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Ilsa and her allies have reached Chogrum, but some old enemies, the brothers Haram, have arrived as well. After a skirmish in the street, Chogrumian sodiers take Ilsa and a few others in for questioning.
Electricity. Genetic shaping. Magi.
The gods, whichever you believe in, left their powers to humanity. It is up to us to know when to wield them.
The Chogrumian soldiers at the security center gave Ilsa more than a few curious glances as they processed her. Show us your hands. Take off your shoes. Are those all weapon bonds?
“Not all of them. Some are just scars.”
She tried not to give them a reason to be upset with her. After all, she had not fired even when Kaij pressed her. Being a weapon bond was not illegal in Chogrum any more than it was in Dal. Still, she was Dalite, even if she could fit into a crowd in Chogrum better than most.
She decided it would be best to stay silent and let Lemuel talk them out of this one.
An officer turned from talking to Lemuel. The officer approached Ilsa. “What were you doing so close to the palace?” he asked.
“My friends and I were looking for someone.”
“My friend’s sister,” she motioned to Lemuel with her head because her hands were still cuffed. “He could tell you more.”
“His sister, huh.” The officer took a note on a piece of paper.
Then his eyes glazed over with the control of a mind eater. Ilsa noticed Blue’s spirit. His expression returned to normal.
Blue made him signal to the others. “Let’s go. The prince wants to see them.”
“The prince?” someone asked. “Why?”
“By the gods, I don’t know,” said Blue’s officer. “But it has to be right now. Bring them all.”
Blue had chosen her target well. The other soldiers obeyed.
Ilsa and Lemuel were marched out of the lock-up and led side by side with Kaij to the five hundred meter-long black ramp leading to the gates of the palace. Behind them, the Chogrumian soldiers herded Okko. The young Oshomi kept looking over his shoulder. Ilsa hoped his worries of being shot in the back were groundless. She doubted that even with Blue in control of the lead officer in front of them.
The palace loomed over them as they started to climb the ramp. Walls of black and red stone were topped by high crenelations. Even on the hot summer day, this place was warm within the city. Waves of heat rose from black courtyards on either side of the ramp.
As they climbed, Ilsa wondered how Blue planned to get them out of here if they failed to convince the prince to ally with the nomads. He may not be as absolute a ruler as he once had been. Before the parliament was installed. Even still, all Chogrumians still answered to their prince in the end.
They arrived at the gates high atop the ramp. There, a squad of palace guards in black and gold stepped forward and stopped the officer ahead of Ilsa.
“Who goes there?” The leader of the guards looked around the officer at Ilsa and Lemuel. His eyes lingered on Ilsa.
“The prince made clear to me his desire to meet them.”
“Who are they?”
“A priestess of Hathani, a scholar, and an envoy from the Keeper of Tenlyres.”
“And the fourth one?”
The officer looked over his shoulder at Kaij. Blue must have been thinking fast because Ilsa saw the man’s face pinch for a moment with surprise. She had to be nearby to keep her control over this officer so absolute, but she must not have realized Kaij was still with them.
“A noble prisoner from Ayoch.”
Kaij’s eyes flashed. His cuffs rattled on his wrists. “Let me go and I can have you all spared.”
The leader of the palace guard squad sneered. “Impudent, even when captured.”
“Don’t take him lightly,” said Ilsa. “He and his brother killed an entire patrol south of the city.”
The guard leader’s eyes narrowed. “I see. I will send an extra detail to ensure the prince’s protection.”
“A good idea,” said Blue’s officer. “Now, they are cuffed because of suspicions we had of them fighting.”
“Understood,” said the guard leader. “Leave them to us.”
Blue’s officer bowed to the palace guards, and then he and the security soldiers with him descended the ramp back to the low gates of the palace. Ilsa wondered if they would make it back on the tram before they realized what had happened to them. Would there be enough time to convince the highest leader of Chogrum before they returned?
She could only hope.
Her gaze returned to the leader of the palace guards.
“You’re almost pretty for a priestess,” he said.
She shrugged her shoulders the best she could with cuffed hands. “It’s not often I’ve been called pretty. Please, take us to the prince.”
The other palace guards behind their squad leader exchanged glances. A heavy one grinned. None of them spoke. The leader grunted. He had the squad take each of them inside one by one, starting with Kaij, and followed immediately by Ilsa.
Lemuel and Okko were brought in last.
The guards escorted them to a narrow passageway going deeper into the palace. The walls within were sheer. With no light fixtures along its length, the only flicker of color was at the far end of the passage, a warm yellow glow.
“Enter,” said the guard leader to Kaij. “Any of you who are impure will be tested.”
“Impure?” said Ilsa.
“The bonded and the magi use powers beyond the understanding of mortals. If you have those gifts, prepare for hardship.” With that, he fell silent. The squad formed into two lines, one on either side of the prisoners.
Kaij growled. “They’re lying to you. These people are not what they seem.”
“Are you?” asked the guard leader. “We could kill you where you stand if you are. Someone like you. The prince would not punish us.”
Kaij’s lip twitched. He turned to face down the passage. With a deep breath, he stepped into the darkness. His footsteps faded away until they sounded like a kilometer away, even with the reverberations in the small space.
“You’re next, priestess.”
Ilsa nodded. She braced herself for the test, jaw set, and started into the darkened hallway. Almost immediately, she lost her sense of the world outside. Her hearing seemed muted, except for the sounds of her own footsteps.
Her brands began to ache as the light at the far end of the passage grew larger. She could not tell where Kaij was, or whether he had left the passage yet or not. Her brands began to tingle with pain.
Then, the pain burned her from within.
Heat could scarcely even serve to describe it.
Agony only began the march to the indescribable gates of suffering which Ilsa began to push open. She groaned. One foot moved. Then, the other.
She forced herself forward, pushing further into the passage.
Every step hurt more than the last. She grimaced, her face sore with the reflected pain from her brands. She felt like screaming, but she would not give them the satisfaction. She sagged in on herself. She had emerged into the yellow light on the other side.
Kaij sat on his knees a few meters away. Tears streaked his face. Ilsa realized she was crying too. Who wouldn’t, given the pain both of them had just experienced?
“What. What was that?” she managed to say. She sank to her knees on the floor, looking up at a vast basalt throne. Before the throne stood a slim, dark figure in a white robe. The prince of Chogrum carried a red staff, the True Red staff of Hathani, Ilsa felt sure in a wild moment. He carried it with him.
Ilsa fell forward. Her hands, still aching with remembered pain, pressed on the cool tiles of the floor, cuffs still around the wrists. And she held herself up, just a little. She had made it into the throne room. Going any further might not be possible, but she had made it inside.
Lemuel and Okko emerged from the passage behind her. Both of them rushed over. Lemuel crouched down by her side.
“Ilsa. What happened?”
“It hurt. Not a test. More like torture,” she murmured.
Okko looked from Kaij to the prince. Ilsa followed his gaze with wavering eyes. There were guards around the room, but all of them were dressed differently from the ones outside.
These wore all black. And Ilsa suddenly knew they were weapon bonds. All of the guards in the throne room were weapon bonds, and there were at least twenty.
“Stand, strangers. If you can,” said a firm, high voice.
Ilsa struggled, and pushed, and got to her feet. Nearby, Kaij somehow managed to find it in himself to do the same.
The prince of Chogrum smiled.
He had a small black beard, with a few hints of gray. Tall and thin, he wore no crown or jewels, only the white robe, and the red staff. The light in this room came from a skylight in the center of the domed ceiling.
“You have experienced the trial of Hathani, newcomers.” The prince motioned to his guards to stand back. Then, he marched down the steps from his vast throne. One end of the red staff clicked on the tile. “I take it you know what this is.” He indicated the staff in his hand with three elegant fingers.
“The true staff of Hathani,” said Ilsa, her legs wobbling.
“Yes,” said the prince. “My guards tell me you are a priestess of the goddess. Is that true?”
“Where is your staff of office?”
Ilsa gritted her teeth. “It was broken in the mountains of the northwest. I was fighting against Ayoch.”
“Indeed?” The prince’s gaze moved to Kaij. “So, this could be one of your enemies from there?”
“He is,” said Ilsa. “All four of us were there at Howling Pass. We three—” She indicated herself, Lemuel, and Okko. “—Fought alongside the nomads, the Vogmem at the Lake of Saints.”
“My spies tell me the Red Lector died there. Is that true, priestess of Hathani?”
“It is, prince of Chogrum.” She straightened as the pain from the trail began to subside. “But we did not kill him.”
“Then who did?”
Kaij glared at Ilsa, teeth clenched. “He was betrayed. By his general. And by Black Powder.”
“Black Powder. The mercenary bonder is known to us. For killing my enemy, perhaps I should thank him.”
Kaij’s eyes boiled. He said nothing.
“He is still on the steppe.” Ilsa lowered her eyes from their lock on the prince. “He is on his way east.”
“You are well-informed priestess. Something tells me you know Black Powder. How?”
“He is my father,” she said through her teeth.
The prince raised one eyebrow. “Interesting. You have earned my curiosity. I will listen to what you have to say.”
Ilsa explained the mission to the prince of Chogrum. Lemuel helped when the pain from the trial flared up again, as it did in waves. The prince listened with quiet attention. At last, he nodded to her.
“I believe what you say. Priestess, you fight for the Unification. But I have never felt pressured by them, not from Koor in Morhoen, or Embrana the Islander. I trust you also are not trying to pressure me, Ilsa Barrett.”
“I would not presume,” she said. “I came to Chogrum with the Keeper of Tenlyres. She seeks to ally with you and your people to protect the plateau.”
He nodded. “I will speak with her. Tomorrow. At parliament.” He motioned to Kaij. “Guards, take this one to the cells. We will send him for interrogation as soon as we can.”
He turned to Ilsa and the others. “You used deception to enter this place, but after that told only the truth. You intrigue me, priestess. The guards will show you the way out.”
Ilsa nodded. She almost lost her footing to a wave of nausea and had to steady herself on Lemuel’s arm. The guards led them to a side passage, and then out of the palace. There, they ordered a tram that took the group back to the hotel. She could only sit, eyes closed, and pray for the pain to fade away.
Back at the hotel, Ilsa collapsed onto the bed. When she woke, Lemuel was talking to someone in the doorway of their room. Ilsa sat up, feeling less pain than she had when she had returned from the palace, and looked toward the hallway where the muted voices were coming from.
“I’m awake,” she said in their direction. “You can talk in here.”
Blue and Lemuel walked into the hotel room. The sky was dark outside the curtains. Ilsa sat up.
“Whoa,” said Blue. “Take it easy. Whatever that trial did to you, it was rough.”
“Can’t afford to stay down.” She groaned. Lemuel winced. “The keeper needs to meet with the prince.”
“We know. Lemuel and Okko told us.”
Ilsa rubbed her temples. “What about Megalli. Where is she?”
“She’s back in the suite. Got here before you did.”
“Tell her thanks. She tripped Kaij back there. If she hadn’t we might not be having this conversation.”
Kaij. He had tracked them all the way to Chogrum. And his brother, Yunn, was still out there.
Ilsa shook her head. “I think the Ayochians could try something.”
“We’ll be ready for them if they do,” said Blue. “But we could use your help if you recover in time.”
“I’ll be ready,” said Ilsa. She clenched her jaw. She had to make sure everything went right if only to justify the pain she was suffering through in that moment.
Her eyelids closed. “I will be ready.”
She felt Lemuel’s hand on her shoulder. “Come on, you can’t do anything more tonight.”
But later that night, when he was asleep, she climbed out of bed and limped painfully to the writing desk in the room. By moonlight, she wrote another set of words for the day. Words of endurance. Words she believed were true.
Lemuel woke as she climbed back into bed. “What’s going on?”
“I felt a little better,” she lied. “Had to get some words recorded.”
He stroked her chin, and then reached back to touch her earlobe. “You are amazing.”
She put a hand on his lips. “Shhh. It’s late.”
They pulled each other close and slept.
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