“She’s coming, Mistress Tellyn! The Queen is coming here!” Gyp shouted over the ringing noonday bells, as he ran into the shop.
Tellyn looked up from grinding her herbs, and chuckled. “Yes child, I know. I had a visit from her page this morning.”
Biting her tongue at the news, Kyrian softly asked, “Is there a reason why she comes, Tellyn?”
“Lyssera always has more than one reason for her actions, Kyrian. Her page informed me that she wished to purchase some of my restorative teas, but I believe she is using this as an excuse to meet you. It could also be that a certain mule-headed warrior has grown tired of playing nursemaid to the queen’s soldiers and has recalled that she has other friends,” the herbalist said gruffly, laying aside her mortar and pestle. With a rustle of skirts, the old woman moved across the room and began gathering a sampling of her unguents and potions, packaging them for transport.
Kyrian was silent, absorbing the information. She had not seen Azhani for weeks, and the only word of the absent warrior had been that she was now in the employ of the queen, much to the disgruntlement of many of the nobles. It hurt the stardancer deeply that Azhani had yet to come back for her. The warrior hadn’t even sent a note. What news she had heard came from the gossip of customers.
The stardancer’s gut churned painfully. Once again, she considered packing up and leaving. Y’len wasn’t far, and she knew that Tellyn would be happy to provide her and Arun with supplies. While stuck with the herbalist, Kyrian had gladly given of her healing knowledge, teaching Gyp various medical techniques while Tellyn dealt with the business.
Only her oath of friendship kept her from fleeing. Heart hammering in her chest, Kyrian took several deep breaths to calm down. The hurt flowed out of her, leaving behind the sharp sting of anger. She would stay in Y’Syria and help Azhani, even if all she were allowed was the sidelines.
Angry, healer? a tiny mental voice asked.
Just a touch, she answered, sighing softly. Lyssera is Ylera’s sister – there’s no mystery in why Azhani would rather spend her time with the queen. The “rather than with me” was left out of the thought, but deeply felt.
The muffled thud of mail-covered fists knocking on the front door, filtered into the room. Tellyn barely twitched an eyebrow as Gyp raced out of the stillroom to greet their visitors. Gyp’s breathless voice announced the arrival of their expected royal guest.
“Mistress Tellyn, Lyssera of House Kelani is here to see you.” The boy tried to make his voice sound as schooled as a court herald’s, causing Tellyn to wince at the shrillness in his tone.
Shaking her head ruefully, she looked at Kyrian. “Never stuff your patients heads with false praise, even by virtue of your respect, stardancer. Treat all equally and leave the poppycock to those who have the taste for it!” said the herbalist grumpily as she scooped up her skirts and made her way into the reception area.
Kyrian chuckled and began grinding another bunch of herbs.
Lyssera beamed happily, noticing that her old friend looked as cantankerous as ever. “Mistress Tellyn, it has been far too long,” she said, taking the old woman’s hands in hers and brushing a fond kiss on her wrinkled cheek.
“If those idiots in the high court would get their heads out of their collective asses, you’d have more time to visit, Lyss,” Tellyn griped, returning the queen’s embrace brusquely.
Lyssera’s tinkling laughter filled the room as Tellyn turned to greet the others who had accompanied the queen.
“Allyndev! Astariu’s tits, boy, you’ve been getting some sun! Is it a miracle? Has Astarus himself come to drag you from your dusty old library?” the old woman asked incredulously, accepting the young man’s strong embrace heartily.
Allyn blushed, his tanned cheeks flaming a deep scarlet. “Nah, nah, Gram, I’ve been tutoring under Master Azhani these past weeks. It has been a most illuminating experience. I have never felt so invigorated!” He spotted Gyp and let go of Tellyn, flashing a brief look at Lyssera before running over to the herbalist’s assistant. “Gyp! I have to show you this thing Master Azhani taught me...” The two young men immediately exited out a door that led to the rear of the house.
“Mind the gardens, boys!” Tellyn called after them, as the door slammed shut on their excited babbling.
Standing but a pace behind the queen was Azhani, who searched the room eagerly, hungry to see her friend. When she did not see the stardancer, she quietly asked, “Where is Kyrian?”
Tellyn’s eyebrows rose as a disapproving grimace perched on her lips. “Hello to you too, warrior. Your friend,” she emphasized the word, ”is working in the stillroom.” The herbalist lifted the flap to a belt pouch and removed several packets, handing them to the queen. “I believe this is what you’ve come for. If you’d care to stay a bit, I’ll see what I can scare up in the kitchen for us to drink while Azhani visits Kyrian. In fact, why don’t you tell your men to come in too – they’re probably cluttering up my porch with their armor.”
Gamely, Lyssera opened the door and motioned to the guards who had accompanied them. The men entered the herbalist’s house respectfully, easily taking up relaxed positions against a wall. Tellyn vanished into the kitchen, where much clattering and banging of pots could be heard.
Squaring her shoulders, Azhani took a deep breath, steeled her courage and went to face Kyrian. Now remember, warrior, this isn’t a fight. Don’t attack; let her lead the discussion. Be honest. She’ll know if you’re lying. She silently coached herself as she walked across the reception area to the little door that led to the herbalist’s stillroom.
A myriad of herbal scents swirled around the warrior as she entered the room, the most pungent being freshly ground mint leaf. Kyrian’s back was to the door, and she took a moment to admire the stardancer’s well-developed arms as she stirred a large, bubbling cauldron.
Okay, warrior, open your mouth and say something. You can do it, just don’t shove your foot in too deeply at first. Azhani searched for something to say, stalling for time. She continued to stare at her friend’s back, hoping for inspiration. Wavy locks of Kyrian’s reddish gold hair escaped a loosely tied ponytail, curling up and brushing her jaw. Perspiration soaked the fabric of her short-sleeved tunic, and as Azhani watched, Kyrian reached up and wiped her face with the back of her arm.
Here goes nothing... “Try this. It might help.” Azhani offered quietly, hanging a skin full of cool wine over the stardancer’s shoulder.
“Thanks,” Kyrian replied absently, taking the skin and drinking deeply before handing it back.
Well, I didn’t get it dumped on my head. That’s a good start, right? The warrior thought as she hung the skin on her belt.
Licking her lips, Kyrian said, “That stuff’s pretty good. They must treat you pretty well in the dungeon.” She looked up and over her shoulder at the warrior. Though lacking any rancor, there was a hard edge to the words that matched a similar gleam in the stardancer’s eyes. Azhani’s heart thudded painfully and she winced.
Ouch. I guess I deserved that. Okay, don’t say anything yet. Let her keep talking. Azhani silently coached herself.
Laughter breezed in from the reception room and Kyrian raised an eyebrow, listening as the queen and the herbalist exchanged bawdy jokes.
“You must be here to say good-bye before she has you hung.” Again, the words were free of anger, yet they struck Azhani like the sharpest blades.
Uh... oh shit! How do I fix this? I don’t want her to hate me. I don’t know what I would do if she hated me... “Kyrian, I-“ the words stuck in the warrior’s throat and she looked at her friend helplessly.
“Hmm?” Kyrian turned around fully, facing Azhani for the first time since she had entered the room. “You what? Are you here for some other reason? Are you telling me that you weren’t a prisoner; that wild dogs weren’t keeping you from visiting? That your hands weren’t broken beyond repair? Because that’s exactly what I’ve been thinking, even, goddess forbid, hoping had happened.” Now, acid etched the words as deep green eyes began to glisten wetly. Stubbornly, Kyrian held the tears back, clamping her jaw shut and gazing into Azhani’s face.
What? Flash fire anger sang in the warrior’s veins. Fuck this. I’m out of here. It was on the tip of her tongue to scathingly tell the stardancer to take her accusing looks, her teary eyes and wild speculations and stuff them up her ass. Fuck friends. Friends are for ... but the thought faded away when Azhani saw the minute quavering of pale, pressed lips. The tiny flicker of hurt that had manifested as flippant anger, broke through Azhani’s defenses, drenching her ire. Astarus’ balls, I have truly screwed this. I need to say something, anything...
“Kyrian – Oh Kyr, gods, I’m sorry. I should have told you what I was planning, but I didn’t know what to expect.” She began pacing the room, but caught the narrowing of the stardancer’s eyes. “Not from you... never from you,” she said, forestalling the angry words she could almost see forming on the stardancer’s face. “No, from Lyssera and her people – I couldn’t know that she would not accept Arris’ story. If you had been damned with me, I could have never forgiven myself.” Please believe me. Please understand... she silently begged.
“But that’s the problem. You never even gave me the choice. I never had a chance to be damned or not. You took that away from me, and that hurt,” whispered Kyrian, pain lancing her statement. “I swore my friendship to you, Azhani Rhu’len – and my oaths don’t come lightly! I must have been imagining it when you returned that oath.”
Azhani flinched over the bitter words. Stepping forward, she gently placed her hands on Kyrian’s shoulders and said, “You did not dream it, my friend – and you are my friend. I-“ she shook her head regretfully. “There’s nothing I can say that will repair the hurt I’ve caused you, and I knew that when I made my decision. I will not regret keeping you out of danger, but I will always regret that what I did pained you. Please forgive me, Kyrian. Though I do not deserve it, I ask that you give me a chance to mend those hurts that I can.”
Ducking her head to avoid the warrior’s eyes, Kyrian bit her lip as her breath came in shuddering gasps.
“Kyrian.” Softly, yet commandingly, Azhani spoke her friend’s name. The stardancer looked up, meeting eyes so blue, they were almost purple. “Please, I need you. I don’t want to go back to Oakheart without you.”
Timeless seconds passed as the two friends shared their gaze, each trying to read the other’s soul.
Astariu, if ever there was a time for me to pray to you, it’s now. Please don’t let her leave, thought the warrior.
“I’m still mad at you,” Kyrian said, cracking a tiny smile.
“Okay,” Azhani replied, a grin breaking out over her face and lighting her eyes. Thank the twins! I wonder if I should do a dance of victory?
“I reserve the right to chase your butt around the practice field every morning,” the stardancer added. “I’m tired of beating up motionless pells.”
Maybe not. Ah gods, it feels good to know she’s coming home with me. “I’m all yours,” the warrior said happily. “Maybe you can even show my student a thing or two.”
“Student?” Two ruddy eyebrows shot up. “You’ve got some stories to tell, I’ll bet. Now, why don’t you introduce me to this woman you conned into giving you an army.”
Linking her arm with Kyrian’s, Azhani turned to head into the reception room. “Well, it’s not exactly an army...”
As Kyrian prowled her new room, Azhani stifled a grin. The stardancer’s face was a wash of pleasure and consternation. She looks so adorable! The thought fluttered through the warrior’s consciousness before she could stop it. Huh? Where’d that come from?
“But... this is just so huge, Azhi! I don’t need this much space, I-“
“Am grateful to the queen for her generosity?” Azhani interrupted when Lyssera opened her mouth to suggest a new placement. She gently enforced her statement by stepping on the stardancer’s toes. Come on, my friend, please don’t offend the elven queen in her own home on the first day.
Lyssera had given Kyrian a room that was near the warrior’s and Azhani liked the thought that her friend was only a few short steps away. At night, she pretended that she could hear the stardancer’s soft snores and the image lulled her to sleep. Come on, it’s a nice room, Kyr. Just take it. Please.
Closing her mouth, Kyrian nodded in agreement.
“All right, then if everything is fine, I’ll leave you to unpack. Afternoon court begins shortly. It would not do for the queen to be late,” Lyssera said, winking at Azhani. “You, on the other hand, have the freedom to stay and help your friend acclimate herself to Oakheart.”
Azhani sketched a short bow. “As your majesty commands,” she said, smiling wryly.
Light, airy laughter followed the queen out of the room.
Alone with her friend, Kyrian continued to look around the chamber, amazed at the simple beauty of its construction. As a part of one of Oakheart’s massive trees, the room was all of wood. Tapestries lined the walls, acting as decoration rather than insulation. On the floor were soft, thickly woven rugs from Y’skan, their brilliant hues giving Kyrian the impression she was standing on a field of wildflowers.
The room was actually three chambers linked together by short halls. One was a bathing area, another was where she would sleep and the third was a covered balcony that led to a private garden, which she shared with Azhani. Stepping outside, Kyrian inhaled deeply of the fresh fragrance of growing things.
“It’s magical,” she said as she felt her friend’s presence behind her. “This place, this city – it’s nothing at all like I imagined it to be.” Kyrian strode to a balcony and looked out to the lake. Two ships passed as she watched, their bright white sails catching the wind and taking them to new ports. “Y’len is not of the trees - not like it is here.”
Azhani joined Kyrian at the balcony rail. “I remember. There are more ground dwellings there – places where there are no stairs at all,” she said, smiling at the memory.
“The temple was like that – all one story, so that the acolytes could hurry, hurry, hurry to wherever the masters needed them to be,” Kyrian said, with a far away look in her eyes. “I remember having to hustle to make it to classes because inevitably, one class was always on the other end of the school from the others.”
Azhani chuckled lightly. “Do you miss it? Do you miss Y’len?” she asked. She bit her lip, waiting for the stardancer’s answer. Please... Azhani prayed, trying not to flinch under her friend’s searching gaze. Please say you want to stay. I need you, Kyr, though it pains me to admit it.
Kyrian turned, cocked her head to the side and looked up at the warrior’s face. Shadowed by the balcony overhang, Azhani’s eyes glittered brightly when she stepped forward and into the light.
“I do,” said Kyrian finally, keeping eye contact with the warrior. Just as Azhani opened her mouth to speak, the stardancer covered the warrior’s lips. “No, I don’t want to go back – I’m here, with you, and that’s where I want to be, Azhi.
“Bu-“ Azhani’s voice burred against Kyrian’s fingertips.
The stardancer giggled over the sensation. Lowering her hand, she twined her finger’s with Azhani’s. “When are you going to accept that I like you, Azhani Rhu’len?” Kyrian asked, a tinge of exasperation coloring her voice.
Shaking her head, Azhani shrugged and replied, “I don’t know, Kyr. I guess I’m just so amazed because you’re still here. I forget that you actually want to be around me.”
“Well, stop it, because it’s starting to piss me off.” The stardancer admonished, shaking the index finger of her free hand at the warrior.
Azhani’s eyes sparkled merrily, and she snapped her teeth at the offending digit teasingly. “Yes, Kyr,” she said, when she’d caught the tip of the stardancer’s finger between her teeth. Mm, tastes like sweet bread...
Kyrian laughed and gently withdrew her finger from Azhani’s mouth. Inwardly, she trembled, hoping that the flush of excitement she could feel creeping across her face, wasn’t visible to the warrior. Ah gods, I started this, now how do I finish it?
“So,” the stardancer said as she turned away from the view to look back into her room. “How about we get my stuff unpacked?”
As the ancestral home of the elven monarchy, Oakheart Manor was an astonishingly beautiful place, filled with the greatest treasures of the seven kingdoms. It was also, unfortunately, crawling with courtiers, diplomats, pages and hoards of other personnel that ran the machinery of the kingdom.
Okay, so maybe I should have stayed with Tellyn after all, Kyrian thought as she struggled to keep up with Azhani. Then she considered the alternative. No, wild dogs couldn’t make me leave Azhi’s side. The stardancer had moved into Oakheart the day of the queen’s visit to the herbalist. Years of working with small village councils and governors of larger cities did nothing to prepare the stardancer for the sheer mass of bureaucracy that filled the halls of the Lyssera’s castle.
At any given time of the day, the halls of the manor were filled with an amalgam of noble and servant that flowed in a dance that seemed ever changing and amorphous. For a person used to small towns and villages, it was utter chaos.
Factions controlled various members of the Queen’s Council, which were a group of men and women who had either inherited or been chosen for the position. Each advisor represented a group of towns and villages in Y’Syr and they were each convinced that their particular district was the heart of the kingdom. Loud arguments between the different groups could be heard peppering the halls, as delegations jockeyed and parlayed to get audience with their representatives, or most desirously, the queen.
As a member of Lyssera’s retinue, Azhani had access to all parts of Oakheart Manor, and she took it upon herself to familiarize Kyrian with the best ways to maneuver the large, maze like structure. For three days, they had been roaming the castle at all candlemarks, while Azhani kept up a running commentary about the different sections of the massive structure.
Built thousands of years before humans had ever set foot upon the lands that would become Y’myrani kingdoms, Oakheart Manor was a staggering complex of buildings and bridges, constructed in and around nearly fifty ancient oak trees. The highest rooms belonged to the queen and her family, but the lower halls and rooms teemed with life from every corner of the kingdoms.
In one alcove, Y’droran dwarves diced with Y’skani desert men, wagering bags of pure white sand against bags of gold and gems. Music from Y’Tolan lutenists blended with Y’Noran pipers, creating a pleasant, if somewhat jarring harmony that wove around the everyday sounds of people walking and talking in the halls and pathways.
Azhani and Kyrian were on a middle level, working toward the kitchen area that was located near the ground. Barely heard above the bustle were Azhani’s descriptions of the halls, pointing out which doorway lead where. Kyrian was grateful to the builders who had cleverly used various bits of wood and shell to create mosaic tapestries along the walls and ceilings. Each major hall had at least one unique work of art, and nearly everyone who lived in the manor learned to navigate by these mosaics.
The two women were in the Hall of Trees, passing a colorful mosaic of trees, birds and animals that surrounded a peaceful, functioning fountain. Seated on a bench in front of the fountain, was Prince Allyndev, the young nephew of Queen Lyssera. He jumped up upon seeing his instructor and her friend, standing at a smart attention as the two approached him.
“Master Azhani, Stardancer Kyrian, did you hear? Ambassador Kuwell challenged Ambassador Iften to a duel!”
Azhani groaned and Kyrian frowned, trying to place faces to the names that Allyndev had spouted off. Finally, the craggy features of the Y’droran Ambassador came into her memory, but the face of Iften evaded her.
Changing direction in mid stride, Azhani began fighting her way through the stream of people toward the ground level, and the courtyards. Traditionally, dueling was considered legal, but the queen frowned upon such actions, preferring diplomacy to blades.
Allyn easily kept up, leaving Kyrian to once more duck and dodge her way down the hall.
“Do you think they’ll kill each other?” the young man eagerly asked, seeming to relish the thought of bloodshed. “Will there be a lot of blood?”
“Not if I can help it,” Azhani growled.
Stairs were taken two and three at a time, and several banisters would never be the same, as three half-elves scandalized half of Queen Lyssera’s court by sliding, slipping or otherwise skidding down toward the ground. Finally, they reached the great hall and burst out the doors and into the main courtyard. A crowd had gathered, surrounding the two men who were loudly shouting epithets at each other.
“You dirt grubbing dwarf! I’m going to take a strip of your flesh for every one of these fake stones you tried to pass off on me!” Ambassador Iften’s menacing shout could be easily heard above the noise of the gathering courtiers. An ominous shattering sound echoed in the courtyard.
“Lies! You’re the thief, Iften! I bet you’ve stolen the real stones and switched ‘em out for glass. Just like a sand-eating desert raider to try and pawn his fakes off on a good, honest dwarf. Run home to your Cabal masters with your tail between your legs, dog!” the dwarven ambassador replied gruffly.
Iften screamed something incoherently, and charged the dwarf. Rolling her eyes and sighing heavily, Azhani easily leapt up and over the crowd, landing in front of the dwarven ambassador. The thud of studded leather was loud as Iften bounced off of the very solid body of the former Y’dani warleader. Dazed, the Y’skani man staggered back, shaking his head woozily.
“Is there a problem here?” Azhani drawled, turning to wink at Kuwell.
“Well,” Kuwell replied, hooking this thumbs in his belt and peering around the warrior’s elbow at the still stumbling desert man. “Not so’s you’d notice, m’friend. Though, that gentlemen there’s gonna need a red-robe soon, or like as not, he’ll be making an intimate acquaintance with them there cobbles.”
“I can’t leave you alone anywhere, can I Ku?” Azhani said aggrievedly, as she reached out to grab Iften and steady him. By this time, Kyrian had made her way through the crowd and gently took Iften’s arm and led him to a bench, where she sat him down and began examining him. Azhani watched, able to just catch the light yellow glow of the stardancer’s magic at work as her friend calmed the older man down.
After a few moments, she gave the dark-skinned man a bundle of herbs to chew and swallow along with a swig from a wineskin. Three other desert men approached and she spoke to them quietly, before stepping aside and allowing them to lead their now complacent leader to his quarters.
The stardancer made her way back to Azhani, who was slapping the dwarf on the shoulder and laughing uproariously at something he had said. The warrior looked up at her friend’s approach and her mirth immediately died at the expression on Kyrian’s face. Troubled, she moved to speak to her friend, but was forestalled by the stardancer’s upraised hand.
“No,” she said softly, so that only Azhani’s sharp ears could hear her. “Everyone should hear this.”
“All right,” Azhani said softly, stepping aside to allow her friend to take the center of the court.
Kyrian smiled grimly and faced Kuwell, who waited expectantly. “Good day, Ambassador Kuwell. I am Stardancer Kyrian of Y’len,” she said formally.
“Good day, Stardancer Kyrian. I am Ambassador Kuwell Longhorn of Shale Valley,” the dwarf replied, bowing. “The gods honor me with your presence.”
“Thank you. I have come to tell you that your friend, Iften Windstorm was not in his right mind today. His food had been poisoned by krill dust.”
A collective gasp filled the air. Krill dust was a very powerful hallucinogenic drug, outlawed in all seven kingdoms. The effects were random, always harmful and often, deadly.
Kuwell snorted in disgust, and said, “Figures that the old rat would lick the poison of his masters.”
Prince Allyndev pushed forward, loudly asking, “Are you accusing Ambassador Iften of collusion with the Cabal?”
“Allyndev, get Lyssera and ask her to join us in the swan garden,” Azhani ordered quietly, her voice brooking no argument. The young prince’s lips twisted to argue and then he visibly took hold of his temper, stiffly turning and walking back toward the manor.
Pointing to one of the many lurking pages, the warrior said, “Go to the kitchens and bring refreshments for,” she mentally tallied who would be there, “six. Bring them to the swan garden.”
The boy nodded and said, “Aye, Master, t’will be done as you say,” and then ran off.
Adjacent to Lyssera’s sitting room, the swan garden was about as private as they could get within the manor. Curious ears would find it hard to sneak into the heavily guarded residential floor of the Kelani family. Quickly, Azhani, Kyrian and the dwarven ambassador, made their way up the various levels until reaching the guarded doorway that led to the queen’s chambers.
The warrior was easily recognized and allowed in. Pausing, Azhani quietly gave the guard some instructions and then entered the Kelani residence. Queen Lyssera was waiting for them. The reason behind the name “swan garden” was immediately evident when the trio entered the treetop greenhouse. Beautiful ornaments from around the kingdoms, all depicting swans in one form or another, liberally littered the garden.
Letting out a low whistle of appreciation, Kyrian stared at the chair where Queen Lyssera sat. Made of white ash, the chair curved up behind the queen, cradling her in a cloak of painstakingly carved wings.
The table was another priceless piece, having a base of burnished copper depicting three swans arranged in a circle. Topping the table was a slab of rock crystal. As the sun streamed down overhead, millions of rainbows danced off the fracture lines in the quartz, bathing the small group in color. Not far away, the tinkling sound of a fountain could be heard, and above them were several overhanging tree branches, heavy with leaves providing welcome shade from the mid afternoon sun.
A page liveried in Lyssera’s personal colors, pulled out chairs for the arriving group of people, waiting patiently as each of them sat. When they had all arranged themselves comfortably, the young man turned to a cart and began serving drinks.
“So, a little bird tells me that Ambassador Iften suffered from krill poisoning,” Lyssera said, not bothering to dissemble as the rest of the small group settled into their chairs. Trays of finger foods were laid out on the table and then the page backed away, leaving his elders to their conversation.
Kyrian nodded, folding her hands in her lap and looking right at Vice-ambassador Kirthos, who was the Y’skani desert man that had come to represent his fallen leader. “Yes, he was. My cursory examination tells me that it is something that is long standing. I asked him if he knew he had ingested the substance, and his reply convinced me that he was as surprised by it as I was. Therefore, I would assume that he was unaware of the poison. Someone must have put it in his food.”
“Which leads me to wonder, Vice-ambassador, if anyone else knew of the Ambassador’s new spice?” Azhani asked, leaning forward. Her gaze was so pointed, the desert man flinched.
“Honored Master Azhani, I assure you that neither I, nor any members of Ambassador Iften’s clan, would dream of such a vile act! Krill dust is anathema to those who follow the Serpent – we would rather eat glass!” The Y’skani’s dark green tattoo – a coiled snake that wrapped the length of his arm with the head coming to rest on the back of his right hand – pulsed as he pounded the table emphatically.
Azhani nodded, accepting the man’s words. She looked to Queen Lyssera, who raised one dark blonde eyebrow and turned her gaze on the dwarven ambassador, Kuwell. “My friend from Y’dror. Would your honor be satisfied if I put the skills of Master Azhani to ferreting out who caused this debacle?”
“Aye, Lyssera. I have no doubts in the skills of our friend,” the Y’droran said simply, folding his arms and nodding in agreement.
Eagerly, Kirthos jumped up and began pacing the garden. “Yes, I too agree! Master Azhani is the only one who can fairly find the heinous poisoner!” His eyes darted from the warrior to the queen. “I am right in assuming that she is not a member of your court – that your relationship is that of an employer and employee? She holds no allegiance to Y’Syr?”
Turning her face so that the dark brown scar adorning her cheek flashed in the fading afternoon light, Azhani said, “You assume correctly, Vice-ambassador.” Her voice was hard-edged and Kyrian inwardly sighed, wishing once again she could reach the wound that had so deeply hurt her friend.
“Excellent! I accept then, that you will have an open mind and will not make assumptions based on political alliances.” He sat down, folding his hands on his lap and looking expectantly at the rest of the group.
He’s not as dumb as he looks, Azhani thought, impressed by the desert man’s savvy. Naturally, he will be the first suspect. Of course, I would be surprised to find that he is the poisoner – they tend to like the shadows. Turning to look at the Queen, Azhani sipped slowly at her drink.
“Good. I only ask that the results of this meeting not be spread. I’d like Master Azhani to have the freedom to move about without having to dodge arrows.” Everyone nodded. “Vice-ambassador Kirthos, I suggest you find someone that you trust to prepare the ambassador’s meals from now on.”
“Of course. I will speak to Starseeker Vashyra immediately. She will undoubtedly know someone who is qualified,” the desert man said arrogantly.
Azhani watched him as he spoke, trying to ferret out clues that might tell her whether or not Iften’s second reached for a higher position. After only a few heartbeats, she dismissed him as a suspect. Kirthos was young, brash and ambitious, but he spoke the truth when he voiced his distaste for the poison. Serpent clansmen revered the snake, including the tiny yellow creature found only in a mountainous region on the eastern coast of Y’skan. Krill dust was made from the desiccated corpses of these tiny snakes, which was an act so atrocious that it was unthinkable.
Kuwell too was ruled out. His clan and the DaCoure house had been friends for many years and she trusted the stout blacksmith implicitly. Barring Kyrian and a few others, this left the warrior with an impressive list of suspects to weed through.
“I’ll be happy to take care of the ambassador’s meals,” Kyrian offered quietly. “He shouldn’t eat anything really strong for a while, anyway. The krill needs to be cleansed from his system.”
“Bless you, Stardancer. You do my clan much honor,” the vice-ambassador said stiffly.
Azhani stifled a snort of laughter. At least Kirthos was one less pig-headed courtier she would privately want to smash for being rude to her friend.
“Since we are in accord, then I see no further reason to discuss this matter. Master Azhani, when you have your results, please let me know. Thank you,” Queen Lyssera said, dismissing the group with a wave of her hand.
They all rose to go, until the queen’s voice halted Kyrian.
“Stardancer Kyrian, would you mind staying?” asked the queen. “I have a matter to discuss with you.”
Shrugging her shoulders when Azhani looked at her curiously, Kyrian turned away from the door and said, “Of course, my queen. I am at your discretion.” Easily resuming her chair, Kyrian watched as Azhani, Allyn, and the two ambassadors exited the garden.
When she was sure that they were alone, Lyssera nodded toward the tray of snacks that sat, mostly untouched, in the center of the table. “Go ahead – you must be starving, I can hear your stomach from here!”
Chuckling ruefully, Kyrian reached for the tray, grabbing a handful of raw vegetables and a couple of meat-stuffed pastries. “Thank you. I am very hungry, though I think Azhani was ready to start chewing on the foliage. She hasn’t had anything since yesterday, while I managed to get in a bit of breakfast.”
“Well, then I’m surprised our warrior friend didn’t just start eating the vice-ambassador,” said Lyssera, a droll grin brightening her features as she spoke.
Kyrian giggled, envisioning Azhani leaning over and taking a chunk out of the supercilious desert man, and then said, “I don’t think she would have liked the taste. A bit too dry for Azhani.”
“True, she is much fonder of moister meat.” Lyssera observed suggestively. Her grin blossomed into a full-throated laugh when Kyrian blushed.
Politely, Kyrian coughed and asked, “You wished to speak with me about something, your majesty?”
Lyssera sighed heavily. “Don’t tell me she’s quashed your sense of humor already, stardancer?” Smiling sadly, she said, “I meant no offense. I, perhaps better than any, know how lonely Azhani is without my sister’s company. Ylera was one of those wonderful individuals who are larger than life. Everything she touched blossomed, and those whom her affections were directed at came willingly to her side.
Azhani has never been the kind of woman I would consider to be an aggressor in matters of the heart. If Ylera had not wanted to love her, then not even altering the course of the wind would have brought my sister to the warrior’s side.”
Nodding slowly, Kyrian said, “I know, your highness. Ylera was my friend. We were classmates at temple.” She sighed and smiled wistfully. “The princess’ conquests were stuff of legend among the acolytes.”
Lyssera sat forward, even more interested to know the enigmatic young woman who chose to side with Azhani Rhu’len. “Were you one of the ‘princess’ conquests’, Stardancer Kyrian?”
Taken aback by the boldness of the queen’s question, Kyrian stared, dumbfounded while her jaw worked to answer the question. Finally, she blurted out, “Not unless your sister was into children!” Seeing that her harsh words had wiped the good-natured smile from Lyssera’s face, Kyrian hastened to explain, “I was very young for an initiate, my queen. You could not have known. When Princess Ylera and I shared teachers, I was only thirteen summers old.” Closing her eyes, Kyrian allowed memories of that precious time to surface. “I think I might have gotten a crush on Lera, if I hadn’t had the chance to know her.” The stardancer smiled sadly. “After hearing her snore, tell bawdy jokes and belch louder than most of the boys, it was impossible to see her as an untouchable beauty. Ylera was more than just a flighty princess, she was a charming, friendly young woman.”
Opening her eyes, she smiled brightly at the queen. “She wanted so badly to make you proud of her, your majesty. She always knew she would be your envoy to the kingdoms, and she worked hard to learn everything she could about diplomacy. I suppose that was another reason why any tender feelings, I might have had, vanished. Ylera was very selfish. Not in a bad way, but everything she did was in furtherance of her aspirations.” Kyrian sighed sadly. “I wish I could have known her when she was with Azhani. From what Lady Glinholt tells me, Lera had changed – had started to allow her heart to lead her choices, rather than her political goals.”
Lyssera listened intently, shaking her head ruefully when Kyrian finished. “I suppose one more person should be added to the list of those who understand what Ylera’s loss means. Tell me more, stardancer. My sister spoke often of Y’len, and of the things she learned, but she rarely mentioned the people.” The queen’s jaw dropped, and her eyes widened as if a torch had just been lit inside her head. “You’re Kyr!” she blurted.
“Yes, that’s my name,” the stardancer laughed.
“No, no, Lera used to talk about a dancer initiate named Kyr all the time,” Lyssera explained, scooting her chair closer to Kyrian. “Unless there’s two Kyrs, it has to be you she was talking about.”
Wistfully, the stardancer said, “It’s nice to know she remembered me.”
“Oh gods, you are her. It’s your fault that my sister developed an unhealthy addiction to oatcakes and honey in the middle of night watch, isn’t it?”
Holding up her hands, Kyrian said, “Guilty as charged. It was the only thing we could make on the open fire while doing our last minute studying. The nights before a final exam were long and hunger-inducing.”
“I have never seen anything as funny as my sister trying vainly to recreate a recipe, all while soaking wet and covered in a thick coat of mud and moss! I nearly injured myself, I laughed so hard. I’m fairly sure it woke several of the initiates,” the queen said, going into a long description of one of Ylera’s many crazy outings. “I don’t know how she managed to convince me to leave the temple and go exploring the forest, but every time I visited, we had to see what new things were growing in the forest. I can only hope she didn’t drag poor Azhani out into the rain for mushrooms and mint leaves.”
Uncomfortably, Kyrian shifted in her seat mumbling, “She’s never mentioned anything to me.”
Lyssera nodded knowingly. “Me either, my friend. Our Azhani is as tight lipped as a moneylender’s purse when it comes to discussing my sister. I get bits and pieces, but never whole cloth.” The queen shook her head sadly. “We talked a little, but I can’t seem to get beyond the surface. Sharing our grief only seems to dull the edge of pain for her. I’m worried about her, Kyr. I’ve known Azhani for years, and though everything seems to be okay with her, something is missing. There’s an emptiness in her eyes that haunts me. I want to help, but I know how hard it is for her to be around me.”
Leaning forward, the queen took Kyrian’s hand in hers and stared earnestly into the stardancer’s eyes. “When I saw the two of you exit Tellyn’s stillroom, I thought my old friend had finally returned. The spark of life was in her eyes again, Kyr. It was having you by her side that unlocked her heart. I’m so very glad you’re here now.”
“So am I,” Kyrian whispered. “I missed her, and I worried about her.”
“I worried as well,” Lyssera said, getting up and pacing around the garden. “Before you came, she talked only of revenge, of seeking the head of Arris Theodan and presenting it to me on a platter, as if the bloody gift would somehow ease the loss of my sister!”
“It’s a goal,” the stardancer said, though her words were tinged with sarcasm.
“I hate it. Kyrian, I loved my sister dearly. She was my twin, and there’s not a moment that goes by that I don’t wish she were beside me, ready with an insightful piece of advice or witty comment.” She stopped pacing and slumped into her chair again. “She would never have wanted this single-minded plan for vengeance. Ylera would not want our countries to go to war over her.”
“What am I going to do? I don’t know. Before you came, Azhani threw herself into every task as though it were ordained by fate. Now, I don’t know. I gave her the task of finding Iften’s poisoner, to see just how she handled it.” Lyssera rubbed her face wearily. “Tell me, stardancer, how can I give men to a woman I’m not sure wants to live to see the dawn, after the death of King Arris?”
“I don’t...” Kyrian shook her head and sighed. “I don’t think she has a death wish, majesty. I think she’s just very determined to have justice for Ylera.”
“Why? Why is it so important that she be the one to kill Arris? When she speaks of his death, it’s always in terms of his body on her sword.” The queen said the words as though she had heard them hundreds of times.
“Wouldn’t you want to be the one to deal the blow of vengeance, if it were your fiancée that were murdered?” Kyrian asked simply.
Surprise colored the queen’s face. “Fiancée? No, Kyr, I don’t think their relationship would have gone that far, had Ylera lived. My sister, bless her, was far too conscious of her place in Y’Syran society. The nobles would not have tolerated an Y’dani/Y’Syran match of that nature. The ink on Theodan’s treaty was still too wet.”
“Azhani does not know that. And who knows, the princess might have had a change of heart,” Kyrian pointed out rationally, inwardly cringing. I will forget this conversation; I will forget that I ever heard anything about this. Azhani never needs to know how lightly the queen views her sister’s relationships.
“You think me unkind,” Lyssera said solemnly. “Perhaps I am. I am a queen, Kyrian, and that means that I cannot forget for one moment that every word I speak, every action I take, will have infinite repercussions. This is why I must – I must,” she emphasized the word, “be sure of those in whom I have placed trust. I trust you, stardancer, because I know you love Astariu wisely. Therefore, I will trust your wisdom about Azhani. Reassure this queen that she has not let her own anger and grief cloud her judgment – tell me that the warrior’s desire to murder a king is not lunacy!”
“I wish I could ease your concerns with a word or two, majesty, but I can only offer the memories I carry up here,” Kyrian said, tapping the side of her head. “I cannot, in good conscience, speak words said in confidence, but perhaps I can share the tale of how I came to know Azhani Rhu’len. Maybe you will find something in the story to soothe your fears.” Calmly, the stardancer began to tell the queen of her adventures since leaving the village of Myr, up until the moment that she and Azhani had left the stillroom at Mistress Tellyn’s.
Lyssera listened, avidly clinging to any clues that gave her hope. They were few, but before Kyrian finished, the queen had heard enough to ease her mind for the time being. Azhani’s goals may seem single-minded, but the warrior still had a very strong sense of honor and duty. Perhaps she would not self-destruct, after all. I swear Ylera; I will not let your beloved go down the path of vengeance. Not that way, not like Father did...
Forcing herself to listen to the stardancer, Lyssera shoved away the painful memories of her father’s mad quest to avenge her mother’s death. Nothing would ever take away her last sight of King Ylesril chasing a badly mangled demon off a cliff. He had never even slowed down as the rocky escarpment crumbled away beneath him, just kept trying to hack at the creature’s bleeding body as they fell.
The queen would do most anything to see Azhani avoid such a fate.
Azhani tried not to fidget. She had crammed her tall frame into one of the tiny booths in this dockside tavern that she had frequented for many years. The Captain’s Hook was the most disreputable spot on Y’Syria’s harbor, and she had found that it was the best place to gather information.
Within moments of arriving, she had overheard enough clandestine talk regarding a lucrative smuggling operation, to keep the queen’s navy busy for weeks, if not months. Grimly, the warrior kept a mental tally of faces and names, intending on passing on the information to the captain of Lyssera’s guard. She had also seen two murderers and a moneylender wanted for graft, hiding in the tavern’s shadows. For those men, she had written notes to the commander of the dockside guard and sent them by messenger. One of the fugitives had already been apprehended as he tried to board a ship bound for Y’mar.
The warrior had a neat system in place. Three dock rats – children she had befriended three years ago on her last visit – sat by the door, ostensibly begging for coins. By using simple signals, they kept her apprised of those folks she should bend her ears to and those she should ignore. The kids happily performed the duty and Azhani made sure that some of the queen’s largesse made its way into their small pockets.
She nodded as one of the boys pointed to a newly arrived customer. Examining him, Azhani was not impressed. Typical of all sailors, he was barefoot, the soles of his feet so toughened from years of working on the decks of ships that he didn’t even notice the roughness of the straw-covered floor. He carried himself in a stoop that was indicative of a man who had spent many years rowing, and as he moved into the hazy light cast by a nearby torch, Azhani could make out the gnarled hands of an oarsman.
A voice whispered in her ear, “That’s Zekk. He’s with the Wave Queen.”
The warrior leaned back, letting the informant know that she had been heard, and watched as Zekk worked his way through the tavern, loudly greeting friends and strangers alike. Finally, he reached her table, staring into the darkened cowl of her hood as if trying to see into her soul.
“It likes me that you be seekin’ a bit o’ taste,” he said, in a rambling, lilted accent that was pure Y’maran docksider.
“Nef’ tay crawl the holes yonder,” she responded, mimicking the twisted vowels perfectly. “Take chair and yap; sup ye a bit o’ Jonny B’s blood and chew words,” she said, nodding at the pitcher of warm ale that rested in the center of the rickety table.
Deciding her offer was genuine, the sailor eased into the opposite chair and poured a large helping of ale into his own mug, then drank gustily. He belched and poured another. This one he drank slowly, seeming to savor every drop of the harsh, bitter beer.
Azhani calmly waited for the sailor to drink. It was no use to force the man to talk – Y’marans were notoriously close-lipped until they felt they had been adequately greased.
Three cups into the pitcher, Zekk set his mug aside and nodded. “Chew, woman, it likes me not to sit long.” His eyes roved the room, settling finally on one of the more obvious light skirts that dominated the end of the bar.
“Aye. Tis bitter shame to lay waste to time better spent. Short o’ it is – taste me dreams, I have. Flavor likes me and would it is have more. Landies call it wrecked though, leave me clinging to short sail. Likes me not,” she explained, putting just enough need and outrage in her voice to stimulate any good smuggler’s greed.
Zekk stared at her as though she had gone daft. “Lightening struck you are, woman. Dream dust taste demon’s filth!” He stood suddenly, making the bench creak ominously. Shaking his head, he cursed, “Kraken take you, I’ll not rot for hell’s droppings!” Angrily, he stormed away from the table, causing no few glances in Azhani’s direction.
The warrior shrugged and ignored the stares. After a while, the patrons turned their attentions elsewhere, finding more interesting things to amuse them.
“Zekk’s the last of ‘em, lady,” said a youthful voice.
“All right, what about the gambling hall? Is it still held in Tarvik’s warehouse?” she asked.
“Not since old man Tarvik went down in a squall two seasons ago. Yannev Ironfoot runs it out of an old sawmill outside of town now.”
“Great, I’ve had a hankering to go riding. Gather your friends, Skye, we’re going for a picnic.” The warrior untangled her body from the bench and gratefully made her way to the door.
A tow-headed child leapt down from her hiding place behind the warrior’s former seat and laughed. “A picnic? Azhi, I haven’t done that since last time!” Grinning hugely, the girl sped off to gather her friends.
Smiling, Azhani thanked the gods that her old contacts had not left the docks – it would have been twice as hard to gather the information she needed without them.
The sun had long set when Kyrian drained the dregs of a large pitcher of water and finished telling Lyssera about her life with Azhani Rhu’len.
“It hasn’t been boring, but neither have I seen any signs of the soul-sick madness of one who wants to die, your highness.”
For several minutes, the queen was silent, contemplating her words. Fastening her gaze on a point some yards beyond Kyrian’s head, she said, “You love her.” The statement fell out into the air between them, echoing madly in the stardancer’s ears.
The garden was silent as the words played over and over again in Kyrian’s head. Finally, she quietly said, “How could I not? I have tasted the color of her aura and swum in the energies of her essence. More than that, I have laughed with her, cried with her, saved and been saved by her.”
Lyssera’s eyes closed slowly as she said, “I wonder if that’s how Ylera felt? Her heart was so eager to love, that she was drawn, moth to a flame, to those whose energies were strong.” The queen didn’t ask if Azhani returned the stardancer’s feelings. The question would have been ridiculous – Lyssera wasn’t blind, and it was no secret that the warrior rarely left Kyrian’s side. If she did not love her, she would. Even a sense-blind human could see that destiny had written itself neatly into the women’s lives.
The questions that remained were – trivial, at best. Of course, she would give Azhani the men to destroy Arris’ hold on Y’dan. Whether that entailed a war, an assassination, or some other mission that had yet to be revealed, she was certain that the warrior deserved her support. To do otherwise would be to dishonor the memory of her twin.
With that settled, all that remained were personal, less political meanderings. Lyssera burned with curiosity. Would the warrior allow love into her life again? Elves were known for their passions and the queen’s was matchmaking. Not surprisingly, she had never had the chance to practice her skills on her sister, but perhaps, by helping her sister’s beloved, she would have some sense of what it would have been like.
Lyssera gave Kyrian an appraising gaze, wondering what could be done to make the half-elven stardancer appeal to Azhani’s tender side and whether or not she would be amenable to her plan. Imperceptibly, the queen nodded. Yes, a plan was definitely necessary, if she were going to get the stubborn warrior to crack the careful mask of non-emotion she had donned and allow the budding feelings underneath to flourish.
Fleetingly, the thought passed that she should, perhaps, let the gods choose whom Azhani’s affections would fall upon, but one look into Kyrian’s dark green eyes decided the queen. If she had anything to do about it, Azhani Rhu’len would be with Kyrian.
“Well, it’s no matter now. As to more political issues – will Ambassador Iften be all right? I understand that krill dust is very dangerous if taken too long.” The queen signaled, and her page drifted out of the shadows to refill their cups with a fresh bottle of wine.
“Now that the poisoning has been detected, so long as no more krill gets into his system, he should recover. In fact, I’ll be checking on him when you’re finished with me. Would you like me to send a page with a report?” Kyrian sipped at the chilled wine, licking her lips appreciatively over the fine vintage.
“I would appreciate that, thank you,” Lyssera said, turning to look out into the garden.
Kyrian set her goblet on the table and quietly left the queen to her musings.
It took some time to locate the ambassador’s quarters, but eventually, the stardancer was by the older man’s side, calmly assessing him when he woke. Pale hazel eyes blinked rapidly, and then he looked up at the red-robed young woman who was tending him.
“I am truly blessed, to have the honor of one of the Goddess’ Own, by my side,” he said, his voice sleep-roughened.
Smiling, Kyrian handed him a glass of cool tea, urging him to drink. Slowly, the man sipped at the sweet beverage and then tried to sit up. The stardancer gently assisted him and asked, “Are you hungry, Ambassador?”
For just an instant, a frown appeared on the old man’s face, then he cocked his head as if listening to something. A shy smile crept over his face. “My fears wish me to say no, thank you. However, my stomach has other ideas.” Sheepishly, the ambassador asked in a small voice, “Would you do an old desert rat a favor, Honored One? Would you see that whatever meal you allow me, is prepared properly? I fear that I can not trust even my own servants.”
“Actually, Ambassador, I will be making your meals for the next few days, if that’s acceptable?” He nodded, smiling gratefully. “Good. Would a bowl of grain cereal satisfy you? I can prepare it over your hearth, right here.” Kyrian offered diffidently, rising to seek a page.
“Please,” Iften asked humbly.
Standing, she stuck her head out the door, catching the sight of the ambassador’s page. Quickly, she asked him to fetch her what she would need to make the meal. Once he was gone, she turned back toward the ambassador’s room, grateful to see the slowly returning color to the man’s unnaturally pale skin. Several candlemarks of sleep, as well as a few doses of an antidote, had done wonders for him.
Crackling wood from the fire filled the room with a peaceful sound. A light snore echoed from the bed, as the ambassador dozed. Quietly drawing a chair close to the fire, Kyrian waited for the page to return. When he did, she softly hung the pot from a hook in the fireplace and filled it with water.
Soon, she had a thick, filling cereal cooking. The smell must have woken the ambassador, because his voice broke into her concentration.
“Was it Kirthos?”
“Pardon me?” Kyrian asked, dishing up a bowl of the thick grain cereal and adding healthy dollops of butter, maple syrup and dark brown sugar.
“The poisoner – was it my brother-in-law Kirthos?” A coughing spell shook the ambassador’s frame. Kyrian set the bowl down and rushed to his side, easing him to a sitting position until the spasms stopped. Reaching for the teacup, she carefully spooned in a grayish-blue powder and stirred it swiftly.
“Drink this,” she advised the older man, who was breathing in short, uneven spurts.
Slowly, he drank, wincing at the now sour taste of the drink. “Thank you,” he said, laying back against his pillows and taking longer, more even breaths.
The stardancer inclined her head. “No, I don’t believe it was Kirthos... but the truth has yet to be fully determined. The queen has set Master Azhani to seeking the information. I imagine she is doing so right now.”
Another light spasm of coughing shook the old man’s body, causing her to frown in consternation. Krill should not affect his system like this.
“Ambassador, may I read you?” she asked formally.
A sad smile crossed the old man’s face. “Nah, nah, child. ‘Tis nothing. You don’t need to waste your talent on me – I know that my time is short. ‘Tis the sand-lung, not anything you can help.”
Desire to help the ailing man warred with the knowledge that what afflicted him was incurable. Sand-lung - a disease that many desert dwellers suffered from – was painful, but not disabling. Yet, the respiratory sickness was always fatal, stealing years from the ends of Y’skani lives. The desert dwellers were otherwise healthy, hearty folk. Seeing the swarthy ambassador suddenly made pale by wracking coughs saddened the stardancer deeply.
Iften relaxed against his cushions, watching the emotions that flickered openly across his caretaker’s face and felt something wonderful stir in his old heart. She actually cares that I’m dying? Astarus bless me - I feel storm blinded! Before accepting the mantle of ambassador for his tribe, Iften Windstorm had lived the solitary existence of a Desert Walker – one of the hearty few who prowled the dark sands of the Great Y’skan, seeking clues to the massive wasteland’s creation.
The Serpent clan was the largest single group of the Y’skani nomads. Because of that, the other tribes looked to them to represent the clans to the outside world. Iften had come to Y’Syria to broker trade agreements between the elves and the desert men, as well as to learn about the other cultures that dominated the seven kingdoms. He longed to return to the land of shifting sands, but knew he would probably never study the ruins that dotted the desert again.
Eyes glistening with moisture, Kyrian cleared her throat and said, “I may not be able to cure you, Ambassador, but surely I could ease your discomfort.” The young woman didn’t understand why she was so drawn to this old man, but she had served Astariu long enough to know that when people touch your heart, there was always a good reason for it.
The old man’s face crinkled up in a bright smile. Shaking his head, Iften said, “Child, you go ahead and do what you can – I’ll not say no to a little coddling from the Goddess’ Own.”
Gently, Kyrian laid her hands against the ambassador’s chest. Softly, she began to chant, calling upon the goddess to attend her and open the inner eyes that allowed her to see into the bodies of her patients. The room tunneled away, replaced by the energy streams that pulsed with the life of Iften Windstorm. Kyrian’s trained mind quickly scanned the flowing lines, easily picking out where the foreign substance of the krill poison had entered and struck the healthy energies, burning and blackening the pathways that lead to the older man’s cognitive functions. Easily, she called lances of cleaning energy into being and began attacking the krill, burning it out of the ambassador’s system.
Lulled by the soft chanting, Iften fell into a light doze, watching the flames in the hearth dance merrily.
Oily smoke from dozens of torches scattered about the large warehouse, settled about the casino’s patrons. Azhani slowly worked her way through the room, losing and winning enough coin to keep the bouncer’s suspicions down as she listened to the thread of conversation that flowed around her. It didn’t take long to learn which of the men and women in the establishment would, for the right price, fulfill her every wicked desire.
Not that I have any wicked, wanton needs, the dark haired warrior thought, half sorrowfully, half in amusement. Azhani’s gaze flicked from whore to whore, measuring them against the remembered beauty of her Ylera, and found them wanting. Against the memory of her new friend Kyrian’s cheerful smile and lusty laugh, even those memories began to pale.
When she realized that little bit of personal information, the warrior stood stock still, staring down at the handful of copper coins she just won from a dice game and tried not to shake. Guilt wracked her, pushing her to just chuck the money and go running to the nearest temple to beg the goddess’ forgiveness. Sanity intruded at the very last moment, smacking her upside the head in the form of a drunkard who vomited loudly, narrowly missing her boots.
Disgusted, the warrior pushed around the gathering crowd and headed for the back of the gambling area, where the real action was taking place. A small pit had been dug and then surrounded by a thick, short wall. Inside the pit, two warriors would square off, each trying to beat the other bloody – all for a pittance in coin.
Standing around the pit, were several men and women, all clamoring for their favored fighter to smash his or her opponent into the dirt. Moving in and out of this crowd like well-oiled snakes, were boys who gathered bets and paid off winners. On the other side of the crowd was a cluster of tables. Men and women of varying size, pitted their strength against others, betting on who could lay their opponent’s hand down first. Azhani skirted past the pit fight arena and calmly slipped into a chair recently vacated by a very disgruntled man. Seated across from her was a bear casually masquerading as a man.
Bare from the waist up, muscles bulging and gleaming with sweat and oil, Eskyn Dowser was one of Yannev’s best arm wrestlers. Once an oarsman in the High King’s navy, the dusky-skinned native of Y’skan had broken his back during a storm and was useless aboard a ship. Yannev Ironfoot had seen profit in the sailor’s disability, and had encouraged the young man to build his upper body muscles until he was as he now appeared.
Sailors and soldiers from all over, lost and won good money either betting on or wrestling against the muscled man. Eskyn, not being dim, used his own profits from the scheme, to become head of a well-known smuggling operation, working just outside of the law to bring in otherwise illegal goods.
All this Azhani knew from her time as Y’dan’s warleader, having dealt with Eskyn many times over the years. Though a crook, the big man had some morals – and he would be her best lead to discovering who was behind the ambassador’s poisoning.
The wrestler was in the middle of a long, lusty kiss and paused only long enough to grunt, “Be right with ya, bud,” before returning his attention to a scantily dressed woman who eagerly leaned in for more kisses.
“Don’t fall in,” Azhani purred, hiding a smile when Eskyn suddenly shoved the flustered girl away from him and pounded his fists on the table.
“Astarus’ balls! Azhani Rhu’len!” he exclaimed loudly, a huge smile spreading across his dark skinned face. He looked up at the woman he had been kissing and said, “Why don’t you grab us a couple of beers, hon? And tell Yanny that I’m off for a while – I need to refuel.”
“You want something to eat, Essie?” the woman asked, running her fingers lightly over his bald head.
A deep, rumbling chuckle emerged from the man’s chest and he nodded. “Yeah, I think I’d like that – breaking bread with the former warleader of Y’dan isn’t something I do every day.”
“Bad news travels faster than Astarus’ hounds, old friend,” Azhani said, settling into her chair and sighing heavily.
“Ah, but good news flies on the wings of owldragons, no? Whispers come to me that our fair queen knows quality when she sees it.” The big man leaned back in his chair, cracking his neck and shoulders loudly.
Shrugging nonchalantly, Azhani said, “Well, I’m not exactly claiming poverty at the moment.”
“Ah, good. I am pleased to hear that.” He smiled at her, then turned his brilliant white smile up at his lady friend when she delivered a large tray of food and beer. “Beautiful, my sweet. Thank you. Why don’t you go and enjoy the bard, my dear?” he suggested, giving the woman a push in the direction of a shadowed stage. When she had gone, Eskyn lifted his mug of ale and said, “Now then, what is it I can do for my old friend? Unless you have brought the queen’s guard here to arrest me?” He made a show of peering into darkened corners while the warrior rolled her eyes. “Ah, but I do not see any trees about,” he said, using the docksider nickname for the warriors who served as the city guard.
“Krill, Eskyn, I need to know where I can find it,” the warrior said, not wasting any more time.
Surprised, the smuggler rolled his chair away from the table and over to Azhani’s side. A massive hand reached out to brush the skin of the warrior’s face before she could flinch away. “Hmm, not sick, no,” he said, searching her eyes briefly before adding, “and ye’ve not gone daft.”
“I’m not sick and I’m not crazy, Es – I just need some information.” Blue eyes glittered in the dim light. “I take it personally when my friends become ill,” she added, hoping that he would think she was on a personal vendetta.
Eskyn rolled his chair back to his side of the table, marveling again at the ingenuity of the gnomes his partner had hired. The chair was a simple construct. Sturdy and well built, it had two large and two small wheels that allowed him a freedom of movement he though he had lost forever when the mast had snapped and crashed into his oar box, pinning him to the deck.
A particularly loud cheer from the crowd around the pit arena gave him the moment he needed to gather his thoughts. Eskyn’s conscience and years serving in the navy urged him to spill all he knew about the seedy individuals that controlled the admittedly small drug trade in Y’Syr, but his hard-earned business sense cautioned him to silence. Earning the enmity of any one of those men and women would make doing his business that much harder.
The noise level faded down to its normal roar. Grasping his cooled sandwich, Eskyn took a big bite, chewing and swallowing slowly.
Azhani tapped her foot, waiting for the big man to wrestle his conscience into submission. It was like this every time – the dance the two played out echoed back to the very first time a young desert rat and an equally young landlubber had crossed paths at an Y’maran dock.
Finally, Eskyn said, “What’s in it for me?”
“Funds or favors?” Azhani offered, knowing the man’s greatest weaknesses.
Dark brown eyes scanned the warrior from head to toe. One thick brow rose challengingly. “Favors? Are you finally admitting that you find me irresistible, Azhani?”
“In your worst nightmares, Es,” the warrior replied, leaning forward, her glittering blue eyes boring into his face. “Look, I know that you’ve got a shipment coming in tomorrow – what if I could convince the trees to stay in their forest, instead of shading the lake?” It was a bluff – her position in Lyssera’s household was tenuous and undefined at best and no better than that of the commonest of servants at worst.
Eskyn put his elbows on the table and leaned his chin on his fists. “You’re lying,” he said without preamble. “You could no more tell an owldragon not to shit on a rock, as send the trees to leaf. Show me the color of your money, or show me your backside.”
A pouch heavy with coin appeared on the table. Eskyn reached for it, but was stopped by a powerful hand grasping his wrist.
“This one, and two more if your information pays out,” Azhani said, her voice steely with determination.
She released him and he gathered up the pouch, mentally tallying its contents. Azhani Rhu’len had yet to stiff him; he trusted her not to start now. The leather bag vanished under the table, sequestered in a specially built compartment in his chair.
“All right, this is what I know,” he began carefully, telling her as much as he knew about the city’s drug trade.
When the big man had finished his low voiced report, Azhani closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. What a goddess damned mess, she thought, standing and stretching to work out the kinks that sitting for over a candlemark in one position had put in her back.
Clasping Eskyn’s hand, she said, “Thanks, Es. I won’t forget this.”
The dusky skinned man laughed, covering her hand with his huge paw. “Nah, nah, forget it or not, just remember to be sending me my gold!”
“If I don’t, I’m sure you’ll be happy to send me a reminder, old friend,” Azhani said, smiling at the smuggler.
“Oh, aye. If’n your mem’ry heads the way of shark bait, I’ll not be slack-sailed in gaffing you,” he said, falling into the cant of his sailing days.
“Fash not, board man, ye’ll have yer butter,” she replied, using the same style of speech, though she spoke with a different accent.
Nodding in approval, Eskyn let the warrior’s hand go. “Good hunting, my friend,” he said as she turned to leave the casino.
Only the die-hard gamblers remained – the rest had won or lost what they could and had gone home. Azhani slowly made her way through the thinning crowds, knowing that it had to be approaching dawn.
Gray light filled the sky, promising a foggy dawn. Azhani paid Skye and watched as the urchin scrambled off toward the docks. I wish she would let me find a place for her and her friends... Wearily, Azhani began the long trudge back to the city, and the sprawling tree house that Queen Lyssera called home.
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