The parchment had become worn, its edges tattered from the number of times it had been unfolded, read, pawed over and then folded once more. The faint scruffy ink had become fainter still and only a few could still decipher the words that lay on the smudged page. The words were a riddle even fewer could understand. Indeed, only one could wholly make sense of the poorly formed sentences and phrases. How many times had he read the letter? How many times had he traced his finger along the messy script with a deep guilt in his heart? These scruffy words, these words were the last of Eunus of Apollo.
The lights beckon us brother, soon I will have more tales to tell.
Except there had been no more words. These had been the last.
Sunlight streamed into the dusty study, falling on a hunched figure. The tall man was leaning over his desk, the faded letter staring up at him. He wasn’t sure why he had taken it from its hiding place deep within the depths of the mighty old desk, where a locked wooden box kept Eunus’ final words hidden from prying eyes. There was nothing more to be gained from reading the murky script. There was no more news to be found in the letter. There was no more news.
With a quiet sigh Gallus looked away from the letter and rubbed slowly at his forehead. The great man leant back in his creaking chair and slid down. Dust danced in the bright light shining in, falling weightlessly on the still figure of the man. He watched the sparkling flecks broodingly, seeking shapes and patterns where there were none to find.
Eunus. Why must his mind always return to Eunus? These days he found he could go no longer than a few minutes without his little brother’s face flashing before his eyes, followed shortly by an overwhelming feeling of guilt. This was the most crushing of all. The guilt was suffocating Gallus, maiming him, making him weak at this, a time when he needed to show strength.
With a frown the king sat up sharply in his chair. While he had been watching the dust endlessly flitter in the bright light he had not noticed the other particles flowing determinedly towards the middle of the room. No one knew why certain people could see the ether. Gallus had discovered he was different when he was a very young child. He had expressed his joy at seeing a cascade of beautiful orange shining clouds that no others could see. This might have concerned a little boy, but his father King Thale had assured him he too saw the beauty of the ether. They had a gift, one that empowered them above all others. They must never take this gift for granted.
Gallus had always remembered these words and now, as he watched the ether massing in the centre of the room he understood their meaning. He had a power few others could attest to sharing with him. Before his eyes the ether started to take the shape of a tall man. Gallus now felt the rippling currents course over his skin and despite himself he shivered. He knew who was about to appear in his study. Only one could cause such a surge in the ether.
With a wry smile the king climbed to his feet and reached for a dusty old bottle. He quickly poured the amber liquid into two tumblers and leaned against the sturdy desk, waiting. By the time the person had fully appeared the king had finished half his glass.
“Now I will never stand a chance to catch up,” the new arrival complained good-naturedly, yet he took the second glass readily.
“You ought to be quicker mage, then you might stand a chance.”
The king watched with an amused smile as his friend took a large gulp from the glass, his eyes closing as he enjoyed the burning sensation filling his mouth and throat.
“You have been gone but two days Selmain, surely you have not yet had time to build up such a thirst,” Gallus chuckled and he clapped the mage on the back. Selmain opened his eyes once more and grinned at the king.
“My dear Gallus, I always have such a thirst when there is Delanovian firewater on offer. I do not usually envy your role, but when I see the fine spirits and wines proffered at your feet I find myself writhing in envy. You do not deserve such lavish gifts you know. What do you give in return?”
Gallus laughed loudly, the darkness in his mind lifting for a moment. Selmain was a good friend.
“Our allegiance,” he chuckled before he walked round his desk and sat down once more. Selmain glanced briefly at the fading letter that the king was hastily putting away. As though he hadn’t seen it the mage took another swig from his firewater and took a seat opposite his friend.
“So tell me, did Thalius win that wager with Avery the other night? I was very sad to leave before either of them had had a chance to succeed,” Selmain spoke cheerily while Gallus made himself comfortable in his ancient chair. A broad grin spread across the king’s face and he shook his head.
“Thalius challenged Avery to a drinking competition,” he complained. “What do you think the outcome was?”
“Well, if the past is anything to go by then I imagine Thalius ended the night face down in a horse troth and Avery pocketed the gold. However, I never lose hope that one of these days our burly friend will win,” Selmain sighed thoughtfully. Gallus held his friend’s eye for a moment before he laughed.
“Not this time. I do not know how Avery does it; he is slighter than you are. I intend no offence of course.” The mage grinned and shook his head. “I for one am never challenging that man to a drinking contest.”
In the corridor a resounding crash brought both men to their feet. They turned to stare at the door both reaching out in the ether trying to sense any danger that lay there. However, finding nothing out of the ordinary the men exchanged a meek smile before retaking their seats.
“Thais?” Selmain asked casually.
“Not on this occasion. Her friends came for her in the early hours of the morning and I believe the three of them are terrorising the city.”
The pair lapsed into silence, briefly interrupted by a scullery maid knocking on the door to excuse herself for the noise she had caused by dropping a tray outside the door. There was a heaviness in the air between the friends, one that both could sense, yet neither wanted to mention. Selmain knew he was going to have to initiate the awkward conversation. He knew Gallus could not. The subject was too close to his heart, too painful to bear.
“I met with my contacts yesterday,” the mage spoke softly. Gallus, who had been staring at the bottle of firewater, did nothing to indicate he had heard Selmain. “I did as you asked and stayed outside the city. They were quick to come once I sent word for them to meet me. Gallus…”
Silence returned. The awkwardness was becoming palpable, causing Gallus to shift in his chair. His eyes though remained trained on the firewater.
“Gallus they have no news. You knew this would be the case. They have received no more information as to the whereabouts of your brother. The last anyone heard of him being in the city was eighteen months ago now. He has not been seen since.”
Selmain was speaking as quietly as he could manage, yet still the words were deafening to Gallus, who shut his eyes tightly and rubbed at his forehead. In his agony he nodded and sat up sharply. Finally he met the mage’s eye.
“Thank you Selmain. I know it is never easy for you to return,” he spoke brusquely eliciting a wince from his friend.
“Your thanks is not required Gallus. ‘Tis my duty to aid you in any way I can.”
The uncomfortable silence returned, enveloping the men in its cruel hold. There were more words waiting to be said, queuing up, forcing themselves into Selmain’s mouth. They had waited long enough.
“Gallus.” The king looked up warily. “A year and a half has passed and your brother remains missing. Could it be…”
Selmain swallowed at his dry throat while the dark eyes of the king bored into him. Though they could command no true power of their own, somehow they demanded he finish his sentence.
“Could it be that he is dead Gallus?” the words rushed out in a stream of sound leaving Selmain sealing his mouth tightly shut and staring wide-eyed at his friend. There, he had said it. He could not now claw the words back.
The reaction from the king however, was not as Selmain had imagined. There was no anger, no pain, just simple denial. Gallus merely shook his head.
“I would know if he were dead,” were the only words he spoke.
“But how Gallus, you have said yourself…”
“I would know if my brother were dead Selmain.”
The mage fell silent and he nodded in defeat. There was no more to be said on the matter. While Gallus swigged from his glass of firewater Selmain looked away, seeking a justifiable change in the topic of conversation. His eyes fell on a grand map that had been pinned up on the only stretch of wall not covered by a towering bookcase. The mage could not remember a time when it had not been there, precariously held up by a series of pins. It had been there even in the days of King Thale, of this Selmain was certain.
When they had been boys Gallus had led his friends all over the palace, happily showing off the ancient relics he was to inherit. Though Thale’s study unnerved young Gallus, as it was a place he associated with punishment, he had led his friends inside nonetheless, safe in the knowledge that his father was away on campaign. Selmain remembered staring in awe at the ancient room, lined with historical artefacts and crumbling books. Thalius and Avery had flocked to the map, which showed Denari beside its mighty southern neighbour Faro. They had pawed over the pins pushed deep into the ancient walls marking the locations of troops and enemy forces. It had been an endless source of entertainment for the boys, but not to Selmain. He had stayed away, admiring a dusty tome he knew to be the oldest known copy of the Book of Aius.
It seemed so long ago now, yet the book still stood on a plinth in the far corner of the room and the map still hung on the wall. Gallus had changed little of his father’s work when the study fell to him. The map sent a shiver through Selmain. He hated to look upon it: Faro. It was a liar and a thief amidst good and honest men. It was a parasite, thriving off the suffering of its victims. One man ruled the bully of the south. One man, who had become so feared across the northern countries he had terrorised for so long he had almost passed into the realm of myth and legend.
“Is there any news from Faro Gallus? Have you heard from Thayos?”
The king looked up sharply at the mention of the emperor. How that name had haunted him. He could not have known all those years ago when he had tumbled through these rooms as a boy, how much one person would alter the course of his life.
The presence of the cruel southern dictator had always seemed a distant one. Yes, the prospect of war was never far away and though the citizens of Denari thought it a dim threat, only Gallus and his closest confidants knew how close they had come to the outbreak of war. Faro was a turbulent and unpredictable neighbour. Gallus knew the emperor’s wrath could fall at any time, yet the man himself had always seemed so far away.
“Come,” Gallus sighed and he stood to his feet. “I will show you.”
Across the city on a narrow bridge three youngsters sat dangling their legs over the side eating sandwiches. They had spent the morning marauding through the streets of Acrabar and had now settled down for a bite to eat on their favoured spot in all the city. From here they enjoyed an unparalleled view of the Denai, the largest river in Denari, which snaked through the capital city. The docks sprawled along this section of the river, filled with the hubbub of barges loading and unloading their cargos while in the distance the parliamentary and civic buildings loomed. The beauty of this vista was unrivalled and yet few travellers ventured this far out and therefore never saw the magnificent view.
Acrabar was the home and workplace of Titua’s many merchants and traders. The region held little else of interest for most of the travellers that flocked to the city in their thousands. The three youths sat upon the bridge would not have endured travellers here in any case. They would have soon seen to it that they found their way elsewhere. Though the eldest of them had just turned fifteen and the youngest was only half way through her thirteenth year, the three youths held a surprising amount of power over their local neighbourhood. This might have seemed surprising had it not been for the fact that the leader of this trio was none other than the first in line to the throne of Denari, Princess Thais Mai Avani.
Her dearest companions Rachel and Kaio Greenwood were cousins and had loyally remained at the princess’ side since they were very young children. They were famed across these parts and though still young, they were not to be trifled with. Who knew what would happen if you crossed paths with Princess Thais? The fiery youngster’s reputation preceded her and though most of the tales had been born in the hazy realms of gossip and rumour, there was never any doubt that she was capable of committing such acts. The girl was wild, so they said.
“I cannot wait for school to be over!” On the bridge Thais had thrown the remains of her sandwich into the water and was now leaning back in the sunshine. “I hate it there! How I wish I could go to school with the pair of you.”
“You would hate our school too Thais, you know you would,” the more even-headed Rachel countered wisely eliciting a snigger from the smaller girl.
“I think all schools should be forcefully closed down,” Kaio now spoke up, throwing fuel onto Thais’ fire.
“You would,” the boy’s cousin complained fondly.
“You know he has a point,” Thais piped up and she turned to face her dear friends. “When I am queen I shall abolish all but a few schools where I shall force the most intelligent children to go. The others can do as they wish.”
While Kaio sniggered Rachel rolled her eyes.
“That wouldn’t work and you know it.”
“Besides, when you’re queen you won’t care what children have to go through will you? You won’t have to go to school anymore so why should you care?”
Thais looked from one cousin to the other, before she smiled and shook her head. They were wrong. She had a personal hatred for schools and when she was queen she was going to see to it that changes were made. Why must children learn about ancient archaic languages and the precise steps of a thousand-year-old Dahnian folk dance? What possible use could Thais find for these skills in her adult life? Far rather the girl felt, children should be taught archery, survival skills and how to beat swindlers at cards. These were skills she knew she would need. In fact, these were skills she had already needed in her short life. When she was queen, things would be different.
For now there was only one happy thought getting the girl through the long days trapped inside the most prestigious educational institute in the kingdom.
“Only one week left and we will be free at last,” the girl crowed happily and she threw herself onto her back, her arms flung above her head.
“Three months of freedom to be precise,” Kaio added happily and he too lay back to join the princess. Above them a harmless white cloud floated across the perfect blue sky.
“Will you be travelling to Lisborem again this summer Thais?” Rachel asked interestedly.
“Aye and has your father said we can come? He did promise last year that we would be able to join you for a few weeks at least.”
Thais chewed on her lower lip and shrugged her shoulders. In truth she hadn’t asked about the annual trip she and her father took every summer.
Lisborem was a beautiful island far away to the south, several hundred miles south of Aiala, the most southern point in Denari. White sandy beaches met with azure lagoons and everywhere palm trees dotted the beautiful landscape. It had been a colony belonging to Denari for many hundreds of years and though the ancient House of Araneas ruled the island as a princedom, they persisted in declaring Denari their sovereign.
Every summer it had been a tradition for the House of Apollo to adjourn to the beautiful golden isle where they became guests of the Prince of Lisborem. Thais adored the months she and Gallus spent in the tropical paradise and started looking forward to the trip every spring. This year however, had been different. This year she hadn’t affixed a countdown to the wall beside her bed nor had she pestered her father with endless questions about the date and method of their departure.
“I don’t know if we’ll be going this year,” the girl said softly. Kaio wrinkled his brow and rolled on his side to look at his friend. Her tone had sounded so uncharacteristically self-pitying.
“What are you talking about Thais? Why not?” he demanded. The fair girl pulled a face at the boy before she sat up meeting Rachel’s concerned gaze. It would seem the more empathetic of the two cousins had guessed what was bothering their friend.
“It’s my father,” Thais uttered quietly. “He hasn’t been the same since…well you know since when.”
Kaio now sat up as well and turned his confused expression on his cousin, who merely rolled her eyes and shook her head as though to dissuade him from his usual course of action: bating Thais.
“That didn’t stop you from going last year,” the boy countered. “You still went even though Eunus was missing.”
“Kaio,” Rachel sighed witheringly. “Sometimes I do question whether we are related you and I. You are the most tactless creature that I have ever met, which in our family is saying quite a lot!”
Despite herself Thais chuckled and she shook her head.
“You’re right Rachel, he is terribly tactless, but he’s right too. I know we went last year Kaio, but you don’t know my father. I can’t explain it, but as time has gone on my father has found it harder to cope with my uncle being missing. I don’t think we’ll be going this year because nothing seems to be normal anymore.”
Thais looked away from the concern in her friends’ faces and instantly found something suitable to avert their attention away from herself. Running towards them across the narrow bridge was a young man they had met many a time. He was an urchin who lived across the Appian Way in Varanasi, the peasant quarter. On his face was a look that seemed very pleased to see the trio, yet there was also trickery in his eyes that Thais could not ignore.
“Watch yourselves,” she warned her friends and she climbed to her feet. Within seconds Kaio and Rachel had spotted the boy running towards them and they too rose to stand beside the princess.
“I’m glad I found you,” the urchin called out to the friends. They glanced to one another in suspicion.
“Why?” Thais called back and she started striding forwards to meet the youngster along the bridge. Within seconds they had met and the newly arrived boy leaned over and started panting to get his breath back. Kaio clapped him on the back good-naturedly.
“You must come and see!” the boy exclaimed through hurried breaths.
“Come and see what?” Thais asked curiously.
“Something amazing. Something I wager you have never seen before,” the urchin replied, seemingly recovered from his sprint to find the princess.
“Well what is it?” Rachel now asked.
“Something you would love to see!” The trio of friends looked to one another in annoyance. The urchin noticed. “If you want to find out, it’ll cost you.”
Thais raised her eyebrows while Kaio and Rachel stared nonplussed at the new arrival. For a moment the urchin felt pleased with himself. He knew Thais was far too curious to let this opportunity go and he had made sure he went straight to her the moment he had seen it. She would pay dearly to know everything that was going on in this city.
Or so he thought.
Within seconds all four youths were sprinting down the bridge. The wiry street urchin from Varanasi had not managed to get where he was today without being able to outrun an angry member of the public he had either stolen from or short-changed. He usually fared well against overweight merchants and luxuriant travellers, but these three following him now had learnt all they knew in the same manner that he had: on the streets of the city.
The four youngsters sped through the narrow lanes of the merchant quarter, the interloper managing to stay inches ahead of the locals. If he could only get to the Appian Way and into his home turf he would be safe; they would never dare follow him in there. What he hadn’t accounted for however, was the late afternoon bustle of Coscona Market.
Instantly the tables turned and the inexperienced young man found himself waylaid by an angry trader trying to navigate his oxen through a narrow lane. Within seconds Thais, Kaio and Rachel had caught up to him and dragged him away from the vexed trader into a quiet alley where they pushed him up against the wall, their fists raised.
“What were you saying?” Thais demanded, her grazed knuckles only inches from the urchin’s chin. This particular boy had come up against the princess before in a fistfight and he knew her to have a nastily accurate aim.
The fist loomed closer.
“Fine!” the boy cried our angrily. “I’ll tell you! I was going to tell you anyway.”
“Certainly,” Thais growled in response. “After we had handed over all the silver from our pockets. Now tell us, what have you seen?”
The urchin looked from one bemused face to the next and then sighed.
“The whole of the Appian Way is alive with the rumour,” the boy explained. “I didn’t believe it to be true until I saw it with my own eyes.”
“Until you saw what with your own eyes?” Kaio pushed boredly. So far this urchin and his news had been little more than a headache.
“An angel! There is an angel walking down the Appian Way as we speak.”
Thais withdrew her fist instantly and looked with wide eyes to her friends. They too seemed thrown by the news and it took several moments for them to recover from the surprise.
“Where did you see it?” Rachel demanded, turning on the smug urchin.
“Up by the Horn and Thistle.”
“And which way was it going?” Thais now asked.
Without another word to the Varanasian boy the trio of friends bolted. They knew the city better than the backs of their hands and as such within ten minutes they had scrambled through busy lanes and streets to find themselves on the heaving thoroughfare that was the Appian Way. The road divided the merchant quarter Acrabar from Varanasi, where Titua’s labourers and peasant lived.
Recently, Varanasi had also become the home of those who had sought out asylum in Denari after the Southern Powers were defeated and returned beyond their borders. Farojians, Karthorites, Boulians and Kessenians now called Varanasi home. Their assimilation into the culture of their new city had not gone entirely smoothly and though many accepted these new communities and pitied them for the suffering they had endured under the hands of Thayos and his soldiers, there were those who hated them. They were a reminder of the suppression and pain they themselves had suffered under the hands of the southern Emperor during the wars that had plagued Denari’s recent history. The old wounds of some had never healed and it led to friction all along the Appian Way. In recent months this violence had been escalating and knowing this, Thais usually stayed away from this exciting part of the city.
So now as they entered the bustling street the three friends ducked low, trying to blend into the background as much as they could. They needn’t have bothered however, as no one was paying them any attention. The street seemed alive with whispers and the buzz of chatter. The word ‘angel’ was being spoken excitedly by hundreds of different voices. Had the trio doubted the urchin, now they knew their answer. There was an angel and it was walking down this very street.
“I cannot believe he was telling us the truth,” Rachel uttered in amazement as the three friends wandered up the road towards the Horn and Thistle, a tavern they had once sneaked into and been quite unceremoniously thrown out of.
“Well there is a first time for everything,” Kaio replied happily.
“What is an angel doing here of all places?” Thais now spoke up, her brow furrowed in confusion.
“Perhaps it’s here following those two we heard about last week,” Kaio suggested.
“I thought they were nothing but a rumour,” Rachel countered.
“They were not! I have it on good authority from none other than Kosa that there were two angels walking down Broadway. He saw them with his own eyes!”
“Well that’s very interesting, because I was sure the rumours said that one had been spotted in Grey Park two weeks ago and the other was…”
“The point is,” Thais interrupted her friends. “What are any of them doing here? We’ve never had angels in the city before. As far as I know, we’ve never even had angels in Denari before. What are they doing here now?”
“What’s wrong with you? Are you worried?” Kaio asked delightedly, his expression mocking. “They’ve got you rattled haven’t they?”
“You know what angels mean Kaio,” the girl complained and she threw a filthy glare in his direction. “You know the old stories same as I do.”
“What? That if you see an angel someone in your family will die within a fortnight? Thais they’re just baby stories to scare little children. Don’t tell me you believe them!”
“Angels love bloodshed Kaio,” Thais stated firmly. “Angels love battles. Angels love war. They fly above battlefields waiting for people to die. They were God’s soldiers until they turned on him. Now they’re damned and they love nothing more than to see pain and destruction. You know that.”
Kaio went quiet for a moment, but this had little to do with his own measure of tact. It was Rachel carefully digging her fingers into his side that made him stop. She at least could see how worried their friend was.
“Thais, I’m sure it’s not here because there is going to be a battle here in Titua,” the tall girl soothed. “I’m sure that’s not why this angel is here.”
Thais remained silent, but her expression was becoming less hostile as she forced herself to calm down. They were still quite far from the tavern when they saw a small girl leaning against a shop front looking up the road interestedly. She was a neighbour of the Greenwoods and had many a time served as an ally to Thais and her friends.
“Farah!” Thais called out. The girl turned around sharply and upon seeing the trio bearing down on her grinned broadly.
“I was wondering when the three of you would turn up, you’re just in time. I hear it’s only a few minutes away.”
“Have you seen it yet Farah?” Kaio asked his neighbour. The girl however, shook her head.
“No, not yet. People have been coming past buzzing about it though, so I bet the wait’s been worth it.”
Thais and her friends leaned back against the building beside their small ally and waited along with her. The crowd had become surprisingly subdued as the tension rippled up the road. The angel seemed to be casting out shockwaves ahead of itself that managed to quieten down even the hubbub of the Appian Way. This worried Thais even more. Nothing ought to be able to do that. This street had never been wholly quiet in the entire length of its existence, she was sure of that much.
The hush was growing until eventually the only sound to be heard was the distant wail of a baby. Thais leaned forward to see something parting the crowds in the distance.
The first they saw of it was its head rising two feet above the bustling crowd. A long thick main of silver hair covered most of the head, pulled back from the face by a thin circlet of sorts. The face was noble yet the features had a certain sharp sternness about them. It seemed almost brutal and ruthless.
As the crowds parted before the enormous creature more of his body came into view. By now the youngsters could see that this angel was male, not only by the features of his face, but also by the broad muscled chest. The figure was so enormously tall and strong that Thais was sure even three of Denari’s best soldiers would not be able to take the beast down in unarmed combat. The angel’s pale silvery skin glittered in the sunlight and Thais was sure she saw tiny feathers layered all over his body.
He wore only a loincloth, nothing else. Most of his pale skin seemed covered with dark blue markings that looked similar to the tribal tattoos Thais had seen on paintings depicting her ancestors.
All these first caught the girl’s attention. It was only when the enormous angel was nearly upon them that she saw the wings. Soon she wished she hadn’t. The angel was frightening enough without imagining it taking flight on those broad expansive wings. As he walked, the angel’s wings sat upon his back folded in. They emerged from his expansive shoulders and seemed attached down the entire length of his back. Though they were folded, the youngsters knew they were of colossal proportions. Trailing slightly on the ground the feathers still managed to remain an unnaturally white gleam.
As the angel passed Thais looked up to his face and saw the creature’s pale icy grey eyes watching her. Immediately she looked away and tucked in slightly behind Rachel. By the time she emerged the angel had passed and chatter had returned to the street. The girl became aware of Kaio talking hurriedly to the other two, but she couldn’t make out what he was saying. The chill those eyes had sent down her spine still remained.
“…the way it…right at you Thais…are you…hey…”
The girl finally became aware of her surroundings when a fist collided gently with her arm. Immediately she was pulled from her reverie and she rubbed at her arm in pain.
“Kaio! What did you do that for?” she demanded.
“You looked like you were in a trance. I was trying to rescue you,” the boy explained cheerily.
“No you weren’t, you were just annoyed that I wasn’t listening to you.”
“He looked right at you Thais! Did you see?” Farah now spoke excitedly.
“Of course she saw. Look, she’s terrified!” Kaio crowed. Thais rolled her eyes and looked to Rachel, who was staring at her with concern in her pretty face.
“I’m going back to the docks,” the princess told the older girl. Rachel nodded in understanding.
“I’ll come back with you.”
“I won’t!” little Farah piped up. “I’m going to follow it. You coming Kaio?”
For a moment the boy looked like he desperately wanted to go with the smaller girl, but instead he shook his head and indicated she go without him. Within moments she had done so, following the crowd that was being sucked along in the wake of the angel.
The trio of friends however, broke away and wandered back to the docks in Acrabar along a quiet set of lanes. They didn’t speak, each reliving the memory of the angel in their minds. It was only once they had reached the dock in front of the Greenwood home and had sat down that any of them spoke.
“It wouldn’t have been safe to stay anyway,” Thais told the others quietly. They knew her to be apologising for dragging them away from the angel.
“Why not? What was the angel going to do to you?” Kaio chuckled. “I don’t think he wanted to whisk you off your feet and fly away with you. He just looked at you after all.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Thais complained with a small smile. “And you know it. The Appian Way isn’t safe right now. When did the last bomb go off? Ten days ago?”
“They’re not targeting you though Thais, I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”
“Kaio that’s not the point. The Apollo Purists are growing more dangerous by the day and soon Varanasi is going to be a warzone. I think…” Thais trailed off and she hung her head slightly. Rachel cast Kaio a warning glare, one that he ignored.
“You think what Thais?” he persisted.
“I think that is why the angels are here, because war is going to break out in Varanasi between the Apollo Purists and the Farojians.”
“Oh don’t be ridiculous,” Kaio scoffed, one more ignoring the more urgent look on Rachel’s face. “War isn’t going to break out in Titua. Your father would never let that happen.”
Thais sighed heavily and shook her head. She wished Kaio could be a little more open-minded sometimes. He could not know what she did, but he should at least try to listen to her the girl thought angrily.
“My father isn’t as popular as he used to be. People don’t respect him as much as they did, not since Arbarus started turning people against him,” the girl grumbled instead, saving her diatribe for another day. She would not lecture Kaio now on his narrow existence.
“Oh don’t start with this Prime Minister Arbarus nonsense again Thais,” Kaio complained, his face turning stern and annoyed.
Rachel, who had been sat between her sparring friends, sighed before she stood up and left the pair of them to it. She hated being dragged into their arguments and the only way to prevent this from happening was to leave them alone. They didn’t even notice her leave.
“It’s not nonsense Kaio,” Thais growled. “You know how much he dislikes us and how he is trying to get rid of us.”
“No he’s not!” the boy countered equally as angrily. “He is doing great things for the city. You’re just upset that it is the government and not your father who is making the changes.”
“What changes? The taxes? The segregation? The Farojian cap?”
“Thais! You’re not your father! Stop quoting him, you sound annoying.”
For a moment Thais pulled back, her expression wounded.
“Well you sound like a fool. And you’re just copying your father anyway. You have no idea what is going on in this country do you? You just like it that Arbarus has lowered the taxes on trade meaning your lot make more money.”
“That is not fair…” Kaio’s anger was falling short of the fury driving Thais, meaning she could no longer hear him.
“Meanwhile the rest of the city is in crisis because there are insane Denariens blowing things up and Arbarus is throwing everything into chaos.”
“Thais you can be so self-righteous you know that?”
“Do you think it’s right Kaio? Do you think it’s right that I can’t walk safely through my city anymore?”
For a moment there was blissful silence. Over by the house Rachel looked up from her seat on the windowsill to see her friends staring at one another with nothing short of hatred. This didn’t alarm her, as she knew that Kaio and Thais could never find a middle ground. Either they adored one another or despised each other. They could never merely be friends.
What did come as a surprise were Kaio’s next words.
Rachel winced at his disloyalty.
Down on the dockside Thais did not immediately react to the boy’s words. Instead she looked away, staring up at beautiful blue sky with anger in her face. She remained this way for a moment, before she looked back to Kaio. His jaw was set firmly. There was no apology in his eyes.
“Avery!” Thais called out loudly. “Take me home please.”
Rachel jumped as a wiry figure stepped out from an alley further up the street. She knew this man well and even though she knew he was never far from her royal friend, particularly in times of civil unrest, his sudden appearance never ceased to shock her. Avery’s abilities to hide amongst the smallest of shadows terrified the girl.
The king’s master spy seemed to be trying to meet Rachel’s eye as he walked across the cobbled street towards his charge. The flame-haired girl looked up at him and saw the humorous cringe on his face. He was trying to make her feel better and she rewarded him with a smile.
By the time the spy had reached the princess’ side she had climbed to her feet. Without a word to Kaio the girl strode off with Avery rushing to catch up with her. The last Rachel saw of her friend was her angry hanging head as Avery looked down at her, speaking softly.
Gallus led Selmain across his study to a small desk set into a window box. It was a desk he rarely used. A point made more obvious by the fact that it was the only piece of furniture in the room that was kept immaculately tidy. It had once belonged to Theano, Gallus’ mother. She would spend her afternoons catching up with her correspondence by this window while several feet away her husband King Thale dealt with the matters of the kingdom, primarily leading the war campaign. Gallus’ very earliest memories were of being a young child playing at the feet of this small desk, looking up at his mother while she wrote quietly. It was a place he revered and it was where he came when he needed to be calm and patient. It was a place he came to find answers when all else had failed.
Lying on top of the desk was a parchment that had been rolled up. The remains of a fiery red seal were hardly visible, as the wax had easily crumbled with the number of times the king had unrolled the parchment. Selmain looked from the parchment to his friend and found Gallus watching him calculatingly.
“Read it,” he said quietly, before he turned his back on the desk. Selmain looked back to the letter and gingerly picked it up. The parchment felt heavy and somewhere in the recesses of his mind Selmain knew where this letter had been sent from. The parchment was stiff to unroll and once it was unfurled it needed to be held firmly with two hands to prevent it from curling up once more. The page was filled with a decadent style of writing that Selmain knew well. His parents wrote in this manner; it was the manner in which they wrote in Faro.
After glancing up briefly in concern, Selmain read the letter, discovering that it was in fact an invitation. An invitation requesting the presence of King Gallus of Apollo, the High Prince Eunus of Apollo, her royal highness Thais Mai Avani and her ladyship Lady Katherine of Apollo at the Imperial Palace in Khorosa. It would seem that Emperor Thayos wanted to mark the upcoming anniversary of the peace agreement Gallus had brokered twenty years ago with a display of peace and cooperation between the two nations.
Selmain read the invitation three times before he stared up at Gallus in shock.
“’Tis a trap!” he exclaimed hoarsely. The king seemed to ignore him for a moment before finally he laughed dryly and turned around.
“I know,” was all he said in response.
“Yet you mean to go!” Selmain dropped the parchment on the desk and stalked away. Gallus watched the parchment curling up with a deep sadness in his heart. He needed the support of his closest friends; support he knew he would not receive. “Gallus do not go I beg of you!”
“Selmain you must remain calm…”
“Calm?” the mage demanded hotly. “You wish for me to remain calm? I would be calm if you had torn that invitation to shreds the moment you received it. Instead, you seem to be seriously considering turning yourself over to Thayos. He is a truly evil man. You cannot play into his hands so readily. Do not go Gallus.”
“And insult the emperor?” the king countered, a dark edge to his tone. Selmain swallowed hard and stared at the floor, his eyes shut. No, that would not do either. Emperor Thayos was not a man who accepted rejection with any sense of decorum. “My options are both rotten Selmain, you know this. If I refuse I risk unsettling the peace agreement but if I go I place myself in considerable danger. So please enlighten me, what should I do?”
“I do not know,” Selmain muttered and he hung his head. “If this is a trap Gallus then the consequences will be far worse than merely insulting Thayos. However.” The mage glanced up to meet Gallus’ eyes before he looked back to the ground once more. “I feel you will never listen to reason because you are going to use this as an opportunity to try and find your brother.”
There was a moment of silence in which Selmain looked up once more. The two men stared one another down until eventually the king nodded.
“This may be my only chance to find out what happened to him Selmain.”
“But Gallus you know what has happened to Eunus!” the mage cried out angrily. “Thayos has him and if you go to Faro he will have you also…by the graces, you mean to take Thais.”
Now it was Gallus who hung his head, his hand coming up to rub the back of his neck irritably.
“Gallus! Have you lost your senses man? You mean to take your daughter? He will have all three of you!”
“He will not have all three of us,” Gallus countered calmly. “You are overreacting Selmain. My daughter has been asked for by name. If I do not bring her this too will be an insult to the emperor. You forget, Thayos needs a legitimate reason for war. By inviting us and then murdering us he would achieve nothing.”
“You have always tried to convince me that this is the case Gallus and I have never agreed. Thayos needs no such reason. In the past he has certainly never needed a legitimate reason to attack, why should he need one now?”
“Times have changed Selmain. The last twenty years of peace have been a prosperous time for the southern nations. Thayos would need a very good reason for them to follow him into battle once more. You know I have watched him for two decades, analysing his every move. He has very subtly tried to break the peace agreement and launch another invasion dozens of times Selmain, oh he has tried! Murdering my family would not give him the reason he needs to invade. He does not mean to harm us.”
Selmain shook his head, a thousand words fighting to crawl from his mouth and attack his friend. Wisdom held them back however and instead the tall mage exhaled slowly and nodded.
“I see I cannot stop you from going,” he sighed. “But let me believe there is a chance I could persuade you to leave your daughter and grandmother behind. Faro is no place for them Gallus.”
A look of guilt flashed across Gallus’ face and he turned to walk briskly back to his desk. Selmain followed at a slower pace and watched as his friend poured them two new drinks. By the time the mage had reached the grand old desk Gallus had downed the contents of his tumbler and was filing it up once more.
“I cannot leave her Selmain.” The voice sounded so small and weak where usually only strength lived. The sound of him made the mage hang his head. He knew of the fear in Gallus’ heart. “I have to protect her. I will not leave her again.”
“Never again Gallus?” Selmain countered. “Not even in the safety of the city while you put your own life in considerable danger.”
“This city is no longer safe,” Gallus grumbled and he took dropped down into his chair dejectedly. Selmain watched as the king took several more large swigs from his tumbler until it was nearly empty.
“’Tis still safer than the city you mean to take her to,” he finally spoke gently while he retook his own seat.
“I am no longer so sure about that Selmain.”
“You would take her into the heart of Faro, you would take her to him just to protect her from the unknown of leaving her behind?”
Gallus’ dark eyes lifted at last and what lay within them made Selmain look away. He wished he had not witnessed the anger and pain. Within his friend there lay anguish that would one day ruin him. If the prophecy were to come true, there would be no salvation for Gallus. It would be the end not only of civilisation, but it would be the end of him.
There was a knock at the door that startled both men the desk. Gallus looked over and narrowed his eyes for a moment before he looked back to Selmain.
“Avery,” he said simply, before he raised his voice towards the door, “Come in.”
The old door creaked open and there stood Avery Roe, one of Gallus’ oldest and most trusted friends. The master spy nodded cheerily to the two seated men before he ambled in, letting the door swing closed behind him. By the time he had taken a seat at Selmain’s side Gallus had poured the new arrival a drink.
“I thought you might like to know I have brought Thais home and she is now currently sulking in her room,” Avery spoke up after he had taken a hearty swig from his firewater. Gallus raised one eyebrow.
“She had a falling out with Kaio,” the spy explained simply.
“Again?” Gallus chuckled. “What was it about this time?”
“Politics would you believe?”
Gallus glanced to Selmain, who had thankfully seemingly returned to his normal self in the presence of their friend, before smiling charmingly at Avery.
“Politics? She is changing that one. Gone are the days when I could quite reliably get her to leave us in peace by bringing up the very subject. What is happening to her?”
Avery’s smile was a slightly sad one.
“She is troubled Gallus. Troubled by the very same issues that trouble you,” he explained cautiously.
“Yes I know,” the king sighed. “Since the rise of the threat posed by the Apollo Purists and the elections she has become increasingly concerned with issues she never would have dreamed to concern herself with before.”
“She loves this city Gallus,” Avery explained. “She loves it as much as you do. She loves it with a fierce protective passion and she is growing up. I am not surprised by the way she is changing. What does surprise me however, is how quickly she it turning into you.”
Gallus laughed heartily and as he glanced over to Selmain once more any trace of the pain that had haunted his eyes moments ago was gone. The mage smiled too, happy that Avery had arrived when he did.
“She did surprise me today actually,” the spy mentioned thoughtfully when Gallus had fallen silent by taking another gulp from his firewater. The look in the king’s eyes bade him continue. “You see there was another angel in town, walking down the Appian Way.”
“Another one?” Selmain interrupted in surprise. “Where did it come from?”
“My men told me he entered through the Northern Gate and is now heading towards the Eastern Gate along Broadway. Prior to his arriving at the Northern Gate though, I do not know. He has not been sighted in the rest of the country, of that I am sure.” Avery glanced to Gallus, who was looking at him deep in thought. “I was surprised anyway, because Thais did not choose to follow it along with the rest of the crowds. Instead she fled from it as though it had truly disturbed her.”
“She has never liked stories about the angels,” Gallus spoke up quietly. “When she was little my brother, in his usual farsighted way, terrified her with nightmarish tales about the angels. She has never quite recovered. I am sure the sight of one was shocking enough without having to follow it about the city.”
“I have to say, I was quite surprised to see it myself,” Avery admitted. “This is the third in as many weeks. What does it mean Gallus? Why have they come?”
Selmain and Avery watched as the king hung his head, a dark smile etching into his face. He stared into his lap for a long time before finally he looked up. The smile was gone. Only sadness remained.
“They sense war.”