Read an Extended Excerpt from Jenn Lyons’ The Name of All Things

Jenn Lyons continues the Chorus of Dragons series with The Name of All Things, the epic sequel to The Ruin of Kings. (And if you need a refresher on the events of Book 1, here’s a handy spoiler recap!)

The Name of All Things publishes October 29th with Tor Books—start reading now with the prologue and chapters 1-3 below.

Kihrin D’Mon is a wanted man.

Since he destroyed the Stone of Shackles and set demons free across Quur, he has been on the run from the wrath of an entire empire. His attempt to escape brings him into the path of Janel Theranon, a mysterious Joratese woman who claims to know Kihrin.

Janel’s plea for help pits Kihrin against all manner of dangers: a secret rebellion, a dragon capable of destroying an entire city, and Kihrin’s old enemy, the wizard Relos Var.

Janel believes that Relos Var possesses one of the most powerful artifacts in the world—the Cornerstone called the Name of All Things. And if Janel is right, then there may be nothing in the world that can stop Relos Var from getting what he wants.

And what he wants is Kihrin D’Mon.


 

 

Part I: Conversations in a Storm House

Jorat Dominion, Quuros Empire. Two days since Kihrin D’Mon returned to Quur

The men paused at the ramp’s base to shake the rain from their sallí cloaks. Behind them, the black sky flickered, then lit up with blinding brightness. A second later, the crash of thunder rolled over them. The heavens opened to drench the ground.

“Shut that door!”

Before they could respond, Scandal, the gray fireblood mare, shouldered her way past. Her passage knocked the heavy oak barrier backward, and the high winds yanked at the unanchored door, forcing the two men to wrestle it back into position. One man closed the latch, locking it.

Stillness enveloped the men even as they heard the winds howl outside. Kihrin turned to his companion. “Why didn’t we go to Atrine again?”

The other man, a large fellow with a white star-shaped birthmark on his forehead, grunted. “Too many imperial soldiers in Atrine.”

“Right. That was it.” Kihrin eyed the stone building’s interior with suspicion. “Star, I know how much you love horses, but… is this a barn?”

As Kihrin D’Mon walked forward, the barn opened into a broad stone-lined vault nestled into the hillside. A herd of horses clustered at the rear, wide-eyed, ears flicking back at each peal of thunder. His gray fire-blood, Scandal, joined them, sidling up to two large black fireblood stallions also present. Unlike Scandal, who resembled an oversized mare, the other firebloods’ not-a-horse natures showed themselves in red eyes and matching tiger stripes running up their legs. The other horses grouped around them like children seeking a parent’s protection.

“If she winds up pregnant, she’d better not come crying to me about it,” Kihrin muttered.

An old woman with piebald skin rushed to the entrance from a passage in the back. “Shut that door good, you hear me? That storm’s a killer, if ever I’ve seen one…” Her voice trailed off as she took in Star’s appearance.

Kihrin couldn’t blame her. Star could stop a stampede with a frown. Kihrin stood taller, but Star was twice as wide and rough as the weather outside. At the brothel where Kihrin grew up, he’d have hired Star as a bouncer on the spot.

The old woman gave Star a wink.

“Aye, Mare.” Star laughed as he pulled on a lock of his salt-and-pepper hair. “And you’re a fine sight to see too. We need pillows and a place of honor for Hamarratus. Sorry to trot in so late. We weren’t expecting the storm.” He touched forefingers to forehead, then bowed from the waist.

Kihrin had never heard Star string more than two sentences together before. He’d also never seen Star bow—not to a high lord, not to anyone.

Wait. Who is Hamarratus?

“Oh, no problem at all.” The old woman pulled up short and turned her attention to Kihrin. “Right. At least you’re here. Get yourself into the shelter. She’s waiting for you. Best hurry while the stew’s hot.”

Kihrin lowered his pack to the hay-strewn ground. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but there’s been a mistake. No one here’s expecting me.”

The old woman looked surprised. “You ain’t named Kihrin, then?”

The young man, who definitely was named Kihrin, managed not to pull out any weapons. Barely. “Who gave you that name?”

“Your woman said you’d be along.” She pointed down a tunnel leading into the hillside. “She’s waiting for you. Said I should watch for a tall foreign-looking fellow with yellow hair. And that’s you, right? I mean, you must be from the other side of the empire. Nobody local would dress like you.” Her eyes flicked down to his misha and kef as though they were a signed confession.

“My woman?” Kihrin exchanged a look with Star. Not all his female acquaintances were friends. “Nobody knows I’m here. Hell, I don’t even know where we are.” Kihrin’s hand found the pommel of the dagger at his belt.

“I’ll settle here, see to the horses,” Star offered.

“Sounds good. If you hear my dying screams, avenge me.”

Star shrugged. “Not sure how. You’re the one with the fancy sword.”

Kihrin didn’t seem armed with anything larger than a dagger. If the groom thought the comment strange, she didn’t say.

“Come on, then, colt.” She motioned to Star. “Help an old woman with the watering.”

Kihrin walked toward what he hoped was a tavern.

The passage led from the vaulted stone stable to a wide common room, nestled so far into the hillside it was underground. Fresh air somehow still circulated to flutter the multicolored banners hanging from the ceiling.

The rainbow hues reminded him of the Capital’s Royal Houses, but he suspected these colors had a different meaning here. The Royal Houses didn’t have a strong presence in Jorat; Kihrin thought that spoke well of Jorat.

Kihrin noticed three exits from the main room, besides the one he’d used to arrive. He had no way to know which of them—if any of them— led back outside, but he liked to keep his options open. The tavern also possessed a well-stocked bar, no obvious bouncer, and the aroma of roasting meat wafting out from a kitchen. Perfect.

Joratese townsfolk sheltered from the weather here and many were enjoying an afternoon meal. Kihrin forced himself not to stare; Joratese skin colors varied as much as their horses, with similar markings. Everyone wore their hair long and straight—loose or in intricate decorated braids. Some townsfolk shaved the sides of their heads so a single strip remained, mimicking equine manes. And all either sported plain earth-toned attire or bright clothing paired with all the jewelry they owned. Kihrin couldn’t tell if the difference in styles showed rank or fulfilled some other social role, but it seemed independent of gender.

The townsfolk’s return stares were far less polite than his own. All chatter in the area died away.

“Kihrin?”

He turned to see a woman his age, standing by the fire.

Kihrin’s breath caught in his throat.

She was as Joratese as everyone else in the room; she was nothing like anyone else in the room. Everything about her was red—her skin burnt sienna, her eyes ruby. He’d imagined meeting her so often that seeing her in person struck him as ludicrous. A demon prince named Xaltorath had shown her image to Kihrin once, years before. Kihrin had never been able to push her memory away. She defined the meter by which he measured all beauty.

And she was there. She was right there.

Impossible. The idea he’d travel to Jorat and run into his dream woman at the first ale house defied credulity. The Goddess of Luck favored him more literally than most, but there were limits.

So this must be a trick. Bait.

He suddenly felt insulted; it wasn’t even subtle bait.

She gave him a smile that outshone the sun, to his dazzled eyes. “I’m so glad you’re here. Please, join us.” She gestured next to her. A thin, small western Quuros man sat with her, dressed in a priest’s robes and agolé. He looked like someone resigned to being an awkward third wheel.

She stopped smiling as Kihrin again placed a hand on his dagger.

“I don’t believe we’ve met,” Kihrin said. “I’m Kihrin. And you are?”

The joy drained from her eyes. “You don’t remember me.”

“I’ll repeat myself: we’ve never met.”

The surrounding people started grumbling. A man in the back even stood up. No doubt they felt the need to protect their own from a random outlander.

She turned to the tavern and made a shushing motion. “It’s fine. He’s my guest. Free drinks for the room on my tab.” That earned cheers, with laughter mixed in, as if she’d said something funny. Kihrin added it to his list of reasons to distrust the situation.

“Perhaps you might sit down,” said the priest. “We’ll introduce ourselves and explain matters.”

Kihrin moved his hand from the dagger. If she were a ruse, at least he had the small advantage of recognizing her nature. Only three entities in the universe knew what his dream girl looked like: his best friend, Teraeth; the demon Xaltorath; and the mimic Talon. Teraeth would never do something like this, but the other two? Neither of them was a friend.

But the priest struck him as an odd accompaniment to a demonic seduction. Why would Xaltorath or Talon have brought a chaperone?

Kihrin pulled a chair over and sat down.

The Joratese woman returned to her seat. “That didn’t go the way I’d hoped at all. We don’t have time for this.”

“I told you he wouldn’t remember,” the priest said. “Most never do.”

“You were introducing yourselves?” Kihrin pressed. “Let’s start there.”

“Yes,” the woman said. “Of course.” She placed a pitch-black hand on her chest.

Kihrin blinked. He hadn’t imagined it. She wasn’t wearing gloves; the color of her hands and face didn’t match.

“I’m Janel Theranon. This is my dearest friend Qown, formerly—” She turned to Qown. “Is it formerly?”

The man grimaced. “My status is uncertain.” To Kihrin, he said, “I’m Brother Qown, a votary of the Vishai Mysteries. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Kihrin said, but his stare remained locked on Janel.

Janel. He felt an idiot. She had a name. Of course she did. In all the years since Xaltorath had forced her image into his mind, he’d never wondered what her name might be. Janel could even be a common name. Maybe Janels in Jorat were like Tishars in the Capital. Something meaning pretty or blessed or—in this dominion—something to do with horses.

“Janel,” he said. “Why wouldn’t I remember you if we’ve met?”

She lowered her voice. “Because you were dead.”

He glanced around. People had stopped paying any attention after Janel had vouched for him. “I’d appreciate a little more detail.”

Kihrin’s friend Teraeth had a free visitor’s pass to and from the Afterlife, thanks to his mother, who just happened to be Thaena, Goddess of Death. And Thaena often brought others back to life—himself, for example, just two days before. The idea he’d been dead when they met was possible.

Unnerving, but possible.

“Very well,” Janel said. “I have the ability to travel between the Living World and the Afterlife. I was in the latter when you were sacrificed to Xaltorath, two days ago. I helped you fight your way past the demons hunting you, so you could Return to the Living World.”

His mouth dried. “And how did you know I’d be… here?”

The priest, Qown, turned to her. “Janel, I don’t think—”

“Shh,” Janel said before returning to Kihrin. “When we met in the Afterlife, you told me your story. You’d died trying to stop Gadrith D’Lorus, whom you suspected of plotting to kill the emperor. On waking, I discovered the emperor was dead. Gadrith was dead. And someone had broken the Stone of Shackles, which freed all gaeshed slaves—but likewise freed all gaeshed demons. And I know destroying a Cornerstone like the Stone of Shackles requires the sword Urthaenriel, also known as Godslayer.”

Kihrin managed not to swallow. She’d hit the major points. “All very interesting, but I’m not hearing an explanation.”

She lifted her chin. “I was looking for you, but I couldn’t find you.” Janel lowered her voice again. “Magic couldn’t find you. And since I’d used a Cornerstone to search, the easiest explanation for why it failed was that you must be holding Godslayer. It’s somewhere on you, right now. Since we had no way to track you, we took a chance that sooner or later you’d try to use the gate system.”

“And… ?” Kihrin motioned for her to continue.

“And we bribed the Gatekeepers Guild to watch for you.”

“That way they would link you here to this Gatestone rather than your original destination,” Qown added.

“Jorat.”

Janel tilted her head. “Excuse me?”

“I was already coming here. To Jorat. Because I need to—” Kihrin stopped himself.

Because I need to find the Black Knight, Kihrin thought. Because a single person isn’t going to fulfill the prophecies as the Hellwarrior. We suspect they refer to a quartet, with only three accounted for so far: Therin’s son, Doc’s son, and Sandus’s son.

Which means there’s one more son to go. 

Kihrin realized she still waited on him to finish explaining why he was there. Instead, he smiled and asked, “Where are we in Jorat, anyway?”

“Avranila,” Janel said. “A town in the northeast.” She sighed. “I’d hoped you might make it here sooner. What delayed you?”

“I needed a bath,” Kihrin said.

She didn’t seem to find that funny.

Kihrin sighed. “There was a Hellmarch going on in the Capital. Refugees swamped any Gatestone within ten miles of the Capital, and we had to walk because Scandal wasn’t about to let anyone ride her. We ended up traveling another thirty miles to reach the next available gate. And I wondered at how easy it was to bribe that Gatekeeper; he must have been taking extra metal to follow your orders.”

Janel cleared her throat. “Just as well. We worried some enterprising Gatekeeper would try to play it both ways.”

Brother Qown added, “There is a reward offered by House D’Mon for your ‘safe return.’”

“I’m not surprised. I’d been missing for a few years. No one’s had a chance to take down the ‘lost pet’ notices.” Kihrin raised a hand to catch the bartender’s attention. “Hey, can I get a cider over here? And whatever your special is.”

Janel touched her fingers on his wrist. “We don’t have time for food. That’s what I’m trying to explain. Your help is needed elsewhere right away. That’s why we brought you here.”

A large banging echoed down the corridor. The crowd froze, and several townsfolk stood to get a better view of the new arrivals.

But there were no new arrivals. Instead, Star and the old groom who had been helping with the horses walked into the main tavern.

The woman wiped her hands on her apron. “I hope no one had any important plans. We’ve had to lock up the storm door.”

Groans filled the room.

Janel stood again. “We’ll leave as soon as one more person arrives.”

The groom shook her head. “No, you won’t. Nobody’s coming or going. Tempest outside’s gone into murder mode. You won’t survive five minutes if you go out there right now. So sit down and enjoy the company until the worst blows over.” The old woman gave Janel a sharp look. “That last person you’re waiting on? Sorry, but he’s missing the party.”

“He’s late,” Janel conceded. “He was supposed to be here by now.”

“Yeah? Well, I was supposed to be the Markreev of Alvaros, so we don’t always get what we want. Anyhow, what with demons starting Hell-marches from one side of Quur to the other, your friend showing up at all, storm or no storm, was always a bit on the iffy side.” The old woman turned and headed to the bar, seating herself on a chair and shouting for a bottle. To Kihrin’s surprise, Star followed her, bypassing Kihrin’s table.

Kihrin startled. “Wait, did she say Hellmarches? Plural?”

Janel and Qown both stared at him.

“Uh, that’s not a trick question.”

Janel smoothed her trousers, which she wore tucked into hard riding boots. “Yes, Hellmarches. Xaltorath has roamed free since before you broke the Stone of Shackles. She’s been busy inviting her friends to the party ever since.”

Despite having ordered food, he felt sick to his stomach. “I… I didn’t realize.”

“Not all is lost,” Janel said. “The Eight Immortals fight to keep the demons too occupied to overrun the Living World. They’ve pushed them back before. I’ve every faith they’ll do so again.”

And Kihrin had every faith in her naïveté. “Fine. You’ve gone through a lot of effort to find me.” He looked Janel in the eyes. “Why?”

She answered, “We want to slay a dragon.”

Kihrin blinked at her.

“A dragon? A dragon?”

Janel blushed. “Please lower your voice.”

“A dragon,” Kihrin repeated a third time. “Do you have any clue—? No, wait. Look, I applaud your ambition or greed or whatever reason you have for thinking this is a good idea. Let me assure you—this is a terrible idea.”

“It matters not if it is or it isn’t—”

“No. I’m sorry. ‘Let’s go kill a dragon’ ranks among the worst of ideas. It’s right above invading the Manol in summer and right below freeing Vol Karoth ‘just for a little while.’ Do you know why parents don’t warn their children not to attack dragons? Because no parent wants to think their kids are that stupid. A dragon would annihilate me before I got close enough to hurt its feelings, let alone do any real damage to it.”

Janel raised an eyebrow at Kihrin. “Are you quite finished?”

“No,” Kihrin said. “I want to know who told you to enlist me into this ludicrous scheme, so I can find that person and shove my—”

“A quarter million people are currently in Atrine,” Janel interrupted. “And they have no idea they’re about to be attacked by the largest dragon ever known.”

That stopped him cold. He ignored the bartender—doing double duty as waitstaff—as she shoved another mug of cider onto the table. She followed that with a bowl of rice and vegetables covered in a thick paste. Without asking if anyone needed anything else, she retreated to the bar.

Kihrin pushed aside the food. “What?”

Musicians and storytellers in the Capital loved to talk about Atrine. What wasn’t to love? Atrine was a literally magical city, crafted of poetry and marble, built by Emperor Atrin Kandor in a single day. Ironically, Kihrin had never met anyone who’d actually been there; it was everyone’s favorite city from a distance.

“You heard me quite well,” Janel said, no longer smiling. “Now, as I decided to recruit you for this plan, just what, pray tell, are you planning to shove, and where? Would you care to elaborate?”

Kihrin turned red. He exhaled and turned to the priest. “How are you involved in this?”

“Oh, I’m uh…” Qown floundered. “I used to be… that is to say…” He scowled, flustered. “It’s complicated,” he finished.

“As Qown mentioned earlier, he’s a votary of the Vishai Mysteries,” Janel said. “He’s also a qualified physicker and my best friend.”

Qown looked uncomfortable. Kihrin wondered what part of Janel’s description had upset the priest—his religion or his status as a Royal House licensed healer. Being called dearest friend hadn’t bothered him earlier.

“And you’re fine with this ‘Let’s go kill a dragon’ plan? Because you don’t strike me as the type to throw away your life.”

“With all respect,” Qown replied, “my approval or disapproval is irrelevant. Once Morios surfaces from underneath Lake Jorat, he’ll attack Atrine. Thousands will die. Normally, the emperor would handle the problem, or the Eight Immortals themselves, but Emperor Sandus is dead, and the gods…” He held out his hands.

“The gods are busy battling demons,” Janel finished.

Kihrin looked around the room. Everything seemed normal, or what passed as such in this corner of the empire. Star and that old groom were at the bar. The crowd was making the best of the storm and had started a sing-along.

Kihrin turned back to the two reckless would-be heroes. Xaltorath clearly hadn’t set a trap here.

The demon prince wouldn’t have invented a scheme this implausible.

As far as Kihrin knew, the last dragon attack on a city in the Empire of Quur had taken place during the Age of God-Kings, thousands of years ago. Kihrin had always assumed dragons were nothing but a story: a myth the minstrels trotted out whenever they wanted to sing the first emperor’s praises. At least that’s what Kihrin had believed until he’d met a real dragon—the Old Man, Sharanakal. He had no desire to repeat the experience.

Kihrin scrubbed a hand over his face. “Do you two mind if I eat while we talk? I haven’t had food since west of the Dragonspires.”

Janel agreed with an aristocratic finger twirl.

Kihrin wondered if those red eyes meant she was Ogenra—the name the Royal Houses gave to bastards lucky enough to show the god-touched marks of their bloodlines.

For example, House D’Talus red eyes—or his own House D’Mon blue.

“Okay, so you… fine. You have my attention. At least until the storm clears.” He nudged around the food in the bowl. The rice appeared unflavored. The vegetables looked blanched. The thick paste on top seemed edible, but the white goo was a mystery.

Joratese cuisine had been all the rage back in the Capital. Kihrin’s heart sank at the prospect of eating more of what he remembered being flavorless garbage.

Brother Qown took pity on him. He walked over to a table, said a quick “Pardon, pardon,” and swiped a pot of bright red paste. “They have chili sauces.” The priest set the jar in front of Kihrin. “But they don’t bring them out for outsiders unless you ask. If you’re liberal with the peppers, it’s not bad.”

Not bad?” Janel raised an eyebrow.

“It will never beat my vanoizi-spiced eggplant,” Qown said. “I’m sorry, but that’s a fact. You Joratese can’t be expected to compare your cuisine to perfection.”

Janel slapped Qown’s shoulder. “Stop it. Priests are supposed to be humble.”

“Humility is a virtue much to be desired by those who walk in the light,” Qown agreed, beaming. “But then, so is honesty.”

Kihrin chuckled as he opened the jar and sniffed. The priest seemed much more relaxed when talking about food instead of dragons. Kihrin’s eyes watered—a good sign. He mixed in a large spoonful. “We’ll assume for the moment you’re serious. What’s the plan if this dragon—what was his name?”

“Morios.”

“Fine. Morios. How are you proposing to kill—” Kihrin stopped himself from laughing. “I’m sorry. How is this supposed to work? Humor me.”

“We’re waiting for another person.” Janel gave an anxious glance to the tunnel leading to the tavern entrance.

“Who?” Kihrin asked. “And how do you know this dragon—Morios— is about to go on a rampage all over this dominion’s capital? Did he send you a letter?”

Janel and Qown shared a look.

Janel said, “That’s… complicated.”

Kihrin possessed a well-honed sense of caution thanks to a childhood spent with criminals. This entire scenario smelled like a con. His adoptive mother, Ola, had taught him the best way to avoid ending up a mark: never stick around long enough to end up on the hook.

Kihrin dropped his spoon and grabbed his pack. “All right. I’m out of here. Good luck with your dragon hunt. It’s been a pleasure meeting you.” He yelled across the room. “Hey, Star, we’re leaving! Right now!”

The other man looked up from his drink in surprise. “We’re what?”

Janel stood. “You can’t leave. The storm outside—”

“I’ll risk it.” He decided not to wait for Star as he dodged around chairs on his way to the exit. The Joratese horseman was exactly where Kihrin had promised to take him: Jorat. He didn’t assume Star’s loyalty ran any deeper than that.

Kihrin retraced his steps through the tunnel. Lanterns hung from the passage rafters, lighting his way back to the stables and the entrance— where a heavy wooden crossbeam stretched across the latched door. It rattled as though a giant stood on the other side, shaking it for entry. When he moved to shift the bar, Scandal whinnied at him. Kihrin didn’t speak fireblood, but the tone suggested something like “You’re not going out in this weather, are you?”

“Sorry, Scandal, but you’re back in Jorat just like I promised. Star can take it from here.” He’d made a mistake coming here. Kihrin should have stayed with Teraeth. He’d then have been blissfully ignorant of the body count attached to his deeds. He’d triggered Hellmarches

So many people had died. All because he’d figured out a clever way to circumvent the Stone of Shackles’ power in order to kill Gadrith. How could he have known the damn artifact was responsible for binding demons? He’d had no idea.

“Hail to thee, Lawbreaker. Hail to thee, Prince of Swords.” He whispered Xaltorath’s mocking words to himself. He’d done just what Xaltorath had wanted: freed the demons. He’d also slain the emperor. Then he’d reclaimed the sword Urthaenriel, the Ruin of Kings. And according to the Devoran Prophecies, what was in store for the person who accomplished those things? That lucky bastard would go on to destroy the Quuros Empire—and quite possibly the world.

Did it make a difference if Kihrin didn’t want to?

How many people did he know who’d tried to escape the game of prophecies played by demons, dragons, and gods? Didn’t matter. They ended up involved, anyway. The Eight Immortals had personally dropped Kihrin into this mess in the hope of subverting the prophecies. Yet he wondered if they had really known what they were doing. The demons seemed to be winning.

Hail to thee, Thief of Souls.

He set down his pack and put a shoulder to the crossbeam over the door. The heavy wood groaned before it finally pulled free, and he dropped it to one side.

The moment he opened the latch, the outer door crashed open. The wind howled like a dragon’s roar. Kihrin could only make out silhouettes of the town’s nearby buildings as the storm turned the afternoon into night. But Kihrin didn’t care if the weather was unsafe for man or beast.

He started to step outside.

Started to. Then he heard a ferocious whistling. A massive white blur flew overhead; the shape flipped around and landed with a thunderous boom. Wood from nearby—houses, tents, buildings—cracked and splintered. Stone crushed and scattered.

Lightning outlined the draconic shape before him. It wasn’t Sharanakal, the volcanic dragon who had sought to keep him prisoner. This was a different dragon, white and gray and silver, blue eyes sparkling gemlike.

Staring at him.

Time froze, stretched. He thought, Her eyes are the same color as mine. Only afterward would he realize he’d assumed the dragon’s gender. Time snapped forward. The dragon spread her wings wide and pulled her head back. She whipped her head forward as razor-sharp ice shards rushed from her huge mouth in a hurricane-force blast.

He scrambled to shut the opening, but it was a two-person job.

Then Janel stood next to him, grabbing at the door’s edge. She lifted the bar and slammed it down into position as the ice shards hit. The barrier shuddered while Janel leaned against it.

“Your sword!” she shouted. “Pierce your sword through the wood! Nothing can withstand Urthaenriel!”

He unsheathed the dagger at his side, which transformed into a slender white-silver sword.

Urthaenriel screamed in his ears—oh, a siren roar to compete with any storm-tossed tirade. She screamed at him to destroy the woman. Screamed at him to destroy something behind him back in the tavern. Screamed for him to destroy the dragon. Anything magic. Anyone who knew magic. Urthaenriel sang a song of chaos and hated all other voices but her own.

He ignored her.

“Duck!” he shouted at Janel. She did.

He rammed the blade through to the hilt. The wood gave, more like paper than fire-hardened oak. Then something massive slammed against the door. The building shook, and a bellow filled the air.
He pulled Urthaenriel out. Blue-violet blood coated the blade. Ice crystals formed as the liquid dripped to the ground.

“What are we—” Kihrin turned to Janel.

“The dragon’s not done!” Janel grabbed his misha and heaved him away from the door. Janel smashed herself against it, rooting her feet against the paving stones. A howling, hissing noise filled the room. Thick ice layers formed around the portal. The foundation rock cracked and groaned.

Finally, the sound of the wind outside faded.

Janel sank down to the wet ground, her breath frosting the air. Kihrin sat down before her, Urthaenriel dangling from one hand. Water dripped nearby. The horses made soothing noises to each other as the firebloods edged forward to investigate.

After a long, weighty silence, Kihrin said, “You could’ve mentioned the dragon was coming to us.”

“Yes…” She exhaled, rubbing a hand against the side of her head. “I would have, except for one small problem.”

“What?”

“That’s the wrong dragon.”


 

1: The Outlaws of Barsine

Jorat Dominion, Quuros Empire.
Two days since Kihrin D’Mon was sacrificed to Xaltorath

When Kihrin walked back into the tavern, a swell of questions greeted him—or greeted her. The guests wanted answers. What was that noise? Had it scared the horses? Were the horses all right? Had the weather worsened? Did anyone check the horses? Did the firebloods want to join them at the bar?

That last offer had sounded serious.

“The storm is still too severe to travel,” Janel projected in a loud voice. “Don’t try to leave.”

Kihrin raised an eyebrow but didn’t contradict her. An ice sheet several feet thick now trapped everyone inside. With an angry dragon waiting for them on the other side.

Just your typical night out at a tavern.

There seemed little point in panicking the crowd over something they couldn’t fix. Kihrin doubted he could help either, even with Urthaenriel, but he knew one thing: any dragon-slaying debate had become significantly less debatable.

But if the one outside was the wrong dragon, who was the right dragon?

After everyone returned to their drinks and chatter, Janel wandered back to the Vishai priest. She dumped Kihrin’s bag onto a chair.

“Aeyan’arric’s outside,” she whispered to Brother Qown, “and she’s iced over the tavern’s front door.”

Kihrin sat and stared at his bowl. He wondered how many provisions the tavern had stocked, how long the supplies would last. How would the locals accept rationing, or worse, the food running out?

No. Kihrin had no intention of letting a dragon trap him. And Urthaenriel’s hateful melodies had revealed the presence of powerful magic. Kihrin couldn’t be sure if Urthaenriel was reacting to wizards or to the presence of one or more Cornerstones, but the sword gave him enough of a vague sense of direction to make an educated guess. Urthaenriel wanted Qown dead as much as she wanted to kill the dragon, Janel, or the old woman who kept the horses.

These people weren’t as powerless as they seemed.

“Aeyan’arric’s here? Already?” Qown leaned forward, lowering his voice to match Janel’s. “That’s far too soon after the fight. If she’s recovered this fast—”

“Not if, ” Janel said. “She’s recovered. It’s an unwelcome confirmation of how hard it is to permanently kill a dragon. She didn’t even stay dead for two days. And we’ve no way to know if the other dragons recover slower or faster.”

Kihrin furrowed his eyebrows. “She was dead two days ago? How did that happen?”

Janel sighed. She glanced around to make sure no one was paying attention. “I slew her.” She added, “To be fair, I had significant assistance.”

“So… let me see if I understand. You lured me here using a combination of bribery and logic. You have a hypothetical dragon—Morios—you claim will rip up Atrine any minute now. But Aeyan’arric—a dragon who is not hypothetical—has instead stalked you here. Because you were rude enough to kill her two days ago.” Kihrin grabbed his bowl and a spoon. “There’s no point worrying about your first problem until you do something about the second. Did I miss anything?”

Janel frowned at him. “No.”

“So answer me this. If this dragon—Morios—is heading for Jorat’s capital, why didn’t you set up shop in Atrine and have the Gatekeeper send me there? We’d already be in position. I didn’t see a Gatekeeper manning this side of the local Gatestone when I arrived. So unless this is your Gatekeeper’s day off and he’s drinking over at the bar, we can’t open a gate from here. Why enlist my help here—assuming I’d even agree—if it takes two months to reach Atrine? How much of that city would be left when we arrived?

Janel and Qown shared that look again.

“Okay, you two need to stop that,” Kihrin said. “Whatever you think I won’t believe or won’t accept—just tell me. I’ve been through and seen a lot. I’m a master at accepting the impossible.”

“The way your hands are shaking suggests otherwise,” Janel said.

“That’s a normal reaction to being attacked by a dragon.”

Qown cleared his throat. “Sometimes a particular action sounds bad if one doesn’t have the context to interpret it. For example, if somebody told me you had killed Emperor Sandus—”

“Just an example?” Kihrin narrowed his eyes. “I hypothetically killed the emperor?”

“Let him finish,” Janel said.

“Yes, thank you. As I was saying, I would be upset. But only because I lacked context. After all, Gadrith the Twisted had taken possession of Sandus’s body using the Stone of Shackles. You didn’t kill the emperor, because he was already dead. You see? If we blurt out certain facts—well, without the right context, you might reach an incorrect conclusion.”

Kihrin stared. “Where are you getting your information about me?”

He found their accuracy distressing. Kihrin checked the man’s hands; no intaglio-carved ruby rings. If Qown belonged to the late emperor’s secret society, the Gryphon Men, he wasn’t wearing his allegiance openly.

Qown cleared his throat. “That’s also one of those situations where context is important.” He turned to Janel. “We have a lot to explain.”

“Yes, you do,” Kihrin agreed. “Luckily for you, I don’t have anywhere else to be.”

Janel scowled. “Our focus must be on Atrine, Qown. Morios could wake at any moment. When he does, Atrine will be defenseless.”

“Do you want me to check?” Qown asked. “Sorry. Of course you do.” He pulled an egg-sized stone from his robes. Toward the middle, the brown agate seemed to transform to some more expensive gemstone. The colors layered until a flame appeared to burn in the center.

Urthaenriel screamed in his mind.

“Is that…” Kihrin paused and wet his lips. “That’s a Cornerstone, right?”

“Worldhearth,” Qown said. “One of the eight god artifacts. Each Cornerstone possesses unique abilities its owner can use—”

“I know what a Cornerstone is. I destroyed one two days ago.” And freed every demon in the world.

“Right. The Stone of Shackles.” Qown fidgeted. “A moment, then.”

The priest didn’t do anything special or spectacular. He stared into the rock as though admiring its beauty. After a few seconds, he blinked and tucked the stone back into his robes.

“He hasn’t attacked yet,” Qown said. “He will soon. We need to be there when he—” She glanced over at Kihrin in time to see him roll his eyes.

“You don’t believe us.”

“I still haven’t heard why we’re not in Atrine.”

“I have my reasons.”

“And what might those be?”

“Mine.” She narrowed her eyes.

But Kihrin had no interest in placating her. “You won’t give me information, and you still expect me to help? Why would I?”

Janel leaned across the table. “Because the man I encountered two days ago wasn’t a spoiled brat. Because he didn’t hesitate to aid me, even at the risk he’d be trapped in the Afterlife. Because I thought that man— who would risk his soul to save someone he’d never met before—” She curled her lip. “I assumed he’d risk his life to save two hundred and fifty thousand other people he’d never met before. Apparently, I was mistaken.” Janel stood up while Brother Qown gave the impression he wanted to hide behind his hands.

Kihrin grabbed her wrist. The scathing look she threw at him suggested he was about to lose the hand—followed by his life. “I’m sorry.” He stared into her eyes, red with glimmers of orange and yellow—not House D’Talus. “I was out of line. But please understand, you’re asking a lot. You’re expecting me to accept your story on blind faith. Anyone would be skeptical. Give me something to work with.”

Janel studied his face before sitting. “I can’t return to Atrine because of my status in the eyes of Jorat’s ruler. The moment Duke Xun learns I’m not deceased, I’ll be treated to my prompt execution. The only way I can visit Atrine is if they’re too distracted with other problems to pay any attention. For example—Morios.

Kihrin stared at her. “Why does Duke Xun want you dead?”

“It’s a rather long story.”

“We have time,” Kihrin said. “I mean…” He pointed back toward the front door. “We’re not going anywhere until the ice queen outside tires of this game. Or until we kill her.”

Brother Qown perked. “That’s a wonderful idea.”

“Which part? The tiring or the killing?”

“Qown—” Janel said.

“Don’t scold me. He’s right; we should tell him.” Qown smiled at Kihrin. “Plus, it’s important for you to see how you fit into all this and why we need you.”

“I know why,” Kihrin replied. Urthaenriel. If they’d already killed a dragon, then doing so again wasn’t the issue. Apparently, killing a dragon permanently was the problem. They thought they needed Urthaenriel to make it stick.

Qown paused from fishing through a satchel. “Hm, I doubt it.”

“Where should I start?” Janel said. “Perhaps with Duke Kaen?”

Qown pulled a small, neatly bound tome from his book bag. “We’d have to go back further than Duke Kaen or it won’t make sense. Further than Atrine. All the way to events at Barsine.” He tapped his thumb against the book cover. “Fortunately, I’ve logged the whole story.”

“Barsine. Is that a person or a place?” Kihrin asked.

Janel’s smile was wan. “It depends on context. Qown, you start. I’ll go fetch us all another round. And more upishiarral.”

Kihrin followed her with his eyes as she headed toward the bar. She started talking to the bartender. Whatever Janel said made the other woman throw down her towel and cross her arms. A few seconds later, they slipped through a back door.

Meanwhile, Brother Qown picked up his notebook and read aloud. “There are many accounts of the rebellion, the reasons for it, the manner of its successes and failures. Brother Qown was certain his account wouldn’t match any other histori—”

“Hold up. I have a question,” Kihrin said.

Brother Qown paused. “Just one?”

“I make no promises,” Kihrin said dryly. “A rebellion? What rebellion? I thought we were talking about a dragon.”

“Context, remember?” Qown said. “Please be patient. It’s not as though you have any choice, until certain draconic obstacles are removed.”

“Fine, fine. Is this recent? Duke Kaen moving against the rest of the empire?” Janel and Qown had mentioned Duke Kaen earlier, and Kihrin’s friend Jarith Milligreest had been concerned about the duke’s undeclared rebellion. For that matter, Jarith’s father, High General Qoran Milligreest, had been concerned about Duke Kaen. Father and son had both watched him, waiting for the man to give them an excuse to send in the army.

Which reminded Kihrin his friend Jarith had been claimed by the Hellmarch two days before in the Capital.

He exhaled.

“My apologies,” Kihrin said. “Please continue.”

“Right, yes.” Qown looked for his place in the journal. “So… Qown would always insist the rebellion began in Jorat.

“It began with a robbery…

“The whole affair had been problematic from the start. The outlaws had proved unwilling to engage in the ‘robbing’ part of their duties. Brother Qown knew the bandits lurked in the nearby trees; he’d felt eyes on their position for hours. He wondered what they could be waiting—”

Brother Qown looked up, frowning. “Yes?”

“Third person?” Kihrin asked, trying not to laugh. “Really? If you were there… why wouldn’t you tell this from your point of view?”

“It’s a chronicle,” Brother Qown protested. “I’m a chronicler. One does not write a chronicle as a first-person diary.”

“I never found anyone who’d refer to themselves in third person trustworthy. I knew this mimic—”

Janel set down a tray filled with ciders, local beers, and several more bowls of upishiarral. “Here we are.”

“Problems with the barkeep?” Kihrin asked.

“Hm? No problem at all,” Janel said. She helped herself to a cider as she sat.

Kihrin glanced over at the bar. The bartender had returned, but now she huddled with the old groom, whispering.

“He keeps interrupting me.” Brother Qown looked over at Janel as if pleading for protection. “May I please continue?”

Janel touched Kihrin on the hand. “There’ll be no living with him if you don’t allow him to read.”

Kihrin let the little man read.

 

Qown’s Turn. Barsine Banner, Jorat, Quur.

The previous bandits had never hesitated like this.

In fact, they were taking so long to make their move that Mare Dorna joked about inviting them into the camp to share breakfast.
At last, a lone masked figure wandered into their clearing. Brother Qown hid his surprise; he hadn’t expected the brigand to be a woman. Then again, Jorat had defied so many expectations.

“Finally,” Dorna muttered. Brother Qown elbowed her to keep quiet. Evidently in this part of Jorat, criminals were timid creatures who had to be lured from their warrens.

“Where are your guards?” the bandit asked as she looked around—a sensible question to ask when about to commit a crime.

Mare Dorna snorted as she scraped stale sweet rice from her iron stir pan.

Their party’s third member sat still and poised by the campfire. She embodied all the motives the desperate might ever need for banditry. A jeweled ring on a chain hung from her neck. Gold thread stitched her riding tunic. Jade pins decorated her laevos hair.

“Guards? Why?” Janel asked the newcomer while she sipped her tea. “Are you looking for work?”

The bandit rolled her eyes at the jest. She continued examining the clearing as if armed soldiers hid under the bedrolls. Her gaze lingered for a moment on the deer corpse, hanging upside down from one of the trees.

Brother Qown could guess her thoughts: there were just three of them, and none looked capable of stringing up a deer, let alone defending themselves. Dorna looked older than many mountains. Brother Qown himself was ill-used to strenuous exercise. The noblewoman, Janel, muddied the distinction between woman and child. Their horses foraged in a nearby pasture: harmless by casual observation. No sign, anywhere, of the all-important guards who might protect a Joratese aristocrat from those with less fortunate births.

Easy metal.

“Too simple,” the bandit murmured. “You’re too well-bred not to have protectors.”

That makes her smarter than the last four outlaw leaders, Brother Qown thought.

This trap always reminded Brother Qown of the salos, a snake living in the Manol Jungle. He’d never seen one himself, having never been as far south as to leave Quur’s borders, but Father Zajhera had described the creature. The reptile hunted by mimicking a wounded animal with its tail, twitching the tip in distress. Any predator who pounced on this free appetizer discovered they were intended as the main course.

His employer, Janel Theranon, Count of Tolamer, looked just as vulnerable.

His gaze shifted out into the woods as he heard dry leaves crackle, the twigs snapping underfoot. “Count,” he said, “this one isn’t alone.”

“I should hope not, Brother Qown,” Count Janel said, setting down her teacup with exaggerated care as she regarded the brigand. “Are your companions seeking employment as well?” She smiled at the woman.

“Depends. What are you paying?” a man shouted from somewhere beyond the tree line. Others, also unseen, laughed in response, revealing the woman had brought all her friends to the party.

The bandit sighed. She was dressed in an ornate leather tunic dyed in contrasting brown and green shades. Two pieces of embroidered green fabric comprised the mask over her face, overlapped to leave a slit for her eyes. Brown skin surrounded one eye, while wine-red skin surrounded the other. She had a bow stowed across her pack and a sickle in her hand.

Probably a farmer gone feral. That quality seemed infectious, given how often brigands had attacked them since Count Janel’s canton, Tolamer. However, there was an upside. Most ruling nobles in Jorat offered a bounty on captured bandits.

A fine way to earn a living if one didn’t mind the risk.

Brother Qown minded rather a lot, but it wasn’t his place to tell his count how to fill her coffers with metal.

The outlaw turned toward the woods. “Shut it!”

Janel’s smile broadened to a grin. “Give your men time. No horse is born saddled.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” the bandit admitted, then squared her shoulders as if reminding herself not to be distracted by a friendly victim. “See here. We’ve been following you and yours ever since you crossed the river, asking ourselves the whole while what a fancy mane like you is doing out here. You expect us to believe you have nothing but an ancient mare and a fat gelding for company?”

Brother Qown straightened. “Now hold on…”

“Oh, she don’t miss the obvious, do she?” Dorna said as she pulled herself up to her feet, still holding on to the iron fry pan. “I’m old, and you ain’t never passed by a second helping of noodles in your life.”

Brother Qown frowned. “Dorna, whose side are you on?”

A whistle interrupted them. Brother Qown jumped backward, not from training as much as animal instinct. An arrow hit Dorna’s fry pan, sending it flying.

Everyone stopped.

Count Janel’s lips thinned. She no longer looked amused.

“Ow! Why’d you do that for? I weren’t done cleaning that!” Dorna rubbed her hand and scrunched up her face in protest.

Brother Qown’s heart beat so fast he thought it might turn into a rabbit and scamper away. The last bandits they’d encountered had been all pitchforks and long knives—close-combat melee weapons, which played to the count’s strength. She looked so helpless; it always brought the wolves near.

Arrows were another matter. She possessed no immunity to arrows.

Neither did Qown nor Dorna.

The bandit tightened her grip on the sickle in her hand. “We’re not here to entertain you, crone. Give over your valuables. Now.” She pointed to Janel’s family sword, sheathed and hanging by its belt from a thick branch. “Whose is that?”

Janel tilted her head. “Mine.”

“Horse crap.” The woman laughed. “I’ll be damned if you could even lift metal so big. Where’s your guard? Out in the woods, maybe, relieving himself?”

Brother Qown looked toward the trees. The leaves rustled as the bandit’s men shifted position or expressed their impatience. Whoever had fired their bow either knew their business or had been blessed by Taja. But if they had more bows, if their main assault came as a volley of arrows…

Brother Qown suspected the count knew the danger, but she had a gleam in her eye, as if enjoying herself.

Brother Qown suspected she was enjoying herself.

He made a sign to the morning sun. He wondered what he’d done to upset Father Zajhera. Did this assignment served as punishment?

“You’re so convinced I must have a guard,” Janel mused. “There’s a saying about judging how fast a horse runs by the color of her coat. It may apply here.” She stood then, brushing the remaining breakfast crumbs from her embroidered riding tunic before she bowed. “I offer you a deal.”

“You think you’re in a position to make deals?”

Brother Qown met Dorna’s eyes. The old woman made the smallest gesture toward the large camphor tree near them, one with thick roots perfect for ducking behind. Janel always did well in fights, but Dorna and Qown needed a place to hide.

Count Janel waved the complaint aside. “You’re the herd leader. You’re concerned about my guards, and rightly so; you don’t want your people injured. So I suggest a compromise. A duel. I’ll fight any of your associates—yourself, if you wish—using any weapon you choose. If you win, I’ll give you everything I have. You have my word.”

Brother Qown held his breath and watched to discover if the leader would take the bait and leap at that twitching, vulnerable tail…

The bandit said, “You must fancy I’m a fool or a weakling, and I’m neither.”

“You are a robber.” The insult had no sting to it; Janel’s smile harkened back to a child at play with her new best friend.

She seemed so pleased to fight another woman. Few women in Jorat turned to robbery. The bands she’d faced so far had been male.

The bandit put one hand on her hip. “You’re getting on my nerves, little girl.”

Janel laughed outright. “I might care more if you weren’t robbing me.”

“Now I’ll take the sword too.”

“If I’d been polite, would you have left it?”

“And that fancy ring.” The woman pointed to the chain around Count Janel’s neck.

The Theranon family sword and the Tolamer Canton signet ring. Brother Qown fought to keep from sighing out loud, but at least their would-be robber hadn’t yet said no.

“And the deal,” Count Janel pressed, “will you take that too?”

The outlaw paced, then gestured toward the sword. “Oh yes. Fine. Fight me, but not with your blade—the branch it hangs from is the weapon I choose for you.”

Brother Qown couldn’t help but blink. The proffered “weapon”—a horizontal limb—spilled out from the main tree’s trunk. The bough was as thick as Count Janel’s arm; removing it required an ax.

They hadn’t brought an ax.

The bandit saw the look on Qown’s face, the raised eyebrows on Janel’s. “Now we’ll have no more games, little girl. All your valuables in the camp center and consider yourselves lucky we have no use for your horses.”

Something moved in the woods behind them. In the distance, hooves galloped.

The woman must have believed the galloping signaled that much-feared guard, returning to protect his noble lady. “Circle out!” she cried. “Make ready!”

As the bandits focused on the imagined reinforcements, Janel Theranon, twenty-fourth Count of Tolamer, reached over and ripped away the tree branch. The crack of splintering wood echoed through the clearing.

“I accept your terms,” said Janel. “Now let’s begin.”

The clearing stilled as the bandit leader realized her mistake. Brother Qown almost felt sorry for her. Who would ever think the count dangerous? Just a girl. So helpless.

The trembling, vulnerable worm wasn’t a free meal after all.

The air smelled like green resin and old woodsmoke and the coming day’s rain as men and women spilled from the woods. As many women as men, which startled Qown, but they didn’t look any friendlier than their male counterparts.

“What are you doing?” the bandit woman asked, shocked from her silence. “By the Eight! Why are you leaving cover? Back into the trees, you lot!”

Brother Qown was at a loss as well. He didn’t understand why her band had fled concealment instead of shooting when they had the chance. Mare Dorna and Brother Qown hadn’t yet made a break for shelter. They were unshielded, unprotected.

The bandits not only left the woods but put away their weapons, slung their bows over their shoulders.

The biggest, a large man with black-splattered gray skin, looked askance as he pointed to Janel. “She challenged you. You accepted.” His expression suggested the explanation was obvious.

A second man tugged on the big man’s sleeve. “Five chances the fancy mane goes down with the first hit.”

Dorna straightened. “Ah, now you’re running in my pasture. Put me down for ten thrones my count kicks your boss’s ass.” She tapped Brother Qown on the shoulder. “Priest, I need to borrow ten thrones.”

“Dorna, no!” Brother Qown said.

“You have to spend metal to make metal, you know.”

“You idiots,” their boss snapped, “I wasn’t serious!”

“This is Jorat.” The big outlaw folded his arms.

A woman with a white blaze down the center of her face said, “You don’t joke about contests in Jorat.”

“Are you lot this stupid?” The bandit leader made no effort to hide her exasperation.

Janel laughed and bounced the branch in her hand. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

At that moment, Arasgon trotted into the clearing.

In a sense, the bandit leader was right about Janel’s guard. If the count ever needed an escort, Arasgon qualified. He’d been her loyal companion from childhood. His mere presence while traveling had proved so intimidating that Janel had ordered Arasgon to stay away from camp lest he ruin her trap. But Arasgon wore no armor, carried no weapons, and wasn’t human at all.

The fireblood stood eighteen hands high, black as sable with a crimson mane and tail, what the Joratese call flame-kissed. The similarity to his cousin horse breeds ended there; red tiger stripes wrapped around his legs, and his eyes were the same ruby hue as his mistress Janel’s. He’d have made a magnificent horse, but firebloods were not horses. As fire-bloods delighted in reminding anyone foolish enough to call them a “horse” within range of their hooves.

Arasgon voiced a noise that sounded like a cross between a neigh and something far more deliberate and sagacious. Brother Qown knew it was language, proper language, but he couldn’t understand a word, much to his endless frustration.

“I’m fine,” Janel said, glancing back over her shoulder toward Arasgon. “She’ll be no challen—”

Which was when the bandit kicked Janel in the head.

Three times.

The bandits cheered. They’d have broken out tankards and pennants if they could. And why not? Even with the fireblood’s presence, revered almost to holiness by the Joratese, the outlaws had them outnumbered four to one. This wasn’t a robbery; this was entertainment.

Easy enough to forget their leader fought a woman who could tear the limbs off trees.

Janel reeled from the blow, staggering so Brother Qown feared the fight would end right there. The brigand who had bet that outcome cheered.

Instead, Janel shook the fog from her head, her red eyes focusing on her attacker. “Oh, have we started? My mistake.” She wiped the blood from her mouth, leaving behind her bright smile.

The bandit leader stopped in her tracks. “How are you still standing? I’ve knocked him cold with that move.” She indicated the large man organizing the betting pool.

“I’m known for my stubbornness,” Janel answered. She punctuated the statement by wielding the tree limb, forcing the other woman to jump to the side as the wood hit the ground.

The thief who had bet on an easy win groaned and handed coins over to another bandit.

Janel closed in again. This time, as the bandit leader ducked under the branch’s swing, she also swept out with her leg, tripping Janel. The count just missed falling into the breakfast fire. Then the leader pressed her advantage, stomping down with her boot. Janel rolled to the side, putting a hand down into the burning coals as she stood back up again.

The cheering stopped, shocked.

Janel’s right glove was on fire. She looked down, sighed, and tucked the tree branch under her arm while she stripped the fabric from her fingers. The pitch-black skin underneath was very different from her face’s cinnamon hue. As far as Brother Qown could tell, she hadn’t been burned at all.

“That was my favorite pair of gloves,” she protested.

“Ah, foal,” Dorna said, “’twas your only pair of gloves.”

“That’s what I said, Mare Dorna,” Janel agreed. She steadied herself and swung the bough around her like a baton as she pointed at her adversary. “I underestimated you, thief.”

“Oh, likewise.” Wary concern tinted the woman’s laughter. “You’re wicked strong and sturdier than an ox, but you’ll never win with a tree branch.”

“Be grateful you didn’t choose the sword.”

The bandit’s laughter held a nervous edge. “You’d have to hit me first. I’m faster than anyone else here.”

The largest bandit turned to Dorna and confided, “It’s true. She’s the best fighter we have.” He tapped his chest. “And I went professional in the circuit.”

Janel smiled at her opponent. “I need only hit you once.”

Brother Qown forced himself to stop clenching his fists. Every imperial dominion had their own stereotypes. Khorveshans were great soldiers. Kirpisari prided themselves on their magical aptitude. Yorans were barbarians. The Joratese loved horses…

But he wished someone had warned him about the Joratese people’s love of fighting.

The whole time, Janel and the bandit leader circled each other, looking for another opening. The outlaw never attacked with her sickle, but she didn’t discard it either. Whenever Janel swung, the woman twisted aside or deflected the tree limb. Janel always ended up as the one punched or kicked.

Eventually, the thief would wear the count down.

“Not too shabby,” the woman said after Janel missed her for the umpteenth occasion, “but it’s a shame no one ever trained you.”

Janel lunged forward with the tree branch, and the bandit deflected, stepped to the side, and kicked her in the…

Her hindquarters, let’s say.

Count Janel stopped playing around, or maybe she just lost her temper. When she came in again, she wasn’t trying to dodge or avoid blows. She’d transformed into something relentless. The woman struck again, hard, but Janel just grunted, eyes narrowed. The count straightened and tossed the bough up in the air. It spun up and over end to end like a great leafy wheel.

She seemed unarmed.

Vulnerable…

The bandit leader didn’t waste the opportunity; she attacked.

Janel moved fast, jumping up and to the side. She caught the tree limb as it came down and swatted the sickle away, sending the ersatz weapon flying. Then Janel reversed the branch and slammed it down on her opponent’s leg, stretched out to deliver a hammer-like kick.

A loud crack split the air, followed by the bandit’s scream.

The woman’s leg bent in a way legs aren’t supposed to bend. She fell to the ground, sobbing.

Janel threw down the tree branch.

“Oh no,” she said. “I didn’t mean—” She blinked and stepped back. “Brother Qown! Help us!”

He ran forward. “I’m here, I’m here. Let me get my bag…”

The largest bandit took in the scene and frowned, crossing his hands over his chest. “That’s not how I figured this would go at all.”

Next to him, Mare Dorna held out a hand to gather her winnings.


 

2: A Rotted Fruit

Jorat Dominion, Quuros Empire.
Two days since Xaltorath started a Hellmarch in the Capital

Brother Qown paused, his voice breaking.

“Tea might soothe your throat better than cider,” Janel said.

The priest nodded. “You’re right. I’ll go check the kitchen.” He gave Kihrin a polite nod as he passed.

The resulting silence left Kihrin and Janel staring at each other.

Kihrin asked, “Did that really happen?”

“What? Qown checking to see if there’s tea?” She rested her chin on a hand, grinned at him when he rolled his eyes. “Oh, you mean bandits attacking us.”

Kihrin returned her smile. “No, I meant when you ripped the branch off that tree.”

“Yes. I suppose that part is hard to believe.”

Kihrin set his upishiarral aside. “The way you handled the stable door—I can’t do that. My friend Star can’t do that. We both tried. But you closed and barred the front door like it was made from sugar floss and compliments.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Then perhaps that story is true.”

“Why don’t you tell this tale instead of Qown? Nice work on having your own chronicler, by the way—but I doubt his version is unbiased.”

“And telling it from my viewpoint would be different? At least he remembered to document our travels. I was too distracted.”

“Maybe I’d just prefer to hear it from you.”

Their eyes met again.

Janel’s mouth twitched. “Answer a curiosity for me. Stallions or mares?”

Kihrin blinked. “What?”

She leaned forward, mirroring his position at the table. “Do you run with stallions? Or mares?”

“I’ve never put any thought into my horse’s gender—” He stopped. “But you’re not talking about horses, are you?”

“Not in the least,” she said. “There’s a trap in there for people who don’t understand our ways.”

“How do you mean?”

“There are multiple meanings to how we use the words stallion or mare.” She traced the table wood grain with a finger. “It’s important to know the context, or you might end up in trouble.”

“And your context right now?”

“The preferred sex of your bed partners, naturally.” Mischief sparkled in her eyes. “Do you run with stallions? Do you run with mares?” She shrugged. “Some don’t like to run at all, but that’s not you, is it?”

Kihrin scraped his hand through his hair. “No, that’s not me. Mares, then.” Kihrin hesitated. “Why is that a trap?”

“Because it’s the only time in Jorat where the words stallion, mare, and so on indicate the equipment between one’s legs. Normally, when one refers to a human as a stallion or mare, we’re discussing their gender.”

Kihrin stared. “And you weren’t talking about gender before? You’re a woman. Isn’t that what you mean by mare?”

Her mouth twisted. “You’re conflating gender with sex. My sex—my body—is female, yes. But that’s not my gender. I’m a stallion. And stallion is how Joratese society defines our men. So you’re wrong; I’m most certainly not a woman.”

Kihrin’s eyes widened. “You just said you were female.”

She sighed. “Who I am as a man is independent of”—she gestured to herself—“this. It wouldn’t matter if I were male, female, or neither; I would still be a stallion.”

Kihrin stared harder. “You’re… a man.” His gaze wandered down her tunic, lingered at her legs, then hiked back up to her face. “Obviously.”

Janel rolled her eyes. “Again, you’re conflating woman and female. I can’t blame you; they must be synonyms in the west. But rest assured, they’re not here.” She looked down at herself, plucked the neck of her tunic. “Normally, when one uses mare or stallion to describe a person, they’re talking about gender. And by that definition, I’m a man. But for sex, the rules change. Because then we’re talking about aesthetic preferences, in which case”—she looked down at herself—“I’m most likely to meet the standards of someone who prefers female partners. I am in fact a female man.” She smiled. “Do you see the trap now?”

He shook his head. If someone looked like a woman to him—Janel, for example—how was he supposed to act around them if they defined themselves as… a man? And how was he supposed to know the difference? He’d always assumed the equipment between one’s legs was in fact an important part of figuring out who was a man and who was a woman.

But not according to Janel, and apparently not according to the rest of Jorat either. Oh, he saw the trap. He just wasn’t sure he understood how it worked, let alone how to avoid it.

How long did it take Brother Qown to make tea, anyway? “Uh… I might need time to adjust to the idea. Do I refer to you as he or… ?”

She,” Janel said. “We try not to confuse the rest of Quur too much.”

“I don’t think it’s working.” Kihrin took a moment to collect himself. “So… what about you, then?”

“Me? I’m not confused on the matter at all.”

“No, I mean, do you run with… stallions or mares?” She raised her eyebrows at him. “Why would I run with just part of the herd?”

Kihrin was glad he hadn’t been taking a drink. “Aha, why indeed.” He smiled back. He liked her forwardness. He liked her unflinching lack of shame. And while Kihrin understood Janel had an agenda, she only had to meet his stare for a few seconds too long before he started to forget why that might be important. Kihrin knew this wasn’t smart. Not smart at all.

Kihrin reached for her hand, anyway.

Brother Qown set down a tray laden with a kettle and cups.

Kihrin pulled his hand away. “You found tea. Great.”

“Isn’t it?” Brother Qown said. “I’m so pleased.”

Janel said, “Brother Qown, shall I take a turn? It’ll help save your voice.”

“Are you sure?” Qown offered his book to her.

“That won’t be necessary,” Janel said. “I’ll tell the story my way.”

Kihrin almost laughed at the scandalized stare Qown gave her.

The priest recovered and poured himself a cup of tea. “Would you mind if I recorded your account, then?”

Janel blinked at Qown. “If you did what?”

Qown reached into his satchel and recovered another journal. “It’s a spell I learned from”—he cleared his throat—“my old monastery. To document interviews for historical records. It’s very subtle. You won’t even know it’s happening.”

“Wait.” Kihrin leaned forward. “You know a spell that will record everything we say? Because I’m familiar with that spell.” His adoptive father, Surdyeh, had known how to do something very similar.

“Really? Oh, it’s a lovely spell, isn’t it? I can’t even begin to tell you how many times it’s saved my fingers from cramping—”

“You don’t own a ruby ring, do you?” Kihrin’s eyes narrowed.

Qown regarded him strangely. “What an odd question. No, I would never. Vishai priests live modest lives.”

Kihrin pulled himself together. “Sorry. Of course.”

“Well,” Janel said. “I, for one, don’t mind if you record my account, Qown, so why don’t I just begin?” Without waiting for his response, she did.

 

Janel’s Turn. Barsine Banner, Jorat, Quur.

After I broke the woman’s leg, I threw down the branch and stepped back, so Brother Qown might rush forward. Arasgon nosed around me, making sure I’d taken no serious injury. Not without cause; I already felt the bruises ripening along my jaw and ribs.

That woman kicked like Khorsal himself.

The other bandits dropped their weapons by the campfire, signaling surrender. I paid little attention to them, besides counting their number. Eight total, including their leader. I caught a few names in spite of my best efforts at apathy. The woman with the white stripe was named Kay. Someone else was named Vidan, although I wasn’t sure who. Fool that I was, I didn’t think them important other than as a method to raise funds.

Luck was with us since Barsine’s capital seat, Mereina, was about to start their tournament, which the local baron was obligated to attend. We wouldn’t have to wait long for our reward.

Brother Qown had been astonished the first time we had played bait the bandit. He couldn’t understand why the other bandits never ran or fought once their leader was beaten. And while I tried to explain…

You see, everything in our world is divided into two concepts—idorrá, the power and strength possessed by those who protect others, and thudajé, the honor gained from submitting to one who is superior. We hold trials, contests, and duels to determine the difference. This fosters good leadership and good community bonds. There is no dishonor in defeat either. Our bandit prisoners would find sympathy and pardon by showing their thudajé. Naturally, they would surrender. And naturally, they would be treated well.

How could one strong in idorrá do otherwise? Those who use their strength to oppress are nothing more than bullies and tyrants. We have a word for that too in our language: thorra.

I knew Qown didn’t understand. Things were done otherwise across the mountains, to the west.

Everything, I think, is done otherwise in the west.

But in this particular scenario, one bandit had less thudajé than the others. A man with a laevos, the horse-mane hair we claim to hallmark our noble status. The same man who had bet on my defeat and lost. While all other eyes were on their former leader or Brother Qown, he stared at me.

“I know you,” he said. “You’re Janel Danorak, the Count of Tolamer’s granddaughter.”

Oh. How wonderful. He knew who I was.

I raised my chin even as I cursed my luck. “You’re mistaken,” I said.

Confusion flickered across his handsome face. He had dark gray skin and a white laevos, which must have been lovely once. He struck me as someone used to luxury turned to squatting in the woods, hiding from his enemies.

Much like myself, I suppose.

“I am?” He blinked his surprise.

“Yes. Once, I was the Count of Tolamer’s granddaughter. Now I’m the Count of Tolamer.” I forced my eyes back to his. “How do you know me? It’s been many years since I’ve visited this banner. I expected no one here to recognize me.”

His bitter smile mocked himself more than me. “I remember your visits from when we were children. You always convinced Tamin to play with you and that fireblood. You’d ride back filthy after making castles in the mud or climbing trees. You’re she, aren’t you? You’re Janel Danorak.”

“My family name is Theranon. You’re one of Baron Barsine’s pledge men?”

“Was.” A pained expression crossed his face. “But you are Danorak?”

The bandits had been a noisy gaggle of birds fretting over their leader’s injury, but with that question, all talking stopped. Every eye turned to me.

I sighed. “I’m merely someone who ended up in a Hellmarch’s path.”

He chuckled. “Humble too.”

“No, I’m not—” But I bit off the rest of my sentence without finishing. I had been warned my entire life never to tell what really happened at Lonezh Canton when the demons had rampaged through its borders. As a result, I never corrected people when they wove myths from my childhood horrors.

For those unfamiliar with Joratese history, Danorak was a fireblood. He rode Jorat’s length and breadth for a week straight—without food, drink, or rest. He warned the human and fireblood herds to reach high ground before Emperor Kandor flooded the Endless Canyon to force our tyrant god-king into the open, where he could be slain.

Once Danorak had saved everyone, he dropped dead from exhaustion.

The Lonezh Hellmarch had started because some witch in Marakor had summoned a demon more powerful than they could control. The results were predictable and only ended after a large swath of Jorat and an entire canton—Lonezh—had been depopulated.

People started calling me Danorak afterward. Word spread I’d run for days, a step ahead of the demons, to warn Emperor Sandus about the invasion. They meant it as a badge of honor. Instead, it served as a reminder of how my life, my reputation, was based on a lie.

No one outruns demons, especially not an eight-year-old girl.

I didn’t want to talk about the Hellmarch. So I turned my attention to Brother Qown, still patching up their leader. “Will she be able to travel?”

“I’m right here,” the woman said, struggling to sit.

“Stop that,” Brother Qown chided. “I haven’t finished setting your leg.”

“You touch my leg again and I’ll show you how hard I can kick with the other one.”

“I have to—” My priest turned to me for aid. “Count, please, would you explain to her that I’m trying to help?”

“Trying to get a peek at my legs, that’s what you’re trying to do.”

Dorna laughed. “He ain’t. Our Qown here is a gelding through and through.” Her grin widened. “They are pretty legs, though. I’ll look if he don’t.”

Qown closed his eyes and whispered a prayer.

“What’s your name?” I asked the woman I had defeated.

She sniffed and looked away.

I tugged the mask from her face. She batted at my hand, but her strength had fled. Without its concealment, she looked Joratese enough: dark brown with an irregular rose splash across her left cheek and forehead. Her hair was straight and black. I guessed her age at twice my own.

But she wasn’t Joratese.

She’d convinced an entire Joratese band to give her their thudajé. Perhaps they hadn’t realized her true ethnicity.

Or perhaps she was just that good at kicking.

“She’s Ninavis,” said the man with the laevos. “We all call her Nina. She worked as a hunter around here before the baron declared this all his forest. His soldiers have moved whole villages out on pain of death. Families who’ve hunted these lands for generations are now poachers.”

“Really, Kalazan?” Ninavis scolded. “Why don’t you just go ahead and tell my name to the baron too!”

“It’s fine to let her know,” Kalazan said. “Don’t you see, Nina? She’s the one we’ve been waiting for.” He turned back to me. “I’m Kalazan. The big man is Dango, and the man with the scarred face is Tanner. That’s Kay Hará and Jem Nakijan, and standing next to them is Vidan and Gan—”

“Gan the Miller’s Daughter,” interrupted the indicated woman. She was young, beautiful, sported a gorgeous laevos, and if she was actually a miller’s daughter, I was the Queen of Old Zaibur. “Kal, Nina’s right. You shouldn’t have said our names.”

“It’s her, Gan.” He became animated, gesturing with his hands. “We’ve eked out a pitiful existence in these woods for months, while the baron and his damn captain burn down village after village looking for their prophesied threat. The demon-claimed child, remember? But what if she is the one they fear? What if it was always Danorak? Nothing in prophecy said it must be someone local.”

I felt a lump form in my stomach, and a blossoming dread stretched over me from head to heel. I closed my hands in fists at my sides rather than succumb to the urge to pick up Kalazan by the neck and shake him by the scruff until answers spilled forth.

“What are you talking about?” I asked. “And be clear, for I loathe prophecy.”

But we never finished the conversation.

Arasgon’s senses are better than any human’s. The fireblood screamed out, “Count, we’re not alone!” just as three dozen armed men on horseback wearing Barsine Banner’s gold-and-brown colors rode into the clearing from downwind.

They all had crossbows.

Or more specifically, they all had crossbows pointed at us.

Several bandits ran for their weapons, or the woods, or what little shelter they might find behind a tree root. Ninavis was in no condition to follow. Although Kalazan didn’t run, I noticed both he and Gan the Miller’s Daughter flipped up the hoods on their cloaks to hide their laevos hair.

“What have we here?” the guard commander said as he rode forward. “Hold your positions; no one move!”

“Ah, good,” Arasgon said, trotting over to greet the newcomers. “We captured these strays. Now help us bring them to your herd master.”

The guard captain ignored Arasgon. “You have nothing to say? Who’s in charge here? Speak up!”

Arasgon blinked and looked back at me. I knew what he thought. No matter if these men looked Joratese; no native son of our fields would
dare ignore a fireblood.

Unless they hadn’t understood the fireblood.

Impossible. In ancient times, the god-king Khorsal had chosen us to care for his favored children—his firebloods. When those same firebloods joined humans in overthrowing Khorsal, our relationship had strengthened. Every Joratese child learns to understand our four-hoofed kindred.

But this soldier hadn’t understood Arasgon’s speech. Either he was an idiot, or he wasn’t any more Joratese than Ninavis.

I’d bet metal on the latter.

I stepped forward. “I’m in charge here. I am Count Tolamer, traveling to Mereina to visit Baron Barsine.”

He gave me a critical eye. I didn’t look like a peasant—I had a well-groomed laevos, and my clothing was luxurious enough if one ignored the wear. If fashion and grooming could be faked, however, my idorrá was more difficult to counterfeit. I carried myself as a count.

“Oh yeah? Where are your guards?” he asked.

I heard a strained protest from the bandit leader, Ninavis.

I forced a pleasant smile on my face. “I’m accompanied by a fireblood. What more protection would any noble require?”

The man glanced over, finally realizing Arasgon’s nature. Arasgon tossed his head up as he walked back to the bandits, gathered together in a dense, awkward cluster.

The soldier’s leader dismounted. “I’m Captain Dedreugh. We’ve been hunting criminals who’ve been pillaging and burning villages along the river for almost a year. And this lot seems like a good fit for those crimes, so if you’ll pardon us”—he motioned his men toward the bandits—“we’ll take them off your hands.”

Half his troops dismounted, trading crossbows for swords. Their expressions worried me, though. Nothing so simple as anger. This was the stalking predator’s naked hunger; I saw one eye Ninavis on the ground and lick his lips. That look had never known good intentions. A wave of fury filled me with a nasty warmth as I fought to keep my temper reined.

I placed my bare hand against Captain Dedreugh’s leather breastplate.

I captured them, Dedreugh,” I said. “Defeated them and bound their thudajé to my idorrá. They’re under my protection until I tender them to the baron. Directly to the baron.”

The irony wasn’t lost on me. Doing as Dedreugh asked was the original plan, you see. The trap’s whole point. The other times I’d hunted bandits, I had turned them over to the local authorities without even learning their names. I never wanted to be responsible for them. I didn’t wish to adopt ne’er-do-wells, but fill coffers left empty by my swift departure from my home in Tolamer.

There wasn’t a banner, canton, or ward in the entire dominion that didn’t offer a bounty for brigands. I had indeed meant to turn them over easily, in return for a bit of metal.

But here I was, claiming them under my idorrá, as if they were more important than garbage commoners, criminals, and robbers. Why was this group different? Was it because I’d lost my temper and injured their leader? I didn’t know.

Maybe Captain Dedreugh just ran with the wrong gait.

“Captain,” one soldier cried out, “that one in the back! It’s him!”

Dedreugh tried to shove me away and stopped in surprise when he discovered he couldn’t. Behind Dedreugh, the mounted guard leveled their crossbows. The bandits—dear Khored, they were my bandits now, weren’t they?—would never reach their bows before those soldiers fired.

Captain Dedreugh cut an intimidating figure. He stood at least a foot taller than I, his pale gray skin broken up by darker gray jaguar spots at his hairline. His eyes were ice colored. Although handsome enough, a stink lingered near him I didn’t like, something lurking on the edge of rot no bath would cure.

“Out of my way.” He sneered at me, and then added my lord as an afterthought, without the proper respectful qualifiers. “These criminals are wanted for treason and witchcraft. If you speak for them, I will have to level those charges against you.”

“Captain, if these people committed crimes, they’ll pay for them. However, they’re under my idorrá now. So let’s go to Mereina for judgment, as is proper.”

“Woman—”

Woman?” I raised an eyebrow in disbelief.

He frowned. “You have no say in the matter. Be grateful I’m willing to escort you back to the town.” He bent down until his face hovered next to mine. “It’s been a hard and dangerous winter. Anything might happen on the way back.”

I stared at him, unamused and uncowed. “Is that so?”

“If you’re real nice to me, I’ll make sure you arrive—”

He made a gurgling noise as my hand closed around his throat.

I won’t lie; I found myself tempted to tighten my grip until my fingers touched.

“I am the Count of Tolamer,” I said. “I’m a stallion, not a mare. I’m not asking your permission; I’m giving you an order.”

Despite his advantage in height, I still lifted him a few inches off the ground. He also blocked the line of sight his people might have used to shoot me.

“Uh… Count?” Dorna said. “I hate to interrupt your flirting, but you ought to see to the children—”

I glanced over. The soldiers were pointing their weapons at Dorna and Brother Qown and, yes, even Arasgon, although the nervous look in their eyes suggested they were less certain about the wisdom of threatening the enormous fireblood.

“Tell your people to back down,” I said to Dedreugh. “Or they can watch as I rip your jaw from your face and choke you with your own tongue. You don’t use that tone with a count. Nor do you raise weapons against those under my protection. Do you understand me?” I paused as he made strangling sounds. “Blink if you do.”

His fingers plucked at mine, but he blinked, then gasped and sputtered when I released his neck. “Lower your weapons!” he rasped to the men behind him.

When he finished, he turned back in a heated rage. “On your word, you’ll help me bring these criminals in, or being a count won’t save you.”

I raised an eyebrow, wondering how Barsine Banner’s ruler had been training his people. I remembered the baron as a hard stallion, fonder of the whip than the carrot. If Dedreugh’s attitude proved anything, he’d grown worse over the passing years. “You seem confused, Captain. A baron is lesser ranked than a count. And I already offered to bring them in, didn’t I?”

He backed away, glaring. He had poor thudajé. I had proved my idorrá over him, but he reacted with resentment, not honorable submission to my will. He was a bully, a thorra, one who thought their physical strength was the only strength that mattered when proving their right to dominate. I could see the threat in his stare: Watch your back, or when I get my chance, you’ll suffer for this humiliation.

I narrowed my eyes. Our system had functioned for five hundred years. It worked because people understood their place.

He proved himself less by insisting on idorrá over me. Equally intolerable after I’d already forced him to submit. There have always been those who mistook idorrá and thudajé as synonyms for male and female.

Outsiders make this error.

I would hardly have the right to call myself a count if I’d let someone of such common status treat me thus.

I whistled for Dorna’s horse, Pocket Biter, and Brother Qown’s gelding, Cloud, as I began to lower the deer we’d caught earlier from the tree. “Mare Dorna, Brother Qown, help tie up our friends while these men assist us in breaking camp. Ninavis, you’ll ride Arasgon. I’ll saddle our horses. The rest of you—don’t make trouble.”

The smile on Kalazan’s face surprised me. I remembered his talk of prophecy, of a demon-claimed child. He had no fear. Of course he had no fear—the hero who would deliver them all from Captain Dedreugh and his men had arrived.

I didn’t know if I wanted him to be right.


 

3: The Baron’s Justice

Jorat Dominion, Quuros Empire.
Two days since the death of Emperor Sandus

“Wait,” Kihrin said. “The firebloods talk? Those horses in the stable can talk?” He pointed behind him for emphasis.

Kihrin had always spoken to Scandal as though she understood him. When he was a boy, he’d treated a cat named Princess the same way. People liked to regard their pets as family. That didn’t mean the animals talked back.

“Oh no,” Brother Qown said. “Now you’ve done it.”

“What?”

“They’re not horses,” Janel insisted. “Firebloods are imperial citizens with full legal rights.”

Kihrin’s eyes widened. “Has anyone told the empire?”

Janel set her mug down firmly. “When Atrin Kandor liberated Jorat from the god-king Khorsal, he granted citizenship to both races the god-king had enslaved: humans and firebloods. Calling a fireblood a horse is like calling a human an animal. Yes, they talk.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “It’s not their fault you never learned to understand them.”

“Well, that puts a different slant on Darzin’s attempts to breed Scandal.” Kihrin made a face. “A rather obscene slant.” Not that it would have changed his horrible brother’s actions at all. In fact, it wouldn’t have surprised Kihrin if his brother had known the truth about firebloods and tried, anyway. That sounded like Darzin.

“You call Hamarratus Scandal?” The tone in Janel’s voice implied Kihrin had flunked a test.

“Is that… wait. Why do you think Scandal’s name is Hamarratus?” Kihrin remembered Star mentioning the name to the old groom.

“Hamarratus told me in the stable,” Janel said. “Remember, they can talk.”

Kihrin considered the sounds the horses—rather, the firebloods—had produced during the dragon attack. He’d assumed they were normal excited horse noises. Storm. Big dragon. Lots of danger. But speech?

Maybe.

“I realize this is a shock,” Brother Qown told him. “Believe me, I sympathize.”

“Star says she likes the name Scandal,” Kihrin said. “I’ll keep calling her that.”

“Fine,” Janel said. “If that’s her choice rather than the pet name you gave a slave.”

Kihrin’s eyes narrowed. “She’s not a slave.”

“She’d better not be.”

Brother Qown looked back and forth between the two. “Janel, may I take over reading? You can eat.”

Janel pulled a bowl to her. “Yes. Please do.”

 

Qown’s Turn. The town of Mereina, Barsine Banner, Jorat, Quur.

Turning in the bandits for their reward required traveling to Mereina, Barsine Banner’s local seat. It wasn’t a happy trip. The guards joked and bantered the whole way, bragging as if they’d done anything more than arrive. In contrast, the outlaws were a dour bunch.

Brother Qown couldn’t help but compare them with the previous criminals they had captured, who had treated their situation like a game.

He’d been surprised. The rest of the Quuros Empire punished banditry with mandatory slavery. Here in Jorat, the men and women they arrested hadn’t taken the matter with any solemnity at all. They had been criminals and happy to take metal by force, but they had treated their arrest as a grand lark. They had lost; the count had won. Well played.

Ninavis and her gang behaved differently.

The silence from both the bandits and Count Janel herself was thick and sullen. She gazed around her with narrowed eyes as if she expected an attack at any moment. The whole group’s tension pulled tighter with each step toward their destination.

As they left the tree line, Mereina Castle came into view. Qown didn’t recognize it at first. He only realized the building wasn’t a watchtower or storage depot when the guards headed in that direction.

To be fair, it wasn’t much of a castle.

The squat, square structure dated from antiquity, when all these lands dwelt outside the Quuros Empire. The border fortress had been repurposed into the local government seat. Gracing it with the label castle was like comparing his native Eamithon’s gently rolling hills with the Dragonspires.

The “town” resting in a valley below the castle plateau differed from the clay brick, wood, and stone structures used in western Quur. Instead of houses, private patios and arbors covered the valley. Flags and banners flew from the posts. In a high wind—or even a low wind—the town became a sea of waving cloth. Pretty, but useless for protecting anyone from the storms for which Jorat was so infamous.

Horses and elephants wandered through the streets. Dholes—a dog breed with fox-like features—roamed streets or stayed close to family patios.

But where were the houses?

The only structures resembling buildings nestled on the same plateau as the castle: hundreds of Joratese tents called azhock. Formed from fabric and hides stretched over a wooden frame, the azhock were large enough to house men and horses both. These temporary homes sheltered the tournament travelers: merchants, traders, farmers, and those who represented their interests in the event itself.

The captured bandits walked before Brother Qown and Dorna, apart from Ninavis, who rode astride Arasgon. Count Janel journeyed with the outlaws too, refusing to ride with Captain Dedreugh or the guards, although she’d been content enough to let them carry the deer carcass intended as a guest offering for the baron. Brother Qown suspected Janel escorted the prisoners to make sure no one molested them. He recognized his naïveté, but even he noticed the way the male soldiers eyed the female brigands.

The Joratese have a word for this: thorra. The word literally means “a stallion who is not safe to leave with other horses.”

It is never a compliment.

The road to the castle took them through the fairgrounds. More than one person peeked from otherwise quiet camp flaps and then ducked back.

A black-skinned girl with silver dapples and coarse gray hair dashed from one tent to another, spreading news of their arrival. Seconds later, a larger dappled man, a blacksmith by his apron and thews, stepped outside an azhock and watched the group, wiping his hands off on a towel. His disapproval lingered long after they passed.

The hate wasn’t directed at Brother Qown, Dorna, Janel, or the bandits. The smith reserved his anger for the guards. A young man, fur clad, paused while hooding one of the eagles the Joratese often used for hunting. He seemed about to unleash his bird against the escorts, but another hunter held him back with a hand on his arm.

The townspeople recognized the outlaws, but not with malice. They were not the enemy here; the guards were. The whole town eyed them like the baron’s men were lions wandering into their meadows. Thorra— bullies—to put it mildly.

Brother Qown felt chilled. Jorat wasn’t a dominion he associated with rebellion. Joratese society rested on the idea each member in it accepted their place. This hatred for the banner’s soldiers stood out like a thunderstorm in an otherwise cloudless sky.

As the group continued toward the castle, Kalazan flipped around and walked backward to address his companions. “It’s been an honor and a privilege. You’re the best of people. Let no one tell you otherwise.”

The largest bandit (Brother Qown thought he was Dango) snorted. “Ah, Kalazan. Save your sweet talk. We ain’t even married yet.”

Kalazan gave Dango a sad smile. “In my next life, perhaps. I think I’ll lie on the Pale Lady’s wedding bed tonight, not yours.” His eyes met another bandit’s, the young woman with laevos hair named Gan the Miller’s Daughter. His sad smile turned bitter.

Dorna turned back to Count Janel, who watched the exchange with a flat expression. A funny look crossed Dorna’s face. “Couldn’t we—”

“Keep walking, damn it,” Captain Dedreugh ordered.

“No burial speeches just yet, Kalazan,” Ninavis said. “We’re not done

“You will be soon enough,” Dedreugh snapped. “Now move, or I’ll use my sword.”

“Let’s continue,” Count Janel suggested.

They kept walking.

 

Brother Qown had assumed Mereina Castle would be comfortable since this banner’s rulers called it home. He realized his mistake. The stone walls had been made for security, not comfort, but in this age of modern magical siege-craft, they were long since obsolete. The castle was stuffy, cold, and cramped. He suspected when the summer rainy season arrived it would be stuffy, hot, and cramped. At no point did the fortress seem a pleasant place to live. The azhock tents appeared much more practical. Qown pined for a House D’Talus Red Man to cast a warming spell, but given the local superstitions about magic, he didn’t like his chances of finding one.

Despite its lack of comforts, the castle had beautiful original features: wooden corbels made from cypress and Tung wood, carved with horse motifs. Tapestries, old and faded, hid the crumbling walls. Lanterns—sun patterns burned into their stretched hide covers—cast painted shadows over the tile floors. The fortress hadn’t strayed far from its military roots; armed men and women camped in the courtyard, horses left to mill in the mud-churned yard.

The guards paused at the gate while Dedreugh sent a messenger inside for the baron.

“Preparations for the tournament,” Captain Dedreugh explained to Janel. Between their first encounter and final destination, Dedreugh had decided to impress the count, transforming from belligerent to obsequious.

“I see,” she replied.

He grinned, a gleam in his eyes. “I’ll be competing myself.”

She looked at him sideways. “How nice for you.”

“I’m going to win,” he confided.

Her jaw set against her neck in a manner that suggested the grinding of teeth. Brother Qown watched her for any sign she might be rash. Not that he could stop her. He just needed to know which way to jump.

Captain Dedreugh leaned toward her. “I always win.”

That time she focused on him. “The baron doesn’t consider that a conflict of interest? Don’t you oversee who’s arrested?”

As Captain Dedreugh pulled himself up to counter the accusation, the double doors leading into the castle were flung open.

The Baron of Barsine marched into the courtyard.

The baron was dressed in sumptuous attire, far more opulent than Count Janel ever wore. Still, he didn’t match the priest’s expectations. Golden skinned and fine featured, he was also young.

As young as Count Janel herself.

“Tamin.” Janel laughed. She threw out her arms in delight as the baron gave her the traditional Joratese greeting: forehead to forehead, hands placed behind each other’s necks. She cradled him like the finest porcelain, her touch so gentle it would be easy to mistake her delicacy for shyness. “I’ve brought you a gift for your fires and goodwill for your herd.”

“And I welcome you as a guest to my fields,” he said, finishing the formal greeting. “I’m so sorry about your grandfather,” Tamin said when they parted. At Count Janel’s surprised blink, he added, “My men told me the Count of Tolamer had arrived. Yet instead of your grandfather, I find you.”

“He died in his sleep,” Janel said. “His heart failed him.” She stepped back. “But you… where’s your father? I expected to see him—?” The words tripped and tangled.

“He didn’t die in his sleep, but die he has. Murdered by a vile cabal, including my castle steward. I’m told I have you to thank for bringing me the last of my father’s assassins.” Tamin looked past her, toward the bandits.

Brother Qown shouldn’t have been surprised at what happened next. Tamin, Baron of Barsine, walked past Count Janel to where Dedreugh’s soldiers watched the prisoners and stopped before Kalazan.

Tamin slapped the man.

Kalazan grinned. “Nice to see you too, Baron.” Shockingly, he dispensed with the Joratese suffixes, the cases showing respect: my baron, my lord.

Brother Qown wasn’t fluent in Karo, the old Joratese language, but he recognized the insult. Kalazan had, with a single word, denied Tamin’s status as his liege. He declared Tamin unworthy to be his liege.

Baron Tamin would have taken it as a mortal insult even if the words hadn’t come from his father’s accused murderer.

“Is this the part where I’m supposed to throw you into the dungeon until your little friends can organize a rescue?” Tamin asked. Without waiting for an answer, he waved his hand at Dedreugh. “Kill him.”

“No!” cried Gan the Miller’s Daughter. She threw herself forward, so suddenly and unexpectedly she caught the soldier off guard. The rope tied to her hands pulled the next person in line, Vidan, off balance too. He yanked Jem Nakijan’s rope, who fell. Jem’s bonds wrenched Kalazan’s.

His ties came undone.

The soldiers may have been caught off guard, but not Kalazan. He stole a sword from a guard’s belt, slicing the man’s side as he pulled the weapon free. Another guard stood close enough to act, but Ninavis’s foot caught the man under the chin before he moved, sending him tumbling backward.

Arasgon reared up on his hind legs, screaming as Ninavis fell to the ground. Her short cry ended in sobbing as she landed on her injured leg.

Kalazan grabbed Count Janel from behind and placed his sword’s edge against her throat.

“Stop!” Tamin cried out. “Everyone, stop!”

The courtyard stilled. All present paused as they noticed Kalazan’s hostage.

Brother Qown heard Kalazan whisper, “Apologies, my count.”

He noticed Kalazan had remembered the correct form this time. My count. My liege.

“Leave her be,” Baron Tamin ordered.

Kalazan smiled as he pressed the sword harder against Janel. He pulled her back toward the gate entrance.

Count Janel didn’t speak. She clenched her jaw, her hands tight fists at her sides. Brother Qown recognized the signs well enough. Kalazan had seen Janel fight Ninavis. Didn’t he understand what would happen if she defended herself?

“Let her go,” Tamin repeated.

“Not yet,” Kalazan said. “It’s rude, I know, but your reception’s been so cold I’ve little choice but to refuse your hospitality.” He backed up toward the archway.

“Very well,” Tamin said.

Kalazan smiled.

“Shoot through her,” Baron Tamin ordered.

Every eye present stared at him in disbelief.

Every eye but those owned by Dedreugh and his soldiers, who followed orders.

Much happened then.

First, Kalazan pushed Janel forward, away from him. Arasgon shielded Janel with his body. The crossbows fired, or rather misfired, as their drawn strings snapped, all at once. Of the crossbows that discharged, one bolt hit Arasgon’s saddle, and another missed him by a coin’s width. The remaining soldiers didn’t waste their ammunition attempting to find a mark. Given his size, Arasgon made an excellent wall.

Kalazan ran.

He skipped the main doors and darted to the side. He then slipped through a door behind a bulwark, even as soldiers found the clear shot they needed.

“After him!” Dedreugh screamed. “After him!”

The soldiers were quick to give chase, although some stayed to keep an eye on the prisoners.

Dedreugh crossed back over to the guard who’d lost his weapon. He grabbed the man by the jerkin and lifted him right off the ground, giving him a violent shake. “Idiot! Take these filth to the jail, and if anything goes wrong, I swear you’ll join them.”

Brother Qown rushed to Nina’s side. The woman was unconscious, which didn’t surprise him. Landing on her broken leg must have been excruciating.

Still, she was alive.

While Brother Qown looked over Nina, he heard the others debating another prisoner.

A soldier: “What about this one?” Tamin answered,

“She’s saelen, is she not? If she wants to slum with thieves, so be it. Put ‘Lady’ Ganar with her own kind.”

Saelen. Brother Qown remembered his Karo lessons. Lost, or a stray. A terrible insult by Joratese standards. Almost as bad as thorra, but with the implication the subject is a small child who doesn’t understand what’s in their own best interest. His heartbeat skipped. For a second, he thought Tamin referred to the count. But no. Tamin meant Gan the Miller’s Daughter, gnashing her teeth and straining to reach the baron with fingers hooked into claws. She’d have made his beautiful face much less so if her hands had been free.

Tamin had already turned to Count Janel. “I’m so sorry for this unfortunate incident.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Shoot through her?”

“My men are the best marksmen in the whole dominion,” he assured her. “I had no fear at all for your safety.” He gestured toward the main castle entrance. “Shall we? I’ll have my men deliver your gift to the kitchen for the evening meal.”

Meanwhile, two guards bent down next to Brother Qown and picked up Ninavis.

“She’s injured,” he told them. “You must be careful. Let me follow, and I’ll treat her wounds.”

They paid Brother Qown not the slightest attention.

“What happens to the other saelen?” Count Janel sounded bored, the question asked for propriety’s sake. When she saw Brother Qown approaching, she made a small motion with her hand as a warning: I will handle this.

“Oh, the usual—we’ll award them at the tournament,” Tamin said. “Kalazan’s fate is already sealed. We’ll capture him soon enough.”

A scream rang out.

Brother Qown might have thought it signaled the promised capture, except Gan the Miller’s Daughter laughed outright, and Dango, still bound, smiled.

“This Kalazan,” Janel said. “Is he familiar with the castle?”

Tamin’s expression soured. “He was the steward’s son.”

“Ah.”

Tamin scowled and gestured to Dedreugh. “Damn it. Find him and kill him. I’ll not have him live to see the sunrise, do you hear me? And then figure out which idiot made a mess of tying Kalazan’s hands and have him flogged.”

Brother Qown made sure his eyes were on the ground, lest his glance betray him. Only when the soldiers had cleared away the prisoners, and
Captain Dedreugh had left to oversee the search, did he let himself look up. Qown stared at the person who had tied Kalazan’s hands.

Mare Dorna hummed a dirty song to herself, smiling.

 

Brother Qown followed the guards into the castle, then stopped when one, a hulking fellow with gray skin and black blotches around his eyes, turned back.

“What are you doing?” the guard demanded.

Brother Qown pointed to the trussed prisoners being carried or led farther into the building. “I need to treat them.”

“They don’t need treating,” the same man growled.

Brother Qown smiled, shaking his head. “The count gave explicit orders. I must care for their well-being.”

And prove a complication. Brother Qown had seen the looks the guards had passed between themselves the entire ride back to Mereina Castle. The prisoners would be fair game to whatever molestations the soldiers devised, as soon as anyone who might care left.

The fact this behavior was abnormal for Jorat wouldn’t stop it from happening here.

“See them in the morning,” the guard ordered.

“But what about the blood sickness?” Brother Qown asked.

The whole group, guards and prisoners both, stopped.

“What was that?” said one man.

“The Falesini blood sickness,” Brother Qown repeated, elaborating. “It’s not very contagious. Nothing requiring a full quarantine or the like, but communicable through blood or other fluids.” Qown started over. “I mean, you’ll catch it if you touch them with your bare skin. The bandits all showed the symptoms. We were planning to treat them as soon as we settled everyone in, but in all this excitement—”

The first guard blinked, then guffawed. “What nonsense is this? These people aren’t sick.” He waved a hand as if dismissing the entire tale.

Brother Qown raised a finger and pointed at Dango.

The large man had his hands tied behind his back, and he frowned at Brother Qown. But the brigands didn’t object to Brother Qown’s story, which had been his worry.

Fresh blood dripped from Dango’s nostril.

Dango didn’t have to copy panic, because the panic was real. Brother Qown hoped the giant man was smart enough not to let it get the better of him.

Dango wrinkled his nose as if fighting off a sneeze. “It’s starting again, priest.”

“Yes,” Brother Qown said, “but at least we found it before you bled from your eyes.”

The guards stepped back.

Brother Qown waved his hands. “Oh, don’t worry. There’s no danger as long as you avoid any skin-to-skin contact.”

A soldier pulled his sword.

“What the hell are you doing?” the leader barked.

“They’re sick—” the man pointed.

“Shut up and drag them downstairs. Wear your damn gloves if you must. The captain wants them alive, you understand. They’re no good to us dead.” The leader turned back to Brother Qown. “This won’t kill them, will it?”

“Oh no. It’s treatable.” He tugged on his satchel. “I need to make a tisane for them. It should clear up in a few days.”

“We don’t need a few days as long as they’re well enough to stand tomorrow.” The guard waved to his men, motioning for them to lead the outlaws down some steps. Brother Qown assumed these led to the castle dungeon. The guards who had been giving hungry looks to the prisoners looked a lot less interested now. In fact, most left at once.

Nobody made a fuss this time as Brother Qown followed them down into the prison. To be fair, it was more like a wine cellar, a cool, dark space where one might safely secure the best of the local lord’s bottles. If so, the wines had been removed, although a few stray boxes stacked up in rows suggested that using the space for storage was still an option. The basement was clearly not meant to serve for living quarters. He couldn’t imagine being imprisoned there for any length of time.

He was unsure if such was a good sign or a terrible one.

The soldiers divided the prisoners. They also traded out the prisoners’ ropes for chains, which were fastened to iron rungs set in the walls. There was a bucket for necessities and a well.

Brother Qown pulled up a pail of water while the guards remembered they’d volunteered to find Kalazan. He then set about performing procedures with herbs—ones that might look serious to anyone without medical training.

A last guard found himself a chair and settled in by the door, which was barred from the outside. Additional guards waited in the hallway.

Brother Qown stopped at each prisoner, offering them the water.

Dango whispered, “How did you—?” He sniffed his nose for emphasis.

Brother Qown wiped the blood from the man’s face. “Trade secret. We shouldn’t talk about it here.”

Dango nodded. “Thank you. Someone was going to try something and end up with their throat ripped out. You could tell.”

Brother Qown paused. He suspected Dango wasn’t speaking in metaphor. Joratese women had a certain reputation. Qown replied, “The count won’t stand for this. We’ll be back for you.”

Brother Qown walked around the room, handing out drinks to the prisoners and pretending to treat them for a disease they didn’t have. Kay Hará seemed so genuinely terrified that Qown thought they were either taking the story at face value or had spent a considerable length of time in theater. Jem Nakijan wouldn’t even look at him. Vidan asked the priest to treat Gan instead, and acted put out when Qown insisted on seeing to everyone. Tanner said nothing, but his gaze softened into something less murderous when Brother Qown gave him water. The guards had searched the outlaw, but Qown suspected they hadn’t searched him well enough. That might have been his imagination, though. Tanner just struck him as the sort who always had knives.

He stayed the longest with Ninavis because of her injury. Her fall from Arasgon—and the unconsciousness that followed—gave him a chance to set her break. The priest would have liked to have done more, but he sensed the remaining guard’s eyes on him as he treated her. Brother Qown didn’t wish to risk the guard recognizing magic if he saw it. Anyway, everyone knew Ninavis had a broken leg. He’d be doing her no favors if she’d healed by morning.

After seeing to the others, he left to talk tactics with the count.

 

Excerpted from The Name of All Things, copyright © 2019 by Jenn Lyons

Footnotes

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