“You did what?”
He had to give it to the Lord Queen, for however dainty she appeared to be, it was in those moments when her voice sliced through the air quick as a lightning strike and cut deeper than Sülknír steel that she reminded them all why the Sinner Demon race had happily accepted another Ka’ahne sitting the throne of their people. Even if it was a female, even if it was the only “surviving” member of the royal line. Because out of all the possible Sinner candidates, she was the only one that had stood unchallenged for the throne.
It was in the moments when her clear blue eyes hardened, the sharply beautiful face that housed them going carefully blank, shoulders tensing as her nails tap-tapped on the arm of her throne, that it was impossible to forget she was just as much a warrior as her brothers. That she may not be known for any formidable act or particular strength or power, but she was still fearsome. She still deserved, commanded, earned respect. And it was that commanding aura she had, which reminded him so much of his beloved before things had gotten so bad so quickly, that had helped him make the decision to play both sides. It was her refusal to allow anyone to speak down to her, even those of greater station and power, that had made him toss his bets onto her end of the gaming table, all in to win.
For he had seen what her younger brother could do and had heard of the feats her twin had been credited with. And after seeing how Shiran City had turned into a cesspool of disease and fear and hatred under the watchful eye of her sire? And that wasn’t even touching on what her mother had been able to do or had done, for that matter, before Rhyshladlyn had ended her life just like he had ended Lulphé’s. So it only stood to reason that she was just as capable as the rest of her kin.
Even if I’m not quite sure whether to believe the rumors that she had died during Rhyshladlyn’s first raid into Shiran City to get her and Relyt Greymend out and been saved by an Otherborn that wasn’t her own.
He turned his attention back to the Cymerianthrope that had strode in with an Oiki of all the gods be damned things, full of a bravado that wasn’t entirely faked, all hard lines and keen eyes. This male was clearly a warrior and one that had a knack for strategies, especially finding ones that others missed. It was clear in the way he stood so confidently before them all. It was clear in the way his eyes never shifted but tracked every single movement any of them made. It was clear in the way he had walked in as though he owned them all with his pet at his heels and proudly announced that he had done the second stupidest thing a Dhaoine could do during this war. And that made him distrust the Cymerian even less.
And even if he hadn’t done such a stupid thing, Eiod wouldn’t have trusted the male solely because Cymerians had the uncanny ability to take the shape of anyone and anything. For all that the Greywalkers were feared for their powers and the Dreamweavers for their abilities to manipulate reality, the one race the Worlds should have attempted to eradicate was the Cymerian subrace of the Thropes. Because the face one met when encountering a Cymerianthrope could very well be one they stole and wore for the occasion. They were walking liars just by virtue of existing and it unnerved him.
Many Dhaoine had a true face, the terror that lived beneath their humanoid skin, the truth that paid homage to the dark and terrible things they hailed from all the way back to the Beginning when the gods still roamed the Worlds alongside Their children. But Cymerianthropes were different. True faces to them were the faces that they were born with. They didn’t have a Beginning true face because what was the point when they could mimic any face they saw? When the face the Worlds only ever saw was the one they wanted the Worlds to see?
He fought back a shudder. Dislike was too small of a word for how he felt about Cymerians. By the Old Ones, hatred wasn’t even strong enough. It was something he and his beloved had agreed upon, albeit for vastly different reasons.
“I sent my Oiki pack to the Steward Corps’ camp where it was spread along the southern border of the Forest of Dreams and Darkness in Txiwteb World, my Lord Queen,” the Cymerian repeated in a measured tone, eyes the color of pure emeralds filled with a glint that made Eiod’s skin tighten along his spine. When the Cymerian turned and looked across them all, Eiod saw there was starburst of blue around his left pupil and he made a mental note to remember what this face looked like because no Dhaoine he knew of outside the Anglë race had eyes toned quite like that. I wonder if this is his true face? “I had heard that High General Hujiel had been unsuccessful in acquiring the wayward maeshir so I thought I would send something that presented an actual challenge.”
“Yet you bring back a damaged Oiki and not that worthless male’s head on a platter,” the High General hissed. Xitlali reached over and laid a hand on the High General’s thigh.
“You got what you needed from that excursion, High General, let not some twit of a Cymie make you think elsewise,” Xitlali murmured just loud enough for Hujiel and Eiod to hear. It took everything in him for Eiod to keep his face in its customary blank expression and not roll his eyes.
But the High General obviously didn’t care for what Xitlali’s opinion was. Especially if it was regarding handling an insult dealt by one of the lesser races.
“Oh, I succeeded in my endeavor, High General, no doubt is to be cast on that,” came the smirking reply and even Eiod wanted to throttle him. So much so that the muscles in the backs of his hands twitched with the urge.
“You know nothing of what I meant to accomplish, Cymie scum!” Hujiel barked, and Eiod actually raised an eyebrow at em. It was one thing to whisper a slur so only trusted individuals heard it. It was another thing entirely to shout it in a room filled with your equals and superiors. “So I suggest that you shut your worthless mouth before I shut it for you.”
The Cymerian held up his hands and a smile twisted his lips as he effected a shudder that Eiod didn’t buy for a second. “I’m quaking in my boots, Hujiel. Just quaking.”
The beauty of the Anglëtinean’s native language twisted around the curse ey threw at the Cymerian as ey rose from eir chair with the intention to no doubt make good on eir word.
“Enough, Hujiel. Act your rank or get out,” Alaïs’ voice slithered out and snapped, making more than half of those in the meeting hall jump. He watched as the Lord Queen stood up and approached the Cymerian, body all feminine grace but he could see where it gave way to the corded muscle of a trained and seasoned warrior. She had been nearly seven hundred namedays when the war had broken out, now she was well over a thousand and with that age had come a knowledge he doubted this Cymerian had. I am glad that I technically am fighting on your side, regardless of what throne you sit. “Where did you get Oiki and who authorized you breaking the Battle Lull Agreement to send them into General Greymend’s camp?”
Her voice was full of a danger he recognized and fought not to react to. It was the same danger he’d heard in Rhyshladlyn’s voice when the Grey Qishir had strode into the Great Hall of the Eighth Palace. It was the same danger he’d heard in the Cymerian slaver’s voice when ey sought to buy him before Lulphé had saved him. It was the same danger he’d heard woven around every single word of the Song of War and Love that Rhyshladlyn sang when he stepped onto a Field.
And judging by the way the Cymerian standing just inside the doors with an Oiki leaning against him, one foreleg severed at the elbow joint, eyes only half-focused, just continued to smile? He either didn’t hear that danger or did and just didn’t give a shit.
“I own them, I am their master,” he answered, shrugging one shoulder, seeming to become larger despite his short stature, despite being literally the shortest Dhaoine in the hall at that moment. It made Eiod sharpen his focus all the more. “No one authorized me to do anything, my Lord Queen. And the Agreement is a mutually accepted verbal one. It is not binding and even if it were, Hujiel over there broke it when he strode into the camp and drew blood on Companion Azriel when he attacked him. If anything, I was merely making good on an opportunity that presented itself.”
He didn’t have to see her face to know the look that crossed it at those words. She might not be a Qishir like her younger brother, she may not be a General like her lover, but by the gods she was still formidable and this dishonorable Cymerian had best learn that quickly before he got himself killed. Or worse, dragged them all down with him.
Because while the rumors that she had been brought back by Otherborn magick that day in the Palace of Shiran City were never confirmed, he did have confirmation that she was never the same. And it wasn’t because for the briefest of moments she had stood ankle deep in the River waiting to cross to the After. Her magick was different, her signature just slightly off, and with that rebirth of sorts had come a change that no one could pinpoint but everyone could sense.
“If you act under my flag and the flag of my allies, Iköl Aodh, you will get authorization before you make a move on anyone, least of all Rhyshladlyn,” Alaïs spoke slowly, carefully enunciating each word as she did so. “And you will do this because my brother is not known for taking the shit of others lying down. However powerful you think you are? Double it and then apply that to Rhyshladlyn. He sank an entire City without any time to prepare, without anything more than his own magick and his own knowledge. And he did that at ninety-one namedays. Imagine what he could do at nearly half of six hundred?”
She turned and faced the table where Eiod stood behind Xitlali, slid her gaze across High General Hujiel, Anglë High Elders Axiel and Shigael of House Phajeen, Queen Abshiru of the Ancients, Eighth Companion Kírtlaq, Eighth Steward Yuran, and Eighth Warrior Uveis. None of them met her eyes for long except for him but he held her gaze for just long enough for hers to narrow imperceptibly before he dropped his gaze respectfully. It was the most he was willing to do to show he wasn’t as much of Xitlali’s puppet as his beloved’s former Triad seemed to think he was, as the rest of the Worlds no doubt believed he was.
He hadn’t reached out to the Lord Queen yet, but with the appearance of this Cymerian and his apparent mastery of an Oiki pack? Eiod figured he was long overdue.
“This is the only time any of you will get off with a warning if you misstep where my brother is concerned,” she turned to face Iköl again. “Rhyshladlyn for all that he has made some mistakes, for all that he has hurt millions of people and killed millions more, is someone you will not win against, no matter how much you think the contrary. And if he is invited into this City to take me and those who sit at this table down like he did Qishir Lulphé because any of you is too incompetent to follow orders properly? If I survive the encounter be rest assured you will regret the day your birth givers didn’t swallow you instead of catching you in their wombs.”
“If you know him so damned well, Lord Queen,” Iköl quipped and Eiod closed his eyes oh youngling don’t be so stupid as that he felt the energy of those gathered change as not just Xitlali tensed but they all did, “then why are we four hundred and fifty years into a war you should have been able to end shortly after it began?”
Boy, are you stupid or just suicidal?
“When you encounter my brother face to face, when you have attempted to strike him down and fail? Come back to me and ask that question again,” Alaïs returned before she turned away to sit back down on her throne, the short wave of her hand in Iköl’s direction a clear dismissal.
Eiod narrowed his eyes at the Cymerian whose jaw clenched just before his face went blank and the half-focused eyes of the Oiki cleared up. He watched as Iköl’s plump lips moved silently, eyes darkening as he stared hard at the Lord Queen’s back. Just as the Oiki shifted, Eiod was moving before he’d even made the conscious decision to do so.
“Alaïs!” he shouted as he vaulted the table with a powerful beat of his wings as they burst from his back, pulling his steel just in time to catch it across the Oiki’s horns before it had taken more than three steps towards Alaïs.
Shouting erupted around him as guards from either side of the doorway reacted and seized Iköl as Xitlali and the rest erected Shields around Alaïs. But he ignored them all because in the cacophony created by their movements and yelling, the Oiki spoke to him, spoke words that would have been heard by everyone else had they been quiet enough for its voice to properly carry.
“You must get through to the Anointed One.”
“Who?” he spluttered back at it, completely caught off guard.
“The Coward King is not unworthy. Make sure all the Worlds know this…” it paused and in a move he never saw until it was completed, grabbed his sword arm and moved it so that the blade pierced its scaleless chest. “…the Coward King is on the Hunt to bring death to all who oppose him. And he will deliver.”
“Who is this Coward King and the Anointed One? I do not understand.”
“Warn the Coward King that while he brings death, something far worse stalks him. Please, Eiod nóh Akkensahn, you must make sure he knows.”
Eiod stared until the light in the creature’s eyes faded, until it went limp and slid off his sword and to the stone floor of the meeting hall. Stared until Xitlali was touching his arm and calling his name but her voice sounded muffled like he was in water. Stared until he realized that no one else had heard what the beast had spoken to him.
And when that realization clicked in, on its heels followed another:
The Oiki had spoken in the mixture of Sinxhët and Anglë’lylel that his mother had used when he was a fledgling before the slavers had come. No one knew that, not even Lulphé. It had been their own language, they had made it together. And once he had been taken away, he had never spoken it again when others could potentially overhear it. He had told no one of it.
So how did this creature know something no one else who was alive knew?
It’s not possible.