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1: THE OUTLAWS OF BARSINE
Jorat Dominion, Quuros Empire. Two days since Kihrin D’Mon was sacrificed to Xaltorath
When Kihrin walked back into the tavern, a swell of questions greeted him—or greeted her. The guests wanted answers. What was that noise? Had it scared the horses? Were the horses all right? Had the weather worsened? Did anyone check the horses? Did the firebloods want to join them at the bar?1
That last offer had sounded serious.
“The storm is still too severe to travel,” Janel projected in a loud voice. “Don’t try to leave.”
Kihrin raised an eyebrow but didn’t contradict her. An ice sheet several feet thick now trapped everyone inside. With an angry dragon waiting for them on the other side.
Just your typical night out at a tavern.
There seemed little point in panicking the crowd over something they couldn’t fix. Kihrin doubted he could help either, even with Urthaenriel, but he knew one thing: any dragon-slaying debate had become significantly less debatable.
But if the one outside was the wrong dragon, who was the right dragon?
After everyone returned to their drinks and chatter, Janel wandered back to the Vishai priest. She dumped Kihrin’s bag onto a chair.
“Aeyan’arric’s outside,” she whispered to Brother Qown, “and she’s iced over the tavern’s front door.”
Kihrin sat and stared at his bowl. He wondered how many provisions the tavern had stocked, how long the supplies would last. How would the locals accept rationing, or worse, the food running out?
No. Kihrin had no intention of letting a dragon trap him. And Urthaenriel’s hateful melodies had revealed the presence of powerful magic. Kihrin couldn’t be sure if Urthaenriel was reacting to wizards or to the presence of one or more Cornerstones, but the sword gave him enough of a vague sense of direction to make an educated guess. Urthaenriel wanted Qown dead as much as she wanted to kill the dragon, Janel, or the old woman who kept the horses.
These people weren’t as powerless as they seemed.2
“Aeyan’arric’s here? Already?” Qown leaned forward, lowering his voice to match Janel’s. “That’s far too soon after the fight. If she’s recovered this fast—”
“Not if,” Janel said. “She’s recovered. It’s an unwelcome confirmation of how hard it is to permanently kill a dragon. She didn’t even stay dead for two days. And we’ve no way to know if the other dragons recover slower or faster.”
Kihrin furrowed his eyebrows. “She was dead two days ago? How did that happen?”
Janel sighed. She glanced around to make sure no one was paying attention. “I slew her.” She added, “To be fair, I had significant assistance.”
“So … let me see if I understand. You lured me here using a combination of bribery and logic. You have a hypothetical dragon—Morios—you claim will rip up Atrine any minute now. But Aeyan’arric—a dragon who is not hypothetical—has instead stalked you here. Because you were rude enough to kill her two days ago.” Kihrin grabbed his bowl and a spoon. “There’s no point worrying about your first problem until you do something about the second. Did I miss anything?”
Janel frowned at him. “No.”
“So answer me this. If this dragon—Morios—is heading for Jorat’s capital, why didn’t you set up shop in Atrine and have the Gatekeeper send me there? We’d already be in position. I didn’t see a Gatekeeper manning this side of the local Gatestone when I arrived. So unless this is your Gatekeeper’s day off and he’s drinking over at the bar, we can’t open a gate from here. Why enlist my help here—assuming I’d even agree—if it takes two months to reach Atrine? How much of that city would be left when we arrived?”3
Janel and Qown shared that look again.
“Okay, you two need to stop that,” Kihrin said. “Whatever you think I won’t believe or won’t accept—just tell me. I’ve been through and seen a lot. I’m a master at accepting the impossible.”
“The way your hands are shaking suggests otherwise,” Janel said.
“That’s a normal reaction to being attacked by a dragon.”
Qown cleared his throat. “Sometimes a particular action sounds bad if one doesn’t have the context to interpret it. For example, if somebody told me you had killed Emperor Sandus—”
“Just an example?” Kihrin narrowed his eyes. “I hypothetically killed the emperor?”
“Let him finish,” Janel said.
“Yes, thank you. As I was saying, I would be upset. But only because I lacked context. After all, Gadrith the Twisted had taken possession of Sandus’s body using the Stone of Shackles. You didn’t kill the emperor, because he was already dead. You see? If we blurt out certain facts—well, without the right context, you might reach an incorrect conclusion.”
Kihrin stared. “Where are you getting your information about me?”
He found their accuracy distressing. Kihrin checked the man’s hands; no intaglio-carved ruby rings. If Qown belonged to the late emperor’s secret society, the Gryphon Men, he wasn’t wearing his allegiance openly.
Qown cleared his throat. “That’s also one of those situations where context is important.” He turned to Janel. “We have a lot to explain.”
“Yes, you do,” Kihrin agreed. “Luckily for you, I don’t have anywhere else to be.”
Janel scowled. “Our focus must be on Atrine, Qown. Morios could wake at any moment. When he does, Atrine will be defenseless.”
“Do you want me to check?” Qown asked. “Sorry. Of course you do.” He pulled an egg-sized stone from his robes. Toward the middle, the brown agate seemed to transform to some more expensive gemstone. The colors layered until a flame appeared to burn in the center.
Urthaenriel screamed in his mind.
“Is that…” Kihrin paused and wet his lips. “That’s a Cornerstone, right?”
“Worldhearth,” Qown said. “One of the eight god artifacts. Each Cornerstone possesses unique abilities its owner can use—”
“I know what a Cornerstone is. I destroyed one two days ago.” And freed every demon in the world.
“Right. The Stone of Shackles.” Qown fidgeted. “A moment, then.”
The priest didn’t do anything special or spectacular. He stared into the rock as though admiring its beauty. After a few seconds, he blinked and tucked the stone back into his robes.
“He hasn’t attacked yet,” Qown said.
“He will soon. We need to be there when he—” She glanced over at Kihrin in time to see him roll his eyes. “You don’t believe us.”
“I still haven’t heard why we’re not in Atrine.”
“I have my reasons.”
“And what might those be?”
“Mine.” She narrowed her eyes.
But Kihrin had no interest in placating her. “You won’t give me information, and you still expect me to help? Why would I?”
Janel leaned across the table. “Because the man I encountered two days ago wasn’t a spoiled brat. Because he didn’t hesitate to aid me, even at the risk he’d be trapped in the Afterlife. Because I thought that man—who would risk his soul to save someone he’d never met before—” She curled her lip. “I assumed he’d risk his life to save two hundred and fifty thousand other people he’d never met before. Apparently, I was mistaken.” Janel stood up while Brother Qown gave the impression he wanted to hide behind his hands.
Kihrin grabbed her wrist. The scathing look she threw at him suggested he was about to lose the hand—followed by his life. “I’m sorry.” He stared into her eyes, red with glimmers of orange and yellow—not House D’Talus. “I was out of line. But please understand, you’re asking a lot. You’re expecting me to accept your story on blind faith. Anyone would be skeptical. Give me something to work with.”
Janel studied his face before sitting. “I can’t return to Atrine because of my status in the eyes of Jorat’s ruler. The moment Duke Xun learns I’m not deceased, I’ll be treated to my prompt execution. The only way I can visit Atrine is if they’re too distracted with other problems to pay any attention. For example—Morios.”4
Kihrin stared at her. “Why does Duke Xun want you dead?”
“It’s a rather long story.”
“We have time,” Kihrin said. “I mean…” He pointed back toward the front door. “We’re not going anywhere until the ice queen outside tires of this game. Or until we kill her.”
Brother Qown perked. “That’s a wonderful idea.”
“Which part? The tiring or the killing?”
“Qown—” Janel said.
“Don’t scold me. He’s right; we should tell him.” Qown smiled at Kihrin. “Plus, it’s important for you to see how you fit into all this and why we need you.”
“I know why,” Kihrin replied. Urthaenriel. If they’d already killed a dragon, then doing so again wasn’t the issue. Apparently, killing a dragon permanently was the problem. They thought they needed Urthaenriel to make it stick.
Qown paused from fishing through a satchel. “Hm, I doubt it.”
“Where should I start?” Janel said. “Perhaps with Duke Kaen?”
Qown pulled a small, neatly bound tome from his book bag. “We’d have to go back further than Duke Kaen or it won’t make sense. Further than Atrine. All the way to events at Barsine.” He tapped his thumb against the book cover. “Fortunately, I’ve logged the whole story.”
“Barsine. Is that a person or a place?” Kihrin asked.
Janel’s smile was wan. “It depends on context. Qown, you start. I’ll go fetch us all another round. And more upishiarral.”5
Kihrin followed her with his eyes as she headed toward the bar. She started talking to the bartender. Whatever Janel said made the other woman throw down her towel and cross her arms. A few seconds later, they slipped through a back door.
Meanwhile, Brother Qown picked up his notebook and read aloud. “There are many accounts of the rebellion, the reasons for it, the manner of its successes and failures. Brother Qown was certain his account wouldn’t match any other histori—”
“Hold up. I have a question,” Kihrin said.
Brother Qown paused. “Just one?”
“I make no promises,” Kihrin said dryly. “A rebellion? What rebellion? I thought we were talking about a dragon.”
“Context, remember?” Qown said. “Please be patient. It’s not as though you have any choice, until certain draconic obstacles are removed.”
“Fine, fine. Is this recent? Duke Kaen moving against the rest of the empire?” Janel and Qown had mentioned Duke Kaen earlier, and Kihrin’s friend Jarith Milligreest had been concerned about the duke’s undeclared rebellion. For that matter, Jarith’s father, High General Qoran Milligreest, had been concerned about Duke Kaen. Father and son had both watched him, waiting for the man to give them an excuse to send in the army.
Which reminded Kihrin his friend Jarith had been claimed by the Hellmarch two days before in the Capital.
“My apologies,” Kihrin said. “Please continue.”
“Right, yes.” Qown looked for his place in the journal. “So … Qown would always insist the rebellion began in Jorat.
“It began with a robbery …
“The whole affair had been problematic from the start. The outlaws had proved unwilling to engage in the ‘robbing’ part of their duties. Brother Qown knew the bandits lurked in the nearby trees; he’d felt eyes on their position for hours. He wondered what they could be waiting—”
Brother Qown looked up, frowning. “Yes?”
“Third person?” Kihrin asked, trying not to laugh. “Really? If you were there … why wouldn’t you tell this from your point of view?”
“It’s a chronicle,” Brother Qown protested. “I’m a chronicler. One does not write a chronicle as a first-person diary.”
“I never found anyone who’d refer to themselves in third person trustworthy. I knew this mimic—”
Janel set down a tray filled with ciders, local beers, and several more bowls of upishiarral. “Here we are.”
“Problems with the barkeep?” Kihrin asked.
“Hm? No problem at all,” Janel said. She helped herself to a cider as she sat.
Kihrin glanced over at the bar. The bartender had returned, but now she huddled with the old groom, whispering.
“He keeps interrupting me.” Brother Qown looked over at Janel as if pleading for protection. “May I please continue?”
Janel touched Kihrin on the hand. “There’ll be no living with him if you don’t allow him to read.”
Kihrin let the little man read.
Copyright © 2019 by Jenn Lyons