She let her mask dissolve only in the ephemeral chill of the Starsea, where she was alone. Where she was not required to be Strisa, castellain of the Broken Fang. Not required to be Lissara, vapid noble of the Koruz desert. Or any of her masks and false names.
Where she was just herself— just Lyssa.
The cool washed over her, a balm against the desert heat and grit waiting for her outside of her trance. The Starsea was smooth beneath her spirit-self’s bare feet, an endless void somewhere between polished black stone and still but moving waters. The light of a thousand thousand stars arced over her head and reflected mirror-perfect below her.
The work of the last few years was laid out here for her; a fragile symphony of choices and consequences and coincidences engineered, laid out in threads of starlight fate, stretched between the shining jewels of other souls. And she, at the center of it all, a scarlet clad spider with her hands full of their destinies.
Several years ago, the Rix, her goddesses of fates and fortunes, had sent her a vision and an imperative to come here to the Koruz desert. She had threaded her way into service of fulcrums of the desert’s future, one by one, over the weeks and months. She had been with this one for almost a full year:
Khein Vidar Serpents’ Blessed, the Ash Viper of Auraket. Warlord, mercenary, flesh-trader, and all-around waste of water.
She was going to kill him.
His destiny was already arranged.
But not yet. Not while she—and the Rix—had use for him.
Tonight or tomorrow, the Rix promised, something would happen; some turning point in the tapestry of the desert’s tomorrows, somewhere Vidar was needed. The threads were already twining together. And Lyssa would make sure he was in attendance, doing as the Rix desired, for as long as necessary.
And then Lyssa could leave this blasted desert. Could leave its sand, its thorns, its unrelenting extremes and endless horizon.
In the meantime, the cool of the Starsea was her retreat, and she stepped carefully—gratefully—between the strands. Her feet sank into the gentle flowing waters of time, and the silk of her mind’s-eye gown swished around her heels. She knew each of the gems suspended in the waters of the Starsea, each bright soul cradled in her web, their choices known and accounted. Each linked back to the keystone gems. The one representing Vidar was nearest the center now, charcoal gray and shimmering with hidden delicate color.
Except— tonight there was a new gem on her web, too close to Vidar’s. New—and dazzling, shining, sunlit gold, holding her gaze. It was embedded in a tangle of threads so twisted and knotted even a master weaver would not have been able to tease them free. Each thread burned with light, pulsing to the jewel-stranger’s heartbeat.
“That’s a Suns-Marked. There’s a Suns-Marked nearby,” Lyssa murmured. The Rix, reposed overhead in woman-shaped starlight, did not require her to speak aloud. She spoke anyway. “Why is a champion of Sudai here? I will not disturb the Sun god’s weaving—if you can call it so—but I need to know…”
Lyssa bent, reaching for the golden jewel. Her fingers curled without conscious intent, to nudge fate closer to her desires. She stopped short, wary.
The sun-jewel flared.
Threads snapped; Vidar’s stone dropped lifeless and dark into the waters. The starlight lattice trembled and groaned.
Pieces of the web snapped, rocking her back and flinging her out of trance. Lyssa was on her feet and running before her vision had resolved to the sandstone hallways of Vidar’s stronghold.
No—Not yet! He can’t be dead yet!
Skulking and sneaking were not Caleb Raith’s strong suits.
But he’d done it.
He’d climbed the carved cliffside of this curse’t butte stronghold in the middle of the night. Hauled himself over the balcony of Vidar Serpents’-Blessed’s study and caught the man more or less (mostly less) unaware in his own rooms.
Vidar was long overdue a terminal visit from Wraithshot, Caleb’s vigilante second-self. Caleb was only sorry he’d not caught Vidar earlier; more souls could have been saved.
A short scuffle later, he dropped Vidar’s lifeless body to the stone floor.
“Never again,” Caleb wheezed. He heaved deep breaths around the bruises blooming across his ribs. “Next time I’m gonna just walk in with both bores blazin’. Be a curse’t lot simpler.”
An’ scare your quarry halfway to Kidesh D’yeni. Shut up and be happy all ya only had to do was climb the curse’t cliff, Raith.
Caleb shucked a boot and upended it over the corpse, letting the sand and grit inside dust over the body. Most folk would use salt to give a soul back to the earth; or shards of crystal aizeite if they were flush. Caleb had neither. Not that he would’ve wasted it on the rotter even if he had. “The dreamstolen of the Empty Lily send their regards. May Avret swallow you up and never spit ya back out again.”
He pulled his boot back on and focused on his breathing. He’d have to climb down the blasted cliff again to get out without kicking up a fuss and he wasn’t looking forward to it. It’d been a long chase to catch Vidar, and he’d used a lot of silver and his mount’s goodwill to do it.
At least Vidar had decent taste in leaf. There was a half-empty packet of hand-rolled Rizaran sicaribs peeking out of the man’s vest pocket. Caleb was sorely in need of a smoke—as soon as he was out of here. He reached for them.
He had half a heartbeat’s warning—a whisper of air, the faint creak of a well-oiled hinge, the thrill of alarm raising the hairs on the back of his neck. A dagger point pressed into his back, just below his ribs. Caleb froze.
“Stand up,” a lady’s voice commanded.
“Careful now,” Caleb said in his vigilante’s voice, graveled and low, and let the stolen sicaribs drop. He stood, as slow and wary as though it were a wild animal at his back, and raised his hands in appeasement. The blade followed him all the way.
“Back away from the Khein,” she said. There was something familiar to the voice under the sternness of it. A flicker of memory, of the voice laughing and flirting with him instead of near about to stab him.
“Sure, darlin’,” Caleb said. He considered the layout of the room, what he could recall of it, and figured the chances of his next move getting him stabbed. Not good.
He stepped back and spun. The dagger, just as quick, thrust forward. A bright spark of pain skittered up his back, off the hard leather of his wide belt.
But he’d already shoved the lady back, grabbing for the hand holding the dagger. She was quick, twisting away from him in the dark, but so was he, with sunlit-power burning through his veins. He caught her with a hip and threw both of them against the wall he knew was there.
It wasn’t the most elegant way to end a fight. But she wasn’t going anywhere (or stabbing him, which was the more pressing point) while pinned between him and the wall. Especially not while he held the hand with the dagger. “Quiet now, dove, I ain’t gonna hurt ya. An’ killin’ me won’t do nothin’ for ya; the man’s dead.”
“You’ll let me go or you’ll end the same,” the woman said, tipping her chin up at him in defiance. At his first good look at her face, anything he might’ve replied ground to a stuttering halt. His words deserted him. Even the pain in his back fell away.
He knew her.
He knew her in more than the glimpses gotten when he was casing the stronghold, more than as Vidar’s current bed-mate and castellain, with her fingers in every running of the place.
He had Lyssa pinned against the wall.
It’d only been one night, at a revel a few years back. He’d remember those wine-dark eyes and falcon-winged brows (sharp enough to cut himself on) anywhere. He’d thought there was maybe something there between them, thought she felt so too. Until she’d up and vanished on him. And gentle skies, he’d looked for her.
He felt the jolt against him as her breath caught; Lyssa must have realized who he was the same moment. Though seemed she wasn’t as distracted by the epiphany. When she shoved him away, he went; as stunned and loose-limbed as though he’d fallen off a running horse.
The slim blade she’d held vanished back into her lavishly dressed black hair, becoming just another ornament among the bits and bobs of jewelry. She glittered with it in the faint starlight, scattered like an ouraiga’s hoard over a draped emerald gown that clung to her shape. Caleb was hard-pressed not to stare in an unmannerly way. She was as stunning as he remembered, jewels or no.
“Raith? Caleb Raith from the Windsturn revel, in Jara? Rix’s Rings, what are you doing here?” The threat had evaporated from Lyssa’s hissed voice, replaced with frustrated dismay.
“Aah… hey, Lyssa. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?” he said, dropping Wraithshot’s rough voice. It took an effort to goad his mind into proper motion again and by then Lyssa had gone to crouch over Vidar, pressing a finger under the jaw. Caleb shook himself, dog-like, to resettle his thoughts. “Don’t bother, dove, he’s well an’ truly dead. Made sure of it.”
“Sarde,” Lys breathed. She waved off his offered hand and held her head, squeezing her eyes shut. “Sarde and curse’t, Raith! We needed him! Do you know how long I spent setting this up? By all the gods and stars—”
“Setting what up? Lyssa, what are ya talkin’ about? Has he kept ya here all this time?” Vidar would be the kind of man to do it, too, keep a soul against their will for his own amusement. Caleb started planning the route back out, whether it’d be better to climb with her holding on to him (he’d have to call on Sudai’s gifts to manage it, but by the Lost Kidesh he would) or try and sneak down through the stronghold itself— “Lemme get ya out, safe, hey?”
“No, Raith. I can’t—my work is not done.” Lyssa whirled to face him and rose to her feet in one smooth motion. She pulled aside the jewelry strung around her neck. Light—soft, multicolored fractures of starglow—bloomed and faded across her collarbones in an opalescent necklace of stars.
The Mark of the Rix.
“Sting me,” Caleb breathed. “You too?”
The intruder—Raith—yanked his collar open. The roiling, brilliant sunburst Mark of Sudai glowed in the hollow of his throat, bright enough to turn the room to day.
The golden jewel. He was the Suns-Marked from her trance. The tangle in her web.
She ought to strangle him where he stood, handsome face and all.
“You’re a champion of the First Sun? of Sudai?” She glanced between Vidar’s corpse and Raith; at his dark clothes, the peculiar weapons at his hips, the bandanna which had been covering his face. “No… No, you’re Wraithshot? The masked Suns-Marked of the Badlands? Of course. Of course you are! Where were you a few years ago, wrangler, when killing him wouldn’t have been a giant snarl in my plans?”
“Enjoyin’ a nice evening dancin’ at a party with a pretty gal what seemed to fancy me,” he shot back just as quick. He didn’t deny her claim—as good as confirming it. The mark at his throat dimmed, shifting colors through sunset before vanishing altogether. “But since I don’ want t’be wardin’ off ill-luck rest of my life—what c’n I do to help ya, Rix-Marked? Help fix what I broke?”
“Can you bring a man back from the dead?” she snapped at him. Her mind was already running through possibilities, trying to think of some way to salvage the mess.
He laughed, smothered behind a fist. Lyssa glared at him until he choked it down and shook his head, serious once more. “Not even one of the lost Marked could do that, starflower.”
“Then hush a moment and let me think.”
She knelt again by the ex-warlord. Raith leaned against Vidar’s desk, projecting false ease, and Lyssa tried to ignore him. It’d been three years, and even after only half a night together she still remembered how well they had been together, how delightful a partner for the work, even all unknowing.
Kallias would have smiled his smug match-making smile over the rim of his teacup, and said nothing. Sebhan would have told her to take the night off with a suggestive brow-raise. But her teacher wasn’t here. And Sebhan—her last partner was dead as well, and no wishing would bring them back, either. She still had work to do. She closed her eyes to better think, to push away the furious grief haunting Sebhan’s memory. The broken web must still linger, if she could coax back the traces—.
But she kept drifting back to the man beside her, their night together, and a prickle of intuition warned her to pay attention. She had learned to listen; the Rix’s hands were often at work in such instincts. She twisted around to the Suns-Marked. “Why are you here, Raith? Why now?”
“Stumbled into it face first,” he said, with a wary glance at the door, as though he expected angry guards any second. “Walked into a bordello chasin’ a bounty, got mistook for him—he was their procurer. Keeper made a fuss o’er me, pushed a dreamstolen inta my arms.”
A shadow crossed his face, perhaps at some old memory, though his voice stayed steady. “I ain’t a saint, Marked or no. My hands are a fair sight dirtier than the next fella’s, but at least my pleasures are with willin’ an’ eager folk. Those of the Empty Lily weren’t even capable o’ that. They were as empty as the name.”
A brothel full of dreamstolen had horrified Raith enough he’d gone out and tracked down said procurer across the desert, found the man’s pet kidnappers and slave camps and dealt with them as best he could (“Sudai Marked me,” he said with a shrug for explanation. “Couldn’t leave ‘em.”). Then he’d followed Vidar all the way back here, to the Broken Fang stronghold.
“Did you discover where he takes them? Before the labor camps and places like the Empty Lily?” It was one of the few mysteries of Vidar she had not yet uncovered; where he went on his deep-desert sojourns, between his slavers and the lawless towns at the edge. No matter how she wheedled or coaxed or bargained, he never allowed her along.
“’Fraid not,” Raith said. “Got an inkling or two. Wherever it is, it ain’t good; I could smell the Felldark on him.”
“A Fell? Has he been feeding—no. It can wait. A little while longer, at least,” Lyssa said, glancing again between Raith and the corpse. A Fell was work for the Marked too, to burn clean of corruption, but the web was fading.
It was easy to see how someone might have mistaken them; the men were of a height (or would have been) and similarly built, both northern- blooded with pale skin burnt tan by the desert. Their even-featured faces were similar enough to confuse at a distance, or if one was only briefly acquainted. The Suns-Marked was dusted with freckles, and his hair was a little more golden, a little wavier, but a decent comb and dye would fix the difference.
Lyssa spun herself glamours often to augment the roles she wore like player’s masks. Magic to make eyes skim over her as unimportant, or to keep their attention, or whatever else the Rix’s work called for. Raith was close enough already; with magic and artifice it shouldn’t be hard to coax people to believe him Vidar instead.
It was worth a try, she supposed. And Raith had one advantage Vidar would never possess: the First Sun Chose him.
“You look like you’ve got an idea,” Caleb said.
“Is it safe to say you can act a part, since you’ve been Wraithshot with none the wiser?”
“I mean… sure, more or less. Wouldn’t be the first time,” Caleb hedged, shifting his weight to try and ease the bright pain in his back. The fabric stuck to the wound. At least the belt kept it covered. Sudai grant it stay kept till he was out of this place and could tend it proper. If Lyssa let him go—and it was looking less likely by the moment. Asking him to playact. “You implyin’ I should be him?”
“Can you think of another way Vidar can carry on for as long as the Rix require?”
Caleb opened his mouth and shut it again, just as quick. “No…Gentle skies, though, Lyssa—nobody here would take me for ’em, even with facepaint an’ a change o’ clothes.”
“They will when I am done.”
A wiser man would have taken a look at her expression, the slyness of it and the power beginning to cling to her fingers like opalescent foxfire, and run for the coast. Caleb just grinned like a jackal. “Rix magic?”
Lyssa indicated a seat and went on as he dragged it over and eased down. “It’s a blessing I use for myself. A mask of someone else. Give me your hand?”
“You’re welcome to more’n that, dove,” He winked at her, but she just wrinkled her nose at him. Her thumb ran over his leather wrist cuff, with its patterns of red-on-red and the look she gave him turned thoughtful.
He could see her begin the working, if he squinted and let his sunlit power well up. She wielded starlight-magic like a weaver’s shuttle as it flickered back and forth between him and the dead man. Her creation looped around her fingers like a child’s string-game, nearly complete, and she draped it over his head. It slid straight off, dissipating into motes of power. Again she wove it and again it slid off him.
He concentrated on being quiet, picturing the wellspring of power in his soul as still as an empty midsummer sky. The Rix magic still slid off and Lyssa let out a tiny frustrated hiss. Caleb leaned in.
“It’s not working the way it ought. Wait.” The crease between her brows smoothed as she closed her eyes and slipped over into a Marked’s spelltrance. The Rix Mark on her collarbones glowed, dim and quiet.
Caleb did his best to copy Lyssa’s pose and just breathe.
Between one blink and the next, he was somewhere else.
Somewhere cool and hushed, somewhere like the echoing silence of ancient, vast caverns deep in Avret’s heart. The surface beneath him stretched velvety and polished under a sky so full of stars reflected it was hard to tell if he stood on anything at all.
The sound of water murmured somewhere; down there was a rushing stream, as wide as forever. It rippled and fluttered over jewels of every color suspended beneath his boots.
Lyssa was there too, a brilliant splash in scarlet silk across from him. The bloody red with its deeper crimson embroideries suited her, and he felt a smile form as he started towards her. Her hands were full of spun starlight threads and she never looked up. A second pair of hands, their night-dark form full of stars, laid over hers. As far as Lyssa was concerned, he wasn’t there at all. Caleb might as well be a ghost in this place, and felt it. Felt as if he were standing half over the threshold of a door he ought never have opened.
“This… this ain’t right,” Caleb said. His words came out hushed, the place itself demanding respectful reverence.
It isn’t. The Starsea is not meant for you now, Son of Sudai, came words at his ear. A form—a woman? A divinity—of shifting opal starlight reached out and touched the place where his Mark would glow.
The surface beneath him shivered; he dropped before he could get out more than a startled jackal yalp. Water closed over his head and still he was falling, a stream of bubbles glistening like those distant stars marking his descent.
Light flickered in the depths, swallowing him in visions of interrupted futures.
The butte circled by scavenger birds; Lyssa and one of the dead man’s seconds leading a bedraggled force, Vidar nowhere to be seen.
Battles won and lost, a governor with a Badlands beaded armband standing defiant before an unruly crowd. A figure exhorting or denying, thrown off a rainhaven in a Waterlord execution. Lyssa leaving the desert, blood in her wake.
The Koruz swept by war after war until it looked like a grassfire ravaged savannah. Charred and dead from horizon to horizon, and his soul rebelled against the sight.
Caleb thrashed, desperate for air, scattering visions in slim silver shapes. Something huge and finned swept past him and he grabbed for it, to get him up and out—
A toppled spire; broken rock. A ragtag group of fighters, tired and disheveled and triumphant. An orderly but dust-covered mercenary force far behind them—leaderless, a lieutenant’s lips pressed in a grim line.
Peace. Merchant caravans with lazy guards, prosperity growing like thick grass. People coming and going from rainhavens like gaudy colored birds. A woman in red dancing with a Badlands fellow, laughing beneath rain.
He broke the surface and rolled across a mirror wet floor. The starlight shape bent over him and tapped him on the chest in time with frantic thudding of his heart. Help her. Help her helpher.
“I am Marked of Sudai—I will—” He blinked again, and he was back in Vidar’s study, slack-jawed and damp with panic-sweat. The lamps had burned down and the corpse cooled at his feet. It was disconcerting to look at his hands and see someone else’s there, flickering in his vision. He wiggled his fingers, felt the new mask overlaying his flesh with spider’s web stickiness.
Lyssa stirred, the Mark at her neck fading beneath her necklace. How many, he wondered, got to see her? Doing as she was meant to, what she was chosen to do. He could count the number of folk who knew him so on one hand and have five fingers left over.
“He didn’t know who ya are, really, did he?” Some of the Starsea’s stillness yet lapped at the edges of his spirit and quieted his voice to match.
“No one does,” Lyssa replied slowly, in the same hushed tones. Those wine-dark eyes pinned neatly him in place. “Part of the Rix’s blessing—and their curse.”
Then she stood, dusting her hands and breaking the moment in abrupt refusal. Caleb followed. There was no mirror in the study to reflect him, so instead he did a slow spin in place for her.
“So, did it work? Who d’ya see, darlin’?”
She smiled the same smug-cat smile. “Him. I see him. It worked. You look and sound just the same.”
Lyssa crossed the room and touched a panel in a set of shelves carved into the rock. They swung open on well-oiled hidden hinges to a staircase dimly lit by ancient red glowstone. She gestured up the stairs. “His secret retreat, though it predates him by centuries. These stairs open to the top of the butte. And as we’ve now no need of the body: feed him to the vultures.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Caleb agreed. No less than the man deserved. He slung the body over his shoulder, ignored the twinge in his back, and ducked into the hidden passage.
Lyssa let out a breath as soon as the door shut behind the Suns-Marked. Her hands were shaking. She stared down at them as though the fine bones there would still be luminescent under her skin where the Rix had touched them, had shaped her working.
The Rix directly guiding one of their Marked was unheard of; it was the stuff of legend and song. The star divinities of fate preferred cryptic nudges and visions, trusting in those Marked to make their own way.
“Gentle skies, Raith, you and I must have really thrown things over,” she muttered.
With a last look at her hands (still not glowing), she shook them out and set about putting Vidar’s suite back to rights. The scuffle ending in the man’s death had left signs, and untended would lead to questions she did not want to answer.
Lyssa had finished and was divesting herself of the elaborate jewelry she wore for Vidar’s sake when the Suns-Marked finally returned.
“Can I give ya a hand there, miz Lyssa?” He eased behind her, more cautious than furtive. The scent of cooling stone and dust and sage—the desert at night—dripped off him. A lingering veil of sweetly acrid sicarib-smoke betrayed what else he’d done on the top of the butte.
“Yes. Thank you.” Lyssa swept her hair over her shoulder in silent invitation.
His presence at her back was solid and comforting. As solid as a Koruz century-spire, or as comforting as the wild hot springs in the forested mountains of her true home. She’d never been able to relax in Vidar’s presence. But Raith… the heat of him melted tension out of her spine. It was unnerving.
“Stubborn thing,” he muttered. There was a tiny tingle of power at her neck, and the clasp clicked open.
“Did you just use Suns-Marked magic to unlock that? I begin to see why no one’s ever been able to catch Wraithshot.” Lyssa stepped out from under the jewelry—and away from him, and the lure of comfort and safety. She couldn’t afford to relax—not around him, not around anyone, and certainly not yet.
“It’s a handy trick,” Raith agreed. His grin stretched into a jaw-cracking yawn he tried to hide behind his fist. He followed as she gestured, out of the study and into the bedroom.
All the Khein’s possessions were in there. Raith would need an appropriate costume; his vigilante garb was not going to be convincing. And they both would need a decent night’s sleep, Marked or no, to deal with this snarl. Some of her things were here, too—at least the things she’d allowed Vidar to know about.
Lyssa thrust a set of Vidar’s clothes into Raith’s arms before he could open his mouth again. “Get changed. You ought to start looking the part sooner than later, and you’ll be sleeping here anyway, should anyone come looking for him.”
He blinked, but took them readily enough. “Yes’m. And what about you?”
“I sleep with Vidar, usually.” She shouldn’t have enjoyed the brief flash of consternation crossing his face as much as she did. “In any case, I have to stay close to keep the mask working properly.”
Dye, she was still going to need something to darken his hair; anything she could do to bolster the mask would make it easier to keep up. Accent lessons, too—Vidar’s speech was crisper than Raith’s. She counted off the number of things left to do against the hours until dawn and decided it would be a long night.
“Not that I’m objectin’, dove, but you gonna be alright with that?”
“It won’t be the first time I’ve slept beside a stranger.”
“Wasn’t what I asked.” His tone was light, but it felt forced, and Lyssa left off rummaging through her things for hair dye to face him.
But he wasn’t looking at her. He’d stripped off some of his heavy outer layers and laid them aside, leaving him in just a thin shirt.
There was a freshly wet, dark red stain there, just beneath his ribs on the right side of his back. Lyssa sucked in a hissed breath, remembering the triumphant slide of her knife through fabric and flesh as the intruder—Raith—had spun. He was lucky he was Marked, and avoided the worst her blade could do. “Skata, Raith, you’re bleeding.”
“Well, yeah, petal, you stabbed me. Right here.” He felt for the injury with cautious fingers and hissed when he found it.
Lyssa sighed. It wasn’t as though she had been trying to kill him, specifically. Anyone interfering in her plans—in the Rix’s work—would have received the same treatment. He didn’t need excuses. Instead she said, “Well. That won’t do.”
“Likely not. Got somethin’ I can clean it with?”
“I do. And while you’re doing that, I’ll tell you what you need to know to act convincing.”
There was a full healer’s suite at the bottom of the tower—even Vidar wasn’t so stupid as to run a mercenary company without several healers around—but for this, all she needed was the small kit she kept stashed.
The words to dissect Vidar’s personality and behavior came easily. The man had been as arrogant as a rooster and twice as mean, but he was smart and a shrewd strategist. It was how he’d managed to hold on to the Broken Fang and its troops despite his northern heritage. Raith would have to model the dead man’s brisk efficiency and military thoroughness when it came to his soldiers. Vidar had at least easily delegated the tedious tasks to her or Tural or his other khonar; she could encourage the tendency and no one would find it odd.
Raith listened while he cleaned the slice and staunched the bleeding. He never complained, but it must have been painful, cut into the sensitive nerves near the kidney as it was. Finally, as he twisted awkwardly to close it, she waved him to stop.
“I’ll do that, you’ll just make more of a mess.”
“Kind of ya,” and he gifted her a sunny smile, arranging himself as she directed. He was stubbornly still as she applied crescent-stem glue and gauze pads, his muscles tight under her hands. She worried about Raith’s ability to mimic the man’s casual cruelties and fierce, jealous possessiveness of the things he’d considered his along with all the man’s other appetites. He was a Suns-Marked, after all: Sudai tended towards virtuous souls, heroes and paragons, as their Marked.
“Are you up for all that, Raith?”
He grunted assent, muffled by where his face was pressed into his crossed arms. “Sure, petal. No worries. Jus’ gotta be a shidra-sized monster t’ everybody.”
“I am serious, Raith. You need to know this.”
“An’ I’m takin’ it serious. I got it. But,” and he hissed as the glue set and tugged, twisting to look at her. “…you gonna tell me what exactly you were settin’ up though? What d’ya want me to do with his face?”
Lyssa did not know, and the lack was vexing. Ignorance was, for most Rix-Marked. “The Rix haven’t revealed it yet. But I’ll know it when it comes. I do know it’s going to be soon. And Vidar was to be the fulcrum, the point on which everything turns.”
“Oh, well. Easy as pie.” His grin was shadowed.
“Just stay close, Suns-Marked.”
Raith shook his head. “I won’t stray, darlin’. I gave ya my word.” He stretched, gingerly, as she packed the kit away. “Better’n I could do. Thanks, dove. If you’ll just hand me a blanket, I’ll leave the bed to you.”
“Leave the bed to—what are you talking about?”
He blinked at her and shrugged. “I ain’t him, no matter I’m wearin’ his face. I’m used to sleepin’ rough; I’ll be fine on th’ floor.”
“You can’t—” Lyssa shut the lid to the healer’s kit harder than she intended, holding up a hand to forestall his protest. Sleeping rough on an injury; was he trying to test Sudai’s gift? Idiot Suns-Marked. “Vidar would never. The less you act like him, the harder it is for me to sustain the mask. Doubly so around others.”
Raith shut his mouth and scrubbed at his face, then sat down on the bed again next to her. “I feel like I’m missin’ somethin’ important here, petal. Mind clearin’ it up for me?”
Lyssa did not ball her fists against the lingering echo of the Rix’s touch, the glittering hissing in her finger bones. “I couldn’t just… weave you an illusion, a glamour, like mine. The Rix—I had to—I bound his destiny over yours. I had to mask you—your self.”
The Suns-Marked stretched out his hand, flexing his fingers and turning palm-up; she knew he was looking at Vidar’s seeming over his skin. The line of his posture turned stiff; all the relaxed ease draining like water into dry sand. He met her gaze, those clear honey-brown eyes of his nearly gold. “An’ what’s that do, then?”
“It means Caleb Raith doesn’t exist. At least in the Starsea, the divine realm. And Vidar still lives. If you had to wear this long enough, your own mother might forget you.” Lyssa fluttered her hand, indicating the mask and all the weaving in between. Raith made a little hmmph sound. “But the binding isn’t perfect; the destinies we—I—tampered with know you’re not him, exactly, and they’ll slip if you… move the wrong way. I’ll have to bind them back on.”
“I don’t—this is beyond typical Marked blessings. It’s hard to put into words. So much of it doesn’t quite fit.”
And explaining herself wasn’t something Lyssa did. She acted—and her partner moved with her, all instinct and harmony. Sebhan. Even Raith had, at the revel in Jara, even if he hadn’t known it. She’d never had her teacher Kallias’ river-smooth way, with turning the unfathomable into the reasonable, as he’d guided her through what it meant to be chosen by the most enigmatic of the divine host. And the Rix only ever sent her work with conflict and violence or pure physicality. Problems she could solve with body and cleverness.
“Naw, starflower, it’s fine.” Raith shrugged, neatly distracting her from wondering why she had to explain to him. Maybe it was only he’d be making more drudgery for her if he didn’t know, and she was so very tired of this work. This sarding desert. Raith continued.
“I getcher meaning. We Marked ain’t aramwrights with their rituals and protocols, but sometimes we are, when the work calls for it. An’ we ain’t Avret’s Brood, who call fire and spin sand without a thought, because they are fire or sand or what have ya—but sometimes we are, too, with the blessings an’ all. We’re somewhere in between an’ no words to name and claim any of it. All we got is instinct an’ legend—and the work.”
Lyssa breathed relief. It took an experienced Marked, one old and comfortable in their blessings, to put it so easily; one she could count on to do the work. To do the work and keep their own desires out of it. “Yes, exactly.”
“Alrigh’, then, darlin’—how about we both get some shut eye, so we can get to the work fresh with the sun?” Raith bowed and offered her his hand, and Lyssa smiled as she took it.
This might just turn out fine.
His dreams were bloody sand and heavy lead skies, thorns and heat, and the smoky black comets of his personal demons come to torment him. They did every time he killed, every time another was added to their pack. The newest voice howled the loudest. He woke before dawn, while Maranael still silvered the earth, and disentangled himself from where he’d curled unknowing around Lyssa in his sleep.
The Rix-Marked stirred, enough to blink wary, glazed eyes at him, but he motioned her back down into dreaming. The lady clearly was no morning lark. “S’alright, dove.”
His demons weren’t as inclined to let him do the same, murmuring invective and blame into his mind.
“Hush up, boys, we ain’t doin’ this today,” he muttered, to their hissing displeasure, and glanced at Vidar’s pack of sicaribs beside the bed.
Smoking them into dumb silence like vengeful bees would be one way to shut them up. The stuff had stopped affecting him as it had before he’d been Marked—for good or ill—but the habit remained. He scooped up the pack and escaped out to the balcony he’d climbed in through not so long ago, to breathe in the predawn chill and breathe out blue smoke. And settle his demons down.
The camp below woke. Caleb watched the guard patterns he’d memorized, the cookfires starting for morning meals of poached eggs and spiced, red-sauced lentils, flatbread and cheese, and kahve. Caleb’s stomach joined in the chorus of grumpy, hungry soldiers as the scents rose up the cliffside with the sun’s first light.
Through it all was Vidar’s second-in-command, First Khonar Tural. He wove through the lines of fighters waiting for food, bent heads with officers, ducked into storerooms and armory—always with a thick sheaf of documents in his arms. The khonar glanced once to see Caleb leaning over the balcony and gave a hurried salute before vanishing into the nearest doorway.
“Reckon I’m about t’get a visit,” Caleb muttered and pushed away from the rail. “Hope he brings somethin’ to eat.”
When the First Khonar arrived, close on the heels of a servant who had brought breakfast—thank the pantheon—Caleb was ready. Following in Vidar’s wake across the desert hadn’t been without its benefits. He’d had opportunity to study the man (but no chances to kill him, and now Caleb wondered if it weren’t the Rix’s hand showing). With that, and what Lyssa had told him, he donned the Khein’s mannerisms and said a brief prayer to Sudai.
Sudai was listening, plainly, because there was a rush of sunlit warmth down his spine. It didn’t give him any more clue on how to act, but it was a comfort. Sudai had faith in His Marked.
Tural was lean and dark, and only a bit taller than Caleb; a typical son of the Koruz with a mounted fighter’s build. His hair kept back in a soldier’s braid, and his dark eyes missed nothing. Blade scars ridged his left arm under the tunic sleeve.
“Sir. I have the report you asked for yesterday,” Tural said, standing at stiff attention with the papers against his side.
Caleb grunted something non-committal around a mouthful of spiced eggs, easily interpreted to mean anything Tural might expect, and motioned for the folder.
“Sir, should we wait for Castellain Strisa?”
Caleb glanced up from the pages; there was something about the expectant way his eyes flicked to the door deeper into the suite—Lyssa must be part of this ritual. Caleb dropped his voice half an octave into Vidar’s more resonant tones and made sure not to drawl his words, keeping to the crisper diction of the Koruzans. “No. Let her sleep for now.”
“Yes, sir. Training continues as you laid out, and Khonar Nikoros has a few suggestions they wish to implement; they’re here for you to look over. The last batch of new recruits have been brought to a standard acceptable to begin folding them into the regular units. And…”
Tural was cursed thorough. Between the pages and the khonar’s speech, soaking into him like rain, he was getting a fair picture of the place—far more than he picked up riding in. This was more than just sentry rotations and a few personality quirks; it was training and supply, the state of the armory, the number of war mounts, the injured list—everything a Khein needed to know.
Everything his enemies would love to know, too.
Tural himself, though, was a bit more of a puzzle. There was a distance when he spoke; a mask of professionalism hiding something Caleb couldn’t catch. Too professional—he made a note to ask Lyssa if she knew whose army the man had come from. And why he was here.
“One more thing, sir.”
“You eaten yet, Khonar?”
Tural blinked, his stiffness faltering at the edges. “Sir? No, sir.”
“Sit down. Eat. Lookin’ at you is makin’ my neck hurt.” Caleb gestured with his chunk of flatbread. “Then tell me the ‘one more thing.’”
Tural pulled a chair over and settled as though it were made of thorns. He didn’t move towards the food until Caleb plunked a cup in front of him and filled it with hot spiced kahve.
“Sir. Is everything alright?” Tural hesitated, probably wondering what the shift in his boss was. “Was your trip successful?”
“It was enlightening.” Caleb said, carefully. Let the man come to his own conclusions as to what he meant and think that was the reason for any discrepancies. Always best to let folks make a reason themselves; less mistruths he’d have to keep track of. “I have much to think about. What was the ‘one more thing’, Khonar?”
“Ah.” Tural took a cautious sip of the kahve. “An outrider arrived before dawn with a message. Governor Sikela and an escort are coming. They’ll be here by midday.”
“Governor Sikela.” Caleb fixed the khonar with a gimlet stare. “You’re sure.”
“Yes, sir.” Tural pushed away from the table, kahve abandoned. Caleb wasn’t the best at reading folk, but the way Tural hunched his shoulders just a bit, turned to the side—the fellow expected backlash to the news.
Caleb gave a mental groan and shoved away from the table, crossing his arms and the room to stare out over the troops below. After a moment, he turned back and gestured at the folder and spread-out pages on Vidar’s table. “If we had to leave today, go out on campaign, could we do it?”
“Yes, sir. Depends on the length. But between supplies already on hand and the coinage set aside, we could.”
“Good. Prepare as though we will. I doubt the Governor is here for a social call. And inform the staff; do whatever needs to be done to welcome the Governor. I’ll send Strisa to you.”
The khonar saluted, fist to shoulder, and left as though a dagger might follow him out.
Caleb dropped back down into his chair as soon as the door thunked home and stuffed the last of breakfast into his mouth. He set aside a decent portion for Lyssa to keep warm under the brass cover and poured another cup of kahve.
Sikela! If he were a gambling sort of man, he’d wager this was the moment Lyssa and the Rix had been waiting for. The whole of the Badlands knew of the Governor’s Rising, their war against the heavy-handed Waterlords.
If the Koruz could be said to have rulers, it was the Waterlords. When a well failed, or a spring dried up, or the wet season’s storms never showed, Waterlords could save folk. Their rainhavens, drifting high over the sands on massive floating spars of aizeite, could be pulled across the desert, bringing rain with them like shepherds of particularly damp and thunderous sheep.
For a price.
A very, very high price.
For folk in such a predicament, their choice was to submit to indenture—or die. Slow, as their crops and their animals failed, or faster, of pure, simple thirst.
If it weren’t for the other evils in the Badlands, things only a Marked could handle, Caleb would have joined the Governor’s fight. He didn’t fool himself thinking he were any kind of decent, but fleshtraders were another kind of wicked. And the Waterlords were just fleshtraders in nicer words and fancier clothes.
But he couldn’t leave his folk undefended. He’d been gone long enough as it was.
Plainly Sudai and the Rix had other plans. He figured he was about to fight for the Rising whether he wanted to or not.
He’d given Lyssa his word.
The morning had begun far too early and in a fluster of activity, starting with Raith’s greeting of “The Governor’s coming.” She’d smoothed the destiny tied over his and chivvied the staff into the thousand small tasks necessary before their guests arrived. Midday found them—her, Khonar Tural, and Khein ‘Vidar’—waiting in the shade of the butte as the Governor’s delegation rode in.
Raith had pulled her aside before joining Tural. “These two have any history I should be knowin’?”
“Sikela and Vidar? No, not so far as I know. I don’t think he’s even met the Governor.” She smoothed the shoulders of Vidar’s deep sea-blue kaftan and adjusted the lay of the collar—a motion she’d done often for the dead man.
“Well, I have,” Raith muttered, shrugging off her hands. “Same day I met you, petal. Let’s hope the mask holds.”
When he straightened again, he was no longer the same man. His posture had shifted subtly, his shoulders back and more tension stiffening his spine; Raith’s languid ease vanishing behind Vidar’s steel.
She was a little sorry to see the Suns-Marked go.
But he was the perfect mix of Vidar’s surly impatience and reluctant deference when the gates opened and half a dozen alabaster and rust riding-gazelle came in.
“Governor. Welcome to the Broken Fang.” He bowed and swept an arm to encompass the stronghold as their guests dismounted.
“Khein Vidar. It’s about curse’t time. Why in Avret’s name do you have to be out here in the middle of sarde-all?”
For all the woman swinging down from her mount was barely as tall as Lyssa and as slim as a child, she had a voice like a lioness. Her sepia-ink skin seemed darker by the silver-embroidered sleeveless shirt and kaftan she wore in Governor’s white. Glass beads decorated her braids and strung through the curls down her back, and an armband in blue and green and sand bound her left arm.
“To make sure those who seek me out have sufficient motivation, your excellency,” Raith said. “Shall we go and discuss yours?”
Oh, very good. Lyssa caught Raith’s eye as he offered the Governor his arm, giving him an encouraging smile. Raith gave her a tiny jerk of a nod.
“Shall we, First Khonar?” Lyssa turned her smile on Tural. The Khonar was staring after his Khein as if there was a riddle written across the man’s back. He blinked at her as though he’d forgotten she was there.
“Of course, ma’am.”
“Is there something wrong, Tural?” They followed several long paces behind Raith and the Governor into the stronghold. Raith seemed to have at least a decent idea of where he was going, and she wondered how much of it was instinct and how much was subtler Sudai-magic.
“No, ma’am.” But he sucked in a breath, and Lyssa made an encouraging gesture. “Does the Khein seem off? to you?”
“How do you mean?” Lyssa glanced ahead at Raith’s back with a little power to widen her sight; no, the mask was still in place, there were no golden threads of Raith’s destiny showing from beneath the leaden gray of Vidar’s mortal one.
“I’m not sure. He served me kahve from his table this morning,” Tural said, as though the gesture explained everything.
“He has only just returned…” Lyssa offered instead of mentally berating Raith for being generous and out of character. “And you know he never speaks of what occurs on those sojourns of his.”
Tural hummed agreement. “It may be.”
“What are the likely chances our esteemed Governor has come to buy help with her little war, do you think?” Lyssa asked, and Tural allowed her to divert him with gossip and speculation all the way inside. She left him to be the proper hostess; making sure the Governor’s escort and guards were settled and collecting refreshments from the kitchens before heading to the war room.
By the time she made it there, the air had turned tense. Raith was standing behind Vidar’s big chair with his hand clasped over his mouth in thought; a mannerism so faithfully Vidar’s she had to blink to see Raith and not the mask she’d laid on.
The Governor stood across the table with her arms crossed over her chest, watching Raith with a rival jackal’s stare. If she’d had hackles, they would have been standing needle straight. The single guard who’d stuck close to Sikela’s heels looked unconcerned, hands loose and nowhere near their blades, and Lyssa took her cue from them. She smiled at the guard as she set down the tea tray and began to pour.
“Khonar. Get the maps of the Blue Narrows, if you’d be so kind,” Raith was saying as she did, and when she glanced back his eyes were fixed on her, narrowed with something approaching suspicion.
Lyssa brushed a stray strand of hair away from her neck, her fingers tracing over her collarbones where the Rix mark would show and gave him a pointed look as she finished serving. Raith’s expression cleared just in time for Tural to spread out the big rolls of parchment and clear laticyrus sheets with the rainhavens and canyons of the southern Koruz mapped out on them.
“Here,” Governor Sikela said, marking places on the map with troop counters. Both Raith and Lyssa leaned in. “As you can see, we have their shidra pulling-beasts trapped at these mooring spires in the passage way, but not enough to push in and take the haven.”
“No, decade at most.”
“So, you’ve got a standoff,” Raith agreed. He strode around the table, standing beside Lyssa to jab at the curving canyon wall, and his other hand crept to her waist. “Here. If you can get hooks onto the haven from the top here, you can force it close enough to board. We have the climbing equipment, do we not? Tural, make sure they’re readied.”
“An unusual tactic.” Sikela turned a shidra token through her fingers, glancing between the two of them.
Raith shrugged in a very not-Vidar fashion, and Lyssa willed a little power and checked his mask. The golden Suns-Marked was beginning to shine through. She nudged him with a hip; a warning.
“Should it come to that, I’ll defer to your martial expertise, Khein.”
“Should it come to that. And what were you thinking of coming to first, Governor? I doubt you came all this way merely for my excellent advice.” Raith seized on the wording as well as Lyssa could have hoped, sidestepping whatever net the Governor had laid out for him.
The governor gestured to her escort, who produced a flat box the size of Lyssa’s spread hand and set it on the map of the rainhaven. Lyssa flipped open the padded lid, revealing neat stacks of thick aurum cards. She picked them up, counting, and let the metal fall through her fingers. It wasn’t quite enough to satisfy Vidar’s lowest rates. She glanced back at Raith and shrugged.
“I need you to be your threatening self, Khein Vidar,” Sikela said. There was a slyness in the way she said his name; Lyssa paid closer attention. The Governor was holding something back. “With you and your troops there, I can force the Waterlord to the table.”
“Who is the lord of this particular haven, your Excellency?” Lyssa asked. The Governor wanted Vidar, and Vidar specifically. He was not the only Khein available for sale in the Koruz, nor the closest to her battlefield.
“Lord Malikan.” Sikela was all casual innocence. “The Pyremaker of Auraket. You two worked together before, haven’t you?”
Sarde. Raith didn’t visibly react beside her but she felt his fingers tense on her waist. The Governor was using Vidar’s reputation as a weapon, as effectively as an unsheathed blade. A canny move, and one Lyssa appreciated, one professional schemer to another.
“Aah, sure. Malikan. They don’t hold my contract now, though, do they.” Raith closed the lid on the box and slid it over to his side of the table. “You do—as of now. So—force the Lord to the table, and capture the haven if no accord is reached? Sounds straightforward enough, at least until I get the rest of your folks’ particulars.”
“We’re on a sun’s setting, Khein, don’t go wasting time.”
“In matters of war, Governor, we never do. Are we agreed? Excellent.” Raith forged ahead without waiting, passing Lyssa the box. “Tural, would you take her excellency and escort on a tour of the Broken Fang Battalion and the troops she’s just hired? I’ll consult with Castellain Strisa on how quick we can get on the march.” Raith gestured the others out of the room. There was something beginning to crack under his competent pose.
Once they were gone from the war room, Raith let Lyssa go and kicked the door closed. As soon as the last footstep had faded down the corridor he shed Vidar’s smug superiority and became just Raith once more. A diminished, held-in Raith.
“You didn’t say nothin’ about leadin’ folk into a sarding battle,” he said, quick and hot. It wasn’t the reaction she expected.
“You never asked. Vidar was a Khein—a mercenary captain. You’ve seen the Broken Fang, all the troops. What did you expect?” Lyssa said, gesturing to encompass the entire place. “It’s not like it would be hard for you. Suns-Marked.”
He whirled on her, mouth open to reply, then shut it with a wordless groan instead. “You mean, lay out the Rastha. Sudai’s gift, bringin’ triumph out of maybes and into solid truth.”
“Vidar was an excellent strategist, which is one of the reasons he was useful alive.” She didn’t have to add until you came. “The Rastha would give you victory without trouble.”
“An’ light me up like a curse’t festival temple; I’ve called it before.” The Suns-Marked dropped into Vidar’s chair, sending a cloud of motes to dance in the slanting sunlight.
“Why does it distress you so? You can’t lose, not with Sudai’s gift.” Lyssa picked her way around the chairs and laid her hands on his shoulders, using the excuse of his distress to rub in soothing circles. Half a dozen lead-gray strands of Vidar’s destiny were threatening to snap, and she washed them over in power again, reinforcing their weave.
“That’s not—” He shivered and leaned back, then stiffened, glancing to the door. “Someone’s coming.”
She watched him slide back into character and moved to drop into his lap, hands in his hair to artfully dishevel it. Raith faltered for a moment but recovered, just as Tural knocked. The Khonar stuck his head inside.
“What is it, Khonar?” Raith drawled in Vidar’s voice, doing an excellent imitation of a man interrupted in the middle of pleasurable and long-delayed activities. There was no hint of his earlier distress, and he’d fallen in with her lead perfectly.
“The Governor has, ah, declined the tour. She wants to get moving as soon as possible. When that will be?”
“Of course she does. Well, Castellain?” Raith drew her hands out of his hair and held them against his chest. “When can we be off?”
“Give me five hours,” Lyssa purred, then hooded her eyes as she looked back at Caleb. From the way his eyes had darkened, her performance was well received. “Well… maybe six. We can be moving by twilight.”
“Tell the Governor I trust that will be fast enough for her? Good. Get out.” He didn’t bother to look, still in the role, pulling Lys down to him as though for a kiss. His hand at the back of her neck dislodged her hair with a purposeful flick, making it fall in an ink-stroke cascade across her shoulder to obscure both their faces.
She could tell Raith intended to stop before kissing her—to be close enough only to prompt Tural to leave. And to his credit, Raith did. His eyes shut as he froze a bare finger’s width away, a crease of listening concentration between his brows.
Lyssa didn’t stop.
Perhaps it was a habit of seduction for getting her way, or the belief kissing did no harm, or simply to see if the Suns-Marked could be flustered further—she had no explanation for why she closed the distance.
Closed the distance, and crossed a line.
His lips parted readily under hers, and his hand tightened in an approximation of Vidar’s curling possessiveness at the back of her neck, but Caleb gave a quiet little hum of questioning surprise. She silenced it with a hand cradling his jaw, sliding around to drag painted nails through his hair. It was hard enough against his skull his hum was replaced with a pleased growl she didn’t think he realized he’d made. The kiss slid from casual pretense to sincere long-deferred desire before she’d quite decided to let it.
There was something perfectly right about it, about the kiss, the way her body fit against his, the way he pressed into her, against her, following where she led, and the sharp, fluttering awareness of every inch of meeting flesh. She could have sunk into him as much as the Starsea, and been just as at home.
The line between colleague and partner frayed.
Somewhere in her periphery, past the aching awareness of her nerves and skin and Caleb’s touch, there was a flicker of motion. Tural; Tural had saluted and left after a tiny eternity, the thud of the door booming closed.
Caleb startled; pulling away and breaking the moment. His eyes had gone dark and wild in the shadow of her hair, only a thin ring of honey-gold left. His gaze flicked between her eyes and her lips before fluttering closed. His heart, under her hand, was racing as fast as she was sure hers was and his hand fell from her neck.
Lyssa pressed her lips shut; didn’t move. He’d stopped. Something—some feeling she hadn’t a name for—welled beneath her breastbone; yearning and frustration and heat all tangled into a knotted lump. A feeling strong enough to surprise her; and the urge to chase him back down and kiss him again, to press the length of her against him until they both ignited in a phoenix’s courting pyre—
No. There was the work. There was always the work. She could not. Especially now. Lyssa took a breath and made sure her face was composed before he opened his eyes again.
He licked his lips, said slowly, “Ah. ‘m sorry. I shouldn’t have—”
“Don’t,” she murmured, her head still bent so close to his she could feel the faint puff of his breath against her skin. “Don’t apologize. Vidar wouldn’t have.”
It was the wrong thing to say, and she knew it before the words finished leaving her mouth. He stiffened under her and his hands moved abruptly, uselessly; she slid off his lap before he could decide to push her away. Even then, he sat there a moment longer looking at her with the same tiny wrinkle between his brows.
Of all the mistakes Lyssa had made in her life, kissing him now was surely near the top of the list—in Strisa’s mask or otherwise. Her work could not abide the maybe his presence urged her to think about; maybe here was someone who could know her, and not any of her masks, maybe they could be home for each other…
Maybes were to be abhorred. Lyssa would rather know—and she knew it could not be.
“Would ya get the fightin’ folk movin’?” he asked, finally, getting up and keeping the chair between them. “They know ya.”
“They know you too, Vidar, but I will. And everything else to be done before we march.” She started towards the door and paused. “Where will you be?”
“Pickin’ through Vidar’s battlefield kit for anythin’ useful to me, an’ packin’ up. An’ then,” he sighed and scrubbed at his face. “An’ then I need to go get my horse.”
Fire Devouring Broken Earth in Blessed Renewal wasn’t strictly speaking a horse, let alone Caleb’s, but the stallion seemed so to everyone else. If the hisanraj ever showed his true face to most folk, he’d likely start a riot. And right now, with his head lowered, murder in his dark equine eyes and a hoof the size of a plate digging great furrows in the dry ground—
Well, Caleb would welcome the riot instead.
“Curse it, Dirt, it’s me—”
Caleb had his hands up, backing away from the wicked scimitar-bladed horn he couldn’t see, but knew, from first-hand bloody experience, jutted out of Dirt’s brow.
Vidar Serpents-Blessed—since my partner clearly hasn’t finished the job of killing you, I shall! The stallion’s head tossed, the horn narrowly missing Caleb’s chest as he scrambled back. He could almost see the tip of it, glowing ember-red through the hisanraj’s own illusion-magic.
“It’s Caleb, Dirt, for Sudai’s sake—you’d think a creature with maskin’ blessings himself would recognize it when he saw it—”
A glamour? The ember-glow faded; Dirt’s nose came up and he stretched his neck out. Caleb held perfectly, agonizingly still. Dirt’s nostrils flared with the great lungfuls he took in, and then the hisanraj shook so hard his ears flapped. Rix-magic! Caleb Raith. What are you doing with Rix magic on you?
“It’s a bit of a tale, pal. How’s the kit feeling?”
It is acceptable, but I want it all resettled and brushed soon, if we must continue. Go on then, storyteller, and fix this while you’re at it.
While he talked, Caleb fished a hoof pick out of the saddlebags and set to digging the offending bit of gravel out of the hoof Dirt lifted for him.
“…and then—Ya know, pal, it’s real hard t’think when there’s a pretty gal in yer lap, an’ every sarding thing flew right out my head when she kissed me.” Caleb thunked his head against Dirt’s solid ribs and let it rest there for a moment, moving with the hisanraj’s breathing. “Kissed her back. Forgot she wasn’t one of the folk who like foolin’ around with me, forgot I was wearin’ the face of… well, of sardin’ Vidar—”
He groaned. The bit of gravel flicked loose. “I’d tell ya to go ahead and spear me, pal, but I still got a promise t’keep.”
And I promised never to gore you unless you had Fallen. I don’t see what is the problem. If this is the woman from three years ago, did she not enjoy your company then? Dirt pulled his hoof away, and Caleb backed up while the hisanraj crowhopped and kicked and trotted in tight little circles to test his footing. Better. Thank you.
“Sure thing pal. An’ it doesn’t matter, I can’t be treatin’ her like Vidar did, mask or no; I was raised better’n that. Shards, traversin’ this mess is gonna take all the guile I have as it is, without—”
He jerked to a stop, the pick halfway back into the packs, and smacked the heel of his hand into his forehead. “Skies, she probably didn’t even mean it—was jus’ playactin’ same as me. Jus’ keepin’ me on the job, an’ pal lemme tell you I was fair fixin’ to shatter, talk about leadin’ a band again—I shoulda figured—”
Find out later. You are, I am assured, charming to mortals. Up you go, let’s get back before Vidar is missed.
Dirt let him mount up. They trotted the short distance from where Caleb had left him back to the Broken Fang.
It was hard to miss, thrusting out of the torn ground of the Koruz in hard orange-red stone, a broken pillar of some behemoth’s temple. The butte was flanked by the thrusting spears of decade and century spires, none quite old enough or their crystals large enough to become new rainhavens. They still towered over the landscape.
The dark holes of balconies and windows were clear, carved into the face of the cliff, and he wondered, if he looked closer, would he see Lyssa just behind them.
He slipped back into character as they rode into the stables at the foot of the butte. It was getting easier every time, Vidar’s habits lining up too neatly with the life he’d once led, the lure of power over folk and feared respect calling to him again. How easy it would be to let the man’s destiny eat him! To be the warlord. To make folk fear his name again, to lead a force into a battle without thought for consequence or mercy and come out wreathed in inevitable victory and showered with riches for it.
It would be entirely too simple to conquer anywhere he chose, if he’d had a mind for it. Like the Suns-Marked of oldest reviled legend, whose relics still littered the land and whose names were never spoken.
And if he did—this time, he could make sure he never lost another of his folk. The man he’d once been, before the sarding Sun had come down and told him to shape up and start treating the rest of the world as well as his chosen band, had never risked his folk needlessly, had always had a way to get out if things turned sour, until… until he hadn’t. And it had broken him.
Sudai help him now.
It was best they would be out on the march soon. He could finish the job and leave all the temptation and cruelty in the past where it firmly belonged. The Governor wanted to force the Lord to the negotiating table, first—there was a good chance he’d never have to lead or fight at all.
Thinking such thoughts wrapped him up while he rode into the stables and dragged Dirt’s kit off for a proper grooming. He kept his head down in the work and ignored the stablehands and staff—Vidar’s prickliness working in his favor.
“You’ve been avoiding me, Khein.”
Governor Sikela was a sarding sneaky git. Caleb jumped and swore and nearly got a horse-head to the face when Dirt jerked at his tether. Caleb set the brush down with exaggerated care and turned to face her.
“Gentle skies, you really are tied in knots, aren’t you,” Sikela said, leaning over the stall door and looking far too pleased to have startled a few years of life off him.
You’re in cursed enemy territory, Raith, have some sardin’ attention for your surroundings, he mentally kicked himself, and grabbed the tether under Dirt’s chin. He brought the stallion’s nose down and made calming motions, like he would with any mortal horse. Dirt laughed in his ear.
“I admit to bein’ a fair bit preoccupied, but you I assure you it ain’t on any account of yours,” Caleb snarled in Vidar’s voice. Or, it was on her account, but he wasn’t going to tell the governor that. For certain sure, he’d rather be thinking about Lyssa, and that kiss, than on being the warlord again. Rix, Rising, or no. “What do you want, Governor? I’ve already agreed to win your war for you.”
“Oh, is it win, now? You cocky malasketas.”
Caleb gave her Vidar’s best satisfied grin. “It’s the truth. You’d not have come to me otherwise. You want my name, don’t you? And the fear it brings. The fear it’ll bring Malikan to see it turned against him.”
Sikela arched an eyebrow; Caleb had only met her once, at the same revel he’d met Lyssa, but he’d got the impression she hadn’t held on to her position by suffering fools. Whether or not they came with fighters for hire. This afternoon’s meeting hadn’t disabused him of the notion.
“Your name, sure. Vidar, allow me to make this plain: I don’t like you. I don’t approve of your methods or your ethics. But I need you, as you said, to win this battle, and I prefer not to keep those indebted to me at loose ends forever.”
Skata, they did have history. Caleb picked up the brush and turned to Dirt, letting Vidar’s irritation show in the long hard strokes across the broad back. The stallion muttered warning. “You want to get on the march on the double. That’s fine. It’s going to cost you, but I reckon you knew that already. However—it means me and my folk have a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to do it in. So. We can talk and hash out what it’ll take to clear this between us, or you can let me work.”
“Then as your client, Khein, I expect you to make time for that discussion.”
“Your Excellency,” Caleb agreed, and didn’t turn around again until he heard her footsteps move off. Then, and only then, did he let himself take a deep breath and rest his forehead on Dirt’s side.
She’s not going to let you get away with that, is she. Dirt nudged him and Caleb got back to grooming until the stallion’s coat was smooth and clean.
“Nope. Shards, pal, we’re in a mess.”
I am exactly where I need to be, as always. You’re the one in a mess.
“Thanks, so much. Let’s finish afore anyone else tries t’corner me down here. I’ll get the battle kit.”
They were ready to march a lot faster than Caleb would have given them credit for. By the time he’d packed Vidar’s preferred weapons and armor (and thanked the Rix he and the dead man were of a size—the ornamented lamellar would fit) most of the troops were ready, and it was only the supplywains left to finish loading.
Vidar’s kit was well kept, better than Caleb’d had when he’d run his gang. At least he knew how to use the Khein’s curved sword even if he hated the feel of a long blade at his belt. He kept his own short-barreled banes close at hand—those he wasn’t going to give up even if Sudai came down and asked for them with his own hand.
“Turns out,” he hissed in his own voice to Lyssa as she followed him back down into the stables, “Her excellency and Vidar did have history. Talked about him being indebted to her. I got no clue what the lady’s talking about, think you can figure what this debt is like to be?”
He wiggled his fingers at her in the privacy of Dirt’s stall, letting a little power glow in the tips as though to say Maybe ask yer Rix, since they want this to happen an’ all.
“If I’d had more warning, I could have been checking,” she hissed back at him. Dirt’s ears went flat back and he bared his teeth at her voice. Lyssa stayed well back, keeping Caleb between her and the stallion—the fact neither of them had taken a shine to each other would have been hilarious, were there not more pressing things at hand. “When did you find out?”
“Quit it, pal,” he told the stallion, shoving his muzzle away. “Not that long ago; the lady ambushed me down here—”
Skata, what was this khonar’s name? Praxia? Praxamos? Caleb shook himself into character and dropped his voice. “What is it, Third Khonar?”
“Shall I have your mount tacked up for you?”
“No, Khonar. I’ve a new one. And surely you’ve better to do than idle in the stables.” Caleb unbolted the door of the stall and nudged it open with a hip; whatever time he and Lyssa had managed to steal was over.
“Of course, sir.”
Caleb grabbed the reins of the war bridle, muttered, “Behave, or you’re gonna throw over both of our glamours,” to the hisanraj, and led the big stallion out into the corridor. Dirt continued to act like he’d take a chunk out of everyone who got close, excepting Caleb—who wasn’t entirely certain it wasn’t an act—crowhopping and kicking and squealing. Third Khonar looked suitably impressed by the stallion’s antics.
“You can tack up my gazelle instead, Khonar Praxia,” Lyssa said, syrupy sweet, sticking close to Caleb’s elbow. She looped an arm in his, and he shivered as her power brushed against the mask, the stickiness of it making him feel grubby and befouled.
“Yes, of course, Castellain Strisa,” Praxia replied, saluting and heading out.
“Delegate, Praxia. An’ make sure there’s a place for my lady in the supplywains, too,” Caleb called after her. “And the rest of you—I’m sure you have better things to be doing than admiring my new horse. Best be getting to it.”
“I am capable of riding on campaign,” Lyssa snapped after Praxia and the stablehands had left. Dirt lunged for her and Caleb yanked him up short. Lyssa never flinched, though her eyes widened. He could’ve kissed her. Again.
“Sure an’ ya are. Look, I been keepin’ the role as much as can be accounted for, but it it’s gonna be harder out on the trail, with all the folk who knew him around. So if yer gonna need to trance, or glow a’tall, on account of me throwing things over as is likely, best you have a place to do it where there’s less eyes on ya.”
“It works better when I can touch you.” Gentle skies, did she have to have the last word on him.
“Yeah? An’ the Khein had a habit of letting you ride pillion with him on campaign, did he? Take the curse’t wagon, petal.” Caleb pulled the last strap tight and hauled himself into the saddle, ignoring how much the rest of him wanted to see how much touching she was wanting to do. “I’ll see you on the march.”
Caleb hid a grin behind his fist as he rode out.
Caleb was infuriating, but he wasn’t wrong, and that was almost worse. She would need to trance—if not on the march, then before this negotiation the Governor was counting on. One of the smooth-riding desert wagons, closed in and hidden away, would be far more ideal than trying to hide her Mark and trance while mounted.
The debt the Governor held over Vidar was a more interesting question. She’d never even heard rumor of it, when she’d been inquiring about him, hunting for leverage. A debt would have been perfect. She’d just have to find it now.
While continuing to act as castellain for a battalion on the march. And keeping up Caleb’s mask. And monitoring the web of fate-strands carefully curated in the Starsea’s waters. And everything else the Rix required of her.
Lyssa allowed herself a moment to groan. The Rix owed her a holiday, after this. A holiday somewhere green, and soft, and cool, full of servants to do as she asked for once.
Job first, she scolded, before her mind could wander too far down the path of that pleasant daydream, and add a particular infuriating Suns-Marked to dally with.
Lyssa dusted herself with an easily-woven cobweb veil of trust me magic. Primary sources were the best kind, so she’d best start with the Governor herself.
Caleb wasn’t the only one who’d met Sikela before. But she would not see the nascent Rising’s quiet and unassuming spymaster in Strisa’s brazen conspicuity. Lyssa missed her spymaster mask. She hadn’t been able to indulge in her favorite finery, true, but it had been more rewarding work. Identifying the canny, bright souls in Sikela’s followers and training them in the skills and philosophies they’d need.
Then the web had shifted and the Rix’s work compelled her into Vidar’s service instead. Her trainees became the masters, and she became Castellain. Three-quarters of a year and little results to show for it—just the slowly tightening web.
“Governor Sikela,” Lyssa said, riding over to the small group waiting to one side. “Might I have a word, before we set out?”
The Governor regarded her, assessing; Lyssa knew what she saw; an underling, castellain, but in clothes too fine and jewels too many. Someone frivolous, unqualified: in the role only on account of her looks: not someone who might be a threat. Vidar had come to know just how competent Strisa was, and they might have time for the Governor to find out, too. “You may, Castellain.”
Lyssa turned her riding gazelle aside and Sikela followed. They did not go far, only enough to allow for the polite fiction of privacy. “I am told, when you wear them, that you prefer scarlet veils over any other color. Is that true, Governor?”
The other thing Lyssa had loved about being Sikela’s spymaster was building herself backdoors for other masks. Every organization she built had, at its heart, the Scarlet Veils. A secret sisterhood of women helping each other, across continents and cultures and generations. No one would need to be as isolated and helpless as Lyssa had been, before the Rix chose her.
“It is,” Sikela said, her eyes narrowing. Lyssa guessed the governor was rapidly revising her opinion of Castellain Strisa. She continued with the rest of the passphrase Lyssa had set up. “Though only when embroidered in gold.”
“Ah, well, sometimes one must hide one’s true value. I prefer my threads in the same shade as the cloth.” Red on red. The patterns on her gowns, the toolings on Caleb’s cuff. One of her Veils had been a friend of his, once. Told her sisters he was safe, in a way they would know-through that language of thread and weave and pattern. She couldn’t wonder at that now. “And with the pleasantries observed, Governor: I must inquire. What is your true reason for choosing Vidar, over the rest of the Kheins? You and I both know you aren’t satisfying his usual price, and there are other Kheins closer and just as capable. The troops believe you two were once… involved.”
“With Vidar? Pfah!” Sikela scoffed at the very idea, as Lyssa knew she would. Sikela had been devoted to her partner Ziren for even longer than she’d been Governor. “No. No, he owes me a debt.”
“What sort of debt? Not in aurum, surely.”
Sikela shook her head, making all the little beads in her braids rattle, and said nothing for long moments. Lyssa almost reached for the Governor’s thread, to coax her decision faster, and in Lyssa’s favor. To pour more power into the trust me veil on her own thread. Rushing ruins the bread, Sebhan was fond of saying, and so Lyssa adjusted her hands on the reins instead. They had time. The Blue Narrows were days away. Days, she hoped, before Caleb—Vidar—had to act on the information.
“He owes me his reputation. And his life.” Sikela glanced at the troops assembled and waiting. “Most of these are new, they weren’t there. But Khonar Tural, and a few of the older ones—they’ll remember, if I chose to make it known. How the Broken Fang made it to Auraket that year, the year Vidar became the Ash Viper.”
“You led him through the Shattercrags,” Lyssa said. A field of broken ground, where in lifetimes past the earth had shook and Avret’s blood had spilled in molten floods. It was riddled with deep cracks and high crags, and was nearly as easy to get lost in as the canyons and wadis of the Badlands. And more deadly—the Shattercrags’ water was well hidden.
Sikela nodded. “It stretches across my territory from the Lajul Way north to the border of Kasmar. My people know its quirks. Vidar did not. They called me.”
And Vidar, having newly won the title of Khein after killing the tribesman, the khenner, who traditionally held it, needed to cement his place as leader of the Broken Fang. To prove himself not just to them, but to the rest of the Koruz as the competent cutthroat commander he’d made himself out to be. Lyssa knew the pattern. No wonder Auraket had burned once he arrived.
The specifics were immaterial now. She could guess Vidar had played it off as a service he’d hired, having Sikela lead him out of the Crags. And money had probably changed hands. But between them, they knew the truth of it. It wasn’t something Sikela would want being widely known either, especially as the Rising grew. Folk expected their leaders to have that rarest of gifts: prophecy and the correct interpretations thereof. They wouldn’t understand hindsight.
“Thank you, Governor. I understand the risk. His skills are worth it.”
“Move out!” Caleb’s voice rang out, and the column heaved into movement.
“She just let me—Vidar—go?” Caleb muttered once she’d had a chance to tell him. They a moment in pretense of privacy, when she brought the Khein water. They’d halted for a break a few hours after sunset, and the battalion would keep travelling most of the night, through the coolness to make camp after dawn.
The Suns-Marked tossed back the last of the water in his cup and huffed disgust. “Sikela had the chance to shut the whole fire-razing, the pyre of Auraket, down before it even got started and didn’t?”
“Well, it isn’t as if she knew what Malikan and—you—were going to do.” Lyssa hefted the waterskin and said pointedly: “Another pour, Khein?”
Caleb gestured irritably, and leaned in as she filled his cup. He kept his voice low to not carry on the night air. “So, I owe her for gettin’ me across. Without a fuss she could’ve rightfully made. Gentle skies, no wonder she cornered me about it, I wouldn’t want that gettin’ ‘round either—have half the Koruz callin’ for my blood.”
“Half the Koruz already does; Wraithshot just got there first.”
“Hah.” He drained the cup and handed it back to her, glancing over her shoulder.
Lyssa followed his gaze. The Governor on her gazelle was headed their way through the idling fighters, the white of its hide and her garb near glowing under the starlight. There was no time to allay Caleb’s uneasiness. She let her fingers linger on his arm instead, and slung the waterskin over her shoulder.
“Go rest, Castellain. It’s a long way to the Blue Narrows.” Caleb was back in his role, all the cheerful warmth drained out of his expression. He swung into the saddle of his terrible horse to meet the Governor eye-to-eye.
“Khein.” Lyssa dipped her head and left.
The khaprid, smaller cousins of the monstrous shidra pull-beasts, paid her no mind as she passed through the rows of the supplywains. They rooted idly under the hard sandy earth for morsels of water-rich root and grub, the chains on their tusks rattling. Their drovers nodded to her. There were always eyes on her; she couldn’t even pause for a moment to savor the cool and the quiet without comment on Castellain Strisa’s oddness.
She watched from the back of her wagon as he and the Governor trotted to the head of the column, urging the fighters up again. Caleb apparently intended to have any talk of debt while on the move. She should smooth his mask while she had a chance. The khaprids groaned into motion.
She was almost done, sunk into trance with her hands full of Vidar’s threads, when the Starsea rippled.
It was her only warning. Violence ripped her from the trance. The wagon’s cover ripped open, arms in tooled black toothskin leather—the kind kerrex-riders wore—dropping smoldering clay pots within.
Rix’s Rings, but it was a relief to channel every setback, all the anger and sheer vexation, into that warning shriek. She kicked the firepot off the back of the wagon, where it exploded in a burst of blue-tinged flame.
The column erupted into undirected action, seeking the disturbance. The khaprid squealed their distress, and over their spiny backs she caught a glimpse of more riders swooping out of the fell-dark sky, on the backs of too-silent and too-dark owl mounts with their talons outstretched.
The wagons. They’re targeting the supplies. And the officers—anyone with value–
It was the way the kerrex operated, in the service of their Waterlord lieges. Ruin supplies, kidnap and hold for ransom or negotiation.
This, though… this felt rushed, and desperate, and ill-planned. She knew it the same way she knew the Mark of the Rix at her throat.
She still had Vidar’s destinies tangled in one hand. The magic between her and the Suns-Marked was pulled taut, but which way?
She wasn’t worried for him. Caleb was a Marked of Sudai; he would succeed at whatever he set his hand to. She wasn’t concerned—
“Strisa!” Tural appeared out of the chaos, concern written across his face, dodging the pitching, snorting khaprid. His falcata was in his hands, a sharp line of starlight glittering off the heavy edge, guarding against foes he couldn’t see. “Castellain Strisa, are you—”
She reached, grabbed him by the collar and dragged them both down. Talons raked through the air where he’d stood. She hadn’t seen them, only felt the thrum through the strands as the creature swept through, some magic laid on it interacting with her own.
“How did you—Skata,” Tural breathed, pushing himself up on one arm, staring into the dark with a blinded guard dog’s wariness. “Kerrex. Expensive ones.”
“Lights, we have to get lights, then the archers…?” Lyssa said with the castellain’s waver in her voice. She knew light wouldn’t be enough. Strisa would not.
“No, we need to—”
“Form up!” Caleb roared, his voice cutting across the din of shouting men and shrieking animals. “Form up; circle! Around the wagons! Archers and banemen to your weapons!”
“—do that,” Tural finished. With a wary eye on the sky, he rolled to his feet and offered Lyssa a hand.
The destinies still wound around her fingers went slack; Caleb and his ornery horse came plunging into the wagon train, kicking dust and sand in every direction. There was a faint ember glow along the horse’s brow and licking up an arm’s length into the sky, as though the white blaze down its nose was afire. Caleb glanced between the two of them, letting Vidar’s possessive jealousy color his voice.
“Glad to see you’re safe, Castellain. Khonar, I expect you’ll do just as well protectin’ the rest of our guests as y’ will my lady? Get.” And he jerked his chin towards the circling wagons, the glimpse of the Governor’s white just visible between them, surrounded by her escort.
“Sir,” Tural snapped, and left, stiff-backed.
Caleb softened immediately—just enough to lose the borrowed emotions freezing his expression into chiseled ice. He leaned down over the saddle and offered an arm. “Up you get, Strisa. Also, what in the felldark are these?”
“Kerrex,” Lyssa muttered back as she stepped onto his stirrup and swung into place in front of him, ignoring the horse’s snap at her heels and Caleb’s scolding swat.
“Those’re myths, darlin’.” He didn’t look too convinced, posture shifting as he scanned the midnight skies, one arm around her waist and the other holding his mount’s reins in relaxed fingers.
“Well, yes. They’re also the name of the strigali cavalry most of the Waterlords keep around for… negotiating.” She looped the strands around him now, smoothing in the ends and tying it off until no Suns-Marked gold shone in her vision beneath the mask. If she shone, no one would notice; not with the threat of the kerrex overhead. It was tiring, holding those threads so long, and she let herself lean against him; his stone-certainty a welcoming shelter.
Caleb grit his teeth and went stiff behind her when it settled. “Fells, petal, it gets worse e’ry time. Alright, pal, let’s go t’ the rest, figure out what to do about these kerrex.”
“If we wait till dawn, they’ll leave. They haven’t the strength to go against us straight on, and we won’t be able to see them till Sudai rises in any case.” Easiest, and least likely to complicate. Caleb’s terrible horse tossed its head as it darted into the closing circle of troops and wagons and again there was a gleam of red firelight.
“Glamoured, are they?”
“Likely. How did you—”
“Ssh. Can you…?”
“Can I what? Khein?”
He didn’t answer, only reined the horse around till it knelt next to the Governor’s party, under the scant cover of shields. “Off you get, Castellain. Your Excellency. Mind takin’ care of one more for a moment? If you’ll excuse me.”
“Company, attention!” Caleb roared after wheeling back to the center of their ring. There was something glowing in his free hand, as hazy as a candle flame behind sanded glass. “Archers and banemen, ready—eyes and weapons up. On my signal, loose!”
Lyssa huddled under the shield of the Governor’s friendly guard, her gaze locked on Caleb while all around her, eyes were fixed on the sky. What are you doing, Caleb?
Ghostly red fire, so faint it was barely visible, licked up from his terrible horse’s hooves and along its brow. It reared, dancing patterns in the hard-packed earth, its head tossing as though plagued by flies. Caleb drew his hand from behind his back, carefully, as though in a spelltrance himself. There was a drabane in it; a curious single-handed one, its barrel not even as long as his forearm.
He threw up his arm, mirroring a toss of his horse’s head. The ephemeral glow brightened as Caleb fired, drawn up with the shot into a slash of fiery light from horse to hand to swooping sky.
A strigali shrieked, its glamour disintegrating in tattered glittering shreds as it and its rider crashed to the ground outside the ring of shields.
Fire flared on arrowheads and drabane bores and suddenly the night sky was alive with the flashing wings of strigali, shredded of their veils of night and starlight. Vidar’s archers and banemen went to work.
When it was over, the wounded sorted and treated and bundled into wagons, Lyssa found Caleb crouching over one of the downed kerrex. “Khein?”
“If it hadn’t been me…” he muttered, and she couldn’t quite tell if it was for her he spoke, or just the night air. “They would have lost a day. Or more, if these fellows come every night. Sweet water and gentle skies, Ladies Rix, how far d’ya go?”
“That wasn’t a blessing of Sudai you were tossing around back there.”
“No, it weren’t.” He stood up, dusting his hands off, and didn’t elaborate. “Second Khonar! Wrap this fellow up, he’s still breathin’. Everybody else, let’s go. We’ve wasted enough time already.”
Caleb had heard of rainhavens, knew what they were, sure—but knowing and seeing were two different beasts.
Malikan’s rainhaven was five isles, bound by vines and bridges and chain, hanging weightless some distance overhead. Their massive shadows stretched almost all the way to the camp, blocking the late afternoon sun. Chains, to hook onto the harnesses of the shidra when the rainhaven needed to move, dangled from anchor points on the rim. Points of the aizeite crystal spars keeping the whole aloft glittered with green and gold refraction. Shreds of gray cloud wisped around its edges like flounced skirts.
Stories told of extravagant greenery on the sun-side, water-hungry plants growing luxuries of fruit and spice and intoxicants, drunk on the near ever-present rainclouds. Staring at the rough undersides, he believed them. Caleb figured a man like Malikan had his own private palaces there, and servants and soldiers to cloak himself in safety and ease too, with the threat of the Rising.
It hadn’t been a full hour they’d been in Sikela’s Riser camp before the truce pennants dropped from an outer isle, fluttering white and flashing with mica in the sunlight.
Caleb glanced over his shoulder at the sheer bulk of Vidar’s troops filling out the ranks of the Risers between the canyon walls, and grinned.
“War won,” he said in passing to the Governor. “Now it’s up to you. If you need me, I’ll be enjoying the easiest pay I’ve ever made.”
“You’re not getting off so lightly, Khein. I expect you to be at table with me.” Sikela paused. The beads in her hair clicked as she twisted the braided strands. “And bring your lady, too. Insightful, that one.”
“Governor,” Caleb said, not bothering to fake the qualms the notion brought up. Not that Lyssa weren’t clever and able—he’d just rather as few folk as possible near any viper of a Waterlord. “As you command.”
He didn’t have to go hunting Lyssa, at least—she was already waiting in Vidar’s pavilion, and shoved him down so she could fix the mask as soon as he ducked inside. Caleb savored the moment to breathe.
When she finished, blinking away stardust and power, Caleb squeezed her hand before she could pull away. “Been out on campaign before, Lyssa?”
“Once or twice.”
“In the Koruz?”
“Well… no.” She brushed off her dress and rose, glancing about the tent as though for another task. Caleb didn’t let go.
“Lesson number one about being out in the field, dove,” he told Lyssa. “Sleep whenever y’ can.”
“Well and good for you, Khein, but I have work—”
Caleb dragged her down to the cot and broke her off mid-sentence with an undignified squeak. “No, y’don’t. Tural and Second are taking care of making camp, and one of Sikela’s runners will come with news of when the meet’s set—if it’s t’be any time before sundown I’ll be much surprised. We have a few hours t’rest.”
She started to protest, but he saw fatigue in her eyes as much as he felt it in his own bones, and pushed. “Darlin’, you’ve been workin’ even harder than me, keepin’ the magic in hand, and y’ don’t have the Endurin’ Sun backin’ you. Take the curse’t nap, Miz Strisa.”
She sighed, and acquiesced, but not before telling a fighter outside to let her know when the shift changed. “That’s two hours, Caleb.”
“Good enough. C’mere.”
She still looked doubtful as she settled next to him, a quirk of one brow he wanted to smooth away. “I promise ya every fighter who ain’t on duty is doin’ the same thing.”
“Oh, sure. I was just thinking about which of Vidar’s formal outfits I was going to dress you in, later.”
“That’s jus’ cruel, petal. Here I am helpin’ ya and everything.”
She laughed, and it was enough.
Lyssa took pity on him; the garb she’d picked wasn’t much different, just in nicer fabric. He stopped fussing with his cuffs, though, once he got a glimpse of Lyssa’s dress.
Dangerous, the Governor had wanted them to look, and intimidating, and while he wasn’t sure if the stark black on him hit the mark, Lyssa’s dress sure as Fells did.
She looked like a spider; if a spider could be velvety sleek and as sharp as good firesteel. She wore fine fabric, draped in blood and wine reds with a deep-cut neckline Vidar would be seething jealous over, and a bodice close against her waist picked out in bronze threads like dragonscale. A delicate web of gold chain and rain-drop jewels lay across her shoulders and all the way down to link to the bracelets at her wrists and the rings on her fingers.
“Since you’re so good with clasps,” she asked, presenting her back to him with her hair swept to one side so he could do the jewelry’s fastenings.
“How are you doing, Caleb?” Her voice was hushed as he leaned over her neck, and hearing his name on her lips—his true name, not Suns-Marked or Khein or wrangler or even Wraithshot—it made something in his chest warm clear through.
“I’m alrigh’, Miz Lyssa.” He fixed the last of the bitty hooks and smoothed the fine chains over her shoulders. They only had a little time left in the privacy of Vidar’s tent and he meant to savor it. “Don’t go fussin’ about me, I’ll bide.”
She stepped out from under his hands and turned to adjust the lay of his vest. He liked it; it was heavy and almost armor-studded, and had plenty of places to hide a blade. “Don’t hold back on me, Suns-Marked. I need to know if you falter.”
“Darlin’, I ain’t ever faltered, ain’t about to start now.” He winked and grinned at her in blatant, exaggerated fiction. “Though, this leather ain’t doin’ great things for the stab in the back, I gotta say. Itches like a fellshade.”
“Oh, well, if that’s all.” Lyssa accepted his fooling without further comment, for which he was duly (and quietly) grateful. She tugged him by the gold at his collar towards the tent flaps. “The Governor’s waiting, Khein.”
The Governor, and half her guards, and Khonar Tural were waiting, all gazing at the looming rainhaven.
“Man’s a bigger fool than I thought.”
Caleb chuckled, standing next to the Governor with his arms crossed over his chest. “Because he thinks he can sway you with glimpses of all the luxuries a Waterlord can offer?”
Sikela did not scoff, but she looked as though she wanted to. “Luxuries from wealth stolen from the farmers and lowfolk they ought to be ruling fairly, not enslaving. Desperate fool; to think if he cannot beat me fair, he’ll get me to join him instead.”
“He cannot even bear to touch the same earth as us.” Harsh, but Lyssa wasn’t wrong—instead of meeting them on the ground, Waterlord Malikan had the smallest of the rainhaven’s interconnected isles anchored by grumbling shidras, until low enough a stair at its edge touched the ground.
“Yes, let’s think of it that way,” Sikela laughed, “…instead of making us supplicants. After you, Khein. Make sure there’s no trickery waiting for us.”
“Strisa!” Caleb turned on his heel, and Lyssa took his offered arm. She squeezed where no one would see, and Caleb took a breath before beginning the climb. “Tural, bring up the tail, and look sharp.”
Like most monsters, Malikan didn’t look like one. He looked like someone’s kindly grandfather, with dark skin, dark eyes, and his black hair close-cropped where it went silvery-white at the edges. He wore blue robes so light they were dangerously close to governor’s white, trimmed in darker blues and flashing with crystal and silver mimicking falls of water droplets.
Attendants and servants, all in the same colors echoing water, flanked him or flitted about in the single building on the isle. From the glimpse Caleb got of the airy interior, the Waterlord had quite the entertainment planned.
Malikan’s expression didn’t change when he recognized who was in the lead, but Caleb caught how his knuckles went pale. Caleb let sharp-fanged satisfaction seep into the smile he gave the man.
“Khein Vidar! How excellent to see you again. And your lady, a pleasure to meet you. I trust you encountered no undue difficulty on the trail.”
“A few unruly birds. Nothing too hard to handle. Found something I think you may have misplaced though; speak to my second about the usual finder’s fee later, hmm?” His grin widened a fraction, and then he was stepping aside with a sweep of a bow to present the Governor.
If Lyssa was a bloody spider, Sikela was a celestial lioness. She had chosen her weapons of silk and fine cotton in Governor’s white and shades of aurum and gold and sunlight yellow. Gold encircled her wrists in elegant austerity, and she was armed with the Governor’s Rightsblade at her hip. It was a brilliant reminder of who held the grace, and who tried to buy it. If Caleb could tell that just by looking at her, it must be as subtle as a falling spire for Malikan.
“Governor, a pleasure,” Malikan said after a moment just a little bit too long to be respectful. “It’s so good to finally speak with you.”
“I’m sure it is. Shall we?”
The Governor and her personal guards strode in ahead of him as like she already owned the place, fanning out as if more hidden kerrex were behind draperies or carved panels.
“You were planning on dealin’ with her straight, I hope,” Caleb said.
“Of course I am. Or it will be you I’ll be dealing with next, won’t I, Ash Viper?”
“And you know how I deal, Pyremaker.” Caleb, if he weren’t under Vidar’s mask, would have just shot him and been done with it—it had always seemed a much easier way of dealing with the evil at the top of the ladder than trying to reason with folk who had no care for anything—or anyone—else.
Lyssa must have felt something; she gave his arm a warning squeeze, and Caleb forced himself to relax. “But right this moment, the only thing I’m interested in dealing with is a good curse’t meal.”
“You’ll not be disappointed, then.” Malikan smiled, and Caleb followed him in.
Caleb didn’t pretend to understand the back and forth between the two leaders over the course of the very long dinner, but he at least contrived to look boredly interested in the affair.
Lyssa was an active player, throwing in comments which had both Governor and Waterlord regarding her thoughtfully. Caleb just smiled and drank his wine, wished it was good Badlands whiskey instead, and hoped it would dull the ache of the healing stab. He hadn’t been lying to Lyssa; it did hurt like a fellshade. He was beginning to wonder if he’d done something to worsen it during the kerrex attack.
By the time the sweet cheese pastries and fruit-syrup over shaved ice were served, even Caleb could tell whatever negotiations were supposed to be happening had stalled out into bristling strain.
“Governor. Waterlord,” Caleb said, and leaned forward in his uncomfortable chair. The Governor and Malikan both turned their attention to him, giving him the distinct impression he were either a rival predator or a chunk of meat tossed between two snarling stray dogs. Neither were heartening images.
“Friends,” he amended. “It appears as we won’t be getting anything solved tonight. And I have much better things to be doing,” he paused to let his eyes flick over Lyssa, and let them make of it what they would, “…than to be sitting around a table until Sudai rises. No one’s going anywhere soon, so why don’t we come back to this with fresher words? Say, tomorrow?”
“Not that it hasn’t been a pleasant evening,” Sikela agreed, and Caleb was definitely more meat than rival right now, “But the Khein is correct. We’ve not come to any agreements.”
“Oh, then of course you must allow me to entertain you tomorrow—”
“And since there’s been no agreements, I suppose I must resort to ultimatum.”
Lyssa, beside him, stiffened as though she’d been stung. Caleb did not groan, or rub a hand over his face like he wanted to.
“You’ll give me your surrender by Sudai’s zenith tomorrow. Or I’ll have Khein Vidar force the issue. I am sure you know exactly how persuasive he is.”
Governor Sikela shoved away from the table, and her guards scrambled to escort her back out to the camp.
“Oh no. How terrible. Failed peace talks,” Caleb said in the flattest, most unsurprised tone he could manage. Vidar had probably arranged more than one such to fall apart, just for the coin it would bring him. “Come along, Strisa, we mustn’t wear out our welcome as well.”
“Of course not, Khein. It was a lovely dinner, Lord Malikan; unfortunate we should meet in such circumstances.” Lyssa rose just as he did, and far more gracefully, fluttering her lashes at the Waterlord. She never had to say it, but the implication it would have been more pleasant had he folded to the Governor was there all the same. At least, it would have been more pleasant for Caleb.
He sent Lyssa ahead of him, with Tural to accompany her, and let his steps slow. There was an impulse forming in the back of his mind, and he wondered if the Lord would give him cause to carry it out.
He was just at the open balcony before the stairs, eyes sharp on the ladies and the sky—kerrex were never going to catch him unawares again—when Malikan caught up to him. Quietly, slyly, with the kind of expression he expected on back-alley apothecaries. Power sparked and ran along Caleb’s bones, ready if needed; Sudai warning him with heady warmth.
“My dear, old friend. Should you see fit to… contrive to wait a few days longer, it would be most edifying for you. In the long run.” Malikan was not so crass as to hand him a pouch of aurum, but Caleb saw the flash of it inside the man’s robe anyways.
A muscle in his jaw jumped and Caleb bit down against it. How often, before he’d been Marked, had he been the one doing the bribing? Flashing the coin and making sly remarks, easy to interpret. “Now, Malikan. You know I hold to my contracts.”
“Aside from exceptional circumstances, I know, I know.” Malikan leaned in, too close, and Caleb could smell every course of the evening’s dinner on his breath. “And this is just as exceptional as Auraket, I assure you.”
“Oh, is it. How exceptional?” was what came out of his mouth, but Caleb had already made his mind.
This was the fellow standing between him and home. Shedding this ridiculous mask of a face and every terrible thing it had done, or wanted him to do, or reminded him of what he’d once done. And he was tired. His hand wrapped around the hilt of his knife. His demons stirred with interest, prowling at the back of his skull.
“You don’t want to stay groundbound at the Broken Fang forever, do you? Or—I know of a very talented young aramwright looking for suitable… employment. I could arrange for them to join you.”
“Well now. There’s a thought. But here’s another.” Caleb took a step closer, shrinking what little space was left, and put a friendly hand on Malikan’s shoulder. The Waterlord smiled. He must expect Vidar to haggle a bit, but otherwise fall in with his plans.
Caleb let go of Vidar’s voice, and said in his normal tones, “Honestly? I’m done with you. An’ all of this.”
The sun burning in his bones leapt along his arm as he drew the knife and jammed it, swift and sure, up under Malikan’s ribs. His grip shifted just as quick to choke off the man’s scream. Caleb’s demons howled triumph and hunger. “Yer time is up, pal. Wraithshot shoulda found ya sooner.”
He felt strands snap, and knew Lyssa was going to pay for what he’d done. He’d take whatever fury she felt right to give him: it was worth it.
Caleb waited a moment, watching the panic rise and then the light fade out of Malikan’s eyes, before he stepped back.
Malikan grabbed for him, missed, and crumpled over the balcony railing. Caleb let him fall.
Somewhere among the man’s servants, miles away behind him, someone screamed.
The Governor’s ire was plain across the entire camp; she and Vidar—Caleb—had gotten into it as soon as his boots hit solid ground again. Neither of them were inclined to keep their disagreement behind the polite fiction of closed tent flaps. They’d ranged from the Battalion’s end of the camp and were now well into the Riser’s side, and had gathered a wary audience.
“You’re not hearing what I said—I told you I wanted this resolved without undue violence,” Sikela snarled.
“One man; I took care of the one man standing in your way—won your curse’t Rising for you by doing what you were too godscurse’t righteous to do—” Caleb was thundering back, just as furious, and Lyssa wondered who he was defending: Vidar, or himself. “What in the deep fells were you going to do, hey? Talk him to death?”
“He would have folded, malasketas! Folded like nightblossom’s fan under the threat of your curse’t Broken Fang, if you’d done what I sarding told you, and then—”
Lyssa stepped forward, intending to interpose herself before it could go from shouting to blows.
“The malasketas had reinforcements coming!” Caleb roared. Sikela broke off in the middle of her tirade to stare at him. Lyssa paused. “You hear that? He tried to get me to stall until they got here, to force the terms to go his way, or force you out altogether if he could. I did you a curse’t favor.”
“How much did you take, to break our contract? What did he offer you, Khein? An isle of your own?”
If Lyssa hadn’t been watching Caleb, she would have missed the way his lips thinned, the way Sikela’s comment struck home. All the righteous anger she’d been holding, for the extra work he’d dropped on her, evaporated. The pain there wasn’t part of his acting. “I kept my curse’t word, Governor.”
“Sure, when it suits you. It wouldn’t be the first time—”
Caleb was in her space before Lyssa or Tural or the Governor’s guards could react, and said, quiet and lethal, “That was the past. I said, I keep my curse’t word, and I did.”
“Ho, the Rainhaven!”
Every eye turned at the scout’s shout.
The rainhaven, every bound isle of it, was descending with groaning, echoing protest until it was two shidra lengths from the canyon floor—Wheel height. The white truce banner dropped without ceremony to the camp below, vanishing among the bulk of the shidra’s shadowed bodies. And where it had once hung, a new banner was revealed: the black and coppery-red scales of war.
“And now you’ve ensured we fight,” Sikela snarled. “I’ll see you at dawn, Khein, and this time you’ll do exactly as ordered.”
Sikela gestured to her guards and ducked into her tent, dropping the flaps behind her as abruptly as a slammed door.
Caleb ripped free of the quelling hand Lyssa had laid on his arm and turned to stalk off out of the camp. The mask and his temper were both frayed to the point of snapping, anyone could see. One she could fix with the Rix’s blessing. The other, well. It wouldn’t be the first time she wished for Kallias’ way with words.
“For what it’s worth, Khein, I agree with you. The man was better off dead no matter what,” Tural said after him.
Caleb hesitated a moment. “At least someone does. You’ll be the one dealing with it soon enough, Khonar.” And then he disappeared into the dusk.
“Castellain Strisa?” Tural turned to her as though she were a compass. “Something is very off.”
“It is,” she agreed, though not for the reasons he was assuming. “But we’ve a battle to fight. You see to the soldiers, hmm? I’ll see to their commander. We’ll get through this just fine.”
She found him by the silhouette of his wretched horse, on the ridge above the camp, staring out into the cool desert night and chewing the end of a thin sage twig. There was a blanket rolled behind the saddle; the stallion let her take it without more than a token ear flattening. She spread it beside Caleb and sat down with care for her skirts.
“Khonar Tural is worried about you, Khein.”
“Sure he is,” Caleb said, but only moved to settle on the blanket next to her.
“Are you alright?”
“Sure.” His tone was not convincing, neither was the way he didn’t even turn to meet her gaze, staring out over the wide canyon mouth and its young spires, the five-island rainhaven looming over it all; the place where the battle was to start. “Was jus’ thinkin’ about the fight t’morrow.”
“Getting cold feet, Raith?”
That earned her a huff of a laugh and an eye roll, more felt than seen in the deepening evening. “Starflower, I gave y’ my word, didn’t ya hear? I ain’t backin’ out.”
“Good. I came to fix the mask.” She reached out a hand for his, power glowing in opalescent corona at her fingertips.
“Please, darlin’—can y’not leave it for a while? Lemme remember what it feels like t’just be Caleb.” He heaved a sigh every bit as great as his horse’s and fell back onto the blanket.
“For a little while.” She let the power sink back down, but took his hand and enfolded it in hers anyways, stroking pressure points the way Kallias had taught her, to relax and calm a body. They sat in quiet silence, only the distant, normal sounds of the camp and night-hunting birds whistling out in the wilderness to break it. Dusk finished blazing the trail for true night and the stars came out in profusion without Maranael in the sky to overshadow them in blue-white glory.
“Vidar wouldn’t have killed the Waterlord, would he?” Caleb finally said, giving her hand a bit of a squeeze.
“It wouldn’t be unsurprising,” Lyssa said, just as softly. “Especially if the man had given him cause. But if you’re looking for someone to say if you’ve made the right choice—I can’t give you that, Caleb. Not even the Rix can say what the ‘right’ thing is.”
“Ain’t that what y’all are about? Choices and destiny and luck?”
“As much as you are about heroism and virtue and personal perfection.”
They lapsed into quiet again, as Caleb’s terrible horse whickered in sleepy mumbles on the hill. If it weren’t for the rainhavens looming overhead, the ponderous weight of impending conflict, she could have almost believed she was still at the Windsturn revel. Could imagine she’d let Caleb talk her into stepping outside with him as she’d wanted to, to stargaze and talk and share another drink. Except for the work. There was always the work.
“I’m sorry I put this on you, Caleb. I should have found another way.” His request to just be himself for a little wasn’t the first sign of strain but it was the most striking. To stain his natural brightness with Vidar’s rot—guilt ate at her, weighted down her limbs and heart. She hadn’t known enough to save him from it before, but she wished she had now.
“Now who’s fussin’ about makin’ the right choice?” He huffed a laugh and rolled onto his side, propping his head on his free hand. “It was my dumb fault t’begin with. You—an’ I—just did the best we could with the time an’ particulars we had. Just got t’be ridin’ on now.”
“Well. I suppose if a Suns-Marked had to come throw over my work, I’m glad it was you.”
“Oh yeah?” He gave her hand another quick squeeze, and he was smiling when she looked over. All his awareness was focused on her in spite of his relaxed posture, she realized, the attention tingling across her skin. Stupid of him; they weren’t alone out here, nor safe, despite the illusion of privacy from the ridge at their backs. “An why’s that?”
“You’re good at this,” Lyssa said, deflecting. “Acting. And commanding, being a leader, all that.”
“Sure ya jus’ don’t like my company? I mean, I might be foolin’ myself, but I figured maybe you were enjoyin’ yerself, last we met.” She couldn’t see, in the dark, but something roughened his voice, turning it to honey over gravel. “Were ya?”
“I was enjoying a pleasant evening with a handsome and charming gentleman who asked me to dance.”
Caleb chuckled. “So y’do think I’m handsome. Then, starflower… excusin’ the fact we’ve been practically livin’ in each other’s pockets for the last while… Think we might pick up again where we left off, three year ago?”
Something leapt into her throat and stayed there—the same spark of incipient flame from the war room. And her work in the desert was almost complete…
“I… sure, sunshine. I’d like that.”
He shifted closer, till she could feel the heat and the spire-sureness radiating from him, and see the glimmer of starlight in his eyes. “Yeah? May I kiss ya, Lyssa? Properly this time?”
“You’ve been sleeping in the same bed, do you need permission?”
“That’s for the mask, dove. I ain’t askin’ Strisa—I’m askin’ Lyssa.” He held up their joined hands, running his thumb soft over the ridge of her knuckles, and enunciated all his words in clear hope. “May I kiss you, Lyssa?”
“Sunshine, I’ve been wishing for you to kiss me again since the war room. Yes.”
There had been tension between them, a tension she hadn’t appreciated until it dissipated with a lightning snap. He reached for her and she bent to him.
He didn’t pause, this time. There was nothing of Vidar and everything of Caleb in the way he put his whole self into the kiss, all enthusiasm and delight. In the way he wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her into his lap. Even in the way he fell over backwards onto the blanket pulling her with her, until they dissolved into helpless laughter and turned it into more kissing.
And she was perfectly happy to stay there, draped over his warm chest in the cooling night, to kiss and be kissed—to let Lyssa kiss, not Strisa, or Nikina, or Lyssara, nor any of the other mundane masks she’d held in the last few decades. To let Lyssa love, and be loved.
She was starting to see the appeal of the desert.
“Who d’ya see now, dove?” he asked, eyes gone gold-dark and content with joy. They’d paused to gaze at each other and breathe the cool, dusty herbal scent of the night. His hand stroked soft down the small of her back. “Him, still? Or me?”
“You, sunshine. I always saw you.”
He smiled, slow and sweet, and stretched to kiss her again, just as honey-filled as his smile, and Lyssa let herself melt into it.
His horse whickered and stamped a hoof, sending bits of gravel careening down the slope towards them; Caleb broke away as though a guilty apprentice. Lyssa glared at the animal; she could have sworn it was mocking her.
“Camp’s gettin’ restless. Sounds like we’d better get our masks back on an’ get down there. Dawn ain’t gonna come any slower for our wishin’ it so.” He made no move to get up and for a moment neither did Lyssa, still circled in his arms.
His horse stamped again.
“Alrigh’ alrigh’,” Caleb groaned, picking a bit of gravel out of his hair. Lyssa got to her feet and so did Caleb with a hiss of pain. He picked up the blanket, shook it out, and tucked it back onto the saddle.
“Deep breath,” Lyssa told him, her hands on his shoulders, and then the magic was spun and the gold smoothed over once more, hidden under Vidar’s dull lead strands.
Caleb shuddered and settled under the weight of it without complaint. “Shall we, my lady?”
Caleb stared at the canyon walls, the way the light pinked the tops of them and wind keened its morning song through the wide, twisting passages. Only an hour or so until dawn hit the canyon floor proper; now it was still dark as Fell, especially under the rainhaven’s shadow.
He hadn’t slept; wouldn’t, until this was over—there was too much to do. He’d tried to send Lyssa to go rest, but she just gave him a look and he’d given it up as a bad job, let her check the wound in his back before they’d both gone out again to do the work. Soon, soon, soon, had echoed in the last brush of their fingers, soon this would be done.
And now Caleb was standing at the top of the ridge, the same ridge where he’d spent too little but very pleasant time with Lyssa, staring at the shadowed bulk of the lowered rainhavens and wondering when they’d start.
“Sir.” Tural stepped beside him, a dark shape at his elbow.
“Well, then. You’ve got your orders, Khonar. Don’t keep me waiting. Get.”
“Oh, and Khonar?”
Caleb twisted around in his saddle to watch the other man depart, a coil of rope over his shoulder and climbing pegs looped at his belt. He was as thorough as Caleb could have hoped. “…Nevermind. Rix grant you good fortune.”
A tentative smile crossed his Khonar’s face, and he saluted. “Thank you, sir. We’ll get it done.”
“What will he get done?” The governor asked after Tural had left, climbing the ridge to stand beside him.
“If you’re gonna stand here and make a fool target of yourself with me, at least don’t wear the white.” Caleb didn’t bother glancing over, she glowed in the edges of his vision as though Maranael had come to stand on the ridge.
“Symbols are important, Khein.” But she took a few steps back, putting the bulk of the ridge and himself and Dirt in front of her. “What is your Khonar off doing? I told you—”
“Don’t worry, it’s nothing against your orders, Governor. Call it… secondary provisions,” Caleb said. “Just had a feeling.”
“Didn’t know you were capable of such, Vidar.”
“Pettiness is below you, your excellency,” Caleb shrugged. “Or, it will be by the end of the day when the haven’s yours.”
“Still so curse’t cocky, did last night not—”
“The Wheel’s turning.” Caleb interrupted. Down on the haven, the big toothed wheels and their ground-touching loops of heavy chain had begun to crank over, the sound of the gears echoing down the canyon even from their distance. He couldn’t see the fighters stepped into their carry hoops, not from here and not in the pre-dawn dark without lighting up his senses with sun-blessings, but he could well imagine the sight as they were lowered to join their fellows with the shidra on the ground.
It was risky to send them down so early; whatever danger writ by slippery chain and bad footing was balanced by the lack of arrow hails such a maneuver would usually invite. It was smart, though, and what he would have done, in the face of a force like Vidar’s and the Risers. “That’s my cue, Governor. If you’ll excuse me. I’ll see you at the command post.”
His troops—now they were fighting for him, they were his—weregathered under the command of the rest of his khonars while the light crept down the sides of the canyon wall. Archers and banemen, riders on their mounts, and the last multitude on foot with their light shields and blades.
More than he’d ever run with before.
“You have your orders?” he demanded of the assembled khonarii and sokhonarii, while his own demons snarled and snapped in the periphery of his awareness, eager to fight, eager to make him fight so they could feast.
“Get gone, those of you who’re going. Fifth, Seventh, Ninth Khonarii, you stay back. Stay bright. Everyone—fold in the Risers who’re goin’ with you.”
Another ragged chorus of affirmative answered him; Caleb swung into Dirt’s saddle.
Their blood on his hands, for every one he let die. And folk would die; this was not the little scraps he and his company used to get into where if they were clever and quick they’d win without more than a scratch or two.
Two of the wounded from the scrap with the kerrex had died before they’d reached the Riser’s camp.
They would not be the last.
The demons crept in at his heels, dragging at his mind till the edges of the world went fuzzy, and Caleb made sure his hands were tight wrapped in the reins so none saw if they shook.
Attend, Caleb! Dirt whickered, dancing in place rough enough to jar his teeth in his head. I hear them in your thoughts. Burn them!
“I got it, pal. I got it,” Caleb muttered. Burn them, sure. He couldn’t scrub at his face, the gesture being too not-Vidar, so he settled on pinching the bridge of his nose until the world went sharp and clear again. Dirt kicked his heels until Caleb was paying attention and loped across the sand to the command post.
Dawn broke across the floor of the canyon.
With it came the wedge charge of his khonarii, crashing down the ridge into the unwary bulk of the late Waterlord’s defenders. The shouts and clangs of their clash drowned out the rattling clanks of the still turning Wheels.
And Caleb wasn’t with them. Standing well back as Vidar would have left his mouth bitter. He had always, always fought alongside his men, had felt the flow of a battle from within it and pulled his band through it; a toothskin pack through crowded savannahs.
This… this was like slogging through the aftermath of a flash flood: muddy, and clogged with debris. He grit his teeth, shouted, “Scout!”
One of the Risers, on a light-boned desert horse, snapped to attention. “Go on and tell Fourth Khonarii to stiffen up and shove into the north flank. But to do so canny.”
“Khein.” The scout loped off without even a salute, and Caleb went back to restless study. He glanced at the old trail, cut into the canyon wall above and behind him, and hoped Tural was making decent time. The quicker he could take over the haven—
“You have the numbers to sand them, why are you holding half of our fighters back?” Sikela joined him on the rise of the command post, mounted on her placid riding-gazelle. The Governor was still wearing white, which he could lament, but at least she was now armed and armored as well, and not just with the Rightsblade. “We should be down there, with them!”
“Governor, you know as well as I it ain’t always about the numbers. They’re trying to pull something on us. See how they give ground, and swing around, and give again?” Caleb used Vidar’s curse’t sword to point out the way the lines moved—keeping his troops from the shidra but also never letting them get stuck in. “I’m not going to get you, me, or the rest of your folk killed finding out what trick they have waiting.”
“The Wheels are still turning.”
“Even if they emptied their entire haven of folk, it wouldn’t be enough,” Caleb said. “Which is another thing goin’ for us: they didn’t get their reinforcements. And I suspect they’re lacking a leader with proper vision about now.”
He shook his head in a parody of professional disgust. “You can take a nap, Governor, I’ll have this tidied by zenith, no worries.”
“I’ll stay, thanks,” Sikela said, as dry as the ancient riverbed at their backs.
Caleb swapped out khonarii as the ones in the front began to tire and gave the Waterlord’s troops no time to do likewise. Conspicuous kerrex and archers from the rainhaven harried his folk in unpredictable waves; Caleb shouted for “Shields! Dust!” at the first volley.
His troops hunkered down under their shields and kicked up dust until it was a cloud obscuring the entire heart of the fight, helped by the wind beginning to tumble down the canyon, flinging it into a high, ominous mass.
Lyssa appeared at his other side at some point, pressing a mug of water into his hands. When it was empty, she stayed, a coiled hunting cat beside him; he could almost feel her vibrating tensionthrough his stirrup leathers.
“Anything could be happening in there,” she muttered, staring at the dust cloud.
“Could be, but it ain’t.” He could see, with the thrill of sunlit power whispering through his blood; he could see right through it. He watched the push and pull of the lines, the displeased rumbles of the shidra in their harnesses, all restless shifting shadows appearing and disappearing back into the cloud.
It looked like a loss waiting to happen, to plain folk. It wasn’t; they were gaining ground, and keeping it as the late Waterlord’s forces flagged and dropped. For all the haven’s troops were better armed, Vidar’s folk were better trained and worked together even when they could barely see.
It wasn’t bad. Not yet.
Lyssa’s hand found his knee and squeezed, quick and urging. and he guessed what was going through her head.
“Rein in, petal,” he muttered in Vidar’s growl. “I don’t need the curse’t Rastha to win this fight. And it’d give your game away, set me up glowin’ like a curse’t beacon. No one would believe for a moment Sudai would Mark Vidar.”
No one would have thought He’d Mark you, either, said Dirt, and stamped a hoof for emphasis, setting all his kit to jangling. Caleb tightened the reins in a little warning pull and turned his attention back to the battle.
“Sikela’s going to wonder what you think you’re doing,” Lyssa said. She let go of his knee and tucked her hands back into her sleeves; sliding a half-step closer, a splash of red at the edge of his vision. “And you’re already glowing.”
“Not enough t’be caught out and I need t’see the curse’t battle. Sikela can keep on wonderin’. I’m supposed t’be the brilliant general, right? Lemme general.”
“Vidar knew what he was doing—”
Caleb huffed and looked down, ignoring the urge in the back of his head wanting to interrupt her speech with a kiss instead of more words. She was just all nerves, same as him—this was what her whole work the last few years centered on. “Dove, I know I don’t look it but I know a fair thing or five about fightin’ battles no one wants ya to win, an’ that was before I was Marked. Jus’ cuz I don’t make a livin’ out of it like he did—”
Raith. The rainhaven. An aramwright works! Dirt tossed his head, his wickedly sharp horn burning beneath his glamour and snapping Caleb’s gaze straight to the isles above.
The smallest of them, the one they’d dined on the day before and still as big around as the Broken Fang, was drifting away from the others. Its tethers were cut and hanging free. A few specks—people, so high as to seem like birds—were jumping the widening gap, away from the freed isle.
“They cut it free. Why’d they—”
They were going to drop the isle.
Not in the leisurely, controlled way as when it had come down for Malikan’s stalling tactic masked as a dinner party. No, the aramwright—and now that Caleb looked, he could see the power building into the complicated structures of a sorcerer’s protocols—was going to shatter the aizeite spars keeping the isle aloft.
They were going to drop the isle on his people.
The push and pull and give and sway of the haven’s troops on the ground made a horrible kind of sense, all at once.
If he’d committed everyone—
If he’d been down in the lines, or if Sikela had been, like she’d wanted to be (and Vidar would not allow)—
“Fall back,” he roared, giving Dirt the signal to run with a squeeze of his legs. Lyssa and Sikela and the rest of the runners and folk startled in shouts and shying beasts as Dirt dug in and flew down the rise, towards the battle. His partner, horse-shaped he might be, had no trouble with the open ground, anticipating Caleb’s thoughts.
Sudai be with us, Dirt crowed, shredding his glamour as he dove into the dust cloud, his horn slashing red-orange firebrand light. We will not fail them again.
He kept shouting as Dirt skidded to a stop, nearly running down his own troops. “Fall back, pull ‘em back, to me, to me!”
This—this was the time to call down the Rastha.
Caleb didn’t call up the power so much as open himself to it, half-prayer, half-blessing. It waited for his goal, for the intent and the words that formed them gave the Rastha its vesseled form—I will succeed at keeping the folks who look to me safe and unharmed. Sunlight flooded through him, piercing the dust cloud in a brilliant pillar and burning through his veins.
The Rastha was always flashy stuff. Where, legends told, the Rix-Marked worked in subtlety and Maranael’s chosen in twisting, changing, adaptation, Sudai made of their Marked illuminated exemplars of the Sun’s perfection.
Within the light, for Caleb, time slowed to a standstill.
He had a few long heartbeats to look, and study, while the phantom trace of warm, golden hands settled on his shoulders and a voice murmured in his ear. He could never say, in the moment or later, what the voice sounded like, or what it said—it stayed unknowable, advice from a dream. But it led him true.
Time sped again.
Caleb leapt from Dirt’s saddle, shouting all the while. He touched fighters on shoulders, backs, whatever he could reach, and each of them began to carry a little of that glowing sunlit warmth, passing it on to the rest. “Fall back, fall back, fall back!”
“Keep the lines steady! Fall back!”
Dirt became his anchor point, a fiery beacon marking the way out from under the rainhaven’s shadow. Inch by inch he moved the entire sun-touched force out from under the drifting isle, the isle only Caleb could see through the thick dust. The aramwright’s magic was a keening hum in the back of his skull.
The keen rose to a whistle, then a howl, and then the entire force stopped and stared as they heard it too. The magic broke with a shattering shriek. Caleb’s personal demons crowed in triumph.
The isle groaned.
“Run! To camp, to camp!”
Avret reclaimed his gravitic hold on the isle in a shuddering heave. The isle broke apart. The greatest mass cracked, cracked again, and crashed in scattered wagon-sized pieces, hitting the earth with bone-shaking impact and throwing pieces back into the air as another rocky rain.
The late Waterlord’s forces were caught in its shadow; too late they saw the falling pieces, too late they broke and ran. They were not his folk; the Rastha had no protection for them. Caleb, dragging a wounded fighter away, saw glimpses of horrified, wide-eyed faces before the rock buried them.
He moved to run, to save who he could—
Dull lead-silver threads flickered at the edge of his vision; ephemeral spider-webs.
More pieces hit the ground all around him; something knocked him to the ground, his head ringing.
The last he knew was dust, sand, and thudding impacts in the closing dark.
He’ll be fine. Caleb is one of Sudai’s chosen. He’ll be fine…
Or so Lyssa repeated over to herself, after his horse had leapt out from under her hand and the two had gone charging down into the dust cloud obscuring the battlefield.
“Fall back? What does he mean, fall back? Has your Khein gone mad, castellain?” The Governor rode up to her, agitation translating down to her gazelle in its whited, rolling eyes.
“I’m sure he has reason, your Excellency—”
“A Marked!” “Sudai’s chosen!” “A Riser’s been Marked!”
The mutters and whispers rippled through the group on the rise; Lyssa turned away to look with everyone else. A brilliant burst of hot summer sunlight, as bright as though Sudai had come to walk the earth, shot through the dust cloud.
Caleb wasn’t joking when he said calling on the Rastha would light him up. She’d never seen a Suns-Marked so bright.
Why only now? What did he see?
An aramwright’s protocol keened destruction, vibrating through her bones, and she traced its origin from long experience.
“They’re shattering an isle.” The alarm in her voice wasn’t entirely for Strisa’s act. Dropping a rainhaven was unheard of in living history; it was a desperate move reserved for folktales and legends; the last resort of hero or villain alike. “Gentle skies, they’re going to drop it on—”
He’ll be fine, he’s a Suns-Marked, he’ll be—
The isle shattered, and dropped.
Every mount on the rise shied and plunged as the shockwave shook the ground underneath them. If it hadn’t been impossible to see the battleground before, it certainly was now. The broken rock threw more dust and debris into the air when it impacted; an eruption without the molten blood of Avret.
The burst of sunlight snuffed out a few heartbeats later.
The web—Lyssa’s work, the web she’d spent the last several years creating—shivered.
The web into which, she remembered with mounting horror, she’d woven Vidar’s death. At the conclusion of the use the Rix had for him, she’d made sure the universe would conspire in his violent end—at the point of her own dagger, if necessary.
The man holding that destiny was no longer the man she wished dead.
Duty flaked away, replaced and crystallized into diamond-sure desire: She had to go after him. She had to find Caleb in the haze, and make sure her work hadn’t caused him to fall. She wanted him to live. Needed him to live. To come back, for her, with her. So they could pick up where they’d left off, three years ago.
She didn’t remember mounting up, or sending her gazelle careening down the rise toward the battleground.
Their fighters were beginning to stream out of the dust cloud by the time she reached it, pale as ghosts with their coating of desert grit; Lyssa slid down and grabbed the first one she saw. “Vidar—is he with you?”
“Ma’am…? No, ma’am… we got separated in the dust. He got us all out—”
Lyssa left him, pelting down the line until Khonar Praxia reached out and grabbed her, whipping her to a stop. “Castellain! You can’t; it’s still falling—”
“Praxia! The Khein, where is he?”
“He’s—” Praxia glanced back, confusion muddling her features. “He was just behind me, Castellain, handed this one over and went back; I don’t—”
Caleb. What have you done? She shook off the Khonar and followed their trail back into the dust. With an eye on the sky lest the last pieces of the isle fall on her, she ran, hands feeling through the thick shadows. The dust cloud was too silent without the battle-clash; only the eerie groanings and thudding impacts of a slain rainhaven echoing through it.
“Caleb! Caleb, where are you?”
A luminous point of light split the haze ahead of her; not summer sunshine but the sullen ember red of coals near combustion.
“Caleb!” She picked her way towards it; another chunk of isle rock as big as her torso hurtled down, felt more than seen in the shadows.
There was a misshapen apparition ahead of her, joined with that throbbing red glow. Caleb’s mean-tempered horse loomed out of the dust, whickering demand at her, dancing in place and trying to mouth at something on the ground—
Lyssa forgot everything else, the way his horse blurred around the edges and was crowned with a glowing red blade of a horn, the falling rock—everything but the prone form of the Suns-Marked. Caleb lay flat on his face at his horse’s feet, covered in dust, an ugly wet-dark stain down his head and back.
She slid to her knees beside him, running quick careful fingers over his skull. Nothing broken, hard-headed wrangler! Just a jagged cut across his head, bleeding in the excessive way of head wounds. He breathed, his heart was steady—but if he didn’t get up, the rocks would bury them both. She pulled him onto his back, holding his slack face between her hands. “Caleb. Caleb, sunshine, get up please, we need to go—”
Vidar’s destiny is to die. On the field is as good a place as any—
Of course. Of course; he wouldn’t wake—
Lyssa called power with reckless speed, her Mark shedding cold, clear light across his face. His gold was still there in faint, tarnished patches beneath the lead gray. Vidar’s destiny clung tenaciously, as though it knew its fulfillment was imminent. Even with her hand pressed against Caleb’s skin, pulling on the strands, she could not unweave Vidar’s fate fast enough.
“It won’t come off, it won’t—It’s too tight, I need—”
You need me. There is no time, Marked of Rix. Caleb’s stallion lipped at her sleeve. When she looked up, it was no horse in her vision.
“Hisanraj!” Caleb’s mount was a hisanraj. A fire-aspected creature of myth, brawny and strong in illusion magic, fierce guardians of the desert’s lost Kidesh, and rarer even than Suns-Marked.
Hold the threads taut, Rix-Marked!
The fire on his horn turned as keen as forged summer lightning. The hisanraj went to one knee, and with a swift, sharp bow of his head, sliced straight through lead-dull destinies and a layer of armor.
The Suns-Marked destinies blazed so bright they almost blinded her; she dropped the fraying threads and magic.
Caleb heaved, coughing and choking on the dust.
Relief bubbled up in her chest; she could kiss him. Would kiss him, as soon as they were safe. Lyssa kept a steadying hand on his shoulders until he quit coughing and pulled on his arm to get him up. Caleb just slumped back down and blinked at her.
“Caleb! Get up, sunshine, c’mon, we have to move—”
“Aah… hey, Lyssa,” he drawled, as slow and pleasantly surprised as he’d been the first time he’d seen her.
The hisanraj stamped and squealed in emphasis, shying away.
Caleb’s eyes widened with sudden sense. He grabbed her and rolled; something whistled past her head and struck the ground where they’d just been with a shuddering impact. Debris pattered off Caleb’s back.
“Gentle skies! Right, time t’go—” and then he was scrambling to his feet, pulling her with him. He swayed a little, holding his head with a free hand. The hisanraj led the way, his horn a beacon in the dust-filled shadows, and they stumbled out into clear air on the far edge of the battleground, near the cluster of mooring spires.
Caleb made it as far as a century-spire before faltering again, settling at its base. His eyes wouldn’t quite focus as he peered at her and the hisanraj. “So, wha’ happened? Did we win?”
The web was in place, if by a thread—she could feel it if she reached. It was shivering with the loss of Vidar, but this loss was planned, and the web held. But it was not quite fulfilled. “I’m not sure. We didn’t lose—”
“I gotta go back, then,” Caleb lurched to his feet, but his mount took a step forward and laid his horn on Caleb’s shoulder in a clear admonition. “Dirt, pal, lemme up. I c’n get in there as me now—”
Lyssa wrinkled her nose; what kind of name was Dirt for a hisanraj?
An echoing, cracking groan, like the icebergs she’d seen calving once in the far north, filled the canyon. Another isle-fall?
Caleb ducked under Dirt’s horn and grabbed for the saddle; Lyssa followed him up. The hisanraj was moving even before they’d settled, leaping from a standstill into a dead gallop heading for the far canyon wall, as far away from the rainhaven as possible.
Lyssa twisted in the saddle, looking back—surely their aramwright had not the strength to shatter another isle. It would be suicide, for the wright and the rainhaven. They could not be so desperate—
The entire rainhaven was settling, sinking to the ground like an exhausted shidra. At its edge stood Tural, recognizable even at distance. He flung a bundle of cloth over the side, unfurling as it went: the surrender banner.
The army erupted in raucous cheers.
The hisanraj slowed and turned; Lyssa felt the web flutter once in sighing relief and fade, fulfilled, into the Starsea.
“Now… now, we’ve won.”
Caleb huffed relief and curled his fingers with hers. “An’ no more masks for either of us.”
Auraket had surely seen better days, but few better than this one.
It was raining.
A hard, soaking rain, the kind that would have the desert around blooming in short order and fill all the local wells and aquifers. And while Caleb could be happy for the celebrating folk who’d gone without for far too long, few though they were, and appreciate how desperately they needed it—
Gentle Skies, he still despised the wet.
Lyssa, on the other hand…
Lyssa was dancing.
She was barefoot, her feet trailing in the puddles growing in the courtyard of the abandoned house they were borrowing. The red of her clothes were streaked dark from the water dripping from her complicated hairstyle. Best of all, she was smiling. Caleb’s heart lifted just watching.
“Caleb! Come join me? You’re not going to wash away!”
“Ain’t that I’m worried ‘bout, starflower!” he called to her from the somewhat dry safety of the portico. Up there, in the heavy-bottomed clouds, was Malikan’s diminished rainhaven and half the Risers with it. Tural now led the Broken Fang, as it should be, and Sikela’s Rising had swelled with her victory.
“It’s raining! It’s finally cool!” Lyssa splashed across the yard to him, pulling on his hands and spinning the both of them out into the pelting rain. “I have missed rain for more than three years! Enjoy it, Suns-Marked!”
“I was enjoyin’ it fine—from back there, where I was dry,” Caleb grumbled. But he went, hunched under his wide-brimmed Badlander hat.
Lyssa laughed and pulled him down for a kiss. Maybe he could get to liking the rain.
“The Rix got any more work for ya here, Lyssa?” Caleb asked, a long, languid time later, sprawled over a nest of cushions and bedrolls. The rain rattled on the roof over their heads. He’d tucked an arm around Lyssa and she’d curled into him. There was really no better place to be, so far as he was concerned. His head no longer throbbed, his back had healed nicely, and even his demons were quiet.
“No. At least, I’ve not heard anything.” She sighed and sat up, pulling the edges of a wrap around her shoulders. “Which I suppose means I ought to go home, back to the work there.”
Caleb hummed reluctant agreement but made no move to get up, his fingers trailing idle patterns over the curve of her waist. “I ought t’be lookin’ in on my folk, back in the Badlands. Nothin’ keepin’ us here anymore.”
“No.” Lyssa glanced out the window, where the rainhaven would be. “Not anymore.”
The rain coming back to Auraket was the Governor’s promise coming to pass, that the Koruz would no longer suffer under the tyranny of the Waterlords. Caleb had no reason to stay.
Days later, and here they still were, in an abandoned house in Auraket, speaking the same words they’d spoken five or six times already. Caleb was already reaching to tug her back down into their makeshift nest.
“Come with me, Caleb.” Lyssa broke the quiet, the pattern, in a rush of words.
“Hmm? Where, dove?”
“Home. Come home with me.” She twisted, catching his hands. “Just for a little while. You’ve earned a rest, haven’t you? Haven’t we?”
“I… starflower,” Caleb started. He could lay in lazy love with her here, telling himself lies and excuses as long as he liked. But the thought of acting on her request—leaving the Badlands, the Koruz—tore him up. There was the work, and the folk he protected, waiting for him. Vidar’s felldark to hunt down. And yet, with her softened, wine-dark eyes on him, he also wanted nothing more than to abandon it all and follow where she led.
But he couldn’t. There was the work.
“Gentle Skies, Lyssa. Were I anybody else, I’d come with ya in a heartbeat. But, my folk—” He gestured, a hand at his Mark then out towards the Badlands. “I can’t leave ‘em. Been gone long enough as it is.”
“And I can’t stay here with you either.”
She wore a mask of her own over her feelings, just as he did, though hers was stoic and unaffected. He could feel them anyways, in the set of her chin and the stiffness in her spine, could feel imminent heartbreak mirrored in his own chest. Caleb moved to wrap arms around her, to tuck her head under his chin. There’d been enough breaking and misery in his world of late. Dirt was right. He ought to mend something.
“Listen,” he said slowly, as much musing aloud as anything else. “I’ll go home. I’ll go home, but I won’t stay. I know another Marked, one of Maranael’s; I’ll ask ‘em to watch my folk for awhile. I think they’ll do it. An’ then I’ll come to you.”
The prospect was somehow heartening and terrifying.
“I can’t ask you to do that, Caleb—” She pulled away, all affronted cat, and Caleb gave her a squeeze.
“You ain’t askin’, petal, I’m tellin’ you. Waited three years for each other, surely we can handle a few months more?”
“What is a few months to a Marked?” Lyssa agreed.
And then they had no more need of words or masks at all.
Copyright 2023 Reed Mingault
About the Author
Reed Mingault’s formative years were spent on horseback and handling raptors, and she’ll happily tell you all about them. She draws and paints and is fascinated by pre-industrial crafts. Reed is settled in northern Colorado, after a military-brat childhood, with her family and a small zoo of furred and scaled pets.