Kneeling before his king, Derkus Glinholt pleaded with all his considerable skill. “Please, my glorious liege, I beg of you – let me go to Y’Nor and fetch my daughter.” With his head nearly pasted on the ground, the councilor waited for Arris’ answer.
The king’s attention was completely focused on a new gift. A merchant by the name of Kesryn Oswyne, a good friend of the scholar Porthyros, had brought this magical chessboard from one of his trips to the eastern kingdoms. Bestowing it on his king out of love and respect, the merchant had spent many candlemarks the previous evening discussing his travels.
Sighing, Arris barely lifted his eyes away from the magnificent gift. The pieces moved by themselves. Different commands would allow the king to play against an invisible opponent, or two such bodiless spirits could play at his order. The game was infinitely more interesting than the plight of his advisor, especially since he had never wished to marry the idiot’s cow of a daughter in the first place.
“His highness will take your request under advisement, my lord. For now, be contented with the knowledge that King Padreg has made no move to defile the girl,” Porthyros smoothly said.
“Yes, it is of much comfort to me that the barbarian has only stolen her body,” Derkus said bitterly.
Porthyros frowned. The nobleman’s tone bordered on being insolent, and yet it held just enough grief and outrage that the insult, if there was one, could be ignored. However, he would keep a stronger eye on the advisor, knowing that without his daughter as a hostage, Glinholt could easily be lost to their cause.
“Go now, Lord Glinholt, and see to your duties. I shall send word, if there is any news,” Porthyros said dismissively.
The nobleman rose, nodding his head at the king’s mouthpiece and then bowing deeply before the king. “Thank you, Lord Porthyros.”
Porthyros watched him leave and then turned his attention to Arris. The Y’dani monarch intently watched as the king piece strode across the chessboard, drew his sword, and bloodily skewered an ice demon pawn.
A smile of pure glee lit up the king’s face. “I’m going to do that,” he whispered. “I’m going to kill them all. One by one, they will die, until there’s no more threats to my people left.” He reached out, taking hold of a tall mug of tea that his old friend Porthyros had made just for him. Bringing it to his lips, he savored the scent of honey and spice then drank deeply of the brew. The king’s eyes glazed over momentarily and then cleared. He set the mug down and watched as the ice demon rook moved into a position that his king could easily take. “And once I’m done with the demons, I’m coming for you.” His gaze fell on the opposing Queen, a mounted figure that bore a strong resemblance to Y’dan’s former warleader, Azhani Rhu’len.
Porthyros allowed a small smile to cross his face as his king continued to lose himself in the game. Lord Kesryn’s gift was having the desired effect of keeping the king’s attention occupied. It was almost too easy to slip piles of documents, that needed to be signed and sealed, under the king’s uncaring hand. Arris never even bothered to read through the papers, signing and sealing wherever he was told, trusting his teacher’s counsel.
If any of the advisors and counselors complained, then they did so quietly, having had a strong taste of what speaking out against the king was like. No one forgot the lesson that Azhani Rhu’len’s trial and subsequent battle had taught.
Porthyros laid out a new pile of documents, and as he had been doing for several days now, Arris docilely began signing where the rat-faced little man indicated, all the while, his eyes never left the figure of the ice demon Queen.
When he finished signing the documents, he sighed and said, “You know, Thyro, I think after Azhani, I’ll sail on over to Y’Nor and kill Padreg, too. I’ll even bring jerky Derky his daughter back – after I’ve had my fun, of course.” The king smiled darkly. “She wouldn’t bed me before, but I’ve changed. Once she sees how wonderful I have become, she’ll be mine. She will always be mine.”
As he spoke, his gaze never wavered. The face of Azhani Rhu’len filled his vision.
Spring came to Y’Syr with a vengeance. Heavy, cold rains, that left both warrior and stardancer soaked to the skin, had punctuated the entire journey from the Y’Noran border to the edge of Banner Lake.
The gates of Y’Syria had never seemed more foreboding, though they were wide open. Azhani and Kyrian, riding side by side, entered the city at sundown, flowing in with the last of the trade traffic from the east.
Gulls flapped overhead, flying in their V patterns as the flocks hunted for places to roost for the night. Kyrian looked around, taking in the sights of the heart of the elven kingdom.
Y’Syria was a city of trees. Giant oaks, that were older than the oldest elf, filled the region. In ancient times past, forgotten elven builders had constructed a maze of homes and buildings that were as much a part of the trees as the leaves and branches.
Around the bases of the trees, other buildings had grown over the years, but their construction was always done to compliment the arboreal nature of the lakeside city. The docks, the lifeblood of the city, were over a mile away from the city center, so as not to mar the exotic setting.
Azhani had been here before, several times, in service to King Theodan. It wasn’t long before she was leading Kyrian to a dockside inn. The simple, two-story building was a favorite place of Y’dani and Y’maran sailors, and would provide an excellent place from which to start looking for Ylera’s friends.
After three days of inquiries, the warrior knew where she had to go. Lord Morvith Answyth had left the city three weeks before on a trading mission to Y’Tol and would not return until the following spring. Nara Vell, an Y’skani dancer, had returned to her homeland to marry. Only Tellyn Jarelle, an herbalist of some renown, remained in Y’Syria. With Kyrian at her side, Azhani went to visit the wisewoman.
The door was answered on the first knock, revealing a boy slightly younger than Devon. A mop of curly black hair fell into the typically narrow featured face of an elf, partially obscuring light gray eyes.
“Yes, may I be of assistance?” he asked politely.
“I would like to see Tellyn Jarelle,” Azhani said and gave the boy a look that should have sent him scurrying into the house as though the ground scorched his feet.
He shrugged. “She’s busy, come back tomorrow.” The door closed.
Azhani knocked again and waited until it was opened.
The boy’s head poked out and when he saw it was the warrior, he said, “I told you, she’s busy. Go away.”
Before he could close the door this time, Azhani stuck her foot in, and said, “I think you had better get your mistress,” she allowed a bit of menace to creep into her voice, “now.”
Kyrian reached out and put a hand on Azhani’s arm. “Azhi,” she said soothingly. “We can come back.”
Tensing, the warrior shrugged off her friend’s hand. “You’re welcome to go back to the inn,” she said distantly.
Stung, Kyrian stepped away and watched as the warrior’s will slowly dominated the stubborn young man in the doorway.
“Gyp, what’s going on boy? You’re letting out all the cool air,” a cantankerous, but affectionate sounding voice called out.
“Visitors, Tell. They won’t go away like you told me to say.” The boy pulled his head from the doorway and yelled back to the busy wisewoman.
“Well then let them in, if they’re so intent on interrupting an old woman on washing day,” Tellyn replied.
Shrugging, the boy threw open the door and snidely said, “Please come in and be welcome in Mistress Tellyn’s house.”
Azhani smirked and walked in. Meekly, Kyrian followed her, turning to the boy and whispering, “Sorry to disturb you.”
“Tell that to her,” the boy said, jerking his chin in the direction of an elderly elven woman who was busily scrubbing a pile of clothes.
“Tellyn Jarelle?” Azhani asked as she approached the woman.
“Yes, that would be me. You must forgive the lack of mystical robes or the stench of dead plants.” A tunic went into the hot, sudsy water and she began vigorously scrubbing.
Indeed, the house did smell less like a stillroom and more like a bakery. The sweet scent of cinnamon filled the air, broken only by the heavy smell of the soap from the laundry. The herbalist was dressed in simple peasant clothes – a light tunic liberally soaked with water and a pair of short breeches that were likewise drenched was her costume of the day.
Licking her lips, Azhani took a breath and said, “Ylera Kelani told me to seek you out and show you this, should I ever need help in Y’Syria.” Diffidently, the warrior held out her hand.
At the mention of the princess’ name, Tellyn ceased her scrubbing and looked up, pinning the warrior with a hard gaze. Taking Azhani’s hand in her own, she rubbed at the skin briefly and whispered under her breath. There was a flash of light and then a rune appeared, hovering over Azhani’s dark skin. Pursing her lips, Tellyn waved her hand over the rune and it vanished.
“All right, you’ve proven your claim, now what do you want?” The herbalist’s voice was surly, but also tinged with pain.
“I need your help in avenging Ylera,” the warrior said simply. “I am Azhani Rhu’len and Ylera was my beloved.”
“Yes, yes, I know who you are, Y’dani. Tell me why I should help you,” Tellyn said, waving her hands at the warrior. “Gyp, make us some lunch. Then you can finish the laundry.” The boy scrambled off into another room where the clanking of pots could be heard. “Now, let us go and sit. There is much to talk about.” Her eyes found Kyrian, who was trying her best to remain unnoticed. “You come too, stardancer. The presence of the goddess’ own is never to be ignored.”
The two women followed the herbalist into a tiny study.
Why did I ever think that Azhani would let me help her? Kyrian fumed silently as she calmly went about assisting Tellyn Jarelle. After a long discussion, the herbalist had been willing to aid the former Y’dani warleader and her stardancer companion.
For three days after Tellyn had welcomed them into her home, the two women alternately slept and ate; glad to be warm and dry. Once they were rested, Azhani began escaping into the city, leaving at first light before Kyrian had awakened. The stardancer learned to spend her days assisting the herbalist to tend her gardens or helping to mix highly sought after curatives.
Every night, she would swear to stay awake until Azhani returned, but each time, sleep overwhelmed her, dragging her off before the warrior could return. What she did, where she went and who she talked to were things that Kyrian wanted to know. The warrior, however, was frustratingly quiet on the subject, leaving the stardancer to fret and fume alone.
Today was like the last several days – Azhani was gone before dawn, and even though Kyrian had forced herself to crawl out of bed to try and ambush the warrior, she was unable to catch up to her friend. All she had found was a simple note in the warrior’s terse hand. Barely reading it, she had thrown it into the fire, watching the parchment blacken and crisp the words that meant her friend had abandoned her once more. Now she was doubly angered, first, because she wanted to help Azhani, and second because she was short on sleep.
Stifling a yawn, she continued to carefully grind tiny yellow flowers into a pungent powder. Bits of the delicate substance stained her fingertips and she had to be extra cautious, lest she bring those fingers anywhere near her eyes.
The flowers were useful in febrifuges, and even a tiny amount would make her eyes water incessantly. She finished powdering the herb and handed the bowl to Tellyn, whose grateful smile crinkled her face so much, it resembled the bark of an old, weathered tree.
Dumping the contents into a large ceramic bowl, the herbalist stirred the dry concoction until it was thoroughly mixed and then added three drops of a thick purple liquid. The bowl went onto a sideboard to ferment for a few days before the medicine was bottled.
“It will do you no good to fret, child,” Tellyn said, her ancient voice sharp and loud in the quiet atmosphere of the stillroom.
“I know, Master Tellyn, but I cannot help my ire. I promised to help Azhani, but all I seem to be doing is staying out of her way,” said Kyrian in frustration.
The herbalist dropped a kindly hand on the stardancer’s shoulder. “Perhaps, it is the fact that you wait, and that you are here, that is the aid that the warrior needs.”
Kyrian’s head drooped and she shrugged. “Maybe. But I still feel useless. I realize I don’t know anything about skulking around, or whatever it is she’s doing, but at least she could tell me what she was up to, instead of leaving me here to worry!”
“I would help if I could, young stardancer. It is honor that prevents me from using the memory of my friend Ylera to pry into the warrior’s business. I will do what I can to offer shelter and food, and content myself to be patient for details. Come, let us see what the day’s customers bring us.”
The old elven woman gathered her robes about her and shuffled out into the common room of her home, where Gyp was waiting with their first client.
Tellyn’s patrons varied from an older, kindly faced stardancer who had taken to bringing Kyrian books to read to fishermen who came for the herbalist’s stomach tonics.
Kyrian threw herself into Tellyn’s business, hoping that soon, Azhani would find the time to explain her plans.
“And if she doesn’t, well then, I’ll just have to do something drastic,” she muttered, handing over another bottle of tonic and accepting the fisherman’s coins.
Seated on a pile of soft carpets, surrounded by the familiar scents of grass, horse and cooking meat, Padreg Keelan sipped at his cup of dark tea and looked at his old friend curiously. Aden Varice, his oldest, most trusted friend, had just returned from Y’Nym, the plains people’s largest city. Built on the edge of Lake Y’mar, Y’Nym was one of the major trading sites for horses, which was largely what Y’Nor exported.
“Pirates? Aden, are you sure?” Padreg asked quietly. “It’s not like Ysradan to go haring off after a few measly bandits, even if they are sea-faring.” Outside, he could see his mother showing Elisira how to cut and fashion a plains style saddle.
“Yes, Paddy, I’m certain. Had it from Cragus One-Eye himself. The old man’s taken his best men, boarded ship, and is out chasing after a small fleet of Killigarni pirates,” Aden replied. He leaned back and puffed deeply on his pipe, waiting for his chieftain’s response.
Shock colored the king’s face. “Killigarns? I thought they’d been wiped out by the Cabal years ago.”
Killigarn Island, once used as a dumping ground for the Kingdom’s worst criminals, had evolved into a society of peoples whose only goal was to destroy the High King. Fifty years ago, they launched an attack on the coastlines of the lower kingdoms. Killigarni Pirates quickly became known for their complete lack of mercy, killing everyone from the smallest of children to the oldest of men.
Even livestock was put to the sword, and the earth salted to prevent anyone from salvaging the destruction. Eventually, Prince Ysradan, leading a navy comprised of soldiers from Y’mar, Y’Nor and Y’skan, defeated the pirate ships. It was rumored that afterwards, High King Erskandyr hired the Cabal to finish off the remaining Killigarns.
“Apparently, not even the Cabal could exterminate those vermin,” Aden said gruffly, spitting on the ground in disgust. “Word is that another pack has formed and they’re raiding the Y’maran coast. Ysradan is leading the navy himself, hunting down the rogue ships. He’s been at sea for nearly a year – he may not even know what’s going on in Y’dan.”
Shaking his head in disbelief, Padreg said, “Who is regent? Ysrallan is too young and Queen Dasia would never leave Ysradan’s side, even if it meant she had to paddle after the warships in a canoe.”
Aden laughed. “Korethka at work, hey Paddy?”
“It’s a powerful thing, Aden. Love like that is rare and Ysradan was right to cling to it.” Soberly, Padreg asked, “If Dasia’s at sea with Ysradan, is Syrelle the regent?”
“No, the High Council would never accept her. Pirellan Madros was chosen to warm Ysradan’s throne,” Aden said softly, visibly bracing for the chieftain’s response.
“What? How could Ysradan leave that overgrown windbag cousin of his in charge? Everyone knows that Pirellan’s incapable of tying his own boots, much less ruling a kingdom!” The plainsman jumped up and began pacing around the tent. “The High Council isn’t any help,
either. They’re a bunch of old men who care more for gold than justice. Damn!”
Aden shrugged, as if trying to say that the reasoning of kings was beyond him. “Ysradan might not have had much choice, Paddy. If Dasia wouldn’t stay behind, then who else could he trust? At least Pirellan is a known entity. Imagine if someone like Arris had been named? It’s not out of the realm of possibility. This way, Ysradan has some assurance that his kingdom will be there when he comes home.”
Padreg stroked his chin and nodded, accepting Aden’s words. As boys, they had fostered in the High King’s castle, serving Ysradan and Dasia as pages. They knew, better than most, how difficult a job the High King had, balancing the needs of Y’mar against the needs of all seven kingdoms. Only by constructing careful alliances with the nobles and merchants in the High Council, was Ysradan able to maintain order.
The greatest lesson Padreg had learned from his time as Ysradan’s page, and later as his squire, was to delegate power as evenly as possible. Only when it was shared, was power capable of great things.
The Y’Noran king shook his head sadly. “Ysradan needs to know what happens here. Perhaps Dasia can be persuaded to come home. Pack your gear, my friend, you’re going to sea.”
Taking a deep breath to still the butterflies fluttering in her stomach, Azhani quietly stepped into the lantern lit room. Though her boots made barely a whisper on the carpeted floor, the figure seated at an ornately carved desk ceased reading and turned to face the intruder.
Clear gray eyes blinked in surprised recognition. A whispered oath was followed by a harsh question. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t call out to my guards, murderer.”
Azhani Rhu’len, former warleader of Y’dan and beloved of Princess Ylera Kelani gave no spoken answer. Laying her sword at the feet of the woman behind the desk, she knelt before Queen Lyssera Kelani, Ylera’s sister. The elven women were twins, though Lyssera was the elder by half a candlemark. That accident of birth made her the ruler of Y’Syr, and brought her sister to Y’dan and into Azhani’s life.
Contemptuously, Lyssera ignored the blade. Leaning back in her chair, she crossed her legs and curiously considered the top of the warrior’s head. What does she want? Is she here to taunt me, to drive the wedge of pain deeper into my heart? Or am I to believe the words of spirits?
“So, you’re the bitch who got Ylera killed. Funny, you don’t look much like the vaunted Banshee of Banner Lake. In fact,” gray eyes flicked over the warrior’s body, taking in the woman’s general appearance, “I would say you would be better known as the Scarecrow of Banner Lake.” Though it had been several years since Lyssera had seen Azhani, the woman kneeling before her now bore no resemblance to the happy, healthy warrior that had first visited the elven city. This Azhani was leaner, sadder and carried an infinitely greater burden than Theodan’s warleader ever bore.
“I am whatever your majesty wishes,” Azhani said quietly, her voice devoid of emotion.
A cruel smile blazed across Lyssera’s face. “What I wish is for you to be flayed alive, and packed in sea salt, but I’ll have to settle for having you hung in the public square. That is how we punish murderers here in Y’Syr, or don’t you remember?”
Having visited Y’Syr many times, Azhani remembered. “I remember that your justice is merciful, your highness. I also remember that the accused was innocent until proven guilty.”
The elven woman’s relaxed posture dropped away, leaving behind the regal presence of the queen. “Are you claiming innocence?” she asked, cocking her head and watching the warrior’s body language. Oh Ylera, did you really come back? Were the words I heard the truth? Are you blameless in my sister’s death, Azhani Rhu’len? I hope it is so.
Azhani looked up, her face a studied mask of calm, even as tears pooled in her eyes. “I am, highness. I did not kill Ylera. She was,” her voice broke. Taking a shuddering breath, Azhani said, “She was my heart and soul, my queen.”
Lyssera stood and paced around the room, circling the still kneeling warrior. “And I am to believe you, just because you sit there, professing your love, when I have the sealed documents sent to me by King Arris himself? Do you know what they say, warrior? They say you are a traitor! They say that you –“ Lyssera’s voice rose and her fists clenched. “That you used my twin as a shield against the guardsmen who tried to arrest you.” The words were bitten off, filled with anger and hate. Stalking over to Azhani, she grabbed the warrior’s face in her hand and ruthlessly turned it up toward the light, exposing the darkened patch of scarring that was all that was left of a proud rank tattoo.
“Tell me,” Lyssera hissed, “How am I supposed to believe a branded Oathbreaker?”
Azhani’s hands balled into fists, but she made no move to fight back. Firming her jaw, she only said, “How’s trade with Y’dan, these days, my queen? Are your merchants profiting? Have your silks and spices sold by the crateful on Y’dannyv’s streets? Do your nobles enjoy vacationing in Y’dyth?” Lyssera’s hand dropped away as if burned.
Blue eyes flashing, Azhani stood and calmly asked, “When was the last time an Y’Syran child was fostered in an Y’dani home? When was the last time Y’Syran gold bought the same amount of wheat as Y’dani? Tell me, your highness; have you seen the Writ of Behavior? Could you follow all of its laws? Will you implement them here, so as to make Arris feel more comfortable, if he should visit?”
Lyssera winced and Azhani knew her words had penetrated the queen’s anger. The warrior knelt once more and reached for her sword, offering it to the woman who resembled her lost love so closely, it broke her heart to look at her.
“I am not guilty of murdering Ylera. I am, however, responsible for her death. To that end, I offer you what should have been hers – my sword and body are yours to command, my Queen. Do with me what you will, I will undertake any task you set me.”
The elven woman snorted and said, “What if I ordered you to fall on your sword? What then?”
“I shall fall upon my sword, and you will have to order your servants to mop up my blood,” the warrior replied evenly, though a tiny smile tweaked the corners of her mouth.
Lyssera closed her eyes. “Damn it, Azhani, can’t I win just one argument with you?” she asked plaintively. She never changes; all the years I’ve known her and she’s just as stubborn and honorable as ever. Ylera must have fallen hard enough to forget the stars.
Suddenly, the queen was kneeling next to the warrior, reaching for her as tears ran hotly down her face. “I don’t want your life, Azhi. I don’t want your sword. I know you’re innocent. Starseeker Vashyra was able to contact Ylera, briefly. Her spirit told us everything we needed to know about you, and Arris’ treachery. The last thing she said, before the gods called her on, was that she had loved you as best she could, but that she should have tried harder.”
The queen and the warrior held each other; sharing grief over the woman they had both loved.
“So you’re going to kill Arris.” Queen Lyssera had called for tea and a snack and now she and Azhani were comfortably seated across from each other.
“The thought has crossed my mind more than twice,” the warrior admitted, smirking. “It’s a nice dream, anyway. To have that bastard dancing on the end of my sword would be sweet, I admit.” An intensely focused gleam brightened the warrior’s indigo eyes.
The two women had been up all night, talking, reminiscing and discussing where to go from here. Though she had yet to commit anything to Azhani, after hearing the warrior’s side of the story, Lyssera knew that she would help her sister’s lover.
Azhani had gamely participated in the discussion, but a part of her kept wondering when the queen’s guards were going to burst in and carry her away. At least Kyr’s safe. She’s not going to be happy with me, but I’m glad she’s not here. The last thing she needs is to be found in the company of an Oathbreaker.
The soft crackle of the fire emphasized the silence that filled the room. Strong, mint scented steam curled up from the warrior’s cup, tickling her nose. If she listened closely, she could hear the creaking of the giant oak that was the queen’s home.
“If you’re going to kill a king, you’re going to need help,” Lyssera said, breaking the peaceful spell of the room. Stirring honey into her cup, she watched the warrior’s reaction.
“I certainly wouldn’t turn away a helping hand or fifty,” the warrior said, taking a sip of her tea.
Lyssera chuckled and set her cup down on the table by her chair. “You assume much, Azhi. Friends we are, but allies? That remains to be seen. No, I was just curious if you were traveling alone, or if the rumors I’ve heard were true.” The queen’s eyes met Azhani’s. “Are they?”
Azhani calmly held Lyssera’s gaze and replied, “I don’t know, your highness. I haven’t heard any rumors about my traveling companions, or lack thereof.”
“Ah, well, they say, when they’re not cursing your name, that you helped Padreg of Y’Nor kidnap a nobleman’s daughter. It doesn’t take a scholar to figure that meant you had traveling companions. I know that Padreg had at least one hundred men in his retinue when he passed through here on his way to Y’dan earlier this year. Since his ships came through here shortly after that, minus a few passengers, I figured he must be with you.” Turning to face the warrior, Lyssera pinned Azhani with her gaze, watching as she shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “So, my friend, I ask you again, where are your companions?”
“You read me better than Ylera, my queen,” Azhani grumbled sullenly.
Laughing brightly, Lyssera said, “Perhaps. I freely admit to calling on all the years we’ve sparred together as a key to your body language.”
“Master Delaye would be so proud, Lyss.” Azhani stuck her tongue out at the queen. “All right, yes, I was traveling with Padreg of Y’Nor. However, I left him and his people – safely – at the border a few weeks ago.”
“Then you are alone?” Lyssera pressed.
It was on the tip of Azhani’s tongue to say that yes, she was alone. Do you really want to hurt Kyrian that much, warrior? How much will it cost your friendship, should Kyr ever learn that you denied her companionship? The warrior was not willing to find out. Hesitating only briefly, Azhani shook her head. “No, I’m not alone. There is one other. A stardancer from Y’len named Kyrian travels with me.”
“I have heard of Stardancer Kyrian. She is deeply touched by Astariu’s fire. Where is she now?” Lyssera asked.
“With a friend.”
“Ah, well, if she counts you among her friends, perhaps you’re not as damned as you believe, my friend.” Lyssera stood and walked over to the tray of food, serving herself a plateful of snacks. “Your honesty means a great deal to me, Azhani. I will see what can be done to help you with Arris. Meanwhile, you and your friend are both welcome in Oakheart Manor.”
“If you don’t mind, I will take you up on your offer, but for now, I think that Kyrian should stay where she is. It will upset your court to have me here and I would prefer that she not become a target of hateful tongues,” Azhani said, keeping her voice neutral.
Steepling her fingers and pressing them to her lips, Lyssera nodded. “And my courtiers are not known for their reticence when it comes to those who ally with Y’dani outlaws. Age has given you wisdom, my friend. All right, for now, you may keep your friend’s whereabouts a secret, but I expect you’ll want her by your side soon.” She grinned wickedly. “I think I shall enjoy that day most exquisitely. My court could use a little shaking up.”
Many days passed. Azhani haunted the corridors and bridges of Oakheart Manor, staying out the way of curious courtiers and listening to the gossip of the servants. She did run into an old friend, Kuwell Longhorn, a dwarven blacksmith with a huge sense of humor and an even greater sense of honor. Now acting as the Y’droran ambassador, the dwarven man was more than glad to see her. He listened to Azhani’s story, and then immediately pledged his aid.
She attended an afternoon court session, though she stayed well hidden within the shadows of the massive chamber where Lyssera heard from her people. Azhani admired the way that the elven monarchy had turned what had been a foot-numbing tedium into a spectator sport. Lyssera’s Court Hall was massive. It was easily large enough to contain several hundred courtiers and their immediate staff, as well as the ubiquitous pages that always seemed to be nearby.
Azhani stood near one of the struts that made up the domed structure of the wooden room and marveled at the skill it must have taken the Gardeners to coax the trees to grow together in such a fashion. Roughly shaped like an oblong bowl, Court Hall had a long red carpet that extended from the foot of the throne’s dais to the double doors some five hundred feet away.
Lining the sides of the carpet were tiered, padded seats where the nobles and their entourage were allowed to sit while the heralds called out the schedule of the day. At the head of the room was a raised dais, upon which sat an elaborately carved throne. From there, Queen Lyssera would hear the desires and troubles of her people for a total of eight candlemarks a day. It was tedious, exacting work and Azhani’s appreciation of the elven monarch went up another notch.
On the evening of her fifth day in residence, a deal was struck. In exchange for shelter and a stipend, Azhani would agree to train the Queen’s Guard, as well as one special student. When the time came to meet Arris, the former warleader would be given command of a battalion of Y’Syran warriors, including a full complement of the nation’s vaunted archers.
With the support of Kuwell, Padreg and Lyssera behind her, Azhani knew that the time had come to make her move. Calmly, she agreed to take up the mantle of Sword Master and teach her skills to the students the queen had chosen. Along with those duties, the former Y’dani warleader began appearing in court as a member of Lyssera’s household. Knowing full well that Arris’ spies would bring word of her presence back to their king, Azhani brazenly paraded through Y’Syria. She hoped that the foolish king would be so enraged, he would demand to meet her on the field of battle.
For two weeks, the warleader did nothing to contact Kyrian or the kindly old herbalist who had taken her in. The stardancer was safer with Tellyn, out of the reach of those on the queen’s court who had not relished the sudden addition of a known Oathbreaker to Lyssera’s retinue. Azhani did her best to ignore the tiny ache that seized her chest whenever she thought of her friend, concentrating instead on late night conversations with the queen.
Lyssera was tireless in her need for Azhani’s presence. At first, she would talk endlessly about the “special” student, her nephew, Allyndev Kelani. Son of Lyssera’s youngest sister, Alynna, Allyndev was barely twenty summers old and had almost no experience with martial arts. Before she died, Alynna had been Y’Syr’s warleader. In the elven kingdom, the position was hereditary and Lyssera knew that the nobility would never accept Allyn if he could not even defend himself.
Currently, Allyn was visiting distant family in a small fishing village to the south of Y’Syria, but he would soon be home. Because of his mixed heritage as well as his scholarly tendencies, no one was willing to take him on as a student.
Azhani also heard that the young man was very standoffish and arrogant. Suspecting that his attitude was a mask, she readily agreed to train him. Once the subject of Allyndev was exhausted, they moved on to talking about Ylera.
At any time, Lyssera would have her hauled out of bed, just to share some tiny memory of the warrior’s beloved. At first, Azhani was confused, thinking that the queen was enacting some sort of emotional vengeance on her. As the days wore on, however, she realized that there was a purpose to the queen’s midnight meetings.
Comfortably ensconced in the queen’s study, Azhani and Lyssera enjoyed the warmth of a small, cheerful fire. On a table between them, a pot of tea, a loaf of sweet nut bread and a wheel of soft cheese, provided a tasty snack. Oil lamps dimly lit the room, casting a host of shadows, yet somehow still managing to illuminate the queen’s face. The warrior was struck, as she had been so many times during the past two weeks, at how closely Lyssera resembled Ylera.
Sitting next to the queen during court had been near torture. In unguarded moments, Azhani would find herself looking at Lyssera, and believing, for just a moment, that it was Ylera that sat beside her. Then, the queen would speak, or move, or one of a thousand little things and all over again, Azhani would know that this woman would never be her beloved.
Tonight was different. Sleep and shadow’s play tricked her eyes and her heart and Azhani had to fight the belief that it was Ylera’s soul that looked out of Lyssera’s gray eyes. The conversation drifted toward music. Lyssera spoke quietly, her eyes half closed as she remembered candlemarks of lessons with her sister.
“You play?” Azhani’s words were raw against the gentleness of Lyssera’s voice.
“I do,” Lyssera said, glancing over at a bookcase. A golden stringed harp lay cradled against it, its strings shimmering in the lamplight. “Though I have not exercised my fingers in months.”
“Will you,” the warrior hesitated, her characteristic calm wavering. She cleared her throat and said, “Will you play for me, my queen?”
Touched by the simple plea, Lyssera reached over and lifted up the harp. She played a short chord, checking the tune of the strings. When it sang to her satisfaction, she asked, “What would you like to hear?”
“Play something she knew.”
The words were so softly spoken, Lyssera had to strain to hear them.
Looking up at Azhani, Lyssera stared into the warrior’s fire lit blue eyes for a long moment and then nodded. A liquid trill of music filled the room. The queen played, not with the consummate skill of a bard, but with the pauses and stops of one who has not practiced in many months. Yet, the notes evoked memory, surrounding both Azhani and Lyssera in a timeless place where Ylera lived, breathed, laughed and loved.
The queen’s rusty fingers soon recalled their candlemarks of training, and true music rippled forth. It was a song that Azhani had not heard for a year. The tune was gentle, comforting and wonderfully, terribly familiar. And yet – it was not what she remembered. A misplayed note here, a differently timed chord there, and, though tears trickled down her cheeks at the pain of it, Azhani knew that she would never again hear Ylera play.
As the queen played, a band around Azhani’s chest loosened, and the warrior took what felt like her first real breath since that awful morning when she had been dragged away from the body of her beloved. When she exhaled, the sharp bundle of grief that had been her constant, unforgotten companion trickled away with the tears, leaving behind a muted ache. Tipping her head back, Azhani inhaled deeply, understanding that now she could try to heal. Ylera is dead, but I still live. And I want to keep on living. I miss you, Ylera, but I have to look ahead, now. I hope you are happy, wherever you are.
“Thank you,” Azhani said, wiping her eyes.
Fingers stilling on the harp strings, Lyssera quietly said, “You are welcome, my friend. I am glad you have found a measure of peace.”
Azhani smiled thoughtfully, and found that she wished Kyrian were there to share the moment.
A message from Padreg arrived the next day. Delivered by courier, the thickly rolled scroll was filled with news about the High King. The Y’Noran’s report matched with what Lyssera’s own messengers said. Dispatches from the other kingdoms also arrived, each of them bearing in one form or another, a message to the effect that, “We’re sorry you were wrongly accused. You are welcome to come and serve in our army, but we cannot spare anyone to help you defeat Arris. Our crops are bad, or the storms are terrible this year, or it is mead brewing time.”
Kuwell, the Y’droran ambassador, did have one small bit of good cheer for Azhani. He had sent word to his clan, and his cousin’s clans, and over the next few weeks, those dwarves who were interested in following the famed warleader to battle, would be arriving in Y’Syria.
At the end of the week, she received her biggest piece of news. Demon spoor had been found in the lower caves of the Crest of Amyra, just north of Y’Syr. Angry and depressed, Azhani digested the news and then sent a message to Padreg. Once again, Fate had played its hand, and it was a full house to her pair of two’s.
Sighing, the warrior gathered her padded gear and headed for the salle. A hum of expectation settled over her as she walked through the manor’s halls, nodding to servants and nobles alike as she passed. Perhaps breaking a few more practice swords would serve to lighten her mood.
Within the last two weeks, it had become a common practice by the queen’s guardsmen to toss blades of suspect manufacture into a special pile, just for Azhani to use on the pells. If one of the blunted swords made it through a session of the warrior’s grueling workouts, then any rank tyro could safely use them.
Her student, Allyndev, was already there, deeply engrossed in the regimen of exercises she had set him to following each morning. Meeting him had been interesting, and left the warrior feeling as though she were going to have to knock a few chips off of his young shoulders before he would truly listen to her.
That was not the case. After only one afternoon under the warrior’s tutelage, Allyn’s attitude was already beginning to show signs of changing, though he had moments where he lapsed into sullen silences. Figuring that his behavior was linked to his sense of self-esteem, Azhani was careful to give both praise and critique when working with him.
The warrior stood in the shadow of the doorway, watching as her student worked out.
The half-elven child of Lyssera’s sister Alynna and an Y’dani human, Allyn never knew his father. As with most children whose parentage was a mix of Y’dani and Y’Syran, Allyndev’s Y’Syran relatives had kept the name of his Y’dani family a secret. Azhani had asked about this, but had been told that it was not necessary for her to know the name of the young man’s father. Accepting that for now, the warrior concentrated on training Allyn how to defend himself.
Mixed heritage had given the young man pale blonde hair and a narrow, angular face. At just under twenty years of age, Allyn still bore the fleshy look of a child, though the daily workouts with Azhani were beginning to leave their mark. Tall, as tall as Azhani, whose six foot plus frame easily commanded attention, and fine boned, the young man was strikingly handsome.
Against her better judgment, Azhani had come to like the solemn young man, adding yet another person to her slowly growing circle of friends. His diffidence touched her, though she hoped that rising self-confidence would someday compensate for the young man’s peculiar mix of shy sullenness.
She wondered what Kyrian would have to say about the young man, when she finally met him. Lifting an arm, Azhani hailed him. Perhaps after a good workout, she would find out.
Ashamedly, Azhani admitted that it had long since passed the few days she had figured she would be gone. It was time to go back to Tellyn Jarelle’s home and offer the best apology she could manage. A hole had grown in her heart, one that would only be closed by the stardancer’s cheerfully bright presence. She missed the healer deeply; more so than she could even begin to understand.
As she began their training routine, Azhani once again cursed the elven sword masters who turned down the chance to train a gifted student like Allyn. Since he was just a “half-breed whelp”, there was no true glory attached to his success. Sadly, the warrior missed Master Delaye, who would have gladly taken the boy as a student, but the arms master had long since vanished.
So Allyn had been left to pursue his own interests, including gardening and stargazing. Though both avocations were admirable, especially in a city that lived in trees, Allyndev was a prince and the son of a warleader. He was expected to excel in the martial arts.
Lyssera had tried to teach him archery, but Allyn lacked the eye for it. He would never be more than a fair shot, barely able to hunt, and never good enough to join the elite squadrons of archers that made Y’Syran bowmen so famous.
Unlike the bow, the blade came almost too easily to Allyndev’s hands. From the first day, Azhani knew that this student would be one of her best. When nightmares invaded her sleep, leaving her shaking and crying, determination to see his skill come to fruition was one of the things that drove her to go on.
Today, she would show him a parry-strike combo that was particularly difficult, requiring fine motor control and precision timing. Azhani grinned suddenly. She was looking forward to being disarmed within the first few rounds of their lessons.
Splinters went flying over the floor of the large practice room as Allyn executed a particularly vicious smash and cut against one of the thick wooden pells buried in the ground. Hacking the post again, Allyn’s blade freed another chunk of wood, sending it flying across the room and nearly into Azhani’s chest. The warrior slapped the missile away with her sword and then stepped between the prince and the practice dummy.
Blocking his thrust easily, she shook her head. “Tsk, tsk, Allyn. Isn’t it a bit early to be putting in new pells? I thought we replaced them last week.”
A wild, gleeful grin spread over the young man’s face, neatly mimicking the one on Azhani’s as they sparred. “Oh, I don’t know, Master Azhani.” He ducked a strike and tried to pull her legs out from under her, getting tossed on his backside for his troubles. “I think Aunt Lyss has a bet going on with Captain Evern about how many pells I can go through. I was just trying to fill the crown’s coffers.”
“An admirable task, young Allyn, but your arms are better served by practicing your blocks, not your thrusts,” cautioned Azhani. She proved her point by easily sweeping aside his blade and tapping him on the chest with the point of her sword.
Nodding, Allyn said, “Yes, Master.”
“Good, now, try this,” Azhani said, demonstrating a move and then turning to guide the young man through it.
Steel clanged as they danced around the room, and Azhani calmly, but efficiently instructed on the proper way to cut and thrust. While she spoke, Allyn listened, nodding when what she said made sense, asking questions when it didn’t.
“But why, Master Azhani, must I turn this way?” he asked petulantly, when she showed him a dodge and parry move. “Especially when it would be more devastating if I were to press my attack?”
Azhani smiled knowingly. “Okay, let’s try it,” she suggested. “Attack me the way you propose.”
They moved apart, nodded at each other and began to spar. Allyn rushed in and thrust upward, toward Azhani’s chin. Neatly stepping back, Azhani turned to present a lesser target and slashed out at Allyn’s unprotected belly. Instead of dodging, he pressed forward, landing a solid blow on his teacher’s sword arm.
“See,” he said, panting a little, “I’ve disabled you.”
“So you have,” said Azhani. “But I have killed you.”
Frowning, Allyn looked down to see the flat of Azhani’s blade pressing against his stomach.
“Never put yourself in danger just to gain a momentary upper hand, Allyndev. It could mean your life,” Azhani cautioned.
The young man hung his head shamefully. “Yes, Master Azhani.”
Knowing that he had learned his lesson, Azhani smiled and said, “Now, how about I show you something interesting, huh?”
Once again, the young man’s bright smile danced across his face.
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