Hold Tight

Riga woke to a strange room. He lay in a canopied bed so large when he stretched his arms he couldn't reach the end of it. Rolling to one side, he swung his legs out from beneath the covers and sat on the edge. He felt wrong. The sucking sense of something missing spread through his chest. Cataloging his body, Riga was only slightly reassured to find all his limbs still attached.

He stroked the sheets. Purple silk, so fine they spilled away from him like water. The sense of wrongness unspooled inside him. He didn't recognize this place. The lavish surroundings jarred him, a puzzle that wouldn't slide together, grating against the thump of hangover between his temples. Had he drunk too much and blacked out? He couldn't remember.

A lurch like the heave of a ship in the pit of his stomach and Riga hunched forward, gasping. That was the wrongness, the absence. He couldn't remember anything.

No. That wasn't quite right. He knew his name. He knew himself. He just didn't remember this place, or his arrival, or even how long he had been here. This was not his home. He struggled with his memory and it slipped and slithered out of his grasp like a snake made of smoke, flicking out of his reach and dissolving when he snatched at it.

He closed his eyes and strained, thinking of home. Home was… a black ship on the dark sea. Pirates? Cathand. He remembered. He remembered his parents had sold him, he remembered the purge, he remembered the camps where they had killed the Gifted and kept him in a cage, he remembered escaping with the older boys, he remembered how they had crawled ashore and slavers had taken the other boys who had hidden him, he remembered living on the street and eating out of the gutter and the smirking face of a woman with red hair. He remembered blond hair and blue eyes. He remembered fire.

A vast emptiness expanded inside him when he tried to push past what he recalled of his childhood. He knew years had passed, he could feel that he was older, but everything faded after he had met the red-haired woman. She was a pirate, he thought. A captain? Her name eluded him. Yet he could feel that she mattered, that she was significant, somehow— Riga gritted his teeth and concentrated harder on the blurred mirage of her face and pain split in a knife thrust through his skull.

Ragged breathing filled the room and Riga blinked, realized it was his own wheezing and he had fallen to the floor, his hands and knees sore against the chilled slate. Blood dripped from his nose.

He limped to a pan of water set on a dressing table and washed his face. When he gazed up into the mirror his reflection looked back, ghoulishly pale and gaunt with two yawning pupils like black pools. He touched the diamond mark on his cheek. The stink of burning flesh and the horror and agony of the brand searing his skin rolled over him. That he remembered with perfect clarity but not how he had come to this place?

In a rush of ire he swept the pan off the table and the porcelain shattered with a resounding crack, pieces skittering over his feet. Water bled like ink over black stone and all the anger seeped out of Riga. He scooped the shards into a pile, guilty that he had destroyed what he assumed belonged to someone else, instinctually sensing that he didn't belong here. He knew with a certainty in his gut that this place was much posher than his usual digs. He didn't know how he knew, but he knew.

Big windows and doors set with glass filled one wall, framing the devastating view of a blue-green lake cupped in the valley beneath the jut of a mountain range. Riga stood and stared at it. The great sweep of the mountains and the grey clouds like a shroud over the sky squeezed the swelling loneliness inside him, seemed to tower over his small and insignificant existence.

Shuddering, he backed away. He staggered to the interior door and tested the handle, a wave of relief he didn't understand soothing the rapid beat of his heart when it opened. He peered into a shadowed hallway lined with the same dark wood and stone as his room. Nothing stirred beyond him and Riga saw no one else. He slipped out, silent on bare feet, and padded past rows of lanterns that cast a weak bluish glow through the gloom.

Indistinct voices echoed from where an open door spilled flickering firelight into the hallway, a spot of warmth in the dimness. Riga drifted closer. He hovered in the shelter of the adjoining wall, listening. Mostly it seemed to be one man speaking to another, too low for Riga to follow, the second man occasionally offering a noise or word of acknowledgement. Mustering his courage, Riga stepped through the threshold.

Riga's suspicion proved true. Two men glanced towards him when he entered, one seated in a cushioned chair before a blazing fire, the other leaning against the stonework of the immense hearth. Riga's attention flickered between them both but it stuck on the man furthest from him. The man at the hearth's hair was a jarring unnatural shade of polished steel that gradated into purple, all of it twisted into a plait that curled over his shoulder, falling to where his tunic cut just below the elbow and revealed his bare forearms. His arms gave Riga a start. Glimmering black gems, garnets, and amethysts sprouted from his skin like lesions. He was Gifted. His evira had been stitched right into his flesh. That had to have been painful.

Uneasiness twisted Riga's stomach. Gifted had captured him before and never with good intentions. A name surfaced from the wasteland of his memory: Amenra. She had taken him, meant to kill him, but…

But what?

Trying to push for more was like grasping sand. It slipped away and an ache unfurled behind his left eye socket. He rubbed at it and then froze when the voice that had done most of the talking said his name.

"Riga," the seated man greeted him. He was a handsome man, dressed in dark fabric trimmed in silver, tailored to accent the muscular physic beneath sharp features and a head of thick black hair. "You're up. How do you feel? You've been very sick."

"Who-" That seemed rude. These people recognized him. Was he supposed to know them? "Where am I?"

"You don't remember?" The man in the chair said. His eyebrows climbed. "You're in Armada. I'm Elnath. This is Ichoris."

That name. Elnath. Something about it. "Elnath… Antranig?" How did he know that?

"Yes." Elnath smiled. "Please sit down. You don't look well."

Riga teetered into a chair opposite Elnath and sat clinging to the arm as if it might moor him against how adrift he felt. The fear inside him yawned open, worse than when he'd panicked in the room. Something was very wrong with him.

"Riga. It's all right. Look at me please." A warm hand touched his own, grounded him, and Riga blinked up to find Elnath leaning towards him.

"Have we met before?"

"Yes. Recently. You really don't remember?"

"I don't remember…" Riga scrubbed at his left cheek. A pressure was building behind the socket again. He trembled, a chill in the room penetrating through the fur-lined shirt he wore, though neither Elnath or Ichoris seemed affected. "My memory is wrong. There's so much missing. I don't understand."

"You've been poisoned," Ichoris said in a voice as flat as his expression. Riga didn't like to look directly at him; it was like gazing into the dead eyes of a shark. Gooseflesh pricked down Riga's spine.

"Poisoned? Who— why—"

"Let us just say for now that you have powerful enemies," Elnath said.


None of this made sense to him. An intuition buried deep in the fog of his subconscious screamed in denial. Nauseated and weary, Riga didn't investigate further. The pressure in his skull had grown so bad he worried his eye would burst. He just wanted to curl up in front of the fire and sleep until it was over, until this wrongness in him went away.

"I don't think you're up for this conversation now. We'll talk about that happened when you're a little better. For now, all you need to know is that you're safe here."

He didn't feel safe. He felt broken and alone. Someone had done this to him on purpose? Fractured his memory, his sense of self? And he was supposed to trust this Elnath person who he didn't know and who radiated a strange dark energy that made Riga's subconscious cringe?

Riga realized that he was staring at his own lap, his heavy head dipping, too burdensome for his neck to support. He hadn't noticed before but he saw now that he wore a ruby on a gold chain.

He lifted a shaking hand and the ruby settled in his palm. It was important to him but he didn't know why. Tears blurred the edge of his vision and he wiped them away with his free hand. He closed his fingers over the ruby.

Everything radiated cold: the stones and the dark wood, Elnath and that Gifted creep Ichoris. Even the fire seemed to spread a chill, but the ruby was a warmth in his hand that seemed, somehow, to emanate through his shivering body. He had the crazy wish to shrink and crawl inside it.

Riga knew he must appear completely barmy, though Elnath only waited with a placid patience. Riga mustered himself, clenched his fist around the ruby. "Why are you helping me?"

"I'm hoping we can help each other."

"I'm not. I'm not Gifted." This he remembered. How many times had he proved that?

"Maybe not Gifted," Elnath said. "But you're something, aren't you?"

"No, I'm— it's not my fault. I can't do it on purpose. I don't mean to do it." Fire, fire, fire. Always they wanted the fire. "Please, I'm so cold."

"Riga, this is important. I need you to focus." Elnath was firm now, like a blade sliding along his neck. "What is the last thing you remember?"

"The fire," Riga panted.

"The fire that killed the slavers who came to capture you?"

Riga moaned. The frosted air scraped his lungs, the taste of blood in his mouth. He was so cold his teeth chattered. "They took the other boys. I tried, I tried to stop them."

"What do you remember after that?"

"A woman." Wetness on his lip. Riga's fingers came away red. Red like the woman. "She has… red hair."

A sharp voice through the agony expanding like a sun in his skull. "You're pushing him too hard. You're hurting him."

"Who is she?" Elnath pressed.

"I don't know!"

"What is her name?"

"I don't-" Riga pitched forward and fell out of the chair. He lost all sense of himself. He was a disembodied knot of pain. He had a dim awareness of something silver bending over him but his vision had tunneled, narrowed to a blur of colour.

"I told you the dose was too much. He likely has damage to his brain."

"Give him more. I don't want him remembering this last bit."

"Why don't I just melt his mind now and save us the effort?" Said the sharp voice again, tight with anger.

"Do as I say."

Riga tried to speak, to ask what they meant, but his mouth wouldn't move and his limbs were as heavy as anchors pulling him down into the deep. He splintered into a merciful blackness.

Ikeda drew his horse to a stop when he reached the gates of his family's estate in Arcanus, the great stallion heaving with the pace he'd set, and tossed the reins to the stable boy. Shanza slid out of the saddle of his own mount and Ikeda caught him by the waist to help him down. When he'd settled on the ground, still braced in Ikeda's hold, Shanza cupped Ikeda's face and stroked his sweat-damp curls out of his face.

Ikeda took Shanza's hand and lead him up the stairs into his childhood home, the same manor where they had first laid eyes on each other. Even the warmth of that memory couldn't crack through the fear that sat in the pit of his stomach like a chunk of ice. He pushed through the main entrance, pulling Shanza with him, unaware his grip had clenched so tight he was crushing Shanza's hand until he heard the sharp exhale Shanza tried to stifle. Ikeda released him and would have withdrawn except Shanza caught him and wove their fingers together.

A servant stood in the foyer, gaping at him, clearly not having expected his arrival so soon and with so little fanfare. They had left even Shumba and Erakil behind in their rush from the port.

"Where is he?" Ikeda barked.

"My Lord Ikeda-" At Ikeda's glower the servant blinked, seemed to remember the question, and stuttered, "he is in his old rooms, lord."

Ikeda turned and strode away so fast Shanza had to half-jog to keep up with him. He knew it was inconsiderate but his heart was a vibrating pressure between his lungs and the thought of slowing pierced him with a physical agony.

Zethus had offered precious few details about Kaezik's state, though he'd said enough to send Ikeda into a rage-fuelled panic that had lasted the journey from Penira to Arcanus and as of this moment had not yet abated.

A dragon attacking his brother.

Kaezik engulfed in fire but unburned.

A mysterious ailment that wasted him, defied all healing.

The door to Kaezik's old rooms appeared before him without Ikeda having a clear memory of how he'd gotten there. His ragged breaths punched out of him He couldn't make himself grip the door handle; his arms refused to obey. He might have stood there indefinitely, floundering, except Shanza laid one gentle hand on his chest and another on the door and guided him inside.

The transition from the sunlit corridor to the darkness of Kaezik's rooms stung Ikeda's eyes. He blinked as they adjusted, the soft click of the door as it closed behind him shuddering through Ikeda like the lid of a casket sliding shut. The air hung dense and humid, cloying with the smell of sickness.

His eyes cleared and he found his father standing before him, new lines worn into his face, and Ikeda stepped into his embrace with a gratefulness that surprised him. When they detached Ikeda looked into Hakida's grave eyes and couldn't speak, the dread in them arresting his questions.

Beyond his father, curtains and shadows draped the bed. Its dark interior dragged Ikeda closer, as if a tether reeled him in with a hook sunk into his breastbone, his boots scraping against the polished wood of the floor. His pulse thudding in his throat, Ikeda reached the side of the bed.

Kaezik lay so still and pale he resembled a corpse. His bloodless lips were tinged blue and pulled in a frown beneath a black bandage that wrapped his eyes. Ikeda sat beside him on the bed. He watched the shallow rise and fall of Kaezik's chest with a profound helplessness, tension coiling in his gut, spreading despair like a muck through his body. All the anger drained out of him and he sagged. He wanted to scoop Kaezik into his arms and carry him out of harm's way, as he had when they were boys. He had promised to protect him, this bright presence he had cherished all his life, his little brother.

Shanza's hand settled on his shoulder, an anchor.

"Can we touch him?" Shanza murmured to the room's other occupant, a silent man sitting in a chair on the opposite side of the bed. Ikeda had assumed he was a healer, an assumption with favourable odds, given that beneath his mass of black hair he had amber eyes and a black diamond burned into his flesh.

"Yes. He sleeps deeply. Don't be disappointed if he doesn't wake now."

Ikeda stared down at Kaezik, then reached out and paused with a hand hovering over his head. He looked so fragile. He stroked Kaezik's unruly hair back from his forehead, his fingertips skimming the edge of the bandage.

"What's this for?"

"His eyes." The healer hesitated. "They bleed."

"They what?"

"Let me show you," the healer said. He leaned forward, loosened the bandage, and slipped it up to Kaezik's forehead. Then with gentle gloved fingers he peeled an eyelid back.

The ice in the pit of Ikeda's stomach shattered. The surface of Kaezik's eye gleamed entirely black, the pupil and iris and sclera all swallowed in a wet black pool like a jar of ink. A thread of blood trickled from the corner of his eye and the healer lowered the bandage again to catch it.

Ikeda grew conscious of his father's gaze, waiting for his reaction, but a mixture of horror and panic had numbed his body. This was wrong. Something was so wrong with Kaezik, Ikeda couldn't even comprehend it. He had no words capable of describing his terror.

"What-" Shanza spoke for him, voice raw. "What causes that?"

"We don't know. No one's seen it before."

A dull anger scraped at Ikeda. "Why can't you heal him?"

"It hurts him when we try. If I touch him with my bare skin there's an extreme negative reaction. I won't do it again."

Then what good are you, Ikeda wanted to snarl, but his voice knotted in his throat.

"Is it the same with all healers?" Shanza asked.

"Yes. We stopped trying after the same result with three different healers."

"What about other-" There were other kinds of healers, those without the Gift, who used poultices and tonics and herbs and even prayers. Surely there were alternatives, other methods they could try.

"Nothing works," Hakida said with a tiredness weighed by defeat. "We've tried everything, consulted every medicus and physician and apothecary. I can't let them poke at him anymore. Not when it doesn't even do any good."

"So you're giving up?" Ikeda bruised his clenched fists into the strained muscle of his thighs. "Shoving your head in the sand and hoping it will solve itself, like you always do?"

Anger had eclipsed Ikeda's ability to restrain himself. When rumours had spread attacking Kaezik's legitimacy, who had defended him then? Hakida had put up a token resistance but he'd been no real use, cajoling his peers to end it instead of threatening them as Ikeda had, first with words and then with his sword. Kaezik's protection had always fallen to Ikeda and he had been glad to do it, although Hakida's apparent resignation now goaded him. Ikeda wondered with a sick twist of guilt: if he lay in that bed instead of Kaezik, would Hakida have tried harder? Hakida had never put Kaezik first and now Ikeda was supposed to rely on him?

"Ikeda. That's not fair," Hakida sighed.

Fury burned through Ikeda and he had to bite his lip to keep from snarling more cruel words. "I won't sit here and watch him die."

Hakida's pitying frown sent such a flush of resentment through him that Ikeda almost lurched forward to strike him, a fire crackling through his blood. Only Shanza's hand on his shoulder kept him grounded, as if the contact leashed the blind panic within him. Exhaling, Ikeda sought to purge the mire of his emotions before he did something he'd later regret. He turned to his brother's still face.

"Kaezik," Ikeda pleaded. "Kaezik you have to fight." He cupped Kaezik's cool cheek, traced his thumb over the sweep of his temple.

Kaezik stirred. His lips cracked open and formed one word without sound, "Ikeda?"

Ikeda's heart split beneath his ribs. He couldn't speak. Kaezik's hand rose, a faltering search, and Ikeda caught it between both his palms.

"I'm here."

Kaezik's fingers twitched in his grasp. He spoke in a ghost's voice, inaudible, all air with no strength to carry it. "I'm all right."

Ikeda's throat twisted and closed. His eyes burned in the room's dimness and he had to exert all his control to not crush the limp hand he cradled.

"Shanza?" Kaezik asked.

"I'm here too."

Shanza's nails pinched into Ikeda's shoulder with such force it wouldn't have surprised him if they'd drawn blood, yet the pain of it pinned him in his body, quelled the spiral of fear and anger and anguish throbbing through him. Calm. He had to stay calm.

The bedcovers shivered as Kaezik shifted toward's Shanza's voice. "I… want to ask…"

Kaezik paused, breath rasping out his lungs, gathered his strength.

"You can ask anything," Shanza said, his tone soft like a balm, so soothing Ikeda wanted to bury into the sweet curve between his neck and never leave. With a little furrow in his brow that Ikeda knew meant he was struggling not to frown, Shanza bent over Kaezik and reached down to brush his fringe from where it clung with sweat to his forehead.

The moment Shanza's fingertips grazed Kaezik's skin a crack like the collision of two mountains ripped through the room, followed by a shockwave that shattered all the glass in the windows. Every ceramic dish and vessel exploded into clouds of white powder. Hakida tumbled to the floor, knocked over by the pulse of air like a blow. The thrum from the blast resonated like a drum, so powerful Ikeda felt it vibrate in his teeth.

All of this circled within Ikeda's awareness but he was detached from it because he was watching Shanza and Shanza's head had snapped back like something had severed his spine. He dropped so suddenly it seemed every bone in his body had disintegrated.

Ikeda lunged, snagged him before he struck his head. Shanza lolled in his arms, unresponsive, a tangle of long limbs. Struggling with his dead weight, Ikeda lowered him to the floor, laid him flat, his hair spilling in a gold puddle beneath his white face while his eyes fluttered beneath closed lids.

"Shanza," Ikeda said, both hands cushioning his head. Shanza gave no reaction.

Kaezik moaned from the bed and Ikeda glanced up to see the healer securing the bandage, wiping a fresh flow of blood from his nose and eyes. The healer murmured to him and Kaezik fell silent, slipping into sleep. Ikeda looked back to Shanza, a tearing shredding through his chest.

Shanza hadn't roused. Ikeda scanned him for injury and to ensure he lay flat, that he would be comfortable, and with a jolt he realized the Serpent marking on Shanza's forearm glowed with a molten light, lit from within like a trail of red-gold magma. It stung hot to the touch. Ikeda pulled at the neck of Shanza's tunic and saw that the markings on his chest also glowed with the same strange inner fire.

The healer crouched next to him, peeled his gloves off, and slid his bare fingers against Shanza's temples. His gaze lost focus, seemed to fog, his pupils dilated so wide they swallowed the amber of his irises then with a sigh he withdrew and blinked at Ikeda.

"What happened? What's wrong with him?" Had Kaezik's affliction spread to Shanza somehow?

"He's unconscious. I didn't think this would happen. He's not a healer. I don't understand, that's the worst reaction we've seen."

"Is it the Gift?" Hakida asked.

"I don't know. It doesn't make sense."

"Can't you heal him?" Ikeda gritted, Shanza's stillness a winch tightening around his lungs, barely allayed by the strong thud of Shanza's pulse. Kneeling next to his motionless body, Ikeda pressed his brow to Shanza's to disguise the desolation that thudded into him. Don't do this to me.

They had only just found their balance together. Since their wedding they had tumbled from one ordeal to another and now Kaezik and now this. Would they never have peace? And if not peace then at least a problem Ikeda could solve with his sword instead of wrestling with these intangible powers and magical forces and mysterious ailments in which Ikeda found himself completely helpless. He could not bear it.

"Shanza," Ikeda begged, a whisper into his skin.

Breath puffed against Ikeda's mouth, the even exhalations of deep sleep. Otherwise Shanza didn't stir and Ikeda rocked back, scowling, his hands curled into impotent fists. A terrible anger unfurled inside him. He would burst. "Heal him!"

"I can't heal him. He's not hurt, I don't think. He's just lost consciousness."

Ikeda glared at the healer. "Then wake him up!"

"That's unwise. He's had a shock."

With the last shreds of his self-control Ikeda restrained the urge to shout at the healer that he was utterly useless. Instead he lifted Shanza from the floor, his legs spilling over one arm and his head tucked into the hollow of Ikeda's neck. He looked to Kaezik, pale and still, the bandage secured over his eyes again and then he carried Shanza to the door.

"What can I do?" Hakida followed him out.

"Find his guards and bring them."

Ikeda went to the chambers he'd occupied all his life until the move to Nera and found them undisturbed. They'd remained exactly as he'd left them. The broad bed against the far wall, flanked by furniture carved from dark wood that gleamed with red undertones. Light flooded through the arched windows and refracted off the paintings of mountains he'd commissioned himself. As a boy this room had boasted fine dragon engravings and decorations in the traditional Thanobian style, but he'd had them removed after returning from the first dragon attack.

He carried Shanza over the threshold and a memory of their first night together washed over him. He'd forgotten, but it had been in this very room. He remembered Shanza standing at the side of the bed, his hair a cascade of curls after he'd released them from their ornamental braids, a loose night-robe clinging to the long, lean lines of his body. He'd looked at Ikeda with his wide green eyes, the fear in his face a reflection of Ikeda's own.

An eerie sensation of displacement fractured within him and he grasped Shanza tighter for a moment before settling him on the bed. He stroked Shanza's hair and sat beside him. He wanted to stay with Kaezik but he didn't dare leave Shanza alone until he knew he'd wake. The realization that he'd effectively chosen Shanza over Kaezik pierced him, the image of his brother lying wan and motionless and in pain a corrosive burn in his gut. He felt torn, stretched to the limit, as if two chains hooked into his flesh wrenched him in different directions, splitting him with his own guilt.

Shanza sighed into the silence and Ikeda gazed down at him. The glowing markings had begun to fade and yet as he held Shanza the burning churn deep in his belly intensified, his nerves so raw Ikeda worried he would be sick.

The door burst open behind him and Shumba strode in, breathing hard. On pain of torture Ikeda would not have admitted the reassurance he felt when the guard entered. Shumba cared deeply for Shanza and he had proven his skill as a healer time and again. Surely he could help.

"Lord Keftalar said the Serpent touched Kaezik and then fell unconscious," Shumba said in a rush, crossing the room to bend over Shanza.

"Yes. No one seems to understand why or what happened."

"The why is because he always finds trouble," Shumba muttered. He braced both hands on Shanza's shoulders and called in a clear firm voice, "Serpent!"

Shanza didn't so much as twitch. Ikeda hoped Shumba had other strategies than yelling at him. "He's completely unresponsive."

"We'll see." Shumba slid his hands up to frame Shanza's face, the gold web draped between his fingers, and closed his eyes. Shanza's breath hitched and Shumba frowned. His eyes remained closed and his brown furrowed in concentration as Ikeda watched. "It's… it's almost like there's something there, in his subconscious. A weight. It's hard to describe. But it feels like… a presence."

"A presence?" Incredulity and alarm warred within Ikeda.

Sweat beaded Shumba's forehead as he focused. His hands, tanned from the desert of Methron, had blanched as bloodless white as Shanza's face. When he spoke the words seemed to drift out of him, flat and trance-like, "it's dark and cold, black, like the deep ocean. Like drowning."

Ikeda's heart lurched. "Wake him up."

A tremor threaded through Shumba's hands and the pallor travelled up his forearms but he didn't relent, seemed to push through whatever fought him, the furrow in his brow spreading to twist his expression into a wince of discomfort. He exhaled, a sharp crack of breath, and then both he and Shanza gasped and broke apart.

Shanza shifted up onto his elbows and blinked groggy eyes at them. Ikeda stared back, his pulse thundering. Shanza looked like himself. Confused, but himself. Relief crashed into Ikeda like a fall off a cliff.

"What happened?" Shanza slurred.

Relief so overwhelmed Ikeda he couldn't speak. Next to him Shumba rubbed at his arms and as his tan began to reappear Ikeda realized he had gone white from chill.

"My head," Shanza said, kneading his brow, then seemed to forget the rest of his sentence. Pain stiffened every muscle in his body and he hunched in on himself. "My mouth tastes like salt."

Shumba went to a side table, poured a glass of wine, and brought it back to Shanza, who downed it in one gulp. It seemed to revive him and he sat up. He offered a weak smile and when he returned Ikeda's fixed stare his eyes were bruised as if he'd gone without sleep for days. "I had such a strange dream. So much fire. What happened?"

"What do you remember?"

"It's all a muddle. We were in- oh, Kaezik! Is he all right?"

Kaezik was not all right but that had nothing to do with Shanza. "He's the same."

"I'm sorry." Shanza squeezed Ikeda's hand. "I touched him and then-"

All the colour that had returned to Shanza's face bled out in a rush and he lunged off the bed, collapsed to his knees before Shumba or Ikeda could react, and vomited clear water onto the floor. A heartbeat of silence and then Ikeda and Shumba both scrambled after him. Shanza cringed away and heaved another mouthful of water.

Ikeda shouted at Shumba to do something. Wasn't he supposed to be a healer? Yet he stood frozen, gawking at Shanza in the same slack-jawed horror as Ikeda. Shanza had just drank a glass of wine but everything that come up was clear. The faint tang of salt filled the room.

Shanza waved them off. He leaned against the bed, still kneeling on the floor, and clutched his stomach. His hair stuck to his skin, clinging with sweat.

"No, I'm fine. I'm fine."

Ikeda tucked Shanza's hair back and had to fight with himself to still the shaking of his hands. "Shanza that was not fine."

Shumba dropped a towel over the spill of water on the floor and handed a damp cloth to Shanza without comment. Shanza pressed his face into it, the rigid tension seeping out of his shoulders. When he lowered the cloth Shumba crouched in front of him, expression grave, while Shanza stared back at him. Black shadows sank beneath his eyes while his face was so pale his veins were visible in a blue web under the surface of his skin. Ikeda gritted his teeth against the urge to snarl at Shumba. Why wasn't he healing Shanza?

"What happened?" Shumba said, so quiet the words melted into the hush of the room.

"I don't remember."

Ikeda knew it for a lie immediately. He didn't know how but it struck him, discordant, like a wrong note. He frowned. Maybe Shanza was afraid to provoke another nauseating reaction, though it wasn't like him to shy away in fright, at least not anymore. Maybe he simply felt too unwell to talk about it.

"Heal him," Ikeda growled.

"I can't. He's not hurt."

"He's sick."

"He's not," Shumba said.

Shanza agreed. "I'm fine."

"You are not fine. Kaezik is not fine. Nothing is fine." Anger scorched through Ikeda, spotted his vision with a red mist because everything was wrong and broken and crumbling apart and it was not fine.

Still kneeling, Shanza turned to Ikeda. He slid his hands up Ikeda's knees, ran them over his thighs, his touch warm through the leather of Ikeda's trousers. He twined their fingers together and Ikeda studied their joined hands.

"Shumba, could you leave us for a minute?"

Ikeda twitched in Shanza's hold and snapped, "no, you will not leave. You will stay and you will heal him."

"He doesn't answer to you," Shanza said with a core of steel that reassured Ikeda even though he wanted to squirm with annoyance that Shanza had overruled him. "Shumba."

Shumba left.

"I'm sorry I frightened you. But I'm fine. I am." Ikeda scoffed and Shanza rose in a smooth glide, slipping free from Ikeda's grasp. He stood over him, somber in his plain grey traveling tunic, the evira glinting beneath the long sleeves that wrapped his wrists. Shanza rubbed his thumbs over the big gems set against his palms. Kaezik had gifted them to him; did Shanza think of him now, too?

Shanza gazed out the windows that lined the wall opposite him. "Something is very wrong with Kaezik. When I touched him, the Gift… it was like it exploded. All of this is just backlash."

"Why?" Ikeda croaked. The bed dipped when Shanza sat beside him, so close their thighs pressed together from hip to knee. Ikeda leaned into Shanza.

"I don't know. I'm sorry. But I want you to go be with him. I can tell it's tearing you apart to be away. I'm just tired. I'll sleep and then I'll join you."



Ikeda struggled to find words for his fear. "I don't want you near him."

Shanza's cheeks pinked and Ikeda recognized the flat set of his mouth. It was an expression that often preceded an indignant lecture. "I would never put Kaezik in danger and if you think I'd harm him even unintentionally-"

Ikeda cut in when Shanza drew breath to continue. "I don't know what happened but it hurt you. Whatever afflicts Kaezik, it's a danger to you. And Shanza I can't. If both of you…"

If he lost both Kaezik and Shanza he would not survive it. If Shanza fell ill like Kaezik, if they were both struck with this strange sickness, it would push him beyond his already stretched limits. He knew he wasn't an easy man to love yet through some miracle of luck and fate he had been gifted the affection of his little brother, a paragon of all that was good, and Shanza, the light of his life.

"I'll be fine," Shanza said. "I care for Kaezik, too. It's not fair of you to ask me not to see him."

"I don't care about fair."

Shanza gave Ikeda an unimpressed look heavy with exhaustion and it said for him that he didn't agree but he also didn't want to fight. "Go see your brother."

Ikeda yearned to return to Kaezik like an itch in his marrow. The sight of his brother, so ill and helpless, surrounded by keepers who had given up, cored him. He couldn't trust anyone else to help Kaezik. As he thought on this, the tearing sensation inside him amplifying, Ikeda studied Shanza. He did seem recovered as he was not only standing and talking but also bossing Ikeda around.

"All right," Ikeda sighed. "You'll stay here?"

"I'm not going to stay in this room like a little bird in a cage." Shanza pulled Ikeda up and pushed him towards the door. "Though I do promise to stay out of trouble."

"I wish you hadn't said that," Ikeda protested, but Shanza had already closed the door behind him.

"Hurry," Shanza said.

Shumba rolled his eyes and stamped his foot into the boot Shanza had tossed at him. At Shanza's insistence he'd traded his distinctive red armour for a leather jerkin and dark garb in inconspicuous hues and for his part Shanza had kept his grey tunic and trousers and wrapped a cowled cloak over his head. He wrung his hands as he waited for Shumba, his evira hidden beneath a pair of gloves.

"Why don't you just summon her here?" Shumba asked.

The knowledge that Kaezik lay stricken in a room in this maze of a manor wore at Shanza like a sore spot in a tooth, a background noise that wouldn't let him focus. He thought of Ikeda sitting at Kaezik's beside and it made his head ache. Shanza paced, willing Shumba to hurry up.

"I want to go out." He wanted to slip through the streets like a shadow, unrecognized, causing no trouble, like he'd promised. "Did you see Kaezik?"

"Not yet."

"The Gift hurts him. Have you ever heard of that?"

Shumba stopped fidgeting with the fastenings to his belt. "… no. Serpent, what happened earlier?"

"I told you I don't remember." Even skirting the memory made Shanza shiver and he shied away from it. If he wasn't careful and his thoughts drifted they circled it like a sinkhole, spiralling around the darkness that had swallowed him.

Something had surged out of Kaezik when he'd touched him, thrust Shanza into a world engulfed in flames. Fire had ripped through him with a heat so intense he'd felt his body tear apart and pain had eaten all sensation until the shock of collapse into black water, cold like a tomb, pressing down-

Shanza slapped his hand on the polished wood of a side table so hard the impact drove the evira's gem into his palm and sent prickles up his arm. He blinked out of the daze that threatened to suck him back into that vortex of fire. He realized he was sweating and scrubbed at his brow.

Whirling to harry Shumba, Shanza jerked away when he found the guard standing next to him. He had no recollection of Shumba crossing the room. Shumba levelled him with a worried look, which Shanza ignored. He rallied himself, hoping Shumba wouldn't push his cracked composure. "Let's go."

Shanza left Erakil to watch over Ikeda and then he and Shumba rode their horses past the stone walls of Arcanus' wealthy estates, through the markets and squares that had emptied with the approaching nightfall and into the clapboard homes piled and stacked against each other near the port. Hakida had given him instructions and on a slope above the curve of the inlet below, Shanza found his destination.

A burst of noise spat into the street when the Inn's door opened to belch out a group of drunk sailors. One of them nearly staggered into Shanza but Shumba hooked a discrete foot around his ankle and the man toppled into the mud. Shanza stepped over him into the warmth of the Inn.

He wove through the tables scattered over the ground floor, the music jangling from a far corner hardly distinguishable under voices raised so loud they slapped into him with a physical presence. Shanza followed the staircase to a hallway flanked with doors, counted five to his left and then he rapped the sixth with his fist, the heavy gem set into his palm giving the knocks a depth of sound that reflected his urgency.

Zethus opened the door.

He rocked backwards when he recognized Shanza, so disarmed it would have been comical under different circumstances. Pulling the cowl away, Shanza strode past Zethus before he had a chance to decide between inviting him inside or closing the door in his face, Shumba trailing behind him with an apologetic shrug to Zethus that Shanza caught out of the corner of his vision.

The room opened into a surprisingly spacious chamber with a broad set of double doors that lead out onto a balcony. Shanza swept through the open doorway and there sat Dezra, staring at the beach below. She didn't look at Shanza as he pulled up a chair beside her.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Shanza frowned at her. "The entire voyage from Penira and you didn't say anything."

"What do you mean?" Zethus had followed Shanza and he stood hesitating beneath the lintel, the light from the room flooding out, reducing him to a dark silhouette.

Dezra dropped her face into her hands and shuddered. She knew perfectly well what Shanza meant. After a few moments she heaved a long breath and resumed staring at the ocean, the dark expanse of it melting into the night's black horizon. "It wouldn't have changed anything. There was no point bringing it up."

"What are you talking about?" Shumba pushed past Zethus onto the balcony. Shanza's heart lurched at the confusion and growing trepidation that had crept over Shumba's expression. He'd brought Shumba because this concerned him too and yet the last thing he wanted to do was to hurt him. Shanza had a mounting suspicion it would be painful.

"Riga," Shanza said.

"What about him?"

"He should be here. He would be here." Shanza curled a hand over Dezra's arm, gentle now, coaxing. "What happened to him, Dezra?"

Dezra still wouldn't look at him. She turned away and the tears on her cheeks shone wet in the moonlight. "How did you know?"

"He would be here if he could. He would be with Kaezik, especially now. What happened?"

Dezra swallowed and refused to turn towards him and then like a split sail she crumpled. "They took him. Those bastard Slavers. They sold him to that warlord in the North and we were too late. I'll never get him back."

"He's in Armada?" Shanza didn't understand. What interest would they have in one pirate boy?

"Yes. The new bighead in Cathand, that cretin Creathe Althust, he made some arrangement with the king." Dezra slapped her fist into her knee with a dull thunk.

"Elnath Antranig wanted Riga?" A hot swoop of alarm dropped through Shanza's stomach and then he remembered Amenra, that villainous Gifted enemy of Ikeda, had also captured Riga for a time. "Why?"

In the periphery of his line of sight Shanza saw Dezra and Shumba glance uneasily at each other and he shadowed it with a half-lidded glare of his own. He knew Shumba and Riga shared a history. Shumba had told him how he'd escaped the Purge in Namucura as a boy and how Riga had fled with him, along with a group of children and for a time Shumba had helped and cared for him. Whatever Dezra didn't want to admit to him was no secret from Shumba.

Shanza considered that. Riga didn't have the Gift. He had sensed no power in him when they'd met. And yet there was something about him, something that convinced others he did have the Gift and now this, captured by Elnath Antranig, the warmongering creep Shanza had hoped never to see again. He shuddered.

"Why?" Shanza asked Shumba, suspecting he had a better chance of eliciting an honest answer from him than from Dezra.

"It's not his fault. He can't control it-"

"Shumba!" Dezra snapped, interrupting him. Shumba opened his mouth to continue and Dezra shot to her feet, jaw clenched, every muscle in her body coiled as if she would lunge at him. Raising both hands, Shumba took a wary half-step back.

Shanza blinked between them. "Why is it a secret?"

"It's not a secret," Shumba said.

"Because there's nothing to tell." Dezra glowered at him.


In the darkness further down the harbour a bell began to toll, wailing a dissonant warning up the beach. Spots of light glowed to life like a swarm of fireflies all along the wharf, doors and windows opening, people spilling out, their shouts drowned by the clanging of the bell.

Zethus, who had remained in the doorway watching, jerked and lunged to the balcony's edge, the clap of his boots a staccato beat that cut the silence. He leaned over the bannister, pointing out past the docks. "What's that?"

Shanza joined Zethus at the railing and he peered into the sucking black of the horizon.

"Fireships," Dezra breathed.

Shanza saw them now. Three points of blazing white at the mouth of the inlet, the wind ferrying them fast towards the hundred ships sheltering in the harbour, their masts a forest of stripped timber that stretched out from the waterfront, many anchored so close together it would only take a single leap to cross from deck to deck. If one caught fire the rest would surely light like kindling.

"Gods," Shumba said.

Without another word Dezra tore away from the balcony, darted through the room and crashed out the door. While Shanza frowned after her, Zethus strode back inside, pulled on a leather jerkin stiff with armoured slats down the chest and buckled his sword to his belt, all of it with a speed that should have made him clumsy but instead reminded Shanza that Zethus had spent a lifetime fighting. What he thought he would do with his sword and armour against fire Shanza didn't know, though it seemed unkind to ask. Casting a last look at the harbour, the fireships now three distinct beacons, each burning as bright as a sun, Shanza approached Zethus.

"Her ship is still docked down there," Zethus said, ushering Shanza into the hallway.

Shanza faltered. Of course. How stupid of him. If Dezra's ship burned, her home and all she had would be destroyed. "What can we do?"

Zethus shook his head. "I don't know."

They found Dezra on the main floor, shouting at the scatter of crew members that had assembled, her red hair whipping around her head like its own small flame. "Get buckets and blankets and oars, anything that can brace!"

She turned to Shanza, nearly shaking with frantic energy. "The Lady's all I have left. I can't lose her."

"We'll help," Shanza said. He wasn't sure how exactly but he wanted to try.

Dezra embraced him with blistering force, crushing his ribs, then released him so suddenly Shanza was still reeling when she cupped his face. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you about Riga. I couldn't."

She finally met his gaze and the agony in it struck him like a blow. The chaos around them faded, Dezra's cold hands bracketed his jaw, and a dark pit yawned open within Shanza's chest. He teetered at the edge of it, trapped inside himself. The sound of rushing water filled his ears and he sank.

A sharp crack and a stinging in his cheek knocked him out of it. Shanza rubbed his face. Dezra had slapped him.

"Serpent?" Shumba's hand gripped his shoulder.

Shanza shook free and staggered out into the humid smothering press of the night. He breathed deep, ignored by the flow of people hurrying past him as if he was no more than a rock in a stream, the bell crashing in the distance like waves breaking on the shore. An alien sensation had simmered under his skin since he touched Kaezik, almost as if it had awoken something in him, left a restless energy in its wake. He didn't know what had come over him and he wasn't going to dwell on it. He was fine.

Composing himself, Shanza searched for his horse only to find the Inn's stable empty. He groaned. He had promised to stay out of trouble and now he would have to explain to Hakida— and worse, to Ikeda— that he had slipped out in the night and let thieves make off with two of the Keftalars' horses. He was still staring at the open stalls in dismay when Shumba caught up to him.

"Bastards." Shumba surveyed the deserted stable and spat. "Zethus and Dezra are headed for the beach. Are you all right?"

They didn't have time to worry over horses or Shanza's lapses into… whatever it was that seemed to have afflicted him. Shanza scrubbed at his face. "I'm fine. Do you remember where they anchored the Lady?"

Shumba did remember. They wove past the crowd of sailors and soldiers and townsfolk all flooding towards the docks and had to pry their way onto the pier where Shanza could hear Dezra's voice booming orders before he glimpsed her at the end, pushing members of her crew into a boat. Shanza elbowed through the crush of bodies, felt a swelling under his skin like he would split at the seams, unsure if it was caused by the claustrophobia of the dock or the Gift growling inside himself.

When he reached the edge of the pier Shanza saw the fireships again, so close they filled his vision, three spires of flame like mountains, pouring heat so intense it warmed Shanza's face. Shanza shuddered as the warmth seemed to slither down his spine, barely aware of Zethus and Shumba behind him, shoving the throng back.

Dezra squinted, a hand raised to shield against the glare from the blazing fireships. "Those are pirate ships. I recognize them."

"Why would pirates attack Arcanus, destroy their own ships?" Shumba asked. Beside him, Zethus had picked up an oar somewhere and he was using it to clear space.

Shanza studied the ships with growing trepidation. Surely the crews would have fled after setting the ships on fire? But why attack at all? Without their ships the pirates had nothing. No home, no livelihood. Shumba was right. None of it made sense.

Then, through the flames, Shanza glimpsed them. Charred bodies hung from the burning masts and rigging, dozens of them, swinging, blackened shapes. All his breath gusted out of him. "Who would-"

Dezra spotted them in the same moment and with a fury he didn't understand she whirled on Shumba. "He wouldn't!"

Shumba hadn't said anything but instead of defending himself he yelled back. "He can't control it! Who knows what they've done to him!"

"Anyone can set fire to ships and point them at a port! It doesn't mean anything!"

Shanza knew the words were important and though he tried he couldn't focus on them, his concentration skidding. Confusion bled into a curious disembodied detachment. Pressure filled his chest, shoving the air from his lungs and crowding his mind. Every fibre of his being strained and stretched, as if the Gift would expand out of his skin and leave him shattered into a thousand pieces.

He staggered, his head throbbing. Hands reached for him and he swatted at them, blind. Voices blared and then dimmed.

"Why is he glowing?"

"This happened before, when he— Serpent! Catch him!"

The smell of smoke and ocean suffused him. Roused a memory of fire and water and with it a spike of energy thrummed in his veins. He raised his arms and with a dulled concern noticed the serpent marking glowed gold through the fabric of his sleeve. He scrubbed at it but the glow remained. Strange.

He felt so hot. He would surely burst into flames, like the ships. Fireships. He remembered now. They were a problem. He was a problem, too. He had promised to stay out of trouble and now this. But he hadn't caused it. Had he? No. He had wanted to help. Ikeda would be so mad. Shanza hadn't meant for that to happen but it was all connected, he just couldn't find the thread that bound it together. Kaezik. The fire. His volatile Gift. Riga.

His head pounded with thunder. He couldn't think. Bile clawed up his throat. He wanted to dive into the cold dark water so close below him, escape the heat and the ache between his temples but something grasped the back of his tunic and wouldn't let him. He struggled weakly against it and when tugging got him nowhere he sent a pulse of raw power blasting out.

He'd only intended to nudge whatever held him back but the Gift exploded out of him, knocking everything within a fifty foot radius over, rattling the surrounding boats and chasing waves through the water around him. Shanza swayed and dropped to one knee.

The ocean should have locked the Gift inside him, suppressed and drowned it. Always he had feared the sea because it muffled his strength, left him helpless. Instead his power swelled and quivered, anxious for release, for freedom, restless with a hunger so savage he feared he would devour all the world. Through the conflagration of his Gift churning inside the flimsy cage of his willpower the water called to him, a siren's crooning to his soul.

He looked at the fireships and thought, unbidden: that is a problem I can solve.

The Gift convulsed with a wild joy, sensing his surrender, and when Shanza released his hold it erupted out of him, a detonation, spreading with such force the two nearest ships blew apart. Like a house of cards collapsing their planks split and shredded and spun into the chopping waves. Lightening knifed down into the sea beyond the fireships and lit the night with flashes of white light.

And then.

And then sleek pale bodies slipped beneath the water's surface, circling the fireships, silver scales glinting, reflecting the distant face of the moon.

The nearest fireship careened towards a fat Thanobian merchant barge, so close the heat of its flames singed Shanza's lashes. Shanza had no strength left even to stand. Slumped on his knees he watched as an immense serpent surged up out of the sea and enveloped the fireship, its massive body cracking the hull like a spine. The ship's deck buckled, bow and stern snapping together like the beak of some submerged monster, and then the serpent dove down, pulling the ship beneath the waves.

Sea-serpents swarmed the two remaining fireships, flames licking at their slick supine forms as they coiled around the hulls and dragged them to the sea bed. The ocean closed over them as if the harbour had opened its great maw and swallowed the ships whole. The sea boiled and frothed and shards of timber bobbed up from the deep, littering the surface with a clot of debris.

Silence. The silence of a thousand shocked spectators. Even the ragged seething of the water stilled. Shanza was hollowed out. He dropped and would have fallen off the pier if Shumba hadn't lunged and snatched him. He searched for the sea-serpents but they had gone.

Shumba hauled him back, Shanza a deadweight collapsed across him. He couldn't move his limbs. He could scarcely feel them. Exhaustion wrapped him in cloud of wool, numbed all sensation.

With his arms still clamped around Shanza's chest, Shumba gasped into his ear. "What- what was that? How did you do that?"

Shanza struggled to form words, his lips sealed together. Finally he croaked, his voice a thin whisper, "did you see… the sea-serpents?"

They were magnificent. Monstrous and graceful at once, both dreadful and beautiful, elusive beings of myths and legends. To see them in the flesh, that they had answered his call… Shanza stared at the rippling sea, longed to glimpse them one last time.

"Sea-serpents? Is that what you saw?" Zethus crouched beside him. Shanza lacked the energy even to turn to look at him.

Shumba sat behind him, arranging Shanza's unresponsive body into a more comfortable position while Shanza fumbled to help, his arms like flopping ropes of kelp that wouldn't obey him. "There were no serpents. It was just water, all water. All you. You shouldn't have been able to command the sea like that. How did you do it?"

Shanza attempted to shake his head and instead it flopped back against Shumba's shoulder. He knew what he'd witnessed. The sea-serpents were real. He wished Ikeda had seen them.



It took almost all the effort he could spare to rasp out a plea. "Don't tell Ikeda about this."

"Oh, sure, because you compelling the sea to destroy attacking fireships in front of half the population of Arcanus is something we can keep a secret."

Now that Shanza reflected on that request, Shumba was probably right. Shanza groaned. Maybe if they hurried back he could pretend he'd never left and the sea-serpents had appeared and swallowed the fireships all of their own volition. A true miracle.

Dezra knelt before Shanza and took his slack hands in her own. Shanza blinked at her. He wanted to ask Dezra what she and Shumba had argued about before, if she thought Riga had something to do with the fireships. He couldn't fathom a connection. But when he opened his mouth to speak all that came out was a sigh, the last of his strength draining out of him.

"Thank you," Dezra said. She squeezed his fingers. "I don't know how you did that and I don't care. You saved my ship."

He tried to muster a smile for her but he was too tired. He could feel the black depths of unconsciousness clawing at the edges of his vision and he yearned to embrace it. Exhaustion gripped him so tightly it hurt to breathe. He was going to be in so much trouble when he woke up.

Worth it, though. Saving the ships, seeing the sea-serpents, and better than both of those, he'd had an epiphany. He was pretty sure he knew what was wrong with Kaezik.

Hello my dears we are back for another chapter! Thank you for reading. This chapter introduces the final arc, Part 5: War.

This arc has all my favourite story bits that I have been looking forward to for… 10 years? We are going to have lots of action and drama! Woohoo I am excited for it.