Book 4

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The Light of Eaglefriend

The Tale of Eaglefriend Book Four

Chapter One – The Pale Boy

Vethros ran a stone with delicate care along the ferotaur horn’s curvature, sharpening its razor edge and lethal point at the base of his spear. The lengthy weapon of wood and steel was as ordinary as any other that a common Eaglemaster would wield, yes, but secretly he knew that this trophy fixed upon it was most exceptional. He had made a special outing in the dead of night just to retrieve it from the battlefield where it lay, claiming it as a memento not simply for pride, but to remember his most pressing, unfinished business.

Although that battle was now a year past, his memory preserved it as diligently as his hands did this morbid keepsake. He could still feel the satisfying smash of his helm into the Ferotaur King’s ghoulish face, the rattling hit he’d taken as a consequence of launching Evinn high enough to strike a fatal blow, and his disappointment when Evinn’s sword spared their enemy’s head. One of several staggering disappointments he’d suffered that day.

He looked outside at the sprawling, colorful view from his quarters high in Veldere’s citadel, and the contented buzz of his carefree countrymen was still a foreign sound despite these recent months of peace. This luxurious upgrade from the accommodations he’d known at their southernmost city was wasted on him. He’d merely left a post where danger and opportunity were thickest and traded it for an elevated shelf where he collected dust, his consolation prize on display for all to see.

He cringed at what must have become of his old room in the central tower of Veleseor. No doubt a ferotaur pack resided there now, playing at being civilized enough for the realms of men to welcome them back with open arms. Perhaps their ruler reserved it instead, delighting in the bloody trail left to tell of the future king who had grown up there, who flew out in a desperate attempt to retake the stolen Crystal Spear, and failed.

The woman who’d forced him along that ill-fated path had left her mark on more than just his flesh. The heat that pulsed from her when all believed her to be cold and crushed, the hunger in her eyes when she strode within arm’s reach—they imbued him like her scent had on that first night he drank it in, leaving him with a thirst that no cup could help.

For someone who’d spent so many years keeping live playthings buried and locked away for amusement, to access whenever she wished, she had accepted her role’s drastic reversal surprisingly well. Perhaps, in her mind, the plaything simply came down to her now. Perhaps letting her think that kept his guilt at bay while he tried to make sense of the curiosity he continued to indulge with her, so deep below everyone else’s sight.

Unable to sit and contemplate any longer whether he was more spider or fly, he set aside his spear and rose to follow the winding path that had lured him so many times. Before he left, though, his gaze darted to the two objects suspended on nails in the wall. Morlen’s bow arched in its high place of honor, the springy white ash not having been strung in some time, though still his handprints were stark where he’d last gripped it. The deerskin quiver full of arrows hung by its strap, centered under the weapon. They were an eyebrow and pupil looking at him uneasily.

To hold either heirloom brought back the spirit of trust and pride with which Morlen had left them in his possession. Given his destination, and the one therein whom he visited so frequently, it was no wonder that he’d left both pieces of Morlen’s memory untouched for months. Better that they stare with suspicion than sting him with splinters of betrayal.

He descended the tower’s stairway in full armor except his helm, knowing he must soon present himself with the rest of the court for the king’s address. As much as he wished to conceal his face for such an occasion, he had come to find that basking in humiliation blunted its chill … and toughened his skin against worse elements that may seek to cut him soon. His long blond hair would reflect the splendor of his royal fathers while he stood far removed from the throne they had sat, and the scaly scars branded into his neck would remind every onlooker why someone else was seated in his place. Let them all see his face unabashed, and if any cast him a derisive glance, they would have no doubt that he saw them in return.

His red cape caressed each step behind him until he took the hallway that led to the kitchens. One who had never set foot in the castle before could easily chart this path just by the smell of frying onions alone. He, on the other hand, could sleepwalk from bed to boiling kettle before the slightest aroma wafted out; such was the repetitive nature of this routine.

The cooks and servers had ground their graceful, steam-soaked dance to a clumsy halt when the prince first entered their midst a year ago, eyeing him the way fish might regard a swimming eagle. Now, his presence brought no trace of friction to their momentum, which proceeded so reliably around him that he felt like a well-oiled cog in their perpetually turning mechanism. Given the lofty expectations stamped upon him at birth, he couldn’t help but smile at his fate that waved like a mirage from the stone ovens. His greatest impact on the realm would not reverberate through the ranks of nobility recognizing him on the throne, but through the peasantry wondering at his absence one day among their pots and pans.

A clay bowl sat clean and ready for him to take, most likely laid out by someone who knew the fluid movements of this waltz even better than he. Taking it without pause, he strode to a kettle that sat atop a wood-burning stove and filled it near the brim with pheasant stew. To his right, an ancient-looking woman slouched over a wooden cutting board to slice a loaf of fresh bread, humming a sweet melody with intricately woven notes, and he showed all due reverence for the care she put into her craft. “May I?” he asked, gesturing at the thick brown heel.

She nodded with a seriousness that imparted value to this product that she wouldn’t give away to just anyone, and when he took it gratefully, she said, “The prince’s appetite carries him far indeed. Farther than most would expect him to go.”

He didn’t mind the familiarity of her remark, which he might have rebuked only a year or two before. It was strangely comforting to know that someone, anyone above ground took interest in his activities. “Would you expect me to go hungry?”

The corner of her mouth pinched against the hint of a smile. “You are your father’s son,” she replied. “He did not, nor did the king whose path he traced into the mountains of the Wildlands. When you eat your fill, as they did, may you return here to share with me the wisdom it brought you, as they never could.”

Her wrinkled hands worked the knife so deftly, he believed she would have held her own against the multiple generations of warriors who rose and fell while she labored here. It made him recall the story of Morlen’s grandmother, one of the only women in the realm to ascend on wings as an anointed knight, who flew to the Forbidden Isle and gave up her station for love of the lonely man within. “You could have been an Eaglemaster,” he said honestly. “Perhaps you had brothers, sons, sisters, daughters who were?”

The smile broke farther through her firm demeanor. “Brothers, sons, sisters, daughters. They’ve become difficult to count. Another reason for you to come back—you can help me remember. Tell me of yours and you’ll hear of mine.”

“But I have no brother, no son,” he answered, and her sad look that pierced deep into his eyes conveyed that she seemed to know better, scolding him for saying such a thing. It so clearly resembled the grief that had struck him from Morlen, when they’d passed through the mountain forest where bright mists bombarded them with visions of several possible futures. Morlen had warned him that day against forgetting something of great importance, and now this woman’s expression implored the same.

“Forgive me,” she said, as though certain he was wrong but sweeping the issue aside so she could resume her work. “When your eyes have seen as much as mine, the paths behind and ahead become intertwined and blurred. Go tread now where we both know you must, and find me here again when you wish.”

He lingered even while she became absorbed once more in her artful preparations, and when he knew her attention would not divert again, he departed with his warm, heavy bowl. Another stairway brought him deeper where the steel of his boots clanked loudly over the fading voices above. Plucking a torch from its wall sconce, he made his armor a suit of dancing firelight and proceeded down into the dungeons, where a lone sentry kept watch over every locked cell.

“I relieve you,” he told the silent soldier, who didn’t shuffle an inch. When he approached so that each could see the whites of the other’s eyes, he said more forcefully, “I’ll take over from here. Go, eat, and come back in an hour.”

The man, however, remained surprisingly unmoved. “By order of the king, you are no longer permitted here without a guard present.”

Vethros exhaled slowly through his nose, hanging his torch on the wall just inches beside the face he studied. Even the flickering shadows couldn’t conceal every twitch. “And, by order of the king, what are you supposed to do to me if I find that a bit … disagreeable?” He carried neither spear nor sword, yet the one he confronted seemed to suspect that the prince’s empty hand could strike its mark before the sharpest steel was useful.

Finding little amusement in the beads of sweat that began to trickle down this young fellow’s brow, he relaxed his posture and tapped a friendly knuckle against the deflating chest before him. “Not to worry. You honor the Eaglemasters, so stoic at your post. You honor the king by enforcing his rule.” Still holding the steaming bowl in his left hand, he produced a long silver key with his right, which made abundantly clear that he needed no escort to the cell he approached. Stopping at the sealed entrance, he turned his head to convey one last note of caution. “If I find, though, that you’ve been excessively honorable and whispered a word of my business here to anyone, you may find my response excessive too.”

He pulled back the lock with a half turn, swinging the thick iron door toward himself while its rusty hinges creaked. When he released his key, the springy tongue of metal it had withdrawn snapped out into the open air, ready to lock the door again as soon as it was shut. After he entered, though, he left it ajar so that the hallway’s orange glow splashed down the narrow staircase to guide him into these meager quarters, where a cold stone slab was padded with fresh, warm linens. Sydrenna lay comfortably upon them, grinning at his presence, though she didn’t cast him a single glance yet. “I was expecting you,” she said, quite at ease. “I’ve become quite skilled at anticipating your every move. Although, ever since you started sending the chambermaids to attend to my cleanliness, I assumed it was because you wanted me fresh and presentable.” She curled onto her side, sleek and long like a cat with sharp eyes that moved over every inch of him. “Why you haven’t yet taken advantage of this luxurious bedchamber you’ve made is beyond me.”

He leaned casually against the wall, looking down at her. The ever-present temptation kept his wits sharp—much sharper than they’d been on that first night he’d found himself in such close proximity with her. “Maybe our notions of the high ground differ slightly,” he answered, offering her the bowl. When she left him with his arm extended, he retracted it and made his customary gesture, sipping the hot contents before her. “It’s safe,” he said after a swig, as he did every day he visited with a similar gift. “I promise.” There was something in that last word that soothed him when he said it to her. Assuring that no harm would come to her without coming to him first brought a warmth that endured for hours, even when he found himself doubting if she would reciprocate for him under any circumstance.

This time when he reached out again, she took the bowl with fingertips smoothly brushing his own. Though he had only placed his mouth on one small spot along the clay rim, leaving the rest clean for her, she deliberately locked her lips on the wet imprint his had left, never breaking eye contact while she savored the taste.

A few months ago, he’d clear his throat awkwardly and make clumsy small talk to divert attention away from the thoughts her provocative display stirred up. Now, he was glad to let her know with a long, steady look that she sent those thoughts boiling through his mind, but that he’d never take her like this—under lock and key.

“I’m beginning to see the threat you’d pose to the realm as a free woman,” he said. “The day you do that when you have a thousand other options … that’s the day I’m in greatest danger of forgetting what duty is.”

“And what exactly are you doing with it now, and every hour you’ve spent with me down here?” she pressed. “Leaving duty at the door to test whether it’s important enough that you’ll climb back up those stairs alone to reclaim it? High in your royal tower, a heartbeat from the throne and yet too far to ever touch it, you’re just as lonely as I. Down here you could touch, taste, have exactly what you want, what you deserve, but you turn your back on it for those above who don’t see your value like I do.”

“Maybe I’m testing more than duty,” he replied. “Maybe I’m examining how I could possibly find anything desirable in someone like you, someone who could see Morlen and Roftome soaring in total freedom, in defiance of all tribulation that drove them apart, and still seek to end them in flames.”

She looked away from his weighty, scrutinizing gaze and focused instead on the cell’s empty corner as though it were occupied by something, or someone. “I see them from time to time,” she said with a strange calm. “I see them flying together like they did that day, and I wonder if my hand would still pull the lever just as quickly. More than once, I hesitate, only to suffer the same untimely end my mother and father did when they hesitated in the face of their enemies.”

“And how long does it take to convince yourself that this sense of self-preservation guided your hand, instead of vengeance? Vengeance at the realization that what you valued most in this world had never been yours. Vengeance toward the one whom you couldn’t bear to see sitting in your place.”

The glint in her eyes told him as much as the smile she concealed—that she enjoyed how easily he revealed what they shared in common. It was as though she could picture Evinn’s face as clearly as he did now, a manifestation so solid he might be cloistered in this crypt with them. He felt the instinct to recoil when it stepped nearer, and the wall at his back rebuked any attempt at escape. Air grew scarce inside the stuffy, underground chamber while breathing deeply became the only remedy against panic. As his vision swam, this person who cornered him became more fluid but still so familiar, melding Evinn’s features with those of Valeine, until suddenly he seemed to be looking at himself in a mirror, yet his reflection was translucent, outlining a figure from whose darkest depths Sydrenna stared out.

It was the pale boy, the one who’d first appeared to him that day in the misty forest with Morlen and Evinn. He’d caught startling glimpses of this boy during many of his visits down here, finding truth in Morlen’s claim that those vapors could travel so far beneath the earth and bring intoxication. But this trance was more immersive than any that had come before, resisting his every effort to restore clarity.

The youth was tall and gaunt, appearing to be sixteen or seventeen, with short hair as dark as his eyes though traces of light were faint in both. He marched on a warpath with an army at his back, and they followed him not just in loyal confidence, but fear.

That cold, unflinching glare was fixed upon a single adversary, and the destruction it promised made the accompanying host of cutthroats fade into irrelevancy. The boy was coming for him, on a collision course that nothing could disrupt, and the closer he came to that final confrontation, the more loudly one single word echoed through Vethros’s mind: EaglefriendEaglefriendEaglefriend.

The chant was picked up in a triumphant chorus that shook the ground, sending tremors up his legs until the entire scene crumbled to pieces. He collapsed with it, seeing nothing, feeling only the scrape of his armor against the wall on which he leaned until he crashed onto his side. Struggling for breath while every sense receded, he lay immobilized and about to lose consciousness, at the mercy of one whose lack thereof needed no elaboration.

***

Two ghostly arms reached toward him from the shadows of a cave, trembling under the sunlight that revealed just how hollow and vaporous they were. The body from which they extended remained well hidden inside this dark recess, or perhaps it blended perfectly with the dark, camouflaged in its natural habitat. He shuddered at the horrors that awaited men who were lured here, and wondered if any soul would be safe when no light shone out to keep such a wraith confined.

Blinking through delirium, he wriggled and flopped like a fish at the sight of Sydrenna’s hand inching toward his face. But the wet cloth she gently applied to his hot, sweaty brow cooled him and helped his eyes adjust to the dim glow of her dungeon. “Just be still,” she said in a hushed, relaxing tone, cradling his head while he lay flat on his back. Her pitcher of drinking water sat nearby, its precious contents sacrificed to bring him out of his daze. “I thought you’d be used to the visions by now. You’ve spent almost as much time down here as I have.”

She could have raced up the steps and out the door he hadn’t completely closed without giving him a second look while he lay incapacitated, or stomped his teeth in first for good measure. She’d snuck through the city of Veleseor while it swarmed with soldiers to steal the Crystal Spear from him; she could easily get past the nervous guard above and through the castle. Yet she lingered here giving him the human contact he craved, which he’d refused to take from her despite her offers as his prisoner.

Immediately he remembered the key to her cell that he kept tucked away, but fought off the urge to check if she’d stolen it. He could do that the moment he stepped out of here, beyond her sight, and return to deal with her if he must. If he grasped for it now, the fruit that might spring from this new exchange of trust would only die on the branch.

Instead, he placed his hand over hers to keep it on his forehead and closed his eyes, comfortably aware that she could strike a killing blow if she wished. “It sounds like you have gotten used to them,” he replied. “Either your mind is more disciplined than anyone imagined, or you must be seeing something that makes you very happy.”

She laughed softly at that word. “Happiness never served my people very well. Anyone afflicted by it wasn’t mindful of all the reasons they shouldn’t let it take root, until those reasons laid them lower than I am now. I, on the other hand, have always had a keen eye for assets, and when I see them outnumbering threats”—she brushed a gold strand of his hair with her forefinger—“I’m not inclined to let them slip away.”

“And which am I?” he asked, his throat readily exposed.

He didn’t have to look up at her to know she was smiling when she answered, “You are … full of possibilities.”

Her breath was sweet in his nostrils, and he was more content to lie here on the harsh floor than alone in his spacious bed at the top of the realm. When sleep’s embrace started to envelop him, though, he knew his presence would soon be sought in the great hall, and absence would project a weakness he could not afford.

He opened his eyes to meet hers once again, just as so many thousands had done under her meticulous watch, finding themselves turned from predators to prey. Those two smoking coals looked as though they could give flame at any moment, and he saw more flashes of that rugged army on the march, behind one whose piercing gaze was set directly on him.

“I have to go,” he said, yet he didn’t move, waiting to see how easily she would let him leave. When she made no effort to withdraw her hand that he still held, he wanted to believe that she too desired more of the warmth they generated together in defiance of this cold little coffin. Finally, he rose to his feet, and she sat back with an expression that asked, are you sure? It made him question every step that came next, but somehow he reached the stairs.

“Thank you for the water,” he said with a raspy voice that struggled to grind off its rough edges. “I’ll send the maids down with more.”

Her disappointment nipped at his heels while he ascended. “The maids, of course. Send them discreetly to keep your little secret down here, as though all the faces you meet above don’t already follow you with suspicion.”

At the top, he pushed open the door he’d left ajar, turning the sliver of torchlight it permitted into an orange wedge through the gap he widened, and he silently cast her a last glance over his shoulder.

“Give my regards to your cousin,” she said. “Please tell him I look forward to the day I can repay his hospitality.”

He shut the door to lock behind him as gently as he could, so its rattling closure wouldn’t be an aggressive reminder of her captive state. The young guard seemed to have a subtle spasm as the corner of his eye tried to stretch in the prince’s direction without any turn of head, and Vethros had no wish to prolong the poor youth’s suffering more than was absolutely necessary.

Striding a bit closer, he heard that already shallow breathing draw so short and scarce it became inaudible, and said, “There are a lot of people in the realm who would love to go down there and hurt her. If she ever shows me a bruise, a cut, even one she inflicted herself, I’ll wonder why you weren’t more attentive to her safety.”

The soldier’s eyes met his long enough to confirm they had an understanding, and then Vethros proceeded upward through the dank stench that had settled into the citadel’s bowels. As soon as he could be certain he was beyond observation, he reached a hand beneath his breastplate and pulled out the key to Sydrenna’s cell, sighing with relief that she’d left it untouched.

It could not escape his mind, however, that she had built her power to rival that of the Eaglemasters by planting seeds and cultivating them with delicate care for months, before she reaped her rewards. What good was a single stolen key compared to someone who willingly opened doors that would otherwise be forever shut to her? A tool that needed not be stolen, that was all too eager to remain within her grip.

If she wished to serve him such a fate, at least she provided enough flavor to make it palatable, giving him ample time to decide how much he could stomach. The alternative awaited him now in the throne room, and it expected him to obey without question, to serve without complaint, and to sacrifice without the payment that was rightfully his.

***

He was not the very last person to file into the great hall, but his late entrance attracted copious attention from the dense crowd that had already gathered around the white marble throne. Its occupant sat clothed in rich robes of the deepest red, as though they were dyed in the blood of a thousand Eaglemasters to make the hard-earned capes of those anointed knights pale in comparison. The silver crown upon his head was forged with wide wings that spread back elegantly to flatten along the rim, their sharp, feathery tips reflecting the sunlight that bounced off the silver panels of these ancient walls. In his right hand, the Crystal Spear was a perfect pillar toward the heavens, gleaming a blueish-white that was quite distinct from every golden ray that poured in through the windows. Its base was planted firmly against the polished floor, stripped of the ferotaur horn that had been fixed upon it and wielded in battle for centuries.

“Hail King Morthevinn the Blessed, of House Eaglefriend!” the formidable knight closest to the throne announced, and while all present Eaglemasters pounded armored fists against their breastplates in a resounding answer, Vethros casually lifted a thumb to wipe a smudge off his own.

Evinn’s eyes gave him not the slightest bit of notice, but those of Lady Valeine were unmistakably set on him from far across the room. There was no scolding in her gaze though, no trace of the bitter disapproval she surely harbored for his regular social activities—only worry, like she could see the end of the path that remained quite foggy and multi-pronged before him.

When Evinn rose from the throne, his long brown hair fell about the bright silver shoulder plates that accentuated his already broad stance, and the Crystal Blade hung sheathed at his left hip, illuminating the scabbard’s pinholes that outlined a leaping lion. Only a short year as King, and yet he appeared as though he’d been rehearsing for the role throughout all the years it was reserved for another.

“I stand before you with spear and sword ready to defend my people, just as my forebears did to carry on the legacy of Veldeam the Wise, our first king,” Evinn declared, his voice deeper than the affable tone Vethros had grown up hearing. “But I am certain, just as my father was and my mother is still to this day, that such a legacy can remain strong even after shedding that which seemed most necessary to protect it. Indeed, if a civilization thrives and evolves as ours has, one generation’s deliverance becomes another’s encumbrance. Today, we find ourselves standing off balance with a heavy shield that has sustained countless dents, and I say we are ready to cast it aside and marvel at how much more gracefully we move without it, how broadly our sights expand to take in what it eclipsed.”

Vethros could almost hear Morlen speaking these words, and they carried a sense of reunion that made him look out expectantly, only to be sharply reminded of all he’d lost.

“In the months before I was born,” Evinn went on, “my father embarked on a perilous journey that brought him face to face with a shrieker. Had he done the deed that any man would have expected of him, because tradition demanded it, he would have gone to his grave shortly thereafter, with none of us to thank him for maintaining our ancient practices. Instead, he emerged with his life, and a story of a man named Hironthel, who was his companion through many dangers. Hironthel warned him, just as the wizard Nottleforf has counseled, that the violent conflict our people endured for the last thousand years was but a ripple of water around a dropped stone, one which was forgotten beneath the darkest depths, but will soon resurface to be seen, felt, heard, by every one of us. He Who Lurks In The Shadows will not be held much longer by the prison that has sequestered Him at the margins of our world. His return is imminent, and we must work to harvest the great peace my father planted with our lost brothers.”

My fathermy father. Evinn seemed to aim each repeated utterance at him like an arrow, quietly savoring the blood he drew.

“It is no secret that I have journeyed south several times since my reign began,” said Evinn. “I believe I’ve made significant progress extending the good faith of all Eaglemasters toward those who have shown us the same, though we were mortal enemies for so long. Like my father before me, I have spoken with some who were once shriekers and ferotaurs, and have come to know them as men with names that they reclaimed from their distant pasts. Tomorrow, I will set out again for our southernmost city, accompanied by a carefully chosen delegation to facilitate our most constructive dealings yet with Veleseus the Bold.”

A scattering of unhappy grumbles vibrated the floor after this announcement, and Vethros couldn’t help but see how such abundant discontent could be exploited. Their realm had just narrowly escaped the Ferotaur King’s all-encompassing shroud that would have imprisoned man and beast alike as livestock; now they were abruptly expected to see the potential ally that Evinn saw, and forgive his most egregious offenses. It must be easy for Evinn to wash his hands of that treachery after growing up unscarred by it with two whole parents, never knowing the bereavement that afflicted so many of his peers. Would his voice still issue that noble call for diplomacy from a throat permanently branded with proof that this was a fool’s errand? If the king of the Eaglemasters continued feeding them excessive idealism, perhaps they would take the pragmatic approach, and feed him to those creatures whose hunger would never be forgotten.

“To represent our best interests, and those of our loyal allies at Korindelf, I’ve selected emissaries who have earned the highest regard from our seasoned countrymen and former adversaries.”

A few heads turned toward Vethros immediately, and he could only smile at how they clearly anticipated what was about to ensue.

“Lady Valeine,” Evinn listed first, and Vethros busied himself by trying to flash the same friendly greeting at the dozens of new looks that came his way.

“Captain Craed,” said Evinn next, surprising no one that the brawny, celebrated veteran would be a supportive column at the heart of his retinue.

“And”—Vethros gritted his teeth at the pregnant pause that Evinn allowed to expand into a yawning chasm. You’re enjoying this so much, aren’t you, Your Grace?—“Nottleforf.”

The king’s glaring omission of one particular name echoed from wall to wall, and if a single person in the room hadn’t yet chanced a glimpse at Vethros’s reaction, he lacked the energy to pinpoint them. His focus was only on Evinn, who returned it at long last.

“Go now with confidence in the bright promise of our coming days, and I shall do the same. May you rest easy knowing that I will use all of my power so that no darkness can drown out the new age before us.”

Vethros was unmoved by the stirring in his periphery while many figures around him started shuffling out. He could sense that Evinn meant to speak with him. If he tried to leave with the rest of the crowd, he would be publicly summoned back like a subordinate who was not dismissed, and he refused to allow anyone that satisfaction.

Lady Valeine and Captain Craed let the others disperse before they exited, each looking at him like they would a stranger, as though they’d both forgotten seeing him at his most vulnerable, bloodied and beaten and stripped of all pride. When the great hall was nearly emptied, Evinn ordered the royal guard out as well, waving off their protests to signify there was no threat here that required their aid. It remained unclear whether Vethros was meant to take this as a gesture of good will, or rather a sign that he no longer had any ability to intimidate the one who had grown up in his shadow. Perhaps a bit of both.

When the two of them finally stood alone together, Evinn took a few steps forward, yet this did little to shorten the gulf between them. “I didn’t decide to exclude you lightly,” he said, more conversational and familiar than the ruler Vethros had just observed. “The embers of conflict are far from extinguished. When I get a sense that our relations with the south have less chance of growing volatile, I’ll gladly have you stand beside me there.”

Vethros gave a slightly exaggerated nod at this generosity. “It must be difficult enough as it is, requesting permission to visit what used to be our city, our home. I wouldn’t want to worsen the tension, and make it harder for you to gain approval from the invader who claimed it for himself. Bold indeed, he sinks his claws deeper while you offer to sharpen them at his feet.”

“And let us say nothing of who allowed him to land there in the first place,” Evinn countered, conspicuously studying the patchwork of scaly scars on Vethros’s neck. “Say nothing of all that’s changed since he surrendered his powers for something greater than himself.”

“Quite a surrender,” Vethros replied. “He hands you a spear; you hand him the sovereignty it once represented.” He turned his back and began to walk out.

“How much longer will you keep looking for enemies?” Evinn called after him.

Vethros stopped short, and slowly pivoted to give Evinn a grin. “As long as they make it clear they want to be found.”

Evinn suddenly seemed to become more aware of the weapon in his hand, but kept a loose grip on it as he walked closer, unwilling to let him leave so easily. “It’s become rather obvious there’s someone else you’ve found as well—just like she wanted you to. Do you care to enlighten me about this … bond … you’ve developed with our prisoner, this fascination that draws you to her, day after day?”

Vethros felt a wave of fraternal pride at how Evinn advanced so self-assuredly, so unafraid to fight, despite the fact that this attitude was directed toward him. Then, it made him sorely recall another jarring vision the mists had brought him a year ago, of both their weapons clashing after Evinn swung first.

He squarely faced Evinn’s judgmental, suspicious stare, and yielded not one hint of the remorse it sought. “She was born nobody and became a queen. I was born a king and became nobody. There’s a certain … elegant symmetry between us.”

“And between us?” Evinn asked. “After all we’ve been through together, what is there? Haven’t I provided well for you here?”

Provided?” The word spilled from his lips like a rancid soup, its residue churning his stomach. “Provided … for me?” He needed no potent vapors this time to see flashes of their shared youth—Evinn for years looking up to him with uncertainty while he extended down a helping hand, Evinn crossing that misty barrier into the Forbidden Isle, not bothering to reach back for him when his hand met only cold rejection. Evinn returning as though from another world, looking at him straight on and then soon from high above, content to soar where he couldn’t follow. “You were my Little Brother. Now you’re my king.”

Vethros turned away again with this, his swift departure daring Evinn to summon him back. They both knew that no such command would come, not for any path behind or ahead. There were too many roads that splintered out around them, lonely where they branched off in opposite directions, but far more hazardous where they intersected.

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