Chapter 2

Seducing Royalty

Torak sensed it the instant Sorda glanced his way, her attention fixed on the weapon strapped to the right side of his belt. So were the combined blue glares of the Lady Protector, and her father, Lord Ladnor, directed at his weapon on defiant display. They watched as he and Jaekl crossed to the empty seats, staring in a way that felt loud with distrust.

Heeding Jaekl’s advice, Torak closed his hand with slow and careful deliberation around the sword hilt, shifting the blade out of the way so that he could comfortably sit.

They’d taken seats with their backs to the wall. Jaekl poured them chalices of chilled wine. Torak lifted his chalice to Ladnor before tasting then studied the attendees to divert himself from the temptation of getting up and abducting Sorda. Better to think of what to say when he requested a private audience with the imperious Ladnor-Sha. He avoided looking at Sorda even though he felt her attention on him. Let her look and wonder. Best to keep his intentions secret for now.

Latecomers, dignitaries and delegates, kept streaming down the steps until there were no seats left to be had. A delegation from Vos came in last. Disappointed, he’d hoped to see the famed Lady Vos and judge the resemblance between mother and daughter. It would have been amusing to rile the older woman with flattery, which he’d heard she adored, and a prerequisite to become a member of her stable of young men.

Before the meeting could commence, a clang from the herald’s staff interrupted. “His majesty and ruler of the Gracarin wharves, Kilamok-en-Hoarth.”

Jaekel’s hand gripped Torak’s wrist, digging deep, using fingernails when he tugged for freedom.

“Now is not the time, sire.”

Torak glanced beyond the entrance. His men had been moved out of the way as the enemy of his people arrived on a gilded litter. Ahead of him, perfume sprayers drenched the clean air coming in from overhead with cloying scent. In their wake, a throng of garishly dressed sycophants followed by wives and a dozen favorites from his harem, blatant blasphemy. The wharf king bragged of his harem, the flouting of his partiality of debauchery and the breaking of Gracarin law of a single spouse.

Even more revolting than the wharf king himself was Kilamok’s second, Salmysis, Lord Golivarus. He stood nearby, smirking and secure in his beauty, when the litter was set down with a clunk on the marble floor. A movement on the dais pulled Torak’s attention from the men he’d vowed to destroy. Behind the High Priest, the Lady Protector was clamping a bar of metal to a jaw piece above the chin of her helm. Before she sealed her lips over it, he had a glimpse of what looked like a metal-shaped smile. Ladnor and High Priest had turned in their seats to look at her.

Torak’s extraordinary senses allowed him to hear Ladnor’s whisper, “What is it, Medra?”

With a stare as cold-blooded as her father’s, she unclamped her teeth from the whistle’s mouthpiece and answered without muting her voice, “That is Salmysis, Fa. Remember what he did to the stable boy.”

The High Priest murmured, “No, Medra, that wasn’t Salmysis. It looked like him. You have to remember what that incident was about. It was the Oracle’s trickery.”

Her stare never left the accused. Salmysis wore his customary conceit and leering sneer. Torak longed to gut the man, almost as much as he lived for slaying the wharf king. Whatever Salmysis had done to aggravate Medra-Xur had to have been heinous. It was not her place to incite attack without a direct threat or an order from the High Priest.

Torak suppressed a grin. Medra’s grievance against one of the wharf lords opened an unexpected opportunity to maneuver. The enemy of one’s enemy adage would work well to win her support. Kilamok’s gloating enjoyment of creating a disturbance was doing nothing to ease the mounting tension.

Torak mastered his disappointment when Medra relented, stepping back. Ladnor and the High Priest faced forward in their seats. It looked as if the brief incident was going to be put aside until Kilamok snapped his fingers. With a level, taunting look at Torak, Salmysis grabbed the arm of the nearest concubine and hauled her forward. Yanking off veils, he revealed a bowed head, red hair streaked with the color of honey, shorn so short only a scruff remained. The tall girl lifted her chin. This time, Torak had to hold back his second. The woman uncovered was Jaekl’s missing sister. Her warrior’s topknot had been sliced off, a military shaming tactic.

Jaekl screamed abuse at Kilamok while his sister struggled in the grip of Salmysis and another guard. Hill country women were never weak. Her sluggish movements showed that she’d been drugged. Torak wrapped his arms around Jaekl’s chest, whispering for restraint. Then Kilamok made the mistake of laughing. That was all that was needed. Torak flung Jaekl aside and drew his blade. Attendees reacted, shrieking and jostling for escape.

“Silence!” The High Priest’s command stilled the room.

As the exhilarating haze of aggression cooled, Torak noticed someone standing nearby. He turned his head slightly to discover his nearest opponent, Sorda, now positioned between the royal table and him. As if he were a threat to them.

The rule was no weaponry at the conference but she held an unopened scymtar, the gleaming circle of its two curved blades arcing from her hand. Where had she hidden it? Unopened, it looked harmless, merely a metal circle. Thrown with skill, a scymtar could decapitate or slice to the bone when the curved blades clamped around a victim’s throat, leg or arm.

He flicked a glance at the dais. Lorin and Ladnor were both on their feet, holding weapons that had to have been hidden underneath the table. Oddly, Medra, the person responsible for the safety of everyone in the nation, stood without a weapon in hand, and then he heard it, a faint whistle.

Sorda stayed fixed in place as the room erupted into screams and a scramble for a way out, only to be blocked and pushed back by Garrison guards. A mass of blue dropped down through the wide hole in the ceiling, landing with a thump. The spicy scent he’d smelled earlier now saturated his senses. Even though small for his kind, the fflorin shrunk the room with his size. He rose up, not quite rampant, white wings folded close to his smooth blue body, but with a hand raised. Black talons sprang from three fingers and a thumb. His head swiveled, black eyes sparkling with mischief and menace. Upturned nose lifted, pretty ears laid flat, he exposed spiky teeth with a mocking smile, while scanning the room for the nearest threat.

Torak stepped back, his rump bumping into the edge of the table. The fflorin fastened a narrow-eyed gaze on the sword he held and broadened his smile to reveal the full array of his thin teeth. Fflorin didn’t like the taste of humans but had no aversion to chomping off body parts.

A gruff female voice quietly ordered, “Release the sword, Gracarin.”

Torak did as he was told, allowing it to clatter onto the marble floor, then regretted it, when the fflorin’s nose swung toward the speaker, Sorda. His heart thumped inside his chest as the great head neared her, but the fflorin nuzzled her neck, crooning a plaintive tune before swinging back to confront Torak. Obsidian eyes narrowed, the fflorin snapped at his naked belly and hissed a warning into his face, a sweet-smelling gust that ruffled his hair back off his shoulders.

A second command from Medra’s whistle had the fflorin lowering into an uncomfortable looking squat in the center of the room, where he glowered distrust at the assembled. He didn’t retract his claws.

High Priest stood. Everyone’s attention shifted to the Temple leader. “This conference will reconvene tomorrow. I will speak with the leadership of the Gracarin contingents in the Judgment Court. There will be no delay, no argument.”

Torak grabbed Jaekl’s arm to hold him back from going to his sister. Empathizing with his second’s suffering, they watched her being led away with the harem. It wasn’t like a hill country woman to act so passive. Something beyond drugging had to have occurred to render her submissive.

As everyone filed out of the conference hall, he, Jaekl, Kilamok and Salmysis were directed to another exit. With a glance over his shoulder, Torak watched Sorda give the fflorin’s belly an affectionate scratch before she followed the royal party out of another door. He wasn’t happy about leaving his only weapon behind, but had no choice. With a swift snatch, the fflorin had confiscated it and was using the blade point to pick his spiky teeth. That wasn’t as bothersome as the creature’s expression—an obvious smirking taunt that as much as said out loud that the fflorin now claimed ownership of the sword—Torak didn’t—and wouldn’t be getting it back.

He nodded to the fflorin, looking on the positive side of this change of events. Throttling Kilamok could be as satisfying as evisceration.