The kozan uniform was deceptively simple considering all that it represented; an even blue, slightly darker than the sky, with argent embroidery along the hems of the neck and sleeves. Just above the left breast, that same silver needle had emblazoned the king’s crest. It was an emblem made out of three crowns of differing styles joined at the base, with a knot of woven bands wound to a circular knot in the triangular opening left inside. In the end, Auri found that the blazon was a subtle thing, at least considering the flamboyant coats of the many noble families that made up the political power base of the kingdom. From the lowest lord to the grand dukes, heraldry only became more ostentatious with the rise through the echelons. Then at its summit, it came back down to this. Talem had told her the real magic was in the colors, not in the threads. In black and gold, it meant nothing, in blue and white it represented the highest office in the realm.
“Auri!” Talem’s voice was muffled by the door, but she could still make out the impatience in his tone. “Stop admiring your new uniform and come on already!”
She didn’t answer him. Despite her spending the better part of an hour looking in the mirror to straighten every crease and wrinkle from her uniform, she felt like something was off. Something between her chest and stomach, somewhere between the pit and her heart. Talem knocked again, more loudly this time, and instead she found a gray cloak and swept it over her shoulders. Taking one last look at herself, hidden now behind folds of gray wool, she frowned and then went to open the door.
He had been leaning against the side of the door when she began to turn the handle, so he was still straightening up when she saw him. They exchanged looks for a few moments, each studying the other. Talem was wearing his new uniform, but it had been ruffled in the process and he hadn’t properly tied his sash. Despite his physique, it hung from his shoulders in languid, sagging rucks that bunched up at his waist and made it look too big for him. She would never understand how he always managed to look like such a complete mess, it was as if he did not know about mirrors.
“Auri, I know I look good, but it’s impolite to stare,” Talem’s voice was always a strange mix of flirtation and distance, like an athlete competing against a less skilled opponent. Usually she found it charming, but today it was grating.
“Your sash isn’t straight,” she said and went over to him and began to straighten his uniform, giving him a scowl on the way there. Typical, he did not even take something as significant as this seriously. “Here, stand still.”
She spent a few moments straightening out his tunic, and then fussed with his sash until she was satisfied that he looked presentable. When she was done she took a step back and nodded with a terse smile.
“There. If we have to do this, we should look presentable.” Part of her actually wanted to mess up her own uniform to match his, in protest to having to go on a mission with Basia. It was unlike her to be so petulant, and so she swallowed the impulse.
“Listen, badger, if you don’t want to go, I’m sure we can make up some excuse, weasel out of it somehow.” His tone had changed, making it clear that he wasn’t joking around. She knew that deep inside, some part of him actually looked forward to the mission, though. “Shit, that’s pretty much all I did here in the beginning, just say the word.”
Auri felt a peak of excitement at the suggestion. She really did not want to meet the man who had hurt her so badly. If he felt guilty and wanted to make amends, then good. Let him feel that way, let him wallow in his own conscience, let him die knowing she hated him still. But that was not her way. Anger was a weakness as surely as fear, and weaknesses had to be hammered out. The strongest blades had a straight edge.
“No,” the word almost curdled in her throat. “No. We have to do this. I’m not afraid of him, I’m more afraid that if I get a chance to I’ll…”
“You’ll finish the job?”
“What do you mean?” The words struck her like a slap.
“It’s not like he walked away from your fight unscathed. You took his eye out. I remember when he brought you in, he was not happy, and your arm was the least of his concerns.”
She closed her eyes and took a breath, forced her hands to unclench, and almost winced as the ghost of her lost arm beat against the door she had built in her mind to keep the flames at bay. A knock that was getting louder now that Basia had walked back into her life. She had known the day would come, but not this soon. Somehow, Talem was adding to the weight, lately, and she flinched when she felt his hands on her shoulders, but stopped herself from tearing away.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to take you back to that place. I mean to say I know how it is. If it comes down to it, I have your back.” His voice was soft, more somber than she was used to.
“It’s just so unfair!” She didn’t know whether to push him away or embrace him at this point. The sinking feeling she had noticed earlier was quickly turning into a hole, and the stress was making it hard to decide whether to reach out or jump in. “I can’t believe Kaplen would do this!”
“I don’t think he really did. I think it comes from the administrators, perhaps even from up high. Kaplen knows it’s unfair, that’s why I’m coming along.”
“He said that?”
“No, but it makes sense. Sending you alone would be a disaster one way or the other, I think he knows you’d end up killing each other.”
“I didn’t do anything to him!” Whenever one of the adults spoke about what had happened, it was always with the sense that her and Basia had somehow traded blows. That what had happened had been an exchange, and not simply a violation. She remembered the fire, though, and the pain, and the feeling of being faced with a situation she couldn’t possibly have understood. “I can’t even remember what happened! I was a child!”
“You still are. What I’m saying is you’re not alone.” She felt those strong hands turning her around, and then he was holding her against him. Part of her wanted to push him away still, but there was nothing outside of them to go to. Instead, she listened to his heart, a deep rhythmic beat to the her fluttering dribble. Heartbeats, she had found, were more honest than ticks and tocks. If time was a river, clocks flowed down the stream like a log, passive and without experience. They missed the point entirely. Hearts, on the other hand, fought the current and struggled for breath. Hearts knew that there was more to the rapids than just water.
“I’m not a-” Her protest was interrupted by a squeeze around her shoulders, and hand moving up to the side of her head to hold her close.
“You’re not alone.”
A sob racked through her so fiercely she began to cough. Talem did not waver at all, nor did he speak again. He only stayed with her, trusting his presence to be enough. Behind the sting of her tears, however, behind the beating of her heart and the whine of her breath, she still heard the hammering of a hand on that door inside her. Faster now, and more erratic, as if her phantom had somehow become many. Unable to think of a way to fix it, she pressed her head harder into his chest, and let him tell her the time for a while.
By the time she found her center, the horizon had grown a red halo, and the soft light told them that it was time to move toward the palace. The kozan compound was very large, a dozen square miles of garden bounded on all sides by a perimeter of fortified buildings that functioned like a wall, but in reality was more like a continuous castle in the shape of a ring. At the center was the king’s palace, a tiered bastion that stretched upward taller than any other building in Astia, and tapered into an arm that extended all the way to the wall on one side. Its architecture looked almost simplistic when viewed from afar, until the sheer scale of it became clear. The royal gardens, and the palace itself, was large enough that it could shelter most of the capital’s population in the event of a siege. The main building was off limits to even kozan however, populated instead by servants and guards who, like the king, never left. Instead, where the arm met the wall, there was a large reception hall. It housed the main gates into the compound, which meant it was also where they were supposed to meet Basia within the hour.
There was little more to say, and so as they walked along the lovingly maintained pathways that winded through the gardens, along copses and flowerbeds and over carefully landscaped streams, they kept quiet. Here was a biome not found in nature, a design that had not emerged by chance but had been plotted to the last straw of grass by a human mind. Many things could be said about Kaplen, but his garden, and whatever place in him it grew out of, was beautiful. The sun kept their pace, slipping lazily over the mountains through the wavering air, painting roses on the surface of the water and bathing them in the warmth of the day. They reached the reception hall just in time that it could still be called sunrise.
The hall was enormous, though there were rooms and offices on two of its sides, the bulk of it was a tall and pillared atrium that bathed in prismatic light from a wide strip of colored, kaleidoscopic glass running along the entire ceiling. Its size gave it the property of looking almost empty, no matter how many people were actually in it. Even this early, there were more people present here than anywhere else in the compound. Functionaries in various heraldry, lesser lords and ladies from all over the kingdom, and their serving staff. They acknowledged Auri and Talem as they walked past, but stayed out of their way. There were only a handful of titles in existence that made it reasonable to stop a kozan.
All the ease with which they traversed the first few hundred yards of the building was paid for in full when they closed in on the main entrance. It was a separate area made for receiving horses and carriages, an indoor courtyard that, while simply decorated in banners bearing the king’s colors, was still gratuitously opulent by virtue of its mere existence. Courtyards, after all, was something even lords maintained outside their homes. The idea of walling one in was a message not easily missed.
As they went through the gate, Kaplen stood ready to receive them, and behind him sitting on an imposing black steed was someone who could only be Basia. He was larger than she remembered, and his skin much darker. It was hard to tell on horseback, but he had to be almost as tall as Talem, and much more thickly muscled. His complexion was like wet earth, but cracked and criss-crossed by wrinkles and scars. They were reminiscent of the tracework on Auri’s own skin, although far more advanced, and in place of her subtle silver lines, his were bold and golden. They almost glowed with the promise of molten fire, although the shadows that fell on parts of him told her that there was no actual light coming from them. The burning heat they spoke of, however, set her teeth on edge and raised the hairs on her neck. It churned her stomach and made her tighten her fists, and if it hadn’t been for Talem’s hand still on her shoulder giving a perceptive squeeze, she thought she might have run away there and then.
Basia climbed down from his horse, and approached them together with Kaplen. He had a limp, and true to what she had been told, he wore a patch over his right eye. That was where she had gotten him back, even if she could not recall how it had happened. Basia did not smile when he came close, nor did he talk. Instead it was Kaplen who broke the awkward silence.
“Mornin’ Auri, Talem. This here’s Basia,” the man nodded at them as Kaplen introduced him. “He says he’s here to make amends, and I believe him. I want you to give him a chance, and to that end, I want to make one thing very clear:
“You both come back.
“If somethin’ happens to any of you, I will find the bottom of it, and I will make damn sure it bites you in the ass and never lets go.”
Basia extended an unsteady hand toward Auri, and she stared at it for several seconds. It felt like every part of her body was trying to independently recoil from it, and it took all the will she could muster just to remain where she was. She did not shake it.
“If you so much as touch me,” she said when she found her voice, trying not to let it tremble. “I will cut it off and finish what you started. Kaplen says I have to do this, but I’ll take his bad side for the rest of my days before I let you have another inch of me.” By the end of her speech she was spitting the words, and she could feel Talem secure his grip to keep her from flying at him. Even she was surprised at how close to anger fear was.
Basia drew back from her words, visibly rebuked, and pulled his hand back to fold it behind him. He did not offer any retort, but gave her a moment of pause as he seemed almost jumpy. Could he be as afraid as she was? With his eyepatch it was hard to say for sure, but the possibility redeemed some of her own insecurities.
“Alright,” he said. “I understand. It will be as you say. No touching.”
His good eye darted around, and she wondered if he was looking for an escape. Even after it settled on Talem, however, it would glance haphazzardly around the room every few seconds before returning to him. Was it just a mannerism? Her memory of him was as an unstoppable inferno, and yet here he wavered before her like a sputtering candle.
“You are our chaperone, I take it. I hear good things about you. Has Kaplen given you any details about what we are going to do?”
Talem shook his head, but before he could respond Kaplen interjected.
“I figure this is your show, Basia.” Kaplen raised his arms disarmingly. “I do have one new directive, down from up high since yesterday. These two ain’t never been in the field before.”
His next words stopped her breath in her throat, and took her mind away from Basia in a split second of wonder.
“That means your first stop is the Dordoron.”