Link to part the sixth 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.
“Pluro Cermak’s farmstead.” Serovek gestured to a stretch of fallow fields sleeping under a thin blanket of new-fallen snow, the treeless landscape dotted by a large house and several barns. “Megiddo rests there.”
Shielded from the sun by her hood, Anhuset still squinted for a better look at the place where the monk’s body, alive but soulless, slept surrounded by a protective sepulchre of ancient Kai magic. Her horse’s breath streamed out in misty clouds that hung in the cold air, obscuring part of her view. A year ago, Anhuset might have sensed the presence of sorcery. No longer, and the reminder of what she–and all the Kai–had lost in the galla war deepened the hollow inside her.
She and Serovek had departed High Salure just before dawn, accompanied by a half dozen of his soldiers as they descended from the mountain fortress to the flat plains at its feet. They had ridden a half day, finally stopping on this small hillock overlooking the farmstead. The rattle of a harness and occasional creak of a saddle as someone shifted in their seat mingled with equine whuffles and the far-off call of the first birds returning north in anticipation of spring. Otherwise, their party was silent, waiting for their leader’s next instructions.
Serovek’s face was grim as he gazed down at his vassal’s holdings. Anhuset had seen the margrave flippant and teasing, an unabashed flirt who never failed to raise her hackles with his glib wit. She’d also seen him brave and self-sacrificing, displaying more nobility than sense on occasion. He was charming, ruthless, and calculating. A man of many facets who’d dug an arrowhead out of her shoulder with gentle hands, executed a murderer with those same hands, and rode into battle alongside a man his own king considered a possible enemy. She’d never seen him like this: remote, forbidding, as if the task of returning Megiddo’s body to the Jeden monks was a trial to be endured.
“Is the monk’s brother willing to give him up to his order? Or is this a thing he’s obligated to do?” She’d assumed the first, but the death of a loved one, especially an unnatural death like this, sometimes made people react in strange ways and hold on to that which had already left them long ago.
Serovek maneuvered his mount to start down the slope. Anhuset stayed abreast of him as the others fell in behind them. “My impression from his letter is that he welcomes the monastery’s willingness to take over guardianship of his brother’s body. He simply needs someone else to take Megiddo there.”
A man bearing a strong resemblance to Megiddo, only older, met them at the door. A woman, coifed and layered against the cold, stood next to them. Both bowed stiffly, and their gazes shuttled back and forth between Serovek and Anhuset, lingering on her the longest.
“Welcome, my lord.” Pluro Cermak offered a second bow. “We’re most pleased to have you guest with us. Come in from the cold.”
Anhuset didn’t follow Serovek across the threshold. The invitation had been for the vassal’s lord, not his escort, and she considered herself part of that group. They would wait outside until Lord Pangion had spent time with Cermak in courteous fraternization.
Serovek was having none of it. He half-turned, scowled at her and the soldiers with her, and motioned them forward. “Hurry it up. You lot are letting all the heat escape just standing there.”
Cermak’s wife gaped at them like a caught fish, eyes wide as she huddled behind her husband while the margrave and his party hustled into the hall. Anhuset entered last, using her heel to shut the door behind her.
Pluro motioned to the fire roaring in the hearth at one end of the room. As startled by the twist in social protocol as his wife, he still managed to remember his hosting duties. “Please stand by the fire and get warm. I’ll have food and drink brought.” He turned a severe look on Lady Cermak who fled for the kitchen.
Soon, a parade of servants, led by Lady Cermak, brought out cups of warm ale and hot tea, along with boards of bread and dried fruit set on a table not far from the hearth. Anhuset refused the food but nursed a cup of the tea, warming her hands around the heated ceramic.
“I hate it when he does this,” one of the soldiers closest to her muttered. “We’re better off in the kitchens flirting with the maids.”
Another elbowed him. “Stop complaining. It’s a sight better than standing outside freezing your balls off, and the ale isn’t half bad.”
Not part of their conversation, Anhuset kept her thoughts to herself, but she agreed with the first soldier. Every state dinner or social gathering she’d ever been forced to attend at Saggara had been an exercise in awkwardness. Brishen and Ildiko, raised among the intricacies of court machinations in Haradis and Pricid, navigated those dangerous waters with effortless finesse, and she’d witnessed Serovek do the same when he visited Saggara. She, however, lurched and stumbled her way through such interactions. The humble kitchen seemed a much more inviting place to her as well, even if it was in a human household, where the gods only knew what horrors lurked in the stew pots suspended over the cooking fires.
She grumbled under her breath but adopted a neutral expression when Serovek waved her to where he stood with Cermak and Lady Cermak. The woman’s eyes grew wider with every step Anhuset took, her face paler. Had Serovek’s master-at-arms been here, Anhuset might have put a wager forward over how long it took for the lady of the house to bolt, certain if she didn’t she’d be eaten.
As if a Kai warrior accompanying his entourage was an everyday event, Serovek casually introduced her to his vassal. “This is Anhuset, the Kai regent’s second, what they call a sha, similar to Carov, only with more power and more responsibility. She’s agreed to accompany us to the monastery as a representative of the Kai kingdom.”
Anhuset pushed back her hood so their hosts might have a better look at her and gave a short bow. “I am honored,” she said, careful not to expose too much of her teeth. Usually, she made extra effort to grin at any human she crossed, just for the sport of eliciting a reaction. That had no place here, especially since the lady of the house was twitchier than a rabbit and on the verge of banking off the walls at the merest ripple of her own shadow.
A small meeping noise escaped Lady Cermak, and though her throat visibly worked to exhale breath or words, nothing else escaped her mouth. Her husband had better luck. As pale as his wife and shackled to her by the death grip she had on his elbow, Pluro still managed a polite greeting. “Welcome to Mordrada Farmstead, sha-Anhuset. We appreciate the regent’s acknowledgement of my brother’s service to him.”
More dull pleasantries passed between them until the tea was gone and the food eaten. Anhuset hoped they wouldn’t linger much longer. They’d come for Megiddo, not to while away the day in stilted conversation with his brother. They still had several hours on horseback ahead of them before they stopped for the night at a riverside village Serovek had pointed out on his map the previous evening.
He set his cup down on the table. His men followed suit as did Anhuset. “I thank you for your hospitality, but we’ve a long journey ahead of us. If you’ll take us to where you’re holding Megiddo, we’ll load him into the wagon we brought and be on our way.”
A quick, silent conversation passed between Pluro and his wife, words conveyed only through long looks and fast blinks. Lady Cermak, still mute, still nervous, finally spoke, and only to excuse herself from their company. Anhuset had the impression she’d just abandoned her husband to a fate of which she wanted no part.
Pluro straightened his quilted tunic and flexed his shoulders if he prepared for a confrontation. Serovek’s eyebrows crawled toward his hairline though he said nothing. The vassal motioned to the hall’s entrance. “If you’ll follow me please.”
Whispers of inquiry exchanged between those in Serovek’s escort reached Anhuset as they all trailed the two men out of the manor and back into the cold outdoors. Serovek fell back a step or two until Anhuset came abreast of him. Pluro didn’t wait but strode ahead , skirting a flock of roaming geese and a pair of hay carts parked nearby. Lines of wash flapped in the cutting breeze as the maids hooking garments to the lengths of ropes halted numerous times to blow on their cold hands.
“What do you think?” Serovek asked her, his voice quiet.
She tried not to dwell on the pleasurable warmth that coursed through her at his request for her opinion. “I didn’t expect the monk to not be in his brother’s house.”
“Nor I.” He signalled to the rest of his men. “Wagon,” he said. They saluted and broke away to retrieve the wagon they’d brought transport Megiddo.
When they approached the smallest of the farmstead’s three barns, Serovek’s harsh “Surely, he’s jesting,” echoed her own thoughts. There was no possible way Pluro had stashed his own brother in a barn with the livestock. However, the man never changed directions, and soon they entered the dark, pungent structure.
Occupied by a few head of cattle, two mules, and a small number of sheep, the barn was a little warmer than outside, but their breath still steamed in front of them. Weak sunlight bled through splits in the building’s cladding and flooded the entrance, illuminating the space enough for the two men to see without too much trouble. Anhuset saw everything clearly, including the ominous thunderhead that had descended over Serovek’s countenance.
Pluro led them to the very back of the barn, past the stalls, hay racks and shelves of tack and tools, to another closed door partially covered in an array of webs spun by busy spiders. The webbing spread across the hinges and surrounded the latch and handle, tell-tale signs that it had been some time since anyone had disturbed their labor by opening the door.
Anhuset and Serovek waited as their host paused to light an oil lamp before brushing away the webs and freeing the latch. Hinges squealed as he pushed the door inward. The newborn flames inside the lamp stretched fingers of light into the ink-dark room. Shadows fled at their encroachment, and soon the flickering illumination spilled onto a bier on which a man lay in peaceful repose.
Anhuset took in the sight with a heart that slowed its beat and breath that hovered in her nostrils. Beside her, Serovek sighed softly, a reverent sound laced with regret. Five men had sacrificed much to battle galla and save a world. One of them had paid an even more terrible price.
Megiddo Cermak breathed but slept the slumber of the dead, his soul trapped in a galla prison while his body, kept alive and protected by ancient Kai magic, waited for his soul’s return. He wore armor similar to Serovek’s but plainer, its only nod to decorative elements a border of runes etched into the steel around the collar of his breastplate.
The bier on which he lay was a simple affair of wooden slats laid adjacent to each other, their ends fastened at either side to rails that ran the length of the platform. Designed for ease of transporting the dead, the bier acted as Megiddo’s transparentcoffin as well for now. Kai magic, the last remnants of power Brishen had drawn out of his own people with necromantic spellwork and held onto in the hope he might one day rescue the monk, flitted across the width and length of the bier in tiny blue sparks that faded as fast as they ignited.
A year ago, Anhuset would have sensed Megiddo’s presence even before she reached the barn, felt the pull of sorcery similar to her own, albeit feeble, magic. No longer. Now there was nothing. No twinge or draw, no prickle along her spine. Not even a strip of gooseflesh to signal an awareness of magic.
She’d know the moment it happened, when the desperate Khaskem had stripped every adult Kai of their magic in order to save them from total annihilation. A hollow had opened up inside her and stayed. Neither rage, nor grief, nor acceptance of the necessity of Brishen’s devastating act filled it. Anhuset stared at Megiddo–more simulacrum than living man despite the fact he breathed–then looked away.
She focused instead on Serovek whose features had gone so pale, he fairly glowed in the dark. His nostrils were flared, reminding her of an angry bull, and his hand clenched on the pommel of his sword as if he were tempted to draw it.
“Why is your brother’s body housed in one of your barns with the livestock instead of in the house?” He bit out each word from between clenched teeth, his tone quiet but no less menacing for its lack of volume.
Pluro blanched. Anhuset took a quick step back just in case the man’s fright twisted his guts enough that he retched up his stomach’s contents. He crossed his arms, not in confrontation but in defense, as if the pose might somehow save him should Serovek decide to split him from throat to bollocks with his blade. His explanation came out in a long, stuttering string of words sprayed into the cold air.
“It wasn’t always so, Lord Pangion. Megiddo was in the house for a time. We had no choice but to move him here. Strange things happened when we kept him there. Voices whispering when no one was in the room. Odd lights without fire or candle to birth them.” He shivered, and not from the cold. “All of us dreamed terrible dreams, nightmares to wake you in a sweat. Our servants refused to sleep in their rooms any longer, and some refused to work inside. My wife needs the help, so I thought it best to move Megiddo here. I didn’t see the harm. After all, he’s unaware of his surroundings. He wouldn’t know or care. Once I did so, everything returned to normal. No voices, no nightmares, no lights.”
His description sent a splinter of unease down Anhuset’s back. She recalled her conversation with Ildiko about Brishen’s nightmares, had seen herself the shimmer of sorcerous blue that had edged his eye, as if the dark magic that had turned him eidolon still lingered inside him, tied somehow to the deathless warrior lying motionless before her.
What Pluro described wouldn’t have been enough to convince her Megiddo belonged in an isolated barn, forgotten. Unlike the vassal, however, she hadn’t seen the galla firsthand. He had, and from her observations of her own countrymen who’d fled Haradis before the galla horde, the experience left the lingering stain of terror on the soul and the mind. She didn’t approve of his actions, considering them weak, but she didn’t condemn him for them either.
Serovek wasn’t as forgiving. He glared at Pluro so hard, the man should have caught fire. “Find my men,” he said in those same quiet, seething tones. “Tell them to bring the wagon here. We’ll be gone as soon as we move Megiddo out of this hole.”
Pluro fled without a word, nearly falling over his own feet to escape the barn. Anhuset watched him a moment before turning back to Serovek who stared at Megiddo’s still form with an expression still furious but also haunted.
“His brother saved him twice, and this is how Pluro repays him,” he said. “Megiddo should have let the galla have him.”
She touched his arm with one claw tip. “Strength isn’t always a gift shared between blood. The gods gifted one man with the courage of two. Your vassal’s failing isn’t that he’s evil; it’s that he’s craven.”
Serovek stared at her for a moment, his flinty expression softening a little. “You never cease to surprise me, Anhuset. You’re far more lenient about this than I am. History has proven more than a few times that evil is often the spawn of cowardice.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to be forgiving toward Cermak. Megiddo rode beside you into battle, suffered through the bloodletting required by the ancient spellwork just as you did. You saw firsthand what happened to him. In your place, I might not have held back from carving Pluro into pieces at the knowledge he put Megiddo here.”
His mouth quirked a little. “Saw that, did you?”
“You were hardly subtle.” She moved closer to the bier. “He looks peaceful. You all did once the spell that made you eidolon took hold. Do you think he suffers pain?”
Serovek shrugged. “His body? No. His soul? I wish I could say no to that as well, but I think it otherwise.” Guilt and regret seeped into his words.
She turned fully to meet his eyes, so dark against his winter-pale skin. “It wasn’t your fault.”
He went rigid once more. “I never said it was.”
“You didn’t have to. Many who escaped the razing of Haradis are eaten alive with guilt over their own survival, even when they know there was nothing they could do for those who perished.”
Serovek’s breath steamed from his nostrils on a long exhalation. “Sometimes I think we stand easier under the yoke of our own sacrifices than we do under the yoke of someone else’s.”
How well she understand that sentiment. The image of his expression at the moment she had stabbed him to trigger the magic that would turn him eidolon remained etched in her mind. Agony, shock, even when he knew what to expect and joked about it until the moment the sword entered his body. She remembered the feel of severed muscle clenching involuntarily around the blade as she drew it out, the weight of his body when he collapsed in her arm, the hot gush of his blood saturating her midriff as she held him.
He had never forgiven her for that violence because he had never blamed her for it. She carried enough self-blame for them both. He had saved her once. Her gratitude had been brutal.
Footsteps entering the barn intruded on her dark thoughts. The tread didn’t belong to Pluro Cermak. It was confident instead of diffident, and without fear.
Erostis, one of the High Salure soldiers, appeared at the doorway. His gaze flickered briefly to Megiddo before settling on Serovek. “The wagon is right outside, margrave. We’re ready when you are.”
Serovek nodded. “Let’s get to it then. No need to linger here any longer than necessary.”
The room was too small for more than two people to maneuver the bier and carry it through the doorway. Serovek didn’t question whether or not Anhuset was strong enough–for which she was most pleased–only instructed her to stand at one end of the platform while he stood at the other and lift.
They carried the bier into the main part of the barn where Serovek’s men waited to take a position on either side and act as pall bearers. Anhuset gave up her spot to one of the soldiers to follow them outside where the wagon was parked just beyond the entrance.
Except for a clutch of hens hovering nearby in case someone chose to scatter feed on the muddy ground, the yard was empty. She eyed the manor house and caught a glimpse of faces peering from the windows in both the ground floor and upper stories. Servants, most of them, but Anhuset would have bet her favorite horse that Pluro Cermak and his skittish wife hid among the watching crowd.
They loaded Megiddo’s bier into the back of the wagon and strapped the platform down with rope so it wouldn’t move as they traveled over rutted roads. One of the men brought a large blanket and cast it over the monk. The fabric didn’t fall directly onto his body, but draped above it as if Megiddo lay within a box whose sides and lid the blanket now covered. Serovek spoke briefly to the wagon driver for a moment before turning to the rest of their escort.
“Mount your horses. We’re done here.”
Anhuset guided her horse until it stood alongside Serovek’s. “No farewells for Megiddo’s brother? He hasn’t even seen fit to come out and bid you good journey or thank you for making the trip.”
The margrave’s upper lip lifted in a sneer as he raked the manor house with a hard stare. “He’s probably too busy trying to find where he misplaced his spine. Gratitude and good wishes from a sniveling coward like that are worth less than his silence.” He tapped his heels to his horse’s sides, and the animal stepped high into a brisk walk. “We ride,” he called to the group.
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)