"Cut her throat. His own wife."
Draken vae Khellian couldn't escape the whispers. Chains shackled his wrists to a ring in the ship's hold: the chains were just long enough for him to reach the bucket that served as a toilet. His arms bled from the heavy metal bands and he cramped from sitting in one position for so long, but the physical pain didn't compare to the agony tearing at his heart.
"Probably thought he'd get off, being the King's cousin."
Bastard cousin, Draken thought. Korde knew it didn't count for much now.
"I heard he was a bowrank commander in the war," said another. "Fought off the coast."
And decorated for it, too.
Draken had passed the better part of three sevenmoon in the dank prison ship, listening to the sea slap the wooden sides, quivering from rotgut and trying to ignore the whispers from the other three prisoners. They rarely rose to direct taunts, but he heard them all the same.
Draken kept his head down and his eyes slitted at a rat. It edged nearer, whiskers twitching. If it got close enough he could snatch it for the biggest meal he'd had in weeks.
"Truth? Royal blood don't spare you from what you are."
The last was louder, spoken by the youngest of the prisoners: Sarc, a lanky boy-man convicted of a rape and murder spree. The beatings and worse indignities Sarc had suffered while waiting for the prison ship had been relieved by Draken's arrest and conviction. Draken had paid in flesh not only for Lesle's murder, but also for the double offense of having both royal blood and Brinian blood pumping through his veins. Nobody liked a half breed.
Gods keep him, the other prisoners didn't know his wife had been gutted and blooded like an animal, as Akrasian magickers did for their black spells. If his fellow prisoners suspected him of magicks, he'd already be dead.
"Land!" Feet slapped the deck and ropes banged as the rigging creaked overhead. "Ho, Captain! Land!"
Draken lifted his head.
"My lens." The captain's voice, crisp, clear.
Footfalls scuttled overhead. The rat darted away.
No one in the belly of the ship met the others' eyes as the hatch overhead opened, admitting cool sea breezes and a rectangle of blue sky. The captain didn't sully her polished boots on the hold floor. She didn't even show her face as she called down, "Half-day to Akrasia, dogs."
Draken leaned his head back and laid his bleeding wrists in his lap. He stared at the patch of sunlight glaring through the open hatch and drew in a breath thick with stinking men, sea salt, rotted fish, and body waste.
The arse-end of the world.
The prisoners assembled on deck to find the ship anchored in a quiet bay. Crisp sea breezes cut through their prison-issue: loose tunics, ill-fitting breeches, rags wound around their feet in lieu of boots. Their hands had been branded with the sigils of their crimes. They'd been convicts long enough to watch them blister with infection and heal badly.
Hollow with hunger, Draken slouched next to the others. His arms felt light and loose without the chains. The cuts on his wrists stung in the sea air. The sun warmed his back as it glared off the shining deck.
The captain, dressed in the bloodstone uniform befitting her station, stared hard at them. Once, Draken had outranked her. Even after he'd left the navy for the secretive Black Guard, they'd maintained an acquaintanceship, frequenting the same balls and occasionally the same skirmishes. She took a step toward him, fingers whitened on her sword hilt.
"By order of the Monoean Crown, it is my pleasure to carry out your sentence of banishment for your crimes against our people."
The rowboat still swung on its ropes overhead.
"You don't mean us to swim?" Sarc hissed.
The ship's crew echoed Sarc in a mocking whine and burst into laughter. Sarc scowled at the sea and shivered. The other three prisoners shuffled their feet. Strictly speaking, the ship had brought the prisoners to Akrasia. They were well within her waters. But forcing them to swim sorely tested the Monoean custom of letting the gods decide their fates in exile.
"We're due to patrol the Hoarfrost in two sevenmoon. I don't have time to ferry you to shore." Her eyes locked on Draken's. Lips curled in a sneer, she gestured to the rail. "Officers first, Commander."
Draken walked to the rail and looked back at the captain.
She arched an eyebrow. "Maybe you'll find your Brinian father there, eh, Draken?"
He didn't react to the taunt. Slave children and bastards learn early to ignore slights and set-backs. Instead, he concentrated on his surroundings. Given their time at sea, where the sun sat in the sky, and the topography of the coast, Draken suspected they might be near Khein. During his time with the Black Guard, Draken had interrogated many Brinian soldiers. Their statements and the tactical briefings he'd been privy to suggested the Akrasian Crown kept a sizeable stronghold at Khein as a buffer between the coastal wilds and the capital city, Auwaer. But who knew how accurate this information was, or where exactly he was. Draken wondered if his wife's murderer had come back through Khein, through this very bay, or even come back to Akrasia at all.
The captain drew her sword. "Best jump, Commander. Given the opportunity, I'd slice you up and leave you for the errings. Swimming is better than a killer like you deserves."
Her opinion of him mattered little. Naught did, now. He turned to the rail, raised his hands over his head, and took to the water in an arcing dive. The sea closed about him like liquid stone, driving the air from his chest. Whenever he shut his eyes he saw his wife and this time was no different: hanging by her wrists from a gamehook in the kitchen, her slack face untouched, blonde hair curled down her back, still beautiful despite the gaping, empty slash running from her delicate throat to her womanhood. Gods willing, errings hunted this small bay and would tear him to pieces, end the grief that ate him from the inside every waking moment and plagued his restive dreams.
He only sank a little, legs moving slow in the current. His lungs burned without air, but the water soothed his hurts and aches. The sea always had. Lesle, too, had loved the ocean. But she surely couldn't rest in Ma'Vanni's watery paradise while her murderer walked free. Again he wondered if her killer walked Akrasian lands, working magicks with Lesle's innards and blood.
The thought sparked a burst of hatred, temporarily replacing his grief. Draken opened his eyes to stare at the play of sunlight on the sea over his head. Maybe he could find her murderer and stop the magic. Maybe he could find peace for Lesle, at least. Not the first time he'd thought it, but this was the first time the possibility seemed real.
His arms started moving and his legs kicked. Good fortune his cousin-King's navy had taught him to swim.
When he cleared the water, he collapsed in a shock of sea grass. The swim had unwound the rags tied to his feet. His back and legs quivered with exhaustion. He heard a quiet dripping of someone else leaving the water and roused himself. But the warning came too late. Sarc leapt on him from behind, fists pounding Draken's aching back. A sharp blow rang through his skull.
"It was you!" Sarc shouted. "If she didn't hate you so much, she wouldn't have made us swim, Brinian half-blood bastard!"
Draken threw the smaller man off with a grunt and spun, only to greet Sarc's fist driven into his stomach. Draken registered they were alone-the other two banished prisoners hadn't managed the swim.
The Monoean Navy had trained Draken to fight with fist and knife and bow, and he'd risen to special assignment with the Crown's Black Guard, hunting the remnants of the Brinian army after the Decade War. "Mopping up," his cousin-King called it. Truth, he'd spent the last few years wielding more scrolls than fists, but his body recalled what to do.
Draken barreled into Sarc. The boy-man flailed out, but Draken shoved his arms aside and slammed his fist into his face. Sarc struggled, tried to guard himself. Draken held Sarc's arms down and pinned him to the rocky shore.
"Do not follow or I will kill you," Draken said. "Do you doubt me?"
Sarc stared at him, breathing hard and stinking of the sea and rotted teeth. He shook his head.
Draken hit him again, feeling the younger man's jaws snap together. He drew his fist back a third time, but Sarc's eyes rolled white and he fell limp.
Draken stared down at the stinking boy-criminal, fury roaring in his veins. This was different from killing in war or hunting out hidden enemies. He wanted to hit Sarc again. He wanted to feel wet blood between his fingers. He wanted to make a man, any man, pay for the crime against his wife, for his conviction and banishment.
But Sarc was not that man.
Draken swallowed hard and let his hand fall to his side. He had done enough. Sarc wouldn't follow him.
As he walked away into the trees edging the rocky beach, Draken glanced skyward, but no moons lingered this morn. None of the Seven Eyes had witnessed his transgression: a trained soldier attacking a civilian. Still, he would make his prayer of reparation in the night and do someone a good deed in turn, find his way back into the graces of the gods. If such a place existed for him any more, and if any Akrasian would accept good will from an exiled half-blood enemy.
Doubtful, if the thickets were symbolic of the welcome he could expect. They caught Draken's rags as if the very forest didn't want him to pass. Brambles stung his bare feet. He slogged on, picking his way through, staring at the strange foliage until a root tripped him up. He fell to his hands and knees, stunned. His eye traveled up its tree. It was smooth for about three arm-spans until giant, sail-sized leaves branched out, shading him from the sun. Gray creepers snaked up the trunk. He reached out to squeeze the vine. It bled molten silver, staining his fingertips. He'd heard of such, but thought them fantasies of his Akrasian and Brinian prisoners.
Now he wondered what other assumed lies might be truth, and which truths actually lies. He thought he had a fair grasp of the politics and culture in the nation of Akrasia based on a career of studying and fighting their soldiers. The kingdom of Akrasia once had covered roughly two-thirds of the small continent: woods and farmlands and rough trading cities. Brin, a principality, had held the more profitable third, rife with moonwrought mines and the only year-round seaport. Via that port, Brin had once done a brisk trade with many kingdoms, even Monoea. But before Draken had been born, the Akrasian King had finally conquered Brin after generations of trying. Just about the time Draken had matured into the navy, that same Akrasian King had sent an army made up of vicious Brinian troops to try their hand at conquering Monoea. If they succeeded, Brin could buy back its freedom with the spoils and escape Akrasia's thumb. That had not come to fruition. It took some doing, but the Akrasians and their Brinian army had been soundly driven off.
Draken still remembered the Night of Surrender, the revelry and joy that the Decade War was over. Soon after, his cousin-King had ribboned him with awards of valor. But the best rewards had been yet to come.
"I leave the remnants of the war to your skilled hands, Draken, because I know I can trust you," the King had said as he had lifted Draken to his feet. Born a slave, but risen to one of the highest ranking officers in the Black Guard, Draken had been able to secure Lesle's hand in marriage because of his King's trust. Draken paused beneath a tree covered in iridescent scales, lost in memories. He touched the cool, smooth trunk, but twitched back when the tree shivered beneath his hand. Hesitantly, he tried again, and saw it shake this time, heard the branches rustle overhead. Golden fruits hung heavy amid thin gray leaves, but none had fallen and he had no wish to climb a tree that could shake him off. What magicks was this? He backed away. Vines and moss grew over the other trunks, but this tree remained clean of such adornments. A small clearing surrounded it, as if even the undergrowth didn't dare draw near this prince of the forest. Once he heard a rustling close behind him and stopped to stare back into the varied shades of green leaves. He listened a long while. His brow furrowed. An animal wouldn't fall quiet just because he had. He strode back and poked around in the undergrowth, but found nothing.
The day warmed. Heat and dehydration started to press against the inside of his head, alongside memories of Lesle, her laughter, the feel of her skin beneath his hand...he shoved them away. Hunger gnawed at his stomach. At least onboard ship he'd gotten regular water. He was slowed by his aching, torn feet and sore knees, but he doggedly trudged on.
He found a cobbled road in the night, under the light of two moons hovering over the break in the foliage. He tried to gauge the monthday by their position but soon gave up. Of the Seven Eyes, three were of similar size. One was Elna with her black spot; the other might have been Korde or Shaim. He couldn't be certain for their positioning was different here than it was in Monoea.
Beyond, the inland road lay straight, dying into the darkness of the woods. Behind him, it curved out of sight, back toward the sea. Inland would lead him to civilization, to food, maybe, and people, and danger. He took the straight route.
When he came to a house he stopped. A horse dozed in a small corral and an outlying building looked like a bird coop. Hewn logs made up the walls and the roof was flat. His home city in Monoea had icy winters. A flat roof would collapse from the snow. Akrasia, or this region, didn't see much snow, then. Shutters held back the night .
For a brief moment he considered stealing the horse, but reconsidered when he thought how such a loss would devastate a poor family. Eggs, though, they could surely spare. He stepped over the fence and crept among the few hens to close his fingers around a warm egg. He cracked the shell against his teeth, poured the slimy yolk down his throat, and soon found two more. His tongue didn't much like it, but they took the sharp edge off his hunger. Afterward he walked on, the smooth rounded cobbles almost soothing on his abused feet as long as he took care not to stub a toe. He heard movement in the undergrowth again, near the road, and another time just ahead. He didn't stop, assuming it must be animals.
A group of structures took shape in the dark ahead. A village. Going there was a death wish. But his feet kept carrying him toward the stone buildings, all shuttered tight. He looked at the letters etched into a lintel beam. He could speak Akrasian passably, but not read it.
From a low, open stable, he heard peaceful animal noises. Two dark taverns-what he wouldn't give for a cold draught of wine-and a gated smithy hung to the left of the stable. The rest appeared to be homes, not so unlike a village in Monoea. He thought about people sleeping in warm beds and drew in a slow breath of clean, damp air, tinged with wood smoke, salt water, and his sweat. He wondered if this was Khein and why they didn't have walls or anyone on watch. Perhaps the garrison was off in the woods somewhere, or further on this road.
At the other end of the village, the road curled around a well. He jogged forward and cranked up the bucket. The rope squeaked, but no lanterns flared. He drank deeply and splashed his face, wishing he had a skin to carry more.
As he took a second drink, he heard the quick clop of hooves on cobbles. Drawing a breath to calm his stuttering heart, he considered hiding, but they approached too quickly. And, after all, he'd done nothing worse than take a little water. In Monoea, wells were open to everyone. He turned to face the newcomers, still holding the ladle .
The third risen moon lit them well. Two warhorses halted with a clattering of shod hooves on the stones and a swish of restless tails. Marked as pureblood Akrasians by the black tattooed lines lining their eyes, the riders fair bristled with weapons. Knives on belts, swords on their saddles, bows on their backs. They wore green tabards, patterned with the Sevenmoon of Akrasia, one cut with three stripes, the other plain.
He scoured his memory for the Akrasian ranks. No stripes meant a mounted bowman or blademan: servii, they were called in Akrasian tongue. Stripes signified officers. Three must mean better than a Horsemarshal.
Fishscale protected their biceps and skirted their hips, expensive stuff bestowed only upon the King's Guard at home in Monoea. Stitched leather greaves clad their forearms, matching the designs on their boots. Either Draken was mistaken on the sigils of rank or the Akrasian crown had significant moneys to spend on their lowest soldiers. The horse bearing the servii had an oblong bundle tied to the back of its saddle, too big for just a bedroll.
The servii fixed Draken with the measured stare of a soldier who knew what he was about. Provided his armor wasn't thickly padded, he had thighs as bulky as fence posts. The thrice-striped marshal, who wore an aristocratic half-smile and his long black hair held back by a white circlet of moonwrought, lifted his chin and asked in Akrasian, "What are you doing so far from home, pirate?"
If they only knew how far. And pirate, indeed. They thought him Brinian, no doubt because of his dark skin inherited from his Brinian father. The time he'd spent tracking Akrasians and Brinians for the Monoean Crown taught him most Brinian warriors didn't know much of their conquerer's speech, refusing to learn Akrasian as a point of pride. He certainly shouldn't speak it with his Monoean accent. He raised his hands in what he hoped was a disarming gesture and replied in Brinish, "No trouble here. I'm moving on."
They muttered to each other and glared down at him. The bigger soldier urged his mount forward. Draken heard the unmistakable whisper of a sword against leather.
Death lingers in hesitation. Draken's father had taught him that, early and well with the strap. Without a second thought, Draken threw the ladle at them, rounded the well, and raced into the cover of the woods, hearing noises of pursuit on his heels. The soldiers spat curses as they had to slow to find a path through the close trees. Draken didn't look back. He simply ran.
His bare feet protested, toes pierced by twigs and small rocks, but the compacted soil made a reliable surface. All the branches were too high to reach, the brambles too thin to hide in. Running hard, he had no warning when the ground gave way beneath some waxy creepers on the ground. He tripped headlong into a deep gully. The impact smacked the air from his chest.
Violent thrashing behind. The Akrasians shouted directions to each other.
His heart keeping cadence with the pounding hooves, Draken yanked at vines and leaves in a quick bid to conceal himself. A bank of underbrush hid the hole between a thick tangle of unearthed roots. If they passed without looking down, or falling in, he had a chance.
I am the ground, he thought. He flattened himself into the gully.
Before he could blink, before fear made him catch his breath, a warhorse soared overhead, its great belly blocking the moonlight. The horse cleared the gully with strides to spare as the other thundered by. Draken cringed back, but the noise of the hooves faded off.
At last, all fell silent except for the foliage moving in a slight breeze. Muscles still shuddering from his abrupt burst of exertion, he took a moment to catch his breath before rolling over to check himself for damage. Small, bright Zozia had risen with her brothers and sister, shedding enough light to reveal long stalactites of gray moss hanging from the branches high above. They draped the trees like dusty Sohalia ribbons.
Draken signed his thanks to Zozia for her protection and waited for his breathing to return to normal before getting to his feet. For a moment he just stood, looking at the quiet darkness. No sounds or movement around him. He sank back down on a root and rubbed his eyes with a grimy hand.
Hunger urged him to go back to the town, to find something edible to steal. But if it were him on the chase, he'd have the village canvassed soon. And if the village were Khein, that meant soldiers, plenty of them. The road would ease his travel, but maybe it was better to avoid people for now, at least at night.
"All I did was take some water," he muttered-and not enough of it, at that. He couldn't keep up a decent pace for long without food and drink. He looked down at his torn, filthy clothing, the ugly brands on his hands marking him as a criminal. The next time he had opportunity, he must steal more food and better clothes. He now regretted leaving the horse in its paddock.
Draken sighed and climbed out of the gully. Stealing. And he'd beaten Sarc senseless. Was his nature so easily remade by events? This banishment already had him considering and committing criminal acts.
Hours later, a light on the ground ahead moved like it was alive: fire. He crept toward it until he was close enough to see the soldiers he had eluded. The scent of cooking meat made his stomach twist with hunger. One of their horses lifted a head and snuffled in Draken's direction, but the men paid it no mind.
The two sat near the fire, playing at Khel's Stones. The pieces glittered white: a moonwrought set. Very expensive. The moonwrought looked at odds with the makeshift board laid out on the bare ground, twigs marking the ever-changing territories. The marshal was winning, sweeping the field.
The marshal said something to the other, too soft to hear, and gestured with his chin. The servii chuckled, replied, and stood up as the marshal picked up the game pieces.
The soldier walked over and knelt next to a bundle on the ground, tightening the ropes on it. "Ha," he said, grinning at his lord. "This one won't wriggle from the ropes as the last one did. Catch a fair price, she will."
"If she's worth anything after I finish interrogating her."
"We could do it here."
"No. Let her sweat."
Draken heard a whimper from the bundle and his dry lips pressed together in annoyance at the unfriendly amusement. The bundle was too small for an adult and undoubtedly destined for an Akrasian slave market. But what would they interrogate a child about?
He stood for a moment, torn by his need to evade these two and his sympathy for the prisoner. And then the servii did something to clinch the matter. When the captive twitched violently, he gave it a vicious kick. The muffled cry stung Draken's razed nerves, urged him to run out there and defend the helpless. But the voice of experience also spoke of caution.
Balls to that, he thought.
Gods-damned Akrasian slavers. If anyone deserved stealing from, it was these two. Despite temptation and abundant opportunity, he'd never been deliberately cruel, like kicking a bound, defenseless prisoner. Even when he was the prisoner, during his arrest and conviction, even with the disdain shown him by his cousin-King, Draken had never been harmed by the officials who detained him. Monoean law held the gods alone could decree fate, even for a bastard slave turned murderer. Only the ship captain had dared test the intent of the law .
He looked up at bright Zozia, the tiniest and wisest of the Seven Eyes, goddess of children and the weak. He felt her watching him back. She had protected him when the soldiers had chased him, when Sarc had attacked him, when he'd been too weak to protect himself. Even the Mother, Ma'Vanni, had not allowed the Korde, god of death, to drag him to a watery grave when he'd nearly chosen sinking over swimming. He owed the gods his life, his freedom, and his will. He would protect this little one for them in return. Draken settled in to study the two soldiers. His years spent in his cousin's Black Guard, hunting down the last of the Brinian invaders who'd gone to ground, had made him familiar with this type of work. Before too long, one of them would step away, and he could make his move.