Link to part the fifth 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.
As we move through a strange spring toward an unpredictable summer, I hope this serialized version offers some entertainment for you. Stay well. Stay safe.
On with the show.
The meal that evening was a more humble affair than he originally planned. After the disaster in the kitchen and the colossal clean-up that followed, it was a wonder they ate at all. He considered it prudent to simply avoid the cook and his many knives before the man decided it might be a fine idea to serve his lordship’s own heart back to him and his Kai guest on his best platter.
Anhuset sat to Serovek’s left at the table, the only two people brave enough to linger in the great hall. She contentedly cleaned her plate and went back for seconds, despite an initial hesitation that had her sniffing suspiciously at some of the covered dishes the servants set before her.
“I had hoped to offer you a more laudable feast than this,” Serovek said, gesturing to the plates of cured meats, eggs, cheese, bread and butter. A humble repast and one guaranteed to garner disdainful sniffs from even the lowliest Beladine gentryman.
Anhuset was not Beladine gentry. She shrugged. “There’s nothing wrong with anything here. It’s good food.” Her features pinched into a disgusted scowl. “I’m just thankful you didn’t serve those vile, maggoty things humans seem to favor with their supper.”
He blinked. Maggoty things? He tried to recall what common food resembled something as repulsive as a cooked maggot. Nothing came to mind. “We don’t eat maggots, at least not that I’m aware of.”
“They aren’t really maggots.” She downed a swallow of ale before continuing. “They just look like them. Hand-sized with a thin brown skin that hides a soft inside which turns to a white mush when it’s cook. It reminds me a little of candle wax and tastes like dirt.” She shuddered. “Brishen almost didn’t survive his wedding day because of them. His entire retinue contemplated assassination because we had to eat them so as not to insult our Gauri hosts.”
An image of the food she described filled his mind, and a burst of laughter escaped him. “You’re talking about a potato!” The bland, common potato. The Kai viewed it with the same aversion that most humans viewed scarpatine pie. Serovek laughed even harder at the notion.
“Whatever it’s called, it’s revolting. The entire ride here, I worried I’d have to eat another one at High Salure. I was prepared to claim a puny gut and skip supper entirely.” She speared half an egg with her eating knife and held it up to him in salute. “I thank you for the small mercy of not serving one to me.”
Serovek returned the salute with a lift of his goblet. “The least I could do for you saving my servants from the scarpatine.”
A tiny smile flitted across her mouth. Her lips drew back a fraction, exposing the white points of her teeth. Like her claws, they were among the more obvious and intimidating reminders that she wasn’t human, but a member of the last Elder race still occupying these lands. Indomitable. Fierce. Fading with every generation born. The last wasn’t common knowledge, and Serovek only knew of it from his stint as a Wraith King. He’d be surprised if, in a few centuries, there were any Kai left. The thought saddened him.
“You’ve gone from laughter to melancholy in less time than it takes me to drain a good ale,” Anhuset said. “You never before struck me as moody.”
Truth be told, he wasn’t the same man he’d been a year ago. He still appreciated a good joke or turn of phrase, still enjoyed a good romp between the sheets with an enthusiastic bed partner and a fast gallop on his favorite horse, and could still laugh easily at the odd humor of life itself. But a darkness ran through him now, a shallow stream of gloom he couldn’t shake off, no matter how much he tried. He knew its source: Megiddo’s ghastly fate and his own guilt in not being able to save the monk.
He pushed aside the haunting memory of Megiddo’s eyes as the galla dragged his eidolon into the void of their prison. Serovek shook away the thought. There lay the stuff of nightmares, and they had no place here at his table.
“I’m as predictable as the sunrise,” he told Anhuset and chuckled at her snort. “I was just thinking you don’t smile much. You should. Your features are made for it.” He didn’t fabricate. There was an austerity to her face that was softened by her toothy smile, and unlike many, he wasn’t intimidated by the sight of her pointed teeth.
“Like this,” she said, baring her ivories to the back molars in a wolfish grin.
Serovek rolled his eyes and coughed his laughter into his goblet when she reared back in her seat, grin evaporating. She stared at him as if he’d suddenly grown a third arm or an eye in the middle of his forehead.
“Are any of you aware of just how hideous doing that makes you?” she said.
He toasted her a second time. “Only to the Kai, sha-Anhuset.”
Such a ubiquitous expression of mild annoyance was so prevalent among humans, no one thought anything of it. He certainly hadn’t until he witnessed Brishen’s involuntary reaction to Ildiko doing it one time. It had puzzled him at first until she enlightened him as to the reason behind the Kai’s response. He’d been careful since then to guard his own expressions whenever he visited Saggara. In the comfort of his own home, he’d forgotten. Anhuset had reacted with the expected loathing.
Serovek shrugged inwardly. She wasn’t a fragile thing. She’d recover and adjust. He had no intention of tip-toeing around her on this trip or demanding his men do the same. She would resent it if he did.
After supper, he invited her to join him in the same study where he’d met with his steward and discuss the way they planned to take to the monastery. Once there, he unrolled a detailed map on the table for their perusal, pointing to various landmarks that dotted the route.
Anhuset stood beside him, studying the map as he traced the meandering line that marked the flow of the Absu river along the borders shared by the Kai and the Beladine before it turned east toward Bast-Haradis.
“We’ll take a barge down a portion of the Absu and then one of its tributaries until that branches at a shallower stream. From there, it’s by horseback all the way. We can transport Megiddo by wagon and then by sled if necessary. There will still be snow in some places.”
“I have better sight in the dark than you do,” she said. “If we travel by day, I can scout ahead at night once we stop so we know what’s ahead at daybreak. I can sleep in the saddle if need be while we travel.”
Hers wasn’t a boast. Any soldier worth his sword could sleep on horseback when necessary. He’d lost count of the times he’d done so himself. “Do you want an extra scout? I have one who’s good in both daylight and at night.”
She tried—and failed—to hide her pique at the suggestion. “No. I’ll cover ground faster on my own.”
“Fair enough.” He didn’t insist. She had her pride, and he trusted her abilities. “Should you change your mind, don’t hesitate to say so.” He’d grow old and die waiting for such a thing, but the offer was there. She gave a quick nod, her stance relaxing a little as she returned to studying the map.
They spent another half hour discussing the distance they wanted to cover each day and when they expected to return to their respective homes. Despite the sudden clenching in his gut at the idea, he extended another offer to Anhuset.
“The fork in the Absu that will take us closer to the monastery is just north of Haradis.” She visibly flinched when he spoke of the Kai capitol. “If you wish it, we can sail a little farther south so you can reconnoiter the city and report its state back to Brishen. It will be a simple thing to bring the barge around and sail north again to the river’s fork. We’d lose a day at most, and the monks haven’t specified an exact date for when they want Megiddo.”
She stilled next to him, deep in contemplation. Her eyes were pools of firefly light when she fixed her gaze on him, a hesitancy in her expression he’d never seen before. “You wouldn’t mind?”
“No.” A whisper of memory grazed his mind. Sibilant laughter formed of ancient malice. “I wouldn’t have offered if I did.”
“Then yes, and I thank you for it.” She gave him the Kai salute of rank and file to a commander. “I won’t linger, and the Khaskem may find what I learn useful.”
When they finished with their planning, he invited her to join him on the balcony that led off the large solar at the other end of the corridor from the study. “The view is worth suffering my company,” he said and winked.
She sniffed. “I find you annoying, not insufferable. Yet.”
Serovek stopped a servant with a request that wine be brought to the balcony. He pretended not to hear her faint gasp when she stepped onto the balcony and the expansive view of the mountainside from High Salure’s towering perspective.
A clear night and a bright moon cast the landscape into sharp silhouette, turning the tops of the evergreens covering the slopes into claw tips that jutted skyward. Torches lit in the bailey below flickered like jewels. To the north, the snow-capped Dramorins fenced the lands that separated the kingdom of Belawat from the flat plains of Bast-Haradis’s hinterlands in the east. The liquid ribbon that was the Absu slithered through the landscape, umbilical cord of trade between three kingdoms and numerous cities and towns.
Serovek never grew tired of this view. If he actually lived to old age, he hoped his last days would be spent here, looking out at such grandeur, as glorious in the darkness as it was in the daylight. “What do you think?” he asked his silent companion.
She didn’t answer him right away, and he took the time to admire her profile. The frosty moonlight sharpened the angles of her face so that her facial bones looked as if they had been carved from the shards of a dark mirror. Her long nose complimented the curve of her cheekbone, and the hollow below it. She wore her hair shorter than he was used to seeing on a woman, the length just resting at her shoulders. Fly-away strands caught in the wind that scoured the slopes to partially obscure her jaw. A few strands stuck to her lower lip before she pulled them aside with the flick of a claw tip.
Sha-Anhuset wasn’t beautiful. Not in the way of Beladine women or even human women in general. Not even in the way of Kai women. But she was sublime, as majestic and unyielding as the distant Dramorins. And just as unconquerable. The first time Serovek had seen her at Saggara, he’d been awestruck. It was no less so in this moment. Maybe even more now that he knew her better and had glimpsed the stalwart heart that beat beneath the armored breastplate.
Her lamplight gaze shifted to him. “Impressive,” she finally said. “And easily defended.”
He snorted. “Planning an invasion, madam?”
“Hardly. Brishen keeps me too busy at Saggara to make plans for conquering High Salure.” A worry line marred her smooth forehead for a moment, though she said nothing more.
“I’ve no doubt of that. We’ll all be experiencing ripple effects of the galla infestation, the Kai kingdom most of all.” He didn’t envy the Khaskem. That the kingdom of Bast-Haradis hadn’t yet disintegrated was a credit to Brishen’s even-handed rule as regent.
A statuesque study in light and shade, she turned to face him fully. “All the Kai owe you a debt of gratitude for fighting alongside the herceges. You sacrificed much. Suffered much.”
Her voice echoed with memory. He knew what she recalled in her mind’s eye because he saw it in his own. Her steady grip on his sword pommel, the resolute horror in her face when she’d skewered him on the blade and embraced him in her strong arms so he wouldn’t fall. A shared intimacy of purposeful savagery in the service of a man trying to save a world from destruction. Nightmares of that moment still plagued Serovek. He wondered if they plagued Anhuset as well.
“Not nearly as much as some.”
He nodded. “And others. I’ve heard rumors. The Kai unable to capture the mortem lights of their dead, a loss of magic. All of that has something to do with the galla.”
She’d gone stiff as a spear shaft while he spoke, and her expression closed as tightly against him as the door he’d barred to the kitchen earlier.
“I suppose so,” she said in a flat voice. “If you’re inclined to believe rumors.”
He didn’t press her to expound upon his commentary, and the tightness around her mouth warned him he’d find the endeavor a futile one if he tried. She had, however, confirmed what he’d begun to suspect. The galla were defeated and once more imprisoned, but that triumph had come with more than the price of Megiddo’s sacrifice. The demons spawned by the ancient Gullperi had left their mark on the Kai in ways beyond the razing of Haradis.
She caught him by surprise when she abruptly changed the topic of conversation. “You’re a wealthy margrave with influence. Why haven’t you married?” Her sharp teeth gleamed white in the darkness at his wide-eyed stare.
He recovered quickly enough and matched her smile with a wry one of his own. Subtle verbal deflection wasn’t her strong suit. “Who says I haven’t?”
His question took her aback. He saw it in the way her fingers tightened on the stem of her wine goblet and the slight jerk of her shoulders. “Well then, are you or aren’t you?”
Tonight was obviously a night for recollection. None of it cheerful.
He stared into the black pool of wine in his goblet, seeing the vision of a sweet face and brown eyes. He had cared for but not loved the woman he’d married. He’d instantly loved but never had a chance to know the daughter she bore him. He still grieved them both. “I was,” he said. “A decade ago. She was proud. Beautiful. Long hair that she wore tied back with silk ribbons.”
Anhuset’s features were no longer stiff as before, and she tilted her head to consider him as if he were suddenly a brand new enigma to her. “You like soft women.”
He chuckled, welcoming her comment. “I like strong women. Soft…” He bowed to her. “Or not.”
They were both quiet for a moment, staring at the shadow-shrouded mountainside that even the bright moon no longer illuminated.
“I’m not sure I’d know what to do with a hair ribbon,” Anhuset finally said, addressing the the stars above them.”
“Probably strangle someone with it.”
She choked on the wine she’d just sipped, and Serovek thumped her on the back until she quieted. Then she laughed, and he was lost.
There was the magic of the Kai, and then there was the sorcery of Anhuset’s laughter. The purr of a cat mixed with the promise of a warm fire and the sleepy seduction of a satisfied lover, all bound together into a sound that rolled out of her throat and rasped past her lips to bewitch him.
“I will take that as a compliment and bid you good evening, margrave,” she said, setting her half empty goblet down on the balcony’s railing cap. “I’ll see you at dawn?”
He remembered to nod, even as all the blood in his body rushed toward his groin. He’d bless the darkness for its concealment except for the fact his companion saw better at night than she did during the day. “Shall I send a servant to fetch you?”
She declined the offer and bid him a peaceful sleep. He watched her until she disappeared from sight.
Serovek groaned under his breath. “Peaceful sleep. Not likely,” he muttered. He drained the contents of his goblet and did the same with Anhuset’s. He didn’t remember the last time he’d indulged in such a luxury as restful sleep, but maybe this time his dreams wouldn’t be of a doomed monk but of a silvery-haired woman of imposing gravitas and firefly eyes. One could always hope.
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)