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The Diadem

By Astrid16 All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Fantasy

Prologue

Night guardsman Rin Peru stood in the garden under the west-facing balcony, hands at his sides, his back stiff and sore from his many hours on duty. He thought it all a bit unnecessary—he'd much rather be at home with his wife on this special night—but he respected his master's wishes. He knew his duty: it was a full moon tonight, and all of Amoka was anxious.

Terrible timing, he thought as he stifled a yawn. Could our young Lord Menori's inheritance feast have been but a day later? 

Blessedly, the Advisors predicted that the Rider would not come this far south today. If the Rider stayed true to the schedule—which he always did—then the Lord Kaori and his son had nothing to fear this night. The Rider's monthly plundering would occur in one of the towns in the north—Genesan, perhaps.

Rin dared to peek over his shoulder at the festivities in the door behind him. Thousands of candles lit the ballroom. Several dozen nobles—and a few of the luckier merchants—walked about the magnificent marble venue, dressed in colorful gowns and jewelry. They reminded him of butterflies in the wind; always moving, always busy. Busy doing nothing tonight… 

But he was not bitter—no, not in the least. It was an honor to serve his Lord Kaori during his final hour in power. Kaori was a good man: fair, honorable, and—most importantly—kept those under his jurisdiction safe from harm of every kind.

Every harm, that is, but the kind that troubled them inevitably, like a storm, on the twenty-eighth day of every moon. But no one could detain—let alone abolish—that blight. Lord Kaori simply did the best that he could, setting watches along the coast to warn the towns when the Rider's ship approached so they would have ample time to flee.

Rin just hoped that their soon-to-be Lord Menori could apply the same level of dedication to this mission as his father had.

"Excuse me, sir," a voice wavered to his left, "if you would be so kind…"

Rin eyed the owner of the voice. A lowan beggar, by the looks of his paltry height and raggedy cloak. Beggars were not uncommon, especially since the Collapse on the western island, but to see one here, on a night where most men barred their doors and held their weapons close—not that it did them much good—was strange.

"It's not lawful to beg in the Sheshin Keep after the moon has risen," Rin said, doing his best to sound both sympathetic and stern. "Go back to town. There are plenty of people to help you there."

The cloaked figure seemed to cower a bit, and his feet shuffled. Those boots are too new, Rin noted. He must have stolen them. It was hard for him to imagine living the life of this beggar. His home, just a few miles to the east, was secure. He had bread on the table, and a wife and daughter to eat that bread. How does this man feed his family, I wonder? 

Rin was tempted to pull out his satchel and give the man a few coins. But it was against the rules. The only civilians allowed on the grounds after dark were those given a written invitation, which was inspected closely by guards at the entrance gate on the other side of the keep.

"How did you get past the gatekeepers?" Rin asked, nodding to the garden path.

The beggar's cloak seemed to ripple with his soft, eery laugh. "They can't catch me. No man can."

"That was a brave statement," Rin said, smiling, though the man's voice sent a chill straight through his armor and down his spine. "What makes you say such a thing? That you are un-catchable." Not a real word, this un-catchable, but he doubted the beggar was articulate enough to care.

"I did not say that," the beggar said, cupping his pale, scarred hands outside the folds of his cloak. "I can be caught—no, I am caught. but not by you, or by those gatekeepers. Now, if you would please be so kind…"

Rin eyed the man's hands, then shook his head. "I can't. I'm sorry, it's against my directive. Come back in the daylight."

"Why?" the beggar asked. "Are trees not the same shape, size, and color in the moonlight as they are in the sun?"

Rin hesitated.

The beggar saw that he was gaining leeway. "What difference does it make if I receive coins for my family now, or in the morning? I am the same person. Do me a favor—no, do yourself and your family a favor. Please, let my children eat tonight."

Rin fingered his sword—a nervous tic of his—and pulled his lips tight. If he broke these rules, he could lose his job. What would that do to his honor? What would it do to my Elen and Lin? 

"No," he said. "Please, sir, leave here before I use force."

"I got past the gatekeepers," the beggar said. "Do you really think that you could stop me?"

That chill in Rin's spine felt like claws now, raking his back. He imagined them leaving long, deep marks like those on the beggar's hands. "You got lucky," he said, wondering what Lord Kaori would think if he saw his guardsman debating with a footpad. "Leave. Now."

The beggar retracted his hands with a soft sigh. A sigh of grief; regret. "Very well," he said, sliding his left foot back across the cobblestones. "May the First King have mercy on me."

Rin opened his mouth to reply, but was cut off by the knife that was suddenly deep, deep in his chest. One scarred hand went over his mouth to cut off his cry of pain.

The beggar lowered his hood, and Rin knew then, with his last lucid thoughts, that he had made a terrible mistake.

The not-beggar glowered at his victim with powerful, bright green eyes, radiating deep hatred. "The third to die this night," he said, calmly. As if he had cut a melon, and not a fellow lowan's chest. "The third to taste the Rider's dark sword on the night the almost-Lord Menori was kidnapped." He pulled his blade free, blood splattering on the stones. "Long live my Lord Hazich."

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