Dark Skies – Danielle L. Jensen

Killian dusted sand across the report, taking care not to smear the ink of what was already lackluster penmanship. Not that it mattered. The correspondence was nearly identical to what he’d sent the week prior. And the week prior to that. All quiet on the wall. No sign of Derin scouts. No defections. Nothing but monotony—broken by the not-so-occasional game of cards—expected in the weeks to come. It always took a concerted effort not to include the last part. This was the first command where Killian had been left entirely to his own devices, and it was about gods-damned time. He was nineteen and had been training his entire life to inherit command of the Royal Army, never mind that he’d been marked by the god of war himself. Killian was born to lead soldiers into battle, and yet every time an opportunity arose, his father found some excuse for him to remain taking orders from someone else. For three years, that someone else had been High Lady Dareena Falorn. It had only been when she’d sent Killian back to the capital carrying a letter stating he was as ready as he’d ever be that his father conceded on the matter. Killian had all of the space of a day to dream about glory before word arrived that the captain of the border wall’s garrison had toppled off the very piece of architecture he was supposed to be defending, resulting in an opening in his position.

It was, in Killian’s mind, a bad bit of luck all around. The wall blocking the pass between Derin and Mudamora hadn’t seen worse than a skirmish in generations and, in his opinion (as well as that of everyone else in the kingdom), never would. The jagged peaks of the Liratora Mountains and the grace of the Six ensured that while Derin and its Seventh-worshipping inhabitants were a problem, they weren’t his problem. He’d have seen more conflict guarding the entrance to a palace privy. Killian softened a stick of wax over a candle and was in the process of smearing it across the fold of another letter when a horn blast echoed through the room, startling him. “The Seventh take you,” he muttered, glaring at the uneven glob of indigo as his good manners briefly warred with his indolence. The latter triumphed, and he pressed his signet ring against the wax, leaving behind the imprint of the galloping horse of House Calorian, less its tail. The horn echoed a second time. One blast of the horn meant something had been sighted in the pass. But two meant someone.

Derin scouts were occasionally seen, but not at this time of year when the snow was as deep as a man was tall. More likely, one of his men had spirited a bottle onto his watch and was seeing shapes in the swirl of snowflakes. Either way, Killian couldn’t ignore it. The horn called again. Killian’s heart slammed against his ribs and he grabbed his sword, not bothering with a cloak as he ran toward the door, the bells already ringing a call to arms. Three blasts meant only one thing, and it was the reason the wall had been built in the first place. Ancient and austere, the garrison fortress was built with blocks of grey stone with only arrow slits for windows, the narrow halls lit with smoking candles that cast dancing shadows on the naked floor as Killian raced down three flights of stairs, the cold air slapping him in the face as he stepped outside. His boots sank in the muddy snow as he strode through the courtyard, noting the twang of bowstrings from above, the clatter of boots as men raced up the narrow stairs that switchbacked their way to the top of the wall. At the gate, his friend and lieutenant, Bercola, stood head and shoulders higher than the soldiers flanking her. All eyes were on what lay beyond the tunnel barred by twin portcullises, the opening of which was shadowed by high wooden scaffolding holding repair materials.

At the sound of his steps, Bercola turned, the giantess giving a grim shake of her head. “It’s asking to speak to you.” It. Killian moved through his men, his eyes drawn through the gates to the woman beyond, snowy peaks rising behind her. She was distant enough to sidestep the arrow shots with ease, her movements too swift to be wholly human. At the sight of him, she extracted a white scrap of fabric from a pocket and held it up in the air. “Archers, hold.” Killian sheathed his sword and accepted a spyglass from Bercola. “And silence all that racket.” “But Captain,” one of his men protested.

“She’s one of the…” “I know what she is.” Marked by the Seventh god, the Corrupter. As deadly as a dozen armed men and twice as clever. Her kind were to be killed on sight, but this was the first time he’d seen one up close, and Killian was … curious. “Good morning,” he shouted, ignoring the exclamations of the soldiers around him. “I’d invite you in for a drink, but I’m afraid I wasn’t furnished with a key to the gatehouse.” “Is that the only thing stopping you, Lord Calorian?” she called back. Killian’s jaw tightened. It was no secret he was in command, but still disconcerting to have his name on the lips of one of the corrupted. “Perhaps a certain sense of self-preservation.

” He raised the spyglass to his eye in time to see a smile work its way onto her face. She was lovely in the way of a poisonous flower: better from a distance. “Likewise,” she said. “You’ve a reputation, my lord, and I’m afraid accepting that drink might have consequences.” It was a reputation that he hadn’t earned, but Killian had long since come to realize that denying it only made people more likely to believe the rumors. “Consequences isn’t the word most people use.” He stepped out of the company of his men and walked closer. “Privileges, pleasures, delights…” “God-marked lunatic,” someone muttered from behind him, but Killian ignored the comment. Dangerous as she was, the woman was at least fifty paces away and on the far side of a wall twelve feet thick—what harm was there in speaking to her? “If only hubris translated into skill,” she replied, half-turning her head, seemingly listening for something. Killian caught Bercola’s eye, but the giantess shook her head.

No sign of anyone else in the pass. “There is only one sure way to find out,” he called back. The corrupted tucked the white fabric into her pocket. “We’ve no time for this. You need to let me through.” She cast another glance over her shoulder and scanned the pass, snowshoes sinking into the powder. “They’re coming. There isn’t much time.” Uneasy murmurs ran through the ranks, but the spyglass in Killian’s hand revealed nothing but snow, rocks, and the occasional tree. “You must think me mad,” he said, resting his elbows on the thick steel bars, through with banter.

“I know what you are and what you can do. And frankly, these gates haven’t been opened in decades. I’m not sure if they can be.” He glanced at his men. “Anyone?” His men laughed, but there was a nervous edge to it. “I have no intention of harming you or your men,” she said. “Just the opposite—I want to help. I want to stop her. But I need you to help me first.” Another nervous glance over her shoulder and she took two steps closer to the gate.

“Stay back,” Killian shouted, sensing his archers wavering and not wanting an arrow loosed just yet. “Please.” There was more than desperation in her voice; there was fear. And it was driving her closer. “Rufina has ten thousand men with her, and that is a mere fraction of her host.” Who in the bloody underworld is Rufina? “No closer.” His heart hammered in his chest, the endless darkness of her eyes making him want to pull his sword. Or run. “I’ve given you fair warning.” “I know her plans.

” The corrupted was walking toward them now, movements smooth and predatory. “Let me through the gates and I can help you stop her.” “Why would one of the corrupted want to help me of all people?” “Because if she’s victorious, I’ll never be free of this curse.” She was only thirty feet away. Killian’s gut told him to hear her out, but logic said otherwise. His hand went to the pommel of his sword. “I don’t trust you. I know what you’re capable of.” Twenty feet. “I might be a monster,” she said.

“But I’m not a liar.” Fifteen. She was corrupted, and the King’s command was to kill them on sight. But to do so didn’t feel right. “Stop.” She kept coming. And Killian had his orders. “Shoot!” He saw the six shafts protruding from her chest almost before he heard the bows twang. Surprise blossomed across her face, and she stumbled forward, each step punctuated by another bowshot. Her eyes fixed on his.

“I am not a liar,” she whispered, then fell face first into the snow. No one spoke. Not a word. You should’ve heard her out. Killian’s voice rasped as he said, “Get me on the other side of the wall.” You’ve made a mistake. “But sir, she’s—” Something is wrong. “Dead.” Because of him. “Now open the gods-damned gates.

” They stared at him, unmoving. Every one of them were veteran soldiers. Most had seen war countless times. Against Gendorn and Anukastre. Some, with darker skin like his own, had likely fought in the Giant Wars, which had taken place when Killian was still toddling around with a toy sword. But that woman, that thing lying bleeding in the snow, terrified them. “Get me a rope.” Something was coming. 2 LYDIA The litter swayed from side to side, the motion, along with the oppressive heat, causing Lydia’s eyelids to hang heavy, the cushion beneath her elbow inviting her to rest her head. Outside, the voices of the citizens filling Celendrial’s streets faded to a dull drone, and her mind grew sluggish as sleep beckoned.

Adjusting the angle of her book so that the light shining through the curtains illuminated the script, Lydia read, wishing she were in her library with its doors open to the cool sea breeze. But she cared more for her father’s well-being than she did for her own comfort, and left to his own devices, he’d have insisted on walking the distance between their home and the Curia, never mind the consequences to his health. Her eyes flicked to where he sat across from her, a letter held in one hand and several more scattered on the cushions between them, his distraction allowing her to examine his features. Unlike her own, Senator Appius Valerius’s skin was the golden hue ubiquitous to those with Cel heritage. But in recent months that gold had turned puffy and jaundiced, and over breakfast she’d noticed that the whites of his grey eyes had yellowed as well. An affliction of the liver, the physicians had said while giving her bottles of tonics with which to dose him. Terminal, they’d said once they’d believed her out of earshot. “Ease your mind,” her father murmured, not taking his eyes from the page. “I’m quite fine.” As though easing her mind were possible.

Her foster father was her only family, and even if they’d been bound by blood, she didn’t think it possible to love him more. Desperate for distraction, Lydia twitched open the curtain, taking in the comings and goings of the city through the narrow gap in the fabric. They were heading to the heart of Celendrial, the men carrying the litter keeping to the shadow of the aqueduct high above them, her father’s guards striding to either side. As they walked beneath a place where the system branched, the litter bearer closest to her lifted his face to the sky, opening his mouth to catch the water streaming from a crack in the masonry. When he lowered his head, his eyes widened as he caught her watching. “Apologies.” Lydia smiled and waved her hand to dispel his embarrassment. And her own. “It’s a wonder the aqueducts haven’t run dry in this heat. What misery should we have to rely on the river Savio.

” “As you say, Domina,” the litter bearer replied, but instead of turning his attention back to the street, he eyed her brazenly. She tried to ignore the unwelcome scrutiny, knowing it was her appearance that provoked his curiosity. With her black hair, upturned green eyes, and ivory complexion, she was obviously not Cel, which made her rights to the honorific questionable at best. “Do not gape at your betters, you idiot,” the man next to him snapped, kicking him in the ankle. No mean feat given the weight they carried, but Lydia pretended not to notice the exchange, directing her gaze to the Great Library. It contained the largest collection of literature on Reath: works from every province, on every subject, and in every language, living or dead. Lydia lived and breathed the place. Her greatest wish was to join the ranks of scholars studying in its hallowed halls, for her days to be filled with the smell of parchment and ink, her most precious dream of all for her work to be considered for inclusion into the collection. Never mind that she’d been inside only three times in her entire life. Women weren’t precisely forbidden from the library, but their presence was strongly discouraged and the idea of one being allowed to study would likely render those who controlled the institution either mute with horror or consumed by laughter at the audacity of such a thought.

Lydia dreamed about it anyway. They rounded a corner, the towering arch of the entrance to the Forum coming into view. But it wasn’t the glittering gold of the dragon sculpture perched on top of it that caught Lydia’s attention, but rather raucous male laughter. Two men with buckets full of soapy water were engaged with trying to wash some graffiti from the walls, and the passersby were all pointing and laughing at the subject matter. Opening the curtain farther, Lydia pushed her spectacles up her nose and squinted against the bright sun. The crudely drawn image was of a naked man tossing male infants onto a sea of spears, the enormous phallus that the artist had given the man the subject of the passersby’s comedy rather than the serious nature of the scene. Unsurprisingly, the man pictured was Senator Lucius Cassius. Even without his name scrawled messily above, Lydia would’ve known that much. The curtain snapped shut, blocking her view of the scene. “Blasted plebeians and their crude drawings,” her father muttered, settling back down among the cushions.

“What are you on the hunt for in the markets that can’t be brought to you at the house?” “Something for Teriana, I think.” “Oh? Have you heard from her then?” Lydia twisted the ring on her finger around and around, smiling as she thought of her friend. “No, but I rarely do until the Quincense sails into Celendrial’s harbors.” “Serves you right for befriending one of the Maarin. They go where the winds—and the profits— take them.” The litter came to a stop before the steps of the Curia, ending their conversation, and Lydia accepted the arm of her father’s guard, Spurius, to help her stand, then turned to assist her father. “Now, now, my dear. Please, allow me.” Lydia’s skin crawled, and twisting around, she found Senator Lucius Cassius standing behind her, along with a pair of servants holding sunshades over his head. Perhaps in his midforties, Lucius was a man unremarkable in face and form, his golden skin loose around the jowls, which emphasized his weak chin.

He wore the same white toga as her father, his dark blonde hair clinging to his neck, which appeared oily, as though his masseur had not toweled him thoroughly after a recent massage. All of those were secondary impressions, however, for it was his eyes that commanded one’s attention. And they were eyes one would never forget. Small and deep-set, they possessed a depth of cunning and a dearth of empathy, and having them fixed on her made Lydia want to recoil. Lucius pressed a hand against the small of Lydia’s back to ease her out of the way, leaving a sodden mark on the silk of her dress. “My friend, my friend!” he said to her father, taking his arm. “This heat is the purest form of misery.” “Truly, it is.” Her father steadied himself against the other man, the servants with the sunshades pressing forward to keep both protected from the glare. “We’ll have drought again if the weather continues as it has.

” A shout of dismay stole Lydia’s attention from the conversation, and her eyes went up the Curia steps to see soapy water spilling down the marble, one man berating another for his clumsiness. The column next to them had been defaced with more graffiti, and Lucius’s name was only slightly faded from their efforts. “Nasty business,” her father said. “Have the perpetrators been caught?” “Not yet. Though I do intend to have strong words with the legatus of the Twenty-Seventh. The policing of our fair city is a position of privilege, but his men appear to be treating it as an opportunity for leisure.” Her father gave a slow nod. “Policing Celendrial requires a certain temperament of men. A legion that has seen combat, but not endured the trauma of heavy casualties. A legion with experience dealing with the peregrini.

And one with an appropriate reputation. The Twenty-Seventh is a good fit.” Unlike the other two legions currently camped outside the city, Lydia thought, though it would explain the as yet unexplained presence of the Thirty-Seventh and Forty-First. “As always, Valerius, your counsel is good,” Lucius answered. “Perhaps I let my emotions get in the way of my good sense. In my heart, I know that it was the peregrini’s relentless abuse of my character that drove my late wife to her grave, so the sight of these baseless criticisms sparks anger in my blood. Makes me desire to take action.” He pumped his fist in the air as though he might personally hunt down the perpetrators, and Lydia had to bite the insides of her cheeks to keep from laughing at the very idea of it. Then a shout cut the air, driving away her amusement. “Thieves!” A tall man raced across the Forum in their direction.

His pale freckled complexion and the cut of his red hair suggested he was from Sibern Province, though he wore Cel garments. “You give me back my son, you Cel vermin!” He jerked the knife belted at his waist free, lifting the blade. “You give him back or I’ll kill you both!” “Take cover, Domina!” Spurius pushed Lydia into the litter with such force that she rolled out the other side, landing on her knees in a soapy puddle. Heart in her throat, she peered through the curtains, seeing both her father and Cassius had their backs against the litter, while Spurius had his weapon out, moving to intercept the attacker. At the sight of the retired legionnaire, the Sibernese man slid to a halt, his eyes wild. “Put the knife down.” Spurius’s voice was calm, and he cautiously set his own weapon on the ground. “We can all still part ways peacefully.” “Peacefully?” The Sibernese man screamed the word, sweat and tears rolling down his freckled cheeks. “You golden-skinned demons don’t know the meaning of the word! You stole my boy away! Stole his freedom and his life!” His speach was garbled with grief, but Lydia understood—as would anyone in the Empire.

His child had been taken as part of the child tithes to the legions. Gone to Campus Lescendor where he’d be forged into a weapon and then used to enforce the Senate’s authority. “It is not theft.” Lucius’s voice was frigid. “It is the law. All must abide. I myself gave up my second son and I bore my grief with honor, not by groveling like a woman in the middle of the Forum.” Spurius’s jaw tightened, and he held up a hand, trying to silence Lucius. But the damage was done. “You stole him!” The grieving father lifted his knife.

“And once you demons have beaten all that he is out of his veins, you will send him to slaughter his own people!” The legionnaires guarding the Forum sprinted their direction, gladius blades gleaming in the sun, their expressions grim. Lydia clenched her teeth, not wanting to watch but unable to look away. “Calm yourself, man,” Spurius said, and Lydia knew he saw the other soldiers coming. Knew that he had only moments to diffuse the situation. “That is not the way of it. You may yet see him again, but not if you carry forward with this ill-thought plan.” “He will no longer be my son!” The man lunged, his eyes bright and fixed on Lucius and her father, and Lydia screamed. And then a blade sliced through the air. Lydia clapped a hand over her mouth, watching the Sibernese man’s head roll across the stones, coming to rest against the steps to the Curia. The legionnaire who’d decapitated him frowned, then bent to wipe his weapon on the dead man’s tunic.

“Blasted fools!” Cassius shouted at them. “While you sat on your laurels, we were nearly killed!” “Apologies, Senator,” one of them—a centurion, judging from his armor—said. “We came as soon as we saw his weapon.” “Spare me your excuses! The Twenty-Seventh is done in Celendrial—time you were sent somewhere that will sharpen you back into the weapons we trained you to be!” Spittle flew from Lucius’s mouth, but Lydia’s father placed a calming hand on his shoulder before addressing the soldier who’d murdered the poor man. “You need not have killed him. It was poorly done.” “Apologies, Senator,” the man answered, but to Lydia, he didn’t seem at all repentant. Likely because he knew the punishment for allowing harm to befall two senators would have been far worse than harsh words

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