Cover of The Darkness of Aysu The Darkness of Aysu

1

Killian shook his head almost imperceptibly, silently willing the child not to go through with it. The contempt on the boy’s face and the restlessness of his movements were too obvious. If Killian could spot it, so would Balthazar’s guards. Even in the narrow confines between the inner and outer castle walls, the kid didn’t stand a chance. He was too young, too inexperienced, and his emotions were laid bare for all to see. The attack would unfortunately fail. Killian wanted to approach the lad, to warn him off, but he couldn’t leave his post, and Lord Balthazar was already too close.

“Killian! Pack your things, I’m having you relocated to Aysu,” Balthazar said.

The command came as the kid made his move. His small dagger thrust out in front of him, the boy charged, screaming at a high pitch only boys of that age can produce. Killian lunged for the child wrapping his arm firmly around the kid’s stomach and sweeping him up into the air. His free hand grabbed the arm holding the blade.

“Drop it,” Killian whispered urgently, clamping his teeth together as the kid’s flailing feet struck him in the knees. Balthazar’s guards were already too close. He had very little time to disarm the boy and let him escape.

Drop it,” he repeated, but it was already too late. It wasn’t the first attack of its kind, and Balthazar had doubled his accompanying guard in response. There were six of them now, three of them circling Balthazar, and three of them heading for the boy. All of them wanted to be the one to save their lord from this ‘evil’ that struggled wildly in Killian’s arms.

Killian wrestled the weapon from the child’s weak grasp. He felt small, small and thin, delicate even, and his skin was cool to the touch despite the heat of the afternoon sun. The boy needed food. Likely, his whole family did. Killian cursed inwardly. It wasn’t his position to protect Balthazar and, if he were honest, it was the last thing he wanted to do.

“Quiet!” he ordered in the boy’s ear as the child shouted obscenities at Balthazar and Killian along with him. The kid was only making it worse for himself. Killian lowered the child to the sandy stone floor, and hoped the boy had enough energy left in him to run for it.

“Don’t you dare release that piece of shit!” Balthazar spat, pushing his guards out of the way.

“Run,” Killian ordered in a hushed voice. He gripped the boy loosely enough that, should the kid struggle, he would escape. The child ignored him, standing his ground, trembling slightly but with his chin thrust out. The kid had no idea how bad this could be.

“That vermin will spend the next two months in my dungeon, learning to respect those who are better than him.”

So, not Balthazar then.

There was little comfort in knowing the boy wouldn’t be alone. The dungeons of Tinti were almost full. Killian clenched his fists. If he’d allowed himself to hesitate perhaps the child’s aim would have been true. Perhaps Balthazar would not have survived the attack. But the attack had been clumsy, and the boy was no match for Balthazar’s guards. At least this way, the child still lived and would hopefully survive his two-month stay in the dungeons. In Tinti, survival was everything, regardless of the cost.

“He’s only young, Sire. Hungry people do desperate things,” Killian said. He kept his voice low enough that only Balthazar would hear him. Perhaps the bastard would show the child some mercy if no one knew Killian was the one suggesting he do so.

“And shall be made an example of, as you well know.”

Aye, he knew.

“There is more than one hungry person in this kingdom. I will not reward the ones who turn to violence because of it.”

Killian didn’t offer a response. Balthazar turned to him and waited, long enough for him to open his mouth. “Of course, Sire,” he managed, sick with himself for sounding as though he agreed with the son of a bitch.

Balthazar glared at the boy as he was dragged away and then turned his small, cold eyes back to Killian.

“It’s clear we’ll miss you around here,” Balthazar said. “Not that you’re one of my personal castle guards. Why is that, by the way?”

He knew damned well why.

“Oh, yes. That’s right,” he said, with a dismissive wave of his hand and an ugly sneer. “Well, at least that means you’re available for this task. Walk with me, I feel safer having you around.”

He shouldn’t.

One of Balthazar’s guards took up Killian’s post on the wall, and Killian fell into step alongside the bastard snake who called himself his lord.

“I am working on a deal that will secure a better future for these hungry souls you bleed for. Princess Shanree of Aysu has agreed to marry me and, as is my right, I am sending you to protect her between now and when the wedding is concluded.”

“Sire, I appreciate you considering me for this appointment—”

“I’m not considering you. The decision has been made.”

“Sire, my cousin and father need—”

“Your father is a castle guard. He doesn’t need you for anything.”

Never were truer words said, but Killian could have done without the derisive tone that accompanied them.

“And as for your cousin, well…”

Which was why he was needed. He was the mediator in the family.

Balthazar stopped mid-stride forcing Killian to stop alongside him. “Are you thinking of refusing me?”

Killian couldn’t refuse the order and they both knew it. He wasn’t in any sort of position to make demands of his lord, and the fact that Balthazar had chosen him for this role was uncharacteristically generous. Not that Killian hadn’t earned it. He’d never expected to be forgiven for his past deeds though. And he’d never expected to be offered something like this.

“It’s my family, Sire.”

“You mean your piece-of-shit cousin.”

Francis. He clenched his jaw at the insult.

“I have kept my eye on you, Killian, as you well know. You thrived under the training I oversaw when you were younger, and I have decided that such dedication deserves a reward. I was prepared to pay you handsomely for the role I want you to play, but what if, instead, I were to offer your cousin a position in Tinti society.”

Killian’s pulse quickened.

“A position?” he repeated, partly because he needed to hear the words again. Hope surged through him. He looked around to see the other castle guards standing present. He knew each and every one of them and disliked them all. Still, they met his eyes solidly. The offer was genuine. Of course, Balthazar could still go back on his word if he chose to. Not one castle guard in the whole of Tinti would risk standing against the bastard, and certainly not on Killian’s behalf. After what they had done, he couldn’t trust any of them anyway. It only served to show his own desperation that he was willing or even eager to search out some sort of confirmation from them. But why would Balthazar suddenly offer this? Whatever the reason, the cost of refusal was too great. Francis needed this. He’d earned it.

“Without you watching out for him, I imagine I will need some way to keep him out of my dungeons,” Balthazar said.

Killian swallowed hard. Despite everything, Francis had never seen the inside of Tinti’s dungeons. Killian had spent his entire life trying to keep it that way.

“Of course, that would only be necessary if you weren’t around.”

Of course. “And when the job is completed, and I return to Tinti?”

“That depends on how Francis performs in his chosen area.”

Killian nodded. He didn’t really have a choice. “When would you need me to leave, Sire?”

“Immediately. I have sent a rider on ahead to notify Princess Shanree of your imminent arrival. You should be there before sunset.”

Which meant Balthazar had waited until the last possible moment to inform him of this. If Killian rode his horse hard, he would only just make it. Time would be tight, and he still needed to pack, but he couldn’t risk staying out in the desert scrublands after dark.

“Yes, Sire.” He turned to leave.

“Killian?”

Killian faltered, apprehension creeping up his back. He turned to face Balthazar again.

“Is there something you wish to say to me?”

Invitations like that didn’t come along often in a man’s life, but the words that instantly sprung to mind probably weren’t the ones Balthazar was expecting to hear.

“Thank you, Sire.”

“Don’t fuck this up. You don’t want to know what will happen if you do.”

He nodded and walked away certain Balthazar was right about that.

2

Aysu. The castle had been built on the edge of a cliff – the lower levels actually carved out of the rock. Killian expected to hear the sea already, but he heard nothing above the sound of his horse’s hooves on the rocky scrubland, kicking up dust and sand in his trail.

He slowed Seren’s pace as he approached the kingdom walls and patted the side of the horse’s neck. Seren’s skin shuddered in response. The last of the sun shone off his brown coat, the sheen of sweat clearly visible. He had pushed the horse harder than he normally would have liked, but it had been necessary to arrive in time. The sun was already setting over the Razorback Mountain Range that served as the western border to his world. With the river leading the way, it was an easy path to follow but the flowing water was too silent to hear. A rider had to see the river in order to follow it. In darkness, people strayed, and people who strayed, were never seen again.

At this time of day, the mountains were little more than a silhouette, still Killian felt drawn to them. Even as a child, he hadn’t believed the myth of the beast that supposedly resided there, emerging only at night to devour riders who dared to be out in the darkness. Instead, he viewed the mountains as his only possible escape. Pulling down the scarf that protected his face from the sand, he shifted his gaze back to Aysu’s kingdom walls. He couldn’t head for the mountains yet. There was no telling how Balthazar would punish Francis for it.

Killian took a deep breath and braced himself for whatever was to come. He hated this time of day when the sun was low, the eyes played tricks, and memories caused him to see shadows he knew couldn’t possibly be there. Only, in Aysu, he couldn’t be certain the shadows were false. He’d heard the rumours. He knew the stories.

He stroked the side of Seren’s neck as he leaned forward to jump down and was rewarded with a soft nicker from the horse. With the reins securely gripped in his fist, he approached the guard ahead to announce his presence. His other hand rested on the hilt of his sword. He hadn’t survived this long by generously giving others the benefit of the doubt. Trust was earned and it came at a price. He owed the people of Aysu nothing.

As promised, he was expected. Having counted the weapons carried by the guard up ahead and factoring in at least two more concealed, Killian entered Aysu, pulling his horse along with him. Interestingly, no second guard trailed behind them as they headed towards the castle.

They followed the kingdom walls, passing through small fields of crops and along a narrow path. Walking in near-darkness, Killian could see the town off to the right. The houses were lit up, the sounds of voices and laughter reaching him.

They crossed over a narrow wooden bridge at the base of the hill that led to the castle. The river Killian had dutifully followed to get here, ran through the town, effectively operating as a moat. In the gloom, he could just about make out multiple bridges as he looked down the river – multiple access points.

As they started the climb up to the castle, the trees became too thick for him to see much of anything other than the man up ahead. The humidity was higher here, the air denser, as though the foliage trapped in the moisture. He’d never seen trees like this before and so many of them. It was the perfect place for an ambush.

As he entered the inner bailey, he felt more than saw the sun drop lower and the shadows close in around him. Away from the trees, the air was cooler here, and goose bumps covered his arms as sweat trickled down his back.

“Killian of Tinti,” the guard said to a bear of a man just inside the gate.

“You took the back way?” the bear asked.

The guard nodded in response.

“Did anyone see you?”

“No.”

The bear nodded, apparently satisfied.

So far, shockingly enough, Killian couldn’t say he felt all that welcome.

A boy of about ten years approached offering a wooden bowl of water. Killian drank from it greedily as other guards in the courtyard turned to appraise him. Over the rim of the bowl, he watched them, counting how many guards there were. He noticed no other staff.

The boy stroked the horse gently on the nose. “What’s his name?”

“Seren.”

“I’ll take him,” the boy said, reaching for the reins.

“No. I’ll care for him myself.”

“Your presence is required in the throne room, Killian of Tinti,” the bear said. “Dani here can care for the horse.”

He nodded his agreement and made a mental note to check on Seren later if the opportunity arose. “He needs water and brushing down.”

“I know,” Dani said, his tone clearly indicating he didn’t need to be told.

The castle gates were closed. Killian turned so he could count the locks and note who was in charge of which keys. There were none. A simple latch held the door in place. It would probably be secured later, out of his sight. Shame. But still not entirely useless as a possible escape route if needed.

The bear led him across the courtyard. Two other guards gathered around as they approached the door to Aysu castle.

“Before entering the castle, you will remove your weapons,” the bear said.

He must have misheard. He hesitated.

The request was repeated, only this time it came out sounding more like an order.

Any sudden movement at this point could prove fatal. It was like being on the hunt when a single wrong step could spook the target. Only he was the target, with three guards standing around him, and the guard on his left was getting twitchy. Killian nodded, keeping his eyes on the bear as he untied his belt and handed over his sheathed sword. He could not risk being the cause of an incident between two neighbouring thrones due to what could simply be a facial tic.

His weapons clattered onto a small wooden tray held by a boy younger than the first. Like the kid who was looking after Seren, the lad looked well fed. Killian nodded to the child as he removed the final blade strapped across his back. The kid moved away, struggling slightly under the weight.

“When do I get my weapons back?”

“Later,” came the unsatisfyingly vague response from the bear. He looked to be about half a foot taller and perhaps ten years older than Killian, with thick, powerful shoulders. Still, there was comfort to be found in the small dagger attached to Killian’s wrist and the blade on the inside of his leg, both of which he’d neglected to remove. Either was sufficient for close combat, and his hand-to-hand skills were excellent.

The bear led the way inside, past two guards with Halberds and through doors almost twice Killian’s height. Both doors were opened and closed again behind him, as if his entry into this room was some kind of grand ceremony.

The room was dark, but the few candles that were lit showed the vastness of it, with a tall ceiling and a lot of empty space. His footsteps echoed off the walls despite the tapestries that hung there. In the darkness, he could make out a single long table to his left with empty chairs all around it. Two large chandeliers hung above it, but weren’t lit. The only light, in fact, came from the other end of the room, where Killian could see the Aysu throne and an old man, presumably King Tobias, sitting on it.

Darkness in the throne room of a castle was unusual. In Tinti, there was no money for such extravagance, but the castle was kept well lit anyway as a sign of status. In Aysu, from what Killian understood, expense was not an issue. Everyone in Tinti knew of the riches of Aysu. So, why the darkness? Was it for his benefit? Was it to conceal someone lurking in the shadows?

When they reached the other end of the room, the bear pointed to the floor, which Killian took to be an indication of where he should stand. The bear placed himself equidistant between King Tobias and Killian. To the right of the king stood an older, slightly stooped man with no weapons visible – presumably the king’s advisor. There were no other guards in the room. That was definitely odd.

The advisor spoke to the king briefly, his voice quiet enough that Killian couldn’t make out the words. Meanwhile, Killian scanned the room for any movements the flickering candlelight could catch. There were too many shadows. He was used to candlelight and he was used to castles, but this was different. The shadows were upon him. His heart beat a little faster and his palms began to sweat.

“You are here to protect my daughter?” The king’s voice was a little hoarse and weary.

“Yes, Sire.”

“To protect Princess Shanree?” King Tobias’ face registered disgust or pain, Killian wasn’t sure which.

“Yes, Sire.”

“Can you?” the king asked, seeming genuinely hopeful.

“Yes, Sire,” Killian said after a short hesitation.

The advisor stepped forward and again spoke quietly to the king. After he stepped back down, Killian waited for more. The king mumbled something to himself. He seemed restless, pained even.

“But she… You must look after her. Can you do that? Can you defeat…”

Sebastian stepped forward, his hand on the king’s arm. “Killian of Tinti—"

“No, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. You don’t understand,” the king said, leaning forward, making eye contact for the first time since they’d entered the room. “I can’t lose her too. Take her away!”

Take her away? “I understand, Sire.” Nothing could have been further from the truth.

The king said nothing more and as the silence lengthened, Killian knew he was at a disadvantage. Facing forward, his eyes sought out the danger he could sense. He saw nothing, but it was definitely there. The temptation to pull his blade was overwhelming, but he couldn’t risk it. He was a guest in Aysu and a representative of Tinti, and he was standing in the throne room, near the king. Should anything happen, Aysu had to be the first to strike. And Killian had to ensure that first strike would not prove to be a fatal blow.

The king shifted in the throne. The bear and the advisor shared a look. As the king’s hand went to his forehead, the man spoke.

“I am Sebastian, the king’s advisor. King Tobias would like to welcome you to the castle and trusts you will perform your tasks admirably.”

Killian shifted slightly so he could look the king in the eye. The king didn’t look back. He was now holding his head with both hands, his face set in some sort of grimace. Killian shifted his glance to the bear and noted no reaction.

“This here,” Sebastian continued, gesturing to the bear, “is Van. He is chief castle guard to the royal family, and you will answer to him as do all the guards here. If you need anything or have any concerns, he is the man you go to.”

Killian nodded, his eyes on the king who the others seemed to have forgotten.

“I cannot lose her!” The king suddenly shouted out, as if trying to get the words out before he were silenced. “Take her… No, don’t. No…” There was a definite edge of desperation to the king’s voice. “Safe, keep her safe,” he then said quietly. “She’s all I have left.”

“Yes, King Tobias,” Killian said.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” the king mumbled.

Sebastian took a step forward. “Please excuse us, the king is not quite himself this evening.”

With that, Van gestured towards the door and Killian turned to leave as if on cue. By the time they reached the other end of the room, the king was moaning.

“I will take you to meet Princess Shanree,” Van said.

“Is there some threat to the Princess I should know about?” Killian asked. It was a fair question considering the comments the king had made, but the only answer he received was silence.

“When do I get my weapons back?”

Van didn’t reply to that either. He lifted a torch from the iron bracket on the wall and walked down the stone corridor. Killian followed. There was no one behind them.

“Who is normally responsible for Princess Shanree?” Any guard forced to give up his position might feel some animosity towards the man who replaced him. He wanted to know upfront who that might be.

“Rivera. I’d like to tell you you won’t get any shit from him about his reassignment but, well, I’d be lying.”

Fair enough.

At the end of the corridor, they went up a spiral staircase to the next level. Van stopped outside the second door on the left and knocked.

“And who protects Princess Lainey?” Shanree’s sister. The older brother and heir to the throne, Tanex, would be protected by Van.

“Lainey has moved into the town.”

“Outside of the castle walls?” Killian asked, surprised.

“Aye.”

“What are the names of the guards who have been placed with her?”

“She requested none.”

“None?” She requested none? It made no sense.

“Against my advice, Princess Shanree wishes to see you alone. So, you will hand me the two blades you still have concealed on you.”

Van wasn’t as stupid as he looked, and yet he had allowed Killian to meet the king while still armed. Either he was extremely confident in his own abilities, or complacent when it came to the safety of the clearly troubled king.

Killian removed the blade strapped to his leg and then the one on his wrist, handing them to Van, both men watching the other.

“You will give me those back as soon as I’m done in there,” Killian said, matching Van’s tone.

Van opened the door for Killian and stepped aside for him to enter. “I’ll wait right here.”

3

Princess Shanree was sitting near the window, the ornately carved wooden shutters still slightly open. She was humming softly to herself and didn’t immediately acknowledge Killian, so he took a moment to scan the room. The walls and bed were adorned with textiles, and the colours were rich and vibrant. There were plants in every corner and before every window, and candles lit on every wall. He had never seen such luxurious accommodations before. Perhaps Balthazar was right. Perhaps this marriage would bring more wealth to the people of Tinti. What was Aysu getting out of the deal though?

“You must be Balthazar’s guard,” Shanree said, her voice soft.

Killian joined her at the window. The sunlight was all but gone now but the candles bathed her in a soft glow that showed off her beauty. He was surprised. She was beyond what he imagined Balthazar was capable of finding in a wife.

“Would you like to sit?” she asked, gesturing to the chair opposite.

“No, thank you, my lady.” She shouldn’t get up and he shouldn’t sit down. It was how it was meant to be.

“I understand your name is Killian.”

“Yes, my lady.”

“We are not very formal here. Please call me Shanree, or Shree for short.”

Not a chance. He wanted no familiarity with this woman.

“What about you, should I call you Killian or is there a short form for your name?”

“The short form has certain negative connotations.”

She smiled. “‘Kill’, yes I can see that. Although, in your line of work, isn’t it more accurate than negative?”

That was a strange comment. “I’m not a killer.”

“I’ve been made to understand that the castle guards of Tinti are far more brutal and blood-thirsty than the people who fill the same position here. Is that not true?”

“I cannot speak for all castle guards, my lady.”

“Shanree,” she reminded him.

A sudden pain began to blossom behind his eyes. Killian flinched. It was like nothing he’d ever felt before. The rumours he’d heard about Aysu returned unbidden, but he dismissed them. They were nothing but childhood stories designed to scare and intimidate.

“So, tell me, do you understand why you’re here?”

“Yes, my lady,” he answered, unsure if she was questioning Balthazar’s ability to give orders or his ability to understand them.

“Shanree,” she corrected again. “Lord Balthazar is using an antiquated law where he is able to assert his influence – that’s you – on our castle on the off-chance that our betrothal is disapproved of by the townsfolk thereby causing them to rise up against me.”

It was a statement, not a question. Killian saw no need to respond.

“I am telling you now, that won’t happen. So far, the townsfolk of Aysu have not even been informed of the impending nuptials and won’t be until, at the very least, I have spoken with my siblings.”

Hence the need for Killian to approach the castle the back way.

“My brother and heir to the throne, Tanex, returns from his travels next week.”

If Tanex was away, shouldn’t Van be with him?

“Even once the wedding has been announced, I don’t anticipate any problems from our own people. In fact, if I’m honest, the only problem I foresee them having is with you trailing around after me, wearing Tinti colours.”

He could always walk in front of her if she preferred.

“Killian, we are private people. You may have already noticed that the castle is understaffed and that is how we like it here.”

So, he was unwelcome, unwanted, and now dutifully warned. Fantastic.

“I have thought to set you up in a house in the town where you can live out the next two months in peace until Lord Balthazar requests you be returned to him. Does that sound like something you could do?”

“No, my lady.” Sweat was forming on his scalp and forehead. He resisted the urge to wipe it away. The pain was getting worse.

Shanree took a deep breath. “I thought you might say that. Will you share with me what orders Balthazar has given you?”

“To protect you regardless of the risk.”

“And you’re prepared to do that for me?”

“Yes, my lady.” She couldn’t seriously believe he had some choice in this assignment.

“And are you generally considered to be good at your job?”

“I am.”

“Although clearly modesty is a bit of an issue for you.” She smiled. “Would it bother you to learn that I believe you’re here to spy on me?”

“I received no such mandate.”

“And I’m to believe you?”

“Yes, my lady.”

“Just like I’m meant to trust you?”

“Yes, my lady.”

“Shanree,” she reminded him again, although her tone indicated that she was resigned to the futility of it. She got up and stepped away from the window, and then came back again. She was clasping her hands together in front of her, releasing them, and clasping them again. “I would find it easier trusting you if I knew something about you.”

“It isn’t my job to make this any easier for you, Princess Shanree.” For a man in his position, Killian had learned a long time ago that if he couldn’t say what the other person wanted to hear, it was best to keep his mouth shut. He managed it most of the time. He couldn’t say his success rate was one hundred percent, however. “And my private life or my history, is not something I will discuss for your amusement.”

“Trust has to be earned.”

“Believe me,” he said, his eyes meeting hers, and the pain intensifying. “I have earned this position.”

“Well, I guess we’ll see for ourselves soon enough. I assume you have already met our chief castle guard?”

“Yes, my lady.”

“Van will want to train with you tomorrow. I think he is keen to assess your skills.”

Killian nodded, his head pounding fiercely. He didn’t need any further training, but he was happy to have someone to spar with. It would be interesting to see what a man of that size was capable of.

“My sister, Lainey, no longer lives behind the castle walls. I will want to go into the town to visit her a few times a week. Van will advise me when he feels you’re ready to accompany me on these visits.”

“I will be ready when you require me to be.”

She smiled at him. “We shall see.”

“Princess Shanree, I am not to leave your side when you are outside the castle walls. I will be available to you when you wish to visit your sister.”

“You are hardly meant to leave my side when I’m inside the castle walls either, as far as I understand it. In fact, you are to sleep next door.”

Killian’s eyebrows shot up. He had expected quarters which resembled something little better than the horses’ stables.

“It is one of Lord Balthazar’s conditions that you be close by,” she said by way of explanation. “I assume your mandate is not only to protect, but to check for potential suitors that may be visiting my chambers in the night.”

She was fishing.

“You can do what you want, but it would do you no harm to get some sleep at night rather than waste your energy listening for visitors I won’t be having. I think Van is hoping for a challenge tomorrow, so you’ll need your rest.”

Killian nodded curtly, assuming she was dismissing him. As he turned and walked back towards the door, she called after him. “Welcome to Aysu, Killian.”

Unsurprisingly, Van, as promised, was waiting for him outside. The two men exchanged a look, but Van held off asking what had been said between them.

Killian held out his hand for the two blades. Van revealed his empty hands, shrugged, and turned to walk down the corridor.

“Where are my weapons?” Killian asked.

“You’ll get them back,” Van said over his shoulder.

“When?”

Van didn’t answer.

Killian tightened his fists. It would appear the chief castle guard had a selective hearing problem.

“How am I expected to defend Princess Shanree without weapons? Or do hostiles here respond well to harsh language?” He hadn’t been made to surrender his weapons since he was a child. He could protect himself without them, but he didn’t like not knowing where they were.

“You can use your fists, can’t you?” Van said with a lopsided grin.

At that moment, Killian was perfectly willing to show him just how well he could use his fists.

Killian’s room was to the left of Shanree’s, his door opening out onto the top of the stairs. Killian approved. Any danger coming up the stairs would reach his room before it got to hers. Van’s room was opposite but a little further down.

Killian stepped inside, the door closing softly behind him. He kept his back against the wall while he scanned the room and waited for the sound of a key in the lock. He heard nothing. There was no key on his side of the door either.

Now in the privacy of his own chamber, his fingers massaged his temples and he grimaced. The pain had lessened to a pounding throb, but it wasn’t going away. He would feel better after a good night’s sleep.

The room was smaller than Shanree’s but not that much smaller and would certainly be more comfortable than sleeping in the stables. Candles were lit on every wall and a large wooden tub sat in front of the hearth already filled with warm water. A fire was set in the grate, but thankfully not lit, and his bed sheets looked clean. No wooden pallet with a couple of blankets for him. This was a proper bed with cotton sheets.

His bags had been dumped beside the bed. He lifted the flap. Someone had gone through them and didn’t care that he knew about it. The dagger in the bottom of his bag was gone.

He stripped off his clothes and gratefully eased his aching muscles into the warm water.

He’d survived his first evening in Aysu. Eight weeks to go.

4

The puppet master needed to concentrate. It wasn’t that the Tintite was particularly strong. If anything, the opposite was true. Now asleep, the man was an open book with no real defences at all. He could come and go inside Killian’s mind as he liked. It was refreshing. It was different. He finally had a new toy to play with and was determined to savour it.

For years now, he had been restricted to the few people who lived in Aysu castle. They bored him. Now there was more. But the Tintite’s mind was layered like a maze, and it took concentration to work through the chaos behind it. Just as he was able to think a thousand different thoughts in the blink of an eye, so the mind could wander. He didn’t want that. He wanted to pursue stories and memories that pleased, excited, and thrilled him. He wanted to learn about… Balthazar.

Balthazar’s brutality both intrigued and disgusted him in equal measure, and it was clear Killian was not as loyal to his lord as he claimed. His new toy had a rebellious streak – one that had been suppressed and reeled in at every opportunity, but it was there. And Killian was not happy about being relocated to Aysu.

Then, why was he here?

Keen to understand, the puppet master probed mercilessly, digging through memories, dismissing Killian’s fondness for his cousin, his resentment of his father, and his hatred of Balthazar, until he came across the truth. Shree was to wed. Balthazar.

The puppet master stopped still. She had agreed to the marriage. She would leave Aysu for Tinti. She would leave him.

This couldn’t be allowed. Ley was already gone. He only had Shree now. He couldn’t lose her. He had to think. He needed to stop this somehow.

Killian’s memories and feelings towards his lord suddenly became important. This quest into the Tintite’s mind was no longer borne of idle curiosity and enjoyment. Shree had no idea what sort of monster Lord Balthazar was. And Killian, despite knowing what the bastard was like, was dedicated to ensuring the wedding went ahead! In fact, he couldn’t risk failure. Balthazar would not react well, and the toy feared the repercussions – not just for himself, but also for his cousin. Killian was determined to keep his mouth shut and do whatever was required to get through these two months.

The puppet master smiled. The Tintite had no idea what he was up against.

Instantly, he encountered resistance. It was pathetic at best. Just as Killian wanted to cater to his stupid lord’s whim, the puppet master was ruthlessly determined to get his way. And Killian was at his mercy. No feeble attempt on the part of this Tintite would be enough to defeat him. Killian would talk Shree out of this. He would let everyone in the castle know what Balthazar was truly like. Eventually, Shree would reject the proposal and cancel the wedding. The puppet master would see to it – Shree had to be kept safe.

He rubbed his hands together as he eagerly explored his new toy’s mind, seeing what he could find out. Licking his lips, he delved into memories, skimming the tops of them, trying to get a feel for this new person in his life. Each time Killian’s subconscious tried to resist, he pushed further, harder, burying deeper, determined to uncover whatever memory Killian was trying to protect himself against.

The puppet master needed to learn all he could. Killian would tell him everything, whether he wanted to or not. Eight weeks, he thought, anger infusing him with direction and determination. Eight weeks before they wed. Eight…

Eight weeks…

A smile slowly spread across his face.

Eight weeks.

He leaned back, his hands clasped behind him, cushioning his head. Eight weeks and he would lose his new toy. He had time. He could savour this. He could drive Killian to madness in his quest for every memory the Tintite ever had, or he could take his time and enjoy the change in scenery.

Unsure which path to take but thrilled with his options, he sat back and contemplated where to start. Searching through Killian’s mind, as though it were a library and he were choosing a book, he settled on a particularly disturbing memory.

Oh yes, there was a wealth of material here. Lots to play with. This was going to be fun.

5

Killian’s body was now attuned to the sound of the key grating in the lock and automatically tensed, the small movement bringing with it the reminders of yesterday’s cuts and bruises. As the door swung open and a shaft of light spilled in from the corridor, the Shadowman filled the doorway.

“Please…” Killian whimpered. He was fourteen years old and had been confined for two months already. Any pretence of bravado or pride had long since been beaten out of him. “Don’t…”

The Shadowman stepped into the room.

Killian sat bolt upright in bed. His heart was pounding. Sweat covered his body. He looked down at the red welts around his wrists and moved his fingers gingerly as though he were no longer sure he could. The muscles in his hands felt stiff as though the damage to his skin were fresh. His fingers moved. It fucking hurt though. It hurt like it hadn’t hurt in years.

Holding his hands out in front of him, he shuffled off the bed and headed to the wash basin. His hands shaking badly, he clumsily poured water from the pitcher into the bowl. The movement was not controlled. Water splashed over the sides and onto the floor.

He plunged his fists into the cool water and held them there, waiting for the heat and pain to subside. Instead, the water warmed quickly from the heat of his own body. Too quickly.

Killian lifted his hands and examined them. His wrists were sore, the skin tight and raw from injuries over a decade old. He stepped back from the wash basin. How could this be?

His back against the wall, he slid to the floor, his arms resting on his propped-up knees. Droplets fell from his fingertips as he struggled to control his trembling hands.

It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. The Shadowman was the name he’d given to the hooded castle guards in charge of his training when he was a boy. But the Shadowman wasn’t real and the men, whoever they really were, were anyway back in Tinti. He hadn’t feared those men since he’d grown bigger and stronger than them. He hadn’t allowed himself to fear them – he’d been forced to work alongside them. Why had his dream revisited that particular memory this night?

Despite the pain the action caused, he clenched his fists over and over again. It didn’t help. He could still feel the tightness, still smell the stench of his own skin burning. He could still hear his own screams.

Willing his heart to calm, he tried to take a deep breath. Desperate for air, and with his heart racing, he couldn’t hold it. That was all right. The next one would be better. And the next one, and the one after that. He tried again. It took him eight attempts before he was able to calm himself sufficiently that he could feel his lungs inflate, his ribs moving under the skin, his stomach extending. He held it for the count of two and then exhaled fully, waiting as long as he could before inhaling again. The next breath managed to stay in for a count of three. It was how he had learned to control the pain that summer. It was the only thing that had worked.

As his breath slowly returned to normal, he closed his eyes, resting his head back against the wall.

What the fuck?

When he opened his eyes again, his hands were long since dry. There were no droplets left to fall. He slowly got to his feet, his legs feeling weak and unstable beneath him, his head throbbing, his wrists sore. Unsure if he would be able to sleep any more this night, he staggered back to the bed.

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© Jacqueline Chandler 2019
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