Santhor took seat in the middle chair, with Nicolar to his right and Algard to his left. Valmyr and the three other men seemed to choose their chairs at random. There was nothing to differentiate the simple wooden thrones, not even paint or decorative carvings. From his seat on the dais, Santhor had a sweeping view of the chamber, the ranks of benches and the stockade where the common folk usually gathered. This morning, the entire hall remained empty and silent. Not a word was said. Finally, footsteps resounded from the front entrance, a heavy door swung open and a young messenger appeared.
"My princes," he said once he had walked down the length of the hall. Santhor frowned then realized that to Galesans, Algard was also a prince, probably more so than he would ever be. "My lords. The emissaries of the royal throne have arrived. They await without."
The air was thick with expectancy until Santhor realized that everyone was waiting for him to speak. "Send them in."
The boy bowed and marched back out of the chamber. As they waited, Nicolar leaned over to Santhor.
"Whatever they may say," he whispered, "you must remain calm. Things have happened since you last left your room."
"What—" Santhor began but Nicolar moved away and suddenly a troop of men stomped into the hall. The prince frowned, wondering what the orator had meant.
Santhor counted over a dozen men, but only three seemed to be designated emissaries. The others bore swords at their waists and their eyes were of slate. Soldiers, escorts, killers. Something seemed strange about this party, but Santhor could not figure out what was bothering him. One thing was certain, he had never seen these men back in An Asrai. Then again, he had never spent much time in court. From behind the envoys and their guards, a small figure showed his face and Santhor held back a gasp. It was the young herald that had summoned him to court to be sent off to Gales. What was he doing here? The boy kept his head down, staring at his feet and shuffling uncomfortably.
Nicolar cleared his throat and stood. This was his domain of mastery, diplomacy and eloquence.
"My lords," he said in a gentle but forceful voice, clear as a war horn. "Welcome to Eldynvagar, the fortress-city of Gales, province of the realm and humble servants to our king. I trust your travels went untroubled and were swift. You must no doubt be tired. Would you perhaps prefer we meet later in the day? I find that a few hours of rest does wonders to the weary mind."
One of the three emissaries sneered, then made a curt bow. His maroon robes, lined with crimson and gold, fluttered with his every gesture. They wore their long dark hair in a similar fashion, pinned up on their heads in thick, lacquered buns. They could have been brothers with their thin and arched brows, cunning eyes and red lips.
"Esteemed compatriot," the emissary answered with as much ease and confidence as Nicolar. "Your thoughtfulness is without bounds. Our hearts are warmed by the proposal, but we must first fulfill our duty to the realm. A single man's exhaustion comes far behind the needs of the kingdom. My name is Jaqaro Teldur, a loyal subject and one of the many voices of the throne. Let me introduce my colleagues, Perys Raas and Nevaro Orwin."
"The prince of Gales, Santhor Aysr, welcomes you into his home and hopes you will attend the dinner-feast we have prepared for you tonight," Nicolar spoke in his prince's name since Santhor had no idea that a feast had been prepared.
The emissaries shared a look, nodding at each other, whispering and rubbing their hands nervously. Nicolar frowned. Clearly, this was not supposed to happen in diplomatic protocol. Santhor watched on without saying a word.
"Unfortunately," Jaqaro finally said, his tone changing abruptly, "we must be departed as soon as possible. Before the break of day. We are expected back in An Asrai and the journey is long."
"This is a surprisingly short visit, lords," Nicolar sat back down and scratched his chin. "May I ask what, then, you travelled all the way here for?"
"We would be terrible envoys indeed, if we did not transmit our message yet," the emissary paused and licked his lips, "it is a difficult one to express. I do so despise donning the cloak of a black messenger. It is a burden I must bear with loyalty to my realm."
Santhor stared at the man, hearing through his words and starting to become restless and irritated by this meaningless exchange. These men were here to carry a dark message, something important. And then he caught sight of the men's cloaks, 'the cloak of a black messenger' he had said but their cloaks were not black, but dark and lined with deep red and shining gold. The colors of the realm were blue and brilliant yellow. The symbols of royalty were purple and gold. White-trim was often worn by kings and queens. How many times had his father insisted on making sure all Santhor's clothes were princely and regal? The colors descended from his forebears' bloodline, the colors of victory over the old empire, the emblem of the line of Aysr.
Santhor was about to speak out when the emissary caught his gaze locked on the cloaks. The two men glared at each other and there was understanding in both their looks.
"My prince," Jaqaro kept a solemn mask on his angular face. "There is tragic news from the capital. Our king... your father has," the man knelt and summoned tears to his eyes," departed from this world. A malady has swept through a great part of the realm, touching beggars and lords alike. Entire cities are ablaze with burning corpses. The realm mourns its king."
Every single pair of eyes turned to Santhor, who remained still as a statue. Was this man speaking the truth? In two weeks, he had been the victim of an assassination attempt and his father had died of a sudden disease. There could be no doubt. The change of colors, the strange behavior, the ominous news. These men were no more loyal to him than they had been to his father.
The orator set a hand on Santhor's shoulder, who managed to tear his gaze from the emissary's. He met Nicolar's twinkling grey eyes and remembered his earlier warning: 'Whatever they may say, you must remain calm.'
"This is dreadful news," the prince mustered his calmest voice and said, "my father was a good man and a better king. He will be sorely missed. I will make sure that Gales follows the realm in mourning."
"We pray you accept our blessings," Jaqaro answered, "but there are other matters to discuss. In the wake of this tragedy, the throne lies empty. You are the rightful heir. Your father's councillors request that you return to An Asrai immediately to be crowned."
"For the time being, I will mourn my father. Then I will decide when I return to the city."
"My prince... my king, I mean," Jaqaro's eyes narrowed. "I hope I made my meaning clear. You must return now. A throne cannot be without a king. A king cannot be without a crown."
"And an emissary cannot give orders to a king! Tell Oryp that I will return when the time is ripe. My own father demanded that I journey here to learn the art of ruling. I am sure the Grand Steward and his shadows can handle a few weeks on their own. Mourning periods are generally calm if I recall my mother's passing correctly."
"Of course, my king," Jaqaro twitched nervously, "but if I may insist—"
"You may not!" Santhor burst from his seat, anger bubbling within him, eager to be unleashed. Still, he composed himself. These men had been sent here to trap him, to reel him in to the capital and Nicolar had foreseen it and warned him.
"Lord Oryp warned us that you would act like a stubborn little boy," the emissary hissed.
The men at Santhor's sides gasped. Around Jaqaro, the guards began bristling, their hands edging to the hilts of their swords.
Santhor merely smiled, but the growing knowledge of what was happening egged him on. "I truly doubt he warned you of all my reactions."
The prince looked down at Nicolar, questioning him silently. The orator understood and nodded discreetly before whispering something in Jarl Valmyr's ear.
"Santhor," Jaqaro said. "I am no longer asking you to return to An Asrai and inherit your birthright. You are to come with us, willingly or not."
The emissary snapped his fingers and his guards drew their swords. Santhor's heart beat faster and faster, adrenaline coursing through his veins. His throat prickled dryly, his palms were slick with sweat. Then Valmyr saved him.
The huge man stood as well, grinning ferociously at the soldiers who seemed to shrink in the jarl's presence. He clapped his massive hands and the sound rang through the hall. An instant later, dozens of men appeared from the shadows, bearded, armed, armored. Tall, rough men gripping vicious-looking spears and swords of black iron. Men who looked much like Valmyr in shape, size and brutishness. Warriors who slowly advanced towards the emissaries' party.
"Santhor," Jaqaro warned, "showing hostility towards a royal messenger is punishable by law. You are making a grave mistake."
"Baring steel in the presence of a king is also punishable by law," the prince replied. "Begone or these men will show you the difference between your laws and ours." He said 'ours' naturally, it slipped out of him as if he meant it, as if he had been born and raised in Gales.
"My lords!" Jaqaro raised his hands in a gesture of peace as Valmyr's warriors marched closer and closer, faces contorted in wicked, toothless smiles. "Call back your men. This is an act of war, a spark of rebellion. When the court hears of this, the entire province will be declared hostile. Gales cannot afford another uprising. This is folly! Call back your men and I will pretend as if it never happened."
"Enough!" Santhor boomed, as if his father were speaking through him. "You have five seconds to leave this hall and leave these lands. Crawl back to Oryp and tell him that I will not return. At least, not yet, not with you, not at his command. But tell him that I will return to claim my throne."
"You fools! This means war!" Jaqaro inched backwards as his soldiers bunched closer together, holding their swords out for protection. The circle of Valmyr's men was closing in on them and they outnumbered the royals three-to-one.
"So be it," the prince declared and waved the emissaries away. "Begone!" And just as he shouted, the dawn-waves charged in from the deep waters and roared their morning war-song. The royals jumped as the first of the yrin vagar rammed into the fortress walls, the rolling thunder of the ocean.
Jaqaro spun on his heels, his dark robes flashing crimson and gold. The Galesan warriors parted, leaving a narrow passage for the royals. The emissaries scurried out, followed by their guards and the small boy. Santhor felt a pang of guilt for letting the young herald be dragged along by his enemies, but there was nothing to be done. He watched the party exit the great hall, glad to see them leave. Just as they left through the large doors, the boy turned around and cast Santhor a knowing look. He fumbled for something in his pocket and let it drop on the floor before scampering after his masters.
"Bring me that," Santhor ordered one of the soldiers. The Galesan picked up the object and carried it to his prince, nodding his head in respect as he did so. He held out his hand and Santhor snatched the object. It was a crumpled piece of parchment, thin with age and worn by its time spent in the boy's pocket. Santhor unfolded it and read to himself.
Trust the grey man with the voice of the storm. Beware the flame. My dear kingling.
The prince crumpled the paper in his own hand and began quivering with anger.
"My prince?" Nicolar asked, lightly touching his elbow. "What do you command?"
Santhor knew exactly what had to be done first, but that was as far as his knowledge could go. "Send the warriors outside. Capture the royal soldiers who escorted me here. Kill no one unless necessary. Gales is at war."
Around him, the men stared at him incredulously. After a fortnight of waiting, they finally had a prince.
"I need to know everything Nicolar," Santhor said as they hurried back to the prince's chambers. "What is happening? How much do you know? What am I supposed to do now?"
"Everything in due time, my prince," the orator answered. "I am glad to have the true Santhor at my side."
"The emissary was right, I have always been a stubborn little prince, that is why my father sent me here. But now, I am a stubborn little prince at war. Greater things are at stake."
"Back there, you showed your subjects the true prince that lies within you. In a single stroke, you have regained their trust, their faith, their respect. There is still much to discuss, and even more to do, but it is a good start. It is not too late to right the wrongs you did upon arriving."
"Perhaps," Santhor began stammering as the full extent of what he had done began to dawn on him, "but I just declared a war on the realm, on my own realm!"
"I am sorry you must hear this from me and not your father but," the orator hesitated, "the realm has not been under Aysr rule for quite a long time now. What your father and I have feared has finally arrived."
"You knew about this? He knew about this?"
"Why do you think he sent you here? To me?" Nicolar's eyes shone, a smile flashed across his face. "Do not mourn to quickly, they may have lied to get you back to An Asrai. The only way to assume full control of the realm is to eradicate the Aysr line once and for all. Your father may yet be alive and they will use him to get at you."
They reached the prince's chambers and after locking the doors, seated themselves face to face by a window of grey morning light.
"What do we do next?"
"Next? Next is winter and the winter months in Gales are not ones for warfare. Even the enemy, whoever it may be, knows that. We prepare, for they will be preparing as well. And when they are done, the full force of the realm will fall on us. Tell me what was written on that parchment."
Santhor retrieved the message from his pocket and smoothened it, reading the words over and over, perhaps the last his father would ever say to him. "My father told me to trust you. And to beware the flame."
"That is more troubling that you can imagine..." Nicolar shook his head. "Can you be certain that he wrote it?"
"He addressed me using the name he called me when I was a child. Only he and my mother ever called me that."
"They could have," the orator hesitated, "tortured him."
"He would never have told them this," Santhor was certain that this message was from his father. He had used the young boy as a messenger and that boy had risked his life to bring the king's words to his son. Santhor had to place his faith in Nicolar.
"What did he mean by the flame?" The prince wondered about the second part of the message.
Nicolar rubbed his hands together and took a deep breath. "This is a delicate matter Santhor, and I cannot share everything I know about it with you."
"These are my enemies. I must know what I can about them!"
"Of course, but there is too much secrecy shrouding them. Even a little flame can cast a mighty shadow. These people are dangerous, powerful, cunning, cruel. We call them pyrocrats, and they are men and women of fire and ruin. Everything they touch is consumed. They wield the flame as a soldier wields the blade and their organization is as old as the earth itself. Everywhere I have been, they exist. And they have chosen to be here and now."
"What do they want?"
"Power, I have always assumed. Some of us believe that they strive for chaos. Their fury is boundless."
"Us?" Santhor asked, suddenly throwing nervous glances at the several candles flickering around the room.
"Centuries ago, those of us who wished to end their rule formed leagues, alliances that would extend through time and space."
"You speak as if you were there..."
Nicolar's eyes gleamed in the pale light of day. "In some ways I was." He blinked once and the brilliance in his gaze dimmed and his focus returned. "But there is not enough time in this world for me to explain the complex workings of the universe. We must prepare Gales, and to prepare Gales, we must prepare you."
Santhor hung his head in shame. "In all honesty, there is a lot of work to achieve that..."
"When a smith sets to work on a blade, he hammers and heats and cools for weeks on end, but the steel is already there. Raw. Crude. Useless, perhaps, but it is there nonetheless."
"Am I the smith?" The prince's shoulders straightened.
Nicolar snorted. "No, you fool, you are the ugly block of steel."
"Then tell me where to begin," Santhor stood. If his father trusted this man, then he would as well. His actions had led him to declare a war on the entire realm and if Gales fell, then he would die. If he returned to An Asrai into the claws of Oryp, he would be executed. His province, the province his father had sent him to as punishment before dying, was now his salvation.
"Tomorrow morning," the orator said, "we hunt."