For thousands of years, the city of Aynithral had nestled, safe and secure, beneath the living rock. No enemy had come to the city in all that time; no hostile force had ever threatened the heart of the Kingdom of Jisani.

Well, they had come now, and the oldest city of all the Crandil race was in chaos.

Not even the deepest tunnels of the Deep of Rod and Crown – the Palace, the humans called it – were empty of fighting, save for the very secret passages that only a handful of Crandil ever knew.

Only one knew them now, and by the exit of such a one he crouched. All about him was darkness, but that was no great barrier for his race; the deep, dark places had long been their home. Light gave life to their crafts-folk and made the jobs of workmen many times easier, but for something so simple as navigating a passageway at a slow walk, there was no need of it. And he had walked these unseen halls so often, his feet would know the way even if he shut his eyes and folded his ears back and in all ways closed his senses from the world; his stride was all he needed to measure his path.

Now, though, his large, dark eyes were open as he crouched by a pair of tiny openings in the wall, openings covered by crystalline lenses and, for years, backed by a matte-painted cover of the fibrous koti fungus – the towering things that served for the Crandil as trees did for the surface races; simple, unremarkable, tough, yet easy enough to work. Easy to make into simple shapes, easy enough to paint to match the surroundings of those two small holes. Light shone from the corridor beyond, the bright glare of oil lanterns, and for a moment he feared the gleam of his eyes might give him away; but those lenses had been carefully planned, and any sparkle from his eyes would be just like that of the gemmed mosaic he crouched behind.

Figures passed by – mostly humans garbed for war, but at least one Crandil was among them, speaking with the humans – and the slighter figure of an elf – in a language of the surface. Speaking as equals. He knew the language well enough, but it was muffled; he could only make out fragments of what they said. They were searching – searching for prisoners; that much was plain, as much from who they were as from what they said.

The group passed his hiding spot without anyone giving it a second glance.

He took a breath. They would be back. Perhaps they didn’t know, or perhaps they were being thorough; but down the way they had gone was only a single lounging chamber. It was lavish, and it was deliberately remote, such that its occupants would not be troubled by the daily bustle of the Deep, by servants – attendant on their masters, or alone – trooping about in the hall. The hidden passage connected here for the same reason, as it did to other such distant places, and to a few similarly distant back alleys in the city itself: it was not likely to be a thoroughfare, so one who sought to move covertly could generally do so.

So the group of invaders would be back, probably soon.

He drew another breath, and trembled like a kit on hearing the rock’s groaning moods for the first time.

He did not know – could not know – what fate these people had in mind for their prisoners. Perhaps such captives would rot in prison for the rest of their meagre lives. Perhaps they would be held for a time, then put to death, examples in the old regime’s fall Perhaps none such as he would be taken prisoner after all, but killed on the spot.

He shuddered. Perhaps his head would soon decorate the gates of the Deep.

But what choice did he have? Down this route lay uncertainty, but every other option he considered lead inexorably to his death.

For a moment his eyes closed, and a face came to his mind. A face first bright with promise, then twisted and broken by agony.

If he died, he could never set things right.

At least this way, he had a chance. Even if they killed him, at least he would have tried.

His deep-drawn breath slipped out of him at last. He shut the peephole and instead fingered a nearby catch. The whole panel of wall swung away under the weight of his hand; he clambered into the hallway proper, and behind him, the weight of the mosaic on its carefully-wrought hinges pulled it back flush with the wall.

The click as the latch took was soft – but not soft enough. Around the bend to his right, where the throng had gone, he heard a sharp hiss – a Crandil cry of alarm. Hurried discussion; then four humans sidestepped into view, two with swords, two with bows drawn.

He knew what they saw. His clothing was fine – an elaborate wrap of deep green cloth trimmed with red and gold, swathed about him in a number of different loops and, indeed, individual pieces, all surmounted by a red-lined gold cloak, clasped with a silver brooch that held a large oval sapphire. Beneath it, he was, essentially, what people thought of when they thought of Crandil: no higher than chest-high to a human man, though his triangular ears might go up to that human man’s collarbone; a pointed muzzle that the surface races had compared to that of a fox or jackal; a slender plume of tail longer than he was tall, now darting anxiously behind him; a slim frame covered, where the clothes didn’t conceal, by short, dense fur that in his case was unspoiled black; large brown eyes that shone green in the light of their lamps.

He held his hands up and to his sides, to show that he bore no weapon; it called attention to his silvered claws, but those were ornamental, too short and blunt to do much damage , and he didn’t hold them at the ready.

“Someone here,” one of the swordsmen called back. “Looks like a noble. Alone, unarmed.”

Around the corner there was a hurried conference, then several more figures rounded the bend. The first two were human, both men – one wore armour of metal scales, bore an ornate longsword in one hand and a shield with some fanciful beast painted on it in the other, so much steel that it bent the lone Crandil’s senses and made his head hurt to behold; the other wore only cloth robes, and though he too held a short sword, it was held low and, curiously for a human, in his left hand; his right was held up as though to touch something just in front of him, though there was nothing there.

The third was another Crandil, cinnabar red and garbed in bronze ring mail, with the sturdier build of a female – and the topaz circlet of a willworker.

He could not recall ever seeing her before, but the moment she laid eyes on him, she hissed again, ears pinning back. “Jisarr!”

“The king?” exclaimed the man in scale. “But he’s a boy!”

Jisarr swallowed his pride, though he did automatically stand up a bit straighter, trying to make the most of his height. True, he was a young man; true, he looked even younger, like an adolescent. And this human had obviously spent much time among Crandil, to see those cues. But he had greater worries than being thought a youth. Such as: if this man knew Crandil so well, how would he treat the very head of state he had come to depose?

His willworker companion, her fur bristling and tail lashing and fangs bared, certainly didn’t seem likely to recommend clemency.

“The crown did change heads not many years back, Sir Jansen,” the robed human pointed out. “The old king wasn’t very old, so neither would even his eldest child be.”

“Blast. That had slipped my mind,” Sir Jansen admitted – under his breath, but loud enough for Crandil ears.

Jisarr forced himself to draw a breath – that was hard enough, with the weapons levelled at him; steel, mind-magic, and the one in robes was probably a wizard. It was harder still to put that breath to words. “Your sharp-eared companion has the right of it; I am Jisarr.” He considered the many titles that had been piled upon him, but none seemed to be worth the effort of speaking them. “So was my father, and his mother.”

Sir Jansen’s hand flexed on his sword hilt. “Come to talk terms at the eleventh hour, have you?”

Jisarr swallowed.

This was the moment of truth.

From this point on, there could be no going back. His next words would strike the support, and bring that tunnel crashing down behind him.

“No,” he croaked, and swallowed again, trying to bring moisture to his mouth, trying to still his trembling, trying to keep in check the terror that welled in him. “I have come to surrender myself. If you wish to talk terms, you will need the Deep Dukes, but I can’t imagine them giving in even now. Not even if the city comes crashing down on their tails.”

“You… surrender?”

“For what that’s worth, yes.” Jisarr tried to restrain his bitterness. People were dying by the score – his people, and no doubt humans as well – and all he had was the certain knowledge that he couldn’t stop it from happening. “I…” He considered kneeling, humbling himself to give some credence to his next words, but this hall was hardly the place for any ceremony. “I crave the mercy of your people. But,” he stressed, “my surrender is without condition.”

If they wanted to kill him, well, better a quick cut with a sword than what the Dukes would do to him for saying these words.

Jansen seemed to have reached a conclusion. “You’re a figurehead?” he exclaimed.

He had reached a conclusion, but was it correct? Jisarr thought a moment, but though he was familiar with the language and could make himself understood, some idioms still escaped him. “I don’t know what that means,” he admitted, and that, more than anything so far, shamed him enough to make him lower his gaze.

“They don’t have boats,” the probably-a-wizard pointed out. “But, Sir Jansen, this hall – ”

“Isn’t the place for this. You’re right, Hawk. Rima, can you subdue him?”

“Watch me,” the willworker snarled, and the threat brought Jisarr’s attention back upwards. He saw the rage in her eyes, heard her growl as she started toward him, and he quailed.

But a hand blocked her way, brown fingers spread, the sleeve of a grey robe trailing. “Leave that to me,” said the man called Hawk.

She glared up at him. “You dare -!”

“Contain your rage,” he snapped, and suddenly the patience was gone from his voice. “If he’s lying, or wrong, he can stop a good deal of further bloodshed. If he’s right, it’s doubtful he deserves your ire. Either way, I’ll not have you damaging him.” The man started forward, reversing his sword and slipping it into a scabbard. “He’s far too valuable and prominent a prisoner for that.”

Jisarr knew little of the wizard’s art, but he knew their favoured binding. He lifted his head – not in pride, but to bare his neck.

“You will shall not run from us,” the man breathed, his fingertips tracing around Jisarr’s neck in patterns that only a wizard could fathom, leaving an odd tingling sensation in their wake. “You shall not call out save when directed to do so. You shall not communicate with anyone in means that you do not know humans can interpret. You shall speak honestly. You shall not attempt to do any harm save that strictly necessary to preserve your life. And so – ” For a moment the air seemed heavy, a sudden pressure all around him; a circle around his neck sizzled with heat, cold, pressure, and a bit of pain, all at once.

“So you are bound,” Hawk concluded. “So it is done.”

Jisarr sagged. This was it, then. He was marked. He couldn’t see it, but had seen it done often enough that he knew the sort of magical collar that was around him now.

The wizard could have spoken the conditions in some other tongue, or even not said them at all. Perhaps his saying them so Jisarr could hear and understand was a courtesy of sorts. A willworker could put a more subtle compulsion in place, could guide someone’s thoughts so that they would comply, and without the visible mark; this collar, should he try to violate its conditions, would simply give him agony – and it wasn’t necessary that he know those conditions in advance.

Metal jangled, some distance off, the sound rebounding along the passages; in spite of himself, he found his ears canting toward the sound. It was probably too soft yet for a human to hear, but Hawk lifted his head. “A runner comes,” he announced. “From Captain Dreyvus.”

By this point the rest of Sir Jansen’s unit had formed up, fifteen strong including the knight, the wizard, and the Crandil willworker. They took no chances; the archers nocked arrows, the swordsmen held their blades at the ready. But it was, indeed, a single elven courier, armoured in hides and with a short sword at her hip, moving at a steady lope that one might keep up for some time.

“The Captain’s compliments, Sir,” she called to Sir Jansen as she came to a halt, handing over a message tube. “He requests the aid of your wizard – ” here she bowed to Hawk, who inclined his head in acknowledgement – “for there are locks and wards in the deepest vault that Ariel lacks the skill to open.”

The deepest vault?

The wards on the treasury were fairly simple things, as Jisarr understood it – the main barrier there was and always had been the presence of guards. Too many things checked in and out of the treasury on a daily basis, none of them valuable enough on their own to warrant the effort of strong wards. But the treasury was higher up. If she meant another vault, somewhere else entirely…

Sir Jansen opened the tube, cracked the seal on the scroll inside, and gave it the briefest of scans before rolling it back up. “Very good. The deepest vault, huh? I’m sure the Captain will be in good spirits – especially once he learns of our own acquisition.” He gestured toward Jisarr.

Something about that wave of his hand – that not-quite-but-almost-property assertion – tripped something in Jisarr’s mind.

The deepest vault.

It had to be the same place he’d hoped to head, hoped to avoid some sort of atrocity at.

“It isn’t a vault,” he said.

Heads turned toward him.

“What do you mean?” Sir Jansen demanded, but the willworker – Rima – cut him off.

“He lies!” she snarled, tail lashing. “He’s just trying to keep us away from – ” But, once again, Hawk’s gesture silenced her.

“If he lied, he’d be writhing on the floor right now,” the wizard said in a deceptively gentle tone. Then he turned his attention back to his captive. “What do you mean?”

“I saw the doors myself, Sirs,” the courier piped in. “Massive blocks of stone, with locks more intricate than any I’ve ever seen – great dials with designs all around them.”

“It isn’t a vault,” Jisarr repeated, his gut clenching with dread and shame; he stared at the smooth stone of the floor. “Not in the usual sense. Anything behind those doors is valuable, true – but it’s people, not things, kept there.”

“A prison!”

“Something between.” Jisarr licked his lips. Another face swam before his mind’s eye, one not so much younger than himself. One with an expression of hope that melted inexorably into terror.

He swallowed hard. It was all he could do to keep standing.

“I don’t know what’s in all of the cells. Most may be empty; they often are. But I can open some of them, and I know at least one of those is occupied.”

“Come on,” Sir Jansen growled. “At the double! Rima, with me. Marek, grab him!”

Jisarr yelped in surprise as one of the swordsmen heaved him off his feet, but did not struggle; he twisted around only enough to cling to the burly human’s arm as the entire party started running. Rima was clinging to Sir Jansen’s shoulders and looking even less happy than before – and small wonder; even the swordsman Marek was wearing enough iron and steel to warp Jisarr’s sense of the space around him, to twist it so that the walls seemed all bent out of shape, though his eyes said they were rushing by quite straight indeed; Sir Jansen was more heavily armoured still.

“What sort of prisoners?” Hawk’s voice demanded, level and clear, though the man himself was huffing as he ran; a little glamour.

Were he standing, Jisarr would have shrugged. “What would you say is our most valuable sort of person in war?”

“The mind-mages,” Sir Jansen panted.

Close enough; Jisarr didn’t protest the errant appellation. Now was really not the time.

“So those cells are where the troublesome ones are kept? And anyone else too valuable to get rid of?”

“Not troublesome, no.” Jisarr swallowed against a sudden surge of bile. In that moment he wanted nothing more than to curl up and hide from the world. But he forced himself to keep going. These people needed to be ready for what awaited them, for the full truth of it. “How much do you know about how they are born?”

“I thought the talent arose randomly,” Hawk supplied, “as does that for other sorts of magic.”

“Not quite. As I understand it, from some disharmony, the gift kills a man’s seed, renders women barren – ”

“Which doesn’t give you the right to use them in your harem!” Rima hissed, the touch of iron adding an even more surly note to her voice.

“Freia, Luka, and Semarr aren’t there as sterile concubines,” Jisarr shot back. “Your tutors didn’t tell you everything about how you came to be. Listen and learn.”

A few moments passed as the group rounded several bends in a row. Once the jangle of metal had settled some, Jisarr went on. “Some few of them can breed. When they do, they do without trouble; what not many are told is that the gift breeds true, and only once in several generations does the gift manifest in someone who didn’t inherit it. So those who can breed… do. The reason I can open their cells is that it has long been royal prerogative to have the first option with them.”

They had entered tighter corridors now; the group slowed down. Rima dropped from Sir Jansen’s shoulders, shuddered a moment, and started padding along on her own; after a brief query, and confirmation from Jisarr that he could and would keep up, he, too, was set down. Running was a small price to pay for being a bit farther away from the world-distorting touch of iron and steel.

“Why do you have that option?” Hawk enquired, speaking normally now.

“The willworkers are seen as the kingdom’s greatest strength,” Jisarr said, and again bitter bile crept into his voice. “They are…” No, best not to finish the thought that way, not with Rima already willing to flay him at first chance. Things would change, now. “They have not been free people; from birth they are – were – bound to serve the nation. The royal family is the quintessence of the kingdom. Infusing those who serve with the very symbol of our people – well. To someone it made sense. I was able to use it, anyway, to keep those three in comfortable quarters and comfortable lives.”

“Bearing child after child?” Sir Jansen’s voice was grim.

Surprisingly, Rima was the one to speak up. “Crandil kits are not so large to their mothers as human babes,” she said, and if she sounded reluctant to follow the thought, she did so anyway. “Even with two or three, our births are not so perilous and not nearly so painful.” She glanced over her shoulder at Jisarr. “I must admit, though I of course haven’t gone through it myself, constant maternity doesn’t seem so bad as that, compared to some of the places willworkers must be and the things we must do. And…” A sigh. “Better the seraglio than a cell.”

“I could not do any such thing,” Jisarr finished, “for a man whose seed is found to quicken. Not even a queen could keep any such to herself.”

They were near the deep cells, now, and it was most certainly the place Jisarr had thought.

“So… what’s in here is…” Sir Jansen trailed off.

Which left it to Hawk to finish, “A stud male.” His cool, dry tone wasn’t quite clean of the contempt on his face.

“That’s… that’s vile,” the knight growled.

Jisarr shuddered, and again forced down the urge to vomit.

They hadn’t even seen the full of it yet. The entirety of the fate to which Jisarr, in full knowledge, had sent a young man whose only crime was in conceiving a child.

They passed a checkpoint that the invaders had set up. There was so much iron around that Jisarr’s head was spinning; Rima was equally miserable, as was the single Crandil captive the detachment held there, a relatively big, blue-furred female, a number of scars marring the lay of fur about her muzzle and ears.

“It’s no use,” another elven woman was saying. “I can’t force her to do it; it’s just too complicated a task. Even with a brief refusal, the pain could honestly drive the combination from her recollection.”

The jailer – treasurer? – the warden spat curses and empty threats in the Crandil tongue, full of vitriol.

“Well,” said a big man in enough steel plate to warp an entire room by himself, “help has arrived. Sir Jansen! You’ve brought the inestimable Hawk with you, good; and made good time as well!”

“And I come with mixed tidings, Captain,” the knight said, saluting, and receiving one in turn, but standing on no further formality. “At least one of these ‘vaults’,” he gestured at the heavy stone doors around the big, low-ceilinged room, “is home to a living person.”

The man in plate blanched. “I’ve seen inside a few of them,” he breathed. “They’re hardly big enough to qualify as a cell, even for the small folk.” He gave a respectful nod to Rima, and turned questioning eyes to Jisarr. Questioning, then disbelieving.

Sir Jansen followed that gaze. “Let’s… put our unwilling assistant elsewhere for now, Captain.” Oh so casually, he moved to stand between Jisarr and the warden as she was chivvied out of the antechamber, a half-dozen soldiers in tow.

Only when the door was shut did Sir Jansen pull Jisarr forward and continue. “This information comes by way of an unexpected windfall, Captain,” he said, a grim smile touching his face. “I have the honour to present to you none other than the erstwhile King Jisarr himself. He made a sudden appearance before us just a short time ago, and surrendered with remarkably little fuss. He says he can open some of these doors.”

“Please tell me this is one of them,” Hawk groaned, studying one of the locks. “It’d take me days to crack this, at least.”

“Nor could I compel someone to a task that fine,” admitted Rima, tail lashing in irritation.

Captain Dreyvus – his name hadn’t been spoken here, but Jisarr doubted Hawk had been in error earlier – turned his attention to Jisarr, and his green eyes carried a silent question.

Jisarr looked at the door in question and wrung his hands. One of the ugliest things in his life was about to come to light here.

“The deepest doors – such as that one – are the ones I can open,” he confirmed. “The ones with five-ring locks. Those with three, like this one, I have no such command over.” He gestured at one of the nearer chambers; the door was ajar, but it still showed the three-layered dial he was talking about.

“So go open them,” Dreyvus pressed.

Jisarr quailed for a moment, but only for a moment.

If things were to be put right, it had to start with this.

There was just one problem…

“You… won’t like the manner of it,” he predicted, staring at the floor. “I have this control so that I can breed with these particular people, and the key is made to suit that.” He made a gesture over his midsection; an ornament that had been little more than a minor focus of sensation for himself and his partners suddenly felt quite prominent indeed. “The locks cannot recognize that I wouldn’t be able to actually breed with another male. But by that same token, the key still won’t function unless I’m… in a state to perform that duty.”

The human officers frowned, trying to follow that. “What – ”

It was up to an elven man, in green robes that Jisarr believed signified a healer, to put the pieces together. “Right, everybody out,” he declared, and the firmness of a physician at work was in his voice despite its elven lilt. “Two guards will suffice – and be ready to avert your eyes. I will stay to ensure the prisoner is well.”

Jisarr’s muzzle twisted. Of course the prisoner was not well. Not with the way he’d been used. But at least the man would be on hand to do what he could.

Sir Jansen stayed as one of the guards; the other, some distance back, was an archer. The others filed out of the antechamber and into the vestibule, most of them perplexed, though Hawk’s gaze was inscrutable, and Rima’s downright venomous.

No matter. They couldn’t hate him as much as he already did. But at least he wouldn’t have their eyes on him as he did this.

He undid his brooch and slipped out of his cloak, shivering in a manner that had nothing to do with the quite comfortable temperature. One at a time, he loosened the lengths of cloth that wrapped around him, and unwrapped them, until there was only one left around his midsection; then that one, too, he let fall.

In times of leisure, he’d chanced to get his hands on some erotic artwork and woodcuts from the surface. Crandil were, he knew, not all that different from humans or elves, though some of the other surface races were more distinct in the physical details; and with the reigning monarchs having chosen the healthiest and most attractive mates they could find for generations beyond knowing, he was basically the ideal of a Crandil man. The shape of his equipment was close to human; in size he was, if anything, larger than their norm, despite his body being smaller. The main distinction he had was quite artificial – a platinum ring that pierced through the slit and came out the underside, curling around to hold an obsidian bead. The choice of metal was ostentatious, but the design was quite simple, and the form of jewellery common – maybe one Crandil man in twenty was without such.

Which was part of the point; not many would figure out that it was a carefully enchanted key, its enchantment obscured and masquerading as a simple cosmetic, the true effect bound to him and his state of mind.

That state of mind, now, was the problem.

He stared down at the door, tracing fingers along the stone dial. As he’d mentioned earlier, the symbols along it were arranged in five different rings, each of which could be turned independently of the others. The number of possible combinations just for a static layout of the dials was enormous, and the combination to enter wasn’t a static arrangement; there were at least ten steps to it, each involving turning one of the rings a certain direction and to a certain point. All of it had to be done in the correct order, and the enchantment sternly resisted any attempts to bypass it magically.

Except for the means which was provided to every member of the royal family when they reached adolescence.

Even that had its trick. He was only supposed to be here to sire offspring. The locks couldn’t tell that he was a man and so was the one behind; but the key was attuned to his readiness for that act.

He’d been exposed to all manner of comely Crandil women over the past half-a-decade. Some of them had been occasions of mutual pleasure, nothing ceremonial, nothing about fathering the next generation to rule. On a very few occasions indeed, that pleasure had been with one of two very pleasant men. He ought to have any number of memories to draw on, any number of things to imagine.

Yet the only face he could picture was the one behind this door. One he hadn’t seen in two years, since uttering the order that had sent him here in the first place.

He didn’t want to contaminate the poor man’s existence any further. Especially not with his own lust. Rima’s implications about the willworkers in his harem had been bad enough; they, at least, had lived better, not worse, for his attention. Not so this one.

But he couldn’t focus on a single other image.

Just that one beautiful youth.

He heard muttering behind him; the guards were getting impatient. There was no help for it. Another blot on his psyche – but if it did the poor wretch some good, he would cope.

So he let his mind’s eye wander where it had been trying to drift for a minute. He pictured the young man as Jisarr had once chanced to see him, gloriously naked, fur shining, body outstretched… perfect.

For one guilty moment, Jisarr felt a thrill of need.

It was enough. A design on his bare skin, previously indistinguishable, awoke with the faintest of red glows; the obsidian bead responded to his nascent arousal, glimmering with its own light.

In that moment he touched it to the very centre of the stone dial.

There was a curious resonance in the air, as though a glass chime had been struck but lacking the sharp start such a sound would normally bring. The design on the lock began to awaken, the dark lines between sections of stone kindling with blue light. As the light spread from the centre outward, each ring in turn started rattling, turning on its own.

Jisarr stalked to each of the five-ring seals and touched it thus – they were easier; other images came more easily to mind, so he didn’t have the further guilt of sullying the captive with his thoughts any more. He went back to the first, grabbed his cloak, and pulled it around himself, doing up the brooch one-handed. In that moment, just covering himself felt far more urgent than taking the time to dress properly. The elf looked at him, but similar though elves and humans were of body, his expression, while distinctly there, was impossible for Jisarr to fathom.

The outermost dial had just done a three-quarter circuit to the right; still the five rings spun in a sequence that seemed almost random, this way, that way. Finally, they rattled to a halt. The glow in the cracks intensified a moment, then faded. Finally, with a pair of heavy thunks, the bolts pulled free of the stone; the magic that sealed them, he knew, had been lowered.

Five more such sounds heralded the other doors finishing their own combinations. Jisarr hardly noticed; all his attention was on the door before him and he scarcely wavered even when the healer stepped up beside him. Even when the knight moved to push the door open, Jisarr’s thought was on the widening crack, not the man who had set it in motion.

The whimper that drifted out was a soft sound – the humans didn’t even seem to notice it, though the elf stiffened. But the simple despair in that tiny utterance was crushing. Jisarr felt his ears pin back against his skull, and couldn’t quite muster the willpower to make them stand upright again.

The healer darted forward, but once he’d reached the threshold he rocked back on his heels. “Sun and Moon,” he hissed.

Resigned, Jisarr moved up behind him to see just how bad it was.

The space wasn’t quite so bad as the Captain’s statement had made it out to be. It would be a cramped cell indeed for several people, but only a small one for a single person. That it was shut in wouldn’t bother the subterranean Crandil in the slightest; if well-furnished, it could even have been comfortable, as the cells for the women had been before Jisarr had them installed next to his own quarters. Those furnishings had followed them, though.

They certainly hadn’t come to this cell. It hardly qualified as furnished at all. There was a chamber pot – albeit a good one, enchanted to destroy whatever filth it accepted rather than needing to be emptied – and, attached to it, a small charm to purify the air; there was a fiber mat for a bed.

The source of that whimper lay on his side on that bed, his body curled slightly, trembling, tail limp, eyes tightly shut and ears back. His fur was a dark blue that had once been fine and dense and smooth, but had suffered from a long time without even cursory grooming. The loose fur caught up in the living pelt was not enough to hide that he hadn’t been getting quite enough to eat; a frame that wanted to be heavyset for a Crandil male instead supported a body was painfully slender, though not quite bad enough for his ribs to show in the gloom.

He wore only a collar round his neck, a gilt bronze device covered in runes. A cord connected that collar to a ring on the wall – long enough for him to move about the entirety of his cell, but not much more. The cord was ensorcelled, Jisarr knew; not claws nor teeth could mar it, and it was more effective than a metal chain, but it would not permit itself to harm the one who wore it. If wrapped around a limb, or the neck, it flattened out, and the rest of it would stretch – to a degree; at some point the tension would gradually rise, and in a larger, taller room someone bound by such a cord might contrive to hang himself, but he could not do so by accident. In addition to the collar, magical inks glowed here and there on his person, a bright green that might have made an appealing contrast with his fur if one did not know their purpose.

That purpose, it seemed, was what the healer now bent to discover. He didn’t look over to note Jisarr’s approach; his senses were fine enough to know without being so obvious about checking. “What is his name?” the elven man asked.

“Dren,” Jisarr croaked, and swallowed a few times, trying, largely in vain, to moisten his throat. For a moment he thought he’d seen a slight flick of an ear as he spoke the name, but he seized hold of his thoughts before they ran away with hope. If Dren recognized his voice, his memories of it would not be fond. He glanced up at the elf’s countenance, inscrutable once again. “His name is Dren.”

Now the elf knelt, extending one graceful hand. “Dren,” he murmured, and went on in accented but intelligible Jisant, “can you hear me?”

The response was not encouraging; the young Crandil whimpered again, and curled slightly tighter. But only slightly; he didn’t wrap himself into a ball.

The elf now produced a recognizable frown. “Physically, he seems in good health, if a bit underfed, though I’d want a Crandil healer to confirm that. But beyond that…” He pitched his voice toward his patient once more. “Dren, I am a healer. I am here to help you. I’m just going to examine you, see if there’s anything I can do for you.” He looked over to Jisarr, speaking to him in the language of the surface. “I may need some confirmation of what, exactly, these runes do.” He indicated one of the luminescent green marks on Dren’s pelt, and Jisarr imitated a human nod, and flicked his ears forward in the Crandil fashion.

Examining the runes wasn’t all the elf did; he looked over Dren’s unresisting body, searching for any sign of injury or unusual weakness. He touched his fingertips to the nape of Dren’s neck, but drew them away when the Crandil flinched. “No injury of the body there,” he sighed. “I’ll have to hope my senses are right about that around the collar itself.” He instead turned his attention lower, pursing his lips, indicating the design patterned into the downy fur on Dren’s scrotum. “Fertility… and drive, not simply along with it but as a separate entity. Both quite strong. If the application weren’t so distasteful, I’d have to admire the work of your wizards.”

“Only the best for our prize stud,” Jisarr replied in the same surfacer tongue, not bothering to hide the bitter self-mocking note in his voice.

The elf’s fingers tilted upward, their focus passing Dren’s disturbing – but, given those first enchantments, easily understandable – arousal, indicating the gold ring at its tip, clutching a jadeite bead that matched the runes in hue. “Endurance and potency. I can’t tell what those are, though; anything they do must be subtle.” His fingers swept past, though stayed well clear of touching, the glowing green pattern on Dren’s bare skin.

Jisarr coughed, feeling his ears flush and flick back with a much more common sort of embarrassment. “Those… aren’t applied. They’re natural. Or may well be; they don’t look unlike what Crandil men could show in that state naturally.”

There was a pause. For a moment, the elf’s fingers shifted in mid-air, mimicking that complex design that looked so much like a written character of some sort; the glowing bands had curves and corners, but each line kept a curiously regular thickness. Perhaps he was about to protest; but what he said was, “Oh. Ah… do you have something that might cover him? I’m not sure it’d make a difference to him – it might – but it would seem… highly inappropriate to have him moved anywhere in this state.”

“Once I’ve had a moment to dress properly, I’ll gladly give him my cloak,” Jisarr promised. Strange, how good it felt to have something he could do for the youth, even though it was, in the larger scheme, quite a trivial thing.

“Moving on… I’m not sure it’d be wise to tamper with these. It’s delicate work, and tightly woven into his being; breaking the enchantments might do him subtle but lasting damage. Even the ring, which is odd… oh, I see; it… pulses the effect, and lasts for a time, rather than being strictly so long as the ring is in place.”

“So that it can be cleaned.” It made sense; Jisarr flicked his ears again. “Though it was probably done by magic instead.”

“Quite. But the coarser designs…” The elf took hold of Dren’s left wrist with one hand; at his touch with the other, the youth’s fingers spread – even if he wasn’t speaking, he was co-operating. The healer studied the design on his palm for several moments, as though refusing to believe what he saw; when he spoke again, his voice was grim. “Pain.” He inspected the other hand, and said, “The same. As with those on his jaw. Conditional, and all with the same trigger… on him touching… no, that can’t be right…”

Jisarr felt a knife twist in his gut. “It probably is,” he said in a very small voice indeed.

For a few moments, the only sound was Dren’s laboured breathing. Finally: “Why? By the sun and moon, why?

“His seed is precious,” Jisarr mumbled, and repeated himself when the elf demanded that he speak up, adding, “It’s not to be wasted on cold, sterile stone. Or otherwise.”

“Thanks be to the Green-Clad, those designs should, I think, be easier to undo.” The elf sat back on his heels, gazing down at Dren with another of those unreadable elven expressions; Jisarr filed it away, sure it meant nothing good. “Well. He’s not in immediate danger that I can see; the marks don’t bind him here, nor does he have any injuries that would prevent him from being moved. The collar I don’t know.”

“He needs to be brought elsewhere for his… duties,” Jisarr made himself say. Right now, curling up as Dren was doing seemed a far more attractive notion than speaking, undermining the supports of his own tomb with each word. “He can leave here with that collar. At least as far as the city. I don’t think there’s a limit, but… I don’t know.”

“A proper wizard can look at it, then,” the healer declared. “Fetch your garments, then, and cover him.”

Jisarr did so, but he held onto the sapphire brooch, instead using a simpler silver one that had previously bound three of the cloths that wrapped around him together; the sapphire was slightly off-balance there, not an ideal fit, but it would do, and it would keep an observer in a dark tunnel from mistaking which of them was the king. Former king. As he tucked the cloak around Dren, the youth shivered, but did not pull away; he clutched it around him, which the elf declared to be a sign that he wasn’t entirely beyond hope.

It was still too early for Jisarr to imagine him making a full recovery, but at least there was a slim possibility.

“Is anyone in the other cells, then?”

All the others that Jisarr had unlocked were vacant, as he’d thought but hadn’t been certain. Hawk was brought back in, with the captain, Sir Jansen, and two others of his knights in tow; the wizard took a few minutes to crack the first of the three-ring locks and find it empty, and with that experience, the others, too, were opened in the space of a minute or so each.

He was good at what he did. Which made the earlier pronouncement that he’d have needed days to unseal the five-ring locks that much more potent.

While Hawk was examining Dren’s collar, Dreyvus tagged two of his guards, and had them pull Jisarr into one of the open cells.

Time to talk, apparently.

There was still a battle going on, and Captain Dreyvus wanted information pertinent to that. Which was frustrating for him and for Jisarr, because Jisarr hadn’t been told of such things as troop placements or escape plans. Several times, Dreyvus asked the same question in another way; at first he seemed irritated, stubborn, but then he seemed to decide that Jisarr’s ignorance was unfeigned and without exaggeration. His restatements became more gentle; he was trying, he said, to see if he could nudge into Jisarr’s recollection something he’d been told offhand, by triggering some association. Try though he might, though, he asked distressingly little that Jisarr could answer.

Finally the human gave up, rocking back a little. “Is there anything you can tell us to help?”

Well, maybe he could be of some use.

“The Deep has some concealed passages running through it,” he offered. “It’s how I found Sir Jansen’s group without being spotted – ”

“Hold on.” The Captain held up a hand. “Back up. Why were you so worried? You’re the king, aren’t you?”

“So was my father before me. And for a time, he was popular; the Deep Dukes liked what he was doing, cowing the outlying provinces, keeping them in line. Then he started being aggressive about it, and they became nervous. They thought he might bring some sort of retribution down on Jisani. They warned him to be more subtle; he laughed, and kept the pressure high, and higher.

“One night, I chanced to pass his chief vizier in the corridor. For a moment I thought I smelled blood… I thought it was mine. But he was at ease, and I thought I must have imagined it; I thought nothing of it, and continued to bed.”

He shuddered. “The next morning, I learnt that my father had been set upon by assassins from the outlying provinces, and killed. I lost my birth-name and became Jisarr that day.”

The Captain drew a deep breath. “That’s… not such a great mystery, is it? When you thought you smelled your own blood…”

“It was my father’s,” Jisarr confirmed. “Similar enough. I’m not a peace-keeper, trained to track the scent of blood, to tell one person’s from another’s. I’ve smelled mine, from some childhood injury or other; I hadn’t smelled my father’s, and when I did, I mistook it for my own.”

“So why would they worry about what you do, then? If they, I gather, tell you what to say, and you say it…”

“If I don’t follow their script, my word isn’t entirely without weight,” Jisarr admitted. “I don’t think I can get their personal guardsmen to stand down. Most of the people who might… you’ve probably already fought past. But these are proud people. They no doubt think they can win, even now; and perhaps they imagine I know something that could harm them. I’m sure they’d like to give me some, mmm… sharp admonishments. Some cutting remonstrations.”

“Spare me your wit,” Dreyvus growled.

Jisarr winced. What had possessed him to do that? “Quite. At any rate, after I’d heard that the gates to the Deep had been breached, I heard someone enter my suite. Someone trying to be silent. I smelled the vizier as I slipped out, and went into the first hidden passage I reached.” He considered one piece of good fortune, and his ears flicked forward. “It seems that particular secret has managed to stay with the royal family.”

“What sort of tunnels?”

“Old service tunnels, I think. Some were dug a little more recently, and those have a covert purpose, but the first ones were likely a discreet way for servants to get from here to there. They are narrow corridors, plain, sometimes roundabout, and all of them are dark.” He thought, trying to picture the corridors, and how far apart the walls felt. “They are tall enough that you would not need to crawl, though in some you might need to stoop. Mostly wide enough for two of you to walk abreast; the newer ones are narrower, but not too narrow for you to pass.”

“Right, then.” The man shifted his gauntlets on his hands. “We’ll have to keep you close. If you hear of a situation in which these tunnels might help, volunteer what you know.”

Jisarr shivered. He really didn’t want to stay near the front lines of the fighting, but if he wanted to be useful, what choice did he have? It wasn’t as though he could teach anyone the entire layout of the passages in the time available. “Yes, Captain.”

“Enough. We’ve delayed here long enough – for the poor prisoner’s sake I’m glad we did, but there are still lives at stake.” He gestured toward the door; Jisarr obediently padded through it.

The look Rima shot him almost sent him reeling right back into the soldier behind him. He’d known from the first moment that she didn’t like him, but she had not, up to this point, directed such venom at him.

Under it, though, was… what? Weariness, defeat?

Hawk, too, looked frustrated, slightly ill, but not nearly so angry. Dren had been brought into the open, and those two, along with the elven healer, were huddled around him, as far from the soldiers and their dizzying iron and steel as the antechamber allowed.

Captain Dreyvus evidently caught the tail end of Rima’s glare, and pushed past Jisarr, frowning. “What seems to be the problem – ah, Rima, was it?”

“Captain.” The willworker’s ears canted forward a moment. “We were trying to see if we could get this… thing… off of Dren, here. It’s a fairly ghastly device; pulling against it causes pain, and it can do so with a command as well. Pain enough, if kept up, to make even the strong-willed pass out – and unless that someone has a weak heart, no lasting harm done to the body for it.”

“It doesn’t quite compel obedience,” Hawk put in, “but it could certainly be used to train for it. But it’s held tight; by all rights the magic sealing it should be unwoven, yet, as you can see…” He left the rest unsaid; the gold-inlaid bronze was quite plainly unbroken, seamless.

“He seems to be holding it on himself,” Rima supplied. “It restrains his gift to only work on himself – and with the strength of the mental wall it’s erected to do that, his gift is… substantial. But he’s now using it to hold the thing together. That, it does seem to be compelling him to do. Can’t force it off without risking damage to his mind – beyond what he’s already been subjected to, that is.” Again she glared at Jisarr.

But that was odd. “It’s possible I wasn’t told everything,” he allowed, “but it’s not supposed to compel anything to do with his gift; the less he uses it, even for himself, the better, so far as his tenders are concerned. It does allow them that brutal discipline, and it seals in his gift. But…” Memory struck. “He’s had his collar replaced five times over the last few years, with more powerful wards each time. If even this one is marginal… perhaps he put some of that compulsion in there himself? It’s not supposed to keep him from speaking, either – captive he may be, but he’s still valuable enough that he should be able to call out in case of true need – but I haven’t heard him say anything since the door was opened. He may have woven in compulsions against those things himself.”

Rima frowned, much more thoughtfully all of a sudden, and turned her attention back to the blue youth. After a moment, she nodded. “He’s right,” she murmured. “It’s compelling that, too. Hawk, can you tell – ”

“If it’s been altered after its creation?” the wizard cut in. “I think so; I can’t tell exactly to what effect, but the weave shows some signs of stress that I don’t believe are all from my attempts to unlock it. As though someone attempted to tune it after the fact, but not in a way I wholly understand. That might be because your gifts are so different from what I know.”

“Why would he do that to himself?” Captain Dreyvus demanded.

“To make it easier to obey,” sighed Jisarr. “Emergency aside, he was… doubtless told not to speak. Perhaps punished for backtalk or for fussing. I don’t know – I would thank the Deep Ones that I was spared such details, save that now, it would be better to know. But if he knew he could overcome the collar, perhaps he thought trying to do so would bring him more punishment, and he wove into it an order to keep silent, and an order to keep the collar on, both to spare himself the temptations.” He, of course, did not have that gift himself – the heirs designate never did, fertile or otherwise – but he had enjoyed the company of some other willworkers, and had some vague notion of how their craft worked.

“Does that fit?” Dreyvus asked.

Sounds from the corridor – running feet, jangling armour – distracted Jisarr from the words of Rima’s reply, but he did see her ears returning upright from where they’d been canted forward in affirmative.

“Well,” the captain sighed, “we’ll have to deal with that later. For now, he’ll need a place to – hold on.” He turned, as did most everyone else, as the sound of someone approaching grew louder; archers put a bit of tension on their bowstrings.

It was another messenger, this one a male human. There was a brief exchange of cryptic phrases, and then he strode up to the captain, proffering a scroll tube. “General Braxley’s compliments, Sir. He requests the immediate assistance of all detached teams.”

“He’s found wherever the Dukes are holed up?” Jisarr surmised. He could think of no other reason to concentrate forces to that degree.

He’d spoken quietly, but Captain Dreyvus nodded at him. “So it seems – and they’ve threatened to block the passage with the bodies of their servants if the General presses forward.”

In addition to their cadre of guards, the Deep Dukes had enough such servants that they could do it. All it would take was a massacre.

Jisarr’s knees struck the stone, then his palms. He fought back nausea as a wave of revulsion gripped him.

“Well,” Hawk’s voice said into the stunned silence, “one of their nobility has integrity, at least.”

“Let’s get ready to move, people!” Dreyvus barked. Parchment rustled. “Looks like they’ve picked a prime spot. Damn. Only one entrance, and that with a sharp turn so archers can’t give cover…”

Jisarr forced his thoughts back into order. Something about that description… “Captain, is there any more description of the place?”

Bemused, Dreyvus rattled off a few points from the note. The messenger added a few more details. It all fit.

“The third gallery,” Jisarr breathed. “Captain, there’s another way in – and if the Dukes knew about it, they wouldn’t be staying in the gallery.”

“Can you get is in? Behind them?” the man snapped – not angry, but suddenly very intent.

Jisarr’s mind whirled. “I… think so. I haven’t used that passage in some time. It’s small, narrow, completely dark – and for the last stretch of it, any light carried risks being seen. I’d wager the Dukes’ guards aren’t using light – they’re relying on sound and stone-sense to know if you turn the corner. And on your own lights. Even a tiny glimmer, and they’d see it and know something was going on.”

“And it’s a small corridor, you say,” the Captain repeated. “What about a small force – say, a score? Small enough that they can keep close together even in the dark.”

He thought. “That may work. If I remember the tunnel right, you can stand fully upright but you will need to be in single file. And the tunnel forks into dead ends – you will need to follow very closely and carefully.” There was something else about it, on the edge of his memory – something that made it difficult for even a Crandil to navigate – but the details eluded him.

The captain thought. He looked at Jisarr, looked at his note, looked at Dren.

“But it should come out behind their lines?”

“So it should, though I’m sure they’ll have a few of their guards right with them. But it opens on a cellar – remote, with only one door. It might even be where they’re keeping some of their retinue. It’s not big enough for all of them, but…”

“But if we can lower the possible body count, it’s a start. Very well. Sir Torvi.” A lean man in studded leather armor lifted his head. “Your troop is most experienced with the tunnels down here. Go with Jisarr and try to defuse the situation. You know our usual signals.”

“Sir.” Torvi clapped a fist to his heart in salute.

Well, at least he wasn’t in full plate.

Rima, unsurprisingly, looked suspicious, but when she started to object, Dreyvus overrode her. “Unless you have better tactics, we don’t have time,” he insisted.

There was no further objection. While the rest of Dreyvus’s soldiers prepared to rejoin the General, Sir Torvi and his eighteen soldiers were already at attention, waiting.

No time to waste. With only a glance over his shoulder now and then to be sure they were keeping pace, Jisarr hustled through the corridors. Left, right, right, left, right… His fingers scrabbled at a carved wall panel, found the catch, and pushed open the panel.

“You can keep your lights for now,” he said. “I’ll let you know when to douse them.”

He hurried on, but less so. He did not want to lose any of the soldiers and spend precious time regrouping. But not once did his ears detect anyone losing ground. On through the passages they rushed, barely missing a beat as they narrowed.

Then, at an abrupt turn, Jisarr quietly called a halt.

“There are quartz veins in the rock from here on,” he said, “and the spyhole at the end is not the best covered. We must go carefully, and in darkness. Best if each one keeps in contact with the one ahead.” That would be easier if they all had tails, but then, Crandil would not have needed such a measure anyway. These soldiers would have to make do.

The torches were ground out, the last sparks stamped on until even they were gone. Jisarr whispered a prayer to the Deep Ones, on the chance that They still held him in good regard despite his failings, and started forward, with Torvi’s hand gripping the end of his tail.

The tunnel pulled a hairpin turn, backtracking a little, but then going straight on where the other section had come in from a corner.

As he navigated the turns and forks, Jisarr came to remember why he had shunned this passage.

It passed through a cluster of magnetite.

The iron in the rock was bad enough – passages that his hand knew were straight, his mind reported were warped, twisted. It took effort to keep walking in a straight line between the turnings. But when the iron was joined by lodestone, every step was dizzying, his entire sense of the world distorting with even a small movement, bending into impossible shapes. He faltered.

“What is it?” came a whisper over his shoulder.

Jisarr swallowed. He had to concentrate. If he was distracted here, and missed a turning, they might not find their way out for hours.

“Lodestone in the rock,” he panted.

A pause. There was no light to see by, but something about Torvi’s next words told him the man was frowning. “Like iron?” He was not wholly ignorant of Crandil.

“Much worse. Iron that attracts iron.” Jisarr took a deep breath, and started forward again.

He forced himself to count his steps. His fingers trailed along the wall; here they left it, and he very carefully strode four more steps until he found it again. There the texture of the rock changed under his fingers, briefly smoother; quartz.

Step after step. His head pounded. The gap between what his fingers told him and what his stone-sense was screaming in his mind was impossible to reconcile, and he felt as though his skull would split from the effort of doing so. But he kept walking. Step after step.

Finally the worst of the distortion passed. There was still iron in the rock, but after the twisted nightmare of lodestone, the warping caused by iron was so very much simpler to compensate for.

He took another deep breath and ran a quick mental tally. “Close now,” he whispered.

Mercifully, the iron fell behind them; all that remained was the soldiers’ equipment, far less pervasive, if more concentrated. And then he felt the wall ahead of him, and whispered for a careful halt. By the time the last footstep faded, he was a body-length from the end of the passage.

There was a clutch of bodies on the fringe of his perception, huddled down low; captives, most likely. More he couldn’t tell through the thick door. He couldn’t be sure, but he didn’t think they bore any metal beyond jewellery.

Captives, then. Bronze didn’t register as strongly to the Crandil senses as iron, not by far, but like its component metals and all others, it had a distinctive feel to it. If these people had borne it in quantity, it was likely he’d have known at least that much.

He held a brief, whispered conference with Sir Torvi, who told him to go in first and keep the prisoners quiet; then he found the latch and pressed his palm against the door. The mechanism, though old, was well-made; the door eased outward at his touch, the sound of its passage no louder than a breath. He slid through as soon as it would permit him, feeling the bodies start to stir at the motion. “Rest easy,” he urged. “Help is here; be still, say nothing, make no sound that would draw attention.”

In the darkness, they would not recognize him; none of these people knew him by scent, and his whisper wasn’t distinctive enough to go by, either. But their excitement, their hope, was a palpable thing.

The soldiers filed out, feeling their way along the wall; the servants shuffled over to make room, but otherwise stayed as still as they could. Only as he led the soldiers toward the mouth of the chamber did Jisarr sense someone armed ahead of him.

Sneaking up on an alert Crandil was difficult even for other Crandil. This one was not very attentive, and their own senses would be dulled slightly by their own armour, but if the humans drew any closer at all, or if Jisarr got too near himself, that wouldn’t be enough. They needed a plan; once their presence was known, battle would likely be joined. And as soon as the humans ignited their lights, that presence would be unmistakeable.

The voices he heard ahead, though, echoing back from the gloom, were those of the Dukes. Their quarry was in the very next chamber, the one that adjoined the cellar they’d emerged in; though the echoes kept him from following the words, there wasn’t enough distortion in the sound for it to be from another chamber over.

“They’re in the next room,” he whispered to Torvi. “The Dukes. A single guard on this chamber, up ahead. I can guide a crossbow; strike a light as soon as it shoots.”

“Can you use it yourself?” the man whispered back.

He might have been able to fire a single shot; the crossbow was not a difficult weapon for the basics, and the range was not great. But not now. “I can do no harm, ¬†unless someone’s coming right at me. Someone else must loose the bolt.”

Movement beside him. “In case of that, though, you’ll want this.” Torvi was holding something forward – not iron or steel; reaching for it, Jisarr wrapped his fingers around the hilt of a Crandil short sword. Scarcely more than a dagger in a human’s hand, and he’d probably had it for that use; but it would give Jisarr a way to defend himself.

“I have it,” he whispered, and felt its weight heavier in his grip as Torvi let go. A few soft murmurs communicated the plan – they seemed only too loud in the stillness, but the voices of the Dukes served as a perfect cover for their own undoing. A marksman, clad in lighter mail than the others with more leather than steel, moved to the fore; Jisarr laid one hand atop the bolt, forcing himself not to flinch at the touch of iron, and guided the human’s leather-clad arm with the other.

“There,” he whispered. “Close your eyes.” The latter message flowed back along the column.

“Hold,” someone beside him hissed. “What about a flash bomb?”

Jisarr thought a moment. Even though they didn’t need light to get around, a sudden flare of it would dazzle sensitive Crandil eyes, leaving them stunned. “That will work.”

“Here,” the unknown soldier said. “You know where they are?”

“Close enough.” He couldn’t sense their proper targets at this distance, but his ears gave him a rough notion of where they were.

A tube was passed into his hand, his fingers guided to the tassel he needed to pull before he threw it.

Somehow, they’d still managed to escape detection.

He checked the marksman’s aim, and then all was ready.

The instant the crossbow hummed, Jisarr yanked the tassel, feeling something scrape inside. The bolt struck home with a sick tearing sound; even as the grunt of the guard’s breath reached his ears, Jisarr dashed up the passage, gave his ears a moment to adjust, and then lobbed the tube, flattening his ears and covering his eyes with an arm.

Even with that, the noise and light were shocking; those in the cavern ahead, however, were completely unprepared, crying out in pain and confusion. And on the heels of that eruption of light, torches flared to life, the band of nineteen surging into the main chamber.

Sparing a glance to the guard, Jisarr saw that his aim had been slightly off; the bolt had struck the bronze-mailed woman in the thigh. Good enough, though; she was out of the fight, stunned by flash-bomb and overwhelmed by the pain of the injury. There would not be a sudden strike from behind.

It was a quick skirmish, with remarkably little bloodshed; the humans had the Deep Dukes surrounded before their guards could recover from the flash, and whether those guards feared for their charges’ lives or simply felt safer from said charges’ retribution, they didn’t push forward. Two bodies lay on the stone, in addition to the stricken sentry; that was all.

But then one of the Dukes – Jaree, the eldest and most vicious – screamed an order to kill the captives.

The guards hesitated. They were loyal, yes, loyal to their masters as any soldier should be; but the captives were Crandil, just as loyal in their simple way, and even a loyal soldier was given pause by that level of atrocity.

Jisarr seized on that hesitation, pushing into view. “Don’t do it,” he urged the woman nearest the next chamber over, the one who looked about to obey. He moved closer, heedless of Torvi’s remonstration to stay behind cover, of the Dukes’ consternation as he was recognized. He had eyes only for that one soldier, the one in whose hands rested the lives of dozens of harmless servants.

“Don’t do it,” he repeated. “Think. When you gave the oath of service, you swore to defend the people of Jisani. Who now do you serve,” he took in the bars of rank on her upper arm, “Captain? Will you serve Jisani, or will you serve those who would wash the city in Crandil blood in a futile bid to keep their own power?”

Still she hesitated. Her ears flicked over at the sound of jeers and commands from the Dukes, condemning Jisarr, exhorting the Captain to obey. The Captain of their own royal guard. This one plain-seeming Crandil woman could get most of her regiment to stand down, and just like that, the fighting would be done; or she could order the slaughter of dozens of innocents. It all depended on how she’d risen to her rank. Had her promotion come because she was capable, or because she was suitably bloodthirsty?

It wasn’t as though Jisani had been ruled by that tight a bronze fist. There’d been no need to silence dissension in blood. No need to select guards who would commit any atrocity in the Dukes’ names.

It all came down to loyalty. And though she had served the Dukes in all but name, this one had given oath to Jisarr’s murdered father. Murdered, though she couldn’t know it, by her own commanders.

He held her golden gaze; her eyes faltered only a moment, glancing over him, taking in the brooch at his chest as he stepped forward. He held his weapon in his off hand, low and to the side; it was there, and he did not hide it, but it was not ready to strike. What he lifted toward her was an open hand. “Who do you serve, Captain?” he repeated.

She looked over to the Dukes, whose tirades were faltering; tense silence fell, all eyes on the pair facing each other, the soldier and the young, dethroned monarch.

A dangerous tension lurked in those gold eyes.

“We’ve lost, haven’t we?” she asked, glancing toward the humans ringing the Dukes.

“You’ve stood bravely,” Jisarr told her. “But there’s nothing to be gained now through fighting. Only blood. Let it end, Captain.”

“I took oath to guard the Deep with my own blood,” she growled.

“There’s nothing to be gained there, Captain,” he urged, fighting back panic. She could cut him in half by taking one step, and he hadn’t a hope of turning the blow aside even if he did ready his weapon. But he stood firm, one hand forward still. “You do not face a murderous enemy who will put all within to death. At this moment, the only reason the Deep is not wholly taken,” he nodded to the chamber beyond, “is compassion for those within. For those you have now been ordered to slay. For your own fellow Crandil. So, Captain – ” pressing her was dangerous, he knew, but he could not appear weak now, “whose orders will you follow?”

Silence stretched out before them, beat by beat of his pounding heart. Those gold eyes held his, now, taking his measure.

She strode forward, and he tensed – but she was turning her sword over, inverting her grip, then moving her gloved hands to the blade. “I took oath to Rod and Crown,” she sighed. “I will not spill the blood of my own when the crowned King orders me to stand down.” And she dropped to one knee and bent her head, presenting the hilt of her weapon to him.

He slipped the point of the smaller weapon between a few of the wraps of cloth surrounding him; not a proper sheath, but it’d make do for this gesture. And he took hold of the Captain’s weapon, lifting it from her hands. Her head lifted as he brought the blade in against the side of her neck.

She might not know exactly the terms that bound him, might not know he could not harm her without being brought down himself; but she could see that he wore no crown, bore no rod, and was marked by a prisoner’s collar of enchantment. And yet her eyes on him were steady, full of respect, as she awaited his verdict.

Even if he couldn’t strike the blow himself, he could condemn her; and even without the symbols of authority, even with the collar around his neck, she would still accept his judgement.

All around, Crandil soldiers were already laying down their weapons. They followed their Captain, and their Captain had surrendered; they would not fight.

But the soldier before him still awaited his judgement.

He tried to put himself in her place. To imagine how it must feel, to find a loyalty that had previously been indivisible, suddenly pulling three ways at once; to have come so close to such a terrible sin. Small wonder that she thought herself in need of judgement.

But there was only one answer he could possibly give.

“In the final moment, you’ve shown your proper measure,” he said, straining to keep his voice steady and clear. “What you might have done – that falls on the shoulders of those who commanded you. For what you have done before me – ” he flipped the weapon around, holding the blade gingerly in his own bare hands – “I cannot fault you. Stand proud, Captain.”

Behind him, a chorus of sighs. Once the Captain had reclaimed her weapon and stood, he glanced over, seeing the Dukes in their colourful regalia now sagging, knowing their own defeat.

Jisarr let out a breath and returned to Torvi’s side, surrendering the weapon he had borrowed. In the flickering torchlight, he paced by the human’s side toward the gallery’s main entrance to pass the signal.

The fighting was done. Now it was time to see to what manner of people he’d surrendered his nation.