She could still remember the first time she’d seen Leonyr Isiodor VIII, last of the House of Isiodor.
He had a different name at the time. A false name.
“I have a message for Brother Ernyk,” were the first words she said upon meeting him. She gave a slight bow, hasty and awkward, because she was unused to bowing. It was just as well she had not attempted a curtsy. He might have laughed, despite the gravity of the situation.
For she had brought news of his father’s untimely death, and with it the revelation that he was now King of Arranore.
He trusted her from the first, saying that he felt an odd compulsion to do so. There was not much that was trustworthy about her, even under less tumultuous circumstances, and by all things reasonable under Arranore, he should not have.
“You must come with me, at once, my lord,” she said, and with that quizzical glance he would grow fond of throwing her way, he agreed. He had, however, one stipulation.
“Ernyk will do.”
He would always insist she use that name. Even though Ernyk was the disguise, that identity felt more real to him than the one titled Leonyr the Eighth.
“Yes, my lord Ernyk,” she had said, as hastily and clumsily as her bow, “but we really must go!” There was blood on her blade and her clothes; black inhuman blood.
She was not human. But she was no demon, not like the creatures that coated her sword. If she was cut (and she had been cut, many times) she bled a rich purple hue. It was not the bright red of human blood, nor the inky black of demonkind, but something in the middle. Something not quite one and not quite the other.
King Tashnir Isiodor III (rest his soul) and all of the Isiodor line were quite fully human — anyone of noble blood had to be so to claim a pure and good and honorable bloodline. Rumors would crop up in the coming days and months that Leonyr “Ernyk” Isiodor was not a true Isiodor, that he was a bastard with velenir blood running in his veins. Onyx did not know if this was true, and being velenir herself, did not care.
In Velenirhom, nir and nirit were the words for man and woman. There was no malice intended in either; they were neutral words. But nirit, in the human lands, was often used as a slur. An insult. It was synonymous for tramp, hussy, whore. A useless piece of pretty trash. Velenir women were known for beauty and easy morals, though the truth of it lay less in “easy morals” and more in the fact that most poor young nirit living in human lands thought they had no better way of feeding, clothing, and sheltering themselves.
Onyx was as beautiful as any of her kind. She had skin the color of an evening sky, dusky blue. Her natural hair color was pink, but she bleached it a pure white, one of few token forms of vanity she allowed herself. Pink hair among veleniri was like red hair among humans. Some found it fetching, but others thought it garish. It was not so different from red human hair, but paler and sweeter in hue. White, blue, or violet colored hair were the most common among veleniri, and a rare beauty had hair of blackest midnight. You never saw a blonde or brunette, unless their blood was sufficiently watered down as to be more human than velenir.
Her eyes, like most naturally pink haired veleniri, were of a bright red color.
This made her average among her people, but already songs of the King’s beautiful warrior, his stunning lady of death, were being sung across Arranore. “The Nirit Princess” was, so far, her favorite, just for the sheer audacity of it. She was not a princess. She was not even from a good velenir family, one of the families who lived in nice houses and could afford to keep their daughters’ virtue intact. Not that the virtue between her legs had ever been sold . . . she had been lucky in that respect. But other aspects of her innocence had long been abandoned. Her father had taken away her doll and handed her a dagger when she was still very young, and he told her, “This is your friend, now.”
And what a friend it had been. Father, mother, sister, brother. Her collection of blades, long and short, straight and curved, steel and silver and glass, were her family now.
That a nirit could ride into the abbey where the King’s last surviving son was hidden, fight her way through a demon horde, and ride back out again with the man who would be King in tow, was unimaginable. That a nirit could wield a sword as well — no, better — than any man, was shocking. It was not uncommon for human women to take up arms, but nirits were a different thing. Far away in Velenirhom, females were treated like fragile flowers of precious worth, too good to put on pants and run through the mud. They hadn’t learned to adjust to a world that would not coddle, and that was the downfall of the velenirit in Arranore. That was what Father always said.
“You are not in Velenirhom, Onyx. In Velenirhom you could put on dresses and play with your hair. In Arranore if you do such a thing, any man will think you are for sale.”
Perhaps it was a harsh lesson to teach a young girl. A young girl who liked dresses and wanted a cascade of shimmering white hair to braid and decorate. Bleached hair did not glow the way natural white hair did. It always tended to look a bit flat and lifeless, like the hair of an old human, but it was better than pink. Anything was better than pink.
When her father was dead (rest and bless his soul, in Velenirhom forever) and she was free to do as she pleased, she bleached her hair. Sometimes she wore dresses. She liked to walk out on the treacherous roads in the wild lands outside the city walls, in a velvet dress, with two swords crossed across her back and several other smaller blades secreted on her person. If anyone failed to notice or understand the swords, they soon regretted it. Some of them didn’t live long enough to feel regret, unless it was a moment’s burst of clarity amidst the pain of dying.
Stunning Lady of Death. She could not accuse that title of being inaccurate. She had killed so very much.
“Tell me,” said Ernyk, on that first long ride towards the capital city, “how came you to be by my father’s side in his last moments?”
It was one of the few questions he would ever ask her about herself. It was not so much about her background or her motives as it was a simple question of what circumstances had led her to be in such an important position. But it was difficult to answer that simple question without revealing much more. How did a young nirit of no importance, but possessed of a mysterious skill with blades, end up on the road that day between New Velenir and Capital City? That day, of all days, when the King was traveling in secret between the two?
A badly kept secret, as it turned out.
The King’s cavalcade was ambushed and he was wounded gravely in the fighting. Many of his escort were killed, but the ones who survived bore witness to the fact that the nirit girl appeared as if from nowhere and tried to defend the king. She was dressed absurdly in a blue silk gown, as if she were going to a party. A very bloody party, at which she killed all the guests.
The King lay dying, and Onyx was the one who bent over him, holding his hand, hearing his last words. Her mind, at first, went absurdly to the fact that she must be a ridiculous sight to behold. She had not had time, lately, to bleach the roots of her hair and at least two inches of it showed pink at the top. Her dress was torn and blood stained, and she could feel the slime of demon blood on her face.
But then she was ashamed of her infernal nirit vanity. For here was the King of Arranore, and he had been a good king, a friend to the veleniri. Here was the best king Arranore had ever known most assuredly dying in the blood caked dirt of a back country road.
Tashnir’s second, and supposedly last remaining son, had been killed in a similar attack on the open road only a few short days ago, and it was for this reason that the King’s journey had been in secret. Some said he should not have made the journey at all, but that had nothing to do with Onyx. He clasped her hand, and gazed up with a look almost as quizzical as the one his last surviving son would give her a few days hence.
“What . . . is your name . . . child?” he asked.
“Onyx Beldvira, of New Velenir, my lord,” she had answered formally, as if she had just been presented to him at court. She didn’t know the proper way to introduce oneself to a king dying in the road.
And then he had told her to hasten to Eltrich, at once. To fly, like all the demons were chasing her (for, she soon found, they would be) and protect his heir with all the unexpected fury that she had defended him. The unspoken addendum was that she would, hopefully, be more successful given this second chance.
King Tashnir III (may his soul fly with the eagles) would never know why Onyx Beldvira of New Velenir was his last defense against the demonic assassins, but like his son after him he felt compelled to trust her. “Take my ring,” he said. “Give it up to no one except my son. You will find him in Westmarch Abbey, going by the name of Brother Ernyk.”
With feeble, shaking hands, he pulled off his ring. Onyx tried to protest that the royal insignia of the house of Isiodor should not be entrusted to her, that it should be given to someone else, but he cut her off. He asked in a faded yet firm voice, “Which of my half dead or dying guards would you have me give it to? Who else but yourself would you nominate to ride 20 leagues with hell at your heels? Show me.”
There was no one, of course. The few living men on the road that day may have been cognizant enough to witness the conversation between King and nirit, but they were of little other use.
So she had covered the King’s body as best she could, leaving the survivors to watch over it as best they could. She mounted a tall black horse whose rider had perished, and took off at a gallop toward Eltrich, in search of Brother Ernyk.
All this she told Ernyk freely, but that was not the answer to his question. She told him that she had been merely out walking when she came upon the scene of the ambush, and he had not asked why a girl like her went out walking dressed in a gown and armed to the teeth.
The answer was simple enough, if she had cared to give it. Onyx made her living by the blade, selling the service of death. It was a prostitution of the soul, rather than the body, and somehow Onyx’s father had found that preferable. He had been a hired assassin in his youth, and made a great deal of gold taking the lives of other men. But fatherhood had come to him in old age and poverty, and in the end he gave his daughter the only thing he had: the art of killing.
She could hardly tell Ernyk that, however. She could not tell him that she had been jailed for thievery and riotous behavior in her youth, though he might find that out if he asked around New Velenir enough. She had grown wiser since, and no one had ever caught her when she killed professionally, but to admit that the highest of crimes was her livelihood to the man who was now her king . . . well, it could not be done.
She never told him, but at the end of it all, she was sure that he knew. He so rarely asked any questions, and never pressed when she was loathe to answer. How he could trust such a strange and secretive person, she never knew. But she was sure that he knew who she was, what she was, without her telling him. He did not seem to care. Perhaps he understood very quickly that she would do anything for him, and that was enough.
“I would have given up long ago if it were not for you, my dear friend,” he had said to her once, on a night far removed from their first meeting. “You are without fear. When I look around at Arranore and its burning cities, I want to give up hope. But then you put out the fires. You kill ten demons as if they were one man. How do you do it?”
“I don’t know,” she said, modestly. He made her sound so much more heroic than she felt. The truth was, she did feel almost no fear at all when facing down that which needed to be killed. Perhaps it was the Assassin in the Beldvira blood, or her father’s words echoing down the years . . . telling her that her blades were her father, mother, sister, brother. And with her whole family there to aide her, how could she be afraid?
But it was more than that. Stone cold killer she may be, but in Ernyk’s service she had seen horrors and fought creatures that no hired blade need ever worry about. Assassins were paid to kill the helpless and the innocent more often than Onyx cared to admit. No, her utter fearlessness and willingness to leap into death’s maw could not be brushed aside as sheer professionalism.
It was pure insanity, the sort that only touches those who have given themselves up to a hopeless and devoted love. Many swore fealty to Leonyr VIII, declared their love for King and Country, but none meant it so heartily as she. She was sure of it. For she had loved him from the moment she had rushed into Westmarch Abbey and found a novice priest of the brotherhood defending himself against a gang of imps (oh, they were always at the forefront of every attack, sneaking their way in past every defense) with a candlestick in one hand and a ceremonial knife in the other. She had made quick work of the imps before making her grand announcement and shaky bow. He was a man in his thirties, much older than she, and human, and not exactly handsome, though not at all ugly. She would not have thought that such a man could give her pause, but many times after she thought that he could have looked like anything, anything at all, and it wouldn’t have made a difference.
She had never been in love before, not even felt an inkling of it, but then, she was still quite young. A penchant for grandiose episodes of romantic fervor was a shortcoming that befell many velenir women. He mother had married her father in raptures of love and been disappointed for it. That was a cautionary tale her father told to her, for her mother had died before Onyx ever knew her. Her father had warned her against love. She had listened. But that was before she had known Ernyk Isiodor.
It was another thing that she could not tell him. So she said that she did not know, as if what she did was nothing unusual. It was what anyone who had been given a mission by a dying King would do. Protect and serve the heir of Isiodor . . . that’s what she had been told to do, was it not?
She was known to the world not by her name, but as Leonyr’s Champion. Though they had only met a relatively short time ago, he often called her “my dearest friend” or “my fearless warrior.” How many times had he joked (only half joking) that she was an angel sent to him from the gods, disguised as a nirit?
“If I am an angel, I am surely an angel of death,” Onyx had observed drily, to which he laughed.
“No one would accuse you of being an angel of mercy,” he said. Then, thoughtfully, “Though you have shown me the utmost mercy. I am the worst of kings, I think. I am not convinced, my friend, that I was meant for this.”
She assured him that he was a fine king, but she knew that it didn’t always help. Ernyk had been sent away to live at Westmarch when he was just a boy. The King had deliberately spread the rumor that his third son, Leonyr, had died at a tragically young age, felled by the curse of asthmatic lungs. This was, as it would turn out, a strategic move to protect the Isiodor bloodline. If all others died, Ernyk would remain. And so it had come to pass.
“It killed my mother,” Ernyk told her gravely. “I was so young that I knew no difference; I don’t ever remember living at the palace, being heralded as the king’s son. As far as I knew, for all of my youth, I was an orphan being raised by the brothers at Westmarch, destined for the priesthood. But my mother felt as if my father had stolen me from her.”
He knew the rumors surrounding him, that he was a bastard, the son of some nirit hussy (though he looked nothing like a velenir) or a palace servant. But he had known his mother, in his youth, when she visited the outerlying villages on charity missions. She had visited the abbey many times, and though she had not been allowed to reveal to him his true parentage, she had been kind. Deferential. But sad, he said. Always very sad.
“I understand my father’s need for secrecy, especially in these darkening times,” Ernyk said, one evening when they were alone, staring bleakly at a map of Arranore. Little figures littered the map, marking enemy forces vs. allies, and it illustrated just how outnumbered they were. The conversation had turned to home, Elstrich for him and New Velenir for her. She had said very little about her youth, except that her father had been poor but far too proud to let his daughter stray into a brothel. Ernyk had been far more open, sharing those few old memories of his mother.
“I comprehend the sense of it, but still, ever since I was first told the truth, when my brother died and I became the last surviving heir . . . I felt a confirmation of the nagging feeling that has dogged me all my life.”
“What feeling is that?” she had asked, when his pause stretched into several moments and he became lost in the thought.
He glanced at her quizzically, as if forgetting what he had been talking about, but answered, “That I had been exiled. Sent away. I never felt a true orphan, not one whose parents are dead. I always suspected that somewhere there lived someone who did not want me.”
“That’s nonsense,” she said, with a frankness she would never have dared in her earlier days of knowing him. “It was not a matter of wanting, or not wanting. It was done to keep you alive. You are luckier than your older brothers.”
He smiled. “You are always right, my friend. But still I wonder, if either of my elder brothers still lived, would I be left in darkness about my heritage my whole life?”
She could not answer that question, and she could hardly tell him that she was glad his father, mother, and brothers had perished. She was not glad, especially as she could still vividly remember the last breathes of Tashnir Isiodor. All she could say was, “You are a good King, Leonyr Ernyk Isiodor. If you forget, I am here to remind you. If you doubt it, I will correct you. If I may be so bold as to correct the King.”
His smile, especially during a time when there was so little to smile about, warmed her heart. “I would have anyone else thrown into a hell’s fissure, but for you I will make an exception.”
She bowed, a much smoother bow than before, as she had had more practice at it in the intervening months.
These days, she dressed in clothes far more befitting a warrior. Her penchant for dispensing death in a frilly gown was put aside in service to the King. She wore tough leather and chainmaille. Sometimes, when sent on a mission by herself, she dispensed with armor and faced the nightmares of Arranore in comfortable clothes that allowed her to jump and sprint and climb. They offered no protection, but she had her blades for that. There were many of these lonely, secretive treks into the wilderness in search of the portals that allowed the demons to flood into the mortal world. She had to delve deep into caves, ancient ruins, and burial chambers. For the demons were not so bold as to pour out into the open places of the world. No, they crept up, clawing their way into this realm like evil worms, where no one could stop them.
Onyx stopped them, as best she could, but all along she knew it was a futile effort to treat the symptoms of a disease that had no cure. She faced every dark thing that lurked underground, and knew that she would have to face them again, and again. She would much rather be sitting by Ernyk’s side, listening to him talk. She loved his voice; it was low and gentle, exactly like the voice of a man raised in the quiet, learned halls of an abbey should be. She had thought that he could have looked like anything that first day, and she would have loved him upon sight, but now that she had grown accustomed to his face and voice she would not have them changed. His voice most of all.
But sitting at Ernyk’s side was not her place, not really. She was not his advisor, even if he sought her advice at times. She may like to believe herself to be his protector, but if she were honest with herself she knew that his father had only given her that task in lieu of any other suitable candidate. Ernyk was safer in the Capital City palace than anywhere else. Her place was in the dark, with the demons and the imps, and her family of blades, covered in blood. That is what it meant to be Leonyr’s Champion.
Whenever she returned to him, he looked older. She did not envy him his position. She would rather swing a blade at the source of their troubles than remain in the palace, feeling the weight of everything on her shoulders but unable to go out and fight. Ernyk had been raised a scholar, not a fighter, but he had proven himself brave and eager to stand up to his enemies on that first adventure together, when they had ridden side by side from Elstrich to Capital City, fleeing the demon hordes. She had lent him one of her family and he had been unsure at first, but a fast learner.
Sometimes, in her daydreams, she thought of herself and Ernyk fighting side by side, vanquishing their enemies. But that was foolish. To purposefully expose him to the demons would be too dangerous. He was too valuable. She was not valuable at all, not to anyone besides Ernyk, perhaps.
It was clear to Onyx that when Ernyk looked at her he saw something otherworldly, a fierce veleniri warrior sent by the gods to wield a sword for Arranore. That he also called her his dear friend, no, his dearest friend, was more than one like her should have ever hoped for. And she knew that he would always look on her as champion, warrior, loyal servant, and friend. Perhaps if there was ever peace in this land, he would retain her services as bodyguard or advisor. But he would take a queen from among the human nobility, one who was pure and suitable. One who had, no doubt, never killed a person who had not done her any wrong, merely to have gold in her pocket. And certainly, if she had, would not have enjoyed it.
Ah, but that was silly, romantic nirit nonsense clawing its way into her mind. Yes, she could accept that she loved her King beyond reason. But to ever expect that love to be returned was utterly, utterly foolish. Few human men ever loved a velenir woman, though most enjoyed the feel and the appearance of a nirit body. Ernyk had never even looked at her breasts, or shapely hips, or long slender legs. When he looked at her, it was in the eye, or at the weapon she held in her hand. He was a good man. Contrarily, his utter lack of interest in her as a female made her love him all the more.
next: Leonyr’s Champion, Part 2 »