Link to part the tenth if you missed it when I posted:
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 or miss a week and double up the following week. Such is the case this time.
As we move through an unpredictable summer, I hope this serialized version offers some entertainment for you. Stay well. Stay safe.
On with the show.
He turned his attention to his silent companion and gave her a short bow. “I’ll not be rolling up in my blanket again, and I doubt you’re one to wile away the hours in chit-chat.” He laughed at her derisive huff. “I propose either a round of dicing or sparring. Your choice, though I’ll have to go back to the inn for the dice and my waster.”
Those yellow eyes flared bright, and Serovek didn’t bother hiding his amusement at the delight overtaking her expression. He might have known that the way to charm Anhuset wasn’t with compliments or flowers but the offer to brawl or gamble.
She raised a hand, signaling him to wait before she bent to rummage through her gear. “No need. I have a waster and a silabat with me. The second will work as a waster as well. I also have dice, but I’d much rather spar.”
“Eager for the chance to beat my arse?”
Anhuset presented a wooden practice sword and the silabat, offering both for him to choose his preference. Her half smile briefly revealed the points of her teeth. “Absolutely.”
He took the silabat and saluted her with it.
She questioned his choice with a raised eyebrow. “You know how to use one of those in sparring?
A few of his men scoffed at stick fighting—until someone with a mastery of the martial form sent them limping and bleeding out of the practice yard. Serovek’s own trainer, a grizzled warrior with three fingers on one hand and no mercy in his soul, had taught Serovek how to fight with numerous weapons, the stick being a favorite.
He spun the silabat in his hand, admiring its balance and weight. Whoever carved this one knew what they were doing, and in the skilled hands of a fighter like Anhuset, it was lethal. “I can manage,” he said.
No doubt the waster she held was nearly as deadly as her real sword, lacking only the edge and point to equal them. She grasped the practice sword with the typical Kai hold—partially open palm with the thumb pressed against the grip on one side, the middle and forefinger held straight on the other side. He thought it odd the first time he’d seen it, a method unique to the Kai to accomodate their claws. “I always wondered how the Kai held a sword in such a seemingly unwieldy way until I tried the grip myself.”
The waster, a graceful copy of her steel one, cut the air as she practiced a short slash. “And what did you discover?”
“A strengthened forearm and improved point control. I never questioned the Kai’s ability to handle a blade. I’ve seen firsthand how your folk fight. I just thought the grip strange.”
Anhuset raised the weapon to give him a better view of her hold on the grip. “You’ve a good eye. That’s exactly how it works.” She tapped the silabat he held. “As you’re open to trying the grip on your own, I’m willing to hone your skill at it should you wish.” This time she lightly tapped his knuckles. “Not that you’ll need it since you’ve no claws of your own.”
“A shortcoming, I’m sure.” He couldn’t help but tease her.
“Your words, margrave. Not mine.” She adopted a shallow crouch, waster held in a casual way that Serovek knew better than to underestimate and motioned for him to do the same. “I thought you said sparring instead of chatting.”
He struck with the silabat, a move she easily countered. “So I did,” he said and launched another attack. Soon they were battling up and down the stable’s dimly lit center aisle, their audience a half dozen horses watching from their stalls while others dozed, undisturbed by the mock fighting.
They had fought together in true battle against Brishen’s kidnappers and torturers. Serovek had witnessed her prowess in a fight, though he’d never battled her himself. Sparring her forced him to use every skill he possessed just to stay on his feet and not have her bash him in the head with her waster. She was ungodly fast, and he was reminded of how Brishen moved in a similar fashion, with a darting speed that tricked the unknowing into believing the quick were not the strong. The Kai were both, blessed with thick bones and naturally muscular physiques. Long-legged Anhuset possessed the reach to successfully lay a bruise or two on him, every strike hard enough to send a spike of pain through his body.
He gave as good as he got, unconcerned that she might not withstand his most aggressive attacks or break through his staunchest defenses. She was more than up to the task, only snarling under her breath and baring those intimidating teeth when he managed to wallop her with the silabat.
Outside, winter still gripped the land, coating the grass with frost. Inside the stable it was warm, and sweat dripped from Serovek’s hairline into his eyes. Anhuset’s gray skin glistened in the dull lamplight, a lavender blush riding along her cheekbones from the heat of the building and their own exertions.
Their sparring came to an abrupt end when Anhuset maneuvered close to the stall housing Serovek’s horse. Ears laid back and nostrils pinched, Magas stretched his neck over the stall door and bit the Kai woman on the shoulder.
“Gods damn it!” Yellow eyes wide, Anhuset pivoted, eady to strike this newest attacker with her waster. She lowered her sword arm and glared at the stallion before turning the baleful expression on Serovek. “Did you put him up to that?”
Both man and horse snorted at the same time.
“Magas and I are close, and I’m good with horses, but not that good. He’s probably annoyed that we’re keeping him awake.” Serovek leaned the silabat against one of the stalls before approaching. “Let me see the damage.”
She exhaled an indignant breath but turned to present her back. “We should have listed a rule or two before we started. No biting.” Before Serovek could respond, she dropped the waster and pulled her shirt over her head, baring her torso to his gaze.
He paused, swallowing a gasp at the sight of her long back, as graceful as he remembered. His thoughts scattered in every direction before he managed to catch one and hold on to it. Not that it did him any good. The notion he should have taken up sculpting instead of warfare just for the ability to carve this majestic woman from stone wasn’t what he needed to dwell upon at the moment.
Anhuset glanced at him over her shoulder, a silvery eyebrow arched in question. “Well?”
Serovek had interacted with the Kai enough over the years to know they were more broad-minded about such things as nudity than many human cultures were and didn’t assign it the same eroticism. Had the stables been too warm, he had no doubt Anhuset wouldn’t have hesitated to strip and fight him, bare-arsed as the day she was born. With that kind of distraction, he would have lost the sparring match after her first attack.
She had a way of testing him at every level. This was just one more, and he shoved down the lust roiling through his veins to concentrate on the bite mark Magas left on her shoulder. A crescent shape of square indentations that marched along the top of her shoulder and through the scar left by the bodkin Serovek had dug from her shoulder more than a year earlier, the bite hadn’t broken the skin. The bruise it promised to leave though would be impressive, one not even Anhuset’s gray skin could hide.
“You’ll live,” he said, fingertips hovering just above the mark, the temptation to touch humming along his fingernails. Did his voice sound as hoarse to her as it did to him? Strands of her silvery hair fluttered across his knuckles. “That was a warning nip at most. He gets grumpy when he’s sleepy.”
“Stallions,” she groused, shrugging her shirt back over her head and straightening the hem with a yank. “Arrogant, temperamental, and more trouble than they’re worth.”
He couldn’t resist. “Not all of us.”
It was a good thing he never underestimated her martial prowess. He snatched up the silabat just in time to deflect her strike with the waster. Nearby, Magas gave a disgruntled whuffle.
Anhuset’s narrow-eyed gaze flared bright in the dim stables. “I was talking about your horse.”
“Were you indeed?”
His mild taunt earned him a hard wallop to the hip from her waster. He dodged the open-palmed punch she threw at him, went low and managed to kick one of her legs out from under her. She stumbled but recoverd just as fast. Several feints and counterfeints, as well as exchanged blows and they ended up on the stable floor amid a flurry of straw.
Anhuset straddled Serovek’s torso, hard thighs clamped against his sides like a vise, her waster’s edge pressed to his neck. She gave him a glimpse of her pointed teeth when her lips parted in a smirk. “Now what, margrave?”
“I die from lack of air,” he said on a soft wheeze. “My gods, woman, did you fall on me, or did Magas?”
She gave a scornful huff but shifted position to ease her weight on him. “Better now, dandelion?”
He inhaled a thin breath, still recovering from having his chest flattened. “Never let it be said the Kai are made of flower petals and wool rovings.”
“I don’t know how you weak humans ever got this far.”
“We’re cunning, feral, and afraid of dying.”
Anhuset arched an eyebrow. “If that was praise toward your kind, it’s the worst I’ve ever heard.”
Serovek savored her considerable weight now that she was settled more on his midriff and pelvis. He glanced to the side at her waster. “Are we finished sparring, or are you planning to hit me a few more times with your sword?” He didn’t mind lying on the stable floor among a cloud of straw remnants, though a tickle in his nasal passages warned of a coming sneeze.
Anhuset tilted her head to one side, the waster’s blunt edge riding the ridge of the artery there. “Had this been a real sword and a real fight, I’d have cut your head off by now.” Her eyes rounded when Serovek gently poked her ribs with the silabat’s point.
“True, but not before I skewered you like a roasted chicken with this handy stick of yours.”
Her chuff of laughter made him smile. He liked her laugh. From what he was learning about her, she was a solemn woman and her laughter rare. He’d once thought her humorless until she began trading quips and taunts with him. An endless cache of fascinating qualities lay behind those bright citrine eyes and dour expression, and he had every intention of discovering them.
Something in his face must have given away a hint of his thoughts. Anhuset’s amusement faded, and the air around them pulsed with a different kind of tension. She pulled the waster away but didn’t move from her spot atop him. A slender finger, tipped in a sharp black claw, speared a lock of his hair before twining it around her knuckle. “You’re even uglier this close up.”
The blood coursing through his veins rushed toward his groin. He dropped the silabat to rest his hands on her hips. “And you’re just as beautiful.”
Those firefly eyes narrowed. “I imagine that silver-tongued charm felled a battalion of women at the Beladine court.” She gave his hair a quick tug before unwinding it from her finger. “I still won’t swive you, margrave.” She rolled off him and stood.
Serovek lay supine a moment longer, missing the feel of her weight and heat on him. “Ah, sha-Anhuset. You’re a harsh woman,” he teased. “Breaking my heart as well as my back.”
“Don’t tempt me, Lord Pangion. My threat to tear your arms off before this trip is over remains.” She held out a hand, which he took and gained his feet. The yellow shading in her eyes flickered, and Serovek had the sense her gaze passed over him. “You’re nimble for such a big man,” she said, the faintest thread of admiration running through her voice. “Fast too.”
He brushed straw bits off his clothes and out of his hair before giving her a wry look. “So to sum up, I’m big, ugly, and annoying.”
Once more, the brief flash of pointed teeth in a smile that vanished as quickly as it appeared. “So sayeth you.”
Unlike her, he didn’t hesitate in showing her his grin, widening it even more when her nose wrinkled at the sight of his own square ivories. She had made him laugh, made him lust, and most of all made him forget the nightmares that plagued his sleep..
He bowed to her. “You have my gratitude,” he said. “I’ll be a walking bruise by daylight, but the sparring did what I couldn’t do alone.”
She took the silabat he held out to her. “And what’s that?”
“Quieted the sounds of Megiddo’s screams in my head.” Just saying the words made him shudder inside, and he shoved down the echo of the monk’s torture and the galla’s laughter before it broke through the wall of silence he’d built with Anhuset’s help.
She passed him to return the silabat and waster to their place among her baggage. “I’ve always believed there isn’t anything a good brawl and a few bruises can’t fix.”
“I’m sure a little Kai magic never hurt either.”
The sudden stiffness in her posture surprised him, and her expression turned wary. “I suppose,” she said in a noncommittal voice that was a tell-tale sign itself, as was her abrupt change in subject. “You should try and sleep before the dawn comes. Even an hour or two will help.”
This wasn’t the first time she’d reacted in such a way to one of his casual remarks about the Kai’s ability to weild magic, and Serovek wondered at her reaction. That her people were born with such an inheritance was no secret. He’d warned his men countless times to be especially wary when dealing with Kai raiders crossing their borders. They were a physically tough people and hard to kill, and any magic they wielded, no matter how minor, made it even more so.
He tucked the observation away for later, when he could mull it over without the remnants of his recent nightmare clouding his thinking. Her suggestion to try and sleep before the following day’s travel was a sound one, but the thought of returning to the stall where Megiddo rested didn’t appeal to him, even now when the blue luminescence surrounding the bier had disappeared. “Maybe you should sleep instead. I’ll keep watch until dawn.”
She scooped up his blankets and tossed them at him. “Remember, your night is my day. I’m wide-awake. If I need to sleep, I can do so while I ride. You’re the leader of this expedition. You need your wits about you.” She lifted her chin to indicate the empty stall across from the one they currently occupied. “Sleep there if you need or go back to the inn. A soft bed awaits you if you want it, and distance from the monk.”
“I’m not Pluro Cermak,” he snapped, affronted by her suggestion. “Megiddo might be in a barn again, but I’ll not leave him here alone.”
“He won’t be alone, Lord Pangion.” Anhuset’s more formal address didn’t quite disguise the sympathy in her voice. “And I doubt anyone would compare you to his brother under any circumstance.”
He’d lashed out unfairly, the residual fury at discovering Megiddo stashed away, abandoned in a ramshackle barn, had ignited with Anhuset’s suggestion he find solace in the inn. There’s been nothing behind the remark other than practical advice. “Forgive me,” he said and offered her a second bow of the evening. “You didn’t deserve my rancor.”
Anhuset’s shoulders lifted in a shallow shrug. “It’s of no matter. I suspect you and I will brawl with words as well as wasters and silabats on this trip. You didn’t try to tear my arms off. There’s nothing to forgive.”
Once more, she chased away his demons with her acerbic wit and made him laugh. Serovek left her with Megiddo and their gear to find a sleeping spot among a pile of mostly clean straw in the empty stall. Bedded down, with his back to his companions, he stared at the wall in front of him, counting the cracks marring its surface until his eyelids grew heavy. He was tipping over the edge of sleep when Anhuset’s voice stopped him.
Some instinct, or maybe the tone in her voice, warned him to stay put and keep his back to her. “Hmmm?”
“You’re ugly, but your hair is soft.”
A gust of more laughter burst past his lips and out his nostrils. The woman wouldn’t know how to deliver a compliment if her life depended on it. He wrapped the blankets more snugly about him. “Then I’ve found favor in your eyes with one thing.” he said. “Good night, Anhuset.”
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 second book in the Fallen Empire trilogy, DRAGON UNLEASHED (available now).