Link to part the sixteenth 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.
He left her to the task of composing her message while he used the captain’s cabin to once again review the map he’d brought with him of the Lobak valley. The wagon and its precious cargo precluded leaving the roads for a shortcut through rougher country. Several of the paths marked on the map were hardly more than drover roads, and they’d be lucky if they didn’t have to stop more than once to repair a broken wheel. Ogran, who hailed from this part of the Beladine hinterlands had assured him before their trip that the wagon could make it.
“Some spots will rattle your brains, especially if the local folk have driven cattle or sheep through after a hard rain and it’s dried since. We’d just have to go slow and nurse the wagon along. Once we cross the Dulgrada bridge, we’ll be on a main road that’s nearly as smooth as a royal courtesan’s backside.”
Serovek had been more worried about the bridge than the roads. The Dulgrada was a spandrel bridge. Sturdy, wide and built to provide safe passage for foot and transport traffic over the narrow but deep ravine that marked entry into the Lobak Valley. Without it, the trip to the monastery involved a round-about way that took nearly three times as long and went straight through the areas where Chamtivos had caused the most trouble. He hoped the map, which showed the bridge, was still current, and they’d have /7an easy crossing.
By the time they’d reached the next landing, Ardwin, Weson, Ogran, and Ghanner had their gear packed and had chosen among themselves the companion with whom: Ghanner and Ogran to High Salure, Weson and Ardwin to Saggara. Serovek had guessed Ogran wouldn’t volunteer to travel into Kai territory when another choice was available to him. Anhuset would be pleased.
The four men disembarked, Ghanner carrying the note Anhuset had written for the Khaskem on a ragged piece of parchment she’d bought from the captain for a sum equal to highway robbery and was no doubt torn from a pilfered book. The yellow of her eyes flickered now every time the man came into her view, and Serovek wondered if he saw the same hint of threat in her gaze Serovek did. Judging by the way the man took pains to avoid her after she’d written the letter, it seemed so.
With their numbers reduced to four and Megiddo for the remainder of the journey, and most of their road rations sent with the others, they were low on supplies. Feeling generous after making a nice profit on a bit of parchment and some ink, the captain gave them some helpful information.
“When you leave, go a half league west. It’ll take you off your path a small ways, but there’s a village with a decent market where you can purchase more provisions. I’ll give you directions and the names of the better vendors.”
“Let’s hope they sell onions cheaper than you sell parchment,” Anhuset said in the driest voice.
Once the captain left, Serovek tutted and gave a sigh of mock disapproval. “Not much in the way of diplomacy there, firefly woman.”
She shrugged and set to work packing the last of her satchels in preparation for disembarking. “I let him rob me and didn’t eat him. That’s diplomacy.”
He thanked the gods for the blessing of having her here. Her acerbic remarks made him laugh, made this journey less grim, and the dangers not so burdensome. She was good for his soul. He would miss her mightily when they parted ways at High Salure and she returned to Saggara.
It didn’t take long after they traded the river and barge for land horseback to reach the village the boat captain recommended. A small but bustling place acting as a hub for other smaller villages, the center square was crowded with people and stalls selling everyday goods and produce. What luxury items there might have been Serovek couldn’t guess. His interest was only on resupplying their provisions to last until they reached the monastery.
He and Erostis were the only ones to travel into the village itself. Anhuset stayed with Klanek and the wagon just outside of the settlement. Before they’d left, Serovek asked her if she wanted him to bring back any specific fruit or treat for her. She’d shaken her head. “I’ll eat whatever is there.” She scowled the moment the words left her lips. Before Serovek could tease about her statement, she pointed a finger at him. “No maggot potato things. I might as well eat dirt. It’ll taste better.”
While they didn’t have Anhuset with them to draw a crowd’s attention, Serovek himself garnered more notice than he anticipated. Even garbed in the hard-worn travel clothing in need of laundering and days of road and river dirt on him, people had guessed a nobleman of importance was visiting. Vendors fawned over him in the hopes he’d be generous with his purchases. Some of the village elders invited him and Erostis to supper at their homes, and yeoman’s beautiful wife made it clear she’d be happy to introduce him to the village’s other hospitalities.
Another woman tucked a nosegay of dried woodbine bound in ribbon into one of the satchels he carried along with the packages of dried fruit he’d purchased from her. “For your lady-love,” she told him with a smile and a wink. “And if you don’t have one of those, you can always make yourself a nice cup of tea with it.”
The pair returned to the spot where Klanek and Anhuset waited, the satchels tied to their saddles bulging with newly bought provisions. “We bought, potatoes,” he announced to the Kai woman, grinning when she winced. “There isn’t much available in the way of fresh stuff with coming just coming out of winter, and Erostis has assured me he knows how to cook these ‘maggots’ in such a way that you’ll come to love them.”
She gave Erostis an arch look. “Don’t go to extra trouble on my account. I’m not convinced those things are meant to be eaten as food in the first place.”
They unloaded the cumbersome packs from the horses to load and secure into the wagon. Serovek took the brief time to scan his map and the route they’d take for the spandrel bridge. Movement from the corner of his eye caught his attention, and he glanced up to spot Anhuset pausing before bending down to stare at something on the ground. Whatever she dropped, she scooped up and with a quick slight of hand, tucked it away in her tunic.
He would have thought nothing of it except for the arrested, almost guilty expression on her face when she did it. When they were once more on the road, he considered asking her but thought better of it. It was one thing to inquire out of concern, another to pry, and he didn’t wish for her to think he did the second.
For this leg of the journey, Erostis rode in the front next to Klanek where the two swapped stories of various escapades when they were children that made Serovek pity their parents. He rode behind the wagon next to Anhuset, content enjoy the quiet.
She surprised him when she broke the companionable silence with a question. “Why is the Lobak valley so desired by this Chamtivos?”
Because owning land is possessing power. Owning a great deal of land is having a great deal of power, but you must fight hard to keep it. Chamtivos was the youngest son of a minor Beladine nobleman. To keep the holding intact, the lord bequeathed all of it to the eldest son, to be inherited upon his death.”
She gave a soft whistle. “I’m guessing whatever brotherly affection existed until then vanished.”
“That’s putting it mildly,” he replied. “What Chamtivos lacked in status, he made up for in ambition and ruthlessness. He killed his father, his brothers, and their progeny so there’d be no claim but his to the holding. According to him, the hard hand of fate had dealt harshly with his family. A drowning, hunting accidents, an unfortunate fall from a cliff, a difficult childbirth. He then traveled to the capital and petitioned the king not only for recognition of his right to the fiefdom but to the lands bordering the Jeden monastery and beyond.”
“A man so driven makes a dangerous vassal. One who’ll murder his own family to rise in status will think nothing of murdering anyone else, including sovereigns. Nor will they remain content with ruling a castle and farmland, no matter how rich.” Her features hardened. “Even the Khaskem, as even-tempered as he is, would have Chamtivos either imprisoned or put to death.”
On a slope overlooking the plain surrounding Saggara, with an army of the dead behind him, Serovek had watched as Brishen’s eidolon embraced his mother’s twisted spirit and obliterated it. He’d done it without hesitation or regret, much like Chamtivos, but for entirely different reasons. He had no doubt Brishen would do exactly as Anhuset claimed.
“As he should. As King Rodan should have done. It would have saved countless lives and himself a lot of grief had he done the same.” He shrugged. “Instead, he strung Chamtivos along with bait and false promises for who knows what reason, then gifted the entire valley, including those holdings, to the Jeden Order, believing the monks would be defenders of the territory for the crown instead of contenders for it as Chamtivos would.”
“But are they not considered heretics?”
Some of the more zealous Beladine, strict in their orthodoxy, often called upon the king to outlaw all Nazim monks and proclaim their orders as heretical, including the Jeden Order. Such cries fell on deaf ears, especially when the warrior monks proved themselves so useful in furthering the king’s interests.
The wagon had rolled farther ahead of them while he and Anhuset chatted, their horses content to amble along while their riders were distracted. Serovek tapped Magas’s sides with his heels to close the gap between him and the transport, and Anhuset followed. He replied to her question once they caught up to the other two who were now close enough to hear their conversation.
“To the devout among us, they are heretics, but the king isn’t a religious man. His philosophy has always been pay the crown tax, tithe your soldiers and vassals to his army in times of conflict, and remember your place. You’re free to worship as you please as long as it doesn’t threaten his rule.”
Her expression turned inscrutable, her mouth becoming pinched. “It’s well known among some that the king of Belawat will do what he believes is necessary to hold the throne.”
Had Serovek not been directly involved in Brishen’s rescue from Beladine raiders who’d tortured the Kai prince and would have killed him, he might not have caught the oblique accusation in Anhuset’s comment. She and others, himself included, suspected King Rodan had a hand in the two attempts on Brishen’s life and that of his Gauri bride. He glanced at Erostis and Klanek, looking for any tell-tale sign that one of them had heard what he did. Both only looked mildly bored.
Unlike them, Anhuset didn’t look bored at all. Tall in the saddle, she sat tense, waiting for his reply. He could almost feel the heat of her rising anger at the memory of what the raiders had done to her cousin. While there was no solid proof of his involvement, she obviously laid the blame for Brishen’s torture and disfigurement at King Rodan’s feet.
“He’s always been a wily sovereign,” Serovek said, careful with his choice of words and eager to turn the focus back to the warlord. “Letting Chamtivos live was one of his few mistakes, and one I doubt he’ll ever make again. When he awarded the valley to the Nazim monks, Chamtivos rebelled, amassed a small army of followers and seized the lands for himself. Were it not for the monks’ fighting ability and help from Ilinfan swordmasters, he’d still control all of it. They wrested most of it from him, and he’s gone into hiding, though he remains a boil on Rodan’s arse with skirmishes and raids that cripple trade in the area.”
His mention of the Ilinfan swordmasters acted like an incantation, instantly diverting her attention away from Rodan’s ruthless machinations to something she embraced with fervor: sword fighting.
“We in Bast-Haradis know of your fabled swordsmen,” she said, a touch of admiration in her voice. “Generations ago, a Kai woman named Senakhte trained with one.” She sighed. “I’ve always wanted to spar with an Ilinfan swordmaster.”
Her comment about a Kai woman training with the Ilinfan piqued his curiosity. He knew of the most famous swordmasters, those legendary teachers and fighters every Beladine child who’d ever picked up a toy sword wanted to emulate. No one had ever mentioned a Kai swordmaster. What an extraordinary spectacle that would be—watching as someone like Anhuset stepped into the arena against one of the Ilinfan.
“The monks are indebted to them,” he said. “They helped the Nazim regain control of the Lobak Valley from Chamtivos, most of it anyway. They’re the pride of the Beladine kingdom, though the king barely tolerates them.” Rodan tread a thin line with the various factions in his kingdom from religious orders with impressive martial skills to renowned swordsmen whose true loyalty most believed lay with their brotherhood and their leader they called the Ghan.
“Possible threat to the precious throne?” Once more her voice had taken on that studied neutral tone.
He approved of her caution. “There are always threats to the throne.”
Slouched casually on the wagon’s driver seat with the reins held loose in his fingers, Klanek joined their conversation. “I got to see an Ilinfan swordmaster fight once. Some years ago during Delyalda at the capital.” He grinned. “Beat the shit out of the king’s champion, then refused to be the replacement when it was offered to him.”
Anhuset nudged her horse closer to the front of the wagon. “Did he live up the reputation of swordmaster?”
The driver snorted. “And then some. It was an exhibition match, but we all wondered about that when it was over. Alreed, the champion then, was spitting blood, tongue, teeth and was half dead by the time the king called the match. The swordsman never said a word, never strutted about or begged praise from the crowd. Just bowed to the king, said something to his patron Lord Uhlfrida, and left the arena.”
“A man who knows the worth of his skill doesn’t need to brag of it or seek praise for it,” Serovek said.
Anhuset nodded. “Fighting such a warrior would be a privilege.”
Klanek echoed aloud Serovek’s silent reply. “If you lived to tell of it.”
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).