Kiss of the Sea
Septimus walked down the streets of Rhasket-Tharsanae, hurrying alongside Ned, who obviously had no intention of giving a tour to a foreign guest. The boy’s eyes were having a hard time getting used to the strange architecture – everything seemed circular, or else shaping itself into harmonious curves - the walls, the rooftops, the sprawl of streets. When he pointed this out, Ned chuckled.
“I could never understand why you people love your angles so much,” he said, “the circle and the sphere are symbols of life, beauty, peace and harmony. Where in the nature have you ever seen a straight line? ”
There was a point in this, Septimus thought as they went on. Be that as it may, his legs were starting to ache, not to mention the fact that he was beginning to get tired of being pressed against the circular walls to make room for some man riding a horse, and he was about to ask how much further they had to go when Ned stopped to a halt at the edge of a small, circular plaza surrounding a handsome marble fountain. His eyes were fixed on a young man with flaming red hair, draped in a long purple-and-gold cloak. He was talking to a pretty girl, dark-haired and buxom, who threw back her head and laughed over something he told her.
There was no mistaking the recognition and distaste in Ned’s eyes.
“Someone you know?” Sep asked.
Ned looked forward across the fountain, where the red-haired man was trying to take hold of one of the girl’s hands, while she coyly pulled away and laughed even louder.
“The realm’s at peril, and look what he’s doing,” he muttered.
“Who’s that?” asked Sep, more insistently this time.
“That’s Korian Tionae,” said Ned, every word loaded with disapproval, “Chief Commander of the North Division.”
Resolutely, he began walking briskly across the plaza, with Sep at his heels. The red-haired man didn’t notice them until they were very close to him, when he wheeled around to finally face them. He was tall and well-built, lithe and nimble, graceful and light on his feet. Up close, Septimus noticed that his eyes were emerald flecked with gold, and despite the fiery red of his hair, not a single freckle blemished the handsome features of his face.
“Ned Kamtesir, my friend!” He exclaimed, clapping Ned on the shoulder – a gesture, Sep noticed, that Ned didn’t return. “About time! I thought you got lost on your – er – quest of the Paladin.”
Septimus noticed something very strange – although the man did not speak English, but a foreign tongue hitherto unfamiliar to him, his words passed as though through a filter, becoming inexplicably understandable. This would have rendered him speechless with wonder, but the events of the day were already strange and stranger, so he decided to simply accept things as they were for the time being.
The girl took advantage of the opportunity to wrench her hand out of Korian’s grasp and scurried off, giggling.
“Who is this girl?” asked Ned, frowning.
“Ella,” Korian said airily, “or perhaps Bella, though don’t expect me to wager on that. Her father runs a bakery down the street. He sells the warmest, softest buns in town – though they are not as soft as sweet Bella’s, I’ll bet,” he finished with a laugh Ned didn’t share.
“I was gone longer than I expected,” Ned said in a crisp, dry voice, “but here I am, Korian, and I have the person we talked about here with me.”
Korian looked over Septimus with a critical eye.
“Him?” he asked, and Sep decided he didn’t like the incredulity of his tone, even though he was much more surprised than Korian when he first heard of his unusual appointment – of which exactly it was supposed to consist, by the way, he still had no idea. “The Sightseer? The one who is supposed to help us end this bloody business?”
“That’s right,” Ned nodded. “His name is Septimus Swift, Korian.”
“Septimus Swift. A strange name, but we live in strange days, don’t we? Well, it’s about time,” repeated Korian, “because we’re marching in two days. The savages at the south border are wrecking havoc, and King Alvadon, it seems, finally decided to order – or rather, allow us to do something about it.”
“Two days?” Ned gaped, “you can’t be serious.”
“I bloody well am,” said Korian, “so if you plan on coming along with us, you just have the time to say hello and goodbye to your parents and sisters. And mind you, Ned, don’t you go a-preaching about the arrival of the Messenger and all that, not among my troops. I’m taking all my people and I must keep discipline and focus, which I expect won’t be an easy task anyway.”
“But who will hold up the town?” frowned Ned, ignoring Korian’s last comment, “if you take the entire North Division, who is remaining behind?”
“Don’t worry, the City Watch remains here,” Korian said soothingly, “and I expect a few legions will be sent up here from Fort Sand.”
“Alright,” said Ned, “but who will lead them? Who will be in charge, should anything happen?”
“Jorrel,” said Korian, rather dismissively.
Ned’s face assumed an impression of displeased incredulity.
“Jorrel?” he repeated, “you mean to say Jorrel isn’t coming with you?”
“Don’t worry,” Korian said airily, “my cousin Jo will manage perfectly well on his own.”
“I know he will,” Ned said bluntly, “but will you?”
Korian didn’t give the impression of someone who’d be angered easily, but a frown appeared on his face. ”I am the Commander of the North Division,” he said, “not Jorrel.”
“Only because he didn’t take the position when it was offered to him,” argued Ned, and Korian scowled.
“Yes, because he’s so bloody honorable and responsible that he felt he ought to take care of every single mishap in this city,” the Commander said venomously, “but it doesn’t mean he is a better warrior than I am, or that I can’t take a step right or left without his precious advice. I am going and Jorrel is staying behind, and that is a settled thing. Now, Ned, I’ll take our friend Septimus from here. I need to brief him. We’ll see you later at the camp.”
Sep noticed an expression of uncertainty on Ned’s face, but before he could say anything, his arm was in Korian’s grip and he was being firmly marched away from the spot and down the narrow, cobbled streets, which became less and less crowded with every turn they took, until Korian finally stopped in front of a large, cream-colored villa with rounded corners and windows and an almost flat roof. It was surrounded by something that wouldn’t have been deemed a garden by the terms of England’s manicured lawns, yet still Septimus could see some sort of harmony in the tangle of trees and bushes and flowers strewn like stars in the tall grass. Some strange plants with violet, odd-shaped blossoms clung to the walls of the house, reached the roof and twisted around the parapet. The sound of a fountain could be faintly heard from somewhere in the back.
“My father’s home,” said Korian, giving the front gate a slight push and starting down the lane. Sep followed.
Korian’s series of rapt knocks on the front door were answered by a girl of about seventeen or eighteen, with chestnut curls and grey eyes that were shyly cast down. She was wearing long flowing robes the color of a tea rose, held by an embroidered belt at her waist, and light soft slippers hugged her small feet. Long silver and tourmaline earrings adorned her delicate ears. According to the Tilirian custom, her hair was uncovered, as befits a maiden.
“I’m bringing the Sightseer,” Korian told her, “go and tell Father.”
She hurried off without a single word.
“My sister,” Korian explained curtly. Sep looked after the girl with curiosity, and Korian continued to walk, leading him to a sideways chamber with soft carpets and colorful pillows assembled near a low, oval table of red polished wood.
“You do know you are a Sightseer, don’t you?” Korian asked suspiciously, “it takes years and years for some to find out, and it won’t do for me to explain all this to you when I ought to be preparing my people for a long march and a battle.”
Sep decided he liked Korian’s tone less and less with every second.
“If you mean those visions I sometimes have,” he said dryly, “then yes, I am aware of that, though nobody called me Sightseer in our world. Some doctors have actually offered to try and cure me of this when I was little, but my father wouldn’t let them. He said I’m not mad, just... unusual.”
“That’s just as well,” said Korian, “though if I could have a trade-off and have one Sightseer less and two hundred riders more, I would do that in a blink of an eye. I must warn you; personally I have very little patience for spiritual nonsense, in particular when we might all wake up one day and find our realm in ashes.”
Septimus looked at him, startled.
“Ned... Ned told me that you are waiting for the Messenger,” he said uncertainly, “and that it’s all about...”
“The Messenger!” Korian scoffed, “the bloody Messenger is all Ned Kamtesir ever talks about, yet he can never answer the question of whether and when he is actually going to arrive – and when he does, what he will do. No, we can’t count on the Messenger to help us win – though of course it’s sweet to dream that one day he’ll come and wipe all those cursed Malvians off the face of our poor bleeding land.”
Sep nodded, taking note of Korian’s words and thinking privately that Ned wouldn’t appreciate hearing this. But then again, it was immediately obvious the two men were at loggerheads with one another.
“I mean, we all love our spiritual, faithful, honest Ned,” Korian went on, “but when it comes to practical matters he’s sometimes as useless as a tender maiden of thirteen. Now, I trust that he told you what we will be facing?”
“He had, er, mentioned that there are some barbarians doing something illegally at your south border,” said Sep, “and that we’ll be setting out to stop them. But apart from this, really...”
“Oh, very well,” Korian heaved a sigh and pulled a map out of an inner pocket of his lavishly embroidered cloak. It was covered with shapes Sep remembered seeing in Ned’s globe.
“We are here,” Korian jabbed a finger at a northern point of one of the continents on the map, “Tilir is like a slip of green forests and flourishing towns and bountiful fields, thrust into the sea in the north and the desert in the south. At our borders, we are surrounded by savages. Malvians are the worst of the lot, as they hide behind a thin veil of civilization and some people are actually fooled by it - but there are also the Totoks, the Gorgors, the Lyaki. All envious of our prosperity, all wanting to snatch some part of it, all claiming Tilir as their rightful land.”
“And it isn’t?” asked Sep, “Their rightful land, I mean?”
Korian seemed enraged at the very notion.
“That’s rubbish,” he said forcefully, “lies. Look here – Rhasket, and other towns near the sea, are the oldest strongholds of Tilir. Our forefathers started expanding south thousands of years ago, and our borders reached the desert when King Alvadon the First united Tilir from a handful of tribes to a single kingdom. Ever since, we have made the land flourish. We dried the poisonous swamps and built cities, we cut into the tangled woods and ploughed fields and planted gardens and orchards. We dug wells and erected towers, we filled the land with the sounds of harp and the scent of sweet fragrant wine. We took our ships to distant lands and made alliances, we prospered, and now the barbarians claim that the land was theirs from the start. Most of those who now cling like vipers to our borders were not even here when king Alvadon the First forged the Great Union. There were a few wild tribes scattered here and there in between the plains and the mountains, but they went when Alvadon came. Went freely, mind. Nobody forced them to leave – they could stay and abide by our laws, but they chose not to.”
Korian paused and continued:
“They have plagued us throughout the centuries, but our luck was that they were always fighting among each other. Tribe against tribe and clan against clan. But now they have this leader, or king, or whoever they call him, Mordok – he’s a bit more civilized than the rest, meaning that he knows how to read and write, and he did more than plunder. He actually went out with a declaration that he considers the south of Tilir as rightfully his, and calls his people the Gardamer. This is a farce, of course. This Gardamer is only a collection of wildling tribes who have little in common but their purpose to destroy us. I can’t deny the bastard is clever, though. As a bunch of tribes, they are nothing. As a people, however jumbled together, they can make a claim, especially by begging and wheedling before rulers of foreign lands who know little of what is actually happening here.
Well, Mordok appealed to kings of several realms, first and foremost to the queen of Letaria, a land that shares a sea border with us up north. I don’t know what measures of mixed groveling and threats he used, but the foreign rulers all in turn appealed to king Alvadon and pressured him to be soft with the savages and allow them to erect their camps and villages right near the borders of Tilir, something that our late king Alvadon the Ninth would never have allowed. But his son is a soft green boy, all of sixteen, surrounded by wizened counselors who most likely piss down their breeches with fear at the thought of riding out to war. His recently wedded wife, the queen Alenna, is a girl of thirteen and as easily influenced. I can only imagine how Mordok is gloating as he takes liberty after liberty, which in his eyes is all part of his plan – the end of which would be taking over Tilir.”
“But that doesn’t make much sense, to tell you the truth,” said Sep, “you are supposed to defend yourselves, aren’t you?”
“Defend?” Korian spat bitterly, “If only our king had been stronger, there wouldn’t be any need to defend ourselves! He’s sending me down south, but for what? To hold the savages back and not let them smuggle people and weapons through our southern border, while if I had my way, I would ride beyond into the Malvian desert and burn all their tents and shacks down to the ground, and send them running all the way to the Green Ocean! What is the use of being a commander of the greatest army in the world, if stinking politics don’t allow you to crush your enemies?”
Korian’s eyes were sparkling angrily and his chest was heaving. He was obviously angered, and Sep had to admit the man was making good sense.
“You serve the king, though, don’t you?” he asked.
“Oh yes,” said Korian, “the clan of Tionae was one of the first to support the Union, and we have been pledged to the royal house ever since. I’m riding on behalf of King Alvadon and acting according to the king’s decrees. I am, however, entitled to my own opinions, spoken in the privacy of my home, aren’t I?”
Before Sep could answer, their conversation was interrupted by a fierce-looking man with a long beard who entered the room with crushing steps of heavy feet. Sep knew this could only be Korian’s father, Thadorn, the leader of the Tionae clan. He was dressed in dark wool that couldn’t disguise his protruding belly. He was, however, broad of shoulder and strong of arm, and there was a dagger at his belt even in the confines of his home. His brown hair was liberally salted with grey, the same grey of his steely eyes, but something – not a very striking resemblance, but something in the air of both men – marked them unmistakably as a father and son.
“That’s the man, son?” Thadorn boomed, shaking Sep’s hand seemingly without effort but nearly crushing his fingers all the same, “The one who’s supposed to help you down south? He’s more of a boy, on second thought. Are you sure he knows what he’s getting into?”
“That was just what I’ve been explaining to him now, Father,” said Korian. “I do hope he’s prepared... as much as he can be,” he gave Sep a dubious glance, “because we’ll waste no time in marching south. We set off the day after next.”
Whenever someone mentioned that, Septimus felt a jolt in his stomach, wondering whether he won’t actually be worse than useless.
“What’s a major battle without a Sightseer?” Korian continued, “Even better, a Sightseer from the World Beyond. I was just giving him a brief lesson about the expenditures of Mordok.”
“The son of a bitch,” Thadorn said bitterly, “shows you what can be done with sheer nerve. Send a man to creep quietly across the border and slit his throat, I say, and be done with it.”
Saying this, he jammed one massive fist into the palm of his other hand.
“I’m afraid the damage is already done,” said Korian, “even if Mordok dies – which, I admit, would be satisfying – others would pick up this fable of the Gardamer and their ridiculous claims. But we will ride south on the appointed day, and I will do whatever our brave king grants me the permission to.”
The girl Septimus saw earlier entered the room, bearing a tray laden with food and drink. Delicately, she bent and lowered the tray onto the table and started arranging cups and plates.
She brought a hot, fragrant infusion of herbs and berries, a pot of honey and some flat nut cakes and crisp baked apples with raisins, and slices of sharp, spicy cheese. As she leaned forward to pour for Septimus, the wide sleeves of her gown slid back and he saw her milk-white arms. Her hair smelled faintly of apricots and her lashes were still cast down, as they were when she met them at the door. Sep gave her acknowledgment with a small polite nod.
“You must be Datrine,” he said.
Korian choked on his drink, and Thadorn, who had already taken hold of the honey spoon, dropped it back into the pot and stared at Septimus with obvious indignation. Sep frantically tried to recall his conversation with Ned. Did he say anything he oughtn’t to?
“I have two sisters,” Korian finally explained, “this is the younger one, Tari.”
“My daughter Datrine,” said Thadorn in a thunderous voice, “disgraced herself and put a blemish on our entire family by going in open rebellion against our rightful king. We have maintained no further contact with her ever since. Now go along, child,” he said to Tari, who didn’t say a single word all the while, “go back to your harp and your needlework. We have matters of war to discuss.” Septimus thought this sounded rather offensive, but the girl showed no sign of emotion as she took the tray and got out of the room.
While Thadorn and Korian argued over how many crossbow men Korian ought to take with him, Sep slipped away quickly and quietly. He had woefully little understanding in such matters, and was grateful to find himself back in the fragrant garden. Something in the air told him it must be late summer here. It wasn’t a lot hotter than in England, but only, he realized, because the air was tempered by a steady sea breeze.
He heard light footsteps behind him, and when he turned, he saw Tari, her cheeks flushed, agitation written in every line of her pretty face.
“Please,” she said imploringly, “don’t talk too loudly, or my father will hear. You are going south with Korian, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am, but...”
“You are going to reach the south border?”
He nodded again .“That is the plan,” he said modestly.
“Then you might see my sister Datrine,” she said breathlessly, “don’t believe what people say, she is not a monster or a witch. She just made the unfortunate mistake of rebelling against the king. She also has the dangerous gift of making people follow her. She is leading a gang of rebels somewhere in the south, near the border, nobody knows exactly where. But I think she might trust Kor and come out of hiding. Kor loves her, but he wouldn’t dare to support her - his career and his entire life are pledged to the king. He would never go against His Grace.”
Somehow, Septimus wasn’t so sure of that, but he didn’t say a word.
“Talk to her,” Tari said in a voice that was nearly a whisper, “give her my love. Tell her that she will always be a sister to me. I don’t know when I will have the chance to see her, if ever. We were always together before this sorry business.”
Sep suppressed a sigh. This foreign and beautiful young girl didn’t know just how well he could understand her.
“I left a friend back home,” he told her, “his name is Alan. We were like brothers, too. All our lives. Always together – before this... sorry business.”
She was looking at him expectantly.
“I will see Datrine if I can,” Septimus promised, “Give her your love. Tell her you are waiting for the day she can come back home.”