Chapter 1: Harvest Moon
1200 - September
“PRINCESS CHANNIN?” A woman pushes the door open slowly. She is frail built, with tan skin and matching dark hair and eyes. She adjusts to the light in the room. The fire has long died out, the dark wooden floors reflect the sunlight into her face. The massive four post bed with its blood red canopy is empty. The blankets are slightly ruffled, at least someone slept in the bed. She sighs. Pushing a stack of books aside, she places the breakfast tray on the table between the overstuffed chairs.
“Your highness?” she calls again. She quietly moves towards the washroom. The door is open just a crack. She nudges it with her foot. The tub is empty and so is the rest of the room.
She turns her head at a faint clicking sound followed by a dull thud. She steps back into the main room to see a blonde girl on the floor in front of the open window.
“Welcome home, My Lady.” She glares at the girl.
Princess Channin Ozera flashes her a smile. “Good morning, Amaryllis.” She rolls to her stomach and pushes herself to her feet. Brushing her tunic and pants off. She pulls her shoulder quiver off and leans it against the wall. Then she turns back to the window and pulls a rope up after her.
“At least you used a climbing rope this-“ The Princess reaches the end of the rope, fastened around a scabbard and a bow. “Time.” Amaryllis sighs and abandons the lecture.
“Where have you been, your highness?” She follows Channin across the room, “You missed breakfast, your father is very-“
“Cross?” Channin grabs an apple off the tray, “Great.” She grins and takes a bite.
“Your Highness,” Amaryllis takes a timid step forward, “You won’t see him until tonight’s festival. Perhaps you should have been at breakfast.”
She shrugs, “It’s not like he is in constant company with me anyway.” She sinks into a chair and picks up a book. She starts to flip through it when a tangle of blonde hair drops into her face. She frowns and lifts it to put it back in place, finding a stick, complete with leaves, in the mess.
“Besides,” She pulls the stick out, “What is one festival compared to the hundreds I go to every year?”
“Not hundreds, My Lady.” Amaryllis quietly corrects her, “It’s not every day we get to celebrate your birthday.”
“Oh, is that today?” Channin rolls her green eyes, “I can hardly remember my dates anymore.” She feigns ignorance.
Her Lady-in-Waiting frowns, “Your Highness, you will get ready and go to the festival.”
Channin yawns, “I just climbed in my own window to avoid-“
“You climbed in what?”
Both girls spin around to face the woman at the door. Her golden hair has started to turn gray. She has the same bright green eyes as her daughter. Even without her crown, it is obvious that she is the Queen.
“Mother.” Channin leaps up, “I was only-“
“Getting ready for the Harvest Moon Festival.” Queen Ioanna strides into the room, floating is more like it. Her Ladies-in-Waiting follow behind her. “You will be in attendance to your own celebration, no?”
The Princess nods, “Yes, mother.”
Ioanna frowns at her daughter and pulls a leaf from her hair, she holds it in front of her daughter for her to examine, “What is this?”
Three points, pale green on one side and brighter on the other. “A silver maple.”
The Queen sighs, shaking her head. “Beatrice, Elaine.” Her attendants perk up, “Help Amaryllis with making Channin at least appear to be of royal descent.”
They each take an arm and drag her off to the washroom. The entire process bores Channin, but it is not an uncommon occurrence. She has the pattern memorized.
First is the incessant scrubbing. A mixture of salt, sugar and lemon that feels nice at first and slowly begins to feel like her flesh itself is being worn off. Then comes the hair. Brushing until the knots are undone. On more than one occasion, someone must stop and shake loose hair from their hand.
“If you’d brush it more often, we wouldn’t be having this much trouble.” Ioanna scolds.
Channin rolls her eyes and sinks lower in the bath. Beatrice sets about her nails while Elaine and Amaryllis struggle with her hair. The years of training have worn callouses on her palms and the climb up the castle wall has left her nails short and dirty.
“Do I even want to know where you went this morning?” Ioanna reappears, holding Channin’s juniper wood bow.
“I’m guessing you won’t accept ‘out’ as an answer.” She is met with a harsh glare, “I went for a ride, practiced my shooting.” Her mother’s expression doesn’t change, “And came through the window.” Channin flashes her a submissive grin.
“Channin,” her mother shakes her head, her blonde hair swinging behind her, “what am I going to do with you.”
Amaryllis giggles, “You could always pass her off on some poor royal. She’d be someone else’s problem.”
The Princess rolls her eyes and wraps herself in a robe. She rolls her hair up in a towel and watches her mother at the window. The Queen wraps her arms around herself, she’s studying the horizon. Channin can see beyond the walls to the sea and the ships coming into the docks.
“Are you ready, child?” Ioanna looks over her shoulder to Channin, “Your future king is out there somewhere.
The bay horse stops and shakes his head. His rider slides down and pats his neck. “Yeah, I know.”
William Starker is the youngest to receive the title of King’s General. He has spent the last year bouncing around the countries, running errands for the Council of Loskayze. He’s a little taller than the average height with a thin but muscular build. With his shaggy brown hair and his grey eyes, he doesn’t quite fit with the fair hair and complexion of Laneyth.
William is moving to loosen his horse’s saddle when the rest of his company rides up. Passing over the bridge and under a stone archway.
“What happened to waitin’ on us?” his second in command grumbles. Raoul is a short, stocky man with a huge beard. He’s in his mid-twenties but already has gray hair scattered through his tangled hair. The only werewolf Will trusts and keeps in constant company.
“We held back.” William fights the grin spreading across his face.
Raoul laughs, “If that’s your slow, we are in the wrong business. Horse racing pays better.”
“Are you suggesting we abandon the King’s invitation and hustle equestrians for a living?”
“Now that you mention it, that’s a swell idea, General. I’ll tell the men.” He turns his black horse and Will quickly snatches its reins.
“Let’s at least see what he wants.”
“Alright,” he reluctantly agrees. Raoul is the next off his horse and the others follow him.
A boy from the stables comes forward, “I can take your horse, sir.” He hesitates, “With the party though, I’m afraid our stable is full.” The boy can’t be more than ten and is very small, even for an elf. He keeps his tawny hair clipped short.
Will hands him Kaiser’s reins, “He’s pretty strong, are you sure you can handle him?”
The boy nods, “Yes sir.”
They pass through the second archway and before them, lies Dragonspire. Even in the distance, it is massive. The walls rise from the earth as is they were carved from a single piece of stone. Two towers spiral from either side of the castle, topped with peak of dark red bricks. To the south is a low hedge fence containing a garden and the royal stables. Closer to them is the soldier’s barracks and stables.
William follows alongside, just to be safe. “What’s the party for?” He takes in the castle in all of its grandeur.
“Princess Channin and the Harvest Moon festival, sir.” The boy responds, “But I’ve heard that there’s going to be a special guest, a great General.”
“Is that so?”
He nods excitedly, “That’s what my momma says.”
“Well you should listen to your mother, son.” Raoul says, “You’re talking to General William Starker.”
The boy freezes, terrified.
“Honestly, Raoul, you throw my name around more than I do.” Will shakes his head, “You’re fine, son. You aren’t in trouble.”
Kaiser stops in his tracks and begins to back up quickly. Loud music begins playing, startling him. Will instinctually reaches for him. The stable boy quickly holds his hands up and speaks softly, the massive horse pricks his ears up and lowers his nose to the child.
“How did you do that?” Will asks, puzzled.
The boy smiles brightly, “I’m from Tokia. We raise the horses the army uses.” Kaiser ruffles his hair and pushes the boy around with his nose, searching for a snack.
Raoul nods, “I’ve heard that some of them have the voice to calm animals.”
“That’s right. Everyone in my family can do it.”
The boy leads them behind the stables where a few horses are already tied. “I hope we have enough room.” He observes sadly.
“They will stand together if one is tied.” Will explains, taking Kaiser’s lead. He ties him to the rail, “See?”
The boy nods again.
“Now, what is your name? In case we ever need an expert equestrian in our travels.”
“It’s Valaen Falamin.” He smiles proudly.
“Alright, Valaen Falamin of Tokia. I’ll remember that.” Will pats his head and turns to his men. There are currently 25 of them from all over Laneyth. This current lineup is mostly humans, with a hand full of Elves, 3 Dwarfs, an Orc, and Raoul.
“I understand if you want to wait out here,” he says, “But I do need some of you to come with me.”
Raoul sighs and grabs the nearest soldier, an Elf named Runir. “Let’s go.”
“I-I- I don’t want to go in there.” Runir tries to pull away from him, to no avail. Runir Phiceran is an Elf. He has a small frame, high cheek bones and forest green eyes. The tips of his ears stick out from his fawn colored hair. His skin is a shade lighter.
“It’s part of initiation,” the werewolf growls.
Will rubs his forehead, “Thanks for volunteering, boys.”
“No,” Runir answers, “I didn’t volunteer.”
Will waives the comment away and heads for the door. After introducing himself to the guard, he, Raoul and Runir are allowed in.
The side door opens to a hallway. On the right about halfway down another door with light and music pour out of it. The ballroom is huge with stone walls decorated with gold and marble. The ceiling is high and redwood beams run across it. A few tables line the edges of the room, but it’s mostly open for dancing. To their right, at the very end of the room, a huge staircase allows guests in elaborate attire to make an entrance. Between them and the stairs is a bar with three huge barrels behind it. Across from the door they entered is a raised platform where the King sits.
King Svetozar Ozera is in his fifties and has been in rule of Laneyth for the last 33 years. Raoul drags Runir off, leaving William alone. He starts to observe the crowd. Most of the guests are male, his age with a few years on either side. He scans for a familiar face and finds none.
“Just great.” He mumbles and starts across to the king. A trumpet announces the arrival of someone important and he stops. “May I announce Her Majesty, Queen Ioanna Danilova Ozera.”
She is clearly the Queen. Her blonde hair has streaks of silver running through it, she carries herself proudly. As she passes Will, he can see the wrinkles she’s starting to form. She’s in her late 40′s, easily. Her corset is laced so tightly, he wonders if she can breathe. A question rises in his mind. If Lady Channin is their oldest child at 16, then the woman standing here waited a long time before having children.
“The Princess Peytra Svetlana Ozera.”
The younger Ozera sister takes after her father. Dark hair, typical blue-gray Shapeshifter eyes, a round face. There’s something off about her gait, she had some kind of health problem as a child that continued to affect her now in her early teenage years.
He is still watching the Queen and young princess when something inside him says to turn to look. At the top of the stairs stands a young girl, arm in arm with an older man. Will recognizes him as General Isaac Blatz, his former teacher.
“The Crown Princess Channin Ioanna Ozera.”
Blonde hair, like her mother’s, braided and twisted into a knot. Channin isn’t extraordinary in anyway physically. She is shorter than her sister, not particularly thin or stout. She’s wearing a dress that is deep blue, like the night sky. The dress meets the base of her neck, the skirt splits to reveal silver underneath. She glides more than walks, a picture of the perfect royal daughter. As she moves past, their eyes meet. She holds her gaze for a few seconds.
After the Ozera family is introduced, the real party commences. General Isaac makes his way to Will. Isaac is in his fifties. His hair has started to turn from light brown to gray and his face is worn from years on the battlefield. He commands respect from everyone in the room and has earned his place as the King’s right hand man.
“William.” His voice is loud, “I wondered if you would make it.”
“Not for lack of trying.” Will mumbles, more to himself.
“What do you think of the Princess Channin? She’s very good with a sword.”
Will narrows his eyes, “Why would that matter?”
Isaac shrugs, “Have you met Svetozar?”
He shakes his head, “I was on my way when-“
Isaac motions for him to follow and walks right up to the King. “Svetozar, this is General William Starker.”
The king studies him, “I’ve heard good things, General Starker.”
“Are they all true?” Will glances at Isaac, who is grinning, proud.
“I’ll be the judge of that.” Svetozar answers, “I’ve heard enough that I’d like for you to sign with my army. Having the most praised General in the land stand under the Ozera flag would make anyone think twice before attacking.”
Will sighs, “My men and I are not immortal.”
“And I believe mortals can be bought. Name your price.”
Will searches for any sign the king is bluffing, finding none, he decides. “You pay my men double. It’s what they deserve. When not on missions, they are free to come and go as they please. And should they die under your flag, you guarantee their families don’t go hungry.”
It’s Svetozar’s turn to search for a bluff, “Paying that many men double is not an easy task.”
The General shrugs, “You said name my price. That’s it.”
Svetozar thinks it over for a moment and nods slowly, “I think we can manage that. I’ll have someone write up a contract.”
He dismisses them and Isaac leads Will to the bar. “That went well.” He grabs two cups of mead and hands one to Will, “To your new alliance.” He lifts it up.
The cup is made of thick glass. Will looks it over and can’t help but wonder if all the see-through decorations are hiding something. Isaac’s face is flushed red, not a typical color for him.
“How much have you had already?” Will watches his teacher drink over half his glass in one go.
Isaac makes a puzzled face, “Not enough if I can still count. Ahh, Your Majesty.” He quickly bows.
Will follows his gaze to the Queen and the princesses. “General Blatz,” she curtsies in return. “I see you are having a good time.”
“Ole’ Svetozar sure knows how to throw a party.”
“You must be General Starker.” She and Peytra curtsy again, Channin doesn’t. A simple warning from her mother changes that.
“If you don’t mind me asking, your majesty.” Will begins, “The king is Romanian, but the family name is Russian.”
“You don’t waste much time with formalities, do you?” Channin mumbles.
Her mother glares at her, “Svetozar is from a prominent Shapeshifter family. When I turned 16, my family began looking for a suitor. He filled the position.”
“If you were married at such a young age, why wait for children?”
She looks over him for a moment, as if judging his worth before speaking again, “The thing about royal marriages is that they are about power and the bloodlines. Svetozar loved all women. All but one.”
The music takes an upbeat. “Well, if Svetozar won’t get off his ass to take a lady to dance, it might as well be me.” He offers the Queen his hand. She takes it gracefully.
“You wool-headed buffoon, don’t let the Princess dance with a stranger.” Isaac calls back as they spin off to dance floor.
They both shout together that Will is, indeed, a stranger. Channin sighs and looks around. She swears and grabs Will’s arm. He notes a small werewolf making his way over and follows Channin to the dance floor.
He allows her to lead for the first part. She appears bored with it, she’s done the dance hundreds of times. When he starts to lead, she seems surprised and immediately retakes control. Will can’t help but laugh at her competitive spirit.
“What’s so funny?” she asks, “A lady is staying ahead of my father’s new pet?”
“No.” he spins her around, “It’s that you think you’re in control.”
“You don’t seem to enjoy this lifestyle,” he observes.
“It’s all a bit prehistoric if you ask me. Parties and betrothal. What happened to fighting to death for the princess?”
“Your parents were betrothed. As were theirs.”
She sighs, “So goes the Ozera family and every royal line.”
“Well, whomever your father chooses is a lucky man.”
“Because I am a well-behaved Lady?”
He shakes his head, “No, because you are beautiful.”
Her face turns red and she quickly curtsies and leaves. Passing Raoul on her way through the crowd.
“Was that the princess?” Runir asks.
Will nods, and Raoul bursts into laughter. Will quickly explains the king’s proposition.
“I hear the winters here are lovely.” He finishes with a half-smile.
“And the women.” The werewolf presses his elbow into Will’s side.
“Try cold and empty.” Runir corrects.
“We will know more tomorrow. Spread the word. Don’t do anything you don’t want to face in the morning.”
The pair leave and Isaac replaces them, “Come Will, have a stein.” Will does as told and follows Isaac out to the balcony. The view overlooks the stable. The soldiers have gathered with the coachmen and everyone is telling stories.
“Svetozar means well.” he says after a moment. Will trails his gaze to see Channin, back in the ballroom, sheepishly greeting a massive werewolf. “But I doubt she’ll have any part of it.”
She is trying to find an escape, continually backing up until he has her pinned against a wall. She ducks under his arm and vanishes into the hall.
“I can’t imagine why. Being forced to do something you don’t want to is barbaric.” Will brushes his dark hair from his face, amused by Channin’s desperation.
“Like a teenager on the battlefield.”
The sentence stings, like frostbite. Isaac senses that he has offended his student and quickly adds to it, “You are in the age bracket for the Lady Channin’s hand. You certainly are qualified.”
“Are you playing match maker?”
“You made it through an entire dance without her brandishing a weapon.” he laughs.
“Now you are implying that I would warrant a weapon?”
“She obviously tolerates your existence, Dragon Prince.”
Will nearly chokes on his mead and glances around to see if anyone heard the old name, “That doesn’t qualify him- me- to take-”
A small tan skinned woman approaches. Her brown eyes match her hair and are complemented by a simple red dress. “My Lord.” she curtsies, “Her Highness wishes you to join her in the garden.”
“See?” Isaac chuckles.
“And whom am I to follow to my grave?”
She looks confused.
“You’re name, deary.” Isaac takes another drink.
“Amaryllis. Like the flower.”
The young general quickly finishes his drink. “Alright.” he hands his empty glass to Isaac, “I will follow you, Milady.”
“Oh, I’m not-” she stops herself, “My Lord, I am not of noble birth.”
“That doesn’t change that you are a woman, does it?”
She shakes her head.
“Then you are a Lady, and I will refer to you as such.”
He follows her through the maze of people. He can hear someone ask where the lady of the evening has gone and can’t help but be annoyed. Amaryllis leads Will down a flight of stairs in the back of the castle, out into the garden.
Apple trees grow in perfect, even rows. Beyond them, a thick hedge. To the left, the family’s private stable. A familiar whinny catches his attention. Kaiser scratches his head against one on the trees. He has escaped the young stable boy after all.
“I take it this one belongs to you?”
He is startled by Channin’s voice. She smooths his horse’s hair out, running her left hand along his neck.
“Kaiser. It means-”
“The Emperor.” she smiles, then silence. What to say next? “I wanted to thank you, for saving me from that nobleman earlier.”
“It’s a fine fate, marrying a Prince.” He moves to take Kaiser’s reins, but seems distracted.
“He wasn’t a Prince. Just someone wanting to pretend to be King, like my father.”
“What does that mean?” he studies her expression.
“I’m not sure how familiar you are with the politics of shapeshifter monarchy, but the royalty follows the name. Whoever my father chooses as my husband will have all the power and my last name.”
“So you are a trophy.” He states, clearly he is familiar with how royalty works.
“I am a Princess.” She corrects, looking down at her dress.
“I feel like there might not be much of a difference.” Will sighs.
She starts down an aisle of trees. Her mind racing through things she could say. A breeze blows and sends a chill through her.
The faint smell of apples travels through the air. He takes Kaiser’s bridle and walks towards Channin, “You only wanted to thank me?” Her horse pricks his ears up and moves towards her.
She nods, “I am a bit curious though.” She reaches up and Alloumera pressed his soft nose into her hand. She can feel it against her callouses and is reminded of the contrast in textures.
“Why did you accept his offer?”
Will holds his hand up to her white horse as an introduction. The horse accepts the greeting.
“Alloumera.” She says, “It means part of the sky.”
“I accepted because your father needs us.” He takes a step closer to Kaiser, for safety. He relies on the horse for security, she notes.
“He has plenty of soldiers.” Channin responds, confused. It is true. Laneyth has the largest military when it comes to ground troops in all of Parasin. Athedor has the Naval force, but even they pale in comparison to Laneyth and King Svetozar’s soldiers.
“Not like mine.” Will explains, “We don’t do the whole slash and burn. They are from small villages across the land, and they would rather protect their own. We can settle almost any dispute.”
She sneaks a glance at him while he is paying attention to the horse. He has dark brown hair that looks black in the moonlight but inside almost looked like it had blonde strands in it. He has shapeshifter eyes. The color of the sea when it storms, the darkest blue and the clearest gray. He has a tiny scar above his left eyebrow, one could easily miss it.
He notices her watching him and she considers looking away for a moment, but changes her mind. His opinion doesn’t matter to her.
“Well we certainly have a lot of that. But what use are you if you are only a peacekeeper?” What good is a soldier that doesn’t do much killing. She shrugs, her dress making a rustling sound.
Will laughs, “I guess none if you put it that way.”
“Isaac has told me a lot about you.”
“Has he?” Will shoots a glare towards the castle, “Because he’s told me quite a bit about you too.”
“Such as?” she grins.
“That you are very bright and excellent with a sword. But you’ve got a bit of a temper.”
“He said that?” she looks offended.
“That last part was just something I picked up on,” Will says.
She hits him in the shoulder.
“My Lady,” Amaryllis calls, “The Queen is looking for you.”
“I’ll be right there,” Channin responds, she turns back to Will. “You should have chosen a less popular woman to court, General.” She starts away.
Will calls after her, “I will see you again.”
She stops, a little shocked at this outburst. “Because you’re staying at Dragonspire?”
He shakes his head quickly, “Because I’d be rather disappointed if I didn’t.” He picks a flower and hands it to her.
It’s pale pink, shaped like a star with a yellow center.
“An aster?” She tilts her head to one side, a strand of blonde hair falls forward. “Out of all the flowers in this garden, why this one?”
“It was closest.”
She laughs, smiling at the flower, “Good night, General Starker.” She follows Amaryllis inside.