Forget Me Not
By Juliann Whicker
Copyright © 2016 by Juliann Whicker
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Elsyria- Elven people near annihilation from the century war
Barabbas- Barbarian, warlike people ruled by the Unseen Emperor
Cimarron- Barbass spice known for aphrodisiacal qualities
Balthaar- General of the Emperor’s army, former viceroy
Hatia- Elven maiden, mad, Lady Perr, The Wind Spinner
Maltha- Green-skinned Rasha
High Precept-Elsyrian chief
Targen-Bashai high priest
Rasha – Elsyrian soldiers
Bashai- Emperor’s High Priests
Olbase- soldier’s recovery station
A Century Before:
Maltha secured his shield to his back before he turned away from the laughing Dwarven, the men he’d fought with against the Barabbas, the Barbarians ruled by the Unseen Emperor whose cruelty was legendary. He had no smiles for them, partook of no wine, not when he was preparing to walk among the shadowed, the dead, to lay souls to rest and make quite certain none of the fallen were merely injured.
The Rasha served other nations, other causes as part of their training. The body of Elsyrian warriors did not fight in wars and in armies, but trained with other races. Even a green-skinned Elsyrian must be trained who would rather have been weaving clouds with small magics, or growing life-giving fruits with his hands.
The scent of death carried to him on the wind, the scent that he tightened his jaw against, ignoring the cawing of the pale crows as they fought over what had been life hours before. The sun was fading from the sky, spilling golden light over the plains littered with fallen Dwarven and Barbarian. He accepted the beauty as he accepted the death, chanting beneath his breath the words to give the earth rest, the souls peace.
His concentration was broken by a sound other than the crows and the wind rustling the tall grasses. He heard her before he saw her.
She sang in Barabbas to the tune of an Elsyrian lullaby. He frowned as he followed the sound over the gentle crest of a hill and saw her dancing in a silver dress. She held her arms wide as she spun, nearly floating over the corpse-strewn ground. Her skin, blue-tinged, made her look nearly like one of the dead barbarians, but her eyes glistened and her song filled the air with an electric buzzing that crawled over his skin.
It was the song of despair, aching, brokenness. Maltha looked around, searching the plains for any living soul, but the girl seemed alone. Horribly alone. He strode through the trampled grass, deftly avoiding the fallen, Dwarven and Barabbas alike. She didn’t notice the bodies underfoot but leapt from one broken body to another, spinning, spinning, spinning.
It wasn’t until he was quite close that he saw her throat, her torso wrapped in a scarf soaked in her own silver blood. Her face remained unmarred, perfectly whole, the face of a high-born Elsyrian maiden, a girl Maltha had known, Hatia, House of Perr. He went to her, calling her name in as many languages as he could remember, catching hold of her hands, trying to maintain eye contact, but she couldn’t see him, didn’t know him, had been lost for too long in the grip of the Bashai.
There was no question of who had tortured her. The marks burned into her flesh were the twisted dark magics of the Unseen Emperors high priests. They had broken her mind, taken her memory, burned into her soul the worst wrong you could inflict on any Elsyrian. The Emperor had never harmed an Elsyrian in this way before. He had not been capable of such atrocity. Taking her, breaking her, releasing her into a camp where some few dozen Rasha practiced their arts, was his threat, his promise.
The Elsyrians went to war for the first time in memory. Thus began the fury.
Balthaar raised his sword, the dull blade reflecting the lowering sun’s rays along the chipped edge. The sun showed the etched glyphs in the metal, marks that Balthaar barely understood in spite of the fact that he’d learned the basics when he’d been Viceroy a hundred years before, in Bashai training. Balthaar had painstakingly etched every one of the marks over his century of service. The sword was more than a weapon of steel and iron. It sang in his hand when he raised it, sang a song of blood and death that shattered the ranks before him without a single stroke.
The ranks of the Rasha parted before his sword, fell in spite of the marks on their own swords. For a century Balthaar had fought the Elsyrians, pushing back into their borders, taking one immortal life at a time, ever since the great fury, when the Elsyrians had fought in earnest a short time after Balthaar had quit his post as Viceroy and fled to the anonymous ranks of the Emperor’s army.
Balthaar had not remained anonymous for long.
After the final shriek before darkness fell, the armies withdrew through the clouds of dust and the scent of death to tents while medics took to the field with lanterns, to walk among the bodies in search of the wounded. The Barbarians hadn’t always sought their wounded, but after a century of battle, you tended to pick up more than etchings on swords from your opponent.
Balthaar stopped abruptly in the doorway of his tent. He smelled Bashai. The peculiar scent, dried herbs and dried blood was something he’d never forget. The shadowy figure became even more ominous when Balthaar lit the lamp and saw the painted face of Targen, high priest of the Emperor.
The streaks of red and black around his dark eyes couldn’t disguise the face he knew as well as his own.
“Son of the Empire,” Targen said in a voice as dry and sharp as a whip.
Balthaar forced himself to sheath his sword, his weary arm quick in spite of the day spent battling the fiercest Rasha.
He bowed, ignoring the prickling at the base of his skull. One did not receive the head of the Bashai without the fear that had been carefully embedded into his bones during his earliest memories. Balthaar had been in line as priest, but had chosen war without permission from Bashai or the unseen Emperor.
Targen had spent many hours tooling Balthaar into a weapon leaving Balthaar scars from the whips and knives the Emperor’s priests used to instill loyalty into his subjects.
“Balthaar,” the priest said, his voice smooth and certain in spite of his age. There were perhaps a dozen priests who aged as slowly as Balthaar. The gift of longevity came from the Emperor, his blessing which could be revoked at any time. Balthaar had lived long enough that the gift felt bitter after burying so many comrades.
“Targen,” Balthaar said, unbuckling his greaves. “What brings you to the front lines?”
“The Emperor,” he said in a deceptively soft voice.
Balthaar barely flicked a glance at him. “What service may I perform? Eternally may he reign.”
The red streaked eyebrows lowered as the priest leaned forward, frowning at the general. “You have become accustomed to acting instead of thinking. You are not my first choice, but I understand the Emperor’s decision. You are the only blessed who chose war. As such, you are the one who will go to the heart of Elsyria an ambassador at the Elven Lord’s request.”
Balthaar continued stripping off his armor expressionlessly while his mind raced. The army was fighting hard on this front against Elven and the small Dagmar resistance. If luck held, this, the last army between the Emperor and Elsyria would be defeated by the end of autumn. With winter to move the armies and organize supplies, the invasion of Elsyrian mainland could begin the following spring.
Taking the general out of the war during this, the final great battle would only draw out the fighting, leading to more casualties beneath another leader, however experienced. Balthaar swallowed his protests as he focused on the shoulder straps that held his breast plate. After he undid them, he set the breast plate on the shelf and removed his padded vest. Argument was futile. He dipped a cloth in the basin and washed his face, scrubbing the war paint into streaks, his shoulder and chest, the old tattoos faded but still visible, the marks of the Viceroy, the blessed, those intended as priests of the Emperor.
“No words?” Targen asked after the silence held too long in the old patched and repatched tent of the General of Barabbas.
“I am honored by the privilege extended by his holiness. May he reign forever. It has been a very long time since I’ve used words in place of weapons.”
Targen smiled slightly. “I am certain that you will do your part as ambassador with as much devotion and enthusiasm as you have played the part of general.” The words carried the bite of resentment, Targen acknowledging in his way Balthaar’s betrayal of the Bashai.
The Barabbas general was being delivered like a lamb to the slaughter according to the Emperor’s will. He had served the Emperor’s army for a hundred years, but now that victory approached, he was being removed, cast aside, sent to die ignominiously amidst his long-fought foes. It was Balthaar’s execution, an order he’d waited a century for.
Balthaar smiled at Targen and felt a flicker of satisfaction at the fear in the high priest’s eyes. It was something, to be considered a threat to the Unseen Emperor.
The ship rose and fell as it crossed the wide bay. A brisk wind filled the white sails and pushed the vessel through the waves that slapped the hull. The winter rains would obscure the surrounding vista in the next few months, but for now, a few days before the autumn solstice, the sun shone on the verdant greenery along the coast of Elsyria, home of Elves and magic.
General Balthaar stood at attention at the starboard, staring stonily at the dense forests that lined the shore. Elsyria couldn’t be more unlike his own homeland, Barabbas. Although he hadn’t been back for years, he considered the desert home. It left little to the imagination, revealing red rocks and brown swells so that you could see the horizon until it met the sky. Here trees crowded claustrophobically, masking the inhabitants of the cursed realm.
Two of those Elsyrian soldiers, the Rasha, shared the ship with Balthaar as his guide and escort but aloof from the Barbarian.
Balthaar shifted, missing the weight of his sword between his shoulders. Ambassadors, even pretend ones, did not carry such weapons. As such, he was allowed no more than a sliver of bronze tucked away in his boot. Balthaar tried to dismiss the shame, being taken from the ranks of his men to negotiate in the unlikely event that he wasn’t executed by the Elsyrian High Lord.
He’d led the Barabbas armies fearlessly against the Elven magic that could confuse, terrify and distract its opponent. Those small things were the difference between conquering and being conquered. Balthaar’s hands tightened on the bulwark as he considered his men under the command of Soren, his second-in-command. The man was fearless, driven, as well as strategically adept, but could he push back the fear without Balthaar? Surely one man could not make such a difference, however, before Balthaar had taken command, the Emperor’s army had gained no traction against Elsyria.
The two Elsyrians shifted their stances when the boat tilted to one side. The one with green-tinted skin became gray faced as he fought down nausea valiantly. Balthaar had seen thousands of sick and dying Rasha over the hundred years of his service. Green-skinned tended to have weaker stomachs than their blue-skinned companions.
As an ambassador, Balthaar would be seeking peace and trust between the two races. As a general, he would strike while the man was weak.
“The emperor’s will be my own,” he whispered, a prayer of sorts before he walked across the ship, dodging a seaman carrying a coil of rope on his path to the sick Rasha.
“Ambassador,” the blue-tinted Rasha said with a hint of a bow, his silver eyebrow rising as he looked over Balthaar.
“Noble warrior,” Balthaar said with his own slightly more respectful nod. “I have noticed that your friend requires some assistance. I have,” Balthaar struggled to keep his voice smooth and silky, the voice of an ambassador instead of the bellow of a general, “a blend of herbs that should soothe his ailment.” He took out the small packet of valerian and charcoal while holding onto a smile to cover his discomfort. Facing two Rasha without armor or weapon was enough to make the bravest barbarian shrink.
“Blessings,” the blue-skinned man said, bowing and taking the packet without a smile. Of course the smile of a Rasha would be more of a threat than the smooth mask of indifference.
Balthaar bowed again and turned back towards his place on the boat. The wind shifted as he stood at the prow, the wind carrying a flavor he could almost taste as he raised his face to the wind and leaned back, his calloused hands gripping the wood. He closed his eyes and the flavor of cimarron, slightly sweet with a musky undertone matched the warmth of the wind, blowing south from the deserts of Barabbas. Balthaar sighed and shook the bittersweet longing out of his heart. He hadn’t been back to the Emperor’s city for years, not for a hundred years. Odd how he could still remember the scent of cimarron, still remember the exact shade of her eyes.
In the High City of Elsyria, Hatia Locentia Duramdive of the house of Perr, or as she was called beneath whispered breaths The Wind Spinner, walked the gardens around the ancient lake with its knotted, knobby trees half submerged along the shore. The beds were weed-filled, the paths overgrown, but Wind Spinner didn’t notice such trivialities. She greeted the crumbling statues like old friends.
“Arden, how charming to see you. What’s that? You heard that Barbarians are enslaving Elsyrians and teaching them their own lore? What an interesting idea. Nonsense. As for barbarians building schools, perhaps we can hope for them civilizing themselves and us along with them.”
The old, crumbling statue of Arden the prophet gazed over her head silently as she chattered. Her voice began strong but faded as she gazed above the stone statue to the branches above his head, heavy with pears. Insects chased delectable notes floating through the air. She smiled blissfully as she lost herself between the scent of the sun and the flowers.
She started as someone jerked on her arm. She looked at the sandy-haired tall Elsyrian with pale apricot skin, trying to remember who he was.
“Head Precept requests your presence, lady,” he said twisting his hands beneath the fine lace at his cuffs. He tried not to stare at her in her two different kinds of shoes, a scarf wrapped around her torso and secured with twine while her pants were frayed at the hem above her pale blue calves. He wouldn’t call her Wind Spinner to her face, not when he had a respectable position as the High Precept’s errand boy, but everyone knew the mad tenant of Perr Hall. However lovely she was with amethyst eyes and wisps of white hair, her eyes were always a bit too wide, her hands too anxious, fluttering instead of still and steady.
She bowed elaborately to the statues, green scarf fluttering before she smiled and followed the boy through the overgrown and untenanted lower garden towards the more populated green spaces.
The war had decreased the numbers of Elsyrians so substantially that there wasn’t the manpower to maintain the many gardens and buildings in High City. Everywhere you looked was crumbling stone, untended gardens, and a sense of abandonment.
Lady Perr followed him down the wide marble steps, its pale golden veins sparkling under the sun. The city’s beauty made her pause, hesitating as she felt something that brought her hand to her heart. For a moment she remembered a different world with white blossoms richer, heavier than the scent of cimarron.
She shook her head and focused on the blossoms beside her. The errand boy forgotten, she left the path, wandering towards the flowers, purple-blue buds that dangled like miniature grapes but smelled like sweetness and clear blue sky. The color was close to her own eyes, purple-blue rare for an Elsyrian. She knelt among the flowers, trailing her fingers over the blossoms until a shadow threw the blue into a deeper hue.
The High Precept stood above her, his aura of power that had burnt a long time and was coming near its end.
“Hatia,” he said, his voice of wisdom, age, and a slightly creaky door.
She stood to her full height, looking him in his pale green eyes before she bowed, hands outstretched as she performed the proper obeisance.
“How may I serve the people?” she asked, her voice thin, like a note played on an improperly cured reed pipe.
He turned, still spry enough and began walking, catching hold of her arm to keep her at his side instead of wandering along with her mind. His skin felt papery but unwrinkled, his grip still strong and firm in spite of his antiquity.
“The people call you as host to the ambassador of Barabbas,” he said holding tightly to her arm so that when she tried to run she only tugged him a few steps. “It’s a high honor,” he reminded her sternly as she gazed at him like a deer staring down a hunter.
“Barabbas and Elsyria are at war,” she said unsteadily, as though she weren’t certain.
“Aye. For the past hundred years, blood has stained our countries,” the High Precept acknowledged with a frown. “Too long for a war no matter how noble it seemed at the beginning.”
“A hundred years?” Lady Perr whispered. She bit her lips until a trail of silver blood welled up on her mouth. She wiped it away on the back of her hand, the silver smear against her skin. “War is an ugly thing,” she said slowly. “But I don’t understand why such an honor should be bestowed to the humble house of Perr,” she added looking up at the High Precept through her pale lashes.
He shook his head and stared off in the distance. “You are the one. You understand the people, the customs, their world and were the last Elsyrian to make contact with Barabbas before the war. I understand that this is difficult for you, but I believe it might be the key to unlocking your own sanity.” He brushed his fingers across her forehead lightly as he met her eyes.
She glared at him for a moment with her teeth bared before the anger faded and her fists unclenched until she folded her arms, head bowed in defeat.
He studied her before he nodded slightly. “I see you understand the honor.”
“You ask too much,” she whispered, a breath, but the words made the High Precept flinch as though he’d been gutted by a barbarian sword.
He turned away, rubbing his jaw with ordinarily still fingers. “Aye. The last of your line, House of Perr, whose family has served loyal to the people ‘til the end. Hatia of Perr, I can trust no other with this task. That’s the simple truth. You can do what none else can, and so you must.”
“I don’t suppose the ambassador could stay by himself in one of the crumbling manse along the river. Hopefully it wouldn’t collapse on him as he slept,” she said, glancing up at him with wild eyes and a tilted smile.
“Hatia, you are the best chance.” His voice was gentle.
For some reason she thought of all the other daughters of the city who could be used to host the foreigner, as graceful and beautiful as a fountain. Who could resist those pearly teeth, soft pointed ears, the wrists, so thin and breakable? She glanced down at her own wrists, covered in long strips of fabric the color of falling leaves. Beneath the layers were scars, unseen but not unfelt. The scars would never completely fade. Her eyes filled with tears even as she laughed.
“Then there is no chance.”
She threw her head back and swayed back and forth with the clouds and the wind while the Head Precept blinked away the moisture in his own eyes. Even after she’d returned from Barabbas mad, scarred from torture at the hands of the Bashai, she would stand between her people and the barbarians, she would stand as well as she could.
Along the river, old stone mansions stood veiled in green moss. The House of Perr was one such, crumbling more than most, for the House of Perr had seen its finest days many hundred years before. Buzzing activity filled the halls and grounds as Elsyrians moved in their efforts to regain some of the glory, or at least the stability of the near ruin in preparation for the honored guest, the Ambassador of Barabbas.
Lady Perr retreated to the library, finding comfort in the familiar hush of dust-shrouded books. Her conversation with the High Precept had awakened a rare awareness of her surroundings, some memories that left her feeling unsettled and uncertain.
She went to the wall of books beside the old bay window that overlooked the river and found a tome as heavy as she was that she carried to the window seat with a particular tenderness. Her uncle had shown her the book when she was a child, wide-eyed, eager for a new word or phrase from one of the far away lands he’d travelled in his younger days.
“It feels much heavier without you,” she addressed the air, aware that she was speaking to herself before she shook her head and turned the thick pages that described the desert. The author had bound maps, descriptions, but best of all, beautiful, pale paintings of red rock and white buildings, round roofs glittering in the sun that shone with a blistering intensity.
She closed her eyes and could feel the sun, the first time she’d stepped out of the shadows of the valley and into the heat that waited with an awareness that while almost unpleasant, certainly filled her senses like nothing had before or since.
She’d let the veil slide off her pale hair around her shoulders while she lifted her face to the sun, curious at its touch while the red rocks spread around her as far as she could see, an ocean of emptiness.
“You’ll burn to a crisp,” a voice said in her own Elsyrian tongue while she felt a tug on her veil.
She squinted up at the man on horseback who had leaned down to pull her veil back into place. She stared into the golden eyes beneath the black head covering, fascinated by the heat and life in them. She’d met Barbarians on her journey so far, in fact, she was entirely surrounded by them, but this Barbarian seemed different somehow, more familiar and exotic in the same breath.
“I wonder if I would,” she’d replied in Barabbas, struggling with some of the guttural sounds. She wanted very much to impress this stranger whose hand moved deftly and gracefully adjusting the fabric.
“Your curiosity should wait until you’re in the city where you can be tended while you fever from sunstroke,” he’d replied, still in her language but with laughter in his honeyed voice before he turned and urged his horse into a gallop away from her, raising a cloud of dust that made her grateful for the fabric covering her mouth.
It was only later that she realized that the real danger of leaving her head bare had little to do with the sun and much more to do with the Barbarians who watched her with an appraising eye.
She blinked the library back into focus. When she looked down at the book in her hands, it was freshly stained with tears. She let it slide onto the rug, faded amber and maroon symbols that would have meant something to her at another time, another world.
The day came for The Wind Spinner to receive her honored guest. She hid in her chambers as long as possible until finally she emerged dressed in clothing that made several young elven girls giggle.
She wore a combination of her long departed great Aunt Mathilda’s formerly white gown, with long sleeves and billowing layers, and uncle Oldwell’s bee tending hat. Other gowns had been brought to her chamber from the finest tailor in High City, close cut and fashionable but none had veils. One must always be veiled when dealing with Barbarians.
The house, the formerly glorious house of Perr had attained a nearly honorable visage, instead of simply a decrepit one. She frowned at the comfortably ruined garden pruned into order, the tattered drapes carefully cleaned and mended. The House of Perr was dying, had died. There was no sense in resurrecting something that had already passed.
“Lady Perr,” a melodic voice interrupted her musings as she stared at the tapestry that depicted the origins of Perr. She frowned at the interruption, but her irritation was lost beneath the billows of net.
“Your gloves, left in the garden.” He held out the small white things, looking like broken birds in his hands. He wore the brown of a gardener, his knees mud-stained and his peach skin rose-tinged from sun.
She quickly took them from him, glancing up at his dark gold eyes before she put them on. One more layer couldn’t possibly hurt. Her heart pounded as she struggled with her duty, the need to end a war, to do her part, and the terror of having a barbarian in her country, in her home. At least the customs of Barbarians would allow her to show as little of herself to the Barbarian as possible.
The trumpets blew from the dock a few miles up the river, the signal that his ship had arrived. Taking a slow breath with eyes closed, she steadied herself then wandered out to the patio that overlooked the river.
She stepped carefully towards the edge although the stone balustrade looked quite sturdy after the masons had done their work. She leaned on her elbows, relaxing against the sun warmed stone, idly watching the ship upriver unloading its cargo. It felt like a world ago when she’d boarded a vessel so much like it, eager to find her fate in a new world. It was supposed to be an adventure like the stories her uncles would tell her after they’d returned from new lands. Of course one by one they hadn’t returned. When she had, she’d been stripped of her hopes and innocence.
She stared down at the water lapping beneath her against the stones until she stretched out her arms and called to the world below.
The small magics flowed through her as she sank her awareness down into the water’s cool depths. A fish slipped against her, a silver finned trout. It followed her and the song she sang as she rose towards the light and burst into the sun. She opened her eyes and looked down at the beautiful fish where it danced on the surface of the water.
After one last spinning jump it disappeared beneath the waves. The small magics, the mystics were elven lore as old as the heart of forests, the peak of the mountain. Unbelievers could not see such things, would call such unproven things tricks, lies, but the fish was real enough.
She glanced back to the boat and adjusted the still-dry gauze around her face. She would not practice any small mystics for as long as she hosted the ambassador. The mystics appeared an illusion to the Barbarians. She hadn’t actually been in the water with her skin, therefore to them, it hadn’t happened. They did not understand the world that lay beyond the flesh.
It had been years since any Barbarian had been invited to the High City, more years than the Wind Spinner had lived. She rubbed her chest absently, her hand above the deepest scar as she listened to the wind, trying to lose herself, distract from the sound of the procession as the ambassador approached. It did no good. The wind, usually more than willing to transport her away from memories was adamant about bringing the sound of shouts as they neared. He stirred the city that preferred to remain motionless, barely breathing as it passed through time.
She could almost see the ladies leaning out of windows, leaning far over to catch a glimpse of the stranger walking over the pale path below. Tan skinned, golden eyes and dark hair as well as the way he moved would make him different. Barbaric. Exciting, dangerous, and something they might not see again for another hundred years.
“One can hope,” she muttered then shook her head. She’d spoken Barabbas.
Balthaar, General of Barrabas and ambassador-spy, stood on the dock, bracing himself for the moment when he may very well be wrapped in chains and dragged down to a dungeon. Ranks of Rasha stood before him, two rows of silver armored Elsyrians, swords sparkling in the sunlight.
The blue-skinned Elsyrian from the ship slipped beside Balthaar and bowed carefully. “You are welcome to the High City. Your escort will take you to your host.” He gestured towards the ranks of Rasha.
Balthaar nodded back and stepped towards the Rasha with firm footsteps. He would not flee however his skin crawled and he yearned for his sword.
The soldiers marched on either side of Balthaar. The city itself was breathtakingly beautiful, rising from the river in waves of white broken by the green of trees and ivy. The reception of the inhabitants upset his expectation of cold looks, suspicion and barely veiled contempt. Prepared for rotten fruit to be thrown, flower petals bewildered the hardened general.
Long slender arms stretched towards him, pale but tinted blue, green or pink, with silver nails. Their eyes were too far to detect the color, but smiles gleamed, smiles instead of snarls.
He forced a smile of his own, but knew it looked more like a grimace. He’d seen enough Elves dripping silver blood off the end of his sword, watched the light fade from their eyes as they cursed him. He hadn’t seen beauty in their features for a very long time. For a moment it seemed a woman gazed on him with eyes like amethyst, but instead, the purple fragmented into pink petals.
He forced his heart to slow its beating. The mission may be his personal curse, but the Emperor’s will was Balthaar’s. He nodded and straightened his shoulders, longing for the weight of his sword across his back. He had to use his long ago training as a viceroy to the Emperor before he’d taken up the sword. He could not think of these creatures as beauty, as anything other than those who would pass beneath the Emperor’s way.
He gave up smiling as he walked, ignoring the ladies that hung above him from their elaborately carved stone windows, tried to block out the sound of their greetings, the song of their voices intertwining into a complicated melody that made his chest ache.
He walked unarmed into the heart of the Elven city, where magic seeped through the cracks in the stones beneath his feet, magic that he knew better than a Barbarian should. Some said the Barbarians ignorance was their greatest strength, but since he’d led the soldiers, it was his acceptance of the Elves and their twisting of minds that had helped him turn the tide against them.
He wished to be there, on the field of battle facing his enemy head on instead of walking defenselessly into their arms, an ambassador-spy sent on a mock infiltration to discover their weak points. He couldn’t be comfortable among the welcoming creatures whose blood would flow into these stones, cursing him eternally.
He shrugged. He’d lived with a curse for a hundred years. His very age was its own curse. In spite of his experience, his acceptance of his own fate, he sweated more than he should have beneath the cool canopy of trees. Anyone who brushed up near him would catch his scent of fear. It was bad enough to smell it on himself, but far worse to show his enemy his weakness.
When they neared the house where Balthaar would reside, he looked back and realized that they had reached the edge of the city. Most of his tall escort had abandoned him leaving only a few silent Rasha bearing his luggage. Their silence mocked him.
Balthaar took a moment to grab the end of a trunk causing the bearer to raise an eyebrow in amusement at him. Balthaar grinned back at him, nearly snarling. He was a Barbarian after all. He’d be expected to have common manners like wanting to carry his own luggage. Of course, he couldn’t carry it all, not the long train of trunks and cases, some filled with gifts, others with ridiculous outfits to wear in his performance as diplomat. He belonged on the field or already dead, hanging from the walls of the Emperor’s city as an example of other traitors. He didn’t need a distraction like this at a time when his men would be preparing for the largest assault of their short lives; likely rendered shorter under someone else’s command.
He looked around the courtyard, at the simple fountain tinkling musically, for the sight of the females so he could keep his distance. The only person was a gardener who didn’t look up from the earth as the bearers stacked his luggage in piles behind him.
The gardener glanced at Balthaar then rose slowly only after the other Elsyrians had dispersed, other than his two companions from the ship. Balthaar didn’t like the way the gardener looked at him, like the gardener knew him better than he knew himself. He gave the gardener his most polite smile from his days as viceroy.
The peach-skinned gardener didn’t act like a servant. He stood like a god, his golden eyes giving Balthaar one last final look before he turned towards the house. The enormous, overpowering manse had a presence that demanded attention. Balthaar glanced up at the spiraling tower and elaborate stonework before he followed the gardener through a large passageway into the dim interior.
Inside it was darker, cool, and Balthaar felt himself sweating harder. They hadn’t told him anything about his host, his interpreter, simply brought him to this ancient estate on the edge of the city and left him there. When Balthaar’s eyes adjusted, he walked towards the grand stairs, the gardener ahead, the two Rasha close behind.
Balthaar stood at attention for some time before his host graced him with her presence. It was a she, probably, but none of the other ladies of the city had so much as their arms covered, much less the entire face, head and body like this creature swathed in white.
She was covered like a parody of the ladies of Balthaar’s country as if she was trying to respect his customs, but Balthaar’s mouth twitched at how badly she’d carried it out. Her eyes were completely obscured.
She moved like a dream in spite of her obscured vision. She descended with the ethereal grace none of his people would ever come near. It reminded him of amethyst eyes.
He thought he could see purple reflected behind the billowy gauze when she reached a few steps from him before she tripped tumbling down the last steps and falling into Balthaar’s arms with a solidity that belied her apparent weightlessness. She felt cold, like a bird hanging onto the last of its life after striking glass, heart thumping delicately in its feeble frame. Her eyes, amethyst, stared at Balthaar through the mists of gauze.
Lady Perr watched from the shadows as the barbarian ambassador entered the manor. He blinked thick lashes that framed large golden-brown eyes that seemed rational and calm as he glanced around the room. He wasn’t as broad shouldered as most barbarians but taller, a diplomat instead of a warrior, except that his stance was wrong. He waited at the ready, as though he expected someone to attack him at any moment.
Lady Perr hesitated before she forced herself into her position atop the steps. Barbarians were bred to be alike in their brutality, their simplicity, except for the very elite, a few of which she’d met when she’d served her term as Elsyrian ambassador to them.
She swallowed and lifted her chin slightly before she started down the steps, raising her skirt as she walked, dignity forced into each step.
It was three steps from the bottom where he waited still as the statue of Callus when she looked up and caught his gaze directly, or directly as was possible with her head swathed in clouds of net. His eyes caught and held her surely as if he’d used a small magic. She stumbled as her shoe caught on the hem of her dead great-aunt’s dress.
Falling forwards she reached up and caught him around the neck, while his hands circled her waist, arresting her fall against his strong, warm body.
He smelled of cimarron. Time stopped as she stared at him, into those eyes that didn’t belong to a Barbarian.
They stood in the Emperor’s capital’s plaza, voicing the same argument they always came to. The sun shone on unwashed bodies filling the air with a raw flavor Lady of Perr had taken time to adapt to. It added fervor to her voice.
“Being a slave is ennobling? Perhaps to nobles, but I don’t hear many slaves arguing your point.” Her passionate voice slurred some of the Barabbas consonants.
He smiled at her, showing his even white teeth, bright against his tan skin. “The slave plays his part in the great order as does every other creature. We are all creatures with greater or lesser levels of development, but deep down we’re simple animals. Without society there is no meaning to the individual.”
“I’d be more convinced of your sincerity if you did not occupy one of the highest levels of society.”
He leaned close to Lady of Perr, closer than he’d ever come before, breaking the unspoken rules of etiquette. She could smell the cimarron on his bronze skin as he whispered, “Unlike you? Daughter of an Empire? Ambassador from the High City?”
She turned away, fighting down the heat that rose to her pale blue cheeks that had nothing to do with the harsh sun or their heated argument. She plucked a plum from the pile of ripe fruit heaped in a cart, rolling the purple orb in her still pale hands. The seller looked at her smiling a gapped-tooth smile.
“As you know, we have no slaves. Each house has its order, but within the order there is choice. I chose diplomacy over the ranks of the Rasha. My interest in linguistics over small magics or armaments brought me to my current position.”
Her smile matched his as he studied her until he covered the fruit in her palm with his own larger and darker hand.
“You speak of magic and choice in the same breath. Your magic, your religion would call your position destiny. Is relying on fate so much better than depending on state?” His smile widened as he held up his hand, and slid the plum in her open mouth, cutting off her response with the warm, sweet fruit. He took her arm and guided her away from the stall as he threw a coin to the seller.
She followed unresisting with the taste of ripe plum and the smell of cimarron filling her senses.
The Lady of Perr blinked as the gardener pulled her upright, away from the Barbarian’s warmth. She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself, barely noticing the throb in her ankle. The ludicrous idea that she should host Barbarians should never have occurred to the High Precept. Memories like that, memories that felt real enough to taste shouldn’t happen to her. Maybe it hadn’t been a memory but a fantasy. Of course, that must have been it. She’d been an ambassador over a century ago. Everyone from that visit would be dead and buried by now. That knowledge should have filled her with satisfaction, but instead her heart throbbed with pain.
“Hatia?” the Barbarian said in a low voice she knew as he reached towards her with his sun kissed hand.
She took a breath that sounded more like a gasp, glad for the pain that shot through her ankle when it touched the ground. She trembled as she leaned heavily on the gardener. Who had told the Barbarian her name?
“Welcome to the House of Perr, Viceroy Balthaar. Pardon my clumsiness.” She turned away but not quickly enough to miss the look of bewildered anger on his face.
It wasn’t until she sat in the kitchen with her ankle soaking in cool water infused with herbs that the gardener took her hand in his, squeezing her fingers painfully until she looked up at him.
“You called him Balthaar. Are you familiar with the Barbarian?”
She frowned, shaking her head. “Of course not. All the Barbarians I knew would be dead by now. Why are you crushing my fingers?” she asked, looking closely at him. He was only the gardener, but he seemed like someone else, something else that made her heart race. A memory balanced on the edge of her mind before he relaxed his grip and turned away.
She frowned down at her bare foot, smeared with the brown potion the gardener had applied to her pale blue skin. She touched the stuff, feeling the coarsely crushed herbs, grainy in her fingers. His dark skin had been close to that hue. The warm color matched his warm skin. Maybe if she painted herself pink or orange, she wouldn’t be so cold all the time. Who would name a Barbarian Balthaar? It seemed a strangely elemental name for a Barbarian.
She must have imagined the dusky smell of cimarron.
Balthaar stood in the hall, his heart beating hard in his chest. He’d tried to forget her name, hadn’t spoken it for a hundred years, but it rolled off his tongue as if it had been yesterday.
The pungent smell of humanity toiling in the hot sun filled the courtyard while shouts rang through the air, echoing off the tall earthen walls surrounding the market. Balthaar escorted the ridiculously naive Elsyrian girl through the narrow stalls, blocking the malevolent glares and the evil signs with his body, signs she never noticed.
Balthaar had been assigned to watch her, protect her. He’d quickly dismissed the assignment as beneath a viceroy, one who would join the ranks of the Bashai, the priests of the Emperor, but over time he had grown to accept and almost enjoy the ridiculous creature. Her naivete and innocence came with a shocking breadth of knowledge and intelligence while her eyes, shifting between amethyst and darker blue sapphire mesmerized him. Balthaar had been wary of her using her magics on him, been warned by the Emperor’s own high priest Targen, but so far she hadn’t done anything other than argue eloquently for a cause other than her own.
Balthaar watched in amusement while the slaves in her periphery shifted, taking aggressive stances. He barely paid attention to his own words as he prepared for unpleasantness. He spoke about slaves, animals, the part they all played, watching her expression shift, her eyes widen in shock before they gazed up at him beseechingly as she defended the slaves, her own elevated position.
The voices behind him rose, the hissed curses came before the flung fruit. He leaned into her, close enough to smell the delicate scent of her skin, some kind of foreign flower while he felt the sting and thud on his armored back with flecks of over-ripe fruit splashing up his neck.
So close he only had to whisper. “Unlike you? Daughter of an Empire? Ambassador of the High City?”
She turned away from him as he’d intended, escaping the threat behind Balthaar, never seeing it. Her vulnerability stirred something, envy maybe for a creature who had lived without the need to anticipate violence.
She faced a seller behind a stall who froze with wide eyes and slack mouth as she spoke to Balthaar about becoming a soldier, one of the legendary Elven Rasha the silver armored soldiers who fought like lightning. The idea that his young companion could choose a life of fear and rage when she didn’t even notice an attack made the Barbarian’s stomach clench. He covered the plum in her hand, a plum with purple streaks that matched her eyes.
Magic. Her eyes must be filled with elven magic if they could make Balthaar feel so protective towards one who was not his own kind. She smiled unconsciously as Balthaar took the fruit, filling her mouth with its flavor as he took her arm, too intimate a gesture, but those behind had not stopped their hissing.
Balthaar led the way past the fruit seller, throwing more coin than the plum was worth to the man. The merchant, who knew who oiled his cart, wheeled his wares into the space behind them, blocking the slaves and allowing them to exit the market without her knowing how close she’d come to tasting the slaves’ fear and loathing for the blue-skinned demon.
Balthaar stood for a long time in the cool hall at the bottom of the stairs with the two men from the ship as his silent companions.
“You know Wind Spinner,” the green-skinned man said in a voice with a hint of anger beneath the calm. He’d never spoken before to Balthaar.
“Wind Spinner?” Balthaar repeated, struggling to control his emotions, his voice thankfully hard and even.
“Lady Perr, or Hatia you called her. We call her Wind Spinner,” the green creature said stepping forward to raise his chin and show his teeth in a subtle challenge.
Rasha did not usually threaten. Their swords would slash and bodies would fall. The blue Elsyrian put a hand on the other’s shoulder. “He does not know of her. You can see it in his eyes. Also, I fought this Balthaar before the fury.” He spoke Elsyrian in a low voice that Balthaar shouldn’t have been able to understand.
They knew who he was, general of Barabbas, merciless killer of their kind. Why did they not draw their swords and take him to the dungeon, or at the very least, separate his head from his body?
The green-skinned man dropped his angry eyes, nodding as his features regained their passivity before he turned and left in the direction the woman, Hatia, the Wind Spinner had gone.
“Why do you call her that?” Balthaar asked, after waiting a long stretch of moments.
The blue-skinned man simply stared at the wall to the left of Balthaar, arms crossed over his silver breast-plate. Finally, Balthaar turned and walked up the steps she’d come down. They’d taken his trunks in that direction. He needed to bathe, to change, to have space and time to clear his head.
“Why do you call her Hatia?” the blue-skinned man replied in a low voice that Balthaar thought he may have imagined.
“I knew a woman so named once,” he answered softly as he took the stone steps two at a time.
“Is she why you went to war?” the man asked, strangely persistent.
Balthaar stopped in the upper hall, grand stone ceiling curved above with elaborate wall hangings on either side.
“Yes.” He continued walking. The Elsyrian must have pushed Balthaar, used some small magic to wrangle the confession. He would never otherwise reveal something he guarded so closely.
“My name is Hortham. I also knew her before. She returned home from your country, released from the dungeons of the Bashai. They marked her, laid curses in her skin, curses we cannot cure. You saw the madness. I believe they did it intentionally, to raise the Elves to the fury. Before The Wind Spinner returned broken, the Elsyrians were not united against Barabbas.”
Balthaar stopped, frozen, fighting the urge to trace his own arms and chest, the marks the Bashai had left on him. “It is impossible for the Bashai to mark any that are not their own,” he said in a wooden voice before he continued away from Hortham. How dare he lie, to spread the poison of doubt through Balthaar’s mind against his kind? He determined to be more on guard against these Elsyrians who used the weakness in the past against him. Perhaps she was mad, but the Bashai could not curse those who did not embrace their mark. Balthaar’s own mind and will was the Emperor’s, that was his destiny as one of the Emperor’s blessed, or cursed, but no Elsyrian could be touched by Bashai. He’d seen proof of failed experiments that showed the limits of the Emperor.
Hatia stayed in the kitchen fingering herbs while her ankle ached. It would heal soon enough from the ministrations of the gardener. Elsyrians were supposed to be renowned for their grace. Ordinarily it wouldn’t bother her that she had the unhappy circumstance of being the only Elsyrian lady clumsy enough to fall down her own stairs.
The Barbarian diplomat must think her such a fool. Had he truly said her name? How could it be? Perhaps he was a descendant of Herrin Balthaar, from one of the many from his numerous concubines no doubt.
Hatia could still feel his hands, calloused and rough, catching on the flimsy fabric of her dress. He hadn’t had the soft pads of a dignitary.
Hatia limped up and down the passageway between the kitchen and the morning room, passing through sunbeams and motes of dust that carried the scent of faraway places. The air had been stirred by the Barbarian’s presence. When Hatia realized that she had been focused for hours, not slipping out into the gentle oblivion that was customary to her, she paused, leaning against the cool pale stone wall.
Things were changing. Could it be for the better? Of course not. Nothing to do with Barbarians was good. She knew that much even if she couldn’t remember why. She frowned and tried to focus on the new pain in her ankle, the sharp bright pain that would keep her from thinking of the old wounds that had never healed, but the gardener had done his work well. She frowned at him as he approached with the graceful, ageless walk of their kind. He seemed so familiar, but he’d come with those the High Precept had sent. She didn’t know him, did she?
“When is the Convotion? How soon shall we leave?” she asked, testing her ankle with her weight.
“You remember about the Convotion?” he responded, his eyebrows lowering over his golden eyes.
She frowned back at him. “Obviously. What is your name? How long have you worked here? I know you, don’t I?” She studied him as she walked beside him, barely using the crutch.
“I’m the gardener,” he replied, and gave her a slight smile, as mocking as their kind could get. “Is my lady Perr going to the Convotion in her present state of dress?”
His tone was one of complete condescension. At some times in her life that tone would have bothered her. She looked down at the dress, aged and worn, not exactly exalted. She shrugged. She’d fallen down her own stairs. The dress matched her frame of mind. “I don’t see why not. Is he ready?”
“He?” the gardener folded his arms over his chest, an overt sign that matched his flared nostrils and bared teeth.
“I thought he was an Ambassador.”
She frowned, biting her lip. “Yes, of course, the Ambassador. Pardon my error, errors…” She sighed. “Is the Ambassador prepared for the Convotion?”
“It has been moved to two days hence.”
“Why?” she asked, stopping to stare at him full in the face.
“After the Ambassador’s long journey, they assumed it would befit him to rest in your…”
“Nonsense.” She cut him off, brushing past him, leaving the unnecessary crutch against the wall. “He must be greeted immediately by the High Precept unless this entire debacle is nothing more than pretense. Why not tar and feather him at once if there is no intention of following protocol? And why in the name of the five magics have I been involved if not to use my experience as an actual ambassador of the Barbarians?”
He shook his head slightly, offering her an amused smile. “You take this small matter too…”
“Small matter?” She drew herself up to frown at him, wishing that her veils were not so clouded. “We are going to see the High Precept this evening whether they have prepared the Convotion or not. You may not realize the greatness of this slight, but I do. They should have called someone else to the duty if they didn’t want it done according to tradition.”
He stared at her, seeming at a loss for words. Finally he softly said, “I will inform the High Precept of your intent.”
“Indeed,” she said, stepping out of the hall and into the garden, relieved that the conversation was over. Gardeners should not argue back, not when you were discussing protocol rather than beans.
“The Barbarian is hardly likely to be here as an ambassador. Spy or assassin is more like,” he said coolly, following her.
“Obviously,” she replied keeping her voice even with a great deal of effort. How much easier it was to go through life without noticing that anyone else was in it. “However, if we wish to be above Barbarians, we must treat them as we know we ought, instead of stooping to their level.”
“Do you know their level? Do you realize how close we are to complete destruction?” His voice came out cold, emotionless, but when she looked in his eyes, she felt fear, his fear.
“Things that come into existence must pass out of it.”
“I know the name, Balthaar, a general who leads his men fearlessly against us, knowing all our ways the better to destroy us. They say that he’s killed so many Elves that he’s taken on our immortality, spreading death and terror in an endless red parade. We should kill him while he is in our power.”
She blanched at his easy sentence to one she’d been assigned guide and protect. “If an execution order comes, you may take him away. Until then, we proceed with our guest according to custom. If you are uncomfortable with the Barbarian’s presence, I will ask the High Precept to release you from your duty.”
“And leave you alone with the calloused murderer?”
She lifted her chin. “I am hardly defenseless.”
He had the temerity to laugh. Elsyrian laughter should hold joy and spread like a flame to those around them. His laughter tasted of acid, eating away at all it touched. He bowed, one hand on his heart. When he straightened, the laughter had gone, replaced by Elven calm.
“My Lady Perr has spoken.”
“So, she has,” she nodded, passing him to the fountain. His words seemed to echo in her ears. Murder. Destruction. All of that seemed so familiar.
“What did you do before you were my gardener?” she asked.
“Ever since I came from the hermitage up north. You know the Olbase,” he replied evenly enough, but there was something off about his words. The Olbase housed injured soldiers coaxing them back to full health. The gardener seemed too young and mentally whole to be a retired soldier. She couldn’t imagine being in his way when he carried his pruning shears. If he had one of the enormous swords that the Rasha carried… She shuddered.
She could almost see him with a sword, dust rising around him as he smiled, sharp glistening teeth before he spun and brought the sword down. She blinked and the sound of metal clashing and men screaming, the smell of blood and dirt, sweat and fear was replaced by the sound of the fountain in the courtyard where the gardener stood calmly gazing into the distance.
She rubbed her temples, willing the scenes far away. She’d been asked to guide and guard the Barbarian. So she would as long as the High Precept needed her, even if it made her heart ache and her throat grow tight to hear a Barbarian say her name exactly like he had.
As she stood waiting with the gardener, mixed images flitted in front of Lady Perr’s mind’s eye: screams, blood, a large sky stretched infinitely above her, a bright blue flower crushed underfoot. The gardener spoke but the meaning of his words eluded her. When she looked at him, his face may as well have been carved from stone as he looked past her and made a crusty bow.
She forced herself to focus. She’d have to keep an eye on him to make sure the viceroy didn’t wake up dead one morning—no, not viceroy, ambassador.
She turned slowly and ignored the gardener’s revulsion at the figure walking towards her down the steps. Enemy. She sidestepped away from the gardener and looked up at the sky, irritated by the fabric that kept her from feeling the breeze on her skin. When she realized that she was muttering, she pressed her lips in a prim line before the Barbarian came close enough to make out the words.
“Viceroy. Excellent timing. I was admiring the make of your boots. Are they this century Barbarian? I seem to recall a similar model back in…” her voice trailed off as he stared over her shoulder, a look of absolute boredom on his face.
“Ambassador,” he replied.
Lady Perr stood for a moment, embarrassment at her mistake warring with shock at the sound of his voice. He sounded warm, like the sun-streaked land he came from. She knew that voice with every fiber of her being.
“Are you ready for your Convotion with the High Precept, Ambassador?” she asked in trembling voice.
“On my feet the finest leather awaits the Precept’s majesty.”
Lady Perr stared at his face. Barbarian humor never slid towards inane. Perhaps he was trying to adapt to circumstances. Being given a mad host who took you for a long dead memory couldn’t be comfortable.
“Indeed. And on my feet…” she trailed off as she realized a smear of dried herbs was all that she wore. She shrugged. “Excellent. Shall we go by water or by stone?”
“Water?” he asked with a glint that spoke of a spy assessing the lay of the land.
“You’ll be happy to know that a web of waterways connect the river to the High Palace. They are too shallow for a ship of any size, but make transporting supplies very feasible.”
“You are too informative,” the Barbarian said.
Lady Perr smiled blandly at the spy. “Not at all.”
“By stone,” the Barbarian said, shifting to cross black gloves over his chest.
She nodded her agreement and turned to lead him out of the courtyard. Behind her the Barbarian followed, shadowed by the gardener and the two Rasha in their silver armor.
He seemed bored as he followed, his dark Barbarian brows fixed in a dark Barbarian scowl as she danced over the stone path as it rose higher, into the tops of the trees. She felt an answer in each step, a thrum as her foot touched stone and the stone touched her, suspended over the earth.
She hummed as she moved quickly over the stone bridges and through the tunnels of green, where they passed trees. She very nearly forgot about the parade behind her of Barbarian, warriors, and gardener.
“Good evening Stallius,” she said, greeting a statue that emerged from the shadows. “This is my friend. He’s notorious for archery and good eyesight,” she said, turning to make introductions to the Viceroy. She hesitated with her hand on his sleeve. Something seemed so strange about this walk which should be like the thousands she’d taken before. She couldn’t remember what she was doing or why she was taking Balthaar to meet the High Precept. She gripped the sleeve for a moment frowning before she shrugged and let her hand slide from his arm. She went to the statue and cocked her head before she ran her hands over the stone bow he held. “It’s a pity that you can’t come to the celebration, Stallius. I’ll bring you back something.”
She walked on, quietly for a moment before she ran lightly to another statue of a beautiful woman who resembled Hatia. “Hello, grandmother,” she said smiling at the face which for a moment seemed to smile back. “I would like you to meet someone. Balthaar,” she said, turning to beam at him.
He walked placidly to the statue, performed a perfunctory bow over the stone hand, and turned to Hatia. “I see the resemblance,” he murmured as he brushed a hand against the veil. “She’s very beautiful.”
She pulled away, blinking at him in confusion. Her statues, her dreams, and her memories should not be talking back, should not be touching her. She glanced past him and saw the scowl of the gardener before he assumed his placid expression that matched the other two men.
“Come. We mustn’t be late,” she said, not quite remembering about the Convotion, but still determined to do her duty in spite of the shadows that clouded her mind. They emerged from a long, twisting tunnel that left Balthaar blinking when they emerged into the twilight. A waterfall tumbled down rocks to their left while the intricate stone bridge rose over the rushing water beneath their feet.
Balthaar paused on the bridge, soaking in the beauty of water reflecting moonlight while Hatia, the Lady of Perr fluttered around him.
She swayed beneath the moon, inhaling the effervescent droplets that rose around them, like drops of moonbeams hanging in the air. She moved faster, spinning and kicking her legs before she came down with a bustle and rush of gauze. She spun around and felt the edge of the bridge beneath her foot before the Barbarian caught her arm, his strong, calloused hand holding her on the brink while his gaze pierced the flimsy fabric that covered her face.
Her chest rose and fell as she looked up at him, his golden eyes warm in spite of the cool night as he gazed down at her, ignoring the fabric between them. The two contrasted sharply with each other, one pale and unsubstantial, the other dark and sturdy, like a tree deeply rooted while delicate cherry blossoms floated away.
“Lady of Perr,” the gardener said in a disinterested monotone that spurred the woman into motion, spinning away from Balthaar across the bridge and down the path, away from the moonlight’s spells.
“Gardener, who do you think the Viceroy should meet?” she asked in Barabbas. She barely glanced at the Viceroy who walked steadily after her, muscular arms across his chest, looking like he wanted a mace or something like to embrace. He looked like a soldier, patiently waiting for an irritation to dissipate.
“Whoever is willing to meet the Ambassador I suppose, Lady,” the gardener said, reminding her that he didn’t approve of the Barbarian and that she kept using the wrong title.
She frowned fiercely at the gardener, but he simply waited with his arms over his chest, in a similar pose as the Barbarian neither of which seemed remotely repentant. She knew perfectly well that her fame came far more from being a madwoman than a lady. Dancing randomly along the sky stones lacked dignity, but the two of them had enough dignity for the entire world.
“Well then, Viceroy, you’re in luck. All the young ladies are certain to want to meet you. When you dance be careful not to trod on any toes. The toes of our people are very delicate.”
“Ambassador,” he grunted, but that was all. Good. Grunting was exactly what one expected of a Barbarian. They continued on their way, passing the statues rising out of darkness in silence.
“I suppose you’ll lead the dance,” the Barbarian said as they passed beside an extremely fragrant white blooming tree that smelled too sweet. Sickly sweet. Lady Perr wrinkled her nose. She preferred the grunting.
“Dancing is for young ladies,” she murmured.
The barbarian grunted as he raised an eyebrow at her, reminding her of the spinning a moment before and his steadying touch. She walked sedately as a mourner for a moment while her skin warmed from embarrassment. If one was going to be mad, it was best if one didn’t have lapses of sanity to embarrass oneself.
“ I would prefer not to dance with young ladies.” Balthaar said sounding grouchy, like a battle- hardened captain who’d been sent to dance when he should be fighting.
She looked over her shoulder at him and caught in a flash of glowlight a frown that looked more concerned than grumpy. She raised her hand as if to brush the frown away then fisted her fingers, forcing herself to behave as a diplomat should.
In the close darkness the smell of cimarron seemed to bloom from the Barbarian like a fragrant crushed herb, pungent and spicy. Her heart thumped like a drum, calling the warriors home.
The trail of lights grew closer together as they neared the High Palace. Lady Perr straightened up and adjusted the gauze around her face. Maybe the gardener was right about not springing the Barbarian on the High Precept. She felt reluctant to take the Viceroy in to be passed around by the ladies with their lovely arms. Who was she trying to protect, them or him? She muttered words that not even she could quite make out, a curse or a prayer, maybe the two mingling on her cool breath into the night air.
She danced and sang ahead of them, sometimes in sing-song Elsyrian then switching to Barabbas with the accent of a Diplomat. Balthaar had picked the way least known to his kind but instead of mapping out the paths, he watched his guide, who appeared utterly caught up in her own aimless meanderings, darting here and there to snatch a flower, cradling it to her face before spinning then flinging it out, past the edge of the stone walkway to plummet to the ground, far below.
Balthaar had no doubt from the behavior of the malevolent gardener as well from the glowering of the green-skinned Elsyrian, that his identity of general was well-known. They had him in their city, at their mercy, so why continue the charade? Every time she called him Viceroy, his heart beat harder. Each time she came close to tumbling over the edge, he had to clench his hands to keep from reaching out for her hand. The words of the blue-skinned man, Hortham taunted him. Had the Bashai taken her? Were they the cause of her madness?
The gardener’s glower cut into Balthaar’s back, clearly conveying his near outrage at the general’s presence. Balthaar wasn’t defenseless, even without a sword at his side, but the feeling that he walked into a certain trap left his skin tight and heart thumping rapidly.
He could not doubt that it was Hatia, the young ambassador he’d known so long before, known and foolishly thought he’d loved. The years hadn’t been kind to either one of them. He’d expected to feel satisfied to see her in this state, that her betrayal of him, of them, would have led to madness, but he felt nothing but sorrow and responsibility. If the Bashai had done this…
She’d needed his protection. Balthaar should have kept her safe, whether she’d wanted him to or not. He shouldn’t have listened to her words, when she’d written him that she’d found an Elven lord who would suit her far more than a Barbarian.
He could feel the parchment in his hand, smell the delicate floral scent on the sheet that bore the swirls of her handwriting. The blue ink reminded him of her skin. For a moment he’d simply held the parchment, feeling the force of her presence in the message. When he’d begun to read, the words had swam before his eyes, confusing and bewildering him.
He didn’t believe she would leave so suddenly, not after the last evening, when they’d stood on the balcony in the moonlight, hands finger-width apart. He’d felt something then, something he’d never forget, something whole and bright and perfect, something that eclipsed every thought, every emotion and experience leaving only her in his heart. He’d whispered his name to her, a name engraved in his skin that only she and the Emperor would know. She’d gazed at him with her luminous eyes and seemed to understand the weight of his gift.
He’d left his room searching for her, taking the steps from his home on the edge of the palace to her place of residence on the opposite side, past the soldier’s garrison while the sun beat down, hot and heavy on Balthaar’s dark hair as he ran across the red stone.
He blinked back the dark garden. None of that mattered. Time, almost a hundred years, had passed while Balthaar destroyed her kind, brought them to the end of his sword at the Emperor’s bidding. There he stood, in the luminously lit darkness, high above the earth on a stone bridge for the Emperor. If his guide fell over the side from her madness, that left one fewer Elsyrian for him to destroy, for the Emperor’s army to decimate.
His duty, his responsibility would never be sworn again to an Elven Lady who pranced with unearthly grace in bare feet over the stones however his heart ached and his hands trembled from the effort to keep them away from her ethereal form. His hands wanted to protect her from the precipice, from the soldiers bearing swords, from the gardener who Balthaar knew bore no good will towards himself or his mistress, the Wind Spinner. He knew why they called her that, the way she spun in the wind like a cloud, a fallen leaf, without self-awareness or will to direct herself.
Balthaar closed his eyes, lips tightly pressed together as he held back his own curse.
They walked up the wide steps while flowers cascaded overhead filling the air with heavenly scent that couldn’t quite cover the smell of decay that was bone deep in the city. Lady Perr didn’t mind the decay; it was appropriate. It matched her hat.
Inside she didn’t pause at the door to gaze in awe at the beautiful scene that must have stunned the Barbarian. She glanced over at him, but he looked back dully, the same unimpressed expression on his face. She glanced at the intricately carved pillared pink colored room where the very air was clouded in pink. The ladies, all equally beautiful, danced with the men, stately, impeccable movement designed to promote order and peace.
The musicians took up the space to the left of the Precept’s dais. Lady Perr edged along the curved, pink wall in their direction instead of walking through the dancers. The words of the gardener came back to her, the warning he’d given. The Barbarian was the enemy, but he was also her guest, a guest the Head Precept had pressed upon her most forcefully.
A couple swayed near her and the male, the moss wearing Elsyrian hissed at the sight of the Viceroy. When Lady Perr halted abruptly the Barbarian stepped on the back of her Great Aunt’s dress forcing her to lose her balance as too much weight fell on her recently wounded ankle.
The sound of the rip was far too loud as she stumbled. The Barbarian gripped her waist, keeping her from falling on her face at the feet of the disapproving man, a distant cousin who’d always expressed his disdain for her family’s political views.
The viceroy’s rough hands pulled her upright while he stepped to her side in a classic pas-de-bough, turning her away from the offensive couple and into the dizzily whirling dance. He kept his hand on her waist as they moved until he took the more traditional quartre-fore position in front of her. His grace in the dance was surprising for someone who ripped people’s dresses.
“What are you doing?” Lady Perr asked, staring at him bewildered.
“Dancing.” He spun her under his arm in a rush that had her stumbling towards him when she came out of it until her hands rested on his shoulders. She meant to push against him, but his hands were promptly on her waist in a firm grasp that made her think she wasn’t going anywhere. Barbarians were so firm once they had you in their grip.
“You said you weren’t interested in dancing.” Her heart pounded so loudly.
“I’d rather dance with the shroud than with one of those creatures. Those teeth are positively frightening.”
Lady Perr sniffed and leaned away from him, but he only used her opposition as counterweight while they spun around dizzyingly.
“I believe I mentioned that I don’t participate in the dancing,” Lady Perr murmured.
“I cannot believe that after your display on the trip. If you do not dance, I’m sure that’s simply for lack of partners. If I’m willing to humor you, I don’t see why you shouldn’t show your gratitude,” he said with an aloof nod that had lady Perr’s mouth dropping open.
She tripped over his foot, sending a twinge through her ankle. She was glad to see his smile flicker. “I do beg your pardon, sir. I’m not accustomed to being humored.”
“Excuse me,” the gardener’s voice broke in. “Head Precept would like you to introduce the viceroy to the court.”
She looked up at the fierce and furious creature and felt a slight tightening of the Barbarians arms around her before he withdrew and nodded with polite boredom. There was something she should remember, something important, but the memory vanished beneath an awareness of her awkward place beside the Barbarian.
Balthaar shouldn’t have danced with her, even if she were the only person who didn’t wish to kill him. The other Elsyrians showed more than disdain for her. When they saw her, they veered away as though she had a disease they did not wish to catch.
Her gown and veil were not the end of her eccentricity. When the gardener interrupted their dance, Balthaar felt a slight shock when he realized that the two of them had taken over the ballroom, completely ignoring any and all other dancers as they performed a dance from a century before.
“Of course,” Hatia had said then led them like a small parade trailing through the staring dancers. She seemed to slow the closer they got to the dais that seemed suspended on strands of dew from the concave ceiling.
Balthaar knew that he treaded through enemy territory, but he felt strangely at ease as he stalked after his mad host through the ranks of vicious Elsyrians.
“Perhaps…” Lady Perr murmured as she held back. Had she only just realized the danger of their situation? If Balthaar were an Elsyrian, he would have mentioned the energy in the room, the wild excitement someone powerful struggled to dampen. Would the Precept behead the Barbarian right in the middle of the celebration? It would be a peculiar climax to the war Balthaar had waged.
“Lady Perr,” the High Precept said cheerfully coming forward with hands outstretched. Balthaar recognized him from the face imprinted in their coinage. Not gold, but stone. Elves had other uses for gold. “What a charming hat. I’m certain it will cause waves in the fashion world.”
A female on the dais in a gown that reminded Balthaar of whipped mint chiffon tittered at the Precept’s words. Apparently the preferred fashion leaned towards pastry more than beekeeping. Pity.
“A Tsunami,” she whispered, the sort of court whisper that could be heard throughout the whole room. Her pearly smile triggered an emotion that Balthaar did not have time for. All the same, he bared his own teeth at her and spoke out of turn.
“As a Barbarian,” he said using the derogatory term he’d heard whispered by the Elsyrians, “I appreciate Lady Perr’s efforts to adopt the customs of my people in order to make me feel more at home.”
You could have heard a pin drop as everyone stared at ‘the Barbarian’ while he tried to keep his gaze firmly on the High Precept.
“Quite,” High Precept said as though there were nothing odd in Balthaar’s words. The High Precept nodded to the musicians at the side to resume their playing. “Lady Perr is noted for her ability to make people feel at home.”
The mint pouf choked on her laughter, lifting her drink to camouflage her flagrant disrespect.
“How do you like High City?” High Precept asked gesturing beside him for Balthaar to sit, waving for someone to bring them food and drink, while the two Rasha hovered close behind.
Lady Perr stood at the edge of the dancers who’d resumed their graceful cavorting with most of their attention clearly towards the dais. Balthaar could have killed the High Precept with his hands, but he immediately dismissed the idea. Elves were not Barbarians. If the Emperor were killed, Barabbas would fall into civil war as the Viceroys struggled for position as the next Emperor. If the High Precept died, Elsyria would continue indefinitely until they got around to electing a new one to the position. At any rate, Balthaar hadn’t been directed to do anything other than spy out the lay of the land. He would continue in his pretend role even though he’d been hand-fed to the lions, with their well-polished teeth.
Lady Perr felt awkward, standing at attention while her ankle throbbed. The fog of earlier had faded leaving her with stark awareness of her position as host to the ambassador who had to be the same Balthaar from her youth, a man who should be resting beneath the earth with his ancestors, not sitting beside the High Precept who gestured with overlarge movements while his voice keyed up in barely checked excitement.
“How’s your ankle,” the gardener asked, leaning close. She fought to maintain her position instead of shrinking away from him. She could feel his concern, read it in his eyes, his intent, but it seemed her mind clouded the closer he leaned towards her.
“What interest does a gardener have in a Convotion?” she asked, stepping away from him.
He smiled at her passively. “I wasn’t always a gardener, but isn’t any citizen of Elsyria welcome at any public functions?”
Lady Perr shrugged and turned away from him, dissatisfied with his answer. She focused on the conversation on the dais, trying to block out the Elsyrian.
The Barbarian spoke in smooth High Elsyrian with barely a trace of accent. “High City is as beautiful as it was fabled to be, which I hadn’t thought possible. I haven’t had the chance to foray much, but as far as I can tell, there isn’t more beautiful architecture populated by a lovelier people.” He kept a smile on his mouth as he spoke. Lady Perr had expected more grunting.
“I admit that it has a certain grandeur, which is to be expected when the rich heritage of our people spans millennia, but of course, it lacks charm of simplicity, as well as the wonder of modern architectural feats. From what I hear the Emperor has changed the face of his city dramatically.”
The Viceroy shrugged. “I haven’t been to the Emperor’s city for years. From what I hear the improvements have made it one of the most hygienic cities known to man.”
“Very good. How do you like the wine?”
The conversation went on, High Precept asking questions the Viceroy answered as perfectly and diplomatically as anyone could, while the rest of those on the dais grew bored. Eventually they left to dance, leaving Lady Perr standing with the gardener, feeling like everyone had forgotten them both. It was strange that she hadn’t forgotten herself as well. She watched the Viceroy through the haze of gauze and felt irritated at the fabric for clouding her vision.
As she watched his face, he revealed nothing besides a politely bored expression that bothered Lady Perr. Surely if she could see better, she could catch twitches of emotion as they crossed his face.
“I find the relish from the south sea preferable to incubated duck eggs of Salaam,” on second thought, there might be a reason he sounded bored. Apparently sheer magnificence and otherworldly beauty wasn’t interesting to the Viceroy.
At that moment some people brought out trays and torches. Good. Fire dancing would entertain even an old jaded man like the Viceroy. Dolores, a distant cousin of Lady Perr had abandoned her mint confection of a dress to take part with a small thread of pink fire that she made grow into a shimmering rose, flames chasing around the edges of the petals. She spun, throwing her flower into the air, twisting into a flip as the flower exploded in a bright pink puff. When the gardener took a turn brandishing flames, Lady Perr stepped a little closer to the dais. He and Delores began juggling flaming balls to each other that came quite close to the Viceroy and the High Precept.
The Viceroy remained impassive. Though he smiled and nodded at appropriate places, he appeared less than impressed. Perhaps the hardened warrior in him made him immune to explosions. He would have seen all kinds of fire; the Emperor loved explosives.
Lady Perr watched him watch the fire dancers, feeling like an observer, not a part of either insider or outsider, not a part of anything at all as she remembered the fireworks that filled the night celebrating the Anniversary of the Unseen Emperor’s glorious ascension to power.
Visits with Balthaar had become successively more enjoyable. Her days were filled speaking with tradesmen and statesmen who wished to enhance their relations with the fabled yet aloof Elsyrian Empire. After a long day she would find him waiting to show her a hidden gem in the city, a building, a fountain, or a walled garden where they could debate various points of cultural differences.
That night, the first time she’d seen the Emperor’s fireworks, they’d stood on the balcony of the emperor’s palace, her rooms overlooking bonfires that filled the courtyard along with the commoners who laughed and sang while the sky exploded.
Her heart pounded as he brought her a goblet of the rich pomegranate wine, their fingers brushing as she’d taken it from him. The electricity that passed through her filled her senses more than the sound that shook the ground. The awe-inspiring display had trouble competing with the man beside her, his solid warmth, a shadow that brushed her arm before he turned to move away.
Lady Perr frowned at the firedancers, Balthaar above her on the dais when they had so much to speak of, if only her mind could stay clear for long enough. She had to know what had happened, the events she couldn’t recall. He must know the cause of her scars. She took two steps towards him, determined to use whatever excuse necessary to draw him away from the High Precept, but before she could reach him, her veil caught on fire.
The flames wrapped around Lady Perr’s face, the fire bringing back another memory full-force.
Fire. Tongs. Screaming through a throat raw on the inside and outside as the men with their faces streaked black and red applied their skills to her body, torturing her as they removed strips of pale blue flesh, burning her skin as they did her mind. The flames flickered as she stared through the sheets of red at Balthaar, the barbarian whose eyes caught hers as she stood wrapped in flame, stared at her as he had in the moonlight the last time she’d seen him seeming to run towards her from too far away.
He’d stood close, but not touching. She’d felt his presence wrap around her heart, warming her from the inside, as his brief touch always did, like the kiss of the sun on a cold winter’s day.
She remembered his low voice as he’d spoken to her of names, whispered his own name, Harrin, hidden from the world, but a gift to her. His glance felt like a caress on her face, her lips, her own awareness of the Barbarian defying reason, logic, nature. She’d left with the irrational knowledge that she would see him the next day, and the next, and the one after as though all their days would pass tangled as growing vines from the rich soil of their mutual contentment.
That same night she’d awoken to pounding on her door. When she’d opened it, an Elsyrian face peered in, his golden eyes alight with concern.
“Balthaar the viceroy is petitioning the emperor for your hand. He’s going to be executed.”
The emotions swirled through her. Shock and horror replaced the slight euphoria, that Balthaar, her Barbarian would desire her as his. She could not allow him to sacrifice himself, his position for something that could not be. Elves and Barbarians did not, could not, intermarry. And yet she cared neither for reason nor law. If he were to die, she would take her place beside him.
“Take me to him.” She threw a gauzy wrap around her shoulders as she followed the Elsyrian into the darkness down the steps. He held a torch above his head that made his ygolden eyes fierce when he turned to glance back at her before he led her to the shadows, to the priests of the Emperor, the Bashai instead of Balthaar.
Balthaar saw the arc of flame from the gardener’s hands and moved before it spread from the flimsy gauze of Lady Perr. Balthaar ripped the flaming sheet off her head, ignoring the pain in his fingers. She stared at him blankly, her skin flushed from the heat, but unsinged.
He cupped her face in his palm as his other hand encircled her waist. “Lady Perr, Hatia, are you all right?”
“You weren’t executed,” she whispered, touching his cheek with trembling fingers. “I thought they killed you. Of all that they did to me, they could do nothing worse than tell me of your own tortured death. You’re real?” she asked, gazing up at him with her soul in her eyes.
He closed his eyes, lips tightening before he looked at her, a fierce expression in his eyes she’d never seen but that the two Rasha recognized from battling the terrifying Barabbas general.
He ripped her dress in one quick motion, the aged fibers giving way easily from her throat to her shoulder revealing pale blue skin in layers of silver, strips of skin removed in the patterns Balthaar knew. He closed his eyes as his heart ached, his anger and fury blending with his overwhelming helplessness. He had not protected her from his own.
His hand slid from her face to her neck, feeling the marks beneath his calloused fingers. The Bashai must have had her for months to leave these layers of pain without killing her. Scars dipped below the edge of the dress where he could not see, but he could feel the pain in her, the ache as sweet and singing as a blade before it separated joint and limb.
She gasped and pulled away, futilely trying to put the pieces of her dress back together. The room was hushed as everyone stared at her, the spectacle of the ruined, mad daughter of Elsyria. None moved but one. The gardener slid away from the celebration, his golden eyes baleful above his frown, catching her attention.
She pointed at him, staring at him in dawning horror. “You told me that he was being executed. You took me to them, an Elsyrian. Why would you betray your own kind?”
Her soft voice carried through the silent crowd. The Rasha leapt to stop the gardener, silver swords drawn and at the ready as they halted his escape. He backed towards Balthaar, hands raised in surrender.
Balthaar frowned at the gardener, the man who would betray his own. He wanted his own sword, knives, flames, to inflict the pain Hatia had suffered until the gardener’s mind was as broken as his already black soul.
“To cause the fury,” the green-skinned Rasha replied in a low voice like the murmuring of water. “The creature was a traitor out of hate. He wanted to see Elsyria at war. I was there when he brought you to the camp. I fought alongside the Dwarven outside of Elsyrian law. I saw you, an Elsyrian maiden clothed in rags, wandering over corpses as though they were stepping stones in a stream. I will never forget. Madness has never been paired with such heartbreaking beauty. Balthaar was at that battle, already making a mark for his ferocity, resistance to the small magics, and apparent immortality, but we won the day. We brought you back to Elsyria, broken and burned by the Barbarians. I’ve watched Balthaar over the years fighting war after war where he ages as little as our Rasha brothers, growing in skill with the small mystics he doesn’t know he’s using. He has the heart of Elves in him. I saw it when he greeted the Wind Spinner. He has the heart of an Elsyrian and the blood of a Barbarian. How can this be so?” he asked, turning to the High Precept as a student to a teacher.
Lady Perr knew him, Maltha, the best student of the high precept, an older Elsyrian she’d looked up to when she was younger, playing at the elder’s feet while Maltha looked on her antics with a soft smile. She knew the other as well, the blue-skinned Rasha who had spent time at House Perr when she’d been a student obsessed with languages of many countries. She’d plied Hortham with thousands of questions that he’d answered as well as he could. She knew others, memories of days long past, before the hundred years of war when she’d been broken by the Bashai, her memory stripped with the dark magics etched in her skin, betrayed by her own and ruined above all by Balthaar’s supposed death.
“You never…” she whispered, gazing up at Balthaar, resting her fingertips lightly against his face as she felt the pulse that throbbed in him.
He frowned down at her, swallowing hard as he caught her fingers in his and turned his face, pressing his lips to her palm. He moved, holding her close to his side, arm around her waist as he stared down the gardener.
“He must pay.”
“We are not barbarians,” the High Precept said in his dry voice, stepping down from the dais. “We could never harm our own. The most we could do is exile the creature. I fear we’ve already done that. Greetings Tharmul. It has been an age,” the High Precept said, bowing to the gardener who smiled cruelly back at him, showing sharp and glistening teeth beneath a face that suddenly appeared darker, much darker than it had been before.
“The Elves are passing on,” Tharmul replied, his voice low with an undercurrent that filled the room with awareness of him, his power, his inherent worthiness over all others.
“Yes. With your assistance, they are. Are you the cause of the Emperor and his Bashai’s long lives? At what price?” the High Precept demanded, eyes narrowing on the other man.
“You pay the price for allowing the barbarians to grow in strength over the centuries, allowing them to desecrate the earth.”
“You told me that Elsyrians were meant to rule the earth, to subjugate all man. I disagreed.”
“You were right,” Tharmul said with a terrifying smile. “Elsyrians were not meant to rule. One man who understands destiny will hold the earth in his fist until peace finally reigns. Harrin, guard, protect, defend,” he snarled, these last words in a guttural Barabbas that went straight to Balthaar’s soul.
Balthaar’s met Tharmul’s eyes with a gasp. The marks etched in his flesh, his name, his bond with the Emperor ached with a power that could not be denied.
“Harrin,” Hatia whispered, a breath that none other could hear.
Balthaar took one moment to breathe in her scent before he shoved Hatia away from him and into the High Precept. He moved with greater speed than an Elsyrian to take his place between his liege, the Emperor and the two Rasha.
“Son of the Emperor,” Tharmul murmured, resting a hand on the back of Balthaar’s neck where the designs had been burned into him, stirring the call of war and blood. The emperor’s strength, energy, life force filled Balthaar until he was dizzy with euphoria, strength, superhuman capacity and blood lust.
With merely a sliver of bronze in his hand, he engaged the blue-skinned Rasha, an enormous silver sword against a thread of bronze and yet Balthaar easily slid inside Hathrom’s guard, slashing his arm until Balthaar held the Rasha’s sword in both of his hands. He raised it to strike the killing blow then spun, slicing the blade through the neck and shoulder of the Emperor, Tharmul Elsyrian traitor, his father.
The pleased expression on Tharmul’s face did not fade as the head spun across the floor leaving a spray of silver over the pink stone.
The gasps, the shrieks and screams meant nothing to Balthaar as he turned and looked at Lady Perr where she knelt beside the High Precept, hand outstretched as if to stop him, the look in her eyes a peculiar mix of fear and faith.
He dropped the sword from his fingers as hands grabbed him, holding him tightly as he smiled at her, bowing his head to his lady, now avenged.
Balthaar looked up from his place on the stone bench, circles of iron binding his wrists to chains secured to the stone floor. Instead of being in a dungeon, he was held in a tower with windows facing east and west so he could always feel the sun’s rays in the small room.
“Welcome, High Precept. I’d offer you refreshments, but the manacles make pouring wine difficult.”
The figure beneath the deeply cowled cloak straightened, pushing back the hood. “I have no doubt in your capabilities,” the High Precept said with a slight smile. “Do you know why you’re here?”
Balthaar shrugged. “I assume you are deciding what to do with me,” he said with an indifferent air that shifted as he leaned forward, his hands tightening into fists. “Tell me, is she well? Is her mind…” His jaw clenched as he searched the High Precept’s face.
“She is well,” the ancient Elsyrian answered. “She has so many questions, demanding answers that she barely has time to hear before she’s on to the next unknown. Of course, she’s visited me three times a day, practically camps outside my door petitioning for your release. Her arguments in your defense are as thorough and varied as they are passionate. I believe we have succeeded in breaking her curse.”
Balthaar frowned at him. “We?”
The ancient sighed as he sat down on the stone beside Balthaar, studying the sun warmed stone beneath his feet. “You don’t think that the Emperor would ever send you here to her, where both of your vulnerability would be revealed and possibly undone?”
Balthaar nodded stiffly. “How did you convince Targen, the Emperor’s high priest to release me as general and send me here?”
“Targen, it seems, was planning to depose of the Emperor. He has been in the shadows planning for a long time. Of course it’s difficult, some would say impossible to oppose the Emperor after he’s written on your flesh. Treason is an inevitable result for one who uses pain and fear to subjugate. Persuading Targen to send you to your death was easy enough to do. All I had to do was provide him with the possibility. Once the Emperor realized that you had left for Elsyria, he came to undo the mistake. I didn’t think he would come himself. Perhaps he was bored ruling a people unquestioningly. Perhaps he wanted to see Hatia for himself, to gloat at the work of his hands.” He shook his head and frowned. “I didn’t expect you to be his actual son with the blood of Elsyrians mixed in your veins.”
Balthaar shrugged as though that were unimportant. “How did the Emperor do it, curse Lady Perr?”
The High Precept sighed. “She loved you. Elsyrians do not love easily. Without her love of you, her weakness to one he owned, the Emperor could never have reached her mind however he tortured her body.”
“I am responsible,” Balthaar answered closing his eyes while his face tightened with restrained emotion.
“Perhaps,” the High Precept said in a gentle voice as he put a hand to Balthaar’s shoulder. “But she chose to love you. She chose to die beside you rather than returning home in Elsyria without you. Such devotion can be twisted, unfortunately.”
“Does she know that I’m well? She should not worry about me. She should know that I can easily endure any unpleasantness the Elsyrians could inflict upon me. Tell her. Tell her that no one can hurt me, that she should not worry about someone, something like myself.”
The High Precept smiled. “The Barabbas army will come in the spring. How will she suffer then, I wonder?”
Balthaar returned his smile. “Targen wishes to be the next Emperor. Perhaps he won’t continue the war with Elsyria.”
“Perhaps he will not. Then again, to not continue while Elsyria is so hard pressed would be foolish. Targen may have been easily to manipulate to betray his Emperor by sending his loyal general away, but is he a fool?”
Balthaar shook his head. “You wish me to challenge Targen’s place as the next Emperor.”
The High Precept frowned. “I do. It’s the best possible outcome for Elsyria, for Hatia.”
The Barbarian general shook his head. “How is that good for her? If she was willing to die with me, perhaps she would also be willing to live with me far from blood and violence.”
The High Precept nodded his weary head. “If you can think of a more peaceful land than Elsyria, we should all go there.”
Balthaar laughed then sighed, running his hand over his head as he leaned back to look at the sunset spilling gold over the stone. “They always called me son of the Emperor, but I never knew until he said it, his words the same as the day he branded me. I should have been bound to his words, his defense, but I gave her my name, my heart, and she freed me from the Emperor’s compulsion. How did you find out about me, that I was the one who was her weakness?”
“And her salvation,” the High Precept said gently. “It took almost a century. It was Hortham. He read the etchings on your sword.”
“He knows Bashai secrets?”
He shook his head. “Not Bashai. There is a race of witches that inhabit the swamps. I should say that there was. Some called them dark elves with their heavy magics for they shared many similarities with Elsyrians. They were skilled in matters of deception as our Thormul possessed. He fooled us all with his presence until the very end. The witches language, their spells were studied by Hortham, however the last traces of their race have vanished as the Emperor’s Bashai. It took him time, but the marks on your sword spoke of more than violence and destruction. You had marks of devotion, remembrance, the marks an Elsyrian would put on his sword as he defended his home, his family. You have more inherent Elsyrian tendencies than your father had. Your mother must have been one of these witches, your father, Tharmul.”
“You knew of my attachment to Lady Perr from markings on my sword? That is impressive.”
The High Precept smiled, his eyes twinkling. “It took far too long, but I am pleased with how it has ended.”
“Ended? Your people are on the brink of destruction.”
“But Lady Perr is cured. As for you, I understand your distrust, your reluctance to ally with a race you’ve fought so long, but she will change your mind.”
“When will she come?”
The High Precept’s smile dimmed somewhat. “She’s fighting for your freedom, your rights as a visiting dignitary who is under her care. She hasn’t shown any signs of interest in your becoming the next Emperor. She’s afraid that you’ll die, be harmed if she can’t protect you, keep you close. I fear if we release you, she’ll convince you to run away with her. First, I must instill in her some loyalty for her own people.”
“Her people were not kind. They treated her like a pariah,” Balthaar said in a harsh voice.
“She doesn’t care about that, only about you. Besides, not all Elsyrians took their fear out on her. I know that she would regret her actions, abandoning her people as time wore on. Immortality can be a heavy burden. Perhaps you could protect her from her own regret.”
Balthaar gazed in the distance, his thoughts far from the small cell, to a future with Hatia at his side, laughter, children, safety and peace. Would her eyes hold regret?
“I wish to see her,” he said in a low voice.
The High Precept stood, gathering his robes around him. “You shall. Thank you for your patience. We both know that those chains and this tower could not hold you unwillingly.”
Balthaar grunted but felt some tension leave his shoulders. He had not been created to trust, but perhaps the High Precept’s interest was the same as his own.
“You can’t keep him there like a common prisoner,” Lady Perr said, pacing in front of the High Precept, her former vagueness replaced with a sharp focus that made him shift uncomfortably in his chair.
He shook his head as he closed the narrow book of poems. “He murdered an Elsyrian.”
“He executed a dictator. As general and Barabbas, surely he’s entitled to actions of such violence however inappropriate for an Elsyrian. We all know that barbarians would be throwing parades in his honor. The Emperor was not loved, Balthaar was.”
“Because he slaughtered Elsyrians.”
“He bested them in battle.”
“He killed thousands of Elves.”
Lady Perr took a deep breath. “You brought him here as ambassador. He is under my protection at your behest. I will not allow you to imprison my guest simply because he engaged with a member of his own race and came out victor.”
The High Precept smiled at her. “You sound well.”
“You’re trying to change the subject,” she said, but as she smoothed down the violet dress knew what he meant. Ever since the celebration where Balthaar had executed the Barbarian emperor, she’d remembered everything. The pain but also the good memories. She recalled every conversation and heard those around her, noticed their movements and desires.
“On the contrary,” he said, rising to his feet. “I have a new assignment for you. How difficult do you think it would be to break a Barbarian general out of prison? I have two men you can rely on,” he added as the Rasha, Maltha and Hortham entered the room, silver armor properly gleaming even in the study’s dim light.
“Break him out?” Lady Perr repeated, frowning from the High Precept to the two men. “The only reason he hasn’t broken himself out is that he’s not trying to leave High City. He’s not fighting.”
“A hundred years is a long time to fight,” Maltha, the green-skinned Rasha said with a slight smile. “Also, he hopes to see you again. Why would he run when he can die gazing at your lovely face.”
Lady Perr blushed as she folded her hands in front of her. “As I said, breaking him out of imprisonment isn’t the problem. The problem is holding him in an unethical manner.”
“He injured an Elsyrian,” Hortham said, raising his arm where you could see the white gauze beneath the armor.
She waved it away. “Interfering on Barbarian business, and it’s only a scratch. He could have killed you, couldn’t he? He deserves a full pardon, not only a pardon but an apology. We are not Barbarians. If you were going to release that monster, Tharmul with a scolding, how can you hold Balthaar?”
The high precept smiled. “Well you see, my dear, he hasn’t agreed to our terms yet.”
“What terms,” she asked, her mouth tightening in a thin line.
“The terms of his release,” the High Precept said soothingly. “The General must be persuaded to engage in civil war, Viceroy against Viceroy. That will end our own war with the Barbarians and be the only thing to save us. It’s vital that the general go to war. He could be the next emperor.”
“That’s what you want?” Lady Perr asked, her heart constricting painfully. She ached at the thought of Balthaar spending another hundred years fighting, blood and heat leaching out his heart, his soul.
“Otherwise, we have no guarantee that the place of Emperor won’t pass silently to one of his viceroy’s and Elsyria becomes overrun by Barbarians come spring,” Maltha said soothingly.
“You’re all so soothing, but you’re talking to me instead of him. He’s declined. He doesn’t want to fight another war.”
“He must be persuaded,” the High Precept said, cocking his head at her.
Lady Perr turned and left the room, the two Rasha falling in behind her.
The escape was ridiculously easy. The two Rasha went to get him, and marched him to a boat instead of to the High Precept, to take the waterways to the crumbling manse at the edge of the city where Hatia waited on the balcony overlooking the river, a river where a ship lay at anchor just out of sight. That night it would come close enough to row out, to stow the General safely on board, sending him away to safety.
“Your country is beautiful,” Balthaar said from behind her, his step soundless on the stone, soundless as an Elsyrian.
“You hated it when you arrived,” she answered, staying in her place.
He frowned at her slightly as he moved closer to the elven woman with pale hair, only a few wisps escaping from the elaborate braids that circled her head like a crown. “How suddenly things change,” he replied in a low voice as he moved behind her, resting his hands on the stone, arms on either side of her, untouching but holding her fast.
“You are leaving,” she said in a voice she struggled to keep level.
“Am I?” he asked, closing his eyes and inhaling her scent.
“You are a general. Your place is at the head of your men.”
“I am an ambassador and a calumnious traitor. I will be executed the moment I step on Barabbas soil.”
She spun around, gazing up at him with her startling amethyst eyes, gripping his shoulders in her slender fingers. “Then you must run far away, somewhere no Elsyrian or Barbarian will find you.”
He frowned slightly as he glanced down at her, the soft mouth he’d never touched. As far as he knew, Elves did not kiss. Too many sharp teeth would make it an act of war, not love. He was willing to engage in either with his Lady Perr.
“I don’t believe you’re supposed to smuggle me into the wilderness,” he said leaning slightly towards her. “You’re supposed to convince me to return and fight the Bashai with my army.”
She shook her head, raising her hand to brush her throat, covered in pale purple silk. “That is the High Precept’s will, not my own.”
“What will you do, Hatia,” he said, hands sliding together on the balcony until his arms brushed her sides, “when the Barbarians descend in the spring, burning, killing, destroying everything you love?”
“Not everything,” she replied lifting her chin in spite of the uncertainty in her own eyes. “The Elves will flee, abandoning Elsyria to its inevitable ruin.”
He tilted his head to the side, his golden brown eyes looking mysterious and Elsyrian almost. “Many will stay and die with the land.” He shook his head. “I only waited to see you again before I returned to my people. Your eyes are as stunning as I remembered. What are jewels compared to your eyes, sparkling with life and…”
“Tears,” she said, closing her eyes tightly. “You never used to speak so, of my eyes or any other part of me.”
“Are we still bound by the strictures and regulations from that time? If so, I should never be here, gazing upon your bare face without appropriate paces between us.” He pulled her against him, his arms iron bands around her. “Tell me. What did Tharmul say to you that took you into the arms of the Bashai?”
Hatia struggled to breathe evenly, her body brought up hard against his. She swallowed before she could speak. “He said that you had asked for permission to court me, that you were being executed.”
Balthaar relaxed his grip slightly on her, studying her face with a frown between his dark eyebrows. “So you were fleeing to safety.”
She shook her head and tentatively reached up, sliding her hand along the side of his face. “I wanted to be at your side, to die with you. It sounds so foolish. What would a Barbarian want with an Elsyrian?” she asked, frowning at him as she stroked his cheek, the soft skin around his eyes to the roughness of his jaw.
He grasped her hand, stilling it. “I’m not actually Barabbas. I am possibly the most barbaric person you will meet, however,” he said with a slight smile before he turned his face and kissed her fingers.
She inhaled deeply as his soft lips caressed her flesh. “What are you?” she asked, her words trembling.
He raised his head to gaze at her as if considering how much to tell her. “There is some conjecture, however it is likely that I’m half dark elf witch and power mad Elsyrian.”
“The Bashai and the dark elves… Of course,” she murmured, cocking her head. “I saw some engravings when I was a child, learned a few letters from Halthom. He was always fascinated with them, but some said they were mythical if not long extinct. So, the Emperor found them and married one of them…” She frowned as she considered. Elves were not known for their excessive breeding.
“And here I am.”
“Just like that,” she said with a slight smile before she sighed, leaning against him with all of her weight. “I suffered through a hundred years of insanity caused from thinking that you had been executed out of love for me. What happened to you? Why did you join the army? Did you know that the Bashai…”
“No,” Balthaar cut her off, frowning at her fiercely. “I never knew you had been taken by Bashai. I received a letter from your hand that you had received an offer from an Elsyrian Lord and were going to become his bride. It smelled of you, felt of you. I truly believed you were the author of that letter that broke me and sent me running away from everything that reminded me of you like a weak, cowardly fool.”
Lady Perr pulled away from him. “I wrote a letter.” She shivered. “I was told that you would be safe if I did.” She turned her face away from him, but he drew her back with his hand, warm against her cheek.
“Why would you try to protect me? I was only a Barbarian, someone who debated logistics and morality with you. Why would you care?” he whispered, leaning close so that his nose brushed her cheek.
She shivered and closed her eyes. “I suppose I loved you.” She opened her eyes and pushed him back, surprising strength in her arms. “Why did you slaughter my kind? Must you take out your hatred of me on them?”
He shook his head, smiling slightly before he caught her once more in his arms. “I did not fight Elsyrians until the fury when they attacked us. Perhaps you can forgive me some day for all the evils I have done. I tried to hate you, but how could I? Surely I had only deceived myself, thinking that you had some feeling for me. You never spoke of it, and I knew deep down that you were better with another man, an Elsyrian who could give you a world of peace and beauty instead of what I had to offer.”
“What is that,” she asked, studying him intently.
He tightened his arms around her unconsciously. “My sword, my skill, my mind, and my heart. I offer all I am or will ever be, to you.”
“You can’t still care for me. I’m a shadow of what I was.”
He shook his head, gazing into her eyes. “We have both changed, but to my eyes, you are more incomprehensibly exquisite every time I see you. Your mind was broken, but even in madness, I would have happily stayed by your side until eternity faded from the sky.”
“You would?” she asked, doubtfully.
He smiled and leaned his forehead against hers. “I hope you still talk to statues and dance in the moonlight. It would be hard seeing you and you not knowing me, but I have ached for a century to hold you as I never did when I had the chance.”
She closed her eyes and relaxed against him, letting him hold her for a moment without thinking of the past or the future, enrapt in a single moment that shone like an eternally falling star.
“I accept,” she whispered. “That is, if you’re still offering,” she added glancing up at him through her pale lashes.
He frowned suddenly. “There is no place for an Elsyrian woman and a Barbarian warrior,” he said roughly. Suddenly she seemed light and airy as a handful of clouds and as difficult to hold onto.
“Then we will make one,” she said before she brushed his warm lips with her cool ones.
Balthaar’s heart sang as he felt the soft skin against his own, his mouth vulnerable to the sharpness he wanted to consume him and devour him until nothing was left of the Barbarian but a skin she could wear over her shoulders.
He fell to his knees before her, gazing down at her delicate hands in his. “I must protect you. Whatever else comes, I cannot live knowing that I brought harm upon you again.”
“I insist that you live,” she said with a laugh in her voice. “You will live nearly as long as I,” she said sounding nearly giddy. “What shall we do? Where shall we go? It doesn’t matter,” she said, leaning her cheek against his. “All will be well. I know it.”
“This feeling,” he murmured, looking up at her with worry in his eyes. “I felt this way before, when everything fell apart. The feeling is an illusion. All will not be well.”
She cocked her head at him. “You are affected by the attachment, but you don’t understand it. We are well-matched. Our natures compliment one another. There will be challenges, but we will face them together, or we may if an evil Emperor doesn’t make it his personal quest to destroy us. Even so, he could not keep us apart forever, and when we were reunited, my mind became whole, as did your heart.” She smiled at him, strangely confident in spite of her past. “I will stay at your side, and…”
“No,” he said, frowning fiercely at her as he rose to his feet to look down at her ominously.
“I do not want to leave you,” she said simply.
“I must save the Empire. It’s my country, my people. I cannot abandon them to Tharmul.”
She nodded slowly. “If you are Emperor, you could end slavery.”
He gave her a half smile. “Yes. I did away with slavery in the army many years ago. I should have known that you would still be concerned with the unwashed masses.”
She shook her head. “I went years without washing, although there weren’t masses of me. I will go with you to Barabbas.” She tightened her hand on his as she looked at him with shining eyes that made his heart ache.
“My heart will remain here with you but my sword and arm must fight the Bashai until there is peace, in Barabbas and Elsyria. As Emperor, slavery will end, and I will send for you. Will you come?” he asked, gazing up at her with golden eyes that reminded her of the Elsyrian traitor, the emperor, his father.
She shook her head. “I can’t wait. You must allow me to be your interpreter, or your mistress alongside you. I am afraid.”
He frowned and brushed her soft hair away from her face. “What do you fear?”
She swallowed. “The madness,” she said simply, dropping her eyes. “You came and the madness faded away. If you leave, will it come back? I can’t bear it. I can’t bear thinking that you are dead. I have waited long enough. I may be immortal, but a hundred years is too long to be without my heart.”
Balthaar sighed. He wished more than anything to keep her safe, but how could he protect her away from him when she needed him, his own heart and soul to protect him from the Emperor’s curse?
“You cannot be my mistress. My wife would be terribly jealous,” he said with a smile but his eyes were clouded with uncertainty.
“Your wife?” she demanded, pulling away before he had her in his arms.
“You must be my wife. No one else is crazy enough to have me,” he murmured.
She shook her head, but couldn’t help beaming at him. “You shouldn’t make light of insanity and curses.”
“But you must make light of darkness,” he said with a strange intensity, holding her firmly in his calloused hands before he leaned down and brushed her lips with his for a brief moment. “I give myself to you, Hatia, Wind Spinner, with the sun and the sea as my witness.”
“Is this your idea of a wedding?” she asked, cocking her head with her customary curiosity.
“You already wore the white dress and veil,” he said his throat growing tight. “If you’d rather not…”
She put a hand to his lips. “I give myself to you, Harrin Balthaar, Barbarian General soon to be Emperor who will free the slaves, abdicate your throne, and retire to travel the world with your interpreter.”
He smiled as she wrapped her arms around his neck, soaking in the reality of him, the moment that would not last forever, but would be followed by as much joy and bliss as they had already suffered sorrow and pain.
First of all, thanks goes out to you, my readers. Thank you for reading, sharing and reviewing my books. I’d be writing in my closet without you.
I would like to thank all those who helped me create Forget Me Not. Thanks to Heidi who read and gave me the feedback I needed to get this novelette tightened up. My beta reader, Lori, who helped me fix the many irritating ways you can spell made-up words. You rock.
Thanks always to my husband who messed with the cover forever. This cover… at least it’s over. Thanks honey! Also, for letting me have my way with the gorgeous font.
Thanks to my kids who are quiet during naps so that I can write instead of holding a cranky toddler. You’re the best.
Thanks and glory be to my God who makes all things possible.
Juliann was born and raised in South Central Utah-the desert-and currently lives in the beautiful city of St. Louis. She studied, among more than a few other things, Creative Writing and Fine Art at the University of Utah. She also enjoys gardening, sewing, painting, fabric sculpture, and whatever else shiny or crafty you can think of.
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Barbarian and Elves fairy tale romance novella Balthaar, Barbarian General of the Unseen Emperor’s army is relieved of his duty on the cusp of beating the Elsyrians, the Emperor’s fiercest enemies, instead sent as a lamb to the slaughter among the race he has devoted the past century of his unhappily long life destroying in an effort to forget about his broken heart. Hatia, the mad tenant of Perr Hall is asked to host the Barbarian Ambassador soon to arrive who everyone declares must be a spy or an assassin. Memories begin to return as she encounters her past in the shape of Balthaar, a man whose execution and her subsequent torturous curse by the Emperor triggered her spiral into insanity. Their past and present shatter the worlds around them as they struggle to break the Emperor’s curse. Can his forbidden love for the broken Elven maiden save a nation?