Authors: KateMarie Collins
“No, he won’t. You and I both know she’s either dead, or wishing she was. And she knew it when
she made her choice. Amari can’t take any risks without repercussions, even those of us who are free. The magic we harness won’t let us. There’s always a price to be paid for our actions.”
Alaric strapped his quiver to the side of his pack. “I can’t accept that.”
“Doesn’t change it. If you want to repay her, then do what you can to save any Amari you run across. If you end up in an army, offer to watch over them. Show them kindness instead of brutality. And, if you ever find one who’s stayed hidden and unchained, make sure they stay that way. Holly didn’t
give up her life so you could take her place in chains. She did it so her brother could
Alaric looked away, slipping his pack onto his back. Ellory’s words hit home. He was right. Holly was either dead, or wished she were. Kaerdan wouldn’t have been kind to her. Or Olive. The only one who might have been spared his wrath was his mother. His
hand molded around
the center of his bow through the covering. If nothing else in his life made sense, that still did.
“You may not have the eyes, Alaric. Be grateful for that. But you’ve got some sort of magic going on between you and that bow of yours. Just make sure the rest of the world thinks it’s skill and nothing more. You might want to miss every now and then.”
Pausing at the door, he held out his hand to the captain. “Thank you. For everything.”
Ellory shook his hand. “You’ve got a debt to pay, lad. And you can’t do that if you’re in chains. Remember that.”
Alaric nodded in understanding. Without another word, he wound his way up to the deck and then down to the dock.
He paid close attention to where he was going, dodging between stacks of crates, sailors, and laborers. The wooden platform below him swayed with movement from above. The violent motion would’ve tripped him if it wasn’t for the week at sea.
Stepping off the dock and onto the dirt road, he moved to one side. Partly to stay out of anyone’s way, and so he could take a good look around him.
The city was laid out in a series of terraces cut into the hillside
. The level people resided on depended on their rank
. Situated at the top, looking down on everything, was his grandfather’s palace. The white walls shimmered in the early morning sun. With a sigh, he realized it wasn’t his grandfather that lived there. His welcome would be deceptively warm…right up until they chained him and put him on the first boat back to face Kaerdan.
He reached behind him and pulled the hood of his mantle over his head. There was no way of knowing if word had reached Lorien yet, but it wouldn’t suit him to be reckless. He had to find a job, one that took him out of the city.
Alaric spent another few minutes studying the throng of people around him. Watching who moved where, who carried what.
“Pardon, sir, are you hungry?” a small voice piped up.
Looking down, he saw a young girl with a tray full of meat pies staring at him. Her gold eyes stood out on her dirty face. His stomach grumbled loudly. Laughing, he replied, “Well, there’s your answer. How much for a pie?”
“They’re a half crown, if you please. We just made them fresh this morning.”
Reaching into his tunic, he pulled a coin out from a hidden pocket. Handing it to the child, he tried not to stare at the scars on her forearm. “There you are, one half crown. Do I get my pick?”
The girl quickly pocketed the money and held the tray a bit higher. “Yes, sir. Whichever one you’d like.”
He barely had the pastry in his hand before she scampered off to another person. Poor child had been forced to use her magic already, and in ways that caused harm. Holly had taught him how it worked. How the magic rebounded on the Amari, scarring them in some way for the harm caused. His father had known about it, and never made them cause harm unless it was in self-defense. Whoever this child belonged to had no such morals.
He began to meander down the street, munching on the pastry as he walked. If he could find a central market of some kind, join up with a caravan as a guard that would take him out of town.
After a few minutes, he knew enough of the area to realize he had to move inward. Closer to the city gates leading inland. The only people hiring near the docks wanted sailors. While he hadn’t been sick on the crossing, he knew he wasn’t cut out for that kind of life.
Two streets over, he heard the auctioneer’s voice carry over the crowd around him. One last lot for the day. An Amari family. His chest tightened as he forced himself towards the market. A caravan heading inland would be perfect for him to hide in. And, if his luck held, he’d be able to help a few people along the way.
The crowd thinned out as he approached the small courtyard where the auction was being held. A few still stood in front of the wooden platform, absently raising a hand in answer to the auctioneer’s bidding. A few others milled about a table, exchanging coin and signing parchment. Over to the left, against a stone building, a third man read over the parchments handed him and completed the transfer of ownership. The whole thing, while done quietly and openly, turned Alaric’s stomach.
The auctioneer called out, “Sold!” a final time, signaling the end of the day. Alaric watched the family of three being led off the platform. Another man stood not far from the bookkeeper’s table. Alaric watched as he moved forward to pay. He was strong, sure. His beard hid most of his face. The robes he wore were long, nothing like anything Alaric had seen before. Vibrant colors in strange patterns. Wherever he was from, it wasn’t close.
He continued to watch the robed man, waited until he finished the transfer and began to lead the family away from the market.
“Pardon, sir,” Alaric stepped in front of the group. “I’m looking for work.”
The man’s brow furrowed slightly. “What kind of work?”
Shrugging, he responded. “About any I can find. Got a bit of a nagging need to see another part of the world.”
“You any good with that thing?” The man pointed at the bow sticking up from the pack.
Alaric glanced back, noticed the covering had slipped loose. Looking forward again, he said, “Good enough to help feed you and your men on the way home.”
“We’ll see. Earn your keep and you’ll be paid when we arrive. Don’t, and I’ll leave you at the first hovel I care to.”
“Fair enough. Where are we headed?
“Antioch. Hope you got good shoes, boy. You’ll be walking in them for the next four months.”
Alaric woke, the morning sun blazing through the small window of his room. Three years in Antioch and he still wasn’t used to the heat.
Rising, he poured some water from the ewer into the basin. Splashing the cool water over his face, he drew a deep breath. Every year, this day had been the hardest. The official visit from the Lorien contingent. He didn’t go out of his way to draw notice to
himself, never had. His skin had slowly darkened over the years, his brown
hair lighter from the sun. The beard he now wore still itched, but he’d gotten used to it. Mostly.
Still, he kept his guard up. There was always the chance Kaerdan hadn’t bought the lie that he died on the ship. His brother was nothing if not thorough. Until he saw a body, there was a chance Kai still lived.
Only no one here would know that name. To this city, he was Alaric. Still an Islander, yes. There was no way to hide that. But they’d accepted him, his story. At least, he hoped they had.
Knowing his absence along the procession route would be missed, he sighed. Erien wouldn’t let him sit this one out. She’d asked so many questions when first they met about his home. In the beginning, he feared she was one of Kaerdan’s spies. When the questions stopped and no one came, he relaxed a little. Erien had lived a life in this desert oasis is all. She dreamed of a land where water was plentiful. Though she scoffed at the idea of snow.
A light rapping at his door startled him. “Alaric, you up
yet?” A female voice
muffled by the thick wood.
“Yeah, hold on.” He grabbed a caftan off of the peg on the wall. Tossing it over his head, he straightened out the folds as he walked toward the door.
Opening it, he was treated to a grin from his friend. “If I’d known you weren’t dressed yet, I wouldn’t have waited out here.” Erien teased him.
“If I’d let you
in while I was naked, your father would’ve had me drawn and quartered before the procession even started,” he laughed in return. Closing the door behind him, he waited for her to move forward.
Her black hair, the long braid dangling down below her headscarf, swayed as she spoke. “Not if he knows what’s good for him. The only hope he has for me to agree to any match he proposes for me is to not interfere with my friendships.”
Alaric fell into step next to her, “Friendships? Is that the term they use around here?”
Erien laughed, “Not all the time, no. But Father and I worked out what I can and cannot do some time ago. He allows me the freedom to befriend those I want to, knowing nothing will become serious. And I accept a suitable candidate for my hand.”
“The key word there being ‘suitable’, I suppose.”
“Absolutely.” She glanced back at him as they made their way down the narrow spiral staircase. “There’s lots of men who would marry me simply because of who he is. I want someone who is more interested in who I am than his balance sheet.”
“And some Islander doesn’t count?”
She turned, craning her neck to meet his eyes. “Alaric, you know you have his trust and admiration. You earned that by finding food when no one else could on that first caravan trip. But his position would be in jeopardy if he let us be together in that way. You and I both know his true nature. The rest of Antioch thinks of him as a ruthless slave trader. Even the Amari he brings back learn how to speak of him without lying but not telling of his kindness toward them. As long as Ajanor rules, and is friendly with Lorien, he cannot let his true nature show.”
Alaric nodded. Ajanor was brutal when it came to how he treated the Amari. More died under his command each year. The treaty with Lorien was ironclad and suited both kingdoms well. The smaller kingdoms feared them, and rightly so. The wars waged had slowly chipped away at borders. In just the last three years, Antioch had annexed two of its neighbors. One didn’t even bother to fight.
Lorien wasn’t far behind. Rumor ran before the official visit, like always. Kaerdan now ruled the island with an iron fist. An alliance between him and Lorien seemed imminent, allowing Lorien access to the fleet of ships at his brother’s command. Adding Antioch’s forces to the mix would make it possible for war to ravage almost every kingdom in the world. What scared him even more, though, was what would happen the day the alliance fell apart.
The bright sunlight
exploded on them
as Erien opened the door to the street outside. Alaric raised the hood of his caftan before stepping through the portal.
The avenue was already crowded with people eagerly awaiting the annual spectacle. The visit, long ago established as a reason to celebrate, drew hundreds from the neighboring towns as well as caravans from farther away. The massive desert had several oasis points, waystations for caravans that grew into thriving cities and towns. Coming to the capital, though, was reserved for only tradesmen. Except for when Lorien visited.
Had his room faced the street, Alaric would’ve been content to watch from above. Erien, however, loved being in the middle of it all. She fed off the energy of the crowd, enjoyed the spectacle. To her, the outfits worn by the visiting dignitaries were exotic. He could sympathize. It took him time to get used to wearing a caftan over breeches and a tunic.
They found a place and waited. It wasn’t long before the trumpets blared, heralding the dignitaries. The parade wove slowly past the throngs lining the streets. Musicians led the way, followed by a group of spearmen in full armor. The glare of the sun off the metal almost blinding those who looked too long. Then came the ornate, gilded litters. Each one sat on the shoulders of eight Amari men, clad in shirt and breeches. Alaric could see beads of sweat trickle down their faces as the heavy garments compounded the heat.
The curtains of each were pulled back, allowing the throngs to see the visitors in all their glory. Courtiers and diplomats lounged, richly embroidered and bejeweled fabrics clashed with the simplicity of the garments of those in the crowd. The fourth litter caused Alaric to clench his jaw.
Holly was one of the bearers, her head shaved. The tunic she wore, cut so no one would mistake her for a man, showed red skin
with crisscrossed pale scars
. The sun had been merciless to
her during the journey, and so had Kaerdan.
She kept her eyes down as she passed. There was his brother, relaxing on a bed of satin pillows and a chalice in his hand. Nothing had changed in his appearance. The same arrogance and hard set to the jaw remained. He refused to look outside at the people around him.
He felt Erien shift next to him, breaking his evaluation of Kaerdan. Her form retreated toward a doorway where her father stood, motioning to her.
Alaric slid between the crowd, trying to follow. By the time he reached her, she was alone. Her face held a look he’d never seen before. It wasn’t quite fear or anger, but a bit of both.
She looked up and saw him. Holding a single hand up, she silenced him before he could say a word. “Not here, my friend. And not now. Go to work. I’ll tell you before noon.”
With that, he watched as she slipped away into the crowd.
He didn’t see her again for two hours. He was in the back of the shop, working on some fletchings under the awning, when she sat next to him. Grabbing a small knife and a feather, she began to cut into the shaft.
They sat there in silence for a few moments. “I’m to be married. Soon. My husband,” contempt dripped from her voice, “is among the diplomats and is eager to take me home with him.”
Alaric’s gut tightened. “I thought you were granted the right to refuse a suitor.”
“I was, initially. But now Ajanor has stepped in. He wants this alliance, and Father dared not refuse him.”
He swallowed, fearing her answer to his next question. “Who is it to be, then? Some minor bureaucrat?”
She sighed. “No. Someone who claims to be King of the Islanders. Seems his wife died giving birth to a daughter two years ago and he’s done grieving. That same daughter is now betrothed to one of Ajanor’s younger sons. I’m part of the deal to secure the treaty.” Angrily, she swiped the blade across the shaft of the feather. “Bartered and sold like an Amari, only with marriage vows binding me over a steel band around my ankle.”
Alaric didn’t dare speak. It could only be Kaerdan. Fear for his friend overtook him. “So, run. Leave. If you don’t want this Island King, don’t wed him.”
The knife flew from her hand, lodging in a barrel across from them. “I can’t. You and I both know this. I’m bound to obey my father and my King. This is the price I pay for the life I live.”
Unable to contain himself, Alaric turned to her. He grabbed one of her hands and held it close. “Erien, don’t do this. You don’t know him. You’ll regret this faster than you can imagine.”
She snorted, “Strange words from an Islander. I always thought you saw your kings as gods walking the land.” She pulled her hand from his. “It doesn’t matter. The announcement is being made tonight, at the feast. Father asks that you attend, as well. He thinks showing this King he has Islanders under his employ will increase his position.”
Alaric’s eyes widened briefly. “He wants me there? No. I can’t.” He rose, a hand flying to his brow. His head was pounding faster than his heart.
“Alaric, what’s wrong? You’ve never denied an invitation like this before. It’s obvious you know my
husband-to-be. If there’s
something my father should know, that I should know, about him then say it.”
“I can’t, Erien. You and your father know enough. I left the Island, and my life there, with reason. If Kaerdan were to even suspect I was here—”
“Erien, leave us.” Rahjin’s voice called out from the doorway. “This is a matter for men. Your mother waits on you to start preparations for the feast.”
Alaric didn’t turn as Erien left to obey her father’s command. He didn’t dare.
“If there is a tale I must hear, tell it now, Islander. Otherwise, your presence is needed tonight as I celebrate the coming marriage. I have let you live among my family for long enough now that you should trust me. Give me reason to excuse you from the feast that I can abide by.”
Defeated, Alaric slumped onto a bench. “What do you know, Rahjin? Or guessed?”
The older man sat opposite him. “I know the story you gave on the way here was full of half-truths. That you are an Islander there is no doubt. From the north? I do not think so. The cloak you had wasn’t thick enough to hold back the cold they face. Your skill with a bow was almost too good. While many from your lands can hunt well, you rarely missed. Even when the other hunters came back claiming there was no beast to be found, you’d find something. My next trip, you refused to go back to Lorien. I asked around. Seems the same time you showed up the year earlier, there were rumors about the new King having a half-Amari brother. One they thought was dead. But no corpse was found.”
Alaric nodded, “You’re
not a foolish man, Rahjin
. Kaerdan would repay you handsomely for turning me over. He may even agree not to beat your daughter once they’re married.”
“You are family, Alaric. You reside in my home, work for me. I will hold your secret. And excuse you from the feasting. Though I recommend you find a way out of the city soon. You, and your bow, will be missed. But your brother will find out about you if you remain. Too many others will remark about an Islander in my employ if you stay. As to Erien,” he paused, “make no mistake. If I hear he has mistreated her in any way, the next breath he draws will be his last. And she will rule the Island then, not him.” Rahjin rose. “Go. Pack your gear and find a tavern. Hire yourself off as a personal guard to someone else leaving the city. More are leaving than coming in now. I wish you well, my friend.” He held out his hand to Alaric.
Grasping it, Alaric nodded. “Thank you. Tell Erien, well, tell her to ask for a gift from Kaerdan. There’s an Amari with his party, a woman by the name of Holly. She’ll serve Erien well.”
“Any message you want sent to her?”
He shook his head. “No. It’ll only put both of them at risk. Better
she thinks her brother
is dead, and Erien not know at all, than otherwise.” He paused. “Thank you, again. You’ve given me refuge when it was needed. I won’t forget that.”
“Repay my kindness by doing the same for another. You’d do well as a mercenary, Alaric. As long as the cause is a just one.”
Alaric walked into the shop without another word. Rahjin was right. He had to disappear. No good-byes. For the second time in less than four years, he was running. Only this time, he had allies to cover his trail.
Darting up the stairs to his small room, his mind raced. What to pack, what to leave behind. It really wasn’t a hard decision. He knew he had to leave, tonight if possible. The months on the road to reach Antioch taught him what was important to carry with him. He’d not collected much since he lived here, either.