Fabius sipped hot broth from the iron bowl. They were the only people staying at the inn. Fabius had tried enquiring why a trade route had so less people but all the townsmen skirted the issue. Some had pointed to bandit raids.
“I know it’s difficult to trust him, Fabius. But he’s not done us any harm till now and we are keeping a watch on him.” Ainsley blew air on his bowl of broth at the table.
Fabius shook his head. He would never get used to Ainsley’s mind reading. “I usually know if I can trust a man. With Lord Tremane…”
“He kept his identity secret. Besides the fact that he was spying on us. Nevermind that it’s on the king’s orders.”
Fabius grinned. “Are you trying to convince or confuse me?”
“I don’t need to confuse you. That you can do pretty well yourself,” Ainsley laughed.
Ardagh ran burst inside the inn. “A man dressed in black just entered Lord Tremane’s room, through the outside window. Almost like a shadow. Should we confront them?”
Fabius started but sat down. “No, let the man leave and then capture him. I will go to Tremane and give him the chance to tell us the truth. If he doesn’t, we bring the man and find out what dealings they’re plotting behind our backs.”
He had been anticipating something like this. But what is the Lord planning? Is he actually under father’s orders or is he playing a completely different game?
Ardagh went back outside. Fabius sighed. It’d been just over a day they’d allowed the lord turned showman to join their company. The town provided them feed and rest for the horses but Fabius did not want to linger in Katak longer than needed.
Ainsley followed Ardagh in pursuit of the messenger. Fabius drained the last dregs of the broth and headed upstairs, hand on the pommel of his sword. He couldn’t give the showman an inch if things went south.
The door to the showman’s room lay ajar. Fabius took a deep breath and punched it open. “Lord Tremane, my men saw your secret messenger. Speak now or I will have you put in chains.”
The Lord stood in the centre of the room by a small table. He looked up from a parchment in his hands, his face ashen.
Fabius’ jaw tightened as he pulled out his sword. “Caught in the act. I knew there was something amiss. Who are you working for? Do not lie or I will not give any quarter.”
“Fabius….I’m so sorry.” Thormane reached out towards him.
Fabius flinched but held his sword out. “Keep your hands to yourself, showman. I want the truth.”
“Darius is lost at sea.”
“Do not avoid my….” The blood in his veins froze. “What did you just say?”
“Your fathers just sent word to me. His ship was attacked by bandits. None survived,” Lord Tremane held out the parchment.
Fabius stumbled back, dazed. “No, it can’t be true. How do you know he’s dead? He could’ve just been taken captive.”
“Maybe, Fabius. But the ship wasn’t captured. He took the ship through the Blood Dune isles and past them to the east.”
Horror engulfed Fabius. “The cephalans….” He had always dared Tarvus to go through the isles. “No, those things are only myth.”
The Lord frowned. “A returning trade ship from Halaa found wreckage scattered off the route and followed it to the islands to look for survivors. They found wrecked bandit boats and a few dead men – few bandits, few men from the ship. But nothing’s left of the Morning Tide.”
Tears welled in Fabius’ eyes. “He may still be alive.”
“The King has already dispatched ships to scour the Blood Dune islands.” Lord Tremane pulled him into an embrace. “But you need to be brave. Darius may be lost to us for good.”
Fabius choked, as if someone had punched him hard. “I will burn those bandits to the ground.”
“Calm down, Fabius.”
Fabius broke away from the Lord. “My brother is lost at sea, maybe dead and you have the nerve to ask me to calm down?”
“You can’t do anything at this moment. An attack on the bandits has to be planned. There are many political considerations.”
Fabius stopped himself from punching the showman. “I don’t care about your petty politics and strategies. I do not even know who you truly are. No, me and my men will ride back to Awad and call for their army. They will send word to the other states. I will destroy the bandits for this and no one is going to stop me.”
“Listen to reason, Fabius. If your fathers wanted to attack the bandits, they would have done so long ago. The bandits exist for a reason. They have been allowed to exist for the past decade. You know all this. You know the problems the people of Nordan have had with the Free Roads and not being able to tax it. The bandit unrest keeps them occupied and weak. The only problem the bandits pose is raiding villages and towns around Nordan, a threat which Lord Droullin kept in check. The cost of recovering the lands from them would not only require resources as large as feeding a state as large as Awad for a year, it has the potential to upset the political alignment of the Empire.”
“That was then, before they attacked Darius. What’s their excuse now?”
“If they wanted to do it now, I would not have received a message through the most discrete messengers in Quindor. They would have already marched up with their armies. They want to keep Darius’ disappearance under wraps.”
Hot tears welled up in Fabius’ eyes. “More politics? I do not care. If fathers will not go to war. I will.”
“And if you die? Then what? The kingdom will be left without heirs. The Throdden rule will fall.”
Fabius sputtered with anger but he did not have a retort.
Tremane put a hand on his shoulder and pulled him in an embrace. “Darius’ disappearance puts a greater burden on you. You said he was to be the ideal king. Now you have to fill his shoes.”
“No, Lord Tremane, the bandits took away the one and true prince.” Fabius shook his head. “I cannot let my brother go unavenged. I will move on the bandits as soon as I gather an army. You can help me plan this war or you can leave.”
“Don’t be a fool, Fabius. You want to avenge him? Then honour his memory at the very least. Fight for what he stands for. He knew the importance of the votes. The northern votes still need to be collected.”
Fabius pushed the showman away, his face cringing. “You are unbelievable. You want me to collect stupid votes when my brother, your prince has been killed? Let the votes rot under Sucellok’s hooves for eternity.” Fabius clenched his teeth, his face shaking in anger. “I am going to war with or without fathers. I will send them word and wait for their armies. If they don’t come, I will march alone.”
“And you will have doomed the kingdom to a civil war which will take many more brothers, fathers and children.”
Fabius fumed. “What are you talking about?”
“You think the votes are a formality? Without them, the Throdden kingdom loses support. You think all the states willingly support the Throdden rule? They support you because the rule provides them with armies, money and freedom to stand up to the other states. If there is one sign that your rule is failing, the states will turn on each other like fire lizards hungry for food. The lazy Droullin will turn in to a monster and lay to waste everything. And you don’t even have to die for that. Word gets out that your brother has died and these nobles will have started plotting the downfall of the Throdden rule.”
“So you want me to not search for my brother, not seek revenge and while my time away collecting votes?”
“Revenge has its time and place, Fabius. Trust me, I will help you claim it when the time is right.”
“Trust you?” Fabius stepped back, his eyes widening. “How do I know this message isn’t a ruse? How do I know this is a message from fathers?”
The Lord’s face hardened. “A poor ruse it would be. If I wanted to overthrow the Throdden rule, I would be stopping you from collecting the votes, not the other way round. I do not offer any proof of my allegiance. I will aid you in the task as I promised your father. If you choose to be foolhardy, be my guest.”
Fabius wanted to lash out at the man but the last memory of Darius on The Morning Tide thrust him into tears again.
Darius alighted their vardo and set down a crate of mushrooms they’d bought. He pulled out a book from under his tunic.
Tarvus took the book and flipped it around in his hands. “Won’t Barak notice all these missing books?”
“I don’t think so. The amount of books he has in that humongous van is more than the library of a lot of towns. Besides I replaced a few of the inner ones with a few books I bought at the last village.” Darius’ eyes roved around the marketplace.
Tarvus sniggered. “I’m the prize swordsman and I don’t get a dime. The cook gets to barter anything for his supplies.”
“Speaking of swordsmen, Tarvus, how is Thingle’s arm?”
Tarvus frowned, his brows crunched together. “The blade cleaved the flesh off his shoulder, but not too much damage to the bone. He’ll live, though.”
“Weird how that Halan got his sword lying two feet away.”
The captain shrugged. “It flew to him. Like in a showman’s trick. The one they do with threads and wires to make it seem that they can control things without touching them.”
Darius nodded. “Except that there were no wires.”
“Definitely not. Rorash went beserk and called the battle off for cheating.”
“Like he’s the fairest man,” Darius scoffed. But the vision of the blade flying towards the warrior sprawled on the ground, of its own accord gnawed at him.
“Thingle gained a lot of trade,” Tarvus sighed. “But I don’t know what happened there.” He turned his attention back to the brown disheveled book. “This one is a little different from the others. I’ve never handled a book so fine. The paper is just like silk.” He held the pages upto light.
“Exactly my thoughts. Even the royal library in Sen-Tian does not have such books.” Darius added.
“But the script looks similar to the first two you got.” Tarvus’ eyebrows scrunched together.
Darius peered over Tarvus’ shoulder. “I’m telling you, they must be some lost script of Halaa. If we could decipher it somehow, maybe we can understand what they are planning. Maybe get a fierce Halan tribe to join them.” But his gut feeling told him that Barak was collecting the books for a cause much more sinister than allying with the Halans.
Tarvus flipped the pages. “I don’t think this one is a book though. See the scribbles on top of these pages?”
Darius hadn’t noticed the squiggles on the top right corner of every other page. “It’s a journal?”
“Seems so. Or at least some diary. But until we find someone who can read this script, we are stuck.”
“Maybe if I nicked a few more, we can compare the writings and decipher the language on our own.” Darius suggested.
“Between your cooking duties and my combat preparation, I doubt we have the time to decipher an entire language. Who knows if the other books are even related? Besides we have seen several different scripts.”
“But this one repeats itself!” Darius countered. “But you’re right. We need a Halan with knowledge of obscure Halan scripts.”
Tarvus sat up straight. “This is as obscure a Halan town as any. Why don’t we try our luck here?”
“This one?” scoffed Darius. “This village barely has fifty houses and market so depleted, I wonder how they have anything for sale. Besides, we can’t led Barak know about the books.”
“I’m not saying announce a reward for whoever can read the book. We can ask around discreetly.”
Darius sighed. “Fine. I’ll go ask the vendors. I still have an hour before I start cooking supper. But we do not take the diary. Copy a few lines down.”
Tarvus pulled out a wad of sheets and scribbled down the symbols. Darius rolled up the paper and stepped off the vardo.
The village marketsquare consisted of five brick-lain shops. A large black female statue with fierce white teeth and red eyes stood on one leg in the centre. Her ten hands held a head of what Darius imagined to be demons. He would never come to terms with how different towns and tribes had different gods. He moved past the shrine laden with garlands and fruit offerings. Many more vendors set up shop rugs and mats on the ground, selling a variety of spices and incense.
Darius approached the shopkeeper he’d bought mushrooms from. The man was a short yet stocky middle-aged man with a long oily moustache and his head shaved except for the crown- an appearance shared by all Halan traders.
He held out the paper with the lines from the diary and spoke in the common Halan tongue. “We think this is a Halan recipe. Can you help us read it?”
The man took the paper and stared for a long moment. Laughing he threw it back at Darius. “This is no Halan script I know of. But I do not know much and I doubt any one in Dharya can help. Only a few of us can read at all. I can take you to my mother if you want new recipes. Her chicken broth is famous across four villages. And it uses mushrooms which you bought.”
Darius backed away. “No, thank you. We were just curious abut this. Not looking for any new recipes.” He had had chicken broth at the last village and the spices in them had him drinking water for the next few hours.
He walked about the village. But after half an hour of traversing through all the ten lanes in the village, he knew the merchant was right. People in the village barely knew how to read.
He reached the vardo when Tarvus’ raised voice alerted him.
“What do you think you are doing? These do not belong to you.” Tarvus held a fat chubby child by the arm. The boy looked barely older than five, yet his brown eyes glinted with alertness. One arm held the brown diary. The other hand’s thumb was in his mouth.
“He can’t understand you, Tarvus. Let me try.” Darius interrupted.
“I can,” the boy spoke and plopped the thumb back into his mouth.
“Then why are you stealing the books?” Tarvus released the boy’s arm but shot him a glare. “I’d stepped out to stretch my legs and this tyke sneaked in.”
“Because there are no new stories in Dharya to read. All the books left are boring, merchant ledgers and cookbooks.”
Darius stared at the child. “You are barely five. How can you read? And besides this isn’t a book in any Halan language.”
“I know it’s not. But I can read it.”
“What?” Both Darius and Tarvus exclaimed.
Tarvus tapped Darius on the shoulder with a broad grin. “I told you this was a Halan script.”
“I don’t know what script it is. I can read everything.” The boy had switched to their Sen-Tian accent.
Darius peered at the boy. The child seemed normal. “What do you mean you can read everything? You must have learnt the script. Somebody must have taught you.”
The boy shook his head.
“What’s your name?”
“Well, Dwimoe, will you read this book to us?”
A smile lit up his cherubic face. “Yes, but you must not tell mother. She thinks I am playing with Shae and Bhari.”
Darius lifted the boy up the vardo’s steps. “Don’t worry, Dwimoe. We will let no one know.” He turned to Tarvus, smiling. “You were right. Somebody in this village does know how to read this gibberish.”