No one saw it coming.
Even though we’d expected the ambush, it was executed so perfectly that my escort didn’t have a chance to retaliate. From inside the carriage I heard the swish of loosed arrows, the grunts of the men struck, the beginning of a few shouts and the hiss of swiftly drawn swords before more loosed arrows whistled through the air…after which there were no more shouts, no more drawn weapons…only the thuds of fallen guards and the ominous pounding of approaching feet.
When the carriage door crashed open and a filthy, bearded brigand climbed inside, a high-pitched scream escaped Marilyn, the young lady’s maid accompanying me. His head jerked toward her and he leered as he snagged her skirts and used them to haul her across the seat toward the door. At the last instant some instinct of self-preservation surfaced and she grabbed hold of the window as if it were her savior, tears streaking down her cheeks and incoherent prayers spilling from her lips. Her shrieking escalated into wild hysteria when the outlaw threw himself on her, his hands groping at her bodice.
It was now or never.
I unsheathed my dagger and sunk it into the fleshy cheek of his upended butt. He reared back with a yelp of pain before I could withdraw the weapon and fell halfway across the seat with blood flowing down his backside and my blade firmly embedded in his arse. The blood didn’t deter me – I’d seen enough of it during my training to be inured to its horror, and I dropped to my knees beside the writhing man, caught hold of the dagger’s hilt and yanked it out just as another bandit leaned inside and grabbed me around the waist. I kicked and flailed as he dragged me out of the carriage and hurled me to the ground.
The breath flew from my lungs as I slammed against the hard, rutted dirt road, but I didn’t need my breath to swipe my bloody knife at the sneering, gap-toothed bastard’s hand when he stretched it out to grab me. With the roar of a wounded animal he recoiled, clutching the deep gash on his forearm, and I gave him a feral smile that invited him to try again.
But this was no time for gloating.
I scrambled to my feet, my momentary victory congealing like cold lard in my gut as I realized that I was surrounded on all sides by reeking, hulking criminals with evilly narrowed eyes and lecherous grins. I lashed out at one who dared approach, sending him skittering back with a grazed neck, and then I struck out at another one lunging from the opposite side. I was hopelessly outnumbered, but the months of training kept me calm and cool-headed. Every movement must count, every ounce of energy I had must be conserved.
I sent two more lurching back when they attacked simultaneously. Marilyn screamed from inside the carriage, and the sound of ripping material tore through the air. It covered the footfalls of an outlaw slinking up behind me, and only the rasp of his foot across a rock alerted me to his advance. I spun around.
Muscular, hairy arms clamped around me. “I’ve never had a princess before,” his malicious voice rasped in my ear, and shock at hearing my own language coming from his lips paralyzed me for the merest instant.
I had expected to hear Deminian, not Ulinian…
Then I heard Marilyn sobbing inside the carriage and jerked myself out of my daze to swing back with the dagger, burying it in the flesh of my assailant’s enormous thigh. He grunted but didn’t release me, so I twisted the blade in his leg. With a keening cry and a vile curse, he flung me to the ground. As I scrabbled to raise myself, another outlaw kicked my wrist, sending the dagger skittering several feet away. The closest brigand went to straddle me but I’d recovered enough to kick him in his tenders, and he hunched over with a groan.
I pushed myself up again, but before I could gain my feet, three bandits attacked at once, two seizing my hands and one throwing himself across my legs. I screamed and spat expletives unworthy of a princess and fought like a wildcat…to no avail.
At least it took five of them to finally pin me to the ground, I thought with a vague sense of satisfaction.
Then came a soft, deadly voice.
“Let her go.”
The men restraining me froze, then their holds loosened and fell away and they all backed up slowly, the fear etched in their faces a bizarre sight on men as colossal as they were.
I didn’t question the phenomenon. Freed, I rolled over and crawled rapidly toward my blade, my one hope in this hopeless situation…but just as I stretched out a hand to snatch it, a black boot came down right over it. I stilled, staring, and felt the first stirrings of fear.
I forced myself to look up, past black boots, black pants and a black vest to meet glacial blue eyes.
He didn’t look like the rest of the men in his ragged band. He wasn’t quite as tall as his towering giants, but his slender figure and something menacing in his mien made him appear so; he was clean-shaven, revealing cruel lips drawn into a pitiless line; his skin was flawless and smooth, without a single scar to mar it, as if no battle, no foe had ever touched him; and his eyes, such a pale blue they were almost colorless…there was absolutely nothing in his eyes, not a trace of humanity, not a glint of mercy.
His frigid blue eyes and long silver hair, shimmering and unrelentingly straight, told me everything.
The king’s spies had been right.
No matter the nationality of the men in his band, their leader was without a doubt Deminian, which meant that, as had been expected, the Deminian king meant to stop the wedding – to prevent Ulinia and Nuren from uniting and force Ulinia to form an alliance with Demin.
That was why they’d attacked my escort: to abduct me and force King Alenso to draw up new betrothal contracts.
I cringed inside, knowing the outcome already. It would never happen. And when the brigands’ leader realized it, he would kill me.
Get up, some part of me snapped, annoyed at the self-pity threatening to cripple me. Get up! You’re Princess Alynah. You grovel before no one!
I pushed myself to my feet and lifted my chin as haughtily as I could, glaring up into his unmoving face and wondering what to say. How dare you attack my escort was just ridiculous. What do you want was kind of redundant, since we both knew the purpose of the game. And You bastard was inadvisable, as it would do nothing but antagonize him.
“You lowly, detestable bastard!” I hissed. “Who do you think you are?”
A unreadable flicker flashed in his eyes and he executed a mocking bow, his silver hair briefly obscuring his face. “You may call me Kirian, princess.” Then a strange look passed across his face and he stretched his hand out, pausing briefly when I flinched back. A moment later he took a loosed strand of my red-gold hair into his fingers, twining it between thumb and forefinger. “Such a remarkable color,” he murmured, almost to himself.
Yes, I thought bitterly, And rare. If it hadn’t been for my hair color… I gave myself a mental shake. This was a not path I could tread.
Kirian dropped his hand to grip my upper arm and yank me along beside him. I stumbled, regained my balance and considered struggling, but I knew a losing battle when I saw one, and my goal was to stay alive as long as possible. Who knows, the gods may have pity and provide me a chance to escape. I craned my neck around to look longingly at my knife lying on the ground. Would I have been better off leaving it concealed? That would have meant leaving Marilyn undefended…not that it had helped – only delayed the inevitable, because I could faintly hear her whimpering from inside the carriage.
“Wait!” I cried, dragging against my captor’s grip. “What about my lady’s maid?”
An instant later I wished I hadn’t spoken. There was no use for her to be dragged into this even more than she already had been. If they left her behind, there was a chance at least she would survive this massacre…
But the words had already been voiced and he paused, his cool gaze flicking toward the carriage just as a grinning bandit emerged from it, buttoning up his britches. Sensing his leader’s stare, the man stilled abruptly and looked up, dread creeping across his face.
Kirian nodded toward the carriage. “Kill her.”
“What?” I blurted out. “No! She has nothing to do with this! She’s innocent! Let her live!”
He stilled and stared at me, and a cold wave of premonition surged through my veins.
“You care what happens to a servant?” he inquired softly.
I couldn’t breathe. I would have backed away, but his grip on my arm tightened. I shook my head, any defense I had lying mute on my lips.
He leaned closer. “You beg for the worthless life of another and speak not a word to spare your own?”
I forcibly dragged myself out of my panic and grappled for an explanation. “I would beg on my knees if I believed it would soften my fate,” I began in a trembling voice, “but it would gain me nothing. My life is already…doomed, but hers…”
“Is already forfeit,” he finished without inflection and I twisted round to see the bandit climbing from the carriage and wiping his bloody dagger on his soiled trousers. Guilt stabbed me in the heart. Why hadn’t I kept my stupid mouth shut? Kirian might have forgotten about Marilyn’s existence…
But he was already dragging me forward again. I smoothed my expression, wiping it free of guilt no princess should feel. As I glanced around at the carnage Kirian’s band had wrought, however, I had to struggle to keep my face empty of the emotion I shouldn’t be feeling. These men had been paid well to die for their country, I reminded myself dully. They had known the risk when they accepted their posts…and to the last they had all perished for their bravery, since Kirian’s men hadn’t left a single one alive. Seventy-five guards and one innocent lady’s maid, dead in Demin’s pursuit of stopping a political alliance that could not be stopped. How many more would die after it was made?
Only one thing was certain. I would be the first.
Kirian called forward a youth and handed him a message.
A message no doubt informing the king of Ulinia that I had been captured and outlining the demands he would have to meet to get me back.
I watched the boy eagerly climb onto a black mare and ride away. As of this moment, my days on this earth were numbered, because when that boy returned with news…or whenever the truth came out, Kirian would kill me.
He lifted me up on his horse and mounted behind me, then his men followed suit, and within seconds we were on our way along a forest path I could not see.
My only hope of survival now was to keep my wits about me and escape at the earliest opportunity…though the sinister fact that Kirian hadn’t even bothered binding my wrists undermined my confidence. He seemed far too sure that there was nowhere I could go even if I did get away, which made me wonder if there was something out there I didn’t know about. Outriders, probably, I guessed. More of his men skulking on the fringes of the greenery around us, perhaps even silver-haired Deminians known for their battle madness.
I glanced speculatively at the scruffy Ulinians riding around us. Why had they betrayed their country, their princess? For money? Were they so easily bought? Could I turn them back to our side?
“Don’t even think about it,” Kirian whispered in my ear. “They were chosen not only for their bitter hatred of Nuren, but of their own country…and of your father.”
“They wouldn’t hurt me,” I declared with more confidence than I felt. “I’m innocent in all this!” A lie if ever I’d spoken one.
He chuckled mirthlessly. “They would kill you in an instant if not for me.”
It might well come to that if I fumble my escape, I retorted in my mind, but aloud I said nothing, just took in as much of my surroundings as I could, looking out for any opportunity to escape.
It came sooner than I expected, because after ten minutes had passed, the horses were forced to walk single file along a small ledge on a steep gorge that was cut in half by a swiftly flowing river.
I looked down at the surging waters about twenty meters below. What were my chances of survival jumping from this height? At this point none, because there was too wide a strip of rocky beach below us, but as I looked ahead I noticed that the river flowed right up against the rock-face, and the path descended somewhat so the distance I would be falling would be slightly decreased.
I forced myself to relax.
Breathe evenly! I ordered myself. Inhale, exhale, slowly, steadily…
I let myself slump a little against Kirian’s black vest, feeling the warmth of the exposed skin of his chest seeping through to my back.
Inhale, exhale, slowly, steadily…
We were almost there. I just barely kept my body from tensing. I would only have one chance – if I failed, Kirian would make sure I’d not get another.
And then we were there. I shoved Kirian’s hand over my head and slid off the saddle under his arm – just narrowly missing his grab as I landed on the narrow ledge and awkwardly launched myself off it. I went hurtling through the air toward the rushing waters of the river below, the wind shrieking in my ears like a scream of triumph.
Free! I was free!
If I survived the fall.
I hit the water, sinking deep and struggling to get back to the surface as the current seized me and hauled me downstream. Fortunately part of my defense training had been learning how to swim, not a common skill in any kingdom, and I broke the surface just as my lungs were about to burst. Drawing in deep, gasping breaths, I almost didn’t hear the splash behind me.
I dared to twist around and look…
Kirian surfaced not three meters behind – and it didn’t look like he was in any danger of drowning.
Damn my luck. I turned back around and started swimming in smooth, powerful strokes, cursing the skirts that kept tangling around my ankles. I scanned the banks but both sides of the canyon were still too steep and high. I prayed it wouldn’t last too long before the cliffs gave way to low woodland, at least on one side. I might be able to lose him—
He caught my leg and pulled, my scream cut off as he yanked me underwater. I started kicking and flailing as hard as I could, but my movements were hampered by the river. He grabbed me by the collar and heaved me up so my head broke the surface and I could suck in a breath.
“Stop fighting!” he shouted.
“Never!” I struck him square in the jaw with my fist, but his hold on my arm didn’t loosen. I kicked at his shins but he grabbed my hair, twined it round his palm and shoved me underwater again. I thrashed about until he dragged me back up.
“Had enough yet?”
My answer was another blow that didn’t hit its mark because he thrust me back under. But I still refused to yield, and again and again I tried and failed to hit him. By the seventh time he pulled me out I was feeling faint, my lungs were burning, and tears of powerlessness streamed down my cheeks. I hung limply in his hold, conceding temporary defeat. I couldn’t fight if I couldn’t catch my breath.
He started towing me toward the bank, and when I noticed the thick greenery, my senses revived and my waning strength rallied – this was another chance.
I pretended to be helpless and weak – not that I had to act much, because my tortuous sojourn in the river had taken its toll – until he pulled me into the forest, then I grasped a fallen branch about as thick around as my wrist and whacked it as hard as I could against his shoulder and part of his skull. He grunted and loosed my arm and I was on my feet in an instant and running as fast as I could in my heavy, sodden skirts, navigating the treacherous terrain with its sprawling vines and raised, knotty roots. Every stumble stole another slice of precious time.
His footsteps pounded behind me, closer…closer.
It was no use. Fleeing was not an option.
I whipped around and swung the branch again – he stumbled back, just barely dodging it.
I swung again, changing direction mid-swing and bringing it cracking against his knee. He staggered under the strike and I used the slight reprieve to bash him in the jaw – regrettably only a glancing blow because he jerked his head back to avoid the full brunt of impact. Droplets of water flew from his silver hair like crystalline gemstones glittering in the sudden sunlight that broke through the trees. Though he was as dripping wet as I was, he didn’t have so much excess clothing weighing him down. Even my sleeves sapped my strength, and my movements seemed slow and clumsy compared to his quick agility.
I swung again but he caught the stick and jerked. I twisted and ducked as I fell forward, sweeping under the branch and wrenching it from his grip as I came out behind him.
He spun around and flashed me an undaunted grin while easily eluding my next blow.
“I see the rumors that they were training you were true, princess,” he remarked with a cocksure smirk, “but I don’t think your stick can hold its own against steel.” And he drew his sword.
I skittered back and spun around to flee again, but he was on me in an instant. The branch was ripped from my grasp and I was lifted into the air. I twisted around and resorted to dishonorable fighting by tooth and nail, biting, tearing, pulling his silver hair, scratching, kicking, until he pitched me against a tree trunk so fiercely that my head cracked and I slumped to the forest floor, stunned into temporary paralysis.
He picked up his dropped sword, sheathed it and knelt beside me, his face grim and some strange sort of bitter regret in his icy blue eyes. He gripped my chin, his touch almost gentle, and tilted my dazed head up to face him. “Why do you fight so hard, princess?” he asked curiously. “I promise you no harm will befall you if you just bow to your fate.”
I curled my lip in a contemptuous sneer and tried unsuccessfully to jerk my chin from his grip. “You mean marry your king, the Demon of Demin?” my words came out slurred and from a distance and I tried to rally my wits and regain control of my body. “Is that any better a fate than being wed to the Monster of Nuren?”
He frowned and dropped his hand. “The Nurenan people made our king what he is. They wrecked his mind when they held him captive for three years of his adolescence. He is cruel, but there will be attendants and guards to ensure—”
“—to ensure he doesn’t kill me before I give the kingdom an heir,” I finished bitterly.
“To ensure you are not harmed,” Kirian amended firmly, though I could see he didn’t believe his own words. “In Demin, it’s true that you face the mastery of one, but you will be in the midst of many others who will strive to safeguard you; but in Nuren you face the cruelty of an entire nation. There will be no friends, no guardians for you there, no shields between you and the monster that rules them. They revel in the pain of others – to them, you would be but a toy to be mutilated and broken.”
I closed my eyes. He was right. The Nuren were a violent people who did not believe in weakness – anything that wept or yielded or showed compassion was obliterated, and the king of Nuren was evil incarnate – but that was not my fate. My fate was closing around me like a steel trap.
I tried to climb to my feet but slumped back down feebly. I was weary and worn out, my endurance nearly at its end, scraped raw by the growing fear that I wouldn’t escape in time.
Kirian leaned down and picked me up and I had no strength to protest. When we reached a small clearing, he carefully propped me against a tree trunk and tied me to it with a damp rope extracted from the provisions satchel slung across his shoulder. So he hadn’t gone off the ledge unprepared, I thought resentfully.
As I watched moodily, he laid a fire and then disappeared into the forest, returning shortly with two small rabbits and a squirrel. As he started to expertly skin them, my abdomen started to cramp, reminding me that I hadn’t emptied my bladder for hours.
Kirian resolved that by releasing me from the tree and retying one end of the rope around my wrists, binding them singly but close enough together that I couldn’t reach the knots. He kept the other end of the rope firmly in his fist.
“You have to the count of a hundred,” he warned me, “then I’m coming after you.”
Glaring and spitting insults would have been a waste of time, so I simply nodded irately and spun around to stalk into the forest. With both my wrists bound so closely together, it was more awkward than usual, but I managed to do the deed in the time allotted and return just as he was standing up to come find me.
Seeing me, he nodded and sat back down on a fallen log he’d dragged close to the fire and continued to roast the rabbits and squirrel on a makeshift spit. I sat down on the log as far away from him as I could and watched the cooking meat. My mouth started to water as the juices started to run, making the fire hiss, and the savory aroma wafted into the air. The last time I’d eaten had been this morning, and I’d hardly been able to force a single morsel down, my entrails too knotted with knowledge of what was to come…and what had now come. But I was hungry now, and I needed to replenish my strength somehow.
I ate ravenously, like a woman starved, consuming the entire rabbit Kirian handed me and even swallowing some of the water-logged bread he offered. We shared the squirrel and I ate it more slowly, able to appreciate what was certainly one of my last meals.
Kirian offered me his water skin and I gratefully took a gulp of the refreshing liquid. Then he dug a silver flask out of his pack and held it out silently.
“What’s that?” I asked suspiciously. “Some kind of potion to render me insensible?”
He smiled faintly. “Not exactly.” Then he pulled out the stopper and took a swig. “See?” He held it out again. When I still hesitated, he added quietly, “You’ve had a hard day. This will soothe you, I promise.”
Still I vacillated. While one part of me longed desperately for something to calm my frayed nerves, to dull my awareness of what was yet to come, the sensible part enjoined me to keep my wits intact and undimmed, and anything that would persuade me to let down my guard was counterproductive to my aim to break away from this mess.
“You’re not going to get away from me again,” Kirian vowed uncompromisingly, still holding the flask like a peace offering between us. “You’ll gain nothing by refusing except a body wracked with anxiety.”
I reached out and clasped the container, careful not to touch the fingers he had curled around it, and I took a cautious sip – and coughed as the liquid burned a path down my throat.
He chuckled softly. “Not used to spirits, are you, princess?”
I shook my head and returned the flask. “Not used to spirits swilled by commoners,” I corrected with a touch of scorn, recalling who and what I was. A princess. Above the humdrum and trite.
His lips tightened and he downed another swig, passing the flagon back to me. “Are you always such pleasant company?” he inquired sarcastically.
I took another sip. This time it went down easier and welcome warmth spread through my stomach, even that tiny bit of life rousing my acerbic tongue. “Oh, am I supposed to be agreeable and amusing when I’m only a pawn to be sacrificed?” I shot back irritably, taking another gulp of the alcohol before giving it back to Kirian. I was starting to feel giddy a lightheaded. I gestured at him and sneered in disdain. “At least you have your freedom – you can choose your own fate…your own partner – you have your own life ahead of you. You could even run from the coming war if you so desired!”
For war was indeed coming. Nuren was only waiting for Ulinia to fall under its power, then it would make its move against Demin – and Demin would retaliate with the brutal ferocity it was known for. Ulinia would be caught in the middle, forced to fight, forced to die. It would be a bloodbath.
Kirian’s knuckles paled where they gripped the flask. “Is that what you believe? That I could just walk away? Do you know what Nurenans did to my parents, my sister, my aunt and uncles? Do you know what they did to me?”
“You are still alive!” I retorted. “You’re not held captive like I am! You cannot deny that you have a choice where I have none!” I scooted closer and grabbed the flask from his hand. If he wasn’t going to drink it, he could damn well let me. With each swallow I felt wilder, more liberated, almost invincible.
“Yes, I had a choice,” Kirian said heavily. “And I chose this mission because I believe it’s a worthy one. The alliance must be stopped. Otherwise Ulinia will be clay in the hands of the Nurenans – the weak will be annihilated, the strong roped into slavery. Do you think a trite marriage contract will convince them to leave your culture intact and unaccosted? Especially when you leave the borders open and unguarded for them to invade? Do you know how many of your countrymen, countrywomen…how many children would die if your marriage was allowed to transpire?”
Yes, I knew well, and I also knew he couldn’t stop it. I took a deep swig of the flask. Whatever was inside was powerful stuff. I felt a bit hysterical, and a bit exhilarated. Though deep down I knew it was an illusion, a false promise that could never be kept, I wanted to be swept away into its happy oblivion.
He jerked it out of my hand and grabbed my wrist to drag me closer, thrusting his face close to mine. “Do you know how many would die?” he snarled.
“Yes!” I cried, trying to wrench my hand from his grip, although my head was spinning. His frigid blue eyes bore into mine and his gray hair and youthful face imparted him with an odd sense of agelessness. He was the young and the old, the powerful and the weak all merged into one body. I started to laugh a bit madly at the absurd notion. “I know that many will die, but what do I care – I won’t be here to see it!”
“I told you—”
“Lies! All lies! No one can protect me! Don’t you see?” But he couldn’t see, I recalled vaguely – if anything he thought my worst fear was that the demonic Demin king would kill me. He didn’t know that he was in the middle of a larger game…and that he was on the losing side. I subsided and tried to regain my wits before I accidentally divulged the truth, because I wanted to be on his side. In my heart I was on his side…on the losing side.
And such a betrayal of my country was not allowed.
You are Princess Alynah, I recited sternly to myself, hearing the chancellor’s disapproving voice in my head. One day you will be queen of Ulinia, and as such you must command respect. That means you do not weep in front of peasants. You do not allow emotion to cloud your senses. You never show compassion to the unworthy.
You never reveal state secrets to the enemy.
Kirian’s hand tightened slightly around my wrist, pulling me imperceptibly closer. His ice blue eyes seared into mine. “Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps the rumors of the king are exaggerated?” he asked.
“There’s not much to exaggerate about death!” I retorted, thinking of how many deaths the Demin king had on his conscience…if he even had a conscience anymore.
“Perhaps they deserved it.” Kirian released his grip on my wrist and dropped his hand to his lap, offering me the flask again. “But I can promise you this: the Deminians will protect you with their life,” he vowed solemnly. “I will protect you with my life, for I am one of the men charged with protecting you.”
I accepted the flask and drank deeply and gratefully, tears burning at the back of my eyes at Kirian’s reassuring words…what might otherwise have been a meager comfort to a hopeless soul. As it was, they were hollow and worthless, the mere mirage of a sparkling spring that you know will disappear before you can ever reach it. Kirian would never shelter me because I would never marry the Demon of Demin. They would know the truth before the ceremony could ever take place.
“Of course,” he added with a small curve of his lips, “Having seen you fight, you might not even need protecting.”
For some reason that struck me as incredibly funny, and a giggle escaped. When Kirian slanted me an odd look, I lurched to my feet.
He was beside me in an instant with his hand clenched around my upper arm. I snickered again and swallowed more of the mysterious brew. The feeling of being detached from all the depression and doom of the future was gradually resurfacing. “A bit paranoid, aren’t you?” I held up my wrists and raised my eyebrows. “Or have you forgotten my chains?”
“I haven’t forgotten your training,” he said grimly.
“It obviously isn’t good enough,” I pointed out with a sniff, “because you had no trouble subduing me.” I paused, my heart beating as I saw another opportunity, however minute. “I want you to teach me more,” I requested simply before I could change my mind.
This time it was his turn to chuckle, and the fleeting pleasure made him look youthful. “Do you think me daft? You’re lethal enough as it is.”
I continued stubbornly, “You know the Demon of Demin. You’ve seen him fight. If you’re charged with shielding me from him, then you must know what tricks he uses. Teach me how to survive against him.” Something you show me may come in useful later, I thought cunningly to myself. It might just save my life.
He wavered, but my argument was sound, and he knew the knowledge could only benefit me. His goal wasn’t to kill me…not yet, anyway.
“Please,” I beseeched him. “These might be the last days of my—,” I just barely caught myself before saying “life” and finished, “freedom.”
He stared at me wordlessly for a long while, then surprisingly capitulated and untied my wrists.
I didn’t bother hiding my exhilaration, though it was an interesting session, considering I was already a bit tipsy and some of his maneuvers inexplicably made me burst into giggles. I pointed out that some of his squatting positions were particularly vulgar. His exasperation only added to the hilarity of the entire situation.
And then I heard it.
A Takiti bird.
I froze, knowing it must be a Takiti even though I’d never heard one before, because the song drifting through the treetops was lovely and complex, its own orchestra playing its own waltz.
I must have looked a bit dumbstruck, because Kirian shrugged and asked, “You’ve never heard a Takiti before?”
I smiled sadly. “I’m from the city and they live only deep in the forest. I’ve only heard legends. Most people don’t even know they exist. I never thought to hear one.” I closed my eyes, listening to the clear, haunting melody. “I’ve heard that more will join in if they know you’re listening,” I added a bit wistfully.
“That’s not true.”
My eyes flew open and I looked at him, his silver hair limned by firelight, glimmering like molten diamonds. He had a strange expression on his face.
“More join in if they know you’re dancing to their song,” he clarified.
I stared at him and he lifted his hands in a silent invitation. The movement was almost like an unfinished enchantment, waiting for me to complete it. Almost unconsciously I stepped into his arms, and he swept me into a dance unlike any I’d ever danced before. The leaves of the forest rustled under our feet in comforting whispers, and some of the tension burdening me these past months drained away.
Then another Takiti joined in and my shocked gaze flew to Kirian, who smiled secretively. He whirled me across the clearing, faster and faster, circling around the fire that gilded both his pale skin and his silver hair gold. Then another Takiti added its song to the ensemble, and another and another, until their voices soared all around us, filling the sky, the clearing, every single one in perfect, marvelous harmony. Each second another join in, their beautiful melody swelling and intensifying until it infused the air with near palpable elation and brushed warmth and wonder across my skin.
I started to laugh, and it felt so good that it was like a drug. I threw my head back and laughed even more, while Kirian spun me around and around until I felt as if I were flying, my feet scarcely grazing the ground as birdsong surged all around us, embracing my heart, my soul, uplifting and joyous, exultant.
It was the most beautiful experience of my life; all the suffering I’d been through, all I had still to undergo, it was all worth this one single moment. Everything slid away, leaving me a burning flame in the center of the forest; I could illuminate the whole world if only it turned its head my way.
I have no idea how long we danced; I only know that it was much later when we collapsed by the dwindling fire to look up at the stars. He seemed to have forgotten we were enemies – and I seemed to have forgotten the same thing. We talked of nothing and of everything, of youth and age, of joys and pains, of loves and hates. It seemed that nothing was taboo and he seemed as fascinated with my narration as I was with his. It was hardly surprising, as we were from completely different cultures, our lives a world apart even as we lived side by side, our countries bordering one another. It utterly beguiled me that though we were from such disparate backgrounds, we seemed so alike, as if for this night our minds melded in some sort of unity.
Underneath my joy, however, there was an undercurrent of sobriety and caution that kept me from speaking my true thoughts. I said nothing at all to give myself away, didn’t let slip even the slightest clue. They had trained me too well for me to do something so foolish even by accident; it was second nature to me by now to keep their schemes and the truth behind an impassible brick wall. Even intoxicated in a haze of delight, I said only what I knew I could reveal.
Despite that, I wanted to tell him the truth. I longed for it with my whole being, with my entire soul. I wanted to blurt out my truth, my desires. I wanted to pour out my opinions, to finally speak aloud those words that a Ulinian princess should never speak: that I didn’t want the alliance between Ulinia and Nuren any more than Kirian and the Deminians did. I wanted to tell him that I was worthless to him, only a disposable pawn in a much larger scheme that had already been set into motion, but I couldn’t…because if I did, my family would die.
It’s a strange phenomenon, that. You know what the right choice is, know it deep in your heart, but still you can’t make it…can’t voice the reality that will condemn your family to death. Even to save hundreds of thousands of people, you cannot say a simple three words…cannot bring yourself to sacrifice a handful of loved ones to save a country of strangers.
And so my mouth talked of things safe and laughable and I responded to Kirian’s shrewd remarks with mirth and my own cunning observations.
When we finished off the flask, he rolled over and rummaged around in his bag to extract another one.
“Please, no more!” I begged with a helpless laugh.
“This is the last one, I swear,” he promised with an irresistible, lopsided grin. He unstoppered it and held it out invitingly.
I took it with a conspiratorial grin unworthy of a princess and jested, “You still won’t get my secrets.” And I took a deep swallow.
Liquid and swirling, it slid easily down my throat. Kirian retrieved the flask, replaced the stopper and set it on the log beside him.
I lay back and watched the glorious glimmering of multicolored stars above us. I knew they really weren’t multicolored, but everything this night seemed to have taken on an element of the fantastical. The silver-haired man beside me seemed to have become the closest friend I’d ever had. The Takitis hummed sleepily in their nocturnal bowers. The fire spread warmth that infiltrated the block of ice in my core I thought would never thaw after they…
I wished this night would never end. I was coming so close to forgetting the sullied truth…and in a while I truly forgot it existed as we resumed our droll conversation where it had left off. I no longer knew what we talked about, nor did I care. I felt like a child again, unburdened by court intrigue, unfettered by responsibility, as if all my secrets had broken free of their bonds and drifted up to the stars, unable to touch me anymore…distant, no longer belonging to me, but to some other, higher entity altogether. I relinquished them gladly, wishing I could relinquish my guilt as easily.
And, much later, I finally slept.
I woke mounted on Kirian’s warhorse, leaning against his back with his arms around me holding the reins, and his men were deployed about us.
It was so like the scene yesterday before I’d leapt off the cliff that I almost wondered if I’d dreamed up the whole episode. The plunge into the river, the struggle with Kirian, the fight onshore, the dance we’d shared…
“Did you sleep well, princess?” Kirian’s softly taunting voice asked low in my ear.
Surprisingly, I had. I felt incredibly well rested. I hadn’t slept so long or so deeply since…
Unless I really had just dreamed up last night. “Did last night—”
“Yes,” he answered before I even finished the question.
“And your men?”
“Joined us last night. They were posted in the forest…just in case you went wandering and got lost,” he added mockingly.
“Fortunately I know my way too well to get lost,” I returned acerbically and lifted a hand to my forehead. “I was drunk out of my mind last night. Why doesn’t my head—”
“Because we don’t use boar’s piss in our ale.”
I stiffened indignantly. “We don’t, either!”
His smile was audible. “No? Can you swear to that? Have you seen what they put in it?”
“I—” I broke off. Brewers were notoriously close-mouthed about their secret recipes.
Kirian’s soft chuckle raised my hackles. “Admit it, princess, Ulinians are notorious for their disgusting ale.”
“And Deminians are notorious for their disgusting bread,” I shot back. He acceded to that truth with good grace and we fell into a good-natured argument about out countries’ respective strengths and weaknesses.
I was a bit unbalanced by the rapport that seemed to have blossomed between us and I knew that as a princess – as a sober princess – I should go back to scorning him and fighting him as I had yesterday, but inwardly I’d already conceded defeat and wanted to enjoy my last few days alive, to pretend that everything would come out right.
Even if I did escape, where would I go? I would be recognized as the Ulinian princess wherever I went, seized by whatever side caught me, and used for its own purposes…and I was hardly trained to live off the forest – a ghastly oversight in my training, I saw now. How had they expected me to survive if I escaped…
They didn’t expect me to survive, I answered my own question. I was disposable.
We stopped for a meal a couple hours after high noon and Kirian disappeared for a while.
That was when I saw that he’d been right.
The only thing that had kept his men from killing me was him.
Nearly before he was out of sight, the largest of the bunch, a man with a bushy black beard and small, cruel black eyes, rose slowly to his feet and cracked his neck, taking a threatening step toward me.
“What are you doing?” I asked, rising warily to my feet.
He grinned and stepped nearer.
“Stay back,” I ordered, going rigid and drawing my pomposity around me like a cloak.
“Ooh,” the black-bearded one sneered. “The little high-born bitch thinks she can order us around, boys!”
I glanced around. The others were slowing rising to their feet, as well, anticipation making them seem demonic.
Evidently princessly authority held no sway here and would only antagonize them more.
I tried a different tack. “Kirian—”
“Think he will save you?” taunted Blackbeard. “He has more reason to hate you than the rest of us. Your father was the one betrayed him and his family up to the Nurenans.”
Three lunged at once, and my training took over. I had been trained for this, even with multiple men, and my arms and legs moved automatically…but as I fought Kirian’s men, I realized that the Ulinians I had fought back at the castle had been too easy on me. None of them had truly wanted to harm their princess. Though they had been ordered to have no mercy and to strike me with full force, to attack without hesitation, they had still been too lenient, afraid they would injure the girl they were sworn to protect.
But they had caused me the greatest injury by sparing me, because they’d left me utterly unprepared against these men, who didn’t want to just hurt me, but to kill me.
I fought well, to the best of my desperate ability, but it was too little and inevitably I went sprawling on the ground, sore and aching and believing my backbone shattered.
I lay there unable to move for sheer agony, coughing and winded, and heavy footfalls announced someone’s approach.
But what could I do?
Blackbeard hauled me to my feet – my back against his barrel chest – and gripped me under the chin to twist my neck…but suddenly I was knocked aside and Kirian’s sword slid into Blackbeard’s gut, buried to the hilt in his round belly, and the force of Kirian’s impetus lifted the bandit completely off his feet.
Kirian planted his foot on the brigand’s belly and pushed, withdrawing his blade as the body slid off it and sunk to the ground. Blackbeard lay panting his last as Kirian glared at the others in challenge, his straight silver hair in disarray around his narrow face and his expression hard and pitiless.
“No one touches her.” His pale eyes impaled each one in turn. “No one.”
Everyone remounted in sullen silence and within minutes we were on our way again.
Kirian said nothing and I had naught to say, either, my back still aching from my beating and my thoughts in turmoil. He had saved me…given me a reprieve for another few days perhaps, but in the end he would turn that sword against me.
Soon, however, I couldn’t even care. The journey was long and grueling on one such as me unused to long hours in the saddle, and by evening my energy was flagging and I was nearly fainting in the saddle, only Kirian’s arms keeping me from falling off.
Food revived me somewhat, so I was a bit more alert by the time Kirian pulled out a large flagon of the same brew he’d shared with me last night and started passing it around. When it came to me I almost didn’t drink, the idea of putting my lips where his men’s lips had been being slightly repellant to me, but then I caught sight of their hostile glowers, their expectation that I would refuse because I was so much higher than they, and I forced myself to take a deep swallow.
A few grinned. More sneered. Some ignored me completely. After another two rounds I was having a lively discussion with the men beside me. After yet another two I was laughing at some of their jokes. After another three they were laughing at mine. After another couple we were all trying to outtalk one another, and outboast. I was sure I could beat any of them in one-on-one combat, and they were more than willing to meet my challenge...but Kirian's example of Blackbeard this afternoon was still fresh in their minds. When he did nothing to stop them, however, only shrugged as if to say "You kill her, it's your neck", they threw caution aside and accepted the dare. So, swaying and giddy with good humor, we began.
I actually did pretty well for myself in the first fray; having a man nearly thrice your girth charging you does wonders for sobering you up quickly. I beat him mainly by luck, but it was enough to gain a bit of respect from some of the men. Another came after him, probably the smallest of the lot but still quite a bit larger than me, and either he hadn’t drunk as much as I had, or else he held his liquor better, because he was quick and sly and had me pinned to the ground in a depressingly few short seconds. In a generous mood after his victory, he complied when I asked him to show me how he’d done it. When I tried it on one of the others and actually succeeded in pinning him to the ground before he could throw a single punch, a few of Kirian’s men even slapped me on the back in congratulations.
By the time they rolled out their pallets, I felt as if I finally saw what it was that they wanted from their rulers. It wasn’t something I’d ever thought about before because it was of no interest to me – and it should hold no interest now, but understanding it made it seem like a victory even though it wasn’t my battle to fight.
They wanted their king to live among them, not to rise above them and command from lofty heights. They wanted him to understand their plight, not to create it. Perhaps it was common sense, I told Kirian as he tied my hands together and bound the rope to his wrist, then lay down beside me, but it was common sense that wasn’t taught to kings or princesses.
When I fell silent, Kirian murmured, “Do you hear them?”
I did. The Takitis. They were faint but growing louder, bringing back the magic of the night before.
“Are they following us?” I whispered.
Was he jesting or not?
“Why?” I ventured.
I could hear the laughter in his voice when he answered. “Apparently they liked our dance.”
It was such an absurd answer that I giggled, and as the Takitis gathered round to sing their nightly lullaby, I fell asleep with a smile on my lips.
I was finally starting to live…just a few days before I was doomed to die.
The next day went much the same, only without Kirian’s men trying to kill me. Kirian set the same grueling pace, stopping even less often than the day before. We were still passing through the forest and the land was becoming flatter, but that could mean anything: either that we were heading toward the Demin interior, or back to Ulinia. I doubted we were going further into Nuren, although even that was possible. The Great Forest dug deeply into all three countries.
I could only guess that the Deminian king had ordered his army to gather on the small stretch where the three countries bordered one another in readiness for attack in case the alliance was actually made. King Alenso had gone ahead and was ironing out the few last betrothal arrangements with the Monster of Nuren, and it was hard to say where he was right now, if he had already started heading back to Ulinia or not.
That evening Killian’s men and I started our challenges early, even before the drinking. Drunk, they had been difficult to best. Sober, they were nearly impossible to best. They weren’t stupid by any means – Kirian had chosen his men well – and most caught on to my usual moves with devilish quickness; that, however, merely forced me to think faster on my feet and become in turn even more unpredictable. Plus, having watched them, I had a new cache of moves to choose from. We would naturally alternate so that no one fought too long without a rest, and everyone rooted for their favorite. Kirian took obvious pleasure in claiming me as his personal favorite and made a great show of paying lost wagers when I failed to perform as expected. He accepted his men’s teasing with a calm smile, and by the end of the evening wiped the grins off all their faces when it turned out that I’d won more fights than anyone else, leaving Kirian the richest winner among them.
The Takitis seemed especially cheerful that night.
The days passed and the men’s respect for me seemed to grow; the camaraderie between us seemingly genuine and not merely cultivated by Kirian’s liquor. I couldn’t tell what Kirian thought of his men’s growing acceptance of me, as he showed no outward sign of it, but he certainly didn’t seem threatened.
After a week had gone by, I almost dared to hope I would survive. Perhaps Kirian’s men – my own countrymen – would join me now, help me escape. We had found time to talk of the kingdom’s problems, and they knew I wanted to improve their lot and the lot of their families. They knew I had their best interests at heart.
They couldn’t know I was lying to them. I was sincere in my desires, even as I was dishonest in my promises. If I could just talk to them in private, I was sure I could turn them to my side…or nearly sure.
As if he’d sensed my thoughts, Kirian spoke. “It seems that you’ve won them over, princess.”
I pressed my lips together. “Does it?” I asked, I hoped without betraying myself.
“But you’ve underestimated them.”
“Have I?” I queried with forced casualness.
“No matter how much they may like and respect you as a person, they won’t ever support the alliance, and if it comes down to following you or me, I will always win. I didn’t choose them for blind loyalty, but for their quick wits, quick minds and quick reflexes, and they well know that no matter your wishes, you’re only a puppet to be manipulated in the Nurenans’ hands and tossed into the rubbish heap when they no longer have a use for you.”
I swallowed…and then, abruptly, the forest ended, and I knew where we were.
As I had surmised, we had followed the Nuren-Ulinia border to where it met Demin.
I could see sentries on the hill and, beyond that, there must have been tens of thousands of Deminians camped.
We were sighted nearly at once; one of the guards on watch dispatched another into the camp.
As we reached the periphery, a man in uniform was already trotting alongside the returning watchman.
“King Kevrik,” the young officer addressed Kirian as he came huffing up to the warhorse, “Welcome back, my lord!”
I went rigid, my blood running cold. Kirian was the Demon of Demin?
He slid off the horse and with an unreadable look grabbed me around the waist and set me on the ground before he turned back to the young man and led him some distance away to speak in hushed tones.
This was it then. The end had finally come.
It didn’t matter that Kirian was Demin’s king. He would still kill me when he found out that this entire abduction was naught but a farce he had been maneuvered into. By now the alliance would have been made and my family released – for however long they would survive under Nuren’s rule.
Now that the moment of truth had come, I felt oddly at peace. There was nothing more I could do. Nothing to stop what would come.
And yet at the same time my entire being was denying it.
I tried to console myself that this past week was enough.
But it wasn’t enough, I cried inside, and I thought I heard a Takiti bird’s melancholy song drift out of the forest – although that was absurd, because they only sang at night.
Kirian – I couldn’t bring myself to think of him as Kevrick – broke away from the officer and stalked over to me, his face empty of all emotion. He came to a stop before me.
Now he would kill me. I braced myself.
He didn’t move.
I waited for him to say it. You’re a decoy. The real princess took a different route…
But he didn’t.
When he spoke, he said something entirely different…and wholly unbelievable. “The alliance has been stopped,” he informed me softly while I could only stare, stunned and uncomprehending.
Stopped? When? How? It had all been planned so meticulously…
“We seized the king on his way back to meet his daughter and had him, his councilors and his officers publicly executed before his army,” Kirian continued evenly, “and the princess was detained and killed in secret when she refused to join us.”
My jaw worked, mouthing words I could not voice. I still couldn’t take in what he was saying.
“You knew I was a decoy?” I forced the words out, scarcely a whisper.
“I’ve known since the first night,” he said without inflection. “I sent orders to my men the next morning to intercept the king and the true princess.”
I blinked, my stomach turning over. “Who…how…” I couldn’t voice the horrible question.
He answered it. “You told me everything.”
I felt hot and cold at once. My fingers clenched and unclenched as if to grasp something that was no longer there. I was having difficulty breathing.
I remembered. The last flask he’d given me. One sip, then he’d stoppered it without drinking any himself. Afterwards I had talked and talked…and didn’t recall a single word of what I’d said. “A truth tincture,” I rasped.
I wished I could collapse, but my body wasn’t that merciful. I stayed brutally conscious and on my feet. “My family?” I asked in a small, choked voice that I hardly recognized as my own.
His expression answered for him, and still I didn’t fall.
“They would have been killed by Nurenans, anyway,” he stated, his voice as quiet as his words were cruel. “You know that as well as I do.”
I started to tremble. I had killed them. Their death had come from my own lips. “Why—” I pressed my hand against my abdomen, trying to breathe. Breathe! I begged my body.
Why should I bother? my mind answered back.
“Why didn’t you kill me?” I gasped out.
He reached out to gently twine a lock of my red gold hair around his finger. “I would think the answer to that would be obvious,” he murmured. “Someone has to take the place of the princess we killed.”
Stopping the Alliance
Sonya Lano |
No one saw it coming.