Short sex stories

Erotic fiction and short sex stories




After Exile Bk. 01: An Emperor for the Eclipse Ch. 07

Author's Note: Hi everyone! Thanks for waiting. This chapter was a bear to get through. For whatever reason the last scene took me weeks; my ability to push through the various necessary events that happen at the end just slowed to a crawl and took forever. But it's a longish chapter at 7 pages, so at least there's that for you. After this, only 2 more chapters left in Book 1. You can always check my profile for progress updates.

Content Warning: NonConsent (oral). I will note that the dialogue within the scene in question is vital to the plot, SO ... if this is gross for you, if you can possibly skim just for the parts in quotes, it would sure help your understanding of the story.

My lovely friends Waterburn and AwkwardMD for have edited and provided feedback again to make sure this madness looks like it has a method. So many thanks. SO many thanks.

I really appreciate all your comments on this story, since it's my first attempt at fantasy. They mean so much to me. Happy reading!

~Eris/D&T

-=(^)=-

Chapter Seven

Among the many fanciful beasts found in Elvigra lore is the saigus. There are some who speculate (Agrimonetes, Mundae) that the mythology originated from exaggerated tales of crocodiles, which are known to inhabit the River Vanslaang. The saigus is said to have the power to bring forth thunderings in the earth, and fiery rain from the skies.

~Collected Works of Terlus Aoni, I.Y. 4389

-=(^)=-

The bird and the man. The man and the bird. They were the only two living souls in the forgotten little root cellar. This, no doubt, was for the best.

The lack of windows in the underground room made for stuffy air and hardly sufficient light, but it also made for blessed, velvety silence, which the man needed if he was to concentrate.

The bird danced about on its perch in the cage like a small, yellow, flickering flame, hopping from side to side on tiny, grasping feet, and cocking a liquid black eye up at the man with the soft voice and unruly hair. It was past time for the bird to be fed, but its caregiver was distracted. Again.

"Now hold still this time, Kitak," the man said to the bird, "and let's see if we can't do this right."

The round little man slid the two standing crystal points apart on the table, pushing the black one away to his left and its milky white partner off to the right. He reached for a stoppered clay jar and, holding it between both palms, gave it a hearty shake.

None of the crystal arranging or jar wagging looked to the bird like any sort of activity that involved food, and it chirped its lack of enthusiasm for what seemed like an unnecessary sidetrack the man was taking.

Instead of seeds, the man shook from the jar a neat pile of sand. He flattened it into a rough line across the surface of the table, between the pillars of crystal. At first glance, the sand would appear as tawny as the dunes of any beach, but a closer look revealed grains in every color imaginable. The man placed a wrinkled palm atop the miniature sea shore, closed his eyes, and began to mutter under his breath.

The grains of sand on the table began to vibrate and shudder, as though a tiny, faraway army were marching across the scarred wood surface, shaking it with the might of an invisible legion of footsteps. The bird fluttered down to the floor of the wire cage, and then back up to its perch, twittering with increasing agitation.

As the man's quiet, focused recitation wore on, a metallic odor arose in the room like a fog, and the stone walls seemed to sing in confirmation. A density built in the air until it reached some sort of critical apex, then broke with a tactile pop. The man's pale blue eyes snapped open.

"Green!" he said, an exasperated frown turning down the corners of a usually smiling mouth. He'd made a change, but not the right change. He forced himself not to dash the sand across the table in frustration. "You're supposed to be blue! What in the seventh winter am I doing wrong? Ugh."

The bird was indifferent to the man's upsets and lifted a delicate claw to scratch beneath feathers now the green of new spring buds. His plumage could be any color under the sun and it would not change facts: the seed dish in his cage was not getting any fuller.

"I don't understand," said the man, "Heximoleth's process should have worked. It's such a simple transition." He turned to an open book on a separate pedestal to his right and ran a fingertip along compact lines of text, skimming the steps of the appropriate thought journey, for anything he might have misunderstood. The words had been recorded a stupefying number of generations back and even this well-preserved volume was becoming difficult to read. He was lucky it didn't disintegrate under his touch.

"Hmm," he spoke to the book, finger pausing over a mark at the edge of the page, "this might be an ink blot and not a reduction glyph. Shall we try it without?"

The bird fluffed its new green feathers, indicating it didn't think this was the best idea. A better idea, it thought, would be the pouring of seeds. Maybe even a nice cricket.

The man's palm was in the sand again, fingers curling into the varicolored grains, tongue forming the words once more with a fierce concentration. Again the table began to hum.

The bird grew still. Sweat began to spring up along what used to be the man's hairline, when he'd had more of it. The air in the room seemed to dry out, grow warmer, and there was a shimmering, like a mirage, between the white and black points of stone on the table.

It was going to work this time. He could feel it. He repeated the words.

The pile of sand felt like a cloud beneath his hand, the floor no longer firm beneath his feet.

Yes. Yes, it's working. It must be.

He had the sensation of warm water pouring down the back of his neck. It made him want to relax, to let go, but he wouldn't. He needed to focus, to say the words, to—

Aphishmenes Setha'at Murél.

It came like the strike of a gong in his head. His concentration scattered.

Aphishmenes Setha'at Murél, it is time. You are Called.

He slid down through the water of reality, away from the hopping, chattering bird, and toward her voice.

If only They could have given him a little more time.

You have all of time, Friend. You know this.

He did know it. His being relaxed, floated.

Called. He could have sighed. It was bound to happen eventually.

And so it has, Young One.

Young. If he'd had a body here, he would have snorted with it. Certainly. About as young as the fattest tree in the Harrelwood. He felt a ripple of energy that might have been a chuckle.

You are young to Us, Aphishmenes, as you well know. And one day so will another be young to you. But we tarry unnecessarily. And poor Kitak ...

Yes, the bird. Well then, she ought to be on with it.

You are Called, Aphishmenes Setha'at Murél, to your time of service. The first meeting of The Three is upon us, and one is not willing and another not able.

He suspected he knew the unable and unwilling were the parties who least needed to be such. And that the remaining third party was more than enough of both to make up for the lack.

Your suspicions are correct, Young One. Heavenly bodies align more easily than earthly ones, I'm afraid. We need you to throw some stones in the pond, make all the fish look twice.

The vibration of her presence hummed mild amusement at her own delicate jest.

We know it has been long since you returned to the capital, but new paths have opened up and Our hand has been forced.

This didn't sound good. Matters unforeseen were a rarity. Something abrupt must have come about for her to use language as strong as this.

By the Listening Moon you must be there, Aphishmenes. The Unwilling will be there also, and your feet must be in the water before matters fly down a more ... difficult path. For all of us.

He understood. Perhaps not all of it. Nobody ever understood all of their Calling. Not at first. But enough to let him know there would be no more time for maneuvering through dusty texts and trying Kitak's patience between the four walls of a root cellar.

Yes, she agreed, it is time for you to go back. They are waiting for you, my friend. And after, so are we. Love is All.

Love is All.

A packed earthen floor was hard against his spine and shoulder blades as his usual goodbye brought him back to the small room and the reality where he was Called to serve.

He pushed himself up to a sitting position and brushed the grit out of his hair with distracted fingers. A part of him had thought he'd never be Called, with as long as it had been, and yet another tired side of him seemed to sag in relief. He took note, as he stood, of knees that creaked and lungs that grunted with effort, and admitted that it would be better to have this business out of the way now and not in another twenty or thirty summers.

"Fish, my boy," he said to himself as he hoisted his body up with palms on the edge of the table, "you're no longer a spring chicken."

Chicken!

"Kitak!"

The cage was empty.

"Oh, little bird! What have I done?"

His fingers fumbled at the latch of the cage door, flung it open. There was a ruffling sound accompanied by an angry chirp, and he all but jumped out of his skin at the feel of a wingtip flipping across his cheek and twiggy claws on his shoulder.

There was no bird to be seen, but still more disgruntled twittering spiked into his ear, making him blink one eye in a fury and lean his head away from the shrill sound. He felt a pointed beak nip at the top of his ear.

"Kitak!" he cried, reaching up, "what in the name of ..."

He could feel the airy, feathered body, and hear his long-suffering winged friend, without a doubt. But the bird who had been yellow only a short while ago, and then momentarily green, was now, as far as Fish could tell, invisible.

Of course.

He'd received his Call in the middle of trying to work through the color transition thought journey for what must have been the twelfth time. Who knew what incoherent nonsense he might have trailed off with as he slipped from one reality to another?

Now he was able to sigh with a real body.

"I am sorry, Kitak," he said, getting his fingers in what looked like a pantomime around a ruffled, imaginary bird. "I'm sure I'll figure out what I did and have you back to normal again in no time. Though blue would be better. That was the idea. Then you'd be harder to see against the sky. But I suppose now you're harder to see altogether." He ushered the indignant creature back into its cage, apologizing as he went.

"I know, I know, but I how else am I going to keep track of you if I can't see you? Double seeds for you tonight, my friend. You do put up with so much."

A chirp of grudging interest sounded out of thin air at this, and Fish shook his head. Kitak being invisible would take some getting used to, but to be fair, it was his own fault. He set about sweeping the pile of sand back into its jar with the cupped side of his hand before laying out a fine cloth to wrap up the crystal points for storage.

"You'll like the capital, Kitak," he spoke to the unfortunate bird as he busied himself about the room, straightening, gathering necessities. "There are gardens all around the palace with all manner of trees and high places for you to perch and look down on everyone ..."

He chattered on in a matter-of-fact way, as though he'd been planning this journey for ages instead of being thrust down a new path mere moments ago. Perhaps on some level he had. There was not much to pack and, before long, he stood at the foot of the stair, ready to ascend to ground level. Everything he needed he carried on his person, and that included what others would now see as an empty birdcage. He screwed up his face. Perhaps along the way, he could run through the thought journey again.

The bird tweeted a warning.

Then again, perhaps not.

We need you to throw some stones into the pond.

If there was one thing he could still do at his age, it was throw stones.

He set a foot on the bottom step.

-=(^)=-

One indefinable moment had seen her fleeing grasping hands amid a void of hissing, giggling darkness, the next found her waking in a strange man's arms, nestled into a warm bed of opulence. What other reaction could there have been, but for Niquel to leap out of bed and cry out?

A wiser reaction, for a start.

She hadn't been awake enough yet to remember with any clarity the events of the night before, aside from the fact that she should have been sleeping alone. And now here was this man—the Emperor—accusing her with those amber eyes from where he sat, still bound up in the linens.

"I knew it! You even looked me in the eye back on the steps when I asked you. How did I not see? You understood me the whole time!"

His gestures grew vehement and Niquel did what she always did when others became excitable: she went quiet and still. A chill on the air to counteract the flames.

"Well?" he said, not the least bit patient with her silence. "What do you have to say for yourself? Why did you lie to me?"

It was her fervent wish at that moment to be able to talk to Vodi. Like many other things, however, there was nothing to be done for it. Niquel decided to admit her shame. More for her fear than for the lie. Though that, too, made her feel low. Because of her ill-considered ploy, the man had confessed truths he otherwise might not have. At least one of them made her fight down another flush of color.

"I was afraid," she said, lowering aggressive hands from her hips to hang at her sides. "I have never encountered a situation of this nature. My fear caused me to stop thinking. And to choose poorly. His Grace has my apology."

Niquel dropped eye contact at this, pleased at least that she'd remembered the use of the honorific as Ellestia had warned. It would be foolish to upset the man further.

The moment stretched out in the brightening blue of early morning as she examined her feet and the stone of the floor beneath them, the two nearly the same color. Then she heard him clear his throat.

"Look. Out of all the people in this palace," he said, "you have about the least to fear from me."

At this, Niquel looked up at him and opened her mouth again before she could help it. "His Grace was in the bed. With me."

His eyes cut to the side at her accusation and he made a face, forcing air out through his nose. When he met her gaze again, he'd carved out a portion of calm for himself. "And for that you have my apology. It was never my intent. Now please," he said, swinging a leg out of the bed and rising to his feet, still in his rumpled toga, "call me Roathan. I have no interest in being anyone's Grace."

This was not expected behavior, if the stories Niquel had heard about lowlander kings and emperors were to be any guide. He should be pointing, demanding, imperious.

Instead, he waited with an open stance. Frank eyes. Spoke to her in plain language, forming the Novamnean words so that the vowels came wide and round, hinting at another first tongue behind it, somehow ancient and closer to the earth, to a ... a source. It was a voice that was affecting her in a way Maudri had described when she waxed on about Zidjhal. Only she'd never quite understood what her friend had meant until now.

"And what will I call you?"

Niquel blinked. She'd been staring, unfocused.

"Niquel," she said, coming out of her stupor, "my name is Niquel."

He repeated it, tasting the word for himself, and she found she liked the way it sounded on his lips, as though it had more weight, more substance.

"So I suppose you speak Common then, too?"

She looked at the floor again.

"Flames of Abra'an." It sounded like a curse, and Niquel sank back into shame. He sighed then, and she heard the sound move. Her eyes came up to see him leaving the bed, straightening his toga.

"Right," he said—and winter's tears, would you look at those calves? "Let's start again, mysterious Niquel. This time without the lies?" There was no irritation left on his face. Only an earnestness, as though he hoped to have some obstacle behind him. She felt her shoulders relax.

"I would like that, Your Gra—Raothan."

A nod seemed to settle the matter and he strode across the room. She turned to watch him arrive at some piece of furniture near the far wall. There were several glossy, wooden drawers beneath a fine, marble surface. Atop sat a wide stone basin, and from it, he began to cup water with his hands and splash it over his face.

"So how did you end up in the cages?" he said, as if they were old friends meeting after a long time apart.

Just how much was she willing to reveal to this man? If he knew the true reason behind her arrival at the palace, would he come to the same conclusions as Ptyverias? Have her tossed back into confinement? Worse?

He was smoothing the long, loose portion of his chestnut hair back into place now, and she watched with far more fascination than she would have thought possible at the way his arms bent and moved above his head.

Something made her want to trust this man. Perhaps because he appeared to have no immediate agenda aside from curiosity, and she was certainly guilty of that herself. He had told her there was nothing to fear from him, but still.

No lies, Niquel.

"Ptyverias caught me in his rooms."

"In his rooms?" He turned his head to give her a considering eye before wandering past her into the adjacent room. She followed to see him grab up a tray of edibles and migrate it to yet another low table between two chairs. "How'd you manage to get in there? And why?"

Again, she wrestled with what to tell. Simple answers seemed best.

"I had a guide."

The emperor nodded at this and sat, gesturing for her to take the other seat. "What happened to your guide? Locked up in the cages?"

Simple. Simple. Lowlanders don't understand J'sau Jeqnam.

"He did not make it to the cages."

"Oh." The word came flat with the dull tint of regret at having asked a painful question, but only realizing it upon receiving the answer. He tried to change the subject by sliding the tray in her direction. "When's the last time you ate something? Here."

Niquel was happy to move from the topic. She eyed the contents of the tray: a variety of white, hard cheeses and some sort of dried fruits, dark brown and just thicker and larger than her thumb. She chose one of the latter and, after a cursory inspection, bit it in half.

It was sweet and tart at the same time. Her stomach awoke and made an audible growl of irritation at having been ignored for so long. The emperor had half a smile for her at this as she ate the rest of it and reached for a second.

"So what were you doing in Firsoni's rooms?"

It seemed he would not leave the matter, after all. But what answer would satisfy that wouldn't need several hours' explanation?

"He has designs to destroy the Taunai. My people. I was sent here to prevent this."

"An assassin?"

"No," she said, working hard to veil her contempt for the lowlander notion. Always violence with these people, though she was surprised with his simple acceptance of her reasons. "There are other ways to alter a course."

A dark brow lifted at this. "And you don't wish to speak of such ways, is that it?"
"It is ... complicated."

"All right," he said, breaking off a piece of one of the cheeses and leaning back in his chair. "I don't need to know everything. But you did understand every word I said last night. Didn't you."

He popped the bite into his mouth, assessing her.

"I did." Where was this going?

"Then tell me why you visited my dreams, Niquel."

There it was again. Every hair standing on end. Vaudel. His stare pretended to be casual, but it hid a tension, a fear. And she feared as well, for here she most wanted to confess, but would he believe? The truth seemed more farfetched than a lie. Something tingled along her spine as she teetered on the edge.

Tell him.

If only it were Vodi's voice and not her own.

She folded her fingers in her lap and met the amber eyes. What was the worst that could happen?

"I do not know why you saw me while you slept, Raothan," she said, "but before I came to this city, before I knew I would leave the mountain, I saw you there as well. In my dreams. You stood in a field. Of kissmelon. This happened more than once."

The emperor burst into laughter.

This was not what Niquel had been expecting and she shifted in her seat, looking down again at the laden tray.

"Oh gods, that is too perfect," he said as he got his breath. "Too perfect."

She waited, calves up to their usual nervous flexing, not sure how to respond.

"Do you know what I was doing a week ago?" he said to her, wiping an eye, fighting back more baffling amusement.

"I do not."

His eyes twinkled at her. "I was harvesting kissmelon. On my farm in Aquillo."

Her jaw went slack.

"But what does it mean?" she said. There was more, of course, about him also appearing as a lizard and a horse, but that seemed like too much to tell him. That and the other parts. If portions of her dream already reflected reality, which others might also become true? She was sure the color was flaming over her face.

"I don't know," he said, reaching for the pitcher, pouring out some of its contents into a cup. "But perhaps the gods meant for us to cross paths. They couldn't have picked a worse time, I'll tell you."

"Why is that?"

The man sitting across from her gave a gentle shake of his head and wore a rueful smile. "It doesn't matter."

Her desire to ask questions rose up, as it always did, but she pushed it down. There were matters she had already been evasive about, and it would not be fair to ask the emperor for more candor than she was willing to give herself, just yet.

"I think," he said, brushing his hands together and rising again from his chair, "I'd like to help you, Niquel. While I can."

Inconvenient parts of her body clenched when he looked down at her with those eyes, spoke with that voice.

"Help me?"

"Yes." He offered a large palm, that she might stand as well, and she took it, leaving behind any shame for an excuse to touch him. "You need a way to return to your people in one piece. The way Firsoni talked about you? The guards? Something tells me someone who looks like you wouldn't make it out of the city alive."

She blinked a few times at his unexpectedly quick assessment of the grim realities, but he continued: "I have friends who can get you past this pack of jackals in the palace and the capital. I'll have a message sent today. If I can't do it myself, there are people I trust to do it for me. For you."

Niquel's breast welled with unfamiliar emotion at this selfless declaration from a man she'd only traded words with this morning. There was something immediate and terrifying about the way they were being drawn into each other's lives with the sudden pull of a vortex. This? The dreams? The vaudel?

His offer was kind, and yet it steered her off course.

"This is welcome beyond words," she said, "but I have not done what I came to do about Ptyverias. If I return to my people now, I do not know if there will be another way to turn him from his plans."

He had not let go her hand and his thumb brushed over her knuckle as she looked up at him. Niquel's pulse fluttered.

A horrible time. A horrible time for this.

"I don't think I have enough time to fix a problem as big as that," he said, voice low and unhelpfully intimate, "but I'm sure I can do this. Let me get you back to your home, Niquel. Maybe then I'll have something to show for this whole disaster."

The last words seemed more for himself than for her, and Niquel wasn't sure what they meant, but the rest melted some of her usual ice. Or maybe the warmth in his eyes was to blame. She wasn't sure.

"I will accept this help, Raothan. You are very kind to do this."

Again, the wistful half-smile as he released her hand, stepping back.

"There's something else you need my help with, too," he said, trying to muster some of his earlier smirking, causal air.

"And what is this?" She smiled back. It was contagious, at least with him.

"I'm going to find the seneschal," he said, eyes skimming her form and bringing a disbelieving shake of his head. "We've got to get you something else to wear."

Yes, it seemed lowlanders had far different ideas about concealing and revealing the body. She heard him muttering as he turned to move toward the door. Something about men not being able to make plans at all, and distractions. Possibly another curse to one of his gods.

Niquel looked down at herself. It was only a body. Why such fuss?

But then she had been focused on this Raothan's physique more than made any sense. The hands, the shoulders. Those eyes.

Things were sure to become more complicated before they became less.

-=(^)=-

Bellora woke to a splitting headache, her neck turned to one side at an awkward angle, cheekbone crushed against the grain of a tabletop. An empty bottle lay toppled just within her line of sight. Her legs were asleep below the knee.

A horrible groan filled the single room she'd shared with Baovar, and she realized it had come from her own throat.

Slices of light pierced in through the slats of the shuttered windows and the muscles in her neck screamed as she straightened herself.

"Oh, pack me." Her words came at a croak as she shifted her feet and the blood began its million pinprick return.

There was clatter already from the potter's shop below the apartment, and the long-familiar sound made Bellora somehow feel more foreign in her own home than she ever had.

Just what in the blue flood had happened to her last night? The general? Had she actually done those things? With Kadrian Packing Ayzhus in the illhallowed palace?

Her feet were coming around and she rubbed her temples.

Bellora might have brushed the whole thing off as too much drink and strange dreams, but that wouldn't explain the new toga she wore. The one Ayzhus had told her to fish out of that chest by the door after she'd hauled herself sated and confused out of that city-plaza-sized bed.

Holding the bottle up to her bleary eye and squinting down its neck confirmed her suspicions. She'd drunk it all.

Baovar wouldn't want to see you like this.

Perhaps a fair assessment. But was she more distraught for having gone to someone's bed so soon after seeing him at his pyre, or at the bed belonging to a woman? Was she being unfaithful to his memory in this? Had there been any choice, plucked out of the cages as she was? She hadn't enjoyed any of it.

Had she?

Come for me, Bellora ... make that pussy scream ...

The way heat flared to life between her thighs before she could think twice about the general's words flashing though her head, and despite the raging headache, again told her more than she wanted to know.

She'd never bothered to think of women in that way. Women were her mother-in-law. Women were Baovar's sisters, the potter's wife downstairs. Men were lovers. With their big, square hands, their deep voices. A man could chase, could catch, could battle wills.

And what else did Ayzhus do, if not all that? Were you or were you not wet when you were face deep in her slit?

Increased blood flow was not helping the throbbing in her head. She needed water, now.

Sliding the wooden chair back over the floorboards and hoping her knees were ready to support her, Bellora moved to stand. She remembered there being water in the—

THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!

She almost wet down her own leg at the jolt of a fist banging at the door. The whole wall seemed to shake.

What the ...?

THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!

"Imperial Guard. Open the door."

Imperial ... Had they followed her? Her mind and heart were in a race to see which could trip the other and kill her first. Was this about the—

THUMP! THUMP!

"Imperial Guard! Open the door now, or pay for a new one later!"

Oh, balls. What could these idiots want?

Bellora scurried around the table to the door, knowing the potter's wife—her landlady—would be none too pleased if part of the property was splintered to bits. It felt like an awl was pushing through her temple as she moved.

This better be important. Assholes.

THUMP! TH—

"Yes?" she said in irritation as she yanked the door open to a bracer-clad arm still in mid-air.

"Bellora Dazhmi."

It wasn't even a question. The blunt-nosed officer smirked down at her, two more of the palace guard flanking him from behind. She was in no mood.

"What do you want?" Hadn't Ayzhus said she was free to go?

In answer, the heel of his hand thrust forward and banged the door out of her grasp, knocking it fully open. Without invitation, he pushed his way into the room, Bellora stepping back to avoid being trampled.

"Hoi! You can't just come in—hoi!"

Before the whole of her indignity left her mouth, the trailing pair of guards were on her, wresting her arms around to the small of her back, shoving her down by her shoulders. The outrage threatened to render her aching head explosive.

"What is this?" Her knees met the floor with a jarring thunk. "I was pardoned. The general said I was free to go." Her face was hot now with fury.

"Indeed she did," the officer said, taking his sweet time about closing and latching the door behind him.

"Then what's the problem? Why are you here?"

"A good question, half-breed. And one I intend to answer." He's not Parthi. How dare he call me that! "Your work in the palace is not yet done."

She was about to fire off some new retort, but the invectives died on her lips. The man's right hand had shifted beneath the dangling metal of his cingulæ and was pulling his prick to stiffness through the fabric of his toga. He stepped forward into her space.

Bellora balked but the pressure on her shoulders increased, along with the twist of the grip on her forearms.

"You came all the way down here to get your cock wet?" She was incredulous and her lip curled in disgust. "There ain't tail enough near the palace?"

"No," he said, dropping a smug grin down on her, "I came here to bargain. This is just to let me get a word in around that liar's tongue of yours."

In a jangle of metal, a bunching of fabric, angry veined flesh loomed large as a final step brought Imperial thighs and groin near. Fingers like a vice from behind had the hinge of her jaw in a forceful pinch, springing it open against her will.

Her mouth was full of meat, stuffed before she could breathe in to rage at it. Instinct jerked her head backward, but a palm was at the base of her skull, denying any retreat.

Bellora glared daggers up at the son of a whore.

"Teeth would be a poor choice, slit licker," he said, feeding himself a bit further past her lips.

This ... illhallowed dog! He doesn't know what he's unleashed.

She reached down into the center of her being, ready to delve into that ever-shifting other that was the source of her Will.

By the flood, I'll have him writhing so fast.

"I wouldn't bother," came the officer's voice, sounding almost bored. "We're all wearing nullified steel." He slid the metal surface of one of his heavy bracers along her cheek. "You won't so much as touch your Will until we're gone. Now stop wasting everyone's time being uncooperative and listen."

If Bellora could have lit him on fire with her eyes, she would have. But he was right: that luminous flickering layer of possibility she would dip her focus into and bend to her Will was simply gone. Negated by the presence of the specially-wrought alloy the three men had on their person. She should have known. It was probably standard military issue these days. Who in the Guild had allowed that development, she'd never know.

"Now," he said, with an idle shift of his hips that pushed more of his musk into her nostrils, "you are in a position to procure what I need, Disgraced One. And more than that, you possess the particular talents to obtain it."

She twitched her shoulders and made some unintelligible noise around the organ pressing down her tongue, but both were pointless. The situation would not be altering in her favor until this walking eel allowed it.

"That's a good question, Bellora," he said, turning her struggles into a jest. "I'm glad you asked." She cut her gaze elsewhere, focusing on the motes glittering in the plane of light coming between the shutters, rather than on the dark tangle of hair at the end of her nose.

"What I need you to do"—a crisp tap to the side of her face with an open hand—"Pay attention. Eyes up here. What I need you to do, is return to General Ayzhus."

"Unnh?"

What?! What did he want her to do?

"Yes, you heard me." A subtle meaty throb. "The general will have returned to the barracks. You've caught her attention once—I'll need you to find her there and do the same again."

"Waugh?" Bellora had passed confused long ago. And just how many people needed to be in her mouth in the space of a day? The hold on her arms from behind was predictably painful, but so far the Eel seemed to hold true to his stated purpose, merely plugging her up and stilling her tongue, not trying to root.

"You're to go back," he said, trailing unnecessary fingertips under her chin, "and become her shadow. Endear yourself to her. You'll go everywhere she goes, if you play the game right. The great Kadrian Ayzhus is blind as a bat when it comes to her favorites. You'll hear what she hears, see who she sees. Especially with your ... abilities." At this last he wore a mocking smile, and she knew he referred to her specific brand of Will work. He also would know by the scars rent through her tattoos that there would be no Guild stepping in to protect her from bullshit like this.

"And on every third day, my little snatch-bait"—he pushed so that she felt the furry scrotum against her chin—"you'll be reporting what you've seen and heard back to me. In detail. Now I'm going to relieve you, and you're going to tell me this is all perfectly clear. Understood?"

Bellora grunted, brows drawn together in contempt. The cock retreated and she coughed, wetting her throat.

"You know she sent me away, don't you?" She couldn't help but laugh, despite the restraining downward pressure still on her shoulders. "Kadrian's Other Army grows for a reason. She's not going to have me back. Bitch doesn't have anyone back for more than a night. Your plan goes about as far as a running leap off the cliffs."

"Ah, but that's where you don't understand the general." A hand slid over his length in idle strokes, glossy from her spit. "The faster she shows one of her toys the door, the worse she's got it. You lasted what? An hour or two? She might as well be polishing her dress armor for the wedding. No, she'll have you right back, even if she won't admit it. And you'll say just the right words to convince her there's nowhere you'd rather be. Won't you, Bellora?"

She couldn't help it. The chuckle welled up, bubbled into some sick sound of humor. This cocky bastard wanted to stand here and make demands? As if she had some satisfying life to preserve against his threats? Baovar was gone. Her sentence had been almost a blessing. Someone waving his prick around thought he had something more to hold over her head?

"What are you going to do?" she said, unable to conceal the derision in her voice. "Rape me? Kill me? Make me listen to you sing the Ballad of Osquillian? I ain't doing shit for you, palace dog."

"Oh," he said, growing a predatory smile, "you won't be doing it for me." He let down the hem of his toga and lowered himself, bending at the knees to sit on his heels in a squat, dark eyes level with hers just a handspan from her face. His gaze glittered with sinister promise and Bellora knew he'd been waiting for this moment.

"You'll be doing it for that sweet little niece and nephew of yours."

His grin had too many teeth and she felt a pit open up below her stomach, her sweat turn cold.

"What is your husband's sister's name again? Dairah?" Her heartbeats slowed, but each felt like it was going to squeeze together and rupture something. " 'Auntie Bellora! Auntie Bellora!' Isn't that what they run up the stairs screaming? Won't it be fun for me to tell their mother whose fault it is when their little voices stop?"

"Pack off!" She wanted to lunge forward and bite off part of his smirking face. "You're not going to start murdering children."

"Ohhhh, Bellora." A blunt fingertip traced down over the lump in her throat. "You would cry and beg for the Sack again once you saw what became of their bodies."

"You ... illhallowed ... ugh!" There weren't even words, but she was sure she was red in the face.

Eanni. Rocairr. And neither of them older than ten summers! As the Eel rose to his feet again, so did her gorge in her throat. Her legs tried to straighten under her, to follow him up, to claw out his eyes at the very least, but restraining hands shored up their hold, weighing down, hauling back.

"I see we have an understanding," he said dusting off his hands. "You'll keep me informed of the general's dealings; your family lives for another summer. And it should go without saying, but I ought to make it clear: disclosing this morning's 'conversation' to anyone will forfeit your part, as well. Now. Shall we seal our bargain?"

The rough hands at her jaw again, the brief scuffling of shins and sandals as she tried to avoid. Imperial thumb and forefinger circled a ruddy girth for aim, crammed in past the threshold where she wouldn't gag. This time the goal wasn't her silence.

Gripping her hair at the scalp, the Eel lost no time thrusting. The blunt end battered the roof of her mouth, the back of her throat as she coughed and sputtered around it. There was no way to help the jagged noises of outrage lancing out of her around the invasion.

"That's it," he said, planting himself deep in a relentless repetition. "Choke on it." Her eyes began to water. She couldn't time her breaths with the pace of the spearing shaft. "Choke on it, little cocksucker."

Several more wild jerks of his hips had Bellora doing just that before she raked in a great gasp of air at an empty mouth. The first hot rope of fluid arced across her cheek, and then another onto her chin, her upper lip, the crude seal to the "bargain" he'd promised.

Bellora fumed up at him as he grunted through the last of it, letting the final few drops splatter to the floor between her knees.

One of these days, by the flood, I'm going to kill you, Eel.

"I expect you to make an appearance at the barracks before the end of the night," he said as he settled his toga back into place. The guards behind her had not released their hold and all she could do was kneel there and catch her breath.

"Ask for an audience with the general. She'll see you, I promise. And so will my eyes." A few paces back, he had hands at his waist, assessing her with that smirk she wanted to flay from his skull. "Every third day, Bellora. I'll send someone to collect your report. Are we clear?"

Oh we're clear, you worthless pile of shit.

"How am I supposed to know your 'eyes' from anyone else?" Her voice came at a croak and she had to swallow to wet her throat. "All you pricks look alike."

He had the gall to chuckle at her taunt. "They'll ask what news you have for Ogdavian"—he put a fist to his breastplate, indicating himself—"Captian of the Palace Guard, and you tell them everything you know."

All at once, the heavy hands left her as the two at her back stepped away. Bellora fell to one side, leaning on her hip, bracing herself on an arm and murdering the captain with her eyes as he and his men moved toward the door.

"So pleased we could come to an agreement," he said. "If you ever get tired of eating Parthi slit, you can come ... 'reinstate our bargain' any time." A lewd grab at his crotch and a slithering leer were his parting gifts as the trio funneled out the door and shut it behind them with far less noise than they'd made on the way in.

Their departure seemed to snap her awake somehow, and Bellora scrambled to her feet, ripping her toga off over her head and wadding up the material to scrub at her face in a fury. It wasn't enough. She found the pitcher of water she'd risen to look for in the first place and upended it over her head, rasping the skin of her cheeks, her mouth, nearly raw with wet hands in an effort to chase away the feeling of the guard captain's cooling spunk on her flesh.

Her frenzy of cleansing ended with her leaning on the heels of her hands on the table, chest heaving with anger for which there was no outlet.

She wasn't a fool. Tonight she'd have to go find the general again. There would be no fixing this mess right away. This Ogdavian wasn't wrong: she did have a liar's tongue. One of the finest in Protreo. The damned thing had all but paid for the apartment she seethed in the morning after her unexpected pardon. And now she was going to have to use it to buy something else: her family's safety.

But later? Weeks? Months?

This captain had better enjoy his puny handful of power now, for whatever fool purpose he wanted it. Because once Bellora picked her way clear of Imperial plots and schemes, the Eel was going to pay.

-=(^)=-

The stammering servant had almost been unable to stop bowing and pouring out obseisiances long enough to guide Raothan through the palace as he'd asked. And when he wasn't stumbling all over himself out of nerves at being spoken to directly by the emperor, he was glancing back over his shoulder at the woman who called herself Niquel as though he was being stalked by something that had crawled up out of a grave.

After sending the seneschal gliding about to produce a more reasonable toga for his pale charge, and to have a message sent to Loresto via one of the many Willworkers the palace retained, Raothan had popped his head out the doors to his temporary rooms and snagged the first person he'd seen passing in the hallway.

The young man's eyes almost goggled out of his skull when his emperor insisted he didn't want to wait for a formal meal to be prepared and brought up, but rather asked to be led to wherever it was the servant took his own meals, reasoning it would be quicker, simpler. They'd wait half the day if some small army of cooks and servants had to be mustered for his sake. The people around him didn't seem to realize just how brief his stewardship of the throne would be. There would be no need to keep up the pretense.

That, and he felt restless penned into the two rooms, no matter how luxurious their trappings. A gilded cage was a cage all the same. The least he could do was explore this labyrinth he was set to die in, and a mess hall was as fine a place to start as any.

The enigmatic Niquel, who'd stepped out of his dreams and straight into his ill-fated path walked a step ahead of him now, and to this right. Until he had a better grasp of who he might trust in this den of corruption, Raothan thought it best not to leave her alone for any length of time. He'd noted the way this servant shrank whenever he looked in her direction, as though the emperor would set her to enact terrible magicks upon him were he to step out of line. And then there had been the seething revulsion Firsoni had shown the night of the Release Rite, painting the young prisoner as some sort of abomination. It was clear Novamnean attitudes toward her race were not conducive to the woman's safety. He'd said as much to her, and had his suspicions confirmed when he'd seen the relief on her lovely face at his suggested precautions.

Any real reason for such hatreds had yet to surface, as far as Raothan could see. Watching the silver curtain of her hair sway across the back of her newly acquired Imperial blue toga as they followed the servant, all he could think of was the frankness she'd displayed this morning. Well, after being found out, that was. And the trust she'd placed in him, even the night before during her mute pretense. In truth, she'd understood his words and showed belief in their honesty, smiling and taking the bed without fear, expecting him to do just what he'd said and sleep in the other room.

And a fine job you did there, Ga'ardahn. Surprised she was willing to speak to you at all after that.

The replacement of her sheer slave's garb had been a relief. Descending through the palace while staring at flexing white cheeks the entire time would have had him tenting his own garments and not paying attention to where he was going—the opposite of what was his normal instinct to do. Ellestia had brought her sandals as well, at his request. Bare feet seemed also somehow a way to bring her low, and he was surprised by the strength of his conviction that this should not be done to the woman he'd just met. A great many odd things were happening these days. Challenges. Eclipses. Dream women.

They moved down into the bowels of the hulking stone structure now, well below where people of status conducted their affairs. The stone was hewn rough, and the fine oil lamps replaced with torches. Less windows meant stale air, and he could see from the way his guide wrung his hands as they went, that the servant was embarrassed to be bringing his emperor this way.

A sharp right turn and a final short, wide offshoot from the corridor they'd been following led them to a broad square entry into a larger space beyond. The servant hesitated at the threshold, looking from the mess to Raothan and Niquel, lost as to what the protocol would be in a situation like this. Should he announce the emperor? Show him a table? Raothan chuckled to himself.

"Thanks, friend," he said, slapping the younger man on the shoulder. "I'm sure we've got it from here."

The servant gaped at Raothan as though he'd transformed into a flying cow right before his eyes, but he was fast to close his mouth and effect another shaky bow before scurrying off, by the looks of it to empty his bladder at the nearest opportunity.

He turned to step into the awaiting room, making a customary sweep with his eyes as he went. A handful of servants sat taking a midday meal at long wooden tables arranged in rows, and busy kitchen hands bussed in and out, harrying surfaces with rags, balancing precarious stacks of dishes. Narrow, horizontal slits in the stone, high up on the walls, served as meager excuses for windows, letting in thin gold-white fans of noon light and venting the space to the outside at ground level.

A familiar laugh yanked his eyes to the right side of the room and he couldn't help but grin.

"Hoi! They can't get me to take meals in my rooms like a proper leader either, Your Grace. Join me, then?"

Kadrian Ayzhus sat at one of the benches, knife and fork in mid-hoist, her seemingly unflappable cocky smile flashing like a blade in the sun.

Knowing Niquel would be even more out of her element than he was, Raothan touched fingertips to her elbow, and when she glanced at him he nodded toward the table, indicating they should go and sit. He wondered if he was reading too much into his observation that she didn't seem bothered by his touch.

"General, this is Niquel," he said as they slid onto the opposite bench, "of the Taunai."

The Blyd Kriga'al arched a golden brow at this, but seemed to think better of making any sort of comment. "Shadespeaker," she said, nodding to the woman on his right. Raothan noted the dissatisfied quirk of a lip at this, the tiniest narrowing of silver eyes.

"Niquel," he said, the correction subtle, but he saw from Ayzhus's shrug the point had been made. Fair enough, her shoulders said, and she went back to cutting into some sort of meat-filled pastry.

Why so protective already? Who on J'rt Thi's blessed earth is this woman?

"So where's the woman you pardoned?" he asked her, trying to decide whether it would be better to shift away from the warm female thigh whispering against his beneath the table or stay as he was and be distracted. Had she sat so close to drive him insane?

"Mmh"—the Parthi words came around a mouthful—"already sent on her way. She bargained well, earned her freedom." Here Ayzhus laughed. "I can see you're not interested in the tradition of making slaves out of imperial pardonees, either." She nodded to indicate Niquel's blue toga, an obvious replacement for the flimsy one they'd given her.

Before he could comment, the general's eyes flicked up over his shoulder and she made an exasperated face.

"Come on, get in here. The Emperor's not going to bite you."

He turned in his seat to see a willowy serving girl with a full tray hovering at a second, smaller entrance to the room, probably one leading to the kitchens. Her dark eyes were as round as the servant's who'd led them down here.

"I'm not that horrifying, am I?" He put a laugh into his voice, trying to put the woman at ease as she crossed the room with swift steps, the way a Djarmik shaman would walk a line of coals.

Ayzhus waved his attempts to placate away as the woman unloaded the contents of the tray onto the table. "Just leave the whole thing here, will you? Go find something useful to do besides staring at His Grace."

He sighed at the truth in this, however blunt the general had been. The woman was almost fumbling crockery, stunned as she was to find the emperor in the service mess. That and the way she gawked at Niquel made him again want to curl a defensive arm around her small waist. He didn't, of course, but he wanted to.

"A bit harsh, eh, General?"

"Pff"—she whipped the length of her warrior's queue over her shoulder where it was attempting to fall into her plate—"you're going to send every servant in this place to the healer's ward with an attack of nerves before the end of the week, at this rate, Your Grace."

"They don't seem to be bothered with you in here."

"Eh. They're used to me. And I'm not the emperor." She showed him a row of jesting, white teeth at this before nodding at additional pastries the serving girl had left. "Your Grace'll want 'em before they're cold, I can tell you."

"No doubt," he said in agreement. "And I've already asked Niquel to call me Raothan, so you can relax with the titles there, General." Ayzhus cast a look between him and the silver-haired woman and he watched her try to judge the nature of their situation. Whatever her final assessment, she left it unspoken, and only bobbed her head as she chewed.

"Works for me, Ga'ardahn."

Raothan slid one of the steaming dishes past himself to Niquel, and then took the second one for himself, pausing to fill two cups with more water from a ready pitcher on his left. Concern darted through his mind for a moment that perhaps the Taunai woman had never eaten anything of this sort, and what manner of utensils her people used for eating, if any, but he left it, figuring if she was hungry enough, she'd figure it out how to get the thing into her belly one way or another.

He wasted no time tucking in, and out of the corner of his eye he could see Niquel spearing at her own dish with the downturned tines of a fork. However bizarre this entire morning must be for her, she appeared to be taking it in stride, accepting the new circumstances as they came without any great deal of resistance or displays of emotion. This calm demeanor garnered her additional respect from him, and he hoped Loresto would be able to make arrangements to have her securely on her way before the eclipse reared its head. Before his ability to protect her came to an end. While he still knew next to nothing about her, some inexplicable impulse told him she deserved better than to be abandoned to the whims of Protreo.

"Of course you know," Ayzhus said, interrupting his thoughts, "I have about a million more questions for you."

"Well I have no idea where babies come from, if that's what you want to know." They both laughed at this. Even Niquel, he noticed, had given a small huff of amusement and the corner of her mouth turned up as she ate.

"Maybe you'll answer me this, Kriga'al," she said. "You know I realized what you were when I saw your marks there at the coronation." The general referred to the tattoo arcing across his shoulders, down his spine. He nodded for her to continue. "The Hast Kriga'al mark is two horses and a bow. But yours is a horse and something else. What's the other beast? Are our Hast sisters and brothers so different in Elvigraath?"

Raothan decided it would be worth it to see the look on her face. She wouldn't believe it, by why bother to lie?

"It's a saigus."

"A saigus?" Her eyebrows rearranged themselves. "Some sort of good luck symbol?"

The Novamnean ignorance of the beasts often annoyed him, but for some reason with Ayzhus it was amusing. His grin widened.

"No"—he gave a slow shake of his head, holding her blue eyes with his—"in Elvigraath we ride them."

Disbelief wrinkled her forehead for a moment before the general barked a laugh. "You're so full of shit, Ga'ardahn."

Niquel's eyes widened at this and glanced to him, unsure if there had been insult, but Raothan only snorted. "You think so, do you?"

"Please. Next you'll be telling me you found Paranthe's tomb."

He shrugged, grinning like a fool. "Don't know what to tell you. The saigus is native to the desert. Can't help it if you think they don't exist just because you've never seen one."

The general narrowed a skeptical eye. "And you ... ride them."

"The saigus is an excellent war mount. Only a very few of the Hast earn the right to saddle one. To call themselves Hast Saigat Kriga'al." He could tell Ayzhus still thought he wasn't serious by the way she'd stretched out an arm to rest on the edge of the table and leaned her chin on the knuckles of the opposite hand, the line of her mouth leery.

"What does this word mean? Kriga'al. It is not Novamnean or Common, I do not think."

The general blinked at Niquel's entrance into the conversation, as if she'd forgot the other woman was sitting there. She looked to Raothan, asking with the quirk of a brow how much was acceptable to say to an outsider about the brotherhood.

We're both outsiders here.

It was true. And who would she tell? After the eclipse, it wouldn't matter one way or another.

"It's fine," he said, waving away Ayzhus's concerns. He turned to Niquel. " 'Kriga'al' is an Elvigra word for warrior. Hast Kriga'al"—he pointed to himself—"horse warrior. Blyd Kriga'al"—he gestured to Ayzhus—"blade warrior."

"Warrior," Niquel repeated, as though she hadn't made it past the very first of his explanation.

"Yes. Though not just any warrior, any soldier. The Kriga'al are a brotherhood. A person can't petition to become Kriga'al. An existing brother or sister must see some promising skill, the right temperament, and invite them. And still, they must meet many challenges before earning the right to the name."

It sounded impressive, when he said it like that, but Niquel was squinting down at the remainder of her food, trying to process his words. "So you ..." She cleared her throat, looked up at him again. "It is your calling to force the transition. To kill, as you lowlanders say it. And many people. All at one time. With your ... armies."

The last word sounded the most foreign of all on her lips, and he felt a strange indignity rise in his chest. The gods had taken many things from him in this life. Many dear things. But his pride at being Kriga'al was not among them. Not yet.

Ayzhus was looking ill-amused from her side of the table. Never in his life would he have imagined having to justify what he was, and yet the disappointment in that pair of silver eyes had him hurrying to explain himself, to maintain what respect he'd earned from the woman.

"Niquel, of course war is unpleasant, but when there is an empire the size of Novamne, of Elvigraath—"

"Pull in every spear from the lower levels as you go!" There was yelling in the hallway outside, organized footfalls trooping past at a jog. "Block every entrance. You! Go find the captain!"

Raothan and the general both stood at once, instincts from her present role and his of summers' gone by snapping them alert at the sound of urgent commands issued, of trouble on the air.

Ayzhus was at the entrance to the corridor in a heartbeat with Raothan on her heels, ready to assess, to take action out of habit.

"Hoi. What's happening?" The general had flagged down the source of the barked orders, but when Raothan appeared behind the Parthi, the uniformed woman in the hallway bowed low as soon as she saw him.

"Your Grace."

"Attention, Guardswoman!" Ayzhus snapped her fingers and the woman sprang upright. "What's going on?"

"General. Rebels have mobbed the throne room. We don't know how they got into the palace, but we're moving to seal them in. I sent someone to notify the captain."

A growl of dismissal flared in the Blyd Kriga'al's throat. "Forget Ogdavian. If he isn't already involved, who knows where he is. I'll go myself."

"Rebels?" he said as she stepped out of the mess. The general looked back at him and grimaced.

So it's true. Another thing I'll need to tell Loresto, if I can.

There was no question as to whether he'd follow Ayzhus. He'd be of help, if he could, not linger here like some discarded weapon of old.

His eyes flicked to Niquel, who was standing now, as well, expectant.

"You should come with me. It won't be safe for you here alone."

Whatever her misgivings, they appeared set aside at the haste of the moment. She stepped over the long bench, all refreshing efficiency, and was at his side in a breath. This woman didn't waste her time with ceremony of movement, of decorum, the way so may in the palace insisted on doing. It only added to his growing estimation of her.

That's not all that'll be growing if you don't pay attention.

Yes, whenever they'd cleared up the threat in the throne room, and he could find himself alone with her again, Raothan had any number of further questions he wanted to ask of the woman with the silver hair. The one who was making him self-conscious for the first time in many summers.
Questions like, Do you mind me staring at you all the time?

He grunted to himself as they moved to keep up with the general and the guardswoman. What were the gods playing at?

-=(^)=-

Now they were striding through the endless stone warren of corridors that riddled the imperial palace, always heading upward, the frequency of windows and colonnades increasing as they went. Niquel following close behind the emperor, and he on the heels of the golden-haired general. The pair who called themselves 'Kriga'al'. Warriors.

As little as the lowlanders understood the Taunai relationship with J'sau Jeqnam, so did her people fathom the calling that existed outside the Starlys for men and women to force the transition of their fellows. Not for mercy, as when the only continued endurance of the body would involve great pain. But for their wars. To say one portion of land was named after this leader or that, to claim that one people or another had the right to own the stones and trees of the earth.

War. There was no word for such a concept in her native tongue. When Questioning, Vodi or the other guides had been forced to use Novamnean words to explain it. And now it seemed this general the emperor shared his easy camaraderie with was a leader of wars. Of warriors. More, the man who'd so gently held her fingers in his palm the night before, said delicate beautiful things to her, whose smile made her belly tight with unfamiliar expectation—he was one of them as well. One who dealt in wanton violence. In ruin without purpose.

There wasn't even time for her to consider how all this might fit along her path, why the Pattern needed her to be here with such people as these, before the potential for still more savagery had erupted right in front of them. And now they were rushing to meet it.

The only way she knew they'd arrived at this throne room was when the general came to a halt outside a deep recess in one of the walls and another of the guards trooped out to meet her, offering her a crisp salute and a confused face.

"General," the man said before seeing Raothan at her back and balking as the last one had, executing a hurried bow. "Your Grace."

"The rebels," Ayzhus prompted him, brushing off his formalities.

"That's just it, General." The young man's eyes were wide, head shaking in disbelief as he planted the butt of his spear on the stones of the floor. "There were dozens of them, Sir. Armed. Pikes, blades."

"Were?" The blonde warrior's voice carried a threat.

"They're ... they're gone." The guard's face was slack as though he couldn't believe it himself. "They were all there, raising a noise like the Illhallowed. Then"—he made some gesture to compensate for something he couldn't explain—"gone."

"What do you mean, 'gone'?" This from the emperor, and the guard dipped again in a quick bow.

"Your Grace, the throne room was full of angry men, and then it was empty. In the blink of an eye." The guard looked back to the general. "Well. Almost empty. Now there's an old man."

"An old man?" Ayzhus looked as though she were about to strike someone.

"He says he's here to speak to the emperor."

"And the old man just ... replaced the rebels?"

The guard nodded to the emperor's question, but the general whirled on Raothan at this, as if he were the one who had invited the entire disturbance. "What's this about, Ga'ardahn?" Her voice came at a growl and the guard shrank back a pace when she abandoned the imperial honorifics.

"Be fucked if I know, General." The man from Niquel's dreams shrugged. "If he wants to talk to me, let him talk." He stepped toward the door, but Ayzhus moved as though she might block his path.

"Your Grace." Her eyes were level with his. Serious.

Raothan's face split in a slow grin. "What? You think I can't handle a single old man?"

Something in the general's face relaxed at this and she stood aside. "Right," she laughed. "Just don't get yourself killed before it's time, eh? I don't think the empire can handle another surprise coronation."

Now what does she mean by this?

Niquel twitched her shoulder blades under the harness. It was maddening not to be able to speak to Vodi. To anyone. And now was not a time she could be asking questions of the people around her.

The emperor made for the doorway and she could only follow.

They emerged into a massive rectangular space, filing out onto a raised portion of the floor at one end of the room. A stone chair of extravagant proportions, crusted with ornament and intricate carvings, faced the body of the hall. A series of three stone steps cascaded from in front of what must be the throne down to a level with the rest of the hall.

Of course, pale stone columns lined both sides of the room, and between them, and in front of an imposing set of double doors at the opposite end of the hall bristled palace guards. Every spear pointed inward, and at the center of the airy space there hunched a round little man who appeared to be muttering into a small, empty brass cage of some sort that sat beside him on the floor.

An expansive skylight—a poor glass mimic of the crystal one in the step hall in Jeqnamset—filled the room with colorless midday light. By its light Niquel could see the man wore ragged grey and dun robes beneath an otherwise haphazard mantle of small bits of fur, twisted buckskin cording strung with feathers, stones, tiny shells from the sea. White bursts of hair ringed a pink, bald head and a pair of well-worn sandals wrapped his feet.

Standing on the opposite side of the throne was a man whose face Niquel would rather forget, if not for the needs of her people. To her surprise, it was this man Raothan addressed first, rather than the tangle of rags and mystery at the focus of so many spears.

"Firsoni?" Raothan said, stepping further into the room. "What are you doing here?"

"Your Grace," said the other man, tipping only the slightest nod. "I was pulled in when the—"

"Emperor Raothan the First!"

The clear, carrying voice made half the room start, including Niquel. The old man must have only just noticed they'd arrived.

"Your Grace!" he said, abandoning the tiny cage to step in the direction of the throne. The array of guards shored up grips on their spears at this, but the white-haired man was oblivious. "I've crossed half the empire to stand in your presence this day! I am honored. Honored." He wrung aged hands together, leaning forward on his toes, eager.

"Well now you're standing here," Raothan said. "What do you want?" Cutting through ceremony appeared to be a habit of his, Niquel noted.

"Oh! Your Grace, yes!" The old man's arms fluttered with enthusiasm, setting the various stones and shells he wore clacking against one another. "I've come to offer His Imperial Grace my services. My council." At this he sketched a proud bow that impressed Niquel with its smooth execution. He moved well for a person with so many winters weighing on his bones.

"His Grace enjoys the advice of seven councilors already," Ptyverias said. "He may confer with us on every possible matter affecting Novamne, from finance to war. There will be no need for him to take on additional ... 'counsel'." The last word dripped with disdain, but the elder petitioner only grinned, pale blue eyes guarding a knowing twinkle.

Something about this man nagged at Niquel, but she could not put her finger on what it was. She'd never seen him before, but something ... Something.

"Oh?" White brows drew together over a pink face, confused. "So there's already a seer among you? Well why wouldn't they tell me this before they called?"

"A seer?" Ptyverias plucked out the offending word and made some dismissive noise. "The Imperial Council relies on facts. Histories. Records. Things which can be measured and recorded. Not wild notions pulled out of hori dreams. General"—he turned to the other woman at Raothan's side—"this man is wasting our time. He should be escorted off palace grounds."

Hori dreams.

This notion struck a chord with Niquel, but its implication seemed impossible.

"Not all knowledge comes from books and tablets, my lonely friend," the old man said, ignoring the guards tightening their formation. "Some wisdom can only be got from places we can't touch with our hands."

Ptyverias blustered at this, and Niquel gathered the man seeking an audience with the emperor had either failed to use some honorific, or worse, had offered some insult. She watched Ptyverias's hands come into fists at his sides and his jaw tighten.

"That's more than enough from you, Seer—"

"A seer? Where?" The supplicant gave a startled little hop and looked around the hall as though he'd just awakened and found himself surrounded by strangers. "I should very much like to meet one of those fellows," he said, backing up toward his abandoned cage. "You know I hear they—"

"Bah! This has become nonsense," said Ptyverias. "This madman wanders in here from the Divine knows where and ..."

Niquel heard nothing after the single word that unlocked the teasing thought she'd been chasing.

"Wanderer."

Arguing voices went silent and every eye in the room stared at Niquel. She'd spoken aloud without realizing.

Warmth like the most glowing summer's day eased the features of the old man's face at her one-word proclamation, and he turned to face her, nodding his head in slow respect, as though she deserved as much veneration as the emperor.

"Questioner," he greeted her in turn.

Winter's tears, he knows what I am! Then he must be ...

"But we have not seen one of your kind on the mountain since the grandmother of my grandmother was a girl." She leapt from thought to thought, unable to grapple with one idea before jumping to the next.

"Well it can't have been me. I haven't been back that recently." He scratched his chin with stubby fingers, considering.

"He consorts with the witch!" Ptyverias stabbed a finger in her direction.

"Enough of this," said Ayzhus. "Get him out of here."

There was a clatter of arms, but Raothan stepped forward, putting his hand on Niquel's shoulder.

"Everyone calm down."

She repressed a shiver at the sound of his voice. Deep. Clear. Carrying. If there had been any confusion as to the final authority in the room before, his resonating imperative had resolved it. The guards eased their spears, all eyes on the emperor.

The old man's shoulders softened more at this, and he clasped his hands together like a proud parent. "Ah, yes. The Sun and the Moon are coming together for the eclipse. Then we're not too late, are we, Kitak?"

Niquel had no idea what the Wanderer was talking about, or who he was talking to, but the words lit Ptyverias aflame all over again.

"What do you know of eclipses, Seer?"

The old man met his eyes, shaking off some sentiment directed at her and the emperor like so much mist on his robes.

"And lo, the Lights of the Firmament shall conjoin overhead. And the people will know darkness and strife. The cliffs will they paint with blood and the Void will they purchase with fear, but it is without foundation." Every set of lungs in the room held its breath, and the man seemed to grow in stature as he spoke, challenging anyone to dispute his words. "The union of Moon and Sun begets new light. So has it been. So shall it ever be."

Ptyverias's face could not have been more red.

"Don't quote Telamemnon to me! The man was a drunk prophet at best."

"But those are the best kind!" The old man laughed, as if this proved some point.

"Your Grace, this is going nowhere," Ptyverias said.

"Never thought I'd agree with the First Councilor," said the general, "but, yeah. We should be on with our day."

At a subtle jerk of the woman's head, a pair of guards broke ranks, moving to lay hold of the nuisance in their midst. The Wanderer shot a single splay-fingered hand out toward the emperor.

"Raothan, wait!"

A chorus of gasps went up around the room. The hand dropped from Niquel's shoulder and the man at her side came forward onto the stairs.

Oh, Vodi, where are you? If you hear me now, please help him.

If a Taunai like Niquel was rare and reviled amongst the lowlanders, a Wanderer was a thousand-fold more. She prayed they didn't understand what he was.

And that the man from her dreams would continue to prove to her that not every Novamnean was willfully ignorant.

J'sau Jeqnam, do not make this lesson a hard one. I can hardly bear any more.

-=(^)=-

Raothan was amassing questions faster than bodies piling up on a battlefield. Everyone needed to stop talking.

Wanderer? Questioner? A seer? Telamem-who?

By the tongue of Alfta'an, would nothing make sense?

The entire throne room walked a knife's edge of anticipation now that the insistent old man had called him by his name alone.

As if it mattered. What he most wanted to do was escape this uproar with Niquel and leave the Imperials to their machinations. It was time to come to the point.

"What. Do. You. Want."

He made his words clear, with just enough threat woven in to show he wouldn't tolerate further sidetracks. This did nothing to intimidate the man with the empty cage, who only grinned as though this was the part of the audience he'd sought from the beginning.

And still no one's explained where the rebels went.

"Your Grace," he said, spreading his palms wide, "I'm afraid I'm quite serious about my offer of services." Raothan's lip turned in irritation, but the man went on. "If I may speak to His Grace one single word, and that one word alone does not convince him to accept my presence, I will depart the capital this instant and never seek to trouble Him again."

"One word." He was more than skeptical. But be damned if he wasn't also more than curious.

"Yes, Your Grace." The man bowed low again. "Just the one and no more."

"All right," Raothan said with a toss of his head. "Let's hear it."

A smile broadened the already-round face. "This word is for His Grace's ear alone."

"Of course it is." He was ready to be done with this and stepped down onto the floor, the old man already moving to meet him.

A score of armored bodies shifted forward at the sight of what might be a madman closing in on their emperor. The sound of Ayzhus's sword clearing its scabbard made a metallic rasp at his back.

Oh, for—

"Stand down," he said to the guards. "Now."

He glowered at the general over his shoulder and unspoken words flew between the two of them.

She narrowed blue eyes at him, sheathing her sword.

"Stand down." She repeated his words and the guards fell further back, as confused as anyone else in the room.

The First Councilor glared around the hall at the whole affair and Niquel looked as though if she went any more still, she'd become one with the white stone columns.

Fuck it. Let's do this and be out of here.

Three more strides had him meeting the old man in the center of the room. He stopped with his hands on his hips, waiting.

"Well?"

Heavily-lined fingers motioned him to bend low and match the other man's height—of which there wasn't much—and Raothan rolled his eyes as he did.

"What's the one word?" he asked as the hoary head aligned itself to his right ear. "Before I lose patience."

"If His Grace will forgive me ... the word is ... 'Hesme'."

The guards, the general, the First Councilor—even the intriguing Niquel—all disappeared.

Raothan hurtled headlong down a black roiling tunnel into a maelstrom of his past.

Hesme.

The void laughed at him in great hiccoughs of wanton nothingness. For an instant and interminable moment, the weight of which he could no more easily shift than the length of Vrennic's Teeth laid over his shoulders, he was on his knees again, howling into chaos.

It's your fault. IT'S YOUR FAULT!

Smoke was in his eyes and burning ash whorled up into the night. The eyes. The eyes were open, staring up, unseeing, and people were calling his name.

"Raothan!"

It's your fault.

"Your Grace! Are you well?"

And as fast as it had come, the cruel seizure of memory was gone.

He staggered back a step, shaking his head, the throne room filling his vision once more. The old man stood in front of him, hands clasped together, solemn but expectant.

"How do you know this name?" His words came at a rasp and he swallowed to wet his throat.

"I know a great many hidden things, Raothan Ga'ardahn." It was another whisper, meant only for him, and buttressed by a sad smile.

Something whispered against his elbow and Raothan caught his backhand before he struck. Niquel had come to his side, silent as the grave, and flinched at his violent reaction to her touch.

"Are you all right?" Silver eyes were wide with concern, her voice no louder than the seer's.

Calm down, Kriga'al.

"I'm fine," he said, gathering himself. "Fine."

Raothan regarded the old man and Niquel. Swept his eyes around the room. The collective hush awaited some decision from him. Some action.

There were so many questions. And here another stranger shows up knowing a name no one this side of the Teeth knew but Raothan. Perhaps the man had other answers.

"What's your name?" he asked. The least he could do was stop thinking of him as "the old man".

"Fish, Your Grace." A glimmer of pride shone in the pale blue eyes at this.

"Fish?" he repeated, not sure he'd heard right. "Like the animal?"

White eyebrows knitted together in confusion, as if wondering why anyone would ask such an odd question. "No." He offered no further elaboration.

"Huh. And what's with the cage?" Raothan nodded at the floor and the seer bent to take up the brass enclosure.

"This"—he presented the cage—"is Kitak."

"You ... named a cage?"

"No." The man gave him a more intense version of the look he'd worn earlier, as if Raothan were the crazy one. "Who names a cage? The bird is Kitak."

"What bird?"

The man who called himself Fish made some noise of exasperation and lowered the cage. "Ah. Well. He's a bit ... invisible right now. My doing, I'm afraid. But he's still a perfectly serviceable bird, Your Grace, I assure you."

He glanced down at Niquel and she shrugged.

"I see."

It was all becoming more bizarre by the moment. But still.

Hesme.

Yes. If there was a chance this old man could help him make sense of things before the end, he would take it. Why not? It seemed the gods meant to throw every other insane thing under the sun at his feet. Why not this?

"Very well, Fish," he said, to the brightening of blue eyes. "I'll accept your counsel." For as short a time as I might need it. "You have somewhere to stay? Or do I need to have the seneschal find you rooms?"

The man was all smiles now. "I have lodgings in the capital. Your Grace is most kind. Most kind, indeed."

"Good enough." He turned to nod at Ayzhus. "We're done here, General. I'm sure your guard have better things to do."

Listen to yourself, commanding these people. As if you had any right. As if you won't be dead in a week, just like you wanted.

Despite his self-recrimination, the two-dozen-odd spears were already filing out of the room. The four stone walls were surrounding too close, too heavy. He had to get out of here.

"Find me tomorrow morning, Fish," he said, turning toward the door where they'd entered. "I have questions you might try to answer."
"His Grace wants me to answer questions?" the seer said. "How lovely!"

Gods. Maybe he has lost it.

"Oh! Speaking of serviceable beasts," said Fish, "I believe I passed yours on the way into the palace."

He turned back to the man. "What?"

"Styrro? Great clubbed tail? Eats everything in sight?"

"How did—oh, nevermind. Where is he?"

"He was nosing around the gardens when I saw him. But that was some time ago."

"Your Grace, what is this?" said Ayzhus, hand still on the hilt of her sword.

Raothan couldn't decide if the whole situation was hilarious or enraging. Perhaps it was both.

"It's my gods-be-damned saigus, General. If you didn't believe me before, today's your lucky day." It didn't matter if Fish knew where the beast was. They could just follow the sounds of imperial panic.

He turned on his heel to leave the way he came, Niquel following close behind and Ayzhus standing open-mouthed, when the First Councilor stepped in to almost block his path.

"Your Grace," Firsoni said, all sober formality once again, "I would never presume to question your judgement on this matter, but—"

"Then don't." Raothan shouldered past him, uninterested in hearing the rest.

"Tomorrow morning, then, Your Grace!" came the cheerful call from the seer as he passed into the corridor.

The exiled Elvigra general grunted as he strode along toward the next disaster.

And what the fuck kind of name is Fish, anyway?

-=(^)=-

From the palace gardens, where the baffling seer had said he'd last seen Styrro, it was easy enough to follow the trail of mild destruction and clusters of gossiping servants that seemed to mark the path of the wayward saigus. The pairs and trios made hasty bows and scattered back to their duties in every direction as Raothan and Ayzhus passed. Niquel followed in their wake

Her reactions in the throne room said she knew at least something about this Fish, though how much was uncertain. Once he had the mess with Styrro settled, and he could manage to get her alone again, Raothan would press Niquel for the reasons behind her outburst at the appearance of the old man.

If he would even find a saigus at the end of the end of their search. They'd set out to find a throne room ambushed by a throng of rebels, and instead there had been a single man with an empty bird cage and more confusion.

Just out the door to the mess where they'd started, an ancient Novamnean woman, skinny as a broom handle, stood pressed back against the corridor wall. She began to stammer even as they approached, clutching a meat-tenderizing mallet to her chest as if for protection.

"G-General!" she said, recognizing Ayzhus "Th-there ..."

"Is it in the service mess?" Raothan asked, inserting himself.

The old woman almost fell over herself trying to bow in the middle of quaking fear. "Your Grace! The ... the kitchens!"

The general again took the lead at this trembling instruction and moved past the woman, across the mess, and through the passage the serving girl had appeared from earlier with their tray of pastries. Raothan was close behind, trailing Niquel, but it was the Parthi's abrupt halt at the other end of the passage that had him almost crashing into her back.

"It can't be," Ayzhus said in a sort of daze while Raothan shouldered past her.

But it was.

There, in the middle of the palace's immense kitchen, muzzle rooting in some sort of wicker bin, was the saigus.

"Styrro."

A grunt at his name and the head came out of the bin, a dark, liquid eye turning back in Raothan's direction.

"What are you doing here, you scaly beast?" he said, approaching the saigus's flank to slap at the familiar hide. "You were supposed to go back to your herd."

The weighty clubbed tail gave a subtle swish, as if pleased to hear a voice it knew, and the snout went back down to forage, unrepentant for having disturbed the workings of the palace's kitchens.

"Pack me," he heard Ayzhus swear under her breath behind him. "Thought you were having a laugh at me, Kriga'al. But no. That's an illhallowed saigus."

By this time, Niquel had also slipped into the room and, while not as wide-eyed as the general, she still wore her own stoic version of awe on her snowy face.

"It is ... like a horse," she said, as though searching for words, "but also like a lizard."

"That's one way of putting it, I guess."

She gave a dazed little chuckle at this, eyes not leaving Styrro.

"Why's that funny?" he asked.

Her gaze flicked to Ayzhus. "It is humorous for the same reason kissmelon was this morning."

Perhaps she alluded to another dream? Of course, he wanted to know more, but he could understand her wanting to be circumspect around the general. Niquel knew the Parthi woman even less than she knew him, and that was hardly at all.

All these things aside, the saigus needed to be out of the kitchens. That poor woman in the hallway, whom he suspected was the cook, might never be the same as it was.

Raothan whistled a particular two-note tone, the one that told the beast it was time to listen and obey commands. "Styrro. Ready up."

The great head rose out of the bin, a final green apple still between its crunching teeth, and turned itself to face its rider. He couldn't help cringing as the enormous tail swept around and cleared more than one countertop of clattering cookware. No. The cook would be none too pleased, at all.

Styrro wore neither bridle nor harness, and he wondered for a moment whether it had been Loresto or someone else who'd unhooked him from the cart, considering the last time he'd seen his mount he'd sent the beast off to haul his harvest into Aquillo. Whatever had happened, he'd have to rely on obedience alone to get the saigus moving now.

"Those doors go outside?" he asked the still-goggling general.

"Um ... yeah. Yeah, they go outside," she said with only the briefest glance to spare for the pair of wide, wooden doors with iron hinges as long as arms to support their weight.

"Good." He went to the doors and lifted the hefty bolt, swinging the left one in so the eye-watering daylight poured into the space. With a glance back to Styrro to gauge size, Raothan moved to pull back the right side of the door, as well. He still didn't understand how the saigus had gotten into the room to begin with. If his mount had come through the passage from the mess, the same as he and Niquel and the general had, well, he must have been a determined creature indeed, because it would have been quite a squeeze. More mysteries, which he hated. Raothan Ga'ardahn preferred things to be out in the open. So naturally, that's just how they refused to be.

"I assume the palace has stables?"

"It sure does," said Ayzhus, shaking her head in disbelief.

"And you know how to get to them from here?"

Now she had a proper laugh and lopsided grin for him. "What do you think I am? New? Come on." She moved past him then, with a final incredulous look for Styrro, and set off at a walk along the foot of one of the stone walls of the palace.

Raothan turned his attention to Niquel. "Hope you like columns," he said, by way of an apology for dragging her all over the palace, from one bit of trouble to the next, "because wherever we're going, I'm sure there's more to look at along the way. And probably stairs. I'm sure the imperials'll figure out a way to work some of those in, as well."

Her smile at this was genuine and it made him want to say more stupid things to her, language barrier or no.

"You say this as though you were not chief among them, Your Grace." she said, silver eyes glinting.

Is she ... teasing me? Gods, help me now.

As if he wasn't having enough trouble trying not to behave dishonorably already.

"Right"—he gave a nervous laugh, as though he were a youth, stymied with his first infatuation—"Well." Diverting his attention to the saigus, he gave a double click of his tongue and set out after Ayzhus. At the familiar sound of the command, Styrro followed, passing into the open air.

Niquel increased her stride and came around the beast to fall into step at his side. She appeared far less concerned now with the improbability of a saigus on this side of the Teeth than most people at their first encounter, not bothering to look back every few moments, and not going out of her way to give the foreign animal a wide berth. But then, he supposed everything in Protreo was in some way exotic and new to her, so what was one more thing, even if was a lizardy war mount the size of a plow horse?

She was doing far better than him staring at her every few moments when he thought she might not notice. His latest obsession was the way the criss-crossing of her sandal straps climbed her white calves, changed shape as her muscles flexed from walking. He wondered if he were to unlace them, would the leather have left an impression on her skin, and what it would feel like to trace with his fingertips.

"Fuck!"

A stupid place for a rock to be anyway, he thought as he saved himself from a stumble.

"Is everything all right, Raothan?" She looked at him with a hint on concern pinching her brows.

"Sure," he said, with an eye roll reserved only for himself. "Seems I just can't walk and chew thoughts at the same time."

-=(^)=-

Ayzhus led them some distance through the palace grounds before they reached their destination. Strategically upwind from the palace itself, the stalls of the imperial stables formed three sides of an enormous square, velvety muzzles bobbing over many of the low doors to face a central staging area whose hard-packed dirt was the current home to neither beast nor cart.

They entered through an iron gate at the southeast corner of the structure and followed the general out from under the eaves and back into sunlight. A Parthi girl of maybe fifteen or sixteen summers backed out of one of the stalls, pitchfork in hand, and closed the door behind her.

"Hoi," Ayzhus said, "Where's Jaemus?"

"Stablemaster's back in the tack house, General," the girl said, stepping in their direction now, a hand to her brow to block the sun. "He—"

Her words halted with the rest of her as the saigus joined them in the light.

"Go fetch him then, will you?" said the general. The young stablehand blinked and stared, a reaction Raothan knew would get tiring before the end of the day, and began to lose her grip on the pitchfork.

"Right! Right," she said, sending fluttering hands after the falling implement. "Jaemus." The girl scuttled off, backwards for the first few steps, as though if she were foolish enough to look away, the saigus would be gone when she turned back. At least she hadn't recognized him as Emperor. Probably would have tripped over her own feet trying to bow and scurry at the same time.

The Blyd Kriga'al was no better and, after having sent someone to round up the stablemaster, had returned to her own silent disbelief. Arms folded across her chest, feet planted apart in the dirt, the general looked as though she was about to engage in a strenuous debate with the beast. Styrro stood at Raothan's shoulder, indifferent and awaiting commands. His nostrils flared with interest, though, while they waited there, on the never-ending lookout for food.

When the stablemaster didn't make an immediate appearance, Raothan spared a glace down at woman standing on his other side. Her skin had attained a scorching new level of white in the full glare of the sun. When he caught her eye, she gave him a shrug that suggested her opinion of standing around waiting. In a blink, she'd stepped across his path and brought herself eye-to-snout with Styrro. Before he could stop her, a pale hand went up.

"Niquel, I wouldn't—"

Taunai fingertips and a flat palm rested on tawny scales, between the intelligent eyes. The small, leathery ears came forward, and his mount snorted with interest.

"Hm." It was a short sound she made, through a bit of a sideways smile, as though she'd confirmed some suspicion. Her hand moved again, ascending over a horny eye ridge.

"Ah, you know," he said, lamenting the current lack of reins, "he doesn't really like—"

People touching his ears, he was going to say, but Niquel had the thick, flexible skin between thumb and fingers and was massaging the bristly rim, oblivious to his attempts at cautioning her. The saigus's eyelids were drooping and the beast lowered its head so she might reach the other side, as well. This earned a chuckle from her and she went to work with both hands. Raothan added the sight to the growing list of oddities he'd seen in the last few days.

I must be getting closer to meeting the gods.

Styrro didn't let anyone touch him. At least not without permission from his rider. A necessary part of the Kriga'al training; it would be the same for any saigus-warrior pair in Elvigraath. It had taken several summers for the beast to accept Loresto's hand, when the occasion called for it, and here this woman was, meting out affection as though the mountain of scales was a favorite dog.

"Your beast journeyed on his own to find you?" she said as she moved down Styrro's opposite side, sliding her palm over plate-sized scales as she went. She carried herself with the calm of a person who encountered entirely new creatures as a matter of routing.

"So it would seem."

As he watched her with the saigus, a thought stuck him. He'd told Loresto when the guards were hauling him out of Aquillo that Styrro would return to his herd, once freed of his rider. But if the animal accepted Niquel's touch so well already ...

Maybe I need to amend my request to Loresto once he arrives. Or Cadrea, whoever comes. One of them will be here, I know it.

The Taunai woman could use all the protection she could get on her way back to the mountains. Perhaps with Styrro he might be able to provide her with an additional layer of security on her trek.

"General Ayzhus!" A man about Raothan's own age came around the far end of a wing of stalls, wiping his hands on tan breeches which would have been more at home in Aquillo than the capital, and trailing a boy of perhaps seven summers. He stopped cold at the sight of the general's company, and the youngster bounced off the back of his thigh at the unexpected halt.

Raothan couldn't help his bark of laughter. It was all so ridiculous. Was it the saigus shocking the man? Or was it the new emperor showing up in the stables without retinue? Or maybe the white and silver "witch" at his side these Novamneans all seemed to regard with such horror? It could be all three.

Maybe the answer to his Challenge was to take out as many imperials as he could via heart attack in the next few days before he expired, himself. Between Niquel and Styrro following him around, he might do just that.

"Your—Your Grace!"

And here come the bows. Thank the gods this'll be over soon.

"Jaemus, right?"

"Y-yes, Your Grace?" The man could hardly compose himself, though the boy at his side suffered from no such nerves. Young eyes stared straight past Raothan to the saigus, ignoring all else.

"Let's have it out of the way, Stablemaster," he said, wanting to run as far and fast as he could from the scenes he was causing everywhere he went today. "Yes, it's a saigus. Yes, they're real. No, he doesn't breathe fire. And no, he doesn't eat people. Now is there a stall big enough you can keep him in for the next few days?" He glanced at Styrro. "A sturdy one?"

"I ... I ..." It was taking the Novamnean man a while to chew through everything Raothan had just piled on his plate. The boy, on the other hand, was ready with questions, emperor or no.

"Is that a monster, Da?"

Noni, is that a monster?

Ovar's words from summers long gone flew at him out of memory, a fish yanked up out of a stream by a lure. No kid, still just a man. He remembered his jaded response to the boy back on the western foothills of the Teeth, while the tentative hope for a new life sprang up green and wavering.

Now, watching the past in his mind's eye was like being bound to a stake and made by his enemy to watch his loved ones drown over and over again. The enemy's laughter always sounded far too similar to his own.

Is that what I am now? Have I become the monster? Is there nothing left?

It was the reason he'd laid down the Challenge, wasn't it? The emptiness? The divorce from humanity? And yet here were his promises to Niquel. His near violent response to the seer's "single word". It was as though insubstantial hands grasped at him from this direction and that, endeavored to pull him back to a sense of purpose he'd abandoned with the steps of the Last Parade. Pleading with him to feel something once again.

Against all reason, the wide eyes of the stablemaster's boy made some stupid part of him want to reach for those hands, to grab onto old ideals as though this time they'd bring him something other than ruin.

"He's not a monster." The words were out of him, their tone patient, before he could deny the instinct. "He's a saigus. Are you going to help me find a stall for him?"

The puny shoulders and ribcage puffed up at this. "Yes," the boy said, as if daring Raothan to challenge his compact expertise. Ayzhus and Niquel were repressing smirks at the whole exchange while the stablemaster stood looking from one face to the next, mortified. The man was most surely the boy's father.

"What's your name, kid?"

"Natteo," the boy said, stepping away from the man.

"Well, Natteo," he said as the child approached, "this is Styrro. And he doesn't have reins right now, so you're going to have to learn how to lead him by commands. Can you make this sound?" He made the double click of his tongue, his hands on his hips, looking down at the dark-haired top of a head, waiting for confirmation. The boy offered up a passable imitation of the sound, and Raothan nodded.

"All right. Now say, 'Styrro, follow', and make that noise. And go where you want to lead him."

The stablemaster's son made the commands, his small voice confident, and moved past the beast's right shoulder, looking back as he went to see if the saigus would follow. Raothan passed a palm down the side of a scaly neck and gave his mount a subtle pat, indicating Styrro should follow his miniature, temporary master. The animal hove into motion like ship parting ways with a dock. Satisfied—and more than a little amused—Raothan came around to walk with the boy toward the empty stall where he was leading them.

"Now, just like a horse," he said, "you'll want to not stand behind him. Avoid being in the way of the tail. And if he starts making this noise"—he reached over to twitch his fingertips in the hollow under Styrro's chin, causing the loose scales around the beast's neck to ruffle together in a chitinous clacking—"get as far away as you can."

"What happens when he makes that noise?" the boy asked as he led the beast into a double-width stall.

"That's when the tail comes down," he said as he watched Natteo close and latch the door. Styrro's intent crunching sounds were already grinding up from a feed hopper in the rear corner of the stall. "If you're standing anywhere close when that happens, well ... you won't be."

The stablemaster had ventured near and was hovering now, all nerves that his son might somehow be irritating the emperor. And yet Raothan found himself more at ease speaking to the boy than with perhaps anyone else he'd met in the palace. Probably because the kid seemed blissfully ignorant of titles and Raothan didn't have to endure a lot of awkward bowing and honorifics.
Niquel was approaching as well, silver eyes taking in every detail of the stables as she came. In Elvigraath, that sort of cataloguing gaze was a dead giveaway for a temple archivist, but he had no idea what it meant for one of her kind. She made him feel awkward for entirely different reasons.

At Niquel's arrival, Jaemus put a hand on his son's shoulder and drew back, casting a wary eye in her direction. "Come away now, Natt," he said. "His Grace doesn't need you bothering him."

The boy, oblivious to propriety, turned to Niquel. "Are you a witch?"

Jaemus went as white as the woman he was trying to avoid, but Niquel's cool, patient smile bore little resemblance to the tight-lipped disapproval he'd seen her wear when adults had similar comments. Perhaps because the child had yet to learn similar malice.

"I am not," she said.

"Then how come you're that color?"

"Natteo!" The stablemaster made ineffectual pleading gestures with horrified hands. "Your Grace, my apologies for my son, I ..." The man flapped his hands at his thighs, at a complete loss as the general stepped under the shade of the awning to join the group. Niquel looked down, amused.

"I am this color because my home is in the snow. All the people who live on the mountains in your Harrelwood look like me."

The boy's face scrunched at this, accepting such a simple explanation in a way most cynical adults would not, and at the same time tasting a disappointment when reality didn't live up to the legends of his imagination. "So you can't do any magic? Not even Will?"

"I am sorry," she said, eyes glinting as she held back a much broader smile. "I am afraid I am a very boring, ordinary person."

Natteo humphed. A saigus was one thing, but to have almost seen a real, live witch?

Raothan, on the other hand, didn't find her boring or ordinary at all.

"Ah! Finally!" Jaemus straightened and everyone followed the snap of his head across the staging area to a loaded hay cart cresting the rise. A pair of horses hauled it into the staging area and a trio of boys—well, perhaps men, but barely, Raothan allowed—hopped down from the back to approach the stablemaster. The man was no doubt glad for the distraction.

"Hoi," he said, heading in their direction, "just you take that around back like I asked the last time. The barn's on the other side of—"

"You dare!"

Every eye jumped to Ayzhus whose strides closed the distance to the three in a heartbeat. With the unrivaled speed of a Blyd Kriga'al, her hand flashed up and yanked at some strip of orange fabric the foremost of the youths wore around his upper arm.

"You dare walk onto palace grounds flaunting the colors, gursa?" Raothan didn't know the last word, but it sounded Parthi, and it sounded like a curse. The other two young men were merging into the space behind the third, trying to make their own arms inconspicuous. The general was having none of it and shoved the one out of the way to confront the other two in a similar manner. The stablemaster's eyes had opened wide enough to swallow his skull, and Niquel had gone silent and still.

"You're lucky I don't have the three of you thrown in the cages for treason," Ayzhus was saying to the petrified trio as she stripped the orange bands off the remaining two with a similar brisk venom. And well they were, to be standing there, rooted to the spot with fear. The reputation of Kadrian Ayzhus had not bled out into the empire for no reason.

"Thought you were part of something, did you?" she said, brandishing the gathered material in their dumbstruck faces. A dagger appeared in her other hand and she slipped the blade through the doubled lengths of cloth. With a deliberate pull of honed edge and fabric in opposite directions, just below eye level for the greatest effect, she severed the bands in half and let go her grip. The orange scraps fluttered to the dirt.

"Well, you're not," she said, pointing the declaration at the trio with the gleaming tip of her blade. "Now get out of my sight before I change my mind about the treason."

Their faces were a panoply of repressed fury, fear, and embarrassment. One closed an open mouth while the first she'd stripped of his arm band did the opposite to begin some retort. He never had the chance.

"Go on, then," Jaemus said, "You heard the general. And you can tell anyone else you know who has deliveries for the palace: they can send people who show respect, or they can lose out on imperial coin. D'ya hear?"

"We hear, Stablemaster. We hear," the apparent leader among the three said, stepping back from the confrontation. He had a look of dubious appraisal for the Blyd Kriga'al still scowling at him, but stumbled, possibly even by accident, onto the wisdom of biting his tongue. Instead, after another backward step or two, he turned and walked out of the stables the way the cart had come, the other two exchanging uncertain glances before following on his heels.

"Well," the stablemaster put in from behind them, "I think we've seen enough excitement for one day. Come on, Natt. Let's get this hay stored. General? Your Grace? If we may?"

Raothan turned to face the man and answered without thinking. "Of course." The man bowed at this and led his son away, the boy stealing glances over his shoulder at people far more interesting than chores until the pair moved out of sight.

Look at you, answering to 'Your Grace'. You think you like being in charge again, Ga'ardahn? Some selective fucking memory you've got.

Ayzhus was sheathing her blade, but the curl of her lip remained bared, not ready to stand down any time soon, from the looks of it.

"So the orange bands ..." he prompted her.

"Rebels." She almost spat the word. "At least that's what those three were playing at. Not one of 'em looked old enough to be rebelling against their mother's tit, but they're still not going to walk in here throwing the colors in our face. Pack that."

With the confrontation at an end, Niquel had stepped out from under the awning to join them in the sun again. He forced his attention back to the general, working not to be distracted by the white and silver presence at his side.

"I heard you lay into Ptyverias the day I arrived," he said to the blonde warrior, "You're not on the side of the Church, are you? I thought the Parthi had their own gods, no? You don't think the rebels have a point?"

"It doesn't matter what they believe, or what I think." Ayzhus pushed her loose hair back away from the shorn side of her head, her blue eyes serious. "They have problems with what the Church is doing, they can bring it before the senate like they're supposed to. Or they can petition the Mediate. Flood and damnation, Paxus has one job, and that's to keep this kind of thing from getting out of hand."

"You don't think the army can put them down, if it comes to it?" he asked, folding his arms over his chest.

"It's not so much that I'm worried about, Ga'ardahn," she said, dropping the titles now that it was only they two and Niquel. "It's that right now is about the worst time for something like this to crop up as it could possibly be."

"Oh?"

"I'll tell you this," said Ayzhus, glancing around to confirm they were still alone. "My ears in Xenge tell me the Mine Lords have been stirring again. They've been waiting for years to make another push for independence, looking for a foothold. A nice little civil war flaring up in the capital?" She shrugged, raising a knowing brow at him. "Perfect distraction for the army, wouldn't you say?"

He saw her point, but couldn't help a chuckle. "Has Xenge ever really 'belonged' to anyone, though?" The prosperous city-state at the southern end of Vrennic's Teeth had been "claimed" alternately by Novamne and Elvigraath for centuries, yet somehow never seemed to be a proper part of either of them.

"They belong enough to pay taxes," she pointed out, "and to keep the price of metals somewhere near reasonable. If they succeed in splitting off they'll have us by the throat. Right now we have an upper hand because we're their source of water, at least that isn't full of salt. But independent, they could negotiate water rights with your people maybe. If they did that right now it'd violate the Merchant's Pact."

"They're not my people anymore. Elvigraath doesn't want me; I don't want them."

The general dipped her head in acknowledgement. "But you see my point, anyway. And right now I think we're just buying time. The rebellion is very much alive here, and it's going to rear its head at some point. Probably sooner than we'd like." Here she chuckled, and it bore that jaded note he knew so well among his former peers in Setsirkhal. "You're lucky you're not going to be around for the shitstorm, Kriga'al. You won't have to deal with any of it."

The casual reference to his impending demise at the eclipse had his eyes darting to Niquel. As he might have expected, her silver brows had climbed into the strata where questions lived, hinting at new levels of complication to any conversations he might engage her in later. To his partial relief, she took her contemplative look and turned away without comment, strolling back over to Styrro's new stall to give her attentions to a less troublesome beast.

"You know," Ayzhus said, voice pitched low to make him the sole audience, "I'd be careful around that one if I were you."

"Why's that?" he said, dragging his gaze away from pearly skin shaded beneath the hem of a blue toga. "You think she's some sort of witch, too?"

"Mm ... I don't know about all that," the general cocked her head at the Taunai woman now murmuring something into the saigus's stall. "But these sort of reputations aren't built on clouds, Ga'ardahn. Sure, there are a lot of ridiculous rumors, but some things you even hear educated people repeat. Things about them consorting with the dead? That's why they're called Shadespeakers, you know. I don't know if it's wise to get wrapped up in all that."

"What do you think she's going to do?" he said with a smirk. "Kill me? I'll be dead in a few days, either way."

Though she'd said as much herself only moments ago, the general still blinked at him in mild shock at his own blunt admission of his impending mortality. And now some of the internal itch he'd been feeling today had crystallized to the point that he was finally able to put a finger on it: he had grown irritatingly ambivalent about the prospect of death in the last day or so. He'd made the Challenge, assuming a predictable outcome, and now the gods had thrust him into a state of affairs so bizarre he couldn't have made them up if he was high on hori.

The patterns of history, according to the astrologer, indicated he was about to die. He'd asked for signs to show him if this was acceptable to the gods, and so they'd made it plain as day. Yet other matters had arisen that plucked at his instincts for involvement beyond the next few days. The rebellion. The Taunai woman whose last name he didn't even know. What did they want of him? What was the gods' plan? Or was there no plan at all, and the entire mess could be written off as simply the chaos of life?

Ayzhus slapped him on the shoulder, bringing him out of his spiral of unanswered questions. "Well, whatever you do," she said, still eyeing Niquel, "be careful, will you? She might not kill you, but I think you and I both know there are a whole lot of things worse than death." The Parthi's look was pointed and, despite her morbid warnings, she chided him like a sister. A dangerous, blademaster of a sister.

This woman from his dreams in all likelihood wouldn't kill him, he thought as he watched her charm Styrro, but there were still plenty of other things he wouldn't mind her doing to him.

Jr't Thi's blood, let it go.

He sighed to himself. It was true. Whether from fear of her or fear for her, it was better for him not to get involved. There was no telling what sort of burden it would place on one of her kind, if he were to make some ill-planned attempt at seduction, gods forbid succeed, and then die on her in a matter of days. Raothan knew almost nothing about the woman, but he was sure she didn't deserve that.

No, if he couldn't keep his baser urges under control, well ... he was Emperor, was he not? There was sure to be some way to come by a willing partner who wouldn't care if he was there for a night and gone the next. The general seemed to have no trouble.

But even that, he realized as his gaze soaked in the exotic grace of Niquel's hands, the maddening dip of her neck below her jawline, seemed somehow low and coarse. As if he were being unfaithful to someone to whom he'd made no such promises of faith.

Not while you were awake, anyway.

He still had two good hands, he supposed. He could always deal with it himself.

She looked back in his direction then to meet his eye. The corner of her mouth turned up in a soul-shattering smile.

It was a shame it wasn't true in the literal sense, because it sure was in the figurative. Eclipse or no, he was damn well fucked, now.

-=(^)=-

after   eclipse   emperor   exile   for   the  

Oct 3, 2018 in blowjob

Tags

Search