Krayson had awaited his judgment for so long that he hardly believed his good fortune when it at last arrived. This little prison above the clouds had long ago lost any appeal it might have had. It would soon be over, his time in the cell.
He had grown weary of dangling from the ceiling by his arms. As it stood, his shoulders would likely never work right again. He hadn't seen so much as a drop of clean water or scrap of food since his incarceration. A week ago, perhaps two; it was difficult to say without a glimpse of the outside.
Others would have died by now. Krayson lingered in this fugue state on the edge of death. The spells infused into his flesh wouldn't readily allow him to die of something so paltry as dehydration and starvation.
It wasn't clear if Krayson's captors knew this, or if his continued survival was as much an inconvenience to them as it was to him.
Small. Damp. The stones stinking of his own filth and that of the hundreds of other prisoners they had seen in their time. The shackles of his chains biting into the flesh of his wrists and the tender care of the warden as Krayson's broken jaw was smashed again each day to keep it from healing.
Today, finally, he would die.
Out of the distant past, his father's words whispered to him still. "Live, even when it hurts. Especially when it hurts. Survive, and you've won."
Within his chest, a fire burned. It flared to life at the thought of oblivion, a death that had awaited him since birth. This was not to be his end.
"I will live," Krayson rasped through his broken jaw and parched throat.
A balled fist striking him in the belly was his answer.
"You think so, eh?" The warden laughed.
Krayson had never bothered to learn the lout's name. Being Althandi, it was probably nothing more imaginative than Warden. Krayson's mother came from this land, but she had never been able to explain why her people were so thundering terrible with names. Had the Althandi no pride in their own blood? No purpose beyond their profession?
Do I? Krayson wondered.
The warden seized Krayson by the jaw, the thick fingers digging into his flesh and the cruel grip sending agonizing tendrils of pain shooting throughout his face.
"It's as I told you, rat. The Highest King summons you. You're to finally get your sentencing, Krayson."
Flecks of the warden's saliva spattered over Krayson's face when he spoke the name. His mother's name, and her family's before her. An ancient name, going back as far as the founding of Althandor and likely further even than that. Ancient and once renowned, now reviled.
Theirs was the house that committed the most sensational of crimes in living memory. If murdering a child had been the extent of it, it would have been cause enough to see their place among the nobility of Althandor taken from them. Unfortunately for House Krayson, the child they murdered had been the infant son of the Highest King.
A dark crime, and one committed before the last Krayson alive in the world drew his first breath.
"Surprised you lasted this long," the warden went on, clearly disappointed that was the case. "You're supposed to be a member of the Order, eh? Not a one of them's raised so much as a pip that you're here. They abandoned you, Krayson. If you're not a blood runner, than you're just another blood mage what needs to be put down. What do you say I save the king the trouble of tossing you from the tower? It's a rather long way down."
The warden laughed. He must have thought himself quite the wit.
Krayson didn't reply. What would the point be? He simply waited for the fool to spend his thunder and get on with taking Krayson to the king.
The warden tapped a thumb against his chin. "You know, I like the thought of that. Let's just gut you now. The king's time is too valuable for the likes of you."
Empty threats. He wouldn't dare. Then again, why had he come into the cell wearing a dagger sheathe on his belt? He'd never done that before. Krayson fixed his eyes on the weapon, suddenly alert.
The warden must not have liked Krayson's silence. He balled up his fist for another blow, but it never had the chance to land. There was a brilliant flash of light that left Krayson's sight dazzled and a stench like meat left too long in the frying pan. The warden howled in pain and collapsed whimpering to the cell floor.
Krayson prayed to the Althandi spirits of wind that the bastard would drown in the filth.
As the spots of color faded from his sight, Krayson got a look at the person that had saved him. His gaze started at their feet. They had knee-high boots and tight leggings of black leather worn over shapely thighs. Hips and waist lent her an hourglass figure. On a thick belt hung the scabbard of a single-edged sword. She was armored with a cuirass of hardened dark leather studded with iron rivets, and it was molded to her body. The cuirass left her milky pale arms bare to the shoulders, and her face…
Krayson felt his eyes widen, and the ghost of a primal emotion he could hardly remember flitted through his chest to make his heart beat a little faster. Five beats per minute faster, to be exact. Krayson was intimately familiar with every detail of his own heart.
The young woman's face was covered by a ghoulish cowl, a pelt from the head of a black wolf worn as a mask. Out of the empty eye sockets of the wolf's head cowl, Krayson could feel her stare even though her eyes themselves were obscured in shadow.
Krayson met that gaze, and he called on his witch sight. Shadows became no more a hindrance to his vision than an open field on a cloudless day. Behind the cowl, her eyes were blue and piercing, a faint glow about them that was hidden by her mask. The pupils were vertical slits, bringing to Krayson's mind the image of a viper.
Only one lineage in the Five Kingdoms, if not the entire Continent, possessed such beast-like eyes. She was of House Algara and marked by that bloodline's elder magic. She was a royal assassin. Killer and sorceress.
Though much of her features were covered, the bottom half of her face was left exposed. Her full lips and slim jawline suggested that it was a pretty face she hid, and those spare details kindled a spark of recognition in Krayson.
He squinted, trying to think where he knew her from. That cowl left an impression, and Krayson thought he would remember meeting such a startling figure.
With deliberate purpose, the assassin turned her head to regard the man cowering on the fetid floor of the cell. The warden crawled away from her, one hand raised as if it could do anything to protect him from another spell. "Please, Your Highness, what offense…?"
The woman's mouth twisted into a silent snarl, cutting the warden's question short.
Your Highness? Clearly. All the royal assassins of Althandor were close relations of the king— baron and duchess titles handed out like party favors— but to be given this honorific, she was either queen or princess. Queen Maebh came from outside the bloodline, and Princess Jin was in all likelihood already dead. This could only be the eldest daughter of King Cathis, and Krayson understood why she seemed familiar.
He'd been visited in his cell before by Princess Maya Algara. The cowl was new. The anger was not.
Someone else entered the cell. Another woman, this one approaching her middle years, clad in fine chain and mail, and her torso draped with the cerulean and silver tabard of House Algara. Her crested half helm left her face bare. She was a blunt-featured woman, possessing tilted and narrow eyes that were the hallmark of the Althandi race, and built like a draft horse. Tall for an Althandi, powerfully muscled, and oddly soft-spoken for someone so imposing and in a position of authority. Krayson recognized her from her infrequent visits to make certain he was still alive. Captain Falar was the head of the king's royal guard.
Falar took in the situation within the cell at a glance. She joined Princess Maya in glaring at the warden. "You are not to be in here," she said in a low voice.
"My d-duties…," the warden stammered.
Falar clapped her hands. Two additional royal guards appeared behind her at the summons. "You were given clear instruction," she murmured to them. "No one was to have access to the Krayson save His Grace and Her Highness. Why was I disobeyed?"
The guards exchanged discomforted glances. "We assumed an exception was made for the warden, Captain," one of the men replied.
"We accept any punishment necessary for this oversight, Captain," said the other.
Princess Maya raised an open palm, and the warden's dagger leapt from its sheath to her waiting grasp. She held it by the blade and handed it over her shoulder to Falar. Her glare never left the wretch at her feet.
Falar accepted the dagger, a frown on her lips. "Weapons of any kind are forbidden within the cells. These are your own commands, Goodman Warden."
Krayson smirked even though it made his jaw blaze with pain. It amused him that he'd guessed the name right.
"Th-that's right," Goodman Warden said, a bit of his thunder returning. "My commands. My dungeon! The Highest King himself set me to minding these cells, and no one…"
"Your dungeon?" Falar interrupted, her voice still deathly quiet.
Krayson decided that Falar didn't need to be loud to be intimidating. Wrath didn't suit her nearly as much as menace appeared to.
"This is the king's dungeon," Falar continued, "and you have disobeyed the king's command to surrender the governance of this cell to the royal guard." Her eyes slid to where Krayson hung by his chains. "It does not bode well for you, Goodman. I was tasked with keeping this prisoner alive by any and all means necessary, and it looks as if the only threat to his safety that has shown itself is you. Why has the Krayson not been fed or watered? Why do you come to his cell as he is summoned while bearing a forbidden weapon? A suspicious mind could think you do not wish the king to hear what the Krayson has to say."
Goodman Warden's mouth worked but gave no explanation.
"You attempted to murder him with neglect," Falar accused. "Failing that, you come out of desperation to slaughter him with your own hand. What have you to say in your defense, Goodman?"
Maya drew her sword. The swift motion startled even Falar. Goodman Warden scuttled away until his back was pressed against the far wall of the cell. Krayson's piss was no longer the only filth staining the ground.
The princess pointed at Krayson. Falar immediately stepped around her and thrust a key into his shackles. Krayson collapsed onto the woman, his body too weak from hunger and beatings to support himself, but Falar was more than equal to the task of carrying him.
Krayson was brought out of the cell into the dark hallway of the dungeon, carried as a bride over her new threshold. Maya turned and pointed at the two royal guards, then towards the warden. The two men looked to one another before obeying her silent command. They hauled Goodman Warden to his feet and placed him within Krayson's bonds. The man had the good sense not to resist while Maya's sword was in her hand.
"See to it that this command is followed to the letter," Falar murmured to them. "His Grace. Her Highness. No other is to have access to the prisoner. Not even me. Fail again, and you will join him. Am I understood?"
The guards snapped to attention and saluted, fists held to the center of their chests. "Yes, Captain," they said in unison.
Maya left the cell and the guards behind. Falar followed, Krayson bundled pitifully in her arms.
Being born away by a woman like a sickly child. Krayson's father would be shamed if he saw, but the Althandi didn't share the same failings as the Teulite Horde. The people of Althandor, first and greatest of the Five Kingdoms, recognized the strength of their women even if they seldom honored it as they did that of their men. A curious race of humanity.
"Their failure is mine, Your Highness," Falar said as they left earshot of the guards. "I should not have been so lax in my duties."
Maya didn't reply. Krayson thought that strange. At their last meeting, the princess couldn't be bothered to shut her mouth for more than a minute. There was more different about her than just the cowl.
Falar took a breath before condemning herself further, but Maya cut her off with a slight wave of her hand. She then turned her head and gave a small nod. It was an absolution. Falar fell silent and continued to follow like a well-trained warhorse.
Krayson observed Maya, entranced. Other young men his age might have done so lustfully, or so he had heard. Maya Algara appeared to fill every possible quotient for being seen as an object of physical desire; she was beautiful and reputed to be generous with her time and body. Such base needs were as foreign to Krayson as most everything else in this thundering kingdom. He watched the princess for another reason altogether. What she exuded, to a degree many times greater than she had before, was power. Physical, arcane, and political. She was obeyed without hesitation, and she didn't need to speak a single word for it to be done.
And if there was one thing Krayson desired above all others, it was power.