The Kheld King
L. L. Stephens
A kiss on a dead father’s hand. A final goodbye, the public act of a dutiful son and reverent subject. Dorilian had not been much of either. Now his lips pressed a hand of char and bone. A lingering stench of burnt fat and meat caused his stomach to rebel and he gagged. He might have managed to escape with dignity but for a faint taste, sweet and bright beneath the acrid residue of ash.
Highborn blood, Leur-gifted and immortal, still alive within the ruin of Deben IV’s corpse.
Taste ignited nightmare, and images exploded within Dorilian’s skull. Sorcerous light. Ruptured defenses. Searing pain… his own maimed hand… a shattered king.
No. Dorilian must not think of that day… of him. Not now. Not here. The Vault of Incorruption beneath mighty
Permephedon’s foundations held a legion of ghosts. Dorilian had not wanted to be in this death-plagued City; he wanted to bury his memories, not visit them. Yet he had braved the Rill again and returned to the scene of all his pain. And for what? More useless sentiment?
He lurched away from his father’s bier. His kinsmen, Rheger Dannutheon and that man’s Heir, Elhanan, each grabbed an arm to steady him, but he pushed them off. Touch compounded dissonance. He needed to stop feeling, not feel more.
Because they watched, he forced himself to cross the shining floor as though he were merely walking, not fleeing demons.
“Only your father, fra’don?” Elhanan’s voice, then footsteps, followed Dorilian as he headed toward the central rotunda and the way out. “Are there no others here to whom you wish to pay respect? Not even—”
“No.” It did not take Highborn gifts to know who Elhanan meant. “Especially not him.”
Forty-seven of his kindred had died in the slaughter of the Highborn, an event people now called the Demise. Gifted. Godborn. Many of those men had been powerful. Now they were merely dead. Their corpses had been interred here weeks ago, along with the body of one singularly gifted king not of their race. Dorilian should pay respect to all of them. He had seen them die. He’d felt them die; still felt the voids they’d left behind. Two months had passed, and he could barely tolerate proximity to their remains. He considered it a mercy Marc Frederick’s bier resided with the Malyrdeons, concealed by sepulchers. He had not felt that death and did not want to look upon proof.
Rheger had rejoined them, so Dorilian asked a simple question. “Did he receive my death gift?”
“Yes.” Rheger stopped walking. Dorilian stopped also to hear the rest of the answer. “I placed it in his hand myself, as Emyli told us was your wish.”
Dorilian nodded. That knowledge alone, about any of this, felt good and true. He should have guessed Rheger would not let him end with that.
“We did all you asked, fra’don. Now that we are alone and none but we can hear, will you tell us the fate of the Wall Stone?”
Dorilian closed his eyes in a futile attempt to seal off yet another memory. He had known they would ask about the blood-covered thing. Sacred. Death-burdened. The violence of the Wall Stone’s taking had finished the job of decapitating the Prince of Stauberg. “I have it. I took it back from Nammuor. I carried it to Sordan when I fled.”
“We know this. But, fra’don, the Wall Stone belongs with us.”
An apt reminder. The Wall was a Malyrdeon entity. Elhanan, not Dorilian, was trained to use the artifact.
“And it will be returned to you when Stefan has convinced me he can be trusted to keep it safe—it and you.”
Dorilian barricaded off further discussion of the matter. He opened his eyes again and walked away. Their voices followed, raised, asking questions to which Dorilian paid no heed. In the morning he would leave Essera to all its ugliness, abandon this cursed place along with his every memory of it. His left hand ached, and he glanced down at the arcane emerald gleam of the Rill Stone encircling his third finger. Rill-healed bones and flesh had restored his first two fingers. He remembered those fingers being cleaved from his body.
He curled his hand into a fist.
“All my son asks, in honoring his grandfather Marc Frederick’s wish, is that his royal cousin, the Hierarch Dorilian, attend his coronation. He is already here in Permephedon, and—”
Emyli Stauberg-Randolph knew her request was outrageous, given the parties involved. For one thing, the family connection was flimsy to say the least: Stefan even claiming it was laughable. For another, Stefan had not officially recanted his accusation that Dorilian had murdered the grandfather in question. Her first surprise of this visit was that she had been allowed into the heavily fortified Sordaneon Tower at all.
Although Permephedon was a neutral City, one to which Dorilian had every legal right to enter and reside, his distrust of Essera in general and the Stauberg-Randolphs in particular ensured that the mighty tower bristled with enough swords to secure a domain. Emyli’s second surprise was that she faced Tiflan Morevyen, Bas of Teremar and Dorilian’s foremost advisor, in an antechamber furnished with only a spare desk and a handful of chairs. A brace of tall windows framed with jewel-hued tiles set in gold overlooked a breathtaking view of Permephedon’s spires. The Rill structures shifted their shape above its buildings and platforms, moving with the pale grace of phantoms.
“He is here only to pay last respects to his dead.” Tiflan rubbed a hand along his jaw. “It was very hard for him. The Malyrdeons delayed Deben’s rites until he could face it. I don’t think—”
“Stefan is being pressed on all sides to end this estrangement. His nobles wish for him to make peace. That, in conjunction with my father’s letter—” Emyli reached into the deep pocket of her mourning gown to produce a document of folded, creamy vellum bound with blue and gold ribbon. “It was among Marc Frederick’s papers at Gustan and was presented to Stefan only last week by Gareth, my father’s most loyal serv—”
“Dorilian knows who Gareth is.” Tiflan took the letter and gazed upon the late King’s forceful script. He studied both pages closely and sighed. “So, your father seeks to extend his influence past the grave.”
“Our families must surmount old hurts, not embellish new ones.”
Both Emyli and Tiflan had at one time or another sought to end the rivalry between their respective young royals. Stefan Stauberg-Randolph and Dorilian Sordaneon had hated each other from the moment of their first meeting at Permephedon seven years before. They had been but teens then—and enemies ever since. Dorilian had even, on one occasion, sought to have Stefan killed.
Only eight weeks had passed since Marc Frederick had died, murdered by poison and sorcery, and eight weeks since Stefan had accused Dorilian of the deed. Had Emyli believed that accusation, she would not be here.
“Bas Morevyen.” She didn’t know this man well enough to be more familiar with him. Even so, she felt—as her father had—Tiflan was a man to be trusted. “You understand how important this is. The rulers of our two lands must not allow youthful mistakes to poison their current situations. They were children. Now they must be adults. Essera needs Sordan; we acknowledge it with every breath! And Sordan needs Essera.”
Tiflan grimaced. “Dorilian might differ with that.”
“He is all opposition of late. If he would but think about it—”
“He has thought about it for all twenty-one years of his life. He was born out of his family’s opposition to yours, do not forget that. Your rejection of his father—”
“Yes. But surely we can put that behind us.” Emyli did not regret running off with her young Kheld lover instead of fulfilling the marriage her father had planned.
Stefan was himself a consequence of grand designs Emyli had single-handedly overthrown. She bowed her head and continued her entreaty. “Surely they can. Dorilian has succeeded in securing Sordan’s autonomy. The military stage is over—won, at least for now. My son has agreed to negotiations—”
“As he must, because otherwise the Rill would travel nowhere and bring our economies to a standstill—and both our nations to ruin. Too many lives have been lost already fighting over who will control the Rill.” Tiflan rose. His new regalia as Hierarchal Lord of First Rank accentuated his impressive figure. “Princess,” he said, “I will present this petition to Dorilian, you know that. If I may include the letter—”
“Yes, of course. Just one favor more: Might I speak with him?”
“He’s very busy.”
“But not too busy for this letter.”
Tiflan looked down at Emyli with compassion. “Dorilian is never too busy for any matter bearing your late father’s name.”
She lifted her chin. “Then he will not be too busy for me.”