Isendiar flinched back at the fury in that single word, dropping down obediently onto his knees before his father’s throne. Behind him Azima stood at stiff attention, her chin up and her eyes fixed on something beyond his father’s head. The air inside the throne room was hot and stuffy at this time of day; his father almost never saw anyone between lunch time and sunset, but Isendiar had been called from his rooms before he’d even managed to eat, herded along with Azima to meet his father’s rage. Kneeling hurt his knees and put an ache in his lower back from having to hunch over, resting his weight on his thighs. His hand still throbbed where the magic he’d cast on the dragon—overpowered and mostly untrained—had turned back on him in punishment.
The minutes ticked by as his father looked through papers handed to him by silent viziers who ignored Isendiar just as pointedly as his father did. Sweat trickled down Isendiar’s back underneath his loose shirt and slipped down the side of his face, but he didn’t dare reach up to wipe it away. He didn’t even feel safe enough to shift his weight slightly, though his knees were beginning to send spasms of real pain through his legs from being pressed against the unyielding stone floor. He licked the corner of his mouth instead, tasting salt, and tried not to think about how dry his throat was getting.
When his father finally looked at him, the anger and disgust hadn’t faded even slightly from his black eyes. Isendiar unconsciously hunched his shoulders, dropping his eyes to the worn stone beneath him. “Do you know the damage your boy and his pet have caused?” his father said, voice tightly controlled. “I have dead priests, a terrified city, and a son who has already spilled blood on the sands before his time. If you had been killed, where would that put us, Isendiar?”
“Not in here, at least,” Isendiar said before he could stop himself. He thought he heard a tiny noise from Azima behind him, as though she’d just had to bite back a snort.
“Your attitude is half the problem. You have been running wild and I’ve had enough. The priests are demanding that you be locked away for your own good and want me to hand them over that child you’re so protective of. I am of half a mind to do it and let them deal with him as they will.”
“No!” Isendiar half-rose, then sank back down onto his knees under his father’s glare. “He didn’t do anything wrong.”
“No? He doesn’t summon dragons?” The king leaned forward on his throne. “Then what does he do, Isendiar? Even you have to admit he’s strange, and the priests insist that there is no magic in him.”
“He’s...” Isendiar looked at his bandaged hand. “Untrained. Like me. Nobody took the time to teach him anything where he came from, so he doesn’t... summon them on purpose.”
“All the more reason to send him away before he causes any more damage. This is your choice, Isendiar. He leaves on the caravan north, or I will hand him over to the priests. Either way, you will be sent to your sister’s estate for her to babysit until you need to return for the ceremony.”
“I...” Isendiar hesitated, feeling sluggish and stupid in the cloying heat, trying to think quickly. “He goes north. But I will only agree to this, Father, on one condition. The scholar who was with us, Raksha. She comes with me. And I will watch you put Ciaran on the caravan.” He looked up and met his father’s eyes. “If not, I promise you I will fight you every step of the way.”
Rage suffused the king’s face and a muscle spasmed just beneath one dark eye, but he snarled out an agreement, then waved one hand in a banishing motion. Azima helped Isendiar to his feet and surreptitiously supported him out of the throne room until his stiff muscles loosened enough for him to walk by himself. A pair of guards fell silently in behind them, trailing them down the hall until they reached Isendiar’s rooms, where another pair of guards had been posted to keep Ciaran inside. At the door Isendiar turned and waved them imperiously away, only going into his suite when they’d moved a good distance down the hall.
Ciaran got up from the couch where he’d been sitting, giving them an anxious look. Wishing he’d been able to learn more, Isendiar signed Ciaran’s name and greeted him in one of the phrases Raksha had taught him before ruffling his hair and urging him to sit back down on the couch. “Didn’t you once say you could read my mind, Azima?” he asked, offering Ciaran what he hoped was a reassuring smile.
“It doesn’t take much, princeling.”
“Read it now.” He turned and met her eyes, then flashed another bright smile. “And I suppose we need to pack for my darling sister’s estate.”
“Prince.” Azima bowed slightly.
“Go fetch Raksha first so I can attempt to explain to Ciaran why I need to put him on a caravan headed north.” Isendiar dropped down on the couch beside Ciaran, tipping his head back and closing his eyes for a moment. His head hurt, a steady throbbing pain behind his left eye, and the slashes in his hand were beginning to send sharp stabs all the way up his arm to his elbow.
Gentle, cool fingers brushed his hair back and he opened his eyes to find Ciaran watching him uncertainly, hazel eyes worried. He took a moment to look Ciaran over, glad to see that the sunburn had mostly healed down to a tan that darkened Ciaran’s skin to only a few shades lighter than Isendiar’s own. In the black pants and loose blue shirt Isendiar had found for him, his legs tucked up under him on the couch, he looked almost as though he belonged there. Smiling a little, Isendiar reached out to touch his cheek then got up and went to order one of the guards outside to bring lunch.
Azima came back with Raksha halfway through their meal, pulling the girl inside by the arm. “Your exalted father seems to have put the idea into our scholar’s head that she’s being banished.”
“Technically, we both are,” Isendiar said, waving to the cushions on the other side the table. “Sit and eat. Try not to pass out from fear.”
Raksha pulled herself upright and moved to the cushions, dropping down on them with a thump. “This isn’t fair.”
“I’m glad we agree. You’ll like it at Veykar, though. My sister loves books.” Isendiar grinned but Raksha only gave him a sour look and picked at a bowl of fruit. “Cheer up, scholar. And translate for me, Ciaran needs to know what’s going to happen.”
Through Raksha he explained that his father had ordered Ciaran put on a caravan headed north, pushing down his guilt at the hurt look Ciaran gave him. He told Raksha to give what reassurances she could, getting up to pace back and forth along the floor in front of the couches. Even with food and drink his head still hurt and he was so tired he wanted to lie down and sleep for a day. Halfway through his next turn, Ciaran leaned out from the couch and snagged his wrist, tugging him until he sat back down and scribbling a note to Raksha.
“He says he trusts you,” Raksha said once she’d read it. “I don’t know why.”
“Because he’s smart.” He hunched forward and took the paper they’d been scribbling back and forth on. The letters almost seemed to make sense, though he wondered if that was only because he knew the general gist of the conversation between Raksha and Ciaran. Huffing out a breath in annoyance, he slumped back against the couch cushions, tossing the pad of paper onto the table. “Teach me more. I’m tired of not being able to understand anything or talk to him myself. How does anyone even exist like that, unable to talk, unable to hear what people are saying, hardly able to communicate?”
“He communicates.” Raksha glanced at Ciaran, who was looking back and forth between them with his eyebrows drawn slightly down in worry. “And maybe the fact that he’s mute has kept him safe so far. He has an excuse for not speaking our language or any language in this world.”
“Mmm. I wish we knew the place he came from so we could return him there.” He shook his head. “I’ll have Azima ask her friends to still keep an eye out for his friend, that Al-handro. Maybe he can tell us more. Meanwhile, go choose yourself a guard of your own and pack. We leave tonight.”
He showed her out and waved for the nicest-looking guard to follow her, closing the door behind him as he stepped back into the room. Azima, sitting on the floor working oil into her rifle and sharpening her knife in long steady strokes, glanced up at him, one eyebrow slightly arched. He waved a hand at her, grabbed a last piece of fruit from the bowl on the table, and went back to tell the guards to send some servants in to pack his things for the journey, already beginning to feel jumpy with nervous tension.
By dark he was completely packed and all the bags and trunks he was taking with him were piled into the back of a coach drawn by two snorting black horses. A contingent of guards milled around on their own horses, keeping back curious bystanders trying to get a look at the prince before he left. Isendiar fought down the sense that some of the looks he was getting were less than friendly, keeping a hand on Ciaran’s shoulder as they waited for the caravan headed north to stop at the palace. He half-expected his father to come out just to make sure Ciaran was sent on the caravan, but instead a pair of stone-faced priests came to supervise. Isendiar couldn’t help a bitter smile, giving Ciaran’s shoulder a slight squeeze and placing himself between Ciaran and the priests without even trying to be subtle about it. The dirty look he got in return from both of them did a lot to restore his good humour and he even managed a smile when the caravan arrived and he had to hand Ciaran over to the head driver.
Ciaran pulled away from the friendly hand the driver put on his arm to help him up into the coach and turned back to throw his arms around Isendiar’s waist, hugging him fiercely. Caught off-guard, Isendiar awkwardly patted his back then returned the hug just to annoy the watching priests. Obviously struggling to maintain his smile, Ciaran kissed his cheek quickly and climbed up into the coach. The driver slammed the door shut, nodded respectfully to Isendiar, and climbed up into his seat, sending his mules off with a snap of his whip. Isendiar watched until the caravan had disappeared into the darkness before pulling himself into his own coach and settling on the plush leather seat. Azima helped Raksha in a few moments later and swung herself up onto her massive stallion, quickly organizing the milling guards and ordering the driver to move out.
“I hate this thing,” Isendiar said as the coach began to move, kicking at the seat. When Raksha didn’t respond, he glanced over at her where she sat huddled up in the corner as far from him as she could get, her arms crossed over her chest. “Aren’t you even going to ask why?”
She sighed. “Why?”
“Because it says I need to be coddled and protected, like I haven’t been riding since I was able to sit up by myself.”
“Your father doesn’t want to risk losing you. Nobody does.”
“Yeah, wouldn’t that be a shame,” Isendiar muttered, then sighed at the wide-eyed look she gave him. “I’m not going to run away, Raksha, stop giving me that horrified look. I’m a willing sacrifice. I just wish people would actually trust that.”
“Can you really blame them? Not many people want to die at all, let alone at only 25. I wouldn’t be able to do it.”
“Good job you’re not me then.” He looked out the window and saw Azima’s big shadow slip quietly away from the rest of the group, fading into the sand dunes around them now that they had moved out from the city walls. He settled back into his seat, feeling a lot better. “We’ll be stuck together for the next two days. If I were you, I’d get some sleep now.”
Her expression said she’d rather jump out of the coach while it was moving than spend the next two days with him, but after a moment she curled up on the seat, pulled her coat over her head, and soon started snoring. Isendiar tried to stay up longer to watch the stars but his eyes grew heavy and he began to nod off, his chin dropping down onto his chest. He stretched out as best as he could in the slightly cramped interior of the coach and pillowed his head in his arms, soon dropping off into a restless sleep.
He woke fully with daylight and dragged himself out when the coach stopped to empty his bladder behind a scrubby bush, squinting up into the cloudless blue sky. For a moment he thought he saw something high above him, wheeling in a slow circle, then the sun blocked it out. He ate a quick breakfast sitting outside in the sand, ignoring every attempt to get him back into the coach to eat somewhere more proper, and only climbed back in to shake Raksha awake and give her some food. Azima hadn’t returned from where she’d gone during the night, but when one of the guards asked, Isendiar just shrugged and said something about her scouting behind and around them for anyone following.
The day passed by so slowly that he wondered if the heat was actually boiling his brain inside his skull. Attempts to draw Raksha into conversation brought one-word answers and an impressive array of noncommittal grunts. After a while he forced the coach to stop and bullied a guard into giving up his horse, feeling much better once he was in the saddle with the wind in his hair and the ability to see something other than the inside of the coach and Raksha’s sullen face.
He reluctantly returned the horse to the guard when dark fell, after they’d eaten around a small campfire built on the sheltered side of one of the dunes. The wind had been steadily rising all day and he heard the driver mutter worriedly about a sandstorm catching them before they reached his sister’s estate. After climbing into the coach—where Raksha had already curled up to go back to sleep—he watched out of the window, but though the wind rose enough to rock the coach back and forth, the sands stayed down on the ground where they belonged.
They passed out of the desert and into scrubby grassland just after breakfast the next morning, and reached Veykar, where Isendiar’s sister, Miah, lived with her two children, an hour after lunch. Miah came herself to greet them, sitting her tall bay with an elegance even Isendiar had to admit he was impressed with, her son and daughter—9-year-old Liasha and 6-year-old Deshko—bouncing gamely along behind her on sturdy ponies. Isendiar swung himself out of the coach and went down on his knees to scoop Liasha up after she’d slid off her pony, kissing her cheek and holding her on one hip as he got back to his feet. Deshko hung back shyly, a little unsure of the man he’d last met as a three-year-old, until his mother dismounted to take Isendiar by the shoulders and kiss both of his cheeks.
“Father is most displeased with you,” she murmured in his ear. “You always were a brat, Isen.”
“I take after my sister.” He grinned at her and turned to gesture at Raksha with the hand not supporting Liasha’s weight. “This is my scholar, Raksha. Azima will be here shortly as well, but I’m not sure how long she’s going to be. Fortunately everyone else is going back home.” He met her eyes, the same dark colour as their father’s, though hers were much gentler. “What exactly did Father tell you?”
“That you had taken up with some Northern boy and they were worried you were going to ruin all their careful plans.” She slid an arm around his waist and walked him away from the coach. “Perhaps not in so many words, but that was the gist of it. Did you, Isen?”
“Why does everyone think I’m that weak? No, I didn’t. He just needs someone to look after him. He’s not from around here and that’s a long story that I promise to tell you later.” He shifted Liasha on his hip, smiling at her when she started to plait his hair into a thin braid. “Let’s get inside before we melt.”
He deposited Liasha back on her pony and boosted Deshko onto his before taking the reins of the horse one of Miah’s servants brought him. The ride back to the main house, set beneath tall trees so green they made Raksha stare, was short and gentle through land much cooler than the desert. Isendiar took a deep breath of the clean air and gladly followed Miah and the children into the house, Raksha tagging along at his heels. Miah’s husband, a prince from the neighbouring nation to the east, wasn’t often home, leaving Miah to raise the children and run the household with the help of the servants. On his last visit three years earlier, Isendiar had asked her if she regretted the marriage, but she’d only laughed and told him that she liked her husband fine, and liked being in charge of her own house even better.
He left Raksha with Miah, hoping his sister could make her more comfortable, and let Liasha and Deshko drag him off to see their rooms, spending the afternoon playing with them and letting Liasha put more braids in his hair. They ate dinner together at the wide table in the main dining room and after helping Miah put the children to bed, he drew her out onto the front porch to the rocking chairs in the corner. The sun had already gone down and the night was cool, though milder than the cold desert nights, where the sand didn’t hold the heat once the sun was gone. They sat in comfortable silence for a little while, until Isendiar heard the gentle sound of a walking horse approaching them.
He got to his feet and went to meet Azima as she came into the front courtyard, reaching up to help her passenger down. Ciaran looked up at him from beneath the hood covering his face and offered half a smile, following Isendiar willingly to the porch, where Miah stood with her arms crossed over her chest. Isendiar pulled Ciaran’s hood down and pushed him a step forward, resting a hand on his shoulder.
“This is Ciaran,” he said, and offered his sister the most charming smile he could muster. “Please let him stay?”