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Authors: Kelley Armstrong

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EIGHT

A
t midday, the wagon stopped, and they were escorted out to a spot where Moria was expected to relieve herself.

“It's been nearly a day since I drank water,” she said. “I have none to spare.”

The bandit leader grunted and handed Moria a small bag, which she opened to find dried meat and fruit. She gave it back.

“I'm not hungry.”

“Your rumbling stomach says otherwise.” The leader took out a piece of meat and bit off a chunk. “There? It's not poisoned.”

“I would prefer water.”

He motioned to Moria's guard, who took out his own waterskin and passed it over.

She took a gulp of the water. The leader passed her the bag
of food again. She accepted a piece of meat and chewed on it.

“Have you ever heard the story of King Hokkai?” the leader asked. Moria stopped chewing, and he laughed. “Ah, you
have
. Good King Hokkai, who invited all his enemies to a banquet. Then, in a show of good faith, he sampled from every plate before they dined. His enemies dug in, and one by one, fell foaming and convulsing to their deaths, the king having built up an immunity to the poison over the moons proceeding the meal.”

His gaze moved to Gavril, judging his reaction. When Gavril gave none, the leader laughed and said, “Eat, girl. I jest.”

Moria still hesitated, much to the leader's amusement.

“It's one set of rations between you,” the bandit said. “Give the boy some.”

“Do I have to?” she asked.

The man smiled. “No, you do not. It's entirely your choice.”

Moria took another long draught of the water. “Then no. He gave me nothing after he captured me. He needs nothing now.”

“Perhaps a sip of water?” the leader said. “The day grows hot, and if he's to survive the journey . . .”

“Is that necessary?”

The bandit chuckled and elbowed Gavril. “Did you hear her?”

“I'm well aware of the Keeper's opinion on my continued existence, and her hope of seeing it end soon, preferably at the point of her dagger.”

“Seems you survived the night together just fine.”

Gavril gave him a baleful look. “Does it appear as if I slept?
I would ask that when we resume our journey, she walks behind the wagon so I may get some sleep.”

“You'll sleep well soon. I hear the emperor's dungeons are very quiet . . . in between the screams of the tortured.”

Another called the leader, hailing him as “Toman.” The leader walked off. Moria glanced about. They were still surrounded by a half-dozen bandits, eating and drinking and resting yet keeping an eye on them.

“I could not—” she began, whispering without looking Gavril's way.

“I know. Well played.”

“You do need to drink. Perhaps if I soak dried fruit and conceal it—”

“No.”

“But you must—”

“They'll not let me die. Spare no thought for me. Nor will I for you. That is safest.”

Moria moved a few steps away and crouched to finish her meal. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Gavril glance over, and a couple of the bandits laughed.

“You might beg her for a scrap,” Toman said as he returned.

“I need none,” Gavril said stiffly.

“Good. Because you'll get none except from her. Now let's talk about your father.”

“I'd rather not.”

“Oh, but you should be so proud of him. It takes a strong man to survive the Forest of the Dead. And then to come back and wreak vengeance by murdering hundreds of innocents? The actions of an honorable warrior.”

“Whatever the warrior code might say, my father realizes it is impossible to fight treachery with honorable deeds. He was betrayed by the empire itself. If citizens must fall in his war, then they ought to consider the choices they made, supporting a monster on the imperial throne and allowing a hero to be exiled.”

“Pretty speech, boy.”

“I do not make pretty speeches. Only plain ones, ringing with truth.”

The advantage to an impassive demeanor, Moria reflected, was that one was not expected to infuse any speech with passion or even emotion. Gavril spoke the words with monotone conviction, and the bandit leader studied him for any sign of dissembling, but Moria knew he'd find none.

“Your father is no hero,” Toman said finally.

“That is your opinion. I trust you will see the error of it before he takes the imperial throne. Otherwise . . .” Gavril met the leader's gaze with a cold stare. “You will regret it, as will every citizen who stands between us and—”

The bandit's slap rang through the quiet, the blow hard enough to make Gavril stumble back.

“Apologies, my lord,” Toman said. “I had to make you stop. You were talking madness.”

“You asked me to speak of my father.”

“Let's change the subject. Your mother.”

Now there was a slight stiffening in Gavril's back before he composed himself and said, “What about my mother?”

“Where is she?”

Silence.

Toman continued. “I had much time to think, riding through the night, and I realized my gift to the emperor is incomplete. He will reward me handsomely for you two but . . .” He shrugged. “There is a limit to what gold can buy, and there are things I want that I cannot purchase. I have wives. Three. Not that they
know
there are three of them, of course,” he said with a smile. “More important are my eight children. What they need most is a better life than a bandit can provide. I want a pardon for my crimes and land for my families.”

Gavril lowered his voice. “Which I can guarantee you will receive if you return me to my father.”

“Your father has neither land nor pardon to offer.”

“He will.”

“No, he will not, and I would sooner see my children put to the blade than take a copper from that traitor.” Toman stepped closer to Gavril. “And if I may offer a word of advice, boy? You would do well to look deep into your heart and reconsider your loyalty to him before we reach the city gates.”

“My loyalty to my father is absolute.”

“For now. Wait until they're slicing into you—a thousand times. Do you know what that's like?”

“I'm certain I'll find out if I'm captured.”

“Brave words for a child. Perhaps I ought to do you a favor and torture you myself. Give you time to change your story before the experts take over.”

“I have no story to change.”

“But you could. Show the emperor that you have seen the error of your ways, recant, and throw yourself on his mercy.”

Gavril's eyes narrowed. “And how would that help you?”

“As I said, I have children. I am a father and you are a boy. Perhaps I fear you've been led astray.”

“I may be young, but I am not a child, foolish enough to be led astray by my father, nor to be tricked by you.”

“It's no trick, boy. I know the torture methods the emperor employs—intimately—and I am suggesting you may wish to avoid learning of them yourself. There is a way you can do so that will benefit us both. Tell me where to find your mother.”

The bandit leader got his reaction then. An honest one, too great for Gavril to conceal.

“You plan . . .” Gavril could not finish.

“Some argue today that our laws are too lenient. They long for the old days, when crime was almost unheard of, those past ages where to commit one meant the lives of your entire family were forfeit. Personally, I'm quite glad that is no longer a possibility, but still, in matters where the crime is treason? The emperor was too lenient when he exiled Alvar Kitsune. Not only did he leave you and your mother alive, but he allowed your family to retain their caste, their wealth, their social standing . . . look where it got him.”

“My mother played no role in my father's escape.”

“But
you
did. Your uncles did. Your family turned the emperor's mercy against him and used the wealth they retained to raise an army. The only way to punish that? Retract his mercy. All
traces
of his mercy. Annihilate you and your mother and your uncles and their wives and their children and wipe the Kitsunes from the empire. That is what the emperor wishes now. I will help him achieve his revenge.”

Gavril's jaw worked, but he said only, “My mother did not
even know my father was alive.”

“She does now.”

“I presume so, but he has not seen her. He had her taken from the imperial city and put into safekeeping before this began. I do not know where she is.”

Toman peered at him. “Are you saying your father does not trust you? That he has reason to doubt your filial loyalty?”

“No, it is my maternal loyalty that concerns him. He knows I worry about my mother, and he knows that it would be unsafe for me to contact her. So he has given me no way of doing so. For both our sakes.”

“Hmm, well, I was going to suggest that it would help your cause if you willingly turned her over, but I can see that's not likely to happen. Perhaps, then, I can appeal to your maternal concern myself. There are others searching for your mother, hoping to win a reward from the emperor. He would not require her to be returned alive. If you are certain she played no role in your treason, perhaps it is best if you allow her to be returned—with you—to the imperial city, where she can plead her innocence to the emperor.”

Gavril's cold gaze met Toman's. “Even if I agreed, as I said, I do not know where to find her.”

Toman nodded slowly and paced in front of the two of them, as if thinking of a new tactic. Then the bandit grabbed Moria, wrenching her around so fast that she didn't have time to react before his dagger was pressed against her throat.

“Are you certain, boy?” The bandit leader pushed the blade edge into Moria's neck and pain sliced through her, hot blood dripping. “Perhaps you wish to rethink that. And
rethink your affection for the Keeper.”

“I do not need to rethink either,” Gavril said, his words chill and brittle. “I cannot tell you what I do not know. I could tell you a lie, to save the Keeper's life, but her death means only that I do not have to share the wagon or the rations. Or worry about falling asleep and waking with her hands around my throat. If the emperor would be satisfied with her corpse, then that is your choice.”

Toman shifted his weight, the blade digging in, and Moria gasped. Gavril tensed, as if ready to react, the movement so slight the bandit seemed not to notice.

“You're quite certain you don't know?” the man said.

“I am entirely certain.”

“Then you have a point, even if you may regret inadvertently making it.” The bandit leader threw Moria aside. “The people will not be satisfied with your whore's corpse. You are stuck with her for the duration of the journey.” He motioned for the others to take them to the wagon. “And there's no need to tell me where your mother is.” Toman grinned over his shoulder. “I already know.”

NINE

H
e's mad.
That was Ashyn's first thought when Edwyn told her she had the power to wake dragons. There was no such thing as dragons . . .

Nor shadow stalkers. Nor death worms. Nor thunder hawks. Truly, Ashyn, you are correct, as you have always been. Such things exist only in your imagination. Like that dragon skull you see before you.

She imagined her sister's voice. Not mocking—simply light and teasing as she rolled her eyes and sauntered away. And for one moment, picturing Moria, Ashyn wanted to lunge after her, to grab her cloak and pull her back.

I'm as mad as he is.

No, simply lonely. So very lonely and unsettled and incomplete without her sister.

Are you well, Moria? Are you safe? Did Gavril look after you?
Has Tyrus found you? Are you reunited with him and with Daigo?

“Ashyn?” Edwyn said.

She looked at him, and she didn't see madness in his eyes. She saw calm resolve and strength of purpose. She glanced at the dragon skull. Proof that he was not mad, at least not in believing there had been dragons once.

She looked up at the skull. “How would I wake . . . ?”

His laugh startled her. He reached to squeeze her shoulder. “Sorry, child. I'm not laughing at you, but at myself. I truly ought to have explained more before I blurted that, but this is such a moment for me, the culmination of both a life's work and sixteen summers of grief and longing. It is fate, of course. A gift from the goddess, whatever she might be. I spent my life with these empty relics.” He waved at the skull. “Preserving them and the memory of them for our people. And then my own daughter bears children who could waken the dragons? If that is not the work of a beneficent goddess, I do not know what is. Reunited with my granddaughter, who is also the young woman who can make my greatest dream a reality, at a time when the empire needs it most?”

He shook his head. “But that is not straightening out this matter at all, is it? You'll have to excuse me. I'm overexcited and overwhelmed, and my thoughts can be a jumble even at the best of times.”

She knew what that was like. Moria's thoughts seemed to run in a linear path, clear and decisive and leading straight to action. Ashyn's were more like a spiderweb, with infinite possibilities, and she could get lost in them.

“Let me start with the simplest answer to your question,”
he said. “When we reach our destination, you will not be asked to transform bones to flesh. We have a sleeping dragon. A mother and two young offspring.”

“Sleeping dragons?”

“Asleep for almost an age now. That was the custom. A dragon is not an easy creature to control. When our people had no further use for them, those with your power would put them to sleep, and then wake them when needed. But there had not been Northern twins with your ability born in so many generations that people forgot it was even possible, forgot the dragons altogether. Fortunately, some of us did not, and we cared for them. Then you were born and we knew they could be wakened, but they ought not to be. Not yet. Just as I knew I could have my daughter's children back, but I ought not to interfere. Not until the dragons needed to rise. Until the empire needed them.”

“Which is now. Because of Alvar.”

He smiled. “Because of Alvar. So, Ashyn, are you ready to wake dragons?”

To Edwyn's confusion and dismay, Ashyn did not rush to say
yes, of course, and when can we leave?
It was thrilling, to be sure. To wake dragons? To see a living one? Beyond her dreams. But at the moment Ashyn had more prosaic concerns.

“I need my sister,” she said. “I don't know what you've heard of her plight . . .”

“I have caught rumors,” he said carefully.

“They are lies. All of them. Moria is not Gavril Kitsune's lover. There was never anything of the sort between them. She
despises Gavril as a traitor. As for Tyrus, she cares deeply for him as a friend, and he for her. We were all in battle together when Tyrus was betrayed by a warlord and Moria was taken. We presume she is being held captive by Alvar Kitsune. She would sooner kill Gavril than willingly share the same room with him.”

That, Ashyn would admit, overstated the matter. Her sister's feelings for Gavril were complex. Rage and hate and hurt and betrayal. She did care for him, though it was not in the same way she cared for Tyrus. But to present such a convoluted picture to Edwyn wouldn't help her sister's case.

“I understand you are close—” he began.

“No,” Ashyn said, with some snap in her voice. “If you need to comment on that then you don't understand at all. Until a moon ago, I'd never spent more than a day away from her.”

“I do not mean to be indelicate, Ashyn, but you are both in the time of life when the body and mind can be at odds with each other. If she was alone with Gavril Kitsune in the Wastes, as I understand, for many days—and nights—it is possible that something occurred between them and she is too ashamed to tell you.”

Ashyn's laugh rang through the cave. “Another girl, perhaps. But not my sister. If anything happened between them, I'd have had a full and enthusiastic accounting of it. For Moria, there is no war between mind and body. They both want . . .” She felt her cheeks heat then, realizing what she was saying in her haste to defend her sister. “The same thing.”

“Ah.”

“My sister is not shy about such matters. She made it clear
to me that nothing occurred.” She paced across the cave, Tova at her side, her hand on his head. “I'm sorry if this agitates me, but I'll speak on it no more. My sister is innocent. My sister is in trouble. Whatever else you need me to do, first I must find her, and hopefully Tyrus and Daigo as well. They search for her, too.”

“That is a lot to do, Ashyn.”

She straightened and turned to him. “It is. If you can help me, I would appreciate it. If not, then I'll take my leave, and you can tell me how to contact you once I've found them.”

“I would not let you undertake anything so dangerous without help, child. Let me bring dinner and then we will discuss how to best handle the search.”

To help Ashyn understand what they faced beyond the safety of this mountainside, Edwyn explained what had been happening in the empire. It was, unfortunately, what Ashyn feared. Alvar might be banging the drums of war, but he seemed to have no immediate plan to actually appear on a battlefield. While he continued to muster and train troops and to sway warlords to his side, his primary tactics seemed to be lies and treachery and fear-mongering, which suited the clan of the Kitsune, the nine-tailed trickster fox.

Ashyn and Ronan had witnessed this in a tiny, nameless outpost—an inn on the road with a small community grown up around it. Alvar's men had tempted the locals into joining them. Then they'd pretended instead to be imperial guards and beheaded every “traitor” in front of their friends and family, before mounting the heads on pikes. In an empire that
had outlawed capital punishment, that had been an unimaginable insult and cruelty to hitherto loyal citizens, and it was not the only such “punishment” visited on similar communities that night. By morning, word was out that the emperor had apparently become the tyrant that Alvar Kitsune's men claimed he was.

“So that is how he's winning troops among the commoners,” Ashyn said when Edwyn told her more of Alvar's treacherous deeds.

“No, that is how he's inciting sedition. Alvar Kitsune might have been the empire's marshal, but he was never its greatest warrior. That distinction goes to Jiro Tatsu, and Alvar knows it. Do not expect to see war anytime soon. If at all.”

“What?”

“There are ways to break an emperor without engaging him on a battlefield. Ways to divide an empire without ripping it asunder in war.”

“Does Emperor Tatsu know this? He's preparing for war, and if that's not . . .” She remembered what the emperor had said, when he first discovered Alvar Kitsune lived.

Prepare for a war unlike any the empire has known.

To Ashyn, that had meant war on a grand and unimaginable scale. But that was not what the emperor had meant at all. He knew what kind of war this enemy would fight.

“The emperor must rally his troops and prepare for battle,” Edwyn said. “If he does not, then
that
is the moment Alvar would indeed strike. Emperor Tatsu must be ready for war, and yet prepare himself to fight a very different battle on much less familiar terrain. I do not envy him the task. I only trust he is up to it.”

As do I.

After that, Edwyn explained his plan for them. Moria would have fought it tooth and nail, because it involved sitting and doing little while others took action. But in the end, Ashyn recognized her limits. She was no warrior. Tova would protect her with his life, but he was not a battle dog or a tracking hound. She had no idea where to begin hunting for Moria. Ashyn herself was both easily recognizable and easily mistaken for her supposed-traitor sister. And Ronan was here, deathly ill, and she did not know these people well enough to leave him in their care.

Edwyn said he would send scouts to make contact with those he knew in the imperial city and elsewhere. They would seek news on Moria and Tyrus, and in the meantime, Ashyn would stay where she was, while Edwyn prepared her for the dragons. That was the important thing. Alvar Kitsune might be lying low for now, but he would make a move soon. Edwyn was sure of it.

“Traitorous sorcerer that he is,” Edwyn said after he took a drink from the waterskin. “He'll keep to the shadows for as long as he can. Alvar Kitsune plans to lead the emperor on a terrible chase, horror and destruction in his wake. But this dragon knows this fox, and Tatsu's trying to run him to ground rather than launching his army to an empty battlefield. When we bring Jiro Tatsu an actual dragon . . .” Edwyn smiled. “That is when things will change.”

“Will one dragon truly make a difference?”

“In battle? It would help, but it would not guarantee easy victory. What matters here, child, is not the beast itself but the symbolism.”

Ashyn nodded. “The dragon has woken dragons. The goddess has chosen her champion.”

A smile crinkled his face. “Your mother would be so proud of you.”

“Can you tell me about her?”

That smile broadened, lighting his blue eyes. “With pleasure, child.” He passed a plate of dried persimmons. “When she was a child, she used to . . .”

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