Link to part the seventh 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.
By unspoken agreement, the riders arranged themselves into a chevron around the wagon with Serovek taking point lead and two riders behind him and in front of the wagon. Anhuset joined the remaining three soldiers in the back. Megiddo, his bier strapped down securely in the wagon, slept undisturbed.
They traveled the road that crisscrossed both Kai and Beladine lands until it it curved toward the banks of the Absu to run parallel to the shore. The remains of a wooden bridge stood on either side where the river was narrow, its piles cut away by ax or saw where they would have supported the pile caps, stringers, and deck.
The soldier riding in front of Anhuset spoke. “I think every bridge that crosses the river has been destroyed. I’ll bet some of Cermak’s men turned this one to kindling when they were running from the galla.”
The land on this side of the Absu had been protected from the galla invasion by the river itself. Water acted as a barrier against the demons, and the only way they could cross was by bridge, either natural or manmade. Cermak’s farmstead had lain on the wrong side of the river, vulnerable to the galla. Their household had been lucky to escape with their lives. Anhuset was surprised that Pluro had returned to re-establish his farmstead, even knowing the Wraith Kings had rid the world of the demons’ threat.
They rode past the bridge’s remains. Farther down the river, a small towboat and barge serviced the small farmsteads in the area. It was large enough to transport the wagon and its cargo down the river along with its escort in two trips. It was at that crossing they’d stay the night in the Beladine village of Edarine.
Taciturn by nature, Anhuset was content to simply listen, without commenting, to the idle chit-chat the three men riding beside and in front of her swapped between them. She spent the time dozing in quick catnaps as the sunlight carved paths in the clouds overhead and warmed her shoulders. These were the hours she normally slept when she wasn’t on patrol or guard duty, and her horse’s easy gait made her even drowsier. She blinked, focusing her attention on Serovek’s broad back as he rode ahead of them.
A flutter of…something danced under her breastbone at the memory of his revelation from the previous evening. He’d been married once. To a beautiful woman who wore ribbons in her hair. Affection had laced his voice when he spoke of her, along with old grief. Curiosity for this nameless wife plagued her even now, though she’d cut out her own tongue before she asked for details. She allowed herself a tiny smile, remembering his quip when she told him she wouldn’t know what to do with a hair ribbon. He’d always been forthright in his admiration for her acerbic wit. Maybe because he possessed the same at times.
The trip to Edarine remained uneventful, though the towboat captain asked more than a few questions as to what was under the blanket in the wagon. While Anhuset considered threatening the man into silence by offering to cut out his tongue, Serovek patiently fielded each question, keeping up a steady stream of conversation without ever answering a single one of his inquiries.
Once they disembarked, they traveled a drover’s path and reached the outskirts of the town just as twilight chased the sun westward. Serovek sent one of his men ahead to secure lodgings for the night, then turned and called Anhuset to join him up front.
“Edarine hosts a good market, even in the cold months,” he said. “We’ll purchase more provisions tomorrow for the trip before we take the road again. There’s an inn with clean rooms and a tavern that serves decent ale and food.” He chuckled at her involuntary recoil at the mention of food. “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure they don’t serve you the potatoes.”
She dreaded what supper might have in store, vowing only to taste enough as a gesture of goodwill in case it was foul, which she fully expected. She gestured to wagon behind them. “What will you do with the monk?”
Frown lines marred his brow for a moment. “I’ll be guilty of hypocrisy for a night,” he said. “Carrying him into the inn so he can stay in a room will bring more attention on us than I care to have. We’ll leave the bier in the wagon and rent a stall in the inn’s stables.”
“I’ll stand guard,” she volunteered. “I can eat in the stables as well. Me at your table in a common room will draw all the attention you’re hoping to avoid. “It only made sense that she keep watch through the night. Nor did she much relish the idea of pacing the confines of a room in an inn crowded with so many humans.
“I’m happy to put you on guard duty,” he said, “I can’t think of a more vigilant protector, though you’re always welcome at my table, wherever that may be. Curious eyes be damned.”
His praise sent another of those awful, embarrassing blushes crawling up her neck to her cheeks. She gave him a quick salute and trotted back to her place behind the wagon, adopting such a forbidding expression that none of the men riding with her dared ask what she spoke about with the margrave.
Except for a cat that paused in its hunting rounds to watch their group ride past, the streets of Adarine were deserted after dusk. Lamplight filled the windows in the houses lining the main thoroughfare, and a few faces appeared behind them, curious as to who rode through the streets at an hour when the shops were closed and most travelers had found their lodgings for the night.
The inn where they planned to stay stood at the other side of the town, a two-story structure from which spilled light and music. Several wagons were parked nearby, and numerous horses crowded the yard of the adjacent stables. A figure emerged from the inn to greet them, the soldier Serovek had sent ahead to secure lodgings for them.
“They had two rooms remaining, my lord. The rest are taken. The innkeeper has said he and his wife are happy to give up their bedroom to the margrave for the night.”
Serovek snorted. “Generous but not necessary.” He dismounted and tossed the reins to the man. “I’ll speak to the innkeeper. Get the horses settled. Did you find a place for them and for our cargo?” At the other’s nod, he crooked a finger to the wagon’s driver. “Klanek, have Weson show you where to park the wagon and where to unload. Sha-Anhuset will accompany you.”
The stall reserved for them was spacious, clean, and tucked far in the back of the stables, away from the main traffic of stablehands and riders coming and going. Judging by the size and the pristine conditions of the space, Anhuset guessed Weson had spent quite a bit of Serovek’s coin for it. Fresh straw covered the floor in a thick carpet, and someone had brought in extra saddle padding as bedding, along with an extra unlit oil lamp if needed.
She, Weson, and two more of their escort carried Megiddo’s bier into the stable, setting it down gently alongside the stall’s back wall. She straightened the blanket in spots where their movements had dislodged the cover to reveal hints of what lay beneath. Some of the stablehands had paused in their tasks to watch them pass, but their attention had been solely on Anhuset instead of what she and the others transported.
After assuring her companions that not only was she comfortable in the stall but happy to be there by herself, they left to join Serovek in the inn. The lamp remained unlit, an unnecessary convenience for her and more of a fire hazard than anything. The stablehands faded away once their work was done, and soon the stable grew dark. Anhuset sat down not far from the bier and reclined against the wall, happy to soak in the darkness and listen to the whuffles and snorts of the horses in the adjacent stalls.
Hints of blue iridescence shimmered under the blanket covering Megiddo. Anhuset leaned over to slide back a corner of the cover for a look at his still features. Had she no knowledge of how he came to be in this predicament, she might have thought him only asleep.
She’d first met him months earlier when he had arrived at Saggara with Serovek, volunteering his sword and his soul to fight the galla. Anhuset might have said all of a dozen words to him in the very short time she’d known him, but he’d left her with an impression of ascetic dignity. Even now, his features, expressionless in soulless, ensorcelled sleep, retained a certain gravitas that made her want to bow to him in a show of respect.
The murmur of voices on the other side of the stable wall reached her ears. She stood, passing along the stall’s back wall until she found an opening where one of the boards had warped enough to create a space between it and the board next to it. She glimpsed the silhouettes of three people, one tall and brawny, the other two much shorter and slight. One of the voices belonged to Serovek. The other two were feminine, full of smiles and flirtatious laughter. As their figures moved closer to the stable, their change in positions highlighted more details.
Serovek headed in the direction of the stable’s entrance, a woman on either side of him, attached to his elbows like arm ornaments. He carried a wrapped parcel in one hand and a tankard in another. His deep voice floated in the night air, amused, seductive, teasing. The women laughed, one nestling his arm into her generous cleavage while the other flipped her hair back to show the graceful line of her neck to its best advantage.
An annoying spasm in Anhuset’s right eyelid made her rub at the spot. She did her best to ignore the sharp flare of irritation, turning away from the narrow view of the trio to resume her seat next to Megiddo’s bier. It was no business of hers what the margrave of High Salure got up to or with whom. She was here only as Brishen’s representative. Nothing more. A trill of feminine laughter taunted her. She clenched her jaw and hummed a Kai drinking song to herself to drown out the sound.
She kept her seat when the smaller entrance door to the stable opened then shut. Only one set of footfalls headed toward her, barely discernible, especially for such a big man. His were the only steps, and Anhuset watched the stall entrance for his appearance with narrowed eyes, still annoyed by the the unsettling pang lodged in her chest at the sight of him with the women. She refused to name the feeling though that same inner voice which called her a liar was more than happy to do so.
“Jealousy,” it whispered in her mind.
Anhuset growled low in her throat.
The footsteps halted. “Tell me that’s you greeting my arrival with great joy, Anhuset.”
She snorted, amused. “It’s me.”
“Damn black as the bottom of an inkwell in here,” Serovek groused. “I’m probably about to walk into a horse.”
Glad he chose not to bring his admirers with him into the stable, she repaid the kindness by reaching for the flint and steel in the small pouch belted at her waist so she could light the lamp she’d left unlit. The flare of the wick made her blink, eroding the finer edges of her vision with its brightness. She placed the lamp atop the stall’s midrail, scraping away the straw on the floor underneath it to create a small firebreak just in case it toppled.
Serovek entered the stall, mouth turned up in a smile. He held up the cloth-wrapped package and the tankard. “Supper, if you’re willing to brave it.” He sat down beside her and slit the parcel and tankard toward her. “I promise there’s no potato in there.”
It smelled delectable. Salt, roasted meat, the underlying sharpness of spicy peppers, and the rich dairy scent of hot butter. Despite her misgivings, her mouth watered, and she picked apart the cloth with eager fingers. A savory pie—one that didn’t squirm about under the crust—lay in the center of the kerchief, a spoon next to it.
Serovek chuckled at her appreciative inhalation as she closed her eyes and breathed deep. “No doubt, this will be a boring meal for you. You don’t have the battle the contents to see who’s going to eat whom.”
“Believe it or not,” she said, “but I’m not always eager for a scuffle, especially when it involves my supper.” She snatched up the spoon and dug into the pie. “You have my eternal gratitude, margrave,” she told Serovek after the first piquant spoonful.
“I’m pleased you’re pleased,” he said before echoing her earlier pose to lean back against the stall divider. He closed his eyes and stretched out his long legs, crushing straw stalks under his heels.
Anhuset ate the pie and finished off the ale he brought in silence, glad that Serovek wasn’t a man who found it necessary to carry on a conversation during a meal. She rewrapped her now empty pie plate and set it aside, along with the tankard. Belly full, she shifted her position, this time to recline against the bier so that she faced her companion who appeared to have fallen asleep while she supped. She took the opportunity to look her fill.
As much as she was reluctant to admit it, only his strange, human eyes were truly repulsive to her. They darted here and there in their sockets, reminding her of mice caught in bone traps. She’d never understand how Brishen had grown used to seeing it with Ildiko. When, however, Serovek lowered his lids, hiding that particular hideousness, the beauty of his features bloomed before her. And her annoyance and fear bloomed right along with it.
“What are you staring at, sha-Anhuset?” A thread of humor wove through his question, as if he could hear what she thought and found it amusing. He didn’t bother to open his eyes.
She scowled, mortified at being caught gawking at him like some love-sick juvenile. “Your ugly face,” she snapped.
He opened his eyes this time, deep water blue with black pupils like whirlpools at their centers. His lips parted in a grin, revealing white teeth, square as a horse’s. So utterly different from a Kai’s own sharp ivories. He gestured to the bier behind her and the still Megiddo recumbent upon it. “He’s far prettier than I am.”
Anhuset cocked an eyebrow. “And he’s mostly dead. Doesn’t say much for your looks, does it, Stallion?” She instantly regretted the harsh words. He hadn’t deserved them. He frightened her, twisted her into knots with emotions she couldn’t understand and didn’t welcome, and she’d gone on the attack.
His eyebrows arched before his eyes slitted, and he raked her with gaze that could have sliced flesh off bone. “It seems your teeth aren’t the only sharp things in your mouth,” he shot back.
He gained his feet in one graceful motion, picked up the pie tin and tankard, and exited the stall without a word, leaving her to brood, with only the horses, a near-dead monk, and her own remorse to keep her company.
Bound to her duty as guard, she didn’t chase after him. Bound to her pride, she didn’t call out to him to return so she could apologize. Recognizing her own ineptitude with the more subtle signals of social interactions, especially with humans, she’d likely muck that up too. She stood and began to pace the stall’s confines. “What is wrong you, Anhuset?” she admonished herself. No one answered.
She killed the lamp’s flame, grateful for the returning darkness and had just settled back in her original spot when the stable door opened a second time. A hopeful flutter of butterfly wings danced under her ribcage.
“Oh for gods’ sake, not again.” Serovek’s footsteps, slower and more careful now, drew closer. “If I end up pitchforking myself because I’m fumbling about blind here, I put the blame entirely on you, Anhuset.”
She scrambled to relight the lamp when he reappeared in the stall, this time carrying a handful of mint. He gestured for her to hold out her hand and dropped a small bundle of the leaves into her palm. “That ale left a sour taste on the tongue. The mint there will help get rid of it.” He popped a few leaves in his mouth and chewed before spitting the pulp into a corner of the stall. “I found it growing wild along the inn’s south wall. Even old crone Winter can’t kill the stuff.”
“Thank you,” she said, pleased beyond reason he had come back, puzzled as to why. The mint was astringent on her palate but did as he claimed and got rid of the ale’s lingering afternotes.
This time she didn’t change positions when he resumed his earlier spot, and they sat together hip to hip, her legs nearly equal length to his. He’d be even taller if he didn’t possess the horseman’s bow. Anhuset wondered from which of his parents he’d inherited his impressive height and size. Not only was he tall, he was big, with a personality to match. No one would overlook him in a crowd.
“You’re pensive tonight,” he said. “Missing Saggara already?”
He’d given her an easy excuse, one she could embrace as a perfectly reasonable explanation for her ruminating. She might be clumsy with the interplay between them, but she wasn’t dishonest, and Saggara had only crossed her thoughts once and only in terms of what she had to do there once she returned.
She forced herself to meet his inquisitive gaze. “I owe you an apology.” His blatant astonishment might have been amusing if it weren’t so irritating. “You needn’t look so shocked,” she huffed. “I overstepped the rules of civility with my insult earlier. You did nothing to deserve it.”
He tilted his head to one side, studying her. “Then why did you say it?”
“I was jealous.” Her answer, and the humiliation tethered to it, locked in her throat, unwilling to rise to her mouth and be uttered aloud. Relief made her lightheaded when he answered for her.
“I think you still carry a lot of anger toward me from the ritual at Saruna Tor.”
That made her pause. The grim memory of Saruna Tor remained a wound on her spirit she didn’t think would ever heal, and she hadn’t been one of those made eidolon there. Even when Serovek had practically begged her to be his executioner on that hill, guilt over stabbing him still burdened her. Anger toward him did not, nor did she remember it ever being so. “What are you talking about?”
A faraway expression settled over his features. “The moments after you stabbed me, you said ‘I will never forgive you for this.’ I carried those words into battle with me so that I might return and ask that you reconsider.”
She gasped, forgetting for a moment to keep her emotional guard up around him, avoid more of the invisible grappling hooks he tossed at her every time they crossed paths that drew her inexorably to him, half step by half step no matter how hard she fought against it. She looked away from his sudden, intense scrutiny, sympathizing in that moment with Pluro Cermac’s skittish wife and the desire to bolt for safety.
“I might have meant them at the time, but I shouldn’t have said those words either.” Her fingers throbbed from how tightly she’d laced them together, and her throat ached with the effort to speak. “You saved me and the hercegesé from Beladine raiders and their mage hounds, took care of my wound, gained the information we needed to find Brishen and his abductors, and risked yourself and your men to help me rescue him. Putting a sword through your belly was no way to clear such a debt. I owe you more than I can ever repay in this lifetime or a dozen more beyond it.”
Complaint or confession. If asked which it was, she’d have a hard time deciding, and it might well have been a little of both, but somehow she felt a tiny bit lighter by speaking aloud of this shame, no matter how ridiculous it might appear to others, that had weighed her down these many months.
Serovek snorted, mouth tight with disapproval. “You shoulder an anvil of your own making.” His lips softened with a hint of a smile at her surprise. “I asked you in particular to run me through because I knew you to be strong enough to see the deed done and not falter. I lay a terrible task at your feet, and you took up the gauntlet. Don’t think I’m unaware of what I asked of you.” His gaze flitted from her face to her hair, slowing to travel the length of her body before returning to her face. “If we were keeping a tally of who is in debt to whom, every breathing person on this side of the Ruhrin ocean would owe their lives to those of us who rode against the galla. If we were keeping tally. We aren’t. And you owe me nothing. There’s no debt between us. There never was.”
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)