Lying with Scorpions

Lying with Scorpions by Aleksandr Voinov
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Jan 20, 2014
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This title is #2 of the Memory of Scorpions series.

This title is part of the The Scorpions Collection collection. Check out the collection discount!

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If you lie with scorpions, you’d better have a taste for poison.

Now that Kendras’s lover Adrastes has claimed the throne of Dalman, Kendras is tangled deeper than ever in politics and intrigue. As the new leader of the Scorpions and Adrastes’s one true friend, he and his men stand between Adrastes and those who wish him dead.

And many do. Adrastes openly challenges the ocean priesthood for power while establishing himself at court and brokering with the realm’s various factions. He means for the Scorpions to become a fearsome legion again, but Kendras must first learn how to be a good officer and recruit to replace the fallen. His choices will determine the future of a group steeped in hundreds of years of history and tradition.

As both Kendras and Adrastes settle old scores, a new enemy arises in Commander Graukar, a war hero loyal to the old order. In his formidable mountain fortress, Graukar may hold the balance of power. But while Adrastes aims to either rule or destroy Graukar, Kendras finds himself doubting Adrastes for the first time, and sharing more with Graukar than he ever thought possible.

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter 1

“From now on, we are among enemies,” Adrastes said.

Kendras noted the mostly silent crowd on the sides of Gold Road leading up to the palace. A great many families lined the street, which gave him hope that this might end well, or at least not horribly. Few would bring their small children to a riot or a bloodthirsty mob.

Nevertheless, he signaled the other Scorpions to tighten the ring around Adrastes. The place at the man’s left was reserved for him, the human shield guarding Adrastes’s weaker side, just as a king’s bodyguard would. Only, of course, that Adrastes was just beginning to make his play for kingship.

They were riding into Dalman to claim the throne. Kendras assumed that the people on the street knew that. And waited. It was what he would have done in their stead. Make sure he wasn’t seen cheering a usurper, but show up just in case the man did become king.

What if they became hostile?

Kendras shook his head. He didn’t want to dwell on the thought that only a ragtag band of survivors and a wall of horseflesh protected Adrastes now, and that none of their plans had allowed for it.

“They will eventually love me.” Adrastes smiled widely enough for the crowd to see that he wasn’t at all concerned about the lack of cheering, but the lines around his eyes were deep with tension. Not that anybody else could have told.

“You’ll be a fine king.” Kendras glanced around at the gaps in their formation. The quiet crowd unnerved him; he’d have preferred the clang and shouting of an impending battle.

“Not king—emperor.” Adrastes kept smiling. Keeping such control of his features in the face of veiled hostility seemed like hard work to Kendras. Good thing he didn’t have to do it. But yes, the throne of Dalman was only the second step after claiming his rightful place as the Lord Protector of Fetin.

Adrastes spent long days and nights planning his future campaigns once he had Dalman and a king’s army and treasury to do with as he pleased. And at the end of it: the empire of Shara, which had torn itself apart in civil war hundreds of years ago and which Adrastes meant to resurrect. To many, it seemed a dream, but Kendras shared it because it was Adrastes’s dream.

Their small group rounded the final corner onto King’s Square, which was ringed by Sword Tower, the military command with its barracks, the king’s palace, and the fortress-like mansions of the oldest noble families. Stepping out into the bright daylight after the deep valley that was Gold Road, Kendras blinked before the looming structures sharpened again in his vision.

Their horses continued on, and Kendras only then became aware of the hundreds of soldiers and cavalrists crowded here. Flowing red banners and polished steel made a bright display, but the silence was even more unnerving now. Horses and men shuffled in their places, but nobody spoke louder than a whisper.

An echo of waves crashing against the rocks below the cliffside made Kendras’s heart skip a beat. Remembering the shattered bodies of the executed being tossed around in the surf, he reached for his sword and loosened it in its sheath, then took the reins again with both hands now sweaty in his gloves. The best he could hope was that he’d buy Adrastes a few moments if this became hostile.

On the way to Sword Tower, they passed in the shadow of the An Wherro mansion, which was draped in black. Drastan An Wherro had, after all, been murdered while king. Kendras turned in the saddle to see if any members of the house were watching from their high windows.

Just then, a snapping sound, a soft whistle, a thud.

Crossbow bolt. Too close.

Kendras turned around on his horse, blood frozen in terror, and yet his body moved without thinking. A horse screamed, and Adrastes’s big black stallion buckled, legs giving way underneath it.

Kendras’s horse shied, and he struggled to keep it from rearing, already sliding out of the stirrups when he saw Adrastes’s horse fall. Adrastes’s heavy Lord Protector armor kept him from moving swiftly out of the way; it was any rider’s nightmare to be pinned on the ground and helpless.

The next whistling sounded much closer, and now Kendras’s horse screamed and fell, a bolt sticking out of its head. Kendras launched himself off the dying horse, skin prickling with horror at the thought that he’d forgone a helmet, as had Adrastes. Not that either would protect against a crossbow bolt.

“Dev! Close ranks!” he shouted as his feet hit the ground.

Adrastes hadn’t been so lucky—his leg was trapped under his horse, face grim with pain and exertion as he tried to free himself.

The bolts must have come from the south side of the square—out of the sun, which meant it was impossible to tell from where exactly. Kendras squinted against the light, but took his position between the shooter and Adrastes, expecting any moment to hear the whistle again and feel one of those bolts punch through his armor. Oddly, he felt no fear whatsoever.

Riktan and Selvan rode up to add more horseflesh for Adrastes’s protection. At the very least, they’d take away the shooter’s clear shot. Kendras didn’t have to give orders—the other Scorpions heaved the downed stallion off Adrastes’s leg.

What struck him was the continued silence from the crowd; nobody gave an order, nobody offered help, and nobody moved, not even to run. They simply watched. It was like in a nightmare, with time distorted and colors more real than real—the greenish metal of the bolt, the gleaming black hide of Adrastes’s horse, the glowing amber of Kendras’s own, the stark bright red of horse blood running over the cobbles of the square.

In the distance, seagulls wheeled and mocked.

“Kendras, get the bolt!” Adrastes’s voice was pained, and Kendras turned briefly to see him getting hauled to his feet, one leg stiffer than the other, as if he were trying not to bend the knee.

He drew his sword and hacked at his horse’s neck, trying to dislodge the bolt, but it sat deep in bone, and short of hacking the horse’s head off, he couldn’t free it. But there, on the cobbles, was a second bolt. It must have traveled right through the neck of Adrastes’s steed.

He gathered it up, surprised at its heft, and returned to Adrastes’s side, protecting him with his sword drawn as Dev and Riktan and Selvan rushed him toward Sword Tower and the squares of soldiers standing there as if on parade.

Somebody bellowed a command, and with a rustle of metal and leather, the squares opened for them, closing right after they’d passed.

Kendras kept glancing back, expecting another bolt like the one clutched in his hands. The shooter must have fired from one of the windows or a roof, considering that the shots had reached them without causing a disturbance in the crowd. That also meant that the Scorpions wouldn’t be able to provide cover. Kendras gritted his teeth, moving backward, cursing the sun and the crowd as he brought up the rear.

No doubt—the bolt had come from the mansions. No other structure but the palace was high enough, and the palace stood on the other side of the square.

Sword Tower was a square, simple building, built atop the remains of the old city from debris shaken loose during an earthquake that had leveled Dalman hundreds of years ago. The name remained as a warning or a mockery, but right now, it was sanctuary, the brass-plated doors as high as two men and flung wide open at the top of the stairs, beckoning as they made their way up, which tightened Kendras’s skin with expectation. The shooter now had a cleaner shot; if he was to kill Adrastes, this was his opportunity.

Bright light followed them as they escaped through the doors into the Hall of Arms. Despite having grown up in Dalman, Kendras had never been here, and he didn’t like the place. It was gloomy, and its many alcoves and recesses could hide more assassins. Who in Dalman would care if they made their way into Sword Tower but never out? Had that been the goal of the shooter—to drive them to their own slaughter?

Kendras scanned the shadows, pulse beating in his throat. Silence, no movement from any of the guards. Some of the paintings on the walls and further back in the recesses had been darkened by soot and age, but all celebrated Dalman’s military past. On the most faded, he saw red standards adorned with charging bulls, and realized that they depicted the legions of Shara.

Adrastes was limping, and Kendras kept on his shield side in case he needed help.

The other Scorpions fell easily into formation around them. Kendras had begun drilling them alongside Fetin’s Flames, which had made Riktan protest that he felt like a godsdamned trained dog. It wasn’t easy to make a band of roving mercenaries fall in line with an elite guard, but since there were very few survivors from the old days, they had to change with the times. New recruits would adopt the new habits more easily. They had nothing to unlearn. To Kendras, it felt no different. He’d serve Adrastes any way he could, and if that included smart sharp turns and saluting these days, he didn’t mind.

Right now, those drills were the only thing that preserved a little bit of their dignity.

A shiver ran down his skin when he spotted a soldier in black plate armor under a black banner with a silver scorpion whipping in the wind on one of the paintings. His arm was bandaged, the fabric grimy and bloody, yet his pale face was defiantly lifted before the enemy. The enemy—Westlanders? They did look a bit like Selvan, but Kendras couldn’t be sure. They must have come across the ocean to challenge the legions of Shara. Or had the legions crossed the ocean? Just how long ago was this?

“See this?” Kendras pointed at the painting.

“Interesting place to meet us,” Dev said and shook his braids.

“I asked them for it.” Adrastes cursed. “And we’ve made quite the entrance.”

Kendras turned to Adrastes. “Are you hurt?”

“Just my pride.” Adrastes nodded toward the far end of the hall.

They all turned their gazes upon the three generals coming in from a side door. Additional Dalmanye guards flanked them, but they didn’t seem threatening, as if they were more guarding the old banners and piles of armor and weapons on display than ensuring that nobody drew a sword.

Kendras signaled the Scorpions, and they fell back when Adrastes stepped forward, moving stiffly and stifling a wince. That the leg held his weight was a good sign, but he was clearly injured. Just how bad?

“Welcome, Adrastes, Lord Protector of Fetin,” the woman among the three generals said. “We bid you welcome and peace in Dalman.”

Dev scoffed audibly, and Kendras had to grit his teeth and school his features. The attack hadn’t come from the generals, though their troops had done nothing at all to protect Adrastes or even offer their assistance. Not exactly the actions of an ally.

Adrastes straightened. “I come as a friend of Dalman.” He pulled the sword at his side with his left hand and offered it to Kendras, who slid it into his weapon belt next to his own.

“Please, Lord Protector.” The general indicated they follow her.

At the far back, someone pulled aside a curtain, baring a map and a large council table, darkened and polished with age. Adrastes followed the example of the three generals and settled on a chair, hurt leg straightened out before him, leaning back, while Kendras took his position near the wall.

“Do you require anything, Lord Protector? We heard . . . what happened.”

Adrastes waved a hand. “Unless you have the would-be assassin for me, there’s nothing I require, General Lielya.” His tone was final.

“We wish to assure you that we had nothing to do with this.”

Adrastes nodded. “Your concern is noted. I’d assume that you train your crossbowmen better than to shoot the horse, not the rider.”

“It wasn’t an easy shot at that distance,” Dev said.

Adrastes turned toward him, then, smiling back to the generals. “There you hear it. A difficult shot. A royal officer would select a better time and a better place for such an attempt. I assure you I’m quite all right. Something that can’t be said for my poor horse, but regardless. Let’s discuss the important issues.”

General Lielya indicated Kendras. “What about your guard, Lord Protector?”

“You’ll have to forgive. One of my predecessors was murdered . . . I have an itch between the shoulder blades these days, and apparently not without reason.”

Kendras pressed his lips together. After all, he was the one who’d murdered the old king of Dalman at the orders of the high priest, but the generals were better not concerned with those details.

“How is the young king?” It was the first thing one of the other generals had said.

“Vistar An Grekaran will join us when I call for him, General Andrun.” Adrastes smiled. “That sounds like he’s my prisoner, but I can assure you, Vistar is under my protection of his own free will.”

Lielya and Andrun exchanged glances with their third colleague, and nobody said anything for the span of a few breaths. Kendras knew Adrastes spoke the truth, but he had to agree that from the outside, it wouldn’t look like it.

“I’m protecting him from the ocean priests.” Adrastes shifted forward in the high-backed chair and placed his leg to the side. He was clearly trying to keep all weight off it. “The high priest can’t have taken the loss of his puppet gracefully. For the moment, it’ll be safer for everybody concerned if Vistar isn’t in the same place as me; the priests are not above assassination, as my predecessor learned, rather painfully.” He motioned toward King’s Square. “Therefore, I’m not surprised.”

“What are your plans for Vistar An Grekaran?” Andrun asked.

“I’ll adopt him.” Adrastes opened his hands and placed them on the table. “He’s young, but full of promise. Too young to be king, you’ll agree. But the ideal age to be crown prince.”

“And how do we know he will succeed you?” Lielya shifted in her seat.

“I have no interest in siring children of my own. Throughout my life, I’ve given power over to men whom I trained and trust.”

Kendras managed not to show his amusement. He’d taken over as the officer of the S

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