Book 6 update: Currently going through the final draft doing last tweaks, trims and error corrections. Found a big continuity error today! Yaaaay. ::sigh::
Meanwhile, the Firkad Sarovy short stories conclude with this one, Assumption. It’s the (rather short) wrap-up of all of his pre-series stories, and thus references things that have gone before, so having read them all (listed below) is strongly recommended.
Sarovy has just recently turned 19, the age of inheritance in Tevestys. Unfortunately, the Imperials have invaded Tevestys’ rituals as well as its politics.
Includes: reference to imperialism/colonialism, reference to torture.
Approx. Date: 15 years before series.
Description: Young Firkad Sarovy receives his inheritance.
The portrait gallery of Essen Keyaat’s Remembrance Hall was tall and cold, its arched ceiling disappearing into shadow, its high narrow windows sending angled light to the bare stone floor. No lamps glowed from the brackets meant to hold them, and a thin sheet of dust stirred at the passage of their feet—SKSS Firkad Sarovy’s and his mother Kadry’s.
His father and siblings were back in the central chamber, once the Eagle Senket’s temple. Stripped of its heretical trappings, it served Tevestys as a place for banquets, promotion and recognition ceremonies, high officers’ weddings, and the occasional honor duel. It also—rarely now—hosted the formal investiture of a scion of a knightly lineage.
The bequeathing of an heirloom blade.
Firkad hated that he was nervous about it. Hated more that someone had noticed, even if it was his mother. Despite the shadowed quiet of the gallery, tension crackled across his shoulders like lightning. The blank gazes of ancient knights and fallen generals didn’t help.
“All will go well,” his mother told him, gloved hand on his arm.
He glanced at her sidelong. Even fully grown, he was a few fingers shorter than her, but he had expected that. He hadn’t expected the threads of grey the wan light picked from her short black hair, or the incongruous swell of her belly beneath her maternity uniform—his third sibling coming along. The letter requesting his presence at the investiture hadn’t mentioned that.
“Yes,” he answered noncommittally.
“Your father is eager to hand it over. He always has been, you know.”
“You coveted it so. Ever since you were little.” Light glinted from her ear-studs as she passed through a stray sunbeam, but could not catch on her blackened deieksa-aayan’s badge. Beneath it, her uniform was the soft faded blue of Administration, not the bolder shade of active service she’d worn when her husband was a watchtower commander. Next to her, Firkad was a shadow in his own deep blues, only his sekiisa’s badge and the ceremonial ribbon bright.
“Did I?” he echoed, aware that this was no way to make conversation but uncertain how to proceed. He hadn’t seen his parents since graduating from the Youth Corps. A few letters each year hardly counted.
She sighed and patted his arm, gaze turning to trace the painted faces of the long-dead. “You were a strange boy sometimes. Not what we’d expected—though what did we know? But suited to the blade, yes. We knew that from the start.”
He recalled, dimly, a fear that he would be supplanted in their hearts and in the lineage. “Not the others?”
She blew out a breath. “Well. Kasten is a bit stodgy. He’s clever, but the kind of clever that runs Administration—not the kind that reins in border tribes. And Sordry is as artistic as you were, but with none of the physical daring. Very quiet, intense. Not very studious. We might send her to alternative schooling rather than the Youth Corps, or keep her home.”
“Even with the new one coming?” Despite the years, it stung.
She gave him a look he couldn’t interpret. “Tevestys needs its artists as much as it needs soldiers, Firkad. As firstborn, it was not something we could have considered for you—but we hadn’t thought you’d want it, either. Your temperament was too fierce.”
“I still draw.” Maps and plans and bounty portraits. “I might have preferred it.”
“To the blade? To being Vaden Deiek’s scout sekiisa at nineteen, with accomplishments trumpeted even to the Empire? What are they calling you now—Wolf Master?”
His jaw clenched. It had been a whirlwind year since Kerystrys Deieksa’s execution. Her post remained vacant, leaving the deiek nominally under the command of Talmoryn Ticheisa but more plainly in the grip of the Empire. Imperials had dogged him throughout the Vastrein subjugation, and even with that clan on a leash, they continued to tail his assaults on the other clans far more than with the soldier sekiisas. The nameless priest and Inquisitor had moved into Vaden Deiek officially, along with functionaries tasked to align the outpost with Imperial law.
What could he say? That he hated it? That he hadn’t slept well since Aekhionden? Beneath one high boot, the remaining claw-knife pressed against his calf, a constant reminder of its fraternal twin. He’d left the eagle’s claw with Chief Eivirn. This one was the monster’s.
“I did what was necessary,” he said flatly.
His mother made a wondering sound, but no more. Together they drifted down the gallery, formal boot-heels clicking on the stone. The painted gazes weighed on him, as did the veils of dust their steps kicked up. Whoever these people had been, no one visited them now.
The silence lengthened, the end of the gallery looming ahead. A row of larger portraits filled that far wall, no sunlight falling on them, but he knew what they should be: the old Eagle Emperors. The ones the knights had served and died for.
He had no desire to approach them. Stepping back, he attempted to turn his mother.
She set her feet. “Firkad. Did your father ever tell you why we married?”
Baffled, he faced her, blinking in the slice of light that came from over her shoulder. Her expression was opaque beneath it. “What? No.”
“Never wrote about it?” She sighed. “Of course not—the censors. Listen. I wish we could have spoken of this before, but there have always been obstructions, and you were too young when you lived in our house. We couldn’t trust your discretion.”
“The lineage. The legacy.” She shook her head, then glanced down the length of the gallery. He looked as well but saw no intruders beside themselves, and felt no tingle of Inquisition eavesdropping. “When you were little, you talked to things that should not have been there. Should not have revealed themselves to you. Your father and I were never trained, so could not chase them away. We could only steer you, and pray that you never saw anything to expose us.”
A chill crawled up his spine. He didn’t want to hear this.
“I can tell you’re unhappy,” she murmured. “I can only hope that it’s for the reason I’ve guessed. You were never cruel, Firkad. No matter what is said of you, I don’t believe you want the wolf-clans to suffer. I think perhaps your old friends taught you sympathy for—“
She paused, flicking a look down the gallery. “No,” he clarified, “there is no threat here. But whatever you think I’m doing with the wolf-clans, I assure you, I am not. I hate wasting resources, so I am finding ways to make them useful. As long as Clan Vastrein benefits Vaden Deiek, I will hold their leash. Is that all?”
He could see her recalculating. Don’t trust me, he willed at her. He’d not yet been fully mind-scanned, but the fact remained that he could be. Her few slips were bad enough. He couldn’t let himself connect too many dots.
“Regardless,” she said at last. In the thin light, her irises made rims of ice around the black wells of her pupils. “I still believe you should know. We told you that your grandmother Ansary left—but she didn’t. She was chased away, her husband murdered, her son threatened, because she would not bend to the Empire. So many of the knight-lineages ended in her time. The only reason hers did not was that your father pledged to be loyal and small. He never used that blade—only drew it once, at his investiture. I approached him because I knew what he was, and had also committed to being small. Ignorable.
“We feared you’d change that. Draw attention to us and our secrets. But instead you went in the opposite direction, cutting swaths through the Youth Corps and the Garnet Mountains. Now you butcher the wolf-kin, disfigure them—so the rumors go. Certainly you show no respect for the old ways, theirs or ours.”
His jaw tightened again.
“Who better to carry the blade?” she asked him. “With the Empire’s grip clenching, who better to bear the lineage forward than a finger of that fist? Perhaps some day—“
“I can’t hear this,” he snapped, trying to pull away. “I already told you—“
“Come see your grandmother.”
He let himself be towed back the way they’d come, belatedly acknowledging that the gallery held not just his nation’s history but his family’s. He hadn’t been looking at the portraits, too aware of them looking back at him. Hadn’t wanted to think about those who’d been his kin.
“There are so few unbroken lines left,” said his mother as they neared the double doors and the connecting hallway beyond. Light from the gathering spilled through only faintly, the noise distant and blurred like a rushing river, the attendees still assembling. The last portraits seemed to hang in even deeper shadow, caught between diffuse daylight and the trace arcane glow. “Your grandmother had fifteen contemporaries. Your father had four.”
And I? he didn’t ask.
She pulled him up before a portrait, bracketed on both sides by others in the same heavy-handed style. A woman stared at him through the brushwork, her features familiar from his mirror: cold, severe, disinterested. Her black hair fell in longish locks to graze war-painted cheeks; her garments were not the uniforms that surrounded her, but a cloak of feathers hung heavy with silver braid and campaign medallions. In the gap where her arm emerged, he thought he saw some sort of robe.
And of course the blade, her hand on its eagle-pommeled hilt, the Sarovingian crest emblazoned on the crosspiece.
He looked away from her piercing eyes. There were too many questions, none of which he could ask. “They’ll be wanting us at the ceremony,” he said instead.
His mother’s gaze weighed on him, but she let herself be led.
The pre-ceremony party felt interminable. Firkad stared at the dancers, trying not to resent their freedom. His mother’s gravid state counted her out, and the Imperials would sneer if he danced with his father, so…
“It’s strange to have a fore-party instead of an after-party,” said one of the Gold officers who’d buttonholed him. All three of them—a mountain blond and two farmlands brunets—had drinks in hand, of the strong dark wine most Tevestyn couldn’t touch. Firkad kept his hands linked behind his back, unwilling to drink and too unsettled to eat. Even if the buffet hadn’t been weighted with Imperial-aimed cheese and meat dishes, he didn’t think he could stomach it.
“We prefer to be alone in the echoes of the ceremony,” he told them, not sure how well he’d translated the concept. Certainly their florid faces showed no comprehension. “Once, we the honorees would not have attended the party at all, but waited in contemplation elsewhere.”
“You Trivesteans have no idea how to enjoy yourselves,” said the shorter brunet. Sarovy wasn’t sure how to read the man’s rank badge, but guessed him a deieksa-cognate—a ‘major’—at the least. Someone worth sending to a diplomatic function. “Not a single brothel in the piking country, hardly any bars, no local alcohols, not even serving wenches!”
Firkad glanced to the buffet staff. Evidently they didn’t count, though they wore the standard slate-blue Service uniform. He wasn’t sure what ‘wench’ meant, so perhaps that was the issue.
“No point in brothels here,” the blond drawled. “The women are all over-tall and flat as boards. Who wants them?”
“Well, not all of them,” said the other brunet, slanting a look toward the dancers. Firkad looked as well, if only to take his mind off punching the blond. Some few of the officer-auxiliaries were wearing Imperial-style gowns and ribboned headbands, but he didn’t know how they might compare aesthetically to Imperial women, having never seen one. That many of their uniformed dance partners were also women seemed to have skipped past the Imperials’ attention—though perhaps that was the point of the dresses.
That none of the paired men were dancing was yet another mark of cultural tension.
“Too many of them, and all cold fish,” the blond snorted. Firkad caught the pitying glance of a fellow honoree—a retiring officer, to judge by the iron-grey of her hair and the empty right sleeve. He inclined his head marginally in apology.
“Everyone here is military,” he told the blond. “Please do not accost them.” Even his sister, should she become a professional artist, would still serve the Sapphire Eye.
“Accost?” the man scoffed. “They should be grateful for a colonel’s attention. Get them out of this chilly thin-aired backwater to a proper civilized place.”
“Somewhere with parties not restricted to holy days,” the shorter brunet groused. “If this is what your Festival of Lights looks like, Sarovy, I shudder to imagine your Darkness Day. You’re supposed to stop working, not schedule a hundred bloody ceremonies into the same five days. It’s practically heresy. Isn’t it, Colonel? Serving the army instead of the Light?”
“Eh. Better than singing hymns until your voice gives out.”
“So, what do you intend to do with your inheritance, Sarovy?” prompted the taller brunet, thick brows arched. He was a hairy fellow, heavy of beard and with more poking out from the notch-collar of his uniform jacket. It reminded Firkad uncomfortably of Chief Eivirn. “That’s what your honor is about, yes? Nineteen and claiming your majority?”
“Wish the bloody Wyndish king would lower our conscription age to yours,” the blond muttered. “Thirteen is fine by me. Beat the fluff out of those boys’ heads early.”
“Then you wouldn’t have any loggers or miners. Don’t complain.”
“It is not a monetary inheritance,” Firkad answered his questioner. “Just a sword—a family heirloom.”
“That make you the man of the family now?”
“I could start a family, yes.”
“Got yourself a girl yet?”
The taller brunet gave him a smack on the shoulder that sent shooting pains through his old crossed scars. He managed a rictus smile as the man thumped him again and said, “Worry not, lad, you’ll have one soon. The Emperor’s been in a matchmaking mood, and you’ve shown promise. Wouldn’t be surprised if he sends you a wife within the season.”
Firkad fought not to bristle. Sharp responses surfaced—I never asked for that, you assume my preference, I’m a well-known solitaire. But none would matter to the Emperor.
“Or we might marry you into a Gold family,” the blond added. “We could use your kind of officer on the Krovichankan front. Smart, practical, vicious…”
Scoffing, the tall brunet gave him another painful thump. “No, no, we’ll not be plucking this flower yet. His outpost hasn’t got a commander. Been that way a year or more, eh Sarovy? Sounds to me like they’ve been waiting for you to become a full adult.”
Firkad slanted the man a look. He would almost rather talk about arranged marriage than the tangled politics of Vaden Deiek, but he couldn’t deny that he’d been considering a bid for the deieksa seat. Talmoryn Ticheisa couldn’t hold it forever. That the ticheisa was wary of both his volatility and his connection to the Vastreins didn’t matter. He’d leaned into the mad solitaire persona deliberately, letting it unnerve his own people and chase away the clan-folk, because it raised his reputation among the Imperials just as much as it soured all the others. The Imperials were the ones in command now.
A finger of that fist, he heard his mother say, and fought a wince.
“I suppose your border does need a hard hand,” said the blond. “What do you plan to do with all your new vassals? Press them into Sapphire service? Carve them up like—”
“They will be mining,” he cut in. “We have made too many demands of the western mines. The Garnet Mountains must have metal deposits; several of the clans have metal weapons of no Imperial provenance. Once we have subjugated those clans, we will have them mine that metal for our army, leaving more of yours for your people.”
The blond officer grunted, seeming satisfied; the brunets nodded. Firkad declined to expand on the topic. They didn’t need to know that no veins had yet been found, only rumors of hostile copper and iron elementals, nor that the only way mining would happen in the Garnets was if the clans did it willingly. No Tevestyn soldier wanted anything to do with occupying the Garnet Mountain Territory. Even standing as mine-guards might drive them to desertion.
While the conflicts continued, though, mining was his main argument to prevent a culling.
A familiar flourish from the hall’s woodwinds caught his ear, the strings falling silent. The dancers swirled to a stop to stand attentive to the old Tevestyn anthem. No one sang it anymore, like no one spoke of the gargoyles that had once glowered from the rooftops or the frescoes that had been scraped from the walls. The tapestries that had burned at Imperial command, for showing the Eagle Emperor’s old crest.
“That is the signal for the ceremony,” he told the Gold officers, stepping back from them. His short bow drew patronizing chuckles, and he forced himself to smile as if in on the joke.
Then he turned, smile dissolving, and moved to join the assembling line.
He tried to be at ease. While this should have been a private family ceremony, his rank and recent notoriety had brought him here, bracketed by older soldiers awaiting medals or writs of honorable retirement. It was his own fault, and he had to make the best of it.
To one side, his mother and two siblings—Kasten, twelve, and Sordry, six—made a little knot beside many other such knots: families in attendance but isolated from each other, never forming a crowd. To the other, high officers including his father stood mostly solitary. At a glance, he recognized Talmoryn Ticheisa; his father’s superiors Demathry Faaresa and Vanarys Ticheisa; and Revaksi Vikaasa, the Sapphire’s second-in-command. The Imperial observers clumped alongside them, glaringly white and yellow among so many shades of blue.
Ahead, across the polished stone floor—its Old Tevayn ideograms unreadable under the arcane light—stood Evinrus Haaksa, War Leader of the Sapphire Eye Army. The Sapphire’s great white-on-blue banner flowed like a waterfall at his back, the eagle’s white wings spread as if from the shoulders of his near-black uniform. Two haaksa-nerin assisted him on the dais, the woman’s uniform cut in an odd new way that emphasized her gender—another Imperial tweak. Opposite them, two Light priests in white-on-white garb stood like ivory sentinels.
Firkad didn’t know why they were up there. This wasn’t a religious rite. Even when Evinrus Haaksa invoked the Light’s blessing, it sounded like lip service; his hewn-ice expression never changed, nor did the drone of his Imperial Altaerai. The soldier to Firkad’s left shifted nervously, brows furrowed, and he wondered how many others were less than fluent.
At a guess: the majority of those from the southern deieks, and a smattering of those from the north. In a rush, he remembered his old roommate Taymar Vennatry, who’d always struggled in language class. She hadn’t had the early exposure that northern Tevestyn did, and though she’d tried hard, she’d never mastered the Imperial accent.
He blinked away that old thorn in his heart as the soldier at his right was called. As she knelt at the dais, her commanding officer—posted now at Evinrus Haaksa’s elbow—accepted the medal handed to him by the male nerin, then expounded on the soldier’s accomplishments. Valiant defense of a Krovichankan post, a sharp-shot kill of a rampaging ogrish berserker, a recovery from what might have been a career-ending injury. He bid her to rise, the star-shaped medal glinting in the light as he pinned it to her jacket.
Evinrus Haaksa took the writ of acknowledgment from his female nerin and presented it with a murmured word. Clutching the scroll, the honored soldier bowed, then quick-walked to the shelter of her sidelined family knot.
“Captain Firkad Sarovy,” called the male nerin.
Firkad stepped forward, peripherally aware of his father also approaching the dais. The hard heels of their boots rang slightly off-tempo as they converged. The dais was two tall steps up, and as he bent his knee to rest on the first one, his old shin-scar twinged in rebuke.
As his father settled into position, Evinrus Haaksa intoned, “We bear witness this day to the official investiture of the inheritor of the Eagle Knight Sarovy. Though we have thrown off the shadows of our pagan past, we cannot forget the valor and sacrifice of the Eagle Knights, nor their historical importance. With the Light’s blessing, we thus acknowledge the passing of the Sarovingian blade and title from its fourteenth wielder, Major Virkus Sarovy, to its fifteenth, Captain Firkad Sarovy. Major, you may present the blade.”
Firkad looked up at his father. Arcane light deepened the lines of Virkus’ face and glinted on the silvering at his temples. In his pale Administration uniform, his only adornments the old watchtower service ribbons and deieksa’s badge, he seemed a fallen icon—a failed warrior, hiding behind paperwork in a little office of a large fortress.
Only the heirloom blade still held its promise, its hilt gleaming, its new sheath blue-black with silver fittings. The eagle-head on the pommel seemed to stare at Firkad as he raised his hands to accept it.
His father hesitated.
Meeting those mirrored eyes, Firkad wondered what they saw. A son, an inheritor, a carrier of the family secrets? Or an enemy—a potential traitor?
His hands closed on the sheath. It was his. The honor and the danger both.
After a moment, Virkus let go.
“Rise, Captain Sarovy,” said the Haaksa.
Firkad obeyed, the blade held horizontal in both hands. Its weight felt like any other sword of its type. Hard to believe that it was older than the current Empire—that it had seen the Eagle and Lion War, the Tevestyn Withdrawal, the rise and fall of so much history.
“Draw it,” said a priest. “We want to see.”
He blinked. It was illegal to bare a blade before one’s superiors if not for an official duel. But Evinrus Haaksa nodded permission, his haaksa-nerins gone still and watchful. One priest smiled; the other stared, serious as the grave.
He glanced to his father, but Virkus’ gaze skated away.
Only drew it once, at his investiture, his mother had said.
Suppressing a chill, Sarovy clasped the hilt. The wrapped wire felt normal beneath his glove, the hilt well-sized and comfortable. He could easily imagine generations of ancestors wielding it. Not his father, but Grandmother Ansary in her uncivilized garb, and Great-Grandmother Karayl before her, and…
Faces flickered behind his eyes, unknown yet familiar. Wings battered a darkened casement; a bloodied claw fell to the dirt. Within him, something fluttered, flared—
Forewarned by premonition, he fought it with all the will he possessed. Here in public, exposed, such a thing could not happen. Could not be acknowledged, even if he’d wanted to.
Which he didn’t.
You all want something from me, he thought. But you won’t get it.
He drew the blade from its sheath, breath held as inch after faintly curved inch slid free. Despite his father’s negligence, it remained wickedly sharp, the edge gleaming in the arcane light. Again came the brush of wings against his soul, straining to spread, and again he crushed them down. They belonged to a fallen age. He would not fall with them.
As the tip came free, the pressure eased, leaving him as empty as ever.
Exhaling, he raised the blade in salute to his masters, then sheathed it and bowed.
After a silence, Evinrus Haaksa said, “Dismissed.”
Rote applause followed him as he walked offside, feeling the priests’ eyes still drilling into his back. His father trailed him, his mother beaming as he fell in at her elbow. From her other side, his siblings stared. He met their gazes briefly, then concentrated on buckling the sword to his belt.
Best that they attach no hopes to him. No loyalty, no admiration, no trust. He would never know them outside of formality, and like him—like their parents, like all their people—they were trapped here. Bound to the Empire’s wrist, its hunting birds.
Only by feigning obedience could he be free.