Chapter 1: The Oath
Andros stood in the middle of his entourage hiding the fine shaking of his hands beneath the robes of his court attire. Ahead of him, his uncle Paulus spoke with his counsel of advisors, Lord Jezel, Count Reuben and the Prelate Cantwell. Paulus looked back and Andros dropped his eyes to the floor. He knew what one wrong gesture would cost him on this day above all other days. He wanted to shiver beneath his lustrous blue cloak or at least draw the fine ermine edges together across his chest to keep in the heat. It was not to be. Jake had informed him of exactly how he was to behave today. He was not to rumple one line of his cloak or crease his tunic, let alone snag his leggings or scuff a slipper.
Andros checked his slippers. He would have rather had a pair of rough leather boots. The slippers were encrusted in jewels, light as air and cut from pure silk shot through with gold thread. They kept the cool of the fortress floor away from his feet not a wit. His small toe was cold through. He had asked for the boots but Jake had laughed. “We don’t need a gangly colt like you stomping all over the place and throwing up noise,” he had said.
Andros swallowed carefully through the wrap tied around his neck and tucked into his shirt. It was stiff with starch and choked him almost as much as what was underneath.
“Such a humiliating day for us all,” Count Reuben muttered to Prince Paulus. Prince Paulus shrugged. “The dishonor is all his. We are not the one swearing submission to a foreign king.”
“But he is our king,” Count Reuben said.
“A boy too young to rule. We can revisit this arrangement in time, when we are ready. At least none of us must make this pledge. Its shame can lie entirely with him. Look at him. It will be easy, to write this off as the failings of a monarchy grown weak and replaced by the wisdom of those who come after.”
Andros swallowed. The crown sat heavy on his head. He wanted to wear the light circlet his father had favored for court, or even better, go bareheaded like his grandfather had preferred. Uncle Paulus would have none of it. He had procured the golden monstrosity with the red fop hat in the middle particularly for this occasion, so no one would forget that Andros was the king, the first king of Urusia, to bend the knee to another.
Andros closed his eyes against the tears. He was cold, so very cold. He wanted the whole ceremony to be over. They could lock him away and forget the key or drop him in the rubbish heap, just as long as they let him sit down and close his eyes. He would even ask the seven blessed maidens to bless anyone who would simply make this end.
“Come, nephew,” Uncle Paulus motioned to Andros. “It is time to enter. You must lead.”
Andros forced his feet to stay steady as he stepped past his uncle and his advisors. He couldn’t speak. He didn’t know if he could remember the words he was supposed to say. It didn’t matter. He couldn’t force his jaw apart to ask for a reminder. He wouldn’t remember the words if anyone said them.
Ceoren guards pushed open the tall doors of the throne room. It took two men thrusting their entire weight against each panel to move them aside. Andros looked up. The door disappeared into the darkness of the gray stone ceiling. The great winged panthers on either side of the doors dwarfed him to the size of a helpless marmot. Their paws alone came to his knees.
Andros pulled his eyes away and stared straight ahead. He both wanted this over with and feared the moment it was all finished. He was about to face the son of the man who had killed his father, his brother and his mother — Kaden, king of Ceoren.
King Kaden, the ruler of Ceoren, nodded to Palsian, Captain of his Guard. “Send them in.”
Palsian saluted smartly, bringing his heels together with a click and touching his forehead with the edge of his first finger. “As you command, Your Highness.”
Kaden looked down over the throne room. He was seated at the end, twelve steps above the rest of the room between the two great winged Pegasus. Their inner wings arched over his head, protecting the throne from above. Their outer wings stretching forward touched the walls of the hall. Their thundering hind roofs framed the edge of the dais and their front legs stretched down over the steps to touch the step above the floor, as if they were descending. The only way to reach the throne was to pass between their roaring bodies.
Kaden loved to enter the hall alone at night and mount the steps between their hooves alone with nothing but the Mother Moon lighting the room from the high windows. Then he could sit on the throne between them and fly. In the darkness, the rest of the room would fade away and it was only him and the great Pegasus, always running through his mind. He could think then, clearly. His father had hated the throne. He had complained bitterly of the sores from sitting on the hard marble and the discomfort of being between two pieces of stone that would surely kill him if the ground began to rumble.
Kaden feared none of those things. He loved the flying horses, the great marble seat, the twelve steps and the yawning arches of the gray roof above, hanging over the rows of glass windows down either side of the chamber. It was the greatest piece of art he had ever seen in architecture.
The doors shuddered open.
Kaden loved them, too. He had opened them once, on his own, on a dare from one of the guards. It truly was the work of two men but he had conquered them. It was a reminder to himself, that he was no delicate, atrophied noble, each time he saw his guards heave them open, their backs straining against the weight. He never would be.
Andros, King of Urusia stepped through the entrance. Kaden watched closely. He had chosen to keep himself away from the negotiating table, unwilling to treat with the Urusian regent, Prince Paulus, as equals. The man was not a king. He had neither the bearing nor the attitude of a king. Instead, Kaden had burdened his faithful advisor Claudius, with the task. Claudius had proven why he deserved every honor Kaden and his father had bestowed on him with his work in the past months leading to this moment. He had kept the Urusians at the negotiating table rather than in the war chambers, kept battles from claiming even more lives and delivered to Kaden both the submission of the Urusian king but also unfettered trade with the Capricorn wildermen in the north. It had been almost more than Kaden had dared to hope.
The Urusians had wanted a mutually signed document of peace and a signature ransom for their captured warriors, followed with a monetary homage to be paid annually. Kaden had been willing to consider it, just to end the bloodshed. Claudius had begged him to consider more. Kaden remembered the old man’s head, shaking in conviction as he stood in front of Kaden’s desk in his study, the fire casting shadows over the couches and cushions, throwing the bookcases up in high relief against the curtains. Claudius had insisted that full submission was necessary. Urusia needed to feel the taste of it. Kaden, Claudius had argued, would not know peace until the Urusian king was willing to go to his knees, place his hands between Kaden’s own and receive the kiss of an oathsworn.
“It will either drive him to war against us again, or break him,” Kaden had said.
“It will be remembered,” Claudius had insisted. “It is an ancient ritual. Once he has sworn, the gods themselves will remember, whether or not he goes to war again or not. He will be an oathbreaker if he moves against you. It is not a dishonorable oath. He retains the power to defend his country, to serve as their king, to care for those the gods have given him to husband. And you swear to protect him.”
“I would not swear this oath to another,” Kaden had said, looking down at the words on the parchment.
“You haven’t lost half your family to war and watched while disease and armies ravaged your land. This gives him back the ability to heal his land and his people. And his submission wipes out the blood debts of his family against yours. There will be no curse from heaven against him anymore.”
“What of the blood curses of my family against his,” Kaden had asked.
“If you are a faithful overlord, they also will vanish,” Claudius had said.
“This war has lasted too long,” Kaden had settled the matter. “See if you can bring this to pass.”
And Claudius had.
Andros, King of Urusia, was now walking at the head of his entourage down the length of the chamber towards the foot of the Pegasus throne.
The Urusian king was young. Kaden frowned. He guessed that Andros could not be older than twenty. He wore a long blue robe, trimmed in ermine. It lay perfectly across his shoulder, opened at the neck and fell to the floor on either side of his feet. His crown was too large for any head but the most monstrous. The cloak and the robe dwarfed the young king. Kaden wondered who had decided that he would wear such an outfit. If it was Andros himself, then that spoke ill of the future relationship of Urusia and Ceoren. A king who couldn’t see when it was time to be humble would rise again, oath or not, to wash out his perceived slight.
Kaden schooled himself to sit still and foreboding. He had been prepared to be warm and gentle but as more and more of the defeated king’s entourage entered, Kaden resolved against it. He would drive home the point of the Urusian king’s surrender in this moment. He had signed the document and was swearing fealty and submission. It was best Andros and his court remembered it.
Halfway down the chamber, the entourage stopped, facing Kaden’s court, arrayed to meet them, minister to minister. Bows and open hands were exchanged starting from the center and working out to the flanks of each court. Then the regent, Paulus, spoke to his nephew. The young king started to walk down the aisle towards the Pegasus Throne, alone.
Kaden steeled himself. He wanted Andros to look into his steel gray eyes and imagine he was the sword that could take his life, as his father had taken Andros’s father’s life and that of his brother and mother. He wanted there to be no doubt in Andros’s mind that he, Kaden, could destroy him.
Andros kept his hands open at his sides. He was cold, so very cold. Walking down the length of the chamber had finished the job on his feet. He could barely feel any of his toes anymore. He was alone now. Uncle Paulus and Count Reuben, the prelate, all of them were standing behind him, watching, waiting for him to trip, to pause, to prove he was everything they had said he was.
Andros walked past the faces of the Ceoren court. He couldn’t see them, just blurs of noses and eyes and white mustaches over robes in different colors. Just faces. Just piercing gazes to avoid.
The warmth of the people around him was gone. He looked up. The twin Pegasus swirled in the air. Their cold beauty made his chest want to crack. This was a grace and beauty that he had dreamed of seeing. He wanted to go to his knees and let himself fly with them in his mind. He wouldn’t lift his hand to touch them. He would not sully them like that. But he would follow them with his eye, glad to simply be allowed to witness them. He would be grateful for the indulgence to simply know that such beauty filled the world.
It was not to be.
The Pegasus seemed ready to devour him on the aisle. Their hooves struck out on empty air to find and crush him. Their flaring nostrils were extended in anger. They wanted nothing more than his destruction.
Andros dropped his eyes to the floor. The swirling colored tiles swam in his sight. He knew from reading that the tiles told tales of the Ceoren empire but he couldn’t understand the script. It spun and twisted and nothing but his frozen feet set one in front of the other made sense.
He wanted to close his eyes. He could just walk, walk forever, straight into the dark behind his eyelids and then this would all be over, maybe forever. No more honor, no more crowns, no more slippers and no more kingdoms. Nothing but the dark. The beautiful soft dark. Some feared the dark Lilath’s kiss, but Andros worshipped it. Lilath was his favorite goddess. When no one else listened to his prayers he still felt as if she lent him her ears when he knelt before her altar. No one else prayed to Lilath like he did. He was always alone there. He loved to watch her marble face in the candle light.
He was not afraid of the dark. She would be waiting for him there, her arms open, her black cowl rich and full and ready to embrace him. He wished she would kiss him in this moment.
He looked up. The Pegasus were almost flying above him now. He was at the foot of the steps. The King of Ceoren sat on the Pegasus throne, staring down at him. His face was cut from the same mold as the flying horses: closed, dark, unkind. If he stood, he would be taller than Andros by a head. The Ceoren king’s blond hair was cut short around his ears and neck, after the Ceoren fashion and his face was shaven, leaving his strong jaw bare and sharp above his broad shoulders. Dark eyes were staring down on Andros, waiting. There was no patience or kindness there.
Andros tried to swallow against the bile in his throat. He kept his shoulders back. The crown on his head was steady.
He would do this. He would climb the steps, go to his knees, say whatever it was he was supposed to remember and then he would walk out of this room. He would find Lilath’s shrine and he would hide. Andros clenched his jaw against the fine tremors in his body. He set his foot on the base of the stairs.
Kaden watched. The King of Urusia had passed through the nobles and generals. He was almost at the stairs. They were alone now. Kaden had cleared this half of the room of all but himself. The last of his guards stood behind his nobles in the center of the chamber. He would meet his defeated adversary alone between the thundering hooves of the Pegasus throne. This was a matter between kings.
Andros, the Urusian king, paused at the base of the stairs. Maybe he was persuading himself to follow through. Maybe he was swallowing his anger towards the son of the man who had brought down his house. Kaden kept still. His hands rested over the curled paws at the end of the arms of the throne. His back was as stiff as when he had first sat on the throne before the doors were opened. He wore his own crown, a small diadem that met in a single blue jewel in the center of his brow. It was a crown that a king could wear with pride. Not like the red and gold mountain of arrogance now moving up the steps.
The Urusian king was taking his time. He took each step by itself, setting one foot in front of the other. There was no sound in the hall. Kaden flicked his eyes towards the two courts. They had drawn back from the center and were facing the throne, the Ceoren court on his right hand and the Urusian court on the left. They were still, their eyes following the blue cloak as the Urusian king climbed the steps towards Kaden. He moved so slowly. Kaden wondered why. Was his pride that thick, or was he unaware how slowly he progressed?
Maybe it was pride. King Andros’s shoulders were square and pulled back under the ermine cloak. The crown was steady. He kept his eyes fixed on the marble stairs. Kaden could not see his face.
Andros willed his leg to bend and straighten. He felt weak. The steps were high. He didn’t know how many of them he had climbed. The weight of the cloak was dragging him backwards, straining his neck with its bulk. The crown on his head kept him from moving his head. His back burned with the effort to keep it still. There would be no dark Lilath for him if it fell and rolled in shame along the floor. There would be nothing but the bright red door of pain waiting in the end if that should happen. He kept it still.
His body felt as if it was frozen in place. Just his legs dragging the rest of him up the steps.
He looked for the next step and there was nothing. He was standing on the pale salmon colored stone of the dais beneath the wings of the Pegasus. He look up towards where the wings touched. It was too high. He couldn’t bend his head back far enough to see them and not lose the crown on his head to gravity.
Instead, Andros met the eyes of the son of the man who had ordered the killing of his father, his brother and his mother, Kaden, King of Ceoren.
Kaden could see the Urusian king’s face now. King Andros had arrived. His face was white. White like the marble Pegasus.
King Andros was young, younger than Kaden, no more than nineteen, if even that. The crown was too large for his face. He had a clean line along his jaw, not square but far from weak, a patrician nose, and large eyes. It was a face that could be fit for a king, if it had not been so white, so perfectly thin, like the skin itself would shatter under the slightest pressure.
Kaden waited. He kept his face cold, his eyes unblinking. His hands ached from lying still, but he kept them loose and ready over the paws of the throne. King Andros stepped forward. He was wearing slippers. That was how he moved so silently. The room was too cold for them. His feet had to be frozen. Kaden refused to curl his toes inside his fur lined boots. This was not the king he had expected.
King Andros took the last step, till he was just before Kaden’s knees. Kaden looked into his eyes.
They were pooling with tears.
Andros looked into King Kaden’s face and felt nothing. He saw the cold, the strength, the distaste. He knew that this man believed he could destroy Andros, but Andros doubted the man knew that he was already destroyed. There was nothing that this man could do to bring him any lower. He only prayed that this king would keep his word and allow Urusia to rise from the despair into which she had fallen. If he could do that, then Andros would forgive this foreign monarch the lives of his family and the stain upon his honor. It no longer mattered. Urusia was all that counted and when this was finished, he, Andros, would have done all that he could. It would be up to others, the common people, the small nobles, even this foreign king who would now hold his oath, to bring Urusia out of poverty and languishment.
Andros closed his eyes. A tear ran down his face.
Kaden leaned forward but the younger king seemed to have become of the same stuff as the marble Pegasus above.
“You have to kneel, King Andros,” Kaden said. He parted his knees to allow King Andros space closer to the throne.
King Andros sank to his knees between Kaden’s thighs. It was slow. It was beautiful. It struck Kaden as an action too refined, too familiar for a king to know.
“Do you know what to do?” Kaden said. He spoke softly. He was waiting for Andros to crumble. The tears were still flowing down his cheeks.
“I can’t remember,” Andros whispered.
“Put your hands between mine,” Kaden said.
Andros raised his hands. They were thin. Kaden took them between his own. Andros was freezing. Kaden could feel him shaking with an invisible tremor between his thighs. The weight of the great blue cloak hid it from the two courts below. Kaden looked out towards the chamber. The nobles and generals from both sides were watching.
“Look at me,” Kaden whispered.
“I can’t,” Andros said. “The crown will fall off.”
Kaden reached out and tucked his thumb in the edge of the crown. “Look at me.”
Andros raised his face. Kaden ran his thumb down Andros’s cheek.
He was burning with fever.
“I would have waited until you were no longer ill,” Kaden whispered.
Andros blinked. He seemed unable to focus on Kaden’s face. His eyes dropped until he was staring instead at the buckle of Kaden’s belt. Kaden let go of the monstrous crown.
“Do you know the words?”
“No,” Andros mouthed. He seemed almost incapable of speech.
“Repeat after me, then.”
“I, Andros, King of Urusia, do swear my oath and honor to Kaden, King of Ceoren.”
Andros repeated. His voice barely carried. His hands were truly shaking now. He was falling towards Kaden’s lap. Kaden tightened his holds on Andros’s hands. His hands were so much larger that they pressed the younger king’s wrist together, holding him upright on his knees.
“I submit to the might and power of Ceoren,” Kaden instructed.
Again, Andros repeated, his voice barely a rasp.
“I ask that Kaden, King of Ceoren look with favor on me and mine and blot out the blood from our past with this my oath before the gods, to raise no more my hand against him.”
Andros repeated. His eyes remained locked on Kaden’s belt. It was doubtful if he even knew the words that passed his lips.
“I accept your oath,” Kaden said. “Now kiss me, oathsworn.”
Andros raised his head to find Kaden’s face. The crown fell. Kaden caught it. He held Andros’s hands in one of his, anchoring him against the trembling.
Kaden looked into Andros’s eyes. He swallowed, hard. There was fragility there, but also strength. Andros had walked the chamber, had climbed the steps and knelt before the Pegasus throne, terrified and burning with fever.
Kaden kissed him.
Andros closed his eyes. The lips of the son of the man who killed his father brushed his own. Heat broke through the cold. The crown of Urusia slipped on his head. Kaden, King of Ceoren, saved it.
Andros opened his mouth. King Kaden’s tongue slipped past his lips. He bit Andros’s lip. Andros drew a breath. King Kaden brushed the hurt with his tongue.
Tears slid down Andros’s face. He wanted to fall. He wanted the darkness of Lilath to find him. The harsh light of day was too much.
King Kaden drew back. Andros blinked through the tears. King Kaden brushed them away with his finger. Andros looked into Kaden’s eyes. The coldness was gone. There was fire, a fire that could burn Andros.
“You have to stand,” Kaden said.
“Can you walk?”
“Yes,” Andros said. He would walk, he would find a shrine to Lilath and hide in her darkness. The light of day was too harsh a god to bear.
“I will be watching,” said Kaden.
Andros drew a breath. “I won’t shame you,” he said.
Kaden smiled. “I’m not worried that you will shame me, oathsworn. I worry that you can stand.”
“I am my father’s son,” Andros said. “I must.”
“Your father was an honorable man. You do him justice.”
“By swearing to you?”
“I swear to you, with no nobles or negotiators, I will do all in my power short of jeopardizing my own throne and land, to see yours heal. Ceoren will bleed Urusia no more, as long as you keep your oath.”
“I will keep it.”
Kaden smiled, darkly. “I trust you,” he said. “I trust….you.”
Andros swallowed. “I’m seventeen. Please don’t….”
Kaden raised an eyebrow.
“Please remember, I’m seventeen.”
“A man who has made a promise, no matter the age,” Kaden said.
Andros clenched his teeth. There was so much more he wanted to say. But he couldn’t open his mouth to speak. Kaden’s face was swimming in his eyes. He was freezing. His teeth wanted to mount horse and clatter together like so many battering rams. He turned. The steps of the dais cascaded beneath his feet. He stared at the first step.
“Look straight ahead, not at the stairs. They’ll be there,” King Kaden said.
Andros fixed his eyes on the great doors at the end of the chamber. Dark, rising into the gray roof and far above the heads of the courts. He put his foot on the first stair.
Kaden let Andros go. The ermine cloak ran past his fingers. He realized that he had stood. It was better to remain standing, then. He watched Andros take the first step, then the second. He felt a wrench in his chest, watching the boy king go. He was leaving the protection of the twin Pegasus. It was wrong. Something would run foul. There was more to this than he had seen.
Please remember, I’m seventeen.
Kaden rolled the words through his mind. What did Andros mean? He would ask Claudius.
Andros found the bottom of the stairs. He stared straight ahead, at the doors. He passed through the Ceoren guards. He walked through the two courts with all the nobles watching from either side. His feet followed the swirling multicolored aisle in the middle of the expanses of gray pavement.
Andros felt it coming. The darkness crept into his vision, on the edge of his eyes. He stared straight through it. It would be there, soon. He put another foot in front of the other. He couldn’t feel the pavement. He couldn’t feel the cold. The tingling sensation of nothing was rushing over his fingers. It reached his arms. He couldn’t feel his legs moving. It was close. The doors were there, in the slender center of his vision that was all that was left. Then it was gone. No more doors, no more pavement or swirling aisle. He could hear rushing water in his ears but he knew there was no water. He was moving through darkness.
Kaden saw the doors shut behind Andros and his court. He sat on the Pegasus thrown and stared at the doors. He put his chin on his fist.
There, he heard the echo of a cry. He stood.
“What is it?” he said.
The captain of his guard shook his head.
“Go, inquire,” Kaden said. The man nodded. He ran towards the doors.
Kaden stalked down the steps from the throne. He cast a kindly thought behind him towards the roaring twin Pegasus without turning his head. His court moved towards him.
“Gracefully done, Your Highness,” Claudius said. He clasped Kaden’s hand. Kaden smiled broadly at his advisor.
“It would have been an execution, without you, my friend,” Kaden said. He drew the elder towards him and kissed his forehead. “Both kingdoms owe you a debt of gratitude I doubt we can ever repay.
Claudius shook his head and wiped something from his eye.
“It was nothing but my duty, sire,” he whispered. Kaden smiled and turned towards the rest of his court, turning his back to give his most trusted advisor space to compose himself. “Find me tonight, in my study,” he said, over his shoulder.
Claudius managed a broken acknowledgement.
Kaden continued through the rest of his court, shaking hands, receiving congratulations. After a moment he stepped back.
“Our work is just begun,” he said. His court quieted. They listened. He didn’t need the throne and the thought made him smile. “We have two realms to heal if we can, and I have just made an oath to do so.”
“Your honor is ours,” said Saledin. Kaden grinned at his wiliest general.
“And I’ll make good use of all of you,” he said. Saledin laughed.
“If you didn’t, my lord, I’d tan your hide like I did a few years ago.”
Kaden laughed. “Remember that, if my pride ever over takes me.”