Ingridan was an ancient city. Memory ached in its stone arches, crept down its ancient alleys, sluiced through its seven rivers. And its newest memory still burned, raw and sore—a failed war, a nation shamed, and an army dishonored.
One the western edge of Ingridan, just across the Rosewater River, someone watched a man die. The man had been poor and desperate for a bit of coin, but now he was just dead, his body black from burning.
When the smoke cleared, the watcher dragged the corpse out of the nearly empty warehouse, rolled it into the river, and kept watch as it floated into the sea.
“They will pay for making me do this,” spoke the voice that no one else heard. “I’ll see Bayern in flames.”
A Journey South
Razo hopped up and down, but he could only see backs of heads. Soldiers and courtiers lined the grand hall, craned their necks, stood on toes. And everyone was taller than he was.
“That’s just perfect,” Razo muttered.
Rumors had been buzzing all week that something weighty would be announced today, and now here he was without a hope of a decent view. If only he were in the Forest and could just climb a tree.
He looked up. Then again...
Razo squeezed to the outer wall of the chamber and leapt at a tapestry, just catching the lower fringe. A brief sound of tearing, quick as the squeak of a mouse in a trap, and he found himself dangling above a hundred heads, waiting for a terrifying rip to send him down. The tapestry shivered, then held, so Razo crossed his eyes once for luck and climbed up.
At the top, he pushed his feet against the wall and sprang onto the decorative shelving. At last he had an agreeable view of his friends Isi and Geric, Bayern’s queen and king, seated on a dais three steps below their thrones. Beside them were the white-robed emissaries from Tira and a handful of Tiran soldiers who, Razo imagined, had been hand-picked for looking brutish and menacing.
The yellow haired Tiran woman was speaking. “…years of animosity cannot be quickly forgotten, yet we see the benefit of forming an acquaintance with Bayern as we have not for many hundreds of years.”
“That is our wish as well,” said Geric, “and so we propose an exchange of ambassadors This spring, we’ll send one of our own south to live among the Tiran people in the capital city of Ingridan.”
“By the authority of the people of Tira, our assembly, and our prince,” said the Tiran woman, “we accept Bayern’s invitation and likewise will send our ambassador to live in your capital.”
The crowd creaked with astonished silence. One lean Tiran soldier glared at Geric and thumbed the hilt of his sword.
“Great crows,” Razo whispered, his belly filling with cold. Just over a year ago, Tira had invaded Bayern with intention of wiping out the Bayern army, hanging their king and queen, and claiming Bayern land as its own. In a terrible battle last spring, Bayern had finally overcome the invasion and won a rickety peace. Razo had served as a scout and soldier for Bayern and had no desire to roll around again in that whole mess of a war. He staunchly believed that seventeen years was too young to die. Even so, asking Bayern to welcome Tiran into their midst already was a might sticky solution.
The Tiran woman was speaking again. “Know that the wounds of war won’t heal easily. Burns don’t stop stinging under such a mild salve...”
Burns. The crowd rustled. It was clear she was alluding to the last battle of the war and the mysterious Bayern fire-speaker who had burned one tenth of the Tiran army.
Razo smirked. It suddenly seemed such a laugh, those angry Tiran completely unaware that the fire-speaker herself was just five paces away.
Enna stood behind Queen Isi’s chair, slouching just a tad, as though trying to communicate that the gathering was killed and done for already. Her formal tunic was deep red with beads around the neck, and her black hair was loose and growing unchecked to the middle of her back. Occasionally her lips moved and her eyes glanced sideways as if she were whispering something droll to Finn beside her.
Enna seemed so careless. Yet if those Tiran soldiers discovered she was the secret fire-speaker, Razo realized they would not hesitate to part her head from her shoulders. Suddenly, it did not seem such a laugh. He scratched his neck and clambered back down.
An hour later, Razo was napping on the floor of Geric’s antechamber when toes tickled his side. He squirmed and squinted with one eye to see Isi standing above him.
“There you are, Razo! We’re meeting in my receiving room. Will you come?”
“Yet another glorious meeting? I’m really tempted, Isi, but you know my schedule right now is—”
Razo leaped up. “I’m right behind you.”
A large soldier with dark, shaggy hair walked the corridor ahead of them, peering into open doorways.
“I found him, Finn,” said Isi, “asleep on a floor, just like you thought he’d be.”
“What do you mean?” Razo rubbed his nose. Sleepiness always made it itch. “I’m not that predictable.”
“You told him there’d be food, didn’t you?” Finn asked.
“The only way he’d come.”
“Hmph,” said Razo. Finn gave his arm a friendly knock.
Razo was relieved to find the mood in the receiving room had shrugged off the itchy stiffness of that day’s formal assembly—at least, Conrad was laughing loudly as he arm-wrestled Geric, even though a couple of ministers frowned in their direction. Conrad was a friend of Razo and Isi from years ago, and since the death of Geric’s young brother, the king seemed to have taken to Conrad as more family than friend. Enna was lounging in a chair, and a handful of soldiers chatted at the table. But there was no food.
“That’s cruel, that is,” said Razo, and Isi patted his shoulder consolingly.
She took her three-month old baby, Tusken, from a maid’s arms and asked her to bring up a plate of something sweet. So Razo stayed, lolling against the wall, half listening to Geric talk about the ambassador exchange, and practicing an expression of supreme indifference so that when he was not asked to go along, his face would not betray disappointment.
Why had Isi bothered to wake Razo for this meeting, anyway? She was wholly absorbed in Tusken now, cooing and smiling at him, though he was asleep and did nothing but occasionally twitch his lips or rub his nose. The purpose of babies eluded Razo. He supposed it would be different if he were a father, but that would require finding a wife.
And then, unasked for, a memory of Bettin spasmed behind his eyes. She was laughing and wrestling Razo to the ground to squish an overripe pear into his face. Up close her eyes were almost green in their blackness.
“Hmph,” said Razo. Bettin was married now. To someone else. Remembering that produced an uncomfortable, creeping sensation across his back, like the times he caught himself wanting to chat with an old friend only to recall that the friend had been killed in the war.
“At spring thaw, we’ll send our ambassador south,” Geric was saying. “Isi believes trade is one way to pacify animosities, so we’ll also convey a load of Bayern dyes, something the Tiran lack. Captain Talone, I’ll ask you to lead the ambassador’s guard and choose twenty of your own men.”
That’s hopeful, Razo thought. The gray-templed warrior was the leader of Bayern’s Own, the king’s personal hundred-band of soldiers, and Razo’s own captain. Perhaps Razo would have a chance to be a part of the action after all.
“Who knows what dangers you’ll face?” Geric was saying. “We need boys who can keep a clear head, smart lads...”
That’s two for me, Razo thought.
“...and good fighters.”
Counts me out. Razo felt regret creeping into his expression, so he looked for something amusing to distract himself. There appeared to be a small hole in the rug. He stuck in his finger. Now it was a slightly bigger hole.
“Since we can’t dispatch an army to protect the ambassador,” said Talone, “I recommend Enna take part.”
“Enna?” Isi sat up sharp, and the baby grumbled in his sleep. “Enna, you can’t go. If the Tiran people realize that you are the fire-speaker...”
Enna shrugged. “Most of them never saw me.”
“You spent weeks in a Tiran occupied town—”
“In a tent, with mostly just one other person—”
“Who’s dead now, but other people saw you, Enna—”
“Other people who I’m not likely to meet in a city of hundreds of thousands of people—”
“There were soldiers in Eylbold who might be stationed in Ingridan’s palace barracks.”
“They were disgraced, Isi. I seriously doubt they’d be retained in a royal company.”
Isi sighed and looked at Geric for support. He smiled sweetly at her, then frowned as he realized that she expected something. “What? You’d ask me to throw myself between you and Enna?”
“Captain,” said Isi, turning to Talone, her friend from years past and her only other countryman in Bayern. Often when speaking to him, her voice strayed from her adopted Bayern accent to the stiff, punctuated tones of Kildenree. “You must see the danger—if she is discovered, not only her safety but all of yours will be compromised.”
“I see a thousand dangers in this enterprise, my queen,” said Talone. “In Enna, we have a secret army. Nevertheless, if you judge best to keep her back…” “No.” Enna lurched forward. “Please, Isi, don’t say I can’t. I need to go.”
“Isi, listen, I need to do something with all this.” She thumped her chest, the place where she could pull heat inside her, change it somehow, then send it out to become fire. “I killed so many people in the war, did so much damage, and I swear to you, to all of you,” she turned, her gaze seizing everyone in the room, “that I won’t kill again. I’m so sorry about the times when I went too far, when I hurt people I didn’t mean to. And now I’ve got all this power at my fingertips and all this guilt burning a hole through me. If you can give me another chance, I want to prove I’m on Bayern’s side. I want to help.” She turned her eyes and her voice back to Isi. “Please, you understand, right?”
Isi nodded. “I do. And I’ll miss you.”
“Thanks, Isi,” Enna whispered, looking down. “Thank you.”
Isi smiled at her sleeping baby, her forehead pinched.
The conversation tumbled on. Talone named the soldiers he would invite to join the company, including Finn, asking them to go to Tira and remain there for the next year or as long as it took to formalize peace. They all accepted, though many gazed up into the hanging candlelight or down at their boots as if wondering how many of them would return home again.
Razo had beaten down his hope into thin, shaky gloom when he actually heard his own name.
“What?” he said, looking up from the hole in the carpet.
“I believe we will have need of your skills,” said Talone.
What skills? Razo almost asked. He knew he should be elated, but he felt knocked flat by surprise and too baffled to speak. After all, Finn as a choice made sense—he had become one of the best swordsmen in Bayern’s Own and was as dependable as nuts in autumn. Enna made sense—her talents with fire and wind made her more powerful than a room full of soldiers. Conrad had been named, another Forest-born like Razo who was not too handy with a sword, but he was the best grappler in Forest or city. In fact, all the soldiers Talone had called were the best at something—sword or javelin, grappling or horse mastery. Razo knew he was best at nothing, except maybe cramming two cherries into a single nostril. He did not have to hear the whispers to know what everyone was thinking—the only reason he had been chosen to join Bayern’s Own was because of his part in ending the war. He and Finn had protected Enna while she had chased the Tiran army away during the last battle in the war, a battle where Razo had taken a sword in the ribs and barely scraped by with his breath intact.
He did not have to hear the whispers, but he heard them all the same.
“A brave fool,” one soldier had murmured to another when they’d thought Razo was asleep in the barracks. And there had been others. A child that fell into his armor and didn’t know how to get back out…A puppy dog with noble friends…The worst swordsman this company has ever boasted… And Razo thought they must be right. Months he’d been a member of the Own and had never been asked to be a part of any assignment or counsel of importance. So, why did Talone suddenly want him for the most important mission of all?
Razo realized everyone was still staring at him. He laughed self consciously and said, “Of course I’ll go, you know that,” and could not help grinning. “Excellent.” Geric reached for the baby. “And now that’s settled, so give me my boy.”
Isi passed Tusken to his father. “Careful, he’s still sleeping.”
“He’s been asleep long enough, and I haven’t seen those huge, blue eyes since early this morning, what with everything we’ve done today.” Geric bounced Tusken in his arms until the baby produced a huge, toothless yawn, opened his eyes, and stared unblinking at his father. “Hello, there he is! You see, I knew he wanted to wake up.”
Isi kissed Geric’s cheek and laughed against his neck, calling him impossible. She picked up her blue skirts and sat on the floor next to Razo. Enna plopped down beside her, leaning against Finn and resting her feet on Isi’s lap.
“It hardly seems a fair trade,” said Isi, patting Enna’s legs. “The company of my three best friends for Tiran dignitaries. If it weren’t for Geric and Tusken, I’d trade the crown to go with you.”
“I’m not worth a crown,” said Enna. “Well, maybe a handful jewels.”
“My handful maybe,” said Finn. “Your hands are too tiny.”
“Fair enough.” Enna took Finn’s sword hand and rubbed the calluses on his palm.
Isi began to pull her yellow hair free of its pins. “At least you’ll have the winter to spend at home.”
“So,” said Razo, simmering with excitement and unable to sit on the news a moment longer, “why did Talone choose me, do you think?”
“To give us a good laugh,” said Enna.
Razo tilted his head in his be serious expression.
“Who knows?” said Enna. “Who can read the mind of Captain Stoneface? But it’s bound to be more of an adventure with you along and twice as fun as potato mush fights.”
“Sounds like sticky business—”
“Tira or the food fights?”
“And if my luck holds up, I won’t be getting out of this without another scar. You either, Finn.”
“If you think you’ve never seen me angry,” said Isi, “just see what happens if any of you goes and gets yourself hurt. If things turn ugly, just get out of there and come home.”
Razo sniffed. “What exactly do you think might happen?”
“Death, war, possibly some maiming,” said Enna.
Razo did not care. Out of one hundred of Bayern’s best soldiers, Talone had chosen him. Whatever the reason, Razo was anxious to prove that his captain had not made a mistake.
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