This post has been edited with current information.
Due to Amazon’s copyright verification protocols that are in place, I’ve had to pull down the previous sections posted so as not to receive nasty-grams from Amazon about copyright verification. This kind of thing can happen when their bots go hunting for stuff and why piracy is way more of a pain in the ass to the author than a possible lost sale. I already have official documentation showing proof of my copyright to give to Amazon, but I’d rather not have to wrestle with them any more than necessary to prove I’m the owner. As such, I’ll continue to post sections, but only the most current.
Author’s note: This serialization is an abridged (meaning there will be sections in the final that aren’t here) 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 into an unpredictable autumn, I hope this serialized version offers some entertainment for you. Stay well. Stay safe.
On with the show.
Serovek heard the words as if from a far distance or at the end of a tunnel. Treason. Sedition. Words that were the antithesis of everything his life define as a faithful military governor to the Beladine kingdom. He’d never much cared for the wily old king, and he’d exercised his leadership of High Salure in ways His Majesty might not approve, such as his friendship with Brishen Khaskem, but he’d never been disloyal to his country or his king. Unfortunately, King Rodan saw it otherwise, and Serovek knew exactly what had pushed him toward that decision.
Born into an influential family, now diminished to just him due to age, illness, and lack of offspring to carry the line, Serovek still remained respected and liked among the Beladine populace, his reputation not only glowing among the women, but the men as well. People spoke of his bravery, his honor, and his abilities to keep a peace between two countries while also enforcing the law of his demesne to protect his citizens. It had been a near feeding frenzy among the noble families with eligible daughters to lure him into another marriage after his wife. Even now, years later, interest remained high though he was rarely seen at court and showed no interest in taking one of the latest crops of noble damsels as his wife.
Popularity wasn’t a sin, but it became a threat when it reached beyond the small, illustrious circle of Beladine nobility to the common folk. Those people might have known him by name but nothing else and cared not at all about his family line or character strengths. Once word spread of his feats as a Wraith King, that all changed, and Rodan’s opinion of Serovek, already strained by jealousy and suspicion of his capable margrave, soured even more. He himself wasn’t a popular king, and histories had recorded more than on instance where an unpopular sovereign had been usurped by a more popular contender, often one with military experience and their own army to support their ambition. Had Rodan asked, Serovek would have cheerfully told him he could keep his throne with all best wishes, then requested dispensation from making the annual dreaded visit to court to show his face and pretend he actually wanted to be there.
Rodan hadn’t asked but his remarks to Serovek when he held an audience with his margraves a few months earlier. Remarks that were sharp knives hidden under layers of velvet, a warning Serovek caught instantly. He’d become a threat, one the king would find a way of neutralizing given time. He hadn’t stayed long in the capital after that audience, believing it better to return to his stronghold at High Salure where courtiers didn’t fawn over him or try to involve him in their many machinations for climbing the ladder of influence. Where Rodan didn’t eye him with the cold-eyed regard of a serpent waiting for the opportune time to strike.
That time was now. Serovek was in a stronghold, just not his, and if a contingent of the king’s men had ridden this far to capture him, what was going on at High Salure?
Anhuset’s voice, low and seething with rage, turned his attention to her. Her eyes, palest yellow now, burned hot, and her lips had drawn back to reveal her sharp teeth. She looked every bit the vicious Kai warrior. “Has your stupid king gone mad?” Her hand dropped to her sword pommel. “Say the word. I will challenge any of them as your champion.”
This woman, parsimonious with her displays of affection, willingly courted her own death to defend him. A romance unlike any other, he thought with an inner smile. He stroked her arm. “I think I’ll need your impressive skills for something else very soon, firefly woman.”
Tionfa shouted over the battlements. “Why would you think the margrave of High Salure is here?”
“Let’s not play games, abbot,” the troop’s leader shouted back. “Half the valley knows he’s here, along with a Kai ambassador from Bast-Haradis.”
The abbot employed an old but effective tactic of delaying any acknowledgment the commander’s statements, allowing Serovek time to plan what he might do. He glanced at Serovek, one eyebrow raised in question.
“Tell him sha-Anhuset is no longer here. That there was no reason for her to stay once we brought Megiddo safely to you.”
“What are you doing?” Anhuset practically hissed the question.
When Tionfa relayed Serovek’s words, the troop leader shrugged. “She isn’t our concern. We’re only here for the margrave. If you don’t turn him over to us, we’ll simply return with a larger force and take him.”
Serovek had expected just such an answer and was ready with one of his own when the abbot said “What do you wish to do?”
“Give myself up of course.”
This time Anhuset shoved him. “Are you mad too?” she snapped. “That’s an admission of guilt, and you aren’t guilty.”
He grabbed her shoulders. She was stiffer than pike stand. “Listen to me. I hoped something like this wouldn’t happen, though I’m not surprised it did. This is Bryzant’s doing. I know it. A secondary plan in case Chamtivos didn’t successfully complete his task. I can explain more later.”
Not at all appeased, she lashed out at him. “You say that as if you’ll live to do so.”
He’d have to step carefully and present his argument posthaste, before she decided he was too much of a dimwit to understand his own dire circumstances and take the decisions out of his hands. He wouldn’t put it past her to suddenly rear back and punch him hard enough to knock him unconscious.
“That’s certainly my intention.” He stroked her arms, speaking urgently. There was only so long the troop’s captain would be this patient. “Rodan is a suspicious bastard who sees a threat to the throne in every shadow behind every tree, but he’s also clever and a good strategist.
“He has two advantages in play at the moment. I’m away from High Salure, in the territory of a rebel warlord, and enjoying the hospitality of priests many in this kingdom consider heretics. If I remain behind these walls, Rodan will raze my fortress to the ground and arrest those he considers loyal to me. He’ll then send a full army to attack the monastery and declare the Nazim heretical.” Tionfa’s nod and grim face lent strength to his argument. “This valley finally has a chance for peace. It doesn’t need another conflict created by a one man’s ambitions or, like me, one man’s innocence. I’m no more guilty of those two charges than you or the abbot here, but if I don’t willingly turn myself over to them, the repercussions will be far greater than my arrest. War started, lives unnecessarily lost. And you need to be well away from any of it. You know as well as I do that Rodan has been spoiling for war with Bast-Haradis since King Djedor signed that trade agreement with the Gauri and sealed it with the marriage between Brishen and Ildiko.”
“Abbot,” the captain bellowed from below, “I don’t have all day. Give us the margrave.”
Serovek jerked Anhuset in his arms and kissed her scowling mouth. She returned the kiss just as hard and was still scowling when he let her go. He joined Tionfa at the battlements, leaning out so those below could clearly see him. Anhuset’s expletive-rich snarls about staying out of arrow range singed his ears. “Keep your boots on, man. I was just fetched from my bed. I’m coming down now.”
He retreated from the wall along with Tionfa and discovered Anhuset nearly standing on his heels.
“What do you need me to do?” she said.
I want you to become my wife and share my bed for the rest of our lives. Instead he gestured to the abbot. “Follow Tionfa’s first suggestion. Use the back gate, take Erostis with you. If Rodan’s man asks, I’ll say he didn’t survive his wounds and his body was burned. Return to Saggara on Magas.” He’d turn himself over to his captors without struggle. Magas though was his and only his. “Rodan has always coveted him. He’s out of a mare from Nadiza’s lightning herd. “The king doesn’t get my stallion as a bonus.”
“He shouldn’t be getting my stallion either.” She glared at him as if he were the one who instigated all of this.
A euphoric swoop of joy at her words bottomed out his stomach. He considered pulling her into his arms a second time but as that glare turned even hotter, he thought better of it. “So I’m yours now?”
Before she could blister his ears about the poor timing of his teasing, Tionfa interrupted, motioning to the hall where his escort waited. “Margrave.”
He and Anhuset followed them down the stairwell. They’d split off from each other at the bottom. “Tell Brishen to keep an eye on his borders and a tight net on any Kai raiders trying to cause trouble on the Beladine side,” he instructed her. “Rodan is just looking for an excuse.”
“And I’m just to forget about you being led off in shackles to face a traitor’s fate?”
He wouldn’t pay her the insult of patronizing her by saying all would be well. No one could predict such a thing. “That honeyed tongue you said I had? Not only useful in seducing a prickly Kai woman. The king knows my value to him. I’ll talk my way out of this one.” He hoped.
“You are far too sure yourself sometimes,” she said as they reached the last step and. This time it was she who grasped his arms as if trying to resist temptation and hold him prisoner herself.
He kissed her forehead and the frown there. When he pulled back, he smiled. “Maybe, but here you are in my arms, so I must be doing things the right way.”
Their goodbye kiss was as swift and intense as the one on the battlements. Serovek set her from him and stepped out of her reach. “Go. If I were the captain of that troop, I’d send a handful of men to scout the surrounding area just to see what might be found. Fetch Erostis and get out of here quickly. Don’t be found.”
She nodded and bolted down the hall leading to the stairwell that would take them to the wing of the monastery where guests were housed. Another pair took off for the stables at the abbot’s instructions. If Magas and Anhuset’s horse were already saddle, she and Erostis would be galloping away from the monastery before Rodan’s men could clap Serovek in irons.
Their urgent dash down the stairs turned into a casual stroll to the bailey and gate with its double portcullises. Tionfa walked beside Serovek, speaking softly. “We can keep your possessions here until you return or send them to wherever you choose.” Serovek had handed the abbot his weapons for safekeeping.”
“Keep them here,” he said. “If I don’t return for them someone else will.”
They both paused not far from the inner portcullis. Serovek bowed to Tionfa. “I and the Khaskem owe you much for keeping Megiddo safe until we can find a way to unite his soul with his body, and I personally am in your and your brothers’ debt for saving me, Erostis, and sha-Anhuset. And for trying to save Klanek.
The other man returned the bow. “The world is a better place with the brave and compassionate in it, margrave. We hope you all walk this fair earth for many years to come.” He glanced at the Beladine contingent waiting on the other side of the gates and lowered his voice. “Should you ever decide to take the throne, I think you’d find more support than you realize. The Beladine kingdom would thrive under your rule.”
Serovek darted a glance at his waiting escort and spoke just as softly “Don’t say that too loud, abbot, or you’ll be joining me on the journey back Timsiora, wearing a handsome pair of shackles of your own. Besides, I’ve no interest in such a thankless duty. Kings who were once free soldiers become prisoners of diplomacy and administration. That is a slow death in itself for a man like me.”
Tionfa accompanied him to the inner portcullis and gave the signal to have it raised, then lowered again once Serovek walked under it to stand before the outer portcullis. He nodded once to the waiting troop commander who nodded back in recognition of a peaceful turnover of a prisoner. Serovek didn’t look back when the outer portcullis once more struck the ground with a bang and rattle of chains.
Two more soldiers joined their leader, each one reining their mounts on either side of him. One led another saddled horse behind him. The commander dismounted to meet Serovek halfway. He saluted, surprising Serovek with the gesture of respect. “Lord Pangion,” he said. “I’m Captain Ratik. I served at High Salure for a season when I first joined the army.”
A young captain, maybe a dozen years Serovek’s junior with a familiar face under his helmet. He searched his memory for a green recruit newly arrived at High Salure and found what he was looking for. “I remember you. Your sister married Lord Canotkin’s youngest son.
Ratik’s face wreathed into a wide smile until he remembered his duty and whom he was address. “She did,” he said in a solemn voice. “Very good memory, my lord.”
One of the things Serovek had learned early in his years as a military leader was the importance of remembering faces, names, and some small personal detail tied to them. These were men who rode into battle together, sometimes died together, and defended each other. They followed the orders of a superior, most of the time without questions, and to Serovek’s way of thinking they deserved some recognition from that superior that they were more than just a sword or a spear or blood to spilled in pursuit of an objective. That philosophy had earned him a fierce loyalty among the men who served High Salure. His thoughts turned briefly to the treacherous Ogran. There were exceptions.
At Ratik’s gesture, the soldier holding the irons came forward and stopped when Ratik held up his hand a second time. “Give them to me.” Once he held them, he stared at Serovek with a resolute expression, as if he was about to do something unpleasant or against a personal code. “Will I need these?”
Serovek had no intention of trying to escape. There was much more at stake here than his freedom. If that’s all it was, he would have sneaked out with Anhuset and Erostis. But the manacles were more than just devices of restraint, they were a symbol, and he had no doubt Rodan expected him to ride to the capital and be presented to his king wearing them. “Probably,” he said.
The captain sighed, nodded, and clapped the manacles on his wrists. “You understand my opinion of this means nothing. I’m doing my duty.”
“As a Beladine margrave, I expect no less from any Beladine soldier.”
Once he was mounted on the borrowed horse, the troop turned as one and galloped back the way they camp. Serovek glanced over his shoulder to see Tionfa once more on the battlements, a hand raised in farewell.
Their journey to the capital took four days through mountainous terrain and paths still knee-deep in snow in places. Serovek calculated their travel time against his trek to Jeden Order and guessed his perfidious steward had sent a message to the king before Serovek was barely past the gates of High Salure. He’d hedged his bets on getting rid of liege, first through a murder pact with Chamtivos, and if Serovek survived, then he’d exploit the king’s suspicions about Serovek and turn Rodan against him. He hoped once they reached Timsiora, he’d find Bryzant there so he could kill him.
Unlike his imprisonment under Chamtivos, his only hardships were the annoying manacles, the watchful eyes of his escorts at all times of the day and night, and a horse whose trot threatened to shake his teeth loose no matter how much he adjusted posting the trot to the animal’s gait. Ratik and his troop were respectful to him the entire time, some even deferential. He ate what they ate and slept on the ground as they did, huddled in blankets. Sometimes he slept; other times he stared up at the night sky, worried for Anhuset and Erostis, worried about those at High Salure. Had Rodan sent more of his army to wrest control of the fortress from the High Salure troop? Gods forbid there had been any fighting. He prayed not. His reason told him he didn’t have to fear for Anhuset or liege-man. Neither was a wilting flower by any stretch of the imagine. Still, he hoped they’d made it to Saggara without mishap and Magas with them.
They reached Timsiora at midday when the streets were packed with foot traffic as well as carts and other assorted livestock. The crowds parted for Ratik and his men, and several people who watched them as they passed exclaimed in shock, and even outrage at the sight of Lord Pangion, margrave of High Salure, hero in the galla war, once a Wraith King, manacled and escorted as a prisoner to the palace. Serovek winced inside at the reactions. This would only make things worse for him. No doubt there was a spy at every corner who’d report back to the king about the crowd’s response and fuel Rodan’s belief that he had a potential usurper on his hands.
Ratik turned him over to a troop of palace guards. He and his men all bowed from their saddles and saluted. Ratik even offered a sign that Serovek recognized as a blessing of the creator god Yalda. “May the sun not abandon you to darkness, Lord Pangion. Good luck.”
Serovek nodded his thanks and followed his new escort into the palace itself. More stares and surprised exclamations, frantic whispers from courtiers lingering in the various corridors to gossip and plot or hope for an audience with the king. By the time he was led to Rodan’s audience hall, he was certain the entire royal court was behind them.
The doors closed on their curious faces and Serovek strode toward the throne on its high dais at the chamber’s other end. An old man perched upon the chair, gaze sharp as a raptor’s and just as predatory. He didn’t blink the entire time Serovek closed the distance between them or when he genuflected before the throne.
“Your Majesty,” he said
King Rodan reclined back in his seat, one finger tapping the side of his cheek as he regarded Serovek silently for several moments. “So, the traitor has returned,” he finally said. “I’m told you didn’t try to escape.” Once more a prolonged quiet. Serovek knew better than to speak without invitation. “Have you nothing to say, Pangion?”
“I’m innocent of the charges of both treason and sedition, Your Majesty,” he said, knowing such a simple defense would have no bearing on the king. I” have no reason to escape.”
Rodan reached for something on the small table next to the throne. A square of parchment with a wax seal broken open to show whatever the parchment contained, it had been read. “That isn’t what this missive from your steward says,” he said. “Shall I read it to you?”
If he were honest, stupid, and suicidal, Serovek would have told him not to bother. He could guess at what pile of horse manure had been written there. “I would appreciate it, Your Majesty.”
Rodan moved the parchment away from him as far as his arm would stretch and cocked his head back so he could read. “I fear his lordship has changed, and not for the better, since his return from his battle with the galla. His time as a Wraith King has altered his view of his own role as a margrave who serves the will of Your Majesty, especially since his popularity has grown and expanded far beyond High Salure. I write to tell you that he is now en route to the Lobak valley, ostensibly to return the body of the monk Megiddo Cermac to the Jeden Order. I fear, however, based on an informant’s knowledge, he is meeting with the warlord Chamtivos. All in the Beladine kingdom know of this insurgent and his desire to wrest the lands from the Nazim despite Your Majesty’s decree that the valley belongs to them. Two such men, with military knowledge and the leadership prowess that persuades other men to follow them, would be a force to reckon with should they decide to form an alliance. You may also find it of interest that a high ranking ambassador of Bast-Haradis has accompanied Lord Pangion on this trip, though there is no reason why such an representative of the Kai kingdom is needed.”
When he was done, he refolded the missive and dropped it back on the table. “There’s more, mostly groveling praise of little consequence. I won’t bother reading that part. I’ve known you long enough, Pangion, to know you have no more patience for that sort of thing than I do. But what your steward says here.” He tapped the missive with a finger tip. “And the information he has paints a picture a grim picture of a man with aspirations that are…problematic to say the least. What do you say to all of this?”
“I’d say you’re a blind fool for believing the words of an upstart steward with ambitions far beyond his capabilities instead of looking at years of unswerving loyalties.” Instead, Serovek replied with “You’re correct, Your Majesty. You have known me a long time, and in that time I have served your interests faithfully, kept your borders secured and the kingdom of Belawat safe from man and demon alike. My steward’s concerned message consists of crumbs of truth wrapped in a layer of lies, a poisonous cake with no substance except its poison.”
He proceeded to relay the events of the trip from the time Anhuset arrived at High Salure to when Ratik arrived with his troop, leaving out the parts about his intimacy with the Kai woman and changing the story line from Anhuset standing next to him on the battlements to her leaving for Saggara the moment they put Megiddo into the monks’ safekeeping. He wanted to leave out the part where they visited Haradis but suspected Ogran or Bryzant had already relayed that information to whatever go-between messenger they used to relay information to the king.
Rodan’s harsh features didn’t change through the narrative or when it ended, nor did his raptor gaze turn friendly. “What happened to your horse?”
The question confirmed for Serovek the wisdom of having Anhuset ride Magas to Saggara. He adopted a pained expression. “Lost in Chamtivos’s raid on us. I didn’t recover him, nor did the Nazim.”
A flicker of disappointment caught in Rodan’s eyes. “A loss. He was a magnificent animal.”
And one that will never be yours, Serovek thought. Even if I don’t survive this ludicrous circumstance.
He bowed his head in a supplicating gesture. “May I speak more, Your Highness.” The action must have appealed to the king for he nodded. “If you want absolute proof that my journey to the Jeden Order wasn’t to open negotiations for an alliance with Chamtivos, then bring one of the monks to Timsiora to witness in my defense, or better yet, have them bring Chamtivos’s head with them. I was the one who took it off his body. I’m content in my role as margrave. I visit the capital only upon your summons, not because I’m enamored with court and its trappings. Belawat already has a king who rules the kingdom with a deft hand.
“So does High Salure” Rodan replied in a voice gone icy. “All you lack is a crown, and I find it hard to believe that a man of such standing with the power and loyalty of his own sizable army might remain content as the military governor of one of my territories that’s mostly back country and far from the seat of real power. You understand if I’m convinced of your treachery, you will be executed for your crimes.
“I do.” It wasn’t Bryzant’s letter and machinations he’d have to conquer, but the king’s own perceptions of his influence and his ambitions. They, more than some falsely histrionic letter from a steward of no importance, would determine his fate.
Rodan motioned to something behind Serovek, and the rhythmic march of boots grew louder as they grew closer. Serovek tensed but stayed kneeling. “I’ll speak to other witnesses over the next few days,” the king said. “I may even wait a little longer with my decision and do as you suggested, summon a Nazim monk or two and have them bring Chamtivos’s head. Until then, you are a prisoner of the crown.” He gestured again, and this time the guards behind Serovek hauled him to his feet. “Take him to the Zela. Prison accommodations won’t be as fine those in the palace guest wing, but you’re a soldier. You’ve quartered in worse.”
Dismissed without further word, Serovek was escorted from the audience room and greeted by a sea of curious onlookers. This, he thought, would be his fate if he ever wanted to take the throne. Every door opening to a mob like this. He didn’t know which was worse, the cell waiting for him in the Zela because the king considered him a traitor, or the cell constructed by the very nature of the kingship he didn’t seek. In that moment, and for the first time, Serovek truly pitied Brishen Khaskem.