Bretun’s hooves clacked on the cobbled high roads connecting the major cities of the Throdden Empire. The high roads had been one of the first things created by the first Throdden king and in Fabius’ opinion one of the best. The high roads made travelling faster and though they were a fundamental need for building a strong empire, the high roads also gave him the best taverns. The constant thoroughfare meant that people of all sorts populated the taverns and made them the perfect den for gambling and merry-making.
Although his small company had not been saddled with a tiring old observer by his fathers, the time set for him to reach Lushrow meant a maximum of two days of tavern stops on the month long ride. He had taken a few detours and short-cuts where possible, but even running the horses at full pelt meant he couldn’t gain more than a day.
They had already spent one of the days five days in on the road and Fabius wanted to ration the other two till they entered the borders of the state of Awad. The taverns in these parts were less populated and harder to rough up good coin in, although Fabius believed the barley ales of the smaller towns was much better than the adulterated pale imitations sold in the big cities.
“You’re not thinking about the trashy barley ales again, are you Fabius?”Ainsley had moved alongside him on his black and white north saddle bred. Bretun had rarely ever been outrun by any horse but Ainsley’s Ahearn had beaten him thoroughly every time. And Ainsley claimed that his wasn’t the fastest horse from where he hailed.
“And now you’re thinking of how Ahearn here can take Bretun to the cleaners.”
Fabius smiled and shrugged. “I would pay good money to see you do this to someone else other than me.”
Ainsley cackled. “No amount of money is worth being called a loon and getting chased out of town. And we’ve tried that a few times. Besides, I can only do it so well with you.”
“Because I’m so predictable…yeah, you’ve told me a hundred times.”
“No. I only told you half the truth the other times.”
Fabius knew this was a trap but he sighed and asked, “And what’s the full truth?”
“That you’re predictably…..stupid.” Ainsley said, leaning down the side of his horse to avoid the mock punch Fabius threw. “Exactly like that.”
“I still can’t believe Ahearn isn’t the fastest in the land. How can he lose to any horse?”
Ainsley stuck up his with pride, cocking his head towards Fabius with a smug smile. “Because the northern clean air breeds better horses and riders than your salty and stinky sea waters.”
“Oh yeah, that is so true because you spent all of two years up there.”
“Two of the first and most important formative years of my young life, my friend.”
Lushrow was visible from over ten leagues away, mostly because it was set on the slopes of a hillock. The major buildings of Lushrow were studded with large plates of silver, so set that the city would look like a necklace glittering in the sun.
It was a gaudy display of wealth but the beauty of the city impressed Fabius. The lower compound of city was occupied with most of the army, while the inner walls housed the rich and prosperous including the lord of Lushrow and the state of Awad. The rest of the city lay spread out on the hillock.
“Yeah, I know, the current Lord Droullin would have built his mansion right at the top of the hill.” Ainsley had dropped back to where Fabius was riding with two others.
“You really must stop doing that.”
“And you asking me to stop is not going to make me. Thankfully, the pompous brat had wise ancestors, who knew getting trapped on the top of a hill was suicidal.”
“The pompous brat still made separate palaces for all his nine wives right on top of the hill.” Fabius pointed to a glittering circle on the crest of the hillock. “Calls it the pearl ring.”
“So he did inherit some wisdom. Keep the ladies surrounded with silver and far from yourself,” sniggered Ainsley.
“If he was wise, he wouldn’t need help figuring out who stole his salt,” a burly, pink faced man spoke up from Fabius’ left. Ardagh hadn’t been Fabius’ finest pick but his deceptive speed on foot despite his large frame and deft control over horses had been difficult to ignore. Being the youngest member of his company and also the most shy, led to him being picked on the most by the group.
“As I told you guys before, without salt, what food would you eat? You would be forever stuck eating bland fruits, cheese and drinking milk. No meat, no fish, heck even the vegetables need salt.”
Fabius smiled. Ragnasary hailed from the southern tip of the Empire and had skin so dark a shade of brown that Fabius was certain the sun could do the man no harm. The man had been brought in as an apprentice cook in the halls of Sen-Tian but had helped the princes pull so many nightly escapades that Fabius couldn’t refuse when he’d asked for a place in his company. And besides having a man who knew to cook something besides a roasted kill or a bland stew made his company self-sufficient.
“Yes, Lord Cook,” Ainsley bowed towards the man, “we know you would trade all the gold and silver in the world for a mountain of salt and spices.”
A smile broke out on the broad jaw of Ragnasary. “What would I do with just the spices though? Mountains of all kinds of food, I say. Would cure all the problems in the land. No bandits, no skirmishes with the Halaa and definitely no salt caravans being stolen.”
“All hail Lord Cook, for he will lead us to peace and gluttony.” Ainsley shouted out to the company.
“ALL HAIL LORD COOK!” Fabius joined in the chant.
The winds had picked up in the past two days keeping the sails of the Morning Tide full, day and night and speeding them up. Darius felt a tinge uncomfortable but Tarvus assured him the ship handled smoothly even in a thunderstorm. Darius had no wish of seeing one. He had sailed a few times but never for the length of time of this voyage.
He’d always preferred his feet on the ground or on a horse. Something about the water unsettled him even when the seas were calm.
“You’re awfully quiet for Fabius’ brother. He would’ve raised festivities on the ship by now.” Tarvus came up to him.
“If you insist of being as informal with me as Fabius is, drop the Captain as well, Darius.”
Darius nodded. That would take some effort. Fabius seemed to strike up friendships with every person he would meet. Except nobles. “I can imagine him doing that. But I guess being the older one means being more sober.”
“You can say that again. The last time we sailed two years ago, he’d made sure we’d loaded up on barrels of ale and bottles of the sea rum from the Inchaks. Even I barely recollect the next three months.”
Darius laughed. “And yet he managed to get you the best trading deals with the villages on the west coast.”
“That man can hold his liquor. I’ve never seen him stumble a step. And he didn’t just get us the best trades. He got a village to hold a drinking festival. How he convinced them to believe that drinking wine leads to a bumper crop is beyond me, but he did. And from what I hear, that festival has become a tradition in the village.”
Darius laughed. “I’ve never doubted Fabius’ people skills. He can be so charming and persuasive in his own way.”
“Is that why you swapped places with him on this trip?”
“What do you mean?”
“So that he can learn how to connect with the people and gather votes?”
Darius eyed the young captain. The man was smart. “One of the reasons, yes. I know, he can be a wonderful king.”
Tarvus burst out laughing. “Fabius? A king?”
“Well, why not?” Darius felt a tinge irked.
“Aside from his immaturity and abhorrence of the nobles? Maybe because he’s too impulsive and does things which a king cannot and should not do.”
“Fabius rides on the other side of the rails.”
“What do you mean on the other side? The other side is the sea.” Darius peered over the rails, where the blue sea was being churned in to white foam by the ship.
The young captain pulled back his shoulder length mane of brown hair. “And I’ll show you what I mean,” he added with a mischievous grin.
Grabbing the rail, he pushed himself over like climbing a wall and instead of dropping over it, sat on the rail.
Darius reached for him on instinct. “Tarvus, what are you….”
“Relax, I’ve done this a million times. And even if I fall over, I’ll be in the water. My men will rescue me well enough. The only downside will be one less pair of leggings to wear for a couple of days.”
Tarvus grabbed on the inside of the rails and dropped himself off, hanging on the side while facing the sea.
Darius flinched. “That’s dangerous.”
“Yes, but exhilarating.” Tarvus drew a deep breath in. “You can see the white foam churning under the ship. You feel the ship’s movements as your own, feel the spray of the water as she lunges into a trough.” He craned his neck back. “It feels like life, Darius.”
“I’m sure it does, friend. But that’s not for me. Put me in a sword-fight anyday. Against two men without a shield even.”
Tarvus pulled himself back on the deck. “You’d rather have a beating handed out than be wet? Not sure I see your priorities right. But how about the kitchens? I’ve heard you cook the most delicious of halibuts.”
Darius grinned. “I love cooking. It’s fun. As much as swordplay. Tell you what. You spar with me and I’ll cook you a different dish every day.”
“That’s a tough challenge to meet, Darius. There isn’t that much different food for you to cook. And besides, you’ll cook if I spar. What do I get if I beat you?”
Darius laughed. He could see why his brother got along so well. “You name it.”
“Do what I just did.”
“No way. I’d rather fight the Halans.”
“The Halans? Now that’s picking a tough fight.”
Darius scoffed. “They are savages. They don’t have the nous for fighting and the proper etiquettes and honour for waging a war.”
“Etiquettes and honour don’t matter much in a war. And I’ve seen their combat capabilities myself. Most of their warriors are lithe, agile and know what they are doing. They are after all a warring race.”
Darius threw up his arms. “They don’t even spar for bettering themselves. They do it please their stone idols, as if those could grant them boons.”
Tarvus laughed. “Why they do it doesn’t matter. And worshipping idols is a belief. I find it amusing too but…” Tarvus shrugged. “And not that our kingdom doesn’t have its share of stupid beliefs.”
Why does he not understand? Darius clamped his right hand on the rails. “And what about their insane sacrifices? Where they slice the neck of animals and let them bleed to death! All in the name of some deities, whose statues they’ve created and anointed as immortals. No, Tarvus, they’re not humans, they are mindless bloodthirsty savages and it is a wonder we didn’t eradicate them when we had the chance.” Darius fumed, his nostrils flared up and his ears had turned red.
“Woah, calm down, Darius. There are no Halans on this ship. And I don’t think this attitude would do when we do reach Halaa. There is peace, but you cannot go and start killing them.”
“Of course not. I’m bound by my royal station. If I was but a soldier, the tribals would’ve felt my wrath.”
Tarvus chuckled, clapping him on the back. “No, they wouldn’t have. You would’ve been the most disciplined soldier in the entire Throdden army, who wouldn’t even dream of going against the wishes of the King.”
Darius smiled, but he could still feel the anger boiling in his chest.
“We’ve still got a couple of months till we reach Halaa. And I figured out another reason.”
Darius looked up, non-plussed. “Another reason for what?”
Tarvus headed for the stairway below deck. “You didn’t want Fabius to face Halaa.”
Darius’ eyes widened. If I ever become king, this man will be a lot more than the captain of a ship.