Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Enjoy This Excerpt from Talystasia: A Faery Tale by KJH Cardinalis!


Thrown together by precarious circumstance, traitorous lieutenant-turned-general Corin Costellic and the recently ascended Lady Loren have no one to turn to for survival but each other.  Their alliance is a fragile one, a delicate dance of guilt and uncertainty built on a conspiracy of silence.  In our excerpt, Lady Loren probes for the truth of Corin’s involvement in her uncle’s death, while Corin considers where his priorities lie.

 ~~~

PALE MORNING light glinted off of dust particles.  The flecks swirled lazily in front of the sketches on the study walls; the eddy of movement seemed to stir the battling charcoal figures to life.  Lady Loren's voice drifted abstractedly through a rustle of paper.
"... We really must schedule you for some sleep, Costellic."  
"Oh, I'll sleep," he mumbled, yawning widely.
"When?"
"I slept six hours yesterday,” he pointed out.  “… More than adequate.”
"There's no need for you to sit here, you know."  She looked up from behind her desk.  "I can manage my own appointments perfectly well on my own.  You're not doing anything anyway, except dosing in my chair."  She lifted the corner of her mouth in a half-smile.
"I’ll sleep after … what is it we’re doing today?”
She laughed, pointing accusingly.  “You forgot!  You are exhausted.  I'm going back to Harmony to help return tax money to the poor—”
“Ah, right.”
“—after I keep my father's appointments.  Apparently Cloin Dans—one of Father's old aides—moved all of his old appointments.  Which there's only ... hmm—one of this morning."
"Right.  After that.  I'll sleep then."
"Don't you have ... you know, command things to do—?  If you're tagging along with me all the time, who's running my army?"
Who was running the army?  Hell, even he wasn’t sure.  He’d climbed higher and faster than he’d expected, and he was dizzy from the ascent.
All because Andreas Telyra inconceivably came and went.
His head slumped over the back of the chair, his unfocused gaze on the ceiling.  "Everything is under control.  All delegated."
"But what is 'everything'?  What exactly are you doing?"
It was amazing he’d found the time to meet with Palianov since this started—Palianov, who was none too happy with him. 
"... Reforming our training practices and tightening discipline.  It’s a mess.  Rampant alcoholism and bad behaviour ... I'm talking about pranks, un-gentlemanly behaviour with the ladies and the like.  We're also looking into importing a weapon that could make swords and spears obsolete.  It's quite new though, quite experimental."  He smiled smugly.
"Oh?"  The documents stopped rustling.
"Who do you have to meet with?"
She crinkled the corner of a paper, pushing it aside, and crinkled her nose at just the same time. 
Corin suppressed a chuckle, but was unsuccessful at swallowing his smile.… That’s adorable.
"Adar Sovin?”  She shrugged uninterestedly.  “... A representative of some religious order.”
“Which?”
“The ‘Shadowfire Cult?’”  Another indifferent shrug.  “I'm thinking about cancelling some of these, but it's a bit late for that today.  I can't find the relevant documentation, and I’ve never heard of these people.  It’s an administrative mess in here."
He snorted.  “Who calls themselves a cult?”
“Perhaps dodginess is good for business.  Father used to do these things in the Great Hall on his throne, but I don't think that's really my style.”  Her brown eyes sparkled, the same colour as the wood grain in the walls.  “So I'm going to do my meetings in here."
"Then you do need me," he maintained.  "To protect you.  This Adar Sovin could be an assassin."
"I do have other guards, you know.  It's a bit silly—"
"They're useless," he retorted.  "That's why we're reforming the army."
"I'm sure—"
"I could kill you right now!  What’re you going to do?  Guards!  Guards!” he quipped loudly. 
Coolly, unruffled, she pushed a curl of her ebony wig behind her ear.  "Don't do that.”
"Do what?"
"Be evil.”
"I'm not being evil, I'm being practical and honest—I'm pointing out your vulnerabilities and my abilities in an effort to explain to you the usefulness in keeping me around.  Your guard probably left on a piss break!  This is the kind of incompetent shit—"
"Your honesty and pragmatism are two of the reasons I am keeping you around.  I don't entirely trust you, but I can almost believe in your good intentions.  As it is, you have a strange way of expressing yourself sometimes, and frankly I can see why you didn’t advance.”
“I did advance.”
“I’m talking about before!” she snapped, her tone ripe with danger.  “I did my homework on you.  There wasn’t a whole lot of it.”  She smirked.  “But I sense great integrity in you.”  She shook her head.  “… God knows why.”
“… Right.”
“Neither one of us is going to die just because you decide to take a nap.  So stop worrying."
He laughed sulkily, but felt himself glowing all the same. 
She sees ‘great integrity’ in me.  God knows why … But God knows I’m thankful for it.
"I'm no good,” he censured himself.  “… I'm pretty sure of that.”
"... Why do you do that?" she asked softly. 
"Do what?"
"Be defensive."
"Do I?" he asked, bemused.
"Yes," she answered gently.  "You were defensive twice there.  'I could kill you right now ...’” she scoffed, “and ‘I'm no good.’  Really, what is that?  You don't need to be like that." 
She jerked as if to clear a space on the desk, then paused with the papers still in her hands, her face falling.
"Do you think my uncle deserved to die …?"
This mean right turn was so abrupt he nearly choked when he tried to swallow.  He gawped at her, his mouth dry, utterly dislodged from his false sense of security.
"I … don't think nature took that into account," he answered circumspectly.
"I didn't ask you if it was his time," she insisted, her voice tightening.  "I asked you if you think he deserved to die."
… And, back to bullshitting.  He sighed.  They might have common ground, but it was certainly going to be a long time before they found any sort of comfortable footing.  And it might only get worse in the meantime—that too was a likelihood.  How long could he let the lies pile up like this, one on top of another, before they all toppled down?
"My Lady, as I said, nature didn't cast that judgment.  He didn’t get cardiac arrest because he was good or bad.  What more is there to say?"
Lady Loren took a deep breath, bringing her hands down impatiently on the desk.  "Okay.  Setting aside nature’s objectivity—do you think he deserved his fate?  It's a simple question.  It's not an accusation.  I just want to know what you think."
"... I don't know.  It's hard to say if he would've killed you for the throne.  The evidence certainly was pointing in that direction.  Either way, he was a threat to your power—"  Oh go on.  Fucking take a stand
“So yes,” he finished declaratively. 
"… Or yours." 
He narrowed his eyes, but Lady Loren’s elegant features were soft, her face so serene and open that it was hard to imagine he was being interrogated. 
Some people in history had ruled through their looks—and she could have—but perhaps her greatest power was her own apparent ingenuousness.  It must certainly be feigned, at least in this moment, but it was wonderfully convincing, and he couldn’t help but want to trust her.
If only she could do the same.
"My Lady ... I make no attempts to manipulate you,” he said.  “That I hold power now is at your grace, not at my insistence.  I would step down if you asked it." 
… And he would.  The revelation stunned him.  All these years of tedious effort, of feeling lost, of not knowing where to begin, had finally amounted to something.  And here he was, ready to give it all up, the culmination of that long battle for clout—and its terrible cost—all for her, this woman he hardly knew. 
A couple of days ago, amid the bedlam, it would have been all too easy for her to dispose of him had she wanted to.  But not today; in a power struggle between the two of them, either might emerge victorious.  Her relatives despised her though.  Chary though he was, he was fairly certain that gave him the advantage—anywhere outside this room. 
But here between them, it was different.  
He wished it were as clear to her as the dust in the sunbeams, paving an unambiguous golden path between them, and he wanted very much to say these things, but he couldn't bring himself to break the truce of silence, to give definitions to the boundaries of their pact.  He knew that she too must always return to the scene of the crime: Garret Delvorak bleeding out at his feet, the bloodied murder weapons clutched compulsively in his hands.
He could come clean about it all, try to explain why he was here, what he’d done, and what he hoped to accomplish.  It might make her feel safer. 
Then again, forcing the issue seemed an unkindness.  Why ask her to bear the weight of his crimes?  Pressed to the point, she might very well decide that she couldn’t.  And if she asked him outright if he’d killed Duke Palin Loren … he’d probably confess. 
Maybe she’d decide to execute me after all.  And maybe I’d deserve it.
She was made of better stuff than him.  Better stuff than her father.  Or any of these contemptible aristocrats who dared covet her place.  It was written all over her features, as if it had been sculpted there by some unknowable genius: genuine, unconcealed grief, as painfully beautiful as she was.  In it was the proof of her virtue.  Here was one woman who had never desired power. 
Her transparency would get her killed without him, and might still even in spite of his efforts.  But the sweet, innocent sorrow it revealed was rare and precious, and it deserved his protection.  The innocence might be crumbling, but the heart of the woman it shielded might yet survive.
You are not my hostage.  Because I respect you, and I give you my servitude.  You hold that power over me.  
All this time, she hadn’t broken her unwavering stare.  The rich reddish warmth of her eyes could be stunningly cold.
Finally, she spoke.
"In my absence …” she started slowly, “you couldn't expect to hold that power.  Being promoted after a victory like yours is ordinary—but five ranks?  No.  You’ve received other commendations in the past for bravery, but few promotions.  I can’t delude myself that any other person in my position would find a way to demote you down to captain or even remove you completely, regardless of what you’ve supposedly accomplished.  Your ambition … and success, make many people uncomfortable.  You need me in order to survive.  Did Palin deserve to die because you so much as suspected he might be a threat to you?”
… It may shock you, my Lady, but I really did kill him for you, not for me.  Because I have what it takes
He was within millimetres of saying it.
… Don’t.  Don’t even.
"Even if you were out of the equation, my Lady, do you honestly believe anyone would dare try and execute me?  Or succeed?  I don’t care if this is an autocracy, my men won’t do it."
"No, I think someone would assassinate you," she rejoined placidly.  “… Skip all that fussy military drama.  I also think you’re bluffing.  Whatever you have, it’s not cohesion, and it isn’t loyalty.  I believe you have a few close confederates—who you likely as not do not trust either—and the rest follow you because somebody else told them to—and because they misapprehend you as a hero.”
"What's this really about, Milady?"  He leaned forward.  "Are you trying to ascertain how many people I've killed?  How many people I'm going to kill?  What—or whom—I'd kill for?  Trust comes with time.  I think we're both fairly direct people.  If you really want to know how I came to be here …” 
He paused, taking a deep breath.  Maybe it was time to take a leap of faith. 
“… I'll tell you the whole story.  All of my crimes.  Just ask."
 The colour drained from her face, her back rigid with tension, the papers trembling in her unsteady hands. 
There was a knock at the door.
"—Who is it?" she called, shattering the overwrought silence.
"It's Dans, Milady.  I have Adar Sovin here to see you."
"There isn’t even a guard on that door!” Corin flew off.  “And you knew the whole time!”  He dropped back against the chair, exhausted.
She rolled her eyes.  "Really, Costellic, you worry too much.  Like you said … you’re here, aren’t you?  So it’s okay.  Come in Dans."
The door opened and a thin, middle-aged wisp of a man trailed in.  Lady Loren jerked her head toward him.  "This is Dans," she said to Corin.
"Hello Dans.”
"This is Cor—"
"I know who—"
"—in Costellic," she finished, frowning.
"And this, my Lady, is Adar Sovin," Dans announced, ushering a second man into the room.
~~~
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