The Kartanyan people have a saying: "My Kingdom for a secret."
It comes from a ballad written during their second civil war about a prince and a princess from two warring provinces who end up falling in love. Of course. When they first meet the prince is in disguise - he is, in fact, gathering intelligence on the princess's father - although he is so taken with her beauty that he whispers to the princess, "My kingdom for a secret / who art thou so divine?"
The irony of the ballad is that he is already fully aware of her identity, and she of his, though neither of them know it; only the audience is aware of their mutual falsehood and of how falsely his promise rings. The overly generous words of a naïve youth who uses his beauty the way one would a blade.
Kartanyan humor. It is a complex and convoluted thing, a mystery to the rest of Rothmoran lands. This is probably why the famous quote developed a second, more sinister meaning over time that has all but eclipsed the original: it has become a grim reminder that secrets, like all things, can be dangerous in the wrong hands.
That words can cause even a kingdom to crumble when wielded by the right ones.
My kingdom for a secret.
Ilarion Velas rises from bed with the words on his lips, his head pulsing with dark waves and stormfire. For a moment, he cannot remember where he is. Then his eyes catch on the rounded walls and the ethereal gleam of blue-green waters that lie beyond the single porthole in his quarters.
He starts to sit up and winces as crimson flowers bloom their way through the wrappings on his chest. He leans back, trying to catch his breath. A sense of irony fills him, tinged with a darker emotion much too bleak to be called humor. There is no equivalent for it in Valador, the nation he must now call his own. Falling somewhere between "to laugh at death" and "to lose face," it is a feeling of grim amusement that one feels during imminent downfall that carries no hopes of redemption.
In his native language, the word for "humor" is very close to the word for "suffering."
Ilarion picks up the fresh tunic from where it drapes across the top of his footlocker and slides the white garment over his head. It is clean-smelling and free from the odors of dried earth and old blood - for now, although perhaps not for much longer if his wounds don't stop bleeding. These routine visits to the Southern Islands are taking their toll, albeit less so than in previous years. Either the Islanders are giving up, or else they're running out of mages to hurl at him and his men.
He likes the fight, thrives on it, in a way. But the Island weather mages are the low-hanging fruit on this festering tree. Even when the Islands finally surrender, the Dominion Empire will still be far from its ultimate goal: Kartanya and Sorstraga, the homes of the powerful elemental mages.
Ilarion knots the heavy, braided leather sash around his waist. He is already wearing his breeches so he pulls on the heavy boots that add an extra inch to his height. Once he fastens the weighted buckle that secures his cloak around his neck and slips on his leather gloves, he feels almost as though he has already donned his armor.
A mirror stands against the wall across from the door. Reflected within the gilt frame is a man who is only slightly taller than average with unruly black hair and the yellow eyes of a windhover. He has a swarthy complexion capable of becoming quite dark in the sun, though in winter months the color is closer to brown jade. His body is deceptively slim but beneath the sleeves and high collar of his tunic, his neck and arms are corded with lean muscle.
With gloved hands, Ilarion touches the buckle at his throat while frowning at something that appears to be just beyond the scope of the frame, out of sight. He has the kind of mouth that will always look most attractive in a frown, though so few have seen him smile that the comparison is unfair.
I'd better see to the mages and make sure they're all accounted for. The Emperor will have me flayed alive if any are missing.
None will be, though. His preternatural ability to sniff out mages has caused the Emperor to appoint him to all major recoveries. Unusual for one of foreign birth but that alone is testament to his remarkable abilities. All he must do is skirt the accusations and suspicions that attend such prestige.
But then, Ilarion has always appreciated a challenge. Letting his hands fall to his sides, he turns to the door and steps out into the bowels of the airship.
His quarters are at the rear of The Stormbreaker and quite a bit nicer than the barracks assigned to the ensigns. Stacked in rows of two and squeezed against the curved walls until they're practically gasping for breath, the ensign barracks afford little privacy or comfort. Most soldiers would rather spend the night without sleep than attempt to lie on the standard-issue mattresses, but perhaps that is the point.
Across from the barracks is the brig, where the mages are currently being imprisoned, each wearing warded crystal handcuffs. As a further precaution, the door to the room is made from a rare wood taken from the Night Forest; the only natural substance that magic doesn't affect.
The mages they just captured need to be measured against the list of names that the Emperor has generated from covert intelligence. One of the clerks will have access to the list. If he's quick, he might even have the task done before they land in Valador.
The man outside his door snaps a hasty salute by touching three fingers to his breast. His face is youthful, the beard on his cheeks and chin sparse.
"At ease," Ilarion says, with the laziness only power can afford. The younger man relaxes, but only by a hair. Although he is too well-trained to stare, Ilarion can sense his desire in the slight cant to his head and the rigidity of his neck. "I haven't seen your face before, have I?"
He starts walking, slowly, towards the barracks, and makes a gesture for the boy to follow him. He does, trotting behind him as obediently as a dog. "No, Sir."
"And you haven't seen one quite like mine before, either."
The boy opens his mouth, then appears to think better of it as he nearly missteps.
Ilarion hides a smile. His eyeteeth are just long enough to draw a double take, though not quite long enough to be called fangs. "You have permission to speak."
"Only on the enemy, Sir."
"Which enemy is that?"
He hesitates. "The Kartanyans, Sir."
"Ah, yes. Our friends in the East." He glances at the young soldier. "I know what you're burning to ask, so let me save you the trouble. I'm only half-Kartanyan, but my allegiance is to the Empire. I'm not a demon, and I'm not a spy. I do, contrary to the belief of my men, possess a sense of humor, though I doubt it is one you would understand or appreciate."
They are in an alcove, just out of sight from the main hallway. The custodial closet is here, but apart from that it is a dead end. The boy takes an instinctive step back and he closes the distance easily.
"One example is loosely translated as 'amusement in falsehood.' This tends to apply to either mutual engagement of falsehoods - what you would probably refer to as bantering, only in this case both parties are lying through their teeth - or catching someone in a lie who doesn't know that they've been caught and watching them try to lie through their teeth.
"Unfortunately - " he smiles and the boy shudders, repulsed, as he staggers backwards "- most of you don't have the teeth for lying."
He lets the silence tighten like a noose.
"I can explain," he tries.
"Can you? I know this ship like the back of my hand. I know every face on this vessel, and yet I do not know yours. I don't know who you are, but I know who you are not and you are not a Dominion soldier."
"But - "
"Before I destroy you, you will tell me your name and who helped you aboard this ship. Tell me quickly, and your death might even be painless. Resist and it will be just as bad as you are undoubtedly imagining. Perhaps worse. I am sure," he says, drawing out the words, "that my imagination exceeds whatever pitiful fears inhabit yours by far."
"Please," the boy whispers, and then chokes as air suddenly fails to enter his lungs.
His wide eyes go to Ilarion, who hasn't lifted a hand. His lips mouth the hated word, mage.
"Yes," Ilarion says. "That, too."
And with a violent psychic sweep, he is inside the other man's mind. Agony pulses all around him, coming in hot flashes of red and white. With effort, Ilarion ignores it. His - Variel's - thoughts are disjointed and unfinished, like a piece of clay only half-molded before baking in the kiln. He picks through the knots of fear, unraveling bits and pieces of memory.
Then - yes, there. A memory that doesn't match with the others and stands out like a thorn in flesh. A man with reddish-brown skin and dark gray hair whom Ilarion doesn't recognize. That doesn't matter, though. He recognizes the glinting pieces he sets in Variel's palm easily enough, and the significance of this boy's presence on the ship now.
"Somebody bribed you."
A quick, agitated nod.
"And the man you replaced?"
He releases his hold on the boy's windpipe just enough to let him squeak out, "Dead."
Pity. But then, he was only an ensign. "You've served your purpose, then."
Ilarion draws the sword from his belt and drives it into Variel's belly with a quick, upward thrust. He could kill the boy with magic but then there would be no marks on the body and that would only raise questions. Dangerous questions. Questions he can't afford to answer.
Blood and gore seep from the wound to stain the decks of the floor as Ilarion pulls out the blade and the boy, no longer capable of standing on his own, collapses to the floor in a messy, crumpled heap. Ilarion is sheathing the sword as one of the security officers exits from the barracks at the sound of the muffled thud.
"Good gods," he says, breaking protocol as he rushes over. "What happened here? Sir," he adds belatedly, at a look from Ilarion.
"He was a spy, Doran. Paid for by the Damarathi." He nudges the body with the toe of his boot. "I managed to get that much out of him, at least."
Doran's eyes rake over the fair skin and dark blonde hair. "He doesn't look Damarathi."
"It doesn't matter where he comes from. What matters is that he carries their lucre. Discover the source of their money and you know more of their true loyalty than nationality could ever tell you." He turns his back. "Search him and dispose of the body."
"Yes, Sir." He can feel the security officer's eyes burning a hole in his back.
"Record anything unusual that you find. I'll include it in my report."
He doesn't need to look into Doran's eyes to be able to sense the resentment simmering below the surface. Doran is a man of noble birth. To be outranked and dismissed by a man of base origins and foreign ancestry eats away at him as he considers making a casual error in the records that would somehow implicate Ilarion.
It's only an idle thought but a petty security officer mucking up official records for spite is the last thing he needs. He'll have to pore over them later tonight to check for errors before sealing them for them for The Emperor's perusal.
That feeling, "amusement at despair," seeps into him again. Securing Damarath was a major coup - but perhaps those waters at its heart are cursed, after all. First his damnable wounds, now a traitor aboard The Stormbreaker. He knows now why the Valadorians call these waters The Devil's Mirror.
He's barely halfway to the control room before he's stopped again, this time by one of the ensigns. A real one, this time. This Valadorian has reddish-blonde hair that has become badly mussed in her struggle with the bird digging its claws into her arm as it flaps its wings in agitation.
"Commander Velas," she says, nearly breathless with panic, "your assistance, please—"
"Stop struggling. You're frightening the bird."
Then he pauses. The windhover is on Emperor's crests and sigils. He's an avid fan of hawking as well, with an entire aviary devoted to keeping specimens for such a purpose.
Specimens like these.
Immediately, his eyes go to the bird's legs. Sure enough, a small scroll has been affixed with care to the upper thigh of the bird by wire. One of the metal ends has come loose and rubbed a raw, bleeding patch upon its thigh. Part of the reason for its irritation, no doubt. Ilarion puts out his arm and the bird quiets, hopping to his gloved wrists. The ensign is stunned, not knowing that Ilarion is giving the bird commands he cannot hear.
Bending his arms so that the bird can perch with adequate space, his yellow eyes - only a bit darker in shade than the bird's - scan over the words spiraling across the parchment.
"It's from the Emperor," he says, unnecessarily. "Get me a pen and ink."
The ensign snaps a salute. "Thank you, Sir."
Ilarion shrugs the response off, his eyes on the paper.
It appears that the Emperor has no intention of waiting for him to dock the airship in Valador. Their new orders are for him to land in Ravenna and go alone to Valador via the Mobius Train. At the bottom of the message, in a deep ink that gleams like blue-black blood, it says immediately.
Inventorying the prisoners will have to wait.
This is my first "high fantasy" story ever, so reviews are welcomed. I'm a very chill person and appreciate feedback in all forms, so please don't be afraid of going into detail or causing offense. :)