1: The Fool
Cool blue water ran playfully through the shallow channel in the green summer grass, falling down the tiny imitation cliff of mossy rocks to sparkle and splash into the deep pool below. White foam was kicked up where water hit water; ripples spread outwards, distorting the flashing silhouettes of orange fish that flicked their tails in the icy depths.
Crown Princess Chalisse Merinne of Tarinier lay on her stomach, the fingers of her left hand trailing in the water and setting up yet more ripples across the pond. The other hand supported her head, which was cocked to one side; her face, beautiful as a china doll's with skin like milk, wore a dreamy expression. From her long, shining golden ringlets and eyes as blue as the azure sky above to her exquisitely formed bare toes, she was every inch the perfect princess, the darling of an entire kingdom.
Yesterday had been her eighteenth birthday, and there had been great celebrations at the palace. Everyone of any importance had been invited, and a national holiday declared for the common folk; they had lined the streets cheering as she was driven in her gold-encrusted carriage to the cathedral, to be invested with her inheritance. Absently, the young woman stroked the thin band of gold that crossed her forehead; not much to look at, but in it rested the future of twenty-two duchies, more than a million people. The thought scared her a little, but she calmed herself with the knowledge that she would not inherit until her parents died... and that would be a long while yet.
And Rikky can always help me when I am Queen, she told herself, picturing her little brother, two years younger than her. And my husband, of course.
Her husband. Chalisse leaned over to look at her reflection in the pool, and wondered how it would appear to her suitors. She had always known that this time would come, of course... she was Crown Princess, and whomever she chose would become King... but now that it was here she found herself wondering what he would be like.
I have to marry for the good of the kingdom. She knew that, of course. But surely, oh, surely, she would find her true love, and of course he would be the perfect one.
Chalisse had done a lot of reading on romance in recent weeks, and she knew how it was supposed to go. A dashing knight would appear, and sweep her off her feet, and they would live happily ever after. But the persistent fear in her mind was that it wouldn't happen to her, that she would have to marry someone she didn't have such feelings for.
"I'd die if that happened," she declared aloud to the cloudless sky above.
"If what happened, Lisse?" asked a voice behind her. The princess craned her neck to see the tall form of her younger brother, Prince Ricanien, standing behind her. He smiled at her, with a face just as good-looking as her own, and sat cross-legged beside the small pond.
"Nothing," she replied, her face flushing red at being caught out in such musings. Ricanien laughed and put a fond arm around her; he knew his sister well enough to guess her thoughts.
"Father has sent out the call," he told her. "Your suitors should start arriving soon." He broke off, seeing the slightly worried look on his elder sister's face. "You know he won't force you to marry anyone you don't want to, don't you?"
Chalisse nodded, her face brightening as she beamed adoringly at her younger sibling. "That's right," she giggled. "I'd quite forgotten!"
Her brother joined her laughter. "Come on up to the palace, Lisse," he begged. "We can stand on the balconies and watch them arrive, if you like."
Chalisse scrambled to her feet, smoothing her skirt with her hands and brushing away the last vestiges of grass. "Then what are we waiting for?" she cried, taking off across the lawn, still barefoot. Her brother leaped up and raced after her, the two of them speeding towards the distant form of the royal palace, its large white shape as familiar to them as their own faces.
As she ran, the young princess felt excitement building in her at the prospect of seeing her suitors. Her life was about to change, and she was eager for it to do so. She had been a child long enough; it was time to become a woman. And perhaps, just perhaps, she would fall in love in the process.
Surprised by the shout, the young woman closed her fist on the pencil she held. With a splintering sound it broke, and cursing she threw it onto the desk-top beside the paper on which she was working. It was rare that she was disturbed in the small attic room; she wondered what her father might want with her at this hour. The curious space with its wooden floor and slanted walls was filled with her sketches and ideas, littered with the remains of her pencils and old ink-pots. Light filtered in through a small window, meticulously cleaned, to fall on the solid old desk that sat below it.
Wanda tended to spend most of her free time in the room, when she wasn't helping her father with the business. Most girls of nineteen were more interested in boys and fashions, but although the merchant's daughter could have been pretty had she wished, she tended to cut her thick copper hair short and wear more practical boy's clothing. Her interests lay in the workings of the family company, and in her attic room; new ideas poured from her pen like water from a jar.
Sighing with mild irritation at the interruption, the young woman headed to the trapdoor in the corner and shinned swiftly down the ladder into the house below. Her father had inherited a small shipping company from his father; through hard work and incredible business acumen, he had turned it into a thriving organisation, producing money to spare. The two of them lived comfortably in a far bigger house than they needed, tended by an army of servants.
As always, the sight of the stocky man, his temples beginning to grey, was enough to make the girl smile. Her mother had died in childbirth; many men would have bemoaned or ignored a daughter after that. But not Lucas Dracen; on the contrary, he had brought his daughter up with as much love and care as could possibly be conceived of. She adored him in kind, and the two of them were very close indeed.
Right now, Wanda could see a spark in her father's eye, the one that indicated he was very excited about something. Before she could even ask what, he was hurrying off, beckoning for her to follow him. She did, hastening through the richly carpeted hallways and down the sweeping staircase. It was a town house, of course, so not as large as some... but still grand, and the furnishings reflected that.
Her father lead her to his study, bubbling over with incoherent enthusiasm. Sighing, but inwardly intrigued, Wanda stepped inside and waited for the merchant to sit on the large, intricately carven chair behind his desk. The office was every bit as messy as her own attic room, the girl noticed wryly. Some things must indeed run in the family.
"Here we are!" her father exclaimed, pulling a map out from beneath a pile of books on financial strategy, as heavy and complex as any miltary tactician's bible. He triumphantly tapped a single point on the overlarge scroll; Wanda bent over to see more clearly.
"Arcana?" she queried, puzzled. Every trader knew to avoid that disputed land; Tarinier and Nanis fought over it constantly, and any venture there was doomed to fail by fire and the sword.
"Arcana," her father confirmed, grinning maniacally. Wanda sighed. He was in one of those moods. She'd have to wait for him to tell her all about his latest scheme before she could talk him out of it. Sometimes, she wished she could get on without him...
But as the merchant spoke, his daughter found herself getting more and more excited; he actually seemed to have hit on something promising. The largest problem any commercial venture had setting up in Arcana was the invading armies that swept across every few months, destroying everything in their wake. People were too poor to buy things and had nothing to sell, so if a merchant went there he'd be in the same boat.
Recently, however, the Tarinierans and the Nanisians had opened negotiations over the region. This was common knowledge, and was expected to go nowhere as usual by all sensible folk. But what had made Lucas Dracen so excited was word from one of his contacts in Tarinier that an order had already been given to troops not to sack or loot the places they passed, on pain of death.
"It seems as if some sort of arrangement may be reached this time," he explained, stabbing a finger at the map triumphantly. "And if a merchant were to get a secure foothold in Arcana before the treaty went through..."
"... they would have a head start on everyone else! Nice thinking!" Wanda declared. "But where would you place the foothold? If you got it wrong, you could stand to loose a lot of money."
"The where is simple," her father replied. "Taron. It's a port city on the south coast, here, and it's controlled by Nanis at the moment."
"So if it does come under attack, we're protected by the Tarinieran orders," his daughter nodded. "Who did you have in mind to send? You'll need someone you can trust overseeing operations..."
Her father smiled proudly. "Actually, I was thinking of sending you."
They hadn't stopped screaming.
Dirc turned in his cot, pulling the blanket up over his eyes in an attempt to shut out the memories. He could recall every detail as if he was there once more; the blood soaking into the sands, the scent of death on the air... but what really cut into his soul was the memory of the cries of pain and terror that had wracked the air.
At twenty-two, he was the youngest general in the Tarinieran army, a result of both a rich, influential father and natural skills in combat and leadership. He had fought every past battle with pride, knowing that he did it for the glory of his homeland.
There was a clatter from the mouth of the tent as someone entered. Dirc sat up, his normally neat light-brown hair scuffed from the pillow, his grey eyes bleary as he looked at the messenger who stood in the doorway and saluted him smartly.
"Sir!" the man declared. Dirc yawned and stretched upright, wishing he could get some sleep. Dull red evening light streamed through the yellow and white cloth of the tent, creating strange shadows across the muddy canvas groundsheet.
"Go ahead," he told the man, swinging himself into a sitting position on the edge of the bed. As the commander, he had the largest tent, complete with chairs and a table for discussions with his officers, and the small cot was another of his luxuries. Common soldiers had to make do with bedrolls on the floor.
"Sir, there's a communication from the capital," the man saluted, stepping forwards and holding out a scroll. "Just arrived by carrier pigeon and been deciphered."
Dirc waved the proffered letter aside. "Put it on the table," he ordered. "I'll get to it in a minute."
As the man moved to carry out his orders, a thought occured to Dirc, and without thinking he asked: "What do you think of what happened at Sillagova?"
The paper was already on the table. The messenger turned and shrugged, unnerved by his general's stare.
"It was a glorious victory for Tarinier, sir," he said, uncomfortably.
"Were you there?"
A shake of the head. "No, sir."
Dirc closed his eyes and tipped his head back. "Dismissed, soldier."
The soldier saluted and vanished, leaving Dirc alone in the tent once more. With a heavy sigh, the young man got to his feet and paced across his living-space a few times in order to wake himself up. When he felt his eyes were sufficiently unglued, he wandered over to lift the scroll and read its contents.
To General Sir Windguard, commander of His Royal Majesty's Twentieth Light Infantry and loyal subject, greetings.
Dirc shook his head at the use of his full name. To his equals he was Dirc, to his subordinates Sir. His family name rarely came into it. Still a little muddled from sleep, he read on.
As you are no doubt aware, our most beloved Crown Princess Chalisse recently celebrated her eighteenth birthday, at which time she became eligable to inherit the throne of our fair land.
Well, of course. Everyone knew that, even if they weren't Tarinieran.
As the youngest and most promising general in our most outstanding army, we believe it would be remiss of us to fail to offer you the opportunity to celebrate this occasion. You are henceforth summoned to the Royal Palace poste haste, for an audience with our Royal persons.
So. A summons. Dirc scratched his head thoughtfully; he could certainly do with a rest. A change of scenery, and some time to think things through...
May we also offer you congratulations on your recent victory at Sillagova, which we hear was most decisive.
His Most Royal Majesty,
King Faleth Merinne the Third of Tarinier.
Dirc dropped the letter as if it were poisoned, staggering back and sinking slowly onto his cot. He sat there still as a statue for a long while, cradling his head in his hands until the light in the tent slowly faded and night overtook the sky outside. Then he stood up, dressed in the simple clothes all knights wore beneath their armour, and summoned his officers to tell them of his imminent departure.
A royal summons, after all, could not be ignored.
The docks at night was not a place for respectable folk to be. To one side, the dark waters of the sea lapped against the stone harbours and wooden piers, rocking the berthed ships up and down with the swell of the tide. Opposite the solid hulls of timber and tall masts stood warehouses and inns, whorehouses and gambling dens not even bothering to hide amongst their dark neighbours. Koyn hurried along the harbour-side nervously, uncomfortable about even being in such an area.
Under normal circumstances, the youth would never have dreamed of being there. His tanned face and dark eyes were serious and thoughtful, and anyone who knew him at all would have told you that he was responsible, hard-working and diligent... not the sort of person to come here at all. But although his clothes were clean and cared-for, they were also clearly second-hand and shabby, and his long feet were bare on the cobbles of the street. It was plain that here was a man who had fallen on hard times, and likely through no fault of his own.
This was, in fact, truer than many might know. Koyn's father had been a successful carpenter and a good businessman, but also a compulsive gambler. So when he had been killed in a bar fight three weeks earlier, his only son had inherited all the old man's debts, promptly losing everything to creditors and still owing more than he could possibly hope to earn.
A wooden sign creaked in the wind, a cracked painting of a whale waving outside a bar. Koyn paused to study it, and ran a nervous hand through his untidy black hair before pushing open the door and stepping inside.
The bar was noisome and smelly, the stench of unwashed bodies and foul beer mingling with the rotten fish smell of the port. Seamen on leave sat at the tables, gambling and drinking, calling lewdly to the underclad waitresses who served drinks. Koyn glanced about in confusion, searching for a specific person amongst the chaos.
"C'n I help you, darlin'?" drawled a voice, and he looked over to see one of the duller waitresses staring at him vacantly.
"I'm looking for Captain Rhone," the young man yelled above the din. The woman jerked a thumb over her shoulder, and the youth followed the direction, picking his way through incapacitated bodies and sticky patches on the floor until he arrived at a corner table populated with a dice-playing group who seemed more neatly dressed. One of the men, in his middle years and sporting an impressive scar on his right cheek, glanced up and suddenly smiled.
"Well, if it isn't the young lad I was tellin' ye of!" he declared to his companions. "Here, take a seat." He waved to the bench opposite him, and Koyn slid into place uncomfortably.
"You said something about a job..." he began. The captain chuckled, and passed him the dice and the tankard they were using as a shaker.
"Let's see if you're lucky," he declared. "I'll make it easy for you. Roll more than five total, and we'll talk."
Koyn glanced down at the two six-sided dice in the vessel. A cold feeling came over him; he hadn't had much luck as of late.
But then, what do I have left to lose? he wondered. He needed things to change; it was worth the risk. Closing his eyes, he shook the mug and threw the dice across the table.
There was silence from the men at the table. Koyn hesitantly opened his eyes, and glanced over at the two small cubes.
The tension was broken by Captain Rhone, who guffawed out loud and clapped the youth on the back. "Hah! Now that's what I call luck!" he announced. "And that's good, for a seaman needs it, especially if he's had no shipboard experience."
Koyn flushed red and looked down at the table, but the old seaman called one of the maids over to order him a drink.
"No need to be ashamed, lad," he said, his voice booming across the room. "Why, there was once a time when even I hadn't set foot on a ship before!"
There was a chorus of refutations from the table, but Rhone stopped them with a wave of the hand. He leaned in to speak to Koyn in a lower voice, that still echoed.
"Tell the truth, lad, I need sailors right now. Th' boss has some crazy idea about setting up a business in Arcana, and half me crew upped and quit! I don't blame them, either... I'd do the same, if I weren't under such a tight contract. You sure you're crazy enough to do this?"
Koyn nodded, relieved. He'd had so many doubts about this... why would any captain want to hire an indebted, inexperienced pauper? But this was his lucky break, and if all went well he could start to get his life back on track. Downing his drink, he reached across the table and took the hand of the older man, who shook it firmly.
"Welcome aboard, lad," he announced.