Krul’Dar had spent several weeks watching Kor’Thank from afar. A few days ago, he’d lost track of him in a downpour of rain. The desert storms could strike with alarming speed—clear skies one moment, slashing tempests the next.
Krul was the only barbarian who cared for the king. The rest of the tribe had become complacent and this was no surprise: their bellies were full and the roads were safe. Only Krul’Dar, Chief Chronicler, heeded the lessons of those who had come before.
Fortunately for him, 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. Volcasian had grudgingly relented—he didn’t like deploying his men without a clear-cut purpose, but a request from the Chronicler was no small thing.
“Ho, Chronicler!” Orcasi Kylen, first sword of his ten-man skoold, called. “Look to the west!”
Krul’Dar swiveled his raptor mount, Ripsickle, thirty degrees left and spotted a lone figure running across the sands. Krul leaned forward, squinting 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 the Chronicler 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, clearly puzzled. “Uh…sorry? Who are you again?”
Krul’Dar’s heart sank in his chest. “ ’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 inches lower. The Indashi king was savage, yes, but he’d never been deceptive outside the battlefield. 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…”
“Your king,” Krul’Dar said in a neutral tone.
“King…” Kor’Thank surveyed his troop. “So that means you serve me. All of you.”
“That is correct.”
“Do I get to 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 mount. Indicate which one you’d like and—”
Kor’Thank flapped his hand—not now. “Maybe later. I’m enjoying my run. Good cardio, you know? Lead the way, Cruller.”
As the barbarians headed home, Krul’Dar’s unease blossomed into 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 good enough. 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 commanding an army of dino-riders, 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 decided to run, instead of ride. No need to bring any attention to the fact that she was a body-switching impostor. It 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 looked warily down at her from the back of his seven-foot dinosaur. “You’re not?”
“Pieces of my mind are…something’s 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. Aside from Holly, only a few people would have noticed—she had a keen eye for nonverbal cues. They served as crucial intelligence in 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. She was subject to a different set of rules than the ones on Earth. One of them, apparently, was that magic was real.
She struggled with this for a couple of seconds, then she realized it made perfect sense—she was in someone else’s body, for crying out loud.
Either that or she was still tripping balls.
Cruller was still waiting for her reply. “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…my Chief Chronicler, was it?”
“That is correct.”
The suspicion in his eyes lessened just a little bit more. It wasn’t quite gone, but that was okay—winning hearts and twisting minds was second nature to Holly Dent.
“My kingdom—how far does it extend?”
As Krul’Dar’s mount leapt over a mound of cactus, a bright spear of sunlight glanced off his left wrist brace. “From the Desolate Shoals to the Glimmering Reef. About eight hundred keldins from coast to coast.”
“Eight hundred kel—so 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…” his brow wrinkled a little more. “But I would have to say…twenty four hundred, give or take?”
Holly couldn’t keep the surprise from showing on 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 have been limited by the Ankaran Mountain Range. Our supply trains are unable to traverse it en masse, as the terrain is rough and tricksy. ’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 told me a fortnight ago. It was not my intention 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.”
She let the silence stretch.
Then: “Not yet, anyway.”