Link to part the eigth 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.
“I like strong women, soft or not.” He’d said that while they stood on the balcony of his study, overlooking the steep slopes of the mountainside. Ribbons and swords, she thought. So different yet both made admirable in his eyes by the hand that wielded them. He was a man like no other, Kai or human, she’d ever met before him.
“What was your wife’s name?” she asked in a soft voice, a reverence she could offer for what she suspected was still a lingering grief.
He bowed his head a fraction in acknowledgment of her change of subject. “Glaurin. Our union was arranged, but we’d been childhood friends so were familiar with each other when we married. She bore me a daughter we named Deliza.”
A child. The idea tied her confused emotions into tighter knots. Somehow, Anhuset had no trouble imagining Serovek as a loving father. “What happened to them?”
That shadow of sorrow she’d seen descend over his features when he first mentioned he’d once been married returned. “Plague.”
He didn’t have to say more. Anhuset remembered the plague outbreak from fourteen years earlier. It had swept through the human kingdoms, killing thousands. The Kai, afflicted by their own sicknesses, had suffered no effects of the disease that ravaged their neighbors. Gauri and Beladine alike had fallen like chaff beneath a thresher’s flail.
She grazed his arm with her claw tips, the barest touch. “I’m sorry.”
He stared down at her hand for a moment before covering it with one of his, palm callused and warm. “So am I.” They were both quiet a moment before he spoke again. “And you? No spouse or children?”
She’d taken lovers. Sometimes for a day, sometimes for a week or a month. Most had been sparks of warmth to ease loneliness, or a few hours of entertainment with no emotional attachment, sometimes even hazy memories captured only in the foggy aftermath of a day spent drinking far too much Peleta’s Kiss. None had ever incited a longing for something more profound or long-term. There were times when she observed Brishen and Ildiko together and wondered what their kind of bonding might be like. In all honesty, she envied it, but no one so far had moved her in such a way to make her actively search for something similar.
As for children, they were strange, puzzling creatures. Usually loud, demanding, and in her opinion, bordering on feral. She’d rather keep a scarpatine as a pet.
Serovek didn’t need to know all that. Anhuset had vomited up enough of her inner demons for one evening. “I’m uninterested in either one,” she said with a shrug. “Even if I were, I’m not considered a worthy catch by a Kai looking to elevate himself through a union with me. Nor am I the easiest person to get along with most days, if you can imagine that.”
That elicited a chuckle from him. “Oh, I can imagine the second just fine.” Serovek’s wide grin coaxed an answering one from her. “I am, however, stunned by the first. You’re closely related to the Kai queen regnant and the regent. Surely, Brishen must be fighting off a line of suitors trying to take his valuable second from him.”
“Those connections don’t make me any more desirable. I’m gameza.”
She watched as he searched his internal cache of bast-Kai words for translation, but nothing came to mind. “What’s gameza?”
“Bastard. I’m the illegitimate daughter of the old king’s sister. My father, so I’m told, was a handsome stablehand as well hung as the horses he tended.” A reputation much like yours, margrave. She kept the thought to herself.
Serovek blinked, his grin still in place but softened by her revelation. “You’re always refreshingly blunt. It’s one of many things I admire about you.”
The damn blush crawled up her neck and into her face yet again. Anhuset prayed the stable’s near darkness would hide the tell-tale reaction his compliments continued to spawn.
He crossed his long legs at the ankles and pondered his boots. “Let me guess. Your mother committed double sacrilege. Not only did she bear a child outside of a marriage sanctioned by the sovereign, she bore one of a man not even of royal blood, tainting the bloodlines.” He rolled his eyes, and Anhuset twitched.
She tilted her head to one side, considering his words and the contemptuous tone in which he uttered them. “Does human royalty feel the same way about gamezas?”
“In my experience, yes.” He shrugged. “Personally, I think a good shot of stablehand blood into some of those murky pools is exactly what’s needed. It seems like the Kai aristocracy suffers the same prideful blindness the human ones do.” He smiled at her quiet huff of laughter.
“I’m glad to be gameza,” she said. “Were I not, the regency would have fallen to me while Brishen fought the galla. I’m not fashioned for such a role. I’m a soldier first and foremost.”
“And one Brishen depends on at every level. As does his hercegesé. I’m sure Ildiko was grateful to have you with her while she held the Kai kingdom together.”
Anhuset suspected Ildiko would have managed just fine on her own were it necessary. The human hercegesé had assumed the role of regent in her husband’s stead, never once wavering, though Anhuset had seen the doubt and the fear Ildiko had tried to her best to hide from everyone, including Brishen.
“The hercegesé surprised a lot of us, I think. I was simply her sword and shield at the time.”
He studied her for a moment, brow stitched into a frown. “I don’t think you give yourself enough credit.” She didn’t get a chance to argue with him before he turned the subject back to her parentage. “Do you resent your mother for her indiscretion?”
It wasn’t an unreasonable question. The lot of a nobleman’s or noblewoman’s bastard was often a hard one, at least in Kai societies where family connections and alliances held more value than affection or emotion. To them, a bastard was valueless and often shunned for the sin of their parent’s carelessness.
Anhuset raised one eyebrow. “No. She birthed me and turned me over to nursemaids who didn’t know how to handle me.”
“To no one’s surprise I’m sure.”
She tipped her nose up and gave a sniff to show her disdain of his teasing. “I followed in her footsteps. Tried out a stablehand or two myself when I was older.”
It was his turn to arch an eyebrow. “Is that disappointment I hear in your voice?”
She waved a hand as if brushing away an annoying gnat. “Just because they cared for stallions didn’t mean they were ones themselves.” Some small demon whispered temptation in her mind, and in that moment she gave in to it. She slanted Serovek a long look and lowered her voice, challenge implicit in every word. “The typical empty boasts shattered by unforgiving reality.”
Serovek straightened from the slouch he’d adopted. The deep blue of his strangely colored eyes had darkened so that she no longer saw the distinction between iris and pupil. He leaned toward her a fraction, his face still as if he sought to mesmerize hers with the power of his stare. “I’m not typical, firefly woman,” he practically purred at her. “Nor do I toss out empty boasts.”
The blush-heat that had setting in her throat and face now spread throughout her entire body at the name he gave her. That heat bore all the hallmarks of anticipation, fascination, and to her chagrin, lust. “You aren’t a stablehand either,” she said before rolling out of reach. If she didn’t put some physical distance between them now, she’d regret it.
Obviously, humans brewed a stronger ale than the Kai did. Surely, it explained why she was seriously considering cutting the laces on the placket of Serovek’s trousers with her claws, crawling onto his lap and learning whether or not he lived up to the reputation of his nickname.
He didn’t try to stop her when she scooted even farther back. She pretended not to see the smirk turning his mouth up at the corners. Straw dust stirred up by her movements made her eyes itch, and she used that excuse to close them against the image of the Beladine stallion once more reclined against the stable wall, all power, muscle, and grace.
“Don’t you have a nice comfortable bed to sleep in tonight?” she said. “Courtesy of the innkeeper and his wife?” Serovek could sleep in the saddle as easily as she did, but his men would expect him awake and alert when dawn came. Staying up all night with her here in the stables did no one any good.
Her heartbeat stuttered mid beat when he said “I’ll be sleeping here tonight. I’ll feel better with two of us keeping an eye on him.” He waved a hand at Megiddo’s bier.
Indignation swamped her. Anhuset lunged to her feet to loom over the margrave and glare. “You don’t trust me.” The idea that, despite his assurances, he might not have faith in her ability to protect Megiddo stung. Badly.
He stared up at her, face bland and guarded, as if he had expected such a reaction from her at his news. “I trust you implicitly. This has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the monk.” The haunted look briefly touched him before flitting away. “I owe him my presence, my…acknowledgment that he isn’t forgotten or shunted aside as his brother did to him.”
Her outrage bled out of her like water from a sieve. She regarded him, sitting in the straw, looking for all the world like a man without a care. Until one looked deeper into the blue of his eyes and saw the shadow of melancholy there. “You said no one was keeping tally.”
The lines at the corners of his eyes furrowed deeper with his half smile. “I did, didn’t I?” He flicked a piece of chaff at her. “If you must know, there’s a running wager going on at this moment as to whether or not I’m swiving you or will be swiving you here in the stables.”
He’d danced away from the tangle of emotion the subject of Megiddo seemed to inspire and found steady ground in the irreverent teasing which so often drove her mad. This time Anhuset welcomed it.
“Is that so? And the odds?”
“Four to one in my favor.”
“Wait. There are six of you all together.”
“I want to live to see morning,” he declared. “I abstained from the wager.”
“Such faith your men have in your prowess.” Anhuset recalled the two tavern maids attached to him as he made his way to the stables. That faith wasn’t exactly misplaced. “Who wagered against you?”
“Ogran. He said if I had any sense, I’d spend my evening charming the prettiest alewives instead of chatting it up with a dead monk.”
Knowing what she did about Ogran in their short time on the road, Anhuset easily pictured him saying such a thing. She also heard what he didn’t say but certainly thought during those time she’d caught him staring at her. Why would the renowned Beladine Stallion want to spend his evenings with an ugly, sharp-toothed, eel-skinned Kai woman?
“I may not remember telling you I wouldn’t forgive you for having me stab you, but I do remember you boasting that if you survived the galla, I’d share your bed when you returned.”
Every speck of humor fled Serovek’s expression, and the blue eyes went black in an instant. He didn’t change position, but every muscle, relaxed just the moment before, fairly quivered with tension now. “I recall that boast as well.” He almost growled the words.
Anhuset crouched in front of him, allowing him to see her gaze touch on various parts of his body, lingering on his wide shoulders and trim waist, the muscled thighs and especially the impressive erection now ridging the laced placket of his trousers. Beladine stallion indeed. “I don’t indulge when I’m on guard duty,” she said in her most no-nonsense tones. “Nor am I reward for your victory over the galla, though you have my greatest admiration for your bravery. Maybe one day instead, I’ll have you in my bed.”
He didn’t miss a blink, and the smile he turned on her was meant to slay. In that moment, Anhuset was very glad she was Kai and could focus on the strangeness of his looks instead of their seductiveness.
“You once said I wouldn’t survive you,” he teased. “While you were saying hello to my bits with your hand.”
She abandoned her crouch to take a seat in a spot that was a less tempting distance than the one next to him. “Keep that in mind should I ever extend the invitation.” She closed her eyes against the sight of him across from her and tried not to imagine him naked. “Since you plan to stay here and pester me, margrave, you might as well try to sleep and leave me in peace. Besides, I want to snuff this lamp before I go blind in here.”
He caught the extra blanket she tossed him, gave her a salute and turned on his side away from her. “Goodnight, firefly woman,” he muttered before pulling the blanket over his head.
Anhuset shook her head. Silly nickname. Uttered in tones of affection. She dare not dwell on that too long.
She guttered the lamp’s flame a second time, sighing with relief at the returning darkness. Serovek stayed quiet, and she listened to the slowing rhythm of his breathing as he fell deeper into sleep, his ready willingness to embrace slumber wordless proof that he did indeed trust her. They still had hours before dawn, so she took the time to explore the stable’s interior before making a quick reconnoiter of the stableyard and the grounds immediately around the now dark and quiet tavern.
A rustling reached her ears, and she stilled in the shadows, lowering her eyelids to hide her eyeshine as two figures slinked around one corner of the tavern. They skirted the open space of the stableyard with its revealing shards of moonlight reflecting on the ground and kept to the darkness thrown by the inn and two outbuildings before stopping not far from the stables. They didn’t draw closer, only stared as if noting the placement of the doors and high windows shuttered for the night.
Their efforts at concealment were for naught. Anhuset got a good look at the two. Ragged men with the hard-edged mien of the scavenger about them, they wore knives on their belts and tucked into their boots. One was bearded, the other beardless, and both in desperate need of a bath. They used hand signals to communicate with each other, and while she wasn’t familiar with that particular language, she didn’t have to be fluent to understand the gist of the exchange.
The one without the beard tried to coax his companion into entering the stable. The other man shook his head, hands making slashing motions in the air as he argued against the idea. The slap of palm to palm for emphasis, an exchange of shoves, and the two came to an agreement before stealing away toward the town’s main road.
Now that was interesting. Either she’d just come across two horse thieves looking to help themselves to someone’s mount and trying to figure out the problem of her presence inside, or they’d seen Serovek’s party arrive and assumed whatever required an escort of six heavily armed soldiers was likely valuable and prized in the lefthand marketplace.
Fortunately for them, they chose not to try their luck tonight. Anhuset woud have dealt with them as nuisances. Serovek would have seen their thievery as insult. Hers would have been the more merciful punishment.
She did a last scan of the area before returning to the stable’s interior. No thieves lurked in the corners, and every horse was accounted for. However, things were not as she’d left them. The animals nickered and tossed their heads, agitated. Their eyes rolled as she passed.
Her pulse surged when she came upon the stall where she’d left Serovek with Megiddo. The blue sparks of sorcery flickering earlier under the blanket covering Megiddo now encased the entire bier in a halo of luminescence. It spilled onto the ground, spreading in a pool that surrounded Serovek. The margrave lay on his back, face contorted into an expression of agony, jaw clenched. He breathed hard through his nose, and his eyes stayed shut as if refusing to gaze upon some horror that faced him in the most terrifying of dreams.
He muttered a string of words, all of them nonsensical. Anhuset reached for him, intent on bodily dragging him away from the bier and out of the stall where the magic pulsed and swelled. She froze in mid crouch, every hair on her nape standing on end, as laughter—insane, unnatural, and otherworldly—echoed throughout the stable.
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)