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I Am A Thousand Lions

Chapter Text

In the last minute of the hour of midnight, they cast the spell.

The flare was as blinding as staring into the sun. The pillar shot high as the stars, before it faded, the night flowing back in hesitantly, like the tide ebbing in at dawn. Limned with its lingering aura was a man.

He crouched on the marble tile, hands planted flat before him. He stared at his hands as if he had never seen such things before. He spread his fingers wide, and raised them to the air. This way and that he turned them, and made a fist, slowly, as if startled he could. He touched his face, and he said, 'Oh,' and his own voice made him jump. He grabbed at his throat. 'Oh,' he said. 'Oh.'

Gold slippers whispered on the tile, and a hand beringed with jewels touched the man, drawing his wild eyes. 'Welcome back, Thom,' a handsome dark-skinned man greeted him, his soft voice rich in timbre and gentle in tone.

'Thom,' the man repeated. 'Thom.' He let himself be drawn to his feet. He was naked, but noticed only when someone new came to him with a robe, clothing him. It was silk, warming instantly. The new one was also a man, towering tall over him, but his mouth curved upward, and something about that was comforting.

'Thom,' the second man confirmed. He touched his breast. 'You're Thom. I'm Arram.'

'Arram,' Thom mouthed. He touched, each of the man's long fingers, the embroidered cuff of his sleeve, the joint of his elbow. He bent Arram's arm, discovered that his own made the same strange movement and, fascinated, did it again and again til Arram took him gently by the shoulders and stilled him.

'This is his Imperial Majesty.'

'Majesty.' Thom found his hands enveloped by the dark ones. They were powerful hands, well-formed even more than Arram's, much stronger than his own. Stones of ruby and sapphire and tigris winked, mesmerising Thom. 'You're the King?' Thom asked, fumbling to form the words.

'Here I am the Emperor,' the Majesty replied. Like Arram, his mouth turned up, but this time it only raised a shiver in Thom.

'Where am I?' he whispered.

'Carthak,' said the one called Arram. 'You've been a very long time away, Thom. Do you remember?'

'Remember.' When Thom touched the ring of amethyst, the Majesty removed it and put it on Thom's finger. Thom breathed with difficulty, and discovered why when he pressed his palms to his face. It was wet. 'Where is she?' Thom breathed.

'Where is who, Thom?'

'She-- she.' He shook. Words deserted him, and the overwhelming garden of gold swirled all around him, confusing him, frustrating him. 'Where is she, where is she!'

'Thom, be calm,' the Majesty ordered him, and there was a flare of emerald magic, bleeding into all the gold, and bringing with it sleep. Thom fought the spell dragging his eyes closed, robbing his limbs of power, dragging darkness over him like a curtain. When he fell, Arram caught him, and that was the last he knew.

 

**

 

The working of so great a spell had been trial enough, even with thorough preparation and careful distribution of the burden of the casting. Ozorne, parched, drank measure after measure of chilled wine, til his head buzzed pleasantly and his eyes dragged wearily. Even the littlest expenditure of magic dragged too deep, and the flame he chased at the candelabrum died before it could light the wicks. He pressed a hand to his aching eyes.

A nip at his earring recalled him. His favourite macaw inched carefully up his arm, a clawed shuffle that pinched til the parrot settled its weight in the crook of Ozorne's arm. Its hooked beak nuzzled Ozorne's ear again, small blunt tongue fumbling for a taste of the tantalising hoop hanging from the lobe. Ozorne stroked the bird's vivid blue and orange feathers til it preened for him, frail neck stretching, an affectionate coo whispering away to the echoes of the glass dome high overhead. The heavy damp air of the greenhouse rustled, alive with answering calls. Birds, butterflies, insects. Even the exotic fauna had sound of its own, the drip of water on broad palm leaves, flowers stretching fragile stems, delicate petals unfurling for the dawn. Ozorne absorbed its drowsy familiarity with sated pleasure.

The sound of footsteps in the loam most decidedly did not belong. But the long and determined stride could only belong to one man, and Ozorne sighed away his annoyance at the interruption, tilting his head on his golden chaise to watch Arram approach. The mage had no eye at all for the wonders of Ozorne's wilderness menagerie and never had. Arram was imagination and idea. And Gift. It leaked out of him, shimmered around him. Ozorne had seen that only one other time.

Arram joined him at the edge of the lily pond, glancing distractedly at a white peacock strutting obstinately across his path. He stepped over it with long legs and threw himself onto a low divan, snagging the coffee samovar from a nearby table and pouring for himself. The tiny cup vanished in his large hand as he sipped wearily.

'What do you make of our guest?' Ozorne questioned his friend.

'I think he's as powerful as we've heard,' Arram replied. 'And mad as a hatter.'

'He was between the Realms nearly seven years.' Ozorne returned the parrot to its cage, though he left the wire door wide. This time he seated himself in the gold chair reserved for his august body, stiff cushions supporting his long limbs. He folded his hands over his belly. 'If the tales are true, he brought the Conte duke back after only nine months. Surely Sorceror's Sleep was not meant to be sustained so long.'

'I warned you, your Majesty.' Arram's eyes were shadowed with weariness. He had borne the brunt of the spell of resurrection, had borne the brunt of crafting it as well. Raising a man seven years gone had forced them deep into the Peaceful Realms, and a lesser mage might not have found the way home. Had he failed, Ozorne had been prepared to wonder why; it was not every day that such a caster met his equal. His greater. 'He may not recover,' Arram said, as he had a dozen times before, and as he had a dozen times before Ozorne smiled with feigned tolerance. Arram had performed as demanded, once again. But Ozorne never mistook once for always.

With a lazy hand he waved away Arram's caution. 'Insanity is unfortunate but not insurmountable.'

'It may be, if you want him to actually wield all that magic.' Arram sat forward, bending his dark head over his knees. 'Do you think they truly didn't know? Would they be so cruel, to leave him suspended in Sorceror's Sleep all this time? To abandon him like that; no wonder he's mad.'

'You've heard the same intelligence as I. This King Jonathan seems more open to magic than his predecessor, but the Northern Kingdoms prefer to grub about in dirt and fight their wars by steel. The Conte Duke trained here, you know.' Ozorne examined the amethyst stone that had so drawn Thom. 'My spies say his sister lives. The knight-mage who killed the Duke. Perhaps it was her choice, to leave her brother exiled between the Realms. A punishment for his crimes.'

'Perhaps she didn't know. If your spies hadn't unearthed old Si-Cham's letters--' Arram shrugged.

'How could she not have known?'

'Thom.' Ozorne rose swiftly, Arram just behind him. Neither had heard the door, if indeed it had opened at all. As it had from the moment of his return, the halo of violet Gift still shivered in the air about Thom's body. Clad now in a robe of midnight black lined with gold silk, his hair brushed to high sheen and spread smooth over his shoulders, Thom looked not so much otherworldly as forlorn, younger than both the men who'd raised him from death. His last mortal illness marked him still, in the hollows of his cheeks, the sunken eyes. Death had purged him of the sickness, but the Sleep had ravaged him as deeply. He was a block of ice, bones as delicate as the macaw's as Ozorne guided him to sit in his own chair. Arram, whose sway of hesitation conveyed both indecision and sullen disobedience, was a step slow as he poured another cup of rich coffee, and Ozorne snapped his fingers impatiently.

'I told her,' Thom mumbled. Ozorne chafed his hands, and Thom stared up at him. 'I did. Didn't I? Si-Cham... It was the only way... only way to stop Roger. Hide my Gift away where he couldn't leech it.'

Disagreement forgotten, Arram and the Emperor exchanged an appraising glance. 'What do you remember?' Arram asked slowly. 'Of the Coronation Night.'

'Coronation.' Thom's lips moved, the word barely audible. He raised his head. 'Your Majesty,' he said. 'And the Jewel.'

Ozorne stroked Thom's hair. Like one of his treasures, a creature of ivory and precious stone and hair like satin. He had always loved beautiful things, and Thom was exquisite, derelict as a crumbled temple, broken as a porcelain figurine dashed against the unrelenting marble.

'The Jewel, yes,' he murmured. 'In due time you will take it back for me, my darling boy. You will be my Champion, as your traitor sister is for that pewling Conte mageling.'

'Sister.'

Thom was swiftly agitated. Arram diverted him with the coffee. Thom's hands shook so that the cup rattled on its saucer, and Ozorne steadied him. Thom shuddered at the first taste of it. 'Do you like it?' Arram asked. 'It's even better with milk.'

'Ring for food,' Ozorne instructed him. 'A feast, and the best wine,' he decided, whimsy and delight finding root when Thom turned wide purple eyes up to his. 'We have much to celebrate, and our young mage must be healthy and strong. We have much to do, my dear.' He cupped Thom's face, stroking with his thumbs. 'You will be my right hand,' he told the boy. 'And together we will conquer the world. You were meant for me, Thom, as surely as I know anything.'

Arram wet his lips. He nearly spoke, but said nothing. Ozorne noticed, and kept Arram's gaze as he pressed a kingly kiss to Thom's pallid lips. Arram looked away.

'Welcome back to the living,' Ozorne breathed. 'It's time to remake the world.'

Chapter Text

Her breast rounded beneath his palm, peaked when he applied his lips to the satin of her nipple. Thayet's legs stirred, her ankle creeping up his calf, stroking down. Her breath was slow, satisfied, a sigh that hitched just ever so slightly when he sucked, when he bit. 'Jon,' she murmured, sleepy, amused, and her long fingers rifled the hair at the back of his neck. He shivered.

It was, of course, when the first knock of the morning shattered the dawn.

'Damn,' Jon muttered, and flung formless magic at the door. The bolt slid hard to lock with a decisive thunk.

'Jon,' Thayet chided.

'Don't care. Refuse to care.' He licked a path down her sternum, leaving a wet trail to her navel. He blew air across her skin, and she broke out in gooseflesh. He swathed her belly with his tongue, just a little soft after her recent pregnancy. He nudged with his nose, warm love and proud affection finding that spot the most perfect possible thing in a woman many a bard had already declared human perfection. He kissed her belly gently.

Another knock, rather hesitant now. Whoever it was rattled the door.

'They won't go away,' Thayet predicted. 'Or if they do, it'll be the children next.'

'I've said it before and I'll say it again. I refuse to rise til I can see daylight for myself. I don't bloody care what those monks are chanting.' He slid down the sheets, dropping a shoulder beneath her thigh and pushing up her linen nightdress. Thayet didn't protest, not at that, and he took it for permission. The tip of his finger navigated ferocious heat, and her head fell back, her hand skimming her bare breasts before resting against her bitten lip. He took his time exploring, rubbing his thumb against a tiny nub where it nestled in dark hair, teasing with kisses that pressed her legs wider and wider. He hitched up his own shirt and climbed over her, dropping his eyes to the ivory curve of her neck. He marked her there, hugging her hips to his and pushing deep.

'Jon,' she gasped, and wrenched him down by the hair, dug nails into his back, and he laughed and drilled her into their mattress.

There was more than a little daylight visible in the slits of the drapes when they rose at last, and the knocks had become noticably more frequent. Jon stoked the fire and lit lamps as Thayet rang for hot bathwater. Given the opportunity, Thayet would bathe every day, and could be hours at it when it pleased her, one of the few luxuries she indulged without prompting. Jon had revelled in surprising his fastidious wife with a steam bath built specially for the anniversary of their wedding the year before, based on a carefully verified description from Buri. Whenever Jon couldn't locate Thayet, he turned his search there, and often found the two women ensconced within, with ladies of the Court or visiting friends like Alanna, whose notorious penchant for cleanliness had taken enthusiastically to this Saren import. They scrubbed with fragrant herbs and leaves, heated rocks and poured water to generate immense clouds of steam, drank dubious concoctions they wouldn't discuss, emerging like drowned rats to plunge into tubs of chilled water with screeches and complaints, and then went back to start it all over again. Jon had tried it once and vowed never again.

'No time today,' Thayet sighed, when he asked if she'd take the full tour. 'You haven't forgotten tonight's dinner with the ambassadors?'

Jon had absolutely forgotten, but availed himself of imperial hauteur and didn't mention it. 'Do you think Roald is old enough to sit in on this one?' he asked instead, unlatching the door to allow in a servant with their breakfast. He picked a wedge of cheese as the tray passed him, flinging himself into his chair. One servant heralded the flood, and soon there were several bodies unobtrusively scuttling this way and that in their chambers, one to gather the rumpled sheets from the bed, another to replace them with fresh, a girl to do what he'd already done with the hearth, though rather better, building up the flames to good height with fresh kindling and scooping away the ash from the night before at risk of her fingers. The bath could be heated by magic but still required two strong lads to haul the water in.  A valet arrived with his clothes, a maid with several of Thayet's gowns, all pressed and smelling of lavender. Jon's brushed boots were brought in by his page and his accounts by the seneschal, and at some point Gary arrived, already listing off the inevitable roster of tasks Jon had put off from innumerable days before, and stealing the hot biscuits in punishment.

'Dunno,' Gary said, brushing crumbs from his moustaches. 'How old were you when your father started dragging you to Court functions?'

Jon took up his quill and began the day's signing of signatures. In his younger years he'd fondly imagined he'd read every word. He'd given up years ago. He signed whatever Gary brought him, and could only hope Gary had managed to read it at some point. 'Seven?' he hazarded. 'Eight? I don't recall, really. It was tremendously boring.'

'You were tremendously boring,' Gary said. 'You got very sanctimonious about that age. Spouting off a load of--' Thayet appeared with dripping hair, and Gary cut himself off with a cough. 'Good morning, my Queen.'

'Gary,' Thayet greeted him, dropping a kiss on his cheek. 'Miki, where's that new boar's hair brush?' She helped herself to a persimmon and settled on her stool to be attended to by the maid. 'Drag Roald along if you must,' she told Jon. 'But don't punish him when he yawns in all our faces.'

Jon frowned over his seal. 'The dignity and comportment of the Crown Prince should be above reproach.'

'See?' Gary said. 'Distinct sanctimony.'

'He's a child,' Thayet replied, unimpressed with his bluster. 'He'll do what he can to please you. He always does. I'd rather he have less comportment and more romp.'

'That's another thing,' Jon said. 'He spends far too much time with your Riders. I'm well assured of his excellent horsemanship, but I'm concerned about his exposure to less savoury activities.'

'Savoury?' Thayet protested, as Miki wrestled mightily with her tangles, wrenching at her scalp with the brush. 'What exactly is unsavoury about my Riders?'

Jon apologised for his word choice with a wave of his hand, which didn't seem to go as far toward erasing the slight as he'd hoped. 'You know what I mean. There's cussing and dicing and Buri with her hand-to-hand combat tricks and he's far too young to be exposed to all that. Uncle Gareth caught him the other day up an apple tree in the orchard with one of your boys.'

'The gall,' Gary said solemnly. Jon turned a glower on him.

'We wanted our Court to be different than our parents',' Thayet reminded him. 'Giving Roald a little freedom was part of that.'

'Well, he's had his freedom.' Jon reached the bottom of the parchment pile and tossed his quill to its cup. 'It's time for him to behave like an heir, and that includes courtly etiquette with visitors of state. He'll join us at the head table tonight. And Kally as well.'

Thayet agreed mildly enough, but there was something growing flinty about her eyes. Gary, sensing the mood, made himself scarce, and Miki earned her wage in gold by diverting the Queen toward selecting a gown for the dinner. Jon dressed behind the screen, a fur-lined houppelande of the fuller style that had torn through Court last winter and left vastly enriched tailors in its wake. The page helped him into his boots and belt, draping a cloth-of-gold purse and a jewelled dagger at his waist, advancing the tray of jewels for the King to don. Jon chose his signet, two rings of etched silver, the sapphire eardrop, the gold chain, and the simple coronet. He put a finger to his lips and pointed to the cedar box in which his wife kept her jewels, and the page tip-toed to fetch it. From his pouch Jon retrieved the gift he'd been waiting to give since spying it nearly a month ago in the City; it was a delicate bird brooch of cleverly twisted gold, with a single ruby eye, clawed feet clutching the through-pin, the whole of it no larger than his thumb. He moved a few older pieces to the sides of the box and perched the pin in the centre of the velvet lining.

'Will you wear those pearls tonight?' he asked idly, as if not really interested, as the page hurried the box back to its place. 'They were a gift from the Tusaine ambassador, weren't they?'

'The Gallan,' Thayet corrected, and rose, Miki hurrying behind her trying to keep a half-plaited braid in hand. Thayet flipped open the box, ready to dig, and looked up in surprise. Jon grinned.

Their kiss was a little too romantic in front of an audience, but the dignity and comportment of a crowned King and Queen could bend a little, in the morning.

All in all, it was an utterly innocuous start to the day that would later be remembered as the dawn of the Immortals War.

 

**

 

Arram drank his breakfast much as he'd drunk his dinner, grimacing down a cup of raisin wine and then spending several minutes with his head out the window waiting to see if it would come back up on him.  He won the battle by sheer dint of determination, braced himself with a few deep breaths of fresh olive-scented air, and went to plunge his face into a bowl of chilled water.  He completed the ritual with strong coffee.  He felt marginally more human after the third dose.  Marginally.

He cradled his aching head on the edge of his desk, unrolling a scroll one-handed and trying to will his watery eyes to read it.  Cuneiform had never been his strongest scholastic achievement, and he gave up swiftly.  It wouldn't matter.  He'd read everything he could find double over, and it wasn't enough.  Carthak's renowned University housed the largest library in the world, and its collection of monography on magic was unrivalled, but knowledge failed him.  He would never know enough to match Thom.

He supposed-- blearily-- it was the Mithrans had done it.  Carthak had the University and it reliably turned out well-educated and war-ready mages, but the Mithrans were reputed to be the most disciplined magic-users.  Arram had personally disdained their years of rigid dogma and the pauperous living they demanded of their students, preferring Carthak's lavish and secular culture.  But Thom.  Mad, yes.  Probably irreparably.  But the mind he must have had, in his day.  The effortless control of so powerful a Gift was daunting.  Intimidating.  Enviable.  Unattainable.  Arram could live to be a hundred and never gain the mastery over his magic that Thom exerted in the simplest of tasks.

Once more he sought the letters.  The parchment had begun to yellow with age, the ink gone purple and bleeding into the cracks of old folds.  Seven years ago, Mithran Master Si-Cham had left his fortress in the City of the Gods to come to the aid of his dying student.  That in itself was remarkable; Arram knew a few other mages who might have helped for the sake of the experiment, but Si-Cham had risked, and ultimately lost, his life to help Thom, and there was no evidence in these letters that he'd done it out of affection.  The Thom of the faded ink was arrogant and isolate, toweringly angry.  Afraid.  But even so, galloping ahead of his teacher, throwing out ideas of such brilliance that Arram burned with admiration.  If Thom had lived to see even a handful of his theories to reality he would have overturned decades, even centuries of magical practise.  Maybe in the end that was why Si-Cham had done it, old and frail as he was.  For the thrill of witnessing Thom at work.

The simple elegance of their solution to Thom's mortal and magical illness spoke more of Si-Cham than of Thom, but had it worked it would have been a neat trick indeed.  Duke Roger of Conte had hedged his many bets well, and had gone not to death but to Sorceror's Sleep.  As Arram had needed Ozorne's Gift to cast the resurrection, so had Thom sustained himself with extra magic, but he'd been strong enough to take what he needed, borrowing and returning as if it were of no more note than a cup of sugar.  But that had been his undoing.  Burdened, even for a few hours, with additional magic, he'd been vulnerable to the latching of Duke Roger's final spell.  Bit by bit Roger's Gift had poisoned him.  No man could hold more than his own Gift for so long.  Had it been a matter of just returning it to its owner, Thom could no doubt have rid himself of the excess with time.  But Roger had been too dangerous to trust.  Thom had carried it, had lived with blended Gifts for months, solely to keep it away from Roger.

He will die, Si-Cham had written.  We are prepared for the ending.  I will conduct the resurrection.  No man can return from Between the Realms with more than was given by the Gods.  Three days should be sufficient for surety.

But the Duke had acted first.  The Coronation of King Jonathan had been very nearly beside the point.  Roger had needed Thom to die; Roger had waited til Thom condemned himself to strike.  From Thom he'd leeched his own Gift, had leeched the Gift it had intertwined, trapped; had reached the old Mithran Master who'd begun to cast the resurrection and drained him dry, too.  Had reached for the little bit of Gift stored with the twin sister, Alanna, and that was as far as Arram could reconstruct events.  Somehow, Roger had not prevailed.  The Dominion Jewel, likely.  Arram had read everything he could find of that, as well.  Most of the current material had been written by Thom.  Tortall very likely owed its continued existence to Thom.  It was unimaginable they'd left him in Sorceror's Sleep.  Even accounting for the crime of bringing back the Duke.  By any measure, he'd paid.

A slave arrived with another cask of raisin wine, and Arram drank for fortitude.

Morning in the Palace was a time of unrelenting bustle and bother.  Arram generally avoided it by rising late and occupying himself to the small hours of the night.  The shuffle of slippered slaves and servants in their gleaming white linen skirts was noisome and inelegant, designed as it was to emphasise the unspeakable nobility of whoever earned their panicked hubub.  Palace guards in leather kilts carried overlarge scythes and spears that bristled with peacock feathers and sharp crocodile teeth.  The men stared impassively through Arram, careful never to meet his eyes.  He was not the only foreigner to call the Palace home, but he was the only white man to walk the royal apartments, and there were days he felt acutely aware that at least half the staff existed to ensure he didn't damage the premises in some unseemly display of alien manners.  That he preferred his black mages' robes was not so much a gesture toward his rank as a method for hiding his Northern breeches and boots; he wore his hair long and accepted the pampering and oils and endless brushing where most wore wigs of horsehair or plant fibre.  Even Ozorne, who kept his own hair and wore it intricately braided, mocked Arram's stubborn refusal to acculturate.  He never stopped trying to tempt Arram with finery and jewels.  Arram refused every time, understanding it was not friendship that motivated the offerings.

Thom had no choice in the matter.  He was like a doll, and Ozorne a spoilt child with endless coin to sustain his obsession.  He dressed and redressed Thom, curled his hair one day and replaced it with gold headdresses the next.  Ozorne spent an entire week grooming him into a beard of ginger bristles, and commissioned him a doublet of the most expensive silver thread and gold buttons, so that he shone from every angle.  Then Thom had been seated at his side, naked to the waist so that his pale skin gleamed, linen kilt the purest white, and his violet eyes lined starkly with kohl.  Ozorne had kept him there a full day before a parade of noble visitors, preening at their fawning compliments as if he'd created a great work of art.  Thom acted like a doll, let himself be posed, cossetted, caressed.  He could be so still that Arram forgot he breathed and bled.  He was only animated, in fact, in the few minutes every day that Arram spoke to him about magic.

Arram may not have been as smart as Thom, but he was smart enough to realise when he fell in love.  The Thom of those few precious minutes was the most amazing, perfect creature he'd ever seen.  It was unbearable that he had to watch that Thom dying a slow, spiritual death every day at Ozorne's side, seated on a cushion like a pet as Ozorne stroked his hair and called him a good boy.

A heady mix of despair and zeal propelled him through the colonnade and the baths and the throne room, empty but for the simulacrum Ozorne had left propped up before the Council of Elders who had come to drone about some issue in the City.  Arram rubbed at the stubble on his chin, wishing he'd shaved, grimacing in memory of his childish determination to spite Ozorne who took such pride in physical appearance.  They'd always shared vanity.  Ozorne would notice, would comment, and that would be time he wasn't with Thom.  Thom would not notice.  If Thom wished for anything he didn't have, he didn't say it.

Around the corner, then, and he was in the royal suite, passing the guards who allowed him by without so much as a nod.  There were dozens of slaves in attendance today, all engaged in some strange ritual or function unique to them.  The scribe scribbled.  The fanner fanned with his large green palm.  The shaver was prepping his razor and foam.  The bathers scattered scent over the gleaming square pool in the centre of the floor, their pumice stones at the ready.  One wrangled a tiger cub on a gold chain, withholding a tray of raw meat til the Emperor Mage had time to feed it by hand.  The piper readied a hookah with aromatic cakes.  The parrot perch was a boy of only five or six, stoically bearing the bird on his small shoulder, its huge tail feathers bright against his dark skin.  The Emperor lazed at the centre of it all on a low lounge, a slave industriously massaging his feet, another manicuring his hand, a third at work weaving gold ribbon into his hair.

'You're busy,' Arram said, the kind of statement that had no meaning and would produce no action, not even freeing him to harry off somewhere safe from all the chaos, since Ozorne would most certainly want a recounting of his studies.

Ozorne did not disappoint.  'Progress?' he asked lazily, turning up his chin for a fig to be placed delicately on his tongue by a shaven-headed girl whose sole purpose in life was not to choke the Emperor at breakfast, and whose terrified eyes showed it a grave responsibility.

'Some,' Arram said.  'He remembers some, more every day, I think.  Well.  Sometimes not.  He'll never be what he was, you must accept this.'

'I do accept this,' Ozorne replied.  'You're the one who seems intent on arguing the point every day.'  He shrugged away his attendants and rose.  Nude, he was like a sculpture, a well-formed man who knew no hardship but what he chose, every plane and curve without scar or dent.  He walked on the scattered petals of lilies to his bath, down the marble steps, and settled back with a small wave in the water.  The whole business of polishing his august person shifted to poolside.  'He laughed,' Ozorne confided then.  'Last night.  If you had joined us for dinner I think you would have enjoyed it.'

For a paranoid moment Arram was unsure if that was a dig at him.  He swallowed down any and all immediate reaction, sure he kept his face blank.  'The University delivered another scroll,' he said.  'I was translating.'

'You and your books, my friend.  You must remember to live.'

'I'll try to come tonight,' Arram said, grudging that much, but knowing an order when it was issued.  'I'll leave you to your day.  I'll just find Thom.'

'You needn't run away, then.  He's there.'

Arram looked about.  Thom would surely be noticeable, even in such a scene.  He was not anywhere amongst the people scurrying about.  'Invisible?' he asked.  Thom had discovered and immediately mimicked Ozorne's habit of hiding himself with magic.  It was the only time Ozorne had expressed real anger at his pet mage, and Thom had not done it again-- so far as Arram could tell.  If Thom could mimic spells so readily, perhaps he mimicked the Emperor's simulacrum as well.  Ozorne didn't need a live doll to play with.

One of the slaves quietly caught his attention, and nodded toward the bed.  Arram blinked.  He'd assumed it empty, the shimmering silk drapes pulled back from the canopy.  But the crumpled sheets were gathered about a body.  Arram mounted the low step.  Gods.  It was Thom.  He was naked, like Ozorne, only barely modest with the drape of a sheet about his lap.  One limp hand was flung up to the pillows, his face turned blankly to the wall.  There were marks of teeth on his chest.

Rage.  It was rage that filled him, but rage like an implosion of blackness, falling into a void deep in his gut.  He went numb in a flash from head to toe, and then hot as fire.

It was difficult even to speak.  He forced it out in a whisper, choking on that much.  'He's a child,' he managed.  'No better than a child.  You bedded him?'

Ozorne examined himself in the mirror a slave held.  'Which of us are you jealous of, dear Arram?' he wondered absently.  He waved away the mirror and slumped low in the water, closing his eyes.

'Thom.  Thom, get up.'  Arram threw aside the sheets.  Then grabbed them again and wrapped Thom in them, hauling him upright and ignoring the way he jumped.  'You!' he barked at a slave.  'Give me that shawl.  Now.'  He wrenched Thom's limbs into place, sorry only when Thom flinched from him, and cupped his cheek.  'We're leaving, Thom,' he said.  'We're going now.  We're going back to your rooms.'

'Don't wander far,' Ozorne instructed.  The shaver had finally got near enough to lather his chin and was scraping away with the razor.  'We meet with my generals and the College of War Mages after noon.'

'What?'

'If you'd joined us for dinner last night, you'd be aware.'  Ozorne's eyes slitted open to follow them as Arram hustled Thom off the bed and toward escape.  'We go to war,' the Emperor said, and Arram slowed, Thom stumbling to a halt against him, icy hands clutching at his robe.

'War,' Arram said.

'It's wonderfully clever, his idea.  He laughed when he told me.  When history writes of him, they'll call him the greatest to ever live.'

Thom looked up at him.  Arram rubbed at his jaw, turned his head away.  'What,' he said.  'What is his idea.'

'Tell him, Thom.'

Perhaps it was because he'd whispered first.  Thom responded to emotion, if it was vivid enough, when he wouldn't catch tone or rhetoric.  There was a tiny line between his ginger brows, tension that smoothed when Arram forced his mouth into a smile.

'The walls between the Realms,' Thom murmured, almost too low to be heard.

'The walls,' Arram repeated, fool that he was.

'I can tear down the wall between the Divine Realms and the Mortal Realms.'  Thom hesitated with his mouth open, before his teeth dug into his white lip.  'I can loose the Immortals.  We'd win, wouldn't we?  We'd win, then.'

Arram swallowed drily.  'Come to your rooms,' he said, and encircled Thom in his arm, dragging him along.

Ozorne let him get out of sight, but his voice floated after, cruelly indifferent.

'He called me Roger,' he said, and Arram put one leaden foot in front of the other and walked out on his Emperor.

Chapter Text

The Carthaki Empire sprawled to the south of the Great Inland Sea and stretched greedy fingers to colonies in distant lands like Siraj and Ekallatum and Yamut. Its people reflected centuries of conquest, with cosmopolitan cities where a dozen languages could be heard on one street, exotic foodstuffs jostled the same plate at mealtimes, where slaves picked tropical cotton and flax and weavers produced densely piled velvet as well as silk so light as to be nearly transparent. The wealth of the Empire was unimaginable, whether measured in naval fleets, iron ore, rich fields, gold. The arts thrived in Carthak, unparalleled musicians at the height of creativity, sculptors carving whole mountain ranges to honour this or that patron, painters flocking to buy the newly invented oglio cotto 'cooked oils' for their grand canvases. Merchants and nobles alike jeweled cuffs and shoes of sturdy leather and ate well of figs and pomegranate and abundant barley and marbled beef, tender lamb, fish even in the land-locked reaches; the poor didn't, but centuries of urban planning ensured the poor never left their ghettoes, and so their plight was largely invisible anyway. The military maintained the roads in all land the Empire claimed as its own, great Viae paved with stone and flanked with footpaths for the merchants' charts and drained by ditches which irrigated nearby farms, every mile marked by a precise measurement checked annually by the Empire's thorough engineers. Carthak was a monument to planning, to infrastructure, to industrious spirit, to unrelenting ego. Carthak was the wonder of the modern age, and no-one was more self-assured of that than a Carthaki.

'Pretty,' Raoul said.

Buri glowered at her companion. 'Pretty?' she repeated scornfully. 'That's the best you can do? Pretty?'

Raoul shrugged. 'If you want a poet I can dig Constantin out of the hold for you.'

Buri shuddered. She hadn't yet forgiven her determined and wordy admirer for the soulful ballad comparing her eyes to obsidian pools. Raoul had rather agreed, himself, but he was careful to keep that to himself.

Instead he nudged her with an elbow, nodding toward the Palace where it crested the highest of the hills that spread in a wide vee around the port. They were a good two hours' ride from the Palace, and the maze of streets, temples, markets, and stadia that surrounded it seemed to have bristled deliberately to frustrate frontal assault. There was but one broad avenue, between the Palace on its hilltop and the army barracks stationed to both right and left. They could man the outer wall and cut off the hill with minimal effort. Abandon the lower town, if need be, and Raoul would guess a palace that size would have two or even three wells of its own, more than enough to sustain its inhabitants in the event of a seige. Those walls would take an impressive battering. They stood higher than two men and were as thick again. 'Think that's all brick?' he wondered.

Buri wore pursed lips as she made her own evaluation. 'Can't be,' she said. 'Could it? It would take a hundred years to build that many walls so solid.'

'Money and time,' Raoul muttered. 'Two things we haven't got near enough of.'

Ohran joined them at the prow. 'We're docked,' he told his commander. 'That one there beside the flag bearer is the Emperor's nephew.'

Buri squinted over the ship's rocking rail. 'The one with the gold headdress?'

'His current heir. Kaddar. He's well enough,' Ohran said, from him a ringing endorsement. 'Took his studies at University seriously. He's neither stupid nor unkind, but he won't be an ally. The Emperor wants war and none of his advisors will stand against him.'

Raoul heaved a heavy sigh. 'I hate this kind of thing,' he said, and tugged at the high collar of his doublet. He should've let the tailor take it out another inch. It was blisteringly hot in Carthak, and the Tortallans were all vastly overdressed. 'Let's get started,' he added, and turned to holler at his men to form up.

Their delegation met the Carthaki delegation without incident, and then they all milled around on the docks while black-skinned slaves clad only in odd smallclothes unloaded the horses from the ship. Kaddar Ghazanoi Iliniat introduced himself and waved vaguely at a few of the white-robed men behind him who were probably officials or ministers of some sort. He said some formulaic things welcoming them to beauteous Carthak City and Raoul replied they were deeply awed and thankful, et cetera. The Emperor's heir hesitated, and ventured, unpractised, to enquire whether they would like a cool juice while they waited. Raoul courteously accepted on behalf of his noble escort. He joked that he was sure the juice wasn't poisoned, at least not til the talks broke down. Kaddar looked deeply uncomfortable with the notion of humour. Buri dug her elbow into Raoul's side. He drank his juice in studied quiet, and no-one said much of anything, then, til their horses were ready, and then Kaddar gratefully popped back into his chariot and somehow managed to always be just a little too far ahead of Raoul's horse to readily converse.

They were given exquisite quarters, treated to nightly feasts, treated to an increasingly ridiculous promenade of events designed to keep them too busy to sneak around, and dragged all over the City and even the countryside beyond to visit farms, grainhouses, cattle exhibitions, shipyards, army parade grounds, and recruitment camps.

'They're getting a lot less subtle,' Buri noted, putting on her most gracious smile, something on the order of a pained scowl, when their latest destination found them inspecting new designs for a trebuchet taller than all the surrounding buildings.  Raoul whistled silently as the Carthaki crew loaded boulder after boulder.  All but one of the crew scattered, and the last cut the thick rope binding the counterweight.  The swing of the tree-trunk-like arm was a scream through the air.  The boulders launched.

'Mithros,' Ohran whispered, shading his eyes to follow it.  He was not the only one to jump when the boulders flattened the large and sturdy target, an old warehouse.  It took several minutes for the dust to clear.  There was very little left of the structure.

'That'll make you nervous,' Raoul said.  He strained for a smile and inclined his head toward the Carthaki general who applauded his men.

'Are we suitably impressed yet?'  Ohran joined in the cheers that went around the testing grounds, though his claps were rather less enthusiastic.  'So they can crush us.  Metaphorically and very, very physically.'

'You'd only get one good shot with that thing,' Raoul pointed out.  'It's too huge not to be a target, and you'll notice they had it loaded when we arrived.  It must take even longer to aim.  And you couldn't haul it to your battlefield.  You'd have to construct it on the spot.'

'That's what magic's for,' Ohran said.  'He's got hundreds of war mages.  He's a war mage himself.  Everything in Carthak is one tense night away from war.'  Ohran had studied at the University for four years.  His grim stare more than answered Raoul's instinctive protest.  Raoul chewed at his cheek, wondering.

'All right,' Raoul decided.  He caught each of their eyes.  'You know what we do from here.  And you know what we risk.  We're all agreed?'

It took only a moment.  They'd known coming in, and had waited this long only at the behest of their king.  Ohran was first, Buri only a second behind him.  They all touched fists.

'Agreed,' Raoul completed it.  'Gods help us.'

 

**

 

'Thank you for meeting me,' Raoul said.  'I understand it's dangerous for you.'

'Night is better,' his informant said.  The man peered about, gloved fingers tapping, tugging nervously at his hood.  'You'll be missed before long.'

'Then we'll keep this short.'  Raoul pretended to study the climbing vine that grew in an arch above their heads.  Their informant had dubiously identified the gardens as the likeliest spot for private conversations, but they risked as little as possible, and they had only met one other time, not long after arriving in Carthak.  Raoul was no natural spy, and had little patience for the gathering of intelligence, but Myles had been as certain as could be that this man could be trusted.  Raoul kept one hand on his dirk, just in case.

'I need to get a message to my king,' he murmured.  'Our communications are still monitored?'

'Your missives are read,' the man confirmed.  'And magic is no guarantee of secrecy.  You'd still have to speak your message, and the walls may very well have ears here.'

'And for that warning we thank you again.  You've bought us longer than we might have had.'  Raoul dug a boot heel into the dirt.  'To be perfectly frank, I suspect it's going to be a long time before any promises can be kept regarding your future.  If you truly want to defect to Tortall, I can make you no guarantees.'

'I'm aware,' the informant said.  He hugged his arms tightly to his chest.  'And I'm aware too that I may be asking more than you can give, but I must ask, not just for myself.'

'Have a family, do you?'  Raoul smoothed out the divet he'd dug, and nodded once.  'The same as before.  I can only promise my word, but my word is that I'll try.'

'That's all I have,' the informant said thinly.  'But I thank you, Sir Knight.  I'll get your message out.  You have it written?'

'You've never spied before, have you?' Raoul guessed.  'No writing.  From me or you.  The message is this: Faith, loyalty, courage, and honour.  Can you repeat it?'

'Faith, loyalty, courage, and honour,' the man rattled off.  His hooded head cocked to one side.  'Is that a quote?  It's familiar.'

'The Code of Chivalry,' Raoul said.  'I don't suppose it's much observed here in the South.'

'The Knight's Code?  I've heard of it,' was the doubtful reply.

'Any wager on whether your Emperor has?'  Raoul brushed a dangling flower from his face as he passed beneath it.  'In Tortall we might hold a noble hostage against his king.  He'd never be harmed, though.  Ransom, maybe.'

'The Emperor is a God on earth,' his informant said shortly.  'His will and his whim are synonymous.  No Code can bind him if he doesn't wish to be bound.'

'That bodes well.'  Raoul pulled his cloak tight about him.  'If we don't speak again, then thank you for your service.  The Crown is grateful.'

'Good luck,' the man said, and if Raoul found it hollow, it didn't really matter, and it didn't change anything.

Buri was waiting in his chambers when he returned.  The small K'mir woman was barefoot, curled on a rug of strange foreign feathers that she plied between her fingers.  She rose to help him with his cloak, undoing the clasp, folding it over a chair.  Raoul put a hand on her shoulder, thumb stroking her neck.  Though she stood barely high as his shoulder, it often took standing so close to her to remember it.  She was a giant in his memory, every time.  He bent to kiss her, and grinned when she applied her teeth.

'Bed, woman,' he ordered, and she chuckled against his beard.

After, they shared a cup of strange Carthaki coffee, the bitter drink that seemed nearly as ubiquitous as the sour raisin wine.  Everything in Carthak tasted different, Raoul had noted, in a way that was more than just a few new spices as with Saren foods, or goat's butter over sheep's milk, as Galla.  There was a tang even in the water, not unlike the strange salty fruits called olives.  Well.  Time to get used to it.  Assuming they'd be fed at all, soon.

Buri stared up at the ceiling.  'I've never been a prisoner before,' she said.  'Not really.  I've been homeless, clanless.'  She huffed.  'Tortall.  I've gotten too used to clean living.  A little time in a damp mouldy dungeon should toughen me up.'  She lightly smacked Raoul's belly.  'I'm not the only one who could use it.'

'Be nice,' he said mildly.  But her brief attempt to lighten the mood fell, ultimately, flat.  He couldn't keep up his end.  He thought of the informant, wondered if he'd done his job and got the news to Jon.  It wasn't much of a code.  He'd deployed it only one other time, never under this duress.  It would give Jon time, though, and time was the only thing on their side.  If Jon could mobilise before Carthak, then Jon could pick the battlefield.  So be it.

The hours stretched on.  Buri tired of waiting and dressed, donning her K'miri armour and sharpening all her weapons, though she left those in their carry case as she finished each.  Raoul mended a hole in one of his favourite stockings, and trimmed his beard, cleaned his fingernails.  They ate, though neither had much appetite; it was habit and practicality.  They played a round of cards, and stood for a while watching the strange Carthaki stars, trying to guess at asterisms.

At last, the footsteps came.  Booted feet, armoured men.

They met it standing.  Carthaki guardsmen poured in, doors banging, furniture overturning, with Raoul and Buri still at the centre of it.  Neither spoke as the chief officer haltingly ordered their arrest.  They suffered their hands to be bound, though it was done lightly and with silken cord.  When they were marched into the hall, they found the rest of the Tortallan delegation in similar state.  Raoul nodded to Ohran, who gravely inclined his head.

They made slow progress through the palace to the throne room.  It was late at night, and the many slaves they encountered scattered like wild deer at the sight of a company of armed men and their prisoners.  It was very nearly silent as they entered the great hall.  They were halted on the red carpet runner well out of weapons range from the throne, upon which sat Ozorne Muhassin Tasikhe, drumming his fingers on his chin.

'Sir Raoul,' the Emperor greeted him solemnly.

'Your Majesty,' Raoul answered courteously.

'How have you enjoyed my hospitality?'

'Very well, your Majesty, til tonight's unpleasantness.'

There was a slight stir.  The Emperor's nephew, Kaddar, had been fetched, though he'd plainly been asleep.  His shaven head was wigless, his chin stubbled, his robe rumpled and plain.  He showed no alarm at the sight that greeted him, but his steps slowed just incrementally before he resumed his careful pace.  He bowed before the throne.  'Uncle,' he said.  He faced Raoul, and bowed his head.  'Sir Raoul.'

'Good evening,' Raoul replied.

'I summoned you, nephew, for your education,' the Emperor said.  'In your years at the University you met many Northerners, yes?'

'Some, Uncle.'

'Did you ever encounter this strange notion of chivalry?'

Ah.  Raoul spared a moment to wonder if their informant were dead or had betrayed them.  Either way, he was past regret.  He'd done what he came to do.

'Chivalry?' Kaddar repeated slowly.  'It is... something like honour, I suppose, your Majesty.'

'Do you believe these Northerners can have honour?'

'They believe it,' Kaddar said, sidestepping that with aplomb.

'What would you think of the honour of a man who travelled so very far with no aim but deceit?'

'There was no deceit,' Raoul interrupted, abruptly wearying of this game.  'We came to evaluate the possibility of peace.  I see none.  And if you had any intention of seeking a treaty you had a piss-poor way of showing it.  I think you were far more interested in trying to scare us off.'

Ozorne didn't have to shoot to his feet or yell for the guards.  He merely raised a hand, and every Tortallan was shoved to their knees, forced down, faces mashed into the tile below.  Drawn swords touched vulnerable necks.

'Uncle,' Kaddar said tensely.

'Be at ease, nephew,' Ozorne said.  'An apology for your rudeness, Sir Raoul, would seem in order.'

Raoul grunted as the chief officer placed a sandalled foot on his face and ground down.  'My apology,' he ground out.  'Sire.'

'And my forgiveness is granted,' Ozorne replied, all silk and sweetness.  'I think you should enjoy my hospitality a while longer.  So that your King Jonathan knows what kind of man he deals with.'

Raoul was hauled to his feet.  The guards were less than kind, and Buri's small size made her suffer the more, roughly tossed about.  Raoul could do nothing but ensure, once and for all, that his message was delivered.

'You arrest us and you declare war on Tortall,' he called out.  His voice rang across the hall, a warning of perfect clarity. 

Ozorne smiled.  'I certainly hope so,' he said.

 


 

Chapter Text

He found Thom in the little storeroom below the mizzen mast. The paring knife flashed in the dull bob of an oil lamp, as Thom cut stalks of fragrant herbs, the edge slicing with a little nick and then coming to gentle rest against the round of his thumb. Over and over, a soothing, competent rhythm. Arram sat across from Thom on the carpet of piled burlaps, lulled by the familiar quiet of it.

Thom passed him a slender strip to taste. It was anise on the tongue, sweet. Arram murmured his thanks and chewed. When next Thom handed him a skin of wine, Arram sipped and shared it back, nodding his insistence. Thom drank, to please him, Arram could see. But soon he was at his work again. Snick, snick, went the little knife.

'For the battle?' Arram asked him.

'For Ozorne,' Thom said. 'He doesn't sleep.'

'Who can sleep with those damn drums beating night and day,' Arram said irritably. His own eyes had been puffy and grainy with weariness for days. Longer. He didn't sail well, even with Thom's herbal remedies. Even on Ozorne's sumptuous personal galleon it had been a hellish journey. He didn't know if he'd dreamt Thom at his side, with cool cloths and calm reassurances. The hurricane had been real; Tortall's first offencive against them, and nearly a grave attempt.  Every mage in the Carthaki fleet had been on deck to batter it back, but Thom had conquered the magic that had created it. The memory of him aglow with violent blazing purple, bleak-faced as a statue and vengeful as a god-- that haunted Arram. It haunted him more that he longed to see it again, even knowing the human cost of that desire. Thom was a greater weapon than a hundred seige engines, greater than the limitless armies of the South. He would wreak devastation on the Tortallans.

He might not even know he was doing it. Arram wasn't sure how much Ozorne had told him. He didn't dare to presume.

'We will land soon,' he said instead, as he'd said the day before, and the day before that. 'Our scouts say the enemy flotilla will fall. They've barely thirty ships left.'

Thom took that news indifferently. Arram lifted a flower from the basket. It was a purple hyssop stem. He stripped the small flowers, rolled a tender green leaf to mush between his thumb and forefinger.

'Thom,' he said.

'Arram,' Thom replied, rote and unemotional.

He sighed. 'The Emperor will be up most of the night with his advisors. Come rest.'

'I'm not tired.'

'Help me rest, then.'

Thom took his hand. Arram dusted it of bits of herb, enclasped it in both his palms.  He was almost unaware of Thom's spell, the warmth of Gift seeping through his skin so subtle that his eyes drooped and he yawned before he realised.  He jostled Thom in his haste to put space between them.  The basket of flowers turned over.

'Go to sleep,' Thom said.  'You want to go to sleep.'

'I'm sorry.  I was startled.'  He swallowed drily.  He apologised with a smile that spasmed across his face.  'I should probably be in my bed first,' he said.  'Come with me.'

'Come to bed.'  Thom cocked his head.  A lock of ginger hair fell across his cheek.  It was coy, or a semblance of coquettishness.  The deep blank behind the mirror of Thom's violet eyes was unchanged.

'No,' Arram croaked.  'I-- not like that.  My bed.  I-- separate beds.  I just meant--'

Thom took up his knife.  He made precise slices in the stems and chopped, collecting the cuttings in his robed lap. Arram stood over him, swaying with the heave of the ship, clinging to the wall.

Recklessly Arram said, 'Has he told you what you'll do with the Jewel, if you get it?'

'It's a secret,' Thom answered.

'But has he told you?'

'He wanted to be King.'  Thom reached the end of his herb and without pause began another.  'It was a petty ambition, even without the Jewel.  The Jewel is for doing, not being.  He was better after I brought him back.  The things he wanted then were bigger.  The Jewel would have done it.  All it needs is a worthy master.'

Roger, Arram realised.  Thom spoke of Roger of Conte.  He hesitated to interrupt.  Thom only rarely spoke unsolicited, and never about himself, his past life.  Arram had never been entirely sure he remembered it, or even knew he'd been dead seven years.

'He had to kill her to get it,' Thom said, hushed and unhurried as his hands wove.  'She only gave it to his Majesty, and it was only hers to give.  She won it.  His Majesty only wields it through her and Roger would only wield it if he killed her and took it.  He needed magic, he needed all the magic he could to get it, mine and through me her and through her the Jewel and the Jewel to control the Elementals and the Elementals to challenge the Gods--'

Arram crouched unsteadily.  'If that's true, Thom, how will you get the Jewel?  Do you understand what I'm asking you?  Do you know what you'll have to do, to get it for the Emperor?'

Thom's fingers stopped.

'Has he told you what he wants to do with it?'

'Go to sleep, Arram,' Thom said, and when Arram blinked, he was in his bed across the ship, and dawn light glowed behind the velvet curtains, and the war drums beat a triumphant dance.  The Tortallan fleet had fallen.

 

**

 

The day dawned clear and cold.  Alanna knelt in the damp sand, plunging her knife to the hilt again and again.  The tide was coming in.

Hakim's footsteps alerted her to his presence a moment before he joined her, settling low on his ankles, his big hands dangling between his knees.  The stone-faced Bazhir had joined the King's Own on Alanna's recommendation, but to her he would always be the solemn youth whose cuts she'd stitched as he'd grown to manhood in the lands of their tribe the Bloody Hawk.  He did not smile at her-- he never had-- but the respectful inclination his head was followed by a knowing dip of his eyes.

'Red sunrise,' he murmured.  'Ill omen.'

'I don't believe in omens,' Alanna said, but brushed the emberstone at her throat.

He took her dagger, and traded her an apple.  She grimaced.  'Eat, Lioness,' he advised her, and cleaned her blade.  He slid it home in the sheath along her calf.  'There won't be time later.'

'Now that's an ill omen,' she countered.  'Don't court bad luck.'  She rose.  'Let's go.  He'll be up by now.'

Jonathan was awake and dressing when his page escorted them inside the royal tent.  Quite a bit more than a tent, and closer to a fortified house, for all its walls were of carpet.  It was large enough for a bed, something Alanna found both irritating and enviable.  Beside the bed, a full writing desk surrouded by crates of maps and other records necessary for any travelling Court.  Gary was already seated there, with sleepy eyes that bespoke a long night rather than an early morning.  He smiled for Alanna, but only for a moment, and then he was back at his writing.

Jonathan suffered his page stuffing him into his armour as he tried, unsuccessfully, to do a dozen other things that could be done better by the several other people who were in and out of his tent.  Alanna shooed away the poor page, and buckled the left pauldron to Jonathan's shoulder, then the right, then lowered the gorget over his head and snagged his hands one by one to secure the braces.  Jonathan stopped fidgeting long enough to grasp her fingers, and they shared a moment of nostalgia.

'Simpler times, probably,' Jonathan said.

'Doubt it,' Alanna answered. 'You just didn't notice half of what was happening at Drell.'

'Drell?  I was thinking of the Black City.'

'No armour then.'

'No clothes,' Jonathan whispered wickedly, and winced as Alanna fixed his uneven shoulders by banging down double fists with all her might.  'Ouch, Squire, that hurts.'

'Sorry,' she said, not at all meaning it.  She grinned.

'Jon.'  Gary brought a scroll and a quill.  The King went silent and grim, and Alanna fingered the emberstone.  She hated this part.  King Roald had been a peacemaker, but his son had not had that luxury.  Jonathan inked his thick scribble of a signature at the bottom right of the new testament.  It would name Roald his heir, Thayet his Regent, and distributed various duties amongst his Court.  Alanna's name was in that document, as it had been in every such testament Jonathan had signed before every battle of his reign.  If she survived her King, she'd serve the next.  If that was sometimes too much to think about, then she didn't.

'You heard the fleet went down,' Hakim said.

Jonathan nodded.  'They're waiting for full sun and the tide.  We can't hold them off, not forever.'

'Not for long,' Gary muttered, cynical and not incorrect.

'We can make it cost them,' Alanna said.

'It'll cost us more.'  Jonathan turned weary eyes to the shrine that occupied prize of place in his tent.  'Mithros protect us.  We can't afford to commit more than a battalion to the shore.  They won't last an hour against a force that size.'

They would be slaughtered, those unfortunate ground troops who would face arrows, liquid fire, magic.  The sea would be red by noon.

'At the ready,' Jonathan said, and clasped Alanna's shoulder tightly.  'Raise hell, my Lady Knight.'

Tortall's army was arrayed along the cost of Port Legann, and the city, long vulnerable thanks to its wide-mouthed port and calm waters, had readied itself as best it could for a long fight.  As King, Jonathan would take the chalk cliffs, for the vantage and the safety, though it itched at him to retreat.  Alanna was his sword, and she itched at a much shorter distance, mounted with a company of knights and ready to charge once the Carthaki landers broke the barrier on the shore.  Her lance occupied her left hand, and she wound the reins in her right, stretching the leather tight across her knuckles.  Her gold mail was heavy and uncomfortable and at one moment that was unbearable, the next the farthest thing from her mind.  A storm was gathering.  It wasn't natural, or she'd eat her gauntlets.  The wind was picking up.  The air tasted acidic.

'Look,' Hakim said, pointing.

Yes.  The first boats launching out of the mist.  The Carthaki ships were out there, invisible behind a wall of impenetrable grey that had rolled in days ago and never lifted.  It was lifting now, blowing apart with the storm, and out of it came the war.

Jonathan's prediction of an hour was wrong.  The Carthakis breached the shore in half of that.

Alanna hoisted her lance with its pinnon of blue and white.  'For Tortall!' she shouted, and Hakim beside her bellowed, 'Charge!'

And then all hell broke loose.

 

**

 

It took two galleons to carry all Ozorne's war mages from Carthak to Tortall's lands, and labouriously they worked to maintain a hundred spells.  Twenty or so raised the mist, another twenty sustained it.  A dozen were required to boil the sea when Tortall's mages turned it to ice, to get the foot soldiers to the beach.  Another dozen rained fireballs on Port Legann, and another after that shielded the Emperor's fleet from Legann's return fire.

Ozorne lowered his scryglass, and nodded to Arram.  'Now,' he said.  A rare and feral smile spread his face, his white teeth gleaming.  He touched both hands in benediction to Arram's shoulders.  'My hawk,' he murmured.  'You will bring me victory in your claws.'

'Majesty,' Arram answered him gravely.  'You've done me great honour.  I... I've been glad to call you friend.'

'Thom.'  Ozorne cupped his cheeks.  'Go, my lion.  Bring me the Jewel.'

The boat that took them to shore landed well beyond the Port, so distant that the scream of dying men was only a whisper on the wind.  Arram clambered over the side into the waves at knee-height, cursing the cold and stumbling to find purchase on the shifting sand below.  He caught Thom and half-carried him, his greater height keeping them upright as they waded in.  He summoned fire, and they stood, shivering, before the blaze that burned with no tinder but air.  Their small cove was but a tiny inlet, a goat's steep and dangerous path leading up through spiky gorse to a pair of huts perched on the edge of the white cliff above them.  The huts sat empty now, their occupants likely huddled in the dubious safety of the city walls.  The earth shuddered, every few minutes, the rumble of something not thunder marking each new exchange of magic between the armies fighting at the Port.

'Nearly,' Thom said, in answer to the question Arram hadn't yet asked.  Unsurprised, Arram only hunched his shoulders.

They waited it out.  The sun inched along overhead, now and then obscured by haze or smoke.  Arram paced-- Thom did not.  He bit at his thumbnail til his finger was raw.  Thom stared at nothing.  Yet when he put his hand on Thom's arm, he found the younger man's muscles rigid with tension, almost vibrating.  He waited in stillness then, not yet forgiving, and yet knowing it didn't really matter.  What would be would be.

When the sun burned directly overhead, exactly noon, Thom raised his hands.

He wore a fur cloak, one last gift from Ozorne, dark rippling sable that fell back from his shoulders.  His hair was bright as candleflame, his face pale as the chalk cliffs.  In an instant Arram's fire bled purple.  Arram unwrapped the vervain, and threw it in, all of it.

Afterwards he would never quite know the words for how it had felt.  Afterwards, he would lie and say he didn't remember, or that it was best not spoken of.  In the moment he gave everything in himself over to Thom, and Thom drained him dry in a single brutal pull.  The heavens ripped wide for them, and Arram gasped in elation and despair.

High in the sky, light flared and streaked.  It left spots on Arram's eyes, like gazing into the sun.  The earth itself shifted hard sideways, not the little quakes of concussion and impact but like a jump, a sudden dislocation and a finding oneself at the bottom of the stairs when one had been just about to take the first step back at the top.  Everything went soft and jelly-like and wobbly and then hard, impossibly hard, and he thought he would burst or crumble or implode--

The barrier between the Realms fell with one blow, and everything on the other side was waiting.

Chapter Text

'What is it?' Kaddar whispered, covering his nose and mouth with a scented kerchief to ward away the wretched stench of the creature. Behind him, one of the men, a seasoned veteran, bent over the ship's rail to vomit weakly.

The red-robed mage who'd brought the creature down crouched carefully over it. He touched, more than anyone else had dared. 'Flesh,' he reported, 'or, at least... this part,' he added, cringeing and wiping his fingertip on his robe.

'Obviously,' Kaddar snapped. 'But this-- monster-- what is the rest of it?'

'Steel,' Ozorne said. He snapped his fingers at a dark-skinned slave who manned the sails. Wide white eyes lifted and hurriedly fell as the slave genuflected. 'Fetch one of the feathers for me,' Ozorne ordered the man.

Stretched to their greatest length, the creature's wings were nearly nine feet across. They reflected the sun, but each individual barb extending from the shaft was etched clearly and deeply. The slave cut himself more than once trying to break it from the wing, which was not flesh like a bird's but a kind of scaled sheet covering a mechanical joint where the bone should have been. Human blood mixed with the creature's black puss-like ooze. Ozorne did not touch it, but examined it where it lay across the slave's rough palms, tilting his head this way and that.

Kaddar did not take his turn til he was ordered to, his uncle's curt nod summoning him. Kaddar did touch, unable to stop himself. The edge of the feather was razor-sharp, and he stared at the sudden bleeding rent in his thumb, his own red life welling and beading. Appalled, the red robe hurried to heal him, aqua Gift washing over the hurt and erasing it. Was it his imagination that it still stung? That it had poisoned him, and even as he gaped it spread its sick corruption through him?

Those around him watched him warily, obviously thinking the same thing. Duke Etiakret was the first to speak, and Kaddar swallowed drily, forcefully reminding himself to listen, on the off chance he did not, in fact, go green and die. '--for all we know one of the friendlier beasts we can expect to pollute the Human Realms!' his cousin ranted.  Oblivious to his Emperor's tight mouth and contracted eyebrows he went on, loudly enough to be heard beyond their small circle surrounding the dead creature.  No slave manning the deck of the ship would dare listen in, but the mage-adepts were near enough to overhear, jostling as they were to get a glimpse of both the man they'd sworn to serve and the incredible horrors he'd used them to inflict on the world.

Kaddar wiped the blood from his hand.  Wiped it again, and clenched his hand in his cloak.  'His Imperial Majesty's will is unquestionable,' he said flatly, and Etiakret's mouth closed with an audible click.  Ozorne's eyes turned slowly to Kaddar.  Kaddar bowed deeply.

'Stormwing,' Ozorne said, and with a blink released him.  'It's a Stormwing.'

'Why is it attacking us?'  Etiakret huffed and huddled in his warm furs, his breath steaming grumpily in the chill Tortallan air.  'Shouldn't it be attacking the Tortallans?'

'Master Lord Thom fulfilled his promise,' General Jaala Abishai noted, his low rumble uncharacteristically subdued.  He, too, bowed to the Emperor, inclining his head and torso, though he retained the right to keep his hand on the scimitar hung through his belt, rather than over his heart in the pledge a lesser man would owe.  'Clearly, the Barrier has fallen.  We anticipated the possibility there would be hostiles on the other side of it.'

'Can we protect our fleet?' Ozorne asked.

'We're prepared to do so, yes.  These monsters can die.'  Jaala Abishai waved at the creature sprawled on the deck, its human face still twisted in a grotesque snarl of shock.  'The initial assault was repelled.  We will strike while the Tortallans are recovering from their own battle with the Immortals.  A two-pronged front will most certainly overwhelm them.'

'Excellent,' Ozorne agreed, mildness itself, til he added, 'As far as it goes.  The Tortallans will lose today, but this is only the first battle of the war.  Any delay caused by these creatures will affect us as much as them, and any delay will allow them time to convince other kingdoms to join them as allies.  They have the advantage of land they know, land they can raise against us with their magic.  This thing is partially human at least.  If it is human, it can be reasoned with.  Enticed.  Bought.'

Partially human at least.  Kaddar found he was staring again, this time at the thing dead at his feet.  It had hair on its bare chest, blonde human hair matted with gore.  Its bared teeth were filed to fangs.  There was a bit of flesh caught between the long incisor and front tooth.  It was fresh.

'You mean to make allies of these monsters?'  His own voice seemed so far away, and he swallowed convulsively.  He wiped his hand on his cloak.  He was sweating.  It was too cold to sweat.  The slave who'd been cut by the feather wasn't sweating.  The slave had utterly disappeared, as if he'd never been.  The feather lay abandoned on the deck, as if it had flown there.  The red robe mage was muttering over it, sprinkling it with some kind of dust from a pouch at his waist.  'How?' he asked, forgetting to add an honourific.

Ozorne ignored the slip.  'Watch and learn, my heir,' he said.  He lifted the skirt of his heavy robes and turned to go.  He paused beside his nephew, and took the extraordinary measure of laying a hand on him.  They had touched only rarely, and never since Ozorne had ascended the imperial throne.  Now his uncle's fingers encircled Kaddar's wrist, lighter than his skin, long enough to nearly touch when they wrapped.  Overlaying the bracelet Kaddar wore.  'Fazia gave you that jewellery?' Ozorne asked.

'My mother?'  Kaddar faltered, too late remembering its significance, and fear crawled through him in a sick shiver.  He fought to keep his face still.  'It's only a trinket, your Majesty.'

'And yet it has magic.  I've wondered-- surely you knew I would sense it.'

He didn't know what to say.  Sweat dripped from his temple into his eyes, and he fought not to blink.

'I hope she didn't pay too dearly for it.  Fazia always did believe in superstitions.'  Ozorne released him.  'Perhaps it will protect you, after all.  A mother's love is a kind of magic, isn't it?  I'll send a healer if you don't appear for breakfast.'

 

**

 

'Arram.'

The rasp of Thom's plea dragged him out of the darkness.  He was cold.  Terribly cold.  And thirsty, so thirsty.  Thom's face was a blur, bending over him, but Thom placed the wine skin at his lips, and it was like the elixir of the gods, sweet on his tongue and clearing his head in a flash.  He sucked greedily at it, til he could feel the slosh of it half-emptied in his fist, and reluctantly stopped himself.  'You,' he said.  'You finish it.  You must need it too.'

Thom's eyes were like new bruises, purple in the centre and fading to pale smudges, carved into his skull.  His hands shook, and wine spilled, deep black on the black of his cloak, when he drank.  Arram dragged himself upright.  He hurt.  Deep, bone-deep ache.  When he tried to call fire, he closed his eyes against a wave of nausea and came up gasping.  He was tapped out.  He pulled Thom against him, so that they propped each other up.  Night had fallen.  The roar of the tide was punctuated by a repetitious scrape and bump.  Their boat.  It had been drawn to the shoreline with the sea coming in, and now its keel awkwardly straddled the sand, the water's greedy waves dragging at its boards.

'Are those birds?' Arram wondered.  'There over the city.'

'Not birds,' Thom said.

Not birds indeed.  He realised, then, they shouldn't be so large, that the glimmer was too strange.  And he heard the screams when a pair of them swung sharply up for the clouds, a flailing form dangling from their claws.  It was a human-- or was til they ripped the unfortunate prisoner in two.  Arram swallowed hard.

'I don't hear the battle,' he managed finally.  'It can't be over already?'

'They abandoned Port Legann.  The fleet is gone.'

He couldn't scry, not if he couldn't even summon the requisite power for flame.  He craned his head about, but couldn't tell if there were any ships beyond the harbour.  They might be at the wrong angle.  The fog had gone, though, dissipated as if it had never been.  He couldn't even feel the heavy damp press of the spells conjuring it anymore.

'They left us,' he realised slowly.

'We should follow.'

'Even if we were both at full strength, I don't fancy trying to tail them in that little scow.  It only barely got us to shore.'

'The Tortallans,' Thom whispered.  'We should follow his Majesty.'

Arram almost spoke, and didn't.  He pressed Thom's knee, and pointed a shaking hand.  Thom's head turned.

'Gods.'  Arram shook.  'That's-- that's what I think it is?'

Thom inhaled deeply, his shoulders rising, and staying tight.

Out of the night it came.  Its hide was like silver snow, blanketing smooth-carved muscular flanks.  Its mane was strands of silk falling in perfectly straight lines from its proud neck to its powerful chest.  Socks of pure white muffled the impact of its hooves in the dirt.  It blew out a little snort of air, pawed the ground.  The moonlight gathered in its long pointed horn, a curl of bone that rose, majestic, from its noble brow.

The unicorn looked right at them, there on the ground gaping like rubes, and then it charged.

Arram was slow with wonder and terror.  Thom was not.  He pushed, and Arram fell flat, Thom's arms wrapped protectively about him.  Thom shouted a word, and purple flared, crystal bright before it faltered and snuffed out, but it was enough to startle the unicorn, and the brute turned away just when it would have struck them, hooves clawing at the air.  It bared not a horse's broad teeth at them, but a wolf's dangerous fangs.  Its angry scream rent the night.

'Run,' Arram shouted, shoving at Thom, and they stumbled to their feet and away, up the goat path Arram had spied earlier, too steep for the unicorn to follow.  It harried them up the cliffside, screeching at their backs, but when Thom slipped in the loose gravel and Arram only just caught him, he looked down to see the unicorn losing interest as its prey fled.  They watched as it sniffed around their boat, prancing up and down in the waves.  It threw back its head and loosed a cackling whinny, and then it was gone, trotting off up the beach as if their strange encounter had never even occurred.

'You're trembling,' Arram managed, pulling Thom to his knees and up to the safety of the scrub brush at the head of the cliff.  'The huts.  We should get inside.  Shelter for the night.'

It was likely a hermit's house, small and neatly kept, but sparsely furnished, and the casket at the foot of the bed had been emptied of all but light summer cottons.  There was kindling by the hearth and they struggled with the unfamiliar flint, both embarrassingly crippled with their magical reserves so low.  Thom was frustrated faster, throwing away his stone with a fit of pique and huddling in his fur cloak.  Arram stayed grimly with it, though it was a long time before he found reward, and he nearly lost his tiny flame twice before he figured out how to stack the sticks without smothering the growing fire.  By then, Thom had found a few mealy apples in the emptied pantry, and a hunk of stale bread that he softened with water from the rain bucket at the window.  Finding himself famished enough that even that rude meal was welcome, Arram ate all but the few bites he coaxed into Thom.

'We know one thing at least,' he said at last.  'The barrier is down.  You did it.'

Thom crouched by the hearth with his thin white hands clasped to his lips.  Arram thought his eyes were vacant as always, til Thom looked, suddenly, sideways at him, a small frowning wrinkle between his brows.

'Why the beasties?' Thom asked.

'Beasties?'  Arram chafed his arms.  Though it was not quite winter yet, the night was cold, and he found no linens or quilts in the cupboards.  No coffee in the little pantry, though he'd have cheerfully killed for it.  Copper Isles tea, that was not an unexpected import, this coast so near the Isles, but it was common stuff, and stale besides.  He emptied the tin into a pot and set it to warm on the iron arm over the hearth.  'You mean monsters?'

'They sealed out everything.'

'You mean everything including the monsters, but also including the nice things,' Arram reasoned.  He settled with his back to the mud-and-thatch wall of the hut, drawing his knees to his chest.  'The mages of old who sealed the Realms were sealing out everything Immortal and Elemental.  Those things we saw in the sky attacking the Port-- what were they?'  Thom made no answer, and Arram rested his eyes a moment, pressing the heels of his hands against the dry ache that penetrated his entire skull.  'Maybe all this time they've been waging a war of their own, in the Divine Realms.  The beasties against everything else.'

'Waiting for us,' Thom mumbled.  'For me.'

'If you hadn't done it, he'd have found someone else who would.  Me, probably.  I did help you.'  Thom looked at him, so empty, and Arram closed his eyes again rather than meet that strange gaze.  'Come here,' he said softly.  'Please.'

Thom came.  He was warmth on Arram's side, a bony elbow digging into his ribs.  Then Thom shifted, and brought the long drape of his thick cloak to cover Arram's shoulders.  It brought something hot and wet to Arram's eyes, and he bit viciously at his tongue to stop it at that.  Thom wouldn't understand, anyway.  He cleared his throat.  'In the morning,' he said.  'We'll find our way home.'

Thom nodded.  Arram felt him, the up-down motion, though he wouldn't allow himself to look.  They sat together, silent, til Thom dropped off, too tired, too empty.  Arram listened to their off-time heartbeats, thinking threadbare thoughts of wards, alarms, beasties who could swarm a human-scented hut like ants and devour them.  He knew, at some point, he dreamed, because the unicorn was too big for the door, and he watched, emotionless, as it skewered imaginary Leganns on its diamond-hard horn, women and children blood-drenched and accusing and dead, all of them dead.  He walked the city streets amid their bodies, and there was no air, no smell, no sound, but he knew he was supposed to feel despair at the terrible sight of it, and so he stood amidst it all and wept, confused and hurting and wishing he could at least tell the poor dead children it had been for some worthy reason...

'Wake up, Arram,' Thom said, the real Thom, not the Thom dashed dead against the sea wall, slain by the unicorn, but the Thom who was curled on the rug beside him, urgently shaking his shoulder.

Dawn.  The light was grey and smoky, like ashes and oil, strange on the tongue.  There were voices outside.  Human enough, but too near, and the rustle at the door became a furious campaign of whispers outside.  The steely hiss was weapons being drawn.

'Soldiers,' Arram breathed, rolling to his knees and ducking to the window.  He lifted just the smallest edge of the drape, squinting against the light.  'There's six or seven horses out there.  Some men on foot--'  He wet his lips.  'Thom,' he said.  'They're going to come in and find us here.  Don't fight.'

The violet glow collecting in Thom's palm stopped.  Arram covered his hands, pressing with his own.  'Don't fight,' he said again.  'They'll hurt us if we fight.  Let me talk to them.'

'Will you tell them your secrets?'

'What?'

A fist banged the door.  'Ho the house,' a man's voice called, gruff but only cautious, not yet threatening.  'Come out, and we'll get you to safety.  There's monsters here now.'

Arram coughed to clear his throat.  Thom's hands in his were frozen.  He gripped tightly.  'Are you Tortallan?' he yelled back.

'We're King's Own.  Open up.'

'We don't have to do it this way,' Thom said.  'I can hide us.  We can get to him on our own.'

'What do you mean, hide us?'

In answer, Thom's violet Gift blazed through their interlocked fingers.  A moment later, he was gone.  Arram at the dimly smoking hearth behind-- that had been behind him, and was now uninterrupted by the body that should have been there.  Yet he still felt Thom's hands in his, and when he looked down, he started to realise that Thom's was not the only form that had vanished.  He couldn't see himself, either, and suffered a severe sense of dislocation before he closed his eyes and swallowed it back.

'No,' he said.  'You'll never sustain it, not with both of us.'  With great effort, knowing it might be the last time he'd ever hold those hands in his again, he released Thom.  The instant he was away his skin glowed back to healthy colour, his sleeves filling in, his tunic, his boots.  'Stay with me,' he asked, begged, warned, he wasn't sure, and had no way of knowing if Thom had even stayed long enough to hear it.  The Tortallans had given up awaiting his answer, and they forced the door.

Arram put up his newly visible hands in surrender.  'I'm unarmed,' he said quickly.  'Please don't hurt me.'

The man in the lead was a walnut-skinned Bazhir, a sweat-stained headscarf and a long tunic of Tortallan blue beneath soot-blackened and scratched armour.  His sword did not lower, nor did the spear held by the soldier beside him, and Arram had counted at least ten others in the yard.  But they seemed to decide he was no immediate danger, and the Bazhir turned his head to direct his companion to sweep the house.  'Have you anyone with you?' he asked Arram.

'No, sir.'  Arram slowly lowered his hands, then changed his mind.  Nor did he rise from his knees on the rug.  'I was trying to get out of the city,' he lied, knowing his clothing was too rich to be mistaken for any peasant who might occupy so rude a home.  'Then the monsters came.  I was trapped on the beach.  I saw a-- thing.  I think it was a unicorn.  I fled here.'

The Bazhir accepted that with a grunt and finally sheathed his sword.  'There are many strange things appearing all over,' he said shortly.  'And you might have been left here with them if we hadn't seen your chimney smoke.  The Stormwings have taken the Port.  The army is pulling out.'  He thrust his stubbled chin at his soldier, who returned as empty-handed as Arram had from his search of the hovel, but for a jug of honey and a fistful of hand-rolled wax candles, which went into the bag at his waist.  Provisions for the road, and meagre ones at that.  The army would have a supply train, but the city dwellers had likely only escaped with what they'd worn on their backs, and fear would be secondary to hunger by nightfall.  'Put him with the others,' the Bazhir ordered.

'What's your name?' the soldier asked him, providing an arm to bring him to his feet.  Arram accepted it gratefully, when his knees creaked and he staggered.

'Numair,' Arram said.  'My name is Numair Salmalin.'

'That's not a Tortallan name,' the soldier noted, eyes narrowing and assessing him once more.

'Tyran by birth,' Arram added quickly.  'A merchant.  I was headed toward Corus, but the war waylaid me.'

'You're Tortallan now,' the Bazhir told him, dry as dust.  'Welcome to the army, Numair Salmalin.'

'The-- the army?'  The soldier pushed him along and Arram stumbled out of the hut into the weak dawn light.  Now he could see that what he'd taken for a company of soldiers was really a rag-tag collection of horses including pack animals and one sagging jenny, which bore two miserable-faced children huddling in a wool blanket.  Port Legann's refugees sat in frightened clumps, and a woman's quiet unrelenting sobs seemed to speak for all of them.

'You've got two arms, two legs,' the Bazhir said.  'That leaves you better off than most of my men.  Here.'  He pulled a weapon from a bundle slung over one of the horse's backs.  A short sword.  Arram nearly dropped it, too shocked to hold it, and too repulsed when he realised the slime on the hilt was wet, red blood.  'Take the flank,' the Bazhir ordered him.  'That's the side there.  You can run if you want, and I won't stop you.  But there's nothing out there but death.  I watched a minotaur kill the man who used to carry that sword.  It ate him afterward.'  He mounted stiffly, pressing a hand to the roughly dressed wound in his side.  'We move,' he called to the others.  'I know you're tired, but the faster we catch up the army, the safer we'll all be.'

That galvanised the Leganns.  One by one they stood, some swaying in exhaustion.  They helped each other.  Arram helped, bringing an old man to his feet.  The old man shuffled off after the soldiers of the King's Own, his feet dragging wearily.

Arram wiped his face on his sleeve.  If Thom were with him still, he couldn't tell.  He looked about for him anyway, foolishly expecting, hoping for some sign, but there was none.  He gripped the sword in his hand, and tried a clumsy swing.  He'd as soon chop off his own leg as kill a monster.  When he tested the magic within him, he found it guttering and reluctant.  A few good spells, maybe.  More if he could get another night's rest.  Best conceal it til he knew what to do next.  If they knew he was a mage, his story would begin to show its holes.

'Stay with me, Thom,' he whispered, to the wind if to no-one else, and trudged off after the Tortallans.

 

Chapter Text

George found her in the mews, directing their castellan to open the stores for the refugees one with eye and trying to heal a girl with a deep gash on her small shoulder with the rest of her concentration. The girl was dying, had been dying for hours, and Alanna had dragged her an arduous, painful journey a day up the coast only to lose her anyway. Alanna didn't know she was crying til George swooped his thumbs along her cheek to collect the tears. He took the girl from her arms, a limp little doll with a lolling head. 'Her mother?' George asked.

'Stormwings,' Alanna rasped.

'Stormwings.' George shook his head. The quality of the word was different in his mouth, still shocked, still amazed. Alanna had burned through shock in the first sighting during a battle that felt like it had happened a thousand years ago, burnt through denial and rage and fear and was well through bitter acceptance at her own human frailty. The bodies of the thousands she hadn't been able to save stretched from Pirate's Swoop all the way back to the ruin of Port Legann.

'Jon's awake,' Geroge said then. 'He's askin' for you.'

She clawed at the wall to rise. She was beyond weariness. George held the hand that dangled at her side, and she couldn't even curl her fingers about his. She stood, swaying, over her husband, indecision, duty warring. The little girl's eyes were open. They wouldn't be, when she saw them again. She bit her lip til copper washed her tongue. She left.

The King was in her own chambers, of course, though she would have known it by the thick crowd gathered in the upper galley. She had to push her way up the narrow stairs, jostling through armoured men all head and shoulders taller than her who all had legitimately urgent reasons to see the King before she did, but she was Lady of the keep and too damn tired for precedent. Just when she would have lost her temper and shouted just for the sheer relief of letting it go, though, Gary appeared before her, grabbed her by the elbow, and yanked her through the wall of bodies to the door. He pulled her in and shut it firmly in the faces of every groaning man in the hall.

Jonathan lay in her bed, his armour stacked in the corner.  His face was pale but for the bloody scratch on his cheek, dangerously close to his left eye, already inflammed.  His pupils were too small, Alanna noted, taking him by the cheek and examining him closely.  Not just the cut.  The bruise on his chest was large as a dinner plate, and he cried out when she pressed gently.  'Broken sternum,' she told Gary, reaching into herself for the healing Gift.  She'd expended so much of it already, surrounded with too much need, but the King would get the rest of it, had to.  She used her Gift to feel through his body, seeking the lungs, eradicating the first developing infection of pneumonia, breathing full breaths into the right lung that threatened collapse, reattaching the fibres of broken ribs and reshaping the fractured cave of his chest.  She felt the contusions in his heart with fear, and wrapped that delicate organ with words of love, whispers of entreaty, encouragement of strength, and she willed her King to health.

Jonathan was quietly watching her when she opened her eyes.  Pale chapped lips spread for a smile that never quite managed landing.  'Thank you,' Jonathan said.

Alanna accepted water from Gary, swallowing to ease the dryness of her throat.  'Let me see that hand, Gary.'

'We should send for Duke Baird,' Gary said, allowing it, and obviously in pain.  That she could ease, though the broken fingers would require more from her, and she wasn't sure she had it left to give.  Gary took the decision out of her hands, anyway, by removing his from hers once the hurt was masked, and he wrapped the swollen flesh in a bloody kerchief.

'He'd never get here in time,' Jonathan answered.  'Alanna, sit before you collapse.'

She did, only because she was lightheaded.  Jonathan propped her up with a knee and covered her arm with his hand, stroking her wrist beneath the lip of her greave.  She shared the water with her friends, Gary the last and finishing the cup, and then he went to the window that overlooked the sea, going smudgy and indistinct as falling night blended sky with water.

'How many did we lose?' Jonathan asked at last.

'We don't know yet,' Gary answered.

'Half,' Alanna said bluntly.

'A third,' Gary corrected, with a reluctant glance at Jon.  'Maybe.  The ones who went into Legann to evacuate the city may have survived, but we couldn't wait on them.'

'Don't count on it,' Alanna told them both, ruthlessly.  'I've got the army camped out on my lawn and the fleet is so much kindling.  Those refugees out there can't eat hope, gentlemen.'

'Those things will find their way inland.'  Jonathan picked at the fringe on her bedquilt.  'We left a trail miles wide, if nothing else.  Why attack just Port Legann?  If they can appear at will, why appear just there?'

'Because of the armies?' Gary wondered.  'Between their army and ours, Port Legann had a population larger than Corus, for the time being.'

Jonathan sought Alanna's gaze.  'The Dominion Jewel could have done it,' he hazarded, and Alanna nodded, following his thought.  'A human mage on his own, maybe.'

'A human mage would have needed more power.'

'Our spies say he's got some twenty red-robed war mages.  They could do damn near anything with that kind of power.'

'Then why come all the way here to do it?  They could have done it from the safety of Carthak City, and never risked their own people.  Those things attacked them, too.  The flotilla abandoned Legann before we did.  They were surprised.'

'Hell of a miscalculation.'  Jonathan touched the scratch at his eye, and Alanna stopped him.  She couldn't entirely close the wound, but it stopped bleeding, at least, and the angry red of fever-producing infection faded.  The effort left her gasping, black spots over her eyes.  Jon guided her down to rest on his shoulder, his hand warm on the back of her neck, his heartbeat strong beneath her cheek.

A knock at the door broke her momentary reverie.  'Damn it,' Gary growled, 'I'll have all of them banished.'  He strode to the door and wrenched it wide.  'Give the King time, you vultures,' he spat, but it was George, and Jonathan quietly bade him enter.  The Baron came in sideways, not directly to the bed, leaning against the far wall with his arms crossed.  If he thought anything strange, finding the King in companionable embrace with his wife, he said nothing.  Jon was blushing, anyway, releasing Alanna a little too quickly, and she slipped, a little, leaving the bed in more of a slide than a stand.  Only then did she notice her husband, and went to him immediately.  George wrapped her near, whispering against her ear things too private for either Gary or Jonathan to hear, and kissing her gently on the jaw.  George made no effort to avoid Jonathan's eyes, simply paid him no attention at all with his wife in his arms.  Gary refilled the water, and bumped Jonathan on the shoulder with it.

'The Swoop was never meant for this many people,' George said at last.  'We've quartered all we can in the keep, but with our own villagers as well there's thousands needing a solid roof.  I've sent messenger pigeons to the nearest fiefs, but even if they take all they can, some of these people will need to head inland.'

'I can draw heat away from you, at least.'  The King swung unsteady legs of his own off the bed.  'The faster I'm gone from here the surer your safety.  No word on the Cathaki ships, Gary?'

'Not headed back to the Strait, so far as we can tell.  They're in the Emerald Ocean still, but they're too far back from the coast to watch, and they've still got their dampening spells in place.'

'Til we know where they'll attack next I can't leave the coast.'  Jonathan struggled with the ties of his shirt, but when Alanna would have gone to him, George did instead.  From the press he removed one of his own shirts, fresh and unbloodied, and dressed the younger man, even going so far as to take a comb to his tangled hair.  Jonathan gripped his wrist in gratitude.  'Have we heard from Thayet?' he asked them.

'Port Caynn and Corus are on the alert,' Alanna said.  'The Queen's leaving the City with the children and the Riders.  They're headed for Persepolis.'

'Can we count on the tribes?' Gary asked.

'In a full-scale war?' Jonathan needed help with his boots, too, though he ground his teeth at his uselessness.  Alanna tried to smile for him, and he returned it with a grimace.  'They won't fancy bending knee to Emperor Ozorne.  It may not be fully enthusiastic support, but they'll fight for me.'

'What about Thayet?' Gary insisted.  'Jon, I hate to say it, but if the worst happens and she's alone out there, will the desert follow her?'

'Enough will,' Alanna judged.  'At the least, they won't take sides against her.  And we can count on our allies in the tribes to get her to a safe exile, if it really does come to that.  Jon's not just the King or even just the Voice.  He's Bloody Hawk, and that makes his children Bazhir too.  They don't turn their backs on a blood tie.'

'You should put out the call,' George advised quietly.  'I don't think the standing army's enough, Jon.  Give your people fair warning and give them the chance to fight for king and country.'

All were quiet in the face of that.  Jonathan stared at the glow of the lamp on the wall, rubbing his chest.  George caught his wrist and tied his cuffs.

'Do you think they'll truly come?'

'It's their homes under assault,' Alanna answered.  'And our people won't bow to the Carthakis any more than the Bazhir would.'

'We don't have enough weapons for every peasant in Tortall,' Gary said.  'Nor the time to train them to use a weapon.  Or the ability to take that weapon back when the war's done and you've got a fighting mob who may not want to return to serfdom, Jon, you can't not think about that.'

Jonathan rubbed his eyes.  'I'll think about all of it,' he said, and used George's shoulder to get himself upright.  'Gary, can you ride?'

'As far as I have to.'

'Then we're on the road.'  More formally Jonathan bestowed a kiss to George's cheek, and to Alanna's hand when she came near.  'I'll find some way to thank you for what you're doing here.  For now, a king's writ to commandeer food and water for the refugees.  Make any promises you need to with the local lords.  No-one will starve or freeze.'

That was well enough to say, and much harder to accomplish.  The King rode out with what of his army he could get on horseback, the surviving members of the King's Own and a fair number of youths from the troops to replace those who lay dead back at Legann.  Their torches disappeared into the deep woods beyond the Swoop's borders, though Alanna followed them a while longer with her mind's eye.  They had no magical means of concealment, and that was something of the point; all would be safer without such a high-profile target, but it gnawed at her, her King riding away from her where she couldn't be sure of his safety.  It wasn't that she didn't trust the Own, or didn't agree with Jon's decisions.  It just wasn't the same as ensuring it herself.

'Don't tell me he'll be all right,' she said, when she felt someone behind her.

It was, of course, George.  She knew him by feel, before he came to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with her on the battlements.  The frantic activity of earlier hours had calmed, somewhat.  It was no calm night, even by the standards of a keep active on the shipping lanes and near enough the Copper Isles to facilitate dark-of-morning escapades between kingdoms who were not always allies.  There were worn grooves on the stones where Alanna laid her hands now, and she knew generations had stood before her in this same spot, worrying through the night.  Trebond had been the same way, and it was in her blood to fight off invaders, but she was far too old to welcome battle.

'Only a fool welcomes it,' George said quietly, and she realised she'd murmured that aloud.  His large hand covered hers.  George was one of the few men she knew to share with his wife a wedding band, slim and, these days, scratched and dented silver on his fourth finger.  The ring he'd given her was a match, and one of many peculiarities in their marriage.  Even Jonathan had mocked him for the practise, warning that a wife given too much head would never come to heel.  It was one of many peculiarities about George that she loved, though, for he'd never once made her feel anything less than his equal, and she'd never sought to be his better.  They'd been friends longer than they'd been lovers, and George her friend gave her good advice, supported her when she needed him, and brought her back to earth when she couldn't see the map alone.

And never told anyone when a moment's weakness got the better of her.  Before she could speak it, he knew, and stepped behind her to wrap long arms about her.  His chest was warm against her back, one hand spreading over her belly.  She felt his kiss on the crown of her head.  She let herself close her eyes, secure with him.

'Come to bed?' she asked him.

She felt his nod.  But neither of them moved.  A moment later, he turned her, and bent for her mouth.  His thumb traced the whorl of her ear.  She was the one who pressed him back to the wall, around the corner of salt-eroded stone to the head of the curving stairwell.  In the dark she felt beneath his long tunic for the laces of his breeches, and his hands roamed her back, then her breasts, her buttocks.  His kisses were deep and dragging, and he whispered her name.  Then it was her back to the stone, and he dropped one step of the stair to put himself closer to her smaller height, his thigh slipping between hers.  He swallowed up her 'yes' with his mouth, swallowed up her gasp too when she guided him into her, scrabbling to push her smallcothes out of the way for him.  It wasn't deep enough, and her whole body hungered for him.  He moulded her tight with those big hands and smothered a moan in her shoulder.

He shuddered to completion first, and she rode it out with him, the familiar way he curled into her, letting her hold him up, then.  He mouthed at the slope of her neck, licked at her throat.  His fingers shook as he fumbled beneath her shirt, palming her breast.  She mangled her lower lip with her teeth, sucking harsh breaths through her nose as he ventured lower, then, fingers curling down her belly and then inside her, insistent and demanding.  'There's my lioness,' he said roughly, catching her taut and sweating against him, and didn't give up til she was shattered in his arms.

They sat on the stairs together, leaning wearily on each other.  She stroked the nape of his neck, long brown hairs twining her fingers slowly.  He was quiet, dozing, maybe.  It was closer to morning now than night.  It had been a bad day for both of them, and they'd far too much left to do still.  George would have the unenviable task of trying to rearrange the whole coast for the remnants of Port Legann.  She'd be gone with daylight, up the coast in the other direction, with Tortall's limping army, seeking their next engagement.  If neither of them quite knew how to do what they had to, they'd neither of them ever had the luxury of asking for help.

'I want to see the children before I go,' she said.

He nodded.  'You'll tell them about the Port?'

'They'll hear it from someone, if they haven't already.  Best us.'  Her eyes were burning with weariness.  She buried them in George's neck, and he leant his cheek against her hair.  'Take care of them,' she whispered tightly.  'You know how scared Thom can be.  He's old enough to know what it all means now.'

'I know, love.'

'Immortals,' she said.  'I never would have believed it.  What's that old curse?'

'May you live in interestin' times.'  George's shoulders heaved in a deep sigh.  'I wouldn't have brought it up, only...'

'What?'

'You know I've the dreams, sometimes.  The Sight don't give me more than flashes, most times, but lately.'  He didn't finish, and Alanna waited, knowing he'd say it, now he'd decided to speak.  They were neither of them ones to hesitate, and the pause meant only that he was searching for the right words.  'Something big is coming,' he said.  'And I don't think the Immortals is it.  At least, not all of it.'

'Goddess, there's more?'  Alanna rubbed her face.  George stopped her, pressing light, tender kisses to her eyelids, the tip of her nose.

'I'll be here,' he promised her.  'Always.'

'Always.'  His last kiss was to her lips, and she put all her love into it.  She didn't want it to end-- but it had to, and she had to go attend those many tasks awaiting her.  She gave it the space of one deep breath, and rose.

'The little girl?' she remembered to ask, turning just before he was out of sight on the spiral stairwell.

George shook his head.  His tired eyes followed her, as she steeled herself and kept walking.

 

Chapter Text

In truth he'd never been inside a real castle. Well, he wasn't inside it now, but Pirate's Swoop was impressive nonetheless. There was no comparing anything to the palace in Carthak, of course, but the Swoop's craggy keep of weather-beaten stone had a kind of naturalism and grandeur that was all its own. Concentric circles radiated outward from a central keep roofed in slate, then an inner breach with three towers on each side, and then an outer wall with twice that number of towers, each flying bright pinnons that snapped in the wind.  The pallisade of sharpened timber stakes jutted threateningly over the killing field, perpetually muddy with the influx of rain and sea sludge.  The dawn approach was all lit with torches, and the sea behind it was a vast grey horizon.

The view was interrupted by the bodies awaiting burial, stacked three deep lining the outer bailey.  Hanging from the gates was the body of a scaled beast with a crocodile-like head, its claws speared to the broad wooden doors by broken lances.  Arram, shaken, thought it dead, til it weakly snapped its huge enlongated jaws at a soldier passing by it.  'Gods,' Arram breathed, and found himself crossing his chest with the Sign, something he hadn't done since he was a child.  He was not the only one to do so.

A harried-looking woman of elder years met them on the hill beyond the motte.  'How many?' she demanded, no further introduction.  'You've wounded?'

'Nineteen of us,' the Bazhir reported.  'Wounded, yes.  Hungry and tired as well.'

'I'm Maude,' the woman told their crowd, raising her voice to be heard.  'And you won't be staying long enough to recall it.  I see you've children; we can take them in.  The rest of you get a meal and then you're back on the road.'

'No,' one of the women cried.  'No, we're so-- please, Mum!'

Arram closed his eyes.  He was beyond exhausted, his legs leaden, his head buzzing.  The whisper at his ear begging him to hold on just a little longer was the only thing keeping him on his feet.

'These people have walked from Port Legann,' the Bazhir was saying.  His deep voice was worn to nothing.  'Give them the night.  The night at least.'

'There's no-where for them to sleep,' Maude told him shortly.  At her gesture a boy came for the knackered horses, whose knobby knees were visibly trembling as they were led off.  'We're full up and there's more still coming in.'

'No,' the Bazhir said flatly.  'We're the last.'

That stopped her bustling off.  As she hesitated, a young lady in the gown of a maid emerged, lifting her arms for the children on their jenny.  The little boy, no older than six, began to cry, clinging to her neck.

'Fine, fine,' Maude said, harried and already turning away.  'You've missed the army, they got out yesterday.  Your wounded to the right, by the stables, the rest of you find the chapel, that's where they're giving out food.  Go on.'

The whisper at his ear was so insistent.  He was no longer entirely sure he really heard it, but it was so emphatic, incessantly hissing.  He tried to speak and got only a croak.  He coughed and tried again.  'Mum,' he said.  'Maude.  Your pardon.'

He caught her attention almost by accident.  She was bending to wrangle the little girl from their party, heaving her up onto a wide hip with a grunt.  She was tender with the child, though, petting her straggling hair.  Arram noticed the little crumple of cotton, already trod on by someone in the muddy yard, and crouched unsteadily to rescue it.  It was the girl's doll.  When he held it out, Maude reached for it.

'The king,' Arram said.  'We heard the King came here.'

'He's already moved on, in't he,' Maude said.  She eyed him critically.  'Why?' she added suspiciously.

'Who's the lord?' he asked, prompted by the whisper.  'Who's the lord of this place?'

'Baron George,' said the Bazhir, passing him by.  He clapped Arram by the shoulder and held.  He pried Arram's fingers loose from the short sword he'd been carrying for two full days, crusted to the hilt with old blood.  'Good lad,' he said, though Arram was probably ten years his elder, and felt a hundred years beyond even that advanced age.

'You're moving on?' Arram asked him.  'You can't, you're hurt.  Maude--'  He turned, and found her gone already, vanished with the children, and there was just a mass of so many people, a living breathing sea of people everywhere, and when he turned back to the Bazhir, he was gone, too.

The whisper guided him on.  He passed through the gate, bustling with people, tripping away from the snapping jaws of the strange beast pinioned to the gate.  Inside it was even worse.  The walls kept out the stench of the dead, but the noise was thunderous.  There was talk, talk everywhere, shouting this way and that, everyone shouting to be heard over everyone else.  Left-- no, right.  Whenever he faltered, overwhelmed, the whisper prodded at him, hounding him through the crowd.  Right, around the blacksmiths there, around the camp of people under the tent, huddling over a fire.  Right.  He was following the inner circle.  There were steps, broad steps of huge flat slate dug into the trampled mud.  Steps leading down.  There, a sort of new-building area, or at least not so worn as the rest of the castle keep.  A clanging windchime hung, unmusical and largely drowned out, anyway, bashing itself against the rough brick wall.  It was a Goddess Call.  The chapel.

Arram smiled on seeing it.  And then he fainted.

 

**

 

Thom grabbed as Arram toppled over like a felled tree.  He tried, but Arram's weight conquered him, and they tumbled sideways into a pile of wet sod, rebounding with a splash into a silty puddle.  Arram snorted out a muddy bubble.

'Wake up,' Thom hissed.  'Wake up, Arram.'  He shoved at Arram's shoulder, shook him.  'Arram--'  Someone stumbled over Arram's long legs.  Their companion hit Thom, or hit the air that appeared to be where Thom truly was, and blinked down, dumbfounded.  Thom flinched back from the questing hand that investigated the mystery, slipping in the mud in his scramble to get out of the way.  He missed the girl with a loaded handcart but a soldier charging through the yard bowled straight into him, knocking them both flat.  Thom's head hit the slate steps, and he went limp, momentarily dazed.  The soldier stared wildly about him, pawing at Thom's chest and hair-- which he could certainly feel beneath him, til with their physical contact the spell began to reach out to him, bleeding the colour out of his hands.  The soldier sucked in a deep breath to yell--

Thom clapped a hand over his mouth.  'Forget,' he commanded, pouring his magic into it, and the man gaped, expression sliding off his face.  He didn't move when Thom untangled himself.  He was still sitting there, mouth flapping, when Thom hurried away.

'Help him,' Thom commanded the men who knelt by Arram now, checking that he breathed and lived.  'Help him,' Thom commanded, chasing it with a snap of compulsion, and the larger of the two peasants hurried to haul Arram out of the puddle.  'Forget me,' Thom ordered them, careful to limit the spell as he had not with the soldier, carefuler even than that to stay beyond their reach as they searched for the invisible voice ensorcelling them.  Now contentedly ignoring the source of their instructions, the men got Arram slung between them, head flopping.  'He needs food,' Thom told the big one.  'And a bed.'

The magic accomplished willingness, though accomplishing the things he asked for was harder.  The peasants dragged Arram along like so much laundry, and they fetched the priestess of the shrine, who nearly dismissed them out of hand til Thom compelled her, as well.  But there were no beds to be had, not here in the chaos of so many refugees.  'Try harder,' Thom ordered her, frayed and discovering the pressure in his head grew worse with each extra expenditure of his Gift, but he used it ruthlessly, pushing her past her internal barriers of sense and propriety, and soon she was hiking up her skirts and leading them into the castle proper, along a dank lightless corridor to the storerooms.  These were guarded, of course, and Thom pressed the heels of his hands to the spiking pain in his eyes when he brought the guardsmen under his spell.  They used great clanking keys to open the grain room, and that were where they laid Arram, resting him on a pallet of old sacks.  Thom released the peasants, ensuring they'd forget their part in this as soon as they were back in the yard, but he needed the others yet, for all the effort left his heart pounding in his chest.  The priestess went running off and returned with a bowl of gruel and two hard biscuits.  She dithered for what seemed hours, fussing over the blood on Arram's hands, the paleness of his skin.  Thom paced in the corner, chewed his thumbnail.  He could compel her to leave, but it was something she would do naturally, soon enough, some bloody day.  He waited her out, as she spooned the broth into Arram's chapped lips, let her remove Arram's soaked boots and dry his large feet with her apron.  Just when Thom began to consider using magic to be rid of her, though, she sighed and rose.  Forget, Thom reminded her.  He put both hands on the door when she closed it behind her, and sealed it with his Gift.  No key would unlock this door, and the guardsmen would never remember opening it.  Then Thom sank to his rump, and let all of it go.

His hands trembled, when he could see them again.  Arram had been right that he could never have carried the invisibility spell for both of them, not for so long.  He might yet need it longer.  Arram was only hungry, only weary, two hard days on foot through dangerous territory.  Harried by strange beasts behind every tree.  They would move on.  They would move on as soon as Arram was rested.  Rest, Arram was always telling him, and Eat, and he'd got both those things for Arram, hadn't he, so surely they would move on as soon as Arram awoke.  They had to find his Majesty.

'Thom.'

The quiet rasp dragged him out of his doze.  The candle the priestess had left had long gone out, melted into a stub in a puddle of wax that was cool to his touch.  Thom eased out of his slump against the door.  His head ached, dully all over and keenly where he'd struck it on the stone.  There was a sick roil in his belly.

'Thom.'  Arram.  With a cough and a restless shift of his feet dragging in the scattered grains on the cold stone floor, Arram did as Arram always did and came to him.  The fingers sliding over Thom's knee touched his cheek, then began to glow.  Arram lit their small room with magic, a tiny warm light that speared Thom's eyes.  He shut them fitfully.

'Now where have you gone and got us?' Arram wondered.

He didn't know.  The name of the place and the name of the lord meant nothing to him.  He didn't know how far they were from Trebond, but it didn't seem they were anywhere near mountains, just ocean, which he'd never seen before Ozorne had placed him on a ship, and forest, flat endless forest.  If he could find Trebond he could find other things he knew.  He'd thought, for a moment, they might be near it after all; Maude, that woman had called herself, and he knew someone called Maude, he thought, but it was like many things on the other side of the dark curtain in his mind, fuzzy and far away.  Ozorne chided him for trying to remember too much.  Arram always pressed him to try.  Sometimes he did and sometimes he lied when they asked him things, but now he did try.  Maude.  Trebond.  The mountains, his mountains... he'd lived nearly all his life in the mountains, and it was one of the clearest things he could remember, right behind his eyes when he closed them.  The soft rounder hills of his fief, green in summers but white and unwelcoming with winter.  The jagged peaks of the City of the Gods, no green at all, hazed over where the air was thin and the clouds hung low, and the howling wind careened like a banshee off blank rock, ghostly wails all through the night.  Alanna would tell him stories about the wind, all the strange and wonderful things the wind had seen, til he wasn't scared anymore and his dreams were full of exciting adventures, the two of them following the wind to exotic far-off worlds.

Arram covered his hand.  'You're shivering,' he said, and made a lot of bother, trying to do things with the sacks of grain and only succeeding in stepping on his empty bowl and breaking it.  Thom shook his head, and did what Arram was trying to avoid asking him to do.  He set his back to Arram's chest and brought the fur cloak over both of them.  He wanted to make a little fire, it was so cold, but that would strain the compulsion he'd laid on the door, to make people not notice them here.

Arram's arms came tentatively around him.  'Rest,' he said, because Arram was always telling him obvious things as if they were deathly important, and Arram huffed and nodded as if he'd done something strange, but dropped his chin on Thom's shoulder anyway.  It eased the cold.  He was cold so often, and thought it must have been because he'd spent all his life in the mountains, where of course it was never warm, not like Carthak.  But he missed his mountains.  Maude.  Trebond.  It couldn't have been her, truly, not if they were so very far away.  It must be a common name.  Like Thom, and Arram.

'Tomorrow,' he said.  'Tomorrow we find his Majesty?'

'Yes,' Arram murmured, sounding odd and defeated.  'Tomorrow, Thom.'

That was well, then.  Thom closed his eyes.  He was tired, and it was noisy on the other side of their door, and uncomfortable here inside it, but his body carried him off, and he didn't fight it.  Rest, to be ready.  He would be ready.

 

**

 

There was something rather odd happening in Pirate's Swoop.

Ordinarily George felt muffled by the constant swish and blast of magic floating round him.  He'd fallen in with a group of mages quite free with their Gifts, these many years, all of them ineffably talented.  His own son looked fit to follow that line, didn't he, six years old and already bewitching the frogs to kiss the maids.  George's own talent was small compared to those great magics, more a thing of heightened instinct, the occasional dream heavy-laden with meaning.  He didn't even remember now the dream that had drawn him to the woman who'd one day be his wife, his entire life, but he remembered how it had felt-- like all of Corus was bunched-up and tingling and waiting on something big.

Pirate's Swoop felt that way now.

It'd been growing for hours.  At first he'd thought it was a storm blowing through, another set of instincts he hadn't quite settled into, living coastal as he did now.  But the skies were just grey, and when he asked Thom if he felt anything brewing, his boy had sworn on a pig's ear it was nothing.  They were no tempting target now for enemy attack, except the Immortals who came trotting through, almost like lost creatures who hadn't expected to find a castle and a few thousand wary occupants ready to club a careless monster into the dirt.  There'd not even been a one of those, today, the fourth day of the Barrier down, and by sunset he was allowing himself to wonder if maybe he was only-- justifiably, but only-- paranoid.

'Maude, love, slow a moment,' he bade her.  He pressed her onto a bench alongside the wall, and kept her there by sitting at her side.  He was no more noble than she by birth, but she huffed and puffed over his title as much as any proud servant did, and she wouldn't rise til he did.  'You're wearin' me out, woman,' he informed her.  'What'll we do if you go collapsin' on us?'

'Oh, you,' she muttered, rolling her eyes, but didn't defy him.  George patted her plump knee.

'I keep thinkin' I've seen it all,' he said then, when the silence between them eased.  'I thought Jon's coronation was the big one.  Marryin' Alanna out in that desert full of nothin' but sand and her scowling Bazhir.  My children.'  He scraped his stubbled jaw, loosed the topmost button of his overtunic.  'What are we goin' to do with a world full of things like this?'

'Get on with ourselves,' Maude said brusquely, but when he glanced at her sidelong, her face was drawn and mourning.  He squeezed her knee again.

'Right you are,' he agreed.  'Nothin' else for it.'  He rubbed fiercely at his eyes, gave himself the length of one good sigh, and pushed to his aching feet.  'Right you are.  Just promise me--'

'Maude.'  It was young Pieter Larse, spraying noise in all directions as he clattered up the stairs, though he sketched a bow decent enough when he saw his lord in the hall.  'Sorry, Baron.  I was meant to find Maude.  There's a man needs lookin' after.'

'They all need lookin' after.'  Maude groaned to her feet.  'Find one of the healers.'

'I did, Mum.  They said they needed you.  It's not a wound, s'magic.'

That caught George's full attention.  'Immortals?' he demanded, hand falling to his sword hilt as if he'd ever quite let it go after the last attack.

'No, milord.  It's William in the guard.  He's gone clear out of his head.'

Mad with fear?  George was only amazed it hadn't happened sooner.  'I'd best come anyway,' he decided.  'Will Fletcher, the wheelwright's boy?'

'No, sir, William Gosse.'

 'William Gosse is steadier than a hundred-year-old oak,' George said, surprised.  'I was standin' right next to him when that beast hangin' from the gate crawled out of the water, and he barely blinked.  Out of his head?'

'He stares at nothing and can't talk,' Pieter confirmed, trotting after him as George lengthened his stride.  Maude slowed him up again, and George waited politely for her to catch him up, though he tapped his sword hilt with impatient fingers.  'Won't even answer to his name,' Pieter added.  'They found him sitting in the mud alongside the chapel.'

And that was where he sat still, though he'd attracted a crowd.  George scattered them with a harsh word, disgusted by their crass curiosity.  But it was exactly as Pieter had described; stout old William sat in the mud with goggly eyes and drool trailing his open mouth.  He responded to nothing, no entreaty or sudden noise; George cut a slice on his palm and he never flinched, even as the blood welled up.

'Magic,' Maude confirmed grimly.  She shuddered.  'There's nothing in him, Baron.  He's empty.'

'Is this a new attack?' George worried.  'Could one of those things be out there?  In here?'  Maude could only shake her head, but George had to make a decision, and he did.  'Get me every other man off the walls,' he told Pieter, 'and be quick.  We'll crawl this place bilge to tower.  If there's anything hidin' in here wiping folk clear clean--'

George had done a thorough sweep of his new home on taking up the title and he knew secrets about the place that probably the men who'd built it hadn't.  He sent Maude to sit with the children in the nursery and his castellan to lead the search of everything locked, and took himself off alone to check the waste-chute passage to the sea, the buttery beneath the kitchens were every whisper from four levels above could be heard with perfect clarity, the cobweb-strewn corridor that snaked the outer wall, the privy in the crumbling west tower that concealed a series of handholds carved into the rock, a passage he suspected had been of particular help in the assassination of the Swoop's former lord and a passage he'd long had Alanna spell to be unlocatable for anyone but their blood.  He walked the roof, going toe-over-toe to check the brick chimneys along the keep, and he visited each vantage point to examine the outer walls, checking with both his senses and his Sight that they were clear and unbreached.

'My lord.'  It was the castellan, hopping along the hall to catch him.  'My lord, I think we've located it.'

George switched directions mid-stride.  'Be ready, laddie,' he said.  'I've got an ill feeling about this.'

It was the grain room.  That made George's skin crawl.  The Swoop's stores and its well were two resources already under surprise strain, and two resources most vulnerable in war.  He'd had both guarded since the first refugees arrived, but the two who'd been on duty the day before had no memory of anyone going past them.  When pressed, they had no memory of nearly an entire hour, and George would have bet his twins that hour matched right well with William Gosse's lost mind.

The key didn't work-- it didn't melt or bounce off a spell, it just didn't work.  George tried it himself, and turned it again and again, but the tumblers never so much as squeaked.  He sent a man off for an axe, but thought better of it before he returned.  Chopping down a magically sealed door was trouble, no doubt, and whatever waited on the other side had long realised it was a windowless chamber ringed by stone several feet thick, impenetrable by any ordinary means.  That left the un-ordinary, and George, Gift or no Gift, specialised in un-ordinary.

'Tell no-one you've seen this,' he ordered the crowd, 'or we'll all be starvin' this winter.'  He took two smallish steps to his left, felt down the seam of the mortar between mossy old brick, and dug with his fingernails.  The brick was tightly fit, but gave when he wiggled it, and it slid free, leaving a perfect square of open air.

Everyone waited with baited breath.  No spells came flying out, nor a winged dragon belching flame or a devil dancing on a pin or any of the horrors George fully expected.  He exhaled slow, and set his shoulder to the wall.

'Whoever or whatever you are,' he called through the hole, 'let's take a moment to appreciate this situation.  I've a dozen men, all armed, and we're on a bit of a hair here, getting anxious about this.  No doubt you feel much the same.  Call a momentary truce?  You want out, and I want you gone.  Let's agree to that much.'

'My lord,' the castellan whispered tightly.

George shrugged.  'Reckon if they was goin' to blast their way out, they'd've gone and done it by now.'  He raised his voice again.  'Why don't you just unlock that door there?  Calm and easy.'  He waited what he hoped was a reasonable time, and ducked slow under the open spot, ignoring the tingle of sweat starting on his back.  He put his hand on the key again.  'Right,' he said.  'I'm coming in.'  He turned it, and, this time, the tumblers fell and unlatched.  He pushed the door wide, and stepped back.

The room was empty.

The castellan gave a funny little hiccough, clearly relieved.  Pieter grinned fleetingly.  'Won't be carrying this tale,' the Larson boy quipped.  'That's right embarrassing.'

'Hm,' George said.  He ran his tongue over his teeth.  Candle wax on the stone.  'Well, that's an hour lost,' he said, turning to go, and letting his hand fall from the door.  He brushed his sword hilt on the way down, and gave it two taps.

He felt the rush of air more than anything else.  He threw himself forward from the balls of his feet, his sword drawn as he hit something big and warm, and his momentum carried him-- them-- in a roll down the hall.  One moment, George wrestled with air.  The next, he pressed his blade to the throat of a wide-eyed man who threw up his hands in frantic surrender.

And the next was lifted clear off his feet, a huge concussive blow slamming into his back and sending him flying.  He crashed shoulder-first into the far wall and slid to a heap, too stunned to catch himself.

'Thom!' shouted the man he'd tackled, instantly finding himself under a much-multiplied threat, the spears of seven different men ready to pierce at the slightest shift.  His companion, now visible as well, was on his knees on the stone, panting with exertion and trying to wring up the Gift to blast away Pieter, whose dagger flashed in torchlight, its tip blood-red.

'Alanna?' George whispered, staring dazedly.  The hair was the same exact shade, the bowed head, the outflung hand just the way she looked when she cast her spells, the magic gathering in her hand as richly violet as the beautyberry.

'Alanna,' the man on his knees repeated, turning his head up like a hound catching scent.

'He's Thom of Trebond,' the other one shouted, trying to sit up and kicked back to the ground by a boot to his chest.  'He's Thom of Trebond!  He's one of you, Tortallan--'

'Alanna,' the impossibility repeated, again, 'Alanna,' he said, and George was staggering to his feet, gaping as baldly as poor William Gosse, 'Alanna.  Alanna.'

'Thom,' George breathed, and a deep shudder of something blackly wrong washed him head to foot.  'Get the silver chains,' he managed.  'Both of 'em.  Now.'

'Alanna,' the couldn't-possibly-be said again, a mindless furious word with the syllables all running together and eldritch gathering in his hands, til George took the final strike himself and knocked him sprawling back, unconscious.

Chapter Text

Ozorne stroked the soft ruff of feathers as the macaw curled its small head toward him. It purred like a cat, eyes fluttering closed in simple pleasure. Sweet creature.

'Your Imperial Majesty,' a soft voice dared to interrupt him.

Kaddar. Ozorne found his nephew increasingly tiresome. Kaddar never said anything against him-- he was not that brave, nor that stupid. But Ozorne had wearied of the boy's constant air of disapproval. He was not yet Emperor and perhaps would never be, if he didn't show more aptitude for strong rule. Ozorne would not be followed by a weakling who would allow his great accomplishments to fall to ruin within a generation.

'Uncle,' Kaddar said then, as if guessing his thoughts. Kaddar was most certainly not that brave. 'May I enquire,' Kaddar said, so carefully picking his words, 'why you bid them wait? The fleet--'

'Is safer at sea for the moment,' Ozorne answered, cutting across that tentative appeal. 'We control the Strait, the Emerald Sea, and the entire southern reach of Tortall's coast merely by blocking escape. Let the Immortals harry them from within. There seem to be far more on land than in the waters.'

Kaddar covered his eyes, a gesture Ozorne found both theatrical and irrational. 'The oceans are vast,' Kaddar began. 'If there are such beasts below the waves--'

'We have mages in plenty,' Ozorne cut him off again. 'They will protect our ships or sacrifice their lives.'

That earned him silence. Ozorne returned his bird to its gilted perch, crooning affection. He settled himself on the lounge beneath the ship's curving glazed windows, draped with cloth of gold and velvet, drawn back now to allow the weak light to illuminate the large galley. A platter of prettily arranged fruit had been brought for him, and he wet his fingers in the bowl of scented water held for him by a slave, accepted a gem-encrusted goblet of fine wine, and ignored his nephew outright. Kaddar spent hours at a time on his feet, still as a statue as he waited for Ozorne's acknowledgment.

'The Rittevons have sent envoys,' Kaddar tried tentatively.  'And gifts.  Considerable gold.'

'I have no need of their gold.'

Kaddar gazed at his hands.  'Our people are hungry, your Majesty.  When this war ends they must have food.'

'Do you think me heartless?'  Ozorne chewed slowly on a grape.  'We need the Dominion Jewel.  You've heard what it's done for Tortall, yes?  Increased their harvests.  Reduced drought.  I've even heard it said that women miscarry less, that babies live who might have died in worse times.  No sickness, these seven years since the Jewel was brought to their kingdom.  Gold.  Gold buys food, yes.  But gold is gone once spent.  If Carthak had the Jewel, we would never need gold again.'  He turned another grape in his fingers, a perfect round bead of light green, flawless and cool.  'To be Emperor is a great burden.  It is the highest responsibility.  You must be worthy.'

Kaddar's face was troubled.  'As you say, Uncle,' he murmured softly.  'Just...'

Ozorne sighed, his patience at its end.  'More questions, my scholar.'

'Just one, your Majesty.  I don't understand-- that is, I think I see your plan for this war, and why you loosed the Immortals when and how you did.  You're trying to force King Jonathan to bring the Jewel into the open, aren't you?  If all are threatened equally then the need will be great enough for him to risk it, though he may guess what prods our presence on his borders.'

'And your question?'

Kaddar bowed his head.  'Why did we leave Lord Thom and Master Draper behind?  Won't we need them, to wrest the Jewel--'  He paused.  Ozorne approved.  Scholar, yes, and bright enough, when prodded.

'Ah,' Kaddar said, strained now in the quiet.  'So we did not come all this way to go to war on Tortall, after all.'

'War is wasteful,' Ozorne replied.  'But the illusion of war is much, much cheaper.'

'Can you trust him?' Kaddar asked bluntly.

'Arram?'  Ozorne dropped the grape back into its bowl and sipped his wine instead.  'Men like Arram have defined needs.  Satisfy that need, and one can predict a man's behaviour quite accurately.  Loyalty is a fickle thing.  Too often it can be turned by circumstance.  Infatuation can be fickle, too, but love-- love compels action where loyalty might quibble with morality.'

Kaddar absorbed that slowly, his brows drawn together as he considered it.  'Sire,' he began, and paused.  Then, 'Sire, I inquired not after Master Draper, but Thom of Trebond.'

Ozorne finished his wine, and settled back on his lounge.  A brief rest, he decided.  A brief rest before dinner, and then he would have to do something about those damned Rittevons, all of them interbred and so very trying.  'Love finds many forms.  Some darker than others.  Passion, nephew.  Passion is for weak men.'  He snapped his fingers at the slave who tended the fire.  'I want a warm blanket,' he said, and the slave scrambled to bring him one, timidly laying it over the Emperor's feet.  That was better.

'An Emperor,' he told Kaddar, 'an Emperor cannot be weak.'

'I will remember, your Majesty.'

'Do,' Ozorne said.  'Now leave.  You tire me.'

Kaddar bowed low.  'Forgive me, your Majesty,' he said hurriedly, and withdrew with no more prompting.  Ozorne waved off the slave who brought a wrapped brick to hide beneath his cushion.  These Northern climes were unpleasant in the extreme.

 

**

 

Buri twitched her nose.  The rat twitched its nose.  Long whiskers smoothed under tiny clawed feet.  It hobbled closer.  One back paw was mangled and dragged in the dust.  Damn.  She could almost feel sorry for it.  And if she felt sorry for it, it was going to be a lot harder to eat it.

She made a snatch, anyway.  With a squeak of alarm, the little rodent made an agile flip out of grasp and scurried off into the darkness beyond the barred gate.  Double damn.

'Near miss,' Ohran commented, from across the line of cells.  He chewed a twist of straw, his wrists draped over one knee cocked to his chest.

'How were you planning on cooking it?' Raoul wondered.

'Beggars can't be chosers.'

Raoul pulled a long face.  'Buri.'

'Even I might have trouble making something out of a story of you eating raw rat,' Constantin added, his voice-- tone slightly disgusted-- floating down from his cell on the end of the row.

'You write one single sonnet down here and I'll skin and eat you,' Buri shouted.  Her voice rebounded off the close walls.

Raoul caught the lip of his tin dinner plate.  It had been empty for a long time, though they had no candles or window or any other way of marking the passage of the hours.  His stomach rumbled intermittently.  He'd already checked for crumbs two or three times.  He'd lose some extra weight, all right.  Around about the time he ate his arm off.

'What do you think's happening back home?' he asked.  He spun the plate off into the darkness.

'Carthak's had time to sack the whole of the southern coast,' Ohran speculated.

'And the King's had time to call in allies,' Buri retorted.  She droppd her chin on her hands.  Her blanket smelled too mouldy to lay on for long, and she took the direct contact of cold stones to her aching joints as a challenge she would conquer.  Probably.  'Maren, Tyra--'

'The K'mir,' Raoul added.

'They'd fight for Thayet,' Buri agreed reluctantly.  'But not til it's dire.  If it's dire already, then it's probably too late.'

'Ever the optimist,' Ohran muttered.

'Copper Isles?' Raoul wondered.

'Like hell,' Constantin said gloomily.  'Islanders go with the strongest.  Carthak's a much bigger threat on the seas than Tortall.'  He hesitated.  'I say that from an-- an Islander's perspective, which I don't consider myself, not anymore, since the King has kindly extended welcome to his Court these many years--'

'He's waxing eloquent,' Buri noted with gritted teeth.  The poet fell silent, chastened.

'Don't be hard on him,' Raoul said quietly.  His eyes met hers, and Buri frowned, picking at a rough edge in the stone.  'He's young,' Raoul said.  'And it's not his first prison.  You know.'

Buri didn't quite manage to stop herself rolling her eyes, but she did stop picking on Constantin.  The Islanders weren't kind jailors, and she'd seen the scars on his wrists and ankles.  It didn't make her like his poetry any better, but he was a good lad, mostly.

Grudgingly she made an overture.  'You know anything with rhymes, Constantin?' she called.

Ohran caught her meaning.  'Anything bawdy,' he one-upped her.

There was a short pause.  'Anyone know Oyster Nan?' the poet began.  'My singing voice is a bit rusty, but I--'

There was sudden silence.  Buri waited, tapping her fingers impatiently on the stone.  'But what?' she asked finally.  No answer.  'But what?'

'Constantin?'  Ohran's call was echoed by a few more of the Tortallans in their cells.  Across from her, Raoul sat upright, leaning on his bars.  'Constantin?'

Buri was the one who heard it first.  The soft gurgle.  The gasp of a man drowning-- but they were on dry land.  Drowning in his own blood.

The ghastly ear-splitting roar shattered the dark.  Claws on the stone.  Buri scrambled to her feet, as the warriors around her were doing.  She had no weapon, but she whipped the blanket up, twisting it into a thick rope about her knuckles and adopting a fighting stance well back from her bars.  'Heads up, men,' Raoul shouted.  'It's moving--'

It burst out of Constantin's cell.  It was a dark thing of inky black scales gleaming evilly.  Stunted wings flapped furiously, blowing noxious-smelling wind down the dungeon's dank corridors.  It roared again, its scream stunning her ears.  It gripped the bars and ripped them free, throwing them careening in every direction.  It yanked out one of the ship's crew, a grizzled man with a grey beard that ran red with blood as the creature ripped out his throat and discarded him in a boneless heap.  'Raoul!' she cried, as the beast stampeded toward him, rearing up on powerful hindquarters to tear at his bars.

Raoul jumped to grab the lintel of his cell, swinging out with both booted feet.  He connected solidly with the creature's long neck, knocking it back, and kicked it down again when it whipped its big head about.  Buri whipped out her blanket-rope like a lasso, snagging on the wicked teeth of its open jaws, and yanked it back against her bars.  She wrapped both arms about its neck and held on for life and limb as it bucked, trying to shake her off.  Its screech deafened her, its foul breath stealing hers right out of her lungs.  Its forearms were too short to scratch her, but not its clawed hindquarters, and it dragged deep rents in her legs, but she gritted her teeth and held on.  Somehow, somehow--

Constantin stabbed it in the eye with his wooden spoon.  Hot ooze showered them both.  The poet's arm swung again, and popped the other eye.  It wailed, her eardrums registering the assault only dimly.  Constantin stabbed again and again and again, sobbing with the effort.  Buri held tight even as it shuddered in its death throes, held tight even as it went limp and its head dangled.  Only when Constantin slumped against her bars did she ease off, her arms tingling bloodlessly.  She was too numb to feel the wet on Constantin's torn throat, but she could see it, and the life pumping out of him in spurts with each heartbeat.

'Don't die,' she said helplessly.  'Don't die, you stupid boy.'

'Sorry, Buri,' he whispered.  'You know I hate to irk you, but I don't think...'  He coughed, and she cradled his head through the bars as black bubbled down his chin.  He never finished.

Raoul was staring wildly at her when she looked up, pressed to the bars with one hand outstretched.  She shook her head.

'What in all hells was that,' Ohran demanded, his voice shaking.

'A demon,' Raoul said.  'A demon.'

Captain Atticus wrenched and kicked at his bars, half destroyed by the creature's attack.  He got free at last, stumbling out, and ran first for the stairs at the end of the cells, slinking up the steps to peer up and down at the head.  'There's something going on up there,' he reported back in a hissing whisper.  'I can hear screaming.'

'More of those things?  Did Jon summon them?'  Raoul gestured fiercely.  'Keys, man, keys.  We need to get out.  If Tortall is attacking the palace--'

They all heard it.  A roar, just like the one the creature had made before it appeared.  The ground shuddered.  Dust from crumbling stone rained down from above.  Those standing pitched to their knees.  Buri lost hold of Constantin's corpse, and scrambled to get him again.  The earthquake was quick, only seconds, but it was enough.

'The King wouldn't do that,' Ohran said.  'We need to get out of here.  Atticus.  Keys.'

As soon as he was free Raoul came to her.  He covered her hands.  She could feel that, she thought, and feel, too, the kiss he pressed to her forehead.  He took Constantin from her.

'We need to go,' he said.

Yes.  Yes.  She didn't look down.  She knew it wouldn't help.  She only nodded, and stepped carefully when Atticus opened her cell, to avoid the blood to the left and the demon-thing to the right.  She didn't look back, didn't look anywhere but forward.

They left the dungeons in a tight unit, all of them hungry and blind and ready for anything.

 

**

 

'Majesty.'  The Stormwing's half-bow was graceful, given the limitations of their form.  His steel wings swept wide, and the bones in his long blonde hair clacked as he bent low his head.

'Lord Rikash.'  Queen Barzah Razorwing accepted his allegiance with a solemn, if distracted, nod of her own.  Their perch on a tall merchant's house on the inner wall of Port Legann afforded them a good view of both the inland and the ocean beyond.  Her talons broke clay tiles whenever she shifted, and she watched indifferently as they skittered down the sloped roof and fell to shatter in the empty cobbled streets below.

'We've traced the humans,' Rikash reported.  'There are more of the man-dwellings inside the forest.  They emptied all the little ones and divided themselves amongst the large roosts.  There's a stone fortress a day's flight to the north.  Most of the humans went there.'  He shrugged his rugged shoulders and settled his wings along his back.  He clicked his sharp teeth.  'Shall we attack them there?'

Barzha lifted her lip in a sneer.  Her strong features, almost unfeminine and marred further with the crusted black remains of human blood smearing her mouth, settled back to grim stony-faced silence.

'We have been approached,' she said at length.

'Approached,' Rikash repeated.  He laughed.  'What human would be brave enough?  It's been hundreds of years since they've known our wroth.'

'This one didn't seem especially afraid,' she said drily.  'He calls himself an Emperor.  He rules those lands across the strait.'

Rikash glanced out at the ocean.  'So.  He wants a treaty, I suppose?'

'To keep his lands free of us.'

'And why should we agree to terms such as that?'  Rikash shrugged.  'Others of our kind are foolish enough.  Let him treat with them.  We can hold this man-place for as long as we like or seek them out in other stone nests.  They cannot hide from us.'

'Are you so incurious you do not wonder why the Walls were brought down?' she wondered.

Rikash tilted his head.  'Frankly, I cannot see how it matters,' he said flatly.  'One human war is alike with the next.  If they're stupid enough to undo their own spells, let us take advantage of it.'

'This human Emperor,' she murmured.  'He makes an interesting proposal.  One that aligns with our purpose.'

He looked sharpish at her, catching her tone at last.  He was intelligent enough to bow again and keep his own counsel, now he recognised a decision already made.  He would be a good choice.

'You will be the envoy of the Nation of the Stone Tree,' she informed him.  'Learn his terms, and seek our best opportunity within them.  He is human and therefore he is treacherous, but, as you say, it remains for us to protect our advantage.  This human started the war and broke the Walls.  He commands an army and navy all within reach of this land, and thinks he will not have to use his own tools.  He seeks to control us-- you will learn how to control him, and keep the humans at war.'

Rikash considered his Queen for a long minute.  When he bowed again, it was even lower than before.  'My Queen,' he said, eyes glittering.  'I am yours to command.'

She turned her face back to the ocean, turning red with sunset.  'It is good to be back in the human realms,' she decided.  She preened her feathers, glorying in the reek of death and smoke from the human city.  'Very good.'

Rikash laughed, and then he launched himself with a mighty thrust of his wings, and dove for the street with a glad cry.  He swooped low, over the fire of a smouldering row of houses, and then arced high into the sky.  His wingtips dipped in a final acknowledgment of her, and then he was gone.

Chapter Text

'What's your name, then, laddie?'

'Numair,' he said again. 'Numair Salmalin.'

Baron George was an imposing man, tall-- though not as tall as Arram-- and imposingly fit. But it was more grim lack of nonsense in his hazel eyes that cowed Arram. This was not a man to suffer fools, and Arram's chances of doing something foolish seemed higher than usual. He was hungry and tired and worried and not a little desperate, so he chewed his lips and tried very very hard not to speak any more than absolutely necessary to convince the Baron of his sincerity.

'That's not your real name,' the Baron said.

'No,' Arram answered forthrightly. 'But it's not for the sake of lying. He has ways of overhearing certain things. He doesn't know that name, so he can't listen for it.'

The Baron paused on that one, considering him. 'We've heard he's a mage,' he said, careful phrasing that both adopted Arram's caution and questioned it further. A wily man, a smart man, Arram thought, and took a deep breath himself before replying.

'About as powerful as a yellow robe,' he judged. 'He never took the exams, but he has certain advantages, gifts that are particular to his station and the tools given over the generations to his family line. He...'

Baron George waited. He didn't tap or fidget, gave away nothing by his cool expression. He didn't even prod, and Arram finished his sentence with sudden reckless abandon.

'He's not as powerful as me,' he said. 'I'm probably one of the best alive. Certainly the best in the West.'

The Baron arched his brow. 'That further begs the question what you're doin' here alone, don't it.'

He spoke with a commoner's dropped gees and his accent was different than Thom's, vowels broader. Arram didn't know enough about Tortall's regional dialects to judge his origins, but he had the hands of a workingman. The only callus on Arram's hands was to the inside of his middle finger where his pen rested. But if he was an actor, he was a good one. He wore his authority with the same ease as Ozorne, a man who'd commanded others his entire life and could hardly imagine disobedience.

But there was no easy answer to that question. Arram gazed at his hands, at the silver cuffs encircling his wrists. They were bespelled, of course. Whoever this Baron George was, he clearly had experience interrogating magically Gifted prisoners, and he had the tradecraft ready. The cuffs suppressed magic far more than they restrained his movement. Or they would, perhaps, in a lesser mage.

Arram raised his fists. 'I'm not going to harm you,' he said. 'But I'm going to demonstrate something. I just want to be clear-- I just want to answer your question, and I'm trying to do it honestly. I'm here because I choose to be.' He wasted no time on showmanship, no time on a slow build. He reached deep for his magic, past the barrier of screaming pain inflicted by the cuffs. The unlit torches on the wall of their small room flared to life, scorching the ceiling, burning off all their fuel in one bright flash. Arram gasped, sudden sweat dripping into his eyes. He shook, and the cuffs on his wrist burnt as if the flame had touched his skin.

The Baron's eyes only flicked to the torches. He had a hand on his beltknife, but other than the tightness in his shoulders he did not react with alarm. 'Stand down,' he ordered the soldier who rushed Arram, sword drawn. 'I suppose if he wanted, he'd flay you 'fore you could kill him anyway.'

'No,' Arram managed, sucking in air. His head swam dizzily. 'Not here-- not here to hurt anyone. Just trying to show-- show you. I could. If I wanted. I don't.'

The Baron watched for a long time, then, obviously re-evaluating him, and forming new questions from his conclusions. He sat back in his chair, crossing his booted feet at the ankle. 'You must be powerful indeed,' he judged. 'My wife couldn't even raise a candleflame when she tested those.'

'I shouldn't like to try it again without need,' Arram admitted. He couldn't wipe his forehead. He blinked at the salt sting, licked it away from his lips.

'Powerful enough to raise the dead.'

To the point. With a vengeance. 'Yes,' Arram said.

'So you're tellin' me that's really Thom of Trebond.'

'It is.'

'Has he been alive all this time?' The Baron raised a hand, pointer finger curled just a little toward Arram in warning. 'I saw him buried myself. I dropped dirt on his body with this hand. Best tell me the truth, Numair Salmalin.'

'He wasn't dead,' Arram said. 'Not really. It was Sorceror's Sleep.' That was a spell the Baron had heard before, no doubt of that. The flicker in his eyes was grim indeed.

'You're that good,' the Baron said.

'I had help. And reason.'

'Let's talk reason.' Baron George leant toward him, elbows on his knees. 'Yon fleet beyond our borders. They're berthed at the Copper Isles, now, but they'll be back. This is war. Why drop a mage as powerful as you at my door, and Thom of Trebond besides? I know the scent of mischief, Salmalin. And I can think of a few good reasons to send a pair like you into the enemy, pretendin' peace.'

'We weren't sent.' Arram clenched his fists on his knees. 'We were, but not-- I don't choose to be sent, or, I mean--' He forced himself to stop. 'Sir Raoul of Goldenlake was the envoy to Carthak City. You know he was imprisoned.'

'We know.'

'Because someone inside the palace got word out. Sir Raoul had a man, someone working with him, for him, to get out messages to King Jonathan.'

'You.'

'Me.' He clenched his fists on his knees, drawing strength from the Baron's quick guess. 'Yes, to your next question, too. Of course the Emp-- he knew. The only chance any spy would have in the palace was as a double agent. I passed on the message because he allowed it, because he wanted war, but I didn't share everything I learnt from Sir Raoul. I wouldn't have. He had promised to get me out of Carthak.'

'A man powerful enough to raise the dead can't just go walkin' out whenever he pleases?'

'I could have. I'd've been hunted the rest of my life. That's why I won't tell you my name. He can pluck it from the air.' He licked his lips again. 'Thom. He's not... he's not well. I wanted to get him out, too. I thought about letting it slip to the Tortallan delegation. Of course the Carthakis were keeping him hidden. Then, too, I thought-- he's obviously regarded as a traitor, here.'

The Baron's face was unreadable. 'You know what he did, then.'

'Duke Roger of Conte. Yes, I know.'

'Why bring him back?'

'To replace me, I think.' This was harder, for the pain of what had once been great love and was now little more than impotent bitterness. 'He knew I would try to leave one day soon. He brought back Thom to replace me. Probably to kill me.'

'All this is very interestin', but it's your business, not mine.'

This was hardest, words he'd practised in the secrecy of his own head, never spoken before any other soul. Thom, he thought, knew, the way Thom seemed to know secrets sometimes, but it was the first time he allowed himself to give it voice, and it was the final break between his emperor and his life, leaping into the great unknown.

'I want to defect,' he said. 'I'll swear myself to your King. With whatever means necessary to convince you I mean what I say. And I will tell you everything I know about him, and his defences, and his plans, and I can do one more even than that. I can give you Thom. He may be a traitor, but he's the best living. Better than me. And that's an immense amount of power for your King. You can lock us down a deep dark hole if you want, but if you do, you'll lose against Carthak. You need us.'

 

**

 

'What do you think?' George asked Maude.

She shook her head uneasily. 'It's been years since I seen him, and then it was brief. I only met him the once after he left Trebond as a lad.'

George propped an arm on the stone. Deep dark hole, Numair Salmalin had called it, and George had done his best to find just that. They were in the bowels of the Swoop, now, below sea level in a cellar only a few knew about. And Maude, who'd grumbled her way down the steep and mostly-eroded steps, even when George swept her off her feet and carried her the rest of the way. He'd rather enjoyed her flustered blush, til they'd arrived at the cellar, and begun their gruesome tasks.

The man who sat propped up against the leaking wall picking at a root growing through the stone was just so-- if it was an illusion, George didn't know what to make of it. Unlike Maude, George had spent time with Thom in Corus, and he remembered Thom as lonely, overstrung, nervy. All brain and damaged heart. But Thom hadn't bowed his head before anybody, not even Roger of Conte, and this Thom had spent the last several hours with his head buried in his hands.

'He wouldn't stop sayin' her name til we drugged him,' said George. 'I damn near cried.'

'So what you want me for?'  Maude faced him.  'You're not planning on telling my lady, are you.'

'That's assumin' I could reach her.  The army's on the move and I wouldn't distract her, not with this.  What's she gonna do about it, anyway?  Leave off fightin' the Carthaki to dive into the mystery of her dead brother's political connections?  That's my job.  And it's my decision, whether I think he's the real thing, and what to do about it.'

'Then what do you need me for?'

It was his decision, all right, and George was nothing if not decisive.  He leant his head on his arm for a moment, as long as it took to acknowledge that Alanna probably wouldn't forgive him.  But that didn't make him wrong.  'He won't touch the water and I wouldn't have him hurt if I don't need to,' he said then.  'If this Numair Salmalin is right, those chains won't hold him back once he takes it into his head to escape.  Get him to drink.'

Thom looked up when Maude climbed down the wooden ladder into his cellar.  She stepped down into ankle-deep water, and paused to knot her long skirts at her knees.  They regarded one another, young man and old woman, and then she took him by the chin, to turn his face to the light of her lamp.

'Here, love,' Maude said.  'You plannin' on withering away?  Drink something.'

'It tastes bad,' Thom mumbled.

'That's the taste of the sea,' Maude lied.  'You'll get used to it.'  She crouched at his side.  'My name's Maude.  I do some healing and I look after the young ones.  Don't know which you want for, at the moment.  You look a fright, child.'

Thom's brow furrowed.  After a moment, he took her hand.  He turned it over, tracing the lines of her palm.  'Your magic's yellow like autumn leaves.'

'Yes.'  Maude covered his hands.  'You remember, don't you.'

'I don't know.'  But he accepted the cup from her.  He let her guide it to his lips, and George, watching from the grate above, was sure he swallowed.  'Maude,' Thom said.

'That's right, love.  Another sip, that's a good lad.'

George shook his head.  He believed, though he rather thought he shouldn't.  He left them with just the guard to watch through the grate, and went back to the cupboard where they'd stashed Numair Salmalin, the stork-limbed Carthaki mage.  Well, not Carthaki, obviously; George would guess Tyran, from the looks of him and the accent, though it was faded from years in foreign lands.  In better times he'd've had inquires put about, but all his network of spies were otherwise engaged by now, or would be if they knew what was good for them.  Aside from the short and relatively small war with Tusaine ten years earlier, Tortall hadn't been fully mobilised since the Old King, and that before George's lifetime.  Having a spymaster like Sir Myles of Olau with lieutenants like George, his access to the Court of the Rogue and all their foreign contacts, that was unprecedented in modern history, and it was an edge, no doubt.  But mage power.  All the spies in the world did them no good against Carthak, working that unprecedented concentration of power to unknown ends.  George had no desire to live under some Emperor's rule, not after the years he'd spent bettering his own kingdom, and supporting a King who truly believed in doing the same.

Thom of Trebond.  He'd been a boy, really.  George had done some stupid things at twenty.  Not as stupid as un-killing the man who'd tried to bring down the entire Conte line and seize the throne over his twin sister's body, but stupid, nonetheless.  And he'd long wondered just how much Thom had chosen and how much he'd had chosen for him.  And maybe, in the end, none of the past mattered at all.  King Roald had pardoned Roger on his return from the dead.  For all they'd mocked and wondered at the naivete of it, George thought he understood it better, now.  A man should be judged on what he did, not what he'd done, and Roald had at least given Roger the chance to change.  A King of Thieves could live a good life in the open, serving his lord.  A boy-mage could still serve, couldn't he?

George unlocked the grate and threw it back.  Numair Salmalin jumped, hugging his long legs up as George splashed down onto the wet cellar floor.

'I'm watchin' Thom, not you,' George told him.  'I've got him and I'm keeping him, you hear, so you run, you make a move, you try a spell of any kind and he's the one I punish.  I'm keeping him drugged asleep and I'm not lettin' you within distance of him.  One word out of turn, anything I or any of my company think the least suspicious, he's the one I punish.  Understand me: I will kill him, and still deliver you to my King, and you will still have no choice but to comply if you don't want us to turn around and sell you to your Emperor for better peace terms.  You hear me?'

The man was pale.  'I hear you,' he answered dimly.  'On my honour.  I swear.'

'You'd best.'  That was done, then.  He'd rolled worse dice before.  'Get up.  Let's get you dried off.  And then we're on the road to Corus and the King.'

The leggy man climbed awkwardly to his feet, tentatively gripping George's outstretched hand.  'To Corus.  Yes, my lord.'

Maude was climbing out of the other cellar with the help of one of the guards, hauling her weight up the steps with a grimace.  'He's out,' she told George, glancing back, and her eyes lingered.  'George,' she murmured, gripping his arm.  'You sure about this?'

'Black God save me, I am,' he said, and kissed her cheek as he shepherded her by.  Thom was curled on his side in the wet.  When George lifted him, his cheek fell to George's shoulder.  George passed him out to the guard, and Maude, who shook a blanket out over him, wrapping him up as if he were still the child from Trebond, the twin who couldn't care after himself as well as Alanna, always a step behind.

'We ride tonight,' George said.  'Send a messenger bird immediately to Myles.  Someone had better bloody know we're comin'.'

Chapter Text

Corus was not the most beautiful city in the world, but it was Jon's, and when he crested the hill overlooking his capital on the curve of the horizon, his heart plummeted clear out of his chest in grief.

The Great Forest burned.

They'd been watching the haze of smoke grow nearer all day-- it was visible even from the coast as far away as Port Caynn.  He'd expected it, had tried to steel himself.  But to be near enough to the horror with his own eyes was something else entirely.  The Great Forest was a primaeval remnant, oaks so large that six men with arms linked could not encircle the massive trunks, deep green canopies stretching uninterrupted to Scanra's mountains.  Jon had played in those branches as a child.  He'd brought his own son there to explore the winding creeks, the soft rich loam.  Wolves and bears and deer and red-tailed foxes and owls as big as a man's torso made the Great Forest their home.  His father had died in the gorge some six hours out from the palace, and Jon had marked the spot with a sapling that had grown strong and proud.  It was unimaginable, and his mind shuddered away from it even as he witnessed it.

Corus itself had taken a pounding.  Word of the wyvern attack had reached them on the road to Port Caynn.  The palace had been hardest hit, likely because its inhabitants had fought back.  From the hill Jon could see the crumple of stone blown out from the Outer Wall, could see the left half of the massive old gate hanging off its hinges.  The iron roof of Balor's Needle had melted inward, bubbling and sagging.  Scorch marks marred the white stone.  The bodies of three of the winged beasts had been dragged to the courtyard and torched; only blackened bones remained.

Sacherell swore swoftly and pointed.  'Jon,' he said.

Jon calmed his restive horse with a pat to its overheated neck.  'I see it.'

Many of the gods had temples in Corus, stately and ancient monuments to the forces that ruled small human lives.  The great Mithran temple was more fortress than not, its crenallated marble towers guarded by priests whose orange capes and silver masks made them strange sentries.  The warrior maidens of the Great Mother Goddess wore light armour and carried dangerously real glaives and spears, and the gardened grounds of her graceful colonnades were full of stern-faced women patrolling against intruders.  The Black God's single arch of ivy-covered brick was watched over by monks who took vows of silence and self-effacement, scarring their cheeks and rubbing their skin with ash, tending only to the dead.  The God of the Smiths, whose name was known only to the initiated, had nothing but a long yard of bare stone, at the centre of which perched a great brass cup burning a flame that would never go out.  Temple Way was the last barrier between the city and the palace, a reminder that the Gods chose Kings and Kings were not of the people.  Jon had done everything he could to ease that strict separation, where his father had rarely ventured past that ceremonial border.  His throat tight, Jon watched those distant bodies moving.  Virgins in gleaming breastplates, monks in robes hiked high over muddy sandals, Untouchables in dark hoods-- they hadn't retreated to their temples to hide.  They were all out, all of them, distributing food, bringing water, directing the bustle and flow of foot traffic, opening their grounds to the wounded and the hungry and the needy.  Corus had taken a hard hit, yes, but it was taking care of its own.

Jon closed his aching eyes.  He welcomed the tears, but did not give into them long.  'Let's go,' he said, and Gary and Sacherell and Bryce and Taweel were right behind him as he guided his horse down the Great Road into the city.

He wasn't recognised, not at first.  He had no kingly escort, only a few battered and weary knights, all of them grimy from a week's hard journey the length of Tortall's coast.  He rode with no helm, having lost it only a day after fleeing the Swoop in their first encounter with a manticore.  His hair was lank for lack of washing, his beard rough and untrimmed, and he had no crown or jewels to mark him as monarch.  The first to notice him as he led his small retinue through the Lower Market was a young woman, her baby in a sling on her chest as she hauled water from a trough.  She stood staring.  Jon inclined his head but did not slow.  Merchants had open stalls, but many gave away their goods to their neighbours right from the open doors of their storehouses, and nurses watched over groups of small children right in the street.  Carpenters pounded on split boards and broken rooftops, builders bracing broken walls with beams and shovels and anything that could be found.  An apprentice bringing water to his master whispered frantically, pointing, and an aproned baker stopped with his arms all loaded down with old loaves, gaping up at their company.  Jon nodded to him and kicked his horse into a trot.  They turned a winding path over the footbridge, and without even his request all the people hurrying about their tasks parted for him, pressing to the rails with solemn faces.

'Majesty,' someone cried, and another took up the call.  Jon raised his hand, and a rough cheer followed him off the bridge and into Upper Town.  From then people clapped and wept and called his name as he passed, and Gary raised his flag a bit higher and his knights sat a little straighter for all their weariness, and Jon rode with a fist in the air, so fiercely proud he could have soared.

 

**

 

For a tubby man, Sir Myles of Olau could move with great alacrity. It required abandoning his dignity to the wind, but his gait, a mix of skips and trots, saw him streaking across the empty yard at a considerable clip. The palace should have been bustling with activity, the kitchen in full swing for the midday meal, the pages and squires a brawling chattering mass on the practise courts, the nobles rousing from lazy mornings to take noontime walks in the gardens, and the day's petitioners queuing outside the Minor Throne Room for audience with the King. But the palace had been abandoned shortly after the wyvern attack. The Queen had departed with her Riders for the desert, and though some of the Court had followed her, most had slipped away in the night to hurry back to their own lands. Those few who remained had reason to stay-- Myles, responsible for the hundreds of intelligencers reporting from across the kingdom and even lands beyond Tortall's shores. Timon, who was one of those intelligencers, when he wasn't suddenly the highest-ranking chamberlain left in the palace and newly responsible for preventing it being looted. Duke Baird had gone on with the Queen as her Chief Healer, but Eleni had stayed behind to direct the healers of Corus to care for the people who could not harry off to safer locales.

All three met now, though, at the foot of Balor's Needle. Wyvern fire had scorched the metal sides, leaving odd streaks of molton iron dripping down. Timon cast an anxious look up, shading his eyes. Eleni touched his arm. 'It's only the wind,' she assured him. 'I'd know.'

'I devoutly hope so, my lady.' Myles arrived, then, bending over his knees and huffing and puffing enough to alarm both of them. Timon supplied a flask, and Myles drank gratefully as Eleni, frowning, set her ear to her husband's chest, listening to the rattle of his breath.

'I'll live,' Myles assured her, mopping his cheeks with the scraggly tip of his beard. 'Timon-- the king?'

'Came in alone with Sir Gareth and three knights. The army's encamped at Port Caynn.' Timon led the way up Balor's rusty stairs, Eleni and Myles following. 'He said he's been in touch--' Here Timon made a vague swirling gesture with his right hand, indicating magical means. 'Lord Meron confirmed the Queen reached Persepolis. They've got monsters of their own, some kind of strange worm as long as three men what comes out of the sand itself and sucks people and horses and tents and all manner of madness right back down with them. The desert shamans are burning them right in their nests.'

'What of the Carthakis?' Myles asked from behind.

'No landfall yet,' a deep voice replied above them, and Jonathan appeared. 'Don't bow, please. There's no time for courtesy.'

Eleni swept her courtsey anyway, and the King kissed her hand as he lifted her.  The King was rather ripe, given the urgent conditions of his travels.  His padded undergarments hung by their ties, and they passed his scattered armour as they climbed, at last reaching the small chamber at the tower's uppermost height, where they found Gary achieving a similar state of undress by flinging his greaves into the corner with a clatter.  The Prime Minister hunched a shoulder, embarrassed, but Myles embraced him, only glad to see both of them alive and upright.

'My lady, please see to his hand,' Jonathan told Eleni.  'We haven't had a rest since the Swoop and I'm afraid he'll lose it.'

Eleni unwound the tatty bandaging from Gary's fingers, giving a little gasp.  Timon employed his flask again, and after Gary had swigged for strength Eleni used the rest to clean the grime of hard travel from Gary's swollen hand.  His broken fingers were purple, and three of the fingernails had fallen off.  Streaks of angry red flamed under the skin, travelling up his wrist under his sleeve.  Within moments Eleni was bent over it, whispering a spell as her Gift coloured the air.  The tight lines of pain at Gary's eyes began to ease.

'The Carthakis,' Myles reminded Jonathan.

'We've had word they're treating with the Rittevons,' Jonathan answered.  He took the chair at the window facing west.  'One of George's men got me the news.  The Copper Isles have been plagued with the same sorts of beasts as we, so we know it's not a local phenomenon, at least.'

'I've had similar reports from Tusaine, Maren, and the City of the Gods,' Myles confirmed.  'And just this morning a scholar with whom I've corresponded in the past sent word.  These things are in Carthak, too.'

'Are they.'  Jonathan's deadly quiet was matched by the grim stare he levelled at the hills beyond the window.  'They did this to themselves as well as to us.'

'So it seems.'

'Hell of a way to make war,' Timon muttered.

'Alanna's got what's left of the army at Caynn,' Jonathan said.  'We have to assume they'll try and sack all the Ports, not that we've got a fleet left to stop them.  We only held back ten galleons and that will barely slow them down.  We could use them to evacuate--'  He pushed Gary onto his backside, pressing his hand to his cousin's flushed cheeks.  'You're burning up,' he fretted.  'Alanna thinks the Carthakis wouldn't honour the white flag for non-combatants.'  Gary shuddered, and Jon held him tightly as Eleni uncurled his fractured fingers, one of them audibly crunching.  'I can't-- can't say I disagree.  We can't trust them.'

'One more,' Eleni said, and this time Gary's eyes rolled up in his head.  Jon cushioned him to rest, bundling his dirty cape beneath Gary's head.

'Any other injuries?' the woman asked then.  'Your Majesty?'

'He's coughing,' Gary rasped.  'Started after... started after the Swoop.'

'Blood?' Eleni asked crisply, ignoring Jon's attempt to wave her off.

'Alanna saw to it.'

'A week ago,' Gary added.

'There's no bloody time,' Jon snapped, his temper fraying.  He prowled the chamber, going window to the window.  The smell of woodsmoke was everywhere, and it did tickle in his lungs, catch in his throat, but it only compounded his sense that he was wasting time.

'We were unprepared,' he errupted suddenly.  He bashed a fist against the windowsill.

'We were never going to win,' Myles corrected softly.

'Overmatched is one thing.  We knew enough of Carthak's capabilities to predict that.  But we should have allies clamouring to send troops and weapons.  Where the hell are they?'

Booted feet making tinny raps on the stairs warned them, and Jon put a hand on his swordhilt, Gary attempting the same before Eleni stopped him.  Sacherell burst in.  'Found it,' he said.  Jon thrust out a hand, and Sacherell delivered Tortall's most precious treasure to its king, bending low in a bow as all men instinctively did when they held it.

'The Dominion Jewel?' Myles questioned, startled eyes lifting to Jon's.  'I thought you'd decided it was a last resort.'

'If not now, when?'  The pouch was of mail, with a clasp of hooked wire that opened at a flick.  The gem that tumbled out to Jon's palm was small, its cut edges familiar to the swipe of his thumb.  Jonathan propped his elbows on the window, worrying the Dominion Jewel in his fingers.  'They're waiting to see what I do,' he muttered darkly.  'Waiting for me to do the hard work for them.  Scare Carthak back where they belong.  Destroy the Immortals in one blow.  And suffer the consequences alone.  Another famine would destroy Tortall.'

'No-one's suggesting it, Jon,' Gary said.

'It took us years to recover last time.'

None of them argued with him.  If any of them planned on trying, at least, Jon didn't invite it.  He kept his gaze on the Jewel, as familiar to him as his own hand, a bitter familiarity.  The Jewel had saved Tortall, yes, but in saving them had drained the land of its elemental life.  Jon had read all the fables of Miache and Zefrem, of Norrin and Anj'la, of Ackpolu, and Aethel the Fearsome and his wizard Untold, who'd used the Jewel not for good but to plunge the ancients into a thousand years of darkness.  No magic came without a price, and Jon knew more than anyone that the Dominion Jewel exerted its influence in unexpected ways, sometimes in alignment with his will, sometimes not.  Even assuming he could limit the Jewel's reach solely to Tortall's borders, how could he do that, morally, justly?  He slumped to rest his head on his forearms, fisting the Jewel tight.  'How can I turn my back on everyone else?' he whispered.  'Even the Carthakis will suffer these things.  Should I abandon them because their ruler is--'

No-one spoke.

'Take Gary inside and get him warm,' Jon said then.  'Don't argue with me,' he told his cousin.  'I'll sit on you.'

'You wouldn't either,' Gary mumbled, pale as he was, and leaning on Timon and Eleni for support.

'On my orders,' Jon told Sacherell instead, and won a small smile for that.  Sacherell took over for the healer, slinging Gary's arm over his broad shoulders.  'I'll be along,' Jon said, and if Myles lingered, regarding him with frowning brows, Jon pretended not to notice, and soon even his old mentor had departed.  Jon turned the Jewel in hand, warmed it between his palms, clenched it in two fists and dropped his forehead to the cold iron of the window.  He breathed in the scent of char and woodsmoke.

 

**

 

'What do you think he will do?' Eleni asked him later.  Alone in the empty kitchens, Eleni heated a single cauldron of water.  When it steamed, she washed.  Myles, almost too tired for thought, set his plump chin on his fist to watch her.  Her rough cloth swept a slow curve down her cheek, the back of her neck, her throat.  She loosened the neck of her gown, the ties of her sleeves, and stretched one foot to a stool, cleaning her ankle, her arch, her long toes.  She glanced up, and a faint rosy flush stained her fair skin.  'Myles,' she chided.

'You are beyond beauty,' he said simply.  'Come sit with me.'

She did, settling on the rushes at his feet, leaning her head against his knee.  He stroked her greying hair.

'The King will do right by Tortall,' he said at last.  'I've known Jonathan since his birth.  He can be counted upon.'

'I don't doubt him.  But what can even a Gifted King with the Dominion Jewel do against Immortals?'

'More,' said Myles.  'More, until it's enough.'

Timon announced his presence with a rap against the low wooden door to the yard.  'Saving your presence, milord, milady,' he said, graciously avoiding their corner til Eleni had fetched her shawl and wrapped herself modestly.  'I wanted to let you know the King is settled for the night.  We haven't anyone to staff the royal suite, so he's quartered in the servant's barracks.'  Timon hesitated, his plain face downcast.  'His Majesty suggested it, and I didn't feel I could persuade him otherwise.  But it's terribly improper.'

'Be glad he didn't try to stay the night in Balor's Needle,' Myles sighed.  'Timon.  Off your feet.  You look as exhausted as I feel.'

'I couldn't,' Timon protested, scandalised, but Eleni fetched a bowl of the simple stew she'd been cooking, and a cup of ale besides, and before long Timon was barefoot, his muddy boots drying by the fire, drowsing over the accounts.  Myles only realised he dozed himself when his chin hit his chest.  It was short-lived rest.

'Ho the castle!' a distant voice called.

Timon tumbled to his feet and tried to rush out, only to turn back for his boots.  He hopped out the door trying to stamp them on.  Myles was right behind him, waving Eleni back to the dubious safety of the kitchens, though she of course ignored him and hurried along.  Three drooping horses bore four riders, two tall men on war horses whose flanks dripped blood from deep scratches, and a third mount of the shaggy mountain breed preferred by the Queen's Rider's, two boys on its back, one slumped and clearly unconscious, the other holding him up from behind.  Myles recognised Pieter Larse's bright hair immediately, and guessed the identity of the front rider a moment before the man raised his hood.

'George,' Eleni cried, rushing forward to embrace her son.  George swung down from his horse to grab her up.  He buried his face in her shoulder, and she stroked his hair.

'Can't believe how good it is to see you, Ma,' George whispered.  He kissed her soundly, and both her hands as well.  'You look half spent.'

'So do you, child.'  She framed his stubbled cheeks with her palms.  'But what on earth are you doing in Corus?  The King said Pirate's Swoop was overrun with the refugees of Port Legann.'

'It's the King I've come to see.'  George pitched his voice toward Sir Myles, who came forward then to clasp his hand.  'Did you receive any of my birds, by chance?'

'Birds?  No.'

'I thought not,' George said grimly.  'I watched one of those winged salamanders snatch one out of the sky right after I launched it.  I've not received any myself since I set off from the Swoop.  We've been on the road five days now.'

'Damnation.'  Myles scraped at his woolly hair.  'The King must know.  If our intelligence is compromised we may lose precious time against the Carthakis.'

'Wait.'  George stayed him.  'That's not why I've come, though it's urgent enough.  This is urgent, too.'  He gestured for his men.  One slid, all awkward long limbs, to the cobblestone.  'This,' George said, 'is Master Numair Salmalin.'

'I wish I could say it was a pleasure, Master Salmalin,' Myles greeted him.  He noted the silver cuffs binding the man's wrists, and raised one inquisitive brow.  'George, I do believe an explanation is in order.'

'It is indeed, but I've no desire to make it twice.  The King is here?'

'I'll get him,' Timon said, and ran inside.

'George?'

'Mother.'  George kissed her again.  'What's happened to this place?  Goddess, the Great Forest itself is burning!'

'Less now than was,' Eleni said.  'Corus was hard-hit, but we drove the beasts away, for the moment at least.  George, I know it's an odd thing to say, but I could swear those wyverns were almost as surprised as we were.  They were as afraid as they were angry.'

'They may well be,' said the man with the silver cuffs, his mouth lifting in something that was like a smile before it wavered under George's stare.  He gazed at his boots instead.

'Is your man wounded?' Eleni asked then, stepping to the other horse and its two occupants.  'Pieter Larse, isn't it?  Hello, lad.  Bring your friend inside where I can tend him.'

'Not wounded, mum,' Larse replied, and George added, 'Best leave this to the King.  He'll know what's to be done to contain him.'

'Contain him?'

'George.'  It was the King, striding across the yard with urgency.  George greeted his friend with a short hard embrace.  'Timon says the Immortals have been killing our messenger birds?'

'Gettin' a free feast, more like,' George said, 'Jon-- We should do this inside.  There's eyes in the skies.'

'Just not our eyes,' the King said acidly.  'Timon, please get--'

'Majesty.'  Young Bryce of Wellem and Taweel of the Sleeping Lion brought torches with him, bright spots against the falling shadow of night.  'Tempting fate,' Taweel said, in his brusque way.  'Best get inside before something chases us in.'

'Right you are.'  George stepped up to Pieter's horse, reaching for the hooded figure Pieter supported.  'Give him down, lad.  Careful.'  Myles came to help, and the King as well, though he found himself bumping into the cuffed Salmalin, and both retreated.  George hefted the limp form over his shoulder, and Myles straightened the dark fur cloak that caught at George's elbow.  He saw-- and George was waiting for him to see-- it was like encountering a ghost, the ghost of the daughter who had once been as a son, in the years she'd disguised herself as a boy in this same palace.  But it wasn't Alanna whose bright copper hair brushed his fingers, whose pale hands were encircled in magic-sealing silver chains.

'George,' Myles said, and for the first time since he'd been a very young man, he crossed himself with the Sign against evil, and his hands shook.

'It's a long story,' George said.  'Best told inside.'

'George... George, it can't be.'

'It is,' Salmalin said.  'I can explain it all.  Well, nearly all.'

'Inside,' George said again, brooking no argument, and waiting for none.  'Get those horses watered and get to your own rest, Larse.  Ma, I think we'll need you, but--'

'I'll show the boy to the stables,' Timon said, tactfully taking that direction unspoken, and made himself and Pieter scarce with no further urging.

 

**

 

'It began with the Mithran Master,' Salmalin said.

Jon paced slowly around the edges of the kitchen.  Wheels of cheese and lumpen bags of millet lined the walls, shelves of bowls and cake moulds and wooden utensils and Numair Salmalin, who managed to be in the way every single time Jonathan completed a revolution of the space.  The gangly mage was quite likely who he claimed to be, though, as George had noted softly, the truth would have to wait for better times.  It was enough for Jon to know that the power he felt from Salmalin was real, real enough to support his outlandish tale.  Jon could hardly scoff.  He rubbed the Jewel in his hand, rolling it over his knuckles again and again.  Truth.  There was truth, and there was actuality.  The actuality--

'We knew old Si-Cham was up to somethin',' George commented.  He stretched long legs out toward the fire, but his hand was on his beltknife, and his eyes were unblinking and keen.  'It was a time of secrets.  Everyone was holdin' everything back.'

'Not everything,' Salmalin said.  Nervously he met Jon's eyes, then dropped them to the manacles on his wrists.  His skin was red from chafing, and he turned his wrists this way and that, unconsciously-- perhaps consciously testing the short chain, again and again.  'Master Si-Cham wrote letters.  One of those letters was to a scholar called Lindhall Reed.  He was an instructor at the University of Carthak then.  My instructor, actually.  Si-Cham asked him for copies of certain passages of obscure texts.  He didn't say what it was for, and of course we heard later that Si-Cham was killed during the Coron--'  Salmalin's eyes hesitantly lit on Jon, stalking the perimetre.  'The Coronation Day, um, disas-- attack.  Battle.'

'And,' Jon pressed him impatiently.

'I think it was idle curiosity.  Lindhall had had the copies made, by the time we heard what happened.  I suppose they just sat for a while.  But eventually he read them.  It was something of a--'

'Stop worrying about how you're sayin' it and just say it,' George advised, adding in a mutter, 'else we'll be here all night.'

'Something of a game,' Salmalin finished on a weak stutter, and then took a deep breath and just plunged onward.  'He'd give it out as an assignment to the best of his students.  Trying to piece together what the old Master was doing.  I wrote two different papers on it.  One of my colleagues did a full thesis.  It was one of those mysteries that goes down in academic circles, a lot of theories, no proof.  An obscurity for those of us with reputations to make.  The events, the magical events of Coronation Day are an entire field of study now.  It wasn't til the sale of Duke Roger of Conte's journals that we had anything approaching context for all of it.'

Jon turned a keen gaze to George.  'Sale of his journals?'

'We heard about it after,' George admitted, dropping his boots to the stone and bending over his knees.  'It was a failure, and a bad one.  Best we could figure, some enterprisin' servant got a key and took a few souvenirs.  A lot of valuables walked out of the palace after the confusion of the Coronation, we always knew that.'

'So who bought these journals?  What was in them?'  Jon's circle took him back around to Salmalin, and the lanky mage tripped, again, on the same bag of apples getting out of his way.  Jon took slow steps around him, locking their gazes.  'Journals he kept before his original death?  We burnt all of them.'

'No,' George said reluctantly.  'It seems Thom kept some.  Or possibly one of the Duke's followers.  Sir Alexander or Lady Delia would have had ready access.  But a lot of Thom's magical implements and texts went down the black market.  It's likely the journals went the same way.  And no, we don't know who bought them, but it's safe to say where they ended up, I gather.'

'Lindhall Reed?' Jon guessed.

'Amongst others.  The University has a considerable endowment.  His Majesty even bought one of them.  Duke Roger was a very great sorceror.'  Salmalin paused as if he were about to say more, and bit his lips together.  His hands twisted over and over the cuffs.  'It was the only successful attempt at Sorceror's Sleep in history, Sire.  The Duke left fascinating notes on his experiments.  Thom also.  It's what scholars do, write things down.  But it was Si-Cham's letters that linked it all together.  Si-Cham reached out to many friends trying to figure out what was wrong with Thom.  And it was all bound up in that spell, Sorceror's Sleep.  It was the key to Thom's illness.  And the solution.'

'The solution.'  Now the King stopped his pacing; he spread his feet and folded his arms over his chest.  'Roger was my instructor,' he said then, lifting his chin in challenge.  'I read most everything in his library.  And Thom and I talked at length about the Sleep after he did what he did.  Success oversells it.  The man Thom brought back was not the same man who'd died.'

'It's possible no man can live twice.  As themselves.'  Salmalin was subdued, chosing his words with care.  'Thom wanted to live,' he said.  'Even at that cost.'

A brief knock at the door broke the quiet that followed that.  Myles stirred from his seat for the first time in hours.  He waved George down and answered it himself.  It was Timon.  They spoke only a moment, and Myles turned.  'He's waking,' the shaggy old knight announced calmly.  'I think our Gifted folk had best be there, yes?'  But when Jon stalked past him, Salmalin stopped him.

'King Jonathan,' he said.  'I don't wish... I don't wish to prejudice you against him, but I think... I think I must warn you.  I'm fairly sure the Emperor gave Thom a task in abandoning us here in Tortall.  I think he wants Thom to get the Dominion Jewel from you, and... I'm not truly sure I can say Thom won't try.  That Thom has the capacity to disoeby.'

Jon turned up his palm.  The Jewel never entirely warmed to his skin, though he had been holding it hours and his flesh was actually creased from the pressure.  He unhooked the pouch at his belt, and rubbed his thumb over the latch.  'Thom made this,' he said, half to himself.  'That summer before the Coronation.  He worked hard, helping with the Jewel.  I wouldn't have known how to stop the quake if not for his research.'

'Vigilance,' Myles said succinctly.

Jon gave it up with only another moment's hesitation.  'Timon,' he said.  'You know where this goes.'

'Sire.'  Timon was all bulging eyes and cringeing hands-- he'd never been so near the Jewel, and he clearly expected it to set him ablaze on the spot.

'You have only to close the door on it,' Jon promised him.  'It will take care of the rest.  Numair Salmalin.'  He gestured, and Salmalin came toward him, trying for a suitably humble bow and only just avoiding bashing his head on the butcher's table.  Jon pressed at the annoying pain between his eyes.  'Mithros help us,' he said, and left with Salmalin at his heels.

 

**

 

He remembered dying.

Arram had asked him about it before, and once in the depth of night Ozorne had asked him, too, stroking his arm in the sleepy quiet of the canopied bed and probing him with unblinking eyes.  But what did it feel like? he'd wanted to know, and Arram had said I'm sorry, Thom, in a strange quiet voice so expressive of sadness, but he'd never really understood why they cared.

He remembered now.

Love you.  Always have.  Always will.

He remembered how she'd looked.  No, not so much how she'd looked, more a vibrant expression of her, her gold and her fiery hair and her eyes.  He remembered her touch, as she'd pressed his hands to her lips.  He remembered her trying to save him, how she'd put her hands on the hole in his chest and pushed life into him, weeping as it only slid right back out again, red with his blood.

He remembered Roger's face as Roger picked up the knife.  Roger with long fingers, Roger with long sideways looks that evaluated, Roger with his lying smiles.  Roger had smiled as he put the knife to Thom's breast.  He'd smiled as he'd pressed the point home, between the ribs, guiding it deep with the slick skill of a surgeon.  The weight of it there, stuck in him.  It had been so heavy in him, but Roger had wiped the tears off his face and kissed his mouth.  No regrets, Thom, he'd said.  I always rather liked that about you.

He remembered the earth shaking, all that magic a vile sickly erruption of wrongness.  Roger had vibrated with it, a tuning fork wavering between two pitches.  Thom's violet Gift leaked out with the removal of the knife, and Roger gathered it up with a Word, Roger glowed blood-red and wrong, wrong, wrong, and Thom-- Thom had laughed as Roger left him there, dying on the rug, because he'd always rather liked that about Roger, too.  No regrets.  Oh, the lies they'd told each other.

Love you.  Always will.

Thom felt alive for the first time in months.  And he knew exactly what he was going to do about it.

 

**

 

Jon was seated on the edge of a bed that belonged to a maid, when the palace was full.  It had been empty a week and now it held a man who shouldn't be there, but when Thom stirred and blinked open his eyes, Jon drew a deep breath, and put his hand on Thom's forehead as he'd done Gary, who was watching warily from the bed opposite.

'Wards,' Jon said, and Taweel closed his eyes, raising a glimmer of grassy green, and Eleni began to murmur over a thread that twirled and knotted in her hand, and Jon's sapphire blue winked before settling into the stone like dew.

Thom watched all of it, his head turning to each of them.  At last he looked up at Jon.  He raised a hand.  Gary twitched at the sword laying naked on his lap, and George shifted on his feet, but Thom only touched a fingertip to Jon's beard.

Jon took his hand.  'I'm not Roger,' he said, guessing what that meant, and Thom's eyes flickered.  'Do you know who I am?'

'Alanna,' Thom said.

George grimaced.  'Not that again.  He won't let up, Jon.'

'He did it when we first brought him back,' Salmalin added.  He shuffled, clearly wanting to leave his station by the door, but Jon cast an imperious glance that froze him on the spot.

'Alanna,' Thom said, gaining urgency with repetition.  'Where is she?'

'She's not here,' Jon told him.  'Do you know me?  I want to ask you questions.'

Thom licked chapped lips.  'Then... then you'll find her?'

'We'll see,' Jon said.  'Thom.  Who am I?'

Thom pushed himself up on his elbows.  Nothing in his face changed as he skimmed the crowd all staring openly at him.  He barely paused over George and not at all on the knights, but he did stop when he spied Salmalin.  A frown appeared, creasing his forehead.

'Thom,' Jon said again.

'Majesty,' Thom said, and his purple eyes returned to Jon, though there was a frightful lack of recognition in them.  'You're the Majesty.'

'I'm the King, yes.'

'You know where Alanna is.'

Salmalin provided the distraction this time.  'Thom, tell them about the Barrier between the Realms.'

Thom blinked once.  His pulse in his wrist was a weak, fluttering thing, and his hands were as cold as a corpse's.  Jon did not let go, but he did extend a small questing bit of his Gift, probing at the mind behind the blank eyes.  Thom blinked again, and Jon's magic dissipated like so much air.

'How did you bring down the Barrier?' Jon clarified.

'I didn't.'

He looked more like Alanna-- or more precisely, he looked very much like Alan, specially without a beard.  Jon had forgot how close the resemblance was.  The only real difference was their hands.  Alanna had strong hands, the hands of someone born to the sword.  Thom's were too fine, too pale.  He didn't look mad.  He looked hollow, a man of empty glass.

'It's not really a wall,' Thom said.  He touched Jon's beard again, and this time Jon allowed it, if it would keep Thom talking.  Monotonously he said, 'I unhid the time.'

'Unhid it,' George repeated uncertainly, looking questioningly at Jon, who tilted his chin to Thom's finger.

'It's the corpeal theory,' Salmalin said.  The King turned his eyes toward the other mage.  'That time is just an element like earth, wind, fire,' Salmalin continued.  'That it has common corporeal components. If it's only another element, one with properties that can be affected by magic, it can be manipulated as well as those.  And the belief corollary.  If you believe it strongly enough, you can effect the desired change regardless of its factuality.'

'Meaning if I believe two and two are five, I can make it so?'

'If you're strong enough,' Thom said.

'But I don't understand what time he was hiding,' Gary interrupted.  'Or unhiding.'

'The mages who separated the Realms.  They didn't build a wall-- there's no wall that could keep out all the elements.'  Thom stroked the tip of his finger over Jon's moustaches and the curve of his jaw.  'But they could hide one of the elements.  They hid the time.  As long as the Realms were separated by a moment, nothing could cross between.'

'He brought us back in sync,' Salmalin finished.

'That's not how we learnt it,' Jon protested slowly.  'Roger told me-- Roger told me once the barriers were physical.  I've heard of the belief corollary, but there's no way Thom alone could-- could choose not to believe what we know to be science--'

'They did,' Thom said.  'Hundreds of years before we discovered the laws governing the elements.  The mages who separated the Realms believed it, and made it so.'

'That's the brilliance of it,' Salmalin enthused, though he quieted when Jon frowned at him.  Thom touched the wrinkle beside his mouth, and Jon tugged his hand away.  'He only had to undo what was done before.  What he believes they believed.  The layers of it...'

Jon shivered.  'He did all this on a theory.'

'And does he know how many have died for his theory?' Gary spat.  'Gods above!  Those walls were raised for a reason!'

'Do you know?' Jon asked thoughtfully.  'You don't, do you.  It's all just-- academic.'

Salmalin flushed at that.  Thom did not.  'Alanna,' he said.  'I want to see Alanna.'

Jon set Thom's hand on the coverlet.  He rose.  'No,' he said.  'Even if I could do that, just now, I wouldn't.'

Thom's fingers curled slowly.  'I want Alanna,' he said again, flat and intent.

'I'm the King,' Jon said, unmoved.  'And you can't be trusted, Lord Thom.  I was a fool to do it the first time round, and I don't make the same mistakes twice.'

'Majesty,' Thom said.  Colour in his cheeks blazed his eyes to life, but his mouth was pinched and white.  His fists in the quilt were strained.  'You left me there between the Realms.  I told you.  I know Si-Cham told you.  Roger told you.'

'He most certainly didn't.'

'He told you.'  Thom's voice rose.  Gary was on his feet, fever or no, his sword at the ready, and George moved to put himself between Jon and the bed, pushing Jon back.  'He told you, he told me he told you.  He needed the blood to get her Gift and he needed her Gift to get the Jewel, he told me when he killed me.  You left me there.'

'Drug him,' Jon said.

'I want my sister!'

Thunder racked the sky.  The crash was as near as if it came from the ceiling.  Dust from the stones sifted through the air.

'And I will put you back there,' Jon hissed, his Gift flaring.  'Do you know what you've done to us?  Do you know?  You're a monster, Trebond, you've never been anything but a twisted shadow of a better woman!'

'Jon,' George commanded, giving him a firm push, but it barely rocked him, and Thom was clawing his way to his feet, hands curling with tendrils of purple magic that sparked in rage of their own.  When he thrust out a hand toward Jon the thunder crashed again, and then Salmalin leapt for him, knocking him to the floor and throwing his chained hands about Thom's throat, strangling the spell in its inception.  Thom writhed with manic strength, kicking and pummelling the bigger mage with his fists.  Salmalin's head whipped to the side, skin bloodied.  'Go,' George yelled, and Sacherell helped him drag Jon from the barracks.  A ragged scream of rage chased them out, just as the lamps exploded off the wall, showering them with glass shards and hot oil.

'Get the King to safety!' Gary was shouting, shoving him along, and Myles was trying vainly to stamp out the burning that lit his shirt ablaze, and there was blood on George's back where he'd been shredded by the glass, but Jon stopped dead beneath the window, staring out in awe.

'It's not Thom,' he said, just as the Archon attacked in a swirl of storm and lightning.

 

Chapter Text

The Stormwing landed with a scrabble of silver talons, the furious flap of his great steel wings wafting the stench of rotting flesh over the unfortunates nearest. Slaves fled with screams, only to be turned back by the whip of the bo'sun and the drawn weapons of the soldiers who formed a barrier of shields around the Prince.

Kaddar kept his feet, kept his chin high, his stare icy and undisturbed, for all his heart thudded madly. The Stormwing swept them all with a sneer, his sharpened teeth bared so that all might see the fresh blood that dripped down his chin. He laughed, saw-edged delight in their fear. He settled into a graceful perch on the ship's rail, folding his wings along his back. 'Which one of you is Kaddan?' he called, grinning down savagely.

Kaddar pushed at the shoulder of the officer who bodily protected him, spear advanced to thrust at any moment. 'Let me pass,' he said, a thick whisper to hide the shaking of his voice. 'I must not hide or it will think me weak.'

'We cannot trust it with your life!'

'Then trust me with all our lives.' This time when Kaddar pressed the armoured shoulder, it bent for him. Reluctantly the soldiers parted, and Kaddar took a step-- a small step-- beyond the ring of the men and their weapons. If his knees knocked, at least his long robe hid it. Kaddar touched his mother's bracelet, wishing for the strength not to humiliate himself. He took another step, and another, and another, til he was halfway between humans and monster, alone. Terribly alone.

'I am Prince Kaddar Ghazanoi Iliniat, nephew of his Most Serene Imperial Majesty, Ozorne Muhassin Tasikhe, Emperor of Carthak and the Southern Lands,' Kaddar declared. The creature levelled a glinting eye at him, teeth biting into his bloody low lip as if he contained laughter. Kaddar quailed, and forced himself to breathe. 'You may address me as Highness,' he said, in his haughtiest tone, and barely wobbled at all.

The Stormwing laughed again, the sound carrying over the deadly silence to the rocking waves beyond the ship. He inclined his torso in a kind of bow, his long wingfeathers catching the weak sunlight as they spread. 'Highness,' he said, sly rather than respectful, but he didn't challenge Kaddar further.

'And how may I address you?'

'I am Rikash Moonsword, Lord of the Stone Tree Nation.' Though Kaddar returned the bow with a stiff inclination of his head, the greatest courtesy he could allow someone beneath his station and a touch farther, but it seemed prudent, and the creature's grin only widened.  'How old are you, nephew of someone more serenely imperial?'

'I am fourteen, Lord Rikash.'

'And fourteen is fully grown for your kind?'

Stung, Kaddar clenched his fist around the jewelled dagger at his waist.  'I am taller than almost anyone and I shoot as true as the Emperor's archers,' he said.  'I can use this knife to defend myself and I have studied for several years with the great scholars at the University.  My uncle trusts me with you.'

The Stormwing's grin grew, if anything, wider.  'I bring word from your allies,' he said then, tossing his head so that the bones in his hair clicked.  Kaddar swallowed on a dry throat.  How had the bones got there, if the creature had no fingers?  It bore no imagination.

'Our allies?' he repeated.  'The Copper Isles?'

'Does your uncle the Emperor not keep you apprised of his treaties?'  His shoulders rose and fell in something like a shrug, or a shudder.  Distaste, in the curl of his lip, the toss of his head.  For humans, for the Emperor?  The treaty with the Rittevons?  'We have a bit of parchment,' Lord Rikash said, 'which seems to be the custom of your kind.  It was signed in blood, as is the custom of mine.  We are promised great riches in a land called Tortall.  Gems and gold for these Rittevons.  Flesh and fear for us.  Do humans so readily turn on their own kind?  I swear your Emperor was positively delighted at the prospect of a slaughter.'

It was clearly a rebuke.  And it puzzled Kaddar.  'Surely Stormwings don't require a reason for war,' he said slowly.  'The legends of your kind say you glory in any conflict which causes mortals to attack each other.'

'The lack of reasonable pretext merely begs the question,' Rikash said.  He snapped his teeth.  'Stormwings require reasons-- we just find mortal reasons so often unreasonable.  I only find it interesting how little your Realm has changed since I was here last.'  An errant breeze caught the sails, and the ship rocked.  Rikash shuffled on the rail, finding his balance quickly.  'The Copper Isles have pledged to send their ships, though why this is of interest I've no idea.  You seem to have plenty of your own.  We Stormwings shall harry your Tortallan enemies inland.  And occasionally carry messages, should it be needed.'

'Is that not beneath your dignity, Lord of the Storm Tree Nation?'

'When I get to meet such interesting humans?'

The restless stir of the soldiers behind him followed Kaddar's gesture.  He waved again, trying not to give away that he was being disobeyed if only in accident, and the officer who'd guarded him before came to his side.  'This,' Kaddar told the Stormwing, 'is Abasi, Captain of my Guard.  When you have a message, you may speak it to him as you would to me.'

'Oh?' Rikash wondered.  'And where might you be going that I shouldn't speak to you, Highness?'

'It may not be beneath your dignity,' Kaddar dared, though he couldn't quite manage the cutting tone his uncle would have.  'But it is beneath mine.'

The grin that spread over the Stormwing's face was a dangerous, dangerous thing.  His laughter echoed on the wind as he launched into the mist, and then he was gone.

Abasi shivered all over, and wiped his hands on his tunic before gripping his spear anew.  'You were brave,' Kaddar told him.  'I don't think he would have attacked, though, not if he is to be our ally.'

'I would not risk you,' Abasi said stubbornly.  'I am to be brave, my Prince, not you.'

'It is a war of unknowns,' Kaddar said, and found his own hands were shaking.  He stared at them in some surprise.  He was still staring when Abasi put a small gold cup in his palm.  He raised it to his lips, and choked on the cold sour taste of liquor.  'Bring a mage,' Kaddar gasped, and drank the rest down in one swallow that burned him from throat to gut.

They summoned him the ranking red-robe, a man who'd been known to Kaddar at University, though only distantly.  Older than him by some thirty years, a craggy-faced fellow with a deep scar on both cheeks.  A dueller, that marked him, and the one still standing when his opponents fell.  If he'd been present on deck when the Stormwing Rikash landed so unexpectedly, it did not show in his composed gaze, which neither measured nor dismissed.  And yet.  And yet Kaddar knew he did not hold their loyalty, these mages, who wanted the glory his uncle promised them, and the magical riches of Tortall's legends.  He'd heard there was a bet about the Dominion Jewel, though the younger ones who chattered so loosely found themselves tongue-tied when they realised Kaddar was near.

'I need contact with the Emperor on the Isles,' Kaddar told him now.  'Verify that what this Stormwing said is true.  And ask particularly about this notion that Stormwings should carry messages.  Surely he knows we can speak as needed through magic.  I find it strange.'

'Strange, your Highness?' the mage repeated politely.

'Do as I bid,' Kaddar retorted sharply.  'And report to me immediately when you have succeeded.'  It was Ozorne's favourite phrase, that mute expectation-- command-- to avoid the shame of failure.  The mage dropped his eyes as he bowed.  Not as low as he would have to the Emperor, and maybe a smidge too glib for the Heir, but the boat rocked in a sudden hard wave, and Kaddar said nothing on it.

 

**

 

'Buri.'  Raoul was behind her, and then upon her, his big arm holding her up.  She didn't sag-- she absolutely didn't sag, or stagger, or lose a tiny, insignificant moment of consciousness.  But she was glad for his support, and she did let him keep his arm there, as they ran the street.

Careened down the street, rather.  They were not unobtrusive, a bloodied lot of foreigners escaping the general melee of the palace with weapons stolen from the dead.  And there were many dead.  The quake that had shaken the hill was no ordinary tremor.  Even now the hill shuddered and groaned as it spewed ash into the darkening sky.  Boulders the size of fists rained from the ominous clouds, and the wind battered them from every angle with eye-stinging, lung-burning cinders.  But their frantic escape went unnoticed.  All around them Carthak was fleeing, fighting, screeching, praying, dying.  The army was standing ground-- some of it, anyway.  More than once they saw commanders flaying their own men for running, but just as often the terrified men cut down their own officers.  There were as many men in armour clogging the road to the port as there were civilians.

'Mithros!'  Ohran wheeled away, but what Buri had taken for a glancing blow by one of those hailing stones did not seem to end.  Ohran twisted and batted at his sleeves, went to his knees writhing.  'Acid,' he gasped, 'it's acid.'  He wrenched out of his shirt and threw it aside.  Streaks of angry red sores spread over his shoulders and arms.

'Where's it coming from?'  Raoul tried to shield her, swinging her about and shoving her back the direction they'd come, away from the spot Ohran had occupied when the acid hit him.  But Buri, staring blearily up at the ominous plume of spoke behind them, felt it first.

'The rain!' she shouted.  'Take cover!'

The first few spits and drips caught them as they diverted from the open road to the nearest shelter, a merchant's shop.  Buri threw herself at the door and rebounded through.  Ohran was behind her, propelled along by Raoul, and the three of them fell into a heap on the brushed stone floor.  The rest of their company managed to avoid similar disaster, but they more than filled the small space, and Buri lurched to her feet toward the curtained passage.  'Follow,' she called back.  'There's something else here-- I think it's the living quarters.'  She stumbled down wooden steps and through another mantle, abruptly finding herself in something like daylight.  Torchlight, rather, and an open space, a little inner courtyard well covered by the canopies of the large trees in each corner, and in the centre--

'Ohran!' she yelled, and went back for him.  His eyes were glazed in pain and he barely reacted when she dragged him through the little hall and out into the atrium.  He went into the fountain with a splash and Buri held him down.  Lady Gaelle was there to help, hiking up her skirt and climbing in with them.  Her small white hands dashed the worst of the ash from the surface of the water and pulled up palmfuls from the cleaner bottom.  Together they washed Ohran's burns.  His head fell, twitching and heavy, to Buri's knee, til Gaelle reached over to hold him by the cheek and keep him from drowning nose-first.

'You there,' Gaelle snapped back, and their menfolk, hunched and crunched under the shingled overhangs, came to attention.  'Find a kitchen, quick now.  The baths.  We need soap.  Good soap, not lye.  We need to flush the acid out.'

'I'll go,' Raoul said, and grabbed Keefe to accompany him.  The squire ran ahead, and they were gone.

'That rain'll be on us,' Buri noted.  She could hear it on the roof, a steady pelt beneath the thumps of the hail.  'We need inside, away from this ash.'

'We need to get to the ship,' Atticus said.  'I've heard of eruptions like this.  That's a volcano.  And it won't be long before it roasts the air and us with it.  And there'll be slag comin' out of the mountain itself, liquid rock.  It'll swallow everything up but the water, and then only if we get well out to sea.'

'It's not a mountain, though,' Jaymes protested.  'It's just a hill, and barely that.  We've higher in the Lowlands.'

'And where did that monster come from?' Gaelle wondered.  'I don't count it coincidence, the one happening with the other.'

Coincidence or not, the ear-shattering roar that answered her seemed to come from just over their heads.  Everyone flinched, and Buri threw herself over Ohran.  The house took some kind of hit, walls caving in and beams collapsing.  'Raoul!' she screamed.

Atticus wrenched her out of the water and nearly took her arm from its socket in the doing.  'We have to go!  We need to get to the boat!'

'Raoul was there!'  Without the water numbing her legs the hurt, and the blood, was fresh.  The monster in the dungeon had slashed her well and proper, though it had missed the big veins; still, this little bloodletting would do her in if she didn't bind it.  She didn't have it in her for another one of those demon-beasts, she didn't-- she had no thought for anything but--

And there he was.  She had a heartbeat of relief.  He was grey as a ghost now, plaster dust as well as ash matting him head to toe, but none of that mattered when he mashed his mouth to hers.

'Soap,' he told Gaelle.  'Quickly.'  He helped immediately, lathering up the little block of soap in his big hands, and they smeared it on Ohran's skin.  Raoul had brought a bit of clean sheeting, too, and they wrapped him in it and dragged him from the fountain.  As soon as they had Ohran on his feet again, Raoul was back with Buri, slipping his arm around her.  She tried not to grin, knowing she'd tease him any other time for his protectiveness.  But it made her glad, and made it all right to be just a little weaker than she'd have liked, just this once, since it pleased him.

'Were there more of those sheets?'

He nodded.  'Found them in the laundry.  Why--'  He caught on before he spoke the question-- they could use the sheeting as protection against the acidic rainfall, if not the boulders.  'We can still get to it, that part of the house held up.'  He ran again, and Buri limped toward the shelter of the overhangs.  She had no idea how far the docks were, if their ship would even still be there-- if the Carthakis had left it be, if it hadn't been swarmed by now with people fleeing the destruction of the city--

Raoul was back, and Buri blinked grey haze from her eyes.  Her mouth was terribly dry.  Her legs didn't hurt much, though, that was good.  She could hardly feel them, her feet like cinderblocks strapped on, heavy but not a part of her anymore.

Raoul bundled her up in a sheet, wrapping a tail over her head.  His was blue like his Bazhir burnoose, and she wondered where that had got to, if it had been left in Tortall.  She was so used to seeing it in his laundry, a blue rag getting more threadbare every year--

'Buri,' he said, and then he just picked her up, all of her in one arm like she weighed nothing at all and he flung her over his shoulder, and she absolutely meant to protest, really, but the dig of his big bony joint in her gut hit the wrong nerve, and that was the last thing she knew.

Chapter Text

'Why is she called the Lioness?' Ozorne had asked.

It had been late, the candles burning low. The Emperor was never unattended, but the slaves who stood in all the corners and fanned cool air toward the bed were mutes, and might as well have been blind, long-practised at the kind of unseeing attentiveness required of bedroom attendants. Thom lay in silent contemplation of them, the one who looked his age, head shaved, eyes long-lashed, lower lip always bitten.

Ozorne touched. Ozorne liked his skin, he'd said, liked to see the contrast of his caramel on Thom's petal-pale. The bedsheets were gold tonight, gold that flattered both of their complexions. Ozorne slid his hand along Thom's torso, beneath the sheet, circling and then cupping Thom between his legs. 'Your colouring?' the Emperor murmured. 'I have lions in my menagerie. They are not so lily-white as you.'

The Lioness. 'I made her that,' Thom said, and Ozorne stroked him slowly. 'For her knighting. I made her shield.' He remembered the parchment scroll where he'd first seen the Lioness Rampant. Old coat of arms, unused for centuries. Perfect for her. So proud of her.

'If she is a Lioness, you are a Lion,' Ozorne mused. Thom looked up from contemplation of the amethyst ring on Ozorne's long finger. Ozorne removed it and let him have it, and Thom rolled to his belly, hugging the down pillow beneath his chin, sliding the warm ring on his finger. The candlelight in its cut edges was mesmerising. Ozorne draped about him as he did the pillow, the soft puff of his breath on Thom's hair, skin on skin as he caressed Thom's shoulder. 'Are you a lion, Thom of Trebond? I think you are a lion. I think you are a thousand lions.' His lips pressed to Thom's neck. 'You are my lion. I will rule the world with you at my right hand, and the Dominion Jewel in my left. What do you think of that, my lion?'

 

Arram's fist landed hard across his cheek, knuckles smashing into his nose and drawing blood. The pain was more numbness than hurt, stunning him, ringing in his ears. He could hardly feel it when Arram gripped him by the face, blindering him with those big hands. He was talking, rapid but steady, repeating the words over and over. 'Come back to me, Thom,' he was saying. 'Thom, be calm. Come back to me. Come back to me.'

It had worked before, in the worst of his disorientation, and it worked now. Slowly the heaving thud of his heart retreated to usual. Arram kept his hands in place, so that all Thom could see was him, though he fell to stroking Thom's forehead with his thumb. 'Calm,' he kept repeating. 'We're all right. Just come back. All right?'

He nodded to that last. Arram smiled at him-- Arram had a split lip, Thom saw, dimly remorseful. But his own nose hurt like the blazes. As if Arram knew his thoughts, Arram slowly sat off him, and produced a kerchief of dirty linen. He wiped carefully at Thom's upper lip, and let Thom have it to treat him in return. His hand was a comforting weight on Thom's shoulder.

Thom only then looked about. He didn't know this place. There was a window, small and shuttered. Many beds, all made up but two, but they were empty. He looked down to see his own hands circled with manacles. Plain and battered silver, but they were magical, and that confused him all the more. His wrists had been burnt by them. Reddened skin beneath the cuffs ached. Stranger still Arram wore them, as well. Ah. This was some kind of prison, then. 'Ozorne?' he asked, finding his voice hoarse and his throat raw. He had been shouting. He was terribly misbehaved. Ozorne must have done this, to punish him for his fits.

'No,' Arram said, though, and added, 'Don't use his name, Thom. We need to be careful now. We're in Tortall. Do you remember?'

Tortall. Ah. Yes. He looked at the window. 'The keep by the sea.'

'Corus.' Arram gazed searchingly at him. 'Damn that mandragora. I told them it would affect you.'

Mandragora. Root of the bryony plant. To be dug up on Mondays after the vernal equinox, watered with cow's milk then dried with verbena. To cure a barren woman of infertility, to induce deep sleep. To produce strange dreams, in which one might see the future, or the darkened past.

Corus. 'Majesty,' Thom said.

'Yes. Do you remember?'

'Yes.' He was too drained now for fury, and it left him only bitter. Arram helped him upright, dragged his heavy fur cloak about him and retied it. Thom worried at the silver cuffs. Corus, the King. Thom looked up. He said, 'The Jewel.'

'Thom--'

'Come with me.'

Arram was torn.  He looked with longing about him, though his eyes were unfocussed and flitted about the bare room with little attention to its actual contents.  Tortall.  Arram wanted to be free, Thom knew this.  It was the great secret Arram had carried for many years, longer than he'd carried Thom, and Thom struggled with words that never quite came properly to him, like the details that slipped away when he tried to grasp them.  He was aware-- he was sometimes aware of it, and sometimes he knew he wasn't, that he had a tendency to wander off into fancies, memories that were out of place, like Roger sneezing at the roses in the garden, Roger trimming his beard in the little mirror and looking up to find him watching, smirking--

With an effort he wrenched himself back to the present.  Arram's hands were hot, the knuckles grazed.  'Come with me,' Thom said.  'Come.  I can do it.'

'I know you can,' Arram said heavily.  'You just don't understand why that fills me with such fear, Thom.'

No.  He didn't.  But he at least knew he should have.

'Go to sleep,' he said, and raised his hand to Arram's cheek.  But Arram ducked his head away, shaking 'no'.  He took Thom by the hand and walked with him to the door.  They checked out the hall; it was empty, and there was glass and oil underfoot, the window blown out.  There was a battle being waged outside.  They both stood on their toes to peer out the little window overlooking the green lawn below.  Strange glowing beings swooped through the air, and they were the source of the lightning, huge cracking bolts from long limbs like hands.  The Tortallan mages fought, green Gift and blue Gift and the knights were swinging ineffective weapons, blasted off their feet when they charged the light-creatures.  A vapourous cloud of sparking sapphire magic formed and then exploded, catching the light-beings in webby gobs that weighed them down and dragged them to the earth.  One of the knights got close enough to strike with his sword, a vicious overhand blow, and the light-being shrieked in despair and burst apart.

'Archon,' Thom said.

'Archon?'

Thom pointed skyward.  He fluttered his hands like wings.  Arram almost smiled at his antics, but his mouth was too sad for it.  'You mean the akero?' he clarified, using the ancient Eastern word.  'Angels of vengeance.'

Even this high up they could smell it, the frisson in the air, see the scorched earth, the desperate acid tinge of the battle turning.

'Come,' Arram said heavily, and led him on.

 

 

Thom was thinking of the Lioness Rampant as they walked the halls. The palace here was not so grand as the one in Carthak, but he thought it was more familiar. He had lived here, Arram told him. Thom was the lord of a border keep, but it wasn't Trebond that had won him rooms at the palace, it was his magecraft. Master Lord Thom. Master Lord Thom, the youngest Mithran master ever. Even Carthak had heard of him, after he brought Roger back. Roger he remembered, Roger who had liked to touch, too. He had walked this hall with Roger. He remembered the window, the window with the mythical beasts depicted in coloured glass on panes of pointed arches. One looked like a Lioness Rampant, and he remembered laughing on seeing it.

'It's not a Lioness.' Roger's thumb on his lips. Roger had liked that, shutting him up, looming over him, the fine myrrh of his scent close and intimate between them. 'It's a gryphon. The wing broke when I was a child here.'

'You broke it,' Thom had challenged. Roger's brow quirked. Thom had laughed at that, til Roger crushed him tight to the wall, trapped him with muscles and shoulders and his eyes boring into Thom's.  Thom slid his knee to Roger's groin and Roger's big hand slapped the window, covered the Lioness. It had smacked of portent. Roger was ever a cloud of doom and gloom. But then Thom had thought himself invincible, and so he'd laughed anyway.

Thom of now trailed fingers along the window as he paced its length, pausing to trace the outline of the Lioness.  Arram let him pause there for a moment, but Thom didn't linger.  He wasn't entirely sure how to get there, but he knew where they were going.  They only retraced their steps once, down a grand carved stairwell of wood with beautiful gilted frescoes painted along its sides.  Wilted flowers in vases marked each landing.  They were all alone, theirs the only footsteps that echoed from floor to vaulted ceiling.  When they found the chapel at last, Arram pushed on the tall doors, and they swung open freely.

It was still in the same place. Interesting, that. Hide it, Majesty, he'd said that, hadn't he, and he's spelled this unassuming little spot himself. The tall dark-haired man beside him had tested it and been cautiously content. Your Majesty, Thom had said, and Prince Jonathan had looked him sharpish and did not correct him, though the coronation was more than a month away still. Roger knows, Thom said. And he knows my magical signature.

For now I want it near to hand, the Prince had said. We can move it after the coronation.

But it hadn't moved. Seven years, Arram had told him. Seven years between the Realms. Roger dead. Thom dead. Everyone who'd known where Thom had hid it, dead or trusted.

The chapel was of the old High Style, remarkable only for existing at all, or so the history went. The Old King who'd built the palace in monument to himself had been indifferent to the gods and never claimed one for his patron, and his son Roald had been carefully magnanimous to all the gods whilst favouring none. Jonathan was known to swear more by Mithros than any other, though he owed his life to the Great Mother Goddess several times over by way of Alanna. How Thom envied that connection. Not being bound to a deity, he supposed that would be inconvenient, but to see a God, to speak with one, to be so intimate with a creature of such power. He was in doubt the Goddess cared anything for Alanna's twin; he was too greedy, and he lacked Alanna's compassion. Maude had warned Alanna to heal, to make up for the death she'd bring, but no-one had ever bothered to warn Thom he must give back, and indeed he would have laughed if told that. He'd come by that lesson much harder, with Roger.

It was Roger he was thinking of, not Jonathan, not even Alanna as he went to his knees before the altar. Roger had trained as a knight but foresaken the Ordeal. Roger had trained as a mage but never sat the examinations. Roger would be bound by no-one. If Roger had ever become king, he would have sealed the chapel closed, its gods forgotten, and who knew but that they had thrown themselves behind Jonathan to punish Roger. Or that they'd allowed Thom to come back now, so that their will might become flesh. Ozorne was already immensely more powerful than Roger would have been, Gifted, brilliant in his way, Emperor of half the world. With the Jewel he would bring the other half to kneel. But the Gods didn't speak to Thom, in this little chapel with its indifferent stonework and unimposing altar, the candles and sacrifices abandoned when the palace was evacuated, the velvet drapes drawn and forgotten. They were silent, and they did nothing to stop him.

Thom put out his hands, his hands with the silver cuffs, and raised his Gift. The purple well of magic within him answered swiftly. Seven years between the Realms, and it had grown strong, waiting for him. The cuffs at his wrists tingled, then hurt, but he gritted his teeth and ignored the sweat starting at his temples, the churn of his belly. He turned all the power of his Gift inward, and called to the magic he'd laid on this spot seven years ago, and let it go.

The spell shivered, shattered, and slipped away.

Where there had appeared only a great block of marble, now there stood a chest of iron. Thom climbed the steps to it, crouching unsteadily. He laid his palms on the curved lid. It had been opened recently. The lock hadn't caught correctly. Thom brushed it with a thumb. He opened the chest, and reached in. The Dominion Jewel was just as he remembered, and it knew him still. It pulsed, lightly, as he took it in hand.  Behind him, Arram drew a deep, slow breath.  He crouched beside Thom.

'May I see it?'

Thom displayed it on his open palm.  Arram examined without touching, though he turned Thom's wrist to catch a bit of dim light from the glass dome overhead.  After a moment, he looked up, and then he leant near and touched his mouth to Thom's.  Ozorne had done that often enough, but in Arram it was different.  Softer.  Thom closed his eyes.

'Now what?' Arram asked.

Thom pressed the Jewel to the cuffs on Arram's wrist.  'Yes?' he said, to the Jewel, not to Arram, and in answer it flared cold and bright.  The cuffs tarnished rapidly, in seconds shrivelling the silver to scarred tin.  The hinges creaked and twisted.  The cuffs fell off, clattering to the marble steps.  Thom's followed, and he smiled, pleased.  'Thank you,' he told the Jewel.  It even healed the burns they both bore from testing their bonds, leaving fresh and healthy skin.  Arram shook his head in mute disbelief.  Thom slipped the Jewel into its mail pouch.  But when he made to rise, Arram stopped him.

'Give them one more chance,' Arram begged.  'Please.  Give them a chance to be worthy.  Ozorne isn't.  We have to be certain.'

The heavy fur cape about his shoulders steadied him against a sudden chill, and he hugged it close about him. He set his back to the altar and drew his knees to his chest, held the Jewel tight in both hands. Arram settled beside him.

'Arram?'

'Yes, Thom.'

'This was my home, wasn't it.'

'Yes.'  Arram searched his eyes.  'You must have loved it,' he said.  'You died to defend it.'

'I remember,' he said.

 

 

The window glass was shuddering.

Vibrating, actually. He had been in a kind of trance. The Jewel was like a heartbeat in his hands, a regular throb that wasn't quite real but was nonetheless regular and comforting. He only gradually became aware of the glass around him-- the chapel dome overhead, the rose-shaped design of clear panes, and the tall windows that marched like colonnades along either side of the nave. The gold plates on the altar were humming.

He brushed back the hood of his cloak, twisted his long hair at the nape of his neck. Arram mimicked him.  He used Thom's shoulder for leverage and climbed to his feet, and took a candle from the altar. With the fire with his Gift, he melted the base just a bit so that it would stick upright in the little cup that was used for wine. The little flame danced merrily, bending this way and that rather than one direction only.

The doors of the chapel stood open. Together Thom and Arram turned to face them. They did not wait long.

The Tortallans were a bloodied bunch, many of them only half-dressed, but all had weapons drawn and they were sealing their flight path with magic. The light came bowling down the palace halls like waves, viscous as water, blocked by magical shields and swirling, pushing, at the barriers til it found cracks to seep through, and then it would roll on after them. It was the light that made everything tremble, or, more precisely, it was the light-beings, immortals who didn't, shouldn't, exist here, bending the laws of nature. When the harried humans tumbled through the doors into the chapel, Thom raised the Dominion Jewel, and sealed them in.

There was silence, then. The vibration fell away. Ragged gasps, frantic exertion, the sour smell of sweat and fear. The King was in the lead, in only his shirt and leggins.  His naked sword gleamed.  His face was stony cold, on seeing them there.  With no hesitation he walked the length of the nave, booted footsteps ringing out.  He led with that sword, long silver blade levelled to Thom's chin. The King mounted the steps toward the altar, and he stopped only when they stood at equal height, which for the King was the second step below the dais, the sword angling up between their bodies.

'Those monsters are destroying the palace,' the King said, almost casually. 'Don't suppose you could do something about that.'

'It's only walls and things,' Thom answered.

'Taxes,' the King corrected, dry as dust. 'Of which Trebond has paid its share.' The point of the sword rested at Thom's cheek.  'How did you escape your watchers?  You were bound by magic.'

In reply Thom merely lifted his hands, his sleeves falling away. His bare wrists. The King's eyes flickered down, then back to his face. Thom opened his hand to reveal the Jewel, as well, and the King's mouth was tight and bitter.

'It won't obey you,' the King said flaly. 'Not in conflict with me.'

Thunder from beyond the doors. Or not thunder, truly, but the sound of lightning striking and breaking. Screams of fury, made faint by the stone all around them, grew in a whirlwind howl.

'A pardon,' Arram said.  'We'll fight for you.'

'Fight for me and then I'll consider a pardon.'

'No,' Arram replied, remote but courteous.  'We need assurances.'

'I won't be held hostage,' was the frosty answer.

'He'll destroy you,' Arram said.  'Don't you see.  He expects you to fight.  The Immortals expect you to fight.  Everyone unites against you and the Jewel is just a tool, not a cure.  You'll lose the coast to his fleet, you'll lose the land to the monsters, and you'll lose the magic when the Jewel uses it up trying to stop something no-one can prevent.  And then Tortall won't be worth saving.  That's what he wants you to do with the Jewel, Majesty, that's why he sent Thom and I to provoke you into bringing it into battle.  You use the Jewel, and in a generation your entire kingdom will be wiped from the earth.'

'Jon,' said the old white-bearded knight, a quiet interposition, but the King, though he turned his head a bit toward it, ignored the interruption.

'No,' the King said.  'No.  He doesn't want peace and he won't take a treaty.  He expects me to fight because he's left no other option.  I'll lose the coast, yes, you've plagued us with monsters, yes.  If all I can do is keep Tortall out of his hands, I must hold out.  I held this land together against a madman before.'

'Then surrender.'

'How dare you,' the King seethed.  The honed edge of his blade sliced deliberately at Thom's cheek.  'I hold this throne by the grace of the gods.  I am the rightful king.'

'Not if you lose,' Thom said.  'Not if they test you and you fail.'

'Then let the gods send a real man to do it,' Jonathan countered.  The flat of his hand to Thom's chest shoved, and Thom rocked against the altar.  Jonathan levelled his sword and this time the point dug at Thom's throat.  Arram pushed his way between the king and the fallen mage, hands raised, black magic glowing.  In the nave below, the knights formed up, sensing threat.  But when Arram's hands connected, it was not to strike.  The King was flung back, crashing back into his men some twenty feet away, and Arram turned and loosed his magic on the dome overhead, just as the Archon breached it with their glowing tridents.  Glass burst into the chapel, and with it the triumphant screams of the Archon.  Arram's magic hit them with concussive force, and their cries turned to wails as he blasted them back.  Thom, from his knees, cast the next blow, charring the Archon with a ferocious swirl of ice.

A knight with brown moustaches threw himself over the King when one of the light-beings flew at him.  Its trident scored a blow, and the knight staggered, going to one knee.  The knights put themselves bodily between the danger and their most vulnerable members.  Thom caught the one that had wounded the knight as it swerved for the old man and woman, attacking it with wind like a battering ram.  The King's sapphire magic formed a wall that closed off one of the other Archon, which battered the ungiving blaze with immortal fists til it was dragged to the ground by its weight and slowly crushed.  But that triumph was short-lived.  More were streaming in through the broken dome, and even when Thom tried to raise the Jewel against them, they were too swift, and some half dozen more had breached the chapel.  The Baron from the keep by the sea broke for the doors, as they began to rattle, and he threw the great beam across the latch, but that left those trapped inside no escape.

The Jewel saved Thom from the spidery arm of one of the light-beings, its glow fighting for dominance with the eye-searing brightness of the creature.  Thom had taught it modern magic, had held it hour after hour, studied its properties and let it study him in turn, and his blood was Alanna's blood, and Alanna it would serve even before the King.  Thom slipped down the steps, throwing up a hand and calling again for ice, and caught both trident and incandescent hand that held it; at his word, the ice exploded, and the light-being shrieked in pain.  Arram had forced another to ground, his black Gift, like the King's, cutting off the Archon's access to the elements and snuffing it out.  Two of the knigths were down and another was pinned by a trident, moaning as he weakly tried to stab with his dagger.  Lightning was everywhere, splintering stone as it struck.  Thom summoned Darkness, and everything plunged into blackness.

'Thom?'  The ragged gasp was Arram.  'Thom, where...'

Hand on his shoulder.  'Won't stop them,' Thom said.  He called his Gift to his hands, balling it into something solid and then glazing it hard and sleek-surfaced.  'Be ready--'

The return of the glow was like a flinder breathed to life.  Then, in a flash, the Archon roared out of the night.

'Thom!' the King shouted.  He put his hands together in a sharp triangle, blue forming.  Like an arrow it fired, arching high and dropping into the midst of the charging Archon.  Thom flung his ball of magic, and when the two collided with the creatures, they lit everything in flame.  The resultant boom knocked everyone off their feet and scattered shards of light to all corners, slicing human flesh to slivers where it landed.  The shockwave shook the very foundations.  But still they kept coming.

'We need to go,' Thom said.

'How?'  Arram swiped blood from his forehead with his sleeve.

'Trebond!'  The King's bellow was nearly inaudible beneath the hum of the Archon swirling all around them, an eddy that whirled faster and faster.  'Trebond!'

'We need to go,' Thom told the Jewel, and cupped it in his hands at his lips, whispering words that were not truly words, dropping all the barriers in his mind and letting the ancient elements know his desire.  The King left his knights sprawled and fighting for their lives, sprinting across the nave toward him, sword raised.  Thom grabbed for Arram's arm just as the King reached them, squeezing shut his eyes for the blow he knew was coming.  But the King did not strike-- not at him.  His sword plunged into the neck of the Archon that fell upon them from above, and the King's magic sprang blue and frantic all around them.

'Now,' Thom said, and with the Jewel in one hand and Arram clutching him tightly he reached for the King's leggins, grabbed a handful, and then he re-hid the Time, throwing everything and everywhen spinning off into the darkness.

Chapter Text

'Aim for the flesh!' Alanna shouted, furiously deflecting screeching claws along the length of her shield and thrusting her sword at the vulnerable torso beyond the steely wings. The point only glanced off the ribs, scoring a shallow cut, and the Stormwing screamed in her face as it swooped by. She was luckier with the one just behind it, and her thrust was true. Its huge weight tore her clear off her horse and they tumbled for a horrendous impact on the beach, but it only lay heavy on her, dead, skewered so thoroughly that her sword stood a foot clear through the punctured bones of its back.

No time to free her weapon. Alanna squirmed free, its edged feathers slicing through the leather of her gloves and pricking her neck where her helmet left her bare. She panted with the strain of shoving it off her. Her horse reared over her, hooves lashing out to defend her fallen mistress, but the Stormwings had learnt how to deal with warmounts and harried the animal from behind, digging deep rents in her hindquarters and blinding her with their flapping wings. By the time Alanna staggered to her feet it was over, the horse going down with her guts spilling into the churned sand. Alanna had no chance even to give her mercy before the Stormwings were on her, three breaking off from their battles to ravage the dying horse. Alanna dashed blood from her eyes and backed away quickly. She had only barely begun to run when a horse, riderless, went pounding past her. Alanna grabbed for the dangling reins and applied her entire weight to dragging it to a stop. It halted obediently, shuddering. It, too, had deep wounds on its back legs, but it recognised a firm hand and allowed her to mount. Alanna kicked it into a run before she was even stable in both stirrups, and laid herself along the horse's neck as they fled the berm.

Caynn was more defended than Legann had been, to the heavy wooden gates and the seige engines that adjusted tactics to handle the Stormwings. Rather than launching liquid fire or boulders, they launched scrap, shrapnel, even sand, and the flying beasts couldn't get close enough to the city walls to breach them. More, the Stormwings seemed incapable of passing over the soldiers who guarded the port. Alanna had identified one or two as some kind of captain or commander, but though they harangued their compatriots and tried to harry them back toward the city, one would break, and then the floodgates would open and the whole flock would fall upon the Tortallans on the beachhead.

Alanna had learnt from the bitter defeat at Legann. She'd stationed archers over the gate, and they provided cover for the soldiers and knights who defended the piers. Over and over the Tortallans retreated, under the cover of the archers, who rose from the walls and fired, fired, fired. Then the archers would crouch low and protected, and the knights would thunder back out to the Stormwings who had scattered, and every time the Stormwings, enraged, some even frothing at the mouth, would come diving back as if unable to stop themselves. They engaged, and when the Tortallans began to take too much damage, they retreated to begin it again.

But it was a strategy that could not be sustained forever. Her men were flagging, and they'd taken injuries, lost too many of the horses, and they were getting slower.  Their charge was ragged now, and the Stormwing captains seemed to have more success in getting their compatriots to the gate.  There were at least thirty of them left, near two dozen dead or dying in the surf, but as Alanna made it back to the shelter of the gates, she found only twenty men on foot, and two knights.  Two.

'We give up the beach,' she said hoarsely.  'We surrender the beach.  Get inside the gates.'  She raised a fist, her Gift flaring bright purple.  She shot it to the sky, a beacon and a signal, and the gates began to creak open.  The lead Stormwing, a vicious brute of a woman whose mutilated breasts were matched with claws trailing dripping entrails, screamed in triumph, and rallied her troops.  'Form up!' Alanna shouted to her own.  'Cavalry forefront.  Everyone on foot, form up, shields high, get inside--'

The Stormwing captain had gathered six others in a vee.  'Dive!' the female ordered, and Alanna gathered purple fire in her hand again, spurred her horse--

The thunder this time was not her charge, but humans all the same, mounted and cresting the hill from the right.  The Stormwings veered rapidly, chased by archers and crossbow bolts.  The gates were open, and Alanna threw a glance over her shoulder, judged it possible.  'Everyone in!' she ordered, and with the cover provided by the new arrivals, they ran for the gates, and Alanna's men poured through the moated inner courtyard and into the shelter of the wood-ceilinged keep.  Alanna slouched low on her horse's neck, discovering she ached all over.  Goddess bless.

She stripped her helm, letting it fall carelessly.  Her hair tie went with it, yanking her head painfully, and she winced.  With an effort she freed her boots from the stirrups and slid off the saddle, thudding to the dirt, her knees buckling.  A hand steadied her, and she looked up in to a sweaty, grim, and altogether wonderfully familiar face.

'Hakim!'  She embraced him roughly, and for once he allowed it, even going so far as to pat her back.  She found the blood on his left side, soaking through his leather jerkin.  Old blood, some of it flaking off dried at her touch.  He winced at her behind several days of beard growth.  'I thought you went down with Legann.  You've been--'

'Trailing you since the Swoop.'  Her horse began to wander off, shaking now in the aftermath of the battle.  Now that it was calmer Alanna recognised it as the pretty roan that had belonged to Oscar.  'I lost Emhiran,' Hakim said then, and Alanna shut her eyes against a weary pang of grief.

She gripped his arm.  'I'm sorry,' she said, inadequate, but incapable of more.

A taut muscle in Hakim's jaw jumped.  'The Stormwings seem to have stayed on the coast, but there's plenty of stranger beasts inland.  I don't know what to call this thing-- it was huge.  A giant.  It had a spiked club--'  His eyes were dry and red, his voice dry as dust.  'The Voice didn't answer my call,' he said then.  'His family don't yet know.'

'The Voice didn't answer?'  That caught her attention.  'But he did commune--'

'No.  He didn't come, last night.'

She whirled, forgetting her own horse had gone down, cursing to see the mount she'd borrowed on the beach was beyond use.  But even as she scanned for another horse she closed down her immediate reaction.  She could not go to Corus.  She was the army, she had an invading force just off her shores, and word was that the Copper Isles had ships in the Sea coming for them.  Whatever was wrong with Jon, she could do nothing but preserve the integrity of his shore til he could rule it in safety.

'Gods damn!' she shouted, punching out at the stone column nearest, kicking it for good measure.  'I need a fresh horse!  And get those men ready on the walls.  We know they'll rally!'

'I have thirty men,' said Hakim behind her.  'Villagers, but they're armed, and they're angry.'

'Aren't we all.'  She pushed her hair behind her ears.  There was blood on her hands.  'Not you.  No.  There's healers here.  Go get that seen to.  You'll take night command, so be rested by then.  Hakim,' she said, when he protested.  'Obey me in this, damn it.'

He stared at her.  Through her.  She waited for his nod, to make the point, but she knew he would.  She gripped his arm again, and left him there.

 

 

The snow came with dusk.  It was the first legitimate bit of luck they'd had since the fall of Legann.  Tortall had no weather wizards, not like Carthak's fleet out there, but this was nature finally coming to the rescue of Tortall's natives.  They knew how to navigate a blizzard.

Alanna's mail clinked and clattered as she skipped down the tight spiral stone stairs of the Lookout.  Leif of Port Caynn, eldest son of the earl even now lay on his deathbed, met her at the bottom, the tunnel-like passageway that would bring them either to the yard or two the outer wall.  'Sir Alanna,' Leif greeted her, a hasty bow that was neither properly made nor particularly heartfelt, but she forgave him the slight because she was too busy to correct him.  'You sent for me--'

The nasal way people spoke in this part of the country added dryness to Lief's tone, as if he spoke only in the throat and barely let the words out his teeth.  There was little love lost between North and South in Tortall, though under Jonathan's reign those regional politics had taken a backseat to the rapid integration of the desert folk and the steady influx of foreign immigrants seeking refuge from wars to the east.  Alanna, scion of the northernmost line in Tortall and defiantly, unalterably proclaimed mixed heritage by her light hair and pale eyes, could do nothing but sneer.  Lief was her elder by some three decades and if he had the energy to weave insult into every word out of his mouth, let him waste it.  She was well past that.

'The storm out there will dump a foot of snow on us by tomorrow,' she said.  She kept moving, and Lief tarried in her wake.  She headed toward the outer wall, and soon there were new stairs to climb, taking her upward to the gates.  'The Stormwings don't seem to be able to fly well in it.  And it will stall the fleet out there as well, if they've got reduced visibility.  Do the waters here ever freeze?'

'It's been known,' he said cautiously, over her shoulder.  'Not in recent years.'

'I need everyone with the Gift,' she said.  She used a bit of rope nailed to the wall to haul herself up the last steps, and came out into hazy night air, cold and damp.  'Down to the last hedgewitch.  Hakim?  Hakim--'

He was there, carrying a crossbow and looking somewhat better than death warmed over, in that he'd had a wash at least.  He wore a knitted cap dusted white with snow, but took it off and offered it to her when she neared.  Even her padded undergarments did little to hold off the cold, specially with her mail half-frozen, and she was grateful for the gesture.  Her breath puffed before her and her hands were blocks of ice that she splayed flat on the crenallation, overlooking the harbour.

The Stormwings were out there.  With sunset they'd retreated, evidently not possessed of superior night vision.  Hakim had been the one to think of dousing the torches, and Caynn loomed black and silent behind them.  The snow swirled on a headwind, driving it into her face in steady pinpricks.  She tugged the cowl neck of her woolen undershirt over her chin.

'They're desecrating the bodies,' Hakim observed in his soft burr.

'We can't do anything but not think on it,' she said.

He fingered the point of the bolt strung ready on his bow.  He didn't respond.

'It's nearly time.'  Not quite dark yet, and it wouldn't be, not with this haze of the oncoming blizzard, but her inner sense of time had always been accurate.  'I'll join you,' she said abruptly.

Hakim glanced at her.  'Have you ever?' he wondered.

'No.'  She wouldn't now, but for the fact that Jon hadn't answered her calls in either the fire or the seeing crystal.  Hakim only nodded.

She raised the fire, well-shielded from the sight of those creatures below by someone's cape draped over the brazier.  It funnelled smoke at them, but the small kindling vanished rapidly and soon the fire was magic only, flame licking from the iron grate itself.  Hakim employed the entire ritual, while Alanna, crouched beside him, did not-- lack of familiarity, in large part, since in addition to never communing with the Voice, she'd always found reasons to absent herself from even observing the hour.  Hakim bowed to press his forehead to the lichen-covered stone, sat back on his heels with his fingertips at his eyes, his lips, his heart, and his soft chant is the song of a man who'd done this all his life and slurred his words and paused for breath only when it was over, when the moment for true care had come, and he opened the small pouch hanging about his neck and dropped a bit of sand into the flame.  Beach sand from the harbour below, and, from the smell, tainted with human blood.  Alanna stared grimly as the flame darkened.  Hakim had no Gift, but this was old magic, seeped into the bones of an entire people.  The fire responded, going bright vivid red, then sinking to a blue flicker.

Nothing happened.

Hakim's face was all mute distress.  He waited.  He waited it out, far longer than Alanna, who pushed to her feet and stomped away only a few minutes later.  Hakim knelt there the entire hour, til the flame vanished.

'The Voice has a small gift of prophecy,' Alanna said, when he joined her, his shoulders slumped.  'Every Voice knows the time of his death.  Jonathan wouldn't-- he'd have prepared someone to take his place.'

'Unless the Immortals changed the future,' Hakim said.  'Could they?'

Alanna didn't know.  She savaged the tip of her thumb between her teeth.  She didn't know, and things she didn't know worried her.

'Sir Alanna.'  Lief again, gloved hands tugging at the fur of his hood as the snow tried to gust it away.  'I've gathered all our Gifted.  We await below.'

'Come,' Alanna beckoned Hakim, and they followed Lief away into the night.

'Ice,' Alanna told the crowd of some thirty folk, ranging in age from gangly youth to wizened elder.  She'd sent away anyone younger than ten, who couldn't be counted upon to control their power.  She'd sent one old man who tottered with the aid of a cane and whose eyes were milky with cataracts back to his bed as well, knowing such an expenditure of magical energy would surely kill him.  She doubted the remainder was the equal of even one of Emperor Ozorne's renowned ships of war mages, but there were ways and then there were ways to wage war.  Tortall didn't have overwhelming force, so ingenuity would have to do.

'All of you know how to call fire,' Alanna said.  She walked amongst the citizens of Caynn, nodding particularly to a hawk-nosed woman whose fine dressing gown and sturdy boots indicated a woman of rank, and bright eyes indicated keen intelligence.  She took care to touch shoulders, calm shivers, smile at the youngsters.  Another, late arriving, slipped panting into the edge of the crowd, and Alanna gripped his elbow in welcome.  'It's one of the simplest and most useful spells.  How many of you actually know how it's done?'  A handful of nods, a few reluctantly following.  Perhaps a third.  The hawk-nosed woman was not one of them, but her eyes went narrow with interest.  'It's important you understand the how,' Alanna said.  'What we need to do tonight depends on your understanding.  Everyone, please close your eyes.'

Her path took her back to a spot before the small crowd.  Lief and Hakim waited in the shelter of an archway, watching.  Alanna put her back to him, rubbing her frozen hands together.  'There are four elements,' she told her new students.  'Earth, air, water, and fire.  To call fire one must excite the element.  It's all around you, waiting to be called.  I want you to reach out with your Gift, as if you were about to call the fire, but hold back from that final command.  Just feel it.  Raise your hand when you can, but don't open your eyes.  Hold that feeling, keep it coiled, at the ready.'

Some hands shot up immediately.  Those Alanna noted, mentally sorting them into ranks-- most experienced, most trained.  The woman was in the second tier, but when her hand rose, it came up with confidence, and her face bore surprise that slowly suffused with pleasure.  The boy who'd arrived last was a heartbeat behind her, grinning at himself.  There were several who never raised a hand at all, and Alanna went to them individually.  For each, she placed her hands on their temples, seeking the little ball of magic inside them and testing its coherence, its strength.  For some, that was all the guidance needed; once they understood what she was searching for, they accomplished their task with speed.  There were four who couldn't, even with her help.  To each she smiled tiredly.  'There's plenty of work to be done, don't fear,' she whispered, and sent them to stand by Lief.

'To call fire is a simple task,' Alanna resumed her lecture.  'But to transmute one element into its complement is more difficult.  Calling fire barely taps your Gift.  Turning water to ice will drain you, and I'm afraid I must ask you to do it anyway.'

'Sir Knight?'  It was the woman.  'Why ice?'

'I'm from the cold north,' Alanna answered grimly.  'And in the north we have old stories.  About a long and dangerous journey across the sea on bridges of ice, when the Great White Pall last laid across the land.  My ancestors crossed those bridges.  They had to walk, because the water was so solid that no boat could make the crossing.'

'You mean to trap the Carthaki fleet,' Lief guessed behind her.  When Alanna glanced back, his face turned red in the light of his torch.  'Forgive my interruption.'

'No, you're very nearly correct.'  Alanna didn't risk raising her voice-- the Stormwings may not have been able to fly in the snow, but she didn't know yet if they could hear beyond a human's capacity, and she wouldn't take the chance of spoiling her plans.  'We'd have to freeze far too much water for that, and the Carthaki mages will almost surely try to counteract us once they understand what we're up to.  No, we need to conserve our strength and use it wisely.  We'll make a bridge.'

'To board their boats,' the woman guessed.

'And we must have it ready before the dawn,' Alanna said grimly.  'So.  All of you, close your eyes again.  This time, think of water.  It's all around you, the sea, the wells, even the snow.  Think of water, and think of cold.  A good job it's winter; I'd hate to do this in summer.'  A nervous titter ran through the crowd.  Alanna grinned.  'Think of cold, my friends.  We can do this.'

Hakim came to her side, then.  Alanna took strength from his presence there, his silent support.  'Goddess, I'm glad to have you back,' she murmured, and for a moment his mouth left its grim frown and lightened.  Only a moment.  'We can't abandon the walls.  The Stormwings will be at us with the dawn.  I think a hundred men-- small enough to move with relative quiet, big enough to take a ship.'

'A ship?' Hakim said sharply.

'A ship,' Alanna agreed heavily.  'We can't reasonably hope for more.  We'll be damn lucky to get one.'

'And what use is one ship?'

'If we get the right ship, we'll only need the one.'  She nodded toward the four Gifted men.  'I need an hour.  I'll try to raise the palace, one more time, but... wherever the King is, we're on our own.'

'About that, my lady.'  Hakim stopped her with a hand to her hip, dark eyes boring down in hers.  'If we can reach neither the King nor the Queen, then I cannot permit you to lead the assault on the fleet.  Nor any other action.'

'Who the hell else will do it then?' she demanded, exasperated.  'I'm the army.'

'No,' he said.  'You're the government.'

Another time, that would have terrified her.  Another time, it might have found her mourning.  She was too bloody tired, however, and in the end all she could do was shake her head.

'Then let's hope our Gods are kindly disposed,' she muttered, against all contrary evidence, and left to find a bit of mirror to scry the ships out in the great cold dark beyond Caynn's battered walls.

Chapter Text

What was left of Carthak City glowed like hellfire.

The steam of the sluggish flow of lava to the ocean was thick and unending. It rose in long plumes, obscuring the stars, though the moon, full and ghostly pale, looked down from what seemed very far away. Rivers of liquid flame steamed in jagged lines, criss-crossing the whole of the once-glorious capital, leaving all else black as the night above. The mountainous crag that had swallowed the palace and now towered above it was curiously cut off, the top cratered in and straight as if cut by a sword, and from that forbidding mouth spewed flame and smoke, a bilious cloud still launching the occasional boulder, spreading dark ash to blot away the horizon.

Raoul thought, I could've done without seeing this, but though his mind took in the ravaged vista with numb calm, his soul shuddered.

The water around them was littered with boats of all shapes and shizes. Coracles crammed to sinking with women and children. Fishing scows with terrified men who wept in consternation. The navy had set one or two ships out to harbour and then moved on, one making it all the way to the hook of the isthmus before it slowed to a stop. It was too far away to see what had gone wrong, but when Captain Atticus unearthed a propsective glass from the stores, Raoul could find no evidence of any activity at all on the distant ship. Its sails fluttered in the wind, its decks abandoned and dark. 'We could get to it,' he speculated, and Atticus nodded, but Raoul had waited to give the order. They would linger til they'd boarded all the Carthaki refugees they could.

They were as full as they could be, waddling through the water like a drunken whale and nearly as heavy. It had been an hour since the last call for rescue, and Raoul swept the waters with his glass over and over, finding nothing. The death toll was unimaginable. Maybe some had escaped inland, he thought, he hoped, but it was unlikely many had survived. Perhaps a few thousand. And the demon-things ruled in a city of ashes, now. They were shadows darker than night, crawling about the volcano, perching on high roofs of buildings not yet collapsed. They swarmed the remains of the palace. Sleek-scaled bodies with ember eyes, birthed out of the maw of the eruption.

He found Ohran perched unsteadily on the rail, wrapped in line for dubious safety. The scratch of his quill was muted by the shuffle and moan of the refugees crammed all around them in every available space on the decks, but the Carthakis moved for Raoul, and he stepped onto a crate that put him even with Ohran, balancing himself against the boom of the large square sail that towered over their heads. 'What's that?' Raoul asked, nodding toward the leather-bound book on Ohran's thigh.

Ohran's dark hair fell about his acid-ravaged cheek, shading his expression from Raoul's scrutiny. 'Someone should record it,' he said, almost too low to be heard. 'Constantin would have. I'm not-- adequate with words. But it shouldn't go unrecorded.'

Thunder or the screams of the demon-beasts. Raoul was no longer sure. The lava flow had swallowed the harbour. The once-bustling port was nothing but slag.

'We're going to sail for Tortall,' he said finally. 'We'll pick up that ship out there. I may need another sword. Can you fight?'

'With pleasure.' Ohran glanced up. 'Has Buri waked?'

'Not yet. Blood loss.' She would wake-- he was fairly well reassured of that, though Lady Gaelle could say little more and Raoul had hesitated to press. He'd commandeered the captain's cabin for her, though necessity had overtaken his terror for her, and she was now one of a dozen severely wounded who crammed that tiny room, asleep or dying. Not dying. He couldn't control much, but he would control that, Gods above.

'Sir Raoul.' It was Squire Keefe. 'Something you should see, Sir.'

Raoul didn't touch Ohran's shoulders, patchily bandaged beneath the blanket he wore in place of a shirt. He laid his palm over Ohran's book, careful not to smudge the wet ink. 'Thank you,' he said, and left it at that. Ohran swallowed, and went on writing as soon as Raoul's hand moved away. Raoul left him at it.

Keefe led him through the huddled masses on the deck to the crew quarters below. These, too, were crammed full, and the narrow corridor of wood as well, ripe with the smell of humans and their blood and sick. Getting some of these people onto the other ship would help, though Raoul had yet to figure out whether they could sail another vessel. They had barely enough crew for the one, and he knew just enough about ships to recognise that unfamiliar Carthaki design might hinder just enough to ground a second ship. What supplies that other ship might have was unknowable, but even if it were fully stocked it might not get them as far as Tortall, with so many people. Tortall's ship had less than that, as they'd been planning to restock before they launched at the close of their diplomatic mission. Raoul had set men to guard their few casks of water, but there was only hard tack for food, and only a few barrels of salted pork and biscuits. They wouldn't starve, not likely, but if Tortall were at war, they might find themselves adrift far longer than they'd be comfortable. It was almost too bad they'd debarked all the horses weeks ago-- they could have butchered the animals, at least.

All those thoughts were foremost in his weary head, as Keefe led him aft, and Raoul paid little mind to their direction til he abruptly noticed the lamps were lit. 'Who authorised the fuel?' he demanded, furious at the foolishness of it. 'Douse those--' But even as he grabbed at the glass to pinch out the wick, he realised it wasn't real flame. They were unnaturally green lights. 'A mage?'

'Better,' Keefe said, and banged once on the door at the end of the corridor, pushed it til he swung against someone's legs, and then he made room for Raoul to duck the low lintel and enter.

They were mages: he knew that from their robes.  Seven of them, smooshed into quarters that were tight for two.  Soot streaked their faces, their shaved heads, wigs long lost.  One, a woman of obvious Western heritage, lay curled on one of the bunks, sobbing softly and erratically into her pillowed arms.  At first Raoul took the man who sat on the floor by her head to be her father, as they shared pale yellow hair, but there was nothing tender in the way the elder man shook her out of her trance.  'Everyone stand,' the man ordered.

'Don't bother,' Raoul belayed that.  'You're from the University?'

'We made it out before the hezrou overwhelmed the--'

'Hezrou?' Raoul interrupted.

'Level Two demoniacs,' said the youngest of the Carthakis, a boy in a slave's plain kilt who, Raoul noted, clutched an arm made useless by a violent break that had punctured the skin.  So no healers amongst them.  That was too much to hope for.

At any rate, having a name for the creatures that had overrun the capital didn't do anything about the situation, so Raoul put that information aside.  'Any other survivors?' he asked.

'Maybe,' said the elder.  'But... none who made it to the harbour with us.'

'We have a lot of people in need,' Raoul said.  'There's no time to hole away and hurt.  I need you to get out there and help.  A spell for wind would be a start.  Are any of you weather mages?'

'We can do that.'  The elder dropped a hand to the woman as she moaned softly.  'We will do whatever we can, Sir Knight.  I am Lindhall Reed.'

Raoul nodded brusquely.  At the door, however, he looked back.  'You were the lecturer, the day we toured the University.'

'Yes, Sir Knight.'  Reed inclined his head with respect.  'I recalled you as well.'  From beneath craggy brows the man stared up at him.  'We were trying to get to you,' he said then.

'We,' Raoul repeated flatly.

'There is-- was...'  Reed's shoulders sagged abruptly.  'There was a group of men and women engaged in quiet resistance to the Emperor.  Amongst other things, we tried to move slaves to the north.  We were also trying to remove the Emperor from the throne.  Numair Salmalin was one of us.'

That was a name Raoul knew.  'He was the one,' he guessed.  'He promised he'd get word out to Tortall.  Through you, I gather?  Your people?'

'He kept his promise.  But he's gone.  He went out with the fleet, when it launched.  We've had no word from him since then.  Two weeks ago.'

Raoul was all hazy thoughts firing off and hitting empty air.  Sleep.  He needed sleep.  Almost as much as he needed a steak or two.  And a good long drunk.  'I don't think it much matters who sits your throne now,' he told Reed.  'He's welcome to try and take it back.'

'If he can't take back his city he'll take Corus,' Reed said.  'We can help.'

'We start with getting back to Tortall,' Raoul countered.

'But that's exactly what I'm--'  Reed sucked in a breath that wavered.  'I can get you an army, Sir Knight.'

They stared each other down.  'I'm listening,' Raoul said at length.

Reed crouched beside the boy with the broken arm.  'You heard about the "accident" that befell the Emperor's first heir?'

Raoul had a sinking feeling he knew where this was headed, and he didn't have time for the rabbit-hole of Carthak's murky dynastic politics.  'Yes,' he said warily.  'His son drowned.  He was distraught.  Took his own life.'

'They threw him off the roof of the Hag's temple,' the boy said.  He was hollow-eyed and glared sullenly at the wall when Reed put hands on his shoulders.  'It was assassination.  They killed my mother, too.  Poison in her wine.  The slaves told me stories, when I was young.  That the Emperor had killed his other brother in the bath.  Held him down til he drowned, and blamed it on the nanny.  If he only had sisters, there'd be no competition for the throne.'

'We've hid Cahaya amongst the University's slaves for six years,' Reed said.  'The Emperor would never believe someone of royal blood would lower himself so.'

'You'd be the heir.'  Raoul pinched the bridge of his nose.  'Not that Kaddar person.  He's through the female line.'

'And the heir can command the Emperor's armies,' Reed told him urgently.  'The real heir.  We have proof-- we managed to save it.  But we need to keep him safe.  The Emperor cannot know he's alive til it's too late to prevent the coup.'

He sent Keefe to fetch Ohran and Atticus.  He sent himself to Buri's side in the captain's chamber.  She was asleep still when he lowered his bulk onto a leather stool at her side; Lady Gaelle slept on the pallet with her.  Raoul was quiet, just placing his hand on Buri's cheek.  She was pale, yet.  Her legs, bare atop the blanket, were wrapped well, and she smelled like one of Gaelle's dank poultices, something like rotting mint.  Raoul stroked with his thumb til Buri's blunt dark lashes fluttered.  When a gleam of dark brown gleamed beneath her bruised eyelids, he smiled for her.

'Hello, love,' he whispered, and kissed her knuckles.  'How you feeling?'

'Alive,' she whispered back.  Her chest rose in a deep breath, slowly exhaled.  'Home?'

'Our ship,' he corrected.  'You've been out about seven hours.'

'Seven!'  She struggled to sit up, and Raoul helped, but only to prop a limp pillow at her back.  Gaelle, jostled, rolled to face the wall.  Buri glowered down, and winced as she tried to bend a knee.  'What next?' she asked then.

No blame.  No questions.  Just trust.  Suddenly overwhelmed, it was all he could do not to kiss her.  He confined himself to the knuckles of her hand, pressing them to his face.  How he loved this woman.

'We can't go home,' he said at last.  'I think... I think we're going to stage a revolution in Carthak.'

Her bitten lips fell open.  'You sure it was just seven hours I was out?'

He laughed weakly.  'Oh, Buri.  Remind me to tell Jon I quit.'

She grinned at him, and this time he did kiss her.  She took a hard grip of his hair and anchored him in place.  Just as she'd always done.

'Back to work,' she said then, mouthing the words against his lips.

'Back to work,' he agreed, and left with renewed energy.

Chapter Text

Dark as the grave.

His father had always used that expression. Dark as the grave. Jonathan had thought it referred to the lack of light within the dirt. He'd had to survive a war to understand what men meant, what men feared. The shuddering closeness of mortality. Damp and airless and unrelenting.

It was dark as the grave, and he wasn't alone.

It curled over his wrist in a trail of slime.  Only half conscious, he shuddered away from it.  Sticky and damp, it touched his cheek, and he batted at it, groaning his disgust.  Tiny claws scrabbled on stone.  The darkness heaved.  With a keening cry, the thing sank dagger-like teeth into his calf.  His shout echoed oddly.  He ripped at it, pummeled it, kicked frantically.  It clung tenaciously, its bite burning like acid.

'Hýgron pyr!' a man's voice hissed, and the darkness exploded into light.  Jonathan had a single glimpse of the thing attacking him, bulbous and grotesquely mottled flesh pulsating, then burning as liquid fire blasted it back.  The white face of Numair Salmalin stared at him as the creature fled, shrieking its agony into the night.

'That wasn't the-- that wasn't the--'  Jonathan probed the wounds in his leg.  Three punctures, each no deeper than the tip of his finger, but even the merest contact of his skin to the creature's bile corroded, and he wiped his hand hurriedly on his shirt.  The darkness was swift to fall again, and he fumbled about him for his sword.  He found it near him, and gripped the hilt tightly.

'That wasn't the Archon,' Salmalin agreed.  He sounded shaken as Jonathan felt, but just as Jonathan had he wasted no time in reaching for a weapon.  The fire spell blasted back something that squealed and wept almost, but not quite, like a human, and far too many bodies scrambled back in the darkness.  'Thom!' Salmalin called.  'Thom, are you here?'

'Quiet.'  Jonathan swabbed his burning leg with the tail of his shirt, wiping away the worst of the acid.  Skin sloughed off with it, and he bit his lip against the pain.  'Light,' he instructed, 'slowly until we can see what we're facing.'  He called his Gift by drips and drabs, feeding its illumination to the blade in his hand.  The sword began to glow softly.  Salmalin caught on immediately, though he had only his own hand to imbue with magic.  At least he was smart enough to use his non-dominant hand, Jonathan noted, but the rest of his concentration was for the mass of undulating nastiness beyond the circle of their light.  Sightless eyes rolled this way and that, filmed over, melting down faces that were little more than protruding jaws and dangerous teeth.  The stone beneath them was slick with their putrescence, and they crawled like animals, but worst of all was that they had very clearly been people, once.  Arms and legs stretched from hunched torsos, even identifiable as male or female where decay had not claimed all recognisable features.  Their hanging mouths dripped black ichor, and their clawed hands and feet dug deep oozing rivets in their own flesh as they clambered over each other, straining toward fresh meat in their midst.

'By all the Gods,' Salmalin whispered.

'This is no work of Gods,' Jonathan muttered.  'Thom.  Thom did this.'

'He couldn't have.'  Salmalin eased slowly to his knees, then into a crouch.  He stretched out a hand, and Jonathan took it, levering himself upright, ready.  He swung his sword in a long arc, and the things jumped back, moaning.  'Thom,' Salmalin called, just loud enough to be heard over the sussuration of the monsters.  'Thom, where are you?'

'Where's everyone else?'  Fear seized him, but even as he thought it he realised his companions could not all have been swallowed by the darkness.  However long they'd been here, it had not been long enough for those-- things-- to kill them while they slept unconscious.  'George?' he tried, already knowing there would be no reply.  'Myles.  Gary, Sacherell...'  His voice echoed, off into the night, unanswered.  'Where are we, Salmalin?  What did Thom do?'

'He didn't-- he couldn't have done this.'

Salmalin was evidently in shock.  His voice had the numb quality of a man dreaming.  Jonathan swept his sword threateningly at the creatures inching near them.  'Salmalin.  Put your back to mine.  Yes.  We're going to stay like this, you hear me?  We're going to find a way out of here.'  He tested his weight on his leg; it would hold, and the pain was fuel, the fear was fuel for his rage.  'We're going to get out of here, and find Trebond.'

Jonathan forced them into shuffling steps that turned them a full circle.  Everywhere he looked there were more of those things, crowding the ground in a tumbling mass as far as the light of their Gifts would shine.  But overhead was clear.  There was a low ceiling of odd pocked and bumpy stone, only a little higher than their heads, and if they were in a room of some kind, it could not have infinite breadth or length.  He continued their circling, but added direction to it, forcing Salmalin back step by step and keeping the monsters at bay with his glowing sword.  It was a fraught adventure, Salmalin knocking elbows or heads with him every few steps, stumbling over his own overlong legs, and once reacting too hastily to a hissing creature that braved their inattention and found itself immolated by a fireball.  Jonathan pressed on grimly.

'Oh,' Salmalin gasped, and fetched upright to a halt.  'It's a wall,' he whispered.  'I think.'

'Move.'  Jonathan sidestepped him and touched carefully.  Yes.  More of that pockmarked stone.  The wall curved upward to meet the sloping ceiling.  He risked turning his head from the monsters to look, aiming his sword along the wall to direct its light.  There was a strange outcropping of stone, a hulking block jutting out from the wall.  He turned to his right.  The wall extended in that direction, too, and another of those blocks was a mere foot or two from them.  It dripped with the same slime as the floor, and his sword jabbed at a brave creature which shrieked and ran from them on all fours.  Cringing, Jonathan swiped at the stone block with his sleeve, wiping clear a small patch from the bevelled edge.  There was carved writing-- words.  He wiped again, and grabbed Salmalin's glowing hand to light it.

'Here lieth Jessamine, Beloved,' he read.  'It's a-- it's a bier.  This is--'  He felt the wall again, and realised it wasn't stone beneath his fingers, but bones.  The walls were made of bones, skulls with empty eye sockets and gaping jaws, lined in neat stacks from the rough paving beneath his feet to the curved ceiling overhead.  It was more than a single grave.  This was a catacomb.  More, he had a sudden flash of intuition, and crouched to scrape the grime from the bier's marble sides.  Yes.  More names, carved in ever-more modern script.  'Second Wife of Roger II of Conte, Mother of Gareth of Conte-- this is my ancestress.  These are the royal tombs.  We're still in the palace.'

'How did we get here?'

'One of a growing number of questions.  What are those things?  More Immortals?'

'And where is Thom?'

Jonathan scraped teeth over his dry lips.  'There are steps out of here.  If we're at the ancients of House Conte, we're in the oldest section.  In the original caves.  There are steps out of here, but there's a-- I think there's a tunnel.  Gated off, it puts out to the river.  The tunnel will be easier to reach, faster, but if we get trapped in there with those things behind us and an unknown situation at the outside...'  Jonathan hesitated only a moment.  'Listen to me, Salmalin,' he said, shoving back to his feet.  'We're unarmoured and there's a horde of those things to all sides.  We follow the wall as far as we can.  Keep your back to it and keep snug against my arm, like this, all right?  Fire and light seem to keep them at bay, and clearly they can die.  Only use magic if you must, the more they see of it the less surprise we'll have on them, and we may need surprise.  We go steady and we don't rush.  Do you understand me?'

Salmalin's large adam's apple bobbed in a frantic swallow.  'I understand you.'  He sucked in a deep breath and released it.  'You know the Wall?'

That was a good strategy, and Jonathan nodded his assent, re-evaluating the tall mage.  If Salmalin could keep his head, they'd make it out.  He extended his hand, and Salmalin took it in his sweaty palm.  'Only when we need it.'

'I'll build it and hold back the final Command.  That will need both of us.'

'You can hold it that long?' Jonathan asked sharply.

'I can hold it.'

That was sheer power.  Jonathan re-evaluated him again, taking in the quiet confidence of that promise.  'Only when we need it,' he said again.  'We don't know what's waiting for us beyond the gate.'

Salmalin was already murmuring the spell.  Heat collected at their joined hands, black Gift darker than the darkness around them, glittering with gold flecks.  Jonathan felt the tugs of the magic calling, pulling at the core of his own Gift deep in his chest, but resisted it for the moment.  If Salmalin could really hold the spell in abbeyance, Jonathan would only need to summon his Gift and add the word of Command.  Til then, he concentrated on the light in his sword, and in keeping the creatures at bay through physical means.

Now he kept Salmalin at his back, between him and the wall, and he guided them to the right.  They had to go the long way round the many biers that thrust outward from the walls, and every time they passed on the monsters closed them in again.  Their avid attention never wavered, and the pitch of agitation was climbing.  They dared a little more, the things, and one or two of the braver ones attempted to climb the biers and launch at them, but Jonathan cut one down from the air and kicked another one to the stone and caved in its head with the crunch of his boot, spattering gore in all directions.  Their progress seemed painfully slow, though he knew it was only his own tension that made it seem so; in truth they moved as fast as he dared.  He had hoped the darkness would break, eventually, when they reached that tunnel, but the blackness was unwavering, and even as his eyes grew used to it he could not penetrate it.  Remembering there were sconces for torches along the walls, he tried sending out a flame, but they caught on nothing and the flare was gone moments later.  Onward.  Onward.

'Your Majesty,' Salmalin said.

'Hold.  Perhaps another hundred feet.  I'm sure it's there.'

'Your Majesty.  Look down.'

Distracted, he waved his blade at the beasts, driving them back yet again.  He spared a glance to the floor and raked his eyes back up across the heaving mound of monsters.  Then, realising what he'd seen, he looked down again.

White, faintly glowing lines drawn on the ground.  Magic.  It responded to the magic it felt from them, its glow brightening, puttering a relieved welcome.

And then flaring.  Greedy.  It tugged at Jonathan's core of Gift the same way the waiting Wall spell did, demanding a response.  It wanted to suck the Gift right out of him.

'It's a Gate,' Salmalin gasped, and stiffened.  'I have to--'  He didn't wait for permission.  He dropped the Wall, broke the clasp of their hands, and shoved Jonathan forward, into the maw of the creatures beyond the circle of their light.  Jonathan swung on instinct, connecting with flesh and just as quickly burying his blade beyond recall.  The sword wrenched out of his grasp and without that physical connection the blue light of his Gift extinguished, plunging all into black.  He swung with his fists instead, lashed out with his feet, felt claws tear at his arms and back.

'Salmalin!' he shouted, just as everything exploded.

Chapter Text

Kaddar rolled onto his stomach, hugging the limp feather pillow beneath his chest and hauling the furred blanket over his head. He had counted himself a fair sailor when he'd never spent more than a day or perhaps two on the water, 'voyages' only in self-flattering description. Weeks on the seas had taught him he was little bred for extended deprivation. He had never totally got used to the rocking of the ship, even one so large as this. The heave and pitch had put a permanent cramp of nausea in his stomach, and what little he could eat he lost as often as not. And now the cold. Though Carthak's heat was oppressive even in winter, he had never truly believed Tortall's shores could be so foreboding. The weather mages had devoted one of their number solely to melting the ice that formed on the sails every hour. Kaddar wore every piece of cloth he'd brought with him, and wrapped his calf-leather boots in fur and let his hair grow beneath a turban of warm silk, but the cold defeated him. He shivered constantly. His teeth chattered. His lips and fingertips took on a purple hue that would not be chased away by warm wine or hot baths. He was too cold even to sleep.

Thus he was already awake to hear the creak of his cabin door and the swish of the cloth-of-gold curtain. Thinking it was his slave Rubia, he raised his head. 'Where have you been?' he demanded, as a dark shape crept near in the orange glow of the oil lamp, but the hand that reached through his bed drapes was large and rough and pressed tight over his mouth. It was not small Rubia, but large Abasi, the Captain of his guard, dressed not in his armour but in a sleeping gown and a dark cloak that hooded his angular black face.

'My prince,' he whispered, only barely loud enough to hear over the pounding of Kaddar's heart, 'hurry. The ship is being boarded.'

'What?' His protest was muffled by Abasi's hand, but only for a moment, and he wisely kept silent when Abasi turned to grab Kaddar's cloak from the trunk and throw it about him. Kaddar swung to his feet and grabbed for the oil lamp, dousing it with a puff of air over the wick. He yanked up his hood as Abasi pulled him toward the door. The big man peered left, then right, and that was the direction they went, Abasi's arm tight about him as they hurried down the dark corridor, quiet on their stockinged feet. But where can we possibly go? Kaddar wondered, even as Abasi drove forward with urgent determination. Toward the ladder leading down to the slave quarters in the belly of the ship? But his unbranded skin would mark him as a freeman, and his fine clothing as a royal. To the bilges? But if the ship was being boarded, it was surely an attack, and if they burnt the ship or even just searched it they wouldn't ignore so obvious a hiding place. The captain's cabin had a wardrobe, which might be locked, or they might hide in the stores, but they'd never make it off the ship if the Tortallans succeeded in seizing the ship. Kaddar was shaking as Abasi shoved him at a shallow incline of steps, and he was climbing before he realised he was headed upward. To the deck? But when he hesitated, Abasi only shoved him along, and so he climbed, slipping and grabbing and huddling at the top as Abasi reached from below to lift the hatch.

'Can you see anyone?' Abasi whispered.

Kaddar checked as thoroughly as he could through the sliver of light. He faced the lower deck, mizzen-mast just behind him if he was correctly orientated, and the crack and flap of the icy sails boomed overhead. No feet. No voices. No noise. All was white, the wind painful on his face, stinging his eyes. The snow was falling so hard it had accumulated in plentiful piles inches deep. He saw no footprints in it.

'Go,' Abasi hissed, but then held him back. 'Your highness, if anything happens to me, you must try to get away. Get to one of the rafts. Jump in the water if you must. Better to die than to be their prisoner. The Emperor will not bargain for you, do you understand me? He will abandon you and the Tortallans will revenge themselves on your body.'

He was shaking almost too badly to cling to the ladder. 'I'm a noble,' he said weakly.

'To the Tortallans, you are a Carthaki, and they will make you a slave and worse than a slave. Be strong, my prince.' Abasi squeezed his shoulder hard enough to hurt. 'Now go.'

He scraped his chest raw squeezing out of the hatch and scrambled for the shelter of the mast. He ducked low at the tall piles of wound rope, making sure all was still clear before gesturing fiercely for Abasi to follow. A moment later the hulking soldier was with him, and together they crept from their dubious shelter. Abasi pointed him toward crates stacked against the rail, covered in netting and canvas, and Kaddar ran for them. Abasi was just behind him when the sudden thwack of a hard concussion broke the hush, and Abasi toppled with a moan. Kaddar stared in horror at the arrow fletching that sprouted from his shoulder.

'Run,' Abasi gasped, struggling to rise, and Kaddar lost a precious moment yearning toward his fallen companion, deciding too late to obey and flee. When he turned, his escape was met by a big man wrapped in dark swaddling, his face smeaked with lampblack, who lifted a crossbow to Kaddar's nose.

'Stay,' the big man crooned. 'Let's be calm. Your name, lad.'

'Rubia,' he said, the lie springing to his lips, and crashed to his knees, grovelling inexpertly but with real terror. 'I'm the prince's slave. Please don't hurt me!'

Abasi staggered to his feet, and the man with the crossbow swung the weapon to him instead. Abasi had only the ceremonial janbiya dagger that the Guard wore in their belts to show their status, and he drew it with the wrong arm, his other hanging limp and dripping red to the snow-covered deck. 'I will put you down if I must,' said the crossbowman, tone warning but oddly calm. 'We'd prefer not to shed blood. Stand down.'

A sharp whistle from the bow of the ship drew Kaddar's eyes. Another man in dark cloak climbed over the railing, and as he did so lowered a body to the deck. One of the night watch. The sailor glowed faint pink. There was a cloud of that same rosy blush from the crow's nest, as well, and on the poop deck where the helmsman should have stood with the quartermaster or the colonel. Kaddar's gut clenched tight. They would be boarded without a fight. Where were the mages? Why had there been no warning? Were they spelled asleep as well, or even dead?

'Stand down,' said the crossbowman again, low and steady. 'Your last warning.'

Abasi would not. He would give his life for Kaddar. And Kaddar could not waste that sacrifice. He tensed to spring up, gathering his legs beneath him. If he ran and just jumped, he could make it over the railing. He would surely die in the frozen waters. His heart was in his throat.

The flutter of steely wings was the only warning. The crossbowman whirled, and his bolt, loosed with true aim but too little distance, bounced off silver feathers rather than embedding in vulnerable flesh. The Stormwing was on him a moment later, talons ripping at face, hair, the out-flung hand. The crossbow clattered to the deck, lost in an aborted scream. The Stormwing gave a mighty flap and carried his captive up, up, and flung him overboard. Skin hung in tatters from his claws as he swooped out over the sea, disappearing briefly into the night. Soon there was another scream, from the bow, and the thwap thwap of more crossbows. Men tumbled over the rail. The Tortallans were boarding.

Kaddar grabbed Abasi and hauled him up against his own body. 'One of the rafts?' he panted, staggering under the bigger man's weight, the gusting wind. He slipped in the slushy snow, and they thumped against the rail together. He stuck his head out to look over the ship's side, and finally saw how the Tortallans had done it. Stretching in a zagging line from the distant shore was a bridge of ice. The floes bobbed sickeningly in the stormy waters, but it was more than steady enough to bear the weight of the soldiers who had walked that long distance and even now threw hooks and ropes over the ship's rails to climb up. There were dozens, maybe a hundred of them. 'The other side,' Kaddar said, and dragged Abasi about.

They'd been spotted again. One of the Tortallans came running for them, sword drawn. Two more followed, and Abasi shoved him back, got between him and the onrush. Kaddar grabbed for slick line and tried to climb, swung a leg over the rail. He could do it. He just had to let go--

The Stormwing prevented him. He swooped out of the night, and batted his wings at Kaddar, who flinched without thought, and tumbled off his tenuous perch. Not into the water, but back the way he'd come. He hit Abasi as he fell, and Abasi lurched forward as if thrown. Right onto the blade of the oncoming Tortallan soldier.

'No!' Kaddar cried, but it was too late, and this time when Abasi slid down, he did not rise.

'It's a boy,' said the man who'd just killed Abasi, stepping over him like so much nothingness, his bloody blade up and ready to kill again. But instead of running Kaddar through, he, like the first man, waited. He spoke into something that glinted silver in his hand. 'Is this the one we want?'

The Stormwing clacked his teeth, his wings flaring wide. 'You'd best get off this ship, meatbag. Your men will be tasty treats when my troops arrive.'

'I only see you,' retorted the Tortallan. His two men had been joined now by another three, all of them armed. Those with crossbows aimed well, and they wouldn't all miss. Those with swords closed in from all sides. The Stormwing could only fly up or away over the water, and he stirred restlessly on the rail, his steel talons raking the wood as he shifted. He could do nothing as the lead Tortallan yanked Kaddar near by the ankle, dragging him along the deck. He threw back Kaddar's hood and turned a small lady's mirror to his face. Kaddar caught a glimpse of purple eyes not his own in the reflection.

'He's the one,' the mirror replied in a tinny little voice, and the soldier pulled him up roughly by the shirt.

'He's ours,' the Stormwing growled. 'Take whoever else you like. Take the entire damn ship. But the boy is ours.'

Kaddar tried to fight, tried to bite, to kick. He was swiftly clouted in the ear, and fell with his head ringing like a bell, his cheek ablaze with hurt. 'What's one more death to your kind?' said the soldier, somewhere far above him, booming and echoing oddly. He manhandled Kaddar into place, under his arm, tight against his chest.

'The Emperor signed him to us in blood!' The Stormwing was nearly hopping in fury, spitting and clacking against the wood rail. 'We have a treaty.'

'I don't give a damn about any treaties with the Carthakis,' the soldier said. 'Fall back,' he told his men. 'We have what we came for.'

'I'll trade for him,' the Stormwing shouted. He followed the retreating Tortallans, flying to the rigging and then to the rail of the poop deck and then attempting to attack from above, driven back by a hail of bolts and hampered by the sails overhead. He landed on stacked casks of olives and dates. 'The Stone Tree Nation will hound you to the ends of this mortal earth for that boy! I will rend every last one of you to dog feed to get him back!' A bolt struck him in the ribs, glancing off and leaving a thick scar of black blood. He swore and took to the air again. 'I am vouched for him. Take him and take me as well. I am a lord of my people and my Queen will bargain better for our release than that thrice-damned Emperor ever would!'

The man who carried Kaddar along paused. 'You'd give yourself as hostage?'

'For the boy's sake.'

'What's the boy to you?'

'Hakim,' said one of the soldiers sharply.

The soldier caught Kaddar's hand as he raised it to claw at his eyes. Kaddar was slammed against the rail and cuffed about the ear again, and then the man was wrapping him in coils of heavy rope and gagging him with a soggy kerchief that tasted of salt water. 'Prove it,' the soldier called to the Stormwing. 'Come in alone and in peace, and we'll hear you out.'

And then he picked up Kaddar and tossed him over the rail like a sack of grain, and he was falling, falling through the rushing snow, and the solid ice bridge rushed up to meet him.

Chapter Text

'We've been directing refugees up-river, inland,' Raoul said, tracing the blue line on the map spread across the sand, pinned at each corner with a rock. 'Those hezrou things seem to be staying within the boundaries of the capital, which is good and bad. The Bay is more or less impassable-- they're attacking ships now. We won't get any help from the Inland Sea, so we need allies from the continent.'

'The legions have been recalled,' the dark-skinned man opposite Raoul said, speaking with some exotic accent Raoul had never heard. They were lucky to have discovered a shared dialect, between Raoul's knowledge of languages required of diplomats and Carthak's broad borders encompassing so many peoples. The legions were generally commanded by officers of elevated background, not unlike Tortall, and not unlike Tortall nobility hardly guaranteed a useful education, much less a brain to put it to use. The man who called himself Tribuni Eshmunazar was the highest-ranking officer they'd yet encountered. Raoul suspected that the legions had used the fall of Carthak City to thin the ranks, and made very sure to withhold any commentary whatsoever on internal politics.

'Where's the nearest stationed?' Raoul asked then.

'The Twenty-Sixth and the Thirteenth are inbound from Amar.' Eshmunazar pointed to the lower third of the parchment, inscribing a circle around an area distinguished by small arcs likely symbolising hills, if Raoul could assume mapmakers in Carthak thought the same way as Northerners did. 'Between the two legions that's nearly ten thousand men. They'll have supply trains.'

'Meaning they'll only move as fast as the slowest mule.' Raoul scratched at his beard. His armour had been donated from the corpse of a bandit who'd attacked the Tortallan delegation two days ago, and it was ill-fitting and ill-smelling, making Raoul feel as if he were being slowly roasted in the heat. He envied the tall and big-boned Tribune, who wore only a short kilt and a sleeveless leather halter. Tortallan legs weren't meant for full sun exposure, however, and the bits of Raoul poking out of shirt and trousers had already burnt red. 'Distance like that-- weeks, maybe even a month.'

'Not at a forced march. The legions cover twelve leagues a day on foot.' Eshmunazar turned his broad palm upright and waggled his fingers, which seemed to be his version of a shrug. 'Weeks, yes. Maybe three.'

Raoul climbed to his feet with an effort, knees creaking. 'Are we agreed, Tribuni? We can work together?'

'You have my men,' came the reply, and Raoul nodded in genuine gratitude. 'But they will not take orders from a Northerner,' Eshmunazar cautioned him, that big hand raised to stall as well as apologise. 'No man would stake his honour on it. It must come from his Highness.'

'And they'll buy this?' Raoul asked bluntly.

'Buy? Purchase?'

'Sorry-- I mean they'll believe Cahaya is their rightful ruler?'

'He must be convincing,' was the reply, and Raoul nodded grimly.

'Judge for yourself,' he said, and gestured with an outstretched arm.  'After you.'

The problem wasn't that Cahaya didn't look the part.  As soon as they'd made landfall a day's sail beyond Carthak City's ruin, they'd scavanged-- looted-- a few abandoned country estates.  No longer dressed as a slave, Cahaya looked enough like his uncle to pass a close inspection.  If anything, Cahaya had taken to the role with a little too much fervour.  Years of hiding for his life had embittered the boy, and being suddenly restored to his birthright, however tenuously, had brought a most unpleasant personality to the fore.  Raoul exercised the right of command and spent as little time as absolutely necessary with the snot.  Ohran and Buri, wounded and therefore relegated to babysitting duty, had adopted permanently murderous expressions.  By mutual agreement the Tortallans kept all sharp weapons out of their vicinity.

They had seized a merchant's home at riverside in Astarte Harbour only last night.  Raoul was proud of how quickly his tired Tortallans had fortified; there were boards nailed over all ground-floor windows, rapidly sharpened stakes lining the manicured greens that led downhill to the river, and their fleet of ships lined the bank, three galleons now as well as the accumulation of minor craft for refugees.  The air thrummed with magic; Lindhall Reed, it seemed, was a powerful mage in his own right, and his surviving students from the University each contributed to protect their momentary refuge.  Eshmunazar was impressed, as well, assessing the house as Raoul did with military eyes and finding it satisfactory.  The big warrior made a sign over his chest, perhaps some religious observance, as they passed through a glowing yellow shield of magic at the head of the stairs.  Raoul knocked once at the door, and Lady Gaelle opened it for him.  Her eyes widened a bit at the sight of Eshmunazar, who towered even over Raoul, who had always been the tallest man in any room.  Eshmunazar winked one large black eye at her, and she pinked. Ohran, at her shoulder watching, scowled.

'We'd like to speak to his Highness,' Raoul said.

Gaelle stood aside.  What had been the merchant's dining room and library was now packed with people sleeping on any available surface.  Lady Varice Kingsford, her blonde hair bedraggled and her gown stained and sagging, sat at the window, staring vacantly.  Cahaya was beside her, scowling as he dug divets in the wall with a little dagger.  His head turned at the noise of their entry, and he scrambled to his feet, dragging his too-large cloth of gold cape and garish ostrich-feather headdress into place.

Eshmunazar prostrated himself with the grace of long practise, folding his big body to touch his forehead to the boards.  'My prince,' he boomed.

Cahaya jutted his chin.  'Rise,' he allowed graciously, then haughtily thrust out a hand.  Eshmunazar kissed the signet that adorned Cahaya's forefinger, then paused long enough to examine it.

'It's real,' Raoul said, then added bluntly, 'As far as I can tell.'

Cahaya shot him a dirty look, but Eshmunazar only nodded.  'I believe it is real as well.  No man would dare reproduce it falsely.  The Imperial Emperor is infamous for his wrath.  Only last year he boiled two men alive for falsifying a royal decree.'

Cahaya paled at that.  'My uncle's cruelty is well-known,' he said, not entirely steadily.  'It is but one reason of many to restore the throne to one who is worthier.'

Eshmunazar rose, exchanging a glance with Raoul that both accepted the situation and agreed to perpetuate any necessary illusions.  He placed a large hand on his sword and the other over his heart, and said, 'As Tribuni of the Seventh Legion I swear my life and the lives of my men in your service, Prince Cahaya.  I have two thousand seven hundred and nineteen.  The rest perished in Carthak City.  I ask your Highness to grant their souls rest; they died well.'

'How did they die, Tribuni?' Ohran asked, when Cahaya said nothing and twisted the ring on his finger.

'When the demons attacked, your Highness, the Seventh evacuated the Palace and attempted to restore order in the City.  They saved many lives.'  Eshmunazar hesitated, then, and then did a peculiar thing, almost as if he were testing the boy.  'Some of my men believe the Gods have abandoned us,' he said, in his deep solemn voice.  'They believe their souls will not rest until the heavens are restored.  They would take comfort in your blessing.'

Cahaya wet his lips.  His hands were clenched in his cloak, white-knuckled.  'They have it.  Of course.  The royal-- the royal blessing is mine to grant.'

'They would believe it if they heard it directly from your Highness.  Your voice is the voice of the Gods on Earth.  Your holy touch would cleanse their sins and renew them for the hereafter, and they will know these demon-creatures are not the work of heavenly vengeance, but a test which can be defeated.'  Eshmunazar flattened his lips, and then surrendered the dance of Carthaki manners with an abrupt slump of his broad shoulders.  'They won't fight for an heir,' he told Cahaya directly.  'And they won't fight for Carthak or Tortall or any other kingdom, not with the demons destroying their homes.  They will desert and flee if I try to hold them here.  But they will fight for the living embodiment of the Gods, if you swear for their salvation from this dark time.  You must do this.  If you are false, you will lose them.  If you are true, they will believe you, and they will stay.  I say this not to offend your Highness.  But it is the truth.'

Cahaya betrayed himself with an uncertain glance to Lady Varice.  She was no aid, if she was even aware of the scene playing out at her side.  There was a murmur behind them, the door opening, and Raoul looked to see Lindhall Reed had joined them.  Cahaya looked to the mage, too, mouth open to call for his help, but stopping when he realised it would make him look weak.  He swayed on his feet, and looked last to Raoul, desperate indecision in his pleading eyes.

Raoul said, 'We put him in armour and we stand him in front of your legionnaires.  He'll give a little speech and call them to arms.  He'll be inspiring.  And we'll do it again when the other legions arrive.  They've seen horrors.  A spectacle on a budget won't fool anyone, and the ones who are going to run are going to run.  Assume we'll lose a third to desertion.  That leaves us with perhaps six thousand men.  Six thousand is still the best army operating in this quadrant.  It's enough to form a government in exile, and we start issuing treaties as soon as we've got the backing.  We declare him Emperor and we find a crown to put on him--'

'I am the rightful heir,' Cahaya interrupted, but quailed when Raoul assessed him coolly.  'But only the heir, so long as my uncle lives.'

'It's a political fiction,' Raoul told him.  'But it gives Tortall cover to ally with you, and I think a good number of the Northern kingdoms will follow.  As long as those hezrou demons keep the Bay impassable Ozorne can load every boat Carthak's ever floated, and we can hold the interior with ground troops.'

'If the hezrou strike inward?' Eshmunazar queried, but he wore the same calm fatalism Raoul did, and was already nodding as Raoul answered.

'We'll probably die,' Raoul said.  'But that's for tomorrow.'

 

 

**

 

 

The shaggy roan pony beneath her died a warrior's death.  Thayet gave mercy, the slice of her sword along the poor beast's throat as it clenched its long jaws, refusing to scream even in its agony.  Mal-Chin honoured his name through the final glugs of red soaking into the sand, and then his shattered ribs were still.

Halef Seif caught her arm.  'We must flee, Highness,' he said.

The Headman of the Bloody Hawk bore wounds of his own.  A deep gash at his jaw showed bone, but he bore it stoically even as it dripped blood down his neck.  His burnoose had fallen loose and his brown hair blew in the frantic wind.  Despite his urgency, he waited on her, steady as rock.

'Yes,' Thayet said, then, and time snapped into motion again.  Onua Chamtong pulled her up and they made a tight fit in the saddle, legs clenched together.  Gammal was wheeled near on his big black, and Halef Seif was back astride his horse only a moment later, flowing up with the grace of a man as comfortable there as on his own feet.  'Riders!' Thayet hollered, and ten heads swung toward her.  'Riders out!'

Gareth pointed to the corpses of the sand-worms.  He spoke a word that pealed like thunder, and fire took them.  It ate at their foul flesh with a crackle and leapt high to dance over their impromptu grave.  They began to smell immediately, like tar and marsh gas.  Thayet didn't look back as they rode out.

Persepolis had no proper gates, no outer wall like most Northern cities, but its boundaries were demarcated by the tribesmen who gathered in temporary camps to either side of the Great Road.  The desert refugees were orderly and organised, but there were more of them every day, and not all arrived with supplies or even food.  Nearly a hundred children sat together, all grouped in rows of six or seven and attentively listening as a man in a shaman's blue robe provided some lecture or schooling to occupy them.  They watched the passage of the Queen's Riders with hungry eyes, but in the Bazhir way said nothing, did not stir, and went back to their lessons as soon as the riders had passed.

Duke Baird greeted them at Vil de Augustine, awaiting them in the small garden of strange desert flora.  'Wounded to the cellar,' he greeted them, and went away immediately with Faruk, Midge, and Wallis, who swayed in her saddle and could not support herself when Baird pulled her from her pony.  Thayet swung down, impacting the dirt with a hard twinge to her knees.  Onua slid down beside her, and took a deep breath.

'Go,' Thayet said.  'See to everyone.'

Halef Seif accompanied her up the outer stairwell to the highest floor of Vil de Augustine.  Like many of the houses here in the outer city where the well-to-do and the nobility built large homes and furnished them richly, Augustine had a rooftop terrace, and Thayet had claimed this for herself, not least because it offered a view over the Great Road.  Corus was too far away to see, of course, but it calmed something deep in her gut to know it was there.  Corus had Jonathan.  Whatever was happening, he would go there, she knew.  Corus was Jonathan's blood.

Jonathan's blood had bought her this shelter.  Had bought her the man who splashed his face from the trough beneath the dripping water gourds and touched the gaping wound in his jaw with a mere grimace, as if it were nothing.  Halef Seif had brought her the Bloody Hawk, and the support of the King's oldest desert ally had weighted her demands here in Persepolis.  It was her husband's city, held in trust by a Northern noble, but they wouldn't have welcomed her, and even now did the minimum required to support her.  It was no accident they housed her at the edge of the city, within the noise and dust of the refugees, not at the Governor's mansion.  And until they had word from Jonathan himself, that was all the support she'd get.

Thayet poured date wine and drank deeply.  She wiped her mouth on her sleeve, only afterward registering it was stiff and stained from Mal-Chin's death-blow.  'We need the army,' she said, her voice emerging hoarse and strange, as if she spoke from a great distance away, not within her own head.

Halef Seif eased into a seat on a low couch, adjusting his belted sword as he leant back.  'Still no word?'

'Nothing from George all week.  Nothing from Myles.  Nothing from Alanna.'  Thayet poured again, and brought the cup to the Headman.  He drank without protest that a woman's lips had touched it first; too many times blooded together, too many battles fought in this last week.  The blood of the Bloody Hawk had been spilled too much since Thayet had come to him.  When she crouched before him to look at his wound, he only shook his head, not to dissuade her, but too weary to worry at it.

Thayet gave up shortly, anyway.  Baird would seek her out and she could commend Halef Seif to his care then.  Now, she said, 'Call the Voice.  Please.'

He met her eyes.  He said, 'The Voice does not answer.'

'We have to be sure.  I have to be sure, do you understand?'

'Why, Highness?'

Thayet forced herself to her feet.  Her knee felt weak, loose and hot at once.  She lifted the heavy hair from her neck and wiped at her sweat.  'We need the army.  Any army.  If I must raise it myself, I can do that.  If I have the authority.'

He looked as if he would speak, but Kara joined them then.  She carried the baby, and Thayet closed her eyes for just a moment before Kara put Liam in her arms.  He was crying, and his thin wail only intensified, even as he curled into her, his tiny waving arm bumping her chin and his fat cheek pressing hot and wet to her neck.  Thayet bounced him gently, and kissed his feverish forehead.  'Please stop,' she whispered.  'Please stop, sweetling.'

'Roald is awake,' Kara told her, subdued eyes watchful over her veil.  'I promised him I would wake him when you returned.  He'll want to see you.'

Her children had become clingy, wanting her with them all the more when she tried to avoid them.  She was dirty and weary and she wanted to be out of this city, wanted her sword in her hand.  She drew a deep breath, and another, and held the third in her lungs til she saw stars behind her eyelids.  Liam hiccoughed and at last unclenched, relaxing as he surrendered his fit and accepted his mother's arms.

Roald.  'Halef Seif,' Thayet murmured.  'My son.  Will you stand with him?'

The desert chieftan was savvier to politics than any man she'd ever known excepting her husband and Duke Gareth, and she saw he understood immediately why she asked.  He did not answer immediately, a wariness she appreciated, though she had hoped for a quick and enthusiastic yes.  She couldn't read him, his weathered face serene as he thought his private thoughts.  The Sarenite courtiers of her youth had been quick to contempt and anger.  Tortallan nobles practised more restraint, but Bazhir were carved of stone, and, like stone, never rushed nor moved if they did not want to.

'The eldest son of the Northern King is heir,' Halef Seif said at last.  'A Bazhir cannot stand against the Voice, and the Voice has made his eldest son his heir.'  He touched his jaw, and his mouth went flat for a moment, as if he had reached some difficult conclusion.  Thayet's stomach sank.  'But if the Voice is dead,' he said, very softly, 'then his son is just the son of the Northern King, and there will be those among the Bazhir who will not follow him.'

The dome of the Mithran temple flashed gold as the sun moved behind the clouds.  Thayet carried Liam to the crenallated edge of the roof terrace, looking out over Persepolis.  He hadn't said he would follow, which meant either he wouldn't or he was not decided.  Or, in the Bazhir way, he might not feel he could speak for his people, even if he'd taken the extraordinary measure of joining her personally.  She would have him but not the Bloody Hawk, because he would not lead them into a war not of their making, not of their choice.  The desert would protect them, but it wouldn't follow them.

'You should establish your Regency.'  It was Gareth.  He'd come up the inner stairs, and stood there now at the doorway, arms crossed over his chest.  He'd aged in the week they'd been in the desert, grey-faced, upright by willpower more than physical strength.  And with just those few words, he affirmed what Halef Seif had so carefully only speculated.  Thayet could only be Regent if Jon was dead.

She swallowed against a tight throat.  'It would give me the right to call on the barons,' she managed, evenly enough.  'To call a general muster.'

'And to sign treaties,' Gareth said.  'Jonathan never treated with the tribes-- he didn't have to, as the Voice, and it wouldn't have been popular with the Northern nobles.  But you can, as Regent.  You'll have to make concessions, concessions you wouldn't be able to support in times of peace.'

Thayet looked at Halef Seif.  He nodded once.  'Land,' he said.  'The boundaries under the Treaty with the Old King.  That will be in play.'

'The laws of women,' said Kara, who wilted a little under the sudden attention of her elders, but the young shaman did not back down.  'I've heard of the rights of women in Tortall.  A woman cannot be beaten by her husband.  She can go to school if she wants it.  She can't be married against her will.  The Bazhir were exempted from these laws.'

'Kara.'  Halef Seif raised a hand.  'That is not our way,' he said, low and nearly privately, though there was no disguising the flash of her eyes, the straightening of her shoulders.

'Maybe it should be,' she said, daringly indeed, for she didn't even lower her voice.  She turned to Thayet.  'The men won't like it.  But the women will.'

Gareth rubbed at his moustaches.  When Thayet looked for his opinion, he could only shrug helplessly.  'It could backfire,' he said.  'The tribes could pull out of contact entirely if they see it as a threat to their culture.'

'Or you could raise an army of women,' Kara said.  'We defend our homes already.  Give us a voice and we will use it to speak for you.'

'Kara,' Halef Seif said sharply, and she ducked her head, her hands twisting anxiously, but she didn't take it back.

Gareth leant his head against the baked brick of the terrace wall.  'I wish Alanna were here,' he murmured.  'She would have been very proud of that.'

Thayet discovered she still could smile.  'Yes,' she agreed.  But her smile faded all too quickly.  Alanna would have hated her for the thought she had next-- that the threat to forcibly haul the Bazhir into modern ways might work where persuasion would not.  The promise to ensure their exemption in law could seal a treaty.  If she were willing to doom generations of women.  The Bazhir weren't cruel as a people, but tell that to the one woman trapped in a loveless marriage, sold to cover a family debt, stoned as a witch because her men could kill her for their own honour.  Thayet had nearly been that one woman, once.  Her mother had been that one woman.

'Would you bring Roald, Uncle?' she asked finally.  'I want to speak to him before I decide anything.  Halef Seif, go to Duke Baird.  It will be some time before anything is...  I will speak with you, as well, before I do anything.'

He accepted that extraordinary gesture of her respect with a deep bow.  'Highness,' he said.

When she stood alone on the terrarce, she hugged Liam close.  Though not asleep, he was quiet, now, sucking on two tiny fingers and staring, somnolent, at nothing.  Thayet looked out over the rosy desert, aching.  Angry.  If she looked hard enough, long enough, she could pretend that speck on the horizon was Corus.

But it wasn't, and she had too much yet to do to waste time playing pretend.  With a sigh, she turned away.

Chapter Text

Arram knew the Gate of Idramm as soon as they stepped through its barriers. The magic was fierce, though decay edged it like rot in a wound-- and it was a wound, a wound in the very fabric of the world. The Tortallan king sensed nothing, too absorbed in his defence against the monsters all around them, but to Arram, attuned already with the core of his Gift as he held the Wall spell at the ready, it felt like the vibration of a tuning fork, discordant, even painful. The wrongness of the Gate made him gasp; the wrongness of the Gate tried to drown him, tried to grab him, tried to drag him into the Dark. With the last strength of a panicked mind, Arram shoved the King away from him, threw himself to his knees and slammed his hands to the Gate's gaping weal, and poured every ounce of his Gift into closing it.

The resultant explosion rippled out, a magical shockwave that set off howls of rage and fear from the creatures in the dark. Whoever had constructed the Gate had left it open a long time, and it bucked and yawned like a living thing, rebelling wildly against Arram's command. For a moment, a gruesome moment, Arram's mind began to slip through, and he saw the dimension to which the Gate led spread like a tableau of swirling horrors. The creatures all around them had come from this abominable place, and even now it held itself open to allow them free passage. His mind shuddered back. Rapidly he wove a seal over the Gate and forced it into place, weaving it into the fabric of his world and stitching it in place with threads of his Gift.

'Salmalin!'

The Tortallan king. 'Get down,' Arram called, and wrenched the lingering power of the Gate away with a mighty pull, and threw it off into the darkness. The shrill screams of the creatures reached an intolerable pitch--

And then everything fell into silence.

The pounding of his heart reached crescendo and began to calm. 'Your Majesty? Your Majesty?'

'They're gone,' Jonathan of Conte whispered.

'That's good news.' Arram stood shakily. 'Light-- can you-- can you light your sword up again?'

'I lost it.' He heard scrabbling perhaps ten or fifteen feet away, and then the scritch of metal on stone. Blue light burst through the dark, illuminating the King's sweat-streaked face, eyes wide, mouth grim. 'What did you do?'

'I cut off their link to the place they came from. I wasn't sure they'd die-- or whatever exactly happened to them. Happy coincidence.'

'Who the hell are you, exactly?'

Arram wiped trembling hands on his tunic. 'Numair Salmalin, your Majesty. Everything I've told you is true.'

The King came close, that flaming sword at his side. He didn't threaten with the weapon, but for a moment, just a moment, he swayed close, too close. Arram said nothing else. Conte put a hand on his shoulder.

'Look,' Conte hissed.

Arram turned. He inhaled cold damp air; it caught in his throat. 'Thom.'

He was there. Untouched by those monsters. He sat on the ground, his dark cloak spread in a pool about him. Arram stumbled toward him, only vaguely aware that the King tried to hold him back. Thom was real-- safe-- alive. Arram knelt beside him, reaching for his cheek, his wrist. Pulse thready. Thom was pale as death. But his eyes opened, ghostly in the dim light of the King's Gift.

'Thom, what did you do.' He closed his hand over Thom's, gently. The Dominion Jewel was cold, eerily cold. He took it from Thom's unresisting fingers and slid it into his own pocket. 'Where are we?'

'And why here instead of where we were?' Conte asked, behind them.

'Thom? Thom, please.'

Thom would not look at him. Arram followed the direction of his gaze. Craned his neck up. He heard Conte gasp. The light from the sword flared, almost painfully bright.

It was some kind of crystal. Jagged like quartz, but the formation was surely unnatural. It sprouted from the walls, growing outward and upward, a roughly-hewn 't' shape. Clear at the edges, clouded with colour in the centre-- no, clear over the colour, because there was something under it. Arram stood, reaching curiously before he realised-- he was looking at a face. A familiar face. Thom's face.

'What-- how?' It looked just like Thom. But Thom entombed, Thom pierced through the breast with a sword that thrust outright from the chest, pinning the body, the corpse to the wall. Nearly a handspan of the sword stood free of the crystal formation, the guard and grip battered but whole, the pommel a cracked orb of some blackened material. 'Thom?'

'Alanna,' the King breathed.

The twin sister.  Arram had heard the name so often from Thom's lips that it was almost surreal to hear another speak it.  Conte had none of the frantic hurt of Thom's long search.  It was shock, disbelief.  Unexpected grief.

Arram did not touch the crystal, now that he knew.  He examined, reluctantly, to be sure the woman trapped inside it was truly dead.  There could be no question of that, however.  A long red stain on the distorted gold of her mail made it very clear how she'd died.  Her eyes were closed, her hands lax at the ends of her wide-spread arms.  She hung speared to the wall like a macabre idol to an unknown god.  The King approached at his left, humble penitant, tears standing in his eyes.  He dared to touch, the broken pommel of the sword, and he shook his head violently, as if to dash away a dream.  But she did not disappear.

'Thom,' Arram tried again.  He resumed his crouch at Thom's side.  'Thom, please.  What did you do?  Where is this place?  We're still in the Palace, aren't we?  The Palace in Corus?  We're in the crypts.  Why did you bring us here?'

Thom was unresponsive.  In fact he was unsure Thom was even seeing him, hearing him.  He snapped his fingers at Thom's ear.  He pinched Thom's hand.  Nothing.  He tried magic, but it skittered across glass in Thom's mind, finding no purchase.  Even when he tried to blinder Thom as he'd done before the battle with the Archon, he couldn't get Thom's vacant stare to focus on him.

The King wiped at his face as he turned away from Alanna of Trebond.  'We need intelligence.  We can't get any in this crypt.  Salmalin, we need to get to the surface.  Can you sense if those things are truly gone?  We need a view of the outside world.'

'The Gate is sealed.  But that's no guarantee there's not something more out there.  Or... or what they did to the people who should be here.'  Arram brushed helplessly at Thom's hair.  'Thom.  Get up.  I need my hands, I can't carry you.'

Nothing.  'Leave him,' the King said harshly.

'Anything moving around here could kill him.'

'They didn't,' Conte pointed out.  'Either he's not defenceless or we were never in danger.  I don't believe the latter.'

Nor did Arram.  Still.  'Thom,' he said, and scrubbed at his face.  'I warned you.  I warned you the Emperor had a hold on him.'

'Ozorne?' Conte questioned sharply.  'You think he's responsible for this?  He, somehow-- attacked, or--'

'I don't know,' Arram ground out.  'All I know is that Thom would do anything for his sister, it was the only thing keeping him even remotely grounded, I--'  The Jewel seemed to burn with cold in his pocket.  The Jewel.  He wasn't even sure how Thom had used it, why it responded to him.  Ozorne had kept his secrets too close, if indeed he'd ever planned for Thom to actually use the Jewel.  Maybe he hadn't-- maybe he hadn't...

'She's not dead in our time, is she,' Arram said.

'Our time?'  The King's face slowly wiped of all expression.  'No.'

'This is... this is the future.'  He sucked in a slow breath of the mouldy crypt air.  'The Jewel.  It tried to answer for whatever he asked of it... Gods.  What I asked of him.  I asked him to give you one more chance.  The Jewel must have thrown us forward into the future.'

'If this is the future--'  The tip of Conte's sword dipped, then rose again, extended upward til it illuminated the pallid face of his dead Champion, encased in crystal.  'What the hell happened to us?  Is this all because the Realm of the Gods have been opened?  Did the Immortals do this?'

'I don't know,' Arram said.  He touched Thom's cold cheek and sighed.  'I don't know.  I don't know what the hell we do about it if they did.'

 

Chapter Text

'More wine, Cousin?'

Ozorne accepted a stemless goblet of ornately worked gold from a barefoot beauty clad in saffron-yellow sarong tightly wrapped about her shapely hips and small round breasts. A boy of fourteen or so bore a plate of giant grilled river prawns spiced with curry and pepper, but the delicacy on offer was boy's plump red lips, eyes lined in sooty kohl, his slim and nearly nude body. The Rittevons were simple-minded fools, and had thrown every manner of temptation his way in a blatant attempt to distract or placate him since his arrival. Ozorne indulged when the mood took him, and disdained their petty attempts when he chose, to make them try all the harder. He measured their increasing desperation by the gifts they proposed. The Copper Isles had wealth and beauty; the Grey Palace had delights in plenty.

Rittevon was a fool, but at least he was a fool with an eye for passing amusements.

'Imperial Majesty.' Mwanje, chief of the war mages, prostrated himself briskly and rose to kneel beside Ozorne's chaise. The Kyprish servants moved off, though not, Ozorne noticed, beyond earshot; Rittevon was an unsubtle fool, to rely on such obvious spies. Rittevon took wine of his own from the girl, shooing her off with a glare.

'Is it confirmed?' Ozorne asked.

Mwanje inclined his head. 'It is, my Emperor. Carthak City has--' His single dark eye swivelled toward Rittevon.

'Speak,' Ozorne invited him, bored with the byplay.

'Carthak City has fallen. We've been in contact with the all the legions but the Seventh and Twenty-Sixth. We have a plant in the Thirteenth-- a Gifted boy amongst the lower officers. This boy believes we have been betrayed by the Thirteenth. There are rumours rife amongst the men. Rumours that... that in the danger and the strife they are... they are abandoned.'

'It is the legions entrusted with not abandoning the City,' Ozorne corrected sharply. 'Who leads the Thirteenth?'

'Only a Tribune. Many of the officers have perished or fled.'

'Perfidy,' spat Etiakret, interrupting his scowling prowl by the windows.  'These traitors must be rounded up and flayed alive.  You should crucify all of them, Majesty.  Line the roads with their crosses!'

'Calm yourself, dear man,' Ozorne replied idly.  He tested the wine for poison with only half an eye to it, an instict as engrained as breathing.  When assured of its purity he sipped.  'Your Highness,' he mused, addressing himself to Rittevon, who started and edged ever so slightly nearer the guards and their oversharp glaives.  In fact everyone tensed, the Carthakis and Islanders alike, though Ozorne had yet to so much as raise his voice.  He sipped his wine and smiled at his royal cousin.  'We prefer crucifixion, in Carthak, but it seems the effectiveness of this punishment is no longer enough to deter betrayal,' he said, mild as milk.  'Perhaps you have some inventive custom in these charming islands?  What fate do traitors meet when they are judged?'

Oran Rittevon's beady eyes lit with familiar madness.  Islanders, Ozorne thought, smiling to cover his contempt.  Dogs, every one of them.

'My father preferred the Breaking Wheel,' Rittevon suggested, an indecently large grin displaying yellow teeth.  'In my reign, I have instituted the Rat Escape.'

'Rats?' Etiakret repeated warily.  He glanced at Ozorne, then quickly away.

'Do speak on, Cousin,' Ozorne bade him.  'I am unfamiliar with this technique.'

Rittevon sat forward in his chair.  The man had been a sullen and unwilling host for a week, slumping about in his throne as if he thought stepping down would invite Ozorne to take it for himself.  His silk houppelande was spotted with food stains and his oiled beard looked infested with mites, his ragged fingernails constantly plucking at the carved grooves on his overlarge chair.  Faced now with a subject about which he could be enthusiastic, the inbred creature became eloquent, even eager.

'It's positively gruesome, Cousin,' he said with relish.  'The prisoner is strapped flat.  We use a small metal cage with no bottom; it's placed on the prisoner's stomach.  Then the cage is heated from above.  The rat will do anything to escape, and they can eat their way through flesh if given enough time.  I have a standing order that any rat which eats its way free of the prisoner's intestines is to be feted and prized as a pet in my gardens.  I have three just now-- would you like to see them?'

Etiakret stared, washed pale.  Even Mwanje, who had once used his Gift to drive a man to impale his own children, seemed sickly.  General Jaala Abishai was the only one unmoved.  Aside from Ozorne, of course.  Ozorne smiled, and raised his wine in a toast.

'A fitting punishment,' he approved.  'You may know that rats are sacred to Carthakis.  It is said the Graveyard Hag holds them as her especial children.  I wonder if she would approve.'

There was a stir at the wide doors.  A Carthaki soldier.  Abishai departed with a bow to speak in low whispers with the man.  The boy servant with the curried prawns crept back to Ozorne's chaise, to offer the plate again.  Ozorne stroked his soft round cheek.  'Later, child,' he murmured, and settled back with his wine.

'Imperial Majesty.'  Abishai returned with a short bow, hand on his ceremonial sabre.  'May I convey news to you in private?'

'Privacy is not needful, General.  I'm sure my royal Cousin will not mind the imposition.'  If anything, Rittevon was grateful for it.  Islanders had no spycraft to speak of, or at least none that had penetrated the magical measures employed by Ozorne's war mages.

Abishai bowed again, lower this time.  'Your nephew has been kidnapped, Majesty.'

He held back the white-hot flash of rage through years of grim practise.  It was only a moment before he could smile, serene.  'Has he,' he said, and sipped his wine, refusing to grimace as it bled down his tight throat.  'And how, I wonder, was this accomplished?'

'The Tortallans boarded his ship.  It as an incisive attack-- it appears the capture of your heir was their sole goal.  We have reports of four dead.  Commander Philadelphus is interrogating the survivors.  He reports that he has already executed the Prince's slaves for their failure and ignorance, as is fit.  The fleet remains near Port Caynn and he has ordered assaults redoubled.  We will retrieve his Highness.'

'And the Stormwings?'

'The Stormwings, Imperial Majesty?'

'There is no word from the Stormwings?'  Inadvertantly he looked at the open windows-- the vile Immortals had no natural barriers in this flimsy palace with its walls of bamboo, its porticos of shell and jewel.  Jewel.  'No word from Master Thom?'

Abishai did not flinch, though greater men had paid for delivering him such a message.  'No, Majesty.'

Ozorne slapped the boy away as he rose.  The platter of prawns clanged to the tile, and the boy scrambled away, flattening himself to grovel his abject apology.  Ozorne barely noticed, stalking to the nearest window.  Beyond the luxuriant jungle blooms the sky was a roiling grey.  Palms whipped and blooms of vivid orange and red tossed violently in the wind.  The gold goblet in his hand crushed beneath his grip, cutting into his flesh.  He calmed himself with a lifetime of grinding effort.  He had no weakness to reveal, no mistakes to mourn.  He would not.  He would not.

'Raze Port Caynn,' he said.  He turned to face them, and sipped his wine coolly.  'Employ the liquid fire.  Burn them out.'

His General did not gainsay him, but he was slower to respond than Mwanje, who bowed immediately.  'And the Heir?' Abishai dared to ask.

'He is not my heir,' Ozorne replied blandly.  'He was given in our treaty to the Stormwings.  If he is lost, they shall have to do whatever they wish to get him back.  We will attempt, of course, to warn them, so they have opportunity before Caynn is sacked, to effect a rescue.  We must make every effort to accommodate our allies.'  He finished the wine, and extended his arm with the cup.  The girl came whispering on bare feet to him, taking it so delicately their fingers did not touch.  Ozorne favoured her with a beneficent smile.  She was lovely indeed, as many of the Island people were, small-boned and delicate, exotic.  He would enjoy ruling here.  'General,' he said then.  'I do not believe we have any further need for my dear Cousin.'

Rittevon sensed the threat too late.  He half-rose on his throne, and hesitated.  From beneath his stained doublet he grasped for a dagger, but not in time to defend himself, and it would have been useless anyway.  Ozorne's magic struck, and Mwanje held off the guards who came running, immolating them with mage fire.  Rittevon's eyes bugged wider and wider as he gagged for air, sagging against his throne, clawing at his throat.  He slumped to the dais, heels kicking, slowly turning blue.  Ozorne held it til the shuddering of his body was nearly seizure-like, then let him go.  Rittevon's ragged gasps fell into utter silence; no-one moved to help him, even if any would have wished to.

'Find those three heroic rats,' Ozorne told Etiakret.  'I think I would like to see this Escape trick for myself.  And find a priest.  Perhaps such an kingly sacrifice will amuse the Hag.'

'No, you can't do this,' Rittevon moaned, and Ozorne shut him up with a wave of his Gift.

'When Caynn is a smoking ruin,' Ozoren added then, climbing the dais and taking Rittevon's abandoned throne for himself, 'direct the fleet back to Carthaki waters.  Summon the Nineteenth and the Sixth and the Imperial Guard.  I do not wish to hear that Carthak cannot be restored to order, General Abaishai.  Do whatever is necessary.'

There were bows all around.  'Oh,' Ozorne said, examining the small cut to his palm from the gold goblet.  'And have the noble houses of these Islands rounded up.  A hostage from each family.  Invite the rest to the Palace tomorrow at dawn.  I would like an audience for Oran Rittevon's final act as King.  Though I rather imagine they'll be glad to see him go.'  It was only a small thin line biscecting the crease of his palm.  The two servants came when he gestured for them, and the boy ripped a strip of silk from Rittevon's shirt unbidden to wrap the wound.  'Well done,' Ozorne murmured, and the boy blushed charmingly.  He kicked the downed king, looking to Ozorne for approval, and Ozorne laughed.  'Well done indeed.'  The girl brought him a fresh goblet of wine, and knelt at his side like a puppy, ready for the next command.

'Clean this room,' Ozorne ordered them.  'I want this filth away from my sight.  And Mwanje--'

His chief mage bowed.  'My Emperor?'

'Find Master Thom.  And if Arram is alive-- fix that.'

He drank his wine, and watched the windows as the storm blew in.

Chapter Text

It fell as regular as his mother's waterclock. An icy drip, drip, drip. Drip. Drip. Kaddar was going rthymically mad. The stone was wet, his clothes were wet, his head was wet. His eyes were wet, but he tried not to weep. He had no advantage but what strength of soul he could muster, and he would meet the Tortallans on no other terms but his own. Mad, maybe, but unbowed.

He dragged a damp hand over his nose and wiped away a smear of snot. If he trembled, he told himself, it was only the cold.

At first he could not distinguish the boots on the stairs from the drip. He had no sense of where he was, how deep this dark dungeon was buried, but there were no windows and he might well be below sea level, if the salty taste of the water was indicative of leaks. He could only huddle against the wall, prevented movement of more than a foot in either direction by the chains binding his ankles and wrists, but the air was mouldy and rotten and it seemed to take a very long time for those steps to near. Two sets of feet, he thought, trying to sort the echoes. He made it to his knees and from thence to his full height, at the very limit of his chains, determined to make a showing worth of a prince.

Two men emerged, one bearing a torch.  No, he saw, inexplicably shaken.  Not a real flame.  The flame of the Gift, and this magic was violet, like amethyst.

The short man who held his glowing hand aloft stepped to the bars.  'Have you been harmed?' he asked forthrightly.

'No,' Kaddar whispered, and coughed to clear his throat.  He thrust back his shoulders.  'No.  Nothing to speak of.'

The man pushed back his hood.  He wore his long ginger hair loose, behind his ears, and his pale eyes were raised to Kaddar's face.  Kaddar stood nearly a full handspan higher, even barefoot.  And he gaped.  'Master Thom?' he sputtered.

The man blinked.  'What--'  He glanced to his companion-- it was the man who'd taken Kaddar from the boat, a solid man with eyes like walnuts and a grimace for a mouth.  'No, your Highness, I'm Sir Alanna of Pirate's Swoop and Olau.'

Alanna.  Kaddar had long perfected listening at doors in his uncle's dangerous domain, and he knew that name.  He sucked in a breath.

'How do you know the name Thom?' the knight asked slowly.

Kaddar's mind was racing as fast as his pulse.  'I...'  Could Thom be here, after all?  Port Caynn was not so far from Corus, where Ozorne had sent Master Thom and Master Arram.  There had been magery at work on the ship, to get so near to him.  But, no, this knight had her own Gift, still glittering about her face.  The resemblance was quite remarkable this close, he thought, though Ozorne had never truly let him near enough to Thom to observe in great detail.  He did not know enough about movement on the ground, but it was a possible bargaining chip for his own life, if he were willing to spend it.  His Uncle would reject him if he spoilt intelligence of that magnitude; it had been kept secret even from the Tortallan delegation in Carthak, in case they had means of communicating it.  Then again-- Ozorne--

There were too many pieces to arrange and he did not know what they were meant to look like, in the end.  Ozorne had kept too much from him, and he was bound to mis-step no matter which way he moved.  Kaddar swallowed on a sore throat.

'I am Prince Kaddar Ghazanoi Iliniat,' he said, rather more tremulous than he wished he had been, 'and if you plan to bargain on my life, you will be disappointed.'

'Oh?' asked the big grim man.  'Why is that.'

'My uncle the Imperial Emperor is a young man still, and unmarried.  He can get another heir.  My life will be--'  He faltered, and forced himself to finish.  'My life will be of little use to you.'

'Whether or not that's true can be debated another time,' said Sir Alanna.  She gestured, and the other man stepped forward to unlock the barred door of Kaddar's cell.  'But there is somene who wants you, rather badly, and I'm afraid right now I don't have the option of playing the long game.'  The grim man knelt at Kaddar's feet with his key, unlocking the manacles.  Sir Alanna gripped the long sword that hung at her hip, gazing at him wearily.  'Goddess,' she muttered then, turning away.  'He's a child.'

The other knight rose, Kaddar's shoulder in his solid grip.  'Out,' he directed Kaddar, and gave him a little push.

Kaddar was shivering badly by the time they climbed back to the surface.  They emerged from their stone stairwell into an inner courtyard open to a grey blizzard-- the sun was just barely visible through the murk, well overhead, and Kaddar, blinded by even that paltry glare after a night in the unrelenting dark, reeled dizzily.  Someone settled a warm cloak over him, with a furred hood that draped over his face-- Sir Alanna.  It was not kindness.  They drew him from the shelter of the stone walls onto brittle muddy grass, and he was walked, his head down, through a yard teeming with people.  Kaddar risked an upward glance and saw the Tortallan army arrayed all around him.  Bowmen bristled on the outer walls, knights in full armour were mounting battle horses just before the portcullis, and that sickly smell was pitch being boiled in cauldrons of every available size, stirred by women and children who no longer stared about at their beseiged city, but gazed dully at their tasks, inured to the danger and the deprivation.

Then there were more steps, a tight spiral stairwell up a tall round tower.  Sir Alanna went ahead and Kaddar between her and the other knight.  The climb seemed endless, and Kaddar stumbled more and more, til the knight was all but hauling him along under one arm.  The long cloak tangled his legs and tripped him in his unfamiliar boots, the hood slipped down his nose and he couldn't see where he was going.  Just when he would have cried out in frustration at yet another stubbed and smarting toe, there was no new upward step where he expected one, and his legs went right out from under him.  This time the knight did pick him up, tossing him over a shoulder as if he weighed nothing.

'Hakim,' Sir Alanna said sharply.  'He's still a prince.'

'He'll be two or three princes if he falls off the tower and shatters into pieces,' rumbled the deep voice of the man holding Kaddar, and Kaddar sniffled back a wet nose that dripped the wrong way up and wished he'd died like Abasi on the ship rather than suffer whatever gruesome execution awaited him above.  His mother would weep for him, wouldn't she?  He wished he'd seen her one last time--

The rush of wind told him they had gone rather high up.  The snow and sleet was worse here, battering in its intensity.  Kaddar was dumped back to his feet with at least some gentility, though it didn't matter.  He couldn't seem to get all his limbs working at once, and he clattered to the icy stones in an undignified sprawl.  Sir Alanna cursed and thrust her hands under his armpits to pull him up.

'Don't hurt him,' warned a harsh voice, strangely familiar, and with dread Kaddar scraped the hood from his face to look full on Lord Rikash Moonsword of the Stone Tree Nation, the Stormwing emissary.

The Stormwing's yellow hair was wet, whipped about by the storm, and a wound bled sluggishly in the human flesh of his side, just above the juncture where his lower half turned to powerful thighs draped in small silvery feathers.  His huge wings were spread wide, held parallel to the parapet on which he perched in the strong wind.  The scrape of his metal claws on the stone produced jaw-tightening noises, and he moved agitatedly, shuffling this way and that as he stared at Kaddar.

'I want the words,' Sir Alanna told the Stormwing.  She kept Kaddar near with one hand, the other gripping her sword.  When she had drawn it Kaddar did not know, but the other knight had a crossbow, now, aimed at the monster who hovered meanacingly near.  'Your sworn word.'

'I have no weapon,' spat Lord Rikash.  'I cannot defend myself against you.'

'Tell that to my army,' Sir Alanna said flatly.  'The only harmless Stormwing is a dead one.  I want your word.'

Kaddar was caught by the pale eyes in the creature's human face.  They were-- concerned.  Worried.  For him.

'You have my word,' the Stormwing said, not even grudgingly.  'He goes unharmed, and I will call my kind off your city.'

'What about the Carthaki ships?'

'I can't control the humans.'

'Not good enough.'  She wrenched Kaddar back, away from the Stormwing, who screeched bird-like and flapped his wings.  Sir Alanna held him off at the point of her sword.  'You know they're coming for us.  You want him alive, fight with us to keep him that way.'

'We have a contract with the Emperor.'  The Stormwing's pale eyes glittered.  'You can insist on my sworn word as much as you like, for I stand by it.  My people have a treaty with the Emperor, and we cannot foresake it so easily.'

'More fool you, taking the first offer that came along,' the woman retorted coolly.  'Tell me, then.  The terms?'

'The boy.'

'Obviously,' muttered Hakim.

'What do you want with him,' Sir Alanna wondered cautiously.

'Young are precious to all Immortals.'

'I saw the wreckage of Legann.'  Sir Alanna's fist in Kaddar's shirt went tight, the point of her sword raising dangerously.  'You laid waste to a thousand children there,' she said, her voice gone deathly quiet and shaking.

'And no children have ever died when you went to war, pigling?  We have been given this one.  You want to treat with us, you sign him over, too.'

It penetrated, then.  He'd heard the Stormwing say something like this on the ship, he thought, but there'd been so much chaos and terror he hadn't absorbed it.  Someone had given Kaddar to the Stormwings.  His uncle had given Kaddar to these monsters.  He was in too much horror even to imagine what dark reasons there might be.  He stared at Sir Alanna, heart pounding a panicked beat in his breast.  She met his eyes for one reluctant moment; and he saw her steel herself, and look away, and knew himself lost.

'What else,' she said, her voice cracking.

'We were promised rights to this land.  In exchange for being forbidden entry to the lands south.  One is considerably bigger than the other.'

'You want an entire continent to rule?'

'Immortals have no need to rule anything,' Lord Rikash dismissed that.  'That's a human conceit.  We want the territory for hunting.'

'Hunting humans,' Hakim said, sounding sick.

'And what will you do when you run out of humans to hunt?' Sir Alanna demanded.

'There are always more humans.'

'And thus always new treaties.'  Her fist spasmed on Kaddar's shoulder.  'What are the limits on your treaty with Ozorne?  A generation?'

'A hundred years,' Kaddar whispered.

She looked at him keenly.  'What?'

'A hundred years.'  He wet his lips as Rikash stared him down.  'I overheard Mwanje-- the chief war mage.  They have rights to Tortall for one hundred years' time.'

'Well.'  Alanna was pale as bone.  'Carthak's two times larger than Tortall, so shall we say-- thirty years?'

The Stormwing bared his fangs.  'Fifty,' he countered reluctantly.

'Thirty-five.'

'Don't be so parsimonious, woman.  They're not your people.'

'No, but they are people.  Thirty-five.'

Kaddar's stomach turned over.  To hear it so baldly stated.  'Wait,' he said desperately.  'You can't--'

'Be quiet,' Sir Alanna told him.

'No!  Listen to me!'  Kaddar wrenched away, though he got no more than a inch before her sword met his neck.  'Listen!' he told her stridently.  'He's trying to trick you.  He doesn't bargain for all the--'

'Boy!' Rikash snarled.

'Be quiet,' Sir Alanna commanded again, but this time it was to the Stormwing.  Her purple eyes swung back to Kaddar.  'What was that?'

'He doesn't bargain for all the Stormwings,' he told her.  'Only for the Stone Tree Nation.  There are other Stormwings who aren't under that authority.  My Uncle got a treaty with them but not the others, and even if you give up all of Carthak forever it won't stop the other Stormwings from attacking whomever they please, including you Tortallans.  And for that matter my Uncle could be making treaties with the other Stormwings even now, he's already playing all sides off each other--'

'Why are you telling me this?' Sir Alanna asked him softly.

'Someone must speak for my people.'  An ill-timed sniffle ruined the dignity of his reply, and he swallowed hard.  'Don't bargain them away for nothing.'

She seemed to stare right through him, as if she could read his thoughts-- as if she could read his soul.  Kaddar had seen Mwanje reach into men and make them scream and weep hysterically.  Lindhall Reed had taught him about the control of the mind through the Gift, and had taught him how to repel an attack-- how to defend himself without seeming to, for no-one knew the full extent of the Emperor Mage's powers, and even the silence of his own mind might not be safe.  Kaddar met this woman's strange violet gaze and let her in, if she would come.

Whether or not she read his mind, she came to a decision.  Her chin tilted down in a small nod.

'Stormwing,' she said.  'Lord Rikash--'

'Moonsword,' Kaddar supplied, and the Stormwing's mouth went thin and white-lipped.  'Of the... of the Stone Tree Nation.'

'Lord Rikash Moonsword of the Stone Tree Nation,' she said, and faced him.  Her hand slid lower on Kaddar's arm, just a little gentler now, holding him by the elbow, and her sword extended before them, no longer threatening him.  'Who leads the Stone Tree Nation?' she asked.

'Queen Barzah Razorwing,' Rikash answered, only barely audible above the gust and thunder of the wind.  A hard smile curved his mouth.  'But my Queen is accustomed to treating with Emperors and Kings.  Where is your King, woman?'

'You want to wait for a king, you go ahead,' Sir Alanna answered brusquely.  'Meanwhile, I'm here, and I have the boy.  Your decision.'  She gestured to the frothing white sea beyond the parapet.  'I imagine they'll retaliate before nightfall.  That gives you a few hours yet.  Go run your errands, Stormwing.'

There was a strange pause.  They regarded each other, Immortal and knight.  Lord Rikash gave a mighty flap of his great wings, gusting his putrefying scent at them even through the snowstorm.

'If we do end out with a treaty,' the Stormwing said, 'I'll miss the opportunity to spit you on my claws, Sir Knight.'

'That is very much a mutual sentiment,' Sir Alanna replied, and drew Kaddar back to the stairwell and his prison in the doomed city of Port Caynn.

Chapter Text

'Thom,' Numair Salmalin said. Again. Jon gritted his teeth.

They had made their way up the stairs with great caution, but it was clear to Jon at least that closing the Gate of Idramm had somehow cut off whatever fed the lifeforce of the creatures they had battled in the crypts. Jon lit torches wherever they passed, and the light of their Gifts added a gem-coloured glow in a wide radius, but the increase in visibility only made it obvious how horribly ruined the Palace was, and how empty of life.

It tore at Jon, but he shut down the part of him that felt that overwhelming grief and shunted it deep away. There was only forward. Away from Alanna's broken corpse. Up the stairs. They needed supplies, they needed intelligence. They needed people.

'We could use some water,' Salmalin said, then, as if guessing at the unrelenting listing of needs that rotated through Jon's head.

'There's a well in the kitchens.' The final landing of the crypt stairwell put them out below the Chapel. These were the dead of his generation, the high gothic tombs of intricate carved stone, rich cloth of gold and tapestry hanging from the walls, gemstones winking from every niche. Or should have been.  Everything was covered by a thick layer of dust.  Jon wound his way through the biers toward one he had visited so many times he knew the path by heart.  His mother and father.  They rested for eternity in the same tomb, the sculpted bodies of stone clad in the simple robes of husband and wife laying forever in handclasp.

Should have.  After the shock of Alanna, he could not quite be surprised, but it still hurt to see.  Someone had defaced the tomb.  His parents' deathmasks had been blasted away, the marble cratered to expose the hollow tomb below.  It bore no bodies.  Fire had scorched so hotly that only blasted ash remained.

Salmalin stood beside him, he registered.  Or, more exactly, a respectful step behind.  Jon turned away from his parents.

'Mage fire,' Salmalin said.  'A man did that, not one of those monsters.'

'Someone had to summon the beasts.'  Forward.  Intelligence.  Supplies.  People.  Air.  He needed air.  He brushed past Salmalin and nearly stepped on Thom, who, ignored even momentarily, had sunk to the floor like a stringless puppet, his face savagely blank of everything even remotely human.  Jon swayed over him.  'Get up,' he said, and reached down to grab Thom, haul him upright.  He secured Thom's arm over his shoulder.  'It's not safe here.  We need to keep moving.'  He raised his sword high, the sapphire light of his Gift dancing amidst the dust motes, casting high shadows in arched ceilings and etched columns.  'There.  That door takes us into the nave.'

Braced as he was, there was no preparing for the horror that awaited him.

The Great Chapel had been empty even during that desperate battle with the Archon.  Unlike the crypts, built to revere the dead, there was little in the Chapel to evoke sentiment.  Jon had always found its austerity appealing, the interplay of white marble for life and black granite for death evocative.  The unadorned barrel vaults and the rosette dome of clear glass yielded to daylight or the stars, clear skies or storm, and Jon had found it fitting.  All the important ceremonies of his life had taken place in this Chapel, his baptism, his crowning as heir to the throne, his knighting, his coronation, his children' baptisms.  It was a place of celebration.

And now it was a grave.

The tall stone buttresses had cracked and fallen, crushing fragile bone and flesh beneath.  There were clumps, here and there, of bodies bearing weapons, as if they'd gone down fighting, but Jon's eyes were rivetted to the doors.  The Chapel doors had been bolted shut, sealed with the bar of ancient ironwood that was stronger than steel and thicker than three men.  And hundreds, maybe even thousands, had died against that impregnable barrier.  The bodies were stacked dozens deep, as if they'd tried to climb over the fallen and died there, beneath the stampeding feet of those who followed, on and on again.  And Jon could guess what had chased them in such panic.  The otherworldly monsters had been here, too.  The bodies were nothing but skeletons, and even those bore the marks of teeth and the slime of the creatures crawling, feeding, desecrating.

Salmalin performed the sign against evil magic with a hand that shook.  He exhaled, as if trying to speak, but no sound emerged.

Jon managed it, forcibly expelling the fetid air that swarmed his lungs.  'We need to keep moving,' he said flatly.  He hitched Thom tight to his hip.  'There's a private stair.  They wouldn't have-- wouldn't have known.  Leads to the royal chambers.'

Salmalin nodded one too many times, dragged his eyes away from the horror.  'Where--'  He coughed.  'Where.'

'Behind the altar.'

Their footsteps echoed as they walked the length of the nave.  The dust here was even thicker than the crypts.  Beneath it, drier than the dust and imprinted into the very stone, were dark pools that must have been blood.  Arrows and crossbow bolts littered the floor, amid broken necklaces and trinkets of the wealthy dead.  Jon stepped over a delicate woman's slipper, a jewelled dagger, a crushed hat.  A skeleton lay face-down in their path, breath-stealingly small.  A child.  Jon wavered, and turned away.  The child was long dead.  He fixed his eyes on the altar, climbed the steps, dragging Thom with him, Salmalin a step behind, and angled toward the carved screen of tarnished silver--

He turned back.  Salmalin bumped into him, reared back with a stuttered apology.  Jon pushed Thom at him, and climbed down three steps.

'What is it?'

There was a body on the altar.  Stretched full-length.  Arrows sprouted from its ribcage, but it alone bore any semblance of peace.  A good death, an honoured death, amid the carnage here.  Wisps of ginger curls still clung to the skull.  But it wasn't til Jon confirmed the position of the corpse curled beneath the altar, a corpse still dressed in tattered remains of rich robes and bearing a familiar crown on the head that had died fixed forever on the final battle-- when he saw that, he knew.

'This isn't the future,' he said.

'What?  Sire?'

'This isn't the future,' Jon said, staring at his own cadaver.  'This is the past.'

 

 

**

 

 

Arram had lived a sheltered life.  Not one free of hardship, but one free of the pains of war, and disease, and grief.  Ozorne had not been a moral master or a kind one, for all he spoiled his favourites, but Arram had never known real fear in his service.

He felt real fear, now.  He looked around the devastation of Tortall's palace and knew the hollow space opening up in his soul was dread of the most horrible kind.

The King had gone silent and grim.  That his mind was turned inward was evidenced by the fading light of his Gift, no longer streaming like a small sun from the naked blade in his hand, but pulsating weakly like a torch flickering out.  Or a heartbeat.  He still had Thom, but showed no awareness of it, and had not yielded to Arram's tentative attempt to take him back.  They were ghastly mirrors, ghostly mirrors in that uncertain blue aura.

The dead littered the Palace.  The further they ranged the more they encountered.  Servants, he supposed, in the kitchens, where they collected shrivelled vegetables and salted pork, hard biscuits, nuts and dried fruit.  Arram carried a heavy sack over one shoulder, and several skins of water and wine on the other.  In the dark halls, they passed more bodies, some in armour, some armed with whatever had been at hand.  There was no evidence of survivors.  No scavenging, no looting.  The dust was an inch thick over everything.  The worst, Arram thought, were the ones who'd died in their beds.  The worst were the children, the babies dead in their cribs.  The creatures from beyond the Gate of Idramm had eaten every ounce of flesh from them and left them where they fell-- or, who knew.  Perhaps they had died and the monsters had sucked the meat from them like carrion eaters, content with corpses.

The scent of otherworldly magic overlaid everything.  It was a stench, a tingle in his sinuses, foul.  And it had left its mark on the physical world.  There were cracks in the walls, some big enough to walk through, some so tiny and yet so pervasive that one touch could send an entire edifice to crumbling.  Whole stairwells had caved in.  The grand stairs he'd walked with Thom only hours before were impassible now, the ceiling above shattered and the wooden beams fallen drunkenly every which way.  'Earthquake,' the King said, his eyes haunted, his voice numb.  And with the ravages of the earthquake had come fire, destroying whole floors, and the stink of magic was on that, too, magic that had increased suffering, prevented flight to safety, clawed its way to every corner and smothered life.  The Palace was profoundly inert.  And, Arram knew, what had happened here had not been, could not have been, confined here.  They would not find anything different outside.  But still the King trudged on, determined to confirm it, determined in his duty.

'There,' the King said abruptly, the first sound between them in hours.  It felt like ages.  'There,' the King said, and his stride quickened, dragging Thom with him until they were nearly running.  Arram hurried after them, stumbling over the plaster chunks strewn about the corridor.  The King set his shoulder to a door that hung askew on its frame, shoving when it resisted.  Arram raised a hand to halt him.

'Spare your strength,' he said, and with his Gift tested the door.  It was blocked by something behind it, he could feel.  He reached into the elements of the wood, and coaxed them to rot.  When he opened his eyes, the door had vanished, transmuted into a line of grit on the carpet.

Rich carpet.  It was a well-appointed suite, or had been.  The windows had been blown out, the fine furniture thrown by happenstance into the corners.  A large bed had cracked right down the middle, its canopy collapsed, the curtains crumpled.  Arram, standing at the door with the King, reeled away at the first inhale.  The foetid odour of magic was worst of all here.  He bent over his knees, gagging.

'Thom,' the King said.

'Thom?'  Arram straightened with an effort.  Thom hung in the King's grip, his face white, his eyes barren.

'No,' the King said.  'Thom.'  He pointed with his glowing sword, and Arram followed.

A chair before the fractured stone hearth.  In it sat a man.  Arram climbed over the ceiling beam that had blocked the door, slipping clumsily and hardly noticing.  He found the knife that had killed the man, a wickedly sharp dirk with a jewelled hilt that looked, for a moment, strangely familiar.  But he didn't touch it-- it was crusted with blood to the handguard.  When he sank to his knees before the man in the chair, he could see where the wicked knife had stabbed deep.  Blood had spilled from a mortal wound down the plain linen nightshirt the man wore, enough to confirm that he had likely exsanguinated, and slowly.  His long hair draped loose about his shoulders.  His head had fallen in death, skin pallid even beneath the dust that powdered him.  But that was not remarkable.  What was remarkable was that he was whole, even in death.  He looked as if he had only just sat down and died there a moment before they found him.

And Arram knew him.  He was unmistakably Thom of Trebond.

'This isn't the past, either,' Arram breathed.

Chapter Text

Geoffrey of Meron had been at King Jonathan's side at Port Legann, and it was unknown whether he lived or had died in the sacking of the city.  His father, Lord Martin, was too grim a man to express any additional grief, but when Thayet went to him and pressed his hands, the harsh lines dragging down his thin lips eased, just slightly.

'Majesty,' he said, raising her knuckles to his lips.  That was all, but Thayet understood.  Better than most, she understood what it was not to know.

But now was not a time for weakness, and so she halted at sympathy and went no farther.  Lord Martin was her one sure support in the Desert, his loyalty unassailable.  But even in the Desert, especially in the Desert, his power existed most in the abstract.  He ruled Fief Meron, which encompassed Persepolis and gave him some authority over the Bazhir, control of their oldest trade routes and access to the Great Road itself; but in actuality his power was the Northern army, and without that there was little he could do to enforce any law the Bazhir chose not to abide.  And thus they were faced with this.

Not all who'd been summoned had appeared, some from necessity-- travel was unsafe, with the monsters plucking the weak or the unwary right off the roads-- and some, Thayet knew, who could have come but chose not to show their support openly.  Some might come later, when her power was better established, but they played politics as long as they could, while the danger of coming in person could excuse their absence.  Her actual allies were few.  Only nine of the tribes whose territory abutted Tortall had sworn freely, and two had expressed very real reservations in doing so, in the polite way Bazhir danced such dances.  She had a scattered few from the interior, mostly those whose sons Jon had welcomed into the King's Own and owed a debt of honour.  The rest were undecided or undeclared.  Halef Seif suffered his indecision, which was cold comfort, looking at him where he mingled with the headmen in the courtyard.  Thayet didn't know where he would fall even now.

When the sun stood exactly overhead, the shadow on the large sundial aligned exactly with the noon hour, Thayet left her shaded portico and stepped out into the courtyard.  The headmen in the courtyard fell silent, and the women and minor nobles who lined the upper balconies followed suit.  A wave of bows greeted her, and Thayet noted those who bent knee reluctantly far more than she worried about the ones who openly defied her.  She took her time crossing to the hastily constructed dais in the centre of the square.  Jon had taught her a great deal about political theatre, and for her son's sake she planned to use every lesson all at once.

'People of Tortall,' she called in a ringing voice.  Duke Gareth supplemented her volume with his Gift, giving her a depth and reach she wouldn't have had naturally, ensuring every soul gathered here today would hear each and every word she spoke.  A few startled murmurs, mostly Northerners, blinked up at her in surprise.  The Bazhir were too schooled to react so openly, but she saw a few cross themselves with the Sign.

'People of Tortall,' she said again, lifting her chin high.  'For we are all people of this land, bound by our ancestors' blood.  Our peoples fled the Immortals to this land a thousand years gone.  From across the ancient seas they brought their learning, and their music, and their myths, and their Gods, and the generations have passed these on to us, their children.  Though we retain only fragments of the Old Ones, we do not forget our common beginnings.  We are brothers and sisters still, people of Tortall.'

She gave it just a slight pause-- long enough for the tribal elders to make the connection before she spoke it.  'And now we face the same threat our parents did,' she said, and heads nodded all throughout the crowd.  Even those who could not crowd into the Governor's Palace would hear her, thanks to Gareth's spell, and she wanted each and every soul to feel it in their bones.  'The Immortals walk amongst us again.  They harry us from our strong places and attack us in our homes.  Stone castles or the tents of our fathers, none are safe.  To where will we flee this time?  To the cold mountains of the Far North, where the sun never sets and the rocky soil grows no green life?'  Most of the desert folk could hardly conceive of mountains, much less the barren wilds of the steppes.  'Shall we take the sea?' Thayet challenged them, flinging out a hand to the east.  'To live out our lives amongst the waves, never to touch the lands of our ancestors again?  To the South, where the Immortals have come time and again?'

No-one interrupted her.  In Corus she might have planted someone in the crowd, to supply the hook she needed, but that kind of chicanery was too cheap for what she wanted from the headmen.  Instead she let the silence well up, turn so oppressive that few dared even to breathe.  Every shoulder was hunched tight, every face pale, every hand clutching a weapon.

She spoke again only when it hovered on the verge of breaking.  She spoke quietly, now, letting Gareth's spell carry her across the hush.

'No,' she said.  'Tortall is our home.  We will fight for it, and we will bleed to keep it, for we are not our ancestors.  We are braver, and stronger, and we will not leave this land.  Our land.'

A dropped pin would have echoed like thunder in the stillness.

Thayet put out a hand.  Roald, waiting for her signal, stepped out from behind Gareth and Martin, who parted with solemn bows.  Thayet swallowed hard, watching her son sway at the sight of the blank-faced crowd.  He was so small, her dark-haired raven.  He walked bravely across the long stone path toward her, never looking to the side or at his feet, moving neither too fast nor too slow, but even his poise set Thayet's throat to closing.  She'd striven so hard to give him the sweetness and innocence a child should have, even a royal one.  She was ripping that away from him now, and though he took on his duty proudly, he was losing more than a father today.

She was just slightly hoarse when she greeted him.  'Majesty,' she said, and her voice rippled out over the crowd.  She bowed low to her son, and he inclined his head no further than a King to a subject.  She stepped down from the dais, and he stepped up.  Even so he was only just slightly taller than her, a boy acting like a man.  What a man he would be.

'I present King Roald the Second of Tortall,' she told the crowd.  'He is no longer my son.  He is our son.  I do not give him to you-- he gives of himself, for all our sakes.  For as we come from one ancestor, so we live on through one child.  Our children are our strength, and our surety-- our immortality.  Through this child, our child, we know that we will triumph over any adversity.'

She had discussed this thoroughly with her people.  None of the Northerners knelt first, even those already sworn to follow the King, whoever occupied the throne.  She did not hold her breath, did not reveal through so much as a twitch her uncertainty, her fear.  She waited, projecting calm, confidence, and strength, and Roald on his dais stood as she told him to practise, his head high, his spine straight, and his hand on the sword she had personally strapped to his belt, its jewelled hilt winking in the noon sun.

Amman Kemail of the Sunset Dragon stepped forward, to the edge of the crowd.  He knelt.

He was only the first.  Halef Seif was a safe fourth, not making too much show of being her ally, though Thayet was glad of his choice and gladder still she could rely on him to understand the politics of the Bloody Hawk going with their own tribesman, even if her children were only considered Bazhir through Jonathan's acceptance into that tribe.  When the balance tipped between tribes who had never formally sworn to the Northern King and tribes who had nominally accepted that authority before Jon had become the Voice, Thayet allowed herself to relax just slightly, her heartbeat finding a normal rhythm with a tiny trip of relief.  She might not keep them all, but for now, at least, she had them in common cause.

Roald looked over the whole of Persepolis, all of them waiting on him, and glanced down at Thayet with wide blue eyes.  They sheened just slightly with tears when Thayet took her place at last, kneeling before him and bowing her head.  She heard him swallow.

'Rise,' Roald said.  'Please, everyone, rise.  We have a war to fight, and I will need you all to teach me how best to fight it.'

Gareth caught her gaze as they stood.  He nodded once, with a sad smile.  It was done.

It was done.

 

 

**

 

 

'Don't talk,' Raoul told Cahaya.  'You're not here to talk.'

'I know,' the boy sulked.  He fussed with his intricate wig of woven hair and gold ornaments.  One of the mages had raided face paint from an abandoned market, and drew careful lines of dark galena and green malachite around his eyes, rouged his mouth with red ochre, and painted his nails with henna.  Raoul thought it made him look silly, personally, but Eshmunazar nodded in approval.  The Tortallans were busy with cosmetics of their own, dressing in the white kilts and armour scrounged from the Carthaki legions.  It was a necessary subterfuge, for now.  Their coup would seem far more organic and unobjectionable if it wasn't being led by a bunch of Northerners.  Raoul had no intention of slowing down long enough to convince every Carthaki personally that Cahaya wasn't a puppet.  The ones savvy enough to guess would guess, and the ones dazzled by the show would follow out of loyalty, but either way it gained Raoul an army and the resources to get them on the move.  He was a simple man, and he liked simple solutions.

Buri limped to his side.  She alone retained her own armour, the K'miri leathers she'd been wearing when they'd been thrown in Ozorne's dungeons.  She hadn't changed, and Raoul hadn't pushed it, since the likelihood of finding armour small enough for their fierce Rider seemed low indeed.  She bristled with weapons, of course, the way she was meant to do, though Raoul noted fondly that she hadn't had quite enough time to finish 'fixing' them.  Two Carthaki short swords sprouted from her hips, weapons Eshmunazar had called a 'gladius' and provided from his own stock.  She had a javelin strapped to her back, poking over her shoulder with strips of leather and feathers hastily woven about the wooden handle.  Pugio daggers with their strange curved blades were tied to her elbows, the wickedly sharp points ready to stab when she crocked her arm, and she'd even attached a pair to the underside of her boots so the tips protruded.  Raoul shuddered to think what would happen to the unfortunate man who took one of Buri's kicks to the knee, or, worse, the groin.  Buri had even found fletched darts with lead weights, and a sling for pebbles.  She looked almost as deadly as she actually was.

Raoul kissed her, because he couldn't not, and said, 'Use your damn crutch, woman.'

Buri gave him a shove that almost tipped him over.  He hadn't been able to find boots sized to his bulk, so he wore sandals, instead, and he kept tripping over them.

'She's elected not to,' Ohran commented dryly, joining them.  The acid wounds on his cheek and shoulder had healed somewhat, thanks to the work of the University mages, though the scars would linger.  They gave him a fearsome glower, which he mostly aimed at Cahaya.  His campaign of intimidation had been successful enough that the boy flinched as soon as he noticed.

Eshmunazar noticed, too, and grinned his white grin at them.  'We are ready?' he asked.

Raoul took stock of his people.  'Ready,' he judged.  'Boy--'

'No talking,' Cahaya grumbled, shaking out his golden cape and rising from his stool.

'Is this really going to work?' Buri wondered.

'If not, there's an awful lot of armed men out there,' Ohran said.  'So at least we won't have to worry about running for it.'

'Shut up, you two,' Raoul sighed.  'I'm too tired for banter.'

Lindhall Reed was waiting for them when they left the shelter of the tent.  The mage had been surveying the crowd, and his shaggy blond head turned when their party appeared.  Raoul nodded a greeting as they climbed the hill.  Reed fell into step with him and murmured softly, 'There's someone listening in by magic, my lord.'

'Hostile?'

Reed shook his head.  'That I can't determine.  But we have certain charms to seal us in silence-- we needed them for our protection, with the Emperor-- but I can't determine intent.  Only that someone is trying to eavesdrop.'

'It's not beyond the realm of possibility that someone's just curious,' Raoul said dubiously.  He crested the hill, and slowed at the sight that greeted him.  They had three legions so far, with another two expected in ten or twelve days.  It was a lot of men.  The camp that spread through the valley was more or less orderly, small tents that slept two men apiece stationed in tight rows three across and hundreds deep, all the way to the edge of the woods.  The larger supply tents crawled with activity, and that was nothing on the corrals for the horses, large enough to rival some cattle fairs Raoul had seen in his time.  The refugees had been packed in on all sides, surrounded by the troops for their own safety, but they were an extra thousand now at least, with dozens more trickling in every hour.  Cahaya swayed, when he saw it for himself.  The noise alone would knock you back, and that was before you smelled what twenty thousand people and animals did to the landscape.

'The men are assembled,' Eshmunazar reported, unnecessarily, since the rank upon rank upon rank of soldiers massed at the foot of the hill were pretty impossible to overlook.

'Nothing to hear that won't be public in a moment,' Raoul said.  He fingered the hilt of his stolen gladius, wishing for his broadsword, lost beneath the rubble that had been the Carthaki Palace, he supposed.  'Could it be Ozorne?'

'Or one or any number of his war mages?' Lindhall Reed shrugged uncertainly.  'I'd say it's beyond the distance most magic should naturally reach, my lord, but there are artefacts, and advanced spells.  It's even possible to use a willing avatar, and with this many men here we should expect there are some still loyal to him.'

'Comforting.'  Raoul drew a deep breath and coughed immediately, regretting it.  Ash had been blowing downriver since the fall of the City.  'I don't-- huh-- see we can do anything about it.'

'No, my lord.'

'Keep a third eye out for it, then.  Let me know if anything changes.'  Raoul trudged to the rickety wooden platform they'd erected the first time they'd trotted Cahaya out for his adoring public.  'Ready for another performance, your Imperial Majesty?'

'As my master commands,' Cahaya snapped spitefully, but climbed up obediently, stumbling only a little over the hem of his robe, and raising his arms high.  It was the one thing they allowed him to do, and he clearly relished it, his cheeks flushing as the legions raised a massive cheer on seeing him, only slowly subsiding as their commanders shouted for quiet.

Eshmunazar towered over the prince even a step below the platform, and that was nothing on the power of his voice.  Even without the advantage of the hill and a clear shot to the river, the big Tribune could probably have made himself heard over a gale, and that was the voice he used.  His bass fog-horn shattered the air.  'Legionnaires!' he bellowed.  'Your Emperor brings his blessing!'

The earth shuddered as every Carthaki in ten miles crashed to the ground to prostrate themselves.  Raoul grunted at the impact on his knees, but put himself through it for the show.  He heard Buri muttering to herself.

Eshmunazar went on at some length in his own dialect.  Translators amongst the crowd talked over him, which seemed to work well enough.  Raoul admired the machinery of the legions, which had blended cultures, languages, and clashing beliefs into a bureaucratic structure that allowed more or less peaceful co-existence under a hierarchy of leadership.  That Cahaya was the ultimate head of that structure was problematic, but only if he grew enough of a spine to strike out on his own, and Raoul and Eshmunazar between them controlled any weak points where imagination might leak through.  They paraded Cahaya out often enough to remind the legions their living God walked amongst them, and spent the rest of the time giving carefully crafted orders to secure strategic points along the coast.

Lindhall Reed sidled near again.  'My lord.'

'Raoul,' said Raoul shortly.  'Our friend listening in?'

'It's coming from there.'  Reed pointed.  Raoul tried not to roll his eyes, but really.  The largest population in Carthak was 'there'.  But he followed Reed's finger, and mentally marked off the area he thought Reed meant, in the ranks of the Thirteenth Legion.

'Danger?' he asked, just as danger arrived.

The screech of some unearthly maw drowned out even Eshmunazar.  Buri was on her feet with three or four weapons drawn in the space of time it took Raoul to draw his gladius, but that was nothing to chaos in the legions.  Refugees barely had time to scream before the legionnaires were falling back into fighting order, archers firing volleys of arrows at the creatures that appeared seemingly from nowhere to fall on them from the sky.

'Griffins,' Raoul groaned.  'Ohran, get Cahaya to safety!'

His order was a minute late.  Ohran was already moving, his shield raised to protect their vulnerable heads as he hauled Cahaya off the stage.  He didn't head to the tent, no doubt guessing canvas was paltry protection for the prince against beasts that could fly and claw, but hustled him for the trenches and pallisades.  Raoul had no chance to see if they made it to safety.  Four of the large beasts, no, six, seven-- more appeared every minute from somewhere he couldn't quite tell, as if they came from the clouds themselves.  The power of their screams was painful, and their fearsome wings brought them in daring swoops and dives.  A few acquired arrows in their flanks, but the legionnaires were too well-trained to fire where they could hit their own troops, and the archers were rendered useless by the time the beasts had formed a grid and began systematically attacking.

'Now!' Lindhall Reed commanded his mages, and a shimmering web formed around one of them.  The griffin shrieked and attempted to shred it with its claws, but the web was impervious.  Slowly it dragged the thrashing monster to the ground.  The legionnaires fell on it as soon as it was near enough, like ants swarming fallen prey.  They had reduced it to pulp before it could scream again.  Already the mages had turned their web on another of the griffins, a sleek female whose cry of impotent rage shook the trees.

'Stop it!'

'Get down,' Raoul ordered, but Cahaya avoided his grab.  Ohran scrambled past at Cahaya's heels, cursing roundly, but the prince had leapt back to his platform and was waving his arms frantically.  'Stop it,' he cried.  'Please, everyone, stop hurting them!'

'Damn it,' Buri growled, and threw herself onto the stage, making a swung for Cahaya's legs.  They tumbled over each other, and Ohran threw himself over them both as a griffin followed the flash of gold from all of Cahaya's costuming to the ready meal advertising itself.  Claws raked Ohran's hastily raised shield, caught the edge of it, and sent it spinning off uselessly.  Ohran grabbed Cahaya close and turned his own back to the griffin's second pass, earning a deep bloody gouge as it roared down at them.

'Stop!' Cahaya screamed again, and if Raoul, running full-tilt for them, hadn't seen it happen, he never would have believed it.  The griffin pulled back, mid-dive, and flapped high to hover over the stage.  And there, over what had swiftly become a battlefield, the other griffins paused, too.

'He can speak to them,' Eshmunazar breathed.

Cahaya fought his way to his feet again.  There atop the little stage he raised his hands, trembling visibly.  'Stop,' he said, one more time, and in the sudden hush everyone heard him.  'They won't hurt us if we don't hurt them.  Can't you hear them?'

The griffin flapped its huge wings, blowing Cahaya's cape back.  Cahaya quailed, but stood his ground.  'Let them go,' he commanded, and the legionnaires backed away from the griffin they'd trapped, bleeding, on the dirt.  It rolled with a groan, foam and blood-streaked flanks trembling, its beaked head shaking side to side.  It launched back into the air, and didn't immediately dive back to revenge itself on the soldiers who had wounded it.  The one hovering over the stage crowed a strange trumpeting message, and the wounded one replied.

'I'm sorry,' Cahaya said.  'Please.  We thought you were here to hurt us.  We didn't mean to.'

The griffin swooped in a low ess, and let loose a shattering roar.  Cahaya grabbed at his ears, not the only one to do so.  Ohran tried to pull him down again, and then just stood up beside him, sheltering him with one arm, the other cautiously pointing his sword not at the beast, but at the ground.  'Well done,' Raoul heard him say.  'Well done.'

The griffin made a final swoop, and dipped its head to the prince.  Its next shout was a clear order, and the flock rose high in the air as one.  They disappeared as quickly as they'd come, vanishing into the ash.

Eshmunazar was not alone in staring.  And when he crashed to his knees in a heartfelt bow deeper than any of the obligatory genuflections he'd been making all week, Cahaya blushed.  He was fiery red, as the legions knelt to him again, wave after wave of them.

For his part, Raoul thought for the first time they might actually survive.  The Immortals could think, and could choose not to fight.  That was a lot more complicated than mindless battle, but he liked good odds much more than he liked simple things, and Cahaya had just significantly upped their odds.

'Well done indeed,' he echoed, and Cahaya, dazed, blinked back at him. 

Chapter Text

'George.' His mum straightened the collar of his shirt, then did as she'd done since he was a lad and mussed it again, pulling him down to her height so she could kiss the top of his head. George returned it with his eyes closed against her soft warm hair. It might be a very long time before he saw his mother again, if--

Well. He hadn't ever been much of a man for ifs. Starting with the worst ifs didn't seem worth doing.

'Not your fault,' Gary said again, embracing him roughly.  'You did what you should have done, bringing Thom and that other mage here.  And he's not-- well, I won't believe it til I see-- it-- for myself.'

It.  The body of a King.  George's king, who had vanished during the battle with the Archon along with the prisoners George had decided to drag the length of Tortall into contact with the one man who should have been protected above all others.  It was rank stupidity, was what it was, but worse than that it was unintentional treason.  George could hope all he liked for Jon's safe return.  But he didn't expect it.  Wherever Jon was, prisoner on a Carthaki war galleon or snatched into the heavens themselves, he was as good as dead.  And George had done it.

'Are you sure you don't want me with you,' he asked one more time, forcing out the words past the frog in his throat.

Gary shook his head.  'We have to hold the south.  Get back to Pirate's Swoop.  If the Carthakis take Port Caynn, we'll give up Corus too.  We have to have somewhere to evacuate to.'

George's eyes strayed to the fresh grave they'd just finished filling.  Sacherell of Wellam had died an ugly death, fighting those Immortals.  Pieter Larse had never had a chance to fight at all.  They'd found him in pieces just outside the stables.  What was left of him filled a hole barely half the size of Sacherell's grave.

'Are you sure?' Gary was asking Myles.  This, too, had been repeated one time too many, but Myles only shook his head patiently.

'You need to get the Order of Succession to the Desert,' the shaggy old knight replied.  'It's imperative that Prince Roald and the Queen have the authority to raise muster.  I'd slow you down.  I'm of more use with the army.'  He rubbed his belly, and sighed.  'Advising, at least.'

Alanna would follow with the Royal Army no matter what, George knew that went without saying.  But the Barons, running scared and with their homes under attack, might fail to answer a call without Jon and the King's Law behind it.  Still.  Gary and Sir Taweel would head south, and Myles and Eleni would go to the coast, to pass the word.  Maybe to find themselves helpless prisoners of Port Caynn, as it fell, if Alanna couldn't hold it.  If George lost them all--

If George lost them all, then he'd have the little ones to raise with their memories.  However much it grieved him.

The dance of reluctant good-byes was coming to an end.  Everyone knew their business and everyone knew their risks, and the longer they delayed to stare at the battered Palace and its empty halls, the harder those duties would be.

Myles moved first.  He grasped George firmly by the wrist. 'I'll send word, somehow,' he said, more a wish than a promise, so far as George could figure, though if any man could figure out how to get a message through a nation aswarm with monsters and magic, it would be Sir Myles of Olau. 'And,' Myles added softly, 'I'll give her your love.'

'And her children's.'  George coughed, and nodded gruffly.  'Gods go with you, all of you.'

'Why should they start now,' Timon muttered, but turned away when George looked at him.

Whether or not the citizens of Corus had seen or heard anything of the battle with the Archon, the city was fair buzzing with panic.  George sat his horse alone, as his companions set out beyond the City Gates in the jostling crowd of wagons, families afoot with everything they owned on their backs, beggars and thieves indistinguishable as they wove between wailing children and harried mothers gathering everything abandoned because it was too heavy to be dragged into flight.  It was flight, and doomed by its own urgency; there was no-where for most of those people to go but further into Tortall, and George had seen for himself how the Immortals freely ranged the landscape.  They'd be feasting in no time, and these poor cityfolk who'd never so much as seen a green hill wouldn't know what hit 'em.

George sat alone on his horse, watching the swirl of chaos with a strange empty hollow in his chest.  He'd been lucky never to know war before, he thought.  It was an vile thing.  The stink of futility was unbearable and all too horribly inevitable.

He caught the eye of one of the thieves dragging a fine woven cloak out of a muddy puddle.  She exclaimed to herself in delight at the gold clasp pin, but sighed a moment later when a scratch of her fingernail revealed it to be only gilt.  She left the clasp in the dirt and bundled the cloak into the basket on her back.  When George beckoned her near, she came warily, but he made sure to make the sign well in her sight, twice for surety.

'I need an escort to the Dancin' Dove,' George told her, and flicked a coin to her feet.  She swooped down for it, bit it, and gave him a cheeky grin.

'Know a back way,' she said, and stuffed the silver noble deep into her ragged bodice.

In contrast to the frantic crowd at the Gates, the streets of Corus were almost deserted.  Here and there a man could be seen boarding over his windows and door, and indeed everywhere George looked rowhouses and shops bristled with home-cooked defences, from sharpened stakes in the vegetable patch to pots and spoons strung up to clatter an alarm at the unwary approach of monsters and men alike.  A pall of oily smoke hung over everything, and a yell or a scream pierced the air with disquieting regularity, but the overhanging buildings blocked the view of the grey skies, obfuscated sound and direction.  Corus was a maze, and only those who'd lived their entire lives in its shadows knew every twist and trick.  George was seven years gone from the capital, but his bones remembered, and he had only half an eye on the girl leading him.  The path she chose was one of two or three George thought likely to be secure, so she wasn't walking him to an ambush with a bunch of bully-boys in a dark alley.  If not for the sign between thieves, he didn't doubt he'd have met a grim fate.  Too many avenues had still forms slumped amidst the detritus.

'Another silver to watch your animal,' the girl offered, as she rounded a corner ahead of him.  The cracked wood sign for the Dancing Dove waved in the breeze.  The churned dirt yard showed evidence of a recent scuffle-- that was blood, pooled there, though nearly dry now.  George swung down from the saddle, loosening his sword in its scabbard for any eyes that cared to watch, and more subtly checking the knives strapped to his wrists and lower back.  He didn't check the two in his boots, just in case someone would know what any such gesture meant.  Secrets made for safety.

'High price,' he commented, and the girl grinned cheekily.

'Inflation to keep wiv' the times,' she said.  'You'll find me cheaper than replacing the beast.'

He took her hand and placed a half-crown in it.  'The rest when I get what I paid for.'  He winked as he passed her, and liked her for laughing.  She'd take what she liked out of his saddlebags, no doubt, but the coin was walking inside with him.  She'd wait for her pay.

He went the back way, slipping along the outer wall to the back garden, and into the kitchen from there.  His feet found the old grooves in the packed dirt floor, brushing soundlessly over the shadows.  The stove was cold, one of the cupboards hanging bare and opened.  The root cellar was locked tight, a keg of small beer sitting over it tempting unwary and distractable types away from the real treasures below.  George could guess what it held; in his own time, treasures that couldn't be fenced immediately had laid there, gold coin for the day when he'd have to run and run fast, and weapons.  Always weapons.

Like the knife that pressed into the soft of his gut, when he stepped into the narrow corridor between kitchen and common room.  George put up his hands.  And then used the left to draw back his hood.

'Why, I never,' Ercole blinked, and then George was roughly embraced.  'Cooper, look at you.'

'Look at you, old friend.'  George pounded him on the back.  He felt the lightest brush over the knives beneath his cloak, and grinned.  Ercole hadn't lost his caution even in welcome.  Nor George his-- he counted four weapons and doubled his estimation to eight.  At least.

'But what are you doing north?' Ercole wondered, stepping back.

George elided that for the moment.  'King's business,' he said, holding in the rough wince from his gut.  'Speakin' of kings...'

The bustle of the Dove's common room had vanished as if it had never been.  There was a faint hint of dust in the air, even, as if the inn had been shut up and lonely years, not days.  The stale odour of sour ale and cold cinders was the rest of it, but George paid no attention to that.  His other senses were engaged, the instincts honed over a lifetime that knew the smell of a threat far more intimately than the smell of safety.

'Majesty,' George said, to the man who sat brooding in the chair before the unlit hearth.

Marek Swiftknife, the King of the Rogue, looked up.  His scowl cleared in surprise, before he controlled his expression.  'George,' he said, rising.  'Don't-- not you.'  He prevented George from bowing, bringing him up for an embrace even harder than Ercole's had been.  'Aren't you a sight.  Tan as a sailor.'

'You get that way by the sea.'  Marek granted George the chair to his right-- not without some irony.  Marek had often sat in that seat when George had ruled the Court here, but those times were long past.  'I need a favour,' George said forthrightly.  'And I got no place to come beggin' for it, but I am.'

'Corus is all but abandoned,' Marek warned him.  The handsome lad who had sparred with George for the throne of the Rogue had grown into his power, these past years, but it had aged him as it had once aged George.  There were harsh lines carved around his generous mouth now, and these were times of peace.

Well.  Had been.

'I know,' George said.  'But you'll hold as long as you can.'

'This is our city,' Marek said flatly.  'Army or no army, no Carthaki bastards'll take Corus as I draw breath.'

'Yes.'  George covered Marek's clenched fist, there on the arm of the throne.  'And that's why I come to you.  Because we need that, and you're dead to rights on this, too: the Rogue's the only army standing between Emperor Ozorne and the end of everythin' we know.  Harry him from behind.  Send your best light-fingers in to steal the chickens out of the pots of his soldiers, slit bow-strings, drip poison into their ale.  Turn this city into a trap.  Every corner an ambush, every alley a knife in the kidney.  We won't bring 'em down, but we can slow 'em down.  That may be all the difference between a total rout and survival.'

'You never had to ask, George.'  Marek sat forward.  'George-- you should know.  I had reports the Carthaki fleet in full is on Port Caynn.'

'You've still got eyes on the coast?'

'I've got eyes everywhere.'  Marek stared him down, and George debated asking it.  There were many reasons not to, not least that George might not be able to repay a favour that size.  But when he'd been King here, he wouldn't have offered it for free, not even for Jon.  For Alanna, maybe, but he'd been courting his dashing hero and a man could excuse bad behaviour in light of love.

'What price?' George asked slowly.

'I always thought you were a little touched, you know.'  Marek leant back in his chair; it creaked with his weight, and that was the only sound between them for a long minute.  'I'm as loyal to the Crown as the next man in Corus.  I don't fancy bending my knee to some Emperor.  But you, George.  I never quite understood why you care about the rest of it so much.  They're just people.  They don't even earn their titles, not like we did.  You were worth ten of King Roald when you sat this chair, and I reckon King Jonathan keeps you tight to his side because he didn't like the competition.'

'The price, lad.'

'I'll think about that,' Marek answered.  'I'll think carefully about that.'

George stood.  Marek rose with him, and they grasped hands.  George pulled up his hood, and went out the front.  He checked the street from one of the smudgy panes of the window, and saw no-one watching.

'George?'

Ercole again.  George looked back, shifting his hand on the side with the door to the knife in his belt.  He didn't think so, but he knew better than to wait for a surprise.

'Good luck to your lady,' Ercole said.  'If anyone can hold Port Caynn, it's the Lioness.'

'Truest thing I've heard all day,' George answered with a wink and a grim smile, and let himself out.

Chapter Text

'We should perform the spell,' Salmalin argued.

'I already said no.' Jon rubbed at the dust on the panes. Thom's windows had once overlooked the gardens, but it was too dark within and without to make anything of the landscape. And he was noticing the cold more. Now that they weren't moving, their breath steamed. He turned away from the windows to grab at the blankets-- he tripped over Thom, the live Thom, who sat where Jon had dropped him, like an abandoned toy in a nursery. Grudgingly Jon wrapped Thom in a blanket, avoiding his blank eyes. Jon threw a bolster about his own shoulders, and left the dusty quilt for Salmalin. Shivering beneath the bolster, he turned to the trunk at the foot of the broken bed. Thom wasn't likely to keep weapons laying about, but there might be something useful. Jon cursed his inattention. He should have been collecting items from the other rooms they'd been through. They could go through the Chapel again on the way out-- the dead there had weapons in plenty.

'Your Majesty, we should perform the spell.'

'If you can do it alone, feel free.'

Salmalin blinked at him, where he stood over the chair with the dead man in it. 'I-- no,' he said, sounding, of all things, startled. 'The distance forces involved with interacting but non-contacting objects at large spatial separation--' Jon stared at him, and Salmalin swallowed visibly, his large adam's apple bobbing. 'You just meant you weren't going to help.'

'How is bringing back whoever that is--' Jon flung a hand at the corpse in the chair. 'How would it possibly help anything?  We need to find a safe place, we need to find out what else is out there--'

'What's out there has been flowing though that Gate of Idramm in the crypts for an untold amount of time.  We need all the magical power we have to defeat it, and Thom-- this timeline's Thom-- is the only one who can tells us anything about what we're facing.'

That brought Jon up short.  'I assumed...'

'That I just want to bring him back because I'm obsessed with Thom?'  Salmalin ruined his moment of dignity by sneezing at the dust on his quilt.  'This is-- achoo-- clearly a variation on the past that we lived.  We can't go by what we know to have been true in our time.  If nothing else, we know the point of divergence-- this is clearly the remains of your Coronation.  But we need to know more, you're right about that.'

Jon discarded a pair of boots from the trunk and opened a silk pouch.  It contained a signet ring with the Trebond coat of arms, and a tarnished locket.  Jon pried it open with a fingernail.  It contained a small faded painting of a woman, only distinguishable as a relative because of the signature Trebond hair, red pigment swirling about her face in girlish waves.  Jon closed it gently, glancing at Thom where he sat crumpled on the floor, at the other Thom dead in the chair.  He hung the pouch at his belt, and returned to digging through the trunk.  The desk had entire reams of parchment in it, scraps and bound monographs alike, rolls stuffed into the drawers.  A pot of dry ink and a stained quill lay where they'd been abandoned, right atop a note in progress.  Jon lifted it, and Salmalin ventured near to read it with him.

Alanna--

His Gift is attached to the sorceror resurrecting him.  It got stronger as he did.  Never as strong as mine-- held him back this long, made him wait for the Nights of Power.  I think he'll turn to draining others to sustain whatever he's doing.  He can only drain one at a time.  You-- you're bound to me, twins.  You have some of my Gift, which means some of his, too.  He needs more to finish what he began.  Don't let him get it.  Don't use your Gift.  Leeching spells

The ink ran in a scratch off the parchment.  Then, in shaky, jagged writing, it resumed a space below, splotched and smudged as the writer hurried through it.

Leeching spells

he'll take all leave nothing

didn't get all mine you have part

love you

always have will

Jon blew out a breath.  He let the note fall.

Salmalin glanced between the two Thoms.  'So we know that much is the same.  What was the difference this time?'

'Roger won,' Jon said.

Salmalin wet his lips.  'We should bring back Thom.  If it's the same as our timeline, he'll be in Sorceror's Sleep.  If the Duke of Conte is out there somewhere, we need all the help we can find.'

'Help to do what?' Jon snapped.  He grabbed the key in the dish with the stub of a long-dormant candle.  'This must be for his workroom.  There could be artefacts we can use.'

'To do what?'  Salmalin hurried after him as Jon stalked across the suite.  'To do what?  Go back to our own world?  Your Majesty, don't you see how impossible that is?  There are too many uncalculatable factors.  It's the work of a lifetime even to understand how we were brought here, where here even is-- Thom is the most brilliant sorceror I know of.  If we want any hope of getting home--'

'Then ask him!'  Jon pointed at the living Thom.

'Certainly.  As soon as he recovers from seeing his dead sister speared to the wall by his lover.'

Jon looked reluctantly, really looked, at Thom.  He needed no further proof that resurrection was an evil, intentional or not.  Roger had come back from the dead a different man, a worse man, without even the mild restraint that had once bound his murderous nature.  Thom was broken shard of a man who'd begun life half of who he ought to have been.  Even if this was another time, another world-- his mind reeled from even the edges of that horrible concept-- even if it was, bringing back another Thom would only double their problems.

He found himself at the window again.  If he strained, he thought he could see lights out there.  But where Corus should have been, a faint smudge remained.  He had to be out there.  He had to be out there to see for himself.  To get as far away from this as he possibly could.  To get home.

Jon closed his eyes.  'How do we do this?'

'It took months when Ozorne and I did it.'  Salmalin crouched by the corpse in the chair.  'But part of the difficulty for us was dealing with the lack of a body.  We never could find out where he was buried.'

'Trebond,' Jon said softly.  'He was buried in Trebond, beside his mother and father.'

Salmalin glanced sidelong.  Carefully he probed the wound in the dead man's chest.  'The other issue was how long he'd been dead.  Seven years in our time.  Here, I don't know--the I to E ratio requires a defined percentage--'

'Salmalin.'

The mage paused.  He rubbed his nose on his sleeve, and said gingerly, 'I don't see any proof how long it's actually been between the Coronation night and today-- tonight-- but it can't be that long, based on things like the dust and the condition of the building.  Thom should be easier to reach in the Between than he was in our time.'

Jon whirled.  'The Dominion Jewel,' he said.

'Sire--'

'You had it.'  He grabbed Thom by the arm, hauling him up and shaking him.  'Where is it, Trebond?  Where did you put the Jewel?  We could get out of here--'

'Sire!'  Salmalin tried to separate them, then tried to get between them, and then did something that no-one in Jon's entire life had ever done-- he shoved Jon.  Jon was fully braced, his weight evenly distributed, and he would have been the stronger of the two even if one weren't a blooded knight and the other a scholar.  The shove only surprised him, so he let go of Thom, and Salmalin all but carried him away, to the sheltered corner of the bed.  If Thom had even been aware of his assault, it didn't show on his slack face.

And that put Jon over the edge.  He'd been on the run for a week, had watched the Carthaki fleet destroy Port Legann, he'd seen his capital city wounded and his palace abandoned, and the battle with the Archon had been only slightly worse than finding out that Thom of Trebond was alive and part of Ozorne's evil plans, and all of that paled to finding himself here in a world where all his nightmares reigned.  He was moving before he quite knew what he meant to do.  Salmalin made some kind of squawk at his back, but Jon didn't stop.  He went to the chair, that chair with the dead Thom of Trebond in it, and he put his hands on the corpse.  He'd seen dozens, maybe hundreds of bodies in his life, and this was no different, flesh with no blood, familiar features with no heartbeat.  It was limp in his arms, bare feet dragging trails through the dust on the floor.  He laid it flat, arranging the arms over the chest.

'What are you doing?' Salmalin asked.

'Giving you incentive.'  Jon made himself look at the face.  Alanna's face, a face he'd loved most of his life.  It tugged at him even now, but he let himself feel it, and let himself feel the urgency to move, weighed them, and made his decision.  He raised his hand and called his Gift to burn it bright blue.

'What are you doing?'  Salmalin came near warily.  'Your Majesty?'

'I'm going to burn him.'

'No!'

'No?  You just told me how impossible it is to retrieve his soul from Between the Realms, and apparently Thom doesn't have the Jewel he travelled all that distance to get for your Emperor.  So what good is this one?  Let's give him the send-off he should have had.  The same amount of mercy every other corpse in this place got-- oblivion.'

Salmalin's eyes were wide with shock.  'He'll still be trapped between the Realms.  That's cruel, it's...'

'It's no different than the way things were before we somehow transported here.  Look out there-- there's no-one left alive.  Maybe anywhere.'  He levelled his hand over the body.  'It's not cruel.  It's exactly the same.'

'We need him!'

'Give me the Jewel,' Jon said, concentrating his magic to flare threateningly.  'Look me in the eye, mage.  I'm not a man who bluffs.'

Salmalin stared over his shoulder.  At the Thom who lay at his feet, moments away from immolation.  'Maybe you're a man who bargains.'

Jon almost laughed at that.  'With what?  You have nothing.  We have nothing.'

'Pardons,' Salmalin said, though his chest rose and fell in anxiety he hid from his face.  Brave, Jon evaluated.  Not very savvy with his timing, but brave.  'I said it before.  We'll fight for you.  With you.  But not for nothing.'

'And I believe I said this before-- fight for me, and I'll consider it.'

'The word of a King can be broken.'

'Maybe your Emperor's.  Not mine.'

Salmalin didn't flinch from that.  He didn't seem to know what, precisely to say, for long minutes, and Jon let the silence build, let the tension ramp.  A droplet of sweat beaded at the mage's temple and fell, tracking through the dirt on his cheek.

'It doesn't work here,' Salmalin said suddenly.

Jon's Gift faltered, his light flickering.  'What?'

'The Jewel.  I took it from Thom in the crypts.'  Salmalin dug it from a pocket and tossed it.  Jon caught it on instinct with the hand he'd planned to use to burn the body between them, immediately irritated to have been outmanoeuvred there.  But almost as immediately he understood what Salmalin meant.  Every time he'd held the Jewel, it had vibrated, thrummed, almost purred.  It knew Jon, and he knew it, the way it fit his palm and fit his soul.

This was a rock.

Just a rock.  Dead as stone.

Jon looked up, sick to his stomach.  'How?' he whispered.

Salmalin shook his head.  'Best I can think is that it's out of synchrocity with this time.  Or-- possibly out of synchrocity with itself.  There should be a Jewel in this time, attuned to this time, it--'  He cut himself off.  'So you see why we need Thom.  This time's Thom.  We need power.  He's got it.  And someone who knows what happened here, so we can find the Jewel that belongs here.  Because I have a feeling we're going to need it.'

It shook him.  He clutched the Jewel in his fist and it shook him, or reaction was setting in, maybe, reaction to everything, and for a moment he wavered, for a moment he hated it, loathed it, his utter helplessness here.  King of nothing, and if he never got back he'd never even know what became of--

He breathed.  He made himself breathe.  Falling apart served nothing, and it was a King's duty to serve.  Even in a palace of corpses.

He looked at the Thom stretched dead at his feet, and swallowed away everything else.  'How do we do this, then?'

Chapter Text

Si-Cham never came.

Thom paced limpingly through his suite, staggering on bare feet and shivering with fever.  He was sure he'd heard the bells-- he thought he'd heard the bells, or maybe that ringing in his ears was the bells now, and Si-Cham wasn't late at all.  He couldn't remember.  He couldn't think.  He couldn't think, and he hated that, beat his hands against his buzzing head and repeated every curse he'd ever heard from Alanna and Coram and Gary and Jon when they thought he hadn't been listening, they were never paying him attention and he didn't care, he didn't care if they hated him, he hated them, he hated Corus, he hated the slimy sooty feel of the magic here, oozing over everything ruining everything he could never get the stench of the magic out of his head he--

Roger placed gentle hands on Thom's shoulders.  'Steady,' he murmured.

Thom stared at him.  His eyes felt too huge in his head too tired to See properly too achy for the unbearably bright aura that shone round Roger's body.  Red red red, everything was red.

Roger guided him to sit, and stoked the fire, laid a quilt over Thom's bony knees.  He fell into a crouch at Thom's side, and took Thom's thin hand in both of his, petting soothingly.  'Not much longer,' he said, and his voice made Thom start.  'Shh.  Not long now.'

Si-Cham hadn't come.  Si-Cham hadn't come, was supposed to come to begin the spell.  Begin the spell.  Begin the spell for the end, the end that would be the beginning, all was ready for them.  Had to be done before the Coronation began, Summer Solstice, moon ascending, the Red Star in retrograde.  He could feel the time slipping away from him, slipping away in the slick sickly ooze of magic everywhere, magic everywhere here like stinking pus overfilling a wound, Jon wouldn't bloody listen to him, Myles only pretended to listen, Baird told him he was delusional.  Maybe he was?  Maybe he was, he felt so awful, so hot, so worn, so wrong.  Wrong.  Roger sat silent at his knee and watched him and was wrong, Roger was wrong, Roger was-- waiting.  Roger was waiting.  What was Roger waiting for?

'You're not there,' Thom said, dazed.

'Not where?'  Roger cocked his head.  'At my cousin's Coronation?  No.  I don't think I'd be a welcome guest.'

Not welcome.  Not welcome.  Thom hadn't been asked to attend, had he, the most powerful mage in Corus, in Tortall.  They'd debated it right over his head in Council as if he didn't sit there listening, the politics of it, better to keep him where he could be seen or too much threat, all that power on display on a day that must welcome as well as warn.  Warn.  Had Thom warned them?  He'd wanted to warn them.  Something always stopped him warning them, hand on his heart squeezing tight just when he thought he should say something, say something, something important, deadly important.

The bells rang.  He knew the bells were ringing, pealing out the glad tidings.  The new King was crowned.  He knew because Roger lifted his head, soft black hair swinging into the red haze of his aura, blood red aura, and he lifted his eyes to Thom's.

'Where's Si-Cham?' Thom whispered, his throat too dry for it.  He coughed, and couldn't stop, tasted copper blood and closed his eyes on the dizzy assault stole his air.  'Is he dead?' he gasped.

Roger nodded once.  'Yes.  Or will be soon, I imagine.'

'Like me.'

Roger patted his hand.  'You can't tell me it won't be a relief, Thom,' he said softly.

He coughed until his body could stand it no longer, and surrendered in weakness.  He lay limp against the high winged back of the chair, cool on his burning cheek.  'Alanna,' he mouthed.

'Alex is waiting for her.'

He shook his head.  Shook his head.  No.

'Yes,' Roger corrected.  'But don't worry, Thom.  It's too late for worry.  All you need to do now is let go.'

The gleam of the dagger woke him from his stupour.  He fought with brief frenzied strength, for all the good it did him.  Roger was implacable, accepting the few blows Thom managed to land, rocking back a step when Thom kicked and flailed himself out of the chair, falling weakly to the rug.  Roger took him by the arm and righted him, almost tenderly, but when Thom tried to blast him back with magic he gave a disappointed cluck, like Duke Baird with a recalcitrant patient, and slapped Thom smartly across the cheek.  'None of that,' he told Thom.  'I have use for all that Gift you've been holding for me.'

The pain was brief.  Roger's dagger slid cleanly between two ribs, and it hurt the worst in the moment of penetration, fading to strange pressure, heaviness, a kind of pervading ache no different from the other aches he'd borne these long months.  He subsided in the chair as the tip of the dagger touched his heart, strange quiet falling over him, Roger's eyes locked on his.  He barely felt the blade withdraw, or felt it only as a tickle in his throat, the gurgle of blood rising to his lips.  Roger kissed him, tongue darting out to taste it.  It painted his mouth ruby red, red like the aura, red like the Gift that leaked out of Thom, his Gift Roger's Gift all one and the same, forever now.  Thom watched it go and no longer mourned for it.  Roger was right.  It was a relief.

Clear for the first time in longer than he could remember, Thom said, 'You won't win.'

Roger examined his knife by the light of his restored magic.  'We're past these silly ultimatums, Thom,' he replied.  'I will win.  I have won already.'

He didn't have the breath to laugh.  It was flowing out of him, flowing right out of him with his magic.  Their magic.  Roger's magic, now.  But not forever.  Not for long.

'You always were cocky,' Roger mused, looking down at him.  'But I'm afraid I haven't the time to teach you otherwise.  Ponder over-reaching, Thom, in the moments you have left.  Maybe someday I'll pluck you from Between the Realms and you can tell me what you've learnt.  It might amuse us both.'  He let the bloody dagger fall, and stepped over it toward the door.  'I suppose I owe you that much.'

'Noth--ing-- from-- you,' Thom rasped, but only to himself.  Roger had gone.

Roger had gone.  He was alone, and he was dying; he was light-headed again, but it wasn't the madness of carrying too much magic.  He left behind a horrid wet stain when he pried himself from the chair, stumbling to his desk.  His hands were sluggish, uncooperating when he tried to grasp his quill.  He nearly overturned the ink pot and the words swam on the sheet, illegible or insane he didn't know.  He tried to write it all as fast as he could, but his legs trembled and he knew he was running out of time.  Love you.  Always have, always will.  Alanna.  He held her in his mind, sinking back into the chair.  Held her there, bright hard wonderful Alanna.  Love you.  Love you.

It was good to die with love.  He hadn't known that.  Not as good as living with it, but he'd never been very good at that, living or love.  Die with it.  He could die with it at least.  Die with love in his heart.

But he didn't die.

His body did.  He felt it give out.  The shuddering heart beat its last, a tortured thud of a torn valve.  The lungs expelled their last breath.  The brain lasted just a little longer, sparks flying to limbs that no longer obeyed.  Then it, too, went dark.  But not the spirit, the soul, the core within it.  Thom stood, only to find he didn't have proper legs, or arms, or any body at all.  He felt substantial in some strange way, and studied it eagerly, cataloguing the lack of sensation that somehow felt more real than anything he'd ever experienced, as if he'd only ever been a shade after all, and was now finding himself to the human planes.  But what was human?  This was human and more than human, and everything was stronger in every way, colour like crystal, texture like diamond, love like razors.

Love.

They were there, all the shadow-gods.  They were there, waiting for him.  That was the Night One, the black robe and empty eyes of the Realm of Death, but there at his side was the Huntress, and she nodded to him, and there was Shakith, the goddess of Seers, too beautiful and too hideous to look at directly, her edges uncertain, her image overlaid a thousand times and a thousand times again like all the futures she might walk.  And there was Mithros and Minos and the Maiden and the Marksman, and the Hag and the Hound, and the Demon of the Deep and Singer of the Stars, all of them poised together there waiting for something to happen.

Thom held a breath that was not air in a gasp that was not corporeal, and felt it-- felt it, the deep quake that shook everything living and eldritch alike, the quake that shook the world and broke it.

He was alone.

He was alone, and it was dark.  Even the Black God had departed.

He was alone, and it was dark, and he wanted-- he wanted--

He wanted more, he didn't-- quite-- remember what-- more-- was--

More was-- was--

More was--

He was alone, and then he was not.

He had eyes again.  He must have eyes again, and they hurt, like the rest of him hurt.  Those were fingers-- he twitched them-- those were toes.  Those were knees, elbows, joints that popped and creaked.  Those were teeth, biting into his lip.  That was blood.  He grimaced.  Old blood.  He worked his mouth, trying to speak, and was forcibly sat up when he choked.  He coughed roughly, a fist pounding his back til the glob of congealed blood and worse passed his throat and he could spit it to the floor.  He groaned, and thus discovered he had a voice again.  He employed it, between fits of hacking as his deflated lungs relearnt the inhale and release of air, and managed to say, with great feeling, 'Fuck.'

Roger blinked at him, and scowled.

'You're all right,' someone said-- not Roger-- a man who put a cup to Thom's lips and then patiently did it again when Thom knocked it away.  'Careful,' he said.  'There's not much wine.  We'll have to go looking for more.'

Wine.  It poured over his tongue like lightning.  He gagged, and then he gulped, and then he was gulping more and more, til the cup was empty.  'More,' he croaked.

'I'm sorry,' the not-Roger-man said.  'We haven't got anything else.  Your Majesty?  I should look around.'

'No,' Roger said, and Thom's gut went plummeting with sickening rapidity.  Majesty.

He wiped his face with shaking hands.  He couldn't quite curl fists, flexing them and finding them numb.  Cold.  He was bitterly cold, but he was a mountain boy at heart and he knew how to move even when his body struggled to obey.  He rolled to his belly and pushed onto all fours, the not-Roger-man supporting him as he made his clumsy way to his knees, then to his feet.  His eyes blurred and he couldn't make them focus.  He lurched and came up against a pair of arms and a big chest.  Roger steadied him, gazing down at him with eyes of deep blue as Thom took hold of his shirt.  He didn't need the physical contact for the magic, but he needed the handhold to keep himself upright while he tried.  If he didn't do it fast, he wouldn't have time-- he couldn't feel any wards, couldn't feel any suppressors, but Roger was no fool, Roger would sense him gathering his strength and wouldn't let him fight.  Thom tore open his magical core with a wild cry and poured every bit of Gift he could reach into a single concussive burst.

 

 

**

 

 

Arram watched with weary awe as life returned to the still body that was Thom of Trebond.

It was a very different working than months earlier in Carthak.  With Ozorne, Arram had been carrying a greater load of the magic, for one; King Jonathan was a more powerful mage than either Ozorne or Arram had suspected, Arram was finding, though perhaps not as learned the Emperor.  His power was like brute muscle, alive to the touch and built for endurance.  He sustained Arram as Arram threw them forward, searching the darkness between the Realms for the lonely soul suspended there.

And even that was different.  Before, there had been things in that mist-- others trapped in the Between, whether by magic or desire or who knew what.  Some had been ancient, some only dimly human, all jumbled together in that formless limbo.  Finding Thom, who had been there long enough to lose the things that made him Thom, had been the work of brittle hours, massive effort, tireless searching.  This time-- this time there was only the darkness, and only the one shade waiting in it, alone.

And the body that awaited its return was ready for it, eager for it.  Flattened lungs inflated.  The head rolled left, then right.  The throat moved in a swallow, one knee crooked, slightly.  Thom opened both eyes, long lashes fluttering, and looked Arram full in the face.

Then it all went pear-shaped.

Arram stood back, at first, as Thom staggered to his feet like a newborn colt, nearly mashing his nose into the King's chest.  He clawed his way upright, Jonathan supporting him warily.  A nagging hum itched at Arram's ear, in an irritating spot just above his jaw.  The itch spread to his palms.  There was an instant between recognising the feel of magic gathering and realising gathered magic must be somehow released, and Arram threw himself forward with a warning tripping off his lips.

An earthquake tumbled them all to the carpet, the boom and rattle of a violet-tinged explosion shaking dust from the ceiling, rolling the stone floor beneath them like a bucking horse.  The King was shouting, and his Gift, sapphire blue, flung out across the room like a net, but Arram didn't waste the time on a spell.  Like Thom, he reached for pure energy, and marshalled everything he could grab into one thought: stillness.  The forces Thom had summoned raged out in a supernatural howl, slammed into the opposing magic Arram had called, and rushed to escape the only way it could-- out and away.  What had been the window became a gaping hole-- the window, the wall, a goodly chunk of the ceiling.  Conte's net spared them the aftershocks, and rubble hung suspended in the air, swirls of dust trapped mid-motion.

In the stillness, the King moved first.  He pressed the point of his naked sword to Thom's throat, where he knelt.   'Make him stop,' he hissed.  'Or I will.'

'Thom.'  Arram put a hand on Thom's shoulder, gingerly, but the younger man only seared him with a glance and turned his unflinching stare at the King.  'Thom, listen to me.  My name is Numair Salmalin.  You're not where you think you are--'

'Alanna,' Thom rasped.

Jonathan bared his teeth.  'Not this again.'

'What did you do to her?' Thom demanded.  'Where is she?  What did you do to his Highness?  When are we?'

'Thom--'  Arram squeezed his shoulder, but hesitated.  'What do you mean, when are we?'

'How long was I Between the Realms?'  Thom made to rise, and the King disabused him of that desire by nicking the white skin of his neck.  Blood, living blood, broke free and dripped to the dusty linen of his nightdress.  'Going to stab me again?' Thom mocked him, falling back and spreading his arms wide, baring his throat.  'Do it.  I'll take my Gift with me, this time.'

'Your Majesty,' Arram said slowly, 'I think... I think he's lucid.'

'This is lucid?'

'What's your name?' Arram asked him, drawing him away from the press of that wicked sword, ostensibly to examine the wound in his chest.  The wound that had killed him.  Through the slit in the gown he could feel it closing, flesh knitting, healing.  Soon it would be nothing but a scar, repaired by the magic of the Sorceror's Sleep, as Thom had known it would be when he'd planned his own death.  That Roger of Conte had inflicted it made no difference--

'Thom of Trebond,' Thom said, eyes flicking to Arram when the brush of his finger broke tender skin into goosepimples.  'Brother of Alanna of Trebond, King's Champion.  And I want to know where the hell she is!'

'In a moment,' Conte interrupted.  He lowered his sword, but didn't sheath it.  'Thom.  Who do you think I am?'

Arram had just arrived at a like conclusion.  Lucid, yes, but still caught up in the events that had caused his death.  The last Thom of Trebond knew, likely, had been the sight of Roger of Conte coming at him with a knife.  And Arram had heard a dozen times how much the royal cousins had resembled each other.  The other Thom, his Thom, had even mistaken them, in the palace of Corus.  And as soon as it was said doubt raced over that newly animated face, resurrected eyes blurred with tears of frustration and pain and struggling to catch up on what he might have noticed immediately in better times.  That the man who stood over him was not a Prince of twenty-four but a man of thirty and two, that what had once been a well-appointed suite for a man honoured by the Court was now a destroyed wreck, covered with untold months of dust and neglect, that a man with long ginger hair sat propped up against the broken bedframe, staring back at him with dull violet eyes.

Thom's chapped lips parted on a shaky exhale.  'Jonathan?' he whispered.

The King nodded slowly.  'Do you remember what happened?  The night of the Coronation?'

Thom looked up from the mirror-image of himself.  'Roger,' he said.  'Roger was plotting for months.  He keyed all of it to the resurrection, he had a half-dozen failsafes bound to it--'  His voice grew stronger as he spoke, but when he cut himself off, it was with a grimace and a dry swallow.  'And I can speak without the compulsion to keep it quiet,' he said, clinically dry.  'Which means Roger is dead.'

The King looked at Arram.  Arram looked at Thom.

'We don't know,' he admitted honestly.

'Don't know.'  Thom's roving gaze found his doppleganger.  A dozen questions flashed over his face, none spoken.  Absently he brushed the King's blade away from his throat; Jonathan let it fall.  He shook his head, and they all watched his double mimic him.

Thom closed his eyes, and said, 'Alanna.  Did she...'

Arram didn't know what to say to that.  There was no hope in Thom's shuttered whisper.  If she had lived, she would be here for his return.  The King wet his lips, and shook his head, though Thom wouldn't see it.  The silence was answer enough.

Thom didn't weep.  He didn't rage.  He didn't so much as breathe, for what seemed a very long time.  Arram shifted, and stopped himself.  The stillness had razor edges, now.  Too little caution and it would shatter.

But it didn't.  Everyone flinched, when Thom thrust out a hand, but the King merely took it and helped Thom to his feet.  Thom's voice emerged ruthlessly flat, and it was only when he turned away to rummage through the kindling of his trunk that Arram realised he was avoiding their eyes, now, the only sign of grief in a body taut with fragile tension.  He said, 'There's water in my workroom.  Possibly food.  They brought my meals there, once I couldn't leave here anymore.'  He found a shirt and trousers, an old pair of boots.  'Which of us is the real Thom?'

The Thom on the floor didn't react to his name.  'You both are,' Arram replied.

'What's wrong with him?'

'He's...'  Arram found he didn't have the words to answer that concisely.  'He's been like this for some months.  Since we brought him back.  Although-- not this poorly.'

There was a false bottom in the trunk.  Thom kicked it out of the way, and tossed a pair of sheathed daggers at the King, a long dirk at Arram.  He wound a leather belt over the knitted tunic he dressed himself in, and hung a pouch at his hip.  'Lockpicks,' he said.  'George always made sure we were prepared.'  He stuffed his feet into the boots and stamped to settle them.  'He still has magic?'

'Evidently,' Conte said, with some kind of acid undertone that made Arram flush.  He glanced away to find Thom looking at him thoughtfully, sidelong.

'Then get up,' Thom told his double.  'There's no time for that.'

'Thom,' Arram protested, though which of them he meant he suddenly didn't know.  In any event, Thom hauled his double upright with him as he stood.  Arram moved to help, then swayed back, uncertain.  Thom-- his Thom-- didn't protest, either the brusque handling or the order.  'Where are you going?' he asked, flustered.

'To wherever you're planning on hiding while you explain what happened here,' Thom said.  'Or am I wrong in presuming a certain amount of urgency?'

The King let out a sound halfway between a bark and a laugh.  'No,' he said.  'No, you're not wrong.'  He picked up the daggers and tested them.  'Outside,' he said.  'We have to get outside.'

'The servants use the passage beyond the privies.'  Thom was already moving, dragging his double with him.  'It should take us to the East Bailey.'  He stopped, abruptly, and bent.  The bloody knife, the one Arram had thought must be the weapon that had murdered him.  Thom stuck it through his belt without hesitation.

'Good,' Jonathan said, soft and fierce, and followed after him.  Arram shivered, once, and trailed behind.

Chapter Text

'Yes, but the resonance is what's missing, surely you've noticed--'

'I've noticed,' Thom of Trebond said tartly, 'and I noticed nearly everything that's ever been recorded about the Dominion Jewel, thank you, since Aethlarn the Learned observed--'

'I'm not contradicting your scholarship, I'm pointing out a factor you could in no wise have observed before in absence of any circumstances making it poss--'

Thom cut across Salmalin, who, to be fair, had made that same point three different times now.  Jon rubbed at the pain in his eyes.  He had a horrible headache, and the two mages bickering did nothing to soothe it.  'And we're not observing it fully now.  We have one factor, the absence of the oscillating vibration, and I maintain that we cannot attribute cause before we have more than a single factor to observe.  All you've got is theory, you-- what's your name?'

'Oh.  Ar- Numair.  Numair Salmalin.'  The mage freed a hand from carting the bundle of rucksack and weaponry over his shoulder and pressed palms briefly with Thom, the sane Thom, anyway, who likewise freed a hand from the burden of hauling along his counterpart.

'Charmed,' said Thom, the talking Thom, not the one stumbling along like a stringless puppet.  'Now the real name?'

Jon glanced back.  That was a subject that had interested him, in less traumatic times.  Salmalin noticed his attention, and flushed.

'Whatever your reasons for hiding,' Thom murmured, 'they are manifestly irrelevant.  Trust is the only currency in a situation like this.'

Jon grunted.  Thom had it in one.  And was evidently more persuasive than Jon had been.  Salmalin took that wisdom with due solemnity, and folded immediately.

'Arram,' he answered quietly.  'My name is Arram Draper.  And the name is... the name is due to Ozorne, the Emperor of Carthak.  I was attempting... I was attempting to defect.  And the only way to get entirely away from him is to fall off the face of the... well.  I suppose I've succeeded beyond my wildest imaginings, there.'

'Arram Draper.  A mage out of Carthak, reeking of Gift.  University, obviously.  Yellow robe?'

'Black robe,' replied Salmalin-- Draper.  'Not as young as you when I achieved the mastery, but near to.'

'Good to know my record spans the universe,' Thom muttered drily.  'If you're University studied, Master Draper, then you may not know the writings of Ingfar Jorgussun.  Scanran mage, or wicken as they call them.  He postulated that the elementals drew on the native magic of living but non-sentient beings, earth, stone, stars.  The resonance would be to the source magic, which itself can die out or be otherwise absorbed or destroyed or simply fade into non-existence, like elementals themselves.  I'm paraphrasing, obviously, but one could theorise that if great magical or natural eruptions can affect native magic, then the trauma of the quakes that Roger raised could be what's dampened your Jewel.  It would have been perilously drained by the experience of the quakes in your world, but the additional shock of transport here, where the wounding to the elements goes so much deeper-- Draper, you were saying--'

Jon tuned them out.  He had the vague sense he would want to know the conclusions, and might have been stirred by inclusion in an academic debate of such depth at another time.  In another life.  A life in which Thom of Trebond had been safely dead, in which the Emperor Mage of Carthak had kept his experiments to himself, in which life had become rich and good and he had had the expectation of it continuing in that vein for some time.  He'd envisioned, even, that he would be the first Conte king to die of old age, surrounded by his children and leaving his realm at peace.

No such visions here.  Such visions were not even a whiff of potential here.  Here, there was nothing left.

Or, rather, there was a great deal left. Buildings. Walls stood, or lay in rubble where the tremors of the Coronation Day quakes had felled them, but there were plenty of buildings. Vegetables gardens ran wild with weeds and wilted stems. Ivy had shrivelled and dried. Water dripped, there in the public fountain, there in rain barrells. Root cellars still bore their stores, potatoes and carrots and the odd head of cabbage, nestled amidst dried beef, salted fish, smoked lamb. No animals. No pets or livestock. No birds. No people.

The part of him not busy ignoring the jabbering of the scholars at his back, the part not busy loathing Thom of Trebond for what he'd inflicted on the world, the part of him not numb to the enormity of what he was experiencing-- the part of him that responded on instinct alone warned him with a tickle at the edge of his mind.

No people.  But there were Immortals.

It was the only sound he'd heard in hours.  The eerie stillness of the deep black of night had been broken first by a faint glow, a faint lightening of the gloom that Jon only belatedly realised was dawn.  It gave Jon his first good look at the city beyond the range of their torches, and in that solemn moment of admitting what he already knew-- that nothing living remained in Corus-- he heard them.  It was like the caw of birds, and the clash of swords, and the coarse, raucous laughter of an evil tide approaching.  And Jon had heard more than enough of that sound by now to know what it was.  Stormwings.

'Hide,' he told the other men tersely, just as they heard it for himselves and froze in place.  Jon led by example, ducking into the shelter of the smithy at his left.  Thom, the sane Thom, obeyed without arguing, and that dragged Draper and the other Thom with him, though Draper was already opening his mouth to complain or question or something equally useless and endangering.  Jon personally shut him up by forcing the big man into a crouch behind the cold anvil.  Thom, the sensible Thom, had ducked into the shadow of the forge, dragging his counterpart with him and coolly dispensing with his useless weight by stuffing him into a corner.  He prepared himself for battle ably, taking a good position with a clear line of sight to the street, as Jon was doing.  His purple eyes were alert and assessing.  For a moment, just a moment, Jon allowed himself to think of the grief that waited inside him for acknowledgment.  But only a moment.  There were dangers to face, first.

The Stormwings came flapping and clattering into the lane.  One, a male with long matted locks and a heavily scarred face, delightedly set upon a trough in the open air, splashing and slobbering as he drank, but was swiftly shoved aside by an older male who slashed him with a sharp wing feather and took his place, heedlessly drinking the blood-splattered water.  Another honed its claws by raking them repeatedly down the stacked stone wall of the stables across the lanes, and two younger-looking Stormwings played child-like in the hay, flinging moulding straw at each other and laughing coarsely.  But the remaining three were eagle-eyed, their silver fangs gleaming in the semi-darkness, and they had the avid look of creatures on the hunt.

'They can smell us,' Thom breathed, in the moment Jon realised it for himself.

Jon caught his violet gaze.  Silently he motioned to himself, to his own chest, to the crux of his thigh-- the most vulnerable parts of their mingled flesh and steel bodies.  Then he pointed to himself deliberately-- he would take care of that.  Thom nodded, and tapped his temple, and made a flattening motion toward the dirt floor.  Jon didn't grasp that immediately, but there was no time to clarify.

With a great screech a large female crowed her triumph.  'Humans!' she screamed.

That caught the attention of every Stormwing.  They sniffed at the air, their ugly faces twisting in a parody of glee.  Then, on some signal known only to them, they launched.

Jon used the length of his sword to direct the magical projectiles he fired at them, bolts of eldritch that stung and burnt flesh wherever it landed.  Their own bulk kept them outside the low roof of the smithy, all of them fighting to get through first, but the smithy's open front was no protection, and it was only a minute before one broke past Jon's offence and flapped inside, landing awkwardly on the dirt and struggling to get enough room for its lengthy wingspan.  It lunged for Jon, only to fall face-forward into the dirt, borne down by a net of purple fire that crushed it flat.  Tools clattered to the floor as it thrashed, but Jon darted forward and dispatched it with a single thrust of his sword, nearly cleaving its head from its spine with the wild strength of fury that suddenly gripped him.  These were the monsters that had attacked his home, destroyed this place all too reminiscent of his home, and he wanted them to die gruesome deaths fitting to that unutterable crime.

He had the opportunity again a moment later.  Draper's magic had joined Thom's, and more nets roped the Stormwings to the earth where they flapped like chickens, their shrieks of rage filling Jon's mind like clarion bells.  Jon killed another, stabbing it through the soft gut and spilling blue innards in a wash of stench at his feet.  Thom's purple magic swarmed its face, plugging up its gaping mouth and nose and even its eyes and ears, and it writhed like a fly stranded on its back, smothered slowly and painfully.

As they dispatched a third, one of the females, through their combined attacks, ending her life with Jon's sword spearing her through the torso, the other Stormwings retreated.  Jon nearly gave them chase, but he didn't need Draper's shouted warning to slow him.  Instincts honed over years of battle training rescued him from his own worst impulse.  He kept to the safety of the smithy, body shielded by a sturdy post as he assessed the state of the enemy.  He'd noticed it before; the Stormwings were no better or worse than humans at strategy, but they did seem more prey to the beserker influence.  The stupid and the maddened lost their lives, the smarter and the more controlled hung back and-- yes.  Tested the strength of the defences they faced.  Evaluated.  And decided where best to strike next.

'Thom,' Jon said, and felt the mage at his back, the itch of magic crawling across his skin.  'Smoke, I think.  It would give us cover to get away and throw off the scent.'

'There are no other fires,' Thom murmured.

'What?'

'There are no other fires.  They could trail the smoke on us as well as they seem to our natural scent.  We need something a little more...'  Jon risked a glance back.  Thom wore a narrow-eyed look of speculation that was so familiar it took Jon's breath a moment.  Thom's eyes flicked to him-- flickered, maybe, with a moment of knowing, a moment of shared knowing-- but Thom put it away briskly.  'Maybe something a wee bit tacky,' Thom whispered, and raised a hand in a complicated gesture Jon didn't recognise.

But an instant later its purpose became clear.  The odour was hideous-- Jon nearly reeled back, throwing up an arm to keep it out.  It was the most foul thing he'd ever smelled, fouler even than the mass of Stormwings who had been seen to roll about in the filth of the desecrated dead, and it was so thick it seemed to bung up all his senses like a liquid fog.  It was a taste, a thick film, a slime that crawled into his throat and his eyes and even into his ears, as if he could even hear how vile it was.

But he was only a human, with a human's average senses.  The Stormwings were Immortal, and they were predators, and their sense of smell was far more sensitive than his.  To them, the stench was not merely awful: it was a physical assault.  They reeled back, baying like kicked dogs.  They scratched at their faces with their wings, flaying themselves to fan the stink away.  But the curious thing was that it seemed to hover over them, cloud around them, even as they retreated.  Jon could breathe unobstructed by the time they'd leapt to the roofs, could hardly smell it at all when they fled for the freedom of the skies.  But they cawed and cried and wept out their impotent rage unabated by distance.  Within minutes, they had scattered, and Corus was once again an abandoned husk, lifeless but for the four men in the smithy.

Jon looked at Thom with an unaccustomed feeling.  It was something like respect, not just for the ability-- Thom had always been powerful, the most powerful mage Jon had ever met, but it had been hard to respect the man behind the ability.  'You've been in battle,' Jon said.

The lines at Thom's eyes pulled tight with tension.  'Of course,' he said.

'You weren't-- the other you-- he never fought.  Duels, sorceror's duels, but never in battle.'

'What, he just stood back while Ala--'  The name died on Thom's tongue.  He took one moment of stillness, and Jon watched with intrigue as Thom swallowed down whatever emotion he felt.  That was another difference.  The Thom he'd known had worn his emotions on his sleeve, like his twin.

'The Ysandir?' Thom asked abruptly.

Jon started.  'In Persepolis?  You fought them?  It was me, in my-- time.  World.  Me and Alanna.'

'It was the three of us.  In mine.'  Thom gnawed at his lip as he thought.  That, Jon recognised.  How strange, this mix of the known and the alien.  'The Drell?'

'You couldn't have been there, that was the army--'

'And the College of War Mages, yes.'

'College of--'

'War Mages,' Thom said.  'Formed by your cousin Roger, after he returned to Court.  To fight off foreign magical strikes like the Sweating Sickness.'

Jon marvelled at that.  'Roger sent the Sweating Sickness, you know.'

'I do know.  It was an amazing accomplishment.  It always tore at him he couldn't claim the glory for it.  Once he put me under the Compulsion he ranted at considerable length.'  Thom spoke with brusque distaste, and hugged his arms to his thin chest as if the memory pained more than he was letting on.  'So we've established your world is different enough from mine.  A happier sort of different.  Why leave your time and come here?'

'That's a question for your counterpart,' Jon said grimly.  He turned, and found Draper watching him, them, warily, where he crouched by Thom, the other Thom, with a horn cup of water from the rain barrel.  'It was his idea,' Jon said.

'Is this the best place to plumb a mystery?' Draper questioned.  'We should find ourselves some greater security.  Or at least look for food.  We've all of us been using a great deal of magic, and that's not sustainable without food or rest.  Preferrably both, once we're safe.'

'Are there more of those things out there?'

'You're asking me?'  Thom shrugged off Jon's enquiry with a jagged jerk of his shoulders.  'Am I right in suspecting those are rather sinister visitors from beyond our Realm?'

'Another question for your-- him.'

'Well that won't do,' said Thom, peering down at his counterpart with something inscrutable narrowing his eyes.  'Thom,' he said.

The vacant eyes of Thom of Trebond met the grim gaze of Thom of Trebond.  It was eerie, and Jon shivered despite himself.

'Thom,' said the one who sat there on the smithy floor, a little croak that indicated neither comprehension nor emotion, and might only have been parroting, if not for the strange way he didn't so much as blink.

'Thom,' said the sane one, musingly.  'Thom One and Thom Two.'

'I don't know we can trust him to remember the distinction,' Draper said reluctantly.

'I agree.  I'll take the appellation.'  Thom Two gnawed at his lip, but not for long.  'Thom,' he said, then, going stern and quiet.  'You know what she asked you to do.  It was paramount to her.  And you won't let her down, not now in the most dire moment.  She needs you to be strong.'

Jon was mystified by this.  Draper, for all his clinging to Thom, he looked on in no greater understanding.  But it worked.  Thom looked up, made eye contact for the first time since the battle against the Archon, and spoke.

'She's dead,' he whispered.

'I know,' said Two, betrayed only by the slightest tremble of his voice.  'That makes it all the more important.'

Marvel of marvels.  Thom rose.  On his own.  Stood upright, stood calm, even alert.  And he looked at Jon, who started to suddenly be the centre of avid attention.

'Majesty,' Thom said.

'What did you do?' Jon asked Two suspiciously.

'Reminded him of an old promise.  Given the similarities between our worlds, I could be fairly confident in one thing.  Alanna loves-- loved you.  And she believed in you.  As she swore to protect you, so I swore.  And Trebond will keep its word.'

Jon stared.  His Thom, the cheeky, cynical Thom he remembered from those first chaotic years after Alanna had exposed Roger and Thom had come to Court, forever skulking at the edges doing 'research' he'd refused to reveal-- that Thom would never have spoken those words, even if he'd thought them.  Or, perhaps that was untrue, and unfair; he said them now, after all, and if they were spoken in mourning and in extremity they were no less a vow.

'You humble me,' Jon said to Two, and included Thom in this as well, and even Arram Draper, who straightened his spine and nodded.  Jon inclined his head exactly the right degree for a king accepting a vassal's oath.

'Now let's be gone in haste,' Two added, breaking the momentary solemnity.  'Before those smelly beasties find their way back.'

 

 

**

 

 

Arram stirred a spoon through sludge that could generously be labelled stew.  None of them had any cookery-- well, one could hardly expect a king to, and mages were better known for stirring potions than soups.  Still, it was food, and hunger was an excellent sauce.

The house they had chosen stood at the edge of the city and seemed to belong to someone the Thoms and the King knew.  Conte especially had been reluctant to break in, muttering to himself about disturbing a tomb.  But there were no dead inside.  Unlike the palace, there were no bodies, no bones.  It was like the streets of Corus, just mysteriously emptied of all living things.  The pantry was full, however, and before long they had hot tea, a group effort at stew overthickened with dried fish and potato, and even bread that, though stale, softened a bit with the application of water and toasted up well for the crock of butter Arram found in the cold cupboard.  With apples for the finish, it was a meal fit for kings.  Or at least the only king they had at the moment.

'How did you find out about Roger in this time?' Conte was asking, his apple resting half-eaten on his knee as he watched Two rifling the large library for resources.

'He made a play for me at the Drell,' Two replied absently.  He had a small tome cradled between his hands-- he'd given up on food almost before eating any of it, absorbed wholly in the library.  It was exactly what Arram had imagined he'd be like.  A scholar through and through, his mind almost visibly working through the complexities of magic so twisted only a few men throughout history had been clever or powerful enough to understand.  'Approached me alone.  Made me the usual offer.  Knowledge and magic.  Riches.  Promises.  He would restore Trebond to its rightful place beside the throne-- his throne.  He would raise us higher than the Naxens even.'

'Alanna said he approached her, at Drell.  More vague than that.  Something about being able to live a long, happy life.'

'Appropriate to each of us.'  Two clapped the book closed and tossed it to a table already littered with several discards.  'Alanna would have laughed herself silly at an offer of power.  It was perfectly pitched to me.'

'Really?  I can't see it tempting our Thom.'  Conte fell momentarily silent, rotating his apple to rub at the ruby red skin.  'I suppose that's not entirely true.  He just became consumed with bringing Roger back.  But he did have ambition, before that.'

'Precisely.  Magic was really the hook, anyway; I'd already surpassed the instructors at the College.  Roger brought Si-Cham of the Mithran Light to Corus just to tutor me.  I got quite a lot of concessions out of him.  At the time I supposed I was being quite clever, always asking for more before I'd commit to him.  I didn't realise til much later that he probably set the Compulsion on me that night at the Drell.  It had to be when I was young, and I usually contrived not to be alone with him.  And it was his way.  Roger never let one opportunity pass that could stand for two or three.'

'You've mentioned this compulsion before,' Arram interrupted.  Two glanced up.  His eyes were canny, his mein self-contained, focussed.  Grim, but that was to be expected.  Everything Arram had expected of him, and yet there was nothing soft about him, the way there was in his Thom.  Or had he only ever imagined anything fond?  Thom was not pliable, not really, not quiescent, even if he obeyed Ozorne and took Arram's chidings without protest.  Thom had bided his time with incredible patience, had got to Tortall, to Conte, all in search of his sister.

His dead sister.  Arram's gaze slid sideways.  Thom lay curled in a borrowed quilt in the window seat.  His eyes were open, but, if he listened to their conversation, it was impossible to say what he thought of it.

Two followed Arram's gaze to his double, and sighed.  He discarded another book after reading nothing but its title, and began a new shelf.  'I was Compelled,' he said.  'Compelled to think of Roger, and only of Roger, after his death.  Possibly before it.  But the obsession consumed me.  I couldn't rest, I couldn't eat.  I was meant to adventure with Alanna after she took her knighthood.  I convinced her I needed to stay in Corus, ostensibly to protect Jonathan.  I even attempted to do so, in the beginning, but I began to withdraw from social engagement and no-one thought anything too odd of it.  Then, as well, Alex and Delia enhanced my reputation as a hermit happily closeted with his books.  They deflected all concern on my behalf, and deflected all attempts I made to break myself free.'

'I wonder if that happened in our time.'  The King was frowning deeply, and there was old bitterness there.  'It took me far longer than it should have to realise Delia had never been mine.  To realise Alex had always been Roger's.'

'For what it's worth, they likely had as little choice in it as I did.'  Two had found something good in the large scroll he read now, and he propped himself against the table to pore over it nearsightedly.  'Delia came out of the convent at eighteen and hardly stopped to breathe before Roger set her on you.  And Alex was profoundly damaged.  What Roger did to him was the most unforgivable in a litany of terrible crimes.'

Conte made a sceptical noise, and tossed his half-eaten apple into his empty bowl.  'Roger killed my parents--'

'And my sister.'  Saying it aloud for the first time rocked Two, that was clear.  His hands were clenched white on the scroll, which crumpled a bit from the force of his grip.  He blinked several times, and finally looked away, to the velvet draps over the window, the ceiling with its plaster curliqueues.  He said, slowly, 'But what he did to Alex was worse.  He was thirteen the first time Roger had him, you know.  Roger destroyed him.  Destroyed whoever Alex would have been without him.  There was no choice there.  And I don't know if you can call it betrayal if there was no choice.'

'Why don't you leave defining betrayal to the king, eh.'  Conte considered Two with a more thoughtful frown now.  'Were you in love with him?  Alex?'

Two snorted his denial.  'No.  I… cared, I suppose you would say.  As much as I'm capable of caring for anyone.'

'Alanna.'

Two's eyes caught on the soft orange glow of the lamp.  The seconds stretched out, a pause that went on into silence and then into the painfully obvious.  'Yes,' Two said, and brushed it aside rather than confront it.  'But I'm sad he's gone.  I was never going to be the one to save him.'

Arram cleared his throat.  'So you resurrected Roger from the Sleep.'

'Yes.  He was welcomed-- I mean no disrespect, Jonathan, but your father wanted the illusion of peace far more than he wanted to work to secure it.  Then again, for all I know Roger had laid some geas on him when they were younger.  Restoring Roger's lands and title put him back in the line of succession, and even if Roger had no Gift he should have been considered too dangerous for the light of day, much less a prominent position at Court.'

'That would explain much,' Conte murmured, looking a little disturbed at the thought.  'He really had no Gift?  I've always wondered.'

'No.  The Sleep requires a sacrifice on both ends-- your life to initiate it, and something unknown to complete the return to life.  For Roger, the second sacrifice was the magic he'd used to secure all his earthly power.  So he found a way to bring it back through me.  I don't suppose I'll ever fully understand how,' Two complained in disgruntlement.  'He took great delight in telling me, several times, but by then I was so mad with carrying two Gifts I couldn't encompass it.  Double damn the man.'

Conte had sat up quickly.  'What did you sacrifice?' he demanded.

'It's unknown,' Two said scathingly.  'I'll be sure to let you know when I've noticed what's missing.'

'Would it be the same in our world?'  Conte rounded on Arram, who was already thinking the same thing.  'Our Thom?'

'It's a rare spell,' Arram said.  'Obviously it's possible to recreate the exact working, but it's only rarely been performed because it requires two willing participants.'

'We can scratch "willing",' muttered Two.

'His sister,' Arram guessed.  'The one thing he's most desperate for and the one thing he can't have.'

'But she's alive in our time,' Conte protested.

'And you denied him access,' Arram reminded him.  He put up a defencive gesture.  'I understand the why, but it's true all the same.  Ozorne kept him all but imprisoned in Carthak for months, preparing for war, and from the moment we set foot in Tortall there were obstacles.  And somehow the Jewel brought us here, to a place where he can never...'

Thom was listening.  Thom was listening, and saying nothing, but Arram couldn't finish.  'I'm sorry,' he mouthed, unable to supply the air for it.  Thom blinked, once, and turned his face back to the window.

Two stabbed his thumbs at his temples, rubbing hard.  'We're tired,' he said.  'We're tired and too raw for this.  We need to sleep.  And then we need to figure out what the bloody hell we're going to--'

Conte checked him.  'What?  What we're going to do?'

'No, I've just realised-- It's too obvious.  Oh, I like to think I wouldn't have overlooked it so long if not for the manifold interruptions-- Jonathan.  You, Draper.  Thom.  What's the one thing we need and don't have?'

Conte's dark brows drew together.  'A way to get home,' he guessed.

'Yes.  Yes, precisely.  And, specifically, the way you used to get here, which won't work in reverse.  The Dominion Jewel.'

'Your second sacrifice,' Arram said.  Yes, he did see it.  'But how is that your sacrifice?  You never had the Jewel.'

'Didn't I?  I might have handled it the most of any mage since Anj'la of Maren.'  He forestalled Conte's objection.  'In my time, yes.  I don't know if your counterpart here ever took formal possession of it.  I wasn't at the coronation to see.'

'All right, granting that,' Arram continued.  'I understand why we need a functioning Jewel to return us to our world, but not why you do.'

Two shook his head faintly.  'Stop looking with logic and see with that lump of heart in your chest,' he said wearily.  'It very much looks like I'm the only man left in all my world.  If we restore you to your world, I'll be alone here.  That's a hell of a sacrifice, I think you'll agree, and damn ironic.  Alanna always did say I'd be thrilled if everyone else buggered off and left me alone with my books.'

It shouldn't have been funny.  It wasn't, til the moment Conte cracked.  His laugh emerged rusty, then full-throated.  Arram fought off the giggle frothing in his gut til Two's lips twitched unwillingly.  Then they were all laughing, and if there was an edge of hysteria in the tears they scrubbed out of their eyes, well, it was earned.

'So, a quest,' Conte said weakly, leaning his head against the tapestry of an apple orchard behind him.  'To find this world's Jewel.'

'Huzzah,' Arram contributed, and got his first real grin out of a Trebond.

Chapter Text

Alanna splashed her face with unforgivably frigid water, slicking back hair that felt both dry and oily with too many days unwashed. She drank from the barrel, next, heedless of the ash and faint iron tint of blood that clung like film to the water's surface. Caynn had a fresh-water well, thank the Goddess, but she'd had it under guard since the siege began and made a point of obeying the rules where she could be seen doing it. They had four arrests already for serious attempts to steal water, and dozens more turned away with complaints of various severity, but Alanna wouldn't be budged on the issue. Water would last them longer than food and might mean the difference between survival and slaughter.

'Sir Knight?'

In response to that miserable plea Alanna scooped her hand and carried a palmful of water to the boy. Prince Kaddar drank from her cupped hands without protest, meek and thankful for even that much. Alanna had long inured herself to the half-starved look of boys in that particular stage of nascent adolescence, the shadow of the men they'd be showing in long limbs with gawky elbows and knees, a bit of soft fuzz shading their cheeks and chins unevenly, the adam's apple like a bobbing grapefruit in enlongated necks. Her years with the pages and squires of the Palace rendered boys invisible, and she was concerned less with would-be warriors than the blooded knights who made up her army. But this one pulled at her, with his wide eyes brown as a doe's and as innocent. He was all nerves and determined nobility, this one, clinging to his manners in the absence of all other security, going politely to death and worse than death because he thought dignity the one resource left to him. Alanna knew far better than he could that dignity didn't change a damn thing.

The flap of wings announced their visitors. For once, the Stormwings came on silently, no screams of battle, no raging glee as they fell on their enemies. Only two landed, alighting on the cart Alanna had directed to the open, empty lawn of the keep. Every other archer turned from the wall and drew on them, and the odd numbers kept their bows high, on the company of Stormwings who stayed aloft, circling the keep like buzzards, eerie in their quiet, heralds of the grim battle that awaited them beyond the dawn. In the grey light just before sunrise, it had the surreal unreality of a dream. A nightmare.

Hakim had never been far from her side, and he was at her elbow now, blade drawn as he manhandled Prince Kaddar to his feet. They walked, the two knights and their hostage, to meet the Stormwings with only a few feet of scraggly brown grass between them.

The female spoke first. Her rasping voice issued from lips split by an old wound that had cleaved her face from nose to chin and healed unevenly, but her tones were cultured, intelligent. She inclined her head to Alanna in a way that reminded her, surprised and wary, of the old Queen, Lianne of Conte. That slender, fragile beauty had little in common with a Stormwing valkyrie, but it shook Alanna all the same.

'I am Barzah Razorwing of the Stone Tree Nation,' the Stormwing told her, ruffling steely feathers and laying her blood-stained wings along her back. Her claws flexed on the crossbar of wood beneath her. She said, 'You have something I want, and I have something you want. I believe we can make a bargain with that.'

'A bargain,' Alanna agreed. She bowed, slightly, contrained by her mail armour, but respectfully. 'Might I propose, Queen of the Stone Tree Nation, that parties which bargain might be called allies.'

'Might be,' Barzah repeated, as the other Stormwing, Rikash Moonsword, shifted on his perch with eyes narrowed. 'At a stretch, Sir Knight.'

'One makes compromises in war.' Alanna dispensed with the games. Verbal sparring made her palms itch, and the sun was her deadline. The Carthakis only awaited enough light to launch a fresh assault. 'This is the compromise I'm willing to make. The boy, as agreed. Territory in the southern continent, as agreed. If. If you fight with us now, and we successfully turn back the Carthaki warships.'

'Those were not the terms,' Barzah replied slowly.

'Call it an example of good will between allies.'

They stared each other down, woman and Stormwing, judging the stubborn resolve each found in that confrontation. Barzah clicked her claws, her eyes narrowed, her feathers ruffled and then settling. Then the Stormwing made a show of sniffing the air, and her sharp teeth gleamed in a rictus grin.

'You're with child,' she said. 'I can scent it on you.'

Alanna let nothing of the flinch she felt show on her face, she was certain of that. 'What an extraordinary nose you have, to scent imaginary things.'

'I want it.'

'What?'

'I want it,' Barzah repeated, enunciating each word with icy elan. 'Our contract with the human on the boat out there was worth a child of his blood. If you want an ally, woman, that's my asking price.'

Hakim was rigid with fury. 'Allow me to kill them for you,' he said, his growl so low Alanna almost didn't hear him. 'I beg you for the honour of it.'

'Tempting.' Alanna forced herself to smile coolly. 'I'm not pregnant. Even if I was--'

'Then the contract is in your favour. That boy, and the one growing in your belly, if it should come to pass. If it doesn't, you're no poorer.'

It took all her will not to touch her stomach.  She had been with George, that night at the Swoop, in those brief hours between Legann and the ride to Caynn.  Only days ago.  Her bleeding had always been sparse and longer than a month between, it would be weeks before she knew the truth.  But it was madness even to think about it.  What that Carthaki dog might do to an innocent child--

Was the same thing she was prepared to give up.  Someone else's child.  Consigned to who knew what horror.  She couldn't.  The tremble in her chest reached her hands, then, and she clenched them into fists.  It had been madness coming even this far, and it would be her eternal shame she'd played along this long.

She craned her neck up to Hakim.  'No answer to our signal?' she asked, though she knew it would have been brought to her immediately, if there had been.  Hakim glanced up, too, for the white flag of truce that flapped where it could be seen from the sea.  If anyone out there cared to answer.

Alanna bit her tongue til she had enough saliva to speak.  'No,' she said.

The Queen's nostrils flared wide.  'No?'

'I don't believe we do have a bargain.  Not for any child of mine.  Nor for any child under my protection.  With regret, your Majesty, I withdraw the terms.  You have leave to exit under the flag of truce, if you leave now.  Linger, and I will give the orders to shoot.'

The Stormwings didn't fly, either into the air or into a rage, as she'd half expected.  Her grip on her sword was excruciating.  But they gazed at each other, in some silent form of communication, perhaps, one Stormwing to another, and Rikash Moonsword's pale eyes slid toward Alanna with something odd about them, an expression she hadn't expected to find there.

'It seems the Realm of Humans has changed since our last visit,' Rikash Moonsword mused aloud.  'The piggies have honour now.'

'So it seems,' agreed Barzah Razorwing.  'How unusual.  Reconsider, Sir Knight.  The humans on the water outnumber you.  They have machines of war that inflict terrible death.  Your people will die, and painfully, and my people will glory in the despoiling of your corpses.'

'Maybe,' Alanna granted.  'But maybe not.  I choose to fight as long as I have breath for it.  Hakim.  Let's prepare the pitch and station the Gifted along the walls to torch the siege engines as they strike.'  She drew her dagger, and in one slice cut the rope that bound Prince Kaddar's hands.  'You can try to run,' she said.  'No-one will stop you.  If you head inland, you might be able to reach Corus.  I can't spare you a horse-- we'll probably be eating them soon.  But I can give you weapons and armour, if you know how to use them.  My apology is worth less than that, but you have it all the same.'

'You...'  The boy looked as though he'd been struck about the head, dazed in his relief.  'You aren't going to give me to them?'

'No.'  Emotion fought within her; ringing relief, which meant she'd made the right choice, even if it did condemn them all, and guilt, crushing guilt, because she knew it had condemned them.  If Caynn fell, Corus would be next, and there would be no land war without an army.  Goddess give Thayet the luck she'd need to raise that, because if Caynn fell Alanna wouldn't live to see what happened next.  'Go,' she said, giving him a little push that rocked him on his feet, and caught Hakim with a thrust of her chin.  'Command the west, and I'll take the north,' she said, and left him with a quick hard stride that ate at the earth beneath her boots.  She wanted to fight, she wanted to kill, and she'd be all too happy to direct that rage where it could do some damn good.

And then-- 'Wait,' said the boy, in a quavering small voice.  'Wait.  I'll bargain with you.'

 

 

**

 

 

'Wait,' Kaddar said.  It ate all his air, pushing out the words.  His head rang dizzily, but it wasn't fear, not really.  Not the kind of fear he'd thought he'd feel, anyway.  Not the bravery he'd hoped he'd feel, when he faced his own mortal end, but he would do it, nonetheless.  'Wait,' he repeated, as firmly as he could.  'I'll bargain with you.'

'Your Highness,' Sir Alanna interrupted him, whirling back with a quelling hand outstretched.

'You shouldn't have balked at it,' Kaddar told her.  'It's a fair price.  And I will pay it gladly.  My blood for my people.'

Barzah had cocked her head at him, bird-like, but her eyes were all too canny.  'Your people on the ships?  They already had our cooperation.'

'Not without me for surety.  You would have broken that contract if I ran away.  But I don't care about them.  I care-- I mean, I care, but I care more about the ones who can't fight for themselves.  The common people who can't take up arms against you.  You said you'd hunt them.  I don't want you to.'

'They wouldn't even know you spoke for them,' pointed out Rikash Moonsword, but he looked pleased somehow, as if Kaddar had said something he was glad to hear.

'I might have been Emperor one day,' Kaddar said, with only the slightest pinch of regret for that lost someday.  It had only ever been an 'if' anyway-- if his uncle hadn't had him killed, if none of the other noble families hadn't, in a bid to promote one of their daughters as Ozorne's wife, to beget a direct heir of their family's blood, a thousand other ifs.  'I would have spoken for them then.  That is all the honour I would ever have wanted.'

'You may yet rule,' Barzah murmured, dreadfully keen-eyed.  'What else do you want, child?  Ask.  I may not agree, but not asking is never getting.'

'A way to approach the other Stormwings,' Kaddar returned promptly.  'A way to bargain with them or stop them from preying on my people.'

'You won't find that,' Moonsword said.  'There's not enough of you to go around.'  He looked a question at his Queen, who nodded her agreement.  'But allies, maybe.  We fight our own kind just as the humans do.  And we have our own ways, and our own honour-- usually.'  He raised his head proudly, then broke it with a sneer.  'There is one of our kind who should have found a bloody end long before this, but the breaching of the Wall Between The Realms gave her an opportunity.  She has taken my Queen's mate and her young and holds them.  She flouts our laws and refuses the combat to prove her right in blood.  Now she has fled to your Realm.  Well, human?  Will you make allies of us after all?  The boy goes willingly, and we will join your fight against the ships that threaten this fortress in exchange for your arms against the pretender Zaneh Bitterclaws.  Who knows?  Mutual opportunity may carry us yet further.  You may not want the little piglet growing in you.'

The tall Bazhir raised his sword at this, but Sir Alanna restrained him with a hand on his arm.  'Your Highness,' she said, addressing herself solely to Kaddar, and piercing him with urgent purple eyes.  'You don't know for certain they'll even keep their word, or that their word will be worth anything.  We may be able to repair the Wall--'

'How many will die before then?'

Her chest heaved beneath her armour.  She did not release his eyes, but neither could he read what he saw there.  Except conflict.  Conflict without resolution.

Conflict resolved with great resoluteness on her part.  She turned away from him with a curse.  'You fight for us against the ships, til Caynn repels the siege, and we fight for you against this other Stormwing til when?'

'Til I taste her blood on my lips,' Barzah bargained, eyebrow arched.

'And her followers?  Are they equal to yours, greater?  How much greater their number?'

'Not so great as the humans on those ships out there,' Rikash Moonsword said.  'But if you demand a win from us, we'll demand a win from you.  Stormwings are nothing if not fair.'

Sir Alanna clenched her jaw.  But did not let out the insult that obviously hovered on her tongue, even with Rikash grinning viciously at her.  'Allies,' she said, and closed her eyes briefly in despair.  'And the boy goes-- willingly.'

'Boy.'  Barzah spread one of her impressive wings, crooked to gesture him near.  Kaddar forced his feet to move, inching across the dirt.  Close enough to smell the odour of rotted death on her and her companion.  She gathered him in the arch of her wing, though he flinched away from the slice of those steely feathers that caught at his wool cloak.  He could see the black of her gums and the wet gleam of her tongue between her horrid fangs, but she only whispered against his cheek, not biting at his vulnerable neck.  'Take the long feather there,' she murmured softly.  'Pluck it free.  Keep it with you always.  And when the moment comes, a moment when I or Lord Rikash tell you the time has come, you will stab it deep into your flesh.  Do you understand me?'

'What will it--'  He stopped himself.  He had already cut himself once, on the dead Stormwing on his uncle's galleon, but he didn't say this.  It would do no good to press for answers, and he wasn't sure he wanted to know, anyway.  The bargain was already sealed and he would not renege on it.  He wrapped his fingers in the thick hem of his tunic and grasped the flat of the feather gingerly.  It did not come loose easily, and he had to properly wrench at it, but at last it came, the quill tipped a little with her blood, the feather as long as his hand from the tip of his finger to his wrist.  It was sharp as any dagger, and he knew without being told it would slice him deep indeed.

Her hot lips brushed his temple in something almost like a kiss, and then he stepped back.  Sir Alanna caught him close, but like a mother would her child, like his mother would have done if she'd been with him.  She examined the feather with great suspicion, but said nothing.

'Allies,' Barzah said, and launched herself with a great scream into the air.  Rikash followed her with a war-cry, and it echoed eerily from above as the waiting Stormwings dove and whirled against the orange stain of the rising sun.

'Get inside,' Sir Alanna told him.  'And stay safe.  You've chosen a hard path, your Highness.'

Kaddar wasn't entirely sure who he was imitating as he inclined his head to her.  His uncle, who only ever acknowledged the proper worship of his exalted person.  Queen Barzah Razorwing, perhaps, who was colder and steelier than his uncle.  Maybe it was only himself, because he knew his worth, now, and would die for something worthy.  Whatever it was, it stopped Sir Alanna, her hand over his where he held the Stormwing feather.  And then she bowed to him, very properly, and left him there alone.

Chapter Text

Gary took a swig of whatever it was in the wineskin-- not wine, that was damn sure, but it was liquid and it went down well on a parched throat. 'Thank you,' he rasped.

Thayet barely acknowledged it. 'And you're sure?' she pressed him. 'You're absolutely sure?'

'As sure as we can be. Yes.' Gary met her wild gaze. 'Yes, Thayet. I'm sure.'

'It doesn't change anything,' Gary's father said, from where he stood at the window overlooking the square. The Tortallan camp was not in the Governor's Palace, as should be, but Gary doubted there was a soul left there anyway. The Queen and her Court had overtaken a merchant's large mansion, and it was handsome enough, what little Gary had seen of it. There were Bazhir everywhere, nearly as many as there were northerners, and they wore tribal colours Gary didn't recognise. 'It doesn't change anything, but it would give doubt where we need certainty. Your Majesty, we cannot alter our course, not now.'

'I need no persuading on that point.' Thayet had aged a dozen years in a matter of weeks. Her beauty was still painfully evident, but the severity of her black habit and tightly wound braid drew the eye to the lines of her face, now, the rigid paleness of her full lips. Her dress was aggressively homely, even frumpy-- maybe she'd dug it up from some old woman's attic, decades out of style and too large and too severe even for the part she was playing, Regent to the new young king.

The new king. Gary passed a hand over his eyes. He had seen Jon to power and expected to die in his service. At the worst, to serve as an elder statesman in the peaceful transfer of power, as his father had between Roald the First and Roald's son. But Jon's son was a boy.

Thayet's pacing followed the same line on the carpet, worn thin with generations of feet. She hauled herself to an abrupt halt. She clasped her hands tightly enough to whiten the knuckles, and said, 'We will speak no further of this. We will never speak of this outside the room, or to anyone not in this room.'

'Even on the chance we could get him back?'

'What chance is there?' Gareth asked. It was the dry, clinical tone Gary knew from a long childhood of pranks dissected and misdeeds punished, the tone of a man who knew how to set aside the duties of the father and take on the mantle of arbiter. 'You said in his vanishing the King had with him the two sorcerors and the Dominion Jewel.'

'Yes,' Gary admitted reluctantly. 'But it's vanished, Father, not dead.'

'Hold.' Thayet stopped him with a hand held, level. 'But gone. You're absolutely sure he's gone.'

'We found no sign, Majesty.'

'Then Roald is King. And we can, we must, return to Tortall Proper to muster the earls and barons.'

Gareth was nodding his agreement already. 'We should leave as soon as feasible,' he said. 'With a contingent of the Bazhir, but not too large a contingent. To be seen all but invading Tortallan lands with an army of Desertmen at your back--'

'I cannot alienate the Bazhir by seeming ungrateful for their allegiance or reluctant to acknowledge them equal to my Tortallan allies--'

Gareth shook his head. 'You don't know the nobility of Tortall as well as Jon did, and you don't have the blood relationships many of them see as better currency than oaths of fealty.'

'They have that blood relationship with my son. My son, the King.'

'A boy,' Gareth cautioned.

'The King,' Thayet overrode him. 'The King at war, no less. The Bazhir must come to Tortall not least to fight, and they'll show any reluctant Baron that my son commands an army already, and their best defence lies with him!'

'An army of brown-skinned savages with alien ways, my Lady.'

'Father,' Gary blurted, shocked. Thayet rocked on her heels, her face bloodless.

'I speak not of my own opinion,' Gareth told them, granite-faced at their disapproval. 'But of the opinion your barons will surely harbour, whether they carry it in secret or nod along at service with the local priest exhorting them to resist the infidels with sword and fire. Some will take Jon's death as a sign the Gods no longer favour the Conte line, and they will say that Roald is a boy and his mother a foreigner and this call to muster is a plot by the Bazhir to reclaim their ancient lands. And all of this speculation only begs the question of what will happen when the first unwise word provokes an incident between a Bazhir and a baron whose men and arms you need. You'll have to side with the barons.'

'Will I?'

It wasn't Thayet who answered Gareth, but a sweet young voice from the door. Roald. He had come in unnoticed, slipping past the guard at the stair, and behind him stood the other royal children, Kally who held the youngest, Liam, wearing only a cloth diaper and chewing on his fingers as he stared wide-eyed at them.

Gary rose. And bowed. 'Your Majesty,' he said, and drew his sword to lay it at his feet. 'I come to swear my fealty.'

Roald came to him, walking between his mother and Gary's father, and though he stood barely taller than Gary was on his knees, he presented Gary with his left hand, on which he wore a signet ring. It was not the signet ring Jon wore, the ruby of the Conte line and encircled with chips of sapphire, the ring Gary had known all his life on the hand of a King at Corus. It was an older piece, one that had once adorned the hand of the Elder King. The stone was black opal, the gold setting heavy and too large for the small hand that wore it. Gary ignored that as he pressed his lips to the ring. 'Your Majesty,' he said, and raised his eyes to Roald's. His eyes weren't the same startling blue as Jon's, but he knew the boy in there as he'd known his cousin his entire life. Roald was a Conte, and it was the Conte who accepted Gary's obeisance with a sober nod of his head.

'As I was saying,' Roald mumurred, stepping back. His hand settled on the hilt of the sword at his waist, not quite naturally, but the squared shoulders suited him. He looked taller. 'I believe siding with the barons would be a mistake.'

'Why?' Belatedly Gareth corrected himself. 'Why, your Majesty?'

'Because they've long been secure in the comfort of our protection. Tortall has been peaceful and prosperous, but at what cost? Our isolation has allowed us to remain ignorant of the troubles of the rest of the world. The rise of hungry nations like Carthak and the Yamani may not have threatened our borders without some extraordinary advantage like the Immortals, but the fact remains that many of our nobles haven't known any serious war in some forty years. I think they are complacent. Seeing me with a willing army of Bazhir should shake that complacency.'

Gareth looked appalled. He did his best to smooth it over with a politic smile, but his disaste was evident. 'And shaking them is the best way to guarantee their cooperation?'

'One cooperates with an equal partner. One demands obedience from one's subjects.'

Thayet wet her lips, and stepped forward to rest a hand on her son's shoulder. 'I don't disagree,' she said. 'But we need to be careful in our approach. Threats may work in the short term, but when this disruption passes you'll need the barons to secure your reign.'

'No, Mother, they'll need a strong king to secure their safety. And they haven't many candidates to prop up to the throne if they dislike me. Cousin Gary is young and knighted, and heir to a ducal holding, but he's only royal cousin by marriage, not blood. After him the pickings are slim. They have to go to a fourth cousin of the matralineal line of the Marois, and the Lady Charlot is forty-six, three times married, and barren.' Roald touched his mother's hand to ease the sting of moving gently out of her shadow. 'I am well versed in the history of our dynasty. My father--' He almost didn't stumble on that. 'Ensured I know our successes as well as our failures. And one success we Contes can most ardently claim is sealing the rift with the Bazhir. Perhaps now the Bazhir should take an even larger role in Tortall's affairs. They're ready for war. If the barons aren't, well. We leave them behind.'

Gareth stared open-mouthed. A faint line creased Thayet's brow; she smoothed it consciously, angling her chin high. She folded her hands at the waist of her black frock. If she was thinking of a protest, she chose not to speak it.

Gary took his cue from the Queen. Silently, he bowed.

Liam interrupted with a sudden angry wail. 'Oh,' Kally blurted, holding her baby brother at arm's length. 'Mum, he's wet himself...'

Roald wrinkled his nose. 'Ew, Mum,' he complained, twisting to look up at Thayet. 'When's he going to grow out of that?'

'I'll take him,' Thayet sighed. 'Where's Kara, we need fresh linen...'

Gareth turned on Gary, hands spread wide in a mute appeal. For his part, Gary could only shrug.

'Hail the King,' he said.

Chapter Text

The Stormwings found them on the third day.

Jon was jolted from sleep by the scrape of an unwary claw on stone.  It was the sound of steel grating across brick that woke him, or maybe instinct honed by nascent war, nerves strung taut.  He felt he'd only just managed to close his eyes, after hours of staring balefully at the darkness.  It was only in that moment of sudden alert that he realised the dark was staring back.

The Stormwing bared blackened fangs at him, and leapt from the windowsill with a mad scream to summon its fellows.

Jon swore oaths that would have made hardened soldiers blush as he flung himself out of bed.  He was in his boots and belting on his sword before he finished calling for the others, and then he was running, taking the tight spiral of the stairs at a dangerous clip.  He made for the armoury, thank Mithros Myles had been sensible and stocked it in the house proper-- jerkin and mail coat, donning the heavy weight of it with the ease of practise, then the crossbow, and bolts enough to take a few of them down at a distance, if he had the aim, a longsword, that would keep him out of range of those razor-edged wings-- 'Thom!' he hollered, gloves, he needed the thick leather gloves, 'Salmalin!  Where in hell's black gullet--'

'Here.'  It was Thom Two, discarding the shield Jon had chosen and replacing it with a wickedly hooked mace.  'Don't try to block, try to grab.  Get them on the ground where they can't manoeuvre.'

'If I drag one down on me--'

'If you can avoid it,' Two suggested dryly, 'do.  If you can't leverage them down, hold them.  Arram and I can do the rest.'

'We should have known they'd come.'

'Where would we have gone they wouldn't follow?'  That was Salmalin, and he must have come from the library, for he was still clenching a scroll in his fist.  'Where's Thom?  I mean, the other--'

'Probably the casemate,' Thom said, taking the crossbow for himself and looping the belt of bolts about his waist, where it sagged on hips stripped of all their meat after his long illness.  'Maude never looked there, and Coram never looked for me at all.'

'Get him,' Jon ordered Salmalin.  'We don't have the supplies to outlast a siege.  We need to go.  We should have been gone a day ago.'  Salmalin went as commanded, with the air of a babyminder guilty over losing his charge.  'Can you fight with a blade?' Jon asked Two, who turned his head toward the faint screams outside.  More than one voice, that.  Like beserkers working themselves into a battle rage.

'I know not to hold the pointy end,' Two said, but strung the bow without hesitation, applied weight to the stock and gave the bridle a controlled yank that lifted it over the nut and into position.  He loaded a quarrel and sighted.  'It's damp,' he said shortly.  'It'll stretch with too many shots.  I doubt we'll get many, though.'

'In my experience the Immortals were fearless of human weapons,' Jon cautioned, putting a cautious eye to the arrow slit window and judging the night beyond.  Three hazy forms, and another half dozen swooping about overhead.  Two were systematically battering themselves on the gate.  'They don't seem to realise they can die in our Realm.'

'Maybe where you're from.'  Two turned Jon about and put the heel of his hand to Jon's forehead.  The word he spoke was unfamiliar, but it sounded like shna-lay, and it sent a bolt of energy through Jon's body like lightning.  Jon flexed his fingers about the hilt of both sword and mace, feeling as though he had the might to bring down a house, much less a few pesky Stormwings.

'What was that?'

'Scanran,' Two said.  'Enjoy it as it lasts.  Which it won't, not for long, so I suggest we take the battle to our guests.'

Jon had enjoyed a good fight in his time, but there was something uniquely invigorating about taking his first swing at a balding, snub-nosed Stormwing that swooped, shrieking, on them as they emerged at the gate.  The twang of Two's crossbow was accompanied by furious pinpoints of violet Gift, and it felled a Stormwing mid-dive.  The female splattered on the stones in a spray of blood and brain matter.  Two was already chanting again as Jon used his mace to hook one of the beserker Immortals by the belly, and, with strength he would never have had without Two's magic aiding him, he tore a vast overhand arc that ripped the Stormwing wide open.  Ropes of intestines spilled as the creature screeched and tried, too late, to swerve.  Jon howled his triumph as he swung the longsword after it, a cleaving blow that took the head clear off the squealing beast.

'Hold!'

It was one of the males, perched on the outer wall with his claws crumbling the terra cotta tiles to dust with every shift of his heavy weight.  Strings of blond hair swayed as it cocked its head at them.

'Hold,' he called again, and even the beserkers obeyed him, banking in wide loops and finding perches of their own on the roof.  Jon gestured fiercely, and the humans obeyed his command likewise.  Two took up stance a step behind him, and kept Salmalin at a safe distance from Jon's weapons.  Thom-- Jon risked a glance back at him-- he seemed aware, maybe, dull-eyed but watching the Stormwings for movement.

'Truce,' called the blond Stormwing.  A hint of irony coloured his fang-toothed sneer.  'Momentarily, anyway.'

'Momentarily,' Jon agreed.  He sluiced blood from the tang of his blade.  'What do you want?'

'Where did you come from?  Are there others of your kind?'

'I could ask the same question.'

The Stormwing's smirk widened to a grin.  'I'll tell if you do.'

'I don't know,' Salmalin whispered, 'you can't trust--'

'We need information,' Two interrupted.

Jon made his decision.  'We're not from this world.  There's plenty more of us where we came from.'

'Good,' Two murmured.

'But not here with you,' pointed out the Stormwing.  'Four little piggies, all alone.'

'And increasingly fewer of you,' Jon noted in return, gesturing to the fresh, twitching corpses with his mace.  'What happened to all the people?  To the other Immortals, for that matter?'

The Stormwing shrugged his shoulders, his steel wings rippling in the shadows.  'Gone,' he said.  'Most of them left when the last of the humans died out.  It's a lot less entertaining to play by yourself.'

Jon bared his teeth.  It was a laugh that rippled through the Stormwings this time, not a shrug, low, malicious.  Evil.

'What killed them?' Salmalin asked suddenly.  'Even if every Immortal from beyond the Wall killed a hundred humans apiece, you can't have killed them all.  Not even in a span of months.'

'Near onto a year, in your calendar,' the Stormwing replied carelessly.  But he paused.  'Not from this world.  Did he bring you here?'

'He who?'

The other Stormwings laughed again, a chorus of bird-like screeches and caws.  Not the blond one.  He barked a command, and the others fell silent.

'If you have a way home,' he said then, 'I'd take advantage.  There's nothing left here.  Even your gods have given up on you.'  His wings spread wide, and then he flung himself into the air.  'Truce over,' he called, but pumped his wings hard, rising high and away.  The rest of his flock followed.  'Next time,' his voice wafted back, cold as the icy wind.

'We should go,' Jon told the others.  'Immediately, and as quickly as we can travel.'

'On foot,' Two said, and was unmoved when Jon turned on him with a glower.  'I hate to bring it up, given your enthusiasm, but I haven't noticed many horses in the stables.  Or even any especially large ponies.'

'We'll go on foot til we find alternatives.'

'Magic,' said Thom.

Salmalin recovered first from the novelty of actual engagement.  'Magic?' he repeated.

'Magic.  Woooh.'  Thom wiggled his fingers at them.  Jon tried not to goggle at it-- it was beyond ludicrous, it was hugely inappropriate-- which was Thom all over.  Two smothered a snort.

'What's he talking about,' Jon asked through gritted teeth.

'How should I know?' Two retorted.

'He's you--'

'He's yours.  Your world.  I don't know what advances or discoveries--'  Two stopped mid-syllable, eyes narrowing.  'Huh.'

'What?'

'Oh,' Salmalin said, eyes widening.  'Cokeworth's theory.'

'Possibly.  Could be-- no, that was never successfully performed, I was thinking Vitalis--'

'Brilliant!  Vitalis postulated folded distance--'

'There's always Gwynnen Dee.  The laws of magic don't explicitly forbid anything, it's the laws of force that determine capability.'

'And the belief corrollary,' Salmalin finished, looking at Thom.  'Magic can bridge the gap between imagination and reality.'

'All of which means what?' Jon demanded imaptiently.

'It means we should get everything we'll need from the house before we try anything.'  Two pointed back toward the door with his chin.  'We have our choice between the University or the City of the Gods, and I don't fancy a trip to the mount--'

Jon waited out the pause by flexing his fingers on the hilt of his weapons.  'What,' he said finally, through gritted teeth.  He had forgotten how irksome conversation-- how irksomely one-sided conversation with Thom of Trebond could be.

'Tains,' Two said, finishing the word as if he hadn't stood there in silent contemplation almost a full minute.  'Alanna found the Jewel in the mountains.  The Roof of the World.'

'So we should be looking there too?  But the Jewel was here in Corus for years.  I mean, at the time of the Coronation,' Salmalin corrected himself.

'Because it chose to be here.  Absent the conditions that supported its existence here, it would retreat back to the place of greatest safety and resources.  It was created by an elemental and the elementals prefer regions without human interference.  The Roof of the World is as remote a location as can be.  If there's any wild magic left in the world, it will be there.'

'It could take a year to get there on foot,' Jon protested.  A hollow opened up in his gut, a rushing wind between his ears.  'Two in winter conditions.'

'I haven't got any pressing appointments,' Two said.

'Well I do!  My family, my kingdom-- there's a damn war on--'

'The sooner we get this world's Jewel, the sooner we can get you home.'  Two touched Jon's jaw with cool fingers.  'Jonathan.  I'm not making light of it.  But it's our only choice.'

Jon turned his head away.  It hurt to swallow.  'Yes,' he rasped.  'Fine.  All right.  Pack quickly.  We should be on the move before the Stormwings return.'

 

 

 

He smelled the porridge before he noticed the man carrying it. Thom Two. Jon put out a hand for it, trying not to grimace at the sight of soupy sludge. Alanna's twin wasn't any better in the kitchen than she was.

Had been. Jon made himself think it and feel it and then put it away. One more time. The more he practised, the less it would distract him the next time.

'There's something wrong with the sun,' Jon said.

Two nodded. 'I've noticed. It's fainter.'

'I thought it must be fog, or some kind of optical illusion. Magic.'

'I don't doubt it's to do with magic. But it's not illusion. Illusion affects the perception, not the object, and there's no sign of a spellcaster anywhere.' Two's voice tripped just slightly on that, as if he'd been about to add 'nearby', only to blunt it with honesty. If there was another living soul left in Corus, much less beyond, there was no sign of that at all. 'Besides which,' Two added then, 'anticipating my return from death and your arrival from a parallel plane strikes me as beyond reasonable. There's something wrong with the sun, yes.'

Jon ate a mouthful of overstewed oats. 'Are we going to fail?'

'Probably,' Two said.

Jon dropped the spoon and rubbed his forehead instead.  'You're a comfort.'

'We'll still try, though.  Jonathan.  Despair is just surrender.  And I've never known you to do that.'

'You've never known me.  You've known a man who died before the crown touched his head.'

'You really want to prove me wrong?'

Jon scrubbed his face, wincing.  He closed his sore eyes and gave himself a long moment, refusing thoughts, refusing to feel.  'No.'

'Finish your breakfast.  Thom and Arram are almost done with the preparations for the spell.  It might turn your mood about, a bit.'  Two stepped away, but then turned back.  He said, 'Alanna killed Roger in your world, didn't she?  But in mine, he killed her.  And he left the Gate of Idramm open, and he tore down the Wall between the Realms, or whatever came out of the Gate did.  Maybe he's the "he" the Stormwing mentioned.'

Jon stopped the spoon halfway to his mouth, and a glop of oats fell to a splat on the stone floor.  'He could still be alive?'

'I have the feeling we'll find out,' Two said, and this time he did go, leaving Jon to stare after him, aghast.

 

Chapter Text

Tribuni Eshmunazar bent his long neck.  'Your Imperial Highness,' he said, prostrating himself to kiss the cloth-of-gold slipper that extended to him.

'Rise,' Cahaya said graciously, even extending a hand to the Tribuni to help him do so.  Eshmunazar kissed that, too, his eyes humbly lowered.  'Your report, my General?'

'Most worthy master, I am no General.'

'You are ours because we have said it,' Cahaya decreed defiantly.  'Who has been at our side when our need was greatest, when our night was darkest?  We shall elevate you above others as we forge our kingdom anew from the ashes of the old.'

'Pretty speech,' Buri muttered.  'How long you think he practised it?'

'I told you to take the mirrors out of his room.'  Raoul was practising his courtier's face, at the moment, bland approval masking his seething temper.  'We've lost an ally there.'

'More than one.'

Eshmunazar stared at his purported Emperor in something uncomfortably near to rapture.  And he wasn't alone.  The legions had been awed by the griffins, and their outright worship of the boy who'd saved them from the griffin attack struck an uncomfortable note for a man raised in the more secular courts of the north.  Raoul was not an especially religious man, preferring a personal relationship with the Gods-- he asked nothing of them and prayed them leave him be in return.  It was for people like Alanna and Jon to confront the heavens directly, to debate philosophy and magic and the spirits.  Raoul liked what he could see, touch, smell.  He liked the doings of men, not the doings of the elementals.  He knew men.  There were no new kinds of men, no new ambitions, no new feelings to be felt, no new desires.  Men wanted power, they wanted money, they wanted the love of a woman, they wanted something to believe in.

Or someone.  And for too many who'd been there, when the griffins attacked, that someone had become Cahaya Ashkazai Nooreem, the new Emperor of Carthak, the Speaker of the Heavens.

'Sir Ohran,' Cahaya said now, turning an imperious smile on the man being led to his throne.  The open-air tent where Cahaya had decided to hold audience thronged with multiple queues hundreds deep.  But Cahaya gestured this lone Tortallan forward, and Raoul's scowl renewed when he saw Ohran kneel entirely willingly, an uncynical display of humility from a man who'd only rarely been moved by anything.  Damn griffins.

'Your wounds, brave knight?' Cahaya asked kindly.

Ohran ducked his head.  'Some stitches, your Highness, of no concern.'

'You saved our life.'  Cahaya raised his voice, pitching it to be heard by all the eager visitors outside.  'With your own body you protected ours.  We would repay that gallant heroism, Sir Ohran.  Take you this garter.  Though we cannot bestow the gold dagger and shield of our personal guard til we are restored our property at the Capital, wear this that all should know your honour and the honour we accord you now.  Rise, Ohran, Knight of Tortall and now Knight of the Imperial Spear, and stand you here at my side.  Our protection is in your capable hands, and our love also.'

'He called that boy a callow pissant not two nights ago,' Buri said through gritted teeth.

'Which makes him the perfect convert,' said Lindhall Reed, watching the proceedings with a clinical eye.  'There is a political instinct in the bloodline.  They know how to dispatch enemies in the making.  And where they cannot be dispatched, they will hold them close instead.'  He inclined his head to Buri, and met Raoul's eyes.  'May we speak, Sir Raoul?'

Their command tent was all but abandoned at the moment, aside from a guard of Carthaki legionnaires.  Raoul threw off his cape and unbuckled his sword belt, dropping the gladius to the cot where he'd spent an uneasy night wondering if he'd lost control of his own creation.  Emperor Cahaya.  Come into his own, now.

'Wild magic,' Reed reported now, taking a seat at the map-laden table only after holding a chair for Buri, who rolled her eyes at the courtesy but took the seat nonetheless.  'It's a form of Gift-- at least, according to some. I had a student, once, who studied its existence and expression, but... but I cannot claim to have been a believer.'

'So it's different than the Gift?' Raoul pressed.  He grimaced when he noticed someone had made an addition to the map of their camp.  Four gold-painted carved pieces each the size of a thumb-- a crude representation of wings on a lion's body.  Raoul knocked them aside.

'It's--' The mage stumbled on half-formed words, his frustration evident, but no greater than Raoul's. He wanted an explanation he could use, and he wanted it yesterday. 'It's magic, but it's not drawn from-- generated by-- it has no internal genesis, as does the Gift, a core which can be inherited much as eye colour or any other human trait. Arram argued, though I admit I thought him incorrect, if not fanciful--I--'

Raoul lost the last of his rapidly waning patience. 'Is Cahaya the only one with this wild magic then?'

Reed shook his shaggy head. 'The Banjiku of southern Carthak have long claimed to speak to their animals. Arram studied their myths. They claimed they were given this ability by their goddess Lashagui. Arram thought he'd found other examples, fishermen who could speak to dolphins, village healers with no geneaology of the Gift who could summon sprites and work minor midwifery charms-- the sort of vulnerable people burnt as witches or sacrificed during droughts to bring rain. But it's not proof, not to any rigourous standard. I would hesitate to even deign it a theorem.'

Buri poured a measure of ale into three horn cups that sat to one side, topping off her own immediately when she swallowed it back.  'There's a tribe of K'miri who call themselves horse-souls.  They ride like the wind.'

'But is it magic?' Reed shrugged.  'If you had asked me two days ago, I would have said no.'

Raoul drank from his cup.  It was ale, not the sour raisin wine of the south, but it had a salty flavour that lingered unpleasantly. 'But you've tested Cahaya for the Gift.'

'Obviously. All members of the Imperial bloodline are tested. It crops up in two or three a generation. His Imperial Majesty-- that is, his former Imperial Majesty or whatever we call a man dethroned in absentia-- Ozorne has a strong Gift, as did his brother, Cahaya's father. But Cahaya's core is dormant.'

'We have tales of his kind.'

Raoul turned in his seat.  In the dim light of the tent's lone lamp, he first took the lissome figure standing there to be Lady Varice, Reed's companion from the University.  But Lady Varice had not once ventured out of her bed since they'd made camp here, and this woman was tall, as tall as a man-- as tall as a very tall man, Raoul saw, when he stood and found himself looking up into eyes of irridescent red.

The slice of a blade leaving its scabbard recalled him from his shock.  Buri, growling low in her throat like a wolf, and putting herself square between Raoul and the stranger.

'How interesting,' said the lady.  'But you may stand down, little woman.  I have not come for blood today.'

'What--' Reed rasped.  'What-- what are you?'

She came a step beyond the tent flap, brushing back her hood of plain woven homespun.  Or was it?  What Raoul had taken for thread fluttered like feathers as it fell to her shoulders, parting in a deep vee on skin that moved more like scales than flesh.  Her face was ineffably beautiful, but predatory, too, blacker than the darkest Carthaki, with a sharp nose and an almost lipless mouth.  Her teeth gleamed red as her eyes.

'The shamans used to call me Vampire,' she said.  'The more fanciful knew me as the Lightning Bird.  They would dig for my eggs where the lightning struck the ground.  My name is Impundulu.'

'You're an Immortal.'  Raoul's empty hand twitched towards his foolishly discarded sword, but he didn't need her little knowing smirk to tell him what instinct already had.  He'd never land a blow.  Instead he took Buri by the shoulder, drawing her near-- yanking when she wanted to refuse him.  He wanted her near him.

'Banishment is a tiresome business,' Impundulu mused, brushing past them.  She moved with impossible grace, settling like liquid silk in Raoul's abandoned chair.  She inspected the map with interest, and laughed a little to find the griffin figurines.  Her laugh was musical and cruel.  'The human realms are so delightful,' she said then.  'How much you change with the centuries-- and how little.  Such grubby little creatures you are, always fighting wars for the same meaningless acres of land.  Your brief, squalid lives are wasted in petty pursuits.  Yet the quality of you-- of at least a few of you-- ah, now that is precious treasure to me.'

'What do you want?' Raoul asked bluntly.

'The little golden one,' she replied sweetly.  'I felt his power waken.  I hastened my journey to be the first to taste him.'

'Then you'd best hasten your journey in the other direction.  Immortals die.  One less of you won't sadden me a bit.'  This time Raoul did go for the sword.  Lindhall Reed summoned magic, colouring the air with a throb of Gift, and Buri wasted even less time.  She swung.

The blade whistled as it cut the air.  Raoul heard the sickening crunch of flesh maimed, the screech of inhaled air on the edge of a scream.  But where Impundulu had sat, now there was nothing.  A cloud of feathers scattered, floating serenely to lay abandoned on the carpet.  She had gone.

'Get Ohran in here,' Raoul said.  'Cahaya wants a protector, and I want him protected.'

 

 

**

 

'Myles,' his daughter gasped, and then Myles had his arms full of a tired, sweating knight who added a spot of damp to his shoulder as she wept.

But no more than he added to hers.  His tears flowed despite his shame at the weakness, his fear of adding to her woes and worries.  When he stopped comforting her and found her cradling him instead he wept all the harder.

'Myles,' she whispered.  'Father.  It's all right.'

It wasn't, but he couldn't bear that she should waste herself on him.  'Yes,' he said, bracing himself, and forced a smile that she wearily returned.  He brushed her lank hair back from her cheek.  'You've gone thin, child.'

'It's been rather a long month,' she said, with a ghost of a smile.  He cupped her jaw and couldn't resist a chuckle.

'That's my girl,' he said.  'Now.  Eleni can cook, mend, and stretch a pantry to the breaking point.  I can do none of that, but I make a keen-eyed lookout still.  Station us where you most need us.'

'Not so keen-eyed, old man,' Alanna said, and gestured about her.  'Or hadn't you noticed?  The siege has lifted.'

The grim evidence lay in the wreckage on the beachhead.  Alanna showed him, from the safe distance of the outer wall, pointing out this or that amongst the horror.  It was a horror, and one even a man seasoned at war found difficult to stomach.  Wise Eleni had stayed in the keep, already finding ways to busy herself with the freed Caynns and the many wounded.  Unwise Myles had told himself knowledge was necessary, and so had dragged himself to this hellscape to see it with his own eyes.  And what a sight it was.  Bloated corpses a dozen deep in the sluggish red waves.  Mostly Carthaki, though a few Stormwings lay still amongst them, their metallic wings glinting in the sunlight.  Three Carthaki ships had run aground on the shallows, two listing madly, the third breached like a cracked egg.

'The Stormwings did all this?' he asked, when he could speak levelly.  An enormous frog lumped up his throat, or so it seemed.  He rubbed it with trembling fingers.

'Our allies,' Alanna said.  She looked away.  'Ozorne retreated as soon as he realised they'd turned on him.  He's not terribly brave without his Immortals to do the dying for him.  He left the bare minimum to hold us off, and the battle... the rout... I don't know if you can call this a victory.  But it's done.'

'Allies,' Myles questioned, and questioned again when Alanna remained silent.  'Allies, allied by what terms?'

'A bargain with the devil.'  She shook her head, and would say no more of it. 'The news?' she asked instead.  'Jon?'

She heard the grim tale out in silence.  They were alone on the wall, with only the wintry wind for company, whipping their hair and whispering beneath cloaks and woollens like insidious snakes.  Myles recounted all of it, sparing no detail, and there was a wealth of that-- George and his messenger birds, Jon and the Jewel, the Archon, the Carthaki mage who'd spied for Tortall and brought Tortall its doom in one form: Thom.  Myles watched his daughter's face, turned ever slightly away from his, but though they stood so close their arms touched he could sense nothing of her reaction to this revelation.  Perhaps it was but one horror more-- perhaps she did not believe him-- perhaps it was prayer, the way her eyes slid just a little higher, above the horizon line, to the looming grey clouds hovering threateningly over the ocean.

'Then Jon is dead,' she said at last, when he had finished.

'I don't know,' Myles answered truthfully.  'Only that they are gone, and have not yet returned.'

'And should I act as though I believe that, or should I play politics and throw my weight behind a new king?'

'That decision will be made by the Queen Regent.'

Alanna didn't immediately reply.  She rubbed at her reddened nose, chafed her bare hands.

'The Queen will need her strongest supporters at her side,' Myles added slowly.  'If you will be, that is, one of her strongest supporters.'

'Jon is my King.'  She gripped her hands into fists so tight her knuckles whitened.  'And my King bade me follow his wishes even if he no longer sits the throne to speak them.  I'm just... finding that unexpectedly difficult.'

'He would have wanted you to support Roald.'  Myles drew an icy breath.  'But... it is not unnatural to hold to hope.  And that can be your strength.  Be a symbol of hope.  The people will need one.'

Her collar of fox fur was nearly the same ginger tint as her hair.  Her twin's hair.  She didn't look like Thom, not any more, not as much as he'd thought when he'd seen the boy-mage resurrected.  She was a grown woman now, a blooded knight, she was a mother, a King's Champion.  But when she said, vulnerable and human and brave enough to admit it, 'I would very much like to hope they come back,' Myles could only take her hand.

'You've missed him.'

'With every dawn.'  She closed her eyes.  'He was... he was Between the Realms all this time?  How did I not know?'

'He seemed convinced we did.  That Si-Cham had told...'  Had told Jonathan.

'Maybe he did.  I don't-- I don't remember.'  She shook her head back and forth twice, a hard desperate toss.  'It was all such a jumble.  And then I fought Alex... Roger... I don't remember.  It was-- it's-- all just-- pieces.'

'If we had known, we would have retrieved him.  Somehow.'

'Would we?  Or would we have debated in the Royal Council whether it was wise to re-open the events of Coronation Day?  Would we have consulted scholars and experts, asked for proof, asked for tests, asked for sureties?  And if we had brought him back-- he wouldn't be a free man.  He would have been a hostage.  A prisoner.'

'You could call what he did treason.'

He knew she would say it.  He loved her for saying it, because her loyalty and her strength were twin virtues, and in his way Thom had been very like her, to his own desperate end.  'He's my brother, Myles,' she whispered.

'They'll come back, Alanna.  Believe.'

She turned her face away again.  When she spoke, it was gruff, impersonal.  Sweeping aside the unsolveable and tackling the only problems she could do.  'I do need your skills, as it happens.  There's a boy here.  He needs a friend, a mentor, a kind touch.  I greatly fear I've undone any chance I had to be that for him, even if I'd had the time.  Will you talk to him?  I think he may be the crux of all of this.  And I need to know what he knows.'

'Of course.  However you need me, I am glad for a task.'  Myles squeezed her hand, and let go.  'Who is this young man?'

'The Crown Prince of Carthak, as it happens.'

'My dear,' Myles said, blinking, 'just when I think there are no surprises left in life.'

Chapter Text

Three months.

Three months. The pale grey dawn that brought less and less sunshine with it each day marked the close of the third month. Three months in this empty place that was like his home but not. Three months of wandering that felt increasingly aimless. Three months of not knowing what became of his wife, his children, his army, his war. Three months of refusing to mourn, of convincing himself he would never have to, because he would return to them. Because he would. Because he had to.

But-- three months.

Jonathan folded up their leather-bound atlas of maps. He'd been keeping track of the days by marking the inside cover. Maybe it was time to stop counting. It wouldn't change anything, anyway.

'Are we ready?' he asked, stuffing the atlas into his pack and shouldering that. He kicked dirt on their small fire, another useless habit. What did it matter if they burnt down a farmstead? There was no-one to displace. No lives to ruin. He could burn the world down and it would be no loss to anyone.

Draper and Thom were pacing the round of their camp, leaving a salt circle in their wake and carefully going over the gaps. Two joined Jon in the centre of it, a stray bit of wind lifting his loose hair and sending it dancing. Along with the fading sun above, wintry chill had chased them across the continent. The mountains just visible on the horizon were a wall of white, and Jon shivered as cold fingers crept down his spine.

'We're ready,' Two said.

Jon nodded. He tugged off his gloves and put up his hands, palms outward and fingers rigid toward the sky. Two pressed one hand forward to meet his-- long scholar's fingers falling just a knuckle short of Jon's, but warm and reassuring, for a moment, a welcome human touch-- and then gave his other hand to Draper, who took up stance beside him, and Thom completed the circle, taking Draper's left and Jon's right.

The concentration, the chant, the synchrocity no longer required any especial effort. They had done it dozens of times in three months. Jon closed his eyes at the first tug to his magical core, the little well of Gift in him replenished by sleep and food and determination, and if it was frosted these days with icy despair, well, he had no strength left over to fix it. It came when he called, and he spilled it into the men linked to him, driving it out through the contact of skin on skin and received it back again in a rush of fire that seared him to the bone.

'On three,' Draper said, voice strained, scratchy, and-- 'Three, two-- one--'

They vanished.

 

 

 

They'd grown skilled in controlling the jumps. Their first few tries had been wild miscalculations, scattering them across the dying landscape. They'd got better at distributing the power, focusing the visualisation, sticking the landing. They'd learnt to come out swinging.

The moment Jon felt solid ground beneath him again he drew his sword, breaking the circle and whirling away from the other mages, scanning the skies before he took in a single feature of the new landscape. No Stormwings, as there had been a few times; no manticore, no herd of bloodthirsty unicorns, no satyrs in orgiastic cavorting round a bonfire, no immortals at all. No people, either, but Jon no longer looked for them, one old habit successfully squashed. There were never any people.

'Safe,' Thom said.

'Safe,' Draper echoed. He slung an arm about Thom's shoulders, sagging grey-faced and upright only by sheer dint of how difficult it would be to get moving again if he allowed himself to fall. 'Any shelter nearby?'

'There's a building there,' Jon said, allowing his sword to droop ground-ward. Exhaustion slammed him like a body blow, and he felt almost too heavy to keep himself moving, but he marched. They had to have shelter by night-fall. 'Yurt, I think. Everyone move.'

They made a ragged troop, staggering up the gentle incline of slopes that would soon become hills that would then become mountains. If Jon didn't need them for the jumps, he would have left them behind in his impatience to reach the Roof of the World. As it was, he only set his jaws and endured. And led. He had the lead by several hundred yards by the time he reached the farm. He was sick to death of farms, but they had long left behind the manor houses of Tortall, the country estates of Tusaine and Maren, even the inns and bedsteads of western Sarain. They had passed the outer edges of land familiar to Jon, and he was the farthest from his home now he'd ever been, the days when the Great Desert had been impossibly foreign leagues behind him. This was K'miri land now, said Draper, the only one of them sure enough to guess beyond the contents of a map, and even he had never been beyond Tyra and the Carthaki capital. Sometimes Jon thought of men like Myles, who had loved the ancients and their strange artefacts, and knew now how they must have felt looking on the ruins of a people lost to time. The K'miri had lived nomadic lives, following their herds across the inhospitable lands of their war-ravaged country, and everywhere was the detritus of a culture Jon would never know.

He thrust aside the carpet hung across the yurt's entrance, hand on his dagger but in no real fear he would encounter anything inside. The immortals left human dwellings alone, for the most part, having little interest in the abandoned possessions of humans long dead. Everything was as it had been left when its occupants had-- vanished, died, there was no way of knowing and Jon no longer had to train his mind away from contemplating that horror-- he only scanned the dim space for supplies, and judged it habitable. There were pallets laid with furs that would protect them from the cold, a wood-burning stove that would allow them to cook, food that would allow them to eat. Food was a gnawing concern at the back of his thoughts, ever present. Three months, on top of the year at least since people had gone from the world, and anything else living as well. Dried goods sustained them, wild crops that needed no tending, but that would run out, some day, and their quest would end when their food did.

Footsteps announced someone behind him. Two shuffled in and made straight for one of the pallets, collapsing with a soft moan. 'Any water?' he rasped.

Jon unhooked an earthenware jug and pulled the dry cork. 'Smells a bit rancid,' he commented, but tested it anyway with a cautious swallow. He coughed into an elbow. 'Wine, or some kind of liquor.' He drank two swallows more, deep pulls, and tossed the jug at Two. 'That'll knock you on your ass.'

'Good. I wouldn't mind being drunk on my ear.'

'I'd mind. I'm not cleaning up after you if you're sick all night.'

Two may have muttered something unflattering. Jon might have smiled. It was probably the liquor.

Investigation of a crate yielded shrivelled tubers, blackened nubs of some kind of fruit, rice, oatcakes in crusted old honey, and some kind of-- 'Meat,' Jon crowed, unwrapping leathery strips of horse or reindeer or who knew what, and he didn't give a single damn. He threw a hunk at Two with the hand he wasn't using to stuff his mouth, and Two scrambled with renewed vigour to catch it. This time the moan was ecstacy, and Jon echoed it. Their eyes met, and they laughed.

'What in the seven hells could possibly be funny?' That was Draper, banging his tall head on the crossbar that secured the carpet and lurching for a seat on a rickety stool, his stork legs folding awkwardly to his chest. Thom went into a weary seat on the rug at his side, head falling to Draper's lap to receive a tender caress. Jon looked away, his momentary merriment fading. He told himself it wasn't envy.

'Feast tonight,' Two said. 'I know we should save it, but I don't care.'

'No. We don't know when we'll find meat again. One for each of us, and we'll keep the rest.'

'Don't be so damn practical, Jonathan. Live a little.'

'We are living,' Jon snapped at him. 'A little, and only that. I'd like to keep us that way.'

Silence fell.

 

 

 

Three months and a day.

Jon stretched. The bit of softness at the middle that had plagued him the last few years had withered from his frame, and he could touch his toes without difficulty now. Years of sitting through long counsel meetings, hosting state banquets, eating more than his fill of sumptuous rich foods had wasted off him. He was perhaps fitter than he'd ever been, even as a knight in training; outside the Drell, his life had never truly depended on his readiness to battle, and whatever pride he'd taken in his abilities had faded under the knowledge he'd sit a throne far longer than he'd fight his own wars or duel his own enemies. Alanna had been that for him, the warrior in the saddle, the muscle of his sword arm, and he'd told himself he wielded his brain as well as any weapon, and more needfully. But not here. Here, where nothing was as it should be.

Two joined him, sleepy and silent, when the sun hovered indecisively above the mountains as if it wondered whether it had the strength to go on climbing. It was smaller than it should be, that glowing orb. Fainter. Farther away. Another three months and it might be gone entirely. It washed Two's face with the faintest glow of life, caught on the small curve of his lips as he turned something nearly a smile on Jon. Jon pretended not to notice.

'Where'd you get that?' he said, nodding instead at the furred and hooded tunic Two wore.

'Hanging on a line out back. There's one for each of us.'

'That's stealing,' he said, a little shocked.

'So's taking all their food and sleeping in their tent. There's no-one to mind it, Jonathan.'

'Why do you always call me that? Jonathan, not Jon.'

Two's head tilted in a particular way he had, curiosity and narrow-eyed contemplation both. 'Everyone did, so's you'd let 'em. Took me bloody years to get the honour.' Two couldn't quite reach his toes, but he curled his hands about his ankles. 'I can stop.'

'It's fine.' Jon thrust to his feet. 'Ready?'

'Ready.'

Two would never be as good a sparring partner as his twin, would never be as good even as a knight who'd spent the last decade in a chair more often than the practise field, but he was uncomplaining, most of the time. The clash of their blades was occasionally clumsy, but where Two cursed and narrowly avoided losing a finger to a sword's razor edge, Jon just as often swore at bruised ribs from the concussive force of Two's spells that struck like invisible hammers. They had a brief chase, when Two took off running-- Jon was faster, but for the buffetting wind of Two's magic battering him back-- that ended with an undignified squawk was Two cratered into a mole's barrow. Jon helped him up, only to take a shove that knocked him clear off his feet, but before Two could take the advantage looming over him Jon kicked out his feet from under him, and Two crashed to the dirt. They rolled, wrestling for the dagger at Jon's belt. 'Give up,' Jon panted at him, digging his elbow into Two's collarbone and plastering him flat with a forearm across this throat. 'No,' Two retorted succinctly, amethyst mage-fire swarming Jon's eyes, ears, stealing his breath. But Jon had seen that trick before, and raised his own Gift to repel it.

And then the magic puttered, and went out. Too soon. They'd last longer tomorrow, when they'd recovered more from the jump. In a day, maybe two more, they'd be ready to jump again.

Two lay supine beneath him, heaving gasps slowing as he relaxed. He brushed sweaty hair out of his eyes. Then his hand curved, sweetly, as he did the same service for Jon. A fingertip followed the line of his brow, til Jon moved his head away with a little shake. It wasn't til a boot twined with his that Jon pushed away, rolling off him and flattening to his back in the dry grass, staring up at the empty grey sky above him.

'We could,' Two said, somewhere to his side. 'We used to do, at the Drell. Just-- release the tension, a bit.'

'You and me?' Jon clarified, wondering at the uneasy roil of his gut.

'Well... no. Alex, sometimes. Geoffrey. Sacha and Sacherell of Wellam, once, together.' Two chuckled softly. 'That was memorable.'

'I've never done that. Not with a man.'

'We're not exactly drownin' in camp whores.'

'I'm married.'

Three months and a day. Thayet was out there. Did she believe him gone? Did she grieve him? Did she lie down at night with someone offering her comfort? The long ginger hair that fell like flax shone even in the unhappy sun, the way Alanna's always did. It could be her, that pale freckled skin blurred in the corner of his eyes as he strained not to look. Could be her, breathing beside him, slow and steady now, alive.

Two sat up on one elbow, head canted to look at him. 'So tell me about her. What she was like for you. You had children?'

'Three.' Jon breathed. 'Roald, the eldest. Kalasin, Kally. Liam's our youngest. He'd be about nine months old now.'

'Liam?' Something in Two's tone turned Jon's turned his head. 'Named after anyone?'

'Liam Ironarm. The Shang Dragon. He saved my life. Died, saving my life.'

'She married him,' Two said. 'Here. In our time. Came back from the Roof of the World with a fucking ring on her finger. I remember that. Don't think I was all that nice about it.'

Jon pushed up on an elbow of his own. 'Thayet married Liam?'

'Who's Thayet?'

'Who's-- who married Liam?'

'Alanna,' Two said. 'On her quest for the Jewel. You didn't-- you didn't marry Alanna?'

'No.' Something too grim for a laugh died in his chest. 'She... I asked her. Before she ever left the Desert. She turned me down. Married George instead. Why did you... why'd you think I'd married her?'

'Because she broke your bloody heart.' A breath passed. 'Because you can hardly look at me. It's not-- it's not--'

'What.'

'It's not easy for me either!' Two burst out, that Trebond temper suddenly flaring red-hot, and that earned him Jon's eyes, at long last. Two sat up, flushed cheeks and reddened ears and those familiar violet eyes ablaze with emotion and Gift alike as his hands clenched to white-knuckled fists in the grass. 'You think I don't dream of her every night, think of her every day? She was the only-- only-- and you, you think I want to look at you any more than you want to look me? You are so like him.'

Roger. A pinprick of guilt touched him, unexpected and unwelcome. Jon touched his beard, though it had grown rough, unkempt, as his hair had crept down to his shoulders and he hadn't thought about it, hadn't had to think about it, fully absorbed in his own problems. 'Then why offer what you did?'

Brittle. That was the word. Damaged. Fragile, and he hadn't thought Two could be fragile, not like Thom. From the moment he'd come back from the dead ready to kill Jon'd looked at Two-- he'd looked at Two and seen his twin. But then he'd always counted on Alanna being strong, even when she'd needed more than just his confidence in her.

'Oh, for fuck's sake,' Two said, and he climbed to his feet and he walked away.

 

 

**

 

 

Bile rushed up her throat in a wash of acid. Alanna emptied her stomach into the dirt, gagging on the slurry of toast and oats. She braced herself on the wall of the keep. She spat, but the bitter taste remained.

'The men will begin to guess,' Thayet said, behind her.

'They'll think I drank too much of that mash liquor they've been passing round.' Dizzy. She squeezed her eyes shut til it passed. It would pass.

'The ones with wives will recognise it.'

'Only if they see.' She would control it. She could control it. She took in a deep breath, and another, and another, and straightened with an effort. She wiped sweat from her temples, her neck. 'I'm ready. Let's go in.'

Thayet stayed her, though, with a hand outstretched. For a moment they were not the Queen Regent and the King's Champion, but two women alone with the wind, and it could have been anywhen, anywhere, the road to the Roof of the World, maybe, when there hadn't yet been wars, and Jewels, and Jonathans. Well. They were down two of the three, now. Thayet's hand curled to her belly, fingertips first, a ginger touch. Then Thayet's arms were around her, and Alanna closed her eyes as they pricked hotly.

'Have you told him?'

No answer was necessary. She didn't have an answer, either. The answer had sat in her belt pouch for six weeks, six weeks, and was there even now, the cork still firmly lodged in the bottle's neck. Eleni had known immediately what they were for, when Alanna had asked her to find them. Her mother-in-law would have been well within her rights to refuse, to shriek down the house, to weep at Alanna's unforgivable betrayal. Instead she'd quietly assembled the herbs, and laced them with tea leaves. 'Drink it down in one go,' was all she'd said, and then she'd put her arms about Alanna and held her. She'd nearly done it that night, that first night. But she'd been so tired, wrung out, wrung of every last human emotion, so she'd set them aside for the next night. But then they'd moved on from Caynn. And after Caynn had been Naxen, and after Naxen they'd gone inland, to meet up with the King and his Bazhir army. The time had never seemed right. The time had passed her by.

'What a stupid mistake,' Alanna whispered into Thayet's silky hair.

'Maybe this is what we need. What we all need.' Thayet squeezed her arms, stepping back to meet her eyes. 'Life is hope, in times like these.'

'I can't lead an army if I can't sit my horse or wear armour or--'

'There's fighting, and there's leading. We need you for leading. And you would do that from your death bed if you had to.' Thayet cupped her cheek. 'Be glad, Alanna. You must be glad. And your husband.'

'Your Majesty.'

Halef Seif. Hakim was behind him, watching narrow-eyed as he did everything. How long had they been there? Or did it even matter. Thayet released Alanna, not without one final tender grip on her hand.

'The King calls for you,' said Halef Seif. 'Both of you, Woman Who Rides Like A Man.'

 

 

 

The encampment that stretched beyond Queenscove was the largest army Tortall had ever seen. The ragged remnants of the knights and the King's Own had been joined by the Queen's Riders, but those numbers paled beside the sea of humanity that was the Bazhir tribesmen. They had come out of the Desert like some mythical vision, a column swarming the Great Road as far as the eye could see. At its head was the dark-haired boy who'd called them up in his name. Faced with that fearsome sight, baron after baron had folded to the King's demands. They'd brought their men at arms to answer the King's call, whether they'd liked it or not. And many of them did not. But they stayed even through their distrust and distaste for the Bazhir. No-one was going anywhere so long as the immortals stood watch on the camp perimetre.

Their walk took them past a flock of Stormwings feasting on a deer-- not a pretty sight on any day. The cerebus had a wide space around it most times, but meal time left it practically deserted. One of the beast's three heads lifted to growl, fresh blood dripping from its jaws. The gargoyles tended to be solitary, scattered through the camp with a lone companion or even a fire all to their own. Alanna didn't mind the gargoyles; they were excellent sentries, never sleeping, never shirking their duty. She did mind the centaurs, who were raucous, usually drunk, and bad at taking orders, fearsome warriors though they were. The lizard-like hell hounds leapt effortlessly from ground to tree, their scaled tails wrapping around branches as their articulated claws snatched caps from soldiers seated below them, cackling in their clicking tongue to each other. The animal gods were no less startling than the monster immortals, not only for their size-- larger than their real life counterparts-- but for the sheer surprise of seeing a wolf standing beside a man, an eagle perched on a horse's saddle, preening its oversized wingspan. A black cat sauntered across her path, pulling painfully at long-buried grief, but it didn't have Faithful's violet eyes.

They were met at the gate by Baird. The Duke was dark-eyed, pale of cheek. He'd lost two sons and hadn't known it til the King had returned his Court to Tortall proper, and Queenscove in particular. The youngest ever chief of the Palace Healers had volunteered his lands as a safe base inland, after they'd lost the coastline to the combined navy of Carthak and the Copper Isles. Baird was accompanied by a small retinue: to his left was his lone remaining son, young Nealan, a wan child who tended to look lost amongst the hubbub that had taken over his home, never quite clinging to his father but forever at his heels as if he were afraid to let the man out of his sight. Alanna ruffled the boy's hair and received a small smile. Kaddar did not smile, nor ever had in her sight, but gave Alanna a solemn nod nonetheless, before he broke his dignified stance to brush at the kinky curls growing long over his forehead. Myles, who informally tutored both boys to keep them out from underfoot, had spared himself the walk through the kill yard, and took his greeting in the form of a kiss to Alanna's cheek as they reached him.

'News from Pirate's Swoop,' her father murmured, linking his arm with her and drawing her back to the tail of the group now moving for the inner bailey. 'Our Stormwing friend Lord Rikash brought it fresh this morning.'

'Friend is rather too strong a word for it,' Alanna muttered, but she eagerly took the scroll Myles provided, eyes roving lovingly over George's familiar script. No scribe, her husband, but his distinctive scratch was all the more precious to her. 'Have you deciphered it?'

'George is being cautious-- it's triply encoded. We must assume the immortals as well as our Carthaki foes would be interested in any intelligence about Tortall's strengths. But strengths we have in plenty. A Copper Isles fleet attempted to portage upriver and were set upon by Stormwings. George reports a merry bonfire of the remains.'

Yes. For all their losses-- Corus was an open wound Alanna felt she could never heal-- they held the interior, and Ozorne had yet to make any advantage of that, without his legions to hold any territory he captured.

'There's more,' Myles warned her, as armed guards stood aside for them and they passed into the keep proper, plunging them from a rainy winter grey into a nominally drier, nominally brighter anteroom. Myles paused their march long enough to speak to Alanna out of earshot of the others. 'There's a messenger,' Myles informed her quietly. 'She brings news of Carthak. Problematic news.'

'What?' Alanna demanded with dread. 'I thought there was nothing left alive in Carthak.'

'Carthak City, certainly. George's contacts in Tyra and the Maren Penninsula, however, say there's plenty of activity outside the capital. Some six legions have converged on the Valley of Zama.' Myles flipped George's message and sketched a few brief lines on the back in charcoal, outling the Inland Sea and the Carthaki continent, drawing an X where Zama sat, roughly beneath Sarain. 'And those legions have declared themselves the government of Carthak, under Emperor Cahaya.'

'Who?'

'From all we can discern, he's a son by the male line, a nephew. Whether or not the claim is legitimate, it's being upheld by the legions. They've pacified the country, by all accounts, and they're holding it.'

Alanna worried at her lower lip. 'Kaddar knows?' she asked.

Myles' watery blue eyes met hers. 'How to tell the boy he's been dispossessed of his throne, and his usefulness to us, in one fell blow?'

'Damn. Double damn.'

'The King could offer him protection as a personal favour. They have become friendly.'

No. Alanna had seen them together, certainly, but friendly was rather too strong a word for that, too. Roald had no friends now. There was nothing so soft left in the boy.

'Sir Alanna,' Thayet called, from the Queenscove throne room. Alanna pressed Myles' hand, and went through.

 

 

 

'Welcome, Sir Knight,' Roald greeted her, as she approached the arrangement of tables and chairs set before the great fire. Roald had pride of place in a prettily carved chair that rested, subtly, on a wooden platform that put the young king at a height more equal with his elders. Kaddar stood at his side, hands clasped and head low, as though to avoid any particular attention. Alanna avoided his eyes, and took her place at Roald's left, privileged even over the Queen Regent in times of war. The position put her facing the woman who was sat opposite the table, a goblet of the distinctive Queenscove green glass laid on a cloth of gold napkin before her.

'May I introduce,' Roald said, 'the Lady Nrunuvis.'

Alanna inclined herself in a bow again. 'Welcome to Queenscove, my Lady.'

A gloved hand with impossibly long fingers extended across the table. Alanna could not decline without causing offence, and intended none, but her hackles were up, and she released the hilt of her sword long enough to touch the emberstone at her throat, as she clasped that strange hand in her own. The lady's flesh was cool beneath the strange and slippery material of her glove, neither leather nor silk but something in between, like the deep sheen of her elegant veil.

'My Lady brings us news,' Roald added. He paused, bending his head to the sleek white stoat that climbed the arm of his chair and hissed in his ear. 'Yes,' he nodded. 'I daresay you're correct. My Lady, if you would repeat for my Champion what you've told me.'

The voice that issued from the veil was low, throaty, almost divinely womanly. 'I bring a message from the Speaker of the Heavens.'

'Who?'

'He who rules the humans of the southern contintent. And the immortals who have sworn their loyalty to him.'

'Sworn him loyalty?'

'Aye. We follow where he wills us, for he is the link between your Realm and ours.'

Triple damn. 'And what are his intentions with all this loyalty?' Alanna questioned sharpish.

'Peace,' replied Lady Nrunuvis. 'If you will have it.' She reached beneath the concealing drape of her gown, and Alanna gripped her sword anew, but it was no weapon the immortal produced. It was a messenger's gold scroll case. A Tortallan ambassador's gold scroll case.

'Sir Raoul of Goldenlake bids you will read and reply,' she said.

Alanna's jaw dropped. Hers was not the only one. 'Raoul is alive?' Alanna gasped, and Thayet's head had come up, her face painfully lit with sudden hope. 'Buri? Ohran? All of them?'

'I believe his missive will explain all, Sir Knight.'

'With your Majesty's leave,' Alanna said, barely patient enough for Roald's nod, and unclasped the case. Raoul. It was almost as sweet as George's writing, to see Raoul's hand, to hold in her fingers proof her oldest friends hadn't gone down with Carthak City after all. Momentary tears blinded her, but she blinked them away. Multiple pages-- Raoul had a lot of news to pass on-- she passed them as she read them, first to Thayet, to Myles who came to read over her shoulder, to the King.

'You may,' Roald said, and Alanna looked up to see Kaddar excusing himself, pale-cheeked and alone. Roald watched him go, but only til Kaddar slipped away through the side door. When Roald turned back, his spine was all steel, cold steel.

'Gladly do we reply to Sir Raoul,' Roald said. 'We greet our royal cousin Emperor Cahaya's ascent to the throne of Carthak with joy. And we greet peace with our Carthaki brethren all the more.'