“So I handed the idiot his shirt, but only after he let her throw half a dozen darts at him,” Tymun said, laughing with those gathered around and listening. “She hit the board on four—better than I expected, let me tell you—but she stuck him good with the other two. In the chaos, I don’t think he remembered to make good on her offer of a kiss.”
Meto chuckled affably next to him, well into his sixth beer. Tymun himself had moved on from the expensive whiskey, opting instead for the more manageable house ale. They were hardly the only ones the worse for drink; the two Phoenix Guards, who introduced themselves as Emmis and Ariella, had met them drink for drink. The blonde Emmis, so interested in Tymun’s story, leaned one elbow on the bar to better keep her gaze level while she listened. Her companion, Ariella, was just as pale but had light brown hair, brown eyes, and a significantly thicker build. Even drunk, her movements bespoke strength. The kind of strength that Tymun had no desire to face in a drunken bar brawl.
So he told the whole story, buttering them up, before he got to anything that might upset a more ardent adherent to Pirinism.
“Wait, wait,” Master Rian interjected. He had summoned a chipped clay mug for himself, and was indulging in a small measure of some clear liquid that struck Tymun with its pungency, even from a few feet away. “He actually stood between her and the board? Incredible!”
“And he forgot to collect his debt,” Meto finished. “He was so hungover the next morning that he wasn’t even angry when we told him. Meanwhile, she disappeared with his coin and his dignity.”
Emmis cackled, gulped down the last of her drink, and fished out another coin to flick across at Master Rian. “Another, but it’s the last for me.” She turned and pinned Tymun with a stare. “Which means that you had better get to the end of your story soon, soldier Tymun. No more tales about drunken officers and local barmaids.”
Tymun cleared his throat and hurriedly turned back to his own beer. He marshalled his thoughts as he drank, avoiding the woman’s intensely grey eyes. He swallowed, tapped his cup to indicate that he wanted another, and continued. “Well, if you don’t want the fun part…” he tried to sound jocular, but Emmis’ flat expression deterred him. “Yes. Well. It wasn’t but two more days before we left Barrier, going north. Our orders were vague, simply to scout the immediate territories north of the border and find anything we could of Nashan movements. It started off fine, you know, the typical mountain terrain and weather you’d expect in the fall that far north.
“But once we hit that village, things changed. For one, they kept trying to take us for fools, make us buy some worthless wood for prices you wouldn’t believe. We brushed them off, of course, but I was curious about it, so I followed the old fellow who was trying the hardest.” He paused, exchanged a glance with Meto. “And he made fire, lit the wood he tried to sell.”
Master Rian rolled his eyes and, with a snort, turned away to go serve a man seated at the far end of the bar. Emmis stared at him with her brow furrowed; behind her, Ariella muttered about lunatics and madmen. Meto directed his silence at the cup cradled in his hands.
“Surely not,” Emmis said finally, shaking her head and glancing back at Ariella.
“I assure you, I was not mistaken,” Tymun responded firmly. “And it only got worse from there. For four days after that, our Chaplain insisted we move out of the mountains and into the lowlands. All the while, he refused to say any prayers, give us any blessings.” As he spoke about Artius, Tymun felt his rage rekindle. His words became grating. “He only used firestones for our cooking, meager though it was, and declined to answer any questions of Faith.”
Emmis’ frown deepened. Ariella touched her arm, but Emmis shrugged her off. “Keep going.”
Now Master Rian had returned his attention to Tymun, along with a full cup of ale. Tymun sipped generously of it before nodding to Emmis. “That fourth day, we were attacked by Nera Nashan regulars. Had to have been a full hundred of them, banners flapping in the wind and all mounted. We drove them off, but suffered heavy losses. Artius—our Chaplain—shouted only one prayer before cowering behind us. As far as I could tell, his prayer had no effect.”
He could see in Emmis’ eyes how troubling this all was. And it’s not even the worst, he thought vindictively, momentarily forgetting his earlier interest in her pale beauty. The hot red anger was too strong, now. She opened her mouth—to interject some defense of Artius, he was sure—but he forged on, implacable.
“Like I said, we drove them off. But he drove us on. Onward, north, into Averna and the swamps. Two days of that hell, again bereft of his support, and we were attacked again. By Avernen.”
“You wouldn’t be alive if you were attacked by Avernen,” Ariella stated. Her disbelief was plain on her face, even had she not spoken.
“Please, then, tell me what those scaled, fanged, deadly creatures were,” Tymun snapped back. He felt his cheek twitch under his right eye. “Tell me what killed all of my squadmates. My friends. Because they weren’t human, I can tell you that much.”
Ariella leaned back, her eyes widening, and Tymun realized he was shouting. Emmis, between them, had hunched in on herself as if to escape his notice in case he lashed out in a fashion other than verbally.
“And Artius. Oh, Artius,” Tymun continued in a more reasonable growl. “He was worse than useless. Didn’t even try to help. Just fell to the ground and curled himself into a little ball while we fought around him. And we saved him, because we don’t betray those we march with. We saved him, the useless sack of shit, and may he burn in Oblivion now, for all I care.” He stopped, breathing hard, and the place fell into silence.
After a moment, Master Rian rushed to the other end of the bar, making himself busy. Ariella stared obstinate challenge back at Tymun, but he thought he saw wetness shining in Emmis’ eyes before she turned to her fellow Phoenix Guard. “Come on, Ariella,” she muttered. “He told his story. Don’t push him any more.”
Ariella ducked her head and stood, trying not to meet Tymun’s tracking glare.
“Tymun,” Emmis began and faced him once again. He must have been mistaken; no tears were there to fall on her cheeks. Instead, their pale grey attention searched him. “I thank you for your story, though I see it is still fresh in your mind. I will see you again, I think, and perhaps in better days.” With that, she spun on her heel and left behind Ariella.
Tymun watched her go, mouth open with an unspoken goodbye laden on his tongue. She was tall, he noticed as she walked away, nearly as tall as he. When she reached the exit, where Ariella stood holding the door open, the last rays of evening sun glinted off of the gold and red of her armor. She cast one look over her shoulder, and then was gone as a stream of men pushed past her.
Some distant part of Tymun’s mind registered that there were five of the men, common soldiers like he and Meto, but his attention was on the memory of the final look Emmis gave him. There was something there, some interest that went beyond mere curiosity over a story. He was sure of it….
“Tymun!” Meto said, urgent and low from right next to his ear. “Tymun, that is my brother!”
“Your…what?” Jerked out of his thoughts, Tymun turned his startled attention to the Pallonian.
“My brother!” Meto said again, and began to point before stopping himself. “That man there. With dark hair and blue eyes.”
Tymun, trying to be discreet, observed the five soldiers as the sat down at a table on the other side of The Landed Shark. “Meto, they’re all Pallonian. I can hardly tell one from the other.”
Meto glowered at him. “Just because we all have blue eyes and dark hair doesn’t mean we all look the same.”
Tymun simply shrugged.
“Fine. The short one. Leaning his chair back against the wall. I’m sure that’s him.” Meto sounded a mite annoyed, but did not elaborate on his point.
Once again Tymun looked that way, picking out the man with such wide shoulders, half a head shorter than the rest of his companions. As he considered the Pallonian, Tymun began to notice the similarities between him and Meto: the firm jawline, the flat eyebrows, the thin nose. “All right. I suppose I can see that.” He made a face. “But what’s he doing here? By the Flame, I didn’t even know you had a brother.”
Meto muttered something incomprehensible under his breath, then squeezed his eyes shut. “He left home a year before I did. Said he was going to find a merchant and join the crew. Always like the sea, Antenus did.” He opened his eyes and looked at Tymun with confusion. “So what’s he doing here, wearing the uniform of the Home Legion? He always hated violence.”
“Don’t ask me,” Tymun answered with a smirk. His thoughts were already returning to that Phoenix Guard, to her narrow-eyed glance just as she left The Landed Shark. “He’s your brother, not mine.” What does she know? What secrets has she heard, playing babysitter for the priests here in the capital?
“Burn it. I’m going to talk to him.” Meto stood up with force as he spoke, knocking his stool back half a pace. The wooden legs squeaked against the floor, eliciting a few surprised noises from nearby patrons. It was much more crowded now than it had been when they first entered.
“Have fun,” Tymun said, waving his hand aimlessly and moving to face the bar and his drink. “Tell me how it goes.”
Meto nodded as if he did not hear the sarcasm in Tymun’s voice. He took a deep breath and strode across the room. Tymun watched his first couple of paces out of the corner of his eye before dismissing him and concentrating more fully on Emmis. Having so recently been thinking about the features of Meto’s brother—Antenus—at first all he could consider was Emmis’ pale, severe beauty. He had never seen a woman so distinguished, so imminently deadly but yet graceful and inviting. Her sharp cheekbones, narrow nose, delicate jaw…and the subtle power her movements suggested, that only someone trained to kill others could hope to notice. The casual ease with which she handled the two long knives at her belt, the level weight in her pale grey stare, it all added up to something irresistible. Indeed, much of her attitude and appearance was so completely opposite Tymun’s own that he had to mentally grip himself and take a step back.
He understood easily enough how he had lost his temper; he had been over the edge for some time now, ever since the mad skirmish with the Avernen. Every second he was forced to be in Artius’ company had done nothing but build the pressure inside of him, compounding his desire to kill the fat fool responsible for so much disaster. It never even occurred to Tymun that Artius may not have had complete control over himself: the orange-robed Chaplain had been too steady for too long before his sudden dereliction. No, it had to have been an active choice, both during the Nashan ambush and the encounter with the Avernen. Nothing else made sense.
But what Tymun could not grasp was why he felt such an urge toward an opposite of himself. He was hardly interested in women in any romantic sense, had not been for years. For so long, his entire existence had been bent on training, improving himself to kill Roeteli filth and avenge his own brother. There was no room in that for any kind of sexual desire. And then, as his training eased, and he found himself in the field, he was never around any sort of temptation: the army was exclusively male, and while women were plentiful among the Phoenix Guards, that elite company was rarely to be found near the common ranks of the army. They protected to most prestigious Clerics and Chaplains, content to spend their time here in Letaal or in garrison at Meriil and Phoenix.
So was it simply his reintroduction to the company of women? He shook his head in mute protest. No, as he glanced around at the growing clientele of The Landed Shark, among which were several attractive members of the fairer sex, he felt not stirrings of desire. There was something different about Emmis. Something nebulous that teased his musings. In fact, even as he thought about the Phoenix Guard as a collective, he began to fume. Any connection to the Pirin priests was too much for him. Artius had been given only a slap on the wrist, no matter how miserable he had seemed after the crucible that morning, and Tymun seethed with the yearning for something more.
And it was Emmis’ sworn duty to protect men and women like Artius.
Tymun ground his teeth. He should not want to see that woman again. He shouldn’t even want to think about her—doing so was actively annoying him. But nonetheless, he could not wrench his mind from the secrets she held. He refused to consider the chance that he was overthinking the whole situation. It was impossible. Her interest in his story, the manner in which she reacted to his assertions, and her puzzling parting all combined to point toward knowledge he needed to gain. Yet, she was gone, presumably on her way back to the Third Tier where he was forbidden from going.
He sat up straight, suddenly enervated. He was forbidden from the Third Tier…until the next evening. He had been summoned! A grim smile grew on his face, and he resolved to find her on the morrow, no matter what the priests wanted of him. He would have questions, and he would get answers. Feeling a clean urgency, such as he had not felt in long months, he finished his beer with a smile. Though he was several drinks deep, his bated anticipation cut through the haze of alcohol that strove to plunge his senses into murk.
He stood up, smile still pulling at the corners of his mouth, and plinked a couple of copper coins on the wooden surface of the bar just as Katy walked past. He gave her a jaunty wink, shocked at his audacity. She laughed and her hand swept up the consideration from the sticky surface.
“Tymun, come join us!” Meto’s voice cut through the general murmur of The Landed Shark. Tymun looked to where his friend had situated himself among the other Pallonians, next to the man he was so convinced was his brother. At Tymun’s response, there was a noticeable chill that came over the demeanors of each of the men but Meto.
He approached their table cautiously, uncertain why they might so suddenly be unwelcoming. They had surely been friendly to Meto, otherwise he would not have been so comfortable sitting with them. Was it because they were all Pallonians? Tymun narrowed his eyes. It had been decades since Pallonia was conquered; none of these men could have been alive then, to hold a grudge of any sort.
“Come, Tymun! You must meet my brother, Antenus.” Meto grinned and waved. His brother looked somewhat less enthusiastic about Tymun’s company.
“I recognize a party when I see one,” Tymun began after cutting across the tavern. “And I can see when the members would rather not add to their number.” He spoke quickly, easily, trying not to seemed threatening—or put off by their flat stares and stiff shoulders.
“Too flaming right, we don’t,” one muttered, glaring at Tymun. “Get lost, black boy. Blue eyes only, at this table.”
“Come now, Malinius,” Meto cajoled. “What does his skin matter?”
Collectively, the Pallonians turned their glares on Meto. “We didn’t know you consorted with his type,” Antenus growled at his brother. “Maybe it would be best if you both leave. You wouldn’t understand our business, clearly. This conversation is for the homeland.”
Meto frowned at his brother. “But—”
“No, Meto. Enough. You’d best be on your way.” Antenus softened his tone. “It was good to speak again, after so long. But you should be going, now.”
Hurt, fuming, Meto stood and knocked back his chair. “Fine,” he said, his voice hard. “See you around. Brother.”
During it all, Tymun tried to blend into the background. Patrons nearby had paused their conversations to ogle him, no doubt wondering what would incite such strife between soldiers. He avoided their attention by the simple method of staring at the floor in front of his feet.
“Come on, Tymun,” Meto said as he came around the table. He grabbed Tymun’s arm and pulled him to the door. “Let’s leave. I’ve had enough for today.”
Tymun did not resist, letting Meto drag him outside and into the Letaalese twilight. The orange shades of the buildings glowed in the light of street flames and firestones, comforting despite the warring currents inside of him. As soon as the door of The Landed Shark swung closed behind them, he felt grounded. He took solace in the way his boots hit the cobbled street, in the slightest breeze coming down from the Tiers above. There was the faintest smell of roasting beef in the air, and his stomach spoke to him. He jerked his head, indicating that Meto should follow him along the street to the left.
“I need food,” he explained. His brief excitement was waning, and with it his shield against the alcohol. It was replaced by a warm fuzziness in his head, a tightness, and a dark, heavy feeling in his gut. He did not understand why the Pallonians’ dismissal of him bothered him so much, but there was no denying that curdling in his gut. “Then we can head to the barracks.”
Meto grunted assent, brooding more overtly than Tymun. His mouth was set, his lips turned downward, and he walked with heavy steps. His shoulders were hunched. “What in the Flame was Antenus thinking? As soon as he saw you, he changed completely.”
Tymun only shrugged, trying to hide his disappointment.
“I’ve never seen him act like that. He was thrilled to see me, at first.” Meto’s voice picked up a bit as he spoke of their reunion. “He did sail with a trader crew, for a while. He saw Landing and Holm and even all the way east to Haven. But he left the crew there and fell in with some Pallonians in Haven. They all signed up together, joined the army there, and eventually found themselves moved to the Home Legion. What chance!”
Tymun made a sound that he hoped sounded excited, sympathetic.
“And he’s been here for six months, now. He was very interested to hear about the north,” Meto added, glancing at Tymun. “But then….”
“But then. Yeah.” Tymun could not keep the bitterness from his words. He grimaced. “Don’t let it get to you. He just cares for his brother, not his brother’s companions and friends. No great loss.”
Meto snorted in derision. Tymun supposed his words sounded hollow even to himself; they must have been as thin as paper to Meto, who cared much more for Antenus’ opinions.
Following the scent of cooking, they proceeded for a time in brooding silence. The sky darkened above them as they did, but the flames along the streets brightened accordingly. Tymun almost snarled at a red-robed apprentice, scurrying along and pausing here and there to bow her head under a dim flame. Each time, the flame brightened, and she moved on in hooded piety. He kept his discontent at a simmer, though he watched the girl recite her prayers as she passed them.
It would not do to insult an ordained initiate of the Faith in the open streets of the capital.
With a sigh, he shook his head and patted Meto on the shoulder. “This is going to be much more difficult than it was the last time we were here.”
Meto looked, nonplussed, at Tymun’s hand, then at his face. He raised his eyebrows. “I…suppose. Can’t be worse than that flaming debacle in the north, though. Right?”
Tymun pursed his lips. “Let’s eat here,” he said, and pointed at a brightly lit little shop. The smells of spices and meats wafted out into the night air. He did not answer Meto’s question.
Read the next chapter: “Talk of Conquest”