Ilsa and Blue are on a mission to rescue the Keeper of Tenlyres from the onset of war. And war is near.
Following a skirmish at a manor close to the Ninth Lyre, Ilsa and Blue learned of the Red Lector and the nation of Ayoch’s agenda of conquest from Lord Palend.
They have decided to ride to the nearby fort where Red Lector has camped, in an attempt to learn more about his mission and how it may conflict with their own.
At dusk, the illusory veils around Fort Sardul parted and Ilsa and the others approached. Her weeping-haired strider, Hailek, covered the cooling ground without complaint. Ilsa, Palend, Blue, and Raheb circled the fort toward the gates.
The walls were higher than those of Palend’s Manor, surmounted by parapets and crenelations. Fort Sardul’s stones were gray granite streaked, lined and cracked and streaked with pink veins that reminded Ilsa of blood vessels.
Iron gates bore the same circular emblem as Dal’s flag wrought into their center. Double doors opened, separating the sigil’s two sides. Ilsa followed Lord Palend, who rode a dark-haired great strider of his own. They passed through the open doors and into the courtyard of the fort.
Designed like an ancient castle, Fort Sardul was one of the oldest forts on the whole plateau. However, the people who had built it seemed to have known as little about Tenlyres as Ilsa did in the present. The fortress walls had withstood over eight centuries of weather as well as countless wars. The same could not be said for the nation that hard ordered it constructed. Ancient conquerers from what was now Ayoch had occupied the central plateau, but where nomads still roamed the remains of their settlements were difficult to find.
Oh, the settlers had fought wars to hold the land, just as all nations did. Just as all nations, they eventually failed. Ilsa looked up at the central citadel of Fort Sardul, six stories high and built of material far newer than the walls. The citadel had to be tall, to get the best view of the land. During the latest war with Chogrum, the fort’s commander had leveled the original citadel in an attempt to destroy his attackers after the enemy breached the inner gates.
Cracks and scars marked unfeeling walls by the gateway where the fighting had been the fiercest during the most recent siege.
Ilsa halted her steed alongside Lord Palend, just inside the courtyard. The broad space was full of tents and small striders. The banner of Ayoch flew in the center of the Red Lector’s camp. Blue caught up with Ilsa, closely followed by Raheb Suel, the manservant who acted as Palend’s bodyguard. From the open doors of the citadel came a party of soldiers in the pale blue cloth and black armor-plated uniforms of the Dalite garrison.
A sturdy woman with a lined face and thick gray hair held up a hand and halted the group’s advance on the gateway. Her gaze moved over the four striders and the people on their back. Ilsa thought she could see the woman’s eyes linger on Blue, but eventually, she shifted toward Lord Palend.
“Chakeb Palend. Good to see you, old friend.”
“Commander Sevett.” Palend bowed in his saddle. “I have brought my friends—” He motioned with one hand to Ilsa and Blue. “—To meet the Red Lector.”
Commander Sevett raised her eyebrow. “Are you sure you want to go down that road? Lector Haram may not be happy to see you.”
“And I won’t likely be happy to see him. But I need to see him, commander, as do my friends.”
The commander turned to Blue, then glanced at Ilsa’s red staff, sticking out sideways from her saddle. “Are you a priestess of Hathani?”
“I am,” said Ilsa. “My name is Ilsa Barrett.”
“And you.” Sevett nodded toward Blue. “What’s your name?”
“Call me Blue.”
“Blue?” Sevett wrinkled her nose. “That’s your name?”
“Same today as it will be tomorrow.” Blue smiled. “I’m at your service.”
“She’s from Chogrum.” Sevett scowled. “How do you know this one, Chakeb?”
Palend raised his eyebrows. “Commander, I have friends from all over the world. I assure you, the Red Lector’s plans are safe with Blue.”
Sevett motioned to her escort. “You will all be under guard until you leave the fort.”
Ilsa nodded but didn’t like the implication, even if they were just scouting. Palend waved a hand. “Of course. Any level of security you like, commander.”
They dismounted their striders. Ilsa took her staff with her. She patted Hailek’s flank once she dropped to the ground. Flanked by guards, they walked toward the citadel. The Red Lector’s encamped forces surrounded them. Clusters of troops surrounded small fires.
Up close the people of Ayoch could have been Dalites. In the gathering gloom, they could also have been monsters. Ilsa knew all soldiers had that ability. All people contended with sides both good and evil.
Even so, Ayoch’s imperialism made these soldiers, sheltering from the cold breeze, tending fires, cooking food, the enemies of Unification. The monarchs of Ayoch seemed to love their new lands more than their subjects. Ilsa set her jaw as she walked past fire pits where most of the soldiers didn’t even seem to notice her and Blue and the people around them. Their group moves slowly, with Palend and Sevett in the lead, flanked by Dalite guards.
She had never been in a war this personal before, a war like the one that had destroyed her family.
They reached the fire pit closest to the center-most tent, a tent that bore the unmistakable insignia of Red Lector’s rank and a brightly illuminated script in High Ayochian on a pole by the entrance. Two guards, both big men with rifles propped to their shoulders, stood beside the banner pole. One of them, a whole head taller than the other, raised a gloved hand in motion to halt Sevett.
“Commander.” The giant guard’s gaze shifted to Ilsa, then to Blue. “Who are your guests?”
“Two women in the service of Lord Chakeb Palend,” said Sevett. “And they have my trust.”
This meeting had become so simple, with Palend’s help. Too simple.
“Names?” asked the guard. His eyes moved back toward Ilsa. Dark brows bent inward.
“Ilsa Barrett,” said Ilsa.
“And I’m called Blue.” She smirked. “I think your Lector will want to meet us. He knows Lord Palend already.”
The guard nodded to Blue. “I recognized him, myself, Chogrumian.”
Blue gave an unhappy hiss. “Don’t judge me by where I was born.”
“Regrettably, that is part of my task.” The guard wiped a glove across his sweaty forehead, visible through the raised toothy visor of a full helmet. “I am a Lectoral Protector.”
“You got a name, protector?” Blue asked.
The other guard grunted and clenched a fist tight.
“Ozleji Sammhar.” The guard’s eye glinted in the firelight. He clapped the other guard on the shoulder. “Leave it.” The huge man motioned to the tent. “You may enter, but first, leave your weapons here.”
Raheb handed over his pistol, Blue the knives she kept at her belt and in her boot. They were all allowed past the guards and into the tent. Ilsa moved to follow them. Ozleji Sammhar’s heavy glove fell onto her shoulder. She looked up in surprise. Her gaze met his dark eyes and her breath caught.
His lip curled. “Your weapons, Barrett?”
She scowled at him, staff clenched in one hand. “I’m not carrying any weapons.”
“Not on the outside. But you are a weapon bond, aren’t you priestess?”
Ilsa pulled away from his hand. “How did you guess?”
He let her step back from him without complaint. “Each style of bond is noticeable to a tutored nose. I’m surprised you didn’t notice mine. From your presence, I think we have the same form of bond.”
Her glare locked on his smile. “What are you talking about?” But even as she spoke she began to smell the powder-dust aura of her father emanating from him. As unmistakable as the Red Lector’s standard, the aura of weapons bonded to human spirit by fire.
His grin widened. “I never thought I would have the chance to meet another like me, someone trained by Black Powder.”
Her eyes widened. “Black Powder?”
“My teacher.” Ozleji Sammhar nodded, then pulled off one glove. “He taught me how to bond weapons to my spirit with fire.” A pale crescent brand became clearly visible on the man’s palm. “But I can tell he taught you more.”
Ilsa stared at him. “He didn’t teach me much.”
“Then why did you seek him out?”
“I never sought out that man.” She made one hand into a fist. She felt her brand begin to burn anew.
“Pardon me for not believing that,” said Ozleji. “Only he has mastered the technique of bonding weapons without the need of a shrine to keep the original. Only he teaches how to bind firearms to the very spirit of a human.”
“I didn’t say I’d never met him.” Ilsa felt her lips pull back into a savage snarl. “He is my father.” She clenched her fists and produced both pistols, but held the empty weapons at her sides.”Do not mention him again. And don’t let those go untouched for over a minute unless you want them to return to me.” She handed the empty firearms to the guards, followed by the shotgun and submachine gun she produced next. She did not trust them with all her weapons, but she saw no other choice. “Now, let me through.”
“With pleasure.” Ozleji Sammhar bowed to her. “An honor to meet you, as well.” He motioned her to follow the others into the tent. She walked after them, shaking in anger with every step.
Inside the Red Lector’s command tent, a ring of halfway shuttered lamps cast their light onto a central table. Shadows crept from metallic markers indicating locations on the flat steppe, stuck into the table’s ports at the appropriate places. Small lights flickered up the sides of the marker at the center, one of ten shaped like tiny versions of the Ten Lyres.
Two men looked up from the table as Ilsa stepped into the tent. Lord Palend and his bodyguard Raheb Suel stood on one side of Blue just within the entrance. Ilsa stopped on the other side of her friend and looked at the two men by the table. A familiar smell of cured meat wafted from the table.
The tall man with long white hair and thickly woven red scarf folded his arms and looked at Ilsa. Despite his faded hair and creased skin, he did not look as old as Lord Palend, but he was probably past sixty. Ilsa remembered him from her spying in Korlom and everything added up. He must be the Red Lector.
The man on the other side of the table was shorter than Ilsa, and a few years younger than the Red Lector, but still well into middle age judging by the strands of silver in his red hair. He had a heavy paunch but was not so flabby as to lose his facial features completely to the fat in his cheeks. Beady brown eyes shifted from the Red Lector to Ilsa.
“Is this all of them?” the heavy little man asked.
The guard from outside, Ozleji Sammhar, spoke from behind Ilsa. “Yes, General.”
She grimaced. Somehow she had missed him following her inside. Ilsa planted the end of her staff on the carpet that made the bottom of the tent. “My name is Ilsa Barrett.”
“The priestess who ran from us at Korlom. A pleasure.” The Red Lector smirked. He spoke Yrian without any noticeable accent, which alone was fairly normal for an Ayochian with a strong education. “It suits you to meet us here, but not there?”
Blue’s gaze flicked toward Ilsa. She looked like she wanted to speak up, but Ilsa knew all too well that Blue was already in a tough enough position. Dal had been allied with Ayoch for years out of necessity, but Chogrum had never been on good terms with the western monarchy.
Ilsa dipped her head to the Red Lector. “Your eminence,” she said using the formal Yrian word for a high priest or priestess. “I regretted not meeting you in Korlom, but my partner and I could not be sure of your understanding, given the situation with Chogrum.”
“Ah yes, the brewing of war.” The Red Lector’s smirk did not slip but became even more smug. “A frightening thing for many to see, but not you, I’d wager. You two have experience in these matters.” He nodded to Ilsa, and then to Blue. “My sons tell me you shot down a magus round. Quite impressive.”
Ilsa snorted. “It seemed necessary. Your scouts did not appear willing to let us go.”
The short general glared at Ilsa. His Yrian was rougher, intermingled with harsh-sounding signs of his Ayochian origins. “What makes you think the Lector will let either of you go now? You may be Dalite originally, but we know your true nature now, priestess.”
A cold stab of fear crept into Ilsa’s chest. She did not let it spread out to become visible. She raised her eyebrows. “I am not proud of my work in Morhoi. That is one reason I returned to Yr.”
“Interesting.” The Red Lector steepled his long fingers. “I do have to wonder why a priestess from a prestigious Dalite Clerical Garden found the need to become a mercenary in the east, let alone consort with a Chogrumian Mind Eater.”
Blue closed her eyes, arms folded. A short series of thoughts lashed from Blue and snapped into Ilsa’s mind. They’ve done their research. What now?
Ilsa frowned at the Red Lector. “How did you contact Saint Banyeen’s?”
His smug smiled looked so broad as to be painful. He picked up a small device that looked like a small tablet with a speaker attached. “Ayoch does not live in the past, priestess. I have been in contact with my forces in Dal since the day we left the city. It was not difficult to get in touch with High Priestess Uopemm using the pile networks. She told me you were quite a troublemaker but did not elaborate.”
“I have not often been on good terms with the High Priestess.” Ilsa seethed with frustration but tried to keep the feeling internal. She had not realized the Ayochians had mobile pile access so far across the plateau. If she had known she might not have given the scouts her real name when she first met them in Korlom. The habits of both a priestess and mercenary, both careers reliant on reputation, had betrayed her.
The Red Lector’s smile finally slipped a little. “No need to be upset. General Kanan is a bit overzealous. I see no reason not to let you go your own way.”
“But they spied on us!” Spittle flew from the general’s lips. He turned to the Lector. “Eminence, please reconsider.”
“I have a deal to offer you and your partner.” The Red Lector’s expression returned to full leer. He motioned to the board. “The forces of an Oshomi tribe have been spotted just east of here, by the Ninth Lyre. We are to engage them in the morning if they stand in our way and would appreciate your assistance if we encounter them.”
“You want us to fight?” Blue started.
“You are mercenaries, are you not?” The Red Lector did not even look at Blue. His gaze remained on Ilsa. “One battle in my service, then I will pay you and you may go on your way.”
Ilsa took a deep breath and tried to slow her heart rate. His offer would give them leeway to get away if they actually fought the nest day and he kept his word. She had no illusions that between his war magi and his troops they would not get away from the fort tonight if the Red Lector did not allow it.
Lord Palend thumped his black staff on the carpet. It hit with a dull sound and left a dent in the ground beneath. Ilsa glanced at him, a bit surprised the old man could muster enough strength for that. He glared at the Red Lector. “I will not allow this coercion, Goji.”
“Goji?” The Red Lector’s nostrils flared. “You would do well to watch your tongue when choosing to address me, Palend.”
General Kanan took a step toward Palend and raised a hand, palm open. He swung his arm. Raheb caught his slap before it could strike the old lord. “Manners, general,” he said. “My master is too old for you to strike him.”
The general’s face reddened. He pulled his hand way. “Why, you!” he reached for the pistol at his belt.
Ilsa’s world dilated as the man seized the grip of his pistol. He began to raise the weapon, a worn and common nine millimeter with an extended magazine jutting from the base of the grip. An inch out of the belt, Ilsa tensed to leap at him. She would not let the man kill for such a stupid reason.
“Kanan, stop.” The Red Lector shrugged his shoulders. “The servant has the right of it, no matter how rude Palend has been by addressing me by my given name.”
Kanan slammed the pistol back into its holster and glared at Raheb. He turned so his face fell into shadows, but Ilsa could tell he had turned crimson in complexion. Red. Too much red.
She relaxed her stance and then turned to the Red Lector. “I think your terms are almost fair.”
“Almost?” The Lector’s smile returned, but nowhere near as broad as before. Compared to his prior expression he looked thoughtful. “What can we do to even terms?”
“Tell me,” Ilsa said. “Why are you taking this army to the central lyre? Answer that and you will have us for one battle, free of charge.”
The Red Lector raised on eyebrow. “Very well. We have a mission to capture the Keeper of Tenlyres who lives among the Oshomi.”
Ilsa’s heart skipped a beat. A chill ran down her spine and she stiffened. Ozleji Sammhar laughed.
“You appear to have struck a nerve, your eminence.”
Blue turned to Ilsa, eyes wider than Ilsa ever wanted to see. Her friend’s thoughts were muddled as they mingled with Ilsa’s own.
He knows too much.
Does he know our mission?
Ilsa took a deep breath. “Thank you, your Eminence.” She dipped her head to the Red Lector. “We will ride with you to the Ninth Lyre.”
Palend returned to the manor that night. Ilsa and Blue set up at the edge of the Red Lector’s troops and rested until morning. Then, restless in the early light, they rode out of Fort Sardul with the scouts and the Lector’s twin sons.
Kaij took the lead on his runner but kept his pace slower than the great cat-hybrid could go at its quickest. Ilsa and Blue rode just behind him, but ahead of the rest of the scouts.
Ever since Sammmhar, the Lectoral Protector, had returned Ilsa’s weapons and she had reabsorbed them, the brands had seemed to itch. That made one reason she had not slept easy, but not the main one. She scowled at the faint rays or rising sun, filtering through a layer of pale gray clouds. The Red Lector really had known too much the previous evening.
A few kilometers distant, the silhouette of the Ninth Lyre loomed over the land, looking much like the Westernmost Lyre by Korlom. Ilsa wondered where Lemuel and his sister, and even the grave robber, Ferdinand, were now. She offered a silent prayer to Hathani to keep them. The prayer felt redundant when left unspoken.
The Three deities kept everyone, in one form or another.
Through the hazy morning sky the glistening form of a locust cruised over the plateau, several kilometers overhead. The hybrid sky creature looked nothing like a bird, bearing more resemblance to an immense sting ray Ilsa remembered from books about the southern seas, but with thousands of small flight tubes blossoming in clusters from the center of its back. Those tubes inflated with lighter than air gas to carry the creature as high as the clouds. A passenger compartment hung beneath the creature and swayed on its tethers as the beast banked in flight.
Ilsa and Blue had taken a Locust from Morhoi to Ayoch on their way to Dal. The creatures could only land in water, and such pools were not seen in Dal because of the prohibitive cost. She did not like that form of travel, but she would take it compared to riding with possible enemies close on every side.
Kaij looked over his shoulder at her. “You two gave us the slip quite well, leaving Korlom.”
Ilsa shrugged, trying to ignore Kaij’s lingering eyes. “Doesn’t matter much now, does it?”
“We’re all riding together for the moment,” said Blue. “That much is a fact.”
“You understand that our Eminent Father has been quite generous to both of you.”
“Oh, yeah. Really generous. He only surrounded us with thugs.” Blue laughed with false mirth. “I tell you, he truly burdened us with options last night.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” said Kaij. “But one option is one more than the Chogrumian forces will get from us when we meet them.”
Ilsa raised her eyebrows. “You’re confident.”
“Of course, I am.” He snorted, then turned to face forward in his saddle. He tilted to one side and wheeled one arm in the air. Most of the other scouts spurred their runners and caught up with Ilsa and Blue. Only Kaij’s brother, Yunn, and one other of the dozen riders hung back.
Blue glanced at Ilsa. The thought she sent her asked if she knew what they were doing. Ilsa shrugged. She didn’t know much about Ayochian military signaling, having spent most of her mercenary career east of the opposite side of Yr.
She looked back to the skinnier but all too similar Haram brother, Yunn, and the scout riding beside him, whose form was bundled up so heavily it could have belonged to anybody, man or woman. A kilometer behind the scouts, the Ayochian column advanced. Yunn’s yellow hair trailed in a braid from the back of his tall hat. He wore a pair of black gloves, which he kept on the reins of his runner. The expression on his handsome face was uneasy, and his eyes appeared unfocused.
He didn’t seem to see anyone else in the party, not his brother, not his comrades, and certainly not Ilsa nor Blue.
Blue frowned at Ilsa. “He seems to have detected my sending to you. He could be looking for someone to suppress.”
“Right,” said Ilsa. “He’s a war magus.”
“An ice magus,” said a hiss of a voice from behind them. “I am an ice magus.”
Ilsa glanced back at Yunn.
He urged his runner to catch up with Ilsa and Blue, a grimace on his face. “My powers are good for more than war.”
“That’s good to know.”
Blue shrugged her shoulders. “All magic has more than one application. In in Morhoi people bond to their favorite tools, after all.”
Yunn scowled at her. “And the ability to eat others’ thoughts is far worse than even freezing the blood in someone’s veins.”
“Say what you like. I’ve never stopped someone’s heart with my powers.”
“No, but I wager you’ve made someone take other lives.”
Blue sniffed and turned in her saddle to look forward. Ilsa had to acknowledge to herself that Yunn had a point. She had seen Blue command people to fight for her more than once, not to mention the hammer blows Blue could deliver with the adrenaline boost provided by nourishing off the thoughts she stole.
Ilsa grunted. Blue closed her eyes, perhaps because she could tell Ilsa did not fully agree with her. A tiny smirk curled Yunn’s lip, a contrast to the way his father’s grin seemed to split his whole face in half.
He nodded to Ilsa. “You see, we’re all guilty here. Right, priestess?
“I don’t know.”
Yunn looked like he wanted to say something, but his eyes grew distant in the next moment. His hands trembled. He shouted, “Oshomi are close!”
Kaij turned in his saddle to look back at Yunn. “Are you certain brother?”
Blue’s eyes flew open. “Just listen, you idiot. I sense them too.”
Kaij twitched toward Yunn and then glared at Blue.
Ilsa turned this way and that, searching for any sign of nomadic warriors. A shout louder than either Yunn or Blue roared from a hundred voices ahead of the scouts, in the shadow of the Ninth Lyre. She turned just in time to see a hundred riders spill out from behind the monstrous instrument.
Though cast in the shadow of the lyre, the Oshomi were unmistakable. Feathers fluttered in the hair of humans and horses. Hide and cloth, braids and beards, bows and rifles. Wild-born horses were far shorter than striders, but a hundred of them sounded like thunder. Hooves unlike the paws of runners or the feet of striders crashed over the ground.
Ilsa stared at the nomad warriors and realized she could be near meeting the Keeper of Tenlyres.