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FRIDAY, MARCH 16
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War and treachery haunt the Four Courts of the Valarei…and Gaebrel is caught in the middle!
The worlds of Fhirial. This is the realm of the mysterious and powerful Valarei, who guard their secrets closely. Yet they are the only ones who can free Gaebrel from the curse that haunts him and his comrades – an ancient medallion bound to him by enchantments unbreakable, created by a lost race and the key to unimaginable power.
But freedom comes at a price. Gaebrel finds himself caught in a web of intrigue, and strikes a dangerous bargain: kidnap a Queen and he may earn his salvation and untold riches in the bargain. With his future at stake, Gaebrel and the crew of the Sparrow dive into the murky depths of the Four Courts, where nothing is ever as it seems. For the Winter Queen has plots of her own – she will have dominion over all the Four Courts, even if it destroys the lives of millions.
But nothing goes as planned in the Nine Suns. For the Neverborn are here as well, a dark race of soul-consuming abominations that have hunted Gaebrel and his friends across the universe. They have come at the behest of the Winter Queen, her dark allies in this war. And as the fires of civil war burn, they will stop at nothing to hunt down Gaebrel Harrn, to claim his soul and the prize he carries…
The Burning Mountain is the third book of the Nine Suns series. If you like fast-paced sword and sorcery adventure, set in a wild fantasy universe filled with intrigue, reckless heroism and dark supernatural forces, then you will love Zackery Arbela’s page-turning series. Buy it now!
EXCERPT FROM REVENGE OF THE WINTER QUEEN
“Are you done yet?” Gaebrel asked, one eye on the road, the other on his companions.
“Almost.” Morrec carefully wrapped up a cloth sachet and added it to a pile near his foot. Next to it were a dozen clay bottles in a basket, corked and holding perhaps half a gallon of pungent liquid. Despite the stoppers, a faint, nostril-scorching odor could still be sensed.
“Check the wind,” Morrec said, standing back up and wiping his hands on his trousers.
“Still from the north.”
“Not as strong as I’d like.”
“It’s enough.” Gaebrel turned to the road. “I’ll get the others.”
The forest was small, a handful of acres clinging to the sides of a road headed south. Its trees were ancient, tall broad-trucked creatures rising up fifty feet, their crowns spreading wide and casting the ground below in shadow. Once, or so it was explained, much of Ilorin was covered by this, ancient primeval woodlands in which the ancient ilurei wandered, as much a part of it as the beasts they hunted. Surviving stands of that ancient forest remained as living memories, to remind the people of this world where they came from and how far they had come.
These woods were a popular place for pleasure seekers out for a day in the country. Foresters in the employ of the Autumn Court had come through the previous week, clearing away brush and pruning branches as needed. They’d left the results of their work piled high by the roadside, where presumably it would picked up at some later point, but now provided excellent hiding places for rogues intent on an ambush.
Gerel, Pohtoli and Yasinnic squatted down behind one, keeping an eye on the road. Pohtoli in particular had a morose look on his face. “This reminds me of home,” he said as Gaebrel approached.
Pohtoli nodded. “There are forests like this on Iyantua. My town was in one of them. A thing of natural beauty.”
“Nothing natural about this,” said Yasinnic. “It’s a Valarei garden.”
Gaebrel glanced down the road, a worried frown creasing his brow. “No sign of Hurren?” he asked.
“None.” Gerel stood up. “We haven’t heard a word from the hairy bastard in three days.”
“Maybe he’s getting drunk with his new friends?” Pohtoli asked.
But Gaebrel shook his head. “No, he would be here. He’s up to something, that will fail to get him killed and get us in trouble. But there is nothing to be done about it now.”
Morrec came over with the bottle basket. He handed out the contents, then paused a moment, ear cocked to the wind. “I hear them coming,” he said.
“Right on time,” Gaebrel said. “Gentlemen, you know what to do.”
They scattered, Gaebrel and Morrec kneeling down behind a pile of cut brush and sun-dried weeds, Pohtoli and Gerel behind a wide flowering bush that sprouted up along the edge of the forest. Yasinnic disappeared back into the woods, silent as smoke on a breeze. They heard the clop of horse hooves on the flagstones of the road, the ringing of small silver bells and the tramp of a worryingly large number of feet.
The procession came around a bend a quarter-mile away. Five carriages, escorted by twenty guardsmen trotting behind, led in front by two riders dressed all in white, their faces hidden behind masks. The lead carriage was considerably larger than the others, its cab large enough to hold a dozen passengers, if not more and festooned with white and brown ribbons. The horses drawing it had large white masks as well, their eye holes shaped like wood knots.
The lead riders both held long staffs, from which hung three silver bells. Every so often they would shake the staffs and bellow out a long proclamation in some Valarei dialect. The masks had small eye slits and it was a miracle they could see the road ahead, let alone a band of men hiding in the bushes. The guards were too busy staying in formation behind the carriages to pay much attention to the forest. On Esyabari, banditry of any sort was ruthlessly crushed at the first sign, which added to their complacency.
Even so, Gaebrel and his companions crouched down even further as the procession approached their spot. The wind was picking up and the ribbons hanging from the carriage fluttered.
Gaebrel pushed one of the sachets into a clay bottle and shoved the cork down after. He shook the bottle hard and was rewarded by a faint fizzing sound, his fingers sensing a rapidly growing vibration as pressure built. He lobbed the bottle at the procession, aiming at the lead carriage but hitting the ground by the horses instead. The moment the bottle touched the ground it burst, sending out a cloud of greenish gas that immediately enveloped the horses and was pushed by the wind to surrounded the lead riders.
Shouts of alarm came from the guards as they turned towards the woods, even as three more bottles came hurling out at them. Two smashed on the ground, while a third expelled its cork in mid fall and dropped down trailing green gas behind it like a rocket. Green gas swiftly engulfed the entire procession as Gaebrel and the other primed and hurled their remaining bottles, their eyes watering and stomachs heaving as some of it blew back on them. Clapping a hand over his mouth and nose, Gaebrel ran for the woods, the others close on his heels. It was horrible…the acrid reek of it reached down his throat, twisting his lungs and grabbing his innards in a twisting iron grip. He leaned against a tree and gulped mouthfuls of fresh air, his head swimming. Gerel was on his knees nearby, vomiting up his breakfast.
“Gods of Iyantua,” he heard Pohtoli gasp. “You use that against rats? It’s enough to drop an elephant!”
“I may have tinkered with the ingredients a bit,” said Morrec, who had a cloth covering his mouth and nose and seemed unaffected.
“Why…aren’t you puking?” Gaebrel gasped out.
Morrec pointed at the cloth. “It’s soaked in camphor.”
“And you didn’t tell the rest of us?”
“You didn’t ask.”
“You’re a Prince, Morrec,” Gerel gasped out between retches. “A real Prince, you bastard…”
“The wind is clearing it away.” Yasinnic appeared, unaffected. He pointed at the road, where the cloud of green was breaking apart, pushed down the road by the wind. The carriages horses were on their knees or lying on their sides, a few kicking their legs feebly. The guards lay prone as well, most with pools of vomit puddles around their mouths. A Valarei noblewoman lay slumped out of the window of the rearmost carriage, her hands hanging over the side and a yellow-brain stain on the door obscuring the sigil of the Autumn court.
“Suns and Spirits. Morrec, you are an evil sod.”
“The blame lies not with the sword, but the hand that wields it. Or in this case, with the brave Captain who asked his loyal crewman to create rat poison for reasons other than the extermination of vermin.” Morrec’s voice was muffled by the camphor rag. “My conscience is clear.”
“We can argue about it later,” said Pohtoli. He pulled a handkerchief from a pocket and clapped it over his mouth. “Let’s get what we came for and leave.”
They walked into the road, stepping past the groaning, moaning soldiers. The acrid stench of the gas was now mingled with that of vomit and worse. One of the guards saw them and tried to stand, reaching for a knife slung at his side. Gaebrel stepped over and shoved him back to the ground, where he stayed.
They reached the royal carriage. Pohtoli pulled over the door. “Gaebrel,” he said, “we may have a problem.”
Gaebrel came beside him. The carriage was large enough to hold a dinner party of twelve, with a table. There were ten people in there, all sprawled across the seats or lying on the floor. Fine clothes of silk and satin were stained beyond salvation, the delicate masks so favored by the Valarei clawed off faces and dripping with vomit. Gaebrel saw Lord Keptharo lying unconscious in a corner, his fine white shirt and coat ruined.
Hope he doesn’t hold a grudge. “What’s the problem?” Gaebrel asked. Then he shifted his gaze. “Ah..never mind.”
Orlon had told them what to look for. She’ll be wearing a red mourning dress, with a full veil over her head. You won’t see her face, but she’ll stand out, no one else will be dressed like that.
There was indeed such a woman lying across from Keptharo, her veil stained dark from the mouth on down.
Sitting next to her was another woman, dressed exactly the same.
“Which one do we take?” Pohtoli asked.
“Which one is the Queen?” Gaebrel silently cursed all Vitekians to the hell from which, holy orders aside, they all collectively crawled out of. He reached down to tug away the veil of the nearest one and found it was firmly tied down to the dress. “Any ideas?” he asked, looking over his shoulder.
Before anyone could think of an answer, Yasinnic raised a hand, his ear cocked towards the wind. “Riders,” he said. “Coming quickly.”
“Bugger all!” Gaebrel stepped into the carriage and grabbed the woman nearest to the the door. She was surprisingly light and he pulled her out without difficulty, slinging her over his shoulder.
They ran back to the woods, the woman’s head bouncing against Gaebrel’s back, her veil flapping behind. He heard her mumbling in Valarei, as they disappeared into the trees. Hoof beats sounded in the distance and the last thing any of them saw before the trees obscured the road entirely was a squadron of mounted guards pull up by the royal carriage.
A quarter mile from the road was a wagon, draped with strips of white cloth, the lone horse pulling it sporting a white headdress. In the back was a white-painted coffin, with small breathing holes drilled in the side and hidden under white ribbons. Pohtoli scrambled into the back and opened the wagon, while Gerel and Morrec took the woman off Gaebrel. They placed her in the coffin, laying her sideways in case of another round of vomiting and closed the top. White robes lay in the back along with plain white masks, which they all put on, save for Yasinnic, who donned a plain brown coat and a meek, downcast look. He took the reins and drove the wagon down a small access road, while the others sat in the back around the coffin, hands in the sleeves of their robes and heads bowed as though in prayer.
They emerged from the forest perhaps a mile away from the ambush site, headed north towards the city. Gaebrel looking back down the road and saw the carriages in the distance, the cavalry dismounted and swarming around them. For a moment he fancied seeing Keptharo being helped out and wondered what the Valarei troopers would think of a great lord of the Autumn court resembling a hungover sailor after a three day bender in port…
The thought brought a smile to his face behind the mask.
“It’s a requirement of our contract. We have to wear their colors.”
“It makes you look ridiculous.”
“A small sacrifice for the greater good…which in this case is getting paid. As the great Bogarphus of Rehembaggi once said, ‘only three things in life are real; the ax in your hand, the food in your belly and the money in your purse.”
“Didn’t he die in poverty and spend his final years chased across half of Uhlat by creditors from a dozen clans?”
“Just because a philosopher fails to set an example doesn’t mean his ideas are any less meaningful.” Ottogor plucked at the massive yellow and brown tabard hanging down to his knees. It billowed slightly in the breeze, giving him the appearance of a tent that had grown legs and gone for a walk. The twenty other ursuhli were dressed much the same and did not look all that pleased. It was rare for ursuhli of any clan or lineage to wear any sort of clothing above the waist, save for those clans which lived in areas with hard winters. To Hurren’s knowledge, the only ones who regularly did it out of choice instead of necessity were members of certain cults in the more refined areas of Uhlat, yet more evidence in his mind of the sheer decadence of those clans who lived on the ancient home world.
“If I see your ancestors,” Hurren said, “I’ll be sure not to mention your fashion choices.”
“Most appreciated. And speaking of which…” Ottogor turned to his men. “Warriors!” he bellowed. “Hear my words!”
The mercenaries formed a circle around the two of them, axes out and placed head down on the turf, their hands resting on the handles.
“Before you is Hurren, father-son of Haarthiah, mother-son of Nishaarug, of the lineage of Uhthuligaan of the most respected Puluhiada clan! You know his clan, it is ancient and long in honor and has long been a friend to us! Many times have we stood together in battle! Sons and daughters have been exchanged, so our blood is mingled! In labors of war and peace we have worked together and let no one say we are anything other than near-kin without paying the ax price!”
The ursuhli let out a shout and thumped their fists against their chest, then raised them high so their knuckle spikes might catch a glint of sunlight.
‘Our friend comes to us with a serious request,” Ottogor declared. “He is held in the grip of ishugg and asks us, his clan friends, to release him from his shame! He comes to us for elkugg. How can we refuse such a request?”
The warriors shook their heads. Ill indeed would it be for any to refuse such a righteous request.
“You know how it is done. We shall face him in honorable combat and he will resist with all the strength and ferocity he possesses. Any of us who fall on this day shall be reckoned blessed and no blood debt shall accrue to his clan, for it is known to all that those who fall while aiding the honor of a friend gain double the honor in return! But if any of you dispute this, let him walk away now without shame.”
None of them left. The very idea was hateful.
“So be it.” Ottogor turned to Hurren. “Say your piece, lad.”
Hurren raised his ax on high. “Hear these words, ancestors!” he roared to the sky. “I am Hurren urd Puluhiada and on this day, with the aid of the axes of the Huhampaji clan, I come to join you! Witness my act of honor, know that this day I shall fall in righteous combat! And may I join beyond the Three Stone Doors in the Fields of the Remembrance in honorable bliss until the Remaking!”
Then he lowered the ax, a fierce look in his eyes.”Now, my brothers,” he declared. “Who will face me? Who will face my ax? Who will…oh no. No, no NO! Not now, you bastards!”
Hurren’s eyes turned beyond the circle of warriors, to the woods at the edge of the field. The others followed his gaze and saw a mob of red-skinned kuyei emerged, several hundred strong and armed to the teeth.
“Bugger off!” Hurren shouted angrily. “Can’t you see I am trying to die?”
But the new arrivals didn’t speak Hurren’s native dialect. Instead they fixed on the yellow and brown tabards worn by the ursuhli mercenaries. The colors of the Autumn Court. Valarei colors and hateful beyond all reason to their eyes.
Two days the Stoneburners had tramped through the woods and back country of Esyabari. Those few Valarei unfortunate enough to cross their path died almost before they knew it. Radicals and revolutionaries, the killings had only fueled the hatred that seemed to emanate from the marrow of their bones. They yearned to kill their ancient enemies, those pale-skinned wretches who styled themselves their masters. Coming across a mob of offworld abominations in the Autumn Court colors was not the same as having the Autumn Queen in their clutches, but it was close enough for this mob, none of whom had heard of ursuhli or why their axes were so feared.
With a shout the Stoneburners charged across the field, ignoring the shout from Bayanaar to stop. Ottogor and his men had no idea who this mob was or what they wanted, but they knew a fight when they saw one and with joyful roars raised their axes and charged into battle, all thoughts of the elkugg forgotten. Ottogor was among them, hurling himself into the fray with joyful abandon.
“Damn you all!” Hurren shouted with hopeless fury, his voice lost in the growing din of battle. “Why won’t I die?”
Then a musket fired and the ball whicked past his head, barely inches away from missing. Hurren howled with frustration and charged into the fight lashing out left and right, venting the pain of his continued existence on whoever these idiots were…he did not care beyond them being a convenient target.
The warriors of the Huhampaji clan were veterans of a dozen campaigns on five worlds. The Stoneburners were a picked group of fanatics who’d been fighting a guerrilla war against their overlords for nearly a decade. The air was soon filled with a red mist and the screams of the dying. The ursuhli quickly formed into a square, their axes rising and falling, even as their fur was damp with blood from wounds gained in righteous combat. Several had fallen and were pulled into the square, either to recover their strength or, if it was their fate, to pass on to their ancestors.
But one of the Stoneburners held back. Bayanaar screamed at his men to withdraw, that this was not the time or the place for violence. He waded through his mob, pulling men back, screaming at them to stop, to save their strength for the real enemy and not a pack of mercenaries. “Back to the trees!” he shouted. “The fight is elsewhere! Get back, you fools!”
So intent was he on pulling his men away that he did not notice he was reaching the front of the fight until the man in front of him fell under Ottogor’s ax. Bayanaar cursed and reached for the sword at his side. But Ottogor was faster and the leader of the Stoneburners barely had time shout before the ax came down again and severed his head from his shoulders.
The Stoneburners cried out in grief. Almost immediately, as if a spell was broken, they began to flee, first singly, then in groups, running back for the safety of the trees. The ursuhli let out a whoop and chased after, cutting them down from behind. But one Stoneburner stayed on the attack. With a howl of rage he hurled himself at Hurren, screaming in some harsh tongue that was alien to all ears who heard it. He raised a sword and for a moment it seemed like his eyes were glowing with an unholy eldritch force.
Ottogor stepped into his path and swing his ax sideways, catching the man in the chest. He went flying back a dozen feet and tumbled onto the ground. For a moment he lay still, a gaping wound in his torso. Then, as Ottogor and Hurren watched the wound closed, healing itself. The man stood, seeming to shimmer and twist. For a moment his form changed, red skin turning to a pale bone-white, hair off-yellow, eyes black and pupil-less and fixed on Hurren with unyielding hate.
Only for a moment, but it was enough. Even as Ulzarad changed his form back to that of a kuyei and fled into the forest, Hurren lowered his bloodied ax and cursed. “May the maggots eat his guts!”
“What was that?” asked Ottogor, eyes wide.
“Neverborn,” Hurren answered, exhaling out a breath he did not realize he was holding.
“For certain? I thought they were a myth!”
“They are real. That one is an enemy of my crew. He has hunted us across these Nine Suns. And he is here on this world.” Hurren raise his ax and rested it on his shoulder. “They are in danger. I must warn them.”
“Go.” Ottogor thumped his chest in a salute. “There is no shame. Fate decrees you must live. We shall settle the elkugg another time.”
There was a lot Hurren might have said about that. But he bit his tongue and thumped his chest, then turned and began to run north towards the city. Ottogor watched him go, then went the other way, joining the rest of his warriors in the chase.
The Hall of Resplendent Proclamations was filled to capacity. Nobles of all four courts gathered in their allotted sections, watching expectantly as the doors swung open and the Bearer of the Black Staff walked in, holding the long onyx implement from which his title came. He raised it high and slammed the butt down on the floor, again and again. When he reached the tenth strike he stopped, waiting as all heads bowed in grief.
“One hour ago,” he declared, a tear gathering at the corner of his eye, “the Royal Physicians came for their examination of our most beloved Ulyra, Ruling Queen. She did not breathe and her heart did not beat. They checked her heart, her head and her eyes and placed the Orb of Tears over her head. She has left us to join the Source, to wander the fields of the World Beyond, to live her second life there until the time comes when she will return, as we all shall. The Source is All, the Source Shall Remember.”
“The Source Shall Remember.” The nobles dutifully repeated the words.
“The time of succession is upon us! Let the rightful heir, as listed in the White Book of Rites and Etiquette, present herself to us within seven days. Let her name be…”
His voice trailed off, as men in the military colors of all courts entered the Hall and threaded their way through their respective nobles. Gasps and surprising murmurings filled the hall and the nobles began to leave, many all but running for the door.
“What is this?” the Bearer of the Black Staff demanded. “How dare you all! The Queen is dead, you will stay and hear my words…”
“My lord!” A Summer Court officer appeared at his side. “I come from Lord Sorsiol. He begs your pardon for this breach of etiquette and bids you join him in the east garden at once!”
The Bearer of the Black Staff opened his mouth to object, but then looked out at the rapidly emptying hall. “Show me,” he said. Something terrible must have happened for ancient custom to be so grievously violated.
They left the hall, headed through the warren of passages beyond it and emerged in the sun of the late afternoon. Alarm bells were ringing in the city beyond, he could hear shouts coming from various directions. Lord Sorsiol, consort of the Ruling Queen until only an hour before was in the east garden of the Palace. Summer officers clustered about him, receiving orders and dashing off.
“What has happened?” the Bearer of the Black Staff asked as he approached.
Lord Sorsiol pointed up at the sky. The Bearer of the Black Staff looked up, shock gripping his heart. Warships were descending from the sky, dozens of them, their hulls painted black with white stripes and on the bottom the sigil of the Court of Winter. Gun ports were open and cannon thrust out ready for action. One large ship in particular descending towards the palace, headed to the riding lawns beyond the gardens, a landing ramp opening in the back as it approached the ground with hundreds of Winter Court soldiers inside ready to disembark.
“What is this?” the Bearer of the Black Staff breathed out.
Sorsiol glanced at him with barely concealed contempt. The two men had never liked each other. “Winter disputes the succession,” he said dryly. “I would leave, if I were you.”
With that he left, to join his men and plot the Summer Courts response. But the Bearer of the Black Staff remained rooted, unable to leave, shock and horror warring with chagrin at the knowledge of just how badly he’d been deceived. That clever bitch, he thought with both both rage and grudging admiration. What did you do, Aniari? What did you drop me into?”
He was still there when the first Winter Court soldiers entered the garden. Their officer approached the Bearer of the Black Staff and bowed. “My lord,” he said. “With respect, I ask that you come with me.”
The Bearer of the Black Staff nodded slowly and was escorted out of the garden and back into the Palace. The Hall of Resplendent Proclamations was filling up again, this time with soldiers of the Winter Court in their white coats of hardened reinforced leather and black trousers and the nobleborn officers who commanded them. One in particular stood out, a thin fellow with the narrow nose and pursed mouth common to Winter nobles from the outermost worlds. His hair was slicked back against his skull and there was a blue tint to the tips of his ears, an older generations affectation.
“My lord,” said the man, nodding curtly.
“Lord Bachiaz.” The Bearer of the Black Staff bowed slightly.
Bachiaz srut Zhora, Consort of the Winter Queen and thus by tradition the commander of that Court’s armies and fleets. A man of ancient lineage and a competent soldier, he understood the most important part of his position was to do as commanded and to ask no questions. He looked around the Palace of Light and Shadow, home to the Ruling Queen’s for uncounted millennia, as if it were just another house to be taken. “No doubt you are relieved to see us.”
“My lord?” The Bearer of the Black Staff asked.
“The Great One of Winter said you might be confused, given the experience you and everyone in this city have just gone through. Such a terrible thing is not to be tolerated and that is why the Winter Fleet is here, to see that the rightful order of things is upheld and this revolt put down.”
“A thousand apologies, Lord Bachiaz, but what are you talking about?”
Now confusion appeared on Lord Bachiaz’s face. “The revolt by the Stonebearer rebels. We received word that the city was under attack by kuyei scum. Queen Aniari herself ordered us to intervene and suppress the rabble, so that the Succession might proceed without interruption.”
“There is no revolt, my lord! Not by the kuyei or anyone else in the city! All was calm until your ships appeared in the sky.”
Bachiaz frowned, the corner of his eyes tightening, the only sign of distress he might permit. He opened his mouth to speak, but at that moment a runner came into the hall, a junior officer with a cut across his forehead and a bloodied rag tied about an arm.
“Report!” Bachiaz ordered, turning to the man.
The runner knelt. “Lord Consort, there is fighting in the city!”
“Ah, excellent! You have found the rebels, now we shall settle this matter quickly!”
“With respect, my lord, it is not kuyei who are fighting us. It is the other Courts.”
There was a moment’s pause at that. “Go on,” Bachiaz then said, deceptively calm.
“Once landed, our companies spread out through the streets as ordered, seeking out the Stonebearers. But the only kuyei we found were those in lawful service to their masters. Our men were confronted by people from the other Courts. They denied any knowledge of a revolt and accuse the Winter Court of mounting a coup against the Succession! When we advanced out of our Quarter of the city, the other Courts attacked us. Summer has called up every soldier and guardsman they have in the city and have blocked our advance, they have sealed the gates of their quarter and defend it with cannons. The Spring Queen is at her residence – she has armed the common folk of her Quarter and we have heard courier boats bearing their flag have already fled to the Empyrean past our ships.”
“And the Autumn Court?” asked Bachiaz quietly.
‘The attack us with great ferocity,” said the officer. “They say Winter seeks to rob their Queen of her rightly place. They do not have many soldiers on Ilorin, but those who are here fight as fanatics. We’ve heard that the Autumn Queen was outside the city when our fleet descended and her men fight to keep the path to the shipfield open. If she isn’t offworld yet, she soon will be…”
Bachiaz held up a hand. “Have those wounds tended too,” he said curtly. The officer bowed his head and left. No one else spoke for a while, as the magnitude of what was happening became fully, horrifyingly clear. All the safeguards had been broken, the tradition and customs, so ironclad only a day before, now gone like smoke in a strong breeze.
The Courts were at war with each other. Such a thing had not happened in over a thousand years. And they were responsible.
Smoke rose over the site and gunfire echoed in the distance as the Autumn cavalry galloped across the shipfield, escorting the royal carriage. To lighten its load and increase speed, the rest of the court nobles were left behind, told to make their way to the Autumn estates outside the walls and await word of the Queen’s safety. None were in any condition to dispute this, or even talk and the inquiry into how the most eminent notables of the Autumn Court were induced to foul themselves like colicky infants would be an engrossing one. But here and now, the safety of the Queen was paramount.
A ship sat nearby, its back door open and filled with armed guards as well as a number of high-born nobles of various clans, who’d received messages from various other personages of note to whom they were tied by bonds of kinship or personal obligation to be on this ship at this time and place. They looked up at the skies, at the ships of Winter descending in full wrath and fury and were thus relieved when the carriage skidded to a halt before the ramp. They ran down and opened the door, carrying out the Queen, still unconscious and dressed in her formal attire for the Marking.
“Hurry!” said the commander of the cavalry squadron. “The Winter Fleet will have the skies blockaded within moments! Get to the Empyrean now, while you still can!”
The Queen was carried aboard and a shiver ran through everyone aboard the ship, a tingling on the back of the neck that told them the Aethyr was being summoned as rexite rods were shoved into their beds of hot coals. The ship all but leaped off the ground, crewers working the masts, even as gunports were opened in case they needed to fight their way out.
The queen was laid down on the floor of the hold. One noble lady brought over a basin of scented water, while another laid down carefully folded towels. “My Queen,” the latter one said, untying the ribbons that fastened the veil to the dress. “You are safe.”
A muffled voice came from behind the veil. The Queen reached up and pulled it away. “Never again!” Katharu gasped, her face smeared with sweat and vomit.
The nobles barely managed to hide their surprise. This was not the Queen they expected. The messages bringing them to the ship made it clear that Metharo was the one they’d attended to and that Katharu would no longer be Queen of the Autumn. Yet here she was, glaring at the nobles. “Well?” she snapped. “Are you just going to sit there?”
The noblewoman recovered quickly. “We are just relieved you are well, Great Lady,” said the one with the towels. She got to work, wetting the cloth’s in the bowl and wiping away the filth covering the Queen’s face. She glanced at her companions and saw the same confusion she felt. What was Katharu doing here…
The cavalry galloped away from the shipfield. Tharzaag stepped out from behind one of the other ships, watching them go for a moment, then looking up at ship the carrying the Autumn Queen. He shed the Valarei disguise he was wearing, standing in his true form as his eyes glowed and mouth moved silently. He raised his hand, pointing it at the ascending ship, the tips of his fingers shining with a dark red light, which then disappeared as he clenched his fist.
Down in the ships magazine barrels of gunpowder were stacked against a bulkhead. A red glowing rune appeared on the side of one, causing the wood beneath to smoke and then burst into flame, igniting the black powder packed inside.
Tharzaag shielded his eyes as the ship blew apart in a ball of fire and smoke. Were he a few centuries younger, he might have allowed himself a smile of satisfaction at a job well done. The rune on that barrel not only detonated the gunpowder, but amplified the force of the explosion a thousandfold. Delicate work and difficult to pull off.
Burning debris dropped down to the shipfield, while black smoke drifted on the wind. Tharzaag turned away, shimmering again as he resumed his disguise. He walked away, mildly annoyed at how a carefully executed assassination no longer excited him and wondering if he would ever feel truly alive again.
“There’s another one.” Pohtoli pointed up at the sky.
Gaebrel shielded his eyes, noting the growing number of hulls dropping out of the skies. “Three masts up top,” he said. “Eight on the sides. And more guns than I can count.”
He turned away, a sick feeling in his stomach. It’s never easy…why didn’t I tell that Vitekian swine to jump into a midden heap…
“Does this have anything to do with us?” Pohtoli asked quietly.
“What do you think?” Gaebrel muttered in response.
“We need to leave…”
“No one gets left behind.” Gaebrel glared at him.
Pohtoli rolled his eyes. “We don’t know where he went…probably some damn fool scheme to get himself killed, the idiot…why don’t we ask him?”
Hurren appeared on the shipfield, half jogging, half stumbling towards them. He reached the stern door of the ship and leaned against the hull, panting heavily.
“Where the hell have you been?” Gaebrel called down.
“Wait…catch…breath.” Hurren raised a hand.
“You been missing for three days!” Pohtoli added. “We thought you were dead!”
“Not…that…lucky.” Hurren gasped out, glaring back at him. He took another deep breath and exhaled slowly. “He’s here,” he wheezed out. “Neverborn…Ulzarad…”
“You saw Ulzarad?” Gaebrel asked, a knot of fear gripping his bowels. The medallion turned warm at the mention of his name.
“I saw him, disguised as one of those red skinned ilurei. Only a moment, but he saw me. He’s on this world and he’s hunting us…”
“Get inside and close the back door, then get to your post.”
Hurren nodded and stumbled aboard.
Gaebrel found his hand gripping the back rail, tight enough so that his knuckles turned white. He forced his fingers to pull free. “Get us off the flat,” he called down a speaking tube that poked up on the starboard side, which connected to the ascension locker. Morrec made no reply, but a moment later they all felt that prickling on the back of the neck that told them the rexite was in the fire and the Aethyr was pulling the Sparrow skywards
Two thumps sounded from below, a signal from Hurren that he was at his post.
“Two points to port,” Gaebrel called down to the tiller room, through a grill in the center of the back deck. “Then hold steady!”
After that he came down from the back deck. “Open all sheets!” he yelled. “We run before the wind!”
Pohtoli and Gerel clambered out onto the side sails, while Gaebrel quickly put a skybelt around his waist. Made from thick canvas, it had a ring on the left side from which hung an large steel eyehook on a lanyard. He climbed up the main mast, clipping the hook into a lifeline running down the side. Yasinnic came down from his perch in the crows nest and together they swung out the studding sails, doubling the width of the yards and increasing their speed. The Sparrow vibrated with energy as she picked up speed. The Valarei warship turned to intercept, but were left behind.
“Look.” Yasinnic pointed at the city. Pillars of smoke rose up from it and they saw the light of fires across many neighborhood. Suddenly there was a flash and a fireball rose up above the Summer Quarter, followed a moment later by the sound of an explosion. In response, the Winter ships floating about the city disappeared behind a white haze as their cannons fired.
“What did we do?” Gaebrel muttered, even as the city disappeared behind and below. Yasinnic merely shrugged.
Gaebrel clambered back down onto the deck, telling his companions to stay at their posts. Two hours later the blue sky was replaced by the dark gray and iron smell of the Empyrean. Morrec stowed the rexite rods and came on deck, headed up into the main mast to aid Yasinnic. Gaebrel ordered the studding sails pulled in and the course adjusted so that the ship went against the rotation of the world, taking them across the terminator and into the night side.
Then he ordered everyone on deck and down into the hold, where they gathered around the coffin.
“This is familiar,” Gerel said.
“Will she vomit on your shoes again?” Gaebrel asked Morrec with a grin.
“Change the subject,” Morrec responded coldly.
“As you wish. Hurren, let us have a look at our treasure.”
Hurren pulled away the lid and tossed it aside. The Queen still lay in the coffin, still passed out, her veil and dress now stained with filth and sweat.
Gaebrel knelt down and untied the veil and headdress. He tossed them aside, gazed at the woman’s face, closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “That doesn’t look right,” he said.
The others leaned in for a look. “I can’t tell the difference,” said Hurren. “Though to be fair, your females all look the same to me.”
“We are human,” said Pohtoli. “She is ilurei.”
“As I said, the same.”
“Not the same! Different, like cats and dogs!”
Hurren shrugged, baring his teeth in amusement. “As you say, friend Pohtoli.”
Morrec leaned in close. “I only saw them both for a moment,” he said, “but the differences were still striking…Gaebrel? You look like you’re about to weep.”
“Or murder someone,” Gaebrel muttered. “Damn that Vitekian swine!”
A queen did lie inside the coffin – a tall, slender woman with dark hair and pale features. Metharo, the Young Queen of the Autumn Court, who at this moment should have been on the planet below, taking her cousin’s place as actual Queen.
Her cousin Katharu was supposed to be in that box…and most conspicuously wasn’t.
“Suns and Spirits and all the Saints,” Gaebrel muttered. He looked at his comrades. “Gentlemen, we kidnapped the wrong Queen.”