Dream of Embers Book 1

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Death's Arrival

Chapter 2

Death’s Arrival

The red moon of Rodreon was visible the next morning, half its countenance bulging in a sky pale and blue. During daylight its impression was that of rust and copper, while at night it often became blood red, a startling omen to some when it reached its height and made of itself a full circle in the sky. Unlike its cousin, Mallova the White, its cycle was four months rather than one, and its passage was often associated with the changing of seasons. Then of course there was still the blue moon of Castilleon...

Shala unbusied herself with thought of moons, pushing the calendar away from which she hoped to glean some certainty about the future. With many scheduled events on her mind she had nonetheless been looking at the possibility of a coronation. Once she was Queen, men like Swarztial’s power over her would diminish considerably and she might even make a mission of it to see the man banished.

In Attoras, and in fact many sovereignties the world over a coronation was always performed under the full circle of a white moon, it’s pure light said to shine true on the worthy new ruler. Shala had no illusion that a bright white moon could stop Patrick taking the crown; like the sun it would give light to both the innocent and the wretched, and anything in between for that matter.

She had considered breaking tradition and hasting a coronation ceremony for herself, but Swarztial would use such a violation only to garner himself more support from an already divided Council. No, she would have to win the Council’s trust and nothing less would suffice. And yet the next full moon of Mallova the White could not come fast enough and it felt as though each passing day had Swarztial’s case and cause of bringing a new House to the throne growing stronger. Shala had to admit to herself that her father’s absence left a gaping hole and even to herself it was becoming apparent that she did not command the trust he did.

Wishing to get away from such thoughts she called for her two chambermaids, Erika and Lenise, to attend to her room. She would sit and work at outstanding charters of the kingdom at her desk, while the two chambermaids had little work to do in an already tidy room. The two common girls would then sit at Shala’s bed, gossiping while Shala worked. Usually she would listen with one ear, hearing them tell of the men in town they thought to be good prospects. It was often shallow talk, but it preoccupied Shala in a good way all the same. But today there was none of the normal excitement in their voices, and their low whispers had Shala pausing her quill to hear what they were saying:

There was talk of dark visitors in town, not uncommon after the passing of a great King. Nobles flocked from afar for the funeral ceremony, and with them came a migration of types Attoras would rather not have. Hallin the innkeeper talked of Reapers and those who collect death. He was often humoured by strangers and summarily dismissed by those who knew him well. The heavy-set could talk an endless variety of nonsense and spin a yarn like few, making him on the occasion a darling of the town or a bothersome annoyance if slightly drunk and proclaiming nothing but doom and the end of days.

And yet his stories had a way of creeping from ear to ear, so that Shala was surrounded by whispers of evil men seeping into Attoras. She had no time to concern herself with Reapers, knowing these stories came from the infamous innkeeper. She was already busy dealing with evil men and she had no wish to entertain nightmarish fears of little substance. The moment she did, they would be real enough for the Council to discuss, and it would be used against her because she was the monarch incumbent.

But these thoughts were barely dismissed when darkness settled in Attoras, the faultless sky taking a sudden turn and misty clouds wreathing their way from the north. Shala did not think much of it until the mists crept into town, and that when the clock hand stood at ten in the morning. With Attoras blanketed the dogs of the entire town started barking, their chorus like a contagion and some culminating into eerie howls that spoke of an intruder.

For the paranoia he caused Shala cursed Hallin silently, partly because she too felt it. She was barely removed from her chamber door when deBella arrived. ‘I thought you should not be alone Highness,’ the handmaiden said gravely, holding Shala’s urn the Princess noted.

‘Don’t tell me you too are bothered by Hallin’s ghost stories,’ Shala mocked the older woman.

‘Hardly, did your Highness care to have a look outside?’ asked deBella, obviously referring to the mists in town.

‘I did.’

‘Then it would not surprise you if I said Joshua thinks we need to perform Stallich,’ said deBella pressingly, with a raised eyebrow.

‘Joshua said that?’ she asked.

deBella nodded, looking smug after the Princess had been snide.

Shala doubled back on herself and became uncertain. deBella was rather new to the gifts of Evrelyn, and only shared in the dream of the Icy Falls for the better part of five years. She had only ever been midwife, nurse and handmaiden before that. Joshua however had been a disciple even in Shala’s grandfather’s reign.

In the time that Evrelyn took ascension, the ruling House had taken it upon themselves to perform Stallich rituals, where the receptive stones of the castle were endowed with the light of the Seluin waters. The King and all his disciples gathered at the pool to strengthen the Rules of Realm, and halt invaders to Attoras that could emerge from ghostly realms, bypassing things like walls and gates.

Shala herself had never performed Stallich before, but Joshua had been in three such rituals in his lifetime. Naturally he had some bond to the castle and its stones, almost as much as the Masons who laid the stones in the first place. Shala knew volumes of books could be written on the subject, but the bottom line was simple; if as much as a roach was out of place within the castle bounds then Joshua would suffer some kind of disquiet.’

‘He thinks this prudent?’ asked Shala, somehow hoping deBella was exaggerating to get back at her.

‘When he saw the mists, yes,’ said deBella with a disappointing seriousness.

Shala set off at a pace, deBella hurrying in her footsteps.

‘Where are we going, Princess?’ asked the older woman.

‘Let’s first see if there is reason to worry. I’d rather not have us all go up in arms and spend ourselves unnecessarily. We’ll go into town if need be.’

Once she had seen her father and the disciples perform Stallich. She had been too young to participate, but she remembered two things; a great pillar of light erupting from the pool behind the castle and the bone-weary fatigue that followed, having the whole lot of them indisposed for a week. Needless to say she was not keen on being bed-ridden. Not now. Besides, they still hosted Bishop Jaegosh, and the man had a lot of sway with the council. She did not want impressions floating around that the sovereignty was in danger with her in command.

On her way down a member of the household guard intercepted her. The man worriedly told her to approach carefully and looking over his shoulder she saw she wouldn’t need go into town after all. In the corridor stood an entire line of the household guard, their hands on their swords and their eyes trained on the wooden framed glass doors of the balcony. There was a look to them that spoke of impending defeat.

‘Your Highness, there is an emissary here, and he urgently wishes to speak to you,’ said the soldier, his face deathly white. By then Shala had a chill to her seeing the soldier so spooked.

She looked out through the window, studying the figure waiting for her on the balcony. Her heart came to a sudden halt, hammering a moment later to accommodate the lapse. Once in a lifetime Hallin would speak the truth, and he had chosen an awful time to accomplish it, thought Shala.

‘Stay here, deBella, but hand me the urn, I might have need of it.’

‘Highness-’

‘For once obey me! This thing is not human, it cannot be reasoned with!’ said Shala and left the handmaiden to stand there with fear on her face.

On the balcony Shala was alone with the man, or at least for now he appeared as a man. In what little daylight remained his face was waxen below the hood, and Shala reckoned no matter how much they could change shape they could never truly imitate the living. His black robe was voluminous, hiding all bodily movement but for his stride, tattered and torn around the fringes. Somewhere in there Shala knew the being held weapons of horrid cruelty, and was at all times ready for torture or massacre. That was their nature.

Highness,’ the man hissed in greeting.

‘For what reason must I abide such company?’ asked Shala, sounding much braver than she felt. It seemed to her that the sun was doing its best to stay hidden behind feeble woollen clouds.

‘Only to settle debts,’ said the creature, also foregoing any further pleasantries.

‘Debts? You are not welcome here, and in better days the very fibre of this castle would have kept you out! Should my authority be uncontested, as it should be, I will restore the sanctity of Attoras, and you will not even pass the lowest town gate where the weeds creep up to choke the fields of barley!’

Shala hated how shrill her voice sounded against the creature’s.

‘As I remember we remain free to wander all lands, and not to be impeded by any. We go where we go, because death is our realm, and death is everywhere.’

‘Yet the Crimson City denies you, because it is hallowed – and the Benevolence rests there! No debt can make you enter there, and so shall Attoras be as well. In my father’s youth those magi who practised light and protection in the castle were many; I will train a dozen or more to make it so again.’

‘You have only yourself to blame Princess. The rite you practiced allured me, and more of us will soon come if I am not satisfied. There is a price to be paid.’

‘My father was not saved and death not cheated, so I cannot see to this price you talk about. I only prayed that day, how are wraith-kind sent to me? Or do you lie to yourself to garner more victims? No foul magic was played by my hand!’ said Shala.

‘Victims, hmm, not necessarily. At times death is not what we seek. We balance, we adjust, and we settle accounts that are of interest to us.’

Shala did not like his use of the word “we”; it made her think there were more of him lurking about.

‘We came for your father, but since his soul is sealed, we will settle for less. Today you should rejoice Highness, for we would merely ask that the House of Evrelyn step down, so that another may take the crown.’

Shala was aghast. ‘How is everyone preoccupied with my House seceding from rule? I might have imagined it before, but you and Swarztial seem much alike, and I can see his hand in this. I have never heard of wraith-kind bother themselves with rule and sovereignty. Will you begin to ask for levy and tax as well? It seems politicians have even corrupted the ways of death if that is at all possible!’

‘Chancellor Swarztial must mediate the transition, so that House Sannil can provide a King for Attoras; that will repay debts and make things right for us.’

‘Of course it would, under Sannil’s negligence the realm will be full of death and my infirmary of healing hands would no longer operate. You would simply love such a turn of events...’

‘If you do not oblige, then we will visit again and our disposition might not be open for discussion.’

‘You are here only as an emissary wraith, and that’s the only reason I have tolerated you till now!’ said Shala angrily, as she dipped her hand in the waters of the urn even as it hung from her side. She held up her palm, and the wet sheen became bright against the sun, as though she held up a mirror, and the blessed light of the waters were revealed, white and furious in the shadow of the day.

The wraith cowed in pain, shuffling back toward the railing. ’You will not make threats against me idly, I have many enemies these days, and if you break the rules upon which your immunity lies I will strike you down with light! Do you heed me!?’ said Shala, not letting the luminance subside till she could find submission. Suddenly the wraith’s voice became ominous as it retreated from Shala’s magic, as though it held a cave within those robes and his voice was a wind that swept through it.

’We will come for you. Death is but in waiting Princess! Our rites have already taken hold in Attoras. Death is but in waiting!’

The wraith looked ready to vault itself from the railing just to escape the light. His head disappeared in his robes, and the robes fell flat like the trick of a magister, and from its cavities came a murder of crows, and they flew away out over the balcony and far to the horizon. Shala watched them sternly to ensure they did not return.

Gone from sight, she closed her eyes, staving off panic as best she could, breathing as she would when in the pool. The cold would be a luxury now compared to the terror of what was passing here. She went inside again, closing the balcony doors with a lock as though that would keep the wraith-kind out. deBella still waited for her there, her eyes fixed with concern. There would be no Stallich ritual, it would be too late. They could already enter. Our rites have already taken hold...

She knew she should not have turned hostile against the wraith, no matter how obvious the threat he made. Lines were drawn now and she feared she had only worsened her cause. But for all her sorrow, worry and anger the wraith could come right back and she would confront it again as she did. The length of the corridor was still filled with men of the guard, who had all waited out the events on the balcony anxiously. None of them looked at her. They were good loyal men, but there was uncertainty in the collection of faces. It’s all coming to an end. They will follow a new ruler before Mallova reaches its height.

II

The following day they were gathered in the throne room. This time Shala was surrounded by many men as opposed to her lonesome wanderings - there were councillors up in the gallery and soldiers keeping watch as the meeting progressed. It was as tense a gathering as Shala could imagine.

They were discussing matters of the realm, the day’s petitioners out of the way and leaving Shala weary. The news of the wraith visiting the castle had spread far, and was the undertone of all their discussions. It was a nightmare for her. Swarztial led this as a campaign against Evrelyn, and he paced the floor up and down, speaking for the council, relaying their will, and his words tore at the Princess.

‘By the will of the realm and for the safety of all who stand here, your father must be buried as soon as a new dawn. Lest we invite more tragedy-’

’My father did not want to be buried. He wanted to set out to Nem Nemuris, and I’ve obliged him by sealing him in stasis. He can be taken by carriage and-’

‘You have endangered us all!’ shouted Swarztial suddenly.

‘By my father’s wish-’

’By some plan of a dying man, by the babble of one whocannot think clearly on his deathbed you decided in all your wisdom to seal yourfather in his own body. He has been denied death! Now the wraiths haunt the land and-’

Shala jumped up where she sat, ’I did not use dark magic! The magic I use is pure and it is of the same stuff I use to heal!’

More quiet and calm now Swarztial said, ’You say you didn’t use forbidden magic, but I know the truth. Your father was too far gone to be sealed by traditional means... so you used darker arts, and in doing so you allured the wraith-kind. I do not know how else to condemn, save by saying: For one who would stoop to such low practice, repent and lay your father to rest, else you are not fit to rule this land!’

Shala sat back in her chair. ‘You already condemn me with your lies and your disrespect. Not once since you’ve entered this place have you acted as though I could be your Queen. And all those in the gallery are seeing me as lessened, for your pride and joy is in denouncing those who would not rule the realm to your liking.’

’A question then Your Highness: why have you not embarked south toward the Dream of Embers? Why not give rule over to another and do what your father now cannot? Would you not save the land and be of some use? Your father raised you to be noble, and now the House of Council all ask: to what greatness will you live, or will you squander yourself here on the throne, where your rule is already weak?’

It was a dire question and Shala knew if she did not answer it would leave an even darker taint on the minds of the other councillors.

‘If I could serve best by making the pilgrimage I would, but the people here have need of me and I won’t leave them to be ruled by others I deem unworthy. Besides, the deed is done, my father is sealed and with a proper escort he can...’

’Your father will be buried, here, in Attoras!’ interrupted Swarztial, ’Every day he lingers in his chambers he allures more evil and if he goes out onto the road he will stir every miscreant from here to Nem Nemuris. No escort will survive it! I ask you Princess, consider the safety of the realm and bury your father.Let his soul rest in peace!’

Shala saw everyone in the gallery lean forward just so slightly in anticipation of her answer.

She was not sure. There was little to be salvaged here. No one wanted to suffer the presence of wraith-kind and they would blame her father’s undeparted soul without cause. ’Father Jaegosh, what would the Crimson City say? I wish to take my father to Nem Nemuris, but I’m afraid my intention might cause more harm than good. We would have your advice in this matter,’ asked Shala in desperation. But she realized he was not likely to lean toward her side.

The crimson-robed man stood up, and spoke solemnly. ‘The matter is clear child; let us not cause any further danger. I can see that your intent has been nothing but good, and I’m not too partial to Chancellor Swarztial’s demeanour to you. But let us err on the side of caution, if I could have a say in it and speak on behalf of Allandiel; let your father be buried and be rid of the evils that have shown themselves in these days.’

His words were followed by silence and then many expectant gazes fell back on Shala.

She finally nodded, despondent, barely keeping in check frustrated tears. ‘Then it is done and ordered. My father will be entombed right here in Attoras, among his predecessors...’ she said without any heart.

Shala was about to rise, she felt as if she had just aged ten years in the throne. If every council is going to be like this then I don’t want this throne, she found herself thinking.‘Are we done now? Can we adjourn?’ asked Shala as a formality. She wanted to flee to her chambers, or at least find some solitude in the library.

’Actually, no your Grace,’ said Swarztial, ’There is another urgent matter which the council brought forth in recent months and your father failed to rule on it given his condition. Firstly I would say the matter has been forwarded by the people, I of course referring to a charter they gave us labelled Des Pellu...’

Shala groaned silently by herself, by some miracle not letting her face show her displeasure. Des Pellu was the name of the land holdings bordering the town of Attoras in the north. It was a good strip of land overrun with trees: fertile and beautiful and with streams gracing through it from the black mountains in the west. Des Pellu was also the natural path of expansion for a growing Attoras. Yet it was already sanctioned by the Druids as one of their hallowed Groves and long before Shala was even born the Kings never compromised their relationship with the Druids. Not for anything.

‘Chancellor, my father’s words must be familiar to you by now. The Druids are our closest allies, and though this is our land we give them free reign over the many forests. They do good like only they can, and their worth is immeasurable to us, in peace and in war.’

‘Your Highness, the town is prospering, and pressed fat against its borders. Newcomers and ripened children leaving their parents’ home demand more room - room that will not see them sprout shacks on a dangerous hillside! Lumberjacks have travelled here already with great anticipation and the wood will be put to good use, the trees can be stripped quickly and expansion can commence with vigour. This is the will of the town and it will mean much for it. Will you not consider it?’ asked Swarztial with an air of expectation.

Shala knew Swarztial didn’t really care about the town’s expansion, not right now in any case. It was a devious decision to slide in before the Princess. The town indeed needed to extend its borders, and the people begged for it to be done in the direction of Des Pellu. If she sided with the Druids like she must, she would only worsen her case before the council and the people might turn against her as well. Swarztial knew the Druids were fierce allies of House Evrelyn and he was going to exploit it for all its worth.

‘The Druids and their way with the land are a hallowed part of the Kingdom. I will not let it be touched,’ said Shala.

‘Hallowed? We have had this out of fashion relationship with the Druids for far too long. I will remind you in the presence of Jaegosh that the Crimson City does not approve of these Druids. Besides, what special right do they have, few as they are, that they may keep a hundred acres each, but our own people have not even land to toil on? Where is the justice?’

Shala almost felt the villain. Swarztial had some gift of persuasion, but she would stick true to what her father believed in.

’The justice is in the trust you must owe me on the matter. We do not delve over land for nothing only to scare animals away. We don’t contaminate our own water or strangle the grasslands, so that there is nothing to fish and nothing to hunt. We do not chase away the wildcats or bring them to extinction, lest there become an imbalance in the fabric of nature,’ her own argument sounding feeble to herself.

‘Comparing the Druids to animals now are we?’ said Swarztial, slowly and thoughtfully, as though tasting the words. ‘How fitting!’ he cried in mirth to the gallery, sponsored by a few laughs from his yes-men above. ’I actually agree with you, Your Highness; these Druids are barbarous and uncivilized,’ he said with now badly disguised sincerity, ‘we should treat them as animals, with respect and dignity I mean to say, but only to the measure that they don’t impede on our prosperity, the civilized man!’

‘That’s insulting! And not my meaning at all!’ cried Shala.

‘It is a god’s wonder one of those flower children aren’t running around naked as we speak!’

‘They-’

‘But then we do not need them to run naked in our halls do we Highness? As our very own Princess is already at it!’ said Swarztial, looking accusingly at her and then adding softly, ‘what indignity...’

‘I stand naked in the waters of Seluin as part of a ritual. It gives strength and is a proud rite of Attoras!’ she reprimanded.

‘Rituals and ancient history... and honouring things that are long dead... Your Highness, with each new rule comes change, and your father knew this well mind you. Part now with the past as you must part with your father. Let us go into the future with new minds and renounce rituals that even the Crimson City do not approve of,’ he said once again casting a glance at Jaegosh for emphasis. He turned to Shala and looked her dead-set in the eyes. ‘If Your Highness cannot enforce change I bid you, once again, that you should not take this throne and leave it to those more deserving.’

Deserving? My father was King! And he whom you wish to install is not capable. My answer is no, the Druids will not be chased from their sleep, no axe will be taken to the grove on Des Pellu and they will have their peace. In time we will resolve the issues of the town borders, but not at the expense of the Druids. My choice is made,’ said Shala coldly.

III

There was a disturbance in the castle yard, luring the Princess outside on a day she had little else to do for a change. She asked Captain Merohan to escort her, and deBella followed in their wake, as though certain that the fine Captain needed to be bolstered by a plump, middle-aged woman. Shala suspected the handmaiden wanted to remain closer to her for a great many reasons.

Many craftsmen were allowed into the yard that day, swerving widely around the clout of the Princess’s royalty as she approached, them attending wooden scaffolding set up against the castle walls. Freshly unloaded from sturdy wagons were rather grotesque statues in ranks like oversized chess pieces, for the moment cluttered until they could be designated a place on the castle.

‘They are hideous,’ said deBella in disgust, looking at a stone gargoyle yet to be hoisted up.

Shala frowned. ‘This has not been ordered with my approval,’ she said in dismay.

‘It is an old charter Your Highness, delayed by the death of your father the King. The council executed it only recently,’ said Merohan.

‘And of course they could not be bothered to consult me about it,’ remarked Shala disapprovingly.

‘You already have enough to deal with child,’ said deBella.

‘But this concerns me. Why bother with the excessive platforms? It has the feeling of our castle being scaled by strangers, I have no stomach for it!’ she continued angrily.

‘They can only lift the heavy statues on the outside Highness, so they have cranes and pulleys, and the scaffolding is required for the builders to shore up the ledges upon which they will stand.’

’I do not like this Captain. You know this castle was not built by some ragged band of builders, but by the Masons themselves. The Masons. They might have left this part of the world, but they crafted their work with their magic, and the stone they set were stones of power. It gave this place protection and made of it a realm, where evil could not breach... Adding anything untoward can compromise that protection.’

‘But then your father himself approved it, Highness,’ said Merohan hesitatingly, feeling the Princess’s foul mood, ‘That is why the Council had it done and ordered.’

‘I hate to say this Merohan, but my father’s mind was not always clear at the end of his days. He had a deadly fever at times, giving him harsh dreams, and there was a moment that I sat at his side in which he mistook me for my mother; he called me Salstasha.’

‘I see, yet there is no great mystery in that Your Highness. You very much resemble your mother the late Queen.’

‘I’ve been told that,’ said Shala, looking away.

Merohan knew not to say anything further. The Princess was bearing the weight of legacy, and it was not possible to escape such legacy when you have it staring back at you in the mirror.

‘Let’s turn in Your Highness, these builders can be careless, and have been known to drop stones from on high. I won’t have Your Grace struck by such.’

‘Very well.’ Shala cast one more glance at the ugly gargoyle in the yard, soon destined to be hoisted up, ’Swarztial must like having the castle crafted in his own image, it’s a pity we can’t have him stand on a ledge all day, especially on the more breezier days.’

Merohan laughed outright, having little love for the Chancellor himself. deBella shook her head, hoping that one day the Princess could measure her words better out in the open.

Before crossing the threshold Shala spotted a sharp movement in the sky. She stopped to watch with some intent. Merohan caught up to her thoughts and said, ’Only a large hawk Highness. Although the guard Aphelas on the tower top tells me he has seen an eagle circle the castle grounds endlessly on some days.

‘If it was Metrus he would have shown himself by now,’ said Shala, opposing her own hopes. They turned to go indoors, Shala already planning what she would do by tomorrow.

Shala sent for Kaell when the morning had not yet dawned. She wore a plain brown coat over garments that were old and worn and mostly used for her trips to Norwain, so that she looked noble no more. All except for her riding boots that is, which she was sure would not easily fall under scrutiny. With her hood up she made her way down to the front entrance, with all the to-do of one aiming at escape.

It had been such a long time since she had last gotten the chance to ride and the idea of putting Attoras behind her was enthralling. There were no such freedoms in the current state of affairs, and definitely not after a funeral and on the eve of a coronation. ‘I would be a reluctant companion Highness,’ Merohan had said when she had asked him to accompany her, ‘with so many matters of state to settle it is not advisable to be seen gallivanting around town. Besides, it is before a coronation that a royal member has the most enemies. Let us not tempt the dangers of going out on the road.’

deBella’s own response was simply ’no!’ and much to Merohan’s relief Shala called the idea off. In her waking hours however she had changed her mind, she would go about it without them, in secret, and if Erika her chambermaid could keep her mouth shut, return without them knowing a thing. She had sent the selfsame chambermaid to fetch Kaell, who Shala needed to get out of the castle, and as a companion besides.

In the morning hours she merely nodded at a scant few guards monitoring the halls and they were none the wiser of who she might be. The odd one cast but a glance at her passing, just to assess whether she was someone of threat.

She escaped notice until one of the guard did indeed call her over, and she approached reluctantly in defeat, lest he chase after her in suspicion and bring her down in a tackle. He would recognize her of course, but she would demand silence from him.

But with the hood over her head, the dimness in the hall, and the thick-headedness of standing watch through a night shift, the man could not care to take a proper look at her. She was going to be lucky.

‘Ah, you have nice slim arms on you maiden,’ said the guard as if in revelation.

Shala made a face below her hood. That was the last thing she had expected the man to say.

He seemed to realize the nonsense of his statement and said, ‘I mean to ask for aid my Lady, I played with a coin of my pittance, to keep myself awake as you might understand, but I dropped the blasted thing and it rolled in underneath these pews! Built as they are I can’t get my arm in underneath. Might I ask simply for you to retrieve it?’

With some sympathy and without answering Shala swooped down and reached in beneath the narrow frame of the corridor pew, where men in waiting to petition the King might sit, and she found the man’s golden coin without trouble.

‘There you are,’ she said in a voice unlike her own, handing it over.

‘Much obliged,’ he thanked her, and held it up, polishing the dust from it with a wolfish grin. ‘Have you ever seen a coin so splendid?’ he said, still with a grin and a sideways glance at her, in an obvious attempt to impress.

Shala should have left then, but could not stop herself. ‘Yes, many times. A lot of men who are paid in monthly silver trade their coins for a single gold coin, for the convenience or the vanity of it. But you stand to lose a portion of what you earn. As it stands there are roughly twelve silvers to a gold, but you would not get twelve silvers’ worth paying with a gold coin, especially if you are inclined to roaming from one merchant to another.’

Now the guard made a face that was not of comprehension.

‘It is customary for merchants to keep a half-silver of change if there is any. This way the rich pay a little more for the convenience of carrying less weight. To us common born however it is worth the effort to simply carry the silver and make use of its full value.’

‘Fine advice! I did not even know that there are any maidens working in the treasury,’ said the guard airily.

‘No dear sir, there are no women in the castle dealing with treasury, and that’s a shame. I’m simply close to Her Highness and make use of the little wisdom she preaches,’ said Shala.

‘I am Salonce. Might I ask your name?’ he blurted.

‘No you cannot, we are still strangers you and I, and until we meet again you will remain so.’

‘And why would a maiden wander around at these hours? If I had a choice myself I would still be wrapped in a coat of blankets.’

‘I assure you there is no choice to it, I have many duties to see to and I decided to get an early start. Farewell guardsman, dawn approaches and you’ll be off duty soon enough.’

‘I wish! The marshal Gibbon makes it his pride to do an assembly every other morning and sets us marching as though we are preparing for a parade. The man is merciless... But let me put it out there, next time we meet we’ll not be strangers, and then I’ll have your name and have you know that my bunk has always room for a fair maiden.’

‘I would certainly have to think about that, till next time soldier, now I must be off,’ said Shala and stalked away, wondering if the man would ever realize he had just offered his... affections, to the daughter of the ruling House.

‘Farewell and thank you kindly!’ shouted Salonce after her.

She’d been wrong. The man wasn’t thick of skull because he was tired, he was simply a half-wit and not blessed with any great amount of sense. But then again she was not judging of this man, she could always have found him sleeping on duty, which was rumoured to happen, and then he would have no purpose as a member of the guard. At the brink of leaving the hall she heard the man tossing his coin up and down again and she left thinking about a story of a fool and his gold that were soon parted.

She had to wait for Kaell at the entrance hall, the cook looking around confoundedly to finally spot her keeping out of sight, in the shadow of the staircase.

‘What took you?’ she hissed. ‘Did Erika sneak you a kiss? I know she likes you even if she would never admit it in front of Lenise.’

Kaell blushed, ’No Highness, I’m hassled by your summons. It was a rather rude awakening and I didn’t sense this affection you think Erika might have for me. I am used to rising to the gentle tap of a robin pecking away at my small window, not by being smothered by my own spare pillow. I thought one of my fellow cooks finally decided to stoop to murder.’

Shala laughed in her throat. ‘Stop being so piteous Kaell, Erika had her fun with you because she knows you too well. I think she finds your innocence endearing.’ Again he blushed.

’Well she risked much, it was dark you see and I was on the verge of sounding high alarm when I accidently realized my assailant had breasts and that she was giggling at my desperation. This trip might’ve ended before it started.’

Shala in the meanwhile was on the verge of telling Kaell to be quiet before he made her laugh the whole castle awake.

‘By the way Highness, at this point in time I would like to express my doubts about this plan,’ said Kaell worryingly.

‘You do? When we are caught I was hoping to tell them this was all your idea,’ said Shala, enjoying watching Kaell squirm in his own skin, which he so easily did.

Walking through the bailey to the postern gate Kaell asked, ‘How does Your Highness suppose we pass the gate?’

‘Didn’t Erika tell you? You’re off to buy emergency kitchen supplies silly, and I am a kitchen hand to help you.’

‘Intriguing,’ commented Kaell, and he was left to explain exactly this story to the guards at the gate. They seemed annoyed at the early disturbance but at least not suspicious as to who might hide under the cloak. They were let through and into town.

Shala was almost disappointed that she could breach her own guard this easily. It’s probably harder getting in, she consoled herself.

Kaell remained nervous even as they cleared away from the castle, and for good many reasons, he thought. If something even threatened to befall the Princess, he would be held accountable in any case. Not by the Princess herself, but by the much worse wrath of the household guard. He could already see Master Gremhalden whipping him with his one good arm.

‘It could be dangerous out in the streets Highness,’ protested Kaell again.

‘Which is why I’m bringing you along, am I not?’

‘My willingness to throw myself between you and danger notwithstanding, I fear I may prove of little resistance against any who means us harm.’

‘Then I will look out for both of us, I am armed,’ showing Kaell a sharp kitchen knife she stowed away deep in her robe. ‘And I will not hesitate faced with danger,’ she added confidently.

‘Then I am comforted in all but pride, had I only the mind to bring one of the kitchen knives... or at least some hotcakes to provide distraction with,’ said Kaell rather seriously.

Shala laughed. ‘Who will harm us Kaell?’

Kaell thought he would rather not answer.

Shala enjoyed the awakening Attoras immensely. Huge droves of pigeons fluttered from the cobblestone roads to the roofs as the first men began to roam and mill, getting ready for the day. The sun climbed ever higher, breaching the long shadows and lightening the fountain in the town centre, then the statues, and finally the bridge running over the only canal in Attoras, splitting the city into the smaller west and slightly larger east side of town.

The madam Telesa already readied her little shop near the castle gates, where she normally sold hot fudge from the chocolatiers as fast as they could make them. In turn the town children were allured here, playing games such as football or marbles, while others took their kites to just beyond the northern premises, where the wind was favourable.

Following the kites Kaell and Shala headed directly north to the upper branch of town. The stables here, though smaller, were still of castle property and maintained for the convenience of laying right at the edge of town. Shala got them past the doors with a little key that opened a large lock, the chains that kept the bolt secure clattering on the little stone porch.

‘I hope the grooms don’t come around too early, they might think the horses were taken by thieves,’ said Kaell.

Shala ignored his worries.

Inside they readied their horses, Shala taking her favourite mare from this particular stock, while Kaell chose the one horse he could even remotely ride, a grey flecked gelding with flat ears. He’s so clumsy with horses thought Shala, watching him struggle to get the horse to a standstill for the saddling.

Lucky that he could ride and that it would not be the first time they go off like this, although usually they did so with at least five members of the household guard. She clucked her tongue at him impatiently until they were finally ready.

Outside now was a sprinkle of snow here and there, making small heaps melting sodden into the road, just enough for a person to habitually look up into Dunnoom to see if a blizzard raged at its peaks.

They cantered, hugging close to the northern hills, sympathetic to all those little roads that saw neither hoof nor boot in the last few years. Kaell had the worst time keeping up, the horse growing more and more irritated with its incompetent master.

The Princess was not helping either, as she seemed to choose her path in a haphazard fashion and derived some insidious pleasure from changing their course into increasingly thick forested areas. Low bridging branches nearly unhorsed Kaell more than once, and his cheeks stung from twigs that swatted him like switches. He was not born with that knack of swerving with a certain anticipation and he was in wonderment that the Princess showed not a single mark. There was not even a hint that her clothes got snagged on a bush somewhere.

He got all the more anxious, hoping that the Princess knew the way back; he certainly didn’t. They came to a glade and stopped, for which Kaell was incredibly grateful. He was more out of breath than his horse.

‘I win,’ said Shala airily with a smile.

‘I was unaware that we were racing Your Highness,’ said Kaell breathlessly, ‘but then I should probably have realized it. Although in my defence even if I could overtake you I would have had no idea of where to ride, since you pick the course...’

Shala frowned. ‘Did you fall from your horse Kaell?’ she asked, seeing he was more haggard than he should be, his previously clean shirt having the faint rub-off of wild grass and dirt.’

‘Only once Highness. Bloody beast’s fault, stopping when it shouldn’t.’

‘Are you okay then?’ she asked with an uncertain laugh.

‘Of course Highness, luckily I broke most of the fall with my face. I had to run to catch up again to the horse after I fell, which is why I am a little more than spent.’

Shala burst out laughing, bringing her hand to her mouth as though to cram the mirth back inside.

Kaell smiled. ‘It’s good to see you laugh again Highness. The castle would be better off if they could hear what I hear.’

Shala looked kindly onto Kaell. ‘I’m more at ease out here Kaell. The castle has become a morbid place.’

‘Where is this?’ asked Kaell, noticing a dramatic change in the forest structure.

‘I told you, I often come here, this is as close as the Druids come to Attoras. They don’t like cities you know.’

Kaell took a good look about him. ‘So this is the boundary of the Grove?’

‘Yes, they keep the forests and maintain the balance of nature.’

‘Are we to meet someone here?’

‘No silly. Most of the Druids sleep and Metrus sees to all of Norwain. It is almost impossible to track him down. My father had some special way of finding him, but for the rest of us it is a matter of waiting for him to make contact.’

‘A strange man,’ said Kaell.

’A good man,’ corrected Shala.

For a moment they stood in silence, looking up at the wall of trees, silent sentinels that had stood here years beyond counting, their roots so thick and overlaid that from thereon no horse regiment or marching army could pierce further into the Grove. Nothing stirred here, except for the most indistinct breeze, barely swaying the topmost branches. Although Kaell by chance did spot a squirrel, the creature chased on by the haste of its kind, as though it stole through a place where it knew there would be danger.

Losing sight of it Kaell only then noticed a searching look on the Princess’s features. She was certainly not following the keen little creature with that look. ‘You hope for the chance that Metrus would appear?’ he asked.

Shala nodded. ‘It is vain I know. This Grove alone covers more than a thousand acres. He could be anywhere. I did not truly expect him to be close. In some ways he knew my father’s secrets better than even Naceus. I wish I could show him my father’s note, so that he could allay some of my fears.’

‘What is it that you fear so Highness?’ asked Kaell.

Shala did not answer, even when it seemed that she wanted to. Rather she said, ‘Swarztial wants this section of forest levelled so that the town may expand. I couldn’t let that happen, not when we count on the Druids as allies. I couldn’t...’

Kaell understood her conflict. The council was using her alliance with the Druids as a means to alienate her from her own people.

‘The forest here seems to slumber... did you say Druids sleep? All the time?’

‘Most of the time,’ said Shala smiling, ’don’t worry, I don’t understand it too well either. “They dream,” is what Metrus said, and I know there is power in what they do.’

Kaell nodded. ’Is it... is that anything like the Benevolence?’ he asked hesitatingly.

‘I would say yes, although I’m not any kind of authority on the subject matter. In the Crimson City they have a great vault in which He slumbers for all eternity. He dreams of the world and so He sees everything, hears everything. Where He sees fit he bestows mercy, and sometimes He takes away. He took away from me Kaell.’

Yes, a father, a mother and even a baby brother. Kaell did not want her to grow sombre again and so sought to change the subject. But what could he possibly say after speaking of the Benevolence and lost loved ones?

She continued. ‘They say that we’ve been living in an era of isolation, that since the Benevolence walks Angaria no longer the divide between a hard world and the wonders of magic is growing. Nations have become strangers to each other and the Starwall has come to divide the world. They say even the stars are not as bright as they used to be, as though they too are in retreat.’

Shala looked up questioningly at Kaell as he smirked, and she saw him putting up his bravest smile for her sake. ‘If the stars have been running away from other places then they are with the skies of Attoras now. They are bright especially of late. I see a crown of stars from the castle windows, as good an omen as one gets before a queen is coronated.’

Shala smiled broadly at the notion that Kaell had discovered that corner of the sky by himself. ‘That omen as you call it does not belong to me alone, maybe I’ll tell you what it really means someday.’

‘Will that be soon Highness?’

‘Might be sooner than you think. Although it depends largely on your continued friendship, despite what omens you see in the sky I might soon be without a castle and you serving a King from Rostrad. We might be far removed from each other.’

Kaell shook his head. ‘I have no qualms that both I and others would not see eye to eye with a ruler other than yourself, Highness. Particularly this Patrick everyone is speaking off.’

‘You’d follow me in exile?’ asked Shala in disbelief.

‘I’m here now am I not?’ said Kaell.

That was enough to bring a brief look of satisfaction over her face.

‘How about your parents, Kaell? Are they of Attoras?’

‘I’m one of life’s many orphans, Highness. There’s plenty of us to go around,’ said Kaell with bleak humour.

Shala shook her head. ‘That’s enough of a break for now, let’s head back before the day grows too late. We have to buy those kitchen supplies anyhow.’

‘I thought the kitchen supplies were a charade?’ asked Kaell as they mounted.

‘They are, but how do you suppose we explain returning empty-handed to the guards at the gate?’ asked Shala.

‘Point taken Your Highness,’ said Kaell, although he was rather certain the Princess wanted an excuse to roam about town, which is exactly what they did the moment they returned.

With the horses locked up in the stables again Shala eagerly took to the streets, Kaell following in her wake and monitoring the sun’s progress. He had the day off, but those who knew the Princess would grow worried for her being locked up in her room the whole day. I hope Erika knows how to deal with deBella with a straight face.

Not for the first time Kaell was impressed by the Princess’ manner. Not for a moment did she take her nobleness with her out on the streets. Even hidden in her brown robe she always looked like a pretty thing, but there was nothing to suggest she was coming from the castle. When she talked she was polite and humble, and her voice almost a bit nasal to mask her royal origins.

Moving from shop to shop she’d walk at Kaell’s right and usually a step behind him, to complete the illusion that she was truly his assistant. Of course it was still she that decided where they would go.

After passing the bakery, its pleasant smells still following them, they turned into a street that they maybe should have avoided. The pillories were lined here, men who had deserted the King’s garrison to the north-east of Attoras locked up in wooden stocks, their hands and heads pitifully exposed to public abuse.

Shala and Kaell knew their crime because of the town crier, bellowing their misdeeds for all to be heard, his fervour often inspiring the odd passerby to throw all sorts of produce at the men held in stocks.

‘What a waste,’ said Kaell looking at tomatoes and cabbages splattering against the wood.

Kaell wanted to rush them through this street as fast as possible, but the Princess kept lingering, as though intrigued by the men who had forgone their duty to the King. Kaell was worried about how riled up a mob could get in settings like these and with the crowd in the street growing he was certain they would find trouble sooner rather than later.

‘Let’s keep moving Princess, I will bake anything of your heart’s desire if we can get through this day without trouble,’ he urged in a whisper and pressed her gently in the small of her back in a move that was a bit uncharacteristic for the timid cook.

Glad to be out of harm’s way, they browsed shops with kitchen utensils, but before Shala could buy something Kaell stopped her, saying he would rather not arrive at the castle with a clatter of pots and try and explain to Master Jalson why he brought home unnecessary cooking gear. ‘Let’s go to the spice shop. We can buy something to show the guards and it’s easier for me to stash away in the storage once we’re in the castle. No one will think twice about spare spices.’

Shala wholeheartedly agreed.

Kaell could not have known, but it was their stop at the spice shop that would be disastrous.

‘Halt cook!’

Kaell turned with a grimace. They were already leaving and up till now they had avoided any unnecessary contact. The big bearded owner of the shop walked up to him, his belly swaying side to side, and held up a coin he had just taken from Kaell. ‘How fool are you to walk around buying with marked silver? Buying with King’s stash?’

Shala’s eyes widened where she stood, Kaell hoping this suspicious lug of a man had not seen it. Luckily he seemed very much focused on Kaell.

’Fool enough that it is the only money I buy with, since I come from the castle, and I’m here on their behest, buying their supplies.’ Since the man had noticed it would be folly for Kaell to deny otherwise.

‘Ah, so you are on a castle errand. You had at least thought this story through, eh? Hmm, it’s a nice opportunity wouldn’t you say, buying with marked silver?’

‘I’m afraid I do not follow sir,’ said Kaell.

‘I see trouble the minute it enters my street cook, if you really are a cook and if you really do come from the castle. I have never seen you come to my shop and I know the lads that visit on the castle’s behalf.’

‘He is indisposed, so I came in his place,’ lied Kaell.

The shopkeeper did not budge, looking at Kaell as though he was going to spill his true origins given enough inspection.

‘State your case,’ said Kaell in annoyance.

’You buy supplies, yet you bring along a skinny girl in a big voluminous coat, now for what use can that be I wonder? But I know your game, from to shop to shop you buy with marked silver, the merchants grinning from ear to ear because it is good untainted money that doesn’t crumble in the hand, and your lady friend here browses at the back of a happy merchant, taking a look and a feel at this and that, but never putting back. And where might you have gotten the money really? Is it a nobleman drifting face down in the canal that can answer that, or is the poor man still alive? Either way, they reward handsomely these days for taking criminals to the castle.’

Kaell froze and Shala tugged at him to run. This was a mistake, this entire expedition and the shopkeeper’s foolish notions. The shopkeeper grabbed her wrist and pulled her in close with one burly arm. She gasped and Kaell’s hands were in his hair, helpless as he was. If the man could but know who he was touching...

‘What might I find if I rummaged through her many pockets? Come here girl,’ said the man as he wrenched her arm upright so that she was strung up like a fish on a line. Shala had the mind not to scream, but she could not do anything better either. Suddenly Kaell was between them and Shala could barely register what was happening, the look of the shop owner as surprised as she was, standing paralyzed with a knife to his throat, his hand still clasped on Shala’s wrist.

‘Unhand her,’ quivered Kaell’s voice, standing in close to the man, holding the knife to the jugular. The man stood more upright, he did not release Shala but neither was he keeping her on her toes anymore.

Shala had not seen it, but Kaell had swept in and stolen the knife she had hidden in her coat as deft as the pickpocket he was being accused for, and then turned on the shopkeeper.

‘You don’t have the stomach,’ the man grumbled, although clearly nervous, feeling the prick of the blade.

‘No I don’t,’ agreed Kaell, ‘but these royal kitchen knives cut through bone and sinew effortlessly, and I need only slip my hand to open a wound that not even the infirmary is going to save you from.’

‘Murderous,’ the man stuttered, his forehead beaded with sweat now. ‘I knew it.’

‘We are not criminals sir, and don’t cause us to become such, now let her go,’ said Kaell.

‘Get out of my sight,’ the man said, releasing the Princess and retreating with his back turned on them, by the look of it closing his shop for the day.

Kaell and the Princess stalked away quickly, not talking before they were well away from the shop, the sight of the castle gates bringing back some colour to the Princess’ face.

‘You have a sharp mind on you Kaell, you just saved us from much trouble. That was very brave.’

‘No Highness, brave is facing Master Gremhalden’s caning with a straight face - we shouldn’t have come here, I should not have allowed you to leave the castle!’

‘Allow me?’ asked the Princess in amusement.

‘Might be that I could drag Your Highness down before going on an uncalled for adventure. I might still get caned for the act, but at least you will be alive afterwards.’

‘Your care is touching Kaell,’ said Shala sweetly.

‘Yes Highness, but I was thinking that I would rather have your healing hands ready, for my back and thighs anyhow. Master Gremhalden can throw three daggers at fifteen yards into the backrest of a chair within a grouping of two inches, but for some reason when he picks up the rod he hacks away at us like a blind woodsman.’

The Princess laughed, the excitement of what had happened making her mirth sound giddy. ‘You have had many of these canings before?’

’Only once Highness, and I’m unlikely to forget it. Marc of the kitchen has come to call Gremhalden lightning, for he never manages to strike twice on the same spot. Poor fellow gets caned so much for his mischief he looks like a zebra neck down on the backside.’

‘Then you will have my healing hands available when next you suffer a caning,’ said the Princess, still in the throes of laughter.

‘Thank you Your Highness, but I would rather avoid it altogether. Sure makes for an exciting day, it isn’t often that I hope to find sanctuary in Master Jalson’s kitchen.’

‘Hmm, I can’t believe that man didn’t recognize me,’ said Shala.

‘People see what they want to see, and he had already made his mind up about the two of us. Besides Highness, good ruler or no, your face is unfamiliar to most in Attoras.’

The Princess frowned. ‘That is a pity. People should at least know the face that commands them.’

‘It is also good Highness. I know of rulers who have lookalikes play the imposter to confuse potential enemies.’

‘I need such an imposter if only to deal with the dreariness of council meetings,’ said Shala, the idea appealing to her.

With some hope on Kaell’s part they made it back through the postern gate without any hindrance, only to find deBella waiting for them at the steps of the front doors to the castle, her arms crossed and her gaze trained on their approach. Erika had obviously faltered under deBella’s suspicions.

Even at this distance Kaell could see she had a mighty scorn on her face, and he groaned, knowing she would have recognized the two of them even in the dark. ‘What are you moaning about, it’s only deBella,’ said the Princess.

‘Yes Highness, but unlike Gremhalden the handmaiden holds a grudge even against the least of us, and she has some strange sway over the guard. Expect me to come for your healing hands quite soon,’ lamented Kaell.

Shala did not answer or appear to have heard, as she too floundered under deBella’s stony look, her own conscious calling her guilty beyond a doubt before she could fathom any worthwhile excuse.

IV

On the day of the burial the bells were tolling, twelve rings on every hour for three hours. Those admitted past the arches and into the catacombs flocked solemnly down steps neglected, the tomb of kings offering the quiet chill of stone set under the surface. The ceremony itself took place here, the entrance of the underground fashioned as a basilica, its many hallways leaking into the corridors of the long dead.

Shala found the place inherently morbid, with no windows to provide natural lighting and the scant furnishings leaving it looking bare. Even considering herself devout she came here not too often. One day, provided we have space, we will build a real church above ground, Shala decided.

Upon entering she became self-conscious of her clothes. More specifically, she wore a hairnet set with gemstones, an heirloom from her mother’s side and so a very sentimental piece to wear. She did however wonder if doing so was a mistake, as the splendour of the many diamonds drew attention to her on a day that she’d rather go unnoticed.

The most prominent of the realm were in attendance and they had come out in numbers, some from very far. Many of those were truly sympathetic, while others were here simply to show their faces, so as not to be discounted for the future furnishings of the kingdom. Of course only few of them were delusional enough to think they could take the throne or be close to it. Rather, with new rule, they’d hope to procure more favourable positions and maybe new landownership, and there would be no chance of that if they stayed holed up far away in Nortalon, Rostrad or the Estermarch.

Before the ceremony could start Shala had a look about the place, wishing to stand by those who knew her father best. But she saw nothing of Scholar Naceus, having thought his short frame hidden somewhere behind someone tall.

It wasn’t long before she realized he was not in attendance at all. Shala walked determinedly towards Swarztial, where he was seemingly clustered among members of the council of the same persuasion. Even before she could approach the man deeply angered her, as a passerby elicited some reaction from him, and he made another false show of grief for the King.

‘Yes Princess, how may I be of service?’ he enquired, as though he remembered nothing of their previous clashes, as though there was any kind of lasting civility between the two of them.

‘Where might Scholar Naceus be?’ asked Shala.

‘Highness, he is not royalty and does not own a place close to the king, why should he be here?’ asked Swarztial, sweeping the beret from his head.

‘You denied him entry! He was my father’s closest friend!’ hissed Shala.

’Kings don’t have friends, Princess, they have subjects, and all subjects have their place. Scholar Naceus’ place is not here, not with this occasion.’

A hundred different retorts got caught up in Shala’s throat. She stalked away angrily. This was not the place to make a scene. Soon however her frustration melted away. The songs had started.

A choir of townsfolk attended, aged young and old, the lot of them dressed in white shifts and they occupied the tiered benches where they were stacked in a fashion Dieral the Ceremonies Master had arranged. In the confines of the underground their voices rang a pure note and seemed to drag an angelic presence within the place for the moment. The song was sombre however, and had mourning in it more than hope.

It was deserving praise for her father Shala knew, but the touch of the song found some unattended strings of grief within, and tugged at them, their effect resounding and had the Princess powerless to tears. But she did not weep, even when that was the impulse. deBella periodically wiped her stony face, but Shala pushed her hand away after awhile. The look deBella gave her asked her why she was being so stubborn against showing her sorrow.

The Benevolence knows I cry enough at night deBella, but I can’t appear to be an incompetent wench in front of all these men,’ thought Shala, hoping the handmaiden could understand.

The service was held, where many men spoke of Shala’s father, and read him rites of all kinds, and some spoke eulogies. The Bishop Jaegosh, being in attendance also spoke, ‘May the Benevolence light your path to the life hereafter,’ he had finished. Shala took a last long look at her father where he lay on a slab of stone, the sarcophagus rolled to his side, the lid taken off at this time.

The spell that she had put on her father still held, and would hold for a long time afterwards. It was pointless now however, save for the effect it had on the body, giving it an aura of peace and serenity, his skin still pearly. He was put in the sarcophagus with a sword, the enclosure a grand design of granite and the inside lined with white cushions as though the dead would need comfort.

More incense was lit, its smoky product now suffocating the underground air, and Shala felt more tears on her cheeks as the heavy stone lid was slid closed over the King. No pilgrimage, no Dream of Embers. The King would be put away forever. Soon enough the spell would fade and his spirit released from flesh and stone. He would move on.

The lid itself was carved spectacularly in the image of the old King, a crown on his head, his clothes richly detailed, him laying on his back, with a sword in his hands running down to his toes. The sword was the stone image of Erenciel. No man has ever owned that sword as much as my father, thought Shala. Had it not been for cold anger she would have spilled her heart, and had it not been for all these stony faced people she would have rolled the sarcophagus to its final place herself and stayed there crying, until she could bear it to finally leave him behind.

But her face remained passive save for the red in her eyes, and some moist on her cheeks. Soon the sarcophagus was rolled into one of the halls leading out of the central chamber, out of sight. Shala willed herself into the cold, her imagination providing the icy water that would envelope her. She did it to cut her emotion short, because Swarztial would come to prey on it, and she had no intention of her father’s kingdom falling to this man or any other who had come to Attoras on this day.

That night Kaell searched the castle for the Princess. She was usually easy enough to track down, her wanderings being a little more predictable than she realized, he always mused. Tonight however she had done a fine job of eluding him, until he by chance spotted her on the balcony, the very same one on which she had reputedly banished the wraith. He paused and stared wonderingly at her through the small glass squares of the window frame, looking at her from the side. She wore her smoky cloak, with a collar that was lined with thick silver fur. Her face was solemn and revealed to Kaell by the light of the moons she was staring at.

As he saw her then he could not imagine how a person such as she could have so many enemies and antagonists – beneath her beauty was a gentle soul beyond compare, tempered with a fierce intellect and the pride of her heritage that made her stand up to Swarztial the way she did.

He cursed Swarztial, this time loud enough that he could have landed himself in trouble if one of the Chancellor’s eavesdroppers were around. They must be madmen to oppose her and blind not to see her the way he saw her – if they could ever accomplish seeding doubt in her Kaell would have her know; she was greatly loved and none worth having in the castle desired a different ruler. He decided to disturb her peace in any case. She needed to eat after all. He went around and came out behind her through the balcony doors.

‘Highness, you missed dinner, so I made you another plate of food, only I could not find you, and now it as well has grown cold. Is it that you don’t like eating so early or before twilight?’

Shala took a moment to bring herself to the conversation. ‘There is no hunger in being alone Kaell,’ she said quietly, ’although I thank you for your concern. I can feel it; that I’m neglecting myself, but I cannot bring myself to eat when I am worried as I am now. And I’ll not eat alone. The dining hall used to be full of people, most of all my father; his appetite and laughter was infectious, and folk would be merry around his table and sweep clean the plates of a feast.

’Now they put plates before me that I cannot even put a dent into, and despite the kitchen’s best efforts, the food has been like ash in my mouth lately. The chairs stand empty, and I listen only to the sputtering of tallow candles and the chime of a grandfather clock. I guess the hounds or the kitchen hands don’t mind finishing off for me...’

’You must sustain yourself Highness, you need your strength and it will not come from within alone. You must eat and feast, and if you could ever afford it, smile and laugh. Not all within the castle are mean or charged with agendas.’

‘Yes,’ is all she answered, downcast, and Kaell felt unwelcome.

‘Do you wish to be alone Highness?’ Kaell asked.

She shook her head. ‘All day I avoid everyone, but actually I cannot bear the loneliness, and I miss my father’s touch. deBella holds me when I cry, but there is not much warmth and comfort from even a heart as sweet as hers.’

For the smallest moment Kaell considered walking forward and taking the Princess’s hand where it rested on the balcony railing, until sense caught up to him, realizing it was the worst idea imaginable. Hoping to distract the Princess in some way he asked, ‘Do you also enjoy looking at the night skies Highness?’

‘Yes, very much. It is a good reminder that the world is much bigger than just the boundaries of my troubled kingdom. The stars are splendid and I never tire of looking at the moons, for they change and converge, or emerge far apart, sometimes hiding slyly in a cloak of clouds if there are any, and if they are full and round it is as though they have blossomed and their light puts pilgrims at ease on the roads. You can go to any corner of the world and you’ll still find the same heavenly bodies watching us from the echelons, from the skies beyond the sky.’

‘They fascinate me the stars, because they sit in patterns as if arranged and as to their substance I cannot imagine what they really are,’ said Kaell.

‘Who can guess at it? To me they look like the Embers of the great dream that brought about existence. The kind our myths talk about when trying to explain the origin of everything.’

‘My Lady?’

‘There is a world beyond what we can see, where all that ever was and all that ever will be is placed in stasis, where the power of creation is supreme and unquantifiable. When we dream, or allow ourselves into a dream, we touch – or no, merely brush against this great place, and if we know how, we can summon the gift of power to our reality, like my hands of healing and the blessed light contained in the Seluin waters.’

‘I have never understood the dreams of the gifted houses, but then my dreams are simple. And I would say I understand the Dream of Embers even less,’ said Kaell.

‘Look at the stars Kaell. Do they not look like embers, spat out by a fire into the sky, though fiercely white?’

’So then the Dream of Embers is referring to... the stars?’ asked Kaell, not sure that he was following.

Shala smiled and said, ‘No, not directly. I did not mean to confuse you Kaell. It is just that I like to see Dream of Embers in the stars, for I will not see it any place else as a mortal.’

‘What is it then, Your Highness?’

’For all I want I cannot tell you, it is a legacy of Kings, and so grave a secret to bear. It’s not that I wish to be a tease. But what I will tell you is that it keeps safe all the lands of the world, as well as you and I. It strengthens the Rules of Realm and gives peace where it is welcome.’

’You sound like Master Jalson Your Highness. “You don’t have to understand it, you just need to know that it works!” said Kaell in a convincing imitation of the moody Master of the kitchen.

Shala smiled. ’There is at least something I can show you,’ said the Princess, pointing at the southern skies so that Kaell could follow. ‘Remember those stars you saw as a crown? And I told you they were not an omen for my benefit?’

Kaell nodded.

‘If you look closely you’ll see them making a curving circle within another circle, like the spiral of a slug’s shell, growing narrow toward the middle?’

‘Yes, I see it.’

‘It depicts a horn if you have the imagination for it, a ram’s horn, and it represents the Dream of Embers.’

‘A horn?’ asked Kaell.

’Yes, a horn on which a call can be blown, to signify a gathering. Most dreams are a lonely business, the kind you and I have, but the Dream of Embers is where the mightiest of minds meet and the will of the nobles are tempered into a defence against evil. The phenomenon is not for our eyes, we cannot see it, but it is in knowing that we are comforted. Those who know show to their children the stars, and say“look up, see the horn, and see that you are watched over,”Shala laughed at herself, ‘I have said too much already, and now I will definitely not say anymore.’

‘Is a message of hope to be kept secret, Your Highness?’

‘To protect it yes, it’s not a well-kept secret Kaell, but we must aspire to keep it a secret nonetheless. If evildoers knew the function and the location of the Dream of Embers, well... Only I too feel as you do, and the dream enthrals me so that I have trouble guarding my mouth and not telling the world about its greatness.’

‘You are very passionate Highness; I wish I could spend as much time with Scholar Naceus. I need to learn more about the world, and you’ve me left curious to the nature of dreams.’

Shala sighed. ‘I miss my times with the Scholar and he does not come to the castle anymore.’

That’s right, he lives in the east town as I can recall. Strange fellow if there ever was one,’ said Kaell.

‘Yes, having asked him he always says he’d rather stay in town, even when he is offered quarters inside the castle. I never understood it because his home in town is very humble and he needs to walk far and upwards with heavy books. But then he told me he wants to approach the castle from outside every morning; see the men on the wall, watch the banners be blown by the wind as he’s allowed through the gate and come in over the threshold as a visitor, fresh and hopeful, having seen the castle for all its glory. Now I understand, for I am trapped in opulence, and I cannot marvel at the castle living here with my enemies,’ said Shala, ‘I would very much like to speak with him.’

‘But Highness, the night is still very young and you are hungry. I will send for the Scholar and at the table I shall make sure you feast together under proper light and with good wine!’

‘It sounds good, but he too loved my father and I fear our conversation will turn nostalgic and sorrowful.’

Kaell seemed stifled. He had thought it to be a splendid idea.

‘But then I will not allow for it,’ said Shala suddenly. ‘Gather the members of my guard Kaell, those on duty at present and seat them at leisure around my table.’

‘The guard, Highness?’ asked Kaell confoundedly.

’Yes, they would not have had dinner before their shift ends. Don’t look so surprised Kaell, I have often felt home among them, a feeling not inspired by many others in the castle. They are unappreciated at times and for all their loyalty I will be equalled to them even before my rule comes to so early a twilight. And then Scholar Naceus and myself will have too much company to be sorrowful.’

‘As you wish Highness,’ said Kaell with a broad smile, ‘the kitchen fires will be lit and all the hands I can muster will be called!’

Shala welcomed the soldiers as they shuffled into the dining hall, led by captain Merohan, the lot of them looking unsure at this gesture, hesitating to take their seats around the giant oak table, the red cushions of the high chairs having never seen more unlikely guests.

They sat uncomfortably at first, careful in their movements as the many starter dishes came about, apparently intimidated by the number of eating utensils. Naceus was soon after to arrive, coming to the dining hall like a man who simply stumbled onto the occasion by accident. Seeing him that way made Shala smile and she experienced a warm feeling, standing up and greeting him.

He was the smartest man Shala had ever met, and possibly the wisest, although that honour she usually attributed to her father. Naceus was part of the Attoras castle as much as the antique furniture or the paintings on the walls, and Shala loved the old man dearly. He spent many patient years teaching Shala as a girl and she knew her father had admired him above all his other advisors.

There was not a drop of malice in the man, shying away from wars and violence even though studying such histories profusely. He was not a dreamer and had no power save for his intellect, yet Shala knew the man had entire worlds in that head of his, where he spent much of his time. In her life she had never seen a person who could be so removed from reality, smoking his pipe, lost in thought, and oblivious to all that is around him.

Scholar Naceus had always been a small man, somewhat stooped and stocky, but tough in own right, Shala conceded in her thoughts. On his wizened face he wore one of many pairs of spectacles he carried around with him. He was balding on the top, but with thick greying curls still at the sides and back of his head. The pockets in his waistcoat were often full of pocket watches, notebooks, pens and even other devices that looked like pocket watches but measured things like temperature or told the movements of the moons.

Gathering himself to the situation (the Scholar had most certainly been locked in deep thought before he came face to face with the Princess) he was left curious by the men seated at the king’s table tonight and only once remarked at how strange this was, but he settled soon, and enjoyed the evening immensely. He seemed to have a way with soldiers, stooping his academic talk to converse with and fascinate simpler men, without resorting to the crude words that crept in so often in soldier’s speech. Upon one thing they all agreed; the food was good.

There were dishes topped with a creamy cheese flavoured with garlic, which Naceus was partial to. The rice swam in gravy and the baby potatoes the Princess loved were gone by the time the silver plate passed by her; she did not mind and smiled, knowing the soldiers would not taste better than Kaell’s efforts. There was apple pie, the cinnamon flavour touching the nose the moment the crusts were pierced and the few soldiers that came to eat it with a tuft of whipped cream would forevermore swear the dish as their favourite.

The household guard always looked to be a proud bunch, and as a royalist escort they were expected to be concise in conversation and conserved otherwise. But then as always the guard had all kinds of men.

Two of the simpler men, named Urad and Salonce, were in a particular fix with each other. ‘You cannot use that pig-sticker to eat those fishies,’ said Urad in admonishment, referring to the oyster he himself was scooping with a spoon.

’What do you know? First of all, oysters aren’t fish. And I’ve seen the King and his royal guests pick ’em with these,’ said Salonce. ‘Besides, you did not stand in when His Grace dined here, you use the utensils from the outside to the inside!’ explained Salonce hovering his hands over the many forks and knives on either side of the plates to indicate.

Bah, the only reason you’re in the household guard and already watching Kings eat is because your father worked in the castle,’ said Urad.

‘And you’re only a castle-man because you broke a captain’s jaw! What dumb luck!’ retorted Salonce.

‘He turned out to be a traitor and a murderer! They hanged him!’ said Urad in his own defence.

‘Aye, but you struck him before that fact came to light – because he spat on you as he spoke! He already lay in the infirmary when his deeds became public. Then by some misunderstanding they said you caught him! You received promotion instead of dismissal!’ said Salonce excitedly.

Urad opened his mouth to counter.

‘Boys, let’s quiet down and enjoy the evening shall we?’ said Naceus from the side.

‘Uh... yes sir,’ they both mumbled embarrassed, occupying themselves with the food again, Urad swearing by his spoon even when prying meat from the bone, Salonce shaking his head and muttering something about his friend growing up on porridge.

More to the end of the evening Shala had Naceus for herself, the joy of the evening fading to the quiet content of small talk among the soldiers, stomachs filled, and to Shala’s satisfactions, dishes cleared save for a few unattended morsels.

She had been determined not letting tonight stumble on more serious matters, but all the same she could not stop herself from bringing her worries to Naceus. More than anything she stressed her concern that with his note the King had meant for her to journey to Nem Nemuris, that he was seeing his House going the way of Wolves, and its last great contribution being a pilgrim that could strengthen the Dream.

‘What do you think Scholar?’ she asked, after he had been silent for awhile in the wake of her explanation.

Naceus picked through his dessert, finding the sweetest bits for the last of his appetite.

’Your father the King was a man of advancing years, Highness. He had an heir, a beautiful strong daughter in fact and he served the Kingdom as best he could. He gave all that he could give and was ripe to fulfil the dream so to speak. He could depart and know the Kingdom was in safe hands. I for one would speak against any idea of yourself taking the pilgrimage. This kingdom, proud and old, will need you, last of the line, and I know you would serve it well. And I mean serve, because should Your Highness depart and pass on the right of rule to another, the prospecting King we speak of will roam with the illusion that Kinghood is naught but power, the raw exercise of greed and misery.’

‘You don’t need to tell me Scholar, I know full well what Patrick of Sannil is.’

’For once, and I shudder to do so, I agree with Swarztial. Your father the King was in no clear mind on his deathbed, and I am afraid the very weak state had left him to despair. Do not let your father’s last musings amount to misunderstanding.’

’You know Swarztial said that?’ asked Shala.

‘I have my own eyes and ears in the castle Highness, although they are not as mischievous as Swarztial’s. Nonetheless, anything said in the court has a good chance of reaching me.’

Captain Merohan had the mindfulness not to let the soldiers get too comfortable, and announced for all of them that the time had come to depart. Rather sullenly the other soldiers followed his lead, but remembered their manners in bowing to the Princess before filing out of the dining room. Finally Shala and Naceus were alone, and Kaell oversaw the disposal of the leftovers and the washing of the dishes in the kitchen.

She watched thoughtfully as the unassuming cook moved in and out to clear the table, somehow finding time to quickly refill her and Naceus’ wine glasses before moving along.

’And that face Highness, is one I saw on a little girl who used to think about things, and I would offer her a bronze penny for her thoughts, only for her to boast that her father’s treasury doesn’t need pennies.’

Shala smiled. ’Just earlier tonight I had talked to Kaell about the Dream of Embers. Not that I revealed anything of course. I only spoke to him because I trust him so. He once pointed out the star sign of the horn to me in the night skies and so we got stuck in the discussion of dreams. But I have been wondering, and surely there is no one better to ask - I’m afraid I myself do not know much about the Dream? ’

‘It is shrouded in mystery even to the enlightened!’ said Naceus.

The Scholar adjusted his glasses, putting his index finger to his temple and gathering his words like Shala knew him to do on the occasion.

‘Nem Nemuris, called the Tomb of Kings, lies far to the south. This you know. Great kingly houses, from Attoras and Avandar, and many other city-states have provided pilgrims for the Dream. There the most incredible magic is woven, and men of lineage, whose blood is capable and powerful, blossom. In their last moments they become the unifying dream, their power permeating through rivers and mountains and groves, and through the hearts and minds of men. It gives reason and peace and stifles powers that lust destruction and suffering. It facilitates the Rules of Realm, which you know is crucial in keeping nefarious creatures at bay.’

Shala nodded all along to Naceus’ explanation, familiar with most of what he said. ‘What is it that these Kings blossom into?’

Monoliths, Highness, they turn to what is considered the final state, unmoving and in eternal stasis, like the rocks deep beneath the surface of Angaria and transformed by pressures to something greater. They forsake life and body to become nothing more than mind and dream, contained within living crystal, like statues, but their power still transcending their confines for the betterment of our world.’

It is sacrifice then,’ murmured Shala.

‘Had you expected it to be something else?’ asked Naceus.

‘No, my heart already knew it. From pieces of history and stories I heard I always knew that those who go south to join the Dream do not return.’

‘You must also know that those who go are old and past their prime, usually leaving many heirs behind.’

‘To your knowledge, is it true that I might be the last eligible?’ asked Shala.

’Yes, a strange turn of events. Even ten years ago there were still some who could journey. But as far as I hold record there are none now among the great houses that can blossom, no one but you, Your Highness.’

‘Then at one time or another, I might as well make the journey and offer myself,’ said Shala, seeing an increasingly worrying face on Naceus. ‘As it stands, I might yet be forced to go soon, some days it seems unlikely that I would hold to my throne. I might as well be of different use.’

‘Not at all Highness, in this I do not agree. More that are eligible will be born and should you have children, then the likelihood of that is all the better.’

Shala smiled. ‘You would not be happy if I decided to take to the road Scholar?’

’I would not have any royal friends of intelligence to talk to if you do! Speaking honestly Princess, what little peace might be bought by the Dream will not undo men like Swarztial; he will remain as devious as he is and only you in the flesh can put an end to his conniving.’

‘Then don’t worry Scholar, Attoras is my priority. Even if I do take to the Dream, I will first lay aside this threat of Swarztial, and I hope to become quite old before I journey.’

Naceus nodded. ‘Now that would warm my heart,’ he said with a smile. A thought struck Naceus that suddenly had his smiled wiped off.

’There is another gathering of stars in the sky that stands unfulfilled for five hundred years. When it captures the movement of Rodreon and Castilleon within its web, it is known as the Sign of Toreg.I have been watching it worryingly for some time now. It bodes ill, as it did when the sign first appeared all those years ago.’

‘What is this all about Scholar?’ asked Shala, wondering where this was coming from.

’Highness, do you by any chance remember Jeot Agathir’s Remnant Pages? They used to mention the Sign of Toreg quite often.’

’How could I forget? You had me pour hours over it when I was young.’

Naceus chuckled. ‘Your father instructed me to train your mind and I did exactly that,’ said Naceus unapologetically.

‘And yet you never awarded my curiosity Scholar, you never gave me enough of the pages so that I might understand the purpose of all those puzzles and codes.’

‘There was reason to this Highness, young as you were, the implications of Agathir’s work was always alarming and upsetting. Why, I am old and I could not bear the topics he delved into!’

‘Why bring it up Scholar?’

‘I was recently visited by a man enquiring to purchase the few documents we have. I immediately did not like the look of this man, and knowing Agathir’s allure to dark-sided matters I feared this man was after the pages for this very reason. He was rather terrifying I admit, but I would be hard-pressed to put a face on him. Nevertheless I assured him the pages were not in my possession and even if they were they are not mine to sell in the first place. He made a very high offer then, as though it might change matters. I assured him it did not. Then, before I could know it, he was making threats; telling me that he has men in the castle and that if he could not buy the Remnant Pages, he would simply have it taken.’

The Princess’ face was grave as she said, ‘Naceus, you know how exposed the library is, and Swarztial already has his lackeys running around the castle in the pretence of servants. If this man is associated with him, then they will take the Remnant Pages as easily as he boasted.’

‘I know Highness, which is why I figured it prudent to tell you.’

‘I would not trust these documents with anyone else, do you have a safe place to keep them?’ asked Shala.

‘Of course! What self-respecting Scholar would not have a hideaway for precious material! Or at least in this case, material I would rather not see in the hands of dark strangers...’

‘Then you may take the pages from the library Scholar, as soon as you must and speak no word of your retrieval of them lest you place yourself in danger.’

‘I’ll be discreet Highness, of course, and thank you for understanding.’

Leaving the dining room the two of them made for the library, the corridor to it and the room itself sponsoring a silence that made way for their echoing footsteps. No one was more at home in the library than Naceus, and without ado he scrambled up a step ladder, intimately aware where different archives were stashed. He pushed volumes of books aside to reach in deep behind them.

Ah.

He came down with more deliberation, muttering something about heights, slowly stepping down with the selected bundle of papers.

‘There they are, all of them still intact. I’d so hoped that I never need touch them again.’

‘Saying that makes you the perfect person to safeguard them Scholar,’ said Shala sincerely.

‘Of course,’ said Naceus, ‘that and my tremendous skill at arms and swords, no foe will dare cross the threshold of this Scholar!’ he said, much to the Princess’s amusement.

Shala walked the Scholar all the way to the castle entrance, talking lightly and steering clear of the administrative issues that plagued the Princess during the day.

‘It was so good to see you again Scholar,’ said Shala.

‘As it was you. I believe I’ll come more often. This place needs more men of good humour. You have fine men among your guard Highness and I believe your gesture here will not go uncounted for.’

Shala smiled, ‘A pity they cannot vote on the council.’

‘No they cannot I’m afraid. All the same, I think you do Attoras proud and it’d be the council’s mistake to suppose others could do the same. Farewell Highness, I hope by the next time we meet you will have a heavy crown on your head and I will have to bow an inch or two lower than usual.’

Shala hugged the short man, ‘You will never have to bow to me Naceus.’

She stared fondly after him as he left down the steps and toward the bailey, a guard with a lamp leading him to town. Turning in she made straight for her own room, her mood greatly improved.

The fire in the hearth had warmed her room nicely by the time she turned to bed. The wine had made her eyes heavy and put a yawn on her lips, but even so she strolled over to her dresser, where her music box lay. It had been her mother’s, and as long as she could remember Shala let it play out its tune to lull her to sleep. As usual one of her chambermaids had already wound the thing, so she need not use the winding key unless she happened to open the box during the day.

The moment she opened it the cylinder set in motion, and it played the all too familiar melody. She crawled into the canopied bed, the drawn canvasses around the tall bedpost hiding her away from the world, allowing only the crackle of the fire and the music to sneak into the warmth of where she rested. As with most timeless tunes the notes were simple and repetitive, having little work to do as Shala faded into slumber.

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