Authors: Michelle Sagara
Tags: #General, #Epic, #Fiction, #Romance, #Fantasy
“He has not historically proven himself to be entirely aware of the Outcaste,” was the slightly cool reply.
“He doesn’t have to be. It’s in his interests to have the two of you fight; it saves him both time and the effort of finding new men.”
When he glanced at her pointedly, she shrugged. “Well,” she said, kicking a small stone, “it makes sense to me.”
Lord Nightshade was waiting for them.
This surprised neither Kaylin nor Tiamaris. The small mark on Kaylin’s cheek, which was regularly mistaken as a tattoo by anyone who wasn’t Barrani or hadn’t been racially warring with them for way too many years, was in fact his mark. Kaylin was still hazy on the details of what, exactly, it signified, but she understood two things about it: removing it would generally involve removing her head, and it acted as a conduit, in some ways, between Kaylin and the Lord of the fief of Nightshade.
She generally went out of her way not to think about the rest.
Lord Nightshade was not, of course, considerate enough to wait
Castle Nightshade. This meant that both Kaylin and Tiamaris—the latter with somewhat chilly, if respectful, permission from the Barrani guards—were forced to enter the castle through its nefarious and much-cursed portal. The portal looked very much like a lowered portcullis. It wasn’t. It was a magical gate that led directly into the front foyer of the Castle, in which Nightshade greeted his guests.
Unfortunately for Kaylin, her sensitivity to magic made the passage extremely disorienting and difficult, and she usually ended up on the other side on her hands and knees, trying very hard not to throw up. Today was, sadly, no exception.
Tiamaris never seemed remotely fazed by the transition—but he was a Dragon; you could probably cut off one of his arms with a nail file and he wouldn’t do more than grimace. He was, however, accustomed to Kaylin’s vastly less-dignified entrance, and bent to offer her a hand when she at last lifted her head. She only did this when the room had stopped spinning.
Lord Nightshade was waiting at a polite distance. He nodded as she gained her feet. “Kaylin,” he said, inclining his head. “Lord Tiamaris.”
“Lord Nightshade.” The Dragon Lord extended the fief lord a precise bow. He didn’t hold it long, but it was in tone and texture a very correct one.
“I was expecting you,” Lord Nightshade told Kaylin softly, “a day ago.”
She grimaced. She certainly hadn’t expected to end up here, but her life was like that.
After a pause, Lord Nightshade turned and indicated, with the gesture of a hand, that they were to follow. Her knees still slightly wobbling, she did; it didn’t pay to lag behind Nightshade in this castle. The halls had a tendency to change direction—and orientation—for anyone who wasn’t their Lord. She glanced at Tiamaris. Their Lord, she added to herself, or a very stubborn Dragon.
It always surprised Kaylin that the Lord of Nightshade could value the quiet and graceful austerity of simple flowers, but they rested in tall, slender vases in small alcoves along the hall; light touched them, some of it glancing from windows recessed in the ceiling. While the outside of the Castle resembled some ancient keep, with arrow slits instead of windows, and manned walls instead of galleries, the inside was another story. A long, complicated one.
She expected Nightshade to lead them into one of the rooms in which he chose to entertain visitors; he often had food and wine waiting.
Today, however, he led them to a different room. She recognized it. She didn’t recognize the halls that led to it, but she’d long since given up expecting to be able to do so; this was Castle Nightshade, and all the observation in the world wouldn’t make it mundane enough to become familiar.
The room was adorned with mirrors.
Mirrors, in the Empire, were the heart of its communication system. Oh, they were also used for more mundane purposes of vanity, or at least personal grooming, but the lesser use was not significant here. Then again, it was probably never significant to the Barrani, who seemed to ooze grace and elegance no matter what they were wearing.
Teela had once tried on some of Kaylin’s clothing; it had been entirely disheartening. For one, it shouldn’t have fit. And it didn’t. But even shortened as it was by Teela’s much taller frame, it had looked instantly spectacular. Kaylin tried to imagine Nightshade standing in front of a mirror and straightening the fall of his robes, tunic or cloak. She gave up.
Tiamaris, however, used the reflective surfaces of the mirrors to raise a brow in Kaylin’s direction. She grimaced, and replied with a very slight shrug.
“You are aware that there is some difficulty in the fiefs,” Lord Nightshade said quietly.
They both looked at his reflection, meeting his gaze that way.
“We were aware,” Kaylin replied quietly, “that there was the possibility of difficulty.” When he raised a brow in her direction, she added, “We’re not living here. We don’t know.”
“But you are here,” he told her softly.
She nodded. “It was either come here or attempt to cross the borders into a different fief.” Drawing breath, she added, “Ravellon.”
His hand fell reflexively to the hilt of his sword and rested there. “Why do you speak that name?”
“It was spoken to me. Well, written.”
His expression didn’t change at all, but something about him stiffened; she felt something that was not exactly fear, but close. Seeing the lines of his face, she knew that Tiamaris wouldn’t notice it; it wasn’t obvious to anyone who did not, in the end, hold his name.
he told her softly.
But from you, I can hide little if you choose to notice. You seldom so choose.
“Has there been trouble in Nightshade?” she asked, avoiding any answer to the hidden, the intimate, voice.
He hesitated. This hesitation, even Tiamaris could mark. “There have been no unusual occurrences in the fief,” he replied. “No increase in the number of ferals, and no…other…encroachments.”
Something about his answer was wrong.
“There have been,” he told her, with deliberate coolness, “the usual number of deaths. They are not zero, but they are not worthy of remark or note.”
For just a moment, her jaw clenched. So did her fists. On a day over seven years ago, two of those deaths had driven her from Nightshade. It was hard not to speak, but she swallowed the words, almost choking on them. Rage, when it blind-sided her, did that.
She almost missed the cold curve of his lips. He was smiling. It was a very Barrani smile. The rage drained from her, then. What was left was cold.
We are what we are,
he told her.
It was true. She endeavored to be a professional. “What, exactly, have you noticed?”
“The difficulty is not within my fief,” he replied.
“You don’t exactly pay social calls to the other fiefs.” So much for professional.
He raised one brow. Tiamaris was silent, but it was the silence of sudden watchfulness. “Indeed,” Lord Nightshade finally said. The Dragon, on the other hand, didn’t relax much. “But Nightshade is bordered by three fiefs. Or perhaps more; we count the interior as one, and that may be erroneous.”
He lifted one hand and the images in the mirror—admittedly somewhat mundane for the Castle, given that two of them were Hawks—rippled and vanished in a moving silver swirl. When that swirl stilled, the surface of the mirrors no longer offered reflections. Instead, laid out like a very intricate map, she saw the boundaries of the fief of Nightshade.
It didn’t even feel like home.
To the south, the city in which Kaylin served the Dragon Emperor lay across the narrow bridge; the Ablayne ran along the whole of that boundary, and beyond. That much, she recognized. She waited for him to speak.
“To the east,” he said quietly, “Liatt.” He hesitated, and glanced at Tiamaris. She felt the way Nightshade considered hoarding words, hoarding information, but in the end, he chose to speak. He always chose his words with care; the decision was merely between those words and silence. “Liatt is ruled by a woman; in seeming she is as human as…Corporal Handred. She holds the Tower of Liatt, and it is from that Tower that she rules. To the west—”
“Wait.” Kaylin lifted a hand. “You’ve met her?”
“Oh, yes,” he said softly. “But as you say, the fief lords do not pay social visits.”
“When you say human in seeming—”
“She is mortal.”
Kaylin nodded, and apologized for the interruption, which caused Nightshade to raise a brow. This time, the smile that turned the corners of his lips up was not so cold, and not so cutting; it held no satisfaction. It did not, however, appreciably change the lines of his face.
“To the west,” he said softly, watching her face, “is Barren.”
She was silent for a full beat. “And Barren is ruled by?” she asked.
“Barren is purported to be ruled by a human male.”
“Purported? You’ve never met him?”
“I may, indeed, have had that privilege.”
“But you’re not certain?”
“How can you be certain that you’ve met Liatt?”
Liatt,” he replied softly. “Just as I am Nightshade.”
Tiamaris cleared his throat. Dragons had a way of clearing the throat that made earthquakes seem mild; it wasn’t a roar, but it implied that a roar might follow severe inattentiveness. What followed a roar was generally considered death, even by the optimistic.
On the other hand, the Barrani and the Dragons had had centuries—at the very least—in which to thumb their figurative noses at each other’s subtle threats. Nightshade turned.
“Are you implying that the fief lord of Barren does not hold the fief?” the Dragon asked.
“He rules it,” was the quiet reply. “But it has long been my suspicion that he is merely clever, canny, and adept.”
“He understands how to hold the territory he has claimed as his own. But it is a claim with no substance.” He turned to Kaylin, lifted a hand, and trailed the tips of his fingers down her cheek. The mark glowed faintly as he touched it. “I knew Liatt,” he told her softly, “because the fief knew Liatt. Barren’s name had no such resonance.” He let his hand fall away. “But my experience with the fief of either Liatt or Barren is small. Yours, however, might be more germane.”
Words deserted her for a moment. She glanced at Tiamaris; she couldn’t help it. If he was surprised by Nightshade’s words, the surprise didn’t show. She wondered if he was, or if he knew. He was part of the Dragon Court.
The mirrors rescued her; Nightshade gestured, and the view zoomed in, losing the boundaries of Liatt and Elantra.
“Lord Tiamaris understands,” Nightshade said softly.
Kaylin, frustrated, tried not to grind her teeth. Tiamaris had a head start of possibly a few centuries of experience and knowledge—but she resented being the person who had no clue.
Nightshade told her.
“Hold that image,” Tiamaris said, above the quiet, private words.
The image froze.
“Kaylin, did Barren have more of a problem with ferals than Nightshade? Do you recall?”
She hesitated for a moment, and then nodded. “The fief had more of a problem with both ferals and the occasional other creature. It was why most of Barren’s men were stationed near the border. The interior border,” she added.
“You saw this?”
“No. I was told. I didn’t visit the fief lord at night. None of us did.” She drew a sharp, cutting breath. “I was thirteen, Tiamaris. It was for six months. I wasn’t—in any way—capable of becoming one of his lieutenants. Not then. What I have is rumor, and a bit of experience. It’s not a lot to judge a fief by.”
“But the ferals, at least?”
She nodded, thoughtful now. “Have you met the other fief-lords?” she asked Nightshade.
“No. I have met only those whose borders touch mine. There is some blurring, although it is not extreme.” His smile was cool. “Why?”
“You said Liatt ruled from the Tower.
He nodded. “As I rule from the Castle.”
Tiamaris failed to hear the exchange. He had walked up to the mirror, and he now examined the image in some detail. “How long?” he asked Nightshade.
Nightshade did not pretend to misunderstand him. “The current fief lord of Barren has ruled for ten years. Perhaps nine. They are mortal years, in the reckoning of Elantra.”
“I am not privy to even rumor. But the former fief lord—Illien—was not human. The fief lost its name along the border. I do not hear it.”
“But you hear Liatt?” Kaylin asked.
“When I touch the boundaries of my realm, I hear Liatt.”
“You, perhaps. Lord Tiamaris would not.”
She didn’t ask him why, but she touched the mark upon her cheek almost reflexively.
“Was Illien alive?”
Nightshade said nothing.
“Ten years,” Tiamaris said softly. “I would have said that was impossible. Ten years of rule without—” He shook his head, drawing the words back before they were spoken. Kaylin successfully fought the urge to slap him. “The borders here—can you magnify them? They are not clear.”
“No, Lord Tiamaris, they are not. As I said—and as I imagine you suspect—the boundaries between fiefs are somewhat unstable. What the mirrors show you now is what
see. Do you understand?”
The Dragon Lord offered the fief lord a very graceful nod. “You honor us.”
“It is expedient for me to do so at this time. It is also,” Nightshade added, “no risk to me. What I see, you cannot see without my aid, and could you, you could do nothing with it while I lived.” His smile was slight and cool.
“Yes. I see more and less clearly than I would otherwise see if Barren was stable. But what you see along the blurred edge is accurate. The shadows of the interior have changed shape over even the past decade. They have been on the move—slowly—into the fief of Barren.”
“You’ve had word from the fief lord of Barren, have you not?” Nightshade asked her softly.