Authors: James Maxwell
Ella smiled, feeling her cheeks flush as she took the seat
to her while the men resumed their places. The kalif rattled off a series of introductions, with Ella nodding so many times she felt like a puppet on strings, knowing she would never remember any of the names.
The man to her left, a heavyset tarn leader with curled
, spoke as if resuming a heated discussion. “As I said, Kalif, we have finally achieved stability. If this force comes from across the sea, what use would they have for the desert?” He turned to Ella. “Perhaps, Enchantress, you could shed light for us?”
“Saran, please,” Ilathor smiled, “leave her alone. This is
to be a banquet.”
“No,” another man spoke. “I want to hear what she has to say.”
Ilathor sighed wearily and nodded to Ella.
Ella chose her words carefully, thinking of reasoning these
men would understand. She’d evidently arrived at an
time. “First, let me ask you a question,” she addressed Saran, the man on her left. “Are you entirely self-sufficient in the desert?”
“Well,” Saran harrumphed, “not entirely. We mine gold, and gold buys much.”
“As I understand it a lot of your trade comes from the free
,” Ella said. “My brother, the high lord, doesn’t believe
fall. He believes they will undoubtedly fall.”
Silence followed Ella’s assertion. Finally Saran spoke again.
“That is one man’s opinion. The Empire is strong.”
“No.” Ella shook her head. She felt heat rise to her face. “The Empire is weak. We’re too fractured to pool our strength and deploy it where it’s most needed. Without your aid, Altura will fall, and if Altura falls, the rest of the Empire will follow. Without trade, your people will starve, this city will crumble, and you’ll go back to being a splintered group of tribes. Eventually, you’ll be hunted down, and even if your people are the last to perish, your days will be numbered.”
Zohra gasped, and the other men and women at the table looked uncomfortable. Ella hadn’t meant to be so direct, but seeing these men feast and talk when she knew how much work had to be done in Altura upset her. Agira Lahsa didn’t look like a city preparing for war.
“I don’t see how you can be so certain . . .”
Ella stood up from her chair. “Please excuse me,” she said. “I have work to do.”
Ella left the terrace and tried to calm herself as she looked for somewhere she could be alone. Ilathor found her with her hands resting on the rail of a small balcony, gazing out at the desert and inhaling the spicy scent of the city carried forward on the dry breeze.
“Ella?” Ilathor said.
Ella turned to the kalif, and rather than avoid him, this time she met his eyes directly. “Ilathor,” she said, using his first name, “can I count on you if Altura calls?”
“Yes . . . of course. I am the kalif. My men will follow.”
“Will you promise?”
Ilathor reached forward and took Ella’s hands. “I promise.”
“Thank you,” Ella said, letting out a breath. She leaned forward and kissed his smooth cheek.
Ilathor suddenly put his arm around her waist and pulled her close to him.
Ella put her hands flat on his chest. “Ilathor,” she said. “Ilathor! I can’t. I must go. You love your land with an incredible passion.
el the same way about mine. I can’t feast here when I know how much needs to be done to protect my homeland. I have to go.”
“I understand,” Ilathor said. He was breathing hard. “You are a strong woman, and you are resisting your passions, where I cannot. I should take note from your example.”
Ella chose to ignore the comment. “Your elders know all they need to about the reflectors. Listen to them. I have a long journey ahead of me. It will take time to build the towers and mount the reflectors as I travel back to Altura.”
“Of course,” Ilathor said. “When you arrive home, will you send word?”
“Ella, I . . .”
“I know,” Ella said, smiling.
Ilathor returned her smile. “I will send Jehral to take care of you until you reach Alturan lands. I wish you did not have to leave so soon after arriving, but I understand. Fare you well, Ella. Until we next meet.”
“Farewell, Kalif,” Ella said.
Killian wiped at his eyes, feeling the familiar onset of fatigue. He avoided looking at the timepiece high on the wall; he knew the afternoon meeting had run well into the night.
He still wore the thick clothing he’d worn all season. Though it was supposed to be spring, winter was reluctant to release Tingara quite yet. The wind howled outside the barred windows, and Killian heard the shutters tremble.
The grim weather echoed his mood. Several weeks had passed since the Imperial Chorum and Ella’s hasty departure, yet still Killian couldn’t get the events of that day out of his mind. Killian had expected Miro’s impassioned plea for more essence for Altura to fail. He hadn’t expected to discover that Ella and Ilathor had once shared a bed.
Killian was jealous.
She acted like she loved him, but he knew there was
between her and the kalif, and even when Killian innocuously brought up Ilathor in conversation with her, she never explained a thing.
He now sat in the war rooms, high in the Imperial Palace, his palms resting on the rune-covered surface of a simulator. Rogan was speaking in his deep, rumbling voice—something about the Imperial Legion.
He needed to concentrate. He knew how important these
But Killian couldn’t stop thinking about Ella.
He’d seen it in her eyes; the ruler of the desert had been
the truth. Did she love Ilathor? He cast his mind back to the
inside the Sentinel, on the day of the primate’s death, when she’d entered with Ilathor by her side. He’d seen the protective way the handsome Hazaran held her back from danger.
Ella had risked everything to bring Killian home from the wasteland that was Shar, and he’d thought that what was between them was powerful enough to keep them together through any adversity. Killian had thought Ella loved him.
Yet Ella left the day after the Chorum without a word of explanation. She’d left in the same ship as the kalif of House Hazara.
“You’re far away,” Rogan said. “Am I boring you?”
“No, I’m sorry,” Killian said, returning his gaze to the simulator as he realized he’d been staring at the wall. “There’s something on my mind.”
“Well set your mind on this. As I was saying, the signaling
is a good idea, but it doesn’t change one key fact. If Altura calls, you’re going to have to make a choice. Do you head for the west, leaving Seranthia exposed? Or do you leave Altura to her fate?”
“What should I do?”
“You can’t leave us defenseless,” said Marshal Trask, a staunchly loyal Tingaran.
“Either way,” Rogan said, “you should prepare your strategy before the moment itself comes.”
“I’ll think about it,” Killian said. “Please leave me now.”
The marshals swiftly bowed and departed, leaving Killian alone in the room. He looked down at the simulator in disgust; he knew the map in every detail. He knew how his men were deployed and the travel times from one place to another. He didn’t need further reminding.
Deciding to find a place where he could be alone with his thoughts, Killian deactivated the simulator and left the war rooms.
He climbed a staircase and entered an empty sitting room with antique cushioned sofas and low tables. Looking at the
, he wondered how previous generations had managed to seat
on something so uncomfortable. Killian found the
doors and pulled them wide. Heedless of the biting wind tearing at
thing, he stepped out and gazed at his city.
From his vantage, Killian could see the common people below as they passed through Imperial Square. They all deserved his
. Could he leave them exposed? He knew Sentar Scythran would come for Seranthia, even if it was just to remove the city as an obstacle as he entered the Sentinel and opened the way to Shar. It was an outcome Killian had to do everything in his power to avoid.
But Killian also knew that if Altura called, Ella would be in the thick of the fighting, and she would be battling revenants. How could he abandon her homeland to its fate? Even if Ella managed to survive, he knew she would never forgive him.
Additionally, if the enemy gained a foothold in Altura, their numbers would swell in size, like a plague of locusts feasting on the fields at harvest time. Killian had faith in Miro, but surely Altura couldn’t hold out alone?
Were his feelings for Ella clouding his judgment?
Perhaps he could split his forces if Altura called, as Miro seemed to think was certain. Would a smaller force be enough?
Killian looked down at his hands, the silver symbols decorating the palms only barely visible in the low light of Seranthia at night. Who would challenge Sentar, if not Killian? Staying in Seranthia and sending someone else to the west—say, Rogan Jarvish—even with the majority of the Legion, still might not turn the tide.
Killian’s heart told him the future of the Empire would come down to a battle between Sentar and himself.
He wished Evrin Evenstar wasn’t leaving. Evrin wasn’t aligned to any particular house, and the old man was perhaps the only one Killian could trust for impartial advice. Evrin was wise, and he’d seen and experienced things Killian struggled to imagine.
But Evrin was now leaving for Altura. Like everyone else, Evrin didn’t know if Sentar Scythran would choose to land at Altura, the shortest journey from the new world to the Empire, or travel by ship to Seranthia, his ultimate destination.
Evrin was helping both Tingara and Altura, and Killian wished he could do the same. He had a duty to protect all of the Empire, not just Tingara. If Altura called, what would he do?
Sighing, Killian looked down from the balcony, deciding to watch the people for a while longer. He stood and let the wind buffet him, as if it could scour his mind and bring clarity to his thoughts. He rested his eyes on various folk and wondered where they were going and what their business was. He followed a Halrana merchant sitting atop a drudge-pulled cart and calling out to clear passage through the square. He next settled on a group of revelers, soldiers most likely from the way they walked, though they wore street clothes.
Killian’s gaze settled on a solitary woman standing outside the iron-barred fence that separated the grounds of the palace from the square.
He realized she hadn’t moved the whole time he’d been
. What was she doing, standing out in the cold? Was she waiting for someone?
He wondered who she was. Her cloak looked to be of decent quality, though unembroidered and without decoration, evidently not expensive. It didn’t have a hood, and though it wasn’t snowing, the wind blew her raven-black hair in a wild tangle about her face. The white skin of her oval face gave way to a sharp nose.
She tilted her head, scanning the upper windows of the
, and Killian saw that she seemed expectant. Was she waiting for someone from the palace to go out and fetch her? Why didn’t she talk to the guards?
She turned slightly and Killian could now see her more clearly.
His blood ran cold when he saw her face.
Killian gripped the rail tightly. His breath caught as he peered down at her face; she hadn’t seen him, but he could see her clearly.
He felt his heart rate increase to a thundering gallop.
Killian bolted from the chamber, dashing down the steps that would take him on the fastest route to the main palace entrance. He threw himself down the passageways and servants’ corridors, knocking stewards and courtiers out of the way, ignoring their questioning looks and hasty following bows as they realized who he was.
Killian reached the heavy doors at the main entrance and heaved them open with all the rune-enhanced strength in his limbs. The wind poured through the sudden opening with force, sending the palace staff scurrying as papers flew everywhere.
The guards outside—Tingara’s elite—brought their pole-arms crashing down, and Killian went through them as if they weren’t there, the sharp steel barely registering on his forearms.
The guards shouted, uncertain what to do. Was the emperor under attack? They scanned all directions in alarm, but they couldn’t perceive any threat.
Killian ran for the iron fence and gripped the bars with white knuckles. He stared into the face he hadn’t seen in an eternity as the blood throbbed in his veins. His breath came short, and without realizing, the iron bent and twisted in his hands as he examined every aspect of her visage.
“It’s you,” Killian breathed.
Remembrance thrust his consciousness back in time, to a time when he’d been happy, truly happy, for the first time in his life.
The show was over, and tomorrow there would be another, so the circus tent was left standing, the seating gallery erected, the trapeze swinging high, the animals fed, their cages scrubbed. And as usual, Marney was already worrying about tomorrow night’s routine, rehearsing in his head every last detail of the performance they’d given a thousand times.
It was the perfect opportunity for Killian and Carla to get away.
He held her hand as they ran through fields of summer flowers while stars sparkled overhead. The encampment was just outside Seranthia, a ten-minute walk from the wide road that led from Seranthia to Salvation.
had chosen the place well; though the long grass was dry, there was fresh water for the animals nearby as well as thickets of trees for fires and hunting.
Killian wanted to see one of the night shows he’d heard Jak the mime talk about. He raced across the fields, his lover’s hand held firmly in his own, bounding over the uneven ground, feeling his limbs burn with the fire of youth.
Carla laughed beside him and pulled him up. “Slow down! We’ll trip up in a rabbit hole.”
The bright night was lit up by scattered stars and a full moon. Killian glanced at Carla, seeing her raven-black hair glow, her teeth shining white against her skin, and he grinned. “Can’t you smell the rabbits out?”
“Nothing to smell. They’ll run when they see the light cast by the human torch.”
Killian laughed. He and Carla teased each other endlessly about their most striking feature: her long nose and his wild red hair.
“Come on,” Killian said. “Hurry up! We’ll miss the shows.”
“You run like a girl.” Killian grinned.
“You’d rather I ran like a man?” Carla followed the comment with a fist-pumping, grimacing run, like an athlete at the Imperial Games.
“I prefer it when you walk,” Killian said. “Particularly if I’m standing behind you, where the view is best. Actually, when I’m holding you on the trapeze . . .”
Carla pulled him up short and yanked her arm from his,
both hands on her hips. “That’s enough from you. I’ll face you when I walk.”
She came at him with solid, lumbering steps, like an
tamer intimidating his beast—she was an excellent mimic—and held a finger up at Killian’s chin. He realized the finger was a
only when she hooked a leg behind his and pushed
so that they both fell down.
Carla was now on top of Killian’s chest, looking down at him, their faces close together.
“And this is how I like you,” she said.
Carla leaned down and brushed her lips across his, sending fire through his chest and deep into his stomach. Her long hair tickled his face as it brushed across his skin.
“The night’s warm,” Carla breathed as she leaned in to kiss him. Killian felt her hands on his belt. “Seranthia can wait.”
The night passed like a dream.
The two lovers returned from Seranthia with less energy than they’d left with, strolling rather than running, but laughing just as much. It was late, nearly dawn, and Marney Beldara, Carla’s father, would be angry, but Killian didn’t care, and neither did Carla.
was as much of a father to Killian as he was to her, and Killian knew he had a bright future with the troupe.
Nevertheless, Killian and Carla hurried along the stretch of road leading back to the camp. Killian was partway through a joke he’d heard from the fire-eater twins when Carla suddenly grabbed Killian’s hand and pulled him off the road.
“What . . .?”
“Shh,” Carla said, hauling him far from the road as she pointed. “Look.”
A large column of men marched back in the direction of
. Carla pulled harder on Killian’s hand and began to run, continuing until they were out in the fields, and then she made Killian lie beside her on the ground.
“Shh,” she said. “Don’t make a sound.”
Killian felt her tense beside him. He started to wonder what such a large group of men were doing out so late at night.
The sound of heavy boots grew louder, and Killian saw they were Tingaran legionnaires: strong, terrifying men with shaved heads and sharp weapons.
There was something strange about them. As they passed the place where Killian and Carla lay in hiding, Killian saw their faces were covered in soot.