The door slammed, startling Arkaen Sentarsin out of the rough plans he was outlining on the map before him. A glance up. Kìlashà leaned against the wall, the noise of his arrival clearly an intentional warning to Arkaen. His heavy black cloak made a stark contrast to the ghost-pale skin and glowing veins that always set Arkaen’s heart racing with a touch of fear. Not of the man himself but of the power that had taken hold when Kìlashà sacrificed his own will to that of his gods in return for more power. A bargain to save Arkaen from a deadly wound.
Arkaen pushed the memory away and sank into the chair behind him, dropping the bit of charcoal he’d used to mark targets. “It’s done, then?”
Kìlashà cocked his head, the glow of his veins pulsing in time to his even breathing. Too calm for the task he’d just finished. The pose sent a shiver through Arkaen. Hardly the man he’d known before this transformation. But then, no one really knew Kìlashà before Arkaen had been taken captive. Before Kìlashà had risked everything he believed in to save Arkaen—barely more than a spoiled noble brat—from his own stupidity.
“Your tyrant has been removed.” Kìlashà’s hesitation seemed almost planned to allow Arkaen to finish his thoughts before interrupting them again. “You have made the arrangements?”
The statement barely qualified as a question. Kìlashà had no need to ask what Arkaen had prepared. Another courtesy he’d adopted to ease Arkaen’s discomfort. Guilt left an ache in Arkaen’s throat. How much change could he demand from Kìlashà and still claimed he honored the man beneath?
“We both know that answer,” Arkaen said. “Deyvan’s in position to claim his throne. The resistance will crumble without a proper leader. We’ll be at peace in a fortnight, at most. As soon as the messengers reach the northern armies.” He drummed his fingers on the makeshift table before him, the slab of rough wood a reminder of the squalor he was dooming his comrades to endure. As if he needed more to regret.
“They are better served by your absence than your contrition, kai’sh—”
Kìlashà cut off, a shudder running through his body. For barely an instant, he looked unsure, eyelids drooping as if to shut out the world and shoulders tense. A moment of the humanity Arkaen had brought into his life, and the one thing they shared in equal measure: fear that Kìlashà’s gods were wrong about Arkaen and about the relationship Arkaen and Kìlashà supposedly shared. Arkaen pushed up from his seat, crossing the room in three quick strides to lay a hand on Kìlashà’s cheek. Cool to the touch, as a gentle breeze on a warm day, the glowing veins releasing no heat.
“I trust you.”
The tiniest hint of a smile touched Kìlashà’s lips. “A kai’shien bond is not a matter of trust.”
“But you saw it,” Arkaen replied. “You’ve told me over and over that a seeker’s visions are driven by their own skill. You saw this connection, and I trust you.”
Kìlashà cast a look up through the long, elegant lashes that would have had a dozen noble woman tumbling over themselves for his attention. If they’d stopped screaming at the rest of his appearance long enough to notice the sculpted beauty of Kìlashà’s face. Or the lean strength of his physique, or the gentle care behind his too-often harsh decisions. But none of Arkaen’s people would ever see beyond the flaws they perceived in Kìlashà to know the truth. With a gentle nudge against Arkaen’s hand that served both as affectionate caress and a reclamation of his personal space, Kìlashà stepped around Arkaen and stared into the empty shelving on one wall.
“How certain are you of that trust?”
“What?” Arkaen turned to frown at him. “I’ve told you. I’ll go anywhere with you. I—” Arkaen sighed. “Once I might have argued for my duty to my homeland, but they left me. Abandoned me to be tortured into submission by a malicious bastard. I owe them nothing any longer.”
“But they need you.”
“I don’t—” Arkaen froze, the tone of Kìlashà’s statement registering. Hesitation mixed with sorrow. They both knew what returning to the Laisian Empire meant. For Arkaen’s freedom and their relationship. “You want to go back?”
Kìlashà shifted to lean against the shelving, fixing an impassive look on Arkaen’s face. “It is not a matter of what I desire. It is what the Ancient Spirits have set before me. Without your guidance, your homeland with fall into further conflict and many would die that the Ancient Spirits require alive.”
“So your gods want me to go save the people They’re protecting your clan from?” Arkaen’s skepticism was audible even to his own ears. But this new vision of Kìlashà’s couldn’t be true, anyway. Arkaen’s father held sway over his homeland with an iron grip no one would dare challenge. Unless his father was the problem.
“Humans so closely tie destiny with desires.” Kìlashà scoffed, waving a hand as if to dismiss Arkaen’s questions. “It is not that They wish for you to do Them a favor. They have selected me as Chosen of Their will and designated you as my kai’shien. The performance of Their will demands the preservation of your human empire intact. Were we to choose a life among the clans, that empire would fall and the will of the Ancient Spirits would be thwarted.”
Arkaen smirked. “So it’s not that your gods want a hand. They just chose to warn you that not doing what They suggest results in the destruction of civilization as we know it.”
“Precisely.” Kìlashà’s whimsical response held enough mirth that Arkaen almost wondered if he’d lied about the vision to tease Arkaen. But no. The tension in Kìlashà’s posture was real. And he’d been genuinely worried about Arkaen’s trust in his powers.
“Then we have no choice,” Arkaen said, his voice turning sober. “Gods. I’d hoped—”
No need to finish that sentence. They both preferred to avoid the den of lies, intolerance, and pompous self-importance that had overtaken Arkaen’s home province after he left.
“There is always a choice, kai’shien,” Kìlashà pointed out. “We could leave them to their fate.”
“You don’t believe that.” Arkaen shook his head, leaning back against the door Kìlashà had used. “Leave Deyvan to face a second rebellion newly crowned? Or my sister alone in that mess? And even beyond the ones we care about…” Arkaen hesitated. He’d always been so sure of Kìlashà’s opinion on unnecessary death, but too many of their comrades wouldn’t agree. A glance at the intense focus in Kìlashà’s face eased his concern. “You wouldn’t leave innocents to die simply because the other option was more comfortable.”
Kìlashà strode across the room, laying a finger under Arkaen’s chin, tilting his face up as if to kiss him. “I would.” Kìlashà’s voice was barely a whisper. “For you.”
A thrill of excitement ran through him, Kìlashà’s finger sending a jolt of pleasure into him, running across his entire body. Of all the people in this war—in all the nations of these lands—Kìlashà, the chosen hand of the gods, desired Arkaen. And desired Arkaen enough to abandon his service to his gods. The enormity of it left him speechless, staring into Kìlashà’s tar-black eyes without any sense of an appropriate response.
A sharp knock on the door broke the tension, a painful release of the connection between them.
“I will follow where you lead, kai’shien.” Kìlashà stepped away, returning to the shelves as if the empty space would answer the question lingering between them.
Arkaen sucked in a deep breath to calm his racing pulse and stepped forward, pulling the door open. Beyond the portal stood Jarod, the stocky, blond-haired Serr-Nyen native who had appointed himself captain of Arkaen’s personal followers. He snapped to attention, clapping a fist across his chest in salute.
“Milord Phoenix,” Jarod said. “Yer flameguard stand ready. What orders?”
Another twinge of guilt hit him. Arkaen’s followers—the self-proclaimed ‘flameguard’—would have nowhere to go without him. At least half had defected from armies he’d defeated, and a decent number of the rest had been thieves or cutthroats before he’d conscripted them. Only under Arkaen’s leadership had they found a sense of unity and purpose. Where would they go if he vanished into the wilds with Kìlashà?
“Come in.” Arkaen gestured to the table where he’d been mapping out targets. The last bastions of support for the now-dead emperor, Caildenn Laisia, and the places where Kìlashà’s visions said no negotiation could succeed.
Jarod cast an appraising glance at Kìlashà and crossed the room, scanning map with a swiftness that couldn’t have given him any information. But Jarod had a network of informants almost as extensive as Kìlashà’s gods-given powers. He likely knew the plan already and had come only to hear the orders in person. Arkaen paused beside him, tapping the map in pensive thought. The flameguard had stood by him as no one but Kìlashà had. The northernmost post would be impenetrable without them. But they’d earned his respect.
“Which one’s ours, milord?”
“None of them. The main forces can split between these three.” Arkaen pointed out a trio of targets. “I need you south with me.” Arkaen turned away, fighting to hide the guilt of his decision. The northern outpost couldn’t ignore the attacks he had planned. Leaving them unharried would mean a much higher casualty count. But returning to the empire would require Lord Phoenix to disappear and lordling Arkaen Sentarsin to return from war by emperor-apparent Deyvan’s side.
“We leaving our men to die?” Jarod’s voice held none of the condemnation it should have. Trusting in Arkaen’s decisions even when he knew they were wrong. “Ain’t like you.”
“This war won’t be ended in battles over strategic citadels,” Arkaen said. “Kumiho is heading south to take Bloody Emperor Laisia’s throne. I’ll be by his side, and I want my flameguard as protection.” He cast a sharp glance at Jarod. The flameguard had always been a bit hesitant about Deyvan. “For his protection as much as mine. We need this transition smooth to put any bitterness to rest.”
Jarod smirked. “That ain’t how war ends, milord. But we serve.”
With another salute, Jarod strode from the room to deliver his orders. Arkaen stared at the door, not seeing the room as his hands squeezed the edge of the table, the rough wood digging into his skin. Home, where his father had set a guard to spy on him and that guard had lied, using his childish insecurity as a tool to control him. To manipulate him into—
“Kai’shien.” Kìlashà stepped away from the wall, pausing in the middle of the small room. “There are preparations to make if this is to work.”
Like preparing himself to face Vaiyen once more. His own parting words rang in his head. I would have fought for you. The least you could have done is tell me you didn’t want me to. But that was false. Vaiyen had done far more than fail to tell him a truth. Arkaen looked up, meeting Kìlashà’s eyes.
“Will I regret this?”
“Hundreds of times,” Kìlashà replied. “But not for the reasons you expect.”
Arkaen smiled, his fears soothed by the answer. Not a lie to spare his feelings and not a manipulation to get his way. Kìlashà trusted him as Vaiyen had not. As his father had not. As no one in his life had. He pushed away from the table.
“Then let’s go save the bastards.”