Ice-laden wind tore around Galcia Guardron to find every gap in Marcus Oregada’s clothing. His cloak sodden with snow, he shivered, the chill so deep that his bones aches as tears froze to his lashes. Would he ever feel warm again? Three days of storm, and snow climbed into ever higher drifts, sending crofter and villager to seek shelter behind castle walls.
Toes numb in his boots, Marcus let another family through the gates into Galcia Guardron. Folk already lined hall and corridor, vying for space out of drafts, and tripping over others’ pathetic belongings. Did his wife fare better in Belgrat Guardron, four days ride to the north? Without the storm he wouldn’t be here, shepherding people in from the cold, when his Katerina was so close to birthing their first child.
One look at the shuddering masses with blackened fingers convinced Marcus that love must yield to duty. Folk had slogged their way to the castle from as far away as Frenton village. Those in the outreaches were probably close to dying. He could not send men to help them, knowing none would survive.
Behind him cattle, sheep, and goats milled, turning the central courtyard into a mess of dung-colored slush. Not even the sharp chill could douse the stench of so many beasts. Loud moos, bleats and cries reflected their restless churning as they sought place in new hers. The sounds echoed, even above the wind’s roar, within the castle walls.
Ice clung to Marcus’s beard and moustache as he cajoled exhausted folk, animals and guardsmen into some form of organization. Since his men had worked outside all day, not even the commander of Galcia’s garrison would shirk duty for a brazier in the hall.
Visibility down to a few yards from the drawbridge, snow swirled in angry patterns to turn a man dizzy. Icicles hung from the portcullis like a panpipe, threatening to stab unwary travelers. Marcus didn’t remember a storm such as this. Had not King Eidric showed his charity by sheltering those he could, they and their animals might have died, frozen in place like so many ghosts.
“There’s no more room, Commander,” Captain Garet came to say.
Despite the chaos behind Marcus, many folk remained outside. He could not save them all, even when frustration and pity clenched his heart. Garet looked no better than Marcus felt. His nose and cheeks scarlet under his helm, he shivered in his boots, too close to that point when a man would simply lie down and embrace death.
“Get inside,” Marcus ordered. “We’ll close the gates in a short while. One hour shifts for all men.”
A goat made a bid for freedom past Marcus. He leapt and caught it by the horns, ignoring its bleats of distress as he manhandled it into the courtyard. There’d be arguments enough when it came to sorting which beast belonged to whom. At least they wouldn’t freeze their blood. Even breathing iced his lungs. He’d sent guards inside already, blood streaming out their noses.
The goat safe, Marcus stamped his feet and swung his arms. As circulation returned, sharp needles of pain replaced numbness, which meant he wouldn’t lose his toes. Katerina would be happy if he lost his toes, or any other parts for that matter. It would take a warm fire to convince him he still owned a pair of balls.
The weather might not be this bad at Belgrat. His baby better wait to be born until he could be there to welcome it and hold his wife’s hand, convention be damned.
“Rider!” Garet croaked. He’d stayed with his commander, disobeying orders.
Marcus shielded frozen lashes to peer through the snow. A beast stumbled in the whiteness. Garet and Marcus ploughed through drifts to reach horse and rider in time.
The messenger lay on the horse’s neck, both encased in ice and snow. The animal’s lungs heaved in distress. Its limbs trembled with fatigue. Marcus called more men to help. Between them they got horse and rider through the gate. Marcus carried the messenger into the gatehouse where several guards stood around a brazier. Men moved aside for Marucs to set the soldier on the wooden floor.
“Strip him and wrap him in blankets—get the surgeon, quickly!” Marcus shouted while he chafed limbs.
A guard ran off as Marcus and Garet unfastened frozen ties and buckles. The man could not even shiver.
“Belgrat, sir,” Garet whispered.
Marcus had seen the badge the moment he’d laid the messenger down. Fear set his heart racing. It was as though his thoughts had brought the rider here. Why would anybody attempt a journey in such weather if not to bring him news he feared?
He cleared a throat dry as ashes, the urge to shake answers from the poor man both sickening and overwhelming.
“Elim?” he asked, remembering the soldier’s name.
Elim’s eyes fluttered open.
While Marcus waited for him to focus, a soldier placed a warm drink in Marcus’s hand. He lifted Elim’s head and held the cup to his lips.
After two sips, the soldier closed his eyes.
Marcus shook him gently. “Elim?”
“Belgrat’s gone,” Elim rasped.
Marcus’s fingers tightened on Elim’s shoulder. “Gone? What do you mean?”
“Men… riding dragons. Breathing fire… weapons killed without touch.”
Dragons? The man must be fevered. What happened to Katerina, goddammit! He drew a breath to force calm. With patience he didn’t feel, Marcus said, “You aren’t making sense, Elim.”
Elim’s eyes wandered, searching, to rest on Marcus’s face. “Didn’t make sense, sir. Thunder and lightning. Village destroyed. Men appearing like magic.”
“What of my father and brothers?”
A lump formed in Marcus’s throat. “Women and children?”
Elim shook his head.
A white haze filled his vision. It was as though his heart stopped; racing with dread one moment then nothing. “Why do you still live?” Marcus asked in shock.
Elim stirred. “Your brother… before he fell, he sent me. To warn.”
“How long ago?”
“Two… maybe three…”
Marcus had to know. “Katerina?”
“A daughter, you had a daughter,” Elim whispered.
“Do they still live?” Marcus cried. “Elim?” This time he shook the soldier, who lolled, boneless. He’d lost consciousness.
The surgeon arrived with his tools. He bent down quickly by Elim, felt for his pulse, and looked up. “How far did he ride?”
“Belgrat,” Marcus said.
“Then he used all his strength getting here. Brave lad. It’ll be a while before he comes to. Best let him rest if you want him alive.”
You must do something! Marcus wanted to cry. I need to know if she’s alive. I need—Marcus climbed to his feet. Shaken and numb with more than cold, his brain refused to work. He clenched his hands into fists, bewildered by Elim’s words. How could Belgrat have gone? Dragons? Dragons came out of children’s stories. Elim had to be out of his mind. Perhaps Katerina was alive. Maybe his parents and siblings were.
“Saddle my stallion,” he ordered Garet.
His captain faced him. “Commander, you can’t! This man is half-dead from the cold. Maybe tomorrow—“
“Tomorrow will be too late!” Marcus snapped.
“Maybe it’s already too late.”
Strung tight as a crossbow, Marcus’s fist swung at words he never wanted to hear. A prop holding up the ceiling shook under the impact of a man driven too far.
Marcus knew what he had to do. Since his duty as commander was all that he had left, he’d keep the threat from coming here. Even if his family still lived, he’d risk no one else in the storm. He ordered a message sent to King Eidric then made his way to the stables, pushing past restive beasts. He was halfway through saddling his stallion when Prince Aarvern arrived.
“This is madness,” Aarvern stated.
Finished with tightening his girth, Marcus leaned with one hand on the pommel before turning to face the young prince. “Yes, it possibly is, but it’s my family, Aarvern. If someone has overthrown Belgrat, we need to act.”
“My sire knows your mind. He wants information as you do, and begs you take no risks.”
He’d probably said it in more colorful language. In different circumstances, Marcus might have smiled. “I’ll be as careful as I can, that I promise.”
He clasped hands with Aarvern.
Eidric’s son grimaced and left the stables.
As Marcus un-tethered the stallion, three men approached, Garet among them.
He held a fur-lined cloak over one arm. “His majesty sent this and a squad to fo with you.”
Twenty-five men. He hadn’t wanted to risk so many. Marcus took the cloak, touched my his men’s loyalty and grateful for Eidric’s intervention. “I only want volunteers.”
“Aye, sir. Men are already provisioning. We’ll change horses at every posthouse. We can make it in two days, even in this weather. We need to watch each other’s backs because the first enemy is cold.”
* * *
To the last dying beat of a drum, Yiahan rial Krais sank to his knees, hand raise in supplication to Vari.
Silence fell as the echoes in Vari’s Hall faded. The prince of nine worlds waited, chest heaving, calves cramping, ankles aching.
As one, his audience bowed, their thoughts sent in one vast accolade of appreciation.
He’d done it, when his teachers said he couldn’t. You cannot be a prince with all the responsibility that entails and dance for the god.
They were wrong.
He’d succeeded in interpreting Vari’s perfection, lifting the hearts and minds of others with the grace of his art.
Yiahan bowed, locking such thoughts behind a door in his mind, when he wanted to leap up and punch the air in sheer joy.
It was more than personal joy. Vari had lifted him in his leaps and balanced him in his spins. He’d steadied his feet on landing. Silently, Yiahan thanked the god. He had sought perfection to come as close as he ever would. Those moments of harmony still sang through his veins, instilling more faith and love than Yiahan could articulate.
Nothing could touch him.
Shaking with Vari’s glory, Yiahan acknowledged the respect of his people then retreated from Vari’s hall through a small side door. Servants waited to take his clothes and steer him toward the bliss of hot water. If they sensed he had gone somewhere deep today, he could only be grateful they left him in peace.
Beneath the torrents of the shower, Yiahan let the warmth ease tired muscles. When the servants left and someone else entered, he knew instantly. A mental smile reached Kersantia as he emerged from the steaming water into his wife’s arms.
He held her, the delightful curve of her womb swelling in between them. Against his named skin the baby kicked. He thanked Vari for that gift.
“I’m as large as a seacow,” Kersantia declared.
Only she could bring him back to reality. He tucked a strand of golden hair behind one of her ears. “As beautiful as a sistentium flower.”
Her laughter touched him. Yiahan leaned forward and kissed her, lingering as their mouths met, wanting to share the joy he’d found. You taste of flowers, too.
And you of the god.
Gently he pulled away. I felt Vari today more strongly than ever. I gave myself over to him.
Tears formed in her blue eyes. Such beauty, Yiahan, and it wasn’t just Vari. You are…. I can’t find words to express it. Every woman of Ariasthenise envies me. You are god-touched indeed.
Today that might be true. He caressed the curve of their child. “You don’t need to express it, my love. I taste your thoughts as well as your lips. If I’ve returned what Vari gives me, I can be content. As for other women?” He shrugged. “You are the light of my life. Only Vari may eclipse you.”
Her hand covered his. “Or your son.”
“Am I not doubly blessed? What woman would prefer this to the ease of a birthing tank.?”
Her mouth formed a wry smile. “Only the wife of the prince of Ariasthenise.” She reached to caress his face. “They are so wrong, Yiahan, to miss out on a babe’s growth, lest they spoil the lines of their gowns. Beauty isn’t everything. I would have missed so much. We know each other already, and he knows you as well. If he has not yet seen you dance, he has heard its music within my womb.”
“Only you,” he said softly, catching her hand and kissing the palm. “Only you could I love like this.”
A servant waited outside the door. “Enter,” Yiahan called, sensing her impatience.
“Your ship awaits, Your Highness. May I assist you with your clothing?”
“No, thank you, Temera. I will manage.” Kersantia already wore a blue suit, sensible for travel.
The servant bowed and left.
Yiahan sighed. “Duty calls. Does the traveling tire you too much?”
“No, love, I can rest while you fly. It is only a short hop to Betronia.”
Yiahan crossed to a wardrobe, where he pulled out a pale-green flight suit. He donned it quickly then smiled his thanks at Kersantia, who plaited his hair in a long tail. As they left, he snatched another kiss.
Vari’s hall stood empty. Rainbows of light from a roof-set crystal reached the dais where he’d danced. Silent, the hall became more ethereal, its sanctity and harmony an atmosphere one could inhale.
Beyond Vari’s sanctuary, they walked the palace’s marble halls. Polite, the citizens left them their privacy unless unavoidable. Those they did meet bowed love to the ground in homage to their emperor’s son.
Glass doors opened onto the street where a ground car awaited them. Yiahan paused to look back at the palace of Incaprible. Strong sunlight transformed the many glass windows into one great shining gem. Harmony sang to him as he stepped into the car after helping Kersantia into her seat.
The car whisked past streets with serenity of still pools, ordered with the permanence that only peace could create. As they arrived at the space terminal, Yiahan found it had to image that the world of Ariasthenise had been any less advanced millennia ago. They’d grown beyond violence to embrace beauty in all its forms. This world of peace and perfection, created from barren rock, epitomized who the Arias were.
Sarius, his ship, waited beyond the doors of an elevator, to take Yiahan across the galaxy between his sire’s other words.
The ship’s sentient computer greeted him as he stepped aboard with Kersantia. The hatch closed behind them, leaving Sarius their only company. Yiahan savored the rarity of being alone with Kersantia. Sarius would shield them from outside thoughts, just as their own would stay between them.
Clothes, jewels and court paraphernalia already packed, Kersantia retired to their cabin while Yiahan went to the bridge. From the floor, a chair arose. He seated himself at the console.
“Is all well, Sarius?”
“All… is well, my Prince.”
Yiahan frowned at her hesitation. “Has there been a systems problem, Sarius?”
“None that I have not overcome, my Prince. Shall I alert the spacedock that departure is imminent?”
Whatever the problem had been, Yiahan felt sure she’d fixed it. A machine could not lie. Later he would ask questions. For now a drift of thought, light as gossamer, reached him. As Sarius finalized their departure, Yiahan closed his eyes, reaching out to his wife.
Rest, my love. We’ll be at Betronia soon enough.
You aren’t lonely?
Always for your presence—sleep.
Kersantia sent warmth, love and a mental kiss. He smiled.
Sarius could fly herself with the ship’s mind on automatic, but Yiahan wasn’t tired; adrenaline still filled him. He formed a neural link to the ship to watch the worlds through her eyes then summoned orchestral music to match the magnificence of the stars.
Note from the Author: Susan Elizbeth Curnow
Games of Adversaries is about contrasts. The story opens with two men, one fighting a brutal snow storm outside a castle, the second dancing to his god on a distant world of wealth and advancement. Two men from different worlds brought together by tragedy and need against a common threat. Complex men who grow to understand one another through pain and war and why sometimes it is necessary to fight. The underlying theme of PTSD runs through the story and how that affects people. But there is also the fun of writing a story with spaceships and castles in the same context. The confusion of different ideologies. The stench of medieval life versus modern conveniences. There is arrogance of strength versus mysticism and arrogance of, I have the strength to take your world, try stopping me.
A quote from a reader, Tali Spencer:
This is a clear-eyed book that does not flinch from a difficult subject and it also has a large overarching plot with the fates of planets hanging on the outcome. Marcus and Yiahan, especially, provide some wonderful character moments, as do the mostly male supporting cast. But Games of Adversaries managed to do what few books do: it satisfied my love of philosophical underpinnings. Much as I sometimes love simple, fluffy books because I need the lightness, few things make me as happy as a deep, complex book that gives me a few things to think about. Five stars for that and for taking me on an exciting journey between worlds.
Thank you, Tali.