People come to me and look at this story and, it never fails, they ask me "Why?" "Why did you bother writing another version of the legend, when we have so many and it is even discussed in the Holy Books?" The best I can do is shrug. "Are you just out for some money?"
Now, that hurts!
Yes, the story of Queen Julya has become the stuff of fables and fairy tales in not too many years, and they are all good tales, though they often stretch the truth and paint altogether too pretty a picture. Perhaps I am not the best story-weaver, but I think my perspective has merit, for I was actually there.
Now, I hope you don't believe for a moment that I am attempting to tell the "real" story here, for I am very old and my memories fail me and I tend to leave out parts of the tale that don't suit my purposes. If you were expecting some great, exhaustive treatment of the times, you might as well return this book at your first convenience.
My name is Daavor and I am a prophet of God. I wrote this version of the great story so that you would know that though the people of the time were indeed great and awe-inspiring, God had His hand in the mix. This one detail is left out of the other renditions of the tale, so I have felt it necessary, in light of my calling, to make this one small contribution.
The desire of my efforts here is that you will somehow come away with a little more hope. We really are very little people when measured against God, but it is a comfort to me to know that He thinks about us and does, sometimes, miraculous things to show His love for us! I think Julya and Lanolylc and all the rest would want you to know that, as you find God at work in their parts of the story.
Oh, and as for the money, I think I deserve a little physical reward for all my efforts thus far, so why should you complain? Prophets have expenses, too, you know.
Read the story and see if God doesn't have something for you to learn herein...
"Lanolylc." The voice was already soft but made softer still by being carried a great distance. He turned from chaos to face the sound. "Lanolylc!"
He squinted into the light. "I'm here!" he shouted.
It could barely be discerned, but there was a figure within the light, only a wisp of shadow compared with the brilliance. "Where are you?" The voice was fading, as if moving away. "Why don't you come?"
"I...," he stammered, not wanting to answer. "I can't yet."
The voice drifted closer and the shadow took on more of a human form. "Is it done?"
Lanolylc bowed his head in shame. "No," he spoke quietly. "It is not."
"Have you forgotten your promise?" The voice was still soft and very close now, but edged with accusation.
"The promise?" He paused. "No! I remember, but..."
The voice began to fade away again. "Remember your promise..."
"Wait!" Lanolylc began to feel the tension rise within him. "Don't go!"
It drifted in from a long distance. "Don't be too long." the voice was hard to make out now and the shadow had dissolved back into the intensity of the light. "I will wait for you!"
The man fell on his knees as the light began to recede. "Please don't go!" The dark reached out its claws for him. "I'll keep my promise!" The light was a pinprick now and the wrenching blackness began to envelope him. He shrieked "Wait for me!" as the light winked out and the suffocating abyss clamped shut about him.
If there were light, which there never was, it could be seen that the dungeon cell was ten feet by ten feet at most. None of us who spent time there would have actually known that, as we were kept in even smaller spaces within. I only know the room because it was described to me later by my son. The world that I knew while a guest in the dungeon of Trechenald was a box that was two feet on each side. For seventeen years, I am told, I was kept in an oaken crate, deprived of the opportunity to stand, to move my legs more than a few inches, and to see things around me. I guess you could say that it wasn't much of a life, but it was the one God had seen fit to give me. Prophets do not seem to be immune from harsh conditions. Before I forget again who I am, my name is Daavor.
We did have a little light once a day, when our jailer would come with his smoldering torch and dump a mound of table scraps in the center of a ring of six oaken boxes just like mine, but lately I hadn't really noticed any light, even at these times. Each box contained what the jailer described as some terrible criminal against the Empire, but I knew all of us in that cell were there for the crime of being a threat to the Emperor. We would scrabble wildly for as much food as we could get at, for it was never enough to satisfy, throwing out our free arms through the bars of our cages and pulling back as much swill as our cupped hands would carry. Some days, we could actually be quite civil, but mostly we would bicker strongly, taking occasion to slap the competing hands and pull a few fingers to get at the last scraps. A group of emboldened rats would also be among the combatants, so it became a daily fight amongst nearly a dozen creatures to get a meal. Life in the dungeon was certainly interesting.
Until I was told how long I had been captive, I was sure it was only a few years. Without the passage of the sun to guide me, time became pointless. Over the course of our imprisonment, attitudes among our group certainly changed. Our individual cubes were close enough together so that it was no problem to hear every sound that each man made. Many of my companions there were military men before and came into the cell shouting and beating against the oaken walls of their boxes. The most dedicated of those would carry on like that for two weeks at most, but all eventually fell into despair as they realized that their threats and oaths were ineffective here. After what must have been a few months, what I think of as the real man within each of us began to come out. Masks of bravado that soldiers, especially the army leaders, wear into combat eventually melt away in the relentless captivity to reveal what one really is. One particularly boisterous fellow that came rather late to our group was reduced to mumbling within a rather short period and then became silent altogether. He may have died, but we would never know that, for the jailer only delivered the platter of scraps once a day and didn't care about anything else or bother to talk much to us. Also, the smell of rotting flesh was all around us, coming from both the living and the dead, so we could not differentiate death from any other obnoxious odor about. Some men ended up being quite talky, chattering on and on about nothing in particular, while most of us just became rather quiet, trying to empty our minds of pointless thought and simply waiting for an end to come.
I suppose I was quite different from the others, or at least I imagined myself so. I was no warrior, which everyone knew, and I had been by far the longest in the cell. I was also no prisoner of war or the captured leader of some bloody revolt, as a few of the others professed to be. In my life before, I was Daavor the Prophet, who reminded queen and commoner alike of God's will. Now, in this dank and desperate place, I was simply the songster.
I imagine that someone would have thought it quite comical to see me stick my one good arm out of the bars of my box and waved it about in time to ragged singing, but it kept me busy and gave the arm something else to do besides grab at food once a day. None of the others in their boxes in the pitch black cell could see the hand moving, so it didn't help them particularly -- it seemed strictly therapeutic to me.
I had always been told that songs and music lift the soul, but I hadn't realized the extent of its power until I had stumbled upon its use in the cell. I had taken to humming spirited hymns to myself when I was discouraged and I began to find that the more amiable of my fellow prisoners would join me on tunes that they knew. When conditions were right, we would even burst into song, our voices somewhat mangled but earnest in the task. Lately, I had begun some instruction and most of the men with me had become a make-shift choir.
It was on the day of a particularly bad music practice that something incredible happened: something we had all been praying for in our own way.
"Gentlemen," I croaked, "we must do better keeping up with the beat."
One man whined. "I'm tired of this. Can't we do something else?"
"Like play 'Kill the Prophet?'" another growled. I never knew the man's name, but he never sang with us and chose not to face his imprisonment with any hope. "I would prefer silence to that racket you slugs call singing." Obviously, he had no high opinions of any of us.
"Fine," I spat defensively. "We might as well take a break, as none of you are very enthusiastic."
Conversation turned to old war stories, which the more vocal of the group liked best, though I did my best to separate my mind from the talk. It is interesting how you learn to nearly shut off your ears when presented with something you find uninteresting and cannot get away from. My mind floated aimlessly for a bit until it settled upon a scene that will relentlessly come unless I occupy myself otherwise.
* * *
It was a lush valley.
I was sitting under a tree, its huge canopy of leaves moving gently with a soft breeze. The birds living in the tree would sing their private songs which, when mingled with the fragrant wildflowers nodding all about me and the warmth of the day, had a terribly hypnotic effect, making the whole thing even more dreamlike. I took in the air with deep breaths, reveling in the tranquillity about me. This would all be broken, of course, by my son, who would scamper happily across the field, screaming at the top of his lungs, scattering every living thing within miles. So much for peace and solitude.
My son's name was Westlyn. He really was good boy to begin with, if only a tad bit too loud for me. Unlike his father, he had absolutely no interest in God or doing service to Him. I suppose he was like so many others, being good when if profited him or when any other course led to pain and punishment. Mischief was his nature and torment his calling card. If there was anyone completely different from me, it was my young Westlyn.
In my vision, the young boy actually settled down enough to sit beside me and pick at the grass beneath us. "So," I quipped, "your mother threw you out again..."
The boy plucked at the greenery with a vengeance. "Yeah. I guess I was breaking too many plates."
I sighed, trying to recapture the ambiance of the day. "I will just have to make some more later." Another deep breath brought a smile to my face. "A beautiful day," I whispered.
The boy looked about and nodded. "I guess so."
I cocked my head. "You guess? It seems you do that guessing quite a lot." I gave him my best fatherly side-long look. "Do you have anything definite to say?"
Westlyn just shrugged those fifteen-year-old shoulders and smiled. "I guess not."
I looked upon the meadow, nodding knowingly. I suppose most people would have thought us very dear to each other, but I always wanted us to be closer, to share my own passions with my son. Westlyn had his own purposes to pursue and I didn't like any of them. In hindsight, I think Westlyn was really wanting to be more separate from me, and it looked very much like he was winning the competition.
The young man spied a rabbit in the field, not too far off and he freed his sling from his belt and rummaged in his hip bag for a stone. I looked at him disapprovingly, for this is not how I wanted the day to go, but Westlyn let his sly smile take his face as he stood up quietly and set the knobby rock in his sling pocket. He was beginning his swing when I suddenly clapped my hands together loudly, startling everything, including the rabbit, to attention.
Westlyn got the rock off, but the rabbit had noticed in time and hopped out of the way. The young man fumed at me, but I kept my serene composure. "You ruined my bliss, the least I could do was ruin yours." I winked at him, but he did not find pleasure in my little joke. Westlyn angrily stalked the rabbit as I tried to settle back into a more restful position.
He was a tall, strong young man with more of his mother's looks than mine, which meant that he was very comely. Already, he was the leader of a group of other boys around his age, who spent their time stirring up trouble in all the lands round about. Westlyn had a certain charisma which I was mildly jealous of and which seemed to keep him out of more punishment than his actions did. He was a master at the dark art of avoiding blame, even for things he had most definitely hurt someone over.
It wasn't too many more efforts with his sling until Westlyn had the limp rabbit in his hands raised high over his head, beaming at me. I deflated a bit and sighed as the boy ran over to me. "I got him!" he said excitedly.
I nodded. "Yes, you did." I took a tug of grass and rubbed it between my fingers. "Now what will you do?"
The boy was undaunted. "I'm going to get another one."
"No," I spoke, "I mean, what are you going to do with that rabbit now?"
Westlyn threw the thing down. "It's dead. It can rot for all I care."
My ire was stirring just then. "I see. Destroying a living thing just for the excitement of it?" I glared at him. "You know how I feel about that."
The boy screwed up his most innocent stance. "Aw, Dad..."
"No!" I shouted. "Don't 'Dad' me on this!" I tried to bottle my rage, but was doing poorly. "Do you intend to cook and eat it?"
The boy grimaced in distaste. "No," Westlyn spat. "It's all bones and fur!"
"So, this is all just a sport for you, an activity to while away a boring day! It sickens me to see you act like this, Wes." Already, his eyes were glazing as he was already very uninterested in my lecture, but I was going ahead anyway. "It is fine to hunt animals when we are hungry and need food, but to slaughter them strictly to exercise your sling arm is unacceptable!"
The young man was looking at the ground, turning red, but showing very little remorse. "I'm sorry," he spat unconvincingly.
I snorted. "Sorry? That I doubt. Have you not listened to me ever in your life? I raised you better than this! It all comes of those friends you move about with..."
At that, the boy began to mumble quietly, bobbing his head back and forth, mocking me. I rose from my place and looked the boy eye to eye, which was the best I could do being two inches shorter than he. "You think this is some joke, don't you?"
The boy glared back at me, defiant. "Hey, maybe you're just jealous because I can kill a rabbit with a sling and you can't! Why am I always getting the morality lecture?" His face began to redden once more. "No one else seems to have a problem with it except you!"
"Morality lecture?" I was hoping to look diplomatic, but I imagine I failed miserably. "I am trying to help you see right from wrong and you call it a lecture?"
Westlyn was becoming livid. "Yes!" he barked. "I'm tired of it! I'm tired of hearing what I am supposed to do and how I am supposed to feel about it!"
I wasn't about to be out-outraged. "Well, you wouldn't have to hear it so much if you actually heeded me once in a while! I talk until I am blue in the face, but you never listen to me." I took a great breath and puffed out my chest. "I know what I am talking about!"
"Yeah," the boy struck back with venom. "that's your problem: too much talk. I'm sick of having my every move commented on. Why don't you just face it, Dad: I'm not just going to be your little puppet, doing good all the time. I am my own man, and I am tired of being the prophet's boy!" Westlyn was nearly foaming at the mouth. "I don't want to be your son anymore."
This last struck me hard. I knew we had our differences, but I didn't know that he felt quite that deeply about it. I was flabbergasted, stuck somewhere between anger at the boy and fear of what he might choose to do. I didn't know quite what to do.
Westlyn looked at me for a moment, shook his head in frustration, and walked back toward the house. I just stood there, almost frozen by the arctic blast my son had just sent my way. He didn't want to be my son.
It was several hours before I could calm myself adequately to go home, but no amount of calmness could prepare me for the torn-up scene in our main room. My wife was very upset and wanted to know what had happened. I couldn't hear her as my eyes assaulted me with the overturned chairs and tables of our front room. Some things were even broken. Finally, my wife took me by the shoulders and shaking hard, screamed, "What happened?"
"I was bugging him about killing a rabbit," I finally stammered out.
"What?" She stomped around the room as if she wanted to add to the damage. "All this over a rabbit?" She suddenly stopped with a spasm and began weeping uncontrollably. "He took it all," she managed through the sobs. "He took all of his things and he left."
"What?" I had argued with Westlyn many times over, but he had never left before. "When did he leave?"
My wife was barely able to contain herself. "Hours ago," she managed.
It took no more than a few minutes for me to saddle a horse and gallop toward the town, but I also noticed that the boy had also taken a mount. 'Surely he would just go to the house of one of his friends, reconsider everything, and then come home,' I reassured myself that evening. That was how it was supposed to go, but it didn't.
None of Westlyn's friends knew where he was or none of them were telling me, so I was forced to go home and try to console my wife. As the days passed into weeks, her health and stability began to break up as our son didn't come home. About three months later, I suppose that the stress became too much and her heart failed her in her sleep. From then on, I was all alone to consider where I had gone wrong and to mentally flog myself for being such a tyrant.
* * *
As I sat in my box, pondering all of this for the thousandth time that week, something suddenly seemed strange to me. I could no longer think my own thoughts and began instead to notice my surroundings. It was very quiet, which was very distracting, for someone was always babbling on just to fill the emptiness. Then I heard it again, the other thing that had so caught my attention. Someone was very unexpertly trying to open the door of our cell, keys rattling in spite of efforts to hush them. This was not our normal jailer, for he would come through our door with ease. I could barely make out whispered words exchanged, so there was more than one person trying to get through the door by stealth.
The hairs on the nape of my neck started to rise like they hadn't in a very long time. This always happened when things were afoot and when God was the mover behind it. I made a silent prayer that this was my way out of the prison, that these were my long-delayed, but eagerly hoped-for saviors, but it seemed the people trying to get in were having little luck. The whispers soon became louder and more frantic and the keys were making much noise now as they tested each as quickly as they could. These distractions only made my prayer more intense. 'Let them find the right key!' I pleaded.
There was outright swearing now, not quiet at all, but the lock finally gave and the people stumbled inside. Their entry made the room noticeably more warm and I could hear a torch blazing, but could not see it. They scurried quickly up to the boxes. "Which one of you is Licentius?"
In every group, I imagine, there is one person who no one really likes, probably because they are incurable opportunists and would just as soon slit your throat as lend you a hand. There was one of these in our group, his name not being Licentius, but he called out anyway. "I am he!"
Of course, none of the others were going to let this man get away without some challenge, so out came a chorus of men claiming to be Licentius, and doing it loudly. A woman's voice barked sharply and shushed the group. "Wonderful," she said under her breath. "They will be no help."
Actually, I know for a fact that there was no Licentius in our cell, for most everyone talked eventually, and I had never heard the name spoken here. I did remember that he was a noted military strategist to the old Queen, but no more. He was most probably in another cell, rotting away like every other military leader who chose not to be loyal to the Conclave. These people must have gotten the wrong cell. "Give me the scroll," a woman barked to her companion, she obviously being the leader.
After a moment of mumbled reading to herself, she gave up. "These jailers keep rotten records," she admitted finally with exasperation. "There is no way of telling which one he is."
A man spoke now, sounding very unintelligent. "Well, what do we do?"
The woman thought for a moment. "Let's just take one and get out. The soldiers will discover the dead guards soon enough, and we need to get away. If it isn't the right man, we'll figure something out."
There was scrabbling to pick up one of the other boxes. 'No!' my mind shouted. 'You are supposed to get me!'
With a few grunts, the box they were lifting fell back to the floor hard and the fat man inside, reaping justice for his stealing food that others needed, swore loudly. "This one's too heavy," the man quipped.
"Try another one," the woman directed.
Another box, still not mine was hefted, but dropped just as quickly. "This one smells funny," the unintelligent man said. There was some noise as the box was shaken with no response. There was a start of surprise from the woman, and then the noise of her retching up her stomach. I guess that one was dead.
Suddenly, my box was being man-handled, and though I was getting quite a bruising, I clapped my hands together and thanked God for his mercies. "Can you handle that one?" the woman asked.
The man groaned and re-shifted his load. "Yeah, I think so."
The woman must have pushed the man forward toward the door, for I went sprawling in my box. "Then let's get out of here!"
As we left the cell, the others inside began a wild racket, angry at not being the one taken. They obviously wanted us to be caught, for if they were not to be saved, they were certainly not going to let me get away. I smiled at God's blessings on me, nearly beginning to gloat over it. The woman cursed and prodded her companion on to greater speed, which only made my ride more painful. I can only imagine the labyrinth path we took, for I still could not see what was happening. 'Perhaps they covered my box.' I thought to myself, not wanting to speak aloud in their obvious distress. I wanted very much to be away from the prison and alive, which meant I would humor these people until their deed was done.
Finally, we passed through yet another door and the smell of torch pitch was gone and a warm breeze passed through the bars of my box. We ran on a goodly distance from the keep and finally, perhaps an hour later, the man who carried the box collapsed and I was on the ground again, very bruised.
For the longest time, all I could hear was two people laboring to get their breath. I was getting up my courage to say something, but before I could, the woman gasped forth. "You need to get him out of that box so we can move faster. I don't think we are out of danger yet."
The man groaned himself to his feet, took some time finding a suitable rock, and began hacking at the lock that held the door of my personal prison. It didn't take very long until I flopped out of my box, and felt the ecstasy of springy grass against my skin. I sighed long.
"We need to get going," the woman managed, though her breathing was still labored. "Get him up."
Rough hands took me and hoisted me. "Put your legs down," the man said to me evenly.
I gave an effort, but I could not. "I guess I was in that box a little too long," I said sheepishly. "They don't work."
The woman let out a sigh of frustration. "What? Fine. Just carry him." The burly man hoisted me over his back, catching my twisted mass of legs about his waist, while I flailed the one arm I was able to control across his chest, riding piggy-back now. Off we went, deeper into the blackest night I had ever seen.
It was like a blanket over the world and I squinted hard to make out any glimmering stars at all. "Why is it so dark?" I whispered into the man's ear.
This slowed him some, as if he could not walk quickly and think at the same time. "What? It is two hours after sunrise! You can't see that?"
The enormity of it hit me like a cast boulder. "No," I said simply. "I must be blind."
Onward we pressed, toward some unknown destination: the snide woman, the great man of little brain, and the twisted paralytic and blind prophet. How we must have looked! I occasionally asked what was to become of me, but the woman usually told me to 'Shut up!' or something just as dismissive, as if she hadn't quite decided how to twist this situation to her advantage. After a few days, I just fell silent and simply clung quietly to the big man, waiting to know my fate and hoping it would be a good one.
In any case, I was once more on the move, waiting to feel the prompting of God's will so that I could somehow do it. Little did I know what God had in store for me!
The blackness was palpable and pushing up against it was fruitless, for as much pressure as Lanolylc applied, the force would be multiplied back onto him. It was better, he thought, just to stay still, but it was maddening just to do nothing. Lan had been doing that for as long as he could remember and all it had gotten him was stiffness.
It was hard to keep memories in his personal limbo, for nothing happened and there were only vague wisps of another sort of existence. He knew that shadows came to visit him occasionally, but even those events were now distant. Locked in this strange prison, Lanolylc simply existed with only his own darkened mind to occupy the time.
He always took time to remind himself who he was: Lord Lanolylc, Chief Counselor to the old Queen and Regent to two Princesses. In his time, he was the true ruler of the land of Alaedea, steering the thinking of the women that sat upon the throne with finely-honed skills. Someday, he would be in that glorious position again, ruling through a young woman that would soon be of age to take the throne of her grandmothers. His plan was well thought out, but these terrible times in blackness interfered with all his aims.
Every now and then, Lan would make an effort to move, just to see if it were possible to do so. He had learned long ago not to try anything sudden, for the effort of moving an arm multiplied back upon him was terribly painful. Now it was simply instinct to try only to move a finger a fraction and feel the pressure returned. To his mind, he did this often, but there was no way to tell how many minutes or hours or days passed between his efforts: time was meaningless here.
This time, as Lanolylc moved his finger, the pressure was lessened noticeably. He experimented with twisting his hand slightly, and though it still hurt, the pressure against the movement was bearable. He tried shifting his entire arm, which sent spasms through his mind but nothing like such a move would have done to him before.
As he made these efforts, Lanolylc could begin to see a gradual lightening of the blackness about him. Whips of gray began to swirl before his eyes, diffusing into the black until all was a dark gray. This happened again and again, gradually making other colors noticeable. In his excitement, Lan waved both arms about, feeling some resistance, but now it was quite manageable. There was a tingling all over his body as if the entire frame was coming back to life now.
Striking up his courage, Lanolylc moved his head, first to his left and then to his right. The blobs of color that he saw moved opposite his own movements, just as if they represented something real and tangible. He reached a hand to touch something red that was before him, but his hand only cut through the air, making a beige blur in his vision as it passed. Lan could see his arm! Blinking frantically, he brought his hand to where his nose should be, and his vision cleared enough to make out fingers and a palm. In his excitement, he jerked his entire body and felt himself rock uncertainly and fall on something hard.
'Who am I?' He checked his mind with the periodic question, but found no ready answer. Fear gripped him as he knew that the time of his limbo was ending and there were important things that needed to be done, if only he could remember them!
Lanolylc shook his head. The fall from the bed must have shook something within his mind into place, for he could clearly see the rough-plastered walls on each side of him. The bed, with a crudely carved wooden post at each corner, was a mass of tangled sheets in which his legs were still intertwined. Movement was still precarious at best, causing much pain, so he slowly grappled at the sheets binding his legs. It seemed a very long time to take for such a simple problem, but he set his jaw and worked diligently, in spite of the fading pain. With a final effort, he collapsed on the hard packed dirt floor, breathing loudly and smiling triumphantly.
His scrabbling-about alerted others and through a door that was on the other side of the room, with the bed between, came an old man, his shaggy hair snowy white. The man boggled at the wraith that was now struggling to pull himself up against the bed and failing miserably. "My Lord!" he breathed the words with much reverence and awe. "You have awakened!"
* * *
Lanolylc was having enough trouble getting the spoon from the wooden bowl to his mouth, but it was not so hard as the act of chewing and swallowing, no matter how much Anya watered the soup down. She looked with dismay over the splattered juices on the table and floor due to the man's jerky efforts, but she would say nothing in the presence of her grandfather. The old man was so overjoyed in the recovery of Lan that he was nearly speechless. Anya, on the other hand, had already thought up many things to say to him, but none were complimentary.
Shreds of memories were coming back to Lan, but it was like a broken mosaic that he was furiously trying to piece together. At the very least, he knew he was a person that had a high position once before, for these attendants seemed to serve him with deference.
"Can I get you some more of that?" The old man was like a dog, overly eager to please. It even made Lanolylc a bit uncomfortable, but he recalled being very used to adulation previously and was sure he would grow to enjoy it again. The old man motioned to his granddaughter, who contemptuously ladled another serving of soup into his bowl, being careful to do it too quickly and force a wash of steaming broth onto Lan's lap. He yelped and glared at her, but she only offered a quiet, half-hearted apology. The grandfather was highly displeased and sent the girl for napkins. "I'm so sorry, my lord. All she knows of you is the care of an invalid."
The younger man flicked noodles from his robe with disgust in his eyes. "Oh, that's all right, Jova. I expect she will get what she deserves in the end." The snide comment just came out and Lan was a bit surprised by his rudeness, but it seemed a comfortable thing for him to do, so he wasn't about to apologize or take his words back.
"Well, yes, but..." Jova was interrupted by Anya's return, bearing some rough rags and rubbing the broth away with a vigor that would have torn skin if exposed. The grandfather was becoming nearly irate at the girl's behavior, but Lan was furious. "If I had wanted to wear it, I would have asked for it that way. Get out!" The Chief Counselor was back in old form. The woman bowed to both men rather stiffly and left to steam in the kitchen.
Lan tried another spoonful of soup and managed to paint his chin with it. "What year did you say it was?"
"It is two-hundred and thirty six years since Alaedeus came to the land, my lord, and..." The man was cooing at this point, reveling in the presence of the awakened regent.
"And what month?" the younger man spat impatiently, memories of what he wanted to remember flooding back to him suddenly. Lan had never been known for his decorum or for his kindness. "Quickly, man!"
Jova was taken aback by Lan's abrasive attitude, having grown to practically worship the Lanolylc that lay silently in his own bed, taken in some fainting fever. The old man found him immediately unpleasant and memory was beginning to remind him that Lan had always been this way. "Uh, it is February, sir." Jova was going to say more, but the Lord Lanolylc was mumbling to himself and the old man didn't want to interrupt.
The lordly man looked at his fingers as he figured numbers. Craning his head back, he gazed at the ceiling, still chanting equations intently. Jova fidgeted, trying to find something to do to please and assist his lord, which just would turn out to be annoying. He began to say something, but Lan stopped him with a flick of his hand. "She would be...," He said to himself as Anya peeked out from her lurking place behind a straw partition, "...nearly eighteen! The time of her succession!"
"Julya's, you mean, my lord." The old man said it without enthusiasm for what he could see was coming. "I hope you are not planning to be in Sarakol to see the deed. You are still quite ill and I don't think the girl is worth all the trouble."
The younger man scowled at him. "Of course I am planning to see her crowned after all my efforts!" He gave a nasty scowl. "What? You don't approve of the Princess?"
Jova tried to be non-committal, but he could not lie. "I am not excited by the prospect, if you will pardon my saying so, lord." He took an uneasy breath and continued. "You have been asleep for nearly six years. She is not the woman you had wanted her to be. Certainly not anything to crow about."
Lan squinted. "Just what does that mean?"
From her hiding place in the kitchen, Anya's voice rang out. "She's a veritable witch, sir. Her brother's pride and joy, I'm sure."
The younger man gave a nasty look toward the kitchen. He leaned over to the grandfather. "You need to control that girl. She has no respect for her betters."
"What?!" In spite of his effort to keep his voice low, Anya had heard Lan's assessment. "No respect for my betters?" She nearly spat with the last word. "I changed your linens when you soiled them, bathed your limp, lifeless body day after day, and exercised your joints so you wouldn't atrophy! I even mashed your food to a pulp and fed you spoon by spoon! I call them as I see them: you are nothing but a sick man and that princess of yours is nothing but a spoiled, evil little brat!"
"Anya!" The old man sprang from his seat, as if to strike her. The young woman nearly snarled at him and he thought the better of it and kept his distance. "I will not have you talking that way to our Lord Lanolylc. He is a great man! It isn't your place!"
She put on an unconvincing face of resignation and curtsied low to the younger man. "Forgive me, O gracious lord, for speaking God's truth before you." With that, the old man made for her and Anya ducked back into the kitchen, her grandfather rushing afterwards.
Lanolylc frowned at this whole situation with Jova and Anya, but his face quickly turned to a deeper scowl at the reaction Julya had incited in the young woman. Had something horrible happened at the palace while he had been asleep? How dare this serving girl have such a low opinion of the woman who would be Queen!
The tiny hovel where Lanolylc was cared for was nearly sixty miles from Sarakol, where Julya, the crown princess of the children of Alaedeus, and her brother, the regent Treyvor, ruled over the small island of Sarakol as exiles. It had been twenty years since Alaedea, as the whole land and nation of people was called, had been ruled by a Queen, the last being Julya's grandmother, Evette. In the absence of a clear sovereign, a group of government ministers and religious sub-priests formed the Conclave and took the government by murdering Julya's mother, Michiana, and cowing any opposition. Most on the mainland thought the infant princess was killed with her mother, but the small band of loyal Queenfolk had fled to the unknown north with the infant, setting up a cold rugged throne, vowing to restore the house of Evette to their rightful place.
Being the old Queen's chief Counselor, Lanolylc had been the girl's regent through her formative years, training Julya as best he could to be a good monarch. But her older brother, Treyvor, jealous of the regency and having some claim to it by royal blood, wished to wield that power himself and, with promises of power and favor in the new government, the young man wrestled the regent's place from Lanolylc, who was driven out of Sarakol on a blizzard's night.
Jova found the wandering husk of the deposed regent days later and took him in, only to discover that Lanolylc now suffered from fainting spells that seemed to grow longer and longer over time. The last spell took away over six years of the Chief Counselor's life. And here he sat again at meat, laboring to get a bit of porridge into his mouth.
Lan had been silent for a while, chewing slowly on some gristle and staring at the wall across the table from him. The old man had been attentive to the distracted man as long as he could, but had decided that cut firewood was more useful just then and had stepped out with the ax. Anya looked at the former regent with loathing where she leaned against a wall to his right side.
"Are you trying to move that wall with your gaze alone?" The man jumped at the breaking of silence and glared up at her with a look that indicated that he liked his silence unbroken. "I could get you a bit of a stick to help," she added contemptuously.
The man turned back to his soup. "I would tell you my thoughts, but I'm afraid you would not understand them."
"I see." The girl nodded her head. "I couldn't match the great capacity for thought that you possess, O great lord of wisdom." Her grandfather would have sent her away forever for such insolence, but he was not there. "You are not ready to travel yet, even to see your pride-and-joy be coronated the Queen of an insignificant pile of rocks."
The man's face darkened. "She will be Queen of all Alaedea after I begin the rebellion against the Conclave! All the people of the land will follow her just to wipe away that scourge!" He was almost heaving his chest with the anticipation of the future. He suddenly knitted his brow. "How did you know what I was thinking?"
"Oh, it was just a lucky guess really. We both know I lack the mind to conceive of such things."
Lanolylc sighed. "All right." He squirmed a minute and finally spoke again. "I'm sorry I accused you of being stupid. You were just a silly little girl the last time I saw you."
"Well, things change," she said a little more softly. "I can get a little wiser and, unfortunately, Julya can get a little more wicked."
Lan eyed her. "Wicked? Is she really that bad?"
The girl shrugged. "I don't suppose you will take my word for it, so I imagine we will be setting off for Sarakol soon and you can see her for yourself." There was just the hint of a sly and knowing smile. "I think you will be unpleasantly surprised."
With that, Lanolylc said no more and resumed his valiant efforts at eating, finding this girl more and more unpleasant.
* * *
The fall storms had left much snow on the terrain all about, but this afternoon was warm, uncharacteristically so, and Lan stood at the stoop of Jova's house to survey the possibilities. Hillocks glittered in the bright light and little rivulets had already begun to form. They would be frozen patches and the small lakes they were forming would be sheets of treacherous ice a few hours after nightfall.
"You will catch your death of cold out there, fool." Anya had only stuck her head out long enough to see the man, barely dressed and sipping warmed milk, and make her comment. He normally would have chastised her, but it was such a good day that he laughed softly to himself.
He had awoken nearly two weeks ago and his body was grown strong with the good food and stimulating attention. Lanolylc had decided today to begin the long journey to Sarakol and the palace of the Princess Julya. They would go at night, when the snow cover was hard and more passable. Jova had a serviceable sled and two sturdy horses used to work in the bitter cold. It could take as few as four days to get to Sarakol, but they would be fortunate if the weather permitted them to achieve their goal in two weeks. That was barely enough time.
Word had come to Jova that Emperor Kiyomai himself was coming to help celebrate Julya's eighteenth birthday and that she would be returning with him to Manatoa, the capital of Alaedea, to take her grandmother's throne as some sort of puppet figurehead. The thought of this gave Lanolylc a sour look and he spat derisively. Though this all sounded well and good, Lan didn't trust this Emperor and could pick up the distinct scent of political maneuvering on the part of the Conclave's leader. Perhaps Julya was to quell growing sentiment against the Emperor, which brought a nasty smile to the Chief Counselor's face. A revolution was good for his purposes!
He had always planned to get Julya back to her throne, but not under these circumstances. His thought was that she would rally the people, in the name of the house of Evette and Saradyo, against the Conclave and, after a bloody revolt, return the land to the just rule of a Queen. Of course, bound up in that justice was a healthy stipend and his old place in the Royal house as Chief Counselor, which was only his due for all his efforts as a Queenman. Also, he smiled broadly at the thought of seeing the Emperor Kiyomai, his arch-nemesis of old, executed in some cruel fashion, fitting his crimes. "Oh, yes," the man growled softly as a gust of icy wind struck him head-on. "You will fall, my old friend, and I shall have my right place."
The man's revelry was interrupted again as Jova brought the sled and horses around the corner of the house. "It is going to be a clear night, Lord," he called to Lan.
The man looked up and took another sip of his drink, already cold. "Yes. We should get very far tonight."
The old man didn't have a happy look, but nodded anyway, knowing that to put off Lanolylc was utterly useless.
In the cold streets of the city, there was still a cover of white over all things from snows the night before. It was several hours after sunset and the two guards huddled just off of the deserted street, waiting.
Sarakol was nothing so grand as the old Queen's city, Manatoa. Where the capital of all Alaedea was paved with well-worn and thick stone, this tiny burg was a mire as the snow melted into dirt roads in the relative heat of the day, only to have new snow piled over the last. There were great ruts on every street, an ugly mixture of snows long past and beige clay that could easily pull an oxcart or heavy carriage to a halt, first stuck in clay and then frozen in place by the cold night. In this early winter, the light, rickety carts made their way up an down the lanes, too inconsequential to even raise the mud's notice. Men stepped lightly and women would hardly venture out, depending upon their larders and other preparations to make it through the mucky season. Later, the ground would freeze solid and normal traffic could flow unimpeded through the tiny capital of a princess' exile.
One of the guards kicked at a pile of snow absently, hunching his shoulders against the cold. The other looked around slowly, but all was terribly quiet. They could not stand here much longer before they needed to move about briskly just to keep warm. The first soldier looked at the other and shook his head, silent.
Out of the shadows behind them, a dark cloaked figure glided, making its way toward the men. In the dim moon light, steel sparkled, momentarily exposed from under the layers of cloak. Silently but swiftly, the knife was raised and the figure lunged forward at the guards. The first took hardly any notice, but brought a hand up to catch the wrist before the dagger could strike his companion. The man wrenched the wrist roughly and the steel stuck in the snow a few yards away. The figure gasped in pain and a woman's voice cried out, "Stop!"
The other guard shushed the woman. "Nice to see you again, your Highness." Her face came up and the man was stunned again by her beauty, though her face was contorted into an evil look. "You are abroad late, Princess."
The woman hissed and struck out at the man who held her wrist and slashed his face with her nails. The man let go and stumbled back, hand to his hurt cheek. "You didn't even know I was there, did you?"
"Actually," the soldier said as he wiped away blood. "We had been watching you for nearly five minutes. I know I was wondering what you were doing." His companion nodded his agreement. "So, Majesty," the title was more of a sneer than an honor, "what is your will and what is your price?"
The girl brought herself to full height, rubbing the smarting wrist. "You could at least give the pretense of homage." The two sighed and bowed slightly, grumbling under their breaths. "Proper members of the Royal Guard would not think of money at a time like this." Though she always tried to look brave and unruffled, Julya was shaking now and the whites of her eyes shown clear. "Your Princess is in the midst of a dangerous game and I need loyal men to serve me."
"Well," the first man said, dropping all pretense of rank, "we choose to be loyal after we are paid. This game, killing the Emperor, will doubtless take us out of your brother's favor."
The woman made a disrespectful noise. "Treyvor? He means nothing once I turn eighteen years tomorrow. He will be no more than another court jester to be cast aside when I weary of him."
The two men looked at each other, both thinking that the regent might have bigger plans than jesting. Treyvor was a shrewd character and doubtless had arranged something very rewarding for himself in exchange for handing Julya to the Emperor. No, the only fool in their midst was the bobcat of a girl before them. "As you say," the second man mumbled.
The girl produced a small bag that jangled as she shook it before the men. "Fifty gold pieces!" One of the men reached out to take it, but she pulled it away. "Will that buy your loyalty and the emperor's head?"
The first man looked at the second and raised a brow. The other man could only stifle a chuckle. "Sure," the second finally said. "That will buy you a minute more to come up with two-hundred." The other grinned and fingered the sword at his waist.
Though she tried to hide it, this startled the young woman, her eyes growing wide. "You are fortunate that I am so forgiving of your insolence." She tried to make a regal pose and just looked silly. "In the docks, beside where the Emperor's galley is tethered, you will find a tiny boat with a blue sail. I will put two-hundred gold pieces in that boat, and you can sail away to whatever fate you please with two-hundred-fifty between you, after the deed is done."
The men looked at each other and smiled. This was acceptable to them. They were almost ready to speak their agreement when one thrust his fist before the other, stopping progress. "How do we know," he said quietly, "that you will keep your word?"
The girl smiled and delicately licked her lips. "Well, if the gold is not there, you will surely know where to find me."
The man sighed and nodded, taking the money sack from the Princess' hand. "Just after the Emperor speaks, we will do the job." His companion nodded his consent and the girl gave a wide smile of triumph.
"To the restoration of the House of Evette and Saradyo!" The girl stuck out her hand and the men reluctantly and unconvincingly put their hands atop hers and repeated the phrase. Julya nodded shortly, wrapped her cloaks tighter about her, and melted back into the shadows.
When they were sure she was gone, the first turned to the second. "Do you really think she will have the gold in some boat?"
"Who cares?" The other man laughed. "We have fifty gold pieces and Treyvor will certainly pay more for what we know." The man clapped his friend around the shoulders and they made their way back to their regular post.
* * *
This had all been carefully orchestrated from the beginning, and to Treyvor's mind, masterfully so. He sat in the empty chamber of his government-in-exile; all the others had long since gone to their homes. At his table at the foot of the dais where Julya sometimes sat, the young man rifled through papers absently, knowing that he would not be bothered with the island's petty matters much longer.
He began to dream of the reward he would receive for having revealed Julya's hiding place to Kiyomai. A seat in the Imperial Counsel? A provincial governorship? Perhaps a position within the very Inner Conclave itself! Cardinal Treyvor! It had such a nice ring, but he would have to favor the Emperor more than this to get such an honor. "I think," he said to himself, "the Governor of Trechald sounds very nice!"
The noise of footsteps startled him and some papers were brushed off of his desk as he jerked to see who it was. Too late, he had to just ignore the scraps on the floor as Julya stepped in and smiled. "Greetings, Brother."
"Good evening, Princess," he said cheerfully. Not even her presence could dampen his enthusiasm for the future. "I trust you have enjoyed your day off from the Counsel."
The girl shrugged. "I suppose so."
"What have you been up to?" Treyvor slyly reached down and eased the papers off of the floor, as Julya might have picked them up and read the damning documents just to spite him. "It is a cold night to be out and about."
"Oh," Julya said, fingering the edge of her brother's desk absently. "I was just making some final arrangements for the Emperor's arrival."
Treyvor beamed. "Excellent! I had worried that you would not want to go to Manatoa. I know how you love it here."
Julya gave him a queer look. "I can't stand it here and you know it. When I am coronated tomorrow, I will happily go to Manatoa and take my place among the great Queens of history!"
'Oh, my,' Treyvor thought to himself. 'Kiyomai and this girl will make quite a team: The Butcher and his Hell-cat on a leash. At least it will be interesting to watch, from a comfortable distance.'
Julya had her chin lifted proudly and strutted around her brother's desk. "The people will bow to me and love me for my beauty and wisdom!"
Treyvor smiled. 'Actually, they will run screaming back to Kiyomai for protection from you!' It was no secret in Sarakol that Julya was a conceited and wicked girl, more apt to cut off the hand that begs for help rather than giving out charity. The people all appreciated Treyvor's ability to keep the Princess away from them and important affairs of state. Actually, the older brother kept his sister spiteful and hated, just because he liked the resulting adoration he received.
"Is it warm in Manatoa this time of year, Trey?"
The young man pushed back his papers and leaned back in his chair. "I was quite young when we left Firsthome, Julya, but I don't recall a cold day there."
She twittered about with glee. "And the shops?"
"Oh, yes," the Regent crooned, "there is every kind of finery and luxury that one could imagine in Manatoa. It is like being in the center of the world!"
Julya's eyes were sparkling and she gave Treyvor a dreamy look. "Oh, I can't wait! The entire world at my feet!"
Her brother chuckled. "I'm sure you will have plenty of time to shop between the appearances Kiyomai has you scheduled for. It will be a bit dizzying at first, but then I imagine you will have time to do whatever you want."
"After I am finished shopping, if there can ever be an end," she said with a giggle, "I will want to propose some ideas I have before the Cardinals..."
Treyvor righted his chair. "I think Kiyomai was going to handle the sticky affairs of governance, Julya. I'm sure the Conclave has things well in hand."
The girl walked a few steps away and then returned with a pout. "How will I be a great Queen if I don't rule?"
"Oh, sister," the young man said in his softest tone, "You can always do good things for the people, like feeding and clothing the poor, for instance. Those are the things that will make you beloved and win you many friends." He indicated the empty hall. "Where are my friends? A person who governs must often do things that are unpopular and does not have time for the finer things of life." He stood up, came up to the girl and put an arm around her shoulder, swiveling her toward the exit. "The best place for you, dear sister, is above politics and the fray. People want a Queen to look up to, not one that taxes and conscripts them. That is what the Cardinals are for."
As she walked out of the hall, Julya nodded and smiled appreciatively at her older brother. "You are right as always, Trey. What would I do without you?"
The young man only shrugged and stayed at the door as Julya passed through. With a wave, she rounded a corner to her chambers and her brother smiled broadly. "We shall soon see how well you do without me," he said quietly to himself as he shut the door, locked it and returned to his desk and his plans.
Julya lounged on her bed, looking at the ceiling, running over her own plan once again. "Once Kiyomai is dead, word will spread quickly," she mumbled to herself. "I will commandeer his ship and sail into Nortlynd as soon as possible and begin raising an army." She turned onto her back, gracefully lifting her shapely legs and letting gravity bring her upright. She crossed her feet as she sat in the middle of the bed, looking at her map of the lands of Alaedea, unrolled on a table. "I'll sweep down to Saraking and send emissaries to Trechald in the south, asking for their aid." Her fingers twitched as they moved confidently across the parchment, simulating army movements. "I can most likely raise ten thousand in the north and nearly twenty in the south where the Empire is hated. The Conclave can at best raise ten from Firsthome and then..." The hand high in the north and the other deep down in the south crashed together with a sharp slap. "Manatoa and the rest of Firsthome will be mine!"
After a moment's thought, she continued. "Of course, there will be people loyal to Kiyomai and the Conclave in Nortlynd, but Queenmen far outnumber them. And to think that the Emperor wants me to put a Queenly face on the Conclave government! Ha!" She rose up to a defiant stand atop her bed. "I am no puppet to quell Kiyomai's domestic problems! I am Julya, Granddaughter of Evette, of the Royal House of Saradyo, God's Chosen Queen! I bow to no one!" Her arms were outstretched, as if to encompass the whole of the world within her embrace. Then she pointed to some imaginary rebel in front of and below her. "And if anyone thinks that they have better claim to rule," she brought an invisible dagger from her side, "they will have to get through me to get to the throne!" She jabbed with a gleam in her eye and gave the imaginary knife a good twist. Then, she let forth a most demonic laugh, nearly hysterical, and if anyone would have seen her eyes and heard that laugh, they would have run away as fast as they could.
Finally, Julya collapsed on her bed and let her eyes close. As she drifted off to sleep, she smiled in ecstasy and thought over and over again: "Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow..."
The morning of Julya's eighteen birthday celebration dawned clear and frightfully cold. Lanolylc awoke nauseated but he was able to move about much better than the day before, rising from yet another short coma caused by the rigors of the journey. "We should have left you in the snow along the way," Anya quipped as she handed him a steaming drink. "The horses nearly could not pull you!"
"Anya!" the elderly Jova scolded. "Treat the Lord Regent with more respect!"
Lan rubbed his head and laughed good-naturedly. "Well, she has a point, my old Jova. I am easier to handle when I can use my legs." Anya busied herself by a cooking fire, but couldn't help snatching glances at the man and smiling. "Besides, that is 'former Lord Regent...'"
"Still," the old man said, hovering about in an obnoxious way, "you are deserving of respect."
Lan gave a humorous glance toward the girl of twenty years. "We all have our ways of showing homage..."
At that, the girl snapped him a dirty look. "Homage?"
Though it couldn't be seen from Lan's camp nearly a mile off, the platform and chairs were already arranged under pale blue skies and the banners of Sarakol and Manatoa were fluttering in the early morning air. Jova's first cursory circuit of the square, where the coronation was to take place, was difficult. The normal palace guards were supplemented with just as many Conclave troops which Kiyomai had brought with him on his ship. Lan had been careful to keep himself concealed because, though most of the men who kept watch in the area were far too young to recognize him, there were a few that he remembered of the palace guard from six years ago and even a handful of aging Conclavists that might recognize him after nearly twenty years away from Manatoan politics. It was best not to make his presence at the festivities known.
The old Chief Counselor and Regent had no clear idea of what to do, for he lacked much knowledge of events in the past few years. When he had been ousted, Julya had been a precocious girl looking forward to her twelfth year. He didn't even know if he would recognize her now, all grown and ready to receive honor and position. He discounted the rumors that she was less than kindly, for Julya was the girl he had carefully raised to be a Queen for twelve years. What could six years have done to ruin the fine groundwork he had laid?
After meeting back with Jova and Anya, they hashed out the beginnings of a plan. The old man would secure for them a boat so that they could get away unnoticed. Anya would get inside the palace posing as a attending woman to Julya that the Emperor had sent. Lan wanted to be the one to get Julya out before the festivities even began, but they could not risk having him seen and recognized within the palace. The man had to console himself to find a wagon and team to get the threesome from the palace to their ship without being detected. If all went well, they would be on the sea before anyone realized that the Princess was gone.
It was a good plan, as far as plans go, but Lan did not take into account the possibility that Julya might not want to be rescued from her fate.
The day was getting no warmer and the festivities were delayed by the Emperor's continuing absence, he still being aboard the grand Imperial vessel that took up nearly half of Sarakol port. The few common people that assembled in the square were becoming extremely impatient for some warmth, but soldiers milled about the slowly-growing crowd, determined not to let anyone get away. "The royals must have their cheering crowds," one guard said to a man who was trying to get back to his house, "so start cheering." The freezing and captive audience rubbed their hands together, stomped their feet, and swung their arms about in hopes that such things would get them a little warmer. No cheers were forthcoming.
Nearly an hour late, a fine carriage, drawn by two shiny black horses, rode swiftly to the stage and Kiyomai, with entourage, mounted the platform. He was a tall man, only a few years younger than Lan, but far more handsome. In many ways, his charisma and his ability to use it to greatest effect had been the thing that got him his present place as Master of the Conclave and Emperor of the People of Alaedea. He wore a thick, golden cloak with its hood pulled back, but few people could see his finery as he was careful to keep a ring of ministers about him, in case of any foul play.
With Kiyomai's arrival, the palace was buzzing with excitement. Anya didn't enjoy the jostling she was getting among all these twittering women, so concerned about how they looked and trying to impress anything on two legs that might actually be a man. The situation disgusted Anya, for she had spend her life on the prairie, doing the work of a man and enjoying more substantial things then the favor of court underlings. She had not been yet able to get close to Julya, much less have words with her, and the young princess was already making her way out of the palace. She tried desperately to shove girls aside and get closer, but the women became frenzied as they began herding themselves outside between two lines of palace guards.
Lanolylc fidgeted on the outskirts of the crowd, looking about frantically for any conveyance at all. It looked like all of the people there had walked. "Doesn't anyone ride anywhere anymore?" he swore under his breath. There was also a Conclave soldier nearby who was noticing Lan and giving him a threatening look until he clapped and cheered. "Hooray for the Emperor!" That satisfied the guard who turned to glare at someone else as a coach pulled into view not ten yards from Lan. Giving a sly grin and checking to make sure the soldier had his back turned, Lanolylc innocently made his way forward.
Jova was fidgeting as well, not knowing what to do now. He had offered money to several captains, but it seemed he either didn't have enough or they didn't like his look. The old man had spent nearly two hours hunting, but he could still find no craft that seemed seaworthy enough to get them away that was within his budget. He couldn't help noticing the great warship that Kiyomai had arrived in and he sighed. "Wouldn't that be the boat to take us out of here!" He just shook his head and continued his search.
The dress Anya has stolen to wear as a waiting-woman was just a little small and she was very unused to dresses anyway, preferring pantaloons that made the work she did at home so much easier. It scratched her in all the wrong places and she was disturbing her neighbor women in the line that cut across the platform to Julya's left. The Princess was sitting in a gilded chair only slightly smaller than the Emperor's, which made her very displeased. Anya pulled at seams that were made to look good and feel horrible and she tried in vain to shift things around to get some relief. The chief woman-in-waiting saw her distress with some alarm and began to move toward her, bringing terror into the young woman's eyes.
Lan just couldn't leave the unconscious body of the coach driver beside the carriage. 'Now, that would attract attention,' he thought as he labored to put the limp body into the enclosed carriage body. Only a few seconds after he had the body stuffed in and the door closed, a soldier barked at him to get to the platform. Confused, the Chief Counselor mounted the seat atop the cab and lashed at the horses, pulling them about. To his surprise, a line of soldiers, who were keeping the populace in the square, parted to let him pass and a fat clerk on the edge of the stage was gesturing wildly to get him to come nearer. Lan shrugged and brought the carriage right alongside the platform, not a stone's throw from his old enemy Kiyomai. 'Boy,' he thought to himself gleefully, 'I wish I had a rock!'
As Lan and his coach came to a halt, the clerk stammered to the driver. "The Emperor is concerned about an assassination attempt, so you stay right here in case he needs to get away quickly." The fat man was far too nervous for his own good and bounced from foot to foot, twisting his fingers to the point that Lanolylc could easily hear the man's knuckles crack. "Oh, I hope everything goes well!"
Lan shrugged again. "What could happen?" he reassured the fat man. He gave a little burp and tasted that horribly metallic taste that let him know that he ought not push himself too much today and risk a relapse into limbo.
To the joy of the crowd, the preliminaries actually began. Treyvor rose and gave a rambling speech, welcoming everyone from the far reaches of the island and especially the Emperor, which seemed to be as bored with this as the assembly was. The welcome took the better part of an hour, and Julya fidgeted as she stood during the whole thing, being the little object that Treyvor wanted to show off. 'I'll do it today,' she thought wearily, 'but not tomorrow...'
Anya was escorted rather roughly behind the curtain that ran the length of platform as a backdrop. The chief lady-in-waiting had strong words for her, saying that if she could not hold still and be properly demure, she would have to stay back here. "We can't have you squirming about, distracting people from her Majesty during the coronation!"
"I'm sorry!" Anya continued to try and shift the dress. "This thing just isn't fitting right today."
The older woman just shook her head. "Well, then, stay back here for all I care and miss everything!" She turned on her heel and parted the curtain quickly, passing back into the crowd's view.
Anya looked about her and found herself alone. Everyone else was on the visible stage or in the crowd, not even a lone guard could be seen where she was. To the east, she could see the glittering palace, which had developed a certain appeal for her ever since she had first seen it a few hours before. 'Maybe being a lady-in-waiting wouldn't be so bad after all,' she thought with a sly grin. 'No more cooking or chopping wood, and I suppose I could get used to the dresses.' She shifted again and still something was scratching her in all the wrong places. 'I could easily leave Grandfather and that miserable Lanolylc to their devices and just play the little maiden forever!"
Then she turned to the south, the curtain now to her back. Here was the bulk of Sarakol, just one step above a shantytown. Shacks had been thrown up willy-nilly between the Palace and the docks, though there were a few nicer homes here and there. It still gave every indication of being a temporary place, waiting for the moment that was happening right now. It would have taken only a short week to render Sarakol back into a muddy trampled field, the resident finally allowed to return to more comfortable climes.
Anya looked at the docks, only a mile off, and wondered which ship Jova had contracted for. 'Grandfather must be bounding back around Lanolylc by now,' she thought with distaste, thinking that Jova acted more like a dog than a man when he was around the old Regent. The procured boat was probably too small to see, but Kiyomai's great battleship was clearly visible, nearly empty of crew as all came for the festivities. The town was almost ghostly as well. She took a step back to steady herself against a blast of air from the sea and nearly tripped on a large wooden hammer that had been left on the stage by a workman. Absently, she picked it up so she wouldn't stumble over it again.
To the west was open tundra, with a few homesteads scattered here and there. Just off of the platform, Anya could see two proud black horses and the front half of a carriage. The driver was motioning to her frantically and then, with a closer look, she noticed it was Lan. She puckered her face in disgust and tried to ignore him.
Anya turned back now to the curtain, which was somewhat translucent and let her see the shadows of the people on the stage. To her right were the waiting women she had just left, trying to look happy in spite of the cold and Treyvor's long windedness. The chair where Kiyomai sat was to the left and directly before her. Next to the Emperor, swaying slightly, was the Princess herself. Suddenly, like a lightning bolt, an evil thought hit her and it seemed that she became only an observer to the idea that now seized and controlled her actions.
Lan was so nervous that he could not hold still. 'How could Anya expect to talk to Julya if she did not stay with the waiting women?' The plan was not going according to his thoughts at all. Where was Jova? Was he somewhere in the crowd, trying to get to him? Did he get the boat they needed? His hands shook and he fought back a wave of nausea. 'Something will break soon. Something...'
The old man had temporarily given up the search of a boat, much less provisions, deciding to admire the Emperor's ship instead. 'It's a beauty,' Jova breathed as memories of his own seafaring days came back to his mind from years before. 'I was never on a ship so fine! How I wish I could just have a quick tour!' With that, he walked forward, engaged a sailor on watch at the gangplank, and was given leave to look around.
Jova was watching the festivities in town from the top deck of the Imperial cruiser when pandemonium broke out on the stage.
Julya, who had been almost asleep on her feet during the first part of Treyvor's speech looked to have stumbled backwards and fell, hitting her head on the stage behind, knocking herself unconscious. Anya was the first on the scene and immediately began shouting that the Princess had fallen and that they needed to get her back to the palace to rest. In the chaos that ensued, she barked commands to several people, getting Julya's limp body hoisted and hauled to the Emperor's waiting carriage. Treyvor tried to settle the agitated crowd and signaled the soldiers among them to calm things as he tried to continue his speech. The Emperor Kiyomai only shook his head and told a page that it would be fine for the Princess to be taken home in his coach.
With the help of several dazed pages, the unconscious Julya and Anya were now safely in the carriage. Lan stuck his head through the driver's window. "What on earth just happened?"
Anya turned her attention away from Julya's bleeding head and, with an exasperated look, shouted "Drive for the docks!" With wide eyes and a hollow look, the man swung about and gave the horses the lash and they sprang away.
Strangely enough to Lanolylc, no one was following the coach as they raced south along the main road. "Where is everyone? Where is the Royal Guard?" he called to Anya.
The girl was breathing heavy. "They are headed toward the palace!" she called back.
"Aren't we supposed to be going there, too?"
Ayna's voice cracked with exasperation. "No, you fool! We are getting out of here!"
"Oh!" Lan turned his attention back to the road and slashed the horses harder. Then it came to him: they had Julya! "Is the Princess all right?"
"Well," Anya poked her head out the window and looked at the man. "Considering I nearly cracked her head open with a hammer, I'd say she is fine!"
Lan gave her an amazed look. "What have you done?"
"We needed to get her away from here and this was the way I chose."
The man was about to say something else, but a Conclavist on horseback was already on his way to intercepting them, the ruse already failing. Slapping the horses even harder, Lan jerked the reins and sent the carriage bouncing down a side street, moving away from the docks.
As Lan looked back, the horseman had been joined by two others and they were gaining on them quickly. "This isn't good," he growled through gritted teeth as he jerked the reins hard again, aiming for a narrow alley.
The tactic did slow their pursuers, but the carriage grazed a stone building pretty hard and bent the rear wheel on the left side to a strange angle. As Lanolylc slashed the horses forward, sparks flew as the wheel scrapped along the cobble alley instead of turning normally. The horsemen were just entering the alley as the carriage left the far end, skipping across stones as it pulled harder to the left and nearly buckled under the strain of the turn, but now the docks were only a short mile before them and the carriage began picking up speed down the decline to the sea. At the bottom of the hill, soldiers were already closing the oaken city gates and Lan was becoming frantic. How would they get through to the port beyond?
The carriage was already wobbling badly with its crippled wheel but it still managed to roll forward well, even beginning to gain speed on it's own horses. The road turned back to the normal rutted dirt at a point halfway down the incline and what was a wobble before became a bucking. Lan held on as long as he could, but it was obvious he would soon be thrown from the driver's seat. He scrambled through the window in the cab and stepped on the real driver who was beginning to stir.
Julya's wound didn't look too bad, so there was no cause for alarm there. Anya was cradling her head and looking wide-eyed at Lan. "Aren't you supposed to be driving?"
The man just shrugged. "It looked safer in here."
They would have said more, but the front wheels hit a large rut and stuck, sending the rear of the carriage up and over. The Emperor's driver was conscious only long enough to see Lan's elbow strike him hard in the eye, knocking him out once again as everything in the cab flew about. Lanolylc became tangled in a blanket and began to wretch, not being able to hold his breakfast back any longer. Anya rolled Julya and herself into a ball as the top of the coach crunched against the road.
It must have been quite a sight as the carriage, already rather roundish in shape, bounced up and began to roll, breaking itself free from wheels and horses. The soldiers who had just finished securing the gate, looked back to see the coach rolling down the hill toward them like some well-enameled boulder. They scattered away and barely saved themselves as the missile burst through the gates, rendering it into splinters, and depositing the remains of the coach and its occupants at the base of the gangplank of the Emperor's warship.
God does work in mysterious ways, doesn't he?
Anya managed to get out first, a bit disheveled but still with her wits about her. She shouted uneasily to the sailors racing down the plank to see what had happened. "Treachery!" she shouted. "The Conclavists have turned against the Emperor! Get him aboard and get us away!" That said, she swayed grandly from dizziness and collapsed as the sailors began pulling bodies out of the wreckage and moving them quickly onto the vessel.
Within ten minutes, the great warship was away, sailing speedily toward the south and the battered Princess' destiny.
When Lanolylc finally awoke, he was greeted by the usual blur of fuzzy images and it made him think that all the things in his mind about the escape from Sarakol were just a dream. He really wasn't up to those sorts of adventures anymore, and he tried to feel at peace with the fact that he would be Jova's guest in the frozen tundra until he died. But, as the images about him coalesced, the surrounding were not familiar. Also, the pitching that he had associated with dizziness was getting worse. Nausea was building in his gut, but he forced it back with an effort.
Suddenly, Ayna's face came clearly into view. "Are you all right?"
"I think so," he said with just a hint of grogginess.
The girl nodded. "Good," she said flatly and then walked to the other side of the cabin to see about Julya again.
'Well now, the dreams seem to continue,' he thought to himself. The cabin looked very nautical and the sounds of water passing below, along with the gentle rocking, gave him the fine impression of really being on a ship. "So," Lan said slowly, "I guess we are on our way to prison, then."
Anya looked up at him with a confused look. "We better not be. I didn't get us on this tub just to rot somewhere. I was doing that just fine at home."
"Um...," A thought seemed to be stuck in his head and Lan made the poor choice of trying to shake it loose of his head. Nausea caught him hard and he brought back all the gruel Anya had patiently spooned into him over the last few hours.
The girl gave him a nasty look once he rose from his wretching. "I hope," she said in a low tone, "that you intend on picking that up yourself. I, for one, don't want to have to smell it any longer than I have to."
Just the thought of what she had said and the smell of fresh vomit sent new spasms through him and he could see her mocking smile as he wretched anew.
After all of the preliminaries were out of the way, the two sized up their situation. They were indeed on Kiyomai's ship, sailing toward the northern shore of Nortlynd. According to Anya, who had recently been to the galley and heard the news, they would reach the shoreline in about ten hours and sail along it until they were in surer waters and, once rounding Wester Point, make straight for Firsthome. This all sounded well to Lan, except for a few problems.
First of all, the crew thought the wretching man, wadded in the blanket that they had brought on-board, was the Emperor and not Lanolylc. Secondly, with scratches all over her as evidence, Anya reported that they had abducted Julya against her will after Anya bashed her on the head with a handy hammer back in Sarakol. The woman had to hit the Princess again with a chair to get her settled into a more manageable heap on the cabin floor not two hours before and now the Crown Princess was in that same chair, securely bound and still unconscious.
"As a last little gem," Anya threw in, "My grandfather is in the brig as a stowaway. It seems he was taking a little tour when we were boarded and took off so quickly." She pulled at her bottom lip. "I think they are treating him okay."
Lan paced the floor, fretting. "Great," was all he could manage at the moment. "What a fix."
"Oh, and I suppose your plan was better!" The woman glared at him. "You thought Julya would come along nicely and welcome the opportunity to be away! Well, I think it turned out pretty well, thanks to me."
"What possessed you?" Lan had that incredulous look which spoke volumes about what he thought the farm girl was capable of. She did not take it kindly but swallowed the clever retort she had thought to lob back and simply shrugged.
"Divine intervention, I guess."
Lan was stroking the beginnings of an itchy beard, ready to say more, when Julya groaned and Anya ran to see to her. The older girl gently touched the bump on the head of the Princess, which made her let out a very muffled scream and then growl menacingly. Anya leapt back. "Quite a catch, my lord," she spat at the man.
"Well," he said, realizing how silly it sounded, "She is the sole hope against the Conclave and Kiyomai."
Anya smiled sarcastically. "Maybe we would be doing Alaedea a favor by just dumping her over-board and letting Kiyomai stay on..." Julya heard that and yelled something that the gag muffled out pretty well and she jerked hard against her bonds. "She is a feisty one."
"Yes," the man agreed. Then he sighed at their predicament. "Ten hours."
Anya crossed the room to him and patted him in a patronizing way on the shoulder. "I'm sure you will figure something out by then." She moved over to a convenient bed and flopped on it, yawning. "I just hope this next plan is better than the last. I can't do all the work myself..."
The man spun about. "Wha...," but it was too late: the woman was already asleep.
Eleven hours passed all too quickly in the stuffy cabin. Lan was eyeing Julya gently and finally decided to approach her. "Now, Jules, I'm going to take this gag off and I don't want you to scream or do anything else that will get us killed." Anya was still sleeping, but time was running out and Lanolylc had convince the Princess of reason. They couldn't very well escape dragging a bound and gagged woman behind them. "Just don't do anything crazy."
After the gag was off, Julya scowled at the man, but thankfully did so quietly. Then, she shook her head. "How dare you kidnap me! You ruined all my plans," she said quietly.
"Plans?" He raised his brows, a little patronizing. "You had plans other than to let Treyvor give you to Kiyomai?"
Her face grew ugly and then she spat in his face. "I was going to kill the Emperor, you old fool."
"Wonderful." Wiping the spittle from his face, Lan glared at her. "And where would that have left you? Did you think that the Conclave would just let you walk in and take the government? Just because you killed their precious leader?" His face dropped. "Sounds like something the Emperor would have done."
"At least I am trying to get the throne back," she hissed, keeping her voice low while still straining against her bonds. "Where were you for the last six years? At least Trey was scheming for me..."
At that, the man let out a snort. "Treyvor? The boy with few ideas and fewer wits? He was probably hoping to exchange you for some cushy post working for the Conclave. Perhaps even a lower-order Cardinalship. Sold out by your own brother and you didn't have a clue." He saw that this hurt Julya. "Jules," he said soothingly, "Trey was never good for you and I always warned you of him."
The girl looked up with deep anger in her eyes. "But where were you? No one else even cared about what happened to me after you left."
There was so much he wanted to say, about the sickness, about the dreams, and about how much he wanted to help her all those years. The girl's lips hardened into a line and her eyes narrowed. "It doesn't matter," she said defiantly, more louder now. "I am eighteen and a woman of many resources! I can take care of myself just fine. I don't need you or Treyvor or anyone else."
"Stop patronizing me!" she shouted. "That is all you ever did! I can do more than you think, Lan! You and Trey and the Emperor are all the same: just using me to get what you want!" She was straining so hard at the ropes that the veins began to show on her neck. "I will show all of you!"
Lanolylc was almost tempted to gag her again, but he knew he had to get her calm enough to untie soon. "You can do whatever you like once we get safely away from here, Julya." He held out his hands, imploring. "We need to help each other out."
"Fine," she said hotly, nearly jumping with the chair. "Cut these ropes and get me out of this!"
"You need to calm down and listen to me. We need to work together."
Julya was straining so hard against the ropes that she knocked over the chair, bumping her head hard. She cursed out loud and used her last bit of strength to wiggle her whole body. Finally, breathing hard, she went still and laid her head on the floor. "All right," she said slowly. "We will do it your way. For now."
After awakening, Anya took one last trip out to survey the scene under the pretense of getting water for the Emperor and Princess, who were still closeted in the Imperial cabin. She was gone for quite a while and returned looking worried.
"So," Lan said hopefully as he was unloading a tray of fruits into a bag. "Were there any lifeboats that you could see?"
The woman was a bit distracted. "Yes," she managed after a moment, "on the starboard side."
"Excellent!" Lanolylc cried. "The side nearer the shore. We just let ourselves down and drift away before anyone knows what happened."
Anya bit her lip and Julya noticed it, narrowing her eyes. "What's your problem, hammer-slinger?"
The older girl reddened but held her temper back. "They are ready to execute Grandfather, I heard." She bit back a sob. "They say he is taking valuable food."
Lan did his best to grimace. "That is a shame. He was a good man. I hear that they hang you at sea."
Anya looked at the man incredulously. "You mean you don't plan to rescue him?"
Julya was also busy loading up a bag, though hers was filling with a collection of gold trinkets. "We don't have time to save some old man," the Princess threw over her shoulder to Anya. "He would slow us down and the sailors would surely notice a prison break."
"But," Anya was torn between anger and despair. "Look at all the things he has done for you, Lan!"
The man only shrugged. "He wouldn't want us to risk our lives for him."
"That's only because he thinks you are people worth sacrificing for! He is a silly fool, but I intend to try and free him!"
The man tried the best he could to push it back, but his honorable side reared its ugly head. After a great and reluctant sigh, he spat, "Oh, all right!" Lan huffed at the inconvenience. "I'll go and rescue Jova, if it will make you feel better."
Anya gave him a curious look. "Don't make me drag you into doing something good against your better judgment!"
"I have no time to think of such things now, we need to be off!" Lan finished tying his full sack and handed it to Anya. "Where are they keeping him?"
"The brig is on the lowest deck."
Lan collapsed at that. "Great. I will be killed just trying to rescue him."
Anya got defensive again. "This is the man that took you in and cared for you when you were delirious! The least you could do is try!"
"I told you I would go after him!" Lan began pacing the floor, rubbing his stubble hard. "This just complicates things. A lot."
When it became dark outside, they decided it was as good a time as any to make a break for it. The women left the cabin first and Lan could hear them engage the sailor posted to watch the Imperial cabin door, drawing him away. Then, when the voices were sufficiently far off, he quietly left the cabin himself and found the stairway leading down into the hold.
The way was dark, except for the occasionally smoky oil lamp that made the passages hazy and smarted Lan's eyes. He didn't know exactly how he was supposed to get Jova's cell door open, but that had to wait for an inspection of the scene. There were only two levels beneath the top deck, so his trip was quick and uneventful, most of the skeleton crew resting in the cabins that Lan was slipping by quietly. When he got to the cell, Jova was snoring loudly, which fact Lan was most grateful for. Unfortunately, a heavy oaken door kept the old man in and a key alone could free the lock. He thought it best not to wake Jova until after the door was open, just in case the man couldn't contain his enthusiasm for escape.
Lan raced around the antechamber before the brig door, looking for some convenient key on a peg in the wall or something simple like that but nothing presented itself. Getting more agitated by the moment, he bumped his head on one of the smoky lanterns and sent it crashing to the floor by Jova's cell door. With horror, Lan watched the spilled oil burst into flame and fill the corridor with smoke. Not knowing anything else to do, he shouted "Fire!" as loudly as he could.
Anya could hear men shouting below decks but she could not be sure just why and it frightened her. Julya was busy making idle talk with the sailor, who was pleased to have such a beautiful woman, and a Princess to boot, showing him some interest. All the while, she was plotting how to get off the boat without the extra baggage of Lan, Anya and Jova.
Suddenly, a man burst through a door and smoke billowed out behind him. "Fire!" he screamed and everyone became alarmed immediately. "Get the buckets!" Anya rushed to help, but Julya did not.
The smoke below was terrible, but the fire was not bad and could have easily been put out, if Lan had wanted to. He hunched in a corner, staying below the smoke and kept moving his eyes between the corridor and the door to Jova's cell, which was already burning. There were a few cracks heard from the door as the tongues of fire loosened up the hard wood, then Lan heard footsteps coming down the corridor and a man tossed a bucket of water at the door. The fire hissed in protest and redoubled its efforts, forcing the man back temporarily.
"Now for it," Lanolylc said to himself as he pulled himself to a run, pushed the bucket-man aside, and threw his shoulder against the door. The salty air must have damaged the thing over time and it gave way on the first attempt, scattering splinters and hunks of burning wood all about. Jova finally startled from his rest and began to cough out bad air as Lan hoisted him up and half-dragged him out of the cell and down the corridor. Fortunately, the bucket-man had been taken to a coughing fit with the smoke and offered to resistance or alarm.
A sailor was running back with another bucket of water, but simply sped passed the two coughing figures, not being
able to see who was passing by and not really caring who it was.
Julya was already sawing at the ropes that the lifeboat hung by with her blood-stained knife. "You really didn't have to kill him," Anya said with a glazed look.
"I had to do it because it is obvious that you could not." The Princess took a very fleeting glance at the Conclavist with a slashed throat and then returned to her work. She was nearly through the rope at the bow of the small rowboat. "You haven't got the stomach for it."
Anya was feeling a bit woozy. "I don't think I ever wish to have the stomach for it." She furrowed her brow. "Aren't we going to wait for Lan and my grandfather?"
Julya almost dropped her knife as she burst out laughing. The last fiber severed and the boat rattled onto the deck loudly. "I don't think so. You can stay and help them if you like, but I have a throne to catch! The lives of a few people are nothing when the fate of the land is at stake."
"I see." The girl was holding herself, shivering in the cold night air. "The point is that you don't care how many people get hurt as you climb to the top."
Julya smiled and moved to the stern of the little boat and began sawing on its retaining rope. "You really are a bright girl once in a while, but you don't understand -- I am at the top and people like you are just silly distractions to me."
Suddenly, a plume of smoke burst out of the stairwell that Lan had raced down only a few minutes before. Anya looked from the billowing blackness to the wild girl that was effecting her own escape, most likely without her companions. The young woman decided that she must brave whatever flames there were and plunge into the smoke to try and help the men.
Anya hadn't gotten too far when the heat increased and it became more obvious that the ship's whole underbelly was afire and that getting off should be the most expedient course. Anya pushed those feelings back and tried to breath as little as possible as she hurried down to a landing, rounding a turn, and sprinted on. Not more than five yards from the stair landing, she was bowled over by two men, coughing and wheezing, so covered with soot that she could barely recognize them. "Grandfather?" She hugged Jova as they both lay on the floor, nearly spent.
"We must hurry," Lan managed through a coughing spell. "Where is Julya?"
Anya just arose and pulled the two forward. "You'll see," she said quietly, beginning to cough as well.
The stairs seemed to go on endlessly as the air was rare and every effort took nearly all their strength. There was a slackening of smoke ahead, and they strove for it, hoping that this was a good sign. It proved otherwise as they finally got to the top of the stair and tumbled into the clear air, only to see the fore section of the ship in flames. Anya was the member of the group with the least smoke in her lungs, so she struggled to her feet and looked for escape, as Lan and Jova were on the wooden deck, gasping like beached fish.
The tiny boat and Julya were nowhere to be seen, as the Princess had already managed to get the boat off of the deck. Anya stumbled over to the edge of the deck, fell to her knees painfully and peered over. Below, Julya was desperately trying to work the knot out of the line that let the little boat be pulled at the side of the larger, burning one. In any moment, Julya, who must have lost her knife in the dive, could manage to undo the knot and set the boat free, leaving them all to sink a good three miles from shore. "Lan!" Anya shouted.
Faintly, she could hear his reply. "What?"
"The boat is over the starboard side, so make for the edge as soon as you can." She had to say it twice before there was an affirmative response, and then she ran to the end of the painter line that was tied to the deck and slid herself down the rope to the tiny escape boat below.
The inferno was raging around the cleat where the rope was tied, but it was nothing like the burning of Anya's hands as she slid them quickly down the rough rope. She was screaming when her feet struck the water and then her arm got pinched between the tiny boat's hull and the side of the warship, but she still managed to fling herself aboard, kicking Julya in the process.
The young Princess had her teeth bared and she slashed out with her nails, catching Anya about the free arm. The older girl shrieked again, but managed a wobbly kick to the face and sent Julya sprawling, nearly knocking her out of the boat. finally pulling her trapped arm free, Anya had a definite disadvantage, for she didn't want to harm Julya, but the younger woman didn't care if the other lived or died. Julya flinched on something, then reaching behind her, she produced her lost knife and lunged forward with an evil, wild grin.
Anya, wide-eyed, dodged left, causing the tiny craft to list heavily to port, throwing everything, including Julya, up against the keel of the bigger boat. Julya tumbled back to the small deck, dazed at the blow the warship had given her. The older girl used that tiny moment to ball up her burned hands, which nearly blinded her with pain at the movement, and let the pain loose with her clenched fists. The force of Anya's strike propelled the Royal head back into the side of the burning ship, knocking her cold.
Anya could barely keep from shaking as the pain from her hands pulsed and she finally collapsed as well, writhing and moaning on the planked floor of the craft.
Not too many minutes later, as the young woman was mastering her pain, she heard the sound of someone hitting the water. She slid herself to the side of the boat, careful not to use her hands, and peered over the low gunwale. A hand slapped the wooden side of the little boat inches from her head and the sound of a great intake of air deafened her as she swiveled about to see Lan, looking like a blackened rat, grasp the gunwale with his hand and make a great exhale. Then, he flopped his head on the rail and just hung there, absolutely exhausted.
The ship beside them was lighting up the sky now, the other three escape boats deployed and away. Just as Anya became concerned that they should get away as well, the painter rope that pulled them along with the ship finally burned through and they watched as the inferno proceeded on ahead, already beginning to founder.
Like a lightning bolt, it struck Anya. "Where is Grandfather?"
Lan, struggling to get aboard without flipping the whole thing over, strained through clenched teeth. "I sent him over before me. I thought you had him..."
The two paddled about most of the rest of the night at Anya's insistence, but it was a hopeless task and weariness finally got to them. Anya fell to sleep, weeping in Lanolylc's arms.
Jova was gone.
The fire was warm and seemed to drive away whatever phantoms Julya imagined were lurking in the wood. She was not happy to be in this place or to be a part of the company, but she knew that she would be too frightened and lonely if she ran off. The Princess huddled closer to the fire, her teeth chattering.
It was actually fortunate that things worked out as they did, which you could credit God for. If He did not set the wheels in motion for the happenings in the past week, He had certainly capitalized on them. The sailors' need to know who was actually in the Emperor's cabin was nearly greater than the punishment that might have come if they burst in on Kiyomai without an invitation. In that way, the pick of the time to venture an escape was inspired. The fire was also fortuitous, for it totally masked their escape and put off any pursuit. Their fruitless search for Jova the night before had left them far from the other survivors of the warship, so there would be no dangerous confrontations with the Conclave sailors. But, all of these strokes of good fortune could not console Anya, who had moved from tears to numbness.
Lan had tried to engage her, but she simply ignored him, for to her mind, the aging man was the root cause of her grandfather's death. Of course, she conveniently forgot that Lan had finally made the effort to save the old man, but we often forget those things in our grief.
Everyone seemed wrapped in their own thoughts as the darkness closed in. The two women were soon sitting with craned necks, their breathing slow and even. lost to weariness. For Lanolylc, sleep did not come so easily that night.
It was as if Michiana were there with him, but he knew she was not. Often, our minds play tricks with us, but sometimes, these images of our past float slowly before us, reminding us of whatever they will. As she had been in life, there Michiana was this night, the voice of compassion instead of reason, the sound of the heart instead of the head, the very breath of love.
She was wreathed in light, only the vaguest shadow against the brilliance, as if she stood somehow between him and the glory of God. "What is happening?" The voice floated to him as ethereal as the hazy form from whence it came.
He spoke quietly, even though he was very far away from the two young women, asleep by the dying embers. "Julya is with me now. We are going to raise an army. We are going to take back the throne."
The voice came nearer, clearer and more distinct. "We? You sound as if the gilded chair were half yours! Yes, the girl will be Queen, but what will you be?"
"I will be by her side, to help her, as I helped you." The words almost caught in his throat, as if they were painful to say. "I will be her Counselor."
The form drifted closer, becoming almost a solid outline. The voice was soft and kind, just as he remembered it, but it also carried also a mild rebuke. "As you helped me? You controlled me. I did your bidding and you ruled through me. For that reason, besides others, I was not Queen." The specter was so close now that he might have touched her, the vague shadows of her face and body hinting at the woman he had known and loved. "These things are in the hands of God, Lanolylc. You must trust in Him and accept whatever place and fate He gives you."
Lan nearly burst out laughing. "Trust God? That same God that let Kiyomai arise and strike you down? God would have seen Julya murdered as an infant, if I had not crossed Him." He spat out this next. "You always went on about God and His will, but if there is indeed such a being, he cares little and should not be trusted nor relied upon. You were not Queen because you trusted too much to foolish superstitions."
The shadow drew back, appalled. "I had hoped you had changed, My dear Lanolylc, but you have not. You have faith in your hands and your works, so God has made your hands weak and your works come to naught, making you a husk of a man so that you might learn humility. I see that you will not be humble so easily." As it receded, the voice conversely became stronger. "Yes, my daughter will be Queen, and you will know that it is by the hand of God, and by no act of your own that it is done. You would do well to repent of your haughtiness, and you may yet join me in His presence."
Lan took a step or two toward her in his mind and reached out to her. "Michiana, I still love you..."
"I know, Lan," the voice drifted back, the shadow sinking into the blinding light. "I love you, too. Please be humble..."
The light was receding and the darkness began to pull behind him. "I will, Michiana! I will!"
Blinking, a gust of wind and a snore brought him back from the dream. "Trust in God?" he snorted to himself. "Well, we shall see."
* * *
Over the next few days, Anya's mood lifted and she was able to talk again, slipping into melancholy less and less. Julya sulked about the trail as Lan slipped back into his role as her taskmaster. "You haven't changed all that much, you know?" he quipped. "You are still as lazy as ever and you have absolutely no interest in the affairs of state."
Julya had been trying to ignore him, but she was weary now. "Perhaps it is because you make a poor presentation. No one can make governance more boring than you."
Anya giggled at that and exchanged a smile with the Princess. Though they had some rough times, usually ending with Julya having a head wound, the two young women had grown closer, especially in their loathing of Lanolylc. "Good one," she whispered.
"I suppose that is why I am here to help you; to relieve you of the burden of the government. I can never see you being able to govern, so I will handle this for you."
Julya turned to look at the man, stopping the march forward, head cocked. "You sound so much like Trey. Is that why neither of you like the other? Because it is impossible to share control of me? Fighting over the little hand puppet like two school-boys?"
Lan darkened at this, but had no reply. The girls snickered at each other and continued the hike ahead.
The man knew of a settlement in this direction, he figured from the stars, where they could find food and shelter. Anya had taken the precaution of sewing some of Kiyomai's gold coins into the hem of her skirt, knowing that they would need such things very shortly, as they had to leave their bags behind in the fury of the fire. It bothered Lan that Anya seemed to be getting all of the good ideas and seemed to be accomplishing all the real work herself, but he brushed the aggravation aside: he was the architect of the plan and soon the world would know that Lanolylc had restored the crown to the House of Saradyo. In that, he felt secure within himself.
Though they were now on the claimed lands of Alaedea, they were trekking through the most northern reaches, where men did not choose to live. Perhaps hunters and trappers moved about these cold, densely forested lands, but no one made their home here. No matter how far off Lan's calculations were (and they were very far off), a thin road running between Saraking and the garrison at Wester Point would cross their path as they proceeded south. They marched on, perhaps ten miles, before they collapsed again for the night. Anya, as usual, prepared a fire and Julya was finding she had a knack for finding nuts and berries in the nearby woods. Lan made a pass at hunting with a sharpened stick, but it didn't last long and he slumped by the crackling fire, perturbed that for yet another night, he would have to depend upon the prowess of the young women for his living.
"Well," the man said after a meager dinner, "I think we are making good time and should reach the settlement tomorrow."
Anya chortled. "Is this like the bear you were stalking earlier? It seems you miscalculated his demeanor pretty badly. It was a good thing that it wasn't terribly hungry and left you alone after you scampered up that tree!" Julya pursed her lips tightly, trying not to smile, but her shoulders shook with her mirth anyway. "I guess it knew you would be pretty tough meat."
Lan threw up his hands. "See if I try to help out again, if this is the thanks I get!"
"Okay," Anya said a little wistfully. "Thank you for not getting killed. It would look strange if people saw two young women on the roads and unescorted. For nothing else, we need that service of you. They would surely ask too many question."
At that, Julya could restrain herself no longer and burst out laughing. "Actually, I think we should thank the bear more!"
Lan sniffed at the cackling women, changing the subject. "So, Julya, what will your first act be as Queen?"
The girl was still trying to catch her breath, but soon made a serious face. After a moment, she said, "I will seek vengeance for the evil done by the Conclave. I think I shall hang them all and anyone who sympathized with them. Publicly."
Lan nodded thoughtfully, but Anya looked disturbed. "You would honestly do that, Julya, even to people who obeyed the Conclave simply to save themselves grief and pain?"
"I won't know who to trust," the girl said casually, "so it is better to cleanse the house rather than meet a stray blade in the night." Lan was startled by this response, not because it seemed harsh, but because it was almost word-for-word something he had taught Julya as a child.
"What about starting your reign with a little compassion?" the older girl asked. "Wouldn't people be more loyal and apt to accept your rule if you were kind and a bit generous?"
Julya scoffed. "You would hardly know about such things, being from the sticks and all." This ruffled Anya some. "That would be a sign of weakness! That all sounds well and good, but it encourages rebellion from those who think such things indicate naivet and a lack of strength." The girl soundly shook her head. "No, pleasantries can come after all the renegades have been killed or frightened into submission..."
Julya thought that might settle the matter, but Anya was just getting started. "And when will you know that the time has come for kindness? After every woman surrenders her paring knife? After every man reaps his wheat with a blunted stick instead of a scythe? After every person who might ever strangle you in anger has their fingers cut off?" The older girl gave the Princess a reproving look. "If you start down that road, I fear you will never leave it, and the tales of blood that follow you will rival even Kiyomai's."
The Princess became indignant. "I don't have to listen to this! What could you possibly know of such things? Look at you! You have cut wood and made the fire and the meal your whole life. Who are you to tell me how to rule?"
Anya simply shrugged. "I just know what kind of person I would like for a ruler."
"It is ignorant to think that such a person could rule over a nation like this!" Julya was getting quite hot. "How dare you think to counsel me! I will tolerate Lan for now, but I won't hear this from you!" The girl marched off into the dark trees of twilight.
Lan, who had been shoved out of the conversation, chirped up then. "Julya's right you know. She has been trained in these matters and you have not. You should not presume to tell her how to be a Queen."
"Someone has to, or is that strictly your job?" Anya kicked at the fire. "She is a spoiled brat and you coddle her because she is your creation and you taught her everything she knows. Who died and made you some expert on the subject of Queens?" Then she let out her sly smile. "After all, wasn't it your government that Kiyomai overthrew in one move? It seems your theories of rule didn't serve very well then. The people seemed to support the Conclave at the time."
Lan said nothing for a moment. "Kiyomai was a master of rhetoric and lies. He spoke frilly words to powerful people and promised them everything short of the moon if they would support him against the Julya's mother. Most of the people who helped him are now dead by the hands of his Conclavists, the Emperor's promises broken. He was a liar and a traitor. The people will surely see that now and want something new."
"I see." Anya threw a few logs on the fire and stared across the flames at the man. "And what frilly words will you speak when the time comes to raise an army? What promises will you offer? How many of those will be kept? Will you silence the ones that feel slighted and stir up decent against Julya?"
The man spat back, justifying himself the way he had always done. "She is the rightful heir to the throne, not some usurper! The people will see that and support her. The people want a Queen who will wipe out tyranny!"
"What they are looking for," the woman corrected, "is someone to inspire them."
Lan leaned forward, nearly falling into the fire. "And just what do you mean by that?"
The young woman did not back off. "Someone to make them try to be better people, an example, someone they can look up to." Anya pointed in the direction that Julya had left in a few moments before. "From what little I have heard from her in this last week or so, she doesn't inspire me much." She softened and looked into the fire. "I had always hoped that there would someday be a Queen worth following. Julya isn't that person. You might have trained her in the intricacies of the court, but she is not going to be the people's Queen, which everyone, including me, was hoping for."
As if to confirm what Anya was saying, there was a piercing shriek from a little way off and a crashing through the underbrush, coming closer. "See what I mean?"
Lan looked into the fire as well, only able to nod.
The hall was already beginning to fill and Franklyn was bounding about happily, for this would be a profitable night, at least for him.
A young man sat alone at a back table, trying to ignore his surroundings. The oil lamp flickered from its place screwed to the wall near him, throwing shadows that made him look older than his thirty years, but he did bear a somewhat heavy philosophical load.
He would have gladly paid to be somewhere else, doing something else, but the money he required was to be found here, in this increasingly smoky room, loud with the clatter of plates and bowls and mugs, shouted greetings and orders for food. The Dueling Swords was a popular place with the locals, and seemed to be attracting distant visitors on this night as well.
The young man, whose name was Nychol, sighed morosely and thought again, as he did every night, over the events that had brought his to this end. Franklyn was trying to be cordial when he reminded Nychol that people expected a show within the hour. The young man only brushed him off. 'They will get their show,' he thought darkly to himself. 'I'll give them a show they will never forget!'
His father had originally been a partner in ownership of the Dueling Swords with Franklyn. The local priest and craftsman of wood, Rendlyn had owned the best land in the village and Franklyn had given him a share in the venture for permission to build the inn on the blessed spot. The bishop in Saraking, Rendlyn's immediate superior in the ministry, had frowned on the whole affair, thinking that the inn was taking time away from God's work that needed doing in the region. Besides, it didn't look right for a man of God to be profiting from a beer establishment. Accordingly, Rendlyn gave up his share in the inn in exchange for free room and board within for his family.
With the advent of Kiyomai, Rendlyn had answered the call to arms in defense of the monarchy, he being a devoted Queenman. Nychol and his mother were left in the care of Franklyn and the country priest went to Manatoa to fight in the skirmishes there and never returned. Nychol's mother long held out hope for her husband's return, which took its toll on her health. She died not a year afterward, leaving a twelve-year-old boy to try to find happiness and decent living in a glorified beer joint.
Franklyn leaned on Nychol's table, giving the man a unsettling look. "When I said that people were expecting you within the hour, I meant this hour." The fat man's eyes were beady and always wet, making them look like dull diamonds in the inadequate light.
"Yeah, yeah," was Nychol's only response, and Franklyn was called away by an irate customer before he could gather any more fury.
In his nineteenth year, the people of the village appointed Nychol their spiritual leader, in deference to his long-dead father, who was dearly loved, and also because he seemed to have a grasp of the holy books and was of a kindly disposition. They could not call him a priest, for he had no ordination, so they decided upon the title 'Pastor,' which the village folk called him more often than his proper name.
Of late, Franklyn had began to regret the agreement that allowed Nychol to stay at the inn without proper payment. Times had become hard and people were not moving around as much as they used to, now that highway robbers had corrupted most Conclave soldiers with a portion of the spoils. Besides, the locals didn't drink as much when their pastor was in the hall with them, giving them disapproving looks. Also, Nychol made his contempt for the Conclave and their presence very public at times, and that kept cautious people away, wanting no association with a known rebel. In short, Franklyn wanted Nychol gone because he was ruining his business.
The terrible irony of the whole situation was that many people, who weren't put off by the Pastor's presence, came to eat and drink, but especially to be entertained by Nychol. Of the qualities that Rendlyn had left his son, the father had taught the boy music, specifically the flute. So, in spite of all the problems, Franklyn gave Nychol an exasperated look and motioned toward the stage.
Tonight, Franklyn was being paid a little extra by the Conclave soldiers that kept order in the village and lands round about, in the hopes that the innkeeper would show extra hospitality to the visiting Conclavists. These disheveled slobs were none other than the very men who had been the Queen's constables serving in the area so inadequately for years, so people didn't really notice the change and ignored them just as before. Their commander, up from Saraking, with a distinguished-looking nobleman in tow, were sitting with them that night, taking up an offer to see the local talent. So, at the large table before the stage sat an old soldier with a few underlings, a rather disgusted blue-blood, and two scrubby local men who looked very uncomfortable in their hardly-ever-worn Conclavist uniforms.
A man and his two daughters, strangers to the regulars, came in and took a table, looking terribly road-worn and smelling enough that people kept their distance. At least, the family tale is what the man of the threesome claimed, but the people failed to see a resemblance among the group and, in these parts, the locals were naturally skeptical and given to spreading all sorts of doctored gossip and innuendo. The Conclavists eyed them suspiciously, but they did that to everyone it seemed, so no one but the newcomers gave it any mind. They produced gold for a room and a good meal, which meant that, in spite of the Conclavists' best efforts, Franklyn would be their special friend for the evening, keeping the water jug filled and the meat and vegetables flowing. Whispers soon began that they were some important folk, traveling in secrecy, probably associated with a rebellion against the Empire, which was what important people would obviously be doing tottering about the hinterlands.
Talk had been increasingly interesting lately, for it seemed that the Dueling Swords had hosted some strange happenings in the past few weeks. All had, of course, heard of the travails of the Emperor, who was stood up by a Princess that all had thought dead. She had been hiding far to the north, across the sea, and had stolen the Emperor's ship to go off into the blue. Sailors from that ship (or so they claimed) had been trickling into the inn and telling fanciful tales of fire-breathing dragons and such, which no one thought much of. The stories were discounted almost immediately and the sailors moved on to places where they were more likely to be believed. Franklyn had even said that a very disgruntled Emperor had visited the inn on his way to Manatoa, but the local folk only saw it as another ploy by the keeper to get them to come to the Dueling Swords and spend some money. (Actually, though it was not a common occurrence, the greasy fat man had told the truth about the Emperor, who had made good time and passed through the village only a few days before.) The arrival of these latest strangers only added fuel to the fire of rumors and stories being circulated, and the presence of the Conclavists at this time did nothing to quell any of it.
Nychol wearily arose and mounted the steps to the small platform at one corner of the room. A homely girl made her way on stage as well, the singer which he accompanied. She had a good enough voice, but it didn't do justice to the music he wove for the audience. There were locals who would come every night (except Sunday, of course, Nychol had insisted) and never tired of the show. He tried to vary the works as much as he could, but the girl knew only about ten songs well, and the crowd usually requested the same three or four that they liked to join in on. He smiled amiably at the assemblage, and began to prepare for the performance.
Everyone settled in to await the show, with the notable exceptions of the threesome, who stuffed their faces with food as quickly as Franklyn could bring it, and the Conclavists, to whom concepts such as "settled" and "enjoyment" were completely foreign. The soldiers constantly watched their backs in these days, as common folk did not take kindly to their intrusions. It was a perplexing problem for those charged with keeping the peace and quelling possible rebellions, for there was only manpower enough to see uprisings happen, but not sufficient to put such outbreaks down. Of course, there had been no desire to cause much trouble amongst the people before the Conclave decided each village needed a strong police presence: in the time of the Queen, the commoners were generally left to govern their own affairs and were only called upon for a light tax and the occasional military service when need demanded. Where the Queen and her government had been far away, barely noticeable, and easily ignored, this Conclave made it a point to be a nuisance in the community, telling people what they could and could not do. As a result, the Conclavists present kept their eyes roving about the place, and couldn't sit and relax for constantly turning and watching everyone, ready for the icy bite of steel in their bellies at any moment. Meanwhile, Lan and Julya and Anya were finishing their third course and were eyeing the fourth that an increasingly worried Franklyn had already set before them.
Nychol had not bothered to take requests from the assemblage this night, as he usually did, for he had the inspiration to try and actually make an impression on these people who had traveled a long distance. He murmured to the girl beside him, revealing the songs for the evening. The girl looked upon him with admiration bordering on worship, for some months ago, Nyc had plucked her from a rather meager existence, caring for chickens on her family farm. Of course, the musician was handsome and intelligent, which made her admire him the more for taking notice of her at all. He took her hand and raised it up to his lips, kissing it gently, for he knew she liked that. The girl blushed hotly and turned away embarrassed, her heart pounding with a love that she knew would never be. Nychol then turned and gave the audience a low bow and the girl gave a deep curtsy. The entertainment began.
The first song was a light-hearted jig, which was a local favorite and one that was hard to resist clapping to. The young woman rocked from foot to foot in beat to the music as she sang, her hands clasped behind her like some nervous schoolgirl reciting something from rote. Nychol sat on a stool and effortlessly brought forth the accompaniment. While the hall clapped along and some of the women even joined in the singing on the chorus, the Conclavists remained stolid (except for the local constables who were wanting to join in but seemed cowed by their superiors) and the dusty threesome who had not yet satisfied themselves and hope the fifth course would do. The song came to a conclusion with a loud round of applause and a bow and curtsy from the pair on-stage.
On the second song of the evening, the girl took a silent seat on the stool and Nychol was on his feet, playing a soft ballad that most of the people in the hall had never heard. It started very slow and calm, simple almost to absurdity, something that a beginning flautist would do as a first piece. But, over the course of the tune, it built in complexity and richness, the man starting to struggle with the intricacies. The hall was dead still, all eyes on this musician who was, quite obviously, better than just "very good." Of the three that were in pain over their overexertion in eating, Julya was the most stirred by the music, more mesmerized than any other in the room. Nychol couldn't help but notice her interest and he was very pleased, for it was not difficult for anyone to see that, under the grime and sweat of days on the road, she was incredibly beautiful. She became aware of his notice and blushed slightly. Lan and Anya also become well aware of what was going on and both grew more and more befuddled and nervous because of Julya. At the end of that piece, everyone was still for a moment, as if silence were needed at the end to complete the labor. Hesitantly at first, locals began to clap and soon the whole room was filled with deafening applause, Julya on her feet with tears in her eyes.
The next two tunes were sing-a-longs and everyone, saving the Conclavists, joined in heartily with laughter and great smiles. The girl was again the leader of the songs, but she was looking a little miffed that Nychol was paying this dirty newcomer off of the roads so much attention. She sang as best she could, but the man's eyes were fixed on Julya.
The next-to-the-last tune of the night was a long romantic piece, which enticed all the local women snuggled up against their men. It was a known fact around the district that an evening with Nychol brought a sharp rise to a couple's intimacy later that night. Some women would save their pennies just for a evening of music and an over-night at the Dueling Swords to put some spice back into a stagnant marriage. It was that good.
Anya and Julya were definitely under the sway of such romantic themes and it didn't help matters much that Nychol used the opportunity to come down off the stage and play his flute around the young Princess, serenading her. Julya's face was definitely shining through the road-dust as she looked doe-eyed at the man, causing Lanolylc to get a tad uncomfortable with the growing spectacle. Anya was enjoying the mood even if she didn't have the kind of attention her younger companion was getting. As Nychol remounted the stage to end the song, the girl next to him was looking downright displeased.
For the last song, the man on-stage consulted with the singer and the girl proceeded to turn white as a sheet, looking sidelong at the soldiers sitting down front. After some coaxing, she finally nodded her head and nervously took her place at the fore, visibly shaking. Nychol spoke another gentle word and the girl tried to relax. Once they began, it was painfully obvious what the anthem was and everyone turned instantly to the Conclavists at the front of the room to see their reaction. Worse than that, the beautiful girl from off of the road stood and began to sing the words as well, much louder, clearer, and more melodiously than the poor, reluctant girl on-stage.
Of course, the soldiers of the Emperor were a bit upset to be hearing "The Anthem of the Queen" and they intended to take the names of this performing pair, but they were startled most by the girl a few tables behind, singing strong and sweet in spite of her man-companion's effort to force her back into her seat. There was deep-set anger in the eyes of the visiting nobleman, who did not seem to share Julya's sentiments toward this song of Queenmen. The situation was getting worse, for now a number of people were getting to their feet, as was the custom before days of the Empire, and warbling out the words as best they could. The soldiers looked about in consternation, for the group standing soon outnumbered those still sitting and they were weighing the best course to take. Franklyn looked at his old, dead partner's son with livid anger, wanting nothing more than this young man out of his life forever.
Another round of deafening applause met the end of the performance for the evening, but the two performers scrambled away as soon as the last note was silent. The locals, eager to allow the pair to escape, crowded about the soldiers, blocking their pursuit. The threesome from off the road also made a hasty exit, running straight for their rooms.
Franklyn chose just to sit at the bar and sigh, knowing that, once again, Nychol was about his normal business. "Someday," he said quietly to himself, "I'm going to kill that boy!"
Anya, who had just unloaded their meager baggage an hour or so before, was hurriedly stuffing their things back into the crude sack that she had fashioned for herself along the their way. She was cursing to herself, but Lan was not so quiet.
"What on earth did you think you were doing?" he screamed, causing the Princess to cringe against the blast. "You are trying to get us killed, aren't you?"
Julya was bobbing about from foot to foot, wringing her hands. "I didn't know that it would cause such a stir! It is just a natural thing for me to do, you know, I am the Princess, after all." She hovered over the other woman, as if her fretting would help speed the packing. Lan and Anya were planning to stay in this room and let Julya have the adjoining room to herself. Now, all plans were off.
Anya hoisted the sack over her shoulder. "How long do you think until they come after us?" As if perfectly timed to be the answer, someone began hammering at the door. "That soon," she muttered under her breath.
"Julya, get that vase," Lanolylc whispered. "We can't possibly outrun them in these unfamiliar lands, so we will have to kill them."
"What?" Anya could not believe that this was Lan's plan. "Are you crazy? I say we either run away or we plead for mercy!"
Julya set her jaw and hefted the crockery in both hands, ignoring the older girl. "No problem," she said in a low voice. She raised the pot high and got behind the door.
Anya looked about wide-eyed and finally ducked away into the adjoining room, not wanting anything to do with this.
The fist-banging took on a deeper tone as the men outside applied their shoulders to the door. Lan grit his teeth and pulled a long knife from its hiding place under his shirt. Julya was surprised to see that, not thinking of Lan as that type, but then grinned in expectation of what was ahead.
The door gave a loud crack and with the next effort, the wood splintered and burst into the room, one of the local constables flopping onto the floor, cradling his shoulder. Before the man behind him could step inside, Julya decided to brain the poor injured man with the crockery. "You twit! Save it for the ones still standing!" Lan shouted at her as two men with swords came through the remains of the door, easily taking control of the situation.
Nychol, still charged with the adrenaline of his exploit was busy running down the exterior of the Dueling Swords, after making sure his singing partner was safely away toward her parent's house under cover of the darkness. To make matters a bit more interesting, the darkening skies that had been threatening all afternoon had just let their collected waters flow and a nice downpour had just begun. Within moments, already feeling and looking like some drowned rat, Nychol was sloshing along the side of the building, behind a screen of bushes that kept him concealed from sight. Every few steps, he would jump up and look into the window of a room. He could immediately rule out those that were dark, but he looked in the ones that were pouring out light, illuminating the downpour that the bushes did nothing to divert.
Why was he doing this? He wanted to see that gorgeous girl again! The danger of this meeting seemed to make it all the more appealing to him, especially since he had thrown all caution to the wind and probably ruined his chances of ever living at the inn again. "This girl was worth it!" he said to himself.
The next two rooms only uncovered an older man undressing himself and a middle-aged woman looking out at the rain. The sight of a soaking man leaping into her view startled her to the point of screaming and falling backwards. "Sorry," the young man called as he didn't miss a beat in his dead run down the length of the hostel wing. There was a number of black windows ahead, so he increased his speed, jostling against the slickening mud beneath him, but staying miraculously on his feet.
The next lit window was in range and he made his leap, planning to look in at the apex of his jump. Horror filled him as the window was pushed wide and the wrought iron frame was directly in the path of his face. He could see it all happen in slow motion, as the girl of his dreams thrust the window open and he caught it right in the chin. He was a sputtering mess as the hit flung the girl out of the window and she fell heavily atop him, grunting. That act knocked the wind out of him much worse than hitting the opening window.
The girl spun about on his chest and looked into his face. Smiling briefly, she said simply, with just a touch of strain in her voice, "Oh, hello! Thanks." She scrambled to get off of him, becoming mired in the mud herself as he shook his head to clear his vision and flopped onto all fours, catching his breath. From above them, a scuffle abruptly ended as the soldiers accosted Anya, but a man's head stuck out, an arm pointed at the fleeing Princess, and a Conclavist shouted, "There she is!"
The girl was already on her feet and running across a dark field with the foreboding forest beyond, her passing throwing up spray from the pools of water, until she stepped wrong and lid out of control, raising a sheet of wet. Nychol grabbed a nearby branch to help himself to his own feet, but the dead wood snapped with a sharp crack and spun him onto his back again. The stout stick remained in his hands and he swung it hard at the head sticking out the window, which was shouting instructions to his friends within. The stick made a pleasant thud against the side of the soldier's head and he tumbled back into the room, giving Nychol a chance to get to his feet and run toward Julya. He heard the plop of men dropping to the mud out of the window behind him, but he was already halfway to the trees by then, the Princess already back on her feet and under the canopy of limbs.
It was fortunate that Nychol had grown up in these parts and had often played in this forest as a youngster. It was even more fortunate that he had often escaped into these very woods at night to avoid some punishment or just to get away from Franklyn, who was deathly afraid of the forest. As he cleared the first trees, even in the darkness of the stormy night, he felt its familiarity and breathed a sigh of relief. In his joy, he wasn't keeping his eyes alert and he tripped over the crying figure of the girl he had been following, shaking in fear of the unknown woods.
Julya had the brains to leap on him as he fell, pummeling him with small fists that were very ineffective. He began to laugh, which only made her angry and she tried to punch harder. Finally catching the fists in his hands, he held her fast as she struggled to free herself. "You pick a bad night to visit the forest, miss."
"Let go of me, you stinking Conclave stooge!" She was working herself into quite a froth and was going to hurt herself soon if she went on this way.
"Watch it, girl!" he whispered sharply. "I may be a lot of things, but don't you dare associate me with the Conclave!"
That and her growing weariness took the strongest fight out of her and she eventually flopped on the ground, her strength spent. "Just don't kill me," she said through gasps of breath.
"I don't think I will allow that luxury until I think you deserve it!" He chuckled at his words, thinking them quite witty.
As her eyes adjusted to the light, she suddenly recognized him. "You are the flute player..." Her hands went to her mouth in surprise and unhidden pleasure.
"Actually," he said with a groan, still smarting from her landing on him at he window, "I prefer flautist."
"Whatever." The girl was already looking about suspiciously. "Do you know your way around this forest? I don't want to run into any of those Conclave soldiers."
The man smiled. "You should have thought of that before making such a spectacle of yourself in the commons!"
The girl only returned the smile. "Just following your lead."
They moved farther into the forest, the rain still pouring outside, but only the occasional drop falling on them. Julya stayed very close to the man and even grabbed his arm a few times when an owl would hoot or a rabbit, out late, would scurry from under a fallen tree at their approach. Although he would never say as much, Nychol rather enjoyed having a beautiful maiden hanging off of him. Lustful thoughts might have come to lesser men, but this was the Pastor, and he was just doing what he always did: helping others. He didn't usually get the chance to do this after causing so much havoc, but he needed to redeem himself anyway.
They talked a bit in whispers, exchanging witticisms, but then the man's face turned ashen. "What about the people you were traveling with? Won't they be looking for you?"
Julya made a face. "I was actually looking for an opportunity to get away from them. I need to thank you for making that possible."
He wasn't sure he liked her tone, but his attention to her was distracted by an odd crackle of twigs. He hushed her and listened intently. He barely moved away in time as the whooshing sound of a sword swept right by his ear. The girl was thrown off balance and rolled a few yards away, but the swordsman heard her and pursued. Nychol, not to be bested so easily in his forest, plunged after the man, knocking the attacker off of his feet with a curse.
The swordsman shouted out as he struggled with Nychol and there was an answering shout not too far off. 'Others are coming,' the pastor gasped to himself. With a spurt of strength, Nychol pushed the man off and over him, hearing him fall strangely to the ground with a gasp. The soldier flailed a little, but then went limp, having fallen upon his own sword. Nychol counti that a blessing, helped the girl up, and they plunged deeper into the forest.
Unfortunately, the men pursuing them had ears that readily heard the pair crashing through brush in their wildness to escape. Nychol was becoming disoriented because of their reckless flight and the dark and he could hear several men running towards them. 'Who was this girl?' he asked himself. 'Why do they want her so much?'
They both stumbled and rolled down a steep incline, which was fortunate, for now the man who had grown up in these woods knew exactly where they were. Taking the girl's hand again, he ran forward along the bank of a meandering stream, making for a secret spot that he hoped was still there. The ground was still wet from the short downpour, but the way was spongy instead of slick, so they could manage to stay on their feet better as they hurried along.
The voices calling back and forth to each other were becoming fainter and Nychol was certain they were very close to their destination. As he looked about for some sign, the girl's hand was becoming limp in his with encroaching weariness. Finally, he saw the entrance and led the way into a cave mouth, hidden almost completely from view by a bushy tree. Once safely within, both of them collapsed and were asleep within seconds.
* * *
You shouldn't suppose that Lanolylc alone has those powerful dreams. Julya has them on occasion as well, and this night had put her through more new and interesting situations than she had ever experienced before, so her mind was racing a little fast as it was.
The young Princess could see herself with her back to a cliff, her feet on a narrow cut, and her eyes plastered shut. She had boldly gone ahead of the others in her group and was now in this predicament without anyone nearby. She could feel the hoarseness of her voice as she tried to scream, but no one could hear her. The wind was whipping up well and a few gusts were enough to get behind her and threaten to lift her off the rock, but she worked to dig her fingers into the rock-face, nearly willing herself to stay there until some help arrived.
Help never did seem to come and Julya was cursing herself for being so foolish. The rest of her companions must be safe somewhere, wondering about her but not being overly concerned, for Julya was a nuisance at best and they were probably a little glad to have some peace from her. The gale was increasing and the girl began to bounce against the rock, not being able to hold herself securely against it any longer. The strain was becoming so great that her whole body ached with the effort. Suddenly, the wind died down somewhat and the girl, sweating profusely, tried her best to place fingers more securely and fuse herself to the rock face.
Feeling a little better, she looked around at her surroundings. A day that had been quite pleasant when she had started out had now turned stormy, clouds swirling about each other and a fog now beginning to rise. Below, the jagged rocks mocked her and seemed to invite her to plummet against them, wanting to rend her into pieces. Julya quickly averted her eyes from that, turning back to the sky, which flashed with lightning and rang loudly with thunder. Not being able to clap her hands over her ears, the girl could only close her eyes and imagine herself somewhere else. It was almost working until the wind blew up again.
This time it seemed all of nature was conspiring against her, the wind tearing her away from the cliff, the lightning and thunder making her jump, the rocks below calling to her, and now it felt as if the very mountain behind her was straining to eject her from this place. Why had she not stayed with the group? Why did she make it a point to be difficult? Could one person be so silly and foolish? She asked the questions, but there was no time to answer them as the rock finally pushed her off its face and the wind caught her back and launched her out into the air.
Since this was a dream, she did not have the comfort of blacking out at that point and she was able to see her progress through the sky. Of course, as things tend to be in life-threatening situations, everything seemed to move at a snail's pace as Julya spun slowly in the increasing wind of her fall, first seeing the rocky ground racing up to meet her and then watching as the clouds above receded. Julya could think of nothing except to ask God to save her. She was not very good at prayers, as she had never bothered with them before, but a kindly God is always looking for an opportunity to enter one's life, and so He listened.
"Please," Julya said out loud through the screaming air around her. "Please give me another chance to live! I will try harder to be good! I will do whatever you want, just let me live through this!" It wasn't flowery like the prayer an old, grizzled priest might give, thinking that big words invoke His Spirit more readily, but she was very sincere, which certainly made God smile.
Miraculously, her progress began to slow. Julya was not the sort to have much faith, squeezing her eyes shut and bracing for the impact, as if preparation might save her. It was as if time really slowed now and her fall with it. The wind was not whistling any longer and her dress hem was no longer slapping her in the face. She could still feel herself falling somewhat, but gravity seemed to be taking a holiday just then and, as she ventured the tiniest peek from her squinched eyes, she saw that only a foot from her toes was the ground, and she carefully landed, very softly, feet-first, on a nice patch of grass in the midst of the jagged rocks. The girl was immediately on her knees, thanking God from the bottom of her heart and swearing all sorts of changes in her life, which God was very used to hearing from people just saved by fantastic means.
Dreams are funny things and it is hard to know how to react to them. Was this a prophecy, or just some wild creation of Julya's imagination? Was there something to learn, or just fluff to brush off yourself and continue on as you always have? You will have to decide for yourself.
* * *
The Princess awoke with a horrible pain in her shoulder and wondered why the porters were not nearby with her breakfast, which she enjoyed in bed and enjoyed even more when something was not hot enough and she could yell at someone. She had the most awful dream (that she chose to ignore) and all that silliness about rowing away from a burning ship and hiking for days in the forest were just a concocted memory, or so she thought for a moment.
Standing by the mouth of the cave, the morning sun made Nychol a nice silhouette of a man, leaning against the rock wall and looking outside. At first glance, he just looked like he was relaxing, but on further inspection, the man was straining to hear something.
"Where..." Julya began, a little disoriented and gripey, but Nychol waved frantically at her and she hushed, waiting.
After a minute more, he crept over to the place where Julya lay and hunched down, closer to her level. "They are still searching nearby."
"Still?" The young woman grew wide-eyed. "We have to get out of here!"
She began to rise, but the man pushed her down, a little harder than he had intended. "No!" he hissed. "When they are sure we are not nearby, we can slip away." He winked and smiled. "They will never find this cave. Trust me."
Julya pulled a grimace out from her large collection of uncertain looks, not feeling greatly inclined to trust this man's confidence. "And just where are we making for? A safe place, I hope."
He pursed his lips. "I really hadn't given it much thought yet. I only woke up a few minutes before you. Do you have any ideas?"
"It seems that if you go around rescuing people, you would know what to do with them." It was an ungrateful time to be indignant, but it was Julya's preferred way to deal with hardship. Nychol had been sneaking glances at the sleeping beauty before, but he was realizing that she had a very uncomely attitude when awake. "You figure it out!" the girl said hotly. She sat on the most comfortable rock available and alternately sulked and gave the man nasty looks.
Once or twice, the voices of soldiers grew so close that Julya was nearly about to bolt, but Nychol kept her down firmly, motioning sternly for her to be still and quiet. The man was thoughtful, but not disturbed by anything happening outside, still secure in the fact that no one would notice the cave.
Julya, on the other hand, was indignant about being treated this way, like some over-excited dog. After all, she was the crown Princess of Alaedea, even though this man didn't know that, and she expected deferential treatment at all times, especially when she was feeling moody. Moody wasn't really the word for it today; she was having to endure squalor, which she hated more than anything else.
By the way the men were talking and laughing outside, it was obvious that they really weren't searching very hard. At best, they might have hoped to shake their quarry from hiding, if they were attempting anything more than waiting for sufficient time to pass so they could return to the inn empty-handed without a lot of questions. There was one particularly bawdy joke that made Nychol's eyebrows rise and color come into Julya's cheeks. After a hardy laugh from some others, the voices definitely began to move off.
Nychol crept back to the opening, listening intently to the lowering voices without. After some minutes, Julya heard no more and began to become restless. "Where does one get breakfast here?" The man just ignored her and kept his vigil. "You aren't very pleasant company," she mumbled to herself, but Nyc continued to act as if he had not even heard her.
He was about to make his way back to the girl, but then a sound brought him back to his vigil, low and rumbling and very faint. His eyes grew wide and he dropped the low voice in favor of a shout. "Come on! We have to get out of here!"
"What?" The girl was just getting to the point that she could cope with the quiet. "Now?"
"NOW!" His voice was strong with command, probably louder than it had ever been before. Shouts could be heard as the soldiers were returning at a run, calling for others.
Julya scrambled up from her spot on the dirt floor, incredulous. "Good job," she hissed at Nychol. "Now they know where we are!"
The man simply grabbed her arm and jerked her forward, propelling her out of the cave with a stumble. "Just shut up and move!" His voice growled like a threat.
Out in the sunny morning, Julya would have liked to survey the beautiful surroundings, washed clean with the night's rain, but Nychol pushed her roughly forward, cursing. There was a sound like a troop of horses coming from upstream, but that seemed a better cause for staying quietly in the cave. On a escarpment above the cave and also a little upstream, men in soiled Conclave uniforms had spotted them and begun to shout even louder. Nychol ignored all of this and kept pushing the girl on, nearly tossing her across the deepening stream to the far side. She stumbled hard and her anger was growing at her treatment and she began to say something. Nychol only grabbed her arm so tight that it sent a spike of pain and a gasp through the girl. "Hurry!" he hissed with no compassion at all.
Now the sound was like a great number of horses in stampede, seeming to crash through brush as if no hurt could deter them. Nychol was now forcing the girl upward on a deer track that lead out of the ravine on the side opposite the cave. Behind them, the Conclavists had just reached the bottom of the draw and were beginning to splash across the stream, which was running somewhat harder than it had a few moments before.
"What is happening?" Julya finally spat angrily as they neared the top of their climb.
The man could only force out, "Flash flood," as he pushed on her again, driving her up. The sound was becoming much louder than horses could ever make on the hoof and when they finally reached the summit, breathing hard, the twosome turned just in time to see the wall of water rip through the tiny valley below, uprooting trees and carrying the soldiers away to their deaths. The ravine was nearly full now as dirty brown water rushed past, rising much higher than the mouth of the cave they had occupied only a few moments before.
Julya gaped at the scene with horror, never having seen such mindless destruction before. "Let's get away from here," Nychol suggested as he caught his breath. "I want them to think we died in the flood as well."
Slowly, with achy joints, they stumbled into the forest that stretched for miles on this side of the swollen stream. "Oh," the man said between breaths with a sheepish grin, realizing that though he had saved her life twice, he didn't even know the beautiful girl's name. Sticking out his hand as they struggled into the trees together, he said, "My name is Nychol."
The girl was still laboring in her breathing, still winding down from all the excitement and anger of the past little while, combined with the last twelve hours of poor conditions. "Julya," she managed, shaking his hand wearily.
"It is nice to meet you," he managed through a still-heaving chest. He snickered at how silly it must have looked in light of all the things they had already faced together.
Julya sighed and twisted her face into a deep frown. "Charmed, I'm sure," the Princess said very unconvincingly.
"Well, well. Fancy meeting you here, Lanolylc."
The thin nobleman from the Dueling Swords smiled through the bars of the primitive jail-house at the bedraggled man. "Hello, Vacarius. Fancy me meeting you here as well." He looked about him in disgust. "I thought you didn't frequent such places."
The little man only sneered. "Oh, I am among the rabble occasionally. It works out especially nice for chance meetings with old friends."
Lan spat. "Oh, really! You always favored courts to commoners before! As I recall, you coveted my position greatly." Lan looked up and raised a bruised brow. "It looks like the Conclave is treating you well."
The man strutted up to the bars like some peacock, eager to show off his plumage. "Feel free to address me as Cardinal."
"Oh, is that what they call conniving snakes in the grass these days?" Lan smiled as Vacarius gave him a dirty look.
Stiffening, the little man turned his back on the tiny prison cell. "Such an attitude will not help you, Lanolylc. You would be better served to beg for my mercy. If I had a mind, I could speak in your behalf at the trial."
Lan stood at this. "The trial?"
"Yes," the other man purred, enjoying thoroughly the effect this was having. "You and the Princess are to stand trial for treason against the Empire. The Emperor was holding out the hand of friendship to you peasants and you decided to bite his finger. Not a very wise move. I will be escorting you all the way to the courts at Manatoa." The man gave a little smile. "That will give us time to discuss the good old days!"
Lan's mind was racing. The young women had fled to the adjoining room of the inn when he had been set upon and dragged out of the room. He had neither heard nor since either of them since. "So, you know about the Princess?"
The small man nodded with fake gravity. "It is a shame that she will have to come to such a bitter end, just as she was going to take her place in the Empire."
The older man spat. "You mean just as she would bring legitimacy to your unholy Empire!" Smiling, he released his own barb. "Now, you won't even have that."
"Oh, it doesn't really matter now, Lan. After she dies, all hope of a return to the old ways dies with her." The man turned back and looked the prisoner straight in the eyes. "If you like, I can arrange for you to die first so that you don't have to feel any guilt at her execution."
Lan's fury burst and he howled at the man, shaking pathetically at the bars of his cage. He could think o no words vile enough to describe how he felt. The other man simply beamed with triumph. A soldier came up to him and whispered at length into his ear, the man nodding silently. A fresh grin broke out on his face as he stepped back up to the bars to give Lanolylc the news. "It seems that the other girl that was traveling with you was taken in the flooding of a stream nearby." He screwed his face into a small frown. "How unfortunate."
The older man couldn't even make words as he rattle even harder against the barred door, nearly throwing himself against it. "You should save your strength for the journey to Saraking," the man tossed over his shoulder as he left sight. "It will be difficult running beside my carriage in shackles." The little man laughed heartily and then stepped out of view, closing a door behind him and bolting it fast.
* * *
Now might be a good time for me to fill in a bit of the background that I have alluded to before. Lanolylc was indeed the old Queen's chief Counselor, rising to the post by less-than-honorable machinations in his twenty-sixth year, the very year before Her Majesty's death of old age. To say that Lan was a driven man, apt to do nearly anything to get ahead, was a gross understatement.
When I first met him, at one of many gluttonous functions thrown by the Counsel members, I disliked him almost immediately. Like a polished seller of snake oil, he mingled with the powerful, seeking favor wherever he could. Several of the more established counselors would grab him up and introduce him to others as the greatest find they had ever made, so Lan had already been buttering these codgers up for some time. It was sickening to see and I regarded the young man coldly at best, when he was introduced to the old prophet as an afterthought by one of the less corrupted men at court.
These were dark times for the monarchy, and for the children of Alaedea in general. There had been two invasions from Outside, as we called the rest of the world, and the second had barely been repelled. Many had lost their farms and homes to pillaging and the bigger towns swelled with refugees that could not be housed, fed, nor adequately put to work. In that climate, revolt and descent were becoming more and more likely and the old Queen feared for her life and government instead of trying to improve the lives of her people. In short, those uncertain times were perfect for an enterprising man like Lanolylc.
There had been efforts to reduce the Queen's power in recent years, giving more and more to the Counsel, and Evette was becoming somewhat dotty in her old age, which only encouraged the process. Long ago, she had dismissed me and my advise, no matter how heaven-inspired it might have been, and began relying more and more upon her Counselors, who were convincing her to abdicate her authority to them. Lanolylc was more effective at convincing her than the rest, his flowery words gaining her trust until he was in the lead of the government. The old Queen was tired and quite ready to do whatever Lan painted as the right thing to do.
The old Queen was also riddled with doubts about her heir, Michiana. Lanolylc used this to great effect in amassing his power, but the sticky part was that the young Chief Counselor loved Evette's daughter very much. I was still close to Michiana, having taken upon myself her tutoring when the old Queen lost interest in her, and I often warned the girl about this low snake of a young man, but all she could see was a dashing gentlemen in his prime, rising quickly to prominence. I think at first, he showed her great attention just because he was insuring a place upon succession, but as they spent time together, to my chagrin, they found love. Of course, I was pushed to the side when Lan commanded more of Michiana's attentions.
The young Chief Counselor had coddled along Evette's thoughts to create a Regency until Michiana was ready to rule or one of the girl's daughters might prove up to the task. In front of his fellow counselors, Lan knew the consensus was for empowering the group and relegating the Queen to being only a figurehead. For Michiana whom he loved, he wanted to honor her with the throne and all the power and prestige a strong Queen entailed. I imagine it was very difficult to juggle these three conflicting paths, appeasing and appearing supportive of all within their spheres. Though I didn't like Lanolylc, one had to admire his considerable ability to keep everyone happy. When Evette visited the Counselhouse and sat in her gilded seat atop the dais, Lan would argue the merits of a Regency, winking all the time at his fellows sitting in their half ring of desks, facing the throne. Lan must coddle the Queen in case she moved to name a Regent against the Counsel's advise, for he fancied that post for himself. If that did not happen, he must gauge whether to put his support behind crowning Michiana against the Queen's wish or using the opportunity of the monarch's demise to help the Counsel seize a Queen's authority, himself in the lead position. There was only the collective greasing to be done until events unfolded.
It all fell apart after the old Queen finally died.
In his love for Michiana, Lanolylc decided to back her claim to the throne, knowing that he would remain her Chief Counselor. In short order, several counselors turned against him, led by another young up-and-comer named Kiyomai. Using the excuse of honoring the old Queen's thoughts against her daughter and the prevailing actions of turning over more and more power to the Counsel, these rebels began to put together support for themselves against Michiana and Lan. The divisions between the two camps became bitter and finally, at Lan's bidding, Michiana dissolved the existing Counsel and appointed a new one from her supporters. Fleeing to the southern province of Trechald, which had always harbored dissenters, the defrocked counselors, uniting behind Kiyomai, formed the Conclave, sworn to take up the old Queen's cause for their own gain.
Of course, Kiyomai was only using the Queen's words to amass his own power-base, but it was an argument convincing enough to raise a sizable army of Trechivans. Lan, who ruled through Michiana, was not so charismatic among the commoners as his opponent and had problems raising an army in defense of Michiana's throne. About this time, Kiyomai's operatives in Manatoa had grown tired of my voice of reason and efforts to help Michiana. I was spirited away to Trechald and found myself in a nice, oaken box in the bowels of a dungeon.
To call it a civil war would be untrue. It smatted more of a revolution, with a seemingly humble yet determined Kiyomai striving to support the cause of the old Queen, the people rallied around him and even within Manatoa, he had the sympathy of many. After a hard night at the Counselhouse, watching Lan try to hash out a plan for defense, Michiana went home to her apartments and was fatally stabbed by an assassin under orders from Kiyomai. Lan found the Princess only a few moments later, lying dead in a pool of her own blood, and immediately rushed to the nursery to save Michiana's infant daughter, who was the assassin's next target according to Kiyomai's great plan to put away the house of Evette forever. Lan reached the babe in time and the second killing was thwarted. The Chief Counselor whisked the tiny Princess away and neither was never seen again.
Kiyomai's army marched into Manatoa without resistance. He ruthlessly hunted down Michiana's killer, convincing the people he had no animosity toward the Princess and had the reports say that both Michiana and the infant Julya had died at the hands of a crazed bandit. That done, Kiyomai, with a apparently sad heart at the end of the Queen's line and a wink at the fellows of his circle, set up the Conclave as the ruling body of Alaedea. Some years later, after many of his old accomplices had tried to murder him in return for his broken promises, Kiyomai consolidated his power and proclaimed himself Emperor, relegating the Conclave to an advisory role.
With that information given, you can perhaps feel the glee as Vacarius, a lesser advisor to Kiyomai himself and a low-ranked Cardinal of the Conclave, poked his head out the side window of his carriage and laughed at the manacled figure stumbling along behind, the former Chief Counselor to Queen Evette and Princess Michiana. Lan wasn't finding his circumstance very humorous, especially since he was suffering them alone. The Princess was in the carriage with the Cardinal, unbound and having only a soldier to keep her from escaping. 'You had better get used to this,' Lan thought darkly to himself. 'Until you can find a way to escape, the girl will be partaking of the niceties while you die in the dust.' At that, he set his jaw and kept up with the carriage as best he could, determined to get away and finish the work he had begun for himself.
By now, you are probably wondering what exactly happened to me after that wonderfully daring escape from the keep at Trechald.
I have tried to keep my narrative roughly chronological, so about the time Vacarius' entourage arrived in Saraking, I was in the grand Manatoa, the city founded by Alaedeus himself and home of his ruling daughters ever since. It was by far the largest town on the island of Firsthome and always the busiest. The port two miles west of the Royal palace was always packed tight with ships from all parts of the expanding lands of Alaedea, filling the city with curious furs, ripening foodstuffs, and products of every description. Though I could never see again the city I had spent so much time in, I could definitely hear the sounds and smell the familiar scent of it!
The big man of little brain, who carried me over hundreds of miles upon his back, finally did have a name: Polus. He had fashioned a sling of sorts, which he tenderly placed me in each morning for the day's travel. I liked him very much because he laughed at my feeble attempts at humor and liked to dote over me, and what person couldn't like someone like that?
The harsh woman also had a name, Edza, but she was not becoming more pleasant with time. I don't think she ever forgave the fact that I was not the man she had wanted to rescue, even when I said that her grabbing me was no mistake: God had intervened. The heavens opened for a moment and told that vicious woman to take the box containing the prophet of the Lord out of that cell. Of course, she would never be able to see that as a good thing.
I was joyously munching on an apple when we finally got to the Counselhouse in the middle of town and were admitted. The place was a low but wide circular building, if my memory serves, most of its bulk taken up by a dark and foreboding chamber in the middle, where the Queen and her Counselors had once discussed affairs of the realm and where people came for judgment and justice. I could never help sitting in the chamber and feeling like important things were being spoken, for the acoustics in the hall were such that everyone sounded large and forboding when they spoke above a whisper. Words fell with more power there and when someone spoke from the dais, the voice boomed, even the voices of the young women that often sat delicately and uncertainly on the gilded throne. I was actually glad to be blind at this moment, for the heaviness of the place wasn't as noticeable if you couldn't see it.
We waited in a dark group of benches for a while, a page going to get Edza's message to one of the Cardinals. At least, when Kiyomai and his thugs took the city, they had the presence of mind not to try to simply fit the existing institutions into the new order of things. A Counsel did not meet here, but its replacement, the Inner Conclave. I asked Polus to quietly describe the place to me and it seemed little had really changed. Desks were still set in a semi-circle at the edge of the great circle of light that shown down from an opening in the ceiling. Opposite them was a raised dais and on that, a gilded chair. I asked where Kiyomai sat and Polus told me that there was a great chair of oak about two steps down from the throne and he sat there, looking very bored.
Most of the desks were occupied by men of varying ages, even a woman or two were there, all flanked by pages who would fetch papers or water or remind them of important things when important things were due to be brought up. Apparently, this was not one of those times, as a elderly man, his voice quivering, addressed the Emperor on some resolutions that had been drawn up by some third-tier officials that he represented. The others of the Inner Conclave seemed to follow Kiyomai's lead, yawning large and drifting into sleep.
A page finally approached us and said that a lower Cardinal was willing to sponsor us and let us have a few moments on the floor. We were reseated behind a nervous young man, tapping a pencil on his desk. I heard the murmur of the others as the interesting combination of the hulking man and the invalid on his back drew stares and whispers. I know Edza didn't like that, but Polus also seemed unnerved by the situation until I told him one of my better jokes, whispered quietly in his ear. The big man let out a great guffaw, drawing everyone's stern eyes to him. I told him to relax because these folks were just idiots that needed to lighten up.
The man in the circle stumbled on through his presentation, like some bee buzzing absently along on a hot, steamy afternoon. For some reason, I found the whole situation very amusing. It started as a little giggle, but then I sucked the air in through my nose at the wrong moment and snorted loudly. This started Polus laughing quietly and it just progressed from there. Soon, we were hysterical and a man, the leader of the Cardinals, I suppose, was telling us to be still. As you might guess, that didn't help at all and the yelling man fell into the regime of telling us not to laugh, which everyone knows is totally impossible to do when someone demands it.
It got to the point that we both became exhausted. I decided to speak out as soon as I could say two or three words together without a belch of breathy giggling. "I'm sorry, Locinon, to disturb your wonderful oration."
The old man in the circle, who had simply been bewildered by all the laughter, now squinted and wondered who would know his name. The others wondered who had the audacity to speak out of turn, so I decided to put their confusion to rest. Taping Polus lightly on the shoulder, the big man rose with me still strapped to his back and I told him to get to the center of the circle, which he did nervously.
"My dear people," I began, not waiting for someone to call out against my presumption. "Please pardon my intrusion." Edza was looking with shock on me, I'm sure, and that needed some explanation. "I am indebted to this wonderful woman and man for safely seeing me here. They were intending to offer me up as some military strategist to help you in your need, obviously hoping for some remuneration in return." Polus whispered something over his back, and I craned forward to hear and nod. "Oh, yes! My friend here tells me that they are still hoping for some financial reward even if they have brought me instead of someone a little more...um...helpful." Polus assisted me with that last word and the giggling started again. After a moment, I was able to curb the urge.
The man who must have been the Head Cardinal sounded terribly indignant and I did not recognize his voice. "And just who are you exactly and when are you going to leave?"
"You don't know who I am? Why, that breaks my heart!" I elbowed Polus to stop him from jiggling with stifled mirth. "How many years did I sit in this hall, offering the mind and will of the Lord to three Queens and their Counselors? I recognize some of your voices, but most I do not." I thrashed about on Polus' back, hoping to face the Head Conclavist. "And what is your name, friend? I can't seem to place your voice."
The man sounded horribly impatient, but I am sure Kiyomai was getting a pleasant break from the monotony of the day, so I was being humored. "I am Kalmus, Cardinal of Manatoa and Leader of the Sect of the Conclave! You are disturbing..."
"I have never heard of you," I said loudly, cutting him off. "Therefore, you must be of little consequence, for I have seen visions of all the important people and you are not among them." I heard the man practically steam with fury, but I went on. "You had better just stay quiet until I am done, for I have important things to say."
The murmuring that had quieted when I was speaking swelled again, everyone struggling to figure out who the mystery cripple was. I didn't want to keep them in suspense any longer. "Oh, you know who I am, though I was in better condition the last time you saw me. Your beloved Emperor knows me well, don't you, Kiyomai my boy?"
At that, I heard a sharp intake of breath. I could hear soldiers clanking nearby, no doubt signaled by the head Cardinal to throw me out or worse. Suddenly, all the clatter ceased and you could have heard a pin drop. Then, out of nowhere, a vaguely familiar voice sounded very close to me, causing me to jump. "Is it really you?" The Emperor's voice was quiet and subdued. "Have you actually survived?"
I nodded. "Well, I don't know if you would call it surviving, but yes, I am here."
The voice was still close and quiet, but what was said stunned me. "It was a mistake to imprison you. I'm sorry."
I wrinkled my brow at that. "Is this the boy that cursed my name when he left home and hoped I would die a miserable death?" My voice had just a hint of tenderness. "Actually, my time in the dungeon did wonders for me! I have never been so close to God! I must thank you for that."
The Emperor gave a soft laugh. "You always were the one to look on the bright side." He paused for a moment. "It really is you."
I rubbed my whisked chin. "Yes, but this can't possibly be the man I remember..."
The head Cardinal burst out angrily. "What is going on here?" He restrained himself as Kiyomai obviously glared at him. "My lord," he said, a little cowed, "What is this? Who is this man and why is he allowed here?"
Kiyomai set his jaw and rebuked the man. "You forget your place, Kalmus. Don't forget who put you here." Turning to the others, he spoke quietly, but his voice carried well, like an actor's on a stage. "This is Daavor, the Prophet of God and Presiding High Priest of the Order of Alaed. He may come and go and speak as he pleases and you will do him the honor that his calling demands." He took a breath and let it out slowly and I could feel his tension at revealing this. "And for your records, he also happens to be my father."
I was as stunned as the others in the hall. Never had the man acknowledged me before, even when he was a junior Counselor of Queen Evette and my name might have brought him favor. Ever since he was a boy, he was embarrased to be seen with me, so much different from me and with such different goals. There was a stirring as the Cardinals began to function again, trying to assimilate to the new situation. I felt the stirring of air as the Emperor strode away and back to his chair. "Prophet," he ordered with command in his voice. "Deliver your message!"
I took a deep breath and began. "God had decreed the ending of this Empire and Conclave, which are an abomination in his sight. The voices of his people, the children of Alaedeus, rise up to his ears and he has heard their prayers. Your time is at an end, for God shall raise up a Queen out of the wilderness and place her on the gilded throne, and no army or man can thwart it. I am sent here to command you to repent of your wickedness, in the name of the Lord, and to prepare for the coming of His Queen and the new Age she will bring. The oppressed shall be lifted up, the bondsman shall be freed, and evil shall be swept away for a time. The priesthood of God will be restored to its place and many will be saved thereby. Again, Repent, and you may yet feel the blessings of God's favor."
It was quiet again, and I felt strain from some and incredulity from others. Obviously, there were two camps in the hall, one taking my prophecy at face value, and one already plotting against me. What surprised me most was that my own wayward son, who, it was said, had slain men with his own hands for vengeance and in his lust for power, seemed to be a member of the first group.
Kiyomai himself paid Edza handsomely for delivering the Prophet to him, and she went away the happiest I had ever known her. Polus, on the other hand, refused any payment, preferring instead to stay with me and continue to serve as my legs, hands, and eyes. We two sat back in the benches behind the Cardinals while they turned to other business. In many ways, it was exactly as it was in Evette's time, only the names and titles had changed. Like any Queen, Kiyomai rarely spoke and Polus told me later that he had his eyes on me often that day.
It was deep in the night when the Inner Conclave finally disbanded and left the hall. I was preparing to tell Polus that we had better find some lodging for the night when that quiet voice came again, right next to me. "Do you have a place to stay?"
I shuddered at the un-realness of it again. "Not really," I admitted. "We only got into town this morning."
"If you like," the Emperor offered, "you can stay with me."
I almost couldn't speak. "Well, I...I...sure." My only good hand was flailing about, as aimless as my mind. "That would be nice...I guess."
Kiyomai got up and I heard him linger. "I don't know what to say." I felt him scuff his boot along the floor. "What I did to you was horrible..."
"And you apologized today." A tear came into my eye. "I never thought I would here those kinds of things from you."
The man sighed deeply. "Me neither."
I know that God had seen fit to bring me back to this place, but I was still unsure why. I was also very unsure about this strange thing that my son was doing, acting so kindly to me. I couldn't help but think that it was all a ploy to somehow accomplish some devious end. But, into the midst of all of this thinking, I could feel that peculiar tingle of God in action, so I simply took my situation on trust.
"Are you sure that is going to be enough?" The old man looked over the scanty provisions that Nychol was packing into a bag. "Do you even know where you are going?"
It had taken the bulk of the day for Nychol and Julya to travel to the house of Niuenn, deep in the forest. It was a wonderful place to provision themselves, for none of the villagers ever came here, much less Conclavists, food and water would be plentiful, and Niuenn's husband, Rochar, was a trusted friend and would be sympathetic to their need.
Nychol smiled and shrugged. "All I know is that I must get away from here. I don't think anyone is going to be very forgiving of us causing a whole troop of Conclave men to be washed away with the flood." He thought to himself and his smile dropped. "I'm not sure I would be very kind to myself."
Julya came to the rough-hewn table and looked at the things Nychol was packing. She was obviously displeased. "You expect me to eat these things?"
"Well," the man said frankly, "if you choose not to eat, then that will just leave more for me!"
The girl didn't laugh like Rochar, choosing to sit back down on the bed and enjoy the last soft thing she would likely have for who knows how long. She laid back against a mass of pillows and was just beginning to drift off when a rapping came to the door and the Lady of the house launched sharp words at the house servants to see who was calling. Nychol and Julya ran quickly to hide themselves, but a dark figure opened the door, entered, and swept servants aside, cloak billowing behind.
The old man pulled a knife from his belt and came quickly forward, putting himself between the intruder and his Lady, brandishing the blade with a shaking. "You will not need such things, Rochar." The hood slipped back and a proud dark face eyed the young man and woman still scrambling away. "It seems I have come just in time."
Rochar breathed a great sigh and lowered the dagger in his hand. "Xan!" The dark woman came up to the old man and shook his hand, forgoing any of the pleasantries women usually engaged in. Xan would have no such things, for she commanded respect from all for her skills as a healer. "What are you doing here?"
Upon a second look, Julya saw that she was old, probably older than the feeble man she addressed. "I was saying my morning prayers and something told me to be here." She looked at Julya and then Nychol with a little disappointment. "I am to accompany two people to my home."
Nychol, who knew this woman, looked at her strangely. "What are you talking about, Xan? Have you been dabbling again in the black arts?"
"No!" the woman shot back, pained at the accusation. "It was you yourself, pastor, that told me such things were evil."
Julya looked at the young man quizzically. "Pastor?"
"I will explain later." He turned back to Xan. "So you were praying and..."
The woman walked away for a few steps, deep in thought. "It was just as you said, Nyc. You told me once that revelations can come from the Lord when there is no other way to communicate His will and when we are prepared to receive it and obey." The woman turned back to face Nychol with a sweep for her dark cloak. "I have received. I am to take you to my land and I intend to obey."
There was a disturbance and everyone turned to see what had happened. The old man had reached his Lady, who was having troubles dealing with the fright Xan's sudden entrance had caused. "Help me please!" he cried to the others as he struggled to help her to a couch. Everyone except Julya rushed to assist, the girl seemingly repulsed by the strange woman and her foreign coloring.
Xan looked the Lady over with a studied eye. "Her heart races too fast." The old dark woman leaned her ear close to fallen woman's mouth, listening to her breath. "Her breathing is shallow." Then, the woman nodded pulling some herbs out of a bag on her hip. "I will need hot water. You!" She pointed to Julya, who looked frightened and indignant at the same time, as if she were being blamed for the ailment. "Fetch some water and heat it."
"I will do no such thing!" The girl was incensed, disliking the old woman more and more with the passing seconds. "Do I look like a servant to you?"
Xan straightened, crushing the dried herbs in her hand. "What you look like is a silly girl that needs something to do. Fetch the water."
Julya's mouth quivered and she made to say something, but merely snatched up a nearby pitcher and stormed out the door.
"What is this that God has gotten me into?" The old woman asked to no one in particular.
The old man stammered. "I had better go out and look after the girl. I am sure Lady Niuenn will be fine with you here, Xan."
The old woman bowed to the man, accepting his compliment of her skills, and returned her attention to the old woman. "It will be a very interesting trip," she quipped once Rochar was gone.
Nychol nodded. "So what is all of this about a journey?"
Xan kept on eye on the Lady, but her words were directed at him. "It was like I could see the future. There were three of us for a long time, then I only saw two that stood in my village, and then there was only one. The only face I could see clearly belonged to that girl. She will go to my village."
The young man's brows raised. "Julya?"
"Yes," she said softly. "Though I don't seem to recall her acting like she did a moment ago."
"Well, from my vast experience of about one day with her, I can safely say that she gets no better. I don't know why God has shown you this, but we do need to get away from this region. Some Conclavists have died trying to get their hands on us. We will not be treated kindly if we are found." The young man was a bit sheepish about saying such things, but in their frequent meetings, he had grown to trust Xan in the years she resided near the village, a woman who had never heard of guile and had a simple, straight-forward demeanor.
Xan straightened, sitting on the edge of the couch and looked up at her friend. "You have always been one to stir up trouble, young Nyc. It is difficult for me to see how God can approve of you."
The man smiled in a roguish way. "You will come to know that God can deal in difficulties when it serves his purposes." He closed his eyes for a moment and then smiled more broadly. "There is something about that girl that made me ruin my life yesterday, though."
Xan frowned, looking absently at her patient. "Lust, I would guess."
Nychol scoffed. "Xan! I admit she is beautiful, but it was something else. She is special somehow and your visions seem to bear that out. It was like I was led somehow the night before last."
Lady Niuenn groaned suddenly and, settling herself better, opened her eyes. "It is all right," Xan said softly, gazing down on her with a smile. "I will make you a special drink and you will sleep peacefully tonight." She brushed a strand of hair out of the woman's face and cupped her cheek gently. "I am sorry I startled you."
Not speaking a word, the woman nodded and closed her eyes again. "Will it be you that will accompany me and the girl?" Xan asked softly to Nychol, not taking her eyes off the woman, whose breath was steadying.
"Oh, I'm game, but I think your trouble will be convincing Julya that she needs to go." The man scratched the back of his neck, looking thoughtful.
Xan rose from her place and faced the young man. "Oh, she will come. I have seen it."
Nyc chuckled. "I think she will be a serious challenge to your faith if she does."
"Perhaps you have taught me too well," the woman said steadily with even eyes. "I will do whatever is required to do God's will."
The man let out a sigh. "I wish I had your resolve."
Xan shrugged. "Perhaps gaining this is why you are coming with us."
He looked at little set back by her simple presumption. "Perhaps."
At that, the door of the humble little home was thrust open, and Julya stomped in, sloshing a pitcher of water about in her fury, muttering that she just wanted to be left alone. Rochar was quick on the heels of the girl, looking worried, but keeping his distance as the Princess growled and made to claw him.
"Yes," Xan said with raised brow. "We shall be testing my resolve very soon," she whispered to Nychol.
The room was sparse and cold, only a little barred hole served to let in light, as well as the cold and the bugs. Lanolylc sat in the few sticks that had been lashed together roughly and laughingly proclaimed a "chair." He looked grimly unhappy, mindlessly clucking his teeth together and staring at a dark patch in one of the corners by the floor. He had tried on several occasions to escape, both on the road coming here to Saraking and while he was here supposedly awaiting transport to Manatoa. Every attempt had failed miserably and only served to make Vacarius' men ever more vigilant. He was truly beginning to think that he was hopelessly trapped.
Actually, the only thing that was really trapping Lan was his annoying need to be in control and to come up with all of the best ideas and to carry them out single-handed. Since he had awoken a month before, he had felt like little more than baggage as it seemed that Anya had been the one who solely got them out of Sarakol and to the frontiers of Alaedea. Now it seemed Julya was calling the shots for him, living in the grand house of the local Lady while he rotted in this prison. The man thought to himself that it wasn't fair, when he thought of anything at all.
There was creaking and voices in the next room, then the visible door, where the jailer occasionally poked his head through to check on Lan or bring his food, swung wide. A richly dressed man came in and Lan got to his feet.
"You are looking well, my dear man!" The voice was cheerful and somewhat familiar but he could not place the face. "Come, has twenty years been too long for you?" The man chuckled warm-heartedly, his lardy waist jiggling with the effort. "You look a little tired."
Lan squinted his eyes, trying hard to remember the man. "I am tired of being in this hole, if you please." He coughed and hunched his cloak closer about him to cut the chill breeze that trickled in from the window high on the wall. "I don't think I remember you."
The man looked up at the ceiling, smiling pleasantly. "Oh, I am not going to just tell you my name! Come, you must guess!"
The man pantomimed a bit, as if these actions he were portraying would be hints to his identity. Lan unenthusiastically offered a few names that popped into his head, but these only invoked more chuckles and stern shakings of the head. "You are far from the mark" or "You are not even giving this any thought" were among the more memorable replies to Lan's pitiful attempts.
After a goodly number of tries, The man in the cell simply threw up his hands. "I am tired of this foolishness! Who are you?"
The man looked disappointed, but finally shrugged. "I am Reled! You remember me? The merchant from Tegrelarn?"
Lan sighed, shook his head, and looked at Reled harshly. "No, I don't remember you, and why are you bothering to come and see me?"
Lan's demeanor was not pleasant and it put a deflated look on the other man. "I was hoping you would remember me from our meeting in the Counselhouse! It was such a thrill for me to see you in all your fiery glory!" The man seemed to have a penchant for creating pretty word-pictures. He even brought up a chubby fist and shook it as he spoke the word "fiery."
"You were one of thousands of people who came to the Counsel with your petitions," the imprisoned man said flatly. "What would make me remember you above any of the other rabble I saw?"
The other man balked and furrowed his brow. "Now, this is a bad way to treat a man who could help you in this circumstance." He licked his lip, reflecting. "I was not at the Counselhouse begging, but bearing a gift, to show my appreciation for your people being so generous in buying my goods. Perhaps you will remember my gift to you."
Lan waited for a moment for the man to continue. "Ah, you bribed me, then? You aren't going to make me guess what the gift was, too, are you?"
The old man produced from his pocket a fine golden watch, which he could barely hold in both hands, of such was the size and heft of it. "This is the twin of the one I gave you, my dear Lord Chief Counselor."
Now, that brought back some memories, but not particularly of the man. Diplomatically, Lan thought it wouldn't hurt to play along. "Ah, Reled! Of course I remember you... vaguely. That watch was a treasured possession that I kept with me for many years!"
The obese man fairly twittered with glee at being remembered and having any of his trinkets last for 'many years.' "So, you liked it?"
"Oh," crooned Lanolylc, who was pouring these soft words on Reled like a bee would pour honey on a lazy bear. "I was the envy of the entire court, to be sure. Everyone wanted a watch just like it, but alas, you had moved on before you could sell any to my friends. I could have helped you turn a fine profit!"
The old man fairly beamed at the prospect, even if it were twenty years cold. There was still a trader in him and that could be used to advantage. "You are kind to me, lord, and I wish to repay your kindness somehow." The man looked about him, as if distracted, but the old Counselor realized he was just wanting to be asked for the obvious.
Lan shrugged, not caring who set me free or what the price needed to be paid. "There is something, my old friend. I am a prisoner here, as you can see, and it is because the Conclave knows that I will raise an army to defeat them and place the Princess on the throne..."
With Julya mentioned, Reled blushed and smiled. "That Princess is a jewel, lord, if you don't mind me saying! Not the most comely one, mind you, but as kindly and charming as any woman I have met."
"Julya?" People had described her in many ways, but never as anything kind or charming. And her beauty was one of her few redeeming qualities. "You have seen her?"
Reled was enjoying this a little too much for comfort. "I see her very often, for my Lady has taken her into her house as a guest. And she is so pleasant and helpful!"
Lan was confused. "She stays at YOUR Lady's house?" He was about to ask how a simple trader got such an honor, but he decided that might offend the man, and Lan seemed to think that Reled could help him out of his fix. "Who is your Lady?"
"Why, Gwenneth, of course!" It seemed to give Reled a lot of pleasure to finally reveal that to me. "A few years back, I was able to win Her Ladyship's affections, consoling her from the death of her late husband."
'Ah! So this is how he dresses in such finery and is able to see the prisoner so easily,' Lan thought to himself. "How fortuitous for the Lady of the North and for you, my friend!" How a weasel such as Reled could win the heart of the woman who heads the most powerful house in Nortlynd was frankly beyond him, but it was advantageous for Lan to have friends in such high places. "The land and its people suffer under the rule of the Emperor, I am certain you know."
The old man struck a grave face and nodded. "Things have not gone well for my Lady's house under the domination of Kiyomai and his Conclave. They ask for much and give little in return but complications." Reled allowed a glimmer of hope to come into his eyes. "Would things be more..." he licked his plump lips and struggled to find the right word, but could only fall back on trader's talk for lack of better speech, "...equitable with this Princess on the throne of her mothers?"
'So, this is what he is after: another trade!' Lan smiled, feeling very confident that this thing could be manipulated for his advantage. "I'm sure Julya could be convinced of how much service you have rendered to our cause and would reward you handsomely."
The old man twittered again, for this was surely the situation he was hoping for. "I have always fancied a place in court, lord, having always respected you and your colleagues on the Counsel..."
Lan was startled by this, thinking that he could be free simple on the promise of money: Reled had not struck him as one who wanted power beyond what money could buy him. "I could certainly intercede before the Princess on your behalf."
At this, the man hopped up and down, clapping his hands together like a schoolgirl's. "Oh! This is splendid! I will have you out of here before the week is out, my lord!"
Lan smiled broadly, shaking Reled's hand through the bars as the older man babbled on and on about things that the prisoner hardly paid any attention to. 'That was too easy!' Lan thought. 'Soon, Julya and I will be away and begin raising our army! With the Lady of the North in our camp, we have a powerful ally!'
Without much more fuss, Reled knocked on the outside door, wanting to be let out. The old man winked at Lan and their little agreement, which the former Chief Counselor had nearly forgotten in his feverish planning of what to do after he escaped.
* * *
It was nearly midnight the next day when Lan finally settled on his plan. After he and Julya's escape, they would have to leave Saraking and make their way south, for Nortlynd would be in an uproar of Conclavists searching for them. He had given passing thought to the sparsely populated Midlands region, thinking that to be the safest place to operate from, but there were simply too few people there to raise an army from. He must flee to Trechiva, he had finally decided, though that course was risky at best. Trechald and the barren rocky crags around it had bred a nation of rebels, caught up in their tough strength and perseverance. It had been an unholy alliance with the leading houses of Trechiva that had helped Kiyomai to power in the old Queen's time, so it would be ironic that Trechald would be the route through which the Emperor would fall. Lan grinned at the notion of revenge on his old nemesis and that the Trech would help him. Surely, times were as difficult in the south as in Nortlynd and the people would be eager to rise up against the Conclave. From there, he could coordinate with the rebels of the north through Reled and it would be a simple matter of crushing Firsthome like a nut between the two sides of a vise. 'This will be sweet,' Lan thought evilly to himself.
There was a scrabbling about the barred window, but Lan dismissed it as only the scratchings of the family of rats that lived in the prison with him. But then the noise became louder and a human voice shushed the affair back down. Looking up at the hole, two bars were already gone and the last was wiggling in its place, a grimy hand working at it hard. Lan watched as the last bar was finally jerked away and Reled's plump head filled the space. "Hello, my lord! Are you ready to go?"
Lan smiled, keeping his voice low as not to alert the guards in the antechamber. "Already? Oh, very ready!"
A rope was let down and Lan scrambled out of the cell as best he could, not used to such physical exertion. Breathing hard, Lan followed as Reled and two attendants led him to the stables. "I thought a carriage would be a little too much for you to manage to steal, so I have arranged for a horse."
It wasn't much of a horse Lan observed, but beggars can't be choosers in these circumstances. "What will the Princess ride?"
Reled looked confused. "Oh, I didn't know that you meant for her to accompany you! It is a dangerous road that you take, my friend, and I fear for the girl's safety. After all, Cardinal Vacarius will be upset enough that you have broken free of our jail, but to have Julya missing as well would be suspicious."
"Yes," Lan said in a low voice, feeling betrayed.
"I would imagine that Vacarius will spend some weeks here searching for you and waiting for warm weather before trying an ocean voyage to Firsthome. If you can get yourself an army together in that time, send me word and I will bring Julya and all the men I command to you myself."
So, Reled was more crafty than he had thought! Julya was to be a pledge of Lan's word, the man finally realized. Looking highly displeased, but aching to be away before he was discovered missing, Lanolylc would have to trust to the deceitful old trader's word and hope for good fortune to smile on him.
The horse almost seemed to groan as Lan pulled himself astride. Goading the poor beast, it stumbled forward. "Good fortune, my lord," Reled cried between bursts of barely-restrained laughter.
The Chief Counselor had a sinking feeling that this was going to be a lot more difficult than he had ever dreamed.
"I had always been told the Emperor's apartments were very luxurious," I said as Polus brought me into Kiyomai's chamber, with the man walking just behind.
"I'm sure they say many things about me, and they are all very true." Kiyomai said this quietly, sounding afraid to speak truth, as if it were an unfamiliar thing.
Polus gasped. "You have been robbed, lord!" The only words the big man could use to describe it later was that the room was striped bare save for a simple chair and desk and a lone pallet on which to sleep.
"No, Polus," The Emperor said briskly before the man could react more strongly and desire to find the culprit. "I had all the things removed. I can't feel happy in the lavishness I had before. It just doesn't work anymore."
I turned to my son. "What does that mean?"
I could hear him move the chair and seat himself on it. He must have motioned Polus to sit on the palette, for I was taken from the big man's back and set on the not-so-soft bed. "Father, I have noticed lately that I am becoming very weary of my existence. It is hard to explain, but being rich and powerful have lost their appeal for me, if it ever really was enticing at all. I have decided to put the trappings of those things away, so I got rid of all the trophies and riches that I kept here."
I still was incredulous even after two days of being near my son. "Are you sure you are Kiyomai? You were not switched in your sleep with someone completely different? This is not the young man that ran from home and never returned. Nor is it the conniving young Counselor that toppled a throne."
"Father," his voice was straining, not wanting to relive those memories. "I have changed, at least a little. What used to bring me pleasure does not any longer. I spend too much of my time watching my back for assassins and too little time doing things I really want to do."
I could have mentioned many unpleasant things that it was rumored he wanted to do, though none are decent enough to write here. I could sense that bringing up such things would not help, so I kept still on such matters, hoping that his normal self would stay comfortably far away. "And what, my son, do you really want to do?"
Kiyomai became very dejected. "That is just the problem. I don't know anymore." He arose from his chair and Polus instinctively rose with him like a dog. "No, Polus, we aren't in public now. You don't have to treat me like some god. I am just a silly man who got the foolish thing that he wanted."
Polus was uncertain what to do, for this was something his small mind could not process, treating an Emperor like a person. "Kiyomai," I said softly. "You are always going to be an Emperor to this poor man. He can't treat you any other way."
At that, the man lashed out in anger. "Maybe I don't want to be the Emperor anymore! Maybe I don't want people to treat me differently! I think I would like to try going out and being a commoner, just to see how it feels!"
Poor Polus thought the anger was directed at him and he threw up his hands to ward off an expected blow, for that is what happened to commoners if they angered noble folk. "I'm sorry," the big man stuttered in fear.
Kiyomai's fury drained out of him instantly. "No," the Emperor said in a low voice, "I'm sorry. See what happens to me? I am tired of being like that!"
"Well," I said slowly, "that is called being a hothead, and I don't think it is the sole property of nobility." I licked my lips. "I'm afraid you were born that way, Westlyn. It would take a lot to get that emotion out of you, because it is part of what you are."
Kiyomai sighed heavily and sat back down. "Then it is a part I have grown to dislike." He shuffled in his chair and seemed reluctant to speak. "Dad?"
I had not heard that word in such a long time in reference to me, except for a few times in the last few days. It was like I could see the young, promising son I had raised many years ago. "Yes, Wes?"
There was more silence, as the Emperor tried on humility and found it a very uncomfortable fit. "Could you help me change?"
It took a minute for me to collect my lower jaw from the floor. Was this really happening? What I had prayed for all these years: the chance to make right what had gone so terribly wrong? "Uh, well..." I sounded foolish, acting as if I was stalling to get out of there, when I was just trying to find the perfect words to use so my son would let me stay by him. "Um,...Sure!" That wasn't exactly what I had been hoping for, but it worked.
It was even more stunning to have my son, who ruled Alaedea with an iron fist, throw his arms around me and weep into my chest. "Oh, thank you, Dad! There was no one else to tell this to, no friend I could trust with my feelings. I prayed to God that someone would come that could help, and God sent you!"
I patted my son's back uncertainly, thinking I was in some play and that, at any moment, we would step out of these characters and take on our old personas of nasty evil son and demanding, self-righteous father. But, it didn't happen. "Oh, Wes, I prayed every day in that prison that I could come and redeem you somehow."
The man pulled back. "Really? Do you really mean that?"
I nodded, the words caught in my throat. "I never gave up hoping, even when my mind told me you were lost to me."
"Dad, don't you dare lose your hope, ever."
* * *
Shall I tell you the story my son related to me? I feel I need to, for it will go far to explain what had changed in Kiyomai. First off, though, it might help to hear what he was before.
Of course, I have already mentioned how he became the Emperor, through deals and treachery, but that isn't the story of the man, just what he accomplished.
Kiyomai was a driven man, though I am not sure anyone but himself can ever know what spirit or need egged him on. He has never been able to tell me, not choosing to use the language that might express it best. Some say it was a simple lust for power, but I think it was a search, a horrible search for who he thought he wanted to be.
I'm sorry to say that most of the stories that tell of the deaths he caused were actually true. Though he has said that he never killed a man with his own hands, he had often done the grosser sin of ordering others to do his killing for him, forcing two people to suffer the punishment for one act. His anger was legendary, and I knew he had poor control of his emotions from his earliest days, howling with an ugly red face at his mother until he got what he wanted.
After he established himself as Emperor, his cheeks never had to redden. Servants scurried about, answering his every whim eagerly, albeit with some fear. It was pleasant enough at first, but such constant groveling from others will sicken a man with time and Kiyomai began surrounding himself with more interesting and challenging people.
The aura of being a ruler, like the groveling, was certainly a reward for his hard planning and efforts, but there was little else left for him to accomplish. What does the supreme ruler of the known world do for an encore? The monotony of actual governance got to him in a few years, as his trusted circle of the Conclave had to be purged regularly of the men that understood the Emperor too well and were becoming better and better at manipulating him and those around him to their own evil purposes.
You see, Kiyomai was not an evil man by nature, as so many supposed. He was lustful for power and prestige, but not with the intent to do evil particularly. The easiest course to what he wanted was through treachery and deceit, and those things led him first to the doorstep of the evil one. Once in power, he found he had to constantly employ evil means to retain his position, knowing of no other way to proceed. The largest body of the dead were the list of former Cardinals and Counselors, who Kiyomai had to destroy before they became more powerful than he. All of these things will eventually wear at a soul not predisposed to such evil, and of such was the Emperor.
Kiyomai was justifiably angry when the Princess and two rebels slipped away from Sarakol Harbor on his boat. Everyone scattered before his wrath, having heard the tales and not wanting to become yet another Imperial casualty. He soon found himself on the dock alone, and then began to laugh, and laugh hard. This drew some strange looks from people passing by, and Kiyomai himself was puzzled with his behavior.
A small grubby boy walked up to him just then and smiled. "Why are you laughing?"
"Oh," the man said, finally controlling himself, "I just missed my boat."
The boy looked confused. "And that makes you laugh?"
Kiyomai was heaving air, trying to calm down. "It seems to be making me laugh today."
"You are an odd man," the boy observed. This only caused the Emperor to start up laughing again.
Another man, the boy's father it turned out, came running up and seized the boy. "What are you doing? Don't you know never to speak to the high folk?" He cuffed the boy in the head and then spoke more congenially. "I beg your pardon, lord, he is only a small one and doesn't know his place." Of course, the man never raised his eyes to meet Kiyomai's.
"There is no need for apologies!" Kiyomai was almost merry, caught up in his mirth over his predicament. "He is a pleasant young man and asked me a very good question." Reaching into his pocket, without even thinking about it, the Emperor pulled out three gold coins and gave them to the boy.
The lad gawked at the money and then at the nobleman. "By God! Thank you, sir!" He quickly showed his prize to his father, who snatched the coins up with lightening speed.
The grizzled man, much younger probably than his broken back and wrinkled body let on, bowed low and spoke quietly. "You are surely a generous man, lord."
The boy piped up, excited by their fortune. "Not like that Kiyomai fellow. He would have torn my heart out with his bare hands!" Another cuff made the boy cringe.
"Many thanks to you, my lord. You are truly worthy of the title 'noble.'" The father began to make off before the 'nobleman' could call a soldier and have him arrested.
The boy was not quite finished yet. "You are nothing like that Emperor who parades around with his men about him! You care about us normal folk!" Dodging the cuff and smiling his victory to Kiyomai, he spat out quickly, "I think I like you being odd!" The boy managed to get away from another effort at his head, but began telling everyone within earshot that he got three gold coins from the lordly man.
Before Kiyomai could think, he was pressed by an instant crowd of the rabble, all with hands out to receive something. Almost like a reflex, out came a handful of gold coins. Kiyomai was really beginning to enjoy not being the Emperor and handed out gold until his pockets were empty. He even took off his silver wristbands and his ornate necklace to give away, caught up in the generosity of the moment.
From what he could make out, the general opinion of the charitable nobleman was quite high, a few even shouting that Kiyomai should be thrown down and this man be lifted in his place. One humble woman begged his name and Kiyomai gave his boyhood name, Westlyn, not quick enough to think of another.
"Long live Lord Westlyn! Long live Lord Westlyn!" The crowd was sizable now and Kiyomai was in ecstasy, seeing the joyful faces, released for a short time from their pressing lives, made happy by his gifts. There was a warm feeling within the Emperor that he had never felt before, but he knew he liked it and wanted to feel it again.
Just then the scene of joy was broken as a squad of Conclavists dispersed the crowd with angry blows and shouts. Kiyomai became alarmed at the peasants' welfare, but they scattered quickly, running away with their treasures before they could be confiscated. The squad stumbled upon Kiyomai and their captain became terribly startled. "Are you all right, My Emperor?"
Kiyomai simply sighed.
The captain noticed the Emperor's lack of jewelry. "You have been robbed!" Before he could think of some appropriate way to stop the Conclavist, the captain barked orders to his men. "Round up that scum and kill them all! They will have the gold. And find that Lord Westlyn fellow they were cheering about and bring him to the Emperor!"
Kiyomai was starting to get irate at this man, assuming that this was the Imperial will, but then he checked himself. The Emperor would have ordered exactly that, trying to prevent anyone the opportunity to gain the favor of even small groups of people against him.
"We will have this rebel Westlyn in custody by nightfall, my lord. You can be sure of it!"
The Emperor finally spoke. "Don't worry about the rabble, captain. There would be no hope of recovering my things now."
The man made a tight bow and swept off to find this horrible nobleman who dared to turn the people against the Emperor. All Kiyomai could think was that he wished he were a lone man on horseback, leaving a horde of Conclavists in his wake, the noble defender of the poor and downtrodden, sworn enemy of the Conclave and its Emperor. Now, that was heroic!
Then, he shook his head, not quite ready for the realization. A dirty young boy on a rickety dock on an insignificant island had helped him stumble upon who he really wanted to be. The problem was that the man he wanted to be was a mortal enemy to the very man he was.
* * *
It was a bright day, that much I can say, and hot as we strolled in the less reputable parts of Manatoa. Westlyn, which my son insisted that Polus and I call him, was at our side, in a dark, smelly robe with the cowl of his hood overshadowing his face. He was notably nervous, his eyes moving back and forth over the bodies moving in the busy street. I imagine he was looking for anyone who could recognize him, but this was no place to find nobility and even the Conclave soldiers who walked the street, being avoided by the masses, were little better than the commoners, dirty and stern of face and not suspecting that they shared the way with an Emperor.
I told Westlyn again not to worry about being seen. "No one will even dream of you coming here to pass out pennies."
He had wanted to give gold again, but I cautioned him not to be too generous, as a greedy commoner was just as liable to stab him in the back as a Cardinal. We had not worked out his means to distribute the money when we left his apartment in secrecy, but he soon came up with a good method himself. I must admit that I was still quite skeptical of his change of heart, but I was willing to play along and see how long the ruse lasted.
Walking along, perhaps three or four yards from Westlyn, so we just looked to be going in his general direction and not being with him, I could hear an annoying pinging sound, often followed by a start of surprise and a small scurry. I whispered if Polus knew what was happening and the man only smiled and said nothing.
Suddenly a girl ran up to Westlyn from behind. "Hey!" she yelled, working hard against the press. "Hey! You dropped something!"
A few people must have turned to see who the girl was yelling at, but Westlyn continued on. She finally reached him and jerked the man's robe. "Hey!" she yelled again. "Are you deaf?"
Westlyn turned to look, though none, not even the girl could see his face. "Are you speaking to me?"
"Yeah!" she shouted, though a loud voice was no longer necessary. "You dropped this coin!" It was almost like the girl had only one volume of speech to her name. She stuck out the shiny copper piece laid in her dirty palm.
"Well, so I have!" The man looked at the coin but made no attempt to retrieve it. "It looks to be a new coin, too. Pretty, isn't it?"
The girl looked at him strangely. "Don't you want it back?"
Westlyn presented his hand, not so grubby as the girl's, bulging with all manner of coinage. "I seem to have so many! I can barely hold them! Perhaps you should keep that one so I won't be so burdened."
The girl gave him a look like he was crazy. Only a fool would display so much money in public!
"In fact, this is far too much for me to carry." With his other hand, Westlyn took nearly twenty pennies and put them with the one in the girl's hand, forcing her to bring up the other and cup them together. "Perhaps you could hold onto these for me?"
The girl's brows furrowed. Her experience did not include robed men strolling down the street putting a month's pay into a girl's hand. "Actually," the man continued, "I have so many pennies that I can't possibly keep track of them or spend them all. Why don't you just take those and keep them? You could buy something very nice with those."
The girl looked at the pennies and then looked about him with suspicion. This could have been a trap, but there were no soldiers about. There were a few passers-by that were turning their attention to the dirty robed man and the girl, so she clamped down hard on the coins and walked away quickly, without even a thanks.
Even through his cowl and my blindness, I could sense the great smile on the Emperor's face.
We continued like that all afternoon, strolling the streets, Westlyn dropping pennies. Most were quietly picked up by weasely folk, but a few takers, five or six at the most, tried to give back the penny to the robed man. In return, they came away with a handful of pennies. One woman finally said "Thank you" toward the end of day and asked his name.
"Westlyn," the robed man said softly, startled that it came to his lips so easily.
"Well, my thanks to ya, Westlyn!" The woman walked off with a slightly lighter step and the Emperor began to make his way back to the palace, with a notably fuller heart.
Even after this day, I still harbored my skepticism, thinking that some game was being played with me for the Emperor's amusement or that I was being pulled into some sort of trap. I was too blind, I guess, to simply see things for what they were.
Loaded with all the provisions that Lady Niuenn and Rochar could muster, Xan and Julya and Lan set off into the forest, making their way south-east, farther and farther from the civilized lands of Alaedea. The trail was hard for people who had no experience in grueling journeys, so there was little strength to bicker or fight amongst themselves. This gave the incorrect impression that the companions were friends.
Congeniality only lasted three days.
Julya revealed her true identity as the Princess the morning of their third day out and began asserting herself almost immediately. No more than two hours passed before she began fretting over her pack and began an endless stream of moans and complaints. "Who made this contraption? He was obviously a torturer!" "Is it time for a break yet?" "Slow down, you mules! Some of us aren't beasts of burden!"
Nychol relieved the girl of her pack shortly before noon, overburdening himself but trusting to the hope that the comments would end. He was sadly mistaken as Julya now bounded ahead like a deer and barked back at them such pleasantries as "Come along, cows. You will keep us from our camp with your huffing and blowing." "Step lively!"
Nychol bore all this in silence that day, but Xan could not. She would often pull up to Nychol's side and curse Julya under her breath. "That girl needs a swift kick in the bottom and some manners beat into her!" Nychol nodded wearily. "If this is to be your Queen, I think I would be the first to organize the rebellion!" Again, a dejected nod. The day was very long and their seemed no relief in sight.
That night, Julya required, in no uncertain terms, that the tent was to be hers alone. Nychol was only too happy to oblige, too tired from the march to put up much of a fight. Xan persisted in the tent for some hours as Julya badmouthed her until she could take it no more. Breathing sweet sighs of contentment, Julya snuggled into her wrappings as her unfortunate companions braved a windstorm that blew up about midnight.
The second day went somewhat better as Julya leapt out of bed and onto the trail, leaving the "underlings" to break camp and begin lugging the baggage up a steep grade. They had noticed some food missing from the provisions and found them around noontime being ravenously consumed by the young princess by the trail-side. Julya shared a little finally, after teasing them with crumbs. Blissfully, Julya again bounded ahead, leaving Xan and Nychol to themselves until dusk.
The third day was more reminiscent of the first as it seemed Julya wanted company. Nychol bore his burden again in silence, while Xan chose to fume like some volcano and occasionally erupt. "Leave us, you devil! I would sooner die than walk another step with you!"
"That would be entirely too easy, old crow." Julya was using a sing-song voice, as if she was wanting to cheer the ranks. "We must make our destination in good time and I could not do it without my pack-mules." She playfully struck their legs with a switch she had fashioned from a green tree branch and Xan threw down her pack and tackled the girl.
"How dare you strike me like an animal! I will stand your poison mouth, but I will not feel your stick!" The old woman had her pinned down by arms and legs, but Julya smiled, spat in her face, and easily flung the woman away. "Devil-spawn!" Xan wiped her face as Julya laughed and ran ahead out of sight.
Xan turned to Nychol, but he only kept his head down and pretended to see nothing. It was from that point that Xan began plotting how to rid them of the obnoxious Princess.
She had considered bringing the young man into her conspiracy, but she rightly saw him destroying her plans in the interest of kindness. She was depending on the fact that Julya would repeat past performances and leave for the trail early, leaving the camp-breaking to the others. Unfortunately, Xan was correct.
Nychol was so tired that morning as Xan shook him to wakefulness that he helped bundle the things and started the day's march without realizing that the old woman was taking him cross-country, in a line perpendicular from the trail. Some two miles on, Xan stumbled onto another trail that went in the same general direction as the one they had left, but slanted slightly away, so that every step sent them further away from Julya, yet kept them moving in the right direction. Nychol was none the wiser.
It is interesting to note here how God works in these situations. If the three companions would have stayed together, they would have surely been destroyed by what lay ahead on the trail. I can't really condone Xan's actions that day, but I can say that it worked out in the end rather nicely. God often turns seeming evil into opportunity, whether we want Him to or not.
Julya pressed ahead that morning with the food sack, intending to pull the same trick on her companions as she had two days previous. She stopped at about one hour before noon, took her ease, and ate. Time passed and she became somewhat bored with waiting and decided that it would be even more enjoyable to move on and see Xan's face when she caught up with the girl sometime that evening, half-starved and screaming.
It was with these pleasant thoughts that Julya skipped along the trail and stumbled headlong into her new lot in life.
* * *
I only know of the Y'Narred from what Julya has been able to tell me long after the incident. She had suppressed the memory of that time deep within her mind and when she finally allowed herself to remember it, I regretted having pressed her.
The Y'Narred are a culture of evil such as the people of Alaedea have never known. Our first father told stories of the outside which included such things as bondage and slavery, probably in an attempt to prevent our race from following the same dark path. The Y'Narred, as far as Julya could tell, kept slaves much as we keep animals and, from her report, we treat our animals with much more kindness.
A work detail of Y'Narred slaves were gathering their grain into sheaves as Julya literally tripped over one of them along her trail. "Who are you?" she asked innocently.
The slave's eyes widened as Julya bent over him. "What is your name?"
The slave responded by contorting his face and shrieking as loud as he could. Julya wondered about it as she held her hands over her ears, the noise quickly repeated by every slave in the vicinity. The din went on incessantly and Julya was soon on her knees, trying to shut out the painful sound with her hands slapped hard over her ears.
The screaming stopped as two men on horseback approached, causing the slaves to fall to their knees and bow themselves to the earth as if in homage. "What is this pretty thing?" asked one as it leaned in his saddle for a closer look.
"Dunno," replied the other mounted man shortly. "Stand up, girl!"
Julya gave the man a wicked sneer and brought herself up straight and tall. "That would be 'Your Highness,' to you."
The two men looked at each other in mirth, and the first, who seemed of higher rank, gave a mocking look as he swept his hat grandly from his head. "Forgive me, your highness."
Julya thrust her chin out and frowned indignantly. "That's more like it. Who are you and why are you in my path?"
The two men looked at each other again, broke out into laughter. The lesser man was about to say something but Julya never heard it because the other man struck her in the back of the head with his sword hilt.
* * *
Nychol was furious when Xan decided to stop for the night. "We can't stop now! Julya is somewhere ahead!"
Xan contemplated for a short second the thought of telling the young man what she had done. "I'm sure she will come back when we don't show up. It is about time she started accommodating us, instead of the other way around."
He frowned. "What if something happens to her?"
"Justice would finally be done," she snorted. "That girl needs a lifetime of lessons on kindness and manners. A night without us may do her good."
* * *
There is no way of telling how long Julya was unconscious, but it was sufficient time for someone to determine her new status. She was brought back to the wakeful world with a bucket of some fluid that might have been urine.
"Why, good morning, princess..." It was a deep voice and vaguely feminine. Julya could not yet see, but she did not like this. "Did you have a good nap?"
"Swine!" she snapped, only now noticing that she was upright for the most part. Julya also noticed that her arms were raised and she couldn't lower them. Only then did she begin to fathom her situation.
"Ooh! Our little kitten still has claws! We can solve that."
A sharp burning sensation slapped her across the back as some unseen whip struck her. Julya screamed as if she had been torn apart. In all her young life, she had been courted and babied, and this was her first real taste of pain. She didn't like it, but all she could do was wail and cry.
"She seems terribly soft," a gentle-sounding man quipped from her right. Julya thought for a moment that she was blind, but through her watery eyes, she could see that light fell upon her and nothing else. This was her first exposure to a torture chamber. "The master will not want her front-side scarred, but I imagine that you can do what you must with the back."
The gruff woman responded, "Good." The whip cracked again and Julya let out another scream, followed by quivering sobs. She was cold and naked, except where the leather had cut her.
After a moment, Julya composed herself somewhat. "Why are you doing this?" she sobbed. "What have I done to you?"
There was some silence and Julya shouted the last question again. The whip struck again, screams came, and a large woman, dressed in black, came into the light. "You disrupted our work, Bawl. We cannot allow that." It was the gruff, feminine voice of before, only sweetened a bit.
"What is Bawl?" Julya managed to say this as she received two strikes simultaneously. There must have been a number of people in the room with her.
"Your name is Bawl, because you cry easily." The woman came close and Julya spit at her. Two more blows came and Julya went almost limp with unaccustomed throbbing pain.
The soft-spoken man asked impatiently, "How long do you think this will take? The master would like this delicacy as soon as possible."
"It shouldn't take too long," the woman ventured with a shrug. "She should start responding very quickly."
There were footsteps heard and the only vaguely kind voice left Julya to her tortures.
I will not go on with exactly how these barbarians enslaved Julya, though she was able to recount the experience in a very vivid way. They withheld food and water from her and applied the whip until she silently obeyed their whim, which obedience they rewarded lavishly. Within not very many days, she was taken before her new master without complaint and she served him humbly, happily, and very diligently. The cold, cruel thing that was the Princess had been driven out of the girl very efficiently in a matter of a week.
The process, and its results, was very different than my imprisonment in Trechald. There, I was forgotten for the most part and my fellows in the dungeon often spoke fondly of escape and revenge. Apparently, Julya and the other slaves of the Y'Narred never spoke of such things, nor even considered them in thought. Her captors seemed very attentive and it became very easy for Julya to crave the kindnesses and pleasure afforded to her according to her absolute obedience, as any person in that situation would.
It was with a great sense of relief that these slaves obeyed their masters and showed gratitude for the opportunity to serve the kind people who seemed to "save" them from their torturers. It seemed very effective, for when Nychol finally came to rescue her, Julya, or Bawl as she liked to be called, had no desire to leave her new life.
The flight to the south was a blur. He had known the horse was less than ideal, but Lanolylc was surprised when the mount stumbled not thirty miles from Saraking and threw him into a thorny thicket. As if that were not enough to make him angry, when he finally got back to his steed, the horse was dead from the fall and just plain exhaustion. In his fury, the man uselessly kicked at the dead animal, shouting at the top of his lungs of the injustices of it all.
Fortunately, he was only about two miles from the shores of the sea and it was only an angry walk through the inky blackness of an overcast night to a small bay with a tiny barge bobbing in the lapping waves just offshore. It was to Lan's advantage that a few brave captains braved the seas in this difficult weather and it was not difficult for him to sneak aboard on this dark night and nestle down in an old rotting sail thrown into a corner of the hold. Exhausted, the man was asleep before his head drooped to his chest.
Though all of the ships braving the weather to leave the port of Saraking were searched and all their crews warned of stowaways that might stir up rebellions, there was no thought of inspecting the few vessels coming into Saraking. Lan was able to sleep soundly only because he didn't know where the ship he found was bound for. It was only a few hours and daybreak woke him to the discovery that he was headed north to the only port of any size in Nortlynd: Saraking.
Vacarius, eager to take what remained of his prize, namely the Princess, to Kiyomai as soon as possible, finally convinced the captain of a smallish supply boat to take his group to Manatoa. The capital city was out of the way, as the grubby captain had cargo destined for Trechald, but several gold coins was all that was needed to convince the bearded man of the new course.
Even though the best rooms were cramped and rather dirty, having just been unoccupied by the first and second mates, Vacarius gave the Princess the best cabin available to suit her. Unlike he had heard, the Princess was quite gracious in her discomfiture and very kindly to the Cardinal and his men. She had so garnered his trust that he permitted her to roam the boat freely and did forego the soldier watching over her.
There was some talk about a stowaway that had been captured, and Vacarius seemed terribly pleased with himself after a visit to the brig. The Princess could not contain her desire to know just who this prisoner was.
There was a definite leak in the vessel and it sloshed water about all the rooms on the level that Lan had found himself. A lowly deckhand had been ordered to get rid of the rotten sail in the hold and the man had immediately raised the alarm when he discovered a man burrowed into the stinking canvas. The captain had not even bothered to see the stowaway, only leaving orders to have the man locked in the brig. So, here he was again, the Chief Counselor of Queen Evette, moldering in a wet cell, watching his fine boots becoming leather strips in the standing sea-water.
There was a noise of someone coming down the steps to the landing just before the iron bars of the door. Lanolylc wasn't terribly interested in who his visitor could be, so he simple looked at the water drizzling down the port wall of his prison.
A startle of surprise, bearing the unmistakable mark of a woman, and a splash jostled the man and he turned ever so slowly. There, in a very nice dress, lay Anya, unhappily flapping water off of her hands. She tried to get up, but the algae had already taken root on the floor and she slipped on it again, falling headlong into the brackish water. Using the cell bars, she pulled herself up, spewing saltwater from her mouth right into the prisoner's face, not realizing that he had crouched down to help her up. Wiping away the mess, Lan only asked, "Good morning?"
Anya startled again almost losing her balance. She caught the bars and Lan supported her as best he could through them. "It's you!"
The man could only nod and smile grimly. "Yes, I have the displeasure of being your stowaway."
"I thought you had gotten away! All the things I heard and the great search they made..."
Lan, carefully letting go of the girl, turned and strolled the single step to the far side of his cell. "And all this time, I thought I was being dragged around behind Julya."
The girl shrugged and gave his back an imploring look. "It wasn't my fault! They just supposed I was the Princess and well, I didn't want to die particularly, so I just neglected to tell them I wasn't."
"Neglected?" The man turned slowly, looking very displeased. "So, you impersonate royalty, and we are off to see Kiyomai, who, in case you have forgotten, know exactly what Julya looks like." He put his face in his hand. "As if my life weren't bad enough."
The girl was straining to look cheery. "Think of it this way: we aren't dead yet!"
The man nodded, giving the girl's hope a second's thought. "Well, I hope you enjoy this little life you are getting, because I was just beginning to hope for a nice cold dungeon under the palace myself!" He put on a very unconvincing grin and acted a little too chipper. "Now, I get the luck of your company for a few more days until Kiyomai strings us both up in the city center!" He spread his hands wide. "Now, that is a spectacle I look forward to!"
The girl lost her hopeful look and lowered her lids. "It is good to see you, too, Lanolylc."
"Are they feeding you well?" He was still sarcastically grinning and prancing about like a school boy. "Is it beef every night?"
The girl bowed her head. "Shrimp, actually, though it is quite good..."
The man took an angry step forward and nearly pushed his head through the bars, knashing his teeth. "I haven't eaten in days, you spoiled brat!"
The girl took a step back, disgusted by his smell and afraid of his strange behavior. "Maybe I should visit you later..."
"Oh, yes!" The mock-happiness returned and the man bowed. "I would be honored to have such a distinguished lady visit me again!"
Anya backed up the stairs, keeping an eye on the man in case he broke through the bars and went for her throat. "Maybe you will be ready to talk later..."
"I'm ready to talk now!" The man had a strange look, starvation mingled with an onset of insanity. "Do you know your neck size? The executioner will want it later!"
The girl finally turned and hurried up the steps, only venturing a disgusted look down the stairs as she met the sailors near the top and they helped her onto the deck. "That man is going mad!" she reported. "If the captain will permit, I would like the prisoner fed. He needs to look presentable for the Emperor."
* * *
It was nearly a week later when Anya finally decided to go and face Lan again. This time, she chose to go the afternoon of the day the brig was baled, so the wood floor was merely damp and she carefully walked across it to clutch the bars and speak through them. "Are you feeling better?"
The man sighed, his back to her, leaning up against a beam. "I am not starving now, I suppose. It wouldn't do for me to be too emaciated when I am brought before Kiyomai in chains."
"My hope," she said, licking her lips, "is that we could get away."
Lanolylc's back jiggled as he restrained laughter. "And what kind of foolish hope is that?"
The girl curled up her lip in derision. "I am keeping you alive here, and all you can do is be fatalistic?"
"By God, girl," he said, turning to face her. "Where did you learn such high talk?"
She raised a brow and set hands on her hips. "I was the daughter of a nobleman's porter! I have better words than most of the so-called gentry."
"Well." He turned his back again. "You seem to do Julya well enough. Some respect you have for the dead."
The girl's eyes narrowed. "Just what are you trying to say?"
"A proper person would be mourning the end of a great house and the end of hope for a new Queen." His eyes glittered as he turned to stare at her. "Yet, here is this girl with the mouth of a lady and the manners of a kitchen slave, making a mockery of the one good thing this land had."
Anya was incredulous, dropping her voice so the sailors would not overhear. "The one good thing? Have you lost your mind? Julya was a witch and I say good riddance. If the lowly changeling," she curtsied a little, "decided to take her place for the rest of her life, perhaps some would change their appraisal of the Princess and give her a bit of undeserved honor!" She glared right back at the prisoner. "I would at least bring a little respect back to the throne!"
Lan chewed on this, steaming. "You would be dead the first minute Kiyomai saw you."
"I have no intention of going to Manatoa and letting the Emperor catch sight of me! I am getting off of this boat!"
The man snickered and simply turned his back to her again.
Anya stewed, giving him another opportunity. "Wouldn't you like to be Julya's Chief Counselor after we raise an army and crush Kiyomai?"
He half-turned, his face red. "You could never manage it."
"Fine!" she spat, her voice growing hoarse with emotion. "If you will not honor Julya enough to at least present the people with a better option, I will escape and raise an army myself."
The man barked a laugh. "You couldn't possibly do it without me!"
The girl turned and began to ascend the stairs. "Rot for all I care," was her only response.
Lanolylc finally lunged for the bars. "Wait!"
The girl continued up but slowed a bit, as if pausing to hear something she wanted the man to say.
"Oh, drat!" The man grit his teeth. "Princess! Don't go!"
The girl turned back and walked slowly down the steps, a smile of triumph on her face. "That is more like it," she said condescendingly. Lowering her voice, she added, "Would you like to hear my plan?"
The man nodded readily, his hunger for escape and the hope for position still consuming him, even beyond his reasoning.
Nychol was spending nearly all his time out of Cyte Edomi, still trying to find Julya. In the first few weeks since their arrival, Xan had ranged out far with him, but she soon gave up hope of finding the Princess alive, and she fell into a dark depression, knowing she had sent the girl to her doom.
"Julya went ahead of her own accord," Nychol would always tell her as she knelt before the altar within the primitive chapel. "I doubt that there was anything we could have done to help her."
Xan, her hands clasped before her and knees raw from days of exposure to the hard rock at the altar's base, murmured back. "You doubt that we could help, but you do not know. I have always seen myself as a worker of good, but I am exposed for who I really am."
Nychol took a step closer. "And what is that?"
"A callous old woman who seeks comfort before charity. You held your tongue and temper, while I lashed out and drove her away. The vultures finished her long ago, I guess, and I must try to find penance somehow." The woman bowed her head and fell silent.
Nychol sighed and began to walk away. "I shall still search for her. The Spirit of God drives me on. Besides, searching is better than wallowing in guilt." As he always did, Nychol left the old woman to her repentance.
Edom, the keeper of the place, was getting old when I was made prophet. He was a great Counselor to the old Queen at Manatoa and a High Priest, but when God chose me instead of him to be prophet, his pride drew him away from the Counselhouse. None of us at court knew what happened to him, until Julya came to the throne.
According to his own record, which Julya brought to Manatoa sometime after her ascent, Edom had established his community just shortly before Michiana's murder. He brought with him a few families who saw the impending downfall of Alaedea and hoped to escape it. They found the beautiful valley in the midst of the mountains that marked the eastern edge of Alaedea and called it Cyte Edomi, or Edom's citadel. Though the community never sought contact with others, wanderers seemed to stumble upon it with some regularity and it became known among them as a kindly way-station, where one could find rest, food, and solace from care and sorrow for a time. Over the years, Edom had softened some, turning his self-imposed banishment into a kind of mission, to help those in need.
The place was little more than an assemblage of thatch huts, which had been constructed early on in the settlement. This small collection was surrounded by fields of grain and vegetables, fed by icy streams that flowed quick and clear from the jagged peaks that surrounded them. Though winter blasted eternally above, the valley was blessed, by some unknown chance or miracle, with pleasant temperature and ideal growing conditions for most of the year. If ever there was a place that was blessed by the hand of God, it was this one.
It was with some regret that, nearly every day, Nychol would leave this blessed place and continue his search for the lost princess. Early in his search, he had chanced upon the Y'Narred, but the Spirit within him warned that contact with these people would be dangerous. Thereafter, he would often see them as they worked in their fields, but he kept himself hidden. They worked like dumb animals while an overseer or two lounged about, looking more like shepherds than guards.
A month passed and Nychol had not found a trace of Julya. He had begun to despair some days before, but the habit of wandering the trail she had taken kept him on. He had taken a tent and bedroll with him, as he did on occasion, so he might stay the night in the wilds, which was fortunate for the Princess.
Julya had made a mistake, which horrified her. Her master had charged her with watching the sheep that day, entrusting her with something of great value to him, or so she was told. The sheep were less than obedient, unlike Julya, and in the late afternoon, they bolted from her and she dashed wildly about, trying to keep them together. The sheep led her farther afield than she had ever been before, and she was very frightened. The time had come for her to count the sheep, which she had been ordered to do at every hour, and she found that two were missing. Julya became very distressed, for she knew that if she did not return that evening with all the sheep, terrible things would happen to her.
Dusk was earlier than normal as a storm cloud blew up, with thunder and lightning. This did nothing to ease Julya's mind as she dashed about, very agitated, trying to keep her little flock together while looking in all directions for the lost sheep. When Nychol found her, she was lying upon a rock, sobbing, drenched with a newly-fallen rain and surrounded by sheep.
"Julya?" the young man ventured.
The girl gave a cry and curled into a ball. He barely recognized her through the unkempt hair and the ragged rags she wore for clothes.
Nychol ran to her, but seemed almost afraid to touch her. "Julya, is that you?"
She could hardly be understood as she began to babble. "I'm sorry, master! The sheep ran and I could hardly follow... Don't take me home yet, I can find them... I will stay here until I find them... Please..."
"Find who? Julya? What has happened to you?"
Hands gently took her by the shoulders and turned her about on the rock. Nychol smiled and the girl looked at him with astonishment. "Nychol? Have you come to help me find my sheep?"
Nychol almost laughed. "I don't know anything about sheep." He brought her close and hugged her. Julya clung onto him, shivering from the damp and the fear. "I found you," he whispered hoarsely. "I found you!"
She didn't move or speak for some time. She pressed herself close to the young man until the shivering stopped. "You are always so kind to me," she said finally. Pulling away far enough to look him in the face, she kissed him gently and asked, "Could you help me find my sheep?"
Nychol was stunned by all of this, for this was not the cocksure girl he had been traveling with. They worked together to round up the sheep and find the missing ones. All along, Julya kept as close as occasion would permit to Nychol and she even held his hand when she could, which flabbergasted the young man. Julya became jubilant when this was accomplished and was eager to return to her "master." Nychol balked at this and finally convinced her that the master would not mind her spending the night with the sheep, which they had driven into a small box canyon, preventing further problems.
The young Princess gladly snuggled up beside Nychol as they bedded down for the night inside the tent. He didn't know quite what to make of this great change in Julya. He could feel her beaming with joy, happy to have her sheep together and to be with him. The thought of having Julya so close, so beautiful, and apparently so kind and willing was almost more than his upbringing could bear.
"Julya...," he began, trying to divert his mind.
She turned to him. "Why do you call me that? My name is Bawl."
"Bawl?" Nychol gave her a quizzical look.
She smiled and touched his cheek like some kind teacher revealing a great truth to him. "My master gave me a new life and a new name."
Nychol was confused. "What about your old name and your old life?"
"I don't like to think about that," she said, turning cold and shivering a bit. "I was disobedient and bad. The master saved me from all that." She shook her head to clear the darkness. "All of that is in the past -- soon I will forget it." She seemed to ease at this affirmation and snuggle even closer.
Nychol became very thoughtful. "Tell me about this master."
The girl smiled broadly. "Oh, he is so kind to me. When I came to him, I couldn't do much of anything. He taught me new things and trusts me with so much! I love him!"
"And yet you were afraid of losing his sheep. If he is so kind, why were you afraid?"
She darkened a bit and stammered ahead, unsure. "When I am disobedient, the evil ones take me away and punish me." Again, she shook her head and brightened. "But the master is kind and takes care of me!"
"Punish you?" Nychol narrowed his eyes, beginning to become angry. "Who punishes you?"
"I don't want to talk about it...Don't make me..." She began to shiver again and wanted to draw away, but Nychol would not let her.
Nychol's mind was racing. What had happened to her? Who had done this? Why? He would obviously get no useful answers out of the Princess that night. Could he take her away from here? Would she come? She seemed so enamored of this "master" of hers. Could she leave him? Then a thought came to him, as if by inspiration.
"Julya,...I mean Bawl, why doesn't your master protect you from the evil ones?
The girl lay there, breathing and thinking, for a long time. "I...I don't know."
Another thought came and Nychol smiled. "It seems your master is unable to keep the evil people from punishing you. He seems very weak."
Julya processed this, tried to shake it away, then whispered to herself, "But he is so kind..."
"Yes," Nychol continued, softly. "He may be kind, but he cannot keep evil away." Or chooses not to, he thought.
Nychol drew the girl closer. "Am I kind to you?"
Julya's brows furrowed. "You have always been kind to me, even when others hated me."
"Bawl," he continued, "I can keep evil away from you. I will not let you be punished."
Julya looked confused. "What are you trying to say?"
Nychol brought up the face of the young Princess with a soft touch. "I cannot be a master for you, but I can protect you. No one will ever hurt you that way again, even if you do wrong. Let me take you to a place where the evil ones cannot find you."
Julya still looked confused. "But, what about my master?"
"He has other servants that will take your place. The sheep will be safe enough here after we leave." He suddenly drew her closer and both could feel an attractive pull. "Come with me."
It seemed that Julya wanted to waver, but she was held by Nychol's eyes and she could not refuse. "When shall we leave?"
It was a dark night, made so by a hanging gloom that made the regularly inadequate light of lanterns absolutely worthless. The sea was less then hospitable, forcing the captain to sail close to the shore, navigating the hazards as best he could with bad charts and no visibility. It was Vacarius who ordered this move, for the captain would have felt much better simply getting farther into the water and deploying a sea anchor, trusting it to keep the smallish boat headed into the seas, where it would ride better and prevent any damage. As they were, any uncharted rocks or other obstructions could loom up out of the fog and dash them before anything could be done.
It is hard for me to say if God chose to have a hand in this situation, but sometimes, the Divine One simply is moved to action by love for a wayward child. I like to think that is so, and it comforts me to know that Lanolylc was not so far gone that God had stopped giving opportunities to repent.
Of course, Lan and Anya were plotting an escape, but had not yet seen how it could be done. There were no escape craft and they weren't so desperate yet that they were willing to risk a swim to shore, but that idea would require a sustained distraction of the sailors, who were quite dutiful and sensed something devious about the frequent visits of this "Princess." The few times Anya had brought up problems designed to convince the men to leave their posts even for a second, they sternly told the girl that those were matters to take up with the captain, and they never budged. Of course, with the amount they were promised by Vacarius, eager to prevent a repeat of the humiliating escape of Lan from Saraking, very few people would be put off.
It was on this blustery night that Anya found herself in the tiny antechamber facing Lanolylc's cell, sitting in a corner and not coming up with any fresh ideas. Lan, as usual, was pacing the floor of his prison, wearing a rut in the creaky wood which moaned under his weight.
Twice in the half hour that Anya was with him, the ship shimmied and a distinct swooshing sound could be heard underfoot as the hull passed through a sandy bar. This made the captain, nervously scanning the impenetrable mists, very worried, but the Cardinal was standing near him to buoy his resolve with threats and a promise not to pay if there wasn't progress.
Lan stopped his pacing as another sandbar slid just under his feet, the floor of his cell perhaps only a foot above the hull. Anya was noticeably nervous, which distracted her terribly, but Lanolylc only let the boards creak beneath his feet, the wood made soft by numerous intrusions of water into the space below it, rotting the underside. "Perhaps..." was all he could reveal of a hatching plan before the gentle sound of sand against the boat became a nasty scrape.
An alarm went up, but it wasn't necessary for Lan or Julya to be appraised of what was happening. The ship lurched to a stop, held fast by two rocky points, the craft jammed into the tight space between. The side wall of Lan's cell was now bowed and the man looked terrified, for the sound of scraping rock against wood was loud where the wood was straining. The boat see-sawed back and forth precariously on the rocks, teetering constantly by the angry sea pushing against it.
Anya was going white when a particularly large wave struck the boat, shifting it, and finally driving a corner of the rock through the hull into Lan's cell. The water initially sprayed into the compartment, Anya now too frightened even to scream, picturing a quick drowning for them both. The initial spray quickly slackened, for the boat was not heavily laden and the hull was not riding very deep at all. The water, at its best, came up to Lan's knees as he worked diligently to stay on his feet. Another great wave swept up on the ship, causing the entire vessel to shift again, this time taking the rocky point further to the stern cutting a wide gash, which let in even more water, but now also made a hole nearly big enough for a man to squeeze through. With a lerch, the ship settled further into the sea and the water was now to Lan's waist.
Now, his first thought was for freedom, the salty breeze hitting him from his make-shift port-hole. Lan was already tearing the rotting wood away, making the gash bigger. Anya distracted him, clutching to the other side of the bars and giving him a weak look as the water reached her waist and continued to climb. It was no great in-rush of the seas, but only the rise that accompanied a better settling of the boat. The man could still feel the cool air blowing in from the top part of the gash, which still stayed above the sea.
The girl had an imploring look on her face, for situations had reversed! Lan had a way out of the ship through the great hole the rock had made, but Anya was now on the wrong side of the bars to go with him. Lanolylc tried to ignore her as he kept breaking away the rotten wooden wall of his prison, making his way wider. "Lan!" Her call was almost drowned out as the boat took another wave hit, the water crashing into the chamber, and nearly filling it.
The lantern that barely illuminated the room was high and in the corner farthest from the opening, still able to give its meager light to their efforts. "Please!" Anya bubbled as she surfaced, gasping for breath. Lan had his teeth clenched, his head pressed against the ceiling, still jerking at the wood about the ragged opening.
It must have been a pang of conscience that pried the man from his purpose to try and help Anya. He thought that this was foolish as he should be able to escape now and continue with his plans, of which Anya was not really a part. If he spent the time to save her, they might both end up dying, and who would save the people then? With these thoughts, it seemed his need to simply rid himself of the guilt of letting the girl die drove him on.
Pushing himself forcefully off of the ceiling, he kicked his feet hard against the loose floor. His first four efforts produced little, but his fifth broke a floor board and he dove into the salty water to wrench the damaged board away. He did this again two more times, Anya watching with fear and confusion, who could not see what he was up to. The other boards now floating about Lan, he dived under again, this time grabbing the woman's foot from beneath, giving her quite a fright! His hand was under and on her side of the bars!
She grasped the new situation quickly enough and dived down, feeling the passage Lan had been able to make between her side of the bars and his. She bobbed back up and smiled, but Lan was already busy about widening the hole in the side of the ship. Anya dived back down and squeezed herself through the small opening under the cell bars, nearly drowning in the effort to get her hips through.
Lan didn't smile much when she managed to surface beside him inside his cell. He had lost precious moments which brought the next inevitable wave nearer. The girl looked exhausted from her effort, but he grabbed her hand and dragged her back under the cold water, pulling her along as he grabbed at the edge of his hole with his free hand. With a great effort, he leveraged himself and pushed the girl out the hole and into the sea. The very force of his thrust took him out the hole as well, a great wave washing over the main deck of the boat, cocking it to an odd angle that buried their escape hole in the silt. The same wave caught the twosome, still holing each other's hands, and pushed them closer to shore.
When they finally managed to drag themselves up the sandy beach, their bodies shredded by a good buffeting against the very rocks that had provided for their escape, Lanolylc noticed the terrible pain in his shoulder and the fact that he couldn't move the adjacent arm. Anya was spitting up the water she had breathed in when Lan had pulled her under. They were a bit damaged, but they were alive. Voices could be heard in the direction of the boat, not a hundred feet away, still battered by the waves and tearing itself on the rocks. That sound stirred the twosome and they crawled on, making for a line of bushes where they could hide.
The night was filled with cursing, from the barking of the captain who was trying to salvage as much of his cargo as possible, to the vicious Vacarius, who bellowed about not having enough men to conduct a proper search for his prisoners, and seemed to blame everyone for the drowning of his favorite horse, which was just across the bulkhead from where Lan and Anya had escaped. Even after melting into the bushes, Anya could still clearly hear the din, which brought out workers from a nearby farmhouse, the only thing for miles. The farm-laborers were less then helpful, content to watch the work being done and ignoring Vacarius' bribes to help search for the escapees. There had been a few men that had entertained the Cardinal's desires, but upon mention of the Empire, any negotiations broke down. It was obvious that the ship's crew and the Conclavists were not going to offered but the barest hospitality.
At daybreak, when Anya finally roused the groaning Lan, their shipmates were gone, already headed north to lands more congenial to Imperial sorts. The man tested his shoulder and found it gashed and still oozing blood, which covered most of his clothes by now. The wound was deep and looked like it was well on its way to infection, making the man groggy and barely able to stand. Anya bound up the wound as best she could, crushing some familiar herbs up into a paste and applying it to the wound liberally.
"We have to get you to that farm!" The girl was bedraggled, but unharmed, able to use all her faculties, which made Lan grumpy.
The man swooned uncertainly, speaking oddly. "What makes you think they will help us? They didn't help Vacarius..." He settled heavily against the girl, who pushed hard on his good side to try and buoy him up.
"Hopefully," she said as she strained against the gravity pushing him over. "Hopefully, they will take pity on us."
It was difficult to say where the "farm" began, for horseman spotted them not very many hours into their hike inland and, upon seeing Lan's wound, they quickly hoisted the pair up, one to each horseman's mount, and sped off in a south-easterly direction.
The men knew the trails well and sped along at a clip much faster than Lan would have wanted, even if they had not been injured. The old Chief Counselor had too many experiences with fast horses, some being astride and others being dragged behind, and he did not relish another encounter. Anya, on the other hand, enjoyed the experience thoroughly, for she had only been on the backs of plow horses up until then and this was far faster and more exhilarating a feeling than she had ever had before.
"How far is it to the place we are going to?" Anya shouted to the man in the crude saddle before her.
The man pointed just left of the direction they were heading. "We are making for a camp just five miles off where we can tend better to your friend." The horse plunged over a small dry-river bed and the man instinctively rose up in his saddle to cushion the expected landing. The best Anya could do was clutch even harder to the rider in front of her and hope she wouldn't get much of a jolt. The horse smoothly made contact on the opposite bank and sped on, the girl relieved that things had gone so well. The horse carrying Lan was not so experienced and gave his bottom quite a bumping. "I will have to send word to my father and see what he wants to do with you."
Anya furrowed her brow. "How many miles is it to where your father is?"
"Oh," the man squinted his eyes, letting the horse steer the course ahead. "The big house is probably thirty more miles after that, but you will be at the camp for a while until your friend is more ready for a journey of that length." He pondered his reckoning slowly, as if refiguring distances. "It will likely take six days to get you from our camp to Father's house, since you will probably ride with a supply cart."
Anya wondered at what all this meant, for she had never heard of anything like it, being always associated with a village and thinking on those terms. She pondered as she watched the terrain go by, strange to her eyes but beautiful in an altogether novel way.
Winter was giving way to spring at home, but already the day was hot here further south. Anya's grandfather had told of lush, green valleys throughout Firsthome, but very little was green here. The ground was a bit sandy and things that struggled between being trees and bushes covered the countryside, obscuring her view of any but the ground immediately nearby. Not far off, but all around and at very heights and distances, she could see mountains that looked as if their tops had been sliced off. These bore little resemblance to the crystal peaks she knew from the far north, but they offered a nice change from the flat tundra she was accustomed to at home.
Everything here seemed to be brown, even in this time when things were in bloom. Thin, tiny leaves on the bushy trees were more silver than green and though there was a cornucopia of colors about her, one had to look hard to see the tiny flowers of vibrant yellow, orange, red, and violet. It was not the loveliest place to Anya's eyes, but she was enjoying it none the less. The girl was also getting some pleasure out of being able to hold onto a muscular, ruggedly handsome young man as well, if the truth be told.
* * *
The "camp" was little more than four squat dwellings, looking to be made of mud and brick, flat-roofed and basically round in shape. The scraggly trees had been cleared off for some hundred feet "to keep critters off," her escort explained. A wooden fence, not more than an intertwining of branches of the local bush-tree, enclosed a fair-sized piece of land which the handsome man called a "corral." Anya was smiling and looking about her, drinking in the new sights and sounds, loving every minute.
Lan was not in so fortunate a circumstance. Trapped within one of the "huts," as he called it, two old women were poking and prodding him, speaking so low and cackling that he would have thought them conversing in another language besides his own. Three younger and far more beautiful and charming women worked about a fire and pots, sneaking giggles and smiling glances at the man's predicament. "Ow! Hey!" He tried to brush the poking finger of one woman away, but she only slapped his hand aside and continued. "That hurts!" The old women ignored him, but the younger ones only giggled harder as they continued their work.
Anya learned that the man who had rode before her on the horse and gave her the tour of the camp was named Calt. He was, I am told, everything women swoon over: tall, slender, muscular, well-tanned with the sun, and seemingly good natured. Of course, the girl had precious little experience with such men, for village folk tended to be fat, gossip incessantly, and have terrible manners, so Anya was particularly enchanted by this uncommon (at least to her eyes) man.
They were in a hut that seemed to be Calt's alone, the man writing a letter on a precious piece of parchment, stopping every now and then to think of the right word. Anya was following along and offered some suggestions to him, most of which he chose to ignore. This was foreign to her as well, for a man of any breeding at all in her land looked upon women with greatest respect, as the landowners and leaders of families. She forgave him this, for the man, looking every bit the lord of this small settlement, seemed to have a boyishness that the noblemen she knew lacked completely, wrapped up in difficult affairs and always posturing for gain. This man seemed to have no such presumptions.
Getting up from the writing desk, he whistled loudly and a strange looking dog entered the room, lashing its bare tail back and forth. Anya burst out laughing, pointing at the dog. "Do you always shave your dogs?"
The man looked befuddled but still managed a smile. "No, this is pretty much how Eft comes. What do dogs look like where you come from?"
She put her hand at the height of her hip. "Our dogs stand about so tall." Eft was no quite half so high off of the floor. "They are covered with long hair all over and they usually pull the sleds of men that go into the mountains to trap animals for their furs."
The man lifted a brow, for this was all new to him. "Eft here can run a long way very quickly." Calt put the parchment in a leather pouch that was strapped to the dog's back. "His hair never gets longer than it is now. I don't know anything about hauling sleds, whatever those are, but he will get this message to my father by nightfall. I expect a reply by morning."
Anya was impressed. "That is a fast dog!"
The man seemed to brush the topic aside. "You must tell me about these sleds and trappers and your home in the snows up north. It will snow here occasionally, but usually it is just hot and dry." He motioned for her to take the seat upon a stool at his side. "I am interested in knowing about your land and people. I also would like to know more about you."
The girl was a little perturbed that this seemingly kindly man had not offered his own chair to her, but she decided to say nothing. Eased by the man's comfortable nature and interest in her, Anya's tongue was loosened and she began to talk about everything she could think of.
After Nychol had taken Julya back to Cyte Edomi, Xan was even more guilt-ridden than ever, for now there was this pup of a girl, who was so eager to please that it was almost syrupy at times. The old woman, now freed from her concern about Julya's death, was now berating herself for having allowed such a terrible thing to happen to the girl. Julya forgave her many times over, but it only seemed to come from the Princess' newly-cavernous need to please. Xan was hardly consoled.
To make it short, Julya was still driving people to distraction, only now it was in a completely different way. There was very little to be done at Cyte Edomi but to relax and rest from their journey, but the girl needed something to do, if only to keep her from making everyone mad with her constant need to serve them. "Let me take that for you!" "Is there anything I can do?" "It is just so wonderful to be here!"
There was a small orphan girl named Genoa who had recently been placed in the care of the citadel. Her parents had died before her eyes in a great fire and she had been emotionally reamed out by the experience. Edom, in his wisdom, had desired to pair the two up, giving Julya a strict charge to care well for this child and find ways to reach the girl. In her new condition, the Princess eagerly agreed, though it would prove to be much more challenging than tending sheep.
Day after day, the people of the citadel watched as Genoa and Julya would take walks together and talk, as Julya would prepared meals for the two of them, and the four-year-old even got to the point where she played with the older girl. It was unmistakable that there was a bond of love growing up between them, as Julya put more effort into this task than to anything she had done previously. Now freed from the threat of punishment, she even developed a little courage to try new ideas with the girl, some working and some not. In all, the love and admiration from the girl was adequate reward for Julya, who soon took the role of friend and protectress, even mother at times.
This seemed to be the very tonic that Julya needed at this time, but in the minds of Nychol and Edom, the young woman was pulling away from her God-given path and destiny by focusing solely on the little girl. They had taken to meeting together in Edom's chambers privately, discussing a wide variety of topics, but more often than not, talking of the young Princess and how to set her back on the path to the throne.
* * *
I have stumbled upon this old entry written by Nychol himself about a private interview he had with Edom during this time. I liked it so much that I will let you read it from his own point of view!
The room was dark and rather small, the only thing bringing cheer was a dusty lamp, its light altogether inadequate because of the soot of the poor glass chimney. But the aura that the weak lamplight in which it bathed the objects around them brought everything to dusky life. It was like the particular time of twilight, when all things are in transition from day to night, looking wholly different than at any other time. The small rickety table that held the lamp and a worn copy of scripture, the rusty frame of the small bed, the faint outlines of gray walls stained with innumerable frosts and rains, but most of all, old Edom's lined face: all these things took on a strange hue, a life all their own.
The pervading feeling in the room was one of warmth and closeness. It was intimate, but not as it may be between lovers. It was as the attraction between two intellectual friends, who enjoy coming together and just talking amongst themselves about many things. Edom's eyes were bright and dancing in the flickering light, much more so than I had seen them at any other time. "So," he breathed, leaning closer to me, "What shall we talk of tonight?"
I took a long, slow breath, letting my mind clear. I was not thinking of anything in particular, save the ambiance, and closed my eyes. "You decide," I replied after a while.
There was a wonderful stillness as we were both there. The old man's expression could have changed, but I didn't notice it because of my shut lids. That interesting sound that the mouth makes when it parts in preparation for speech was in my ears. "I have been thinking about Julya."
I cocked my head and let my eyes look on the old craggy face. "And what," I asked with raised brow, "were you thinking?"
He leaned back a bit, his eyes fixing on some point over my right shoulder, looking at nothing, but freeing the mind to think and mull without restraint. "We are nothing."
Pursing my lips, I looked down on the floor, thinking that more would soon follow, some jewel of wisdom just waiting to fall from the old man's lips. After a moment or two, the continuing silence was becoming uncomfortable for me. "Julya makes you think that we are nothing?"
"Oh," Edom sighed, "I have considered the concept for some time, but the tale of Julya's captivity just brings it back to mind." His eyes settled on me just long enough for him to smile and say, "It gives one pause."
I licked my upper lip, know that this would be another conversation that I must drag out of the old high priest. Sometimes, I think he did it on purpose, so that I would be more attentive as I extracted the meaning of such vague statements as "What is real?" or "Who are we, really?" or the present "We are nothing." I'm almost sure that the old man did no such thing consciously, but anyone could accuse him. "What concept?" I prodded.
Acting startled, Edom looked again at me, as if awakening from dream. "What? Have we not talked of this in all of the times we have been together?" My face told him that we had not, or that I did not remember sufficiently to prevent a retelling. "It really has to do with how we think of ourselves and what we do with what we learn."
"Go on," I prompted, setting my elbow on the table and resting my chin in the waiting palm.
Edom also leaned in closer, coming into the dim halo of light. "How do we define ourselves? Can we look at ourselves and identify the things that make us what we are?" He was silent for a moment. "Think of yourself. Describe yourself to me."
I slumped in my chair and sighed, taking time to ponder the old man's request. Long minutes passed with no sound and no movement except the shadows cast by the wavering light. "Okay," I said uncertainly, "I am a child of God. I am a student of the scripture and a musician." I struggled and shook my head. "I...I am the son of Rendlyn..."
"Excellent," the man murmured. "And, when you look at this definition of yourself, how are you doing? Are you a worthy son of God? As a student, do you have a decent grasp of scripture? How well do you play your music? Would your father be honored to have you for a son?" He was looking at me with those sparkling eyes, this mouth in a tight line, anticipating my answer.
This was quickly turning into something unpleasant. In the past, our talks had tended to be philosophical in a very general way. This sudden turn to soul-searching was not on my program for the evening. I screwed up my eyes in fake thought and produced a pretty sarcastic answer, a little too quickly to be mistaken for sincerity. "Well, as good as most, I'd wager."
Edom bent a little closer, his eyes piercing. "And how good is that?"
Unpleasantness was now becoming annoying, but I complied with the request and contemplated myself for a moment. As I had predicted, it was actually very unpleasant. I looked at the old man without quavering. "I'm doing pretty badly."
His face broke into a smile. "Good. I'm glad to know I have some company there." He turned his head and stared off again, speaking almost absently. "It is a rare person who takes a truly honest look at himself and lets others know the results."
I shrugged dejectedly, painted a silly grin on my face, slapped both knees with my hands and prepared to get up and leave. "Well, with that answered, I think I shall go sulk somewhere..."
"What?" Edom gave me an incredulous look. "You stared your nothingness in the face and just give up and walk off? I thought we were going to talk?"
I sighed and slumped back into the hardwood chair, back enough from the lamp that most of my face was in shadow. "All right. So, I am nothing. Now what?"
The old man clapped his hands together in genuine joy. "Exactly!" he exclaimed.
I blinked, letting an incredulous smile haunt my face. "Exactly what?"
"You don't get it?" Edom searched my face as if I were hiding some deep truth from him. "You don't see the significance of the question 'Now what?'"
My face must have looked like a glacier, the smile melting away. "It is just something to say. You make me question my accomplishments in life and you seem to want to probe around the wound a little more. My thought is 'What's next?'"
The old man frowned and nodded. "I see." He got up from his place and paced to the other side of the room, a journey of about two steps if you minced. "I need to rephrase this." He turned about and traversed the distance back to me in a second. "Since you realize that you are nothing, what do you do with that knowledge?"
I looked up at him, totally floored. It was like expecting a punch in the face, but getting kicked in the shin instead. I must have looked incredulous, just shaking my head. "I don't think I want to do this anymore."
"Oh, come on." He looked like a young puppy, wanting so much to have someone play with him. What resistance could I offer that?
Leaving another great sigh, I gently bit on the inside of my cheek, thinking. What does one do when all the carefully constructed reality of life comes down on them and they realize that their little built world was nothing but flimsy paper. "I suppose," I started, then licked my lips, and cocked my head with a little smile. "I suppose I do the best I can with what little I really am."
Edom nodded and smiled largely. "I like that. A little optimistic, but I like it." He turned back away and took a step. "A very good attitude, don't you think?" With a snap, He turned to face me again. "You know, all those things that you used to describe yourself are very true, but have you noticed the two biggest ones are things that dropped into your lap? Yes, you are your father's son and you are God's child, but there was nothing that you did to earn those titles. They were handed to you."
"Yes," I shot back. "I may not have earned the title 'son,' but it does tell me what my potential is. If I am the offspring of God, I can someday be like him. Like father, like son."
He clapped his hands again, full of joy. "Yes! Wonderful! I'm glad you think this way! So many don't see that. They look around themselves and think they are doing just as well as the others, but that is the wrong way to look. That is what makes men and women proud, when they see that they are doing well in comparison to others around them, and they will sit back and relax. They stop striving!"
I nodded, mostly to myself. "Yes, we look around and we become very distracted from what is important."
"So, God our Father wants us to know that we are nothing, so that we can be humble." Edom's face was back down on my level, illuminated and animated by the dim light as he hunched over. "I cannot make an elephant, produce great pillars of fire from nothing, or even speed the growth of a single clover on my own! Compared to God, I really am nothing, and so are you. All of us are lower than the dust! But, when we reach out to God, knowing our inadequacies, and ask for help, with true desire, we learn to be more like Him!" He smiled even more broadly. "The wonderful part is that when we go to Him, he will actually Help us, often in amazing ways!"
I nodded. "The scripture does say that He will make us strong through our weakness."
"Yes," the old man blurted in excitement. "Yes, it is when we come to know how truly weak we are that we seek God and receive His strength!" His face turned suddenly very dark and serious. "However, turning to God does not naturally follow. How many people, when confronted with their myriad inadequacies sink into despair, feel to go off and sulk as you wanted to do a while ago?"
"I can think of one."
Edom nodded gravely. "Julya comes to my mind as well, Nychol. Long has been her drop from the haughty Princess of the world to an abused shepherdess-slave. What is in her heart now? Does she reach out to God, or does she think herself so small that she is beyond aid?"
I sighed. "I cannot perceive her thoughts, but she has little knowledge of God and his kindness. How can one turn for help when she does not know who is offering it? She will likely fall into darkness before she reaches her hand to God, only because she is ignorant of such things."
"Well then," Edom announced after a moment of mutual contemplation, "what now? Isn't that your response to the dilemma of being nothing? What will Julya do now?" He looked deeply into my eyes. "More importantly for us, how can we help her choose a good course?"
I must have looked a little paled by the question, for which I had no answers. "Julya seems to have been taken by that tiny girl, stirring up her maternal side. If left to herself, I think she would simply take whatever love she was offered and become a wife and mother."
"That would be fine for another woman, but what of Alaedea?" Edom looked at the table blankly. "What of Daavor's prophecy that Julya should take the throne and usher in a golden time? I remember how I felt when the prophet spoke those words and I cannot deny that they came from God."
I pondered a moment. "Is it our place to interfere in God's work? Perhaps he already has a plan and our intervention is only a frustration of it."
Edom smiled and looked up at me. "How can a student of scripture be so unlearned of the ways of God? Does not God act through his servants? If we teach her the truths of God and his Gospel, is that an evil? It isn't like we will force her to fulfill the prophecy. We can teach her the things we know and then she chooses her own path."
"It sounds like you have already decided what to do!" I grinned and raised a brow. "Have you only steered my mind so that I might help you in this effort to educate Julya?"
The old man pickled his face in derision. "Of course not. I have been considering what to do, but I only reached this thought as we talked. I thank you for helping me discover this, though I would certainly welcome your help in the task."
I laughed aloud, giving my companion a sidelong glance. "I wonder! You seem innocent enough, but I cannot help thinking that you are drawing me into some conspiracy!"
"I?" Edom grinned pleasantly. "If I were doing such a thing, would it be anything worse than any other servant of God? Do we not both conspire to help God accomplish his goals?"
Laughing again, I nodded. "I can always depend upon you to see our lives in an interesting way. Very well. I will be in your little game and gladly, for the cause is a good one."
The old man's face grew suddenly grim, made more so by the light of lamp grown weaker with age. "No. This is not a game and it is not mine. If we fail to act and do our best, God may very well hold us responsible for an absent Queen and a broken promise to the people."
I grew contrite. "You are right, of course. Let us work diligently and quickly."
With that, we both arose from the tiny table, looked into each other's eyes, and left the room. As the door closed behind us, the feeble light used its last oil and went out.
And so, Julya's training in the ways of God was about to begin.
"Must you go?" the little girl said darkly, not looking the older girl in the face.
Julya crouched down and touched her cheek tenderly. "Yes. God has called me to do something that is very important, so I must leave you for a while." A kindly older woman was nearby with a sad smile on her face at the scene. "Beka will care for you and read to you while I am gone."
"Are you going to die like my mother?" Youth had a terribly way of being direct and Genoa's way as brutally so.
The Princess swept the girl up in her arms, holding her tight and kissing her rigorously. "I don't think I will die, just because God has so many things he wants me to do! I am to be a Queen over all this land! When that is done, I will come and take you to a new home."
The girl brightened. "Will it be a glittering castle, like in your stories?"
"Well," Julya didn't want to lead the girl on, "I don't know how the palace looks, but I know it is far nicer than any house here at the citadel! We will have to see if you think it is a glittering castle."
The girl's excitement was deflated quickly. "How long will you be gone?"
Julya was still holding the girl tightly to her breasts, stroking her longish hair and looking lovingly in her eyes. "I don't know. It may be a very long time, my dear. I will send messages as often as I can." Suddenly, a thought came into her mind and she knew it was a whispering from God and it came out of her mouth before she even realized it. "Before the winter comes again, I will be here with you and we will go away to a wonderful city and live happily ever after, just like Princesses should!"
At that, the little girl smiled. "I can wait until winter!" She gave the older girl a big hug and kiss. "I love you!"
Julya squeezed her so tightly, it made Nychol, who had just come for the Princess, wonder if the little girl was going to be damaged. "I love you, too."
"It's time," the man said quietly, reaching out a hand for Julya.
The woman wiped away tears as she handed her precious Genoa off to Beka and gathered her pack. "I love you," she said to the girl once more as she passed out of the room.
Edom and Nychol had made good their desire to help Julya see the need to take up the quest to become Queen and the Princess had reluctantly changed her thinking and plans to comply with her appointed destiny. Of course, the act of making that decision was momentous, but it would face many trials in the hard, day-to-day labor of living her life true to her choice. Julya was finding it terribly difficult to leave the young girl to whom she had become so attached.
It was with great pain that Nychol, Xan, and Julya left the love and warmth of Cyte Edomi and began their journey up the slopes of the Last Range of Alaedea. The almost perpetual spring of citadel soon showed itself to be in stark contrast to the ever-dropping chill of the Range and its eternally frosted heights. On the occasional cloudless day, one could not even look upon the Range as it shined so brightly in perfect whiteness. Here and there could be seen a rare break in the mirror-like face of the slope, a cluster of wind-blasted evergreen trees that somehow clung to tiny valleys in the rock, like the oasis in the desert of hard-packed snow. In their travels, the three companions struggled to move between these patches of shelter from the cold, which increased in its bitterness as they climbed steadily higher.
On the fifth day from Edomi, the initial gift of provisions was already running low and they wept as they slew and dressed the first of the pack-dogs that Edom had sent with them for just this purpose. "No one has ever desired, much less attempted, to cross the Range. If you feel you must, take these dogs with you. They can help haul your provisions in the beginning, but I fear they will be your meat before the end comes." Nychol never doubted the old High Priest's pessimism, but he hoped things would not come to that.
Dog was not a pleasant meal, but it kept the group going through the long days spent trudging along a wandering course that criss-crossed the face of the peak they had chosen to tackle. There were fifteen dogs and it seemed that one could satisfy the three of them for one day, forcing them to keep up a grueling pace.
It was on the eighth day that one dog came up missing. Julya was always careful to stake the dogs in as protected a place as possible, as Edom had instructed, but she feared that one had not been well secured. This did not meet well with her two companions that evening, but Julya promised to ensure that it didn't happen again.
The next day, another dog was gone, but this time, Julya was not blamed for the loss. The carcass was still attached to the rope but much of the beast had been torn apart and the remainder laid in a dark area of reddened snow. Xan proposed that a watch be set each night as the group could not afford to have their last source of food stolen away one-by-one.
The next few days passed like a blur of snowblindness and the mindless effort to rise and struggle ever higher, while the nights were spent in shift sleeping, always one zombified figure, hunched against the cold, looking like some crazed shepherd who avoided the green pastures below. It was probably the reduced amount of sleep and the deepening chill that finally struck Xan and brought on the fever that Edom had also warned of. That day, eight dogs pulled the sled that carried Xan forward. As had become customary, they took turns leading the dogs and that day was Nychol's. He had spent the morning praying over the feverish body of the old woman as Julya administered herbs as she had been taught recently by Xan herself, but though their desire was sufficient, it seemed that God did not visit this angry mountain, and they trudged ahead with low hopes.
Two nights past Xan's fever, Julya caught sight of a shadow in the form of an animal on all fours, which seemed to be circling the few remaining dogs. She promptly stirred up the fire made from the few dead pine branches that could be found and set ablaze, and the animal growled and moved on.
The night afterwards brought the same animal to Nychol, who picked up a largish branch from the fire and chased the beast away. There were only five dogs now, and Julya and Nychol knew that Xan was too heavy a burden for so few. They finally settled on harnessing both of their able bodies at the lead of the dogs, and they felt themselves reduced to mere beasts-of-burden. The two friends huddled together as they pressed forward, seeing the hope of a pass not far ahead in the momentary break in the clouds. Hope sprang from the frozen depths of their hearts as they dragged on with greater vigor. The victory was at hand.
The extra effort had tired them greatly that night and Nychol dozed during his watch time. Xan had become little more than a bundle to them, though Julya had taken great pains to stoke up a larger fire than the normal to keep the old woman warm. Wood instantly became very scarce, but some color returned to the face of their old friend. Now, the fire had long since gone out from a lack of fuel and Julya was deep within a mass of dog furs, interspersed with the remaining live dogs, when the creature came again to the camp.
By the time Nychol awoke, Julya was already fully awake and backing away from the beast as it growled and slunk nearer her. "Hey! Get away from her!"
As Nychol sprang up, the animal turned and faced him. It was a great cat, black as the darkest night, but baring teeth that glittered like stars. The cat gave a low growl and to Nychol's amazement, it spoke. "This does not concern you, boy." It immediately turned back to its intended victim.
As Nychol made another leap forward, he could distinctly see the whites of Julya's eyes flash and grow larger. She had only the crooked knife she had brought with her from the citadel, which she handled in the most menacing way she knew how, but the cat continued closer, undaunted. "What do you think you are doing here in my domain, girl?" The voice was low and cold.
"I...I am only returning Xan to her people," Julya stammered, trying desperately to keep the loose furs about her with one hand while wildly waving the crude weapon in the other. "We mean you no harm. Please leave us."
Nychol edged closer, hoping he might surprise the beast. "I am lord here, Princess. Your life is mine." The cat was preparing to spring when Nychol pounced upon it and drove his own knife hard into its chest.
The cat gave out a roar and twisted itself madly about, managing to strike Nychol hard with its clawed paw. He rolled away, both hands pressed hard against the side of his head. The cat shook itself and limped closer to Julya. "You thought you could pass by me. The boy thinks he can kill me, but he hasn't the strength."
Nychol rose up upon his elbows, his voice broken and his blood pouring from his cheek. "Why don't you finish me first, you creature?"
The cat halted its progression and looked back. "I will finish you after I have completed my mission here."
Julya cocked her head. "Mission?"
"I am sent here to destroy you, Julya of the House of Saradyo."
Julya almost dropped her skins and her knife. "How do you know my name? How does an animal come to speak and hate me so?"
The cat seemed almost to laugh. "You have courted so carefully the Good, haven't you? I have come to stop you, in the name of Evil." The cat bounded forward without warning and only Julya's tight-wound nerves threw her aside in time.
She scampered toward Nychol and crouched by his side, wanting to attend to him, but keeping her eyes on the unreal creature that came back to its feet and circled about to face the pair. "You should have stayed in the valley and did your little kindnesses. We might have let you be."
Julya looked as if to snarl herself, old habits coming to the surface. "Who is we, cat? And how do you know so much of us?"
"We have watched you for a long time, my master and I," the animal purred deeply. "You think you will be a queen, but you are unworthy of such things. Go back down the mountain like a good little girl." It took another small step forward. "I'd hate to kill you."
Nychol spat. "You'd love to kill us, I'd wager! God puts us on our path and we will see it through!"
"What do you know of God, boy? Do you think your little words impress me?" Now, the cat seemed to rise up and before their eyes, it was transformed into a great bear that roared out in anger. "I am the god of this land! I rule from sea to sea, and no one will dare oppose me!"
Nychol managed to get to his feet again, though shakily. "I will oppose you!"
The bear swung a mighty paw and knocked Nychol aside as if he were a doll. The man crumpled as if dead. Julya made a movement toward him but the creature stepped between.
"I could kill him now, and your old one in the sled, but I would rather not. Return to the valley and end this foolish quest of yours. The people below will be glad for your safe return and they will hail you as a queen among women. Your little girl already cries out for you!" The voice of the beast became softer and it seemed to become a human in form. "You would die before you reached the far side of the Range and then, what would you have done? Better to return to Cyte Edomi and do what you can do there."
Julya seemed to calm and see the sensibility in the creature's words. "We were doing so much, and I miss Genoa..."
"Yes...," the man-creature nodded and reached out for her. He only managed a step when a dark shape plowed into him and knocked him down. Julya staggered as if awakening from a dream.
The creature regained its cat form as Nychol, drenched in blood from his head wounds, wrestled with it. "Don't listen to him!" Nychol managed between grunts and pain-pangs. "It is Evil!"
The two figures rolled about in the snow as each tried to gain the advantage. The cat broke free and managed another swipe on the bloodied man, who now stopped his struggle. The cat shook itself and became a soft-spoken man again. "I won't kill him if you promise me to return to the valley, Princess."
Julya was shivering with the cold and with the thought that Nychol may already be close to death. What should she do? she thought to herself. How could I manage the journey without Nychol?
The man stepped closer and put out his hand. "It was an honorable effort, Julya, but you are not up to the task." Another step forward. "I could have you and your friends safely in the valley in the wink of an eye. Just take my hand..."
The outstretched hand was so enticing. An end to this whole ordeal. Back into the valley, with little Genoa whom she loved so much. Nychol and Xan would heal quickly there where she had a better store of herbs. It seemed the perfect solution. She began to reach out her hand toward the man.
As he drew closer, she could dimly see his face in the starlight. It bore no resemblance to any man, but the evil smile was broad as its triumph was in sight. Julya shook her head again and stepped back. "No." she said simply.
The evil smile deepened. "Then you and your friends shall die." The out-stretched hand blurred and became the bear's claw.
Julya saw her doom as it reached out to take her. In a last effort, she screamed loud her first prayer. "Dear God! Save us!"
At that, the lightning flashed and seared the claw that was within inches of her throat. The beast stumbled back and roared in anguish as another bolt lashed out and knocked the creature from its feet. It rolled for a few yards and then disappeared over a ledge.
Julya dropped to the ground, and offered up the second prayer in her life: a prayer of thanksgiving. That done, she hurried to the moaning body of Nychol and began tending his wounds.
As Calt had predicted, his dog returned the next day, an hour before noon, bearing a reply from his father. Anya was eager to hear news, even if it meant that she had to put off her lesson in horseback riding.
After studying the parchment, the father's response simply being written after the son's questions, the man looked strangely at Anya. "You say you come from the far north?"
"Yes." Anya wanted to look over his shoulder to see what was written, but he put the parchment on the desk, face-down. "What does it say?"
The man rubbed his face, wondering what to do. "Father has heard interesting rumors, especially to be on watch for a young woman and a man perhaps traveling south."
She put her hand on the parchment. "Maybe I should read it..."
"Are you the Princess?" he asked suddenly, making the girl jump in surprise.
Anya pulled at her lip, for she had been masquerading as Julya for so long that her first inclination was to say yes. But she had already shared so much of her life story and her confidence with this man that she felt strange lying to him. She shrugged and made a silly look, avoiding the question as best she could.
The man smiled. "You can't bring yourself to tell me, can you?" He slipped out of his chair and took her hand. "You don't need to worry, Princess, your secret is safe here. I don't think you will find any man more of a loyal Queenman than my father." he drew her closer. "And you need not worry about me either."
Anya gulped and looked at the man with a strained smile. There was obvious desire sparking between them. "Oh," she stammered, wanting to hide. "That's a relief!"
"My father is coming here as quickly as possible, probably arriving within two days at best." He looked at her with those wonderfully squinting eyes. "I wish we had something better to present you to him in."
The girl looked down and admitted that the dress she had been wearing for several days now had looked a good deal better a week ago when she had a nice cabin and regal clothing provided by Vacarius. "I washed it out just last night."
He sighed and fingered the fabric, stained badly by sweat and sea-water and the dust of the ride to the camp. "Perhaps Aunt Matil can do something with it." He cocked his head, trying to sound optimistic. "It really does look to be a very nice dress."
Anya was about to correct him and call it a gown made for nobility, but she thought the reference would escape him. "Maybe one of the girls has a dress I could borrow while Matil works on this."
Calt nodded with deflated hopes and Anya quickly left the main house, running toward the kitchen, wondering if God would strike her down for presuming to continue to take Julya's identity, a girl that was probably long dead now. Worst of all, tears stung her face as she thought about Calt's implicit trust in her and how she was destroying it just when she was thinking she might be in love with him.
Anya had found that nearly everyone in the camp was part of Calt's family. His aunt, Matil, ran things in the kitchen house, assisted by one of her younger daughters and a cousin. Matil's husband was the man that had brought Lanolylc in the day before and was a foreman of sorts over a handful of laborers, some younger members of the family, some only strangers that worked in exchange for food and a place to stay. Anya saw little disharmony in the group, for it was very clear-cut who the leaders were and Calt was the definitive boss in the camp. Though he was not a mean man, he was the most able, so he rarely had to remind those he charged with tasks that his status was given him by his father.
This was very foreign to Anya, for she grew up in a society where women basically wielded authority. Ever since Treychaen, Alaedeus' oldest son and the only King the land had ever had, fell into dark paths and God placed Saradyo, the King's wife, on the throne, the concept of women bearing authority had become universal. Families were headed by women, though the smart lady would rely heavily on the advice of a goodly husband, who typically acted as the manager of the household and an agent for the lady of the house out in public. In fact, the title "Lady" indicated a woman who was away from her mother, held land of her own, and had established a household of her own. Men clamored for education and experience, wanting to someday impress a Lady so that she would choose him for a husband, which was mutually beneficial. The Lady gained much good counsel and a manager for her holdings, while the lucky husband would gain the prestige and power that came with bearing the name of his wife. Men without marriage could rise to little more than the soldiery or places in government, neither highly thought of. It seemed that in these remote lands, the ways of the Queens held little sway and other family organizations had sprang up. Anya was intrigued especially by the persistent absence of references to Calt's mother. When Anya had tried to explain these differences to Calt, the man only shook his head and exclaimed that he was glad not to live in "a woman's world."
The kitchens were much more comfortable for Anya, as Matil held ultimate power there and Calt chose to let her be so he could have some peace. The woman was kindly to her subordinates, though she grew cross at her daughter, who did not seem to meet the mother's expectations. "How will you ever impress the lord with that kind of sloppy work?" Apparently, the title "lord" referred to Calt's father. Preparations were being forced quickly, everyone wanting to make a good impression on the father who was soon to come. The other girl, a distant cousin, was given simple chores to do, Anya guessing rightly that she was not even in consideration for any position greater than the one she already had.
Matil took the dress to work with herself, finding a nice-enough dress for her, though it was rather drab compared to the sumptuous gowns that she had quickly become accustomed to traveling with Vacarius. The material was much heavier than the thin silks and taffetas that she had been wearing, but the garment seemed to fit her surroundings better, a study in browns and oranges and silvery-greens. She liked the dress very much. "Thank you," she said as she showed it off to the girls.
Next, she finally looked in on Lanolylc, who was "resting," as Matil put it. In a room just of the main kitchen, he was sprawled on a bed, eyes half opened, mouth wide open, and he already had the gray pallor that Anya was all too familiar with. Matil's daughter came in to look as well and Anya said flatly, "He is having one of his death spells. You will need to start force-feeding him soups or he will starve to death." The girl looked wide-eyed at Anya, horrified by the complete detachment the woman had about things like death and starvation. She ran quickly for a bowl of stew while Anya propped the man up on some nearby cushions. The woman saw that her definition of "soup" was different from the girl's and added some water to cool the mixture and made the concoction into a thin mush with a fork. The girl acted as if to leave Anya with the comatose man, but she was called back and the woman soon had her spooning food slowly into the man's mouth, waiting for him to reflexively chew and swallow.
Anya sighed. This was not what she wanted to be doing again, though this kept the annoying Lanolylc out of the way while she could get to know Calt better and explore this new world with him. She was hoping to put this girl in her old place as Lan's nursemaid. "You will really want to keep him stripped because it makes cleaning up after him much easier," Anya explained as she was struggling his pants off. Matil's daughter averted her eyes, red with embarrassment, which the woman could only frown at. "You will have to get used to seeing and caring for a naked man."
Matil came in an hour later and nearly fainted to see her daughter casually spoon-feeding a naked man while this "princess," as Calt referred to her, explained that she would need to move him a few times a day so he wouldn't get bedsores. Both young women startled at Matil's gasp and Anya quickly explained the situation. After things were clearer, the woman still looked on with some disapproval. She threw the tattered remains of Anya's gown to the floor before her. "It is ruined. I tried to be careful, but the stains were deep-set and when I scrubbed at them, the material just fell apart. Worthless stuff." Anya wasn't about to try to extol the merits of such finery to the older woman, who had no use for foolish things that had no real practicality besides their beauty.
"Oh," the younger woman said with a shrug, "I'm not surprised. That gown was never made for such rough use." She twirled the dress she was wearing now around, admiring it. "I rather like this one, though."
Matil nodded shortly. "Fine, it is yours." Anya could see the woman's daughter grow beet red, for this must have been the girl's nicest dress. As if to add another blow to the injury, the woman turned to her daughter. "The lady," Matil pointing absently to Anya, "will have no time to deal with this man, Calt's orders. You will have to care for him." The girl was obviously upset, but had the sense to reluctantly nod and return to her work of feeding. "Calt wants to see you. Now."
Anya's ire was stirred at the older woman's shortness, for she was used, after taking Julya's identity, to having some deferential treatment. She lingered in small protest to Matil, who was growing uglier by the minute, but did nothing more, knowing that the girl was in the favor of the boss. Finally, Anya swept out, glad to be away from Matil, but especially relieved to be free of Lanolylc.
Calt smiled when she came into the main house. The dress she wore was very fetching, if a bit less ornate than the other he had seen her in. Anya smiled back and curtsied. He had sensed that there was a certain attraction between them, but he wanted to make sure. He began making his way toward her. "You look beautiful."
She averted her eyes shyly. "Thank you." Her shyness faded as she realized his manners were not what they once were, as he proceeded to move much closer than she found comfortable. She looked him in the eyes, lowering them a bit. "You wanted me to come?"
"Yes," he breathed, pressing his body against hers and, maneuvering her head from behind with his hand, bringing her lips up to his. Suddenly, he leapt back in pain, his tongue throbbing from where she had bit him. "What was that for?"
The woman was absolutely livid. "Just who do you think you are?" She gasped for a moment, gathering her thoughts. "What kind of a woman do you think I am?"
"What?" The man was genuinely flummoxed. "I thought you liked me!"
The girl took a step back, eyeing her closest exit. "I thought I liked you, too, but you can't presume just to kiss me!"
The man stammered. "But I only wanted to see..."
Anya cut him short, gritting her teeth. "See? Well, I hope you can now clearly see that you are not worthy of me!"
"Now wait just a minute!" The man changed his expression quickly, becoming stern. "Worthy of you? I could have any woman I want! Any woman would gladly want to be seen with me!"
"Ha!" The woman looked up at the ceiling, a cocky smile of unbelief on her lips. "Why don't you just round-up one of those prairie wenches then, because I will have nothing to do with a man who cannot control his passions!"
The man was shocked. "Wha..." Never had a mere woman talked to him that way! Princess or no, she needed to learn her place. He would have been even more surprised to know that she was thinking the exact same thoughts concerning him.
The woman turned and stormed out of the house, just as the sun was creating an incredibly beautiful sunset. She looked at it blankly, a tear coming into her eye. It cut her to the core that this man, which she had bared her life to, could now be so thoughtless, treating her no better than some cheap harlot.
Inside the house, Calt pressed his fingers against his temples, wondering what had gone wrong. Why was she so angry? It was just a kiss! Then he looked about him, wondering what his father would think; wondering if it would put him out of favor with his father to have offended the Crown Princess of Alaedea.
With the way that they were behaving, you would have thought that the Cardinals were accusing me of turning the Emperor into some sort of beast, totally alien to them. Frankly, I had very little to do with Kiyomai's actions and was just as surprised as everyone else around him. The men in the red robes obviously looked on me with dislike, but said nothing publicly concerning my presence at the Counselhouse.
I don't think any of the Cardinals ever found out about The Emperor's forays into town, distributing food and pennies to the nervous masses on the street. There was talk on the Counsel floor of the happenings, several Cardinals fearing that this may be some mystery man's prelude to stirring up rebellion. Such talk was quickly dismissed publicly, for there was little need to spend money to convince the populace to revolt: they were far to busy trying to steal food and money from each other to care about larger affairs. Nevertheless, it was not know how certain Cardinals felt about the matter privately. Worst of all to them was the fact that Kiyomai also dismissed such threats, turning down opportunities to exert his authority. A few in the Inner Conclave were interested in utilizing their own authority in the resulting vacuum.
Kiyomai's increasing distance from concerns over the matters of the Conclave were becoming an issue whispered among the Cardinals as well. Some of the more vile of the group had begun to make overtones in secret that, for the good of the group and the Empire, one of their number should oust the leader, for he was losing interest daily in wielding the power needed to keep the Conclave strong. To all of this, my son seemed happily oblivious.
"Nothing would make me happier than to be ousted, Dad," he said nonchalantly when he, Polus, and I were alone in his apartments. "A few of the Cardinals may suffer in the vacuum, but I doubt the people will notice any change at all in their lives, besides having a new name to vilify."
I did not share his indifference. "Oh, I think the next man will see to it that many people suffer to insure that his grasp of the nation is firm and unchallenged. It would not be a smooth transition, for that man cannot simply assume your reputation. Your fall will stir up numerous little rebellions, encouraging small men to try and take power during the confusing days. You are forgetting that your successor might not be willing to allow you to live, no matter how impotent you make yourself."
Kiyomai let out his breath, nodding. "You are right of course, but I do not want another drop of innocent blood spilt again in my name! I would rather my own life be taken!"
"You are the one man who, strangely enough, stands between the innocents and the jackals." I was speaking quietly, pondering what could be done to accommodate these goodly urges in my son, even though I was still dubious of his real intentions. "I think your best course may be to simply hold onto your power and authority for a while longer, hoping to have Julya come and relieve them from you in time."
The man jumped in surprise, laughing nervously. "Give the throne back to Julya? Have you seen her, Father? She is nothing more than a wildcat in a dress! It would be better to be unseated by a scoundrel who would at least give lip service to the people. Julya would not even offer that before raising taxes and plotting her revenge on any who so much as looked at her strangely!" He turned his back, fingers to his chin. "There must be something better..."
"Julya returning to the throne is a very old and very hopeful prophecy, Westlyn. You would do well not to speak against it." The man turned back to me, biting his lip. "If Julya is as you say she is, God will have much work ahead of him, but the prophecy will be fulfilled! I myself have seen the girl on the throne in vision, dispensing wisdom and ruling with God's righteousness." I implored him. "You must have faith that it will be so."
Kiyomai did not wear a hopeful face. "So, it comes back to faith again. Julya certainly inspires none. How can I have faith in her?"
"It is not Julya you should put your faith in."
He sighed. "Yes, I see. It should be faith in God and nothing else."
I nodded. "You must place it where it is due! The girl is young and things can change," I said, unconvinced of my words myself. "Some months have passed and we don't know what has become of her."
My son snorted. "Probably dead somewhere, stabbed by decent folk that grew weary of her haughtiness."
"All I know is this: she will sit on the throne of her mothers. Our place is simply to do what we can to help the prophecy along and try to understand and be obedient to God."
Kiyomai threw up his hands. "Oh, is that all? I don't know about you, but I am not skilled at knowing God! I would have better luck getting back into butchery!"
"Now, now." I soothed, trying to calm him in his obviously frustrated state. "It isn't like God wants to keep this a secret from us. If there is a part we can play, we will come to know it. But, in the meantime, I think you are best served by continuing to do what you have done for the past few months -- hold on to your power and lighten the people's heavy burden."
Kiyomai bit his lower lip. "Now would be the perfect time to vacate the Emperorship, while I still might flee and save my skin!" His voice was softening already, indicating that this would not be his course. "However, I will take your counsel and try harder to trust in God." He went to a chair and gripped its to tightly. "I pray the wait for Julya will be short."
I sighed and smiled. "As do I, my son."
* * *
Opportunity to depose the Emperor was not long in coming actually, for though the members of the Inner Conclave recalled Kiyomai's ability to retaliate vengefully against his enemies, the Chief Cardinal had gone passed his fears and his plotting was finished.
It was a cold morning in the early spring, the mountains nearby still covered in white, though the valleys were just beginning to bring forth green life again. Kiyomai and Polus and I were in the midst of the crisp morning, glad, for it is these days that reminded me of the happy times of my youth. We smelled the air, fresh and brisk, amazed at the world's ability to break out of depressing winters into such marvelous springs.
Kalmus, the Head Cardinal, a man who had risen through the ranks of the Conclave through the expected paths of treachery and deceit, had come that morning to discuss a matter with the Emperor and also brought papers to sign. This was quite normal and the man had an appointment and was expected, but the difference this morning was the knife, honed to a razor's edge, that was hidden within the folds of his cloak.
Papers rustled in the wind at Kalmus joined us on the porch, the temperature seeming to me to drop and I shivered against some dark foreboding. Fortunately, Polus felt similarly and looked with distrust on the Chief Cardinal. Something was going to happen.
Kalmas gave the Emperor a short briefing on some happenings. "One of the outlying low Cardinals from up north reported having captured a man and a girl, claiming that they were Lanolylc and the Princess, but he is a man I have little faith in and it is easy for me to doubt his story."
"The Princess, eh?" Kiyomai turned to look at his father for a moment. "Interesting. Who was the Cardinal?"
The other man was already sweeping his hand in the air, as if waving off an annoying fly. "His name is Vacarius, but he is nothing, lord. My Conclavists are everywhere, and if anyone will find Julya, she will be brought swiftly here to answer for her crimes..."
Kiyomai bent over the table, as if other things were pressing on him. Absently, he asked, "And what crimes would those be? Stealing my ship?" He turned a sour look on Kalmas. "She would have to do something much more terrible than that to justify any punishments that I would hand down. We would have rebellions aplenty of stout hearts looking to free their Queen."
The other man grew dark, as he always did when his opinions were put aside. Biting his lip, he simply nodded, though without any look of contriteness. "I suppose that is true, but are we to become soft to placate the rabble? We have soldiers enough to put down any riot! Would it not be good to have this girl out of the minds of the people? The rebellious have no real leader save the foolish hope of deliverance by a young girl! If we stretch the neck of their only hope, I think their spirited efforts will die with the girl."
Kiyomai straightened. "I suppose that is your opinion, Kalmas, but I do not share it. If I am not mistaken, I am still the Emperor here."
The Head Cardinal licked his lips, unsmiling. With a narrowing of eyes, he pointed to the table where his papers lay. "Other than that..."
Kiyomai turned to look at the papers, bending over the table once again. Something flashed, catching Polus' attention, but we were too far away. Kiyomai, also suspecting something, spun about, nearly lying on the table as the knife drove into his side. "You are not strong enough to hold this Empire..." the Cardinal hissed.
Polus was on the man before he could say anything more and flung him back, Kalmas taking the knife with him. The Head Cardinal was only dazed for a few seconds as Polus looked down on the bleeding Emperor. The enraged man lunged at my porter, but Polus was only acting distracted, bringing a meaty hand about and cuffing Kalmas soundly in the head, knocking him off of his feet, sending the knife skittering across the porch. Polus quickly retrieved the knife and loomed large over the Cardinal, preparing to strike.
Weakly, from atop the table, Kiyomai's voice drifted to our ears. "No." Polus turned look at the Emperor, who was holding his side with one hand and pulling himself up with the other. "Don't kill him. No more killing."
Polus acted as if he would disobey, but he finally released his anger and, dropping the knife, hoisted the unconscious man with one hand. "As you wish, lord," was all he could say through his gritted teeth.
* * *
There were many questions to be answered that day at the Counselhouse, for word had spread quickly of Kalmas' attack on the Emperor. The man was now in prison, awaiting the Kiyomai's decision concerning him. What would he do? Why had Kalmas chosen this moment? But, most important on the minds of some of the more career-minded Cardinals, who would take the place as their Chief?
Already clustering in the great hall just before noon of the very day of the attack, the bickering and positioning was going on. Two front-runners were openly courting the Emperor's favor and drawing together their allies on the chance Kiyomai might be impressed by a man of obvious pull. One rather sneaky Cardinal worked behind the grandstanders, talking to the others in whispers of promises that would be kept and favors that would be granted if he were to be supported as the next Chief Cardinal.
Kiyomai looked at this entire scene with disgust. What would make men act so foolishly? But then he remembered the scene, nearly twenty years before, when he was one of the men buoying up support for himself. "I am no better than they," he said quietly to himself.
One man was clearly drawing ahead in the eyes of his peers and with a self-assured look, he stepped boldly into the circle of light. "My lord!" The others quieted, but only a little, for there was still hope that Kiyomai would choose another. "You need a strong man who will stand in Kalmas' place! I believe the majority of the Inner Conclave will support me, if you will have me as your Chiefest Cardinal!" A cry of support went up, but only a second later, a shout of derision was flung forward as well.
Kiyomai only hunched over in his great seat, putting elbows on knees and chin in hands.
"I," another man said boldly, "have the better claim! Have I not served well as the keeper of the Imperial treasury? Is it not full? You have the records before you, O Great Kiyomai! Have I not earned this right?"
The first man began yelling at the second, and soon both men were chest-to-chest, looking as if they were trying to bowl one another over with sharp words and occasional thrusts forward. It was actually a very funny-looking scene, but given much more time to develop, swords would have surely come out and there would be bloodshed.
"Enough!" The Emperor's voice boomed out, cutting all activity short. He came to his feet and the men in the circle cowered before him, prepared to flee. "I want no flowery speeches!" Kiyomai stepped down from his place, and the two men stirred uncertainly, knowing the Emperor to be a volatile and unpredictable man.
Kiyomai stalked them like a great cat. "You think you are worthy?" He approached one, who broke into a cold sweat. "Yes, you have the most support from the Conclave, but that only because you are most adept at bullying those obviously inferior to you! What kind of man does that make you?"
He spun about, bearing down on the other man, who looked to be mumbling a prayer, hoping that there would be no knife in the side for him. "My devoted treasurer!" The man smiled weakly, not feeling very confident. "Yes, the coffers are full, but should they not be fuller still? Are you enjoying your grand new home? Your fancy carriage?" Kiyomai stopped to inspect the man, who was shaking and might have even wet himself under the scrutiny. "How much of my money did you take? The records have some strange withdrawals that I don't remember approving. Is this how you behave with the place of trust I have given you?"
As the Emperor walked off, both men relaxed only a little, frozen in fear of what might come, if not now, then before the day was out. Kiyomai turned back to them when he was about twelve feet off and began to laugh. "Why would I choose either of you?"
This seemed to embolden the sneak in the shadows, who humbly stepped out into the light. He coughed politely, gaining Kiyomai's attention.
His laughter died instantly, an unhappy look crawling over Kiyomai's face. "Ah, the deal-maker! What offer do you have for me? What favor could you possibly have left that would convince me you should be the Chief?" The Emperor lowered his lids and his voice. "Would you give your soul for it?"
The man looked up, wide-eyed and fearful, and slunk back into his corner.
Kiyomai looked into the gloom of the room. "Any more takers? Any one else who wants the place of honor?" It was terribly still, but no one was willing to try the Emperor's offer, which smelled more and more like a trap. "I see."
The Emperor remounted the dais and sat back hard in his chair. "None of you are worthy," he said quietly. Drumming his fingers on the arm of the great chair, he made like he was thinking, though he had planned what he would do hours ago. "Very well, since none of you are prepared for the task, I will take matters into my own hands!" His voice rose, giving strength to the proclamation. "Until someone suitable can be found, I will have no Chief Cardinal. I will supervise you myself!"
There was some uneasiness about this, for the group had always relied on their Head to be a buffer between them and the specter of Kiyomai. Now, they would have to deal with him much more closely, and no one was looking forward to it.
Kiyomai walked back off the dais and took his place at the desk of the Chief Cardinal. "Well, now," he said, sounding pleasant and shuffling some papers about. "What do we have to debate today?"
The others looked uneasily at each other, grown terribly quiet.
The dinner was strained at best, Anya sitting on the old man's right side and Calt on the left. The younger man was thinking how inappropriate it was for the eldest son to have to sit at the third place at the table, relinquishing his accustomed spot to a woman, no less. It made his blood go cold and he could barely chew his food with jaws so taut.
Anya was sparkling, giving the old man big smiles and laughing at all his pathetic jokes. It looked as though the father was near to courting the girl, and she took advantage of her closeness to sit right up beside him and whisper things in his ear. The old man was obviously enjoying the attention of a Princess, and Calt was angered all the more when the woman finally looked his way, gloating.
None at the table missed the sharp knives that the two flung at each other with their eyes. The old man knew perfectly well what was happening, but he was very interested in getting close to this young woman, for she was key in throwing down the Conclave, who had begun encroaching on his authority and lands in the past few months. There was even talk of the Emperor appointing a governor over this region, which was certainly unwanted. If this girl came to the throne, it would be in his best interest to be well known to her and counted a friend. He nearly salivated at the opportunities that might open to him.
Anya did her best to shmooze, but she was rather put off by the fact that the Lady of the family did not come. She was feeling cheated having to deal with the men of the house, for she still did not fully comprehend this strange culture that let men have authority independent of women. Besides, it was easy to make a pretense of flirting when it angered the son so much. He deserved it after treating her like so much dust.
"Are you finding your stay here comfortable?" the old man, whose name was Dougi, said suddenly, changing the subject. "I hope you will soon be able to travel to my home so I can show you better hospitality."
Anya smiled. "That would be very nice! It will be good to be somewhere that isn't so...," she gave Calt a look, "...primitive."
The younger man's ire was near its breaking point, but he still had some presence of mind. "Actually, Father, it may be some time before the man that is with the Princess will be able to travel, so we will just have to do our best to make her more comfortable as she must remain here."
Anya could barely suppress a smile, pinching her lips. "Matil's daughter is doing such a good job at caring for Lanolylc that I feel I might leave him behind and see your home, Dougi. I think he will convalesce fine where he is."
"Splendid!" The old man clapped his hands together and servants began to crowd around, thinking that he was summoning them to offer him more food. He waved them off, perturbed, but turned a joyful eye on the girl. "There will be much to do as I have sent messages to all of my confederates in this part of the world, gathering them with all the armaments they can bear." There was a strange gleam in his eye as he looked off to some distant future. "With you marching with us, Princess, there will be no stopping us!"
The woman balked, trying to act enthusiastic, but feeling very uncertain inside, almost to sickness. She forced back a wave of nausea. "Actually, I was hoping it would not come to that."
Dougi eyed her. "What did you think it would take to put you back on the throne? Did you think Kiyomai would just hand you the land and leave you in peace?" He turned in his chair to face her better. "I hope you are prepared for what is to come, my Lady."
Though she tried to appear calm, all of the color was draining from her face. She had hoped that with Lan in a bad way, all thought of raising an army would end. Unfortunately for her, wherever the title "Princess" was spoken, it seemed to inspire the need to lift arms and crash together shields. "I will strive to make myself prepared, lord."
The man nodded with a great grin. "Wonderful! It is settled, then! We shall travel in a few days and leave your man Lanolylc in the hands of my son." Dougi slapped Calt on the back, but the younger man only frowned in resignation. "I'm sure he will mend fast and join us shortly."
Anya did a good job of looking pleased, but not feeling that way. She did not relish Lan's return, but it was more than that. The woman looked over to the sulking man that had shown her so much and regretted having taken such pains to make him an enemy. "I...I will go," the girl began, not sure exactly what she would say, "only if Calt may ride with us."
The young man looked up with a start, confused. The old man raised his chin, looking across his nose at his son, giving him a wink. "I am not certain he can be spared here."
"Oh, well, Father," Calt straightened in his chair, coughing to disguise a smile. "I have had little to do here, as the foreman is very competent. I could make some time to visit home. I would like to see Mother as well."
At this reference to the Lady of the house, Anya stirred, giving the young man an approving smile. "I would like to meet your mother as well."
Dougi looked back and forth between the man and woman, touching the tip of his tongue to his upper lip, a smile half-restrained as he viewed the chemistry passing between the two. "It is against my better judgment, Lady, but my son can travel with us if you insist."
Anya nodded, not taking her eyes off of Calt. "Yes, I insist."
"It is done then. My boy," he said quietly, wrapping his arm around his son's shoulders, "Can you make things ready within three days?"
The man raised a brow, never taking his eyes off Anya. "That gives me little time." He stood, bowing low. "If you will excuse me, Father, I will begin the preparations."
Dougi waved the young man off, and turned his starry-eyed attention to the Princess. "Now, with business out of the way..."
The woman beside him jumped in mock-surprise. "Oh, my lord, I must be away as well, to...to check on my friend. Please excuse me." She also rose and walked out of the house, leaving the old man bewildered and frowning.
He finally shrugged. "Bring me more food!" he roared and servants scattered to accommodate him. The flurry made him chuckle softly to himself. He wasn't really hungry anymore, but it was such fun to watch the help bustle.
* * *
Just as she was walking out of the house, big hands grabbed and spun her about. Dazed, Anya nearly made to hit whomever it was, until the smiling face of Calt entered her vision. "I figured you liked me."
The girl turned to look at the sky, acting as if he had said nothing. "Actually, I came out to get a breath of air and see the stars." She made to look up, but she stealthily viewed the man's reaction out of the corner of her eye. "It is funny that I never noticed them until I came to this land..."
Calt was downtrodden. "I thought you..."
He never got to finish his statement, for the woman turned back to him, reached up a soft hand on his cheek and imparted a very sensual kiss that might have lasted over a minute. When she reluctantly pulled back, she gave him a stern look. "Where I come from, a woman initiates the kissing."
The man seemed to be struggling for air, his eyes still closed and mouth half-cocked, unready for the kissing to end. "I think I could learn to accept that," he said breathlessly.
She let her fingertips brush down his jaw-line as she began to make off. "Now, I really must see Lan." As walked away toward the kitchens, she called back to him. "If you like, you may come with me."
Like a dutiful hound, the man sighed and began to follow, realizing that he was becoming caught up in this woman's charms, but not caring a bit.
Five days ago, they finally labored through the stormy notch of a pass, stumbling onto the southeastern side of the great ridge of mountains that marked the end of any lands that Alaedea would be bold enough to claim. Now, as Julya and Nychol and Xan were making there way through far more hospitable valleys in a slow decent, their spirits were rising.
This side of the mountains, warmed by the spring sun which drove away the perpetual winter of the northwest face, was like manna to the starving trio, who found wild berries, clear water, and plenteous game to hunt in wide green meadows. It was like an Eden after the days of climbing treacherous glaciers and nearly expiring from exposure. The toil of the first part of their journey was passing quickly for the two young people, but it was not shaken off by the old Xan.
This day, she awoke to Julya's gentle touch, pressing a cool, wet cloth to the old woman's burning forehead. "You know," Xan said weakly, "that isn't really going to help."
The young woman examined the other's eyes and sighed. The orbs did not look good and her skin was definitely graying from its normal chocolate. "Well, if there is nothing else to be done, I want to ease the pain a little."
With some effort, the old woman laid a hand atop Julya's, smiling. "You have already done much to ease my mind, child. You forgave me."
"For what?" Julya said it almost absently as she continued to examine the rest of Xan's body.
The old woman sighed. "For almost getting you killed. We should not have let you get so far ahead."
Julya finally gave her words full attention, but they only confused her. "When was this?" Then, as repressed memories came back, the girl shuddered. "Oh..." Julya turned a little ashen herself, but she shoved the emotions away, choosing to look on her memories and her life before for what they were, something in the remote past. "You still should not blame yourself for that. I should have stayed with you and Nyc. It is I who should apologize for making your life so difficult and causing you heartache."
"As for that," Xan said softly, "I think your life since is apology enough. You have done a wonderful job in caring for me!"
Julya smiled broadly and shrugged. "I had a good teacher."
Just then, Nychol came up, bearing a few small, slain animals that Julya could not identify. "And how are you two lovely women doing this morning," he chirped cheerfully.
"I seem to be dying." Xan dropped it like a dead weight on Nyc's joy, eliciting a frown.
The young man put down his catch. "A little pessimistic, aren't we?"
Julya looked up at the man with certain eyes. "No, she is just being honest."
The frown deepened as he dropped to his knees and looked with concern on his old friend. "Is it really that bad?" Words were not needed to convey what the eyes of both women confirmed. "How much longer?"
Xan took a deep breath. "Not having experienced death personally before, I really can't say." The small joke brought strained smiles to the young people, mingled with sadness. Julya looked at Nychol and shook her head, having no better answer.
"Well, we can load you back on the sled and move forward, or we can stay here and rest a little more." He looked down at Xan.
The old woman took the man's hand. "It makes no difference to me where I die, whether it is here or a few more miles down the road. Waiting won't bring your journey to an end any sooner, so I say that we go on today."
The man nodded, but Julya's look darkened. "If you die along the way, then what purpose are we pressing forward for? I thought we were taking you home."
"I am still not sure why, young one," Xan said slowly. "If nothing else, I want to be buried in my own village, so perhaps that will do for a purpose for now. Though," she added with a twinkle in her eye, "I think God may have other reasons for you to continue on."
Julya tried to pry more information out of the woman, but she suddenly looked very weary, so the girl let her alone. Though God had miraculously saved them on the far slope, Julya still only perceived Him as some mysterious force that Xan and Nychol could somehow understand but that still escaped her. It was nearly enough to dredge up old anger when she though of the unfairness of it.
Nychol was done dressing the animals and had them roasting on a stick over a smallish fire. Lounging back on an elbow, in spite of the bad news, he was enjoying the fresh, crisp spring morning and admiring the beautiful snow-capped peaks that they had successfully passed only a few days ago. "I would have never though us capable of such a thing," he murmured to himself.
"I think we would have never known our capabilities if we would not have begun this journey." Julya stood over him, looking at the mountains as well, but not seeing them in the same way. "I hope I never have to endure something like that again."
Nychol startled at the woman's sudden presence, pursed his lips and then gave a knowing little smile. "I have a feeling what came before is only a prelude to what is to come."
Julya sagged. "Another inspiration from God?" It was maddening to be around these two people who seemed to know so many mysterious things.
"No. It just seems like life works that way. There is no rest for the weary."
The young woman plopped down, putting her chin in her hands. "It doesn't seem quite fair."
The man laughed at that. "This is the reward you get for choosing your course! If you are determined to be the Queen God wants you to be, he gets to pick the training program!"
"That's another thing," the girl snapped, her voice rising. "How come God shows so much to you and Xan, but never anything to me?"
Nychol sat up, taking the girl's hands in her own. "Maybe He is showing you things, but you don't understand them or just don't see them for what they are. You can't just sit down and receive knowledge from God -- it is something you have to pursue for quite a while!" The man paused for a moment, looking for an analogy. "It is like going to a foreign land and trying to talk to the natives. You can't just will yourself to be able to speak and understand a different tongue, you have to learn how."
Julya gave him a queer look. "So God is some foreigner?"
"Well, I suppose you could say that. He certainly has different ways, and he speaks directly to our hearts, which we must learn to understand. It is just like learning another language."
The girl curled up her lip, looking up at the clouds, not very satisfied. "God is speaking to me in some foreign language and I just need to learn what he is saying." She shook her head. "Why does it have to be so difficult? He is powerful, why not just talk in a way I can understand?"
Nychol smiled. "That's a good point. Perhaps there is something to be learned in the effort. I know if I have to work hard to have something, it becomes very important to me and I appreciate it more. When I feel God telling me something, I am much more apt to act on that than if someone just came up and told me something. God's words just mean more to me after all the work."
"It would be easier if He just talked." The girl plucked up a blade of grass and ran a finger along its edge.
"Trying to become a follower of God isn't easy, is it? You have to get used to the rigor. Remember: there is no rest for the weary, so you better learn how to keep going when you're tired..." His voice trailed off as he came quickly to his feet. Julya turned to see what was happening, but the slope of the ground blocked her view. "Someone is coming," the man hissed, walking forward to either greet or stop them. "Stay down," the young man said sharply.
Nychol walked toward whatever it was and Julya's curiosity brought her crawling to the top of the rise, until she could see the comers. There were five of them, from what she could see from some distance, and they appeared to be carrying spears. Nyc was walking right for them, obviously carrying no weapon at all. When the man was only about ten yards off, one of the five, who were all as dark-skinned as Xan, barked a command and Nychol froze. The troop of armed men rushed up, spears at the ready.
"Who are you and what are you doing in our lands?" The dark man was much larger than Nychol and handled his spear as if he had much experience with it. His companions looked just as large and ready to strike.
Nyc spread his hands, letting the bigger man see that he bore no weapons. "We are just passing through this country. We mean no harm."
The man gave a great frown and narrowed his eyes. "I will decide if you mean harm or not." Nyc nodded, seeing the man's point. "Where are you bound for?"
The man was thoughtful, for Xan had never really told him the name of her village or where it was. What could he possibly say to keep from being slaughtered on the spot, just as a precaution? "I am not certain," he said slowly, hoping further clarification would come. "The leader of our group would know better."
As if on cue, the whole troop looked off to the right, seeing a dark figure rise from the grass. The leader told two men to stay with Nychol, while the other three investigated the new-comer. As the leader drew closer, his stern face lightened and he started to run ahead, throwing down his spear. His companions were confused, but quickened themselves to keep up.
When he was within a few yards of Xan, standing unsteadily, he came down to his knees and bowed his head. "Mother! You have returned!" Instead of a reply, the old woman swooned and crumpled on the ground. The leader and his men soon surrounded her, tenderly bearing her up and bringing her to where Nychol was, anger smoldering in their eyes.
The big dark man glared at Nychol as he put his precious cargo down. The other men had arrayed themselves around the light-skinned man, watching his every movement, spear-tips only inches away from piercing him. After a quick examination, he found his mother at death's door, but with no recent marks or injuries. "If you are wanting your life, explain yourself quickly!" The dark man was quivering, half with sadness, half with anger.
Nychol licked his lips and began speaking quickly and slowly. "We have come up from the lands of my birth, where your mother has lived for many years, healing the sick and the infirm. She desired to see her own village before she died. The scale up the far side of these mountains is treacherous and taxing. She took sick there and lays before you as well-tended as we can make her."
The man only grunted, touching his mother's face tenderly, thinking. "I deem you speak the truth. Though you may be able to weave a plausible lie quickly, my heart tells me that this is so." The other dark-skinned men lowered their spears, but remained around Nyc, in case he proved flighty. "She bares no mark of mistreatment, and even I and my men feared the trip down the winter side of the mountains."
The dark man rose to tower over Nychol, offering his hand. "I am Zel, leader of the village Anixda, nearly ten days distant. These are among our hunting lands, when food becomes scarce. What is your name?"
Nyc took the hand, though it seemed the greeting only involved holding hands, not shaking them as he would have done at home. "My name is Nychol, and in my home, I am known as a pastor, or a holy man."
The big man's eyes widened and his companions stepped back in awe. "A man who bears the Wisdom?" He almost whispered it. "Please forgive my words to you before, then, Wise man. It would be in my Mother's way to seek out others bearing the Mysteries to accompany her."
"But a man...," one of the other dark men breathed.
Zel's head snapped up, giving a menacing look to the man who had spoken. "The Wise Woman may do whatever she pleases. Remember that and guard your tongue." The offender immediately stiffened and there was only silence for a time.
An observant dark man saw some movement out of the corner of his eye and spotted Julya, trying to stay hidden, but also trying to see what had happened. The man barked "Look!" and pointed, his leader seeing the girl and narrowing his eyes. "So, Pastor. Is that one with you as well?" He motioned for a few of his men to bring her. "How many more of you are there?"
"There were only three," Nychol replied quickly. "She is only a girl and a chance companion."
Zel set his jaw. "We shall see." He ordered two other men to search the area for evidence of more invaders. "Even a holy man may choose to deceive."
Nyc was about to defend his honor, but he wisely decided to stay still, willing to let the truth of his words be discovered.
About that time, Julya was brought up, Xan's eyes began to flutter to life. She looked up bleary to the dark face that gazed down on her, trying to clear her vision. The man tenderly put arms and hands behind her, helping her to sit up. "Zel?" she finally managed.
The dark leader broke into a smile, the first Nychol had seen from any of these men. "Yes, Mother, it is Zel, your eldest son!"
Xan brought her hand up unsteadily and caressed his face. "I gave up hope of ever seeing you again, my son."
The big man acted excited, almost like a boy. "We came looking for you!"
"Well, then," the old woman managed through a cough, "you have found me."
Julya came to Xan's aid, getting between the son and his mother. Zel's expression was disapproving, but he chose not to stop the girl. "We need to get you back to Anixda so you can be cared for properly."
Julya pulled back, perplexed. "I don't think there is anything more we can do," she said, looking between the dark leader and Nychol.
The big man looked unconvinced. "We have an herbalist and a..."
Xan licked her lips. "If I last another day, it will be by the hand of God."
Zel gave her a curious look. "Perhaps we can..."
The woman only raised her hand, immediately quieting her son. "You can carry my body back to the village, if you like, but the life will be gone from it soon enough. I am. at the least, grateful to God for the chance I have had to see you once again before I die."
"You cannot die!" The man became nearly desperate. "You are needed at home. I need you!" Then, he bit his lip. "And who is this God that you speak of? I have never heard you speak in this way."
The mother sat up, almost as if her strength had returned. "I left our village because I felt like I needed to take a journey."
"Yes," the man replied. "I was against that at the time. And then you never came back..."
"It was a journey," the old woman continued, as if her son had never spoken, "not just of miles, but of discovery. A quest for knowledge."
The dark leader acted as if he was in too much of a rush to listen to such matters, but out of respect, he remained still.
Xan's eyes began to shine and a smile of peace came to her face. "I finally found what I had been searching for, something that could make my life complete." She looked tenderly at her son. "I discovered why we live, what purpose brings us into life, and where we may go thereafter." She pointed to the two fair-skinned people standing beside each other. "I found it in their land. I found God."
The dark-skinned men listened and watched the old woman intently, most with confusion. "It is God who has placed us here in this world, to learn...," she coughed a bit, "to learn how to love, to learn of Him and his love for us. He wants us to learn how to be like Him. We are his children."
Zel was never one for deep things, and he was in no mood to listen to such talk now. "You need rest, Mother," he said gently.
Xan's face changed. "No!" The force of the word made her son fall back. "You must hear this before I die, from my own lips!" The man backed away, not wanting to cross her again.
"I have felt God's influence in my life, my son," she continued softly. "I have learned that He speaks to the hearts of all men, not just one or two of a village, who are considered Wise." She looked up at Nychol. "There need not be just one Pastor or one Wise Woman who have the knowledge of God. All can have the gift."
Zel had quite enough. These were foolish words to him. "I need to get you back to the village!" His voice was most emphatic. "Evil times have come and we need your wisdom!"
The woman sagged a bit, knowing that her words were not getting through to the man. "My wisdom is nothing, Zel. Anything that came from my lips that was good was given to my heart by God. You don't need me, for any one of you can speak and know greater things than I, if you listen for His promptings." The black men around Zel were listening intently to all of this and nodding to each other.
"I have tried, Mother!" Zel was becoming agitated. "I came back to get you because my cousin Talel has seized the Headman's place from me, for he speaks better words than I. You must convince the people that I am the appointed Headman!"
The woman sighed. "Is that what I am to you, Zel? A prize to show to those in the village to prove your right to a title? Am I only a voice of support? Is that what you came to find me for?"
The man had an angry look, but could say nothing, indicted. His companions looked at each other, uncertain of what was happening. "If you were to look to God and search your heart, perhaps you would find a better solution." Xan's voice was tender.
"There is no time!" Zel nearly shrieked, gripping his head tightly with his hands. "I have the fortune to find you quickly, and instead of helping me, you talk to me of listening to some strange God!"
Xan began to teeter and her son caught her as her strength left. "You are right about one thing. I have no more time." She slumped over, the son looking desperate.
Zel turned to Julya. "Do something!" he shouted, making the girl jump.
As she bent low over the old woman, she simply shook her head. "There is nothing to do..." The dark man gave her a hideous look, making to thrust her aside and try something himself. But then, Xan took Julya's hand.
"There is one thing you can do." Looking up at her son, she smiled. "Since you are not prepared to seek God yourself, I must send you one who will bring God's word to you. One you might find acceptable..."
Julya opened her mouth, about to protest of her inability to understand divine things, but Xan flashed her a look. "This girl," she said, squeezing Julya's hand, "will be the Wise Woman of your village in my stead."
Zel looked at Julya, frowning. "This will never work, Mother! She is pale and thin, hardly..."
"Who are you to question the Wise Woman's words?" The rebuke came out strong, in a way that Zel could easily understand and accept. He looked back at the girl with disapproval but kept his tongue in the face of the order of a Wise Woman.
Xan coughed long and hard, the effort shaking her whole frame. "The people will not listen to her." He whispered, as much to himself as to anyone else.
"Trust God," she said weakly to Julya, then turned to her son. "If you can manage no better, trust me." Another coughing spell was set off, only silenced again by Xan's last breath.
Her first meeting with the Lady of Dougi's house cemented something in Anya's mind: she was now living in a man's world and she had better get used to it.
The table was set as well as it would be in any house of a powerful woman, with men at arms around it, feasting on the plenty, but Anurka cowered like a mouse behind her husband as he sat in his great chair. Anya looked upon the scene with disgust, for there was no chivalry here that would give the great chair to a noble Lady and swear every sword and bow to her protection and honor. The Lady and her women had set the food out and were now being sent out with the husband's short gesture to eat scraps in an inhospitable, cramped kitchen.
The seat set by Dougi was little more than a stool on which Anya balanced precariously, an obvious look of discomfort on her face. Calt was a number of seats on the other side of his father about the curved table, looking less than pleased himself. This distance was an obvious sign of his fall from the old man's grace, placed behind his other brothers and even a handful of unrelated but trusted men. Anya could see him seething, especially at the Princess' treatment, but she gave him a smile and a nod, making the young man smile and try to calm in spite of himself with the simple gesture.
In the weeks of traveling, Calt had learned the joy of serving and loving a noble woman. Lead by his growing affection, the man was drawn into the Anya's world. When he looked into this young woman's eyes, it was easy to see her as a person worthy of honor and respect, not as some simple ornamentation that was brought out to impress and then to cast away when beauty or need faded. Dougi noticed this subtle change in his son and thought him less of a man to be "taken by a woman's wiles," and would not tolerate the young man about him.
They had kissed that once, back in the camp, but Calt could sense that the girl was not comfortable doing such a thing again, with many others about. In his father's house, he was trained to be a man who took what he wanted, when he wanted it, but in his time with Anya, he learned that the greater manliness came with sacrificing his own wants in deference to a lady's tender needs and desires. Though he wanted to press his lips to hers in wild abandon, Calt waited many days until Anya indicated that she was again ready for such things.
When the other men of the traveling party thought that Anya should go to the rear carts with the other women, Calt refused them the opportunity, defending her supposed station and her honor. When he was himself disgraced before his father by these actions and cast out of his presence, Calt preferred the company of Anya to any other, honored to be looked upon, even if it was in a derisive way, as the protector and defender of the Princess. The man even insisted on a placing himself to her side and slightly behind, "so that you may shine forth the more brightly," he told her on one occasion. Little did he know that it was the particular deference and respect he gave her that helped Anya dazzle like the sun, knowing that she was truly of great worth in this man's eyes. She reciprocated by showing him greater and greater appreciation and love, her heart feeding on the attention and concern he laid before her. Over the course of their trip, the twosome wound themselves together tighter and tighter, each drawing strength and courage and love from the other.
Courage and strength were definitely needed this night as the men about the table poked barbed fun at the young son, so obviously a target. Anya was reddening and becoming more uncomfortable as the minutes passed, angry that Calt would be treated so. All the new-found virtues that she loved in the man were being picked apart as heinous weaknesses by the soldiers about, spitting out rude comments and laughing like the drunkards they were. She wanted to look out to Calt with a tender look, hoping to boister him, but he was looking at his lap, barely holding his rage, knowing that if he looked at Anya, his former comrades would only lob fresh ammunition.
"You look pale, girl!" Dougi was laughing hartily at something that was told him from a neighbor, his words to the Princess not seeming too concerned. "Is it the press of men?" Fresh jeering went up as Calt finally did look to Anya, confirming in the minds of all that he was taken by the girl. The rotund master of the house bent toward her. "Perhaps you would feel more comfortable in the kitchen with the other women. Talk of war and strategy doesn't concern ladies, so you can just leave such things to us men!" He laughed again and all the men nearby gave him a hardy "hear-hear," raising their glasses and chuckling themselves.
Anya grew to the color of a beet as the old man motioned to a footman to escort the Princess out. Anya bolted up from her chair and the room turned to look at the disturbance. The servant tried to take her arm gently and guide her away quietly, but Anya jerked her hand away. "I know the way," she hissed as she stormed out, the men raising their brows and mocking her efforts at anger. Calt could not help but see the girl sharply wipe tears from her eyes as she ducked into the next room, and if it were possible, he grew more furious.
Actually, there was no food to be found anywhere in the kitchen, in spite of what Anya had thought, except for a few last pots being tended feverishly by the other women in the house. Anurka was muttering under her breath, indicating that even though she was little more than a scullery maid in her own house, that didn't mean she had to like it. "All these men," she moaned to no one in particular, "and all this talk of war. It is madness!"
Anya could at least sympathize with the older woman, even if it was difficult to respect her. She took a hand over some meat being prepared and Anurka looked into her eyes thankfully. "My lord has gathered men from all about, even the ones he doesn't like much. He will stir them up into a fury against the Emperor and will get us all massacred!"
Though her job was to press oil and herbs into the meat, the younger woman pounded the poor beef with a hard look and a heavy hand. Soon, the meat would be so tender as to begin coming apart, so a girl relieved her and Anya set herself on throwing firewood into the great black cook-stove. She was also doing this a bit too vigorously, but no one was about to prevent her when she had heavy pieces of wood in her hands.
Anurka came to look in on a lull in her work, considering what she should say to the angry woman. "I wager you could do something about this, my lady." Anya turned with fiery eyes to the older woman who seemed to cringe. "Perhaps he would listen to you," she timidly whispered.
"What woman would have any effect on that man?" Anya spat. Wood was clanking loudly against the interior of the stove, now practically bulging with the product of her fury. "If he and his cronies want to get killed, that is their choice. I don't want to get involved!" This last she nearly screamed, slapping the firebox door shut with a clang and scorching her hand. The sudden pain made her wince and seemed only to cap her anger. Though she appeared to calm somewhat, the pressure of her emotions was building.
Following the other women, carrying a platter like the rest, the Princess returned to the great hall. The laughing and the drinking seemed only to have increased, and now fresh peals broke out as a few men saw the heavy-laden Anya come into view and nudged their neighbors to have a look. She tried to steady her breathing as her face colored and she made her way toward Dougi with her tray.
The old man could barely keep in his seat with the drink sloshing inside him and nearly steady giggling. Anya bit her lip as she tried to graciously put the platter before him, but the old man's hand, perhaps as misguided as the rest of himself, shot out and grabbed at the girl as if she was some common whore. The woman stumbled back, surprised, and fell into the arms of some foul-smelling men, their hands probing her. Anya shrieked and sprang for a knife, tearing it from the table and bringing it to the fore so quickly that she slashed a man's arm and seemed to bring all the swaying, unsteady men up short.
One fool was late in taking up opportunity and made a move toward the woman. Anya stabbed hard and pierced the man in the gut. She pushed the idiot off her blade, still brandishing it threateningly. "Don't touch me!" she growled.
The room was deathly silent. Even Anurka was stunned, though she had often fantasized of doing something like that when she was groped. Years of instruction regarding "her place" always interceded. Anya had no such training, for she was accustomed to deference, not this debauchery. Dougi had a hand out before him, as if to stop a blow or perhaps to calm her. He was no longer laughing.
The old man finally called out. "What have you done?"
Anya turned to face the stout man, turning her blade toward him as well. "I am protecting my honor, as it seems no one else in this God-forsaken place values it!" She looked about, ready to accuse Calt as well, but he was nowhere to be seen. "If you want to behave like fools, I won't stop you, but if you feel the need to fool with me, you may end up like him." She indicated the floor where the felled man was breathing awkwardly and looking pale. The woman pointed at two men nearby with her knife. "Help him."
They scrambled to obey, for fear of a similar fate, and pulled the injured man away. After a few weeks of care, the lecher would be fine, if not a bit wiser, but the assemblage only knew that this Princess was capable of murder.
"You idiots sit here, talking already of the spoils of your victories over the Conclave, before you have even sharpened your swords. A bunch of ignorant and drunken farmers against trained soldiers! Do you think they will just run in fear and let you have what you want? And what do you really want?" Anya was still angry, but the chance to vent her feelings was helping immeasurably. The only thing that seemed to be keeping the men attentive to her words was the knife that she flicked about as she made her points. "All you want is glory and more land and perhaps some plunder! You could care less if there was a Queen on the throne! If this goes on to its conclusion, you will have burned fields and gutted cattle and you will smell the stench of the flesh of your kin rotting in the ruins. Does that picture appeal to any of you? Is the chance to catch some fame and riches adequate compensation for the death and destruction?"
The young woman turned to see if there would be some response, but all was quiet and tense. She took a deep breath and threw the knife to the floor, driving it deep into the wood. "If you were hoping to put a Queen on the throne, you will just have to find someone else to inspire you. I won't have the deaths of innocent women and children on my hands." With that, she walked away, not to the kitchen where the women were cringing with wide eyes, but to the apartments, where she could finish relaxing and get some rest from a particularly trying day.
* * *
She didn't know quite what to think when she opened the door to her rooms and startled Calt to his feet. "I'm sorry," he said quickly, "I shouldn't have come in without your leave." She would have probably made some sort of protest, but she began to sway and look as if she would go faint. The man lunged forward and caught her before she fell. "Are you all right?"
She said nothing as he lowered her onto her bed. It would have been a very compromising situation to have a strong man leaning over her in a weakened condition, but he only smiled and pulled some loose hair away from her eyes. "It looks like you have had a hard evening." He pulled back from her and stood patiently by the side of the bed, ready to assist her if she needed his help.
Finally she took another deep breath and slowly sat up, as if the effort were trying. Calt wanted to help her, but he knew that Anya would only brush him off. "What are you doing here?" she managed after a moment more.
"Well," he began, "first, I wanted to make sure you were feeling well. You looked very uncomfortable in the main hall."
Anya looked into her lap. "So, I guess you missed the fun, then."
His brow furrowed. "Fun? I have been meeting with some friends outside. What happened?"
She was silent for a moment and Calt took a step nearer. Anya pulled back only slightly but the man saw it and kept his distance. "The men in the hall..., they..."
Calt's face turned grim, already anticipating what she would say. "Did they hurt you?"
Anya looked as if she might faint again. "No," she managed softly. "I stabbed a man and they kept away."
"What?" The man's eyes were bulging, filled with rage. "Who touched you? Do you know his name?"
The woman took another breath and waved his questions off. "If he lives through the night, he will think twice of groping a woman."
Calt turned away at that, looking for something to break his anger upon. He slammed his hands upon a table so hard that his palms stung. "So, that was it, was it?"
Anya got to her feet and crossed over to him, taking his reddened hands in hers. "It's all right. I handled it. I wasn't hurt."
He pressed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth. "Have they no respect? Can they ever act as anything more than animals?"
She brought his hands up to her lips and kissed them gently. "Not every man can be as wonderful as you are, Calt."
The man sighed deeply. "Well," he said more softly, looking into her eyes. "They should give it more of an effort. I know it has worked miracles on me."
She smiled up at his face tiredly. "Yes, you are a miracle."
"Only because you have helped me be so," he whispered as Calt helped the young woman lay back down upon her bed.
Then, she was in that compromising position again, which made the man sheepish. But this time, she made no indication that she was uncomfortable at all. "May I," he asked haltingly, "may I kiss you?"
She looked up into his eyes with love, smiled softly, and nodded. After a most passionate kiss, that nearly made the girl faint once again, Calt pulled back, and looking into her eyes, softly cupped her cheek in his strong hand for a moment, and then backed away. "You need your rest," he said simply. "Good evening, my Lady." And with that, he stepped out of the room and gently closed the door behind him.
The alleyway was dark and damp, still dripping from a shower that the shivering figure was caught in an hour ago. His whole body heaved up and down, oblivious to the falling temperature as he turned back behind him squinting into the twilight. Just as he was heaving a sigh of relief and making to turn away with a stroll, three large men in rags rounded a corner, pointing and calling to one another, breaking back into a run.
The man stiffened for a moment and then searched all about for some means of escape. The alleyway he had ducked into was a dead end and all the windows in the buildings about were small and high. He finally noticed a door and bolted for it, sprinting the twenty yards in only a few seconds and ratcheting hard against a latch that was securely locked in place. As he looked upon his rapidly approaching pursuers, his eyes grew wide and white, betraying fear. Gritting his teeth, he reared back and thrust his shoulder hard against the wood of the door, hearing it groan and crack a bit. Eyes narrowing, he took a few steps back and charged, throwing his entire weight into effort. He was through, the shards of the door still holding together precariously, now swinging into the dust-filled room of an apparently abandoned building.
The footfalls were growing steadily louder as he scrambled to his feet, his left knee throbbing miserably. The man took a step forward and stumbled, the injury not being able to support his weight. He sounded a sharp curse and limped off toward a staircase leading up. His breath rasped in his ears, gone deaf with the noise that he was hoping to stifle as the first man rushed through the doorway, swinging the rickety door hard against a wall, shattering it. The distraction was all the fleeing man needed, hefting himself onto the second floor with powerful arms, biting his lip as his landing wrenched his pained knee.
The sound of the other two men shuffling into the dirty antechamber was unmistakable. "Where is he, then?"
"I dunno," the first man stuttered, moving off into the wrong direction from the sound of it. "He could be anywhere."
The third voice hissed out, obviously their leader. "Well, find 'em, igiots! This is the perfect place. No'n 'ill find 'im 'ere!" Though it couldn't be told by whom, there was the obvious sound of a long knife being draw slowly from a sheath. "Fan out."
The man on the next floor lay as still as he could, perspiration dripping from his nose as he drove his teeth hard into his bottom lip. The knee was obviously badly twisted, the calf sprouting unnaturally to the side, sending pain he had not noticed before. As he struggled to master himself and keep from shivering, feet scuffled along the dust floor some three yards below him.
"There's another room over 'ere!" The man shouted out, immediately being shushed by another at the opposite end of the room. "Sorry," the first whispered. "It's a big place with lots o' boxes. Plenty o' places ta 'ide."
The leader hissed out again. "Well then, walk on softly and keep a sharp ear. I'll stay 'ere by the door in case 'e doubles back." Boots scraped along to the desperate man's only escape route.
Bracing himself, he carefully moved his leg a fraction of an inch, but the spasms of pain that swept like waves over him made him suck in air loudly and nearly vomit. He was not a man accustomed to pain or injury, having to crumple on the floor again, hoping for an increase in his resolve.
There was a great noise in the big room of boxes, wooden crates tumbling down upon themselves and the floor. Footsteps sounded harshly from a distant place, coming to see what happened. With a curse, the leader abandoned his post by the door, summoned by a cry as if a foolish man had gotten himself pinned down by his own clumsiness. "Ya igiot!"
Heaving himself up on his arms, the man above saw his chance and rolled off of the second floor and thumped his way down the stairs, swearing none-to-quietly until he reached the foot, looking like a rag doll and moaning pitifully. He would have surely been discovered if it had not been for the leader of the trio cursing one of his men loudly for making so much noise and being so stupid.
His clammy clothes and body, as he dragged them along the floor toward the doorway, were becoming terribly dirty and ugly, which was a shame, for though the garments he wore were plain, they were finely made. He was leaving behind a trail of blood from his leg, a ready path for anyone to find him, but of this fact, he was quite unaware. His adrenaline was begin to wax and he pulled his body over the threshold and tumbled off the side of the tiny porch steps into the perpetual pile of rubbish that seemed to line every alleyway where dirt met wall. There was only time to cast a few grimy cast-away rags over him and lay still as the sound of the men's voices drew close again.
"But, it wasn't my fault! The rat scared me!"
There was a hearty slap and a grunt of pain. "That man took away as fast as that rat, you igiot! Slipped back out the door, I bet." The leader rubbed his hands from the slap, even less accustomed to pain than the injured man hiding just a few steps away. "It won't make the boss-man 'appy."
The third man chimed in. "Not sure I'd go trustin' that man anyways. Those lordly 'uns never give such as us a thought, do they?"
There was a sigh from the leader. "Come up with a story," he whispered at the first, "and make it a good 'un. If we can't get money for kill'n 'em, maybe we can have some for our time and pains."
Laughter burst out as the men moved off, back toward the street they had appeared from, leaving the man in the rubbish with his pain and the rain starting back up.
* * *
Things were all a blur, though it was easy to know that it was another time and place. "He's waking," a man's voice whispered.
With a number of blinks and a foolish effort to sit up, the man only succeeded in flopping back down on the soft bed. "Easy now," an all-too-familiar voice soothed. "You should not try to do anything just yet."
The pain in his knee was still strong, but things felt more in their proper frame. The faces of Polus and I finally coalesced before him and he breathed a sigh of relief. "I thought I was a dead man."
I perked up at that. "Oh, I have thought the same thing many times, my son, but you won't be having that kind of release so easily. You have too much yet to do!"
"We were so worried," Polus said quietly with a furrowed brow.
I clucked. "I wasn't! I knew all along that you would come out of things in one piece. Though," I said darkly, "if you would listen to me once in a while, you might be able to avoid some trouble."
"Yeah, yeah." Kiyomai winced again at the knee as it moved slightly. "I'm sure it brings you nothing but pleasure to know that you were right, Father." He groaned some, but nothing truly worrisome.
I pinched my face. "What do you take me for, young Westlyn, a man who pleasures in the pain of others?" After a moment, I bent toward the bed with a grin. "Told you so!"
The Emperor only set his teeth in response, shifting his body to a bit more comfortable position. "How long have I been out?" he finally asked.
"Just a day, my lord," Polus offered, much to my chagrin for I wanted to say a week and see how Kiyomai reacted. "The doctor set the leg back in place, but he said it might be a while before you can do anything more than hobble about."
The Emperor huffed, trying to shift himself once again. "Great."
"This all comes of continuing to go out on the town," I offered without any asking. "Caution is always the better part of valor, they say, or perhaps charity in this case..."
Kiyomai finally fell back against his pillows. "Was it really your intent to come and cheer me up, Father? I hate to say it, but you are doing a lousy job!"
Perhaps the only thing more annoying than my talk was the cackle that I let loose just then. "Just want to keep you on your toes, my boy! You can't help but be your honest self in such circumstances."
"Well, then," the man offered, "I think I can honestly say that I would prefer the company of someone else right now."
"Now, that attitude sounds vaguely familiar!" I scowled. "You can't mean that! After all we have been through together?"
"Together?" he shot back. "If we would have been together, I doubt this would have happened!" He groaned in his effort to accuse. "What happened to you two?"
There was some silence. Polus wouldn't look his Emperor in the eyes and I never looked anyone in the eyes anyway, so I was unreadable. "Well," I finally offered, "there were these roses..."
My son was obviously flummoxed. "Flowers? You abandoned me for flowers?"
"Now, they were very fragrant, you know, and a blind old cripple has few pleasures you know." I thought for something else to say, but nothing good came. "Well, you didn't die!"
Kiyomai chewed on that for a moment. "That is true. I probably would have tripped over the two of you trying to get away from those thugs and broke my back. Remind me to send the flower-girl a note of appreciation for getting you out of my path!"
I smiled, nodded, and clapped my hands. "There you have it," I cried triumphantly, slapping Polus on the back. "I knew we did the right thing!"
The Emperor began shaking his head and softly laughing. It wasn't a very good laugh, at least not compared to mine, but it was much better than listening to him groan like a fool. "Why do I put up with you, Father?"
I flashed a big smile. "You have to! I'm the dad!"
Round about that time, in a place so far removed from the Emperor and his troubles that the distance has never been measured, a meeting was taking place.
The strong pickets that formed the wall of the village were not much more than a stone's throw away from the gathering place with its happy fire and loud voices. In any other part of the world, this would be a dangerous place to be, an easy target for any missile lobbed from the village side of the pickets, but this was a naive people for those sorts of tactics. A few months ago, there was no fence and no need for one, for this was a peaceful village that was home to a peaceful people. Enemies, if there had been any, would have been so distant as to render either an attack or a defense silly, if the residents of the village had need to give such things any thought at all. Though petty squabbling among the villagers was common enough, war was completely unknown.
In fact, it was a squabble that caused this picket fence to go up, shutting out the losers of a little tiff and protecting the victors. This meeting was convened in this spot for several purposes and the voices were loud so that the sound would carry through the fence to the villagers within. Zel, against the advice of Julya and Nychol, was working the exiles into a frenzy.
As was the custom in their land, Xan had just been burned in the funeral bonfire of that night, stirring all to a certain emotionalism of the passing of their beloved Wise Woman. Zel was taking this opportunity to bring everyone's feelings to a boil. "Look, do any of our friends within the village come out to do homage to Xan? Is not this our tradition with the passing of a Wise Woman? They raise this wall against us and then they raise their minds against our sacred customs! We are called rebels by my cousin Talel, but who rebels against tradition?"
The assembled people, like a sea of dark bodies swaying with the wind, voiced derision against the villagers, shouting out curses. Julya and Nychol, unhappy guests of Zel, crouched on a log near to the fire, looking uncomfortable. Though Xan had appointed Julya as the next Wise Woman to the village, her son had taken pains to make sure none of the assembly knew this fact.
"Long ago, in the days before our grandparents, we lived among a nation that knew only death and destruction. Our first Wise Woman led us out of that land, on a long and perilous journey, to this place that men had never before known. She called it a land of peace, where we would never know death at the hands of another. This long time, we have lived in peace, ruled by a strong Headman, chosen and advised by a Wise Woman. Our village has prospered and we have always been a happy people." He seemed to grow large in the light of the fire. "Are you happy now?" he bellowed.
The sound that poured from the assemblage was definitely negative. Julya pursed her lips and winced at the wave of hatred that was building. Zel went on, feeding the fuel of the crowd's growing rage. "We are cast out of our own village and kept out by a ring of sharp sticks! How can we be happy away from our homes? Some of our families are trapped inside, wanting desperately to be with us, but the sticks that keep us out hold them in against their free wills! Shall we break down the sticks and set them loose? Shall we liberate our captive family and friends, held by the vicious Talel?"
Unarmed for the most part, the crowd was still beginning to frighten Julya and Nychol as they shook fists and bellowed. Even the dark women present were bearing teeth and nails, ready to strike at the evil Talel and his coconspirators. The noise hit a strong pitch and Zel deemed the time right to send the mob to the fence.
Using whatever means at hand, the crowd pushed at, hit, clawed, and did whatever else they thought could breech the pickets. Through the cracks between the wood, it was obvious that an equal number of people within the fence were busy shoring it up, to the point that it withheld all attempts to tear it down. The frenzy did not last long, as the emotion stirred up by Zel soon spent itself and the crowd wearied of their inability to do the job. A few of the men and women, as they pulled away from the pickets, whispered to each other against their old leader, questioning his motives. Zel's loyal men took note and reported these things to their leader after the night was spent and everyone had retired to their make-shift huts.
The exiles were encamped about a quarter-hours walk from the village. Zel's abode was the nicest in the camp, the woven sticks of its construction having been plastered inside and out and a firm door was placed in its front, where the other exiles made do with crude fabric to keep out the night air.
Already the fire was lit and Zel was hunkered down over a massive rough-hewn table, scowling. Julya and Nychol stood in a corner, forgotten but wide-eyed at the events of the evening. The loyal men had just left the house, to carry out Zel's latest order as deposed Headman: kill the exiles who were beginning to speak against him.
The man was mumbling to himself, as if deranged. "How dare they speak against the Headman? I was chosen and I know what is best to do..."
Julya coughed and Zel's head went up, staring daggers at the duo. "What are you doing here?" he demanded. "I thought we made a place for you to stay yesterday."
"I thought you might like a little Wisdom," Julya offered, not choosing to move any closer to the man.
Zel turned his scowl back down to the table. "Go away, girl. Take that Holy Man of yours and just go away. You are not needed or wanted here."
Julya gulped and took a breath. "I thought I was the Wise Woman. You spoke highly of them earlier today. Why won't you listen to me?"
Zel balled up his fist and sent it crashing on the table. "My mother was a delusional old fool on her deathbed! She lost her senses in your land, seeking some silly Wisdom and speaking the nonsense of some heathen God. You are no Wise Woman, girl! Take your friend and leave here. I can't keep you safe."
She took a step forward with Zel watching her, looking displeased. "I would feel much safer if you would stop stirring up your people. If all that I have heard you say about the old days is true, you have come a long way toward abandoning the principles of your own culture!"
The dark man seemed to snarl, releasing what he had pent up against this girl since their meeting. "What would you know of such things? You must have this boy," he pointed derisively at Nychol, "at your side for fear that you may trip and hurt your foot! A Wise Woman is strong, as you have seen the other women here to be."
It was true that the dark women all stood nearly a foot taller than Julya, who was about of average height for a woman of Alaedea. These were also muscular women that looked just as able and ready as the men to pick up a spear and do combat. Julya was much more used to the feminine women of home and hearth in her own lands. "Something inside of me," the girl protested, "tells me that Xan's choice was right and that I have something to do here."
The big Headman waggled his head in contempt. "Is this your God speaking to you? What does he say then?"
"You should honor your traditions and put aside your violence and anger. Your hunger to be the Headman is clouding your judgment. You need to think of what is best for your people." The girl gave a great sigh, as if it took effort to get out the words, and then stepped back.
Zel came up from his seat sharply, knocking the table over and flinging his possessions across the room. "I should honor our traditions? What about the one that made me the Headman? I was the chosen one!" The veins in his neck were starting to become ugly. "Talel turned the people against me and took my place for his own! Who gave him that right?"
Julya instinctively put up a calming hand, though it did no good. "You are not well, Zel. If you once followed the wisdom of Xan, you are abandoning it now." The young woman licked her lips and put aside her growing fear at what she was going to say. "If I were among your people, I would beg someone I trusted to oust you. Perhaps this is why Talel did what he did."
"You insolent girl," the man fumed. Nychol tried to put himself between the raging man and the Princess, but Julya motioned him back. "You need to be taught manners!"
"Like those people that will die tonight because they question you? Do you want to kill me?" She took a step forward as if offering herself. Julya's eyes narrowed. "Perhaps I should go and meet this Talel and see if you tell your exiles the truth about him."
Zel let out a growl and lunged for Julya, just as two of his men walked in. They were pale from what they had just done and were even more distressed by what was happening now. They put themselves between their master and his prey, holding the man back as he shouted at the girl and struggled to get at her. "If you go to Talel, I will kill you myself if I see you again!"
The guards stiffened at their leader's words. "Headman, you should not speak to the Wise Woman that way!"
The big man pulled back, shaking himself loose and glaring at his men. "Have you been telling the others such things?" His breath was labored and he crouched like an animal ready to strike.
The men saw Zel's stance and their knuckles whitened on their spears. "No, Headman. You told us not to tell the others. We have not."
The big man looked untrustingly at his guards. "I never want you to say such things again to anyone, even each other. My mother was a sick woman when she made the pronouncement."
"But..." began the shorter of the guards.
Zel struck out at him, gashing the man with his nails and causing him to stumble back. "Do as you are told!" The other man brought the point of his spear down to Zel's chest. The Headman glared at him with terrible venom. "Are you opposing me, Karau?"
The man did not turn his eyes away, nor did he move his spear. "I thought a man could speak freely and truly before the Headman, knowing justice and mercy were to be had."
Gritting his teeth, Zel slapped Karau's spear aside. "I don't coddle traitors," he hissed, seeing that Karau's companion had recovered himself and snatched up his own spear against the Headman. Looking back to Karau, Zel spat. "I have chosen my bodyguards poorly."
Karau turned to Julya. "Are you well, Wise Woman?"
"You came just in time!" Julya was still breathing hard at the last few moment's events.
Turning back to the Headman, his eyes grew cold. "I left the village with you because I believed in your words about tradition, Zel. But, Talel is my friend and I cannot believe that he has let power corrupt him as you say. Now I see that you were only masking your own corruption!" He looked to Julya. "If you would like to meet Talel and judge him yourself, Wise Woman, I can take you there safely. The way is guarded, but I and any that come with me can pass through."
"You filthy dog!" Zel spat, dirtying Karau's tunic. "You would deliver up the Wise Woman to the usurper?" He looked to the other guard. "He is mad!"
The smaller guard was confused for a moment but did not lower his weapon. "I thought," Karau said slowly, "that you did not accept this girl as Wise Woman? Are you afraid of what she might learn and what she might say? You twist your words like one who seeks a friend for treachery!"
Julya was thoughtful now, able to think. "Perhaps we could take Zel with us, so I might see them side by side and judge who is better suited to be Headman."
Zel glared at the girl. "You would dare overrule the choice of Xan? Perhaps Talel has summoned some magic and has bewitched you! You are young and inexperienced in our ways..."
"Quiet!" Karau roared. "I am tired of your posturing. Tradition instructs the Wise Woman to choose the Headman. There are no supporters to win here! I heard Xan proclaim Julya the Wise Woman and I need no more."
Julya lowered her chin and looked at Zel with gravity. "If there is bewitching here, Talel will have to affect more than I, for I intend for the entire village to look upon our meeting with Talel and judge who they would have for their Headman. We must arrange a meeting tomorrow. Then, I will make my decision."
Karau turned to Julya and smiled. "This truly is Wisdom! As Xan said, we can all have the knowledge with us if we seek this God of your people. I see that you want us to use this new power! I am glad you have come, Julya of the North!"
Zel grumbled something, but he was smart enough to keep it to himself.
The landscape did not change at all.
All around, there were the rugged sides of mesas, raising up and then stopping suddenly, as if some plain just thought a little too much of itself and swelled itself up off of the ground. Of course, the story is just backwards -- the plain stayed where it was and the ground all around got woefully sad and slumped down into uneven terrain, a few bits becoming so forlorn as to seek lives as sandy dry riverbeds. The same twisted bush-trees were there, crisped in the relentless sun, and making any movement of such a great number of men slow and frustrating.
Of course, I am not talking about Dougi and his forces, for their horses were accustomed to the terrain and never could it be said that their numbers even approached great. They had already found good defensive positions, well hidden from the toiling host that was coming to crush them. Dougi had expected this resistance, for though a bulk of the dwellers of this land were under his sway, a few spoilsports, as he called them, had done as predicted and sent messages swiftly to the nearest Conclave fort and alerted them to the rising rebellion and of the girl that seemed to inspire it.
Anya would not have gone to the battle, even if Dougi had offered, which he never did. Her expected place was among the huddled group of women that waved as the men had left a few nights before and then she was expected to get back about the business of cooking and cleaning and cowering for the crotchety old men that had been left behind to "guard" the homesteads. A quick check-about would have alerted someone to the fact that the Princess was nowhere about, but the other women universally disliked the girl for stirring up trouble and were so relieved not to have their culture assaulted any longer that they conveniently forgot that she existed.
As the steamy Conclavists bellied forward, Vacarius looked down on the scene from atop one of the near mesas, his fine tent complex already pitched and his servants unloaded three wagons of provisions and comforts. Though his men would sulk over cold rations and try to think of a hundred ways to rid themselves of the stench of sweat dried permanently into the fibers of their woolen tunics, their newly-appointed Governor was in a comfortable chair, sipping cool drinks and surveying the grunt of his men under a shading canopy.
The Conclave General was also looking down from the same mesa, though a little way from the Governor, grim of face and fraught with purpose. Couriers shuffled to and fro about him, receiving his orders and bringing him reports from the captains below. His eyes were burning in the dust and sun and he cursed his assignment and, most of all, he cursed Vacarius. He wondered in bemusement as an occasional head of one of the rebels would pop out of its hiding place, like some prairie dog taking a look. "These idiots," he groaned to himself, "couldn't defend themselves with God himself interceding." Another courier was dispatched to tell the nearest captain the location of the rebel, and so the cycle continued on and on.
Dougi had set up his command center as well, in the lowest spot he could find to hide himself. Messengers also moved about him, but he did not have the same thoughts and feelings as the General above. The army they were arrayed against was spectacular, perhaps more than ten thousands strong. At last count, his force numbered less than two hundreds, and that included a force of forty that had promised to show up sometime tomorrow. Instead of becoming wide-eyed and bolting off back home, the old lord set his teeth and trusted in his flimsy advantages: The rebels knew how to deal with the heat and terrain; and this Conclave army was from the north, dressed for a cold climate and carrying few supplies, relying on their experience in putting down revolts in forests teeming with game that could be hunted for food as needed. When the Conclavists were starving, he and his men would be living fine off of the land and picking off soldiers one-by-one at their leisure. Dougi wasn't so confident that he refrained from chewing his fingernails hard and shaking a bit. He also wondered about Calt, who was his best warrior in a pinch and had not been seen for days. Dougi vainly hoped that his harsh words and banishment from the family forever were simply taken as a joke by the young man and that he was somewhere amongst the men, evening up the odds.
Unfortunately, Calt had taken his fathers words at face value, packed his things, and accompanied Anya on the most fool-hardy scheme of all.
Vacarius called for more wine and settled into the padded seat, smiling broadly. His general looked up from his hot work and gave the Governor a look of contempt. Though it was a widespread rumor in the camps, the General was privy to the counsels that had named Vacarius to his present post and knew the true reason for this entire fiasco. It was actually a cruel joke, sending the bungling Cardinal to attempt to collect his girl again. Any wonderment that members of the Inner Conclave felt at this clown actually capturing the Crown Princess were set right when he had promptly lost her not once, but twice, in a handful of weeks. So, a Governorship had been created over this desolate land of unruly cattlemen and this poor general, who knew he was on the wrong side of his superiors, was trudging his ill-equipped army across a gaunt, broken, desolate land. The only comforting thought, the old soldier reminded himself, was that his retirement was close at hand and a fat pension awaited him. Even if he were assigned to serve under a skinny dog set on capturing cats, he would do what was asked for a few more months.
A messenger, not much more than twelve years old, sprinted away from Dougi's side and dashed into the fading light of the evening. The boy was a bit nervous, running around in the open with a massive enemy approaching, but his news was a little hopeful, at the very least: the Conclavists were setting up camps to sleep for the night. The rest of the message was silly talk about ambushing the army as they slept, but the boy was just happy to know that he might have another day to live. It is a sad thing that such a young boy, so full of promise, had to think in such dark terms, but of such were the times and the young man faced them with due courage. His mind was full of heroic plans when his foot caught on something and he sprawled very hard on a patch of rock between two thorny bushes. Surprise nearly took the wind out of him, but the main focus of his surprise was the fact that colliding with a rock had not knocked him senseless! In truth, the thing that he had fallen upon and that had caused him to trip in the first place was a young man, who was groaning softly. "Beg your pardon," the boy said quietly, scrambling off of the man.
"Ow," was all the man below could manage, the boy now seeing that this was a seasoned veteran of all of fourteen years. "Ya idiot," the older boy finally drawled out. "Ya better watch whar yar goin'!"
The boy simply accepted his place in the pecking order and nodded curtly. "Sorry. The old man wants the word spread that the Clavists," which was the closest he could pronounce the actual word, "are beddin' down for the night. He wants everyone back at the holler jest after sundown."
The young man had managed to turn onto his side, clutching himself as if he were wounded in the groin. "Yeah, yeah," he breathed out, taking in every breath as if they would be his last. "I got it. Now, git."
The boy looked concerned. "Are ya hurt?"
"Git!" The young man really wanted to bellow it out, but his adolescent voice broke at the worst second and made him sound like some girl. To make his point more obvious, he twisted on the ground and gave the boy a kick.
Off the messenger sprang, feeling his job here was done, shooting toward the next wrangler on his route.
The young cowboy continued to lay there, breathing hard and fast, clutching his privates as if he were trying to stop the blood-flow. His mind was almost blinded by his predicament. "How'm I gonna do this?" he thought to himself in agony.
A vision of his mother drifted into his mind, scolding him for getting his pants dirty. "If I told you once," she screeched in his head, "I told you a thousand times! Just hold it!" Well, this was just what he was trying to do, but there was no house handy to run to! He decided that he couldn't just lay there, what would his mother think?
The pain was becoming intense and he knew he must do something. His orders were to stay hidden here and listen for the enemy, but if he didn't handle this very soon, he thought, he might die. The agony finally overcame his fear of capture and torture and death at the hands of the evil foe, and he sprang up. Dropping his rough trousers, he finally released the pressure he had been applying.
The sound of the young man's sigh was nearly as loud as the splattering of his urine. One or the other caught the attention of two Conclavists, barely older than the man peeing, standing about a hundred yards off, who nearly burst out laughing as they saw what was happening. Though one hand was occupied with the business, as they say, at hand, the young cowboy managed a sheepish smile and wave with the other at his dreaded enemy. They waved back with smiles of their own and put their attention back to setting up the maze of their tent.
"You don't see that in every war," the more experienced of the two said in a low voice, creating sniggers in the other as both worked away at a tent they would never sleep in. For, just as quickly as Dougi's messengers were spreading the word about the sneak attack on the sleeping Conclavists, the army was dispersing orders to set up their gear but prepare to stay awake the night and cut down any marauders.
It was in the deepening shadows of dusk that the two figures stole quietly along the top of the mesa. Vacarius' shady spot was just ahead and was just now being illuminated by lamps and another round was being poured. As the distance to the padded chair narrowed, the Governor could be seen laughing riotously at some joke of his own make, the servants around him trying to join in, though this strange humor eluded them. After a moment of watching and gauging, the first figure thought the time right and pulled the other closer to their goal.
"Hello," Anya said, clearly and with good nature, standing prettily a stone's throw from the Governor. Calt stood there beside her with a silly grin on his face. "I think," she continued as wine pitchers and goblets splashed all about with surprise, most notably on Vacarius' tunic, "you have been looking for me."
The Governor sprang up, pointed as if he had just discovered something sinister, and shouted. "Seize her!" A few guards stumbled over Vacarius, causing everyone to sprawl very ungracefully on the floor. Anya and Calt could have easily ran off and gotten away, but the woman just viewed the spectacle with a pleasant curiosity. The General had charged up at the commotion and tore the back of the screen aside, nearly barking with a laugh when he saw the Governor's bodyguards clawing to get over him and to the docile girl.
Anya was held finally between two disheveled men, who were bringing her closer to the Governor. "So," Vacarius sneered, brushing himself off and trying to look regal, "you thought you could get away from me!" This did nothing but make all the people around him laugh, recalling his failed efforts to hold her before. "Silence!" the man screeched, bringing all mirth to a stop save for one soul, the General who leaned against a tent pole and shook his head, giggling. Calt was straining against his captors, but Anya only smiled pleasantly as she looked Vacarius in the face.
"What if I promised I would not try to get away?" The girl gave the Governor a side-long look. "It would save these soldiers a lot of trouble."
Vacarius reddened like a beet and puffed himself up. "Insolent girl..."
The General cut his master off. "I suppose there are terms to your offer." The wine-stained man whirled on his General and prepared to shout, but the old soldier only ignored him. "What do you want?"
Anya's grin deepened. "I want you and your army to leave this place and never return. In exchange, I will willing go with you where ever you wish to take me."
"What of this other man?" The General gave a glance to Calt.
Anya smiled again. "I think he will follow wherever I go. I seem to have problems shaking him, unlike others." Another giggle went up from the servants about and Vacarius shot nasty looks about until the snickering died down.
Nodding shortly, the General signaled his couriers to spread the word to the army below that they were leaving. Vacarius was livid at being brushed aside so easily, but by his own General! "I won't stand for these insults any longer!" He tried to strike another regal pose, but his foot slipped on a dropped goblet and he sat down hard on his rump. Two servants, after they had laughed a bit, took the Governor by each arm to help him up. "Where is Lanolylc?" the man sputtered.
Anya shrugged and frankly told him. After Vacarius was steady on his feet again, he screamed at his servants. "What are you standing about for? Fetch a squad and get the old goat!" The servants moved away, though not far enough that the Governor could not hear their derision. Vacarius chose to ignore it.
Some hours later, the young fourteen-year-old cowboy broke through the thicket at the spot where his enemies had been wrestling with a tent. He stomped around for a moment and looked bewildered, just as all his compatriots did at other locations at roughly the same time. There was no tent. There were also no enemies. There was absolutely nothing but disturbed ground and a relieved young cowboy. He was so relieved, in fact, that he decided it was safe to urinate again.
The darkness was swirling around him, caught up by a chilling wind that made his bones shiver and his joints ache all at once. There was no sound, as usual, but he was buffeted nonetheless, the wind seeming almost to be like solid walls slamming into his body and then leaping away. Lan ached all over, as if he was being assaulted by a mob.
Visions poured into his mind, which was a new twist to his delirium, and it took some time before he learned how to arrange the scenes in his mind. At first, they were only fleeting snatches, a glimpse of Julya in the midst of dark-skinned people, a few frames of Anya, held bound by something that looked like chains. It seemed to him that his companions had not fared too well and he entertained the thought that their misfortunes came about because of his absence. The wind howled up to a fury and it felt like he was caught up in the storm, for there was no sensation of ground under his feet now and his body was being tumbled here and there by the wind's solidity. Even in this dilemma, the visions continued, becoming brighter and more cohesive.
Lanolylc could only see the visions before him as Julya spoke with great fervor to a large gathering of dark-skinned people, all listening intently. Two of the dark men, who stood on either side of Julya, also spoke in turn, though one seemed to be shouting and gesturing much harder than the other, almost frantic. The crowd was obviously unnerved by the more active speaker and Julya kept an eye on that one, as if she were expecting some sort of mischief. The man became even more animated and began pointing at the Princess in what looked like accusation. The whole assemblage, and Lan with them, became very tense, sensing some terrible event to come. Within a short moment, the man lunged at Julya and knocked her to the ground, drawing a knife high to strike. Several big, dark men nearby, perhaps soldiers, moved toward the fray, but Lanolylc never saw the end of it as the vision rippled and faded away.
"Did she die?" he screamed at the wind. "Am I meant to see all my plans gone to nothing? Let me wake, so that I might save them!" The wind howled even harder in answer, as if his outburst was not the response wanted. "Talk to me!" The wind only abated a bit and a fresh vision was before him.
It was night and Anya trudged on, obviously very weary, amongst a troop of armed men. A man, who Lan vaguely remembered from some distant adventure, was walking behind her, doing his best to take the weight of the heavy chains that bound both he and the young woman. Anya stumbled over a rock, nearly collapsing to the ground if it had not been for her companion, who strained to keep her on her feet along with his other burdens. The duo slowed a bit and an old man flicked a whip at the girl for her slowness, which only caused Anya's man to turn and kick at the tormentor. For his pains, he was struck a blow from a soldier beside him and whipped by the old man himself. The man's back was visible for a second and showed ugly torn flesh. This was not the first time he had been struck defending the girl. Anya, her eyes fluttering shut, began to faint, but her companion caught her once again, nearly carrying her forward in spite of his own fatigue and pain. For this service, he was whipped again, just for good measure it seemed.
Lanolylc grit his teeth. "Why am I seeing this? Why must everyone suffer so? Why am I not there to help?" The questions came hard and fast, but the images started to fade again, but not until he had caught a glimpse of another figure, bound hand and foot to a post so that two massive men could carry it. As the troop passed by his view, Lan gasped to see that the limp, nearly lifeless man hanging from the pole was himself. The vision snapped shut as if a door slammed to and the tempest was instantly gone.
It was now as it had always been in the past. The stifling dark, now left to its own devices by the swift currents, settled down into a familiar role, choking all air and life from him, giving Lan little ability to move. Of course, there was nowhere to go in the blackness, but the man would have liked to throw up his hands and scream at the injustice of it all, but he could not do it. The sheer mass of the nothingness kept him completely still, as if it had sealed him up in some solid vat of dense liquid. It might have been comforting for someone else, for there was nothing to do here. Lanolylc had spent long tracks of his life in this limbo and he hated it with every fiber of his being.
The worst part was that he was trapped with his own thoughts there, with never a distraction. All the time in the world was granted to review the choices he had made and the situations that he had set into motion. He had some regrets, but he still steadfastly held to the belief that he was some great man that was a savior to his people and that he deserved far better than this. His situation had began to turn him all black and cold within, especially this most recent episode. What were these strange times when his body was in a coma? Why didn't he just wake up at the end of the malady just as if he was waking from a good sleep? What kept his mind conscious all these times? Why him? These were the questions that would come to his mind most during the bitter months of limbo.
The black that held him thinned and he cringed at what would come next. Though he enjoyed the visits and loved deeply the visitor, he never liked the message that he was forced to hear. Now, he could splay his fingers again and took a tentative breath. No sooner than his hand relaxed, he felt other fingers interlock with his. "Hello, my love."
Lan was quiet for a moment, unsure of what to say. "Hello, I suppose," he finally managed.
"Now, that was a kindly greeting! One would think that you had lost your love for me. If you like, I could just leave you to your thoughts and never return..."
His hand tightened like a vise on her hand, though she gave no sign of discomfort. "No!" There was only one thing worse than enduring Michiana's message, and that was the darkness that closed about him otherwise. "It is just a torture for me!"
Her other hand came up to lie softly on top of his. "It does not have to be a torture, if you would simply humble yourself."
He sniffed. "That is very easy for you to say! I don't see you trapped in a lonely purgatory! Isn't my penance over yet for whatever wrong I have done? Or does God just joy in my misery?"
There was a tug as if Michiana wanted to pull away. "No!" the man spat, clutching onto her with all his might. "I won't let you go! I don't want the darkness to come back!"
Her voice was hard this time, different than ever he had heard from her before, in life or death. "If you were not such a stubborn fool, you would know that your condition is a wonderful opportunity given to you by a loving Father! It would have been easier just to strike you dead years ago, but he let you live on, out of love and hope that you would change!"
"What?" This was all too much for Lanolylc. "I suffer here because God loves me? I don't think I like God's love much in that case. I would rather him just end it all!"
The hands that had struggled went limp, almost as if will had left them. "You really mean that, don't you? You really would rather be dead."
Lan sighed. "If you had been through what I have been through, you would think the same way."
"Actually," Michiana said curtly. "The reason why I had no reason to suffer as you do is because I was willing to obey God."
"Oh, is that it?" His voice was becoming shrill, but the hands didn't try to pull away. "I don't do what God wants, so he gets me out of the way..."
The hands stroked his. "Yes. Your spirit is brought here so that you will not interfere in the workings of the Father." She almost laughed. "You have an annoying way of being in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing at the wrong time."
"I suppose I should take some honor in the fact that I can frustrate God."
"Well, no." Her voice was somewhat softer now. "You have rarely had an opportunity. When you were doing what God wanted, even if it was not intentional, he let you walk the earth. Otherwise, you were balked because you exercised a bad influence over people who God wanted to steer toward good. You would lead them the wrong way."
Lan was silent, his breathing slow and steady, seeming almost indifferent. "So, I don't obey and I am punished."
"I guess you could see it that way. This punishment has been simply an effort to have you realize a few things. Since you have steadfastly refused to look at your situation with a different perspective, I have been sent to make things a little more plain for you."
He was dripping with sarcasm. "My, do go on."
Michiana chose to ignore his obvious disinterest. "The Father has been trying to reach you all your life. Ideas and thoughts have come into your mind, seemingly out of the blue, and you have taken great pains to ignore those promptings. On the few occasions that you have profited from accidentally following a suggestion from God, you have never offered Him credit nor even acknowledged His Hand in the least. Your rise to positions of power and your skill in leadership and organization are all gifts from God, laid before a pretty ungrateful child. Have you ever thanked him for these things?"
Lan snorted. "I never thought that those things were gifts. I worked terribly hard to get my posts and to learn my skills. I don't think God had anything to do with it."
Michiana took in breath sharply. "I never knew you were so ungrateful! The Father gave you breath and life, the capacity of mind to learn and progress, and even brought together circumstances that made your proudest achievements possible. I see now that you don't believe that, but you must now know that an ungrateful child can have gifts taken away."
"Is that what is happening to me? God taking away things from me? What right does He have to ruin my life?"
Her voice was growing firmer again. "God gave you your life! He is patient and kind for letting you keep it so long when you seem bent on using it against Him! God helps you again and again and, at every turn, you see fit to spit in His face. Anyone else would grow tired of such treatment! Good health and life are a constant blessing from the Father, and now you belly-ache when He chooses not to act so heartily in your behalf?"
Lan was silent, trying to reconcile this with his own beliefs.
"Do you like being alone, Lan?"
For a moment, he thought the question was rhetorical. After silence ensued, he had to admit the truth. "No, I can't stand being alone. I would rather be preached at by you or my worst enemy than be alone like I am in the darkness."
She stroked his hand again, her voice soft and almost pleading. "This is the feeling when God abandons you. It is cold and empty and unhappy. You have been choosing this fate all along by pushing God away. When you are in the darkness, you are glimpsing what it is like when God finally lets you have your own way and leaves. It is not God who punishes you, Lanolylc. You choose to thrust God away and wrap yourself in the blackness."
Lan gasped on that for a moment, not liking the truth at all, but knowing that it was inescapable. "I bring this on myself? Does that mean I can stop this?"
Her voice was like a warm fire lighting itself within him. "Oh, yes, my love. You have had the power all along."
"How then?" he asked desperately. "How do I get out of here?"
"Stop pushing God away. Ask Him into your life and He will fill you with warmth and joy and peace. Listen to his promptings and He will lead you to brighter climbs. Do what he asks and you will be where he is -- a dazzling place of light and laughter and love! It will take time and it will take more work than you think, but he will show you glories and happiness all along your path!"
Her fingertips left his hand and brushed his face. "He always said that you would understand someday." The fingertips softly left him and the voice became quiet with distance. "God never gave up on you!"
Lan heart nearly snapped in two. "You aren't leaving are you?"
There was no answer.
"Michiana!" he shouted. "How do I hear God? How do I know it is Him?"
A soft voice floated back. "Pray and listen with all of your heart..."
He was trying to shake off the gathering darkness. "Won't you stay and help me keep the black away? When will you come back?"
Almost like a whisper the words came. "I will come for you soon..."
The only thing that saved Julya was that she knew where she was going. At least, she kept her hand in front of her while she crawled forward, sure that she would shortly feel the canvas of the tent on her fingers. There was no point in opening her eyes: it was already too dark to see and her eyes would have been damaged by the blowing sand. Julya had made very sure that she was completely covered, to the point of having her head in a sack that was bound around her neck, before straying from her own tent, but the sand still got through the seams of her protection as she crawled along.
They had seen the storm coming earlier in the day and hurriedly set up their camp, driving the long iron spikes that held the tents deep into the drifting sands. They could only get three tents up in time and Julya was giving one all to herself, save for a stolid dark man that said nothing and huddled near the tiny slit that served for a tent flap, ready to assist if things grew worse and Julya needed to get out quickly. She had told him to stay behind and that she was only going to the other tents to see how the men fared.
She finally felt the rough canvas of a tent and turned herself so that she could move along its exterior. The men within must have noticed something sliding along one of the walls, for as she came to the place where the opening was, the flap parted and large hands grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her in.
Gasping for air as she pulled off the hood, Julya looked about her, wide-eyed. The four men within were in the middle of the tent, trying to avoid the sides that whipped and billowed loudly, fighting to keep the storm out. They had stern faces and did not brighten at all with her coming.
This was a far cry from the reception she received at the hands of Talel when she proclaimed him Headman of the village of Anixda. Already he had the support of the remaining villagers and, after Zel's attack on Julya, even the exiles grudgingly agreed that Talel was the better man for the job. Julya's decision was almost an afterthought, the men and women reveling in their new-found ability to choose their own destiny. Zel broke from the men that held him and ran off, never to be seen again to my knowledge. For nearly a week, the feasting went on. The exiles came back to their homes, a little embarrassed by their actions, but welcomed with open arms back into the community. Julya and Nychol were at the Headman's table at every meal, all served the best meats, fruits, and vegetables that could be found and prepared. It was a joyful time after a hard journey for all.
In the ensuing weeks, Nychol was employed in the evenings, playing his flute and telling stories of God's love for men and women. This was all new and wonderful to these dark people and they seemed to drink in ever word. Everything he knew of God and his commandments were presented and, to a man, the entire village believed. The sweetest knowledge of all was that they could receive answers to prayers, which was a new concept for them and after a few days of this kind of preaching, time had to be set aside after each night's teaching for the villagers to share their experiences with prayers, for answers came swift and sure to these people who seemed to be inherently faithful and trusting.
This was really Julya's first opportunity to hear the gospel of God and His Savior in full and see how it changed lives in the village. Men were kinder to their families, more concerned about being good husbands and fathers than in impressing the other men. The women showed themselves as especially stalwart in the faith and often came bearing incredible experiences of God's recent intervention in their lives. Even the children spoke of the visitations of angels to them. It was a time of wonderful joy and happiness in that village, and Julya could feel her heart burn within her as she listened to Nychol and the villagers, knowing that they all spoke the truth. But, in her heart, she was sad, for none of these great things ever seemed to happen to her.
"Where is Karau?" she gasped out at the miserable men in the tent.
One of them pointed out of the tent as the wind gusted and threatened to lift the canvas clean away from the poles. Another man grabbed the center pole to hold it steady and said, "He is in the other tent, conferring."
Julya cocked her head. "Conferring about what?"
The dark men looked at each other, embarrassed. "About going back to the village."
This was new, she thought to herself. These men had all been filled with bravado about facing the trials of a long journey. Of course, it was easy to be brave when the weather was fair and calm. "I see," she said curtly, taking a deep breath before pulling the sack back over her head and loosening the straps that held the flap closed. "I must hear this conference," the men heard her muffled voice say as she passed back out into the sandblast.
It was on a beautiful evening, just after one of the nightly gatherings. Nychol had given a short concert and spoken on charity and six women and four men told of their experiences the night before. Angels had been seen in the village again and a crippled hand was now displayed in perfect frame, to the joy of all. Julya retired early that night, depressed at being in the periphery of these things: hearing always the miracles wrought in other's lives, but never having the same experience in her own. She lay on her borrowed mat and looked at the crazy network of sticks that formed the roof overhead, wondering why God saw fit to always pass her over in blessings. She closed her eyes tight and prayed that she might see angels and have miracles done in her behalf, but as usual, nothing came to her and she drifted off to sleep.
In that night, Julya dreamed.
There were tremendous forces gathering together, making the sky black with their unity. It was a palpable evil, one that wrapped around you and held you nearly bound, taunting and tempting. Julya saw the dread thing approaching her, concentrating itself for an assault on her and her alone. There were other people about, but the evil let them go in peace, its malice bent on the crouching Princess. If she tried to move forward, the attack intensified; if she stepped back, the torture lessened. She was about to retreat to safety, but a voice spoke to her, soft and sure: "Go forward in faith and you shall overcome."
She knew immediately that this was the voice of God, but she was frightened of the agony she would have to bear in going forward against the blackness. She took a cautionary step toward the goal and the evil wrapped around her and she froze in place, not knowing what to do. In the confusion of her mind, the memory of the voice came back to her. "Go forward in faith and you shall overcome." Through the jumble of her thoughts, she could remember Nychol preaching to the villagers, telling them of the marvelous things that men and women could do if they only put their trust in God and followed in His ways. The young man had alluded to this fact many times in their journeys together, as if he knew that she would someday face a dilemma such as this. Julya swallowed hard against her confusion and fear, but began to press forward again.
She half-hoped that God would somehow open a clear path through this bitter fog, but instead of a lessening, the intensity of the confusion in her mind and the ache in her bones doubled with each step forward. She could not tell if the howl of doubt was just in her mind or if she made that sound herself, but she strained on, each footfall an agony but always taking her closer to her goal. She shut out the whispers of fear and dread within her head, her entire focus centered on the need to go on, to accomplish what God wanted her to do.
Now, the forces arrayed against her were feeling like a solid physical barrier, as if the air itself grew thick and hard. With a last great effort, evil sought with all its might to turn her back, and it seemed that Julya's strength was completely spent. It was vivid in her dream, for she felt a hand reach out from before her and take her own hand, helping her take those last steps. The voices of hatred screamed now in her head, but she knew that God was helping her, leading her forward by the hand, keeping His promise.
Julya traversed the yard between the tents with another crawl, was pulled in once again, and looked gratefully into the eyes of her friend, Karau. He had already saved her life twice from Zel, and he continued to feel the need to protect her from whatever would hurt her, so he had volunteered to accompany her on the journey. "I heard the others are discussing turning back."
The big dark man looked at the girl sadly. "It is not a discussion. They are demanding that we return to the village."
Julya shook the sand from her braided hair and surveyed the scene, which looked just as it had in the other tent. The men huddled around the center pole, looking with fear on the flimsy tent walls as they shook in the gale. One of them looked at Julya with pleading in his eyes. "Please do not make us go on. We will die if we continue. Let us go home!"
The girl looked at them, dejected. When they had seen this storm from afar off, she felt the same dread as these men, and even now, she herself entertained the thought of returning to the village. If it had not been for that dream, Julya would have had the men already packing for their retreat.
In her dream, the hand of God was no longer leading, it was pulling her along, for her legs seemed to lose their strength in the barrage. Julya knew that if she let go of the hand and stopped, she would die under the press of hatred, but death was whispered to her as some wonderful release from all of this. The hand of God pulled her on, all she had to do was hold on, and she did, deafening her ears to the entreaties evil proposed.
Like a curtain being pulled away, the torture was suddenly gone. The voices left her mind and Julya, in her dream, felt a wave of happiness and gratitude to God for getting her through the ordeal. Her vision cleared and she saw before her a tall building that seemed to rise up to a point. It had four sides and stone stairs were built into each side allowing one to climb to the peak. Julya felt a need to see what was at the top of the building and she began to climb. A tremendous light seemed to blaze at the summit of the climb, burning brighter than the sun, lightening her heart as she drew near.
Finally, she was at the top and she stepped under a great stone canopy that sheltered a large slab of stone, like an altar. Resting on this, it seemed, was this marvelous light. Instead of seeming uncomfortably intense or hot, as one might assume, The blazing white fire was incredibly appealing, drawing everything closer, including Julya. Her clothes, that were made into rags in her ordeal with evil, changed on her body and she looked down to see that she wore a great golden robe and a fine blue silk dress. Something heavy settled on her head and her touch met the peculiar feel of a golden crown. With a stunning realization, she knew that she had become the Queen, the one prophesied to come and bring a wonderful new age of justice and peace to Alaedea. God had brought her here to give her this great gift and responsibility. Then, the dream was gone, but the image of it was burned into her memory.
The dark men all looked at Julya, becoming a little worried with the silent passage of time. "Fine," she said suddenly. "There is no reason for you to go on. Begin your preparations to return to Anixda."
There was an obvious sigh of relief and the men all smiled, even Karau. They immediately left their frightened vigil and began throwing their possessions into bags and packs. Julya only nodded, looking drained, wrapped herself back up, and crawled back out into the storm.
Perhaps an hour had passed and Karau, though pleased to give the men in the other tent the good news, was concerned about Julya and how unhappy she seemed to be about returning. He found his way into her tent, and Julya's attendant helped him in.
Karau was about to speak when his hood came off, but Julya was on her knees, facing away from him, her head bowed. He was not sure what she was doing, but he felt that the appropriate thing for him to do was to sit quietly and wait for her to finish. She had made no preparations to leave, though the man attending her had his pack loaded and on his back. With a quiet word, the other man bid Karau good night and made off to one of the other tents. Julya had obviously dismissed him.
The time was not horribly long until Julya looked about her. She was startled to see Karau standing near the flap of her tent, for she had heard the rustling of the flap and just supposed it was her former attendant's exit. "Forgive me," the big man said, bowing low. "I did not mean to startle you."
"Oh, that's fine, Karau." She seemed a little self-conscious. "How long have you been standing there?"
The man seemed embarrassed. "Several minutes, Princess." He had taken to using her title when he had learned she had one. "I am concerned that you are not happy to be returning to Anixda."
The girl smiled, though it was a tired one. "Actually, going back to the village sounds very pleasant..."
"Then," the man urged, "why are you sad?"
Julya got to her feet and walked up to Karau. He towered over her to the point that she might have snapped her back trying to look into his eyes. "I won't be returning to Anixda." Suddenly, her eyes were moist and she wrapped her arms around the big man's torso.
Karau looked down on her, wide-eyed, his arms suddenly raised as if he wasn't sure he should touch her. "I..." His breathing became erratic and his tongue was tied. He finally let his arms fall across her back gently, as he would to one of his daughters that was scared in the night.
"Oh, Karau, what can I do? I must go on! But I barely know the way and I don't think I am strong enough to do it alone." She looked up at him with tear-stained eyes. "I need help."
Karau looked pale as he strove to meet Julya's imploring look. "I..." He could not get over the feeling that this was some frightened child of his and he must do something. "I...I will go with you, Princess."
Her face flooded with great relief and she buried her head against his chest, her hug tightening. "Thank you! Oh, thank you, Karau, dearest of friends. I had hoped you would!"
The man did not seem enthusiastic about his decision. Tentatively letting go of Julya, he made for the tent flap. "I need to get my pack and, um,... say good-bye to the others, I guess."
Julya was smiling, wiping her tears and nodding her head enthusiastically. "Yes, send the others off and bring your things here. We only need one tent."
"Yes," the man said absently. "I will bring my pack and we will move on after the storm passes..." He bound his head, with a confused look, and passed through the flap, not knowing how he would explain this to his men.
The next morning, the sky was clear and as the group of men moved back to the southeast, Karau and Julya continued on the torturous journey alone. The next two days went well, but on their third day, a sudden storm blew up and took them in a sandy embrace as the two struggled ahead.
There was no time to put up the tent, so Julya simply curled into a ball and Karau wrapped himself around her, his back taking the bulk of the wind. There was no point in trying to shout a conversation over the fury, so they simply closed their eyes and waited for sleep to come to them.
There was no way for them to know how long the storm raged, but Julya, after what seemed like days of waiting, gave a great effort and stood up, leaning her body hard against the blizzard of sand. She let her eyes open just a squint and could barely see Karau feeling all around, feeling for the girl that might have blown away. He finally stuck her leg and looked up at the barely standing figure. "What are you doing?" It was a great shout, but the wind carried the bulk of it away and Julya barely heard him.
"We can't wait!" The girl screamed out. "We must go on!"
Julya couldn't hear the man's voice, but he clutched to her leg, obviously trying to stop her. All it did was knock the girl into the sand and she crawled closer, pressing her wrapped head against what she hoped was his covered ear. "We must press ahead. It is urgent that I get there as soon as I can!"
Karau groped for her shoulders and dragged her against him. "We will surely die if we try to move in this! We can't go forward!"
"We must," she spoke loudly. "God has put an urgency in my heart over the past few hours and I can't just sit here! I must go on!"
The man lay still beside her, though she could hear his chest heave against the stagnant air with his head-bag. "Your God has decreed it?" His voice carried even though he did not shout.
Julya touched the spot where she thought his cheek might be. "Yes," she answered slowly. "We have to have faith that God will see us through."
Through all the wrapping, she could feel Karau nod his head. "If your God wants it done, then He will give us a way."
They still lay there for a few moments beside each other, waiting for strength or courage or faith to finally help them rise. It was Karau that finally broke the silence. "Just where are we going, Princess?"
She was stunned as she realized that all this time, this great man had accompanied her on a journey that he wasn't sure had an ending. Julya had never revealed their destination to him.
"The throne I am to sit upon is in a city called Manatoa. My people have a town to the east of here named Trechald that I am making for now, then we will take a sailing ship to Manatoa."
Again, there was a pause, and Julya was worried that Karau was deciding to leave her and return home with the rest. "Are you okay?" she asked after a moment.
He was still for a moment more. "I am wondering what a sailing ship is, but I am thinking I will learn this when we reach this town of Trechald." Julya sobbed within her covering and hugged the man tightly. "I am wondering," he continued, "how far this town of yours is from here?"
Julya told him frankly that she didn't know. That was probably quite a blessing, for if the two had known, they would have surely abandoned the quest. It would take them three weeks of near-starvation and dwindling water to reach the first signs of Alaedea and another three days to reach the sea and Trechald.
Though this was not unlike the prison accommodations with which Lanolylc was accustomed, he was still in his coma and could not comment one way or the other. Anya was used to a more luxurious imprisonment, but now that she had been seen by men who had known and seen Julya, her secret was no longer her own. The young woman would face the same fate as the men, rotting in prison until the day when they would be executed for treason and impersonation and whatever else could be thought up.
Calt strove to make the woman as comfortable as possible, but he had precious little material with which to work. Moldy blankets were to be had, but only four, and two were given to the feverish Lanolylc, as well as a lion's share of the nasty food that was given them. Anya seemed to do best when the two were sitting down and she was able to rest her head on his chest. There was little anticipation for the future, for a beheading was none too pleasant a thought for either of them.
For the first few days, the prisoners were left to themselves for the most part. Besides the jailer who brought the gruel and the occasional Conclavist that looked in just to make sure they were there, no one bothered them. There were four barred windows, so the couple could see the passage of time and occasionally feel a breath of fresh air, but besides this, the place stank and dripped nasty water from the ceiling, forming stagnant pools all about. Lanolylc was rapped in his own troubles and Anya leaned upon Calt, who had weathered his beatings during their march pretty well, though his back was still very raw.
Finally, on the fifth day, a man came up to the bars, dressed much better than any before, decked out in a wonderful red cloak. He had several men with him, dressed not so fine. "Good morning," he said good naturedly.
Calt and the girl only looked at him, not answering. Lan shivered with the cold and remained where he was, oblivious to all.
"You look none the worse for your long journey. Vacarius led us to believe that you were a greater prize, but now I see that you are only two unknown faces and the one that was once known to me is a husk of himself and hardly worth my concern." He came closer to the bars, smiling. "However, you may have some information that I am looking for." He looked deeply into Anya's eyes as she tried to sink closer against her protector. "If you help me, things may go better for you and your friends. Lanolylc must die, of course, though we must wait until he is in a condition to walk to his punishment. You," he said to the girl, "have only done the disrespect of taking upon you the name and honor of a royal. This is not a great crime, and if you cooperate, we may very well give you your life and some chance to live it." He looked at Calt and sighed. "I know of nothing that you have done wrong, sir, and none have accused you of any crime, so I am prepared to let you go right now." He smiled. "We may even be able to help you get back to those God-forsaken lands that you call home."
Calt wasted no time in answering, his mind having been made up perhaps weeks before at his father's house. "I will stay with Anya."
The man nodded and smiled. "I salute your chivalry, sir. But, unless she tells us what we want to know, your service will be very short-lived."
"What do you want from me?" Anya was shaking with cold and with fear, but she managed to sound strong all the same.
The man smiled again, even larger. "It is a very simple question." He turned to the side, took a step, and rubbed his hands against his beard. "Where is the Princess Julya?"
Anya did not pause at all. "I don't know. I have not seen her in months."
"I see," the man purred, still stroking his beard in thought. "Lanolylc's entire life was spent preparing her to be Queen. This is well known. Am I to believe that he let her go off without him?"
"We became separated and Lan and I were taken by Vacarius. We had no opportunity to rejoin her."
The Cardinal took a step away. "Hm. Did you ever hear Lan and Julya speak amongst themselves about plans? Did you overhear in any way where she might have gone in such a circumstance?"
Anya stayed close to Calt, but raised her head to watch the man. "The Princess hated Lan, so there were few discussions. Those always seemed to be about the past."
He turned in his walk, his back now to her and he seemed to be going away. Anya and Calt let out breaths of relief that the man would simply leave them alone, but he spoke again. "Are you sympathetic to the cause of a Queen ruling over Alaedea again?"
Anya crinkled her brow. "I was raised on the island of Sarakol. Little else was looked forward to."
The man turned back and faced her, though still far off. "But to have a Queen would please you?"
"It depends," she shrugged, "on what kind of Queen it would be."
The Cardinal seemed to put this answer aside. "Did you like Julya?"
Anya pursed her lips. "No, I did not. She was arrogant and foolish and stupid. I think she would make a terrible Queen."
The man chuckled to himself. "You hate the girl, so you take on her persona when you think she may be out of the way. It seems odd to do that when you allege to hate her so." He walked back up to the bars. "I think you are hiding something. I think that you would prefer a bad Queen to an evil Emperor any day. I think Julya still walks this land and plans to take her throne, and you are not going to easily give true answers." He signaled to one of the men with him, who produced keys and began to unlock the barred door of the prison cell. "We will just have to persuade you." The man smiled again, but any pretense at congeniality was gone.
Calt put himself between Anya and the door. "She has answered truthfully, sir! If you want information, she will give it, but she cannot say things that she doesn't know."
The Cardinal looked on the young man with concern. "I offer you your freedom, friend, and yet you wish to stay with this wench. Now you defy my right to draw the truth out of her!" He looked at Anya, as if asking the question of her. "What should I do?"
"If you agree not to harm her, I will gladly take her place."
At this, the robed man raised a brow. "Chivalry indeed! I think this girl has feelings for you and will not wish for you to be harmed." He stopped to consider. "Yes, we will hurt you to get the truth from the girl." He signaled to more of the men. "Take him to the chamber."
At this, Anya clawed at Calt, already stepping forward to go to his fate. "No, Calt! Don't go! Let me go instead! I don't want to see you hurt anymore!" He took her into his arms long enough to kiss her and gently stroke her hair. Then the men seized him and brought him out, tearing the gripping Anya from his body and casting her back into the cell.
The Cardinal laughed softly, knowing that the situation could not be more perfect. Sometimes, the torture made a person unable to speak, so that answers could not be had. It often took a studied hand to hurt just enough. Now, he was free of all that thought -- he could hurt this man all he wanted, and she would tell him all he wanted to know just to make the suffering of her lover stop. The glimmer in his eye as they walked the man way was truly vile.
Anya did her best to occupy her time with feeding Lan, but she could not help but hear Calt's screams, purposefully tortured within her listening. She tried hard to steel herself against it, concentrating upon her task, but she hurt herself in biting her lip.
When they brought him back into view, Calt was no longer walking. The torturers brought the man back and threw him like rag doll into the cell, thrusting the door closed with sneers. "Perhaps," the Cardinal said, looking at Anya with a kind look, "you will want to tell me more of what you know tomorrow."
The men walked off and Anya ran and knelt by Calt, helping him to lay more comfortably on his back. She lay his head in her lap and stroked his face and hair. "I'm so sorry..."
He took a ragged breath and looked into her eyes. "That really hurt," was all he could manage for the moment.
Whatever little fortitude that she showed when the guards were about was gone and she began to weep, her head bending low enough to press her forehead against his. "Don't cry," he said weakly. "I chose my path."
"I don't know if I should be grateful or furious," Anya said softly. "All I know is that if I am to die, I want my last thoughts to be of you." She pressed her lips gently to his brow.
Calt tried to raise himself up, but he flinched in pain instead as if he had another blow to the back. The woman looked sympathetically into his eyes and brought her lips to his. After the long soft kiss, she smiled down on him. "Was that what you were wanting?"
"That is all I ever wanted." He relaxed his body and closed his eyes. She stoked his hair gently until the battered man finally went to sleep.
It seemed a very short time had passed when Anya was startled awake by the Cardinal surveying the scene. Calt was still lying on the floor with his head in the young woman's lap. She had forgotten dozing off herself and upon taking a glance at the barred windows, she saw that they had slept through the night on the floor. "This is very touching," the Cardinal said pleasantly. "You must love him very much." Anya only gave him a angry look in answer. "It would be a shame to hurt him more. He seems a nice enough fellow, even when he is being whipped." He cocked his head. "Is there anything else you would like to tell me?"
"I have already told you everything I know." Anya spat it out with distaste. "What do you want me to do? Make up some lie to appease you?"
The man smiled at the girl in an almost tender way. "I don't think lying would be helpful, and besides I have precious little time to check facts." The Cardinal gave her a look that was genuinely sad. "Since I don't have time to test your truthfulness, I will just have to hurt your friend more, because I think you will tell me where Julya is hiding, if you do know, rather than see your friend die of torture." With that, he signaled the guards and they unlocked the door.
"No!" the girl shrieked over and over as they jarred the sleeping man awake and hauled him out of the cell. Calt had regained most of his strength and gave his captors some resistance, but he was hopelessly outnumbered.
The Cardinal smiled. "Our chivalrous friend, are you ready to serve your lady again?"
Anya was still screeching at the bars, trying to tear them apart and get at this evil man. Calt only glared at the Cardinal. "I would die for her," he said simply.
The Cardinal lifted his brows and rubbed his hands together. "Well," he said with a nod, "let's see if that is true."
Anya began blurting all sorts of things, repeating all the things she said before and even creating some new tales, but it was to no avail. Though the Cardinal listened intently, the guards moved Calt off out of sight. "You have offered a few more things for me to consider," the man said gently. "Tomorrow, maybe, you will give me a few more things to think about."
As he moved off, Anya screamed as loudly as she could, half cursing the evil Cardinal and half to drown out the wails of her love as the torture resumed.
When Calt was returned, it was obvious that the punishment had been much worse. She could hardly touch him for causing him pain, and now his head was lashed and cut, something they had neglected to do the day before. She used the corner of a blanket to cool his wounds with the cleanest water she could find about. He said very little, his face contorted always in some continuous pain. Anya wept long over Calt, kissing him and trying to find some place she could touch him or hold him that didn't hurt. Unfortunately, there was no place that was not bruised or broken. He slept fitfully at best, so the woman got little rest herself.
"He doesn't look very well," the Cardinal mentioned casually the next day as he surveyed the weary couple. "I don't think he can take but two more days of this before he dies." He looked at Anya as if he was concerned about the man's welfare. "For his sake, I hope you tell me everything soon."
Anya gritted her teeth until they hurt. "I have told you everything," she hissed. "Why can't you just leave him alone?" Neither her tone nor her manner indicated any breaking of her will. "You are a monster!"
This only made the Cardinal smile all the more. "I doubt that those kinds of comments will help. Your friend's life hangs in the balance and you choose to be defiant." He looked at the guards with a smile and they all laughed evilly.
"I'm sorry," she said, striving to be more contrite. "I have told you everything. I have from the start. I don't know where Julya is. She ran away that night and I never saw her again!" Tears welled up in her eyes. "Please, please don't hurt him again!"
The Cardinal let his head droop for a moment, as if he was taken with a bout of consciousness. He gave a great sigh. "I believe you," he said, looking up into her eyes, giving her a sudden rise of hope. "I think you are being very sincere," he added promisingly, "but my associates of the Inner Conclave might not. Just to be sure, we will try once more."
This time Calt was limp as they took him away and Anya had not the heart to sling vitriolic words as they left the room. She only crumpled to the hard stone floor of her prison and cried uncontrollably, her whole body shaking with each sob.
She knelt there like a statue, unable to feel much less move. Anya could hear the blows being given to Calt, but he was far beyond calling out in pain. The girl could only stare at the tepid little pool of water before her, trying not to think.
Something startled her to consciousness finally, causing her to leap up in fright. There was Lanolylc, sitting on his bed, looking at her. Having nowhere else to turn, she ran to him and clutched to him for relief. Lan was terribly confused, still trying to understand where he was and what time or day it was, but he relaxed quickly into the role of consoling Anya the best he could.
When the guards brought Calt back, the Cardinal was surprised to see Lanolylc awake. No one said a word as the remains of Anya's love was tossed into the cell. He landed like a scarecrow, not making any sound, and not making any movements. The man looked like he was dead. The guards slowly closed the door and the entourage walked away. Anya didn't even move toward Calt, not wanting to know his fate.
In the end, it was Lanolylc that laid out the young man on his back and examined him. No bones were broken, but it looked almost as if much of his skin had been peeled away and underlying tissue hacked at. If he had bruises, they were masked under the sheen of tacky blood that oozed from all over his body. It took two hours before Anya could approach the still-living body without retching on the floor, deep in her own reproach for letting such a thing happen. She dare not touch him, but finally knelt beside him and poured out her soul: telling him of her love for him and begging his forgiveness for getting him involved. All the while, in her mind, all she could think of was among the last words he spoke to her: I chose my path.
Anya didn't sleep at all that night, even when Lan tried to insist. She was mumbling to herself now, swaying back and forth to some torturous tempo, her mind far passed reason. It is a difficult thing to be wrapped up so much in love and guilt at the same time -- insanity is quite likely to follow. Lan knew this, but knew of nothing he could do but rest his still-weakened body.
The morning was hot and close, even in the usual cool of the dark prison. Anya came to herself enough to see the Cardinal, the root of all evil in her mind, looking through the bars with concern.
"Please don't take him..." she muttered in agony. "He will surely die."
The tormentor looked distraught. "The young man will stay in the cell, but I am afraid that, since Lanolylc is awake now, this is the morning that you and the old man are going to die." He looked down on Calt with an appraising look. "If you like," he said softly to Anya, "I can make sure that he is put out of his misery in the same hour that you loose your head." He bit his lower lip. "I wouldn't want you to die thinking that I was unkind."
The girl just stared at him, as if without comprehension. When the guards took Anya and Lan out, to lead them to the spectacle of their execution, the girl could only look back at the young man that had given his life for her, hoping that they would somehow be reunited soon.
It was a foul day to be sure.
The sky was overcast and gray, which should have brought some relief in the heat of the summer along with some rain, but today there would be neither. It was like a heavy fog settling on the city, wrapping it in a blanket that held the hot morning in, keeping the air still and stifling. People were milling about the square in front of the Temple, unhappy with the day and upset that it was taking so long for the execution to begin.
Kiyomai was nowhere to be seen in the press, but several of the Cardinals were already on the steps, whispering to each other and looking about them darkly. The two prisoners were here as well, cloaked and hooded in black, standing still and a little dragged down by the chains that held their hands and feet. Both had bowed heads and swayed only a little. "They must be sweltering in those robes," I mentioned to Polus, who only nodded.
The crowd was getting louder and making the Cardinals more nervous, fearing a riot might let the captives escape. Their new Chief was looking about desperately for the Emperor, not wanting to begin the proceedings without him. Some of the younger Cardinals were whispering among themselves, tired of waiting.
The press of people was beginning to elbow Polus and I, forcing itself forward for a closer look at those who were about to die. It sickened my heart to imagine their expectant faces, the joy of fresh blood in their eyes.
I whispered to Polus and we began to move back. I could sense the relief in the big man who carried me as the crowd thinned and we were able to move without being jostled. "I couldn't breath in there," Polus said quietly.
"Yes, it is better to be away from these jackals, hot on the scent of impending blood." I spat my distaste and we moved off. "Let's get some fresh air, if there is any to be had on this horrible day."
Aimlessness brought us over against the side of the Temple, the spectacle now out of view beyond a corner of the great stone building. Polus recognized the gray cloak and hood of a man seated on the bottom steps that completely wrapped the structure. The figure was hunched over, as if cold, facing away from the proceedings. "Westlyn," my friend said, startling me and the Emperor.
Kiyomai looked up, tightening the cowl that fell across his neck tightly so that his face remained in shadow. "Polus. Father." The greeting was not very happy. "Is it done yet?"
"No," I said quietly. "I think they are waiting for you."
The man hunched over again. "Well, they can wait until this earth burns away. I don't want to see any more killing."
I squinted, thinking hard. "They are criminals and rebels. They revolted against the government and so deserve to die."
My son gave a gasp and looked up at me. "You would have them killed? You?"
"They decided their fate when they chose to oppose the Conclave. I can't stand in the way of justice, even when I sympathize with their cause against an evil and corrupt government." I let out a sigh. "No, I would wrap them in the most glorious robes and parade them through the streets as heroes to liberty. But until Julya comes, there efforts were in vain and you will still have to act your part."
"I just didn't want it to end this way." Kiyomai shuffled his foot against a pile of dirt on the step below him. "I wanted someone good to defeat me. I wanted to die in battle against a host that was fighting against all the evil I caused."
I was grim. "The host you hoped for is clamoring before the Temple, eager for the blood of Lanolylc and the girl." I paused with a sigh. "They have no interest in overthrowing evil, only in seeing a show."
Kiyomai only slumped further, looking absently at the stone under his feet. "How much longer must I keep up the appearance, Dad? How much longer must I wait for a better ruler to come?"
I shook my head, wearily. "On that, God has been silent. You must just continue and have faith..."
The man clutched his hood even harder, his hands shaking. "I feel I cannot go on another day." The Emperor fell terribly silent.
I was wondering just what my son was thinking at the moment, but Conclavists distracted Polus, and I was swung around, my head spinning. They approached the hooded man and ungraciously tore the cloth away so they could see his face. They wisely took a step back and cringed as Kiyomai unleashed eyes on them that seemed lit with a red light. "Pardon us, My lord Emperor. The Cardinals are looking for you."
Kiyomai straightened but his face was still ugly. "And you are called to find me and bring me to my place, I suppose."
The taller of the two licked his lips. "Yes, my lord, they said just that."
The Emperor rose to his feet with a stern look at the soldiers. "Go tell your masters that I will be with them shortly. If they like, they can proceed without me."
This wasn't the kind of message the Conclavists wanted to take for there would obviously be repercussions for not obeying the order of the Inner Conclave. "We were supposed to escort..."
"I don't care what they told you!" Kiyomai hissed and the men took another step back, remembering the tales of the ferocity of this man. "Tell them to go on with their butchery. I want no part of it."
The taller man looked at the ground, weighing his options. Finally, he signaled to the other soldier and saluted. "By your Command!"
The soldiers departed hastily and all three of us let out a collective sigh. "So, now what shall we do?" I asked.
There was a stillness about us that rivaled the hot gloom and we simply stood.
Finally, my son stirred. "They can have their execution and their greed for power and their damned Empire." The man grit his teeth. "They can have it all."
Kiyomai turned to me but something caught his eye over my shoulder, a slight figure in a worn brown cloak struggling up the back stair of the Temple, on the far side of the crowd. Polus turned to look as well and I was bobbing my head back and forth, wondering what all this quiet movement was about.
The Emperor wrapped his robe tighter around him and made his way quickly along the base of the Temple, trying to gain the stair, with Polus and I at his heels. The person struggling above us was ascending on hands and knees, obviously weary from whatever effort it took to get there. Kiyomai and Polus were climbing fast, two steps at a time, and would quickly overtake whoever felt the need to visit the abandoned sanctuary at the top of the pyramid.
The way was harder than we had suspected and, by the time we stepped up off the last riser, the figure was already under the great stone canopy, draped off the side of the altar. The hood was thrown back and tangled dark hair framed the soiled face of a woman, her head resting on the altar, eyes closed. She nearly looked dead, I am told.
Kiyomai hovered just out from the stone cover, not feeling worthy to enter a place deemed so sacred that no one is recorded to have come here since the old Queen last made an offering to God for her people. Polus, knowing no better, moved under the canopy, so he had little to fear in his ignorance, but I was here knowing full well that besides the Queen, the Prophet was the only other person permitted within the shrine.
"Who are you?" I asked the question a little more sternly than I meant to, but this girl's presence here was inappropriate. "Who are you that dares come under the canopy of God's holy place?"
The girl stirred and I thought she might run, which would have been a good idea, but she only strained and groaned as she pulled herself up on top of the altar. When Polus told me what was happening, I became furious. "Get down from there! Don't you know what place this is?" I was nearly screeching.
The girl collapsed on the pitted top of the massive stone, weathered and beaten by exposure to countless generations of storm and rain. Polus had me to the side of the altar as the girl managed to speak. "I am Julya."
Not a breath moved past my lips as the realization came to me. The girl went limp for a moment, as if she had been struck down. "Julya," I finally breathed.
Suddenly, as if at the peeling of a bell, the air seemed to break apart and fresh air flowed down from above. I was almost numb, having prophesied that this day would come, but now faint to believe that prophecy was coming to pass before my eyes. The girl on the stone took a deep breath and it seemed strength slowly returned to her frame.
It was Kiyomai who broke the wonder of the moment. "What is happening?" he hissed in a whisper that seemed to accompany holy places. I could imagine him squinting his eyes to see what was happening more clearly.
The girl murmured as she lifted her head, looking up at the patch of sky above her. "I fear I have no offering to present, Lord..."
A clear voice could be heard, as if from some distance. "Nay, your sacrifice lies upon the altar even now, and it is acceptable before me."
The girl looked up through the great hole in the center of the canopy and at that moment, the clouds overhead parted and the full sun shone on her. "You are acceptable before me," the voice concluded.
She was on her knees, blinking in the light. Then she noticed Polus and I, for the first time it seems. "Who are you?"
Daavor offered a hand and smiled. "I am called Daavor and I am the Prophet chosen of God long ago." The girl cautiously took his hand. "You must be the long-lost daughter of Michiana."
"Yes," the girl said absently, her eyes still starry from her brush with Deity. She put the other hand to her head, rubbing. "I am Julya of the House of Evette and the lineage of Saradyo."
I smiled more broadly. "Even if you were lower than the dust, daughter of Saradyo, God has accepted you and you will be Queen."
Julya looked as if she were about to faint. I called to my son and he came running warily, as if the canopy would fall upon him for his presumption in entering. "What is going on, Dad?"
I gave my free hand to my son and he took it, confused. "I think you should meet someone."
I turned to Julya, who was able to raise a brow and look ready to question things herself. "My Lady, this is my son Westlyn, who is also known as the Emperor Kiyomai."
The girl's eyes grew round and swimmy, but no less so than the breathless man. "Wes, I would like to meet Julya, Granddaughter of Evette, Queen over the People of Alaedea."
Julya boggled as the large muscular man dropped to his knees and bowed his head. "Your Majesty," he said humbly.
I have to admit that, up until this very moment, I still harbored dark thoughts about the evil past of my son, but they were all burned away with his oblation and the Emperor knelt before his Queen with perfect contriteness. I couldn't help but tear up.
The girl swung her legs off of the stone and she stood before him unsteadily. "You are the Emperor?"
He raised his eyes and she looked at him and remembered the face. "You are Kiyomai!"
He took her hand and kissed it as he knelt before her. "And you bear little resemblance to the nasty girl I once met."
Julya turned red and was glad when he released her hand. "I... You..."
"I don't think we have much time." I indicated quietly. "It would be a shame to have Queenmen die on the very day the Queen takes back her throne." Polus was already making his way to the other end of the porch and the stair that lead down the side of the temple facing the execution and the crowd.
* * *
The preliminaries were just finishing and Vacarius was smiling broadly, wearing his new mantle as Chief Cardinal. 'How very fitting,' he thought to himself as he supervised the execution of the very two people whose capture had brought him the second highest honor in the land. 'First, this and then we will see how determined Kiyomai is to retain his place."
His pleasure did not extend far, for he barked at the other Cardinals milling about, giving orders that the executions proceed. Two Conclavists, in shining mail coats and steel gauntlets, tore the hoods from the prisoners and Lanolylc and Anya blinked and squinted in the haze. Shouts began to ring from the crowd, an interesting mix of derision and support for the condemned. Though one could easily hear the call "Free them," it was obvious that the greater number overran the others with "Kill them!" Both of the prisoners were grim, for their hope of escaping this fate was gone.
Above the shouting, a cry went up and arms rose to point to the top of the Temple. Just as if in reply, a mighty wind raced down from the height and stirred up the dirt and threatened to take everyone off of their feet. The clouds broke above and a piercing shaft of light stabbed down and illuminated a bedraggled woman, climbing down the stairs to meet the crowd.
The wind did not yield, but intensified, carrying away many of the canvas tents and pavilions that the people had set up so they could watch the execution in comfort. The red cloaks of the Cardinals billowed and tore away, leaving the Inner Circle looking as fat and dumpy as they really were. The robes of the prisoners also flapped away in the rising gale, exposing torn clothing and near nakedness. The figure above, bathed in light, seemed unaffected by the wind as she made her way down. Then, the wind, having done its work, suddenly died away.
It was not a loud voice, almost a whisper it seemed, and my first inclination was to strain to hear it, but the words pierced every heart and were more clear and direct than any others that I had ever heard before or since. "Behold, I give you your Queen, who has endured much to sit upon the throne of her mothers. I, God, proclaim her Queen and let there be no dissension."
A cool, fresh breeze then came out of the Temple and pushed the clouds away. When the woman reached the level of the execution, one by one, starting with Julya, every one dropped to their knees and praised God. Even the hardened Cardinals reluctantly kneeled. When the Queen arose again, the entire assemblage cheered and the girl embraced a befuddled Lanolylc and Anya.
There really is very little more to say.
The coronation was very anticlimactic after God's pronouncement. Polus reports that he had never seen the Counselhouse illuminated so completely in dazzling light. Kiyomai humbly brought out the crown and sceptor of the old Queen and, walking up to the dais, presented them to the young woman, now sparkling clean and dressed in a stunning gown of white and shimmering silver. Returning to the great circle on the floor of the place, Kiyomai made a flowery speech about how the Conclave had preserved the relics of the monarchy for just such a moment and he praised their work in managing the government in her absence.
Julya then spoke, thanking Kiyomai and the Conclave for their efforts and then formally disbanded the sect, bidding them to remove their badges of office and flowing robes and return to the gallery with the other people who had come to watch. This did not bring happy looks from the former Cardinals, but the people universally approved with clapping and shouts.
Julya called out several names and men and women came into the circle to serve as Counselors to the Queen, after the order of old. The young Queen had discussed much with me and with a few of the Cardinals, and even Lanolylc, who should be her Counselors, but none of us knew who she had finally settled on. The Queen herself came down from the dais and arrayed each with mantles of light blue, in keeping with how her grandmother had clad her highest advisors.
It was with some surprise that I found the circle populated with a goodly number of men who had only a few moments before shed their red cloaks as Cardinals. To these, Julya spoke some stern words that none else could hear. The men bowed deeply and swore their allegiance to her and she seemed satisfied.
Last of all she held a blue cloak that was bulkier than the rest, which I remember being worn last by Lanolylc. I was thinking that he would look regal in it once again, for surely Julya would choose him.
"Finally," she said in a strong voice, "I call the one who will lead my Counselors in their deliberations and stand as the executive of the government under my direction." There was a hush as she paused, looking to savor the moment. I still felt sure that Lan would be called out, but Polus could not see him anywhere about.
"Come forward...," I held my breath with anticipation. "Lord Kiyomai."
I swear that the collective jaw-dropping was audible and then it was quite a din as half the crowd turned to the other half to confirm that they had heard the name right. My son, the known arch-enemy of the throne and architect of its downfall, stepped hesitantly forward, more surprised than anyone else. As he stepped into the circle, he nearly tripped over the golden breastplate and rich cape that he had been ordered to leave behind only a quarter hour before. He kicked the thing aside, its red cloak following behind, and as he reached the Queen, he knelt before her with the most unsure expression that anyone had ever seen the old Emperor wear. Julya smiled at him and as he looked at her face, he could only do the same. In the sight of all, she spoke kindly to him, though none but he could hear, and she even laughed quietly at his uncertain response as she draped the blue cloak about him and raised him up so she could fasten the clasp over his right breast.
"I pronounce Kiyomai my Chief Counselor and Governor over all the Lands of Alaedea. May he lead the Government with honor." The man stood there, looking nervously at the crowd, waiting for whatever response would come.
It was an appallingly dead silence. I suppose many faces were just as uncertain as my son's but I could not tolerate this slight of the Queen's decision. I bellowed out, "Long live Kiyomai the Chief Counselor! Long live the Queen!" I hit Polus hard in my excitement and he began to stamp his feet, as was the custom to show approval for something presented in the chamber. In a moment, all the hall was filled with the peculiar sound and Kiyomai looked up at them with a small smile and a lighter heart. Julya reached out her hand and touched his gently and he smiled even broader as he looked at her. The old tyrant would have the chance for redemption, offered not just by the Queen, but by the people as well. He gently took her arm and escorted Julya to her throne, where Polus and I were standing, ready for me to crown her in the name of God.
* * *
When historians speak of golden times, I am rather dubious. One person's golden time is often another's blackest hour, especially for the poor and the needy. But, I can say with my own presence as witness, that I have never read nor heard tell of a more glorious time than Julya's first year on the throne. Under my son's management, the entire realm was made clean, every evidence of the Conclave swept away. Each village and district was given wide-sweeping power to govern their own affairs, with Manatoa only handing down guidelines and serving as a Court of last resort. There was even established a Mayor for the city of Manatoa, who would govern the affairs of the city outside of the compound of the Counselhouse and Palace. For the first time in recorded history, the common people could elect their leaders who actually had the power to make law and deal justice within their sphere. Julya approved of all of this, but it was Kiyomai who fashioned and proposed the plan, remembering his days walking the lowly streets of Manatoa and hearing the desire of the downtrodden.
Just over a year after Julya's coronation, I was saddened to hear that old enemies of the Chief Counselor, and he had many, had finally caught him without an escort and murdered him. I was heartened by the incredible outpouring of love and reverence that was given my son at the funeral, where he was laid to rest in honor. Only at the funeral of the old Queen had I seen such an outpouring of emotion from the people. I, myself, chose not to attend the services.
Not very long after the funeral, I received a letter from young Nychol, who I had ordained as a High Priest some months before and took up the running of the old Cyte Edomi monastery far away in the valley of the Mountains East. What other honor could be bestowed on a man that helped convert nearly a thousand heathen souls to God? In his honor, I guess, the place had been renamed Cyte Nycholaas and many people had flocked there to become reacquainted with their God. Shall I read part of that letter to you?
My dear Daavor, Prophet, Greeting!
It is with joy that I send you my report of the doings here during the last few months...
(I will skip to the interesting part.)
Your son, Westlyn, does well here, having proven himself very capable in his preaching and charity among the poor in this region. Some great sorrow pains him, I know, but he truly loves the people he serves and it is a great solace to him to be among them. He has done what could only be called miracles in his short time here. Thank you for sending him.
It was with sorrow that I heard of Kiyomai's death, but I hope you will find some comfort in the fact that your other son is blossoming here in the wilderness. It is strange, but I never knew you had borne another son until Westlyn came to us...
...Your Brother in the Faith, Nychol.
Yes, I can admit now that the death of Kiyomai was staged, convenient to the untimely demise of one of Julya's lowly pages that had no family. Kiyomai had promised that he would set right as many of the troubles as he felt he could and he had held true to his word, but he had also decided to leave his post as soon as the Queen would give her consent. I think the three of us were the only ones who knew that the body being buried was not that of the Chief Counselor and when the rumors of how the death had come to pass began to spread, neither Julya or I made an effort to check them.
In all truth, Kiyomai was dead, for if anything, the name and the man was simply a concoction of a young man searching for a place in the world. The persona slipped from Westlyn with the same vigor as it had been taken up so many years before. I did have two sons, the one who was an Emperor and Chief Counselor and the one I had lost in childhood but then found again in my old age. Nychol was right, I do find great solace in the fact that I still have a son.
Now, if you are still not weary, I will reveal one more secret, one far older than the death of Kiyomai.
The night of the Coronation, just after the festivities had begun to wind down, I was called to a humble house just within the compound of the Palace and Counselhouse. As Polus and I swept inside, we met the grave looks and hushed whispers of the attendants. "Lanolylc is failing," Anya said from her spot at the head of his bed, attending him as she had done for so long.
I had wondered of him that evening, not attending the very coronation that he had dedicated his life to, but I only passed it off, thinking that he had advanced warning of whom would be chosen as the Chief Counselor and perhaps the man simply could not bear seeing his old adversary have the post that he thought to be his. But here the man lay, his mind half in light and half in shadows, looking far older than his years.
Polus rushed me to his side, and I stroked his hand. "Lanolylc?"
The man stirred and looked up, his face souring. "You will soon have your wish, Prophet, and be rid of me."
It was not well known, but Lan and I had never been friends. He always envied my ability to influence the old Queen and hated me when my counsel was taken over his, making him look the fool before the Counsel.
I furrowed my brow. "Now is not the time to open old wounds." I cleared my throat. "Why did you summon me?"
He coughed a bit, the kind of cough that sounded harsh and shook his whole frame. My concern deepened. "Do you remember your promise?" he croaked.
"Promise?" I thought back over the years and then my eyes widened. "I had nearly forgotten the whole affair!"
The man gritted his teeth. "Just like you to put aside important things, Prophet!" The words were mingled with spittle and I was finding it more difficult to feel compassionate.
"I remember now." I tried to keep my voice in check. "What about my promise?"
The man pulled me close and whispered in my ear. "The time has come. I want you to break it."
The sickly man lost his strength and Polus pulled me back up. I let out a great breath and turned to an attendant. "Bring the Queen here." The boy was not sure he wanted to bother Her Majesty while she was still feasting with the people. "Do it now!" I roared and he scampered away. "While we still have a little time...," I added quietly, turning back to the man.
Julya was still in her gown and was absolutely stunning. She wore no crown, but her flowing dark hair was far majestic enough. "What is so important that I had to leave the feast?"
I motioned her forward, putting aside formality, which caught her attention. "Hurry, girl. Lanolylc is dying."
She quickly came to the side of the bed opposite me and bent over the man. "How much longer, do you think?"
I shrugged. Anya answered for me. "He has fought with a strange malady for many years and it has finally taken its toll." As if to confirm this, Lan coughed up much phlegm and his breathing became labored. Anya put a cool cloth on his forehead and held his head softly. "Not much longer, I think."
"The promise!" Lan sputtered it out and it was good that he did, for I had nearly forgotten the matter again. I was glad that he hadn't the strength to chastise me. "Tell her!"
I took the Queen's hand and held it over the man's chest, the young woman looking at me with confusion. "What promise? What is there to tell?"
So I told her. I told her the great secret which Lan and I had kept between us for nineteen years. The story of Julya's conception.
The old Queen had just died and Julya's mother was not prepared to take the throne. As was custom though, the girl was wed to the General of the Army of Alaedea, a stern and unloving man named Archaetius. It soon became obvious that the young Princess was not capable of making the difficult decisions that rule requires, so the Chief Counselor, Lanolylc, spent much time with the Princess, coaching her in what to do.
"The things that Michiana said were a parrot's rote learned from Lan here."
Julya lowered her lids. "That is no secret. I have heard that and worse as tavern talk."
At my mentioning of Julya's mother, Lan perked up a little, reaching his hands to the ceiling. "Michiana!"
As one could expect, the two young people grew fond of each other in their time together. They were careful to avoid any suspicion, especially when Archaetius was about, but I became aware that their meetings grew longer and they began passing meaningful glances in the Counsel chambers. I found them alone one evening, finishing a kiss and warned them that if I was suspecting impropriety, others could be as well. Such a scandal could bring down the Queenship! Things cooled thereafter, and I had thought the problem had passed, but the two were simply driven underground.
"Where is this leading?" The Queen was becoming impatient.
I raised a hand to silence her. "You can judge if your time is well-spent when I am finished."
One stormy night, I was called to the Royal apartments and there lay Michiana's husband, the Princess trying to stay the flow of blood from a wound to the head. Lan told me that he had just been brought from the field after a skirmish with rebels (my son, actually). I asked why I was summoned and Lan simply said that Alaedea needed an heiress.
Michiana and Archaetius had a son, Treyvor, of course, but all their efforts to make a daughter had failed due to some unfortunate wound the General sustained in a duel. Rumors were always resurfacing that the Royal line would end with Michiana, for there would be no more children. As I watched the soldier bleed to death, Michiana doing her best to slow the progress, Lanolylc grabbed me by the collar and plainly ordered me to marry he and Michiana as soon as the man was dead.
It was a horrifying thing to me, to watch the Chief Counselor hovering over the general like a vulture. Not a half hour passed before he breathed his last and Michiana looked up at us with tear-stained eyes, probably echoing my own thoughts. Lan raised her up and held her, the young woman nearly retching at the cruelty of it all. "This is for the future," he told her. "I will give you a heiress."
Julya's eyes were wide. "I was told that the wound did not take him until the next day! I was conceived the night before he died!"
I shook my head. "That was the way it was reported, but I assure you that I married your mother and this man here, practically over Archaetius' still warm body and you were indeed conceived that night, but not from the loins of a general. Lan made me promise to keep it a secret to my grave..."
The woman could hardly speak. Lan, who had dropped out of consciousness for most of the story stirred, taking in the scene. "Is it done?" he asked, his voice a little more stronger than before.
"Yes," I replied.
The man looked at me sternly. "So she knows?"
"She knows now who her father is." I whispered this, for Julya looked as if she were about to bolt.
The sickly man turned to face the Queen and reached up a hand to touch her cheek. "I know how it sounds..."
The woman narrowed her eyes. "I knew you were conniving, but to marry my mother just to produce a Queen..."
His face contorted and he was able to shout. "Don't you question my motives, young lady!" The effort caused a spasm and he began to cough again. Julya softened and after a moment, he continued. "I loved her, Julya, I loved her more than anything else. She wanted a daughter to take the throne where she could not. It was the only way I knew to give her a daughter that could be a Queen. I just wanted you to know that and to know that you were borne of love."
Julya teared up. "Why didn't you tell me, in all those years?"
He sighed deeply. "If you knew that you were the product of a secret marriage that was outside the tradition, you would never have pursued the throne like it was your due. Everything would have been in vain."
"So why now? Am I to give up my throne because a Chief Counselor was my father, and not a proper soldier?"
I cleared my throat. "God has chosen you, so these sorts of technicalities are unimportant now. With that kind of mandate, you would be Queen even if you had not one drop of Royal blood."
"Yes," the expiring man managed. "It is now safe for you to know the truth. I wanted to tell you, always, but I promised your mother that I would do everything I could to make you a Queen. I tried so hard, for so long! But I couldn't even get you safely to Manatoa..." At this, the man began to weep, the only time I had known him to do so.
Julya's face became stern. "No!" She took the man's hand and squeezed. "You taught me the ways of the court and how to rule! I may have loathed the training, but now I see that you have taught me to be a governess, and I will desperately need that in the years ahead when the memory of God's appointment fades from the minds of the people. Perhaps you did not make me a Queen, but I wager that your training will keep me a Queen!"
The man began to get blurry-eyed as the tears came even harder. "Oh, Julya, I'm so glad that in spite of all my efforts, God brought out your mother in you! She always had hope. She always knew this day would come." He reached up one more time. "You remind me so much of everything that was good in her."
The Queen's tears were dropping on his coverlet. She took a deep breath and held it for a moment. "I'm glad I know the truth, because..." She choked a bit on her tears. "...I'm so proud to be your daughter!"
The girl bent over her father, pressing her lips to his forehead, kissing it gently. She bowed her head, touching her check against his. She whispered something, but I never heard it. When she straightened back up, his eyes were fixed on the ceiling.
With his last breath, he called the name one last time. "Michiana..."
* * *
"Are you ready now?" The woman spoke softly, eternity blazing behind her.
Lanolylc nodded. "I guess so. I wish I could have done more."
She smiled. "That's my Lan -- never could give up." She came forward and took his hand. It was warm and soft, filling his cold frame. "Is she everything we hoped for?"
He stuttered. "Yes. She is everything we hoped for and much more. I..."
Her smile deepened and she touched a finger to his lips. "I know, Lan. She will be fine without you. After all, I need you here more." She began to lead him forward, toward the dazzling light. "Come on."
They walked for a few paces, then he turned to look back. "Will she really be all right, Michiana?"
She brought him around to face her. "She follows God now." Their lips touched in a long kiss. "She will be fine," the woman murmured.
With no more words, he followed her forward, until both were caught up into the radiance of Heaven.
I cannot very well end things here, for there is one last thing I wish to leave you with.
* * *
The silence of the wood was broken once again by the sound of the ax.
The big man, bundled up with many layers against the lowering temperature, was working diligently on one great felled tree. The wreckage of its fall was still fresh all about and he had barely begun clearing off the smaller branches, each qualifying with fire-log thickness on their own. The man worked slowly, for he seemed to have a little trouble staying upright, as if he was sickly and needed to concentrate hard to stay erect.
A few more logs were cut and then the big man looked at the setting sun and something inside him said it was time to go home. Picking up two armfuls of wood, along with the ax, he began walking away from the recent kill.
The trek home took him across a icy patch that never seemed to melt in that cold country. He walked across as carefully as he could, but his lack of balance and the path conspired against him and he sprawled ungracefully, scattering his cargo to every side. It took a full ten minutes, but he was loaded again, walking like some mummy to the little log cabin that was coming into view just ahead.
The twinkling lights seen through the windows lightened the man's simple heart and he could already taste the dinner being prepared within. These were about all the thoughts his damaged brain could process, but they made him happy, and that was what mattered just then.
Slamming the door behind him, the man dropped his pile of wood and the ax clattered over the new mess. A woman's voice met his ears, saying "Dinner's nearly ready!", and the smell of roast turkey and potatoes made the saliva drip from his mouth. The man began peeling the layers off of him slowly, swaying strangely as he carefully proceeded.
That done, he neatly stacked the wood by the stove, because he would get into trouble if he didn't. After this and a good washing of hands and face at a basin, he staggered over to the great chair at the head of the table.
"Da-dee!" A sudden blur entered the main room and latched itself onto the man, burying its head into his side. "I love you, Daddy!"
The man stiffly moved his arm around to give the little girl a stiff hug that she practically melted into. He never said a word, but the child seemed to understand that and happily took her place on the man's left.
In a moment, a woman appeared, bearing a platter of steaming meat and set it in the middle of the table. Freed of her burden, she came up to the man and touched his arm. "Did you have a good afternoon?"
Again, the man said nothing, but the woman acted like he had said something like "Just fine, dear!" She came a little closer and kissed him on his cheek. Then, she kissed him on his ear. And then, she kissed him on his nose. In fact, the woman seemed committed to kissing his face all over, but this elicited no real reaction from the man.
As Anya finished kissing all of his scars that were on his face, she looked into Calt's eyes. "I love you!" Then she planted the tenderest kiss of all on his lips, long and lingering. "I love you," she said again.
Again, he made no answer, because he just couldn't, for the torture had taken his voice, his face, and most of his mind away from him. But he didn't have to make an answer.
She already knew.
She knew he loved her.