Prologue: Light of Solaris
Stuck in human form for the past decade, Avarax had suffered indignities no dragon should ever have to endure. Toe fungus. Hang nails. Body odor. The new perspective, closer to the ground, had made him almost sympathetic to the bottom feeders’ plight.
Almost. Now, they were proliferating again, after the Hellstorm and Long Winter had culled the herd. Only the best had survived, which was not to say their best were all that good. A line of the pathetic roaches marched in the meadow ahead, mostly scruffy men with fair skin and makeshift spears.
One in chainmail rode a horse. He turned and pointed at Avarax. “You, the bronze-skinned one.”
All eyes turned to him. Murmurs erupted.
“Brownie.” A particularly filthy specimen spat at his feet.
Avarax yawned. It never ceased to amaze him how humans made such a big deal out of skin color, when it all looked and tasted the same when roasted. Underneath, they were all succulent flesh and thirst-quenching blood.
“Can you fight?” the horseman asked, shielding his eye from the afternoon sun.
“Yes.” Shrugging, Avarax kicked a rock through the ankle-high grass. “But why would I?”
“Because you are on my land, and I order you to do so.” The man pointed a gladius short sword, a much better weapon than any of his underlings carried.
Avarax laughed. So wretched. After the Hellstorm had laid low empires, all these warlords scrambled for land and power. Now, these peasants pined for the safety and order those dead empires provided. “I don’t take orders from you.”
The lord’s face flushed a delicious shade of red. “Seize him!”
His men broke ranks, jogged through the browning grass, and started to encircle him.
Avarax grinned. The Dragonstone in his chest buzzed. Its energy might be constrained, but he still had more power than all these vermin, combined. He opened a hand, ready to unleash his magic.
“Look!” A young man pointed. “The Eldaeri!”
All eyes turned in that direction.
Closing his hand and snuffing the energy growing there, Avarax looked.
A thousand soldiers, both men and women, formed a wall of green tunics on a hilltop. Shorter and frailer than the local Arkothi humans, they looked like no other people Avarax had seen in this world. Banners with a nine-pointed star fluttered above them. They all carried bizarre-looking crossbows with boxes on top.
In the center, a man with a circlet on his brow lifted a white staff. Atop it sparkled a twelve-faceted crystal the size of a fist.
“The Light of Solaris.” The warlord spoke in awed tones.
“We don’t stand a chance,” another man said, backing away. He trembled like a small wet dog.
“Form up!” the warlord snarled.
More wide-eyed soldiers took steps back, then started to flee.
“We’re going to die!”
“They’ve never lost a battle with the Light at the head of their army.”
Magic! Avarax’s ears tingled. Perhaps it could help remove the ward on his power and restore his magnificent form. Dragonstone pulsing with excitement, he turned to the warlord, whose curses and threats did little to rally his panicking men. “I will fight…” …for himself, of course.
A downpour of crossbow bolts began.
Chapter 1: Inauspicious Start to the Day
Despite his mismatched eyes, sixteen-year-old Tomas Larelli had never seen the future. That didn’t keep everyone from assuming he could, nor did his scruples prevent him from denying it. After all, with a face that only a monkey could love, he had to find ways to get people to like him.
“Oi, Tomas.” Old Gian waved from a neighboring boat. “Thanks again for teaching me that knot you invented. It’s helped secure my nets. How did you ever figure it out?”
Tomas raised his oars and tapped under his green eye. “Diviner’s Sight!”
Or, a little bit of imagination. His mind had painted the image of the rope, weaving its way through its own loops. The result was the dozens of fish flopping at his feet. With a nod, he resumed his rowing.
His boat glided through the Inland Sea’s placid blue waters, passing between his island village on the right, and the Barrows on the mainland to the left. He shuddered and formed a ring with his thumb and finger to ward off evil. Tortured spirits of humans, sacrificed to the orc gods a thousand years ago, still haunted the towering mounds.
On the other side of the Barrows, the wooden pyramid of Solaris came into view; and then beyond it, the red-tiled rooves in the town of Lorium. His stomach fluttered. Soon…
“Oi, Tomas,” a croaking voice called from the docks.
Tomas squinted as he rowed closer. A sablewood bireme flying a crimson flag with a nine-pointed silver sun loomed large over the far wharf. Its black hull made it difficult to pick out the figure waving from the closest dock. Probably Mauritizio, since he was always the first out to buy the best catches. The fine linen shirt and trousers he wore didn’t match his sun-roughened skin.
Mauritzio craned his neck. “Another bumper catch, I see.”
Grinning, Tomas tapped beneath his eye yet again. “Diviner Sight can’t go wrong.” Nor could studying the currents and tides, the way they swept lines through the Inland Sea. Nobody else had to know his secret, though. He gestured to his boat’s bottom, where the fish continued their desperate thrashing.
Mauritzio took hold of a pylon and leaned over. “Whitefins. Very nice. I’m feeling generous today. I’ll give you a copper draka for two.” He tossed a rope.
Catching it, Tomas moored his boat to the pylon. He looked up and grinned. The foreign bireme in town would drive up the price of fish. “Two copper drakas for three is generous. What you offer is banditry.”
Mauritizio looked over his shoulder to where the other fishmongers were now approaching like sharks to blood. He turned back. “Deal.”
It was a fair exchange, and though he could’ve waited for the other fishmongers to come and haggle for more, Mauritizio had always been kind.
Not to mention, there was somewhere Tomas had to be. His hand strayed to the vial in his pocket. “You’ll find thirty-three fish in there.”
Making a show of counting with his finger, Mauritizio nodded. “Then two silver and one copper draka for you.”
“Two coppers.” Tomas chuckled.
Mauritizio threw his hands up. “Ah, can’t get anything past your nets. Darn Diviner’s Sight!”
Or math. Coppers grouped in tens in his mind’s eye.
Imitating the Diviners of old, Tomas looked past the setting Blue and White Moons, to the Iridescent Moon. It waxed toward its third crescent.
The market would open soon.
“Good for both of us,” he said. “I know where the fish will be, and you get to sell them for profit. My Diviner’s Sight says you’ll make at least four silvers from them today.”
Mauritizio bowed. “You’re never wrong, of course.”
If only because Tomas paid attention to market prices. He held out his hand with an arch of his eyebrow.
Mauritizio opened his purse, pulled out two silver and two copper coins, and pressed them into Tomas palm. “Nice doing business with you.”
Tucking his slingshot into the back of his pants, Tomas climbed onto the dock. He hurried along the main road deeper into town, trusting Mauritizio to collect the fish. Again, he looked up at the Iridescent Moon, never moving from its reliable spot in the sky, always cycling through its twenty-four phases in a single day. There wasn’t much time left. His heart pattered.
The creaks, thumps, and fish reek of the docks gave way to the rich textures of the marketplace. The earthy smell of spring vegetables from several stalls. The hammering of the blacksmith on the east. The bright colors of cloth in the shops to the south.
Burly men, whose crimson tunics marked them as rowers from the Serikothi ship, mingled among the townsfolk and catcalled the women. Ethnically Arkothi, like the locals, these foreigners had olive complexions.
It stood in contrast to their officers in high-collared jackets, who had lithe builds, brown hair, and bronze complexions. These smaller, shorter men belonged to the Eldaeri, a long-lived race which proclaimed to be the sun god’s Chosen People. In his limited experiences, Tomas had found them to be as arrogant as their claim.
“Tomas!” cried a farmer from a vegetable stall as he entered the marketplace. “Can you tell me when the next rain will be?”
“Two days,” Tomas said. At least, that’s what the earthworm activity suggested. He locked his eyes on a kiosk at the far end.
A shock of golden hair flashed among the trays of magic light baubles and lamps.
A smile tugged at his lips. Patting the vial in his pocket, he quickened his pace.
“When will a Runemaster Imperator return with the Crown of Arkos?”
After three hundred years since the sundering of the Arkothi Empire, probably never. Tomas laughed. Let them believe in long lost emperors and their equally missing crowns. “I can’t have you betting against me in the gambling dens.”
“Tomas,” yelled out the baker from across the way. “Are we safe from the Teleri?”
“I’ll be back with your answer, and I expect a fresh loaf of your best bread in return.” Tomas flashed a smile. It would give him time to ask around and find out more about the aggressive empire’s latest positions.
In this, Constable Antonius would know more. The mayor’s son, and indeed, the town’s favorite son, was striding from the other end of the market. The shiny buttons on his crisp blue uniform glinted in the morning light, and a sword dangled from his hip. Their eyes met, and the constable’s smirk punctuated his strong jaw, heavy brows, and high nose. Then, his gaze shifted toward their mutual destination, just ten paces away.
Tomas had to get there first.
At the kiosk, stocky Julius spread out rune-inscribed antiques and modern light bauble lamps. He stepped to the side, revealing hisdaughter.
Time seemed to slow as Sofia tossed her hair over a shoulder. Sunlight caught silver highlights in the sea of gold. Unlike everyone else’s sun-darkened olive skin, hers was as fair as the sandy beaches back home. It made her bright blue eyes stand out. The neckline of her green velvet dress plunged low enough to hint at her budding curves. She was like the Goddess Ayara arriving on earth for the first time. Temple bells chimed in Tomas imagination.
You brighten my day more than the sun. Tomas rehearsed the greeting in his mind, gulping hard in hopes he’d actually be able to articulate it. You brighten my day more than the sun. He covered the last ten paces in just eight strides. You brighten my day more than the sun. Math, logic, market trends, and tides were easy compared to talking to a woman. “You… sun. Brighten… Good morning, Sofia.”
She flashed him a radiant smile, that indeed brightened the day more than the sun. “Good morning, Tomas. How are things on Twins Island?”
Tomas’ gut twisted. While everyone else asked him about their future, the town beauty was the only one who ever inquired about his well-being. “Fine… uh, just wonderful.”
“You said you’d have a surprise for me today?” She batted her eyelashes.
Tomas’ face flushed as hot as sand in afternoon sun. He reached for the vial in his pocket. “I brought—”
“Ah, Monkey Face Tomas, ever the rube.” A deep laugh boomed behind him. A huge hand clapped him on the back.
It just about knocked his heart out of his chest. Tomas gritted his teeth. Every instinct screamed to lay a fake curse on Antonius, but it would only make Tomas look petty. He relaxed his jaw. “Good morning, Antonius.”
Sofia’s father, Julius, paused from polishing a rune-infused fire starter and turned around. His wide shoulders bulged from his blue vest. With his thinning black hair, crag nose, and small eyes, it was hard to believe he’d sired such a beauty. A friendly smile formed on his lips. “Good morning, Antonius. Sofia, give Antonius a trinket, will you?”
Tomas stifled a growl. Of course, Antonius was the most desired man in town, son of the mayor, who was mayor only because he’d married some lord’s cousin’s nephew’s sister-in-law. With Antonius’ good looks and status, he already had enough girls to fill the long-departed Runemaster Imperator’s harem.
Meanwhile, Tomas was just an ugly fisherman from a provincial island. He forced a friendly smile. “So, Antonius, what’s the latest news of the Teleri advance?”
Antonius smirked. “Trying to squeeze out every last fish sale before they come and you flee back to Twins Island?”
“Of course not,” Tomas said. “I just wanted to know. Last I heard, they’d encircled Mykos.”
“Encircled? It’s called a siege.” Antonius puffed out his chest, his eyes flitted sidelong toward Sofia.
Sofia just blinked her long lashes at him.
Tomas’ gut knotted even more. “Right, a siege. It’s just two days’ march from here.”
Antonius snorted. “Stick to Divining, and leave soldiering to soldiers. They have to capture Mykos first, or leave their supply lines exposed. Mykos can hold out indefinitely, because the Teleri’s dumb Bovyan brutes lack the siege engines to breach the city walls. On top of that, they have no means to deny Mykos access to the Inland Sea and trade with the Serikothi.” He lifted his chin to one of the crimson-uniformed rowers at the tanner’s.
Tomas cocked his head. It didn’t make sense, because… “Couldn’t the Teleri leave soldiers back to protect their supply lines? Or send cavalry ahead?”
Gasping, Sofia covered her mouth. “Is that what Diviner’s Sight is telling you?”
Antonius’ bellowing laugh just about shook the stall over. “If it is, I’d tell him to get a new eye. Teleri Bovyans might be able to overwhelm anyone in the open field, but there’s no way they’d risk sending troops here without first securing—”
Shouts and screams erupted from the west end of town and grew louder. Here in the marketplace, the merchants all pointed and chattered among themselves.
“What’s going on?” Sofia came out from behind her stall and peered toward the commotion.
Hand on his sword hilt, Antonius straightened. “I’ll go see. I think—”
A tide of townspeople rushed into the square, first from the main road, then from the four side streets. Some tried to leave toward the docks, only to turn back.
The press of humanity surged like a wave, taking Sophia with them. Tomas snatched her hand, only to be pulled along. Antonius waded through to reach her, until another surge of people crashed in from the other side.
“Sofia!” her father yelled, hand outstretched from the stall several paces away.
Above the stutter of desperate feet came clopping hooves. Tomas looked to Sofia, to make sure she was alright, then to Antonius. “Horses!”
“Where? Oh!” Antonius gawked.
Behind the flood of people from the main street trotted a column of enormous horses, ridden by enormous men. Chainmail jingling, they carried spears with black banners emblazoned with a nine-pointed gold sun.
“Bovyans…” Antonius gasped.
Bovyans! Tomas could only shrink back. Descended from the mortal son of the Sun God, Solaris, they’d once been noble protectors of a land torn apart by the Hellstorm. Originally a source of hope and order to replace the Runemaster Imperator who’d abandoned his sundered empire, they’d since transformed into the barbaric rulers of the Teleri Empire. Until now, he’d never seen one.
Let alone dozens.
Most had dark hair, though there were a handful of blonds. With their fair to olive skin tones, the majority could be mistaken for any of the three indigineous ethnicities of the North. A handful had darker complexions, ranging form bronze to light brown. Their main difference from other humans was sheer size. Ranks of Bovyans now blocked the six entrances into the marketplace, preventing anyone from leaving.
Tomas’ forehead scrunched up. Something didn’t make sense. Bovyans were nothing if efficient. If Antonius was right, that they wouldn’t risk attacking Lorium without first taking Mykos, why were they here now?
“Eldaeri from Serikoth.” A Bovyan pointed at a small, crimson-uniformed officer not ten feet from Tomas. He lowered his spear and dug his heels into the horse’s flanks.
Townsfolk jostled and made way as the Serikothi drew his naval sword. It looked flimsy compared to the Bovyans’ arming swords. Indeed, the officer looked flimsy compared to the behemoth bearing down on him.
Hooves thundered across the ground. People screamed and pushed. Shielding Sofia with outstretched arms, Tomas found himself on the edge of the panicked circle, so close that the rush of air and smell of horse battered him as it charged by.
The Serikothi officer stood frozen in place, his eyes rounded. The spear punched through his chest with a sickening thud, and he let out a straggled cry. His broken body crumpled to the ground as the horse slowed and wheeled. A pool of blood spread under him.
Bile rising, Tomas shielded Sofia’s eyes with one hand, and covered his mouth with the other. She pushed his hand aside, and gasped.
“Serikothi!” a voice boomed across the square.
Why were the Bovayns targeting the Serikothi? Tomas craned to get a better view.
Horse hooves thundered. Swords rasped from scabbards. Bovyans rode among the running and screaming people, cutting down unseen victims.
“I surrender,” a voice pleaded somewhere nearby.
“A galley!” yelled another Bovyan. “Secure the docks!”
The docks. Tomas’ heart joined the bile in his throat. If the Bovyans swarmed the docks, there’d be no escape. He had to get there first. Because rumor had it that horrible things happened to the women in the Teleri Empire. He took Sofia’s trembling hand. “We need to escape the town.”
Face sickly pale, she gave a tentative nod.
Tomas closed his eyes and envisioned Lorium’s layout as if he were a bird flying above. With the Bovyans attacking the Serikothi galley on the west end of the docks, they might be able to sneak to his boat on the east. He pulled her along, working through the terrified throng. More people emptied into the square from the six entrances. Several Bovayns circled the area, but none patrolled the space between him and the small alley between two shops on the east side.
“Sofia! Tomas!” Antonius’ voice carried over the people. “Come back!”
Tomas hazarded a glance back. In the arc of his vision, at least three Bovyans met his gaze. He froze. From their positions, their plan was clear: the invaders were herding people into the square. Now, the sobbing townsfolk had mostly stilled.
With just a handful of constables armed with rapiers, and only a few knives among the locals, there was no resisting. Not after the Teleri shocktroopers had made short work of the Serikothi officers.
Tomas tucked his slingshot deeper into the back of his pants. His village was famous for its sharpshooters, but he wasn’t one of them, and a couple of rocks would do nothing against so many armored men.
A hush fell over the townspeople as one of the Bovyans rode forward. He was a head taller than the others, the squared shoulders of his black tabard giving him the look of a demigod. When he spoke, his voice boomed. His accent sounded so… official, as was to be expected from a people originating in the Sundered Empire’s heartland. “Captain, bring the Serikothi forward.”
Bovyans pushed through, prodding a dozen of the crimson-clad rowers and two of the shorter Eldaeri officers into the space before the leader, and pushing them to their knees.
“I am Governor Keris.” He loomed over them like a storm cloud over a tiny boat. “I will soon be in possession of your galley, and I need a crew. You will be paid a gold draka per month with bonuses for good work. If you agree, rise.”
Tomas exchanged glances with Sophia. The Serikothi didn’t even pay that much to ship crews. Their Eldaeri rulers were also famous for their harsh treatment of their Arkothi subjects.
All but one of the rowers and one officer stood, heads bowed.
Keris pointed to the kneeling rower. “You do not wish to join?”
The man raised his head. “Begging your pardon, Governor, but I have a family in Serikoth. If word got back that I served the Teleri… well…” his meaningful glance fell on the officer at his side.
“I understand. Surrender your weapons, swear on Solaris you will never take up arms against the Teleri Empire, and you may return home.”
What? So easy? Tomas scanned the townsfolk’s faces.
The rower’s eyes widened, and a murmur went through their ranks. The crowd, too, chattered at this development. Two of his compatriots returned to their knees.
Keris motioned to one of his underlings. “Take these recruits and record them into your register.”
The henchman thumped his chest with a fist, and gestured for the rowers to rise and follow him.
“Not you.” Keris set his spear in the path of the Serikothi officer. “The Eldaeri race has falsely claimed to be the Chosen People of my ancestor’s divine father. This is an insult to the gods. Captain, execute him, and the other.”
A collective gasp just about sucked the air out of the square. Eyes panicked, the Eldaeri turned and started to run, only to meet the thrust of a Bovyan sword. The other officer scrambled to his feet, but two Bovayns dispatched him with brutal efficiency. Blood pooled where their bodies fell.
The people cried out again. A sour taste rose in Tomas throat. Before today, he’d never seen someone brutally murdered; now, he’d witnessed three. And, there were other slain Eldaeri Serikothi elsewhere in the marketplace. The Bovyans were ruthless.
Governor Keris pounded his fist to his chest. “Now that we’ve gotten that ugly business out of the way… People of Lorium. You are now under the protection of the Teleri Empire.”
Protection? Occupation was more like it. Tomas had to sneak to his boat with Sofia, and row back to his village. It might be within sight of Lorium, but the Teleri would have to find someone who could get them past the Jaws first.
If these invaders could reach the island, though, the governor looked like he could conquer it all by himself. His gaze raked over the locals. “Our protection comes with a price, but it is a fair one. We shall buy your surplus grain and fish directly from the farmers and fishermen at market prices, and we will never take more than the town can spare.”
A handful of groans broke out from the middlemen like Mauritzio, and the tax collectors from Mykos, the seat of government.
Keris scowled, quieting the throng. He pointed north across the water to the Lyara’s Golden Bowl, gleaming atop the mountain that overlooked Tomas’ village. “I also need someone who can take us to Twins Island.”
A pit sank in Tomas’ stomach.
His home. The Bovyans wanted his home.
Chapter 2: Escape Plans
Tomas had daydreamed of holding Sofia’s hand, though never imagined it would be as they edged back toward her father’s stall, ducking beneath the watchful eyes of Bovyan shocktroopers. Whether his palm was clammy from her sweat or his own, he wasn’t sure. More concerning was the fact that Governor Keris wanted to go to the island where Tomas lived.
The small fishing village welcomed all kinds of visitors. Treasure hunters came with hope, barren couples left with it. Bovyans, on the other hand… Tomas’ heart sank. “Do something,” he hissed at Antonius, who was following them.
Antonius glared. “What would you have me do? There have to be at least two hundred of them. On horseback.”
“Now,” Keris said, voice booming over the square, “our scribes will be taking a census. All females of child bearing age and younger must report to our tattooists.”
The crowd broke out to protest, with many women wailing.
Tomas shuddered as they reached Sophia’s stall. Reports out of other occupied territories were hazy at best, but rumor had it that women suffered the most vicious exploitation at the hands of the Bovyans.
Sofia’s grip tightened, and he found her in the corner of his vision. If she was fair-skinned before, she was pale as a ghost now. Her hands trembled. At fifteen, she’d join the other young women. Now, she’d definitely not want the vial he’d brought her.
He leaned over and whispered in her ear. “I know a way out of the square. I’ll take you to my village.”
Her eyes found him. A look of recognition bloomed on her pretty face. She turned to her father.
Julius nodded. “Go, keep her safe. Please.”
Slinking low through the back of a stall, hand clasping his slingshot, Tomas guided Sofia to the blacksmithy, just a few steps away. Heat rose off the forge, but the blacksmith had stopped what he was doing to listen to the occupiers. He ignored them as they passed through to a rear alley.
Holding Sophia back, Tomas looked left and right. No one was around. He looked over his shoulder, and his heart sank.
Antonius was still following them. Three would be more easily seen than two.
“Stay back,” Tomas hissed. “I need to get Sofia to safety.”
“I’m coming with you. You’ll need someone who can fight.” Antonius patted his sword.
Tomas kept himself from scoffing. Antonius had already confessed to not standing a chance against a Bovyan. Still, there was nothing Tomas could do… except use his reputation as a Diviner and lie. He pointed to a random patch of the sky. “Kor, the Hunter is rising. If you come with us, they’ll catch you.”
Antonius blanched. He glanced back through the smithy, but then shook his head. “I’ll take that risk. Go.”
In the marketplace, the sound of Bovyans barking orders rose above the murmurs of compliant townsfolk. They weren’t resisting at all.
Tears glistened in Sofia’s eyes.
With one group of Bovyans moving to secure the docks, time was running out. Tomas took her hand again, and guided her through the alley, along the rears of shops facing the market square. His straw shoes left tracks in the packed dirt, but the Bovyans were probably too busy to realize they were escaping.
While many of the buildings were connected, the occasional gap offered direct lines of sight into the square. Tomas paused and peeked around, and for now, it didn’t seem like anyone else thought to escape. The townsfolk were all forming lines.
At the end of the row, they came to the shoreline road. The sea’s waters lapped up against a beach that lined the road’s far end. His island appeared as an indistinct blob in the distance, though Lydath’s Golden Bowl glittered like a coin above it from the mountain’s summit.
Home! Just half a league away. It would probably be several days before the Teleri bothered to cross the strait, and even then, they’d need someone to guide them through the line of underwater rocks which made the approach treacherous. Maybe someone would betray them, but by then, he could get his family and Sofia into the marshes.
Tomas’s gaze shifted back to the boats. He cursed under his breath.
Thirty paces away, a Bovyan sat high on a horse, guarding access to the docks. Watching over all the boats. Beyond him at the far end, his comrades had secured the Serikothi bireme, and looked to be putting all of its Eldaeri officers to the sword.
Shaking their cries out of his mind, Tomas focused on the task at hand: for now, the soldier’s back was to them. Tomas took a step—
The Bovyan wheeled the horse around.
Heart racing, Tomas jumped back behind the corner of the building, out of the Bovyan’s line of sight. Curse Antonius for slowing them down. They might’ve reached the docks first if not for the delay. There had to be another way. He scanned the sea.
Old Gian was still out there in his boat, looking back toward shore, though in the wrong direction. Still, he was close, closer than the docks. They could probably reach the water before the Bovyan rode them down.
With frantic waves, Tomas tried to draw the old fisherman’s attention.
Old Gian’s head turned, locking on the Bovyan, but showed no sign of seeing them.
Snarling, Tomas waved again.
Their gazes met.
Thank all the stars in heaven! Tomas pointed to himself, then Sofia. He pantomimed swimming out, then toward his home island.
Gian’s head cocked for a few seconds, but then he looked from the Bovyan on the dock and back. He beckoned.
Tomas blew out a sigh, and turned back to Sofia. “Can you swim?”
Tears trickling down her cheeks, she nodded.
Good. Despite Lorium being on the Inland Sea, not everyone could. He squeezed her hand. “Old Gian will take us to my island, but we need to swim to him. There’s a mounted Bovyan, though, so we need to wait for him to look the other way, keep low, and hurry across.”
He peeked around the corner.
The cavalryman reached the near end of the docks and looked to be turning his horse around.
The window of opportunity would open as soon as he started in the opposite direction. If they were fast and quiet, they could make it. Tomas looked back at his companions. “On three. One. T—”
Antonius snatched Sofia’s hand and burst past. He sprinted across the road, and jumped over the seawall to the beach. The Bovyan’s head jerked toward them.
The rotten dung beatle! Tomas broke into run, just as the Bovyan snapped his reins and spurred his horse. The hooves thundered toward him on the hard-packed road, covering half the distance before Tomas made it halfway across. His legs locked up, refusing to move. He looked first at the warrior, then at Sofia.
She and Antonius sloshed through the shallows and dived forward into the water.
Tomas looked back to find the horse even closer.
He fumbled for his slingshot, but his shaking fingers wouldn’t work. Willing his feet to move, he resumed his flight. He leaped over the seawall. Landing in the sand, he dashed toward the water.
His heart thudded in his ears, or maybe it was the pounding of hooves coming closer. Sofia had outpaced Antonius, and was holding onto the boat, eyes on Tomas, and beckoning.
He hazarded a glance over his shoulder.
The Teleri bore down on him, spear in hand.
Tomas’ eyes widened. This was it. His death. Just like the Serikothi in the square. All because that coward Antonius didn’t wait just two seconds for the Bovyan to turn his head around.
The haft struck him in the temple. White stars filled his vision, followed by dark splotches. Tomas collapsed to his knees as the horse passed, kicking up water and mud.
His last image, before all went dark, were crimson-uniformed
Eldaeri officers being thrown off the Serikothi ship.
Chapter 3: Death Wish
Each time Prince Koryn of Serikoth had tried to get himself killed in some brazen cavalry charge, he’d not only survived; his fame as the Lion of Serikoth had only grown. Astride his faithful chestnut stallion, he stared at the blockwood gatehouse on the other end of the stone bridge, certain he’d finally succeed this time. The realm might consider him a living legend, never knowing he was living a lie.
Several lies. All would be memorialized with his glorious death this afternoon. He looked over his shoulder. His cavaliers sat straight in their saddles, burnished cuirasses glinting in the afternoon sun, crimson capes and helmet plumes fluttering in the breeze. Victory after victory against Bovyan incursions had inflated their sense of invulnerability, and now they thirsted for war and glory against a different rival.
An older one.
All the fault of his accidental successes.
Instead of ending his miserable existence, Koryn had instead deluded the realm into thinking they could defeat a sleeping giant. He shifted his gaze to the ten dead guards in his own gatehouse, now reverently draped in crimson cloth. Usually, the only barbs hurled across the river were verbal in nature, but these men had been cut down by crossbow bolts.
He’d be the next casualty. Let his death today be a cautionary tale, and hopefully smother the realm’s zeal for reigniting a war against kin. It had ended in treaty a century before, but still simmered in the people’s hearts.
Pain flared across his lower back, an old injury exacerbated by weeks at sea, followed immediately by a full day in the saddle. It would all be over soon. He took several deep breaths. No one else would need to die today. “Cavaliers of Serikoth. Hold your position here. I will cross into Tarkoth and demand an explanation.”
The thirty men stamped their spear butts into the bridge’s flagstones in approval, not knowing his true intention. No one ever did, not even the secret lover he could never be with.
At his side, Damaryn crossed his fists over his chest and bowed his head, sending his golden hair rippling in the afternoon sun. The color was a rarity among their race, perhaps an aberrant manifestation of elf blood flowing in Eldaeri veins from millennia ago. He looked up, concern etched in his face. “Your Highness, might I suggest a flag of parlay? Crossing will be seen as an act of war.”
“Captain Damaryn, the mongrels have already unleashed the first salvo.” He gestured at the deceased behind them, many shot in the back.
Before Damaryn could answer, Koryn squared his shoulders and tapped his heels twice into Bronze’s flanks. It was sad to have to sacrifice an old friend, but the men needed to see that despite their beliefs, a Cavalier could die in the saddle. His heart squeezed as he patted Bronze’s neck. “Good boy.”
Bronze broke into a trot. His horseshoes clopped over the bridge’s old stones. It was one of the last bridges between what was once one people: the Eldaeri, Solaris’ Chosen. There’d once been dozens of these structures up and down the Valeri River, some spanning several hundred meters long. Here in the North, this one was only twenty meters, yet the emotional gulf might as well have been twenty kilometers. Perhaps it was time this bridge, too, came down.
Up ahead, nobody from the Tarkothi side had raised a challenge. Maybe this was their strategy: cowards that they were, perhaps they just planned to send a crossbow bolt through his eye, leaving his sickly, but more judicious and intelligent brother to inherit the throne.
He was now just ten meters away, halfway between identical gatehouses that stood like sentinels on either side of the river. The only difference was the color of the banners; crimson for his Serikoth, green for Tarkoth, yet both emblazoned with the same silver, nine-pointed sun. A symbol of one people, now divided.
Eight meters. This was a bad idea. Koryn’s stomach knotted. Any second now, one of the Tarkothi would pop up from behind the barricades or guard tower and point a repeater at him. This was it. For him. Hopefully not Bronze. But it had to be done.
Four meters. No movement. No sound, though the rustling of the river and the pounding of Bronze’s horseshoes on stone might drown out Tarkothi activity. At this distance, a blind orc could shoot him through the eye.
Like every other time he’d consigned himself to death, his resolve all but vanished. Even with the king’s ultimatum to find a bride, Koryn could still keep his inappropriate lover a secret. After all, they’d been together for years with no one knowing. He glanced over his shoulder.
Faithful Damaryn was there, against orders, riding stiffly in the saddle a meter behind him.
In Koryn’s single-minded focus, he hadn’t noticed. He tapped his heels into Bronze’s flanks, bringing the horse to a stop. He hissed through gritted teeth. “I told you to stay back.”
“It looks deserted,”Damaryn said.
Koryn peered ahead. He was so close, and no one stirred. Surely, they would’ve hailed him by now. He pitched his voice to carry. “Soldiers of Tarkoth, I am Koryn Vardamcar, Crown Prince of Serikoth. We demand you open the doors.”
No answer came, nor did it sound like anyone was on guard. All the resolve drained out of him. Koryn motioned to Damaryn. “Open the gate, Captain.”
Crossing his fists over his chest, Damaryn dismounted, marched past, and inspected the heavy double doors.
Like the rest of the gatehouse, and its twin on his side of the bridge, they were made from dense, fireproof blockwood. Koryn’s ancestors had brought the saplings across the sea, when they’d returned to Tivaralan three centuries before. One people, united in the Sun God’s mandate. Solaris’ Chosen would restore order after the Hellstorm and Long Winter had sundered a sprawling, decadent empire into dozens of starving warlord holdings.
Darmaryn looked back. “The doors aren’t barred, Your Highness.”
Damaryn pulled one side open.
A man in a leather cuirass and green Tarkothi surcoat tumbled out.
Koryn whipped his sword out and trotted forward to protect Damaryn.
The enemy fell face-forward to the ground, a crossbow bolt lodged in his back. Already dead. From the stench, and ashen hands, possibly for a day or more.
Damaryn jumped back, eyes wide, then looked up and exchanged glances with him.
“It looks like our men didn’t go down without a fight,” Koryn said. Small solace for theirs families.
Damaryn shook his head and traced a finger from their side of the bridge to the dead man. “How would our soldiers be able to hit him in the back, behind the gate?”
Though both his Serikothi and the rival Tarkothi prided themselves on their marksmanship with the repeating crossbow, this was indeed, an impossible shot. On second thought, some of their own men had died in a similar fashion. Beckoning the rest of the column over, Koryn encouraged Bronze through the gates.
On the other side, five more Tarkothi laid dead, flies buzzing about their bloated corpses. Like the one at the gate, their thin frames, beige skin, and dark hair marked them as his distant kindred: pure-blooded Eldaeri. Had they not met a violent end, Solaris’ grace might’ve blessed them with another century of good health.
Koryn sighed. Enemy or not, they were still Solaris’ Chosen. There were too few of them left in the world.
“Only six?” Damaryn asked. “By terms of the treaty, we are both allowed ten at these border crossings.”
“The Tarkothi have diluted their bloodlines and even let their Arkothi subjects serve in their armies. Their cowardly, non-Eldaeri comrades must’ve fled.” Koryn motioned to the cavalier at the head of his approaching column. “They may be rivals, but they share our blood. Have their bodies respectfully laid and covered, then rejoin us.”
The cavalier crossed his fists over his chest and bowed his head.
With a jerk of his hand, Koryn motioned the rest forward.
Deeper into Tarkoth.
“Are you sure this is wise, Your Highness?” Damaryn asked.
Koryn snorted. “Probably not. Still, there can’t be more than a hundred Tarkothi infantry this far north. They’ll be no match for cavaliers.”
“It only takes one shot,” Damaryn muttered as he walked back to his horse.
Koryn buried a snort. If only it were so easy. He gestured down the hard-packed road, which ran along the river bank to a village a hundred meters away. It probably quartered the rest of the enemy garrison, and they would have answers. As they passed, ethnic Arkothi farmers looked up from green fields of sprouting wheat, and muttered among each other.
Children darted among the several dozen wood structures with thatched rooves. His gaze locked on the largest, a barracks made of blockwood.
“Villagers,” he said, “clear the road. Return to your homes.”
Though the Serikothi had no jurisdiction in Tarkoth, unarmed peasants wouldn’t disobey mounted armed men. Scowling mothers pulled children into their houses, while other Tarkothi pressed up against the closest buildings.
He gestured toward the blockwood barracks. “Cavaliers, secure the premises.”
The men drew their bows and notched arrows. The horses fanned out with the precision of a dwarf-made clock and surrounded the structure. Koryn’s chest swelled with pride. Serikothi Cavaliers drew from the best cavalrymen in the realm, and no fighting force in Tivaralan could match their discipline.
With a perimeter formed, and arrows trained on windows, several of the men dismounted and stormed through the door with naked sabers. “Hands up! Hands up!”
A minute later, one came out, crossed his fists over his chest and bowed his head. “Your Highness, the barracks are secure. There are three injured soldiers and a woman tending to them here.”
Koryn exchanged glances with Damaryn, then dismounted. He marched to the barracks. Damaryn fell in a step behind him. No sooner than he entered did a young woman with thick black hair rushed at him.
She flailed against his chest with her bare hands. “You animal!”
His men pulled their bowstrings, by Koryn motioned them down. He seized her wrists before she hurt herself on his armor.
She struggled in his firm grip. “Murderer!”
Deeper in the room, three soldiers in Tarkoth’s green lay bandaged on cots. Like her, they were fair-skinned, with heights and builds too large to be of Eldaeri. Their coarser features suggested they were full-blooded Arkothi.
“You killed Meryn,” she wailed. Tears streaked her plump cheeks.
Meryn was an Eldaeri name. Was this girl a lover? Or even a wife? It wouldn’t be a surprise, given the Tarkothi Eldaeri’s penchant for mixing races. Lips pursed, Koryn scanned her wrist and found the woven bracelet that marked marriage. “We killed no one.”
Eyes wide, she shook her head. “Liar!”
Damaryn strode forward with a scowl. “Watch your tongue, woman. This is Crown Prince Koryn—”
Koryn held a hand up, and Damaryn fell into silence.
“It was your men,” one of the injured soldiers said. “They attacked us from behind at dusk.”
“Then killed the headman,” the woman said, tears glistening in her eyes. “And stole all the messenger birds. They said if we touched the bodies, they’d come back and kill us all.”
Koryn exchanged glances with Damaryn, then back to the Tarkothi. “We do not resort to such dishonorable tactics.”
“I saw you,” said another soldier. “Serikothi crimson.”
“Your Highness.” A cavalier appeared at the door. “Five Tarkothi riders are approaching. Two kilometers away.
“Captain Damaryn,” Koryn said, “find out what you can here.”
“What about you?” Damaryn’s forehead creased.
“We’re going to greet the Tarkothi. If you do not hear from me in two phases, send word to the king.” Koryn marched out and traced a circle in the air. “Cavaliers, on me, single rank.”
Those who’d dismounted returned to their horses. Koryn swung into the saddle. Tapping his heels, He urged Bronze into a gallop. Behind him, the cavaliers streamed out of the village and fanned into one rank on the verdant farmland.
Far in the distance, Tarkothi riders approached at a trot. It was hard to tell how they were armored, but the diminishing dirt cloud indicated they’d come to a stop. The cavalrymen on the flanks broke off, one to the north and the other to the south, while the other three reared, turned, and broke into a hard gallop back the way they’d come. One on one, no Tarkothi knight would stand a chance against a Serikothi cavalier; now, the Serikothi enjoyed a four to one advantage.
Koryn raised an arm and signaled his orders. The cavaliers responded with clockwork precision. Three men on either wing split off in pursuit of the two outriders. The rest of his cavaliers followed him in giving chase to the three. The ground rumbled with the charge, and clouds of dirt kicked up behind them.
The enemy had a kilometer lead, but if Serikothi cavaliers were twice as good as Tarkothi knights, Serikothi chargers were ten times better than their Tarkothi counterparts. Descended from the magnificent horses bred by the ruddy-skinned Kanin in the continent’s central plains, they were faster, hardier, and more intelligent… and Bronze was the best.
Koryn withdrew his bow from its case in the saddle and strung it. Perhaps a quarter phase of the Iridescent Moon passed before they’d come within range. Hills rose into mountains in the distance, marking the border between Tarkoth and the Bovyan’s Teleri Empire. He fit the arrow and took aim. It was against the Serikothi code to target horses unless absolutely necessary, and it would only be a moment before he could hit the rear guard’s back.
He drew back the string and—
Koryn let off the tension, held up the hand signal to halt, and reined Bronze in.
Up ahead, on a ridge, stood ranks of Tarkothi, their green banners hanging limp. Two or three thousand. They held positions on two hills to the north and south, as well.
Koryn’s cavalier line slowed to a stop. They were probably just outside of crossbow range from the troops deployed on the north and south hills. They’d almost been drawn into a trap, one which would have surely fulfilled his death wish, but also claimed the rest of the unit. By Solaris’ grace, he’d spotted it before all his men entered.
Now he could die, without risking the rest of his cavaliers.
Chapter 4: Enemies on All Sides
With his line of cavaliers deployed behind him, Koryn evaluated the trap he’d almost guided them into. It was one thing to die; and something completely different getting all the men under his command killed. The Tarkothi occupied the high ground above a basin surrounded by three hills. The only cover was a solitary farmhouse.
From here, though, it looked and sounded like the Tarkothi were already loosing volleys at a target obscured by one of the hills. Pulling a dwarf-made spyglass from his saddle, he guided his horse parallel to the opening into the basin.
He sucked in a breath. Over a hundred unarmored soldiers marched up the far hill’s slopes, toward the Tarkothi center and into the barrage of crossbow bolts. Several dozen had already fallen, while some continued forward on all fours, and others used spears to limp along. But who?
They wore neither Serikothi crimson, nor Tarkothi green. No, waving above their orderly ranks were black banners embroidered with the gold sun of the Teleri Empire. Their lack of fear in the face of certain death identified them as Bovyan shocktroopers.
What were they doing this far east? Up to now, all of Koryn’s victories had come against the Bovyans along the Serikothi border to the west. Their tactics had been limited to forming up a line of shields and spears, and relying on their sheer size and training to overwhelm opponents. It didn’t work well against his cavaliers, and wasn’t working now against Tarkothi crossbow volleys.
A white glint flashed at the top of the hill. Koryn shifted the scope to focus on it, and had to draw another sharp breath.
The Light of Solaris.
A gift from Solaris to his Chosen, it held a spark of the god’s divinity. No Eldaeri army with the Light shining at its head had ever lost a battle. After the civil war split the empire, Tarkoth retained the Light. For it to be here meant…
A member of the Tarkothi royal family led their troops.
Koryn focused on the man carrying the Light. A green cloak draped over his shoulders, partially obscuring a glinting cuirass. The silver circlet over his long, brown hair marked him as a prince, and the thin, high-bridged nose, dark eyes, and strong jaw could’ve made him a sibling. He gestured into the basin.
Following with his spyglass, Koryn found what the Tarkothi prince was pointing at: a single Bovyan had broken away from his decimated lines, and was retreating toward the farmhouse. Yellow flashed in its window. Koryn trained the scope on it.
Huddled inside were two blonde girls, probably no older than eight. They likely weren’t of Solaris’ Chosen, given their hair color, but their safety was still the responsibility of the ruling Eldaeri.
At the top of the hill, the Tarkothi prince passed the Light to a general and spurred his horse. He charged down the slope through a gap in the enemy lines. Brave, but irresponsible. Bordering on insanity.
Something Koryn would do, too.
Still, the Tarkothi prince wouldn’t reach the Bovyan in time to help the girls. Not on a Tarkothi horse.
A Serikothi stallion, however… Snapping his spyglass shut and shoving it into his saddlebag, Koryn spurred Bronze into a gallop. Now who was irresponsible and insane?
“Your Highness!” a cavalier yelled.
Koryn ignored him, instead fitting an arrow to his bowstring. Bronze’s hooves pounded in the dirt, eating up the distance to the Bovyan. By Solaris, the brute would reach the farmhouse before Koryn could take a good shot. He loosed the arrow, anyway.
It just missed, lodging into the door frame. The Bovyan looked over, then ducked through the entrance. Little screams pierced the air.
Koryn covered the ground in a few seconds. Before Bronze slowed to a stop, he swung out of the saddle. He drew his sword and charged in.
The two girls clung to each other by a burnt-out hearth. Sobs wracked their tiny bodies. They looked all the tinier given the size of the Teleri soldier. Koryn had never seen a Bovyan so close.
Descended from the mortal son of Solaris, the monster stood at least a head and shoulders taller, and was nearly twice as broad. Their race might’ve once been noble and honorable, but now they were nothing more than marauding thugs. Ignoring the wails of the girls, the Bovyan fumbled with his bag. A chainmail tunic jingled beneath his black cape.
Sweaty palms compromised Koryn’s grip as he cocked his sword back and prepared to run the enemy through. There was no honor in stabbing a man in the back, but he didn’t otherwise stand a chance against such a humongous warrior.
The Bovyan swung around, his blade sweeping in a broad arc.
Koryn lifted his own weapon. Made from a falling star, Sunblade absorbed some of the shock as it stopped the blow inches from his throat. Still, his teeth rattled. Heart pounding in his ears, he disengaged and circled, putting himself between the enemy and the children.
“Your hands tremble, Eldaeri.” The Bovyan pointed his sword. “Your race is weak, too weak to claim yourself the Chosen of Solaris. You don’t deserve to share this world.”
Koryn pursed his lips. The traces of elf-blood that flowed through his people’s veins might make them smaller than the average human, but it gave them long life and health.
The Bovyan lifted his blade.
Koryn drove forward. The sword punched through chainmail, flesh, and bone. Another blade burst out from the other direction, sending a spray of blood into Koryn’s face.
Gurgling, the Bovyan crumpled to his knees, revealing the wide-eyed Tarkothi prince behind him. His complexion looked almost green.
The Bovyan dropped his weapon and gripped Koryn’s blade. He stared at it with wide eyes. “Eldaeri… royal sword. It is… my honor… to be killed by a prince of Serikoth.” He collapsed in a jingle of armor.
Blood poured from the wound as Koryn pulled Sunblade free. The smooth metal, further slickened by fluids and innards, allowed it to slip out with ease.
On the other side of the hulk, the Tarkothi folded over. He held himself up by his sword, which might’ve been a twin of Koryn’s own. Was he injured? It didn’t look like he’d—
The Tarkothi prince vomited onto the dirt floor.
A first kill, perhaps. Koryn shuffled on his feet, remembering his own. It had been at sea, when he was just a teenager, on a hunt for the Pirate Queen’s marauders. Still, this prince was a man grown. Perhaps Tarkothi royalty rarely bloodied their own hands.
A large Tarkothi with blond hair and square jaw burst through the door, sword in hand and green-garbed guards in tow. The markings on his surcoat indicated his rank as a lieutenant. His eyes fell on the prince. “Prince Elrayn! Are you all right?”
Koryn stared. Elrayn? Tarkoth’s Crown Prince was getting his hands bloody. To save two girls… He turned to find the children huddled together, lips trembling. Every instinct said to comfort them, but they were Elrayn’s subjects, not his.
The pathetic man was wiping his mouth, and trying to hide it, and doing nothing for the two.
Koryn went over and knelt by them. “Are you all right?”
The girls tentatively nodded. One of them smiled.
And to think, his lover said he would never be good with children. “Where are your parents?”
The older of the two pointed out the door. “On the other side of the hill.”
It provided the perfect excuse to get out of here. Koryn took their hands. “Come.”
“Wait.” The large lieutenant studied the fallen Bovyan with dispassionate eyes. He knelt down and retrieved a blood-stained sheet of paper.
“What is it, Tharos?” Elrayn stretched a hand out.
Tharos proffered the page.
Elrayn’s eyes roved over it, then widened. He looked up and glared at Koryn. “Your sword. You’re a Serikothi Prince. Given rumors of one of them being sickly, I would guess you are the healthy one. Crown Prince Koryn Vardamcar, the legendary Lion of Serikoth.”
Koryn crossed his fists over his chest and bowed his head. “Well met, Prince Elrayn.”
“We can dispense with the pleasantries. I know why you are here.” Elrayn flung the bloodied sheet at him.
Koryn caught the paper and scanned it.
Our alliance with Serikoth is ratified. Their assassins will capture the North Bridge. Attack Esterios to draw the Tarkothi armies north. First Consul Geros Bovyan XLIII
Koryn’s brows furrowed, and he checked the wax seal. It was embossed with the Teleri’s nine-pointed sun crest.
This wasn’t possible. His Serikoth didn’t even use assassins, and certainly wouldn’t ally with the rapists and murderers of the Teleri Empire. He shook his head. “I know nothing of this.”
“Yet, you are here,” the aide said, “near the North Bridge.”
“Your men attacked our outpost,” Koryn growled.
Elrayn jabbed a finger at Koryn. “I still can’t believe this. Civil war tore our grand empire apart. It is the greatest taint on our people’s glorious past, a folly of arrogance and stubbornness. Now, you would ally with the disgraced ancestors of Solaris’ mortal son, against your own brethren.”
“Are you still our brethren?” Koryn gestured to the two girls behind him. “It is Solaris’ mandate to protect lesser humans, not intermingle with them.”
Elrayn’s face flushed an ugly shade of red.
Koryn chewed on the inside of his cheek. He’d said too much, and they were outnumbered in enemy territory. He whipped out the message that had brought him here, and held it up. “This arrived by messenger bird yesterday morning. It says Tarkoth ambushed our garrison on the North Bridge.”
Elrayn shook his head. “A survivor from your brazen attack on the North Bridge substantiates the Teleri message about assassins.”
“A lie,” Koryn snarled.
“You are our prisoner,” Elrayn said, “until we figure this all out.”
Prisoner! Then again, it had been a risk ever since they set hoof in Tarkoth. Koryn turned his sword around and held the hilt toward the enemy prince.
Elrayn waved his hand. “Out of courtesy, you may keep Sunblade. If you initiate hostilities, however, we will claim it as a spoil of war.”
“You wouldn’t.” Koryn lowered the blade. Just one of six, the swords were all heirlooms of the Eldaeri people.
“Yes, I would. And, we would kill your cavaliers.”
“Let them go, and kill me, instead,” Koryn said. Better to die in battle, than old and bitter over lost love.
Elrayn shook his head. “This is a sign from Solaris. You see, I’ve already made arrangements with the Queen of Korynth to have your sister, Alaena, wed my brother, Aryn. Now that you are here, I want you to marry my sister, Karyna.”
Koryn’s head spun at the implications. Elrayn was arranging marriages, this one at sword point, to bind three rivals through alliances. To… “You want to reunite the Eldaeri Empire.”
“To stand as one against the threat of the Teleri Empire. To restore our former glory.” Excitement rose in Elrayn’s voice.
Koryn snorted. “To position yourself as the future ruler of it all.”
“If Solaris wills it.” Elrayn’s enthusiasm left little doubt in his faith in the gods’ will.
Reunifying the empire.
How had Koryn not heard of Tarkoth and Korynth negotiating a marriage alliance? For his sister Alaena, adopted by the Queen of Koynth, that meant marrying Tarkoth’s Prince Aryn. Koryn had met the aloof prince in Cathay a month before. He’d come off as something of a philanderer, the way his eyes roved over his pet half-elf.
For Koryn, being a pawn in this game was worse than Father’s
ultimatum to get married. At least in the latter, he had a choice in who, even
if it could never be his beloved.
Chapter 5: Distractions
As a half-elf raised in the Black Lotus Clan, Yan Jie had never gone to a noble’s bed without an ulterior motive. Now was the first time it had happened by accident, instead of having been arranged by the clan elders. Even more shocking was that said noble was a Tarkothi prince, and that she was actually enjoying it. It almost made her forget about a certain clueless spy back home.
And the mission.
Dawn peeked in from the porthole, and soon the Indomitable would rouse to life. She’d have to return to her own cabin soon. After all, gossip travelled faster in the confines of a ship than in the imperial court back home, and sailors could rival courtiers for the title of loosest lips. The Tarkothi adage of loose lips sinking ships had thus far proven to be wrong.
Prince Aryn slept pressed to her back. The slow rise and fall of his muscled chest against her made it tempting to forget about duty and gossiping soldiers. So handsome, with those large dark eyes and high-bridged nose. His fine features were the gift of his Eldaeri race’s traces of elf blood.
She sighed. This was only a temporary distraction. A way to pass the sea voyage until the Indomitable caught Crown Prince Koryn’s Serikothi ship, the Intimidator. For a supposedly superior race, the Eldaeri lacked creativity in their ship names. Disentangling herself from Aryn’s arms, Jie slipped out of the narrow bunk. The lacy underwear and cute pink dress he’d given her lay in a heap on the floor.
Cute? Heavens, what had he done to her head? Even when she’d worn the most elegant dresses as a courtesan-in-training, she’d always seen them as an inconvenient constraint on her ability to sneak around and fight. And the underwear… no practical use at all. She picked up the dress and held it in the brittle moonlight from the porthole. Yes, it was fit for a princess, and in a certain clueless spy’s eyes, it wouldn’t suit her. To Aryn, however…
Jie shook the thought out of her head. The mission came first, which meant forging the Indomitable’s orders from Tarkoth’s Admiraltiy to maintain pursuit of Serikoth’s Intimidator. She pulled on the underwear. Then, reaching under the bunk, she drew out her stealth suit from its hiding place and slipped it on. With a last look at her handsome prince, she tiptoed to the door and opened it just wide enough for her to slip out onto the main deck.
The cool, salt breeze sent her skin erupting into goosebumps. The Blue and White Moons hung low on the western horizon. The Iridescent Moon, having moved east from its otherwise reliable seat in the heavens, now waxed to half, indicating two phases until dawn.
At this hour, the deck lamps cast shadows across the deck. They were child’s play to creep through, made all the easier by the black planks of sablewood which the Eldaeri had bred specifically for shipbuilding. The grumbling skeleton crew was easy to avoid. She made her way up to the bridge, just above Aryn’s cabin and beneath the upper deck. After listening and confirming no one was inside, she made a quick look around, and slipped in.
The banks of square windows along three walls were shuttered. While her elf vision perceived the long table, six chairs, and wheel in mottled shades of grey, it was too dark to forge correspondence. She withdrew a bauble from her hip pocket, which illuminated the room in a soft, white light.
She looked down at the table, its top carved to resemble a map of the coasts. A green block represented the current position of every ship in the Tarkothi fleet. Other colored pieces noted the last known locations of friends and enemies. Mostly enemies, namely the crimson blocks denoting Serikoth’s smaller, but still considerably-sized fleet.
Jie frowned at the block representing the Serikothi Intimidator, docked in the old Eldaeri Empire capital of Elbahia for the last three days. By now, the assassin she was tracking had gotten away, but there was still a chance. If she could get aboard, he might’ve left clues about himself, and maybe even the identity of the clan traitor she was supposed to uncover.
The Tarkothi admiralty had commanded the Indomitable to return to Tarkoth’s capital, but Jie had forged incoming messages, ordering it to purse the Intimidator.
Now, it was time to see what the admiralty’s latest instructions were. She padded over to the rookery, located just above Aryn’s cabin, and eyed the locked door with disdain. Why even bother with a lock so simple, she could’ve picked it when she was a toddler? She withdrew a hairpin, twisted it in the tumblers, and the door yielded in seconds.
A recently arrived messenger chirped by the open window, an order tied to its leg. Yet another achievement of the Eldaeri people, the mottled white and grey birds were bred to fly from relay stations to a home ship, no matter where it was. There were eight birds roosting in wall nooks in this smaller room, along with a writing table for correspondence. The system far surpassed the speed, cost, and efficiency of the horse relays used by the rest of the world—including Jie’s homeland.
She flipped the quill—such a strange writing instrument—in her fingers as she approached the newly arrived bird. She froze. The bird beside it had a darker shade of grey in its feathers. It had never roosted on this ship, at least not since she’d come aboard, while all the others had come and gone and returned at least twice each.
Still eyeing this new friend, she loosened the tube around the—
Heavy footsteps clopped across the deck toward the door. A key thunked into the lock.
Jie pocketed her light, plunging the room in darkness. Still, there was no hiding place, no time to return the quill and either retie the tube or fish the message out. Whoever was at the door would wonder why it was unlocked, and the bird tampered with.
She leaped up to the board above the open window, then swung through, feet first. Turning around halfway out, she caught the bottom edge of the window’s outside frame with her fingers. Her legs dangled. If her grip failed, she might not survive the plunge into the sea, and certainly wouldn’t last long in the frigid waters.
Light flashed in the window.
“Guards!” someone yelled.
Jie took a deep breath. The minutes she’d wasted savoring Aryn’s touch had cost her the time to read the missive. Now, she had to get back. Giving herself a swing, she lunged for the porthole one deck down and three chi over. It was half her body length, and the hull sloped inwards, but she managed to catch hold with one hand. Toes finding purchase on a decorative ridge running along the ship’s hull, below the row of portholes, she hauled herself up. She peeked in.
Aryn still slept, his back now to the wall.
Her slender body was just small enough to squeeze through. She landed lightly on the floor. On deck, garbled voices grew louder. There was no chance of getting back to the cabin she shared with the Aksumi mystic. So much for keeping her relationship with the prince secret: Aryn would be the best one to vouch for her whereabouts right now.
She stripped off her stealth suit, underwear and all, and covered them with the dress on the floor.
The blankets rustled ever so quietly, but they might’ve been a New Year’s fireworks display for all the sound her elf ears picked up. She looked back.
Prince Aryn’s eyes roved over her.
A well-bred Cathayi lady would have covered herself. Jie was not well-bred, and it was kind of nice for a man—royalty, no less– to appreciate her flat body. Unlike a certain clan brother. Flashing him a grin, she sashayed what hips she had, a trick she’d never learned well in a previous life as a courtesan-in-training.
Aryn reached for her. “Come back to bed, Jyeh.”
The way his tongue mangled her name was so…enchanting. Her heart buzzed like a dragonfly’s wings. It would’ve been child’s play to avoid his hand, but she let him capture her wrist and pull her close.
“Your Highness,” she said, dipping her chin. “There seems to be some commotion outside. I want to get back to my cabin before my presence with you besmirches your name.”
Laughing, he spun her around and sat her down on the edge of the bunk. His fingers walked up her back, sending a symphony of tingles down her spine. “I have another idea. Will you be my princess?”
Jie nearly choked as she stifled a shudder. The last princess in her life was far from the perfect specimen of grace and beauty. In fact, if any woman could challenge Jie for a flatter body, it would be her homeland’s own awkward princess. She spun around and arranged her expression into detached nonchalance.
Aryn raised an eyebrow. “You don’t seem pleased.”
Heavens, where’d her ability to hide emotions flee to? Some spy she was. “Your Highness, I don’t think I’m an appropriate match for a prince.”
He flashed a devilish grin that rivaled the one she could conjure if the situation required. “I’m a second son. It doesn’t really matter who I marry. We’ll make beautiful quarter-elves.”
And quarter Cathayi. If the Tarkothi royal courtiers were as shallow as Cathay’s, they’d look down on yellow babies with slanted eyes. And considering her no-good father of an elf had abandoned her as a wailing babe, perhaps her yellow half was the better half.
Not to mention, there was always the clan to consider. The master had adopted her, raised her as his own. Now, there was the pressing mission to track the assassin, find out why Serikoth had allied with a now-deceased rebel lord back home, and then continue into the Teleri heartland to root out the clan traitor. No, Aryn was just a pleasant diversion.
Or was it? If she kept having to remind herself…
A sharp series of raps thudded on the door. It opened smoothly for the first eight inches where she’d oiled the hinges, then creaked the rest of the way.
“Your Highness,” called the grating voice that could only belong to Peris. As Aryn’s childhood friend and aide-de-camp, he was the only one onboard who’d barge in without waiting to be acknowledged.
He also had little affection for her, his attitude something of a jilted lover. He’d yet to catch her here, but now, she needed to be seen to allay suspicions of a different kind of monkey business. With a twist of her wrist, she slipped out of Aryn’s grasp. She snatched up the sheet and covered herself. A surreptitious tug of her foot drew her dress—and the stealth suit beneath— closer to the bunk.
Peris clomped in. He held a book bound not in leather like most of the Northerners’ tomes, but rather the heavy paper cross stitch that her homeland had used three centuries ago. His humongous hand obscured the wavy script. The book didn’t look familiar, but how would a Tarkothi aide get ahold of it? And why did he bring it to Aryn’s cabin?
His eyebrows clashed together like angry caterpillars as his sharp gaze locked on her. He thrust the book into the fold of his green officer’s coat. Standing taller and broader than the average human, and much larger compared to the Eldaeri prince of Tarkoth, he lumbered like a bull on his way to breeding. Stopping at the foot of the bunk, he crossed both wrists over his chest.
Aryn rested his chin on her shoulder. His voice tickled her ear. “Peris, I’m a little busy.”
“Your High—” Peris cleared his throat as he looked past her. “Your Highness. There were some… irregularities in the rookery.”
Jie sucked on her lower lip. Back home, legends spoke of Black Fist spies being in two places at once; here, they wouldn’t suspect her. For all anyone knew, she was just an orphan they found on the streets of a major port city.
“What kind of irregularities?” Aryn asked.
Peris glared at her again. “I don’t think—”
Aryn waved a hand. “It’s okay. Just say it.”
“The door was left unlocked, and a bird’s message tube opened.” Peris held up a small scroll, its broken wax seal embossed with the Tarkoth’s royal crest: a nine-pointed sun, representing the Eldaeri belief that their Sun God had given them some divine mandate. If they looked under her dress and found one of the many hidden pockets in her stealth suit, they’d find the clay copy she’d made from the imprint.
“It must’ve come loose in flight, or maybe the bird was intercepted.”
“Or, someone on this ship broke in.” Peris’ eyes never left her.
Jie leaned into Aryn and brought one of his hands to her thigh.
Aryn yawned. “None of our men would do such a thing.”
“Remember,” Peris said, stare locked on her, “an assassin shot a crossbow bolt from this ship, killing a Cathayi noble.”
Jie nodded. “He’s right.” It was part of the reason for her trip, after all.
“And, we have passengers.” Peris’ glare bored into her.
“Well, Jie was clearly here. What about her friends?”
Friends was a loose term, given Jie had just met her three travelling companions. She shook her head. “A Paladin wouldn’t do such a thing, and between a Mystic and Diviner, they could magic up whatever the message said.” Though the Diviner was more of a conman, and all he was magicking up these days were Mystic’s moans.
“They were in their cabin?” Aryn asked.
Lips pursed, Peris nodded.
“Good. Well, what does it say?” Eying the scroll, Aryn stretched his arms out and yawned. His sheet slipped, causing Jie to grit her teeth, but he caught it.
Peris’ face flushed an interesting color of red. “It’s from the King. You, uh, are engaged.”
Jie’s heart might have stopped. Apparently, someone did care about second sons.
“What? To whom?” Clasping the blanket around his waist, Aryn bolted up, leaving Jie to cling to the end to keep herself covered.
“Princess Alaena of Korynth.”
It shouldn’t matter. But Jie hated this Princess Alaena of Korynth already.
But that wasn’t important as the book in Peris’ coat.
Chapter 6: Elements of Surprise
Although she was the princess of one nation and the heir to another, the only thing Alaena wanted to rule over right now was the gorgeous elf beneath her. She resisted as he tried to push her off, responding by pulling his luscious golden hair back and exposing his smooth neck so she could lavish kisses there. His fragrance was intoxicating.
Delicately slender but calloused fingers interposed themselves between his neck and her lips.
“Shhh!” His voice was barely audible.
No sooner did she start to sit up, pouting, than he pulled her back down on top of him. An unexpected but not unwelcome surprise! Her curly red locks formed a curtain around their faces. She leaned in, only to have him shake his head. A frown contorted her cheeks.
His violet eyes locked with hers, apologetic. His mouth didn’t move, yet his melodious voice sounded clear in her head. Listen. Do you hear it?
Alaena forgot about her wounded pride and listened.
Nothing, except the chirping of birds and the rustling of the river in the distance. She might as well have been deaf compared to an elf.
What is it? she mouthed. She looked around, but the canopy of brush in which they had concealed themselves allowed only a few blades of afternoon sun.
His voice was clear in her mind, as if he were orating in the palace’s audience chamber. Several people approaching in boots and chainmail, near the river.
Near the river! That was almost a kilometer away. Fanaya’s tits. His hearing might even rival that of the small Madaeri people. She brushed her hair behind her ear with a coy smile, rearranged her tunic, and eased herself off of him. “It’s probably just the queen’s men out looking for me,” she whispered. “They won’t find us.”
The queen, bless her foolish old heart, should’ve learned this lesson by now. Alaena would be found when she was damn well ready. Which wasn’t right now, not with a pretty elf to subjugate.
Still, with the soldiers so close, and the possibility of roc riders searching from above, it was time to move deeper into the woods.
She took up her pack in one hand and her bow in the other. Even if she were a decent shot with the famed Eldaeri repeating crossbow, she preferred the bow for its relative quiet and elegance. She turned to the elf. “Come on Thielas, let’s get behind them.”
Without waiting for him, she pushed out of the canopy. Through the thin branches, she found first the Blue Moon, then the Iridescent Moon. Always seated in the same spot in the heavens to the west-southwest, it now waxed to half. Close to eighteen hundred hours, leaving only an hour of sunlight before dusk.
With the setting sun at her back, she worked her way through the thin-branched trees toward the rustling of the river. The woods were sparse here, much less dense than lush blockwood and sablewood forests of her home in Serikoth. It provided fewer hiding places.
And sparked that empty hollow in her chest. Homesickness, some would call it.
It’d been over twenty years since Alaena had last seen the majestic trees and breathed in their invigorating scents. Damn her own decision to come to her, made when she was too young to understand what leaving home meant. Sure, her adopted queen was much kinder than her own father, and the Korynthians weren’t nearly as uptight as her own people. Still, the minute traces of elf blood in her veins yearned for lush forests that Korynth’s stony coastal plains didn’t support. With the river in sight, she brushed a limb out of her path and stopped. A partial boot print made the faintest impression in the soft ground near the bank.
She turned her head to find Thielas, just a few paces behind her, moving as silently as always.
Alaena knelt by the print. “Heading north. Either very large or not very skilled.” Which definitely described the queen’s men in the woods.
Thielas simply nodded, but raised an eyebrow, prodding her to continue her analysis. He’d taught her so much about woodcraft, starting back when she was an unruly brat running free in Serikoth’s forests.
“It lacks a tread pattern, so it’s not one of ours,” she added. “Very recent. Most likely male from the size of the heel.”
“And armored.” Grinning, Thielas held his hand to his ear, mocking her poor hearing compared to his.
“Bastard.” Alaena snorted at him. Her people had intermingled with elves in millennia past, giving them long, healthy lives, but not the exceptional senses, nor a penchant for magic. His exaggerated sniffing punctuated his playful taunt.
There it was, a sweet, pungent scent. Alaena scanned the area. A wet mash of red fibers, partially hidden by a barberry bush, caught her eye.
Thielas wrinkled his nose and made a face. “Pickled coffee fruit.”
Alaena stuck out her tongue. The neighboring Levastyan Empire had flooded the eastern markets with the beans, and the nasty drink it made was all the rage at court. If it tasted anything like it smelled, it would be like licking a bunghole— a fetish she hadn’t worked up the bravery to try.
Thielas chuckled. “You’re missing my point.”
“No, I’m not, ass.” A nice ass, at that. “Coffee fruit is rare around here.”
“Not only that, but Levastyans use it the same way your people smoke gooseweed —”
Alaena shook her head. “There’s no way Levastyans could get so deep into Korynth without our roc riders spotting them.”
“—and Altivorcs eat it, because it gives them a quick energy boost.”
Altivorcs! The short, stocky humanoids had once enslaved all of mankind; but since their defeat in the War of Ancient Gods a thousand years before, they were no more than roving bands of mercenaries. How and why would they be in Korynth?
Thielas’ ears twitched, and he held up a hand.
The sound was loud enough that she could hear it, too. Jingling of mail, mixing in with the river’s rolling waters. The only ones who should be in armor would be the queen’s men, looking for her; but she and Thielas had already established these weren’t the queen’s men.
“Follow the river north, quietly.” Alaena knew what his response would be, waited for it.
“You’re going closer?” The elf’s tone sounded incredulous.
Alaena grinned and flashed her most sultry smile. Elves rarely showed much interest in humans, but she could mold this one like clay in her hands. Without another word, she slipped north, moving soundlessly along the low ridge overlooking the river bank.
Thielas froze in place, grabbing Alaena’s arm and yanking her back.
Before she could protest, an arrow zipped right through where she would’ve walked. She looked away from the river, in the direction which the cowardly attack had come from. A shape ducked behind a tree trunk.
Thielas pulled her down, off the ridge and onto the river bank, just as a few more arrows whizzed over their heads. One ricocheted off a tree trunk and fell harmlessly near her feet. She snatched it up as he pulled her along, behind the cover of a large boulder.
Alaena studied the arrow. The fletching was matte black, belonging to no local bird. The metal head, too, was long and sleek.
“There are at least four of them. Shall I whisk us away to safety?” Thielas’s eyes were narrowed, his voice urgent as he pressed his back against the boulder.
She shook her head. “I want to know who is attacking us.”
“Alright then, cover me,” Thielas offered her a grim smile. He closed his eyes and began to sing in the musical words of elf magic.
Alaena’s eyes darted from side to side, looking for threats for about fifteen seconds, fighting off the lulling effect of the elf’s beautiful voice.
A low hum pulsed out from the boulder, followed just a second later by another.
Thielas opened his eyes. “Five of them. Four closing in, moving tree to tree, another running north.” With nonchalant grace, he unslung his bow and nocked an arrow. Then, he ducked out from behind their cover, shot, and jumped back.
A sharp cry pierced the air, but Thielas ignored it. “One is coming low around the other side of the rock.”
Alaena pulled the bowstring taut and turned the corner. Creeping low to the ground was a bipedal figure with turquoise skin and scraggly black hair, a serrated broadsword in one hand. It was the first Altivorc she’d ever seen.
He wore chainmail over a glossy black tunic that stood out like a damn bride at a royal wedding. His eyes widened, but she gave him little time to do anything else as she loosed the arrow into his neck. A sound gurgled in his throat as he clawed at wound. She notched another arrow.
Another cried out from a dozen feet away, her view obscured by the boulder.
Not waiting, she turned around the rock to see someone throw himself behind a tree about ten meters away. Two others lay in pools of black blood, shot through the eye by the elf. “Come out,” she yelled. “You’re cornered.”
“I don’t think he speaks your language.” Thielas trained his arrow at the spot.
“Well why don’t you tell him?”
Thielas shrugged, his apologetic smile more annoying than charming for a change. “I don’t speak the Altivorc language, beyond a few important words.”
Alaena snorted. “You’ve hunted them for how long and haven’t had time to learn it? Why don’t you just magic up a translation?”
“Because that would take too much time, and the other one who is running away will bring his friends back.” Thielas’s amused smile made his cool logic all the more infuriating.
“Fine, I’ll handle this one, you chase the other down.” It wasn’t worth admitting it, but Thielas was a far better woodsman and could run faster through the brush.
He flashed another smile and bolted down the path.
Alaena turned her attention back to her hapless target, whose heavy breathing from behind the tree sounded like he was doing something inappropriate, but more likely just nervous. “Come on, you’re not going to escape. Let’s make this easier on both of us.”
A curved dagger, bow, and a quiver of arrows were tossed out from behind the tree in succession, each landing with a thud in the brush a few feet away. An arm appeared from behind the tree, empty and lifted in surrender.
“The sword, too,” Alaena prompted. Maybe he understood, maybe he had a sword. It was hard to tell from here.
He ducked out from behind cover and hurled his broadsword toward her, answering her uncertainties.
Still, he lobbed it like an Estomari merchant princess, with no chance of finding its mark. She loosed the arrow. He groaned as it thudded into his shoulder. He turned to run, but the injured arm hobbled his pace. Alaena caught up to him with little effort. Sword in hand, she swung at his legs with the flat of her blade. He tumbled face first to the ground with a yelp.
Alaena shook her head as she sheathed her sword, disappointed that her arrow had snapped. Withdrawing a length of rope from her pack, she knelt on the Altivorc’s head and bound his hands behind his back. When she rolled him over, she sucked in her breath.
He was young. Not yet a man. His black eyes were wide and his breathing rapid.
“Stay still,” she said. She tried to make her voice as soothing as she could—which was not at all. “I won’t hurt you, unless you try something stupid.” She pointed to the broken arrow shaft lodged in his shoulder and withdrew her knife. The leather sheath she stuffed into his mouth did little to muffle his screams as she worked the arrowhead out.
Thielas’s presence loomed over her shoulder. Without looking back, she asked, “Did you get the fifth?”
“Yes. He surrendered when the underbrush came up and ensnared him. I have him here.”
Arrowhead removed, Alaena withdrew a small vial and sprinkled a few drops of pungent liquid over the wound. The boy shrieked through gritted teeth, and Alaena patted him reassuringly. She looked back at Thielas. Behind him, an older Altivorc with dozens of small scrapes lay bound in vines. Even after a decade, Thielas’ magic never ceased to amaze her.
“So, how about that magic translation?” she prompted.
Snorting, Thielas chanted again in the language of elf magic. “All right, speak.”
The boy’s eyes widened. “You can speak my language?”
“Sure, kid,” Alaena said. “Now tell me, what’s your name?”
Alaena tasted the name. Maybe her tongue wouldn’t be able to make the sound. “So, Frkt, Where are you from?”
No place she’d ever heard of. At the side, the other Altivorc struggled at the vines and grunted. Scowling, he shook his head at the boy.
Alaena grinned. It was always better to start with easy questions, which someone wouldn’t lie about. It was time to probe some more. “How long have you been in Koryth?”
“What are you doing here?”
The runt’s lips twitched. “Hunting.”
Alaena looked at Thielas. “Can you make him tell the truth?”
Thielas snorted. “If I had that kind of magic, I would use it on you.”
“Then can I cut him?” She grinned and turned back. “Look, nobody hunts in armor. If you don’t tell me why you are really here, I’m going to open that wound back up and let you bleed out.”
The boy shook his head so hard, it might’ve fallen off. “We were hunting… you.”
Alaena’s stomach squeezed. “Me? Why?”
“To keep you from marrying the Prince Aryn of Tarkoth.”
Alaena’s stomach leaped from her chest to her throat. Marriage? To a Tarkothi prince? While Korynth and Tarkoth weren’t on bad terms, her homeland of Serikoth still harbored animosity from the civil war which tore the Eldaeri Empire apart, a hundred and twenty-some years ago. She put the dagger at the kid’s throat. “What are you talking about? I’m not getting married.”
The boy’s eyes shifted to his companion’s, then back to hers.
“Explain yourself.” It couldn’t be right. She’d snuck out of the capital days ago. Certainly, the queen wouldn’t have decided so suddenly, and not without consulting her first.
Tears trickled down his cheeks. “I don’t know. I just do what I’m told.”
Alaena whirled on the other captive and flipped her dagger through her fingers. “I’m not going to torture a boy, but an adult…”
The older Altivorc squirmed through the vines, putting a few extra inches between them.
She was upon him in a split-second, and set her dagger tip to his groin. “Your young friend’s memory has failed him, but I think yours is just fine. Who sent you?”
He closed his eyes, his lips forming incomprehensible movements.
Though maybe not incomprehensible for Thielas. She turned to him. “What’s he muttering?”
“I’d guess a prayer to his gods.”
She nodded. “What’s the head of their pantheon called?”
Of course. All humans—save for her own Eldaeri ancestors, who’d escaped the mainland when the Altivorcs had conquered it millennia ago—had once renounced the true gods and worshipped Tivar. She turned back to the soldier and applied a little pressure with the dagger. “When I’m done with you, you won’t be fit to serve Tivar. But I hear the Emperor of Cathay hires eunuchs.”
Thielas shook his head. “They haven’t employed eunuchs since their last dynasty.”
She winked at him before turning back to the man. “You will talk. Either now, or in a few minutes with your voice a few octaves higher.”
She looked over her shoulder. “What happens to followers of Tivar who break an oath?”
“Their soul will pull Tivar’s flaming chariot for all of eternity,” Thielas said.
“Doesn’t sound like fun.” Alaena gave a fake shudder. “Swear on Tivar you will tell the truth.”
His lips pursed.
She shredded across his inseam.
“I swear!” His eyes widened.
“Good man. Now, let’s try again. Who sent you?”
“Our king,” the man said.
An honest, but useless answer. “Why did he send you?”
The altivorc chewed on his lip. “I wasn’t told all the details, but we’re acting on behalf of the Teleri Empire.”
Alaena sucked in a breath. It made sense. The Teleri Empire might be too busy conquering its neighbors now, but their Bovyan rulers wanted nothing less than the eradication of the Eldaeri race. Her race. The one which had brought peace and prosperity to the people suffering after the Hellstorm and Long Winter.
“It sounds urgent,” Thielas said. “Shall I whisk you back home?”
She grinned. One of the perks of sleeping with a descendant of the Elf Angel Aralas was never having to walk anywhere if she didn’t want to.
Still, something didn’t add up. Though the country was small, it was strange that these Altivorcs could track her down, when she could elude Korynth’s rangers and roc riders. “I want to know how these men found us.”
He shrugged, mirth dancing in his eyes. “I can find out.”
She turned and headed to where the boy’s broadsword lay on the ground. She picked it up and looked back. “You do that. I’m going to walk home.”
“That will take days.”
happy to make them wait.” The queen had been more of a mother than Alaena’s
real mother, and confronting her might break the old woman’s heart.
Chapter 7: Illusions
Aelward Niromar had joined the Tarkothi Royal Navy because a ship was one of the few places where nobody cared he was the king’s illegitimate son. Sailors used the term bastard so often, it might as well have been a term of endearment. It was far better than the pretty honoraries delivered by courtiers, whose fake smiles hid derision.
Here, leaning against the Sea Dragon’s black forecastle rail, Aelward served in anonymity and rose in rank through his own toil. He tugged at the sleeves of his stiff, green coat. This current fool’s errand– to fetch some princess and press her into a political marriage- would put him just a little too close to court intrigue.
And too close to his idealistic half-brother’s fish-brained schemes. Leave it to Crown Prince Elrayn, he was nothing if ambitious. More surprisingly, the King had agreed. Neither had both oars in the water.
Aelward turned and looked out to sea. Far ahead, another ship bobbed, its sails down.
“Oy, Ignatius.” He beckoned a young sailor in a loose white shirt and baggy pantaloons.
The man stared at him with rounded eyes, and then approached and leaned in. “You are no longer one of us,” he whispered. He raised his voice. “Sir.” He crossed his fists in front of his chest.
Aelward shivered, and not from the salty breeze whipping through his hair. Since receiving a field commission to command crew, he had to reacquaint himself with honorary addresses and salutes. At least it was sincere this time. Of course, he had to get used to speaking like a stuffed shirt, at least among the stodgy officers. He pointed out to sea. “Mister Rogin, find out the disposition of that ship and bring me a scope.”
“Very good, Sir.” Ignatius crossed his fists, and then hustled down to the main deck.
Aelward squinted at the ship. At this distance, it was impossible to make out the flag. Still, morning reports, garnered from the admiralty’s central bird roost and sent to every vessel in the fleet, made no mention of other ships in the general area.
Ignatius huffed up and presented the dwarf-made looking glass. “The crow’s nest reports it’s a galleon flying the Pirate Queen’s flag, three kilometers ahead, stationary.”
“What’s it doing?” Drawing the scope out, Aelward zeroed in on the ship. Sure enough, a three-master faced directly at them. A white-clad boarding crew armed with cutlasses stood in orderly ranks on the deck. The Pirate Queen’s blood-red standard with a white, nine-petal rose blossomed out as a crosswind caught it.
His forehead scrunched. The Pirate Queen had become more aggressive in the last year, ever since replacing the old white-on-black skull flag.
Still, a galleon didn’t stand a chance against the Tarkothi flagship with its four cannons.
The Pirate Queen was no fool. Nor did she parley. So what was her intention?
Aelward found the Iridescent Moon to the west-southwest, two hundred-fifty degrees, always in its reliable seat in the sky. He snapped the curved grills over the lens to gauge the time. Fourteen-hundred hours, fifteen minutes. Removing the grills, He panned out the focus and scanned the surroundings. A trio of volcanic islands jutted out of the waves to the west-northwest, three hundred degrees. An uncharacteristic mist shrouded their bases.
His jaw tightened. While one or even five galleons didn’t pose much of a threat, that fog could hide a dozen ships. With the Sea Dragon’s sudden change in orders, they weren’t supposed to pick up a cruiser escort until they reached Korynth. He snapped the scope shut and turned to Ignatius. “Keep an eye on the islands, Mr. Rogin. Report to helm if you see any ships there.”
“Very good, Sir.” Ignatius crossed his fists. Aelward climbed down from the forecastle, and then hurried across the main deck along the windward side. Sailors with both hands free crossed their fists as he passed, while those with only one free hand placed it over their chest.
He climbed the steps to the helm where he found Captain Sorin, a stuffy old man who’d spent decades at sea. First Officer Laron stood at his side, his posture a study in stoic professionalism. The helmsman worked the wheel.
“Captain.” Forming fists, Aelward crossed his arms and bowed his head.
“Aelward, my boy. How’s the view from the bow?” The captain examined his perfect cuticles.
Aelward pointed to where the galleon now stood out to the naked eye. “One of the Pirate Queen’s ships up ahead.”
“We saw it.” The First Officer harrumphed. “Looks dead in the water. One of the Pirate Queen’s, eh?”
“Looks like they want trouble.” Aelward offered the scope, which the First Officer refused.
Captain Sorin laughed. “She’s been more daring lately, ever since they started flying that red flag. If not for the urgency of our mission, I’d sink it. Order the bow gunnery to fire when we come within range. They’ll move out of the way.”
Aelward gestured toward the islands. “At our current course, those islands will be on our port flank at time of intercept. The fog could hide more enemies. Might I suggest we chart a course to the leeward side?”
The captain snorted. “The Sea Dragon could take on the Pirate Queen’s entire fleet of toy boats. We’ll have to remind them that a Tarkothi warship is not a coastal barge. Your father sank, or captured and scuttled all the pirates’ best ships three decades ago.”
Aelward gritted his teeth. Though the captain’s tone spoke of nostalgia, it was a reminder of a past Aelward hoped to leave behind when he joined the navy. Everyone in Tarkoth knew the king had taken some lowborn wench to bed during the year-long campaign to clear the trade routes through the Estomar, and then brought back a certain bastard.
That was neither here nor there, even if that certain bastard was here. Aelward peered at the islands and fog. “Should we mobilize the marines, just in case?”
The first officer cleared his throat. “The captain gave you an order, Lieutenant.”
Keeping his gaze on Aelward, Sorin waved a hand. “There’s no need for dramatics, Mister Loran. Lieutenant, this vessel wouldn’t have survived three hundred years if it couldn’t overpower or outrun anything the Pirate Queen can float. Now, go relay my orders to the bow gunnery.”
“Very good, Sir.” Even if it wasn’t very good. Crossing his fists, Aelward bowed his head, more to hide his frown than show deference. If Captain Sorin wanted to relive the old days, he shouldn’t be risking the fleet’s flagship while it was on a diplomatic mission. He worked his way toward the bow, sneaking glances back to helm. Each time, the first officer’s eyes remained locked on him.
At the forecastle, Aelward scanned the galleon. It didn’t look inclined to move out of the way. They were now close enough to make the size disparity with the Sea Dragon clear. The uniformity of the enemy’s clothes and weapons were obvious to the naked eye now, though the waves muffled their jeers.
Sheer madness. Aelward looked toward the islands, now much closer, yet still obscured by fog. He gestured at the gunnery sergeant. “Mr. Luis, fire on the ship once we are in range.”
“Very good, sir.” Sergeant Luis crossed his fists. “Oy, men, guns at the ready!”
The gunnery squad snapped to work, unlocking the dwarf-made mount which bolted the Cathayi cannon to the deck. They’d been added to all Intimidator-class ships over a hundred years before, during the Eldaeri Civil War. The yellow-skinned Cathayi sold the cannon and firepowder to the highest bidder.
Thank Lunasti that didn’t include the pirates, because even though cannon would unbalance their little ships, coastal batteries could muck up the shipping lanes.
Sergeant Luis lowered his targeting scope. “Ten degrees down, three degrees port.”
At both guns, two members of the crew turned two different cranks, adjusting the angle of the barrels. Another member packed the firepowder charge, followed by a fourth man heaving the cannonball down the barrel. Lastly, with the help of internal springs, the entire team slid the cannon forward along the bearings in its mount. The efficiency was a thing of beauty.
Aelward unfolded his scope and focused on the enemy ship. Neither it, nor its crew had moved.
“On my mark,” Sergeant Luis said. “Starboard gun, fire!”
The gunner pulled the cannon’s gunlock. The discharge roared in Aelward’s ears. The gun glided back in the mount, and eased to a stop on springs.
Aelward watched the cannonball hurtle through the air. It struck the galleon in the hull. An excellent shot from this range, but… it seemed to pass through nothing. No sound of splintering wood or screaming men. Cocking his head, he lowered the scope. “Direct hit, but…”
The team started the reloading process.
“Port gun, fire!”
The port cannon unleashed another round. Aelward raised the scope again, just in time to see the ball pass through the ship. Its crew had not reacted at all, still standing in orderly ranks. “Hold your fire, Mister Luis.”
He turned to Ignatius. “Go tell the captain that something is wrong. We need to change course.”
Ignatius crossed his fists, and then took the forecastle stairs two at a time before dashing across the deck.
Aelward turned back to the enemy ship, closing by the moment. He looked through the scope again. The crew stood stationary. Not only that, their skin tone, clothes, weaponry, everything, looked exactly the same. Even their facial features and expressions looked like rows of identical twin statues.
“Sorcery,” he muttered under his breath. The Pirate Queen’s men came from nearly every race in Tivaralan, each with its own magic, and he’d never seen such uniformity among them.
But why? He turned back to the islands.
A gust blasted out of nowhere, filling the Sea Dragon’s sails and pitching it to the leeward side. Aelward lurched into the windlass, catching ropes to keep from falling.
Other sailors were not so lucky. A few of the starboard gunners slammed into the rail while one went overboard with a shout. The sergeant fell to the deck. A sailor screamed as he fell from the crow’s nest, while others clung to the rigging.
The ship righted itself and Aelward searched the helm. Captain Sorin was nowhere to be seen, while the first officer picked himself up. The helmsman clutched the wheel. On deck, sailors clambered to their feet, though one lay motionless in a pool of blood.
Aelward looked forward. The galleon was gone.
Sucking in a sharp breath, he looked to port. Six pirate ships, whose single masts barely reached the main deck of the Sea Dragon, streaked toward them on a steady gale. They might have been flies harassing a horse given the size difference; but an Intimidator-class vessel hung back behind them, a twin to the Sea Dragon save for the flashing the crimson flag of Serikoth. Which one was it? The Invincible? The Intrepid? Its two bow cannon pointed forward.
Right at the Sea Dragon’s flank.
An explosion erupted at the helm. Aelward’s neck would ache for all the turning of his head, the—
He gasped. His men ran about like living torches, their features indistinguishable through the flames. Rigging and rear sails also burned in orange and red hues. Had the enemy ship even fired? There’d been no roar of cannons.
Some soldiers and sailors ran about the deck, but most stood frozen, looking around.
Waiting on orders.
Orders that would never come, if both the captain and first officer were dead or incapacitated.
“Men!” Aelward’s voice caught in his throat. He cleared it and yelled again. “Oy! Men of Tarkoth, to me! No Intimidator-class ship has ever been lost, your Sea Dragon will not be the first!”
Eyes locked on him. He slid down the stair bannisters to the main deck and drew his sword. He worked his way toward helm, pointing. “Eris, Lonan, organize your teams to put out the fires! Captain Gio, deploy your marines on a firing line along the port side! Repel anyone who tries to board!”
“Very good, Sir!”
Men scrambled to obey his orders, which came out in the language of the sea instead of stuffy officer-speak. He grabbed Ignatius, who wavered on his feet, and dragged him toward helm. Reaching the top of the steps, he scanned the high deck. The captain and first officer lay charred on the weathered planks. The helmsman was missing.
Aelward’s stomach churned. This was awful. He looked to the port. Thank Lunasti that the Serikothi ship still hung back, its guns silent despite being in range. The six pirate ships couldn’t be much more than a few minutes to boarding range, though how in hell they’d reach the deck given the height disparity was beyond him.
Curse the cannon mounts! Ingenious as the swivel design was, it could only rotate so much, and the enemy ships stayed single file, in the safe zone between the Sea Dragon’s stern and bow port guns. Too bad that even Intimidator-class ships, as large as they were, couldn’t handle more cannons without being unbalanced.
That was it. Maybe. It would either be the most brilliant maneuver in nautical history, or it would consign them all to a watery grave. He jumped to the wheel. “Stern starboard gunners, aim ninety degrees to starboard; Bow port gunners, aim ninety degrees to port. Double the powder charge and lock the recoil dampeners. Fire on me command.”
“Sir?” Ignatius’ face looked as if he’d sucked a lemon. The entire crew froze in place, staring at him.
“Just do it, damn it! All ye salt dogs, grab hold of something.” Because this would either give them an escape route, or send the Sea Dragon to the bottom of the ocean.
The sailors and soldiers snapped back to life and hurried to carry out his orders. His heart swelled.
“On me command…” He took a deep breath and swung the wheel hard to starboard. “Fire!”
The cannons roared. The ship pitched. It was all Aelward could do to hold on to the wheel. Many of the crew stumbled to the deck. The timbers creaked. It hadn’t turned the Sea Dragon much, but it was enough that the wind filled its sails. More importantly, the attackers were now about sixty degrees to the aft, just in range of the stern port cannon.
“Stern gunners,” he yelled again. “Unlock the dampeners and target the lead ship! Chain-shot in their sails and rigging next. Marines, shoot!”
The cannon fired. The ball careened across the lead ship’s deck, splintering wood and felling screaming pirates. From the Sea Dragon, the marines peppered the enemy with repeating crossbows. The crew worked efficiently, from the riggers to the gunnery squad.
Aelward wiped sweat from his brow and looked through the scope again. The lead pursuer floundered while the next scraped hulls despite its attempt to veer away. The other ships took evasive maneuvers. Their sails went limp, suggesting the gale had blown itself out just as quickly as it has picked up. For now, they were safe.
He looked to the captain and first mate, whose bodies lay charred and unmoving. Whatever hit them hadn’t been a cannonball. He turned to Ignatius. “Who is next in command?”
Ignatius made a show of counting on his fingers. “The captain of the marines is the highest rank, but he doesn’t know how to sail a ship. I would think it is… you?”
Aelward’s heart sank. He’d hoped to make captain one day, maybe after years of experience. He raised his voice. “Oy, men. If ye don’t object, I’m taking command of the Sea Dragon til we reach port. Hold our course. Have damage and casualty reports to me in a phase.”
He looked aft and up to the Iridescent Moon, now at its mid-waxing crescent.
A phase later, the lead carpenter climbed to helm and crossed his fists over his chest. “Bow port cannon has warped, the mounting bolts have splintered the decks. The stern starboard cannon is ruined. The third mast has a large crack.”
Aelward nodded. It was as he’d predicted. He’d bought time with the cannon. As long as the Serikothi and pirates had no more surprises in store for them, it was worth the sacrifice. Except… “Casualties?”
The ship’s doctor crossed his fists. “Two men went overboard, one sailor died from his fall from the crow’s nest. The captain and first mate are dead.”
Aelward’s jaw clenched. Had it been the right choice? Undoubtedly, they would have lost more if not for his insane maneuver. Though now, other questions arose. Why had the Serikothi allied with the Pirate Queen?
For now, he was in command on a mission to pick up some floozy who was princess of Serikoth by birth, heir to Korynth by adoption, and betrothed to his half-brother Aryn.
All for Elrayn’s ambitions.