“How is he?” Dawkin asked.
“Still asleep. But less restless now. Symon continues to watch over him.”
Dawkin nodded, his gaze still set upon the sun as it dipped beneath the end of the earth, into the blue abyss beyond Marland’s shores.
Ely took to the opposite side, leaning against the far wall that curved into the mouth of the Sirens’ Cavern. “You have any ideas?”
“The situation Geremias created. Father was furious, of that much we can be certain. It will impact us, what with the Courts of two nations bearing witness to our shame. You most of all, since you’re up next.”
I am. The last time I left Arcporte for Terran, the world seemed simpler. Marland went about her business as usual. Barons bickered and fought, but the word of a sovereign kept order. I had settled not one but four land disputes between nobles. I met with Bishop Perceval to assure our tributes to the church and reaffirm our commitment to spreading the Voice of Mar. I left the Court well-tended, the Crown of Marland in exceptional standing.
All of it for naught. We are the shame of Marland. No wonder they call us Prince Fool.
Dawkin watched Ely stretch and yawn before leaning upon the rock wall once more. He has had his share in creating that reputation, Dawkin knew. Prince Fool is largely his doing. Time after bloody time, he has descended to Terran with a mess above for one of us to clean. At least Gerry can be forgiven for being less frequent in that regard. Still, that leaves Symon and I to patch over things, to mend splintered fences and build walls. He with his swords and fists, me with my pen and wit.
As the last glowing sliver extinguished itself in Mar’s watery expanse, Dawkin left Ely to descend into the cavern.
At Gerry’s room, he found Symon on the edge of his bed, wiping their brother’s brow with a damp cloth. Dawkin made a motion to enter yet stopped when Symon raised his hand. Symon, his gaze never leaving Gerry, tiptoed across the room and ushered Dawkin outside. With a gentle hand, he closed the door behind him.
“Is he feverish?” Dawkin whispered.
“He worked up a sweat. Tis no fever though,” Symon assured. “I’ll keep watch over him for a few more hours, to be safe.”
“Nay. It is your turn. You are needed above.”
Dawkin nodded, his eyes drifting as his thoughts wandered.
“Brother?” Symon asked. “Are you well?”
“I am, Symon. I am.”
“Dawkin . . .”
“I was only wondering . . . why now?”
“This arrangement with Princess Taresa, the Ibian Court. You only learned of the Promise being broken between Princess Taresa and Prince Denisot during the waning hours of your time above. No sooner had you descended and told us then Grandfather came and spoke of the Ibian Armada at our harbor.”
“Royal gossip travels quickly. The Court can whisper a secret from one ear to the next, through rivers and over sea faster than any ship.”
“The news of the Taresa’s newfound freedom is not what stills my thoughts. The expediency of her—”
“How quickly events came into play. That is what bothers me. The Armada would had to have left weeks ago to make it here yesterday. Which means King Felix made preparations to sail before then, and that he and Father had been communicating before that. Don’t you see? The Promise broken between Taresa and Denisot was not the sudden matter the Court and Commons believe it to be. It was expected, foreseen. Perhaps even planned.”
Symon patted Dawkin on the shoulder as led him down the hall. “Brother, brother. You think too much.”
And you not enough, Dawkin thought yet dared not say.
“Whatever the reason for the Ibians being here,” Symon continued, “they are here. What happened with Gerry happened. There is no changing that. And now what must happen involves you ascending to the castle, to do what you do best: lead.”
Dawkin nodded. For all of Symon’s lack of concern, he had the right of the situation.
Not wanting to let his thoughts delay him any longer, Dawkin made way to his room. He dressed hastily, choosing charcoal-gray trousers, a silver-colored doublet and a white shirt. For jewelry, he put on a chain of white gold composed of interlocking links, and a single ring made of iron, with the signet of a compass for Kin Saliswater. Over all of it he wore a heavy black coat of soft leather rimmed with sable. A little dark in tone, he had to admit. He knew his choice of garb was appropriate though, as he had to appear strong and fierce, so as to discourage rumors of his impotency in all matters of princehood.
The journey above took no time at all. His feet glided over tiles and steps, having memorized the trappings and grooves of the path long ago. When one of the sconces flickered, its light suddenly growing faint, Dawkin declined a torch from the Voiceless on watch.
A few clinks and creaks later he entered the unlit study. In his haste, Gerry had forgotten to leave candles and flint for the next ascension. Dawkin, though, moved through the domed room without effort, his body gliding past corners and around edges with nary a bump or jostle. Only steps later he strode into his room and to the hall beyond, his purpose taking him to the tower at the far end of the castle, the one reserved for visiting sovereigns.
Few souls traversed the castle at such a late hour save for the servants who cleaned the grounds at night and the guards on their shifts. Those that Dawkin passed gave him a glance that evoked neither fear nor respect, one that clung to his person a little longer than needed. In the past, the same men and women would have bowed or curtsied at first sight of their prince. Now, they paused first, as if considering the measure of the man before them.
I have lost them. No, we lost them. Damn you, Gerry. One hunt is all it took. One failed hunt.
How King Felix must have felt upon seeing the esteemed Prince Jameson miss the throw was any one’s guess. The next day would tell, with all the Court watching the Ibian king’s every move. If he showed up to breakfast late, gossip would sprout. If Taresa remained with the ladies of Ibia, her hesitation to be seen with him would stir panic among the Marlish Court. Countless scenarios could stem from this embarrassment, ones that Dawkin had to try to prevent by having a word with the sovereign alone, one man to another.
Dawkin froze, his shoulders hunching a little. The voice that rang through the hall struck him as unfamiliar. However, it carried a tone both friendly and comfortable, with a tinge of mockery and the flare of an Ibian accent.
“Grand Duke Xain,” Dawkin chanced.
“The hour is late and you still walk the halls,” Xain stated as he approached the prince to clasp him on the shoulders.
“So do you.”
“Ah, well, yes. After such a successful hunt, I find my veins coursing with life. I just came from the chambers of one of our mages. Poor fellow, I seem to have kept him up half the night. But I couldn’t help it. I wanted to ensure that the fox we killed is cleaned and stuffed properly.”
“We? I seem to recall that you and you alone were responsible for the fatal strike. And a grand kill it was. If I have not said it before, congratulations.”
“Oh, your words were sparse but your look . . . of approval . . . was priceless. And I did not error when I said it was our fox. After all, you flushed out the beast and in your graciousness, missed your own throw that I may have the opportunity to, to experience this rush. Ha ha!”
“I’m ecstatic you took to my offering so well. Now if you’ll excuse me . . .”
“Where do you go?”
“All of the Ibian Court are asleep except for myself.”
“The hour is late, I grant you. But if the king is awake and would have me—”
“I guarantee you, he is asleep.”
“Surely, his guards will know—”
Xain crossed his arms, his body rigidly posing a barrier between Dawkin and his intended path.
“Grand Duke, if I may explain . . . I am concerned that your uncle may have misinterpreted my actions today and therefore did not come to the same conclusion of generosity and gracefulness you took away from the hunt. I only want to have a conversation with him, to provide a truthful account of my intentions and behavior.”
“I see. My dear prince, let me assure you, Ibians misunderstand nothing. Whatever your purpose, we know the truth. As for any discussion that you would have with my uncle, I speak for him and all the Ibian Court when I say that it can wait until morning.”
Xain cocked his head. His stare bore deep, unforgiving of any discomfort he imparted. His lips, even uncurled, carried the slight semblance of a cold, devious grin.
“Good night, Your Highness.”
Seeing that Dawkin was not likely to turn away first, the Duke pivoted and marched toward the tower. Dawkin, watching him go, felt the urge to turn as well, to resume this song and dance another day.
“Grand Duke,” he called.
Xain, surprised, stopped and swung around. “Prince?”
Dawkin, not quite knowing his next move, sauntered up to Xain. “I’m glad for this moment.”
“You see, we had no chance to speak one on one, one royal to another. Yes, we had a few . . . encounters.”
“Is that what you Marlish call it?”
“Aye. I would enjoy a tad more of your time. That I may learn more of you. And you of me.”
Dawkin, the tide having shifted in his direction, waited. The Grand Duke, with the choice of speaking with the royal or leaving, considered.
“Very well,” Xain finally offered. “I accept.”
Dawkin, not wanting to spoil this sudden twist in fortune, raced through the possibilities. What now? he asked himself. Where to next? How in Mar’s name . . .
Then it dawned on him. “Follow me.”
The stink of sea and filth was always strongest when the fog rolled in the harbor. The dungeon managed to hold onto it, mixing the two so that even the hardiest of prisoners had to choke back the horrid waft. As much as Dawkin hated it himself, it compared not to the boastings of the Ibian Grand Duke.
“Duke Surgeo of Kin Valldez remained a proud man until the very end, shouting about how he had to protect the honor of his Kin and such. Much good it did him when the tip of my rapier found his throat. Tis a pity. Of all the husbands of all the young wives I have had, I respected him the most. I almost declined his duel. Then again, what are we royals and nobles if we have not our honor?”
The Duke winked at Dawkin, who pretended not to notice. Rather, he motioned to a nearby guard, who handed him a torch from the nearest iron holder.
“My Mar,” Xain cried, putting his forearm to his nose. “If this stench is any indication of the words you want to have with me, then I had better turn back now.”
“My offer was more than one of words.”
“You will see.”
Two guards ahead saluted Dawkin before parting to let them pass. They fell in line behind the pair as they rounded a corner to come to a wide cell, one that could have held twenty men. Only it did not hold twenty. Just one.
Xain, for the first time since Dawkin met him, stood aghast.
“You know who this is?” Dawkin asked, already knowing the answer.
The Grand Duke nodded.
Dawkin summoned the two guards to his side, whispering to them as Xain continued to stare. Finishing his directives, he lifted his index finger to dismiss them.
“Where are they going?” Xain inquired.
“To retrieve the dungeon master, along with some items I requested.” Dawkin extended an open palm to the cell. “What do you think?”
“You brought me here, to see this?”
“You have your hunting trophies. I have mine.” Dawkin, emboldened, stepped up to the bars of the cell. “You there! Stand!” he roared in Lewmarian.
The fur-covered hunched mass within straightened. Rose. The man threw off his blankets, revealing the skin ink that wrapped from his back to his front. He spat as he turned to face them, his look not affected by the stone blocks or iron bars around him, one no less fearsome than if he was on the field of battle.
“Grand Duke Xain, may I present Warlord Konradt.”
The Grand Duke looked Konradt up and down, even as the Warlord approached to wrap his hands around the bars. Dawkin noticed that he lifted one of his heels, as if to step away, though he stayed in place, albeit reluctantly.
“Have you ever met a Lewmarian in battle, Your Grace?”
“Have you ever met one in prison?”
“Until now, no.”
Dawkin spotted the two guards returning with the dungeon master. “Well,” he continued. “You are in luck. Sir Evann.”
“Your Highness,” the stocky man said as he bowed his head. “To what do we owe the honor at this late hour?”
“To our guest, the honorable Grand Duke Xain of Almata, of Kin Garsea.”
“Your Grace,” Evann nodded to the Duke, who glanced in his direction but otherwise did not move.
“Gentlemen.” Dawkin motioned to the guards.
The guards, remaining in the shadows of the torchlight, stepped forth to reveal the bundles in their hands. At Dawkin’s second motion, they dropped the burlap wraps which clattered on the stone floor. Weapons of every kind spilled forth at their feet.
Xain, his attention broken, scurried from the clamor. Dawkin, relishing in the cowardice, smirked.
“Grand Duke, if you will . . .” Dawkin begged halfheartedly.
“However do you mean?”
“Sirs,” Dawkin said turning to the dungeon master and the guards. “Who defeated Warlord Konradt at the Chesa?”
“You did, Your Highness,” answered the dungeon master.
“Aye,” added the two guards, together.
“And who bested me in the fox hunt earlier today?”
The three men looked to each other, unsure of how to respond.
“It is fine,” Dawkin assured them. “You may speak truthfully. I will not take offense.”
“That would be his Grace, the Duke Xain of Almata,” replied one of the guards.
“Grand Duke,” Xain corrected him.
“Forgive me, Your Grace,” the guard said.
“So, if I defeated Konradt in battle and if the Grand Duke Xain of Almata outdid me in the fox hunt, logic would dictate that Xain would be able to defeat the warlord with ease, would it not?” Dawkin asked.
The guards and the dungeon master, catching on to Dawkin’s ploy, nodded. “It would, Your Highness,” the dungeon master confirmed.
“There you have it,” Dawkin stated, addressing Xain.
“I still don’t . . .” Xain stammered.
“Your exploits are well-known. As are mine. What of his?” Dawkin nodded to Konradt. “Do you know of his raids?”
“I have heard things.”
“The fanged serpent of Har-Kin Mynhard has been no stranger to Marland’s shores. Warlord Konradt here was caught shortly after ravaging our villages on the Chesa. Reports continue to come in from the North of his campaign on our shores. So far, we know of six fishing villages on the Marlish coast and three towns inland on the Chesa. Then there are those on the continent . . . several dozen, I recall. All told, our Warlord here is said to have led over a hundred raids.
“Consider that. A hundred raids. And the tales to go with them. They vary, mind you, but most agree that Konradt is a man apart, a fighter that can measure up to a handful. One account tells that the Warlord is equal to six good fighting men in a tavern battling over the last drink.”
The guards and dungeon master chuckled. Grand Duke Xain, for all his previous lightheartedness, did not even crack a grin. He continued to watch Konradt, whose hands tightened around the bars, his own stare boring into Xain.
“With each battle, Warlord Konradt grows more brazen in his fighting. I can attest to his prowess in battle.” Dawkin pointed to the scar by his eye. “You, on the other hand, appear unmarked. So, you being a man ever-so-skilled, who bested me in the hunting of a fox and lived to tell the tale, one who has encountered countless perils from married women to their cranky husbands . . . you will no doubt be able to defeat Warlord Konradt, heir to Vice Warlord Videl and favorite son of Lewmar, to achieve greater accolades and fame than I ever could. Is that not right, my Grand Duke?”
Dawkin paused. He waited. In his silence, Xain glanced at the others, his gaze never resting, except on the weapons, which could not stare back.
Seeing another opportunity, Dawkin kneeled before the open burlap sacks. “Any weapon you desire we can produce for your bout. We have knightly swords, short swords, throwing axes, dirks.” He picked up a chain rimmed with a length of spikes that had a leather loop at the end of it. “What have we here?”
“That is a little something the men like to call the Drunken Father,” the dungeon master explained. “Your hand goes through the loop and you wrap the chain so that the spikey ends lay across your fingers, just below your knuckles, pointing outward, Your Highness.”
Dawkin slipped his hand through the leather holder and wrapped the chain around his fingers accordingly, making a fist. “Oh, this is a treat. And look, we have two.”
He held the other up to Xain, who stared down at it yet made no motion to take the weapon.
“Not your style. Very well, far be it for me to tell a true warrior what to do. The glory will not be mine, but yours. Take your time. Seriously, how you best the Warlord is up to you. I will take my leave to allow you to decide. When you make up your mind though, one of the men here will open the cell, that you may enter and do battle with Konradt. They will lock the gate behind you, so that the Warlord may not turn dastard and try to run away. When you are done with him, they will unlock the gate so that you may leave and go on to brag of your exploit.”
Dawkin turned to the dungeon master and guards. “And you three, be sure to tell all that you see to whomever you come across. The word of the Grand Duke’s certain victory must be spread far and wide. We owe our guest the opportunity to bask in his glory.”
“Aye, Your Highness,” they answered.Dawkin, not even bothering to address Xain, sauntered away, grinning.
That was for my brother. That was for Kin Saliswater.