"Are you ready?" Lothor asked. His face was cool and remote, but Keleios was beginning to realize he wore that expression to conceal some strong emotion.
She touched her weapons once more, needlessly. "Yes," she said firmly.
He nodded gravely, and raised his hands to cup her face. The contact was unnecessary, but she didn't shake it off. An image formed in her mind, clear and sharp, black marble and statues and green-burning torches. She closed her eyes and let it consume her focus, and then reached for the lightning-shimmer of sorcery.
When she opened her eyes, they stood in that black-marbled hall. What Lothor's image hadn't revealed was the smell -- the room reeked of fresh blood. Her mouth twisted. Lothor dropped his hands and stepped back.
"I'm sorry," he said. "The temple of Loth is the only place I could be sure my brother hadn't changed." Teleporting without an accurate image of the destination meant a spellcaster could end up part of the furniture when they arrived.
Keleios looked over his shoulder at the statue that loomed over them. Arriving in the shadow of the stern-faced god of bloodshed did not seem like the best omen for the beginning of this mission. But Loth had favored her the last time she had sacrificed to him, and she suspected she should not be so picky in her choice of patron gods in this country.
She lifted her chin and turned on her heel. She took one long stride towards the temple's entrance and promptly tripped on her long indigo skirts.
Lothor caught her elbow. He dropped it quickly when she turned to glare at him. He opened his mouth and she held up a hand. "I know, I know," she said. "Your brother will not speak to me as an equal if I am not properly dressed." She scowled down at the heavy, concealing gown, then made herself take a deep breath. "I will do much worse things than wear a dress to save Belor and Jodda."
Lothor gave her grim smile. "You may have to."
The Varellians apparently favored black marble outside of their temples as well. The floor of the Great Hall of the palace was a dragon-length expanse of that polished stone, glossy and slick as ice. At the far end of the hall, on a raise dais were two thrones of tortuously wrought iron, and on the larger throne lounged a dark-haired man dressed in black.
Keleios rested her hand lightly on Lothor's arm and concentrated on not tripping as they crossed the hall.
Aside from the three of them, the hall was empty. The watching silence, and the dark threads of power that warded the dais and the palace, made the hair on the back of her neck bristle. She could sense the taint of demon magic in there as well, a sweet, corrupt scent behind the human enchantments.
The man in the throne was Velen, Lothor's half-brother and current favored prince.
"Greetings, brother! And -- may I call you sister, consort-of-my-brother?" Velen wore a smug, lazy smile that Keleios itched to slap off his face. But she settled for disdainful silence, giving him her best imitation of her sister's withering stare. Methia had crushed better men than Velen with it.
"We are not here on family business," Lothor said. "You may give my consort her full title, Princess Keleios Incantare."
Velen's smile got wider. "Of course, Princess. What assistance can the royal house of Varellia offer you?"
"When you participated in the raid on the Astranthan school of magic --" and oh, how she cursed his soul to the pit for that "-- you took as prisoners Belor the Dream-maker and the white healer Jodda. I wish to negotiate for their release."
"And if I told that you are mistaken, that I do not hold any such prisoners?"
Keleios smiled, wide and pleasant and patently false. "Well, then I would call you a liar and bring this entire castle down around your ears to find them."
Next to her, she could feel Lothor's tiny wince, but Velen laughed. "I see the things I've been told about you are true. I do have them. And I am willing to discuss the conditions under which they may be released, unharmed."
"Prove it, show me them."
"Of course." Velen spoke a word, and a circle of the floor between Keleios and dais suddenly shimmered with power. The ripples settled, and she realized a scrying stone had been set in the floor. It showed Belor and Jodda in a dungeon cell. Keleios gave Velen a sharp look and he gestured at the floor. "Go ahead."
Keleios knelt and touched the edge of the crystal. It was a true enchantment. Jodda slept curled against Belor's side. She had the thin, pale, strained look of a healer who has pushed herself too far. Belor was awake, though he looked exhausted, too, and he looked up as if he could sense her regard.
She said his name, automatic and unthinking, and his lips moved as though he said hers back. He reached up to touch his earlobe, then let his hand drop down, sliding his thumb along the artery in his neck, the old thieves' sign for danger, and she knew it was him, not an illusion.
"What do you want?" she asked bluntly, anger like a hard, cold stone in her heart.
"I want you to put aside Lothor and marry me."
Keleios stared at him for a second and then laughed. "Is this some Varellian tradition of courtship?"
Velen scowled at her, baffled.
"Your brother also tried to blackmail me into marriage with the life of a friend." Keleios felt the touch of Lothor's mind then, no words, just the sense of gently, gently, patience. She swatted away his thoughts but said, "I need time to think about it."
Velen smiled like she'd already agreed and said, "Of course."
Varellian bedrooms at least did not feature black marble. Instead it was smooth, polished granite, and heavy tapestries featuring the hounds of Verm and the birds of Loth. The embroidered blood was the brightest color in the room.
Lothor sent the servants away.
"You don't trust your father's people?" Keleios asked.
Lothor raised his eyebrows. "Do you?"
In reply, she gave him one of the two silver bracelets she had enchanted with spells of silence before they'd left. Only the wearers could hear each other when the enchantment worked.
Keleios took a deep breath. "Could you...?" She turned to show the long line of buttons down the back her dress.
"Always," he said, teasing warmth in his voice, and she felt herself flush.
She cleared her throat. "Why am I such a prize to you two?"
"My father wanted us to marry well and he suggested acceptable candidates." Lothor continued like he was checking off points on a list. "You are a princess of Wrythu, which borders us. You are a strong enchanter and sorcerer, and your mother was a powerful witch as well, so you will bring power to our bloodline. You have survived the pit, so you understand the darker magics."
"So this was all because your father thinks I'll make a good broodmare." Keleios didn't mean to sound so bitter.
Lothor was quiet for a moment, fingers deft and careful on the buttons. "Yes. I suppose so."
The last button came free and Keleios stepped forward. She pushed the dress off her shoulders and arms and down to her feet. She kept her back to Lothor as she opened up her traveling pouch and pulled out a set of men's riding clothes from its impossible depths. She dressed quickly and opened the pouch again to take out Ache silvestri, ignoring the sword's whisper of anticipation and encouragement.
When she turned around, Lothor had a soft half-smile on his face. "What?" she snapped.
"Nothing," he said. "Just -- the clothes and the sword, you are you again."
She frowned, but she let it go. "Is it late enough to go out now?"
"If you can hold the invisibility spell, yes. It will be less safe the longer we wait."
Keleios concentrated for a moment. Power shivered over her skin for a moment, then vanished. "It's done."
Lothor looked a little dubious, but he created the illusion of the two of them in bed. "Let us go."
The halls were empty. Lothor led the way to the dungeons, silent and graceful as a cat. As they went down, they passed a few servants and guards, but no one looked at them. Still, Keleios found herself holding her breath, her chest tight with anxiety.
The door to the dungeons was a huge ironwood affair, guarded by a single bored-looking man.
"He's going to notice if we open that," Lothor said quietly.
Keleios pulled a packet of herbs out of her pouch, a spell of sleep. She poured the herbs into her hand and went to stand directly in front of the guard. She held her cupped hand up in front of his face and blew a breath of power across the herbs. His nose wrinkled as if he would sneeze, and then the spell hit him and his eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed.
Lothor caught him before he hit the floor and dragged him across the threshold as soon as Keleios opened the door. There were wards on the door and the walls and the threshold, but they recognized Lothor and were silent. There were other spells in the stones, too, though, spells of silence and binding that would prevent them from teleporting out.
They left the guard in a heap just inside the door and continued on and down.
"How much time do we have before they notice the guard is missing?" Keleios asked, after they passed another pair of soldiers.
Lothor shook his head. "Not long."
There were a lot of cells. They were all cold and bare and damp, and they held a faint psychic stench of pain and fear. The scent of demon magic was even stronger in the dungeons, and Ache silvestri hummed with a kind of hungry approval.
Keleios lost count of the cells they checked before they found Belor and Jodda. She offered a silent prayer of thanks to Mother Blessen, and then checked the lock.
"I can break it," she said.
"It'll trigger an alarm. But we don't have time for anything else."
She held her hand over the locking ward and sent power through it, nothing fancy or clever, just raw sorcery. The ward flared and then burnt out, broken, and Keleios could push the door open.
Belor struggled to his feet, but hesitated, squinting at the blank spot in front of him.
"It's me," Keleios said, but he didn't respond. She cursed under her breath and took off the bracelet with its spell of silence. "Belor, it's me."
His eyes widened. "Keleios?"
She took a step forward and touched him, extending the spell of invisibility to include him and Jodda.
"Mother's mercy!" he said, and hugged her, hard.
"Come on." She helped Jodda up.
"Keleios," Jodda murmured, and smiled, and almost collapsed. Belor caught her.
"She's been healing me," he said. "She's used up almost everything she has."
Keleios didn't ask why he needed so much healing; the demon stink that clung to the place was answer enough.
Lothor stuck his head into the cell. "Hurry," he mouthed.
Keleios slipped the bracelet back on and drew her sword. They slipped out of the cell. Guards were already at the end of the hallway, rushing towards them. They flattened themselves against the wall, and the invisibility spell held. The guards ran past them to check the cell and the end of the hallway.
"Go," Lothor said.
They walked down the hall as fast as they dared, Belor half-carrying Jodda. They had almost made the last check point when the air in front of them cracked and rippled, and a demon appeared.
Corpse-grey and thin, with claws like knives and great, curling horns like a ram's, it saw through her spell. It roared and pointed, and its recognition broke the spell. The guards at the end of the hall shouted and rushed towards them again, but this time with a clear focus.
Keleios cursed under her breath and leaped forward, Ache silvestri flashing. The demon laughed and batted at the sword, but the laugh turned to a shriek of surprised pain as the blade sliced easily through its hand. She didn't hesitate, just pressed on and the backstroke sheared cleanly through the demon's ribcage. A surge of power washed over her as the sword drank up the demon's death. She rode it out; there wasn't time to fight the sword over it. She heard the crackle of sorcerous fire and the ringing of steel behind her as Lothor fought off the guards.
Then there was a second booming pop and she turned to see a new demon scuttle towards them.
"Go!" Lothor shouted, and there was an image in her head, sudden and vivid of the way out of the palace, and the point where the teleportation wards ended. Go! Lothor said again, and even though Ache silvestri howled its disappointment, Keleios turned, grabbed Belor's arm, and ran.
Three startled guards met them at the entrance to the dungeons. Keleios swept them aside with a gust of arctic wind. Another demon appeared in front of them, blood-red wings flared wide, and Keleios didn't even slow down, just turned her stride into a long lunge that drove her sword up into the demon's heart. Its death-wail echoed in the halls, and she stopped for a moment while the power rushed over her. She shook her head to clear it, and looked over her shoulder. Belor was carrying Jodda, and his face was ashy with exhaustion. Lothor was nowhere in sight.
"Come on," Keleios said roughly, and they went forward.
There were no guards in the halls now, only terrified servants who froze in place as they passed. Keleios led them down the halls and up the stairs from a memory that wasn't hers, until they came to the blind spot on the parapet that the wards didn't encompass.
"Can you teleport?" Keleios asked.
Belor shook his head. "No, I'm sorry, I don't have the strength."
Keleios took a deep breath and made herself focus, made herself remember with perfect clarity the dainty little garden where she had had breakfast with her sister only that morning. Then she took Belor's hand and reached for her sorcery.
The garden was full of the scent of moonflowers.
She staggered when they arrived and went to her knees, dragging Belor with her.
She struggled up. "I have to go back," she said.
She shook her head, her hand closed tight over the ring Lothor had given her at their wedding. His blood and hair -- it would be enough to find him no matter where they took him. "I have to go back," she said, and reached once more for that actinic power.
Lothor had never before felt the liquid agony of a demon's lash, or screamed in the third darkness. In some tiny, quiet corner of his mind, he hoped that he would see Keleios again, to tell her he understood now.
The warm, velvety rot of demon magic was choking. The darkness was full of sound, screaming, mostly, and a shrill, persistent giggle that was nauseating to listen to. He floated in a sea of pain and corruption and other people's screams. And then, after some unknowable time, he realized the screams sounded...different.
The giggling spiraled up into a shriek and then cut off with a gurgle.
Light spilled over him, a cold, wavering glow that didn't hurt his eyes. He blinked. Keleios was at the center of the light, grim and blood-spattered and utterly beautiful.
"What are you doing here?" he asked stupidly.
"Repaying a debt," she said, and swung the sword down to shatter the chains that held him.
He wondered if this was a hallucination. So far, the ones he'd had here had not been this pleasant.
His memory cut in and out after that. He remembered things in flashes, demons screaming, in rage first and then in pain, Keleios cursing him and dragging him forward, sorcery and enchantment and demon magic shivering over his skin.
When he opened his eyes again, the darkness was quiet, and he could smell moonflowers.
"You came for me," he said, softly, surprised all over again.
"Shut up," she said. "Of course I came. I don't leave any of my consorts in the hands of demons, no matter how--" her voice wavered "--aggravating they are."
"Oh." He smiled and closed his eyes and let himself pass out. Before he went under completely, he thought he felt a kiss brushed across his forehead, but clearly that was just a torture-induced hallucination.