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Fireblade: Chapter 27


JANTIAN FOLLOWS IN Alina’s shadow and positions himself at her side. He leans down to speak quietly in her ear.

I can read his meticulous planning in all this. The way he has ensured that she is the only one to stand on the highest step, the way the light from the torches illuminates her in a red-gold halo of light, all for one single purpose. To hold the attention of every living soul gathered within these grounds. To hold the governance of Samaran together when the lies that have saved us could be disastrously revealed.

Alina takes a deep breath and raises her voice, letting it carry across the hush of expectant faces in the flickering light.

“Soldiers of Samaran! Today we have won a great victory and set our country free from invasion and slavery!”

A great roar of voices and the clash of weapons on shields fills the night air. She waits for the cacophony to die down.

“But there is still much work still to be done. Our country has been ravaged and robbed. We cannot rest until we have rebuilt it to its former glory!”

She waits again for the shouting to diminish, glancing up at Jantian for guidance. I suspect she is fervently hoping that this will be enough and he will whisk her away before anyone sees through her masquerade, brilliant though it is.

Jantian is about to speak when he stops himself, his gaze moving to the tall figure framed within wide open gate in the boundary wall. I am suddenly aware that the respectful hush sweeping through the crowd is provoked by another source, a new direction.

Marin.

My heart is pounding against my ribs, my breath short and tight as I watch him pause in the gateway.

What in all the hells is he doing, returning here?

Surely he could have found an opportunity to get away while the army was turning around and moving back to camp? Wasn’t Jantian supposed to have dealt with his mysterious change of mood?

Why didn’t Jantian tell him to get well clear of this place? Where is the covering story of a hidden but fatal wound?

Marin walks through the open gate and waits. The poised stillness that has always been so noticeable in him now has a deeper presence to it, a tangible sense of the power he is masking, holding inside, concealing. And yet it seems to me that everyone in this throng can sense it radiating out from him. I can almost feel the pulsing beat of Zandar’s wings echoing through the dragonfire burning just beneath the surface. His whole presence is compelling, commanding in its very silence.

Every warrior in the flame-lit arena spontaneously salutes him. Marin has secured the victory we so fervently hoped for. He is their commander, their King Tieran, the dragon-master and war hero who won the day for them and for their country. The only sound is a quiet, awed whispering as they bow their heads and sink to their knees.

Marin gives a curt wave, ordering his loyal followers to get back on their feet as he walks toward the main entrance to the Manor. He halts at the foot of the steps, only a few paces from where Jantian is standing at the top, his eyes focused on his erstwhile commander, his head held high in the kind of arrogant pose I have never seen on him before. Everything about the way he holds himself is saying one thing, as clearly as if he were speaking it aloud.

This kingdom is mine.

He has it all now. The victory, the admiration, the devoted loyalty of the entire military.

Power. The throne of Samaran.

I feel swept away in confusion, not knowing whether to feel dismayed or relieved. I still remember exactly how it felt in the battle on the Rapathian border, the compelling surge of Zandar’s power running through me like a stab of wildfire––and the terrible devastation I inflicted with it.

I can protect you.

Now I know what Marin meant by protectNot by defending me from bounty hunters in the wilds of Annubia, but by taking control of the country he was born to rule. No one can stand in the way of a Power Mage who holds the fighting strength of both Ice and Fire. Who has the devotion of the whole army at his back. I know that in his place I would not be able to give it all up. To have given so much, gained so much, and then renounce it all.

No chance.

Jantian turns and signals to someone behind him, before stepping back to let Deris guide Tandarion and his nephew into the light to stand next to Alina. I know this was Jantian’s original plan after announcing Marin’s supposed death, but it is a hell of a gamble to persevere with it while trying to call Marin’s bluff. With Marin standing right there. And the army behind him.

The revelation that the old King is still alive sends a shockwave through the gathered crowd.

No one speaks or moves.

Tandarion’s face is a carefully controlled, emotionless mask. Nevertheless, I can tell that Deris has already given him a brief outline of the situation, probably in the few short minutes as they walked here from Sarinder’s apartment. My focus moves to Marin and then back again to the rigid, shocked face of his father as I try to guess what will happen now.

Marin casts a long, knowing look around the assembled warriors. It must be as clear to him as it is to me which of these two leaders they would most willingly follow and obey.

Tandarion has aged visibly since I last saw him. He is now a pale, gaunt shadow of the man he once was. Too frail to have led this battle, he even appears too weak to lead the country through the long hard work of rebuilding. Sarinder has recovered well from the stab wound that almost killed him, but he is a young-looking fourteen, unable to project the experience, the ability, to replace the failing strength of his uncle.

All eyes are once more on Marin. Even if he had not just returned from a victorious battle, he radiates the kind of strength and confidence that instantly draws people to him. He has already grown into the role he so recently seized as King and commander. He only has to speak, to address his willing subjects and they will unquestioningly accept him, regardless of Samaran’s laws and religion. I find myself desperately willing him to do it, to speak, to seize the chance that fate has given him, to take what is rightfully his. To choose life.

Jantian seems to be staring straight at me. I take an involuntary step back, deeper into the concealing shadows.

How did he know where I was?

The shock of discovery jolts memories through my head, reminders of all Jantian’s warnings. I start thinking through the inevitable sequence of events that will surely follow if Marin seizes power like this. Once the heady relief of today’s victory begins to cool there will be doubts, clandestine meetings, surreptitious messages. It will soon be discovered that Marin holds not only the power of Rahimar, but also of Maratic.

How long before the High Council questions the right of a Mage-warrior to usurp the throne, breaking one of the oldest and most sacred laws of Samaran? How many ambitious aristocrats will form alliances and launch a rebellion on the pretext of reinstating Tandarion? How long before the overwhelming wave of new power changes Marin into the kind of tyrant from whom he has so recently rescued his country? Will he follow Shadow’s prophesy and carefully prepared plan, to end up pre-emptively murdering every influential individual who might oppose his rule? Including his father and nephew…

I know that if it were me standing there, I would take life and power and dominion, gambling that somehow I could control it––even though I have already been through that cycle several times, enough to prove to myself that when the rush of fire and anger reaches its peak I simply cannot control it.

Marin slowly draws both crysteel swords.

I catch my breath, waiting for the prophesied sequence to play out, the one that ends with him pre-empting the possibility of a rebellion by killing his father and nephew, just as the Shadowblade planned and foresaw.

And yet, I make no move to stop him.

Nor does anyone else, and that shocks me more than my own passive collusion in the crime I can see unfolding under the arc of flickering torchlight before me.

It feels as if the whole scene is frozen in stillness.

Then Marin steps forward and kneels to lay his weapons on the ground at the King’s feet.


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