Authors: Michelle Sagara
Tags: #General, #Epic, #Fiction, #Romance, #Fantasy
He didn’t even bridle at the casual order.
“I’m not angry anymore,” Kaylin told Severn as they walked along the river’s side. Her gaze traveled across its banks, and into the shallows of night. Night in the fiefs was death unless you were armed and trained. She could walk there now without much fear, and that was something she’d never even dreamed of as a child.
Severn said nothing.
“I know why you did—what you did.”
He nodded. “But?”
She frowned. “It’s Barren,” she said quietly.
“The fief or the Lord?”
“I’m not sure you can ever separate a fief from its fief lord. But…the fief. The first night. The first day. I don’t think about it much anymore.” She kicked a loose stone with her right foot, and found that it wasn’t as loose as it had looked. The pain was almost a relief, it was so mundane.
“I wanted to kill you.” She stopped walking and turned to face him. What he saw in her expression made him look away. “I wanted to
to kill you. I thought, if I did, it would end the nightmares. It would somehow let Steffi and Jade rest in peace.”
In the muted streetlights, she could see his face; it was shadowed, and it was stiff. She searched around for another stone to kick, because it was better than looking at what was—and wasn’t—there. “It was the only thing I could think about, when I could think at all.” She lifted her hands, found they were almost fists, and lowered them again.
He watched her. He said nothing.
But he didn’t turn, didn’t walk away. She would have. She knew she would have. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“Don’t,” he said, his first word. He lifted a hand, palm out. “Don’t apologize to me. What you did, what
did, is in the past. Leave it there, Kaylin.”
“I did. I thought I did,” she added bitterly. She lifted Barren’s missive and waved it in the air. “But it’s
“Ignore it. Walk away. Don’t walk back.”
She knew, then, that’s what Severn would do.
And what could she say that wasn’t pathetic?
I don’t want Marcus to know
“Marcus will understand, Kaylin. Trust him to do that much. Given a choice, he would never, ever have you walk back into Barren.”
“I do trust him,” she said quietly. “I want him to
He nodded, as if he’d never really expected her to say anything else. Maybe he hadn’t. “Take me with you.”
“He didn’t tell you to go alone. Take me with you.”
“No. Because—” she stopped. Looked at his face, at the lines that had hardened in his expression. Closed her own. “Severn—I don’t want you to know, either.”
And then, before he could answer, she did what she had often done—she turned and she ran.
There was no light in her apartment that wasn’t supplied by moon; it was cheap, and all she did here at night was sleep, anyway. She checked the mirror, but it was dull and silent. No messages. No
emergencies. Tonight, for a change, one would almost have been welcome.
Her hair fell as she pulled out the new stick that bound it; she struggled out of her tunic and dumped it on the chair that served as a closet.
It’s not your fault,
she told him in bitter silence, because he couldn’t hear her.
I didn’t know why. I didn’t stay to find out.
She believed it, now; those deaths weren’t his fault. But she had run to Barren, numb and terrified, and when the terror had finally lapsed, the guilt had almost destroyed her.
It was a slow, slow destruction, and she ached from it, from the memories of it; they were almost physical. What she’d told him was true: she had only wanted one thing. To kill him. To be able to kill him. She’d been thirteen; it wasn’t hard to be focused, to let desire consume everything, overshadowing all but the need to eat, and the need to sleep.
She grimaced. It wasn’t hard to be that focused
But she no longer wanted to kill him. The years with the Hawks, with the foundling hall, and eventually, with the midwives, had given her other things to want, other things to live for. The first time she’d set eyes on Severn in the Hawklord’s tower had been the first time she’d thought about killing him in months. Maybe a year.
And what had she done then?
Cringing her way out of her leggings, and struggling with laces in the dark, she closed her eyes. She’d tried, of course. In front of the Hawklord, in his Tower, as if all the intervening years had never happened. She’d managed to pull back, but it wasn’t the last time she’d tried, and the last time?
In front of the
In front of Marrin.
Lying back in bed, she reached for her sheet and the blankets that were too hot for this time of year. She hated to leave any part of her body exposed when she slept, even though it made her sweat. It was stupid, but a small corner of her mind still believed that they would protect her from the shadowy, childhood monsters that lurked at the foot of the bed, waiting their opportunity.
She could honestly say she loved Severn. She could say, as well, that she trusted him with her life. She could almost say that she would trust him—now—with the lives that meant at least as much to her, although that one was touch and go.
But Jade and Steffi still haunted her. And waiting just behind them now, Barren. The one truth couldn’t obliterate the other, no matter how much she believed it already had.
Lord Sanabalis of the Dragon Court was familiar enough with Private Neya—who might, one day, rise in the ranks if she could manage to be consistently on time—that he did not schedule his lessons at the beginning of a normal day. The beginning of Kaylin’s day was, to be polite, staggered.
It was with some suspicion, then, that he noted the door to the West Room had been palm-keyed. Private Neya stood in the door’s frame as it opened, looking as if she had failed to sleep or eat. She was, however, on time.
She walked to the large, conference table and took the seat closest to Lord Sanabalis; she didn’t even grimace at the candle that he had placed in its usual position, which in Kaylin’s case, would be just out of range of her fists.
He waited for her to speak.
Normally, speech was not an issue; getting her to stop, especially if she felt aggrieved by the exercises, was. She remained, however, silent; she did not appear to notice that the candle was awaiting her attention.
He began the lesson by reminding her of the import of the candle flame. She was, of course, to light it, and that simple task had so far eluded her, although she had once managed to melt the entire thing.
She offered none of the usual resistance; she even nodded in the right places. But he had some suspicion that this was rote, and when he inserted a word or two that was, strictly speaking, out of place, she failed to notice.
She didn’t, however, fail to notice the fire that singed the stray strands of her hair, and she cursed—loudly, and in Leontine—and fell back over her chair, rolling to her feet near the door. “What the
was that for?”
“I wanted to see just how much attention you were paying.”
“Exactly. Private, my time is of significant value, at least according to the bureaucrats who charge the Hawks for these lessons. I expect, when you are in class—which would be anywhere that I happen to be delivering a lesson—you will be
Is that clear?”
She got to her feet. “You’ve spent too much time around Marcus,” she told him, rubbing her elbows where they’d hit carpet a little too hard.
“I’ve spent too much time around students,” he replied. His eyes were mostly gold; he wasn’t actually on the edge of angry. “At my age, I should be living in graceful retirement.”
She took her chair again, after righting it, and sat down.
He hit the table with the flat of both his palms. The table was hardwood, and even axes had problems denting it. But the whole damn thing moved about three inches.
“I had hoped that on our first day back in class we would at least be able to pick up where we left off. It appears that I was, as is often the case with students, wildly optimistic. What, exactly, is troubling you?”
“Nothing,” she said, sharply and a little too quickly.
brought the orange highlights to his draconian eyes. She swallowed, trying to decide whether getting out of the chair would annoy him more than staying put.
“You are making Lord Tiamaris look like a model student,” he told her, in a clipped and slightly chilly tone of voice.
That was a new one. Tiamaris was the youngest member of the Dragon Court, and as far as Kaylin could tell, he was about as stiff, formal, and tradition-bound as its older members. A flicker of curiosity wedged itself into the grim worry that had been the start of the day. “He was this frustrating?”
For some reason, the question lessened the intensity of the orange streaks in Dragon irises. Dragons were never going to be something Kaylin understood.
“He was possibly—just possibly—worse.” But Sanabalis’s shoulders slid into their normal curved bend. “He seldom came to my rooms this distracted.”
He raised a white brow. “I had
to have this session well underway before I interrupted it with matters that might prove even more of a distraction. I see I was entirely too hopeful. Yesterday, during your normal rounds, you visited Evanton on Elani Street.”
She nodded. She didn’t ask why he asked because she had a very strong suspicion she didn’t actually want the answer. Some days, the universe gave you everything you didn’t want.
“Apparently you were called into the…store.”
Kaylin nodded again. She knew, now, where this was going. “Yes,” she said quietly. “Evanton wanted to speak to me for a bit.”
“For well in excess of an hour.”
She grimaced. “I wasn’t exactly counting minutes, Sanabalis.”
“No. I imagine that’s not one of your accomplishments. I will, however, point out that you were on duty at that time.”
“And you failed to file a report.”
Honestly, the day could hardly get any worse.
He raised a hand. “A report, however, is not entirely necessary. I was making an attempt to be humorous,” he added gravely. “But your presence, and the length of your visit, was noted.
“As,” he added, in a softer tone, “was the state of your clothing when you left the premises—carrying your boots.”
“They were wet.”
“And, apparently, muddy.” His eyes were a clear gold, which was made brighter when he lowered his inner membranes. “Kaylin, what happened? It is seldom that someone the Keeper apparently considers safe enough to allow into his domain emerges in that condition. I was personally asked by the Emperor, in case you think this is idle curiosity, to inquire.”
Which was his way of saying she couldn’t weasel out of an answer.
“The elements are, apparently, upset,” she finally said. “Which is where the water and the mud came from. The wind helped,” she added. “For a value of help that made me look like a sodden cat.”
He became very still, and she wished—not for the first time—that she had locks on her mouth, and that someone who
more wisdom kept the keys. “Sanabalis, please. I am not
to talk about this.”
“I highly doubt,” the Dragon Lord replied, “that Evanton expects you to keep silent in the face of Imperial dictate.”
“You clearly don’t know Evanton.” She glanced at the table, and then at the Dragon sitting behind it. “You should,” she told him, surrendering. “I think you’d get along just fine. If you didn’t kill each other on sight on a bad day.” She rose. “The elemental garden wasn’t much of a garden; it was a storm, but worse.
“But Evanton said—and I do not argue with him when he’s in a mood—that the elements do this when they’re trying to communicate.”
Sanabalis raised a brow. She actually liked that expression on most days. Today was not one of them. “You’re not going to like it,” she told him, in a quieter voice.
“I’d guessed that.”
going to tell you.”
The brow rose farther; it hadn’t actually come down.
“Well, before other things came up.”
“I’m sure they were vitally important,” he said, in a very dry tone. Since he could breathe fire, that type of dry usually showed up when he was just on the edge of annoyance. She’d never, thank the gods, seen him angry.
“Something is happening somewhere close by.” She hesitated again. “The elements were trying to write a—a word. Evanton showed me what it was. I couldn’t see a damn thing in the storm. I could barely see my own feet.”
“You recognized the word.” It wasn’t a question.
“I didn’t—” She glanced at the slightly copper tint to his eyes. “It’s not as simple as that. I didn’t recognize it because I’d seen it before, if that’s what you mean. I—It felt familiar.”
“Was it in a living language?”
He was such a smart old bastard. “No.”
“Was it similar, in style, to the marks on your arms?”
“Not—” she glanced at her sleeves “—not exactly.”
“Kaylin, do not force me to strangle you.”
“I’m trying to answer the question—”
“You are trying to answer the question without actually saying all of what you know. If you are going to do that,
learn from your Corporal.
It is actively painful to watch you flail, and the attempt is—I assume unintentionally—insulting. Because you are young and demonstrably ignorant, I am exercising patience, but my patience, while vast, does have limits.”
She tried not to grind her teeth. “It’s not a rune I recognize. I don’t think it’s written on
but I admit I haven’t actually looked at the back of my neck in records recently. But it felt familiar anyway.” He said nothing. He didn’t move a muscle. Not even the corner of his mouth twitched.