Cover of The Darkness of Aysu The Darkness of Aysu

Chapter 1

Killian gripped his sword tighter and shook his head almost imperceptibly, silently willing the child not to go through with it. The contempt in the boy's face and the restlessness of his movements were too obvious. If Killian could spot it, so would Balthazar's guards. The boy was too young, too inexperienced, and his emotions were laid bare for all to see. The attack would fail. Killian wanted to approach the lad, to warn him off, but Lord Balthazar was already too close.

"Killian! Pack your bags, I'm having you relocated to Aysu."

The command came as the kid made his move. His small dagger thrust out in front of him, the boy charged, screaming at that 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, his eyes on Balthazar's guards as they approached. It wasn't the first attack of its kind and Balthazar had doubled his accompanying guard in response. Consequently, there was barely enough space for them all to fit around him as he strolled along the narrow defences that encircled the castle. And each of them wanted to be the one to save their lord from this 'evil' that struggled wildly in Killian's arms.

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

As the child shouted obscenities at Balthazar, and Killian with him, Killian turned to see his lord lying on his arse where his own guards had pushed him in their rush to secure the threatening boy. It would have been an enjoyable sight to behold if Balthazar's temper hadn't been made worse by the indignity of it.

Killian lowered the boy to the ground.

"Don't you dare release that piece of shit!" Balthazar spat, pulling himself to his feet and shaking off the help of his ineffective security.

"Run," Killian ordered in a hushed command, gripping 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 can 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 lad 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. 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 aggression because of it."

Killian didn't offer a response. Balthazar turned to him and waited, long enough for Killian to open his mouth. "Of course, Sire," he managed.

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

"It's clear we'll miss you around here," Balthazar said, brushing the sand off his clothes. "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. "Well, at least that means you're available for this task. Walk with me, Killian, 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 was 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, Killian, 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. Killian was the mediator in the family.

"Are you thinking of refusing me?" Balthazar said in a mocking tone. He stopped mid-stride forcing Killian to stop alongside him. 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, in fact, that Balthazar chose 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. Killian 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 queried, 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, Killian 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 added.

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?" Killian asked.

"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 he 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, Killian. You don't want to know what will happen if you do." Killian nodded and walked away certain Balthazar was right about that.

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© Jacqueline Chandler 2017
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