At least one thousand Tributes must be given. Two hundred fifty from the Fire Mountain Tribe, two hundred fifty from the Wind Rider Tribe, two hundred fifty from the Sand Sea Tribe, and two hundred fifty from the Stone Singer Tribe.
Voran bounded up the hundred steps of the citadel as if they were only two, barely winded and buoyed with excitement from his news. Lazlo trailed behind, laden with the weight of the three satchels that he was holding, each made of thick and tough sand whale skin.
“Come on, slowpoke!” the Prince called down to him; Lazlo paused and gazed upwards, bleary-eyed and sweating profusely.
“Your highness …” His servant wheezed as he trod foot after leaden foot up the staircase, “I don’t … think … your father … will appreciate … your lack … of decorum.”
“The old man has too much decorum in his diet,” Voran drawled dismissively, and reached out to hoist his servant and the bundles he carried towards the landing. “Now hurry up!”
The two moved through the hall towards the throne room, Lazlo still keeping a generous pace behind, while he caught his breath. The guard at the grand entrance door saluted as Prince and servant passed through, and the court assembly made way for them.
“Father!” Voran paused before the dais of the ornately carved throne, made of a solid block of petrified wood from the Fire Mountains. Before his father, King Korian of Fire Mountain, he bowed with an uncharacteristic flourish as he heard Lazlo skid to a halt behind him and fall to his knees. “If you please, I’ve come to announce a great victory!”
Voran had expected a reaction … any reaction, from either his father, his guards, retainers, advisors, or even the assembled courtiers after so grand an announcement, but the throne room was uncharacteristically, eerily, silent. The King had not even given him leave to rise.
“Ah … father?” Voran glanced towards the throne, fighting down the choke of embarrassment with the momentary notion that he had perhaps been too hasty, and burst in on some critical discussion.
“So that’s what became of the heads.”
The King possessed a rich, sonorous voice that pierced the silence like the ram horn at the temple, calling supplicants to devotion. He gazed upon Voran with piercing gray eyes that rested beneath dark, bushy eyebrows. His circlet held down his luxurious locks of ebony hair, with gold rings fastened to their ends. He slumped back, his red Naga silk cloak framing his gold fringed black leather tunic. The King gestured towards Lazlo, who, though still huffing and puffing from his arduous journey up the stairs, was bowed over as steadily as Voran. “Bring me those bags, boy,” he commanded.
Lazlo obeyed, and hauled his satchels to the throne’s dais to place them at the King’s feet, then backed away, facing the throne as protocol dictated.
Voran, still at a loss to understand what was going on, heard the shuffling of the bags’ leather straps, and then whispering between the King and Aven, his chief advisor, who stood beside the throne.
“On your feet,” the King said, his voice gruff and terse, “both of you.” Voran stood upright, his sore back grateful for the reprieve, but his innards churning at the sight of his father’s expression, which was as dark and menacing as any look that he was known to give when sentencing criminals.
“Tell me, my son, was it you who downed the approaching hovercraft that our tower guards spotted earlier today?”
“Yes, father,” Voran said, his voice having lost much of its prepared eagerness. “I was in the west tower and saw them approaching: a small caravan with five guards and three passengers, bearing the standard of the Plenteous Lands. And so I took my fastest dromedon, and with surprise on my side, wiped out the whole retinue, guards and all. It was a simple task, really; didn’t even break a sweat, and it was high noon. How our most hated enemy managed to get this far into the deep desert unspotted I’ll never-”
“I invited them.”
Voran felt acutely and utterly sick. He also discovered that he had no need to swear; Lazlo had beaten him to it, and made a more profane oath than he could have ever devised.
The King’s declaration stirred a ripple of gasps and alarmed chatter from the assembly. When he spoke again, his voice had lowered an octave, into a threatening baritone.
“You obviously don’t remember the name, Rogan Hamer, do you?”
“Should I … father?” Voran found that his voice had become unsteady. A slight crack broke into it, and he swallowed, tasting the faintest hint of bile.
“The correspondence I had been speaking about for the last three months?” The King growled, and then slammed his fist upon the throne with emphasis on the last word. Everyone present, Voran included, jumped with a start. “The correspondence with the man whose very head lies in this satchel?” He turned toward his steward at his right and shot a gloved finger towards the middle bag. “Aven, was the wreckage searched? Was the letter aboard?”
“It was in the safe in the captain’s quarters, in a fire-proof strong box.” The slender, white-robed man produced a scrolled parchment with a waxen seal and presented it to the king. Voran was too far away to see the fine details of the seal, but its distinctive pentagram shape identified it as from House Hamer, the ruling family of the Plenteous Lands in the far north, where the fertile and temperate valleys of the desert tribes’ enemies lay beyond the impenetrable Stone Wall Mountains. “But even then, the Prince’s … sport … left a smoke cloud that could be seen for miles.”
The King took the scroll and broke the seal, glancing over it. Then he closed his eyes and looked away. An expression that was midway between pain, shame, and fury crossed his bearded face, and he rested his brow in his hand. He tossed the parchment unceremoniously to the ground, and Voran watched as it fluttered miserably to the bottom of the dais, the thick wax of the seal making a tapping sound that seemed to echo in the ensuing silence. For nearly a minute, he said nothing.
Concerned, the guard at his side spoke. “Your majesty?”
“Out.” The King’s voice was a hoarse whisper, barely audible, but Voran heard it.
“Excuse me?” Aven, a puzzled expression on his face, leaned closer to the king.
“Out!” The King sat bolt upright. Aven staggered back, nonplussed.
The King made a broad, sweeping gesture to the entire court. “Everybody out! Now!”
Then, as if having read his mind before taking even one step back, the King gestured hard and fast towards Voran. “Oh, no, my son. Not you! You will remain right here. Your servant may leave and be thankful that I don’t have him beaten for being an accessory to this fool’s mission, but he’ll not want to be here for what I have planned.”
Voran’s terror grew by inches as one by one, the members of the court and supplicants filed out of the throne room. “Gods be with you,” was all that Lazlo could murmur before beating a hasty retreat with the rest of the assembly. Soon, there were none left but himself and his father. The door latch fell into place as the last courtier made his exit, the sound echoing with the finality of a death’s knell.
“Three months’ worth of negotiation,” the King’s words came hard and cold through a face composed of clenched teeth, narrowed eyes, and skin that glowed a new, menacing shade of red. “Two of those three months spent just getting the damn royal court and House Hamer to even agree to this peace effort! And you, in the time it takes to void your bowels, made it all for nothing!”
“Father, it’s …” Voran’s mind floundered for a proper word to use, “… unfair to blame me! If I had any inkling that that was an emissary …”
His question seemed to break what was left of the King’s patience as he fired upwards from his throne to his full, imposing height. “You have a brain, do you not? Why the hell would such a small group come out this far? And bearing their standards, no less?” He leaped from his throne, moved down the dais, and then across the floor with a speed that turned Voran white and nearly blind with fear.
He whipped his arm out and grabbed Voran violently by his hair, pulling him closer. The Prince bit back the reflex to cry out, from the agony that fired through his follicles from the force of his father’s pull.
“What kind of a fool did I raise, who would be so eager for glory and honor for his tribe that he’d take leave of all his common sense?” His father’s long, narrow nose was nearly against his own, which was flat and broad as his mother’s had been. “Or were you just thirsty for blood? By all the tribes! Why did the gods curse me with such a son?”
“It … was a mistake!” Voran strained his words through his pain, but his father did not relent.
“No, boy … no.” The king’s look was that of utter scorn. “Disobeying me by leading a night charge against those bandits when you were thirteen … that was a ‘mistake.’ You knew they were day sleepers, and yet you had us chasing them halfway around the planet. We were lucky the heat got to the survivors before we did! And let’s not forget that spectacular embarrassment when you entered the annual dromedon race, knowing that no one would dare outpace you for fear of execution. That too, was merely a “mistake.” And of course, let’s not forget all the times I had you fetched from brothels when you should have been with me at court … shall we call those ‘mistakes’ too? You’d better thank the gods that they are not obligated to tell us of when the herbs they eat to make their wombs barren fail to work. Only they know how many bastards you may have sired by them. Perhaps I should go and ask them, eh? Have the priests legitimize the lineage if I find such a child, and place him under your incompetent care, so you can make more ‘mistakes’?”
Voran tried to reply, but only managed to force a strained choking shriek from his throat.
“Be thankful I’m not so cruel,” the King continued. “Still, have I not warned you time and time again, that I would someday make you regret your idiocy?”
“F … father, please!” Voran felt trickles of thick fluid running down his forehead that he was certain was not sweat, and his pain pushed him beyond the point where his pride would have prevented him from begging. “Forgive me! It won’t … happen again!”
“Oh, I’m absolutely certain it won’t.” The King tossed him to the ground with the same careless ease with which he threw down the parchment. His tone was as menacing as his form, shrouded demon-like in his red cloak. “What’s done is done with the emissaries. At least you were taught well enough to make it look like accident. The wreckage was too far from the Plenteous Lands for anyone to know. House Hamer will most likely chalk the disappearance up to some unfortunate mishap; the hovercraft had run into a megarachna, or a pack of sandtigers, or raiders of the nomads; who knows.” He shook his hands as if he had just handled something vile, and Voran, vision still blurred with tears of pain from his throbbing scalp saw splatters of blood hit the floor. “‘Sand at night, sand at day, the desert swallows up its prey.’ All neat and tidy. But with you, my very foolish son … I have been more than generous with my warnings.”
The King stalked over to the long marble table beside the buttressed windows at the throne room’s far end: the place where the royal council held their meetings. He then removed a sheet of parchment and pen from the supply at the table’s center.
“Now is the time for the teaching of lessons.” He sat down in the chair reserved for his secretary and set pen to paper. Voran gingerly grasped his head, struggled to his feet, and staggered drunkenly over to the table. He steadied himself against its marble surface just as his father finished writing.
“Father, what are you doing?” He asked as the King rolled up the parchment, dripped a few drops of the red wax of the nearby candle on it and stamped it with his signet. Ignoring his son’s question, he rang the servant bell. A young boy with the same white robes as Aven entered through the nearby door and bowed. The king placed the parchment into his outstretched hands.
“Take this to the falcon heights,” he instructed the boy. “Inform the falconer to use his fastest bird. It’s to be sent to Sessalgnus with all due haste, to the hands of the High King.”
“The Gray Lands?” Voran nearly shrieked with a voice that had gained strength along with his limbs. He watched with an new pall of growing fear as the servant disappeared, the pain in his scalp having somewhat subsided with his rising panic. “What would you want with the Naga?”
“The time of Tribute is in a week,” the King said, appearing to be much less angry: a state that only made things seem eerier than before. “And this year, as expected, they’ve invoked the Right of Flesh.”
The connection, and subsequent realization that he was to be part of the tribute, nearly knocked the wind out of Voran. Staggering, he steadied himself against the table, gasping with new, wrenching panic. “The Flesh Tribute? Father … no, please! You can’t possibly … Please, you didn’t!”
“Oh, I most certainly did.” The King glanced Voran’s way with narrowed eyes as he placed the pen and candle back into their holders. “I told you that I would one day make you regret your antics. Those were not threats. As King, am I not obligated to make good on my promises?”
“But … the Naga? The Tribute?” Voran was in a near-panic now. “Father, you may as well have disowned me!”
“By all rights, I should!” His father pounded on the table’s resonant surface as he stood, and Voran nearly lost his footing for his fear. “Were your mother still alive today, I would have, seeing your foolishness, made arrangements to sire a second heir with her long ago. But no, even now, even though no one would question my wisdom in stripping you of your rights to the throne, I fear that would be too much. Call me sentimental, but I believe that even a damaged vessel can still be useful. And I’ve made a specific request for your exile to not be permanent. Three years is enough time, I believe, to teach you a little caution and humility. The Naga ought to understand, due to your position. Despite your … indiscretions, I know that somewhere beneath that foolish, stubborn body that has more muscle than brains, there hides a true future King of Fire Mountain. Perhaps they can teach you what I cannot.”
“But I’ll have to wed a Naga!” Voran pleaded, his hopeless terror railed within him with the indignity of it all. “And sire Naga babies with her! By me! By my royal seed!”
“More’s the pity for them!” The King’s reply dripped with pitiless sarcasm. “Hopefully the Princess’s children won’t carry your less-than-endearing traits. Or they can take it as a benefit. They’re getting royalty to add to their bloodlines. They should feel honored.”
“Father, please,” Voran persisted, despite his dismal awareness of the hopelessness of his situation, “Don’t you even care?”
“That is exactly why I’m doing this.” The King’s voice softened for the first time since Voran had arrived with his grisly trophies. But there was no comfort in that softness. “I promised you that you would regret your idiocy. Well, my son, your regret has only begun. Get your affairs in order, or lose yourself in the whores at the brothel like you normally do; I care not which. But mark my words, you will be leaving with the caravan to Sessalgnus in a week’s time … or you will live the rest of your life with neither home nor tribe. The choice is yours.”
Voran woke to the musty scent of his cramped cabin, a far cry from his spacious, opulent suite at the citadel. Its ordered calm a contrast to the hovercraft’s uneven movement and the background rumble of its engines. The sentinel charm, a keepsake that his late mother had made for him, hung over the porthole. Its spidery threads and knit yarn icons of the gods, fitted with tiny bells were eclipsed by the silvery light of the dead moon, and the pale green light from the forests that covered the shattered portion of the greater moon. Blessed by the priests of the citadel, it was supposed to chase away nightmares.
Tonight, it hadn’t worked. He had just awoken from a fitful, unrefreshing sleep where he dreamed that he had returned from his exile to a citadel that did not know him, and where people shrunk away from the tiny serpents that he claimed were his children. Voran feared that this would be the first of many nightmares, though most were a replay of the events that led to his situation. And he feared that they would most likely haunt his every moment in the Gray Lands.
He tried to get back to sleep, but the nagging persistence of his roiling emotions drove any ounce of potential slumber farther and farther away. With regretful anguish, he wondered why he had failed to pack any kind of alcohol. At this point, being drunk would have at least given some reprieve from his inner demons.
I wonder if Naga even drink alcohol, Voran thought listlessly. Gods, he hoped so! Who cared if he would have a monstrous habit to overcome when it was all over; it would make those three years so much more bearable. Voran sighed into his pillow, hoping that the motion of the hovercraft would lull him back to sleep, but gave up on that hope after another long, restless hour.
A faint noise caught his attention. It was distant, barely audible, then grew in volume minute by minute until it became clear and undeniably familiar: the sound of battle.
Voran’s urgency gave him barely enough time to dress even in the most minimal fashion, and so he arrived at the surface deck, barefooted and with little more than his under tunic and loose breeches. His sword and scabbard were girded about his hip from its leather belt. He was greeted by the sight of a sparse crowd of tributes who were pointing and gawking at something that was happening off the craft’s starboard side. Upon arrival, he saw that Lazlo was in their midst.
“Your highness, could you have possibly dressed better?” his friend asked, grimacing at his hastily donned attire. “You’ve brought your sword, spoiling for a fight, but one that you’d go into in little more than your underclothes?”
“If the caravan is under attack, will the gods care about how I’m dressed when I meet them?” Voran countered, his eyes fixed upon the sands of the desert, pale greenish silver with the moons’ light. Something was indeed going on out there; the perimeter guards were chasing something down, riding their dromedons hard against shadowy figures.
“I can’t see,” Voran said, and then felt Lazlo place a pair of binoculars into his hand. He opened his mouth to ask where he had gotten them, but then shook his head. The young man was nothing if not resourceful. He brought the binoculars to his eyes, and adjusted the sights. Dromedons moved fast, and so it took a moment for him to find what he was looking for.
Then he spotted it … or rather, conjectured it. The riders who fought with the armored caravan guards were easy enough to spot; their black robes hid them from a distance, but they were quite visible magnified, and their blades glinted in the moonlight like sparks. But their steeds were as invisible as the air, and rippled like heat haze.
“Refractor beasts,” the Prince murmured aloud. “Father has trained these guards well. Most soldiers would have been ambushed without notice; ours seem to be holding their own.”
“So they’re being attacked by Breakers?” Lazlo asked, “malcontents of the Sand Sea Tribe?”
A distant explosion caused the tributes to back away from the railing in a flurry of terrified moans and excited chatter. In the distance, a plume of sand rose from a sudden burst of flame, and Voran thought he saw at least a single body flying in the blasts temporary light; whether it was Breaker or guard, however, he could not tell.
“They always try to disrupt the Tribute,” Voran said, remembering from his history lessons how envoys of the three other tribes had to force the duplicitous Sand Sea tribesmen to participate in the Tribute by threat of military action. It was only they who opposed it, and always had from the ending days of war with the Naga. They composed the largest contingent of deep desert raiders, pillaging outlying villages. They were troublemakers, one and all.
He made a brief mental calculation as his concentration shifted back to the battle. “There are more tonight than what is usually reported. I guess that there might be a few of their companions brought along whom they’re trying to free.” Gods, I would love to join the guards! Just give me a fast dromedon, and I …”
Just then, a dromedon sprinted by the hovercraft, the saddle draped over its furry back and scaled flanks empty of its rider, perhaps slain or unhorsed by a lucky Breaker. The beast crooned and glanced at the Prince with its three large eyes, as if inviting him. Voran smiled, and hoisted himself atop the railing, ready to join the fray … until Lazlo yanked him back to the deck.
“What do you think you’re doing, your highness?” Lazlo’s voice was frantic and stern, and oblivious to his friend’s indignant fury after having tumbled onto his backside.
“What do you think I’m doing?” Voran snarled, turning to face Lazlo with the swiftness of a cat upon its prey. “What do you think you were doing? That dromedon might have been a sign from the gods …”
“… right, a sign from the gods,” Lazlo said with bold sarcasm, “if the gods wish you to be exiled for being counted as unacceptable for tribute!”
“What the hell do you mean, ’unacceptable?” Voran replied.
“What is the Fourth Law of Tribute?” Lazlo’s tone was reproachful in a way that reminded Voran of a teacher speaking to a child who had been caught shunning his lessons.
“’A tribute must be of sound mind and body, with no severe or grievous wounds or disease,’” Voran recited. Then at once, the scales of impetuousness fell from his eyes. He looked away, utterly mortified about what his typically impulsive action almost cost him.
“Your highness, did you truly want to join that battle?” Lazlo asked as he crawled back to his feet. He tried to help Voran up, but the Prince, still sore with the indignity, smacked his hand away and struggled to his feet on his own. “Think about what might have happened if you had been injured. Any major bruises or cuts would have given the Naga cause to believe you’d injured yourself on purpose. You’d have been deemed unfit for tribute and sent back to your father, and he would have truly disowned you. Do you want that?”
“I get it!” Voran snapped. “I’ve had to endure reproach like this from father; I don’t need to hear it from you!”
“Then shall I have less concern for your well-being?” Lazlo asked, clumsily catching the binoculars that the Prince threw back at him. “The guards are doing their job, and the hovercrafts haven’t started circling. If that were to happen, we would know that something was wrong. And if you can’t already tell, the Breakers have started to retreat.”
Voran squinted out into the moonlit night. Sure enough, the signs of battle were far away, and he could make out one lone Breaker retreating over the dunes on his near-invisible steed as the guards gave chase. Other ranks of soldiers were returning to their positions beside their respective hovercrafts. Every passing second, he felt stupider. At last, he decided that he would rather feel this way where the eyes of his subjects, convicts and ne’er-do-wells though they were, could not see.
Lazlo followed the Prince back below deck. “Your highness, we are outside our tribe’s lands, and we will soon be guests in a foreign land, beholden to different laws. What do you know of Naga culture, outside of the Laws of Tribute? Do you know their language, or their rules of etiquette? Or what type of religion they have? Have you studied them at all? Or even what the Gray Lands are like?”
“By the gods, are you trying to piss me off?” Voran spun around and grabbed Lazlo by the front of his robe. “I’ll only be down there for three years!”
“Three years can be a long time,” Lazlo said, steadfastly calm in comparison to the Prince’s rage. “And the Laws of Tribute demand you learn the ways of the Naga. They make no exceptions. Like it or not, you’ll be expected to father children by the Princess. Is it not wise to know at least a few things so that you don’t end up disgracing yourself?”
“I am disgraced already,” Voran said, scowling more darkly than he ever had. “As if I care about whether I disgrace myself before a bunch of Naga. It’s father who wants me to … endure this punishment.”
“You damn well should care,” Lazlo retorted. Voran saw within his friend a cold-eyed sternness and sincerity that nearly matched the King’s. “Naga have a code of personal honor that is stricter even than our own. You do something foolish there, and you not only embarrass yourself, but you also dishonor yourself, and by extension, your family and your tribe in their eyes. You, being a Prince, will represent the best of what the desert tribes have to offer, and will be looked upon as an example for the other tributes to follow. More will be demanded of you than from any other tribute in the Gray Lands.”
Much of the fire and anger had drained from Voran, who now stared blankly at his servant, who had just become something akin to a teacher. He turned away, his expression falling into another scowl.
“I’d have had you beaten for embarrassing me like you just did, if we were back in the citadel,” Voran said.
“Well, it’s a good thing we’re not in the citadel,” Lazlo replied, lacking the trepidation with which he normally spoke. “You may be Prince of the Fire Mountain Tribe, but you’re still human. And you’re not infallible. Someone needs to give you at least some direction.”
“Oh, then direct me, oh wise Lazlo, son of no man and valet of the crown Prince!” Voran sneered, and gave his most mockingly elegant and deferential bow.
“Sarcasm doesn’t become you, your highness,” Lazlo said flatly, ignoring the sting of the Prince’s words, which might have resulted in an honor duel, had they still been in the citadel. “This is a matter of personal honor. I’m trying to help you.”
“Then when I want your help, I will ask for it,” the Prince answered. “Now, if you don’t mind, this excitement has left me quite in the need for more rest. Do not disturb me again until I seek you. I wish to be left to my misery.”
Lazlo wanted to feel angry at the Prince’s implicit insult at his birth, but he knew his friend perhaps almost as well as his father, and had come to expect such a reaction from his words. Still, he had needed to at least try, as futile as that effort proved. All of his emotions drained from him as he sighed and sought his inner peace while the Prince strode off with heavy footfalls down the corridor back to his cabin. He shook his head, wondering with more than a little concern how the Naga would handle someone like him.
“Your highness,” he thought aloud, “you should have listened to me. Your father was right; the Naga will either humble you, or poison you.”