Tales of the High Court

Award Category
Book Award Category
A series about the individuals, from the High King himself down to his secretive secretary, who keep the powerful Harken Empire running, and all the trials they face, from war to assassination to finding love in the most unexpected places.

Desmond would have liked to say he faced his death with dignity, that when they came for him he was cool and contained, had the grace and poise of a defeated king.

He didn't. When they broke into the room where he'd managed to hide himself, he was already crying. He screamed and kicked and bit and raised all the ruckus he could. Fuck dying with dignity; he'd be as ugly and noisy as necessary in order to live.

All for nothing, of course. He was a scholar, banished to and raised in Highmont Monastery. However much he'd learned there, Highmont had been a glorified prison. Later, when it was clear that Benta was losing the war with Harken, his father had ordered him sent to an actual prison. He'd been a prisoner of some sort all his life, never trained to be a king, or even a soldier.

So he'd lost the battle swiftly, beaten, bruised, and broken into submission. One soldier held fast to his arm as they dragged him through the halls, another dug fingers painfully tight into his hair and pulled him along like an angry child with their least favorite toy.

There was too much blood and sweat in his eyes to see where they were going, too much smoke and noise in the air to even try to get a question out—not that he thought anyone would answer.

The heavy smell of incense reached his nose a few minutes later, followed by a familiar thick, soft rug beneath his knees. They were in the grand throne room. Well, wasn't hard to figure out why he was still alive now. One of Benta's favorite stories was of how his many-times great-grandfather, the first of his family to rule as monarch, had taken his throne by beheading his predecessor in that very room. The supposed sword that had done the deed hung on the wall immediately behind the throne. By blood, by might, by right do we rule.

Ah, it would be a good one for the history books and many generations to rule on. The kings who took by the sword eventually died by the same sword, having fallen from heroes to villains. Poetic, if trite, the perfect story by which the rebels would win the hearts of the masses.

If he wasn't about to be the executed king in the tale, if the rebels weren't far greater a problem than he could ever be, he might almost approve the ridiculous story being spun at his expense.

Familiar voices spoke around them, including the backstabbing bastard who had been second in command of his private guard. She and half of Bitter Frost had made swift work of killing the rest of them, including Captain Matthias, who had died trying to get Desmond to safety.

So much for their long history of honor and loyalty.

Desmond's head was yanked up and his face crudely wiped. He blinked away remaining flecks of crusted blood and stared into the dark green eyes of Bryan Kettermane, Royal Seneschal and someone Desmond had stupidly thought was his friend. Someone else who'd sworn loyalty, made promises to speak for the good and the just. Countless people had attested he was an honorable man.

Lies, lies, and more lies. The Goddess preached not to stew in bitterness, for that only poisoned they who stewed, but Desmond was going to die soon anyway, so he'd be as bitter as he liked.

"How are you feeling, Your Majesty?" Kettermane asked.

Blood had filled Desmond's mouth from where his teeth had cut his cheek after one backhand or another. He spat it in Kettermane's face.

Chuckling, idly cleaning the blood from his face, Kettermane replied, "Don't be childish, Majesty. You've lost the war, face it with dignity."

"Dignity is the purview of honorable men, and I have no desire to resemble the likes of you," Desmond said, and spat again. Kettermane snarled and backhanded him, but Desmond only laughed. That seemed to infuriate Kettermane more, but before he could hit Desmond again, Bethany, the backstabbing First Lieutenant of Bitter Frost, grabbed his arm.

"Unhand me, Lieutenant," Kettermane snapped.

"He's had about all he can take. If you want to make a spectacle of his death, leave off."

Kettermane snarled several colorful words, but jerked his hand free and stood back. "Where are we with matters?"

"The city has been taken, and the castle is nearly secure," Bethany said. "I've had reports of trouble, possibly new armed forces, fighting their way into the castle, but no details yet. Runners should be bringing me information shortly."

"Probably just a last few stragglers from the royal guard," Kettermane said. "Or misguided fools who think their pathetic king is worth dying for."

Desmond hoped not. He wasn't worth dying for, though he doubted he and Kettermane agreed on the reasons. There'd been enough death. If he had to die, let it at least mean he'd be the last.

"Hopefully that's all it is," Bethany replied. "I've given the order to start having all relevant persons brought here for the ceremony." She dropped her gaze briefly to Desmond, something almost like regret filling her face for a fleeting moment. "Who would you like to do it? I'd recommend they go masked, otherwise—"

"I'll do it."

Bethany eyed him. "Are you sure? You do realize—"

"Be quiet," Kettermane snapped. "When I want a condescending lecture from you, I'll ask for it."

"Sir." Bethany turned away, sharing a look with some of her people.

Curiosity fluttered briefly through Desmond, then snuffed out. He didn't care about discontent in the ranks. Not when those ranks had betrayed him. Killed some of their own. Were discussing who would kill him as though working out how best to assign chores. He was vastly more concerned with Kettermane "doing it" himself. Kettermane wasn't a soldier any more than Desmond; there was no way he'd be able to cut Desmond's head off. So not only was Desmond going to die, it was going to be an agonizing death. Hopefully someone else would step in and finish the job after Kettermane failed miserably.

Kettermane shifted restlessly. "I want—"

The words were drowned out by the booming thunder of an explosion, followed by the crashing sound of a wall or something collapsing. That was followed by screams, cries—and then the unmistakable sound of battle. So it would seem the fighting was far from over. How many more people would die before everyone was content? Goddess damn them all to the Pits.

"Find out what's wrong!" Kettermane snarled, even as Bethany surged forward, gesturing sharply for soldiers to flank her.

They hadn't made it more than a handful of steps when the enormous iron and wood doors of the grand throne room were blown in and soldiers surged into the room.

"Oh, merciful gods," Bethany said, voice quavering. She whipped around and returned to Kettermane. "We need to get you out of here. Bitter Frost, soldiers! Protect Kettermane's retreat at all costs." She glanced to the men still holding fast to Desmond. "If they reach the throne, use him to delay them." Once the soldiers had acknowledged the order, Bethany and Kettermane vanished through the door behind the throne.

The soldiers he'd only glimpsed before were now clear as day and even more terrifying in reality than he'd always heard: blood red tunics emblazoned with slash marks that seemed to open up their chests to reveal only a dark void and dark steel armor riddled with sharp spikes.

Penance Gate, the most feared mercenary band in Harken and one of the most infamous in the world. Named after an important part of Harken religion, entailing brutal combat and second chances.

Why in the world was Penance Gate here?

Of the Bitter Frost and royal guards who'd been ordered to cover Kettermane's escape, at least a third ran away. The remaining were being destroyed like paper put to a torch. Desmond swallowed, horrified and awed all at once as he watched Penance Gate fight their way through the grand throne room. Even with a third of the soldiers having fled, there was hundreds to go through, and Penance Gate seemed only to have a small force—honor guard numbers, not more than fifty—rather than a full fighting force.

One of the men holding Desmond yanked him to his feet and pressed a knife to his throat, right as the other one dropped with a crossbow bolt in his forehead. Desmond stared at the man bearing the mark of captain, a faceless soldier in a spiked helmet with the faceplate of a snarling beast. But those eyes. The very color of a summer sky. Even if he hadn't known already that Allen's brother headed Penance Gate, he would know those eyes anywhere. Prince Chass. Crown Prince Chass, now. Why was he here? He was the very last person who should be in Benta right now.

"Don't come closer!" the guard said.

Chass laughed, low and derisive. "Next time, make certain to secure your rear."

The man drew breath to reply, but in the next moment he jerked against Desmond, and there was a wet, sucking sound. Then Desmond was free. He turned around, saw the man bleeding out from a wound in his neck, a tall Penance mercenary sheathing a long, thin digger.

"Your Majesty, are you all right?"

Desmond turned back and watched as Chass climbed the stairs to the throne dais. "Yes, thanks to you and your people, Captain. What is Penance—"

"Questions later," Chass replied. "Can you walk?"

"Yes, I'm fine." Desmond walked toward him—and everything went black.

When he stirred, he was lying on the floor. No, he was lying on someone on the floor. He turned his head and looked up into familiar blue eyes. "Perhaps I was mistaken."

A husky laugh rolled over him. "Perhaps."

"I'm sorry. Let me—"

"Stay where you are," Chass said, the words snapping out in a way that brooked no disobedience. Not that Desmond wanted to disobey. Goddess be merciful, so much pain. Chass shifted, and Desmond bit back a whimper, determined not to appear even more pathetically weak than he already had. Then he was being lifted like he weighed no more than a sack of air.

"Captain, royal soldiers coming, and it looks like more Bentan mercenaries have joined them. About what we expected, perhaps a hundred over at worst."

Desmond stared at the speaker, who was also the one who'd stabbed the guard holding him. A woman if he had to guess, though with Harkens that was difficult to say, since they didn't have the rigid definitions of man and woman that Benta lived by. Her faceplate was of a roaring dragon.

Chass grunted an acknowledgement. "Aria, head Team One. Riker, head Team Two." He turned and spoke to a figure that Desmond hadn't even noticed until then. "I assume you'll be sticking close to me as always, Captain?"

Another Captain? Desmond's head ached too much to attempt making sense.

"You assume correctly," the second captain said. The faceplate of his spiked helm portrayed an owl. "Especially since you didn't have the sense to stay on the damn ship."

Chass said something Desmond didn't catch and then turned back to Aria and Riker, who acknowledged they were ready by raising their right fists to be parallel with their chins. Chass then shouted, "Soldiers assemble!"

Aria moved to the right side of the hall, where three fourths of the now much more massive Penance Gate force had gathered. The remaining went to the left side of the hall.

"Team One, your only duty is to clear a path. You don't stop until King Desmond is on the ship. Team Two, make a wall. Guard His Majesty with your life."

The mercenaries saluted and bellowed out confirmation.

Chass roared out, "Darkness is dull!"

"Pleasure in pain!" Penance Gate roared back.

"Show these craven bastards why we devoured our own. Penance Gate, move out!" As Riker's team closed in around them, Chass bent his head and said in that low, husky voice, "Hold fast, Your Majesty. This will hurt, but you'll make it to safety alive, you have my vow."

"Thank you," Desmond whispered, and buried his face in the hollow of Chass's throat as they moved and the promised pain ripped through him. There was not a single stitch of him that was not battered, bruised, or broken. Had it really been necessary to beat him half to death? How many other people had suffered so, just because Kettermane's people had known they could get away with it? This was why Desmond had fought so hard to establish peace. The Goddess herself wept at the amount of blood spilled, the number of Her children who gathered in her arms tonight.

The journey to the ship lasted forever, filled with screams and shouts and vastly more unpleasant sounds, the stench of blood and smoke thick in the air. He blocked it out as best he could by focusing on other things. Chass's strong grip, how gentle he was, even in the midst of a horrific battle. How it should be Bitter Frost helping him this way. How many friends and allies were dead. Hopefully some of them had succeeded in fleeing.

He tried to think of something else, biting back sobs at the senseless loss of life, of all that he'd lost tonight, and of all he'd likely still lose before this nightmare truly ended.

His desperate thoughts landed on Penance Gate's battle cry, which came from the Penance Gate mythos from which the mercenaries took their name. He remembered it because it was so drastically different from Bentan beliefs. In Benta's primary religion, Kestoran, when one died, their deeds were judged by the Goddess. Those who were judged worthy moved on to Life Eternal in Paradise. Those who were judged unworthy were banished to the Pits of Darkness forever, where their own foul natures turned them into imps, goblins, and gremlins that preyed upon vulnerable mortals, forever hoping to turn them to the darkness so others would share in their misery.

Harken's Pantheon had a similar end for the unworthy, but they also believed in forgiveness and second chances for those who sincerely sought it and worked for it. Kestoran had similar beliefs only up to death. If you died unworthy, you were damned for all eternity. Not so for Harken. If you cared enough and fought hard enough, you'd be granted a second chance to redeem the mistakes you made, the life you wasted. Penance must be paid in blood and pain. He'd read that so many times in his studies.

Chass moved sharply, shouting something incomprehensible, and it took everything Desmond had left not to scream. Right then, it felt like he had been murdered by Kettermane after all and thrown into the Pits to be forever caught in the chaos of a brutal war, always in pain, always in danger, waiting for relief that would never come. The sharp, iron smell of blood filled his nostrils, mingling with sweat and leather and steel.

Screams of rage, moans of pains, filled his ears. But nothing was worse than the moment a scream abruptly stopped or a moan faded off. So much death. So much anguish. All for the 'right' to rule a country. So many dead because people wanted to dictate how they should have lived. For nothing. Desmond had never wanted the damned throne. He'd offered countless times to work for solutions that would satisfy all parties.

All this because he preferred to make peace with Harken, and do right by Soldonir, and be harsher with an empire that relied heavily on slavery. It was all so stupid. Her Most Holy Grace wept at the needless loss of life, all the people who did not heed Her Words and work always for peace and harmony. This was not the way to live a kind, humble, and giving life.

"Almost there," Chass said in his ear.

Desmond nodded as best he could to acknowledge the words—and then felt it as they walked up a gangway and onto a ship. "Healer!" Chass called out, but instead of setting Desmond down as expected, he kept walking.

A door slammed open, and a moment later they finally came to a stop, and Chass set Desmond down upon a bed with surprising tenderness.

Then he was gone, and Desmond was briefly panicked and bereft as he forced his eyes open—just in time to see Chass vanish through the cabin door as a person in spectacles with a healer's band around their upper arm knelt beside the low bed.

It was only as he lay there while the healer worked that a realization struck Desmond: Chass had said 'healer' in Harken. He'd spoken to his men in Harken. But every time he'd spoken to Desmond, it had been in Bentan.

On that thought, Desmond passed out.