Authors: J. B. Simmons
Chapter 1 - Prologue
Chapter 2 - Coup In The Underworld
Chapter 3 - Smuggling Loyalty
Chapter 4 - A Close Shave
Chapter 5 - A Leveling Wind
Chapter 6 - Shining Unseen
Chapter 7 - Perils Of A Foreign Land
Chapter 8 - Family Archives
Chapter 9 - Femmes And Boys
Chapter 10 - Limited Perspective
Chapter 11 - The Stranger
Chapter 12 - Children's Senses
Chapter 13 - Immersion At Risk
Chapter 14 - Light From A Smuggler
Chapter 15 - The End Of A Man
Chapter 16 - Underworld Dreams
Chapter 17 - Strained Prayers
Chapter 18 - Threads Leading To Chaos
Chapter 19 - War Games
Chapter 20 - A Boy King's Princess
Chapter 21 - A Traitor To All
Chapter 22 - Faith And War
Chapter 23 - The Three Meet Again
Chapter 24 - Birth Pains
Chapter 25 - Breaking Out
Chapter 26 - Unexpected Unity
Chapter 27 - Signs Of A Renewed Life
Chapter 28 - Opportunity In A Stalemate
Chapter 29 - Dark Reunions
Chapter 30 - The Duel
Chapter 31 - The Power Of Last Words
Chapter 32 - Victory In Defeat
Chapter 33 - Epilogue
Quotations Before Chapters
BREAKING THE GLOAMING
Copyright©2014 by J.B. Simmons.
All rights reserved.
Names, characters, and incidents in this book are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Resemblance to actual events, locations, or persons is coincidental.
Cover by Soheil Hamidi Tousi.
For my dads
“By its light will the nations walk,
and the kings of the earth
will bring their glory into it.”
Two men and a woman sat in the high tower of an old noble house. The candles in the room had nearly burned down, but the first morning light was shining on the parchment before them.
They had negotiated over the words through the night. It had been mostly cordial, thanks in part to the wine, but a few threats and bribes had been necessary to find agreement on the stickier points. Now they were done, and each had applied their seals in blood.
Ravien stood with her hands planted on the table, staring down at the inked words. She had not wanted it to come to this. Andor was supposed to bring her brother back, but her brother was a proud man. He had been wrong to entrust Ramzi with power and wrong to try to dismantle the nobles. Still, Valemidas needed him to lead its army against the coming threat. At least her brother was last seen alive, and this agreement was the best chance of bringing him back. Mailyn had told only her that she carried Tryst’s child. Walking to the window, Ravien looked out over the ocean to the east of Valemidas. The view brought some peace, because it reminded her that she and Wren would be sailing away from this place for a while.
The old noble, Justus Davosman, paced around the table and the parchment. He had long feared that this day would come. The Lycurgus had been a step in the right direction, a return to the old ways of discipline and fortitude. Valemidas had grown too soft, and a city like that could never stand long against another people hungry for power. This agreement meant it would soon be time to spread the news that only the three in this room knew. If Andor had the courage, that news could save Valemidas. Davosman alone knew Andor’s parents and their lineage, which gave him hope in the restored prince.
Sebastian leaned back in his chair with a smile. His people, the Sunans, could not lose with this agreement. Either they conquer or they walk away with chests full of this city’s treasures. The infighting of their princes had left them vulnerable, as had generations of peace before Tryst. If his people conquered, no one would be in a better position to be prince than he. This agreement saw to that.
COUP IN THE UNDERWORLD
“The more I thought about it,
the more I dug out of my memory
things I had overlooked or forgotten.
I realized then that a man
who had lived only one day
could easily live for
a hundred years in prison.
He would have enough memories
to keep him from being bored.
In a way, it was an advantage.”
The room was dark, and not because of a change in the light. The dim gray light was the same as always, seeping into our city from the top of the wall around us. The room was dark because I was in it, starving and alone.
I sat cross-legged in the center of the emptiness. This was my perch atop the tallest building in the Gloaming. I stared down at the floor, at the knots of wood twisted over the long lives of long dead trees. I understood knots like these. They were scars from a wounded past.
My mind reeled through the recent months. It all started when I woke Andor with a sword at his neck. I had stolen his throne, and I had sent him here to rot. There were no emotions in that memory. There was only obedience—obedience to Ramzi, my now-headless advisor, and to my will to power. Once I gained that power, I had gone parading to war.
But then Andor’s face had appeared again, returned from this city of the lost. I remembered my anger when I saw him in Icaria. I remembered my pain when everyone, even my own sisters, betrayed me for him. I remembered when he cast me down here and followed after me.I came to bring you out, he had said. The words haunted me, for I had denied him and attacked. It ended with a dagger stabbing through my hand, Andor escaping, and me going into a rage against the men who failed to stop him. Then came my solitude in this dark, empty room.
At least the hole in my hand was starting to heal. Soon after Andor had pierced it, the wound had swollen into a blazing mound of red flesh. The skin around it seemed to suck up all my heat. My body and mind grew feverish, furious.
I had risked one visit to the floor below, where I had told my strongest man, Cain, to find salt and a clean bit of cloth. Cain was a murderer and a rapist—the kind of man destined to decay in the Gloaming. Still, he had served me well. In little time, he had returned to me with water and a salty cloth. I did not ask about the source of the salt. It was better not to know whether it was sweat wiped from some dying man.
I had taken the food, cleaned my festering wound, and settled into a fitful sleep. As my body had fought back the infection, Cain maintained order in my place. He was to seek me only if our rule became endangered, but he did not come again. Time passed in quiet. Minutes became hours and maybe days. My hand began to heal, but the dimension of time was lost to me. Everything was pain and darkness, pierced by occasional shouts of men fighting to the death. That was the Gloaming.
Now that the fever was lifting, my stomach ached with hunger. I was tired of sitting alone with my memories. I rose and staggered down the steps.
Cain was there, talking with a handful of men. He was a brute, towering over the others. His face was blunt and covered in scars. I did not recognize any of the men behind him. It seemed he had replaced my original group with his own. I glanced at a handsome pile of food in the far corner. Then Cain spotted me.
“What did I tell you?” Cain jeered at me. “He’s alive. It was just a matter of time before he came groveling for food.” The brute stepped toward me. “Sword on the ground. Do it now and you might live.”
I stayed on the stairs, with the prince’s sword Zarathus held in front of me and my other hand hidden behind my back. “You supported me from the beginning,” I said. “I gave you order and a home here. Now you betray me?”
“This is no home,” Cain answered, moving closer. “This is a battleground. We were loyal to your creed, not to you.” His voice was low and raspy, like a common criminal. “The strong take what they can, the weak suffer what they must.” He said the words that Ramzi and I had loved.
“You think I am weak, but you are wrong.” I tried to project strength, though I was too weak to fight them all. “Come, test my creed. But before you do, know that you can lay down your arms now, step back, and remain free to rule under me.”
“I cannot do that.” Cain stepped up the first stair, blade drawn, within range. It was the same blade I had used against Andor. The rust had been removed. “Give me the sword now or die.” He and his men tensed to strike.
I swung Zarathus down at him. Cain deflected the attack. He pressed forward, his men close behind, and I stepped backwards up the stairs, holding the higher ground.
I knew I could not stand for long. The men threw pieces of bone and stone at me as Cain hammered away with his blade. He was brutally strong, and my one good arm barely held him back. Zarathus was meant for two hands, and I was distracted trying to dodge whatever the other men hurled at me.
I saw one thrown rock too late. It slammed into my shoulder and almost knocked my blade to the floor. I turned and fled up the stairs. I ran to the far side of my dark room. There I would have more space to move, more time to think. But there was nowhere to escape.
Cain charged into the room after me. He slowed as he drew closer, to allow his men to stay close. He still knew better than to fight me by himself.
I found my back against the wall, with the men forming a net around me. I shouted out in desperation. “Who is with me?”
My shout made everything pause for an instant.
Then one man answered, “For Tryst!”
I dashed toward him, at the corner of the room and the far end of the encircling men. He had young, wild eyes. He pointed with a rusted dagger to the stairs, and turned to run along the edge of the room. The momentary confusion was gone, and men moved to stop us.
I swept Zarathus low and slashed at the legs of the nearest men. One went down screaming. It gave me space to leap out of their net. I charged after the man who had answered me. Cain and the others stampeded after us.
My new ally was struggling to fight past a man who was guarding the stairs. I stabbed my blade into the man’s side without slowing. I retreated down the stairs, the ally following after me.
No one else blocked the way. We bounded down six flights of stairs and were out the door at the bottom of the building before I risked a look back.
The man with me ran with an odd grace, like a gazelle. I tucked Zarathus under my bad arm and pulled out the last of my daggers. The next man out of the building was Cain. I flung the little blade at his chest.
He ducked aside too late. The metal sank into his shoulder. He fell to his knees, and the men with him stopped. They were not so brave without their leader, but he would survive, and so would we.
“Let’s go,” I said to the gazelle. To rebuild my reign, he might be a good man to start with.
He nodded with a wild edge in his eyes. “Follow me.” He sprinted off a different way.
I had little choice but to follow. I was weakened and would not live long on my own. The last time a hand reached down to pull me up, my pride had denied it and led to this mess. I would not make the same mistake again.
“Fortune is like the market where,
many times, if you can stay a little
the price will fall.”
The smuggler breathed easier when he sailed into the River Tyne before dawn. A light wind pulled his boat through the calm, brackish water, like it was carving through glass. Men might be more likely to catch him and kill him here, but at least the ocean was behind him.
In fifty voyages between Sunan and Valemidas, he had never seen tempests like those of the past month. Storm clouds had taken on personality, black and furious. Lightning had struck with such fierceness that he could still feel the thunder reverberating in his head. Waves rose to four times the height of his main sail. Next time he needed a bigger boat, and maybe a crew.
If this trip succeeded, he could afford that next boat. His services were in high demand. One buyer was a double-crossing spy who wanted information. There was also a pair of greedy merchant brothers who wanted goods for the black market. Who they were or what they wanted did not matter to the smuggler. He would take anyone’s gold. His right to nobler pursuits had been stolen many years past.
He stayed close to the south bank of the river as he passed Valemidas. The city was asleep and beautiful. He should not have liked the foreign capital more than he liked his own, but its grandeur was undeniable. The buildings grew up at irregular heights, their steep slate roofs pale in the moonlight. No building reached half the height of the palace that arose from a rocky bluff over the river. The towers and spires and walls were uneven but harmonious, in the way a garden grows from straightly planted lines into a jumble that allows each bloom to capture the most light.
The smuggler pulled his eyes away from the city to monitor the river. Even though his boat was alone on the water, he let down nets to play the part of a fisherman. His first buyer, the spy, had left clear instructions about the precautions, as if the smuggler needed to be reminded of the peril. It was his business to evade detection. No one else had made as many prohibited voyages between the two great cities.
The sun had just crested over the ocean behind him when he spotted a small outcrop in the distance. This was where he would meet the spy. No other vessels were in sight. Valemidas was safely behind him and a dense forest awaited him. Tall green trees lined both sides of the river, which was still too far across to throw a stone. He veered to the middle of the water, telling himself it was because the wind shifted and pretending that he did not fear trees. What man feared a forest? A man who grew up in a desert, he laughed to himself.
Once he was even with the rocks protruding from the otherwise flat southern riverbank, he tacked straight toward them. The boat had hardly touched shore when a dark figure leaped aboard and slammed into him. Next thing he knew, a hooded man was holding him over the rail.
“Where is His Excellency?” The man demanded. The smuggler felt some relief on hearing the cue.
“His Excellency Ilir sits on the golden throne, but I follow your call like a desert thrush.”
The man let him loose on the deck and flung back his hood.
“Some welcome, Sebastian,” the smuggler said as he rose to his feet and smoothed his clothes. “Is that any way to greet an old friend?”
The spy’s face was stern, marked by the royal tattoo beside his left eye. The tattoo and their place of birth might have been the only things the two men had in common.
“Are you alone?” Sebastian began searching the tiny boat.
“Of course I am. No one can abide my smell for long. The woman I brought with me survived only a week before jumping into the sea to rid herself of me.”
“Were you followed?” The spy ignored the attempt at humor.
“Does it look like it?” The smuggler shrugged and nodded toward the empty river. The Sebastian he remembered had smiled as a boy. Apparently that boy died sometime after he came to Valemidas.
The smuggler pulled out a flask and took a drink. “You are too tense, Sebastian. Rum?” He offered him the flask. “Makes for a great breakfast.”
“I drink only water,” Sebastian said. He pulled out a small bag that jingled with coins. “What messages do you have for me?” At least he seemed satisfied that they were alone. The smuggler found him boring yet terrifying—a poor mix.
“I bring two messages, but I expected a bigger bag. A bag of gold for each message?” The smuggler held out his hand.
To his surprise, Sebastian gave him the bag. He opened it and was surprised again to see silver instead of gold.
“That is for the message from my father.” Sebastian reached into his cloak for another, slightly larger bag. “This one is for the message from His Excellency. If your words satisfy me, you can leave with both.”
“A hard bargain.” The smuggler grinned and was met with a blank stare. Boring and terrifying. He figured he had little choice, as not speaking would result in some torture to make him speak. Besides, he wanted the gold.
“Your father has been raised to the Triumvirate,” the smuggler said. “So until His Excellency reaches eighteen in a few months, your father and the two priests, Malam and Ilias, rule Sunan as its stewards. His Excellency invited your father because he is the only family he has left…except for you.” The words brought the first flinch of emotion to Sebastian’s face, as the smuggler knew they would.
The smuggler continued, “The two priests lead the competing sects of the faith. Malam wants Sunan to invade, to convert the Valemidans into worshipers of His Excellency, and to kill those who refuse to repent. Ilias comes up with excuses for delay, for peace, for whatever is not war. He says those who believe in our god can coexist with those who believe in the god of Valemidas.”
“I know all this,” Sebastian interrupted. “What is the message from my father?”
“Yes, the message from your father.” The smuggler took a swig from his flask to steady himself. The boat felt too still under his sea legs. “Seban says his way and your way are prevailing. He says His Excellency’s mind is young and loyal to the family. His Excellency understands the alignment of faith and politics. He understands the glory to be won here and after death. He understands your role. That’s all of it.”
The smuggler found it hard to believe that message was worth a bag of silver, but he was happy to take it.
“You want to give me that bag, too?” He asked.
“Nothing more from him?”
“Here.” Sebastian held out the bag but did not release it when the smuggler grabbed it. “You realize what will happen to you if you leave something out or lie?”
“I’m guessing I won’t be leaving with this bag?”
“You won’t be leaving at all,” Sebastian answered.
“You know me, Sebastian.” The smuggler pulled his cloak closer. “I care little for these games. I want the money. What could I hope to gain by misrepresenting anything to you? My family’s defeat is as final as the grave, as it has been for twenty years.”
Sebastian held the smuggler’s gaze for a long moment but eventually let go of the bag. The smuggler tucked it into his cloak and continued with the second message.
“His Excellency sends his fondest respects to you. He says the place is prepared for you, if you perform your duties. He said you must not reveal your true loyalties until the last possible moment. Stay true to your path until he calls upon you. You will be rewarded for your service to him.”
Sebastian looked away and was quiet. The smuggler began to sweat despite the cool morning air. He had never seen the spy so reticent.
“That is everything, Sebastian. I should be on my way, one more delivery before I return to Sunan.” The smuggler realized he had said too much as soon as the words left his mouth. No more rum for breakfast, he thought.
“You are only a threat to me now.” Sebastian turned to face him. “Someone else can deliver my messages back to Sunan.”
The dark man pulled out a dagger and stepped toward the smuggler.
The smuggler had no chance in a knife fight, but he had one advantage. No one knew this boat better than himself. As he backed away he pulled a lever on the deck, which gently pushed the boat off the bank. Sebastian ignored the movement.
“His Excellency’s father was right to exile you, Cid.” Sebastian showed his teeth the first time, as if the possibility of death brought out his true self. He snarled more than smiled. “You know His Excellency is my cousin. If my father had only stayed sober, he would have taken the throne when we killed your family. The throne would have been mine next. I would have been god’s presence to the Sunans. Such a thing cannot be denied when it is destiny. I will return to my rightful place.”
The smuggler was stunned by the words. What he thought he knew about Sebastian was all wrong. This was not going to end well. He had to survive to tell Ilias.
“Your secrets are safe with me,” the smuggler said. “I can help you.”
“No secrets are safe,” Sebastian replied, “and I am not taking any risks with you.”
Sebastian pressed closer, cornering the smuggler into the stern of the boat. The smuggler pulled hard on a thick rope to his right. It slipped off of a hook and the tension brought the boom of the sail swinging around. The boom slammed into Sebastian before he could move away.
The smuggler used the distraction and the momentum to charge and shove the spy over the boat’s rail. Sebastian splashed into the river below.
The smuggler quickly drew the sail to catch the wind. He raced away on the current of the river. His body shivered in a cold sweat.
It was true that he had left the politics of Sunan behind him, but maybe he would make an exception for Sebastian. Betraying the Valemidan prince might be forgiven. Betraying both the prince and His Excellency? That crossed a line even for a smuggler who abandoned morals long ago. He would do everything he could to keep Sebastian out of power.
He took another swig of rum and wiped his mouth. The next meeting would go better, he was sure of it. The merchants, Wren and Jon Sterling, wanted black-market goods from Sunan. They would give him wine and smile as they handed over gold. Sebastian could learn from that kind of dealing.
A small grin touched the smuggler’s face as he thought of the spy trudging back to Valemidas, drenched and furious.
A CLOSE SHAVE
“How pleasant it is for a father
to sit at his child’s board.
It is like an aged man reclining
under the shadow of an oak
which he has planted.”
Justus Davosman could not relax despite his soft chair. He leaned back and stared at his reflection in the mirror as his two servants worked. The face he saw was tired but eager.
The older of the two servants held a long, sharp blade. She carefully dragged it across his skin, shaving off the one-day stubble. The younger girl hauled in proposed attire for the day. He pointed to a plain white tunic, with only a little lace. He wanted something more drab than what the nobles usually wore.
This morning he would meet with Prince Andor for the first time since the coup. His own adopted son was the prince again. Justus would never forget the first time he laid eyes on the boy.
Some twenty years ago, Father Yates had asked him to visit the orphanage in the Cathedral. The number of parentless children there had shocked him. In a long cellar hall of the Cathedral, dozens of boys and girls were lined up for a dinner of porridge. They scrambled to be first in line for the food, as if there would not be enough for them all. As soon as one of them clasped a bowl and a spoon, he or she would retreat to devour the meal. Three old women tried to maintain order, but there were too many children to control.
Soon after Sir Davosman had arrived, one little boy, far from the oldest, climbed onto the table where the food was being served. His boyish voice commanded the others to stay in line and wait for their turn. Many of the other children stopped pushing and obeyed as if there were no option, but an older boy pushed forward to challenge the young leader. The surrounding children froze to watch as the older boy jumped onto the table and tried to shove the younger one off. The challenger stood a head taller and looked intent on knocking the small boy down. As the older one rushed, the younger boy ducked and dodged with the instincts of a fighter. He used the larger boy’s momentum to sling him to the floor. He then grabbed a large bowl of the porridge and dumped it on the larger boy’s head, which made the other children erupt in laughter.
Justus would never forget the child’s next words.I would rather not waste any more porridge tonight, the boy had said.It would be better for us all if you obeyed me.
The contrast of his weighty words and his squeaky voice had brought a rare smile to Justus’ face. No other challenger arose as the little boy stood firm on the table until the last of the children had gotten their dinner and eaten in peace.
That night Justus asked Father Yates about how the boy had come to the orphanage. The priest explained that every year a vessel arrived from the Sunan people with a note of peace. The tradition was part of the legend of the huge white tree at the center of Valemidas. Because the tradition’s significance had long ago been forgotten, the ritual of receiving the note of peace and responding had fallen to the priest who led the Cathedral.
Some days before Justus’s visit to the orphanage, the annual note of peace had arrived, carried by a young boy and including a cryptic warning in the Sunan language. Father Yates had it translated by a young priest from that foreign land. The note’s message was:There is a new ruler in Sunan, a ruler without the taint of Valemidan blood. Our people grow restless, weary of your debt and of peace. Protect the blood that I return to you, for I fear little else will be able to save you when the war comes.
After that story, Yates had asked Justus to raise the boy as his own son, in his noble house. Although the old priest was never too specific about it, Justus pieced together enough of the story to believe that Andor was the descendent of Aden, the great Valemidas prince who had invaded Sunan and then brokered peace with them. What Justus had seen in Andor as he grew never made him question that belief. The boy was like an oak sapling among ferns.
Sometimes Justus wondered whether he had let Andor rise too fast, positioning him to be prince before he had thickened in the ways of a man, a grown oak. But the throne opened rarely, and Justus supported his boy when the opportunity came. Andor was a young candidate then, but already loved by the people. With Justus’s maneuvering, the nobles nominated him and the path from there was straight to the throne.
Full of vigor and pride, Andor set out bold goals for his reign—loosening power over city-states, building roads to better connect them, reducing taxes, regulations, and the spending of nobles. It was unprecedented change, as if nothing could stop him. But Andor failed to detect the threat emerging at his side. Tryst had fallen just short in his push for the throne, and he had not given up when his peer was elected. Betrayal and upheaval followed in Tryst’s wake. Justus harbored guilt for not demanding that Andor avoid keeping such a man so close.
Now, as he stood from his chair and rubbed the smooth skin of his cheek, Justus was more thankful than ever that the rightful prince sat on the throne. This was not a day to dwell on past failures.
He finished dressing and put on a pair of leather boots. As he prepared to leave, he thought of stopping by his other son’s room to invite him to join. He decided against it. Jonas would be sleeping for hours more after yet another late night at a tavern. Though Jonas was his son by blood, Andor was the son Justus had always wanted.
Justus left his estate with personal guards surrounding him. The hot summer had turned into autumn, and the morning air was cool. He walked briskly to the plaza below the palace. This early in the day, only a few merchants had begun setting up their stands. The white tree stood, as always, as the sentinel of the open space. Justus climbed the stairs and began to sweat. As he entered the palace doors, the knights on either side nodded at him knowingly. He signaled for his guards to stay behind.
Andor had beckoned him to come to his private chambers, not the throne room. Justus took that as a good sign. He had been to the chambers only once before, the week after Andor had risen to the throne the first time. That had been one of their few conversations during his first reign, and it had ended poorly. There had been tension between them then. Justus realized now that he might have pushed too hard against the young prince, trying to shape his reign. Andor had spurned Justus’s advice, insisting that the prince could not bow to a noble’s wishes, even if that noble had raised him. Justus had overreacted by pulling away. Each man’s pride and power had wedged between them.
Much had changed since then. Soon after Andor had escaped the Gloaming, he had written to Justus for help. Justus had done everything in his power to rally the nobles’ support, to prepare the way for Andor’s return to the throne. Although they had worked separately and from afar, their efforts had united and succeeded in deposing Tryst.
And now here Andor was, Justus thought, as servants knocked on the doors of prince’s quarters. The thick wood thudded with each knock until it swung open with a mix of invitation and threat. Justus did not fear the prince, but he feared the threat he faced, and how it might divide the Valemidans, even a father and his son.
Justus’s concerns faded when he saw Andor. His son hurried forward to welcome him. They embraced.
“Father, if I did not know you better, I would think you are smiling.”
“Even an old man can learn new tricks,” Justus said. “How could I hide my joy in your return to your proper place? Your descent into the Gloaming left many doubtful that you would rise out again. Now here you are, mostly mended.” Justus reached out and touched the fresh scar on the prince’s cheek. His skin was still too light, and his hair almost white. Justus had never seen a man’s coloring change like that.
“The wounds are nothing.” Andor looked away as if to avoid the subject. He gestured towards two chairs on a balcony. “Come, let’s talk as we once did, a father to his son. I want to hear what has caused the unflappable Sir Justus Davosman to request an urgent audience with the prince.”
“I am afraid it is not good tidings.” Justus walked to one of the chairs on the balcony but stayed on his feet. He looked over the ocean to the east. “I have learned that another threat looms.”
“Threats will always loom for Valemidas and its prince.” Andor leaned back in his chair with his arms behind his head.
“You said something like that once before,” Justus said, “when I warned you about keeping Tryst so close.”
A shadow crossed Andor’s face. He leaned forward and held Justus in a steady gaze. “Tell me more about this threat on the horizon. Is it about the Gloaming?”
“No,” Justus replied, “not the Gloaming. You must deal with the place eventually, but there are more pressing concerns.” Justus needed to keep Andor’s attention away from the Gloaming to fulfill his end of the agreement. He could see the memories weighing on Andor. His son had not been the same since his return.
“I cannot wait long,” Andor said. “I have already ordered the minister of prisons to figure out how to get the men out, and then what to do with a few hundred starving criminals and a deposed prince, especially when our dungeons lack room for them. In the meantime, the minister will be sending more food down there. More food, but no more men.” Andor sighed. “None of that’s enough, though. I need to learn more about the Gloaming. Most do not even know of its existence. It seems the dungeon keepers grew bold over the years without a prince’s oversight. But tell me about this new threat.”
“You know the story of the white tree?” The old noble began carefully. It was not the time to reveal too much about how personally this could touch Andor.
“Of course.” Andor said. “The tutors in your noble house made me memorize it. The story begins, ‘Many years ago, under the legendary reign of Prince Aden, the great knights and soldiers of Valemidas sailed across the sea to conquer the fertile land of the Sunans.’ Although the tutors never said as much, it was clear we did not win that war. Prince Aden paid for his failure with a costly peace—many men dead, and his son was traded for the seed of a tree. If you plan to tell me that the tree is now dying, that much is plain to any eye.”
“Do you believe the things of this world are connected?” Justus asked.
“Yes,” Andor said. “You mean to tell me that the tree’s decay is tied to something else?”
“The facts will come, Andor, but I fear it may then be too late. Remember the example of Tryst. I warned you of my feelings about the corroding connection of you and Tryst before he betrayed you. I had no evidence of his plotting. He seemed loyal and devoted to you, with more zeal than any others, but I sensed something was amiss. So did Father Yates. We were right.”
Justus sat in the chair beside Andor, leaning close as he continued. “You know I am a man of reason. Yet reason has limits. Sometimes your gut, your soul, leads you to a deeper truth about the connections in this world.”
“You sound like Father Yates,” Andor said. “Not long ago, I would have dismissed such talk, but the Gloaming changed me. You have my ear. What danger do you sense?”
“What does the white tree stand for?” Justus asked.
“For peace, I suppose. You fear that its decay is a sign of danger to our peace?”
“More specifically,” Justus answered, “a sign—”
Three hard knocks on the door cut him short. It swung open without waiting on an answer, and Sebastian walked in.
“My prince, Sir Davosman,” the man bowed low, “apologies for the intrusion. I come with urgent news.” The chief of spies wore his usual black, but the cloth seemed damp, as if just washed. His eyes were red and he had not shaved, which was unusual for him.
Andor rose from his chair and stood before Sebastian, with Justus at his side. “What is it, Sebastian?”
“I have just learned that the Sunans are planning to invade. Their forces set sail soon. We should expect them to arrive before winter.” The man spoke with the passion of a servant reporting on the prince’s breakfast menu.
Justus prayed, as he had many times in recent days, that he truly had the upper hand in his pact with Sebastian and Ravien. There were too many unknowns about their plots. Sebastian was not a man to take lightly, nor to trust completely.
“Coming for the gold Valemidas owes them?” The prince responded. “It was only a matter of time, with the debt, the dying tree, and other signs. For this news, Sebastian, I must ask something I usually would not. What is your source?”
A tense look passed between the men. Good, Justus thought, some distrust persists, as it should. Maybe Sebastian had remained loyal to Andor during all of Tryst’s reign, but it was doubtful. A turncloak could turn again.
“My duties do not permit me to reveal all my sources,” Sebastian said, choosing his words with apparent caution. “For you, my prince, I will say this. I had more time with Ramzi just before his death. He knew many things, and his connections to the Sunans ran deep.”
“What did Ramzi say to you? The exact words,” Andor demanded.
“Much of what he said was worthless. When I pressed about his Sunan ties, he confessed to regular, secret communications with someone in that land. He told me, in bitter words:the disciplined zeal of the Sunans will be the end of this sinful city and its lands. With Tryst, we could have forged an alliance. With Andor, they will smell weakness and Valemidas will be conquered before he reigns another year.”
“You said they would come before winter, Sebastian. That’s a few months.” The prince’s voice grew firmer. “How do you know?”
“I received a report from merchants who had passed through Sunan,” Sebastian answered flatly. It sounded like a lie.
“You received a report from merchants. That is all you have for me?” The prince turned away from the spy, to look out over the sea again. Sebastian stood in silence.
Justus sensed that Andor was struggling to contain his distrust and his frustration. The prince owed much to Sebastian, and he needed his information. That made the prince vulnerable to a man who had been born among the same people who now threatened war. Justus was trying to find words to break the quiet when the door of Andor’s bedchambers opened.
Lorien walked in. Her hair was pulled back, revealing the sharp lines of her chin and neck and shoulders. She looked every bit the princess, poised and prepared. Her entrance was like a drop of fragrant oil into a mud puddle.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” she said warmly as she walked to Andor’s side. “Sebastian, your reports are much appreciated as always. What was the name of your merchant source, and are any of them still in Valemidas?” Justus figured she had been listening to the whole conversation.
“My lady,” Sebastian replied, “the merchants did not give me their names, and they have since left our city.”
“How many merchants were there?” Lorien asked in an innocent tone.
“There were a few of them. These men always travel in small groups.”
“How many did you speak to?” Her eyes locked with Sebastian’s.
“I spoke to them all. One of them provided most of the information.”
“When did you speak to them?”
“It was three days ago, while the prince was away.” Sebastian looked to Andor, who was still and listening while his wife pressed further.
“What time of day?” Lorien asked.
“Early in the morning.”
“When did they leave?”
“Later that day.”
“Did you try to stop them, delay them until Andor could speak with them?”
“No.” Sebastian hesitated. “My duty to the prince is to gather information and provide it to him. I serve him, I protect him.” His voice was growing defensive.
“You waited three days before telling us?”
“I waited until today because this is the first day the prince has held meetings. He needed rest to recover from all that happened in the Gloaming.” Sebastian glanced to Andor, then back to Lorien. “What is the point of your questions? I have proved my loyalty. Andor would not have the throne without my betrayal of Tryst.”
“Oh, Sebastian!” Lorien responded with affection. “Your actions leave no doubt about your loyalty. Forgive my curiosity. I simply want to understand more, to know our threat so that we can respond to it in due course. We owe the Sunans a great debt, and we must do everything in our power to pay it.”
She turned to Andor. “Can we reconvene with these fine men later today? You may remember that you have another engagement now.”
The prince nodded. “This is dire news. We will meet again today, and many times in the days to come. Valemidas will stand against the Sunans, if it comes to war. I will do all in my power to avoid that.”
“Some wars cannot be avoided,” Justus said.
“All wars can be avoided.” Andor spoke as if there could be no further discussion. “Both of you, come to the throne room at midday. We will confer with others on the warnings you bring.”
Justus and Sebastian bowed and departed. They spoke not a word as they went their separate ways, but their agreement bound them. Justus was glad for it, because he knew Andor could not ignore this threat. It was coming, and he would make sure the prince was ready to fight it.
A LEVELING WIND
“The only way to deal
with an unfree world
is to become so absolutely free
that your very existence
is an act of rebellion.”
The gazelle was not easy to follow as he ran through the Gloaming, but I stayed close at his heels until we entered a building and reached a tiny room at the top, like an attic. It had no windows and a single trap door on the floor, the one we had used to climb into the room.
“My name is Mersault,” the man panted, once we were safe in his hiding place.
“And you know my name.” I was wary, with my sword Zarathus held tight at my side.
“Relax, Tryst. You can thank me later. I think you would be dead right now, if not for me. Lucky for you they kept me around to run errands. That was getting boring.” His voice chirped like a cricket, shrill and quivering. “Cain and his men almost killed you even with my help. Good thing you are handy with that sword, eh?” He wore a bright smile, too bright for a place like this. “You do not remember meeting me before?”
I studied his face for the first time. Underneath the dirt, the beard, and the charade smile, there was a young man I recognized. He was the son of a noble, one of the minor houses, Camden, I thought. Mersault Camden, not even twenty years old, but he looked like he had aged a lifetime.
I had ordered his kidnapping months ago. He had kneeled before me, pleading for release, promising riches and his sister’s hand in marriage. His father, Sir Camden, had opposed my rise to the throne. The disappearance of his son had silenced him, because he feared even more my threat that his daughter would be next if he did not obey me. I had sent Mersault to the dungeons, and Ramzi must have sent him here. I never should have given Ramzi dominion over what happened below me.
“Oh good, you do recognize me.” Mersault sat back against the wall and ran his hand through his filthy brown hair. “Sit, Tryst. Let’s talk about what we’ll do next.”
I did not sit. “Whatwewill do next?” I asked, almost amused by his confident tone. The fallen noble’s son may have saved me, but that did not mean I would be following his lead.
“Weare the only ones sitting here,” he replied, “so yes, whatwewill do next.” There was a fanatical glare in his eyes. “You can kill me if you like, but even then,wewould be doing something. You killing me, me dying,wewould be doing it together, you see? Why not enjoy this moment ofwe?” His questions were as hollow as his emaciated face.
“How long have you been down here?” Part of me wanted to back away from him, to duck out the door on the floor and face the Gloaming alone. But another part of me prevailed—the part that was tired, unwilling to move, and unwilling to be alone again. I stayed where I was.
“Longer than you, longer than life itself.” He stood and paced. “Long enough to learn the way of things, the meaning of things, or the lack of any meaning. Is there time in the Gloaming? It is like a purgatory of man’s worst, without the excitement of the fires of hell.”
His head snapped toward me. “At least we can eat in purgatory. Let’s find some food.”
“That sounds like a fine plan,” I said. Maybe hunger was driving Mersault mad. I was starving.
“More food has been falling lately. It is a little easier to avoid an empty belly.” He patted his bare, flat stomach. “Cain gathered quite a stash under your name. Now it’s his, and you’re gone, a shadow like me.” He stepped close and reached out as if to pat my shoulder in sympathy.
“Sit down,” I said.
He pulled his hand back and eyed me curiously. He then began pacing again.
“What is the problem, Tryst? Are you still striving for something? You might as well give that up. What will you gain down here?” He turned to me with an unnerving stare.
“If you sit, I’ll sit.” He was bouncing from foot to foot.
“Sit. Now!” I shouted, my composure slipping, my sword suddenly pointed at his face. He froze in place.
“So have you decided that you will kill me?” He looked along the length of the shining blade. “That is what we will do next? I might say, I had hoped for a better reason than my pacing, but so be it. Just do what you like, whatever you feel. That is as much freedom as you can find down here. Now I feel like sitting. See?”
He shrugged and sat down. I lowered my sword and sat across from him. I struggled to regain my composure with his eyes dancing all around.
“Weshall sit! Yes, let’s sit and chat. A fallen prince and a fallen scion. We make a good team, Tryst. I would almost say we were meant to be here together, if I had any reason to believe in fate and other such fancies.” He hugged his knees and rocked, his eyes looking into me or through me. “You know, we always had this in common: we are likeable fellows, but no one ever liked us. What a riddle! Do you have an answer for that?”
“Enough babbling,” I responded calmly, hoping to settle the man’s nerves and mine. “Why did you speak out for me, to try to save me back there against Cain?”
He looked at me differently, with a hint of sincerity. “We are alike, you and me. I lost my mother when I was young, too. I was always second in my father’s eyes, too. He would have chosen my cousin to lead our house after he died. Just like your own father wanted Andor to be the prince instead of you.”
He paused, his gaze distant and blank. No one had mentioned my father’s choice in a long time. It was a memory I had avoided—my father explaining to me, in his always-patient voice, that he supported Andor for the throne, without even mentioning my own eligibility. I had been only a year younger than Andor, with more talent with the sword. My father had known well my desire to rule, and he had rejected me. My own father. Still, it had not been easy to slip poison into his breakfast.
“We handled the pain differently,” Mersault said. He was studying me. “I tried to drown the pain in pleasures and wine, and you tried to overwhelm it with power and success. It worked for a season, didn’t it?” Something like a tinge of lunacy lifted his brows. “But look at us! Together, in pain, in the Gloaming! Maybeweshould have tried something different—”
I cringed back as he burst out into laughter. A hysteric fit coursed through his body and forced him to the ground as if he had been struck by a seizure. He lay there, cackling, curled like a fetus. His shrieking vibrated between glee and insanity.
The sound crammed into every nook of the attic and overwhelmed me. My body tightened. My mind cramped. I was not ready for this. I could not watch a man break like this.
“SILENCE!” I roared.
He cackled louder, writhing on the floor.
“I will kill you!”
He froze and looked at me. His eyes were perfectly round and brown and open and innocent. They were the eyes of a child, a boy who had no business in a place like this. Something about those eyes shattered my resolve.
My face fell into my hands, and I began to weep. I thought of this man’s words, this lunatic telling me we were alike because everyone hated us. I though of my father. All the control I had clenched my fists around began to slip. I began to unravel, powerless to stop it.
I had not wept in years. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I cried for a long time before I realized that Mersault was beside me, patting my back.
“Tryst, Tryst,” he was saying gently. “Tryst, it is okay. Everybody knows life is not worth living. Everyone we know will someday die. Deep down we all know it does not matter. Others will go on living either way. When and how we die does not matter. None of it matters.”
His words washed over me. I gained control over my breath. I stood and paced, trying to steady myself. My soul could not manage the emptiness, the thought that nothing mattered.
Mersault started laughing again.
Maybe I was missing something, and thus, everything.
“Then they cry out
to the Lord in their trouble,And He brings them
out of their distresses.
He calms the storm,
so that its waves are still.
Then they are glad
because they are quiet;So He guides them
to their desired haven.”
Father Yates gazed across the waves to the city of Valemidas rising before him. He held his hand over his eyes to shade the golden light of the late afternoon sun. Beyond the water and coast, a rocky hill held up the palace, giving it a domineering perch. Many princes had ruled from that perch, but none had faced quite what Andor did now.
It had been a few weeks since Andor had returned from his failed attempt to bring Tryst out of the Gloaming. After letting him rest for a couple days, the prince’s advisors had smothered him, overwhelming him with each day’s pressing issues. Topping them all was the threat of invasion. Yates knew those threats, but he was unsure of what to do about them. Three days ago he had retreated to the island monastery called the Mont.
The Mont sat on a rock that jutted from the sea. It was outside the bustle of Valemidas, but within its sight. At the lowest tide, a razor-thin causeway connected the island to the city. A man could run across it if he was fast, otherwise he would be caught up in the rising tide. The monastery that sat atop the Mont was an uninteresting and self-sufficient place. It was a world apart. It housed fifteen nuns and five old priests retired from their duties. Yates found solitude there a few times a year.
He spent that solitude on his knees. He prayed for peace. He pleaded for turmoil on the seas, storms large enough to turn back an invading fleet. He begged for vision. Then, the prior morning at dawn, his next step showed up as clear as the rising sun over the Aerith Sea.
He had spotted a cloaked figure scurrying up the stairs to the Mont. It happened rarely, but sometimes vessels would find their way to the island’s tiny dock. Usually it was someone looking for safe haven and fleeing something in Valemidas. Yates had met this man at the top of the stairs, before the only door into the monastery. The man had called himself Cid. He was from Sunan, and his harried appearance had left no doubt he was running from something.
Yates had introduced himself and invited the man to come inside for a warm meal. After that, Cid became surprisingly open about his story. A Sunan priest named Ilias had told Cid that he could trust a man named Yates. The old priest had smiled at the memory of Ilias, his Sunan friend from long ago.
Over dinner Cid explained he had once been royalty in Sunan. Twenty or so years ago, there had been a coup and he had barely escaped with his life. He had taken to the seas and made a fortune running trade between Sunan and Valemidas. Yet, two years ago, when the Sunan ruler died and his young son took his place, things had begun to change.
Three men were ruling as stewards until the boy king reached eighteen. Ilias was one of the stewards. The other two were Malam and Seban. Seban was the boy king’s uncle. Malam was Ilias’s counterpart, a priest who worshiped the boy king. Malam and his radical followers were demanding conquest of those who would not worship the Sunan king. Seban usually sided with Malam over Ilias, for he believed Sunan needed war to avoid growing soft. The stewards had issued an order that there was to be no trade and no contact at all with Valemidas. They were preparing for war, ready for the boy king to turn eighteen and lead them. If not for Ilias, Cid had said, the Sunan people would have already invaded. Yates believed that to be true, for he already knew something about Malam. That dark priest had sent Ramzi to Valemidas, just as Ilias’s mentor had sent Ilias many years past.
Cid then told Yates he would rather die than obey the Sunan stewards or the king. He could not bear a prohibition of trade. He lived for the freedom of the open sees, so he had kept up his voyages in secret. Some called him a smuggler. He called himself a liberator. Yates figured he was a little of both, because he drank and swore like a pirate, while speaking of things like a philosopher.
That night, while Cid slept, Yates had toiled over an encoded note for Ilias. He had passed it to Cid this very morning, with strict instructions that no one but Ilias was to break the seal. Cid had stood straighter after receiving the task. He had sailed off with determination, fresh supplies of food, and the smell of rum. Men who have long been denied their honor often find worth in being trusted. Yates prayed his god could use a man like that.
Now here Yates was, docking his dingy in the crescent-shaped harbor of Valemidas. The rocky hill looming to the south blocked the sun and put the docks in the shade. He would dine with Jon Sterling tonight. His stomach rumbled at the thought, as he had fasted from food on the Mont.
Even the docks’ dense smell of fish had some appeal. People had begun gathering in the many taverns lining the harbor. With trade to Sunan shut down, merchants and sailors found themselves at bars rather than on ship decks.
As Yates walked further into the city, better smells began to taunt him. Merchants stood on corners selling fresh baked pies. Families gathered inside to dine together. Yates delighted in every window that revealed a young boy dining with his family. These were the boys stolen from them by Tryst and Ramzi. These were the boys ripped from their homes and forced into harsh military service before their bodies had even matured. Now returned, those same boys brought smiles to their parents’ faces. Life was almost returning to normal in Valemidas.
As he stepped into the city’s central plaza, Yates felt familiar awe at the outline of spires in the setting sun. Highest were the towers of the palace, rising from the rocky outcrop above. On the opposite side of the plaza was the single, high spire of the Cathedral. In the middle, the great white tree reached up to the sky, its branches swaying in the wind. The tree bore the scars of Tryst’s laws burned onto its trunk. Andor could not wipe clean the scars, so instead he ordered a new message be posted above them:Remember tyranny, Valemidans, and always be wary of its advances. Yates liked the message, but he feared it would take more than words to heal those wounds.
He entered the Cathedral and its majestic sanctuary. He thought of a somber poem about the angels on the ceilings, their faded colors, and pieces left incomplete. As much as he strived, life on this earth would be incomplete. Fulfillment would come only after death. Deep inside he mourned the truth, but he would welcome the day when death found him. The thought made his eyes grow moist as he walked down the center aisle.
He made his way to the stairs leading up to his quarters. Maybe it was just his time away from the Cathedral that stirred his emotions. Maybe it was that the Cathedral, as wonderful as it was, would never be complete because of the fallen people who used it. Fallen people like himself.
He composed himself to face his duties. It was draining to stare deep truths in the face, and he needed to be strong for others. It was good to be back in his home.
His quarters included three rooms, each with more space than he wanted. Years ago, when he had been elected to lead the Cathedral, he had protested the luxuries. Many of the high priests had insisted that he maintain the dignities of the position, for he might be called upon to host nobles and princes. After years of struggle, he had managed to make the space bare. He ordered the thick colorful rugs sold to fund the orphanage. The gilded framed paintings were moved. The four-post bed was donated to the city’s caretaker of widows. All he had left was a small desk, a simple dining table, a few chairs, and a straw bed. The rooms felt especially empty when there were no guests.
When he entered the dining room, his assistant of many years, the nun Petra, stood beside the table with her hands clasped before her. A feast was spread out, smelling delicious. Yates’ stomach twisted and clenched. Petra came to him and spoke tenderly.
“Father, you look weak. When did you last eat?” She helped him remove his cloak and took his hand to lead him to the water basin.
“You flatter me by suggesting I otherwise look strong,” he smiled at her. “It has been a few days, but I am not so weak that I cannot wash my hands on my own.” She stood close to him as he dipped his hands into the cool, clean water.
“Is Jon expected to arrive soon?” He asked.
“He has been here an hour or so, Father, praying in the Cathedral’s east alcove.” She held out a towel for him to dry his hands. “Would you like me to bring him?”
“Yes,” Yates said, but something about Petra’s behavior made him pause. “What is it, Petra?”
She met his gaze. “Father, please let me come with you next time you visit the Mont. It is a hard journey, miles by foot and by sea. I would like to help you carry your load, draw your sails, prepare your meals.” She hesitated with her wrinkled lips pressed together. “There is little for me to do here while you are away.”
“Thank you for being open with me, Petra. We shall see. I hardly know what I would do without you here.” Yates held out his arm to escort her. She took it and he walked her to the door. He stopped at the door and raised his hand to bless her. “May you and I always be vessels of the light, blessing the lives of each other.” Joy spread over her face as she turned to go.
While he waited for Jon, to keep his thoughts from the food, he walked to his office and stood over his desk. Behind it was a wide window looking out on the city and the palace in the distance. The window was obscured by the stack of letters and papers before him. As Valemidas’ power grew, so did his responsibilities for the church. He had much to catch up on, but he could not let that distract him from preparing his guidance to Jon. This conversation could bear many fruits in the coming days.
A knock at the door announced the knight’s arrival. “You may enter,” Yates said as he returned to the dining room.
“It is a pleasure to see you, Father.” Jon bowed lightly and kissed the priest’s ring. The knight moved with the powerful grace of a panther, but his face was innocent as a boy’s.
“And you, my dear Jon. We have shared company in the presence of two princes, but I do not think we have ever dined together, just the two of us. Come, come,” Yates gestured to the table, “let’s eat while the food is still warm.”
The old priest nodded to Petra. She would wait just outside his quarters, leaving them alone. She already knew much of what Yates planned to ask, but no one would overhear this conversation.
Yates took his seat and folded his hands in his lap, every instinct screaming at him to devour as much food as possible. Jon sat across from him, smiling but obviously curious about what was behind the priest’s invitation.
Yates said a blessing over the food and took a bite of bread. His belly rejoiced as he began asking Jon casual, open-ended questions.How do you like the early autumn weather? What is new in the palace? How is Andor doing? What do you know about the Sunans?They settled into easy conversation as they ate. Their plates were clear before Yates turned to the real purpose of the meeting.
“You are fine company,” Yates said, “and that would be reason alone to invite you here. But I confess I had specific motives for inviting you this night.”
“I thought you might.” Jon slid his plate to the side and leaned forward. “You have always held Andor’s trust, and so you hold mine. What is it, Father?”
“Our god, our city, and our prince need three things from you. Our city and our prince do not yet know that they need them,” Yates began. He had chosen his words carefully, beginning with the easiest task and moving to the hardest. “Are you familiar with a woman named Mailyn?” He asked.
“Yes,” Jon said with surprise. “Why?”
“I thought you were, and you know whose tent she shared on the march to Icaria?”
Yates continued in a whisper, “she carries his child.”
Jon nodded again, this time with his eyes open wide.
“Every child deserves a good home, a safe home. This child will be important in what is to come. This may seem improper, but I trust your discipline, Jon. Invite Mailyn to live in your quarters in the palace. Protect her there, even from the eyes of others. She does not yet show that she is with child, and no one should learn of it. Do you understand?”
“I think so, Father, but how will I convince Mailyn this is a good idea?” Jon shifted in his chair, uncomfortable.
“She is expecting you, Jon. In fact, she is here in the Cathedral, and she will leave with you tonight. You—”
“Why not keep her here?” Jon interrupted. “Or maybe she could stay with my mother. My apologies, Father, but it would be safer for her outside the palace. Why me?”
Yates had expected some resistance. He hoped Jon’s reputation for obedience would hold true. “Jon, you said that I held your trust. You need to trust me. Will you do this?”
Jon paused long enough for Yates to second-guess himself. Maybe it was too much to ask. He kept his face calm and sipped his wine, waiting.
“Okay,” Jon finally said, “I will do as you wish.” Despite his delayed answer, his voice did not waiver in the slightest. “No one will know?”
“No one will know. Your reputation is safe with me. Are you ready for the next task?”
Jon took a big swig of wine, emptying the chalice. He then signaled for Yates to continue.
“The second task involves your brother. When did you last hear from him?”
“I have not heard anything since he sailed away with Ravien.” Something about Jon’s voice sounded sad. “I do not even know where he is. Ravien kept their destination secret, probably someplace with a white-sanded beach where they will celebrate their marriage.”
“You are probably right.” Yates filled Jon’s chalice again. He had asked Petra to pick one of the Cathedral’s finest reds from the cellar.
“A couple days ago,” Jon said, “I met with a Sunan merchant. My brother and I had traded with him before. The man had expected to see Wren, and he had no news about him. I suppose they are far off in the Aerith Sea now. We will not learn more until they show up in Valemidas again.”
Yates would have to inquire further about this Sunan merchant. He suspected it was Cid, the same man he had met. But he needed to press further with Jon.
“I think Wren and Ravien will return in a way that you do not expect.” Yates had pieced together enough of Ravien’s plan, despite her attempts to keep it hidden. “They will be with the Sunan fleet.”
“What?” Jon demanded. “How could that be?”
“I cannot say right now, but my guess is they will be prisoners of the Sunan leader, one way or another. This will be a hard thing for you. When they arrive, and when you first see Wren, you must restrain yourself. Do not go to him, do not welcome him, do not even smile in his direction, unless he has already arrived within our walls safely.”
“None of this makes sense,” Jon said with confusion. “What games are you playing, Father?”
“This is not a game, and I am sorry that I cannot say more. Here is what I can say: you can save your brother, and can very well save our city and our prince, if you perform this task. It will make more sense in light of the final task. Come, I want to show you something.”
Yates stood and Jon followed him into his office, to the window overlooking the city.
“You know by now of the Sunans’ plan to invade?”
“Yes, Father,” Jon answered.
“I believe that, if pride and mistrust prevail, our city will be destroyed and a new prince will sit in that palace.” Yates gazed out the window at the palace’s thin towers. They loomed like daggers in the moonlight. “We may also have another traitor in our midst. I am still puzzling out who it is, but we can overcome these threats. If we humbly engage the Sunan proposals and we do not let the thirst for war drive us, there is a way to save thousands of lives and win the war. My fear is that the advisors around Andor, the ones who cram his waking hours with duties, they are filling his mind with hawkish appetites for conquest. Some say we can rout the Sunans and sail out to seize their lands.”
The priest turned to Jon. The man was so young, like a valiant knight from a fairytale. His straight hair looked almost silver. Yates was pinning many hopes on this man. “The voice of a priest is drowned out in times of war,” he said. “I need you to be my voice to Andor. I will have other messages, but this first one is the most important. You must plant an idea in Andor’s mind, without anyone else knowing of it. All you have to do, whenever the moment is right, is tell him what this note says, as close to its words as you can.”
Yates pulled a rolled note from his robe and pressed it into Jon’s hand. “You must say the message as if it were your own, with no hint that it is from me.”
“I do not understand,” Jon said. “Why can you not deliver the message yourself, or through someone else?”
“I cannot go to Andor, not yet,” Yates answered. “I’m afraid I cannot tell you my reasons, but you must believe me.” The priest followed Jon’s gaze out the window. “What do you see in the skyline, growing up below the palace?”
“The tree?” Jon guessed.
“Yes, the great white tree. I foresee troubling things below its limbs, but I also foresee opportunity in those limbs’ long morning shadow. The opportunity is a fight. Not a battle in a war, but a duel to end the war, a duel to bring us peace and allow the Sunans to return in peace, with brighter opportunities on their horizon. You must fight for us, Jon.” Yates’s words came out like a plea. “You must use your physical strength. Read the note now. You will begin to understand.”
Jon uncurled the thin parchment and said the words aloud.
“The Lycurgus could defeat the Sunans under your leadership, my prince. The Lycurgus of Tryst, the Lycurgus of tyranny, and its leaders will then push to conquer Sunan. But this will mean the deaths of many thousands. Soldiers and innocents alike. Why not have a fight of each force’s best? This will be a fight to end the war, to bring peace. I will stand beside you, my prince, and our victory will be the dam that stops the horrors of war from bursting forth.”
Silence hung in the cool air after Jon finished reading. He gazed out the window again, his face solemn. He eventually asked Yates, “You think this will work?”
Yates nodded with more confidence than he felt. He lifted his hand over Jon’s head. “May you be a vessel of power and light. May you help Andor win this war before it truly starts.”
In that moment, though the old priest would never know it, his face shined brighter than the moon.
PERILS OF A FOREIGN LAND
“It is perfectly true, as philosophers say,
that life must be understood backwards.
But they forget the other proposition,
that it must be lived forwards.”
“Thank god for land.” Wren took two firm steps on the dock. “How many blessed days until we return to the ship?” Men were unloading the merchant vessel behind them, in the harbor of the sprawling city of Sunan.
“Seven days.” Ravien was pleased to see her husband’s playful wit returning. She had feared he spilled it all out, along with the rest of his insides, over the month at sea. The huge waves had not gone over well, nor would they aid the Sunan fleet anchored in the harbor when it sailed for Valemidas.
“We have seven days,” she continued, “to find Malam or Ilias, royal priests to his Excellency, to deliver this package.” She patted the sack over her shoulder. “And seven days to purchase your dyes and spices. If it takes more than seven days,” she grabbed his waist, “I may have to drag you back in this sack.” She laughed, one of her rare, real laughs. A chorus of gulls echoed the sound.
“That might be worth a try.” He smiled, his face still a little pale and green. “The way back may take twice as long, with the wind against us. I would rather live in your sack than put my stomach through that misery again. The last time I was here, many years ago, I vowed to never return. I broke that vow for you, but not again. We also seem to be the only vessel from Valemidas here. All these Sunan vessels are anchored and look empty. The ban on trade has left its mark.” He winked at her. “Good thing I have connections, eh?”
“I did not marry you just for your looks.” Ravien ran a hand through his hair.
“My gold could not have bought anything finer,” he answered, holding her gaze. Then he looked away, toward the surrounding city. “Are we still planning to ride straight to the royal quarter like diplomats? How about just one night in a nice inn? You can pretend to be a wealthy merchant’s trophy, his lady for the night.” He dipped her low, as if he were the one leading their dance.
“One of us will need to play the trophy, my dear. A man earns that status with his money, as much as by his looks. You serve well on both counts. Come on.” She pulled him to walk along the dock toward a crowd of Sunans near the shore. “We need to find that man you arranged to escort us.”
She had told Wren enough to make the voyage believable, but had held back the core mission—sealed in her pact with Sebastian and Justus. Marriage was not supposed to start with secrets, but this was no ideal world. At least she had lived up to her promise to never lie to him, so far. She admired his penetrating mind. It made her work hard to walk the boundaries of the truth without slipping into falsehoods. Growing up with Tryst and in the noble court, she had learned long ago how to stay in men’s confidences without them ever knowing her true purposes. She would need all that training here in Sunan.
“Master Wren!” A rotund, bald man pressed his way toward them along the harbor’s edge. “Welcome to Sunan! Last time I saw you, you said we’d never meet again. I knew you would be proven wrong.” Laughter rumbled up from his huge belly and flowed out of his mouth like the grey beard down his chest.
He looked at Ravien then, and his laughter stopped. “And last time I saw you, a lighter, fairer woman was on your arm, though I admit she lacked this one’s beauty.” He winked at Wren.
“You’ve said enough!” Wren boxed at him in jest. “It is good to see you again. Ravien, this is Balnor, one of his Excellency’s nine royal merchants, charged with governing trade in Sunan. I call him Ball. He talks more than he travels, and cheats more than he talks. Ball, this is Ravien, my wife.”
“Your wife!” Ball exclaimed. “The great trader, golden empire builder, spice dealer, Wren Sterling has taken on a wife? And only one?”
He looked at Ravien again, this time with genuine curiosity and a bow. “I have heard of a lady named Ravien. She is the sister of the new Prince of Valemidas. People say she hides in the shadows, moves like an assassin, and seduces men into devious acts rewarded by the grave.” He stepped back and appraised her with a grin.
“This wife of Wren’s could not be her. No, you are too refined, too graceful, and too pleasant for my eyes.” He scanned the length of her body. She wore a slim, purple dress that Wren had given to her. It was comfortable for the warm sea air, but not in keeping with the Sunan women’s practice of revealing nothing but their eyes. Married or not, Ravien had resolved to continue to use her looks to set men on edge.
“Well met, Balnor,” Ravien said. With her left hand, she tossed a dagger high into the air. Ball’s eyes followed the gleaming blade up and down. She caught it and flung it in one motion, whizzing past his ear and plunging into a wooden carriage at the end of the dock. “You will be guiding us to the king’s palace in that carriage, yes?”
Ball’s jaw hung open as his head swiveled back to Ravien. He smoothed his face and closed his mouth into a serious, knowing smile. “Impressive, Ravien, or shall I call you princess?”
“Ravien will do,” Wren interrupted. He pointed to the dock behind them. “Those six crates with black ravens on them are coming with us. We will speak more, Ball, but for now accept my thanks. There is no one I would rather welcome us to Sunan.”
“You are quite welcome.” Ball bowed again, keeping his eyes on Ravien. “The carriage is ours, and my men will load it.” He gestured toward four bare-chested men standing near the carriage and said something in the Sunan tongue. He said more than seemed necessary to simply order the loading of boxes.
He turned back to Ravien and Wren. “Follow me.” He waddled away, leading them toward the end of the dock. The carriage was painted black and had sheer ivory silks for walls. Two horses were in reins at the front. Sweat dripped from the driver’s temples, out of the tightly wrapped cloth covering his head. He grinned and blinked his one eye at the newcomers.
Ravien stepped into the carriage first, keeping her sack with her. Wren entered next, while Ball stood just outside, barking commands Ravien could not understand.
“I do not like him,” Ravien whispered. “He talks too much, and his smile is fake. Our carriage driver looked too happy to see us. Something is wrong here.” She pointed toward the front of the carriage.
“What, a driver with one eye?” Wren answered cutely, as if she should just relax. “These Sunans are a harsh people,” he explained. “Outside of this city on the delta, the land around Sunan is nothing but sand and rock and heat. The two rivers merging in Sunan are the key to this place’s life. Some say man was created here, and that we of Valemidas are descendants of Sunan. Some say it was the other way around. Either way, the Sunans are like us, no matter how fierce the desert makes them. We have nothing to fear.”
“Nothing to fear?” Ravien asked. “How about being royalty from a nation the Sunans want to conquer?”
“You are the one who led us here,” Wren said. “We could be relaxing alone on a beautiful, remote island right now.”
“We will not escape and hide on some island when we have the power to direct the winds of destiny. I must play my part here, and you must trust me.” Ravien turned away and peeked out of the carriage. It was salty and warm, the wind swirling gently. The water was an aqua green and clear down to its white sand bottom. Not a cloud dotted the sky.
It would have felt peaceful if not for the hundreds of ships filling the harbor. They looked built for war, with thick hulls that together could hold thousands of men, and maybe horses too. Unlike the merchant vessel they had sailed in, these ships would travel slowly, against the wind. Still, if the Sunans lifted their anchors, their army would be at Valemidas’ gate in two or three months. Sooner if she succeeded. A shiver ran down her spine.
“All’s ready,” Ball announced as he lumbered into the carriage and sat facing Wren and Ravien. “Your crates are safely stowed under the carriage. To His Excellency’s palace?”
“Yes,” Ravien said, “how long is the ride?”
“Half an hour, maybe less today.” He tapped the driver’s shoulder through the front of the carriage, which began to roll down the smooth street away from the harbor. “It is the first day of the month, a day of ritual cleansing in honor of His Excellency. Sunan women may not step outside this day.” He stared down at Ravien’s bared legs.
“What? No women outside?” Her sharp tone jerked his head up. She held him with a focused stare. “I know what women must wear here, but I have never heard of such a day. Is there another day when men must stay inside?”
“Men?” Ball burst out laughing. “Absolutely not,” he said between breaths, “men do not need to learn restraint like women.” His cackling quieted under Ravien’s hard glare. “No offense, princess.” The honored title came out of his lips dismissively. “We in Sunan believe society works better when women stay out of the affairs of men. They are masters of their own domains in the home and in their local markets.”
“Tell me about these local markets,” Wren interrupted, trying to keep the peace. “Are they supplied from the royal markets that your council controls?” Ravien jammed her elbow into his side, hard enough to make him wince. He looked at her and shrugged. She admitted to herself that it was probably best to not push too far about the injustice of Sunan customs, not yet anyway. The injustice would end if her plans succeeded.
“Yes, all goods come through the royal markets first,” Ball explained. “Each of us nine royal merchants controls the royal market in each of the city’s nine sectors. We are the hub of the economy here, and the local markets are like the spokes of the wheel. Nothing passes into the people’s homes without passing through our supervision and approval. And nothing crosses between sectors without going through us. Black-market traders face severe punishment, even death. His Excellency is the only one who knows god’s will for us, so even we merchants benefit from his watchful eye.”
“How many vessels have come to Sunan from Valemidas in recent months?” Wren asked.
Ball hesitated before answering. “Not many. I have heard that the sea has been rough. You could probably count the vessels on one hand.” He seemed to be hiding something, but he droned on about the state of trade and the weather.
Ravien pulled the silk curtain back to look out of the carriage. The city’s buildings were all sandstone, like uniform blocks. The streets were all straight, the buildings all in perfect lines. The men wore light-colored robes and had short, black hair. What set them apart were the tattoos by their temples. The tattoos ranged from stars to trees, from intricate patterns to solid black squares. There seemed to be some connection between the tattoos and the different types of work the men were doing, but it would take much more time to learn their associations. As Ball had suggested, not a woman was in sight.
Ravien then saw an enormous wall up ahead. At first it looked as if it were made of only sand. As they drew closer, she saw that huge yellowish brown blocks made up the wall. It was as tall as the walls of Valemidas, and looked to be twice as thick. The carriage began to slow before a large open gate.
A tap on her shoulder drew her attention back inside the carriage. Ball was looking at her, anxious and sweating.
“Better not to let the guards see who is in here,” he said. The carriage came to a stop and he stood. “Just stay put, and I will do the talking.” He swung out of the carriage with more urgency than she would have expected.
“I do not like this,” she said to Wren.
He reached out and gently brushed hair from her cheek. “I do not like it either, but we have little choice at this point. If you would share your secrets with me, maybe I could prepare better. Waltzing straight to this excellency guy is rather bold. Just my wife’s style.”
“The high priest Ilias will protect us,” she said, “and Ball seems to like you.”
“Ball likes gold. If he knew that this was no simple trading voyage—”
A rush of sound outside the carriage made them both tense. It sounded like clanging metal, like shackles.
“Step out slowly,” Ball demanded in a clear, loud voice. “This will go easier if you keep your hands by your sides.”
Ravien leaned her forehead against Wren’s, closed her eyes, and breathed deeply to calm herself. She then sat up straight and nodded. “We will find a way out of this.”
“I hope you know what you are doing,” he said.
She stepped out of the carriage, Wren just behind her. At least a hundred soldiers surrounded them. They must have known they were coming, to have gathered so fast. Their faces were blank and hard, but their armor looked made more for ceremony than for war. Light cloth draped from their waists, their chests were bare, and golden scales arched over their shoulders from helms burnished with gold. They held spears taller than the tallest of men.
Ravien could not help but think of how vulnerable the men’s chests were to her blades. She fingered a knife fastened flush to her thigh, under her dress. Eight men formed a line in front of her and Wren. Ball was standing off to Wren’s side.
“Oloi panan,” one of the soldiers said fiercely. Ravien had no clue what the words meant. The man looked older than the others, with scars covering his face. He stared at them expectantly.
“Disarm now,” Ball interpreted. “He is Dassa, the commander of the royal guard. He said to disarm now.” When neither Ravien nor Wren made a move, Ball spoke again. “You must drop all your weapons, now.”
Wren held out his empty hands. Ravien crouched down and slid her dress to the side, revealing the blade at her thigh. She hesitated.
“Stop,” Ball whispered, spotting Ravien’s concealed dagger. He turned to Wren. “I am sorry, friend, but I had no choice. You must stop your wife from doing anything rash. This can pass painlessly if you cooperate and obey. Do not fight now. Give yourself a chance.” The obese man cupped his hands, pleading. Sweat dripped from his brow to the sand-covered stones at their feet.
“We will play along for now,” Wren growled. He looked to Ravien, and she nodded. Moving slowly, she pulled out the dagger and dropped it on the ground. She still had one on her other thigh.
“Good,” Ball said, “His Excellency is coming.”
Ravien gritted her teeth and scanned the soldiers around her. Ball was right that she had to give herself a chance. She did not see anyone who looked like a priest. Surely Ilias would come to her. He would salvage this situation. She stood straight and calm while the hot sun baked her pale skin.
The soldiers began to split to either side of the road, opening a path through the gate and to the white domes of a palace in the distance. A shimmering shape approached them and grew larger. It was a man riding on a throne.
A score of servants held it up on four long poles on their shoulders, parallel to the ground. The throne rose up from the poles like a seat of gold. The strain of the men carrying it hinted that the throne really was made of the precious metal. Enough gold to feed Valemidas for a year.
The man sitting on the throne was young. His elaborate headdress and robes made it difficult to detect his exact age, but as he drew closer, Ravien guessed he was about sixteen.
A punch to her side brought her out of her stunned stare. “Kneel!” Ball commanded under his breath.
She noticed that everyone else—Ball, all the soldiers, and Wren—were bowed with their faces on the ground. She could not bring herself to do it. She swatted away Ball’s hand as he tried to pull her down. This was a meeting of two royals.
Trumpets sounded out as the throne halted before them. A herald shouted out something that probably announced the monarch’s arrival. Silence followed in the wake of the loud sounds.
The boy king then raised his hand slowly, its shadow stretching to touch Ravien. An amused look spoiled the young man’s attempt at a stoic face. He leveled his hand, then lowered it. The herald issued a sharp command, and the servants smoothly laid the poles on the ground. The throne had several steps leading down to a few feet from Ravien and Wren.
There was something spectacular about the young king. His eyes were amber, his face attractive as it reflected the light of gold around him. He looked harsh but delicate, almost innocent.
He raised his other hand and cupped the two together. The herald issued another command. The eight soldiers closest to Ravien and Wren stood and pressed around them, watching them closely. Ravien doubted she could fling a dagger before one of them would tackle her.
“Welcome to Sunan,” the king said without any hint of welcome in his voice. He spoke the language with only a slight accent. He remained still in his seat. “I am Ilir, chosen of god, the King of Sunan. Announce yourself and your purpose.”
“I am Ravien, Princess of Valemidas.” She bowed her head slightly. The boy turned from Wren to her as she spoke, no doubt surprised that she spoke first rather than the man beside her. “My purpose is better shown than spoken.” She laced her words with intrigue, hoping to allure the boy.
Some of his serenity slipped as he looked over Ravien’s body. He eyed her lustfully, quizzically, before responding. “You may show your purpose if you rise the stairs to me.”
He placed his hands around his face to signal something, and the herald issued a command. Soldiers stepped onto the stairs and formed a tight passage, just wide enough for Ravien. She had not expected this face-to-face encounter so soon, but decided to seize the opportunity.
She stepped back smoothly to the carriage and took out the sack she had been carrying. She retrieved a tightly sealed, round bag from inside it. It had a strong odor—embalming spices masking something rotten.
She walked with the bag toward the boy king. She climbed the stairs to his throne and came nearly within arms reach before a soldier held out his spear to block her from moving further.
She raised the bag, her arm quivering slightly. Her other arm untied the bag and reached into it. Then she pulled out a head.
The men around her gasped.
“Ramzi,” the older soldier, the commander, uttered in shock.
The king’s eyes swung from Ramzi’s head to Ravien, and back again. “What is this?” he demanded. Fear laced his voice.
“I bring news from Valemidas to Sunan!” Ravien announced. She ignored her shaking arm. “A man has stolen the throne from Prince Tryst, my brother. Tryst is gone, and now the betrayer is prince. He took the life of your great priest, but I have brought you his head.”
She placed Ramzi’s head at the feet of the king. “This is my token of loyalty to you, King Ilir. I serve you. I serve Sunan, if it brings me vengeance.”
Ravien’s news was greeted with silence. The young king stared down at the head at his feet. He motioned and one of the servants took the head away. The king’s gaze rose slowly until he met Ravien’s eyes.
“You will serve me?”
“I will serve you,” she answered, “and I know much of Valemidas’s weaknesses.”
“Why should we trust you?”
“I have lost everything in Valemidas,” she said. “I have nothing left, nothing to hide.”
“Nothing?” A devious smile spread across the king’s face. “Prove it, bare yourself now.”
“What?” She fired back. “I am the Princess of Valemidas, and you threaten this dishonor? In front of all these men?”
“I do not threaten. You said youwerethe Princess of Valemidas, and that you have nothing to hide. Trust must be proven here in Sunan.”
She hesitated. She could feel the eyes of a hundred men on her. Was it worth this shame to help defeat these people? The boy king spoke again before she decided.
“Take everything off,” he demanded, “or your friend dies.” He looked over her shoulder and held up four fingers.
A flurry of sound made Ravien turn. Four soldiers held their spears pointed at Wren’s neck. She would not let him die like this.
She spun and faced the king again. “You will trust me, make me an adviser in your court, and he will live?”
“You have my word,” he said.
She fought back waves of indignity and fury as she kneeled and slipped out of her dress, her boots, and everything else. The sealed note she carried from Sebastian would not be found, hidden as it was within a hollow heel of her boot. She carefully placed her dagger under the stack. Most of the soldiers kept their eyes on the ground, as if ashamed with her. None of them moved to take her belongings.
His Excellency nodded, appraising her. “A wise decision, Ravien. You will have a chance to prove your knowledge.” He stood on the seat of his throne and looked to the soldiers around them. “N’ah musefe quede ya Valemidas!” he shouted.
The soldiers chanted back the same words and banged their shields. Their sudden unity made Ravien rattled, for the first time, about her plan.
The young king sat again and motioned something to his herald. A flurry of orders followed, and a soldier’s callused hands clasped around her arms.
As the Sunan servants began to pick up the platform, with her, the king, and a soldier still on it, Ravien glanced back to Wren. The four men still held their spears at his neck. His eyes followed her as she was hauled away. It would be hard to live up to his trust, if she lived at all.
“People will not look forward
to posterity, who never look
backward to their ancestors.”
Thrones are seats, and seats are meant to support weight. It was not working that way for me. Today, again, the throne was like an anvil on my shoulders.
I had hardly slept the night before, and I had barely started another long day of scheduled duties. The weeks since I had left Tryst in the Gloaming felt like a year. He and Ramzi had left a grand mess. My days passed with every waking hour, and many sleeping ones, filled with nobles’ requests, needs of the people, and preparations for defending Valemidas. I had no right to complain, but here I was, a restless prince on his throne, reminding myself of how hard I had fought to come to this exact seat.
“…And so it falls under the jurisdiction of House Talnor. They must bear the cost of this peasant’s life.” Sir Camden, the head of the Camden noble house, finished his argument. He was a diminutive man, especially standing beside Ryn Talnor. Only in Valemidas could a dispute between men of such unequal strengths be resolved by reason and justice.
At least, only in a Valemidas free of Ramzi. What I had learned of Ramzi’s brief reign in Tryst’s absence still shocked me. I had been trying to undo his work. First, I returned the boys ripped away from their families. Next, I lifted the burden of taxes and regulations. But our city did not have the gold to repay people for all they had lost, if coins could ever bring justice. Our recovery would have been long and hard even without the threat of Sunan invading. Part of me understood the Sunan’s timing. We owed them so much gold that they probably felt we would never pay, and that they must come and take what was theirs. I would assure them otherwise, but my words counted for little following years—generations—of debt.
Tryst and Ramzi had made it worse by upsetting our city’s delicate balance among the prince, the nobles, and the people. The prince held ultimate authority while he sat in this throne, but the nobles and people selected him. The nobles could also remove him from the throne. The people’s disputes were resolved by the nobles, who fought over their jurisdiction within Valemidas and beyond. A noble had to espouse a person’s claim for it to reach the prince. Most nobles fought to expand their jurisdictions to include more people, which gave them more audiences with the prince. Tryst and Ramzi had begun ignoring the nobles and hearing the people directly, robbing the nobles of their purpose in the balance. And so here I was, digging into the long queue of nobles’ disputes.
I thanked Sirs Camden and Talnor for presenting their arguments. I promised I would inform them of my decision later this day. This dispute had been going on for years, so I had little hope of resolving it with a single judgment. Justice never seemed simple, and it required much work to learn the facts. I suppose that is the way it must be, as there would be no dispute in the first place if it were easy to solve.
A numb excitement filled me as my last visitor of the morning arrived. It was the minister of prisons—the man I had charged with figuring out how to get Tryst and the other men out of the Gloaming. I hoped they had worked out the details.
“Minister Finloth, at your service.” He bowed formally. After he rose, he carefully resettled a glass spectacle over his right eye. His long face was solemn but smug.
“What news do you have about the Gloaming?” I asked.
“We have formed a committee,” he answered. “After much deliberation, we decided on six members of the committee, with me as its leader. We also wrote up clear rules and procedures.” He paused as if he expected me to say something. I motioned for him to go on. “The committee,” he continued, “will be named The Committee on Fair Transition for Lost Prisoners. At our first meeting, we listed the challenges and tasks ahead. First, we need somewhere to house all the prisoners. The dungeons are already full. We considered—”
I held up my hand to stop him. “That is enough about your committee. What is the current status?”
“Yes, my prince.” He fiddled with his spectacle again, then continued in a grand voice. “The current status is that we have determined the manner of retrieval, and we have nearly agreed upon the site for constructing a new prison.”
“Nearlyagreed?” I felt my anger rising. “I told you I wanted them outimmediately.”
“Of course, of course,” he said. “And we will have them out, but this must be a fair and safe process, and—”
“Silence,” I commanded, trying to stay calm. “You will figure out how to get these men out, where to put them, and everything else, and you will figure it outNOW. Is that clear?”
His long mouth hung open. He slowly closed it, and his lips curled into a faint grin as if this was a game. “Clear as crystal, my prince.”
“If you do not have a better report for me within the week,” I threatened, “you will not report to me again.”
He bowed and scurried out. I stood from the throne. It was a good time for a mid-morning break. I decided I would visit the archives, where others were doing research for me about the Gloaming and the Sunans.
I asked Jon and Ulysses to accompany me. Lorien had been insistent that at least one of them always be by my side. She did not trust anyone else. I liked keeping Jon close because he had known me before I was the prince, and Ulysses had more battle scars and wisdom than any of my other knights.
We walked together from the throne room to the remote wing of the palace that housed the archives. Outside a storm was raging. The constant pelting rain and gusting wind had everyone on edge. Once this storm season passed, it would be cold enough to light the braziers warming the palace.
We eventually reached the archive’s ground-level reading room. It was a light-filled space with huge tables spread around. The room was like the tip of an iceberg, showing only decorative books, with the vast collection of written treasures locked safely below ground, where the risk of fire and destruction was diminished.
My lead researcher greeted us at the door. He was everything I could have wanted in a researcher: smart, punctual, targeted, and curious. I had not set foot into the archives during my first reign, but the archivist did not resent me for it. Instead he basked in this glorious moment for his projects. The tufts of grey hair over his ears, his speckled glasses, his wide belly—they all shook with excitement as he bowed before me.
“Greetings, Guthrie. What have you learned?”
“My Prince,” he stood straight and waved for me to follow, “your request has led to most fascinating histories. I have parceled out assignments and no word of your questions has left our archives. Come, we have been preparing for your visit.”
He led me to a chair near the center of the room. I stood behind it, with Jon and Ulysses at my sides. Four more researchers formed a crescent around me, with Guthrie in the middle.
“It is truly an honor to have you here.” Guthrie held open his arms in welcome, his robe hanging low at the cuffs over his thin wrists. “Prince Aden founded this archive many years past, but we have few recorded visits from princes. Where would you like us to begin?”
“Start with the Gloaming,” I answered, “and if time allows, move to the Sunans.”
“The fascinating thing, my Prince, is that the two stories are connected, but I am getting ahead of myself. Yarl?” He looked to his left, and the young man at the far end of the crescent nodded vigorously, nervously.
“Yes, well, our written records of the Gloaming are few. They, um, we—” He tripped over the words.
“Take your time, Yarl,” I said with a smile and took a seat. Lorien had told me people found me less threatening when I was not standing.
“Thank you my Prince,” he began again. “We have two tomes that mention the Gloaming’s origins.” He stepped to the side and leaned over a thick, ancient book on a desk.
“This first one is called The History of Jonas’ Conquests. Most of the book is about what Jonas did on this continent, but in a short section about his approach to foreign lands, it says: As part of his efforts to promote pure bloodlines, Prince Jonas also adopted measures to eliminate those of Sunan heritage from Valemidas. Years before, Prince Aden had granted the Sunan people freedom to visit the city. Jonas worked to isolate the Valemidan continent from any Sunan influence. Many Sunans disappeared under Jonas’s reign. The fate of these disappeared people remains unknown. There were rumors at the time that Jonas constructed a secret prison, but this was not verified.”
The researcher glanced up and caught my eyes. “It goes on to talk about how Jonas’s treatment of the Sunans accomplished what he intended. Most Sunans fled Valemidas, and trade between the nations dwindled.” Yarl turned and looked to another young researcher at the other end of the crescent. “Haston?”
“Yes, thank you, Yarl. My Prince?” I nodded for him to proceed. He pointed at another book before him. His face looked far younger than his thinning hair otherwise suggested.
“This second book is more recent, written by our own head archivist when he was a young researcher.” He lifted his head and beamed in admiration toward Guthrie. “Its title is The Building of Valemidas. Amidst a long section about the palace, it says this: The dungeons of the palace have long been shrouded in mystery. Original construction reports claim the capacity to house two hundred prisoners. Recorded imprisonments have exceeded that number, as have recorded disappearances. There are two possible explanations: either these prisoners are executed in secret, or there is a place within the dungeons that holds more men. In recorded statements by men and women who have been imprisoned in the dungeons and later released, several spoke of warnings of torture worse than death in an underground city. Most of them believed this was a warning about hell or the afterlife. Other details were inconsistent and untrustworthy. The weight of evidence supports that there is a hidden place within the dungeons. This place was most likely constructed under the reign of Jonas. It could be the size of a small city, if the place was dug deep into the rock under the palace. Attempts to explore the dungeons and to find more information have been routinely and harshly rejected.”
The young man shut the tome and breathed out loudly.
“Thank you, Haston,” a woman’s voice said. She stood between Guthrie and Yarl, and her square shoulders were broader than either of theirs. Her hair was short, straight, and blonde. She looked at me calmly with stern, blue eyes. She might have been attractive if she smiled.
“My name is Page. I have devoted my life to studying Prince Jonas.” Pride filled her voice. “With the fragments of new information you provided to Guthrie about the Gloaming, I am confident that Jonas built the underground city. As you probably know, he had a lust for battle, for seeing what becomes of men when they must fight for their lives. He also wielded immense and ruthless power, more than any prince before or since—with your pardon, my Prince.” She looked at me unapologetically before moving on.
“You should also know that Jonas would have made the place inescapable.” She eyed me as if doubtful I had really been there and gotten out. “He was not a man to second guess a decision or to take unnecessary risks. The men who built the place were likely its first inhabitants. The disappeared Sunans would have been next. Jonas respected the Sunans because legend spoke of their fierce fighting against Prince Aden’s attempt at conquest, but he hated them because of how they had weakened the position of the prince. Prince Aden had shamed the position by his failed attempt to defeat the Sunans. Jonas spent his life restoring power to the throne, and he would not allow anyone to get in the way of that mission.”
“One last detail,” she said. “Jonas would never have sent a woman to the Gloaming. He loved women and treated them gently. A terror in battle, a delight in bed. That was what women close to him said.” A touch of pink showed on her cheeks.
“My Prince, do you have time to hear more?” Guthrie asked as soon as Page finished.
I gestured for him to continue. He touched the shoulder of the older man to his left. The man wore a strip of white cloth over his eyes.
“This is Finniel. We sometimes call him Grandfather Sunan. He has researched here a hundred years.” The group of researchers laughed but grew solemn as Guthrie raised his hand. “Finniel served my predecessor, Gavon, who disappeared a few months ago. The two of them together knew every word that has been written on the Sunans. They were working on a treatise about it. I fear someone did not want Gavon writing the last section of the book, about what is happening now in the foreign nation. Finniel will tell you why.”
“Yes, my Prince,” he said with a bow and a light foreign accent. He looked twice as old as Guthrie, and his blind gaze looked above my shoulder. “You have probably noticed by now that I can no longer see. I assure you that this recent impediment has not slowed my work. In fact, it may have served to save me for you. No one suspects an old, blind man, but Gavon and I worked together for many years. I serve Valemidas by lending insight into my people’s history, their culture and politics. I know more about Sunan than anyone on this continent.”
His voice was precise and confident as he addressed me. “But you have a specific question: why would Sunan invade Valemidas now? I believe there are three factors.”
He paused, as if waiting for me. “I would hear these factors, Finniel. Please go on.” I closed my eyes to listen, thinking it might help me better understand his words, his mind.
“First,” he began, “the invasion has for several generations been inevitable, just a matter of time. Bitterness has been passed down through generations against Valemidas. The Sunans view Prince Aden’s invasion as a bigoted and barbaric evil. You will recall that one of Prince Aden’s reasons for the invasion—maybe not a true reason, but a stated one—was to convert the Sunans to believe in the god of Valemidas, and to recover an ancient relic of Valemidas buried in Sunan. This is the sword, Zarathus. Aden succeeded in acquiring the sword, but lost almost everything else—he lost the war, he failed to convert the Sunans, and he traded his son for the seed of a tree. The Sunans have not forgotten. They are a devoted and disciplined people, and the freedom and success of Valemidas draws more of their ire.
“Second, Valemidas owes Sunan more gold than it could ever pay. The debt began generations ago, but the past four princes have compounded the borrowing. Prince Polin paid dearly for his luxuries. He was not known as Golden Polin for nothing. Polin’s successor, and your predecessor, ruled forty long years. As you know, he was known for doing little, and what little he did was rarely consistent. He did not inspire confidence and trade languished. There was no more borrowing from Sunan, but also no debt was paid off. The amount of interest owed became crippling. You inherited the debt and had shipped off a first payment just before we lost you. Tryst spent hugely to build up the Lycurgus, his permanent army, and now you are paying more than you have to Tryst’s victims, seeking to restore things. The Sunans will be aware of all this. They believe that we will never pay. They want the gold that is rightfully theirs.
“Third, and what really stokes these long-burning coals, is the new Sunan ruler, a boy named Ilir. The Sunans call him His Excellency and regard him as a god.” The old man’s expression grew sad. “Gavon was preparing to write what I will say next. This is hardly known in Sunan, and I thought he and I were the only ones in Valemidas who knew it.” He hesitated.
“What happened to Gavon?” I asked.
“He’s gone,” Finniel said, “and I feel certain he is dead. Whoever stole Gavon’s life also stole my sight. We were working in the archives alone, late one night. Gavon sensed a man’s presence and he immediately ordered that I fetch him more ink. When I walked away, a man attacked me. He likely thought I was a mere servant, rather than a partner, thanks to Gavon. The man threw me down. I looked into his cowl but saw only darkness and the whites of his eyes. He must have feared that I saw more, because then he stabbed my vision out. Despite the pain, I kept my mouth shut and pretended to pass out. The man then seized Gavon. I heard him speak a few muffled words, but then he was gone.” Finniel shook with a tearless sob. He breathed deeply and spoke on. “I might recognize the attacker’s scent or his voice if I were near him again, but either way, I believe we lost our great archivist because our research touched too close to this threatening story.”
“I am very sorry for your loss,” I said. My mind spun through the possibilities. Who in Valemidas would so fear a story about Sunan that he would stab an elderly man’s eyes out and kidnap the head archivist? I needed to learn more.
“Apologies, my Prince, but even a man as old as I can be passionate about such things.” Finniel cleared his throat and continued his story. “As I was saying, His Excellency is like a god. Two religious sects compete fiercely over what that means, but all agree on His Excellency having some touch of the divine. But Ilir, the young man who now sits on the throne, he is not from an established line. His father, Nadali, ended a lineage that had endured since Prince Aden’s invasion.”
“In those ancient days, Aden’s son integrated into Sunan, and he married the daughter of the Sunan king who had led them against Valemidas. Their son became the next king, and so the mingled blood of Valemidas and Sunan began a long reign. Many Sunans abhorred this mingling, including Nadali and a high priest named Malam. Nadali led a rebellion that resulted in the killing of the entire royal family. It was rumored that the reigning king’s son escaped. The Sunan’s last annual message of peace came that year.”
“When Nadali died in his old age two years ago, his fifteen-year-old son Ilir became the Excellency. The dead king’s brother, Seban, plotted secretly to seize power, but the Sunan religious leaders would not allow another upsetting of order. They have nearly as much power as His Excellency. So Seban and the two religious leaders, Ilias and Malam, agreed upon a truce—they would advise Ilir and rule Sunan as stewards until Ilir reached eighteen. Seban’s young son left Sunan around that time, because he was implicated in an attempted poisoning of Ilir. Malam was also implicated, but he has zealous followers among the people. Ilias agreed to allow Malam to stay on as steward, and in exchange, Malam agreed that he would unite with Ilias to stop Sunan from waging war against Valemidas. Without that pact, it is believed that Malam and Seban would have led Sunan to war already.”
“Why are the Sunans coming now?” I asked. “Why not a year from now or some other time?”
“Now that you understand the context, my Prince, you will see the answer is simple. Ilir will turn eighteen this winter, in two months. All signs are that he is like his father but worse, fueled by a desire to justify his father’s coup. No justification would be stronger than to conquer Valemidas and to complete Sunan’s vengeance against the stain of mixed blood. When he has full control, at eighteen, Ilir may do whatever he wishes. Nothing will be able to stop him from setting sail for war.”
Finniel’s final words were solemn, and his story made sense. I would have liked to have seen him as a young scholar. A Sunan embracing Valemidas, a missionary of culture.
“Thank you, Finniel.” I stood to go. I had stayed longer than my duties allowed.
“My Prince, if I may,” Guthrie said, “there is one more link I should make, tying together the tales of our excellent researchers. This link may have been what caused the attack against Gavon and Finniel.”
“Yes, I can spare another moment.”
“Thank you, my Prince.” Guthrie pulled a folded note from his pocket. “Several years ago, Finniel found this paper tucked within an old tome about the Sunan royal family. It is a simple drawing of the royal family tree, with sketches of a few faces. Based on my expert judgment, I believe it is thirty years old, plus or minus a few years. It was going to be copied into the treatise that Gavon and Finniel were writing. We initially thought its value was only decorative, but based on your questions, I have come to believe it will mean much to you. I leave it to your eyes.”
He handed it to me and I unfolded it gently. It was a large, delicate paper, with many words written in the Sunan language on the top half, and lines connecting the words. From what Guthrie said, they were likely names, a family tree leading to five more names connected to five sketches at the bottom. The top two sketches were of a man and a woman, seemingly a man and his wife, as the three sketches below were of children. Two young girls, probably sisters, and a baby. I figured it was good to have a record of who the prior rulers of Sunan were, but I did not quite know what to make of it.
“Thank you,” I said, nodding to Guthrie before I turned to go. Finniel was gripping Guthrie’s arm tightly. Guthrie stood still, as if holding his breath. Their tension made me pause.
I looked down again and focused on the pictures, especially of the young man, probably the Sunan king at the time. Then my eyes froze on the young woman, and the girls and the baby. This was the family that was killed. Thirty years ago. Their son was rumored to have escaped Sunan.
My breath suddenly gave out. My chest compressed as if under a weight, a weight far heavier than the throne. I felt Ulysses and Jon grab my arms as I fell to my knees.
I glanced at the paper again. The young king had my eyes, my mouth. A hundred pieces of my past fell into place. This man was my father.
FEMMES AND BOYS
“Nothing great in the world
has been accomplished
Many assume a celibate prophet feels no attraction to the fairer sex. Ilias knew a lifetime of examples to the contrary, but never had the truth hit him with such force. The princess of Valemidas stood before him with no clothes and no shame. Her beauty almost compelled him to speak in verse, as he would about his god.
His Excellency had taken foreigners’ heads over offenses like refusing to bow and looking him directly in the eyes. This princess was fortunate to have brought important news and Ramzi’s head. She would need much guidance if she hoped to survive and work her way into His Excellency’s graces. Something about her told him this would be harder than smoothing the hump of a camel.
“I am Ilias the Sun Seer, Steward of Sunan, Counselor to His Excellency.” He bowed formally.
Her demeanor softened subtly. Her shoulders shifted back, her eyes opened wider, and she almost seemed to smile. “Ilias,” she said, as if savoring the word, “for whom do you wait?”
“I have been waiting for you, Ravien,” he answered. “I waited because Sebastian wrote and told me to, among other reasons. You almost got yourself killed with your surprise by the palace gate.” Ilias’s words filed out like soldiers. Sunans said he spoke like a military commander, but with gentler intentions. “Here.” He held out Ravien’s dress and boots. “The weapons are taken, of course, but please dress. His Excellency has decided you may serve him, and so you may wear your own clothes.”
Ravien took the dress without breaking the stare. “Your boy king and all his soldiers have already had an occasion to study my body. How do you justify such treatment of foreigners? Do you tell us it’s because what little breeze you have feels better when there is no fabric to block it?”
Without waiting for an answer, she slipped the purple silk over her head and walked to a small sitting area by the open wall of the room. Ilias followed her.
“It is always hot in the day,” he said as they took seats across from each other. “But the nights can be very cool. The air is also dry, so the heat does not weigh one down as it does during a Valemidas summer.”
“You have visited Valemidas?” She began to slide her boots on.
“Twenty years ago I studied under the head priest of the Valemidas Cathedral. The god of Sunan is not all that different from the god of Valemidas, at least not from my perspective. I hoped to learn more about the differences, and Father Yates became a friend. Sadly, I have not been able to visit Valemidas again. People no longer move freely between our nations.”
“Interesting. That explains your fluency in our language.” Ravien paused. “I would like to learn more of that another time, but as you can see, I have more urgent needs.” She spread her arms and motioned to the room. “The guards locked me in here, and no one has told me anything since I was seized.”
“Yes, of course. Let me try to explain.” Ilias poured chilled wine into two glasses that sat on the table between him and Ravien. He sipped some and studied the moisture beading on the outside of the glass.
“In our language, you would be called a Sun Guest. It is a position of honor, though you may not leave the city, and you will be followed wherever you go. Now you are on an upper floor of His Excellency’s Sun Palace, his home residence. It is one of his three palaces. You likely saw the Throne Palace, where His Excellency sits as ruler, when you stood before him and presented Ramzi’s head. On your way here you crossed the Sunan River. The name ‘Sunan’ was first applied to the river, and it spawned many other uses of the name, including for our people, our city, and our nation. The river is what sustains us in this desert continent.”
Ravien motioned for him to continue, as if she was aware of these facts. She stood and stepped to the open wall with an expansive view over the city.
“His Excellency may call upon you at any time,” Ilias continued as he rose and came to her side. “You must always be ready. If you hope to persuade him to do something, it is imperative that you follow our customs. He may find your disobediences interesting, but he is a young ruler who cannot tolerate being dishonored.”
“What would I want the boy to do for me?” Her question sounded like a test.
“You would want many things,” he answered. “His Excellency has complete power over your fate.”
“No one has power over my fate,” she said.
“Whatever the truth of that, you must convince His Excellency that youbelievehe has that kind of power. From a woman who has already proven herself to be unruly, he may have special appreciation once she shows obedience and respect for him. The appreciation of His Excellency affords many opportunities.”
“What opportunities do I need?” She asked.
“Give me the note, and I will tell you.” He needed to confirm she was still working with Sebastian. In Sunan, his name was Sebanith, son of Seban.
She nodded and reached down to her boots. When she rose, a small paper was in her hand.
“This is from Sebastian.” She held it out to him.
He took it and studied the seal. It was authentic and unbroken. He placed it in a pocket of his robe. He would read it later, but he would not trust its words.
“Thank you,” he said. “You seek two things. First, you must convince His Excellency to invade Valemidas without delay. You know that the invasion is coming, but for reasons I can only guess at, you want the Sunans to sail off for war now, against your own people.”
“You will understand my reasons in time,” Ravien said, “but I think you know more than you say. What of the second thing I seek?”
“Second,” Ilias finished his wine and set the glass down. “You must convince His Excellency and his advisors to sail the Sunan fleet into the mouth of the River Tyne and onto the sandy north bank, under the huge cliff that Valemidas sits upon.” He stopped there, not revealing the rest of what Yates’ note said.
Ravien nodded. “You have good sources, Ilias. How do you think I can convince your boy leader to do this?”
“His Excellency, you must call him ‘His Excellency.’” Ilias reminded himself to be patient. “His Excellency delegates much of the military strategy to his advisors Seban and Dassa. Both of them will be reluctant to take advice from a woman.”
Ravien raised her eyebrows and set her jaw. “Go on,” she said through gritted teeth.
“You must make His Excellency yearn for your respect, and then you must give it. Make him value you, desire you, trust you, and then you might have a chance. Your brashness has already piqued his interest, but you must be careful. Do not be disrespectful again. Use your assets,” Ilias gestured to the length of her figure, “to get into his inner circle, but do not be too easy or forthcoming.”
“I am never forthcoming.” Her voice was abrupt, like a door slamming shut. “But I will of course use what I have.”
“Others will notice,” Ilias added, “and they will work against you. You must be wary. Many Sunans will never trust a woman from Valemidas. His Excellency, however, will find you exotic and intriguing. For a young man who can have anything he wants, the few things held just out of reach will attract him like a worm on a hook.”
Ilias glanced out the window and saw the sun had passed its midday peak. “I am afraid I must go now, Ravien. You are surrounded by enemies, but I hope that we can grow to be friends.”
She stepped closer and bowed lightly. “You have brought me valuable information. I am grateful for that, and for your protection in the future.” She locked her dark eyes onto his. “The coming days will test us all. I, too, hope that our new alliance will endure.”
“Thank you, Ravien, Princess of Valemidas.” Ilias bowed in return. “We will meet again soon. Be vigilant, respectful, and enticing with His Excellency. Farewell.”
Ilias turned and left, sure that Ravien’s eyes followed him out the door. He went straight to His Excellency’s throne room, plotting along the way how he would stir up the dust of Sunan politics. That dust would be a necessary distraction. Ravien would have no chance if everyone’s focus was clear. For starters, Ilias decided, he could pit Ravien against His Excellency’s current mistress, Jezebel. His Excellency was a teenage boy behind his royal divinity, and nothing would distract him like two beautiful women competing for his affections.
He reached the giant, golden doors of the throne room and walked in. The room seemed larger, emptier than it had been when His Excellency’s father had sat on the throne some years ago. As always, Sunan soldiers stood at the base of each column lining the path to the throne. They were like statues, as if sculpted to be extensions of the sandstone pillars at their backs. Each man had bronzed skin and a long spear planted into the gold-veined tiles at his feet.
This was the daily meeting of His Excellency’s appointed counselors. The two other royal stewards, Malam and Seban, were there, along with military leaders, merchant leaders, and Jezebel. They stood in an arc circling His Excellency, who sat on the throne. The throne was pure smooth gold, with its back against the sandstone wall. Golden stairs lead up to the chair on either side, which had its seat raised high enough so that no one’s head rose above His Excellency’s feet.
“Ilias, you are late,” Malam announced.
“My apologies to you all.” Ilias kept his eyes on His Excellency. “I was interrogating His Excellency’s new servant, the rebel princess of Valemidas. You are wise to keep the woman alive for now. I believe that she does indeed have much information that we can use against Valemidas.”
“His Excellency is like the sun.” Jezebel’s passionate and lustful voice stood out. “His heat should have consumed this woman, burnt her away for her disrespect.” Ilias had expected that Jezebel would not tolerate a competitor for His Excellency’s affections. She was like a tigress who would slash the neck of anything that walked too close to her mate. Of course, His Excellency viewed her more as a toy than as a mate. That made her all the more desperate—and dangerous.
“My flames must abate when their burning would harm the Sunan people.” His Excellency sounded tired. Ilias prayed that would be helpful in this meeting.
“His Excellency speaks wisely,” Ilias interjected as he took his place in the arc of counselors. “I recommend that you meet with the foreign woman alone, so that no one else interferes with your divine insight.” Ilias looked away from the throne, at the others around him. “Our god, working through His Excellency, has brought us this opportunity. His Excellency must seize it and learn everything he can from the woman. I believe she will reveal more to him than she would to any of us.”
“Your counsel is wrong,” Jezebel said, her voice rising. Her defiant pose reminded Ilias of Ravien’s. She wore the complete coverings required of Sunan women, but the black linen draped her curves closely, and it was nearly transparent. She had caught His Excellency in her spell, so that he made exceptions for her—a woman speaking before his throne, dressed like a harlot, sharing his unwed bed. “This woman is a threat to His Excellency and to us all. You would give her unguarded access?” Jezebel’s voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper that they could all hear. “Such an absurdity hints of treachery.”
Just as he opened his mouth to defend himself, Ilias was saved by an outburst of laughter—Seban. The man had been forced to concede his claim to the throne and had fallen into amused despair ever since. His stout body shook, and his long dark hair with streaks of gray rustled at his shoulders. The other counselors stared at him in surprise. Ilias thought they should have expected this by now. Seban had probably been drinking since the sun rose.
“A woman?” Seban managed to say between his fits. “A threat to His Excellency?” He laughed again. “Jezebel, you forget your place, and you forget His Excellency’s power.” Seban looked up at their monarch with a grin. “I think he will do just fine when facing a woman alone. He is not some young pup to be kept away from a hint of danger and excitement.”
His Excellency smiled in response. “Seban is right. Bring her to me today at dusk.” The boy’s smile took a devilish turn. “I always treat my guests with respect.”
For once, Ilias worried little about his pupil’s decaying virtue. He worried instead about a foreign woman’s pride, and how that pride might let opportunity slip from her grasp—the opportunity of a fresh, over-eager boy fueled by his desires. Nothing less than the fate of war depended on it.
“Man is born free, and
everywhere he is in chains.
Those who think themselves
the masters of others are indeed
greater slaves than they.”
Wren finished his last morning pushup and paced his prison cell. Five steps one way. Turn around. Five steps the other way. He hated pacing. It did not take him anywhere.
It had been three days since he and Ravien had arrived in Sunan. Three days of breakfast, pushups, lunch, pushups, dinner, pushups, and sleep. With no visitors and no notes, Wren felt angry and confused. Sweat rolled down his bare chest. The cell was stuffy like an attic, despite a window the size of his hand.
He paused his pacing to stare out the little opening. He was high up in a huge palace. The perch could have afforded a sweeping view of the city of Sunan, but instead his peephole revealed no more than a small square picture.
In that picture he saw scores of low, sand-colored buildings. They looked like little dunes, mere ripples of sand between a broad river at the base of the palace and the vast blue sea beyond. Enormous white trees, like the one in Valemidas, lined the river bank. The birds were the best part of the view. Gulls and pelicans and cranes filled the sky. They squawked and skirmished, circled high and dove for fish. Everything was bright outside. Everything was dark inside. He had not seen a single raven, or any other sign of his beloved.
He turned away and sat facing the door. Its hard wood mocked him. He had given up knocking it down after bruising his shoulder and his pride the first day. A group of three armed guards would bring and retrieve the food and waste. They never said a word. He doubted that he could fight past them, and it was not clear how that would even help him—he had no friends here, no idea how to get out.
He thought about Jon and their store, the Invisible Hand. He recounted the exact, high prices that Valemidas nobles had paid for Sunan dyes and spices. Those spices smelled lush and exotic, but they could not rival Ravien’s scent. He remembered her fragrance, the feel of her skin, the dark allure of her eyes. He remembered their wedding night and their voyage here. Her laughter and love had been paradise to him. A paradise lost.
She had led them into this, and why? Wren knew it had something to do with the threat of war. She had messages for a high priest in Sunan. He had not pried enough about the details. He had tried to avoid matters of politics and faith, since Andor had regained the throne. Those were Andor’s job. Wren’s job was to trade and earn gold. Still, his own wife had not trusted him enough to tell him more. That hurt, especially now that he was stuck here, ignorant and alone.
The door’s lock clicked open. It was time for lunch, probably more salted fish. The Sunans had fine-tasting fish, he would give them that much. It was a welcome distraction.
The guards filed in as usual, but this time Ball was with them. The fat Sunan merchant stood just outside the door, behind the guards as if behind a wall. He held his hands out in greeting. Wren wanted to grab a spear from a guard and plunge it into Ball’s belly.
“Good day, Wren,” Ball said.
“Is it?” Wren fired back. “That’s hard to see from here.”
“I’ll explain,” Ball continued. “But my words will sound better on a long walk, after you have bathed.” He motioned for Wren to come. “You’ll have a traditional Sunan bath, fit for the mate of a princess, a princess who lives and has arranged for more freedom for you.”
For once, Wren just nodded and kept his mouth shut. He wanted freedom so badly that he dared not risk losing Ball’s offer by unleashing his tongue.
He followed the waddling merchant down a series of long halls and stairs. The guards stayed at Wren’s side. They eventually came to an open, steam-filled room with a huge pool. A handful of men were soaking in it, nude except for the distinctive Sunan tattoos at their temples. Deep blue tiles covered the ceiling, the walls, and the floor, lending a feeling of being underwater.
Ball led him to an alcove along the side of the pool, where a large, hairy man stood in nothing but a towel. He barked something in the Sunan tongue, which Ball translated as: “Strip and lay down on your stomach.”
Wren reluctantly obeyed. As Ball and the hairy man began to talk in the Sunan tongue, something with the weight and texture of a boulder pressed into his back and began to rub hard against his skin. Despite the discomfort, it helped dissolve his tension. After his backside was thoroughly scrubbed, powerful hands turned him over, threw a towel over his waist, and repeated the process along his front.
The scrubbing went quickly and the bear of a man growled words again and pointed his paw at the pool.
“Into the water,” Ball translated in an amused voice.
Wren walked down stairs into the blazing hot water. More tension evaporated. He sat a few moments with his eyes closed, trying to imagine himself somewhere else, before the bear growled again. When Wren stepped out of the pool, the bear rubbed him down with a towel infused with some fragrant oil. Ball handed him clothes of soft linen, which Wren slipped on with some relief. Valemidan men would never bathe in the same room like this.
“Well, how do you feel?” Ball asked.
“Spotless, shiny, and a little raw,” Wren said.
Ball shrugged. “Let your beard grow and get some sun. Then you might feel more like a Sunan.” The fat merchant paused. “Hungry? Ready for a stroll?”
Wren nodded. He had to be careful with his words.
“Good, we’ll visit the royal bazaar, like we did when you first visited Sunan. It will be just us and two of my personal guards.” Ball clasped Wren on the shoulder as if to say he could be trusted.
Wren would never trust the man again, but he followed him out of the palace all the same. Ball’s two guards replaced the sterner looking prison guards. They walked to Ball’s carriage, which was waiting outside the palace. It was a short ride to the legendary bazaar of Sunan. They got out of the carriage and began to walk along the bazaar’s main passage.
As large as the central square of Valemidas, the bazaar looked like a great place of trade. There were hundreds of merchants selling elegant rugs, fresh fish, exotic spices, weapons, and everything else under the sun. But Wren saw through the façade. He had enough experience with markets to know that this one lacked sufficient buyers. Nor was there a woman in sight. Men were not shouting out about their wares. They were not competing about their prices. They looked bored as they dutifully made transactions and recorded each sell on a uniform-looking ledger. The bazaar was not a market. It was a distribution center managed by a privileged few.
Ball was one of the privileged. Every man in the bazaar lit like a lantern upon seeing the royal merchant. They would say something eagerly in the Sunan tongue, and Ball would nod and respond with an appreciative, condescending tone. By the time they had walked the length of the bazaar, Ball was glowing. Wren figured he had soaked up all the groveling respect.
They reached a long set of stairs overlooking the sea beyond. Ball sat on the top stair and motioned for Wren to join him. Wren sat and gazed over the water.
“Now,” Ball began, “this is a safe place to talk. I suspect you have questions for me?” No one was close enough to hear, especially over the cries of gulls above.
Wren swallowed the first three questions that came to him. The breeze felt good on his face. Even in the Sunan linens, his skin felt ablaze under the sun’s heat. Maybe it was an act of mercy that the Sunan men made their women stay mostly indoors, out of the sun.
Eventually, while staring at the fleet in the harbor, Wren decided to be direct with Ball. “When can Ravien and I leave?”
“A hard question,” Ball said. “You imply that you will leave, and that you and Ravien will leave together. That’s what makes you a shrewd dealer. I like that about you.”
Ball looked like he had not slept in days. He smiled at Wren, beads of moisture covering his face. Wren held his stare and tried to stay calm, waiting for an answer. Ball had not dodged his question.
“You and Ravien can leave,” Ball broke the silence, “rather, I believe youwillleave when the Sunan army sets sail. It took great effort, great sacrifice,” he glanced down at his chubby hands, “but I convinced His Excellency that you may be released from your cell. The only conditions are that you will work with me, organizing our supplies for the journey, and you will, and—”
Ball stood suddenly and pulled Wren up. He nodded toward the bottom of the stairs, where three men were approaching them. Unlike most the Sunan men, they wore black instead of white.
“Those are Malam’s men,” Ball explained as he led Wren back into the bazaar. “Malam is one of His Excellency’s three advisors, and along with Ilias, one of the Sunan high priests. Malam opposed me when I requested your freedom. He extracted a heavy compromise.”
“What compromise?” Wren asked.
“Well, the other conditions for you leaving Sunan result from the compromise with Malam. You will not like this, so before I say more, I need some assurance from you. I have staked much on this.”
“Assurance fromme?” Wren tried to stay calm, but Ball was the betrayer. He was the one who should be offering assurance.
“We can talk more in the carriage.” The merchant’s face was red as he continued leading Wren through the merchants. When they had reached the other side, Ball looked back. The three men in black were nowhere to be seen. “Let’s go.” Ball climbed into the carriage, and Wren followed.
“Do not let that happen again,” Ball demanded once they were inside. Wren had never seen the merchant so serious. “Never challenge me in front of my fellow Sunans. I assure you that unless you do exactly as I say, you will die before the sun sets, and your wife will be raped and ravaged until she submits. I am your only chance.”
Wren boiled inside but held it in. “I’m listening.”
“I am afraid we have little time,” Ball said. “We go now to visit His Excellency in the palace, and all will be better for you if you pretend you do not know Ravien when you see her.”
“When will I see her?” Wren interrupted.
“Probably soon, when you bow before His Excellency and declare your faith in him.” Ball hesitated, as if waiting for an answer.
“I can bow,” Wren said, “I can say words.” He remembered swearing to Tryst months before while meaning none of it. He was coming to this oath-breaking too easily, but whatever it took to protect Ravien. “What else?” He asked.
Ball took a deep breath. “Malam and Ilias have long vied for favor with His Excellency. They are both high priests, faithful to His Excellency, but their sects are very different. Ilias represents the sun sect of our faith. He believes in a god much like your Valemidas god, and he believes His Excellency is god’s appointed leader in this world. Malam represents the moon sect of our faith. He believes His Excellency and those before him are themselves god, or part of god. He holds to older, darker ways. I have long been a supporter of Ilias, not Malam. Our faiths—”
Ball paused as the carriage began to slow. “I will tell you more of that another time. I must tell you the other condition.”
“I’m still listening,” Wren said.
“I keep you under my watch,” Ball shrugged as if this was not his desire. “You see, Malam keeps Ravien under his watch. Ilias protested this. He wanted Ravien with him, and I think Malam did this to spite him. It is only a formality, though, because she seems to be staying close to His Excellency.”
Wren did not fully understand Ball’s words, but the tone was clear. This would not be a good thing. There were risks in this compromise, even if he could not see them.
“What do you mean that she is staying close?” Wren asked. The carriage had stopped.
“You will see for yourself soon,” Ball answered. “She will be in the palace, and you must not overreact at anything. Ignore her, bow to His Excellency and declare your faith in him. That will buy you and me more time.” Ball pulled back the curtain of the carriage. “Come, we must go.”
As they stepped out and walked through the palace gate, Wren’s mind raced through what he had heard. It was true he had no leverage, but he also could think of no reason why Ball would risk pulling him out of his cell and giving him some measure of freedom. Maybe he could trust Ball, up to a point.
Ball did not say anything else until they were standing outside gold doors as tall as four men. The doors had a massive sun imprinted in the center. Just as the guards outside began to pull the doors open, Ball whispered: “Make this humble and simple. No smiles, no defiance. Follow my lead.”
The warning gripped tightly as soon as Wren saw inside. It was a cavernous throne room, with enormous columns, gold everywhere, and enough soldiers to wage a war. They were aligned in tight rows on almost every square inch of the golden marble floor. Their spearheads were like a field of ripe corn. A path between the men led to a throne. It was a chair of pure gold set against the far wall.
Wren followed at Ball’s heels to the base of the throne, and he bowed to the floor when Ball did. He then went to his knees as Ball did and looked up. The boy ruler was not quite so young as Wren had thought upon first seeing him. His face almost looked gentle and kind in that moment. But then he spoke.
“My bird?” The boy’s voice was petulant and arrogant.
A woman dressed in the full black Sunan coverings stepped up the stairs to the side of the throne. The coverings were a light fabric, almost translucent. Wren could see the woman’s body underneath, lean and assured.
He realized it was Ravien a moment before she turned to look at him. Her eyes were all he could see. They might have signaled something, but he saw only recognition and mystery in the instant before she turned away and took the boy’s hand.
“My bird tells me you are a wealthy merchant in Valemidas, and you funded her travel here.” The boy king pulled Ravien closer to him and kissed her hand. “I thank you for that service and for the beauty it has brought me.” Wren felt his heart sink. “Between my captive princess and my own royal merchant,” the king continued, “you have strong allies. Malam and my soldiers would have me kill a Valemidan before we set sail. Should it be you?”
The boy looked away from Wren and out over the hall. He shouted something in the Sunan tongue, something short and rhythmic. The soldiers responded in unison with a shout that sounded almost the same.
“Because you may be put to some use, I will find another Valemidan if you declare your faith in me as your ruler and your god. Am I not merciful?”
“Say the words,” Ball said under his breath.
Wren kept his eyes on the ground and muttered, “I declare my faith in His Excellency and in Sunan.”
“That was hard to hear,” the boy king said. “Say it louder, Valemidan. And Ball, translate it for the hall.”
Wren looked up. Everyone’s eyes were on him. “I declare my faith,” he shouted, “in His Excellency and in Sunan.” The boy’s smile wavered.
Ball translated quickly, calmly. The soldiers shouted something in their tongue again, and the boy responded in kind.
“You may live, foreign merchant. Serve Ball well, or I’ll give my princess the honor of slitting your throat.”
The boy grinned down, taunting. He stood and put his arm around Ravien’s waist. It almost looked like she drew closer to him, compliant. She whispered something in his ear. He smiled.
Wren rose to his feet and moved forward. Something held him back by the shirt. He turned and saw Ball large and round as a boulder.
Ball said a few words up to His Excellency in a light, mocking voice. The boy laughed and waved them off.
Wren found himself being dragged out of the hall by his shirt. Ball had not loosened his grip. The boy ruler began to speak to the hall in a commanding voice. The soldiers looked ready for war.
Doubts filled Wren’s mind as Ball led him down palace halls. He knew Ravien could have good reasons for placating the boy, for drawing close to him. But it was not her way, it had never been her way. Part of Wren questioned her intentions from the start. She had wanted to come to Sunan, and he had funded it.
He assured himself that Ravien would not betray him. Their love was real; it had been too visceral to fade like a mirage in this desert place. But Ball had once been loyal, too.
He followed the waddling boulder and felt trust unraveling all around him. Trust was worth more than gold, and he had always had plenty of both. Now he felt bankrupt.
By evening, Wren’s temper had cooled and left a throbbing block of jealousy and hurt. He sat at a table and dipped his pen in ink. A blank note was before him. The night air was cool through the open windows. The lamps gave the whitewashed walls a rich luster. Ball’s estate made for a much finer prison.
Wren had been crafting these words in his mind, seeking the delicate balance of telling his brother all he needed to know while hiding the meaning from those who would inspect it. When Ball had agreed to arrange for its delivery, he had made no promises of keeping it secret. He did, however, consent to a messenger Wren trusted: Cid. He was a Sunan who knew the black market and could make sure the message reached his brother.
The dark bird has landed on another’s shoulder.
Wren wrote meticulously on the small paper.
Her song is a spell, convincing when to fly and where to land.
At least, that was Wren’s hope. He restrained his hand from penning his next words: Her song pleases her perch, plays upon his desires. Those words were too revealing, and Wren’s feelings were not relevant. He dipped the pen back in the ink and continued.
The little bird flutters in a cage. He will go about his business with a ball under the sun.
Jon would know the little bird as Wren, the ball as Ball, and the sun as Sunan.
Tell our man the sun is at its zenith and setting soon toward the west. Stay the course, consider the coming dusk, and withhold no gold. Bright metals mean nothing inside the fire.
—her little bird
Wren set down the pen and waited for the ink to dry. Andor had to know that war was coming soon. Judging from the fleet in the harbor, Wren guessed the Sunans would come with forces tripling that of Valemidas. He hoped Ravien knew what she was doing. He had to believe it was all a game, but the throbbing in his head diminished his trust.
He folded the note and stood with it in hand. After stopping to pick up his empty wine glass and the empty bottle beside it, he walked to the door. He tapped the bottle against it, and the door opened a moment later.
The two guards standing in the hall outside pretended to be servants. Their hard faces gave them away almost as clearly as their spears.
“Take this to Ball,” Wren demanded, “and bring me more wine.”
The men looked at him with surprise at his orders. Neither budged.
Wren waved the note in their faces. “Ball said I was his honored guest. Do you always disobey his guests?”
One of the men said something in the Sunan tongue to the other. They rolled their eyes, but the man who spoke took the paper and the glass.
Wren went back into his room and fell onto the bed. It was going to take more than wine and sleep to ease this throbbing.
“I opened myself to the
gentle indifference of the world.
Finding it so much like myself –
so like a brother, really –
I felt that I had been happy
and that I was happy again.”
Mersault and I had talked for hours, days, months. We talked of nothingness in all the ways we could. I had come to accept his company—the fits of laughter and aloof stares. Everything was a grasping after the wind, he would say. In our short lives, he would ask, what was better than to eat, drink, and enjoy our works? I had no answers to questions like that.
Our attic could almost have become a home, if not for the smell. It smelled like burnt hair, excrement, and dead rats. Only it was worse than that, because they were dead men, not rats.
We left rarely, when our stomachs demanded it. Mersault had been right about the food. We would go to the central square of the Gloaming together and wait for a falling. When it came, there were no longer any new men. There were baskets, full baskets, of real food. Cain’s men, the only armed men, would gather armloads, but it was too much for them to carry. Crumbs would fall as they hauled their loads to the tower where I had lived and reigned. Once they were inside, Mersault and I and other grey men would rush to pick up what we could. A few fights broke out, but not as they once had. Mersault and I would take the food we grabbed and return to the attic hideaway.
After I lost count of the fallings, at some number in the twenties, something began to tug me back toward Cain and the tall building. I pretended it was just Zarathus, my sword, restless for action. I pretended I could be satisfied with enough food and more discussions of nothingness in an attic with a lunatic.
Pretend as I might, there was nowhere to run from the truth. A simple life of food and talk would never satisfy me. I wanted power. I had always wanted power. I no longer craved it for power’s sake, but leading men was what I was born to do. Here in the Gloaming I had ruled men like a strong wind rules the waves. They would obey me on the surface. Underneath, below my influence, their motions were governed by something more powerful. Survival was the moon to their tides. It was such a base reason to go on living.
I wondered whether the Gloaming made clear what had always been true. Maybe men were all born fallen, and a terrible place like this only exposed our inner natures. We were harsh, unforgiving, and selfish. Men also wanted to survive in the world above, but everything up there was softer, colorful, and better smelling. Down here men needed more order. They needed me to lead them.
And so I decided to fight my way back into command. Mersault had only laughed when I told him I was going to kill Cain and regain power.
Cain had given me the opportunity. After he had attacked me, he continued securing his position and gathering followers. He probably knew I was still alive, and that I would come back for him. Maybe that fear had motivated him, for he had called a meeting. At the prior falling, his men had announced that this meeting would follow the next falling and take place at the top of the tall building. The announcement had sounded almost civilized.
Mersault came with me to the meeting. We followed the hushed voices and the flow of shadowy figures into the building and up the stairs. The gathering was on the fifth floor, below my former home. Mersault and I moved to a corner of the room, where we had the wall behind us.
A few dozen men were there. They kept their distance from each other, but no one attacked. I guessed their stomachs were not empty. They each tried to be no one, to be some fleck of dust on the floor. Their clothes were ragged. A few wore nothing but grime. They held bones and other crude weapons.
Cain stood in the center of the room. He towered over the others and missed grazing the ceiling by mere inches. After a few weeks here, no one shines as a physical specimen. But a man like Cain wore scars and dirt as if he was born with them, and the horrors of this place only fed his disposition. He glimmered with brutality. Still, I saw the subtle signs of his stress—his nervous eyes, his shoulder still stiff from the wound I had inflicted. Leading men was no light burden, especially men like these.
He suddenly yelled out from his enormous chest. He raised his arms and shouted, “Do you not want better than this? Follow me, and you will live in peace. We will all have a share of the food.”
A man yelled back in desperation: “And who will get the food first, your guards? How will you restrain them?”
“You will all be guards, obedient to me,” Cain said. “Each of you will have a turn guarding the square.” He motioned towards a few of the men standing closest to him, and he held up several metal bars for distribution. Those were the weapons that my men had gathered and Cain had stolen.
“Lies!” shouted a man in the crowd. “You take all the best food, all the weapons!”
“I will not play favorites.” Cain scanned the crowd, as if looking for the man who spoke against him. Then his eyes caught mine. His face darkened in fury.
“I will not be like that man!” He pointed his sword at me.
Everyone in the room turned toward me. Fifteen feet of empty floor separated the others from Mersault and me. I drew my sword. Zarathus gleamed.
Cain’s newly announced division seemed to ignite the smoldering group. Men began shouting, shoving, some of them charging at me, others at Cain. Within seconds, the whole mass was in a frenzy.
Cain was submerged, completely lost to my sight, while I was surrounded. The onslaught hit me like waves against a great stone arising from the shore. I did not budge, and they parted around me. I deflected their crude weapons, but my blade did not graze their skin. This time I wanted only Cain. I began to circle towards where he had been standing.
He spotted me first. “Kill him!” he screamed.
We began fighting to reach each other, through the brawling men between us. A few of Cain’s men tried to stop me. I flowed through their attacks. They stood no chance against my blade. I was healed and strong again. I severed one man’s sword hand. I knocked out two others with the hilt of my sword. They could thank me later for letting them live.
A high-pitched shout grabbed my attention. Mersault. Cain was standing before him, pulling his sword out of the man’s stomach. Cain stepped toward me. Mersault fell to his knees.
I realized the men around me had mostly backed away. Others were laid out on the floor, or writhing from their wounds. I closed the short distance between Cain and me.
He swung his sword at me with the force of an ogre. I spun out of its path and swiped at his legs, drawing blood. He screamed out in pain.
His eyes showed fear as he limped towards me. He stabbed at my chest, and I parried the blow. The force of our striking blades made him stumble back.
I jumped high by his side and swung Zarathus through his neck. His head fell back as his body fell forward.
Just as the men remaining in the room began to scatter, I announced myself. They needed something more than a man to bind them together.
“I am your Lord!”
Their heads snapped towards me.
“Kneel before me!” I shouted in the midst of the confusion. One by one, they began to bow down.
The fight had taken mere minutes. At least a dozen men remained in the room, on their knees in a crescent around me.
I turned to Mersault, relieved to see his wild smile. Maybe Cain’s stab had not been as deep as it had looked.
He was kneeled over like the others. I pulled him up by the shoulder, but he groaned. As his torso straightened, I saw blood.
“See,” he smiled through the pain, “it does not matter.”
He tried to stand, but fell to his knees.
“Would you end this pain for me?” He asked.
I shook my head. “We will get you food and tend your wound.”
“I am bleeding to death. Would you make me suffer longer?” He glanced to the men around us. “Show these men your mercy!” He groaned.
I looked down at him. He met my eyes calmly. The hysteria was gone. Pure innocence was there, like I had seen in him before. His presence here was my fault. I would not let him suffer.
He nodded, as if reading my thoughts. He leaned back and offered his chest to my sword.
When I pulled the blade out of him, the last thread connecting me to my past was severed. He was dead, relieved of his duty and his breath. I was alive, obligated to breathe and to lead again, alone.
I had an odd thought in that moment. I wondered what it would feel like to kill Andor. Would it feel worse than losing Mersault? I knew that it would, even if I had once wanted it. The past was dead to me and ahead laid a steady march to the grave.
“Come away, O human child!To the waters and the wildWith a faery hand in hand,For the world’s
more full of weeping
than you can understand.”
Lorien’s stomach twisted, her head spun, and she vomited. This was the third morning in a row. She had never felt ill like this before.
When her breakfast arrived, she poked at the eggs but settled on a few bites of toast. It was a rare morning when she was glad to be alone. Andor had been gone by the time she rose from bed, as he had been almost every day since his return. His days were overly full of duties. Her days were, too, but she had more freedom to set her agenda.
Her head continued spinning while she dressed, but at least she kept her bites of toast down. She moved to the desk that she and Andor had requested for the prince’s quarters. The huge slab of wood was meant for them to share, working across from each other, but Andor had little time to sit here.
She began reviewing a stack of reports from the prior day. There was little good news. The harvest in Valemidas’ lands was going poorly. Food would be short this winter. Gold would be even shorter, as the Sunans no longer lended to the palace and the few merchants who still did were charging much more, fearing that Valemidas itself might not be able to pay. Still, soldiers must be paid, walls must be maintained, and the work of the palace must continue.
So she began writing a slew of notes. She wrote directly to the many merchants she knew in the city. She wrote to targeted nobles. She wrote to the councils of towns under Valemidas’ control. By midday, she had read and discarded the stack of reports. A new stack of messages rose high from the desk. Seventy papers with the prince’s seal and with the princess’s script. Seventy demands that read like gentle requests. She prayed they would not be like seeds scattered on barren soil. All she needed was for a few to take hold, root down, and grow flowers in the coming winter.
Lorien realized when she stood that her efforts had made her lose track of time. She should have eaten more, or gotten up to stretch. Her head spun again but she steeled herself with small steps and another nibble of cold toast. As she left their quarters, she asked one of the servants to have a doctor waiting when she returned.
Today she would visit Jon for lunch. Andor had agreed instantly when Lorien had proposed it. With Jon by Andor’s side most hours of the day, it was not hard to see that he had lost his cheer, that something weighed on him. Andor needed Jon to be his spirited, enthusiastic protector, especially with war coming. Lorien would try to learn more and help their friend.
The long walk down to Jon’s room helped clear her head. Like all men on the Knight’s Council, Jon was in the same central tower as the prince, but near the bottom floors. That way, anyone coming for the prince would have to pass his strongest knights first.
When she arrived at his door, she was surprised no servant was there, but then she remembered ordering that staff be cut several weeks ago. They could no longer afford a servant for every knight.
She knocked. The door swung open and Jon greeted her.
“My Princess, it is good to see you.” He bowed smoothly. “I was honored to hear your request to meet with me.” His motions were powerful and graceful, but his words were stiff and formal. Lorien had expected more warmth.
“Of course, Jon, and please, stand, call me Lorien. The honor is mine. I am sorry that we have not been able to spend more time together, but a friend of Andor’s is a friend of mine. Andor would not be on the throne without your loyalty and support.”
“Thank you, my lady.” The knight looked down at his feet shyly. “I just did what I could.” He gestured for Lorien to follow. “Come, the table is prepared.”
Lorien noticed that the antechamber was too full, too well-decorated, and too clean. She saw the same thing as she followed Jon into the small dining area. The window opening to a courtyard was framed by lush, colorful curtains. The rug was ornate and soft. The setting on the table was elegant. An ornate vase of bright flowers sat at the center. It was too much for a man of Jon’s honest style, and he would not have had time for such attention to detail. She sensed a woman’s touch.
“I love your curtains. Where did you find them?” She asked as she declined Jon’s offer of wine. Her stomach would not tolerate it.
Jon looked over his shoulder and then turned back with an uncertain look. He was quiet for a moment before saying, “I am glad you like them, my lady. Someone chose them for me. Same for our meal. I think you will like it.” He motioned for her to take a seat.
“Thank you,” she said as she sat. “My appetite is weak today, but the bread looks delightful. Tell me, who picked these curtains? I may need to consult with her.” Lorien took a small bite and looked at Jon expectantly.
Suddenly his head fell into his hands. He looked up again with something like shame on his face. It took Lorien aback. She had planned a long inquiry to discover what troubled him, not simply a couple questions about curtains.
“I am sorry, but I cannot bear to keep this hidden from you. Andor has not asked, so he does not yet know. He has too much on his mind already.” Jon’s voice grew calmer as he spoke. “Can you keep this between us? Secrets have never rested easy with me.”
“Of course. You can be open with me.”
“Mailyn?” He called out toward the room to his right, likely the bedchambers.
A moment later a woman walked in. Not just any woman. A woman whose beauty took Lorien’s breath away. She was tall and slender, her walk a saunter. She had flaxen hair that flowed to her shoulders. Her features were perfect. She was an image of symmetry.
She walked to Lorien and bowed low. Only then did Lorien realize that her slim figure had a protruding belly in the middle.
“Lorien, this is Mailyn. She is staying with me, but it is not what you think.” Jon stood at Mailyn’s side protectively. The distance between them hinted that Jon spoke true. He did not touch her like a lover, but everything else suggested he had those feelings. Lorien wondered who the father was, and how she possibly came to live with Jon.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, my Princess.” Mailyn’s silky voice matched her looks.
“And you, Mailyn,” Lorien said. “When is your child due?”
Mailyn’s hands suddenly went to her belly, and she smiled radiantly. “My baby is jumping. It feels like it jumps at your voice. I am due in two months.”
“That is wonderful.” Lorien gestured toward another chair at the table. “Please, sit and lunch with us.”
Mailyn grinned in thanks and lowered herself into the chair. Jon rushed to set another plate for her. The three of them slipped into conversation as they ate. A cloud seemed to have drifted away from Jon. He beamed with his typical, contagious happiness. Lorien asked about his service protecting Andor and about Mailyn’s background.
By the end, Lorien was confident of several things. Mailyn’s child was very important, but there was no way Lorien was going to learn who the father was today. Mailyn had moved in with Jon only recently, but Jon had already fallen for the woman. And from the glances she stole at him, Mailyn was growing in her trust of Jon. She seemed to respect him but to still be afraid of something. Like any mother, she would surely do anything to keep her baby safe.
Lorien managed to eat much of her lunch, and she left feeling better than she had in several days. She had a new mission: to find out whose child Mailyn bore.
Later that day, after she had met with her doctor, Lorien conspired with Jon so she could steal time with Andor. It had been too long since she had gotten away with him alone.
Jon had agreed to bring Andor to the palace gate as the sun set. Whatever reasons he had made up, Jon had done his part.
Andor arrived to find Lorien waiting, glowing in the day’s fading light. She held the reins to their horses, already saddled. After some protest about missing meetings with nobles this evening, Andor consented to follow Lorien. Jon was their only guard. She led them on horseback out of the city. Most citizens were inside enjoying their dinners. Aside from a few curious glances, they escaped Valemidas unnoticed.
She led Andor to the barn where they had married a few months ago. They dismounted there and walked to a secluded spot on the north bank of the River Tyne. Jon stayed behind with the horses, in a position where anyone coming by land would have to pass him to reach them.
The air was cool and fresh beside the water. Darkness had fallen. The gentle lapping waves reflected the moonlight. Lorien had Andor exactly where she wanted him.
“What do you think those are, fluttering just above the water?” Andor pointed to the edge of the river. “There are hundreds of them.”
“Bugs looking for smaller bugs to eat?” Lorien responded playfully.
“What if they’re faerie creatures? Spirited little beings with minds like ours, which only come out when the moon is full.” He rubbed the back of her neck while he gazed out over the water.
“You are in a good mood tonight.” Lorien savored the touch of his skin against hers.
“My bride has stolen me from the traps of the city. The weather is perfect. What’s not to like?”
“I have asked you that same question many times in recent weeks, and you have found your reasons. They are good ones, I admit. The coming war, the discovery about your family, the question of who to trust. But think on what we have gained back now, not on what lies ahead.”
“We have gained back what matters most,” he said, “but we have lost much, too, and duty lays heavy on my shoulders.”
“You have to let others share your duty. What more can I do for you?” He had been working himself too hard. It was impossible to plan for war, preserve good relations with the nobles, and nurse a city back to health, much less deal with his own lingering pains from the Gloaming.
He ran his hand along her cheek and traced the line of her chin. “You tell me, Lorien. Where am I failing the worst?” He laughed, a sound she was happy to hear. He had been taking himself too seriously.
“The nobles.” She did not hesitate long before answering. “You are still bitter about what they did, with so many of them supporting Tryst and forgetting about you once you were gone. But you know you would not have regained the throne without them.”
“Yes,” he nodded, “but look what they made me do to Tryst. He is stuck in the Gloaming, dead for all we know.”
“It was your idea to send him down there.”
“It was, but only because the nobles would have executed him otherwise, and because I hoped it would save him. I will bring him and the others out of there.”
“Then why have you delayed?” She asked.
“I am trying to work within our system. The duty falls to the minister of prisons, and I have ordered him to get it done.”
“Really?” She pressed him. “You know the best way to keep something from happening is to assign it to a minister.”
“I want them out,” Andor said. “I really do, but maybe you are right. I have been letting the delays drag on. I cannot seem to face the issue. The place still weighs on me, like it is some curse. My thoughts bend and twist around the memories. And Justus says the nobles insist the people cannot know about the place.”
“You harbor anger toward the nobles, yet you obey their whims,” Lorien challenged. “That is not the way to lead. Doyouwant the people to know?”
He studied his hands as they folded together in his lap. “It is an old secret,” he sighed. “Maybe we cannot risk more questions right now. The people must trust us as we ask for more and more in the coming months. They need to believe in Valemidas to give fully to our city’s defense. They would lose faith if they knew every disappearance, every lost prisoner, had been cast down into that hell.”
“Hard words,” Lorien said. “I will think on them. But for now, let me take care of the nobles. I, too, grew up in their court, and I know how to manage them. I will settle their disputes. I will attend their meetings for you. I will respond to their requests for information and favors.”
“This is a heavy burden—” he began.
“Exactly!” She interrupted him with a laugh and put her hands on his shoulders. “Your shoulders will feel much lighter without the nobles sitting on them.”
“Thank you. Yes, much lighter.” He smiled at her and then laid on his back and looked up at the stars. “What else am I missing?”
There were many things she wanted to say, but it was not the time to discuss all the affairs of governing. Two items held the greatest importance.
“Sebastian.” His name was sharp on her lips. “You know I do not trust him, yet you allow him into your closest council. He is a Sunan man and a proven betrayer. Just because he chose you over Tryst does not mean he will choose you over the Sunans. Tell me why you trust him.”
Andor hesitated. This was not the first time she had brought up his spy. “Yates says I must learn to trust again. Why not start with him? I was born a Sunan, too. We cannot hold that against him.”
“He is not like you, Andor. You do not bear the tattoos he does. He lived there until he was old enough to earn their marks. You left as a little child. You are a Valemidan with Sunan blood. He is a Sunan with a Valemidan façade. You cannot reconcile the brokenness of your past through him.”
“I will not distrust him because of the place of his birth.”
“Then distrust him because of his betrayal.”
“He betrayed Tryst in concert with me,” Andor said. “My promises will bind him to me.”
“Promises?” Lorien remembered Andor hinting at this in his speech at their wedding.
“I promised Sebastian that if he helped me take the throne, I would support his rise to a noble position, or even to be the prince when I step down.”
“Step down? And Sebastian, the prince? That is absurd. The people would never support him, much less the nobles.”
“I know that,” he said, “but he does not. Besides, it is the next promise that matters now. I swore to him that if we prevail over the Sunans, and he serves me loyally and effectively through the battle, then I would appoint him steward of the Sunan people. He would rule over them on my behalf. That is what he wants most, I think.”
“He wants at least that.” Lorien was not comforted. “You still entrust too much to him. He could turn on you when you least expect it. What if he has a similar promise with the Sunans? If he were honest, he would tell you his sources.”
“He is the chief of spies for a reason. He keeps secrets. He has done nothing to make me question his loyalty, but I will stay wary of him, my love.” Andor said things like that when he was tired of a conversation. Lorien decided to let it rest for now, but she was not finished with Sebastian.
“Fine,” she said. “You want to know what else you are missing?” She rose to her feet, standing over him.
He rose to his knees and took her waist in his hands. “I am missing time with you. It will not do for me to continue coming to bed after you fall asleep and departing before you wake.”
“No, that will not do.” She laughed. “That is why I am joining beside you in the yoke of governing.” She put her hands over his. “But that is not what you are missing. What do your hands feel right now?”
“The most divine body ever created?” He smiled up at her.
“And?” She met his smile. She would not make him tell her that her waist was thicker than a month ago. “And what kind of miracle might my divine body hold?”
His eyes opened wide. He leaned his head against her stomach.
“A miracle?” he asked.
“A miracle,” she answered.
He stood and kissed her. “How do you know?”
She laughed and swayed in his arms. “A woman knows these things. Our baby is due in five months.”
“Five months!” His eyes showed he was thinking ahead, then they darkened. “That might be in the middle of war.”
“Another reason for you to make sure we win, and that you survive.” She held his face between her hands. He gently pulled her down to the blanket.
“We will win.” He kissed her. “I will survive.” He kissed her again. “And we will bring new life into this world.” His hands held her waist tight.
“Our new life,” she said, as the length of her body met his.
IMMERSION AT RISK
“With none in the whole army
are more intimate relations
to be maintained
than with spies.
None should be more
In no other business should
greater secrecy be preserved.”
Ravien stood on the wall encircling the Sunan palace. The midday sun made the palace look like a garden of white tulips. Each tower was a bulbous flower reaching up, basking in the light. The palace was even more beautiful now that she had the freedom to leave it. She could learn to like this city, with a few changes.
She turned from the palace and waved at each of the men following her. One was on the roof of a building outside the wall, far below her. Another was on the wall a few hundred feet away, pretending to be looking out over the city. The third one was right beside her.
“You might as well talk with me,” she said to the closest man, “if you will be the one following me today.”
He wore a black hooded robe like the others. He shook his head as if he did not understand her words.
“His Excellency permits me to go wherever I please,” Ravien told him.
He folded his hands at his chest and bowed to her.
“What’s your name?” She reached up to push back his hood.
He leaned away from her and shook his head again. “Malam,” he said.
“So all of you are named Malam today?”
“Malam.” He nodded yes.
“You share Malam’s bed at night?”
“Malam.” He nodded again.
“Did your high priest give you a rope to help you follow me?”
He shook his head and looked confused.
She pulled the rope from the bag at her waist and held it toward him. “Rope?” she asked.
His look of confusion turned to worry as she tied a loop around one of the pillars along the wall. She gave it a firm tug and threw the rest of the rope over the outside of the wall.
He moved to stop her.
She winked at him, and he hesitated. “I’m sure your friends will have better luck following me.” She wrapped the rope around her body.
Before he could react, she leapt off the wall and rapelled all the way down to the ground. The man did not attempt to follow her.
As soon as her feet touched the sand, she ran into the maze of low buildings. The third man would be ready for her, and the other two would catch up soon. After several quick turns through the maze, she spun and saw a follower within twenty feet. He was a stain of black against the white plaster walls, just as she was.
She had made it this far last time outside the palace—just one man to lose. Malam chose fast runners as his minions. And without a hint of shade, she had been forced to learn a new way to hide. That was why she sprinted straight to a Sunan women’s market she had seen on her last outing.
The man stayed close on her heels the rest of the way to the market. Inside the ivory arch that served as the market’s gateway, a hive of women dressed in the same black cloth buzzed about with baskets, food, and thread.
Ravien stopped under the arch and turned to the follower. He froze in his steps. She motioned for him to come, and he stepped toward her like a man approaches a coiled viper.
“Well done,” she said, still breathing heavily. “You are fast.”
The man pressed his hands together at his chest and bowed. He pulled his hood further over his head, but not before Ravien had seen his face. It was young and handsome, with tattoos of the moon at his temples. The lines of his thin beard were so sharp that it looked painted on.
“Only women in here, right?” Ravien asked.
The man nodded his head slightly, as if he understood and agreed.
“So you cannot follow me?”
“I follow you,” he said.
“Ah!” Ravien answered. “A follower of Malam who understands me?”
“Malam.” He bowed his head.
“Malam.” She paused. “Tell Malam,” she enunciated each syllable, “no follow.”
“I follow you,” he responded.
“Nofollow.” She put her finger to his chest. “If you make your women look the same, then you’ll never be able to pick one out of the crowd.”
Ravien turned into the hive of women. She weaved through them quickly until she saw a stand with a row of Sunan robes on pegs. The stand had three curtained partitions, as if for trying them on. Ravien grabbed one of the heavy robes, the kind all the Sunan women wore.
An old woman stood at the stand, with a face like leather.
“I need to try thisnow.” Ravien held up a gold coin. “Do you understand me?”
The woman smiled and took the coin. She hurried Ravien into one of the partitions.
Ravien was pulling the robe over her head when she heard a man’s voice outside. It sounded like the one who had been following her. While she could not make sense of the words, it was clear the old woman was trying to calm him. Maybe she had sensed Ravien wanted to hide. Moments later the man’s voice was gone.
Peeking out of the curtain, Ravien saw only women bustling about. She stepped out and faced the old woman.
“How do I look?” she asked.
The old woman said something warm in the Sunan tongue. She pointed at a mirror to the side of the stand. Ravien saw herself, but really she saw just another Sunan woman. The full coverings revealed nothing of her identity.
Ravien smiled and pressed another gold coin into the woman’s hand. “Thank you.”
She walked back into the hive and spotted another stand that looked like it sold baskets. She bought one with another gold coin. The woman who sold it almost seemed to faint when she took the coin. Maybe it was a high price.
She clutched the basket to her chest and joined the flow of women about the square. As she looked for the follower, she saw hints of beauty in the market. While the women’s bodies and faces were hidden, their voices were laid bare. The sound was one of community, of friendship. These women seemed more united than those in Valemidas. Ravien would think further on the reasons why, but now it was time to go. She moved toward the gate and walked out among a flock of women leaving with their baskets. She kept her head down as she moved along a crowded road leading to the harbor.
The water in the distance taunted her with thoughts of escape. One of those ships could slip away with her. She probably had enough gold to entice a merchant to take her back to Valemidas, but she could not abandon her progress, or Wren. She was winning His Excellency’s trust, if not Malam’s. The boy might soon do as she advised. Ilias had been right about how much power she gained by making him want her to want him.
A sharp whisper suddenly drew her attention. A hand reached out from curtains of a carriage passing by. She glimpsed Ball’s face.
“Get in,” he said, “please.”
She hesitated a moment but then saw opportunity in this. She grabbed his hand and stepped into the carriage.
Ball leaned forward and issued a command to the carriage driver. “Do you think Malam is the only one following you?”
“Does it matter?” Ravien asked. “And how did you know it was me, wearing this?” She ran her hands along the Sunan covering.
“It was reported to me that you had left the palace,” Ball said. “Finding you was easy enough. No Sunan women walk the way you do. You must be more careful.”
Ravien took a grape from a tray in the center of the cart and leaned back against the silk cushions. “His Excellency said I could go anywhere, and so I am exploring. I must say, you Sunans grow delicious grapes, but I recommend more wine. You’re all too stiff.”
“Listen to me, we have little time.” Ball wiped the sweat from his brow with a purple cloth. “You are right that His Excellency adores you, but do not play with fire. He is young and powerful, and none of his advisors trust you, not even Ilias. Malam and Jezebel want you dead. Seban wants to make youhisconcubine. You may keep whispering in His Excellency’s ear, but if you keep at daring adventures like this, you are going to get burned. Where were you going?”
“I told you, I am exploring your city. I’ll consider your warnings Ball, but you have given me no reason to trust you. What have you done with Wren?”
“He’s safe in my estate, and he’ll stay that way if you listen to me.”
“I want him to join the army’s voyage to Valemidas.”
“I can arrange that.” Ball put his hand on Ravien’s shoulder. “But no more notes and no more meddling with our customs. Agreed?”
Ravien shrugged off Ball’s hand and swallowed another grape. “You fear my influence will lead His Excellency to make changes that harm your position and status. You want to keep your control over the markets. That is fine, for now. But why no notes?”
“Notes risk too much.” Ball spoke fast as the carriage rumbled to a stop. “I cannot tell you everything, but know that Ilias and I share a messenger, probably the only one you could trust. The messenger will not return to Sunan again before the army sets sail, so it is better not to send anything over the sea.”
Ravien looked into Ball’s beady eyes. They looked frightened and honest. “No notes, no meddling with Sunan politics,” she said, “and you will keep Wren safe and bring him to Valemidas?”
“Yes.” He held out his pudgy hand. “Deal?”
“Deal.” She shook it.
He breathed out heavily. “Trust me, this is for the good.” He glanced outside the curtains of the carriage. “We have stopped just outside the palace gates. His Excellency is training with the warriors. I suggest you go to him now.”
“Take care of Wren, or it’s your head.” Ravien smiled at Ball and ducked out of the carriage.
The sun was unbearable in the heavy Sunan robe. It would only draw more attention if she returned wearing something new. She slid the robe up over her head and tossed it to the ground as she walked toward the palace. Black cloth still covered her from head to toe, as the boy king wished, but this cloth clung to her frame. It was thin enough to allow a breeze through, if there had been a breeze.
A crowd was gathered inside the gates. They were mostly Sunan warriors, standing in a circle. They surrounded four men dancing with spears. One of them was Ilir, His Excellency.
Ravien squeezed between two warriors to watch. The young king was better than she expected. What he lacked in strength he made up with graceful speed. He dodged an attack and spun the pole of his spear into a warrior’s back. The man fell and the crowd cheered. Ravien saw an opening in the king’s defenses, but the other two warriors did not press him. They showed subtle signs of holding back. They were taking it easy on him.
“You should see him throw the spear. He’s among the best.” Malam’s voice gave her chill bumps despite the heat. She had not heard him coming. “But sometimes his arm is stronger than his intuition,” the priest continued in a low voice, stepping close to her side. “Sometimes he trusts those he should fear.”
“What would a divine king have need to fear?” Ravien asked.
“Even a god should fear betrayal,” Malam said. His bald head was bronze in the late day sun. His dark eyes and thick beard would have made him look strong if not for his stooped shoulders. “Where did you run off to today?” he asked.
“Why are your men trying to follow me?” Ravien asked.
“My duty is to His Excellency,” Malam answered. He glanced toward the king at the sound of a loud crack of wood. A warrior’s spear had blocked the king’s attack but broken. “He grows in a cocoon,” Malam continued, “and he will reach full divine form with his initiation rite in the coming days. The cocoon protects him, and I protect the cocoon.”
“I have sworn to him,” Ravien said. “I have given him my advice—when and how to attack Valemidas. I am learning your Sunan ways and winning his trust. I am inside his cocoon.”
“No,” Malam laughed. “You cannot share His Excellency’s cocoon without sharing his bed. Only Jezebel has that honor. She is loyal to me. You, too, will be loyal to me, or you will lose His Excellency’s affection and trust.”
“You underestimate me,” Ravien said.
“I would not have my men follow you if I underestimated you,” Malam replied. “My trust will not be so easily won as his.”
The warriors around them began to cheer again. It seemed the practice was done.
“N’ah musefe quede ya cahar!” The young king shouted in the Sunan tongue. Ravien thought she caught his eyes as he looked around the circle
“N’ah musefe!” The men chanted back.
The king raised his spear high and pointed it at the low building on the opposite side of the circle from Ravien. He pulled the spear back to throw, his smooth skin glistening under the sun. His body coiled and he hurled the pole. It flew straight and fast and slammed into the center of a small circle painted on the building’s door. It was an impressive throw.
“N’ah musefe quede ya cahar,” the king said again. The warriors saluted him. Their faces showed faith and approval, like an army of fathers who could see no wrong in their beloved son.
The king began to walk out of the circle, straight towards Ravien and Malam. He met Ravien’s eyes and smiled at her.
“What do you think of how we fight?” He asked as he reached them. He held out his arm for Ravien.
“Your strength is impressive.” Ravien took his arm and they turned toward the palace, with Malam on the king’s other side. “With you leading these men,” she continued, “Sunan will conquer Valemidas with ease. There is no reason to delay. Let your power shine.”
“I like your confidence,” the king said, pulling Ravien closer. “What do you think, Malam?”
“I like her confidence if it is placed in you,” the priest answered. “None shall stand against you, once you have the full blessing of our divine ancestors.”
“I will be of age within the month,” the young man explained to Ravien. “Will you join me for the royal journey to our shrine?”
“There is nothing I would rather do,” Ravien said in her most awe-inspired and passionate voice.
“Is this wise?” Malam grumbled. “A woman, a foreign woman, coming with you as you become fully god?”
“Let her see my power,” the king answered, “and that will remove your doubts as to her loyalty. Even a former Valemidas princess cannot resist a divine king.”
“Surely not.” Ravien laughed and clutched his arm, pressing her side to his as they entered the palace. “It is hard to resist now,” her voice became somber, “but for my brother’s honor, you know I must wait until you have the Valemidas throne.”
“It will be mine,” the king said with boyish determination.
“Then I will be yours,” Ravien said.
Malam mumbled something under his breath but did not speak aloud. Ravien felt it was a victory. The priest did not have complete control over His Excellency, which left her room to maneuver.
The three of them walked into the palace’s grand hall, trailed by a host of Sunan warriors. Golden light streamed through the arches high above onto the white marble floor. Ravien thought that she, the king, and the priest were like a three-headed snake slithering on that floor. The snake’s body—the warriors behind them—could serve them all, but the snake’s heads played and snapped at each other. If she could dodge Malam’s bite, her venom would continue its work on the king. It was the sweet venom of desire. There was no finer venom against a young man who had everything else he wanted.
LIGHT FROM A SMUGGLER
“The black market was
a way of getting around
It was a way of enabling
the free market to work.
It was a way of opening up,
Jon set out from Valemidas with his horse and a bag of gold. He did not plan to buy anything from the smuggler, but one never knew.
It was a brisk fall morning without a cloud in the sky. The wind blew hard from the Aerith Sea to the east, rippling the grasses that stretched as far as Jon could see to the north and west. Cliffs dropped to his right. Jagged rocks arose from the crashing waves far below.
Jon loved this ride. It washed away the stress and emotions of the past months. He had done all that Andor had asked—moving into the palace, staying by his side, and training soldiers for battle. He had done all that Yates had asked—taking Mailyn into his quarters, keeping her secret, and relaying his message to Andor. As a result of all his obedience, Jon was tired and his heart was in knots.
Now he had a day off duty. He did not have to listen to people beg Andor for things. He did not have to teach men how to hold a sword. He did not have to pretend he had not fallen for the pregnant woman who lived with him. He just got to ride hard and breathe deep the salty air.
By the time he reached the hidden cove, the sun was high and his head was mostly clear. Among the dozens of coves he had ridden past, this was the only one with the small marker post he and Wren had left here long ago.
It had been almost ten years since the smuggler had first told them of the cove. It was a perfect smuggling port. Only a master sailor could guide his vessel into the cove, and only at high tide. Because of the steep cliffs on all sides, jutting out at various angles, a boat in the cove was invisible to the rare person passing by above. Most importantly, there was a razor-thin trail that crosscut its way down from the top of the cliffs to the water.
Jon tied his horse to the post and gave her a bag of oats. She nuzzled his arm. The red mare would need the rest and food to make it back to Valemidas by nightfall.
He then began to make his way down. The footing was treacherous and a fall meant death. He focused on each step, avoiding any loose rocks, and hugging the cliff wall. At least going up was easier than down, he thought as he finally reached the bottom.
A boat was there, but it was unlike anything Jon had ever seen. The ebony wood and dark blue sail would make it difficult to detect in the open sea. The strangest thing was that, where every other vessel had a single hull, this one had two. They were long and streamlined, with a tight canvas floor pulled taut between them. In the center, under the mast, a structure was suspended above the water. It looked like a barrel on its side, with windows.
“Hello?” Jon’s voice echoed in the chasm as he approached the boat. He kept his hand on the hilt of his sword.
A few moments passed before a door opened in the sideways barrel. The sound of laughter flooded into the cove. The smuggler stepped out with two women behind him. They were each shoeless and sparsely clad.
“Jon!” The man shouted, holding out his arms in welcome. He glanced back to the women. “Ladies,” he pointed at Jon, “the man who stands before us is the finest knight in this land. He could fight a dozen of Sunan’s best and live to tell about it. Come with me, have a look.”
The smuggler took off running toward Jon, along the canvas floor of the boat. The women followed at his heels.
“Cid, I’m not sure—” Jon began, but the smuggler and the women had already dived into the water. It was crystal clear. They swam like fish across the short distance to the shore. Jon was puzzling over why the man would risk having these women with him when they walked up to him, soaked and laughing.
“Look at the height of him,” Cid said through deep breaths. “Feel his muscles.” He flexed his own arm. “This man makes his enemies cower in fear.”
The women eyed him. They both had long dark hair and bronzed skin hardly covered by wet cloth. Tattoos of the moon and stars were on their temples. One of them reached out as if to put her arm around Jon’s bicep.
Jon stepped back. “I am here, Cid. You told me to show up again the day after the second full moon. I expected it was for something important.”
“Oh it is,” the smuggler shrugged. “But surely you have learned my passions in this life? I much prefer company for my voyages.” He smiled at the girls. “Rum does not taste the same alone. You have earned my trust, Jon, so I thought I would introduce you to my friends.”
He gestured to the women, who now held their arms across their chests, shivering. “This is Dalia and Nila.” The women bowed gracefully. “They asked me to steal them away from a Sunan temple and smuggle them across the ocean,” Cid said. “Who was I to say no?”
“Well met,” Jon said to the women. “You are freezing.” He looked to Cid. “What is your intent here?”
“My intent is to make you smile, before I deliver what I have to deliver.” The smuggler pulled back a wet lock of hair that had fallen over his eyes. Jon noticed for the first time that the tattoos at his temples included pyramids, identical to Sebastian’s, though with different markings around them, too detailed to make out.
The smuggler looked over Jon’s shoulder. “Come, I have wood ready for a fire.”
Jon and the women followed him to the base of the opposite cliff wall. A small stack of driftwood was there. The smuggler kneeled down beside it and pulled out a dagger and a flint. He brought the fire to life and then held his hands out over it. The women huddled close.
“Sit.” The smuggler pointed to the sand beside the fire. Jon was growing skeptical, but he had already come this far. He sat.
“Rum.” The smuggler pulled out a flask from his still-wet pants and held it out to Jon.
“You first,” Jon insisted.
“I hoped you’d say that.” Cid smiled wide and took a long pull. “Just what I needed to warm my body.” He passed the flask to the women, who each sipped at it. “We rarely travel this far north this late in the year,” Cid explained. “It’s too cold.”
The woman to Jon’s right gave him the flask. He drank and passed it back. He breathed out heavily and leaned back, his hands on the sand behind him. The warmth of the fire and the rum were nice.
“See,” the smuggler said, “you just needed some rum. Aha, there’s the smile! Okay, now we can talk business, good knight.”
“To business,” Jon agreed. He would have to leave soon to arrive in Valemidas before night.
“I have a note from your brother.” Cid leaned forward. His tanned face and salt-and-pepper hair looked orange in the firelight.
“I am relieved to hear that.” Jon tried to keep his cool. He was ecstatic, but better not to reveal too much to this man. “Tell me you saw him. How is he?”
“I did not see him,” Cid said. “He is being held captive in a comfortable place, forced to serve a royal Sunan merchant.”
“Captive?” Jon asked. He was frustrated by how little he knew of Wren’s purposes on this trip. “What did he do to deserve that? What of Ravien?”
“They are Valemidans visiting Sunan in a time of war, in a time when such voyages are prohibited. Rumors say the princess stripped down before a thousand men, refused to bow to His Excellency, and then marched straight up to him and dumped the head of Ramzi on his lap. Now, apparently, she is His Excellency’s consort. Some woman, I’d say.”
“What! That cannot be true.” Jon failed to hide the passion in his voice.
“Now there’s the Jon I remembered. You have fire in your eyes, energy in your core. Before I give you Wren’s note, you’ll answer a couple questions.” Cid poked at the fire. “What has you down, friend? The prince in a foul mood? Woman troubles?”
“I am not in the mood to talk about that,” Jon replied.
“So it is woman troubles. I knew it!” Cid looked up and held out his flask again. “More rum?”
Jon shook his head. “Show me the note and maybe I’ll tell you about her.” He wanted to be sure the paper existed.
The smuggler pulled a note from his pocket and held it out, too close to the flames for Jon’s comfort. Cid’s other hand still had the flask.
“A woman moved into my quarters,” Jon said. The smuggler pulled the note back further away from the fire, his face gleaming like a devious boy.
“It is not what you think,” Jon continued. “She is beautiful. Her blond hair takes on the most amazing shine in the sunlight.” Jon took the flask and a sip of rum. “She carries a baby, and she has no idea how I feel about her.”
“You dog!” Cid laughed. “I know that problem, my friend, all too well. The secret will be up soon enough. Just tell her you love her. It’s plain enough to my eyes and ears.”
“No, well…” Jon was not going to mention Tryst, her name, or any of the rest of it.
“Look, Jon, I will tell it to you straight.” The smuggler sounded serious for once. Then, as if catching himself, he stopped before saying more. He glanced to the silent women at his sides. They might as well have been statues for how quiet they were.
“You ladies should head back to the ship now,” Cid said. “We’ll be there soon to look at the goods we brought. Could you lay them out?”
The women said something in the Sunan tongue. They rose and sauntered over to the water. After a brief hesitation, they waded in and swam to the boat, this time more like wet cats than fish.
“As I was saying,” Cid’s words pulled Jon’s attention back. “You sound like a man who has met a true love. You may not believe it seeing me now, but long ago, I was in your position. She was unlike anything I had ever seen, and I’ve never seen her like since.” Sadness filtered through Cid’s steady voice. “I regret not a single moment I spent with her. I regret not a single word of love, of passion, of devotion I whispered in her ear. Do not hold back, man. You cannot know how long you will have with her. Life can be a fickle, short thing.”
“I did not know,” Jon said, at a loss.
“Every man has his secrets. The past is behind me now, but it always creeps back. I try to obscure it with adventure and pleasures.” He nodded toward the boat behind him. “Still, deep in here,” he tapped his chest, “my love burns, more real than anything that’s come in my life since.”
He sat quietly for a moment, then took a long drink of rum and his eyes came back to life.
“Enough of that!” He clapped his hands loudly. “Tell me about your prince, Andor. How is he?”
The man’s advice had taken Jon aback. “Andor,” Jon said, “yes, he is doing well, but he worries about this threat of war. He would rather have peace.”
“Peace…” The smuggler let the word hang in the air. “What your prince wants hardly matters at this point. The Sunans are prepared for war. His Excellency will soon reach the age of command, and then nothing will hold him back. Expect them on your shores in a few months. Here.” Cid held out the note.
Jon took it and read it. He sighed upon seeing Wren’s unique script. He longed for his brother to be here. He would know what to say to the smuggler. Jon was not supposed to be the one running deals like this.
The words corroborated what Cid had said, and more. War was coming. Wren was a captive. Ravien had a voice in the Sunan leader’s ear. Good could come from that. He memorized the cryptic message for Andor and then tossed the note into the fire.
“I like your determination, Jon,” the smuggler said. “I have a few other items you might be interested in. Sample Sunan weapons for your prince to study, a note destined for Sebastian, and a spectacular ivory bracelet for your love. That’s just the start. How much gold do you have?”
“Enough.” Jon had to be careful not to show his hand. His bag of gold would have bought another fancy boat like Cid’s.
“Enough means different things for different men. I need more than enough. I am building a fortune. I want a distant tropical island to call my own, and an army to protect it. I need gold and lots of it.”
“No place will be safe if this war breaks out.”
“Whenit breaks out,” the smuggler replied, “I am keeping my distance.”
“I doubt that,” Jon said. “I see a man who cannot stay away from trouble.”
A wide grin spread over the smuggler’s face. “I need a good man like you to keep me out of it. One man’s trouble is another man’s gain.”
Jon smiled. He was going to be late to Valemidas, but it would be worth it. “I think we can reach a deal.”
THE END OF A MAN
“Alone, idle, and always near danger,
savage man must like to sleep and
be a light sleeper like animals
which do little thinking and,
as it were, sleep the entire time
they are not thinking.
Since his self-preservation was
practically his sole concern,
his best trained faculties
ought to be those that
have attack and defense
as their principal object,
either to subjugate his prey or
to prevent his becoming the prey
of another animal.”
The Icarian was going to kill Tryst. He used his knife to slice his last meal into thin pieces. It was a sausage the size of his thumb. A feast. The meat was delicious in his mouth. He savored each bite and the energy it fed into him.
His story had started in the mountains of Icaria. He had grown strong there, tucked away amidst almost impassable ridges. He had taken the oaths of a ranger, and he had been one of the best. The Icarian leader, the Summit himself, had given him the brass peaks to wear on his chest. There was no greater honor among the rangers.
He had married the love of his life. He could still see her freckled face. She had the most marvelous green eyes. Nothing had pleased the Icarian more than to see those eyes in his children. His oldest son was going to be a ranger like his father. His daughter was as beautiful as her mother. Their third child kicked vigorously in the womb.
He would never see them again. The Summit had sent him and another ranger in pursuit of a foreigner through the mountains, to stop him from reaching the lowlands. That was what rangers did, but the Icarian had failed. They had found the man they followed, but only after he found them. The Icarian had been sleeping, his partner on watch, when he was knocked out. He remembered waking with his wrists and ankles tied, draped over the back of a horse.
It was worse than a disgrace. When the man he now knew as Sebastian hauled him out of the mountains, it had severed his connection to home. An Icarian ripped out of Icaria was like a heart ripped out of a body.
By the time Sebastian had thrown him into the Valemidas dungeons, the Icarian had become a dangerous shell of himself. He knew better than to resist questioners when they came. Resistance would only prolong the torture. He had told the bald man with the beard and the funny stars by his eyes everything he knew about Icaria. Then the bald man had come back with the prince, Tryst. The Icarian told him the secrets of their explosive powder. He regretted it all now. He feared how the Valemidans might have used that knowledge.
After the Icarian had given up everything, the bald man had cast him down into this city. His honor was lost, but he survived as rangers always did. Survival became his only purpose. He had found this home and lost count of the men he had killed to protect it.
There was no hideaway like it down here. After much time scouting, the Icarian knew the city like he knew the Icarian mountains. This was the only place where a building touched the wall. It arched ten feet above the ground, like a bridge to the wall’s dead end of stone. The only way into the arch was through a hidden door. Everyone who found that door died by his knife.
This enclosed bridge was a safe place to sleep, but its true value was that it had enabled the Icarian to try digging through the wall. Using his fingers, bones, or any metal but his knife, he had chipped away at the hard stone. The hole had grown as deep as his arm when he had struck water. With water and his skills for finding food, he had managed to stay alive for who knows how long.
The only measure of time for him was his beard. He cut his hair with his knife, but never his beard. The beard was the only thing he had left from Icaria. When he had fallen into this city, it had gone down to his chest. Now it reached his waist.
In the time his beard had grown, he had survived and seen a man escape. The man had charged through the central square of the city like a maniac. The Icarian had kept his distance while watching the man leap up, climb up, to the hanging box. No one had done it since. Others had tried, and died. The Icarian preferred digging his hole in the wall, even if it went nowhere.
He had also seen men try to lead. He had seen Tryst fall like any other man and then declare himself god with such force that others believed him. Then Tryst had disappeared, and a man named Cain had tried to take over. The Icarian had been there when Tryst killed Cain.
The men down here would follow power, and so they followed Tryst again. More and more men were swearing their faith in him. Food was becoming more plentiful. The men thought Tryst was the cause of it. The Icarian knew that was a lie. He knew Tryst was a man. He was the man who had listened to everything the Icarian said about his former home. He was the man who said he would burn down that home and kill every man, woman, and child who did not obey him.
Now that man reigned over this city. The tiny piece of Icaria left deep within the Icarian would not allow that. He was going to kill Tryst and avenge whatever the man had done to his people. It gave the Icarian a final purpose.
He swallowed his last bite and stood. He took one last sip of the water that dripped from the hole in the wall. He said goodbye to the hole and this home.
Through the hidden door, out the building, and into the streets, the Icarian made his way to Tryst. The false god lived at the top of the tallest building in the city, overlooking the central square. The Icarian knew better than to try the front entrance. Tryst’s men were growing devout in their service. They would stop the Icarian. He felt sure he was one of the last holdouts of men who would not swear obedience to Tryst.
Instead of the entrance, the Icarian approached the towering structure from behind. He glided along the wall of a low warehouse like he was hiding beneath a ridge in the mountains. The gray rags he wore blended into the shadows.
From the corner of that building, he peered out and saw no motion. In two quick steps he crossed the shadowless gap between the warehouse and the tower. Then he began to climb.
No one could climb like an Icarian ranger. His bare fingers and toes found holds where other men would see only cracks. His body straddled the corner of the building, gaining more stability and traction. He pulled up, stepped up, reached up, held fast, and kept climbing without a look down.
His arms were shaking from fatigue and he was sweating when he made it to Tryst’s floor. One side of the room had no wall. He swung his body in and the floor made no sound of protest.
The room was silent, darker than most places in the city. The floor was made of wide, almost black wooden planks. The ceiling beams looked like the same wood. Iron chandeliers without candles hung down. Otherwise the room was completely empty, except for the body lying in the middle.
The Icarian thanked the floor for its quiet as he glided toward the body. He pulled out his knife and kneeled over him.
Tryst was on his back, breathing deeply. He looked peaceful and spectacular. The Icarian marveled how the man could be so unaffected by this place. His porcelain face was shaved smooth. His black hair almost shined against the dark wooden floor. His hands were on his chest, gripped around the ruby hilt of his sword. The blade was spotless. Its metal was like a source of light, rising and falling with each breath.
The Icarian would dispel every notion that this being was a god. He held his knife to Tryst’s perfect, bare throat.
Tryst’s eyes snapped opened. They were a brilliant blue.
“You win,” Tryst said, as if he had been awake the whole time. “Go ahead, finish me. It would be a good death.” After a moment’s pause, with their gazes locked, the prince spoke again. “You’re an Icarian?”
The Icarian nodded, too surprised to say anything or to move his knife. The metal quivered at Tryst’s neck.
“Do it, stab it into me. It would be a fitting end, given the destruction I brought to your people. You have also earned it.” The prince still had not moved. “Many men have challenged me directly and died by my hand. A few such as you have tried sneaking in and assassinating me. Only you have evaded my detection long enough. You might as well finish what you came here to do.”
The Icarian heard honor and defeat mixed in Tryst’s words. He sounded like a leader, like the Summit. “You are not like the rest of us,” the Icarian said, slowly pulling his knife away.
“Am I so different?” The prince stood and stared into the Icarian. His eyes were cold, like a frozen lake in the mountains. The Icarian would never see a lake or his mountains again.
“You do not care if I kill you?” the Icarian asked.
“I remember you,” Tryst said. “You’re the one Sebastian brought back. The ranger who told him about the powder.”
Tryst stepped forward and the Icarian stepped back. Instinct made him raise his dagger between them.
“I was that man, the Icarian,” he answered.
“Then finish what you came here to do,” Tryst said.
“I was wrong,” he paused. “I cannot recover my honor, not even by killing you.”
The Icarian’s final purpose blew away like misty breath on a cold morning. He turned the blade toward himself, the metal shaking like a bird’s hurt wing, and he plunged it into his chest.
Tryst’s eyes bore pain and sadness. They were the last thing the Icarian saw.
“Those with the greatest awareness
have the greatest nightmares.”
The leader of the mountain people, the Icarian Summit, stood in the central square of the Gloaming. He held his sword high overhead. His face was blank. His long gray hair fell over his shoulders. Blood dripped down his bare chest.
He swung hard at me. I jumped back, but too late. He slashed into my shoulder, and I dropped something from my hand. The pain blazed.
I fell onto my back. The black box was hanging above me, taunting me as ever. It was a path out of this place, but I could not reach it.
The Icarian Summit stomped his bare foot on the fresh wound in my shoulder. He pointed his long sword at my neck. It was Zarathus. It was supposed to be my sword.
You grow soft, Andor.I heard his words in my mind, but his mouth did not move.
“Stop!” I shouted at him. “Enough killing. Make it stop.”
Only you can make it stop.His expression was the same, as steady and solid as a mountain.
“I can’t. Look what’s become of me.”
Who are you?
Suddenly I was not myself. I was the king of Sunan. I could not see my face, but I remembered the throne. It was made of gold, as bright as the sun.
“A Sunan,” I said, “but I don’t know who.”
“You know and you run from it.” This time the Summit’s mouth spoke the words. He moved his sword away from my neck. He stepped back. “Stand and fight me.”
“No, I will not fight.” I rose to a crouch.
“You will fight or you will die.”
“Then I will die.”
“You will fight,” he commanded.
I stood and a spear was in my hand. I hurled it at him.
He ducked it easily.
“Youfight.” He smiled. “Buthewill die.”
Before I could ask whohewas, the Summit stabbed Zarathus at me. The blade pierced into my gut. I drowned in the pain like a man sinking in an ocean.
“If you will fight,” the Summit said, “you will bring peace.” He twisted the blade inside me. I collapsed, my hands clutching at the wound in my gut. “If you will not fight, you will find a death worse than the Gloaming.” His words rang in my ears.
I was writhing on the ground. Blood and mud and pain washed over me.
Someone was shaking me.
I opened my eyes. I was in my bed.
“You were having another dream,” Lorien said. She had lit a candle by the bed. Her face showed concern and something more. Fear. Her face showed fear of me.
“What did I say?” I asked.
“You said you would die.” She paused. “And you said you’d rather we all die than fight. What did you see?”
“I was in the Gloaming. I was not myself. I was fighting the Summit.”
“The leader of the Icarian people. He wanted me to fight.”
“He was right,” Lorien said. “We have to fight.” She had been saying that for days.
“I think maybe I will have to fight, but it is more complicated.” I began to say more, but she stopped me with a finger on my lips.
“The Sunans bring war, and we will defeat them.” The fear was gone from her face. She looked pure and resolute, like a leader. “War may bring complexities, but what we must do is simple. We prepare our men to fight, and when the Sunans come, we throw them off our walls and our shores.”
I shook my head. “I am still hoping for another way.”
“You can keep your hope.” Her voice blended sympathy and frustration. “You have to overcome what happened to you in the Gloaming. Stop pretending it did not happen. Face it and overcome it. Hope can help. But you cannot avoid this war. We have to prepare for it.”