his wagering and from Khenria’s winnings. The women’s bouts were profitable, it seemed, apparently moreso than the men’s.

Khenria was all elation as they tromped back to their inn for the midday break. It was packed to the rafters for the festival, but a hearty cheer sounded as Khenria entered. She’d been recognized. The beaming innkeeper’s wife showed them to a table that was quickly cleared of its other guests by the rotund innkeeper, whose jowls wiggled as he blustered and smiled, all for Khenria. A late-noon repast was on the house, and they ate like kings, roast guinea-fowl with a sauce of aged dark vinegar and summer strawberries, not to mention as many ales as they could drink. Khenria wolfed it all down like the skinny girl she still was.

A parade of townsmen came by, and a few women also, to congratulate her as she ate. Surrounded by ogling men, Khenria soaked up the attention, giggling and grinning, flirting ferociously. Dherran found himself scowling at them all, a hot jealousy simmering in his chest.

But suddenly, Grump, drunk as bats, lurched up out of his seat. “Got to see to the horses, Dherran! Back in a trice!” Grump stumbled quickly to the rear door of the inn, out towards the stables.

And in that moment, a clarion baritone called out, clipped with the precise, elegant tones of the aristocracy. “The dark beauty of the day!”

Khenria’s circle of admirers was interrupted by a sword-thin older man with iron-streaked blonde hair. Other men noted him, stepped back quickly, removed hats from their heads. Dressed in a richly-tailored russet leather jerkin with gold embroidery and an immaculate white shirt of what looked to be fine silk, the lord who had addressed Khenria was especially solicitous, bowing over Khenria’s hand and kissing it with perfect manners. His pale blue gaze was appreciative, sliding over Khenria’s curves in just the sort of way that made women wilt rather than fume. Handsome in the extreme, the lord was still in his prime years. And he knew exactly how to use what Aeon had given him, his perfection of manners and poise only accentuating his exquisite leanness.

“Khenria den’Bhaelen, was it?” He murmured smoothly in a level baritone, neither unctuous nor swooning, his blue eyes arctic and piercing. Khenria was already melting for him, her hand still in his, swooning into a puddle to his fine manners. The lord arched one ash-blonde eyebrow, a battle-hard glint in his eyes, even though his lips held a slight smile. “You had your opponents on the run. Well-fought, milady.”

“Thank you.” Khenria breathed, impressed.

The man was still lingering over her hand. Dherran didn’t like it one bit. The fellow reminded him of a raptor, calculating and skilled, and Dherran was certain the man had a reputation with women. He leaned back, crossing his arms menacingly over his broad chest. The lord’s pale blue eyes flicked over. They roved over Dherran’s hair, his skin, landing briefly at the center of his chest, where Dherran’s Inkings were well-hidden. And Dherran had the creeping sensation that his measure was being taken, in every way. Almost as if the man wished to fight him.

“Are you her trainer?” The lord murmured.

“I am.” Dherran was not solicitous, his tone blunt. “I didn’t get your name. Sir.”

The lord inclined his head, but his pale gaze never left Dherran’s, challenging. Angry. “I am the Vicoute Arlen den’Selthir. The lands in and around Vennet are mine to caretake. But I offer my congratulations to you, sirrah. The lady is a very fine fighter. I recall seeing moves like that in the Khessian Hills, when the Kingsmen came to settle a dispute among the border lords. It was done by individual combat, as the leader of the Khessian Rebels was a haughty man. He didn’t last long. But that is all ancient history, as they say.”

He leaned down, lifting Khenria’s hand to his lips again, letting them linger, his eyes pinning her. Dherran saw that she flushed, falling easy prey to the man’s perfect, subtle manners.

“My lady. Congratulations again to you. If you are lingering in Vennet for the entirety of the festival, you must come stay at my manor. You and your trainer, and your servingman whom I noticed leave to tend your beasts. My title is Vicoute, but you, my lady, may simply call me Arlen.”

Khenria’s eyebrow quirked as she made a moue with her mouth, and Dherran realized she was trying to play the man, and trying too hard. “My trainer fights five days from now, at fourth bell in the afternoon, Vicoute Arlen. You may wish to see the impetus of my genius.”

“Does he?” The lord’s cool blue eyes showed no amusement, roving over Dherran. And again, Dherran had a feeling of anger from the man, as if Dherran had personally wronged him. “I will attend. I must see the origin of this maelstrom. Until then.” He bowed regally, then turned away, men of lower birth parting before his fine red leather like water, his two brawny retainers in tow.

Dherran turned to Khenria, fuming. “What was that?”

“What?” She pouted fiercely.

“You did everything but flash your breasts at him!”

“Gods, Dherran!” Khenria threw up her hands. “We were only talking!”

“You’ll have all the lords scraping and bowing, Khenria.” His words were sour. So was his mood, his hot jealousy raising to ferocious heights, churning his stomach with bitter gall. So quickly he had gone from elation of her winning to love for her passion, and now to this. Rage. Wrapped around her littlest talon, he felt strung on a line, hooked.

Caught in love, once again. And how it burned.

“Fuck you, Dherran,” she hissed fiercely, taking a large swig of her ale.

“Why don’t you just go fuck him?” Dherran barked back. He saw her face crumble. He saw how he’d hurt her as her eyebrows drew up in a line, astonished. He saw as she shrank back how much of a callous brute he was being. But he couldn’t help it. Like it or not, her talons had sunk into him deep, and now they both had to deal with the outcome.

Dherran pushed up out of his seat. He turned his back, making for the stairs up to his room, ignoring Khenria calling out behind him at the table.

CHAPTER 20 – THEROUN

 

 

Chancellor Theroun stood off to one side of the ornate gilded desk in the Mirror Hall, where the pile of papers from his rooms now sat, temporarily moved by Thaddeus. The young, slender secretary was shuffling them, sorting them into stacks by nation, comprehensive lists off to one side. Theroun stood, arms crossed over his chest. He wasn’t the biggest man, but his presence was commanding, he knew, and he had always stood during a conference of war. He really didn’t see suitor’s negotiation talks as any different.

But today was different. Today he had a role to play.

He watched with his customary scowl as the Dhenra glided into the room from the south-second hall. Elyasin was resplendent, clad in a pale yellow silk gown cut low upon her bosom that clung to every movement. Her golden hair was done up cleverly in what Lhaurent had said was the current fashion in Elsthemen, with bone pins long enough to stab a man piling her bright waves in ornate braids, leaving her slender neck bare. Midnight-grey hahled-opals dripped from her ears and in a long spray from her neck, their veins of red fire catching the light and flaring like the Dhenra burned from within.

It was a fetching combination, the hahled-stones native to Elsthemen, a nod to Elyasin’s suitor today. She was going to slaughter King Therel Alramir. But her beauty was not what made the pain in Theroun’s right side lance. He bent into a deep bow to cover his twitch as the Dhenra proffered her hand for him to kiss, silk whispering about her person. She was quiet today, thoughtful, and she nodded to him.

“Chancellor Theroun. I have read your treatise of the Elsthemi Highlands. My thanks to you and your apprentice for assembling it.”

“Your highness.” Theroun bent over her hand, curtly, then straightened, hiding a wince. She turned from him, dismissing him until later, and glanced at Lhaurent. The man slid forward to his Dhenra smoothly, his soft grey boots hardly whispering over the gloss-polished bluestones inlaid with pearlvein that caught the light and threw it back, dazzling every mirror in the hall.

Lhaurent bent over the Dhenra’s hand far more smoothly than Theroun had, his rings whispering beneath her fingers. “How may I serve, Dhenra?”

“Please show the Elsthemi delegation in from the Crown Room. I am ready to receive them.”

Lhaurent bowed deeply, then turned and slid away. The Dhenra motioned her guards back into various alcoves, leaving only Captain den’Alrahel close to Elyasin’s person. The Captain-General of the Guard was a mess, her dark curls windblown and a hard glint in her grey gaze. Her shirt was sloppily laced and her cobalt jerkin undone nearly halfway, brazenly baring her Inkings. Their eyes met. Theroun felt like keshars had just stalked his grave. Part of him was impressed with the den’Alrahel woman, at the fighter in her, as he always was.

And part of him could not abide her, for what she was.

Olea den’Alrahel’s attention flicked past Theroun, scouring the room. The Dhenra turned and sat upon a high-backed, slender chair with red-tufted upholstery. She had strategically placed herself near the desk, near Theroun and her Guard-Captain, leaving room for King Therel and his entourage upon the other side of the circle of chairs. It was an informal meeting today in this small, personal drawing-room. The first of many, to discuss light matters and begin to broach issues of trade with the Highlands. Hence the Mirror Room rather than the Small Hall with its formal dining and negotiation table that could seat a good hundred.

The double-doors to the front of the Mirror Room opened with a boom of air, stirring the indoor potted palms that flanked massive gilded mirrors. King Therel Alramir of Elsthemen strode in, followed quickly by his cluster of knights, lords, and guards, all wearing travel-ready buckled leathers and furs in the Elsthemi Highlands fashion.

Tall and loping in, King Therel strode down the red annunciation carpet with his pack. His light blue eyes were wolf-like in their pale attentiveness, and he scoured the room as if he expected battle, one hand to a plain, functional sword only sparsely set with gilt. An astonishingly handsome man, the young King was in his middle twenties, his military-short white-blonde hair and scruff of blonde stubble displaying the rumors about him, that he was both seductive and frighteningly sharp. Resplendent in a light grey cloak with a grey wolf-pelt for a collar, he wore a black leather jerkin like his men, only the silver-etched buckles showing his station. Black tallboots rode his grey breeches, and it was here that King Therel’s true nature showed. Buckled up the side with clever sheaths for knives, those leather boots were all function and no pomp.

But upon seeing the Dhenra stand to receive him, he startled suddenly. It was a movement Theroun had not expected from such a cold, lupine man. Shivering to a halt, he looked at her, really looked at her. Other suitors had stared at the Dhenra, lovely as she had been upon those other days, but this was uncanny. Therel’s regard had sharpened upon her so keenly, that had he been a lance, he would have pierced right through her breast. A moment passed in the hall, Therel’s retainers confused, halting at his back, glancing at the Dhenra, then back to their liege. But as quickly as her radiance had stopped him, King Therel recovered. A seductive, lupine smile curled his lips, a smile of eager pleasure, his pale blue eyes rapt with attention upon the prize that was Elyasin.

King Therel strode forward and gave an ornate swirl of his cloak, showing the blood red interior. Reaching forward smoothly, he fetched Elyasin’s proffered hand, bowing over it with a snap of his boots, genteel. It was a showy gesture, but well-reasoned. He didn’t have to bow. She was a Queen-heir, but he was a full King already, his father having died three years prior. But regardless of that, King Therel Alramir played a smart entrance. He hadn’t come to their first meeting with a circlet upon his brow, nor much wealth of note. A pendant upon a plain silver chain dangled briefly when he bowed, but as he rose it slipped back inside his shirt. But Theroun had glimpsed it long enough to know that it was a keshar-claw that hung over the Elsthemi King’s heart. The Highlanders were wildmen, as wild as the cats they rode to battle.

And King Therel Alramir wore their emblem upon his breast.

“King Therel Alramir of Elsthemen. Be welcome. Are your suites to your liking?”

“Dhenra Elyasin.” King Therel’s speech held the subtle, rolling northern accent, like a cat’s purr. He did not relinquish her hand, but lifted it to his lips, his pale blue eyes riveted to hers. His kiss was lingering, a brush of lips that nevertheless flared poor untutored Elyasin. Theroun stifled a growl as he watched his Dhenra fidget, rubbing the knuckles of the hand that dangled at her side. Her green eyes were wide, her breathing high, her lips slightly parted. When King Therel removed Elyasin’s fingers from his lips, he didn’t drop her hand, but instead held it close to his mouth as he spoke, so she could feel the heat of his breath. “We are richly accommodated. Your palace is a wealth of gracious hospitality. I give my humblest thanks.”

He inclined his head, just a nod, but Theroun saw the Dhenra succumb even more. Her breathing quickened and her cheeks flushed, eyelashes fluttering as she reclaimed her hand. Something in Theroun growled at Lhaurent, who lingered nearby, watching in his best servile manner, hands clasped. That damn man had known that King Therel of Elsthemen would be the first to make such an impression upon the Dhenra. Her two prior suitors of note had been old hounds, and the young ones hadn’t held lands enough worth the Dhenra’s alliance. But this one. This suitor was a bright young wolf, and a rich one, and the impression that Lhaurent had engineered had been smoothly made.

In fact, the young tundra cur before Elyasin had rolled her well and good.

Just behind the Dhenra, Theroun saw Guard-Captain Olea den’Alrahel set her jaw in distaste of King Therel, her grey gaze scathing. Theroun quite agreed.

“Please.” Dhenra Elyasin gestured to the unoccupied chairs. “Sit. I invite your retainers to retire to the adjacent Rotunda Room to discuss potential trade benefits for the clans over wine and gaming with Chancellor Evshein, whom you have already had the pleasure of meeting. My Castellan will show them through.”

“You are most kind, Dhenra.” King Therel nodded and a generous portion of his entourage peeled away, following the bowing Lhaurent through a side door. Like the Dhenra, only a small cadre of guards remained, the roughhewn Highlanders scattering throughout the moderately-sized entertaining room, clustered around the gilded chairs in the middle of the pink and white granite columns. Two remained standing by their liege, including one older Highlander with white hair who walked straight and proud. Eyes dark and flinty, he wore an unembellished sword at his hip and a snowbear pelt around his shoulders.

Devresh Khir. The First Sword of Elsthemen.

Theroun narrowed his eyes upon the man, watching him closely.

King Therel unclasped his cloak and handed it off to a thick-muscled bear of a retainer, but left the shaggy grey pelt about his shoulders over his black leather jerkin, giving him a wild, roguish look. He settled himself upon a high-backed seat of red velvet as near the Dhenra as he could get, as she resumed her own chair. Everyone else had a seat, except for the guards and Theroun by the desk. Theroun folded his arms with his customary glower. He didn’t change his demeanor for any royalty, and he was not about to change it now. The white-haired First Sword eyed Theroun with mild hostility, but at last settled into a comfortable standing posture to the left of his liege.

Castellan Lhaurent returned to wait upon the gathered company, next to a rolling silver trestle laden with beverages and set with delicacies and roast meats. At the Dhenra’s nod, he cut the wax on a sealed bottle of wine with a moderate flourish and poured gilt-rimmed glass goblets, bringing them around. The silver-wrought trestle was wheeled to one side of the Elsthemi King, and all watched as Lhaurent tasted everything solemnly. At last, he stepped back, folding his hands and blending seamlessly into the mirrored room as though he had never been.

Thaddeus shuffled some papers behind the desk to Theroun’s right.

The Dhenra fiddled with her knuckles.

King Therel broke the yawning silence, clearly well-versed in courtly manners. He swirled his wine, admiring it for color and clarity. After a sip, he nodded and smiled graciously. “Very lovely. Your grapes bloom full and sweet, the mellow base complementing a high heady fragrance. It intoxicates me, Dhenra.”

He sipped again, leaning at his leisure upon one arm of his gilded chair, his ice-blue eyes never leaving Elyasin’s. Her cheeks colored, but Theroun noted with satisfaction that she did not duck her head. Instead, Elyasin had a very regal sip or her own wine, regarding Therel with shrewd appraisal. “You appreciate our southern grapes? We do not import grapes from any other nation, though the wines of Praough sweeten the palate and light the heart as well as any.”

Praough has an heir near marrying age, is what she means.

But King Therel only chuckled smoothly. “The far southern climes are too hot for proper grapes. In Alrou-Mendera, grapes are chilled by ocean mists and snowmelt streams, while heated by fine summer suns, making your strains the perfect combination of tenacity and delicacy. Dhenra.”

He sipped again, his regard pinning her.

“And yet the far southern grapes are hardy indeed. Do you think our grapes wan, easily taken by frost or drought?”

King Therel’s smile was all seduction and little else. “Wan? No, not hardly so. The beauty of Menderian grapes is that they persevere in the face of much hardship. Erosion of soil from snows and a touch of frost or blight only intensify the flavor of such heady grapes. A flavor which I long to taste, to swirl in its goblet as I take my leisure by the light of roaring fires in the dead of night. For what man wants a wan or a hard grape? No. A man wants a supple grape, one that is ripe with beauty and bursting with juices upon the tongue. One that is only made luscious and sweet by hardship, by scorching, a touch of mist, and the deep wells of snow from between the rift of crevasses. Only such a grape does a man wish to take at the height of summer, to punish beneath his bared skin into the sweetest of mellowed wines.”

Even Theroun was nearly gaping at the end of this onslaught. Papers shuffled nervously at his side, and Theroun held a hand out, forestalling Thaddeus’ fidgeting. The Dhenra’s eyes were riveted to King Therel. Her breathing was fast, her face and chest blooming crimson. She was silent a long moment, then gestured regally, albeit somewhat shakily, for her Castellan.

“Please…” She swallowed hard. “Another cup of wine for our honored guest.”

Lhaurent slid forward smoothly, wine to hand. He poured carefully, refilling the King’s goblet. As he backed away, Therel saluted Elyasin with his goblet. “To Menderian wines, the finest in all the land.”

The Dhenra swallowed hard, flushing again. “To gracious guests, who know quality when they see it.”

At least she still has her brother’s tongue. Good girl.

“Who know quality when they taste it.” Therel added, his lips curling into a rapacious smile. Theroun thought the Dhenra was going to drop her goblet, so violently did she tremble. She managed to hold onto it, and indeed, not to spill any upon her lovely buttercream gown. But Theroun noted with concern that her eyes did not leave King Therel over the rim of her goblet, and when it was time for petty conversation once more, the hand in her lap was rubbing one knuckle violently.

And so it went. Him with innuendo, though ostensibly speaking of trade, her trying desperately to counter, growing more and more fidgety as the afternoon progressed. It was agonizing to watch. Thaddeus was shuffling so furiously Theroun had to press his hand down upon the stack of papers to get the lad to quit. Thad startled. Theroun made stern eye contact. The lad blushed, nodding his chin at the scene still unfurling before them as if asking what to do about it. Theroun shook his head with a scowl, letting Thad know that any interruption would be a severe breach of station.

The Dhenra had to maneuver the raw sexuality of Therel Alramir all by herself. This wasn’t harder than managing a war, which she’d done in a vastly capable way for nigh-on two years. Theroun crossed his arms again, watching the pair duel it out, keeping an ear on Thad. He watched with scathing judgment as the Dhenra’s power slipped and slid, nearly obliterated by King Therel’s opening gambit. His salacious talk bruised her deep, and Therel had the upper hand of the conversation for most of that time, the Dhenra reeling and flushing, folding like a fan and more than likely entirely wet down below. Apparently, Therel knew what kind of talk made women wet, and that was it. Innuendo dripped from the man’s lips like honey, and Elyasin sank fast beneath wave after wave of his lances.

But for all that, King Therel Alramir had a keen mind, Theroun had to accede that. Friend or foe, the Highlander King was no fool, even if he had hacked a woman to pieces and stuffed her in a trunk. When sexual banter gave way at last to talk of trade and tariffs, Elyasin had come into her element at last. Standing with the briskness of a battle commander, she stepped to the desk where Thad and Theroun waited, asking for a few lists. Hastily, Theroun’s secretary handed them over. Elyasin spread them out, leaning upon the desk in a decidedly unladylike way to look over lists, studying something shrewdly and nearly ignoring the Elsthemi King.

And in that moment, Therel morphed into a man of business. Innuendo was quite suddenly shelved as he rose and came to the Dhenra’s side to examine the lists. And now, together, pouring through numbers and figures, they seemed almost a team. Commenting smoothly side-by-side on various matters, they pointed out pieces that each would like to maintain, and other areas for negotiation.

Theroun watched it with a growing pleasure. Elyasin was showing her prowess now, thumping the Elsthemi brigand of a King with her wits, doing complicated sums on the fly in her head and raising the King’s blonde eyebrows. And just like this, they continued on. The hours flew by, the King and Dhenra deep in conversation, as if the rest of the room had utterly disappeared. And more and more, Theroun found himself pleased, suppressing a smile beneath his regular scowl. This was Uhlas’ daughter. Not some wealthy, idle waif just waiting for some man to show her the way to the bedchamber. And the Highlander King had it coming if he presumed otherwise.

But King Therel did presume at one point, as the sun was finally dying away beyond the high-gabled windows at the far end of the marbled hall, lighting the gilded mirrors with flaming oranges and reds. As they leaned over a map together, heads close, discussing the mining of silver veins in the Eleskis, Therel quite suddenly laid a few fingers upon Elyasin’s elbow. It was a small gesture, almost something one might do with a friend, a passing touch, neither sexual nor deviant.

But the Dhenra nearly jumped out of her skin. Theroun was surprised she hadn’t yelped aloud, and was glad that her wine had been abandoned earlier. She snapped upright, shuddering so badly that King Therel actually blanched, concern suffusing his visage. They stared at each other, Elyasin breathing hard, the King quite silent. Standing near the desk, Guard-Captain den’Alrahel had her hand on the hilt of her sword, watchful, ready. A long moment stretched in the mirrored hall, the vast silence bouncing off the marbled granite gables as the light in the room whispered gold and red.

“Forgive me.” King Therel murmured suddenly, heartfelt, raw and honest. He paused a moment, his lips parted as if he searched for the right words. And for the first time all afternoon, he seemed vulnerable to Theroun, as if something deep inside him might break should Elyasin reject him. Theroun’s gaze sharpened upon the man, watching this sudden, strange weakness.

“I can see our conversation has many benefits, Dhenra,” the King recovered at last, his speech smooth but surprisingly plain, free of innuendo. “Perhaps we should adjourn for the evening and take this up again upon the morrow? My clansmen are quite tired from the journey. And though they would never say so, I think an ale and a good leg of roast meat would do them well.”

Theroun blinked. Tact was not something he’d have expected out of the man.

Elyasin recovered well also, giving a kind smile, though something in her green gaze seemed disappointed. “Of course. We forget our duties. A banquet has been set in the Small Hall, milord, for you and your men. A welcome for your journey, with feasting and music. I will attend anon, for a little while. Though of course, my schedule has been quite busy, you must understand, and I shall need to retire early.”

“Of course.” King Therel dipped his chin in a slight nod, but his eyes never left hers. “But I would request, milady… the pleasure of your company for a dance at the banquet. Before you retire for the night.”

A beat passed between them. Theroun watched it, standing nearby at the desk. He saw how Elyasin’s eyes shone with a dark light, to hear his bold request. He saw King Therel waiting, strung out now that he’d made such a plain move. Nervous. And Elyasin saw it, too. Her gaze lingered upon him, and a slight, clever little smile lifted her pink lips at last.

“There will be dancing, I am sure. Milord. You will see me at the banquet. Until then, my Castellan will show you and your men back to your rooms so you may make ready. I look forward to taking a cup of wine with you at the festivities.”

And with a gracious nod and an elegant but slightly snide dip of a curtsy, Elyasin let her gaze fall from the King’s, demure and frustrating as hell for any man. She sidled by, close enough that her sleek silk brushed the King, close enough for him to linger upon her scent. Theroun watched the man break. He saw the young wolf-King of the Highlands watch her go with agony in his eyes, a desperation far more than any man should have when watching a beautiful woman tease him. Without turning back, Elyasin clapped her hands smartly for her Castellan, who reacted with easy grace, sliding forward and bowing to the assembled Highlanders as they all rose.

And just at the last moment, as Therel and his men were ushering from the hall, she raised her voice, standing proud by her high-backed, gilded chair with her Guard-Captain at her side. “King Therel!”

He spun with a breathlessness about his person, his pale eyes startled and simmering, to have been called by her. “Yes, my Dhenra?”

She gave a roguish grin. “Save a dance for me.”

Therel’s retainers broke into the raucousness for which they were famed. Hollering, pounding their fists to the walls, to the door, they clapped Therel upon his shoulders, jostled him in a familiar way no King would have allowed from his men. But Highlanders were different. Theroun saw it now, how they were family, how the King cared for his men and they for him, looking out for each other through haunting winter nights full of burying snows.

King Therel, for his part, broke into the most pleased, most sexual dark smile Theroun thought he had ever seen. “My Dhenra.” Was all he said. But he said it with such a rolling thrum to his baritone that Theroun thought it might just drop the Dhenra where she stood.

It didn’t. She stood tall, regal, challenging, one gold eyebrow arched, a slight smile upon her lips. King Therel placed a palm to his chest and one hand to his sword. He sank, down into a low bow upon one knee, and held it for a count of ten. And then he rose.

An Alrashemni bow. It wasn’t wasted upon Elyasin. Theroun saw her note it, saw her startle, and den’Alrahel’s beside her. And suddenly, Theroun knew the other part of the secret, why the Khehemni Lothren wanted war with Elsthemen. Wanted to frame this young, roguish King of the Highlands for Elyasin’s assassination.

He was Alrashemni by blood, right smack in the middle of the Elsthemen royal line.

It had shaken the Dhenra. She turned, giving the Highland King one last, ornately tortured glance. And then moved off towards the doors in the rear of the room that would take her back to her suites, her Guard-Captain on her heels. King Therel watched her go. And then roused his clansmen, gesturing them forward after Castellan Laurent.

Theroun snapped his fingers at Thaddeus, who was frozen, gaping, at the desk. “Thad!” He growled low. “Pick those up and follow me. The Dhenra will need to study them tonight in her quarters. Things are progressing here, and she needs to be prepared for tomorrow.”

Thad blinked, gaping at Theroun. And then nodded hastily, gathering everything up in piles with hurried, startled hands.

 

[ * ]

 

The banquet had been raucous. Theroun had stood by with Thaddeus beneath the high gilded chandeliers, watching the Highlanders make merry, downing their ale like there’d be no more, ever. Getting up to interrupt the elegant musicians and take their instruments away, forming their own band, thundering the hall with the stamping of feet for their boisterous dances. And as the fires in the hearths lining the Small Hall had burned low, King Therel had gotten his dance with Elyasin, nothing elegant and lingering, just a folk-reel known in Alrou-Mendera and the Highlands. She spun from partner to partner, women of her coterie and female Highlands warriors filling in the long line as the men came avidly to dance, seeing the Menderian Queen upon the marble floor. But none came so avidly as Therel Alramir, a dark pleasure illuminating his visage every time they came together for a promenade or a bow, a spin or a daring lift.

And Theroun had seen how the young King had let Elyasin slide down his body in her thin cobalt silks from every lift. Theroun had seen how she melted into his touch, deeper and deeper every time they partnered back together. Heat blistered between them, for all to see. Sex. And when it was over, Therel had bowed over her hand, pressing it with a daring, hard kiss, watching her flush as he breathed fast with a grin from the dance.

Elyasin had left the hall after that, leaving the Highlanders to dine on. Theroun had, too, needing at least some sleep before what was certain to be an early morning. He’d left Thad to enjoy the revelry, pacing back to his plain suite with bitterness choking his throat. He’d slept with nightmares, tossing and turning until the dawn, and woken in a fierce temper, flowing through his sword forms with more violence than was truly necessary. And when the Dhenra’s summons had finally come, just as he was finishing dressing, Theroun couldn’t help himself. After the page-lad left, he slammed his fist into his desk so hard it bled. And then wrapped it in clean linen, lurching out his doors in a bitter anger.

It was still early in the palace when he knocked upon the Dhenra’s doors for admittance between two flanking guards. The gilded double-doors boomed open, placid First-Lieutenant Fenton den’Kharel upon the other side today, admitting Theroun with a nod and a slight smile. Theroun nodded back. Fenton was a decent sort, the kind of warrior he respected. And though the Dhenra should have been primping with her maids, readying for her meeting that morning with the only other proper King on the docket, Arthe den’Tourmalin of the Isles, Theroun gazed down the vaulted chambers to see that the Dhenra was hardly dressed.

Sunlight flooded in through a high, arching bank of windows as Theroun entered the Dhenra’s sitting-parlor, potted ferns and greenery growing in a riot among the cobalt velvet chaises. The Dhenra was at her leisure, curled up on one chaise in the sunshine in a robin’s egg dressing-gown edged with fine, dripping lace, sipping coffee from a piece of Jadounian midnight-blue porcelain. The rim of gold winked in the sun as she brought it to her lips. Eyeing him from above her coffee cup, Dhenra Elyasin did not stand for Theroun’s arrival and Theroun did not sit, as per their usual arrangement. It had been the same with Uhlas, and Elyasin had learned many habits of her father’s. Elyasin drew the lace décolletage of her light-blue dressing gown more securely closed, shifting upon the chaise.

Regarding him, she tapped the rim of her cup with one buffed fingernail. “Theroun,” she said at last. “What do you think of King Therel?”

Here it is. Open your mouth like a good puppet, Theroun, and dance upon your strings.

Theroun gave his customary glower, neither more nor less than usual. “He is very full of himself, Dhenra.”

A smile quirked her lips. “I can always depend on you for an honest opinion, can’t I?”

“I give frank opinions as I once did upon the battlefield, and as I did for your father, Dhenra. When Generals hold things back studying the fields of engagement, good men die.”

“Men always die in war, Theroun,” she said smoothly. “I am asking you how much of a risk Therel is.”

Theroun did not break his scowl. “To the nation? Not much. An alliance with House Alramir has benefited our country for more decades than I can count. They are strong supporters of your House, though they did not approve of the war with Valenghia. It almost cost us our trade.”

“Mmm…” The Dhenra’s gaze drifted, and Theroun wondered how long she had tossed and turned in the sheets last night, thinking of the lupine King. “The Elsthemi Highlands provide most of our wool and ghennie-fleece,” she continued. “Not to mention nearly a million bales of pevel yearly, precious ores, gemstones, and many of our dyes. In any case, Therel has been most gracious as far as the preparatory discussions of trade. He has offered the pevel at half its usual price, and the wool at two-thirds, in addition to other sundries of note.”

“Very generous, Dhenra.” Theroun had heard it all at the desk the afternoon before.

Elyasin lifted her porcelain cup, sipped from the gold rim. “Generous indeed. What are his ulterior motives, Chancellor?”

Theroun almost laughed at her. “Ulterior motives? You’re young, beautiful, wealthy, the only heir to the throne of Alrou-Mendera from the direct line of den’Ildrian. What King in his right mind wouldn’t want to take that to bed?”

She coughed in the middle of her next sip. The cup was set down upon its saucer with a vicious clink. “Chancellor! When I require opinions in matters of the bedchamber, I will ask for them!”

“Forgive me, Dhenra. But my opinion stands. He’s clever, daring, charming, and motivated. And you are his ultimate conquest. His flagrant behavior yesterday, both at the negotiations and at the banquet afterwards, have made that inescapably plain.”

The heat in her green eyes withered. “And once he has me?”

Theroun cursed himself. His strategy with words had never been as good as his battle-plans. He covered his next lie with his usual scowl. “Once men capture the golden idol, they never cease to display and luxuriate in its presence. Dhenra.”

Elyasin brightened, foolish already for the Highland King. Theroun could see it all over her, in the way the pulse in her neck sped, in the way she breathed faster, how she began to flush already, just thinking of the young wolf. “And once the idol is captured, do men like Therel smash the temple from whence it came? Would he?”

Theroun rubbed his jaw with one hand and held back a bitter sigh. This was too easy. Elyasin and King Therel were practically wedding themselves. Right into the Lothren’s plans for their destruction. “I believe King Therel to be a man of his word, Dhenra. Indeed, you may enjoy more freedom with him than with most men. Elsthemen has had split kingdoms before. The Elsthemi tradition has been to invite any outlander Queen to spend half a year with the King, while she spends the other half-year in residence at her own kingdom, ruling as needed, with regular visits from her husband. Decisions are, for the most part, agreed upon jointly. Women enjoy freedoms more broad in Elsthemen than anywhere else upon the continent. They have an entire regiment of women keshar-cavalry. Women own property, just as here, and when there is not a King upon the throne, there is a Queen. You would not usurp his power, and he would not usurp yours. From what I’ve seen of Therel so far, he has his father’s demeanor. Flagrant, compelling, naturally magnetic and unabashedly innuendous, but with a keen mind for ruling and trade. And he has… a camaraderie with his retainers that leads me to believe he is of good temper overall.”

“I heard he stuffed some poor woman in a trunk after dismembering her.”

Theroun scowled harder. “Rumors can be petty and misleading.”

“I see.” Elyasin took a small sip of her coffee. “What time am I meeting with King Arthe den’Tourmalin of the Isles?”

“Ninth bell, Dhenra. Just after his delegation has enjoyed a morning repast. Castellan Lhaurent has planned a brief sitting in the Mirror Room, then a walk of the Greenhouse. Apparently, King Arthe likes to walk while he discusses business.”

“You should know, Theroun,” she eyed him candidly. “I am considering Arthe den’Tourmalin rather seriously. The Tourmalines command an impressive spice trade.”

“Indeed, Dhenra?” Theroun could have laughed at how she was trying to deceive herself. He knew the Dhenra’s heart would not lead her to the King of the Isles. But since she’d brought it up, he now had to address it. “May I be frank?”

She blinked. “Of course. From you, I expect it, really.”

“I think you’ll find King Arthe to be a bit much like your father.”

“Indeed?” She arched a regal eyebrow.

“Indeed.” Theroun commented. “He’s older, stern, a man of few words. He’s been married. His previous Queen died, but he has four healthy heirs. He needs no more. And though he is a King, everyone knows the Isles are run by the Septhan, comprised of a representative from each of the seven Tourmaline Islands. The Tourmalines are more a federation than a monarchy, banded together in egalitarian values from their ancient history as pirates. Their King is merely one of seven, their tiebreaker for voting, their foreign diplomat. For the Isles, you would be a figurehead only. Your power to affect change would be limited, Dhenra, as Arthe’s is, though his populace love him tremendously.”

He saw it strike her deep. Her green eyes shrouded over, her thoughts faraway. If nothing else, Elyasin was an idealist, and maintaining her power and wielding it with surety, grace, and a strong hand were of vital importance to her. Just as it had been with Uhlas. Theroun watched her consider his words thoroughly, and when her eyes cleared, he knew she’d already chosen.

Aeon help them all.

“Very well. We will discuss Arthe den’Tourmalin after he and I have met. And when is my next meeting with King Therel Alramir?”

“This afternoon.” Theroun spoke curtly. “First bell again. Your schedule has been cleared of any other matters, until the banquet for the Islemen in the evening.”

“Very good, Chancellor.” Elyasin gave him a nod to go, calm with clarity.

“Yes, Dhenra.” Theroun gave his curt military bow. He turned upon his heel, startling to realize that First-Lieutenant Fenton den’Kharel had been standing behind him the entire time, slouching genially but in a ready way at the door. He’d honestly forgotten the man was there. He nodded, den’Kharel nodded back. Theroun hauled open the door to the Dhenra’s suites and strode out into the carpeted hall, his old battle-wound in his side twingeing viciously from what he had just done.

CHAPTER 21 – ELOHL

 

 

Elohl shifted in the stifling, dusty thoroughfare outside the thirty-foot byrunstone wall that ringed the Jenner compound. The First Abbey of the Jenner Penitents was a marvel, a separate city from Lintesh. The City Within the City was a fortress, and the wall that ringed it spoke of martial history. Elohl shaded his eyes from the midmorning sun, gazing upwards at turrets with guard lookouts spaced at fifty-foot intervals. Arrow-slits dominated the upper reaches, an edifice from more disastrous times. Narrowing his eyes, he searched the battlements for signs of life. There were none. No sentries, no one watching the doors in the pre-noon heat. Elohl pulled the bell-chain at the ornate iron grille that flanked the massive main gates of solid red cendarie wood, then pulled it twice more in irritation.

It was the seventh time he had rung. They’d visited daily for the past five days, and always it had been a wait like this. Patient at first, the routine was now wearing upon him and Eleshen both. And all five days they had spoken with a curt, angry brother who had insisted, it is a bad day for visitors, would you please come back upon the morrow when the deliveries of ale for the Queen’s Coronation are concluded? And today, the heat was thick, the dust high in the air, and yet again they were being ignored. Sweat dripped down inside Elohl’s collar, his well-buckled jerkin stifling. He had half a mind to just visit by night in his black climbing-gear and case the place. But their mission was to actually speak with a Jenner Brother, and that they could not do by subterfuge. Elohl was about to ring again when Eleshen, all piss and vinegar today, strode forward, rattling the ornate iron grille set before the small welcome-door of cendarie.

“Well, where are they?” Eleshen huffed, as outwardly irritated as Elohl felt.

“Maybe they’re praying. Or still readying the Queen’s ale deliveries.” He sighed, rifling a hand through his thick black ruff, fanning out the sweat.

Eleshen eyeballed him. “Ha, ha. Very funny. They’re lazy, that’s what they’re doing. A fat lot of nothing! Open up! Answer your goddamn door!” Eleshen rattled the grate again, kicked it. Elohl was about to pull the chain one more time, when the small door beside the massive main gates opened at last.

A tall man stood there, a different fellow than before. Of later of years, he had a long, drooping face with a full gray beard and stooped shoulders. He wore black Jenner robes, his cowl up despite the muggy heat, its draping bell sleeves hiding his hands. The long robe had a nondescript belt of black cordage, and as he shuffled forward to unlock the wrought-iron grille, gnarled toes peeked from beneath, his feet filthy with dust. The man dropped into a moderate bow, one foot behind the other, two fingers to his lips.

It was far more respect than they had been treated with the previous days. Elohl inclined his head, of a mind to be civil to this fellow. “Penitent.”

The Jenner’s smile was of gentle temperament as he straightened. “Milord. Milady. Blessings be upon you. Do you have business in the First Abbey?”

Elohl shook his head, relieved that they weren’t being summarily dismissed today. “No pre-arranged business, no. But I have questions about the Penitent faith.”

The man’s face opened into a warm smile of delight. He motioned them forward with one gnarled old hand. “Come in, come in! Please forgive my lateness in opening the door. You have come on a busy day, a busy few weeks. We ready libations for the Queen’s coronation seven days hence, and there is yet much to do. But we always have time for those who wish to ask about the Faith. Do come in. Perhaps we can find an appropriate Brother in the history office to answer your questions.”

Elohl nodded and stepped forward through the iron gate, Eleshen on his heels. But as she passed through the gate, the old man stepped to the side and gathered a long white shawl from a basket in a niche carven into the inside of the wall, holding it out to her.

“Please, milady, if you don’t mind?” His greying eyebrows raised expectantly.

Eleshen’s brows furrowed in puzzlement, not understanding the man. She looked like she was going to say something peevish, so Elohl answered quickly. “Of course.”

“What?” Eleshen glanced from one man to the other.

“Cover up a little.” Elohl motioned to her hair, her bare collarbones, chest.

The old Penitent coughed. “Our Sisters… go about the Abbey with modesty. As do all the Brothers. Though we move together about our duties, there are some who could be… distracted.”

“Oh!” Eleshen’s face opened in understanding. She inclined her head, accepting the shawl. “Because you’re celibate, you mean?”

The Penitent mimed her winding it up over her hair and covering her bare upper torso and shoulders. “Most are, by choice. Some are not. Ah…relations are not prohibited among us, simply frowned upon as a distraction from true bliss.” Eleshen had finished winding her shawl, now waiting expectantly, but the man frowned. “The, ah… finer trimmings of feminine beauty, ah… please.”

Elohl glanced over to see that Eleshen’s cleavage was still clearly visible below the edge of the shawl, above her buckled lambswool corset and the edge of her shirt.

“What finer trimmings?” Eleshen quipped, oblivious.

It was adorable. Elohl held back a chuckle, which turned into a cleared throat. “Your breasts.” Eleshen glanced down, missing the old Penitent going red as a beet as he also looked. It was hard not to. Eleshen did have very nice breasts.

“Oh!” She tugged the shawl over them so she was fully covered, then looked up, grinning at the Jenner, completely unashamed and amused by the man’s squeamishness. “Better?”

He was still shamefaced. “My name is Brother Sheldran. Shall we proceed to the Abbey?”

Elohl nodded, a smile still lifting the corner of his lips. “Lead the way.”

They proceeded in, moving through manicured gardens near the walls, along a path separate from the thoroughfare through the main gates. The compound within the walls of the First Abbey brought Elohl right back to his childhood. Well-organized and exquisitely planned, similar to Alrashesh, each building was made of byrunstone blocks with cap-fitted rhivenstone shingles upon peaked roofs. Pearled glass windows anointed every building, creating fanciful triptychs and single-pane stories from the Penitent holy texts. The gables were high enough to cause snow to shed in the deepest winter at the foot of the Kingsmount, and even buildings that were barns for livestock or hostelry for the Penitents seemed like cathedrals.

And unlike most of Lintesh, every building in the compound of the First Abbey was exquisitely carven. Flowered vines of byrunstone writhed up every corner, gargoyles and fanciful beasts graced every roofline, their wide mouths creating spouts for water-collection from gutters to rain barrels. They passed a granary entirely carven to look like fields of wheat and oats, and as Elohl peered closer, he saw foxes, rabbit, and small dragons creeping through the stalks. A storehouse nearby was carven with panels all along its length telling the story of hops, from planting to beer. A section of wall they passed beneath served as an aqueduct from one part of the compound over to lavish gardens exquisitely tended, the arched stone portal flowing with the rising Jenner Sun and miniscule script over a land of well-tilled fields.

Absorbed in his surroundings, Elohl hadn’t noticed he’d been silent until Eleshen spoke at his side. “It’s beautiful! All the stone carving! Brother Sheldran, how long does such a thing take?”

The man gazed around with an indulgent, fatherly smile as they walked through a quadrangle of buildings with gardens and a fountain at its center. “We have carved these stones for as long as Lintesh has been a city, young lady. Stories tell of the Abbey being founded just a single year after the palace was hewn from the mountain. A panel like that one there,” he pointed to a five-foot piece depicting incredibly lifelike deer in a forest, “Takes ten carvers a year. And one master can take five or ten years on such a piece, depending on how complex it is.”

“So long…” She murmured, astounded. “Don’t they get bored? Does it really take that long?”

The Penitent’s chuckle was indulgent. “No, not really. But the peace of carving is an act of Penitence. The thought, the careful consideration of the stone and what is to be carved, the feel of it, the silent participation in a team or the solitude of working on one’s own. The dedication, to do it day in and day out. Many take vows of celibacy and silence for the duration, to absorb themselves in the task. The Doing is the Way, the humbling loss of self into a greater Knowing. A Greater Way, beyond yourself. This is the Lost Way, which we must remember. Ah, here we are. Our First Dwelling. The first cathedral built upon our beloved grounds.”

He gestured up a wide colonnade of byrunstone steps, to a building more ornately carven than many of the rest, clearly ancient from the amount of weathering it had taken, many of the carvings dulled with time. It wasn’t the most astounding building in the compound, a newer and far larger cathedral next to it, all high arches and domes and gargoyled turrets. But this one had a gravitas and simple elegance to it, as if those who had built it had done so in haste and only afterwards honed and shaped it to fantastical beauty. Brother Sheldran hauled on a massive iron ring to open one of the tall cendarie double-doors, and ushered them inside. “Please enter. Speech is currently permitted, as prayers are not in session, but please keep your voices respectful.”

Elohl and Eleshen nodded, stepping through the doors. The space inside was vaulted, lit by thirty-foot panels of opalescent glass at the far domed end. Musk-heavy incense curled through the air, sighing from bronze censers suspended near the doors. Long rows of cendarie benches with meditation pillows proceeded forward to the central glass panels, depicting the Jenner Sun with its thirteen golden spokes.

Elohl blinked, transfixed by the tableaux. Inside the Jenner Sun, he saw an image burned into his mind from long ago. A dragon and wolf fought each other, tumbling in their vicious glory. Dark halls flashed back. Elohl, staring up at the same image carven upon the torch-lit doors of the Deephouse in Roushenn. Nausea hit him suddenly, a wash of fear, the tension of that night flooding up through his newfound calm. He forced himself to see it, done here in sparkling ruby glass for the dragon, opalescent greys and whites for the wolf. Fire wreathed them, living flame, the gold of the Jenner Sun encompassing it all, trapping their fight in the center.

But as he looked, he suddenly saw it was different. In Roushenn, the wolf and dragon had been equally opposed, in balance despite their fight. Here, the wolf was triumphant, the dragon’s neck in its bloody jaws, standing over the great serpent as it roiled upon its back, coiling in death throes. But not dead. The red eyes of the dragon blazed, livid as rubies, live as blood.

Hateful of the wolf.

“Do you like it?” Brother Sheldran’s soft baritone made Elohl startle, jerking. He blinked, the spell of the tableaux broken.

“It’s ferocious.” Elohl murmured.

“It’s like your back, Elohl.” Eleshen quipped before Elohl could stop her. “But different.”

“The Battle of Wolf and Dragon. A fight to the death.” The Jenner Brother murmured, gazing at the glass rotunda, clearly having missed Eleshen’s comment.

“What does it signify?” Elohl murmured, curious if this Brother had information.

But the Brother merely shrugged, still staring at the tableaux. “Only the most learned among us have read deeply into the symbolism of the Wolf and Dragon. You should query Brother Temlin, who I am taking you to meet. He has made some study of it with the Abbess Lenuria, who is an expert on arcane symbology.”

Elohl nodded his thanks. Brother Sheldran led them off to the right, towards a more modest area with stone arches that opened into reading-rooms packed with sturdy shelves of books and scrolls. He led them around a few twists of the hallway, then finally to a cramped study room, packed with tomes and odd items. A wire-framed older man with ample white streaking his combed-back red waves sat behind a cendarie desk. His nose firmly planted in his tome, he blinked up through reading half-spectacles, then lowered his chin and gazed over them, his green eyes sharp as emeralds and piercing as hawk talons. Elohl liked the look of the man immediately. Shrewd, he looked, fierce. Like a man used to war now past his prime, engaged in a war of the mind in his aging years.

“Brother Temlin?” Their guide knocked politely at the open door. “The young man has a few questions about our faith. Are you occupied?”

The older man smoothed his trim white-streaked red beard and let the leather-bound tome thud to the table irreverently. He raked a hand through his yet-thick waves and stood with the energy of a sprightly fox but the stiffness of a turtle, as if his joints hurt and he didn’t expect them to. Gesturing them in, he barked out, “Come! I was just finishing a treatise on House del’Ilio of Cennetia. Conniving, moneygrubbing bastards the lot of them! Inbred to boot, fucking their own sisters, and a quick hand with the poisons whenever it suited them! Come in, come in!”

Brother Sheldran coughed, his face going red. “You will have to excuse Brother Temlin. He is… opinionated.”

“Leave them here. Have Brother Berian bring ale for our guests, with bread and butter. They look thirsty. Shoo!” Brother Sheldran’s face reddened more as he was shooed out of the cramped study like a child.

“Ah, well now!” Brother Temlin peered at the both of them over his flat-rimmed spectacles, his hawk-keen gaze taking them in as he brushed dust from his black Jenner robe. “Have a seat! Never mind the scrolls. Useless, the lot of them. Sit upon them if you like.” He gestured amiably to an overstuffed couch on the far side of the desk. Elohl gingerly shoved over a few ragged scrolls to make room for himself and Eleshen, and when they sat, the sofa revealed a puff of fine dust.

“Now. I am Brother Temlin, Second Historian of the Abbey. Are you wanting to convert, lad, or does something else about the Faith pique your interest?” The Brother’s lips twisted into a wry smile, humor in his green eyes already saying he knew Elohl had no intention of joining the monks.

Elohl shook his head, a smile flitting across his face, enjoying the man’s directness. “I am not interested in conversion, Brother Temlin. I have questions about your history and cannon.”

“Well.” The older man leaned back in his chair, putting dry, dust-cracked bare feet up on the corner of his desk. He stroked his trim beard thoughtfully. “That would take all year. Is there something specific about the cannon you want to know?”

A nervous-looking mouse of a young man suddenly appeared at the door, with a wide trencher full of hot-buttered bread, and two pewter flagons. Brother Temlin motioned him in, and the lad placed it all on the desk, nearly slopping ale in his haste.

“What have we here?” Temlin asked, eyeing the flagons sharply.

“Honey-red, Brother, with the baelin-malt.” The lad’s nervous speech was a bare whisper, his voice squeaking in the middle.

“Shoo, shoo, lad. I’ll let Brother Vance know what our guests think of the honey-red later. Shoo.”

The young man practically raced out the door. Brother Temlin gestured to the food and drink. “Sup, friends. You repay our time and efforts with the kindness of detailed commentary on the brew.” He winked.

Elohl reached for a mug and passed it to Eleshen, nudging the bread trencher towards her. She needed no second urging and set to with haste. Taking his own mug, Elohl sipped. It was a lovely summer ale, with a crisp floral taste from the honey, and an expansive bouquet from the malt, with very little bitter. He nodded appreciatively, taking another sip, then answered Brother Temlin’s earlier question.

“I’m looking for information on the Alranstones and their history. In particular, what the number of eyes signify. I’ve heard the Penitents have an origin story surrounding them.”

Brother Temlin stroked his white-streaked beard, but his face had softened into wistfulness. “Better to have asked the Alrashemni, lad. They knew far more about the Alranstones. Are you a scholar?” But the way the man’s time-wrinkled eyes passed shrewdly over Elohl’s frame, lingering upon the golden marks just barely visible above his jerkin’s high collar, said he knew otherwise.

Elohl’s gaze flicked to the open cendarie door, wondering if he should rise to close it.

“Tongues wag less around here if doors remain open,” the old man said shrewdly, having noticed Elohl’s action. He pulled a piece of blank parchment from a drawer and wrote a short sentence with a pressed charcoal nib, passing it over to Elohl. Eleshen leaned over his shoulder to read along.

Anything you wish not spoken, please write. You may take it with you and burn it in the cathedral braziers at the end of our session today. Many come here, to write meditations and burn them, releasing them to the Way. It will not be notable.

Elohl nodded. But still, he glanced out the open door, taking a moment to spread his sensate sphere wide, monitoring for anyone lurking in the hall outside. There was no one. He undid a few jerkin buckles, then unlaced his shirt, pulling it down so the man caught a glimpse of both his gold and black Inkings, before lacing and buckling everything back up.

The old Jenner betrayed surprise, though he hid it well. But Elohl had seen a flash of impression and deep understanding move through the man’s hawkish gaze, before it had been banished. Elohl’s heartbeat rose, knowing somehow, that he’d find a few answers here at last. But before he could speak, the Brother held up one gnarled hand, forestalling Elohl.

“I must tell you, lad. We Penitents do not involve ourselves in political movements. Ours is a peaceful order, to promote the Way of Inner Knowledge. If this is about Alrashemni vendetta, you may leave now.”

Elohl shook his head. “Though I war with my own demons, Brother, this is not about vendetta. It’s about something else.”

The old man nodded, then beckoned for the paper. Elohl slid it over, then pulled it back when the man was finished writing.

Curious about your Alrashemni lineage?

Elohl shook his head, paused. He had a moment of concern, that anyone here in the Abbey could potentially be part of the cabal sending assassins after him, including this man here. But locking eyes with the old Jenner, Elohl had an impression of impatience and intolerance from this man, as if he abhorred secrets. It eased Elohl. He set the nib to the paper and wrote, These gold Inkings were given me by a seven-eye Alranstone, slid it back.

Brother Temlin read it, blanched, and read it again. His lips fell open slightly. He looked up, eyes tightening in anger behind his spectacles. “Do you jest with me, lad?”

Elohl shook his head. “I do not jest. What you’ve just seen was given me by no hand of man.”

Brother Temlin went very still, his gaze roving over Elohl’s neck where the gold could yet be seen. He gestured for Elohl’s mug. Elohl slid it over. Brother Temlin took a very long swig, then slid it back. Settling into his chair, arms crossed, Elohl noted that Brother Temlin still had the firm chest and shoulders of a man who had once used a sword.

“I think I would like to feed the ducks.” The Brother quipped suddenly. “How about you? Would the two of you like the take a walk out to the ponds?”

Elohl nodded, understanding the need for privacy. He drained the rest of his mug and stood, Eleshen close upon his heels. The Jenner Brother exited his study, leading them along the side of the cathedral’s annex, and out a back door that opened into a sprawling herb garden. They crunched along gravel paths through the circular beds, towards the glimmer of water. Reaching the duck-ponds at last, Elohl found the air pleasant and cool, the area clearly used for meditation, with artfully sculpted paths for walking and byrunstone benches beneath cascading willows for sitting.

Brother Temlin led them along the manicured paths, prattling about the Penitent canon, clearly stalling, and Elohl and Eleshen pretended their interest. Gradually, he led them to a secluded area near a part of the wall clearly used only for deep meditation. Elohl’s view over the ponds and to either side was uninterrupted. They would see anyone coming thirty yards away. He glanced up at the wall before having a seat on the bench Brother Temlin indicated, beneath a well-kept bower of lhumen-vine, their full yellow blossoms smelling of honey and reminiscent of squash.

Brother Temlin followed his gaze up the wall. “Don’t worry, lad, we can speak privately here. This section of the wall plays funny tricks on sound. We’ll hear anyone coming before they hear us. Only us old-timers know it, though.” He winked conspiratorially. “So… those golden marks you bear were Inked by a seven-eye stone.”

Elohl nodded. “I was hoping someone here would know about it. A friend told me the Jenners have a history with the Alrashemni and the Alranstones. Something called me to climb the stone, to sit atop it beneath the full moon. A…pulse. Like a heartbeat. And I know I dreamed, but the only thing I can remember is the word rennkavi and a vague impression of a man with red and white Inkings. When I woke in the morning, every eye on the stone was open. And when I placed my hands upon it… they blinked.”

Brother Temlin’s white eyebrows had been steadily climbing his face. “And you swear to me this is all truth, lad?”

Eleshen piped up in irritation. “I saw it. It’s all true. One day he just had his Kingsmount and Stars, and the damn stone wouldn’t even open a single eye. The next morning, he had all that gold on his skin and every damn eye was open, and when he set his hands to the Stone, they blinked for him. Then we traveled through it.”

Brother Temlin blinked at her. “The stone let you go through? Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re not Alrashemni.”

Eleshen shook her head. “I’m not.”

Brother Temlin sat back, stroking his white beard. “Tell me, lad, what color were the eyes on the seven-stone?”

“The lowest eye was jet, then lapis, then malachite. The one in the center of the column shone every color like a diamond. The fifth was moonstone, then citrine, and the one at the top was Elsthemi fire opal.”

“By the Light of the Way,” Brother Temlin murmured, sitting back against the bench and stroking his beard. “And you swear to me you’ve never read any Jenner cannon?”

Elohl shook his head. “Never. Like I said, my friend told me about it.”

“Then he told you the Heimkellen. The Prophecy of the Lost Tribe, and the Uniter.”

Elohl nodded. “I don’t claim to be this man in your prophecy, Brother. I just need to find out what all this means.”

Brother Temlin nodded, still stroking his beard. “Tell me, lad, do you know what the word rennkavi means in the ancient Alrashemni dialect?” Elohl shook his head, but he leaned in, ready to hear what this man had to say.

Rennkavi often is translated as ‘binding’.” Brother Temlin continued. “But to the ancient Alrashemni, of which us Jenners were once part, it carries many interpretations. This word can sometimes mean to bind or make bound, as in binding a wound or tying things together. Or it can mean, one who binds, or, he who remembers. Some interpret it as indicating a wise man, like a sage, or a scholar. Some think the word has yet another meaning, and I am one of those. The suffix –kavi was traditionally used to mean unity, like the unbroken circle of the sun. The prefix renn means to bring. But in High Alrakhan, such a combination was often used as a noun. So the word actually means unifier, or unity bringer. The person who embodied the rennkavi was a person to bring others together. A leader.”

“So why do I remember that word and nothing else?”

Brother Temlin eyed him. “You should rather ask, how in the Great Way did you open all the eyes upon an Alranstone and get those golden marks Inked upon you!”

“What do you know about the Stones?” Eleshen chimed.

“I’ve made a study of them from historical accounts.” Brother Temlin glanced back to Elohl. “You described the iris colors perfectly. But you must know, most of that knowledge was kept by the Alrashemni. When the Jenners were kicked out of the Alrashemni, the Rakhan at the time was furious and would not allow us Jenners access to the old annals. He feared we would retaliate against him, and sent the annals to a mountain stronghold somewhere. So we do not have those records.”

“Has there been nothing written about the Stones since then?” Eleshen voiced Elohl’s question, glum.

“There are a series of tomes about thirty years old that apply,” Brother Temlin continued. “The journals of Sister Mollia den’Lhorissian, who joined the Jenners in her teens against the wishes of her family, a long line of palace healers. She was training to be an Alran-keeper, a post that has not been observed in three hundred years or more, due to the lack of anyone with the suitable gifts for it. But Mollia had the right gifts, so she took up the ancient trainings. She wrote down what she learned about Alranstones from her experimentations with them, and those journals are in our keeping.”

“What did Mollia den’Lhorissian’s writings say?” Eleshen was rapt with attention.

Brother Temlin shrugged. “Much, and little. Her language is cryptic and difficult to decipher. Some of the text is High Alrakhan, which, as you now know can have many meanings. Some of it was written in a cipher so complex that it still has not been unwound. Entire pages are filled with unidentifiable sigils. Many thought Sister Mollia had gone mad from interacting with the Stones. Apparently, Alran-keepers in the past often did go mad. It was one of the reasons the Alrashemni decided to no longer train young minds in such mystics. It involved frequent usage of very potent mind-altering plants. Mollia became quite addicted, and quite addled, even by age twenty-five.”

“You speak as if you knew her.” Eleshen’s voice was somber, her comment perceptive.

The old Jenner glanced over to her, sharp. “I did. Yes, I did. A very sad tale.”

Elohl paused a moment, then unbuckled the upper part of his jerkin to bare some of his golden Inkings. “Do any of these sigils look familiar?”

Brother Temlin leaned closer, adjusting his spectacles and squinting. “Could be. But it’s been a long while since I read Sister Mollia’s works. I’d have to get permission from the First Historian to get into the Rare Tomes room.”

“Could you ask him?” Elohl buckled his jerkin back up.

Brother Temlin shook his head. “Not right now. He’s away in Rhaventia, in conference with our Jenner sect there. He’ll be gone a month or more.”

Elohl sighed, his heart sinking, feeling that they had reached a dead-end. “I can’t wait that long.”

Brother Temlin sat a moment, then pulled off his spectacles and began to polish them, peering at Elohl, shrewd. “You look like a man of… capability, Kingsman. The Rare Tomes room is locked, near the Fifth Spoke, the guard-tower near the Annex where we began our conversation today. It’s an underground vault, connected to the Annex by a below-ground passage and some stairs, which issues from behind the Statue of Sage Lherrick. He’s the one with the birds on his shoulders. The room is cleaned weekly, on Dornast. Otherwise it is unoccupied. None have permission to visit while the First Historian is away, other than the Abbott and Abbess. There is a key in the Annex office, clearly labeled. The Annex office watch changes at midnight and again at noon. If you are interested in such things.”

A slight smile spread across Elohl’s face, understanding the man’s meaning. “Many thanks for answering my questions about the Jenner Faith, Brother.”

“Glad I could be of assistance.” The Brother grinned. “Anything else?”

“Actually…” Unease sifted through Elohl. There was one more question he wanted answered. “Can you tell me about the emblem in the stained glass? In the First Dwelling. The Wolf and Dragon?”

Brother Temlin smiled knowingly. “An ancient symbol. It signifies conflict, or so the oldest sources say. Unceasing conflict… the kind that tears a man’s soul apart. Have you seen it before?”

Elohl nodded. “Once before. But it was different. Balanced… neither animal winning.”

Brother Temlin crossed his arms over his still-hard chest, staring Elohl down. “You’ve been inside Roushenn. You’ve seen it in the Throne Room.”

Elohl shook his head, venturing the truth. “No. On the doors of the alehouse deep beneath the palace.”

“Ah.” A strange look of relief flickered over the man’s lined features. “It’s the same in all the Great Palaces. Eight of them, so it’s said, all through our vast continent. And where those palaces were built with that emblem… a strong center of commerce took root where none ever was before. A symbol of blessing? Perhaps. Lore and mystery. Ringed in fire, the classic tableaux depicts the two ever-battling, neither vanquished. The symbol goes far back, to the Alrashemni’s foreign origins.”

“And yet here in your Abbey, it shows the wolf victorious, and rather than a ring of fire we see the Jenner Sun encircling it all.”

“Observant.” Brother Temlin’s green eyes were scalding. “Does it bother you, lad? That tableaux?”

Elohl shifted, feeling suddenly undone. This man was far cleverer than Elohl supposed.

The older man smirked. “It disturbs many. Conflict is ever thus. But I’ll tell you something. I’ve heard it described as a blessing, the balance the wolf and dragon have in the classic tableaux. And though the wolf is victorious here in the Abbey, which some suppose is the triumph of righteousness over deceit, I’ve heard a different tale. That the Jenner Sun imprisons the conflict, lending power to the wolf for victory, where otherwise there would have been none. Ancient symbolism, of a war waged long ago. A war that your Alrashemni ancestors had something to do with.”

“My mother used to tell such tales. That we fled our ancient home, because of that war.” Elohl murmured. “So are the Alrashemni depicted by the wolf, in the tableaux?”

The old Jenner lifted one white eyebrow. “Or are they the dragon? Or does the tableaux signify something else entirely? I have no answers for you on that account. But my Abbess might. She is far more learned than I on the ancient mysteries.” The old man rose stiffly to his feet. “I would offer that the two of you stay as guests in the Abbey this night. We have comfortable guest-quarters for those who travel seeking information on the Way. I can have rooms made up in a trice, and offer a hot meal and even a bath. I’m sure our Abbott and Abbess would be interested in meeting you and asking about your experiences with the Alranstone. And my Abbess Lenuria den’Brae may be able to answer your questions further.”

But quite suddenly, Elohl found that his golden Inkings had begun to itch and tingle, almost a burning sensation all across his shoulders and back. Something in Brother Temlin’s last words had triggered it, and a sharp unease rose in Elohl, feeling that this sensation in his Inkings was somehow similar to his premonitions of danger from his natural gift. It made him balk at the Brother’s seeming kindness. Made him question, suddenly, the man’s motives.

“Thank you, but not tonight,” Elohl found himself politely declining. “We’ve rooms in the city, and they’re paid for.”

“It would give you better… access. To precious information.” Brother Temlin’s green eyes glittered, intelligent, foxlike.

“I’ve not got any of my gear upon me, Brother,” Elohl murmured, even more certain that getting him to stay at the Abbey was a ruse.

“No! I suppose you haven’t. Well. When can I expect your return with more questions?”

“A few days,” Elohl protested subtly, unnerved by what had just happened. “After I’ve had some… reading time.”

“Very well.” The older man laughed, but something flashed across his visage. He gripped Elohl’s arm, hard, little infirmity in that old swordsman’s grip, though strangely, Elohl’s Inkings had ceased tingling. “Those journals of Mollia’s are in the Rare Tomes room for a reason. If I hear of anything missing or damaged, I will find you.”

Elohl’s eyebrows raised. “I thought the Jenners were a peaceful order.”

But the old man’s green eyes were suddenly hard as stone and twice as sharp. “We are descendants of Alrashemni, boy. We didn’t secede because of a lack of passion. Merely a belief in a more sustainable Way. We haven’t forgotten our Brothers and Sisters of the Kingsmount, nor their honor.”

Elohl didn’t know what to make of it. The Brother was so vicious, almost violent in his profession of support of the Alrashemni that it made Elohl question suddenly, whether the tingle in his Inkings had been a warning or something else. He found he had nothing to say, staring at the Brother in a moment of gripping intensity.

At last, the man nodded, a kind of strange certainty filling him. “Well, then. The offer to stay here in the Abbey stands if you want it.”

Elohl paused a beat, then spoke. “I’ll consider it.”

Brother Temlin stared at him just a moment longer. Then finally sighed, as if the fight had gone out of him. “As you like, lad. As you like. Just know that we’re here should you need any further advice. Shall we?” He gestured back towards the Abbey with one old, gnarled hand.

Elohl nodded, unease still roiling his gut as they began the trek back towards the cathedrals, silent in the noon sunshine.

CHAPTER 22 – OLEA

 

 

Olea stood at attention in the cavernous Throne Hall. Hands folded over the pommel of her sheathed sword, she kept watch up on the white marble dais, a step behind the plain bluestone throne and just to the left. Down below the dais, suitors and their entourages peppered the hall in clumps for the first reception of the Dhenra’s coronation week, along with higher ranks of lords from Alrou-Mendera. Dwarfed by the sprawling, vaulted recesses of the space, richly-dressed men and women lingered by the massive bluestone columns. Others stood brazen in the center of the checkered black and white marble floor, near the red carpet that split the hall to the steps of the dais, as if they’d be more noticeable in their finery and jewels. Liveried servants moved here and there with ewers of iced lemon-water crushed with mint, and honeyed mead freshened with lavender to ease parched throats in the sweltering heat that had already wilted a number of ladies into fainting.

But the Dhenra stood regal upon the dais before her throne despite the heat, clad in clinging sky-blue silk with a high collar of starched lace, lace dripping from her sleeves nearly to the floor. Sapphires and diamonds were woven into her hair, done again in ornate Elsthemi-style braids with long bone needles. Olea had insisted upon the hair needles this week. Elyasin needed a weapon upon her person at all times, and her poured-on formal silks didn’t allow for a blade. Olea had positioned her Guardsmen all along the main floor, standing stern in their dark blue jerkins, ready for any disruption with hands resting upon their swords. And she had personally set Fenton and Aldris at the foot of the dais, watchful of those approaching the Dhenra.

Her gaze drifting up, Olea noted the Dhenra’s cobalt blue banners hanging high from the vaulted stone ribs of the ceiling. Their crossed scepter and olive branch, crowned by the Mountain and Stars, lent credence to Elyasin’s authority, but not a breath of air stirred them today, though every door and window to the hall had been thrown wide to catch a breeze. All along the upper reaches, fans were aflutter in the hands of watching commoners, their gazes rapt upon the proceedings below. Crowding the upper balconies, they leaned in to try and catch words of the Dhenra’s conversations with her suitors as each approached, one by one.

The proceedings had taken eight hours so far. Olea shifted, feeling yet another trickle of sweat roll down between her shoulder blades. Her shoulders ached, her hips and knees throbbed, her ankles felt swollen in her new boots. Elyasin had insisted upon her Guard-Captain being impeccably presentable this week, her garb new except her sword and longknives. But the stiffness of the leather was agonizing, none of it yet broken-in enough to breathe in the punishing heat, and Olea’s silk undershirt was now entirely soaked with sweat.

A movement caught her eye to one side. Her gaze flicked quickly, noting the passage of a servant entering from a side door with chilled wine in a large ewer. The massive tableaux of the Wolf and Dragon caught Olea’s attention, vicious and imposing, covering the wall fifty feet high behind the throne. Carven behind the thrones of a number of nations, some long-ago architect had inscribed this symbol in the throne hall of every palace he’d built, almost like a signature. Olea admired it a moment, having seen the gold Inkings upon Elohl’s back from the Alranstone, wondering now what it all meant. But each was slightly different, even this tableau not the same as Elohl’s markings. Alrou-Mendera’s carving showed the beasts fighting around a scepter. While Olea had heard that the one in Valenghia showed them doing so around a vine. The one in Elsthemen showed the same around a spear.

Olea’s gaze snapped forward, dismissing the carving as a minor lordling of Alrou-Mendera approached the dais, a lesser suitor paying his respects to Elyasin. Judging him a non-threat, Olea’s gaze roved the hall again. Lhaurent was in attendance, to the left of the dais with his oily smirk and immaculate grey silks, silently directing servants. Olea’s gaze raked the silvered mirrors all along the sides of the gargantuan hall, looming like watchers from behind the lines of bluestone columns. Vargen’s tale crowded her mind, and she wondered if Lhaurent had an army of invisible servants watching today.

Olea had cased her rooms the past five nights, running her fingers over the coat of grit beneath her window and in the corners of her room. The frame of the gaudy mirror had been dusty, but just because Lhaurent hadn’t moved that mirror recently didn’t mean he wasn’t standing behind it in the dark. Olea had still not come up with a good way to remove those two tomes from her room. And so they were still there, hidden in with the rest of her books, dangerous like an avalanche about to break loose.

She was glad the Dhenra had insisted her Guard-Captain stand as her personal protector in the throne room today. Elyasin had been chilly towards Olea since their night together, her mood volatile from stress. But the Dhenra had still appointed Olea to stand close during the most important, and most worrisome, events of the week, concerned as they both were about threats to Elyasin’s person before she came fully into her power with the coronation.

Another bead of sweat seeped down, between Olea’s breasts. She shifted, rolling her shoulders with subtle movements. The Dhenra was currently receiving House den’Tourmalin of the Isles, next-to-last for the day. King Arthe den’Tourmalin was a tall, brooding fellow with a stern jaw, salt-spray black hair and hard sea-grey eyes. But for all his taciturn brusqueness, Olea liked what she had seen of the Isleman King. He had spoken plainly in the trade negotiations, and was not pressuring the Dhenra to wed. Even today, he made no attempt to cajole or sway as he presented his gift, a lovely ironwood sea-chest full of spices and strands of pearls.

King Arthe was an honorable man from a very old house, and as he stepped up the dais to speak with the Dhenra he deliberately glanced to Olea, spreading his hands to signify a lack of armament. Only when Olea nodded back did he step forward, clasping Elyasin’s hand with gravitas like she was his daughter.

“Dhenra.” King Arthe’s murmur to the Dhenra was private, reaching only Olea’s ears. “I received a courier this morning, in much haste from the Isles. You should know of it. These past few years, the Isles have had unmarked ships sneaking through our Straits. The ships are fleet, painted black with black sails to slip through at night, and they run passably silent. The missive I received this morning said we finally were able to catch one. It was crewed by Perthians and Thurumen, and had a belly full of slaves from Jadoun. The crew would not speak, not even under the worst torture. But some of the Jadounian captives talked freely. It seems they had been coerced into sailing by threats against their families. They were given the choice of indentured servitude, fighting across the sea along the Menderian-Valenghian border, or else see their womenfolk raped and tortured, and the youngest of their children slain. They chose to sail.”

Olea’s breath had ceased in astonishment. Her gaze whipped to her Dhenra. The Dhenra was very pale, but she held her composure. “And were the slaves to fight for Alrou-Mendera?”

Arthe den’Tourmalin shook his head. “Yes and no. Some believed they were to serve Valenghia. Some thought they had been conscripted for Alrou-Mendera. Some thought they were destined for the emerald mines along Menderia’s southeastern coast.”

Elyasin’s green eyes were hard. “By whom?”

But again, Arthe den’Tourmalin shook his head, serious. “The slaves didn’t know. And the crew wouldn’t speak. But we did find a writ of payment to the captain signed by one Helios den’Garnesh. My people know Helios. He is Harbormaster of Ligenia, on your southeastern coast. The Isles receive shipments of emeralds from Alrou-Mendera through Ligenia, and Helios den’Garnesh’s signature is upon the documents of trade. I would recommend that you send someone… quietly… to investigate this situation, Dhenra.”

Elyasin clasped his hands tightly. “Arthe. You are a true friend to Alrou-Mendera. If I can repay you this kindness…”

He reached up and set his palm gently to her face, a tender, fatherly gesture. King Arthe’s sea-scoured face was kind. “Your father would be proud of who you’ve become, Elyasin. I know I am not the one for you, and I do not believe we need to unify our houses with a marriage. I am content for our mutually beneficial trade to continue. Besides, I am an old man these days. Take this gift of information freely. And if you have need of understanding how to arrange your own personal network of… quiet observers, then send word. I will sail straightaway, and give any and all counsel you may need.”

“Thank you.” Elyasin’s whisper was soft. Olea could see a mutual trust there between the two monarchs. King Arthe was a very good man. It was unfortunate he was so much older than Elyasin.

Arthe leaned forward and kissed Elyasin lightly upon the cheek. “Trust no one. Confirm everything. Even words from those you trust implicitly. That is the first law of ruling,” Olea heard him whisper. He knelt over Elyasin’s hand, brushing it with a formal kiss, then moved on, summoning his retainers to stride from the hall. Elyasin watched King Arthe go, her face set and unreadable. She nodded to the herald, who called the name of her final suitor.

Olea saw Elyasin tap her index finger upon her long pale-blue gown. It was a nervous tic. Elyasin was rattled by what she had just heard. But as Olea gazed down the long red-carpeted hall, she realized her Dhenra was also rattled by the appearance of this next suitor. King Therel Alramir of Elsthemen loped down the red carpet with six of his fur-clad swordsmen. Well-built, gracious, he had a handsome frame and a strong jaw, and once again wore the plain garb and wolf pelt Olea had seen him in all week during negotiations, though he’d added an unadorned circlet of gold today upon his white-blonde hair. He presented his gifts with a flourish at the foot of the dais, a trunk full of keshar pelts and raw silver bars. The Dhenra motioned her herald forward to accept them, giving words of thanks. King Therel stepped up the dais, leaving his men behind. Olea’s gaze roved over Therel’s retainers, her hand tightening on her sword. But Alramir’s men, including that shrewd First Sword with the white hair, gave not even the slightest hint of threat, idling placidly at the foot of the dais with Fenton and Aldris.

As the King drew near, the Dhenra began to show more nervousness, rubbing viciously at one knuckle and finally locking her hands together, flushing to the roots of her golden hair. Olea knew the reason for that nervousness. Therel had been sexual and intimately alluring with the Dhenra all week, though sometimes he’d shown a gentler, almost tender side with Elyasin. And for her part, Elyasin had returned that attention. Olea was almost certain the Highland King had already won the Dhenra’s favor.

But Olea caught a glimpse of the King’s eyes as he bent to kiss Elyasin’s hand. Though his demeanor was impeccable, Therel Alramir’s pale blue eyes roiled with lust. A thing of coldness ran beneath his trappings, as if he was certain he had already won the prize so formally fought-over today. Though he was the picture of courtly grace, he had the air of a killer, howling victorious in the darkness.

Olea recalled the rumors about him, that he was ruthless as a keshar when necessary. She wondered if she was likely to find Elyasin diced up in pieces and stuffed in trophy jars the morning after their nuptials. Olea gave the man her best glower, and his gaze flicked to her. She thought she saw a hint of smile at the corner of his lips, or a snarl. His pale blue eyes roved over Olea before moving back to the Dhenra.

“Elyasin.” King Therel was far too familiar, clasping the Dhenra’s hand as if it was his. Elyasin trembled at his touch like a populus leaf. Therel stepped close, reaching up to stroke her face with the backs of his knuckles. “You’re shivering. On such a hot day, in such fine silks, one would think the sweetgrapes would be sweating upon the vine, dripping with moisture…” Olea’s fingers tightened on her sword. She saw Therel note her subtle change. He was no fool.

“King Therel.” The Dhenra’s voice was breathy, but she held her strong posture. “We look forward to mutually beneficial trade with your noble nation.”

Therel Alramir’s chuckle was sexual. “As do I. Trade with you would be most sweet. I would lick your Menderian wine from my fingers, and plunge my tongue into the moist chalice from whence it came.”

He leaned down, executing a perfect bow over Elyasin’s hand, letting his lips linger. But he did not take his gaze from Elyasin. Something simmered between them, like the thickness of air before lightning. At last, King Therel straightened, but not before rubbing his thumb over her fingers. Elyasin shuddered and made a small, aroused sound. And with a contented smile Therel was gone, striding back down to his retainers and moving off towards the side-hall where Arthe den’Tourmalin had gone. Wary, Olea made a mental note to double her guard around the Elsthemi suites, and to have Therel Alramir tailed until the end of the week.

King or no, men like that caused trouble.

At last, the list had come to an end. Elyasin raised her voice in ceremonial words of thanks, giving a pretty speech about peace and prosperity for the futures of all lands. It was well done, and the lords and ladies in the long hall clapped politely. A raucous cheering came from the balconies high above. Elyasin lifted her gaze, nodding first to one side, then the other, which made them cheer more, elated. Elyasin had remembered her commoners today, as Olea had previously advised. She had made this concession for them the entire week, that the balconies be available on a first-come basis to the general populace, though many of her Chancellors had advised against it. It had raised her popularity overnight. People had thronged the Central Plaza all night just to be here today, and Olea was certain it would continue for the duration of the week.

A fanfare came from the Royal Hornsmen near the dais, clarion hunting-horns calling an end to the proceedings. Dhenra Elyasin turned at last, sweeping from the hall with regality. Olea fell into step just behind her, eyes canvassing the gables as they recessed through an alcove. Tailed by the Chancellors of her cabinet and the Castellan, Elyasin retired to the Greenhouse’s Sun Lounge. Late afternoon sunlight slanted in through the south-facing windows, which curved up and over in a latticework, giving the impression of an arched waterfall of glass cascading over a forest. The Sun Lounge was a nightmare of places for an assassin to hide. Olea’s gaze swept the densely-vegetated space, wilting today with a humidity like southern Cennetia.

“I must rest before the banquet tonight. Leave me.” Elyasin dismissed her Chancellors curtly, then turned her back, staring out the windows. All left with only a few murmurs and bows, except Castellan Lhaurent, who hovered expectantly. “You, too, Lhaurent. I need to be alone.”

“As my Dhenra requires. May I send in a tray and beverages to refresh you? And some of your ladies to attend?” He didn’t even spare Olea a glance. Lhaurent believed himself superior to Olea, untouchable. It was all Olea could do to not draw her sword and strike his sneaky head from his shoulders. But suspecting a man of spying behind the walls was not enough. She had no proof that he was connected with the Kingsmen killings inside the palace. But Olea was just as relieved to not have to face him today, as he might suspect if she acted more severe around him than usual. She set her jaw and sufficed by giving Lhaurent her best Guardsman glower, which he consummately ignored.

Elyasin nodded over one lace-framed white shoulder. “Give me an hour before you do. I wish to be undisturbed a while.”

“As my Dhenra commands.” Castellan Lhaurent frowned slightly. But he knew his place in public, at least, bowing his way backwards and turning to leave. At last, the Dhenra turned to regard her Guard-Captain. Olea dropped to a bow. Light fingers passed over her hair, tracing a blue-black curl. Elyasin had sent one of her ladies earlier in the morning to oil it and coax Olea’s mess into something honorable.

“Your hair is longer than I thought.” Elyasin said at last, letting her fingers fall away.

Olea looked up, then stood. “I thank you for your kind gifts, Dhenra.”

Elyasin’s mouth quirked. “One might almost call you respectable, Captain. Indeed, I hardly recognize you.”

Olea nearly smiled. “Almost. But the boots will be scuffed terribly by the end of the day.”

“Alden could never keep new boots nice, either.” Elyasin’s face had softened into wistful sadness, but swiftly deepened into a worried frown. “Olea. I must have your opinion on what King Arthe—”

“Which is something that takes the fresh air of the Rose Courtyard to help us review.” Olea cut her off quickly. “Shall we?” Olea offered her arm, as a proper Kingswoman. The Dhenra’s green eyes narrowed upon her, affronted, but then she sighed.

“Yes, I suppose it is too stifling in here. And the Rose Courtyard should be quiet from any of the celebrations enough to talk, shouldn’t it?”

Olea nodded, her arm still proffered. At last, Elyasin took it. Together they made their way through the Greenhouse, Olea scanning the vegetation for threats, Elyasin silent, her steps slow and clearly exhausted from standing for the past eight hours in the scathing heat, even though she’d enjoyed occasional refreshments. Olea selected a little-known staircase that wound down through the Sixth and Fifth Tiers and opened out into the gardens. Moving left, she led them through a set of tall hedges, and into a small courtyard of bluestone fresh with fountains and topiary, giving a wide view upon all sides.

Roses wound up trellises and statues, magnificent pots in bright glazes held rare varietals from far over the southern seas. Guards lingered at the entrances, and Olea flicked her fingers, sending them in to sweep the high stone arches and lace-carven lattices before she and the Dhenra strolled. Olea saw Aldris step into the courtyard, having trailed them down from the Greenhouse. He saluted, then leaned idly upon a centaur statue, far enough away to be out of earshot. Stopping now and then to smell the flowers in their heady early-summer riot, Elyasin and Olea strolled the garden, enjoying the late-afternoon breeze that finally tickled the greenery and cooled their sweat.

At last, Elyasin spoke, lifting her voice up through the drowning scent of summer roses. “Why the garden, Olea, to discuss what King Arthe just said to me? What aren’t you telling me that you began to the other night?”

They’d come to it at last. Olea would have preferred a less stressful time to speak to her Dhenra about Roushenn, but the young woman had not made time in the past week, and it couldn’t be helped now. Olea took a breath, then spoke plainly. “The palace isn’t safe, Dhenra. Not for such discussion. And not for you.”

Elyasin snorted, waving a tired hand. “Your men and women patrol it, Captain! If it isn’t safe, whose head shall I take?”

“The halls my men patrol are safe as they can be,” Olea pitched her voice low so it didn’t carry. “But there are other halls that have no guards.”

“You’ve sealed off the Unterhaft, as a precaution for my coronation, correct? As we discussed? And the entries to the Deeprooms?”

“All as you commanded, yes. But Dhenra, the palace isn’t safe because there is a palace behind the palace!” Olea argued softly. “That’s what I wanted to tell you the other night, the reason I requested we ride out. Because an entire labyrinth of rooms and corridors exists behind the walls, where people can spy, traverse, and listen. And all of it can be accessed by secret means. I’m not even sure this courtyard is safe for you! Or for us to talk…”

Elyasin stopped, blinking wide in surprise and distress, her hand elegant in the way it fell, making Olea turn towards her. The Dhenra was upset, fidgeting with all the news she had heard today. And when Elyasin became upset, she became angry. That temper flared now. Elyasin’s demeanor was piercing upon her Guard-Captain. “What do you mean, Captain, a palace behind the palace? Speak plainly!”

Olea paused, knowing how this would sound. Her Dhenra was a storm about to break, Olea could read it in every line of the young woman’s body. But this news, like Arthe den’Tourmalin’s, had to be told.

And now might be her only opportunity.

“The walls of the palace move,” Olea breathed urgently. “Everything moves. I don’t know how, but they do. There are passages behind the halls! It’s part of how the Alrashemni were killed the night they came to Roushenn. They were shown to rooms, split up that night. And while they slept, the walls moved on them. Changing, confusing them. And some kind of poison was released into the air to disorient them and make it impossible to fight back! They were slaughtered, Dhenra. Slaughtered to a man, quietly. Because Roushenn is a weapon for whomever it is that controls those walls! I still don’t know why the Kingsmen were killed, but I know partly how it was done. And if the palace wasn’t safe then, it’s certainly not safe now. Because of this, security for your coronation is already compromised. Don’t you see? There’s no possible way I can keep you safe if any wall, at any time, could move, Dhenra. You mustn’t remain here! We need to postpone the coronation until we know more. Or move it altogether to the Winter Palace in Fhouria. And get you out of here. Tonight.”

Elyasin was gaping at Olea. Her eyes went from incredulous, to furious. “Are you jesting with me, Captain?! Do you think to dissuade me from my coronation, from ruling by some cruel joke, by making me feel unsafe in my own palace, especially at a time like this? Have you seen this yourself?”

Olea shook her head, her heart sinking that Elyasin was suddenly taking the whispered advice King Arthe had given, and mistrusting her own most loyal until she had proof. “No, but I met a man who escaped the slaughter that night. He saw it, though he was drugged by whatever was in the air at the time.”

“Drugged? And who is this man? You trust his word?”

“He is a silversmith in the First Tier, an Alrashemni Kingsman. I trust his word completely. Dhenra, I have seen things myself. A piece of furniture replaced here. A twist to the hall that I don’t remember there. Strange things.”

“But have you seen this behind-the-palace? Have you seen palace walls move of their own accord? Do you know for a fact that his words are true? Have you verified any of this?”

The Dhenra didn’t believe it. She thought Olea was speaking false. It was going from bad to worse. Olea’s mind raced frantically for any information that could convince her of the truth. “No, Dhenra, I have not seen it, but I assure you it’s true. Those tomes I told you about, the ones Uhlas led me to find, they chronicled the history of your house. Your lineage is Alrashemni, Dhenra, right back to the founding of this nation. Your House, den’Ildrian, is directly related to House den’Alrahel, the original founders of Alrou-Mendera, the ones who first made a peace treaty with the native Menderian tribes—”

“Den’Alrahel.” Elyasin had gone very still. “Are you saying to me that you believe your own house to be royal?”

“So it said in the tomes Uhlas gave me, but you’re missing the point, Dhenra. Your lineage is Alrashemni and whoever is killing Kingsmen—”

Silence!” Elyasin was livid now. Severely rattled, the Dhenra was reacting, not thinking. Olea’s dire warnings were not just falling on deaf ears. They were being badly misinterpreted as Elyasin’s temper roared. The Dhenra’s cheeks flushed hot and red, her green eyes searing with wrath. “I asked you to uncover the fate of the Kingsmen!” Elyasin shouted at Olea, her voice ringing around the courtyard. “And you give me fae-yarns! Today of all days! You know what this week means to me! Are you trying to derail this coronation? My marriage? My rule? Are you trying to set yourself up as Queen by asserting a blood-relation to the throne?!

Olea knelt quickly to the gravel path, one hand going to her Inkings without even thinking, so desperate was she. “Dhenra, no! I swear to you, I would never—”

“Silence! Guards!” Five of Olea’s guards came at a run from behind a set of potted rose-trees, confusion spreading over their features to see their Captain-General on her knees upon the gravel and their soon-to-be-Queen livid. “Take her!”

Two of Olea’s best hustled in, still confused, but unable to shy from a direct order. They seized Olea by both arms, hauling her up, relieving her of her sword and longknives, apology in their manner. A Guardsman coughed discreetly by a rosebush. Olea glanced over to see Aldris, his green eyes flicking nervously between Olea and the Dhenra, severe worry in them.

“Pardon, Dhenra.” Aldris spoke quickly, his clarion tenor cutting through the commotion. “Where are we to take Captain-General den’Alrahel?”

Elyasin was rubbing her knuckles viciously, flushed with fury. “Somewhere… anywhere! Out of my sight! You are dismissed from duty, Captain den’Alrahel, until my nuptials and coronation are over! Your First-Lieutenant Fenton den’Kharel will be my bodyguard for the duration. And you will spend the week in the Upper Cells, to think about why it is unwise to spin fae-yarns and falsehoods to me!”

The Dhenra nodded to the guards. Olea did not resist. Her eyes locked upon Aldris as she was hustled away, and he gave her a very discreet, very worried nod.

 

[ * ]

 

Torchlight flickered in the brackets along the stone wall as Aldris den’Farahan offered a flagon of klippas-ale through the bars of Olea’s cell. The Upper Cells still smelled like a prison, damp with rot and rat droppings, but at least they were warm as a potato cellar rather than a glacier. Olea’s dark cell had a cot with a decent pallet of fresh straw, plus a thick wool blanket, a ceramic basin with a fresh pitcher of water, and a proper chamber-pot with an actual lid. It was generous, really, compared to the cesspit starkness of the Lower Cells. Aldris’ casual stance seemed amused as he leaned up against Olea’s bars, but Olea could see his vast worry beneath.

“Pissed off the Queen. Nice move, Captain.”

Olea took a long swig before handing the flagon back, worry and anger ripping through her gut, making it hard to even keep down the ale. “She’s not Queen yet, not for another six days. Dammit! She needs me up there to protect her, Aldris, not rotting away down here all week!”

Aldris shrugged, took a swig. “Seems she doesn’t think so. Thinks she can just protect herself, apparently. Maybe she’ll wind up stuffed in a trunk on her wedding day…”

Olea leaned on the bars, arms crossed, giving Aldris her best scowl. “That isn’t funny.”

He grinned, handing the flagon back, but his grin was dire. “She gussies you up all fancy, then shits in your stew? You must have pissed her off good. Everyone knows you’re her favorite. She allows you liberties she doesn’t give anyone. The men call you the Dhenra’s Champion, did you know that?”

Olea scowled. “Some champion. I can’t do anything for her from down here!”

“What got her lace in a bunch?”

Olea shook her head. “Don’t ask me about it.”

Aldris smiled knowingly. “The same don’t ask me that gets me and Fenton covering your shifts two to one while you sneak off all around the palace and the city? Where have you been going, Olea? I was gonna have you tailed, but Fenton and I talked, he thought it was a bad idea. Said you’d hear me and chuck me down here in the cells!” Aldris laughed, amused at his own joke, then took a swig from the flask, still chuckling.

“Fenton was right,” Olea glowered at Aldris. “You two stay out of it. It’s the Dhenra’s business, not yours.”

Aldris shrugged, gave her the flagon. “Boys who took you in told me they overheard you and the Dhenra shouting before I got close. Something about investigating the Kingsman disappearance.”

Olea’s stomach gripped hard, to know that Elyasin had been loud enough to be overheard when she had gotten livid. Olea’s secret was out now, that she was investigating the Kingsman disappearance. If those Guardsmen had heard, it would be all over the barracks and guardhouses by sundown. And if they knew, it was a short eavesdropping before the veritable army of household maids, cooks, porters, and everyone else knew, like Lhaurent. Olea tried to shake off the feeling of being watched. Glancing at the walls of her cell, she squinted past the bars to the shadows of the torch-lit hallway. She was becoming as paranoid as Uhlas had been at the end.

“Captain?”

Olea roused herself, gave Aldris a forbidding glare. “I said it’s the Dhenra’s business. Leave it be. And shut up any fool mouths that you hear passing that information around.”

Aldris nodded, but his green eyes were narrowed now. Olea saw him warring between asking her another question, which could get him reprimanded, and shutting the fuck up. Olea handed the flagon back through the bars, but Aldris just looked at it, still warring internally. Finally, he shook his head. “Keep the drink. I gotta get back up to the banquet. Fenton is getting lonely guarding the Dhenra’s pretty ass. Anything you need, Captain? I’ve arranged for a bit of the banquet leftovers to be brought down later for you.”

Olea shook her head, then thought better of it and reached through the bars, grabbing Aldris by the blue jerkin, pulling him in so close their lips nearly touched.

Aldris raised his eyebrows, grinning. “Last kiss?”

“Shut up and listen.” Olea snapped. Aldris den’Farahan’s smirk was instantly wiped clean, replaced by that cool calculation and keen mind Olea had promoted him for. “I believe Elyasin is in danger. Very serious danger. This week is the most serious. I have reason to believe Dhenir Alden and King Uhlas were both murdered because they had a personal connection to the Alrashemni.”

Personal?” Aldris murmured, betraying surprise. “How personal?”

“Blood-kin personal.” Olea hardly breathed it.

“Fuck.” Aldris’ bare murmur summed it up nicely.

“If I’m right,” Olea breathed, “they’ll try to strike Elyasin, and do it before her Queen’s Writ is signed, before she’s technically able to rule on her own without the Chancellate. Triple her guard. From now on, either you or Fenton plus one of my six best are there like flies on pigs, whether she’s awake or sleeping. Trust nothing and no one.”

Aldris’ eyebrows rose. “Damn. I mean… shit.”

Olea growled and yanked Aldris closer, barely breathing her words. “Roushenn holds its secrets, Aldris. Closer than any of us ever suspected. There are passages behind every passage, passages we know nothing of, and can’t control. Keep an eye on the walls and mirrors. The walls of Roushenn move. They fucking move and I don’t know who or what controls it! Only that it secured the end of the Kingsmen. All of them, annihilated, in a single night. They never escaped this palace, Aldris. The fucking Kingsmen, the most talented fucking fighters on the entire continent, couldn’t escape Roushenn. They died here. These bluestones aren’t what they seem. And I think Castellan Lhaurent knows something about it. I think he knows what the walls can do… or maybe has access to it. And assassins… where we can’t find them.”

She let Aldris go. He gaped at her, blinking at Olea like she had gone mad. “Are you fucking serious?”

Olea narrowed her eyes. “Do I look serious?”

Aldris nodded slowly, slipping into a deep grimness. “Yeah. You look really fucking deadly, actually. You look like you mean every fucking word you just said.”

Olea yanked her new shirt down, the laces undone now that she was no longer guarding the Dhenra. She widened the gap, baring her Inking. “Then hear me. Never forget what I am, Aldris. I am an Alrashemni Kingswoman to the death. And Elyasin is my King. So swear me to Aeon and all the Gods, if anything happens to her, I will begin a bloodbath until my blade runs through every last throat involved. Are we clear, Guardsman?”

Aldris nodded slowly, and his green eyes held no laughter. “Clear as diamond, Captain.”

At her nod, he turned swiftly, moving off down the flickering hall at a jog to see her orders done. Olea sank back against the bars with a growl, feeling caged. Worry gnawed at her, set her to pacing her five-by-five cell like a beast. Tousling her hair violently, she found herself ripping at the strands, something she’d not done since she was a child. A tingling feeling skittered over her again, like roaches on her skin. Olea halted, breathing silently, listening. But she didn’t hear a soul, other than the young first-year Guardsman currently on duty trimming his fingernails with his knife.

The sensation of being watched dogged her as she began to pace again. Olea tried to breathe past the clenching in her gut, past the feeling of paranoia, past her rage at being in here, past her terrible fear that something was about to happen now that she was caged. She was pacing the five-square of her cell for the umpteenth time when her tray finally came down from the banquet. A Guardsman carried it, but he was not a mere soldier. Trim and wiry, her First-Lieutenant Fenton den’Kharel had a spring of vicious speed and strength to his step as he approached, a fluidity of movement like lightning over ice.

Not a man of many words, Fenton slid her tray along the stones into her cell via the pass-through. He hunkered, interlacing his calloused fingers expectantly, dark brows brooding. Olea hunkered also, squatting to eat from the tray with her hands. The roast goose was still warm, smeared liberally with peach chutney. A fennel salad with roasted honey-nuts went into her mouth as fast as the goose. It had been a very long time since breakfast, and Olea found herself eating quickly, memories of starving in the Lower Cells nearly two years ago crowding close.

Her cell had not been as nice then as it was now. Not by far. Fenton watched her eat in silence, and when Olea finally wiped her mouth, his eyebrows rose expectantly.

“Is Aldris guarding the Dhenra?” Olea asked.

Fenton nodded, his gold-brown eyes thoughtful by the torchlight. “She’s asleep. Aldris and den’Thanut will take watch until noon tomorrow. I convinced the Dhenra that security was needed inside her rooms at night and attending her person closely, just two for the duration of the week. I placed a guard of four on each door to her suites, and we’ve got three men on the walls watching her windows. They’ll rotate every six hours.”

Olea leaned back against the bars with a sigh. “It’s not enough. We have to get her out of the palace entirely. Dammit!”

Fenton traced a pattern in the dirt on the stones with one well-calloused finger. “What’s this about, Olea?”

Olea grimaced. “You’d think I’m insane if I told you.”

He continued tracing, but his attention was sharp upon her. “I’ve seen a lot of things in my time, Captain.”

Olea nodded, her gaze roving over his brown hair that still showed no spot of grey, that face that was chiseled but still vaguely smooth, those quiet, gold-brown eyes that were given to silence. “How old are you, Fenton?”

His smile was secretive, wry. “Older than I look. Younger than I feel sometimes. Wise enough to know insanity and den’Alrahel don’t connect. You’ve always been steady and loyal. Everyone knows you’d be the first to die for the Dhenra, as you were for the Dhenir. You and Uhlas may not have had much love between you, but you’d die for his heirs, and that’s plain.” His fingers traced on. Olea noticed the pattern stabilize into a Kingsmount and Stars in the dust by the bars. “What I mean to say, Captain, is that I know what you’ve been up to.”

Olea scowled. “Everyone knows now, dammit.”

He nodded quietly, tracing another pattern. “What the Dhenra said today confirmed it, yes. But I knew before then. Aldris wanted to tail you, but he’s too sloppy. I know it wasn’t wise, but sometimes I’m not known for being wise.”

“You’ve been following me.” Olea blinked, stunned. She’d not heard a damn thing.

Fenton nodded, still tracing. His gold-brown eyes were knowing when he looked up. “I’ve seen the silversmith, seen his scars. I’ve seen your brother and his pretty woman, I followed them to the Jenner’s compound yesterday. I know you’ve been poking through the Unterhaft. I know…” He stopped suddenly, evaluating her, then falling quiet for good.

“Out with it, Lieutenant.”

His eyes were wary. “I’ve followed you quite a few times, over the years. And the Dhenir, too, back when he would wander at night. And I follow Elyasin, regularly, sometimes without your orders…”

Fear ripped through Olea. Quickly followed by a vicious anger. She snarled at the bars, gripping them hard, feeling the heat of fighting animals roaring through her. “Whom do you serve, cur?!” She snarled. “To whom do you give all this information?!”

But Fenton shook his head quickly, calm. “I am First Lieutenant Guardsman, Captain. It is my duty to know where my lieges go. I report to my Captain-General, and to her alone. Unless my lieges are in danger.”

“And then to whom do you report?” Olea growled like a menacing dog.

Fenton put one hand to his heart, his eyes holding hers as he sidled close to the bars. Olea saw his fingers quickly undoing his jerkin buckles and shirt laces, always immaculately attended to. She realized he was close enough that if anyone was watching in the torch-dark hall, they could not have seen what he was doing. At last, she saw what he wanted her to see, the Kingsmount and Stars plain upon his chest, but strangely done in red ink instead of black, a small bloody nick upon the center of his chest like someone had scored him with a blade. But Fenton had never had a Kingsmount and Stars before. Olea had seen him without his shirt in the practice yards countless times. She fought to keep her face neutral for anyone who might be observing, despite her immeasurable surprise.

Fenton was a careful man, and now she knew why. He was Alrashemni. Some kind of secret, underground Alrashemni.

“I am one of you, and yet I am not,” Fenton whispered low and soft, confirming her thoughts. “I report to the shadows, Olea. But not the shadows of Roushenn. We were close to the throne, once. We are close still, but not as close. Not in the way that matters. But you are. With Elyasin, just as you were with Alden. It was … fitting. You and the Dhenir. His death was a tragedy for us.”

“Who are you? How many others of you are out there?” Olea could barely breathe.

“Enough of us. But not here. Not now.” Fenton’s visage was fierce, feverish with dedication.

“Aldris? Is he also…?”

Fenton nodded once, slowly. Olea’s world spun like a badly-made top. Shadows flickered all around, menacing. That lingering sensation of being watched had crept back, itching between her shoulder blades, raising the small hairs at the back of her neck. And suddenly, Olea knew they were at war. Whatever this was, whatever was happening here, if it had driven Fenton to expose such a secret, then all her fears were founded.

All of them.

“Find my brother, Fenton.” Olea’s voice cracked with a sudden urgency. “Find Elohl. Tell him what has happened. Tell him the Dhenra needs protection. Now. He’s the fastest swordsman I know. He needs to be close to her. Especially at the coronation.”

Fenton nodded quickly, fingers racing back up his lacings and buckles. He leaned very close to the bars, his next words barely a whisper of sound. “Olea. I have to tell you… what you found out about the walls…”

It hit Olea like a staff to the knees. “You knew?!

Woe smote him. “I did. I had to keep that secret, for reasons I cannot give. But you must understand, your assumptions are correct. Lhaurent keeps an army behind the walls. I’ve been in the Hinterhaft. I’ve seen it. But you cannot flush him out of that labyrinth, Olea. He has…ways… of keeping himself safe if he retreats there. Which I assure you, he can do at a moment’s notice. Be wary of him. Be very, very wary.” Fenton’s gold-brown eyes were drowning now, drowning with some emotion Olea didn’t understand. He reached through the bars, stroking her face gently, his thumb lingering at her lips.

“I fear for you,” he breathed, “trapped in here. But I can’t get you out, not right now. I swear to you, though, that someone is watching you… someone… who will get you out, if any threat comes. He would die for you. Just like I would.”

Something cold dove into Olea’s gut and made a deep, dark home there. “Fenton… what are you talking about?”

He shook his head, his touch falling from her face. “I can’t say more. But trust me. Please. I will go straightaway to your brother, get him into the Guard for the coronation. We’ll keep Elyasin safe. I promise.”

Fenton’s jaw tensed. Reaching through the bars again, he took Olea’s hand. Lifting it, he pressed a kiss upon her fingers, his demeanor ferocious, deadly with his promise. He nodded again, as if confirming it all, then spun on his heel, and was gone up the shadowed stairs as fast as Olea could blink.

CHAPTER 23 – DHERRAN

 

 

Dherran was simmering. And it didn’t bode well for the beginning of this fight. Four bouts into the final men’s rounds, and he was strung tighter than ever. His first four fights of the Vennet Midsummer Festival had gone well these past few days, yielding only a fat lip, a bruised cheekbone, and a few purpling areas over his ribs and torso. He was sweeping the men’s finals in Vennet. And for the first time, Dherran strode bare-chested to the field of spears with cheering in his ears, people eager to see him fight once more. That energy fed him like a meltwater flood, only making his frustrations with Khenria’s bitchiness these past few days deepen.

She’d been teasing him, mercilessly, ever since their fight after her win. Flaunting herself with other men. Sitting in their laps at suppertime. Disappearing for hours at night without mention of her whereabouts, smirking when she returned. And her cruelty was punishing, distracting Dherran from his focus, as it was doing today.

But now he faced his true opponent. Arvale den’Whestin, the reigning free-hand champion in this region and a local of Vennet, he was a featherweight, wiry but made like well-tempered steel. Shifting from foot to wrapped foot upon the dry earth, his feet and ankles were wrapped better than his hands, taking Dherran’s measure. The man was a kick-fighter in the old Praoughian style. His thighs were corded muscle, his calves the same. The bell sounded for the fight to begin, and Dherran paced slowly, guard up, trying to think only of his opponent and not of Khenria.

Dherran allowed his back heel to square to the dirt, not his usual agile stance. He needed this man to think he was too thick, too slow, his footwork too heavy. He heard the crowd settle into a hush. The lean rooster bounced, getting his feet beneath him, then tried an experimental set of punches at Dherran’s face. Dherran flowed out of the way with tiny movements, not moving his feet. The man then tried a set of kicks. Dherran swiveled his hips, keeping his frame aligned, each kick passing him by, again not moving his feet.

The bantam rooster scowled, bouncing from foot to foot. At last, the man came at him for real, and they began to engage. Dherran kept to a small space, using his alignment, throwing falsely heavy punches, which the smaller man avoided. High kicks came. Dherran crouched, dodged, slipped past. The rooster was getting angry, his face red and his scowl deep, batting at his heavier, immutable opponent.

Finally, the punch came that Dherran was waiting for. The rooster faked. Dherran slipped sideways so the punch came at his face, as he had intended. He faked being caught off-guard, throwing his right hand up to defend, leaving his right flank unprotected. The rooster crowed, whirling into a kick with the full force of his steel-lithe body. But the kick came straight to Dherran’s inner elbow. Which he used to absorb the kick, folding it inward to his torso and taking the man’s foot with it. Spiraling his right arm up and in, twisting his hips with agile speed, Dherran had the man’s leg pinned. And as he turned, it sent the man into a flying twist, meant to either dislocate his hip or spin him horizontal to the ground and smash him into the dust, a blow to end the match.

It fact, it did neither.

With a vicious crack that rent the air, the man’s femur broke in a spiral, his leg turning into the twist, but his body not following through. He hit the ground like a sack of rocks, screaming. His leg was riven, twisted unnaturally. Dherran released his leg, shock flooding his body. Dizziness took Dherran, surprised by what had just happened. He had been distracted and had twisted too efficiently, too true to the killing nature of his Kingsman training, training meant to break a man upon the battlefield.

He had been thinking of Khenria, and this was the outcome.

Screams filled Dherran’s ears, unnatural, the shrieks of a mauled animal. The man reached for his leg, hands hovering and splayed, not daring to touch it. The scorekeeper rushed to the ring. The fight-medic stepped in between them. Dherran stepped back, breathing hard, unable to hear, unable to see anything but that mangled flesh. The medic reached out to touch the man’s leg. He screamed, feral, then snarled with murderous hate at Dherran.

“Fucking whoresbane! You’ve ruined me!” He broke into sobs, rent with gasping as the medic tried to assess the extent of the break. Silence filled the square beyond the spears, the faces of the crowd shocked. Arvale den’Whestin had been favored to win. The scorekeeper was muttering low to den’Whestin. The medic touched his leg and he screamed again. Finally, he gave a curt nod.

The scorekeeper stood, facing the crowd, hands high. “Dherran den’Lhust, for the win!”

But the moment was rent by the cursing man on the hard-packed dirt. “How can you call yourself a Kingsman?! You’ll pay for this, you… you brute!” He gathered his saliva, and spat into the dirt.

And that was all it took. Dherran’s rage gathered, an unstoppable torrent. It had been bad today because of Khenria, but now it was like a demon unleashed. He strode to the man on the ground, a mountain in swift avalanche, and seized him by his hair, shaking his head roughly.

“What did you think was going to happen, kick-fighting against someone with my training?!” He bellowed. “You see these Inkings?! Look at them!! Do you remember the Battle of Gheirn? A hundred Kingsmen held back a force of three thousand Valenghian Longriders, protecting this valley for two days until the King’s army could get here! Two days! Without sleep, without food… protecting Vennet! That was only thirteen years ago!”

Dherran thrust the man’s head to the dirt with a growl and he yelped, and then Dherran’s hot rage was turned on the crowd. “Most of you were alive then! My father and mother both fought for Vennet! How dare you forget them!!”

Dherran was winding up, his vision bleeding into a red haze. People had shrunk back from the ring of spears. He could see mouths muttering, but only a buzzing like seething hornets filled his ears. A light hand fell on his arm, suddenly.

Suchinne.

But when he turned, he saw Khenria, her face frightened. “Come away, Dherran. You’ve won. These people aren’t your enemy.”

Dherran shook his head. Her words didn’t make sense. His head was stuffed with burning steel wool. Somehow, his fingers wound up in her hand. Somehow, he was walking towards the ready-tent. Muttering turned to an angry susurration behind him. He shook his head again as he stumbled into the tent.

“Dherran.” Her dark grey eyes were worried, frightened, as she seized his face in both hands. “Dherran! Can you hear me?” He shook his head, everything red, everything burning. She took up the water pitcher, doused him with it. Cold water shocked his senses, and awareness began to return at last. Dherran took a few quick drinks, listening to the crowd outside. He finally noticed that Grump was absent from the tent, and Khenria had Dherran’s winnings purse, set aside upon the wooden bench.

“Mob?” Khenria whispered.

“Not yet, but they’re pissed. Where’s Grump?” Dharran gasped breath to calm himself, currying cold water through his hair.

She shook her head. “I saw him doing his rounds for the betting, but not since.”

“We gotta go. I broke their champion… we gotta leave town.” Dherran unwrapped his hands quickly, then donned his shirt and leather jerkin. “Get the horses, we’ll check the inn for Grump—”

“You both are two of a kind. Reckless.” The iron-hard voice made Dherran snarl. He turned fast, to find himself facing a tall, lean man in a handsome red leather jerkin, his pale blue eyes hard. There was nothing idle about the Vicoute Arlen den’Selthir’s posture. His sword-honed frame might have been swathed in riches, but Dherran would have bet his right nut that the man had expert training in the arts of war. Some men just moved like liquid on fire, and he was one.

“What are you doing here?!” Dherran snarled, ready to hit the man. “What the fuck is he doing here? Did you invite him?” He shouted at Khenria.

“She has nothing to do with this.” The Vicoute’s pale blue eyes were keen, flat with anger. “This is between you and me.”

“Get out of my way!” Dherran barked, lifting his saddlebags up onto one shoulder from the rough wooden bench, surging past. “You don’t know anything about me.”

“But I do, Kingsman. I know quite a lot, actually.” The greying Vicoute murmured, pinning Dherran with those icy eyes, though he didn’t make any motion to stop Dherran. “I know you’re going to have a mob in about five minutes, and you need somewhere to go. I know every inn for ten miles is full-up from of the festival. And I know, that you are going to accept my invitation to sup for dinner, and to stay the week at my manor.”

“And why’s that?” Dherran snarled rudely, level with the man now at the tent-flap.

Den’Selthir gave a hard, emotionless smirk. “Because the lady hasn’t ever slept in a manor before, and she’s never dined with a Vicoute. And because it is my pleasure to entertain interesting people. And because you, Kingsman,” his gaze flicked to Dherran’s Inkings, visible at the cleft of his shirt, “owe me a fighter. That was my man you ruined. He was sworn to my service. And I demand restitution.”

The roar of the mob surged outside the tent. Dherran balked, listening. It would take five full minutes to ready the horses. By then, the mob would be all over them. This lord before him had steel and fire in his veins, Dherran was almost certain of it. But what Dherran didn’t know was why he was so interested in a pair of young fighters, though he had the distinct impression he would soon find out. It was a risk either way. Put himself and Khenria the mercy of the mob, or at the mercy of a pissed Vicoute who had not yet lifted a hand to harm them.

“I have three saddled horses waiting outside.” The Vicoute raised an ash-blonde eyebrow. “Bring your winnings. Stuff your gear under the benches behind that hay bale and I will send my men back for it later. I’ll have one wait here for your servingman.”

Dherran glanced at Khenria. She lifted her narrow black brows. “Fine.” Dherran stuffed the saddlebags behind the hay bale, snatched up the winnings purse, and they were out the back tent-flap. Hot afternoon dust choked them. But the Vicoute was good as his word, a small knot of retainers on horseback facing off with the seething crowd, swords out. Three horses waited inside the mounted men. Khenria raced to a white gelding, up in a flash. Dherran took a sturdy roan, while the Vicoute mounted up on a black charger that was clearly his own.

The lord wheeled his charger to the front of the mob. “Populace of Vennet!” he roared, in a slicing bellow that would not have been out of place upon a battlefield. Men quieted all around in a slow wave, and Dherran blinked, realizing how much clout the man had here in town. The Vicoute wheeled his horse in a circle again, then spoke.

“You have seen a brutal fight today! My champion has been mangled, and I have demanded restitution from the fighter who broke him. Rest assured that until the debt is paid, he will answer to me! You have my word. But now is not the time for violence. We have seen too much already today. Go to your inns. Sup, drink. Your first ale of the night comes from my coffers from this disappointing spectacle today, for which I take full responsibility. Drink and let your evening be merriment rather than pain! And I will take care of the pain-giving.”

A vicious cheer went up from the crowd. Dherran felt himself simmer, but Khenria’s glance as she heeled her horse close forestalled him. It was better this way, leaving with protection. Though they had no inkling as to what would come next. And there was no more time to think about it. Kicking his charger hard, the Vicoute broke a path through the crowd, his riders flanking him. Dherran and Khenria had no choice but to follow, riding hard in a canter out from the dusty square, heeling hard through the market, and to the outskirts of the city. Following a dusty lane flanked by fig orchards and grape arbors, they kept pace for a number of miles, riding hard through the sweltering day. And only when they’d turned down a wide dirt lane past a long row of cypress trees did they slow to a walk to ease their horses.

Coming up over a rise, Dherran saw fields and orchards to every horizon. And there, at the end of the lane was an enormous manor made of white granite with marble pillars. Four stories, the massive house was more than grand, imposing and martial, keen in its simplicity yet lofty elegance. As they neared, a number of retainers paused in their duties about a stable and impressive barn large enough for forty cows. They rode straight to the colonnade steps of the main house, the Vicoute slinging down from his charger and handing its reins off to a stable boy, who took them with a bow. The others did the same. Dherran and Khenria dismounted, following suit. Without turning around, the Vicoute marched up his manor-steps, stopping in brief conversation with a liveried butler just inside the doors of an airy entrance hall of white marble. The butler nodded. The Vicoute strode on through the hall, but when Dherran made to follow, the cheeky butler suddenly stepped in his path.

“Sirrah. I am to show you and the lady to your suites. The Vicoute has invited you to dine with him tonight, but until then, you may rest and refresh yourself. If you would come with me?”

Dharran glanced at Khenria. She shrugged. Apparently, neither of them had any clue what was happening here. “We would love to refresh.” Khenria stepped in, managing the situation.

The butler nodded. With a sweep of his hand and a bow, he invited them onward.

CHAPTER 24 – GHRENNA

 

 

For the first time, bright sun was not a bane to Ghrenna. And for the first time, she was able to admire a city in full bustle, gaudy and garish, bright and full of life. Luc and Ghrenna ambled arm-in-arm down a main avenue in the Abbey Quarter, taking it all in. The sun scorched down, every fountain plaza teeming with folk enjoying the holiday for the city. Coronation Week was fascinating for Ghrenna. Normally, she avoided crowds, having never felt safe in them, but Lintesh soared with a good humor this week high as the Dhenra’s cobalt banners rippling in the almost nonexistent breeze.

Their guild had been in the city two days already, after the week-long journey up from Fhouria. Luc had been treating Ghrenna the entire way, and today her headache was merely a subtle irritation, a tension deep to her temples, but little else. And it had become evident since they’d arrived, that they weren’t going to get anywhere near the palace to find Olea, not until all this was concluded. The Dhenra had apparently opened her galleries to the common folk for the duration of the week’s proceedings, and the Third Tier had become a madhouse of people waiting for their chance to see the inside of the palace.

And to see the young soon-to-be-Queen.

So they were passing the time, taking the days to search for potential scores. Ghrenna and Luc moved along a tree-lined promenade, Shara and Gherris elsewhere canvassing the Craftsman Quarter today. Every inch of territory was occupied by hawkers and gawkers, merchants and menagerie. Tumblers in bright red silk climbed each other’s shoulders and balanced in contorted poses. A man near one sprawling fountain ate fire, juggling it on lit batons and blowing flames from his mouth. Guards in cobalt were present at every intersection, watching the populace coolly, hands folded over the pommels of their swords. Coronation memorabilia was being sold, from silver rings etched with Dhenra Elyasin’s profile to full-sized painted portraits done on black velvet. They passed one such stand, the man hawking portraits swearing up and down he had done a real sitting for the Dhenra from which he captured her likeness.

Luc scoffed, acidic. “Elyasin looks nothing like that.”

Ghrenna lifted an eyebrow, still wondering at the fact that it didn’t hurt. She hadn’t even touched her pipe today. But it was in her belt-pouch over her modest flax dress and summer lambswool corset, just in case.

“You’ve met the Dhenra?”

Luc shrugged. “I used to live in the palace. She was just a little girl then. But Uhlas was a straight-nosed man with heavy brows. Elyasin is pretty, but she has her father’s stern features when she’s not smiling. This woman he’s had sit for the portrait is all plump curves and a button nose. She looks like a dumpling.” Ghrenna laughed, amused, and Luc smiled, glancing at her sidelong. “It’s good to hear you laugh, Ghren.”

Ghrenna nodded. “It’s good to be able to. I can’t remember the last time laughing didn’t hurt.”

Luc stopped their promenade, reaching a hand up to smooth her half-bound hair, nudging his fingers in to touch her scalp at the back of her skull. Ghrenna felt that cool wave pass through her head, and what little pain there was rolled back further.

“You didn’t need to do that.” She murmured, blissful. “My head hardly hurts at all today.”

“I know,” he muttered, standing very close. “But I like the way you succumb to me when I do it. Byrune.” Luc bent to try for a kiss. Ghrenna drew back a little, but not so much that his hands would leave her head.

“When are you going to learn that just because I appreciate your healing doesn’t mean I’m yours?”

“A man can but try,” he murmured. It was more tender than usual. Since they’d shared secrets over a week ago, Luc had become more solicitous, less testing to Ghrenna’s patience. They’d come to each other’s beds every night since then, for quiet lovemaking by the campfire’s light while on the road. And now, Luc gazed at her, something complicated sliding through him, before his hands eased from her scalp.

“Better?” He murmured, his fingers lingering at her nape, massaging beneath her hair.

“It wasn’t bad to begin with.” Ghrenna found her eyes closing, absorbing that touch, the noise of the street and the bustle of the crowd fading away. She felt him draw near. Felt his breath on her lips. And as his lips touched hers, she lingered in it, letting him draw her in. Letting herself enjoy it. Enjoy a man who was real, who was here.

And who cared for her.

Slowly, he drew away, letting the moment stretch between them. At last, Ghrenna opened her eyes, to see him smiling down. His green eyes held no teasing. They were entirely light. As if something good had blossomed out of this rogue smiling down at her, beaming. It made Ghrenna feel terrible suddenly. She pulled away, something clenching deep in her body, something resisting. She broke eye contact, pulled back more. He let her go. They stood there a moment, silent in the raucousness all around.

Luc gave a chuckle. But it was just on the edge of harsh. Ghrenna flushed, moving her gaze to the houses around them, forcing herself to scout the broad bluestone mansions and forget that kiss, for now.

“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” Luc spoke at last.

Ghrenna glanced at him, saw he was gazing at the buildings. “Good pickings.” She murmured. Relieved, though she could not say why, she surveyed the lay of the rooflines, the way the wealthy mansions were packed just a bit too tightly in the cramped space of this Quarter. Most had wrought-iron fences to keep out the gutter trash and petty burglars, and in front of some Ghrenna saw dogs, others with house guards. Ornate iron grilles graced doors and many first-story windows. Gazing down a long alley, she saw the neighborhood was backed by the distant bluestone wall of the First Abbey, towering ten feet or more above the mansions.

She nudged Luc. “Over there. We could get on the roofs, have our pick.”

Luc squinted in the hot afternoon sunlight. “The First Abbey of the Jenners. They run a watch on that wall at night. Or they used to. Remnant of tougher times, you know? I wonder if they still do…”

“Only one way to find out.” Ghrenna tugged him towards the alley.

Luc grinned, his roguish humor returned. “The Jenners brew all the beer for Lintesh. If you pretend to be interested in the Faith, they give you free samples.”

Ghrenna cocked her head, considering it. For the first time, she could enjoy an afternoon of drinking without throwing her guts up in the morning. She was grateful for Luc, and her day would be well-complimented by a midafternoon ale. But something still clenched her, something that needed easing, which an ale would help, also.

“Then let’s go get some religion.” She murmured.

Luc laughed, a full, bright sound. He offered his arm again and Ghrenna took it, and they angled down the alley towards the distant wall. Both were quiet as they took in all the details of the buildings flanking the Abbey. It was their usual scouting, and would come in handy later when they spoke, both having noted different aspects of the building, the guards, the rooflines. At last, they reached the wall and headed left to a side-door covered by a wrought-iron grille.

Posing as a married couple visiting from Fhouria for the coronation and curious about the Jenner faith, they gained entrance without difficulty. The Jenners, it seemed, were a solicitous lot, and provided them with ample brew as they toured of the sights from the five-story wall. Not only were they each given a pewter flagon, but their flagons were refreshed at intervals by fresh-faced young Brothers who blushed and stammered to see Ghrenna.

More lighthearted than she had been in years, and now drunk to boot, Ghrenna had actually pinched the ass of one smart young Jenner as he turned back to his duties. He had yelped, flushing red, then stammered an apology to their more senior tour guide, saying he had stubbed his toe. Ghrenna and Luc had stifled laughs as the two Brothers finally left them alone to admire the view from atop one of the turrets. Giggling like children, Ghrenna mimed pinching the Jenner’s ass again. She and Luc burst into laughter so badly she had to lean over the wall to catch her breath, fanning out her white-blonde waves from the back of her neck, she was sweating so hard.

But laughter had never felt so good. She had not a single twinge of her temples, not a throb through her skull. Ghrenna took a tremendous breath, feeling alive, reveling in the day, drunk as skunks and merry as the fae. She glanced over, her heart swelling for the golden-handsome bastard before her. He’d risked everything coming here, for her. Ghrenna sobered suddenly. A twinge of guilt gripped her, and then regret, a feeling like she was deceiving him.

Luc was still in a fit of wild chortling, wiping at his eyes. “Aeon, Ghren! I never knew you could be so much fun! Always so calculating… and here all this time I thought you were just a sour apple. But you’re not, are you? Quiet, mysterious, but not really sour at all…”

Ghrenna took another swig from her pewter flagon, masking her change in mood. This seventh round of beer was thick and hearty, a good stout with a caramel head of foam. She leaned heavily on the ramparts, gazing stuporous over the city, twirling a lock of white-blonde hair, a tic she hadn’t had since childhood.

“I never knew I could be fun, Luc.” Ghrenna murmured, staring out over the gabled rooftops. “As a child, I remember I was merry. But that pain, it just… saps you. Everything you have. Everything you could ever be. Until you only focus on surviving one moment to the next. I never realized I could actually live.”

Luc stepped up next to her, close enough that their bare forearms touched, and gazed at her sidelong. “Any visions since I started treating you?”

“No. Thank all that’s holy.” Ghrenna took a swig of her ale.

“You don’t miss them? You don’t want them back?”

“No.” Ghrenna turned to study the golden-blonde thief before her. “It’s a burden, Luc. It’s something I can’t control. I never know when the visions will strike, or how terrifying they’ll be.”

“You never saw anything nice? Like winning a lot of coin at dice?” He leaned his tall frame over the barrier-stones, flagon cupped in his long fingers, gazing at her with a mixture of pity and concern. It was a good look, a look Ghrenna wanted in her life. A look she wanted to come home to. Something about it made Ghrenna feel empty inside, and she turned back to the view with a wry smile.

“It doesn’t work that way, Luc. I see what it wants me to see.”

He reached out, stroking her neck drunkenly but with a tender concern, playing with a lock of her white-blonde waves. “Have you seen my death?”

Shock flooded Ghrenna. It took her a moment to realize he meant it to be teasing, his tone had been so utterly serious. She glanced over to see that a strange emotion had contorted his face into a hard frown. Gazing out over the rooftops, his attention was fixed upon the palace, and as Ghrenna watched, his jaw flexed in a hard anger. Ghrenna sidled closer, worried for him. Luc had been morose on and off since they had entered Lintesh two nights ago, and this was more of what haunted him.

“Do you think you’re going to die?” Ghrenna murmured.

He chuckled, ominous, his gaze never breaking from the palace, lit golden now in the slanting late-afternoon sun. “We all die, Ghren. The question is, when?”

“Do you think you’re going to die soon? Because you’re here in Lintesh?”

A shiver passed through Luc. “I may seem like a flippant fool sometimes, Ghrenna, and sometimes a callow lout, but whatever I am, I tell you this. A curse runs through my family, walking those halls.” He nodded towards the palace, his gaze still fixed upon it. “My mother died there. I had an aunt Mollia who died there before I was born, before she even made it to age seventeen. And now my brother and father. Every Lhorissian dies there, too young. If I go to serve the Dhenra… I’m going to meet a tragic end.” He looked around, an old woe haunting him. Reaching out, he stroked one finger down her cheek suddenly. “Those lake-blue eyes of yours… they make me wonder what you see. Fates of men?”

Ghrenna shifted, pulling away. His words pricked her, as if stirring memories that went too deep, things better left dead and buried out in the snows. “You could die anytime, Luc. We all could. You could fall and break your neck tomorrow, trying to raid one of those mansions.”

He chuckled again, and his hand returned to his flagon upon the stone wall. “Then my death would be a story, not a curse. I tell you, Ghrenna, death walks the halls of Roushenn. Untimely, secret death. People disappear there. My mother—” But he stopped abruptly, shutting his mouth and turning back to stare out over the rooftops, brooding.

“Your mother?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Luc snapped sourly. “Focus, Ghrenna. We’re supposed to be scouting mansions. I’ve seen a number of potential access-points from this wall. Enough dawdling and drinking.”

“As you say, Luc.” Ghrenna blinked in surprise, feeling like he had just slapped her in the face. But it was unsettling, the thoughts Luc had provoked today. As Ghrenna tried to blink away her ale-fugue, gazing out over the red roof tiles of Lintesh, she found her thoughts wandering. It wasn’t a vision, merely dire fancy, images of death, of battle, of starving out in deep snows, of being cut to ribbons by blades. Death after death after death plagued her, sourced from too many stories and too many of her own past visions. A late afternoon breeze caught the ramparts, stirring her white locks, cooling her sweat at last. Ghrenna looked up, gazing at the pinnacle of the glacier-capped Kingsmount, wishing the breeze could take her away from her own mind.

 

[ * ]

 

A northern wind off the Kingsmount snaked through the city tonight, cool and fresh. In her Kingsman greys, Ghrenna shivered, feeling almost chill for the first time since they’d arrived in Lintesh. Peeper-frogs chorused in the darkness as she waited for the signal from Gherris, who had climbed an ancient darkoak across the street. Crouched in the shadows of a hedge, Ghrenna was watching the wall for the passage of the Jenner patrol. Once the patrol passed, she would have twenty minutes to climb, set the grapple, get everyone up and hidden in one of the turret niches to wait for a second guard to pass before stringing lines across the avenue to the nearest rooftop.

Their target tonight was a mid-sized mansion across from the Jenner compound. Luc and Ghrenna had timed the Jenner patrols. Shara and Gherris had earned a tour of a similar mansion available for purchase, a definitive example of the architecture in the area. They had gotten a very thorough walk-through of roof access points and cellars, having pretended to be fearful of burglars. Tonight’s mansion in the Abbey Quarter was a test for getting up on the Jenner wall, the house supposedly empty since the lord had moved his family into rooms at the palace for the Queen’s coronation.

Ghrenna eyed the wall again from her position. “You sure you can get up there, Luc?”

“With your rope? Absolutely.” Luc crouched in the darkness by her side in his thieves’ blacks, breathing softly in the night.

Ghrenna eyeballed him. “Light a fire under your ass. You can’t be slow. That’s a fifty-foot climb.”

“I’m not that bad a climber, Ghren.” Luc gave her a cheeky smile, but it was strained tonight. The call of a nighthawk sheared the darkness, coming from the oak across the avenue. Their signal. “Time to go.” Luc lifted the rope-and-grapple up over Ghrenna’s head, settling the grapple on her back. “No falling this time. You got your pipe?”

Ghrenna patted her leather belt-pouch over her charcoal Kingsman greys. “Just in case.”

“Up you go, sweetheart.” Luc slapped her on the ass, but not loud enough to make any suspicious sound. Ghrenna flicked his nose, then set her hands to the wall, found purchase for her feet and inhaled, and began her ascent.

The top of the wall was silent, dark beneath a halo of stars in a new-moon night. Finally, she swung over the edge of the parapet, sweat-streaked and breathing hard. Ghrenna froze in her customary crouch, willing herself to be utterly still, to be unseen. Spreading her natural senses out into the night, she held immaculately still, using all her faculties to sense for any disturbance. But they’d timed it perfectly. No one was nearby atop her section of wall between the guard-towers. She set to with the grapple, securing it in a block of byrunstone. She was about to toss the rope over the side when the crunch of a footstep on grit caught her ears.

Ghrenna froze, her face turned in the direction of the sound. A shadow was climbing the turret next to her, nearly as high as the parapet upon which Ghrenna hunkered. Someone else was working the rooftops of Lintesh tonight. Someone else had the same idea as their guild, to access mansions from the Abbey wall. Ghrenna stilled her body to silence, willing herself to be unseen. She felt her ability moving out, tendrils coursing around her, ready to turn any eyes that scanned the wall in her direction.

Her heart was hammering, too fast. Fear slid through her belly. Ghrenna’s guild hadn’t yet made contact with the Lintesh Thieves’ Consortium, and if they were caught working tonight, they could be blacklisted or worse. Much worse. She held herself motionless, breathing as soft as she knew how. The man upon the wall was an agile climber, far better than she. He moved like the night breeze, lifting easily from hold to hold, letting his momentum do the work. Glancing up to the top of the tower, he seemed to change his mind, angling for the parapet upon which Ghrenna stood. Within moments, he was swinging lithely over the byrunstone railing, and had landed upon soundless feet in the darkness.

Close now. He was so close. Barely ten paces in front of her, and still, he had not yet noticed her standing in the darkness. Ghrenna spread her tendrils out, willing him to see nothing but the night. But as she gazed at him, heart thundering hard, then squinted harder at his garb, she found that something about it was familiar.

And suddenly, she knew what it was. Because she was wearing the same thing. It was a Kingsman, in his greys, who had climbed this wall tonight. She could see the tooling of the Kingsmount and Stars upon his belt and sword-harness in the starlight. She could see the cut of the quadrant-split panels of his long jerkin and his deep hood. The leather was soft, cracked like it had been used hard over the years, though the man stood before her with effortless strength, lean and honed like a blade.

A nighthawk cry sounded down below, a signal asking what the holdup was. Ghrenna couldn’t answer it. But the call startled the man upon the wall. He crouched, froze a few moments. Then leaned out, scouring the darkness below, looking intently at the darkoak across the avenue from where Gherris’ call had come. Ghrenna caught a glimpse of a well-boned, handsome face framed by the blackness of his deep hood as he scrutinized the wall, the gardens, the street, lingering in the places where Luc and Shara were hidden.

He turned his attention back to the parapet before him, looking directly at her now. Ghrenna suppressed her trembles, holding perfectly still. Spreading her will out, she pushed it at him, pressed it towards his mind, made it absorb into him like pressing putty into a stone block. Breathing softly, she honed it, shaped it, slid it into his body, into his mind.

His dark eyes swept her.

And then swept her by.

Ghrenna let a silent breath pass, easing her focus. But then his gaze flicked back. His eyes narrowed. He stepped forward a pace, and then another, slipping towards her like a heron, all lithe patience and sinuous muscle. He stood only four paces from her when his gaze suddenly sharpened. He blinked, then straightened, stepping forward again, closing the distance. And as he did, his face became clear in the thin starlight of the new-moon night. Ghrenna breathed out, her heart thundering hard. Her stillness shattered. Her focus broke as the night seemed to expand all around them and contract at the same time, swaddling them in stillness, in a dream.

Because he was a vision. He was her vision.

“Fuck Aeon…” He murmured to the night, barely a breath, his roiling-storm eyes fixed upon her, shock upon his face. But what slammed into his gaze next was need. Terrible, anguished, astonished, a horrible need ripped through those grey-opal eyes, so dark in the night. Hot and wild, implacable and uncontrolled, the flood of his desire found her, sluiced her, ripped her downstream with the force of a snowmelt avalanche.

“Elohl.” Ghrenna could hardly whisper his name. Her tongue was dry in her mouth, her heart beating fast like hummingbirds. Her stomach rose, emptiness keening out to him. A hole yawned in her very center, a hole that had only grown more engulfing for ten long years, watching him, needing him, seeing him but unable to touch. His grey eyes shone like pearl in the darkness, and the force of their hold drew him forward, and her as well. He was inches away now, so close he could have caught her in his arms.

But he didn’t. He stared down at her, transfixed, his pull stretching, lifting Ghrenna’s heart up through her throat.

“You’re here.” Elohl’s breath was a whisper. Ghrenna could smell his warm musk on the night air, basalm-fir and lemonbalm. Those storm-grey eyes were set in a man’s face, rough and weathered. His scruff of short beard hinted at nights buried in snow struggling for warmth. Lean as always, his hand reached up, hesitating as if not believing she was real. And it didn’t feel real to Ghrenna yet either, as if it was merely a vision-mirage, ready to evaporate at the merest caress.

Her breath ceased, wanting. Hoping. Not wanting. Afraid.

His gaze softened suddenly. And there it was, all the things they’d never had time to say. All the love they’d missed sharing, all the days of pleasure and nights of bliss, sharing their lives wrapped in each other’s embrace. There it was, all the living that had stalled, that had died, that had been ripped away by a Summons that had come too soon, and a quest that had come too late. And now they faced the truth of those years, of that time, of that pain, gazing at it in each other’s eyes in the silvered depths of the night.

Soft as gossamer, he touched her face, corded sinew and rough fingers of hard living tracing gently along her jaw. Bliss sighed out from Ghrenna. Ecstasy. She heard his breath in the night, his soft parting of lips as he had done when they kissed in the hollow of balewick trees near Alrashesh. She felt the embrace of his love, even stronger than before. As if his very essence had reached out with that one touch, embracing her, arresting her, swallowing her whole into its diamond serenity.

For a moment, everything filled with light. For a moment, Ghrenna saw a white spire in the darkness, felt it twine them together, lancing up from their bodies and spearing the sky. For a moment, everything disappeared but this light, this warmth, this bliss.

But the gentleness of his touch was obliterated suddenly as Ghrenna’s head gave a vicious surge. Lights ricocheted across her vision, blurring, fast, too many. Suddenly, it was a riot of light chasing darkness chasing light, spinning with every color in the void. Spinning and shearing, twisting and tearing. Ghrenna shrieked. Clutching her head as the pain blossomed into a nightmare, she felt the spasm come like a falling star.

Seizing ripped through Ghrenna’s body. Her jaw locked, she tasted blood, and her world went black. It was only moments later that she came to, now trussed by her hands around the neck of a man who was all muscle, slung upon his back. Still seizing, torn with pain, Ghrenna keened out. But his movement never faltered, sure and swift as he scurried them both down to the ground, then ran them silently across the dark avenue. She could feel his alarm, in every taught sinew, in every corded muscle. Elohl was terrified for her. She could smell it in the way his musk had changed, acrid, bitter.

Ghrenna was terrified. Some part of her recognized that her seizures should have ceased by now. Some part of her felt seared, pierced by something that had lanced into her body and caused mayhem. Something unusual, but deep, old. Something that had dark and horrible memories of its own. Something that had only begun when Elohl had touched her. Another fit took her, violent. Her whipping motions almost toppled them, but Elohl was sure-footed, and his time in the mountains had made him strong like braided mast-line.

“Hold on, Ghrenna… just hold on…” Elohl gave the call of a nighthawk beneath the darkoak tree by the tall hedge, sharp and urgent. Three dark-hooded figures emerged from behind it, armed to the teeth and ready to strike. Gherris did strike, the fucking madman. A knife went whizzing past Elohl’s ear as he ducked, the blade barely missing Ghrenna’s cheek as another fit of rigors took her, clenching her teeth, completely paralyzed this time.

“Don’t throw knives at me, you fuckstone!” Elohl’s growl was deeper than Ghrenna remembered it, the command in it plain. It was the voice of a Rakhan, a seasoned commander, just like his father.

“Who the hell are you?” Gherris’ low-snarled challenge was rabid, all thought of silence in the night forgotten.

“Put her down, shadow.” Luc’s voice was smoother but strained.

“Ghrenna’s having convulsions! Do any of you have threllis?” Elohl was lifting her from his shoulders to set her in the grass beneath the towering oak, untying her bound hands hastily, feeling her forehead, her pulses. But though Ghrenna yearned for his touch, where his hands went her seizing was triggered like poison. She keened weakly in the darkness, the only sound she could make through a locked throat as another spasm ripped every muscle.

“Get away from her! You’re hurting her!” Luc shoved Elohl aside in the darkness. Ghrenna felt the cool balm of his hands, his sweet nectar flowing through her skull. Her keening dwindled to whimpers, her entire body still locked tight in pain. Finally, she was able to catch her breath, and when it came, it came fast. Her heart thundered in her chest. Her breaths were small sips, rapid, uneven. “Easy, sweetheart, easy…” Luc murmured, the sensation of cool water pouring from his hands intensifying, surging into her head and down into her locked body.

“Do you have someplace we can take her, quickly?” Elohl’s low baritone was all concern.

“How do you know her name?” Shara interjected. “How do you know she needs threllis?”

“We grew up together.”

“Fuck Aeon!” Shara breathed. “You’re Elohl… from her dreams! From her visions!”

Ghrenna opened her eyes just enough to see Elohl blink at Shara in surprise, but then she was suddenly hoisted into Luc’s strong arms. “Come on, sweetheart. We gotta get you to the inn. You! Elohl, shadow, whatever your name is. You’d better follow and explain all this, or so help me Karthor, I’m going to let Gherris disembowel you! He hasn’t murdered anyone since we got to Lintesh, and I’m sure he’s hungry for a first.”

Sliding down into a pool of darkness, Ghrenna didn’t hear the rest.

CHAPTER 25 – ELOHL

 

 

They hadn’t dared bring Ghrenna in the front of the guesthouse with everyone dressed in thieves’ garb. So Elohl carried her up the side of the inn and through the window of the thieves’ rooms, as no one else could climb it with the burden. But Ghrenna keened in pain the entire time, shivering and shuddering atop Elohl’s back. It was pandemonium for a moment, Elohl rushing her to the bed as she thrashed again, her screaming whenever he touched her face, trying to soothe.

Elohl stepped back in tortured frustration as the lanky man in thieves’ blacks ripped off his gloves and threw them at the bureau with a murderous glance at Elohl. Sliding to the bed in haste, he laid his long-fingered hands carefully to Ghrenna’s temples, just as he had done before in the deep shadows of the hedge. She was hardly breathing, deathly pale, still thrashing violently. Elohl’s heart twisted as he watched, helpless. Something inside him gasped for life, too raw, too open, in agony every time she thrashed, every time she keened. Here she was at last, and he couldn’t touch her, couldn’t soothe her as he’d once done so well. Couldn’t even lift fingers to her beautiful white skin. Couldn’t cup her face into his hands and stare into those mesmerizing eyes that haunted him.

Because every time he did, she seized.

The other two had made it in the open window and were now lighting the lamps as Elohl knelt on the bare boards by Ghrenna’s bedside, allowing the healer his charge. Clearly, whatever he was doing was having a positive effect. Her jerking was quieting; her color was returning. Her breathing had steadied, and her face wasn’t a rictus of pain anymore. As the tall man worked, her eyelids started to flutter. And finally opened.

Her gaze fixed upon Elohl, penetrating, ancient with gravitas. Her eyes were a darker blue than they had ever been, twin pools of midnight, and his mouth ran dry. Eyes that knew too much, that had seen too much, they bored into Elohl’s soul. Tingling lanced through him, spreading over his skin like the humming of bees, over his shoulders, down his chest and spine, collecting in the center of his back. From the moment their eyes had first connected tonight, it had risen, drumming in his skin, searing through his muscles and sinews, a counter-reaction to whatever was happening to Ghrenna. His goldenmarks were alive with flame, surging whenever he looked at her, blistering whenever they touched, running like lightning through his limbs now as they stared at each other in the sallow lamplight.

Unearthly in her intensity, Ghrenna drew him, yet also made him want to run, to climb, to leave, to be anywhere but in her presence. It was as if her eyes knew things, things Ghrenna herself didn’t even know, as if they waited for something. Drawing a future into place that was only just set in motion. And now they pinned him, laid him bare, as if to accuse him that he was supposed to be doing more. Doing something, starting something.

Finishing something.

And looking at her now, wanting her, Elohl could feel them both shivering with the connection like they stood upon the topmost peak of the Eleskis during the height of a thunderstorm. Her beauty in this moment was terrible, even more than he remembered. Luminous, her tundra-pale allure was like a full-moon night over snowfields, something ethereal that didn’t belong upon this earth. Twin spots of color barely brushed her cheeks, like the first rise of dawn over ice. Her full, pale lips breathed with a dire chill that wraiths promised, seductive and destroying.

“Aeon! I thought I lost you, woman!” For a moment Elohl was confused, having thought the words came from his own lips. But then he saw Ghrenna’s attention shift. Felt her gaze leave him with a sudden destruction of their connection, taking in the golden-maned Luc, who had his hands still gently wound in her cascade of white-blonde waves. A wisp of a smile lifted Ghrenna’s lips for the rogue.

Elohl’s gut clenched in sudden anger.

“I’m alright, Luc. The pain’s down.” She pawed at his hand weakly. “You can stop.”

“You’re not all right.” The man glared over his shoulder at Elohl. “If my hands weren’t busy right now I’d be throttling you, Kingsman. What the fuck did you do to her?!”

Elohl had no words. He shook his head, not trusting himself to speak. His golden Inkings had quieted some. But now that Ghrenna fixed her attention back upon him, they surged with renewed vigor, searing, almost violent.

“He didn’t do anything, Luc.” Ghrenna spoke. “It’s just… I was triggered again.”

“Bullshit! He touches you and you start keening like your head is being split by spears.”

“That never used to happen.”

“Never…?” Luc glanced over his shoulder at Elohl, then back to Ghrenna. “You two? You used to be lovers?!”

“It was a long time ago.” Elohl murmured.

Ghrenna looked at him again with that fathomless blue gaze. Elohl’s Inkings roared, liquid flame rippling across his skin, diving deep inside him. Ten years hadn’t been long enough to forget those eyes. Eyes that haunted him when the wind howled outside his dugout, when blizzards raged five days long. Eyes that reflected in the ice when his hands were numb and his iceaxe dull and every movement was agony. Eyes that blinked him awake from his dreams into a nightmare where an assassin’s knife was at his throat and the cut had begun, and he had nothing but his hands to fight with.

Eyes that ruined his heart, that terrified him. He felt them upon him, no matter what he was doing. Whenever he was alone, they were there. There was no place in the world where he could outrun them. And now they were here, and she was watching him. And all he wanted to do was touch her, to drink her in, to surrender beneath her and give himself up entire. Elohl couldn’t break away from that pull, those fathomless pools that had somehow become stronger through all their years apart. The tingling in his limbs seared, like every nerve had been lit on fire.

“A long time ago.” Ghrenna finally echoed, showing Elohl all the agony in her soul before she suddenly wrapped it up into stillness. Closing her eyes, she sighed. As if their connection was too much, too hurtful, too aching to maintain, as much as she wanted to. Elohl felt her relief, his Inkings quieting also.

Pushing herself up to sitting, Ghrenna kept her eyes closed, the thief Luc and the woman Shara helping her. At last, she seemed to be doing better, propped up against the headboard of the rickety bed. Shara bustled about, fetching water and hustling downstairs after she had slung on a plain-cut dress, to wake the harried innkeeper to fetch everyone a late supper. The young cur who had thrown a knife at Elohl was lingering by the window, pacing. But though Elohl sensed the lad had a short fuse, he was strangely respectful, keeping his distance.

Luc still shot Elohl vicious glowers. And even when his hands fell from Ghrenna’s head at her insistence that she was better, Elohl noticed his fingers would still stray to the back of her neck, possessive. At last, Ghrenna took a deep breath, her midnight-deep eyes seeking him again.

“Elohl… the last time I saw you, you were on the road in the mountains.”

“You’ve been having visions of me?” Elohl wanted to reach out, to take her hand. But he held himself immaculately still, knowing what would happen if he gave in to the temptation. Luc blustered, glowering, his fingers straying to Ghrenna’s neck again. She didn’t shrug him off. Elohl heard a cough from the young dark-haired man near the window.

Ghrenna ignored them, her fathomless gaze fixed upon Elohl. “I saw you almost die in an avalanche, once. And then there was an assassin who tried to slit your throat. I saw you a few times on ice-climbs. And then on the road. And then…on top of that Stone.”

“You saw me up there?” Something trembled through Elohl, a fae wind whispering in his goldenmarks.

“You seemed asleep, but there was a man with you.” She eyed Elohl’s greys, which were done up tight, not showing much of his golden Inkings except the smallest bit at the neck. But her gaze traced his chest, his shoulders, as if seeing them anyways. “He had the Kingsmount upon him, but it was different. And he had Inkings of red and white, like Elsthemi fire-opals, all over his shoulders, chest, and down his spine. He was speaking to you.”

“Could you hear what he was saying?” Elohl leaned forward, wondering if Ghrenna could illumine what the man had said to him.

But Ghrenna shook her head. “I heard nothing. Just glimpsed the scene.”

Disappointment hollowed Elohl’s gut. A bitter taste rose in his mouth, not the same burning he’d used to endure, but akin to it. Here again, even with all Ghrenna’s abilities, was a dead end as far as what had been done to him atop that Stone. And now it was worse, these golden Inkings triggering a dire reaction between himself and Ghrenna. Something neither of them understood. Something that split them apart.

“Did you come here… looking for me?” Elohl murmured, needing the answer.

Ghrenna blushed, looked down. “No. We came looking for Olea. I didn’t know you were here.”

Elohl’s heart chilled. A seeping sensation filled him, like cold lake water. Something he’d thought gone since he’d sat atop that pillar. He set his jaw, fighting it, willing it to retreat, something about the burning in his golden Inkings able to push it back just a little. Ghrenna hadn’t meant her words to be hurtful. But she’d also not been looking for him.

As if reading his mind, though, she suddenly spoke. “I didn’t know where to find you, Elohl.” Her blue eyes pinned him, fervent. “If I had, I would have come, I swear it. But all I ever saw were ice-climbs, mountain vistas, you shivering in hovels of snow…”

Her gaze was wretched. His heart surged for her. It wasn’t her fault. He knew she couldn’t control the visions, couldn’t direct them. She’d been just as helpless as he, feeling their connection all these years, unable to find each other. Elohl felt that ease he recalled from his dream atop the Stone ripple out suddenly, his Inkings glimmering warm and peaceful rather than searing.

“I forgive you.” He murmured, knowing he meant it.

Her breath hitched. Her eyes tightened. But Ghrenna held her emotions, just as she always had, and no tears were shed. She only nodded, accepting his reconciliation. “Have you found Olea, here in the city?”

“I have.” A smile wisped over Elohl’s lips. “She’s well. Captain-General of the Guard. We’ve been meeting when she has moments free, over the past few days.”

Ghrenna’s answering smile was relieved. But then her smile faded. “Elohl, you should know… Suchinne is dead.”

There was a long silence between them. At last, Elohl raised his palm to his Inkings. “I suppose it was too much to believe we would all survive ten years. Olea and I have both been hunted, fought off assassination attempts. How did it happen?”

“Be glad you didn’t see it.” Ghrenna swallowed hard. “She died in battle at the Valenghian border. That’s all I will say.”

“And Dherran?”

“Hot-tempered as ever.” A smile flickered over Ghrenna’s face. “He’s a prizefighter. He went renegade from his regiment just like I did. After he tracked down and killed Suchinne’s… murderers.”

Elohl nodded, and the silence stretched, awkward. He leaned back, running a hand through his brush of black hair, then down over his scruff. “Olea’s done well for herself. She’s close to the Dhenra.”

“Elyasin?” It was Luc who piped up, showing sudden interest. “This Olea is close to the Dhenra? How did she ever manage that? I thought every Kingsman left would be in prison, if not hung. Except for those in hiding like Ghren.”

Ghrenna gave a small smile. “Olea had a private relationship with the Dhenir.”

“Forgive me for interrupting such fond remembrances,” Luc growled, “but can I point out the obvious? Your sister was fucking the Dhenir?”

“Why do you care?” Elohl kept his voice measured, holding back a rising ire with the healer.

Luc scowled under his golden brows, not one to be subdued. “That’s my business, you fucking Kingsshit! And I don’t think your presence here is doing anyone any favors! Just because you’re a Kingsman and have a sister close to the throne doesn’t mean you’re better than everyone else! And what were you doing skulking around the top of the Penitent’s compound tonight anyway? Not so noble now, are you?”

Elohl didn’t say a word, just kept the man firmly in his gaze. Authority rolled from his skin in cool waves. At last, the thief before him flinched, his green eyes skittering away. “I was up on the wall tonight trying to find out information from the Jenners.” Elohl murmured at last. “If you have a problem with me, thief, I invite you to challenge me in single combat.”

Luc’s face grew hot, flushed. “You’re on, whoresshit! I’ll fight you anytime, anywh—”

But he got no further, Ghrenna’s hand lighting on his arm. “You don’t want to fight Elohl.” Her gaze flicked to Elohl. There was a plea in those depths, that wrapped around his heart, choking it. She and the thief were lovers. It was obvious in the furious set of Luc’s shoulders, the pride in his face. It was there in the way Ghrenna held Elohl’s gaze, willing him to see the depth of her misery. How she had been alone all these years, and lonely, just like Elohl. And her need for the comfort of someone’s arms.

“Well why the fuck not?” Luc simmered. “He’s a good inch shorter than me, and no more than eighty stone soaking wet!”

“Because he’ll kill you.” Ghrenna murmured, her attention still upon Elohl.

“Him?” Luc eyed Elohl dangerously, but with consideration for the first time. “Bullshit. I can take him. I can take Gherris, and I could take him.”

The slender, dark-haired man lounging at the window stepped forward. “Don’t fight him, Luc. Please.”

And the plea from this sullen cur eased Luc’s temper more than anything. He seemed to settle, eyeing the young, dark-eyed man curiously. “Never heard you say that before.”

“I’ve never said it before. But I’ll say it again. Please, don’t take his challenge. If he kills you, we lose our livelihood. If you kill him…” The young man looked stricken. A mixture of faint hope and dire woe was plain in his ruined gaze as he and Elohl regarded one another. “If you kill him, I’ll never have anyone I could ever call Rakhan.”

Elohl blinked at the young man. A beat of silence passed in the room. And then, Elohl put his open palm to his chest. “Alrashemnesh aere veitriya Rennkavi rhavesin. Sin Rakhan. Siere tut me lhin.

“You’re not a Rakhan?” The young man was crestfallen. “You seemed so—”

“My father was Rakhan of Alrashesh. I gained a certain… way… from him.”

The young thief chewed the inside of his lip, vulnerable. “Then you should be Rakhan, like your father.” It was nearly a plea.

Siere tut me lhin. I’m sorry, but I’m not. I’m rennkavi.” Elohl’s palm was still over his Inkings.

“Rennkavi? What? You should be Rakhan! Why have you turned from your father’s path?” He was shaking now, shivering with a deep inner battle that Elohl knew nothing of. But he knew better than to apologize again. Anything he could say now would only make it worse.

“What’s your name, Kingskinder?”

“Gherris. Gherris den’Mal.”

Elohl understood at last. “My father often had messages from a Rakhan Ghennys den’Mal, from the Second Court of Valdhera. Are you Second Court?”

The young man swallowed hard, his dark eyes flashing bitter anger. “Yes.”

A soft inhalation came from the woman Shara, who had returned during their conversations with a basket of food. She walked forward, standing just behind Gherris as if she wanted to reach out to comfort him. But she had better sense, instead hovering just out of reach of the wretched pup. Elohl’s gaze roved over the young man, judging him to be no more than twenty-five. Whatever his past, he’d lost his family at fifteen when the Summons came.

And had been fighting the ghost of his father ever since.

“I’m sorry for your loss.” Elohl murmured.

“You know nothing of it!” The young cur snarled, bitter and wild.

“You’re right. I don’t.” Elohl sighed. “I only know the desperate lengths I went to, to protect my own family, and a depression so deep after they disappeared that I tried to kill myself no less than thirteen times.”

Elohl began unbuckling his charcoal Kingsman jerkin and pulling the laces of his dark grey shirt open. It was time to bare it all. Time to admit it to himself and to others who would understand, just how dark his years had been. And strangely, he felt it was right tonight, a calm suffusing him as he began to roll up his sleeves after the shirt was unlaced.

“Three failed attempts to slit my wrists.” Elohl murmured, showing the wretched scars on his inner wrists. “One failed attempt to slit my own throat. Two thwarted attempts to leap from the top of a frozen waterfall. Six tries to drink myself to death. I started a riot in a bar, once, to see who could best me to the grave. None of us Kingskinder escaped whole. All of us are damaged, Gherris. It’s just that some scars show more than others. But no scar,” he pulled his shirt down now, baring the black markings of his original Kingsmount and Stars, “Is more important than this. This binds us as family. And I intend to see that family reunited someday. Whole. With your help, and Ghrenna’s, and anyone else here,” his gaze touched on Luc, then Shara, “who might sympathize with our plight, we just might have that again someday. And answers. And justice.”

“Justice.” Gherris licked his lips like a hungry dog.

“Justice is found in a court of law. Not by vigilantism.” Elohl admonished sternly, feeling the young man needed a lesson.

Gherris blinked, startled that Elohl had read him. He swallowed hard. “Tell me of law, and I will find it.”

“Not me, Gherris. We need my sister Olea for that. Politics, law, and negotiation, those are her strengths. But for now, do you know the Alrashemni code? Do you know what each star means?” Elohl bared his chest, allowing the young man to see the Inking in its entirety.

The younger man licked his lips nervously. “Strength. Flexibility. Wisdom. Knowledge. Patience.” The young man’s tortured grey eyes flicked up, roiling with an unspoken need.

“Patience.” Elohl repeated, touching the very leftmost star on his chest. “Patience, Kingskinder. And we will all have justice.”

Gherris nodded, his gaze alight with a fever Elohl knew all too well. But he seemed mollified for the moment, and Ghrenna’s pull caught Elohl once more. It had been gone for a time, while he was speaking with Gherris. But it had returned, crawling over his skin along the spread of his golden Inkings, digging into his gut. Spearing his heart, demanding that he do something.

Something far more than he knew how to.

 

[ * ]

 

It was the deep quiet of near-dawn when Ghrenna padded to his blankets laid out upon the bare boards. The thief Luc was fast asleep. Elohl could hear his soft snores up on the bed. The other two were in the adjacent suite, the door between their rooms closed. Elohl felt Ghrenna’s gaze even before he could see her in the darkness, licking over his skin like slow fire. He motioned her over, and she sat, then stretched out upon her side, still in her Kingsman greys. Those fathomless pools watched him in the early light of pre-dawn, mysterious in her pale shroud of hair. Even as a lad, Ghrenna’s pale northern beauty had caught Elohl, a spell that innocence from women had not been able to spare him. He lifted his blanket so she could slide under. But he was very careful not to touch her, as if they were First Seals once again.

“Did I wake you?” Her voice was a whisper of specters through moonlight.

“I was already awake. I didn’t sleep.” Elohl nodded his chin at the bed and the snoring. “Does he really stop all your headaches and seizures?”

Her smile was shy, a smile Elohl had only seen when he used to undress her by moonlight at the edge of Fherrow’s Pond. “He does. He’s a natural-born healer, like Lhegen used to be.”

“And the visions?”

“Unpredictable, still. But I haven’t had one since Luc first helped me.” Ghrenna stretched out her fingers, toying with one of the laces of Elohl’s shirt. He caught his breath, feeling her pull. Using all his hard-won discipline, he held very still so their skin wouldn’t touch.

“I used to dream that you would find me,” she murmured. “Just wishful dreams. That you would climb us both up a white pinnacle so high that we entered the clouds. A palace of solace and mist. And we would lay there in the mist, just … touching. Until the clouds cleared and we could see the world, lit by the diamond brilliance of the spire in the thin air.”

She reached out, as if to touch his bare chest between the lacings of his shirt, the gold of his Alran-Ink dim in the grey light. But her fingers only hovered, so close, as a subtle tremor rippled her. “I still dream it every night. Of that peace. But every morning I wake to pain. Before Luc touched me, the only time I knew a world without pain was when you and I were there. Just… there. But now you’ve been marked, Elohl. By something… someone… powerful. And I don’t know why. Nor why it keeps us apart when we should be one.”

Her whisper held a dire portent, that made Elohl shiver and ache. He could feel the heat in her fingertips, the warmth of her body so close and yet so unendingly far. Her eyes were pools of dread sorrow, and Elohl’s heart twisted at the distance that yawned between them. She brushed her fingertip lightly over his bare skin, along a faint line of gold ink. Keening softly, her face screwed up in pain, her jaw locking tight. It was a minute before she could speak again.

“Foolish dreams of foolish girls.”

She withdrew her hand. Elohl’s heart went with it. He lifted his own hand, reaching for her, not touching her jaw, just hovering. Drawn in, he moved forward, their faces close. His lips hovered over hers. He could taste her sweet scent upon his tongue. Ghrenna was breathing hard, her soft breath so hot. Elohl couldn’t stop from matching her pull, feeling her obliteration. He couldn’t stop wanting her until the city burned to the ground and his head was in the noose.

Gods suffer him, he couldn’t stop. He’d never been able to stop her pull.

She lifted her lips, closing the gap.

And for a moment, Elohl burned as they kissed.

And then she was seizing again.

“Dammit, Kingsman!” Luc launched from the bed as Ghrenna thrashed, keening in the wan light. Elohl came to his knees in his blankets, trying to hold her limbs steady.

“Let her go! Let her go! You’re only making it worse!” Luc elbowed him out of the way, getting a firm grip on Ghrenna’s whipping head, staying clear of her thrashing. In a moment, he had the violence down to a shiver. But her eyelids were still fluttering madly, and they would not open this time.

“What did you do, you whorescunt?!” Luc snarled, murderous.

“I kissed her.” Anguish twisted Elohl’s heart. Fear and helplessness coursed through his veins as he watched his lover writhe. Truth was best. It was Ghrenna’s life Elohl had just jeopardized, and he knew it.

“Fucking hells!” But Luc’s sigh was more irritated than angry. “You know this strains me, Kingsman. I can’t continue to do this all night long. Each time I work on her, I get sapped. I’m not the fountain of bloody youth! Ghrenna? Ghren, sweetheart, come on back… come on…”

Luc was all tenderness and care with her. Elohl regarded the man, seeing the sweet love the handsome thief held for Ghrenna. How much they had shared together over the years. Elohl’s heart withered in his chest, wishing they could exchange places. Ice crept in again as he spiraled down in a bitter despair, all his newfound peace sliding away.

At last, Ghrenna seemed to have fallen asleep, her twitching subsided. But even so, Luc was still moving his hands, ever so slowly, still cradling her skull on the bare floorboards. Elohl reached out, fingers whispering over a lock of Ghrenna’s lovely white-blonde hair where it spilled across her shoulder.

“I envy you.” Elohl managed, his eyes tight, burning with tears. “You can touch her. Love her. Be with her. I’ve waited ten years… ten years to be able to touch her. Hoping she was alive. And now…” He laughed suddenly, a harsh bark of despair. “Now this! My touch triggers seizures! The worst kind! I used to be able to soothe her… hold her, calm her. All I ever wanted was to be with her, Luc. I had dreams… Aeon, curse me for a fool!”

Elohl stood abruptly. In a vicious chill of ancient despair, he pulled the lacings of his shirt closed, shrugged into his leather jerkin and halter of climbing items and knives, glancing out the single grimy window of the inn’s room at a bitter dawn. Tears falling thick and fast, he sat upon the bed, pulling on his soft leather climbing boots. Elohl rose, heading for the door to the hall. He had his hand on the bolt when Luc’s rough voice called out behind him.

“Hey! Kingsman! Where can she find you?”

Elohl turned, not bothering to scrub tears from his weatherworn cheeks. “Do you really want to know?”

“I don’t. I could give two shits. But she will. And Ghrenna leads our guild, not me.”

Elohl considered the tall man upon his knees on the boards, still with his hands beneath Ghrenna’s head. The thief was a decent fellow. He was the sort of man Ghrenna deserved. A man who could be kind to her. Who could give her laughter and warm nights rather than pain and bitter memories. But jealousy seared a cold path deep into Elohl’s writhing heart, and some part of him rose suddenly in promise.

He would find a way, to be able to touch her again.

“I’m at the King’s Cross, in the Tradesman Quarter.” Elohl murmured. “Third floor, second room on the left. Ask for Elohl den’Alrahel, Veteran High Brigade.”

The man’s attention flicked over Elohl as if seeing something new. “Veteran High Brigade? High Brigade is a death sentence.”

“So they told me when I was placed there.” Elohl gazed his last over Ghrenna’s luminous beauty, her head so sweetly in Luc’s long-fingered hands. He steeled himself in his promise. “None of us had any choice in our future when we were ripped from our homes, Luc. Believe me, I tried my best to die. Better to die than to be without her for so long.” He paused, his hand on the bolt of the door.

“She loves you, you know.” The golden-maned thief growled, bitter but honest. “The way she speaks of you. Not often… only after her dreams. But even so… you’d be a daft bastard to leave her like this.”

Elohl lingered upon Ghrenna’s luminous beauty, some part of him dying at her vicious perfection. “Tell her I’m at the King’s Cross?”

The thief was silent a long moment, but at last nodded. “You’re a lucky man, Elohl.”

“No. I’m not.” Elohl stepped out into the dim lamplight of the hall without looking back.

CHAPTER 26 – TEMLIN

 

 

Brother Temlin den’Ildrian massaged his white beard as he stared down at the Ghenje board, contemplating his dark and light stones. Abbott Lhem den’Ulio had backed him into a corner. The old geezer was grinning now, his dark grey eyes still sharp, though he was easily ten years older than Temlin. The lamps were turned up bright in the Abbott’s high-gabled apartments on the third story of the Annex. The scent of burning lamp-oil wafted about the room, drafted out the open windows and out into the frog-chorused night. It was too horridly muggy for a fire, but both geezers needed the lamps bright so they could squint at the pine board of squares, contemplating their moves. A man of much shrewdness, the First Abbot of the Jenners was infamous for his political maneuvering, and it showed in his Ghenje. Two mugs of pilfered honey-brown with the lhenken-hops sat to the side of the gaming board upon the Abbott’s vine-carven supper table.

“Get on, then, Temlin! What’re you gonna do now, huh?” Abbott Lhem lifted his mug to his generous white mustachios with a drunken wink, his well-lined cheeks ruddy with ale. His bark was that of a military General, still hale and deep. Temlin wondered again how such a man had ever sought the monastic life. But he kept a tight ship running at the First Abbey, and his agile mind was always something to behold. Temlin twirled his beard again, pondering his move.

“Keep messing with that beard and you’re gonna lose what’s left of your hair.” Abbott Lhem growled.

“Keep swigging that honey-brown, and the younger Brothers are going to know their Abbot is drunk as a badger.” Temlin returned smartly.

“Ah! Fuck the little men. I can drink if I want to.” Lhem swigged his ale again, defiant.

Temlin chuckled, still considering the board. “The Way is the Life, and the Life is full of mellow wealth. Seek you to calm your passions, neither drink to pass your lips, nor the riots of flesh to grace your skin, and ye shall find the Peace and the Way of Inner Release.”

“Don’t quote catechism at me, old man!” He leveled a thick finger at Temlin, then swigged his beer. “I could quote you around the Wall and back.”

“So you could.” They had enjoyed such a battle before, and it had gone on for an entire week before one of the younger Brothers pleaded for a truce between them. “But sometimes I wonder how much the Way really sinks in for you…”

“For fuck’s sake, Temlin! Get a move on!”

“In time, in time, my friend… one must not rush the Bliss of the Way…” But he flicked his eyes up over his half-spectacles to Abbot Lhem’s, and grinned. Lhem leveled his meaty finger at Temlin, bouncing it like he was going to explode into a tirade, which he sometimes did to intimidate the younger Brothers. But instead, he simply began to chuckle, then to belly laugh, then finally dissolved his chuckles into his beer.

“You old possum. Devious as the Ghost of Roushenn! Make your move, go on, then.”

Brother Temlin finally did, sliding his white polished stone into an unoccupied space in the lower left corner of the board, trying to secure his left flank. He was losing already, he knew it, Lhem knew it. They were just playing it to see how close it would be. Their games were often within three points of each other, and playing to the bitter end pleased them both long into the night.

Temlin finally permitted himself a sip of his ale, rolling it around his mouth for enjoyment while sitting back into the plush overstuffed chair. He only allowed himself a beer when they gamed, which was less frequently right now during the Dhenra’s coronation. Some might have called their Ghenje nights together sacrilege, but Temlin chose to consider them enjoyment. The Jenner Way had no strict tenets against enjoyment, only against distractions and addictions. His love of beer was an addiction, ancient and strong, which was why he allowed himself only one, under the supervision of Lhem’s stern mustachios.

And then there was that other thing they were supposed to be doing.

“I had an interesting visit to day,” Temlin began conversationally.

“Oh?” Abbot Lhem looked up, fingered his ample mustaches, then went back to considering the board. “Continue.”

“A young man. Perhaps thirty. He was a Kingsman. Inked.”

Surprise flitted over Lhem’s ruddy features. His grey eyes flicked up, sharp as flaying-knives. “Continue.”

Temlin took a sip of his beer. “Inked, and marked also in another way. By Alranstone. Inked in gold.”

Slowly, Abbott Lhem straightened. Grabbing his flagon, he sat his plethoric bulk back into his plush chair, imitating Temlin’s posture. He took another sip, a very small one, sharp hawk-eyes never leaving Temlin’s. “Goldenmarked? Are you certain?”

Temlin sipped his beer. “So he said. So I believe.”

“And you’re just telling me this now?!” Abbot Lhem slammed his flagon down so hard upon the table that ale slopped from the rim. “Dammit, Temlin! Does anyone else know about this?!”

Temlin shook his head, enjoying baiting the Abbott. “I took him to the Far Ponds. To the bench. No one overheard us. The woman he brought with him knew about it. And she could corroborate the event. They weren’t lying. One night, he just wakes up, climbs a damn seven-eye stone, and in the morning he’s Inked in gold and can’t remember a thing but the word rennkavi. And when he climbs down, every eye upon the stone is open, and they blinked at his touch. He described them perfectly. When he traveled, it took the woman through, too.”

“Sweet Nectar of the Way.” Lhem took an enormous swig of his beer, his attention riveted upon Temlin. He wiped his mouth with his black sleeve. “And you let him leave?!”

Temlin chuckled. “He was a stubborn young man, he wouldn’t stay. Got squirrely for some reason. I had to let him go. But he’ll be back. He wanted information on his Inkings, on Alranstones, trying to find out what had happened to him. So I may have told him how to get into the Rare Tomes Room to review Mollia’s journals. Unofficially.”

A slow smile spread across Abbot Lhem’s face, lifting his mustachios at the corners. “You old goat.”

“Kingsmen have impressive talents.” Temlin swirled his beer in his mug. “I expect him sometime tonight, after midnight bell. After our game, you and I and Abbess Lenuria could be doing some late-night research… and oops! Catch him in the act of stealing rare journals and have a talk with him.”

Lhem gave a devious chuckle. But suddenly, the mirth dropped from his mustachios and he sat silent, settling back into his high-backed chair with a scowl. Reaching up, he scratched at one ruddy ear, one of his few tells.

Lhem was worried about Temlin’s news. That was interesting. Temlin took a swig of ale, watching his longtime friend and fellow member of the Shemout Alrashemni closely. Lhem sat in silence a long moment, contemplating Temlin’s information. All Jenners knew the common version of the Uniter of the Tribes. A redemption parable about finding unity within oneself, finding peace and acceptance in life. But now there was a flesh-and-blood man who had opened every iris on a seven-eye stone. That a seven-eye stone would open for the Uniter was part of the official parable. But that the Unifier would be Inked by an Alranstone was not. That was a very deep secret. And now, a flesh-and-blood man wore the prophesied Goldenmark of the Uniter.

The problem was, that the true Prophecy of the Uniter had been laid down by a seer some thousand years ago. And now, the exact tenets of the Prophecy had been fractured so badly that no one really knew the entirety of it. Part myth, part mystery, part hedge-legend, the original Prophecy was such a mess that no one had really ever bothered to track it. But the legend was still passed on among the Shemout Alrashemni, part of a whole mess of ancient oral lore they had to memorize to earn their hidden Bloodmark.

And two of those were staring at each other now, sipping beer. Temlin rubbed his hidden Inkings beneath his modest black Jenner-robes. He noticed Lhem was absently doing the same, staring off into space. They locked eyes.

“Have you heard from den’Selthir lately? Or has Lenuria?” The Abbot spoke at last.

Temlin shook his head. “No… the channels have been quiet, and we’ve had no hawks. Den’Selthir is keeping a very low profile since Uhlas’ death. I don’t blame him.”

“So is Mollia.” Lhem murmured. “She hasn’t come through the Abbeystone for two years now.”

“Lenuria thinks she’s grieving.” Temlin murmured, feeling that old pain, that old sadness lance through his chest. He’d not thought about it for so long, but whenever Molli came up, there it was, agonizing as ever. Love was truly bitter fruit, even for a man past his prime.

“Maybe she’s dead.” Lhem grumped thoughtfully.

“Molli’s always been strange.” Temlin countered, his heart gripping him suddenly, thinking that she might be dead. “Perhaps she’s just in seclusion, dreaming. Uhlas kept her a secret from the world for a reason.”

“Your brother was wise, Temlin. It’s not everyday that a King falls in love with a madwoman.”

Temlin felt himself go hard as flint. “You take that back. Molli’s not mad.”

“No, but she’s batty.”

“You would be, too, if you saw things in your mind that would drive any other person completely insane.” Temlin snapped, the rage of a far younger man surfacing from underneath all his hard-won patience living among the Jenners. “But she saw this day, Lhem. She saw the Man with Goldenmarks coming right to the First Abbey. And she saw that we couldn’t turn him away. You know as well as I what happens if we don’t give him our help.”

Lhem sighed heavily. “Annihilation of the Alrashemni, right to our very bones.”

“We’ve held on this long in secret. Could we survive prophecy, do you think?”

Abbot Lhem drummed his thick fingers upon the table. “Perhaps. But perhaps the portent of the Man with Goldenmarks coming to us means it’s the Khehemni’s turn to gut us.”

“They’ve had their turn.” Temlin angrily swigged back more beer. “I think they did a fine job gutting us with that fucking Summons of theirs. Speaking of Khehemni.” Brother Temlin drained the last of his beer, then set it on the table with finality. “What are you going to do about the Chancellate and Lhaurent?”

“The Castellan?” Lhem scowled, and his scowl held all the ferocity of a raging bear. “Fuck them. Evshein and Lhaurent have tried to blackmail the First Abbey into their operations one too many times. But we need to wait. They’ve yet to show a strong play.”

Wait!?” Temlin growled in his throat. “It’s time for the Jhennik to join the war, Lhem! Time for us to wake the sleeping giant of the Abbey and support the Crown! Long past time. It was time when my nephew Alden died! It was time when my brother Uhlas went mad! It’s long past due!”

Abbot Lhem gave Temlin a very stern eyeball. “Temlin. Don’t let your family’s turmoil and downfall affect your good judgment. We can’t move against the Lothren yet. We still have no idea how they are coordinating much of their dealings. And you’ve had no contact with Uhlas these past twenty-five years because your father had you removed from the line of succession, and Uhlas was just unbendable enough that he has never spoken to you once in all this time, simply because his father decreed it!”

“Doesn’t mean I don’t care for my nephew and niece.”

“You’ve never met them.”

“Still. And now one is dead, Lhem, and the other is all alone! What am I supposed to do?!” Temlin snarled, his old ferociousness raging.

Lhem leveled his meaty finger at Temlin. “You are a Brother of the Abbey. That is what you are. These past thirty years.”

“But I’m also Shemout Alrashemni, dammit! So sworn since I was fifteen years old!” Temlin snapped, lurching to standing, pressing his fingertips to the tabletop and leaning in, a snarl rising in his manner. “And I’m still Elyasin’s uncle! Don’t tell me I can’t protect my niece! The rest of her family is all gone, dammit!”

“We can’t simply rope the First Abbey and set them up behind you, Temlin!” Lhem barked, his plethoric face flushed, rising to his own feet to match Temlin, his bear-thick bulk thrice Temlin’s girth. “Nor can we support Elyasin! The First Abbey is an independent organization. A few Shemout Alrashemni hide in our ranks, like you and I, but it is only because of the access it grants us! The rest are just regular men and women here because they believe in the tenets of the Faith. Peace. Calm. Meditation, my friend. Something you would do well to learn.”

“I meditate just fine.” Temlin grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest.

“You cogitate and read, you old goat. Don’t think I don’t know what you do to pass the time while your insides stew. You’ve a temper as much as you’ve always had, Temlin. You need those quiet ponds and soothing platitudes of catechism far more than anyone I’ve ever met.”

“Beer will do.”

Lhem lifted a bushy white eyebrow. “Speaking of. How many have you had tonight?”

“Just one, dammit! Just this one here.”

“Good. Once a drunk, always a drunk, Temlin.”

“Fuck Aeon, I know!” Temlin growled. “You don’t need to remind me of my past, nor of how I wound up here. That was a long time ago.”

Lhem eyeballed him again, his thick mustachios set in a hard frown. “In any case. We can’t simply rally the First Abbey behind the throne for Elyasin, nor expose ourselves among them as Alrashemni. Such things must be done cautiously. Most of the Brothers and Sisters here don’t know anything about the Alrashemni’s history. They think the Lost Tribe is a parable of redemption. The Lost Tribe, split from the One and yearning to be Brought Home, to be United at last. They don’t know the truth.”

Temlin lifted one grey eyebrow. “Do you?”

Brother Lhem scowled harder. “Not exactly, no. But if this young man is who we think he is, he can find out. We need to find him, bring him here. Hold him. We need to get him to Molli and have her read his mind, figure out what his agenda is. See if he would be useful to us.”

“If Molli will ever come out. Ever make contact again.” Temlin couldn’t stop the sinking feeling in his heart. Despite everything he tried to distract himself with, he still missed Molli.

A woman who had never really even been his.

But Abbot Lhem didn’t notice Temlin’s heavy heart, his gaze far away with his machinations, his thick fingers drumming upon the table. “Right. Come on. You’re losing anyway. Time to send word to Lenuria and get to the Tomes Room.” Lhem lurched out from behind the table, heading to a silk cord bell-pull on the wall. He gave it a yank, summoning one of the runner-lads he kept in the bunks next door for just such occasions. Presently, a sleep-tousled youth knocked upon the door, sticking his head gingerly around the frame, blinking at the brightness of the lamps within.

“Abbott?” He yawned. “Yes?”

“Get to the Abbess, lad,” Abbott Lhem grumped sternly, a hard frown upon his ample white mustachios. “Wake her if she’s sleeping. Tell Lenuria she’s to meet us in the Rare Tomes Room with all haste, and that it’s vitally important. Someone’s going to try breaking into the Rare Tomes Room tonight and we have to stop it. Go. Now.”

The lad blinked, nodded hastily, then disappeared. The heavy door latched shut behind him.

“Come on.” Abbott Lhem murmured, lifting his flagon to his lips and draining it. “Let’s get a move on with these old joints.”

“Speak for yourself.” Temlin reached out to the pitcher of ale, refilling his flagon. He tipped it back, swallowing it all down without a single breath in between. Dark thoughts about Molli still swirled, rage still boiled about his niece’s predicament. He filled his flagon again, drained it like a practiced drunk. And then one more time, just for good measure.

When he turned, Lhem was giving him a disastrously severe eyeball. “Ale won’t help you get young again, Temlin.” He murmured. “And it won’t bring Molli back to you. And it won’t help your niece any. All it does is make you wind up facedown in horseshit.”

“Fuckitall, I know.” Temlin wiped a hand over his lips, scrubbed his beard. His chin was getting numb. He hated it and loved it all at once. But his joints screamed less after a few pints, and he’d be able to walk faster in Lhem’s prodigious wake. “Let’s go, then.”

The big man eyed him again, then turned to the door. He had the heavy ironbound cendarie open in a trice and they marched out into the hall. The First Abbey was quiet tonight, most having gone to bed at nightfall, but some still up praying in the cathedral or in their rooms. No one was about in this part of the Annex, though, and as they trod a circular stairwell down to the ground floor and out the doors into the night, Temlin felt himself closing in from the ale, brooding. His stride became clipped, brisk, the pain of his knees and back dulled. His gaze sharpened as he scanned the night, old habits of battle from a youth long gone. They circled around the Annex to the archway that marked the entrance to the vault below, taking up oil-lamps from their pegs upon the wall and kindling them by fire sticks in a brazier that was always lit for Brothers and Sisters to navigate by in the night.

Temlin’s heart hammered his chest, suddenly, realizing that a figure stood in silent meditation right by the brazier. He’d not seen her at all. Abbess Lenuria den’Brae was already there to meet them, her dark grey eyes glittering and silent, shrouded in her black hood with her hands folded into the sleeves of her robe. Drawing up tall, their lovely Abbess with her striking, silver-streaked black braid stood to her full five-foot-nothing. She gave them her most formidable commander’s eye, as if the two old farts had kept their esteemed Abbess waiting hours. Both men instinctively cringed from her set jaw and straight-browed scowl.

“You two are drunk.” If Lhem’s gaze was hawking, Lenuria’s was that of an eagle, and missed absolutely nothing, even in the depths of the night. Temlin almost pitied the Sisters of the First Abbey. Lhem could be bought with beer. Lenuria couldn’t be bought for all the jade in Perthe.

“My dear Abbess! Us?” Temlin jested sourly.

“Temlin, old man, don’t make it worse than it already is.” Abbott Lhem swept a low and cordial bow for their Abbess, who was, technically, his superior, both at the Abbey and in the Shemout. The Jenners had been an order founded by women, after all, who’d only let men in later. Whereupon the synergistic gardening skills of the women and the brewing skills of the men had created history. But the men couldn’t survive without their hops, and the women were grateful for the beer and the money it brought to finance their solitude.

Progress, in every way. Temlin’s decently drunk mind told him.

“Brother Temlin. How many times must one cite the catechisms against addictive imbibing to you?” Lenuria’s soft words had a cutting edge, slicing through the night.

“My dear Abbess. Deal with this old drunk skunk in whatever way you please.” Temlin sank to both knees upon the stone of the underground foyer, dramatic. He was in a mood and he didn’t care, and he didn’t care who knew it.

“Oh, for Aeon’s sake!” Abbess Lenuria huffed. “Get up! I could hardly punish you more than you punish yourself, Temlin.” And here, she gave him the sternest, most knowing eyeball, and Temlin knew she referred to Molli. He rose, with two audible pops in his knees and one from his back, sobering.

“And you!” Lenuria rounded on Lhem, her teensy frame formidable, a swift raptor to his walrus-like bulk. “Encouraging him! Be an example for your Brothers, Abbott, or I will remove you from your station! Let me remind you that being Abbott is not necessarily a lifetime appointment. It is earned.”

Lhem gave the proper downcast visage and mutterings of apology, though Temlin could tell the old musk-ox was smiling beneath his ample white mustachios.

“Now.” Lenuria smoothed one hand over her silver-streaked hair, coaxing the long flyaways back into her braid. “What’s this all about? You have news that someone is breaking into the Rare Tomes Room tonight and we are supposed to just sit here and wait for him? Why shouldn’t I simply summon guards?”

“Well, Leni, if Temlin is right, we’re going to have a very interesting visitor. Inked in gold.”

If Temlin had thought Lhem’s reaction to his news was interesting, Lenuria’s was positively astounding. Her eyes flew so wide he could see whites all around, and her mouth popped open in a round o. Which she covered hastily with the fingers of one hand. But that hand was trembling, violently.

Lenuria never trembled. Solid as marble, she’d been a fighter of some kind, long ago in her past, before she came to the Abbey, and she was neither doddering nor infirm. And the long narrow braids running through her silver-streaked larger braid proved she’d adopted the Highlands fighting fashions long ago, of their women who rode to war upon keshari battle-cats. But she was trembling now, so violently that Temlin had a sudden concern for her, and reached out to steady her by the shoulder. Her gaze swung up, and in it was more fear than Temlin had ever seen in her. But also a light, like the most grateful hope.

“Is it true? Did you see a man with golden Inkings… all over his shoulders, back, and chest?”

“So I did, Lenuria.” Temlin murmured, shocked entirely sober now by the reaction of his stalwart Abbess. “And his story was stranger still. Said they’d been inked all in one night… after an Alranstone called him to climb it. He slept atop it, in dreams. And woke with the word rennkavi upon his lips, and the Goldenmarks upon his skin.”

“The Alranstone inked him in gold. And named him as Rennkavi. The Uniter.” Lenuria was pale as fine porcelain by the brazier’s subtle glow.

“So he said. Is it the Prophecy of the Uniter, Lenuria?”

She swallowed, hard. Her attention flicked to Lhem a moment, then back to Temlin, almost fearful in the darkness. “Come. Let us go inside. And I will tell you what I know while we wait for the lad.”

Shrugging off Temlin’s gnarled hand, she turned, reaching out to unlock the iron grate that barred the door down to the Tomes room. She gave it to Temlin to haul back, while she unlocked the heavy-bound inner sanctum door. They proceeded forward into thick darkness, lifting up their lanterns as they descended into the stairwell. Around a full corkscrew, the sunken stairs ended in a comfortable waiting-area with a broad madrona desk and a number of chairs. Beyond were the byrunstone stacks of the Tomes Room, rows upon rows of arcane writings and scrolls all carefully catalogued and preserved here in the vaulted crypts beneath the First Dwelling.

Other religious sects kept their dead sages entombed below their cathedrals, but not the Jenners. Their dead were burned upon pyres, released back to the Way, their ashes scattered upon the gardens so that fruitfulness could come from their passing. Temlin admired the ancient bluestone architecture of the massive underground crypt as they lit lanterns in every arch, to push back the darkness and illumine a potential invader. Brightening it to a warm glow and banishing the shadows, the cathedral-like underground chamber was soon visible down every aisle and up into every dome. And when at last they had selected places upon a pair of red velveteen reading couches next to a group of magnifying reading-lanterns, Lenuria finally spoke.

“I don’t know much beyond the standard catechisms we learned in our Shemout training,” she began, “but I’ve heard more extensive hedge-tales about the Uniter of the Tribes from my travels when I was young. Word of mouth tales gathered from nomads of different nations, all the way from Ghrec to the tundra above Elsthemen, to Perthe and Jadoun.”

“I didn’t know you had traveled so extensively in your youth.” Lhem boomed, before lowering his voice in the echoing space.

Lenuria shot him a look. “What you don’t know about me could fill volumes, Abbott. I lived a long and complicated life before ever I came here to the Abbey, and sought solace within. But suffice it to say that I heard tales. And wherever I traveled, on campaign or not, I asked about the Uniter, what tales different peoples knew.”

“And what did you learn?” Temlin was leaning forward upon the edge of his couch.

“Foremost, I learned that there is a tribe of itinerant caravan people in Cennetia, the Berounhim, similar to the Travelers here in Alrou-Mendera, who worship the Uniter, the Rennkavi. The very same man we describe in our heimkeller parable, as a real person yet to come. I suppose this was where our Jenner parable originated. These people view him as a savior, able to right a most horrible wrong of kin turning against kin that happened sometime in the distant past. Apparently, there was once an actual King of the Khehemni, over a thousand years ago. He was vastly wronged by the Alrashemni, his kin and family slaughtered and himself imprisoned for countless years. He sought retribution for their crimes. And so he waged a great war, laying waste to his own nation and all the other nations nearby, to kill the Alrashemni off. He was at last brought low, but the ruin was done. A great migration of people on both sides left their decimated land to seek better fortunes. This Cennetian tribe, the Berounhim, remember that there was a Prophecy at that time. That someday, someone would come, Goldenmarked by one of their Great Teachers, and that this person could repair the grievous damage done so long ago.”

“An origin story explaining Khehemni and Alrashemni warring,” Lhem was chewing his mustachios, his thick fingers tapping the red velvet couch. “Well, that’s new. So this man is supposed to bring peace to us? How?”

Temlin lifted his eyebrows expectantly, but Lenuria only shrugged. “No one knows what is actually supposed to happen. Great peace? Or tremendous war? The Berounhim clans I spoke to couldn’t say, one way or another. Only that in the end, all would be United. But would that end be bloody? Apparently some of the Berounhim tribes believe it will be a destructive end, where all are United in death. Whereas others disagree, believing the Unity will actually be the ushering in of a Great High Age. In any case, our Jenner parable is a very fluffy and simplistic version of the original tale, apparently.” Lenuria heaved a great sigh, and came to silence.

“So.” Lhem was chewing his mustachios violently, scowling. “What do we do if this young man comes here tonight?”

Lenuria shook her head. She glanced at Temlin. “You’ve already met the lad. Did you feel anything… unusual… about him?”

Temlin thought back through his beer-fogged mind, and at last sighed. “Other than being a very righteous sort of young Kingsman, and well-hardened by war in the passes… he seemed rather ordinary. Tall, striking in that traditional Alrashemni way, certainly, but ordinary.”

Abbess Lenuria gave a sad smile. “I suppose we best hope he comes tonight, then.”

“I suppose.” Temlin murmured.

The three settled into silence, as the oil-lamps spluttered and hissed in the great stacks of tomes.

CHAPTER 27 – ELOHL

 

 

Elohl had just slipped back to his apartments at the King’s Cross before the first true light of dawn could spill over the Eleskis. Shutting the door softly, he glanced at the snug bed where Eleshen was sprawled in sleep. Naked and lovely by the blushing light coming in through the open window, her honeyed hair was spread out over the pillows, one leg slung up over the covers. She was an energetic sleeper, always tangled in the blankets. It was sweet and simple. Elohl would have smiled, but his heart was twisted in knots. Emotions long buried had swamped him tonight, and he was exhausted to his bones. After his night with Ghrenna, nothing was simple anymore. And it really never had been. He’d been lying to himself that he could have a life with Eleshen when Ghrenna was still out there, her lake-blue eyes still pulling him. And now he knew exactly where Ghrenna was, and how she was.

And that she still loved him. Elohl’s gut twisted, looking at Eleshen’s golden beauty in the rising light, feeling like an inconstant cur. Though whether he was betraying Eleshen or Ghrenna he couldn’t say. He only knew that he was a bastard either way. And that either way, he’d soon have to make a choice.

A woman he couldn’t even touch, because he loved her? Or a woman he could touch, because she loved him. Elohl’s heart felt cavernous. He gave a soft sigh, turning to the pegs on the wall, unbuckling his climbing harness, hanging it up by his longsword and its back-harness on their pegs. A knock suddenly came on the plain ironwood door, startling Elohl. Fast as instinct, he had a longknife to hand from its sheath on his climbing harness. Spreading his sensate sphere wide, he felt for a threat on the other side of the door, his knife poised.

The knock came again. Whoever it was, was trying to be civil, not an intruder. Elohl lowered his knife, suspecting that the thief Luc had decided to follow him and give him an earful. He hauled open the door, intending to tell the man to go back to Ghrenna, but instead found himself face to face with a cobalt-jerkined Palace Guardsman.

Of average stature, the man was wiry as a mountain-cat, and something about his lithe, liquid movement as he gave a nod reminded Elohl of a keshar. His eyes were a curious shade of brown, the center ringed with gold that caught the flickering lamplight of the hall. His brown waves were carefully curried back from his forehead, and something about the set of his jaw commanded instant respect. Cool patience sighed from him. A deep calm was set into his frame, utterly at ease under Elohl’s grey-eyed scrutiny.

“Elohl den’Alrahel?” The man’s voice had a soothing ripple of baritone to his tenor, like a well-practiced bard. His gaze flicked to Elohl’s longknife.

“Who are you?” Elohl’s growl was low, not wanting to wake Eleshen, purposefully putting menace in against a man he knew nothing about. He didn’t brandish the knife at the Guardsman, but he didn’t put it away, either. Elohl still had his Kingsman greys on, hood up from the night, and he used it now, lowering his chin, giving an air of stern authority.

“Your sister, my commander, sent me. Don’t even try denying who you are, you look just like her. But taller. More masculine. Obviously. And your Kingsman greys rather give you away.” The man’s gold-brown gaze glimmered with a sudden unexpected humor. “In any case, Olea sent me to find you. She’s been imprisoned by the Dhenra and needs your help.”

“Fucking hells.” Elohl hadn’t realized he’d spoken until after it was out of his mouth. He reached out to collect his longsword and climbing harness from the peg. His gear was buckled on swiftly. He reached up to adjust the placement of the longsword’s grip in its scabbard over his shoulder. “Where is she? Is she in danger?”

The wiry man shook his head. “Olea’s fine, for the moment. She’s in the Upper Cells of Roushenn. They’re harmless, cells for nobility. She just had a very unfortunate argument with the Dhenra. It’s not something she’ll be punished for beyond temporary incarceration. But I warn you that if you pull heroics and break her out, she will be untrustworthy of the Crown. She must remain where she is. But she sends you a plea. She wants you to protect the Dhenra. She is in danger, or so Olea believes. And I am tempted to confirm it with some of the things I suspect.”

“And who are you?” Elohl eyed the wiry, brown-haired man. He took in the lean Guardsman’s frame, noting his sinewed, calloused hands.

“I’m called Fenton. Fenton den’Kharel. First-Lieutenant of the Palace Guard. Your sister’s right hand officer.”

Elohl’s brows raised, stunned. The name Fenton den’Kharel was legend among the High Brigade. Like Elohl, the man had never set a bad route. Unlike Elohl, he had managed to keep his entire team alive the full ten years of his service, and then served another five for no reason at all. Ihbram den’Sennia had regaled Elohl and anyone else who would listen with tales of Lead-Hand den’Kharel, of daring ascents and skirmishes won, whom Ihbram had had the pleasure of serving under for five years. But the infamous Lead-Hand had left for warmer climes just prior to the event of the Summons and true war breaking out upon the Valenghian border, and Elohl had never met the legend Ihbram had so often spoken of.

“Fenton den’Kharel? Veteran High Brigade?”

The Guardsman nodded, calm serenity flowing through his every sinew. Incredulous, Elohl gave a lazy Brigadier salute. The man returned it just as lazily. Elohl grinned, and the grin was returned in kind.

“I heard from Olea that her twin was a Brigadier.” Fenton murmured, a feverish light in his calm visage. “It’s nice to meet another come home.”

“I heard you served fifteen years.” Elohl raised an eyebrow.

“You heard right.”

“And never once lost a man on your team.”

Fenton’s gold-dark eyes glimmered. “We fought hard. And climbed carefully.” A small smile lifted his lips. “Who did you hear all this from, may I ask?”

“Ihbram den’Sennia.”

And to Elohl’s surprise, the man before him gave a good-natured chuckle, scuffing one boot on the boards of the hallway, his hands settling casually to his hips. “We’d better get going. Olea’s expecting us. Shall we?”

Elohl found he was much at his ease now that he knew whom Olea had chosen for her good right hand. He checked his gear, then turned an eye to Eleshen, still sleeping in the early morning hours. But he couldn’t just leave her that way, wondering where he’d gone, so he turned back to Fenton. “Give me a minute?”

Fenton’s gaze strayed within, then acutely away. “Of course. I’ll wait here in the hall.”

Elohl nodded and shut the door. Eleshen was watching him as he turned back, awake upon the bed. Her sweet face was sad rather than peevish as she sat up, tucking the covers up over her breasts. “Only a few days into Lintesh, and you’re already in the serpent’s maw.”

“Were you awake?”

“I was. Eavesdropping. I heard the whole thing. I’m so sorry, Elohl… I didn’t know you’d be thrust right back into danger coming here.” She brushed her long honey-blonde hair over one shoulder, a gesture that tore at Elohl’s heart, reminding him of Ghrenna. Elohl slid onto the bed, wrapping an arm around her. She snuggled close, laying her head upon his shoulder. He felt guilty holding her, soothing her, when his mind kept straying to Ghrenna. His gut twisted, demanding that he tell her everything that had happened. Elohl pushed it away. Let it wait a day, or a few. Holding her close, breathing in her lavender and spice scent, he pressed his lips gently to her temple.

“It’s not your fault, Eleshen.” Elohl breathed. “No place is safe for me. I didn’t imagine Lintesh was going to be any different. But as a Kingsman, my sworn liege needs me now. And Olea needs me. I have to go.”

She nodded, taking it in stride. “Did you get into the Abbey tonight?”

Elohl shook his head. “I ran into a complication.”

“Complication?”

Elohl decided to tell the truth, as much of it as he could stand with Eleshen gauging him. “A group of thieves. One of them was a Kingsman. She was scouting the wall. We had a run-in. She got hurt before I recognized her. She’s one of those I told you about, from my past. Ghrenna.”

Eleshen blinked wide. “The one with visions?”

“Eleshen…” Elohl murmured. “I have to go to the palace, but can you take a message to Ghrenna from me, today? She’s staying at the Proud Marlin in the Abbey Quarter.”

“Of course!” Eleshen nodded, eager to be helpful with intrigue. Blissfully unaware of Elohl and Ghrenna’s history, or of what had happened tonight. Elohl’s gut twisted again, telling him he was a bastard.

“Tell Ghrenna that the Dhenra needs her to earn her Inkings, if she’s well enough. Tell her to come to the West Guardhouse and ask for Fenton den’Kharel, First Lieutenant Guardsman, and to not take no for an answer. To not leave until she speaks with him. And tell her…” Elohl died inside, saying this to Eleshen, but it had to be said. “Tell her I will find a way… to get in touch after all these years.”

It was horrible. He was worse than a lout. Elohl found he couldn’t give Eleshen a proper embrace, couldn’t kiss her with so many wrenching emotions boiling within him. All he could do was snug her close around the shoulders, and press another kiss to her temple.

“Be safe,” Elohl breathed. “I’ll be back soon. I promise. If you need anything while I’m gone today, go to Vargen’s.”

“How long will you be gone?” She murmured, twisting and looking up at him, so he had to face those lovely green eyes.

“Hopefully not long.”

She nodded, taking it in stride. Lifting up, she pressed her lips to his, a sweet, tender kiss. Her warmth flooded him, her goodness, her dedication. It was more than he deserved. Elohl pressed his forehead to hers, feeling Eleshen’s love for a moment, letting it soothe him. And then he rose, leaving her behind and heading for the door.

He didn’t look back as he left. It was too painful. Elohl shut the door with a sinking feeling in his chest, turning down the hallway with Fenton den’Kharel at his side. They tromped down the wooden stairs and through the common room. The inn was just waking with sounds of clinking cutlery as the innkeeper and his wife prepared for the day behind the kitchen curtains. The hearths had been lit and already it smelled of baking bread, cinnamon and rosemary, and all the good smells that were also Eleshen’s.

Hearth and home.

Elohl pushed the thought away, smoothed it down. Today he had been called to duty, his reprieve of dreaming about a simple life ended. Today he’d been inescapably reminded of what he was, pulled by Ghrenna’s gaze, tossed into a mystery of what his golden Inkings were doing to him, and now this. Right back into battle, into service. But it was a service he couldn’t run from, that he wouldn’t run from. Elohl was a Kingsman, first and foremost. And his liege was in trouble.

In a short minute they were out the inn’s weathered double-doors. The Guardsman Fenton must have picked up on Elohl’s dire mood as they moved up the stone-cobbled avenue at a good clip, golden sunlight just starting to slant through the tops of the buildings. A cool morning breeze lifted the dust on the cobbles, swirling it as they walked.

“So.” Fenton picked up their conversation amiably. “Ihbram was blabbing about me?”

Distracted from his brooding, Elohl looked over. “Said you were the best climber he’s ever seen.”

“Ihbram needs to learn to keep his fat mouth shut. Is that redheaded half-Elsthemi miscreant still alive?”

“He was when I left.” Elohl’s spirits began to lift with the easy camaraderie and the early bustle of the city streets. “Ihbram was just as much piss and vinegar as ever. He was headed to Valenghia. Served fifteen years, just like you.”

“Did he?” Something like pride shone from Fenton. “Good lad.”

“Lad?” Elohl blinked, taking in Fenton’s wiry frame as they paced side by side. “He’s got more grey in his braids than you do.”

Fenton shrugged easily. “I was his superior officer. They will always be my lads. Ihbram was under my care, same as the rest of my team. And, so I gather, under yours?”

Elohl nodded. “I was a Lead-Hand almost from the first. Nine years. Once Captain Arlus den’Pell saw me climb, and fight… he made sure of it.”

Fenton glanced over. “Kingsmen do know how to fight. How did you manage to keep your greys all these years? Olea hasn’t got hers.”

Elohl raised an eyebrow. “I was arrested in them. Managed to slip into the armory at night to liberate them, hide them in a root-hollow before they got burned. I was whipped for it, but eventually Arlus just let me wear the damn things whenever we engaged. Found out they instilled a bit of fear when we skirmished with the Red Valor, especially during night raids. But most of the time he still made me wear military-issue. When I was released, I brought them with.”

“Well.” Fenton chuckled good-naturedly. “You’ll get a change of gear when we get to the palace. You’re going on the Dhenra’s guard, so we have to get you a set of the blue. But you’re lucky, keeping your greys. Olea had to burn hers personally, the first week she was in the guard. I can’t imagine what that must have felt like.”

Fenton’s mention of Olea brought Elohl back to the moment as they chose a narrow alley as a shortcut, Fenton moving with lithe grace around barrels of rain and garbage. “So what do we do about Olea?”

The Guardsman’s eyes went hard as he ducked a waterspout from a low roofline. “Unless you want to be a fool, nothing. I’ve got a man watching her cell, discreetly. He’ll keep her safe. But the Dhenra is another matter. They’re only two men I trust on her guard besides Olea, and one is myself. Do you know any other Kingsmen in the city? How many can we summon?”

The question caused Elohl to blink. He wasn’t used to having someone trust him because of the Inkings he wore. “Only three, other than Olea. Myself, and a Kingsman in hiding as a silversmith.”

“Vargen.” Fenton’s speech was prompt. “Yeah, I just met him. Olea sent me to him also, before I came to find you. He’s already at the palace, getting outfitted to act as a new guard same as you. Who’s the third Kingsman in the city?”

“Her name’s Ghrenna. But she may be out for this. She’s not well. Do you know any Kingsmen? You talk like there are more here.”

Fenton glanced around. “I know five hiding in Lintesh, including myself. But only myself and one other can assist us with the Dhenra. The others have duties elsewhere.”

Elohl stopped dead in the middle of the street. “What?” He murmured low so no one nearby could hear. His eyes flicked to Fenton’s immaculately buckled cobalt jerkin. “You’re a Kingsman? But wouldn’t Olea have told me?”

Fenton’s soft chuckle was amused. “She didn’t know. I told her last night, just as I’m telling you now. Nor was she aware of my associate’s identity until last night. She still doesn’t know any of the others, and it will remain thus. It’s not my place to disclose the Shemout Alrashemni who are not a part of the Guard. But I have a feeling all those of us who are left will be coming out of the woodwork soon. We need solidarity, Elohl, if we suspect a potential attack on the Dhenra’s life.”

“But… Hasn’t Olea seen your Inkings?”

Fenton sidled close enough to murmur low by Elohl. “I don’t have the traditional Inkings, Elohl. I’m of a sect that is not supposed to exist, the Shemout. A special sect of Alrashemni political spies who have operated discreetly for generations. We didn’t attend the Summons. So we survived when it happened. I couldn’t tell Olea. But things are changing. She, and you, and our Dhenra, need me to make myself known. So I’m breaking my ancient oaths to keep our liege safe. But this knowledge goes no further than us. Do you understand?”

And something in that plain, direct admission of Fenton’s held the power of decades. “I understand.”

Fenton eyed Elohl suddenly, shrewd. “I must know… are you still a Kingsman, Elohl, through and through? Despite all that’s happened these past ten years?”

“My father told me once,” Elohl murmured, “that the primary Alrashemni law to remember when mediating and passing judgment is that the transgressions of the father shall not be passed to his children.”

“Wise words. Words to live by.” Some old sadness lingered there, deep in Fenton’s gold-tinged eyes. His eyebrows were knit, his gaze far away. He gave a slow blink, and then his odd reverie was gone. “In any case, the Dhenra will get as much protection as we can muster for her.”

“Olea is a Kingswoman, sworn to the Crown. I am no less loyal.” Elohl agreed. “A sword through my chest before the Dhenra is harmed.”

Fenton nodded as if satisfied. “Very well. Pick up your steps, Brigadier. This may be a very long few days until the coronation.”

Elohl nodded. “If it means clearing Olea’s name and protecting my liege, I’ll do anything I have to.”

Fenton cocked his head again, a small smile lingering about his lips. “Let’s hope those words aren’t tested.” He moved on up the avenue at a brisk and steady pace, his lithe boot-falls reminding Elohl of a keshar’s grace.

CHAPTER 28 – GHRENNA

 

 

Ghrenna’s head had finally ceased throbbing sometime after breakfast. Luc had insisted she eat, so she had taken a bit of oat porridge with honey from the tray the goodwife of the inn had brought up. The goodwife had been all bustle, trying to tuck the covers around Ghrenna, shoving more pillows behind her so she could eat sitting up. Ghrenna hated the attention, but her body felt weak as a three-day-old kitten from the night’s seizures. Luc had unceremoniously pushed the goodwife from the room, and now the porridge bowl was empty upon the tray across Ghrenna’s legs. She tried to lift the heavy tray by its iron handles to set it aside, only to find her arms shaking from the strain.

The tray barely came off her knees.

Luc was there fast, whisking it away without a single teasing comment. In fact, he hadn’t said much this morning. He had only really opened his mouth to tell Shara and Gherris to get out scouting manses, and also to tell the goodwife firmly that she was excused. But now he sat at the edge of the bed, reaching up to stroke the nape of her neck beneath her hair. It was tender, but Ghrenna also noted the possessiveness in it, since her encounter with Elohl last night. A mutual jealousy that both men had shared.

“How is it? Your head?” Luc’s green eyes were all concern.

“Better.” Ghrenna admitted. “You were right, food helped.”

“Feeling sick? Do I need to get a basin?”

Ghrenna shook her head. “No. No vomiting.”

He nodded, fingers still at her neck. Ghrenna could feel traces of his ability soothing the muscles and joints, easing tightness from her previous spasms. But it was sluggish, and though Luc was attentive, his eyelids were drooping heavily.

“You should rest, Luc.”

He shook his head, blinking hard. “No. You’re not better yet.”

“Luc, you’re exhausted. Healing me is taking it out of you. If you continue, it’ll put both of us out of commission. The team can’t have that.”

His glower was sullen suddenly. “You shouldn’t have kissed him.”

Ghrenna felt a red flush spread across her cheeks. Here it was, despite all the years Ghrenna had tried to avoid this very conversation. Now Luc knew the truth of her. Now he knew everything. And had seen perhaps more than a man could bear. She looked down, staring at her hands. “I know.”

He was silent a long while, golden brows knitted. “Did you… see anything? When you spasmed this last time?”

Ghrenna went very still, trying to recall the visions she had been graced with the night before when she and Elohl had kissed in his blankets. Most of it was muddled, meaningless. But there were flashes surging through, images that almost made sense. “Yes and no.” Ghrenna sighed. “I saw… byrunstone halls, lined with torches. There were armed men rushing through the halls. Some wore the blue of the Guard. It was probably Roushenn, but I can’t be sure. I saw a high-gabled room filled with nobles, men and women in silk and gems. I think it was a ceremony. A woman with red-gold hair grabbed her stomach. And then there was chaos. People panicking, fleeing…”

Ghrenna shook her head again. Everything was muddled, vague. “There was a woman with white eyes… all white, standing by an Alranstone with a half-lidded, bloody eye, inside the Jenner compound. She… gestured to me? Beckoned? And I saw two men? Tall? Inked? Two tall Alranstones? I don’t know, Luc. I don’t know what I saw.” But Ghrenna knew better. Though she couldn’t recall the details, every part of this vision she had been seared with when she and Elohl had kissed at dawn had the blood-iron taste of truth to it. The taste of death.

Luc’s face was grim. “Did the woman look anything like that portrait on the street?”

Ghrenna shook her head. “No. But she had the same color hair.”

“It could have been the Dhenra.”

Ghrenna nodded. “I thought that as well. But the ceremony? The hall was hardly large enough to be her coronation.” Ghrenna leaned back against the headboard, tired. She hadn’t even risen today, except one shaky trip to the privy that Shara had helped her with before she left. “Anyway, what do you care? I thought you weren’t ever going to be involved in palace affairs.”

Luc set his jaw as he frowned. “Elyasin was a nice girl, when I knew her.”

Ghrenna closed her eyes. “We don’t even know who I saw. Or what event.”

“So will you run off now? Off to be a Kingsman and save the royalty?”

Luc’s tone was scathing. Ghrenna did not open her eyes, knowing what he really meant and not able to face it. Every limb felt like it weighed fifty stone. “I don’t know anymore, Luc. Once I was a young woman with a righteous fire, burning for the Kingsmen who saved me. I had training to ease my anger and help me process the fear and pain of what I went through, and my visions. But when it all was ripped away, when my mind was broken and I was hauled off and pledged to serve the Fleetrunners ten years… I don’t know. I don’t feel any honor for the Crown anymore. I don’t have a master, Luc. I just try to get by.”

“Do I help you get by?” The vulnerability in Luc’s voice was heartbreaking. The plea.

Ghrenna opened her eyes to look at him. “Of course. You and Shara and Gherris.”

“Am I no better to you than Shara and Gherris?” His half-smile was bitter, his voice terribly soft.

“You know that’s not true.”

He shrugged, debonair and mocking and vulnerable all at once.

“I might be dead right now if it wasn’t for you. A few times.”

His fingers stroked the nape of her neck, his healing touch gone. “Do you love him?”

Ghrenna’s eyes snapped up at the bold question. It was unlike Luc, to get right to the point. He used to suffer and mope dramatically over women, moaning about this beautiful lady who had spurned him, and that creature of darkness that had denied him. But Ghrenna had never seen him like this. He was bold and angry now, direct, and there was a suffering in his gaze that for all the women he’d bedded and lost, courted and moped over, none had caused him dismay like this. Because of all those women he’d bedded, he’d loved none of them. Except Ghrenna could see his love now, plain in the weariness that ringed him, plain in the defiant angle of his chin, plain in the utter vulnerability of those hard, cynical eyes.

“I do love him,” Ghrenna whispered, hating herself. “I’ve always loved him.”

It was a blade through Luc’s heart. She saw it thrust in, saw it twist, saw him flinch. His fingers spasmed at her neck. And then a veil dropped over his eyes. One moment he was truth and the next he was lies. Dramatic hauteur settled in, to cover his pain. A wry twist graced his mouth, and a clever half-laugh bubbled from his throat.

And just like that, the real Luc was gone, replaced by a sham.

“The lovely lady of the twin lakes takes my heart,” he jested, “and wears it upon a chain around her neck.” He rose with a dramatic sigh and went to the window, throwing it wide and letting in the late morning heat.

“Luc, please…” Ghrenna pleaded.

He didn’t turn to look at her. Slouching by the window, he’d crossed his arms, staring out over the street beyond. Staring out towards the bluestone palace in the far distance, up the Tiers.

A knock came at the door suddenly. Luc noted it with a glance, but he still did not look at Ghrenna, nor turn from the window. Ghrenna sighed, struggling to swing her legs out of bed. There was nothing she could do for Luc. Nothing she could do for either of them, but at least she could get out of this damn bed and get the door. She had just managed it, but Luc was already striding to the door, a knife tucked up behind his forearm. He swung the door wide, to reveal a pretty slender woman with a long blonde braid, who startled at Luc’s quick motion. She caught her breath, gazing up with big green eyes.

Luc adopted a lazy slouch against the doorframe, grinning at the pretty creature that had come to the door. He did it in just such a way that it showed off his fit abdomen beneath his leathers, and Ghrenna saw the woman’s dark eyelashes flicker down, noting everything there was to note about the handsome rogue.

And Luc, for his part, was absolutely lecherous. “My, my… a pretty maid comes to my door with sorrow in her eyes! How can I banish that sorrow for you, good lady? I am all for you!” Luc swept into the courtly bow that made the ladies at wealthy parties faint, catching up one of the woman’s slender hands and pressing it with a kiss, swift and startling.

The blonde was overcome for a moment, before she snatched away her hand. “That will be quite enough of that!” But Ghrenna saw a pleased little smile curl her lips. “I’m looking for a woman named Ghrenna? The goodwife of the inn said she could be found in this room? I bear an urgent message from Elohl den’Alrahel.”

Luc stepped back from the doorway, sliding out of the way, really. He was on the hunt now, every movement honed to perfection, a hunt to ease his pain. The woman proceeded in, sidling around his intensity. Her attention snapped to Ghrenna upon the bed while Luc shut the door, slipping his knife out of sight in a quick gesture the woman completely missed. The woman’s pale green eyes flickered over Ghrenna, taking in her hair, her face, her posture, her Kingsman greys. She turned slightly, looking at Luc askance, who was still slouching against the door, arms crossed over his chest. He gave his most smoldering smirk before she faced Ghrenna once more.

“Elohl said you weren’t well.” The woman murmured. “I can see why. You look terrible!”

Ghrenna slid forward to the edge of the bed. It took effort, and her limbs trembled even from so very little. Still clad in her greys from the night before, she tried to adopt a more commanding pose. “You have a message from Elohl?”

“May we speak privately?” The woman countered, her gaze flicking to Luc.

“Whatever you have to say may be said in front of my associate.”

The woman fiddled with her long honey-blonde braid. “Elohl says to tell you the Dhenra needs you to earn your Inkings, if you’re well enough. You must go to the West Guardhouse and ask for Fenton den’Kharel, First Lieutenant Guardsman, and to not take no for an answer. And he also says…” But at this, the woman balked. Ghrenna saw a flicker of jealousy flare through her, and a fierce temper. “He will find a way to get in touch… after all these years.”

Ghrenna heard Luc’s snort from the doorway. “Get in touch. Brilliant. Subtle.”

The woman’s gaze snapped to him and then back to Ghrenna. Ghrenna tried to not let her fatigue nor her ire show, wishing for the support of the headboard. “And who are you?”

“My name is Eleshen den’Fhenrir. I’m Elohl’s traveling companion.”

“Traveling companion?” Luc rose from his slouch at the door, stepping into the conversation with heat in his demeanor for the lady Eleshen. “If you traveled with me, I’d treat you better. I’d call you my Queen of dreams and take your burdens for you both day and night.”

His courting backfired on the slender woman, who rounded upon him with vinegar on her tongue. “And I would slap that language from you until you couldn’t stand straight! I know a rogue when I see one!”

Luc slid forward a pace, seductive, using his height and golden good looks to his advantage. “Slap me, lovely,” he murmured. “Slap me until I can’t stand, and I will kneel at your feet. You’ve stolen this rogue’s heart. My blood pounds in your hands…”

The woman was gaping at him now, her face red and flustered.

“Oh, for Aeon’s sake,” Ghrenna bit off her words more harshly than was truly necessary. “Luc! Leave off!”

You can’t tell me what to do.” He had meant it to be teasing, but there was a hard bite to his voice. He was trying to make Ghrenna jealous with all his antics, and though Ghrenna had admitted her love for Elohl, she couldn’t abide what Luc was doing, flaunting everything they’d shared right in her face. Ghrenna knew she’d done the same thing to him last night, but it didn’t make anything better. Her gut twisted along to his needles and barbs, and a lancing of tension went searing through her temples, agonizing.

The slender woman jolted back a pace. She glanced quickly from one to the other, feeling the tension in the room. “I can see I’ve come at a bad time. Do you have a return message for Elohl?”

“Wait.” Ghrenna raised a hand, forestalling her departure. “What does he mean me to do? Who is this Fenton den’Kharel?”

The woman seemed on the edge of bundling herself up and leaving, but something like pity settled in her eyes. “I overheard a conversation Elohl had with him this morning, early. The Dhenra is in danger, or so his sister Olea says. Olea’s been imprisoned, and asked her First Lieutenant Fenton den’Kharel to protect the Dhenra in her stead. They’re arranging Elohl to be smuggled into the palace as a guard, to protect the Dhenra’s person. I think Elohl needs your help.”

Ghrenna started to stand, an unconscious impulse to go to Elohl flooding her. She got halfway up, felt the blood wash from her head, her vision tunneling. She tipped forward, sprawling to hold onto the bedside table. Luc was there instantly, scooping her up and settling her back to the bed. Ghrenna took slow, deep breaths, willing her consciousness back from the brink. Gradually, her vision returned. But her body was even more shaky than before, and she felt suddenly like she might be sick. Pounding intensified in her temples.

“I’ve got to tell Elohl about my vision.” Ghrenna gasped though her pain.

The woman moved forward, a worried expression on her face. “You’re really not well.”

“I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not. I’ve seen fevers less severe than this. You can’t even walk, can you?”

“I can walk.” Ghrenna ground her teeth, feeling the pounding spreading around the sides of her head. Soon it would form a band, and once it did, her head would be trapped in a vise-grip of suffering.

“You can’t even stand, Ghren.” Luc’s voice was calm, sad at her side. He smoothed her blonde waves out of her face, holding it all back as she leaned forward, the room spinning drastically. “Do you need a basin?” He murmured.

Ghrenna nodded quickly. The vomit was rising no matter how she choked it down.

“I’ll get it.” The woman Eleshen hustled, nearly tripping over her own feet. The washbasin appeared between Ghrenna’s feet, not a moment too soon. Luc held her steady as she retched, keeping her hair back. The woman dipped a washcloth into the water pitcher, sliding it behind Ghrenna’s neck. Ghrenna vomited again, the world tilting, her vision fading. A third time she retched, and then there was no more porridge to bring back up. She spit, her head a maddening tarentesh of misery, whirling and diving and pounding like the dancers hard-shod feet. She cleared her nose, wiped it with the cloth.

Which came away red with blood. A lot of blood.

“Oh, dear.” Eleshen’s voice was all motherly concern. “Here now, let me hold that. It should stop in a moment. Probably just the pressure from vomiting.”

Ghrenna was reeling. She didn’t even know she had keened until she felt Luc’s arms wind steadily around her from behind, supporting her, cradling her like a child. “Shh, Ghren… here, lean back on me.”

She did, her head a maddening fury, one of her worst. Luc absorbed her weight, winding his hands through her hair. And where his fingers went an ocean of sweet release seeped in. Where he touched, the pain rolled back, but those kind fingers were daggers to Ghrenna’s heart. Her chest involuted, her heart collapsing from within. Her body broke into sobs, renting and wracking and awful, that it wasn’t Elohl who was touching her now. That she was so terribly weak. That Luc was being so kind.

Luc was steady and gentle, working his fingers across her skull. Exhaustion swept Ghrenna as her sobs gradually subsided. Her eyelids settled closed, a few snippets of sound coming to her before she fell asleep.

“Aeon… what’s wrong with her?!”

Luc’s voice was sad, bitter, all trace of flirtation gone. “She loves a man she cannot touch. And detests the man she can.”

 

[ * ]

 

Ghrenna came awake with the sound of muted conversation issuing from the next room. She was tucked back in the bed, the now-washed vomit basin and a pitcher of water upon the bedside table. It wasn’t much later, the sun high over the avenue beyond the window, the room muggy, though Ghrenna shivered with a chill. Conversation in the next room rose from a murmur to a sharp lash, Luc’s voice hot in anger. Another voice took charge, low and growling but young, Gherris.

At last, the door was flung open. Gherris stormed through, sliding knives into his leather harness. “I don’t care what we’re up against, Luc! If this man Elohl needs help, we’re going. Protecting the Dhenra was supposed to be my birthright, and I will stand by that if he is at our lead! I’ve spent too many years tearing myself apart. You’re the one who hates that I kill! Let me use it for once. If Elohl is a good enough climber to surprise Ghrenna on the wall, he’s good enough to take lead for us.”

“I’m not going to the palace! There are guards all over that place.” Luc growled, severe.

Ghrenna opened her eyes enough to see Gherris give Luc a withering stare. “We’ll be the guards, if I’m not mistaken.”

“That seems to be what this Fenton fellow has planned.” Eleshen was on Luc’s heels.

Shara followed, her eyebrows knitting. “I’ll be singled out.”

Gherris turned, eyeing her. “Being a woman, you mean?”

She nodded. “There can’t be that many Guardswomen. Do you think this Fenton fellow could get me disguised as a noble instead? I can do the rest.”

“I really don’t know what he can do.” Eleshen shrugged. “But Elohl seemed to trust him right off. It all seems a bit convenient to me, but perhaps this fellow simply has been waiting for the right moment to come forward.”

Gherris threw his knife point-down into the floorboards. “That’s it. I’m in. Shara?”

She nodded, pulling a knife and throwing it down also.

“Luc?”

Luc huffed grandiosely, most likely for Eleshen’s benefit, then threw his knife down also. “I’m going to regret this. If anyone at the palace recognizes me, I swear to you I will cut my way out.”

“Done.” Gherris collected his knife. “Browns and tans everyone, blacks underneath. We’re going to scout the guardhouse and ask around for this Fenton fellow.”

“I need to go with you,” Ghrenna tried to struggle up to a seat. “I have to tell Elohl about my vision. If it’s the Dhenra I saw…” Her headache was only a dull throb, but the weakness was crushing. She managed to pull herself to sitting, but that was all. When she looked up, everyone was watching her.

“You stay put.” Luc’s command was non-negotiable. “I’ll tell Elohl what you saw.”

“I’ll stay with her.” Eleshen had determination in her posture, crossing her arms beneath her breasts and staring Ghrenna down. “I’ve got no business at Roushenn. You all know what Elohl looks like?” Gherris, Luc, and Shara all nodded, as they set about the room gathering their regular scouting clothes in dun colors to put on over their blacks.

“We do.” Shara intoned as she wriggled into a tan and blue dress, rolling up the sleeves of her blacks and unlacing the shirt collar to tuck beneath the bodice of the dress. “But what does this Vargen fellow and Fenton look like?”

“Vargen you can’t possibly miss,” Eleshen fired like a weapons drill-master. “Just look for the biggest man you’ve ever seen, blacksmith’s build, with hair like Elohl’s. He’ll probably also be the most soft-spoken in the room, but with a voice like boulders crashing downhill. Fenton is wiry, taller than me but shorter than Elohl. Brown hair and fairly lovely gold-brown eyes, with a resonant voice, like a harper. You’d think him plain at first glance, but he’s… stunning, somehow. I can’t explain it.”

Shara threw a cloak over her dress, hiding the lumpiness of her harness beneath it. “Got it. You boys ready to scout?”

Luc and Gherris had coarse brown flax on, rough pants that made them look like farmers, lighter shirts that were soft but homespun. Both outfits hid their gear nicely, and neither needed a cloak. Gherris added a farmer’s straw hat to hide his scowl. Ghrenna saw Luc and Gherris both add knives up beneath their wrist bracers, and down into their worn leather boots. Black boots didn’t fit either man’s outfit, but most people never looked at your feet.

“Ready.” Gherris sounded it, his dark grey eyes flashing beneath his hat.

“As I’ll ever be, I suppose.” Luc was dramatically put-upon, glancing at Ghrenna. He paused a moment, weighing her. “How’s the head?”

“I’ll manage. I had threllis long before you came around.”

He flinched as if she had struck him. Ghrenna hadn’t meant it to sound so harsh. “Right, then. We’ll try to check in by nightfall.”

Ghrenna nodded. “Just go. Find Elohl.”

“We’ll make the Kingsmen proud, Ghren.” It was Gherris who answered, fierce and feverish. Ghrenna nodded, and then they were out the door into the hall. Luc lingered, watching her, his hand on the door as the other two stalked off. Eleshen had already bustled to the other room, no doubt refreshing Ghrenna’s water, and it left Luc and Ghrenna alone a moment.

“I’m sorry, Luc,” Ghrenna murmured. It left so much unsaid between them, but it was honest, and it was all she had.

His demeanor was bitter, not a trace of teasing anywhere in him. “Not as much as I am, Ghren. If this is what it takes, to prove to you what kind of man I am, I’ll do it. What does Elohl have that I don’t? History? History is what you make of it. You can start rewriting your history anytime, Ghrenna. I did.”

“I can’t run from this, Luc. This connection with Elohl, these visions…they’ll either kill me, or I’ll figure out what they’re for. Either way, I need Elohl’s help.”

“But you need me, too.” His eyes were fervent now, determined.

“I never said I didn’t.” Ghrenna murmured, feeling split inside.

He paused at that, golden eyebrows knitting. “But you’ll never admit that you do.” Luc was out and through the door like smoke, shutting it soundly behind him.

Ghrenna sat back against the headboard and pillows, feeling hollow. She couldn’t stop staring at the door. Maybe Luc would come back. Maybe Elohl would come back. Maybe they would both leave. Leave her alone, again. So alone and unloved. The witch who saw deaths. Maybe they would only tear each other apart, because of her, leaving them all to die out in the snow. An image filled Ghrenna suddenly. A waking vision. Two men, upon their knees before her, stripped to the waist and bloody from fighting. In a cavern of ice, they knelt before her upon sigils that glowed now with a blue-white fire, and now flamed with orange and red.

And with her bared knife, Ghrenna felt herself slay them both.

She jolted in the bed. Her headache flared like fire. Eleshen was peering at her concernedly. Ghrenna knew she was pale, that she was sweating cold despite the stifling heat of the day in their small rooms. Eleshen offered another wrung-out washcloth. Ghrenna took it gratefully, laying it over her forehead. Resting her head back on the pillows, she tried to forget what she had just seen, what she had just experienced, the raw brutality of it.

“Are you all right?”

“I’ve had worse.”

Eleshen eyed her. “Does this always happen when you have a vision?”

Ghrenna nodded. “I’m usually weak, and there’s a headache, but sometimes I seize. The nosebleed was new, though.” She could still taste the tang of it in her mouth.

“The others say Elohl triggered it. Your seizing. Last night.”

This time, it was Ghrenna who eyed Eleshen. “You’re his woman, aren’t you?”

The green-eyed girl sniffed in irritation. “I’m not his woman. I’m not a cow. We’re simply traveling together.”

Ghrenna lifted an eyebrow, got a spike of pain, then thought better of it, relaxing back against the headboard. “Could have fooled me.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You were taking my measure the moment Luc opened the door. And his charms usually work on women.”

“I’m not the type to be charmed by rogues.” Eleshen was scowling, arms crossed, peevish. “Anyway, he’s got eyes for only one woman, and you’re a damn fool if you don’t see it! That Luc is wrapped around your little toe, True Seer, and you’re squashing his love like a cockroach!”

Ghrenna blinked, moving the cold washcloth to the back of her neck. “You’re feisty.”

“We’re not discussing me!” Eleshen spat, all hot vinegar and quicksilver.

“You would have made a good Kingswoman.”

Eleshen’s lips dropped open. “What?”

“You heard me. You’ve got the gall for it. And a sharp mind.”

“I…” Eleshen looked flustered a moment, fiddling with her long blonde braid. Her cheeks flushed, and she was pretty when she did. Lovely, in an innocent kind of way that Ghrenna would never have. “I wanted to be a Kingswoman, when I was younger. Elohl’s father saved me, you know. From a burning building. I would have died were it not for him. Ever since then… I used to dream about it. Heroic fancies and all that.”

“Where are you from?”

“Quelsis, originally. My father Eiric den’Fhenrir was Dhepan of Quelsis. He always called the Kingsmen in when there was trouble. Our family was declared treasonous for trying to put pressure on the Crown after the Summons. I’ve been keeping an inn in the mountains ever since. I never got to live those childish dreams.”

“Neither did I.” Ghrenna murmured, feeling all those lost years.

Eleshen blinked, and her face rouged. “I owe you an apology. I was so… possessive of Elohl. I never thought how all your lives must have been. Something rides him, Ghrenna. Something hard and demanding and brutal. He’s been lighter since the seven-eye stone, but… sometimes I still feel that darkness in him.”

Ghrenna felt tears welling. She stilled them, knowing that any crying would make her headache wretched. “Elohl wasn’t always troubled. He demanded much of himself, but he used to be serene, for the most part. I think I always troubled him, though. It’s good that he has you. He needs someone… bright. Happy.”

Eleshen was all kindness now, much like Shara, reaching out to take Ghrenna’s hand. “Isn’t there anything I can do?”

“There’s a tin in my pack, there on the nightstand. Will you bring it? And a glass pipe in the leather pouch on the belt of my harness, there, on the chair. Light it, please, set it here by bed.”

Eleshen did, and as Ghrenna settled back down into the covers, she reached out to take away the now-warm washcloth. “Do you need food?”

Ghrenna shook her head, feeling the threllis in the air taking the edge off her pain. “No. If I eat, I’ll vomit again.”

“Was your vision something happy, at least?” Eleshen quipped with a hopeful smile. “Something nice to compensate for all this pain?”

Ghrenna smiled a little, the threllis wafting through the air soothing her now, swaddling her in a blanket for her mind. “You have so much hope. No. My visions are mostly full of dire tidings. I used to think that was why I get so much pain when I have them. Because the visions are nothing I want to see. And I fight them…”

Eleshen had taken Ghrenna’s hand while Ghrenna spoke, like a sister, her eyes full of sorrow. “That’s so awful. What did you see this time, that triggered this latest bout?”

Ghrenna’s gaze went long, staring past Eleshen towards the door. “Nothing I can control. Nothing I can ever unburden myself from.”

“Sometimes talking about these things helps.” Eleshen murmured.

Ghrenna glanced at her. Eleshen’s pretty heart-shaped face was tight with concern, and Ghrenna saw again why Elohl kept her close. Ghrenna drew a deep breath of threllis-smoke, and sighed it out, relaxing into the pillows. What would it matter, to talk about it? “They’re often indistinct,” she murmured, staring up at the ceiling now, “but sometimes I feel them, like I’m the one being hurt. This time, I felt a woman, saw it, experienced it, felt her pain as she was stabbed…”

And Ghrenna found herself opening up to this bright-eyed confidante of Elohl’s, telling everything she could remember of the event she had witnessed, and of the white-eyed woman beckoning from the Alranstone with the bloody half-lidded oculus. It felt good to unburden herself, for once, telling it all, all the pain of the vision, every horrible agony of the woman who had been stabbed. Telling someone how Ghrenna felt herself dying, felt her own body screaming in agony from the wound. That she’d been witness to the event, in the vision, and also inside the woman’s body, all at the same time.

A horrible place to be.

Eleshen listened to it all, taking it in, every awful detail. And when Ghrenna was done, she only nodded. Lifting a hand, she touched Ghrenna’s brow with the kindness of a mother, smoothing back Ghrenna’s sweat-streaked waves from her forehead. “I’m glad you told me. No one should have to bear such things alone.”

Something about her simple kindness broke Ghrenna. Tingling prickled her eyes, and she held her tears back. Crying would only make her headache flare. “I think I need to sleep a while.” Ghrenna murmured, threllis making her groggy, her eyelids heavy now.

“I’ll leave the pitcher of water.” Eleshen eyed Ghrenna a moment, her brows pinched in concern. Then seemed to change her mind, wrinkling her nose at the threllis. “Do you mind if I take a walk? Do you need me here while you sleep?”

Ghrenna nodded. “The pipe will be out in half an hour. I should be asleep by then. I usually sleep three to four hours when this happens. Do what you need to.”

Eleshen rose to her feet regally but spoiled it by nearly tripping over herself as she turned for the door. “I’ll inform the goodwife to check in on you if I’m not back soon.”

Ghrenna nodded, but her mind was already clouding into sleep as she heard the latch click in the door.

CHAPTER 29 – DHERRAN

 

 

Up a grand staircase of white marble with a cobalt carpet and golden runners, Dherran and Khenria were led by the Vicoute Arlen den’Selthir’s butler, then down a long hall on the second floor of the manor. Decorated with suits of ancient armor, hunting horns, old lances and painted steel shields, the hall was a wonder of military treasures. The butler finally stopped at one of the last doors in the hallway, opening it, gesturing them in. It was opulent. Dherran couldn’t help but stare as they wandered into rooms that were far more than fine. Richly carven white-oak was everywhere. Cobalt carpets set with the crest of a lance and bitter-holly sprigs swaddled the well-polished floorboards. Dherran watched Khenria wander their apartment, opening a door to find that they had separate, but adjoining, bedrooms.

The butler bowed himself out, closing the white-oak doors.

“What the hell is going on?” Dherran murmured, so completely befuddled at their welcome to the Vicoute’s manor that he had forgotten his rage.

“I guess we’re supposed to clean up.” Khenria had moved to a stout copper tub in one corner of the room. She fiddled with some brass knobs on the wall, and suddenly, the tub was sluiced with steaming water from a spout. Dharran moved over, marveling at it.

“Look Dherran!” Khenria gasped. “Both hot and cold water, brought directly to the tub!”

“I’ve heard such piping existed in lord’s homes,” Dherran murmured, touching the knobs, fascinated, “and in Roushenn Palace, but I’ve never experienced it.”

Khenria was already disrobing. “Well, I’m taking advantage of it.” She was naked in a trice, her round ass and narrow hips enticing as she shifted her weight to climb in. Dherran tried to ignore her as she washed. Tried to remind himself he was pissed at her for the past few days. But she was magnificently distracting. How she moved, how she cocked her head so that long, lean neck showed every graceful sinew, curious as a raven at everything, smelling all the soaps upon the silver tray near the bath, trying them all upon her smooth skin. Brushing her skin with a boar-bristle scrubber on a long wooden handle. Khenria’s lithe movements were completely distracting, and Dherran’s eyes strayed to her shoulders, so lean above the rim of the bath, but hard with muscle.

Sitting upon the bed, he found himself staring. Wanting. Every curve of her, every angle. He was about to stride to the bath and haul her out, when she spoke suddenly. “Are you worried about Grump, Dherran?”

It took him aback, cooling his ardor somewhat. And suddenly, he realized he was worried about what had happened to Grump, why he’d not been in the tent after the fight. “Yeah. I am. Are you?”

“Not really.” She murmured, brushing with the scrubber.

“Why not?” Waiting like this while Khenria lounged in the bath naked was driving him insane, but he tried to focus upon the conversation.

Khenria sighed, sluicing with water. “He’s disappeared like this before. Once for a whole week. Another time, he hid me in a cave for five days.”

Dherran frowned. “Without telling you what he’s doing?”

She shook her head. “He talks a lot, but he doesn’t say much. He always leaves after he gets quiet like this for a few days. Although, I thought he was just quiet this time because of what I said. I did apologize.”

“Did he take it well?”

“He seemed to.” With that, she finally rose from the bath, water cascading from every luscious curve. Reaching out to tuck a thick cotton towel about her torso, Khenria was aware of what she was doing to him. She looked back over her shoulder, meeting his gaze. The fires in Dherran surged. He rose from the bed, moving to her, catching her in his arms as she stepped from the tub, crushing her close.

“I want you.” Dherran murmured in her ear, hot, breathing hard.

Khenria flushed, desire flaring. “You’re filthy. I’m clean. Wash first.”

With a growl, Dherran stepped back. Stripping fast, he was in the tub in a trice, slurrying soap into lather in his hands, scrubbing everything with haste. In two minutes he was back out, entirely wet, the heat of the water having soothed his lust not at all. Striding to her without toweling off, he wrangled her in his arms and thrust her to the bed. She fell to the silk coverlet, challenging, daring him. Her towel gaped enticingly, baring a long swath of curvaceous hip.

That did it. Dherran’s resistance broke. He wanted her, fuck it all. He needed her, now. She was such a bitch, and she was so beautiful, and he loved the way she’d strung him along and he hated it. He wanted to punish her for it. He wanted to rip that towel away, to take those firm curves in his hands and suckle her pert little breasts until she screamed. Ever since she had slid into his bed, they had been dancing around each other just like this. And finally, Dherran decided. He would take her, and make her cry like a falcon for him.

Barely containing his lust, Dharran reached out, stroking his fingers down her bared hip, slowly, enjoying her shudder. “You are such a cruel mistress. You know you are. Teasing me like you have. Holding a knife to my throat to try and get me to take you. You don’t give me much choice about this. About what I’m going to do to you.”

Her grey eyes were veiled now, hot with feral anticipation. “And what do you think you can do to me?”

Dherran growled in his throat. He was on the bed in a flash. Grasping her wrists, he pinned her arms above her head, the towel coming fully undone. Leaning down, he kissed her neck, cruel, pressing his hips down at the same time, beginning to rub himself, hard and ready, between her legs, letting her feel his cruelty. Making her expect it. Wrapping her long legs up around him, his Hawk Talon moaned. He dipped his head, taking one high, young nipple in his mouth, beginning to suck it nice and slow. Khenria writhed beneath him, her hips rolling in the motion of fucking him already, so needful, so ready for this game between them.

“Aeon, Dherran…!” She gasped. “Gods don’t stop! Please, I need you… I need you deep…”

She was so hot, so wet where he rubbed between her legs. But this wasn’t about consummation, this was about punishment. For everything she was doing to him. Dherran suckled her breast harder, faster, and she mewled for him, bucking. He moved to the other breast, fierce enough to make her writhe, slow enough to make her need. Sliding his phallus in her juices, he moved his hips just so, just so he’d slide over her entrance but not slip in, not yet.

Not yet.

Suddenly, a knock rapped upon the door, as if a servant had been out in the hall, waiting for just the right moment to cause violent frustration. Dherran snapped like bowstring, souring. “What, dammit?!” He yelled at the door.

“Dinner, sirrah!” Was called through the door. Footsteps moved off down the hall. Growling in frustration, Dherran repositioned himself over Khenria, taking her nipple back into his mouth, pulling hard.

“Dherran!” She squeaked, laughing now instead of writhing.

“What?” His growl was peeved as he moved to kissing her ribs, determined.

“We’ve got to go to dinner!” Khenria laughed, squirreling out from underneath him and jumping sprightly off the bed, her lean limbs and hips and little breasts frustratingly gorgeous. “We’ve been summoned by a lord. You don’t just keep a lord waiting while you fuck in his guest suites!”

“I can. And I will.” Dherran made a swipe for her, his need high, his balls aching like hell from how hard he was. Khenria laughed, mean as she dodged his swipe, lithe and utterly naked, then darted in to fondle him.

“Keep it warm for me, Dherran. We’ll be here all night, and we’ve got adjacent rooms…”

“You bitch!” Dherran growled, flopping back to the coverlet, gasping for breath, trying to push back the swamping tide of his arousal. It wasn’t working. She’d gotten him good. She laughed and Dherran glared, then lurched from the bed to where his clothes lay in a puddle by the bathtub. He reached for his trousers, yanking them on so hard the fabric strained.

“Don’t you want to wear something nicer? There are fresh shirts in here, and a few sets of trousers, with a jerkin or two that might fit you.” Khenria spoke from the white oak wardrobe near the tub, bare-ass naked where she pawed through the fancy clothes.

“No.” Dherran started buckling his belt, studiously avoiding staring.

“But these are so very fine…” A sigh of wistfulness tinged her voice as she touched the fabrics.

“This will do.”

She scowled, her straight black brows set in a line of irritation. “You can’t go to supper at a Vicoute’s manor dressed like you slept under the trees, Dherran!”

“Leave it, little hawk.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Fine. Be a filthy lout. But I’m getting dressed properly for dinner with a fine lord.” She strode from the room, still naked from their unconsummated writhing, slamming the door between their rooms with a swift backhand. Dherran heard a bell pulled from her room, then the muted voices of two women, then light laughter, then an ongoing buzz of chatter. He paced his room, waiting. Another knock came at his door. Dherran strode to it, throwing it open, the startled servingman before the door recoiling.

What?!” Dherran roared in his face.

“If you please, sirrah.” The dark-haired, fit servingman in a plain leather jerkin spoke blandly, his face a cultured mask. “The lady has asked for dressing-maids. Would you appreciate some assistance with your wardrobe for dinner?”

“No.” Dherran growled. “Get out.”

“As you wish, sirrah. I am to inform you also, that the Vicoute has sent a man to wait for your own servingman back at the fighting tents.” But this man was no wilting flower, with good-shouldered brawn and a trim waist like he spent most of his time upon the practice yards rather than in the house. His dark brown eyes showed obvious disdain as he eyed Dherran’s shirt, then his trousers, like a father might eye his most filthy urchin. “Sir, may I suggest…?”

“You may not.” Dherran tried to shut the door in the man’s face, but the servingman cheekily put his boot in the door.

“You know, if I had the opportunity to dine at a Vicoute’s table,” the fellow spoke softly, but with an edge of iron, “I would make full use of it. I hear Kingsmen are experts at negotiation. One does not negotiate an evening with a Vicoute dressed like a bandit. Sirrah.”

And despite his temper, Dherran knew the man was right. With a growl, he opened the door wide, gesturing angrily to the wardrobe. “What do you suggest, then?”

With only a slight smirk, the man stepped quickly inside, shutting the door. He paced to the wardrobe, threw it wide, paused. He glanced at Dherran’s nakedness, eyes narrowing critically. And then pulled out breeches, a shirt, a jerkin, a pair of leather kneeboots, and a belt, thrusting them all into Dherran’s hands. “Wear these. At least you’ll not look like a pauper.”

Dherran was about to cuss him, but the disdain in the man’s face suddenly made him feel ashamed of his temper. He was uncultured and he knew it, a far cry from how he’d been raised. And then, something within him resolved to try harder. He buried his growling, stepping into the clothes without protest. The white rough silk shirt was the softest thing he’d ever worn. The breeches were nearly as soft, a tight fit in dark green lambswool, showing off his muscled thighs. The dark brown leather kneeboots were creamy smooth, and the brown belt to match was tooled with a rushing river. His jerkin was doe-leather, dyed dark green like the trousers with a high open collar. It was a crossover military-cut, and suited his athletic frame like a second skin. Dherran waved away a tray of men’s jewelry, needing no adornment.

The servingman backed away with an amused nod. Dherran ran a hand through his blonde hair, then glanced in the full-length mirror. And didn’t recognize himself. The man who stared back at him looked every inch the lord, tall and well-built, with hard green eyes and lines of temperament cutting across the face of his youth.

Dherran looked like his father. Almost exactly as he remembered. With a rough sigh, Dherran turned from the gilded mirror, regret and anger surfacing. He gestured to the door, and the servingman led on. Pacing down the long hall of armor and oddities, he stewed, silent and brooding after the servingman. Moving down the soft cobalt carpet upon the marble stairs, he was led through a parquet-floor ballroom and then a sitting parlor crowded with potted ferns. At last, they came through a set of gilded white-oak doors into a massive dining hall flooded with light from an entire wall of bay windows. Slanting early-evening sun caught crystals in the chandeliers, throwing rainbows about the room.

Khenria surged from her chair at the white marble table with a full-throated laugh, her face lit upon seeing Dherran. The silk of her close-clinging gown shone a rich emerald in the golden sunlight, pouring like water over her every curve and muscle. White lace delved to her décolletage, the plunging neckline of the bodice maddening. Lace fell from her sleeves, covering her hands and cascading towards the floor. When she moved, a lace-covered slit parted in her gown, slashed scandalously high over one hip, everything Dharran had almost tasted barely hidden beneath. An emerald pendant the size of his thumb nestled between her breasts, and emeralds dripped from her earlobes. Lips rouged and eyelids lined, her short black curls expertly smoothed and arranged, she smoldered for him.

Talons sank deep into his heart. Dherran gaped at her like a fool.

“She looks just as beautiful within the fighting ring as without, does she not?” Vicoute Arlen den’Selthir had stood, motioning Dherran forward to the table. Large enough to seat thirty, it was set only for three at one end, tall branched tapers lit against the oncoming night. “Come, sit! Your lovely student has already been telling me of your most unusual training tactics.”

Dherran hated the man instantly, how cultured he was. Wearing a jerkin of crimson silk, he still wore riding breeches and boots, though these were finer that what he’d had on earlier in town. His iron-shot waves were oiled back artfully, his person smelling of sandalwood incense. Rings bedecked his fingers, costly with gemstones, and a sapphire pierced the lobe of one ear, set in gold. The Vicoute looked like a rogue, with the hard edge of a man who took what he wanted. And as his gaze flicked to Khenria, Dherran felt himself sear with jealousy.

“Has she?” Dherran sneered.

“Indeed.” Den’Selthir motioned again for Dherran to have a seat. As soon as he did, his host also sat. “Challenges of surprise combat, even while the other is fast asleep. Interesting.”

Dherran growled internally as he sat. A servingman stepped forward to fill his wine goblet. Primping obviously at the table, Khenria pressed her elbows in to plump her breasts. Leaning forward, she batted her dark eyelids at the Vicoute. And worse, it seemed to be having an effect on Arlen den’Selthir, who was solicitous, engaging her in banter that Dharran wasn’t hearing through the acute jealousy that hummed his veins. They laughed, Khenria throwing back her head, showing her white throat. Dherran glowered, taking a generous swig of his wine. He took another swig, missing the conversation entirely.

“Dherran?”

He blinked. “What?”

Khenria was looking at him oddly. “The Vicoute just asked if you would show him a few fighting moves after supper.”

The Vicoute spoke. “I have an indoor training arena beneath the manor.”

Dherran swigged his wine. “If you want to get hit, sure.”

The Vicoute leaned forward, swirling his goblet, his pale blue eyes suddenly sharp as the grey iron streaking his blonde hair. A cold fire moved in him, honed like spears. He did not even glance down as a simmering plate of ghennie-fowl in a cranberry sauce was placed before him. “You are a man of very little tact, Kingsman. Tell me, how did one such as you escape a lynching all these years? Flaunting your Blackmarks at every bout, inciting riots. I’m sure today has not been the first occasion your hide was almost skinned, nor may it be your last.”

Dherran swigged his wine obviously to show the extent of his lack of care about tact. “I can be persuasive when I need to be.”

Den’Selthir chuckled, swirling his wine. “With fists, perhaps. But is it enough? How many times have you had to run for your life?”

Dherran was about to answer with an epithet, but Khenria answered for him. “Eight times in two years, at least.”

“Eight times?” Den’Selthir’s dark eyebrows lifted, his gaze scathing. “You are a survivor, it seems. With the harvest-time Kingsman Burnings, I’m surprised you’ve survived this long.”

“They don’t actually burn Kingsmen at harvest fest.” Dherran sneered.

Den’Selthir leaned forward, his eyes hard. “But how long before they get the idea to have an actual Kingsman Burning? How many times do you have to piss off a public before it’s your body they truss to the burning-pole and not a stuffy-guy? When it’s not a burlap sack of straw dressed all in black, but a living flesh-and-blood man they want to watch burn? Or perhaps a woman?”

His gaze flicked to Khenria. That was all Dherran needed. He lurched out of his chair, his food untouched on its gilded china plate. “Khenria. We’ve leaving.”

“But you’ve hardly arrived.” Den’Selthir’s tone was smooth and mild, but hard as iron. He had not budged from his posture of repose, swirling wine idly. “And you’re hardly worthy of those markings you flaunt.”

“And I suppose you’re going to make me worthy of them?” Dherran snarled.

“I could.” Den’Selthir took a small sip from his goblet, his eyes locked on Dherran, cold fury in their ice-blue depths. “You do owe me, after all. For breaking my liege-man. For saving your life. For teaching you manners like a real Kingsman.”

Something inside Dherran snapped. His rage rose, untamable, surging like a lance towards the man who was goading it. Part of his mind knew den’Selthir was unarmed, had roved the man’s fine clothes when he had risen from the table in greeting. Part of him knew the servingmen were similarly unarmed, in their fine coats for table-waiting.

The rest of him didn’t care. He lunged for den’Selthir. He didn’t know what he intended. But suddenly, den’Selthir had launched from his chair, sending it flying backwards. He pivoted smoothly so Dherran’s attack found nothing but air, seized Dherran by the throat. And in one move lifted him from his feet and tipped him backwards, slamming him into the marble floor-tiles so hard that a tile cracked beneath Dherran’s broad back. All breath was driven from him. His head rang, lights pulsed in his eyes from where his head had hit the marble. Dherran gasped beneath the Vicoute’s iron grip, vaguely aware of Khenria surging from her chair to attack the man who still had Dherran pinned by the throat.

“Stay back, girl!” The Vicoute snarled viciously, all pretense of lordly manners gone, his icy eyes flashing. “This is between your incomplete mentor and myself. Touch me and I will break your arm to teach you a lesson in mis-timed courage! And you,” he snarled coldly at Dherran. “Your parents should have named you Dherrennic, the Gutting Boar! For you will surely secure this fate for us all if you continue on as you are! Kharlos! Seal the doors. No one comes in or out tonight, unless Whelan comes with the Khehemnas in custody. If he does, have him sleep in the cells, guarding the man.”

A servingman from the table rushed to comply, his fine clothes, Dherran suddenly realized, a costume for a far more dangerous man beneath. Just like the entire persona the Vico