THE KING’S DRAGON (Chapter One)
Parade Grounds, Gaizen Palace, Tallend Province of the Fensic Empire
Magic pressed on Mair’s heart when Dal Atul emerged from the barracks at the far side of the parade grounds. As she watched him, the sensation enfolded her, slid through her, around her, deep and mysterious. The moment of recognition, when it hit, shook her so hard her breath stopped. So hard she couldn’t hear what the others were whispering. Nothing existed except Atul, that old, savage magic, and her conviction that her life had just re-formed itself into a new and terrible shape.
This awful sense of desperation and futility had to spring from fear she told herself. What could her fast-beating pulse mean but that, like the others, she was afraid of the king’s Dragon? By reputation alone, he was not a man who would ever be the subject of romantic fantasy. Today’s tourney was for the entertainment of the Tallend delegation, but it was no accident the participants were soldiers. Dangerous soldiers. Each one chosen from among Veren’s best, including, of course, from members of the King’s Own Guard. Men such as Dal Atul.
Mair Barrence, the eldest of three children, had spent the whole of her twenty-five years at the northern border. Northerners were not a soft people. How could they be, in a land where conditions crushed the weak until there was nothing left? The folk there dressed plainly, spoke plainly and did not coddle their children or their women. They could not afford to. Mair was Northern to her marrow. Thus, she confronted herself and admitted that the emotion that rocked her to her core was not fear but the same unknowable emotion that had twisted in her since the day she set eyes on the Dragon.
Atul had been given his epithet not out of respect or fear, but because his father was one of the Dragon sept Elves. He was the result of one of the rapes that occurred during the third and final battle for control of the Tallend Province. Half-bloods who survived childhood and could pass for fully human did so. Atul had survived despite his obvious parentage.
That he’d been brought into the King’s Own Guard said a great deal about King Veren—and yet more about Atul. The King’s Own were the elite of Veren’s army, under his private command. His personal guards were drawn from them. They had no internal rank or hierarchy; whether noble born, baseborn, sons of whores or bastard half-bloods, they were soldiers now and for the rest of their lives. No one left the King’s Own except by dying. They were men who had been killers, intriguers, assassins, thieves and poisoners. Some, so rumor went, were even sorcerers. King Veren prized magic highly. And the men recruited into the King’s Own did whatever was necessary to protect him. They carried out his will without question or hesitation.
The gallery spectators fell silent as Atul approached. Every soldier within fifty paces, be he of the King’s Own or otherwise, stopped what he was doing to watch.
Atul entered the tournament grounds. He ignored the stares, the curses—farking Elvish bastard—and the silence that followed as he passed the shouting boys gathered at the edge of the tourney grounds. Above the hard-packed dirt, dust seethed in his wake like the breath of a living beast.
Mair’s uncle, the Duke of Estes, coughed behind his hand. “Ah, yes,” he drawled. He stood at the king’s left, dressed in superfine wool and silk. Ruinously expensive agate beads, each one round and hardly larger than a grain of rice, were sewn into patterns on his collar and cuffs: everyone dressed in their finest at a tourney arranged and attended by the king. “The Dragon, terrible creature that he is, duly makes his appearance to terrify the ladies.”
Mair drew breath at last.
The wooden railing around the gallery created an illusion of separation from the tourney grounds, but a reasonably agile person could step or jump over it and be among the soldiers in ten paces. Five paces from the gallery, Dal Atul went down on one knee. He bowed his head, right fist pressed to his left shoulder. A soldier, one of the regulars, spat into the dust.
Atul, for reasons the subject of yet more rumor, had fallen out of favor with Veren. He’d strangled the king’s mistress after discovering she’d been unfaithful to their sovereign. One version had it she’d been unfaithful with Atul himself, and that after he’d sated himself on her body, he’d killed the woman for her infidelity. Whatever the truth, he’d lost his place among the king’s personal guard and now was here, a performing monster.
A nearby girl, the daughter of one of the Tallend delegation present to conclude a treaty with King Veren, gasped when Atul lifted his head.
“Proceed,” Veren said with a flick of a finger. He was past middle years, with a reputation for sexual excess and a mind for military tactics that nearly thirty seasons past had conceived of and executed the campaign that crushed the elvish armies at two borders. In their retreat, the elves had taken their measure of revenge. All remembered. None forgot.
Veren’s sleeves were slashed to reveal a gold lining. Pearls encircled his cuffs and gold and silver thread gleamed at his collar and in the embroidery that covered his doublet. Though he sat not quite straight on his chair with one booted foot on a low, velvet-covered stool, goblet of ice wine in hand, no one could look at Veren and think him a man softened by his years of rule. His eyes were too penetrating for that. He’d conceived and created the King’s Own, after all.
The Dragon stood, his malevolent blue gaze scanning the gallery. He did nothing to hide his ruined cheek. Scars, some the size of Mair’s smallest finger, crisscrossed the right side of his face and neck and twisted his mouth into a permanent scowl. Taller and more muscular than the others, he looked too big to be quick. The elvish bastards who survived tended to be both. His gaze continued moving, assessing the spectators and, so it seemed, finding them beneath his notice.
Mair was always the least grandly dressed of the women at court and not deliciously foreign like the Tallend women, with their dark hair and eyes. There was no reason, no reason at all, for Atul’s gaze to pause at her. Yet she did not think it was her imagination that it did. She met his eyes, fell into them, and her heart twisted. Irrevocably, in searing, permanent damage, caught up in the ancient magic still swirling inside her. It was magic. Her breath caught in her throat, and the new shape of her life was a sword, fatally sharp.
The women near the gallery railing retreated so that Mair, who had been in the middle of the spectators to the left of Veren, found herself with no one between her and Atul. And she learned something new: She was inded afraid of him. What sane person would not be? But she refused to move. Not one jot. The Dragon would not despise her for cowardice.
The Tallenders recoiled, men and women both, and that made Mair wonder if Veren had not made a canny choice when he chose to humiliate his Dragon in this manner. The king’s mistress had been from one of the Tallend border villages decimated during the Elvish retreat and now among the disputed territories. The Tallenders were here to press for the return of the southwest edge of the Fensic Empire. Veren’s position was that the lands were his by right of conquest and current possession. He’d sent troops southwest to discourage elvish incursions, but if the additional troops also delivered a message to the Tallenders, that was to his benefit.
Perhaps Atul, too, delivered a message for the king. Mair could not help but think he did.
The shape of his ears and eyes gave away his elvish blood, and by now the Tallenders must have heard the rumors about the reason for Atul’s disgrace. Like the other King’s Own, he wore his long hair plaited into tiny braids held back from his face by a leather thong. The braids were a part of a private ritual undertaken when a soldier made the oath that bound his life to Veren. The undamaged areas of Atul’s face hinted that he might once have been of at least average appearance. Perhaps even handsome. If not that, compelling.
Atul glanced away from Mair, and she let out the breath her fear had trapped in her throat. He nodded to Veren and returned to the grounds. The soldiers nearest him backed away, giving him room. Was it respect or fear that made his compatriots keep such a distance? Both, Mair imagined. Dal Atul was a monstrous man.
Veren leaned forward on his chair and spoiled his air of indolence.
“Now,” said Estes for anyone to hear, “I think we shall see a sight worth having come out in this heat.”
Veren handed his goblet to a servant. “We hope not to be disappointed.”
Atul drew his sword and, alone, moved through a series of steps familiar to any student of the blade. Mair whispered the name of each form. This was beauty: a man with such command over his body. The Dragon flowed from one move to the next, each motion precise and calculated to kill.
Once done with the basic patterns, he switched his sword to his left hand and began again, as perfect as before. When he completed the forms, he nodded to one of the nearby regulars. The man who stepped forward wore leather gear, metal breastplate and gauntlets layered with white steel of Elvish make. Southerners hated the Elvish, and with reason, but they did not disdain superior smiths. Elvish blades sometimes went years before they needed sharpening. Today, for a tourney more a demonstration of prowess than a competition, the swords, elvish or not, had been magically blunted.
As Atul stepped forward, shouts rose up from the crowd of ragged and dirty boys. Cries of “Kill the Elvish bastard!” rose above whistles and jeers. The Dragon crooked his fingers at his opponent, a silky smile curving the undamaged side of his mouth.
Estes bent his head to Mair’s. Her uncle was Veren’s advisor, a light-haired man with a neat goatee, green eyes and a devotion to fashion first taken up when Veren called him to court some fifteen years ago. Her father oversaw her uncle’s Northern holdings. Embossed iron rings encircled each of his fingers, and he wore an iron stud in one ear. Between shoulder and elbow, his wide sleeves were slashed to reveal a purple silk lining. He wore the leggings and high boots so popular at court and carried off the look with elan.
“I do not blame him if he refuses to fight the Dragon,” he said.
“Ah, but look, uncle.”
Having relented, the challenged soldier moved into a ready stance, sword lifted. He was young and fit, of course, with a pretty face and brown hair cut close to his head. From the sighs around Mair, he was a favorite with the young ladies.
Mair did not look away when the Dragon turned the scarred side of his body toward the gallery. Several of the ladies gasped. Her chest pinched. Not in pity. Nor in disgust, but in a reaction that fluttered at the edges of her heart.
Though it was well before midday, the sun beat down, merciless in the blue sky. The lightweight armor the soldiers wore exposed more of their bodies than usual and made it possible to see that Atul’s injuries extended beyond his face and throat to his shoulders and lower. Both arms were scarred.
The two combatants faced off. An older soldier who wasn’t wearing armor gave the signal to start. Moments later, Atul disarmed his pretty opponent. Mair applauded with the men and the smaller number of women who, like her, knew good sword-work when they saw it. The rest bemoaned the pretty one’s defeat. Money changed hands and new wagers were laid down.
The king leaned toward Mair. She was close enough to smell the lemongrass and cedarwood that scented his clothes. “You did not wish young Sult to come away the victor?”
She curtseyed and answered honestly, even though she was aware of Veren’s displeasure with Atul. “Majesty. I applaud the better swordsman.”
“Better.” He snorted and raised his voice. “Better, because he won?”
“No, Majesty.” She tried to keep her tone light. More than once her uncle had taken her to task for speaking too bluntly. Her excuse that she was a Northerner never sufficed. Her uncle had been with Veren long enough to lose his Northern ways. “Because he is the superior swordsman. Surely, you did not think he would lose to Sult?”
“Perhaps I wished him to.”
“If you did, did tell Atul?”
The king gave her a sideways look and pointed to the field. “And now? Who wins this match?”
Mair considered the Dragon’s new challenger and thought the answer obvious. “Atul will have him in two moves. Possibly one.”
“You know this for fact?”
“Not fact, sir. I cannot read the future like one of your mages. But there.” She pointed. “His balance is too much to his back leg. The Dragon will draw him forward, and that one will not be able to correct his balance. He will be too slow.”
“We shall see,” Veren said.
The match began. Atul leaned in and allowed the other man to tap his blade, but followed this with a backward slide, catlike and precise. While his opponent struggled to take advantage of the retreat, Atul sidestepped and gave what would have been a killing blow had not his sword edge been blunted. Never mind the dulled edge of the weapon, tomorrow that soldier would feel the bruise.
THE KING’S DRAGON Copyright © 2011 Carolyn Jewel