THE IPPOS KING – Rough draft serialization – part the third

Link to part the second 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.

She spent the remainder of the week leading patrols, training new soldiers, and taking reports from Brishen’s spies regarding the mood of so many displaced Kai. No one had ventured back to the ruined capital of Haradis. Memories of the galla still plagued people in their worst dreams, and many now considered the city cursed. Even Brishen physically recoiled when Anhuset suggested she lead a small expedition to Haradis just to explore whether or not any portion of it was habitable.

“Not yet,” he’d said in a voice thick with the recollection of ghosts. “Not yet.”

She hadn’t pushed, her offer to go spurred more by a sense of duty than by a macabre curiosity. Memories of Haradis being overrun by galla didn’t haunt her dreams. She had been in Saggara when it happened. Still, there had been more than a few days when she’d awakened, claws tearing through her blankets, the image of Brishen impaled on the ensorcelled sword that would turn him into a Wraith King, the Beladine margrave his executioner.

The equally grotesque memory of Serovek’s resolute face and grim smile when he asked her to deal his death blow to start his transformation destroyed her sleep just as often. Her reason told her such an act of violence had been necessary. Her guilt assured her none of it mattered and ate at her insides. This man had once saved her life and the life of her cousin. She had repaid him by plunging a sword blade into his gut.

That thought worried at her like an angry hornet, and by the time the week was done and Lord Pangion expected to appear at Saggara, Anhuset was in a foul mood, wishing she’d never agreed to participate at supper or the meeting Brishen had scheduled afterwards.

She had just left the training arena, drenched in sweat and short-tempered despite a grueling practice session with other fighters, when a flurry of activity near the redoubt’s main gates caught her attention. The Kai clustered there either waved, bowed, or simply stared as Serovek and two of his retainers casually guided their mounts through the entrance and past their observers.

He was still as ugly as she recalled. A big man on a big horse, he sat in the saddle with the practiced ease of someone who probably spent more time there than on his own two feet. The flickering light from the various torches set around the bailey gilded his dark hair where it trailed over his shoulders. The last time she’d seen him, he’d sported a light beard that blunted the angles and hollows of his face. He was clean-shaven now, skin lighter than she remembered, likely from more time spent inside during the harsh mountain winters.

In profile, his beardless features looked carved from stone, not with a sculptor’s chisel’s but a hunter’s skinning knife. If she looked upon him as just a construct of facial bones, she understood why Ildiko said he was handsome, but the awful human eyes and horse-toothed smile ruined his visage, just as it did every human Anhuset encountered. She bore no resentment toward humans who reacted in similar fashion to the Kai. They shared a mutual revulsion of each other’s appearances.

Still, there was something about this man that fascinated her, despite her disgust at the notion. Anhuset wouldn’t hesitate to admit or agree that Serovek Pangion was bold, courageous, and possessed a nobility of character that was often in short supply in both the Kai and human races. He had saved her and Ildiko from capture and death by raiders and their mage hounds, tended Anhuset’s wounds and participated in Brishen’s rescue. And he had volunteered to become a Wraith King and fight alongside the Khaskem against the galla.

“And still you dislike him,” an inner voice admonished her.

Another added a mocking rebuttal. “Because he’s dangerous. He makes you feel.”

“Be quiet,” Anhuset muttered aloud, surprising a passing Kai soldier who gave her a puzzled look before darting away at her warning glare.

The small crowd of Kai paced alongside the visitors’ horses, some calling out greetings in Common tongue. The three Beladine responded in the same language, bending to clasp clawed hands with their gloved ones, smiling their square tooth smiles. Someone said something Anhuset was too far away to hear, and the margrave tilted his head back to laugh, the sound echoing through the bailey. He had always been comfortable around the Kai, unfazed by their more feral appearances.

And he had never made any secret of his attraction to the dour sha-Anhuset.

Anhuset scowled and purposefully maneuvered her way through the bailey so that she could observe without being seen by Saggara’s newly arrived guests. The last thing she wanted was a bunch of curious Kai watching as Serovek tried to charm her with his teasing smiles and frank admiration.

He motioned to his retainers and they all dismounted to stand amidst the growing crowd. The retainers disappeared from her view, but Lord Pangion didn’t. The Kai were a tall, lithe people, taller than most humans, yet he stood taller than those surrounding him, his broad shoulders enhanced even more by the heavy clothing he wore to ward off the cold. For all his size, he moved with surprising grace, and that acknowledgement sent odd flutters through her ribcage. An irritated hiss whistled between her teeth. Handsome to others. Not to her.

A subtle change in both his expression and his stance made Anhuset instinctively slip into the narrow space between a tower of hay bales and one of the walls belonging to the redoubt’s cooperage. His eyes narrowed, their quick flickers from side to side as he scanned the yard making her shudder a little. A warrior well-trained, he’d sensed he was being closely observed, regarded with an intensity far greater than those who stood much closer to him.

His gaze passed over the spot where she hid…gods’ bollocks, she was hiding from the Beladine Stallion! The realization made her lurch out of the concealing spot, her back snapping straight, chin up as she glared at the man who had neither seen her nor spoken to her, yet had already managed to practically set her hair on fire from annoyance.

Serovek didn’t pause in his reconnoitering of the bailey, but once more his manner changed, shoulders relaxing, eyes still narrowed but with amusement now as a faint smirk played across his mouth. The uncomfortable certainty that he had seen her lurking behind the horse fodder made her growl. She straightened her tunic with a jerk, prepared to march across the yard and, as Brishen’s second, formally welcome him to Saggara.

She never got the chance. The crowd moved as a single wave, carrying Serovek and his men away from her on a crest toward the palace’s entrance from which Brishen and Ildiko emerged. The prince regent and his wife greeted their guest first with formal vows, then more affectionate clasps of forearms and embraces. Brishen clapped Serovek on the back, ushering him inside. Just before they disappeared from view, the margrave glanced over his shoulder and unerringly found Anhuset among the milling crowd. A quick tip of his head and another of those teasing smiles told her he’d known she was there all along.

Before the supper gathering that evening, she stood in her small bedroom in the main barracks and glared at the chest holding the garb she kept in reserve for more formal occasions. Were it strictly to her preference, she’d attend tonight’s feast wearing her usual everyday clothing of homespun and leather in muted colors of brown, gray, and black. Fashion never interested her, and she was far more inclined to admire the temper of a well-made sword than the cut of a finely sewn tunic or the sparkle of a necklace.

The lone candle in the room provided just enough light to illuminate the delicate embroidery on the fold of emerald green fabric in the chest. Anhuset reached inside and pulled it out, shaking the cloth so that it unfurled into one of the court tunics she’d worn on those rare occasions when she’d been summoned to make an appearance before her uncle, King Djedor.

She shrugged. It would do as well as anything else in the chest, and at least she didn’t have to suffer under the contemptuous stares of a herd of useless Kai aristocracy or the malevolent scrutiny of Queen Secmis. The galla had almost wrecked the Kai kingdom, and many had died in the onslaught, But Anhuset didn’t grieve the deaths of the old court, especially its monarchs. She had watched in silent triumph when Brishen, as a Wraith King, destroyed his mother, the queen, once and for all. Good riddance.

After a hasty sponge bath and a futile attempt at taming her hair into something little more elaborate than a simple plait or ponytail, she dressed and finally paused to stare at herself in the cloudy mirror she’d bought from an itinerant trader years earlier. She’d ceded the battle to tame her hair and left it loose except for a pair of tiny braids at her temples. The tunic’s color emphasized the silver of her hair, the garment’s cut, her height. A wide leather belt, replete with buckles and metal rings from which to tie sheathes and carry weaponry, circled her waist. Protocol and civility demanded she leave her sword behind in favor of carrying two daggers. Plain black trousers and the typical ankle boots favored by the Kai completed the ensemble.

Anhuset smoothed a hand down the tunic, chasing away non-existent wrinkles. This was as good as it would get. She was no court lady, nor was she a great beauty, and gatherings like these were ordeals to be suffered rather than enjoyed. She attended to please her cousin, nothing more. Still, she fiddled with the tiny braids and adjusted the belt before giving her reflection a dour smile. “Just Anhuset,” she said. “Nothing more, nothing less.”

The bailey was sparsely populated as she made her way to the manor house and the great hall where Brishen planned to host the supper in Serovek’s honor. To avoid being formally announced by the steward, Mesumenes, she skirted the main entrance in favor of the one that took her through the kitchens and down a set of corridors, exchanging quick greetings with servants as they hurried back and forth between the kitchens and the hall. A familiar voice calling her name brought her to an abrupt halt.

“Why the hurry, sha-Anhuset?”

Ignoring the flutters dancing within her ribcage, she schooled her features into an impassive mask before pivoting to face Serovek. She bowed. “Margrave,” she said, congratulating herself on the blandness of her tone.

He strolled closer, his steps light on the stone floor despite wearing boots. He raised a palm in question. “What? Not Serovek? Or even Lord Pangion?” Laugh lines crinkled the skin at the corners of his eyes. “We each shared an end of the same sword once.”

At his reference to the time she stabbed him, her back went so stiff, it audibly cracked. The amusement that often graced his features when he spoke to her disappeared at her reaction, and a line creased the space between his black eyebrows as he met her slitted gaze.

“Your humor leaves much to be desired,” she nearly growled before turning her back on him and striding away. He didn’t follow, but the weight of his stunned silence followed her the entire length of the corridor.

Supper lasted an eternity. Brishen had invited a few of his ministers, those whose enclaves bordered the Beladine lands Serovek governed. The discussions at the tables, carried out in Common tongue for the benefit of their guests, revolved around the coming spring planting on both sides of the border, reassurances from both Brishen and Serovek that no galla had been seen, the ever-present dangers of those who raided across both territories, stealing livestock or food stores, what neighbors battled over water rights to a particular stream or a communal well. There were inquiries into the infant queen’s health and that of Ildiko who had stepped into the role of motherhood. No one spoke of abandoned Haradis or the fact the Kai still reeled from the sudden and unexplained loss of magic for every male old enough to sport his first beard or female who’d had her first bleed.

The first was still a raw wound, the second a secret Anhuset suspected every Kai instinctively knew to keep from any human. She had no doubt that word of this particular disaster would get out eventually, and the human kingdoms surrounding Kai territory would find a way to exploit it.

She picked at the food on her plate, dividing her attention between the talk around her and the activity of all who entered or exited the great hall. If Ildiko were sitting next to her, she’d sternly remind Anhuset that she was no longer on duty. And Anhuset would brush the admonishment aside. She was always on duty.

As much as she tried to resist the temptation, she couldn’t help but turn her gaze to where Lord Pangion sat beside Brishen, deep in conversation with all those who sat nearby. Those Kai who were meeting him for the first time were obviously impressed not only with his eagerness to eat scarpatine pie, but his ability to filet the hostile insect without getting pierced by its nasty barb and shot full of venom.

He watched her as well, his stare falling on her numerous times throughout the meal, even as he answered the many questions Brishen’s ministers peppered him with regarding Belawat’s plans for a new dam further upstream or its willingness to trade with the Kai farmers with homesteads on its borders. Anhuset looked past him, pretending that deep blue gaze didn’t draw her to him.

As the meal progressed and finally came to an end, her anger waned. Her reason told her he hadn’t meant to offend her in any way, that he was likely puzzled by her reaction to his teasing. There was no way he could know how much that terrible moment they shared bothered her.

Once supper concluded, and the various guests went their separate ways, Brishen motioned for Anhuset to join him, Ildiko, and Serovek in a small antechamber he typically reserved for more private meetings.

She was the last one in and closed the door behind her with a soft click, staying nearby to listen for any lurkers outside who might decide it was a good idea to eavesdrop.

The other three took seats at the table in the center of the room, and Ildiko served tea from a steaming teapot a servant had delivered before they arrived.

Brishen toasted his guest. “Tell us more of this letter you received from the monk’s brother.”

Serovek fished a folded parchment from an inner pocket of his vest and passed it to Brishen to read. “He doesn’t go into detail, only saying the Jeden Order has asked that Megiddo be returned to them. No explanation as to why.”

Brishen quickly scanned the correspondence before glancing up. “You told me once the Jeden Order worships a single god and are skilled in warfare. Anything else?” He set the letter down and refilled his cup, offering to do the same for Ildiko who declined with a quick shake of her head.

Serovke didn’t refuse, holding up his cup for a second pour. “Besides the fact they tread on heretic territory? No.”

Anhuset spoke up then, addressing Brishen. “He is one of theirs. Why wouldn’t they want him back?” While she didn’t say anything yet, she hoped Megiddo’s sword might be returned to the monks along with his body. Nothing good would come of remnant magic spun up from the spellwork of a long-dead Kai wizard dabbling in necromancy.

An arrested expression passed over her cousin’s face. “Maybe,” he said in a studied, noncommittal voice. “Maybe not.”

She frowned, slipping into Bast-Kai. “He isn’t your responsibility, Highness.”

He returned her frown. “I disagree. He’s bound by Kai magic.”

“Which you…” Anhuset paused, the words “no longer wield,” heavy on her tongue before she rolled them back. “Can’t control with him because his soul is no longer in this world.” She met Ildiko’s worried gaze, remembering the phantasmic blue glow that had passed through Brishen’s eye earlier.

Serovek refused a third helping of tea and pushed his empty cup away. “Your sha is right, Brishen,” he said in Common tongue, though he’d understood the exchange in bast-Kai. “I wanted to tell you about the message but not to place some misbegotten guilt on your shoulders. The monk’s order and his family agree he’s best residing with the other monks. Is it our right to refuse the request?”

Brishen remained frustratingly unmoved by the argument. “Possibly. The Jeden Order is located in a strife-ridden area. You said so yourself. The monks reclaimed their territory stolen by the warlord Chamtivos, but there are still skirmishes there.”

Serovek waved away his concerns. “I’ll have a contingent of troops with me to accompany Megiddo’s body to the monastery. Why anyone would want to make off with a soulless body defies reason, but they’ll have to work hard and be willing to bleed a great deal if they want him.”

Anhuset saw her chance. She left her vigil by the door to stand on the opposite side of the table from Brishen. “I can go with them to represent the Kai so the Beladine and the monks know we honor the sacrifice one of their own made for us. I can also take his sword with us as well and deliver it to the monks.”

The words were barely out of her mouth before Brishen said “Absolutely not. The sword stays.”

There was a finality to his tone that made even Serovek’s eyebrows climb. Brishen was a genial man, yet there was in his voice a reminder that he was also a toughened warrior, a man who had destroyed his own mother’s corrupt soul without hesitation and battled abominations born of Elder magic. The prince regent of Bast-Haradis.

Again, Anhuset sought Ildiko’s gaze. The hercegesé gave a faint shake of her head, her features pale and disappointed, but she refused to argue Brishen’s edict. Megiddo’s ensorcelled sword would remain at Saggara.

In an obvious attempt to break the tension in the room, Serovek turned to Anhuset, a smirk tilting the corners of his mouth a little. “A Kai warrior in our party. We won’t exactly blend in when we travel.”

She snorted. “When have you ever blended in?” She’d seen it for herself. Lord Pangion’s size alone commanded attention, but it was his demeanor that drew the eye more than anything. Despite his ugly human face, he possessed a presence that insured he’d never pass through a crowd unnoticed.

He chuckled, giving her a slight bow. “I yield the point to you. It will be a privilege to have Saggara’s famed sha-Anhuset join us.”

No longer stiff in his chair as if he braced to do battle, Brishen shook his head and gave his second a dubious look. “Try not to kill him before you’re halfway there,” he said. I’ve been out of a war for less than a year. Don’t thrust me into another one by dismembering a Beladine margrave.”

Anhuset opened her mouth to assure him she could control her temper, but Serovek interrupted her. “And I’d prefer to keep all my arms and legs attached to the rest of me, thank you.” He laughed at her narrow-eyed glare. “I cant’ win every battle with just this handsome face.”

Forgetting her unspoke promise to reign in her temper, Anhuset growled and pointed a claw-tipped finger at Serovek while glaring at Brishen.

“My Lord Pangion,” Ildiko said, her wide grin exposing small, pearly horse teeth. “You do enjoy courting danger.”

Brishen echoed Serovek’s amusement with a laugh of his own. “You have ever courted danger, friend.” He passed the letter from Megiddo’s brother back to Serovek. “I can send a company of troops along with Anhuset. I’d go myself except I’m needed here more.” A vague thread of regret wove through his voice.

“That won’t be necessary.” Serovek tucked the letter back into his vest. “A bigger party than ten, and we’ll be seen as something more threatening than travelers, especially with a group of toothy Kai accompanying us. One will be enough to make anyone think twice about annoying us. More than that, and we might have difficulty reaching our destination without a brawl or two.” He offered another half bow to Anhuset. “And I’ve seen your second fight. She’s worth at least three soldiers. We’ll be well defended.”

She refused to preen under so obvious a compliment, but it was difficult. He’d always been forthright in his admiration for her, and his praise in her martial skills set a small fire to burning gently in her gut. “I’ll do all in my power not to shame the Khaskem during our journey,” she said in carefully neutral tones.

Both men snorted at that before Brishen said “That has never been in question, cousin. And never will be.” He turned back to the margrave. “When do you wish to leave and where shall Anhuset meet you?”

“It’ll take about five days to ready everything and leave instructions with my steward. Send sha-Anhuset to High Salure any time during then. We’ll travel from there to Cermak’s estate to retrieve the monk. Is this agreeable to you?”

Brishen looked to Anhuset who nodded. “Yes,” they both said together.

Ildiko was the first to rise from her place at the table. “You’ll spend the day with us, my lord? I have several rooms readied for guests. Saggara is finally empty of the crowds. You have your choice of chambers.”

Anhuset clasped her hands behind her back and adopted a bored look. Inside, she warred with herself, one part hoping he’d take up Ildiko’s invitation, the other hoping he declined. She refused to give credence to the bubble of disappointment when he declined.

Serovek rounded the table to take Ildiko’s hand and bowed over her knuckles before straightening with a smile. “Tempting as that is, I’ll take the hours to return to High Salure. I’d like to get this done without delay.” He glanced at Brishen. “Though if you don’t mind, I’ll pay my respects to the little queen regnant before I leave.”

The prince nodded. “Of course. I’ll take you to see her. Ildiko is the only human she’s seen so far. She’ll be fascinated.”

Or frightened, Anhuset thought, but kept her silence.

Serovek saluted Ildiko. “As always, it’s a pleasure to see you again, Highness. Your hospitality has no equal.” He turned to Anhuset. She half-expected that teasing smirk, but he only saluted a second time, his voice serious. “Sha-Anhuset. Until we meet again.”

Anhuset returned the salute, missing the mild, good-natured taunting. “Margrave.”

The two men exited the room, leaving Ildiko and Anhuset alone. Anhuset stared at the closed door for a moment before saying in a low voice. “There is no possible way you’ll claw that sword out of Brishen’s grip. Did you see his expression when I suggested it?”

Ildiko sighed. “I did. It will have to stay here for now, though I wish it otherwise. This isn’t surrender just yet. Let me see if I can talk him around to the idea of at least taking the sword to Emlek or giving it to Serovek to house. Anywhere but at Saggara.” She rubbed her arms as if chilled. “No good can come of storing the blade here. I can feel it.”

The two women parted ways then, Ildiko to join Brishen and Serovek, Anhuset to return to the barracks where she hastily stripped out of her formal garb for her more comfortable everyday wear. She bound her hair in a quick loop knot at the back of her head, shouldered on a cloak with hood to protect her eyes from the day’s coming sunlight and left her room for the redoubt’s stables to join a contingent of others for guard duty along the shores of the Absu.

She found Serovek in the stableyard, giving direction to his men before they headed home to High Salure. Despite her concealing hood, he spotted her easily enough and waved her over to where he stood next to his horse.

“You should have taken the hercegesé up on her offer,” she said. “You’ll fall asleep in the saddle before you reach home.”

“Not like it hasn’t happened before.” He patted the horse’s neck. “Magas here can find his way home blindfolded.” He raised one of those expressive black eyebrows. “Are you asking me to stay?”

He was back to teasing her. She bristled. “No.”

He gave a dramatic sigh. “Ah well. There’s no joy without hope, even when it’s dashed.”

“You’re going to vex me the entire trip to the monastery, aren’t you?” Some tiny part of her she wished would just stay silent cheerfully crowed an internal “Yes!”

Luckily, the margrave didn’t hear it. He grinned. “I hope to charm you the whole way so that you fall into my arms by the time we arrive.”

“If you still have arms by then.”

Stop it, she silently admonished herself. You’re only encouraging him with the repartee.

To her surprise, his expression turned serious again. “I wish to offer you an apology.”

That really did startle her. “For what?”

He scraped a hand down his face as if trying to find the right words. “For my clumsy humor earlier. I know I tease you, and I know it raises your hackles, but obviously I crossed into forbidden territory when we were in the corridor earlier. I didn’t mean to offend.”

They were on tottery ground here, at least for her. While he provoked her in a playful way every time they crossed paths, she knew how to respond. Snarls and snaps and warning growls that only emboldened him. It was a dance where she knew the steps, a game in which she understood all the rules. This was neither of those, and she scrabbled for how to respond to his sincere regret.

“You didn’t offend, not in the way you think. That time, when we all stood among the menhirs, when noble men were stabbing each other as a last resort to save the rest of us…no humor can be found in that, not even gallows humor. As a soldier, I know what it is to take a life and have the act leave its scar, but stabbing you was different. What connects us is an awful thing, better to be forgotten than jested about.”

She clamped her lips shut after that, refusing to say more, certain she sounded like a bumbling fool unable to string three coherent words together. But she didn’t look away from him as he stood there considering her in the punishing morning light.

His homely features softened, the blue of his eyes darkening until they were almost black. “Does it truly bother you so much?”

“Doesn’t it bother you?”

He patted his flat midriff. “Well, I get an ache now and then to remind me you have good aim and a strong arm. But otherwise, no.” He didn’t reach out to her, but he drew closer until they were nearly toe to toe. “We did what needed doing, Anhuset.” His voice was soft, mild, carrying no resentment toward her. “You’re a seasoned fighter, a sha in the Kai military. I always assumed you, of all people, understood that what’s necessary can sometimes be brutal.

She did understand. “This was different.”

His voice was even softer now, a caress across her forehead, though still he kept his arms at his sides. “How so?”

The bailey was nearly empty, with only a minimal crowd of Kai going about the business of guard duty or clean-up as the redoubt settled down to slumber. The margrave’s retainers lingered near the gate, politely looking elsewhere as they waited for their lord to complete whatever business remained with his Kai hosts.To Anhuset, it felt as if only she and Serovek occupied the space.

“It just is,” she said. “I can’t explain it, but I accept your apology.”

She itched with the urge to spring away, far from this strangely enthralling human who annoyed and beguiled her by turns.

The laugh lines that added such character to his features fanned from the corners of his eyes once more as he grinned. “I’m glad to hear it. We’ve a long journey ahead of us. I didn’t fancy sleeping with my back to a wall every time I closed my eyes.”

A betraying twitch of her mouth made her nostrils flare as she bit back an answering smile. “I only accepted your apology. I didn’t promise not to tear your arms off before we reach the monastery.”

His booming laughter made heads turn. Serovek stepped back, looped the reins across his horse’s neck and swung gracefully into the saddle. “Farewell, firefly woman,” he said from his lofty seat. “I look forward to our meeting again in a few days.”

Anhuset remained in place as he and his retainers rode through the gates and away from Saggara, watching until they disappeared in the sun’s radiance. His valediction echoed in her mind.

Firefly woman.

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)