Brandorin outpaced his escort by more than a furlong. He had not wanted to return, but the eight-man squad his father dispatched had made it very clear; whether he went voluntarily or not, son of the Protector or not, they would bring him back. His concern over Thiro's disappearance had fueled his frantic search over the last twelve days, but now the anxiety over not finding his friend and the frustration of being dragged back stoked his anger. A hawk, tied by invisible jesses, returning to its master despite its instinct to continue the hunt; he felt the strings of obligation pulling him back. He rammed his heels into his horse's flanks.
Bristo shot forward and Brandorin's arms pumped with each mile-eating stride as the war horse's muscles flexed and stretched beneath him. He didn't have to look to know the squad had spurred their mounts in an effort to keep up; thunderous pounding echoed Bristo's hoof beats, sparked by cries to rein in.
Icy wind and an hour's arduous ride had numbed Brandorin's exposed skin. His hands cramped from their unyielding grip on the reins and his face felt taut, ready to crack. Bristo's flanks were lathered, as well as his own legs, and the horse's rattled, labored breathing made him relieved to see the estate's iron gates. He felt Bristo's rear legs falter as they galloped through the turn, but the war horse dug in and hurtled down the tree-lined drive, drawing a train of dried leaves and dust in their wake.
Brandorin jumped off Bristo's back even before the chestnut steed had come to a complete stop. Throwing the reins to a groom, he raced up the wide stone stairs and across the marbled terrace; the heavy oak doors opening a second before he reached for the bronze handle. The servant on the other side stumbled back as Brandorin stormed through the foyer, taking the steps to the second level two and three at a time, nearly colliding with Ilona at the top.
"I saw you from my window," she said, reaching out to him. "I was so worried."
He kissed her, and the familiar scent of jasmine perfume and the lingering bouquet of chamomile and honey soap took the edge off his anger. He wanted to hold her, surprised at how much he had missed her; he'd only been gone twelve days. He motioned to his dirt-smeared, sweat-soaked clothing, "I don't want to get you all . . ." that was all he had time for before she moved in close and he wrapped her in his arms, and felt her warmth take away the constant chill of the last few hours, and her soft mouth ease the sting of his own dry, cracked lips. After a time, he reluctantly placed his hands on her shoulders, and broke their embrace. "I'm sorry I worried you. You know I wouldn't be late for our wedding."
"I know that," she said. Her hand gripped his forearm. Though she lacked the strength to hold him back by force, he suddenly knew how Bristo felt when the horse wanted to bolt, but held back because of pressure on the reins. She reached up, gently touching his wind-reddened face, "Did you find any sign of him?"
"Nothing. I know something has happened to him, he wouldn't be gone this long without word," Brandorin said. This was the first time he'd voiced his greatest concern. He would only do so to Ilona.
"Go. Talk to your father." Ilona said. "If you have to be here, he can send others to keep looking."
"I'll come to see you as soon as I've talked to him." He gently removed her hand from his arm, brushed his lips across her fingers and marched down the corridor using each forceful step to stoke his anger back to its fever pitch. He wasn't running, but the forceful speed of his passing fluttered flowers in vases and wafted a hanging tapestry. Reaching the study door, he pounded once with the side of his clenched fist and entered without waiting for a response.
He stormed up the richly carpeted path down the center of the sparsely lit room. As the rug absorbed the impact of his heels, Brandorin felt his anger sapped by the authority exuded by his father's study. When Dilardin briefly glanced toward his son, before continuing his discussion with the Viceroy, Brandorin halted his forward advance, trying to fight his natural inclination to apologize for his intrusion.
He breathed deeply, concentrating on the smoky scent of the fire in the grate, his nerves crackling in counterpoint to the flames. The underlying smell of old paper and ink's tang sparked a memory of watching from the shadows as his father directed his armies. To distract himself from this reminder of his father's authority, he turned instead to the portraits of his ancestors, silently asking their help to bolster his resolve.
"Jarlin?" Dilardin's voice, though calm, jarred the Viceroy's attention back. He had been staring, rattled by Brandorin's uncharacteristic entrance.
Brandorin's heart pounded and he focused on his own quick explosive breathing to drown out Dilardin's commanding tones as the Protector continued his conversation with the Viceroy. An ache in Brandorin's jaws made him realize he was grinding his teeth, and he forced himself to relax. He watched his father, assessing him, as he had been taught; evaluating him as a stranger rather than the man and leader he knew so well.
Dilardin Adamaran, 147th Protector of Varsa, largest country on Zadania, distantly related to Hagan, last ruler of the Dravonian dynasty. In features and coloring the kinship between them was obvious. A strong brow topped deep-set blue eyes that saw everything. Dilardin's nose had been broken in battle, so the straight line that Brandorin felt was a little too long on his own face, held more character in the slightly bent bridge on his father's. Noticing the slight cleft in his father's chin, Brandorin couldn't keep from tracing the dent in his own. The artist of time had painted a stroke of gray in Dilardin's auburn hair, starting at the temples and sweeping back until it faded into the still-thick waves that mirrored Brandorin's own shoulder-length hair.
Though slightly over six feet tall, Brandorin still had to look up to his father, in height, as well as respect. Little more than an inch, but Brandorin felt miles behind when it came to wisdom and leadership skills. Fifty-four years had softened the once iron-hard muscles, but like the heated metal on a black smith's anvil, made pliable for shaping, they retained their strength and utility over the years.
Brandorin nodded to Jarlin as the Viceroy left. The older man broke protocol for the first time in Brandorin's memory, and risked a slight smile of commiseration; though he did it with his back to the Protector. Brandorin felt his father's eyes studying him, assessing him as a leader would an emissary from a foreign government. With that look, the scathing admonishments Brandorin had been rehearsing for the last three hours froze on his lips, and he knew he would bow to his father's authority, as he always did. Instead he spoke only one word, all of his anger and frustration conveyed in that one syllable. "Why?"
"You are needed here," Dilardin said.
"It's a week before the wedding. I could've kept searching." Brandorin took a deep breath and swallowed, steeling his voice to cover the pleading tone creeping through his anger. "I might have found him in the next day or two."
"You stormed out the second you heard he was missing. I understand why you did, Brandorin, but a leader cannot react so impulsively." Dilardin paused, studying his son, "Nor can he feel guilty about sending others on dangerous missions."
"I didn't send him. I was ready to go, " Brandorin said through a clenched jaw.
"No, you didn't," Dilardin interrupted. "I did. Because you were needed here. Even Thiro knew that."
Brandorin tried to hold onto his anger, but he could feel himself slipping into the role of a soldier in front of his commanding officer. "Yes, sir," the expected response, reflexive as a tick and just as annoying.
"I waited for the report from Thiro's adjutant, only to discover you'd taken off with him." Brandorin tried to speak, but his father droned on.
"We still don't know what those thieves were after. Nothing is missing, nothing damaged. Curious that they botched the burglary so badly yet managed to elude Thiro's search party so effectively."
Knowing his father's tactics, trying to defuse the volatility of the moment by leading the conversation, Brandorin blurted out, "I think they were responsible for Thiro's disappearance."
Dilardin stared at his son for a moment. Brandorin fought the urge to apologize for the interruption; the words aching for release like the rushing waters of a swollen river contained by the flanking banks. He concentrated on returning his father's gaze. Dilardin considered his response before saying, "Did you find any evidence to support that theory?"
"No, sir," Brandorin said, shaking his head reluctantly.
"The fog that separated Thiro from his men could have caused his horse to misstep and fall, leaving Thiro injured and without a mount. I sent eight squads out searching for him. They were given instructions to locate you as well. If anything, your rash action detracted from the real purpose of the search. But my men are the best. If anyone can find him, they will."
"If?" Brandorin let his anger loose for the first time since entering the room. "Have you written him off already?"
"No! You know that's not what I meant."
"They're good, but they don't know him like I do. I might see something they'd miss."
"I know that!" Dilardin shouted as he slammed his fist against the desk, for the first time speaking as a father rather than a leader. He took a deep breath, composing himself before starting again in a quieter tone. "I told them to search as if they were looking for my own son; that's why I sent so many men."
Dilardin's aggravation surprised Brandorin; he had never heard his father come so close to explaining an order.
"They'll continue the search, but you have a responsibility here."
"I wouldn't have been late. I wouldn't do that to Ilona."
"There are other things besides the ceremony: final preparations, rehearsals, receptions for foreign dignitaries. This isn't just a wedding, Brandorin; I know you're well aware of that. There are diplomatic repercussions."
Dilardin continued, but Brandorin listened only half-heartedly, his protests nothing more than a breeze against a rock wall. He was drawn back when he heard Ilona's name.
"Ilona has been frantic with worry."
"I know, sir. I should go speak with her. May I be excused?" Brandorin could read his father's expression; Dilardin had expected his son to continue the argument. Despite the fact that he seldom won, Brandorin never gave up so easily. Taking a small consolation in catching his father off guard, he left the room.
As he pulled the door closed behind him, he noticed his grandfather's portrait on the wall in front of him. He grimaced, feeling the old patriarch's disappointment, "He never ... I tried ... Never mind. I know." He stomped away. The hollow sound of his footfalls echoed through the empty corridors, recriminations from the generations of ancestors that hung on every wall.
Awake, his lucent blue eyes dominated his features, and commanded her attention. In repose, however, she noticed the slope of his nose, the strong, high cheek bones and the barest hint of a cleft in his chin. The crease of concern between his eyes was gone, though a hint of it remained. Her fingers ached to trace his features, even though she felt silly for wanting to do so. She would be able to feel the stubble of his beard and the hard line of his muscular jaw. But she couldn’t, knowing that even a gentle touch would disturb his sleep, a warrior’s reflexes readying for battle the instant he woke.
A lone traveler hurried along the southern road to Kartir, trying to reach the capital city before the gates closed at sundown. His long robes covered a thin frame of medium height. Wrinkles on his face hinted at his age. The furrows on his brow and the sword at his side reflected the seriousness of his life, but the lines around his mouth and his pale blue eyes showed those years had been sparked by laughter.
Caidos had told Brandorin the woman on the pier was M'drani, of the family E'varania, current N'varian fragment holder, in an unbroken line since the Sefiramon had originally bestowed the crystals upon the leaders of Zadania. Brandorin watched her as the ferry approached the pier. Putting aside the formality of M'drani's role, he saw a small woman, her long feathery hair fanned out behind her by the blustering wind as the sun highlighted its sand-colored strands with threads of gold.
As the ferry docked, Brandorin caught her gaze, and was startled by vibrant, violet eyes. He marveled at the delicate beauty that robed a woman who conveyed both a compassionate nature and a quiet strength. He smiled as a feeling of recognition swept through him, though he knew he had never seen her before.
Chaubrel shivered as he saw Rhamak lock his eyes on the helpless man in his grip. Though he had not dared to look directly into Rhamak’s eyes for years, he could still picture the copper flecks within their tawny depths; could almost feel his muscles liquefying under that penetrating gaze.
He leaned in toward the mirror and touched the bruise gingerly, wincing at the puffiness around the cut, still tender after four days.
“Admiring your battle wounds, Chaubrel?” Rhamak said as he strode into the room. “It gives you a sinister look, with those tilted eyes and your swarthy skin. It’s a big improvement.”
“Yes, sire, I was just thinking that,” Chaubrel said, “makes me look a little like my father.” Why had he said that?
“I don’t recall you ever mentioning anyone in your family before.” Rhamak’s gaze had an almost tangible effect; the crawling, spine-cringing feel of a spider slithering up his back. Chaubrel stepped away from the mirror, not wanting to catch even the reflection of those quicksand eyes.
As she stood, Salis took her hand to help her up, then gallantly kissed it as he said, “I owe you my life, dear lady. I am eternally in your debt.” M’drani smiled at the strange little man in front of her. He had large, slightly bulging eyes, a large mouth full of uneven teeth, and scraggly hair of indeterminate color, yet seemed to possess the confidence and charm of a handsome man of stature. She liked him immediately.
He caught motion from the corner of his eye. He turned, and caught his first full sight of the beast. It might have been a wolf, much larger than any he had ever seen or heard of, but its head was too big, too broad. He had seen mastiffs as fierce and large as they come, but they were like lapdogs compared to this beast. Its huge maw gaped; the jowls, pulled back in a snarl, exposed jagged fangs. . . . The beast leaped on top of him, forcing the air from his lungs. He tried to suck in air, smelled the beast’s foul breath, the jagged fangs inches from his face. He saw the eyes, and the hatred they radiated stopped his breath.
He looked up toward the source of the cry to see four creatures, swooping down on him. They were repulsive, man-sized, bat-like creatures; their twelve-foot misshapen wings, like a recently skinned hide stretched and ready for tanning. A muscular arm powered each wing tipped by razor-sharp talons. The wings ran the length of the creature’s body, which ended in stunted legs and claw-like feet. Each elongated head had a gnarled and twisted beak filled with needle-sharp teeth. Caidos dodged each swooping attack, holding tight to Aquilo’s reins, as the horse bucked and reared. A smell of decay emanated from the creatures, and Caidos fought a feeling of revulsion as well as Aquilo’s panic.
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