Serial: An Heir to Thorns and Steel, 51

An Heir to Thorns and Steel is a serialized fantasy novel updating once a week for free on Tuesdays, and again on Thursdays and Saturdays if tips reach $15 and $20, respectively. Single reviews of existing stories posted to Amazon count for $5 toward the tip total.

An Heir to Thorns and Steel
Blood Ladders, Book 1
M.C.A. Hogarth

Episode 51

      “I need passage to Kesína,” I said. “Safe passage.”
      “Easily granted,” Kemses said. “And provisions also if you have need.” He canted his head. “Is there something specific you seek? It may be safer for me to send someone for it directly.”
      I sighed. “Somehow I doubt that.” I smiled wryly. “I’m off to find your king.”
      Kemses froze. “The king lives?” he asked.
      “Your sorcerer seems to think so,” I said.
      The elf swayed back on the stool, remaining there, as if feeling some slight repulsion from my presence. His countenance had taken on a closed air.
      The king lives, the demons whispered in my ear and I closed my eyes, pushing them away. “I take it,” I said, “that this isn’t welcome news.”
      “It isn’t unwelcome,” Kemses said. His fingers flexed on the stool’s edge, one after the other, as if he played an arpeggio. “Surprising. But you understand, we’ve heard these rumors before and they have always been false. The purported king was a fake, or it was just a way to rally more people to a blood-flag to start a new conflict. The Council is always looking for reasons to start new conflicts.”
      “I don’t entirely understand that,” I said. “Why? War is wasteful.”
      “Exactly,” he said. “The more people are destroyed, the more land, the more resources there are for the rest of us. As you saw with the line-duel, our children have grown older, and there are none to replace them with so few women bearing.”
      “Yes, I did see,” I said. “And what I saw is that you are well nigh unto impossible to slay. Certainly a battlefield doesn’t seem to offer the kind of nightmarish extremes necessary to really destroy one of you.”
      “It can happen,” Kemses said. “And if it didn’t, then it at least keeps the blood-flags focused on rending one another and not toppling the Council.”
      “And this Council does what, exactly?” I asked.
      “They replaced our king when we decided that a single king was a mistake after the last one,” Kemses said. “Since no king rose to oppose them, they have remained. In theory they govern us, but in reality they tax us in money, land and humans, all of which they keep or squander.”
      “It seems it is time to elect a new Council,” I said.
      He laughed then, shaking his head so that the sun slid up and down the fall of his hair, mazing my eyes. “Ah. Sometimes you seem very cynical, Master Locke… and other times, very naive indeed.”
      I was reaching for the water, a retort on my lips, when the first tingle ran the length of my fingertips. Careful, I chafed them together and my teeth ached at their sensitivity. With a sigh, I set my glasses on the night-table and laced my fingers together over my chest, but that did not still their tremble. I closed my eyes and resigned myself to being humbled before my host.
      “Is there–something is wrong.”
      “I don’t suppose you have any opium,” I said, wry.
      “I could contrive it,” Kemses said. “I did not take you for an addict.”
      “Yes, well,” I said as my leg twitched, “you don’t know me very well.” And then the convulsions came and once again I paid for Kemses’s victory. His hands wrapped around my arms, burning my skin; his shouts deafened my ears. Soon enough I lost it all to a synesthesia of color and sound and drowned in the kaleidoscope, my world turned to stained glass and shattered.
      The first impression that made sense, sense by itself, was the dark… and soon after, the dense scent of the poppy, heavy in the air like a scarf dragging across my face. The skin over my cheekbone felt too taut, stretched and raw and parched. The heat along my sides… the perfume of lilacs and musk.
      “Almond?” I asked, hoarse.
      “Master,” she said, cuddling closer, her little hand slipping up to rest on my sternum.
      “Fine mess,” Kelu muttered on my other side. Her arm rested across my belly, fingers splayed on Almond’s waist. “In an elven manor, all of us drugged drowsy and you the hero of the whole insanity.”
      “That’s a bad thing?” I asked, drifting amid the warm ochre light and sepia shadows, cobwebbed with amber opium veils.
      “This is nice, Master,” Almond said, her tiny tongue flicking at my skin. I was too heavy to care. Drinking the poppy was an intense experience, but this… this breathing… my chest had grown warm and my breaths so slow, and it didn’t seem to matter. The air caressed me as I drew it in, its every particle limned by the weight of the drug. I thought of seeds carried on delicate feathered hairs, clustering in my lungs until they filled me with soft, brushing warmth.
      “Feeling better?”
      The bed creased for the human woman, Kemses’s servant. I looked up at her and sensed her only as a haze of shapes, a female smell, a smudge of dark, dark curls against smooth olive skin shading to brown, and a white shift colored cream in the dark. I couldn’t discern her face without my glasses and felt too lethargic to reach for them.
      She had asked me a question. “Pardon?”
      A laugh, low and mellow. “I see the poppy is working. We found you only the best yellow poppy.”
      “Ah,” I said. “Thank you.”
      She took my hand in her small plump ones, cushioning my palm. “My name is Basilia. You have met my brother, Galen.”
      “Yes,” I said, drowsy. Her smooth skin distracted me.
      “Our master tells us you saved him,” she murmured, bringing my hand to her mouth. Her lower lip dragged against my knuckles as she spoke. “That your magic was of such potency he felt almost a god.”
      Even nigh insensate on poppy I had to chuckle. “Hyperbole, surely.”
      “No,” she murmured. Was she…? Yes. She was kissing my hand, hot breath across the webbing between my fingers, the flick of a tongue much, much different from Almond’s. “I have been with him all my life, have seen him after he has drunk of the gift. Never have I seen him burn the way he burned after embracing you.”
      “Ah, well,” I said, flushing. “It was a needful… needful thing.”
      “I love my master very much,” she said, nibbling the edge of my finger.
      “I had noticed,” I said, remembering the look in her eyes when she’d met his.
      “And I am grateful, so grateful that you offered,” she whispered. “You did not have to.”
      “I couldn’t let him die,” I said. Had Kelu moved? No, Almond. Almond had curled up at my feet. It was Basilia now who filled that space. She was not much taller than the genet, but so, so much more generously curved. Succulent almost, soft, pettable–
      No, she was petting me. Or was I? My mind stretched like taffy.
      “I would like to thank you,” she whispered, kissing my neck. “So brave, so handsome.”
      I was certainly neither of those things. She did not seem interested in my protests. And her arms were sliding up over my chest, tangling the chain from my name, sinking fingers into my hair as her thigh slipped up and over mine.
      “Ah–,” I said, eyes closing. I caught her wrist somehow, despite not being able to focus well. “Please. Basilia? No, I pray you.”
      She looked up at me and her face was so close I could see the thick lashes clearly, the arch of her heavy brows, the drowsiness of her dark, dark eyes. “Have I offended?” she asked, and even the words caressed me, moist against my jaw.
      “No,” I said. “I’m… flattered. Flattered.” So hard to find words through the fog in my mind, but I could still see Ivy’s face, even separated from her by an ocean. Tea-brown eyes. Soft honey curls. “But… there’s another.”
      She smiled. “I don’t mind. I know it would be only once. A gift for your courage, for your goodness.”
      “I don’t want to… it would…” I trailed off.
      She lifted a finger to my lips, traced the lower. “You save yourself for her.”
      I nodded mutely. Or at least, that had been the plan before Sidithin. Did an elven sorcerer count against my purity? I hadn’t quite been in my right mind for that encounter. I wasn’t even sure if he’d been male or female or both… God!
      “That is so sweet,” she said, smiling. “Now I am sad three times over not to have been accepted.”

***

Poor Morgan. Everyone wants to pet him. :)

Our last serial post of 2013! We shall begin anew on Thursday, if donations/reviews allow…!


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