By Nicolar and Valmyr's reckoning, there had never been a more successful feast than the one the prince hosted that night. Advised by the orator, Santhor was perfect in all regards. He feigned interest in the dullest lords, made promises he hoped he could keep and raised his horn more times than he can remember. As the night trudged on, he tasted every possible meal; from the sea, from the forests, from the countless apple orchards. He listened to requests, settled squabbles between lordlings and engaged in every tradition proposed to him. Of all the queer Galesan rituals, the dancing was the worst. He did it anyway, under Nicolar's mocking gaze.
The festivities lasted well into the night, but after quaffing an entire cask of cider on his own, he hardly saw the time pass. Nicolar had found him clothes and furs from Lord Angren's wardrobe and Santhor had not shaved in three days. With a light stubble around his hard jaws and dressed like a Galesan lord, he had made quite an impression.
The prince watched with a smiling face when the feast was declared over and his subjects left the great hall, pouring out into the hallways of Eldynvagar to the guest rooms. The fortress boasted dozens of unused rooms, and Santhor had them all beaten into better shape to give his hosts somewhere to stay for the three days.
"You did remarkably well Santhor," Nicolar patted him on the shoulder as they walked back up to their chambers, exhausted. "The slights you doled out on your first night are somewhat lessened. I will have men discreetly enquire on the lords' thoughts about their new prince. If the feast was any indication, I believe you may have made some new friends."
"In my experience," Santhor said, thinking back to his father's gatherings in the palace. "Men in court are never who they seem to be. To know a lord, you must have seen him act in his own hall, beneath his own roof and surrounded by his own men."
"Absolutely, but I must warn you that lords in Gales and lords in An Asrai differ in many ways. Here, sniveling boot-lickers are despised by their peers. Honesty is valuable to them. They would rather not come and face your wrath than pretend to like you."
"So you think they like me?"
"I would not go so far," Nicolar chuckled. "Not yet."
They reached the prince's chambers at the end of the stone hallway and stopped by the door.
"Get some rest, Santhor," the orator counseled. "There are still two more nights to survive. And the drinking will just get worse."
The prince slept late the next morning, miraculously oblivious to the dawn-waves for the first time since arriving in Gales. As soon as he rose, a servant appeared at his door with a platter of food and a message from Nicolar.
"The master orator will join you here at noon, my prince," the servant bowed.
With nothing else to do but wait, Santhor broke his fast, took a long bath to soothe his growing headache and paced around the room, wondering when Nicolar's mystery woman would arrive. He was growing restless at waiting for news from the realm. It was one thing to prepare for war, but doing so without knowing what was happening elsewhere was dangerous. For all he knew, Oryp had mustered his troops incredibly quickly and was already marching on Gales. There was so much left to do... Even if the enemy came in spring, Santhor was beginning to fear that he would never be able to prepare the province's defense.
Nicolar arrived exactly when announced, thankfully breaking into Santhor's defeatist thoughts.
"Do you remember what I told you the day after you were almost assassinated? What is the most important thing a prince can do in his spare time?"
"Read," Santhor remembered vividly.
"Correct. Whether you want it or not, you are not the first prince on this earth and you will not be the last. Thousands of others have ruled before you, some failing, some establishing century-long dynasties. Read about these princes, study their actions, comprehend their mistakes and understand why they succeeded. It is the only way one can fully decipher the complex puzzle that is ruling."
"I need books then," the prince agreed, though he was not looking forward to spending hours reading about dead men.
Nicolar clapped his hands and a pair of servants appeared from nowhere, carrying an enormous chest between them. "Set it down by his bed," he ordered and the servants strained and sweated and, red-faced, they dropped the chest with the heavy thump of wood on wood. Without waiting to be asked, they scurried away and Nicolar strode over to the chest. He stroked the dark lacquered lid, toyed with the rusty iron bands and gently heaved the chest open.
Inside, packed tightly together in uniform ranks based on size, lay three levels of books. A dusty smell fled the chest and invaded the room, the morning light playing with the golden specks that had erupted from the books. Nicolar dragged his finger across the leather spines, then turned to Santhor.
"This is all I have in the world," the orator's voice was surprisingly thick with emotion. "In this one at least." The prince had caught these strange references to other places, other times and other worlds, but for some reason, he was afraid of asking about them. It all came down to one question: who was Nicolar?
"I am sorry that I cannot explain everything," Nicolar crouched by the massive chest. "One day, perhaps, after this war. These books will help you more than I ever could. I have scoured the earth for histories and accounts and legends and myths. Everything I have found is here."
"You must promise me one thing."
"I promise I will be careful," Santhor said, thinking that was what Nicolar wanted to hear.
"That is not what I meant, but thank you," the orator rose and faced the prince. All of a sudden the grey man looked different, older, wiser, taller, brighter. His shoulders seemed broad, his back straight, his brow strong. "You may ask me questions about these books, about the men and women who live inside them. I am your servant, your subject, your advisor. But be warned, you will read about places you have never heard of, people who will seem strange to you, cultures like our own and others which are the opposite. Do not ask me about this, for I will not answer. Not yet. Read as if you were reading about Gales, but keep your mind open and free. Remember, the world is not always as it seems."
Santhor stood in stunned silence as Nicolar spoke. He nodded absentmindedly, but his heart was already leaning towards the books. He was overcome by an overpowering desire to plunge into these stories about other princes and their lives and the riddles that the orator talked about. What did he mean?
"I will leave you now," Nicolar headed towards the door, his gaze lingering on the chest. "Promise me that you will not trouble yourself with what these books contain. And promise me that no eyes but your own will read these words."
"I swear it," the prince said, solemn.
"Good," the orator turned around before leaving. "This will be your life now Santhor, until Gales emerges victorious or falls. Read and learn of princes gone, hunt and explore your land, spend time with your warriors and listen to your people. This is the duty of a prince."
As soon as the door shut, Santhor rushed to the chest and looked at the treasure contained within. He tilted his head and read the spines. The Triumphs of Alexander the Great. Who was Alexander the Great? The Rise and Fall of the Old Empire. He knew most of that history, but it could not be bad for him to learn it again. A History of the Aysr. He wondered if he would be in it. Genghis Khan, the Beast Who Conquered the World. The cracked painting on the cover depicted a fearsome warrior, with an eagle on his wrist and mountains at his back. There were other aging books and vivid covers, names like Napoleon and a tale about old, powerful entities.
Santhor's eyes and fingers paused over a slender book that caught his attention. He pulled it out and blew off the dust. The pages were fine, as was the calligraphy, and the book creaked as he opened it. This would be his first, he sensed it. Mesmerized, he breathed the title.
"The Prince, by Nicolas Machiavel."
The festivities dragged on for the next two days, and Santhor attended them and acted as the perfect ruler. He had devoured Machiavel's essay on princes, each word guiding him to epiphanies and giving him new ideas on how to impress his subjects. Santhor was surprised to see that most of his decisions were aligned with the thoughts of other great princes. The author wrote about magnificent kingdoms like France and Italy, but curious as he was, he did not ask the orator why he had never heard about these places.
During the day, the prince would pore over incredible stories about foreign princes in lands he could only dream about. Genghis Khan proved to be a formidable commander, a terrifying emperor, a brilliant thinker and above all, a cruel man. A few pages into the book and Santhor understood just how powerful Emperor Khan had become, and how quickly. He wondered what the rest of the volume would teach him.
There were many things he did not approve of or did not understand in Nicolar's books. Machiavel wrote about religions, where men worshipped a superior power, like the pyrocrats worshipped the flame. Yet Santhor had no other example in his memory where people prayed to gods. In the realm, the people bent the knee to their king. In Gales, they heeded their prince's orders but the only forces they bowed to were the ocean and its winds. As hard as he tried, the prince was incapable of comprehending this way of life. He tried to imagine himself praying to an almighty entity above himself, but it seemed futile and laughable.
As soon as dusk fell, he would close his books regretfully and get dressed for another evening of feasting. With Nicolar's help, the local customs and traditions were becoming more and more natural to him. Entering the feast hall to a buzzing crowd of the gathered lords and ladies of Gales worried him no more than when he had hosted his own events back in An Asrai. He had spent several hours over the past two days revising his knowledge of the powerful men and women of the province with the orator. He now recognized most of them without needing a hint, knew their business, the reasons for their wealth and influence, the size and location of their estates, and most importantly, whether or not they possessed small armed forces.
After submitting to the realm after the imperial downfall, Gales had sworn to get rid of their military, their weapons and warships. They were bound by oath to remain a peaceful province and forbidden by royal decree to raise armies. However, city watches and personal guards were permitted to maintain order in the lords' estates as well as the Eldynvagar. The prince had seen these men and although they were no warriors, with proper training they could contribute to the strength of the vaeringar. The fortress-city itself was home to a regiment of two hundred guards, and a great majority of lords could provide troops. Santhor had yet to estimate the combined strength of his subjects. For now, the orator had insisted that the priority was on learning. Jarl Valmyr would handle all matters military until Santhor grew into his throne.
The second night of feasting helped comfort Santhor's position and increase his popularity amongst the assorted lords and by the third, he acted as if he had been born by the ocean. A great many seemed to have forgotten about his first impression, others forgave him with friendly words about how weary he must have been after his travels. A rare few paid their respects but remained grumbling in a corner. The prince paid them no mind. Nicolar had assured him that they were minor forces of Gales. As long as he let them pursue their business, increase their wealth and did not strip them of their titles, they would be harmless.
A few horns of cider into the third evening, Santhor's mind began drifting away from the feast and back to his books. Khan's military tactics, Machiavel's thoughts on princedom and the various histories of other kingdoms were swirling about in his head. He absently watched the feast unfurl before his eyes. The hearths were blazing with flame, the hall echoed with raucous laughter, a warm haze of jubilation fell on the guests and their prince.
And then the doors slammed open and a shadow stormed in, dripping wet.
From his raised chair, Santhor saw the intruder immediately and rapidly raised a hand to calm the festivities. It took several minutes for quiet to spread through the hall as cider-drunk lords and ladies realized that someone had interrupted the feast. The music ceased and the roaring voices dwindled down to a hush. Only the sizzling fire and the drip-drip of water prevented total silence.
The prince stood and stared across the long hall to catch a better look of the person who had barged in. Why had the guards let someone in? Unless that person was known or expected...
"Who are you?" He asked in a loud voice.
The shadow stepped into the light, leaving stains of water on the stone cobbles. Santhor grinned as he noticed the rounded hips and the slender shape. This woman's femininity ended there. The rest of her was tall leather boots, dark clothes, a tattered oiled cloak, a pointed black hat, all soaking and worn. Beneath the hat's rim, the woman's face poked out, angular, rough, beaten, wrinkled by salt. Her rusty hair jutted out, chopped off at random intervals. One hand never left the beautifully wrought hilt of an impressive saber that hung at her waist.
"She's the woman I told you about," Nicolar whispered in his ear. "Announce that you will be retiring to your chambers. I will meet you there with Valmyr and our friend. It would not do to discuss matters in front of all these people."
"Never mind," Santhor pursued. "You are a friend of Gales, you are welcome in my hall! Let the feast continue. It is full of sorrow that I must retire and leave you. Enjoy this night for the winter will be long!"
He stepped out of the hall escorted by a pair of guards. The music and laughter started again as soon as he had left. He reached his chambers moments before Nicolar rapped on the door and entered with the jarl and the woman at his sides.
"Come in," he waved them inside and met eyes for a brief instant with the drenched woman. Hard as she seemed, her glossyeyes were ringed with red, as if she had been weeping.
Nicolar and Valmyr pulled two armchairs from the bedroom and set them next to the two others in the parlor. The four of them were about to take seat in the circle, the air heavy around them, when the woman spoke. Santhor sensed that the woman was a carrier of dark words.
"Before you sit," she said, "go look out the window."
The men looked at each other nervously, not knowing what to expect. Together, they gathered by the windows and peered through the glass into the blackness. The ocean rumbled calmly, in comparison to its dawn fury, and the stars and moon were veiled by clouds. In the dark night, a speck of light bobbed in the distance, minuscule and alone.
"What is it?" Nicolar asked, turning to the woman.
"That, Nicolar," her jaw clenched with anger, "was the Silent Thunder."
"No..." he shook his head in disbelief. "What happened?"
"I am not sure yet. Half my crew is dead, the other is shivering to death in Lord's Haven. Those of us who survived managed to swim to shore, clinging to wreckage." Tears appeared in her eyes again. "I saw my ship burn. I saw my men throw themselves into the ocean to escape the flames. My ship! I am nothing without it..."
"You have to sit, calm down," Nicolar helped her to her seat. He barked at the door and a servant appeared. "Fetch us some tea, some blankets and warm clothes. Get a fire started in the hearth."
"No fire!" The woman's eyes became wild, as if the thought of flame terrified her.
Nicolar nodded, his face creased with understanding and empathy. "No fire."
"Nicolar," Santhor sat down across from the woman. "What is going on?"
"My prince, this is the person I was telling you about. I wish the circumstances were dramatically different but, this is Captain Lysandra Robb. She sails around the world, bringing me back news and accounts of what lies beyond. She spent a great deal of time in An Asrai, harbored by your father. You will find no better navigator and no finer spy in the known world."
"It is an honor to meet you," Santhor said politely. The captain barely raised her head, eyes still blank and lost in the terror that had led her here.
Nicolar gave the prince a look that said, let me talk to her. "Lysandra, I need you to tell me everything you have learned."
"Nicolar," she gripped the arms of her chair until her knuckles turned whiter than they had already been. "What is happening here? I just spent six months on the ocean! I left An Asrai one day and headed north and east to the White Isles. I return three months later to find the king apparently dead, his heir shipped off to Gales and that a war had been declared!"
"Too many things have happened, but I need you to remain calm. We are all waiting in the dark. Waiting for you. War was declared and since then we have heard nothing from the outside."
"You let him declare a war!" Lysandra shouted, waving a derisive hand towards the prince.
"War was coming whether we wanted it or not," the orator said. "At least we are not surprised. And we are hoping not to be surprised in the future! Tell us what you know. Has plague struck the realm?"
"A plague?" Lysandra's confused expression answered the question on its own. "No, not that I've heard. There was a funeral for the king. His court is in power until the heir returns."
"The heir will not be returning," Santhor murmured. "They tried to assassinate me here. They certainly killed my father. They came into this very fortress and demanded that I come with them or face the consequences. These men are usurpers."
"Perhaps, but the people do not know that! They think that they are being led by the officers of the realm until the true heir returns. The Grand Steward and his lords still control the armies. For the people, nothing has changed. Even I hardly knew that something was wrong until they came for us."
"What do you mean?" Nicolar asked and the three men leaned in.
"I left the city in the deep of night and was out of the bay before dawn. We navigated the Blade by midday and after that lay four hundred leagues of calm waters before reaching Gales. We saw them the next day, three ships, unmarked, small, swift. The crews wore black, but they were not pirates."
"How do you know?" Santhor wanted to be sure before accusing Oryp and the pyrocrats of another treacherous attack.
"Because I know every ship and pirate that sails the ocean," Lysandra said flatly. "These ships I had never seen. For three days I was certain the Silent Thunder would beat them. We had the wind, the head start, and I know those parts better than anyone. They were on us by the fourth morning," she hung her head and continued her account. "I had my crew unload everything. Cargo, treasure, unused weapons. We won back our advance and still they caught us... In the middle of the night. I could see Eldynvagar, I could see the port. I thought that would hinder them, coming so close to Gales. It was a massacre. The instant they were in range, they shot flaming arrows, glass balls that exploded with blue fire. My ship burst into flames before I could do anything about it. We had no choice..."
"I am sorry," Nicolar sighed. The prince and the jarl nodded in agreement, their faces solemn. Santhor was beginning to comprehend the importance of ships in Gales and Lysandra's reaction to losing hers confirmed his thoughts.
"So you have no news for us?" The orator asked once more, despairing for the slightest hint of information that would brighten their knowledge on their enemy.
"Nothing," Lysandra frowned. "Nothing except that... I noticed something strange before the ships appeared. We sailed safely near the coast for a hundred leagues, stopping in our usual harbors along the way to sell what we had bought in the White Isles."
"And more than once, my contacts told me that the realm was calling its provinces to arms... Most offered the required minimum, a few hundred peasants here and there. But my last contact informed me that they had been forced to prepare food, fodder, horses, equipment, under royal decree. No one could tell me why. Most did not even know that their king had died. One man swore that he had seen a small force marching up the old imperial road, heading for Gales. I heard nothing else and even that seemed to be disputed by other accounts. I have nothing for you."
"This was useful Lysandra," Nicolar said, although his dark look suggested otherwise. The servant reappeared with clothes and a platter laden with cups and a boiling pot of tea. "If you like, retire to your chambers. Warm yourself, rest. It would not do for us to lose you to illness. I will come for you on the morrow."
The captain held Nicolar's gaze for a brief instant, clearly angered that she was being excluded from the discussion. She conceded defeat nonetheless, her face showing deep signs of weariness and her wet clothes had begun to make her shiver. Without a word, she rose from her chair, glanced outside at the bright speck that was her burning speck and left Santhor's chambers. The three men sat in silence, warming their hands against the cups of tea.
"Her account raises more questions than it answers..." the prince shook his head in dismay. The glee of the feast had been completely drained from him. "It seems my father is indeed dead."
"Santhor," Nicolar rubbed his temple. "I know it must be hard, but consider the truth behind Lysandra's words. She did not see your father's body and it goes against the enemy's interests to kill him now. They lied about the disease. They could have lied about many other things."
"The battalion marching towards Gales worries me," Valmyr spoke for the first time since sitting down, his voice a tranquil storm as always. "We are on the eve of winter. If they have sent troops now, then we have far less time to prepare."
"You are right," Nicolar said, taking a sip. "We must close the passes as soon as possible. There are only two ways into Gales. Through the mountains or over the ocean. The enemy has already sailed near our shores and attacked our people. Both ways are fiercely dangerous during the winter months. Snow storms and ocean tempests are both heralds of death. The pyrocrats are bolder than we thought."
"So it is happening then? War is coming?" Santhor became dizzy with the blunt force of this news. His declarations had turned into a reality. Already, Lysandra's crew and ship had fallen because of his actions. The future of Gales was fire and war, because of him.
"No, Santhor," Nicolar's face furrowed with worry. "War is already upon us."