A bit longer than usual, this one.
Lord Mallinâ€™s court was in absolute disarray. The perfect right angles and glowing stone walls, inhumanly smooth, created an unpleasant contrast to the chaos that had disturbed the perfect clockwork order that the lord preferred within the hall. The Fool was hiding in a corner, frantically trying to appear as though he were of no more interest than a potted plant. Sands was pacing back and forth, her dress leaving trails of grit in her wake, which a pair of mortal servants scurried to catch. On his throne, Mallin was shouting out orders to his hobgoblins. â€œSearch the Esterwoods! I want that intruder found! I want the Grey brought here! What is that cat? WHERE IS THE INTRUDER?â€
â€œRight here.â€ The twin doors, each a foot thick and formed of single blocks of marble, swung inwards. The stranger strode through, his boots clicking on the stone in the sudden silence. Behind him, Little Ghost advanced cautiously, her eyes wide as she looked around the room. â€œLord Mallin Name-Taker, I presume?â€
â€œYes.â€ Mallinâ€™s eyes narrowed, and he glared down at the intruder. â€œWho are you, stranger, and what brings you to the Garnet Court?â€
â€œHousehold.â€ The stranger examined his fingernails. â€œFour nobles do not a court make, no matter the commoners that youâ€™ve gathered to your dubious banner.â€
â€œI will not be lectured in my court, intruder.â€ Mallinâ€™s eyes were slits, and rage boiled from him like a fog. â€œI ask a second time. Who are you?â€
â€œShhh.â€ The stranger put a finger to his lips. â€œListen.â€
For a moment, Mallin was so enraged that he couldnâ€™t find words. Into that silence came the cry of a hunting cat. If the court had been quiet before, now it was as still as a painting.
The wall exploded inwards, and a stag spilled onto the ground before the stranger. A human woman stepped through the wall, lithe and thin, with simple clothes, an impish gaze, and a predatorâ€™s smile. She nodded to the intruder, who looked down at the stag.
â€œAh, the Grey.â€
The stag shifted as it twisted, until the Grey knelt on the ground, bloodied and battered. He did not look up.
â€œI take it that the hunt did not go well.â€ There was faint amusement in the strangerâ€™s words.
â€œNo.â€ The word was simple and short, and the intruder nodded.
â€œAnd what did you learn? Did you find your time as prey exhilarating? Was it full of glory?â€
â€œGood.â€ The stranger smiled. â€œYou were beaten. We could have killed you, as you have killed so many weaker than you. What glory is there in destroying lives and devouring souls?â€
Here, the Grey looked up. â€œThere is none.â€ He paused. â€œThere is no meaning to the hunt.â€
Murmurs filled the court. For the Grey to admit this, they thought, was to go against his nature. Unless they had failed to grasp what his nature was. The stranger, however, simply smiled again. â€œAnd if we were to spare you, Grey? To offer you a place in our court, to defend the innocent and do battle with those who would render this world an empty husk?â€
Mallin sprang to his feet. â€œThe Grey is my vassal, intruder! You may not have him!â€
â€œYou?â€ The intruder finally turned back to the throne. â€œYou are nothing. You are less than nothing. A contemptible leader, a pathetic excuse for a raksha. Why, the least child could destroy you.â€ He gestured absently. â€œLittle Ghost here would be more than a match for you.â€
â€œRidiculous. If you have such confidence, stranger, back up your words.â€ Mallin stepped from the throne, drawing the daiklave formed of right angles and ill-spoken words that he always carried.
The stranger nodded. He turned to Little Ghost, lowering his voice. â€œAs we discussed. I know that you have this strength.â€ Reaching back, he slipped his left hand into a fold in his cloak, drawing forth and dagger and handing it to her. â€œProve me right.â€
Mallin stopped, his face purpling. â€œWhat is this?â€
The stranger stepped backwards, his hands behind his back. â€œI told you. The least child can destroy you, Mallin. Unless you are afraid of her?â€
â€œPah! I will cut her down first, and you second!â€ Mallin raised his sword, starting forwards. Little Ghost took a deep breath, walking forwards to meet him. With a contemptuous snarl, he brought his sword down towards her, slamming it against her paltry knife.
Where it promptly shattered, sending insults and thoughts careening across the hall. Mallin stared at his shattered hilt for a moment. In that instant, Little Ghost closed her eyes and stabbed forwards with all of her strength. The dagger passed through his armour like water, driving deep into his heart. She let go, looking almost as surprised as him, and stepped backwards as he staggered away, looking down at it. He looked up at the stranger in shock. â€œIronâ€¦â€
â€œTreated iron.â€ The strangerâ€™s voice was soft. â€œWhat use your stolen names now, Mallin? What strength do you have when the simplest child may lay hand on the tools to destroy you.â€
â€œI know you nowâ€¦â€ Mallin fell to one knee. â€œYou are the traitor. You are Silverâ€™s Hand.â€ With that last gasp, he collapsed to the floor, blood staining the floor in perfect arcs. The court stared, horrified.
â€œSilverâ€™s Hand.â€ Sands couldnâ€™t keep the fear from her voice. â€œThe pawn of the Lunars, the leader of the Silver Court.â€
â€œOne and the same.â€ Silverâ€™s Hand smiled brightly.
â€œThey say you have destroyed over fifty freeholds.â€
â€œOver sixty, in fact. It would be more, but nobles donâ€™t like talking to me.â€ Silverâ€™s Hand turned his attention back to the Grey. â€œWell, Grey? Will you join my crusade? It means war with our fellows, but it is a cause worth dying for.â€
There was a pause, and then the Grey stood. â€œMy spear will be the bane of those who seek to abuse our power over the mortals, my lord. Every tyrant will rue the day you spared my life.â€
â€œThen I accept your fealty.â€ Silverâ€™s Hand looked to the court. â€œLeave this place. Spread the word, as it has been spread before. We will never stop hunting those who feed from human souls.â€ Given their opening, the court scattered before this horrible lord should change his mind. Within moments, only Silverâ€™s Hand, the woman, the Grey, and Little Ghost remained, along with the mortals who had been serving the edges. Silverâ€™s Hand turned back to the others. â€œWe will have to recover the rest of the slaves here, of course. But first â€“ titles are good, but not enough. I have taken the title of Silverâ€™s Hand, but I am Alakazar first. What is your name, Grey?â€
â€œGwydion, my lord.â€ Gwydion bowed his head. â€œGwydion of the Grey.â€
â€œA strong name.â€ Alakazar turned to leave. â€œLetâ€™s get these people out of here, and home.â€
â€œWhat about me, lord?â€ There was a pause. Alakazar turned back to Little Ghost, in some surprise.
â€œWellâ€¦ we will take you home, of course. What else for such a hero?â€ He smiled, but she did not.
â€œI donâ€™t have a home. Mallin destroyed it. He killed everyone except me.â€
For a moment, Alakazar simply stared. The woman stepped in. â€œWell, then, youâ€™ll just have to come and stay with us.â€ She smiled. â€œIf youâ€™d like.â€
Little Ghost looked at her, and at the lord, and then nodded solemnly. â€œIâ€™d like that a lot.â€
â€œWell, then.â€ As the four started walking, Alakazar nodded again. â€œIf youâ€™re going to be a member of my court, small one, you will need a proper name. Do you remember it?â€
â€œMillia, lord.â€ She paused. â€œBut I donâ€™t have an adult-name.â€
â€œAn adult-name?â€ Alakazar raised an eyebrow, and Millia nodded.
â€œWhen we turn 13, we get our adult-names from the priest. It shows how weâ€™ve changed since we were born. My mother was Smiling Jairi, because she spread joy around her. Or my uncle, Firehammer Haver, who was already apprenticed to be a smith because of how he loved it.â€ Millia paused. â€œBut I didnâ€™t get one. It was my naming-day when Lord Mallin attacked our town. He said he liked taking my naming-day away.â€
â€œHmph.â€ Alakazar shook his head. â€œSo petty. Well, I am not a priest, but I may just be qualified to give a name. If you will allow it.â€ He stopped, kneeling and looked Millia in the eyes. â€œYou have passed through the shadow of death, Millia. You were Little Ghost, who died, and now you have been born anew through your own bravery and deeds. You are Twice-Breathing Millia, the girl who lives again.â€
Twice-Breathing Millia smiled tentatively, testing its feel. Then she nodded. â€œThank you, my lord.â€
â€œIt was the least I could do.â€ Alakazar stood, taking the childâ€™s hand. â€œCome. We have people to save, and then we can go home.â€