The Dark Man
For a long while the main road went south and south, straight as a lance, running together with the path of land meeting sea. The glitter of salty water was never quite gone, which made Jadine feel she is not so very far from home after all. All her life, wherever she went, the sea and rush of waves were there. Still, as they progressed south, she noticed something foreign in the sights. Near Rhasket-Tharsanae, after one passed the fields and farms and holdfasts close to the town itself, the land stretched in sunlit wild moors, grassy heels, and an occasional clump or two of trees. Here, nearer to the Middle River, the land was far more cultivated. Each farm and hamlet was well in sight of the next, and when the great curving bend in the road revealed itself to their eyes, they glimpsed three round smoking chimneys of an inn.
There was no elegance in it; it was a long and dark log house, and its shape was a simple and purposeful rectangle. Yet it was a welcome sight; the summer ride has been pleasant enough, and apart from a slight drizzle on the third day of their journey the weather favored them well enough, yet Jadine wasn't used to riding for long periods of time. She was beginning to develop saddle sores and winced every morning when time came to mount her horse, but she would be damned if she let out a complaint to her father or to Kohir. Their pace was slowed now, because her mother and sister soon got tired of riding and allowed themselves to be carried in a palanquin. Many times they urged Jadine to join them, but she rejected their offers disdainfully. She maintained she could ride perfectly well all the way to Aldon-Sur... yet there was no happier than her to see the rustic-looking inn.
"Oh, thank the Spirit," sighed Kelena from atop her cushions. "I am so tired."
It was late when they arrived at the inn. A cold supper was served to them - mussel stew in trenchers of black bread, cold chicken, a jug of good beer for those who had the stomach for it, and a small flagon of wine for those who did not, such as Jadine's mother and sister. Kelena kept yawning all throughout the meal, but she did it delicately, covering her mouth with the back of her hand. Still, their father wasn't fooled. He bade his daughters to go up to their room and settle down to sleep as soon as they can - another long ride awaited them upon the morrow, and the morning promised to be foggy and grey, with a threat of rain.
Jadine scowled at the prospect of sharing a room with her sister, however briefly. Kelena was a sweet child, yet there was never much understanding between the two sisters - not that Kelena was aware of it, Jadine thought. She probably has no notion of sisterly closeness apart from prattling about gowns and parties and gallant suitors. She was doing just that right now as she sat in front of the crackling fire, brushing out her fine fair hair. She kept going on about the tourney, how splendid it was supposed to be, and how much she longed to have a glimpse of the princess Maviel, and how fortunate that foreign princess was for marrying His Grace, such a brave, gallant, handsome man, and such a noble king.
"Only think," said Kelena, braiding her hair, "the champions of the tourney, both in jousting and melee, will win prizes of a hundred thousand golden crowns apiece!"
"Impossible," Jadine said dryly. "The throne will beggar itself if that is the case. I say they will get no more than ten thousand crowns each."
Kelena looked almost offended. She swung her thick golden braid across the shoulder, so that it rested on her back. The Kotsar were mostly light of skin and fair of hair, or else had red hair like that of Jadine and Nog - although, to be honest, the color of Nog's hair was reminiscent of rust more than of anything else. Kohir was fair-haired like his father, their mother Hinassi had hair the splendid hue of burnished copper, and Jadine was the true fire.
"Well, the money doesn't signify much, I suppose," said Kelena. "But to think of the glory the champions will win! Songs will be sung of them for years to come. And oh, to think that one of them might be handsome and gallant, and might glimpse one of us in the stands and fall in love..." she giggled. "Wouldn't that be beautiful?"
Jadine scowled. No one would notice them in the crowd, she knew. They were just a drop in the flood of people who made their way to the capital now, to take part in the festivities. No one would care whether they came or not, and no one would notice when they left. This chafed her pride. In her mind, she saw herself receiving a particular invitation to court, and coming there in all splendor - not only as a wife of a powerful noble, but as a great lady of her own worth. Kelena might be content with a seat somewhere among the rest of them; for Jadine, being one of a crowd made sure that pleasure would have a bitter taste.
By the time they reached Aldon-Sur, her muscles have gained more strength than they ever had, the skin of her thighs had bruised and blistered and burst and finally healed, and she felt triumphant as she rode through the city gates by the side of her father and elder brother. Her traveling clothes were dusty, her hair tangled, but her head was held up proud and high.
"I have never imagined myself to be so out of shape," she said lightly, "I shall ride every day while we are here."
"You won't have time to ride every day," Kelena pointed out. "We will be much too busy. There will be visiting and shopping, and of course, Princess Maviel is supposed to arrive by sea any day now! And then the tourney will begin and surely you wouldn't want to miss any of that."
Jadine didn't bother to answer. She looked about her, and for once, unacknowledged vanity and dissatisfied ambition were set aside. In all her life, she seldom left Rhasket-Tharsanae, and did not feel any particular urge to travel. She was satisfied by the hills and the sea, the quiet solitude of her private corners, the small choice company her parents kept, their beautiful family home and the strict elegance of their neighborhood. It suited her perfectly that the streets weren't crowded and the buildings didn't rise more than two decks high. But now her breath was caught in her throat by the splendor spread out before her, the tall watch towers with their shining spikes and the many flags of united Tilir, bedecking all in blue, green and white.
The streets were wide enough for six horses to comfortably ride abreast, at least here, and the streets were teeming with people - walkers, riders, carts, palanquins, each clamoring to pass first, each shoving its way through rows of those of lesser rank, and it was sheer wonder no one got trampled. The din was unbelievable, but the air was purer than could be expected in a city of this size. This came as no surprise to Jadine, though; she had read that the king Alvadon the Fifth installed an intricate system of waste drainage below the city. And yet she, who knew nothing but the cool clear air of Rhasket, could only come to the merciless conclusion that the capital stank. The awe she felt made her slow down her pace, and for a while, she fell back to the side of her mother and sister.
"Isn't it magnificent?" said Kelena with her charming stupid little smile. "Oh, Mother, look at that - isn't that a fabric shop? Look at those bolts of silk on display! Have you ever seen such colors? Oh, pray let's stop and have a closer look."
"Hush, child," said dignified, still handsome Hinassi. "We shall have plenty of time for shops later, tomorrow, if you will. Now we need to get settled, and to do that, we must get to the other side of the city, to the Upper Esplanade."
"The Upper Esplanade?" Jadine turned her head sharply, more interested in that than in anything her mother had said this morning. "Are we going to stay there?"
"Uncle Derrien lives there," said Kelena with maddening smugness. "Didn't you know that, Jadine?"
"No," said Jadine with crisp coolness, "but then, at least once in a lifetime you are bound to know something I don't." She dug her heels into the sides of her horse and rode forward to join her father again, leaving her sister open-mouthed in the palanquin.
Derrien Mokkar was one of the noblest connections the clan of Kotsar had in the capital. The disdain of the Kotsar for foreign blood did not extend so far as to prevent them from forging profitable alliances. The Upper Esplanade itself was without doubt the most distinguished street outside the court gates; it had a splendid high view of the Lower Esplanade, which was located right below it, the port, which was even further down, and the sea.
The city itself was built in the form of a spiral, or a tall cone with levels that got progressively higher and narrower, though not always in symmetrical perfection. Silly Kelena kept going on about streets that were all paved in white marble sparkling so brightly in the sun it hurt the eye that looked upon them, but Jadine knew it could not be true. Every city had markets and workshops and gutters and quarters where the poor men lived, and those most often stood on packed earth, not marble. And ports, whatever nonsense her sister might have professed, were more likely to smell of fish and seaweed than of rose and lavender.
The Upper Esplanade, though, did not fall in the least bit from its extravagant descriptions. Its marble tiles were white as snow, lightly veined in cool blue, and looked as though they were swept and washed every day. Two formidable guards flanked each side of an ornately carved gate, behind which a beautifully proportioned park and a splendid villa could be seen. The well-trained guards stood quite still, and did not betray even a faint sign of life before Rohir Kotsar rode up quite close and told his name, and that he was awaited by his kinsman Derrien. It was only then that the guards sprang to the sides and opened the gate.
Not all of the companions were going to spend their time in the city in such comfort and luxury, of course. Uncle Derrien's invitation only extended to his niece Hinassi and her immediate family. The rest of the Kotsar who came for the festivities had to arrange a place for themselves in the homes of other, less distinguished relatives, or else stay in the overcrowded, overpriced inns.
Uncle Derrien, who came to the doors to greet them himself, was a portly, clean-shaven, good-natured man who spread his arms in a gesture that plainly showed he had no higher pleasure than to receive them all here.
"O Great Spirit! Can you believe fifteen summers have passed since I last saw these children? You, Kohir, were fond of climbing trees, and you, Jadine, when you set your little mind to hiding, no one could find you! Kelena, of course, was a babe in arms, and this one wasn't even born then. Pardon me, my boy, I forgot your name."
"It is Nog, Uncle," said Nog with all the timid courtesy he could muster. Kelena curtsied very prettily, and Kohir made a sweeping bow, but Jadine could summon no more than cool politeness. She could not agree that her mind was to be called little, at any point in her life.
"And you, Uncle, you are looking as young as ever," said Hinassi graciously.
"Ah," sighed Derrien, obviously torn between pleasure at the comment and the unfortunate need to disagree. "Perhaps you mean to say as old as ever, child - for to me, you shall always be a child. Alas, not even the beneficial air of the provinces could blow away the worries which are a necessary part for anyone who keeps the destiny of the kingdom close to heart."
While they were speaking, he led them forward, through the heavy iron-bound, bronze-studded doors and into a splendidly lit hall, warm and inviting, too large by far for a man who lived alone - for Uncle Derrien was many years a widower, and his children have all grown up, married and left.
"What are those worries, Uncle?" Jadine asked, intrigued. Her mother shot her a furious look.
"Jadine, may I kindly ask you to remember your courtesies," she said icily.
But Derrien did not take this as an affront. "Do not chide the girl, Hinassi," he said. "Interest on the part of young ones flatters me. You should know, child," he turned to Jadine, "that I was many years at service in court, advising our king, and his royal father before him, as Minister of Interior Affairs. For long years I have given good and true counsel, doing my best to be just and prudent, and only two years ago retired due to my advanced age. My son replaced me, but while I am now at leisure, I cannot stop my mind from dwelling on matters of state which have been my life so long. Lately, there was this matter of the insolent rebels who barricaded themselves in a keep beyond the Dust River."
The Dust River was a dried-up river than ran only for a short time during the spring rains; it marked the southern border of Tilir, and beyond it began Malvian lands.
"Ah," said Rohir, "I have heard of it, I believe."
"I daresay you might have. There was a group of stubborn pigheaded farmers, illiterate men who know little about borders, who crossed the Dust River, built a mud keep on a strip of fertile land there, and refused to retreat back across the border, even when a runner from the capital brought an explicit decree. No doubt they couldn't read it. It took an armed force to evacuate them, and my son was furious, as well as he should be."
"Why should they have been evacuated?" Jadine slightly raised her eyebrows.
"Child," Derrien said patiently, "surely a clever maid such as yourself knows her own country's borders. Beyond the Dust River, Malvia begins. That settlement was a flagrant breach of the truce between our countries."
"There is no truce," Jadine said matter-of-factly, "just attempts on our side to close the border. The Malvians bear us no love or loyalty, and it is common knowledge the area beyond the Dust River used to belong to Tilir until a hundred years ago. I still don't understand why it was given away. Our country is not that large as to give valuable land for nothing."
"Jadine," her father said sternly, in a forbidding tone. Uncle Derrien was looking scandalized.
"Not for nothing, my dear. It was a token of peace."
"A peace that never came," argued Jadine. She would have said more, but her mother broke in with a strained smile.
"That will do, Jadine. We are all weary, and will be grateful to be shown to our rooms."
"Of course, of course," said Derrien, bouncing on the soles of his feet. "You still have time to change and wash before dinner. Rod! Vyk! Now, where are those two rascals when I need them? Ah, there you are. Where have you been loitering about? Our guests are tired. Take their things up and show them to their rooms."
Hinassi and her daughters were given a spacious wing of three adjoining handsome chambers, with a shared dressing room and a bathhouse made all of white marble. Once their trunks were brought up and the door was locked behind them, Hinassi rounded on her daughter, her lips white with anger.
"How dare you display your insolence and ignorance in such a manner!"
"I am not the ignorant one," Jadine said calmly, casting her traveling cloak down to the floor and not bothering to pick it up. "Those who bow to our enemies, and forbid to ask direct questions, and abhor clear speech, are ignorant."
"Enough," Hinassi's voice was like a whip, and Kelena's smug furtive stare was even worse. "That is quite enough. I will not have you confront your great-uncle, a noble man thrice your age, within five minutes of arriving under his roof. Your rudeness was bad enough at home, but here it cannot be tolerated. I know you would ruin, without second thought, your brothers' chances to succeed in society, your sister's prospects of marriage, and your own as well. But I will not have it. You will go and make yourself presentable now, and in half an hour you will go downstairs to supper and sit by my side. You will constrain your remarks to the weather and common acquaintances, and you will not contradict anything your father or uncle say."
"What about Kohir?" Jadine asked slyly, baiting her mother. "Can I contradict him, then? To keep the supper from being too dull?"
But a twitch of a muscle in her mother's jaw told plainly that just at that moment, she is not to be trifled with. Jadine wisely retreated to her room and began rummaging in her trunk in search of a proper dress that didn't get too wrinkled in their long road to the capital. A curtain of long red hair hid the smirk on her face.
The high bells began to rang a couple of days later, just as they were having their breakfast. Ding, ding, dong, dong, they sang in silvery voices that came from high above, from the tallest castle towers. Not ominous their sound was, but filled with the sweetest promise. Kelena dropped her egg spoon, and it fell onto her porcelain platter with a delicate tinkle.
"What is it?" She asked excitedly, as the murmur of a crowd began to be heard from the street outside. "What is it, Uncle? This ringing is for good news - isn't it?"
"Yes, child," said Derrien. He laid aside his knife and fork and got to his feet lightly, despite his rotund belly. "Those bells bring happy tidings. Unless I am much mistaken, they herald the coming of Princess Maviel. Let us go to the window and look."
The family got up. The breakfast room had a splendid wall-wide window overlooking the sea, and from it, the harbor and shore could be seen clearly. Looking down, Jadine saw a fleet of ships foaming the mirror-smooth sea water, flying swiftly towards Aldon-Sur.
"Yes!" Kohir exclaimed, sounding almost like a boy, with none of his customary haughty air. "That's the flag of Adrinor, I see it, isn't it, Father?"
"Oh, let us ride down at once," begged Kelena, "I so want to see it."
"You hardly ate anything," noted Hinassi.
"I'm not hungry, Mother, truly I am not, I just want to see the princess - the whole city is going to be there, I wouldn't miss it for the world, let me just fetch my cloak - no, not this one, the new one - "
"I wouldn't put on too much finery, if I were you," warned her mother. "As you said, everyone is going to be there. You don't want the mob tearing at your new silk cape. Save it for the tourney."
"You are right," said Kelena, casting aside the new cloak and accepting her old one from a maid. "But do tell Jadine to hurry, Mother, or it will be too crowded to see anything!"
"I am ready," said Jadine. Without fussing, she already stood by the doors in her cloak and riding boots. "I just gave orders for the horses to be saddled."
When the city of Aldon-Sur was just built, its constructors didn't plan for any way to move throughout the streets than in the great spiral, up or down. But in the course of the years, shortcuts were made and paved and became streets of their own right, serving to connect all parts of the city in a more convenient way. It was down one such shortcut that the party rode now, and soon they were at the Lower Esplanade. From there, the ride to the harbor was short.
The ship that bore the princess had already taken anchor when they arrived. There could be no doubt it was the one to bear the royal bride, for it was the biggest and most beautiful of all the fleet. The docks teemed with people so that making their way through was a challenge. Fortunately for the Kotsar and their kinsman, they had the advantage of being mounted. On horseback, at least they could breathe and see.
Several people - nobles, by the look of them, dressed in a foreign but beautiful fashion - went down from the ship first, no doubt happy to have firm ground under their feet after so long a journey. They looked splendid, like colorful butterflies in the bloom of spring, but Jadine found the style was too flamboyant for her liking. Then the princess herself appeared, flanked by even more nobles. By Jadine's side, Kelena let out a gasp of delight.
From their advantageous point, Jadine could see her well. The princess wore a gown of pale green silk with slashed gold-lined sleeves, snug at the waist and falling down to her feet in a great cascade of skirts. A slender golden tiara sat atop her chestnut hair, fashioned into an elaborate design of braids. She had a pale heart-shaped face, eyes that looked dark from the distance, and a very noticeable air of awkwardness. No one could have said she was uncomely, but Jadine would never have believed King Alvadon fell instantly in love upon seeing this girl's likeness. Unless the artist's work told a gross lie.
"Isn't she beautiful!" Kelena whispered ecstatically. "Oh, Jadine, look at that dress! What wouldn't I give to have something like that made for me! I believe it might be contrived, might it not, with several petticoats all worn one on top of the other - "
For the life of her, Jadine couldn't understand why a sensible woman would put on a ridiculous dress that made walking hard and riding impossible. But then, those foreigners probably had more pride than sense. She was about to tell her sister as much when Kelena's effusions were stopped by the approach of their uncle. He was looking unusually pleased.
"My dears," he said, looking from Hinassi to her two daughters, "I have the great honor to present you my particular friend, the noble Dankar Gindur. I would never have spotted him in this crowd," he allowed himself a small chuckle, "but for his magnificent destrier."
Only then did Jadine notice with a start the mounted man that now appeared from behind their uncle's broad back. A black man on a black horse, a wild thought struck her, though it was far from being precise. The splendid destrier, although in the most part black as night, had a fringe and tail of smoky silver, and the man himself, of course, was not black - merely dark-haired and olive-skinned, with eyes as cool and hard as pieces of onyx. He had a small, neatly trimmed black beard, growing more thickly towards the jaw line. His ungloved hands, resting on the reins of his horse, showed long artistic fingers of unquestionable strength, one of them weighed down by a beautifully carved silver ring with a fiery opal set in it. Due to the summer heat, he wore shimmering green silk, and a light cloak trailed from his shoulders, rippling in the sea breeze. Striking and formidable he looked, but not old - Jadine estimated his age at no more than thirty. She wondered how this man could be a friend of her uncle.
"Well, in truth, the noble Gindur is friendly with my son Beryen," explained Uncle Derrien, as if reading her thoughts, "but he is dear to me as well, like a second son. Dankar, this is my niece Hinassi, of the Kotsar of Rhasket-Tharsanae - her husband Rohir - and their children," he made a sweeping gesture to include Kohir, Jadine, Kelena and Nog.
Dankar Gindur courteously inclined his head. "It is a great pleasure for me to make your acquaintance. I have distant kinship to the Kotsar myself, through my mother's side."
"Do you indeed?" asked Rohir with the liveliest interest. "I thought I saw a resemblance to our clan in you, actually." Jadine didn't know how that could be, as most of the Kotsar were fair and this man strikingly dark, but she knew that was her father's way of complimenting the stranger.
"Perhaps your relative, the noble Mokkar, can once help me trace the exact relation through our two family trees," said the noble Dankar Gindur without a trace of a smile. "Just now, though, I believe we must all be on our way. The procession is forming to go up to the castle, do you see? His Grace himself is awaiting his bride there, and the tournament shall begin upon the morrow. I hope you will stay in the city long enough to see its end?" he asked in a much livelier manner.
"Oh, at the very least, and probably longer," Hinassi assured him.
"I hope to see you again before long, then," he nodded with cool satisfaction, took his leave, and trotted away. His cloak, made of rippling green and blue forming the pattern of waves, flew behind him as he spurred his horse on. The bright sun reflected off the beast's glistening sides.
"A very impressive man," Hinassi said shrewdly.
"Oh, yes," Uncle Derrien nodded vigorously. "One of my son's most fortunate connections, without a doubt."
"Does he serve at court as well?" asked Jadine.
"No," said her uncle, "he doesn't need to labor to acquire more consequence for himself. The Gindur are ancient nobles... they even toyed with a hope to offer one of their daughters as a wife for the king, which would have distinguished the whole clan - but this plan, of course, was disrupted by the loveliness of Princess Maviel," he smiled sweetly. "This doesn't diminish their consequence in the least, though. And Dankar himself, although not leader of his clan, is fabulously wealthy. He has a splendid house in the city, at the other end of Upper Esplanade as a matter of fact, and owns a chain of arms-and-armor shops. Several beautiful summer houses in the provinces, too. Some would say he needs an heir almost as badly as the king himself," Uncle Derrien added as if in an afterthought.
"Is he unmarried, then?" Hinassi asked shrewdly.
"A widower," Uncle Derrien replied succinctly.
"Oh, how dreadful," Kelena put in.
"Just so, child," their uncle nodded sagely. "You have seen the sorrow upon his face, it is easy to notice. Of course, not a year has passed since his young wife died. He is still grieving."
Jadine didn't believe that even for a moment. Dankar Gindur's face was harsh, formidable, stern, unsmiling - but not sorrowful. She didn't believe in this accidental meeting upon the docks, either. She was certain the rich widower sought a bride, and that was precisely why Derrien Mokkar introduced him to his relations, among whose number were two pretty young maids. As plainly as if direct words were exchanged, she saw the same calculations pass through her mother's mind. A look of unmistakable avarice came into Hinassi's pale green eyes.
"I am sure your poor friend doesn't wish to pass the rest of his days alone, though," she told her uncle. "He would make a splendid match even for a princess."
"Oh, I am not at all sure he is seeking a noblewoman," Uncle Derrien said lightly. "Most of the nobles reside here in the city, and while the attractions are obvious, I have heard the noble Gindur lament, more than once, as to what the crowds and noise and constant irritation do to the mind and spirit of young maidens. His late wife had been from one of the provinces, a daughter of a respectable and wealthy clan, but not close to the throne. She was a pretty, unspoiled thing."
And now he seeks another such like, Jadine thought savagely. She hoped she didn't catch his eye. As noble and rich and handsome and refined this man was, something about him made her revolt. They will never marry me off, she decided. I won't let them. I can run off. I can slit the bridegroom's throat.