Authors: Jennifer Fallon
“Coming?” Jaxyn called.
Arkady turned to Fletch. “We'll talk in the morning, Fletch. Right now, I need to see to Tipsy.”
“Of course, your grace.”
The old dog bowed as Arkady hurried toward the feline compound where Jaxyn was waiting by the gate, beyond which the mirror-like eyes of the felines caught the flickering torchlight like pinpoints of malevolence.
Unlike the canines, whose village consisted of several long, dormitory-style buildings, the feline compound was made up of scores of smaller cottages, and two larger residences with caged yards at the far edges of the complex, where the males were housed. Arkady followed Jaxyn toward a cottage near the western edge of the compound through a corridor of silent, angry glares. With their flat faces, wide noses and slanted, almond-shaped eyes, many humans found it hard to read the expressions on feline faces. Arkady had grown up around them, however, and knew what those twitching tails signalled. Although no feline stood much over five feet tall, she and Jaxyn were in danger, she realised, quickening her step to catch up to her companion. Slaves they may be, but the feline Crasii were warriors, first and foremost. If they considered the justice dealt out by their human masters over this attack to be less than satisfactory, there was going to be trouble.
The hut where Tipsy was being treated was dark, the only light in the single-roomed cottage a small candle on the low table beside a pile of furs on the floor. It was a typical feline abode, dark, warm, small and cosyâjust the way they liked it. In the darkness it was hard to tell where Tipsy ended and the furs started.
“We need more light,” she whispered to Jaxyn.
“Bring another lantern,” he ordered the female kneeling over Tipsy's limp body, not nearly as considerate of the felines' feelings as Arkady.
The black-and-white Crasii rose to her feet and hurried out of the hut. Arkady scowled at him. “How do you do that?”
“Do what?” the young man asked.
“Get the Crasii to jump to your orders like that?”
“It's all in the tone of voice,” he told her, turning his attention to Tipsy. He looked down at her unsympathetically, studied the wounded feline for a moment and then shrugged. “You might as well put it out of its misery.”
A hiss of anger, or perhaps distress, behind them on the cottage steps was the only objection Jaxyn received to his callous pronouncement. Arkady glanced over her shoulder at the score of felines gathered outside in the darkness and then shut the door on them before she turned back to Jaxyn. “You haven't even had a close look at her.”
“Don't need to.” He shrugged. “Can't you hear it breathing? The pup was right. Your escaping bitch all but ripped its throat out.”
“Her name is Tipsy,” Arkady corrected, annoyed at the way Jaxyn treated the Crasii as things rather than living creatures with minds and feelings of their own.
“Her name is
” Jaxyn retorted. “You really shouldn't get so attached to them, you know.”
Pushing past him, Arkady squatted beside the piled-up furs, reaching cautiously forward to stroke Tipsy's head, acutely conscious of the feline's potential to react violently to the slightest provocation. Although the creature's shape was outwardly human, the feline was a tabby, her grey fur matted around her throat, which glistened with fresh blood in the candlelight. Her human-shaped hands curled in pain, the claws exposed and ready to shred anyone who got too close. Jaxyn was right about her breathing. The air rasped in and out of her lungs, bubbling around the wadded bandage her companions had used to stanch the bleeding. Boots had probably done exactly what Laddie claimed, which made Arkady wonder what injuries the young canine had sustained in the altercation.
Much as it pained her to admit it, Jaxyn was probably right about the likelihood of survival, too. Arkady was a physician's daughter. She knew a fatal wound when she saw one.
“Is there anything I can do to ease your pain?” she asked softly.
Tipsy shook her head, ever so faintly, her eyes wide with fear.
avenge you,” she vowed, thinking it a useless promise. The chances were good Boots would never be seen again, and if she was, it was unlikely anyone would bother with a trial to address the issue of one slave killing another. But it would give the dying Crasii some comfort, she supposed, as she drifted into death.
“Once upon a time, she'd have been able to avenge herself,” Jaxyn remarked.
Arkady glanced over her shoulder at him. “What are you talking about?”
“Doesn't Crasii legend claim that if a feline died in battle, the Tide Lords would bring them back over and over again, to keep on fighting? Nine times was the limit, wasn't it, before they couldn't revive them any longer?”
“Please don't mock their beliefs, Jaxyn,” she asked, wondering how he'd learned of that particular legend. The Crasii didn't share their lore with humans readily. But Jaxyn had a habit of surprising her with little snippets of information like that. Things she'd taken years to coax out of the Crasii, even those who trusted her.
“I wasn't mocking anything,” he protested. “I was just wondering why you can never seem to find a Tide Lord when you need one.”
Arkady cursed his callous flippancy under her breath, turning her attention back to the dying feline. Moved by the Crasii's silent fortitude, she stroked Tipsy's forehead gently, feeling the cold settling under her soft pelt. Tipsy's breathing was increasingly laboured. Arkady feared she would be dead before Mitten returned with another lantern.
“It would be kinder to put it down,” Jaxyn repeated behind her.
“That would be murder.”
“Do you think it's more humane to watch it suffer?”
Arkady rose to her feet and turned to face the young man, wishing Stellan was here now. This was the Jaxyn Aranville her husband never saw. He was all sweetness and light when his lover was nearby, but this side of him, this cruel, unfeeling wretch, was something only Arkady knew. Jaxyn probably realised she saw through him and figured there was no point in pretending otherwise.
“Temper, temper, my lady. You'll upset your patient.”
“So help me, Jaxyn, I'll do more thanâ”
Arkady never got a chance to finish the sentence. The door banged open in a flare of light just as Tipsy's strangled breathing fell silent. Jaxyn forgotten, Arkady dropped to her knees beside the Crasii but it was too late to do anything. It had been too late before they got here. Mitten, the feline who'd brought the extra lantern, raised it high, glaring at Arkady, as if she was personally responsible for the death, a low growl building in the back of her throat.
Choking back a lump, inspired by fear as much as grief, Arkady pulled the covers over Tipsy's still form and rose to her feet. “Your blood-sister will be avenged, Mitten,” Arkady promised, trying to ignore the Crasii's unsheathed claws and threatening stance. “Tell your sisters I'll have Boots declared outlaw. She'll be found. And made to pay for what she's done.”
Mitten said nothing, her twitching tail the only indication of her mood. Her silence was enough to make Arkady sweat. An angry feline was something to be feared and once word spread of Tipsy's death to the other warriors, the problem would only get worse. It was a long way from this hut to the gate, with several hundred angry felines between them and safety.
“Back off!” Jaxyn warned.
To Arkady's amazement, the Crasii lowered the lantern, bowing her head in acquiescence. “Forgive me, my lord.”
“Now thank the duchess for her concern,” Jaxyn ordered. “And for her consideration in coming all this wayâin the middle of a dinner partyâto see to a mere slave.”
“Thank you, your grace. We appreciate your sacrifice and I'm sure you'll see to it that Boots is made to pay.”
“Now leave,” Jaxyn added. “And tell your friends out there to return to their quarters.”
Without question, the feline did as the young man ordered, her tail twitching violently as she left the tiny hut, taking the lantern with her. Arkady stared at Jaxyn in the gloom, not sure what disturbed her mostâhis arbitrary orders or the fact that the Crasii had followed them without question.
slaves, Jaxyn,” she reminded him. “You have no right to order them about like that.”
“I'm Kennel Master here, your grace. It's my job to see they behave.” When Arkady said nothing in reply, he shrugged. “I'll just let them attack you next time, shall I?”
“I'm in no danger from the Crasii,” she declared gamely, determined not to let this man think she owed him any favours.
He stared at her thoughtfully for a time, so long that Arkady thought he might argue the point with her, but then the moment passed and he smiled, the sly, facetious Jaxyn she knew so well back in force. “Well, you know them best, your grace. Shall we return to your dinner guests? They must be wondering where we are.”
Cayal woke to the first faint rays of dawn slicing through the darkness in his cell, wondering if his dream had woken him. He couldn't recall the details and didn't want to in any case. Cayal's dreams were something he could well live without.
He sat up slowly, sighing.
Tides, what's it going to take?
Glaeban justice, being what it was, had little interest in the facts, only what
to be the facts. On the face of it, the wainwright from Caelum had attacked and killed seven men without provocation, left seven widows and twenty-six orphaned children, not to mention a village without a leader and seven families without a breadwinner.
His sentence was so predictable Cayal wondered why they'd bothered with the cost of a trial.
But they had and they'd brought him, guilty as charged, here, to the Lebec Prison, fed him a last meal of baked fish, soggy cabbage and foaming ale, and then put a noose around his neck, when by every circumstance imaginable, they should have decapitated him.
The headsman was on
for pity's sake?
Until Cayal repeated his assertion that he was a Tide Lord, it never really occurred to him just how completely his kind had been forgotten. The Warden and the prison guards didn't fall to their knees, as they would have done a thousand years ago. They'd actually laughed at him, even accusing him of trying to fake insanity in order to escape the noose.
If only they knew how he longed for it.
“So the suzerain awakes. Feeling better, are we?”
Cayal looked up at the remark, not sure what surprised him most, the contempt with which it was spoken or the fact that he'd been referred to as a suzerain. The name was an ancient insult, used only among the Crasii, a feeble attempt to spit in the eyes of their masters.
The creature who had uttered the words was leaning against the bars of the cell across the corridor. Although they'd been separated by nothing more than a corridor for several days now, this was the first time the creature had spoken. He was a huge beast, easily six and a half feet tall. His features were human enough at first glance, his dark eyes large and intelligent, his ears pert and pointed, his forearms displaying a disturbingly well-defined musculature lurking beneath his ragged prison shift. He was covered in a fine pelt of brown hair and his fingernails were more claws than nails. A Crasii, then, Cayal decided. One of the canines. He knew the type. Dumb as a plank, strong as an ox and pathetically eager to serve.
Obviously, something this one had forgotten.
“Bow in the presence of your master, gemang.”
“Look around, suzerain. You're not the master here.”
master, Flea-trap,” Cayal responded. “Something you'll never be able to change.”
The Crasii smiled, baring his pointed canines at Cayal. “Don't be too sure of that, suzerain. The Tide can be a long time turning, and you wouldn't be here if it was on the way back.”
Never a truer word was spoken,
Cayal lamented silently. The Crasii was right. It was the long drought caused by the Vanishing Tide that had brought him to this desperate pass and there was still no hint of when the Tide would begin to turn, and with it, his fortunes.
“When it does turn, you'll be on your knees, begging for the scraps from my table, gemang,” he predicted, leaning on the bars to study his companion more closely. He really was a magnificent specimen. From Tryan's kennels, if Cayal guessed correctly. He'd bred his Crasii for their size and strength. “Enjoy your moment of rebellion. It won't last long.”
The Crasii wasn't given a chance to answer. At that moment, several guards rounded the corner of the corridor, shoving a trustee and a water cart ahead of them, yelling at the prisoners to step back from the bars so they could open the cells.
Cayal did as the guards asked, watching the big Crasii across the hall as they shackled his hands and feet, thinking that if he decided to make a break for it, he'd need the Crasii to aid him. Until the Tide turned and Cayal's power with it, he was helpless. Perhaps, with the aid of a beast specifically bred by his kind to serve the Tide Lords, he had a chance of escaping this place.
Then, with luck, he could resume his quest to find a way for a tormented immortal to commit suicide.
Several hours later, with his cell reeking of bleach and clean ticking on his straw-filled mattress for the first time, Cayal suspected, in at least four generations, he lay down to wait for the historian they were sending to interrogate him.
It was gratifying to learn the Warden had taken his claim of being a Tide Lord seriously. Seriously enough that the King's Spymaster had been to see him and now they were sending a historian to speak to him, too.
The Duchess of Lebec herself, no less.
He was surprised they were sending a historian. He'd been expecting a doctor; and one armed with a straightjacket and a vial full of laudanum, at that.
Not that he held much hope any human scholar would be able to verify his claim. And this one was female, to boot. Given the low opinion the men of Glaeba held of educated women, Cayal imagined either this duchess must be some spoiled heiress playing at being an academic to while away the long hours of her leisure timeâwhich was bad enoughâor worse, she took herself seriously and would question him endlessly on facts she had no way of checking.
He wasn't sure which would be more painful.
This Glaeban duchess might well prove a worse torment than the noose.
That was the trouble with hiding for a thousand years. People forgot about you. Or they twisted your story around so much they turned you into a myth; they scorned your very existence until you began to wonder if you were real, or just a figment of your own imagination.
Cayal folded his hands behind his head and closed his eyes, still cursing his own stupidity. It had been foolish to think this might work; sheer lunacy to imagine the Vanishing Tide would release him from his hellish sentence. He'd tried it before, to no avail. And it wasn't as if he didn't have proof of the futility of trying to die. Even with everything they had done to each other over the years, no Tide Lord had yet succeeded in killing another.
But Cayal still hoped for an escape. It amazed him a little that he was still able to do that.
Or maybe not. Before the relentless drudge of immortality had worn him down, Cayal had always been an optimist. Even in the most dire circumstances, he'd always believed things would go his way, sometimes to the point of idiocy. It was a trait he'd brought with him into immortality; something he'd been guilty of long before fate had taken a hand in his future and made it endless.
Perhaps it was with him still. Only an optimist would think it possible for an immortal to find a way to die.
Cayal dozed eventually, something he suspected he would be doing a lot in the coming days and months. There was little else to do in Recidivists' Row. The Glaeban prison system was punitive, not remedial. They made no pretence about reforming criminals here. They were only interested in keeping them off the streets. If the criminals suffered in the process of their incarceration, so much the better.
As he dozed, Cayal dreamed of places long gone and people he could no longer name. Thousands of years of memories vied for his attention when he slept, sometimes coming in broken snatches, other times unravelling with startling clarity, as if he was reliving the moment all over again. Sometimes he couldn't bear to close his eyes. Other times, he sought refuge in sleep. Sometimes faces from his past spoke to him in his dreams. Often he couldn't put a name to them, or even recall how he'd known them.
And some faces had stayed with him through eternity, their memory too strong to fade, even with the passage of endless time.
Today was one of those times. Gabriella came to visit him again. In the back of his mind, Cayal knew she wasn't real. He had known herâloved herâlong before he was made immortal. Gabriella had been his future once. Now she was so far in his past all that remained of her was this infrequently recurring dream.
Nobody alive remembered Gabriella. Only Cayal could recall her long, rich brown hair, her devastating eyes, her flawless fair complexion, her throaty laughter, her stunning body. She was a nobleman's daughter and if the fine weave of her clothing hadn't given that much away, her bearing certainly did. She was proud, Gabriella wasâproud and tall and beautiful. A fit consort for a prince.
And she knew it, too.
Gabriella spoke to him in words he couldn't make out. Cayal wasn't sure he wanted to hear what she had to say, anyway. They had not parted friends. Gabriella's promise to stand by him through adversity and pain until the end of time had lasted right up until the first time Cayal found himself in serious trouble.
But he missed her in his dreams. Or the idea of her, at least. Cayal remembered that much. He remembered what it was to be in love, to love and be loved. He lamented the loss of it, even if the memory left a bitter taste in his mouth that eight thousand years of distance had never been able to completely dispel.
Maybe that's the true torment of immortality?
To be tortured by the memory of true love while knowing it will forever elude you.
Longing can be more painful than grief, if it never ends.
Was that what Gabriella was saying to him? Her lips were moving, those luscious, soft lips he remembered so well, almost as well as he remembered how her lithe, naked body had felt in his arms, her soft breast, the taste of her skin, the moist warmth of her forbidden placesâ¦
And then he was jerked rudely out of his dream by a loud metallic banging. Cayal's eyes flew open and he turned his head, his vision colliding with reality as he looked at herâ¦standing on the other side of the barsâ¦Gabriellaâ¦the same hair, the unmistakable bearingâ¦
He met her eyes and stared, dumbstruckâ¦
And then the guard banged his truncheon against the bars again and Cayal realised he'd been dreaming. This wasn't Gabriella. He was in a Glaeban prison for murdering Rindova's butcher and his six stupid brothers. And when he looked at her more closely, stunning though she was, other than the same hair colour, this woman was nothing like his long-dead lover.
This was the Duchess of Lebec.
And simply by the way she was staring at him, Cayal realised she wasn't here to help him. She was here to prove he was a madman.