Link to part the twelfth 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.
That night, when everyone else found sleeping spots not far from the fire and wrapped in blankets for warmth, she approached Serovek. He’d set up his makeshift bedding near the wagon, almost within touching distance from Megiddo’s ensorcelled bier. Even facing the probability of suffering from another round of bad dreams that were more than dreams and much, much worse, he refused to stray far from his fallen comrade, though meant revealing to the others how the Kai magic that protected the monk also infected their stalwart leader.
His half smile held a question and a hope that refused to die no matter how she might scoff. “Decided to share my bed, firefly woman?”
“I admire your fortitude,” she said. “And my answer is still no.”
His quiet chuckle warmed her more than any fire ever could. “I’m also a patient man.” He reclined back on his elbows, long legs stretched so that one foot rested against hers where she stood. “So why have you decided to loom over me?”
She had little skill with the diplomacy of words. Most of the time she preferred not to speak at all. Serovek didn’t need a nursemaid, and Anhuset couldn’t think of anyone less suited to the task than herself, but she could be of use to him beyond the roles of night guard, armed escort, and Kai representative. “Should you begin to dream, I’ll be nearby to wake you.” She kept her voice soft, once more feeling the weight of Ogran’s grim regard on her back. No doubt he strained to hear whatever they said.
For a long moment, Serovek didn’t answer. He glanced at the wagon adjacent to him before returning his gaze to her. The half smile was gone, allowing her to see the serious side she once thought him incapable of displaying. Shadows darkened the deep-water blue of his eyes even more. “I appreciate and accept your safekeeping.”
She bid him goodnight then and left to reconnoiter their campsite and the makeshift rope corral where they’d confined the horses. The forest around them rustled contiuously with nocturnal foragers and the predators that hunted them. In the distance, a wolf’s lone howl echoed through the trees and was soon joined by a chorus of others. The nearby river tumbled and murmured under a cold spring moon.
To her relief, the night hours remained uneventful, and if Serovek dreamed, they were easy dreams that didn’t trouble him awake or twist his features in anguish and horror. Megiddo’s bier remained dark, no glowing aura of Kai magic to illuminate it or the wagon. When the sun broke across the horizon, she yawned, slid her hood over her head to shield herself from the brightening day, and greeted the waking margrave with a quick nod.
His slow blinking and sleepy smile made her wonder if this was how all his bedmates saw him when they woke beside him. Made restless by the image her thoughts evoked and the sight of Serovek with the first rays of the sun gilding the silver in his hair, she turned her back and set to relighting the smoldering fire in preparation for the group breaking their fast.
Amid grumbling about the cold and bland road rations, they made short work of the morning meal before breaking camp and setting off once more toward the first dock where a tow boat and small barge waited to take them down the Absu, passing the remains of Haradis, before heading farther east and south by way of one of the river’s tributaries.
The captain and his crew waiting at the dock eyed their party with doubtful looks, settling briefly on the wagon with its blanket-covered cargo before resting on Anhuset whose face was mostly obscured by her hood. She kept her hands tucked into the sleeves of her cloak, as much for warmth as to minimize the inevitable macabre curiosity humans had for the Kai.
“We can take the lot of you, but it’ll be slow-going with the weight and all our other cargo. Hope you aren’t in a hurry.” The captain smiled a yellow-toothed smile. “And the fare is more when I’m traveling such a distance.”
“How close do you travel to Haradis?” Serovek counted out a pile of coins from a fat purse he kept tied to his belt.
The captain’s face froze at the question. He dragged his gaze from the money dropping into his outstretched palm to frown at Serovek. “Too close to my liking, but to get where we’re going, we’ll ride the Absu within a quarter-day’s walk from Haradis before reaching the tributary.” He scooped the generous fee into a pouch before tucking it into his tunic. He tugged on his tangled beard. “Nothing to worry about though. There’s plenty of water between us and the city, and we can navigate right quick past it. You’ll only catch a glimpse of the tower remains before it’s at our backs and gone.”
Serovek gestured to Klanek to bring the wagon forward and instructed the rest to start loading everything onto the barge. He nudged Anhuset’s shoulder, and the two distanced themselves a short ways from the rest.
“Here’s where you decide if you want to stop at Haradis.” His offer surprised her, one that instinct warned she should refuse, and loyalty to Brishen pressed she should accept. Serovek nodded to the crew. “The captain can navigate to one of the narrow points of the Absu without docking. The river is calmer there and easy to wade, even if you can’t swim. We can get to the shore and make our way to Haradis on foot.”
“I’m familiar with the path.” She paused, caught by a single word in his plan. “We?”
The teasing smile flickered across his mouth and was gone. “I’ll accompany you unless you wish to go alone.” He raised a hand as if to ward off an expected protest from her. “I know you don’t need a protector, but this is Haradis.” No amusement remained in his expression, and his voice carried a note that made the hairs on her nape lift a little. His gaze shifted to the direction in which the broken capital lay. “It isn’t as you remember it. I’d discourage anyone from going alone.”
Brishen had cut off every suggestion and offer she’d made to visit Haradis and report back to him of its condition. A man of mild temperament and monumental resolve, he barely listened to her arguments in favor of sending a scout. His face had taken on the same bleak look Serovek wore now, as if the memory of battling the galla there was a blacker shade than all the dark ones Ildiko claimed plagued his sleep. The margrave offered Anhuset the chance Brishen continued to deny her for reasons he refused to discuss; she’d be a fool not to accept it. From a military standpoint, it was both wise and necessary. And Brishen Khaskem wasn’t here at the moment.
“I agree with your prudence, but you’re not obliged to me,” she said, wishing she could read human emotion more easily. Serovek’s face was a study in stoicism, but the tension in his body and her own instincts alerted her to the fact that visiting Haradis wasn’t something he anticipated with pleasure. “You fought the galla there. Surely, that’s no memory you wish to resurrect.”
He shrugged. “We fought the galla many places before we defeated them. Haradis is the remains of a battlefield. The memorial of a tragedy. But neither I nor any of the Beladine lost a loved one there. We don’t have a history with Haradis. You do.”
Had it been Saggara destroyed by the galla, he’d be right. Like all the Kai, a part of her mourned the loss of the city and its inhabitants, but the ties that bound her heart lay elsewhere. “Saggara, not Haradis, has always been my home. I won’t be troubled.”
Serovek’s forehead creased for a moment into a disbelieving frown. He sighed. “So you say. If the river and weather stay agreeable, we should reach the city’s edge by late afternoon.
The captain balked at first when Serovek relayed their plans, quieting only when the flash of additional coin passed in front of his eyes. Serovek’s men protested even louder.
“I can go in your stead, my lord,” Erostis offered. “I know nothing of Haradis, but with sha-Anhuset acting as guide, we can scout enough of the city and report back with useful information for both you and the Khaskem.”
He grunted when Serovek landed a friendly swat on his shoulder. “You’re more useful to me here. And with Anhuset and I both familiar with Haradis’s streets, we can split up and reconnoiter in half the time and be finished before midnight.”
His assurances stretched reality a little in her opinion. He might have fought his way through the streets of Haradis, but Anhuset doubted he remembered much about the city’s grid, too busy cutting his way through galla to reach the palace. But she held her tongue and didn’t argue. Erostis was a decent sort, and she liked him well enough, but if she had to have human company for this trip, she preferred the margrave. The small voice inside her gave a mocking laugh before she could silence it.
Once they were all aboard and the tow boat and barge riding the Absu’s waves under his steersman’s guidance, the captain approached Serovek with a pair of filled pipes, offering one to Serovek. Close enough to hear their conversation, Anhuset leaned on on the railing to watch the water ripple along the boat’s side and unabashedly eavesdrop.
“The stop where I’d normally put you to disembark has changed.” He puffed on his pipe before using it to point out some unseen detail of the geography on the passing shore. “A squire with holdings not far from here sent a small army of crofters and vassals to dredge the shallow spots. They’re deeper and wider now, no drying up during the hot months, and they cut down every bridge and tore away every natural dam they found just in case you and the others missed a demon or two.” He shot Serovek a challenging look, as if questioning the Wraith Kings’ success and believing more in their failure. “The new landing is too deep for your horses and too treacherous for a swimmer. I can pull to shore about a half league farther back. You can hike in from there and meet us down river by a waystop called Cat’s Paw Hollow.”
Serovek’s gaze met hers over the captain’s head. “Decision’s still yours,” he told her in bast-Kai.
She replied in the same tongue, much to the captain’s consternation. “It’ll delay the journey.”
“Not by much and only if you want to pitch camp overnight in Haradis.” A tiny shudder belied his casual tone. “I’m not much eager to avail myself of the hospitality.”
Decision finalized, they made plans to disembark at the agreed-upon spot, leaving behind their horses and most of their gear, carrying with them only what they could transport in oilskin packs. For Anhuset, that meant going without her armor, her shield and some of her heavier weaponry. It was much the same for Serovek.
They both watched the tow boat and barge for a moment as they continued onward, leaving them on a spit of dry ground that stretched into the river like a pointing finger. A short footbridge had once crossed this spot to the main shore, but the captain had spoken true. All that remained now were bits of cut rope and a few broken boards that hadn’t been scavenged yet for firewood. The current tumbled slower there in the gap between land and river but was still something not to take lightly. People had drowned in waters shallower than these.
“I should have asked this on the boat but just assumed it was so. You can swim, yes?” Serovek eyed her with part hope and part dread.
Anhuset bit back a laugh. She understood what he implied. If she couldn’t swim, he’d have to carry her across, and if he did, they were in imminent danger of drowning. If she were to guess, she probably equaled Serovek in weight, and while he was impressively strong, carting another person across deep, swirling water presented significant risk for both. “I’m an excellent swimmer.”
His wide shoulders drooped in relief and his square teeth flashed white with his smile. “Is that a boast?”
She sniffed. “It’s a fact, margrave. I’ll even challenge you to a race across if you wish and promise not to tell your men that you lost. Badly.”
His laughter carved the lines at the corners of his eyes a touch deeper. “As cold as that water promises to be, I wager I can walk on it just to keep from freezing my balls off.”
Anhuset was growing to enjoy the look of his amusement. The sound of it too. It teased, but didn’t mock. She’d never known him to be cruel, though she’d witnessed his ruthlessness firsthand when he’d sentenced a brigand to die and carried out the execution himself without hesitation. Those who mistook his jovial manner as a weakness took their life in their hands.
She never made such a mistake with anyone, but she’d underestimated Serovek Pangion and the power of his charm. He was a man she could admire at every level. The self revelation sent her terror roaring through her. She didn’t want to feel this way. Not for anyone, and especially not for this man who saw too deep and instinctively understood too well.
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).