Chapter 1 The Traveling Storyteller
book had to be here somewhere.
Devin scrunched his mouth from side to side. He squinted at the bookshelves, knowing obscuring his vision wouldn’t make the title suddenly appear, but the extra effort made him feel better. That’s the way it was when you were looking for something. It suddenly disappears and becomes nigh impossible to locate until you give up and bam! It was right in front of your eyes the entire time.
Balancing on the edge of the ladder’s top rung, Devin peered at the top of the bookshelves. He wouldn’t put it past the scribes or librarians to hide the book up there.
Nothing but dust and cobwebs.
Devin rested his chin on a ladder rung and blew all the air out of his mouth. How long had he been searching? He started in the history section because that’s where one would assume a history book would be. But this text, apparently, didn’t belong there. So, he expanded his search elsewhere. Was it in science? Nope. How about religion? Ha! Or how about his current endeavor literature? Slowly making progress.
Romano and Julia.
The Tiny Water Nymph.
This was getting ridiculous.
Devin was ready to smack the nearest person in the head with his ladder. He didn’t know if he could rip it from its lodgings, but he felt a fit of frustration might help.
Then, he saw it.
The History of Ifgrean: Claiming a New Land to Rebuilding a Kingdom (150 -1807).
Devin reached for the heavy tome. His throat tightened and a knot formed in his stomach. This was it!
over to the nearest table, he slung the book on the warm wooden surface. He
flipped through the pages, his fingers stinging from the sharp paper cuts, his head spinning at the aroma of freshly
dried ink... until at last he found what was he was looking for:
The Regal War (1760-1797) in Ifgrean was the armed conflict between the royal family of Egnore and an anarchist terrorist group. The war had its origins in the assassinations of Their Majesties, King Bartholomew and Prince Theodore. Revolutionaries attempted to usurp the throne through vicious, continuous attacks and convince the kingdom to rule themselves. Nearly forty years of bloodshed and collateral damage came to an end when the king’s men captured the entire terrorist group after their attempts to kidnap King Andersen. During this time of mass hysteria, two hundred military injuries were recorded, along with fifty-seven deaths, including the young Lord Jamison of Little Rock Cove. Since then, the royal family has worked to bring peace to its citizens and established a charity to rebuild the towns and businesses demolished in the chaos.
Devin slammed the book shut. A sigh escaped from his mouth as he buried his face in his hands.
Then, he realized the library was quiet. Too quiet. No squeaking cart wheels, flipping pages, or murmuring from one of the workers. No angry shushes or whispers demanding he stay quiet.
Devin’s head shot up. No librarians, scholars, or palace workers in sight. Granted if anybody was still around they were most likely attending the party in the ballroom, one that he had slipped away from to find this dumb book. But still… there had to be a librarian around here somewhere.
Padded footsteps and rustling robes trickled across the room.
Devin jumped out of his chair and headed towards the noise. The footsteps quickened.
Soon, he had the man cornered. He whirled around, attempting mock surprise. “Forgive me, Lord Devin.” The bald man bowed. As he straightened, he tried to smile. “I didn’t see you.”
Devin crossed his arms against his chest. Even if he was a duchess’s son, he didn’t think a short fourteen-year-old should be able to strike so much fear in a grown man by a single glance.
“Of course not,” Devin muttered, thrusting the book into the man’s knotty hands. “You and the scribes spent months on this book. Why does The Regal War receive a measly little paragraph? Everyone talks about how awful that time was. Why isn’t there more?”
The librarian pursed his lips. A trickle of sweat ran between his dark eyebrows. “W-we wrote what Their Majesties instructed us to include.”
“That’s cheating,” Devin said. “You can’t go into some history details and gloss over others.”
“Are you harassing the workers again?” a soft male voice asked behind him.
His uncle Rylan leaned in the doorway. Loose, dark curls fell in his tired face. Devin almost didn’t recognize Rylan without his knight uniform. The man wore a simple white coat and trousers.
Devin shook his head, ignoring the librarian’s vigorous nodding.
“What is it this time?” Rylan asked.
Devin scowled and stalked over to the window. He gazed upon the royal gardens, lush and green and brimming with a rainbow of roses, lilies, and tulips. The sun was just beginning to set.
“…asked about the Regal War.”
“Yes, I see,” his uncle said. “Thank you. I can take it from here.”
Rylan limped towards him. The man favored his right leg due to an injury he had received during the Regal War. Devin’s father, Jamison, died in the same battle. The only things he knew that happened (besides that measly paragraph) were his father was injured trying to save the king and he died in Rylan’s arms. Neither his uncle nor his relatives liked to talk about that time.
“Are you still not talking?”
“Your mother wasn’t mad about this morning. She’s worried about you. We all are.”
Devin didn’t say anything. His uncle pushed the window curtains back. “You’re upset that you never knew your father. And you think of him all the time. That’s understandable.” His voice softened. “You can’t let that keep you from living your life.” He placed his hand on Devin’s shoulder. The boy shrugged him off.
“Maybe I wouldn’t think of him so much if information wasn’t kept from me. Even… even this stupid book barely mentions him in its Regal War worthless paragraph,” Devin snapped. “No one in our family seems to care that I want to know who my father was.” His face burned. He shouldn’t take his anger out on his uncle. That wasn’t fair. He wasn’t the only one who lost a relative when his father died. His uncle had lost his brother.
“We don’t talk about him because—”
“It’s too painful. I know. You’ve all told me the same thing.” Devin glared at his feet. The leather boots pinched his toes. He wished he could run around barefoot. His mother said that wasn’t proper behavior for a teenager in the palace. “But I’ve never met my father. Don’t even know what he looks like. Isn’t that painful enough?”
“That’s mostly Jamison’s fault. He didn’t like sitting still long enough to have his picture painted. We could never get him to stay in one place for very long anyway.” His uncle cut himself off with a heavy sigh. A long moment passed. Devin peered at the man out of the corner of his eye. He was watching the sky. His curls fell in his face and his eyes held a distant look. That was the uncle Devin knew – sad, distracted, lost.
“We all agreed to tell you when you were older, when you would understand better.”
“I’m fourteen, Rylan. I’ve waited for as long as I could remember to hear about my father.” Devin returned his attention to the sky. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever wished for.”
Rylan scratched the stubble on his cheek. “Your mother wanted me to find you so could open your presents.”
Devin rolled his eyes. That party he was avoiding? It was for his fourteenth birthday. And instead of focusing on the birthday boy, the adults were too busy ogling his little cousin’s clumsy first steps and adoration for her father. None of the adults noticed him leave the room. They’d probably forgotten who tonight’s celebration was for, but he didn’t care. Just another reminder of his dead parent’s absence.
It seemed at least two people had noticed Devin’s absence. He rubbed his temples at the thought of returning to the ballroom. A long night of family interaction, fake smiles, and a stressed, hovering mother awaited him.
“Figured she’d send somebody to find me.” Devin bowed his head. “I don’t feel like celebrating.”
“An old friend of mine is in town for the night. He tells the best stories, and he always knew how to cheer your father and me up when we were young. If you want to leave for a while, we could go meet him.”
A huge smile broke out on Rylan’s face. The dark-haired man even bounced on his toes. Devin scrunched his nose. His uncle wasn’t the type to get overexcited about something. Besides, his uncle had mentioned that his friend knew his father.
Devin chewed his bottom lip. If he didn’t go with Rylan, he would have to go back to the party, to the rest of his family, to his mother. “Presents can wait,” he said, following the man to the ballroom.
“Devin!” His cousin, Emilie, yelled. The boy sucked in his breath at the sound of her voice. Her long, dark hair whipped him in the face as she threw her arms around his neck. Despite her thin frame, she rammed into him with such force, he had to brace himself to keep from falling over. “You found him, Papa!” She released him and placed her hands on her hips. “Where’d you run off to, Devin? It’s rude to skip your own party.”
“Maybe I was avoiding certain people,” Devin muttered.
“What was that?”
“Nothing.” He ducked behind his uncle. Even with her father around, Devin doubted the man’s presence would keep her from punching his permanently bruised shoulder.
“Why don’t I believe you, Devin?”
“Because you’re too paranoid for your own good?”
“Papa! Tell him I’m not paranoid!”
Rylan rubbed his eyes. Devin bit back a smirk, glad that he wasn’t the only one annoyed with her whining. “Emilie, Devin, can we please not bicker tonight?”
Of all his cousins, Emilie was the closest in age to him. Only by a few months. The others were separated by a handful of years. Because of this, she stuck to him like a clingy, overprotective older sister.
“But it’s too easy,” they chorused. “Hey!”
“Devin, let’s ask your mother if you can leave.” Rylan ushered him towards the dining table where the adults sat. Devin frowned. They all fell silent when they saw him. He eyed each and every adult, his aunts and his uncles, his oldest cousin and her husband. They didn’t need to say anything. Their stunned, guilty faces gave them away. They’d been talking about him.
“Where are you going?” Emilie asked.
“To see a storyteller.”
“Can I come?” Emilie begged. She wrapped her arms around her back and swayed in her spot, a little dance she used to charm the adults into letting her get away with things.
Devin rubbed his neck. If he said “no”, she wouldn’t let him forget it. She’d probably punch him too. “You can go.”
Squealing, Emilie ran off to the younger children. Probably going to brag. Rylan wrapped his arm around Devin’s shoulders. “Ready to talk to your mother?” he asked.
His mother stood by the closed ballroom doors. Blonde ringlets fell from the loose bun piled on top of her head. She had the same sad, distant look on her face as Rylan did earlier.
Devin shoved his hands into his pockets. Maybe it was good that he wasn’t sticking around. If he made everyone miserable, there would be no complaints against him leaving for the night.
The first star appeared when they reached the valley. Emilie ran ahead of him, her laughter echoing in the night sky. He didn’t understand how she could find amusement in running. Peering over his shoulder, he spied Rylan limping a few feet behind.
“Devin!” his cousin called as she bounded up the hill before them. Waiting patiently for his arrival, she stood next to a marble bench sitting under an oak tree. The long grass tickled his bare legs as he joined her.
He stood on the edge overlooking a green meadow full of wild flowers. A thick grove of trees loomed in the distance, the dusty paths leading into the forest promised an adventure. Turning his head, he gazed at the dark blue sky dotted in tiny white stars.
Emilie dragged him down the hill, only releasing him to frolic in the flowers. She begged him to join her. He shook his head. Boys don’t frolic in flowers.
Devin turned to the hill’s peak. Rylan had yet to appear. The boy tiptoed towards the flowers. Maybe just this once? He took a step forward. A flock of lime green moths dispersed from the garden, their bright wings glowing in the moonlight. He recoiled as they soared, flying higher and higher, as if to reach the stars, and disappeared.
Emilie snickered. “Oh, is the big, tough Devin scared of moths?”
“Lay off, Emilie.” He bowed his head to hide his embarrassment. “It’s not that funny. They surprised me.”
Movement caught his eye. His uncle sat on the bench under the tree. The man was currently engaged in a conversation with a dark figure hanging on the lowest tree branch above him.
His uncle laughed. That was a rare sound these days. Devin scaled the slope. He wanted to hear what was so funny.
“Thanks, Rylan. Your chortles ruined my big entrance,” the figure teased when he noticed Devin. The voice and body belonged to a pale, middle-aged man with dark, shaggy hair, scruffy beard, and gleaming eyes. His mischievous grin lit up his face as if a star glowed within him.
The stranger held his gaze. There was something comforting about him, but Devin couldn’t figure out what it was.
“Oh, please. Let’s not start with the dramatics this early. Or it’s going to be a very long night.” The corners of Rylan’s mouth twitched to hide his smile.
The stranger placed his tongue between his lips and blew, “Pbbt.” He jumped down from the tree.
“It’s nice to see that even though you’ve traveled around the world, you’re still the biggest five-year-old I’ve ever met.”
“Why are you always so serious, Rylan?”
The stranger bowed low, waving his hand in a flamboyant manner. “My name is Jonas Fitzherbert. I have been to every country on the map and now I am back in my home town. Your uncle practically begged me to be here for your birthday.”
“I didn’t beg, Jonas.” Rylan shook his head. “Where are my manners?” He got up from his seat. Devin and Emilie dashed to his side before he could take a single step. Rylan placed his hands on Devin’s and Emilie’s shoulders. The storyteller’s face suddenly drained of all its color. Jonas swallowed hard, his gaze flicking between Rylan, then Emilie, and finally Devin. “This is my nephew, Devin, and my daughter, Emilie. Children, this is my old friend, Jonas.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Emilie said. Devin nodded.
“Why don’t you sit down, Rylan?” Jonas’s voice rose. His cheeky grin wobbled. “I’m not as old as you.”
“Yes, I’m quite aware.” His uncle took two shaky steps towards the tree. He settled himself against the trunk. Emilie curled up at his side.
“You must know tons of stories! I love the one about Petra Pan,” Emilie gushed. “Oh! And The Elemental Wars between Antuari and Blodera.”
“No! We’re not listening to any romance.” Devin’s entire body tensed up. For years, he listened to fairy tales about romance and chivalry to please his cousin. She said they were sweet and heart-wrenching. He found nothing sweet about the heart-wrenching pangs of disgust that griped his stomach at the end of each tale. “For just this once, I want sword fighting, magic, and murder.”
“Can’t there be just a little romance?” Emilie asked. Her eyes narrowed when he didn’t respond. Her fists clenched at her sides. “It’s not your decision which story we hear.”
The storyteller’s eyes passed between the three faces before him. “I have the perfect story.”
Jonas sat on the edge of the bench. He rolled his baggy linen sleeves up to his elbows. Judging by his clothes, this man was no noble. Devin guessed he belonged to a traveling carnival or something. How did Jonas know his father and uncle?
The storyteller’s hands were in constant movement – playing with the hem of his waistcoat, tapping his fingers against the bench, cracking his knuckles. “It has some sword fights, magic, and murder, just as you’ve requested, young man.” Devin couldn’t remember the last person he had met who was so easily excitable. “But in order to get to the part of the story, we first need to hear some romance.”
He held up a finger when Devin opened his mouth to argue. “Trust me. You will hear everything you’ve asked for. You just need some patience.” The storyteller inhaled deeply, taking a quick glance at the sky before resting his eyes on his friend. “The story I am about to tell you is about a reluctant hero, a coward, and a broken soul trying to save a kingdom from the people they once called family. Stories such as these are bought with a great price. Not even all the money in the world could amount to this price. These stories are bought with life.” The storyteller placed his hands on his hips. “Are you going to stand there all night, young man? It’s a very long tale. You might get tired.”
Devin jumped to attention. He considered the spot next to his uncle and cousin, then moved to the bench. He sat on the edge farthest away from the storyteller.
“Good. Now that we’re all settled.”
The storyteller reached for Emilie, brushing a lock of hair behind her ear. When he pulled his hand away, he revealed a lily-of-the-valley.
Emilie gasped at the man’s trick. “What type of magic do you have?” she asked.
“Sleight of hand. I’m fun at parties.”
Devin rolled his eyes. He wasn’t having any fun at the moment.
The small white blooms were about the size of his thumb nail. Two of the stems were wrapped around one another in a knot. Turning the flower over in his fingers, the storyteller shifted his gaze between the cousins.
“During my travels, I heard a story about the spirits from the Other Realm. Legend has it, human beings had four legs, four arms, and two faces. The spirits feared their power and split them in half.” He twisted the stem until it separated the two flowers.
“Humans would live the rest of their lives searching for their missing half.” The young man handed a separated bloom to each child.
Devin glared at Emilie who squealed at her gift. “Are you saying that we’re… each other’s…”
“No,” Jonas cut him off. “No, you silly boy. It’s symbolism. The flowers are the true loves.”
He wished he hadn’t agreed to join his uncle. Devin quietly reminded himself not to crush his flower. “Doesn’t really work if you have to explain it.”
Jonas winked at him. “I can turn up the sappiness if you continue to be grumpy.”
“I hate love stories.”
“What did I say about trusting me?” Jonas sat back on the bench. “You just need to be patient.”
Scowling, Devin shook his head. He placed his lily between them.
“You want some action?” The storyteller copied his pout which annoyed Devin even more. “I will give you some action.” He inhaled deeply before beginning his tale. “Our story starts in the year of 312 Dragon Era under the reign of King Carson and Queen Helena.
“When the king and his men arrived at the Rainey Heights fief, they found the castle’s occupants and villagers celebrating a bountiful harvest. Carson’s heart was heavy. All he had to do was arrest Alphonse. But that meant arresting his most loyal friend.
“They had grown up together. They were practically brothers. Or maybe that was all just in the past now?”
“Hey!” Devin interrupted. “Your voice changed.”
“Be quiet, Devin!” Emilie glared at him.
“Your cousin has a point.” The storyteller smiled slowly. “It shows he was listening very closely. In a story such as this one, you can’t tell it from just one perspective. It takes many people, many voices, to fully understand what you are about to hear.”
“But that’s just it.” Frowning, Devin scratched his head. “I didn’t hear your voice. I heard another man’s.”
Jonas tugged on his sleeve again. “I can mimic other people’s voices.”
Devin didn’t know whether he should be impressed or unsettled by the man’s ability. He sighed and looked at his hands. Emilie refused to stop glaring at him.
“Any more questions?” Jonas asked. Devin shook his head. “Back to the story.” He inhaled and when he spoke, his voice changed. It was no longer rough, but smooth and compelling.
“A few years ago, Carson’s father was killed in an ambush. Some bandits had attacked his carriage while he was out for his monthly ride through the kingdom with his soldiers. Alphonse had gone with them. He said he had done his best to save the king. The other day, Carson’s brother, Tobias, accused Alphonse of killing their father. Tobias swore that it was true, he had read it in Alphonse’s journal. Carson didn’t believe his brother. So Tobias confronted Alphonse himself.
“Carson later regretted his decision. A soldier pounded on his office door shortly after his conversation with his brother. Tobias was found stabbed and near death in Alphonse’s room when a maid showed up for her cleaning duties. No one had seen who did it, but his brother’s accusations led everyone to believe there was only one culprit. Carson had no other choice. He accompanied his soldiers to Alphonse’s home.
“The first person Carson saw at the harvest was Delilah, Alphonse’s wife. She was happy to see him. Carson wanted to bolt. How could he tell her, his first love, that her husband was accused of killing the former king and prince?”
“You call that action?” Devin sputtered when Jonas paused. “His friend supposedly killed his father and brother, but he’s more concerned about the woman he loves? Somebody needs to get his priorities straight.” He had had enough. He wanted fighting, murder, and plenty of bloodshed. Maybe even a chase scene between a thief and some guards. But this was unacceptable.
“Quiet, Devin!” Emilie hissed. She smiled sweetly at the storyteller. “Then what happened?”
“You’ll just have to wait and see.” Jonas wiggled his eyebrows. “That part doesn’t come for a while now. We have to go way back, to the time when Carson and his friends were children, a few years younger than the both of you.”
“That was mean!” Emilie gaped. “Why didn’t you tell us that in the first place?”
Jonas rolled his head to the side, his steady gaze resting on the boy next to him. “I had to get somebody’s attention, didn’t I? Don’t you want to know if Alphonse is innocent? If he actually killed Carson’s brother and father?”
Devin’s mouth twitched. He wanted to argue, to demand to hear another story. But Jonas somehow managed to catch his interest. He did mention murder. “Yes.” Devin turned to his uncle. “You had to ask the mean storyteller to come tonight, didn’t you?”
Rylan laughed. “I wouldn’t be so picky with your storytellers, Devin.”
“If that’s the action, do I want to know how the magic part will work?”
“I’m glad you asked,” Jonas said. “In this tale, only specific families use magic. Each magical power has its own branch and abilities. Some people can fly, read minds, heal wounds, or even control elements.”
“That sounds like our magic system. Is this going to be a true story?”
“Well, I guess you could say some of it is. I threw in enough embellishments to make it my own. That way I won’t get in trouble if people don’t like the way I portray them.” Jonas paused, staring up at the sky as he counted on his fingers. “Then again, most of them are long dead by now. They can’t get mad at me.” He threw his hands in the air. “But enough with the distractions.” Jonas closed his eyes and shook his head. “Focus!”
After a few moments of Jonas’ “focusing ritual” as his uncle called it, the storyteller calmed down. It sounded more like a vocal warm-up of a tone-deaf opera singer. Devin found himself entranced by this strange man.
“Our story opens up on a warm August morning.” Devin’s eyes widened. Jonas’s voice changed again. This time, it was that of a child with a clear, sweet tone. “A young girl, Delilah, wants to accompany the king to the dungeon. She is troubled about the previous day’s events. You see, her friend Carson was thrown in a cell for the night because of this incident. It all started because of a fan….”