“How is one to hold against the darkness, when the darkness has already consumed him?”
From the journal of Scanlin Ross,
First Sword in Tyrian, Believer
A sliver of blue living flame flowed around the observatory in the distance, illuminating the tower before splintering into a million filaments of light that swam across the night sky. Standing beside Aralt in the bow of the Aurora Dream, Scanlin Ross bent his grey head in silent prayer before kissing the pendant that lay like a fragment of starlight in his hand. He then offered an eloquent blessing for the New Year, but Aralt could only think of one thing.
Scanlin tucked the star pendant under his collar and sighed. “That we are.”
“Blood and ashes, Grey! It’s Lian’s first Lighting. I promised him I’d be there.” He scrubbed at his face. “Kavistra Devailyn is going to kill me.”
The incongruity of that statement met with nervous laughter among the crew, but not one disputed his claim. One of the most auspicious celebrations on the calendar of the Faith and they were late. Even if the High Priest himself let it pass--and knowing Devailyn Kynsei, he would--his younger brother, Lian, would be decidedly out of sorts.
“More’s the pity we were delayed, but ’tis not your fault the Northern Alliance is governed by a host of bickering old fools,” Scanlin pointed out, leaning his forearms on the rail.
“Tell that to a twelve-year-old.” Not even twelve, Aralt corrected himself. Not until Midsummer. As if being that age wasn’t agony enough.
“It must’a’ been a sight, him callin’ the flame forth as they do,” Scanlin said, extending his hand in demonstration. “A miracle that is, holdin’ the Light in the palm o’ your hand. The liturgy will ’ave been spoken by the time we arrive.”
“We should be so lucky,” Aralt muttered as the moonless night filled with sky lanterns and the countryside warmed with the glow of bonfires. Soon the land would mirror the star-filled sky.
Scanlin shook his head, his grey hair a halo of mercury in the lamplight. “Sweet Creator, Wolf. You’re incorrigible.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
Aralt’s stomach dropped as they crested the edge of the forest, the small ship skimming the treetops as the pilot took her lower. He regretted promising Lian a night flight over what would soon be a churning coastline, vastly preferring an opportunity to utilize the finest equipment in the country to view the stars. A small sacrifice for the redemption it might achieve him. Wisps of blue light spun in dizzying circles overhead, writing the names of the Prophets in the night sky. As a boy he tried to decipher the script, recreating what he could on paper with his mother’s costly pastels. Now, he just enjoyed the spectacle—or would have, had those same lights not suddenly been captured, extinguished by a darkness deeper than the moonless night.
Scanlin pushed away from the wooden rail. His voice fell to a whisper. “Aralt—"
“I see it.”
Cool eddies washed over them as a shadow crowded out the stars, then another and another. The thrum of strange engines infused the night air with dread. The Aurora Dream’s pilot engaged the steering fins as the crew doused every light source in an attempt to camouflage their ship and pass undetected toward the makeshift airfield that had been established on the outskirts of the parish. Aralt gripped the deck rail as the gondola swayed. A vessel five times their size sailed swiftly overhead, bypassing them as it turned south, shafts of light cutting through the darkness as flood lamps focused on Kyrrimar City.
“Those are Shirah’nyn craft,” the Aurora’s pilot hissed, ushering them onto a swaying rope ladder before mooring lines had even been secured. “They’ve made the skies their own.”
Aralt counted their number, his stomach growing cold. Never had he seen so many ships. He looked back toward the beleaguered city, even more vulnerable on a holy night. "Shite, Mariah! We’re not going to get to the Kavistra’s residence before them unless you take us closer!”
The pilot slid down the ladder after them. Two airmen followed with their gear. “I can’t outrun warships, syr Tremayne. It’s a wonder they didn’t flame us in midair!”
“There’s only one person that could command a fleet like this,” Aralt told him, shrugging into his coat and adjusting his baldric. “Tirehl.”
Mariah blanched. “Pray it isn’t.”
“Prayer isn’t going to change anything tonight. Wait for us. The Kavistra is going to need to be taken to safety.” As would guests from the far reaches of the country and beyond.
He took the bridle of the docile-eyed beast offered to him by a frightened groom. It had none of the hallmarks of a war steed. It was short enough to mount without a block, its lower lip pockets absent of the quality ivory favored for battle. Even its heel spurs had been filed off.
"You cannae ken who it be," Scanlin said under his breath, taking charge of an equally unassuming mount. "Askierran is at peace wi' the Houses o' the Seven Matriarchs. They sent an emissary this year--"
"And lonn Tirehl doesn't owe a single southern clan his allegiance,” Aralt snapped. “They've never intervened when he’s led forces into our domains before and wouldn’t even acknowledge he got as far north as the Weeping Wall."
“Steady on,” Scanlin told him, gripping his forearm. “Nothing can bring back your brother.”
No, Aralt thought, jabbing the esri’s soft belly with his heels, propelling it forward. But I could kill the murderous snake that took him from me. I’ll be damned if I let him take Devailyn and Lian.
Unarmed sentries lay dead at the Pilgrim’s Gate on the north side of the parish. Tendrils of fire spinning like dervishes enveloped buildings where weathered slate and tile failed to turn back the inferno. Aralt pressed his unwilling mount into waves of heat and the oppressive stench of burning oil. The esri squealed in protest.
A crowd of locals dressed in their finest festival garb met Aralt and Scanlin as they turned down the high street. Half of them manned water pumps in a desperate attempt to quell the flames, the other half, having abandoned the cause, fled for their lives. Few were armed with anything more than fire axes or butcher knives. Each told the same story. Ships of the air, large and swift, had anchored at strategic locations throughout town, unleashing fire-rain—chemical destruction that would burn even on sand. The siege had centered on Kavistra Devailyn’s residence situated on the hill overlooking the sea.
A file of the local militia broke from the darkness of a smoke-filled alley with a battle cry, brandishing an array of weapons ranging from proper crystal swords to clumsy brass water-squirts better suited to extinguishing kitchen fires than the unholy conflagration raging through the city.
“Stand down!” Aralt shouted as the mob closed in. He looked over the ragtag band. Not a ranking Blade among them and half of them too young to shave.
“It’s syr Tremayne!”
Aralt cut their cheers short. “Who’s your ranking Sword? Where’s the Kavistra?” Where’s Lian?
A youth with blistered lips, the side of his face an angry burn, pushed through the gawking crowd. He dragged the back of a bloodied hand across his soot-stained face. Eyes like polished starbeads blinked rapidly. “Commander’s dead, sir. I don’t know—“
“What do you know?”
The young man lifted his chin, meeting Aralt’s gaze. Few men did. He respected the youth all the more for his directness. “There were at least a dozen ships, by my reckoning. They closed in like a swarm of sand sharks, drawing attention away from the House. The ranking Swords kenned quick enough what they were about, but we were already spread too thin. Our squad was almost to the Shepherd’s Gate when vats of the flow in the Jeweler’s studio ignited. There was no getting to the Old City then. We don’t know if Dev—the Kavistra,” he amended, “is dead or alive.”
“What’s your name, soldier?”
“Tevin, sir. Tevin Keely.”
“Tevin Keely, do you know the North Road to Linishael? Aye? Good.” He scanned the crowd of weary faces, searching their bloodshot eyes until he found what he was looking for in a young Blade carrying a bow with bloodwood inlay. “You there, with the bow and the esri, you’re not injured? Is your mount sound enough to carry two?"
“He’ll fly if he has to, syr Tremayne!” the young woman told him, slinging her bow over her shoulder.
“Unless she’s come under attack, there’s a ship at the airfield. Take a message to my father. Tell him what’s happened here—everything you can. Every detail you remember. He’ll do the rest.” When Tevin began to protest leaving the fight, Aralt reminded him that the fate of every neighboring domain rested on the message getting to Fharyl syr Tremayne. “If the ship’s gone, ride. Ride hard and don’t look back, you ken? The rest of you, with me.”
He might as well have been leading them into hell.
“Be it well wi’ ye?” Scanlin asked when their way was blocked by burning debris and they were forced to detour through a maze of narrow alleyways, battling flash fires and curling, suffocating smoke.
Aralt cast him an exasperated look, wrestling with his skittish esri at each stream of molten, hissing oil that snapped, serpent-like, at the creature’s heels. “Don’t tell me it is with you, Grey.”
He flicked ash from his coat sleeves, startled by the burning cold sensation on his fingertips. Snow; it was snowing in temperate Kyrrimar. Twisting crystal! He felt his throat tighten. More than war had come to the city of faith.
They found the fountain in front of the Kavistra’s residence overflowing. Someone had jammed the valve wide open, and cold water gushed over ornate coral walls, flowing downhill to lap at nearby doorsteps, producing steam and sprays of salty residue that crackled and popped. Aralt dismounted at a safe distance, threading his way past overturned pumper carriages.. Kyrrimar possessed some of the most sophisticated technology he had ever seen, but much of the fire engulfing the city seemed impervious to whatever fire-fighting chemicals had been employed. It spread like a grease fire, uncontained.
Scanlin hurried after him, pausing to check one, then another of the fire crew. “Sweet Creator. Poor souls never stood a chance. Not against the likes o’ this. We can only pray that Devailyn--”
“Dev’s a musician, not a soldier,” Aralt told him. None from the Kynsei clan were suited to the art of war. And Lian? Though his letters had grown more frequent, Aralt suspected he was still suffering the trauma of his father’s untimely death. “You go ahead and pray. Just make sure you keep your sword in your hand.”
Glinting shards of what had been an exquisite rose window in the rotunda crackled under their boots. Banquet tables had been overturned, the orchestra’s instruments strewn about the hall, draperies and tapestries depicting scenes from the Four Books of antiquity torn from the walls and desecrated with urine and feces and the viscera of those unlucky enough to have stood in the way. One of the local soldiers turned away, vomiting until she could no longer stand.
“Scanlin, get her up—get her out of here if she can’t handle it.”
“As if anyone could,” Scanlin muttered, hauling the young soldier to her feet, not unkindly, but with stern admonishment, before leaving her with her fellows. “’Tis the work o’ men possessed. I’ve nae seen the likes since the last Naharasii Horror. It isn’t their way, Wolf. How do Shirah’nyn gain battle honor in this butchery?”
Aralt grimaced. How did they gain battle honor in anything they did? “Fan out—everyone, fan out! Check the chapel! We need to find the Kavistra…” We need to find Lian.
The invasion had been swift and merciless. Soon enough, not only the less experienced were sick. For the Kynsei brothers to have escaped would require a miracle from the Creator they worshiped. Were it not for the carnage, Aralt would have felt guilty carrying a weapon through the hallowed halls, but there was no one to greet them in the private vestibule near the observatory stairs that they might lay their weapons at the feet of His Holiness, receive his blessing, and spend the rest of their stay in the Kavistra’s residence feeling half naked.
“Syr Tremayne! Commander Ross! We’ve found survivors!”
Identifying Anlynn marr Kenesh as a survivor was putting it generously. Aralt did not need to be told that the household steward, a man he had known all his life, was going to die. Soon. He searched faces as a dozen traumatized children were shepherded through the carnage. Lian was not among them.
“Marr Kenesh? Forgive me, old friend, but you haven’t much time. Where are Devailyn and Lian?”
The injured man gripped Aralt’s forearm tightly. "The harp--" marr Kenesh said, tongue thick, his battered mouth bloody. “The harp sang. Lian—Lian lit the candles…”
“We saw the flame, as blue as heaven.” Aralt spoke softly, kindly, forcing himself to stay calm for the benefit of those around him. Only Scanlin would know the truth. Knew the truth. All was not well with his soul! “Scanlin, the tower—”
“No! No. We...we came…to the chapel. I--I told…Devailyn…that he was a fool.” Crimson tears flowed from Anlynn marr Kenesh’s hazel eyes.
“Where did they go? I know this House, Anlynn. It’s full of secrets.”
“Old City,” the man whispered, his body trembling. His fingers dug deeply into Aralt’s arm. “He sent Lian to the Old City…” marr Kenesh said again. And then he said nothing.
Scanlin knelt beside him, checking first for a pulse, then a heartbeat. Finding neither, he drew the star pendant from underneath his collar and kissed it before touching marr Kenesh’s tear-stained cheeks and lips lightly with his fingers. “Remember the sea, brave heart.”
“Remember the sea,” everyone intoned.
“Syr Tremayne?” Finally, a ranking Sword! She was familiar, one of the finest blades his father had employed prior to her commission as a guardian in the Holy City. “There are two airships by the entrance to the Old City. The rest have drawn anchor and are moving inland...”
“And?” Sila's blazing whips, what now?
“A second wave of ships has been spotted. On the water."
"Let the Kell Sea’s witch have them," Aralt told her, ignoring the buzz of whispered oaths. With triple new moons, the tide was their ally that night.
He issued new orders, diverting a portion of their demoralized little force to defend the entrance to the Old City against escape. Several more he sent to guard the hall, and the rest he tasked with escorting the survivors out of the parish. “Grey, come with me. We’ll need light.”
“Airships will ’ave need o’ supplies if they’re to move on,” Scanlin said, drawing the remnants of an altar veil over the steward’s ravaged body before he seized a large, flickering taper and followed Aralt to the far end of the chapel. “They’ll nae ’ave brought enough liquid fire wi’ them to wage an attack on Linishael.”
“If they’re fools enough to believe those skies are free for the taking, they deserve everything my father throws at them. This way,” Aralt said, heaving open a narrow door leading to a shadowed, twisting stairwell. The tang of age and salt water filled his senses as he descended. He did not have to tell his First Sword to hurry.
They burst onto the balcony overlooking Gaelyn’s Fountain as the first of the two remaining skyships cast anchor. Aralt slew the first man to challenge him on the stairs, then another. Marathis crystal sang, a high keening as he and the sword became one driving force. He slammed into the next man, crystal swords ringing with discord—his Tuned to his hand, a reflection of all that he was. He could only guess at his opponent as the blood-crystal blade fell from its owner’s lifeless hand. Hesitation flickered in the eyes of the next man in line. The enemy was not without skill, but they had grown overconfident, murdering so many innocents. And he was angry; far angrier than he had been in a long time. Beside him, Scanlin drove the pommel of his sword into another man’s chest and sent him tumbling, knocking four others down the snow-covered steps. One impaled another on a twisted crystal dagger. Sword and knife finished off the rest, green marathis crystal now red with the enemy’s blood. Not a one begged for mercy.
Every detail in the garden below was etched in ice and frost. Sky-pirates clad in riots of colored gauze and cambric, their blond hair twisted and braided dozens of ways to denote rank and clan affiliation, were in an inexplicable frenzy. Clearly a retreat had been called, but panic ensued that had nothing to do with the arrival of Aralt and his troops now pouring into the garden from every direction. The mist was ripe with smoke, tinged with an almost electric charge.
He spotted a garment, blue as heaven, on the frosty ground. The nearest ship began to gain altitude. Sweet Creator! No! “Lian!”
But it was too late. The boy was a captive, even now being hauled up into the belly of a garishly painted behemoth of the sky. For a moment their eyes met before Lian simply hung his head, his dark hair framing his elfin face.
“Lian!” he bellowed, charging the rest of the way down the stairs, seizing one of the mooring lines that had yet to be cut away. Looping it about his left arm and holding fast, he sliced it free and was yanked aloft. The braided anchor line tore through his palm.
“Wolf!” Scanlin was directly below him, pointing. “Wolf, look out!”
His ascent ended when the sturdy line was severed from above, spiraling toward him as he plummeted, the force of the line enough to sheer the front legs off an esri statue. His First Sword gripped him under his arms, dragging him clear of broken shards of marble. Around them, men and women sworn not only to the Kavistra but to the country of Askierran itself wrestled with the last of the enemy. At the center of it all stood a tall, rakish man dressed in layers of fine spider-silk. Tirehl! The Shirah’nyn took two steps toward them, recognition flashing across his blood-creased face before he too was lifted to safety. Aralt wrapped his free arm around broken ribs as he staggered to his feet, wind torn from his throat, Lian’s name on his lips, and his bitter enemy’s name burning a hole in his heart.
“Often it is that which we least expect that we should be most prepared for.”
from the journal of Scanlin Ross,
First Sword in Tyrian, Believer
Old Ristaiel of Kevarn snarled more than a hunting cat with a moonbear up a tree. “Shirah’nyn are here, I tell you! Now, you tell me why.”
Aralt answered with customary silence, content to watch the progression of color washing over the battle-scarred face before him. Who knew the human face could display so many variations of red?He would have been amused had he been in a better mood.
Four letters had arrived just that day. Four more letters to add to the growing stack of missives wedged into the bottom drawer of his desk imploring him to resume efforts to locate the missing kavistra. After three years, Aralt thought cleric and chancellor alike would have made peace with the truth. He certainly had. That didn’t mean he liked it. But alas, no. The faithful of Askierran, from the Gulf of Aerulyn in the south to the ruins at Kaeryli in the north, awaited the return of their High Priest with firm determination and expected Aralt to be the one to deliver him. How many times would he need to tell them that they placed their faith in the wrong man?
He rose to examine guttering wall sconces, adjusting the lamps until leaping flames danced within amber globes. The wicks needed trimming and the reservoirs filling. His nose wrinkled. Since the refinery had burned to the ground, all that was left was the crudest of fuels. Those ran as low as his patience.
Ristaiel pushed back his chair. “I should come back another time?”
Another lifetime, Aralt thought, but curbed his irritation, answering more out of trained civility than anything else. “No. Forgive me. Must be the noise.”
So far, kegs of good cider—more plentiful than fresh food that late in the season—and the bright sounds of pipe and fiddle united long-standing rivals in an uneasy companionship at the public house next door. Not that Aralt expected it to last. Relations with their north-border neighbors were tenuous as ever. Disputes over land ownership had escalated, pitting farmers against huntsmen, dividing kin. A lean winter only made tempers hotter. One thing they could agree on was that Shirah’nyn in the north were a gift to no one.
Beyond mullioned windows, the late-winter sky was plum-dark, the low-lying parish streets cloaked in mist. Even on a clear night the broad expanse of the northern heavens offered precious little moonlight so close to year’s end. The small moon had already turned a dark face on their world, the others waning crescents, slivers of melting ice. Pools of everlight would soon burn day in and out to ward against all manner of creeping things more fearsome than the horrors that lay across the fjord to the east and could not be bound until Syth’s Eve passed.
Aralt thought it utter nonsense. Oh, the danger of the Naharasii was real enough—or had been until their defeat ten years prior—but the rest was mere fairy tales, northern superstition fit to scare children and entertain old fools. He had traveled abroad too many times on such nights to fall prey to such hearth tales. He did not fear the darkness. Neither was he northern-born, a fact the governor of Kevarn sitting before him was fond of reiterating.
“Well?” The older man twisted and turned in his chair, impatient as ever. “Get on with it then, Kell-bred.”
“But we've bandied words all day,” Aralt said mildly, watching the color rise again in his companion’s craggy face. “Why stop when you're enjoying yourself so thoroughly?”
“I'll debate ye all night if I have a mind to!”
“I've no doubt you would,” Aralt sighed. Not that he would have called their discourse debating. More like Ristaiel attempting to harangue. Mentioning an ambiguous Shirah’nyn threat late in the game was just more verbal gymnastics.
“What would you have us do? Ignore invasion?”
“You’ll forgive me if I missed the invasion fleet.” He neglected to mention the wounded Shirah’nyn his rangers had dragged in following the explosion at the refinery. Surely a more stimulating exchange awaited him with that man than the one he was having with Ristaiel. “I thought this meeting was called primarily to address the border raids so we don’t waste time on petty disputes during the Grand Meeting. Unless you want the entire Alliance to weigh in on local matters.”
“Don’t need no such,” the old man mumbled and chomped. “But if you gets your way, you'd have us all be cowards, turning away from what's rightfully ours.”
“Cowards?” Aralt asked, cocking an eyebrow in response. “Explain to me why it’s cowardly to exchange the spoils of war for lasting wealth.”
Ristaiel’s mouth folded downward in a thin line of obstinacy few angry bairns could have surpassed. Aralt thought better than to mimic him, though it would have served the old codger right. As if he suddenly realized how childish he appeared, Ristaiel's expression turned to one of disinterest. He snatched up his mug, draining the warm brew with false pleasure. Pride lifted his gaze a moment later. Blue eyes, sharp as winter, glared from beneath a creased brow. The enameled copper cup clattered on the table top. Empty. It was all Aralt could do not to roll his eyes. What would the man say next?
“Do me hands look like a warrior's? Or like the hands of a pansy arbiter?”
Sea Lords above and below! Aralt managed not to swear out loud as he put aside the maps on the table between them, slowly rolled the cuffs of his linen shirt up to his elbows, and held out his own scarred hands.
“Pansy arbiter?” he repeated the insult. “Pansy arbiter?”
“From your own private war, no doubt.”
Aralt shut his eyes briefly. There was simply no placating the man. Clearly, Ristaiel had neither forgiven nor forgotten that one occasion, three years before, when Aralt had been detained from an arguably vital summit. However wrong-headed it might be, the old man seemed bent on revenge.
“Loyalty to two lands divides the man.”
Now we come to it, he thought. No condolences for the death of his father, just casting a net of suspicion. He tried not to sneer. “I had no idea you had a gift for poetry. I’ll give your regards to my mother”
Ristaiel glared at him. “Never had me no quarrel wi’ your father, nor your grandfathers neither.”
Only, Aralt concluded, with me. He could not argue with the truth. He was laird of two lands, divided by region, oath-bound to both. No one else questioned his motives—or his allegiance—but then, Ristaiel had distrusted him from the moment Aralt had arrived in Tyrian as a young man. Resentment grew over his meteoric rise in prominence from the rank of Second Sword to lieutenant governor to governor in a few short years. No hereditary titles, those. No indeed. Not that any of it seemed to impress Ristaiel, northern-bred as a shaggy glacier dog. He granted Aralt about all the respect due a meddling pedigreed pup.
Where were you, Aralt wanted to ask, when Kyrrimar burned? When blustering, hand-wringing idiots with four score and ten excuses about why they could lend no assistance to their beleaguered neighbors quaked in the aftermath of the assault? No help then, no explanations now. Had his departure from the north not been delayed due to mediating insignificant local disputes three years ago he might have been able to thwart the attack on Kyrrimar to begin with. The entire Northern Alliance knew it, whether they admitted it or not. Still, some had the audacity to criticize his decision to cross into hostile southern kingdoms, calling it the pursuit of ghosts and shadows. In the end he had to concede what even his own father would not: that the sons of Endru Kynsei, perhaps the most inspired kavistra ever to hold the title, were both dead. Nothing was going to change that. Not even the growing pile of letters in the bottom drawer of his desk.
Three years he had tried to tell the Kierran priests. Three flaming years! They needed to bury their dead, figuratively, if not literally.
And there sat Ristaiel, bristling with resentment, awaiting an answer. Worse, expecting an apology. Curse the northerners and southerners together!
A few rough jabs brought color to the dwindling hearth. They had monopolized the local magistrate’s offices for two days, and for what?He poked at the fire again, hard, sorely tempted to feed it with the rejected treaties and maps littering the table. Poke. Poke. Embers popped and flew in every direction, and he took vicarious pleasure at the thought of the logs being Ristaiel's fat head.
A sip of wine—he had tired of cider hours before—then back to it.
“Kevarn has mustered against invasion from the east for years. The people have warriors’ hearts, but they need to be fed to keep them strong,” Aralt said finally, taking solace in the polite language of the bargaining table. “The winter dead fill the bellies of scavengers, but crops feed your children. Children are tomorrow's warriors. Who will defend your borders from the next Horror if not them? And who will your border clans raid next winter when they've plundered their neighbors down to the bones of their breeding stock? It won't matter who holds the land you dispute—no one will have had the use of it long enough to bring a harvest.”
Ristaiel, in contrast, was rarely polite.
“That land's the land o' my people!” The old man thumped the table emphatically with what was left of his right hand. A tactical display, surely, emphasizing a rich combat history. More than one ballad had been composed about the bloody battle at Soskice Field and a heroic young rogue named Ristaiel Soralyn. Most of them were bad.
“And your point is?” A regrettable choice of words, but there it was.
Ristaiel looked fit to burst. “That land belongs to the Kevarni! We've cut its wood an' tracked game on it long before you came along wi' ye fancy maps, Kell‑bred. Farmers'll spoil everything wi' fences an' beasties an' neat little rows of greens covered wi' shite!”
“You’ll have no game if it has nowhere to live that side of the river!” Aralt said sharply, ignoring the slur on his heritage. “You think it's bad now? Wait until next autumn when everyone wants to fill their meat lockers and all that's left are skeers. How many tree rats do you suppose it takes to feed a family for the winter?”
Increased noise next door gave him reason enough to shout. Polite discussion only slowed things down. Fine. He looked his northern neighbor straight in the eye; the old man averted his gaze. Northerners, in particular, seemed to find his green eyes off-putting. He only took advantage of that on occasion.
“You prompted this meeting,” he reminded Ristaiel, slowly lacing his cuffs and propping his elbows on the table, his fingers entwined. “You made the trek now instead of waiting until everyone else arrived for the Meeting. I've treated you like the guest you are, but if you aren't in the mood for civilized negotiations, then we can settle this the old way. Deal, old man, or duel. Your choice.”
Ristaiel snorted with surprise, bright eyes burning with distrust. For all he looked like a retired whistle punk, hunkering there in a loose-knit cotton pullover and trews, his well-oiled larrigans laced up to his knobby knees, he was still a formidable swordsman, and they both knew it. No doubt he knew how to fight with an axe as well. But Aralt was young enough to be his grandson. Taller. Stronger. Faster. Ristaiel might get lucky, but they both also knew how unlikely that was. Aralt tried not to smirk as he shifted tactics.
“Listen,” he said softly, forcing Ristaiel to lean forward to hear. He had never been so close to the man’s ugly, scarred face. That had to have been one hell of a battle on Soskice Field. “Tyrian can support her people and so can Kevarn—without raiding. Your word will keep all but the renegades in line—if you'll only give it. After that, our rangers can attend to their appointed duties. Let them concentrate on any Shirah’nyn fool enough to be traveling the Alliance without…” he paused, considering. “Without an acceptable purpose? We wouldn’t want to deprive them of a little sport, now, would we?”
Ristaiel’s upper lip twitched. He nodded stiffly. The word would be given. Aralt let out a pent breath. Would that they could have arrived at the decision before breakfast rather than after second supper, but an open door was an open door, and he intended to explore every opportunity for further negotiation before Ristaiel grew tired of his hospitality. Before he could proceed, however, a deep belch sounded at the doorway.
Matarel's unholy dam!
He lifted his gaze slowly, masking all emotion until he made eye contact with the intruder. Then he glared. One look at Ruskyn Munro’s pig-eyed flushed face told him more than he wanted to know, but if Russ had ventured down the adjoining hall from the public house alone, something was amiss.
“If you’ll excuse me, k'talyn,” Aralt addressed Ristaiel with his formal title before shoving Russ out of the room. His nose wrinkled at the proximity of his old friend. “By the Seven, sotbuck, I’ll be dousing you in the river myself soon.”
“Moons ain’t right for no washin’, Wolf,” Russ told him, unsuccessfully wiping at the white froth clinging to his matted red whiskers. Apparently cider was not the only thing left in the casks after all. “We got rowdies in the street.”
“Isn't there a ranking Sword on duty?”
“Oh, aye, but I thought...”
“Don't do that,” Aralt advised, poking him in the middle of the forehead. “You know it always give you a headache.”
Russ scratched his head, hopeless confusion washing over his ill-proportioned face. His downcast, weepy eyes and flat nose looked all the more grotesque in the poor light. The liquor only made it worse. Hygiene aside, that was one ill Aralt had been unable to cure over their long years’ association.
“Listen to me carefully,” Aralt spoke slowly. “Unless the Naharasii have crossed the fjord and are burning villages and slaughtering babies, there's nothing going on outside that my Swords can't handle. Go get Commander Ross if you think the others can't deal with it, but you’ll be the one to answer to Commander Rhyanidd if you’re jumping rank and ignoring protocol. She doesn’t take kindly to that sort of thing.”
“Telta don’t take kindly to me nohow,” Russ whined. “Grey’s wearin’ out ’is knees prayin' this time o' night anyhowsy and there ain't no way I'm goin' in no holy house after him, ’specially with it being the Eighth Day. You'd think the Son o' Peace was in there wi’ him.”
“Maybe He is, Russ. But, since they're busy, I suppose you and the on-duty Swords will have to handle your little crisis yourselves, won't you?”