The entire room went silent as the Porter's words hung in the air. The second Weirborn of many ages. The fact that one Weirborn was still alive was unbelievable enough, but two?
My thief. I still couldn't believe what I was seeing. He looked so different than the good-hearted man I knew, but there could be no doubt – it was him. Dressed the Southern Kingdom's colours of deep Emerald greens and his hands in his pockets, a lazy smirk on his pock-marked face. Looking across the room, he saw me staring and gave a quick wink before following behind the King Jeroen down the marble staircase. As soon as he turned away, the spell broke, and chatter erupted in the ballroom.
He was a Weirborn?
The world seemed to spin as I tried to reconcile this new piece of information. Fynn was my thief, he'd saved my life – he was from North, but he was Champion for the South – he was Weirborn. This wasn't right. It wasn't possible.
Nax had already crossed the room toward us, stopping on Katar's other side and speaking in hushed tones I couldn't hear over the din. I didn't need to. Nax was asking Katar if this new man really was a Weirborn. And by the pale, stunned expression on Katar's face, I knew the answer before he nodded. Nax met my bewildered gaze, his own eyes clouded with concern, then said something else to Katar.
Before I could say or do anything, though, King Elroy's voice boomed, and the room went quiet to listen, "Welcome guests! It seems we are truly honoured to have two legendary warriors of the Weir race in our midst this evening," Something in his voice told me he was not so pleased about the second legendary warrior turning up. He continued, "Now that we are all here, let the ball commence!"
Applause. Even as the King spoke I kept my eyes on Nax, who gave me a tiny nod, then disappeared into the sea of colours. Gone to deal with this issue, but how he would do that I couldn't say. I tried to take a few steps back toward the wall (hoping, however hopelessly, that this would make me less visible), but Katar took my arm, muttering to me, "King Elroy will start the first dance, and you will be his partner."
I almost choked, "What?!"
Before he could say anything else, the crowd was parting in front of me as King Elroy strode across the room. The musicians stood at the ready as he reached me. He gave me a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes, and bowed, "Lady Kamryn, may I have the honour of this first dance?"
I would've chosen to face the entire Southern Army blindfolded and unarmed in that moment rather than agree, but somehow I forced myself to nod, and take his outstretched hand. While the crowd applauded politely, I allowed him to lead me to the middle of the dance floor.
The other guests became a wall of bright colour all around us. All of a sudden, I found myself hating them, hating everything about this place. I truly felt like a dragon in chains, being forced to prance about for their entertainment. An image popped into my head of the whole room burning, and for a sickening moment, I enjoyed the thought. Then I caught Katar's eyes, and the anger fizzled out. Not tonight, I told myself, but maybe someday.
I'd never danced before, having adamantly refused the King's offers for lessons. Well, once, on that drunken evening with Nax at the Southern Kingdom's inn, but this couldn't have been further from that night.
Right on cue, the musicians began playing as Elroy wrapped an arm around my waist, and my hand found his shoulder (rather late, I might add). He led me around the floor in a Waltz, and whatever nerves I had about embarrassing myself faded. He was an excellent dancer, and he compensated for my mistakes, hiding them in his own movements.
As other nobles began to join in the dance, he looked down, giving me a genuine look of concern, "Are you alright?"
"Alright as I can be, I suppose," I said, tripping over the hem of my skirt.
"You're doing well. Try to look a little less like you're in pain."
I rolled my eyes, "Dancing is my last concern. The South has another Weirborn, and—" And I know him. And I trusted him. And he saved the people of Riverside from his own King. And he said he was from the North. So many questions filled my head I thought I might be sick. Finally I managed to get out, "So what do we do now?"
He lead me around the floor again, turning this way and that with the music, "We continue on as we were. We declared the challenge, and the South answered. It makes no difference if their Champion is a Weirborn or part fish."
"It makes a difference to the one their Champion fights!" I snarled. My head started reeling. I would have to fight Fynn. The thought hadn't truly meant anything until now. I would have to kill him.
"You're right, I apologize. It is a bit of a shock to all of us…try not to worry about it tonight. You are safe here, and you will be safe in the ring. We are all with you," he said with a smile, but I couldn't quite believe him.
The song ended, and the crowd gave polite applause. King Elroy bowed to me, and I gave a curtsy back. He muttered to me quietly, "Honestly, I would prefer to dance with you all evening, but politically, I must visit with certain guests. But I imagine you won't have any difficulty finding another partner."
He gave me a slight wink before turning away. Clutching my skirts, I hurried off the dance floor, ignoring the offered hands stretching toward me, and back to Katar, who was looking rather sick. I grabbed his elbow, steadying him, "Are you alright?"
"Yes," he panted, sweat beading on his skin, "Just a little overwhelmed. Could you help me out to the balcony?"
Much to the dismay of several men who had hoped to ask me to dance, I steered him out of the room and out onto the adjoining balcony, which was half the size of the ballroom itself, looking out over the castle garden. The scent of the flowers was carried on the wind. Clusters of people milled about the balcony, talking and laughing, but it was far less crowded, and the cool breeze was blissful.
I sat Katar on a bench by the balcony edge, taking a seat next to him. Gavrel had followed us out, and stood a few paces away, out of earshot, watching silently. If I didn't know any better I might've said there was a concerned look on his face.
Katar had his eyes closed, taking in slow, deep breaths. I watched the way his eyelids flickered, "Are you okay?"
"I will be," he answered, the sweat slowly drying, "It's just a bit much in there."
"It's a bit much for anyone, I don't know how you're managing so well," I bristled.
A weary smile tugged at his lips, but he didn't respond. We allowed the quiet to settle over us while the dances continued, the sound of a hundred voices ringing. Finally, I stated the issue weighing on my mind, "So that man is a Weirborn." It wasn't a question.
Katar, eyes still closed, nodded, "Your soul is stronger, if that helps."
"A strong soul won't help me much against a sword," I muttered grouchily, but the thought did make me feel a bit better.
We stayed there for a little while, each lost in their own thoughts. The stars were just beginning to shine as the sky turned a deeper and deeper blue, and the cool wind played on our skin. Finally, Katar said, "If you'd like to go back in, I would not be offended. You should enjoy the ball. It is in your honour."
"This is supposed to be enjoyable?" I asked, glaring at the courtiers trying to catch my attention.
Katar just laughed, "Apparently so. In theory it's romantic."
"A loud, sweaty room full of rude people, an indiscernible number of which want me dead. Incredibly romantic," I looked away from him, turning my face up to the stars, "Thrown a ball and I can't even dance with the one person I'd like to."
"I can understand how that feels," he muttered so quietly I almost missed it.
I cocked an eyebrow, "There is someone you'd like to dance with?"
Katar recoiled, as though he hadn't realized I'd heard, his face flushing. "Oh – ah – No one, I'm just – You should really go back inside," he snapped angrily.
My own temper flared, and I stood, trying not to get tangled in the delicate fabrics, "Fine."
"Kamryn, wait," Katar called after me, making me hesitate. "Jaen from the village of Riverside. She's the woman you rescued," I nodded, vaguely remembering her. He continued, "She wanted me to thank you for saving her, and her village."
"Oh," I replied, trying to figure out where this had come from all of a sudden. "Is she here?"
"No, she wasn't permitted in the ball."
"Right. Well… she's welcome, I suppose," I shrugged. There hadn't seemed any choice in the matter at the time.
He pursed his lips, as though he was about to say something else, but finally decided against it. Instead he just closed his crimson eyes and turned his face so he could feel the breeze.
All the comforts of the summer night disappeared as I stepped back into the crowded ballroom. The noise hit me like a wall of sound, and I had to push my way through until they started recognizing who I was. Whispers preceded me as I tried to make my way to somewhere I could see. I just wanted to talk to Nax, but I couldn't see him through the forest of people.
"Lady Kamryn," a voice called to me over the din.
I turned to see King Elroy walking toward me with King Tucumen of the Western Kingdom, and his son, Prince Eliud. The brightly coloured sea of people parted for the two Kings with a bow.
I curtsied as gracefully as I could manage, "Your Majesties."
"Lady Kamryn, allow me to introduce His Majesty King Tucumen, our ally, and my good friend," Elroy gestured to the fat little man standing beside him.
I curtsied again, "It is an honour to meet Your Majesty."
"Believe me, the honour is mine," the King said, examining me with his dark eyes. Scratching his beard, he contemplated, "I've heard much of the reawakened Weirborn, though it is hard to know how much of what I hear can be believed."
"Probably only what your spies have told you," I answered honestly.
The squat King let out a great, booming laugh, "And already she is familiar with the Court's way of life!"
"Is it the same in the West?"
"Oh they're all the same, they've always been the same. Kingdoms woven on lies of pomp and circumstance. It all gets rather boring once you're accustomed to it."
"Spoken like someone with the power and influence to protect themself from the lies," I said.
Elroy tensed at my impolite words, but King Tucumen grinned, "I like this one! There's a fire in her eyes. When all this nonsense is over you must come and visit my palace in the West."
"If I survive this nonsense, you mean."
"I have no doubt that you will, mro lasair. If there is one thing the West values—that I value— it is strength and honour, and I see strength in you. Fire follows in your wake. I will relish watching them burn," he grinned.
I couldn't help returning his smile, "Mro lasair?"
"Bright Flame," the young Prince Eliud translated, stepping forward with a slight bow.
"Lady Kamryn, this is my son and heir, the Prince Eliud," the King clapped the Prince on the shoulder, pride shining in his eyes.
The Prince was only slightly taller than his father, but he was fit and muscular. His black hair was shaved close to his head, in the military fashion, and his beard was neatly trimmed. Though they looked similar, Eliud had didn't have the same easy smile or light tone. He gave me a stiff nod, "We are honoured to meet you."
"You must forgive my son," the King frowned. "Given his preference, he would've rudely refused our ally's invitation and missed the first important gathering in centuries."
The Prince inclined his head as an apology to King Elroy, but did not deny it, "This is a time of war. It is my duty to be where I can best protect our people."
"There is no war yet, boy, and politically, your place is here."
Clearly this was an argument they'd had many times before, and I could see the restraint on Eliud's face as he bit back any response. With another bow to the two Kings and me, excused himself.
The squat King gave a sigh, "Please forgive us. He is as stubborn as his mother, and one of the most respected cavalrymen and commanders in our military. He is anxious while he is away."
I smiled, "There is nothing to forgive. But if he doesn't wish to be here, why force him?"
"He will soon take the throne and rule the West. It is time he learn that sometimes politics cannot be fought with sword and shield. But enough talk of my son and his paranoia. Come, mro lasair, join me for a drink. That gown looks insufferably hot."
Gratefully, I took the wine flute he snatched off a servant's tray and offered to me. He ran another hand over his silver beard, "It is a shame we had not met a year sooner. Eliud only married last autumn, a lovely girl, but a fool. The Kingdoms could use a strong queen. But then, perhaps you'll have that chance anyway?" He waggled his eyebrows at me, glancing to Elroy, who stood a few paces away, distracted by some Baron or Duke came to greet him.
My face paled, my knuckles tightening around the glass. Tecumun noticed, "Ahh, or not? To turn down the King…That is a tough path you've chosen, mro lasair." I met his dark eyes. He smiled, "You'll have to burn yourself a new one."
The corner of my mouth tugged up into a crooked smile, "I intend to."
The party pushed on around us. The King sighed, "I must continue making my rounds, for fear of offending some pest or other. Perhaps we can meet tomorrow to chat without all this noise?"
"I'd like that very much," I nodded.
"Good! It's settled then, you shall take lunch with my son and I. See if we can't persuade you to come live in the West, eh?" he gave me another wink, before striding back into the sea of colours, his loud laugh preceding him.
By then Elroy had managed to dismiss the Baron and said quietly to me, "He is a good man."
I nodded, but the fat King didn't stay long in my mind, "Have you spoken to King Jeroen or his Weirborn?"
Elroy's face darkened, "Nothing more than the obligatory greetings. When I tried to discuss the Tournament, he dismissed me, claiming that he had another matter to attend to. I'll try again a little later. And as for his Champion, he's spending the entire evening dancing with different ladies of the Court," the King gave a nod to where Fynn was whispering in the ear of some blushing courtier as he swept her around the dance floor. I noticed there were more than a few ladies watching them, hoping to be next.
"Where is Nax?" I asked, mostly to myself. All I wanted was to see him, to talk to him about what was happening.
Elroy glared at me, his anger snapping having found an outlet. His lip curled, "Why does—"
A voice cut him off, "What a beautiful pet you've found yourself, Elroy. Tell me, does it do any tricks?"
We both turned toward Queen of the North, Thirren Braewyn Gaile, who was sauntering toward us, her dark, beady eyes fixed on me. Even other Northerners seemed to jump out of the way of the brazen Queen. Anger flared in my chest as I realized what she referred to, "I am no pet."
"Really? You could've fooled me," the Queen said calmly. "So it is by choice that you wear his colours and parade yourself about like a twit? And it was your decision to give your life for a pointless cause? Forgive me, you're not a pet, you're a fool."
A snarl ripped from my throat as I stepped forward to meet the proud Queen, who stood almost a head taller than me. Elroy grabbed my arm, and without meaning to I shook him off with another growl.
The Queen's brows rose, but she didn't flinch. She sounded almost bored, "Do you suppose attacking me will help you in some way?"
"Maybe not, but it would make me feel better, Your Majesty," I spat her title, prepared for her anger. Nobles all around us were stopping to watch confused by our tones, and I saw a few guards move closer. Unlucky for her, not close enough.
But instead of anger a thin smile grew on Queen Thirren's face, a harsh curve on her sharp features, "She speaks like a Northerner. It's a pity she's so obedient – in the North, we know what real freedom feels like."
King Elroy finally interjected, with a bow to the Queen, "The North is different from us in many ways, and yet our Kingdoms have always been able to maintain peace."
Reluctantly, she pulled her eyes from mine to look at King Elroy, "Yes, we have. A useful truce."
"We have always thought so," the King answered with a warm smile.
The Queen 'humph'ed, gazing down her nose at him before saying, "May I dance with your girl?" That took us both by surprise. My brows shot up as Elroy's jaw fell open. She continued, "Of course you remember that in the North we don't allow gender to restrict whom we love or take as mates. Surely, you wouldn't insult my culture by denying me a simple dance, would you?"
"Of course not," Elroy agreed pleasantly, "We are thrilled to honour your culture."
Thirren gave another thin smile and offered me her hand. Stunned, and impressed, I took it, allowing her to lead me to the dance floor. People around us stumbled and froze, as though not sure what they were seeing. Queen Thirren just ignored them, her jewelry jingling like bells as she turned to face me, placing a hand on my waist.
After a moment of stunned silence, the musicians hurried into a song, as though they suddenly remembered what they were meant to be doing. It was a simple Waltz, but I was still grateful that Queen Thirren took the lead. She was at least as good a dancer as Elroy, and seemed to know how to work around my clumsy feet.
"I meant what I said, that this Tournament is a lost cause," Queen Thirren said quietly. Her serious tone seemed almost ridiculous while we twirled around the confused courtiers.
"Thank you for your confidence," I tripped on my skirt, wishing spitefully that it would tear.
"King Jeroen may play at niceties, but he will do whatever helps him succeed in his own goals. If his Champion wins, he has effectively beaten the East, and if his Champion loses, he will invade anyway while your Kingdom is distracted. One big event with all the leaders ripe for the picking will be too tempting for him to resist."
My blood ran cold, "What are you saying?"
"Calling this Tournament was a mistake that Jeroen will take advantage of."
"Prince Nax has the army prepared, he won't allow the South to do anything," I said, not sure who I was trying to convince.
"Let us hope that is true," Thirren said simply.
"So why did you come? If you are aware of the danger, why come here?"
The harsh Queen spun me easily, and pulled me back to her, "To show Jeroen that I am not afraid of him. Besides, summer in the East means spring has only begun to touch the mountains. Jeroen's army will not be able to make any strikes against us for another month at least."
We danced on in silence for a few moments while I considered what she was saying. I needed to tell Nax, but the man was still missing. Sudden worry seized me – what if something had happened to him? We were in a castle full of traitors and enemies and clearly the South had ways of keeping secrets.
I stepped back just as the song ended, trying to swallow the panic. I managed to stutter out, "Please excuse me," stepping around the Queen, pushing other nobles aside as they applauded the musicians politely. I needed to find Nax.
Panic began fueling anger as I tried to push my way to the door, ignoring the nobles who tried to speak to me, the hands that were extended. They were too slow to get out of my way, this room was too hot, too loud, too much.
When someone stepped in front of me I nearly knocked them down trying to get to the door. I even reached up, grabbing the front of his tunic with a growl before I could stop myself.
I froze, realizing who was in front of me. I looked up at his face, taking in his jagged scars and stormy eyes. I gripped his robe tighter, "Holy Hells, Nax. Thank the Goddess."
His brows were furrowed, not understanding, "What's wrong?"
"I thought you were dead," relief welled inside me, threatening tears.
He blinked in surprise. "Why would you think that?" he asked innocently.
"Because you're a fool and there are enemies everywhere," I had to stop myself from pulling his face down to mine. Nobles were throwing glances at us and starting to whisper behind their hands. I forced my hands to fall back to my sides, but didn't step away from him.
Nax still looked confused at my words, but said, "I was just checking to see what information we have on their Champion. Which is none apparently, the man seems to have appeared out of thin air."
Words seemed to catch into my throat as I tried to figure out what to tell him first, "Nax, I – the – Queen Thirren thinks the South is going to attack during the Tournament."
He stiffened, "Why? What does she know?"
"She believes he's going to attack us while we're distracted, and we've presented him with an event where all the leaders are in one place. He can take out anyone opposing him in one fell swoop."
Nax pursed his lips, but didn't argue, "I can't imagine that he would try anything, he would be taking a huge risk…Still, I'll send a bird to the battalions to ensure they are prepared for a strike, and I'll check in with Reystone and the head of the city guard."
He turned to go, but I grabbed his sleeve, "Nax."
He hesitated. The music spilled over us, and I couldn't quite find the words over the mindless chatter surrounding us. All I wanted was to kiss him and keep him safe, but I couldn't. Even standing here like this was dangerous. "Please just – be safe."
Nax didn't say anything, but his expression softened. He took my hand from his sleeve, and delicately pressed it to his lips. My heart pounded as he let go.
"Will you come visit me tonight?" I asked thickly, fighting the urge to wrap my arms around him.
He just gave a whisper of a nod. And then he was gone.
My face was still warm as I turned back to the room. For just that moment, I'd forgotten everything else, and my smile was real. Nax was home after so long. I looked up, expected to see nobles whispering and glancing my way.
I was not prepared to see Fynn standing on the other side of the room, his eyes fixed on me. He'd watched our entire conversation, gauged our reactions.
A cold, wicked smile spread across his face.