Finals are over, let the summer begin!
Aside from working for the money I will need to use to buy textbooks in the fall, I plan on doing a number of writing-related thingers.
Yes, thingers. It’s a very technical term.
Anyway, here’s what I plan to do this summer:
- Overhaul the blog: get rid of old links, update areas where needed, possibly change the layout (haven’t decided yet if I want to)
- Get a cover done for MtbB: because I wanted to publish it months ago but things just did not go as planned
- Finish King of Blades: because I need to
- Work on another story I have planned and that will be 100% written via blog: as a change
- Plan my next NaNo: because November will be here very quickly
I must kick myself to get all of this done before September. Begin!
Chapters 1 through 10: clickeh
It was a tense wait for Shelton to return with the other mage. None of them knew what having Coulta’s powers could possibly mean, and Coulta himself was worried about their unborn child. Could he have passed on his powers to the baby, as well as Anil? Would that harm the child? What if it was born with similar markings on the skin that Coulta had? How could they explain that to the court? Punishments for Second Kings who failed to prevent themselves from impregnating a queen were severe – tradition called for castration.
But Coulta felt that such a punishment could only be dealt when the marriage was strategic, without much emotional attachment. He could feel that Wildas truly loved him. Wildas could never do that to him. After all, they all knew he was infertile – but the court didn’t. If the baby was born with marks like Coulta’s, it would be assumed that Coulta was the father. No one would stand for that, especially not for the first-born child, the young Grand King’s heir.
Maybe, though, Shelton and Wildas would find a way to publicly prove that Coulta was permanently infertile. If it came down to that, Coulta was more than willing to go through with whatever public display was needed of him.
His thoughts were disrupted by Shelton’s return. With him was a middle-aged, dark-skinned woman with graying black hair pulled tightly away from her angular face. She wore a silver gown that matched her glimmering eyes. Wildas, Myri, and Coulta all rose from their seats as the mages entered, while Anil remained seated. Shelton made the formal introductions, and the sorceress, Terezka, bowed to them each in turn, deepest to Wildas.
“I have been told that you have all been involved in an unplanned power share,” she said, her accent completely unfamiliar to Coulta. He still wasn’t used to all the foreign-born people who had made their homes in Phelin.
“That is what we’ve been told, as well,” Wildas answered her.
But Terezka’s silver gaze had turned directly to Coulta. “May I have your hand?” she requested. Coulta held his right hand out to her and she shook her head. “The other. The left hand is more closely related to the heart and the deep source of power within.”
Coulta held out his left hand instead. She held it gently, and within moments Coulta felt a gentle wave of sensation move across his entire body. After another few moments, she nodded and released his hand.
“Everything is as I had expected it to be, from what Shelton confided to me,” she declared. “There is no simple explanation for what has happened, but we can draw the likeliest conclusion from what we know. First, curse-magic is highly unpredictable. One never knows how strong it will be, if it ever stops growing, or when it will transfer. I don’t mean the curse itself,” she added, noticing the pale look on Anil’s face, “I mean the magic that it leaves behind when it is broken. Curses are never destroyed entirely, but if they can be broken, the power that created and continued the curse will be fully transferred to the control of the person who was cursed. Those powers can change, grow, and be transferred over time, but it is difficult to control. The Second King,” she continued, bowing her head briefly to him, “may notice his abilities slowly changing over the years. It may also be difficult to stop the powers from transferring to any sexual partner. That transferred power, I must assure you, is perfectly harmless. In fact, it seems that, as it mysteriously happens with curse-power shares, the powers shared are very helpful for the partner who receives them.”
“Why is it only happening now?” Myri questioned.
Terezka held up a slender hand, then bowed her head slightly to the queen. “I have more to add. Curses, after they are broken, leave magical scars that speak of what the curse was, and how it was broken. I do not mean physical scars,” she added, apparently noticing all three of Coulta’s spouses looking at the black tracery on his skin, “I mean magical ones that can only be sensed by direct magical contact, as I just performed. Those scars told me the story of Coulta’s curse, which began to break when he was very young. The crack began when his mother created a way for the curse to break through the love of another. The crack became a fracture, at which point he began being able to use some magic, when he was placed into the service of his former master and the crown’s enemy. That fracture was caused by the love of the servant girl who raised him.”
Coulta felt Myri put an arm around him from where she stood by his side. Wildas clasped his hand from his other side, and Anil looked up at him with a small smile. They had all known that Teeya was special to him, and somehow it felt like they appreciated her more for helping him break his curse.
“The curse broke further when he met the Grand King,” Terezka went on, bowing her head deeply to Wildas. “Even before they truly knew each other, their souls knew each other. Everyone who has a curse is somehow tied to someone who can break that curse, and their souls will find each other. The cursed soul is always looking for that one other who will free it from its suffering, and when it locates the other, it will link itself to the free soul.”
“Is this like the stories of true love in children’s tales?” Anil questioned.
“Not completely, My Lady,” Terezka answered with another head bow. She was clearly intensely formal. “The linking of two souls doesn’t hinder a person’s ability to love others. Indeed, the Second King’s deepest love may be for the one who truly freed him, but that does not mean that his love for either of his wives is any less real. Nor does it mean that the Grand King, whose soul is tied to his husband’s, loves the Second King any more deeply than either of his queens. Though they do tend to agree with each other, the heart and the soul often function separately. I can only speak of the magic, however, and I don’t want to speculate on emotions. The last thing I wish to do is create complications in this royal marriage.”
Myri laughed lightly, tightening her arm around Coulta. “Anil and I both know they are more inclined toward each other. I am happy, regardless.”
Anil smiled at her. “I do agree. They are good to us, and they don’t neglect us. Clearly,” she added, pointedly running a hand over her abdomen.
From where he had been lingering out of the way, Shelton chuckled.
Coulta cleared his throat in an attempt to dispel the awkwardness that he felt. “Then, if my curse broke after meeting Wildas, why did it take so long for this power share to happen?”
The sorceress bowed her head yet again – which was starting to get old to watch. “It is likely that the curse didn’t break immediately, Your Highness. According to what I saw in your scars, it didn’t fully break until you followed through with a vow that you had made in your husband’s name. Since then, your powers have grown quite steadily. I suggest you continue testing yourself to discover where your current boundaries lie. As for why the power shares have occurred now – or occurred earlier and are only being activated now – I can only suggest that it may have to do with a need to protect your family from the coming war, even if it wasn’t a conscious choice to give them your powers to do so. Sometimes magic – especially curse-magic – works through our primal needs and deepest desires. Curse-magic is especially hard to contain when it chooses to transfer to a sexual partner. Other ways of sharing power would be much more controlled, but there are only two ways to stop sharing with your spouses; either don’t engage in sexual activities, or drain yourself of your magic so thoroughly beforehand that you have very little to spare. That would also leave you physically exhausted and may defeat your purpose.”
She smiled and shook her head, eyes glittering. “I wouldn’t worry, however. As long as everyone you share powers with learns to channel them to meet their needs, there is no harm. And no, there is no way to know how long the abilities will last in those who are shared with. Weak sorcerers may only transfer enough power for one spell, but stronger sorcerers can share enough power to last several weeks and through nearly countless spells. Curse-magic that is shared generally lasts months, or even more than countless uses. It is harder to know with curse-magic because using it requires no pre-thought spells, only an idea of what you want to accomplish. It may be wise for everyone to start learning to use their powers before the war comes to us.”
“What about the baby?” Wildas questioned, his expression still calm, though Coulta felt the grip on his hand tighten.
Terezka shook her head – after the customary little bow, again. “There is no way to know before the child is born, Your Majesty. There will certainly be no harm caused to the child, but whether or not the child has powers, and whether or not those powers will stay within the child throughout life is impossible to determine. I cannot examine a child in the womb because the mother’s own body hides the child in an effort to protect it.”
Coulta took a sharp breath and finally voiced his biggest fear, “And if it looks like me?”
“Then questions will be asked,” Shelton stated, finally stepping forward, “but I will speak in your defense.”
“As will I,” Terezka declared with a full bow.
“However, if appearances require a public test by other sorcerers, it will need to be done,” Shelton added.
Coulta nodded. “I understand.”
Wildas turned to look at Coulta. “There is no tradition saying that a Second King can’t transfer powers to the heir.”
“The usual magic can’t transfer to an unborn child,” Shelton pointed out, then glanced at Terezka. “Correct?”
She nodded. “You are correct. I don’t know anything about curse-magic and children.”
Shelton returned the nod. “I’m not sure many are. Is there anything else that should be known?”
“That is all,” she answered.
“Then let’s return to the mage training.”
Terezka bowed to them all before leaving, and when she had gone, Coulta sighed with relief. It was good to know that he hadn’t brought harm upon his spouses or their child after all.
“I suppose we should go learn to use these new powers,” Myri declared, sounding decidedly eager. She gave each of her husbands a kiss on the cheek, then helped Anil to her feet.
Anil paused to hug Coulta. “We stand beside you,” she stated.
“Thank you,” he replied, returning the hug.
When they had gone, Wildas pulled Coulta into a tight hug. “I’m happy I was the one who was able to finish the work Teeya started.”
Coulta smiled. “I am, too,” he agreed before kissing Wildas strongly, all his thankfulness poured into that kiss. When he pulled away a few long moments later he asked, “So, would you like to learn how to use your new fire magic?”
“It’s not just for tormenting my brother?” Wildas questioned with a smile.
Coulta grinned. “Only on occasion.”
“What happened?” Shelton questioned.
Anil slumped down into a chair, one hand on her swollen belly. “I was in the stables,” she explained as she caught her breath. “I was thinking about the news from Algoma and that we will likely be at war soon. I stopped to rub the face of one of the horses, thinking of how I wished I could protect them from harm. Then this… sheet of light – that’s the only way I can describe it – came from my hand and covered the horse’s entire body. He didn’t even react. When I became frightened and pulled my hand back, it vanished.”
“What color was the light?” Shelton asked, stepping closer to her.
“It was black with a silver shimmer.”
Coulta was beginning to get a very uncomfortable feeling.
“And I actually healed someone,” Myri added. “I’ve never been able to actually heal with magic, usually all I can do is enhance herbs. But a servant from the kitchens came to the healers with a large cut on her hand from a carelessly-used knife. I was trying to decide if she would be able to keep her thumb when this silvery-black light slipped from my fingers and started healing the cut. She’s fine now.”
Shelton sighed and looked at Coulta. “Well, Coulta, it looks like you’ve managed to share your magic with your spouses.”
Coulta raised an eyebrow. “How?”
“It’s known as a power share,” his mentor explained. “It isn’t unheard of among people of magic. It is common among sorcerers who physical relationships. Though it’s not very common for a sorceress to be able to pass her powers to a male counterpart, she can gain his. Usually, it occurs among those who have romantic aspects to their physical relationships, but it can also be done purely to strengthen our powers. I except the latter to become common as war draws nearer.”
“Are you trying to say that I gave them my powers through sex?” Coulta demanded.
Shelton nodded. “Most likely. It’s not the only way, but it’s the most common one.”
“You said it happens between people of magic,” Wildas pointed out. “I’ve never had any magical abilities.”
“Neither have I,” Anil stated from her chair.
“There have been queens with magic,” Shelton answered, then sighed. “But you’re right. You’ve never had any capacity for magic. It could just be the fact that you have magic in your blood, however diluted.” He turned to Anil and knelt on the floor before her. “Did anyone in your family have any magic at all?”
She shook her head. “Not to my knowledge, no. I’ve never known any of my parents or grandparents to have any powers.”
She didn’t need to add that now they were all dead, so they had no way of knowing.
“Wildas couldn’t have gotten magic from you?” Myri questioned of Shelton.
The Former Second King shook his head and sat down in another chair near the hearth. “No. I was the only one with powers, and magic can’t just pass on to those who have no ability to wield it – or so it usually goes. Plus, it is normally easy to control whether you pass on your powers or not.”
“Maybe it’s the type of magic Coulta has,” Rohan offered, startling Coulta. He’d forgotten the prince was still in the room.
Shelton took a deep breath. “One of the mages I’m working with may be able to help more than I can. She has studied types of magic and power sharing in depth. She might be able to determine what is going on here.”
“How long will these powers last?” Myri asked.
He shook his head. “I have no way of knowing. The powers usually fade over time, depending on how much power was shared.” He turned to look at Rohan, standing by the shattered glass on the floor, and waved him off. “Stop snooping in your brother’s private life.”
Rohan sighed and left the office.
When the General was gone, Shelton looked back at Wildas. “If you don’t mind my asking, when was the last time your husband made love to you?”
Coulta shifted uncomfortably at the straightforwardness of the question. Clearly, nothing could be private now.
Wildas cleared his throat. “Uh… night before last…” he answered, sounding just as awkward as Coulta felt. Thankfully.
“And you?” Shelton asked Myri.
“The same,” she stated. “With both of them.”
Coulta really didn’t feel like Shelton needed to hear that second part. He rubbed his neck uncomfortably.
Shelton just nodded and moved on to Anil.
“Before my bed rest started,” she answered, blushing. “I haven’t wanted to risk the baby since then.”
“So why is this just happening now?” Wildas demanded.
All Shelton could do was shake his head.
“And what about the baby?” Coulta managed to ask. “If Anil was pregnant last time… will the baby be all right?”
“Maybe that’s why she nearly miscarried,” Myri suggested.
Shelton held up his hand. “Don’t start thinking too much about this. I’m going to look for Terezka now. Maybe she will have some answers.”
Coulta hoped they were good answers.
“We are completely unprepared,” the Algoman prince explained that evening. “We had no information suggesting that Reesh was going to attack us. All we had gathered was that he planned to attack Phelin. We were preparing to send an envoy here the very day we were attacked, but he never had the chance to leave.”
“We’ve been aware of the threat,” Wildas assured him. “We weren’t aware that Algoma would be attacked, though.”
Coulta, who had spent all afternoon contacting his spies to be sure of this, nodded and added, “None of our people knew about it until the rumors started a few days ago.”
General Ruairi sighed and shifted in his chair. “It’s amazing how well Reesh’s men kept their mouths shut about that part of the plan.”
Jaimathan shook his head. He actually looked like royalty now that he was clean and dressed in clothes that must have come from the wardrobe of one of Wildas’ brothers. “It would have been nice to have had warning, yes. My parents and sister are in hiding with their Guardians, now that Reesh has infiltrated the castle.”
“But Queen Cyra doesn’t want us to send aid?” Admiral Pavle questioned, stroking his short beard.
“Our sources tell us that Reesh will attack Phelin as soon as your forces leave to aid Algoma,” Jaimathan explained, shaking his head. “My mother wishes me to stay here until the entire situation has played out.”
“An interesting request,” Rohan replied.
Jaimathan gave him a tight smile. “My presence here will be useful to you, if the attack comes.”
Coulta wasn’t sure what sort of political advantage the Algoman could offer, but he wasn’t about to ask. He could tell Rohan was thinking the same thing, as he simply raised a brow in response to their guest’s declaration.
“I don’t doubt that,” Shelton stated, making Coulta wonder if his mentor knew something that no one else did.
Over the next several weeks the Algoman guests became an unremarked upon part of the castle life. There had been a stir among the castle servants and the citizens of Ryal for the first few days, and the members of Wildas’ extended family constantly called upon the prince to welcome him. When he wasn’t being greeted and honored, Jaimathan could usually be found socializing with any of Wildas’ top advisers. Wildas more or less took him on as another adviser, requesting his presence at every evening meeting.
Braith was usually to be found working with Shelton and the other mages, and both Myri and Anil were clearly forming a close friendship with Fae. Alidex, meanwhile, kept to himself and was often seen wandering the castle halls at odd hours. He didn’t break his agreement to respect closed doors, but he seemed to get quite a bit of enjoyment out of startling the cooking staff and passing through the throne room while Wildas was hearing petitions. He even wandered in to watch Coulta training his spies one afternoon, standing in a corner of the Hall with his tail swishing and his eyes following every move. Coulta had witnessed the unicorn’s ability to speak, but he was surprise to note that Alidex rarely spoke to anyone but Jaimathan and Shelton, who had managed to earn his respect somehow. Coulta figured it had something to do with Shelton’s unsurpassed magical abilities.
Then, four weeks after the Algomans arrived, something very strange happened.
Coulta was with Wildas, Shelton, and Rohan in Wildas’ office. Shelton had been speaking with the kings about their most recent updates from Algoma, when Rohan had arrived to make a request of his brother.
“I need your permission to hold a trial for a place in the Guard,” Rohan announced.
Wildas waved a hand at him. “Go ahead.”
“Then, I also need your blessings for me to be married.”
They all looked at him curiously. Rohan was one of the last people Coulta ever expected to be married.
“Are these requests related?” Wildas questioned warily.
Rohan looked away from all of them. “Possibly.”
“Are you marrying her because you actually care about her, or because she’s carrying your child?” the Grand King demanded.
“Both,” Rohan declared.
Coulta had a feeling that if Wildas hadn’t been so stressed, he wouldn’t have been reacting so badly to his brother’s situation. Wildas was fuming, though, and Coulta took a step closer in an attempt to calm him. Before Coulta could reach his husband, however, Wildas snapped. The Grand King picked a glass paperweight off of his desk behind him, and hurled it at Rohan. The Guard General bellowed a curse as the paperweight shattered before him on the stone floor, and stumbled back against the wall as a black and silver flame erupted where it landed, then quickly puffed out.
Everyone stared at Wildas, while Wildas stared at the shattered, scorched glass on the floor.
“What was that?” Rohan demanded, pulling himself away from the wall. “For fuck’s sake, Wildas, are you trying to kill me?”
Wildas didn’t respond, just stared at the hand that had thrown the weight, clearly dumbstruck. Coulta could clearly see that Wildas’ hand was unmarked.
Shelton held out a hand to the Grand King, opening his mouth to speak, but before a single word could leave him, but queens came bursting into the room.
“Why do we suddenly have powers?” Myri demanded.
The next two weeks passed in relative calm, until the day that Shelton arrived at Coulta’s office and demanded to speak to him and Wildas. They had to wait for Wildas to finish hearing petitions, and in the meantime Shelton refused to discus anything with Coulta. Finally, Wildas arrived, looking worried.
“Rohan said you needed me,” he said to Shelton.
“I just spoke with a sorcerer by the name of Braith,” Shelton began, turning a violet stone over in his hands – one of the communication crystals Coulta sent with his spies when they went on missions. “He’s the personal Guardian to Prince Jaimathan.”
“The Algoman heir?” Wildas questioned.
“Yes,” Shelton went on. “Braith informed me that Algoma was attacked two weeks ago by Dyrai. The king, queen, and princess are in hiding, but Braith contacted me to ask for sanctuary for the prince, his wife and child, and the sorcerer himself. They’ll be here in a few days.”
“It takes two months to get to the Algoman capital from here,” Wildas pointed out.
“They have some sort of magical transportation. Will you give them sanctuary?” the sorcerer asked, gazing intently at the Grand King.
Wildas nodded. “Of course.”
Shelton smiled grimly. “I will let Braith know.”
“Are we going to give aid to Algoma?” Coulta questioned. “We built our army expecting to be attacked, and Algoma is our ally.”
Wildas sighed. “We may try. I want to talk to the prince first. It’s likely that his mother gave him instructions, either to ask for help or just to wait the situation out. If we can help, we will. Though, we may be Dyrai’s next target, especially if we have the Algoman prince here.” He sighed again, and Coulta could see the stress building on him again. “We need to wait to talk things over with him.”
Shelton nodded in agreement. “As soon as our guests arrive, will can decide the next course of action.”
The day that the Algomans were due to arrive, Coulta sat in the throne room with his spouses, flanked by the Royal Guard and the kings’ advisers. All four of the members of the royal family were wearing their crowns, which Coulta felt was a bit too formal, but it was apparently a requirement for sitting in the throne room on the elegant, intricately decorated thrones.
When the Algomans arrived, Coulta was startled to see a large dapple gray horse bringing up the rear of the party, and even when he realized it wasn’t a horse but a unicorn, he was still puzzled. He hadn’t even known unicorns were actual creatures, not just stories. Clearly this was the magical transportation Shelton had mentioned.
The humans were travel-worn, covered in dirt and with uncombed hair. The prince and his wife didn’t look like royalty, especially compared to the Phelin rulers in the room. Their clothes were plain under the dirt from the road, and they wore no symbols of rank. In Phelin, all members of the royal family wore colored cords across their bodies, even if they were only distantly related to the rulers. The only noble thing about the prince was the sword at his hip. Though the sheath was fairly simple, Coulta could see the gleaming gold of the hilt and the blue topaz set in it. The princess was carrying a sleeping child no older than a year in age.
Braith, the sorcerer that Shelton had been in contact with, was wearing a uniform consisting of a red shirt, pants, and cloak, all edged in black. On his breast was sewn a sword balanced on its tip above a single flame, a crown sitting on the sword’s hilt. It must have been the symbol of the Guardians of the royal family. The most startling thing about the sorcerer could be seen as the group approached the dais where Coulta and his family sat; the man had red eyes.
Since Coulta had some magical abilities, he’d been meeting with Shelton and the other mages periodically to see what they planned to do if Dyrai attacked. Coulta had noticed another sorcerer who had partially red eyes, and had asked Shelton how it was possible.
“There’s more than one type of magic,” Shelton had explained. “Your magic is very different from mine, and the Reds are very different from both of us. They aren’t born with the ability to use magic, it develops when they begin to physically become adults. As their powers grow, their eyes become more red, starting at the center and moving out. The more red the eyes of a Red sorcerer, the more power he can wield. Reds aren’t very common in Phelin, and no one knows why. Most Reds come from Algoma, where they are more common. In Algoma they call sorcerers such as myself Colored Flames, because we have very specific colors tied to our powers. Obviously, I’m a violet Flame. Here, where it is the most common type of magic, we don’t bother calling ourselves that, just like Reds don’t call themselves Reds.”
“What am I?” Coulta had asked, thinking of how his magic was both black and silver.
Shelton had shrugged. “You are an Arcane. Your powers work in ways that ancient powers used to work – effortlessly and without detailed spells. The rest of us all need spells or words of power. You only need to think of what you wish to do, and you can do it.”
Coulta’s thoughts were disrupted by the Algoman prince’s accented words, “I am Crown Prince Jaimathan of Algoma, and I ask for sanctuary for myself, my wife and child, and our Guardian. I ask this because our nations are allies, and my home has been overrun by invaders from Dyrai.” His hands were clasped before him and his head was bowed, the proper showing of respect for someone who only slightly outranked him, regardless of whose lands they were in. Behind him, his wife was still holding their child, but her head was bowed. The sorcerer was kneeling on one knee, head bowed and arms to his side. The unicorn held his head high in defiance of any human authority.
They all knew Wildas was going to welcome the Algomans, but the formality was required. Coulta was hardly surprised, however, when Wildas stood, set his crown down on the red cushion of his throne, and stepped down to the visitors. “If we’re going to save both of our countries, we must end the formality,” he declared, making the prince look up. “You, your family, and your Guardian are welcome here for as long as you need to be here.”
Jaimathan smiled. “I thank you.”
Coulta removed his crown and stepped down from the dais as well, followed by both queens. Up close, Coulta could see through the dirt of travel on their guests’ faces and realized that all three adults were approximately the same age he and his spouses were; mid-twenties. There was a round of introductions, and Myri asked their guests if they were well after their journey.
“Klent has a slight cough,” Princess Fae answered, cradling the child.
“I’m a healer,” Myri explained. “I can check on him once you’ve settled in, if you like.”
Fae smiled. “That would be wonderful.”
“We prepared two guest rooms for you, in the wing reserved for royal visitors,” Wildas told them. “The wardrobes should be full. I’ll have someone show you the way, and get baths ready for you. I will hold a meeting tonight with my advisers, so you can tell us what happened and we can decide what course of action to take.”
The prince looked suddenly sad. “My mother doesn’t wish for Phelin to rush to her aid. From what we gathered from spies, Reesh is using his attack on Algoma to draw your forces from Phelin. He likely has spies here, who will know as soon as you send forces to Algoma. They will pull out of Algoma and swarm Phelin before your forces can return.”
Wildas glanced at Coulta, who was baffled. “None of my people even mentioned hearing that Algoma was going to be invaded.” He was going to have to make sure none of them had been found out, as soon as he could.
Wildas sighed. “We’ll talk more this evening.”
Jaimathan nodded. “Thank you, again, for your kindness.”
The Grand King motioned to the unicorn, which Myri had been staring at for a while. “Where will… your companion stay?”
The prince glanced at the creature, and shrugged. “Alidex? He usually goes wherever he wishes. If there is a specific place you’d like him to stay away from, I will request that he does so. But it’s not as though I truly have control over him. He only stays with me because I saved him when he was a colt.”
“He can go where he wants,” Wildas replied, “as long as the door is open, and he doesn’t make a mess.”
At that, Alidex swung his great head over Jaimathan’s shoulder and looked Wildas square in the eye. “Jai,” the unicorn spoke in a strangely beautiful male voice, “tell His Royal High-ass that I will gladly stay out of rooms with closed doors, but if he insults my hygiene once more I shall find his bedchamber and shit in his bed.”
Everyone in the room fell into silent shock, even the guards having hushed conversations behind them. Jaimathan and Fae both had horrified expressions on their dirty faces, and Braith was staring at the unicorn as if it were about to commit murder and he’d have to stop it with magic.
But Wildas chuckled. “I’m very sorry, Alidex,” he said, bowing his head. “I didn’t mean to offend. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting a noble creature like yourself.”
Coulta wasn’t sure “pleasure” was the right word. This was not a beast to be on the wrong side of.
Alidex just snorted and backed away.
Jaimathan grimaced. “I’m sorry for that. I should have mentioned that he offends easily.”
That got another snort.
“I will just have to be sure not to offend him again,” Wildas said with a smile.
Shelton approached them then and nodded respectfully to the guests. “I can show you to your rooms, if you wish,” he offered.
As soon as the guests were gone, Myri scowled at Wildas. “Don’t you offend that unicorn again. Not when all of us are sharing your bed until this whole war is over with.”
“If only Alidex was my only worry,” Wildas replied with a sigh.
Myri extended Anil’s bed rest to be sure there were no ill effects from the attack, which neither woman was happy about. After hearing about the assassination attempt, Prince Rohan assigned a guard to the bedridden queen at all times, then confronted his lord brother in a quarrel that took four people – Coulta, Myri, Yvona, and Shelton – to finally force an end to. The brothers didn’t lay a hand on each other, but they were practically yelling loud enough to disturb the entire castle and were very much up in each other’s faces.
“You should have seen them when they were boys,” Former Queen Yvona mumbled to Coulta and Myri once Wildas had vanished into his bedchamber and Rohan had marched out to the hallway, both having slammed doors.
“They threw each other down a few times,” Shelton added with a tiny smile as the four of them stood alone in Wildas’ office, “before Rohan learned to respect rank.”
Wildas may outrank his brother, but Coulta wasn’t surprised when the Grand King gave in to Rohan’s demands. Coulta and Myri were informed that night, by Wildas, that all three of them were going to be sleeping in Wildas’ room until further notice. There was going to be a Guardsman posted at the outer door to Coulta’s office, and one in his room guarding the door into Wildas’ chamber. A third Guardsman would be outside Wildas’ office door.
Coulta thought it was too much, but he didn’t argue. He moved his violet communication crystal – his only means of communicating with his spies on assignment – into Wildas’ room on its simple metal stand. He then locked his office, the outer door and the door that led to his chamber. The Guardsmen may work for the crown, but who knew what boredom and curiosity could lead them to sneak a look at. Coulta wasn’t about to be very trusting after what had nearly happened to Anil.
The door to Anil’s chamber was left open, in case she needed Myri in the night, and they made their sleeping arrangements. Wildas and Coulta didn’t talk about it, but they each placed their swords beside the bed, on opposite sides. Myri didn’t like that they were putting her between them, in case Anil needed her, but when they both stared her down, she sighed and got into bed. Coulta climbed in on his side, slipping a dagger under his pillow.
Hopefully no one would be foolish enough to startle him from sleep, since he was not likely to find out who was there before throwing that dagger.
His spouses were not going to be threatened again.
Coulta attempted to question the would-be assassin over the next few days, but he refused to talk, no matter the torture Coulta was forced to resort to. Threat of death did nothing, either. It frustrated him immensely, and when the day came that Coulta found the man dead in his cell, having killed himself by gnawing open his wrist, there was no containing his rage. He resorted to finding a stuffed dummy used for training the soldiers and ripping it to shreds with his bare hands. Strangely, it made him feel better.
Anil was released from her confinement just two days before Lozk’s Day, the day of celebration to begin the harvest season. The first place she went, with Yvona by her side, was the stable, which came as no surprise to anyone.
The Lozk’s Day celebrations began at dawn, when Coulta had to ride out with Wildas and four Guardsmen – one being Rohan – to visit the farmers. It was a tradition that both kings ride out to the outlying farmlands of Lower Ryal to thank the farmers who supply food to the court and city, and to wish them a good harvest.
The farming families looked forward to this day all year, and were already waiting by the road at the edges of their properties as the sun was rising. The younger children all stared at the kings and their guards with wide eyes and open mouths. From their horses, Wildas and Coulta presented small gifts of thanks to the men and women in the form of charms, hair bands, hats, work gloves, and bracelets and necklaces woven from various types of rope. The children were given small toys of wooden animals, tiny carts, a few blocks, and even small stuffed animals.
“Many people work all year long to make the gifts,” Wildas had explained the year before, when they’d upheld the tradition for the first time. “It’s what my mother – Xiao, not Yvona – does all year. Some of my siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles make gifts throughout the year, as well. Some merchants donate things, too. Most people seem happy to thank the people who feed us.”
The farms of Lower Ryal weren’t falling apart nearly as much as the farms Coulta had seen further from the capital, and the families that lived on them were far better off than their fellow farmers in other parts of the country. Their clothing, though patched in some places, was clean, and so were they. They clearly benefited from living so close to the capital.
By the time Coulta and Wildas returned to the castle it was nearly midday. With a ball planned to start soon and last late into the night, they both began to get ready. Coulta had a new ball outfit from Teeya to wear for the celebrations, but he wasn’t sure how comfortable he’d feel in it. Even after a year of being Second King, formal clothes still felt alien to him, and he didn’t like that they drew more attention to him. A lifetime of working as a spy and an assassin made him acutely aware of the gazes of other people watching him. It was bad enough that most people felt the need to stare at him because of the black tracery on his skin, he didn’t need fancy clothes to make it worse.
The outfit that Teeya had made him was of finely cut black silk, with fine silver detailing to bring out the silver in his tinted eyes – and to make him look less terrifying, he was sure. His black dress boots went well with the outfit, though. Once dressed, Coulta joined his spouses for their walk to the Great Hall.
Wildas wore an elaborate outfit of deep red gold. Both Anil and Myri wore gowns of rich violet, but Anil’s was cut to accentuate the curve of her swelling abdomen.
The Great Hall was already filled with a number of guests dressed in bejeweled finery. At the announcement of the royal family’s entrance, all the guests stopped their conversations to bow to the royals. Coulta instinctively scanned the room for any signs of spies or assassins, unwilling to put his full trust in Rohan’s Guard. No one caught his eye.
The afternoon consisted of vast amounts of food and drink, and entertainment. The most notable of the entertainment was the dance troupe made up of the sons and daughters of farmers all over Phelin. They performed an incredible story of the Spirit of Harvest himself, flawlessly and effortlessly. It wasn’t surprising, though, since the troupe was one of the most elite in the country, with members ranging in age from thirteen to early twenties, and who had needed to pass several tests in order to be accepted. The troupe only took on farmers’ children, and farming families would pay everything they could spare – and more – to have one of their children taken by the troupe. The hope was always that the troupe members would end up marrying into noble families or being hired onto more professional, non-travel theater or dance troupes. Either of these options would result in the family having some form of financial help from their big-city child. Surprisingly, most members of the troupe did end up being found by potential spouses or new masters. Those who didn’t usually went home with injuries before the chance arrived.
Coulta had never understood the use of dancing, not when his physical skills always related directly to his survival. Dancing seemed trivial. It had taken several instructors many months just to teach him how to do the courtly group and couples dances that would take place into the ball evening. Even though it meant more time with his spouses and friends, there were still many things he would rather do than dance.
Sometimes, the things he did for love amazed him.
Over the next several days, Coulta met privately with all twenty of his spies currently in Ryal, with Teeya present to help fit the new fighting gear to each man or woman’s specific proportions. The masks that went with the uniforms were made of a dark, breathable fabric that would allow each spy to breathe while being unidentifiable by any of the others. The rest of the uniform was made up of long leather pants, long-sleeved leather shirts, gloves, and hood to cover the hair that was attached in such a way that it would allow all manner of head movements and not fall back. Only each person’s eyes were left uncovered.
Coulta was impressed, though he had known Teeya was skilled enough to design something that would be effective. The impressive part was how quickly she managed it.
When all of his spies had uniforms that were fit to them, Coulta asked them to meet him in the Great Hall to be formally trained in combat. Shelton took time away from meeting with other sorcerers to observe the first training session, as well.
The twenty men and women were undefinable in their identical uniforms, silent and mostly androgynous. They all bowed to Coulta and Shelton, which both royal men acknowledged.
“You will be learning how to fight,” Coulta began, “because the jobs you take for your country put you in danger. You all know that we lost one man recently, and many of you have faced injury and risked death doing your duties. Some of you may know basic combat skills already, but I want to be certain that I do what I can to ensure that you have a chance to make it home from missions assigned to you. That is my duty, as the one who puts you into danger and asks you to risk your lives. I will do all that I can to train you in the use of your body, concealable daggers, and everyday objects you may be forced to resort to, as weapons.”
One of the taller spies took a small step forward, head bowed. “Your Majesty, will we use magic?” he asked – the voice was definitely masculine.
Coulta glanced at Shelton in surprise. He hadn’t worked with this spy very much, clearly, because he hadn’t realized any of his spies had magic.
“Are you a trained mage?” Shelton asked the man.
“Yes, Your Highness. I was finishing my schooling when I first joined the royal spies. It was my master’s idea. He taught me much combat magic, and concealing magic for my work for the crown.”
Shelton was nodding. “Yes, I remember you. If you would like to join the mages I am working with, you are welcome to do so. Or you may stay with the spies. The choice is yours.”
After a moment the man looked up. “I think I would like to be a mage. I’ve been a spy for quite a while.”
The Former Second King motioned to the door of the Hall. “Come, I’ll tell you what we’re doing.”
As the man followed Shelton, he paused by Coulta and bowed. “I’m sorry to leave you, Your Majesty.”
Coulta gave him a smile to reassure him. “It’s all right. You’ve served well, and you will continue to serve well with the mages.”
The man bowed again. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
When Coulta began the training session with the remaining nineteen spies, it became very apparent which ones had learned fighting skills elsewhere. Coulta began with simple hand-to-hand, weaponless combat strategies that could be use defensively or offensively, depending on the situation. A few of his students needed a lot of practice, but others he was quite satisfied with – including the petite woman who managed to completely flip one of the largest of the men down onto his back. Everyone else in the room, Coulta included, stopped and stared in complete shock and awe. Though the man seemed all right when he got to his feet after a few dazed minutes on the floor, Coulta sent him to the healers to be safe and ended the session.
The woman tried to apologize to Coulta afterward, but he just waved her off. “I have a feeling it was a learning experience for everyone,” he told her.
This was definitely going to be a challenge.
Anil was improving, according to Myri, and was soon to be off bed rest. Myri was apparently confident that the risk of miscarriage had decreased enough for her to go back to work in the royal stables – making sure that the operation was being properly run and giving her suggestions on breeding pairs and training methods to the master breeder and trainer, not actually working with the horses themselves. Anil seemed resigned to the fact that her contact with the animals was going to be limited to rubbing faces and looking into stalls and arenas with a barrier in front of her and someone by her side at all times for the next few months, though it wasn’t at all what she wanted.
So, Coulta was somewhat surprised when a young man entered his office one afternoon while Coulta was trying to decide where to take his spies’ training now that more than a week had passed. They had been practicing daily, and Coulta felt that they were ready to move on, but to what he couldn’t decide. The visitor bowed to Coulta just inside the door, clearing his throat.
Coulta finally looked up at the noise and asked, “Yes?”
“Forgive me, Your Majesty,” the man said, still bowed. “You must not have heard my knock, so I checked to see if you were here. I’ve been sent by Queen Myri to attend to Queen Anil.”
For a woman about to be off bed rest, she certainly had a number of attendants. But Coulta knew better than to question Myri’s actions. He told the man where Anil’s room was and went back to his notes on the spy training.
Shelton entered the office only moments later, disrupting his thoughts again. “I’ve never seen you leave a door open,” he commented, shutting the office door.
Coulta was confused for a moment, glancing up from his notes. “Oh, that was Anil’s new attendant. He didn’t close it, I guess.”
There was a look on Shelton’s face that filled Coulta with sudden fear. “Coulta, I approve all of the personal servants to this wing of the castle. Anil has no new attendants, and none of the ones she has are men.”
Coulta stood up so fast that his chair toppled, realizing, “The bastard never knocked!”
If Shelton understood this strange outburst or not, Coulta didn’t find out. He was running to Anil’s room before he even realized he was, bursting into his bedchamber, through it to Wildas’, and slamming into Anil’s door with enough physical and magical force that it flew open and ripped almost completely off its hinges.
The man was crouched over Anil, one hand clamped over her mouth, the other holding a jagged dagger. Coulta could see the terror in his wife’s eyes as the man turned to look at him. Without pausing, Coulta grabbed the man by the back of his plain brown tunic and threw him against the wall. The attack sent the dagger flying from the man’s hand and onto the floor all the way across the room. Coulta pressed the assassin against the wall with enough force to make him cry out.
“Who sent you?” Coulta demanded, practically snarling. When the man didn’t answer, just stared defiantly at him, Coulta pulled him a few inches from the wall and slammed him back against it. “Who – do – you – work – for?” he growled.
“Coulta!” Shelton’s voice commanded from the doorway. “If you’re going to torture him, save it for the dungeon, not a queen’s bedchamber.”
Coulta had to admit that his mentor had a point. He could hear Anil sobbing behind him. “Will you get me some Guardsmen to arrest this bastard?” he asked Shelton, not taking his eyes of the wincing assassin.
Shelton walked up to them and firmly forced Coulta back with a commanding hand on Coulta’s shoulder. The assassin hardly had time to smile victory at Coulta releasing him before Shelton slapped him so hard that he spun to the ground, a faint purple hand print slowly fading from his cheek.
“Gladly,” Shelton declared, turning to leave the room at a pace that could only be described as a march, and that made him look oddly terrifying in his swishing purple sorcerer’s robes. A sorcerer on a mission was not a person to get in the way of.
With the assassin magically unconscious thanks to said sorcerer, Coulta turned his attention to Anil. His heart ached with the fear he had seen in her eyes, and the tears she was crying. He climbed onto the bed with her and pulled her into his arms, holding her tightly. She clutched at him, weeping against his chest.
“I thought I was going to die,” she sobbed.
Coulta hugged her tighter, deeply disturbed by how close he’d come to losing her, not to mention their child. “He should never have gotten in here,” he admitted. “I never should have believed him. I’m so sorry, Anil.”
“You saved me.”
But only after he’d put her in grave danger. He wasn’t about to argue, though. Instead he simply did his best to soothe her and ease her shock. He held her, kissed her hair, and rubbed her back, not speaking because he never knew what to say to comfort anyone who was suffering. Finally, Shelton returned, with two Guardsmen and Myri. The Guardsmen and Shelton took the still-unconscious man away, while Myri fell to comforting her wife. Coulta remained on the bed, but handed Anil over to the healer.
“Coulta, will you make her some tea?” Myri asked, reaching out with one hand to grasp his.
He nodded and got off the bed to heat the water at the small hearth. Myri gave him directions and he followed them while trying to ignore his wet shirt. When the tea was ready, he handed it to Myri and sat down on a plush chair by the bed, rubbing his face.
He was appalled that he had let the man into their rooms, that he had believed that Myri had sent him and that he’d directed him right to Anil. He should have realized that the man hadn’t knocked, and that Anil had never had a male attendant. Every healer that Myri had sent to look after her had been a woman. Why hadn’t any of this occurred to him?
Wildas arrived a short time later, looking like he had expected a worse situation than the one he found. He immediately sat down on the bed and pulled Anil into his arms, and Coulta could see him shaking. It was too much for Coulta. Overwhelmed with guilt for having let the man get so close to Anil, he left the room.
Now in Wildas’ chamber, he leaned back against the wall and slid to the floor, burying his face in his hands. He didn’t cry, but he felt close to it as the guilt practically overwhelmed him.
A hand on his shoulder a moment later made him look up. Wildas was next to him on the floor, and Coulta let him be pulled into his husband’s arms.
“Anil said you were blaming yourself,” Wildas said quietly. “I wanted to make sure you’re all right.”
“I let him in,” Coulta said, his voice strained. “I told him how to get to Anil’s room. I almost killed her. I almost killed the baby.”
Wildas held him tighter. “Don’t think about that. Think about the fact that you saved them.”
“Only because of Shelton.”
“So?” the Grand King demanded. “You still prevented murder – assassination. That’s two of us that you’ve saved now,” he added.
Only Wildas could make Coulta feel almost happy in such a situation. “Oh please, don’t let me have to save Myri next,” he half-joked. “I don’t want there to be any more assassination attempts on my family.”
Wildas sighed heavily and leaned his head against the wall. “Neither do I.”
Coulta was far too restless to sleep that night. Despite what he’d said to Wildas about not fretting about their situation until they had more information, Coulta was still stressed and full of worry for his spies. Not even Wildas and Myri combined could find a way to relax him. Instead of keeping them awake all night with his tossing and turning, he decided to do something he hadn’t done for months. He slipped carefully out of Wildas’ bed, trying not to disturb him or Myri, and went to his own bedchamber to get dressed.
He loved the feel of his simple black leather fighting clothes – it was like a second skin to him, familiar and perfect. It was very different from what he’d been used to wearing on jobs in Arren, because in Arren he’d had no armor. He’d gotten used to it, though, because it was light and didn’t limit his movements like heavier armor would. On his chest was embossed the golden leaping horse of the royal family. To finish his preparations he laced his boots, pulled on a pair of black leather gloves, and tied back his black hair.
Wildas’ room had the window that most suited Coulta’s needs, so he returned to his husband’s room – almost silently, in an effort not to wake his two spouses there. The window was open to the warm night, and Coulta stepped up onto the windowsill. He took one calming breath, then jumped.
He landed with a roll on the barracks roof and was on his feet immediately, running to the opposite end of the roof. From that edge he launched himself to the roof of the armory, making the fifteen-foot gap easily.
In Arren, roof-running was the only pass time that had kept him from going insane, and it had been one of the main ways he’d come to realize that he had magic. He knew of no normal man who could jump out of a third-floor castle window and land on a roof one story shorter and fifty feet away without incurring a single injury. And do it without allowing a single person to notice him unless he wanted to be noticed.
Feeling the wind in his face as he ran across the roofs of the castle grounds lifted his spirits, and he made for the surrounding wall. This time he had to jump over and up, and catch the top of the wall with his hands. He hung there a moment before climbing easily up and heading for the nearest roof on the other side. This was the Noble Circle, where nobles who could trace themselves back to the royal family could live if they chose. The houses were grand, with lavish gardens and intricate stonework designs. There were also a number of expensive stores catering to the royal class.
Surrounding the Noble Circle was another, slightly lower wall, surrounded by the rest of the city of Ryal. Here were the houses of merchants and scholars, the taverns and shops for the lower classes, gambling houses and whore-houses of all kinds, theaters and markets, the academy for sorcerers and the city’s Temple. Around this vast outer city was a third wall, topped by guards. Coulta stood there with those two men, surprised that they weren’t actually sleeping – though they were playing a game of cards. Coulta could understand how boring an average night on guard duty could be, so he let their game go on as he stood there unnoticed.
He looked out at the farms that made up Lower Ryal in the distance and smiled. He knew he could leave the city if he wished to. It wasn’t like it had been in Arren, when he couldn’t physically leave the city even though he desperately wanted to. But he didn’t want to leave Ryal. It was home now.
When Coulta made it back to Wildas’ room an hour after leaving, he was much more at peace than he had been in days. He undressed and slipped back into bed with his spouses. Myri wasn’t bothered by his return, but he noticed Wildas’ eyes watching him from the other side of their wife. Coulta slipped an arm over Myri to grip Wildas’ hand, trying to reassure him. Wildas gave him a small smile.
“You know,” Wildas began the next morning after Myri had left to check on Anil, “I should practice my swordplay if there’s going to be a war. I haven’t sparred in months.”
Coulta smiled. “I suppose you want me to spar with you?”
Wildas kissed him lightly. “I would give the court some entertainment.”
They certainly did draw quite a crowd almost before they started sparring. It was understandable, Coulta thought, since the people within the grounds of the royal castle rarely got to see both of their kings spar together. And Shelton had never sparred with the late Grand King Deandre because his strength was in his abilities as a sorcerer. Deandre had sparred on occasion with Queen Yvona, which had drawn much attention, but apparently people liked watching Coulta fight. Especially when he was against two opponents.
Rohan, dressed in his red Royal Guard uniform, was waiting for them when they got to the practice arena.
Coulta raised an eyebrow at Wildas. “Cheating?”
Wildas smiled as he pulled on his blue leather gloves – his light sparring armor was blue and gold and much fancier than Coulta’s black. “You expected me to fight you alone?”
Coulta just shook his head and said nothing. Instead, he took his blades from his belt and warded the edges so they wouldn’t inflict any real damage. He did the same for both Wildas’ and Rohan’s swords. They all nodded to each other, and the battle began.
He was used to sparring with two opponents at once – sometimes more, like when Rohan had sent a whole class of new recruits at him at once. Coulta had resorted to using some magic for that fight, and had still come out of it with his fair share of bruises, though the twelve trainees were also hurting by the time Rohan called a halt to the practice session. Despite being experienced with multiple opponents, it was still a challenge to keep track of both Wildas and Rohan. He ended up backing against the arena fence so neither of them could hit him in the back when he was distracted. Damn, the brothers were a tough team.
The crowd grew as the fight went on, and Coulta could hear bets being made on which of the royal brothers would yield first – hardly anyone was betting on Coulta yielding first. That was a good choice, because it ended up being Wildas who dropped his sword first, when Coulta’s sword came to rest less than an inch from his throat.
Wildas let his sword fall to the dirt as he held his hands up in surrender. “Yield,” he panted.
Coulta pulled back and rounded on Rohan, who was about to strike while Coulta was focused on Wildas. With one blade, Coulta swatted the sword out of the prince’s hand, bringing his other sword to point against Rohan’s chest.
Rohan held up his hands as his brother had done only moments before. “Yield,” he wheezed.
Coulta nodded and sheathed his blades, trying to catch his own breath. Then he shook hands with his opponents as the crowd started to disperse, some people happy with winning bets and some far from it.
“I’m definitely glad to have you on our side,” Rohan declared as they all moved toward the arena gate.
“I’m glad to be on your side,” Coulta replied with a smile and a nod.
Coulta had just finished getting his latest report from his people in Port Blasin a week later when Wildas slipped into his dark office.
“You can do it,” the Grand King announced.
Coulta glanced up from the notes he was reading over, looking at his husband with confusion. “I can do what?”
“Train your people.”
That got the wheels turning immediately in Coulta’s mind as to how to actually go about the training. He hadn’t let himself consider it before that point, in case Wildas didn’t want him to do it. Coulta wasn’t about to go against Wildas’ wishes if Wildas didn’t want him to do something of this scale, no matter how important he thought his own plan was. Wildas has the ultimate authority when it came to running the country, and he was much more strategically-minded than Coulta – if Wildas saw more possible negative consequences coming from a decision than Coulta did, Wildas was probably the one who was right. It was why Coulta stayed away from making any real decisions whenever he could. Though, it didn’t stop Wildas from seeking his opinion on issues.
“I thought you wanted to keep their identities hidden from each other?” Wildas asked, drawing Coulta from his thoughts.
“I do,” Coulta agreed. “I’ll talk to Teeya about a way to cover their faces and still allow them to fight.”
Wildas nodded. “I’ll have her sent up.”
“Thank you.” Coulta saw Wildas nod again and turn to go. “Don’t you have time to rest for a moment?” he suggested, getting up from his desk.
His husband sighed and slumped down into a chair. “I guess I do. There isn’t much for me to do right now, except fret about everything.”
Coulta settled into the chair next to him. “We still don’t know exactly where the threat is coming from, or when it’s coming,” he pointed out. “What is there to do when we don’t know how to prepare?”
Wildas sighed again. “Extra training, recruiting, contacting allies. There are a lot of things to do. Much of which is no longer in my control.”
“Can’t we relax until something else becomes known?” Coulta asked, reaching for Wildas’ hand.
“It would be a good thing to try,” Wildas replied, squeezing Coulta’s hand before he leaned over and kissed him.
A moment later, Coulta broke the kiss to tug Wildas to Coulta’s bedchamber. He knew one way to relieve stress, at least.
Teeya arrived in his office a few hours later, and Coulta was happy to see her looking well. Teeya had been a servant to his former master – his personal seamstress – and had raised Coulta after he had been dumped with Lord Varin, though she had only been a few years older than Coulta. She was like a motherly older sister to him, and he cared about her so much that he had returned to the city of Arren after the civil war ended just to find out what had become of her. He had worried that Lord Varin had tortured her to death in an attempt to find out where Coulta and the prince had gone, but he had found her alive and well. She had immediately accepted his offer to become one of the royal family’s own seamstresses.
“Your lord husband said you had some work for me,” she said when she entered.
Coulta looked up from his notes and shook his head. “Won’t you stop calling him that?” he requested, but he was smiling.
She grinned as she walked up to his desk and leaned against it. “But that’s what he is. You’re just bothered that I saw it coming before you did.”
He didn’t deny or accept that right then, he just leaned back in his chair and explained, “I’m going to be training my people – the spies – to kill when they need to. I’ve lost too many already.”
Her eyes widened. “I thought it was only one?”
“For now,” he replied. “I want to train those who are currently here, as a group. But I don’t want anyone to know who they are. Even each other. Can you design some sort of fighting uniform that can hide their faces without making breathing or vision too difficult for the training to even be useful?”
She nodded thoughtfully. “I’m sure I can. It may take a few days, though.”
“I know. But the sooner you can make something workable, the better.”
“I’ll make it a priority,” she assured him. “Though, Anil does want some new dresses, to fit her growing body.” She smiled as she spoke.
Coulta rose from his chair. “I was planning to visit her, come with me.”
Teeya followed him into his bedchamber, across Wildas’, and to Anil’s door. It was only open a crack, so Coulta knocked out of politeness, and to make sure he didn’t startle his wife.
“Yes?” Anil called.
The queen was reclined on her bed knitting some article of clothing that Coulta couldn’t really guess at yet. He wasn’t surprised. After all, Anil came from a common family, and she had nothing to do while she was cooped up in her room. Coulta went to her and gave her a light kiss, smiling as she put down her knitting to hug him.
“How are you?” he asked. “And what are you making?”
She let him go to show him. “It’s going to be a blanket. I know I don’t need to do it, but I wouldn’t feel right about it if I didn’t. The blanket my blood mother made me before she died was very special to me. I want to pass on her memory to my own children.”
“That’s such a wonderful thing to do!” Teeya said with a smile, giving voice to what Coulta was feeling.
Anil looked up in surprise. “Teeya! I didn’t see you!”
Coulta gave the two women some space to hug, smiling to himself. All of his spouses had taken to Teeya the moment he had brought her back to Ryal, practically treating her like a sister, which made Coulta extremely happy. He didn’t know what he would have done if his spouses didn’t want to associate with the only other person in the world who was like family to him.
“I thought I could get started on some new clothes for you,” Teeya explained. “Lozk’s Day is only a little over a month away. I’ve been told that the royal family hosts some fairly fancy celebrations then.”
“Very true,” Anil replied. “I leave the choice up to you; show off what little swell I’ll have by then, or obscure it.”
“Definitely show it off,” Teeya declared. “It would do the people good to see that the royal line is already continuing. Don’t you think, Coulta?” she asked, turning to him.
Coulta shrugged, his arms crossed over his chest. “I honestly don’t know, but if you think it’s best, then I’m sure it is.”
Teeya shook her head. “You make a terrible king.”
Coulta spent the next day going over every single report he’d received from his spies over the last year – since he’d become spymaster and Second King. By the afternoon, though, his head was aching and he was scared that he was both reading too far into simple matters and not reading into other matters far enough.
He jumped and reached for the nearest item he could use as a weapon – a paperweight – before he realized it was only Myri standing in the doorway of his office. He put the paperweight back and rubbed his face. “Thanks.”
“I didn’t realize tea could be so offensive,” she said as she approached his desk. “Overworking yourself again, killer?”
Coulta scowled at her. “I thought you had stopped calling me that.”
She shrugged and held out the mug of steaming tea. “You were about to attack me with a paperweight,” she pointed out.
He took the tea, thanking her. “Natural reaction. How is Anil?”
“She seems to be doing fine. I’m still demanding she stay on bed rest for a time. Where’s Wildas? I thought he’d be having another meeting.”
Coulta blew on the tea, which was far too hot to drink yet. “Shelton convinced him to wait until this evening. He was supposed to hear petitions today.”
“I would have thought he’d want you to help him with that,” Myri said thoughtfully, crossing her arms. “It’s supposed to be part of your duties.”
He snorted. “Me? I’d run the country into the ground before the end of the day. I am terrible with politics. Do you know where Shelton is? It would be helpful to have him look these notes over and make sure I haven’t missed anything.”
“I’ll go find him,” she offered. “Drink that tea. I’m sure you have a headache, and it will help.”
“Thank you,” he replied as she left.
Even though he knew he needed to keep reading over his reports, Coulta forced himself to ignore that need. Instead, he paced around the fire-lit room and sipped his tea. The royal offices were interior rooms, each one placed between each king’s bedchamber and the hallway, so the room lacked windows and was lit only by candlelight. Coulta and Wildas were the only two of the four spouses with offices, but only because queens rarely held political jobs that required such spaces.
Anil was the head of the royal stables, and – before being put on bed rest – was usually there speaking to the breeders and trainers, working to keep the bloodlines of the royal steeds of Ryal pure and the horses trained perfectly for everything they were needed for. Coulta recalled getting his own Ryal-bred stallion when he had first fled Arren with Wildas; it was a remarkable black stallion named Quiver, who had belonged to Wildas’ uncle, the captain of the Royal Guard who had been murdered before Coulta could prevent it. The stallion had since sired several foals, which Anil had shown him. According to her, they would all grow up to be fine horses. Coulta trusted her opinion.
Myri was a healer who usually spent her days in the infirmary, tending to wounded or ill castle servants, or giving advice to improve the training of younger healers. Though she was an experienced healer, she hardly had any magical abilities to speak of, unlike many of the other healers within the capital. Her powers could really only be used to infuse herbs for salves and teas with magic to speed healing by a small amount, and for diagnosing illnesses. She knew much about healing, however, and she was a queen, which together put her in high demand within the castle. Often, she made visits to royal family members – Wildas had ten siblings, and more cousins, aunts, and uncles than Coulta could even fathom, though only a few actually resided within the castle grounds or the surrounding city of Ryal. Coulta could hardly imagine what the royal family would be like if more than a few members followed the marriage tradition, which was only required of the eldest son. There would be no other class than the royal class if everyone took to the tradition and had multiple children.
The click of his office door opening disrupted his thoughts, and he turned to see his mentor, Former Second King Shelton, enter the room. He had known that it wouldn’t take long for Shelton to arrive, since his chambers were just down the hall and he was usually at work on some sort of magical spell or studying some sort of book or doing whatever else sorcerers did when they suddenly didn’t have the demands of being a king or keeping track of spies. Coulta envied him, just a bit.
“Myri said you’re working yourself to the point of perpetual sickness over here,” Shelton told him as he shut the door.
Coulta set down his mostly untouched tea and handed his stack of reports to Shelton. “I’m trying to see if there are any clues as to what’s happening in Port Blasin. By now, I feel like I might be overlooking something or looking too hard into something else.”
Shelton nodded and took the papers, sitting down in one of the large, oak-carved chairs in the room. Coulta sat down in another chair nearby.
“I already see Emperor Reesh’s name,” Shelton said almost immediately.
Coulta nodded. “I saw it, too, but I’m having a difficult time trying to find other references to Dyrai. Why is it that Dyrai would want to create any sort of conflict?”
Shelton sighed and lowered the papers. “I forget how ignorant Lord Varin kept you. Dyrai has been an enemy of ours for generations. It is an island nation ruled by a line of emperor-sorcerers. Well, more like necromancers. They work with dark energies and aren’t afraid to enslave souls. Many of them have been quite unstable. Every so often they invade another land with their armies of cursed souls, demonic creatures, and beings that were created through breeding two races that cannot usually produce a viable hybrid. Many countries don’t have the resources to fight back against such a powerful foe. It takes a great number of well-trained soldiers and many powerful sorcerers to defend a country against them. Phelin has been invaded by Dyrai before, as have our allies, Algoma and Berk. In all cases, we have been able to stand against Dyrai.”
“So we could again,” Coulta said, feeling a bit unnerved by the description of the enemy, but confident after hearing that the invasions had always been failures for Dyrai.
Shelton rubbed his violet eyes. “Reesh has likely created some new hybrid monster or has some other weapon we haven’t seen before, if he’s willing to invade. It will take a great deal of preparation to defend ourselves. I’m already putting out a call to sorcerers around the country to be counted as fighting mages in case war does come.”
Coulta’s headache had lessened since taking some of Myri’s tea, but now it was returning full-force. “What else can I do that I haven’t done?” he asked his mentor. “I sent those three back to Port Blasin. The woman is working in a tavern as a serving-girl. One of the men is working the docks, picking up whatever jobs he can find, and the other – the one with a small amount of magic – is working as a street magician.” Even with Shelton, he wouldn’t give the names of the three, especially because they had likely used different names when working for Shelton. Coulta would do everything he could to protect his people.
Shelton nodded, clearly understanding. “I would suggest sending a political contact to Berk and Algoma. They’re our allies, it’s only fitting that they should know what we may have uncovered. It never hurts to prepare for an attack, even if it doesn’t come.”
“Who can I send?” Coulta questioned, feeling suddenly very tired.
“I will make a few suggestions,” Shelton assured him, “once I read over these records. If I begin to feel certain that it is likely Dyrai, I will assist you in choosing diplomats.”
Coulta nodded. “Thank you.”
The sorcerer smiled grimly. “I only wish you weren’t facing so much hardship so soon into your reign.”
“So do I.”