Genre: Coming of Age Fantasy / Epic Fantasy
Page Count: 820
The Finale . . .
With the threat of two wars looming on the horizon, one between Elondria and Cylmar and the other between Sandstorm and Avalanche, Ayrion finds himself being pulled between his duty to his king and country and his desire to keep his street family safe.
With everything on the line, Ayrion is forced to delve deeper into his magic than he ever has before. This time, it might not be enough to save him.
WHAT DO WE DO with him?” Red asked in a panic as she and Po stared down at the prince’s bleeding body.
“Help me get him into the light,” I said. I was panicking as well, but I tried not to let it show as I lifted Dakaran’s limp frame by his arms and dragged him out of the alley. I stopped under the closest streetlamp to inspect the wound, pulling up his shirt. Blood poured from a hole on the left side of his abdomen. My palms started to sweat. It was bad. I’d seen men die from wounds like this. “How could you let this happen?”
“Why are you asking me?” Red hissed. “I didn’t do this.”
I ripped off one of the sleeves of my shirt and re-packed the hole from where either Red or Po had attempted to stop the bleeding before, then unhooked the prince’s belt to try tying the bandaging off. “You’re the one who dragged me out of bed in the middle of the night to tell me that the crown prince has been stabbed. I naturally assumed—”
“Why were you in bed this early in the evening?”
“I’ve been on patrol at the Cylmaran border for the last two weeks. I was tired.”
“What in the flaming Pits were you doing in Cylmar? Don’t you have enough to worry about here?”
My jaw tightened. “We’re on the brink of war, or have you been so long underground now that you don’t have a clue as to what is happening in the world?”
Red flushed, but Po just stood there watching, her silent shadow.
“Here,” I said, lifting Dakaran by the arms, “help me get him to his horse.”
Red grabbed one of the prince’s feet, and Po grabbed the other, and we carried him over to the hitching rail that was in front of the Fishnet tavern, a place Dakaran often frequented when he wanted to get out of the palace. Best lamb and mint sauce in the city, he would say. Dakaran had first introduced me to the tavern over four years ago. We had been too young at the time to patronize such a place, but the prince’s willingness to spend coins had earned him the proprietor’s silence, along with the nickname Master Silvercoin. Dakaran enjoyed being there because no one knew who he was—and didn’t care.
With their help, I managed to heft Dakaran’s limp body up over a horse whose brand marked it as belonging to the palace stables. I was going to have to have another talk with Bozz, the royal ostler, about looking the other way whenever Dakaran wanted to sneak out. At the very least, he should send me word.
Dakaran groaned in his delirium as he was dropped over the saddle.
I looked down at the blood on my hands and spun on Red. “And what in flaming gut rot was he doing with you?”
She sneered. “He wasn’t with me, if it’s any of your business, which it isn’t.” Her eyes narrowed. “Unless, of course, the thought of me and Dakaran has brought on a bout of passionate jealousy, then he was certainly with me.”
Po frowned as Red grabbed a random horse and swung up on the saddle. She leaned over and helped her quiet companion up behind her. “Lucky for him, I happened to be passing by.”
“What do you think you’re doing?” I asked as I swung up behind Dakaran to hold him in place.
“What does it look like? I’m coming with you, of course.”
I glanced over my shoulder and back toward the darkened alley at the side of the tavern. “And where’s his protection detail?”
“How should I know? I told you. He wasn’t with me.” She hmphed. “You know Dakaran. He dodges them every chance he gets. He probably took the hidden passages out of the palace.”
I ground my teeth. “I wish he hadn’t showed you those.”
She smirked. “You were there.”
“Don’t remind me.”
After my rescue of Red from the Warrens, in which Dakaran and Room Eleven had been involved, the prince had asked me to introduce him to some of my friends, especially Red and Sapphire. Sapphire had shown enough sense to realize that with the kind of business Sandstorm regularly facilitated, she should keep her distance. Red, on the other hand, was more than happy to show her interest, so he had invited her back to the palace. Dakaran was ridiculous enough to believe that impressing her with his wealth was going to earn him her favor. He certainly didn’t know Red. No telling how many times she’d been back over the last couple of years without Dakaran’s knowledge, just to pilfer.
I grabbed the reins with one hand and Dakaran’s belt with the other. “Lucky for you, he hasn’t bled to death already.” The prince’s face was pale, and his forehead was slick with sweat. “We need to hurry.”
“Where are you taking him?”
“To the one place he might stand a chance of surviving: Sandstorm.”
Red cocked her brow. “How long has it been since you’ve been back?”
I sighed. “About as long as you.” I spun the horse around and kicked it into a full gallop, and we rode east along the riverfront, heading for King’s Way East.
Despite her bravado, Red did not have the experience with horses I had, and it showed as she tried to keep up. Po clung to her for dear life as she did her best to keep from falling out of the saddle.
“Why not take him back to the palace?” Red asked as soon as we turned off King’s Way East onto Circle Drive. “They’ve got excellent physickers there, don’t they?”
“Because I need the best.”
She smirked. “You know he’s not going to be happy seeing you.”
“A risk I’m willing to take.”
We rode north to Bailey Street, then east again, passing Master Fentin and Mistress Orilla’s orphanage on the way. There were a couple of lights on inside, and I caught a glimpse through the front window of the old couple sitting by the fire as we passed. They had a tendency to read for an hour or two after putting the children to bed, as it was the only quiet time they had.
They were up later than usual tonight.
I turned off Bailey, and we rode a couple of streets north, taking the next avenue to the right. We crossed over a small rise and spotted the Sandstorm gate ahead. My heart started to pound, and I took a couple of deep breaths, releasing slowly to calm the excitement. It had been over a year and a half since I’d left. I wondered how much had changed. I hadn’t seen Reevie or Sapphire in all that time, not since that final day. I didn’t like dwelling on it. The last time we’d spoken, Reevie had told me that if I wanted to throw everything we’d been through away for a bunch of lancers, then I was no longer welcome at Sandstorm.
Quite the ironic twist, I thought, as I ran my thumb over the branded X on my wrist. I had been banished once again.
There were torches out front, and I caught movement through the bars as we rode up to the front of the drive and stopped.
I pulled back my hood. “Toots, are you out there?”
A head popped over the wall. “Protector, is that you?”
I hadn’t heard that name in a while, and it brought with it a momentary smile.
Toots, who had clearly hit his growth spurt and was old enough to have a bit of fuzz on his upper lip, stared at me from over the manor wall.
“What’s you doing here?” he asked. “And who’s that with you?”
“It’s me, you imbecile,” Red said, pulling her own hood back. Po leaned out so they could see he was there as well. “Now open the gate,” she hissed. “We have an emergency.”
Toots disappeared behind the wall, and moments later several bodies rushed around to unlock the gate and pull it open. Several runners shot up the lane toward the manor house, no doubt to warn the others of our arrival.
I didn’t have time to stop and chat, so I kicked the horse just as soon as the gate was wide enough to pass, and we rode up the drive to the manor house, with Toots calling out after us. I felt bad not stopping, but there were more important things to worry about this night. I stopped just outside the courtyard, hopped off, pulled Dakaran down from the saddle, and draped him over my shoulder. Pausing only a moment to check my balance, I rushed across the courtyard. I could hear Red’s and Po’s boots on the cobbles behind me as we raced for the front of the manor.
The doors swung open just before I arrived, and a young man with dirty-blond hair stepped out. When he saw me, he sheathed his sword.
“You’re about the last person I’d have expected to show up like this,” Bull said with a smile, then looked at the body over my shoulder. “Who’s that?”
“It’s the prince.”
Bull’s eyes widened. “And you brought him here?”
“Is Reevie here tonight?” The last I’d heard, he and Physicker Saban traded evenings at Saban’s infirmary near the Rose and Crown. I hoped this wasn’t his night in town.
“He’s here,” a woman’s voice from inside the manor said. “Why?”
I looked up to see Sapphire walking up behind Bull in an elegant black-and-purple dress with a long slit down either leg. Her hair was back in a single braid, and she had a sword in one hand, which she also sheathed once she saw me.
“Who have you got there?”
“It’s Dakaran.” I pushed my way past Bull and headed through the doors. Red and Po trailed a step or two behind.
Sapphire growled when she spotted Red. “I should have known you’d be with her.”
“I’m not with her,” I shot back. “She and Po found him. Now please get Reevie. Dakaran’s been stabbed. He’s lost a lot of blood.” I walked through the doors and started left down the gallery. “Is the infirmary still down here?”
“Yes,” Sapphire said, glaring at Red as she and Bull rushed to catch up.
“What’s going on?” a familiar high-pitched voice asked, followed by a noted vibration in the floor as Mouse and Tubby came bounding around the corner and down the hall in our direction. Mouse was sitting on one of Tubby’s enormous shoulders. “Protector? Is that you?”
Mouse had grown, though not as much as he would have probably liked. Tubby, on the other hand, had enjoyed a very noticeable growth spurt. His head now reached almost halfway up the vaulted windows.
Not having time to answer, I headed for the third door on the right.
Bull ran ahead of me and opened the door, grabbing a lantern off one of the nearby tables before heading inside to start lighting the rest of the room. I carried Dakaran in and deposited him on an exam table to the left, then put my ear to his chest.
“Is he still alive?” Sapphire asked, pushing past Red to get a better look.
“He’s breathing, but barely.”
“I wish I knew.” I drew my belt knife and started cutting away the shirt. “Here, help me get this off.”
Sapphire moved to the other side and helped me remove his belt and blood-soaked clothing. I looked at the wound. It was seeping. I pressed my hand over it. “Get me some clean bandages,” I said to Bull, who’d just finished lighting the rest of the lanterns. I looked at Sapphire. “Has anyone sent for—”
“What’s going on in here?”
I tensed at the voice but didn’t turn.
“He’s been stabbed,” Sapphire said.
“Who’s been stabbed? What’s happening?” Reevie pushed his way through the room, shooing those between him and the tables out of the way. “Woken out of my sleep,” he grumbled, “not told a thing. Move aside so I can—” Reevie’s eyes met mine, and he froze. Reevie looked much the same, though perhaps a little taller. His face had filled out, and he looked like he might have put on a little more muscle.
We stared at each other a moment in silence before I finally spoke. “I need your help. It’s Dakaran. He’s been stabbed.”
Reevie stood with his mouth agape, as if trying to decide if I was really there or if he was dreaming. He then looked down at the bloody prince and set his jaw. “Move, everyone!” Red turned to get out of his way, and Reevie gasped again. “What is this, some sort of reunion, or did I just wake up and miss the last two years of my life?” He snatched the clean bandages from Bull and pushed my hands aside. “Let me see the damage.”
I moved to let him get a closer look, and he scooted one of the table lamps closer. “Yep, he’s been stabbed alright.” He checked Dakaran’s pulse and breathing and even his eyes. “Lucky you found him when you did.” Reevie placed the clean bandages over the wound and motioned Bull over. He grabbed one of his co-chief’s large hands and held it over the wound. “Press here and keep it tight.”
“Why did you bring him here?” Reevie asked, purposefully not looking at me. “You’ve got physickers at the garrison, or the palace for that matter.”
“Because you’re the best.”
Reevie stared at the prince a moment, then turned and limped over to the fully stocked shelves on the other side of the room and began pulling bottles and jars off each and carrying them back to a table next to Dakaran.
“What can I do?” I asked.
“Stay out of my way.”
I moved back, joining Red and Po to watch Reevie go about his work.
A quick glance over my shoulder showed the gallery just outside the door quickly filling with kids of all ages, trying to get a peek inside. I was surprised by how many faces I didn’t recognize. Had Sandstorm grown that much over the last year and a half?
There were still plenty I did know. Petal and Squeaks had joined Mouse on Tubby’s shoulders. I saw Collen’s head rising above the others, his darker skin standing out. I was surprised to see Toothless next to Forehead. I would have thought Toothless had gone with Red when she left a year ago. It was strange to see Red’s former guard and Forehead still around, considering they were older than I was, perhaps even older than Sapphire, who would have celebrated her twenty-first birthday not all that long ago.
We were all getting older. A couple weeks back, Master Fentin and Mistress Orilla had thought to throw me a small party for my twentieth. Unfortunately, I had been called away on assignment before we got the chance to have it. I had finally left my teen years and reached manhood, though if age was based on experience, I’d wager I’d be nearing my forties by now.
A cork popped as Reevie opened a bottle, and I turned back from the door.
“Where’s Muriel?” Reevie snapped.
Sapphire called out the door, “Someone go get Muriel.”
“I’m here,” a soft voice replied, followed by a loud screech that could have only been Redwing. The others in the hall parted, and a girl with tangled brown hair stepped through the door. A large hawk balanced on her gloved arm. Muriel was taller and more filled out than the last time I’d seen her, but her appearance was just as unruly as I remembered. She had always been in charge of the birds, mainly the pigeon cages, and liked them better than most of her peers.
Muriel had taken to helping Reevie in the infirmary during our first year at Sandstorm. She placed Redwing on the back of a cushioned chair in the corner and handed Bull her glove.
“Get that bird off there,” Reevie groused. “I sit on that to read. I don’t want my hair plastered with bird droppings.”
Muriel gave Forehead the glove and then helped nudge the hawk onto the Sandstorm guard’s arm.
Reevie looked at Muriel. “Send someone to tell Cook to heat up some water and grab some of that Bristonian wine from the pantry.”
She nodded and took off out the door, grabbing a child I didn’t recognize on the way.
Dakaran groaned and tried to turn over, but Bull held him down.
“How’s he doing?” I asked nervously, inching forward.
“He’s doing terrible,” Reevie said. “He’s got a hole in his gut. How would you be doing?”
“Do you think you can save him?”
Reevie looked at Dakaran. “Possibly. I’ve been reading some journals from an apothecary in Easthaven who seems to have found some new uses for herbs like cholaris that those in my field are very skeptical about. I’ve tried them, and the results have been promising.” He started measuring out ingredients from several jars into his mixing bowl, adding in some clear liquid from a stoppered bottle.
“So what does that mean?” I asked.
“It means I’m going to do my best. But I’d do a lot better if people would quit hassling me.” He finally turned. “Alright, everyone out! I have work to do, and I can’t do it with all of you standing around gawking over my shoulder.”
I pointed to Dakaran. “I want to—”
“No!” He pointed to the door. “Out!”
“But the prince is my respons—”
“Not right now he isn’t. He’s on my table, and I want you gone.”
A hand squeezed my shoulder, and I turned.
Sapphire nodded toward the door. “Probably for the best,” she said softly. “Having you here isn’t making things easier on him. Besides, he’s why you brought the prince to us. Best do as he says.”
I sighed. She was right, but it still didn’t change the fact that I felt I needed to be there. The prince was my responsibility. More so, he was my friend, and I needed to make sure he came through this. I wasn’t one to sit around and wait on things to happen, especially when I wasn’t the one doing it. I took one last look at the prince and then joined the others in the long hallway outside. Bull shut the door.
The gallery was packed.
“Well, bless my soul. For once, the rumors are true.”
I turned to find Gustory pushing through the throng of kids. The middle-aged bard was looking much the same with his dark feathery hair and slightly weathered face. Perhaps a little greyer around the temples, but he still held that warm smile he always had while offering one of his wondrous tales. He started to offer me his hand, then switched to a full hug. As soon as he released me, he took a step back and gave me a once-over.
“You’re looking well, Ayrion,” he said, glancing toward the infirmary door. “I hear we have a member of the royal family, though, that’s not.”
“I only hope I got him here in time.”
The bard nodded. “I will pray for the prince’s recovery.” He turned, and his eyes widened. “Miracle of miracles. If it isn’t our Lady Red and Master Po. This is proving quite the exciting evening.” He frowned. “Last I heard, you’d taken up residence with some very unsavory characters.” He leaned in a little closer. “Have you seen the light and decided to return to us?”
“Afraid not, storyteller,” Red said, then smiled. “Though, I must admit to missing your evening tales.”
Gustory placed his hand over his chest. “High praise indeed.” The bard looked back at me. “Is that the same coat from when you rescued that ambassador in Ecrin?”
“Yes,” Red said, “it does seem familiar.” She looked down at her own coat, and I realized how similar it was to mine, the only difference being hers had been dyed red and fastened with buttons instead of buckles. Years ago, when I had first started wearing a black leather jacket, she had immediately gone out and commissioned a similar red one to be made. She must have done the same again now that I had switched from a jacket to a full coat.
I wanted to roll my eyes, but imitation was the surest form of flattery. I guess looking at the two of us standing side by side, I could see why Sapphire had thought we were together.
I turned around.
I looked up to see Petal sitting on Tubby’s left arm. Squeaks was on the right, with Mouse still on his shoulder. She had a bright purple ribbon in her sun-kissed hair. She and Squeaks both had to be pushing sixteen now. I couldn’t believe how fast time had flown. I remembered them when they were still small children, barely waist high. Squeaks had once fallen through the trap step back at the Granary and gotten stuck, forcing Reevie and me to fish him out. Now he was nearly as tall as me, though rather lanky.
I smiled. “Hello, Petal. You are looking well.”
“We’ve missed you,” Petal said. “Are you moving back in?”
I smiled. “Afraid not. I had to bring someone for Reevie to take a look at.”
She frowned, as did many of the others.
“Tubby miss too,” Tubby said in his booming childlike voice.
“And I missed you as well. I’ve missed all of you.”
“Then why did you leave?” Mouse asked, holding on to the top of Tubby’s head as he tried to find a more comfortable spot on the giant boy’s shoulder.
I took a deep breath. How to answer something like that? “I had to leave because the king wanted me to join the lancers and train his son.”
“Not doing too good a job of it, I take it,” Mouse said, looking over at the door.
I might have laughed if it hadn’t been so true. “I wasn’t with him when he was injured. Don’t know what happened. I’m sure we’ll find out more when he comes to after Reevie’s had a chance to work on him.” I looked at Mouse. “The prince isn’t the only one I’m responsible for. The garrison commander has ordered me to begin training a special unit of lancers. And now that we are on the cusp of war, I’m barely able to find time to sleep.”
“What war’s that?” Toots asked, pushing his way through the crowd.
“Hey,” Collen said, “why aren’t you on duty?”
“I came to see the Protector.”
“Then who’s guarding the gate?”
“Stringbean’s there. He’ll be fine.”
Collen didn’t look too happy, but he didn’t send Toots away either.
“I take it negotiations with Cylmar haven’t gone well?” Gustory asked. “I hear things in town when I perform. Last I heard was that the king had sent a team to the front to negotiate a truce.”
I shook my head. “Yes, I’m afraid that initial negotiation didn’t go so well. I just returned from the border yesterday. Skirmishes are happening almost weekly now. We could have used someone like you during these negotiations. That gift of yours could have been quite useful.”
Gustory frowned. “From what I’ve heard, it sounds like the problem isn’t with the negotiator, but with who you’re negotiating with.”
I grunted. “I can’t argue with you there. Kind of hard to work out a peace with someone who doesn’t want it.”
I turned and looked at the mass of kids standing around and realized this was hardly the kind of topic that needed discussing on my first day back at Sandstorm. Still, I needed to talk about something, anything to keep my mind off what was happening on the other side of that infirmary door. If something were to happen to Dakaran, I didn’t know what I would do. The thought of having to approach the king and queen and inform them that their son was dead was something I didn’t even want to consider.
With each year that had passed, and all the time spent in the palace with the Black Guild and with Dakaran, I had grown quite fond of the king and queen, almost at times looked to them as family. No one could ever replace my mother and father, but there were moments when I had viewed Dakaran’s parents as something akin to my own.
Gustory must have sensed my hesitance and turned to those gathered. “Story time!” he shouted. “And then it’s off to bed.”
Groans filtered through the crowd, as the kids clearly didn’t want to leave, but they slowly began to work their way down the hall toward the library. Gustory would no doubt send them off to their rooms with a harrowing adventure that would leave them anxiously wanting more. I remembered how much the bard’s tales had moved me. Gustory’s gift of magic was truly unique. He could imbue his audience with whatever emotion he wished, depending on the story he was telling.
“I don’t know what we’d do without him,” Sapphire said. She, Bull, and Collen remained behind, along with Red and Po, who were standing next to me. “Bringing him to Sandstorm has been one of the best decisions you’ve made, and that says a lot, considering Sandstorm likely wouldn’t be here if not for you.”
I watched the crowd of children follow the bard into the library and shut the door.
“Let’s sit in the study,” Sapphire said. “It’ll be more comfortable than standing out here in the hall.”
I looked at the infirmary door.
“Reevie will let us know if something changes.” She turned to Collen, who was standing on the other side of the gallery near the window. “Are you on watch tonight?”
“Wait by the door, and if something happens, come get us. We’ll be in the study.” She started to turn but then stopped. “Oh, and see if you can get Cook to whip up a fresh batch of sticky buns. I have a feeling it’s going to be a long night.”