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Paragon Ruin, Chapter 5


I walk along the river bank marking the edge of the Human Realm toward the field where the Trading Cycle Caravan has parked. After the last frost in two more months, the human farming town of Solnast will irrigate from this river for planting on the opposite bank: corn, wheat, barley, oats, flax, and hay fields spreading to the horizon to support Eloshonna’s largest fruit and vegetable supply for the entire Kingdom.

Having watched the workers bent over their scythes in the summer brings again my yearning to reunite in the Kingdom, to sink again into that delicious illusion that I can attain full humanity instead of half as I remember the men and women barefoot and bare-chested, wearing short skirts slit up each side for breathability and mobility, wide-brimmed straw hats the width of a wagon wheel protecting their burnt-gold skin from sun harm as they worked the fields.

But now I walk the opposite bank, skirting the edge of the very realm I call home. Torc Thoraus still recognizes me as a member of the Kingdom, but until we both discuss the end of my spying services, I still pretend loyalty to the dusutri. It’s because of my forewarning to Thoraus that humans still work these fields without fear of attack from Nightmares. I pride knowing if I can’t live in the Kingdom, I can protect it, can still join the caravan for even a single three-month rotation and feel more part of the Kingdom than I have in two years.

Kindred flood the dirt field, last year’s post-harvest stubble snapping under boots and hooves. I see the line, already long, and trudge forward. The spring sun blasts clean through the air, warming nothing but blaring everything into a pale wash of their summer colors. The line shortens, and I approach the table.

The handsome human man at the table stuffs a roll of parchment inside the barrel beside him bristling with similar ones. He pulls out a fresh roll and spreads it flat across the table looking like an upside-down wagon bed. He looks at me, pausing with an ink quill in a callused hand. “Dusutri?”

“Half. Human for the other.”

“The Caravan Master is vetting all humans and outside races herself.” He points the quill over his shoulder. “That is her tent. Next!”

Weighed heavy with all my fears mashing together into a thick, sour blob in my gut, I walk to the indicated tent. Having nothing to knock on, I stand there, wondering how to announce myself. But I don’t need to. A woman with hair the color and shine of a raven wing braided down the middle of her back opens the tent flap and beckons me inside.

Inside, order and balance dictate everything in the tent, from their locations to their alignment. A stout, dark wooden table toward the back sits dead center, similar to the wagon-bed table at the sign-in line. A wool blanket drapes a foldable cot tucked into a corner, but she arranged the blanket, too, as if to make the folds fall in an intentional direction.

The woman brushes passed me toward the table. She wears a red-brown breastplate, polished to a mirror so my freckles reflect at me. Tufts of white fur cushion every edge against her skin. A short chain mail skirt crinkles as she walks, opened at the side for easier movement. Pinned to her shoulders clings a green cloak. Tight green leggings hug her legs and black leather boots stretch over both knees.

Her wild beauty accentuates her concrete build. Icy silver eyes squint at me from across the space. I turn my eyes down, not certain I’ve seen such prowess in a man before.

“My name is Kitannia Mar Liphonell,” she says in a husky tone, like the whorl of a well-used sword. “I am master of the Trading Cycle Caravan. What is your name?”

I force myself to meet the woman’s gaze. “Mianda Aspenstar.”


The woman’s demeanor warned me that not much slides beneath her gaze without full observation of them all first. “Half. Half human.”

“How did you sneak this close to the Kingdom? Didn’t you know dusutri have aligned with the Nightmares?”

Resentment flares through me. My boldness slides over my hands like gloves and, Caravan Master or no, I could’ve strangled this woman and licked the blood off my fingers later. But that was the dusutri talking. The man at the table said Kitannia vetted all non-Kingdom herself. Was this her process?

I steady my breathing with substantial force, gambling on what response she wants. “I didn’t sneak. I swung a mace at anyone standing in my path.”

The Caravan Master barks out a laugh, her bright smile at odds with her powerful, lean frame. “You don’t shy away from insults and you appear to handle them elegantly.” But the Caravan Master’s brief flare of generosity burns under her next statement. “You are half, which means your parents lived in exile when they birthed you. Which realm did you choose when you came into your own?”


“I guessed as much due to your lack of Darken accent.”

She would say that, even though I struggle to omit the accent. I’ve spoken Darken for the last two years, and switching from Darken to Eloshian comes with the compulsion to either stress or omit the ‘t’. I need Kitannia to believe I had just walked out of Malandore.

“How long have you been living in Malandore?”

“Sixteen years.”

“You look eighteen.”

“My parents died while in exile when I was two. Humans found me and brought me to Malandore.”

“Something the torc would have to approve of, I’m sure. Which torc was it?”

“Torc Thoraus.”

“Who was the torc before Thoraus?”

“Torc Mahagano.”

“How many human apprentice branches are there?”


“What are they?”

“Engineer, Arts, Economy, Government, Enforcement, Medical, Science.”

“Which branch did you choose for your apprenticeship in your school years?”


“Are you functioning in that capacity now?”

“N-no.” My calm breaks. The Caravan Master will next ask what capacity I am functioning in. A flush I hope the Caravan Master won’t notice suffuses my cheeks.

“Why not?”

“I changed to General Laborer instead.”

A long pause. “On what street is the Hot Crust?”

My flush deepens. I’ve been to that baker — the closest one to the school — but I forget unimportant names. “I never went to the Hot Crust.”

“Who else can vouch for your living in Malandore?”

“Cohthel Faunt.”

She pauses. “Cohthel Faunt also worked the caravan for three months. You spoke of him just now in the present tense. When did you speak to him last?”

“Two years ago.”

“Then you may not be aware the torcs sentenced him to death for kidnapping two dragon eggs.”

“I…” did know that. I also knew, through Markie, that Cohthel escaped judgment by using his invisibility, which is why I spoke of him in present tense. No one else in the realm knows of his escape, since Torc Thoraus labeled Cohthel’s failure to arrive at his execution the following morning as a suicide, and published his official Death Writ as such.

I’m not a quick thinker. I scramble. “I did not know.” I hope I infuse my voice with the proper expectant sorrow of one given the same news. “That is upsetting. We were good friends.”

“I sympathize. Still my question. Who else can vouch?”

Everyone in my school group, but I can’t remember all their names. I remember Neleci and Thaen who both defected to the Nightmares. No telling where Ilthyn went or what he’s doing.

“My references have defected to the Nightmares.”

“Why have you not defected?”

The truth pounds in my voice. “I love the Kingdom.”

My tone stalls the Caravan Master, because Kitannia watches me with steady observance for a full moment, for so long I itch to escape her hold.

“I’ll assign you a sponsor,” she says, and I take a minute realizing this is Kitannia’s way of accepting me into the caravan. I swoon with elation. “You are responsible for your own horse, weapon, and armor. Your job is to protect my wagons and the attendants working the carts. We’ll be camped here for three days where you and the other caravan guards will train on your duties. Opa!”

I flinch backward, unable to figure out what Kitannia had just shouted until a falkon flies into the tent through the smoke hole in the roof.

“Bring Sycain here,” Kitannia says to the falkon. “I’m assigning him as sponsor.”

The falkon flies out.

“If you have any more questions, Sycain will help you. You are dismissed.”

Bursting with gratitude, I want to spill an entire litany of thanks but decide Kitannia is not the personality to want or reciprocate praise and gratitude. I opt instead for a simple, “Thank you, Caravan Mas’er.”

Kitannia’s gaze snaps up the same time my horror at my mistake clenches my throat.

Kitannia folds both arms against her breastplate. “I am hiring dusutri, but I will not hire liars. Where did you walk in from?”

Dusutri fury at my blunder spins circles with my human grief at slipping back into my Darken accent. I chew the insides of both cheeks, fighting with whether to drive forward with my lie or confess.

I can’t confess. To confess means admitting to the Caravan Master that I am Thoraus’ spy. I don’t know Kitannia enough to trust her with such a fragile secret that might bring harm to Thoraus, myself, or the Kingdom. “I walked in from Malandore.”

“This morning? Five days ago? Never?”

“This morning.”

Hostile fury flares the Caravan Master’s nostrils. “Get out of my tent.”

Shatter…the sound of my breaking heart.

The canvas flap to the tent door flips aside and a man steps in. My present delirium does not recognize him at first as Sycain. A leather vest drapes his chest, the symbol etched there declaring him as an original attendant of the caravan. A handsome human, if ten years older than me, with a well-groomed short beard, brown hair brushing the tops of his ears, and penetrating eyes.

But he recognizes me. “Oh, Mianda! I didn’t know you were seeking employment in the caravan.”

“You two know each other?” Kitannia asks.

“Yes,” Sycain says, and I don’t have time to wave my arms at him, scream at him, shove him into the dirt before he says, “We visit every cycle in Forever Ice.”

Kitannia rounds on me with such cutting precision I believe she has drawn her sword. “You lied to me.”

“Lied about what?” Sycain looks from me to the Caravan Master.

Kitannia doesn’t look at him, making clear effort not to look at him. “Get out.”

“Now wait.” Sycain steps between me and the Caravan Master, looking at me. “What’s going on?”

“I told her to get out, guard.”

“And I think you’ve grossly misunderstood something, Caravan Master.”

I hold my breath. I can’t imagine the Caravan Master tolerates demands or back-talking from anyone. I wait for Sycain’s neck to separate from the rest of his body following a clean white stroke from the Caravan Master’s sword.

Sycain focuses on me, turning his back to the Caravan Master, and I think he’s very brave. “What lie did you tell the Caravan Master?”

I shake my head. “I’m leaving now.” I turn, backhanding the tent flap open. Though made from leather, my strength tosses it as if it were cotton.

Sycain chases, cutting in front of me and forcing me to stop. “Mianda, we’re friends. If you want to join the caravan, let me help you.”

I didn’t think disappointment could cut so much like physical blades slicing hot and bitter through my legs, arms, and chest. “I can’t. Just let me go.”


“I said let me go.”

“Where’s that Dusutri Rage I hear about? That inner demon that pounds, rips, and smashes to get what you want?”

I’ve heard about Dusutri Rage, too. Have seen it in other dusutri. Felt it within myself. When I joined the dusutri two years ago, they threw me in a ring with an over-sized dusutri warrior I was supposed to fight, which would have otherwise forced me to activate my Rage and fight back to prove to them I was, indeed, born of dusutri blood if I hadn’t curled up and screamed for them to stop. Despite the shame, my family accepted me as theirs anyway, blaming my human half for stunting my dusutri “glory”.

Eighteen years old and I have never activated my Dusutri Rage. An unfounded voice inside me convinces that if I did, I would burn away my human half and I’d emerge full Dusutri. Oh, if I could trade for Human Rage and burn my dreaded dusutri half to ash.

“I appreciate your sympathy, Sycain, but I can’t.”


“I can’t.”

“I’ll see you every three months and I’ll say nothing more except why you can’t join the caravan.”

I fold my arms, pulling the muscles in my thick neck because I strain my head to the side so hard. “I claimed to Kitannia that I walked out of Malandore this morning.”

“Why not tell her the truth? She’s hiring full-blooded dusutri.”

“Sycain, I haven’t even told you the real reason why I’m in Forever Ice.”

“You don’t have to tell me — or her — why you’re in Forever Ice. Just tell her something she’ll accept, and since she’s already seen we know each other, I’ll provide your alibi.”

“It doesn’t bother you I lied about why I’ve been in Forever Ice?”

“Everyone lies and everyone dies. Now come on…what reason can you give her she’ll accept?”

Now that Sycain excused my moral guidelines, several ideas blossom hope back into my chest. I work the details out with Sycain and we enter the tent again.

The Caravan Master opens her mouth, but Sycain cuts her off. “Mianda has family in Forever Ice. Her guardians in Malandore abandoned her two years ago and, without the means to take care of herself, she joined her family in Forever Ice until she was old enough to care for herself.”

This is a safe enough lie based on truth that, repeated by the Caravan Master to another dusutri, the dusutri would accept this lie and not banish me from Forever Ice.

“I can vouch for her,” Sycain continues, “because I’ve seen her in Forever Ice for the last two years and she told me why she was there. She lied to you because she feared you’d think she defected to the dusutri to join the Nightmares since she left for Forever Ice the same time the Nightmares gained alliance with the dusutri and now have an allegiance with them. After all, you’re vetting all dusutri, humans, dark elves, and droogs to make sure they aren’t sympathetic to the Nightmares. I’ll sponsor Mianda in the caravan. If you think Mianda is sympathetic, you can kill me yourself.”

The Caravan Master stares for a long time. Sycain seems like he’d be able to talk a bear out of eating him. I actually think the Caravan Master will accept his explanation.

“Fine,” she says as if forced to choke on her pride instead of spit it on us. She scratches something on a note and holds it out as if she’ll pull it back if I don’t snatch it quick.

“Take this back to my scribe…and you!” she snaps to Sycain who turns to the tent flap to leave, “I will kill you if she comes out to be sympathetic.”

“So long as you do it with your hands around my neck to finally have an excuse to touch me.” With an out-of-place wink at her, he leaves.

Sensing my dismissal, I follow him out of the tent. “Sycain! That was wonderful! I cannot express how badly I wanted to join the caravan guard. Thank you, thank you.”

He wears a long-sleeved shirt tied around his wrists for warmth in this chill beneath his caravan vest. He touches two fingers to his forehead. “I’ll see you on the first run.” He turns from me and mingles with the other caravan workers milling about camp and caring for the horses.


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