Killisan is chewing on an old boot that he had somehow picked out of the hay. When a horse ignores all the food around him and decides to bite into the one thing he couldn’t eat, you know he’s not hungry.
There’s not a scratch on him. That fall he took could’ve killed us both, yet here we are, gazing into each other’s eyes like the dearest of friends.
The tiny stable is hopelessly crowded. With Bobby, Killisan, and Haylis’s horse (who shall remain forever nameless because she doesn’t seem to have come up with one) taking up the entire row there’s not even room for a pony.
The bigger inns would have more space, but Kathanhiel has rightly decided to be discreet. Hence the smallest inn in the city of Oroville gained the honour of housing the hero of the Realms…at an affordable fifteen crowns a night.
The stable boy is doing most of the shopping in my stead, just in case the dragon cultists find our trail again. Those were the folks that ambushed us, by the way; Kathanhiel identified them by the charcoal broaches they wear on their cloaks. They had come in full force a day from the winter palace, a daring ploy that would’ve succeeded if not for…well, you know. In their defence, no one could’ve known what the sword is capable of.
What is that thing?
Even the drunkest of bards struggle to come up with exactly how Kathanhiel slew Elisaad – more often than not it’s “a great thrust to the heart!” or “thus the blade its skull parted in two!” – but it makes more sense now. A whole lot more.
A fire-spewing sword that also spawns hallucinated dragons sounds like a good dragon-slaying weapon, according to the time-beholden standard of the List of Dragon-Slaying Weapons, invented by me just now.
How do you react to something like that? It’s like participating in a race during which a god randomly decides to drop in as a participant. Of course the god would win; just be glad you didn’t get accidentally stepped on like those cultists.
We had found Lyan’s body at the campfire, nailed into sitting position against a tree as bait to draw us in – not a good way to die – yet recalling that scene, even now, couldn’t be done without also conjuring up images of Kaishen’s inferno, and the sound of dozens of people being burnt alive.
Hard as I try, that memory refuses to be associated with winning.
Winning? More like slaughtering.
Lyan had been little more than an acquaintance, but with every memory scarred by Kaishen’s fire it’s impossible to mourn him – a task any human being should be capable of – because my head is filled with Kathanhiel’s emotionless, fire-wreathed face as she cut through limbs and heads like she was culling pests.
Somehow Kaishen ended up being much more terrifying than the assassins.
It’s been three nights since we got to Oroville but Haylis is still irritable, and snaps at the smallest ills. It wasn’t her fault that the ambush happened – even Kathanhiel liked the idea of pre-arranging campsites – but even my miniscule amount of social awareness is aware that she’s beating herself up over it.
To cheer her up I bring her a handful of cherries that the stable boy had bought with my money. Well, Kathanhiel’s money, but technically mine since she’s going to pay me with it anyway.
She looks at me while picking her nose.
‘You’re just trying to be nice.’
‘What’s the difference between that and actually being nice?’
She considers that for a moment, then takes a cherry. ‘How is she?’
‘Just about to check on her again.’
‘She doesn’t blame you. We all thought nothing could happen.’
‘Not sure if I’m cut out for this,’ Haylis says. ‘What I did was so stupid but I can’t even…can’t even regret it, since she just…’ Her hands mimic the snapping of a stick. ‘Like it didn’t even matter that I messed up, you know?’
Oh I know exactly how you feel. ‘Did you know Kaishen is...is...I mean I’ve heard stories but...’
‘I’ve heard them too,’ she says, ‘but they don’t even comes close to reality do they?’
‘Should we...ask her about it?’
‘What? Are you mad? Why would you even want to know?’
‘So that we can...um...help her...I don’t know...’
She gives me look that says you don’t know what you’re asking for so stop asking.
‘You want to hear something even more stupid?’ she asks.
‘From you? Is that a question?’
Now her look says I’ll slap you again. ‘I thought I was finally starting to like you.’
‘Sorry uh…I’m listening. What were you going to say?’
We sit in silence for a while, then suddenly she snatches up seven cherries in a blitz and shoves them into her mouth all at once. I try to slap her wrist and miss by a mile.
‘Nothing,’ she grumbles through stuffed cheeks, spitting everywhere.
‘My lady, I found something to cool you down.’
Ever since we got to Oroville she’s been holed up in her room, coming out only during the night when the wind can cool her fever. Well, it’s not really a fever, but that’s the only way I can explain it. Her body is hot to the touch yet appears quite healthy...that is, apart from the profuse sweating.
Sweating is a gross understatement; liquid constantly drains out of her skin in streams and in minutes form sizable puddles. She has to drink water by the gallons and get wiped down every half an hour to stop her skin from breaking into rash.
Apparently this...internal burning...is a side effect of using Kaishen, one that won’t go away for another week or so.
An important sidenote: Haylis, after dropping clean linen on the floor then nonchalantly picking it up again with the intention of reusing it, is not allowed to assist her anymore. Good hygiene gets you places.
Incidentally, this also means I get to see the woman of my dreams half-nude on a daily basis.
Before one jumps to conclusions about ulterior motives that I do not have, let me clarify first that I take my role of esquire very seriously. Being useless in a fight is bad; being a pervert to the woman you worship, who happens to be having a vulnerable moment, would be sacrilegious.
That is not to say that I’m not interested in looking; in fact it would be strange to not want to look. There’s nothing sensual, however, about the ghastly red all the way up to her right arm. It’s awful.
‘I’ve bought some ice.’
‘Ice? How on earth did you manage?’
‘Oh uh, tribute caravan happens to be in town and I thought – I thought it would help. The King wouldn’t miss it – I mean, winter is next month, so…’
‘You’ve the right to utilise my finances, Kastor. One could say it’s your duty to spend my money.’
‘It was…fifteen hundred crowns…’
‘Money won’t make me feel better. This will. I am grateful.’
I’m a twelve-year-old boy all over again. The ease with which she makes the stupidest purchase of my life seem world-saving…wow, this room sure is warm.
I wrap the ice around her arm and a sigh of pure pleasure seeps out of her lips. Her face, glistening with drops of sweat, is so close that I could count the strands of her eyelashes if they weren’t so stuck together. The heat of her skin doesn’t feel sickly at all – it’s more like overwhelming vitality, so intense and…and...
My eyes slam shut faster than the wings of a hummingbird.
‘S-s-s-sorry my lady. I didn’t mean to – I wasn’t – it’s not – really I’m -’
‘Am I distracting you?’
Thunder claps. Hammer drops. Teeth clatter. Bubbles burst.
‘Nnnnnnot really - I mean no, no, certainly not.’
‘You’re clearly uncomfortable with this level of intimacy.’ The corner of her lips rise in amusement. ‘I hope I am not too forward in wishing that you would get used to it.’
‘No it’s...well yes, but no, since...I’m not really comfortable with women in general, my lady.’
Kathanhiel turns to look me in the eye. ‘You’re my esquire. You can bed half the women in this town with that alone.’
‘I don’t…want to…that’s too many at once.’
She freezes as if Bobby just sprouted a pair of wings and flew off. Two drops of sweat drip from her eyebrow and land on her lap, loud as a waterfall.
Then she laughs, not a ‘heehaw nice one Kastor’ kind of laugh (don’t know why I thought she’d heehaw) but one from deep inside her gut. She doubles over, whooping and choking, her ice-wrapped arm making the noise of a hailstorm as her other hand slaps the bed so hard a beam breaks and makes a dent in the floorboard.
‘My - my apologies, this is so very rude of me I don’t know what –’ a snort, one right out of Haylis’s nose, ‘– what came over me it’s been so very long since anything has made me laugh like a – like a – my dear Kastor, please – please be merciful.’
‘I’m – I’m not sure what to…’
‘Perhaps – perhaps it’s best we leave this conversation for another time, lest I am slain.’
‘That’s not – I don’t…as you wish.’
‘Rest easy. Perhaps after our quest concludes I’ll teach you a thing or two, if you desire it,’ she pauses, then adds rather solemnly, ‘and if by the mercy of the Maker I live to see that day.’
Wait a minute.
Wait just a minute.
Does she mean to say – did she just offer to –
A knock comes from the door. ‘Aunt Kath, are you alright? Is he being a pervert?’
What perfect timing Haylis. The stars have surely aligned for you to strike on the door at this very moment.
‘Kastor is just cheering me up,’ Kathanhiel calls out. ‘Who’s that with you?’
‘Who? No one’s with –’ then Haylis screams.
My sword is sitting in the other room.
Kathanhiel looks perfectly relaxed. ‘Arkai, it is indecent to sneak up on women.’
The door opens and Haylis hops inside, the dagger in her hand missing its blade.
A man stands in the doorway. I have to be honest – even at a glance this is the most handsome man I’ve ever laid eyes on: sweeping black hair tied back in a ponytail, flying brows, eagle eyes radiating confidence and unsubtle menace. He wears the black coat of the Ink Scouts, uniform of the King’s agents, and boy is he born into it.
‘Vigilant as ever, my lady Kathanhiel. Curious place to meet. Hard to find.’
His voice, quiet but resonating, sounds even better than his looks. Didn’t think that was possible.
‘Kastor, Haylis, this is spymaster Arkai, vice-commander of Fort Iborus, the King’s Right Hand, and my comrade since the days of Elisaad.’
We both bow. Haylis pulls a face while doing so.
‘Interesting esquires, these two,’ he addresses Kathanhiel but looks at me. ‘I don’t pretend to understand your decision but surely there were better choices. On the Elisaad campaign you had the best fencer in the Realms.’
The gaze of those black eyes make you feel worse than worthless, because worthless is just a defaced coin, while the dirty stain on your cuffs – that’s both worthless and a nuisance.
Kathanhiel’s face – so filled with laughter a moment ago – is a clouded mask. ‘You will not remind me of him,’ she says coldly.
‘When the sword puts you in such a state in mere days, I’ve a right to worry, and to doubt.’
‘Neither is required nor welcome.’
‘I speak for your own good.’
‘Need I remind you that you’re here to tell us about the dragon brood, not lecture me on the merits of your personal judgement?’
A silent sigh from both sides; it’s clear neither had thought their encounter would end up like this. ‘Why must we always fight when we meet? Not so long ago you would’ve been glad to see me,’ he says.
‘I am glad to see you, Arkai. Just mind your own business.’
With the pretext of bringing over two extra chairs from my room I slip outside.
I don’t like him. I don’t like how he instantly fills the room with tension. I don’t like the way he looks at me. I don’t like how long he must’ve waited outside her room, just listening and not coming in. I don’t like the black silence around him; the floor, so creaky with the lightest load, doesn’t make a sound beneath his feet.
Above all, I don’t like how good looking he is. No, this is not shameful to think about, nor is it wrong to feel angry. Angry? More like jealous. Don’t lie to yourself.
I grab the chairs, then my sword. Just in case.
Upon my return, Arkai had sat down next to Kathanhiel on her bed, and is in the middle of mixing up a green liquid inside a crystal vial. On his belt are little leather compartments, each holding a powder of some sort. He dips into one with his little finger, then taps his nail on the neck of the vial, releasing the fine grains stuck underneath. A chemist, as well as a vice-commander and whatnot. Excellent.
Not a minute after Kathanhiel downs the liquid, the redness on her arm begins to fade. Taking off his own cloak Arkai wraps it around her shoulder.
‘Make yourselves useful, the two of you,’ he says, ‘Kastor, serve the melons you bought this morning, then go prepare the bath. Haylis, fetch water from the well, then tell the innkeeper to turn away other guests for the rest of the day. Go.’
Looks like the chairs are not needed after all.