Kaland’s Wedding

Glossary of Panaceith terms used in this fic:

 

Anum - Year. Ani (pronounced an - eye) is the plural.

 

Buzz Bats - small bats that live in the cave system below the silver isles, known for their ability to remain silent until they are about to bite you. The bite is harmless. The bats will eat anything living on the Silver Isles, including insects, animals, fruit, and vegetation, and are considered vermin.  When someone says you are “buzz bats” it can mean you are very annoying or crazy.

 

Current - A power source of magical energy fed by the souls of deceased elves. Elves who follow the Current believe all life originates from and eventually falls back to the Current.

 

Murder Cake - An elaborate cake served at a gathering of Thewlian nobles. A random part of it is always poisoned.

 

Name Stealer - When a low born Thewl marries a high status noble under suspicious circumstances and becomes a noble themselves. Individuals who are adopted into a noble family and absorb the name are often referred to as name stealers as well.

 

Thewl Elves - A race of aristocratic elves known for having pale skin, light colored eyes, and white hair.  They make up the bulk of the nobility on the Silver Isles.

 

Thewlie - A low born elf, normally living on the crowded east side of the Silver Isles.



Kaland’s Wedding, a companion fic for the Name Stealer Series

 

Not unlike the rest of Castle Archanel, the great hall was large and imposing, with lush heavy tapestries hanging along the walls, running from the ceiling to the floor. Paintings of Archanels dating back hundreds of ani were placed intermittently between tapestries as they watched over the happenings of the castle. Halfway up, where the second floor resided, balconies overlooked the room below. Each balcony was adorned with plush curtains complete with a valance and tied back with an elegant tassled rope. While seemingly ostentatious, the weighty draperies fought off the castle’s cold drafty harshness in winter and somehow managed to seal in cool air during the hot summers, making the heavy materials necessary and reasonable. The lord of the castle wasn’t one to waste money on vanity items.

The giant fireplace at the end of the room roared to with life. Kaland Archanel moved closer towards the side of it, his long shadow danced along the edge of the room. Perhaps he could escape before his absence was noted. “How much more time, Gracia?” Kaland’s father, Lord Kaleef Archanel pinned his wife with an accusing glare. “Your excuses have become far too thin.”

“You can’t rush these things, Kaleef.” Gracia gestured towards her son and Kaland flinched inwardly. So much for hiding. There would be little chance of that as two sets of sharp, elven eyes focused on him. Kaland crossed his arms, felt awkward about such an unnatural pose, and then pretended to lean against the fireplace mantle. The mantle was above his head and what started out as a casual maneuver, only served to make his stance doubly inelegant.

Kaland’s father looked at him with a mixture of bemusement and something like pity. There was no reason to think Kaland would cease disappointing his father now. Lord Archanel turned his attention back towards his wife before he continued. “Two full seasons have passed since I left you with this task.” Kaland could hear his father clenching and unclenching his jaw. “Two winters. Two summers. Two rainy seasons.”

“This is the Silver Isles,” Gracia chuckled mirthlessly, “every season is the rainy season.” Her eyes narrowed slightly, “perhaps if you had been honest with me, I would have been more motivated to hurry things along.” Kaland wasn’t sure what the statement meant. He didn’t enjoy watching his parents argue. Today, the argument was all about him. It didn’t sound as though things were going to go his way this time.

Boots clicked on the stone floor as Kaleef closed the distance between himself and his wife. “Are you mocking me?” His voice dropped dangerously low and he eyed her suspiciously. “You meddle in things that are none of your concern.”

“My concern?” She blinked, “my family is none of my concern?” Anyone else would have been shaking with fear. Even Kaland tried to press himself into the shadows but not his mother. Gracia barely spared Kaleef a second glance as she turned away. Her gaze fell on Kaland though her words were for his father. “You behave as though as I haven’t been trying. I have. Most of the nobles are terrified of you and they know nothing about Kaland. And how could they? He should have been out having fun, building bonds. Instead, you locked him away for a hundred and twenty nine ani.”

“A hundred and thirty…” Kaland added almost absently and then grimaced as both parents fixed him with icy stares. He swallowed hard and murmured an apology. That argument didn’t help his situation.

“This will be the start of his family.” Gracia said. Lord Archanel focussed his attention back towards her. “The beginning of his legacy and the continuation of yours. It cannot be taken lightly.” She was right. An elven marriage was a never ending contract. The wrong lady might mean several hundred ani of unhappiness. The thought of marriage put knots in the pit of his stomach. He’d always been terrible with women, Kaland was no more ready to get married than he was to take over Lordship of Castle Archanel and his father was pressing him to do both. What was the rush?

Two full ani before, Kaland’s father decided it was time for Kaland to get married. A marriage to a stable, noble family would solidify Kaland’s birthright through alliances and ensure the future of the family. In his time as lord, Kaland’s father transformed the family from near ruin to a flourishing business providing security for most of the castles on the island’s north side. Kaland always admired his father for that bit of brutal creativity. He’d taken the thing he was good at and made money with it.

Even if Kaleef was ready to hand the business to his son, Kaland wasn’t sure he wanted it. More troubling was the marriage his father insisted on. Kaland wanted that even less. Until now, his mother had been a shield between himself and his father’s ambitions.

“Your opinion has been poisoned by him.” Kaland’s father pointed an accusing finger towards his son. “This is your fault! Each time I insist we move forward, you resist!”

A spark of anger shot through Kaland at the words. Nothing had ever been his choice! Not his education, not his upbringing, and now his father wanted to meddle with one of the most important commitments in his life! “This should be my decision, Father!”

“Not in this case!” Kaleef moved quickly and placed himself nose to nose with his son. Hot breath that held a faint odor, like rusted metal, tickled Kaland’s nostrils. “Did you really think you would be afforded the luxury of carving out your own future?” His voice dropped to a low whisper. “That is a right to be earned. It can’t be handed to you the way everything else in your life has been.”

“I want different things, Father.” Kaland stood his ground, standing every bit as tall as the imposing elf. “I have aspirations, ideas.”

“Dreams.” Kaleef corrected, “You have dreams. It will be difficult to eat them.” He gestured around the room. “However much you wish it, love does not pay bills, Boy.” His head tilted slightly as it always did before Kaleef was about to get physical with someone. Kaland braced himself for a potential fight. “You are even more naive than your grandfather, Norris.”

A small smirk betrayed Kaland’s features. What was it his father said once? Never fight with someone who knows all your weaknesses because they never fight fair. “And I will always be his grandson. I have his blood, Archanel blood…” Among the elven nobility, Kaleef Archanel was widely regarded as a commoner who married into money and prestige instead of earning it. Kaland couldn’t help but strike the raw nerve. “That can never be taken from me. I’ll never be known as a name stealer because I will always be a member of this family. You tricked Norris Archanel, you forced my mother into marriage. I am the prize you won for all your efforts.”

Somewhere behind him, his mother spoke softly, “Kaland. Don’t.”

He ignored the warning in favor of stoking his father’s anger. Surely his words would not go unpunished. What was the harm in saying them? “And look at what a failure I am in your eyes. Remind me again of the blood that runs in your veins, Father?”

“Gladly!” Faster than he could have anticipated, Kaland choked as his throat was seized and breath that smelled of hot blood washed over his face. “I am a dirty Thewlie! I was born in the streets with nothing! I’m a low born and a name stealer!” He growled and squeezed Kaland’s neck in his impossibly strong grip. “However noble you think you might be. Always remember you share blood with someone who ate garbage as a boy! You will always be a Thewlie no matter what you do! However noble you become, each time you think you can escape, something or someone will always be there to remind you that you...are...just...like...me!” Kaleef shook his son with each punctuated word.

In the distance, he thought he heard his mother screaming words he couldn’t understand. Air. He needed air! Kaland wrapped his hands around his father’s wrists, tugging against them. The elf could kill him easily yet Kaland was still alive. There was power in that knowledge. Kaleef had worked too hard and painstakingly raised Kaland in his own image. Drawing strength from that, Kaland let go of his fear. His eyes never left Kaleef’s as he used the last of his breath to retort. “No matter.” He choked out, “I’m your…most…valuable asset.”

“You think I only care about legacy?” Kaleef snarled, “You want to burn it to the ground, Boy? Let’s fucking burn it all!” He kicked a chair across the floor to the fireplace. It toppled over easily into the hearth. The flames answered the call for destruction with a loud crack! Kaland heard his mother scream as raw, uncontrolled rage surfaced in his father’s eyes. Gracia ran to fish the chair out of the fire, though a corner of it was burning and billowing black smoke towards the high ceiling.

Would Kaleef really destroy their lives to prove a point? Kaland didn’t know anymore. It hardly mattered, the world was about to go black. Surely the freedom of death was better than being saddled with a wife and a Lordship.

“Kaleef!” Kaland’s mother was at his side. “Enough!”

The older elf released Kaland with a huff. Kaland fell backwards and felt his rump hit the floor hard. Anger shot through him and the urge to exact swift vengeance nearly overwhelmed his senses. He coughed and greedily sucked smokey air into his lungs. He felt dizzy from nearly passing out but he refused to waver as he righted himself. His father would not get another opportunity like that!

“You could have killed him!” Gracia exclaimed.

“Should have,” Kaleef turned away from Kaland without a second glance. As demanding as his father could be, the elf was behaving unreasonably impatient. “Know this. You have no choice! I have heard enough excuses for a lifetime!”  

Gracia stepped between them not fearing her husband’s acidic expression. “I need time!”

“Time is a luxury for other families.” Kaleef growled through his teeth. “Do not behave as if you do not know!” He turned in one fluid gesture, his footsteps echoing as he walked briskly out of the main hall. He didn’t look over his shoulder as he yelled again. “By the end of summer, that boy will be married!” The study door slammed behind him, leaving a punishing silence between Kaland and his mother. She’d always been on his side in this. What changed?

“Well that’s done it.” Gracia sighed before turning a kind smile towards her son. “I’m afraid he’s right, Kaland.”

“Mother…” Was she betraying him too?

“The legacy of this family must remain secure. Your father has many enemies who will try to exploit a change of leadership. An alliance with a strong noble house is the best way to keep our assets secure.” Gracia said. Her frown deepened. “As much as I hate to admit it...time is running out.”

What was she talking about? “You were over two hundred before you wed father.”

“I know.” Gracia frowned, “But there are larger things you don’t understand, Kaland.”

“Enlighten me.” He was still red-faced from the scuffle with his father. Blood rushed loudly between his ears and his muscles were tight with the need to strike out at something. “If I am to be the new Lord Archanel and take his place, tell me what I don’t know.” Kaland’s father had been a general in the Silver Island army in his day and led a sweeping victory against the elves of Aralin Island. When he returned, he applied that same ruthless temperament to being Lord of Castle Archanel. The gritty leadership style translated to his parenting skills in the form of barked orders and unrealistic demands.

When it came to Kaland’s sister however, Jhori seemed immune to their father’s temper. She took everything the old elf said with mild affection while Kaland bore the weight of the family’s expectations. She was the lucky one. Why couldn’t she be the one to marry and oversee the family? The answer came before he finished the thought. Jhori was not pure Thewl. Half of her would always be a Grey elf and even if she found someone willing to marry her, it would likely never be a noble from the Silver Isles.

The situation would never be fair to either of them while they lived here! Kaland was done with trying to fill a role he wasn’t made for! He could board a ship and head to the Port of Freedom’s Edge. He had fresh ideas that could make him rich in his own right! If his father wouldn’t listen, perhaps human merchants would! And not one soul would give a heap of Buzz Bat shit if he were noble, married, or otherwise!

“What if I leave?”

“Your father is dying.” Both statements came at once. Kaland’s mother might as well have been screaming instead of speaking in barely a whisper.  

“What?” Kaland said, his eyebrows drawing closer together in confusion.

Gracia frowned, glancing towards the doorway, as if Kaleef were still standing there. “I don’t think he’s going to be with us much longer. After Sophia’s death...” she shook her head, unwilling to expand on the death of Kaleef’s second wife. It was still so fresh. “I think a happy occasion might help remove the dark cloud hanging over our family.” Her finger moved quickly to the corner of her eye, quietly flicking away a tear.

The sadness, he knew, was not for Kaleef. Gracia had not been the same since the death of Sophia. He couldn’t pretend he understood the complicated nature between the three elves. The Forty, the governing council of Silver Island elves, were forced to add bylaws because Kaleef brazenly married two ladies, one of whom was a grey skinned elf. He had somehow been allowed to keep both of them even after second marriages were deemed against Thewlian Law.

The strange relationship kept both Kaland and his sister from the innermost noble circles. Even more bizarre than having a second wife, one lady was rarely seen without the company of the other. They raised Kaland and Jhori together, as if the children had two mothers. His father had had little contact with either lady unless something needed to be discussed about the children. Instead, he was content to build his empire and create the stronghold that was Castle Archanel.   

A pang of guilt made his chest ache. Sophia had been a kind, gentle lady. He hardly saw her in her last ten ani, though. The grey elf had become bedridden from a strange illness. Not even Jhori had been allowed to see her. Kaland smiled sadly. “You miss her.”

His mother chuckled once, “you have no idea.”

No, he didn’t. Nor did he wish to upset his mother. Asking for an explanation wouldn’t get him out of this ridiculous obligation anyway. Letting the subject drop he changed tactics. “But...even if father is sick. The real power is with you. The Archanel bloodline is yours.” Kaland’s was well aware his mother held only loyalty and not love for his father. The love, he wagered, died with Sophia. “You can lead the family…”

“I’m leaving.” Gracia said, cutting him off. “I’ll retire on the Isle of Respite as soon as I’m able.” Kaland felt as though he’d been hit in the chest with a hammer. His mother smiled sadly again. “I promise the bride I choose will be a proper elven lady, Kaland. But it is time. Your time.” She sat next to her son and placed a hand over his.

In spite of not wanting to give in, Kaland felt himself losing the argument. If his mother was really against him in this he was well and truly fucked. “Mother...”

“Kaland.” Gracia squeezed his hand. “I am asking for your trust.”

Kaland wanted to argue further, wanted to scream at the top of his lungs about how unfair this was! Even the bitter taste of his future was favorable to the acerbic flavor of ashes and soot floating through the air of the main hall. That’s what he could look forward to if he refused. His father’s message was clear. Either Kaland would bend to Kaleef’s will one last time or he would be left with nothing. By extension, that included his mother and his sister. With a deep breath, Kaland swallowed the last of his pride and nodded.  

****

“Kaland?” Darius leaned into the entrance of Kaland’s quarters. The elf’s long reach gripped either side of the door frame casually.

Kaland lifted his arm from the sofa where he’d been willing his head to stop pounding. “Here.”

For the last month, Kaland had been led around by the nose. First by his mother, once wedding preparations had been set in motion and then by every possible wedding coordinator on the island. He had been prodded and measured non-stop. People kept asking him questions for which he had no answers. What was the importance of table napkins? What did it matter how big or what flavor the cake was? The damn thing would likely be poisoned anyway. Kaland was asked over and over about the guest list when he didn’t recognize any of the names on it!

If that wasn’t tiresome enough, Kaland’s father insisted on making him learn the finer details of the security business. All Kaland wanted to do was return to the marketplace and study the human craftsmen and women  going about their work. They fashioned all sorts of interesting things out of Thewlium, the natural metal mined beneath the Silver Isles. The elves on the Silver Isles were naturally mistrustful of outsiders but Kaland was endlessly fascinated with their creations.

Since Thewlium was lighter weight and had nearly the same melting point as iron, the practical applications of the material was endless. Kaland had been trying to learn as much as he could. There had been no time for his leisure activities, however.

Darius lifted the corner of his mouth up in a teasing smile. “Are you hiding?” Placing a hand on the edge of the sofa, he hopped over the back of it and landed neatly in the cushioned seat, an act that forced Kaland to move or be squashed.

“Watch it!” Kaland scowled but there was no real malice behind it. “You could have killed me!” When Darius shrugged, he returned to his former expression of melancholy. His head fell backward resting against the arm of the sofa. He regarded the ceiling as if he’d never seen it before. “Perhaps I should have let you.”

Laughter echoed around the room. “Wouldn’t that be something? A companion killing his noble instead of the other way round?” Darius said, winking at Kaland. “Even death isn’t going to get you out of marriage tomorrow.”

Kaland somehow sank deeper into the cushions. “Stop talking about it.”

“Avoiding the subject won’t make it any less certain either.”

“I know that!” Kaland crossed his arms. He was being a noble brat about his wedding and he knew it. What was more, he didn’t care. “Aren’t you supposed to be on my side no matter what?”

Darius only laughed, “you have me mistaken with someone else. When have I ever told you something simply because you wanted to hear it?”  

“I didn’t ask for this, you know.” He didn’t need to remind Darius of the fact. His companion had been with him every day since the age of eleven. They had grown into adulthood together. Even more than his sister or his mother, Darius had endured Kaland’s incessant complaining about the wedding. Through it all, his companion hadn’t made one suggestion or word of advice against the marriage. He had listened impassively and allowed Kaland to vent his frustration over the ordeal. Everything was changing. Kaland knew that better than anyone. Through it all, however, he had Darius. Kaland silently thanked his luck.  

“You missed your final fitting for your wedding clothes.” Darius said, glancing at the backs of his fingernails. “Your mother was furious.”

“I’m sure she was.” It would probably be a good idea to avoid his mother until after the wedding. Kaland hadn’t made things easy on her. “I got caught up at the marketplace.”

“Talking to the craftsmen again?” Darius asked. Kaland hummed a reply and Darius nodded. “You’ve been doing that a lot lately. Thinking of becoming an apprentice?”

Kaland had to chuckle at the thought. “No. More like...an investor.”

“Oh?” Darius pivoted so he faced Kaland, “if you have plans that involve money, should you really be telling me?”

“Well, if I can’t tell you what I want, then I can’t tell anyone.” Kaland knew he was being sentimental but he meant every word. “You have no idea how pleased I am that you’re still here, that I still have you, even with everything else turned upside down.” The statement was met with silence. Kaland turned his head towards Darius. The elf sat frowning at him. “What?”

“I think you know what, Kaland.” All pretense of humor dropped from Darius’ voice. The elf’s mouth opened and then closed again as if he were still choosing his words.

That was anything but normal. Alarm bells rang in Kaland’s mind. Darius always knew what to say and how to say it. Yet here he was only hours from Kaland’s wedding, silent as a ship without wind to push its sails. “You’re not leaving me are you?” The question came out more like an accusation. Darius managed to look embarrassed and remained silent. “No.” Pure panic shot through Kaland like a bolt of lightning. “You’re leaving!”

“Kaland…”

“No!” Darius was the one constant in his life. With everything else changing, he would not allow this! Kaland sat upright.

“Kaland…” Darius said quietly. “I can’t stay.”

“I forbid you to leave!”

Darius frowned. Kaland could never tell Darius what to do. The elf’s arguments were far too sound, his demeanor too steady to be questioned. “You’re getting married and there is no place for me in your new life. I’m already the oldest companion I know. What will nobility say about you if I stay?”

“Fuck the nobility in their asses!” Kaland waved a dismissive hand.

“Once or twice.” Darius murmured. “I was very drunk at the time.”

“I’m serious!” If Darius was serious about leaving the Archanel family, there had to be a way to stop him. Kaland clasped the elf’s shoulder, “Don’t leave?” And then added, “Please?”

“We may not have a choice, Kaland.” Darius said. “You aren’t the only one here feeling the weight of responsibility.”

The statement got Kaland’s attention. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Standing, the tall elf straightened his clothing. “It means you have do things on your own. I’m just a companion without the hope of being more. It means my role here is now...useless.” Darius had a point. Nobles who were raised with companions, normally had the companion in question removed by the time they reached puberty. Very few lasted into the adulthood of the noble. Kaland’s family made an exception since they were already considered so peculiar among the Silver Island’s elite class.

Still, letting his companion go was unthinkable. “Are you protecting me from ridicule?” Kaland studied the elf. “You know I don’t care about that.” Darius had been Kaland’s only real friend outside of his sister since childhood. “I don’t want to move forward without you.”

“And what would I be, Kaland? The unpaid servant of the new Lord Archanel?” The question went unanswered because Kaland suddenly felt as though he’d done Darius a disservice by keeping him around so long.

Maybe Kaland couldn’t solve every problem but he could address this one. “It’s money then.” Kaland said decisively. “I…”

“My Lord Archanel?” A servant appeared in the doorway before Darius could respond. “It is time for your dinner with the grandfather of your bride.”

Darius gave Kaland a pointed look that said, ‘you see what I mean?’ Kaland’s scrubbed a hand over his face. He’d forgotten. “My apologies.” He stood and turned to Darius. “Don’t leave. This conversation is not over.”

Darius waited until Kaland was nearly rounding the corner of the hallway before he replied. “If you say so, Lord Archanel.”

****

Kaland stood in silence and allowed a human servant to dress him in elven finery that he despised. Things were changing far too fast for his taste and none of them for the better! Darius was threatening to leave! Or was he already gone? The thought sent Kaland’s mind into a tailspin until he felt a tap on his shoulder. “Right this way, Lord Archanel.”

“What?” Kaland blinked. “Oh. Right.” He followed the servant in a daze to the large common room that had been lit from floor to ceiling and redecorated with the Archanel colors of red and silver. The painting of his father that normally lumed high over the center of the room had been suspiciously moved to a corner and in its place stood the painting of Kaland’s grandfather, Norris. Next to that, set just lower, was the most recent painting of Kaland and his mother. The painting hadn’t hung in the main hall even once since his mother commissioned it. It adorned her private bed chamber. Gracia must have moved it.

No elf on the Silver Isles did anything without reason. His mother was no exception. Was his father’s role in the family being downplayed in order to appease his bride’s family? Or was it because the nobility needed to see distance between Kaland and his father?

If Darius were with him, he would know the answer. The thought caused an ache in his chest. His companion could read a situation for what it was faster than anyone he knew. How could he possibly allow someone so meaningful and valuable to leave his service? Darius had never been officially paid for his role in the family but that didn’t seem as though it were enough to entice him to stay. It hurt Kaland that friendship wasn’t enough until he reminded himself Darius had never asked to be made a companion in the first place. Nobility often shopped in poor neighborhoods for companions and parents would eagerly offer up their children in the hopes the child would know a better life and wouldn’t go hungry. The situation made perfect sense to Kaland when he was younger. Thinking about it now made him feel naive. Darius had been with him all his life. Every day.

A tap on his right shoulder had him looking that direction but there was nothing there. “Brother.” Kaland turned towards his left and nearly jumped out of his skin. His sister stood where nothing but air had been before. “Drink.” She shoved a glass of something clear towards him. “You look like you need it.”  

“Thanks.” He sipped at the liquid and winced at the burn on his tongue. It took all of his courage not to spit the stuff across the room. It set his mouth on fire and continued to burn as it trickled down his throat. “What the fuck, Jhori?” Her laughter didn’t help matters. “Are you trying to kill me?”

“No, that’s your wife’s job now.” His sister wore a white, loose fitting garment that swallowed her like a bathing robe. She sipped casually at an identical drink. How she managed it, he had no idea.

Well, if she could do it, so could he. Kaland lifted the glass to his lips, taking another tentative sip. It was just as awful as the first. “What is this?”

She grinned, “It’s good, right? It’s made from root vegetables. You only need to drink one glass and you’ll be feeling fine for hours!” Sidling up to her brother, she glanced around the room. “Guess what I’ve been doing?”

Not this again. Kaland fixed his sister with a blank stare. “I stopped being interested in the answer to that question thirty ani ago.” If he tried to fight every elf or human his sister took to bed he would have challenged half the Silver Isles already. It was far better he didn’t know.

“What? No.” She swatted at his bicep. “You’ll be nice to me and behave yourself or I won’t tell you what your bride looks like.” At this, Kaland choked on his terrible drink and Jhori laughed loudly.

“Brat.”

Jhori simply beamed a smile at him. “I am really enjoying seeing you come unraveled.”

When she didn’t go on, Kaland stared at her expectantly. “I’m listening. Dazzle me with the tale that is your life right now.” Whatever she was doing, it wouldn’t last. It never did with her. Jhori would move on to the next thing or the next lover that caught her eye and forget all about her latest passion.

Glancing around, she leaned closer. “I’m learning to sword fight.”

Kaland took a small step back so he could see his sister’s face. “You are kidding me, right?”

“No.” Her smile was somehow even more radiant. “Line Leader, Jacobs is teaching me.” 

Jacobs? He was a human guard for the main house. “Father’s not going to like that.” Kaleef was famously in favor of promoting Thewl elves over anyone else. Jacobs was respected among the soldiers but getting promoted would never happen under Kaleef’s leadership. Kaland made a silent promise to remedy that mistake as soon as he was able.

“Father doesn’t have to know.” She lifted the hem of her long skirt, revealing leather fighting boots. “I have a lesson with him as soon he’s off shift. Did you know he’s been with Castle Archanel since he was seventeen?”

Was his sister really learning to sword fight? Kaland eyed Jhori critically. Her wild, white curls fanned out around her face as if she didn’t own a comb and her grin was wide and genuine. If his sister was happy he wasn’t going to take that from her. What she lacked in grace and feminine beauty, she made up for in strength and enthusiasm. He had to give her that. Still, he couldn’t help but tease her. “Well, he’s human and he’s has to be old now. Can he even hold a sword properly?”

“He knows everything.” She nodded as if Kaland wasn’t trying to insult her secret sword master. “All the soldiers look to him over that beastly fellow in charge now. He’s utterly useless.” She sipped at her drink casually, “father won’t get rid of him because, you know, elven law or elves first or some piss like that.”

“And when did you start swearing?” Kaland scowled. His sister lifted one shoulder in a kind of shrug and allowed the silence to speak for her. “Well, now I’ve listened. It’s your turn to tell me what I actually care about.”

Jhori feigned ignorance. “What’s that?”

The urge to thump at the back of his sister’s head was so strong, Kaland could feel his fingers tingling. “What’s that...” He murmured in a tone that dripped with mockery. “You’ve seen my bride.” Kaland hadn’t been allowed to meet her, even in secret and not even Darius knew what she looked liked. Apparently, the girl had been hidden behind high castle walls just like Kaland. That was something they had in common, he supposed. “Tell me what she looks like.”

“Oh...Angelica.” She grinned and then Jhori’s smile fell abruptly. “She’s hideous.” The scowl Kaland wore was replaced by a severely stressed and worried expression. Jhori wiggled her white eyebrows. “She has a long snaggletooth right here,” She tapped her own eye tooth. “It sticks out over her bottom lip all the time. She has a long nose with a mole at the end and her eyes are so crossed, you never know where she’s looking.”

The worried expression melted back into a scowl. “You’re being an ass.” His sister laughed loudly, a sound he didn’t enjoy when the joke came at his expense. Kaland sighed. “I suppose it doesn’t matter what she looks like.” He took a healthy sip of his drink. The initial burn scorched his mouth and throat so badly, he hardly tasted it now. Even better, he felt more relaxed. “To be honest, I wish it were you fighting your way to the dais.”

“Never.” She crossed her arms. “Anyway, you’re the one with the Lord title, your getting control of all the silver we have plus a beautiful wife.”

Kaland actually felt his ears twitch, “beautiful?”  

The corner of Jhori’s mouth quirked, “I thought you said you didn’t care what she looked like.”

“I hate you.” Kaland growled and Jhori barked laughter.

An old, grizzled elf approached them. “Kaland! I have been waiting to meet you! My name is Denerick.” The old elf began shaking Kaland’s hand and refused to let go. “My brother and I were such close friends of your grandfather’s.” He smiled, revealing two teeth that were beginning to blacken with age. “Norris was such a good fellow, the best, really. He helped our family in our most dire time of need. I am so happy to join our families and repay that debt to you now, even after his death! I know the Current is stronger with his spirit flowing through it.”

“Hello, Lord Denerick.” Jhori bowed low, “I’m Kaland’s sister, Jhori.”

“Ah yes,” Denerick said, looking over Jhori critically. “We have heard of you.”

Was that a veiled insult? Again Kaland cursed his bad luck, because if Darius were at his side, he would know immediately. If the comment had been meant to offend her, Jhori didn’t show it. She grinned as if it hadn’t been said. “I was telling Kaland what a beauty Angelica is.” She patted Kaland’s arm but when her face turned upwards, he noticed her eyes were visibly crossed. “He’s so lucky!”

Brat. If she wanted to play the game of hidden insults, Kaland was more than happy to oblige. He gave a subtle shake of his arm, trying to make Jhori stop touching it. “I hope you’re every bit as lucky when your time comes, Sister.”

“But that day will never come, dear Brother.” She winked and held up her ashen-grey forearm. “I’m the wrong tone, I’m afraid.” She downed her drink as if it were nothing but water and bowed again. “It was lovely to meet you, Lord Denerick.” The old elf inclined his head slightly as Jhori waved her fingers at Kaland. She was heading to her sword-fighting lesson with Jacobs, no doubt.

“Hmmm...she isn’t wrong about that.” Denerick remarked as Kaland’s sister slipped through the crowd. “You should find her a rich husband across the sea, I think. And soon.”

Kaland blinked down at the old elf, liking him less and less by the second. Jhori was difficult to deal with on her best day but she was his sister and he’d gladly end the life of anyone who crossed her.

“I wanted to speak to you about our Angelica,” Denerick said. Kaland took a healthy swig of his drink. It was almost empty. How had that happened? “She has a delicate nature. I think if you choose the wrong lady, she might be devastated.”

Thewlian weddings were highly ceremonial. Kaland’s father made certain at every stage in planning that his son’s wedding would follow all the old traditions, including never meeting the bride before the wedding. That made picking out his bride from behind a mask while she stood shoulder to shoulder with other masked women claiming to be her that much more difficult.

There were bylaws that covered what happened when an elf picked the wrong lady from the line up but Kaland didn’t know what they were. He’d never heard of a wedding going wrong before. What if he picked the wrong lady? Would he still have to marry her? He hadn’t thought of that as a way out before. Again he thought of his clever companion and cursed himself for coming to this ridiculous party instead of making things right with his oldest friend. “If that happens, you can thank my father.”

Denerick pushed his lips into a thin line. “Yes. I am told he searched the island for beauties similar in age and build to our Angelica. You will not have an easy time but you must try for her sake. If she starts crying again, her mother fears she may never stop.” The old elf patted Kaland’s arm, “Be careful and patient with her. She...sometimes startles easily.”

What was that supposed to mean? It sounded as if is chosen bride was every bit as unhappy as he was. The truth of that dented his pride a little. Was he unworthy of marrying? If Darius were with him, his companion would read every set of lips in the room and find out the unpolished truth. Thinking of Darius made Kaland’s stomach ache. That was just one more thing he was losing.

Darius complained of being obsolete now that Kaland would have a wife. He also alluded that to be a companion had no practical applications for an adult elf. That stung. They were family, even if they didn’t share blood. Why did he have to lose that because of a marriage he didn’t ask for? Fuck that idea in its ass!

Kaland upturned his glass, draining the last of it. “Lord Denerick, know that I trust my mother completely. She selected your granddaughter and that’s the end of it, delicate nature and all.” He squeezed Denerick’s shoulder as he walked by, “if you'll excuse me, I have something very important to attend to.”

***

The strong alcohol had Kaland’s head buzzing as he moved through the halls of the castle in search of Darius. Only Darius was nowhere to be found. When he reached his companion’s quarters, they were empty.

The room was nearly bare save for a small dresser and a bed. There was no sign of Darius or his belongings. Kaland’s heart sank. His companion had come to say goodbye and Kaland walked away without really fighting for him to stay. How could he have been so foolish? Darius wasn’t just a companion. He was Kaland’s best friend, he wasn’t simply like a brother, he was a brother in Kaland’s mind and Kaland would not lose another member of his family!

It took him only minutes to reach the main gate. The clang of metal echoed into the darkness. Even the guards attention was focused on whatever was happening. “Jhori?” Kaland muttered under his breath. He could clearly see her in a slow, methodical spar session with a much taller figure, probably Jacobs. The pair were silhouetted against the burning lights along the castle walls. Her movements were measured and precise. Every few moves, he could hear quiet direction coming from her instructor. Kaland remembered learning to sword fight was a bit like learning to dance. The muscle memory was important.

She’d had the same drink Kaland did, yet she didn’t seem affected at all. How high was his sister’s tolerance for alcohol? Kaland sighed. It’ didn’t matter. At least she was getting what she wanted. That made one of them. “Hey.” He moved next to one of the guards.

“Oh, hello Kaland.” The elf smiled. Arden had been with the family a long time. “I guess it will be Lord Archanel after tomorrow.”

The title sounded wrong in Kaland’s ears. Lord Archanel was his father’s name. “It’s not tomorrow yet, Arden.” He tried to sound casual though he felt anything but. One thing at a time.

Arden smiled apologetically, “your father’s insisting we put up a good fight to the dais. He won’t let us use practice swords either. It’s sharp blades or it’s nothing.” Kaland would prefer that it be nothing.

That information was troubling. In all the haste to get him married, he’d forgotten the traditional sparring that went on during the wedding. Thewlian weddings required the groom fight his way to the bride. It was supposed to be symbolic of the groom’s willingness to fight for his family. In truth, these days, in most weddings this symbolism had turned into a skit that was likely to be more comedy than anything else. Kaland was sure his father would see to it that his would be no skit and not comical. Of all the wedding traditions, he thought of this one the least. Whatever happened, he’d deal with it when the time came. Even if Kaleef made the guards stab him bloody on his wedding day, he would have to get through it somehow.  Pushing the detail out of his mind, he changed the subject. “Where did Darius go?”

“I saw him leaving.” Arden said, “but I’m not sure where he was headed.”

“A tavern.” Another guard chimed in. Kaland made a mental note to learn all their names. This one was new and a human. “I came from the eastern harbor not an hour ago. It has a lot of human ships in it. And it’s a good place to get a drink.” Kaland was about to speak when the human filled the silence first. “I haven’t been here long but it doesn’t seem humans are a welcome sight in most places.” Kaland opened his mouth again and was cut off. “I recognized your companion because he was so tall. He’s the tallest elf I’ve ever seen, not that I have much experience with elves. I mean, I have a little…

“Name?” Kaland asked, cutting the man off.  

“Pike.” The human’s smile was incredibly wide. He had a boyish charm about him and a shaggy head of reddish brown hair. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, my Lord.”

“No.” Kaland blinked at the misunderstanding. “I’m pleased to meet you as well but I meant the tavern name.”

“Right.” Pike thought for a moment, “I’m not sure it has a name, really. All I know is it sits in front of a broken piece of ship. I think that one’s name is Glory.”

“It’s the tavern name, you moron.” Arden said. “Do you ever stop talking?” Arden said in an exasperated tone. “You have answered the new Lord Archanel’s question. Go on before you’re late for your shift.”

“I’m new.” Pike defended himself, “just because you’ll outlive me several times over, doesn’t mean you need to be rude.”

Arden seemed unimpressed and faced Kaland. “I’m familiar with that one. The name of the tavern is The Downed Glory. Just look for the broken ship.”

“Thank you,” Kaland turned only to be stopped by Arden’s next question.

“Are you sure you want to go alone, My Lord?” The guard sounded worried. “It’s a rough place, even for a human and your a…”

Kaland froze, “I’m a what?”

“A noble, Sir.”

In all his ani on the Silver Isles, he was only allowed to frequent elven owned establishments. His father claimed humans were unpredictable and more likely to kill him by accident. Kaland was a noble by blood and birth even if he sometimes resented it. He never stood guard along the walls of Castle Archanel in the biting cold the way these fellows did night after night. “And yet Darius is there.” He added absently. “I’ll find him and I won’t be alone anymore.” There was so much raw truth lurking in the admission, Kaland could do nothing but leave as quickly as possible.

Once he got to the long bridge leading away from the castle, he broke into a run. By the time he ran through the dimly lit streets to the east harbor, he was soaked with sweat. Kaland ran a hand over his damp, white hair as he entered the tavern. It was exactly as Pike and the elven guard had said it would be, a piece of broken ship hung crudely over the dock close to the tavern but there was no name on the tavern itself.

Inside the tavern, it was crowded and smelled like a combination of human body musk and sweet smoke, like the rolled smokes human’s seemed to enjoy. Kaland had no idea Darius frequented this tavern. Why didn’t he know that? Had their friendship really been so one sided? Kaland felt like a fool as he walked through the crowd.

“What are you doing here?” Darius was suddenly in front of him, arms crossed. “You’re supposed to be getting married.”

“I can’t.” Kaland had to look up because Darius was so much taller. He stood his ground. “I won’t. Not unless you’re there with me.”

The tall elf unfolded his arms and leaned closer. “We’ve spoken about this.” Darius shook his head slowly. “I have to make a living now, Kaland.”

“Yes, I know that!”

Darius tilted his head, somehow even more confused. “Even if I did decide to come back, all the issues I clearly stated before still stand.”

“I want you.” Kaland quickly amended the statement so it didn’t sound like a declaration. “Officially...in an official capacity of some kind.”

Darius glared down at Kaland as if he were doing complicated mathematical equations. “That is ridiculous. Do you know how absurd that sounds?” Humans moved around the pair as if they were invisible. The shoulder bumps didn’t seem to bother Darius one bit.

“Yes,” Kaland agreed, “I know! And I don’t care! You said your place was useless. I want to change that. I can not, will not, do this unless you are right there in the thick of it with me.” Kaland stepped closer and placed a hand on Darius’ shoulder. “You are my brother, Darius.”

“Like a brother, you mean.” Darius said. “Those are two very different things and I can’t support myself on your wishes.”

A waitress stepped between them laden with a tray full of ale mugs. “Oy! You two lovers want a table or a room for the night? We got neither. You can order a round, otherwise stay out of trouble.” She moved on towards a table on the other side of the crowded room.

Darius chuckled and Kaland blushed. Lovers? What kind of tavern was this? “Um, no thank you.” Kaland murmured. He focused his attention on Darius only to find a lean muscled, human male in the space left by the waitress.  

“You owe me money, Darius.” The man put his arms out, “I don’t give my services away for free.”

What was he talking about? What kind of services? Kaland couldn’t comprehend the thought of Darius...and a human doing...he didn’t even know what! He stepped up to the man and felt even shorter than before. The human male was taller than Darius. “How much does he owe?” Kaland touched the man on the shoulder and was immediately shaken off. “I’ll pay it.”

"What?” The two males asked at once.

The human rounded on Kaland. “What’s your problem pointy ears? You can see I got business with the tall one here. And you,” he put a finger in Kaland’s chest, “can see your way out of it.” Someone bumped the man from behind, knocking him into Kaland. “Watch it!” The man exclaimed and a fist came flying towards Kaland’s face. He dodged the brunt of it, the fist connecting with his jaw instead of his nose.

A flash of anger ripped through his body, making all of his senses come to life. Kaland’s fists were in front of him instantly and he dealt a return blow to the man’s nose. A crack sounded somewhere to his left and he heard a river of human noise roll over them like a crashing wave. The tavern erupted in one giant brawl as every patron began pushing against one another. Even the humans who were nowhere near them began fighting! Broken wood, a chair probably, hit his shoulder hard and then Darius was there at his back!

“We should go!” He said taking a stance behind Kaland. Each elf kept two opponents busy as they spoke.

“Why?” Kaland dodged a blow and landed a clean punch to the side of a human’s head. The man fell like a tree only to be replaced by another human. “I was just starting to get comfortable!” He heard Darius laugh and the two elves busied themselves with their fists.

“Crypt Guard!” Someone bellowed. There was a mad rush towards the door as every human forgot their struggle and bolted from the tavern. The Crypt Guards were part of the Silver Isle’s unofficial peace keeping force. To be picked up by them meant days in an uncomfortable, cramped cell beneath the Mirror Crypts.

“What do we do?” Kaland could barely move with the panic of pushing and shoving.

“We leave!” Darius tugged him by the wrist and went the opposite direction from the crowd. Stairs leading upward towards private rooms lined the far wall. Kaland followed Darius to the first room. “Jump!” He never slowed their pace as he headed for the window.

The elves crashed together through rotten wood and glass and rolled into the alley below. “This way!” Darius called over his shoulder. Kaland followed and the pair didn’t stop until they reached the rocky outcroppings overlooking the city.

Light touched the watery horizon and Kaland sat down to stare at it. He’d been out all night and couldn’t bring himself to care. Darius sat next to him wordlessly and produced a bottle of elven spirits. He took a drink and passed it over. “Here.”

Accepting the bottle, Kaland took a generous swig, savoring the delicate sweetness of the beverage. “This is far better than the swill Jhori shoved in my face last night.” He murmured, though that fiery liquid had him drunk enough to get in a great deal of trouble very quickly. Kaland passed the bottle back. “What happens now?”

“We negotiate, I suppose.” Darius rubbed his thumb and forefinger together absently.

“What for?”

“For my contract, of course.” The corner of Darius’ mouth lifted, “you offered me a job, remember.”

It was as if a huge weight lifted from Kaland’s shoulders, he smiled. “I did.”

“I want two thousand silver.” Darius stared at the bottle thoughtfully, “and you never get to ask me what it’s for.”

Was he kidding? “Two thousand silver is an awfully big demand.” Kaland said and watched Darius take another drink.

Nodding, he passed the bottle back. “And I’m not finished making them.” Kaland took the bottle but refrained from drinking, indicating his friend should continue. “I want three hundred silver a season.”

“Three hundred?” Kaland’s eyes went a bit wider. “Why not take a percentage?” He wasn’t against hiring Darius in an official role. It pained him he hadn’t thought of it immediately. “You might end up making more.”

“I might also make less.” He retorted, “your father’s security clients are his own. They will grow thin as soon as he’s no longer in charge because however capable you might be, they will not have the same level of trust in you.” Darius took the bottle back for another drink, “and besides, if I know you, you don’t want his business anyway. You have to make it your own.”

“This is why I need you.” Kaland nodded and then playfully nudged Darius’ shoulder. Darius had a way of analyzing every situation and laying it out from a practical point of view. As far as he was concerned, three hundred silver a season was a bargain. Light from the sunrise stung Kaland’s eyes. “What will I call you? Professional companion?”

Darius made a sour face, “secretary.”

“Adviser.” Kaland amended. “You are officially the adviser to the new Lord Archanel.” He smirked a little, “are you sure you won’t take less than three hundred? It seems to me, when you have too much money, you spend it unwisely.” Darius laughed, even as he blushed and stood up, offering a hand to Kaland. “What was that human fellow’s name, anyway?”

“None of your business.”

Kaland smiled for the first time in he didn’t know how long. It was so good to have Darius back! “None of your business, that’s a strange name!”

His friend chuckled again, “come on then, Lord Archanel. It’s time to face the Curator on the dais and determine your fate.”

“I’ve been thinking about that, actually.” Kaland agreed. “There will be four ladies all claiming to be the lady Angelica. Since I’ve never seen Angelica…” He walked next to Darius as he spoke, “what if I chose the wrong the lady? Her grandfather claims it will devastate her. He said something strange about her delicate nature.” He sighed, “I wish you had been there.”  

Darius hummed, “think about it. Your father had a hand in this from the beginning. He would never leave something like that to chance.”

“I’m not sure I follow your logic.” It was true, each lady in the lineup would have been hand picked by Kaleef but it wasn’t as if the elf could order each lady around.

“I mean he has set himself up to get what he wants no matter the outcome.” Darius explained. “Either you choose Angelica or you choose the wrong girl and she pretends to be Angelica, forcing a marriage with you and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Even if the imposter refuses you, your marriage will still go forward with Angelica by default as long as Angelica allows it. It might hurt your bride’s feelings that you chose poorly, but the choice will have been made.”

“And I’m married no matter what.” Kaland concluded. Unless he could choose the right...wrong girl that would cause his lady to refuse a marriage. It all sounded complicated.

“Your father wins no matter the outcome.” Darius agreed. This was why he needed the clever elf at his side. Kaland wasn’t good at the game of intrigue so many elves loved to play. Nobles were constantly crossing and double crossing one another. It was too hard to keep up. “The only way out of it is a gamble. Angelica might refuse you if you chose poorly. Just make sure the wrong choice is a lady who doesn’t actually want you.” Darius said. “And make sure you choose in a way that will insult your intended lady.”

How was he supposed to do that? Kaland never felt particularly creative when it came to courting women. Maybe offending them would be easier? “I don’t know how to do that.”

“Kiss her.” Darius quipped.

“Angelica?”

“No.” Darius said and waved a hand through the air. “Kiss the wrong girl. Stick your tongue down her throat and kiss her for a long time. Let Angelica try to deal with the shock of jealousy.” He shrugged, “It might work and you won’t have to get married. Thewlian marriage is an outrageous custom anyway.”

The sun was getting higher in the sky as they neared the castle. “I could still run. It’s not too late.” Kaland gestured around as he spoke. “I’m free right now.”

The statement sparked honest laughter from Darius. “And then you wouldn’t be Lord Archanel and I wouldn’t have three hundred silver a season!” He tugged at Kaland’s shoulder and began to jog across the long bridge leading home. “It’s not over until your married!”

“Oh, NOW you’re motivated!” Kaland laughed and pushed at Darius’ shoulder as they jogged.

“Of course!”

***

Kaland hurried down the street alone in his elven finery. He felt ridiculous wearing it. The sleeves came down at a point practically hiding his hands beneath intricate lace, and he could barely move in the red and silver jacket they sewed him into. It was far too tight around his shoulders and chest. Kaland felt as though he couldn’t breathe. Darius had only laughed and remarked about how Kaland missed nearly every fitting appointment for the garment. If it was uncomfortable, it was his own fault.

The sword at his hip felt strange too. At the Downed Glory, he’d fought with his fists and though not as graceful as a sword, brawling felt very natural. It was far more satisfying to punch an opponent in the face than it was to run a sword through his belly. As he neared the steps to the temple, he drew the sword anyway. It would have to do.

The temple was lined with red and silver cloth, little yellow ribbons representing the bride’s family decorated each pillar. Kaland immediately looked in the balcony for Darius. The tall elf was hard to miss and he offered Kaland a silent nod in greeting. Bolstered by that, he moved forward.

"Stop him!” The command came from his father. Kaland had been to a few traditional elven weddings in his time, but none of them used real swords. The fight to the dais was a symbol. It was supposed to be part of the wedding show. Yet here were half a dozen guards approaching him with very non-symbolic, very sharp swords! Kaland recognized a few of them as Castle Archanel guards, including Arden. All were excellent swordsmen.

They pushed forward two at a time, forcing Kaland on the defensive immediately. He danced backward, nearly out of the temple as the first two opponents led a coordinated attack against him. He neatly deflected two blades at once, only to have one opponent’s blade slide down to the hilt of his sword. The zing of the weapon sliding against his own echoed off the walls of the chamber. Something hot and sticky covered the hand holding his sword. Blood. His blood. The sword must have nicked him.

One button, then two, then three popped on his jacket as he deflected the blows of the attackers. The white shirt he wore beneath ripped partially open along with it. The guards surrounded him in a semi-circle, forcing him backward into an intricate floral arrangement. Something snapped in Kaland in that moment. He would not be made a fool of! Flinging a potted plant forward, he hit one guard in the face, causing the pot to shatter loudly. The guard fell backwards. Five opponents left.

Rocking back, he used the momentum to roll forward, tackling the guard in the center and sweeping his legs to the side, tripping another. The tripped guard dropped his sword, effectively removing him from the combat. Four opponents. The elf beneath his grasp was far too close for swordplay. Kaland unceremoniously headbutted the fellow. The guard’s eyes crossed and his head fell backwards. Three left.

Kaland righted himself, peeling off his ruined jacket. Swirling around in a circle, he wrapped the material around the blade of the closest guard, yanking hard. The sword left the elf’s hand and flew across the room. Two left. Arden and another guard squared off against him. Kaland resumed his fighting stance but he was no master when it came to the sword. Arden, he knew from experience, was excellent. He’d save that one for last then. Kaland tilted his head, “Are you trying to kill your new Lord on his wedding day? I’d rather not kill any of you.” Until that moment, he’d assumed the objective was to disarm his opponents.

“I hope not.” Arden replied, “It might reflect poorly on my next performance review.” The two guards moved forward, attacking as one. The attack wasn’t as coordinated as the first pair who challenged him. Arden actually danced sideways to avoid a fallen guard, giving Kaland the opening he wanted.

Slashing first upwards, then down quickly, he nicked the thigh of the guard still attacking him. Contact! Blood stained the guard’s trousers, distracting him only a moment. Boldly reaching forward, Kaland jerked the sword from his opponent’s hand. The blade skittered across the floor and under the feet of several wedding guests.

“I have been disarmed!” The guard declared and backed away from the fight. Good. Just one left.

Arden held his sword in a defensive stance. The two circled one another. Arden was far better with the sword and they both knew it. Still, he’d come so far. How could he possibly give up? Kaland took a step forward.

“STOP!” Both combatants turned towards the speaker. Kaland’s father stepped forward, his red hilted thewlium blade in his hand. “Replacement.” He said to Arden, waiving a hand. Arden immediately fell back in line with the rest of the wedding party. Kaleef gave Kaland a wicked grin. He pointed at his son with the tip of his sword, “No disarmament. I’ll allow for the wound you’ve already suffered. We fight to first blood.”

“Last blood!” Kaland growled and moved in like a madman, attacking his new opponent with abandon! The zing of metal echoed off the walls as the two danced around one another. His father proved he was still a very graceful fighter, making Kaland’s offense became defense. Every parry was met with a second attack as Kaleef slashed in a downward spiral of his sword. Moreover, Kaleef was a fresh, rested opponent. Kaland wasn’t sure he could beat him.

They circled again as his father lunged forward, forcing Kaland back. His lower back hit a pew and Kaland heard wedding guests gasping behind him. Their swords locked together as his father leaned in, pinning Kaland to the spot with his sword. Kaland protected his body with his blade, his eyes darting around for a pathway of escape.

Both of Kaleef’s hands held the red hilt of his sword and the elf growled. No. Kaland realized it wasn’t a growl but a moan of pain. His father was injured. Where? Kaland kicked out hard with his foot, planting his boot in Kaleef’s side. It gave him the leverage he needed to push an attack. This time Kaland didn’t bother with swordplay. He turned his sword upright, using the hilt as if it were his fist and landed a blow to Kaleef’s jaw. The elf stumbled backwards as Kaland hit him again and again until he went down, flat on his back!

Kaland felt wild with anger. Every pent up frustration he had was emptied into the blows. Pulling back, he meant to take one more. Only he didn’t. Kaleef...his father...was smiling. His father’s teeth were red with blood and the elf was smiling! “Most. Valuable Asset.” He whispered.

“No.” Kaland said, understanding the goal of this particular game. His father was sick according to Gracia. His days were numbered. What better way for a war hero to be remembered and pass the family legacy off to Kaland than by being murdered by his own son in a spirited wedding spar? Unacceptable. “You will not die by my hand.” He lowered his voice and whispered, “after today, the next time I see you will be on your deathbed.” Kaland grabbed Kaleef by the collar and pulled the elf up close, “now watch me burn it to the ground, Father.” Releasing Kaleef, he pushed himself away, even as his father laughed, an act that caused thick, black blood to spew across the white floor of the temple.

For a moment, he stood there gripping the sword in his hand and breathing heavy. “Ahem.” A male voice cleared their throat behind him. Kaland turned around slowly. The wedding was still going on. He’d almost forgotten in his blind rage to beat his father. The temple guests were so deathly quiet, Kaland might as well have been standing there alone.

The path forward was very clear. No one moved forward to challenge him. He stalked ahead, moving to the foot of the dais. “Announce yourself.” A curator wearing long, white robes challenged him. “Who are you and why are you here?”

Throwing the sword to the side with a loud clang, Kaland ignored the curator’s inquiry. This would be the part where the elf to be wed declared he was here for his lady. Well, fuck that in its ass! If he were going to do this, it would be done his way! He paused after taking a few of the steps, taking a moment to look at the masked ladies at the top. Only one was trembling, her knuckles stark white from being clenched so tightly. That was his Angelica. He blinked at the realization that he could still take his chances and pick the wrong girl.

“My name is Kaland Archanel!” He shouted as he marched up the steps with his torn, bloody shirt open to the waste and his black boots scuffed. “Which of you is brave enough to be my lady?” He declared.

“I am!” One of the women took a bold step forward. The room was utterly silent as she spoke, “I am the Lady Angelica.”

“I am the Lady Angelica.” Said the next girl to step forward. Kaland could see through that lie. The first lady was still staring hard at him from behind a gold mask. He could see her fierce eyes and deep crimson hair. Of course his father would have chosen this lady. She seemed ambitious. But she was not Angelica.

“I am the Lady Angelica.” The next girl stepped forward and her voice quaked. This was not his lady either, though he got the impression she was worried, probably about being accidentally selected. If he wanted a way out, that was his best bet. This lady would never accept him. It wasn’t a guarantee. After Lord Denerick explained how sensitive his granddaughter could be though, Angelica might reject him if he picked this lady. Darius’ advice had been to kiss this lady rough and long with the hopes of offending his intended bride to the point of rejection. It might work.

From the corner of his eye, he saw someone waving encouragement at the last girl. She took a very slight step forward and Kaland moved to stand in front of her. He could hear her panicked breathing behind her golden mask. The eye holes were large, revealing the most beautiful green eyes he’d ever seen and wisps of golden hair cascaded down her back. “I...I am Lady Angelica.” She said timidly.

Kaland was transfixed. The hesitation about what he should do vanished. This lady was no longer his mother’s choice. He realized in that moment, the choice was his. He could do nothing but reach forward and take her hands in his. He drew her forward. “Yes you are.” Her hands were thin and cold as he held them. She said nothing and Kaland watched her eyes glass over with unshed tears.

“Master Curator,” Kaland hadn’t looked away from Angelica. The other women left the stage and she shakily removed her mask. Sweet Current, but she was beautiful. No wonder Jhori was so merciless with her teasing. She knew Kaland was getting to marry the most beautiful girl on the Silver Isles. “I have found her.” His anxiety melted away like frost in the sunshine and he found himself smiling as if they weren’t in a room full of wedding guests.

“Yes, that’s all fine, My Lord. There are protocols to be followed, you know.” The Curator sounded annoyed, “you must say the words.”

“You are my lady.” Kaland’s tone was conversational. Fuck the guests if they couldn’t hear. The most important person was listening. “Today and always.” He lifted her delicate fingers to his lips quietly, delighted when she gave him a nervous smile. For the first time he realized this lady would become the cornerstone of his universe. Kaland was always terrible at expressing his feelings. There had to be a way he could show her how pleased he was. “I’m leaving.” He said softly, “Do you want to come with me?”

“What about the cake, the guests…” Angelica spoke so quietly, he doubted anyone else could hear her. There was a shyness to her that had nothing to do with her being the center of attention. In all his rebellion over getting married, Kaland had never once considered the bride. Had she been as reluctant?  Was she pleased with him? He’d never been particularly skilled at talking to ladies but for the one he’d just claimed, he would learn.

“What about them?” Kaland said. He still hadn’t given anyone else in the room a second glance. How could he when the one he came for, Angelica, was standing right in front of him?

“Oh…” She smiled shyly, “the cake is probably poisoned anyway.”

“It is.” Kaland confirmed and offered her his arm. Murder Cake was part of the elven tradition his father insisted on. “The cook in Castle Archanel makes excellent butter cake.” Maybe it was rude to leave the temple and all the wedding guests behind but Kaland barely knew any of them. “Would you like me to show you?”

“I would,” Angelica’s smile slowly turned into a blush. He’d never seen anything so lovely. He didn’t understand how Angelica’s proximity could affect him so strongly, yet here he was, unable to stop staring. His mind sparked with curiosity as he realized he wanted to discover every one of her secrets. Impulsively, Kaland moved forward, ignoring the fluttering in his belly and swept her into his arms. She gasped in surprise and then covered her mouth as she giggled. He liked that sound too and vowed to make her do it again as he carried her down the steps of the temple. Angelica’s arms went around his neck, “What are you doing?”

“Leaving.” Kaland smiled brightly at his bride. She obviously hadn’t expected to be spirited from the temple. “I was never very good at parties anyway.”  

Unintelligible murmurs rolled over the crowd as confusion set in. “That boy…” He heard his mother say. The sound of Darius’ laughter echoed off the walls, of course his companion would be entertained by all this.

Jhori’s fingers went to either side of her mouth and she whistled loudly. “Go on then!” She shouted over the rest of the murmuring guests. Most of the them sounded confused. Was the party still on if the married couple was leaving? He ignored it. His mother might never forgive him but he was done doing what other people wanted. He would steadily dismantle his father’s business and create his own in its place. The far more competent Jacobs would be elevated to the captain if his guard, among other changes. If his father wanted him to take the reins of the family, he’d lead them in a direction he was passionate about.

Tomorrow or the day after he’d start making changes. This was his house now and his family. His father’s security empire would evolve into something far more ambitious. But that could all wait until he knew the woman in his arms better!

***

Epilogue

Two thousand silver translated to a note in his pocket instead of the heavy bag Darius would have liked. If someone asked him when he was a child if he thought he’d end up this lucky as an adult, the answer would have been absolutely not. The afternoon breeze blew hair into his face as he gazed at the east side building. It was almost long enough to draw back into a ponytail or even a braid. Darius hadn’t known that luxury under Kaleef’s leadership. But his new role as official adviser to the Archanels meant he needed to look more like an elven noble. That meant allowing his hair to grow.

“Do you want the current tenants removed?” The same tall human from the tavern brawl stood next to Darius in the middle of the dirty street. The man’s head was shaved down to stubble all over his scalp making an otherwise handsome face appear hard and rugged.

This was what two thousand silver paid for on the Silver Isles, a down payment on an old building with poor tenants. “What?” Darius turned his head towards the man before registering the question. “No.” he said shaking his head, “no, let them all stay.”

“And if they don’t pay?” The man slid a small wooden stick into the corner of his mouth and began chewing on it. The human had been paid small sums of money to report on the tenants of this building for a while. Rhody had always been reliable, if not costly. Too bad humans had such regrettably short lives. The man would need to be replaced in twenty or so ani.

Slowly, Darius turned to face him. His answer needed to be carefully worded otherwise Rhody wouldn’t assume Darius was just another noble looking to exploit the east side.  “Come to me first. I’ll want the whole story in all its sad detail. Use a messenger, of course.” When the man would have argued, he added, “there’s a manager’s apartment on the ground floor. It’s big enough for a family should you chose to have one.”

The man scoffed, “is that what’s lurking behind those walls?” He indicated the building with a tip of his head, “fathered a little noble bastard, did you?” Rhody grinned, “and here I thought you preferred similar fruit.” His gaze raked over Darius but it was hard to tell if the man were being roguish or judgmental.

As if he’d ever be tempted to shit where he ate. Darius hadn’t survived living among nobility by being careless. “I’m an elf.” He said, and his shoulders shrugged as if that explained everything. If Rhody wanted to think Darius had an unwanted child he was providing for, so be it. As long as no one ever found out the truth. “Do you want to get paid to manage this building or not?”

“Of course I do.” Rhody scowled, “I’d be a fool not to.”

“Good.” Darius clapped the man in the shoulder. “I’ll speak with you again soon. When I do I want to hear all about the occupants here.” He was only interested in one family but if he zeroed in on them, Rhody might use the information against him one day. Or worse, sell it to someone who wanted to use it against Kaland’s family. He’d never allow that. “Find out who lives in the adjacent buildings as well.” And then added, “I might expand my investment eventually; I want to know what I’m dealing with.” Another lie but Rhody already wore a greedy expression. Good.

A elven woman and a young boy walked out of the front door. Fuck the Current. She would never recognize him but he had to get out of there just in case someone else saw him staring. She looked exactly like their mother. Darius had been planning to introduce himself to her before Kaland made him the offer. Then everything changed. As far as he could tell, his estranged sister lived here with a husband and a son, his nephew, he supposed. She had no idea Darius existed. For her safety and the safety of her family, he’d make sure it stayed that way. That didn’t mean he couldn’t honor their mother by caring for her from a distance. Darius threw his cowl over his head and headed into the long shadows and down the street.

***

End