Crescendo (Song of the Fallen, #2)
Bridging the hatred of centuries did not come easy for Freyrík Farr and Ayden Vaska. As prince of a war-torn human province, Freyrík could ill afford to fall for an enemy. And Ayden, an elven warrior with three hundred years of bitterness in his heart, wanted no part of love. Yet they came together despite themselves and the wills of their peoples, joining hearts and minds to fight a race of Dark Beasts threatening the extinction of mankind.
Yet the Dark Beast threat pales beside the dangers of a summons to the human High Court, home of the Aegis Exalted and the harshest test yet of Ayden’s and Freyrík’s fledgling love.
When the Aegis strips Ayden of his magic, Freyrík is forced to choose between his love for elf, Aegis, and king, all the while seeking the one uncertain path that might save his doomed race. Time is fast running out for mankind, and only by making peace amongst themselves and with their ancient elven enemies can they end the Dark war—and undo the tragedy that’s plagued humans, elves, and Dark Beasts alike for the last three hundred years.
Note: This is a lightly revised second edition, previously published elsewhere.
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Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:explicit violence
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abduction/kidnapping/hostage (actual), abuse, age gap, alpha/alpha, angst, commitment, duty, family, financial gap / class disparity, hurt / comfort, illness / injury, interspecies, politics / power struggle, power imbalance, protection, self-discovery / self-reflection, slave / capture (actual), stalking / harassment, trust issues
Freyrík had long ago come to realize that the gods rarely intervened in the lives of men, no matter what prayers or sacrifices were made. Yet only recently had he come to see their indifference as a blessing, for when the gods’ great shadow fell upon you, it might well blot out the sun.
Which was how he found himself in the darkness now, tucked down in the canopy bed of his traveling tent with the man—the elf—he loved. The elf he’d sworn to see safely home. The elf he was now escorting to the one place more treacherous than even the darker forests: the High Court of Aegea.
“No,” Ayden said, and none too gently at that. “How many times do I have to say it? I’ll not run away without you.”
Freyrík rolled to face him, glad for once of the elfglow in the dark tent, wondering if Ayden could see him back in a light that was not—according to the elf—actually there. “You know I can’t leave.”
“Then neither can I. Go to sleep.”
Before Freyrík could try a new tack, Ayden rolled away. For a moment he thought the elf angry, but then Ayden pressed his bare back to Freyrík’s chest and tugged Freyrík’s arm over his waist. He held to it with both hands as if he suspected Freyrík might take to pacing. Which, admittedly, was tempting.
“I can hear your thoughts roiling,” Ayden grumbled. “Sleep.”
As if he could with the dangers of the morrow looming so. “Not until you’ve heard me out.”
Ayden sighed but then pressed up tighter against him, his arse grinding against Freyrík’s groin. “Fine. Speak.” Another wiggle that would have ended all conversation were Freyrík not so anxious. “But know my thoughts are not on your words.”
Freyrík clenched his fist, his forearm flexing beneath Ayden’s grip. ’Twas all he could do not to push the elf away and shake some sense into him.
He startled when Ayden’s other hand snaked between them, probing. “Perhaps your thoughts aren’t, either?”
And gods befanged, but those questing fingers raised evidence to support Ayden’s theory. A moment’s trying to coax more from him, then another. Freyrík grunted and pulled Ayden’s hand away before he lost all will to stop him.
Ayden hmph’d and did not try again.
Freyrík sighed. Had he hurt the elf’s feelings? What he wouldn’t give for the power to hear them as Ayden could. Mayhap then he’d know the right words to make him understand.
He settled for nuzzling his face into the back of Ayden’s head, nudging tufts of hair flat with his cheek. “You have sacrificed so much for me already,” he whispered. “I would not see you sacrifice more. Were you my subject, I would order you home. But I cannot, so I beg of you: Go. Now. Allow me to decline your selfless offer.”
Ayden shook his head, squeezed Freyrík’s arm. “’Tis selfishness, you idiot, not comity.” A marvel, how Ayden could make such harsh words sound so fond. “I could not bear to see you executed for treason. But I can bear High Court. We’ve been through worse together already and come out the other side.”
’Twas true, and yet . . . He pulled back, dropped a kiss on Ayden’s shoulder and ran fingertips down the fine web of scars on his back. “You nearly died. What if—”
“I’m fine, Freyrík.”
“But will you still be, even when they bind your magic?”
Freyrík winced as Ayden tensed in his arms. ’Twas a cold, cruel thing to have said, but he’d say it again and again if it would breach Ayden’s stubbornness. And mayhap it had, for Ayden remained stiff and silent.
“Tomorrow we ride upon the Splendor,” he pressed. “Once we cross the first gate, there will be no turning back. You have to go now. The ambassador’s escort—”
“Will think you complicit!”
“Beat me, then. Bind me. Make a show of it.”
“It would not work,” Ayden said, and gods but the weariness in his voice stabbed at Freyrík’s heart. “You have intervened for me too often in the past to escape suspicion now.”
Then make it work, Freyrík wanted to say. Break me. Kill my escorts.
But he couldn’t betray his men so. Besides, deep in his heart he knew Ayden was right. None of it would suffice in the eyes of High Court.
He ground his head against the pillow in frustration. “Let them blame me, then. You have paid in blood for me; I would do the same for you.”
Ayden’s elflight flared so bright that Freyrík, startled, snatched his hand back to shade his eyes.
When he could see again, Ayden was standing. Pointing.
“’Tis not blood they would take,” the elf growled. Not shouting, no—too aware of men who might overhear—but his words were no less sharp for it. His anger pricked at Freyrík’s skin like a thousand blowdarts. “’Tis your head. I have seen the cages strung like lanterns along the outer wall, displaying what remains of slaughtered commoners and kings alike. Do not try to tell me you would be exempt!”
No, he supposed he wouldn’t, nor did he think it would come to—
“Wait, you’ve seen the cages?” He sat up, swung his legs over the side of the bed. “You’ve been to the Splendor?”
Ayden lowered his jabbing finger and nodded. “As a child, with my father. Things were different then.”
Despite himself, a smile crept upon his lips at the thought of Ayden as a diplomat’s son, dressed to the chin in finery and standing still and mannerly at his father’s side—likely with that mop of unruly hair to ruin the impression—
“What?” Ayden demanded, folding his arms across his chest and scowling.
“Apologies,” Freyrík huffed, laughter coloring his words. “I’m just”—he shook his head, scrubbed a hand across disobedient lips—“I’m just imagining you being polite, is all.”
“Well, stop it.” Ayden’s scowl deepened, but Freyrík needed no elven magic to hear the smile behind it. “I’ll have you know I was a terror, even then.”
“I do not doubt it,” he said solemnly. His grin cracked through again and he held his arms out, inviting. Ayden stepped into his embrace, the warmth of him soaking right through Freyrík’s skin as hands slid round his shoulders and one smooth cheek came to rest against the top of his head.
Freyrík closed his eyes and let himself revel in Ayden’s shelter.
But only for a moment, for though he’d surrendered the argument, the danger still loomed. He gave Ayden’s arm a tug, guiding the elf to sit on the bed beside him. They angled toward each other, knees touching, hands laced together between them. Ayden gazed upon him, eyes questioning.
“You must not be a terror this time,” Freyrík said.
Ayden squeezed his fingers. “I know.”
“The Crown Prince will greet us at the gate to the inner ward. You must seem to him a slave broken and trained.”
“And gods pray, do not wander off. Ever. I cannot protect you if you leave my sight.”
“Yes, yes, I know.” He pulled his hands free and cupped them to Freyrík’s cheeks with just a bit too much pressure to be tender. “Now if you’ve finished fretting, human, I would you still your tongue that we may put it to better use.”
He could fair taste the elf at those words, and next he knew he was on his back, a hot, heavy weight across his hips, his manhood straining against Ayden’s arse. Hands on his cheeks again, drawing his eyes up to Ayden’s hungry, focused grin. When Ayden leaned in to claim him, he didn’t fight it, just slid his hands round Ayden’s hips and splayed his legs, opening up beneath him.
After all, ’twould be ungentlemanly to refuse an invitation so sincere.
Ayden woke before dawn to the sounds of rousing in their little camp, hand reaching by habit for the dagger at the bedside table. He doubted these men would harm him, but such instincts could not—should not—be quashed.
Freyrík stirred against his side, and Ayden let his hand slip back beneath the blanket and across Freyrík’s chest. His fingers toyed with the sprinkling of coarse hair there, brushed once over a nipple, then settled atop his lover’s heart.
Freyrík’s hand came up to cover his own, squeezing lightly. It seemed neither of them felt much in the way of excitation this morn.
Freyrík lifted Ayden’s hand to his lips and kissed it, then threw back the covers and rolled out of bed, calling for his groom, who appeared so swiftly he must have been standing just outside the flaps. Had he heard their argument last night? They’d kept mostly to whispers, even at the height of their anger, but Lord Vitr was never far from his master’s side.
Ayden pushed the worry from his mind—he trusted Lord Vitr, and ’twas too late in any case if someone else had overheard—and went about his morning ablutions. They dressed in silence, then ate in silence. What little they had to say had been said far too many times already.
The moment they left their tent, four attendants swarmed in, packing it and its contents away. Ayden too was packed away, for they’d never allowed him a horse. He let two guards escort him to the supply wagon and give him a none-too-gentle shove onto the unforgiving bench where he’d spent the last three weeks, resigning himself to yet another day of watching the countryside rattle by.
In any event, ’twas easier to focus on his bruised backside than what might lie in store for him at journey’s end. He’d not been to the Splendor in some five centuries, and could have gone another five without regret. Whatever pleasant memories he’d had of the place had been fouled beyond repair. His father had died there, murdered at treacherous human hands.
Gods alone knew what he might endure at the same hands to keep Rík safe.
The sun was just beginning to burn away the frost when a massive wall came into view—a stone structure that stretched on seemingly for leagues, curving round toward the horizon and back on itself. Fallen gods, where had that come from?
As it loomed larger and larger, farmland and the occasional wood-frame home yielded to the fieldstone country manors of the landowners. Here and there a small copse of trees stood out from the flatlands like a group of forlorn survivors. And survivors they were, Ayden realized with a start—the last beaten remnants of the elven forests, long since annexed by the humans whose defilement of the woods had driven his people away. Ayden’s hand clenched round the wagon’s rail as he turned from the sight of the wounded land.
The taint on his mood must have translated to the humans, for all round him they grew wary. Freyrík glanced back, and his concern-alarm-love washed over Ayden’s mind-ear in a clamor of drums and cymbals.
Then Freyrík reined in, drawing even with the wagon, and leaned sideways in his saddle. “Whatever you have just done . . .” He looked away a moment, off toward the city, song abuzz with nervous hesitation. “Frightening men of the Splendor may get you killed. I know it is not easy, but I would you hide your elflight when we ride upon the city.”
Ayden nodded. “I will be careful, I promise.”
He only hoped it was a promise he knew how to keep.
Just as the humans had spilled into the old elven enclaves, the city had spilled into the country. A league or two from the first wall came the noise and stench of an impoverished settlement that had not been there last Ayden had: shoddy wooden homes along narrow, winding alleys, waste flowing free in the gutters where children played. Even from this distance, notes of hunger and weariness cut the air.
’Twas almost with relief that Ayden silenced his song, wishing he could dim his sense of smell along with it.
Their party skirted round the city with clear distaste, the noblemen pressing perfumed cloths to their noses when the road forced them between its outer edge and the steep southern bank of the Góz River. There tradesmen and small-plot farmers hawked their wares to travelers from rickety wagons and booths. Ayden huddled down into his own rickety wagon, more uncomfortable at the tight press of human disharmony than he cared to admit.
He was as glad as his “companions” to leave the squalor behind for the first of the Splendor’s gates, an artful creation of wrought iron and carved oak as tall at least as four of him. He swallowed hard at the sight of the Aegean crest halfway up the gate, elf-sized and stamped in gold upon the wood. Swallowed again, this time with nausea, at the sight of the little cages hanging to the left and right of it, each marked with a sign—“Traitor,” “Murderer,” “Deserter”—and holding a severed head.
He forced down his dread as the gates parted to let them pass, splitting the sword and crown on the crest down the middle.
Once we cross the first gate, there will be no turning back . . .
He turned his gaze from the heads in the cages to the one on Freyrík’s shoulders, wavy auburn hair distinct even from a half-dozen paces ahead. Gods help him, but the image that flashed through his mind could never be unseen, not even if he lived another ten thousand years.
Perhaps Freyrík sensed his distress, for the man turned in his saddle, locked eyes with Ayden and nodded slightly. All will be well, his expression said. But the off-key quiver of his song belied him.
On they rode through the league-wide wheel of land between the third wall and the fourth. He’d played there as a child, racing horses through pasture and farmland with the other diplomats’ sons, swimming and fishing in the maze of streams that swelled the Góz as it flowed west from the Splendor.
Little remained of that flourishing life now. The land bore more semblance to the squalor they’d just passed: narrow streets crammed full of wooden houses and shops and their human occupants.
Closer though it brought him to High Court, he was almost relieved when they reached the next gate.
This one, leading into the Third Ward, was achingly familiar. He’d passed through it hand in hand with his father, awed by the sounds and sights and smells so different from all he’d known before. Long-forgotten scents enveloped him—midland spices and baking bread, roasting meat, woodsmoke and tallow and leather—bringing back memories full of wonder and mischief along these cobbled streets.
Even the guards seemed familiar, though in his youth, their ancestors had not regarded him with such malice.
Up the hill through the Third Ward, then another inspection at the gate, more thorough than the last. As they entered the Second Ward, he spotted archers on the parapets of the final wall and, beyond that, the spired roof of the castle keep. ’Twas a fortress as sure as any border outpost and just as heavily guarded.
At length, they approached the Splendor’s inner sanctum, and this time the gates remained firmly closed as the guards studied first the ambassador’s papers and then each of the men in turn. Ayden felt their eyes linger long and harsh upon him, but he kept his own stare affixed to the gates lest the guards find a pretext for violence. At last they seemed satisfied with him, moving on to inspect the contents of the wagons before waving their party through.
Ayden kept his head down and made himself small as the High Court nobility would expect him to be.
The gates parted to reveal a drawbridge lowering across a moat, and a second gate and guardhouse on the other side. This they crossed through without inspection, and Ayden peeked up through his eyelashes as the bailey unfolded before them, enormous and bustling as a city and breathtaking in its . . . well, splendor.
But where was the Crown Prince? Why had he not met them at the gate?
Why had nobody met them at the gate?
He turned his eyes and mind-ear to Freyrík and immediately spotted the tense set of his back, heard the insult and anxiety in his song. Yet the man rode on, shoulders squared and head up.
Perhaps the Crown Prince would meet them at the keep itself. The air was quite chilly today for a soft midland fop, after all.
They passed by a stable and training rings as large as Freyrík’s entire bailey, a reflecting pool that seemed to capture the whole of the sky along its lilied expanse, a topiary, and a hedge maze Ayden had spent long days getting lost in as a child. Somewhere beyond a hothouse full of South Islands orchids and untold acres of manicured lawn, their party reached the staging ground before the castle keep, where a noble officer stood at the head of an honor guard.
Ayden had little experience with human royalty, but surely this plain-looking man could not be the Crown Prince of Aegea.
The officer—Prince Náliga, by Freyrík’s greeting to him—stepped forward to welcome them, and the pages rushed to secure the party’s horses and assist the riders. Ignored, Ayden tilted his head back and squinted against the sun, following the convoluted roofline with his eyes, tracing spires as tall as redwoods and nearly as magnificent. From atop the parapets, guards peered back.
“Elf!” Freyrík barked, and Ayden startled at the impatient tone, kicking himself for the lapse in attention.
He ducked his head with a mumbled “Master,” then slunk from the wagon and to Freyrík’s side, hands folded behind his back. Freyrík’s hurt and anger echoed like a shout in Ayden’s head, so loud he itched to study the scene before him with his eyes as well as his mind-ear. But he daren’t risk eye contact with the Aegean officer. Instead, he sidled half a step closer to Freyrík, so that their shoulders nearly touched. He wished he could do more, wished he knew how to help. Crack it, he’d settle for knowing what was wrong.
“Follow these men,” Freyrík said, pointing toward two pages and a handful of guards. “Do as they say. Behave. Do you understand?”
No, he did not. Had not Freyrík just lectured him the night before about the importance of staying together? Where did these men mean to take him, and what for?
And why was Freyrík allowing it?
He risked meeting Freyrík’s eyes, saw within them a reflection of the maelstrom he heard in Freyrík’s song. Fear, anxiety, carefully controlled panic . . . And love, gods, such love. Trust me, his gaze said.
Always, he thought back, even seeing clear as water that Freyrík didn’t trust himself.
Ayden bowed and said, “As Master wishes.” And if his voice shook a little, well, it wasn’t as if he feared he’d never see the man again, right?
Freyrík clutched Ayden’s chin in one hand, lifting his head and pulling him in for a bruising kiss. ’Twould surely seem absent of affection to onlookers—a taken pleasure, one-sided—but ’twas as reassuring to Ayden as Freyrík had meant it to be: all would be well, and they would be together again soon.
Freyrík followed Prince Náliga through the grand front entrance of the castle keep, his face aching with the effort to keep his smile in place. ’Twas bad enough the Aegis had sent one of his youngest brothers, far removed from the crown, to greet Freyrík, rather than the Crown Prince or even Berendil. True, they’d been friends—even occasional lovers—through their Academy years, but despite Prince Náliga’s status as a Son of Aegea, he wasn’t Freyrík’s equal and never had been—at least not since he’d been placed into the line of succession eighteen men from the throne.
Worse still, this second-rate welcome party hadn’t even met them at the gate.
Had he underestimated the Aegis’s anger so greatly? Gods pray none here thought him a traitor. His own death might be swift, but Ayden’s . . .
Prince Náliga waved him down the gilt marble entranceway with an abbreviated bow and a smile that looked as pained as Freyrík’s felt. “I trust your journey was not too arduous, Your Highness?”
He ground his teeth and forced his smile wider—a feat as valiant as slaying a darker bear when his only desire was to rage at the man before him, demand his elf be returned this instant or, gods, even fall to his knees and beg. But ’twould be cross-purposes at best, further evidence of betrayal at worst. He could neither afford to pretend ignorance of his misdeeds nor seem overly repentant of them.
Prince Náliga paused, laid a hand on Freyrík’s arm and offered him another hesitant smile. “Your Highness?”
Oh, yes, they were prattling, weren’t they? At least Prince Náliga’s concern seemed sincere. “’Twas long, Your Highness, but no hardship at all, for I knew your father’s glory awaited me at journey’s end.”
Prince Náliga nodded at that as if ’twere no other reply he might comprehend, but said no more. Distancing himself from Freyrík, then? Or simply taciturn as he often was, given his rank?
“And the Aegis Exalted? He is well?”
Another nod. “Indeed.”
“And my brother?”
“Also well, Your Highness.”
He waited for more details, but the prince remained stubbornly silent. “I have gifts for the Aegis . . .”
“Of course,” Prince Náliga said, expecting nothing less. “His secretary will be most pleased to receive them at the feast tonight on his Eminence’s behalf.”
Gods befanged! Freyrík froze in the middle of the tapestried corridor, his escorts pulling up short beside him. Was he truly to be slighted from the presence chamber too? Even the lowliest subject at audience was entitled to such courtesy.
Freyrík laid a hand on Prince Náliga’s forearm—an old familiarity, long buried. “Is he truly so angry as that?”
Prince Náliga laid his own hand atop Freyrík’s, worried at his bottom lip for a time. “He loves you as a son, Freyrík. I think ’twas why your . . . negligence cut so deep.”
Freyrík nodded, feeling the fist round his stomach unclench, if only a little. At least Prince Náliga had not said “betrayal.”
“He seats you at the dais tonight.” Prince Náliga began to walk again, Freyrík’s hand still pressed between his hand and arm. “You will find his favor again, I doubt it not.”
More corridors, more tapestries. Stained-glass windows, opened upon gardens and courtyards, spilled crisp air and sunlight upon the marble floors. They moved toward an outer wing—a newer wing, its walls the bright white of fresh, fine plaster. Was this an insult too? An exile of sorts? Or was he merely being granted the courtesy and comfort of rooms fit for a crown prince, sweet-smelling and draftless?
Mayhap he was overthinking.
No. There is no such thing as overthinking in this place.
Prince Náliga drew him to a stop before two carved oak doors near the end of the long hall. “Here we are, then, Your Highness. I trust you’ll find these rooms to your liking.”
A statement, not a question. Such confidence because Farr was the “barbarian province,” uncultured and lacking in finery? Or because Prince Náliga recalled Freyrík’s tastes and had taken care to indulge them?
Hmm. Mayhap he truly was overthinking.
Two pages opened the doors, and as befit Freyrík’s station as Crown Prince of Farr and status as a guest, Prince Náliga waved him through. He crossed into the drawing room with the same sense of awe and irritation he always felt at High Court extravagance. The room’s every surface glittered and shone, from the inlaid exotic-wood floors, to the silver- and gold-threaded wall tapestries, to the tiled mosaic ceiling. ’Twas fit for a king indeed, more precious than even the presence chamber at Castle Farr.
Gods, they could have funded an entire Surge campaign with the contents of this room alone.
“Is there anything more you require, Your Highness?”
Freyrík took another long look round the room, but he already knew he wouldn’t find what he was looking for. He swallowed down his ill composure and gathered about him all the airs of a Crown Prince to say, “Yes. My slave.”
Prince Náliga’s mouth drew into a pucker. “He’s in the baths with the others, being prepared for service as befits you, Your Highness.”
“He befits me well enough, thank you. I would that he be returned to me now.”
The prince’s mouth pinched again, and this time his eyes along with it. He laid a hand upon Freyrík’s back and guided him into the bedroom, where three male elves stood waiting, heads bowed. Freyrík’s chest ached at the sight—not at their beauty, which was stunning, true, but at the gold-and-starfall chains round their necks and ankles and wrists. At their utter subservience. The one in the middle had black hair and green eyes, just like Ayden, and for an instant he actually saw him there, a mute broken creature robbed of all his precious gifts—
He ripped his eyes away and swiped at them with a trembling fist. He could not, could not afford to appear sympathetic to the “enemy” here.
“I’m afraid your elf is not yet fit to walk these halls, dear Prince. But as you can see, I’ve personally arranged for others to serve your needs in the meanwhile. Even a prince in poor grace is still a prince, after all, is he not?”
Prince Náliga chuckled, but quickly stopped when he saw Freyrík’s scowl. He cleared his throat and said, “Yes, well, I recall your fondness for males”—the hand resting between Freyrík’s shoulder blades stroked once, firm and warm—“and believe I have chosen well for you.”
Freyrík bit back choice words and made himself say, “Indeed.” He turned his gaze back to the pliant slaves, but ’twas all for show. There’d been a time once, in his youth, when he’d availed himself of such pleasures, but now even the fathoming of it sent bile burning up his throat.
“And if Your Highness would care for some . . . company?”
At first Freyrík thought the prince to be offering the services of the slaves, but then Náliga turned to him, hand sliding from his back to his shoulder and squeezing. “I would be most pleased, dear Freyrík, to pass the afternoon in dalliance.”
Fond memories of their Academy years brought the word Yes unbidden to his tongue, but there it remained, held fast by love and worry and a lack of desire for any but Ayden. He laid his hand atop Náliga’s where it rested on his shoulder, and gently lifted them both away. “You are a most gracious host, Náliga. But I am weary from my travels, and wish only to rest.”
Náliga smiled, nodded once. If he felt slighted, his face did not show it. “I shall leave you to it, then. The elves will fetch you food and a hot bath, assist your groom, unpack your belongings. If by chance you should need something they cannot provide—”
“Merely send one off for aid, I know. I did pass many a year here in my youth, if you’ll recall.”
Náliga’s gentle smile matched the one on Freyrík’s own lips. “Indeed,” he said. He clicked his heels and bowed his head, and Freyrík returned the courtesy. “A good afternoon to you then, dear Prince. I shall see you at the feast.”
If ’twere any mercy among the gods, Freyrík would see Ayden at the feast tonight as well. And Berendil, and the Aegis, and all would be forgiven.
He shook his head, sat down on the bed and barely refrained from snapping Stop that to the elf who knelt at his feet to unlace his boots. He should know better than to wish upon seashells. Prince Náliga might yet think well of him, but there would be no forgiveness from the Aegis tonight.
And there had been no mercy from the gods for the last three hundred years.
The noise was the first thing Ayden noticed as he crossed the threshold into the castle keep. It hit like fists to both sides of his head, a clamor in his mind-ear like swords scraping on shields, swine squealing in the jaws of a wolf, the wrong of the Hunter’s Call, all wrapped into one. ’Twas not so loud, fallen gods thanked, but even the softest whisper of such noxious din set his teeth to grinding. He clamped his hands to his temples without meaning to, and one of his “escorts” was so cracking skittish that he shoved Ayden hard between the shoulder blades. Ayden stumbled, thrust his hands out for balance, but gods, the noise—how could they not hear it?—drove his hands back to his temples. Whatever on earth could possibly shriek so?
Nothing earthly, after all, but starfall—cursed metal from the heavens, where the very gods themselves had once tread. He spotted its iris-like glint on a frieze: a hunting scene upon the corridor wall in silver and gold relief, touched through with the wretched stuff. Had its wailing driven the gods from the skies so many millennia past? Or had they crafted the starfall themselves as testament to their power, or to deter those who’d dare trespass in their realm?
Whatever its origin, ’twas powerful, rarer than red diamond, harmless to humans but near unbearable to elves. And no doubt that was why it was here. He hadn’t realized humans possessed any—he’d only ever seen it in the Hall of Elders before, locked in a stone room where elite soldiers tested their mettle. Certainly the humans had never displayed it before the War of Betrayal.
Of course, there’d been no elven slaves to subdue here before the war. Only elven diplomats, fragile though the peace between their peoples had become in those final years.
His guards herded him past the frieze, down an endless hall, the screech of starfall fading and rising and fading and rising again, tiny drops of the poison element worked into sculptures, candelabras, doors, weaponry—a thousand trinkets decorating the keep, the wealth of an empire lining its halls. So too did dead Feral beasts, carefully preserved mid-strike or mid-snarl. Ayden scoffed. As if these soft midland nobles had ever faced a Feral in their lives, let alone slain one.
Yet if the Aegis meant to show his dominion over all things with these displays, he had done a cracking fine job of it.
At the end of yet another long hall, the guards pushed him through a gilt double door into a little marble-tiled anteroom lined with shelves on one wall and a bench on another. On the wall opposite the doors they’d entered were two more doors gilt with starfall, the mental noise of it so deafening that Ayden hardly heard the physical sound of a guard stepping forward and knocking thrice.
Some seconds after, the doors cracked open, spitting out a puff of humid air and two human males. One made a sort of humming-tsking sound, half leeringly appreciative, half disconcerted, perhaps at the messy state in which the road had left Ayden. The other asked the guards, “Is this Prince Freyrík’s elf?”
“Yes.” A shove sent him stumbling forward a step, nearly nose to nose with the two men. Servants, judging by their livery. But judging by their demeanor, they clearly thought themselves the lords of this little room.
One of them—the short one, sized like a human woman and soft as one from the looks of him—reached out toward Ayden’s chest.
Freyrík had warned that people at High Court might wish to use Ayden, and had told him what to say if confronted. Ayden was glad of that foresight now; he smacked the man’s hand away and growled, “On the prince’s orders, nobody touches me but him.”
The man seemed momentarily cowed, or at least alarmed. He turned to his companion, exchanged with him a wide-eyed glance . . .
And they burst, as one, into laughter.
“Oh yes,” the second man said. He was taller, built like a wild asparagus stalk and just as unappealing. “I see the rumors are true. Perhaps you’d better stay,” he said to Ayden’s guards. “Just until he’s bound.”
A stutter of fear at those words, quickly swallowed. He would show them no weakness. The binding would only be temporary in any case. Only temporary.
“Ayden, is it?”
The short man again. Looking at the guards rather than Ayden, as if he were incapable of speaking for himself. ’Twas an oily sort of humiliation; he felt heat rising in his cheeks, clenched his jaw against ill-thought words.
“Yes,” said one of the guards.
The short man nodded, then turned his attention to Ayden. “I am Master Laug. This”—gesturing to asparagus man—“is Master Húskarl. We are the Chief Grooms of the Slaves for the Aegis Exalted. It is our job to see you all properly prepared to serve your masters. You will obey us as you obey them. Do you understand?”
This pompous little man would be scandalized to learn how Ayden “obeyed” Rík. He bit back a grin at the thought and pasted on the blandest expression he could manage.
The tall, thin man—Húski . . . Húsker . . . Hú-cares?—produced an equally tall, thin stick and lashed Ayden’s calf with it. Or tried to, anyway; Ayden sidestepped the strike with ease.
Alas, ’twas not so easy to sidestep the guards who flanked him at a nod from Laug. He could have fought them, thrown them, even burned them, but he’d promised Rík he’d behave, knew cracking well how important it was for them both that he maintain at least some semblance of submission. So he let the guards hold him, let the asparagus man swat him thrice with the switch. ’Twas not so painful over his breeches; he took the strikes with stony-faced indifference.
“Do. You. Understand?” Laug said when the laughable discipline had ended.
Ayden graced the man with another jerk of his chin.
It seemed to satisfy, for Laug nodded back, then waved a limp hand at Ayden and said, “Undress.”
“I beg your pardon?” A mock beating Ayden could humor, but not whatever this human planned to do with him naked.
Laug sniffed, curled his upper lip. “I think you’ll find begging is not much tolerated here. Nor is repetition. Do as you’re told.”
Asparagus man brandished his switch again, and ’twas all Ayden could do not to laugh at such a pathetic threat. Yet it made him wonder: Were the other elven slaves cowed by such nonsense? Had they softened so—or worse, been broken so—in their time here? ’Twas a sobering thought.
On the heels of that realization came a second one, equally troubling: Anything could happen to him here. Freyrík had promised to keep him close, to protect him—a promise broken mere minutes after their arrival. And now, despite promises that none would accost or violate him, he was trapped and surrounded, ordered to bare himself for gods knew what nefarious purpose.
If he conceded, would their next order see him arse up over a bench? He trusted Rík, truly he did. But enough to trust in Rík’s trust of these men?
They’d not bound him yet. Four guards and two attendants . . . He could still fight.
Or he could try it Rík’s way. Fight with words and wit instead of song and fists. Bide time, be patient, and stay healthy. If it came to it, he could (he hoped) invoke Rík’s name as a shield. Surely even these self-important little men feared the anger of a crown prince.
With a grimace, he bent to unlace his boots.
Socks next, then vest, then shirt. Easier than he’d thought it’d be. He did not share human modesties, but they were watching so closely . . .
He turned his eyes and mind-ear resolutely inward as he untied his breeches. Before he could lose his nerve, he pushed them over his hips along with his undergarments, and stepped out of them when they dropped to the floor.
The grooms studied him as if examining stock for purchase. They seemed to approve, though Ayden had only expression and posture to go by, for he could barely hear their songs over that of the starfall, even as close as they were.
Approval or no, Ayden would not grant them the power to humiliate him. He possessed the body of a warrior, honed and skilled; he took no shame in it. Let them gaze upon him if they wished.
Just do not let their hands rove as surely as their eyes.
The guards gazed upon him too, though less with lust or judgment, he thought, than concern for potential blades hidden on his person—despite having searched him once already before letting him step foot in the keep. Fools, the lot of them. As if he’d need a weapon to kill them all.
Besides, where would he be hiding the cracking thing now?
Fallen gods pray they wouldn’t insist upon checking. He didn’t know what he’d do if they tried.
A good thing, then, that they did not. The tall groom turned his back to Ayden—idiot—and threw the gilt double doors open. He stepped through them, and the guards pushed Ayden forward as well into a vast, humid, sunlit room that smelled strongly of perfumed oils.
A bath. Though he didn’t quite relax at the sight of it, he did at least uncoil a little. No wonder they’d stripped him of his muddied clothes and boots in the antechamber. ’Twas pristine in here. The ceiling stretched far above his head, sunlight pouring in through foggy glass panels at regular intervals. He spotted no doors but the ones he’d come through, no reachable windows, no objects to be used as weapons. Dominating the space was a massive communal pool, heated to steaming, a dozen or so men and women lounging within, another dozen being attended to at grooming tables round its edges.
Men and women bathing together? How could that be in this backward human realm?
The grooms had marched him all the way to the edge of the bath before the answer hit him so hard he stumbled: Because they were not human.
They were elves. Utterly silent, all of them. But elves nevertheless.
His fists clenched at the sight—so many, so naked and meek—and worse, at the songless quiet.
Before he could even begin to make sense of that, someone shoved him in the pool.
He hit the water less gracefully than he might have if the starfall all round him weren’t screeching in his mind-ear, throwing him off-balance and out of focus. The pool was shallow, at least; his feet quickly found the bottom, and when he rose up, spluttering and whirling toward the unmannered beast who’d shoved him, the water only reached his waist.
Whoever had pushed him was gone. Not that it mattered; impulsive though he might be, he knew better than to pick a fight here over something so foolish, no matter how much he might want to.
He sat down on a bench beneath the water and let himself enjoy it, just for a moment, just long enough to calm down. ’Twas intensely hot but just the right side of comfortable, a powerful warmth that chipped deep at the chill and stiffness of travel. Scented water lapped at his throat and sweet steam curled round his face. A gentle current brought fresh water in and carried out the old. He licked at his lips, tasted faint hints of oil and rose hips but no mineral trace. ’Twas not a natural hot spring, then. A furnace, perhaps, beneath the floor?
No matter. He had more pressing things with which to concern himself—in particular, his fellow elves. He let his gaze rove round the bath, from one elf to the next, but none would meet his eyes. Were they not at least a little curious about the newcomer in their midst? He sang out to them—greetings, peace, friendship—but ’twas as if they couldn’t even hear him.
Perhaps they truly couldn’t? All round them was the screech of starfall, after all. Fallen gods, how could they bear it? ’Twas not just near them but on them—delicate shimmering chains of it fastened round their throats, looped decoratively round their ankles and wrists, biceps and bellies.
Maybe he just needed to get closer.
He ducked beneath the water, pushed off the wall and glided partway across the pool, surfacing beside a male half again the size of Ayden. A warrior, surely, all lean muscle and power. The elf was leaned back against the tile wall, arms spread, eyes closed. He did not acknowledge Ayden’s presence, though Ayden had no doubt he’d sensed it.
“Greetings, brother,” Ayden tried.
The elf opened his eyes, narrowed them at Ayden, then cast his gaze upon the water. Ayden could hear nothing above the starfall, but even a one-eyed elf could have read the feelings on his face: You are trouble. Take it and yourself away from me.
Ayden did as he was bid, lest he give in to the urge to scream, to shout at the elf to do something, be the warrior you once were, rip away the starfall with his bare hands. Not that he could have, alas, stronger than steel as it was.
Yet was not his people’s will stronger than starfall?
He swam up to a young female, Ella’s age or thereabouts, knelt before her and flashed her the smile that so often sent Ella’s friends into blushing fits. But she too only darted her eyes at him before looking away. Why? Were they not permitted to speak to one another? And if so, why had nobody stopped him trying?
He sat down on the bench beside the girl but did not attempt to speak to her.
She swam away. He tried not to take it personally. It seemed everyone was ignoring each other just as studiously as they were ignoring him.
Perhaps they were merely biding their time. ’Twas on their side, after all, and wise always to let your enemy underestimate you.
Someone thrust a sea sponge in his face and said, “Wash.”
Ayden startled—Laug, fallen gods cracked, where had he come from?—and snatched up the sponge. How had he not heard the human draw so close? The starfall shriek was constant, true, but such knowledge held no comfort. Called, in fact, for ever more vigilance and a great many fewer excuses.
Laug squatted down to place a segmented porcelain dish beside him, stacked high with bars of marbled soaps. “I know not what fragrances your master prefers. I trust you’ll select with care.”
Ayden made a show of sniffing them one by one until he found one he liked, then began to lather himself.
Laug and Asparagus Man watched closely. Did they think him a simpleton, unable to clean behind his own ears? Or were they merely aroused by the sight of it? Crack it all, he couldn’t hear a thing! However did humans tell one mood from the next amongst their companions?
Whatever their secret, he would have to learn it, and quickly.
He finished washing. They made him wash again. When he stepped from the water at last, they inspected him like a horse at market. ’Twas all he could do to hold his tongue as foreign hands raised his arms, spread his legs, parted his hair. Gods only knew what they were looking for.
At last the hands fell away. Laug looked to Asparagus Man and said, “Now he is ready.”
The words sent a shiver, quickly suppressed, up Ayden’s naked back. He took a single step away and folded his arms across his chest. “For what?” he demanded. “You to fuck me?”
The grooms reared back as one, outrage stamped almost comically clear across their faces, their dismay so loud he could hear it even above the starfall. The moment stretched on long enough to be insulting.
Ayden thought to say something, but then Asparagus Man cleared his throat, squared his shoulders, and said, “We are eunuchs, of course.”
Eunuchs? ’Twas not a word of the trade tongue, he didn’t think, judging by the truncated vowels, the hard consonant. “Eunuchs?”
Laug scoffed, turned to Asparagus Man, and grumbled something behind his hand that made Asparagus Man laugh. Ayden couldn’t quite make it out—something about backward border kingdoms breeding boorish slaves—but heard enough to bristle on Freyrík’s behalf. He stepped forward, saw from the corner of his eye the guards step with him. “Will you not answer me?”
Apparently, they would not.
Laug shook his head as if condescending to a spoiled child, then turned his back on Ayden, utterly confident in his safety. “Come, Húskarl”—ah, yes, that was Asparagus Man’s name—“we have spent too much time on this one already. Let us bind him and be done with it.”
Ayden froze, heart and breath seizing in his chest. If he felt helpless now beneath the din of the starfall, how much worse would the binding be? How was it achieved? The child inside him wondered if it would hurt; the adult thought simply, How could it not?
His eyes darted round the room as Laug beckoned the guards closer and Húskarl unlocked a pantry door on the far side of the bath with a key chained round his wrist. Ayden felt eyes on him—so many eyes. Was this what it took to make his sisters and brothers acknowledge his existence? Anger flared at the thought.
Húskarl returned from the pantry with several slim, glimmering hoops draped from his fingers, one larger than the others: a collar and cuffs disguised as jewelry, starfall and gold twined like creeping vines, dotted with leaf-shaped emeralds.
Ayden stumbled back a step, then another. He would not wear them. He would not.
The starfall shriek intensified as Húskarl drew near. Ayden pressed his hands to his temples, backed away further. Right into the arms of two guards, who wrapped strong hands round his wrists and biceps.
“No,” he said. “Let me go. Let me go, I mean it, let me—”
Laug rubbed him on the belly like a cracking dog. “It does not hurt for long.”
Húskarl stepped near enough to strike, handed the four smaller circlets to Laug and opened the larger one on a well-disguised hinge. “Laug speaks true,” he said, meeting Ayden’s gaze with what struck him as real sympathy. “The worst of it will pass by morning. Do honor to your master now; stand brave.”
Crack his sympathy and crack his “honor” and crack this gods-forsaken starfall! He sang out for a blast of scalding steam and pushed the cloud at Laug and Húskarl.
Alas, it came out a small thing through the starfall’s interference, weak and annoying at best. The men stepped back, but seemed unharmed.
No matter; he needed no magic to prevail here. He leapt up within the confines of the startled guards’ grips, thrust his heels at an angle into each guard’s nearest kneecap, and used their weight as they collapsed to land them on their backs, his elbows planting hard into their diaphragms. He was on his feet an instant later, knives from the guards’ belts in his hands, brandishing the weapons at the startled—nay, petrified—grooms.
“Stay away from me,” he said, each word its own distinct sentence, threatening just as clearly as his knives.
The grooms held out placating hands, backed slowly out of cutting range. ’Twould be an easy thing to kill them anyway—a simple lunge or toss—but he’d stirred enough trouble already. He wished only to leave this room now, find Freyrík, and never let the man out of his sight again.
He backed toward the closed doors, stepping cautiously past the unconscious guards. He’d pummeled the breath from them in one strike; they’d fallen in silence. ’Twas likely no one yet knew he’d made trouble, and he could sneak away.
Ten steps from the doors now. Five steps. Two. He turned round at last . . .
And nearly ran headlong into another elf.
The elf touched a hand to his bare shoulder and said his name.
“Do I know you?”
Judging by the elf’s reaction, he’d heard the words beneath the ones Ayden had spoken: Get out of my cracking way before I kill you.
But then he smiled, soft and sad. “You are the spitting image of Vaska,” he said. “She was possessed of quite a fire, too.”
Ayden’s hands tightened round the hilts of his daggers. The urge to use them was strong, if for no other reason than to escape the nearness of the starfall round the other elf’s neck. “Who are you,” he demanded, “and why do you speak of my mother as if she’s dead?”
The elf lifted a hand, placed the flat of it against Ayden’s wrist and gently pushed Ayden’s arm down to his side. Ayden let him, uncertain of why. “I am Jagall. I am—”
“You served with my father,” Ayden whispered, distant memories of a face, a voice, rising to the fore at the elf’s name. He’d worn a beard then, and a fine velvet cloak.
He left my father to die.
Jagall’s smile widened as if he’d heard none of Ayden’s anger, as if he expected Ayden to be pleased to remember him. “Indeed. I was First Secretary to the Ambassador. I did not mean to frighten you, child; I merely have not seen your mother in over three hundred years.”
Child? Hardly. And anyway, better a child than a coward or worse. Jagall had been trapped here since the start of the war. Why had he been spared while Ayden’s father had been slain? Why had he done nothing to free himself in all his borrowed time?
Ayden brought his knives back up between them. “Let me pass.”
“And then what? Where will you go? How will you leave? Would you kill them all?”
“I would do whatever it takes.”
If his insult wounded Jagall, the elf made no show of it. Instead he curled one hand back round Ayden’s wrist, waved toward Húskarl with the other hand. “Come, child.” He tugged Ayden a single step away from the doors. “I know you’ve half your father’s mind inside you. Use it. He knew well—as would you if you’d only stop to think—that you cannot fight your way out of everything. Certainly not out of this city.” He pulled Ayden close, leaned in to whisper sharply in his ear. “Now is the time to swallow your pride and take your licks lest you fail to outlive these fools, do you understand? What is done today can be undone when the time is right.”
He let go of Ayden’s wrist and stepped away. Ayden eyed the closed doors, the unconscious guards, the grooms, his fellow prisoners, the doors again. Jagall spoke true, he’d known that all along, and yet . . .
“I know it’s hard,” Jagall said. “We will hold you, if you wish it.”
Ayden looked up sharply. Could Jagall hear his fears above the starfall, or had the elf simply learned the human trick of reading faces?
“I was among the first enslaved,” Jagall added. “I’d have been most grateful for kind hands to bear me up through my own binding.”
Gratitude? For restraints? Ayden grimaced. Nay, he would never sink so far. He shoved Jagall aside, closed the final distance between himself and the bath doors—
And drove both knives into the wood panels with a curse, turning his back on them before he could change his mind. Crack it all, but Jagall was right. There’d been many opportunities for Ayden to escape this fate before he’d crossed through a single one of the Splendor’s wards. He’d chosen not to. For Rík. And he’d not come all this way to lose his nerve now.
Besides, the binding was temporary. Only temporary.
Jagall nodded at him, solemn and . . . relieved, perhaps? “Come, Ayden,” he said, cupping a hand round Ayden’s arm and guiding him toward the pool. It did not escape Ayden that Jagall had used his name this time, as if he’d earned the elder’s respect with his decision. “Here. Lie on your belly; ’twill be easier that way.”
Alas, Ayden’s belly was rather busy just now crawling into his throat. But he sank to his knees, let Jagall guide him to the tiled floor. Two male elves approached; he heard not them but their starfall, a wail so near unbearable even at a distance that he could not fathom their calmness. He felt none of it himself, especially when one elf settled across Ayden’s calves and pressed hands to his hips, and the other laid Ayden’s arms along his sides and pinned them there. These elves had clearly been soldiers once. He could barely move in their grasps.
And now? Now they were naught but human puppets, restraining him for binding of their own accord. The pain Ayden felt at that had nothing to do with the tightness of their grips or the starfall round their necks.
“Master Húskarl, if I may?”
Ayden strained to lift his head, just enough to see what was happening. Jagall touched a hand between his shoulder blades—all reassurance, no force—and extended his other toward Húskarl. The groom nodded once and placed the starfall circlets in Jagall’s palm.
Jagall knelt beside Ayden, ducked his head to catch Ayden’s eye. “The song ails gravely, I know. But your mind-ear will soon numb, I promise you.”
Though Ayden knew ’twas futile, he struggled anew against the hands that held him. “Are you saying I will be deaf?”
Jagall shook his head. “Not forever, child. What is done today can be undone, remember? Besides, have you not been deaf from the moment you stepped inside the keep?”
Ayden supposed he had, more or less, but such thoughts brought no comfort now.
“The pain will end. You must hold on to that, do you understand?”
Jagall nodded back, and slid the collar round Ayden’s neck.