They’d lost the Provincial vote.
Somehow Lord HarBrathan had pulled the Provincial Council around to another vote in half the time it normally took, and the resolution to turn Ember over had passed by one vote over the needed two-thirds.
Meakrun was trying to do the same in the Popular Council, but more of those representatives seemed resistant to her case. It would be some time, perhaps months, before she succeeded there. But it was coming.
Ean had decided to try talking to Ember again. She had been avoiding him for a week, but today he was not going to let that happen. He had cleared his schedule for the whole day, aside from one morning appointment with several members of the Dahr’s Consortium that had been unavoidable, and now he had word from one of the servants that she was in her room.
He strode down the hall as fast as he could without running, encountering no one. Not surprising, as it was after lunch, and most people were in offices or workshops.
Ember had probably expected him to be stuck in one of the same.
He went up a flight of stairs, took a left and started along the hall leading to the second-story cliff side rooms.
The whistle-whine of a panicked Kirtak bounced around the corner ahead of him.
Ean dropped a hand to steady the sword on his left side and dashed past the remaining doors and windows. As he rounded the corner he saw Ember sprawled out on the wood floor of the hall in her blue daydress, trying to push herself up, Lahnria on the floor next to her, unmoving. Brago, Ember’s black and red kirtak, was dancing around them shrilling his fear.
She made several tries to turn her head, then dropped onto her side and rolled so she could see his face.
He ran harder and slid to a stop next to her. He grabbed her by the shoulders and helped her up. Her eyes locked on his.
“Poison…Nanli…Can’t move…Hard to breathe.”
Ember twitched her head back toward the open door and Ean looked past her.
Nanli was crumpled on a rug just inside.
Ean lowered Ember and hopped over her to check Nanli. A finger to her neck found a pulse, but she was turning blue at her lips and fingertips and her chest was moving in quick, small motions.
He picked her up and moved her out next to Ember, then checked Lahnria. Pulse strong, lips looked fine, breathing good. Completely unconscious. He saw an open thermos of hahx next to her. The poisoner must have given her something different.
He turned to Ember.
“Sit up, and grab hold.”
“Just take Nanli.”
He grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her back up. She tried to struggle but had no success.
“I’m not leaving either of you. Now grab hold.”
Ember put her arms around his neck while he gathered Nanli against his left side. He stood, Nanli balanced up against his left hip, Ember squeezed against his right side.
He started down the hall past her room, toward the hospital wing off with the workshops.
He made it two steps, Ember moving with him, when someone in dead-gray drax plate stepped out into the hall from two doors ahead. The figure had a visored helm on, with the faceplate down, but he recognized the armor.
And the brown feathered wings.
But what was he doing her? He was supposed to be in Jone’s Shield…
For a moment Ean’s world shattered and his mind refused to work with the pieces.
Then a sharp, ear piercing bark rang out.
Ean looked down at Brago. The tiny creature was on point, eyes fixed on Kaim, tail straight out back. His sides expanded, plunged in. Tak! The sound exploded from him again, more like a giant hammer tearing a chunk off a steel plate than any sound a creature smaller than a cat might make. Ean had never heard it before, but he had heard of it.
The murder cry of a kirtak.
When Ean looked back to Kaim, the man had his sword out. Both swords.
Ean backed toward Ember’s door. Could he go the other way? There was no way he was outrunning Kaim.
“Leave the Garagran and take Nanli to the hospital,” Kaim said. “She wasn’t supposed to get caught in this.”
Ean tried to grasp why. No, he knew why. Madness. Responses tumbled through his brain. Argue? Kaim was committed. But…
“I’m taking both. Get out of my way.”
Kaim winced at the sound. It didn’t stop him from advancing a step and spreading his wings, tips folded, for combat.
“If I have to break your legs and take her myself, I will.”
“I’m not leaving Ember.”
Kaim advanced another step.
Ean stepped back and lowered Ember into her room with as much care as he could afford. A quick twist had Nanli down next to her and then he had his sword and dagger out.
Ahttah… Oh Kai. Oh sweet Yahsaw. Help.
Ean shifted into a defensive fighting stance, dagger forward and tilted to intercept and parry, sword high and back for strong overhead slashes.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Brago whirl and flash down the hall, wings and legs a blur.
“Why Kaim? This isn’t the way…”
“You and I both know the Council will never decide in time. The Empire already has half its forces in place. Once it has all of them, do you think the Emperor will just recall them because we turn over one princess? There’s a point of no return, and I’m making sure we don’t reach it.
Kaim advanced several steps.
“Just let me do my job, Ean. Don’t make me go through you.”
He was dead serious.
The world slowed. Ean’s mind raced.
Ean knew he couldn’t stand aside. Not and abandon Ember.
He also knew he had no chance. Not only was Kaim a better fighter, faster, stronger, better trained, but he also had full armor to Ean’s none, two extra limbs that could parry blades and knock Ean’s head off with ease, and another full length sword countering Ean’s dagger.
Ean’s best option for saving Ember would be to delay until help came, as she seemed to be holding up. But Nanli was fading fast.
Forward, and now was the only option.
Yahsaw, help me. Give me the strength you gave Finayehah. Give me the strength to kill my brother.
His fear for Ember and Nanli fell away. He still saw no opening, but he remembered Bethania’s words.
“See your opponent as he is. Assess him without emotion. When you find something important, break it. Then keep breaking things until your opponent has nothing left to fight with. Be first, be quick, and be continuous, until you are the only one moving. That is the path to victory.”
His world focused on Kaim’s face.
Resolute. But afraid. Looking for a way around Ean.
He doesn’t want to kill me.
Kaim might hesitate on the first strike. That could give Ean a chance to land the first blow.
Ean switched to the blades. Longswords.
The wings. Strong to the side and back.
Ean’s best zone was in close, where his dagger could find a weak point and Kaim’s wings and swords would have a hard time reaching him.
Good. Get in close. A direction.
Now: destroy something.
Kaim’s eyes widened as Ean brought his back leg forward and slashed his sword over and down at Kaim’s head. Kaim blocked high with his left, and Ean pulled in and back on his sword before the blades contacted, dropping the slash back tight to his own body.
Then he exploded forward with thrusts from dagger and sword.
Kaim responded with an inward slap from his right sword, catching Ean’s sword and swinging its point across his body. For the dagger he shot a wing blow straight at Ean’s head.
Ean had expected that. He ducked, but feathers brushed his ears.
He was in close.
Kaim continued his turn, catching Ean with the other wing and slamming him back into a wall.
Ean’s world exploded with black and white flashes. His sword flew from his hand. He kept the dagger.
Kaim spun all the way and moved back, facing him again in guard stance.
Ean glanced at the floor. His sword was down the hall. Too far.
Kaim closed in, right sword high and ready, left low and guarding.
A small crossbow bolt sprouted in his right armpit.
Ean lunged in.
Kaim slashed with the guard sword and Ean deflected with his dagger. The sword tip still slashed across Ean’s chest, leaving a trail of fire.
Ean kept moving in.
The left wing came down overhead and smashed his right arm. He barely spun enough to save the arm, but staggered back and away.
They squared off again, Ean still with just a dagger while Kaim guarded with wings and right sword as he reached for the bolt with his left hand.
Metal skittered on wood. Ean glanced down.
He scooped it up with his right hand.
When he looked back, Kaim had the bolt yanked out and on the floor. His right arm still worked, but slower.
He lunged at Ean.
Ean backed up, deflecting sword blows and dodging wing strikes.
Slash. Slash. Cut.
Tak! Tak! Tak! Tak! Tak!
The hall filled with hammers tearing off chunks of steel. A flurry of kirtaks shot through the air and latched onto Kaim.
Kaim threw several off as they looked for gaps in his armor. Cried out as one found a soft spot in a wing and bit down.
He smashed that one against a wall.
Ean took the opening, closing on Kaim’s right side, where his arm was slow.
He caught Kaim’s sword and pushed it down with the shortsword. Moved in close, so the wing blow went behind his head. Ran the dagger point up the back of the armor until the tip found an overlap.
Ean was looking right into Kaim’s eyes as he drove the dagger in between the plates.
Kaim’s eyes went wide. He cried out.
Ean released the dagger, grabbed the collar of Kaim’s armor, stepped his right leg behind both of Kaim’s, and threw him to the floor, hard.
Steel spanged and kirtaks scattered.
The dagger hilt went skittering across the floor without a blade.
Ean kicked Kaim in the helmet with all his strength. Armor-toed work boots kept his toes intact.
Then he landed a stomp to Kaim’s midriff, where the armor was flexible.
Kaim gasped and went flat, completely stunned.
Ean spun to Ember. She was watching him from the floor, Lahnria’s small crossbow on the ground next to her, her arm still outstretched from sliding the sword.
He ran to her and grabbed up Nanli from next to her.
Not too late. He hoped.
“Take her,” Ember whispered. “Go.”
Footsteps pounded in the hall.
Ean looked and spotted servants, relatives and workmen coming around the corner, following the barking kirtaks.
“Grab her and follow!” He bellowed.
Two men slid in next to him and hoisted Ember.
Ean held Nanli close in both arms and ran for the medical wing.