Link to Part the First if you missed it last week:
Author’s note: This serialization is an abridged rough draft of THE IPPOS KING, therefore expect to find numerous errors. The final, edited version will reflect corrections and revisions as noted by my editor and proofreader. THE IPPOS KING is currently available for preorder on Amazon, B&N, Apple Books and Kobo (order links provided at the bottom of the post).
My goal is to update once a week, but there may be a couple of weeks where I’ll update twice in a week.
In this strange and stressful time of pandemic and quarantine, I hope this serialized version offers some entertainment for you. Stay well. Stay safe.
On with the show.
The sharp crack of a silabat stick against armor sounded loud in the room as did the curses that followed. Ildiko Khaskem careened into the wall before ricocheting back into the arms of her attacker.
Anhuset caught her neatly before pushing her back to the center of the imaginary circle in which they sparred. She spun the offending silabat in her hand with a casual flick of her wrist and offered the scowling hercegesé a faint smile. “You’re slow this evening, Highness. Maybe you should tell my cousin to leave you be for a day.”
Such familiar teasing didn’t go beyond the chamber’s closed door. Outside, Anhuset adhered strictly to the protocol of address and rank. Here though, with the human duchess as her student and she the teacher, Anhuset relaxed her rigid rules a little. And the hercegesé seemed to enjoy it.
At least most of the time. For now, Ildiko scowled at Anuset and rolled the shoulder that had taken the brunt of Anhuset’s strike. She wiped away the perspiration beading on her forehead with the back of her hand before dropping into the familiar half crouch, her own silabat at the ready. “I only wish that had been the reason for my lack of vigor. The poor nursemaid and I were up all day with Tarawin and her sickly stomach.”
Ildiko did look particularly haggard this evening, and it wasn’t the weariness that came from spending hours indulging in pleasurable bedsport. Her heavy eyelids and the shadowy crescents under her eyes spoke of no sleep for an extended time. Anhuset recognized the signs. She’d pulled more than her fair share of long watches and guard duty. The boredom alone exhausted a person, though she suspected caring for a sick baby wasn’t so much tedious as it was challenging. She didn’t envy the hercegesé or Brishen the burden of parenthood.
The hercegesé dropped into the ready stance Anhuset had taught her: knees slightly bent, feet shoulder-width apart, body turned to the side to make herself less of a target. She gripped her pair of silabats in her slender hands, one raised perpendicular to her chest, the other elevated to her hip. The sticks acted as sword and shield. “Again,” she said.
Anhuset gave a nod of approval before mimicking her student’s stance. She lashed out, a calculated move that Ildiko parried with a quick block of one of her silabats. Anhuset didn’t give her time to counter-attack, going on the offensive with several more strikes that had Ildiko dancing across the room, grunting and cursing under her breath as she parried her teacher’s attacks.
“Better,” Anhuset said, landing a particularly hard strike against Ildiko’s crossed silabats that made the other woman stagger. “Hold with your forearms, not your wrists, unless you want them broken.”
They fought along the chamber’s perimeter, Anhuset continuously advancing, Ildiko retreating but successfully blocking each blow Anhuset attempted to land on her upper body.
Ildiko’s grim features lightened with a tiny smile, one that fled when Anhuset abruptly clanged tactics, swung low and struck Ildiko’s outer thigh with a silabat.
The hercegesé hopped to the side with a yelp and held up a hand to halt their bout. She rubbed her padded leg while glaring at Anhuset. “I thought you were just focusing on my torso.”
Anhuset arched an eyebrow. “Did I say that?”
Ildiko’s tone changed from indignant to wary. “No.”
“You assumed it, hercegesé. I repeated the same movement several times…”
“So I would assume wrongly.” This time Ildiko’s scowl was for herself. “You did say predictability was a blade with two edges.”
Anhuset nodded, pleased with her student’s echo of her words. As a novice at gatke, Ildiko made every mistake Anhuset expected her to make, but she listened closely to instruction and committed them to memory. The pain of that strike, and the bruise sure to follow, guaranteed Ildiko wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.
“You learn from your enemy; your enemy learns from you. Surprise them with the unexpected by teaching them to expect the same thing.”
Ildiko wiped her brow with the back of one hand and blew a stray tendril of vibrant red hair out of her eyes. “I don’t think I’ll ever master this stick fighting of yours.”
“Every student says that until they do.”
Anhuset answered Ildiko’s doubtful smile with a toothy one of her own. “Even me, and I had a lot more bruises to show for it than you ever will.” She pointed her silabat at Ildiko. “Enough chatting. Stance. Widen your feet a little more. Forearms instead of wrists.”
A brief tap at the door interrupted their next round. Ildiko gave Anhuset a questioning look, one returned with a shrug. The entire fortress knew not to disturb the hercegesé and her teacher during gatke lessons. To do so risked the formidable wrath of Anhuset. So far, no one had been that brave or that foolish except one man.
“Might as well open it,” Anhuset said, relaxing out of her stance. “He’ll just keep knocking until you do.”
Ildiko creaked the door open, a wide smile blooming across her mollusk-pink features at the sight of her husband standing on the other side. “Just in time, Brishen. You’ve saved Anhuset from yet another beating. I’ve trounced her at least a half dozen times this lesson,” she cheerfully lied.
Brishen smirked as he crossed the threshold into the chamber, but Anhuset didn’t miss the way his gaze swept his wife’s form, looking for wounds beneath the distortion of her padded armor. Confession time.
“She’ll wear a bruise on her left thigh for a week or so.” She flinched inwardly when his eyes narrowed. “She’s slower this evening than usual. I hear the queen kept her up all day.”
Anhuset silently congratulated herself on turning Brishen’s disapproval back toward his wife. His gaze settled on Ildiko’s face, noting, as Anhuset had, the dark circles under her eyes. “Where was her nurse?”
Ildiko stood on tiptoe to brush a reconciliatory kiss across his frowning mouth. “Right beside me. We took turns coaxing Tarawin to settle down and finally go to sleep.”
“Bring in more nurses.”
She laughed. “How many people do you think we should cram into that nursery just to get her Majesty to go to sleep?”
Brishen slid an arm around Ildiko’s narrow waist to draw her against him. “As many as it takes. I don’t like waking up and finding you gone from our bed, even if it’s in service to the little tyrant.”
“Who has you dancing on a string just like she does the rest of us.”
“I dispute that notion.”
Ildiko laughed. “Of course you do.”
Fascinated by the interplay between her cousin and his human wife, Anhuset idly wondered what it might be like to have such a connection with someone. She and Brishen trusted each other implicitly. She knew without a doubt her cousin would sacrifice himself for her, just as Anhuset would for him. They were cousins but closer than siblings, more accepting of each other than just friends, and her loyalty to him would remain steadfast until she died.
But it wasn’t the same type of devotion she witnessed now between the herceges and his hercegesé. This affection burned bright with passion, with desire. There existed between them an unspoken and private language only the two of them understood and shared with no one else.
A vague ache pulsed somewhere under Anhuset’s breastbone, and it took her a moment to realize the feeling was both wistfulness and no small amount of envy. What was it like to know someone so well that it seemed like they walked within your spirit and you within theirs?
She mentally shook off the emotions and the question they inspired. Such idle thoughts were a waste of time and not for her. She was pleased for her cousin. After all he’d suffered, he deserved this happiness. It didn’t mean she needed, or even wanted, the same thing.
“Was there something you needed, herceges?” The dry tone of her question drew his attention away from Ildiko and onto her. A half smile, faintly annoyed, faintly apologetic played across his lips.
He bowed. I can take a hint, cousin. Forgive me.” He reached inside the tunic he wore and fished out a letter, its parchment neatly creased and its seal broken. He fluttered it before both women. “Serovek will be here at the end of the week. To discuss something to do with Megiddo’s body.”
A pall settled over the chamber, and a pitying look chased away all humor from Ildiko’s features. “That’s all he said? No other detail?”
Brishen shook his head, his own features grim. “I think he wishes to save those for when we speak in person.” He skated his fingertips down her sleeve. “Can you see to it a room is made for him? Maybe now that Saggara isn’t so overcrowded with Kai families seeking shelter, he’ll be willing to stay in the manor house itself instead of the barracks.”
Anhuset’s stomach fluttered at his words. She frowned at the involuntary reaction. A visit from the Beladine margrave should have no effect on her, but it did, and she resented it. She hadn’t seen him in months, and even when memories of his teasing smile or the feel of his mortally wounded body collapsing in her arms, rose unbidden and unwelcome in her mind, she ruthlessly pushed them away. With the exception of Ildiko, she barely tolerated humans. Serovek’s surprising attentions unnerved her, made her react in ways she didn’t anticipate or understand, and she resented him for it.
She returned her focus back to Ildiko who was nodding. “Of course. Did you want me to order scarpatine pie for him when he visits? I’ll need to tell Cook now so she can prepare.”
“It’s his favorite.” He raised an eyebrow at Anhuset’s scoffing snort. “I’ll want you at both supper and any meetings we have with him,” he told her, his tone warning off any argument she might put forth. “I value your advice.”
She bit back a protest. “As you wish.”
Ildiko’s gaze centered on the letter Brishen held. I wonder what this news is about Megiddo?”
He leaned down to kiss her forehead. “I have no idea. I wish I did.” He saluted Anhuset, offering a warning that was as much serious as it was jesting. “Don’t kill my wife. I’m rather fond of her.”
A brief bow and he left the chamber, closing the door softly behind him, but not before Anhuset caught a glimpse of something that pumped ice water through her veins. For the space of a heartbeat, Brishen’s yellow eye had glowed ethereal blue.
“You saw it! I know you did.” Ildiko’s own strange eyes were wide, her gaze flickering from the door back to Anhuset in a way that made Anhuset’s skin crawl. “I can tell by your expression.”
Anhuset kept her tone neutral. “Saw what, hercegesé?”
“Stop playing coy,” Ildiko snapped. She pointed to the door. “The glimmer of blue in Brishen’s eye.”
“A trick of the torchlight.” A wishful thought more than an answer. She hadn’t imagined what she saw. Nor had the hercegesé.
Ildiko thumped the tip of her silabat against the floor, frustration and no small amount of fear threading her voice. “No it wasn’t. I’ve seen it in the dark as well.”
Chills rose along Anhuset’s arms. That unnatural blue, sign of a Wraith King’s magic, had no place here, shouldn’t exist anymore except in the blade once wielded by Megiddo, and that weapon was hidden away. “This isn’t the first time?”
Ildiko shuddered. “I could only wish. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times before this. The first was after he woke from a bad dream. He called out Megiddo’s name.”
“Why didn’t you say something before now?” Anhuset’s leg muscles twitched with the urge to yank open the door and chase after her cousin, peer into his face, and demand he tell her why a Wraith King’s magic still manifested inside him?
The hercegesé gave her a disgusted look. “And who would I tell? The Elsod? That old woman is holding onto life by the tips of her claws at Emlek, wondering how she can keep the entire Kai history from collapsing in on itself now that there’s no one able to capture mortem lights.”
She waved away Anhuset’s warning hiss. “I’m not saying anything everyone in this kingdom doesn’t already realize.” She spun the silabat back and forth in her palm, the movement highlighting her agitation. “Brishen barely sleeps as it is. His niece has inherited a country teetering on collapse, its capital shattered, its people still in shock, robbed of their magic for reasons unknown.” Her voice shook then, thickened with sobs that turned her eyes glassy. “I can’t put yet another burden on his shoulders.”
The two women stared at each other, bound together by a mutual love for the Kai prince and the terrible secret of his sacrifice which demanded he rob his people of their very birthright: their magic.
Anhuset understood and agreed with the hard choice Brishen had made, but she felt the loss of her magic keenly, an emptiness that couldn’t be filled, although her skills had been small compared to most and confined to practical things that others had mastered as juveniles. There were times when she envied humans like Ildiko who never possessed magic of their own. You didn’t mourn the loss of something you never had.
She mentally sidled away from the melancholy her thoughts wrought in favor of worry for her cousin. “Why would Brishen dream of the unfortunate monk?”
Ildiko shrugged. “Regret maybe? Guilt? Who knows. But for a moment, when he woke, Brishen’s eye burned blue, just like now. Just like the several times before it.” Her features paled beyond their usual pallid shade. “What if the spell used to turn them back from wraith didn’t work completely? Is he becoming wraith again?”
A seeping horror filled Anhuset, the emotion reflected in Ildiko’s strange eyes. She batted it away, unwilling to believe, or even accept, that such a thing was a possibility. “No, he is not,” she said, and Ildiko took a wary step back at the low-voiced fervor of her reply. “This has something to do with Megiddo, and if ancient Kai magic still lingers, it’s due to the monk’s sword being housed here at Saggara. Brishen would do well to get rid of it.”
Ildiko nodded. “I agree. I’ll talk to him about it, though I think he’ll be reluctant to put it somewhere else other than Saggara. Maybe you can mention something as well.”
If Brishen were to heed anyone’s advice most, it was his wife’s. He was a reasonable man, thoughtful and measured in his decisions, but that sword held the last vestiges of Kai magic in its purest, most ancient, most powerful form. She doubted he’d be moved by even Ildiko’s considerable influence much less her own arguments. She kept that opinion behind her teeth and gave Ildiko a quick nod. “I’ll do my best.”
They sparred a few more rounds, half-heartedly now that their thoughts were on Serovek’s upcoming visit and the manifestation of wraith magic that had briefly touched Brishen before fading. Once their session finished, they parted with the promise to keep a closer eye on the herceges and report to each other if the manifestations of magic increased in either occurrence or intensity or both. Anhuset hoped neither would happen. House Khaskem had enough to contend with trying to hold the fragile Kai kingdom together.
The final version of THE IPPOS KING is currently available for preorder at all the usual retailers. See below for the links as well as a link to the preorder for the second book in the Fallen Empire trilogy, DRAGON UNLEASHED (set to release June 9, 2020).