The three children perched atop the roof tiles of the Greenwood home staring out at their city. Thais had not been able to explain everything fully to her friends in the road where she was sure she was being followed by one of her father’s spies, but here, in the serenity of the skies she knew she could pour her heart out to the cousins in private. The Greenwood home had been a hive of activity when the children arrived home with their wheelbarrow full of goods. Everyone had been mightily impressed with Kaio and Rachel’s bartering prowess. Even Kosa, who had still been sat at the table trying to repair his britches, seemed stunned into silence, which to those who knew Kosa was perhaps a far greater surprise than Kaio and Rachel’s achievement.
After barely ten minutes the three friends had broken away from the pandemonium and clambered five flights of stairs and two ladders to reach the window that led onto the steep slippery tiles of the roof. Many a time had the three adventurous little souls slithered over the slate to perch atop the ridge shingles. From this advantageous vantage point the trio could see past the Green Palace as far as the Northern Gate and on a clear day even to the mountains beyond. The sounds from the docks were lost on the winds and the children were able to enjoy a false sense of isolation even when chaos surrounded them in the form of the eccentric Greenwood family.
“So then, now can you tell us?” Kaio spoke up as soon as the girls had made themselves comfortable beside him. Thais looked from one pair of green eyes to the next before she exhaled steadily.
“You’re going to think I’m mad…”
“We already do.” The blonde girl ignored the boy’s taunt, yet cast him a bemused scowl as she did so.
“But hear me out I beg you. My father and his companions are hiding something from me. What it might be I can’t tell you, though I’m afraid it’s something to do with me. When I found them yesterday they were involved in a secretive discussion, which ended pretty promptly when I arrived and they had this piece of parchment, a map I think, which that mage fellow hid the moment I arrived.”
“Are you sure that’s all about you though Thais?” Rachel asked curiously when Thais paused for breath.
“Well perhaps not, but I just feel as though it was. This morning I awoke to find the mage in mama’s dining room and he was sad. Sad about me I think, though again, I’m not really sure.”
“Your problem seems to be full of guesswork if you ask me,” Kaio now cut in.
“Yes I know it seems that way, but you have to trust me. Selmain always seems sad when he’s around me, but this morning he seemed a lot more so than normal. He had this old elfish book with him and when I tried to read it he seemed suddenly…interested I suppose. This is all sounding ridiculous isn’t it?”
Kaio and Rachel glanced to one another before looking back to the princess and nodding in unison.
“Utterly ridiculous, but carry on,” Kaio chuckled happily.
“Yes, do!” his cousin urged more tactfully.
“Fine,” the princess managed through a broad smile. “There is more, but this is even more difficult to explain. I think my nana and my uncle are on secretive business that they have been forbidden from telling me by my father.”
Thais paused for a reaction from her friends, who soon realised what was expected of them.
“Truly?” Rachel gasped with a feigned expression of shock and outrage, while Kaio merely clapped his hands against his cheeks, his mouth hanging open and his eyes wide.
“The pair of you should move to Reesa and join the acting colony,” Thais grumbled dryly, though her smile held strong. “I told you it was difficult to explain. There is just this air of secrecy about the palace at the moment and everyone looks grave almost all the time, especially my father. The ether…it…well it seems constantly in turbulence when I’m near him. He is mightily concerned about something and when I tried to confront him about it he humiliated me.”
“So you want to prove to your father, who is already concerned about your welfare for some secretive reason of his own that you know he is concerned about you by disappearing into the southern wilds for a few days?” Kaio asked at last when Thais had trailed off. Rachel raised her eyebrows while Thais chewed the insides of her cheeks.
“Aye,” she finally agreed with a nod. “That’s exactly what I intend to do.”
“Oh,” the boy uttered, before he shrugged his shoulders and nodded once. “Brilliant, I’ll fetch my things. Let’s go this instant!”
“Wait,” Rachel complained wryly and she grabbed her cousin’s foot to stop him from skidding down the tiles towards the attic window. “We’re not going.”
“Why?” came the response from her friends eliciting a withering sigh from the only sensible one of the group.
“Must you make me point out the common sense of it every time either of you gets a hair-brained scheme into your heads?” Blank-faced expressions from Kaio and Thais were the only response the girl received. Rachel rolled her eyes. “Honestly, without me the pair of you would never see reason and would find yourselves tumbling out of one disaster into the next. Thais, surely you don’t wish to cause your father such an injury?”
“Well why not?” the princess grumbled. “He is causing me an injury by insulting my intelligence.”
“Maybe he does so for your own good,” the more rational girl reasoned, only to be met by a frustrated groan from her friend.
“That is never an excuse for secrecy in my opinion. If something threatens me then why keep it hidden from me? Why not prepare me for whatever endangers me?”
“He might not wish you to worry,” Rachel tried, though now it was Kaio snorting that made her stop in her tracks.
“The king ought to know Thais will worry more in the dark.”
“Precisely!” the shortest of the trio hooted triumphantly and she clapped Kaio on the back in gratitude. “My father claimed to know everything about me this morning, but obviously you two know me far better.”
Rachel sighed and dropped her gaze to a trail of chimney sweeps sauntering across the dockside on the other side of the Denai. They seemed to be chattering exuberantly about something or other and for a moment Rachel wondered what could have put such a spring in their step.
“I know you too Thais,” the sensible girl finally spoke. “And I know you are not so cruel as to purposefully lose yourself in the wild in order to harm your father.”
Thais looked up and held Rachel’s gaze for a moment, her dark eyes narrowed in thought. Behind those dark pools a keen brain was working hard to decipher the knotted feelings evoked by such bold words from her friend.
“No,” the girl finally conceded with a grim sigh. “I’m not so devious. You’re right Rachel, but I do wish I could go for just one hour thinking I am. Sometimes even my father isn’t perfect you know.”
Rachel sniggered and nodded.
“I don’t worship him.”
“I do,” Kaio piped up cheerily, a little disappointed that Thais had not been serious in her designs to wreak havoc in the king’s house. He did so like causing mischief. “I don’t send my prayers to Aius or fair Feia. No, ‘tis to Gallus of Denari that I send my adulations.”
“Kaio!” Thais and Rachel exclaimed in unison.
“You might not look so smug in a moment Kaio when Aius tips you from this roof for making a mockery of his name,” Thais warned snidely, her own face crinkled in mischief at the thought of the King of the Gods smiting her friend into the next realm.
“Aius isn’t so petty that he needs my love and worship. Besides, everyone says Gallus is one of His favourites, so why would He mind?”
“You speak of the Gods as though you are invited round for tea on Sundays,” Rachel grumbled. “When I know for a fact that you have missed Temple two Saturdays in a row. What would you know of them?”
“And you say I can’t know them if I don’t attend Temple?”
“Now ‘tis I who says enough,” Thais announced and she climbed carefully into a crouch, ready to scale the roof towards the window.
“Where are you off to?” Kaio demanded playfully.
“I’m hungry and if the pair of you are going to get into a debate about the Gods then I’m taking my leave. Earlier I spotted that pie seller was back round the corner outside the One-Eyed Shepherd and I’ll be damned if I don’t enjoy another tasty pasty before the old wench disappears off to the south again.”
Gallus stared firmly at the letter in his hand. The uneven scrawl was barely decipherable to the untrained eye. At first glance it appeared to be written in a secret script, but those who recognised the handwriting knew better: Eunus. In all his years of growing up under the best tutelage the country could offer, never had the youngest son of King Thale taken to a studious life. Where Gallus had made up for his lost years of education by endeavouring to learn every scrap of knowledge and skill the continent had to offer, Eunus had turned his back on that way of life and invested instead in the fleeting joys to be had at any one moment in time. Gallus was a lover of wisdom where his younger brother was a lover of life.
It troubled Eunus little that his young niece could put together a more articulate well-presented piece of correspondence. Indeed, the young man was proud of the girl for her achievements, even when they bested his own. The letter Gallus held between his fingers had both amused and troubled him. Hidden between the anecdotes detailing the trials and tribulations of Eunus’ travels lay a message. And yet the message itself was a mystery, as it conveyed nothing of great importance. Confused and irritated Gallus reread several of the passages once more, skimming over the poorly punctuated sentences detailing the number of fair maidens Eunus had managed to woo and the humorously worded re-enactments of the inebriated scuffles with jealous suitors that soon ensued, to find that Eunus had no news.
“Even bad news is better than no news,” Gallus sighed to himself. The king’s eyes fell to the final words of the letter; I head now toward far greater sights my brother, soon I will have more tales to tell.
The ether crawled up Gallus’ arms and made him shiver in the waning sunlight. He knew where his brother was heading: Khorosa. Fabled to be of such beauty it rivalled Titua’s grandeur, the sprawling southern city was tens of millions strong. Emperor Thayos had stripped his enormous kingdom Faro and his smaller neighbours of their wealth and had plunged them into the building projects and the awe-inspiring artworks that littered the desert city. Streets paved with gold-plated stones, fountains encrusted with rubies and diamonds, parks boasting flora and fauna so exotic the Farojian botanists had spent decades collecting seeds from all over the Agea to source them. Every house had windows. Every man, woman and child dressed in the finest silks. It was the stuff of fairy tales and one that seemed to be bursting the seams of reality.
Gallus himself had never been to Khorosa; had never laid eyes on Thayos’ seat of power, the Pearl Palace. He had never watched the barges ferry in crops, precious stones, rare metals and slaves to the largest harbour in the whole world. He had never smelled the air thick with the scent of expensive spices nor taken a ride in one of the camel drawn carriages, with seats sewn from the most expensive linens and embroidered with gold tread and rubies. Gallus had never knelt before Thayos’ throne of Gold. He had never watched while the southern lands emptied of sustenance and life so that the monster of Khorosa might beat to the drum of its five million strong army.
Eunus would need to tread lightly if he were to remain undiscovered. Travellers may have been free to tour the marble temples and enjoy the Elephant Sanctuary in the middle of the city in Teresa, the largest park in Khorosa, but Eunus, second-in-line to the Green Throne had no place in Faro. Were he to be discovered, then the political fall-out would be no match for the terrible danger Eunus would find himself in. Agents of Apollo, even members of the Royal Confidence went missing every month in Thayos’ city. Rumours snaked from one spy to the next of massive hidden vaults far underground where the populations of entire cities had been enslaved. When someone went missing in Khorosa, they were never seen again.
Gallus stood up suddenly and walked across to the large window before his desk. He rested his forehead against the glass, trying to calm the agitation growing in his chest. It was he who ought to have gone, not Eunus.
“But brother, you are the king and you are also a father! Speak not of such ridiculous plans. You cannot go to Faro. You cannot go to Khorosa. You are mad to think such things,” Eunus had stated with fire in his eyes and passion in his belly. The younger brother had easily triumphed over the elder and even though both knew that this was truly Gallus’ mission, Eunus had been the one to take the risk.
This did not sit right with Gallus now, as he stared out at the cold clear sky. No doubt Eunus would be staring up at a sky equally as clear, but for him the temperature would be much more appealing.
“Where are you little brother?” Gallus sighed softly. “Have you got yourself to the Onyx Gates unhurt? Do you hide safely in the golden streets? Does he know you have arrived?”
No news. So many paths taken and yet still no news. The options available to Gallus were wearing thin. The hour was growing near…
“No, the hour has come.”
Gallus closed his eyes and counted to ten before he opened them once more. The fervour in his voice had come as a surprise to him, but he knew his instincts to be true. Yes, the time had come. Finally he was going to finish the journey he had started so long ago. Finally he was going to confront the one person he was sure would offer him enlightenment, but at what cost?
Quite suddenly the tall man pulled back from the window. His study looked over the sweeping lawns of the palace gardens, which led to the high walls that ran along side the powerful river Denai. The King’s Guard patrolled the gardens along with their wolven brethren and yet, scampering across the grass quite unhindered were three small shapes. The king watched with a rueful smile while the interlopers scaled the wall directly below his study, their grasping fingers shooting into the vines for grip to drag themselves up the marble walls.
When they had disappeared from sight Gallus moved away from the window with a smile and looked towards his door. The letter still lay upon his desk and the troubling thoughts it had delivered still lingered in the king’s mind. However, there was nothing to be done about the grave situation now and so Gallus strode from the trouble he had caused towards his door. Out in the corridor the weight of Eunus’ plight seemed eased and with a light-heartedness to his step the king strode forward to make amends. He had regretted his treatment of his daughter the moment she had fled the training grounds. Gallus was a man of great strengths, yet to belittle the child in such a manner had been an act of pettiness.
It was time to put that right. Within a few paces Gallus had reached the double doors that led to his daughter’s chamber. They had been carved from Kaba wood and were so thick the king could not hear the three interlopers behind it, even though he knew them to be tumbling in through the window while he stood out in the corridor. Suppressing a smile, the father knocked firmly upon the dark wood.
From within something crashed to the floor. Gallus laughed and rubbed the back of his neck. Perhaps he ought to wait?
“Come in!” came the muffled bellow and after making sure his smile was well and truly extinguished, Gallus pushed the door open and walked in to find Thais sitting cross-legged on the floor, a large book about Arithmetic equations open before her. Despite himself Gallus laughed at the sight of her.
“What is the matter papa?” the girl asked with a wrinkled brow. She was an actor suitable for the stage her father mused. See how innocent her expression seemed.
“Oh nothing,” Gallus replied with a nonchalant shake of his head. “I did not hear you arrive back. How were the wilds?”
“We didn’t go in the end,” Thais explained. “We stayed in Acrabar and ate pheasant pasties.” A broad smile broke onto her father’s face.
“From Old Vega’s? She still sells those?”
Something in Thais’ wardrobe thudded drawing both father and daughter’s gaze.
“What was that?” Gallus asked innocently.
“What was what?”
“You heard it also. That sound, in your cupboard.”
“Oh that? Probably just a coat hanger falling down. I don’t keep that cupboard in the best of states I’m afraid to tell you.”
“You think that a mystery to me daughter?” Gallus laughed, but seeing the slightly bemused expression upon Thais’ face refrained from adding, ‘I do know you after all.’ Instead the tall man looked to the book in front of his daughter’s feet and raised his eyebrows in a silent demand.
“I do like some lessons at school you know,” the girl explained when she noticed her father’s gaze lingering on the equations.
“Oh of course,” he quickly obliged her and smiled in return to the small grin Thais had granted him. Gallus knew that Thais was aware of his having seen her friends crossing the grass and the girl in turn was aware that Gallus knew her to be lying through her teeth. Yet this game could probably last all night if they allowed it to.
“So I have come to ask your opinion on something,” the king explained and he walked forward slowly, his eyes darting briefly to the cupboard. In the orange haze of the ether he could see two blank shapes outlined by blurred edges. The outlines of sensitives were bold strong displays of their strength, yet these two sat clumsily about the strewn boots had no ether settled upon them. They were like phantoms in the moonlight. “About the guards actually.”
“The guards?” Thais interrupted with a wrinkled nose.
“Yes. See I thought I had employed the best men in the land to protect you and your great grandmother from intruders and yet, just now as I stood at my window I watched as three intruders crossed the gardens and scaled the palace. They could be right outside your window as we speak.”
Thais turned around slowly and looked at the window she had left ajar and the trail of destruction that led down from it toward the messy floor.
“Well I think you should sack them all then before we end up killed,” the girl spoke firmly.
“Truly?” Gallus exclaimed interestedly, meeting a nod in return from his lying child. “Very well then. ‘Tis done. I will notify them immediately.”
The king turned to go while Thais bit the insides of her cheeks. Gallus began counting slowly in his mind, a small expectant smile on his face.
“Sir wait!” Out of the wardrobe the cousins tumbled falling upon a heap on the ground. Within instants Rachel was on her feet and staring at the King of Denari with a pleading expression. “It was us, the three you saw. It was us! Don’t sack those poor men.”
A snigger escaped Thais’ lips before both she and Gallus burst into reams of laughter in front of a shocked Rachel and an amused Kaio.
“He knew all along it was us you dolt,” the boy chuckled and he waited beside a red-faced Rachel until the royals had calmed themselves. “Good afternoon Sir.”
“And you Mr Greenwood and dear Rachel, a good afternoon. I trust the pair of you will stay for dinner?” All Rachel could do was nod while Kaio agreed for the pair of them.
“If Thais will let us,” the boy replied cheerfully, casting the girl sat upon the ground a raised eyebrow of a smile.
“Must you? I think I’ve rather had enough of you for one day,” she mused happily.
“So charming,” Kaio laughed before he turned to Gallus. “I believe she means to say she would be delighted to have us stay for dinner.”
“I think you might be right there,” the king chuckled before he met Thais’ eye. The smile that passed between them put to rest the morning’s upset. Thais had forgiven her father and he had made his apologies. As the king retreated towards the door he remembered the folded parchment pushing against his leg. His smile broadened when he reached into his pocket and pulled out the heavy letter.
Eunus had not forgotten his niece.
“A letter came today from my brother,” Gallus announced when he reached the open door. Behind him a clatter preceded fast-paced footsteps and within seconds Thais was at his side.
“Was it addressed to me?” the girl asked brightly, her eyes alive with excitement. She had not heard from her beloved uncle in several weeks.
“No, to me.” Thais’ face fell. “But he did include this, which I am sure was intended for your eyes only.”
Gallus lifted the folded parchment, which was whisked from his fingers as soon as he did so. Thais threw the king a beaming smile before she scampered over to a window seat enshrined in cushions and started to read. The other occupants of the room watched her for a few moments before Gallus nodded to Rachel and Kaio and took his leave.
While Thais read and then reread Rachel set about tidying up the girl’s desk, as the three of them had upturned every item that had had the misfortune to lie in their hurried path into the room. Kaio meanwhile ambled about, poking his nose into everything that seemed of interest to him and rearranging things so that his friend would have trouble finding her possessions when she needed them. The only items he spared sat upon a small shelf near the girl’s grand four-poster-bed. The boy knew that they had once belonged to Thais’ mother Mai Avani and he had never touched them without being invited to. Stood pride of place between the diaries, trinkets, boxes and jewels stood a small portrait. It could have fit into the palm of a man’s hand and had been painted by Sedas, the finest painter in the whole Agea. It was a portrait of Thais and her mother when the princess had been a tiny child; two perhaps.
Kaio and Rachel had never met Thais’ mother. She had died a few months before they enjoyed the good fortune of coming across Thais in a scuffle in Varanasi. But looking upon this picture, Kaio wished he could have known her and this was not simply for the elf’s otherworldly beauty, but for a reason far deeper that he could not explain. Mai Avani was magnetic and everyone who passed her portraits felt their eyes draw towards her. Her hair had been the colour of Kaba wood, dark, yet punctuated by tones of bronze and gold when the light shone upon it. Her eyes had been large and grey, with a ring of yellow about her pupil. When the elf had been but a small child she had despaired of her eyes, feeling them inferior to her brothers and sisters, who had inherited vibrant blue and green eyes from their parents. Yet in time Mai began to feel a certain pride in her pale grey eyes. They were hypnotic; of this she had been aware, and far more interesting than the ordinary beauty of her siblings.
The elf contrasted so much to the child in her lap one could wonder whether they were related. Where Mai’s hair had been rich and dark, Thais’ curly locks were so fair they were almost white. And where Mai’s eyes had blended seamlessly with her fair skin, her daughter’s eyes had sucked the light from the room. They were twin pools of darkness, set against olive skin that darkened to mud in the summer months. Thais was of Median descent, that much was certain. One look at the girl revealed that she was a descendent of the autocratic race, who had led all others from the ancient lands of Gaia to the shores of the Agea. The Medians had ruled over all the powerful men known as the Kudai and all the lesser men at the time of the destruction of Gaia and when they arrived in the new world, they conquered every corner of the Northern Continent, planting their flags and starting their legacies. Every royal family in the north had descended from their fierce and powerful rulers.
Thais and Gallus were no exception. When the girl had been born Mai Avani had seen that her blood had left her daughter with only a few notable features that had triumphed over Gallus’ Median blood. Thais’ ears were distinctly shaped, forever linking her to the pacifistic race of elves and as she grew the shape of her face and her delicate nose showed her mother’s beauty rather than her father’s.
Kaio stared at mother and baby intently. He had seen the painting many times before and it was one of his favourite of Thais’ possessions. The boy narrowed his eyes and looked more closely at the expressions of Mai and her daughter. Their faces seemed so sad, so helpless. Never before had Kaio felt such a feeling of sombreness emanate from the happy scene and instantly goosebumps crept over his skin.
“What’s wrong with you?” a girl’s voice interrupted his nightmarish reverie. Kaio snapped his eyes up to see Thais had lowered her letter and was staring at him with a frown. The tall youth shook his head uneasily.
“Nothing,” he managed, before he looked back to the painting to see the faces had restored themselves to the serenity he was used to seeing. Nothing seemed untoward.
“You are a very strange boy. Do you know that Kaio Greenwood?” Thais accused with a fond smile.
“”Tisn’t my fault! There must be a draft over here!”But Thais seemed not to care for her friend’s excuses and after casting a much restored Kaio a mocking grin she looked back to her letter to read it for a third time.