A Taste for Poison
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Even a king gets stung when he reaches for a scorpion.
After barely surviving an assassination attempt, King Adrastes is a changed man—one who mistrusts even his allies and friends. He readies his empire for war against an enigmatic enemy, the Elder of Vededrin, but not everyone approves. While courtiers dare only to whisper dissent, an outrider called Death foments rebellion in the mountains, aided by a prophecy that promises he’ll stop the Black King.
Kendras—former lover to Adrastes and leader of the Scorpions—is sent with his elite mercenary force to bring Death to justice. But when Kendras learns who’s hiding behind the mask, he must choose between his lover Graukar, newly-appointed general to the king—and King Adrastes himself.
With no man to call master, the Scorpions could flee the danger and intrigue. But Kendras cannot abandon the man he once loved—or the man he’s growing to love—without first uncovering the real threat to the Empire.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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“Officer, Lady Nhala wishes to see you.”
Kendras had barely sunk into the hot bathwater to wash the sweat and dirt off when Runner stepped into the room. He groaned and ducked his head underwater, scraping over his scalp with both hands, then emerged again, blowing out a breath.
“She looked like it was a pressing matter.” Runner walked over to the stool next to the bath and picked up a linen towel, unfolded it, and offered it to Kendras. Her ironic expression forbade any comment that she wasn’t a bath slave and he could dry himself. Kendras crumpled his washcloth into a ball and ran it over his chest, belly, armpits, and groin. No leisurely soak to loosen up his tired muscles, then. Duty was calling. He tossed the cloth into the water and stood.
She enveloped him in the towel, and he reached for a corner of it to dry his face and head before he stepped out of the bathtub. “Get me my boots and leathers.”
“At once, Officer.” She turned and walked off.
Kendras rubbed his skin dry and was almost finished before Runner returned. He tossed the towel over the rim of the tub and began to dress. “Let her in.”
He was just pulling on his boots when Nhala appeared in the doorway. He felt her gaze linger for a moment on his bare chest, then she straightened almost as if standing at attention. “Officer.”
“My lady.” He closed the top of his leathers and began tightening the straps and laces. “I’m at your service.”
She stepped further into the room and glanced over her shoulder back into the barracks, checking for witnesses, no doubt. “We are all called to war council. Immediately.”
Kendras bit down on a groan. After a long, hot day on the training yard, and before any food, standing for hours in his heavy plate armor while generals bickered over the best strategy to achieve a victory wasn’t a prospect he relished. He much preferred when the plan was set and the only issue left was when to act. “Who’s issued the call?”
More dead than alive. Maybe dead.
“I’ll explain on the way. Come.”
Kendras nodded. “I should put on my armor.”
“It’s . . . an informal kind of affair.” She motioned him impatiently to follow, so he only grabbed his weapon belt and slung it around his hips as he walked.
Nhala’s stride was relentless; Kendras only managed to keep up with her because of his longer legs.
“Last thing I heard, the king was at death’s door. What is this council about?”
“Indeed.” They passed a set of guards, and she checked that they were out of earshot before she spoke again. “Maybe this is to hand over the kingdom to Vistar. Maybe it’s to inform us he—” She tamped down her voice as they walked past another pair of guards. “Is no longer alive.”
“Who summoned you?”
“The man they call Widow.”
“So you haven’t seen Adrastes alive?”
“Not since last night. I don’t think anybody has.”
Kendras’s throat tightened. Widow always was a reason to worry. He might have acted on behalf of his lady, or maybe entirely for his own reasons and gain. Or he might have been fulfilling an order from Adrastes.
There’d been a time when Kendras would have been among those who’d have known. He would have guarded Adrastes’s side throughout the illness and death struggle, but those days were mere memory now.
They arrived at the council chamber, and took their seats. The two surviving Dalmanye generals were already there, as were Vistar and Widow, but nobody spoke or much acknowledged the others. The generals’ brows were heavy with thought, while Vistar had his hands folded and was examining his fingernails with all the concentration of a child at play. Widow sat watching, arms crossed, leaning back in his seat, looking both smug and ill at ease.
The door opened again, and the Lady Protector entered, supporting Adrastes. He shuffled at her side, one arm around her shoulders, leaning most of his weight on her. Adrastes was gray with sickness and exhaustion, his skin gleaming with sweat. He signaled his sister to release him when they arrived at his chair, but Kendras noticed how much strength it cost him to stay upright while she pulled back his chair.
He fell heavily into the carved wooden seat.
Nobody spoke. The generals both looked appalled and uneasy, Widow’s face was less smug and again unreadable, and Vistar showed nothing but polite concern as he shifted his attention from his fingernails to his adopted father.
“Well.” Adrastes leaned forward, steadying himself with both arms on the table. “That was an interesting experience.”
Nobody showed any humor, grim or otherwise. From afar, Kendras heard the scream of a seagull, and somebody’s nailed boot scuffed over the stone floor. A guard snapping to attention?
“Two nights ago, I received a declaration of war from the Elder of Vededrin from the hand of one of his assassins. By his faith, the fact that I’m alive means the gods don’t mind my continued breathing, at least for the moment. He may well interpret this differently, but sending a Sacred Raven is a somber ritual.”
Widow twitched. “I’ve had a look at the body. That Raven was a volunteer. He acted from divine inspiration, not under orders.”
“What does that mean?” Vistar asked.
“That it was his idea and not the Elder’s.” Widow pursed his lips. “Or rather, the gods’. The Elder didn’t send him. Which means, he might send one more based on his own inspiration.” Widow spread his hands. “Which I’d wager he will.”
Adrastes let his head fall forward as if he were too weak to hold it up. Kendras, half-expecting him to collapse entirely, tried to read his expression, but to no avail. “Lielya, when will your troops be ready to march again?”
“Against Vededrin?” Lielya looked at her colleague, then at the Lady Protector. “Vededrin is a formidable fortress with a great many battleships that guard her from the sea. We’d have to take her over land, which means a siege, and those, as you’re aware, my king, take their time. Especially as we can assume that the Elder expects us to resort to this course of action and can prepare for it.”
Kendras shuddered. Sieges could waste months while armies on both sides did nothing but wait and fall prey to disease and deprivation. If a siege didn’t go well, discipline was often another casualty, and he knew stories of outright mutinies as the human spirit broke quicker than the city’s wall. And that was only the price the soldiers paid. As usual, civilians suffered worse.
“Fetin is ready to march.” The Lady Protector stood. “Even if the Raven acted on his own, it’s inconceivable that the Elder didn’t know about his mission.”
Widow cleared his throat and uncrossed his arms. “Ravens are independent spirits, my lady.”
“Are they now?” She arched an eyebrow and regarded Widow with a look that smacked of arrogance. “But would they put the Elder in such a position without his knowledge?”
“Maybe not. Unless they really heard the voices of the gods.” Widow’s tone indicated he considered that entirely possible.
“I’ll bring this up with the gods when I see them.” Adrastes lifted his head and nodded to his sister. “You and the generals will form a strategy to attack Vededrin. We may have support from the Jaishani fleet—if that is the case, we can use our ships just to transport troops along the coast.”
The Lady Protector gave a curt nod. “What about the Jaishani legion?”
“They are a welcome boon, but I do not wish to rely too heavily on such new allies. Amrash should not get the impression we’re using only Jaishani blood to defeat our . . .” Adrastes’s voice faltered, and he closed his eyes, slumping in his seat. “Enemies. Regardless of everything else, we should fight the war against Vededrin in spring at the earliest, but at least before the year is over. The earlier we act, the less time the Elder has to gather allies or even invite the Westlanders to our shores.”
“But would he truly work with the heathens?” Lielya stood reluctantly, casting a glance around that asked for support. She received none. Despite Adrastes’s weakened state, nobody seemed to dare side with her and be seen to oppose Adrastes.
“To save his hide? Who wouldn’t?” Vistar sneered and didn’t bother standing up. “It may be useful to send messengers to the Westlanders ourselves. To poison the well before the Elder’s messengers arrive.”
Kendras stood. “My king. Alerting the Westlanders to our quarrels means we’re inviting them to our shores.”
Adrastes glanced over at him. “I’ve heard that argument before. What concern of yours are the Westlanders?”
“Commander Graukar, my king. He’s been warning us of that danger. It’s why you sent him to the Gorge.”
“Graukar. Yes.” Adrastes drew a deep breath.
Strength was seeping from him, and Kendras regretted having added to the possible worries. But he remembered the painting of Veras handing himself over to the Westlanders all too clearly. He knew nothing about the Westlander invasions of old, except what Graukar had told him. It had taken the combined might of the empire to throw them back into the sea.
An empire that, at the time, had been united and included Vededrin, the cities further inland, and a large part of Jaishan. The less the Westlanders knew about the struggle between the cities, the better for everybody.
“Where is he now? Graukar, I mean?”
“He’s traveling to Eagle’s Test and from there to the Gorge, as you ordered, my king.”
“Good, that will be useful. To calm your mind about the Westlanders and the Gorge and to keep our western flank secure, we’ll wait until he returns. It’ll give us time to muster the troops, stock provisions, and negotiate with the Jaishani. Lielya, see to it.”
“Yes, my king.” Lielya seemed relieved—maybe because her opposing view hadn’t drawn any ire from Adrastes. She seemed happiest reporting on fulfilled tasks and met goals in any case. Politics didn’t suit her, nor did she seem to enjoy them.
“Fetin may have to man the Gorge, at least until we’ve conquered Vededrin.” Adrastes turned to his sister.
“It’s certainly closer to us than to you.” The Lady Protector exchanged a long, meaningful look with Adrastes. Kendras wasn’t sure how to read it, but everybody in the room knew that the area had been heavily contested between Fetin and Dalman not ten years ago. Neither had, however, manned the garrison there, most likely because the march along the Kanenti was easier and faster than getting to the Gorge over broken territory and high passes. Never mind the bandits roaming the mountains.
“Then it’s decided. Once Graukar returns and reports on the state of the Gorge to us, we’ll put five hundred Fetinye soldiers there, and more once we can afford the loss on the other fronts.”
The Lady Protector bowed very slightly.
Adrastes placed his elbows on the table and levered himself out of the chair, his arms shaking. He slowly straightened, much like an old man bent by illness and age might to reclaim some of his dignity in the face of his unruly children. “The other plans are going ahead. Lielya, you will take possession of the new barracks near the river and establish all the facilities you need. Nhala, tell the masons’ guilds that I wish to see plans for the new city wall as soon as they can deliver them. And the old An Grekaran palace will be razed and rebuilt as the main imperial temple.”
“What?” Vistar jumped to his feet. “It’s my ancestral home! You cannot simply—”
“Silence, boy!” Adrastes glowered at him. “You will be king—emperor—after me. Razing any of the other palaces will make you enemies. The An Grekaran ceased to exist in the main bloodline. You are the last one. Giving the palace to the people is a noble gesture. Besides, it’ll strengthen the empire.”
Vistar looked around as if searching for help. “I do not condone this.”
“Very well. You don’t have to.” Adrastes nodded to Nhala. “Do as ordered, Lady Nhala.”
“Vistar, I have precious little patience for sentimentality. It’s just stone and timber.”
“It’s my home.” Vistar’s voice shook. “What about the An Wherro? They could donate their palace to the empire.”
“Don’t consider them allies just yet.”
“They’ve been very kind to me.”
“I know. One particular unmarried lady especially.” Adrastes waved it off. “I shall return to my sickbed. The physician is rather worryingly devoted, and I assume she’s returned from the kitchens now.”
The Lady Protector came around the table, but Adrastes shook his head. “Kendras will see me out. Won’t you, Officer?”
Kendras stood and straightened. “My king.” He stepped to Adrastes’s side and waited for Adrastes’s weight to settle on him as the king slung his arm around his shoulders. He put his own arm around Adrastes’s waist to steady him further. The Lady Protector opened the door, and Kendras felt her gaze on them on the way out.
Adrastes struggled to stay upright, and the way his feet barely lifted off the ground, Kendras was glad that the stones here were even enough that he didn’t stumble. It still took all their concentration and a fair bit of strength to get down the corridor to Adrastes’s quarters. Once there, Adrastes fell into his bed with a groan and closed his eyes, breath fast and shallow.
As much as he’d tried, Kendras couldn’t quite fight down his worry. “Do you need anything else?” Maybe the physician? Wine? Anything would have made him feel better about leaving Adrastes in such a state.
“I’ll get a slave to help me with my clothes.” Adrastes pushed himself further toward the middle of the bed.
“How . . .” Kendras bit the inside of his cheek. It wasn’t his place to ask. They weren’t that close anymore, and Adrastes didn’t owe him an answer. Or the truth. Not that he wasn’t guarding any truth jealously these days.
“What is it, Kendras?”
It’s Officer to you. Kendras winced at the memory. “How are you feeling?”
“Like my veins are on fire.” Adrastes groaned. “But I’ll live. Pain mea
This book is absolutely amazing!!! [A] world full of suspense, treachery and betrayal...Adrastes is one of my favorite characters, he is strategic and brilliant, and his character leaves you no choice but to envy/love his strengths.
[T]he epic storytelling takes over...the dynamic between Kendras and Adrastes is fascinating.
This is adventure at the ground level. It’s intimate, down and dirty, weighted in emotion with a long memory that stretches far back in time.
If you’re a fan of hot and hardened men who wield swords and have a deep sense of honor than this series and this book are for you!
The writing is stellar...an intriguing story. I enjoyed my time in the past.