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.