Book 6 update: My alpha reader has finished going over the main draft. Starting next week, I’ll be doing the final draft tweaks — I don’t have many notes on them, which is nice, but there’s always plenty of unnecessary verbosity I need to assassinate.
In The Lay of the Land, Sarovy was 14; in Feathered Wolf, he was 17. This is a year later, putting him at 18 during a turning point in the relationship between Tevestys and the wolf-clans. The Imperials have taken an interest…to everyone’s detriment.
This isn’t exactly a Start of Darkness, but neither is it a fun time for anyone.
Includes: imperialism/colonialism, death, torture.
Approx. Date: 16 years before series.
Description: Young Firkad Sarovy weathers Imperial influence.
Note: Ridvan translations included after the main text.
SKSS Firkad Sarovy learned of Kerestrys Deieksa’s deposal and execution upon returning from an up-country mission. At swords-point, the Vaden Deiek guards invited him politely but firmly to join the investigators in the first interrogation room, and as there were four archers also aiming at him, he chose to comply.
His surveyor’s satchel was taken from him, as of course were his weapons. Tired, sore and numbed by the news, he allowed this, and sank into the chair in the cold stone room with a small measure of relief. At least they wouldn’t make him stand at attention on his aching leg.
Across from him sat a Sapphire high officer he did not know, but who wore the fledge of a ticheisa—a division commander. Kerystrys Deieksa’s direct superior, he supposed, though he had thought Finmary Ticheisa was a woman.
Behind the ticheisa stood two Imperials, both white-clad, both male. The shorter, darker one had the look of the farming plains folk, and the white embroidery barely visible down the chest of his robe showed the six-winged Imperial star—a priest. The other, tall and blond and bearded, wore an eye-shaped clasp at the throat of his equally white cloak. An Inquisitor, then.
That did not bode well.
A guard dumped the contents of his surveyor’s satchel onto the table, then stepped out and closed the door.
“What is this, Captain Sarovy?” said the ticheisa mildly, in Imperial Altaerai.
An itch crawled up Sarovy’s neck as he tried to organize his thoughts. He had never felt the sensation of mentalist contact before, but had heard it described well enough to identify it.
“Surveying tools and preliminary maps,” he stated, reaching at the ticheisa’s gesture to start sorting them. The sketches he’d made of the up-country cliffs, the topographic estimations, the map of village locations, the quick portraits of important clan figures. “The completion of the Rauvern suppression has allowed us access further into its hinterlands, and so I—“
“How are drawings of cliffs useful to your army?” said the priest.
He wondered how well-informed the Imperials were on the metal-folk interference, then realized—still feeling the itch—that he would have to explain. “Part of my mission was to seek evidence of metal extraction or metal-elemental presence in the area past Rauvern territory. The Rauverns possessed steel weapons of unknown provenance, and as we could not trace any overland trade-routes for them, we had to consider other sources. It is well-known that the Garnet Mountains house several subterranean elemental communities—“
“You were looking for those?” the ticheisa directed.
“For evidence of them,” Sarovy answered with a respectful nod. “They were sighted several times during the Rauvern suppression, though always at a distance. While there is no direct evidence that they had any dealings with the Rauverns, the fact of the steel weapons has no other explanation at this time.”
“Does it not?” said the priest. “But your outpost commander was just executed for trading weapons to the… That other wolf-clan.”
Sarovy couldn’t quite control his flinch. It didn’t make sense that Kerystrys Deieksa was dead. She’d sent him out only a month ago, to take advantage of the fair weather before the summer storms rolled over the mountains. At the time, he hadn’t been thrilled by the mission; he’d been knee-deep in reorganizing his scouts for better team performance. His new officers were mostly settled in, but those passed over or demoted because of their behavior in the Rauvern suppression were still fomenting trouble, some even after multiple disciplinary actions. His only real relief had been former-sekiisa Virkayar’s medical resignation and subsequent reassignment to a central fortress.
After the frenzy of outpost politics, his trek into the Garnet back-country had felt like being sidelined. Perhaps Kerystrys Deieksa had meant it as a forced vacation. The Light knew he never took time off. But beside a few panoramic sketches and some of the portraits, he’d focused on work. The Vastreins who now controlled the area had politely ignored him, and he’d returned the favor while climbing cliffs and spying from treetops for any glimpse of an elusive elemental.
And while he grumbled over drizzle and his bad shoulder and the uselessness of rumors, his commander was being disgraced and killed.
“I am not privy to the details of any weapon trades,” he answered stiffly. “But the weapons the Rauverns wielded were very different from ours or the Vastreins’. We import bulk steel to the central fortresses for our smiths, then the army’s high quartermasters disburse weapons and other metal goods to each outpost to suit its needs. We—Vaden Outpost—have no other supplier of metal or weaponry. I do not see how any of us could have acquired a different style of sword just to deliver it to a second wolf-clan.”
The priest snorted. “And your commander thought that quibble was worth sending her scout-leader on a wild chase through the woods?”
“I lead the scouts, yes. I am also the senior surveyor, and I know the territory very well. I assume she meant to use the best tool at her disposal.”
“Not to protect you?”
The blue-coated ticheisa gave him a flat look, and his heart lurched as he recalculated. They’d only told him of Kerystrys Deieksa’s death. Had there been other executions? A political purge?
Still, why in the world were they aimed at him?
After a moment, the ticheisa sighed. “We were told that you are Major Kerystrys’ partisan. A loyalist.”
He had been, when it was a choice between Kerystrys Deieksa and a hearsay-version of the Sapphire General’s will. But there was no point in maintaining loyalty to a dead person. Whatever reason she’d had for arming the Vastreins, he did not share it. “I serve Vaden Outpost.”
“Not the army? Not the Empire?”
“I do not receive orders from them directly, only through my superior.”
“Certainly you can extrapolate from Imperial law,” said the priest.
Sarovy slanted a considering look at him. He wasn’t sure of the man’s rank; none of his interrogators had been introduced, and he had only a vague idea of the priestly hierarchy. Of all his Imperial texts, he’d touched the one on faith the least, as the abstract maundering about Light and Dark simply couldn’t keep his attention. All he knew was that the mostly-black cord looped across the shoulders of the priest’s white-on-white robe had something to do with ritual purity.
“I was given to understand that the army has flexibility regarding certain parts of the law,” he answered.
The priest stared, brows beetling over his odd dark eyes. “Who told you that?”
“My Youth Corps instructors.”
“Setting that aside,” the ticheisa cut in, and Sarovy wondered if that had been a secret. Surely not. It seemed obvious that Imperial law was for civilians, not the military. “Our concern, Captain Sarovy, is that we need an outpost command staff that we can trust—not one that supplies weapons to external parties and plays favorites in the governance of our border territories. All actions we take must be in alignment with Imperial policy, and when they are not, those mistakes must be corrected. You have been part of the mistake. How should we correct you?”
Meeting the ticheisa’s cold silvery eyes, Sarovy reluctantly acknowledged himself intimidated. It did not happen often, but that blunt statement was chilling.
“I have been denounced?” he guessed.
“Allegations have been made against you, yes. Of partisan loyalty, of favoritism toward the Clan Vastrein, of knowing cooperation with skinchangers, of assaulting subordinates and superiors…“
“Virkayar, then. And possibly Scout Charray.”
The ticheisa’s mouth twitched slightly. “There have been multiple reports.”
If not just those two, then likely the other scout-officers he’d angered recently. Unable to beat him in duels despite his lingering injuries, they’d chosen the coward’s way of removing him.
They had no fire, no warrior spirit. But then, that was why they were scouts.
Behind the ticheisa, the Inquisitor’s odd blond brows perked. Sarovy cursed himself; he had to remember he was being monitored. Though what the man might glean from his thoughts, he couldn’t tell.
“Am I allowed to address the allegations?” he asked.
The ticheisa made a permissive gesture.
“For partisan loyalty, it is simple. I have followed my superior’s orders. No one has given me alternative orders or a reason to disregard them. For cooperation with skinchangers, I followed my superior’s lead, assuming as stated that for military matters we were held outside Imperial law. If that is wrong, then I can only regret it. For the assault charges, one was a duel and one was a field-expedient punishment for attempted sabotage of the mission. For favoritism… I suppose I do not understand the charge, sir.”
“You do not understand why we cannot favor Clan Vastrein over Clan Rauvern, captain?”
“In an equal situation, sir, I do. But Clan Rauvern received weaponry from an unknown third party, potentially to use against us. If we happened to use Clan Vastrein as ground-troops for breaking them, that was not favoritism. It was tactical pragmatism.”
“And arming the Vastreins—that raises no warning signals for you?”
He thought back to his first uneasy encounter with the Vastreins, four years ago. “It did, sir. I do not like that Major Kerystrys took that action, but like the skinchanger situation, I assumed that she had special dispensation for it. I recognize now that it was an overreach, yet I do not see how it could harm us. The mountain clans would need more than swords to assail our outposts.”
“You follow laws and orders rather selectively, captain.”
Sarovy sat up straighter, offended. “I follow the parameters of my mission, sir. I do not know if you have ever been a scout. We operate far from command, often alone, and have to act based on our best judgment—sometimes with mere moments to think. Even easy river-mapping missions may require bending Imperial law. Should we shoot at an approaching clan-person, expecting them to be a skinchanger? What if they are, and the first shot does not kill them? What if they are not, and we have murdered a civilian? How will that impact other scouts who are on missions further upland? We are not common soldiers, who move in force and need not fear such repercussions. We rely, at least partially, on the wolf-kin not wanting to kill us.”
The priest snorted, hairy upper lip curled in a sneer. “That is the problem. You should not need their permission or their goodwill. They should recoil from your path in fear. Your commander was a fool to be so soft-handed, and you have all learned bad habits from her. If you feel threatened by the wolf-clans, then punish them until they cower on their bellies before you.”
Sliding him a look, Sarovy wondered how he expected that to work. It would require far more troops than Vaden Deiek contained. Everyone living and working in the outpost was military, but more than half were supply-management staff, and the soldiers doubled as the outpost’s hunters. On any given day, three quarters of the eight hundred deiek occupants were engaged in non-military work, with the rest either training, patrolling the lengthy border, or on missions. Sarovy’s scouts, just over a hundred in number, spent half their duty-time on fletching and fishing.
Meanwhile, from his own surveys, Sarovy knew the wrecked remnants of Clan Rauvern to number around three hundred—if mostly jendae and children—and the Vastreins to be almost a thousand spread across at least four main sites and ten outposts. He had no estimation for how many were human and how many were skinchangers. Going up against them without the buffer of another clan…
There had not been real war on the border in his lifetime. He didn’t want to consider it.
“You should, Captain Sarovy,” said the Inquisitor, smiling at his twitch.
With a long-suffering look, the ticheisa focused on Sarovy. “Let’s jump forward. You’re fortunate, captain. You haven’t done anything stunningly wrong, and no one in this outpost is in any haste to take over interactions with the wolf-kin. With your…varied experience of them, you would seem the best candidate. Don’t you think?”
Sarovy blinked. That was not the outcome he’d expected. “As you say, sir.”
“With two caveats. The Riddish clans are angry that the Garnet Mountain wolf-kin show no fealty to them. They must be brought into the Riddish alliance. Likewise, we cannot show favor toward any wolf-kin clan. Therefore, as Clan Rauvern was suppressed, Clan Vastrein shall be also. You will lead this effort. Do you understand?”
His stomach tightened. He thought of a lodge full of jendae and children, of suture needles and bandages, of covered-teeth grins. Of shooting a subordinate for the sake of an ally.
They weren’t allies now. They’d put that to bed before winter. And he didn’t know any of them personally, though he could recognize a few faces and he certainly remembered Eivirn Aekhion. The portraits scattered across the table were as emotionless for him as the maps: satisfactory work done in service to his orders.
“In what way do you want them suppressed?” he asked. “Their weapons taken? Their numbers cut back to match those of Clan Rauvern? The skinchangers among them destroyed?”
“All of it,” said the priest fiercely.
“That cannot be done with only Vaden Outpost troops. Not without potentially destroying us. They are not a small clan and will not simply turn over their kinfolk for culling. Nor can we expect to sneak up on them in their own mountains, or win the running battle they would force us into. I am not even certain that we can show enough force to demand their weapons.”
Sneering, the priest opened his mouth, but the Inquisitor cut in: “You will have Inquisition support. Inquisitor Archmagus Dalvard wishes to see spiritism eradicated from the Empire and its borderlands. Many of us are evokers-secondary, so take our talents into consideration.”
Sarovy blinked. “How many?”
“Up to fifteen.”
He’d read about the battle-magic of the Great War of Empires, and of the Eagle and Lion War that had driven his people into the heights and broken the knightly lineages. Most of that magic was banned now, but already memories of certain historical battles were bubbling up in his brain. Maps flashed behind his eyes: Vastrein territory, little-seen in the past two years but still remembered.
“I will require all of the maps for this section of the Garnet Mountain Territory,” he said.
“Then, with your permission, I will draw up a battle-plan.”
“You have no more requests? No objections?”
There was something odd in the ticheisa’s voice. Sarovy blinked out of his thoughts and found the high officer regarding him quizzically, one of the portraits in hand. Sarovy glanced to it—a smiling jendae, the pattern of her headscarf carefully reproduced—then back to the ticheisa. “I do not yet know what I will need. I will keep you informed. What is my deadline?”
The high officer just stared, and after a moment the Inquisitor laughed. “No, there is no duplicity,” he reported. “He’s simply bending himself to his orders. I don’t think he actually cares about anything if it’s not a part of his job.”
“The ideal soldier,” said the priest firmly. “A shame that he was under the command of a traitor, but by serving as the scouring hand of the Light, he will be reforged.”
Sarovy didn’t know how to respond to that. Nor, it seemed, did the ticheisa, for after a moment he just exhaled and said, “Return to your quarters, captain. The maps will be brought to you, and whatever else you require.”
“As you say, sir.”
And with that, though under guard, they let him go.
It was a loyalty test, of course. He knew it, but as he paced barefoot circles in the small workroom of his solitaire apartment, he couldn’t see what to do about it. He certainly couldn’t refuse—not without either trying to escape or resigning himself to execution.
And why do either? Why lose his life to avoid his duty? The Inquisitor was right: he didn’t care. He felt no attachment toward the Vastreins and only a faint fraying bond to Kerystrys Deieksa.
But he wasn’t emotionless. Something gnawed at him, and now that the mentalist itch was gone, he let himself explore it.
Was it honor? Certainly it seemed dishonorable to turn on people who had been allies, but the alliance was already dissolved, the situation resolved to both sides’ satisfaction. No claims of lasting friendship had been made. In fact, Kerystrys Deieksa had ordered her scouts to keep interactions between the groups to a minimum. He wondered now if she had expected something like this, and had been trying to protect her people from the aftermath.
Pacing, one hand on his chest, he considered his personal sense of honor. Did he owe anything to the Vastreins? He had once brought a wounded Ausheven jendae to them, and been given medical treatment in return. Not terribly good treatment; the injury had scarred, and ached even more with the newer scar Virkayar had cut across it. But they would have been within their rights to kill him. He’d been trespassing. That they’d been less than kind, he didn’t begrudge; that they’d let him go, he supposed he still had not repaid.
So, then, a small sense of debt.
“Easy enough to resolve,” he murmured as he turned toward his weapon-stand. With his scouts’ blades taken, only the practice ones remained: weighted wooden blades in falchion and sabre shapes. He took the falchion up with his right hand, even though the scar across his shin told him he shouldn’t be exercising. Should be washing up, sleeping, trying to recover from the journey and the stress of the news.
But that stress wouldn’t let him, and he wasn’t about to lay in bed and stare at the ceiling for useless marks. His bad arm needed its workout.
As he thrust and cut at thin air, he tried to imagine the ideal answer. If the Vastreins needed to be culled to Rauvern level, that meant about seven hundred dead. He could envision it; he’d seen all of Vaden Deiek called out to the parade ground for assembly before. How many beyond the three hundred designated survivors should he save, and thus consider his debt paid?
Just one, in trade for himself? That seemed appropriate.
He slashed through the memory of the shaman-jendae who’d stitched him up. With the Empire involved, that one would have to die. Leadership would be culled as well, so the chief who’d freed him would be killed, and likely his family with him. How many of the jendae and children in that central lodge had been the man’s direct kin?
Then there had been the outrunners and their wolves—skinchangers?—who’d met him and the Ausheven-dae on their approach, and not harmed them. And the ones who’d escorted him back to his tree and not hurt him there either.
One, two, three, he cut through them, feeling the scars start to burn with exertion. Frustration bubbled up; he’d barely started! But he’d been off his training regimen because of the mission. He needed to get back into practice. Since the second injury, he’d been working on his offhand, trying to learn how to handle falchion and sabre with the left and leave knives to the weakened right. Training with the bow as well, learning to shoot left-handed. He didn’t know how successful he’d been—hadn’t dueled much, nor shot at more than stationary targets. At least he could still draw, and climb well enough if he didn’t have to hang in one position for too long.
So how many did he owe for this life, however achy it was? Two, six, ten, fifteen?
None of whom he could spare, because of the Empire and the practicalities of conquest.
“What, then?” he hissed as he cut another slice through his phantom enemy. “The same number of random jendae? And execute the others once I’ve made my pick?”
The thought of going down a line and choosing survivors was unpalatable. Explaining his reasoning to the Imperials was even worse. If he set his heart on this and they refused him, he would have to swallow his objections and kill them all.
How close did they wish to cleave to the Rauvern results, though? Numerically, or just the devastating impact on the clan? Most of Rauvern’s jeten had been butchered in the assault on its central clan-hold, including its chief and many sub-chiefs. Sarovy and his scouts hadn’t been privy to the final negotiations between the Rauvern survivors and the Vastreins; in keeping with Kerystrys Deieksa’s orders, they’d just manned the archers’ posts inside the hold. Sarovy himself hadn’t set foot in the place, but stayed outside the gate with the Tevestyn injured and sketched the view of the wreckage with his off-hand.
It had been enough, at the time, to know that the Vastreins were satisfied with the outcome. He had accepted the numbers they’d reported, written down what they’d told him of the terms of surrender, then taken his scouts home.
Now, it occurred to him that the Rauverns might have technically become a vassal clan of the Vastreins. Would he have to kill more of them to bring the Vastrein survivors down to three hundred? And Clan Ausheven—how were they linked? Once the Vastreins were crushed, would the Empire order it of them too, and the other wolf-kin clans to the north and south?
What about the beast-folk and skinchangers up-mountain?
Catastrophizing, he told himself, but it felt more likely than not.
He swapped hands and slashed viciously at the air with his left. This was idiotic. There weren’t enough Tevestyn in the entire nation to conquer the Garnet Mountain Territory, let alone hold it. Not without butchering every skinchanger and beast-person they found—which, granted, seemed like what the Empire wanted. It didn’t benefit Vaden Deiek, and even if it had, he didn’t want to kill civilians or think too much about the spiritist heresy business.
Worse, the Sapphire Eye Army was already engaged in the Imperial war to the north, along the Krovichankan border. It didn’t need trouble on the home-front. But it was obligated to obey the Emperor, and he didn’t need to do more than glance around his workroom to know why. His camouflage cloak and tunic were made from fibers harvested and woven by farmlanders; the glass casement set in the deep window-seat had been shipped down from Riddish glaziers; the ink in his bottles had been extracted from the same foreign trees that dyed all Sapphire uniforms.
And then there was the steel, of course.
They were bound by cords of trade, and in return for what they were given, they gave soldiers. All Tevestyn served the Sapphire Army, even if not by blade or bow. All Tevestyn owed the army for everything—food, shelter, education, life—and through it, owed the Empire.
Even the lead at the core of his practice blade was Imperial.
He raised it to salute no one, then exhaled through his teeth. “I have no right to be angry,” he told himself. “I am a soldier. I follow orders.”
Then why was this so difficult?
He already knew how to do it. Attacking spiritists with mages would be like replaying the Eagle and Lion War—from the enemy side. Bitter irony. The last Eagle Emperor, Finvanchir the Stern, had hated arcane magic with a passion, but no amount of pride and anger, no amount of spirit-wards or elemental allies, had been able to save him and his Eagle Knight protectors from the sheer destructive power of ancient battle-magics.
Sarovy’s progenitor, the lineage’s namesake, had died in that final battle, his blade retrieved by his daughter some decades later. He didn’t know much more than that, nor about many other Sarovys beyond his grandmother Ansary and her mother Karayl. His father had never wished to speak of it, and most of the Eagle Knights’ records were long destroyed.
Using that same magic to annihilate his enemies felt worse than cheating, but it suited the mood of his people. Post-Eagle Empire Tevestys was, in his opinion, overcautious. The recent histories lauded ambushes and overwhelming victories while commiserating with commanders who retreated early and in good order. They said nearly nothing about those who stood and fought to the death, as if the last stand of the Eagle Emperor had left too deep a scar on the nation’s psyche to contemplate such things.
Certainly it was rational. Archers couldn’t take down skinchangers fast enough to keep them from tearing into the infantry, and no one wanted to lose. Yet he couldn’t help but feel that it was cowardly to desire annihilation for the enemy without being willing to shed your own blood.
Perhaps that was why he had a hard time meshing with his kin.
Which circled back to the blood of the Vastreins. He set the practice blade back in place, then dragged off his undershirt and went to wipe down. Trail dust still coated him, and the mirror of the little washroom showed him bruise-eyed, the charcoal paint smeared all over. His hair, longer than he liked it due to the month’s mission, stuck out every which way like ruffled feathers.
A wet cloth could only do so much, but he didn’t feel like a shower and wasn’t about to visit the public bath—if they’d even let him. Staring at himself in the imported silvered glass, he couldn’t see why he’d been given this choice. He was one sekiisa out of four, with two of the others commanding the soldiers and the last the vast support staff. He was also the junior-most by over a decade. Had Kerystrys Deieksa favored him in some way, that the Imperials would single him out? Or was it just his involvement in the Rauvern suppression?
Did they want him for his experience, or was this a kind of punishment?
He couldn’t imagine it not pissing off the soldier sekiisas. He’d met with them a few times over the winter, ostensibly to debrief about the Rauvern campaign. In reality, he thought they’d been testing him. Valonreil, a scar-faced veteran of the Krovichankan wars; Serachir, a lifelong Garnet border patroller. He’d tried not to over-explain his actions, tried not to bring up ex-sekiisa Virkayar. Perhaps they’d liked her. Certainly there were many things they could hold against him: his scout designation, his lack of war experience, his central-born upbringing, his knightly lineage, his worsening reputation as a rank-climbing solitaire.
Now, one or both might be dead because of a conflict he’d helped to spark.
Washrag in hand, he weighed that feeling against the projected deaths of seven hundred Vastreins. People he knew in passing, or…people he knew in passing?
“Light and fire, Firkad,” he hissed at his reflection, “you have no friends.”
It wasn’t a new revelation, but as he slapped the rag into the basin and limped out to his desk, he couldn’t remember it ever weighing on him so heavily. He wanted to talk to someone, not like he would report to Kerystrys Deieksa—whom he suddenly missed fiercely—but without judgment. Someone who could sit next to him instead of in authority. Like back when—
He blinked, then shook off the memory of his parents’ gargoyles. He hadn’t thought of them in years. And that had all been in his fluffy child mind anyway.
Nevertheless, his gaze drifted to his tiny bedroom. The case with his claw-knives was buried at the bottom of his clothes chest, undisturbed since his transfer to this apartment.
“Not relevant,” he told himself, and focused on the books and papers piled on his desk. Kerystrys Deieksa’s maps, his own new maps, a few military histories from his tiny bookshelf, and his Sapphire officers’ handbook. The answer was in there somewhere, scattered like the pieces of a tactics-class assignment. He held the image of victory in his head: Vastrein villages burning, the rocky ground carpeted with heretical dead, the Tevestyn troops standing like a bloodless blue-clad sea. He didn’t like it, but his opinion didn’t matter.
Here were the grandiose and often grotesque descriptions of the battle-magic used against the Eagle Knights: the breaking and leashing of spirits, the burning and blasting of men and beasts, the abominable raising of the dead to strike at the living. Necromancy and the great destructive spells were long since banned, but smaller magics would do just as well against skinchangers and wooden palisades.
Here were other campaigns in the Garnet Mountain Territory, with details on wolf-pack tactics and traps, spirit assaults and skinchanger tricks. He’d witnessed some of them during the Rauvern suppression, but the Rauverns hadn’t had the favor of the spirits—hadn’t shown any supernatural support at all. Just the metal-folk’s weapons, if indeed that was their provenance.
Here were his old survey maps from Kerystrys Deieksa’s stock, taken from that very first trip and the few more between it and the start of the suppression. Unrolling them, he—
They were copies. Incomplete copies.
Closing his eyes brought up the proper maps, imprinted in his memory like everything he drew. One for each village or outpost, then the grand map that linked all of them across the carefully sketched terrain. Looking again, he forced himself to see past the incongruity of someone else’s hand at his work, and instantly the blank places leapt out. Here had been an outbuilding he’d taken for a storehouse. Here had been a cave-entrance an arrow’s flight from the rear of a village wall. Here had been an entire outpost hidden in a canyon, which he’d never have seen if he hadn’t been walking the edge of the cliff.
Erasure after erasure, all over his maps, of escape routes and hideouts.
His mind churned. No one could have done it but Kerystrys Deieksa. He recognized her careful handwritten labels. But why would Vaden Deiek’s commander have defaced and obscured such valuable intelligence?
Well, why would she have snuck weapons to Clan Vastrein?
He closed his eyes and let himself yield to the confirmation that his commander had been a traitor. It wasn’t as painful as he’d expected. Was this why she’d sent him away? So he couldn’t confirm to the Imperials that her maps had been altered? But he could do so now, and redraw all of the missing parts. If she’d wanted to erase them permanently, she should have had him killed. Had she instead been protecting him, like the Imperials seemed to suspect?
But then, what had she imagined he’d do?
Do the Imperials have the originals? he wondered in a knife-sharp spasm of paranoia. If so, then this was also a loyalty test. But if she had been as protective of the Vastreins as she now seemed, he didn’t think she would have kept such incriminating documents.
So. He had a choice.
His skin tingled, his heart hammering like a bird trying to escape his chest. The rough plan he’d been making scattered behind his eyes, then reformed into a different shape. It was a mistake. He knew that instantly, intensely. But…
Suture needles and headscarves and crippled jeten being carried home.
He reached for the Sapphire officers’ handbook. Printed by the military press at the capital, it was meant for the northern front and other mixed-troop areas, but certain portions were applicable here. Specifically, the ones on mentalist intrusion. Tevestyn had a pitifully low chance of developing the talent, but many of their enemies—the old Altaerans, the ogre-bloods, the non-skinchanger wolf-kin—had a moderate or high incidence. Enough that the handbook had a chapter dedicated to resisting and redirecting mental probes.
He’d only ever skimmed it before. Now, the reading drove him to his feet, first to pull his woefully incomplete Ridvan dictionary from its shelf, then to find his own pile of language notes. According to the handbook, mentalists—no matter how talented—could not translate languages they did not know, and not even his fellow scouts bothered learning much Ridvan.
Thiolain: wolf skinchanger. Ko-vrin: secret. Ingara: tail. Deinalassei: escape route. Esvardun: safe place. Esvatare: to conceal. Aenshogare: to skinchange,
He wrote, scribbled out, rewrote, scribbled again. Chewed the end of the quill to pieces. Wrote some more. Then rose and limped to the clothes chest, and the knife-case buried within.
“Why are we so determined to waste resources?” he asked the ticheisa—introduced this time as Talmoryn, officially Finmary Ticheisa’s replacement. The Imperials stood nameless behind the Sapphire officer again, alternating between smug and suspicious. Sarovy did his best to ignore them.
“Resources,” Talmoryn Ticheisa echoed dubiously, gloved hands steepled.
“I understand the impulse toward equalization and the culling of potential enemies.” Truly, he did. If it were a workbook problem back at the Youth Corps Academy, it would not have troubled him. “But it seems to me that we have two conflicting goals: the reduction of Clan Vastrein’s numbers, and the inclusion-by-force of that clan into the Riddish alliance. What use is Clan Vastrein to the alliance if all of their warriors are dead?”
“Breeding stock,” said the farmlands priest before Talmoryn Ticheisa could speak. “The northern clans have given their all to the Krovichankan war. They deserve their rewards.”
A muscle twitched under the ticheisa’s eye, mirroring the twinge of disgust in Sarovy’s gut. “That is not your concern, captain,” said the officer flatly.
“With respect, division commander, you gave me this assignment. I am merely being thorough. You propose then to not just gut the clan, but break it up entirely, giving its jendae to other clans?”
The priest scowled heavily. “Its what?”
“Its…noncombatants. Women and children.” Not a good translation, but enough to clear the thundercloud from the priest’s face. The Inquisitor simply arched a blond brow.
Talmoryn Ticheisa spread his gloved hands. “It is that or let them starve, correct? The warriors are also the hunters.”
“That is specious, sir.”
Sarovy took a deep breath and pinned his gaze past his superior’s shoulder. He wished they were conducting this interview in Tevayn, where he felt more eloquent. His Imperial Altaerai was serviceable but the language itself was slippery in connotation, like trying to strangle a fish.
“Sir,” he began. “Clan Vastrein is only a piece of the border problem. There are many more clans and peoples in the Garnet Mountain Territory than we know. I have personally seen at least six types of skinchangers and beast-folk there, and been menaced by both earth and wood elementals. We also know that there are metal elementals, though we have never caught one, and rumors imply greater spirit-entities further into the heights. None of those creatures, peoples, or entities are our allies—except Clan Vastrein.
“I understand the Imperial hostility toward skinchangers and spiritists. They are deadly enemies. But if the goal is to see them eradicated, why is it necessary to do so by our own hands? In the Rauvern suppression, the Vastreins fought as footsoldiers while my scouts and I covered them as archers. We were not in danger; they were the ones clawing each others’ throats out. It was an accepted sort of inter-clan fighting—the sort of thing that goes on in the Territory all the time, and which does not garner reprisals from outside parties.
“The mountain peoples do not currently care about us, in our distant outposts and forts and aeries. They do not consider us a threat. If we functionally annihilated a clan, I believe that would change—and I do not think we would like the results. I do not defend Major Kerystrys’ actions, but as she has given us this claw-hold on the Vastreins, my preference would be to continue to provide them military aid while grinding them down against other enemies.”
The ticheisa pursed his lips thoughtfully, but behind him the priest’s face had gone florid. “You propose siding with heretics!” he thundered. “This is exactly how your superior died!”
You are the reason she died, he thought coldly, then squelched it. The mentalist itch ebbed and flowed along the base of his skull. “I have not yet given my proposal,” he said aloud.
“Spiritist sympathizer, you—“
“Enlightened One, please,” said Talmoryn Ticheisa tightly. “Let the captain speak.”
With a sneer, the priest fell silent.
“Thank you, sir,” said Sarovy. Hands clasped behind his back, he continued, “I propose bringing the Vastreins to heel like the dogs we wish them to be. Break their leadership but not their strength, give on-the-ground command to a warrior that we control, and send them relentlessly against other Garnet Mountain groups. By fighting elementals and high-mountain skinchangers, even their wolf-shifters will die eventually. We need not spill our own blood, nor expose ourselves to attack; we will remain safe within our walls, directing them by the long leash. This control also brings them into the Riddish alliance and the Sapphire Army, and with their tide of bodies we can easily leash the other wolf-clans as well.”
“The remains of Rauvern?” asked Talmoryn Ticheisa.
“We could bring those in now. I mean such clans as Ausheven and Kirsharn and the others that edge upon our territory. Using Clan Vastrein, they can be conquered and broken or absorbed with no loss to us, while Clan Vastrein would take the brunt of any retaliatory assault.”
“And how could we control them from afar?” sneered the priest.
He could not answer through their honor, for the word in Altaerai was self-serving and all but meaningless. He wasn’t certain the Altaerai-speakers could even understand his experience of it. Likewise, he wasn’t sure the wolf-kin knew it either. He’d found no such concept in his dictionary or his observations.
But the wolf-kin did know loyalty, and kinship, and obligation.
“We bind them to us through necessity and fear,” he answered, watching the priest’s rugged face. “I do not propose kindness and soft words; I believe that we should raze the clan’s central hold completely. The entire main family. Blast them to ashes, then move on the branch families’ holds, killing our way down the chain of command until we find a warrior who will pay us fealty. The branch that remains the most intact becomes the new main family, chained to our hand by their own cowardice and the pressure from their new subordinates.”
By the way the priest’s eyes widened, by the flare of his nostrils and the rising color in his sun-darkened cheeks, by the disgusting flick of his tongue across his lip, Sarovy knew he’d been hooked. His measure of the man was correct. “You make it sound so simple,” he said huskily.
“I have read the war histories. I know something of what our mages can do. These are my requests.” Sarovy sifted a sheet out of the pile he’d brought to the inquest and slid it across to the ticheisa. “Some few enchantments, a great Veiling, a variety of destructive magics. All, I believe, are well within the capabilities of the fifteen offered mages.”
Talmoryn Ticheisa glanced at it—written in Imperial Altaerai, of course—then passed it over his shoulder to the quirk-browed Inquisitor. “A great Veiling? To ambush the main clan hold?” the officer asked.
“The skinchangers will smell us through it.”
“If our mentalists spot them before they spot us, we can take out their patrols. Once we are within bowshot of the walls, it won’t matter.”
“We could send scrys ahead of the force and sense through those,” the Inquisitor commented, still perusing the list. “Skinchangers are difficult to spot or control when in beast-form, but not impossible.”
“If you can pick the skinchangers out from the humans, then we can execute them easily,” said the priest, flashing a grin at his cohort. “Cull the heretics and grind the rest into the dirt… Yes, that would please our master. The more who kneel before him, the better.”
“Mm. They are far more difficult to spot in human form, but we can make the attempt.”
Sarovy saw the ticheisa’s face crease in a faint grimace. Whatever he had been before his promotion to Finmary Ticheisa’s seat, he must not have dealt often with Imperials. Or perhaps he had, and still found them distasteful. Deliberately Sarovy looked away, banishing the thought to dwell instead on the priest’s approval.
“Is this satisfactory?” he asked. “I have more detailed plans for the campaign, if you would hear them. It should take less than a week if we are swift and brutal, and leave us with a buffer of leashed warriors at our border.”
“And if not,” the priest chuckled, “we can simply go back and kill the rest. Yes, I think this is acceptable.”
Sarovy nodded, then chose to show his final card. According to the officers’ handbook, context was everything when dealing with mentalists. “I think I know which branch family will serve us best as the new main. If you would have me as their leash-holder, then I should break them personally. Unless you simply wanted me as a tactician?”
The priest and the Inquisitor exchanged opaque glances, and the itch intensified until Sarovy could feel it behind his eyes. He knew he wasn’t being deep-scanned; mentalists couldn’t do that without touching their subject. Still, he concentrated on their faces: the planes and angles he would sketch if he had charcoal in hand. White-Robed Judgment, he’d call them.
“We are evaluating your suitability,” said the Inquisitor after a moment. “You claim no loyalty to the deposed commander, but we must see this put into action. Your plan spares far more of the wolf-kin than our master wished. If you have some personal bond with them, then you are not fit to retain your current position, let alone be considered as their handler.”
“I do not have a bond,” Sarovy stated. “But I do have a working relationship with one of the branch chiefs. Eivirn Aekhion.” He concentrated on that annoying hairy face, the enmity in his bodyguards’ gazes, the jovial words meant to ruffle his feathers. He neither liked nor hated the man—but he knew him. What he might think, what he might do.
Better than any of the other chiefs, anyway.
The itch still crawling in his head, he continued, “My team supported him directly during the Rauvern suppression. I do not think any chief would submit to an unknown authority—not without a fight—and to gain a branch family’s fealty, we do not want open combat. Just execution of those who refuse to submit. I believe that I can give you Aekhion, and that the clan will be better-leashed beneath an experienced chief rather than a new leader from far down the chain of command. With your permission, I will break him myself.”
The ticheisa sat stone-faced, unreadable. Behind him, the priest’s eyes were alight.
Sarovy looked to the Inquisitor, who stared back at him coolly. Whatever was happening behind that dark gaze—whatever he saw in Sarovy’s mind—it did not show in his expression.
That was fine. Sarovy wasn’t concerned. He had spoken and thought only the truth.
“It will certainly be interesting,” the Inquisitor allowed at last.
“Well then,” said Talmoryn Ticheisa, sitting forward to drag over the rest of Sarovy’s papers, “do speak your details.”
So he did.
When the Veil dropped, the Aekhionden guards had only moments to loose the arrows they’d had trained at the deceptive heat-haze barrier. Most fell short, miscalculated. The rest shattered on the wards as the Tevestyn archers launched their own shots from behind the infantry row, rune-marked arrowheads gleaming in the late light.
The first volley hit almost as one, and Sarovy allowed himself a faint smile as the wolf-kin archers were wiped off the wall in a wave of small explosions. He’d seen the aftermath of those enchanted arrows already: wolves and patrollers fallen in their tracks, half-pulped by the impact-triggered spell-blasts. A hit anywhere above the navel was invariably fatal, and even below would kill any non-skinchanger. Tevestyn archers, of course, had no trouble hitting center mass.
He’d not been permitted to loose any himself. Indeed, he suspected that no matter the outcome, he would not be a scout or a surveyor ever again. In his formal Sapphire officer’s regalia, silver sekiisa fledge and winged cloak and all, he was there to command, not fight. Not bloody his hands.
Black-gloved, they clenched behind his back as the mages stepped forward.
He’d kept three, assigning the rest to the other subjugation forces: eight to help Valonreil Sekiisa’s troops raze Vastreinden, four for the troops that would demolish the outposts between the two villages. Serachir Sekiisa, as it turned out, was dead and not yet replaced, and he wished her orphaned karoksas well. He had no further control; it had been decided by his masters that all three assaults would happen simultaneously, for maximum shock value and likely to keep him from full command. There were other branch families that would have to be confronted and wrecked, but that could wait for this triple show of force to sink in.
Raising matching pinkish crystals, the two evokers-secondary warped the air between them, sunlight twisting and fracturing in that empty space as the forces built. A chant—in chorus with the still-nameless Inquisitor who stood third in their triangle—then all three stepped forward and shoved, sending the hideous coil of energy surging at the village gates.
The blast and its shockwave made Sarovy’s heart skip a beat, the thunder of it stunning his ears despite the intervening wards. Around him, the karoksas—one of his and one from Serachir Sekiisa’s former company—flinched and turned from the flare of light. He had no such freedom. He squinted instead through the after-images as burning timbers and splinters and chunks of bodies rained down along the ruined wall. At least a bowshot’s length had been utterly demolished, with more of it bent inward at each end. Bodies lay scattered behind what had been the gate; beyond, tents and outbuildings were already catching fire.
He’d never seen a slaughter so catastrophic or so quick. Never seen mages in action, the Sapphire Eye having too few to send any to the back-country. A hot sensation coiled in his belly, far more violent than satisfaction. He fought to ignore it.
Further in, halfway between the gate and the central building, a cluster of warriors staggered upright from where the explosion had scythed them down. Even from a distance he recognized Eivirn Aekhion and his bodyguards.
“The one in the red cloak,” he snapped to the Inquisitor in Imperial Altaerai, then switched to Tevayn. “First rank, advance.”
As the mages started forward, flanked by soldiers with long sabres and shields, the priest said in Imperial Altaerai, “You are certain he is no skinchanger?”
Voice-caster halfway to his mouth, Sarovy cut a look at the man. The darkness of his eyes made them unreadable, but they were fixed on the wreckage, and high color had touched his weathered cheeks again. Sarovy didn’t like seeing his reaction reflected in that expression.
“There have been no official reports of it.” Which was true. With the mentalist’s presence tickling faintly at the back of his skull, Sarovy declined to think further. “All ranks, advance.”
All ranks were a mere forty scouts, infantry, and archers against the hundred and fifty or so that he’d calculated to live at Aekhionden. But many of those were jendae. and a good number had just been obliterated.
Regardless, he had no intention of fighting.
“Eivirn Aekhion, kav’t Niuliti Thiol kirina. Nin-xu-kav vanvanen telah kosh gorigavind,” he announced through the voice-caster, its magic sending his words echoing through the village. He’d told the Imperials that he would need to use some Ridvan with the wolf-kin, dim as they were, but that he would keep it to orders—which that technically was. It certainly contained the phrase ‘we speak or you all will die’.
He didn’t think on the rest. He’d prepared it ahead of time and memorized it by syllable rather than meaning; with such minimal Ridvan fluency among his troops, it should be difficult for the Inquisitor to follow. Some of his people didn’t even speak Imperial Altaerai.
“Hold at the wall,” he added to his troops as the bristling wolf-kin packed around their leader. Eivirn Aekhion barked something unintelligible at them, then started shouting in guttural Ridvan to the reinforcements now emerging from the main structure and loping in from the far side of the village. Wolves and dogs trailed them, while jendae scurried like bright birds to put out fires or help the wounded, but at the commander’s continued shouting, not one moved toward the Tevestyn. The jeten nearest the smashed gate merely glared while guarding their jendae.
Sarovy exhaled, then steeled himself. It was far too early for relief.
“Eivirn Aekhion, kav orah nin rutioren,” he ordered, then pocketed the voice-caster. “Make way. I will meet him alone,” he told his subordinates, echoing the Ridvan in Tevayn.
The karoksas stared at him, horrified. “Sir!” said his scout officer, SKS Korrys—like all her troops, not one who’d encountered Eivirn Aekhion before. Not one who’d been there for the assassination attempt.
“These are my orders from the Imperials,” he told them, already brushing forward. He didn’t care if the Inquisitor picked that translation from their heads. He had a right to be bitter.
No one else objected, but he felt their judgment heavy on his back as he stepped through the infantry ranks and free of the formation. Mad solitaire, he knew they thought him. Ever since Virkayar—ever since the Youth Corps—that cloud had hung over him.
I’ll show you a mad solitaire.
The itch intensified, the Inquisitor clearly having caught that. He ignored the scrutiny just as he ignored the stares of the wolf-kin, and strode forward. With the sun at his back, his shadow stretched like a knife across the debris and gore that peppered the yard. The stink of death hung in suspension with the dust, a thick miasma, while splinters of wood and bone crunched beneath his good black boots. If he’d been another sort of man, he might have lamented the inevitable despoiling of his ink-blue uniform, but he had already resigned himself to it.
Eivirn Aekhion stepped out from the mob of bodyguards, upper lip twitching fitfully over his teeth. He wore a finer armored coat than when they’d first met, this one partially scaled with steel. Broken down from enemy weapons?
That wasn’t Sarovy’s purpose here, so he discarded the question.
“Come,” he called in Tevayn, planting himself in the wreckage equidistant between the forces. “Let us speak of your surrender.”
Eivirn Aekhion snarled as he approached, his eagle-pommeled sword clanking against the scales along his hip. “Surrender, eh?”
Sarovy’s own sword, a long sabre like the Tevayn infantry’s, might well have been ornamental for all he’d used it. He clasped his hands in front of him as the skinchanger halted just out of arm’s reach. “Yes,” he stated. “You have no other good option.”
Eivirn spat in the dirt between them. “You bring mages.”
“Yes. We are cowards.”
The sub-chief’s yellowish eyes narrowed, heavy brows beetling down. Before he could say anything, Sarovy raised a hand, then slid the note from under the edge of his glove and read the line labeled Offer. “Kav’t ko-vrin, esvata re neraenkaran. Thiolain, kav’t ruen’t esvardun.” There was only so much of his cobbled-together Ridvan that he could keep in easy memory.
“You keep our secrets?” Eivirn sneered incredulously. “Dunno what you think—“
Sarovy tapped his lips then touched the side of his neck, staring down at his former ally. The itch was minimal now, the Inquisitor’s attention perhaps on the mob of angry wolf-kin, but it wasn’t gone. Eivirn’s gaze followed the motion, then slanted past him to his troops before returning to him with a shade less hostility—if no less pain.
“Surrender to me,” Sarovy told him. “Obey my orders. Or the Empire will choose another master for you.”
Hurt crossed Eivirn’s face, and Sarovy blinked. He hadn’t expected that. But then he’d come into the plot in the middle of it, and had stayed always at its fringes. Whatever his fallen commander and the Vastreins had planned for the future, it would not now come to pass.
“Your chief as well,” he told the man plainly, “and the rest of the main family. If not already, then once the other Imperial mages finish blasting Vastreinden to rubble.” A glance at the note, then: “Esvatah nevnet’et deinalassei.”
Eivirn’s brows climbed even as he blanched. Sarovy wished he didn’t have to dodge around his eavesdropper; this had to be confusing for the sub-chief. He didn’t think he’d believe himself if he were in Eivirn’s boots.
Then Eivirn’s mouth quirked slightly, ruefully. “’Kav’t Niuliti Thiol’, eh?”
Sarovy didn’t want to talk about it, but… “’Your Feathered Wolf’. Correct?”
The itch intensified, and he focused over Eivirn’s shoulder, drawing up the memory of his annoyance at that label. Of his frustration and disgust, if not its context. If Eivirn had meant it to do anything other than insult him, he didn’t know of it, and the growing mob of bodyguards, beasts, and crying jendae certainly felt no fondness toward him.
“Heh,” said Eivirn. “Close enough. So, this surrender…”
“No further argument?”
“You just killed half our jeten. And all those out patrolling, eh?”
Sarovy doubted the estimates, but they didn’t matter. “Kneel.”
The sub-chief’s expression crinkled with a consternation Sarovy didn’t understand. Then his eyes flared wide, something else suddenly staring out from behind them. A presence pressed upon Sarovy like a massive blood-stained paw, at once furious and curious, measuring and threatening. Hot, fetid breath washed across his face, and he flashed on all the moments in his dealings with the Vastreins when they could have torn him apart. His legs said Flee—
The itch gripped his neck like a claw, desperate to see what he saw. By its intrusion, he found his equilibrium, and looked aside from the challenge in that yellow gaze. He wouldn’t run from the choices he’d made. Once committed, an Eagle Knight moved forward, unflinching.
But neither would he make this a fight. He repeated, “Kneel. Please.”
Eivirn Aekhion drew a shaky breath, then barked something to his kinfolk in that rough language—definitely not Ridvan. As the presence faded, he folded down to his knees, followed in turn by every jeten and jendae within the walls. Even the beasts settled onto their haunches. Sarovy scanned the sullen crowd briefly, struggling not to think.
‘What was that, captain?’ the Inquisitor intruded. Of course.
He closed his eyes and focused on the ache in his once-dominant shoulder—the memory of the Vastrein guards twisting his injured arm, then the feverish infection that had followed. The scar was still there, crossed now by Virkayar’s. If not for this bloody opportunity, he might have been forced into early retirement like her.
Just nerves, he answered. I don’t like being here. Let me finish this.
The Inquisitor said no more, the itch fading back. Sarovy took a deep breath, then turned and waved for the Imperials to join him.
“Do you know any Imperial Altaerai?” he asked Eivirn as he watched the Imperials discuss, then split up. One evoker and the main Inquisitor stayed with the troops, while the other evoker attended the priest across the splinter-strewn yard.
“I understand enough.”
“Good. Remove your coat and any top layers. Esvataha kav’t ingara.”
Eivirn snorted. “Got no secrets left, eh?” But when Sarovy looked, he was doing as ordered: sword-belt unbuckled and cast aside, red cloak released, thick fingers working at the clasps of his armored coat.
Sarovy turned his back to the sub-chief fully as the priest came within earshot. For a moment, with most of the Vastreins behind him and all his so-called allies ahead, he felt the strangest sensation—like he had become the broken village wall. Not enough to stop the blood tide if it chose to rise.
Settling into parade rest, he slid the note into his glove again as his hands met behind his back.
“Enlightened One,” he greeted the priest as Talmoryn Ticheisa had labeled him, switching to Imperial Altaerai as he did. “The sub-chief has agreed to the Empire’s demands. Once we set him as the figurehead of the Vastrein clan, he will commit them to the Riddish alliance and to our goal of subjugating the Garnet Mountain Territory. He and his family will take on the Vastrein name as a reminder of what happens to those who resist the Empire.” Eivirn’s grunt was probably not assent, but Sarovy continued as if it was. “He will deal with any skinchangers or spiritists he finds himself, lest he face our wrath, and will pledge his worship to the Imperial Light.”
“Pretty words,” said the priest, smiling, “but difficult to believe. Rumors abound that he is a skinchanger himself.”
Of course they did. Even though Kerystrys Deieksa had never entered the assassination attempt into the deiek’s official records, there were always rumors. It didn’t surprise him that the priest would try to call him out here.
He had an answer.
“Under my hand, he will prove his humanity and his determination to become Eivirn Vastrein, servant of the Imperial Light.” Sarovy reached to the back of his sword-belt and withdrew the eagle-claw knife he’d been carrying in a scout’s sheath. The short, curved blade gleamed wickedly in the lowering light. His father had told him they were purely ceremonial, but this was its own kind of ceremony. “With your permission, Enlightened One.”
The priest’s nostrils flared, his dark eyes widening with gruesome interest. Sarovy suppressed a bitter satisfaction; the key to that one’s heart was indeed brutality.
“By all means, go on,” said the priest.
With a nod, Sarovy turned his back on the Imperials. Eivirn had done as asked: his armored coat shrugged from his shoulders and shoved down to his hips, any undershirts he’d worn now discarded. His barrel chest was a forest of dark hair not much thinner than his beard, and Sarovy couldn’t help the disgusted curl of his lip. It didn’t quite look like a pelt, but if he’d had doubts about the man’s wolf lineage, this would have dispelled them.
By the grim set of his face, he had an idea of what was coming.
Sarovy thumbed his note out subtly, refreshed his memory, then made a show of straightening his sleeves. Warning: “Re nin iliavan, kosh gorigavind.” Granted, if Eivirn fought, Sarovy and the Imperials within his reach would not be walking out of this village. “Vylihn?”
“Vylina,” Eivirn grunted.
“A’aenshogaha,” he added with all the emphasis he could put into it. If he did, they were both dead.
Eivirn’s lips flickered slightly over his teeth. Then he lifted his chin and repeated, “Vylina.”
The mentalist itch increased as Sarovy clamped one hand on the sub-chief’s shoulder and stooped to press the eagle-claw to the base of his sternum. Sarovy focused on his annoyance with the eavesdropping as he wiggled the curved blade into the flesh there, drawing a hiss through Eivirn’s clenched jaw. This close, the man certainly smelled human—sweaty, smoky, of leather and metal and the sharp scent of fresh-spilling blood—but then Sarovy had never bothered to sniff a wolf. He couldn’t judge.
He just sliced upward with the eagle-claw, skinning a strip of hairy flesh from the center of Eivirn’s chest with a hunter’s cool precision. Never had he skinned something still living, but neither did Eivirn thrash, so all that really differed was the swift rush of blood into the sternum-length gash. He twisted the blade to cut the strip free just below Eivirn’s collarbones and flicked it aside into the dirt.
Then, aware of both the cords standing out on Eivirn’s neck and the priest’s delighted gasp, he bent down again to cut a diagonal strip across his victim’s ribs.
It was torture. The thing that Tevestyn didn’t do. But as Sarovy flicked away that slice of flesh and bent to mirror it on the other side, he acknowledged that this act didn’t move him much. Not with disgust, no matter the thick blood-stink or the spatter onto his boots as Eivirn shuddered; not with pity, for the sub-chief was too stoic for that. And blessedly not with whatever the priest was feeling, with his little encouraging noises.
But then, the goal wasn’t to torment Eivirn. This was just a display.
Still, as he moved to the horizontal slices, he became aware of the evoker on his right—and the mirror in his hand. He’d been murmuring something to it at the start, but now he had it turned toward Eivirn, and when Sarovy glanced up in annoyance, he saw not the jeten’s reflection but the blanched face of Talmoryn Ticheisa staring out at him.
He favored his commander with a tight smile, then got back to work.
Two more slices—diagonal across his pectorals to the wing-like edges of his collarbones—then Sarovy sat back on his heels to consider his work. Eivirn, grey-faced, sought his gaze but he didn’t meet those glazed eyes. Stared instead at the bloodied thicket of the sub-chief’s chest, the six-winged Imperial star carved deep into it.
He’d started from the bottom and gone up to avoid the blood, but still it speckled his gloves and sleeves, dappled the toes of his boots, flecked his uniform jacket. Had his hands been shaking? He couldn’t tell. They felt stable now, if cold beneath their gloves. Claw-like.
The stains were fine. They made a dramatic effect.
With studied casualness, he wiped the knife on Eivirn’s cheeks, one side for each. Thus cleaned, he dropped it between the sub-chief’s knees, where it gleamed like a coin lost down a well. As he began to peel off his gloves, he stealthily read the last line from the note: “Nin’t vakyaeni ish’anaka.” My bloodied self-respect, the phrase he’d cobbled together to describe this act of dishonor. Then he crumpled it into a glove and dropped them too.
In Imperial Altaerai, he added, “You are the Empire’s property now. Take care of your new scars. Others will wish to see the evidence of your faith.”
“Oh yes,” breathed the priest, eyes alight. “We should do that to all new converts. A fine show of devotion.”
Sarovy couldn’t help his brief flash of teeth. He turned it into a grin for the priest, though from his periphery he could feel Eivirn watching. If anything would explain his opinion to the sub-chief, it was this.
“Quite fine,” he drawled. “We will withdraw now. Prepare yourself, Eivirn Vastrein. You will assist us in bringing the rest of your clan to heel.”
“Yes,” Eivirn managed.
“Well then, Enlightened—“
A flutter of colors caught his eye, and the priest’s. Together they glanced to the pair of jendae who had just escaped the bodyguard-jeten. An older one—Eivirn’s age, so perhaps a wife—and a younger one, likely a daughter, though by her curves she was an adult. As the wife crumpled at Eivirn’s side to babble rapid Ridvan comforts, the daughter posted herself a protective half-step in front of him, hands fisted, furious gaze pinned to Sarovy. She came up to his shoulder at best.
“Irsa,” Eivirn hissed, grabbing the edge of her skirt as if he feared she’d attack. She ignored him, teeth bared.
“Perhaps she should be the next devotee,” the priest said with ill-contained glee.
For the first time since conceiving the plan, Sarovy flinched. Harming a jendae—one of their protected—was a step too far. Turning from the girl, he clamped a hand on the priest’s white-robed shoulder and leaned in, grinning just a bit wider. “Not today,” he said quietly, through his teeth. “We have better flesh to put to the blade.”
The implication skipped off the priest like a stone from a frozen lake, but the Inquisitor certainly heard it. At the moment, Sarovy no longer cared. He just gave the priest a starting shove, then stalked toward his troops, the mage with the mirror falling in at his side. From the silvery frame, Talmoryn Ticheisa stared at him warily.
That was fine. Pulling out the voice-caster, he barked through it, “About face! Prepare to march! We have more dogs to chain!”
The low, massed growl from the wolf-kin behind him was all the reward he could ask for. If they remembered hate and fear, if they ran for their esvardun and deinalassei, it was better for everyone. The clans, the Tevestyn, and the intrusive, sickening Empire.
His soldiers had parted from his path long before he reached them. Ignoring the whites of their eyes, he took the lead.
Eivirn Aekhion, kav’t Niuliti Thiol kirina. Nin-xu-kav vanvanen telah kosh gorigavind.
Eivirn Aekhion, your Feathered Wolf has come. You and I will speak or all of your group will die.
Eivirn Aekhion, kav orah nin rutioren.
Eivirn Aekhion, you alone meet me.
Kav’t ko-vrin, esvata re neraenkaran. Thiolain, kav’t ruen’t esvardun.
Your secrets, I will keep if you surrender. Wolf skinchangers, your people’s safe places.
Esvatah nevnet’et deinalassei.
I have concealed your group’s escape routes.
Esvataha kav’t ingara.
Conceal your tail.
“Re nin iliavan, kosh gorigavind.”
If you struggle, all of your group will die.
Do not skinchange.