There were some things in life one could prepare for.
A sprained ankle. A broken wrist. A cold. A scrape. An argument. A missed meal. A sword breaking mid-battle. A sudden storm making travel impossible.
But some things, no matter how much one thought about them, made contingencies for, looked at from every angle, nothing could prepare one for when the event actually happened.
And she found herself in that exact position when Eiod interrupted the meeting in the War Hall, holding a two-way mirror in his hands, golden eyes shiny with tears he was clearly fighting back the urge to shed. And if his interruption alone hadn’t cued her into something being wrong, his body language would have.
Since she had brought him into her service, he had exuded a healthy confidence. He always looked her in the eyes, he always stood tall and proud. He spoke with a clarity and conciseness that had always reminded her of Azriel. He possessed a sword-sharp intelligence that he wielded with deadly, if reserved, accuracy. He wasn’t meek by any stretch of the word’s meaning and to seem him standing just inside the door, shoulders hunched up like they were trying to protect his neck, eyes downcast, a fine tremor slipping along his muscles, it sent every instinct her to blaring warnings.
“My Qishir,” his voice sounded watery and full of barely restrained rage and she rose slowly to her feet, left hand held out to keep her Companion from rising and reprimanding the male for interrupting them. The male chuffed a surprised noise at her but she ignored him; as much as she adored her Companion, he had the tendency to snap first, apologize later, potential consequences be damned. Usually it made for a good balance, but right now she didn’t need him to balance her, she needed him to be docile and calm. Immediate castigation was not necessary. Because Eiod was not acting like his usual self and he was far too well-behaved to break her order to not interrupt unless it was with good reason. Never mind that she was not Anislanzir, she didn’t punish someone unless she was certain they had done something to deserve it.
So she would hear her personal servant out, wait to see what news he brought that made his entire demeanor change so drastically and made him disobey her direct order to not interrupt her meeting before she took any action against him.
“Eiod, what is it?”
She watched with fascination as her normally well-spoken, intelligent, unflappable personal servant struggled to find the words to answer her. She didn’t press him, though. If he was having that much trouble speaking, whatever it was was bad and rushing him wouldn’t get the message out any sooner than if she waited. It was a lesson she had learned early on in their relationship.
“I… one of the direct line between Qishir mirrors began ringing, Honored Lady,” he said eventually, golden eyes lifting to look at her before dropping back to the mirror in his hands. He didn’t say anything else but what he had said spoke volumes that did nothing to help ease her worry or soothe her instincts.
He hadn’t called her that honorific term since she saved him from forced slavery in Anglë World, when she had taught him that making eye contact was more respectful than averting one’s eyes. And it unnerved her. More than the fact that one of the emergency mirror lines had gone off now of all times, more than the knowledge that Zhalharaq City was glowing gold for the first time in several millennia, more than not knowing what was going on in Shiran.
If Eiod was defaulting to such an outdated term for her, whatever that call was about wasn’t just bad, it was probably borderline catastrophic.
When he remained silent, she pushed her chair farther back from herself and the table. As she walked around the table, she gently touched the shoulders of her Steward and Warrior as she passed them, calming them with the simple touch alone, brushing her fingertips across the backs of the rest of her First Circle. Eiod didn’t look up at the sound of her approach, didn’t make any move to show he was aware of where she was at all or what was going on, his gaze riveted upon the mirror in his hands. The closer she drew, the better able she was able to see that he held it in a careful grip that was somehow still tight enough to make his knuckles white with the effort. As though he was consciously trying not to break it despite desperately wanting it.
“Eiod, take a breath,” she smiled kindly when he looked up at her sharply, eyes wide, his grip relaxing enough that color returned to his knuckles. “It is alright. Tell me what happened.”
The Anglëtinean took a visible, deep breath and released it slowly, eyes falling closed with the action before he opened them again, still not looking at her but at least he was calmer. Or appeared it.
“I… I didn’t know if I was supposed to answer it?” He made it sound like a question and shook his head as though to erase the words and start fresh. “You never discussed protocols for if one of the direct lines rang and you were sequestered here under orders not to disturb you lest it be an emergency.”
“So you answered the call?” She nodded at the mirror he held.
“Not at first. I debated for too long, Honored Lady, and it stopped. But then it rang again, this time with the emergency tone, and I scrambled to answer it. I… I didn’t know,” he shook his head again, looking terrified then and she hadn’t seen him look that way since the day she had saved him. Hadn’t heard his accent so thick when he spoke since he had become proficient in Common. “If I had known, I… I would have answered it the first time it rang. I’m so sorry.”
“Eiod, what is it? Who called?”
Those golden eyes slowly rose to hers and she knew, before he even spoke, what he would say. Knew it in her bones the way she knew when a Dhaoine was qahllyn to her.
And for the second time in less than twenty-four hours she found herself frozen in place while fear played along the bones of her spine.
“Anislanzir, Honored Lady,” his voice was hushed, as though he were speaking the name of a monster from the Old Stories, the ones who if one spoke their name they would rise from the depths and consume the speaker. “It was the Lord King. He said he had an urgent matter to discuss with you. And he…he has–he has–”
Her blood ran cold. She had two guesses who the Lord King had managed to get his hands on and neither boded well. “Who does he have, Eiod?”
The male shook his head, voice having failed him completely, his fear nearly palpable.
“Is he still on the line?”
Eiod nodded and held out the mirror with shaking hands.
She steeled herself and took the mirror, flipped the cover off and re-engaged the held call, watching as the distorted images cleared and settled.
And when they did she nearly dropped the mirror.
Because staring back at her were mismatched eyes she would know anywhere. But they looked lifeless, glassy, and she would think him dead if it weren’t for the way his chest rose and fell, albeit shallowly and with obvious effort. Would have thought him dead due to the way his chest looked like someone had tried to tear it open with their bare hands. Are those his ribs? Gods have mercy… Would have thought him tortured right to the River by the way pieces of his skin swayed either in time to his breaths or some wind that was blowing wherever he was, showing the red, angry, abused muscle beneath and how he seemed utterly stoic about it, glassy-eyed and detached. I know that look I’ve seen it before. Had seen it the day Father had handed her a blade and told her to make her brother worthy. The life had left his eyes then, too, even if he fought so hard to get away. She wanted to step through the mirror, flare her wings out and wrap them around him, to protect him from everything else. To be the proper big sister she should have always been and yet never was.
Her memories evaporated when Azriel’s head was yanked back and he groaned, eyes closing as Anislanzir’s face appeared in the mirror’s view beside her brother, the Lord King pressing his cheek against the stretched side of Azriel’s throat, tongue darting out to lick a bead of sweat as it slipped down the corded muscle there.
It took everything she had not to snarl at at the sight. Instead, she schooled her features in as blank of an expression as she could manage and prayed that by the end of the call, she would still have her little brother.
“Look what I caught,” Anislanzir’s voice warbled across the connection in a sing-song. “I was aiming for my wayward, worthless second born, but this one just had to interfere. Then I remembered how much ‘Adlyn loves him and realized that I could get two birds with one stone, or with another bird as it were. Since we’re all winged Dhaoine, yes?” Those gold eyes that were not nearly as gorgeous as the bastard probably thought they were regarded her with an open hatred she nearly blanched at. The Lord King stared as if waiting for her wings to flare from her back in the dominant display he clearly knew she wanted to do. But she refrained, if only barely, simply because he expected it and she wouldn’t give it to him. “Anyway,” he shrugged after an uneasy couple of minutes, that hatred suddenly gone, and looked back at Azriel with a fondness that made her stomach churn, “I caught this wittle fledgling here,” he shook said male’s head and grinned at Azriel’s hiss before he released him. Anislanzir stood up and move out of frame before showing back up as he picked the mirror up from whatever surface it had been placed on and kept talking, “And he told me a very interesting story once I got my hands on him. You wouldn’t believe it, I bet. I nearly didn’t but then again he was just so very convincing. Do you want to know story he told me, my Lady?”
“What do you want, Anislanzir,” she growled by way of answer, making it a demand versus a question as she flicked her fingers at Kírtlaq as he rose from his seat, a nearly subvocal snarl rumbling up from his chest. He sat down with a heavy sigh that spoke clearly of his displeasure but she ignored him. One wrong move would see Azriel killed and if Azriel died Rhyshladlyn would fall apart. And while the Qishir was strong, terrifyingly so, he was also part Ancient, and still at risk of going nova.
And with how powerful he was already? He wouldn’t just take out one World, he would take out them all.
So, even if this insane un-male insulted her so blatantly, she would let it slide. If only because the chance of dooming every Dhaoine in the Worlds was too high if she spoke against it. For the Laws and Etiquettes clearly meant nothing to Anislanzir Ka’ahne and hadn’t for an indecently long time.
“What do I want?” The Lord King laughed, the sound like broken glass scraping across chalkboard and she fought not to wince at the sound, fought to keep her face blank. “I want bitches like you to stop meddling in my affairs. That is what I want, Lulphé.”
A smattering of hisses erupted behind her and she took a slow, steady breath and sent a pulse of warning to all of her First Circle to cease it. Intimidation meant nothing to Anislanzir, what mattered was one’s proficiency in psychological warfare, the lengths to which one would go to achieve one’s ends, and the depravity one was capable of enacting upon another. Nothing else mattered.
“How am I meddling in your affairs, Anislanzir?” She questioned, keeping her tone civil and monotonous. She wouldn’t rise to his bait, she wouldn’t goad him. Too much was at stake if she played this wrong.
Gods be thanked it was me that took the call and not Xitlali.
“How are you — you seriously asked — oh by the gods aplenty,” Anislanzir barked out another round of that sharp laughter that wasn’t laughter and shook his head, golden eyes looking almost apologetic before he spoke again, volume just shy of a roar, the fury in his voice making her bones ache even with the distance the mirrors’ magick between them. “You have your army parked outside my City! Your spawn aided my second born in getting into my City, to steal my wife and my unborn heir and then escape before I could rectify their actions accordingly. You sent this beautiful specimen to my City decades ago to spy on me, to protect little ‘Adlyn, not that it mattered much that ol’ Azzy was here, to gather information to unseat me as though I was too stupid to see your game for what it was. That’s how you’ve been meddling in my affairs. And I demand you cease it at once.”
Your wife and unb– She cut the thought off before it could finish forming, it was bad enough she had hear him so flippantly refer to his daughter as his wife and the child he could not have begotten on her with her consent. To speak it again, even just to herself? No, that was not something she could do.
Bile rose hard in her throat but she swallowed it down as calmly as she could. The only response she gave Anislanzir was a nod. She didn’t say anything, what could she have said? All of that was true, she couldn’t lie, Anglëtineans were incapable of it in any language, so she didn’t even bother to try. And there was no telling what Azriel had said while tortured and she wasn’t about to chance exposing anything he hadn’t divulged and risk him any more than she already had.
I’m so sorry, little brother. I never meant for any of this to happen. Especially not to you.
“And if I do not follow your demands?”
Anislanzir grinned, the act not one of mirth but rather of something dark that she didn’t have a name for and it sent a chill down her spine.
“I’ll start by removing one half of one wing for every day that your army remains outside my City. When I run out of wings to cut out of him, I’ll start carving out chunks of his skin. And I will toss each over the walls into the Desert so my dearest son can see what your refusal to listen begets. I hear making an enemy of Rhyshladlyn is not something anyone with a modicum of intelligence to them should ever do.”
She nodded again, pulling on every bit of Father’s training to keep her face blank of expression, to keep from clenching her jaw, to keep from showing her fear and her hatred and her disgust and her worry.
The Lord King would get no reaction out of her. That’s what he wanted. He wanted her emotional and made stupid with it. And she would be damned if she gave him anything what he wanted besides what would keep her brother alive for as long as possible. What would keep her brother whole. Because Anislanzir was right. If she didn’t do what he demanded and he started tossing pieces of Azriel over the City walls and informed Rhyshladlyn why? The Grey Qishir would bring a one man army to her doorstep and that would be a battle no one would survive.
“As you wish, Anislanzir, I shall pull them back. But only if you release Azriel the second they have dispersed.”
She raised an eyebrow at him.
“I shall hold him for one day past when the last of your horde leaves my lands — and they better be completely out of Shiraniqi Desert, Lulphé. Once I am certain none have remained, I will release him into the Desert with supplies and will call you to let you know what direction he’s headed in so my bastard second son can pick up his precious Companion.”
“Lulphé don’t make the deal with him! He’s lying! Lulphé it’s a tra–”
Azriel’s voice cut off with a choked scream, Anislanzir’s face a riot of anger and malice and hatred. “I am not lying, little Qishir, but if you wish to test if I am, feel free. Just know that I don’t think Azriel here is strong enough to survive me taking his wings as he has several wounds already in need of Healing and unfortunately I’m fresh out of Healers.”
Before she could say anything else the call ended.
Carefully, she closed the cover on the mirror and handed it back to Eiod who was staring at her with open fear and worry but she said nothing to him, just stood there.
And then she cursed, low and harsh in Anglë’lylel.
“My Qishir?” Kírtlaq queried, sounding borderline afraid for the first time in centuries. Not that she blamed him, everyone knew her hatred for her native tongue, knew what it meant if she spoke it willingly.
She turned and looked at her Companion.
“I need to get in touch with Thayne immediately.”
“You’re seriously not going to listen to that fucker?” her Steward questioned.
She smiled viciously at him. “No, Yuran,” she answered as she walked to the windows and looked at the golden, pulsing Watchtower that stood in the main courtyard of the Palace. “I plan to instruct my daughter to burn Shiran City to the ground.”
The silence that followed her statement was so complete she could hear the Watchtower humming and absently lifted a hand to touch the glass to feel the vibrations of it.
“But what about Azriel?”
She glanced over her shoulder at her Scribe who flinched slightly, bowing eir head immediately after making eye contact.
“Azriel will get out, Rhyshladlyn wouldn’t let him die. And if he can’t get Azriel out?” She sighed, reaching up to take her torque off her head and hold it in her hands, thumbs brushing over the words on either side of the jewel that hung from it. “There are always causalities in war. Azriel knew what he was getting into, he knew the risks. And he wouldn’t have allowed himself to get captured by the Lord King if he didn’t know the chance he would die was high. It is something Rhyshladlyn should understand, and if he doesn’t and blames me for his Companion’s demise? Then so be it, I will handle that when, if, it comes about.”
For a long moment there was nothing but silence in the War Hall.
“But the death of a Companion can unseat a Qishir. Rhyshladlyn could completely break down. The result of which would almost guarantee the destruction of the Worlds,” Ishely, her Scribe, said in a soft voice, speaking a warning she had already thought of, holding a truth she knew already. But it wouldn’t change her decision.
The Lord King had lived unchecked for far too long and she refused to let him order her around and use her brother as the means to do so. She didn’t negotiate with oathbreakers and un-males like him and if she had to make an example out of Anislanzir that resulted in the death of her little brother? So be it. She would hate herself for it, never mind what Rhyshladlyn’s reaction would be, or Thayne’s, but she would live with it. It was hardly the worst thing she had done since taking the throne.
“He is not Oathed, merely Accepted. His death will not be as destructive as you think.”
At least, I pray it won’t. She carefully replaced her torque. Sometimes in war, sacrifices must be made. Even those we don’t want to make. Especially those we don’t want to make. Turning around she faced them all, one eyebrow raised as she turned to face her First Circle again.
“Now which of you will be going to Shiran to pass a message to Thayne? Even if one of you needs to Line travel out there, I want her reached by sunset.”
“Honored Lady,” Eiod spoke up then, voice still shaky but not as much as before. At least his eyes met hers and held, which was progress. “That’s four hours from now.”
“I’m aware, Eiod. Thank you.”
After several minutes of deliberation it was decided that her Companion, Kírtlaq, would go. He had a specific message and instructions, as well as a two-way communication mirror with him to give to Thayne, something she was surprised her daughter hadn’t taken with her before marching on the City.
“Be swift and be safe,” she murmured as she smoothed wrinkles from his tunic. “And remember Rhyshlaldyn cares not for formalities and he will get angry at you, messenger or not. My name and my mark will not protect you as much as you think. But he will give respect where it is given and earned.”
“Aye, my Qishir. I will remember and return as swiftly and safely as I am able,” and then he lifted his arm, caught a Line, and was gone.
She tried to ignore the sinking feeling in her gut as she turned and looked at the golden glowing Watchtower again.