Chapter 41 of Kingmaker
They ghosted up the huge flight of stairs that led to the looming salt palace. This close, they could see the massive entrance hall, open on the roof. Sharp pillars of salt made a labyrinth of its own, and Butu counted at least a dozen Akdren sordenu guarding the entrance. Their lips moved in a steady cadence, but the irritated voices that rang from behind them drowned out whatever they said.
Jani’s hand brushed Butu’s hand, and he tried not to think about the reason he stuck his fingers in his ears. He focused on the space around him and walked more quickly. He could see motion through the crystal walls of the building in front of him, but he couldn’t feel through them. It was a novel experience.
The sentries never looked at him, and he soon left them behind. He removed the fingers from his ears. He could hear the argument more clearly now.
“Our enemies have surrounded Urgaruna’s rock and have withstood our attempts to break the siege,” one man’s voice argued. “It could take a month for another kingmaker to arrive!”
“Then we will hold out for a month, Sorjot,” a second voice said, and then he launched into a coughing fit.
Deeper into the ancient great room of the Urgarun palace, the spiky salt pillars had been systematically leveled, and fine white dust piles rested in corners. A whole platoon of sordenu camped here, dicing in earnest or joking a bit uneasily, staring at the great crystal walls around them.
Behind the sordenu, in front of the white back wall of the room, a great crystal throne sat on a shallow dais. A gaunt man in rich robes with Akdren embroidery sat on the throne, coughing into a handkerchief. He was so old he could be confused for one of the salt-mummies, and deep bags under his eyes suggested he had gotten no more sleep than Butu in the past two days.
That must be Philquek, the Akdren kluntra, Butu thought. And the tall one standing next to throne must be Sorjot al’Zatkuka, the Zatkuka kluntra.
Sorjot wore a Zatkuka officer’s uniform covered with medals. He watched the coughing with a concerned look, as if he knew Philquek might not last another month, siege or no. But Butu saw a flicker of a smile there that suggested Sorjot might not mourn his ally’s death.
An arm’s length away from the throne was a column of translucent white crystal the size of a large man’s leg. Butu could make out a shadow in the crystal.
“The Clanless don’t attack armies looking for plunder,” Philquek grumbled when the fit had passed.
Sorjot shrugged. “Clearly someone betrayed us. We don’t have the resources or the time to scour the shanjin looking for her. What is important is my nephew is here in Urgaruna, and he is young enough to make you king.”
“Do you take me for a fool?” Philquek demanded in a voice every bit as strong as Jusep’s and as accustomed to command as Pater’s. “I will not be made king only to be unmade.”
“At least let him remove Pisor from this crystal, kluntra,” Sorjot persisted. “There will be casualties, but we can escort you back to Philen to be made king there.”
“No, Sorjot, and I’ll tell you why.” Philquek looked directly at an empty place near the short column of crystal. He raised his voice. “Don’t think about your magic.”
Lujo flickered into view, his hands moving to cover his ears too late. Butu turned at the rattle as the platoon of sordenu rose as one, swords drawing with a rasping hiss. He glanced around looking for a way out, but sordenu covered all exits. He looked up. Far overhead, the rocky ceiling dripped salt on their heads.
If only I could fly, Butu thought.
Several heads turned his way.
“Shanubu,” Butu said, and an instant later the soldiers disarmed him.
Philquek must have my talent, Butu thought, but then he noticed the fine powdered salt scattered like dust on the floor and saw Lujo’s footprints. Not magic at all. Jani must have noticed it before we reached the chanters, but I misunderstood her warning. At least they hadn’t found her, yet, so there was hope.
Beefy Akdren sordenu lifted Butu and Lujo to their feet and then forced them to their knees at the foot of the dais.
“You see I have no shortage of thieves who fancy themselves kingmakers,” Philquek announced to Sorjot with a gesture at them. His eyes bored into Butu’s and then turned to Lujo. “You have broken the Treaty of Mnemon. You changed your pommels, so you’ve likely torn off your insignia, too, but you are no Akdren. Which clan sent you?”
“We won’t tell you,” Butu growled, even as Lujo shouted, “The Nukata!”
The Akdren kluntra chuckled. “What brave young sordenu we have here! One defies me, and the other takes me for a fool.” He brushed some water off the crystal block near him. “You know the penalty for breaking the Treaty of Mnemon, don’t you?”
Butu saw no reason to answer that question, but Lujo spoke in a hoarse voice, “Death.”
“Death,” Philquek said, waving a wet finger in their faces. “The shanjin gives us some very interesting means, but our favorite is to bury you up to your necks in sand at sunset and leave you there overnight.”
Lujo looked faintly confused, but Butu felt the blood leave his face.
The wrinkles on Philquek’s face crinkled even more. “I see you’ve heard of the speckled snake.”
Butu made no motion for fear of betraying himself further, but a trickle of nervous sweat threatened to bead in his eye.
“This rock is crawling with them,” Philquek said. “We have buckets of them, which we’ve put near many other treaty-breakers like yourselves.” He frowned slightly. “They hate the cold of the night so much, they will burrow into any crack or hole that promises to keep them warm, or maybe just a convenient ear or nose. They’re all quite deaf, too, so shouting doesn’t make them go away.”
Lujo looked ready to faint, now. Absently, Butu noted Sorjot shared the same expression. Philquek sighed, facing smoothing as he looked up at the ceiling.
“Don’t be afraid, you won’t be alone up there. We have plenty of friends for you.”
“You’re insane,” Butu said, struggling against the sordenu holding him. “The Treaty doesn’t call for such methods of death.” Inwardly, Stay hidden, Jani! No matter what happens, stay hidden!
“You’ve read it?” Philquek’s eyes blazed. “Then you know it only says, ‘shall be put to death.’”
The soldiers’ hands held fast, and Philquek laughed. Sorjot slunk back to Philquek’s side while the Akdren kluntra kept speaking, his voice suddenly hard.
“I am not without mercy, though. If you tell me which clan sent you, I will have my sordenu behead you both right here.”
Butu and Lujo answered only with stony silence. If they told the truth, all the clans would band together to destroy the Ahjea for breaking the Treaty of Mnemon. Since the Treaty was passed, six clans had been wiped out, most in the first century. Only the first-cyclers were spared to be taken in as orphans. A handful of others had fled into the shanjin, and the luckiest of those survived to become Clanless. The Akdren are probably strong enough to do that without any help, Butu thought, and the Ahjea were not a minor clan like the Kanjea or Zatkuka, but nor were they a powerful one.
After a minute without an answer, Philquek snarled, “Spit on my mercy, then. Sorjot?”
The Zatkuka kluntra clasped his fingers before his chest. “They are not Nankek, because we know they never came down here. They claimed to be Nukata, yet want to keep their clan secret, so they are not them.”
We have nothing to fear as long as we say nothing, Butu reminded himself. Lujo can dig us out of the sand, and we can slip out under cover of darkness.
Sorjot smiled thinly. “They have neither the ruddy faces of the Kanjea nor the fair complexions of the Zhekara. They are not Zatkuka. That I can vouch for.”
Philquek’s tone could’ve ground gravel. “If they are, Sorjot, you’ll think the speckled snakes would’ve been a nice way to die.”
“That would make them either Kadrak or Ahjea,” Sorjot said after a short cough and a nervous twitch. “No other clans is connected enough to have heard of our find so quickly. The Ahjea are the tools of the Kadrak, so either way, they’re here on orders from the Kadrak.”
No more than the Zatkuka are the tools of the Akdren, Butu thought, sweat beading his lips.
Philquek shook his head, turning his attention back to his prisoners. “Is he close to the oasis? The Kadrak are powerful, so the clans would dislike punishing them for violating the treaty, but they would have no trouble making an example out of a weak clan like the Ahjea. My enemy’s ally is my enemy. So, like it or not, you’re both Ahjea.” He rode over Lujo’s protest.
“Take them out to the desert and bury them with the others.”
We hope you have enjoyed this sample. If you’d like to learn more about us and our writing, please peruse our blog.