The King’s Decision
“Zeph, my friend, is this not a wondrous castle?” said Demetrius. “Perhaps somewhat dated in furnishings, and the food is altogether bland, but the company—the company is incomparable.”
Zeph had been roaming the halls all morning hoping to run into Kreeb. Instead, he’d come face to face with the one person he’d been avoiding.
“It seems you’ve found a lady to catch your fancy,” he said, attempting to hide his discomfort.
“Her name, Genawi, flows from the tongue like honey-maple syrup. Her locks are as golden as the petals of a sunflower. And she is the daughter of Lord Ivenane. For once, my father would approve.”
Zeph leaned back against the stone-hewn wall. “By the way she was making eyes at you, I can see you haven’t lost your touch.”
“It was no mastery of mine. We were simply drawn to each other like the trees to the sky. And if you, my friend, had not taken me with you, I never would have met her. It seems I owe you another debt of gratitude.”
“No, actually, you don’t.” It was time Demetrius knew the nasty trick that had been played on him. “You should know something. Back at Duradune, the blood slip I showed you was a fake.”
Demetrius stared blankly at him.
“It was me who wrote your name on it.”
Surprise then certainty crossed Demetrius’s features. “I see what you’re trying to do. You think I should settle down and forget about the debt I owe you.”
No, no, no. Zeph grabbed him by the shoulders. “You have it all wrong. The Council wanted us dead. I lied to you to so you’d help us escape. I’m sorry.”
But Demetrius would have none of it. He shrugged and smiled good-naturedly. “Whatever you did, it doesn’t matter. Perhaps it is Dela’s doing. All I know is that Genawi and I were meant to be, and I’m thankful to be here.”
Was he kidding? Demetrius should have shouted at him, sworn they’d never be friends again, and stormed back to Duradune, where at least he would no longer be mixed up in their mess.
Zeph let his hands fall to his sides in resignation. “If that’s the way you feel about it.”
“I do indeed. Now speak no more of this.” Demetrius’s smile faded as he hurried down the hall, likely on his way to see his love.
Dinnertime in the Great Hall found Zeph in the same seating arrangement as the previous evening, allowing him to keep a keen eye on Queen Pandare.
“Your Majesty,” he said respectfully, before taking the seat assigned to him.
“Did you get a good sleep?” asked the queen in her thick accent.
“Sleep?” asked Zeph.
“After being awake so early in the morning, I expected you to sleep until dinner. If I may ask, what were you doing at such an hour?”
“Mainly arguing. I’m afraid Cahrin’s the jealous type.” If Cahrin had been seated nearby, a savage under-the-table kick would have been forthcoming.
Queen Pandare dabbed the wine from her lips. “I did not know you and she were together.”
“Eternally, I’m afraid,” lied Zeph. He took a bite of cheese served on a thin, crispy piece of bread before continuing. “I am sorry to have woken you. At least His Majesty was not disturbed.”
“Oh? Why do you say that?”
The bread and cheese nearly caught in Zeph’s throat. Of course he wouldn’t know if the king was awakened, unless he had been in the queen’s bedchamber—which he had. “I—I assumed we would have heard him, otherwise.”
“Yes, His Majesty is very loud when disturbed,” the queen said, shooting her husband a reproachful look. “My darling, what did I tell you before? You must be polite and wear the crown Kreeb gave you.” She picked it up and placed it onto the king’s head. “There, it makes you appear so regal.” She finished with an approving kiss on the cheek.
“Whatever you say, my dear.” King Hybris soaked up the attention, his face beaming in a wine-induced shine.
The queen shifted her gaze to the atrium, leaving her husband looking like a discarded suitor.
Despite the queen’s threat, Cahrin made the guest list for dinner after all. She spent the evening much like last, trying to convince the king of Azren’s depravity.
“So do you see, Your Majesty, how during the Great War Azren used my people as fodder?”
The king adjusted the ridiculous crown Kreeb had given him. It took an enormous amount of self-control not to rip it from his head and send it sailing to the atrium below.
“You remind me of her—my queen.”
She nearly spit out her pheasant in protest. If there was one thing she wasn’t, it was anything like Queen Pandare. Chalking his declaration up to overindulgence, she bit back a scathing rebuttal about the king’s resemblance to the wrong side of a shaved uoko.
King Hybris continued gaily, a flicker of spirit behind his bloodshot eyes. “She was born in Einor, that she was. A miller’s daughter. Can you believe it? A miller’s daughter.”
Cahrin could not. Queen Pandare had a decidedly southeastern accent and the stature of no miller’s daughter.
The king’s voice resonated with passion. “She loved this city—and by Chardise, did I love her. The first time I saw her, I knew. They said we were too young. What did they know? Like you and your friends, everything was before us.” Then his expression turned dark. “Only the pages were already written.”
Despite herself, she was curious where the king was going with this story. “What do you mean, the pages were already written?”
“Our river taken away, our land left barren. My queen… so beautiful.” King Hybris rested a hand on hers. The last time someone had attempted that, she had used the offending hand as a scratching post. This time she allowed it. “She would stare out the window at the cloudwalkers, those eyes of hers so blue and too often wet like the ocean.”
There it was again, the window—perhaps the one in the library. And then she realized he wasn’t talking about Queen Pandare at all.
He pounded his fists against the table. “Does anyone remember the splendor of Einor? The rising walls, the stones, silver in the sun.” He continued in a whisper. “Gone. My queen watched from the window as it all went away.”
He bent his head. Cahrin was afraid he might cry.
“Where is she now?” she asked. When the king did not respond, she gave him a light pat. “Where is your queen now?”
Somber eyes looked back. “One day she was not at the window anymore.”
In that moment, she did not wish Asormo razed to the ground. Instead, she wanted to see it in all its glory—its alabaster walls and towering spires with shiny, armored guards roaming the parapets. If only she could summon the city back from the past the way she summoned a creature from Otherworld.
She shook her head, realizing how wrong she had been about King Hybris from the start. He was not the drunken, self-centered ghasiv she took him for. He was a gentle old man burdened with a treacherous young queen and a crumbling kingdom. This poor ghasiv king brought new meaning to the term Undeserving.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the entrance of the guard Bentar. He shot a warning glance in her direction as a line of a half-dozen soldiers belonging to no kingdom followed him in. Trouble, no doubt. Zeph was sinking into his seat. She preferred to face her adversaries with her chin up, and a glare ready.
Bentar stopped short of the king, allowing the lead soldier to approach and give a knee. “M’lord, presenting Lessair Conterprim.”
After an uncomfortable silence, Cahrin gave the king a nudge with her elbow. “Your Majesty.”
The king followed her gaze to the man kneeling before him. “Oh yes. Please rise and state your business.”
“Sire, my men and I have been sent by the Thresher High Command. They have accepted a commission by the Council of the Alliance to apprehend those in your company.”
Just like a ghasiv to hire someone else do the dirty work. Threshers were their own private military force with a training facility nestled in the corner of Paquin. Cahrin always considered them the cockroaches of the swords for hire. Despite their ties to the more nefarious elements on Draza, neighboring kingdoms let them be, since it would take an entire army to displace them.
Lessair straightened his back and marched two strides in place. “Zeph Greymoon, Cahrin of Ilthane, and Raven of Tigren are wanted for treason.”
“Wanted for reason? What reason?” The king shifted in his seat, so agitated that his crown nearly slipped off his head.
“Treason, sire. They are wanted for treason. We must insist that we take them into our care.”
Cahrin was surprise to be named. Sure, she was traveling with wanted criminals of the Alliance—but then again, so was Demetrius.
“Insist that you remove my guests before they have been properly fed?”
“I’ll have none of that. Besides, I have barely gotten to speak with Lady”—the king hiccupped—“Lady Cahrin.”
“No disrespect, sire,” Lessair said, “but my assignment is to seize the aforementioned once they have been found.”
“Seize?” The king chuckled as if this were the most funny thing in the world. “Your men can do all the seizing they want once dinner is over. Please join us in the meantime.”
“I insist, Sir Seizing,” said the king, poorly stifling another laugh.
The mercenary leader muttered a few indistinguishable words before succumbing to the idea that a warm meal couldn’t be all bad. During dinner, the Threshers directed constant stares toward their charges, apparently afraid they might go missing if not vigilantly watched.
The tension in the Great Hall gave way before a dry, squeaky voice. “Your Majesties.” Standing in the atrium next to the mysterious crate from earlier was Kreeb, calling up to them. “I have come for your decision.”
Dusk had set in. The shops were closed, leaving Kreeb the lone figure in the torchlight of the atrium.
A knot twisted in Cahrin’s stomach. If Kreeb had appeared in the Great Hall, she would have struck him down then and there. Even now, he was not safe from her. The stairwell to the atrium was but two rooms away—not much of an obstacle to fulfilling her grim oath.
King Hybris rose from his seat, appearing stable and sober.
“Kreeb, your master makes a gracious offer. My decision—” He stood straight with his head held high, and for the first time since Cahrin had met him, he looked like a king. “I have decided to decline.”
“I am sorry to hear that,” answered Kreeb. “Do you have a reason I can convey to my master?”
“It would be a disfavor to my kingdom to align it with one so black of heart.” And then the king chuckled as if he had just said something of considerable amusement.
A stunned silence pervaded the hall at such forthrightness.
Kreeb recovered quickly. “You have made a grave mistake.”
He pulled a key from his pocket and inserted it into the oversized steel lock on the crate. The wood panel it was attached to flopped to the ground, revealing an enormously tall and spindly creature escaped. It stood twice the height of a human, with lime-colored skin that was pockmarked and hairless and elongated arms that reached nearly to the floor. A bundle of filthy rags crisscrossed its midsection, allowing it a touch of decency. Cahrin blanched as it bared rotted teeth behind contorted black lips.
It squinted against the dull torchlight, a burning contrast to what it had been accustomed to. With an urging from Kreeb, it sprang into action. One claw grabbed the edge of the crate and propelled itself to the top, while the other experimentally swung a club the size of a great sword with a single spike through its center. There it stood swiveling its head from left to right, its red, soulless eyes searching the Great Hall.
While Cahrin had never seen a troll, it was undeniable that’s what it was. Mere stories of such a monster caused restless sleep; witnessing a troll up close could make one forget how to breathe.
Before the emergence of this new threat, she had been planning to slip behind the queen and Zeph, work her way through the adjacent room, descend the stairs to the atrium, and drive her hunting knife deep into the darkened cowl of her nemesis. While Kreeb’s death would not deliver her father from Nebra, it would be a deserving end for this servant of Azren. Even now, she felt sure the troll would not stop her. Its eyes rested hungrily on the king of Einor.
She rose from her seat, ready to take the first step, fulfill her grim oath, and bring meaning to everything she had done since leaving her homeland.
Instead, she grabbed King Hybris by the hand. “Come. This way.”
The movement caused the creature’s blood-red orbs to narrow, glinting in the firelight. And then it reacted.
The troll sprang from the crate with its long legs, crashing through the railing that defined the perimeter of the Great Hall. It bounded toward the king at a speed comparable to an unencumbered warhorse.
King Hybris’s armed escort this night consisted of the guard who attended him while dining and the serious-looking Bentar. Both soldiers stepped up to the challenge. As the troll advanced, she wondered in horror what inspired them to make such a fool’s stand. Most men would have run away or at the very least stayed out of its path. But the guards of King Hybris demonstrated that they were made of a stronger mettle, the kind her own people would have admired.
Bentar stepped into the troll’s path and pushed his sword toward the beast. The other guard came around the back. It was a sound strategy.
Unfortunately, the troll didn’t care a whit about strategy.
With one jab of a clawed hand it speared Bentar’s midsection, then proceeded to toss him over its shoulder and past the railing to the atrium below. He landed with a crunch. Cahrin gasped in horror; loyal Bentar had been dispatched as if he were little more than a worm at the feet of a snow owl.
The other guard sliced at the troll’s backside. Blood was drawn, and the troll did not react favorably. Spinning around, it swung its giant club at the sword-toting annoyance.
Cahrin used the diversion to lead the king toward an exit, where the labyrinth of hallways would make it difficult for the troll to follow. Her last obstacle was the group of Threshers, most of whom stood gawking at the troll. One had plucked up the initiative to cringe behind his superior, but another barred her from passing, unwilling to give up his bounty despite the situation.
She watched the troll shift its gaze from the king to the Threshers between. The mercenaries had the opportunity to turn tail and run. Would the troll, like any beast, instinctively chase down the weak and fleeing?
It seemed she wouldn’t have the chance to find out. Lessair had hopped up onto the table and raised his sword, bellowing a call to arms. “Time to earn our coin.”
The troll lurched forward, and Lessair delivered it a strong hack to the wrist, causing the green abomination to drop its weapon with a grunt. There was no encore. The creature grabbed Lessair around his legs and used him as a human club against the other mercenaries, until he was nothing but a bloody pulp the troll discarded.
The final thresher blocking Cahrin and the king made a run for it. The troll couldn’t have cared less. It turned its full attention back to King Hybris, its mouth gaping, drool flowing down its chin and onto the floor.
“To me, you brute,” called Cahrin. She held her hunting knife at the ready, trying not to shake. She dared not let it sense her fear. “C’mon!”
While its long nails could so easily have been put to immediate use, her taunting bravado gave it pause. Despite its savage appearance, perhaps it was more than a mindless killer.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught movement beneath the tablecloth. Demetrius broke free from Genawi’s embrace, preparing to leave his refuge. What was he thinking? The troll leapt over the table toward Cahrin, while Demetrius slid from hiding mere feet away.
No! Cahrin shook her head vehemently. Any aggression from Demetrius would be suicide.
The troll took one step toward her, then another. She kept in front of the king, sure the troll would lunge at her at any moment.
Demetrius dashed toward it, slashing the leg of the troll with a broadsword he must have picked up from a fallen mercenary. The troll spun about, clamped a clawed hand onto Demetrius’s neck, and squeezed. Blood streamed where its nails touched skin.
Cahrin tore her eyes from the scene. Pushing the king ahead of her, she sprinted for the doorway.
She heard an inhuman shriek and spared a glance. The troll had lifted Demetrius into the air and hurled him toward them. She instinctively flattened herself to the ground as Demetrius soared past her and hit the wall with a snapping of bones.
King Hybris stared in shock at the mangled body.
“Go!” Cahrin screamed.
He launched himself toward the exit, with every step looking back in terror and forward in hope. The troll loped after him with a heavy limp. Cahrin was sure the king would win out when an ill-timed stumble over the hem of his robe left him struggling to keep his feet.
Encouraged, the troll made a giant leap and landed directly between King Hybris and the doorway. The king skidded to a stop no more than an arm’s length from the creature. To his credit, rather than oozing to the floor like a melting candlestick, His Majesty backpedaled. A clawed hand snaked out, swiping him viciously across the chest and neck. He collapsed in a heap of crimson.
The troll might have finished the job had it not received a stitching of throwing daggers down its side. Cahrin watched as its red eyes zeroed in on Zeph standing before the railings and grinning like there was no tomorrow—which for anyone enraging a troll seemed a foregone conclusion.
Next Chapter ==> (link valid on 9/10/17)