2: The Magician

The Luitha Mae was a fine ship, named for Lucas Dracen's late wife and with her beautiful features carved into the figurehead. It was known as the flagship of the merchant's fleet, the one assigned to all those ventures he felt he needed to succeed the most. There was a rumour amongst the sailors that the spirit of his former wife protected the vessel; certainly it had never experienced the same gamut of problems other merchants suffered.

Wanda looked up at the vast wooden hull with an odd feeling in the pit of her stomach. The ship creaked slowly on the quay, rocking back and forth with the sea, and she cautiously stepped up onto the gangplank. When it didn't collapse beneath her or throw her off into the waters, she moved more confidently up onto deck, swiftly getting the hang of keeping her balance on the moving surface.

"Your cabin would be this way, ma'am," said the polite young midshipman who was escorting her. With an acknowledging nod, Wanda took the opportunity to look around at the ship. Sailors bustled back and forth, carrying barrels and crates, and the large wooden crane that stood at the edge of the harbour loomed overhead, a small team of men operating it to bring heavier items aboard.

Wanda watched with interest, her sharp mind already trying to think of more efficient ways to load the boat or design the crane... she hastily stamped on the urge. She had more important worries right now. Like the conversation she'd had with her father the day before.

"Me?" she'd asked, taken aback.

"You're my daughter," Lucas had replied. "Who can I trust more? And I know you're capable... this business might have gone under more than once, if not for you. It's time you had your own responsibilities."

"In Arcana?" she had exclaimed. "Across the ocean?"

"You don't have to take the job," her father had replied consolingly. "I've got some other positions you could fill here. But I really want you to do this..."

"How long do I have to choose?" she'd wanted to know. The merchant had looked shifty then, not a good sign.

"There's a week or two before we can sail," he had confessed.

A week or two! A decision of this size, she needed months, maybe even years...

But days was what she had, and so here she was aboard the Luitha Mae, acting as if she would go even though she hadn't actually decided yet, simply because there was no time to do otherwise...

"If you'll follow me, ma'am?" the sailor said, and with a start she realised he was holding the door of the Captain's cabin open for her. Thanking him politely, she stepped inside to find the scarred face of the ship's commander poring over a map on the large table within. In the background, a youth was tidying the room; he looked to be about her own age, perhaps a little younger. Wanda saw him glance surreptitiously at her before going back to polishing a cabinet.

"Ah! Miss Dracen!" the Captain beamed, looking up at her. "Please, let me show you our route..."

As the young woman wandered over to look at the nautical map, the older man snapped his fingers. "Koyn, could you get the lady a glass of... do you drink sherry, ma'am?"

"I do, captain," Wanda informed him. "But I would prefer rum."

The youth hesitated, glass in hand. "Sir?"

"The rum, lad, the rum!" Captain Rhone bellowed. "Have you no sense of your own?"

Shaking his head in disbelief, he turned back to his employer's daughter. "A good boy, hard worker... but a little too afraid of going wrong, I think. Now, as you can see, we're going to have to hug the coast a little..."

As the two began to discuss the intricacies of their voyage, Koyn carefully put the glass down next to the tall young lady. He had known that the merchant's daughter would be accompanying them, of course; it had been the talk of the ship. But he hadn't expected her to be so young, or so sensible-looking.

And why shouldn't she be? he asked himself, going back to polishing the smooth timber of the sideboard. Her father was a legend in the business world, and she had probably cut her teeth on package crates and learned to read from cargo manifests.

Concentrate on your own work, he scolded himself, noticing the tall midshipman looking his way. As more or less the lowest-ranked crewmember aboard, he was definitely expendible, and he wanted to keep this job. He needed to keep this job, if he was to avoid debtor's prison.

Of course, I don't have to pay the loans off, he mused idly. I could always just run... stay in Arcana. But that wasn't really in his nature, and he knew it. Ruefully, he shook his head, disparaging his own folly at not taking the easier roads that were open. What would his father think?


He glanced around to see everyone staring at him; reflexively, he saluted, causing the captain to sigh.

"Koyn, would you take Miss Dracen around the ship?" he asked patiently. "And relax a little, if possible?"

"Yes, captain," Koyn replied hastily, shoving the polish and the cloth behind a sizeable gilded box. "What would you like to see, ma'am?"

The woman seemed briefly to be at a loss for words; finally, she managed to stammer; "The kitchen, perhaps?"

"Galley, ma'am," Koyn corrected her, despite having only learned the term that morning. "This way." He walked to the door, holding it open for her to leave first, then guided her across the ship and down through its dark passageways until they reached the boiling room of steam and smoke from which strange and oddly appetising smells wafted.

"In here, ma'am," he announced, pointing through the open doorway. The merchant's daughter glanced at him with a smile.

"You can call me Wanda, you know," she told him. Koyn blinked.

"Yes, ma'am," he replied, automatically. There was a moment's pause, and then the two of them both stifled a laugh.

"Have you been on this ship long?" Wanda asked, partly curious and partly because she was sure he would bolt unless she proved friendly. The youth shook his head.

"Just a day or so," he replied. "I was lucky to get the job, really."

"And your name's Koyn?" she wondered. At least there's someone else new to all this...

"Yes, miss."

Wanda smiled. "Well, Koyn, how about showing me the galley, hmm?"

And so he did.

Chalisse saw the knight before he saw her, leaning as she was from the upper balcony to watch the road below. It was a long ride from the palace gates to the door, and so she had plenty of time to watch him coming, secure in the knowledge that he wouldn't see her as anything more than a distant speck high above him.

He was the most handsome man she'd ever seen. His armour shone like the moon and stars, the bright colours of his clothes beneath glowing like a rainbow. His horse was a great white charger, but beside him rode a page on a smaller brown horse. At first this was all she could see, but as he drew nearer she made out the neat ponytail of short brown hair, the classical beauty of his youthful features, and her heart melted.

I wonder who he is? she thought. Another suitor, no doubt; a few had already arrived, and so far she was anything but impressed. None of them gave her the same spark as this man; one of them, a Duke from Nanis, actually repulsed her. She felt physically sick whenever she went near the man, who was at least twice her age and had a personality as foul as his face. Of the others, there were some who were attractive, but nothing to make her heart leap.

Not like this.

As the man dismounted and approached the guards at the door, Chalisse fled inside and hurried down to the throne room, pausing only to adjust her hair in a mirror and check she looked her best. Her parents, she knew, would be receiving the man in that grandest of chambers, and so she hurried there with all speed, her heart beating quickly in her breast.

Oh, let him be a good match, she prayed. Let him be the one.

Behind the two ancient thrones and their dais, there was a tapestry on the wall. Few people knew that it actually concealed a small door, accessible from an insignificant room several corridors away. Chalisse, however, knew this perfectly well, and instead of bursting in through the main doors... a most unprincessly thing to do... she snuck into the smaller room and crouched by the door.

Ricanien winked at her as she squatted next to him. His ear was to the slightly-open crack of the door. "You haven't missed much," he whispered. "He only just came in."

Chalisse nodded, and joined her brother at the eavesdropping post. They found this a useful way to get the measure of their visitors before actually meeting them; now more than ever, it was proving useful. The Crown Princess of the kingdom tried to stop breathing, feeling like a naughty child as she listened at the door.

"General Windguard," she heard her father say. "I am glad to see you answered our summons so promptly."

General Windguard! Chalisse shared an excited glance with her brother. The youngest military commander their country possessed; Ricanien hero-worshipped him, and the princess knew her brother longed to meet the man. Well, so did she, now. Why had nobody ever mentioned how gorgeous he was? She realised that they were still speaking in the throne room, and turned her attention back to the words.

"... another reason for inviting you here," her mother was saying, in her most regal voice. "Although we would not presume to guide affairs of the heart, we do feel it would be... advantageous... if the next King of our land were a successful tactician and experienced commander."

There was a pause from the other side of the door, then a man's voice spoke. It was a pleasant voice, not in the least rough or jarring. "I understand, your majesty," the General replied. At the sound of his voice, Chalisse's heart gave a little lurch.

I have got to meet him! she realised, just as her father spoke again. "Very well. I shall have my daughter sent for presently."

With a wink at her younger sibling, the girl got to her feet and hurried off through the palace corridors. At one point she almost collided with a servant coming the other way; the man began to speak, but with a hasty "I know!" the princess pushed past him and ran on, her slippered feet thumping softly on the flagstone floor and its many soft rugs. She arrived at the main door to the great hall flustered and out of breath; taking a moment to compose herself, she nodded to the guards outside, who pushed the doors open to let her step in.

The General was standing at the other end of the long room, opposite her parents, but he must have heard the doors opening for as she came in he turned and looked straight at her. She hadn't seen him this close yet, and to her delight he was just as wonderful close up as he was from afar. Smiling her prettiest, most innocent smile, the princess Chalisse proceeded calmly forwards to meet the man she was now determined to marry.

Dirc had been surprised by the queen's hint that he was to marry her daughter, but upon further thought he had remembered all the clues he hadn't spotted at the time, his memories and concerns over... that battle... effectively distracting him. The idea of marrying the princess rattled through his bewildered thoughts like a lone pea in a pot filled with smoke. He was still shocked when he turned to see her for the first time, but even through his surprise he could see that she was beautiful, the absolute epitome of everything a princess should be. She walked slowly up to him, a perfect smile on her rosy lips, and he saw that she was more or less a head shorter than he was... the ideal height.

"Princess," he said, bowing low then straightening. Her smile widened, her eyes misty.

"General," she replied politely. The gaze of the queen bored into the back of the young knight's neck; remembering that he was supposed to be courting the girl, he offered her his arm.

"Shall we go for a walk?" he suggested, vaguely remembering stories he'd heard his men telling around the campfires. He'd never found time for romance before, never seen the point, but the princess seemed to approve of his idea. Her slender arm snaked out and entwined itself with his, and she beamed up at him with a beatific expression.

"I can show you the rose gardens," she offered, her voice light and bubbling as a mountain stream, seemingly on the verge of laughter.

"Then lead the way, my lady," he replied. Perhaps this visit wouldn't be so bad after all.