Sand of Bone – Chapter 5

Exiles on the run.  Divine rulers fighting to control the desert’s elements.  Dead people secretly walking the sands in search of redemption…

Sand of Bone is the first of two (maybe three…?) novels set in the desert world of SheyKhala.  A new chapter will be posted every Thursday until the novel’s publication in the summer of 2013.

To start with Chapter 1, click here.

Chapter 5

Commander Pyrius, once the most respected Blade commander in SheyKhala, rode an old and feeble horse across the barren landscape that surrounded Exile Stronghold.  The wind shifted as the sun slid beneath the sands, its sudden chill making Pyrius shiver.  Within a month, the night air would be cold enough to bite through leather.  Tonight, he knew, it would merely set his joints to aching.

Pyrius’s nightsight adjusted after a few rapid blinks, washing the landscape of color in exchange for sharp clarity in an infinite palette of deep gray and soft silver.  He’d once spent hours staring at the night and concocting metaphors that could let Shella “see” the beauty those with nightsight took for granted.  His attempts at poetry always sounded better in his thoughts than when he spoke them aloud, but Shella claimed to love them all.  Then she’d take hold of his arms and pull him close, matching her lips to his until nightsight didn’t matter and the only beauty that existed was held within his arms.

He let the horse amble along the ridgetop road to Exile, where Blades were dumped onto the dirt, and had to choose to struggle onward or lie down to die.  Over a year had passed since he’d found the last exile, and nearly two years since the bloodkin had recalled an exile home.  But he still rode out every dawn and every dusk, and the exiles still looked at him in expectation when he returned.  Were it not for Velshaan Syrina, who spent most all her time in the little tower chamber she’d claimed her first night, Pyrius might believe Exile Stronghold–his meager command of twenty-six outcast Blades–had been completely and deliberately forgotten.

Then Pyrius glimpsed movement, a long shadow creeping through the eroded gully below.  He used his knees to guide the horse closer while his hands readied the sling and stone.  Though all Blades on patrol carried the hunting weapon, it had been weeks since anything more interesting than small snakes had been brought in to supplement meager rations.  The creature below was just about the right size to be a small sand croc—meat enough for a feast, fat enough to flavor mash for a week, leathery hide enough to—

It took only another moment to realize the shadow was a person, and appeared more intimate with death than life.  He put away the sling and urged the horse onward, then dropped to the ground.  The Blade didn’t seem to notice, shuffling along on hands and knees like the giant lizard he’d mistaken her for.  Black and sand-encrusted blood matted the hair to the back of her head.  One wrist bulged at a sickening angle, and one leg didn’t bend much.  Her bare feet were raw.  Every breath she took sounded like sand scraping over glass.  She stank of rot.  No exile had shown up looking so bad.

Pyrius grasped her shoulder as gently as he could, and she turned her swollen and peeling face toward him.  Her eyes stared blankly from deep sockets.  Recognition stole his breath and a cry of shock, anguish, rage caught in his throat.  As gently and quickly as he could, he gathered up the woman who still possessed his heart.

Shella.”  He tried to wipe the sand from her eyes, and his fingers came away slick with blood.  “Shella, love, what happened?”

She rasped but one word as he lifted her from the sands that had fought, and failed, to claim her life.  “Truth.”


“She should be dead, Commander.  Long dead.”  Surgeon Dumak scrubbed his hands with clean sand as he spoke.  “Blood loss alone should’ve done it, if not the cracked skull, busted ribs…  I can’t guess how long she’s been out there, but I can tell you she spent most of it walking or crawling.  No one brought her here.”

Pyrius stroked his moustache and stared at Shella.  Though Dumak had stripped her and washed away enough of the grime to perform an examination, she hadn’t made a sound or movement.  Seeing how injury and exposure had distorted her appearance, he wondered how he’d recognized her at all.

“There’s no black on her shoulder, either,” the surgeon added.

“No black?”  Every exile had one—the single line, stained black, branded just above the right shoulder blade—to mark them for life.

“And there’s a copper stain above each bicep as well,” Dumak said quietly.

The faint greenish rings were difficult to distinguish from the bruises, but they were enough to spill out a cascade of memories: Shella’s bright laughter when her promotion had been confirmed, her flushed cheeks when the copper armbands were first placed on her, her eager hands roaming his bare skin when they met later for their own private celebration.

“You’d best see this, too,” Dumak said.  With the detachment of a Blade surgeon, he pulled back the blanket to expose Shella’s nude body.  Long, narrow bruises crossed her legs and ribs.  Dumak pointed to two such lines that ended in a tangle of cuts.  “I’ve seen enough of those to know the cause, and so have you.”

An iron rod, carried by the bloodkin, and the individual glyphs that could split flesh.

“You pulled an outlawed comdar from the desert, Commander.”

Pyrius scowled as he turned to leave.  “Give her your best care, Mak.  She deserves at least that.”

“What of the Velshaan?”

He paused, hand on the doorlatch.  “I’ll tell her.”

“And if her judgment overrides yours?”

“Mak…”  He closed his eyes and pushed aside the urge to grab Shella and run away.  “Do your best for now.  Please.  And bar the door behind me,” he added when he heard the chatter in the corridor.  “No one comes in until I say.”

He opened the door and glared at the exiles crowded outside the infirmary.  He ignored their questions, and leveled a glare at Ehren when he tried to wheedle out an answer with humor.  The Blade sometimes forgot that command came before friendship.

Once he heard Dumak drop the bar across the door behind him, Pyrius shook out his hands at the Blades—the signal to disburse, to be elsewhere.  They grumbled, but they obeyed, which was the most Pyrius could expect.  Chin up, shoulders back, steps clipped, he made his way to the Velshaan’s chamber.  He dismissed the Blade standing guard at the base of the tower stairs, noted the lamp at the landing above was dark as usual, and took a moment to straighten his leathers before heading up.  She made him wait longer than usual before giving him permission to step inside.

The single flame of a small oil lamp lit the room.  Velshaan Syrina sat behind her desk, staring out the open window despite the chill, her long and gold-touched black hair pulled over her shoulder to shield her face.  She didn’t look at him when he came in, or when she spoke to him.  Even so, he tucked his hands behind his back and set his feet to deliver his report properly.

“Did anyone steal your sand today, Commander?”

“It’s your sand, Velshaan, and no one touched a grain.”

She gave him a glance and a faint smile.  “Goodnight, then.”

“There are… other matters, Velshaan.”

She sighed.

“The well is barely keeping pace with our needs,” he said.  “Until the levels rise, I’d prefer we not risk using excess water to make mudbricks for wall repairs.”

“Agreed.  Next.”

“There were three fights—”

“Your concern, not mine.  Next.”

“Blade Rokus asked permission to fashion a crossbow from—”

No.”  She clenched her fist atop the desk.  “The weapon is forbidden in exile, and you know as well as I that my bloodkin would somehow find out.  I’ll not risk starving to death out here because some Blade wants to tinker.”

“My answer was the same, Velshaan.”

Syrina let out a breath and opened her hand.  “Of course.  Apologies, Commander.  Anything else of interest?”

“I found someone on the sands,” he said in a rush.

“I know.”  At last, she looked directly at him with an unnerving steady gaze of amber.  “I saw you come through the gates.  I wondered if you would tell me.”

“The surgeon is with her now.  She’s in very bad shape.  Unconscious.”

“Do you know who she is?”

He swallowed hard.  “Comdar Shella.”

Her eyes widened, then narrowed.  “Why would my bloodkin send her here?  To you?”

“I doubt she was intended to survive,” he said softly, struggling to remain as detached as Dumak had been.  “She’s been out there a long time.  Two of her ribs are cracked, the back of her scalp is split, her wrist is broken or dislocated, her ankle is swollen nearly twice its normal size.  She was beaten savagely,” he added with greater force than he intended.  “At least some of it with a Velshaan rod.”

“Can you read the glyphs?”

He shook his head.

“Hmm.”  Her fine-boned hand slid across the desktop as her gaze wandered out the window.  For a long time, her eyes searched the desert night while she clicked her thumbnail on the edge of the desk.  In such rare moments, Pyrius saw the youth beneath the Velshaan name, and remembered she was as young as the youngest of Blades.

“My Velshaan?”

She startled, but turned a calm gaze toward him.  “Will she live?”


“If she does, I will be the first to speak with her.  No one, not even you, may speak with her, except what Dumak must know for her care.  I’ll make no judgment until I hear her report of what happened.”

His legs weakened with relief.  “My gratitude, Velshaan.  The comdar is greatly respected.”

“So were you.”

They stared at each other, Pyrius working hard to keep from pointing out the obvious.  At least his exile could be framed as an undesirable assignment lasting an indeterminate number of years.  Hers could be nothing but a shunning, a punishment, a declaration of her weakness.  The written orders he’d been given upon her arrival in Exile—a single sheet marked with Velshaan Marika’s glyphs—hadn’t revealed the reason for Syrina’s presence, but had given only the command to see her protected and the raw, bloody consequences of failure.

“Can I trust you, Pyrius?”

He blinked.  “My Velshaan, I am a Blade sworn to—”

“Can I trust you with something that could return you to favor with my bloodkin?  Something that could free you, maybe Shella as well, from this place?”

His mouth opened, but no sound followed.  Syrina gave him a brittle smile that looked so like Raskah’s, his chest clenched.

“It’s an impossible choice,” she continued.  “Serve the outcast Velshaan, or use her to save yourself.  Your Blade vows might even compel you to do the later, considering how my bloodkin value me.  The gods know I wouldn’t want to make that choice, and I’ve been here only a year.  You’ve been here five.  And I sat in Court when your exile was decided.  I helped send you here.”

Pyrius drew a shaky breath.  “I recall one of your kin urging my death instead.”

“The words I spoke that day were my father’s.  He told me to choose exile over execution.”

“I… see.”

“He was right to do so.  I regret it’s taken me so long to believe so.”

Her sad honesty made him really look at her for the first time in months.  Cheeks that had once rounded with health looked sunken.  Little color touched her face anymore, her honey-brown complexion grown sallow.  Her linen robes had acquired the color of dust, the hems uneven from repeated mendings, and the elbows had begun to fray.  One strap of her leather sandals had been repaired with a piece of rough twine.  Yet she awaited his answer.  Had given him a choice.

“Only you can decide who to trust, My Velshaan.  But I will never forsake what trust you choose to give me.”

She watched him as he spoke, mouth tugging downward.  “My father was so very right about you, Pyrius.  He didn’t always let Raskah…  I wish he would have…”

When her voice caught, she turned away and coughed.  Pyrius stared past her, out the window, having long perfected the act of looking without watching, and waited.  It was not his place to comfort, nor acknowledge the need to comfort, a Velshaan.

“Too much dust in the air tonight,” she eventually announced.

Pyrius played along.  “The wind is up.  If you’d like me to close the shutters—”

“No, I’m—  It’s fine.”  She sniffled as she rose to her feet.  Her eyes were red, but dry of tears.  “Come here.  Look at something me.”

She walked to the small brazier near the bed and knelt beside it, motioning for Pyrius to kneel on the other side.  They stared at the empty iron bowl for many moments before she spoke.

“We were close, once, Raskah and I.  We did almost everything together.  But what fascinated us most were tales of the Woes.  Not the fighting between Velshaan—well, not just the fighting.  It was the stories of what the Velshaan used to be.  What the Velshaan could do.  At night, we’d sit back to back on our balcony and watch the stars, imagining we could indeed set the sands on fire with the wave of our hands, or carve our own oasis from the stone ridges around Prime Stronghold.  I loved those times until…”  Her voice became as hard as iron.  “Until I realized that if every grain of sand held the power of Iasone, the entire desert wouldn’t be enough to satisfy my brother.”

He glanced to her—voicing a similar thought had resulted in his exile—and found her watching him.

“You saw it,” she said.  “That made you dangerous.  But I did something worse, Pyrius.  I told him no.  I refused to be his consort.  I refused to help him become a true Iasone.  Can you guess why my bloodkin chose to exile me for that?”

Pyrius knew.  The last time the Velshaan bloodkin had feuded amongst themselves, the sands had indeed burned.  The earth had cracked, wells had gone dry, the Great River had changed its course, and the bloodkin had killed each other until less than a handful survived.  Had it not been for Marika’s grandfather—the last Blade Velshaan, who held the loyalty of commanders and comdars—SheyKhala could have lost the guardianship of the gods’ own children.

She nodded at his silence.  “And if my bloodkin discovered what I’m going to show you, I would be killed for fear I’d destroy us all.”


She held up a hand for silence, then pulled a piece of sandstone from the small pile of rocks beneath her cot and placed it in the brazier.  Meticulous with each movement, she pressed her left hand against the stone wall and spread her fingers wide.  Her right hand she clenched into a fist over her heart.  After a last anxious look at him, she closed her eyes.

Nothing happened.  Pyrius began to wonder if Dumak had been right in doubting her sanity, if her self-imposed exile within exile had eroded her sense of reality.  Perhaps her bloodkin had, in truth, sent her to exile to avoid the shame of her nighttime hallucinations, of insane suspicions and fears and—

Syrina took a sudden deep breath and held it.  Slowly, she drew her fist from her chest and held it over the cold stone.  Her fingers opened above the stone as breath trickled from her lips.  Then, from within the stone, a pinpoint of light flared and died.  Then another, and another.  The pinpoints began to pulse, more and more of them, joining into ribbons of light that slithered over and into the stone, widening and snapping and linking and hissing.  With a final hushed puff, the flickering light became a steady and silent glow that encompassed the stone and pushed warm air into Pyrius’s face.

He fell back on his hip, swearing under his breath at the impossibility before him, then stared at the fragile-seeming woman who had created it.

“Lo, he made the sands to burn,” she recited from the old tales, “and his enemies could not escape but were turned to ash.”

“By all the gods,” he whispered, “you have no reason to fear your bloodkin.”

She frowned, then pushed to her feet and slowly backed away.  The more distance between her and the stone, the dimmer the light and heat, fading to a faint afterglow of warmth.  Her frown deepened, and she turned to dip her hands in the water basin.  Her palms were still red, splotched with white, when she pulled them out.  It wasn’t until she was seated behind her desk , hands folded on her lap, that she looked back to Pyrius.  He remembered to breathe, to blink, to slowly roll back onto his knees and face her.

“I can’t do much more than heat rocks,” she said.  “Not yet.  So if you decide this piece of information is your passage back to favor, I can’t turn the sands against you or incinerate you where you stand.  And if you choose to keep my secret, I can’t offer you anything more than the same exile you already have.”

“I told you I wouldn’t betray your trust.”

“A promise made in ignorance is no promise worth having.”

“Then why would you tell me at all, Velshaan?”

“Because,” she said softly, “it’s possible I shall not be reconciled with my bloodkin.  I do not want to repeat the Woes of my anscestors, but I will not be forced into compliance with my grandmother’s demands and my brother’s whims.”

Pyrius swallowed hard and rubbed his face.  A full decade before Syrina had been born, he’d knelt before the Velshaan bloodkin to receive the Blade’s brand.  While the stench of his burnt flesh hung in the air, he’d gasped out his vows of eternal service, proving he would endure whatever was asked of him in order to safeguard the unity of SheyKhala.

But in the pitifully bare infirmary below, the gods were deciding if Shella would survive what those same Velshaan had done to her.

By swearing to keep Syrina’s secret, he could own it as surely as she did.  He would hold power over those who believed they’d shut him out of their world and destroyed any pieces of it that remained.  And he had the means to turn what might otherwise be deemed sedition into rightful, lawful service.

Still on one knee, his heart racing, he drew his dagger .  She tensed at first, then her eyes widened when he dragged the honed edge across the pale inside of his forearm.  Blood welled up along the shallow cut as he offered her both the dagger’s hilt and his blood.


“This is my vow, freely given.”


“I will,” he said.  He would do what no Blade had done since the Woes—giving the Velshaan of his choosing an oath that set them both apart from all laws governing Blades and their service to the bloodkin.

“Freely given,” he repeated, and swallowed his fear.  “I choose to obey you above all others, and to protect you from all who would do you harm, at the cost of my own life.  I seal this vow with my own blood, drawn with my own iron.  May the gods scatter my soul like ashes in the wind should I fail you.”

She stared, and he forced himself to hold her gaze as he placed the blooded blade of his dagger in his fist and held out the hilt to her.  He couldn’t rescind his vow, but she could reject it.

Then she took a deep and shuddering breath, and slowly released it as she came to her feet.  She stood over him as a Velshaan, a child of the gods, on the verge of gaining an Iasone’s power, preparing to claim what was rightfully hers.  “No Velshaan has accepted a blood-and-iron vow in decades, Commander.  It could be called an act of sedition between us, already exiles.”

“This is my vow,” he said again, unable to suppress its slight trembling of his fist.  “Blood and iron, my Velshaan.”

“A sweeping proclamation for an exile,” she whispered, and took the hilt.  Once he released the dagger, she reversed it and placed the hilt back in his hand—the dagger’s point aimed at her heart, sealing the trust between them.  “One I will accept, and believe.”

The shadow of a smile passed over her lips, not quite reaching her eyes, before she returned to her desk by the window.  “I’ll leave it to you to decide what to tell the others about Shella.  Do have Dumak check that cut.  A Blade of your experience shouldn’t be wounding himself when cleaning his dagger.”

“My Velshaan?”

“Good night, Commander.  There’s naught more to be done tonight.”

Muscles stiff, he got to his feet.  He wiped the dagger clean on his trouser leg before sheathing it, then bowed to her back and left her chamber.  He made it halfway down the stairs before dizziness overtook him and the strength drained from his legs.  He sat down hard, catching his scabbard before it clattered against the steps.  His breath came in quick gasps and his heart pounded hard enough to hurt.

He held out his arm and stared.  The self-inflicted wound was hardly worth a trip to the infirmary.  Already the blood had begun to dry in a thin, sticky layer across his skin.  The sweat stinging the cut caused more discomfort than the cut itself.  Syrina had merely offered him a convenient excuse for its existence.

He shouldn’t have done it.  She hadn’t asked for it.  A simple promise was all she’d sought.  Now he belonged to her—body, mind, soul—bound to fulfill anything she asked under the invocation of blood and iron, and only she could release him from the vow.  Knowing the bloodkin as he did, such release would never come.  And kind as she could be, Syrina was still Velshaan.  Her fate would be his, good or ill.

“Oh, dear gods,” he whispered.  “What have I done?”


Blade Ehren answered the commander’s summons with great relief.  Everyone in Exile Stronghold had been champing over theories and rumors, especially after he’d stalked off to the Velshaan’s chamber without a word to anyone.  Since Ehren was the closest to a friend Pyrius had, everyone was certain he knew who the commander had lugged in from the desert.  To his great perturbation, Ehren knew nothing, but hadn’t enjoyed a moment’s peace regardless.

Now, somewhere between midnight and dawn, the commander wanted to see him.  But before he could reach the sanctuary of Pyrius’s chambers, Dendra fell in step beside him.

“I don’t know,” he said before the comdar posed her question.  “I’ve seen nothing, been told nothing, and don’t care to hazard a guess.”

She frowned.  “No one believes you.”

“No one believes you and I aren’t secretly enamored with each other, either.”

“Because I’m one of the few who keep my clothes on in your presence.”

“I merely comfort the lonely Blades in exiles.  It isn’t my fault you fail to appreciate my charm.”

She snorted.  “Incorrigible.”

“And you love me for it.”

“I tolerate you.”

Only once had he and Dendra shared a cot—it had been one of the least arousing nights of Ehren’s life—and they’d chosen to laugh over the mutual lack of passion.  Before exile, he’d never believed he’d befriend a woman whose blankets he didn’t share at least a few nights a month.  Especially a woman with such perfectly rounded hips.  Particularly one who outranked him.

“Will you tell me what you find out?” she asked as they reached the commander’s door.

“Depends on my orders.  You know that.”

Dendra rolled her eyes.  “What sort of secret could anyone have in exile?”

“The sort between the commander and me?”


She faked a tight punch to his groin, and chuckled when he instinctively cringed to protect himself.  Why women thought a man’s reaction to that kind of hurt was funny, he’d never understand.  In return, he flicked the back of his hand against her hip as she walked away, which only earned him another laugh.  He waited until she’d rounded the corner at the corridor’s end, then straightened his jerkin and rapped on the commander’s door.

Pyrius immediately called him into the lamplit room.  Like all the rooms in exile, the furnishings were as sparse as a Blade-hopeful’s barracks, and in worse shape, but the commander had a table large enough to be used as something more than a basin stand.  Pyrius was seated on one side of it, and he motioned Ehren to the stool opposite him.  Ehren sat, folded his hands atop the table, and waited.  For many moments, the commander remained leaning back in his chair, staring at his hands cupped in his lap.  His lips formed a thin line nearly hidden by his mustache.

“How bad is it out there?” Pyrius at last rumbled.

“Like a herd of littles guessing what treats or monsters are lurking in a locked chest.”

Pyrius winced.  “Any trouble?”

“Do stupid speculations count?”

“Such as?”

“You’re hiding a Velshaan-sent spy who came to decide which of us gets to go home, and which of us will be killed.”

“Let me guess—Aleena.”

Ehren grinned.

“That’s not trouble, Blade.  That’s normal.  Anything else?”

“Curiosity run amok, and a few bets laid on the identity of our newest exile.”

“And you?”

“I’m not sure I want to know, since you look so rattled by it.”

Groaning softly, Pyrius crossed his arms and tilted his head back to look at Ehren.  “Tell me what you think of Velshaan Syrina.”

“Not much, really.”  He shifted in his chair and rubbed the back of his neck.  “Most times, I forget she’s even here, which I guess is reason enough to be grateful it isn’t one of her bloodkin up in the tower.”  He shuddered once, thinking what it would be like if Raskah had been sent here instead.


“And she doesn’t pull rank when it comes to rations.”  Scarcity made that greatly important.


And I never thought much about her at all.  She’s just…Velshaan.  She helped send us here back then, but now she’s here herself, so who knows why the bloodkin do what they do?”

Pyrius sighed.  “The Blades can wait until morning.  I’m telling you the news now because I want a level head in the bunch.”

“Shouldn’t you be telling the comdars instead?  I could find Comdar Dinshar.  Actually, I passed Dendra on the way here.  I could—”

“This is an unusual situation.”

Oh splendid.  “But I—”


For a heartbeat, the name meant nothing.  Then Ehren sucked in a deep breath.  “They exiled Comdar Shella?  Your Shella?  The training comdar?  Why?”

“She’s no exile.  I don’t what she is.”

“Did she say—”

“Nothing.  She’s not even conscious.”  He rubbed his eye with a single knuckle.  “”You can see the outline of a Velshaan rod in her bruises.”

“But if she isn’t an exile—”

“I don’t know!” Pyrius snapped, then grimaced, then sighed.  “I don’t know, Ehren.  Syrina didn’t even hazard a guess.”

Ehren swallowed.  “What does she plan to do with Shella?”

“Nothing yet.  Nothing until she hears Shella’s side of things.”

In an instant, Ehren’s estimation of their resident Velshaan stepped up a few notches.  Considering the swift and one-sided session before the Velshaan that had decided his own exile, the fact Syrina would await an explanation was an agreeable innovation.  “Do you trust her?”

He nodded slowly, thumb skimming over a fresh cut on his forearm.  “I do.  By blood and iron.”

“Blood and—”  A chill shook him as he jerked his hands from the table onto his lap.  “You… did you… oh gods, you did that?”

Pyrius continued the same slow nod.  “And that remains between us.”

“Yes, Commander,” he whispered.  The love Pyrius held for Shella must run deep indeed if he were willing to trade his life and soul for the chance she might be granted safety.  Small wonder Pyrius had asked his opinion of Syrina.

“Does Abras still have some of that wretched brew of his?” Pyrius asked abruptly.

“Probably,” he muttered, then gave his head a hard shake to clear his thoughts.  “I think so.”

“Why don’t you fetch a skin.  I could use a drink.”

“Me, too.”

“And some company.”

“I…  I’ll be right back.”

Ehren pushed from the table, eager to escape the small room.  Since Ehren had first arrived in Exile—bewildered and despairing, raw from wounds to body and spirit—Pyrius had been his bedrock of common sense and predictability.  Now the man he depended upon to keep the world aright had gone and done something so utterly rash and archaic and unthinkable, so entirely out of character.  Pyrius’s vow meant that all other ties—superiors, subordinates, friends, family, even the law itself—counted for naught when the vow was invoked.

Hearing footsteps ahead, he ducked into a shadowy side corridor and pressed his back against the wall.  He held his breath as a trio of Blades passed within an arm’s length of his poor hiding place, so deep in conversation they never glanced his way.  Once their voices faded, he slid down the wall and hung his head between his knees.

Pyrius never, never made a move without good cause.  He knew that as surely as he knew his own name.  Given that truth—and the fact Ehren was unwilling to consider it might have changed—the commander must have another, more grave reason for offering Velshaan Syrina his life.  A reason he chose not to share, or could not share.  Ehren didn’t need to know the reason.  He simply needed to believe it existed.

The logic mended the cracks in the foundation that the Blade within him needed.  Steadier, he stood and straightened his leathers, then lightly smacked his own cheeks to color them for fear he looked pale.  He still had drink to fetch, and an ashen complexion would provoke darker rumors than those already swirling through the stronghold.

He forced himself to wear an untroubled grin as he strode to Abras’s chamber, but kept his pace clipped when anyone still wandering the corridors looked to question him.  He had to bang on the door three times to gain a grumpy, sleepy response.  In his early twenties, Abras held the dubious distinction of being the youngest Blade in exile, sent here not long after his branding.  He’d quickly found his place, though, by concocting one of the strongest and most disgustingly bitter drinks that had ever passed Ehren’s lips.  He didn’t want to know what Abras used as ingredients.

The man grumbled when he opened his door, stopping only when Ehren invoked the commander’s name as the reason for his pre-dawn visit.  Abras dragged a flat crate from beneath his cot and chose one of the larger skins.  He held it out to Ehren, but didn’t release it.

“Favor for favor,” Abras said, with a sleepy grin.  “Tell me the mystery.”

Ehren widened his grin.  “What mystery, youngling?”

“Ah.”  He let the skin go and flopped back onto his cot.  “I hear you, Blade.  ‘Go back to sleep, Abras.  None of your concern, Abras.  Don’t meddle in my business, Abras.'”

“See you in the morning, Abras,” Ehren said in the same singsong.  He narrowly ducked the boot Abras flung at him, then quickly slammed the door behind him.  With luck, not many of the exiles would hold the secret-keeping against him.  If not, well…  Oh, well.

Sometimes being the commander’s confidant was hell ten times over.  But Ehren smiled as he headed back to Pyrius, realizing the hell was worth every moment.

Go on to Chapter 6…

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