He pissed himself. Warm urine dribbled down his thighs. A familiar sensation, reminiscent of childhood memories. He tried to ignore the uncomfortable feeling. It was an embarrassing mess for a thirty-year-old.
He’d never felt this afraid in his entire life. Prickled skin, sweaty palms, and now sticky clothing. His knees wobbled as he crouched, quaking in the claustrophobic closet. Elizer Corbéo was trying his damnedest not to knock anything over. To his right, a precarious broom perched against the wall. He was afraid he’d bump it, causing enough noise to alert the intruders. On his left, an assortment of pickled goods was stacked on and below wooden shelving. In glass jars. Touching any of those could be disastrous. With the need to urinate gone, Corbéo found it much easier to prevent himself from moving.
Mother Avani, save me. He wasn’t a pious man, but in that moment, he hoped divine intervention would save him.
Corbéo had further problems developing—the closet was near a fireplace, and the innkeeper had built up the fire moments before the intruders arrived. Corbéo wiped his dripping forehead with the back of his hand. He kept his mind focused on the surrounding disasters within the small interior. He peered through a crack between the ancient wooden sheet—if one could call it a door—and the left side of the wall, his eyes passing over a pile of murdered people. Corbéo’s neck ached from the constant shifting necessary to observe the room. The fingers on his left hand were numb, yet he still rested his hand on the door’s hinge, an action to prevent himself from tipping over.
Drunkard’s Haven, on a normal day, was an obnoxious place to be. The tavern’s innkeeper was a nice enough fellow and offered Corbéo free meals whenever he played his music or sang, or both, to the patrons. The kindness of the staff was another positive. However, most of the guests were often loud and annoying, probably because a bulk of them were manual laborers and entered late in the afternoon, exhausted. Now, most of them lay in pools of blood.
Corbéo remembered when Charity Bang visited him in his rooms, offering a free lay because he attracted extra business for her and the other prostitutes. She was, as her name implied, often the one to take extra care of those who helped the inn out. From his position, he could still see her prone body. She hadn’t moved in many minutes. Pretending to be dead, I hope. He didn’t believe it though. It was a rare person who survived swimming in a lake of their own blood. And he thought he’d spotted some guts, but he’d stopped looking at her. Retching would only give away his location.
Pacing back and forth across the room was the first of two late-night invaders. Thin, cloaked, and walking with a limp, the man had murdered close to twenty people. His only other identifiable trait was his stutter. Corbéo didn’t know anybody with a stutter, so the man was not a local, or if he was, he wasn’t a frequenter of Drunkard’s Haven. He wore a loose cloak with the hood up, and it was impossible to tell anything else about him.
The second man—a fellow Calrite judging by his beige complexion—involved in this horrendous event was bulky with thick arms and legs and didn’t care if anybody recognized him. He sat in a chair to the left of the closet, almost out of view, leaning back on two of its legs with his muddy boots resting atop the oak table and crushing somebody’s half-finished meal. Thin Man called him Caius. He was filing his fingernails with a knife that was dripping blood. Corbéo couldn’t tell if the blood was from Caius’s fingers or one of the two armed guards he’d killed. The rest of the civilians, all unarmed, Thin Man had dealt with. One at a time. Interrogating them before using his powers to kill them.
Other than Corbéo and the intruders, only one other person was still alive—the innkeeper. He was kneeling in the middle of the tavern, hands bound behind his back and tethered to his legs. He was weeping and putting up a sorry fight, not that Corbéo could blame him, but he was sure that wasn’t the right strategy in this situation. When two men waltzed into a tavern full of people and dispatched them without a thought, sobbing would not help.
Thin Man stopped his pacing behind the innkeeper. The bound man tensed, shuddering and whimpering.
“W-w-where is he?” Thin Man’s voice was a low dull growl. The authority he wielded was frightening.
Any other time, a stutter would’ve caused Corbéo a smirk of self-satisfied understanding that he was better than them. Not here, though. And if Corbéo came out of this alive, likely never again.
The innkeeper didn’t answer. He shook and cried. Thin Man reiterated the question, stammering through the W again. The purpose of his visit was to locate somebody. Corbéo couldn’t remember the name; it wasn’t him, so he didn’t care.
He couldn’t help but admire Thin Man. He was impressive. To possess such talent and power over everyone while stuttering was awe-inspiring. Often, something as small as a misplaced freckle could reduce one’s ability for others to accept them. A stutter? Unquestionable. And yet, Thin Man did it. Corbéo could only dream to have that sort of influence over others. Thin Man’s mere presence was terrifying.
“I don’t know who you’re referring to! You’ve already killed everybody in here. Please let me live.” Tears threatened to flood the innkeeper’s cheeks once more.
“I was told that D-D-Doram Quandis was here. Give me his location now, and I will spare what insignificant life you have left.” Thin Man walked around the front of the innkeeper. He dragged a chair over and sat in full view of the prisoner. “He’s a tall, tanned man and has a small p-paunch. Might have an alias. He’s obviously a c-coward, too, or he wouldn’t have left these p-p-p-people to die.”
Corbéo blanched. The description fit him well, but he wasn’t using an alias, nor did he know who Doram Quandis was. He hoped the innkeeper had not noticed where Corbéo hid during the initial attack, or Corbéo assumed he’d inform Thin Man. Corbéo would give anyone up to save his own skin. He didn’t want to die.
Thin Man reached over and used a finger to lift the innkeeper’s face by the chin. Corbéo didn’t see what happened next because Thin Man’s body shifted in the way, but the innkeeper screamed in agony. When Thin Man moved, the innkeeper’s body slumped over, his empty eyes staring in Corbéo’s direction. Smoke rose from the innkeeper’s chest, and a bloody mass extended from his body, ribs poking out. It was as though he exploded from the inside.
Somebody passed by the crack. Corbéo stiffened, hand falling from the hinge, and he held his breath. The closet door was wrenched open in a violent crash, hinges pulling away from the wood, splinters shooting into the air. Corbéo would’ve pissed himself if he had any left.
In front of him stood Caius, a toothy grin on his face. “Well, hello there, little weasel!
Fuck. Corbéo hadn’t been paying attention to him. He’d become distracted by the terror caused by Thin Man.
“Why don’t you come out and play with the adults?” He reached into the closet and extracted Corbéo by the collar. His flailing arms knocked over a stack of the glass jars, breaking them into shards that rebounded off the back of his booted ankles.
“W-w-well, well, well. Looks like we f-f-found you, Magicus.”
A Magicus? Me? The thought escaped him just as fast as it formed because Caius threw him to the ground. Corbéo broke his fall with his elbow. Excruciating pain reverberated up his forearm, and tears gathered in his eyes. Things were only going to become worse.
“We’ve been traveling all over Cedain looking for you, squirt.” Caius loomed above him, filing his nails again with the bloody knife.
“I don’t understand who you are or why you think I’m who you’re looking for. If you let me go, I have money, I come from a family of—” Corbéo stopped himself. He knew it didn’t matter. They weren’t looking for money.
“It’s been so long, he doesn’t recognize me, C-C-Caius.” Thin Man limped forward, lowering his hood. Half his face was a marred, burned mess, the other half reminiscent of a Remerian, slightly tanner than a Calrite. “Yes, you remember now, d-d-don’t you? You crippled me. And you will pay d-dearly.”
“I don’t know who you are! Leave me alone.” Corbéo let the tears fall. The end was near.
Caius laughed. “Sorry, Doram. My friend’s been waiting for this moment for fifteen years. This ain’t gonna be fast.”
Corbéo took another look at Caius. Something’s familiar about his face.
“D-d-despite the lengthy period in which we have tracked you down and the extent of my physical ch-changes.” Thin Man gestured at his scarred face and then his bent legs before returning to gaze at Corbéo with disgust and hatred. “I think you enjoyed this m-m-m-much more when our roles were reversed.”
Corbéo had no clue what he was talking about. “You have the wrong person.” Tears continued streaming down his face, dripping onto the wooden boards, mixing with the blood he’d scrambled into. He looked away and saw it. Leaning against the tavern bar counter was his lute.
Thin Man followed his gaze. “You’re masquerading as a fucking b-b-bard?”
Caius retrieved the lute. “Not poor quality, though I’d expect somebody with your reputation to purchase something less beggarly.”
That was the intention of purchasing this particular lute. His family used to be an important noble faction in Calrym, but then they lost favor. If any of their political rivals found him wandering the countryside, he’d make a great hostage. Not that purchasing an average-looking lute had helped him avoid that fate. His attempts at blending in had failed. And the Corbéo family wouldn’t have been able to pay much for him. They had fallen from grace in recent times, struggling to remain relevant.
“Enough p-p-playing.” Thin Man’s eyes narrowed.
Corbéo’s fear escalated. Things would become serious, fast. “Guards!” It was his only hope. A last chance at salvation. The gamble somebody outside was investigating and would hear him.
Thin Man and Caius laughed. He supposed he would too, in their situation. Instead, he sobbed, wishing that he could just retreat to his family. Back to the wealth he’d originated from.
Whistling, Caius strode to them, swinging the lute around the tavern like a walking stick. He looked down at Corbéo and took a deep breath, a hint of recognition flashing in his eyes, followed by surprise.
“Please,” Corbéo said, raising his hands. “Don’t do this.”
The expression disappeared, and Caius lifted the lute above his shoulders, like a mallet. “Judging by the stories I’ve heard, you’re quite the coward.” Corbéo thought that was obvious. Then again, they weren’t actually talking about Corbéo. “Too bad your friends are all dead. No help for you now.” Caius brought the lute down.
Realization dawned for Corbéo on who the man was, then the lute smashed on his face. Stars blotched his vision and his face slammed onto the tavern’s floor, skidding through somebody else’s blood. The taste of salt on his tongue. He had no clue if it was his or any of the other victims’. His head pulsed, like dozens of explosions in his forehead. He yelled out in pain or terror, likely both. Or perhaps he didn’t yell and only imagined it.
Snap. Corbéo screamed again as a boot ground into his hand, breaking digits in multiple places. A stabbing pain pressed into his waist—the knife Caius carried? Then the boot crunched down on his hand again, breaking even more bones and stirring around those that were already broken. He screamed, cried, and passed out for a moment. Consciousness returned. Was that fortunate or unfortunate?
“Careful, C-C-Caius. Don’t kill him yet.”
Corbéo whimpered, eyes closed tight. He shook, both in pain and in fear. He didn’t want to be here anymore. Why didn’t I remain in Lochwall?
“This was a simple task, considering his skill,” Caius said.
“Sometimes you’re j-j-just lucky.”
Corbéo took a breath then another. He cracked his eyelids open. Stars swam in his vision, and he groaned. He looked at Caius. “I know you.”
Caius knelt. “No. No, you don’t.” He pried open Corbéo’s mouth and pulled his tongue out.
A single slice later, and Corbéo’s mouth filled with blood. He screamed, then choked on blood. Caius tossed the muscle onto the tavern’s floor.
Corbéo moaned, then tried to speak. “Phlese, phlese.” He couldn’t form words, his mouth full of blood. He coughed. Swallowing without a tongue was unpleasant.
“I’ve waited t-too long for this.” Thin Man knelt beside him. “Stab him there, C-C-Caius.” Thin Man pointed at Corbéo’s shoulder.
Caius complied, plunging the knife deep into his flesh.
“And there.” Thin Man pointed at Corbéo’s thigh.
The knife bit into his leg. He screamed. Again and again. He wanted it to end. His hearing went away, his pain and yelling muting his surroundings between the different areas Caius punctured with the tip of his knife. Thin Man’s laugh sometimes penetrated Corbéo’s deafness.
And then, after what felt like forever, Thin Man spoke. “Let’s finish this.”
Thin Man opened his hand, palm facing Corbéo’s chest. Bones cracked and agony exploded inside his body. A bright light took over his vision, though he’d closed his eyes. Another snap, a gigantic pain in his chest. Death washed over him.
1st Cycle of Autumn, 231st Reign of Garcovi
The resplendent mirror rested inside a solid gold frame with plenty of embedded colorful jewels imported from foreign countries. There was a high relief of an exuberant lion chasing a spectacular doe, glass splitting them forever apart. Pretending to admire his reflection, Edelbrock Brendis put on maroon silk robes, covering his overweight naked body. He wiped away drying sweat from his graying goatee, cleared his throat, and took a long swig of chilled water from a brass pitcher. He glanced at the mirror and saw Trigg Gelbrandy lounging on rumpled satin sheets. Trigg was an important noble, one of five people in possession of a deed to one-fifth of Lord Scayde Haklon’s gladiator arena, Buzzard’s Bowl.
Trigg smiled, yellowing teeth shining through his thick bushy black beard, playing with Edelbrock’s sanity. To Edelbrock’s dismay, he hadn’t found a single gray hair on Trigg’s head. He’d thoroughly investigated earlier, under the pretense of gazing at the man’s lips, just before planting his own on them. Distractions. That’s what it took to keep Trigg Gelbrandy happy.
Trigg rolled over on the bed, spent cock flopping to one side like a wet sock. “You don’t have to leave just yet.” The high-pitched voice irritated Edelbrock, and the shock that it emanated from the muscular fellow would never disappear. This begging had become a routine during the more recent visits. Trigg was getting attached.
Edelbrock cleared his throat again. There was still some Trigg in it. “Now, now.” He turned around and noticed a splotch on his newly purchased robes. He sighed. Whether it was grease from food they’d consumed earlier in the evening or more Trigg, the stain would likely not come out.
He took a moment to unclench his jaw and smooth out his face, putting on a mere grimace in place of his utter horror and frustration. He’d purchased the robes to appear much wealthier than he was, and it cost him. There’d be no way to pawn them off now. It was worse than that. He’d spent extra, requesting custom-made pockets inside the robes where he could hide various parchments and other necessities. Inside the sleeve of his right arm, he held a more nefarious device. If his wife ever found out how much he spent on the robes, she’d kill him. She’d kill him for being here with Trigg. Adultery was not something he expected her to brush off.
It’ll all be worth it soon. He couldn’t wait to rid himself of the nuisance. Trigg was becoming too clingy, too needy. And like most nobility, he complained about things Edelbrock only hoped would happen to him.
“You know I risk staying, especially this late.” Edelbrock dropped his arms to his sides. His right hand retracted into the sleeve of the robe, checking to make sure everything was still where it should be. It was.
He scanned the bedroom, grander than it had any right to be. A wooden chair with a plush cushion on the seat sat in front of an expensive writing table made of pine and stained a glorious mahogany. Strewn over the lush, carpeted floor were articles of clothing that created a path from the open closet to the bed—various garments that were each worth far more than Edelbrock made in a cycle. The open window that he always entered and exited to avoid prying eyes from curious people currently allowed a cool breeze to filter through the room.
“Well, don’t leave without saying goodbye.” Trigg was whining again and shivering. He wrapped himself in a sheet, only covering his chest. His lower half remained visible and shrinking. He patted the bed beside him. He’d want a kiss. They’d been seeing one another for nearly two cycles now, once or twice a week. On a tough week, it could be three. This week was a tough week. “I would like it if we could just get rid of her.”
Anytime Trigg brought up Edelbrock’s wife, a perfect image of her likeness birthed in his mind. Which reminded him he needed to leave. If she was still awake, she’d be irate. Judging by the hour, it was unlikely she would be. But precautions.
A flash of annoyance must have flickered across his face because Trigg stood. “Is something wrong, Lordy?” A terrible nickname. Edelbrock was a minor nobleman, which didn’t come with any perks other than a useless title: baron. It was a significant gift from the king to bestow this upon a simple soldier, thus the “lord.” At first, Trigg called him Lord E but that’d evolved into Lordy.
The things I have to deal with just to progress in life. Married to a kook whose father was one of the king’s advisers, fucking a moronic man-child, Edelbrock didn’t have a guess for what was next in life. He hoped for something successful.
He realized he needed to respond. He shook his head and offered a thin smile. “No. I’m just worried Jaylena will suspect. I’ve been gone far too long already, and it’s not common for me to be out this late. I’m running out of excuses, and ‘working late’ isn’t going to keep . . . working. She suspects I may do something carnal.” He cleared his throat again—why? He’d never experienced any difficulty with Trigg before—and wondered if his wife would taste Trigg on his lips. A fear he often went home with. “I must hurry.” Edelbrock took a step toward Trigg, left hand extended to pull him in for a hug and kiss farewell. A routine he’d been using to train him.
As predicted, Trigg leaped to his feet and embraced Edelbrock. He whispered into Edelbrock’s ear, “One day, we need to make this official, Lordy. Together we could—”
“It’s as official as it needs to be, Trigg.” The nobleman stiffened in Edelbrock’s arm. He knew that would be a crushing blow to Trigg, who had fallen madly in love with Edelbrock, as planned. What an unfortunate problem for Trigg. Edelbrock slipped his right hand back into the sleeve, toying around with the device for a moment. He found the trigger and pulled.
“What was tha—” Trigg slid from Edelbrock’s grasp, thumping onto the wooden floor. A small dart stuck out of his upper thigh. Drool slipped from Trigg’s mouth, and a fading clarity was fast disappearing in his eyes.
“Sleep well,” Edelbrock said. He bent over, removing the poisoned dart from the man’s leg. Trigg would die in a matter of minutes, and the charade would finally end. He retrieved the brass pitcher and took another sip of the water, clearing away the taste of Trigg’s lips. He wouldn’t have to kiss him again.
He crossed the room, stepping on two of Trigg’s fingers as he did so, and opened the second drawer down on the writing table. Inside were the two items he needed: an example of Trigg Gelbrandy’s handwriting and the official deed listing the Gelbrandy estate as owner of one-fifth of Buzzard’s Bowl, a name borrowed from previous gladiators of the arena. Fighters? Gladiators? Edelbrock didn’t know what to call them. Didn’t really care, truth be told. Somehow, the nobility adopted the name. And instead of giving the arena a grandiose title, they’d accepted the change.
Buzzard’s Bowl’s popularity spiked in recent times, after Lord Haklon invested significant funds into creating a business focused on the fights. He built five identical buildings and called them Houses, selling deeds to them. The owners could then purchase, buy, and trade warriors during the off-season, and four times a year, they’d make loads of money during the games. Not to mention the fame that came with the spectators cheering for men and women fighting under your name. Edelbrock wanted nothing more than to be one of these five families. He didn’t care if his House performed well or not. Either way, he’d have a lot of power and riches. And then he discovered Trigg, and the golden opportunity showed itself.
Edelbrock pulled out the chair in front of the writing table and guided his body onto the inviting cushion. He dipped one of the fine swan quills into a pewter inkwell and left it there for a moment while he grabbed a nearby blank piece of parchment. Then he copied Trigg’s handwriting. He used a letter Trigg never finished. Within a few minutes, Edelbrock felt confident he had the various quirks of Trigg’s handwriting figured out. Inside one of his pockets he’d paid extra for, Edelbrock retrieved a stamped parchment—notarized by a money-hungry barrister who was apt to do these types of things regularly for anybody willing to cough up exorbitant sums—and drafted a will.
He assigned all property and monetary accounts to Trigg’s half-cousin’s son, as that was his closest living relative. The Gelbrandy family had been disappearing for quite some time, and with Trigg’s death, his surname would extinguish. By leaving everything to Trigg’s half-cousin’s son, Edelbrock hoped he was establishing a sense of reality, as the next part of the will would be difficult to sell. He scribbled his own name as the beneficiary of the deed to one-fifth of Buzzard’s Bowl. He finished off the document by assigning a few random riches to various friends Edelbrock knew about. Relief surged through him, knowing the time he’d spent researching was about to pay off.
Edelbrock slipped the will and the deed back into the second drawer down on the desk. He dried off the quill, replacing it in its spot, and gathered up the drafts he’d used to practice Trigg’s writing. Edelbrock hid those inside his robes for fire kindling at his own home. He wouldn’t leave any trace of evidence here.
He checked Trigg’s body. He wet his finger with his tongue and then wiped off the small circle of blood that had formed when the poisoned dart entered Trigg’s thigh. Edelbrock’s goal was to make it appear as if the man had dropped dead. He thought it would work well. If he were to be caught, he’d die. Any violent crime committed in Calrym meant a brusque hanging. A lifetime in prison if you were lucky.
Edelbrock looked at the bed where he’d acted adulterous. He had little regret. He didn’t exactly like Trigg, but it was fun to learn new things. Then he made his way to the open window, grunting to heave his body over the ledge. He face-planted on the graveled path that circled the manor. Cursing himself for becoming fatter as he aged, Edelbrock brushed rocks out of his skin and pulled up the hood to his robes. He hobbled toward his home, nursing a skinned knee and not looking forward to his wife’s questions concerning his whereabouts. If she reported him to her father, he’d be in a world of trouble.
Edelbrock lived in Lochwall, a bustling city, and thus, even after the moon had reached its peak, walking home in his dirty robes drew a suspicious eye or two. The drunks he cared little for. They certainly didn’t have room to judge. The patrolling guards were his primary concern. Somehow, he didn’t run into any tonight. He kept to side alleys, claustrophobic paths with buildings on either side, threatening to suffocate him on his way through. A cool mid-autumn breeze swept between his legs, and he pulled his robes tighter. Something about it felt ominous.
He found his modest home not, as he expected, dark with the quiet of the sleeping, but with several lights aglow. Because of their financial state—Jaylena had a habit of overspending because of the lifestyle she came from—they could only afford rushlights. The mere sight of the small candles burning actual fat caused immediate distress. Edelbrock recalled a time when they’d placed half a dozen lanterns around the house. Now? Rushlights. The ominous feeling intensified.
Then his wife screamed, followed by the sound of something smashing. Narrowing his eyes in concern, he opened the door and hurried inside. He slipped his boots off and walked into the kitchen where Jaylena stood in a state of dishevelment, a broken ceramic vase on the floor and blood trickling down her hand. She wore one of her fancy full-length dresses—a memory of riches long since spent—and stood in that stiff, awkward way she often held herself, a result of her noble upbringing.
“Where have you been?” She emphasized each word through gritted teeth. Her matted hair stuck to her in sweaty clumps, and narrowed eyes stared at him over her pointed nose. She carried herself in the typical rigid-backed manner she often did. In fact, he felt much like the mouse a hawk stares down right before it swoops in and claims its prey.
“Securing our future, my darling.” Cheerfulness will fix this. Then, avoiding the broken vase pieces on the floor, he went to kiss her. One of the king’s dukes, her father agreed to let them marry, under but one condition: after they married, he didn’t want to deal with them anymore. Edelbrock was never the man’s choice for his daughter, but love presided. A dissipating, forgotten love. But if the duke received word Jaylena was unhappy? It would become a larger scandal than their relationship already was, and Edelbrock could find himself on the wrong end of a noose.
She sneered but allowed a peck to grace her cheek. Well enough, he didn’t desire kissing her lips so soon after his night with Trigg. It just felt wrong. “I’ve had enough of these late nights without knowing where you are or what you’ve been up to, Ed.” She paused a moment, seeming to consider something, “I’ve had half a mind to write to my father.” The threat lingered a moment between them.
“Heh. Uh. Well, you don’t have to do that, my love.” He gave Jaylena a reassuring, though nervous, pat on her shoulder. Truth be told, if Edelbrock had the balls, he would’ve disposed of his wife similar to Trigg. The problem was that Jaylena’s father wouldn’t be dense enough to buy it, and Jaylena’s proximity to Calrym’s king would draw out the anger of the regent. “Now, can we please go to bed before we wake up Gordy? I’ve had an endless day at work.” The fact that his nickname for his son rhymed with Trigg’s nickname for Edelbrock wasn’t lost on him. But he’d come up with his first. And he worried Jaylena would find it odd if he stopped calling his son by it. Just being paranoid.
“I will not!” Her shrill voice echoed throughout the house, and a cry emanated from one of the other rooms. Gordane had woken up. “And now you’ve woken up the baby!” She stomped out of the kitchen to console their son. If there was one thing that Jaylena did well, it was take care of Gordane. Otherwise, she was turning into more and more of a pain in the ass. Even though she took care of Gordane, something was off there. Had been for days. The first cycle or two of Gordane’s life, Jaylena doted on the boy. Now? It seemed more of an obligation. Something was off.
Sighing, Edelbrock swept up the remnants of the vase with a broom. Long ago, they’d employed servants. They’d had money for fun things. Now, he’d borrowed more money than he could pay back in a lifetime. Except his scheme had worked. They’d be rich soon. Gordane stopped crying, which helped Edelbrock’s sanity. After ensuring there were no more loose pieces of ceramic on the ground, he walked to their bedroom, discarded his stained robes into a chair, and dumped the rest of his attire on the floor. He collapsed onto their very average bed, naked and exhausted.
The bedroom door flew open, and his wife stood there red-faced. “You dare to sleep now?” she shrieked, stepping in and slamming the door shut. Gordane cried once more.
For the love of Mother Avani. He’d cried out to their god more than enough times to know she wouldn’t help with anything small like this.
“You, who dares sleep with another person!”
Edelbrock blinked, confused. Jaylena couldn’t know. It was impossible. Nobody followed him, he was sure of it. There was such a certainty in her face that he knew no matter what he said, she would believe that he was an adulterer.
“L-listen, uh, I . . .” Edelbrock might be a smooth talker and great at manipulating people when he planned for it, but surprised? He had no chance.
“I’ve had enough of your lies, Ed!” Gordane bawled in the background, but it didn’t even phase Jaylena. “The marshal will be here soon. I’m over this.” She almost sounded remorseful, but her face contorted with restraint, her sharp nose pointed slightly up, as if she were better than he.
It took a moment for Edelbrock to process that. “You what?” His mouth fell open as if he were the local drunk. Images of riches, a bedroom as glorious as Trigg’s, a happy Jaylena pregnant with another baby, little Gordane standing at Edelbrock’s knee, them sitting in the stands of Buzzard’s Bowl, crowds cheering and jeering alike at his men and women who were fighting to their deaths, and his happiness—the power to buy and do whatever he wanted rather than live his simple life. All of it came crashing down around him. Immediate. Irresolute.
“We’re having too many difficulties, Ed. We can’t keep living like common hoodlums. And I know what you’ve been doing. With him.” Her eyes narrowed in disgust.
A knock sounded on their front door. “Lady Brendis? It’s Marshal Everic Deywin.” A pause. “You all right?”
Edelbrock’s face lit on fire. Everything he was conspiring for, everything he’d done—and swallowed—was for her and his son. His family. And this was the thanks he was to receive? “What the fuck did you tell them?”
“Oh, I know all about your schemes, Ed.” She wouldn’t stop sneering. This information, this gloating, was making her more and more intolerable. “My father wasn’t too pleased to find out that you were fucking a man behind my back! Lord Haklon told my father that the only way to beat that behavior out of somebody is to kill them, though I said I didn’t think you were actually into men in that way . . . I mean, are you?” She looked at him, expectant and unsure.
“What? No, no!” He was at a loss for words. And the question seemed unnecessary. Who cared if he was? Was he? There weren’t any laws against it. Panicked, he didn’t know what to do, what to say. She’d caught him. But everything he’d done, he’d done for her. Right? Maybe he’d gotten some pleasure out of it, but not enough for her to get the marshal. This was madness. His life was about to crash down around him. He needed to figure something out.
“Lady Brendis?” The marshal called again. The pounding on the door shook the house. Gordane’s cries grew louder.
“You really fucked up, Jay. I had it. Trigg Gelbrandy, the owner of one of the five stakes of the arena, was in my pocket—”
“And if the rumors are true, he was inside your ass too!” Tears started falling from her eyes. Edelbrock was certain they were not tears of pain, but of anger. “You betrayed me! So I’ve done what needed to be done, Ed.”
“I just secured incredible wealth for us, you ignorant bit—” Their front door burst open with a loud bang. Heavy footsteps thundered into the household.
“Jaylena! Are you in here?” This was not the marshal’s voice.
Gordane continued crying. Jaylena opened their bedroom door and called out to them. “Yes, I’m just in here.” She spared a moment to shoot Edelbrock a look of disgust. A look of loathing.
What has she done? Realizing five or six men were about to burst into his bedroom while he was naked, Edelbrock threw on his maroon robes.
Appearing in the doorway, for Jaylena stepped aside to allow them entry, were several faces that Edelbrock recognized: Lochwall’s marshal, two of his men, and the barrister—Chardaine of the law offices of Roachford and Singleton’s—who signed the documentation that Edelbrock forged Trigg’s will upon. The barrister’s expression told him everything: he’d sold Edelbrock out.
Behind the four men, a fifth voice called out, “Jay, are you all right?” A caring voice. A voice that used her nickname. A nickname that only two men before ever used—Jaylena’s father and Edelbrock himself. This was neither of them.
The marshal and his soldiers stepped back, in deference to the fifth man who walked in. He strode over to Jaylena, gave her a gentle kiss on the lips, and then turned to glare at Edelbrock. Edelbrock couldn’t help but notice the way his wife swooned for this man.
“You, my friend, are in a lot of trouble.” Lord Scayde Haklon, owner of Buzzard’s Bowl, waved the forged will at Edelbrock and shook his finger at him while offering a got-you smile.
Fuck. He may have even whispered it.
~ Villic of the Splintered Manes ~
1st Cycle of Autumn, 231st Reign of Garcovi
Coarse sands. The hot, beating, unforgiving sun. A camel between his thighs. Curved scimitar blade hanging from his belt, and a spear balanced in his lap. An oasis of water in the middle of nowhere, a pause of life amid the harsh deserts of Vessia. Outsiders couldn’t understand it, that was for sure. If a Calrite or Remerian came on a trip, it was to visit one of the small towns. Or Hathoran, which outsiders called the capital. Hathoran was nothing more than thousands of tents pitched to house whomever passed by. Such towns were neutral areas and allowed clans to trade supplies. There were permanent residents, but few. They were people who’d left or were banished from a clan or decided they didn’t want to live a nomadic lifestyle, so instead, they maintained the towns. The true capital of Vessia was wherever the strongest clan was—the Sharpclaws.
The Camel Clans roamed around Vessia, in the middle of the desert, far from the towns. Devoid of most life. It was harsh, being nomadic, always on the move. That’s what gave Villic happiness.
The clans often warred with one another. Fighting for territory, which made no sense because it was just sand dunes. Fighting for women, which made no sense because they had their own women. Fighting for glory, which made no sense because you didn’t earn glory by killing for glory. But Villic loved it. He loved it all.
Villic of the Splintered Manes gave his camel, Dunecrest, a gentle tap on the side with the butt of his spear. Dunecrest lifted his head from the muddy water and turned to give Villic a reproachful look.
“Don’t look at me, Dunecrest.” Villic stroked the bull’s neck. “The shamans said we leave now.” Dunecrest grunted. Villic tapped him with his spear again. “Let’s go. The gods wait for no man. Or camel,” he said, after a moment’s consideration.
With a lazy gait, Dunecrest joined the Splintered Manes procession. They were heading in the direction of a well-known watering hole, a place they’d spend several weeks resting at.
Jedkah, leader of the Splintered Manes, rode at the front, flanked by his many shamans. Villic, a soldier, rode wherever he wanted. As long as there were plenty of warriors spread throughout the procession, nobody made a fuss. He often rode in the back. There was a slighter chance of being noticed by a shaman, which meant a smaller chance a god would take notice. Not that Villic was avoiding the gods. He’d never do that. Killiak, lord of lords, was one to fear, but not one you could hide from.
The sun beat on Villic’s neck, his forehead, his chest. It wore down the skin on his back, his legs, and his feet. He wore the traditional loose-fitting robes, though he’d removed the cowl because he didn’t like wearing it all the time, despite the protections it offered. The blanket he sat upon was damp with his sweat. He didn’t sweat often, but rubbing against the blanket while riding made it impossible not to. But the blanket, the only adornment on Dunecrest, was necessary. It kept flies away from Dunecrest and gave Villic’s legs a better grip. He didn’t complain. Anaia, goddess of light, enjoyed the relentless torture she rained down upon her subjects. Without the sun though, the shamans claimed they wouldn’t be able to survive. So Villic liked Anaia. He liked all the gods.
Respecting the gods was something Villic never struggled with. Same with the shamans. The problem was, in his mind, the gods and shamans didn’t respect him. He always got the worse assignments.
Problem was, Villic didn’t know how to please the gods without a shaman explaining what to do. And gods didn’t enjoy explaining themselves all the time. At least, that’s what the shamans said.
The call startled Villic. He looked up. A woman was riding at his side on her own camel. A shaman. She wore the emerald-green necklace symbolic of her station. Nervous, he ran his hand over his shaved head. He kept his eyes downcast, not meeting the woman’s eyes.
“Pay attention, Villic,” she said. “Stop allowing your mind to wander. You’ll earn the ire of the gods. Another clan approaches.” She rode down the procession, delivering the news to other warriors.
Villic bounced his thigh, feeling the weight of the spear. Good. It was still there. He’d lost a spear once, when he was younger. Shamans had chastised him for weeks afterward. Villic made sure he kept track of his spear now. Though he suspected the shamans weren’t worrying about the spear as much as his tendency to not pay attention.
He wondered which clan they were coming upon now. The Splintered Manes already passed two clans, which meant if they were to approach, they’d be coming from the procession’s rear. A third clan was halfway across the country. Which meant it had to be Seven Signs, Masters of the Lost, or Glory Blades. Since Glory Blades were the Splintered Manes’ rivals, a battle might occur. The last meeting between the two clans ended in shouting between the leaders and shamans.
What if it isn’t a clan? Villic couldn’t imagine that to be the case. If anybody came to Vessia, it was a small group, and even they weren’t commonplace. Communication was difficult between the Camel Clans and the rest of the world; Vessians spoke a different language than the king’s tongue, the common tongue everyone else used.
A whiff of camel dung breached his nostrils—nothing new to Villic but rather rancid this go-around. Twitching his nose, he tapped Dunecrest’s left side with his spear. The camel veered to the right, and Villic was outside the procession, riding alongside rather than within. He narrowed his eyes, examining the horizon, trying to see the approaching clan. Too much dust and sand swirled around from their own camels, and Villic saw nothing.
A bellow of horns blared from the front of the procession. Then chaos. The children, along with a few caregivers, turned their mounts around. Everyone else, Villic included, spurred theirs forward. To battle.
Villic grabbed the spear off his lap with his right hand. He slapped Dunecrest’s rear with the butt, then gripped the weapon in his hand, fist clenched. He raised it, ready to impale somebody or to throw it. His scimitar slapped his left leg with every gallop Dunecrest took.
It would seem they’d stumbled upon Glory Blades after all. Each clan identified themselves with a different war cry and a different emblem. Several tabards bouncing in the air displayed their clan for all to see—a curved blade shattering a straight blade, symbolic of previous wars against other countries.
A second blare of horns signaled they’d engaged in battle. Villic’s blood flowed faster through his body. Mutaz, god of war, called from within.
Dunecrest circled around the congestion where men and women fought with one another. The front line breached, several Splintered Manes shamans fled the battle in order to protect themselves. Jedkah was rallying a force to prevent the shamans from being killed. Shamans were too valuable. At least that’s what the shamans said. Villic didn’t argue with the shamans.
Dunecrest charged forward, and Villic yelled. High-pitched screams of camels, the clang of metal on metal, grunts of exertion, and cries of pain and death. For Killiak, lord of lords! He threw his spear at a Glory Blades woman. The spear flew true and impaled her through the gut. She fell off her camel, only to be trampled by her comrades.
Villic bared his teeth and drew his scimitar. Sand and dust kicked into the air, obstructing his view. It was difficult to see farther than a few feet in any direction.
A shouting man, uncameled, sprinted at Villic’s left side. A large war axe lifted above his shoulders aimed for Dunecrest’s neck. Villic shouted in anger, leaning forward and slashing at the haft of the axe. He deflected the blow enough and threw the Glory Blades man off balance. The man toppled over, and Dunecrest cantered over him, crushing his face. Villic thanked Carana, goddess of life, for preventing Dunecrest’s death.
Out of the corner of his eye, Villic saw a flash of fire. Fire arrows? He thought it unlikely. Fire arrows were useless unless attacking a building. Not enough time for the fire to catch. Villic knew. He’d tried already. Against the shamans’ commands, of course. Villic had been certain Tabashi, god of fire, had encouraged him to try. It had been, in actuality, Lurzal, god of deception, lying to make Villic appear a fool. The shamans said not to listen to the gods. That was their job. Villic sometimes felt as if they spoke to him, anyway. Even though he wasn’t a shaman.
And then he saw them, several fire arrows, dropping into the Splintered Manes. When they connected with people or camels, the flames seemed to almost explode, lighting everything they touched. In several short seconds, whatever was on fire blackened and died before the fire extinguished. What . . .
He shook his head, refocusing on the battle. “I need to pay attention.” Distracted too easily, the shamans always said. He agreed.
A huge man holding a spear spurred his camel toward Villic, death in his eyes.
Villic braced himself, scimitar ready to deflect the spear’s stab. The huge man lunged forward, thrusting the point at Villic. And then something odd occurred. The spearpoint, and a good half of the haft, turned into . . . ice? Villic’s scimitar connected with the spear. Chipped ice sprayed the air, and the huge man retracted his weapon. Villic’s scimitar caught in the ice, and he had to let go of the sword, lest he be uncameled.
Villic gasped as the ice melted away as quickly as it had appeared. His sword dropped to the sands. The spearpoint ignited in flames, and the man stabbed again.
What powers have the gods given him? Killiak, lord of lords, have you taken another clan’s side? The Splintered Manes were the favored clan. At least that’s what the shamans said. And Villic believed them.
The flaming spear jabbed at Villic. He ducked, felt a burning sensation on his shoulder where the spear grazed him. Another horn blared, this one from Glory Blades.
The huge man snarled at Villic but turned his camel around and retreated with the rest of Glory Blades.
Villic, tired, collapsed forward on Dunecrest’s neck. He patted the camel. “We made it, Dunecrest. We made it.”
Nobody seemed to know why Glory Blades retreated from battle. They were, according to everyone Villic listened in on, winning. Jedkah, leader of the Splintered Manes, was discussing with the shamans. They know what’s happening. Villic wouldn’t know until they decided it was important that he know. The same with the rest of the clan.
Not knowing what else to do, Villic dismounted and took care of Dunecrest. He fed the animal, brushed debris out of Dunecrest’s hair, checked his feet for any injuries, adjusted the blanket on his back, and then let the camel wander, though not far. If the Glory Blades returned, he’d need his mount. He also reclaimed his sword and spear from the collected stash the clan had assembled—both lost and looted. The bodies were left for scavengers after the shamans offered the last prayers. The clan would rest for the evening, wary of their close-by rival.
“Killiak’s Favor upon you, Villic.” Sikoi, one of the few who didn’t mind talking to Villic, approached. The man had a friendly smile and a booming laugh.
“Killiak’s Favor upon you, Sikoi.” Villic didn’t like talking to anyone, but Sikoi he felt more comfortable with than most.
“Did you see what happened?”
Villic didn’t want to assume Sikoi meant the strange powers he’d seen with the weapons of Glory Blades. Making assumptions often got Villic in trouble, so he shook his head.
“You didn’t see the burning arrows? The lightning swords? I swear on Killiak, I saw a tree growing out of a blade, too. All signs of the gods influencing the battle, Villic. And not in our favor. Fire? Tabashi.”
Tabashi, god of fire, Villic thought. He had to recite a god’s whole title to remember what they ruled over.
“Lightning? Hytrok.” Hytrok, god of storms. “And a tree? Nemira.” Nemira, goddess of nature.
“Lurzal’s Lies! Don’t discuss the gods, Sikoi!” Villic whisper-shouted. He didn’t want to be overheard, but Sikoi needed to hear Villic’s devotion. “Are you trying to bring their fury? It’s for the shamans to decide. Not us!” Villic was certain that discussing the favor of gods could lead to punishment.
Sikoi snorted, then let out one of his heavy laughs. “Lurzal, god of deception, isn’t who you should curse, Villic. Killiak, lord of—”
“Don’t! Don’t, don’t, don’t!” Villic held his hand up, open-palmed. “Don’t bring the Lord of Lords into this, Sikoi. He might kill you and me just listening to you speak. Get out of here! Leave the thinking to the shamans. You’ll get everyone killed.”
Sikoi shook his head. “Be well, Villic.”
“Be well, Sikoi.” Villic shook his head too. Sikoi’s lost his mind.
Seeing as the Glory Blades weren’t far off, and it was getting later in the afternoon, Villic set up his camp. Most of the clan members didn’t have tents and slept under the open sky. Using a flint, he started a small fire and cooked some dried antelope venison. After dark, the shamans wouldn’t allow them to use fire. Not with Glory Blades nearby. That would be as close as one could get to inviting Flaytz, god of death, into their clan. Villic didn’t want to die. Not yet.
The shamans called an open circle—circles were usually reserved for the important members of the clan, but everyone attended open ones—so Villic left the fire and joined the rest of the clan, who made a ring around the shamans and Jedkah. Jedkah had pulled his cowl down, his face visible for all to see. Markings were plastered all over his face, each a different symbol or meaning created by piercing the skin and rubbing ash into the wounds. Other marks were burned in. Not many of the Splintered Manes had similar markings, but the strongest members often saw it as a way to prove their strength. Villic thought it was silly.
“The shamans have communed with the gods. It’s agreed upon that Glory Blades have become blessed,” Jedkah said. Loud groans echoed around the circle. He raised a hand, and everyone quieted. His authority was the word of the gods, and nobody would wish to anger him.
Villic groaned too but was a hair late. His neighbors glanced at him in confusion. Villic made himself as small as possible.
Jedkah continued, “With this increase in power, Glory Blades will return either in the night or tomorrow. No fires allowed after dark, and all warriors will do a round of patrols in shifts. The shamans will ask Mutaz”—Mutaz, god of war—“for an extra blessing in our next battle. It’s apparent we’ve fallen out of favor with the gods and must now work to regain that favor. Killiak’s Favor upon all of you.”
“Killiak’s Favor upon you,” Villic recited back with the rest of the clan. The circle disbanded, and Villic returned to his camp.
He stood near his small fire, which had almost burned away, looking for Dunecrest. Villic wiped some nervous sweat from his brow. It didn’t sound good. And if it didn’t sound good coming from the shamans, that meant it was bad. A true cause for concern. Villic knew the shamans masked things for the greater population. To protect them. To prevent panic. If the Splintered Manes had fallen out of favor with the gods, who knew what could happen? The shamans. And if the people demanded answers, they might get aggressive with the shamans. Villic had seen it before.
“Ahem.” Villic cleared his throat. “Ahem.”
Villic jumped the length of a water buffalo. Or two. He didn’t know measurements. Villic hadn’t made that noise after all. He looked around, saw nothing. Something, or someone, was in his head.
“I’m not out there.”
Villic passed out.