After twenty or thirty miles, he could no longer smell the smoke of what was undeniably Pavilion City burning behind them. He had gotten Ishbel out just in time.
She had turned to observe the cloud in the sky that had been her home from time to time at first. Then she had fallen asleep against him, her arms around his waist.
Rogue did not want to ponder the significance of his actions too deeply. What he had done was most unlike him. But, there it was, over and done with.
And now they were arrived here at the Capital City of the Free Lands, a place few knew existed, and few had permission to live.
Children ran freely, the smell of barbeque over afternoon cook fires accosted him, and somewhere, he knew, the Marigold River ran freely. Tents were pitched everywhere and the people of Capital City nodded or smiled at him in greeting as they rode through.
Ishbel stirred behind him now that their pace had slowed. He felt her immediately tense at the sight of all the people about her. “Rogue? Rogue, where are we?” she whispered as she stared from side to side.
“Welcome to Capital City, Ishbel, main homeland of the Free Lands,” he announced.
“The Free Lands!” She wriggled about in the saddle, then whispered, “Are they not – dangerous?”
“No more so than you or me,” he chuckled.
“But – but – the Free Riders….”
“Rob people of wealth, but do not kill anyone. Bandits and soldiers kill people.”
Then a slap came on the horse’s back haunch. “That’s a fine bit of horse flesh you’ve got there, Armand, fine horse flesh. Kester will be wanting to see that.”
Hammet. Of course he had seen his entry.
“That’s where I was headed,” Rogue said.
When finally they arrived at Kester’s home, one of the few homes that was a mounded hut, built up against a hill and not a tent, he was awaiting them outside.
“Armand, Armand. It’s been too long.”
Rogue swung out of the saddle and the two embraced briefly.
“You have brought us a lovely horse, and a lovely young woman as well, I see,” said Kester. He looked down his nose at Rogue. “You know our rules.”
Rogue looked up at Ishbel. “She is homeless now. I think she will fit right in here.”
Kester frowned and said, “Nevertheless, Armand, you know our rules.”
Damn the rules. He leaned forward and said quietly, “I rescued her from slavery, the worst sort. Can she not find a home here?”
Kester stroked his beard for a few seconds and then said, “Perhaps we will find a home for her here after all.” He walked up to the horse and extended a hand in greeting. “My dear, my name is Kester, and I, for better or worse, am in charge of this City. Please,” and with that, he bowed with a flourish.
Ishbel climbed down awkwardly from the horse. “I am Ishbel.” For the first time in all the months that he’d known her, Rogue witnessed a shyness in Ishbel. The first time that she was not in control of the situation, perhaps.
“Well, Ishbel, I am pleased to make your acquaintance,” said Kester with a sweeping bow. It was this natural charm that put him in charge of an entire city and not Rogue. Rogue hadn’t the patience.
“Thank you,” came Ishbel’s timid response.
Kester turned his attention to Rogue. “You, my friend, we must talk.”
“I know, I know,” replied Rogue. “But first, they’ve set Pavilion City afire. That’s where Ishbel is from.”
Kester looked with interest at Ishbel. “Is it? Afire, you say? That hasn’t happened in years and years….” His face gained a faraway look. Then he said, “But you’ll be interested to know that the King of Ambsellon is dead.”
That took Rogue by surprise. “Dead? How?”
“No one seems to be talking on that subject, for it happened in the night beneath their own noses, so their pride is quite wounded as you can imagine. Come in, come in, tether that horse and come in. What’s worse, for the Ambsells, that is, the three sons are dead as well. Murder, it’s said.”
“Murder! Of the entire royal house of Ambsellon! In the midst of a battlefield. No wonder they’re not talking,” snorted Rogue.
“I’ve known plenty of Ambsells. They only keep their eye on the ball and not on the field, so the saying goes,” said Ishbel unexpectedly.
Rogue and Kester exchanged glances. Her unique outlook was why he liked her.
Kester snickered. “I think I’d agree with the lady on that.” Then he grew somber. “Tea?” He offered cups of tea to both Ishbel and Rogue without waiting for their assent and sat down before a small cook fire. Rogue accepted his tea wordlessly and sat down, signaling Ishbel to do the same.
“What is worse, Armand… you are here. When Varley is out there, rampaging about –”
Rogue sighed. Kester was much the father he had never had. But he was tired and sore from a long, cross-FreeLands journey. “Kester, I don’t need a lecture today, it’s growing late and I just arrived.”
“Don’t you Kester me, Robard. That little wiggler is out there – his men have laid waste to half of Corstarorden and now to Pavilion City, you tell me. And he’s asail, you know. On his way to S’hendalow, you know, Robard. Do you think to sit there and tell me he won’t lay waste to King A’dair’s country as well, and him with that new young queen? I wonder if she’s with child yet?”
“Enough!” Rogue growled. “I’ll not have the whole of the Coastals’ damnable luck on my hands. You cannot guilt me into making a move!”
Kester glared at him and grunted.
“Who is Robard?” asked Ishbel.
Damn. “No one.”
“Him,” Kester pointed at Rogue.
“I am not Robard. Damn.”
“Watch your tongue, boy. You may be a man grown, but you wouldn’t have a place here if it weren’t for me,” Kester warned.
Rogue said nothing, only nodded with respect. Kester had taken him in and raised him himself when Rogue was found left to die as a babe thirty-two years ago. People of Capital City were amazed that their ruler had elected to raise a babe found to die.
Kester relented and studied Ishbel, who squirmed uncomfortably. “I see there’s more than one reason you’ve been traveling afar.”
Immediately, Ishbel sat up straight with indignation and started to respond, but Rogue held up a hand to silence her.
Kester watched this exchange with curiosity.
“Our relationship has only ever been platonic,” Rogue informed him curtly.
“I have been his spy all these months,” Ishbel said in a snippy tone.
“If it weren’t for Ishbel, you wouldn’t have known who and what was passing through the Coastals, for it was she who informed me of it in Pavilion City. She has been my spy all these months,” Rogue told Kester.
“I see. We here in the Free Lands have thanks to give to you, young woman. Your actions have been more appreciated than you know.”
Ishbel sat with her tea, taken aback.
Kester turned back to Rogue, as he had known he would. “But more than just one young woman has garnered your attention of late. Your niece has been gaining notoriety in certain circles….”
Rogue sighed long and loud. “Must you refer to her thus?”
Kester replied, “Is she not so?”
Ishbel asked, “You have a niece? Is that who got married not long ago?”
“Ah, I see why you like her, she is sharp.”
“She is, very,” said Rogue.
“Would you please stop referring to me as though I were a child,” Ishbel snapped. “What is your name? Armand? Robard? And where have you lived your whole life?”
“Ah…. You did not tell her.” Kester made a noise of disapproval.
“Of course I did not tell her. You are the only one who knows that,” snapped Rogue.
“What do I not know?” asked Ishbel warily.
“Pardon, but if you did not know his name was not Armand, then what have you been calling him?” asked Kester to Ishbel.
Rogue looked at the ceiling.
“I have been calling him Rogue, for he refused to give me a name, and Rogue matched his personality best,” Ishbel returned.
Kester laughed and laughed. “Oh, but doesn’t it. And he answers to it, does he?”
“Oh, my. Oh, my. I do like that. Rogue, my boy. That is a perfect name for you.”
Rogue glared at Kester and held his tongue.
“He refused to tell me his true name. He said we were together for business, not pleasure purposes, so perhaps that was why, that he never mixed business with pleasure. What is his real name?” asked Ishbel.
“He said that, did he?” said Kester thoughtfully.
Rogue continued to glare up at the ceiling.
“Well, good. I’m glad to know he learned something here at home.” Kester chuckled. “Ah, I’ve made him angry.”
Ishbel considered and said, “No, not angry, just irritated. See? If he’s angry, he’ll clench his fists.”
Rogue had had enough. “Now who’s speaking of someone as if they’re a child?”
“You’re an observant young woman. I hope he’s never shown anger toward you.” Kester said in a serious tone.
“Oh no, sir, not ever. But I’ve nursed him back to health a fair few times, and he’s been frustrated about that.” She smiled.
Kester said nothing at first, just shook his head. Then he said, “You may have noticed – he has a small bump between two of his fingers.”
“Between his middle two fingers, I know. I asked him about it, but he said it was just a callous.”
“I am not Robard.”
“At least tell her.”
“Tell me what?”
“I believe the time is upon us. And if you truly search within yourself, Robard… you do as well. This entire Land is war-torn. It is our time. It is your time. There is no more denying it….”
Rogue curled his lips with distaste and glared at Kester for a moment. It was nothing he hadn’t thought about over the last two months, with war churning across the Land. But he wanted nothing to do with it. Nothing.
He rubbed at the identification mark burned between his middle two fingers thirty-two years ago, then looked at Ishbel. Why tell Ishbel? Kester. He had good instincts.
Rogue – Robard – they sounded near enough – heaved an enormous sigh. Then he turned his attention to Ishbel.
He took in a deep breath. “Ishbel, when twins and triplets are born into royal – and noble – families, in order to keep the birth order separate for the succession to the throne straight, a small number is burned into the child’s hand. The first to ascend the throne gets the brand between the pinky and ring finger. The second to ascend the throne gets the brand between the ring and index finger.” Rogue cleared his throat. Then he held up his hand and spread apart his ring and index finger.
Ishbel’s eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. “You –” she whispered.
He nodded. “However, shortly after my birth, and my branding, my father decided he didn’t want there to be a fight for the throne, as twins often fight for the throne. And so – he gave the command that I be killed.
“The wet nurse was from a Free Lands family and couldn’t bear the thought of having me killed. She arranged for me to be brought out to the prairie and raised by a Free Lands family, one who would not know my true identity.
“Kester recognized the meaning of the branding and knew from where I had come, found out my actual identity. And so, he personally raised me himself, so that should anyone ask questions, he would be able to pass me off as just a prairie child. Until the right time. He thinks I should take back my identity.”
“But what country, what King –” Ishbel was spluttering.
“To whom am I a royal twin?” asked Rogue. “My birth name is Robard Turald, brother to King Almeric of Tortoreen.”