“Read it.” The citadel master thrust the book into Decallion’s hands, his knife at the boy’s throat.
Decallion shivered with dread. Not because of the cold steel pricking his skin, his bruised cheek, or the blood trickling from his temple. It was because of the parchment beneath his fingertips. Its brittle paper, its stink of old leather, vanilla, and dust, was the touch and the aroma of death.
“I can’t.” Decallion’s sixteen-year-old voice shook. The words were almost lost within the hum of waves below the hall’s arched balcony. “You know I can’t. Please.”
“Read it.” The scar upon Alaric’s ruined face was angry and hot.
“Why do you bother with this child?” From his place at the citadel master’s side, Talon curled a lip in disgust. The Skeleton, Decallion and Sinnabar called him. Despite the sultry heat, his gaunt, slender form was adorned in black silk, for he was a vain man. “The traitor left his mark on him. The boy’s trouble. He has been corrupted.”
“That is a lie,” Decallion cried. “I am true to the citadel and the temple.”
Alaric fisted Decallion’s hair to bare his throat for the knife. “Then read,” the master said.
Decallion trembled. He glanced about the vaulted stone-lined hall of the citadel. Despite the afternoon heat, the cavernous room, with its trestle tables and benches, was cool and shadowy. This would be the last place he ever saw—if he read a single word.
He lifted his eyes to the master. “I’m not lettered.” Decallion’s voice broke up. He wished he were more like Sinnabar—unafraid and undaunted by authority. But obedience, a lesson absorbed harshly, was not easily set aside. It took all his courage just to lie, all his will not to drop his gaze. “I know it’s forbidden.”
“You try my patience, boy,” Alaric said. “That book was hidden in your bedchamber. Read it, or I’ll cut your throat right here and throw your worthless corpse into the sea.”
Terror lanced Decallion’s heart. He glanced at the master then at Talon’s cruelly gleeful expression. His hand unsteady, Decallion touched fingertips to a page.
His voice a croak, he read, “The silver mist rose up from the abyss. In its wake, where its tendrils touched the ground, the undying fire sprang to life, a gift from the blessed goddess Mirr.” Each beautiful, wonderful word condemned him. “All the rulers of the Circle Kingdoms heard the thunder of water from the endless river—”
“Enough.” The master lowered the knife. With a gloved finger, he touched a tear on Decallion’s eyelash. “Foolish child,” he said softly, “to be seduced by the promise of knowledge.”
“It wasn’t that.” He had learnt to read to please her, to look clever in front of Sinnabar. Except, he didn’t seem so clever now, under arrest and brought forcibly to the hall.
More helpless tears brimmed. Decallion squeezed them back. He knew he must be punished for learning to read. The law of the Circle Kingdoms was clear. Clear, unyielding… and flawed. Sinnabar said all laws were imperfect, even when decreed by the temple.
“Please don’t send me away,” he pleaded. “The citadel is the only home I’ve ever known.” His only skills were what he’d learnt here; the cut and thrust of swordplay, how to nock an arrow to a string, and how to position his body and brace the bow against his shoulder to fire.
The citadel master rested a hand on Decallion’s hair. “Bind him,” he told his servant. “I must think what to do.”
The Skeleton grabbed Decallion’s wrists, roped them behind the boy’s back, and dumped him on a stool. “Do not move.” His voice, a stonemason’s tool scraping a granite block, matched his face. His skin stretched tightly over bones as if prepared for tanning. His hair was a smooth black cap.
Decallion hunched his shoulders, too afraid to run. The room, with its stark walls and gloom that the sunlight pooling near the windows could not penetrate, closed in. He began to shake.
The two men stepped onto the balcony. The minute they were gone, Decallion sobbed openly. His life was over. The future he had dreamed about as he lay on his cot in his bare cell was gone. He would never become a blade lord, never reach the day of tethering and choose Sinnabar.
No, if the master pronounced him dangerous, Alaric would cast him from the citadel—or throw him into the dark place to await his surrender to a temple fura. Decallion shuddered. The Chamber of Whispers deep within the citadel came to him in his nightmares, leaving only an imprint of dread upon his body when he woke. He had told no one about the nightmares. Not even Sinnabar.
His breast ached. Sinnabar. They’d not been apart since he was nine. What would become of him without her? What happened to a sixteen-year-old orphan on the streets of the Circle Kingdoms? Friendless, alone, with no trade or knowledge, except how to kill.
A terrible thought stirred then. His breath died, his skin icy with alarm.
The master must never learn she had given Decallion the book or that it was she who had taught him to read. He had to protect her, make up a story about finding the book or claim he’d stolen it. Yes, that might work. It rankled him to admit to something as low as theft, but it would make his lie convincing. Desperate to learn if they knew of Sinnabar’s part in his disgrace, Decallion pushed awkwardly to his feet and crept to the balcony door.
“Safer to kill the brat.” The Skeleton’s gravelly voice was low and ugly. “Temple law is clear. You must surrender him to the Sirild Council to be judged.”
Decallion recoiled in shock. The Sirild Council was a death sentence for men.
“I hear the Sirild priestesses chop bits off,” he’d once heard a kitchen maid tell a gardener she had caught sleeping in the clover. “Ending with your head.”
No, no. Better if his life ended in this room, the master’s knife ripped across his throat, before his body was thrown onto the rocks beneath the citadel, where the gulls would pick at his flesh.
“It is a waste.”
“It is the law.”
The master’s tone was curt. “Who knows about this? About the book.”
“You and I. The boy. And that young woman, of course. Sinnabar.”
Decallion’s legs almost folded. They suspected Sinnabar. But even the citadel master couldn’t arrest her, surely. Not without evidence. And Decallion would give them none. They could throw him into the dark place for eternity, starve and beat him, but he would never give her up.
“That wilful girl,” the master said. “I let this go on too long. I dismissed it as a childish fancy they’d grow out of. She, surely, must tire of him eventually. Or so I thought.”
“The bond between them is strong,” the Skeleton said.
“Yes,” Alaric said. “Yes. And that makes it dangerous.”
The two men fell silent. Only the whisper of the breeze through stonework and a rattle of a shutter from above broke the silence. The citadel in the afternoon was always hushed, the daily morning clanging of battering, ringing steel from the training ground gone.
“If it were any other”—the master’s velvet voice held regret—“I would surrender him to the council. But his skill is unsurpassed for one so young. Already, he commands the sword. Hardly surprising. Given who he is.”
Who he is? Surprise then eagerness rushed through Decallion.
He knew nothing of his past. The master had told him the citadel had taken him in as an orphaned infant, fed, and clothed him. They’d raised him to become a blade lord in service to the Circle Kingdoms—if he proved worthy. Goddess, how he wanted to be worthy.
“The traitor could have lied about who the boy is,” the Skeleton said. “He’s nothing like the man rumoured to be his father.”
“There was no deception,” the master said. “The boy is the product of an incredible and unlikely mating.”
Decallion’s scalp prickled. Such strange and bewildering words. He chanced a look, irrationally hoping their expressions or gestures might reveal something more.
“That only makes him more dangerous,” the Skeleton said.
The master knuckled the balcony’s stone wall. “With his blood, this child could be the most powerful blade lord of all.” He sighed. “No. I will not kill him. But I will fix this, fix him.”
Not ‘kill him.’ Not ‘banish him.’ Decallion shook with relief. He backed away quietly and sank onto the stool, stunned by what he’d just heard. He was someone. Not just an orphan or a nameless, abandoned child.
Oh goddess… A warmth stirred in his belly. It was too much to take in.
“Decallion.” A cool hand fell on his arm.
Sinnabar crouched beside him. Her steps across the hall to his side had been as stealthy as an assassin’s.
“He bound you.” Her lips were tight with indignation, her gardenia-and-lily perfume silk soft in his nostrils. “How dare he? How dare he send guards to arrest you?”
“You can’t be here.” Decallion glanced nervously at the balcony. “They found the book, Sinnabar.”
She rocked back on her heels, her dark eyes round, and gasped, “No.”
“I won’t betray you,” he said fiercely. “Not ever. Even if he tortures me.”
She stared at him as if unable to grasp his meaning. Then she blinked off the trance. Touching fingertips to his cheek, she said softly, “Do you think I’d let him torture you, Decallion? I’d give myself up before that happens.”
“He says he’s going to fix this. The master. He says he’s going to fix me.”
“Fix you?” Sinnabar hissed warm breath onto his face. A twig stuck in her black hair from the forest, where they’d met secretly at noon while everyone slept in the heat. He wanted to brush that twig away then smooth an unruly lock between his fingers.
“No.” She ground a fist into her palm. “He won’t.”
“You can’t stop him. Alaric is master of the citadel. Master of the blade lords. The most powerful man in the Circle Kingdoms.”
“Oh, my darling Decallion. Soul of my soul. Is that what you think?” She laughed, the sound thick with bitter resolve.
He knew her every mood: the tenderness in her, the stubbornness, the storm. He loved each part, how they knitted into the force that was Sinnabar. He had to protect that precious force, the precious young woman.
“You have to go, Sinnabar. He can’t find you in this hall. It’s forbidden.”
“I brought this.” She drew an ampoule from beneath her gown, squeezed out the stopper, and held it to his lips. “Drink,” she urged. “Decallion, drink.”
“What is it?”
“I know what he intends. This will save you. I won’t let him part us.”
“I don’t understand. What is this potion?”
“What indeed?” Alaric asked.
The balcony shutters banged at his back. In a few long strides, the master was at Sinnabar’s side, snatching the ampoule from her. The Skeleton followed, his lips set in a nasty grin.
Sinnabar sprang up, her hands outstretched. “Give that back. You have no right.”
Alaric weaved away from her. He sniffed at the ampoule. His face darkened. “Where did you get this?”
“As if I’d tell you, monster.”
“Monster.” He rolled the word in his mouth. A shadow, an age-old weariness, hollowed his eyes. As if compelled, he lifted his hand to his scarred face, only to whip it away.
Afraid for her, Decallion shifted on the stool. If only Sinnabar weren’t so bold, so rash. If she thought a thing, she said it, careless of the consequences. But this was the time for guile, for honeyed excuses and apologies. The time to run.
“Sinnabar.” The word creaked from his tight throat. “Sinnabar, go now.”
The young woman shoved her hands to her hips to stare down the master. “I know what ‘fix him’ means. I’m not going to let you take him to that terrible room.”
The master hurled the ampoule away. The glass shattered against the wall, its amber liquid contents trickling down the stone. “It was you,” he said. “You taught him to read.”
“So what?” Sinnabar squared her shoulders. “The law is archaic. One day, it will be swept aside.”
“You little fool, do you know what happens to a man who can read? The Sirild Council will judge then execute him. As for the woman who dared teach a man…” He let the words trail away. Their threat lingered, bloating in the quiet.
Decallion wanted to surge up, hold Sinnabar to his breast, and at least offer her the protection of his body. Not that she, so independent, would thank him for it.
“I’m not afraid for me. But I won’t let you surrender him to the council.”
“Sinnabar.” Decallion was frantic now. “Please, please, just go. It doesn’t matter about me. I’m nothing. No one.”
She swung around to face him, her hands bunched. “How can you say that? You’re everything. You’ve always been everything.”
“You’re everything,” the Skeleton mimicked. “Oh, Decallion, you’ve always been everything.” He pressed his thin mouth into a sneer. “Pathetic.”
The master held up a hand. He was watching Sinnabar. “What if I said there might be a way to save him? That you can do just that, if you choose to be sensible?”
Sinnabar swallowed hard. “What do you propose?”
“I propose we reach an agreement, you and I.”
She scoffed. “If you think I’d agree to anything you want—”
“You want him to live, don’t you? The boy.”
Sinnabar glanced uneasily at Decallion. “Yes.”
“Don’t,” he whispered. “Do not surrender a thing. Not for me.”
“What sort of agreement?”
“No.” He shot up, but the Skeleton shoved him down.
Sinnabar didn’t look at Decallion. She looked only at the master.
He spread his arms with the assurance of the most formidable man in the Circle Kingdoms. Alaric, commander of the citadel. Commander of the blade lords. As always, he was in control.
“If you wish me to spare his life, this is what you’ll do.” Alaric paused to smile. It was a satisfied smile, but Decallion glimpsed menace within it.
“You’ll go away. Join the Sirild Council. Tell your mother you wish to become a guardian of the knowledge that only women may possess.”
“No,” Decallion cried. “Sinnabar, you can’t.”
“Quiet, you wretched boy,” the Skeleton rasped. “Another word, and I’ll gag you.”
Still Sinnabar’s gaze held on the master, as if she and Alaric were bound by a secret language, as if there were layers within their negotiations understood only by them.
“And if I do this—” She tongued her top lip. “Then he is safe?”
“Sinnabar, stop.” Decallion stormed to his feet. He elbowed the Skeleton aside, moving between her and the master. Hands bound, he had only his legs and the lean bulk of his young body to defend her.
At the master’s nod, the Skeleton backhanded Decallion’s face. The blow spun him to his knees. The Skeleton yanked him up and held his shoulders.
“Stop.” Sinnabar rounded on the Skeleton, her fists knotted. “Don’t you dare hurt him.”
“That’s up to you,” the master said calmly.
Sinnabar’s cheeks flushed. Her eyes were wide as if she held back tears. Decallion’s heart hurt to see the struggle in her.
“But you’ll make him forget me,” she said. “That’s what you’ll do to him in that terrible chamber.”
“The Chamber of Whispers is nothing to do with you, Sinnabar, daughter of the Circle Kingdoms.”
At their strange words, a shiver iced Decallion’s neck. The dark place. Every blade lord must go there after battle. He looked from Sinnabar to the master in bewilderment. Neither paid him any attention. This was a private contract between them. Over him.
“You’ll go away,” Alaric said. “He’ll become a blade lord, and you’ll forget him, just as he’ll forget you.”
“Never.” Decallion struggled in the Skeleton’s hold. “I’ll never forget you, Sinnabar.”
“Decallion”—at last, she looked at him—“I have to protect you. I’ve always had to protect you.”
“Don’t do this,” he pleaded. “I don’t care what he does to me.”
“Be brave. Nothing lasts forever. This, too, will end.” She faced Alaric. “Why are you forcing me to leave? Why does it matter so much?”
“That does not concern you,” Alaric said.
“You’re jealous.” She stabbed a finger at him. “Alaric, master of the citadel, can stand no rivals. Decallion must be yours. Every blade lord belongs to you.”
“It’s a matter of loyalty,” he said. “That’s all.”
“Sinnabar, please,” Decallion said.
She turned and took a step towards him. The Skeleton dropped Decallion to block her. The master waved him off. He watched her with a curious intensity.
Sinnabar cupped Decallion’s cheek. Her touch was so tender, he trembled with longing. Leaning closer, she brushed his lips with hers then whispered, “Remember me.”
Decallion could not answer her. A sob blocked his throat.
“Do I have your word?” the master asked.
Sinnabar straightened. She turned to Alaric, her face broken with sadness. “I’ll go away. But I won’t forget him. Nor will I forget you, Alaric, master of the citadel.”
“So you give me fair warning,” he said softly. “I shall repay the favour, Sinnabar, daughter of the Circle Kingdoms. Listen hard. If you think to play with me, whatever terrible game you choose, it will be one even you, for all your wits, cannot win.”
“I will win,” she said. “Because I will be fighting for love.”
“Then you will be fighting for nothing.” The citadel master snapped his fingers at the Skeleton. “Bring the boy. It’s time his training to become a blade lord began in earnest.”
“I no longer want to be a blade lord,” Decallion cried. “If Sinnabar is leaving, then I’m going with her. She is my life, my heart.”
“Your life is mine,” Alaric said. “A blade lord does not even possess his own soul, Decallion. Your heart”—he shrugged—“shall belong to who I order you to give it to. And I will never tell you to give it to her.”
“Then it will never belong to anyone,” Decallion said.