Link to part the eleventh 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.
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.
Anhuset quickly learned that the conversation between human males worked better than any dream elixir brewed by the most skilled Kai apothecary. It was vapid, shallow, and so utterly uninspired, she was in danger of sliding from a light sleep atop her horse into a stupor of boredom.
The late morning sun offered little warmth but a great deal of punishing light, and she was glad for the deep shadows of her hood that kept the worst of the glare off her face. She kept a slitted gaze on the wagon rolling ahead of her, Megiddo’s blanket-covered bier tied down to keep it from sliding across the wagon’s platform. As usual, Serovek took the lead in their caravan, flanked by two of his men, Weson and Shear. She couldn’t hear what they discussed over the inane bluster and gloat her companions swapped between them, each trying to outdo the other in their feats of prowess in a fight or between a bedmate’s thighs.
Of the three who rode beside her, she knew Erostis best, having diced with him on those occasions she’d visited High Salure. An amiable man with a trickster’s hand for rolling the bones and an accurate intuition for his opponent’s weaknesses in a game, he’d lightened Anhuset’s purse by several coins in gambling rounds. At the moment he lectured the more flamboyant Ardwin for his poor spending habits on wine and women
“You keep buying a trio of whores for the evening, and you won’t be able to afford scratching your ass before the week is out. And with the amount of drink I saw you put down last night, I doubt you had it in you to crawl on top of one them for a quick fuck. Easiest money in a night I bet they ever made.”
Anhuset heard Ardwin stiffen in the saddle, affronted by the admonishment. “What are you? My da? And just because you can’t get a rise out of your own prick, old man, doesn’t mean I can’t.”
Erostis’s dry chuckle told her he’d taken no offense at Ardwin’s defensive insult. It was the bluster of youth. Erostis was a good twenty years older than Ardwin and unruffled by such things. Anhuset suspected the two of them engaged in similar verbal sparring matches on regular basis.
The rider to her right and just behind her narrowed the space between them, and her back prickled at the weight of a jaundiced stare on her. It wasn’t the first time for such to happen on their journey. Ogran edged closer, watching her with the sullen expression that seemed permanently stamped on his features. Unlike the rest of their party, he kept to himself, had little to say, and lacked any noticeable humor.
Anhuset considered none of these things a character flaw. She was laconic herself, her wit, when it made an appearance, sharper than most people liked. But there was about Ogran a mien of dangerous resentment, bubbling so close to the surface she could almost smell it. He never put voice to it on this trip, and whatever caused such malcontent remained a mystery. Still, she remained wary. His gaze, when it landed on her—and it did more often than she liked—held something much darker than mere curiosity or disdain. Human gazes were hard for her to read, their strange eyes too much a distraction to discern the nuances of subtle expression, but his scrutiny had a weight to it that didn’t need discernment. He didn’t approve of her presence among them and made little effort to conceal it.
“Your ears aren’t pointed,” he stated when he finally coaxed his mount to ride adjacent to hers. The mild debate going on between Ardwin and Erostis went silent.
The hood she currently wore to keep the worst of the sun’s brightness off her shrouded her ears and hair, providing deep shadow and obscurity. He must have pondered over the shape of her ears from the previous day, when she’d been bareheaded. Anhuset accommodated his unwelcomed observation and scraped back the hood so he might have a better look. When she turned to face him, he swallowed hard and reined his horse a little farther away from her.
His initial statement stoked her own curiosity. Humans were odd, and she had little use for them, but good strategy meant understanding even those one found puzzling or even unlikeable, and for the next few weeks, she’d be the sole Kai among a contingent of humans. Ogran just happened to be one of the more unpleasant ones. According to Serovek, he was High Salure’s best tracker and could sniff out spoor better than a hunting hound. Any traveling party benefited from the presence of someone with such skills, though tracking seemed the only positive thing about him. “No they aren’t,” she said. “Why would you think they’d be so?”
He shrugged. “Well, your teeth are pointed.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake, Ogran,” Erostis muttered. “How much of a lackwit can you be?”
Ogran offered a rude gesture in reply but otherwise ignored the other two soldiers.
Anhuset blinked, surprised by the reasoning. Skilled tracker or not, if this was an example of Ogran’s intellect, then she heartily agreed with Erostis. The man was a lackwit. Such rationale might have suggested he question his own physical characteristics. His teeth were square but his ears were like hers, curved with dips and shallows of cartilage and fleshy lobes from which both Kai and humans sometimes sported jewelry.
Images flashed across her memory, of Ildiko Khaskem crossing her strange eyes and the Kai’s predictably horrified reaction when she did it. Anhuset stared at Ogran for a moment without answering and curved her lips into a grin so wide it squinched her eyes and made her cheeks ache. The movement exposed her teeth to the back molars, and she nearly burst into a fit of laughter when Ogran’s visage washed pale with terror. He shuddered so hard, his horse shied in reaction. Nearby, Ardwin’s thin, breathy “Holy gods, save us,” only emphasized Ogran’s terror.
Erostis’s initial flinch gave way to a grin of his own, though unlike her own ivory spikes, he possessed the typical squared teeth of his kind. He saluted her with a quick touch of his fingertips to his forehead.
Her attention flickered back to Ogran, and she lost the grin. “I don’t bite with my ears,” she said before turning away to tug the hood back in place. Ogran’s horse quickly fell behind hers. Their conversation was over, and Anhuset silently thanked the absent hercegesé for the inspiration of her response. Maybe now they’d all shut up, and she could doze in peace.
She hoped in vain.
Ardwin soon resumed his debate with Erostis, the second baiting the first with mild mockery. Anhuset gave up trying to sleep but pretended otherwise in order to dissuade the others from including her in their conversation. She focused on Serovek’s broad shoulders as he rode ahead. His black hair fluttered in the chilly breeze, falling down his back to rest between his shoulder blades. Sunlight caught the silver threads woven through his locks. She wondered how old he was. Powerful, and muscular in build, with the marks of a life defined by both joy and tragedy etched into his features, he seemed neither young nor old but a man in his prime. He wore the mantle of leadership with ease, though she’d never witnessed tyrannical behavior from him. Most of his men offered him respect that bordered on reverence.
Once she’d believed he was simply a human possessing lusty appetites, martial prowess, and a singular ability to annoy her until she gnashed her teeth. He’d obliterated those assumptions when he dug an arrowhead out of her shoulder and helped save Brishen from his abductors, when he volunteered to fight by the Khaskem’s side against the galla, and when he fearlessly handed her his blade to spill his blood on an ancient tor. There were depths to Serovek Pangion deeper than oceans she’d only glimpsed from far shores, so much more than teasing innuendo and damn fine horsemanship.
He struggled with the tragedy of Megiddo’s fate, reason not always conquering guilt at having survived the galla when the monk had not. She’d seen it in his expression when he woke from sleep plagued by what she suspected was more than bad dreams and far more dangerous. The ethereal luminescence which Ildiko had seen in Brishen’s eye had surfaced in both of Serovek’s, along with a horror that faded as he grew more awake. Still, its shadow had lingered in the midnight blue of his gaze, along with the cobalt light that turned his gaze spectral and haloed Megiddo’s soulless, ensorceled body.
Did ancient Kai magic still linger in those Wraith Kings who’d returned to their human forms after they defeated the hul-galla, trace ribbons of it revived by proximity to Megiddo’s body or his sword? And if so, what terrible thing, if any, might it visit upon those who’d fought so bravely and emerged triumphant thanks to the sacrifice of one of their own?
The questions whirled in her mind like dust spinners on a hot summer day, along with an unwelcomed yearning to know more about High Salure’s margrave, peel back those endless layers that revealed a man she’d grown to admire more and more every day. Admire and crave.
She growled under her breath, tightening her grip on the reins hard enough that her mount slowed from an ambling walk to a near stop. She loosened her grip and tapped the animal’s sides. The horse resumed its leisurely pace. Her three companions hadn’t noticed or heard her displeasure at acknowledging the weakness of such unfortunate attraction. Serovek Pangion was ugly, irritating, and far too cock-sure of himself, especially regarding his presumed attraction to the opposite sex, including her. And his hair cascaded through her fingers like silk.
A second growl rumbled in her throat when he glanced over his shoulder at her, gave a quick smirk, and turned back around, as if to signal he’d heard every one of her thoughts and dared her to deny them.
Twilight hadn’t yet crawled across the sky, and there was still plenty of light to set up camp when Serovek signaled a stop. Anhuset roused from her light doze for a better look at her surroundings. She recognized the wooded landscape with its mix of still-dormant oaks and firs so dark a green, they etched black silhouettes against the sky. Close by, the Absu tumbled and rushed in a loud whisper. A melancholic pang settled beneath her ribcage. Dead Haradis lay not far from here, less than a day by boat.
Their group split the work between them, building a fire, unloading a few supplies, hunting for supper, taking care of the horses. Erostis returned from his foray into the wood, not with a brace of hares, as she expected, but a line of fish taken from the river. “I’m a better fisherman than hunter,” he said, holding up his prizes with a triumphant smile.
The fish, roasted on spits, accompanied flat bread cooked on a round sheet of metal Ardwin had unloaded from their wagon, all washed down with cups of tepid ale. Nightfall brought a dip in temperature, and the group sat huddled around the fire, wrapped in cloaks. Anhuset stayed farther back to avoid the worst of the light and noticed no one looked directly at the flames.
“You wear an odd expression, Anhuset.” Serovek had abandoned his spot not far from the wagon to sit next to her. “What are you thinking?”
Her nostrils flared. He carried the scents of the forest and camp smoke on him. Earthy scents that made her blood warm and her skin tingle. She quaffed the rest of her ale, wishing for something more bracing like Peleta’s Kiss, where the burn would stave off images of what the margrave might look like naked and sheened in sweat from a bout of hard lovemaking. She scowled into her empty cup before answering. “I see neither you nor your men stare into the fire. Smart.”
One dark eyebrow rose, and Serovek’s mouth turned up at the corner. “I’m glad you approve. Men blinded by firelight can’t fight well if attacked in the dark. It’s one of the first things I and my commanders teach the novices. I’m guessing this isn’t a problem for the Kai.”
“No, though we still give our novices similar warnings since we’re even more sensitive to light than humans.” She rolled the cup between her palms, considering her next words. “In many ways, you aren’t so different from us.”
This time both of his eyebrows climbed, and Anhuset braced for his usual teasing. He surprised her when he poured some of his ale into her cup, then clinked his cup against hers in a silent toast. “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
He steered their conversation toward other things—the trip itself, what they expected from early spring’s unpredictable weather. Surface topics that didn’t require internal questioning or inspire thoughts in her mind that made her twitch with either doubt or an uncomfortable desire. He was good at casual conversation, shouldering most of it while she preferred to listen, and quietly attentive when she did speak.
While they conversed, she grew aware of an intense scrutiny from the other side of the fire. She darted a glance in that direction, glad for the fact the solid color of her eyes and their glow hid their movement from the others. Ogran stared at her and Serovek, obvious dislike pinching his features much as they had earlier when he’d questioned why her ears weren’t pointed. A flicker of sly malice sharpened the expression before disappearing. All of Anhuset’s instincts came alive in warning.
She left her place to retrieve one of the ale skins and refill her cup. Serovek offered up his cup for a refill as well as Ogran’s stare became a bodkin point between her shoulder blades. Serovek’s regard, in contrast, held a sensual interest that threatened to scatter her thoughts. A maddening trait.
“Tell me,” she said softly. “How long as Ogran served under your command?”
He tilted his head to one side, obviously puzzled by the question. “As long as my steward. He came to High Salure with Bryzant as his servant then chose to join my guard. He’s a capable enough soldier, and as I mentioned earlier, an excellent tracker. Why do you ask?” He glanced at Ogran who instantly looked away, expression now studiously bland.
“Just curious.” She continued watching Ogran who peered into his ale cup as if it revealed his fate and fortune.
“I find that hard to believe.” He returned the scowl she gave him with a narrow-eyed regard. “You don’t say or do anything without purpose. Curious you might be but not for idle gossip. Something about Ogran has raised your hackles.”
She was starting to bristle now, affronted by the idea she might be so predictable, especially to this man who possessed a terrifying ability to effortlessly see to the very heart of her despite the walls and masks she raised against him. She abandoned the idea of hedging her answer.
“There’s something about him beyond a sour demeanor. I have a sour demeanor. This is different. I’d never turn my back on him.”
Once more Serovek’s gaze fell on Ogran and lingered. “ Not the friendliest sort, I’ll agree, but in the years he’s served High Salure, he’s never given me reason to doubt his loyalty. I won’t condemn a man for a wrongdoing he hasn’t committed.” Anhuset was about to protest that her observation wasn’t a request to somehow punish Ogran, but Serovek stopped her. “However, I trust your instincts implicitly. Familiarity can blind a person to another’s ill-will. I’ll keep a closer eye on him.”
His words stunned her for a momet. Not the ones about Ogran, but those about her. She was neither forthcoming nor gregarious, keeping both information and softer emotion locked away from all who would seek them. She’d never lied to Serovek when he’d asked certain questions, but she’d been judicious with her truths, justifying her secrecy with the belief that her first loyalty was to Brishen and only Brishen. “Why do you trust me?”
His slight shrugged matched his slight smile. “Because you’re sha-Anhuset,” he said, as if that alone explained everything. He rose, dumped out the dregs of his cup and bowed to her before leaving to speak with Klanek who walked the perimeter around the wagon checking the transport for any problems that might slow their trek the following day.
She would never understand him. Never.
Just look closer. Look longer.
“Oh, shut up,” she muttered into her cup, wishing the internal voice had a tongue so she could rip it out.
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).