OCTAVIAN ROSE understood the efficacy of illusion. By casting off his ceremonial golden armor and scarlet cape, the trappings of his station as Bairn of Rosecairn, and replacing them with scuffed leathers and matted furs, he could travel Selindria’s roads without distraction, unnoticed and ignored by those he passed. If he had learned one thing, it was that people focused on the shell: the gilt encasing the man rather than the flesh, blood, and spirit pulsing beneath. Sad, in a way, but convenient for his current pursuits. Just as the fancy plate sometimes nudged others toward his influence, the garb of a pauper served him now. Without outward evidence of riches and influence, he would be disregarded—just another throwaway, displaced after a decade of war, traipsing the dusty thoroughfares of the kingdom. It saved him answering questions and explaining plans he preferred to keep to himself, things he couldn’t quite articulate in his own mind yet. It had its place, and it allowed him to proceed unmolested along the Kanda River to the archipelago at its mouth, the region the crown called the South Coast.
Others knew it as the Twenty-Nine, or Twenty-Nine Pieces of Paradise. A desolate area spanning miles marked its border with the rest of the kingdom. The monarchy’s respectable subjects gave it a wide berth, though Octavian wondered how much of that owed to exaggerated tales of the debauchery along the southern shores. The sun beat down, and Octavian soon cast off his bearskin cloak. His companion and partner, D’Aurelian, did the same, a sheen of sweat coating the Esperon mage’s dark face. D’Aurelian used the gauzy blue sleeve of his tunic to mop his brow, and Octavian saw the exhaustion dragging at the corners of his eyes and mouth. They’d been on foot for weeks, ever since leaving the king’s old fortress in central Selindria. They could’ve taken horses, but horses were a sign of wealth, and intimidating. The man Octavian sought to meet with was not one he wanted to intimidate.
“You look tense,” D’Aurelian noted. “Do you have misgivings about this meeting that you haven’t shared with me?”
Octavian looked ahead, focusing on the dusty brown road distorted by the heat lines shimmering up from the ground. By now, he had hoped to have a plan in place, practiced words to offer to their formidable would-be host. He turned to look at D’Aurelian, unburdening himself to the one person who wouldn’t hold it against him. The one who wouldn’t exploit a perceived weakness. “I’m afraid.”
“Of what? It was your idea to come here, to uncover what truth we can.”
“Maybe the truth is what I fear.” Thirst and heat tickled Octavian’s throat and roughened his voice. “It would be so much easier to believe in the peace King Garith has brokered. To believe it has a chance of lasting.”
“Believing falsehoods doesn’t make them come true,” D’Aurelian argued gently. “And neither does ignoring them.”
“That is the whole problem with this damned old world. People prefer to look at a beautiful façade instead of the truth behind it, to believe what they are told as long as it is something pleasant to their ears.” Octavian closed his eyes for a moment that felt much too brief. “And the other problem is getting others to acknowledge it. Even if we chip away at the veneer, they remain blind to what stands beyond it. Because they do not want to see. Seeing means either doing something or admitting you’re too afraid—or too complacent—to change what’s wrong.”
“I see two options, amarzio. We can seek solutions to these problems, or we can give up. I have known you for over ten years, and I do not think you want to give up. All you’ll do if we return home now is torture yourself wondering. Though if that is what you prefer—”
“No.” Octavian could smell the sea, feel the cool breeze coming off the waves he couldn’t yet see. He took the salty air into his chest, held it, and let it out in a great gust. “We’re close now. By nightfall, we’ll have some idea what we’re dealing with, or we’ll be dead. I won’t turn away from what’s in front of my eyes.”
IN HIS thirty-eight years as a mercenary leader, mage, and, against all odds and reason, eventually a titled noble, Octavian thought he had seen it all, but nothing prepared him for the sights that greeted him as he and D’Aurelian entered the Twenty-Nine. Their surroundings went from sunbaked and bleached to lush explosions of color so quickly Octavian wondered if they’d passed over the boundary of a spell. Perhaps they had. It would be well within the powers of the man who ruled these lands to conjure the vision that enveloped their senses.
The gray-green waters of the river widened out as they met a peacock blue sea dotted with white foam. There, the pigments mingled and swirled together like striations in polished marble. Green islands of various sizes checkered the surface of the water, edged in golden sand and connected by crooked bridges cobbled together from driftwood and rope. Tan houses decorated with swirls of bright paint, sea glass, shells, and mosaic lanterns hanging from the eaves stood clustered in no discernible pattern, flanked by copses of twisted trees and patches of brittle yellow grass. The chaotic beauty overwhelmed Octavian’s perceptions as he tried to take in the details, catalog them in some way that made sense to his mind. Even the flowers, blooming wider than Octavian’s open hand, moisture beading on fleshy petals, spoke of restrained decadence and sensuality. Beneath it all hummed a current of magic, but not the unruly and destructive sorcery he’d expected. The steady flow vibrating beneath his feet seeped into his legs, skipping over his skin in a light caress and inspiring a calm that made it hard to hold on to the caution he didn’t dare abandon.
All around them, dark-skinned people, smaller of stature and finer of bone than Octavian’s own, lounged in the surf, swam, fished, or napped on the shore in tangles of sand-colored limbs. Their hair, in vibrant shades of scarlet, gold, orange, and burgundy, hung around their graceful shoulders and svelte waists in matted ropes and braids adorned with ribbons and beads. Most of them wore little else, maybe a scrap of printed cloth around the hips or a few necklaces, but the majority went naked. A group of about half a dozen children crossed in front of them, chasing each other through the shallow pools dotting the path and splashing their legs. A boy of six or seven stopped, regarded them with wide marigold eyes, grinned, and offered Octavian a dried starfish before darting away.
D’Aurelian leaned in. “So these are the fearsome Emiri raiders? The notorious pirates the Selindrian nobles demand be driven from their lands? I have to say, they are much less threatening than I imagined. I haven’t seen a single person carrying a weapon.”
Octavian looked at the little red starfish on his palm, and then up at an adolescent girl sitting on the edge of rock, dangling her feet in the shoals and playing an atonal melody on a flute. “Appearances can be deceiving. These people are the bane of every coastal settlement in the kingdom.”
“They’re also much of the reason for our victories against the Johmatrans. The war would’ve lasted much longer without their superior nautical skills.”
Octavian raked the sweaty hair out of his face, regretting the leather trousers and vest he’d chosen to wear. Though he’d once thought it impossible, he’d grown accustomed to the cold of the northern mountains. Pulling open the laces of his doublet, he said, “I wonder how many of those triumphs can be laid at the feet of their leader.” He shook his head. “Or protector. It’s difficult to guess what he would want to be called.”
“We shall have to ask. Where is his residence?”
Octavian looked around. In the distance, dozens of ships with gaudily painted hulls and striped sails bobbed on the waves. If he hadn’t seen them in battle, it would be hard to believe they comprised the most formidable seafaring force in the known world. “I’m not sure. Little is known about this valenny. Few but the Emiri call it home, and they’re not quick to share their secrets with outsiders. We should find it with little trouble, though. I’m sure he has a fortress, and probably an impressive one.”
“There’s a great deal of magic here,” D’Aurelian said, “and not all of it is his.”
“I sensed that as well.”
“Where could it be coming from? Why is the air so thick with enchantment when the rest of the world is starved for magic these days?”
“Another question for our host.” Octavian licked over the salt crust on his lips. “If I’m not very much mistaken, Yarroway L’Estrella knows much about many things. He once said to me he would need allies in the coming days—other mages.”
“I pray that means he’ll be glad to see us. I shudder to imagine his reaction otherwise.”
Octavian brushed his knuckles down D’Aurelian’s dark cheek. If nothing else, they could be open with their affection here. The priestesses and nobles condemned the Emiri people as much for their preference for either gender and their regard of intimacy as just a fun pastime as for their piracy. “Yarrow is powerful, but we are not exactly helpless, especially not the two of us together. Besides, he might be mad, but he always seemed to me to possess a peculiar code of honor. He despises the aristocrats, the priestesses, and the Johmatrans. But regardless of the fancy titles in front of our names, we’re mercenaries. Never doubt that polite society rates us only a small step above these Emiri. Yarrow will respect that. Now, let’s find him. If I can count on nothing else, I’ll wager my fortune he has wine.”
“Let’s find him quickly, then, and hope he’s in a mood to be hospitable.”
For the next several hours, they meandered between islands and over bridges, discovering majestic waterfalls and lagoons so perfect they seemed painted in a storybook. Under different circumstances, Octavian might be content to never leave, if everything he’d built hadn’t been at stake. But as the sun started to melt and spread molten gold across the surface of the water, they were no closer to finding the fortress of the legendary mage. Octavian had expected to see a castle atop a cliff or sitting on a knoll surrounded by high walls, yet all the little houses, with their patterned curtains instead of doors or window glass, looked the same. They hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and Octavian salivated as the scent of roasting fish reached him from the fires the Emiri were lighting along the beach.
“I’d hoped to avoid announcing our presence here, but we might need to ask for directions.”
D’Aurelian looked at the nearest bonfire, glowing bright against the darkening sky, sending up clouds of sparks. Probably a dozen people had gathered around it. “These folk seem friendly enough.”
D’Aurelian approached a willowy man standing at the edge of the firelight. The Emiri’s gold hair and eyes contrasted sharply with his dark skin, the flames behind him gilding the edges of a lean but muscular form. A frayed strip of floral-printed cloth barely concealed his choicest parts, and he held a clay jug between his ribs and his upthrust hip. He spoke a few phrases in his melodic but indecipherable language, and D’Aurelian held up his hands.
“I regret that I don’t speak your tongue. Do you know the common language of the kingdom, or perhaps Esperon?”
The Emiri man grinned. “My Esperon is not so good, but I can talk in the common language. I’m called Toumo. Will you drink with me?” He extended the jug, and before Octavian could warn his companion, D’Aurelian took it and knocked back a healthy swig. He handed it back to Toumo, sputtering.
“Your liquor is potent,” he rasped out.
Toumo laughed and clapped D’Aurelian on the back the way one would a choking infant. “Muri-ku can be an acquired taste, at least for you land people and your delicate constitutions. You handled it well. What are you called by your mother and her syrai?”
Toumo draped an arm over D’Aurelian’s shoulders. “Come, then, D’Aurelian. Food is cooking and there’s plenty to drink. Join us. The mages of Espero are allies and always welcome in the Twenty-Nine.”
Octavian went to stand a few paces behind D’Aurelian. His partner had things well in hand; there was no need for Octavian to assert himself. Once his ego might have demanded he make himself the focal point, but he’d learned to trust in his companions. He’d paid a high price for doubting them in the past, and he had greater faith in D’Aurelian than any other.
“Actually, I am hoping for some direction,” D’Aurelian said. “My friend and I have come here with the hopes of meeting your valen… the one who watches over these islands. Yarroway L’Estrella.”
Toumo’s hospitable grin never faltered, but Octavian didn’t miss the slant of his eyes or the way his spine stiffened as he pulled away. “And what do you want with Yarrow?”
D’Aurelian held his hands out to his sides and bowed slightly in the Esperon fashion. “My traveling companion and I were fortunate enough to meet him at King Agarick’s old fortress in Selindria. He was kind enough to extend to us an invitation to his lands. We are here in acceptance of that offer and wish to pay our respects.”
Toumo’s golden gaze snapped to Octavian. “What is the name of your syrai?”
Octavian stepped forward and extended his hand. “Octavian Rose, of Rosecairn.”
Toumo grasped his wrist and squeezed with what might have been a challenge. Octavian squeezed back, never looking away from the Emiri’s eyes. “I can assure you we mean Yarrow no harm.”
Toumo chuckled and tossed his head, the ornaments in his magnificent hair rattling softly. “Your name is known here, Octavian Rose. You are held in high regard, but Yarrow has little to fear from you or anyone else. Come, I will take you to his land home.”
A dark-haired Emiri with large, pensive eyes joined them, and Toumo introduced him as Kin. Octavian and D’Aurelian followed them along the shore to a small raft. Toumo gestured for them to step aboard, and when they did, he maneuvered the little vessel around the islands until they reached a midsized one at the southern end of the archipelago. He moored the craft in the shallows, and the four men stepped into the knee-high water. Round lamps made of bits of colored glass hung on iron hooks and lined the sandy path up the hill, casting flecks of shifting tincture on the sand as Octavian and D’Aurelian followed the two Emiri toward the cluster of houses atop the knoll. It was quiet save for the waves cresting behind them and the soft whisper of the breeze through the high grass lining the trail. Octavian’s muscles tensed as they stepped beneath an open arch and into a courtyard with a burbling fountain in the center.
Five of the modest brown structures typical of the islands stood in a star formation, with the tallest to the center. Walkways not unlike the rustic rope bridges connected the upper stories, and more colorful lanterns dangled from the boards, tossing scraps of wavering color across the sandy ground like confetti. Chimes hung from the eaves echoed erratically. A snuffling drew Octavian’s attention, and he turned to see an older Emiri man atop a stack of barrels, passed out drunk and slumbering happily with a jug clutched to his chest.
D’Aurelian leaned in. “It’s possible we’ve been deceived.”
“Let’s wait and see,” Octavian whispered. Though this place resembled a tavern or brothel more than the fortress of a landed aristocrat, cousin to the king, Octavian sensed something tickling at the edges of his perception. The two of them stood next to the fountain while Toumo went to the curtain over the door of the main building and called out, “Syrai!”
He got no answer and called again. Voices and noise grew louder behind them—probably as the evening celebrations spread and the revelers drank more. Toumo shouted for his friend a third time, and finally the gauzy drape over the arched doorway rustled, and a man appeared, backlit by the golden illumination within the dwelling. Assuming this was some servant of Yarrow’s, Octavian continued to wait. The man greeted Toumo and Kin with embraces and kisses, and then a flash of lightning blue from his eyes indicated his defensiveness—or his irritation. Clutching D’Aurelian’s hand to pull him forward, Octavian hurried toward the door. He stood in front of Yarrow, who appeared cut from the darkness, save for the glow of his eyes and the long white ropes of his hair.
Octavian felt like someone had poured icy water down the back of his shirt, and he shuddered despite the heavy, wet heat as Yarrow’s magic, with its sharp, crystalline edges and unfathomable depths, scraped against his own. He struggled against his instinct to back away and forced a smile. “Valen Yarroway. I am Octavian Rose, of Rosecairn. I hope my companion and I are not imposing by calling upon you at your home.”
The tension dropped from Yarrow’s posture, and the luminescence dimmed from his eyes, though they remained unnaturally blue and bright. His teeth flashed white in a genuine smile. “Haven’t I told you to call me Yarrow, Octavian Rose? We don’t stand on ceremony here in the Twenty-Nine. I’m glad you’re here. I hoped you would come. You and your lover are most welcome.” Yarrow held the curtain aside and indicated that they should enter.
Octavian didn’t know what he’d expected to find inside the residence of the Valen of the South Coast, cousin to King Garith of Selindria and Gaeltheon, and irrefutably the most powerful magic user of the age, but it wasn’t the… mess that greeted him in the foyer. During a decade of fighting the Johmatrans alongside the Emiri, Octavian had learned a little of their ways. The concept of ordering possessions, or even of valuing material goods, was as alien to them as restricting themselves to a single sexual partner or ten. They couldn’t understand why anyone would bother. Yarrow appeared to have embraced their philosophy wholeheartedly. Chests, jugs, barrels, and bolts of cloth sat stacked against the walls. Books and scrolls covered the small tables and spilled over onto the floor, discarded clothing heaped among them. Some Emiri, two women and a man, sat cross-legged in a corner, playing a game with smooth round stones. Despite the chaos, Octavian couldn’t ignore the wealth on display—coins and jewels overflowing from wooden crates, fabric so fine as to be metallic and see-through, art, armor, and weaponry worthy of the king piled like a peasant might pile turnips for the winter. Octavian had been a mercenary too long for all those shiny, expensive goods to escape his eyes.
“This way.” Yarrow brushed aside a curtain of small shells with a soft clatter, and Octavian, D’Aurelian, Toumo, and Kin followed him down a corridor and into what looked like a dining hall. Tables—everything from finely carved Gaeltheonic pieces accentuated with bone and gold leaf, to boards propped on pieces of driftwood—were arranged in no order, many covered with more loot, scrolls, and dirty dishes.
Yarrow took a seat at a cleaner table, a simple wooden one flanked with long benches, and Octavian and D’Aurelian sat across from him while Kin threw some dried seaweed on the fire.
“Would you like something to eat or drink?” Yarrow asked.
Though Octavian wasn’t at all sure of this man, his plans, intentions, or indeed the state of his faculties, he was hungry and thirsty. Besides, if Yarroway L’Estrella wanted to harm him, he would not have to resort to poison. Octavian nodded. “That would be nice. It’s been a very long journey.”
Yarrow stood and went to some shelves. Here, with dozens of candles burning and lanterns dangling from the rafters, Octavian was able to finally get a good look at him. Yarrow’s disregard for what his noble kin and countrymen considered propriety was notorious. He wore only the billowy trousers native to Espero, though the material was much thinner and hid nothing of his slender legs and taut ass as he rooted through canisters and jugs. His white hair, arranged in knotted ropes and braids in the Emiri style, hung to his waist, decorated with ribbons, beads, and shells. The permanent ink the Emiri called paint, or kifi, accentuated the angles of his lean face and body. He seemed to have added more since Octavian had seen him last—blue lines and swirls reminiscent of the sea and the clouds covered much of his right side. But what struck Octavian most was that, after ten years of hard fighting, hunger, and hardship, Yarrow hadn’t aged a day. He still appeared as a lad of around twenty years.
Yarrow returned to the table, some bowls and platters balanced precariously in his arms. As he arranged them, he said, “I’m afraid I’m not much of a cook. I usually eat whatever the others are roasting on the beach, when I remember to eat at all.” He laughed. “But I have some of the dried fruit we take on sea voyages, and pickled fish. I think this bread will be all right.” He picked up the dark loaf and sniffed it.
“Thank you. This is most gracious.” D’Aurelian did a passable job of masking his surprise at his surroundings. Octavian, though, had known him a long time. He patted D’Aurelian’s knee beneath the table.
Yarrow was on his feet again, hopping about the kitchen like a bird. If Octavian hadn’t known better, he would have said Yarrow was nervous and trying to make a good impression of his hospitality. Octavian and D’Aurelian helped themselves as he dug through chests and cupboards. The bread, while hard, was edible. The fish was pungent, spicy, oily, and strange. But then, Octavian was very hungry.
When he returned to the table, Yarrow set down three fine crystal goblets and pulled the cork from a dusty green bottle. With a wink, he said, “This should make up for any shortcomings.”
Octavian gratefully accepted the wine Yarrow served. When he sipped it, he tasted layers of elegant nuance: tart cherries, smoke, and leather, with a finish like the rain against the ironstone in the northern mountains. Octavian liked his wine, and he recognized quality. “An exquisite vintage, Yarrow. I’m surprised you offer it to acquaintances at a regular meal. This is worth saving.”
Yarrow shrugged. “Emir will provide more. So, I’m anxious for news of what has transpired since I left my cousin’s fortress. Did Garith go through with the peace treaty with the Johmatrans?”
“It’s little surprise that he did,” D’Aurelian said. “Everyone, nobles and priestesses included, supported the accord.”
Yarrow slammed his own goblet down and precious burgundy liquid splashed the pages of the open book by his elbow. “Fool.” His eyes flared like sunlight striking a mirror, making Octavian squint and recoil. Power rushed off him like a cold wind, raising the hair on the back of Octavian’s neck. “Tell me. Do you support the truce with those monstrous barbarians?”
Before Octavian could choose diplomatic words that would slander neither his host nor his king, D’Aurelian spoke in a strong, clear voice. “I do not, tam. I cannot. The Johmatrans set upon my home island of Espero. They moved through the streets of our towns and cities, slaughtering everyone from farmers and bakers to infants in their baskets. And for what? Because they feel we have no right to wield magic? That it should belong to them alone? That’s an excuse to cut down women washing clothes, or children cowering in cellars? They murdered my entire family, to distant cousins I had never met. And I do not believe they will stop. And I would have vengeance for the Esperon blood that flooded our shores.”
Yarrow held his cup halfway to his parted lips. Though Octavian knew he had little chance of success, he gathered his own power in his belly and prepared to defend himself and his partner if the other mage snapped. Silence stretched as the three of them regarded each other. The two Emiri men moved to Octavian’s back. Octavian slid his hand to the dagger at his hip. Sparks erupted and stung his fingertips where enchantment met steel.
After several moments, a wide smile split Yarrow’s face, and he raised his goblet. The tension burst like a soap bubble. “Then we are of a like mind, me, my people here, and you. I cannot abide these Johmatran pigs keeping the Sea People in bondage. I will have no part of this truce, and I told my cousin as much. Emir help any Johmatran vessel that comes within shooting range of our ships, because they will get no mercy from us. Garith knows this.”
Octavian huffed out a breath and took another deep drink of the other mage’s very excellent wine. He doubted anyone in the kingdom had forgotten Yarrow’s tirade at the treaty signing ceremony, or the way he had stormed from the king’s hall with the insistence that his lands would have no part of the accord.
Yarrow turned and reached out to the dark-haired Emiri, Kin. “Syrai, what shall we drink tonight?” He put a hand to Kin’s bare waist. “What would please you?”
“The ice wine is very good,” Kin said in a soft, husky voice.
Yarrow clapped. “Excellent choice! I think there’s some in my study, or if not there—”
A cacophony of several voices moving closer cut Yarrow off. He smiled as they grew louder. “It seems our celebration has grown. We’ll need to break into the stores in the cellar. I’ll help you fetch them, and we’ll move our festivities to the courtyard.”
Just as Yarrow stood, a group of Emiri men and women burst into the hall. “Yarrow, we have some unwanted guests.” The woman who spoke sounded more like she was delivering news of a surprise feast.
Toumo beamed. “Our friends from the east can’t seem to get enough. Is it possible they enjoy taking a beating?”
“Again?” Yarrow said with a wide grin. “I suppose we’ll have to oblige them.” Blinding blue light spilled from his eyes and from his shoulders in a semblance of wide, powerful wings. The air crackled and popped with magic, making Octavian’s limbs tingle. Yarrow turned his head, his eyes leaving trails of light like falling stars, to look at them. “Will you fight with us as you once did?”
D’Aurelian was on his feet, red-gold light forking from his outstretched fingers. “I will. Gladly. I do not miss the war, but I find myself missing killing Johmatrans.”
Octavian would have liked more time to consider where to place his allegiance. On one hand, Yarrow was powerful, and he might prevail against his cousin. But could he rival the resources of the crown? Despite everything, he was one man—yet one man with a seafaring force second to none. Could he stand against the combined forces of the monarchy and the priestesses? What if the Johmatrans threw in with the king? Would D’Aurelian’s fellow Esperons take up arms against their old enemy? There were too many variables, and Octavian liked to weigh all possible outcomes. He’d come here to acquire information to allow him to do just that—choose the path that would benefit him and his people. Weigh who held the advantage. Discover the secrets Yarrow held that might tip the scales in one direction or the other, so Rosecairn, his legacy, could side with the victor. But Yarrow, bathed in cerulean light, his hand outstretched in camaraderie as a fellow mage, had forced Octavian’s hand. Refusing would forfeit any access Octavian had to the knowledge Yarrow held.
He stood and drew his assassin’s blade. “All right, Yarrow. Lead the way.”