Link to part the third 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.
Serovek watched the lone rider guide her horse up the steep path toward High Salure’s barbican. Even were he not expecting her arrival, he would have recognized her anywhere simply by her posture in the saddle—tall, confident, and graceful. She was bundled against the cold in a heavy cloak with a hood to cover her hair and shield her face and eyes from the winter sun. High boots sheathed her legs to her lower thigh, adding extra warmth to the layers of trousers and wool tunic she wore beneath hunting leathers revealed in glimpses as her cloak shifted with the horse’s movements. Her hands were bare. Gloves didn’t work well when you sported claws at the ends of your fingers.
That Brishen’s second-in-command had volunteered to accompany him on the journey to deliver Megiddo’s body to the Jeden monastery still surprised him, but he was no less pleased for it. The last time he’d been in sha-Anhuset’s company for any length of time, they’d prepared to face a horde of ravenous demons, and she’d skewered him on the length of his own sword. He looked forward to hours less horrific and bloody spent with her and her acerbic wit.
As if she sensed his scrutiny, she raised her head. The yellow shine of her eyes glittered in the shadows of her hood as her gaze unerringly landed on him where he stood on the battlements, braced against the wind that howled down the mountain side and through the col. She lifted a hand in greeting before nudging her horse to a faster gait.
He left his frigid perch, taking the stairs that led down to the great hall in a narrow spiral. A wave of heat buffeted him as he passed the lit hearth. The candles in their sconces and the lamps hung from chains cast a welcoming glow across the room. Newly laid rushes smelled of dried lavender, combining with the scents of supper being prepared in the kitchens. For all that this was a military fortress in service to the Beladine kingdom, it was a lavish place much spoken about by the local gentry. Serovek, Lord Pangion, had spared no expense in turning High Salure into a stately home as well as a formidable redoubt.
He met Anhuset at the entrance to the barbican where a contingent of his men had gathered to observe the Kai woman’s arrival. Some called out greetings, a handful meeting her halfway to walk beside her horse as they escorted her to the barbican. These soldiers had worked with her and the Kai who served with her during patrols of shared borders, and several had aided in rescuing her liege, the Khaskem, from raiders paid to torture and kill him.
Sha-Anhuset had ever been forthright in her opinions regarding humans. They were hideous to look upon, possessed strange customs, and suffered from questionable culinary preferences. More than once, Serovek had choked down laughter at her obvious revulsion for human expression and behavior.
Despite that, she was also a warrior with an understanding and admiration for those who served in the role of soldier as she did, be they Kai or human. She returned his men’s greetings, calling those she recognized by name and wishing them good fortune in Common tongue so all could understand.
He saluted her when she finally stood before him, holding her horse’s reins in one hand, and a decorative box in the other. “Sha-Anhuset,” he said, not bothering to disguise his pleasure at seeing her here in his home. “Welcome to High Salure.”
Faint consternation flitted across her sharp features. For all that she was graceful in her movements, she gave a stiff bow before offering him the box. He took it, cursing when it jumped in his hand. He almost dropped the thing before tightening his grip. Something inside the container thrashed against the sides and the top, scrabbling for a way out.
Anhuset’s yellow eyes, without noticeable pupil or iris, lightened a shade, and her mouth turned up at one corner. “Margrave. A gift from the herceges and the hercegesé. A delicacy at a Kai table, as you’ve witnessed yourself.”
Serovek edged open the lid for a peek, before slamming it closed when an armored tail tipped with a stinger that dripped black fluid jabbed at him. A collective gasp rose around him, and every soldier surrounding them took at least three steps back. He raised an eyebrow at Anhuset who continued to watch him with that twist of amusement playing across her lips. “I’m very fond of scarpatine. And a female at that. Even better.”
He didn’t lie. A notorious dish favored by the Kai and served at celebrations, dinners of state, and to important guests not too terrified to attempt eating it, was indeed one of his favorites. This was Brishen’s nod to him in recognition not only of friendship, but also brotherhood. The only thing that confused him was the scarpatine itself. The Kai rarely used the females in the pie, only the males as the females were difficult to subdue and kill without getting stung, and their venom could be deadly. Were he not fast friends with Brishen and trusted him completely, Serovek might have wondered if the herceges wasn’t trying to do away with him.
As if she heard his thoughts, Anhuset gestured to the box. “I’m to relay the message from the herceges that he couldn’t think of anyone more suited to battling an enraged female while enjoying the fight.”
His laughter echoed through the bailey, while his men snickered around him. The box with the angry scarpatine inside jumped in his hand. “I’ve always liked your cousin. Now to convince my cook I pay him enough to make the pie.” He held out the box to the soldier closest to him. “Take it to the kitchen.”
The man hesitated, glancing from one side to the other, as if silently asking for volunteers to take on the task. None of his cohorts stepped forward. He gingerly reached for the box before grabbing it with both hands. It jerked in his grip, the scarpatine’s tail striking the sides of the box with hard taps. The soldier took off for the kitchen at a jog, eager to be rid of his burden.
Another soldier offered to take Anhuset’s horse for stabling. She untied the satchel from its place behind the saddle and slung it over her shoulder before leaving her mount to the man’s care. Had it been any other woman, Serovek would have offered to carry her burden for her, but this was Anhuset. He didn’t relish having his hand bitten off for the effort.
She paced him as they passed under the barbican and into the bailey. A busy place full of clamor and chaos, only the briefest pause in the noise marked her arrival before resuming.
“Watch your step,” he told her, pointing to the depressions in the soft ground where rain had gathered from the day before, then iced over sometime during the night. Even with the sun high, those pools in the shade remained frozen. Winter had been long this year and spring slow to arrive.
He had never known her to be a chatty woman, though she never hesitated in expressing herself. Serovek was familiar enough with the Kai to know her taciturn manner was an individual trait and not one representative of the Kai in general. He didn’t mind carrying the conversation. Anhuset didn’t say much, but she had an expressive face and revealed a lot more than she was probably aware of and would be horrified to learn, especially from him. He bit back a smile.
“Did you have a good trip to High Salure?”
She shrugged. “Good enough. No one tried to kill me on my way here, though it’s damn bright today.”
He ushered her to the citadel’s main entrance. “Let’s get you out of the sunlight.”
Someone on the other side had been waiting for them. The doors opened the moment Serovek’s boot touched the threshold. One of his servants had snuffed out half the candles and lamps while he’d been outside. The great hall was no longer ambient but tenebrous, with most of its illumination emanating from the fire roaring in the hearth.
Beside him, Anhuset gave a small grunt. “You need not go through this trouble for me. I’m used to guard duty during the day. The brightness is an annoyance, that’s all.”
“Are you sure that’s something you can cope with for a prolonged period? We’ll be traveling by day, resting at night.”
“I’m not human.” By her tone, she might well have said “I’m not diseased.”
Serovek chuckled. “Implying you’re not weak. Rumor has it the delicate Ildiko Khaskem took down one of your Kai assassins with a shutter pole. By herself.”
They both paused at the foot of the stairwell. Anhuset dipped her head in acknowledgment of his strike. “Point taken.” She raised an eyebrow when he stared at her. “Don’t look so surprised. Just because you have a talent for annoying me like no other doesn’t mean I won’t recognize you as victor in an argument.”
He let out a long, slow whistle. “Sha-Anhuset, you will never cease to amaze me.”
The look she gave him would have withered a lesser man to a desiccated husk . “It isn’t that momentous, Lord Pangion,” she said in the driest tones.
Despite the bleak purpose of their trip, it promised to be an entertaining one. Serovek grinned. Anhuset’s acerbic wit fascinated him as much as her appearance and demeanor. That fascination only strengthened with each interaction they shared. “Come. I’ll show you to your room.”
They ascended the tightly spiraling stairwell to the second floor, where the space opened up to a corridor lined in closed doors. Serovek led her to one and pushed it open to reveal a sumptuously appointed chamber illuminated only by the light spilling from the fire dancing merrily in the corner hearth. The windows were shuttered against the daylight and the cold, leaving shadows to pool in the niches and under the wall hangings.
“Will this suit?” he asked. “If not, there are other rooms to choose from. My staff can have it ready for you in short order.” He’d inspected this space itself once it was readied, hoping she’d approve. Anhuset though often surprised him, and he could only guess what her reaction might be.
A flicker of unease darted across her sharp features as she took in the room’s trappings. “You went to too much trouble. I would have been fine with a space in the barracks.”
He had half-expected such a reaction. The Kai woman was far more among humbler surroundings, but something had urged him to offer her the best at his disposal. Maybe a vanity on his part. He didn’t dwell long on the notion and refused to recognize the niggle of disappointment at her reaction.
“If you’d prefer the barracks, I’ll see to it a space there is set up for you, but I hope you won’t decline an invitation to have supper with me.”
Anhuset shook her head. “This is fine. No need wasting someone’s labor and making them work to prepare a second place for me to sleep.” A slight turn of her head alerted him she watched him from the corner of her eye. “I despise frivolous nitwits who’ll put a household in an uproar just to appease their whims.”
“Then we’re of like minds. But you still haven’t said if you’ll dine with me.”
“What are you serving?” The unmistakable note of dread in her voice made his eyebrows rise.
He couldn’t resist teasing her. “Join me and find out. Or are you afraid?”
Her own silvery eyebrows crashed together. “Name the hour.”
They agreed to meet in the great hall at sundown. While he would have liked to spend the rest of the day with her, offering himself as tour guide to the citadel, he had last-minute preparations and plans to make with his steward.
Anhuset waved away his apology with a flick of her hand. “Not necessary, margrave. I’ve been here before as you know. I’m familiar enough with the grounds.” She set her satchels next to the curtained bed and scraped back her hood to reveal her hair, white as new-fallen snow and gleaming even in the dim firelight. “Your marhskalk owes me a chance to win back money I lost to him in the last dice game we played together.”
For a moment, Serovek fiercely envied his master-at-arms, Carov. He’d much prefer to spend the next few hours in Anhuset’s company himself, engaged in a friendly game of chance, even if she managed to clean out his treasury. He’d especially welcome a sparring match with her. She was a formidable fighter—he’d seen that firsthand—and would make a worthy opponent.
He accompanied her back downstairs and into the bailey where she joined Carov and a group of soldiers training in the practice yard. A few called out to her, inviting her participate in a mock battle. Her yellow eyes caught fire. She bowed briefly to Serovek, promising to meet him at their appointed time for supper.
He left her when she shrugged off her cloak, draping it on a nearby post, to reveal she was well-armed and ready for combat. Serovek swallowed the urge to caution her not to kill his men and keep the injuries to a minimum.
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)