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Fireblade: Chapter 18


I FIND SHADOW STANDING by the low wall at the edge of the courtyard, staring out over the moonlit valley and the surrounding mountains. He doesn’t turn his head but I know he senses my presence.

“Eldaran used to be so beautiful.”

His bleak sense of loss cuts through me like a sliver of ice.

“It’s still beautiful.”

“Not like before. This is but a faded echo of its former grandeur. One day I will show you.”

“We have an invading army to defeat first.”

Silence. Finally he speaks, the edge of bitterness still there in his voice.

“For what? So that your jailers will deign to grant me a few brief glimpses of my former domain? As a supplicant, a prisoner, instead of an all-powerful Lord?”

“It’s not like that. They are not my jailers. Remember, I volunteered for this. And being part of a prosperous kingdom is better than becoming the sole tyrant of a devastated ruin.”

Another silence. Maybe I should warn him not to push things too far.

“I didn’t tell Jantian you cheated. Don’t think I’m unaware that you took far too much. I will not cover for you if you try the same thing again.”

He turns to face me, the crackling ice-energy flaring in his anger. “You people forget so quickly and easily, inventing lies to fit with your puny memories. I kept my word. Jantian said I could take enough to heal. Were you not even aware of the pain and wounding I endured to protect you while this binding was slowly growing between us? Did you not even notice how I shielded you in your foolish attack on the lion hunt? Even before you called me in the battle of the Northlands I was there, trying to keep you alive.”

I can’t find an answer during the next few moments of shocked exploration, trying to retrace images and memories of every narrow escape I had always assumed was due to either luck or skill or both.

“Surely not every time? How could you recover without my help?”

And yet, deep down, I know he speaks the truth. The icy power in him now has the same terrifying aura I sensed when I first encountered him. I thought I had simply been growing less intimidated as my own strength developed.

He looks away as he answers, as if trying to avoid fully acknowledging a weakness. “After the lion hunt, it took a long time before I could fully heal. I felt diminished. I hoped I would never have to endure anything like that again. And now it comes to this. Humiliation within my own rightful territory. Because you betrayed me.”

“We have both always focused on defending our own interests. We will only ever be able to work together when our goals happen to be the same. You have to accept that, just as I have.”

The tension in him seems to fade a little. It will be an uneasy alliance but I sense it might just work for a while longer.

His question sounds resigned.

“What do you want from me now, Ariel?”

“Return to Blackthorn. Jantian says we have only two days to ride out and cut off the Rapathian advance on Maratic.”

“And the reserves for your army will not be fully gathered in that time.”

“I know. We are forced to use what we have.”

“But not Zandar.”

This is more than exasperating. “What is it with you and Zandar?”

I didn’t expect an answer and I don’t get one. Instead, I feel the freezing blast of air as he grabs my waist and leaps into the empty darkness beyond the terrace.

He sets me down inside Blackthorn’s grounds, near the entrance to the maze.

“Deliver your messages. I have unfinished business in the capital.”

I don’t ask him what it is. If he wants me to know, he will tell me. Otherwise, not.

His departure has left me with the more immediate problem of how to get inside the heavily guarded house. I already know its intricate outer defenses well enough to discount any chance of breaking in without raising all kinds of alarms. I could try the escape passage again, but sharing in the Blade’s new surge of power has left me tingling with too much impatience and restless surplus energy. Going all the way around those passageways will take too long.

Alina must be asleep by now. The risk of revealing the deception should be minimal in the dim light of the outside torches. I walk straight up to the main entrance and face the two guards on duty there.

Before I have a chance to speak, they bow their heads respectfully and sink to their knees.

“Your Grace.”

Hell’s gates! I hadn’t expected that. Seems like the new wife of a crown prince receives a lot of deference around here. My hastily prepared story suddenly doesn’t seem quite as convincing with the added reality that I have to sound rather more royal than I anticipated. I take a deep breath, trying to imagine how Alina would handle this.

“As you were.” I pause for a moment as they hastily scramble to their feet again. “Kindly refrain from telling anyone I have been outside for an hour of fight training. People seem to prefer the belief that I do not need to train for this imminent battle.”

I assume the confused mutterings are humble assertions of obedience as they hurriedly open the door to let me in.

I avoid the guard patrols in the inner corridors by slipping into the narrow spy-passageways I still have fixed in my memory from when I was here before on security detail. Seems like Marin has reacted to my previous clandestine entry by posting several of the Eldrin inside these tunnels. Useful against regular assassins maybe, but no match for Nishan silence and heightened hearing ability. I make a couple of detours and avoid them.

I’m about to emerge outside the room I shared with Marin the last time we stayed here together, when I stop dead.

This is completely wrong.

He is going to be crowned King in a few hours’ time. Protocol demands that he has to stay in the royal apartment if he is supposedly the only surviving heir. Both he and Jantian know this well enough to have prepared for it well ahead of time. Tandarion and his nephew must be imprisoned in Sarinder’s apartment––and I need to figure out a new approach.

It doesn’t take long. My next obstacle is the Eldrin guard posted outside the door, lamplight glinting on the crysteel blade in his hand and casting deep shadows across the face under the dark grey hood. More protocol I suppose. Marin hardly needs extra bodyguards with Lupine sleeping at his feet as she always does.

Impersonating my sister is going to be a deal harder in the improved lighting in here, but it’s all I have. I walk up to the guard as confidently and royally as I can. He turns to check on the potential threat approaching in dead of night and the lantern illuminates the face beneath the hood.

“Deris!”

I manage to keep it to a whisper in spite of the relief flooding through me.

“Shh! Who did you expect? It’s the only way to keep Marin away from the other Eldrin warriors.” He gives my travel-worn appearance a critical appraisal. “Or to keep you away from them for that matter. Right now you look about as un-royal as anyone I’ve ever met. Best get in there quickly before someone sees you. I’ll try to cover for one of you to sneak out of here again. Preferably before daylight.” He pushes me through the door and closes it behind me before I have a chance to ask him what he means.

One of us?

The moonlit furniture-shapes of the royal salon come into sharp focus as my night vision adjusts and my confused thoughts manage to converge on the obvious answer. As far as almost everyone here is concerned, Marin is married to Alina.

How far does this charade have to go to be convincing?

Surely he won’t be in bed with my sister?

Will he?

I don’t want to find out. There has to be a way to escape from here that doesn’t involve going past Deris, because I just know I’ll end up pouring out all my fears and jealousy to him and all that will achieve is raising the alarm and revealing the whole damnable deception that should not have been necessary to save Samaran from…

Lupine’s low growl of welcome shakes me out of my panic. The warm rasp of her tongue feels so familiar as she gives my hand a brief lick before trotting over to the fireplace. The blanket-shrouded heap on the couch wakes instantly, darting forward to grab my wrist and lay a dagger against my throat.

Then he sees my face in the moonlight.

“Ariel! What the name of the Five are you doing, sneaking in here? I could have killed you! How about a bit of warning?”

Oh dammit. I just can’t resist the temptation!

A quick body twist and a rapid Nishan hand movement to deflect the blade as I hook one foot behind Marin’s ankle and flip him onto his back on the floor. Then I have both hands firmly around his neck.

“Another of my valuable insights on how to improve security in this place. I was simply demonstrating how a Nishan-trained assassin could break through every layer of your careful precautions and even invade the royal apartment.”

“You cheated! Deris must have let you in.”

His hands come up swiftly to break the choke-hold as he twists and rolls over, pinning me beneath him. But this time there is no demonstration of deadly force. His arms are around my shoulders, his fingers twining in my hair as his lips find mine in a long kiss that ripples through me like fire-sparks in the night. My body responds instantly, arching closer to him, the heat of passion flaring through me.

I have waited so many weeks for this…

“Hey! Are you checking up on me, Sissy?”

I look up. Alina is standing in the doorway to the bedroom, trying not to laugh.

“Seems like you’re checking up on me.” I scramble to my feet and run across to her, holding back and avoiding my second long-overdue hug out of deference to her pristine white lacy night attire.

Marin pushes us both into the bedroom.

“Ariel, this is your last chance for the visit with your sister you asked for. I need to talk to Deris about getting one of you out of here afterwards without anyone noticing.”

“Deris is already trying to figure something out.” I hesitate. “Which one of us do you mean?”

“You, of course. Alina still has to parade in front of the nobles for this coronation. Then we make the switch just before we ride out to battle.”

He closes the door and I hear him instructing Lupine to lie across the outside of it on guard duty.


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