1: A Summons
My feet, clad in leather boots, tapped on the stone path that wound through the courtyard of the palace. Today I had no particular plans, no strategic meetings, no training sessions, no appointment with some foreign dignitary or arbitrary nobleman. It was peaceful, the solitude. I loved it the most. When I was the opportunity, like today, I took advantage of the isolation and simply wandered about the palace. It was a beautiful place, the courtyard that sat before the front entrance. Tall hedges rimmed the perimeter, perfectly detailed sculptures placed artistically throughout, and just enough flower beds followed the stone for a splash of color and sweet aromas. I inhaled deeply, breathing in the floral scents.
The path wasn’t long, and though the courtyard was exquisite and tranquil, it wasn’t large. It did however, weave throughout the whole acreage of the castle grounds, twisting in and around the major components. The courtyard, to the palace entrance, to the stables, around the west side, and towards the training yards at the south west corner. The path continued further on to the royal gardens on the eastern side, and was effectively a large circle around the castle, albeit with many detours. I followed the path towards the training yards. This time was my own today, and one of the things I loved to do was to train. I made my way there, at an amble, in no hurry; instead, I enjoyed the hot sun shining down on my face as I traversed the castle grounds.
The heat reminded me, as it always did, of that summer fifteen years ago. That summer, both the best and the worst of my life, abruptly shut the door to my life as a farmer’s daughter. Enough time had passed that I could think of those days easily now, perhaps even speak of them aloud. Though, at the time, those first days were the hardest of my life. I’d been transplanted, uprooted, and forced to learn and train how to be a proper Suryan Mage. It was horrible, and I felt for the longest time I was empty, missing, un-whole. But that was a long time ago. I approached the training yards now, and though I was several hundred yards away, I could see a small group of recruits all standing in block formation, listening to a bellowing trainer. Liss.
These recruits were as fresh as could be. The King swept through the Kingdom once a year, always in the summer, to find the new generation of Suryan Mages. These people – children, actually – had just arrived days ago, by the looks of it. There were perhaps only ten or twelve of them there, which in terms of soldiers, is a very small number, but in terms of Suryan Mages, was one of the highest numbers I’d seen in a Choosing.
Liss, or rather, Narcelliss, was shouting explanations at the recruits. He was a kind man, truly, but he didn’t appear that way when he was yelling. Like a seasoned military officer should be, he appeared unrelenting, fierce, and deadly. And he was all of those things, but he was also more. His massive frame towered over the children as he demanded they follow his lead in the set of exercises they were doing.
“That push-up didn’t count, recruit, I saw that! Ten more!“, he shouted, much to the dismay of the trainees.
It made me grin. I too, remembered being in their place. Though it would be painful and difficult, the rigorous training of a Suryan Mage was worth the effort. I was living proof that hard work can result in success, given enough determination. As the youngest High Suryan Premiere in history, I wore that prestigious rank proudly.
“Good morning, Liss,” I said pleasantly, looking over the trainees.
They were struggling, but that was alright. It was difficult. If you struggled, that meant you were trying, and that the next day it might not be as much of a struggle.
“Good morning, High Suryan Premiere!” he shouted, for the benefit of the recruits rather than to shout at me.
The children faltered, surprised by his words, but continued in their exercises as instructed.
“Quite a few this year,” I said conversationally.
Out of the corner of my eye, a flash of movement caught my attention. Princess Nya was here, lounging in the shade up against the castle wall. She was seated on a bench, her perfect blonde hair braided and away from her face, a golden circlet nestled within the plaits. I turned my head away to ignore her. Whatever she was doing here, I didn’t want to bother with her.
Liss nudged me with his elbow. “You should greet the newest batch,” he cajoled, though only half-joking.
I suppose he was right; as the highest ranking member of the Suryan Mages, I really probably should at least introduce myself. Although, given their reaction, they had at least heard of me, or if nothing else, my title. I waited for them to finish, Liss and I each watching benevolently. As the last one finally made their way to standing, every one of them breathing laboriously, I stepped forward.
“Attention!” said Liss sharply, his voice loud enough to echo throughout the entire castle grounds.
The recruits had evidently learned that command, as they all snapped to, backs stick straight and arms firmly at their sides, chins up. They weren’t all in perfect unison, but they would be soon. If I knew Liss, and I did, then he would have them repeat that drill until it was perfect.
“Greetings, young ones,” I said smoothly.
I ran my tongue across my teeth under my lips, considering what to say. Every year I did this, and I still hadn’t figured out what I would’ve wanted to hear when I was in their shoes.
“My name is Larke Fields, your High Suryan Premiere.” I circled around them, weaving in and around the block. “We acknowledge and appreciate your sacrifices in coming here. I, like you, had to sacrifice to be where I am today.”
A glint of metal caught my eye, and I noticed Princess Nya had stood, her crown shining in the sunlight. I flicked my eyes away from her.
“You all will serve the Kingdom well, and the King will reward you kindly. Perhaps one day, one of you will be High Suryan Premiere after my time is done.” I smiled kindly on them, hoping to encourage ambition.
They stared ahead blankly, not responding as I’d hoped. Perhaps they were just extremely dedicated to standing at attention.
“Long reign the Urion,” I finished.
I nodded at Liss, who smiled at me in return, his shining white teeth a stark contrast to his night black skin.
“It would be remiss of me to not take advantage of the opportunity we have here today,” Liss said, eyeing me even though I edged my way out of the formation and back towards the path. “Would the High Suryan Premiere have enough time to demonstrate how to spar?”
I looked at the recruits, still standing at attention, and back at Liss, who’s grin was both fatherly and mischievous.
“It would do good to learn from the best now, wouldn’t it?” I teased.
I may be High Suryan Premiere now, but Liss was the High Suryan Seconde. He had been Premiere before I’d ascended to his rank, and though he was a powerful mage in his own right, I was stronger. But this would be a physical bout, and Liss was the most talented warrior I’d ever met. He was pure muscle, all strength, smart as a whip and almost as fast.
I waited as Liss directed the recruits to sit quietly and watch as I limbered up quickly, rolling joints and stretching muscles before participating.
“Staff?” I asked, hopeful.
Liss nodded. We each selected a long, wooden staff, an excellent tool for sparring. We took up our positions, each of us getting a feel for the length and weight of it, spinning it and prepping ourselves.
We sparred, each of us interchanging hard strikes, advancing ever forward and backward in the dance between two warriors. It was a dance, after all, where the footwork was more important than the offensive tactics. Neither of us were trying very hard, though each crack of the staffs against each other were deafening, the sound reverberating off of the castle walls.
We finished the bout and stood facing each other, each of us barely having broken a sweat. As the fight was over, we lay down our weapons at our feet and prepared to perform the Suryan salute, a sign of respect and honor between the mages. We each pressed our palms together, the tips of our fingers just in front of chests. Liss began first and dipped his face forward so that his forehead just brushed the tops of the fingertips; I followed suit, but lifted my head before his, as expected of a higher ranking Mage.
As I straightened up, I noticed a servant had approached out training circle. He stood awkwardly and nervously, shifting his weight between his feet. He held something in his hands, a piece of parchment rolled up into a perfect cylinder.
I caught his eye and lowered my head, indicating that he may approach.
“High Suryan Premiere, Larke Fields, you are summoned by the King.”
He held the parchment out in front of him. Though he could’ve just told me the King wanted me, it was customary to announce an official summons with a letter. In addition to being traditional, it was also a necessary method of sincerity. This way, I could have more confidence that it was indeed the King summoning me, and not some type of fraud. That’s why the cylinder was sealed with the Urion crest pressed into the wax.
I accepted the roll, turning it in my hands until my fingers reached the wax to pluck it delicately from the parchment. I rolled it open, and indeed, it was an official summons from the King.
“I will go there presently,” I said, addressing the servant, who looked at me expectantly, probably waiting to escort me there directly. “Thank you, but I can find the throne room myself.”
The servant bowed in response and took his leave quickly, exiting out to follow the path that led round the castle. I followed him with my eyes, noticing that Princess Nya was no longer there, watching us.
“Carry on, Seconde,” I said formally.
Liss, serious for once, acquiesced and turned back to the recruits.
Curious as to what the King wanted from me to cause him to summon me in such a manner, I made my way back towards the castle. I would have to use the side entrance nearest to the training yard; the King wouldn’t accept it if I made him wait.
I had almost made there when Princess Nya appeared at my side, as if out of thin air.
“You startled me,” I said, disgruntled.
“Not my fault, you would’ve noticed me if you’d been paying attention,” she chastised.
She was right, it should be very hard to sneak up on me as a Suryan Mage, especially High Suryan Premiere. But she had a talent for getting under my skin and throwing me off; she’d been doing it for years. I hurried towards the throne room. She matched my pace, her dress billowing out behind her as she rushed with me.
“You shouldn’t even be speaking to me,” I choked, suddenly overcome with emotion. “Your father – the King - made it very clear that we weren’t allowed to be around each other anymore.”
She just snorted in response. “As if my father can tell me what to do.”
I gave her a look as we walked. “You aren’t a queen yet,” I reminded.
“Oh, but I will be. Then he won’t be able to decide who I spend time with.” Her eyes roved mine sadly.
I sighed. “A queen who can’t have children with her consort isn’t much of a queen,” I chided.
She didn’t respond to that, but her face showed that she wasn’t defeated, merely biding her time. That was fine with me; I didn’t have time for this anyway.
“Look, what do you want?” I questioned, not looking her way. “I’ve got places to be, if you couldn’t tell.”
“That’s what this is about!” She threw her hands in the air, exasperated with me. “But you won’t listen!”
“My father has some mission for you.”
“That’s literally my job,” I huffed. “I’ve been on hundreds of missions.”
“True, but this is serious. The future of the Kingdom rests in your hands.”
I stopped where I was, annoyed that she wasn’t being straightforward like she normally was with me. “What do you mean?” I asked.
She looked uncomfortable, and I shared the sentiment. This wasn’t the place to be discussing matters that could be potentially fatal to the throne.
“I just...” she sighed, frustrated. “I worry about you.”
“Noted, Princess.” I resumed walking, faster this time.
“Okay fine, just answer me this.” Nya grabbed my arm and stopped me again, pulling me to a halt.
This was getting more and more irritating. Why couldn’t anything with her ever simply be easy? I stared at her, waiting for her to speak.
“Will you be true to your promise, no matter what?”
I stared into her eyes, confused. She’d known me for fifteen years, and I’d been true to the promise I’d made her for fifteen years. I’d promised my loyalty to her, to the throne, in exchange for the livelihood of my family. She was the reason I’d even been able to survive. The King, I made the effort to show loyalty to him. But really, the one who had stolen my allegiance, and for a brief while, my heart, was Princess Nya.
I sighed, giving up. “You know I would do anything for you, and by proxy, for the crown.”
She stood straighter, a grim smile gracing her full lips. “Good. You’ll be pushed to your limits, I’m sure of it.” She looked down at the ground, seemingly unsure of what to say. “Come back, Larke. Promise me you’ll come back.”
I lifted her chin delicately with a single finger, leaning in close to her face. She, of all people, knew I didn’t take promises lightly.
She stared back at me, struck silent, eyes wide.
“I’ll come back to you,” I vowed.
I turned away, leaving her open mouthed and standing there, and made my way towards the throne room, my mind cluttered with concerns about this upcoming job I was to be assigned to.
The doors swung open as I pushed them, the heavy wooden planks creaking against the smooth marble floor. I entered the throne room with a swift breeze as the doors shut behind me, the air ruffling my hair from its loose braid. The throne room was empty, except for the King and Queen, each in their respective thrones. There was a dais, also made of exquisite marble, where the thrones sat. The King and Queen’s, both of equal height, were placed at the center, whereas Nya’s was slightly behind them. Grand columns were placed intermittently through the room, although they left the center of the room and the dais free so that the royal family were easily seen by onlookers. The columns were massive; if I were to wrap my arms around them, my fingers wouldn’t even come close to touching.
I reached the dais and knelt at the King and the Queen’s feet. Accepting my respectful greeting, they bid me to rise.
“Larke Fields, High Suryan Premiere, the Kingdom has a job for you,” the King boomed, his deep voice echoing throughout the chamber.
“Name the terms, and it shall be done,” I answered, speaking as formally as necessary,
The queen shifted forward in her throne and said, “You know of the Naga gang, yes?”
She had ditched the formal speech that I was accustomed to when speaking to the King, and it surprised me. But it did have a way of being inefficient.
“Yes, your grace, I do. The Naga gang is a group of organized crime that’s been present in our capital, Tarpik, for decades.”
“And you’re aware of the rebellion?” she asked.
“Miraa, dear, she’s High Suryan Premiere,” the King cut in. “She’s been briefed on everything – there isn’t anything that we know that she doesn’t.”
“I know, I just wanted to make sure,” said the queen, irritation evident in her voice. “In any case, I’ll summarize. The Naga have been spreading around this filthy drug they call ‘Spate’, or some such nonsense. This wouldn’t be a problem, except they’ve gotten rich off of it,” the queen scoffed. “So rich, in fact, that they’ve decided to invest in the rebellion.” She stopped to cross her arms and roll her eyes, obviously annoyed with these facts.
The King, noting his wife’s frustration, continued for her. “Larke, let me cut to the chase. We’ve let the rebellion go on with this farce for long enough. They were just a bunch of bumbling peasants until the Naga got involved. Now they’re an actual threat!” His words had become a shout, echoing angrily off of the walls.
I stood there, fighting a smile, amused that instead of cutting to the chase, he had just voiced his annoyance with the state of the Kingdom.
Miraa added, “We want you to infiltrate the Naga gang. Tell us what sort of influence the Naga has within the Kingdom, where this ‘Spate’ comes from, and who their leader is.” The queen settled back into her chair, resting her head against its tall back.
“As you know, our military and Suryan Mages are spread thin at the moment,” the King confided.
Though this wasn’t commonly known to the citizens, the King had been planting spies and seeds in other foreign countries to gain influence and power across the sea. He’d already conquered the Telago islands, long ago, but he thirsted for more. Clifland, a southern country neighbor to Dobridland, was of his highest importance. Dobridland, known for their stellar military power, had a vendetta against Zante Urion himself. Most of our mages were stationed out in Clifland, trying to infiltrate their government and gain support. But other spies were placed in the other foreign countries as well, each of them trying to win friends for the Urion, ruler of Ryne and Thiol. The Grand Duchy of Gatlia, the Tetburian Empire, and the Granch Duchy of Betburland, to name a few, were some of his secondary targets.
With Zante’s hands in almost every single foreign country, it left our domestic forces lacking. I wondered if that had something to do with the larger selection of recruits this year at the Choosing.
“We cannot turn a blind eye to what is happening domestically,” the King continued, interrupting my thoughts. “I need you to find out if the rebels and the Naga are an immediate threat to us.”
Zante, the King had settled down as well, mirroring the Queen’s pose, frustration clear on his face.
I contemplated their words. “So, you want as much information as possible?” I asked, confirming.
It all seemed pretty standard; figure out what the enemy is up to and how to use it against them. I felt confident that this should be an easy job. I brushed away Nya’s warning from before. I couldn’t see why this mission would be different than any other undercover assignment I’d done previously.
“Effectively,” agreed Zante, nodding. “Get us as much as you can, as quickly as you can. I’ll trust your judgement as to the timeline necessary, but we need answers and we need them now.”
“Agreed, my King,” I said, kneeling once more on the cool stone. “I will bring you the answers you seek.”
“You’re on assignment effective immediately, High Suryan Premiere Larke Fields,” the queen said officially. “You’re dismissed.”