Excerpt: Prisoner

Prologue

Dieter scrubbed at his face, willing away his exhaustion. The chaos had finally ceased, and his men would shortly be bringing him the last irritant of the evening—the bastard Salharan who had managed to sneak into their camp in the dead of night and slay hundreds of men while they slept. He shoved strands of silver-touched black hair from his eyes, looking up at the dark gray sky. “Stupid bitch,” he muttered under his breath. He snapped his head down at the sound of boots squishing in the muddy swamp that their camp had become. “What?” he barked at the private trying not to shake before him.

“G-General, we caught him.”

“Bring him to me.”

“Yes, Sir!” The private turned and beat a retreat. Dieter noted that if the men had moved half so fast earlier, more of them would have lived. It would seem the new recruits were still sorely in need of training. That would be dealt with in a fortnight when they reached the Winter Palace.

He glared once more at the dark sky. “The Winter Princess has sunk her claws deep this season.” A few of his officers, gathered to give their reports, muttered soft agreements. Dieter’s next words were prevented by the sound of shouting and scrabbling and words spoken in a language usually foreign to their camp. A moment later four men came crashing into the circle, three of them falling to the ground as they reached Dieter.

The prisoner remained standing, sneering contemptuously at the soldiers who had failed to control him. Dieter stepped forward, grabbed the prisoner by the scruff of his shirt and swung a hard fist into his stomach. The prisoner collapsed, groaning in pain, but he did not pass out. “That’s more like it. Now,” he glared at his men, “Start talking.”

The first soldier nodded, fumbling to straighten his hat as he snapped to attention. “This is the man who led the ambush, General. The others are all dead.”

Unadulterated hate clouded the prisoner’s face as he looked at Dieter. Dieter ignored him. “How did he manage to take us so unawares?”

“We don’t know, General.” The second soldier started to shrug then realized what he was doing and froze.

Dieter stared at the prisoner through hooded eyes. The man gave the word “filthy” all new meaning. His military breeches were so covered in muck and grime it was impossible tell their original color. His hair color was similarly difficult to determine for the filth. He had lost his military jacket, making his rank impossible to determine, and his shirt was little more than scraps of cloth barely clinging to his form. But beneath the rags and the mud, muscle rippled and tensed as he strained against the ropes wound down his arm and locked tightly around his wrists. This was no lazy soldier scraping by on the pity of the gods.

Of course, the fact that he had killed a hundreds of Dieter’s best had proven that. “Do you have a name, Prisoner?” He noticed, almost idly, that the man’s amber eyes turned bright gold in anger.

“Prisoner is good enough for you,” the man spat. “You may as well kill me because I’ll not tell you a thing.”

Dieter smirked. “That remains to be seen.” His gaze hardened as he looked at his men. “Do we know anything about him?”

“He lost his jacket struggling against us, but it had the marks of a lieutenant.” The third soldier spoke quietly, as if he sensed Dieter would be displeased and was hoping to escape detection.

Had Dieter felt like moving, he probably would have backhanded him for acting so weak. His vision misted with rage. “A lieutenant; the best of my Scarlet is dead now because of a polluted lieutenant?” Dieter contemplated landing a few blows, but decided it was not worth expending what energy he had left. “Get out of my sight, all of you. Rest while you can, because tomorrow you’re going to wish the Autumn Prince had taken you away!”

The soldiers fled.

Breathing heavily with rage, Dieter grabbed a fistful of the prisoner’s filthy hair and forced his head up. “How did you kill so many of my men?”

“I’m polluted, remember?” The prisoner sneered in contempt. “A little pollution is all I need to kill filthy Krians.”

Dieter swung out, punching him hard in the gut. The prisoner crumpled to the ground and lay still. Using one booted foot, he shoved the prisoner until he lay flat on his stomach. Crouching down, he examined the ropes that bound him. It would not do to injure him overmuch until they could determine a suitable punishment. Simply killing him would not suffice. No. This one would pay. Grimacing at the layers of Gods only knew what covering him, Dieter shoved away dirt and scraps of cloth to ensure the prisoner had not suffered serious injury.

His explorations uncovered a strange, unnatural mark at the small of his back. Dieter frowned and wiped away more of the grime, breath hissing between his teeth when he realized what he had uncovered.

Seven thin triangles, shaped around a circle to form a stylized star. Five of the triangles were filled in—violet, indigo, blue, green and yellow. Two triangles and the central circle were outlines. Dieter was torn between annoyance and glee. “That would certainly explain how a mere lieutenant managed to kill so many of my men.” Rising to his feet, he called for his Chief of Staff and began barking orders.

*~*~*

“After all the trouble you’ve caused,” Dieter folded his arms across his chest, “it’s good to know you’re worth a ransom.”

The prisoner shook his head, but said nothing. His arms had been chained to the ground behind him, forcing him to sit always slightly tilted back so that the chains wrapped around his neck and down his arms did not choke him. “They will pay nothing for me.”

“If you are going to lie, Prisoner, then at least tell a good one. I know a Seven Star when I see one, and I know they will be eager to get you back.” Dieter unfolded his arms as an attendant approached with a steaming cup of tea. “But tell my why a Brother of the Seven Star was made a mere lieutenant? Did they think that would keep you from being detected?”

Amber eyes regarded him with hot rage, but it was not the bright gold that Dieter had seen before. The prisoner was growing weaker by the hour, and the strain had dulled his bright eyes. Dieter realized he almost felt disappointed. “They thought it would get me killed sooner.”

“Not very intelligent of them,” Dieter said with amusement. He took a sip of his dark tea, deciding to play along with the prisoner. “Why not simply kill you themselves?”

This time the eyes did turn gold, though only for a moment. Then the prisoner sneered. “Do not think you’ll get any information from me.”

Dieter smirked. “Think you I need such information from you? The Brotherhood of the Seven Star, the most polluted men in all of Salhara.” He knelt to look the prisoner in the face. “Always before they have been leaders, men of power, not mere lieutenants—unless of course we are wrong about your rank.”

The prisoner made a motion that would have been a shrug had he been unbound, “I am a Lieutenant, or was.”

“Nor did you use the sort of pollutions to which I am accustomed.” Typically, Salharans used a wide variety of small pollutions and simple spells instead of wasting the necessary drugs on larger, more complicated spells. Yet this one had used those harder spells.

The prisoner gave a vicious smile. “If I’d done that, you would have been able to defend yourselves.”

Dieter narrowed his eyes, sorely tempted to backhand him. He rose to his feet. “You’re only alive because of my orders.”

Giving another of his awkward shrugs, the prisoner tossed his head to stare him in the face. “You’ll be killing me soon anyway. What do I care for your threats?”

“My threats are not made idly,” Dieter said. “Once the ransom is paid, you will suffer greatly for what you’ve done.”

The prisoner threw his head back and laughed, the sound of it bitter and half wild. “Then I guess I have nothing to fear at all.” His eyes were dampened gold. “Never will they pay a ransom for me.”

*~*~*

Dieter crushed the missive in one large fist, glowering at everyone and everything within his sight. The soldiers fled, each fearing they would be the one to take the brunt of their general’s anger. The prisoner laughed at him, though he did not sound happy so much as bitterly amused. “I told you so.”

“Be silent, Prisoner, unless you would care to explain to me why your Brothers do not desire your safe return.”

“They would rather die than call me Brother.” The prisoner slumped over in his chains, no longer seeming to feel the pain caused by his long hours of awkward confinement.

Dieter buried his hand in the prisoner’s filthy hair and yanked his head up. “Then what am I to do with you?”

“Kill me.”

“No, I think not. All the trouble you’ve caused, death is too kind a measure.” Dieter released him, scowling as he thought.

“General!” A lieutenant approached, touching his right shoulder with his left hand in salute as he snapped to attention. “We are ready to depart.”

“Have the prisoner secured to my horse.”

“Yes, General!” The lieutenant saluted again and barked orders to several nearby grunts.

Several minutes later, Dieter mounted his horse and sneered down at the man chained to the pommel. “I hope you can keep up, Prisoner. If you fall, I will not help you up.”

“Do you think I care?” The prisoner sneered. “At this rate, I will die.”

“No, you will not.” Dieter gave the orders for his men to march, then continued to speak to the prisoner. “There is too much fight in you. A few days without water and food, and you will be begging for the chance to live.”

“I would rather die than beg you for anything.”

Dieter merely laughed, pleased at the thought of proving the stubborn prisoner so very, very wrong. “We shall see, prisoner, we shall see.” He urged his horse to increase its pace, summoning his Chief of Staff to finalize their new route home.

Half of the Scarlet Army remained at the Regenbogen, under the control of his Commander. The rest traveled with him to the Winter Palace for the remainder of the year. The prisoner had slowed their journey, however, and the risk of more Salharans had forced the change in their usual route home. He had already lost more of the Scarlet than he liked; he would not lose more. The new route was longer, and more difficult, but less likely to be infested with Salharans.

Beside him, walking along the uneven, rocky ground, the prisoner ground his teeth, clearly displeased by what he was hearing. Dieter saw the frustration and smirked. Ordering his men away, he spoke once more to the prisoner. “Thirsty, Prisoner? We have been traveling for nearly two hours.”

The prisoner said nothing. Dieter chuckled. “You will beg me before the journey ends.”

“I will let death claim me first.”

“I do not think so.” Dieter watched him for a moment, ordering his thoughts and considering his questions. “How do you know our language so well?”

Silence. “Ah, but you are a Brother.” Still the prisoner did not reply. Dieter laughed, “But no—you said they would rather die than call you Brother. Then why do you bear the mark of the Seven Star?”

“Why would you think I’d tell you?”

“You will eventually. Shall we start with your name?”

“Prisoner will suffice.”

Dieter laughed. “So stubborn. I will enjoy watching you crumble. But I grow weary of calling you Prisoner. If you will not tell me your name, perhaps I should give you one.”

“NO!” the prisoner shouted loud enough to startle most of the assembled men. He lowered his voice, but it was full of hate and a shred of panic. “I will never accept a name from you. Prisoner is all that you need call me.”

Narrowing his eyes, Dieter spoke briefly with his aide before pulling off to the side of the camp. He dismounted and strode up to the prisoner, grasping him by the throat and pressing just hard enough for it to be painful without inhibiting his breathing. “You are my prisoner, and I shall call you what I like.”

“No,” the prisoner snarled, desperate and angry. “I will never respond to anything but Prisoner.”

Dieter used his other hand to shove filthy, tangled strands of hair from the prisoner’s face, forcing his head up for a closer examination. Beneath a sweaty, dirty face, his amber eyes shone bright with anger. Dieter smiled in a way that made most men recoil in fear. “Beraht,” he said softly. “Your name is Beraht.”

“I do not accept it,” the prisoner said. “I would rather die.”

“You keep saying that. I do not believe you,” Dieter said. He released the prisoner and mounted his horse once more. “You will grow tired and hungry and weary. Already you are suffering from the lack of your precious drugs. By the time we reach camp, you will be begging me. If you want to live, accept your new name or tell me your real one.”

“Never.”

*~*~*

“Attack!” a scout called as he crested the hill and raced toward the traveling army. “Salharan soldiers, take cover!”

Dieter wasted no time giving orders to his troops, but the orders came too little too late to avoid disaster. In mere seconds his army was a mess, and it was all Dieter could do to keep them from being overwhelmed completely. Everywhere around him were the screams and cries of men and horses, the smell of blood and steel and fire, the air thick with fear and anger and hate.

There was something strange about it all, however. Dieter fought off attacker after attacker as his mind tried to put together the pieces that were not fitting together as they should have been. As he slew yet another foot soldier from atop his mount, he suddenly realized what was odd. They were not trying to get him. They were trying to get past him.

Dieter fought with the chains that had been secured to his pommel, then all but threw himself off his horse and shoved the prisoner to the ground as more Salharan foot soldiers attacked. His sword found its mark in the chest of the first, the throat of the second. His Chief of Staff took out the last as Salharan trumpets sounded a retreat.

“Get me the counts!” Dieter snarled to his second. Pushing himself to his feet, he yanked the prisoner up hard and shook him. “Why?” he raged. “Why are my men dying for you? Why are your own people trying to kill you?” He shook the man hard, over and over until they both were gasping for breath.

The prisoner stared at him with eyes that had darkened with fear. “We have to go. Now.”

Dieter narrowed his eyes. “What?”

“Now!” the prisoner screamed. In a burst of strength Dieter had not expected, the prisoner grabbed him and turned, using Dieter’s own weight to throw him into the scrubby forest that separated the road from a small, muddy river. Without pause, the prisoner grabbed the reins of Dieter’s horse and followed him into the trees.

Dieter struggled to his feet, but before he could the prisoner threw himself on top of Dieter and held him down as best he could. Dieter continued to struggle until a thin, high-pitched whining sound filled the air. Until that moment, he had not noticed the stark, unnatural silence that had fallen, making that sudden whining sound crystal clear. “No…” he whispered. He ceased struggling and instead began to silently recite the prayers for peace in death.

Above him, still holding Dieter down, the prisoner chanted words of his own. Not a prayer, but a spell. Dieter wondered where he had gotten the arcen to cast it.

“Protect us.”

*~*~*

“They were not Salharan.” It was not a question, but a statement. Dieter’s voice was flat. He cursed himself a thousand times for falling for a trick he should never have let deceive him.

“No,” the prisoner said. “I should have realized it sooner.”

Dieter shook his head, mind in turmoil. Everyone was dead. Everything was gone. He glared hatefully at the prisoner. “Why did they want you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Tell me!” Dieter roared and threw himself at the prisoner, pinning him to the ground

“I don’t know!” the prisoner cried, chains rattling as he struggled against Dieter’s iron hold. “My own people don’t care if I live or die. Why would the Illussor?” He lay still, gasping for breath, amber eyes glazed with pain. “I don’t know!”

Dieter let him go with a rough cry. “I should kill you.”

“It would be a mercy,” the prisoner said bitterly.

“Which is why I will not.” He looked pensively at the prisoner, who was examining the food over the fire. “Are you hungry?”

“I will never be hungry enough to accept your name.” The prisoner looked at him with an angry frown, and Dieter would swear there was something of a pout to it.

Dieter lifted the roasting meat from the fire. He ate heartily for several minutes, offering the prisoner none. “Why are you so touchy about a simple name? It is not as though it would kill you to be called something other than prisoner. You could simply tell me your real name.”

“What does it matter!” the prisoner snapped. “I am of no concern to you. At least not important enough that you need my name. A prisoner is all I am, and a prisoner is all I shall be.”

Dieter considered him. “You could have escaped in the time you had after using your damned pollutions.”

“Those pollutions saved your life,” the prisoner replied.

“You are still my prisoner.”

The prisoner hefted his chains and sneered. “So I noticed. Whatever happened to a life for a life?”

“You took the lives of my men, and the rest of them died because the Illussor wanted you. Tell me why I should not let them have you?”

“Because though the Krians hate Salhara, they hate the Illussor just as much. You will not give them what they want, especially if you think I can be used against them.”

“You think you can be used to hurt them?”

The prisoner snorted, “No. But they were after me for a reason.”

“A reason you claim not to know.”

“I speak the truth!” the prisoner shouted, his words echoing off the rocks just behind them. “I am rejected by my Brothers and my country. I am nameless. I have no purpose.”

Dieter stared at him in surprise. “How is a man nameless?”

“None of your business.”

“Why did you kill my men if you have no Brother, no country, no purpose?”

“Kill a hundred of my enemies and I shall welcome thee as friend. Kill a thousand of my enemies and I shall welcome thee as Brother,” the prisoner quoted softly. He looked at Dieter, eyes burning hot gold in the firelight and setting sun. “The blood of Kria is my only hope.”

“Would that I could kill you,” Dieter swore. “That is not what the saying means. Sacrificing my men for so selfish a purpose. I will find a fitting punishment if it is the last thing I do.”

The prisoner closed his eyes and laughed. “Do your best.”

*~*~*

The prisoner was dying.

Dieter had lost track of the days he had been without food or water. At least three as they traveled and one or two after his Scarlet were slaughtered and however many days they had been on the road. He held the prisoner close, expression intent as he looked at the man barely conscious in his arms. “Do you really want to die?”

“No.” The prisoner stared weakly at Dieter. “But I will not accept your name. Let me be called prisoner and be content.”

“No,” Dieter said fiercely. He wished he could explain to them both why it mattered so much. The prisoner was right: his name should matter little to Dieter. He should not care whether the prisoner lived or died. He should want him dead after the massacre of his entire Scarlet.

Except he wanted the strange prisoner, filthy and weak and enemy that he was, to accept the name that Dieter had chosen. On some level, it mattered. Dieter had learned long ago to trust such feelings, whether he understood them or not.

“Do you want to die nameless?” he asked, sensing somehow this was the right thing to say. “Unwanted by the people who should be welcoming you as a hero? Alone in the woods in the arms of your enemy?”

A hundred emotions flickered across the prisoner’s face, pain and rage and misery like shadows in his eyes.

“You are Beraht,” Dieter said firmly. “Accept it.”

“You don’t understand—” the prisoner whispered, but the rest of his protest died on his lips. He sighed, nodding feebly. “So be it.”

“Say it.”

“My name is Beraht.”

Chapter One

“We lost him.” Dressed head to toe in clothing that seemed to blend into the room around him, a man with dark yellow eyes knelt at the foot of a dais, bowing his head at the three men seated there. “I told you not paying the ransom would be a risk.”

The man seated in the middle, tall and thin and gray, spoke in a booming voice that shook the dark stone chamber in which they were gathered. His eyes were dark red. “Watch your impertinence. What do you mean we lost him?”

The kneeling man shook his head. “We followed him by tracking his magic. He has used it up. Until he takes another dose, we have lost him.”

“Nonsense. Yellow lasts for weeks, and we know he took several vials with him when he left. He should have the magic in his systems for weeks yet.”

“Not if he pushed himself and burned it all off,” the man said quietly.

On the rightmost side, a man with deeply tanned skin and dark orange eyes moved restlessly in his seat. “Why do you think such a thing?”

The dark-clothed man motioned to the door. “I have brought a guest who will help explain.”

“Bring him in, Tawn,” the last man snarled. He was pale and sickly, and his hand shook as he raised it to motion the guards to open the doors. His eyes were red, so dark as to appear almost black.

Tawn nodded and rose to his feet, moving with cat-like grace to the doors and vanishing into the hallway. He returned a moment later dragging a man who he threw to the floor when he reached the dais. Gasps filled the room, and more than a few of the gathered members stumbled several steps back.

The tall gray man rose to his feet, voice booming in anger and some fear. “Why have you brought an Illussor into our stronghold?”

Tawn grinned, an expression that made those closest to him shudder, and stepped forward to lift the man up so that they could see his face. The Illussor’s skin was a pale, almost silvery white in the light of the candelabra that fought off the darkness of the windowless chamber. His hair was the same, shining like fine silver.

The Brothers gasped, breaths hissing out in stunned disbelief. The Illussor had no eyes.

“How did you manage that?”

Tawn laughed, cold and hard. “This one was unconscious and so did not fall to the Scream cast by his superior. He was too weak to use magic.” He turned the Illussor’s head, stroking a cheek that was still crusted with dried blood. “Take out its eyes, and it will never cast illusions again.” Tawn let the Illussor go, and he fell back down upon the stones, trembling.

The three upon the dais all nodded, and the sickly man leaned forward in his seat. “Why do we need an Illussor? What can it possibly tell us?”

“We found several of them in a battlefield amongst a great many dead Krian soldiers. Not just any Krian soldiers.” Tawn paused, eyes glowing brilliant yellow.

“Get on with it,” the tall man spoke.

Tawn smirked. “They were amongst fallen Scarlet.”

“Scarlet?” the dark-skinned man exclaimed.

“Yes,” Tawn said, his voice filled with delight. “The nameless lieutenant killed well over a hundred of them, and the Illussor Scream wiped out the rest of the Scarlet bound for the Winter Palace. All that remains of Scarlet now are those snowed into their precious fortress in the Disputed Lands.”

All around the chamber the assembled Brothers murmured quietly amongst themselves. The sickly man shook his head slowly back and forth, unable to absorb what he had been told. “Incredible. General von Adolwulf has been our greatest threat for years now. To think he and so many of his men were so suddenly done in by a Scream.”

“Yes,” the gray-haired man spoke. “He is our nemesis because he is more clever than that. How did he fall for an Illussor trap?”

Tawn pulled hard at the Illussor’s hair. “That is a question for you to answer, Deceiver. Speak.”

The Illussor trembled, and he licked his dry lips before responding. “I am merely a foot soldier. Our orders were to devastate the Scarlet. I know nothing more than that.”

“You lie.” Tawn pulled harder until the Illussor cried out in pain. “Speak the truth. There is worse I can do than tear out your eyes.”

Shaking in pain and fear, the Illussor nevertheless shook his head. “I cannot tell you what I do not know!”

“You had best tell us something, Illussor,” the central man spoke sharply, coldly. “Your life is only as valuable as the information you give us.”

The Illussor turned toward the sound of his voice, hissing in pain at Tawn’s hold. “You will kill me anyway. I swear to you, there is nothing I can tell you.”

The man with orange eyes motioned impatiently. “Lock him up. He will talk after a few days, when dark and cold and hunger begin to take their toll.” Tawn nodded and departed the room, dragging the Illussor behind him like a sack.

The Brothers turned to one another, discussing the matter in whispers and mutters. The three men on the dais called them to silence. The sickly one spoke. “The Illussor do not simply kill an army; it is not their way. If it were, we would all be dead by now. General Sol, attend!”

A man in the dark gray uniform of the Royal Army stepped forward. His eyes were bright yellow. Though he was only thirty-eight years old, his ash blonde hair was almost completely gray. Combined with his uniform, the man had an austere, almost melancholy air about him. When he stepped forward, the whispering in the room faded. “Yes, my Lord Jaspar?”

“You still have access to Kria?”

“Of course, your Grace.” His yellow eyes took on a speculative gleam. “What are your orders?”

“I want to know the fate of the Scarlet, and if they were carrying anything of importance that managed to slip by us.”

“Your will be done.”

“Excellent,” Jaspar said with what could almost be considered glee. On either side of him, his compatriots expressed their own satisfaction. “See that you gather as much information as possible. The Illussor have been behaving oddly for some time now. To massacre the entire Scarlet is a drastic measure. I want to know why they resorted to it.”

Sol bowed low. Turning sharply, He strode from the room to carry out his orders. Behind him, the Brothers continued to argue and suppose. Outside in the hallway, his respectful mien fell away. He cast his eyes toward the shadow lurking between the torches. “How did you happen to be so near that battle, Tawn, yet know nothing of what occurred or why?”

Tawn chuckled and pulled away from the shadows. “What makes you think I know something?”

“You always hold something back. It’s a wonder the Brothers have not figured that out yet.”

“They’re too busy reveling in their Illussor captive.”

Sol strode close and caught Tawn by the scruff of the neck. “Desist, Tawn. I’ve little patience for your games today.”

“You never have patience for my games.”

“Then why do you persist in playing them?”

Tawn laughed, but it was not a pleasant or happy sound. “If you enjoyed them, what would be the point in playing them?”

Sol slammed him against the wall. “I said desist.”

“Yes, yes.” Tawn shoved him away and brushed off his shirt. “You need to develop a sense of humor, General Sol. Or should I call you Lord Grau? It’s so hard to remember who you are and when.”

Sol backhanded him. “Must I tell you a third time?”

“You will pay for hitting me, General.”

“Idle threats. We both know that you will not kill me for a long time yet.”

Tawn’s eyes were bright with anger and barely repressed magic. “And on that day, you will pay for every abuse you’ve laid upon me. Make no mistake.” He stepped back into the shadow and away from Sol’s anger.

“So you’ve said before. Now tell me.”

Tawn glared, but began to explain. “Shortly before the Illussor attacked, the Scarlet was struck a hard blow by our nameless Brother. He took out more than a hundred men with his own magic, and further damage was done by the Illussor who were killed shortly after the Scarlet began to fight back. The nameless was captured some minutes later and taken as a personal prisoner of General von Adolwulf. When the Illussor attacked, it slowly became apparent that they were after nameless. He and the general were not seen after the Scream; it is presumed von Adolwulf was killed. The star on the nameless’ back tells us he lives, but we know nothing beyond that. No doubt surviving the Scream is why his magic burned out so rapidly. It would have taken every ounce he possessed to resist a Scream.”

“Why would they want a lousy peasant? I doubt the Illussor know he is a Seven Star.” Sol frowned in thought. “Keep searching for him, and when you find him bring him to me in Kria. I will take care of matters from there.”

Tawn laughed. “Of course.”

Sol did not reply, but turned on his heel to finally escape the dungeon where the Seven Star meetings always took place. He traveled up a long set of stairs until he reached a door of dark, heavy oak. From a heavy ring of keys at his waist he selected a large, plain iron one. The door opened soundlessly into a large wine room. Moving around the barrels that hid the door, he left the wine room.

From there he ascended into the kitchens, slipping out the back door and working his way around the white stone palace to the royal gardens. Several minutes and winding hallways later, he was back safe and sound in his own room. He woke his sleeping manservant with a sharp clap to the head. “Pack my things, Dal. We leave this very night for Kria. Where are the cleansers?”

Dal, long used to such rough awakenings, clambered to his feet and set to work. He lifted a small leather case from the dresser and opened it, holding out a small glass vial filled with a milky grayish substance. “Here, General.”

“Thank you.” Sol drank the liquid in one swallow. He swayed for a moment, feeling nauseous as the cleanser began to take effect. Dal regarded him politely, blandly, though his pale green eyes were attentive. “Perhaps you should sit down, Lord General?”

“I’ll be fine.” And several minutes later he seemed to be, though Sol knew he would not feel like eating or drinking much for the next three days while the cleanser finished the job it had only begun.

By the time they reached Kria, he would be nothing more than a familiar face at the royal court, a peasant-turned-noble from unexpected fortune. No sign of his Salharan pollution would remain.

*~*~*

Still far below the palace, Tawn strolled into the small dungeon where the blind Illussor was chained to the wall. “Are you ready to talk now?” He spoke in Illussor, his accent nearly flawless.

“There is nothing I can tell you.”

“Let’s start with your name.”

Despite the blood that caked his face, the dirt and grime that covered him from head to toe, there was steel in the Illussor’s voice as he turned his head toward the sound of Tawn’s voice. “No. I know the power that Salharans place in names. All the power to control a man lies in the name he is given. If you want my name, you will be wanting for a long, long time.”

“A name only holds power if you are the one to give it—or not give it, as it were.” Tawn grinned maliciously. “You’re awfully stubborn for a blind Illussor. Especially one who spent his journey here trembling and crying.”

The Illussor curled his lip in contempt. “Say what you will, but I know that even blind and chained, I am far superior to a man who must drug himself to do his job.”

Tawn reached out and kicked him hard in the groin, good mood restored when the Illussor tried to bend over in pain, gasping and unable to cry. “You know nothing about it.” He turned to leave, and switched back to Salharan so the guards just outside would understand him. “I’ll be back in a few days. In the mean time, I’ll leave the guards to teach you manners befitting a blind prisoner.”

*~*~*

Nothing but darkness surrounded Iah. After beating him, the guards had taken the only torch in the room. Not that he could see it, but he had felt it and taken the meager comfort it had offered. Now he sensed there was nothing at all. He could not hear even the shuffling and skittering of the things that thrived in dark, moldy places. The guards hadn’t bothered to chain him again. What would have been the point?

Iah cried quietly, the pain coursing through his body paling in comparison to the fact that his eyes had been torn out. Nothing but empty holes now, in the place where his eyes had once been. Not even a strip of cloth to hide his shame. If only he could die. But suicide was admired only when Screaming, and he was no longer capable of that.

He wanted revenge against the one they had called Tawn. Iah remembered his face, thin and tight, cruel lines etched around the mouth and sick yellow eyes. The drugs had gone far with that one, but not quite past the point of no return.

The voices, though, the ones from the damp room. He would wager his life on their eyes being red—or even black. It made him smile; a dark, unhappy smile, but a smile all the same.

The sound of something heavy hitting the floor broke into his black thoughts. A second thump followed, then he heard the scrape of a key in a rusted door and a screech as the door was pulled open. Iah bit his lip, refusing to speak, because if he did, he might finally lose control. He felt a gentle touch on his shoulder. “Are you all right?” A voice he didn’t recognize spoke softly, barely above a whisper. In Illussor. There was no trace of an accent. “Of course you’re not. Are you at least well enough to move?”

“Who—” he licked his lips. “Who are you? What trickery is this?”

“No trickery, Captain.”

“How did you know I was a Captain?” The soft voice laughed, and he thought it the warmest sound he’d heard since his world had been ripped away. Who was this voice? It was Salharan, no mistaking that. But why would a Salharan be kind? “You are up to something.”

“Yes, but it is something in your favor. Come now, Captain. We’ve not much time. I’ve made it look as though your brethren have come to rescue you, but if we do not depart posthaste my deception will be discovered. I have not your people’s gift for tricking the mind, only the eyes. Please, Captain. Come, if you want to live to fight another day.”

“Who are you?”

“Later. A name spoken now bodes ill.”

“Superstition,” Iah replied, but allowed the Salharan with the voice like a summer breeze to help him up. He bit back cries of pain, stiff and sore after being beaten and then not moving for hours and tumbled into the stranger.

Strong arms caught and steadied him, and one slid to his waist to support him. “Can you walk?”

“I will walk.”

“Very well.” He imagined he heard approval in that voice, and then wondered why he cared if the enemy approved or not. Clearly the darkness was driving him mad more rapidly than he had anticipated. Slowly, painfully, they made their way from the dungeon and up a set of winding stairs. When they emerged, he smelled snow and crisp winter air.

Iah started to shiver as the cold hit him. But in the next moment a warm, soft cloak was wrapped around his shoulders and gently clasped at his throat. He touched the cloak pin there, feeling only the cold bite of metal and the hard smoothness of gems. The crunch of boots on snow brought his attention back to his position. He turned toward the sound.

“Come, Captain. We must ride for a while yet before I feel we are safe.”

“Won’t they think it strange when you are gone?”

The warm voice laughed again and suddenly, his bitterness and anguish hit him all over again, as though his eyes had been recently torn away and not days ago. More than anything at that moment, he wanted to put a face to that voice, that summer laugh.

He never would.

A hand grasped his gently and tucked it into one of those strong arms, and bitterly Iah realized that for the rest of his life he would be treated as an invalid and not as the soldier he’d been for the past decade. “Careful, Captain. The ground here is treacherous in good weather, and the snow makes it deadly even to those with perfect vision.”

Iah allowed himself to be led across the field, until he could smell and hear a horse. He realized then that he could no longer ride horses; not by himself, anyway. There were so many things he had not considered, simply because he never thought to leave the dungeon alive; the simplest of activities—like horse riding—were beyond him. Now that he was free of the dungeon, he wondered if he was more or less a prisoner than he had been before.

But someone, somewhere, had seen fit to send him a second chance on a summer wind. Whether the wind boded ill or fortune, he would not question now. He let go of the arm that had guided him and reached out to feel the horse. This he had done hundreds of times, morning, noon, and night. Taking a deep breath, Iah made himself move and managed to mount the horse.

A moment later, the man with the summer voice mounted behind him and took the reins, clicking softly. It was unsettling to ride when he could not see. His exhaustion hit him hard and abruptly, every fiber of his body screaming in abject pain. Dizzily he wavered in his seat, but a strong arm wrapped more firmly around his waist and pressed him back against a wide chest.

“It is hard,” he said quietly, “to accept help from one of those who took my eyes.”

“I am nothing like him,” the summer voice took on a winter edge, the contempt and hate so deep it startled Iah into silence. “You are one more transgression for which he will someday pay. If I thought my apologies worth anything, I would offer them. But for what it’s worth, I am not an enemy. I am a comrade.”

“Are we safe enough that I might know your name?”

“That is a hard question to answer, actually. A name is a precious thing in Salhara, this of course you know.”

“Yes.”

“There are two stigma which can be inflicted upon a person to make it clear they are not worthy of anything but the lowest of servitude. One, of course, is to be nameless. In being nameless, a person will do anything to earn a name. Because to be nameless in our society—”

“Is not to exist,” Iah said softly.

“Exactly. But the second stigma is to carry several names.”

“Why is that a stigma?”

“Because the only thing as bad as not having an identity is not knowing your true identity. Too many names at once and you no longer know who you are. This is the stigma given to criminals enlisted to help with the war as spies. Spies must have several names, several identities, and given that one of Salhara’s greatest enemies is a nation of deception… to be a spy is a contemptible thing.”

“So you were once a criminal?”

“No, actually.” The summer laugh turned slightly bitter. “My father was, but he went and got himself killed before they could arrest him. I was made to take his punishment.”

How curious, this rescuer of his. “So what should I call you? Stranger?”

“The Krians know me as Lord Grau, and it is to that country we journey. I have duties there, and you will also have a chance to recuperate. Your people, or at least the Illussor with whom I communicate, call me Spiegel.”

Iah gasped. “I have heard of you—but most think it an absurd rumor that a Salharan would betray his own to side with the Deceivers.”

“It is no lie. It is how I know who you are. Now, Captain Iah Cehka, I will try to earn your trust. For only my Brothers know the stigma I carry. The rest of Salhara knows me as General Sol deVry.”

Iah nodded slowly, hoping none of his astonishment showed. “I recall you. Gray hair, yellow eyes.” Of course he knew that face. Fourth General Sol deVry of the Salhara Royal Army. He did not appear often on the battlefield, but he’d always stuck in Iah’s mind. The silver hair and gold eyes were such a strange contrast. What a relief, a small, silly joy to have a face to go with his summer voice.

“Polluted eyes.”

“I thought Salhara worshipped its artificial magic like most do gods.”

“It does,” Sol said in a soft voice laced with pain. “I would like to change that. Not all of us are lost to the colors of magic.”

Iah felt exhaustion overtaking him again and allowed himself to relax against Sol. Though his mind still rebelled at trusting a Salharan, his instincts were quiet. Iah was willing to trust them, at least for the present. It was not as though he had a choice. “Thank you, General, for rescuing me. I don’t know why you did it, but I appreciate it.”

“I did it because I will need you. Do you recall why you fought the battle against the Scarlet?”

“Yes,” Iah whispered. “It was because General Lysam thought we’d found the Breaker.” The General was dead from Screaming, and they had gained nothing by it. A wasted death like all the others. But if Iah thought of his men and his comrades just then, he would lose what remained of his control.

“You might have. He was the personal prisoner of General von Adolwulf. He lives still, though I know not where. But Tawn, bastard though he is, will find him and bring him to me. When he does, you can tell me for certain if he is, indeed, the Breaker.”

Iah refused to believe it was possible, that their goal was as close as that. “Then what?”

“Then we will take him to the prince, and stars willing, he will Break.”

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