Parade Grounds, Gaizen Palace, Tallend Province of the Fensic Empire
Magic pressed on Mair's heart when Dal Atul emerged from the barracks at the far side of the parade grounds. As she watched him, the sensation enfolded her, slid through her, around her, deep and mysterious. The moment of recognition, when it hit, shook her so hard her breath stopped. So hard she couldn't hear what the others were whispering. Nothing existed except Atul, that old, savage magic, and her conviction that her life had just re-formed itself into a new and terrible shape.
This awful sense of desperation and futility had to spring from fear she told herself. What could her fast-beating pulse mean but that, like the others, she was afraid of the king's Dragon? By reputation alone, he was not a man who would ever be the subject of romantic fantasy. Today's tourney was for the entertainment of the Tallend delegation, but it was no accident the participants were soldiers. Dangerous soldiers. Each one chosen from among Veren's best, including, of course, from members of the King's Own Guard. Men such as Dal Atul
Mair Barrence, the eldest of three children, had spent the whole of her twenty-five years at the northern border. Northerners were not a soft people. How could they be, in a land where conditions crushed the weak until there was nothing left? The folk there dressed plainly, spoke plainly and did not coddle their children or their women. They could not afford to. Mair was Northern to her marrow. Thus, she confronted herself and admitted that the emotion that rocked her to her core was not fear, but the same unknowable emotion that had twisted in her since the day she set eyes on the Dragon.
Atul had been given his epithet not out of respect or fear, but because his father was one of the Dragon sept Elves. He was the result of one of the rapes that occurred during the third and final battle for control of the Tallend Province. Half-bloods who survived childhood and could pass for fully human did so. Atul had survived despite his obvious parentage.
That he'd been brought into the King's Own Guard said a great deal about King Veren—and yet more about Atul. The King's Own were the elite of Veren's army, under his private command. His personal guards were drawn from them. They had no internal rank or hierarchy; whether noble-born, baseborn, sons of whores or bastard half-bloods, they were soldiers now and for the rest of their lives. No one left the King's Own except by dying. They were men who had been killers, intriguers, assassins, thieves and poisoners. Some, so rumor went, were even sorcerers. King Veren prized magic highly. And the men recruited into the King's Own did whatever was necessary to protect him. They carried out his will without question or hesitation.
The gallery spectators fell silent as Atul approached. Every soldier within fifty paces, be he the King's Own or otherwise, stopped what he was doing to watch.
Atul entered the tournament grounds. He ignored the stares, the curses—farking Elvish bastard—and the silence that followed as he passed the shouting boys gathered at the edge of the tourney grounds. Above the hard-packed dirt, dust seethed in his wake like the breath of a living beast.
Mair's uncle, the Duke of Estes, coughed behind his hand. "Ah, yes," he drawled. He stood at the king's left, dressed in superfine wool and silk. Ruinously expensive agate beads, each one round and hardly larger than a grain of rice, were sewn into patterns on his collar and cuffs: everyone dressed in their finest at a tourney arranged and attended by the king. "The Dragon, terrible creature that he is, duly makes his appearance to terrify the ladies."
Mair drew breath at last.
The wooden railing around the gallery created an illusion of separation from the tourney grounds, but a reasonably agile person could step or jump over it and be among the soldiers in ten paces. Five paces from the gallery, Dal Atul went down on one knee. He bowed his head, right fist pressed to his left shoulder. A soldier, one of the regulars, spat into the dust.
Atul, for reasons the subject of yet more rumor, had fallen out of favor with Veren. He'd strangled the king's mistress after discovering she'd been unfaithful to their sovereign. One version had it she'd been unfaithful with Atul himself, and that after he'd sated himself on her body, he'd killed the woman for her infidelity. Whatever the truth, he'd lost his place among the king's personal guard and now was here, a performing monster.
A nearby girl, the daughter of one of the Tallend delegation present to conclude a treaty with King Veren, gasped when Atul lifted his head.
"Proceed," Veren said with a flick of a finger. He was past middle years, with a reputation for sexual excess and a mind for military tactics that, nearly thirty seasons past, had conceived of and executed the campaign that crushed the elvish armies at two borders. In their retreat, the elves had taken their measure of revenge. All remembered. None forgot.
Veren's sleeves were slashed to reveal a gold lining. Pearls encircled his cuffs, and gold and silver thread gleamed at his collar and in the embroidery that covered his doublet. Though he sat not quite straight on his chair with one booted foot on a low, velvet-covered stool, goblet of ice wine in hand, no one could look at Veren and think him a man softened by his years of rule. His eyes were too penetrating for that. He'd conceived and created the King's Own, after all.
The Dragon stood, his malevolent blue gaze scanning the gallery. He did nothing to hide his ruined cheek. Scars, some the size of Mair's smallest finger, crisscrossed the right side of his face and neck and twisted his mouth into a permanent scowl. Taller and more muscular than the others, he looked too big to be quick. The elvish bastards who survived tended to be both. His gaze continued moving, assessing the spectators and, so it seemed, finding them beneath his notice.
Mair was always the least grandly dressed of the women at court and not deliciously foreign like the Tallend women, with their dark hair and eyes. There was no reason, no reason at all, for Atul's gaze to pause at her. Yet she did not think it was her imagination that it did. She met his eyes, fell into them, and her heart twisted. Irrevocably, in searing, permanent damage, caught up in the ancient magic still swirling inside her. It was magic. Her breath caught in her throat, and the new shape of her life was a sword, fatally sharp.
The women near the gallery railing retreated so that Mair, who had been in the middle of the spectators to the left of Veren, found herself with no one between her and Atul. And she learned something new: She was indeed afraid of him. What sane person would not be? But she refused to move. Not one jot. The Dragon would not despise her for cowardice.
The Tallenders recoiled, men and women both, and that made Mair wonder if Veren had not made a canny choice when he chose to humiliate his Dragon in this manner. The king's mistress had been from one of the Tallend border villages decimated during the Elvish retreat and now among the disputed territories. The Tallenders were here to press for the return of the southwest edge of the Fensic Empire. Veren's position was that the lands were his by right of conquest and current possession. He'd sent troops southwest to discourage elvish incursions, but if the additional troops also delivered a message to the Tallenders, that was to his benefit.
Perhaps Atul, too, delivered a message for the king. Mair could not help but think he did.
The shape of his ears and eyes gave away his elvish blood, and by now the Tallenders must have heard the rumors about the reason for Atul's disgrace. Like the other King's Own, he wore his long hair plaited into tiny braids held back from his face by a leather thong. The braids were a part of a private ritual undertaken when a soldier made the oath that bound his life to Veren. The undamaged areas of Atul's face hinted that he might once have been of at least average appearance. Perhaps even handsome. If not that, compelling.
Atul glanced away from Mair, and she let out the breath her fear had trapped in her throat. He nodded to Veren and returned to the grounds. The soldiers nearest him backed away, giving him room. Was it respect or fear that made his compatriots keep such a distance? Both, Mair imagined. Dal Atul was a monstrous man.
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