by Dan Hiestand
Realm and Conquest
Realm and Conquest
“In this kind of light, your best friend can look like a stranger.”
Outside Fairlawn City
After months of long days and cold nights, it was the sight of the camp from across the plains that woke Isabelle to the reality that, like a fleeting dream, the siege was almost over.
The sun was going to rise in minutes, not hours—
And the mile-wide world she knew would finally change.
The first morning she’d entered the camp, she had sketched it with charcoal in her own logbook, now heavy with routine observations. Time kept passing, but she could not have described one event since then in the faintest detail – not until Jace and Relic left.
Now she gazed upon the garrison as if for the first time.
At this distance, where the Fairlawn Thoroughfare opened onto the Tenzan Plains, thin sounds still carried. It was easy to imagine that their Ring of Fire was no temporary camp, but a true fortress with solid walls and patrols as regular as the tides.
The armories and smithies, long silent, were echoing anew—
But that was not all.
Thousands of civilians supported the legions, thousands who had felt their confidence dwindle slowly into despair. Many were stirring awake now, taking their posts with renewed vigor. Theirs, the last safe suburb of Fairlawn, was reclaiming its ferocious heart.
Sure enough, drums began to pound.
Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!
Soon, the slumbering giant would arise.
“But what’ll be waiting for us?” Isabelle whispered into Snow’s mane.
The horse answered only with a quiet huff she could have interpreted as relief. Isabelle set her gaze on the Thoroughfare and the forest beyond. Her hand rose gently to rest on the outline of the necklace under her tunic.
“Sometimes, danger is a helluva lot better than uncertainty.”
Isabelle’s back went rigid, combat instincts kicking in before she even recognized the voice. Cedwyn rode into view beside her, hands raised in a half-apologetic gesture as Valerian slinked the last distance between them.
She had reacted fast—
And he’d noticed just as quickly.
“You really need to stop sneaking up on people, Knight,” she said.
He blew a breath between tight-clenched teeth.
“Put bells on that guy or something,” she continued, eyeing the chestnut-roan stallion.
“Old habits are hard to break,” Cedwyn said – and with that, he raised a cigarette in the air between them. Isabelle perked her eyebrows questioningly, a gesture that only served to make her eyes bigger and brighter in the starlight.
Gazes fixed, she took the thing in slender fingers; her fire-steel was out before he could offer. Cedwyn waited silently, head raised to appreciate the same sounds Isabelle had moments ago. Isabelle puffed contently all the way down to the end.
Only once she was done did Cedwyn ask: “Thinking of going for a ride?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said airily—
—but the mauve smoke from her nostrils made her look more like a dragon than a nymph.
“It’s too dangerous, Isabelle.”
His tone made her hands flex without thinking about it.
“I have no intention of taking my men into that forest ... or even going myself,” she said. The same hand patted the air near her tunic, but she recognized the gesture and stopped herself. “If you came to stop me ... don’t worry about it,” she concluded tiredly.
“Not as such, no,” said Cedwyn.
“If you were planning to go ...”
He raised his palms skyward in an exaggerated shrug to the gods.
“That’s like something Jace would do,” Isabelle said dismissively.
“It’s nice to know you trust me,” she said with a thin smile. “Get back to your troops, Knight.”
“Not yet,” he said, a little too fast. There was a long pause. “Just ... not yet.”
They whiled away some moments in silence.
A thick rampart of clouds gave way; without it, the Red Moon glowed like a hot ember. On the open road, its light was not strong enough to be blinding, but the Outriders knew it was a bad night to be on the lookout for danger.
Cedwyn kept his face carefully turned away from Isabelle as the crimson light draped them.
“Honestly, Iz—” She raised her head at the sadness in his voice. “Not you I’m worried about.”
“They’ll be okay, Cedwyn,” she said – the words coming so fast she didn’t have time to reflect on the idea that, at any other time, it’d be him saying that to her. That’s how it’d always been ... not just for her, but for Relic and even Jace.
Yet, when Cedwyn raised his chin again, Isabelle could finally see something she hadn’t noticed before – though it’d been in front of her face for days. Cedwyn’s eyes were rimmed with dark circles from a long, long time without sleep.
It was as if the night had been twice as long for him.
“It’s not that,” said Cedwyn. “It’s ...”
But his thought skittered away; his voice died on the wind.
She stared at him for two breaths – then raised a hand to put it on his shoulder. She couldn’t remember ever doing anything like that with Cedwyn, but he accepted. It was scary – or could have been. But she was needed.
“Tell me,” she said, bringing her mouth close to his ear. There was no one else to hear them, but she wanted to respect his secrets as he had hers. She didn’t expect him to ask her for another one.
“When you and Jace were alone tonight, did you ... sleep together?”
Isabelle pulled back a few inches and stared at him as if he’d grown another head.
“There wasn’t a lot of time for that,” she said primly.
His tired grin said you got me there, but he nodded to beckon her on – he was serious.
“No,” she said. “All we did was talk.” She paused again, waiting to see if he’d want details on that, too. “Mostly. The truth is ...” She let her gaze falter at last. “Even after all this time, he didn’t want to risk everything we’ve done. And – I know it’s silly, but ... in the Red Moon? Bad luck.”
“It’s not silly,” Cedwyn said. “In this kind of light, your best friend can look like a stranger.”
The Isabelle of even a few hours ago might have sighed.
This Isabelle, however—
“Tell me what’s wrong, Cedwyn.”
“I don’t know yet.”
“I’m pretty sure you do.”
“To think – if you wanted a little time alone, all you had to do was come out here ...”
“Don’t try to change the subject.” When she looked back at him, he was smiling— But it was not a happy smile.
There was something underneath it she’d never seen, something too painful for words. “Tell me how I can help you,” she said.
“That—” He raised a finger as if to make a point, but it didn’t get far before he slumped forward into Valerian’s resting bulk. He closed his eyes and raised his hands to the side of his head, gently kneading his temples and brushing the hair back from his face. “I could use a haircut,” he told himself. At any other time, he’d know when he last had one. Isabelle’s attention hadn’t wavered one whit, but she nibbled her bottom lip with worry. “Fact is, Isabelle, I can’t tell you. Worse than that: I’ll have to show you. Hope you forgive me.”
“You’re starting to scare me, Paladin.”
Cedwyn had just opened his mouth to answer when he was interrupted by the shriek of some far-off nocturnal bird.
Isabelle shifted in the saddle to try to find it off on the side of the path; Cedwyn simply closed his eyes tight with long-smoldering annoyance.
“Nevermore,” he muttered to himself. Then, louder: “We’re losing time.” Cedwyn’s shoulders sagged as he finally let go of a sigh he’d been holding in. “For the love of all that’s holy, Isabelle—help me find a mirror.”
“—not asking the right questions,” Kerrick was saying.
But Jace’s attention had traded one infuriating old man for another. He couldn’t have said how long he’d been half-listening to the codger who shared a table with two beings of immaculate light. The fellow’s rambling story was just reaching its end—
“... and anyway, that’s how I lost my medical license!”
The gentleman seated across from him coughed politely.
The lady glanced at her companion, striving to get a sense for how she should respond. Jace watched as the old man’s face fell. No doubt this was a line he was used to seeing bring down the house.
The lady pursed her pale lips, eyes narrowing on the old man. Jace saw her pupils turn to slits—
—then tore his gaze away.
His attention landed on his hands.
He flexed them a moment, a morbid fascination in the sight.
The right questions, Jace thought.
Then: “Why am I here?”
“You’re lost, obviously ...” Kerrick sipped his Orinel Lin, savoring the burn. “And that’s, like ... the ninth time you’ve asked that.” For a second, his own eyes flicked to the older man, who was fumbling with his too-tight cravat as his patrons waited impatiently for more. Kerrick raised his fingers to the bridge of his nose, pinching it again. “Thank heavens you’ve got all the time in the world,” he said—
Even Jace’s feverish mind registered it as sarcasm of the first order.
“Where ...” Kerrick tucked one scarred knuckle under his other hand. —are we, he was about to say, but now he thought twice. “Where’s Relic?”
“That’s better,” said Kerrick. “Not good, but better. To think, kid – for all you pride yourself on being different from him, you’re just on the edge of making the same mistake as Relican Avery.”
Another question was right on the tip of Jace’s tongue.
What would Relican do?
Freak out and die, said Jace’s own mind.
“In a way, he’s lucky,” Kerrick mused. “He’s the only person you know who can’t end up here.”
“Why’s that?” Jace blurted, more out of curiosity than self-preservation.
“He goes—” Kerrick waved idly in the air. “—somewhere else.”
The misty depths of Jace’s mind were like a cavern full of echoes, yet a single memory stood out: He and Relic together in the sentry house – Jace peppering his friend with questions until he knew Relic could barely think. In seconds, that steel-trap mind was a mangled mess.
All so you could get your way.
“How many people are here, Jace?” Kerrick asked.
Jace let out a hiss of pain as if he’d been struck—
He clenched his teeth to stop his thoughts from following.
Swimming in his murky vision, just above him, was the face of Donovan Kerrick. That name ... But the light was wrong; the colors were so muted.
The whites of his eyes were too bright.
How many people—
He shifted away from Kerrick, looking at the taproom through the corner of his eye. His gaze found the drug-addled loon, who was screaming again and again to anyone whose attention he could seize:
Do they have giant clams here? Do they? Look at me!
The bartender, the drunken singers, the men tending the fire ...
Jace started to count on his fingers, but his hands were shaking.
What would Relican Avery do?
He stopped counting. Looked up at Donovan Kerrick.
“Help me,” Jace rasped.
“I am helping you,” he said. “Sometimes I think I’m the only one—”
“... who ever does,” said Jace, and the man before him fell silent.
Every moment has a pulse.
The bartender, the drunken singers, the men tending the fire ...
Everything stays ...
“Answer the question, greenhorn!”
They were all here.
Just as they had been before.
“How many people ...” Jace whispered.
His gaze darted this way and that. Against every screaming instinct, he started over again: One, Donovan Kerrick. Two, himself. And then it struck him ... not the first time or the second time, but the fifth time he’d started and stopped.
The barmaid was not there.
In that instant, he realized he was not breathing. Jace Dabriel and Donovan Kerrick locked eyes. They both expected Jace to wink out of existence – but no; there he remained. With effort, he found his voice in a shaky quaver.
Realization was dawning—
“One ... the answer is one.” Kerrick’s cockeyed expression intensified. “I am the only person here.”
When Kerrick finally let out his sigh of relief, motes of ghost-light spilled off his skin.
“This is the only place you can go without having your life extinguished ... the place you keep coming back to when you screw up. This time – this time ... you should’ve been strong enough to overcome. But you keep relying on a crutch. Now, you’re here when you shouldn’t be ...” Kerrick rose from his chair all of a sudden and slammed it back under the table. “Those who stumble into this place like idiots, not knowing what they’re doing? They can never leave. So, you’re right – there are no other people here, greenhorn. The last one who even came close was your buddy Calloway. Wish I could’ve made better use of that one—”
“You ... you brought Calloway here? They tortured him!”
“Yeah, well ...” Kerrick tilted his head slightly, then turned to look out the window. “Truth is, you would’ve done the same thing, wouldn’t you, kid? And that’s exactly the problem. You’re used to having a lever on people that you shouldn’t have. And you can’t have it both ways.”
Another flood of memories entered Jace’s mind—
“Twenty-two times,” he said. “Calloway died here twenty-two times ...”
“It’s good to see you thinking about someone other than yourself,” said Kerrick.
“Tell me the truth,” Jace shot back.
“You already figured it out—” Kerrick kept talking, but his eyes never left the window. “Every time you blew that horn, his sentence here started all over again. Each time, more of him – what you might call his soul – got sucked down here, leaving only a little bit left out there. He never knew exactly what was wrong with him, but he knew he was in a lot of pain.”
Anger twisted Jace’s hands into fists, but he only said: “What do I have to do to get out of here?”
As the Red Moon’s light looked in on them, Jace felt, rather than heard, the next words.
Same thing we all have to do eventually.
“Face yourself,” said a voice behind him.
Outside Fairlawn City
“You told me those days were over!” Isabelle had said. “That it wasn’t even him back then.”
“What I said was ... what I said was, assassin is just a profession in Sindell. Nobles like—“
“Nobles like Jace—”
“Like Dorsey,” he corrected in that smug way. “Consider it normal as any officer or scholar.”
“Normal!” she fumed. “But it’s not normal. There are things we don’t even know about him—” She should have known by how Cedwyn was so flustered – that’s when they could have stopped. But that silence, the weight of those unspoken words, was too heavy for them both. “You do know, don’t you?” she accused. “Tell me!”
“The things I haven’t told you about Jace—”
“They’re things you can’t handle.”
“Maybe it’s time I learned to handle them. Maybe it’s time you unburden yourself.”
“The answers are too misleading ... it’s the questions that matter. I can’t explain yet, Isabelle. Trust me.”
That’s where it had ended: Trust me.
But more than that: Yet.
Yet meant there was more; that the truth was there, that it could come out. For as long as they’d known each other, Cedwyn had never said “yet” when he meant “never.” And that told her she could trust him to live up to his word—
Even when it’s only implied, she thought wryly.
Isabelle had left him on the road and made her way back to camp. For more than an hour, she’d led the hunt for a mirror as if it were an intelligence mission of the utmost importance.
Starting with the guy who could get it for ya—
Even Alarick came up empty – knowing only of one, in Jace's tent, but that would be far too big to carry back. Still, he helped her look, never once asking why she needed it, and Isabelle gave him a cigarette for his trouble.
He was bowing his head over it, as if in prayer, when she left him.
She spread the word to her aides-de-camp and anyone else she could without drawing attention. But the world around her had converged on the potential action to come, and even her most loyal troops couldn’t give priority to a frivolous order at a time like this.
At that moment, everyone in the Ring of Fire had their own purpose. The people she passed were as precise and orderly as the day they’d been deployed. There was power in that, but freedom, too. No one had the chance to wonder what she was doing—
The dark heart of camp gossip had ceased to beat, replaced by hoofbeats and the march.
Those who saw Isabelle racing toward the command tents would assume she had urgent business with Creed or Thean. They might watch Snow – a mere blur-bolt of white – streaming across the cobblestone paths and imagine the start of battle only moments behind.
They would never think she was on her way to confiscate beauty supplies.
She halted Snow in front of one of the few private tents in the praetorium. It was not Creed’s own – but his was only around the corner. The knowledge filled her with care and caution that didn’t diminish her speed. She leapt from the saddle and hurried on.
It was hard to knock on tent flaps—so she battered the post that stood outside, instead. There was no response, and Isabelle turned a quick circle, thinking on what to do next.
Isabelle froze and focused on the grayish shape loitering in the gloom between two tents. Glowing eyes met her own, one big paw planting itself on the path. The thing was rangy, twice as high at the shoulder as a housecat, and it spat at her like an overheated kettle.
She had just enough time to wonder if someone had let their pet go rabid—
—before the general’s page poked her blonde head out the tent flap.
“Pudrei?” she asked, and the hissing stopped. “Oh, Captain Talabray, I ...”
The Outrider made to invite herself in, but the girl pivoted into the entryway to stop her, expanding instead of receding from the challenge. Isabelle could appreciate that; she let a businesslike smile onto her face.
“I need your help.”
“Me? I’m not sure how I could be of assistance to you ...”
Cleo Bright was fully dressed; it seemed she hadn’t slept yet, and she didn’t miss a beat bending gracefully at the knee so she could scratch behind Pudrei’s ears. The cat pushed its plush head at her hand, but its eyes never left the intruder at their flap-step.
“I just have a feeling you have something I need: A mirror.”
Cleo’s already pale face went ashen.
“I don’t have anything like that.”
“If you did,” Isabelle said, inclining her head, “I’d appreciate it.”
There was a long pause, broken only by the steam engine purring of the cat. Up close, it was obvious that it was barely a kitten – its paws, which would be a bit oversized even in adulthood, were awkward, fluffy mitts, matching black ears too big for its head.
But Isabelle soon focused on the young lady—
She was speechless, mouth twisting in a way her etiquette coach would surely disapprove of. Isabelle felt a twinge of regret, remembering how badly she had spooked the girl earlier, when ...
Cleo was too lost in her own thoughts to notice the confusion break across Isabelle’s face. They had seen each other before, hadn’t they? Someone had gotten hurt.
No, someone had died—
“The monks took all of that stuff,” Cleo said, but her heart wasn’t in it. “They took mine, too.”
—this was something Isabelle could work with, something that could clear away the uncertainty and the dull, throbbing ache settling into the space between her eyes.
“I don’t think so, honey. Uncle Creed isn’t a big fan of the monks, so why would he let them pester you, of all people?” Cleo’s head bobbed down. Isabelle could see she was twisted up with conflicting impulses. “Besides,” the Outrider added, “your makeup’s just too good to think you did it blind.”
“What?” The blonde’s head popped up as if she’d been slapped. Without thinking, she brought two fingers up to her lips – just a shade or two pinker than they should have been.
There was still something dark in her eyes, something that betrayed the fact she remembered—
But now she was just too flustered not to say:
“You really think so?”
“Yes,” said Isabelle. “It wasn’t that long ago I was doing stuff like that ... but not as much.” She let her gaze trail down to her own nails, a little more ragged than Cleo’s own, to keep the kid from sputtering on. “I need a mirror for important Outrider business, so if you could ...”
“I-I ...” She couldn’t bring herself to lie her way out of her other lie. “I’ll be right back.” Cleo disappeared into the tent for a minute, then two ... leaving only her still-staring cat.
“Oh, stick a sock in it,” Isabelle said to the beast, tapping against her necklace again.
“I-I found this,” Cleo said when she returned, handing over the mirror.
“Will ... will you be bringing it back?”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Isabelle said quietly, regarding her own reflection. She looked tired.
The page quavered: “A-about before ...”
When it had sounded like she was talking about Jace.
The thought was so painful, so alien, and so sudden, Isabelle winched her eyes shut and brought a hand to the side of her head. She was sure it had happened; remembered the others around her, remembered this little snit standing on the stump, remembered anger swallowing up her heart.
But it all slipped away when she tried to think: When?
“Nevermind that,” said Isabelle. Even when she opened her eyes, her sight was cloudy a moment more; all the better to not see the girl’s concerned look. “Just—” Just what? Don’t do it again? she chided herself, waving her hand irritably to buy time. “Forget about it.”
“If you say so,” the page said dubiously.
“That’ll be all.”
Cleo paused a moment, pirouetting to gather her cat in her arms.
“Hey, kid?” Isabelle added.
“Yes?” Cleo asked, clutching Pudrei tight as if the Outrider might decide to start confiscating cats next.
“Don’t wait too long to talk to that boy. You might just live to regret it.”
Isabelle couldn’t help but take some satisfaction in the shock and horror on Cleo’s face.
“Y-yes ...” She blinked a few times, trying to come up with anything. “Yes, ma’am!”
And with that, she disappeared behind the flap again.
Isabelle only gave herself an instant to smile over it.
She had her damned mirror, and Cedwyn Knight owed her answers.