Pearl Beyond Price – Claire Delacroix

Chinkai’s body was as cold as the dawn. Thierry gritted his teeth at the volume of spilled blood, knowing that he would never grow used to the killing. The first light of dawn did nothing to warm the air, though the meager illumination revealed the pallor of the old warrior’s skin. Chinkai had been dead for some hours, perhaps since the previous evening. Thierry recalled that the older man had left the khan’s funeral celebrations and not returned. It had not seemed of import then. ’Twas beyond doubt that Chinkai had been murdered. The copious quantity of dried blood staining his kalat revealed that his end had been violent, never mind the vicious slash across his throat. Indeed, it seemed the old warrior’s eyes were still filled with shock at the suddenness of his own demise. Thierry forced himself to touch the older man’s flesh. ’Twas as cold as stone. He had expected nothing else, but still his bile rose. He averted his gaze and surveyed the silent camp, seeking some hint of what had transpired. He suspected he would find none. There was just Chinkai, dead and alone on the grassy plain.

Chinkai and Thierry had one thing in common and Thierry could not forget as much in this moment. He eyed the corpse as though willing it to confirm or deny his fears. Both of them had aspired to be khan. Had Chinkai died for his ambition? Would Thierry be next? The old khan was dead and opportunity was ripe for the selection of a successor. There were only three candidates within the tribe. The third, Abaqa, was the son of the old khan. His lineage gave no guarantees—for a khan was chosen by merit—but Abaqa was known to be ambitious. Chinkai drew breath no longer, which made Thierry wonder the extent of Abaqa’s ambition. He jumped at the muffled sound of a footfall, and pivoted, only to meet the bright gaze of Abaqa himself. Thierry stiffened warily and hoped nothing of his doubt showed in his expression.

Was he to join Chinkai this very morn? “Too much drinking for our old comrade?” Abaqa inquired, his tone cheerful. Thierry met the speculation in the other man’s gaze and knew Abaqa saw more than his words revealed. “Hardly that,” he replied. “His throat has been slit.” “Ah.” Abaqa jammed his thumbs into his belt as he paused beside the pair. Thierry was forced to tilt back his head from where he squatted to hold the other man’s gaze. “Perhaps a squabble over a woman,” Abaqa suggested with disinterest. “I should think not,” Thierry said. Abaqa’s brows rose.

“Perhaps you should think so,” he murmured. It seemed Thierry had guessed aright. He let his gaze drop to Chinkai and willed his heart to slow. ’Twas evident he was being threatened, though Thierry would know clearly how or why. Should Abaqa be behind Chinkai’s death, Thierry would hear the threat fall in full from the man’s lips. He straightened slowly and braced his own hands on his hips, savoring his height advantage over Abaqa. “Indeed?” he asked. “Indeed.” Abaqa’s dark eyes narrowed as he assessed Thierry. “’Twould seem to be unhealthy not to share my opinion these days.

” “Your sire has been dead only three days and you have no promise of the khanate.” Abaqa’s brows arched high. “Nay?” he asked with feigned surprise. “Do you then believe the best-qualified man will hold the position?” “It has always been thus.” Abaqa laughed at Thierry’s surety. “Nay,” he whispered. “It has always been the survivor who became khan and none other.” His eyes widened slightly as he watched Thierry consider the claim, then he stepped back and glanced at the fallen man with open disgust. “Fool,” he muttered, the single word telling Thierry to be on his guard. He had best take to sleeping with an eye open.

That bright gaze swiveled unexpectedly to meet Thierry’s regard once more, though this time a mocking smile played on Abaqa’s lips. “No one else need see this but you,” he whispered. A chill slid down Thierry’s spine but he refused to look away. “Chinkai’s absence will be noticed,” he commented. Abaqa’s smile broadened. “My father will be buried in the full Mongol tradition. Who will know if one human sacrifice is colder than the others?” He would feign a sacrifice to cover his crime? Thierry was shocked that even Abaqa could be so callous. But one glimpse of the determination in the other man’s expression told Thierry that he would be a fool to underestimate the other man’s resolve. “You cannot do this thing,” Thierry protested, knowing the futility of his objection even as he made it. “Nay, I can and will have it done.

I, however, will be occupied with becoming khan.” Abaqa eyed Thierry. “Which is why you will do this,” he added. “For your new khan. I trust you will do it well.” “You cannot know that you will be khan,” Thierry argued. Abaqa leaned closer, his sharp scent invading Thierry’s nostrils with a vengeance. “I will be khan,” Abaqa growled. “And you will cede to me, one way or the other, just as Chinkai did. Do you understand our ways that much, outsider?” This last was delivered with a sneer.

Outsider. Despite all Thierry had done and all the years he had labored for the exaltation of the tribe. How many assaults had he led? How many successful forays had he planned? And all of it meant nothing because of the taint of his mixed blood. Anger rose within Thierry that he should be so threatened when all he had aspired to achieve was so close to his grasp. “Kubilai himself once told me that no man could be called an outsider when the legacy of Chinggis Khan’s blood ran in his veins,” Thierry said. Abaqa laughed, and the brittle sound carried far in the morning air. “That same lineage runs in my veins, as you know well.” His lip curled before he continued. “But ’tis not thinned with western swill.” The two men’s gazes locked and held for a charged moment.

“Face the truth, QaraqBöke,” Abaqa muttered. “The best man will be khan and that man will be me. You will kiss my boot or not live to tell the tale.’ ’ Clearly, unless Thierry was willing to adopt Abaqa’s tactics, the khanate would not be his. He dared not look at Chinkai, though the fallen warrior’s image was clear in his thoughts. He was not willing to pay that price. He could not slaughter Abaqa to ensure his own ascendancy. At the same moment Thierry realized he was not prepared to kill for the khanate, he saw that Abaqa would stop at nothing to be khan. Thierry would be wise to mind his back, at least until Abaqa was certain of his ascendancy. And until Thierry decided what path he would take from here.

“I will see to Chinkai,” Thierry conceded. Abaqa’s grin widened, displaying his array of yellowed teeth. “My father always did consider you an intelligent man,” he said softly. “Perhaps he was right about something.” He winked, then turned and returned to the camp with a light step. Thierry watched the older man go as he struggled to rein in his anger. He knew he had little choice. His own pride to the contrary, his only real option was to do Abaqa’s bidding. At least for the time being. He fought against the disappointment that filled him.

He had worked so long for nothing. But Thierry had waited for his opportunity before and it seemed he would wait for it again. Time could only strengthen his position, and he was yet young. Even without his intervention, Abaqa could not live forever. Thierry could afford to wait. He would continue to serve the tribe loyally. He would follow Abaqa’s bidding. He would form another plan. And one day, the fate that he coveted would be his alone. It was his destiny.

But on this morning, there was Chinkai. The camp was stirring to life and Thierry bent to bear Chinkai away. He understood only too well that failure in any task Abaqa assigned to him would be seen as a sign of disloyalty to the new khan. Thierry had no intention of granting Abaqa such an easy triumph. FAR ACROSS THE plains of Asia, a man awakened abruptly in the night. His thoughts were filled with ghostly visions of angry unicorns. Their manes were snarled and their hooves tore impatiently at the ground. They surrounded him and set his heart to furious pounding. He tossed and turned and finally tore himself from sleep. His palms were damp.

His heart was racing. The sound of his ragged breathing filled the room. He stared at the ceiling and fancied he still saw their blazing eyes. He shivered to his marrow. A dream. ’Twas no more than a dream. Dagobert clutched the coverlet as he struggled to calm himself in the quiet of the house. To his astonishment he realized that ’twas heavy red samite that filled his hands, not the cotton coverlet he knew should be there. He needed not to look to know ’twas the banner of his house, the one he knew to be safely stored away. But look he did.

’Twas that very one. ’Twas the banner graced by the image of a single prancing unicorn that was inexplicably unfurled over the bed. His heart missed a beat as panic uncoiled within him. What did it mean? Why had the dream come to him? The moonlight played tricks with his sight, for the embroidered gems encircling the beast’s brow appeared as pearls in its otherworldly glow. Dagobert knew that Alienor had chosen blood red floss for her work, so that the gems would look like rubies. He blinked, his heart raced, but the vision remained stubbornly unchanged. He exhaled shakily and surveyed his slumbering wife, noting how the moonlight traced the filigree of silver in her dark tresses. The vestiges of his dream made him seek out the echo of his lost son’s features in Alienor’s face. When he found what he sought, he closed his eyes against the pain of recollection. Dagobert had promised his son just one thing but that one deed was yet undone.

How he hated a task unfulfilled. Was this dream a reminder of that failure? Dagobert looked to his sleeping wife once more. For a moment he feared that she was as insubstantial as the capricious moonlight, the ghostly pearls, and his lost son. He tentatively touched one fingertip to her cheek, uncertain what he might feel. The warm satin of Alienor’s skin reassured him, as always it had. He exhaled and let his fingertips slide over her cheek in a slow caress as determination filled him anew. They had come so far, and they had lost so much, yet this one greatest treasure remained his. His Alienor remained by his side, her hand in his, her love as constant as the rhythm of day and night. Dagobert smiled and closed his eyes, willing his memory to conjure the tang of salt air that had teased his nostrils in his dream. That had been a welcome detail.

’Twas the smell of home. ’Twas the smell of the wind blowing over the high walls of his ancestral home of Montsalvat. He had been too long without the bite of that wind. Suddenly Dagobert knew with utter conviction that his son still lived and that he would find Thierry at Montsalvat. That was, without doubt, the message his dream bore. His eyes flew open, though this time he saw only the ceiling arched above the bed. At Montsalvat, he could tell the boy of his heritage. At Montsalvat alone, he could complete the task that had been set before him. Only there could he happily pass from this world, should his time deign to come. Resolution flooded through him and he gathered Alienor close to his side, anticipation growing within him.

’Twas time to go home. And should the ghosts of the past demand to be confronted, Dagobert would meet them at Montsalvat. BACK İN LANGUEDOC, far west of both Thierry and Dagobert, the rising sun gilded the blue of the Mediterranean and burnished the ramparts of a fortress perched high in the hills. In the stables of that fortress, name of Montsalvat, an old knight urged a goat kid into the world. It was proving to be a good spring, for this kid was neither first nor last. There would be milk in ample quantities this year. He turned the new arrival, showing the young goatherd how to clean the mucus from the creature’s nostrils before he noticed the deformity. The beast had but one nub where a horn would grow. Eustache’s breath caught in his throat at the portent, for it could be nothing else. He reached out and touched the creature’s damp brow, ignoring the mother’s bleat of protest.

’Twas time again. Twenty years had passed since a goat had been born thus at Montsalvat. Twenty years. He had almost begun to fear that he would not live to see the next attempt of the lost kings of Rhedae to regain their legacy. But there was no mistaking the meaning of this oddity. ’Twas rare that the beast who graced the standard of the Pereilles came to life, and when it did so, especially here at the family’s home, all knew to be prepared. Eustache let anticipation fill him as he stroked the newborn’s brow. ’Twas time again to stake the ancient claim that had long been denied. He would indeed see the day. His excitement rose that he might yet again lay eyes on his old comrade, Dagobert de Pereille.

And the son! Thierry had been a mere babe when they had left these walls behind, but that had been twenty years past. The babe must by now be a man. Would this be his time? Would he triumph and vindicate his family? Eustache straightened and stood suddenly, a list forming in his thoughts. Aid would be needed, arms and men and supplies. As temporary master of Montsalvat, the provision of all fell to Eustache and he would ensure the preparations were made. He had served the Pereille clan all of his knighted life and he would not fail. Eustache smiled as he stepped out into the first blush of the dawn. Optimism buoyed his step as he crossed the bailey. Perhaps this time, the battle would be won. Perhaps this time, all would be settled.

He dared to hope for a moment, before his usual practicality settled in. If nothing else, ’twould be good to see what kind of son Alienor and Dagobert had wrought. ’TWAS A DAY of beginnings and endings, a day on which three men stepped onto the bright path of their destiny, though none of them knew where that road might lead. There was an old dream to pursue, an even older score to settle, and none could foresee whether the demand for vengeance or the desire of ambition burned with the brighter flame. Certainly none anticipated that a conquest of a gentler kind might win the day.

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