She stared down at the destroyed wing buds, right hand clenched tightly around the two-way mirror Kírtlaq had given her from Mother, as a tumultuous mixture of shock, fury, guilt, fear, and revulsion rolled through her. It still hardly seemed real to her. As though she had imagined the events that had transpired over the last few hours; like a nightmare that didn’t let go when she woke up swinging and screaming. And if she didn’t know Rhyshladlyn as well as she did, she wouldn’t doubt for a second that it had been a nightmare.
But it hadn’t been.
None of this was a dream she would wake up from. And somehow that only made all of it worse.
Rhyshladlyn hadn’t even hesitated when he’d removed the Eighth Companion’s wing buds. Hadn’t even seemed perturbed that he admitted to doing something no one had ever been able to do in all of history. Hadn’t seemed to care that he had declared war against Mother, someone who by all rights should be considered of higher rank than him.
And he’d done all of that within the space of a few minutes. Just rolled from one act into the other with all the seamlessness of the wind dancing over the dunes. Just pure reaction, smooth and perfect. As though he had planned it all before Nhulynolyn had even gone to get him. But she knew that the Other hadn’t heard the message before he’d left, which meant that Rhyshladlyn had acted on only what little he had heard discussed in those brief moments upon entering the tent. That meant he had seen the variables, the potential outcomes, chose the best course, and ran for it all within the space of a few heartbeats.
Because Kírtlaq had been right, Rhyshladlyn wouldn’t do something that put so many in danger without thinking it through first. Not without a way to protect them if things went sideways before he could correct his course or draw fire away from anyone else. So that meant he had developed a plan before he’d even made a move against the Eighth Companion.
I knew he was intelligent but that is on level far beyond being “unprecedented.”
But he hadn’t waited to hear the full message sent from Lulphé before he’d reacted, before he’d given his response when many would have, even if they had already decided what their response would be. Though if she was being fair it wouldn’t have mattered; what Rhyshladlyn had walked in on was the basic gist of what Kírtlaq had been instructed to say. Never mind that he knew the story behind the bad blood between Mother and Uncle and had to have known something like this would come down from the Eighth Throne. Which meant that he had to have known that Mother would have written Uncle off, that she had known what his response would have been. Yet despite that, Rhyshladlyn had done it anyway.
And while part of her wanted to reprimand the male, she couldn’t. Because if it had been her Companion written off so flippantly? She’d have likely responded much the same as he had. Just with a bit more time taken to think through her response.
But that didn’t make it right. It didn’t excuse him removing the wings of someone, especially a Shiftkin whose entire kin form was based around those wings. If Kírtlaq could even still take on his kin form he’d be rejected by his kind if not killed outright because his main feature, that which marked his place among his people, was gone. Though she doubted such a drastic measure as killing the Shiftkin would be taken against him because he was Oathed to Mother. Even if many would see that bond and give it and the one it was attached to a wide berth to avoid tangling with Mother, it wasn’t a guaranteed protection.
It just made no sense, that Mother had sent her Companion. She just wasn’t that irresponsible.
Especially when she had an Oathed Steward. They were the Court’s record keepers, mediators, and diplomats. Of all the members of a Court, the Steward was the one no one touched with means to harm. Yet Mother hadn’t sent her Steward, she had sent her Companion. It was a perfect trap if that was indeed what it was. One Rhyshladlyn had run straight into because out of every Dhaoine in the Worlds, he seemed to be the only one who didn’t care about butting heads with Mother.
Something Lulphé would have known which lent credence to the suspicion that she hadn’t chosen to send Kírtlaq without knowing he wouldn’t come back without pieces missing and that it had to have been a trap.
“Someone has to go after him,” Relyt’s voice shattered the hush that had fallen in the tent following Rhyshladlyn’s departure.
“And do what?” Bayls asked, her voice sharp as steel. “Give him a hug?” She shook her head. “Poking a polar horse with a stick during its mating season would be safer.”
“Stop him from doin’ somethin’ stupid as fuck,” Nhulynolyn answered, ice blue eyes hooded as he stood staring at the tent’s entrance with his arms crossed, a smirk playing with the corners of his mouth at the Sinner’s sarcasm. “Cuz if he went where I’m pretty certain he did? He’s ’bout to do somethin’ he really oughtta not do.”
“You mean you can’t sense from your connection what he plans?” Thae’a quipped, the accent that laced her words jagged and full of danger. It made her bones ache.
Nhulynolyn glanced at the female and whatever showed in his expression made her stiffen but she didn’t back down.
“He’s had us blocked since we got him back to camp and he woke up.”
The silence that followed that admittance was thunderous.
And while she admired that about him, admired that he was afraid only of losing those he loved and had sworn to protect at all costs, it wasn’t sensible. Eventually it would land him in a situation he couldn’t think his way out of, couldn’t fight his way out of, couldn’t talk his way out of.
Much like this one, you mean?
She pushed the thought aside roughly before pulling her gaze away from those buds, taking in the emptiness of her surroundings for the first time since everyone had cleared out. It was the first time since they had set up camp that she was alone in the command tent aside from when she was laying down for sleep. The quiet of the tent in the absence of the many that usually inhabited it with her was unnerving and made her skin twitch.
But it was a solitude she knew she should take advantage of to call Mother. To let her know what had happened from another perspective. To tell her that Rhyshladlyn hadn’t technically broken any Law when he’d taken those wing buds. To remind her that Grandfather was terrified of the Grey Qishir and with damned good reason. To remind her that Uncle was blood and that by writing him off and sending her own Companion to deliver the decree she had declared war against the one Qishir in the Worlds who was more than capable of taking her throne from her. She should call and try to do damage control before there was no chance of containing any fallout.
Sure she didn’t have to try and salvage the entire situation, but she sort of felt obligated. Because no one else was able to. Everyone was focused on keeping him alive, on keeping him focused, on making sure that when the fighting picked up again they and the army that housed them lived to see another sunrise. And that was good, it was necessary even, but they weren’t trained in court politics, she was. And she was just as deadly neck-deep in politics as she was neck-deep in bodies on the Field.
Never mind that she just couldn’t fathom why Mother had done this. And the only way she’d ever get answers was to call and ask. Not that that meant she’d get them, but the chance was greater than if she stood there staring at the floor just thinking about doing it.
Plus if she didn’t make the call? There was no doubt in her mind that Lulphé would personally show up at the camp and demand an audience with a Qishir who was of the race and caste, who hated formality but adhered to it regardless just in his own way, who was utterly unaffected in the ways one would expect a Dhaoine to be. A Qishir who had nearly spoken the first attend that would have dropped bodies in eons.
And that meeting had only one outcome and it was unpleasant.
Her eyes tracked back to the pile of flesh and blood on the ground and winced.
With Rhyshladlyn it was like he took the rules of reality, laughed at them, and then rewrote them as he just kept on going. No matter what was thrown at him, if it stopped him it was never for long. And with each new hiccup, Rhyshladlyn recovered faster and faster. But she was worried that if Mother decided to respond to his declaration, to his assault on her Companion, that this may be the one thing he wouldn’t recover from quickly enough to stay alive. Because sure he was powerful but he was largely untrained, it was all raw power. Mother had millennia on him in which she had honed her skills to an accuracy rarely seen in the Worlds. And while Rhyshladlyn’s Court was nearly as powerful as the Qishir that led it, Mother had double the amount of soldiers and warriors she had here back in Zhalharaq and wouldn’t hesitate to mobilize them if she thought it necessary. And a Court of thirteen Dhaoine, fourteen if one counted Uncle, was no match for several hundred thousand Dhaoine no matter how powerful those fourteen were.
By the High Ones, she ran a hand over her face in an attempt to force the sight of those buds out of her mind. It didn’t work. What am I supposed to do here?
For the first time in a very long time, she wished she could talk to Uncle, to ask him what she could do, what she should do. To ask him for advice, to bounce ideas off him like she used to when she was a fledgling.
Back when she thought the worst thing that could happen was he would be gone on a mission long enough that he would miss a sabbat celebration.
Back when he taught her how to be a tactician better than the trainer Mother had hired.
Back when she thought she’d only ever need the skills he taught her on the battlefield against enemies whose names she would never know.
Back when things had been so much simpler.
“You think he’s going to follow through on that plan?” Xheshmaryú queried, violet eyes glinting as he tilted his head to the side, bangs shifting to briefly show the scarring that marred the handsomeness of his face before they settled.
“An’ you don’t?” Nhulynolyn countered.
“But who can we send? The usual candidate is otherwise…occupied,” Shadiranamen observed, the sibilancy of her accent thicker than she’d ever heard it.
She watched as Rhyshladlyn’s Others locked gazes and had a heated conversation without actually speaking, each one’s stare intense despite its vacancy.
Before long Nhulynolyn turned to Bayls who jerked under his stare.
“No,” she denied before the Other could even open his mouth, shaking her head and waving her hands back and forth to emphasize it, “you cannot be thinking of sending me.“
“There isn’t anyone else,” Relyt said, voice soft, grey eyes haunted. “He won’t hurt you.”
“I bet you’d’ve said the same twleve hours ago,” Bayls shot back and flinched as soon as the words were out. The color drained from her and Relyt’s faces. “I’m sorry… That was uncalled for.”
“It is fine,” the Soul Healer responded with a smile that barely even touched his lips but his tone was sincere. “You are afraid, as are we all, and one says and does things one does not mean when afraid.”
But Uncle wasn’t here. He was locked behind the walls that surrounded Shiran City, walls that had begun to go grey in patches, walls that were still as impenetrable as they had always been despite their fading glow. Walls that were now all the more imposing because she knew the price of her failure to breach them, to take down the insane un-male that ruled behind them.
Realistically she knew that what Rhyshladlyn had done was wrong but what Mother had done was worse. Yet the one didn’t cancel the other out and neither did the one make the other acceptable. But in the same breath, it did. Or rather, she understood the reasoning behind it, understood why Rhyshladlyn had done what he had, even if it was from the perspective of a niece scared of losing her uncle, the only true father figure she’d ever had, of the daughter caught in the middle like she had always been. And that understanding was what made her hesitate to condemn Rhyshladlyn’s actions as unacceptable. Even if a mere three hours ago she had done the exact opposite.
“Are we just going to ignore the fact that he just doomed us all to die?” she bit out, gaze swivelling around the room until she had looked at them all at least once. “He just ripped out the wings of a Dhaoine! And in the same breath he declared war against the Eighth Qishir!”
“So?” Nhulynolyn raised an eyebrow at her and gods did she want to throttle him.
“You do realize that the army that surrounds us belongs to her?” she hissed, gesturing wildly at the entrance to the tent. “They swore fealty to her. And we are at their heart.”
“And so did you at one point, Lady General Thayne,” Relyt’s voice was as smooth as silk, his power brushing against them all like a cool breeze that made her fight not to shiver as she met his eyes. “Yet look where we are.”
At his words she understood what had called him to be Rhyshladlyn’s Steward and the shiver she had fought off happened anyway.
She had been there the day Rhyshladlyn had gotten the letter from Relyt about Alaïs and the ill-gotten child she carried, had been there when Azriel had thrown his voice to the winds and sang, when she had matched his song with her own, when literally thousands in her army raised their own voices in solidarity with a Qishir that had lost so much, that had risked everything and never thought twice about it. Since that day, she had seen the Qishir in a different light, the entire army had. And even though he had nearly lost complete control, nearly crossed a line he shouldn’t have even come close to she didn’t judge him for it. Because for all that he had come so close to losing it completely, he hadn’t. He had fought it off. And she didn’t doubt that had it been anyone else? Relyt would have been dead.
Plus Relyt had been right: while she may not have said it out loud, may not have even really admitted it to herself, she had sworn fealty to Rhyshladlyn. She, a Qishir in her own right, had acknowledged that she would bend a knee to him and place her sword and her magick and her skills on his side and defend him until her final breath. Had come to the conclusion that if she were to follow anyone it would be him and him alone. Had done so the day he stood between her army and his father’s and gave Anislanzir’s soldiers and warriors a chance to surrender, to leave, to live. He’d known many of those in the Lord King’s army weren’t there willingly and so he had shown them mercy, shown them he was just and fair. Granted, they hadn’t listened, but that wasn’t as important as the fact that he had stood there and taken their insults, taken their abuses, and given them one final warning, one more chance. And when they still hadn’t listened? He’d acted accordingly.
Lulphé had never done that. Not once in any of her memories could she say Mother had done what Rhyshladlyn had. She was fair but only so long as being that way served her purposes.
So now she was caught between a rock and a hard place: the hard place being Mother and the rock being Rhyshladlyn. Mother was old fashioned and unrelenting with it, always had been. But Rhyshladlyn was something all together different. He saw the validity in everything but if a plan or action would pose too great a risk? He would scrap it and move on. But Mother wouldn’t let it go, even if holding on meant she and everyone she cared for perished for it.
There was no winning here. No matter how she looked at it, she would lose something. The only question to answer now was:
What could she afford to lose, what was she willing to lose?
The answer was simple enough even if it was terrifying and part of her rallied against it. But that part wasn’t the adult she had grown into, wasn’t the warrior who had seen too much, wasn’t the Qishir who felt the first tingles of a qahllyn she didn’t think was possible for her to feel. It was the fledgling that had always wanted to speak up against her mother but had never had the courage to do so until now.
So before she could talk herself out of it, she flipped open the cover of the mirror, engaged the spell, and waited for the connection to be established. It didn’t take long before Lulphé’s face showed up, the connection still fuzzy around the edges when she spoke.
“Thayne! I was wondering when I would hear from you. I was beginning to worry.”
No matter how much she had come to despise her mother, no matter how much she judged the female’s actions, hearing her voice always made her feel like she was safe. Even if the feeling didn’t last, even if that safety came with conditions and was ultimately the biggest lie her mother had ever said without actually speaking.
Because Anglëtineans weren’t able to lie in any language but there were loopholes for everything.
“Mother, we need to talk,” she clenched her jaw, not looking at the image of the Eighth Qishir sitting at the head of the table in the War Hall.
Instead she looked at the lumps that had once been wing buds, looked at them and reminded herself that the female on the other end of the call had condemned her own brother to death thrice over. She looked at them to remind herself that the female on the other end of the call had ignored the pleas and screams and agony of Rhyshladlyn and his siblings for decades before she sent Azriel to “get evidence.” She looked at them to remind herself that the female on the other end of the call had then ignored every call, every audience begged for, every visit where Uncle banged on the doors to her chambers. She looked at them to remind herself that the female on the other end of the call was nearly as bad as the Lord King she said she wanted dead.
She looked at them to stiffen her resolve to say what needed to be said, even if her heart clogged her throat and her body broke out in a cold sweat. She knew what she was about to say, what she was about to do, was the best option, was the only logical decision available. But knowing that didn’t make it any easier to act upon.
And may all the gods See and Hear her, she prayed it didn’t get them all killed.
“I would certainly hope so given the condition my Companion was returned to me in,” came the clipped, frigid reply.
And Thayne knew that she wasn’t talking to her mother, she was talking to her Qishir. Though not really her Qishir.
Like you didn’t expect him to return damaged.
She barely kept herself from rolling her eyes.
“That is what I was calling to discuss with you,” she answered.
“Oh? Is this a call to inform me you have Rhyshladlyn in custody and will be delivering him to me?”
She blinked slowly but didn’t acknowledge what the other female had said beyond that. This will be fun. I can feel it.
“I will be speaking with those gathered here under my command. I will inform them of what Anislanzir said to you, of your response, and I will offer them the chance to choose whether to return to your side in Zhalharaq or remain here at mine,” she took a deep breath and met the crimson eyes that were an exact mirror of her own. “You crossed a line that I cannot defend, that I cannot accept. As such, this is my response and I am merely conducting this call as a courtesy from one Qishir to another.”
Lulphé’s expression darkened, eyes slowly narrowing at her but she stood her ground. She didn’t look away.
If she could look at Rhyshladlyn when he was war-glazed, if she could stand in his presence when his death attend reached out across leagues even if it was never actually spoken, then she could face down Mother without showing how terrified she actually felt.
“You’re taking my army from me,” she stated flatly.
“I am offering them the option to return to your side or remain here with me. Those that remain here with me will denounce you as their Qishir,” she answered smoothly, wondering how she was able to portray that she was so calm when all she wanted to do was vomit. Violently.
“Are you denouncing me?” Lulphé asked.
“As my Mother?” she countered.
Lulphé nodded, a flash of fear, of grief, darting across her face before it was gone. But she felt not a single ounce of sympathy for the female. Not anymore. When did I stop caring for her as my mother?
“No,” she murmured, taking another deep breath, a sick sort of pleasure twisting her gut knowing she was about to wipe the look of relief off her face. “I’m denouncing you as my Qishir.”
Lulphé actually gasped and dropped her mirror with a loud clatter, the connection warbling as it threatened to give out. She fought to keep the smirk off her face as she heard Eiod asking after the Qishir’s health and the snapped, “I am well enough, Eiod.” When Lulphé had collected herself and picked the mirror back up, she met the female’s stony gaze with a nonchalance she did not feel but was proud of herself for faking well enough that Mother believed it.
“And who will you follow now, my beloved daughter?”
“We both know who I follow,” she retorted.
“You know that by following him, you are declaring war against me, your blood? He is out of control, untrained, and has brought disaster upon any who stand, or stood, at his side. Yet you are truly willing to back his declaration of war to me? To take the side of someone who took another Dhaoine’s wings? Thayne, think about this. Be reasonable.”
She snarled viciously, unable to control the response before it was out.
“Don’t fucking speak to me as though I am Xitlali,” she bit out. “I have thought about this and my response is far more reasonable than you deserve. You declared war the second you condemned Uncle to death thrice over, Mother,” she allowed a wicked grin to twist her mouth at the way Lulphé grimaced. “After all he’s done for you? After all he’s let you do to him? One would think you’d have more honor than this.”
“How dare you question my honor!” Lulphé growled, eyes glinting as her power rose to the surface.
But she wasn’t afraid. For the first time when her mother’s torque lit up and her eyes glowed, she wasn’t afraid. Is this what freedom, true freedom feels like?
“I dare because the last person who did, you killed his wife and son when afforded the perfect excuse to do so!”
“Be very careful what you say to me, Thayne. You may denounce me as your Qishir but I still sit on the throne of the Worlds.”
She laughed derisively. “Mmm, but you don’t rule shit do you?” she quipped.
“I already covered that, Lulphé. I dare because every single Dhaoine who has before me has perished for it, all except Uncle, though not for lack of trying on your part. At least you’re tenacious,” she interrupted, her heart thundering in her ears. “So I dare you to try and kill me, you pompous, power-drunk bitch. I guarantee you will fail.”
She snapped the mirror closed before Lulphé could collect herself and respond. With a shaky sigh she stumbled over to the map table and dropped the mirror onto it before she braced her palms on either side of that mirror, unable to pull her gaze from it. Unable to believe she had actually she done that. She tried not to hyperventilate. I went too far. We’re going to all be killed and it’ll be my fault. Fuck.
“That was fuckin’ glorious but you really shouldn’t have done it.”
Her head snapped up to find Rhyshladlyn standing just inside the tent, looking centuries older than he had only a few hours ago, the last streaks of light from the setting sun haloing around him, making his auburn hair look like fire and his eyes look like jewels. From the shell-shocked yet proud look on his face she didn’t have to ask how much he had heard. The answer was clear enough. He’d heard all of it.
“I didn’t have a choice,” she replied with a shrug. Her voice sounded far calmer than they both knew she felt, than she actually was. “And it was worth it to see the look on her face…even if we’re going all be killed now for my actions.”
“She is going to disown you for certain, though if she tries to kill any of us she’ll have to get through me first,” Rhyshladlyn stepped further into the tent, one hand leaving his pocket to snap his fingers at the wing buds on the ground, a lick of coldfire manifesting and reducing them to ash in seconds. “But regardless of that, I’m not worth losing your family over, Thayne, let alone risking your life.”
“I disagree with you there,” she replied and chuckled when Rhyshladlyn frowned at her. “And even if you weren’t? Uncle is and this is the third time she’s condemned him to die. Once was too many. I won’t stand for it anymore.”
“Why me, though? Why now?” he stepped up to the other side of the table and this close she could see every one of what had to be thousands of scars that marred his body, the only unblemished areas were where his god-Marks rested.
It made her feel sick to her stomach. But before she could say anything he spoke again.
“Why denounce her and follow me? I nearly killed my Steward half a day ago, and you had really strong opinions of me for it yet now you’ve changed your mind? Now you’re backing my play against your mother?” He tilted his head to the side much like a snakat does when its prey is particularly confusing. “You baffle me, General.”
“A wise male once told me to stand up for what is right and just, even if — especially if — doing so would put me in danger–” she began.
“–because if you don’t who is to say anyone will,” Rhyshladlyn finished with a smile that lit his eyes and brought one to her own face unbidden.
It was in that moment that she saw what had drawn Uncle to the Qishir. It was in that moment that she understood why she had sworn fealty to him without ever saying the words out loud, without even really realizing it until she found herself understanding and defending his assault of the the Eighth Companion.
She followed him because he made her feel hope for the first time in centuries.
For all that he was raw power and sometimes out of control, for all that he was young and untrained, he had an intelligence, a compassion, and a wisdom to him that called to anyone and everyone around him. He made one feel safe just being near him. And that safety gave one hope.
Perhaps it was dangerous having hope in someone like him, but she figured it was worth it.
It had to be.