The day after our meeting with the refugees I wake up to find Arkai’s bed empty, the sheets neatly folded. He didn’t leave a message, though it’s no mystery why he left; Kathanhiel laid out in no roundabout terms that he need not be here if his promise to her hasn’t been fulfilled.
That promise being the slaying of Talu.
Oh and he’s taken my horse. Poor Killisan, hope you won’t suffer overmuch; that man will never let you chew on his favourite boot or engage you in philosophical discourses.
It’s scary, and more than a bit awkward, to bring Kathanhiel her morning sundries after yesterday’s events, as if I’m now serving a different person. She still looks up from her bed and smiles as I put the basin of water and fresh towels on her table, but meeting her eyes might take a few more days to get back to.
I prepare the last of the camomile tea and lay out the savoury pancakes that took half my left eyebrow to make (ever tried cooking on a coach, with a live fire?), then ask if there’s anything else she needs. She normally says no, but today –
‘Kastor, look at me.’
How does she do that, knowing exactly what to say at any given moment?
‘I-I’m not sure if I could.’
She throws the sheets aside and props up on one elbow. She’s in that silk nightgown again, which has ridden up to reveal her smooth stomach. There’s a tattoo there: a circle and a crescent around it…sun and moon? Why does that look familiar?
‘You’re troubled,’ she states.
No argument there. What word describes how you would feel after speaking in front of a mob that at any moment might turn into a stampede? How you should think after hearing that the last guy who had your job is a genius as well as a traitorous coward?
Yeah, “troubled” sums it up.
‘I don’t know what to tell…it’s not as if...I mean, I’ll do my job, and be loyal to you always, contract or not, so you don’t need to worry about me.’
‘I believe you,’ she says, ‘but I am saddened to see you so afraid.’
What am I scared of? Why can’t I look at her eyes?
‘May I ask about some more questions about…um…?’
She replies whilst moving to the basin. ‘Of course. It’s no longer a secret between us…if you don’t mind facing the other way as we converse.’
I spin around like a top.
The sudden movement must have done ill, because my first question is worse than the usual disaster.
For the love of the Maker out of all the things that could’ve leaked out of your mouth –
‘Objectively,’ she replies amidst splashes of water. ‘Let’s see...he consistently bested me in swordsmanship. He ran and climbed faster than I ever could. His ability to haggle was famously unrivalled. He had friends in every town, rich ones that provided us with every imaginable luxury. On my birthday he baked the best cake I’ve ever had, out of a handful of flour and fruits he had found upon nameless trees. And, though I loathe to admit it, he was also a great kisser.’
Arkai is so very right; I should just keep my mouth shut.
‘But being an esquire is not about any of those qualities,’ she continues, ‘and pleasant company doesn’t always equal great friends. I liked him a great deal, but Talu has always been likeable when he wanted to be. The mask he wore had become his face, and those who didn’t know better were fooled into thinking that his insides looked equally pleasant.’ Something falls softly to the floor. ‘Fooled me too, until the night before Elisaad.’
‘Did he really...?’
‘After he had failed in his attempt to dissuade me from going to Elisaad’s lair, he ran away. I thought last night I’ve made this clear.’
‘No I...what I mean to ask is, if he was so capable, why did he run at all?’
‘Being capable means nothing against the brood,’ she says in between rustles of a towel. ‘You face enemies that breathe fire hot enough to melt steel with a little stick made out of exactly that. Every fibre of your being will urge you to flee; no amount of reason or skill or courage will resist it.’
That is...unexpectedly pessimistic. ‘How do you manage it? Everyone would just run...right?’
I can smell the fragrant oil she’s rubbing onto her skin: chrysanthemum, and extremely distracting.
‘Would you run as well?’
Before I realise she has avoided my question I’m already answering hers.
‘I’ll do as you do my lady. If you fight I fight, if you run I butter my heels.’
A quiet laugh. ‘And why is that?’
‘Because...it’s my duty?’
‘No, Kastor. If a sense of duty is what drives us then I wouldn’t be here.’ Her voice quietens. ‘Though I’d like to think that I fight to fulfil my duty to the Realms, it is but a glamourous excuse.’
‘My lady, I don’t understand...’
‘That is quite alright,’ she laughs a little too brightly. ‘Remember, just as possessing a powerful sword doesn’t make one a hero, being dutiful does not keep one from fear. If you’ve the heart to stand you will, and I think you’ll stand just fine, Kastor.’
‘But...how do you know?
She hesitates. ‘I know...because the only thing that could compel someone to stand against the dragons, as strange as it sounds, is love.’
My heart skips three beats. ‘What?’
‘Will you hand me a shirt from my wardrobe? Any one is fine, I don’t really mind.’
Her drawers are meticulously arranged, her informal shirts folded and sorted according to colour, freshened by incense. She did this in her own time.
None of her clothes are particularly fancy. Have I mentioned what Haylis likes to wear? Lace upon lace, a labyrinth of embroidery closeting her body like a cocoon. Kathanhiel’s shirt, the one I pick out, is plain linen, with a low neckline and long sleeves. It’s slippery to the touch, the material having been treated with some odd substance.
Should’ve been more mentally prepared before I turned around. Should’ve at least drank half the kettle of that camomile tea.
She is standing by the basin and wearing nothing but a short towel around her waist. She has folded one arm over her breasts but that doesn’t stop glistening streaks of water from going where they please. Block of muscles, which hadn’t been noticeable when she was lying down, stand out in ridges on her stomach, and her legs are simultaneously the most beautiful and the most powerful things to ever exist.
Oh no, that expression. Last time she looked like that she laughed hard enough to take out a piece of the floor.
‘You look like I’m teasing you.’ She takes the shirt using her unoccupied hand (thank the Maker for small favours). ‘Alright, perhaps a little, but it is quite a bit of fun. Avert your eyes at your leisure.’
I swear the floor of her room is the most fascinating piece of architecture I’ve ever seen. Just look at those square tiles – they look great, so great in fact, that I don’t think I can look up from them ever again.
‘I-I-I-I’ll take my leave if you don’t n-need anything else.’
‘Thank you Kastor.’
It’s only when the door eases shut behind me that I realise there’s still a hundred things I want to ask, but had forgotten to. Hard to blame myself for that one – much greater men than I would’ve done no better, considering the circumstances.
She did that on purpose.
No, no, what’re you saying? Have you never heard of the ancient art of raising your arm behind your back so you don’t have to look at the person you’re handing stuff to?
Stop thinking and go make yourself breakfast, stupid boy.
Who is Talu? Even though he was Kathanhiel’s esquire no one has ever heard of him – it’s clear now why that is – but everyone knows Talukiel the Blade, champion of the Games, and the greatest fencer the Realms has ever seen.
A little disclaimer. What people call the Grand Games is a tournament for knights and aspiring knights, and by knights I mean young men and women whose only calling in life is to duel one another. Never to the death, mind you – that’s for penniless gladiators – only first blood, or as is often the case, first yell of ‘Stop! I concede!’
I once saw Talukiel in the arena, during that age when boys really want to be men but don’t know how. Others stopped at dented helmets or bloodied lips, but not him. In that duel he had lopped off his opponent’s arm – and not straight up either, but after more than ten minutes of pretending to struggle.
It hadn’t been a display of showmanship but the simple cruelty of one playing with his food. The snide finger-shaking had been a signature move of his. Talu, Talukiel, whatever he calls himself, has always been like that.
Before abandoning her on the eve of the final battle, Talu had catered to Kathanhiel’s every need, thrice saved her from the cultists’ ambush, and even did the mundane chores like cleaning and cooking without complaint. Can you imagine, a master fencer, champion of the Games, wiping someone else’s plate with a half-dirty rag?
No, actually, can you imagine one with those accolades running away?
When she spoke of the moment she woke up alone, with a scribbled note filled with “indecent ramblings” tucked under her bedroll, fury had distorted her face. There’s no doubt that she’ll tear open Talu’s throat the moment their paths cross again, but no matter how genuinely vile he is...I mean, here’s the thing: I get that she’s angry, but I don’t get why she wants to kill him.
Let me be clear; contracts and obligations aside, leaving Kathanhiel’s side at the moment she needs you most is unacceptable.
There is a difference, however, between fleeing from your duty and from the dragons.
How should I put this? After seeing those refugees, and hearing Kathanhiel’s grim outlook on the farce that is bravery, it’s only become more apparent what monsters we’re going to face, and hating someone for being afraid is just not something I’d do, let alone making it a reason to kill.
I’ll never hate someone for being a coward.
That’s reasonable, isn’t it? Sure he’s in the dragon cult now and wants to kill us, but...
But I can’t finish that sentence. The distasteful amount of sympathy I’m feeling for Talu is too inexplicable to put into words. Yes, sympathy.
You’ve figured out why you’re so scared, haven’t you, poor little Kastor?
You’re scared that when the time comes you’ll run away, just like Talu did. You’re scared facing the dragons will reveal how much of a coward you are, as it did him. Most of all, you’re scared that Kathanhiel will hate you for it, more than the fact of running away itself.
Tell me if I’m wrong.
‘You look ill,’ Haylis says.
Do I? ‘Do I?’
‘Stop thinking about him, it won’t help.’
‘Come to the front. I’ll help you talk to Oon’Shang for a bit. She’s a funny lady.’
So strange to hear the little giant referred to as a ‘funny lady’. Not the term I’d use. Actually, what term would I use?
Haylis laughs. ‘You’re distracted so easily – that face! Hurry up before I change my mind.’
‘Why’re you being so nice?’
‘I’m not. I’m only trying to be.’
The moment she opens the front-facing door a violent gust almost blows it off its hinges. It’s not raining today, but the clouds are racing toward the south as if the mountains themselves are chasing after them. Oon’Shang’s back blocks most of the wind; the carriage chassis sits exactly at her waist, so it doesn’t require more than a head tilt to see her shoulders.
A small platform and a long wooden bench runs the width of the coach. Haylis pulls a hidden lever, and a screen folds down on the left side, making a cosy little alcove for all the humans that would for some reason want to sit out here.
The two of us squeeze behind it. Directly in front of my face is Oon’Shang’s left arm – thick as a tree trunk – pulling on a long handlebar protruding from underneath the cabins. It’s incredible, watching the little giant sprinting at full speed while hauling three people, two horses, and a four-room steel-shelled carriage, because it doesn’t seem to take her much effort at all.
‘She’s so strong!’
Haylis has taken out her chain of soundless bells and is hitting them with two mallets in each hand. This goes on for about twenty seconds.
‘Oon’Shang says her friends can pull twelve-room coaches much faster than she is going now.’
‘Twelve?! That’s amazing!’
‘Move over more, I can’t feel half my face.’
Without ceremony Haylis half-sits onto my lap as if I’m stuffed with soft goose feathers. The act is not so much erotic as annoying…though the leg she’s wrapping around mine does feel very warm.
‘I’m doing you a favour so don’t be a pervert.’
‘What should I ask?’
‘Anything, she’s very talkative.’
‘Alright…she’s experienced at fighting dragons, right? Maybe ask her for a story about that.’
‘Do you want to be here all day? No storytelling!’
‘Then ask her what she thinks our chances are.’
Oon’Shang’s head turns slightly as she replies, the wind tossing up her orange veil. Ever seen those big crystal balls fortune tellers use to swindle your money? Her eyes look just like a pair of those, dark and swirling and infinitely deep. Her mouth is a perfectly round hole that doesn’t move even as she talks.
‘She says she believes in the heir of the sword of Ush’Ra the Godsmith.’
‘The heir? You mean Kathanhiel? So Kaishen gets...passed down?’
Haylis rolls her eyes. ‘From one dragon slayer to the next. I thought you knew all about her, Kastor the Scholar Who Can Read.’
‘But only the newer stories mention Kaishen at all.’
‘Just because she calls it that doesn’t mean it’s always had that name. What if the last guy called it something silly like…like Lizardstick? Imagine being stuck with it forever.’
Stupid as that sounds, Kathanhiel did name her horse Bobby, a far cry from Kaishen, Bane of Dragons. Kind of strange, the dichotomy of those two names.
‘So what was it called before?’
Haylis hits the bells a few more times, then shrugs. ‘I don’t know, and Oon’Shang says she’s forgotten. Apparently Ush’Ra the Godsmith made it so that the sword is…’ she scratches her head, ‘dissolved? Every new dragon slayer…dissolves…the sword. Do you know what she means?’
Kaishen is right there in the next room, shiny as new. It’ll take a big vat of acid and more than a few decades for that kind of steel to dissolve in anything. ‘Nothing that would make sense. Can she tell us how it’s, you know, spitting fire and giving her that fever?’
At that query, Oon’Shang’s shoulders sort of heave back and fro, an easy enough gesture to recognise – laughter.
‘She doesn’t know, and even if she did she wouldn’t tell you, because the little giants never share secrets relating to their craft,’ says Haylis. ‘She also says that the true power of the sword will be revealed once we start running into dragons – that is, if you don’t flee at the sight of them.’
That one stings; not the words, but the tone of assumption. ‘Tell her I’m Kathanhiel’s esquire and I’ll fight with her, come what may.’
Haylis relays that on the bells. Oon’Shang takes a while to respond.
‘She asks whether you’re just saying that because it’s what heroes in stories are supposed to say.’
Even if that’s true I’m not about to admit it. ‘I meant it.’
Doesn’t matter what she thinks; soon enough there’ll be plenty of chances to prove her wrong. We’re well in the middle of the plains of the north, with no cover or hiding places to speak of; any day now the mind-rending shrieks of the dragons will descend from the clouds, and when that happens...
‘What about you? You think you can stand against the dragons?’ I ask.
Haylis bites her lips. ‘Before yesterday, sure, but after seeing those people on the road…I haven’t met one yet, apart from that little thing in the palace which doesn’t really count. Maybe...I’ll ask Oon’Shang what they’re like.’
If I was a little giant I would be able to recognise the deep, heartrending fear in Oon’Shang’s voice, but alas, through Haylis’s translation most of the emotion is lost, and only the words remain.
‘They swarm, like starving wolves that haven’t had a meal in weeks, and before you could even hear their screams they descend from the sky, rise from the swamps, the gulches, the snow, everywhere, from every direction, with their mouths on fire because the flames have been beaten back into their throats by the wind, driving them berserk. Javelins cannot rend their hide, only their wings, but even grounded they can leap over great chasms to lunge at their prey. And prey we are, even to the little ones, while the ancient lords – candidates for the Apex – can swallow a little giant from head to toe.’