Chapter 1

swan

Meirzen watched his father pace the length of the throne room, listening to his advisors. Sunlight streamed in from the high, long windows and framed the man in a kind of glow. His trim beard bobbed up and down as he muttered to himself and his white hair, worn freely in the custom of royalty, framed his face like the mane of an albino lion. His stride was clipped and confident, evenly measured, as if the man sought the exact length of the hall. The Swan's Flight was impatient.

Malon disliked being confined to any room. He was a conqueror, not a diplomat. He ruled his kingdom with a firm hand. He was disappointed in his son. Meirzen knew that and it burned him bitterly. How could the king approve of a boy who was sickly, timid and afraid of horses? Meirzen disgusted even himself.

A group of scribes was sitting cross-legged on cushions by the throne, their pens scratching on sheets of cheap paper. They were recording the words of the advisors as they spoke to Malon. Their heads were bent studiously and their bundles of fourteen braids were draped around their faces.

Suddenly the great doors at the end of the hall flew open, their bolts screeching in protest. They pounded against the walls to either side of the gaping doorway. The guards within the throne room rushed to the doors to see what had happened, but they were overwhelmed by a swarm of soldiers that entered the room. The guards fell, impaled on spears or shot with white-fletched arrows that hissed like snakes as they flew through the air. Malon stood ready as the soldiers came near him, his legs bent and spread wide in a protective stance.

Meirzen screamed for his father as the soldiers continued to pour into the hall like water, but he could not make any noise. The invaders' ears protruded from beneath their helmets, curving over their heads almost like horns and as they glanced at the boy, he could see their eyes glowing yellow with blood lust. Malon was grappling with two of the creatures, shouting with rage at the intrusion.

Meirzen saw the creature that climbed the pillar above his head, its fingers and toes gripping the smooth wooden surface like a frog's, a bow and quiver slung at its back. He tried to climb after it, to knock it down, to do anything, but he was powerless. His muscles seemed to have frozen and he could only watch helplessly as it encircled the pillar with its legs and drew its bow and an arrow from the quiver.

The arrow, the shaft painted with strange designs, plunged deep into the Swan's Flight's chest, its white fletching protruding like a mocking flag. There was no sound as Meirzen screamed. His father fell heavily to the floor. A pool of dark blood formed beneath the man's prone form…

Meirzen sat up so sharply that his muscles cried out in protest to the vicious wrenching. Cold sweat poured down his face and his fine sheets were damp and crumpled from his unconscious struggles. Looking around him, taking in the familiar sights of the large draped window, the tapestries, his belongings, he let out a sigh. Only a dream. Just another dream…

His mother was pulling away from him, her face creased with fear. Fear for him. She had been shaking him, trying to wake him. He opened his arms to her and embraced her tightly, letting his silent tears of fear fall on her shoulder only. She stroked his hair gently and he could feel her humming in his ear, her breath soft and warm. He did not sob, only let the tears flow for a moment, until he had collected his breath. Then he lifted his head and sucked in a deep breath.

The physician, Forbes, stood nearby and Meirzen lifted his arm out to him. Bowing swiftly, the little man took the boy's wrist between his fingers and began the measure the pulse. Meirzen's dog, Esse, a large bitch with brown fur lay with her head on his lap. Her ears were pulled back and her tail was thumping nervously as she tried to comfort her master. His mother still had her arm around him, her head resting on his as he leaned against her, murmuring reassuring words to him. He could see that she was crying too.

"It was just another dream, Mother." Meirzen said gently, knowing how it distressed her when she had to wake him this way.

"Yes, son, I know. But you tremble for so long afterwards."

Meirzen clenched his teeth. She had to bring up the trembling. Even now he was fighting to stop the quivering of his body and soothe his heartbeat.

Forbes had let go of his king-prince's arm and was collecting tools from the tray he had brought in with him.

"He doesn't need to be bled again, does he?" His mother asked worriedly, running her fingers through her son's hair as if he were a small boy again, instead of nearly full grown with a thin beard on his chin. The physician pressed his lips together apologetically.

"I'm afraid so, your highness. It is the only way to purge the dreams. They flow through the blood. Right now his blood is full of them. That is why his heart beats so fast as it tries to be rid of them."

Meirzen proffered his arm impatiently. The man's prattling was giving him time to get control of himself, but it was also annoying him. He hated the mousy physician. Bleeding seemed to be his cure for everything. And it never seemed to work. But Meirzen had no knowledge of medicine and his mother refused to dismiss Forbes, so he could only endure the little man.

The knife was cold and the blood was warm as it trickled over his arm. Meirzen watched it drip into the bowl that Forbes held. It was paler than usual, almost pink. The sight of his own blood had used to scare him as a child - his stomach felt as though someone were squeezing it in a tight fist - but after seventeen years of almost constant treatments of bleeding, he had become used to it. His mother sat beside him, her fingers combing through his hair. She gasped a little at the red streaks that were running down his arm. Meirzen's lips tightened. His mother never failed to make much of the bleedings. He wished she wouldn't. When she wasn't around to worry, he was able to relax himself. But when she watched, he was tense enough for both of them together. Already his muscles, which had begun to loosen, were tightening again. His jaw hurt from being clenched.

Finally Forbes decided that he had drawn enough blood. He pulled the blood bowl away and caught the next few drips on a cloth. Meirzen noticed that the man, despite the many times he had done this, was still clumsy in his movements. He was hunched over, as if expecting to be struck and his fingers were cold as he bandaged the small puncture. It would be a small scar: white and about as wide as one of Meirzen's fingers. Another addition to the collection, Meirzen thought as he watched the scars of previous bleedings disappear beneath the bandage along with the fresh cut. He was glad that his long sleeves covered the scars.

"Thank you." He pulled away from Forbes' clammy fingers as soon as the knot was tied. "You may go now."

Forbes bowed low, groveling, and backed out, bobbing up and down the whole way. Meirzen lay back on his pillow and sighed. He hated that little man.

His mother rose. A strand of her graying hair fell out of the knot at the back of her neck to hang down before her face. Meirzen tucked it back behind her ear and let her kiss his cheek. He felt small again as she tucked the blankets in around his legs. She had always done that, even though there were nursemaids. She always had done everything herself.

"I'll have some food sent up for you." Then she left the room, leaving Meirzen alone in the flickering light of candles. Esse wiggled up next to him and rested her head on his chest, whining appealingly and wagging her thin tail. Meirzen rubbed the soft, warm head. She was nearly as big as he was and her head was heavy, but the warmth and presence were soothing. She had been a puppy that the hunters had rejected because of a weak leg and Meirzen had begged for her. His father had not been happy. He would rather have had his son pick a strong dog, or learn to ride a horse so he could master a beast. Mastering beasts led to mastering people. Malon had excelled at both. But Meirzen couldn't bring himself to beat the pup or any other such thing and so they had grown up together: a little boy of five and his puppy. Now she was getting on in years and she was probably to die soon. The thought was painful and Meirzen pushed it away. But in its place came one even more unpleasant.

He had been hoping that the dreams had gone. For the past twelve years, he would have periods of months or more without them and the physicians and his mother would all rejoice that he was free from them at last. But he knew better. Never more than a year would pass before the dreams would come again, always the same, filled with slathering demons with sharp, pointed ears. And their bows with their poisonous arrows. He knew the arrows were poisonous; sometimes one just knows things in dreams. Whenever he watched them bury themselves deep into his father's chest, he could feel the burning of the poison running through his own veins, as if it had been him that was shot instead of his dream father.

Malon, the Swan's Flight, had been assassinated when Meirzen had been barely six. The young boy had not actually seen his father die; the dream was based on reports. His father had actually been hunting, rather than in his throne room, and the story was that he, along with everyone else in the party, had been killed by a band of renegade elves. Certainly the arrow had been elvish. The killing of his father had raised Meirzen to power long before his time. He was too young to take the throne and his mother had ruled in his stead until he had come of age at sixteen. It had been a long ten years for the boy as he looked forward to the day that he would put on the crown and rule. But in just a year, ruling had lost its glamour.

A knock at the door interrupted his thoughts and a young servant girl came in timidly, carrying a tray with a goblet of hot spiced wine and a bowl of broth. She looked at Meirzen for direction: she couldn't have been more than nine. Meirzen waved weakly at a nearby table. He was suddenly very tired and didn't feel much like eating. The little girl dropped her eyes in proper servility and carefully laid the tray down where he had indicated. Then, with a quick bob of a curtsey, she left, all without ever having said a word. Meirzen was grateful that she didn't seem to think that she had to be fawning on him every moment she was near him.

Hearing the door close behind the servant girl, he laid his arm over his face. His thoughts drifted to the unpleasant notion of having to rise in scant hours to face another day of his angry people. Maybe they would let him off tomorrow. After all, he had just been bled. He was always weak after having been bled. For now he was calm and content, warm and comfortable and there was nothing that would change that for the moment.

- o - o - o -

He was jolted awake by the sound of Esse's barking and a terrified scream. He jerked up, his head spinning with vertigo. He could not see for a moment, his eyes blurry and something heavy held his legs pinned. It was a waking nightmare. As he began to thrash in panic, her barking had ceased and now a low, vicious growl was rolling through the room.

His eyes cleared and he saw that his dog was half-sitting, half-standing on him, like a dam over a puppy. All of the hair along her spine was standing up, forming a ridge down her back. Following her gaze, saw a man laying prone on the ground, his arms also raised over his head. The arms were limp and rested on the man's face and the carpet beneath him was soaked with red. Meirzen shrieked, unable to stop the sound. The man's throat had been ripped open. The blood came in spurts with the beating of his heart and Meirzen knew that he would be dead before long. Esse's muzzle was wet, the brown fur slicked back and black with blood.

Calling for the guards that were stationed outside his room, Meirzen tumbled out of his bed, tripping on his blankets as he tried to stand. He crawled to the man and pressed his hands over the gaping wound, tried to stop the flow, but already he knew it was too late. He tried not to think about it. Esse hadn't moved from the bed. But she was growling, barking and whining all at the same time and she was trying to stand. Somehow she wasn't able to get her legs under her. What was going on? Had she been injured? Beneath his fingers, the spurting was stopping and the blood was starting to congeal on his hands. The man was dead. A shout of exclamation seemed to echo through the room as the guards entered and took in the sight. A hand gripped Meirzen's shoulder.

"Your highness?" One of the guards asked, so pale that Meirzen thought he would faint. Meirzen looked up from the dead man to the guard and followed his gaze back to the ground nearby. A knife, plainly shaped, with a black leather grip, lay on the ground near the dead man's head. Meirzen just stared at the man, his face frozen in an expression of shock and fear and the blood soaking through the king-prince's fingers. His dog was still up on the bed and her growling had turned into a desperate howl as she tried to crawl across the sheets to the end of the bed.

Finally Meirzen looked up from the bright blood on his hands. His mother had appeared, her face white as a sheet and her hands knotted into the sleeve of the soldier beside her. Her mouth was set in a tight line and her eyes were wide with fear as she looked at her son and the bloody corpse at his feet. He stood up hurriedly, but he was covered in the dead man's blood. The assassin's blood. The realization hit him like a blast of cold wind. He had nearly been killed, unawares with the cloth over his eyes.

He closed his eyes now, feeling his legs suddenly become weak and quivering and his palms grow clammy. He had nearly been killed. It wasn't until his mother's scream did he open his eyes and realize that the floor was rushing to meet his face.

- o - o - o -

The servant girl stood between two guards that seemed to be over twice her height. She was crying and her shackled hands were reaching out in a plea for mercy. Salim, Meirzen's head of security, sat before her, his fingers interlaced as they rested on the desk before him. She was moving her lips, making small sounds as if trying to speak, but no words came out. Salim watched her impassively. When she finally broke down and sobbed, it could be seen why she had not spoken: her open mouth showed that her tongue had been cut out. The guards still held her up by her elbows, so her hands were dragged up above her head as she collapsed to her knees as much as the men's grips would allow.

Salim watched her sob, tapping a quill pen against his nose thoughtfully. She was a pretty little girl, but as she sobbed, grotesque noises wrenched out of her throat. Without a tongue to shape them, the sounds were distorted and unearthly. Salim stared at the little girl, his brow furrowed slightly. At length, he waved his hand to dismiss the guards. The girl revived slightly as they pulled her along and she tried to resist them, to remain in Salim's office. Her bound hands reached for him and her eyes begged him for mercy, and out of her mouth came desperate cries. Then the door closed behind the guards and the sound was muffled into sobs that still echoed throughout the hall beyond. Salim stared past the door, his eyes unfocused for a time. Then he finally shook himself and laid down the pen. He had ink on his fingers now. Damn it. As if he didn't already look undone. It was still before dawn and he was not fully groomed, but there were more pressing matters at hand than personal appearances. He sighed and pushed his hair out of his face.

The guards had hardly gone before the door swung in without announcement and Jael and Cullin, the king-prince's chief advisors, entered. Each nodded their head to the security officer in greeting. He nodded back and waved his hand toward some cushioned chairs as he bent his head to scribble a note onto a sheet of rough paper before him. But the two men stayed standing, watching him silently until he raised his head.

"So? What might you two want at this early hour?"

The two men finally sat. Cullin, the older man, rested his elbows on his knees and leaned forward, steepling his fingers against his chin.

"What new light have you been able to shed on this mystery?"

Salim glared at him from underneath his unruly locks, which had again fallen into his face. His braids were in horrible disarray; they would most certainly have to be redone and he was hoping that the two advisors would not notice at such an early hour. Jael seemed to be in the same predicament; he was pushing the braids behind his neck where they could not be seen so easily.

"The food was most certainly poisoned, though the king-prince tells us he did not eat any." Salim leaned back a little in his chair. "His dog did however. She's in convulsions right now. Seems she knocked the bowl onto the ground and ate what was in it."

"Mm, we've heard about that." Cullin was smoothing his mustache back with a finger. One stroke on one side, one on the other, two again on the first. Unlike the other two, he seemed to have already had his face shaved this morning, leaving only the thick whiskers on his upper lip. His robes were in order and Salim could almost imagine that he could smell fragrance water. "The king-prince is most upset. He seems to have already forgotten that he was nearly killed. All he keeps asking about is how his dog is faring."

Salim nodded, though he did so reluctantly and with the hope that it looked sage. He would have liked to have thought that he was the first to know about the dog. But of course the advisors had been the first. They had the most extensive network of spies and informants in the kingdom. Even he, the security commander-in-chief, did not have anything to compare. And the worst part was he didn't know how to gather such a force. But he did have the security of knowing that he was safe from their spying eyes. Anything he might have done of questionable nature was years in the past. The advisors and their prying eyes couldn't touch him.

"Any word as to how the assassin entered the room?" While Cullin spoke, his young counterpart, more of an apprentice really, Jael, was leaning back in his chair with an ankle resting on the knee of the other leg. Arvin could barely keep the disgust off his face. Such nonchalance was a skill hard-earned or a born-gift. It appears that this young man had gotten it with no effort, whereas Salim had trained himself for years to be so relaxed. A waste really. Jael was the epitome of a hot-headed youth. Why had the gods given him the calmness of body when his mind was rash and hasty?

"He told the guards that he was the physician's new assistant."

"I'm sure that gave them no reason to doubt him," Jael snorted. Salim tried the stare the youth down, but the young man matched him second for second. Cullin broke the hostile silence with a feeble cough.

"Forbes has developed a recent habit of gaining and losing assistants fairly often."

Salim laughed. Forbes? Hire a bloodthirsty assassin? That little snub-nosed weasel? Cullin could only wish it were so. "Surely just coincidence. Forbes has often developed odd habits like that."

Cullin smiled ever so subtly, his mustache stretching with his upper lip as his mouth curved. "Coincidence? I think not." He twisted a thin braid of his hair between a finger and thumb in what would have been an absent motion had his bright green eyes not been fixed on Salim. "I would have thought that you were paid to be equally suspicious."

Jael snorted, amused, and his counterpart's gaze swung over towards the noise. The young man was silent under Cullin's gaze and Salim was free from its intensity for a moment.

"Anyone and everyone are under suspicion, Cullin" he replied, trying to sound firm. "Even the queen-mother herself."

Cullin nodded in agreement, but it was Jael who spoke.

"Indeed. In fact, it is those most close to the king-prince that are under the most suspicion. Who else would know that he had a dream again last night?"

Very few knew about the king-prince's nightmares; his mother, Salim, the two chief advisors, Forbes and the two trusted guards that stood at his door each night. It was a subject not often talked about and often caused unease in those select few. There were times when the prince would awake screaming and sometimes go into seizures. It seemed that there was more at work than a mere dream, but none had ventured to explain it. Salim tried to smile.

"Quite so. You have taught him much, Cullin. One day I'll look up and he'll be a grown man."

Cullin's frozen smile thawed a little with amusement, but beside him, Jael was bristling. Salim allowed himself a small, triumphant smile. The young man - almost boy, really - might be blessed with an attitude of nonchalance, but it disappeared in a hurry when he was riled. And it didn't seem to need much to accomplish that.

"Have they identified the would-be killer?" Jael asked finally, his teeth clenched.

"Not yet."

Cullin's expression was unreadable as he stood. "Well, good morning to you, Salim. We just called on you to see what new developments might have surfaced."

As if they would get anything new from him. "You shall be among the first to know," not that they wouldn't be already.

"Good. Good."

Then the two advisors were gone, leaving Salim at his desk. He looked down at his hands on the desk and unclasped them from where they had been folded and hissed as the stiff joints protested to their movement. Sighing, he flexed the fingers of his right hand for a moment, patches of skin white and bloodless from the pressure of his left fingers. He hated talking to those men.


Bonus to whoever is able to guess where the word 'esse' comes from…

A/N: Well, here it is, the first chapter of the second draft of the novel "Ocean of Tears." Pretty cool, isn't it? I know that a dream is cliche to begin a book with, and I will eventually figure out what to put before the dream, but for now, it stays...