Krul’Dar had spent several weeks watching Kor’Thank from afar. A few days ago, he’d lost track of him in a blinding downpour. The desert storms could strike with alarming speed—clear skies one moment, slashing tempests the next.
Krul was seemingly the only Indashi who cared for the king. The rest of them believed that Kor’Thank would be fine; he was the ultimate warrior, after all, but Kor recognized the rationalization for what it was: complacency. Sadly, it didn’t come as a surprise. Bellies were full and the roads were safe.
Only Krul’Dar, Chief Chronicler, heeded the lessons of those who had come before.
Fortunately, his position came with a fair amount of influence. He’d managed to persuade Volcasian Firehand, Captain of the Guard, to loan him a forty-man detail. A request from the Chronicler was no small thing.
“Ho, Chronicler!” Orcasi Kylen, first sword of his ten-man skoold, called to Krul’Dar. “Look to the west!”
Krul’Dar swiveled his raptor thirty degrees left and spotted a lone figure running across the sands. He leaned forward and squinted his eyes. Definitely male…the same build as Kor’Thank…
Could it be?
“Steady on my heels!” Krul’Dar shouted. He squeezed his thighs, urging his mount forward. His barbarian troop followed closely behind, spreading out into an arrowhead formation.
Seconds later, Krul’s heart leapt in his chest—it was him! Whole and unharmed, praise Akanax!
But when he stopped before the king, a flash of doubt played through his mind. There was something off about Kor’s expression…and the way he held himself…
“My liege? How fare you?”
Kor’Thank looked him up and down. “Do I know you?”
Krul’Dar’s heart sank in his chest, but he didn’t let it show. “ ’Tis I—your Chief Chronicler. Do you not recognize me, Kor?”
Devilish calculation flitted through the king’s eyes, causing Krul’Dar’s heart to drop a few notches further. The king was savage, yes, but he’d never been deceptive outside of battle. He had an aptitude for strategy, but ironically (and blessedly, in Krul’Dar’s opinion) his guile had never bled over into personal dealings. This was different. This was—
“My Chief Chronicler,” Kor’Thank said slowly. “So that would make me your…”
“You are my king,” Krul’Dar said in a neutral tone.
“Your king…” Kor’Thank surveyed his troop. “So that means you serve me. All of you.”
“That is correct.”
“Can I ride a dinosaur?”
Krul’Dar wrinkled his brow—what the blingcock was a dinosaur? “If you wish for a war-raptor, any one of us would gladly relinquish our personal mount. Indicate which one you’d like and—”
Kor’Thank flapped his hand: not now. “Later, maybe. I’m enjoying my run. Good cardio, you know? Lead the way, Cruller.”
As the barbarians headed home, Krul’Dar’s unease blossomed into a heavy, cold dread.
What the in the Seven Hells was a cardio?
Holly didn’t know who these roid-monkeys were, but they were ready to serve her, and that was what mattered. She didn’t want to tip her hand—trying to ride one of those dino-thingies would be a dead giveaway she wasn’t their king, and that might fuck with her long-term plans. If she could return to Atherton with an army of barbarians at her beck and call, then Peter Lee would be in for a world of hurt.
But she had to play it close to the vest. That was why she’d chosen to run, instead of ride. No need to direct their attention to the fact that she was a body-switching impostor. And as ridiculous as it seemed, running alongside dinosaurs wasn’t an issue; thanks to the copious amounts of wormy-squirmies she’d ingested, she was barely sweating. She felt like she could out-squat the Rock, then take first place in the Boston Marathon.
After a few minutes, she decided to open with a half-truth: “I’m not the same person, Cruller.”
The guy named after her favorite kind of donut studied her face from atop his seven-foot dinosaur. “You’re not?”
“Pieces of my mind are…something happened to me out in the desert. I’m still confused as to what it was, exactly, but…” She shook her head. “I need your help. To remember who I am.”
Some of the tension bled from his features. Only a few people would have noticed, but Holly possessed a keen eye for nonverbal cues. They served as crucial intelligence in her Machiavellian stratagems.
“I suspected as much,” he said. “Perhaps you were ambushed by a rogue magician.”
It took deliberate effort, but she managed to keep her face blank and expressionless. Magician. Apparently, magic was real. At least here, anyway. She struggled with the concept for a couple of seconds, then she realized it made perfect sense—she was in someone else’s body, after all.
Either that or she was still tripping balls.
“Magician. Right.” She continued springing effortlessly across the sand. “I’m pronouncing your name wrong, aren’t I? It’s not ‘Cruller.’ ”
A curt nod. “Krul’Dar.” He pronounced it slowly, placing emphasis on each syllable: Krool Dahr.
“And you’re my…Chief Chronicler, was it?”
Another nod. “That is correct.” The suspicion in his eyes lessened just a tad. It was still there, but that was okay—winning hearts and twisting minds was one of Holly’s many talents.
“My kingdom—how far does it extend?”
Krul’Dar’s mount leapt over a bushel of cactus, and a bright spear of sunlight glanced off his wrist brace. “From the Desolate Shoals to the Glimmering Reef. About eight hundred keldins from coast to coast.”
“Eight hundred kel—what’s that in miles?”
Krul’Dar wrinkled his brow. “You’ll have to ask Hunbo, your Chief Mathemateer. ‘Miles’…that’s a term I haven’t heard in quite some time…twenty-four hundred, give or take?”
Holly couldn’t keep the surprise off her face. “Twenty four hundr—” Almost as big as the United States. She cleared her throat and regained her composure. “East to west or north to south?”
“East to west. Our southward incursions stop at the foothills of the Ankaran Mountain Range. Supply trains are unable to traverse it en masse, as the terrain is rough and tricksy, and Flaysac’s bandits have fortified the passes. ’Tis not a concern—there’s nothing there that would hold your interest.” He shot a quick glance at her, afraid he’d overstepped his bounds. “Or so you’ve told me on multiple occasions. I did not mean to place words in your mouth.”
“That’s okay,” Holly replied, gazing at the desert expanse looming before her. “I don’t have much to say.”
Then, a few seconds later: “Not yet, anyways.”