Link to part the fourth 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.
His steward Bryzant was a capable man. An ambitious one as well. A high-born younger son from one of the more prominent Beladine families, he’d gladly accepted the position of steward in Serovek Pangion’s remote citadel.
High Salure was far away from the Beladine court and its hub of social and political machinations. Few would want to spend years in the kingdom’s hinterlands bordering Bast-Haradis, even in service to the highly respected margrave. Serovek had been surprised by Bryzant’s enthusiastic response to the invitation to take on the role of steward.
Now in his fifth year in the role, the man had proven himself invaluable, making sure the fortress’s day-to-day administration ran smoothly. He’d been the one to oversee the non-military tasks when Serovek left to fight the galla alongside Brishen and the other Wraith Kings. Serovek intended he do so again while he made the journey to deliver Megiddo’s ensorcelled body to the Jeden Order.
“My lord,” Bryzant said, trying to bow as he entered the study, arms filled to overflowing with scrolls. “I need signatures from you for supply requisitions, among other things.”
Serovek neatly plucked several of the scrolls out of Bryzant’s arms and set them on the nearby table. By the look of it, he was in for hours of unavoidable drudgery. Too bad he couldn’t put his signature and seal on documents while on horseback.
The two men sat across from each other, Serovek with quill in hand while Bryzant passed him the first of many pieces of parchment. “I’ve sent requisitions in as you requested for additional leather, wool, and food stores. We’re waiting for three bids to come in for all of them. Bryzant pointed to the list of names on the sheet. “Two are local, one is from the capitol. That one will be more expensive of course.”
“But possibly better quality, unless the vendor assumes we’re ignorant provincials and tries to skive us with high prices for poor product.” Serovek scowled. “Have you seen examples yet of the others’ goods?”
Bryzant shook his head. “Not yet. I wanted to wait until you left for the monastery in case you needed anything beforehand.” He set the vendor list aside, replacing it with another sheet of parchment, this on with a much longer list to review. “Do you know how long you might be gone, my lord?”
Not long enough, Serovek thought, eyeing the parchment in front of him with resigned distaste. While the administration of High Salure mostly fell to his steward, leaving Serovek to the tasks of defense of the borders and diplomacy with his Kai neighbors, Serovek kept a close eye on things. He’d witnessed and heard of too many instances in which a dishonest steward robbed his overlord blind or sent him into penury through mismanagement.
Given the choice, he would much rather spend his time on patrol, sparring, or battling demons alongside the Kai herceges or, even better, playing a cutthroat dice game with sha-Anhuset. He disliked the drudgery of stewardship. He disliked the notion of thievery under his very nose even more. Bryzant had done a fine job in the role these last five years, giving Serovek no reason to doubt his honesty, his fealty, or his abilities. Still, it was best to remain diligent.
“No more than a month, I think,” he replied to Bryzant’s question. “I doubt the monks wish to act as our hosts any longer than necessary, and the Khaskem will want his sha back in short order.”
The sun was well on its way toward the horizon before Serovek finally broke free of his steward as well as those other officers of his household, including one quietly seething cook who demanded to know how exactly he was supposed to cook and serve the vile insect bestowed upon him earlier and not die from the effort. Serovek’s puzzled shrug and short “Just bash it with a club,” didn’t calm the man’s outrage. Certain the cook contemplated every manner of butchering him behind the slit-eyed stare he leveled on Serovek, the margrave chose strategic retreat and left the fortress to find his guest.
He suffered no compunction to disguise his interest in sha-Anhuset. From the first moment he met her, she’d drawn him like a moth to a blazing lamp, and he didn’t care that he might burn to ash if he got too close. She was prickly—at least with him—as well as dour. Unwavering in her devotion to her cousin, the Kai regent, she represented in the finest manner, the military and physical prowess of the Kai soldiers who served at Saggara. She wore her strength and her confidence as easily as she wore her armor, and Serovek sometimes wondered if any weakness existed behind her fierce expression and distinctively beautiful features. Should she ever choose to bond with a husband, the man would have to possess an iron-plated backbone to equal her.
His effort to break free of administrative shackles failed in the end. He’d only made it to the the front entrance’s threshold when he heard Bryzant shout his name. He turned to see the steward racing toward him, pale and wide-eyed with panic.
“My lord! My lord, wait! We have a problem!”
His plea was joined by a chorus of shouts and screams erupting from the direction of the kitchen, along with the dissonant bang of pots and pans slamming into furniture or the floor.
“What in the gods’ names is going on?” Serovek met Bryzant in the hall’s center and just as quickly strode past him as he hurried toward the source of the comotion. The steward jogged to keep up.
“The scarpatine,” he said between pants. “It’s gotten loose.”
Serovek halted and glared at the man. “Are you serious?” At the other’s nod, he cursed loud and long and charged into the kitchen.
Chaos greeted his arrival. Overturned pots and broken ceramic lay scattered across a floor made slippery from puddles of spilled soup and trampled vegetables. Three of the scullery maids stood atop one of the preparation tables, all armed with weapons that included a cleaver, a skillet, and a raw goose leg.
Those still on the ground joined the cook in ransacking the rest of the destroyed kitchen, lamplight glinting off their knives as they hunted for his lordship’s lethal delicacy. No one noticed Serovek’s presence.
He leaned down to speak softly to Bryzant “Stay here and make sure no one accidentally stabs or clubs themselves or each other. And keep the door closed. I’ll return in a moment.”
Bryzant nodded, his eyes darting around the room as he searched for any suspect movement amid the destruction.
Serovek eased out of the kitchen, closing the door gently behind him before bolting for the bailey. He found Anhuset in short order, sitting amid a cluster of soldiers, a small heap of coins beside her as she watched Carov roll a set of bone dice into the center their makeshift circle.
She glanced up and instantly gained her feet, abandoning the game without hesitation. “What’s wrong?”
“The scarpatine has escaped.” He expected at least a huff of derisive laughter from her at her host’s carelessness, but all she did was bend to gather and pocket her winnings. “Any idea what room it’s in?”
“Still in the kitchen.” he gave a brief nod to the soldiers who’d risen as well and motioned for them to stay where they were. “The maids are standing on the tables, and the cook is stabbing at anything that moves. What’s the best way to catch Brishen’s fine gift?”
As tall as she was, Anhuset had a much easier time matching his pace than Bryzant did as they headed back to the fortress. “Use yourself as bait. I’ll do it. I’ve done it before. It’s easy enough if you’re quick.”
That sounded ominous, and Serovek wanted to ask her what she planned to do and how often scarpatines terrorized the kitchen staff at Saggara, but they reached the scene of mayhem before he had a chance.
The kitchen was in an even worse state than when he left it only moments earlier, and Bryzant had joined the maids perched on the preparation table, his weapon of choice, a rolling pin.
At Anhuset’s sharp whistle, everyone froze. All gazes settled on her as she held up a slender finger tipped with a sharp black claw. Her eyes shone like gold coins. “Stay still and quiet,” she said. “Otherwise I won’t be able to hear the scarpatine.”
No one argued, and all watched with wide eyes and bated breath as Anhuset pulled a knife from a sheath on her belt and made a shallow cut on the underside of her forearm. Blood trickled from the wound to splatter on the floor in crimson drops. She walked a few steps in one direction, leaving the sanguine equivalent of breadcrumbs in her wake. The silence in the kitchen breathed even when the occupants did not.
Her patience and bloodletting were rewarded when a scrabbling, clicking noise rose from under the shelter of a corner cupboard. A pair of black pincers emerged first, their ends snapping together. The scarpatine inched forward, revealing the rest of its armored body, including a tail that arched over its length, venom dripping from the tip to drizzle down the segmented carapace. Its back legs were longer than the front to accomodate a pair of venom sacs the size of hen’s eggs. Two pairs of eyes on short stalks swiveled in multiple directions before locking onto the drip trail of blood Anhuset had left on the floor.
A mass shudder swept the crowd. Even Serovek, who thoroughly enjoyed the Kai delicacy that was scarpatine pie, swallowed back a knot of revulsion when the insect’s proboscis emerged from a space between its jaws to suck up the blood.
Anhuset spared a glance for the cook who stood nearby. “Hand me your apron very slowly,” she said in a quiet voice. At his uncomprehending stare, her tone sharpened. “Now.”
Serovek tensed when the man did as she ordered, but in quick, jerky motions. The movement alarmed the scarpatine, who whipped around with a hiss to face this new threat and leapt at the cook.
Once more, pandemonium erupted as people not already standing on the furniture, leapt to any elevated space they could reach. A few tried to escape the kitchen altogether, only to find themselves facing Serovek’s daunting form blocking the door. His glare dared them to try and shove past. There was no way he’d open the door and chance the scarpatine escaping into another part of the citadel. They’d never find and capture it.
The creature was fast, but Anhuset was faster. She darted after the scarpatine, leaping over upended chairs and broken crockery while eluding the flailing elbows of terrified scullions.
A pounding on the kitchen door vibrated the wood against Serovek’s back. Voices called from the other side, inquiring, demanding entrance. “Margrave, what’s happening?!”
Serovek held the door shut and narrowed his eyes in warning as three of the younger scullions—lads no more than twelve or thirteen—considered their chances at going through him to get out of the kitchen. Their fear of the scarpatine was fast-overriding their deference to their liege. “All is well,” he bellowed over his shoulder to Carov on the other side. “Just give us a few moments.”
Anhuset had cornered the scarpatine not far from the hearth. Its tail struck at her, flinging droplets of black venom to sizzle on the floor planks. She danced out of the way, avoiding most of the splatter. The droplets that landed scorched the leather of her boots, leaving behind an acrid scent and tendrils of oily dark smoke. Woman and insect feinted with each other, she avoiding the nasty barb on the end of the scarpatine’s tail, the scarpatine dodging the apron she snapped toward it.
Suddenly, the scarpatine lunged at Anhuset. The maids screamed, the cook shouted, and the door smacked hard against Serovek’s spine. Anhuset twisted to the side and cast the apron like a net toward the creature. And missed. The creature darted back at the last moment, hissing its victory as it avoided the trap.
It lost no time in renewing its attack, launching itself once more at the Kai woman. This time Anhuset snatched the rolling pin out of a startled Bryzant’s grip and brought it down like an executioner’s ax on the scarpatine.
The insect burst under the impact, splattering guts, venom, and shattered carapace sharpnel in every direction. A rancid odor that reminded Serovek of a battlefield under a summer sun, filled the kitchen.
People covered their noses and mouths with their hands or aprons. The unmistakable sound of retching replaced the shouting. Serovek, who rarely suffered a weak stomach at even the most gruesome sights, felt his somersault in warning.
Unfazed by the smell or the slimy detritus of smashed scarpatine, Anhuset tossed the ruined rolling pin into the heart fire and inspected her boots where wisps of smoke drifted off new scorch marks for the venom splatter. She glanced at Serovek. “You owe me a new pair of boots, margrave.” She didn’t wait for his answer but turned her attention to the others.
“Check your clothing.” She pointed to her boots to emphasize the importance of that command. “If any of the venom is on it, don’t touch it with your bare hands. Cut your garb off if you have to. As you can see, the venom burns anything it touches. And someone get me a shovel so I can scoop this up and bury it.” She waved a casual hand at the smoking insect carcass as if it were as harmless as a dust ball.
“Can’t you just throw it in the fire?” Bryzant’s asked, still perched on the table.
“Only if you want to vomit up your insides once it starts to burn and make Lord Pangion’s home uninhabitable for a week.” She returned her attention to Serovek. “I’m afraid there will be no pie for you, Lord Pangion. Smashed scarpatine means spoiled meat.”
He straightened from the door to give his guest a quick bow. The kitchen looked like the aftermath of a whirlwind’s visit, but it was now at least safe to open the door. “We’ve squandered the Khaskem’s generous gift,” he said. His statement earned a few disbelieving coughs as well as an indignant snort or two. “But we thank you, sha-Anhuset, for taking care of the problem.”
As soon as Serovek shoved aside the bar holding the door closed, Carov and a half dozen soldiers stampeded inside, brandishing an array of weapons to save their master and his servants from the monster menacing them. They halted as a group just inside the threshold, awestruck.
“My gods,” the master-at-arms breathed out, eyes wide. “What happened?”
“A hard-fought battle with supper,” Serovek replied. “Sha-Anhuset won.”
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)