Elena clawed at the silver jewellery box in her hand. Somehow, it was the only object which gave her comfort. The townsfolk hadn’t touched her, but they had barricaded the doors of the house. Though she could move around, she chose to keep to her room. Seeing anything of her father’s still hurt.
Memories of the night plagued her through the day, waking or asleep. She trembled as the image of her father hanging in the town-square flashed before her eyes again. I will kill them. All of them.
She had gathered all the crystals she could find in the house, cut or uncut. She had tried to freeze bowls of water with an iolite rock but as hard as she tried, nothing happened. The most she’d been able to do was to make a couple of small green garnets studded in earrings to glow for a few moments.
Footsteps sounded on the wooden boards downstairs. Why would they come in? Elena walked up to the door of the room and pressed her ear to it. Heavy boots hit the stairs and she counted two different pairs.
“Who’s there? Go away, you swines.” Elena shouted.
Three knocks sounded on the door, but before she could respond, the door crashed open, knocking her backwards on the floor.
Hogarth stood in the doorway with two other men she didn’t recognise.
“You are too polite; we don’t need to knock for her!” Hogarth announced with a flourish.
The two men stepped in, one a short fat man with a large paunch, a pudgy face and a droopy moustache. The other gaunt bearded man looked around the room and scratched his neck under a coarse grey scarf.
Elena pushed herself up on her hands. Her fall had knocked the crystals out of the box. Her fingers curled around the sapphire. The room felt cold but beads of sweat sprouted on Elena’s forehead.
“You dare enter my house? After all you have done?” she screamed.
Hogarth didn’t respond but his lips turned in a crooked smile. “Have a look, fine sirs.”
The short fellow stepped forward with a gleam in his eyes. “So, this is the pretty lass eh? She’ll make a fine addition to our tavern, mind. The customers were getting quite bored of Rosmerta.” He looked Elena over, tilting his head one way and then the other.
Elena’s eyes widened. These men are flesh traders. In spite of the boiling fury inside her, she felt naked and violated at the bestial look on the man’s face.
“Let’s inspect what you hide under that dress, shall we?” The man flicked withdrew a short knife, curled at the tip and advanced further towards Elena.
Elena clutched the hem of her skirt. Fear began to seep through the wall of anger. The thought of being away by these rogues and made into a barmaid pleasing a long line of drunk and uncouth men in the tavern made her tremble.
“Rorash! Not now.” The tall man grabbed the knife arm and yanked him back. “You’ll have enough time to inspect her as you wish, if she comes to the tavern.”
Rorash grumbled but slid his knife back into the sheath. “You always spoil my fun, Androl.”
The farmer twirled his moustache. “So how much are you going to pay for her?”
Androl turned towards Hogarth. “You said the girl was willing and impoverished.” He waved his hand around the room. “This house does not look like it belongs to someone who cannot earn their bread.”
Hogarth cackled. “Oh but this house is not hers. It was the mayor’s. And now that he is dead, it belongs to the people again.”
Elena shouted out. “Liar, father bought this house from Galbraiths. Not because the Throddens had given him mayorhood of this accursed town.”
Hogarth spat on the ground. “A weakling king appointed a spineless mayor. We deposed him.”
The man named Androl grabbed Hogarth’s collar. “Listen, you worm. I have no interest in your town politics. And I don’t care why you killed the mayor but you have no right over this girl. She owns the house and if anybody so much as touches her again, I will slice their veins.”
The sight of a gleaming shiva sent Hogarth stumbling back. “I knew your lot was scum. You’re not taking the girl away without paying.”
“Did you not hear what I said? The girl owns this house. She stays right here.”
The short man looked up at his partner in surprise. “What are you saying, Androl? This girl is so fine. How can we give her up? You know how tough it is to get girls like these.” Rorash advanced towards Elena again. “And besides, she can make us a ton of coin. The tavern needs it. We need it.”
“You will not touch her, Rorash. We do not take an unwilling girl.”
“Bollocks, Androl, you’re too soft. We are doing her a favour by taking her away from a bloodthirsty village. And besides, who says I’ll do wrong by her. Maybe in a couple of years, I’ll marry her.” The man lunged at Elena.
She screamed and tried to roll away. But the man never touched her. Instead a howl of anguish went up from her assailant and he fell to his knees. Elena felt the red sapphire in her hand grow warm. Anger quashed her fear and she closed her fist around it.
The man’s howl stopped as he clasped at his throat and began coughing up blood. His skin started turning yellow and cracking up. Rorash keeled over to his side as his right arm began to flex on its own accord.
Elena clenched the sapphire tighter and felt a current surge through her body. Within moments, Rorash’s skin blistered and blood spewed out.
Elena’s anger did not abate. She felt in absolute control, much more than she’d even felt while crafting jewels. She turned her attention to the other two men in the room.
The other flesh-trader held his shiva staring at his dead partner in a stupor.
Hogarth, however, stirred. “It was you!” he screeched. “It was you all along. You killed all those people. You will die, monster spawn. You will hang too.”
The villager turned and scrambled towards the door. Elena closed her fist again, but a flash of silver distracted her.
“Aaaaargh!” screamed the villager, as his hand stood pinned to the wooden door by a knife.
Elena gasped as the tall Androl glided across the room in one motion, pulled out his shiva and pinned Hogarth against the door.
“You foul trader! You would side with this abomination who killed your friend and partner?” Hogarth’s back arched in pain as blood gushed from his hand.
“No, I’m siding with the innocent.” Androl drew back his left hand from the villager’s chest. “And I’m killing the abomination.”
Before Elena could react, the shiva pierced the throat of Hogarth and he crumpled. Blood spread out on the wooden floor, pooling out like spilled milk.
Androl turned towards her. She raised her closed fist. Why did he help me? What does he want?
“Now, my lady, tell me. What all can you do?”
Darius tapped his feet on the blue marble. Of all the times to be late, Fabius had chosen the worst. If father suspected anything amiss in the votes, he would’ve discussed his qualms with old father and the king would never take a transgression on the votes lightly. Darius cursed his luck again. He should’ve never gone out to fetch that loaf of bread in the market in Sen Achen.
Fabius came sauntering down the stairs, wearing a blue silk robe. Darius sighed. At least he’d had a bath and cleaned off the scraggly beard, which he claimed made him look more rugged and likely to pick up women.
“Where in the world have you been? They are waiting for us in the Hardim’s Chamber.”
Fabius rolled his eyes. “Calm down brother. It’s not like we’ve missed anything. It’s always the same speeches from them. And besides they said meet during lunch. Lunch hasn’t been served yet.” He added with a sly smile.
Darius waved his brother onwards. Hopefully, the discussion on the votes would take a backseat to the concerns of the other ministers. A long discussion on the votes would spell doom for them.
Hardim’s Chamber had been named after the second Throdden king, who’d led the coalition against multiple invasions from the Halans and many historians claimed that Hardim and not Tharim, was the first real king, since it was only in his reign that all the states accepted one ruler. Naming the hall for discussions on and deciding matters of state in the palace seemed a fitting tribute to the master strategist.
The bronze gilded doors to the Chamber were expectedly closed. The panels on the door depicted many of the fights that Hardim had led. Before Darius could announce their presence to the guards stationed outside, Fabius pushed the doors open. Why is he so daft? Darius clenched his fists and followed him in.
The entire chamber was empty, even though the large lanthorns along the walls had been lit. Darius couldn’t recall the last time he’d seen the large triangular table in the centre empty.
“Have we come early?” Fabius asked. Darius shrugged. Had the meeting been postponed?
“No, Prince Fabius. We are right here,” a voice boomed out from the far right corner, where the refreshment tables stood.
“Father?” Fabius turned towards the voice.
Two men sat in the corner on a table for about eight people. Darius cursed himself. The King and the Heart together. This couldn’t be good.
“Where are the rest of the ministers, my King?” Darius approached the table.
“Come now, son. It is good you remember your proprieties but there is no one here,” the king beckoned them forward.
“Very well, old father.” Darius replied.
The King sat with his back towards the far wall on the short side of the table, while his father sat to his right around the long corner. The King wore a plush dark-blue tunic and the Heart wore a slightly more formal maroon one, which meant that they weren’t expecting to hold a proper meeting.
Darius took up the seat to across his father and Fabius pulled a chair next to him, flopping into it, with a leg draped over the carved arm. Only a glare from Darius made him adjust albeit with a grumble.
The table had been set up for lunch. King Thaddius took a sip from the golden goblet. “To answer your question, Darius, this meeting has nothing to do with the other ministers. Why involve more minds than required, right son?”
Darius nodded slowly. This sounded more and more ominous. What had they learnt?
“So, this is more like a family lunch?” Fabius piped in, pulling a silver plate towards himself.
“Yes, Fabius. You two have worked exceedingly hard and long collecting votes and we haven’t seen you for about a year.”
Fabius shook his head eagerly in assent as he sliced off a large piece of chicken onto his plate. “Not a year, only a little over seven months.”
Darius groaned inside while studying the grey-flecked bearded face of the King. There wasn’t any point in looking for expressions on his father’s face. If they just wanted a meal with us, why hold it in the meeting room?
“You know, our fathers used to have this meal as a tradition right after we came back from collecting votes. It’s been what, thirty years since the last meal, Naddius?”
The Heart smiled. “Twenty five actually. We never managed to have the meal for the votes before the Halaa attack.”
“Ah yes! Fathers couldn’t possibly have held it then. And ever since….” He trailed off, his pale green eyes reflecting his sadness. “But anyhow, you two have grown up and…this is actually a great moment, since we are having the vote-meal again,” the king raised his goblet. Naddius and Darius followed suit.
“Vote-meal?” Fabius snorted. “C’mon father, you have to come up with a better name than that.”
Darius relaxed and let out a small sigh. Maybe this wasn’t actually going to be a disaster.
“Then you’d better come back with a better name for it yourself, son.”
“I will have to think about that.” Fabius said, sucking on a fat plum.
“So Fabius, tell us about your experiences. Which state did you find the toughest?”
Fabius shrugged. “Travelling took up most of my time. And most of the nobles speak too much. You should listen to their demands. Some of them think that we should be paying them for the free roads!”
“So we read in your reports. That has been an issue since the free roads were brought in. But forget about that.” Thaddius leaned forward, his face alight with mischief. “Tell me about the nobles and their colourful lives. The things you discover about them are worthy of legends. In fact, we should compile a compendium.”
Darius chuckled. His had a couple of bizarre experiences he couldn’t wait to narrate.
Thaddius continued speaking, now laid back on his chair. “Naddius, do you remember Lord Quinzan? The one with the strange brown-black hair which he wore as a turban.”
The Heart raised an eyebrow. “That’s customary for the head of state to maintain in Majastra.”
“I know, I know.” The King raised his hands in mock defiance. “But imagine my surprise when I accidentally walk into a personal chamber of his and not only do I see him getting his own hair braided, he was sitting and snipping away at another man’s hair!”
All four at the table laughed.
“No way!” chuckled Fabius. “He was pretending to be a barber?”
“Not pretending, son. He’d been thoroughly embarrassed but told me that it relaxed him.”
“Oh and the Droullins, they’ve always been weird. I mean it’s just plain weird, but have you seen the current Lord? He looks exactly like his father.”
“And his father before that….I saw a portrait of his in their halls. The uncanny similarity is just creepy.” Naddius added.
“Very true. Fabius, did you pick up anything of Lord Droullin whilst you were there?”
Darius’ mind turned alert. They’d waded into dangerous waters. Thankfully, Awad was the only state Fabius had visited. He would have to turn the attention to himself soon.
Fabius wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “No, nothing specific. He seemed too busy with his wives. I’ve even lost count of how many there are. The people say the marriage of the Lord has become an annual tradition in Lushrow.”
“Yes, I’ve heard the feasts grow in size every year and the food grows more and more exquisite. But I wonder how the food in Lushrow tastes without salt?”
Darius’ heart gave a sudden jolt. The King’s expression changed from jovial to one of anger in a flash.
“The salt-caravans from Nitan to Awad are being raided and lost for the past six months. We’ve been getting monthly reminders from Lord Droullin to look into the situation. And imagine our surprise when the day after the messenger delivers a message to you, your report comes in claiming everything is in order and no complaints were addressed to you.”
Darius did not have to feign the shock on his face. Fabius had promised he would attend to getting the vote from Awad, the only state he’d said he would do. The idiot is going to get us both killed.
Fabius shifted in his chair fiddling with a piece of bread.
“You think the votes are a joke? That we have them for fun and it is a pointless exercise?”
Fabius didn’t reply, but Darius knew his brother’s thoughts on the votes mirrored exactly that.
The King slammed his goblet on the table, splashing wine around. “Your brother spends months and months travelling and collecting votes, understanding cultures, people, their lives and needs, what they think about their lords and what they think about us. A King cannot run his kingdom blind from the travails of his people and especially not when he spends months frequenting taverns and gambling.”
Fabius looked up, his jaw clenched and blue eyes stony. “That’s because I’m no king and nor do I ever want to be one. You have Darius and he’s willing to learn on how to become one and he’s darn good at it.”
Darius looked at his brother in astonishment. “Fabius, what are you….” He placed a hand on his shoulder.
Naddius spoke. “No Darius, do not stop him. He must speak his mind.”
Fabius shrugged. “I already have.”
The King clenched his hand, his face turning a light shade of red around the temples. “Do you know, why we always have two brothers? Me and Naddius; grandfathers Marcus and Demarcus; right back to Hardrim’s sons?”
“A silly tradition, nothing more.” Fabius retorted.
“Silly you say? Haven’t you read about the Halaa and their rule? Their leaders were killed by their own flesh and blood, brothers turned on brothers and sons turned on fathers. Sometimes fathers would kill their own child, if they deemed him a threat…..”
Fabius interjected, his voice laced with contempt. “We are nothing like the Halans. They are a barbaric bunch of tribes. And besides, I don’t want the throne. Darius can have it.”
“You ignorant fool. They turned on each other because only one of them held power and they often were blinded by their own vision and beliefs. You think the Heart is any less important than the King? Without Naddius, the kingdom wouldn’t have survived the last Halaa invasion. I’d been blinded by rage and grief. I would have charged into Halaa and been slaughtered. But Naddius stopped me from being imprudent. And he was right.” Thaddius fumed and slammed his palm on the table. “It is as important to have a strong Heart as it is to have a strong King.”
“Then I guess, you should have borne another son.” Fabius replied, his voice cold.
Darius gaped at his brother. Both their fathers looked shocked as well.
“No. There always have been two sons and there always will be. That will not change because one turns impudent and rotten. You will learn the virtues of ruling a kingdom.” Thaddius rose from his chair, his anger supplanted by the look of control of a King. “There have been reports of our trade being afflicted. You shall attend to it. In Halaa.”
“Halaa?” both the princes cried out in unison.
Darius looked at the king in anguish. Surely, they could not be serious about this.