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The air never quieted on the Brînian coast, and this night it was all angry violence atop Seakeep overlooking Blood Bay. Seven stories high on a cliff thrice its height, Draken fair imagined the stone tower swaying as he emerged from the twisting stairwell into the fierce, chill wind. Flames in the deep bowl churned and danced, sparks scattering, bright dust against the night sky. The wide-eyed firegirl dropped to her knees and twitched her head down into huddled obeisance. Her back bent like Draken's finest recurve bow. One glimpse of her face told him she was sundry: a Brînian-Akrasian mix, likely.
Frightened of him. Curious.
She's frightened of the throne and sword, not the man, Bruche said.
Perhaps his swordhand was right. A long life and a longer death made the spirit residing inside Draken wise. After all, not all girls were frightened of him. His sister certainly wasn't, nor his daughter, who always squealed and scampered across the tiled floors on her hands and knees toward him when he appeared. Still, the slavegirl's trembling genuflection reminded him mistrust and fear were the costs of power.
"Go inside. Warm yourself." Draken waved the girl-slave downstairs and she scampered off. Bloody cruel keeping a child up here. Especially come moonrise. But the fire had to be watched, more so now in wartime, and he had no proper soldiers or civilians to spare for the duty. Living under malicious means had always been the fate for slaves. He'd done his share of unpleasant, dangerous duties when he'd been one.
Once she was gone, he let his hood whip back in the wind, glad for the row of buckles down his chest securing his cloak over his woolen shirt, and moved closer to the heat radiating from the great firebowl. He had to avert his gaze from the glow. The great fire stung his eyes.
Beyond the cliff and the tower, whitecaps dotted Blood Bay. He drew in a breath of salty air, cold and harsh in his lungs. Another gust stole his next breath. A shower of sparks cascaded through the air. One fluttered against the green stripe adorning the edge of his black cloak.
He brushed it aside. "Show yourself, Osias. I know you're here. I met Setia below."
"Khel Szi." The greeting might have been a whisper or his imagination, given the wind. But the Mance emerged from the mist around the bend of the railed tower walk, glowing faintly silver under the rising moons. Draken felt his shoulders ease in the presence of his serene beauty. The Mance had been gone two sevennight to gods knew where and the time had dragged.
Osias glanced about, a smile on his lips. "Beautiful night for a tower meeting, Khel Szi."
Draken grunted. "I needed a private place to speak to you."
Osias's gaze darted past Draken. The Mance's irises shifted from good-humored lavender to swirling storm grey. His face took on sharp angles, and the crescent moon tattooed on his forehead looked like a jagged black hole on his glowing skin. His bow appeared from under his cloak and he nocked an arrow before Draken could even speak. "Father." The word was a threat.
Truls, the ghost who had joined them, remained still and stoic, but his edges blurred and sharpened continually. Watch him too long and it turned the stomach.
"I don't know if even Oscher arrows will kill a ghost-Mance — being as he's already dead several times over," Draken said.
Osias narrowed his eyes at the spirit. When Truls failed to speak, he asked, "When did he appear to you?"
"About the time you left." Draken stepped closer and pushed the arrow aside, mindful not to touch the sharp edge but just the shaft. His healing powers would rattle the old stones of the tower and he had no intention of finding out if his magic was strong enough to bring it down. "I don't know why he's quiet just now. He tells me day and night that Sikyra is in danger, we're all under threat. I wish he'd bloody well tell me something I don't know." A lame attempt at a joke, especially with his voice rough from a recent bout of chest rot. He coughed but it did nothing to clear the sick knot beneath his heart. He didn't say the worst of it, not yet, but as usual his friend cut to the quick of the matter.
"And Queen Elena? Does he speak of her?"
Draken stiffened. "Says she's alive."
Osias's eyes swirled faster, pale enough to reflect twin firebowls. Another thing to make Draken sick. "You don't believe him."
"I don't know what I believe anymore."
That wasn't quite truth. He had seen the fire that Elena had started to allow him to escape her Moonling captors, had smelled the suffocating smoke, and heard the screams of the dying. He couldn't imagine Elena escaping with her life, though on his worst days he was hard-pressed to admit to himself she was dead.
Osias had not sensed her among the dead, but he also claimed the god Korde could conceal her spirit from him if he wished, now that Draken had destroyed the fetter binding Osias's will to the gods. But to what end would Korde hide Elena? A constant question among Draken's advisors in the past moonturns nearly eleven moonturns Elena had failed to appear.
Osias apparently decided not to broach the subject now. He released the tension on the string and slipped the arrow back into the quiver strapped to his thigh. One silvery hand gripped the longbow. Another violent gust tossed the ends of Draken's cloak, wrapping it around his boots. It was then he noticed the weather didn't touch the Mance. His silver hair draped over his shoulders, his grey cloak hung placid around his ankles. He didn't so much as shiver. Somehow it made Draken feel colder, as if all the chill were settling in his bones alone.
"You are accustomed to the gods guiding your hands and heart, Khel Szi," Osias said. "Truls's purpose must be no different than theirs, as the dead belong to the gods."
A Mance way of asking what this had to do with him; never mind Osias was the most renowned necromancer in Akrasia, nor that Truls kept Draken up nights and left him half-mad from exhaustion.
Draken's spirit swordhand, Bruche, chuckled deep inside him. Told you so.
"I don't care why he's here; I need him gone," Draken said. "Get rid of him, Osias."
"That is beyond my power."
Draken jerked a thumb toward the ghost at his side. "Truls is Korde's beast, is he not?"
Osias gave Truls a speculative look. "Alas, but I no longer am."
"You still have your magic, damn it."
Osias lost a little of his sheen, dulled as the moon Elna slipped behind a cloud with a bellyful of sleet. "Not all, my friend."
"I can't live like this, Osias, much less fight a war, not with him hounding me all the time."
"The front fair holds. The Mance King scryed it in Eidola ice."
That sort of Sight he'd like regular access to. The current Mance King wasn't as friendly with Draken as Osias, who'd relinquished his title with his fetter in order to travel across the sea to Draken's first homeland, Monoea. But that had been nearly a whole Sohalia ago, and Draken had hoped well. He didn't know what he hoped. Just that Osias might be able to banish Truls back to Eidola.
Can't hardly blame him for ditching on the kingship. You weren't too keen on taking a throne yourself.
Draken gave a grudging nod to Osias and Bruche. "The front holds only because of the cold. The Moneans will attack again in force once thaw hits and the winds turn. More ships, more men, more killing."
Osias murmured the Monoean's battle cry in their language, his tone musing, "Il Vanni masacr." The godless die. The Mance's attention wandered back to Truls. The spirit's presence had sharpened. Draken knew without looking because the turbulent air tossed a stronger death scent and an ethereal chill eclipsed the heat from the firebowl.
Bruche snorted. Everyone dies eventually.
Osias nodded, to Bruche or to Draken, neither were certain.
"I think the Akrasians are starting to believe that ruddy curse themselves. They say there's snow in Moonling Woods." For the first time in an age, long enough ago to be legend. "Coldest Frost in generations and the ones who don't have chest-rot have skin freezing away bit by bit. Speaking of, so do I. Let's go down and speak on this further." Osias had diverted the conversation but Draken wasn't about to let it go so easily. He needed Truls gone.
attack attack they come protect her the child protect her Now he chooses to speak? Bruche sounded exasperated.
Draken turned on Truls with an annoyed snarl but a flickering row of torchlights at the gates of Brîn tempered it. A sizable company traveled toward the city gates of Brîn, coming by way of the stone road that cut through the inland hunting woods and curved along the city wall. Soldiers on horseback, tails swishing, black armored forms shadowed against the stone wall, twenty-five at least. A banner fluttered and straightened.
He squinted and growled, "Ilumat."
Lord Ilumat, cousin to the Queen, major lord, and minor nuisance, maintained lands between the Agrian Range and the Grassland. He had come all the way across Akrasia in wartime during Frost, and he was no friend to Draken.
Bruche rose up in him but said nothing. He was growing used to this new magic sight of Draken's. He considered it an advantage. Osias, though, stared at him instead of the moons-lit field. "What have the gods done to you now?" That set him back a step. But the Mance had noticed, of course, and likely with some alarm. Draken's last "gift" of magic had killed scores of men and brought down a magical city wall.
He tried to sound offhand. "Oh. I can see in the dark now. Daylight stings, though. Inconvenient, but it has its uses. I assumed it's Truls's doing since it started when he appeared."
"No. This is Korde's magic," Osias said.
"Another thing we need to discuss. But Ilumat has come a fair distance in this cold. I wonder what's gone bloody wrong now."
He might've just traveled from Reschan. Checking on the front. He is a soldier.
Despite Bruche's reasonable suggestion, Draken sensed his swordhand didn't believe his own words. Truls followed as he started down the steep winding steps of the tower. Draken nodded to the slave girl, huddled in a corner of the steps. He'd like to tell her to stay inside out of the wind, but they might have need of the fire for a signal.
The cold and seven stories down on stone steps soon had Draken's bad knee protesting even worse than on the climb, but the air was warmer in the courtyard. Halmar held Draken's horse as he and the other szi nêre waited. Bits of rubbish, dried grasses, fabric scraps floated on the wind and scurried along the walls. A patch of iced snow brightened one corner. Truls waited a little apart from Draken and the others, his countenance still wavering.
"Didn't take long for this place to feel deserted." He swung a leg over Sky's back and settled into the saddle. She tossed her head and snorted twin puffs of nervous mist.
"No, Khel Szi." Halmar mounted his own sizable war steed but didn't ride ahead, though he preferred it. Draken had finally got the szi nêre trained to let him go first, despite their sly attempts to lead him.
A shutter banged somewhere and the horses stamped their hooves on the packed dirt. Sky shook her head again, yanking on the reins. Osias and Setia led shaggy tora ponies out from what had been the serviceable, if drafty, great hall. The hilly villages at the feet of the Eidolas used the sturdy animals for everything from dragging plows to supper in hard times. Hardly fitting for a retired Mance King, but more fleet horse-stock had been taken to the front.
Eager to get out of the cold, though dreading the news Ilumat brought, Draken urged Sky to a canter. The horses made short work of the field, clumps of cold dirt and dead grasses dusting the air behind them. Unranked guards took a knee as the royal party passed through the city gate. Draken only glanced at them, keeping his eyes downcast against the glare of torches. Halmar paused to speak to them, so Draken and the others slowed to a walk.
Nightfall stained the sky, but it was still early enough to find the streets full of people hurrying to whatever respite the evening held. Night-sweepers stirred dust over cobbles and stone walks. Butchers' carcass-fires burned in alleys, making Draken's stomach turn with hunger. Most people were hooded against the cold or had their heads down, missing that royalty was in their midst. Just as well.
Sohalia ribbons dragged with sleet and bouquets of flowers wilted under gossamer layers of ice. Not as many adornments for the mid-Frost holiday as for Sohalias of recent memory, and the festivities had been more subdued. Too many fighters at the front; too many deaths to reckon with; too harsh a Frost.
Halmar trotted to ride next to Draken. "The gate admitted the Akrasian lord and his cohort and sent guides to bring them to the Citadel."
"The Akrasian lord" fair knew his way around the city, having visited prior, and would be hard-pressed to miss the elaborately painted dome over the Citadel from nearly any vantage on any street. But trust wore thin between the peoples of Akrasia and Brîn. Draken had learned quiet denial of that mutual suspicion worked best to avoid bloodshed. Captain Tyrolean and the Chamberlain Thom would greet Ilumat.
Indeed, Thom greeted Draken as well, chalk and slate in hand. He hurried forward as they climbed the steps to the Citadel, torchlight gleaming on the white moonwrought mask embedded into the skin over half his face, from his brow to jawline. The unblinking painted eye on it seemed particularly astute tonight. Draken had the disconcerting feeling that if he stared at it closely enough, he would see it roll in its socket. Except, of course, it didn't really have a socket; the meticulous paint just made it look like it did. The glare of lantern light off it made Draken squint.
Draken spoke before Thom could. "Aye, I've heard about our guests. Did you find them accommodations?"
"The porters and maids have seen to it, Khel Szi. A word, though?" Thom glanced at the lingering szi nêre. Their faces bore flat expressions, pierced lips and brows fixed into expressions of alert compliance. It wasn't that Thom didn't trust them, so whatever he had to say must be of a very sensitive nature.
Draken groaned inwardly and waved off Halmar. "Of course." He walked toward the steps leading into the Great Hall. Getting on suppertime, the hall was mostly deserted, but dozens of torches kept it brightly lit. He kept to the shadowed walkway behind the pillars and strolled toward the dais. No one would follow them there.
"I didn't want to bring it up in front of the szi nêre, but the Akrasians refused to yield their weapons."
Bruche growled in Draken's chest. Halmar was steady as stone but the other szi nêre were quicker to take offence. Konnon in particular lost no love on Akrasians. Word of any slight against Draken would spread through the Citadel to the lowliest slave. He hardly needed the staff harassing his guests. "Did they give a reason?" "Lord Ilumat said it was an insult to take lieges' weapons during wartime."
"I hope someone told them it's an insult to imply they aren't well protected within the Citadel."
"It seemed to make no difference, Khel Szi." Thom had the occasional leaning toward primness, which reminded Draken that despite his considerable organizational capabilities, he was still inexperienced and young.
"It falls to me to settle, then, does it?" Damned awkward, asking for the weapons now.
On the one hand, Draken could see the Akrasians' point, though "liege" was an odd word to use between a regent and his people. Akrasians didn't talk like that. Sounded more like some Landed Monoean, actually. Perhaps this was more threat than insult if Ilumat somehow learned of Draken's personal history. Bad enough Draken was Brînian; the people would toss out a half-blood regent who hailed from Monoea. The secret was only held because most of the people who knew his heritage were dead, and the rest had much to lose if he lost his position.
And they're your friends.
Were they? He wasn't always so sure. He had no illusions he was an easy friend to keep.
Let it go. You have more important things to worry about than an upstart lord with a gold-chased rapier.
He's Elena's cousin and the finest swordsman in Akrasia.
Bruche snorted so hard it reached Draken's throat. But for me.
Thom waited, his painted eye and its live twin, also unblinking, resting on him.
"You think I should say nothing of it," Draken said, unease crawling through him. This was like grabbing a metal spoon from a steaming pot; no way to know if it was hot or not. Best assume it was.
Thom's mouth opened and closed, the edge of his cheek pressing against the mask. "Khel Szi, I wouldn't pre —"
"I'm asking you to presume, Thom."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Enemy"
Copyright © 2017 Betsy Dornbusch.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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