Part One: Chapter 5
Baeldrin recognized one of the three guards silently following his approach but had never bothered to learn the man’s name. In his mind, the whole dirty lot could scarcely be called men at all, much less soldiers, and he’d never been shy of letting them know it. They’re all dense as the witch’s pets, he mused, …and nearly as ugly. But imps don’t play their masters false…nor speak unless spoken to…nor drink themselves into oblivion on the eve of battle…
They continued to watch him intently, dark eyes sunk beneath the nasals of their leather and steel caps, until he vanished under the once-magnificent wall of his father’s city: Rardonydd, fading jewel of Domal. For hundreds of years it had enjoyed its prestige as the dominant of the twin ruling cities: a stern but wise and protective big brother to Relinydd, the trading hub on the shores of Lake Eredus. At the height of its power—acknowledged by most scholars as some time during the reign of Baeldrin’s great-grandfather, Caleb the Gazer—Rardonydd had been both the head and heart of a realm encompassing not only Domal’s present-day borders but also half of Sinia, near three quarters of Ithiria, and the entirety of Ûnath and Ost.
Countless years and lives spent to win that territory and hold its borders, Baeldrin considered as he passed through the archway. And only two generations of dotards to lose it. No, to give it all away! The sun blasted the prince’s face as he stepped out of the shadows that’d served as a brief reprieve from the searing heat. His right arm raised involuntarily to shield his eyes, then he moved on leisurely into the streets, sidestepping fallen chunks of wall and shattered paving stones as he did so. They’ve ceased now to even clean up their mess, much less fix it. And why is that, I marvel? Could it be these wonderful urchins, whores, and driveling peddlers I’m passing are content to wallow in their own filth? He’d meant this to amuse himself, but it served only to deepen his scowl. One of the merchants—a plump, balding man laying out bolts of gaudily dyed cloth—caught his eye, held it insolently, then returned the frown. Dog! Does he not know his prince? Or perhaps he doesn’t care at all. I suppose I’d not either in his place, with no consequences for breaking the laws.
The uncommon scent of jasmine filled the air as he turned one corner to find himself in an even rarer scene of tender parenting, and he lingered for a moment to take it in. Tired hands ran across his face and on into his hair, pulling the long jet strands away from his shoulders. I need sleep…but not yet. I must see him first. The little girl, in the midst of having her shiny brown locks braided, kept smiling, even giggling, as her bright eyes caught a glimpse of the prince. And her comely young mother had a grin for Baeldrin as well—though one of a different sort, it seemed. Under other circumstances he might’ve returned the same, but today the suggestion only somewhat lessened his bitter frown. A hot breeze rushed by, and again light stung at his eyes as he glanced away, searching the promontory beyond. He resumed his tread.
It wasn’t long before another sun came bearing down on Baeldrin’s face: a round disc and three daggerlike rays—piercing north, south, and east—shallow-carved above the gargantuan double doors of his father’s crumbling sandstone palace. “No mountain, river, wood, or fen can hold back the swords of Domal,” Acomalath had said to both of his sons together once, before his own father’s cravenness had been thoroughly passed on, “…but the Great Ocean shall spill forth from the West someday to wash over us all.” Baeldrin no longer believed this—not so much the cataclysmic forecast as the sweeping boast.
“Welcome, my prince,” rasped one of his father’s honey-tongued retainers as the doors began to slowly arc inside. You sicken me, Baeldrin wanted to say, yet he only nodded and passed through. Thankfully, the inner court’s cool fountains and ample shade made it a good deal more pleasant within than out in the street, and the huge beams of light streaming down from the dome’s uncovered portals weren’t so blinding. Others had come to call on the king as well, among them an aged soldier, a lady and her servant dressed in fine linen shifts, and a merchant trio with their silly hats and oiled, pointy beards. They’d have to wait, though. Rardonydd’s heir didn’t bother with the lists.
Acomalath sat with chin in the palm of his right hand, staring lustfully at the dainty maiden pouring his wine, as his firstborn passed through yet another set of double doors. “Am I to have another bastard brother?” said Baeldrin angrily as he approached the dais.
“I hadn’t dreamed you loved the one so much as to desire another,” spoke the king with a lazy smirk, his gaze still on the wench until she finished her task and strolled seductively out of view. Then his eyes swept to his legitimate son: “Or perhaps you and dear Dragan have made peace?” A bark of annoying laughter followed. “Where’ve you been, my son? They say your poor mother’s sick with worry!”
Although he’d soiled it thoroughly from trekking the dusty roads, Baeldrin noted the extravagance of his own crimson garb as opposed to his father’s plain sandals and tunic. ”They? Perhaps if you dressed like the king she’d allow your presence.”
“Enough of this banter!” snapped Acomalath, his brow furrowing. “Why are you here instead of waiting patiently in your quarters? I’ve hardly begun with the lists…”
Did I go too far, dear Father? “I’d know if the rumor is true. Has Relinydd betrayed us?”
The king looked wounded. “Betrayal? Are you mad? Dragan seeks glory in the north, so why should our Sister’s strapping lads not also? Our own borders are secure—and all of Domal shall benefit from the veterans and spoils that must doubtless return. I’m surprised you’re not here to ask leave yourself…to beg for a legion to take with you!”
“I am,” said Baeldrin simply, though inside he struggled not to say more. There was no doubt Acomalath loved the bastard best, and Baeldrin yearned to strangle him for that fact alone if for nothing more. Yet at present his father—fool and coward that he was—was still of use. He must freely give me what I need. The old man mustn’t be harmed…at least for now…but it’s past time he danced to my tune.
“Truly?” spoke Acomalath, reaching for his cup. “Forgive me, lad, but now I’m confused…”
“Can you not see, Father, even now?” The serving girl reentered, preparing to offer the prince both food and wine. “Leave us!” he said, sternly but without raising his voice. She did so immediately. “We should be aiding the Mardothans, not helping Sinia—our ancient enemy—expand its swollen borders! I know you say we’re at peace now with the Sinians…that we conceded to them only land that was first their own…but where’s our own pride fled? What of the glory of Domal?”
“I’ve always admired your fervor, son. But our days of expansion through warmongering are done. The pride of Domal lies now in its culture and heritage and in the wealth that flows daily into our coffers. If Deserus Oen ever turns fool enough to set his eyes upon us, he’ll rue it soon enough. Besides…hasn’t he the right in this current bout of his?”
“If you consider a personal slight to Oen as just cause for full-scale invasion, then yes,” the prince returned. “Mardothan warlords are never inclined to hold their tongues, as I’m sure you recall—especially not Argen Van.”
“Come Baeldrin, it was more than that, was it not?” the king lightly scolded. He was distracted now, his fingers picking through the tray beside him for some particular morsel. “I was told that Oen’s young daughter was abused—by none other than Van himself, on the eve of his departure from Chalemos. They say she wouldn’t speak of it at first because he threatened her so. Poor thing. What if that girl had been one of your sisters? Wouldn’t you have urged me to raise our own banners, as Deserus has done?”
“Perhaps she didn’t speak till Van broke a tryst, for all I know—or care. And I’ve been urging you for years! One legion, Father. I should have a right to more, but that’s all I require. One legion.”
“Do you assume me an imbecile?” the king snorted. “And what would you do with that legion?” He paused, waiting. “Answer me!”
“First I’ll march on Relinydd and cease this new folly.”
“Then somehow vault us into a position where I must grant another legion, and another, and another…till every man in the kingdom need take up a spear? I won’t have you invite war to the walls of this city—nor any in homage to it!” Acomalath was visibly tiring of the conversation. His eyes scanned the chamber once then settled on the double doors as if looking for a guard to have the prince bodily removed.
Maybe he’s not such a fool…but has there ever been another man so craven? “Calm yourself, lord.” This pained Baeldrin infinitely to say, but the time for sweet talk was clearly at hand. “I understand your concerns. Yet all my life I’ve served you well and asked little in return.” He dropped his gaze for a moment in feigned humility. “If I can’t have the legion, then at least grant me a lesser boon. What I ask for now is no more than what the witch’s son received on his last visit. And I’m your trueborn heir.”
“You wish me to supply you with arms?” spoke the king, clearly puzzled. “You have no warriors, Baeldrin. Your brother won his through great deeds of prowess…”
The prince wasn’t troubled by this. “I ask only for keys to the armory and a store twice the size of what Dragan was provided—and enough slaves and carts to haul it away. As for the warriors who’ll don the gear…perhaps it’s time I won some of my own.”
A wicked grin jumped to Acomalath’s lips and was as soon gone. He’d be rid of this son and the man’s harping at last—for nothing more than a surplus of shields, helms, swords, and spears. “Madness, I say…but I suppose I do owe you that much. Summon my scribe, and you’ll have your missive.” Baeldrin merely nodded and turned to go. “What? No words of gratitude? I recall your brother being more appreciative of his gift.”
“My thanks, lord,” said Baeldrin with a curt bow, “…though your gift was somewhat less than desired.”
“Don’t despair!” the king spoke again after a moment’s pause, addressing his son’s retreating form. “The swords you take shall far outstrip the men willing to bear them for you.”
You’re wrong, old man, Baeldrin smiled. Imps and goblins need no persuading.