The smell of the salty air of the sea hit Fabius as he entered the city through the Angathar gate. The tall stone archway stood over fifty feet tall and overlooked the hills of the north. He’d been told that the gate had been the first one constructed in the Sen-Tian and had withstood many a war over the past eight centuries including the last one twenty years back. The gate showed some of the battle scars, where portions of the stonework either were missing or had been blackened with fire and cannonfire.
“We are home, Bretun,” Fabius patted the neck of his brown gelding, who nuzzled against his hand.
“Welcome back, Prince Fabius,” shouted one of the guards manning the portcullis entrance over the gate, his voice barely carrying over the wind.
“A very good morning to you too, Saldo.” The prince shouted back waving his gloved right hand. Fabius closed his fist and smiled. He’d lost the one on his left hand while fetching agbayun berries he’d found last night on the sheer side of a cliff. Darius is going to be mighty pleased when he gets here.
Fabius turned left towards the city. He had no intention of returning to the palace this early in the morning. The orange light or the rising sun peeked over the horizon, casting a pale reflection over the edge of the sea. “Six months is too long to be stuck without this sight, eh Bretun?”
He trotted the horse downwards towards the docks. The city had started to stir, although Fabius knew, it would atleast be an hour before the small boats set out and spread out their nets and a further hour more before the bigger trawlers headed out to the sea.
Fabius breathed in the cool sea breeze laced with the musky smell of wood lapped byvsalty water. It brought back all the memories from his childhood, when he’d spent days and nights down in the city rummaging about the docks.
To the dismay of the king and the other members of the royal family, he’d continually bunked most of his classes and snuck out to the lower city, where he spent most of time loitering about with the fisherman boys. Their families treated him as one of their own and it was little wonder that his favourite dish had turned out to be the homemade crab curry.
Fabius smiled as he passed a couple of boys tying ropes into knots. The boys looked up and passed him sly smiles of their own. The knots weren’t intended to help in any way but frustrate the boatsmen from launching their boats.
Bretun trotted along the paved narrow lanes of houses as the city began to hum, people milling about, setting up their shops and wares. The capital of the Throdden kingdom was easily the largest city in the realm followed by the trading hub of Sen-Achen.
As the roads led him to higher ground, Fabius spotted the large trading ships anchored out on the harbor to the south overlooked by terraced highlands. Its entrance stood guarded by two headlands making it the most secure harbour in the land.
The sun had risen fully above the horizon and the roads were flooded with light. Fabius turned away from the trading district into the residential quarter of the city. Navigating the trading district on a horse had been a nightmare he’d endured twice and had vowed never to face again. He cut through the maze of curving lanes almost at a trot. Even Bretun knew these roads well enough to run through them alone at night.
Fabius emerged from the narrow lanes on the main road which branched off towards the different districts. Up north, the white walls of the Sen-Tian palace beckoned. The sun glinted off the marble and the entire wall shone like a pearl necklace. Fabius reined in Bretun and sighed. In spite of his love for the city, the palace did hold a special place in his heart.
The ride up to the wall took him more than a quarter of an hour with the constant flow of people in and out of the palace grounds. Public access had been a hallmark of the Throdden rule from the earliest days and had only grown with time. His shaggy beard, long hair and worn look ensured he didn’t get a princely welcome that he’d wanted to avoid.
Fabius trotted past the heavily guarded gates, squeezing past a carriage. A plump woman dressed in a plush velvet dress in the carriage complained heavily about the trading ships not making timely deliveries. No doubt, she was heading to the weekly forum for traders with the king. Each day of the week had been allotted to different groups of people, with common domestic problems given two days.
Fabius chuckled to himself. As a teenager, he’d once snuck in as a commoner on one of the forum days and raised brouhaha by slipping in a murmur about fishing being made exclusive to the big trawlers. By the time the Council and the king managed to calm the people down and convince them that there hadn’t been such a directive, barely an hour remained in the day. He’d never been caught for it and he now knew he’d put additional stress on the Council but it’d been hilarious nonetheless.
The roads inside the palace were covered with small white gravel. A city legend had propped up that walking on the gravel barefoot would heal all illness. Although, Fabius had always suspected that a like-minded prankster had come with the tale, walking barefoot on the gravel did feel pleasurable.
Most of the crowd headed towards the open forum court in the clerical block of the palace. Fabius however, turned right towards the flower orchard. Flowering plants from all over the kingdom had been brought to the orchard along with the some soil from the respective regions, right from orchids of the warm northern plain, to the cacti from the desert of Az’watha and fire lilies from the mountain ranges. Many had expected the plants to die but they had not only thrived but blossomed. It was a pleasant walk through the orchard on most days but the cool shade of the trees, the vibrant colours and the intoxicating smell of the flowers in the summers created a vista few other places could match.
Past the orchard lay the royal stables. Fabius handed Bretun’s reins over to a young stable-hand and also threw him iron petals with a few ideas for new pranks. The boy laughed and led Bretun away.
Fabius headed towards the white and blue building surrounded by artistically decorated trees and marble statues. The Hall of Creations was one of the newest buildings in the palace constructed shortly after the last war with Halaa. Architects and builders from all over the land had pooled in to build the hall as a beacon for creativity in all arts from stone sculpture, paintings and music. Fabius had never developed liking towards any of the arts, finding them tedious and monotonous.
Fabius climbed up the steps of the prostyle portico with four pillars, each with carvings depicting a popular folk-story. A small basin lay indented in the floor before the door filled with rose petals. Fabius took off his boots and placed them in the alcoves along the wall and washed his feet in the basin. The white marble felt cool beneath his wet feet. Through the doors lay a huge courtyard with three wings dedicated to paintings and sculpture, music and dance.
“I knew I would find you here.” Fabius called out to a grey haired man dressed in white silk night robe, standing at the entrance to the west wing, looking at a large painting.
“Ah, Fabius, you’ve finally arrived. Your city sojourn took a while,” the man replied without looking back.
Fabius smiled. “You know how much I like the docks and the sea, young father.”
“That I do, Fabius,” the man turned around, his bright blue eyes twinkling. “So, how did your vote collection go?”
“Tiring, and boring. I can’t even imagine how old father and you pulled it off before a war.”
“An impeding war made it easier to rally together the states. At a time of danger, people think of saving their lives first, not of their belongings. It’s the same with states. Petty politics, subsidies, and taxes become trivial in the face of war.”
Fabius nodded. Young father often broke into ideological and political monologues. He’d learnt to tune out during most of them.
“I guess that’s why the nobles kept cribbing. I’d come so close to throttling them so many times.”
“Darius said much the same thing, although much mildly.”
“Darius? He’s back?” Shock creased Fabius’ face, before he could control it.
Naddius raised an eyebrow at the reaction. “You weren’t expecting him?”
“No, it’s not that. Just thought he’d have completed his tour much earlier. I’m the one who’d to trek to the north.”
“These things can take inordinate amount of time. Who knows what stalled him?” Naddius said and then with a sly smile added, “or you.”
“Errr....like I said, going to the northern states takes too much time. It’s just a couple of months more than what we expected.”
Fabius knew that the Heart of the Throddens suspected something from the look he gave him. He needed to find Darius before they found out the truth.
“So, where is Darius? It’s been so long since I’ve seen him.”
“I’m sure it’s been long. Where do you think he would be after a tiring trip?”
“The kitchens?” Fabius’ face contorted with incredulity a second time, but Naddius had already turned his attention to the painting.
Darius sprinkled pepper and turmeric on the washed halibut. His bones ached from the continuous travels. But his mind felt even more fatigued and he secretly hoped that he never had to meet with a noble ever again. Darius pushed the thought away as the oil in the pan started to sputter. He would have to stand up to his responsibilities and shying away from them did not befit him.
He turned his mind back to cooking, the one thing which relaxed him, no matter how strenuous his day. The pan’s surface had been coated with a waxy white substance developed a few months back at the Hall of Queries. Darius had been shown the pan as soon as he’d entered the kitchens and the royal cooks had been clamouring about how the pan didn’t get burnt and nothing ever stuck to it. Darius still regarded it with distaste but he’d to admit that the spices didn’t stick to the pan which made it easier to marinate the fish.
The doors at the far end of the kitchens crashed open. Fabius entered wearing his frayed red jacket, his hair tousled worse than a sparrow’s nest. Darius sighed. He’d known his brother would flip out once he arrived.
“Darius!” bellowed the younger prince. “You swine!” Fabius charged towards him as soon as they made eye contact.
Darius gave the half-cooked fish a dejected frown. “Just steam it for half-hour and add a few sprigs of mint,” he motioned to the cook working next to him.
“Fabius, I can explain, brother,” Darius raised his arms as Fabius approached him, his face contorted with anger.
“You better! I’m not facing another bunch of boring lectures on politics and the history of governance. My head hurts from the one I got before the votes.”
“Let’s go to the gardens. The votes are a delicate thing to discuss.” Darius spoke louder to ensure willing ears would hear it. To make it seem that he’ swiped votes from a state allotted to Fabius would be considered a lot more plausible.
Fabius didn’t object. His brother understood the nuances of politics even though he claimed to be averse to the whole concept. Being brought up in the royal palace does that, I suppose.
The gardens behind the kitchens were laid out with trimmed grass with a few statues dotting the borders. They didn’t quite compare to the beauty of the flower orchard but they always gave him a sense of openness and calm which the orchard lacked.
Fabius checked around for people. He growled, “What is wrong with you? You were supposed to do the northern states after yours were done. We agreed on that. Young father is already breathing down my neck.”
“Relax brother, they won’t know anything. I made sure the couriers were all sent on time with the right seals for you.” Darius placed a hand on Fabius’ shoulder.
“You did?” The creases on Fabius’ forehead lessened. “But that still doesn’t explain why you’re back this early. The northern states would’ve taken you atleast four months more.” Fabius stepped back, his jaw dropping in horror. “You didn’t go to them, did you?”
Darius winced. He knew he’d messed up. “I couldn’t. Ilthan and Azan took so bloody long, that I finished with my states only a month ago. And..”
“But how does that matter? You could’ve taken ten months more and nobody would’ve blamed you for going for the northern state votes,” Fabius cut in.
Darius felt his face flush. “I…I intended to. But I hadn’t seen Mariam for so long, that I decided to go visit her. Only for a couple of days. And then, uncle Tharim saw me and brought me back.”
“What? That blasted old trader! Why does he have to meddle with our lives so? And why didn’t you tell him that you were going for the northern votes?”
Darius rolled his eyes. “You know Tharim. You think he’d ever let me take your votes? If it were up to him, he would make you the king of Halaa! And you know fathers would never question his judgment. Specially, when we ourselves had suggested dividing up the states.”
Fabius groaned. “I hate him. May bandits pillage his caravans! Why did I ever save his bloody cotton?”
An involuntary grin broke out on Darius’ face. “And gift him honey from the sand bees of Az’watha.”
Fabius crunched his brows in mock anger and then burst out laughing himself. “I’d gift him the bees, if I knew back then.”
“So how’s Mariam? You two have fun?”
Darius blushed. “She’s hale. Wanted me to look for the sparkling silk trees in the north. Guess she’ll have to wait for that.”
“She’s looking for that hokum legend? Sparkling silk indeed.”
“She says her teacher had a shawl of sparkling silk, so she’s convinced that they exist. And I’m not going to argue on that.”
“Of course, why lose the kisses for her childish fantasies?” ribbed Fabius.
Darius smiled. The thought of Mariam always did that.
“So what are we going to do about the northern states?”
“Well, fathers shouldn’t know anything is amiss because of the couriers. And let’s just hope the northern states can hold together their problems for a few more months till I can get there.”
“I guess you’re right. We barely ever receive a message from the north anyway.” Fabius stretched out. “Now, brother, go finish cooking that fish. I’m ravenous.”
Darius smiled. He hoped his brother was right.