Kiss of the Dragonfly

44. Gronnor's Gift



They would sleep in a nook of obsidian, while the rank breath of Karlward moaned through glass canyons in the dark. Cold had driven them inward until warmth and fear of juggers were in balance. They drank bitter water from jugger flasks and ate waybread gone black with mold. While Cort brooded, Petra treated Otger’s wound, and he re-dressed the bat-scratch on her arm. She found his touch comforting in a place without comfort.

Petra missed Bane’s familiar weight and warmth on her feet. The horrid vision of Canuut impaled on Lucan’s sword was there whenever she closed her eyes.

She blinked away tears and her throat tightened painfully. She’d been too late. Too stupid and too late to connect the lessons of lore and service. Only an unsung corpse, only one that had not received the wayrite, could rise again. That was Herm’s law. If a dead man rose at a god’s whim, he became speechless and deaf to speech, deaf to the wayrite, and nothing but sunlight could end him. In sunlight, he’d burn to spawn ash.

But Lucan’s corpse hadn’t burned, because he hadn’t been raised by a god. He’d been raised by a man’s magic. Gronnor could speak through his mouth, and hear though his ears. And Lucan could still hear the wayrite. Even Gronnor’s magic couldn’t change a god’s law.

Too stupid and too late, like she’d been with the bats, like she’d been to understand the waymap. And now Canuut was dead because of it. Her friend was dead. And Bane and Jakko were dead. Tears rolled down Petra’s cheeks. She didn’t bother to wipe them away.

At last sleep took her, and she slipped into the dream pool, with all its muddled, bubbling voices. The pool was smaller now, and crowded. Eddies of water, freezing and hot, turned between walls of jagged obsidian. Muttering voices drumming on her ears, urgent and unintelligible. The patient green-gold eyes pulled at her from the deep. She struggled to rise, struggled to break free without cutting herself on the obsidian knives. But the other eyes, the black pebble eyes, were waiting—impatient, aggrieved. Where had she been, they asked. Where was she now?

Close—yet nowhere. The pebble eyes flicked here and there, frustrated. She didn’t like those eyes. She was content to be unseen, like water in water. How to escape? She needed a map—and the map was there, the glorious waymap of a million golden trails. It floated around her, or she floated inside it. But something else curled around her too, red in the water, revealing her. Blood—her own blood! In panic she looked down at herself, and saw, not bloody gashes, but the shaft of a bolt protruding from her chest. Mutely, she screamed.

Something butted her, rocked her. Suddenly she was jerked from the pool to the glassy shore.

“What? What is it?” she said, groggily.

“Shh! Don’t wake Otta,” whispered Cort. “We have to talk.”

Petra scowled at Cort. His face was blurry in the spider-light’s glow. She clambered out between the stands of hook line she’d strung across the nook’s opening, her leg so sore she could hardly stand. Cort drew her toward the green splinter of daylight. She stopped at the bend that would put the spider-light out of view.

“We have to climb down, that’s clear,” said Cort. “We’ve no water or food, and there’s no way back.”

“What then? Run away? Without tents or bags or a mule or—”

Cort pointed east toward the daylight. “No, head north.”

“The Flays are north of us,” said Petra. “We’ll not get through that line—and they have the airship.”

“No, but—”

“Cort, we came through Karlward to get ahead of the Flays, not behind them. I took us wrong. We’re far south of where father’s trail came out.”

“It’s incredible we got through at all. The sooner we’re clear of it the better.” Cort’s voice was high and breathless.

“I mean to go back inside Karlward and find a way north.” Petra hadn’t known that until she said it.

“That’s insane!,” hissed Cort. “I’m not going back in there.”

“Fine. You climb down and be captured by Flays.”

“Better Flays than juggers.”

“I don’t plan to be captured by anyone. I’m—”

“Petra, you’re coming with me.”

Petra put her hands on her hips and glared at him. “Oh don’t start that … that bossy parent thing again, like I’m your little girl. Like when you told me how I should behave in camp.”

“You’re my responsibility.”

“Who’s talking now? ‘Uncle’ Gron? His mouthpiece is dead—again.”

Cort drew a breath. “Don’t imagine that will stop him. Look, we’ll meet the Flays. We’ll be safe with them.”

Petra heard a resolution in his voice she hadn’t heard before. Her heart began to thump and her voice was croaky when she spoke. “Because Gronnor’s their man, right? Because you’re their man too?”

“Because it’s that or death. And because … because I love you, Petra.”

In Petra, panic welled. She edged backwards. “And that’s why you’re going to turn me over to those depraved beasts?”

“They won’t hurt you—there’s a covenant.”

“A covenant!”, spat Petra. “A covenant between beasts and oath-breakers! You lied to me, Cort, pretending you didn’t know. What else did you lie about?”

“Petra, I—”

Her voice rose. “I’ll die in Hell before I surrender to them.”

Cort’s hand jerked up, as though to stop her mouth. He glanced toward the spider light. “Shh! You don’t have a choice.”

Petra lowered her voice again, though she didn’t know why she should. “Because Gronnor ordered you to compel me?”

“Because I have to protect you. Uncle has betrothed you to me. Soon, you’ll be my bride.”

Betrothed,” gasped Petra. She leaned against the black wall, her knees suddenly weak.

Cort’s words came in a rush and his voice trembled. “It was my idea. You’re the one I chose. Gronnor was going to take you for himself, and give Tegan to me. Well, you know how lovely she is … anyone would … but I wanted you. You have more intelligence, more fire. And Uncle agreed because he thought you’d like … he was willing to do both of us a favor.”

“A favor!” said Petra, weakly. “I’m the price of your obedience, aren’t I? A reward for good behavior—like the sword. That’s what he meant by ‘gift’.”

“He granted a wish—his gift to each of us.”

“You sound like you’re trying to talk yourself into liking it.”

Cort shook his head, flicking drops of sweat. “No! You are the one. We’ll be good together, Petra. You have skills I don’t have, and I can navigate the politics, keep you safe. Our betrothal protects you already. It’s in the covenant: they won’t touch girls promised to Brok men.”

“I suppose the Silk was a taste of Gronnor’s ‘protection.'”

“Well, no Flay man would want a girl with … But I don’t mind—I mean, I was furious, but not for my own sake. Anyway, Gronnor knows a witch who can fix your back, make it as perfect as before.”

Petra made a noise like a cat hocking a fur ball.

Cort plowed on. “I’ll be important and you’ll have power too. Servants. Gold. Do you want to live like this—scrabbling? Tarran had bigger dreams.”

There he was dragging her brother into it again. Petra’s throat tightened painfully. “Why didn’t you lot join the Flays right off? You’re made for each other.”

“To make the deal he wanted, Uncle needed something to trade. I’m sorry, but the Drakhorns were that. He despises the Flays, though. I told you, they killed his half-brother. They’re just a stepping stone for him. He’ll destroy them when they’re no longer useful.”

“What does this have to do with me? I don’t see him going to such trouble just for you, Cort.”

Cort stepped closer. “Listen, I shouldn’t tell you this—he’d be furious—but you must understand how important you are, why he’ll protect you. You’re the key to his plans—to everything.”

“I’m a key?”

“To the Drak Horn.”

Petra was silent, trying to make sense of it. The filtered daylight glinted greenly in the beads of sweat on Cort’s face. “Huh?” she said, at last.

“Uncle believes the Horn is the most powerful weapon the karlmen ever had. The Flays seized your fortress to get it, but could never make it work. That’s because only a true-bred Stray-Drakhorn can use it—and you’re the first in generations.”

“Me!”

“Your clanmarks, you see. They’re perfect.”

Petra stared in open-mouthed dismay. How could he possibly …

Cort answered the unspoken question. “Gron heard about your clanmarks years ago at Winter Camp. Your mother mentioned them to the Tasharas who have eligible sons.”

Petra’s stomach twisted. She tasted bile.

Cort leaned forward. “Do you understand now? Uncle will do anything to get you back and keep you safe.”

“So I can use the Horn to slaughter people for him.”

“He wants to unify the clans and make them strong. He said that. I believe him.”

Petra spat at the ground.

“Listen, Petra, you say you’re not a little girl—so don’t act like one. This is bigger than Clash or Drakhorn pride or Nula’s eggs. This is about making the karlmen great again.”

Petra didn’t reply. She edged along the wall, but a ridge interfered. She tried to see the spider light without moving her eyes. She judged the distance between herself and Cort. Could she beat his draw with a sword? She never had before.

“Well, Petra—ready to grow up?”

She spoke carefully. “Cort, I don’t know what to think. I don’t know if half of what you say is true. But Gronnor is unworthy of you. He’s … despicable. You can still choose an honorable path.”

“You’re right about him. But Listen: he’s sick, he’s dying. It won’t be long—a year or two. Then I’ll inherit his rank and property. He’s been preparing me. And you, Petra, if things go as I hope, you’ll be Tashara of the Flays. Think of it! With the Horn, there’s no telling what our children will inherit.”

“Cort, seriously, aren’t you getting ahead of yourself? I told you, I’m going back into Karlward, not throwing myself to the Flays with you.”

Cort glanced toward the spider light, then abruptly pushed her around the bend and against the wall. He glared into her eyes. “You’re as brave as a lynx, but still young. Later you’ll understand what an opportunity this is. For now, you just have to trust me and know you don’t have a choice.”

Peta tried to squirm away.

Cort dug his fingers in. His face was inches from hers, his breath hot, and the waning blush of daylight gleamed in the lines of sweat on his skin. “I love you, Petra. You must believe it. Don’t pretend that you don’t feel it too. I’ve heard it in your voice. I’ve seen it in your blush.”

He put his other hand on her waist, under her coat. She tried to shove him away. He seized her wrists and clamped them against the wall, then pushed his face against hers. His sweat wetted her forehead and cheek.

With his lips to her ear, Cort spoke low. “You’re coming with me, willing or not. It’s your duty to your betrothed husband and your Tash. Anyway, I can’t go back without you. Otta will come too if you ask. He’s besotted with you, poor sap.”

“Cort, get off,” said Petra, trying to keep the shakes out of her voice. “You think you can carry me down against my will? Don’t be stupid!”

“Unconscious, if necessary. But I think you’ll go because we share a passion for adventure—and for each other.” He pushed his lips at her, then banged his forehead against hers so hard, light flared.

For an instant of stunned amazement, Petra thought he was trying to knock her unconscious with his forehead. But Cort slid down her, then slumped to his side. She looked up into the surprised eyes of Otger Brok.

 


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