"Drink this," the orator's distant voice came accompanied by a cool, sweet liquid coursing down the prince's throat and directly into his veins. The sweetness turned into fire and his entire body convulsed in pain.
Santhor sat up abruptly and howled, coughing and sputtering the sticky beverage. He slumped back into the bed, ribs sending violent spasms of agony to his legs and heart. His face, swollen, bruised and bleeding, refused to respond to his mind's commands. He could not speak, could not turn his head nor open his eyes. Breathing through his nose brought new magnitudes of torment to his existence.
At least he was alive.
How had he survived the assassin's attack? Had Nicolar been the one to drive a sword in the man's back? It seemed unlikely given the orator's gentle and frail appearance. Yet somehow the assassin was dead and he was alive.
Words. Make words with your mouth, fool, he ordered himself, but his muscles twitched against his will. It took long minutes for him to be able to crack his eyes open to a dazzling light. He was in another bed, in another room, although barely different from his own. Stone walls and gloomy colors and paintings of ancient lords. The orator sat by the bed with a bowl of something in his hands.
"Hhh-" the prince moaned, then mustered all his strength and concentration and hissed. "Who?"
Nicolar shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
"Who?" Santhor managed to grunt this time.
"It is difficult to say, my prince," Nicolar answered. "The man was dressed in the Galesan fashion, but I was unable to recognize him. Odd, since I know almost every man and woman who lives near Eldynvagar. I believe it may have been one of the men who escorted you here."
Santhor looked at the blurry ceiling, heart pounding. He balled his fists but even that hurt him considerably so instead he spoke again. "Why?"
"I do not know that yet," Nicolar whispered, eyes darting left and right. "It may be a single assassin. It may be that all the men who accompanied you share the same orders. All I know is that it means that your father is no longer the sole master of his men. Someone else is behind this."
"Oryp," Santhor hissed, tears welling. The Grand Steward had certainly been preparing this for years. The king would not be safe in An Asrai. The prince had to return and help his father destroy their enemies.
"My first thought, but until things become clearer we cannot be certain. For the moment, everyone is your enemy."
Santhor managed to glance at the strange orator, suspicions and fear rising. There was no way to know where Nicolar had placed his faith. The prince knew almost nothing of the man, though he had rapidly understood that he was the true master of Gales, a shadow whispering in his lord's ear.
"You have nothing to fear with me, my prince," Nicolar said calmly, seeing Santhor's frantic wide eyes. "I am your father's man in blood and heart and soul. And now I am your man. I understand if you are not yet ready to trust me, all I ask is that you trust no one else."
The prince wriggled in his bed, trying desperately to sit up and regain some semblance of control over his own body. He was far too vulnerable in his current position, weak, injured, hunted. He took another sip of the cold liquid that sparked fires in his chest. When the burning subsided, so did the rest of his bodily pain.
With the orator's help, Santhor squirmed to an upright position and let his senses settle back into place. He moved his fingers, stretched his toes, swiveled his neck and touched his bruised face. Great, sticky lumps covered his cheekbone, nose and above his eyes.
A distrustful silence hung between the two men. Outside, the pale light of dawn was beginning to rise. And with it, the sound of thunder. The windows trembled and the stone walls seemed to shake on their foundations, yet he was unable to hear the rain.
"What you are hearing, my prince," Nicolar followed Santhor's gaze to the windows, "are the dawn-waves of Gales. The yrin vagar. Our fortress' namesake. It is a sight to see, but that will be for another day."
Santhor kept his eyes on the windows, head lulling with the rhythm of the tremendous waves. "What do I do now?" He murmured.
"For now, you rest," Nicolar answered. "Tomorrow, we begin."
"What you came here for, my prince," the orator grinned. "To learn how to rule."
Santhor slept for almost an entire day, waking to startling sounds from terrifying nightmares. In each one, Oryp was slitting his throat while his father lay in a puddle of his own blood nearby. Each awakening unleashed shards of agony through every inch of his body, piercing through bones and flesh alike. Nicolar brought meals and water and the sweet burning liquid. After sucking down what little he could and quaffing every last drop of the medicine, the prince would fall into a restless, terror-riddled sleep.
He woke well-rested to the prodigious din of the dawn-waves, when the world seemed to end and Eldynvagar would crumble into the ocean. Each wave was like a hammer-blow from the deep, with the earth as its anvil. Surprisingly, Santhor longed to see one of these waves, but he was still too weak to rise. If Nicolar told true, the dawn-waves pounded the fortress every morning of every day of the entire year. The only way not to hear them was by stuffing one's ear with cotton and riding a hundred miles from the coast.
At mid-morning, Nicolar appeared with a platter of sliced apples, oats, goat milk and honeyed bread. Santhor wolfed the meal down effortlessly, the pain gradually relenting with each passing hour. When the prince had broken his fast, the orator cleared the platter and plopped a monstrous tome on the bed.
"Read this," he ordered, suddenly changing his tone. There was no sense in arguing. Santhor had nothing else to do. He reluctantly agreed and Nicolar stepped out of the room, leaving him to the day's chore.
Sighing, the prince opened the volume to the first page. A History of the Free Province of Gales. He would have tossed the book across the room if he had had anything other to do. After sitting in silence for a dozen excruciatingly long minutes, Santhor conceded defeat and began reading.
The dusty book took him well into the afternoon and late into the night. He skimmed unenthusiastically for long hours, overlooking paragraphs and entire chapters, picking the ones he deemed interesting and leafing through the others. Nicolar came in from time to time to bring him food or drink, but never spoke and quickly left so that the prince could study in silence. When the darkling sky washed over the room, Santhor lit himself a candle and continued his reading. Over the hours it had become slightly more interesting. He let himself be absorbed in the writings and, almost against his will, he plunged into the history of the province.
When the orator appeared next, a moonless night sky blanketed the world. Santhor still had hundreds of pages left of essays and explanations, maps and illustrations, dates and events.
"Are you feeling any better?"
"Somewhat," the prince admitted that the remedy had worked its effect.
"And the book? What do you make of it?"
"Useful," Nicolar corrected.
"Because it is complete."
"Before you pursue your enumeration of insults, I should let you know that I wrote this myself. It took me nine years. The research itself took twice that time."
"Congratulations, you wasted thirty years of your life."
Nicolar took the blow without flinching but struck back immediately. "I must admit that I am concerned that your father may have been wrong about you."
"And how do you know my father?"
"It is a very long story."
"You seem to enjoy telling endless stories," Santhor handed the book back to its author.
"You seem to enjoy turning your allies against you. Need I remind you that a man tried to open your throat mere hours ago? I saved your life, for your father's sake, and now I am doing what I can to follow his wishes."
"It was your duty to save my life," Santhor said, wishing he could stand. It would have made his arguments considerably sturdier. "I am your prince and you are my subject. Look outside the window. All of it is mine now, as my father wished it."
"Santhor," Nicolar gritted his teeth, losing his humility for an instant. Anger flashed across his face. He kicked back his chair and stormed off with his book beneath his arm. In the doorway, he stopped. "I have done everything I can to help you. You are on your own now. The prince of an unfamiliar province, a lord over subjects who already hate you and the prey of men far more powerful than you can imagine. If you command it, I will no longer disturb you."
"You may leave me."
Santhor glared at him, and the orator left without another word.
It took three days for Santhor to be able to get out of bed and function on his own. Nicolar had not shown himself since their last altercation, leaving servants to bring the prince his meals and medicine. Since the orator had taken his book back, and not left any new ones, Santhor had spent the three days sleeping and sulking, deep in dark thought.
The prince had come to the conclusion that he would not survive if he stayed in Gales much longer. Those who wanted him dead seemed to have long arms, with the power to corrupt and manipulate soldiers of the royal guard. Why would they want to kill him? And why not have done it on the road, with no one around to save him? The only explanation he could muster was that these men were working in the shadows behind his father. It would not do to expose themselves to him too soon. Santhor was growing increasingly frustrated at his condition; sick, wounded, blind to what was happening around him.
His heart pinched when he realized he could not return to An Asrai, to his palace, to his kingdom. Until he figured out who his enemies were, he would not be safe there. Here, at least for the moment, the Galesans did not seem to want to murder him. He wondered how long that would last. From the moment the king's court had announced their decision, Santhor had not wanted to come. As soon as he set foot on this windswept, ocean-pummeled, freezing land, he had known he wanted to leave. And now he was a prisoner here, having to choose between an imperiled life in Gales, or a certain death in An Asrai.
On the third day, when the dawn-waves bellowed at the earth, he woke and rose, padding slowly around his room. Alone, he wandered about his new chambers and found an identical bath-house, with a steaming bath already prepared. His skin prickled and stung as he stepped into the burning water, wincing as his ribs were submerged. Plumes of pink blood streamed from his wounds, floating in swirls around him. Gritting his teeth, he plunged his head into the bath and screamed, his scream of pain trapped beneath the water. Everything ached. Everything burned.
The prince wept in his bath, letting fat tears trickle down his wet cheeks.
"I am going to die here," he croaked.
When he was done, Santhor dressed to face the brisk morning temperatures of Gales. He wrapped himself in a cloak and furs, thick boots, a hood, gloves. Ready, he limped to the doorway and paused. He had no idea what awaited him on the other side. He did not know where in the fortress he was, whether the royal guards were still in Gales, nor where Nicolar had gone to. An assassin may have well been standing behind the door, ready to lunge as soon as it opened.
The prince opened it anyway, and stepped out into a long, dim hallway. Tall wooden doors lined the hall, lit torches flickered meekly in iron brackets on the wall. Santhor set off towards where he thought a stairwell might lurk, a hand on his ribs at all times. It took him the better part of an hour to make his way through Eldynvagar, always going down when he could go down, turning towards windows when there were any. Each time footsteps echoed ahead or behind him he stopped and listened, his back against a wall. Servants scurried past him without sparing him the slightest glance. Once, a few older men stood huddled in a corner, in deep conversation in their rugged language. Everyone ignored him. Finally, a cold gust surged down a hallway, licking at the rare exposed parts of his body. He followed the scent of fresh ocean air and emerged in a small courtyard.
The fortress rose all about him, high and angular and grey. A tower disappeared behind a veil of pale morning clouds, while a thin mist rolled about on the cobbled ground. With the outside came a burst of life and activity that Santhor would never have suspected coming from the endless gloomy halls of Eldynvagar. Men and women busied themselves in the yard, carts pulled by oxen were piled high with huge burlap sacks of potatoes, apples and turnips. Some carried loads on their backs, cloth and wool and buckets of water. A broad man walked by with a bale of hay propped on his shoulders, moving as if it were weightless. Santhor hobbled through this busy crowd, turning his head at every scene that caught his eye.
Nobody noticed him, most were too engaged in their hard labor, the rest were lazy watchmen or hurried lordlings making their way to some place or other. Santhor navigated through the courtyard with difficulty. Since the workers did not know who he was, they treated him with vulgar indifference, shouting at him to move out of the way or pushing past him regardless of his wounds. The prince bit his lip and said nothing, for there was nothing to say. How could these people know who he was? To them, he was just another man working in the frigid cold. He left the yard through an arch on the other side and came to a bailey, smaller even than the last. It was closed on three sides with the colossal outer walls of the fortress, and within were camped the royal guard.
Santhor stood speechless beneath the archway, his eyes widening with fear. A few shaggy heads turned his way, sharing the same grim look and dark eyes. Around a fire, three men whispered to each other. One whistled and within seconds a dozen soldiers streamed out from their tents. The prince was frozen, his feet turning to stone, his legs to lead. One of the captains appeared and stopped when his eyes settled on Santhor. The captain's face hardened. The air in the bailey yard grew thin. Santhor stumbled backwards. The soldiers bristled, glancing nervously at each other. Then the prince bolted.
Santhor ran as fast as his broken body would let him, gasping with pain at each step. He clutched his ribs and staggered back to the courtyard, pushing through a throng of workers. Glancing over his shoulder he saw the captain following him, a determined look etched on his face. There was murder in that man's eyes. Santhor scrambled past carts and beasts, feeling the soldier's glower boring into his back. At any moment, a blade would punch through his neck, or another soldier would intercept him and tackle him to the ground. If they caught him, he would die.
A door called to him on the far right of the yard and he charged toward it. He threw it open, swallowing the spears of agony jabbing his side, and tumbled into the fortress. People stared at him, confused and annoyed, but he moved on, down the hallway, anywhere but near the guard's campsite. He was lost again. The door's bang echoed behind him, the captain had followed him inside. Santhor wheezed and pushed onwards. The halls all looked alike, the stone walls identical, the stairwells fearfully similar. A single wrong turn would lead him into an impass and he would die in the dark labyrinth of Eldynvagar. An opening ahead of him diffused a golden light brighter than anything else he had seen inside the fortress and emitted a muffled buzz. Life, light, people! He shuffled desperately towards the opening and burst out into a massive, vaulted chamber, filled with standing, whispering people.
Santhor vanished into the mass, pushing his way deeper and deeper into the throng. When he was near enough to the very center, surrounded by men and women tall enough to conceal him, he stopped and waited and watched. His heart trembled in his chest, his breath came in ragged rasps. Through the blurriness he scanned the monumental chamber, but the captain was nowhere to be seen. He put his hands on his knees and spent long minutes recovering his breath under the quizzical gazes of those surrounding him, but he could not have cared less. He was their prince, even if they did not know it.
A sudden calm washed through his body, like the peaceful sun that rises after a tempest. The pain receded, his breathing steadied and his mind cleared. Santhor took a moment to survey his surroundings, making sure that the captain was nowhere in sight. From his spot deep within the crowd, the prince was unable to see what was happening, or why these people had gathered in the great hall. All he could see was the vaulted ceiling above him, supported by dozens of finely worked stone arches. Three chandeliers hung down, shedding a dazzling light on the chamber. From what he could tell, he was at the back of the hall, stuck in a mass of standing people, all looking to the front of the room.
Stubbornly, he pushed through the crowd and moved forward. Around him grew a steady flow of whispers and curses. Some men shoved him away but Santhor skirted them and made his way to the front of the pack. Where the press was thickest, he excused himself and weaved his way into small gaps until he could go no further. A wooden barrier stood in his way, and beyond were rows of benches and a sparsely decorated dais with seven identical wooden chairs.
The benches were all but empty, here and there a few stragglers sat, whispering to their neighbors. Even from behind, Santhor recognized some of the lords and ladies who had attended his welcome feast. What were they waiting for?
The answer arrived faster than he had hoped. Nicolar appeared from behind a heavy curtain, followed by Algard and four other men. They took seat on the dais, leaving the middle chair empty.
A herald rang a bell and the din hushed. The whispers faded and a solemn silence fell over the hall. Nicolar cleared his throat.
"My lords, my ladies," he addressed those sitting on the benches with a polite nod of his head, then turned his gaze to the crowd behind the barrier and greeted them as well. "Fellow citizens."
Santhor lowered his head, making sure that Nicolar could not recognize him in the crowd. Dressed as he was, the prince did not particularly stand out, but his limp and bruised face made him distinguishable.
"Thank you for joining us, for taking the time out of your busy lives to help run this province," the orator continued. "To begin, are there any queries?"
A lord, whose name had slipped Santhor's mind, raised his hand. "Will the new prince be joining us? We still have many questions for him."
A rumble of approval rippled through the crowd.
"Unfortunately, the prince is still bedridden," Nicolar answered, "the journey from An Asrai is a long and hard one. I trust he will be with us soon."
The sounds of approval turned into disappointment, even anger. The lord slumped back on his bench with his arms crossed, clearly irritated. At the orator's side, Algard and the other men chewed their lips and cracked their knuckles.
"Please, settle down," Nicolar's voice carried easily throughout the chamber and Santhor immediately understand why he had been granted the position of orator of the court. "We have other matters to discuss. Jarl Valmyr," he waved a hand at the man sitting to his right.
Santhor had read of Galesan jarls in Nicolar's book, men owing allegiance to their liege lord in a primitive ranking system that had been discontinued in every other province. These jarls had once been solely used in battle as fierce and brilliant war chiefs. Today, they were reduced to powerful landholders. The prince had seen Valmyr upon his arrival in Gales, but had not noticed the man. Now he wondered how it was possible that he had not. The jarl was a remarkable behemoth, with a mane of yellow hair and braided beard falling down his chest. His arms and shoulders seemed as thick and hard as the stone walls of Eldynvagar, but his eyes revealed a cunning lurking within the beast. The eyes of the fox on the figure of a bear. A dangerous man to make an enemy of.
Jarl Valmyr rose and the entire hall seemed to cower, as if a shadow had swept through the room and the lights were flailing.
"I have preoccupying news," he said in a surprisingly smooth voice, magnificently deep and frighteningly serene. "My men positioned abroad have reported strange movements in the inland provinces. Emptied villages, a redoubling of imperial patrols on the roads, people flocking south and west, to the mountains."
"Is it war?" A woman asked from her bench.
"Impossible to know," Valmyr rumbled. "The king has not sent word. We have no accounts of war. Trade still prospers. Yet I can feel a strange wind is upon us. There is a silence in the world that I do not like."
"Very well Jarl Valmyr," Nicolar interrupted, feeling that a wave of worry had washed through the people. "We must not speculate until we hear word from the king. The emissaries are expected within the fortnight."
Emissaries? Santhor cocked his ears, making sure he had heard correctly. Were messengers from An Asrai on their way as he spoke? His father must have sent them to check on him, to see if he had upheld his promise and taken command of Gales. Would more assassins be hiding in their midst? The prince rubbed his temple, an ache coursing through his head.
Santhor bit back a scream as the effects of his medicine faded, suddenly releasing surges of pain. Around him, people were beginning to stare, quizzical gazes on the strange hunched man in their ranks. Despite his garb, the prince knew he looked nothing like a Galesan; his hair and skin had seen too much sun, his eyes were too clear, his beard grew too stubbly and he showed no signs of having weathered the fierce storms of the coast. Everywhere he looked, men and women shared the same creases in their foreheads, the salt-bitten wrinkles around their eyes and the pale, parched lips of ocean-faring folk.
On the dais, another man had risen, but this time he spoke in Galesan, his words a violent stream of harsh consonants. The provincial tongue seemed to churn like the ocean, a constant ebb and flow of brutally short and splendidly long words. Santhor was unable to comprehend both words and sense. He could have sworn that the man was spitting venom from his chair, but some people in the audience were chuckling. Nicolar intervened from time to time, his manner as composed as always. Irritated by his lack of understanding, trembling from the pain, Santhor edged back out of the crowd and limped into the shadows.
From hidden corner to dark hall, he slowly picked his way back to his chambers, like a mouse back to its hole. By the time he reached the unfamiliar door, his lower lip was bleeding from biting back the pain and his neck ached from looking over his shoulder. Stumbling into his chambers he found the vial of medicine, quaffed it down and crashed into his bed, exhausted.
The next morning, he woke to the dawn-waves, bathed and changed, then sat in an armchair by the window. When the servant entered to bring him his meal, Santhor made a decision.
"Get me Nicolar," the prince ordered. "Tell him I need him as soon as possible."
The servant froze in his tracks, visibly surprised that the new prince was finally talking and breaking the monotony of his first week in Gales. He bowed and promised to fulfill his task, before walking out with surprise marked on his face. Santhor smiled.
The orator never came that day, and each time the servant returned with a meal, Santhor reminded him of his quest. Night fell and the prince grew restless, pacing in his chambers, taking baths, eating and thinking. He no longer dared leaving his chambers knowing that the guards were prowling the fortress and not knowing where their loyalty lay. Each time, the servants slunk back without the orator and still the prince refused to leave his room.
"Find me something to read," he had asked the servant on the second morning. "I assume you could succeed in doing that at least."
"Certainly, my prince," the servant sniveled.
"And nothing written by Nicolar!" Santhor shouted as the servant disappeared.
The fourth morning, Santhor woke to find two entire crates filled with books. He spent the morning picking and choosing the tomes that seemed appealing, or at the very least less dull than Nicolar's historical work. He then pored over those more to his liking from midday till dusk before his eyelids turned to lead and he slipped into a deep sleep.
Two weeks passed like this and during that time he had read nine different books, most written by Galesan wordsmiths. The refusal of Gales to submit to the old empire appeared in almost every work, a central subject whether the book treated in warfare, economics or politics. One was even a play about a Galesan ship captain who had fallen in love with one of the emperor's daughters. He was fortunate enough to have found books that had been written or translated in his tongue, but many passages had been left untouched and were incomprehensible.
Every night, Santhor would close a book and watch the darkness sweep over the ocean and cliffs, thinking about the people of this province. These folk were a proud one, ancient and stubborn, relentless as the yrin vagar, solemn as their grey skies and harsh as their land. Had they been offered endless vaults of gold and boundless bountiful lands somewhere else, they would have refused. He turned the question of his rule around and explored it from every perspective, but it never yielded a satisfying answer.
No matter what he did, this salt and iron people would never bend the knee to him.
On the sixteenth morning of his self-given solitary confinement, something other than the crashing dawn-waves woke him. In the early hours before dawn, a single horn blasted a tremendous note. Santhor knew instinctively what was happening. He dressed in the finest clothes he had and made his way as fast as he could down the fortress. His injuries had healed quickly thanks to the medicine and his long hours of resting and reading. His ribs still hurt if he struck them, but his breathing had returned to normal, his bruises had vanished and he no longer limped.
Despite the early hour, the wall-sconces carried lit torches, torches that led him down the cold halls, winding steps and stone passages to the great chamber of Eldynvagar. As he emerged into the vast hall, a low murmur could be heard, the chandeliers shone bright and a huddled group of men stood on the dais. The men ceased their chatter as they saw the prince appear, stunned to see him out and about. Nicolar scowled and his eyes seemed reddened as if he were exhausted and recently wept, Algard merely curled his lips, Jarl Valmyr stood with his arms crossed and the other men stared in silence.
The orator stepped forward and met Santhor in the center of the chamber. The light of the chandeliers rained down on the two men, casting halos of flickering shadows around the them.
"My prince," Nicolar said, "the emissaries have arrived."