Roshad stood speechless, unable to parse the words, and even less able to handle the melancholy smile.
"You're not wearing your veil," Bors noted.
The wound Roshad had been salving with action tore open anew. He wanted to slap Bors, to scream at him, to fall into the big man's arms and be comforted.
Stick to the plan. Roshad reached back into the satchel on his back and pulled out the chain.
"Remember this?" He held it out, letting its links hang down. "This is the promise we made, Bors. Shared mind, shared heart. Always." He dropped the chain between them, letting it clatter to the floor. "Have you forgotten that?"
Bors was no longer smiling. "They were going to kill you, Roshad."
"So you did it for them?" Roshad felt the heat building in his face, the tears starting their slow treks down his cheeks. "Because that's what this is, Bors. If you cut a man in half, both halves die. Together, we're szerik. Apart, we're nothing. Did you think I would let you kill us both?"
"Well, too bad, you bastard, because I'm not—" Roshad paused. "What did you say?"
"No, I never thought you would stay away. That was the point."
Roshad grimaced. "But when you said it was over—I saw it in your eyes. You meant it."
"Of course I meant it! Anything less would have gotten you killed. If I wanted my father to believe it, I needed you to believe it, too. I had to believe it."
"Then how did you know I'd come back?"
Bors smiled, and now there was nothing sad in it. "Because I know you, Roshad. You're as stubborn as a half-trained camel. You'd never be able to let me go—not without at least getting the last word."
Then he opened his arms, and Roshad was in them, face pressed against the warm lacquered scales guarding the big man's chest. "I thought..." he whispered, and then his voice caught. "So why did you look so gods-damned sad when you saw me at the window?"
Bors's stubbled cheek pressed down against the top of Roshad's head. "Because I had to hurt you, Rabbit. That should never be easy."
They stood together then for a long moment, neither saying anything. At last Bors unwrapped his arms and pushed Roshad away. He reached for his true sword. "Come on. It'll be dawn soon."
Roshad felt hope bloom inside his chest. "We're leaving?"
"Of course we're leaving. Isn't that what I said? Now that my father's convinced I've given up, we can make our escape. You have your climbing spell?"
Bors grinned. "That'll make it easier."
"But not easy enough."
Both men spun at the voice. Ulzhan stood in the room's doorway, bow drawn and arrow nocked. She wore her armor as well, along with a blue sash to complement Bors's red. With her heel, she kicked the door closed. "I thought this might happen, so I had a servant listen at your door."
Roshad started to raise his hands, ready to burn the woman to cinders, but Bors slapped them down. "No!"
"He's right," Ulzhan said. "We have many things to discuss, but if you try to cast a spell, I'll shut your mouth with an arrow and render this conversation moot."
Roshad let his hands drop. "What conversation?"
Seemingly satisfied that Roshad was pacified, Ulzhan dismissed him, turning her attention to Bors. "My prince, I'm going to go ahead and assume you're less than thrilled about our marriage."
Bors's face was back to its normal, stone-hewn blankness. "It's nothing personal."
"I believe you. Maybe if you were differently inclined, I'd be offended, but no matter. The point is, I'm not your father. I can see your love and respect it. But this marriage has to happen, for the good of the tribe. So I'll make you this offer: marry me, and I'll turn a blind eye to your man." Her head tilted to indicate Roshad. "The tribe can never know—I won't let you undermine our authority or give other tribes a lever to use against us—but you can arrange whatever rendezvous you desire. You don't need to take my bed except to give us an heir."
"How generous," Roshad spat, but Bors touched his arm. The prince nodded his head to Ulzhan, almost a bow.
"You honor me, Ulzhan. Under other circumstances, I would have been honored to stand at your side. But I can't lead the tribe."
Ulzhan's gaze hardened. "I thought better of you, Bors. You're the heir. There's no alternative."
"Actually, I think there is." Bors gestured to the dagger in Roshad's belt. "May I?"
Ulzhan drew the fletching back to her cheek, the arrow's steel point in line with Roshad's eye. "No tricks." But the arrow bobbed a gesture for him to continue.
Bors reached down and drew the dagger. In one smooth move, he slit his palm, then held it out to Ulzhan.
Roshad gaped. "What are you doing?"
"What does it look like I'm doing?" Bors held the dagger out to Ulzhan, hilt-first. "I'm marrying her."
Ulzhan stared at him, and then a smile spread across her face. Roshad wouldn't have said it transformed her features, but as with Bors, a face that rarely smiled was all the brighter when it did. She lowered the bow. "I see."
"I don't!" Roshad moved between them. "After all this, you're going to marry her now, an hour before the damned wedding?"
"She's right, Roshad. Only the hakan's blood can challenge him for the throne. But as soon as I marry Ulzhan, my blood becomes hers. She can challenge him. And from what I've heard, she'd lead the tribe better than I would."
"A wise assessment, my prince." Ulzhan let the bowstring go slack, and with a final mistrustful glance at Roshad set it down against the wall. She took the proffered dagger and slit her own palm, then reached forward to clasp Bors's hand.
"Gods," Roshad whispered. "I can't believe you're marrying her."
"What's a marriage, Rabbit?" Bors squeezed Ulzhan's hand, then pulled it back and showed Roshad the wound in his palm. "In the lands beyond the sea, this is just another scar."
"The lands beyond the sea..." Roshad grinned. "I guess you're right."
Bors reached up and tugged loose the yellow armband, then carefully wiped both his blood and Ulzhan's on it. She let him tie it around her wrist, the embroidered horse showing through the orange-red stain.
"It's done, then." Roshad said.
"Not quite." Bors reached down and drew the wooden sword from his sash. He held it out on flat palms, offering it to Ulzhan. "The Succession Sword. Lead the tribe well for me, Ulzhan."
Ulzhan stared unbelieving at the sword, then slowly took it, holding it upright before her face. "No," she said. "Not for you. The Horse Throne won't survive an absentee hakan. Once I challenge your father, I'll rule in my own name."
"Of course." Bors smiled. "You're the son he always wanted. Once he gets over the shock, I hope he sees the gift I've given him. And the tribe."
Ulzhan's eyes gleamed. She lowered the sword. "You're a strange man, Bors Kaskyrbai. But you would have made a fine husband." Swiftly, she stepped forward and kissed him on the lips, then pulled back a few inches to meet his gaze. "Don't come back."
Bors laughed. "Don't worry."
And then Ulzhan was through the door and gone.
Bors turned to Roshad. "Shall we?"
A laugh exploded from Roshad. "I can't believe you're married!"
"I believe I already was." Bors stooped and picked up the chain, then held it out to Roshad. "Are we leaving or not?"
"Oh, we're leaving all right." Roshad shoved the chain into his satchel, then turned around and braced his hands on his legs. "Your steed, my prince."
"Not prince." Bors secured his helm and sword and settled his bulk piggyback on Roshad. "Not anymore."
Then they were out the window, moving quickly down the stone wall. At the ground, they broke apart and moved swiftly over to the curtain wall, keeping the palace between them and the wedding pavilion. Figuring the time for subterfuge was past, Roshad grabbed the top and levered himself up and over, Bors just behind him.
"My horse is hidden on the south side of the camp," he said.
"And are you sentimentally attached to her?" Bors asked.
"What? No, why—"
But Bors was already whistling. In response, a herd of a dozen horses appeared from behind a screen of tents, the stallion at its head leading them right up to Bors. He scratched the beast's nose.
"That's amazing," Roshad said.
"What did you think it meant to be a horse prince?" Bors pulled himself up onto the stallion's back. He held out a hand for Roshad, and the sorcerer let himself be pulled up, seating himself in front. Bors dug in his heels, and they began to ride quickly through the tents. In moments, they were through the last of them and out onto the open steppe. Behind them, the sun rose above the hills in earnest, casting their shadow long in front of them.
"We'll never outrun them riding double," Roshad noted.
"We won't have to," Bors said. "I don't think they'll be coming after us again."
"You think your father will allow it?"
Bors laughed. "Honestly, it's a better arrangement than he could have hoped. But even he can't step away from a challenge. Ulzhan has the Succession Sword, and by the time he realizes I'm gone, she'll have issued the challenge. If she's half as good as everyone says, she'll take him apart. By the time he can see straight again, she'll be firmly on the Horse Throne, and we'll be over the horizon."
Roshad leaned back against Bors's chest. "And then?"
Bors wrapped one armored arm around him, holding him close.
"And then we'll see what there is to see."
Want more Bors and Roshad?
Coming Next Week: The return of Darvin and Fife in Lucien Soulban's "The Tide of Blood"!
James L. Sutter is the Managing Editor for Paizo Publishing and a co-creator of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. He is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novels Death's Heretic and The Redemption Engine, the former of which was #3 on Barnes & Noble's list of the Best Fantasy Releases of 2011 and a finalist for the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. He's written short stories for such publications as Escape Pod, Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the #1 Amazon best-seller Machine of Death. His anthology Before They Were Giants pairs the first published short stories of science fiction luminaries with new interviews and writing advice from the authors themselves. In addition, he's published a wealth of gaming material for both Dungeons & Dragons and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, including such fan-favorite Pathfinder Campaign Setting books as Distant Worlds and City of Strangers. For more information, check out jameslsutter.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameslsutter.
Illustration by Eric Belisle