Morning dawned early and violently in the Brinian Citadel. No one, slave nor noble, could sleep through the clatter of swords, much less the shouts ringing through the torchlight. The Khel Szi himself had sword in hand. A foreign soldier had called Prince Draken's card in the brutal dance of death in the courtyard of his own palace.
Muscles screaming to yield, Draken lifted his sword and met the oncoming high-line strike, allowing it to clang against his hilt. He grimaced at his shoddy defense. His opponent's blade skittered off his sword and across the bracer and upper arm protection of his armor harness. He was glad he'd taken a moment in the chilly pre-dawn darkness to strap them on. Still, the shock of it drove him a step back. He cursed. When that blade struck his bare chest, it would draw blood.
"No, Drae, protect your high-line. Again!" Captain Tyrolean attacked as before, same form, same balance, same strike.
There was no honorific in the practice lists, no "Night Lord" or "Khel Szi" or "Your Highness." Here, Draken and Tyrolean were not Prince and honor-liege but student and teacher.
Draken gritted his teeth against his sore muscles and lifted his sword again.
Every day they rose well before the last of the Seven Eyes had slipped beyond the horizon and each of those days, Tyrolean never allowed Draken to stop a moment before full daylight crested the dome of Brin's Citadel.
As Tyrolean's sword went up, it caught the glare of sun against its dulled blade. It flashed against his brawny shoulders, turning him into a hard, pale godling of war. Only neat lines of scarred hashmarks marred the perfection of his muscled chest. Faint steam rose from the crown of his dark head. Tyrolean's narrowed eyes were his only tell, but Draken didn't recognize it quickly enough. Tyrolean's blade flashed, slipped across Draken's chest. Blood stung as it welled from the cut.
Tyrolean shook his head. "Don't ever let your guard down."
"That was cheating. You turned to stone, Ty."
Tyrolean finally lowered his blade, his black-lined eyes crinkling in a rare smile. "Cradle tales again, Your Highness?"
"Aye, I've got to learn them, haven't I? Children like stories." Draken wiped the sweat from his eyes. He was hot despite the cool ocean winds slipping through the gates of the protected palace courtyard.
"Your royal get is still in the Queen's belly and for many moon-turns after it's born all it'll want is a dry nappie," Tyrolean said.
"Aye, and you're the expert, are you? Having no children of your own." He backed off toward the table. The cut already had that tightening tingle that told him it was closing. Damn, damn.
"That I know of."
A rare joke, so Draken forced a chuckle. He kept his back to Ty and stripped off his bracers, made a show of pressing a cloth to the wound. "A shirt," he told Kai, his body slave. The lad scooted off to find him one.
"Not too bad, I hope. Does it need sewing?"
"No. It's just a scratch." Kai returned. Draken pulled on the shirt and turned to Tyrolean. "It's already stopped bleeding." And stung like nettles as it closed. He tensed as a slight tremor tickled his bare feet. He looked down. Odd, that.
Tyrolean didn't seem to notice as he walked to a nearby table tended by a slave and took the two goblets she offered with a polite thanks. He sipped from both, even though they'd been poured from the same jug. Poison could coat the inside of one or the other goblets. Draken had given up trying to talk Tyrolean and his szi nere out of tasting for him.
The sweet morning wine was cold and good.
"Rumors claim Lord Ilumat sent Queen Elena gifts of late," Tyrolean said.
The Queen had many suitors before Draken had arrived at the Akrasian court. Though they doubtless had infinitely more husband potential, Draken tried not to worry. After all, she was spending her pregnancy in Brin in order to stay close to him.
He rubbed the back of his sweaty neck. He needed a good scrubbing if he were to meet the Akrasian lords today. "Rumors you've confirmed, I assume."
"Via your Ghost," Tyrolean said.
Draken's brows climbed and he glanced around before he answered. His sister Aarinnaie, Szirin of Brin, wasn't someone they discussed often. "You spoke with her?"
Tyrolean shook his head. "A message only, script in chalk on the floor of the temple by my kneeling mat."
Sounded like her. "It'd be convenient if she would appear in public sometimes. Even if he hasn't said as much to me, Rodkhim Vannis wants to ask me for her hand." He cocked his head at Tyrolean's expression. "What? He's not a bad man, Rodkhim."
"Rodkhim can't manage her."
"It's not as if she listens to me either." It was a fair match. Rodkhim's father was City Comhanar of Brin, an old, respected family-as close to nobility as Brinians got. "Perhaps marriage would suit her better than playing the vigilante." As well as his secret royal assassin.
"Scouring Brin of your father's corruption is a noble endeavor."
Draken grunted. "A dangerous one, you mean."
Tyrolean's lips tightened. Draken had noticed a distinct tension around the subject of Aarinnaie recently. It vaguely worried him that Tyrolean, who had ever been a close confidante of the Queen, knew something he didn't.
But Tyrolean changed the subject before he could question him. "You still treat your sword as something you're holding rather than part of you."
Draken lifted the practice sword with its blunt edges in acknowledgment and handed it off to one of the armory slaves. Muscle memory developed from training on the bow left him feeling he was carrying the wrong weapon. "I didn't learn much from Bruche."
"He wasn't there to teach you. He was there to protect you."
Draken's spirit sword-hand was in his well-deserved rest, no matter how Draken missed his counsel. For now, Draken was just glad he'd been able to conceal how quickly his cuts healed.
"I think you should spar with Seaborn," Tyrolean added. "It'll come quicker that way. She's the blade you fight with."
Draken opened his mouth to argue he wasn't about to bring the greatest treasure of the Brinian Principality into the practice lists, but the city gate bells pealed through the early morning quiet. Both men fell still and listened. Four palace szi nere stationed at the Citadel gates drew their swords and archers on the wall nocked arrows, though Draken had no real worry the bells meant something needing his attention. With the days of Newseason lengthening into Tradeseason and the moonroutes at their most expansive, it might be confusion over shift changes.
The echoes of the bells against the crowded buildings and the faint reverberation off the Eidola Mountains towering over the city of Brin kept Draken from making a proper count of rings. He frowned at Tyrolean, unable to determine if it was a warning of attack or some other announcement.
Tyrolean's eyes narrowed. "I hope it's not another scuffle between the servii and the gate guards."
It was a point. The Akrasian servii stationed at nearby Seakeep liked to drink, fight, and whore in Brin, which had myriad opportunity for all three. But the servii weren't so happy when tossed out of the city at daybreak, and Brinian soldiers tolerated their presence grudgingly at best.
The immense carved doors to the Great Hall opened to frame Draken's chamberlain Thom. An impassive moonwrought mask concealed half his face from cheekbone to hairline, and the hazel eye painted on it was a neat match for the other, real one. The flesh of his face was strained and reddened against the silvery moonwrought, probably because the Head Seneschal followed Thom closely, scrolls clutched in his hands. Gods, it was an administrative day. Of course, when wasn't it, for a Prince?
"Why the bells, Khel Szi? Too early for guard change, isn't it?" Thom asked in broken Brinish. He shoved his many thin braids back from his face and his real eye locked on Draken's.
"We were just wondering the same thing."
The Seneschal, Hina Shaim, surnamed for the patron god of peace and truth, cleared his throat. "Khel Szi, several matters require your attention. The Lords' Council convenes at Seakeep this morning. Lord Va Khlar would speak with you prior. As well, the city mason's guild representatives have been asking for an audience for two sevennight now. I've put them off, but they're most insistent and-"
Draken shot him a glare for interrupting his conversation with Thom, but a clatter of hooves on the cobbles at the palace gate cut off his reprimand. They all turned. The szi nere swung the gates back as a royal messenger in Akrasian Greens galloped straight for them, slowing his horse only when he saw Draken. He brought with him the acrid scents of blood, fear, and the sea. The horse snorted, its belly heaving as it panted.
Halmar, Comhanar of the szi nere, pushed past Hina Shaim and Thom to stand at Draken's side. Muscles strapped his broad frame and he was newly inked with even more sigils of war and honor. Jewelry glowed against his dark skin: earrings, rings, and armbands.
The rider threw himself to the ground barely a stride from Draken's feet and fell to his knees. "Your Highness, Seakeep is under attack!"
Elena. She'd ridden for Seakeep the night before to prepare for the High House Council. Besides the Queen, four of the highest nobles in the land were there. The keep, a battered stone fort with a high tower, rested on the point of high land where the River Eros met the sea, across from the Brin city gates over a flat, windswept field. A fair errand's ride by horse; a good hike on foot.
Draken swallowed hard to clear his voice. It still came out guttural and rough. "Who?"
"Monoeans, Your Highness. Three ships bearing their banners."
Cold seized Draken, despite the warming sun. His old countrymen had come to call. If Monoea was here with any show of force, she would destroy Seakeep in a day and turn her attention to the City of Brin. Seven damn them all, what was this about?
"Are they anchored yet?" he asked.
"No. Sailing back out of Blood Bay. Came in by skiff overnight, we think. There's a sizeable force surrounding Seakeep."
"Or another ship. One that grounded troops downcoast," Tyrolean said.
"There's a small port at Rhial, abandoned from the mining trade."
"Damn, damn, damn, there could be other Monoeans attacking elsewhere, then." If Draken knew Monoean tactics, some of which he had helped devise during his officership in the Monoean Black Guard, there were most certainly more. "Sound the alarm again, raise the duty troops, and those at rest. Any who are able must come. We must stop them at Seakeep."
He ordered horses and strode inside to pull on the rest of his armor and fetch the sword Seaborn. The lad Kai helped him silently, though his hands shook and he dropped a few pieces of armor. Mail, his leather breast and back plates, hinged arm bracers, greaves, thigh protection in the way of a metal-strapped loose kilt, and extra knives soon weighed Draken down. He remained silent as Kai armed him, suffering the free reign of his curiosity. Had his cousin-King learned he was Khel Szi? Would the Brinians learn of his sundry heritage from his former countrymen? Exiled from Monoea after false accusal of murdering his wife, pulled unwitting into a war with the gods, and risen to a Prince's throne he didn't want, he'd been left with little of himself but bloodstained hands.
The only good, uncalculating thing that had come from his exile to Akrasia was Elena. He had already endured the loss of his wife, a wound so deep no amount of happiness could more than scar over. He'd be damned if he'd let Monoeans, the gods, or anyone else take Elena from him.
Kai dropped his hands when he finished, his braided head bowed. Draken laid a hand on the boy's shoulder before striding down the hall. As he walked, he drew Seaborn from its scuffed scabbard, but the gods had left no message for him in the white depths this day.
The city bells rang again in a quicker, unceasing cadence. By the time he snatched up his bow from a waiting armorer and entered the courtyard, Tyrolean was mounted, ashes from the Citadel temple smeared on his forehead. A groom held Draken's saddled horse and his shield, fielded in black and painted with the same crimson snake Draken had tattooed around his bicep. His helm hung off the saddle. He went around the horse to strap his bow to the other side, using a pull-knot he'd learned aboard ship as a Monoean bowman.
The Citadel priest limped closer, clutching a bowl of blood, his greyed head bowed. Draken started to wave him off, but under Tyrolean's stern gaze, he submitted to letting the priest bless and anoint his brow with Khellian's horns. The priest's fingertips were smooth as the flat of a honed blade as they caressed his forehead. A tingle, like glamour magicks, coursed through him.
He stared hard at the priest, who bowed his head and murmured prayers for Khellian's aid. No. Must be my imagination.
Had the old priest ever done service to Khellian on a battlefield altar? Likely not. Draken couldn't imagine his dead father dragging along a priest and wasting time on prayers before killing someone. In that we might be alike, Father and I. His stomach didn't sit well with the thought, nor with the delay.
He pulled from the priest before the words were done and nodded to his szi nere. They led him through the city at a quick pace, clearing the way through curious passersby headed for market and business. Despite the ringing bells and the appearance of their Khel Szi on the streets the Brinians maintained their tenacious hold on their business at hand.
The city gates were barred. He had to wait for another scouting report anyway.
He circled his horse, which skittered at the squeal of the gates rolling open. He was young and had yet to be blooded in battle, though he was purportedly the best-trained horse in Brin. "Be easy, Tempest."
Though every instinct urged Draken to race across the dirt road spanning the several-thousand-stride run to Seakeep, he dismounted, tossed his reins to a waiting stablegirl, and climbed the steps against the wall. Slowly the rigid formations of the grey-armored Monoean attackers came into focus under the rising morning light. He asked for his glass and cursed when he put it to his eye. Rows of Monoeans, protected by three lines of shieldmen, made a rigid barricade between his soldiers and Seakeep. He eyed their formations, calculating. Four septinaries . . . no, five. A clear tactical mark of Commander Zyann - a legitimate cousin to the King, unlike Draken - and suggested how many soldiers they faced behind those rows. Oddly enough, though, he didn't recognize their tabbards. Some sort of red symbol that he couldn't make out through the glass.
"I'll put their ranks at fair to three hundred," he said grimly. "Seakeep won't hold for long under that."
"Seakeep is not defenseless, Your Highness," Tyrolean said. "The High Houses brought companies of servii and their best guards."
Draken handed the glass to him. At the moment the Monoeans were preparing to burn down Seakeep's gates by hurling bags of fire oil against them. They exploded into flame as they hit. Armor, helms, and upraised shields deflected most of the arrows raining down on them from the battlements. Monoean archers stood behind lines of armored and shielded attackers, shooting flaming arrows over the keep walls.
Every line of Tyrolean's body tensed as he peered through the glass.
A hundred battle-ready Brinians and twenty-five Akrasian servii commanded by a horsemarshal stationed in the city awaited Draken's orders just outside Brin's walls. A few more Brinians were straggling in. Despite their calm, orderly assembly, Draken shook his head, his jaw set. It wasn't enough. Even with the servii inside Seakeep it might not be enough.
His fingers itched for his bow, though his arrowheads couldn't penetrate Monoean armor. He had charged Brinian blacksmiths with developing a harder alloy and wood stock for arrows some turns of the moons ago, but he'd not pressed them. Akrasian longbows were in short supply, as well as the servii trained to shoot them, and mines were nearly spent of weapons-grade metals. Truth, he hadn't anticipated attack from the Monoeans or any other trade partner. Until today. Blast it. Outnumbered, and we don't even have decent arrows.
"Hie, a rider from the cliffs, Khel Szi!"
Draken squinted through the glass. "Hold! He's one of ours." He went down to ground level as a Brinian sailor barreled up, his bare, inked chest slicked with sweat, his snorting horse flecked with foam from outracing the arrows of enemy. A fletched shaft stuck from the back of his arm. Blood poured down his side. Draken bid him to speak with an impatient wave of his gauntleted hand.
The rider's dark face was pinched with pain. He more fell than threw himself from his saddle and knelt. "Enemy attacking the seaside wall with hurling balls. Three ships are dropping anchor in the Bay."
Draken stared at him, incredulous the rumors had proved true. "Fools all! No one is fighting back?"
The runner flinched but his unblinking gaze met Draken's. "Not from ships, Khel Szi. I heard Seakeep is firing on them from the clifftop, though I did not see it."
Elena must be cursing Draken roundly. The delay in defensive maneuvers was his fault. He'd taken the Brinian navy under tight control amid efforts to eradicate rampant corruption; the navy had practically become a merchant marine operation, rife with piracy and extortion. Not to mention their blatant disregard for the Akrasian crown. Each fleet comhanar and ship captain had standing orders not to act without direct command from the Citadel. He hadn't had time to meet and vett each one. Now he was wishing he'd enacted an innocent-until-proved-otherwise policy, though it was damned difficult when so many of them were corrupt. Besides, how was he to know they would actually follow their new Khel Szi's policy under duress?
He almost heard Bruche's dry chuckle and could imagine what he'd say: A Prince knows such things. "Did they use the boatcaves to get here?"
"No, Khel Szi. The caves are secure. No Monoean came through there. I was inside all night."
Gods, he was probably a fishnetter or salt boiler. Draken had only just come to realize the inked sigils and jewelry on his adopted people indicated caste and position; he had no idea what they all meant yet. "You have my gratitude. See to him." He gestured to two healers waiting inside the city gates to help the bleeding messenger, shoved down the thought of their macabre presence, and turned to Tyrolean.
The Escort Captain met his gaze and then turned his head to look downcoast, though all that lay within view were the cliffs and the edges of a few bridges spanning the River Eros. Constant haze and mists, especially on this hot, humid morning, concealed most of the other side of the river.
Draken mounted Tempest, thinking hard. According to maps, Brinian downcoast was more hospitable to landings than the well-defended Blood Bay. It had plentiful small bays and shallows for dropping skiffs and rowing ashore. The better for trade . . . and smuggling. "The nearest cove is a day's hard ride, maybe three to march."
Tyrolean shrugged his brawny, fishscale-clad shoulders. "It's been in the works then."
Aye, for a sevennight at least, and the attack could be more widespread than Draken first thought. If the Monoeans brought five septenaries to Seakeep - three hundred and fifty soldiers - how many other septenaries were roaming the countryside? Countless villages and holdings were in danger. He slammed his fist against his saddle. Tempest skittered again, forcing Draken to haul on the reins. The charger chewed his bit and snorted. How in Khellian's name had
Monoea marched so many soldiers through Old Brinish farmland and mines without his receiving a warning? And why? What had inspired this attack?
That it was happening now, with Elena and the High Houses in residence at Seakeep, raised his ire and suspicion. Had a traitor betrayed them? Or had some magicks informed the Monoeans? Surely not . . .
"We can outnumber them, given time to gather troops," Tyrolean said, keeping close.
"We don't have time." Not against the nimble, brutish Monoean army.
Draken watched another three of their soldiers scale the gates. It took a hailstorm of arrows from the gate tower to bring down just one. The other two Monoeans continued doggedly up, using their wide-brimmed helms to shield their backs.
A flock of Monoean arrows soared up to cover them. The Akrasian Escorts inside Seakeep braved the arrows to roll hurling balls down the gates. That did the trick. He wondered if the winds actually carried the screams of the falling men to his ears or if the sound was imprinted upon his memory from countless battles.
He started thinking out loud, giving his people a short course in Monoean battle tactics. Horses crowded round him as he spoke. "They'll keep on the gate. It's their only way in since they've no large artillery. When we attack, they'll form a phalanx with shields and spears. We're enough to break through."
"Spears are Moonling weapons," the Akrasian horsemarshal said. He spat on the ground.
Draken marshaled his patience. "They don't usually throw them. They stake the butts in the ground and make a wall with them."
Tyrolean's brows drew down. "You seem to have made a study of Monoean tactics, Your Highness."
A study, indeed. Draken schooled his expression to betray nothing.
The Brin City Comhanar urged his horse closer. A chain looped his torso diagonally from one shoulder, marking his rank. Vannis was his name. Grey laced his woolly locks and battle scars etched his dark skin. "Shields and spears make a damned prickly wall, I remember from the Decade War."
Draken nodded. "Aye, Comhanar. Behind the phalanx, they will have seaxes and metal-strapped gauntlets for close work if . . . when we break the line. Few if any longswords. If you see one, it's on a commander or a lord."
"Seax . . ." Tyrolean's dark brows fell, shadowing his lined eyes. "So they stab?"
"Aye, Captain." Comhanar Vannis said. "Monoeans block and hit with their bracers and stab with their long knives for a killing blow."
Draken eased a breath from his tight chest as Vannis unwittingly helped protect his secret past. "Their whole strategy is to fight close and dirty. It cuts the leverage of swinging a longer weapon." He paused. "As I understand it."
"So what do you suggest, Khel Szi?" Vannis asked. "We've only bows and our longswords."
"They've got field position, too," Tyrolean said. The land separating the city gates from Seakeep was a rock-strewn, treeless expanse with no cover from arrows; the enemy could see them coming.
"The best we can do is trap them and divert their attention from Seakeep," Draken said.
Draken wished futilely for Mance magic. King Osias's arrows landed precisely where he wanted and his magic could block them as well. For that matter, he wouldn't turn down the Moonling Abeyance, valuable magic which stopped time. But he was on his own in this, and there was only one way to crush the Monoean attackers. It would fair cost him men, horses, and weapons, but he had no choice, not with Elena and the High Houses inside. He outlined his plan to the dubious Akrasian horsemarshal, the war-painted Brinian Comhanar, and Tyrolean.
"We'll lose horses," the horsemarshal said.
"We'll lose more than horses, but we are out of time." Draken raised his voice to be heard over the chatter of his troops. "Comhanar, order the men accordingly. Shields up as soon as we're in bow range."
"Aye, Khel Szi." The Comhanar dipped his chin. He put on his helmet, covering the Khellian's horns painted on his brow, wheeled his horse, and shouted orders to his men.
Tyrolean drew near enough for a private talk. "You cannot fight, Draken. You're Prince."
At least Tyrolean wasn't asking him how he knew so much about Monoean battle tactics. "We need every man." Draken's attention remained riveted on the gate. He tightened as arrows flew toward it like a swarm of riverbugs. Flames licked across the oiled wood like ginger ripples on a black pond.
"You're not just any man, Highness."
"No. I'm not. Elena is at Seakeep and I am sworn to protect her." He touched the chain around his neck. Elena's pendant bound him to his position as Night Lord and his vow to protect her, by honor if not by some magic he hadn't run across yet.
"Not by your own person. Not in this. If we lose you and Elena in the same day, what will happen to Akrasia? This is madness."
Madness? Tyrolean didn't know the half of it. "Odd, I thought being Prince would save me from fruitless arguing."
A muscle twitched in Tyrolean's cheek. "Apologies, Your Highness."
Draken sighed. "It's the only way to get through the gate and protect Elena. See there. It's aflame already. They'll be through in little time if they aren't already."
"The gate wood is still quite green. It won't burn so easily," Tyrolean said.
"It won't stand long to the heat of Monoean oil." He'd seen it burn ship wreckage on calm seas for the better part of a sevennight. "Come. Opportunity wanes."
He alone knew how to fight Monoeans, and he must lead by example, without faltering in his resolve, or his strategy would fail. If the gods saw fit to let him die this day; so be it. It might be their sword in his hand, but it was his Queen and child at risk in Seakeep.
They had a third as many soldiers as the Monoeans. He took a moment to examine a few of their faces, his heart clenching. Many of them likely wouldn't make it through the opening assault. But it wasn't the first time he'd led men to their deaths and wouldn't be the last. He spurred his horse, and his szi nere fell in to flank him. Tyrolean let him ride without further protest, though Draken could feel his disapproving glare drilling a hole through the back of his armor.
Five quarters of conscript Brinians spread into three rows behind twenty-five Akrasian mounted Escorts.
Peculiar, undulating battle cries drifted across the field from the enemy. Draken had never heard it before-it sounded like a mourning wail, the sort professionals sang before kings' funereal processionals. Lesle . . . I never heard the lament of your passing. Did she even have an altar-
Tempest yanked hard on the reins, trying to break into a gallop. Draken blinked. Around him horses were falling back or leaping ahead with no thought to formation. Godsdamn it, men. Focus! With a hoarse shout he yanked Akhen Khel from its scabbard. Sunlight flashed in the blade.
One breath, then another. His heart thudded in his throat. All around him battle cries rose up. The men reined and spurred their horses back into thundering formation. Arrows soared overhead, forcing him to sheathe his sword and yank his shield up. Men screamed, drowning out the Monoean war cries. The acidic stench of the burning oil roiled through them as he held Tempest to a controlled canter for the attack. As they reached range, arrows hammered his shield. Draken rode by feel rather than sight, forced to throw himself forward as his horse leaped
over a screaming mount rolling in agony from the arrow sticking in its chest. Its rider lay stunned, face in the churned dirt.
He wanted to use his bow for return fire, but the Akrasian servii behind him were fair deadly enough with bows for the broad target of Monoeans swarming the gates, and his own hands were tied up with reins and shield. Their arrows scored the sky and fell into the smoke clogging the air in front of Seakeep. His stomach clenched tighter yet. Had the Monoeans broken through the gate? Were they bursting through with blade and bow to spill the blood of his countrymen? Had they found Elena?
Men shouted. Hooves pounded. Draken's blood roared. The world tilted up at him and sprang back to right as Tempest stumbled over a fallen Brinian and his gait went lopsided. Lame, but Draken kicked him on. Tempest was as good as dead anyway. He only needed to carry Draken to battle. To Elena.