Crap! Crap! Crap! Thought Aliana as she ran up the steep incline. How had she in the middle of nowhere managed to find herself in the company of smugglers? She had just arrived at the Landing and was had set up camp for the night. Even though the water itself was warm from the volcanic activity underneath, the land around it was cold and heavy with moisture. She had lit a fire re-heating the last of the food that the river wraiths had provided for her.
It was basically a wilderness out here, with nothing but stone, smoke and mist making up her view. She hadn’t seen when they approached. One minute she was alone and the next she was surrounded by men with black turbans, masks and wicked looking falchions. She knew the dressing style. Only the people from Gohara dressed like this. Though her curiosity whirred out of control wondering why they were here, her body had other ideas.
She grabbed her bag and then swiped at the legs of one of the men with the spear and dove out of the circle. She scrambled to her legs and started up the hill. Looking behind her constantly. It was a moonless night and the lake smoke made it near impossible to see anything. She had to rely on feeling her way over the ridge. She was about to climb further up when a voice stopped her.
“One step further and you fall into the lake.” said someone in the Goharan dialect. Lights then flared up and she could make out the outlines of ten Goharan men standing on the said ridge ahead of her.
“Desert creepers.” she replied in their dialect, which in retrospect she shouldn’t have used as that would make it known that she was Arnayan.
“You speak our words.” said the same man switching to Garian.
“I do and many others.” she said trying to deflect his suspicion elsewhere.
The man unwound the mask from around his face. “Impressive, but I can almost smell the Goharan blood in you girl.” he said stooping down to face her. “Interesting choice of weapon too.” his dark eyes glistened in the fire light. She could sense the danger seeping out of them and she forced herself to step back.
“Is it really, because I found it laying by some river bank.” He continued to study her face and a mischievous smile lit his eyes. She looked behind her trying to guess how far she could—.
“Don’t even think about it. We have already demonstrated that you cannot outrun us.”
“Fine so I can’t run, but don’t expect for me to be taken easily.” she said as she whipped out her spear. The man was fast as he deflected it with is sword. She stepped back only to gain better grounding before she turned and pressed him further.
“Okay we will play it your way for now niece.” he said hitting her blade sending a heavy reverb up her arms.
“We are not related.” she said as she slashed at his chest forcing him closer to the edge of the ridge. His foot slipped once but he regained his balance as he jumped forward. Aliana raised her spear parallel to the ground to deflect the blow. He followed it up with a swipe at her legs. She stepped backwards, but her feet slipped on loose gravel and she was teetering backwards.
She planted the blade of the spear in the earth centring herself but in doing so had left herself open and he placed the edge of his blade against his neck.
“Though my brother Bartholomew chooses not to acknowledge me, I have no reason to lie princess. I am whom I say I am.” he said dropping his sword and placing it back in its sheath. Aliana unplugged the spear from the ground.
She knew that her father had a younger brother whom she’d never met. The few times she’d ever been to Gohara he’d always been off travelling on some adventure or the other. Apparently the two of them didn’t get along.
“You are Corvas?” she asked and he smiled.
“At your service princess.” he bowed and then stood taller. “Rather Crown princess Aliana of Arnay and Garion, if our sources are to be believed?” she stood and looked at him steely which he took as confirmation.
“You are not taking me back to my father.” she said.
“And even if I wanted to do that, it would be physically impossible I am afraid.” he said folding his arms over his chest.
“What do you mean to tell me?” she puzzled.
“Simple. He is dead. You should probably come with me and talk. Our camp is just that way.” he said walking off following the men with the lit torches.
Her father was dead.
“What do you mean dead?” she said after the shock started to wear off and was able to make sense of his actual words.
“I suspect that you will have many questions, so it is best we wait until we are in the camp. He said as he ushered her forward.
The camp was not far from where she had stopped. They had noticed her first only because she lit the fire. Before entering his tent he doused his torch and then turned on an odd-looking contraption which seemed to have white light trapped in a bottle. Something else she would wonder at that later.
“What do you mean my father is dead?” she asked again. He sat down on a pile of cushions lining one side of the tent and began unwinding his turban.
“Most of Evan was destroyed in an earthquake. Though the palace remained mostly intact. Bartholomew was found in bed dead. They say that he died from shock, his heart was supposedly weakened by you leaving and marrying the Garian Prince.”
“Strange considering we haven’t had one of those in ages.” he said saying that he suspected that Milos was involved.
“He wouldn’t.” she nodded her head. “He knew that I loved the palace. He wouldn’t...” Then again he did say that the palace was grossly intact. “What about the queen.”
“I was under the assumption that you are the queen.”
“Ana-Moriah.” she said trying not to get annoyed.
“No one knows. She disappeared the same night.”
“The people in the city? Was there a wave? Are they alright?”
“Mostly alive, but displaced. They fled thinking that there would be a wave like the one that destroyed our navy but after nothing happened, they started moving back to their homes. The livestock and food stores were emptied by the Garians.”
“The Dykelands are flooded they will need the food.” she surmised.
“That could be. Most of their ships have left Arnayan waters. The army surrendered fearing another quake and the Garians have taken hold of the palace.”
“No word of him.” That should have made her relax. The Arnayans didn’t catch him, but she couldn’t help to think that maybe Ana-Moriah had. He told her that she had sensed him when she had arrived in the palace. She had probably picked up on his magic and if Milos was really responsible for the quake, then that amount of power released would be like a beacon drawing her to him.
She drew in a short breath to stifle the sobs that were threatening to rip her apart. She had a million reasons to cry, but now was not the time. Her father was dead and Evan was in shambles, but all she could do was think of him. Probably she was a bad daughter and an even worse queen, but that ceased to matter. He was in danger she could feel it in her bones. She needed to leave. She needed to do something. Corvas watched her quietly saying nothing.
“I find it strange that you do not know these things and stranger that you are not in Turion, Your Majesty.” Majesty, not Highness.
She heard the question but she chose not to answer it. “And now that my father is dead, why are you not back in Gohara taking his place. According to him you have wanted his title for ages.”
“A smuggler cannot be a duke. Besides, I hardly have the palate for politics. My brother was wrong about me as usual.”
“He had a tendency to do that.” she whispered and Corvas nodded once in agreement. “What do you trade in?”
“This and that. Whatever is needed. If you want it, I get it.” he was being vague and that was a dangerous sign. Her guard was back up.
“Can I get an example?”
He laughed, “Direct. I like that.” he huffed again. “In the morning I will be on my way to trade Dry Harbour salt with the mist weavers on the Southern Ridge.”
“What do they have that is so valuable to warrant the distance?”
“Cloud silk. A material so fine that the ladies of the court pay an arm, leg and their husbands’ heads to get it. One bolt gives a small fortune.”
“You already have a fortune.”
“And I could always use a bigger one. Pride and arrogance where my brother’s fatal flaws. Mine unfortunately are greed and the need to escape the ennui of my existence. I have been working on them but old habits die hard.” he shrugged again.
“I see.” said Aliana softly. His eyes narrowed as if to ask Do you really?
Something warned her to be careful, but she didn’t have time for that anymore. She needed to get back to Milos quickly. Maybe the stars were shining in her favour after all. If she could get some of the salt from Corvas, that would save her days of trudging to the sea and the mist weavers sounded exactly like the type of persons who could know or have living mist. “I want to come with you.”
“The people of the Southern Ridge aren’t like others. If you go there you may never leave. It is best I put you back on a canoe and send you down river to Evan. Arnay needs their Queen.”
“And they will get one after I go with you to the Southern Ridge.”
“Which brings me back to my original question. Why are you here and not in Turion? Was your husband unkind to you?”
“No, Milos loves me and would never let harm befall me. His court however is a different story. Lady Sonetta had me abducted and would have me drowned if not for the river wraiths who saved me.” she ground her teeth as she thought of that bitch.
She wondered what lies were being spread about her sudden disappearance. When Milos got home, what would he think of her absence. The ire in her fizzled but it didn’t breach the surface as it felt like it was being smothered. It was probably best for now.
“The palace they said was too dangerous for me to be. So they sent me here to complete a quest of my own. One I can complete only by going to the cloud weavers.”
“River wraiths are tricky creatures, they get glimpses of the future and often manipulate those around them to get what they want. Cloud weavers aren’t much better. These creatures deal in magic and though seemingly benevolent they look out mostly for themselves.”
“So they aren’t that different from humans after all.” she replied.
“Maybe.” he said as his dark eyes bore into her. From this angle Corvas did look like her father, the same dark brown hair that looked black. His eyes were heavy set and had a sturdy jawline, even though it was partially hidden by his beard. She’d just met him and even though he was family, she knew that it was best not to trust him. “You can come.” he said finally.
“Thank you.” she said getting up.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“Back to my camp. It is close by. I will not incommode on your hospitality for much longer.”
“You are family, so it is hardly a bother having you here.”
“Yes, but your men may not see it that way if I am seen leaving your tent in the morning. I am a married woman and we both know that I cannot spend the night in the chamber or tent of any man other than my husband. Desert laws would require me being stoned to death on suspicion of adultery.” Unless that was what he wanted.
“This isn’t the Goharan desert.”
“But some of these men are desert men and if I am to travel with them it is best I make myself as agreeable as possible. Goodnight uncle.” she said going out the tent.
Goharan’s in general had different rules or ideas about the role of women in society, which didn’t extend beyond being mothers and good wives. They were to be seen but not heard and were required to defer to the lead male in their family, be it either a father or husband.
From what she was told Aliana heard that having a queen as the monarch had been a difficult adjustment for Goharans when her mother had taken the throne, but they eventually settled into the idea when she was then betrothed to her father. Her grandparents when she visited often lamented the fact that she was born female and that once again Arnay would be led by a woman. She heard that they’d prayed for a second child, a son who would take her place as heir. But no other child came and grudgingly they accepted her.
The fire she’d made was still burning albeit lower than before, but it would do. She skipped dinner and went straight to bed. It took a while for her to sleep as she listened for approaching footsteps. Exhaustion eventually won over and she closed her eyes.
Aliana felt someone shaking her and flew up, holding her spear. The man backed away. “It is only me child.” he said stepping away.
“Yes?” she said putting the weapon down.
“Good reflexes. They will come in handy at some point in the journey.” he then threw a swath of black cloth at her and she caught it mid-air. She raised her brow at him. “To blend in and for warmth. We leave in ten minutes so be ready.”
“I am not ready just yet.” she said standing.
“Then we leave without you.” he said striding away.
“What do you know about the soulless gem?” he stopped and turned around.
“Is that why you are here?” he asked.
He seemed thoughtful. “If you can indeed retrieve the gem that would be more than enough reason to delay my trip for a day.”
“So you know where it is?” she said hopeful for the first time. Finally, things were going her way. The gods were smiling on her at last.
“Yes.” he walked from behind the small ridge that hid the lake from sight.
Aliana came to stand beside him. “Where is it?”
“Out there.” he pointed to the superheated lake which was misted by steam. “It is said that only those with the purest intentions can take hold of the gem. The water stills and the way is lit under the moonless night. Lucky for you that we are still under a new moon.”
“Do you have a boat I could borrow?”
“This isn’t an ordeal for the fainthearted child. You either succeed or you do not. Those who fail never return. Is the risk worth it?”
Was she really going to risk her life for someone she had only met weeks before and who she decided that she love only days earlier?
Yes she was. Milos was worth the risk. “I am not a child. Do you have a boat or not?” she said folding her arms.
“I haven’t much coin to compensate you for it now, but I will once I have returned.”
“There is no need for that. Your return, if you do return, it will be compensation enough.”