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Authors: J.F. Lewis

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BOOK: Oathkeeper
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“Kings die,” he whispered, his voice breaking, the words strangled. “Fathers die.” He pushed on, forcing himself through a verbalization of the hateful truth. “Everyone dies eventually. It's making sure that death has as much meaning as . . . as . . .”

Optimize your life and you will be rewarded in the next. That was what the gnomes believed. Rivvek was certain Torgrimm, as god of birth and death, had made it happen. Would Kholster, in his new role as Harvester, do the same? For the gnomes? Rivvek did not doubt he would. For King Grivek?

Eyes closed more against that idea than the dark, Rivvek's ears perked up. His melted ear tugged against the tender flesh at his temple as he eavesdropped on the Kingsguard. Their appointed rounds kept them stationed far enough from the cluster of deiform statuary to avoid disturbing the Conjunction itself, but close enough that the brave Eldrennai could charge to their deaths in King Grivek's defense. Rivvek assumed their voices were overheard just as easily by the Vael and the Aern at Oot as they were by him.

“Now that Kholster's dead,” a husky-voiced Eldrennai muttered to someone, “our King will make things right between the Grudgebearers and us. You wait and see, Dace.”

Was that Thalan speaking? Rivvek decided it must be.

“You think so, Thal?” Dace breathed.

“She's not even half a hundred yet,” Thalan chortled. “You think this kholster Rae'en can out-negotiate an Eldrennai king with over half a millennium on the throne?”

This then
, Rivvek thought, sitting up,
is the peril of my people: arrogance unrivaled by any other race and self-deception enough to make Kilke himself blush
.

“My prince?” Sargus stirred. Rivvek opened his eyes, making out the aura of Sargus's life force more easily than he could his features in the night—another “gift” from his time beyond the Port Gates. When one stood too close to a Port Gate or wore armor made of Ghaiattri hide, one could see, as if through a thin veil, the creatures of the Ghaiattri's realm. Rivvek's sight afforded him a dual view of reality, particularly at night, the never-dark of that other place seeped into his perceptions. With it came a light that illuminated the spirits of sentient beings around him. Sargus shone as a whorl of colors, dark, rich purples wending through golds and blues shot through with the occasional bloody red or coal black.

When bending his mind to a problem, the black, red, and purple spread through Sargus, filling him up, the borders assuming jagged lines. Now he was mostly blues and golds. Colors Dolvek thought of as safer. He hadn't been able to completely codify the internal palettes of others, but the inner black was not good.

Sargus had fallen asleep reading. Blinking to focus on the real world as much as he could, Rivvek barely made out the glint of the other elf's goggles in the scant light that crept in from outside. A full moon.

“I'm sorry to wake you,” Rivvek whispered.

“I shouldn't have fallen asleep,” Sargus answered. “Shall I—?”

“No,” Rivvek interrupted. “Let me do it. I need the practice.”

Rivvek heard an intake of breath as if Sargus had been about to object, but the Artificer held his tongue.

A prince still has pride
, Rivvek chided himself,
even a magic-crippled one
.

Rivvek rubbed his eyes, clearing away scratchy motes of “sleep” from the corners. He took a long deep breath, held it, let it out again.

Mustering a supreme effort of will, Rivvek forced his inner power to its utmost. Veins stood out on his forehead. His scars grew hot then aching—pain a constant chaser to the savor of his magic now—and fire raged forth: a gleaming white flame no bigger than the wisp atop the wick of a lit candle hovered above the tip of his index finger.

Warm illumination filled the tent, revealing the smiling face of Sargus where he sat in the strange folding-chair contraption of brass and leather that let him adjust the back to recline or sit up straight if needed. Rivvek didn't know how it could be as comfortable as Sargus claimed.

Thoughts focused on the bit of mystic flame, Rivvek crossed the tent and lit a lantern sitting upon a small camp table. Wiping a bead of sweat from his cheek, Rivvek scratched absently at his nightshirt, as the pain in his scars faded with the magic. The heat would take longer to dissipate, a side effect for which none had been able to provide adequate explanation.

“Find anything we missed?” Rivvek nodded at the leather tome open on Sargus's lap.

“No.” Sargus closed the volume, shifting it from his lap to a nearby camp table. “We do still need to make sure we take care of the Stone Lord, just in case—”

“One son and two daughters,” Rivvek interrupted. He waved to his left in the vague direction of the other Aiannai tents, the temporary homes of those who had followed him to Oot hoping their prince and their new status as Oathkeepers would save them from the Aern. “Each to inherit in an order we've already hammered out. They relayed their request via Caz's warsuit Silencer. I handled it on my last trip.”

“Who took them in?”

“Is it horrible that I don't remember?” Rivvek yawned. “But with Lady Flame, the Sea Lord, Lady Air, and the Stone Lord . . .”

“That's all of the elemental council dealt with except for Hasimak.” Sargus yawned despite himself. “He is more powerful than you realize. Were he to oppose us, he could still—”

“No.” Rivvek pulled his nightshirt over his head revealing Kholster's scars upon his back: a diamond shape at the base of his spine with two parallel lines marking each facet, the right-angled wedges at each shoulder, and a thumb-width line along his spine. Far from the only things that marked his back, the scars of the First of One Hundred merely filled in the space not marked by the various elemental foci that dotted his back in winglike arcs in failed attempts to restore the full might of his magic.

Once . . .
he cut the thought off ruefully and reached for his traveling clothes.
Once these clothes were clean and fresh
. They were rank from the multiple visits to and from Port Ammond, but he could get a change of clothes when he got there. A bath, too. He'd almost given in to the temptation to bring a cleaning wardrobe, but doing so had felt too extravagant. “We'll go with your strategy.”

“It's risky. Even with the elemental lords and ladies siding with you, the people could still riot. Even if Hasimak is with us, he will never turn on his own people. If the citizens revolt . . . he has always been loyal to the crown. Longer than the crown has existed, actually, and there are far more non-magic-using Eldrennai than there have ever been. Aern have proved how much trouble opponents without magic can be. The plan is—”

“Not as risky as you think it is.” Rivvek heard footsteps outside his tent flap. Two steps took him close enough to throw them open. He smiled when doing so revealed Brigadier Bhaeshal, his personal Aeromancer.

“Just happened to be in the area, Bash?” Rivvek teased.

“Finally used to your new schedule.” She smiled. Dressed as Rivvek was in a traveling tunic, trousers, and boots, Bhaeshal would have made Hasimak's nose wrinkle in dismay at her lack of formal robes, but they weren't really all that sensible for long flights. “Lord Artificer.” She nodded to Sargus, the light from the candle reflected in the masklike band of steel that was her elemental foci. She looked back at him with those pale white crystalline eyes, and he returned her gaze warmly.

“Lady Aeromancer,” Sargus nodded back.

“Will you both be coming?”

“Perhaps I ought to stay and . . .” Sargus trailed off.

“Look after my father?” Rivvek smiled. “I wish there were something you could do to change his fate, but there isn't. I need you with me . . . to stop Hasimak from taking the throne.”

“Please don't even jest about that.” Sargus got up.

Rivvek tried not to let it worry him. Yes, Hasimak was the oldest living Eldrennai, but it was hard to imagine how he could be a threat to . . . well, to the Aern if it came down to it. No, Rivvek was forced to ask kholster Rae'en for assistance. It would be sad to see Hasimak go, but if that was the required sacrifice to save as many of Rivvek's people, as many of the Eldrennai, as he could. Rivvek intended to make that sacrifice and any others the gods demanded.

“Don't forget the book.” He gestured, and Sargus picked the heavy tome up off of the camp table.

“My prince . . .” Sargus put a hand on Rivvek's shoulder and seemed momentarily surprised by the scars beneath his tunic, still hot to the touch even through the fabric. “Maybe she won't kill him.”

“Kings die. A good king dies for his people when it is required.” Rivvek's voice cracked as he whispered the words. Believing them didn't take dismiss their sting in the slightest. “You just promise me we'll make his sacrifice mean something.”

They flew before dawn, sunrise catching up with them halfway to Port Ammond. The rising light lent the flowing myr grass a fiery aspect. Rivvek, carried by Bhaeshal's Aeromancy, caught himself staring down at it and remembering another departure one hundred and thirteen years before.

*

He'd been scarless then, a haughty elemental lord with command of all four elements as was his birthright. A Flamewing, like his mother, when he worked magic wings of fire sprouted from his back. A glory to behold. It had been like armor, that pride, and Kholster had cracked it.

The Aern himself, First of One Hundred, stood in the last light of the third day of the Grand Conjunction, bone-steel mail—uledinium, his people had called it, but Rivvek would never dare to refer to it as that again—denim trousers belted at the waist with knotted bone-steel chain. Even those clunky boots had seemed grand to the prince. A Vael princess named Kari (not-yet-queen), her head petals cascading over Kholster's shoulder as she leaned against him, watched Rivvek with sad, wide eyes.

“You are right,” Rivvek said hoarsely. “What you say is true. My father told me I should believe your version of any history you chose to share with me and, hard as it is, I do. But, Kholster, what would you have me do? How can I fix this? My people. My ancestors. There is no excuse for what they did to you. No excuse for my father's order at As You Please. No excuse for the mistreatment of the Vael. Not for any of it. I came here ready to hate you. Maybe I did hate you at first, but now . . .”

“There is nothing you can do, Oathbreaker prince,” Kholster said, his voice gentle. “But I, or my representative, will return again in one hundred years for the next Conjunction if for no other reason than that you have heard and believed. You have my oath on it.”

Rivvek opened his mouth to object.

“Unasked for,” Kholster laughed. “I know.”

“I will find a way,” Rivvek answered. “I will find a way, not to make things right, but as right as they can be.”

Kholster laughed again. “Good hunting then, but I fear your quarry is long dead, if it ever existed.”

“Princess Kari,” Rivvek shook his head. “Is there anything I can offer the Vael other than my apology?”

“The Vael have no Litany to recite against you, Prince Rivvek.” Kari smiled pityingly at him. “You are guilty of nothing in my—or our—eyes. Keep it that way and we ask nothing more. If Kholster agrees, you are even welcome in The Parliament of Ages.”

Kholster nodded his assent.

“Such,” Rivvek answered, “is my intent.”

“No promise?” Kholster asked.

“I swear that it is my intent, but I cannot read what the future may hold . . . and accidents happen.”

CHAPTER 2

BURN IT DOWN

Sparks flashed underground, pinpoints of light reflected in reptilian eyes as each rasping scrape of flint and steel briefly illuminated the scale-covered bodies of the invaders. General Tsan exulted in the percussive rhythms pounded out by the Zaurruk handlers behind him in the tunnel, their holding song keeping the massive serpents in check as they shifted impatiently, longing to strike. Cutting the air with a precise bob of his wedge-shaped head, Tsan put a foreclaw on the top of the gray-scaled firelighter's cranium just between its eye ridges.

<> Tsan tapped the phrase in Zaurtol with a few sharp twitches of his tail.

<> the firelighter ducked low on all fours, sprayer nozzle and striker still gripped in his forepaws, head touching the stone floor of the tunnel. The peculiar rig of glass, brass, and leather strapped to his back sloshed as he moved. <>

<> Tsan tapped with a dismissive flex of his tail. Just when a little firedamp might have been useful. At least it wasn't cold. The body heat of the assembled attack force helped moderately in that regard, but the magic of the Root Tree overhead was responsible for most of it.

Tsan's nictating membranes flicked up and down over his slit-pupiled eyes. Once. Twice. He peered back at the retreating firelighter. Was that one the third hatchling of the second brood of Marsis, or was he conflating him with one of the Zaurruk handlers? Bah! It hardly mattered. He waved the firelighter away, turning to his personal guard with their black scales banded by narrow stripes of iridescent blue, an odd contrast to Tsan's scales of ruddy red.

<> Tsan tapped.

<> Kuort answered. Plenty of time. Tsan didn't know how warmbloods survived with such limitations. Unable to hold their breath for so much as a candlemark or to survive being frozen . . . it astounded him that there were still so many warmbloods in the world.

Good
. Tsan's forked tongue flicked out, tasting the stale atmosphere of the tunnel. Sealing vents in active sections of the maze of underground passages that comprised Xasti'Kaur, the Shadow Road, made timing tricky at certain strategic phases of the plan, but it could also catch the Eldrennai by surprise and leave them gasping in the blackdamp if they figured out what the Sri'Zaur were actually planning before the shard-wielding assassins of Asvrin's Shades sowed confusion and death among those who had lulled themselves into a false sense of immortality.

BOOK: Oathkeeper
8.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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