Arriving at Oakheart at pre-dawn, did nothing to improve Azhani’s standing within the queen’s court. Already, murmurs were flying around the packed chamber, causing Lyssera to briefly rub her eyes. Sending a quick prayer to Astarus, who looked after fools and their errands, she hoped that whatever had caused her weaponsmaster to stay out so late, would be worth the candlemarks of gossip she would have to endure. Lyssera stifled a sigh as yet another rumor reached her ears.
“Did you hear, my queen? Master Azhani has been out howling at the moon!” a wide-eyed merchant from the outer provinces whispered in shock.
Lyssera ignored him. According to Allyndev, the warrior was sleeping. Azhani had not answered her door when the young man had knocked to inquire after her health.
Kyrian was still with Ambassador Iften, making sure that there were no other ill effects from the krill poisoning. Without any new information, Lyssera had to deal with her court and her advisors alone. During the morning session, she easily dismissed their concerns by informing them that she had someone investigating the matter of Ambassador Iften’s poisoning. After talking amongst themselves, it was agreed by the court and council that she had done the right thing.
Of course they agreed. Lyssera’s thoughts were tinged with disgust. They don’t have to pay for it. As Lyssera’s weaponsmaster, Azhani earned a retainer. It was small, but more than enough to provide the warrior with the occasional frippery. Essentials, such as food, shelter and clothing were free. Before hunting for snakes in Y’Syr’s garden, Azhani had asked for and received extra funds.
Understanding the need to grease the wheels of information, Lyssera had willingly given the warrior access to some of her personal fortune. Now, she was understandably anxious to discover what her money had bought. Already, the morning’s gossip had brought news of three men in the Y’Tolan ambassador’s party who had fallen sick, though their ills were quickly proven to be weather related and not due to krill. I need to find the guilty parties quickly, before there’s a panic. The safety of Oakheart Manor is legendary, and I will not allow some skulking bastard to destroy that!
One of the courtiers leaned over to whisper some juicy bit of gossip but quickly changed his mind when he saw the expression that crossed the queen’s face. The count was a rumormonger, but he liked his head where it rested – decorating a pike was not something he had planned in his near future. Shuddering, the man turned to another one of the ever-present minor nobles, praying that whoever had put that look on Queen Lyssera’s face was not someone he knew.
Azhani was not asleep. Two guards standing in front of the door that led to Baron Draygil Var’s suite, were quite unaware that perched precariously above them, was the former warleader of Y’dan. The information that she had purchased from the smuggler Eskyn, led her to this minor noble from the southeastern town of Tarin. Two years ago, Baron Var’s father had died, leaving him a tumbled down mansion and a pile of debt. To pay the debt, what little monies there were left in the family treasury, went into a steadily thriving export business. Salted beef, cured leather and glue was purchased in Y’Nor cheaply and sold in Y’skan at tremendously inflated rates.
A little bit of discussion with the pages for both the Y’skani and the Y’Noran delegations, had given Azhani all the information she needed. One of the main goals of the Y’skani delegation was to cement a trade agreement with the plains people. Queen Lyssera had generously offered her services as a moderator, and over the last few months, had spent candlemarks at the treaty table, hammering out a mutually beneficial agreement.
The two kingdoms had dickered incessantly over concessions and as yet, they had not signed any documents. If those negotiations came to fruition, both kingdoms would reap the rewards. Baron Var, however, would be paupered.
Deeply in debt to the Cabal, Var’s options were limited. Over the course of the day, Azhani had followed a trail of clues, learning that the nobleman received many visitors from the infamous House. Ostensibly, they met for trade matters, but even men who are experts at misleading the law can make mistakes.
A wicked smile curved Azhani’s lips. No one paid any attention to the pages – the young boys and girls who were employed by the crown as an easy means of delivering messages around the ancestral home of Y’Syr’s nobility. Hearing and seeing everything in their duties, pages were never shy of sharing what they learned, for the right price, and Azhani was happy to take advantage of that.
There was no love lost between Baron Var and the page that had been assigned to serve him, and the boy quickly told Azhani all he knew of the young noble’s dealings with the House of Cabal. What she heard, caused the warrior to clench her hands into fists several times before she gave the boy a pocketful of silver and sent him off to the kitchens for a treat.
Now, she waited, poised to gather the rest of the information she would need to prove that Baron Draygil Var was a traitor. From her perch, Azhani watched silently as the nobleman exited the room, stopping only to share a crude joke with one of his guards before heading off to court. As soon as his men settled against the door, she dropped.
“Hello lads,” she purred, acting swiftly. Her hands shot out, grabbing both men by the collar and slamming their heads together with a resounding thud. Limply, they slid to the ground. Working fast, Azhani tied their hands together with a bit of leather thong and then dragged them into the baron’s rooms. Later, the queen’s guard could return and determine if Var’s men were involved in his crimes.
Seeking concrete evidence of Var’s crimes, she hurriedly searched the rooms. Minutes later, she found it, hidden between the mattresses of the baron’s bed. The lock on the baron’s cell door was a vial, not much larger than an arrowhead which was filled with a thick, grayish dust that smelled like citrus and tasted like soap.
Carefully, Azhani slipped the dangerous substance into a pouch at her hip. A bit more judicious searching turned up even more evidence – a signet ring from the House of Cabal, given only to those members of society who joined their criminal organization. Wrapped around the ring was a scrap of parchment with the words, ~The master is pleased with your efforts, Var. To complete your work – see that the old sand worm does not sign the treaty, and your debt is forgiven.~ written in a spidery, delicate script.
Just before she left the room, Azhani added another carefully applied thump to the heads of Var’s guards and then headed for Lyssera’s court. A brilliantly cheerful grin appeared and she began to whistle as she walked down the halls. Today was going to be so much fun!
The rumors were flying fast and furious when Kyrian finally made an appearance in the large chamber that served as the queen’s court. Lyssera, seated in a rigidly uncomfortable position on her throne, stood and walked down to greet the red-robed stardancer.
“My posterior thanks you for your timely arrival, good stardancer,” the queen muttered softly as she smiled politely at the men and women lining the sides of the aisle.
“It’s always a pleasure to serve your majesty,” Kyrian replied just as softly, smiling gently.
“And how is the good ambassador?” Lyssera asked in a normal voice?
The stardancer’s smile broadened. “He is well, your majesty - cranky and irritable and demanding that he be allowed to eat real cow, instead of just the drippings.”
Lyssera chuckled, her merry laugh infecting the stardancer until she too, was laughing. Returning to the throne’s dais, each woman took her accustomed spot – Kyrian on a low chair that sat to the queen’s side and Lyssera on the elaborately carved yet far less comfortable throne.
“I have had a letter from King Padreg,” Lyssera said conversationally.
Kyrian tilted her head interestedly.
“He and his lady send their love to you and Azhani. Padreg also wishes you to remind Azhani of their deal.” The queen’s dark golden eyes twinkled merrily.
Two amber colored eyebrows rose in confusion. “Deal? Oh boy, I wish Azhani would tell me these things. What deal?”
Shaking her head, Lyssera shrugged and said, “I haven’t the faintest clue. Ask the warrior yourself, she’s here.”
Striding up the red carpet toward the queen’s throne was the warrior, a jaunty grin on her face and whistling an infectious tune. Effortlessly sinking to one knee as she reached the foot of Lyssera’s throne, Azhani announced, “I have completed my task, my Queen.”
The crowd hushed as her words penetrated the fog of conversation. Stillness filled the room as everyone waited for the queen’s reply.
Inclining her head, Lyssera regally said, “By all means, my friend, share your findings. Tell us who slithers in our midst, seeking to destroy Oakheart’s peace.”
Rising, the warrior lifted her head and in a clear voice said, “After much investigation, I have determined that the poisoner of the good Ambassador Iften was Baron Draygil Var.”
A collective gasp echoed off the ceiling.
“Nonsense! She spouts lies, my queen!” The baron in question pushed his way to the throne, indignation bristling from every pore.
Calmly, Azhani turned to face the small-statured elven man, one eyebrow raised in curiosity. “If it is lies that I speak, my lord baron, tell then why it is that I discovered these in your quarters?” From the pouch at her belt, Azhani produced the vial of poison, the signet ring and the note.
Baron Var went white, fear and rage flickering across his face before sputtering, “You didn’t find that in my room, you planted it! I know who the poisoner is my queen – it’s this scum you’ve hired, Azhani Rhu’len. King Arris was right to call her Oathbreaker!” Disgusted, he sneered, “I am shamed that you allowed such a one into your household.”
The scar on Azhani’s face twitched as she ground her teeth, but she kept silent, waiting for Lyssera to speak.
The queen did not disappoint. Rising from her throne, she stepped gracefully out onto the carpet and circled the baron and the warrior. One elegant hand came up to cup her chin.
Attentions fully held by the drama playing out before them, the nobles were pinned to their seats as the queen’s eyes scanned the court.
“Baron Var, who I hire is none of your concern; however, your opinion is noted,” she said icily. “Azhani, your service to me thus far has been unimpeachable and all know that Theodan of Y’dan held you in the highest regard. Hence, I trust that your information is fairly gathered, but my court may not be so swayed by your reputation. Therefore, I ask, do you have any further proof of the baron’s guilt?” Not that Lyssera truly needed any more proof; Var’s greed, as well as his opposition to the Y’Nor/Y’skan treaty, was well known.
“I-“ Azhani started to reply when she was interrupted.
“Why don’t we ask the goddess to verify the truth?” Kyrian stepped forward, her words echoing through the room. Smiling sweetly at the fuming baron, she said, “I am sure that Starseeker Vashyra would be happy to oblige you, my queen.” The approving warmth in Azhani’s eyes made every word she spoke worthwhile to Kyrian, who was beginning to shake under the scrutiny of the hundreds of nobles that were attached to Lyssera’s court.
“An excellent suggestion, Stardancer Kyrian,” Lyssera praised, nodding at a page who scurried off to find the priest of Astariu who was assigned to the Y’Syran court.
Several tense minutes passed while Azhani and Baron Var stared each other down. The warrior wore an expression of unconcerned boredom while the baron struggled to keep his hands at his sides, away from the jewel-hilted dagger that rested against his left hip. Nervous chatter flitted from one end of the chamber to the other, as the nobles, growing bored by the hard silence, began to quietly whisper to each other.
Indifferently turning away from the fuming baron, Azhani casually bumped her elbow into Kyrian’s arm. The stardancer looked up, surprised, but then smiled at her friend.
“Hey,” the warrior whispered, her voice barely carrying beyond the stardancer’s ears. “Want to get something to eat after the manure hits the crowd?”
“Sounds good to me, tall, dark and dangerous. You can tell me what the hell you promised Padreg, while we eat,” Kyrian whispered back.
What I promised Padreg? Huh? Then it hit her. Oh shit! He must have told her about the midwinter joining. What the hell am I supposed to say? “Oh, it’s nothing, Kyr. Padreg just wants us to get married with him and Elisira during Winterfest?” Oh yeah, that would go over like a pig in a barrel.
Whatcha so freaked about, warrior? Telling Kyrian about your promise, or admitting that you find the idea of marrying her – intriguing? A mischievous internal voice prodded.
Azhani wanted to close her eyes and thump her head against the nearest wall, but she didn’t. No, you rutting satyr! I love Ylera! She is the only one I will ever love! The words felt strangely hollow, though.
The opening double doors at the end of the hall, saved her from having to argue further with her conscience. Starseeker Vashyra swept down the aisle, gathering all eyes to her tall, beautiful form. Taller than Azhani, but willow switch thin, with long, silver-touched black hair that flowed almost to the floor, the priest of Astariu was a formidable sight in her azure silk robes. A star tattoo emblazoned on her forehead, proclaimed her status as a starseeker. Vashyra was one of the goddess’ chosen intermediaries, and no one would dare call her word into question.
When she reached the small group clustered at the edge of the dais where Lyssera’s throne sat, Vashyra inclined her head and said, “I understand I am needed, your majesty?”
“Starseeker, I am pleased that you were able to join us so quickly,” Lyssera said, ascending the steps to her throne and seating herself in the great chair. “We have a matter of law before us that needs the goddess’ touch to clear up. Are you willing to aid us?”
“Of course, my queen. I am always proud to share Astariu’s gifts with the people of Y’Syr. What is it I may assist you with?” the priest asked serenely, her violet eyes looking from Azhani, to Kyrian, to the baron and back to the queen.
The room quieted down as the nobles all strained to watch and listen. Kyrian felt sweat break out on her palms and would have turned and run from the room if Azhani had not leaned over and whispered, “Hey, look at Var – I think he’s about to piss on his fancy velvet shoes.”
Covering her giggles with a sneeze, Kyrian looked at the queen and said, “I beg your pardon, my queen.”
Lyssera waved her hand as if it were nothing and said, “Starseeker, the issue is plainly thus: Master Azhani Rhu’len has accused Baron Draygil Var of poisoning Ambassador Iften Windstorm with krill dust. To prove her claims, she has produced a bottle of the poison, a signet ring marked with the seal of the House of Cabal and a note of ominous tidings. Baron Var has, in return, denounced Master Azhani as an Oathbreaker and claims that she has falsely accused him of this crime. I would ask that you intercede, calling upon your talents as a starseeker and bringer of truth.”
“It shall be as you have asked,” the priest calmly said, turning to take the evidence from the warrior.
“No! I refuse to submit to this charade! My queen, you must see that you have been placed under a cruel spell by this vile beast that has been allowed to live in your home!” Baron Var exclaimed, causing the crowd to murmur and mutter excitedly.
Around the room, nobles whispered, “It’s true. Didn’t she betray her own king? Did we not see the bodies of the slain burn in a weeklong bonfire just on the other side of the great Banner Lake? Was she not the one responsible for the death of the queen’s beloved twin, Ylera?”
“Silence!” Lyssera was standing, anger pouring off of her in waves. “You will accept the judgment of Starseeker Vashyra, or you will spend time in the dungeons!”
The creaking of the old manor’s walls was the only sound heard as the hall fell silent. Baron Var snapped his mouth shut and backed away from the dais, while the blue robed priest began to chant.
The bottle, the ring and the parchment took on a hazy, golden glow and slowly rose from Vashyra’s hand as she chanted, hovering in the air momentarily before shooting out and impacting Var in the chest. Unconsciously, he caught the items, dropping them hastily when he realized what his actions signaled.
Snarling, “This is your fault, you bitch,” he drew his jeweled dagger and lunged for Azhani, stabbing her deeply in the gut. As he shoved the blade in, the nobleman threw down a mirror, shattering it. “Master,” he cried, twisting his dagger viciously, “I need you!” The warrior’s blood spurted out over Var’s hand, spattering the shards of glass littering the floor.
Shocked by the man’s desperate attack, Azhani was unable to deflect the blow, staggering back into Kyrian, who caught the warrior and quickly lowered her to the ground. The stardancer’s hand went immediately to her baton, but indecision gripped her conscience. Should she attack the gibbering man who was laughing madly and waving his bloody dagger at anyone who dared to come close, including the queen, or should she stay by Azhani’s side and attempt to staunch the blood that flowed freely from the horrible wound in her belly?
The decision was torn from her as the man launched himself at Lyssera, only to be buffeted back by a wave of power from Starseeker Vashyra. Belatedly, Kyrian gripped her baton, casting a glance down at Azhani, who was weakly trying to sit.
“Baron Draygil Var, you are hereby declared guilty of treason. For this act, you shall be banished. Furthermore, you are charged and found guilty of the crime of attacking one of the Queen’s Guard, for this crime, you shall die.” Lyssera’s voice, cold and harsh, rang out through the court’s chamber.
Draygil laughed, drool and spittle flying from his mouth to spatter against Kyrian’s robes. “You think I care about your charges, Queen Listless? Your laws mean nothing to me, bitch, for I am of the Cabal. Master, I have done it. I have struck down your hated enemy!” he called out, almost pleadingly. “Come see, Master. See what I have done for you!” Madly, the baron slashed his blood-soaked blade across his own arm and began to sing a disturbing, off key melody. As he chanted, his blood dripped down his arm and onto the ground. Mingling with the warrior’s blood, it began to glow an evil reddish color.
Behind him, the air began to fill with a thick, grayish haze. Starseeker Vashyra’s chant changed and the sound of the two spellcaster’s chanting merged into a disharmonic music that caused everyone who could hear it to wince in pain. Golden beams of energy crackled at the edges of the fog, attempting to clear it, but the power behind the baron’s spell was strong. A face appeared in the mist, its lips moving in unheard words. Suddenly, the words became audible as the shadowy form of a man stepped out of the mist and into the throne room.
“Draygil you fool, I told you never to use that spell! What is it that you –“ the speaker’s words faded off when he noticed the crowd surrounding his servant. The sorcerer’s body flickered, fading in and out as golden arcs of lightening coruscated around him. Turning, he spotted Starseeker Vashyra. Eyes narrowing, he chanted a few guttural words and pointed, knocking the priest back and halting her spells.
Azhani Rhu’len staggered to her feet, crying out, “You!” and grabbing for her dagger. Her actions caused fresh blood to pour from her wound, sending the warrior reeling to her knees in pain.
Hollow, mirthless laughter followed. “Now that is exactly how I like to see the children of my enemies, Daughter of Rhu’len. Tell me,” he sneered, “How does it feel to grovel in the dirt?” Almost willing to forgive his puppet the transgression of summoning him to the Y’Syran throne room, Kasyrin Darkchilde smiled evilly. Ever since the Cabalian mage and Azhani’s father had first fought, he had longed to see this woman kneel before him.
Revenge truly was a dish best served ice cold. Are you rotting in hell yet, DaCoure? he thought nastily, feeling all over again the shame and anguish of his original defeat at the hands of Rhu’len DaCoure. I told you that day, that you would fail, and I was right. Look at me now, Rhu’len DaCoure. Look at me and weep for the loss of your House!
Hatred suffusing every line of the warrior’s body, Azhani dug down into her reserves and stood, cupping one hand protectively over her wounded abdomen. “One measly, half-assed cut from any of your flunkies, will never be enough to put me in the dirt, Darkchilde,” she said, with her voice grating through clenched teeth. A small, warm hand at her back, as well as soft, almost voiceless singing gave the warrior the courage to drop her hand. Clean, bright yellow energy wrapped around her body, encasing her in the healing spell of Astariu’s Own.
Kasyrin roared; his revenge thwarted. “Demons take you, spawn of DaCoure!” A rapid stream of harsh syllables followed and the mage’s hands lit with an ominously red glow.
“Darkchilde!” Starseeker Vashyra shouted, distracting the sorcerer. The star emblazoned on her brow pulsed with a brilliant golden light. “Begone, pawn of Hell,” she commanded, waving her hands dismissively.
A single amber beam of force erupted from the priest’s star-shaped tattoo and flew across the room, twisting into a cyclone before striking the ghost-like form of the mage. He reeled back, stumbling under the buffeting force of the priest’s psychic blow. Dark gray tendrils of slithering energy emerged from the swirling mists of the portal and caught the sorcerer. Ugly yellowish green sparks of energy began to twist through the crimson of Darkchilde’s hands.
“Get ye hence!” Vashyra’s voice rose to a piercing shriek, causing the cyclone of golden energy to strike once again.
Teetering at the edge of his portal, Kasyrin brought his hands out to release the spell, when something distracted him.
Flying through the air in a graceful arc, was Kyrian’s baton. Boiling red energy lanced out and knocked it aside, but that was all the time Vashyra needed to redouble her efforts to push Darkchilde through the gateway.
With a distinctive, sucking pop, the window closed, preventing the evil mage from unleashing any further magicks upon the Y’Syran court.
“Damn. Hate it when that happens,” Azhani commented wryly, slumping as pain washed over her body.
Gold-tinged purple eyes met the warrior’s weary blue gaze. “Azhani Rhu’len, hear the words of the goddess and heed them well,” Vashyra’s normally sweet voice had changed to something incredibly ethereal and impossibly familiar.
“The breaking is at hand. Upon the day when the sun stands still and the stars no longer spin with time, a battle will rage. Three chosen by fate shall unite to face the Beast. The Blade, the Heart and the Stringless Puppet shall cross paths. Upon that meeting, the Beast shall rise to seek his place. Stand well against the storm, and time shall sing of thy glory into the mists of forever. Fall, and all will blacken and fade.” At the end of her speech, Vashyra’s eyes rolled up into her head and she collapsed.
“Looks like a plan to me,” Azhani muttered as her knees started to give out. “Ow,” she added as Kyrian caught her and laid her on the carpet.
“Shh, I’ll take care of you, my friend,” the stardancer murmured, stroking her fingers through the warrior’s dark hair.
Smiling weakly, Azhani hazily mumbled, “I know you will.” The warrior’s voice faded away as she passed out.
Azhani opened her eyes and groaned weakly. Her side ached fiercely and her bladder was dangerously full. What happened? she thought blearily, yawning and blinking moisture from her eyes. As she came awake, memory returned. Oh yeah, traitors and sorcerers and stabbings, oh my!
“Ugh,” she croaked, trying to sit up.
The motion woke Kyrian, who had passed out in a chair next to the warrior’s bed. Rubbing her face, the stardancer reached for her friend, helping her to sit. “Sorry,” she said sleepily. “Must’ve fallen asleep.”
“S’okay, just need to find the privy,” Azhani said, yawning again. “Then you can go find your own bed. Chair’s not that soft.”
Staggering to her feet, Kyrian lifted Azhani up and helped her to stand. “Can’t. Gotta stay here with you, warrior. Queen’s orders.”
Azhani snorted. “I can take care of myself, Kyr. I don’t need a nurse-Ow!” A startled oath of pain was forced from the warrior when she tried to move too quickly toward the water closet. “Damn. I hate being injured,” she growled.
“It’s getting to be a routine with us, isn’t it, Azhi?” Kyrian said, making sure that the warrior had finally gotten positioned and then turning away. “You get broken and I fix you.”
“Hah-hah, very funny, Kyrian,” the warrior griped. “Ah gods, is there anything to drink in this room? I feel like I ate a sheep, wool and all.”
Kyrian laughed. “Yeah, there’s lots of water, my friend. I made sure of it.” The stardancer went over to the bed and poured a cup of water for the warrior and set it on the bedside table.
After she had been helped back to the bed, Azhani gratefully drank the water. “Thanks. Now, I suppose I get to have something foul tasting and good for me, right?” Lines of pain shadowed her face as she spoke.
“Oh yes, it’s time for your medicine, my friend,” Kyrian said, lifting a gently steaming pot from the fire. Expertly, she mixed a cup of pungent-smelling tea and handed it over to the grimacing warrior.
Closing her eyes, Azhani drank it down as fast as she could. “Gah!” She shuddered. “Do I get my spoonful of honey now?”
“Baby,” Kyrian said, her voice filled with warm amusement. “Here, open wide,” she put a spoon in the warrior’s mouth.
“Mm. Baby I might be, Kyr, but at least I don’t have to wake up with medicine mouth!” The warrior yawned. “Now, since you’re not going to leave me to sleep in peace, why don’t you at least climb in bed with me? It’s certainly large enough and I know you don’t kick in your sleep.”
“All right, if you insist,” Kyrian said, unbuckling her belt and shucking her stardancer’s robes. Underneath, the young woman was wearing a simple knee-length tunic, which was more than enough to sleep in.
The stardancer drank a cup of water and then slid into the bed on the other side of the warrior. Yawning, she said, “Goodnight.”
“Night,” Azhani murmured sleepily.
Kyrian dropped off to sleep almost immediately, but the warrior lay there, staring at the ceiling and listening to her friend’s deep, even breathing.
Go to sleep, warrior, she told herself, but her eyes wouldn’t shut. Lying just inches away, so close that she could feel the stardancer’s heat, was the woman who had grown from a nuisance into her best friend.
Ah goddess, what am I doing to myself? She’s just a friend. Why am I suddenly so aware of her? The stardancer turned in her sleep, her hand reaching out and wrapping around Azhani’s arm in a light, comforting embrace.
“Astariu,” Azhani whispered, shocked by the intense wave of desire that radiated outward from the point of contact. She closed her eyes, willing a vision of Ylera’s dead, battered body to appear. All she got was a hazy memory, tinged with sadness and disgust, but lacking the emotional impact that thoughts of her elven lover usually brought.
What the hell? Every muscle in her body went taut with the strain of staying under the covers. Instinct yelled at her to get up, to get out of the bed and away from the woman who was stealing her hatred, and yet she couldn’t move. I can’t blame Kyrian, she thought sadly as a tear leaked out of her eyes. I have to go on. I know this. I have to let go of the past.
She sniffled softly and wiped her nose on her sleeve. It’s so hard, though. She looked at her peacefully sleeping friend and smiled mournfully. I guess I’m just going to have to start getting used to noticing that my best friend is beautiful.
Reaching out, she brushed a stray lock of amber colored hair out of Kyrian’s face. And that she touches parts of my heart that I thought had died.
A gentle, sweet smile spread across Kyrian’s face, causing the warrior to wonder what dreams danced in the stardancer’s sleep.
Waking up wrapped in Azhani’s arms, was like scratching a bothersome itch for Kyrian. It felt wonderful and yet she knew there would be a painful aftermath. It was bliss to feel the softness of the warrior’s breath on her neck and at the same time, it made the stardancer feel sick knowing how much pleasure she was deriving from the gentle contact.
Do I love her? Why yes, my queen, I’m so in love with Azhani that I’ll make do with whatever scraps of emotion she’ll give me. Is that what you wanted to hear?
Kyrian was fairly certain that was not what Lyssera was asking. Sighing, the stardancer disengaged herself from Azhani’s embrace and rolled out of the warm bed. The room was temperate, but the heat of the warrior’s skin told her that a fire would be necessary. Azhani’s wound was mildly infected, something Kyrian hoped to address later that day.
Once the fire was stoked, she exited the room and headed for the kitchens, seeking breakfast. Pausing in the doorway, she looked back at the sleeping woman and burned the sight into her heart. In her sleep, the warrior had rolled over and grabbed Kyrian’s pillow, pulling it to her and cuddling it like she had cradled the stardancer only moments before.
While Azhani recovered, Lyssera spent time closeted with several of her courtiers. Surprisingly, a few of the nobles had recognized the face of Kasyrin Darkchilde as that of a well-known silk and spice merchant from Y’skan. Going by the name of Kesryn Oswyne, the sorcerer had ingratiated himself to the wealthy and elite of all seven kingdoms with gifts of rare spices and silks from the remote desert tribes.
Those nobles who became a part of Lord Oswyne’s “favored” circle, soon found that the merchant would pay handsomely for seemingly small favors. A waved fee here, an extra set of transport documents there, and no one went away from the deal unhappy. As quickly as she could, the elven queen began to interview those that were identified as Kesryn’s “chosen”, gathering what information she could about those supposed favors. Most of what she learned was harmless graft, but there were a few clues that pointed the way to a darker, more sinister plan by the sorcerer.
That plan remained a mystery to the queen and her advisors. This made Lyssera chafe and she wanted Azhani to heal as fast as she could, though she knew that Stardancer Kyrian would do all she was able to help the warrior recover. Using the warrior’s down time to her advantage, the queen spent candlemarks talking to her about Kasyrin, learning all she could about the mage.
Azhani knew very little, but what she did know she gladly shared. Thirty years ago, Kasyrin had risen through the ranks of the Cabal, starting as a street thief and working his way up to becoming an assassin and finally a sorcerer. Using his knowledge and skills, he challenged the Old Man, the nebulous leader of the House of Cabal. Very few people alive knew the Old Man’s true identity, and he used his power to keep it that way.
Immediately, the shadowy leader recognized Darkchilde’s threat and sought to have him eliminated. Calling on the skills of his best intriguers, the Old Man snared Rhu’len DaCoure, by then a captain in Theodan’s army, into a web designed to destroy the sorcerer. Through a trail of clues, rumors and half-truths, Rhu’len was led to believe that Kasyrin was responsible for the death of his beloved Ashiani.
The destruction of Kasyrin Darkchilde became one of the foremost goals in Rhu’len DaCoure’s life. His single-minded determination impressed many, scared some and gained the enmity of the Cabalian sorcerer. Every time Kasyrin attempted to gain a foothold in Y’dan, Rhu’len was there to stop him.
After several years of cat and mouse, it came down to a combat of arms. With his magical powers drained away by a starseeker, Kasyrin had to face Rhu’len with only a blade. The battle was frighteningly short. Rhu’len DaCoure was one of the best swordsmen of his time, and Kasyrin, though fair with a blade, was no match for him. As he lay dying, Darkchilde vowed revenge. Laughing, Rhu’len turned away, leaving the sorcerer to bleed to death.
It was only after Kasyrin’s death that Rhu’len learned the truth. The mage had never been responsible for Ashiani’s death – it had all been a product of the Old Man’s machinations. Rhu’len continued to rise within Theodan’s army, but he never forgot the lesson he learned. While he was alive, the Cabal found it very difficult to operate within the borders of Y’dan.
The events following Azhani’s wounding, proved that Kasyrin had not died, however, and this left the queen feeling very chilled. Obviously, the mage had retreated into the shadows, rebuilding his power base and planning his revenge. That he answered his servant’s call, revealing his identity, meant nothing good.
As Azhani and the queen talked, Kyrian came in to change the dressing on the warrior’s wound. Watching the two women interact, Lyssera realized that it was going to take an overt act to get them to acknowledge their feelings. She would have to convince Azhani to take a chance at love one more time. Kyrian’s emotions were easily read, though the stardancer tried hard to conceal them. The warrior’s feelings were more difficult to see, but careful observation revealed that they were there.
Confusion and longing flickered in Azhani’s eyes when she looked at Kyrian. The stardancer seemed oblivious to this and the warrior was quick to look away from her friend’s face. Yes, Lyssera decided, it was time to speak. Quietly, she waited for Kyrian to finish, wanting to talk to Azhani alone.
Meddler, she thought fondly. But it would be worth it, if some happiness arose from it.
“Thank you,” Azhani said quietly as Kyrian changed the dressing. “It’s almost healed, you know.”
A wry half grin twitched on Kyrian’s lips. “Yes, I know. This is what I do, you know. Now shush, and let me work, Azhi.”
Azhani chuckled and stretched her arms above her head, giving the stardancer plenty of room to work. “I’m just grateful for the quick healing you did back in the throne room, Kyr. I was about to fall down and kiss that damn mage’s ghostly boots.”
“I wish I could have been more thorough. What if you’d had to fight him?” Kyrian asked, wrinkling her brow comically as she tickled the warrior’s belly before pulling the tunic down over the freshly bandaged spot.
Squirming away from her friend’s agile fingers, Azhani replied, “Then I’d have tossed you at him first, so I could make a run for it!”
“Great, leave me to do all the heavy fighting while you run off into the woods like some demented rabbit. Thanks, but no thanks, Azhi. You’re the tall, dark and dangerous one, remember? I’m just the two-copper sidekick who follows you around like a mooncalf.” And if you knew how close to the real truth that was, you’d probably run faster than that rabbit I mentioned.
“I guess I’d just have to rescue you again, wouldn’t I, healer?” Azhani joked as she pushed herself up on the pillows. Ah gods, but it feels so good to have a friend like Kyr. How many other people would be willing to be a cranky warrior’s rag doll at night? Since the stabbing, the stardancer had stayed in the warrior’s room, rather than returning to her own quarters. The arrangement worked out nicely, giving Azhani a nighttime caretaker she trusted and Kyrian the reassurance that the warrior would not try to get up and hunt down Kasyrin Darkchilde in the middle of the night.
It was such a nice setup that Azhani regretted knowing that the day was soon approaching when Kyrian would move back to her room down the hall. The distance, though short, would mean a return of their roles as warrior and stardancer, leaving the easiness of their friendship to live only behind closed doors. Azhani wasn’t sure she could let that go, not now, not after she had allowed Kyrian to climb so far inside her heart.
And just when did that happen? How did you go from wishing only to see the death of Ylera’s killer, to staring at the golden highlights in your best friend’s hair? Oh, beloved, am I right to want to move on? Can I let you go?
“Good answer,” Kyrian praised, standing up and brushing her hands on her robe. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to see to Ambassador Iften.” She rolled her eyes and sighed dramatically. “That’s one thing I really have to thank you for, Azhi – you’re a good patient. You understand the need to lie still and let me do my work. The ambassador thinks he’s still a lad and can leap from his sickbed after only a few days rest.”
“My daddy always taught me to respect my elders, pay attention to my surroundings and to never, ever cross a medic,” Azhani said seriously, though her eyes twinkled merrily. “I’ve done pretty well with two and three, wouldn’t you say, my queen?”
Lyssera laughed gaily. “I can’t disagree with you there, old friend.”
“Well, two out of three isn’t too bad, as long as you always remember number three,” Kyrian said as she turned toward the door. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Don’t do anything heroic without me, okay?”
“Okay,” Azhani agreed, watching as the stardancer left the room.
The spicy scent of cinnamon and apples drifted around the room, melding with the aroma of leather and the clean smell of the bed’s linens. Staring at the low fire that burned in the hearth, allowed Azhani’s mind time to wander and she found herself thinking of Kyrian, and wishing that she had stayed longer.
Theirs was an unusual friendship. Since escaping Arris’ clutches, all Azhani could think of was revenge; of putting the monster who had slain her beloved Ylera, into the ground where he could harm no other. Now, killing him wasn’t nearly so important. Thinking of revenge left her cold, with a bitter taste in her mouth. Yes, she wanted to get the bastard off of Y’dan’s throne, but her original plan of just attacking until he was dead, seemed so unimaginable.
Life in Y’Syr was good. Queen Lyssera treated her well; teaching Allyn and the other guards fulfilled the warrior’s need to hone her skills and being friends with Kyrian had done a lot to heal the rift in her heart.
“Did I ever love her?” she wondered aloud, startling Lyssera.
Gazing at Azhani’s face, Lyssera asked, “Deep thoughts, my friend?”
“I’m drowning in them,” Azhani admitted softly, as a troubled expression washed over her face.
“Your question – was it about Ylera?” Lyssera asked delicately, keeping a neutral tone in her voice.
“Yes,” the warrior replied sadly. “Pretty pathetic memory if I have to ask myself questions like that.”
“No, my friend. I’d say it was a healing heart trying to find its way back to living,” Lyssera said tenderly.
“How can I let go of my feelings for Ylera? She was everything to me. I must be an idiot or crazy to turn away from all the joy she brought me!” Azhani cried, burying her face in her hands.
“You’re neither crazy nor an idiot, my friend - only mortal. Life goes on, and so does the heart. We all need companionship, my friend. Even I do not always sleep alone. You could do worse than to let someone into your life,” said the queen gently.
Shocked, Azhani spluttered, “What?”
“You could do worse than to open your heart to someone like Kyrian.” Lyssera held up a staying hand. “I don’t want to hear that only Ylera holds your heart and that you would never dishonor her memory by doing something as wonderful as falling in love again. I think that’s owldragon dung and I know Ylera would agree! You could do my sister no greater honor than to love again.”
For a long moment, Azhani just stared at the queen, her jaw working as words tried to form. Tears gathered in her eyes, and then vanished to be replaced by a deep confusion. Shaking her head, Azhani said, “I don’t know what to say, Lyss. What I felt for Ylera was deeper than anything I had ever known before. Watching her die, leeched all the love in me away. For so long, I felt like I had no emotions; that they bled away and stained the stones of Y’dannoch castle.” Wide-eyed wonder shined out of the warrior’s face. “I like Kyrian, Lyss. She is so much to me, and she touches me in so many ways that I can’t begin to name them, but love? I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
Lyssera took Azhani’s hand in hers, cradling the warrior’s calloused fingers with her own. “All I’m asking is that you allow for the possibility of love, my friend. The heart and the mind don’t always speak the same language, but with love, translations aren’t necessary.”
“I’ll think about it. I wish my father were still here. He would know what to say,” the warrior said wistfully. Rhu’len had learned to love again, though before he died, he had been between relationships. “How’s Allyn?” she asked, changing the subject.
Releasing the warrior’s hand, Lyssera replied, “Anxious to have his teacher back. He’s been routinely defeating some of my better guardsmen and needs a serious challenge to knock some humility into his skull.”
“Oh? Why don’t you ask Kyrian to spar with him? Two or three rounds and she’ll have him praying for my return,” Azhani said, chuckling mischievously. “In fact, have her tell him it’s an object lesson.”
“Object lesson?” the queen asked, raising an eyebrow in curiosity.
“He’ll understand,” said the warrior, grinning wickedly.
“The stardancer must be very good, to inspire that kind of revenge.”
“She routinely kicks my butt at the Goddess Dance,” the warrior said. Though she does have that rather irritating habit of avoiding direct confrontation when weapons are involved. I need to address that. I wonder if being bedridden will get her to talk about it, because Astariu knows she’s as close-mouthed as a monk about it otherwise.
“This I have to see. All right, I’ll ask Kyrian the next time I see her.”
“I’m sure she won’t mind having a moving pell,” said Azhani. She and Lyssera shared a laugh over the image of Prince Allyndev running around the salle, trying desperately to protect his head from Kyrian’s well-placed attacks.
“You are so good to me,” Ambassador Iften said warmly, while Kyrian plumped pillows and straightened covers for him.
“Yes, and you return that kindness with your curmudgeonly ways, you know,” the stardancer teased, shaking her finger at him.
He chuckled. “Well, I’m just an old man trying to get a little tenderness from a beautiful woman before I die.”
The banter between Iften and Kyrian was natural, flowing out of a mutual admiration that had been in place since the stardancer had been caring for the old desert man. For Iften, Kyrian was like the granddaughter he had lost to a sandstorm many years ago and to Kyrian, the ambassador was the grandfather she never had. When she wasn’t with Azhani or spending time in the city’s hospice, Kyrian would while away her candlemarks with Iften.
As a Desert Walker, Iften had seen many marvels and wonders, and he never tired of sharing his experiences with the pretty young stardancer. Today, he had regaled her with his adventures inside of an obsidian cave high in the Y’oro Mountains.
Settling a tray over the man’s lap, Kyrian reached out and tweaked Iften’s nose. “You just keep hoping, Granther. Maybe Astarus will send a nymph to dance in your dreams.”
Greedily, Iften lifted the lid on his dinner tray and let out a squawk of delighted surprise when he saw a steaming, still sizzling steak with all the trimmings, waiting for him. A beatific smile lit up his face and he said, “Cow! It’s really cow! My nose was not deceiving me after all!”
Laughing and shaking her head, Kyrian tucked a napkin into the old man’s collar and then stepped back to settle in a comfortable chair while he fed himself.
A loud moan echoed around the room, proclaiming Iften’s absolute pleasure over the meal. “I take it,” he said, wiping his lips, “That I’m no longer in danger of feeding the worms?”
On the stand next to the stardancer’s chair, a cup of water sat, with beads of moisture gathering on the glass surface and dripping down to puddle around the base. Reaching for it, Kyrian drank deeply and said, “Yes, I think you’re out of the woods. I can find no trace of krill in your system and your aura’s as clean as it can be, considering.” She did not add that he was dying – the sand-lung was rooted deep, and nothing she tried would evict the stubborn disease completely. Her healing had given him years back, though, and with luck and care, the old man would see many more years before the desert born sickness took his life.
“So, what was all the hullabaloo out there, a few days back?” asked the ambassador between bites of his dinner. “Kirthos wouldn’t say – didn’t want to upset the old man and cause him to have a relapse.”
“Before or after Azhani got stabbed?” The stardancer’s voice was strangely hollow.
“Stabbed? What the hell? Is she all right?” His fork fell to his plate as his appetite vanished. Please no, don’t let the warrior be dead. It will break my little Kyr’s heart.
“She’ll be all right in a few days, but, oh gods...” the stardancer sobbed and her glass dropped to the floor as she buried her face in her hands. “I almost got her killed,” she whispered brokenly.
Pushing his meal aside, Iften levered himself off the bed and walked over to kneel beside the crying young woman. He took her hands in his and pulled her into his arms, clumsily patting her back and whispering comforting words until she could speak again.
“Tell me about it, sweet Kyr. Share your burden with an old man whose shoulders are strong,” he encouraged gently.
Slowly, the stardancer began to tell the story. “Azhani came to court to reveal who had poisoned you.”
“Yes.” Iften nodded. “I know that much. Kirthos tells me it was a courtier named Var. I remember him from the talks. Sly little man with too much love for money and not enough care for his people.”
“He accused Azhani of planting the evidence against him. The queen called on Starseeker Vashyra to cast a truth-seeking spell. When he was revealed as the poisoner, he attacked Azhani and st-st-stabbed her.” Kyrian shuddered. “I tried to help her, but he must have been some kind of mage, because he cast this spell that brought this other mage and oh gods, he was so powerful, granther!” The stardancer’s shudders grew violent as remembered fear gripped her. “I was so scared,” she whispered.
“Shh. It’s all right, he’s gone now,” Iften soothed. Whether or not the mage was truly gone, he did not know, but it seemed to be the right thing to say as Kyrian calmed down.
“There was a battle between him – Azhani called him Darkchilde – and Azhani, but it took Vashyra’s magicks to send his seeming back through the portal that Baron Var created.” Pulling away from the ambassador, Kyrian settled back in her chair and wiped her face on her sleeve. “I could have done something to help, but I just stood there, too scared to move a muscle.”
“There’s no shame in fear, lass. No one will fault you for that,” Iften said, infusing his words with as much assurance as he could.
“She could have died,” said the stardancer dully. “And I would have stood there, unable to even lift a hand to protect her. It was the queen who took my baton and threw it at the right moment, distracting the sorcerer long enough for Starseeker Vashyra’s spell to work. I could barely remember how to wield Astariu’s Fire, much less my own weapon!” Kyrian’s hands fisted and she pounded her legs in frustration.
“Is she dead, then?” Iften asked, using his voice like a whip.
“No! I healed her enough so that she could fight but-“
“Then you did your duty, stardancer. Scared or not, you did what the goddess blessed you to do and that’s to be commended. How many of the queen’s guard threw themselves in harm’s way to rescue Azhani? Can any of those court peacocks strut and preen about how they saved Azhani Rhu’len’s life?”
“No,” Kyrian whispered, as her shoulders slumped wearily.
“Let it go, lass. Life is too short to dwell on should-have-dones,” the ambassador counseled wisely.
“I know, but sometimes, when I go to sleep at night, and she’s there beside me, I have to reach out and touch her, just to be sure I’m not dreaming,” the stardancer said sadly.
“You’re a good lass, Kyr, with a gentle soul. I would be far more concerned if you blithely went on with your life, relegating the incident to the realm of the every day, and I would bet that Azhani feels the same way. A good warrior knows that the true test of friendship is the aftermath of battle, not the frenzy of death.” The old man struggled to stand, waving off the stardancer’s silent offer of help. Shaking out his tingling legs, he grinned wryly at the stardancer. Finally, he was able to totter back to his bed and pick up his forgotten meal.
“I’ve heard about battle lust, and battle fatigue – I guess I just never thought it would happen to me. It didn’t – I didn’t feel this lost after...” Burying her face in her hands, Kyrian let out a shuddering breath.
Iften sat, quietly waiting for her to talk. Kyrian stood and began pacing.
“I don’t know if I can talk about this right now, Granther,” she said helplessly as she drifted around the room, letting her fingers graze over the various bits of art and knickknacks that decorated the chamber.
“All right, I won’t ask you to bare your soul if you’re not ready to, lass. Would ye rather talk about something else? Your warrior friend, maybe?” he asked gently. “I rather think she’s a bit more pleasant subject, no?” A teasing grin tugged at the corners of the old man’s mouth.
“Granther!” Kyrian chastised, flushing a red almost as deep as the color of her robes.
Iften chuckled and shrugged his shoulders. “If you insist on giving me the name, I thought I might as well have the duties that come with being a pretty lass’ grandfather, Kyrian. You can’t blame me for wanting to see you happy.”
Startled, the stardancer stopped in her tracks and turned to look at the ambassador. “What do you mean?” Am I that obvious?
“Ah lass, to be young and in love again,” Iften said dreamily, winking at the outraged expression on Kyrian’s face.
Blessed Astariu, I am that obvious! she mentally wailed. WhatamIgonnado? Whatifsheknows? Ohgodsohgodsohgods... “Oh gods,” Kyrian whispered frantically as her thoughts spilled out of her mouth. “You can’t tell her. Please don’t tell her. She doesn’t know...” she babbled anxiously.
Holding up a hand to halt the stardancer’s tumbling words, Iften said, “Don’t fret yourself about it, lass. I’ll not give up your secrets; they are yours to hold and yours to tell. A load heavy to bear, I am sure, but as I have said, my shoulders are strong and I am willing to lend them to you.” A gentle smile creased his careworn face.
The stardancer examined the ground at her feet, noticing her empty glass sparkling in the firelight. It would be so easy to unburden her troubles to this man – already he had proven a capable and generous listener, though the stardancer was wary of spilling so much of her soul onto the newly healed ambassador’s admittedly broad shoulders.
Shuffling back to her chair, she realized she was thirsty. She considered digging around in her bag for the flask of brandy she kept to revive patients. Realizing she didn’t have the energy to stand up and walk the four or five paces to the table, she settled for giving the distant haversack a half-hearted glare. She sighed and mulled over the prospect of actually putting words to the morass of emotion whirling around in her heart.
Iften’s offer to listen was genuine and motivated only by his care for her – shouldn’t she return that generosity by treating it as the gift that it was? Hadn’t she been going in circles for weeks on her own, trying to tell herself that all she felt for Azhani Rhu’len was friendship? Didn’t the warrior’s face haunt her dreams, taunting her with what she would never be able to have? Iften deserved some truths from her, since he had been so willing to let her invade his secrets, and probe every corner of his mind and body for a cure to the sand-lung that was ravaging his life. Surely, talking about her feelings for Azhani had to be better than thinking about...
Than thinking about how you almost got her killed, right, Kyr? That’s what really has you in knots, isn’t it? You froze again, when the time to act came. You froze and it was Lyssera’s quick thinking that saved the day. She hasn’t said anything, but you know the queen’s itching to know why you didn’t act faster. Astariu’s blessed womb, Kyr, she even had to take your weapon from you and use it to distract Darkchilde. Sister Jerlayne would be mortified to learn that her best student couldn’t even concentrate hard enough to distract a mage’s seeming!
“Here now, Lass, if you go falling into the quicksand of your mind, even a sand storm will seem like a blessing. Drink up, and speak of what itches so terribly,” Iften said as he handed her a flask.
Without looking at the beverage, Kyrian drank deeply, coughing painfully as the harsh liquor burned all the way down. Wheezing, she asked, “What the hell is this?”
“Desert mead, and don’t ask what’s in it,” Iften replied, winking charmingly.
Shuddering as she took another drink, Kyrian capped off the flask and handed it back. “Thanks, I think I needed that.”
“Anytime, lass,” he replied, settling back on the bed and taking a swig of the harsh beverage.
“I’m in love with Azhani,” Kyrian said in an almost inaudible whisper. Then she shook her head ruefully. “And I don’t know how to forget my feelings, but I have to. She’ll never accept them, or return them. I knew Ylera Kelani and I am a pale shadow compared to the sunshine she was.”
“Kyrian, lass, love isn’t about filling a mould. You’re right – you can never be what Ylera was to the warrior, but that doesn’t mean Azhani is incapable of loving you,” Iften said gently.
Hope rose thickly in Kyrian’s heart, forcing her to swallow heavily and push the heady feeling away. “No, I don’t think so. We’re just friends. She’s not the kind to let someone that close to her heart. Ylera was special – she could get anyone to fall in love with her.” Closing her eyes, Kyrian smiled in memory. “It used to drive Sister Jerlayne crazy; all the acolytes used to slave to the princess’ beck and call, and Ylera loved every minute of it. The only time she didn’t care for the adulation, was when she wanted to study, and for that, she came to me. Everyone knew I was just plain old Kyr – boring and studious. They couldn’t imagine that Ylera and I could be friends, and that is exactly how she wanted it.”
“It was much the same here, I’m afraid,” Iften admitted. “Half the court wanted to marry her and the other half hated her for it. It’s no wonder that she jumped at the chance to visit Y’dan when she did.”
Lost in her memories, Kyrian wistfully said, “You know, I don’t think I’ve even told Azhani that I knew Ylera. When I first found out that they had been lovers, a part of me was jealous.” Seeing the expression on Iften’s face, Kyrian smiled ruefully. “Oh, not of what they had. I was only thirteen when I knew Ylera and she was more like a big sister than anything else. No, what really struck me was that Azhani knew Ylera as an adult, something that I’ll never be able to do.”
“I can’t tell you what you want to hear, Kyrian. All I can say is that you should talk to Azhani. Perhaps the best thing you can do for her is to be her friend. Love can grow from many foundations, and friendship is the best of them. Always remember: communication and honesty are the firmest building blocks a relationship can have. Let your heart be your guide, lass, and the gods will see you home.”
Looking at the old desert man and seeing the depth of knowledge reflecting back at her in his eyes, Kyrian could only nod her head in dazed agreement.
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