This must be what Mar feels like. Well, not always. But at least part of the time.
Ely, suspended by the wild blue around him, glided in a circle. Beyond the clear waters stretched a canvas of midnight blue, which served as a backdrop to everything else in between. Schools of tiny, silver fish glimmered and darkened as they swam in then out of shafts of light. Forests of kelp pulsed with every shift of the moving sea, be it due to a nearby current or the pull of the tide. Beyond their reach, the silhouettes of larger inhabitants lurked, whether hillocks of submerged rock or creatures Ely had no desire to encounter up close. None of those stood out as daunting as the keel of the ship, which Ely likened to the long, wooden fin of a beast housing both the unthreatening and boring.
The burning within Ely’s lungs stifled his musings. Oh, well. I suppose I should emerge, lest a knight try to jump in and save me.
Ely popped through the surface, spitting a surge of water into the air.
“Why in the bloody hell did you do that?!”
Ely grinned. Only Sir Everitt would have the guts to address him in such a manner out in the open. Even Symon – for all his posturing as his big brother – would not dare break character as one of his guards. Not with so many witnesses.
Ely treaded in a semi-circle to face the ship. The galleon towered above, such that Ely had to crane his neck to view the main deck. There, leaning over the railing, fumed his Right Captain. His face had a beet-colored tinge to it, a hue which only furthered the curl of Ely’s lips.
“Well?!” Everitt demanded. “What were you thinking?”
“I just wanted to take a dip, my good man,” Ely cried, spitting out seawater in between words.
“A swim? Unannounced? While you’re still clothed?”
“I live for the moment. Not for telling someone what I want to do, then undressing, then waiting through you or the First Mate trying to talk me out of it, then the moment.”
“Aargh!” Everitt threw his hands into the air as he pushed himself off the railing. “You’re impossible sometimes. You know that, James?”
“I agree,” Ely said as he extended himself toward the dinghy making it ways toward him. “Sometimes.”
He tilted his head to the quarterdeck, where he spotted his two brothers. Gerry, stricken by a blend of shock and embarrassment, had turned as white as a bleached sheet. Symon, his skin color somewhere between that of Everitt’s and Gerry’s, managed to stay composed save for his brow. Lowered, it cast an ever so slightly longer shadow over his eyes. ‘Twas enough to convey his mood, the one Ely knew he’d pay for later.
With Ely aboard the rowboat, the sailors made their way back to the ship. The attendants waiting above deck had all manner of towels and coats ready, along with a cup of tea, fresh boots, and an assortment of bread and cheeses. Honestly, this lot acts as though I’ve never been wet before, Ely thought, taking a towel. How ridiculous? Such fools . . . though the cheese does look good.
As Ely stole a bite of hard white cheese, his Right Captain waited with arms crossed.
“Glad to see your appetite is intact, as is His Majesty,” Everitt said.
“Well, of course. Even a quick swim builds quite the hunger.”
“Well?” Ely asked, looking before the wide-eyed audience. “You had your spot of fun. I gave you a show. Get on with it. The shore lies there. We mustn’t keep our host waiting.”
Befuddled but always at command, the audience of seafarers and servants dispersed, each going about their duties. The clank of the emergency anchor rose to Ely’s ears, as did the commands of Captain Danyll of Har-Kin Masste and his First Mate Josson of Har-Kin Hawley, neither of which appeared amused by his latest antics.
As the Captain pulled Sir Everitt aside for a word, Symon and Gerry came to Ely. Despite their attempts at a sly approach, their false beards, prosthetic noses, and dyed hair did little to conceal their concern.
“You wretched little weasel –” Symon started.
“Nah-uh-uh,” Ely chastised with a wag of his finger. “Someone might hear you admonishing your King.”
“Not one of them will care of my words when they see me bashing your head into the planks.”
“Brothers . . .” Gerry whispered, looking around. “Careful.” Despite their caution, several servants still moved about them within range of hearing.
Symon, his senses somewhat returning to him, nodded to the railing. He, Ely, and Gerry sauntered over to the side of the ship, allowing themselves a tad more privacy.
“Seriously,” Symon resumed through clenched teeth. “What was that?”
“A swim,” Ely replied.
“I –” Ely stopped himself, as though having never considered the question.
“I needed to get away from the lot of you.”
“That’s your excuse?”
“Do you need another?”
“Ely,” Gerry stepped up, anxious. “Are you well? You aren’t . . .”
“I’m not mad, well, not in that sense.” Ely glared at Gerry. “Still, you’re far from my good graces after the stunt you pulled.”
“You shouldn’t . . . That’s an entirely separate matter.”
“Damn it, yes! You would have –”
“Gerry, Ely, we’ve said our piece.” Symon glanced over his shoulder, making sure their conversation remained unheard. “We’ve all seemed to have erred these days, as we’re all on edge.”
“Quite right,” Ely said, crossing his arms as he shot daggers at Gerry once more.
“If this were Terran, I’d have the two of you fight it out, so you could release all this tension between you.”
“What good would that do? I’d win, then I’d feel guilty for beating the poor runt.” Or maybe I wouldn’t, Ely considered. The sting of Gerry having Taresa first proved unbearable enough. When Symon broke the news to Ely during Gerry’s ascension, Ely had thrown a pitcher against the wall before upending a table and tearing through every ware in the room. Symon stood by through it all, allowing Ely his moment of rage. The mania spent, even Ely believed himself under control until Gerry returned, only to reveal he had sent Taresa off to her aunt’s palace in upper Ibia, under the guise she needed a period of rest and comfort after the blast at Castle Arinn.
‘Twas a ruse, Ely reaffirmed in his mind’s eye. The little man wants Taresa all for himself. He had her first and now desires to keep her from the rest of us. Even Symon fumed after Gerry told of how he shipped off Taresa.
Ely had moved to strike Gerry upon finding out, but Symon and a few Voiceless intercepted him. Though the mania of the moment passed, Ely could not help but harbor the desire to retaliate against Gerry someway, somehow. The opportunity to punish Gerry had yet to present itself, so in the absence of such a moment, the mania returned. And with it, the overwhelming urge to escape.
Hence, the unplanned dip in the ocean.
As Ely dried himself, he took note of the flurry of activity. A sailor in the crow’s nest shouted in Ibian, quickening the pace of the sailors on the ratlines and deck.
“What’s the matter?” Ely asked.
Symon did not answer. Instead, he climbed the stairs to the forecastle deck. Gerry followed, leaving Ely by himself.
He rolled his eyes, trailing after them. “You know, I am the King here.”
Coming upon the next level, he discovered the source of all the fuss. Ahead, the dark silhouette of the coastline had come into view again, with its ridges and hills. At one point, a flash of sunlight blinked not once, but twice, then in three short bursts.
“What the bloody hell is that?”
“Maritime code. Mirrors on clear days, small pyres during fog and at night, larger beacons with white smoke in a call to arms.” Symon, befuddled, turned to Ely. “You should know this. Our tutors drilled this into us at Father’s command.”
“Oh, well, those matters proved to be so boring, with no relevance to the real world.”
“Quiet,” Gerry said, his lips mouthing words. “I’m reading it. It says . . . Oh.”
Gerry pivoted, aghast. “His Grace is dead.”
Ely expected the reputed Grand Duke of Seylonna to be a man of immeasurable wealth if any of the rumors possessed a shred of truth. What he saw didn’t disprove the notion, for fortifications and great halls – no matter their extravagance or austerity – required a massive amount of capital.
Still, the chamber could have done with a touch of charm. Perhaps some tapestries. Another window wouldn’t have hurt.
Ely’s focus returned as the new duchess of the manor approached. “Your Majesty.”
“Yes?” he said low, so as not to disturb the other members of court who had come ashore with him. The lot of them bowed their heads in prayer or looked solemnly on the casket and the corpse within, paying their respects to the Grand Duke.
Ely nodded, then glanced at Sir Everitt. The Right Captain fell in beside him, careful not to let his footfalls echo too loudly.
The pair followed Her Grace, Grand Duchess Gloria of Kin Amadorr. Newly minted in her title, she took to her new duties as the lady of the manor in stride, offering a curt nod to those servants she passed, all of who preceded it with genuflection. Though her father-by-marriage had just passed, Ely believed her cold manner to be a bit much –
Until she led them to the master bedchamber.
The door creaked open, alerting the whores within. One bare woman lay atop a pile of pillows strewn before the hearth. Another, also naked though on her back, stretched her bronze-toned body across the receiving couch. Two others, in loose skirts and nothing else, stirred on the bed.
Only the recent Grand Duke seemed undisturbed by their entrance, even as his wife strode through the room to the desk at which he sat.
“Your guests,” Grand Duchess Gloria announced.
“I saw them at the door,” Ienello replied. His voice, deep and robust, contradicted his slender frame capped by narrow shoulders. Nonetheless, his lack of commanding presence did not diminish the confidence within, as his cold eyes looked up to his wife. “You need not have bothered coming all this way to declare it.”
Her Grace tightened her lips but offered nothing more. She turned, the soles of her heels sending up echoes louder than those of when she entered.
Ely, still a ways from the Grand Duke, glanced at Sir Everitt. The knight, as bewildered as ever, turned to His Grace as he cleared his throat.
“If you require a drink, there is sweet wine at the table,” uttered Ienello as he wrote, his quill wavering. “Mayhaps some water left if the maidens haven’t finished it.”
“Maidens?” Ely questioned.
The quill stopped. The Grand Duke lifted his brow, though his head remained tilted downward. “Pardon, Your Majesty. I misspoke. These women are harlots, through and through.” The quill resumed meandering. “You may help yourself to one or two if you’d like. Your Right Captain too, if he fancies the company.”
“Thank you, no,” Ely responded, moving toward Ienello as Everitt trailed behind, keeping a respectable distance to allow the two some space. Ely strode right up to the table, setting his hands down as he leaned over to inspect the strewn parchments. Ienello, if bothered, did not show it.
“Interesting . . .” Ely muttered.
“If you’re looking to garner my attention, you needn’t feign curiosity.”
“Your Grace, your wife fetched me and brought me here, I assume at your request. You could have easily let me linger in the foyer, allowing me the privilege to mourn your father. Or you could have set out a modest meal for our welcome, or sent us out on a hunt, or offered us any variety of distractions befitting a royal and his attendants. Yet you didn’t. Why?”
The quill stopped. After setting it down in the inkwell, Ienello laid his elbows on the table, joining his fingertips together as he looked up to the King.
“Hmmm,” he began, “As smart as you are, it’s a wonder why you earned the moniker ‘King Fool.’”
“My enemies try their hands at a sense of humor, I suppose.”
“How’s your Ibian, Your Majesty?”
“It will have to do, then. I have something to show you.” Ienello rose and stepped from around the table, glancing at the Right Captain. Ely, now able to see the Grand Duke in full, straightened. In standing, Ienello exposed himself as more diminutive than Ely or Everitt could have assumed. Sure, he compensated, using all the trappings Gerry had tried in his adolescent years. Lifts in his boots, for certain, along with padding on his shoulders and within the sleeves of his shirt. His pants had been stuffed too, to give the impression of thighs and calves of toned muscle. While the Grand Duke’s garb – and the padding inside – stood out as well-tailored, such efforts to conceal his thin, short frame could only do so much. His face remained gaunt, the sockets of his eyes hollow, set between ears too large. All those features populated a head sitting atop a spear shaft for a neck. At no more than five and a half feet tall, Ely wondered how the man could convince any noble or commoner that he was born to rule a dukedom.
“If I may be so bold,” Ienello said, oblivious to Ely’s silent judgment, “I must ask your guard to stay behind.”
Upon hearing the request, Sir Everitt moved his hand to the pommel of his sheathed sword. Ely, knowing Everitt intended the gesture as much for him as for the Grand Duke, held out his hand.
“Pardon my Right Captain, Your Grace. He puts service before manners.”
“As well he should. I mean no distrust . . . It’s only . . .”
Ely studied his face. So perfect had the man’s indifference been before, displaying a blend of confidence and boldness. Indeed, much of that persisted, though now there showed a slight crack.
“Sir Everitt,” Ely said, “Stay here. I command it.”
Everitt’s hands fell to his side as he frowned. “As you wish.”
The Grand Duke gestured to the side door. Ely fell to his side as Ienello led the way.
The exit opened to a spiral stairwell. Again, Ienello encouraged Ely to go ahead. Ely, seeing the shadows which shimmered in the light of the sconces, hesitated a moment before pushing through his doubt. He descended the stairs, with Ienello close behind.
The stairs took them to an underground lair, a chamber cut through damp rock, ending at a closed door at the far end. Ienello, seeing the apprehension in his guest, now went ahead to the locked oaken giant. He pulled a ring of keys from the pocket of his doublet, finding a long bronze one which he inserted. At the click of the lock within, a whimper on the other side stirred.
Ely – drawing his hidden dagger – came up behind Ienello. He dug the tip of the blade against the back of the man’s doublet, right where a kidney lay within.
“Explain yourself,” Ely demanded.
The Grand Duke turned around carefully. The color had drained from his face while his stern expression remained, revealing a truth Ely had missed earlier.
He fights through the fear.
Ely withdrew his dagger from Inenello, though he still held it out toward him.
“Go on. Open it.”
His eyes never leaving Ely, Ienello unlocked the door. He wedged it open. The whimper from within echoed more prominently, accompanied by sniffling. The unlit room hid the source of the faint sounds.
“Allow me to reach in. For a candle.”
Ely nodded, allowing it. The Grand Duke groped his right hand along the wall bordering the door frame until he found a candle on a concealed perch. Taking it to a nearby sconce, he lit it, then made his way into the room, where Ely followed.
Ienello illuminated the sconces inside, allowing Ely a view of the prisoner in the corner.
The scene put Ely’s fear at ease, if only because he had imagined a nightmare far worse. Rather than a dank, dark cell, Ely found a cellar resplendent with shelves of books and trinkets from the world over. And while there resided a captive, he appeared well-cared for, with only a single iron chain at his foot along with a cot, blanket, and pillow for his comfort. There even laid a half-eaten wedge of cheese and a carafe of wine for his pleasure.
Ienello strode up to the captive, who withdrew in a craven manner. Ely wondered if indeed this had been the man’s first experience with incarceration.
“Do you recognize this man?” Ienello asked, waving the candle in Ely’s direction.
“No,” replied the feeble soul in Ibian, who cowered.
Ienello frowned, then threw the prisoner his key ring. “Go.”
The man fumbled with the ring before finding the key which unlocked the shackle at his foot. He scurried away from the Grand Duke, wary of keeping his distance from the King as he ran from the cellar.
“I assume that stunt put your concerns to rest.”
“Hardly. These are the borderlands you chanced upon here, King Jameson. Our neighbors are Belgardians and Tosilians to the east, and what remains of the Colinnese loyalists to the north. Spies are as rampant here as rats to a galleon. You could have hired that man as an agent through any one of the intermediaries operating in the area. Still, some men in this part of the country continue to do their own dirty work, so it remained worth my effort to ask the prisoner, poor in strength though he was.”
“And why that man, in particular?”
“He spoke Marlish. Without an accent.”
Ely’s eyes widened. Yes, he had sought information from several commoners and even a few nobility while back in Arinn. Using his connections – royal, unscrupulous, and all in between – he had sent word across Ibia and even beyond for intelligence on the castle blast and other affairs which may concern him. But to his knowledge, none of those on the continent were Marlish. All had been foreign correspondents, whose allegiance to coin outweighed their honor to country. How had a Marlish man made his way this far south? To be mistaken for a spy? And for what side? Ely could not answer any of the questions which raced through his mind with any degree of certainty.
“Don’t be so shocked,” Ienello said, noting the surprise on Ely’s face. “We see visitors to these parts from all over the world, even from farther north than your precious Marland. Our ports teem with citizens from the world over. The fact that he spoke Marlish did not single him out to my men.”
“Then what did?”
“He asked too many questions.”
Ienello attempted a grin. No sooner had his lips curled though when his hands began to tremble. The shaking moved through his arms to his shoulders and the remainder of him. So violently did he convulse he dropped to one knee. Ely dashed to his side to catch the Grand Duke before he fell.
“The . . . potion . . .” Ienello managed to point to a rack of vials on the shelf across from him.
Ely sprang to the rack, which contained five glass containers of equal size. All but one stood empty. The one to the far right contained a liquid of deep violet color, which appeared viscous in consistency. Ely grabbed the vial and ran it to Ienello, who immediately uncorked it and drank its contents with vigor.
Moments later, the shuddering ceased. Ienello, his breath slowing to a regular cadence, moved to rise. Ely made an effort to assist, but the Grand Duke waved him off.
“I’m fine, really,” Ienello insisted.
“You seemed prepared.” Ely nodded to the rack of vials.
“‘Tis a common affliction of Kin Amadorr,” the Grand Duke confirmed, as he made his way to the nearest end table to pour himself some wine. “Many in my family have known convulsions — mostly distant cousins. My grandfather on my father’s side shook, though it skipped my father and brothers. Thankfully for my kin’s reputation – or really, my father’s – I was last in line to inherit his dukedom, as three brothers came before me.” Ienello motioned to the far wall, drawing Ely’s attention to the portraits of three vibrant young men. “Despite my father’s plans, Mar had destinies of tragedy in store.”
“I’m sorry for your losses, especially the most recent.”
The Grand Duke waved his hand again, dismissing the notion of grief. “Kin Amadorr is no stranger to difficulties. Being this far from the rest of Ibia hardens the soul, makes us impervious to what offers perceive as pain. Or so I heard from my father growing up. When he spoke to me.”
“His Grace reminds me of my father.”
“An honorable man, I hear. Though whatever their similarities, you have no idea of how His Grace treated me. You never had to contend with brothers, let alone ones who bested you just by living.”
Nobleman, you have no idea. “Aye, I suppose.”
“My father spoke well of him, the late King Audemar, Mar rest his soul. Not an easy feat to earn my father’s respect. Impossible, I would go so far as to say. Hell, many say my father went to Colinne more as a favor to the Marlish king than our own. Imagine that? Though it makes sense. King Felix never did much like the borderlands, let alone the barons and duke charges with keeping the peace out here. We staff the towers and beacons with men we feed and train. We collect the tariffs and duties which Castle Arinn levies, leaving us hated by our own kind. And for what? All so that some foreign dignitaries can come here and act on behalf of His Majesty, doing the bloody tasks he so despises in the guise of a diplomatic mission. No offense.”
Ely smirked. He had thought the trip a fool’s errand, though he first believed Gerry had chosen this destination himself to put as much distance between Taresa and Ely as possible during Ely’s turn as king. Well, even I can be wrong.
“Your Grace,” Ely started, his curiosity growing. “The spy in your . . . well, captivity. Is that all you wanted to show me. Hardly seems a sight worth the trouble.”
“Ah, yes. Well, you have me there.” Staring down at the glass in his hand, which remained half full, Ienello paused. Then in one gulp, he emptied it. “You see, in my father’s last days, he was hardly the Grand Duke he had once been. For the past few years, I’ve been taking on more and more of his affairs. With word of your impending visit, I knew I would have you as an audience for much of your stay, minus a courtesy meal you were to have with him and any public displays for the commoners.
“In the days and hours leading up this moment, I had a plan. Our rendezvous would start in a situation not unlike this, with me having offered you some wine,” he said, pouring the rest of the carafe into his goblet. “You and I would then go on to drink, share our stories, reminiscence. I’d guide you through the labyrinth my father and his forefathers carved out under this castle, one which leads to all manner of passages and tunnels.
“My brothers played down there when we were young. They never invited me, though. They told me the ghosts of times long ago would come out and haunt me, as though some specter could be worse than the tortures they unleased. Lice and fleas in my bed. Ground peppercorns in my porridge. Vinegar in my water. The list goes on.
“I digress. The fact of the matter is, I’m the least of the Amadorr’s who should be here, the last of my kin. You, on the other hand, grew up the sole heir to your land, the favorite of your father, a man who relished in pride and comfort his whole life. That is when it occurred to me, only days ago, that all my planning to connect with you, to bond, to strike an accord as minds sharing the same . . . Hell, I don’t know. Perspective? Upbringing? Anything common to men who grow up to become acquaintances, then friends.
“Alas, my father died. So it occurred to me, ‘Maybe we could bond over that.’”
Ienello eyed Ely. In turn, the King shifted his weight, remaining standing, albeit uncomfortably. He had never had the stomach for mourning in general circumstances, what with the weeping, the sniffling, and all the bloody prayers. This, however, stood out as something entirely different. A loss without the sadness, a man of title with no formality, no sense of tradition. Cold in his regard, as though he felt no connection to the one he had just lost.
Before Ely could break the silence, Ienello continued. “In that supposed fellowship, I would come to conclude I could trust you. Me, a noble ignored his whole life, having such an audience with a king, so much so he’d grow to respect me and I him. What say you? Can I count you as my sole friend?”
Ely paused, his mouth agape, his eyes widening ever so slightly. He uttered no words in response. For he didn’t need them. His façade answered on behalf of his lost voice.
Whatever image Ienello had attempted stood stripped of nobility, exposing the frightened, unremarkable child beneath. His lifts. His padding. His cold, stark remarks in the beginning. His feigned tone reeking of emotional distance. All of it fraudulent. An act. A poor one at that. Of a man who had spent his entire life trying to compensate for everything he knew himself not to be.
“Honesty.” The Grand Duke took a deep breath, inhaling the entirety of Ely’s pity. He then downed the rest of his wine. He released his glass, which fell to the floor and shattered. Ignoring the pieces, Ienello stepped over to the far left corner. He removed a series of books from the middle shelf to reveal a false panel, which he removed. Reaching into the hidden recess, he withdrew four scrolls and a worn journal. He plopped the materials before Ely before leaving.
“We shouldn’t be leaving under these conditions, Your Majesty.”
Ely glanced at Everitt. “Stating the obvious, are we?”
“Tis my duty.” The Right Captain looked up at the castle of Kin Amadorr. Perched on the cliffside overlooking the sliver of the port, it hung awkwardly over them, as though a giant teetering on the edge of a small pool. “We couldn’t spare just one night ashore?”
“Not from what I discovered.”
“Believe me when I say we haven’t time to spare.”
Everitt, relenting to the King’s urgency, saluted. He strode off, directing his attention to the staff as they moved to pack the ship they had just unloaded. He passed two unsuspecting figures – a guard and a lead attendant – who immediately fell to Ely’s side once Everitt climbed the plank to the ship.
“Symon,” Gerry pleaded as he and Symon approached. “Remember your manners.”
“Brother,” Symon started, beside himself. “Explain.”
“I don’t know that I can.”
“This is no time for sly talk.”
“I speak the truth.” Ely glanced around to verify every eye in their midst preoccupied. “The chest by my right leg. I laid the first scroll unfurled on top, to address what I knew would be your curiosity.”
Ely looked away, pretending to survey the progress of the packing. Symon and Gerry knelt before the chest, unclasping the lock to peek inside. They held the lid ajar, with each a hand to it, as they read.
Symon looked up to Ely first. “My Ibian . . . It’s not what I would like.”
“But you understood enough?”
“A map of Marland, of this detail, in a foreign land . . . Yes, I suppose I can relate to your concern.”
“My concern?” Ely glanced at Gerry, who had paused in his reading to direct his attention to them. “And you? What say you?”
“I gathered a number of names as well of Marland. Plus, those of kin and various har-kins –”
“You bloody idiots. Didn’t you read the numbers?”
“I did,” Gerry confirmed.
“So did I,” Symon added. “Though the Ibian words by them . . . They lost me.”
“They’re dates, are they not?” Ely asked.
“Yes,” Gerry answered.
Symon and Gerry stared at each other.
“Whoever made this map,” Ely said, perturbed at having to spell out his conclusion, “took care to note specific shipments to the island. Small loads, certainly not everything a ship could carry, only those deliveries of importance. Some perhaps small enough to fit inside a crate or two. There are several. On the second month, twelfth day, vials of pollen and dried petals from a variety of Afarian plants. No doubt the ingredients to make poisons, every one of them. Then on the twentieth of the third month, nitrates and explosive powders. Fourth day, fourth month, clays, potions, and creams used to alter one’s appearance, for any range of disguises . . .”
Ely paused as a pair of porters approached to lay a heavy chest on the dock before taking their leave. He waited until he felt confident they stood out of range of listening to them.
“I get it,” Symon replied, noting the porters as well.
“Spies . . .” Gerry gathered.
“We can only hope to assume,” Ely said.
“Hmmm . . .” Symon mused.
“This map is manifest of sorts, of a ship or ships visiting ports in Marland. So why is it this far south, away from whatever vessel could have carried it? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Sense went the way of Colinne, brother. Though if I had to guess, I would say the receipt of that map and the other parchments His Grace provided had everything to do with the agent he detained, along with whatever network that spy is a part of.
“You know of father’s stories from the Century War. Intelligence of enemy movements and plans seldom fit together. The best of what we can determine is from bits and fragments, from sources who would sooner lie and cheat their own mothers than reveal the truth of their purpose. Faith and instinct must be weighed whenever judging what is at hand. Analysis of rumors and half-truths is as far from an exact science as one can be. A fool has as much a chance of guessing the right of it all as any sage or prophet.”
“So that spy, the one who we can guess had this map to begin with,” Gerry began, “the Grand Duke let him go just like that?”
Ely sighed. “Yes.”
“And you did nothing to stop him?”
“I hardly knew who the man was, let alone why he was being held captive until His Grace spelled it out for me. Well, the little he divulged at least. Hell, I still haven’t the notion of what Ienello – nor his late father – have done all these years to gather such intelligence. Pfff, it’s all just one big bloody mess.”
“On that we can agree,” Symon stated, rising. “If you have doubts about the source and truth of this intelligence, then why leave now? In a manner that attracts so much attention?”
“I . . . Well, you’ll need to read the rest of the documents in detail to understand. Not to mention . . . It’s . . .”
Ely paced, looking down the dock and up to the ship beside them.
“Ely?” Gerry prodded, his paranoia mounting.
“That Grand Duke, there’s something off about him,” Ely said.
“He recently lost his father,” Symon reaffirmed.
“It’s not only that. He was different. In the head. Unlike any other I’ve met . . . except . . .” Me, Ely told himself. ‘Twas too much like me.
“Very well,” Symon replied. “We’ll discuss this further onboard. If what strikes you as off has any merit to it, there may be spies in our midst now, who no doubt have noted us three gathered far too long together.”
“Right,” Ely said, noting his Right Captain returning. “We’ll reconvene after we’ve left port.”
His brothers dispersed as Sir Everitt marched up to him. “Is everything well, Your Majesty? You look dour.”
How kind of you to notice. “Tis nothing. I only grow anxious as we have yet to leave. See to it, my good man. I’ll be in my cabin resting until after we’ve left.”
A roar roused Ely from the comfort of his sleep. He blinked, his sight seemingly betraying him.
Bright green light flashed through openings left by the partially-drawn curtains. Then red. Followed by blue and yellow.
“Is a bloody rainbow dying?” he asked no one, shaking his head at the ridiculous notion. Though as he awoke, coming to his senses, he considered he might actually be right. For the colors burst with increasing intensity, their brightness growing to the point of nearly blinding Ely. He shielded his eyes with one arm as he raised the other instinctively to his ear. It did no good, for the cracks accompanying each turn of brilliance permeated the cabin, ricocheting off the walls to assault his ears.
Somehow, through the explosions of hues and noise, he picked up on the steady thud of bone on wood.
Ely squinted as he swung around toward the door, both his hands now covering his ears. He stepped cautiously, suddenly aware the ship swayed more vigorously than when they set off from port.
As he approached the door, which he had locked from within, two familiar voices spilled forth from the other side.
“I told you to get him out of there!”
“He won’t answer! I’ve been knocking for minutes.”
“Stand aside.” The thick birch door reverberated under Symon’s pounding, which dwarfed the frantic yet hollow attempts of their sibling.
“All right, you hounds! Quit it!” Ely yelled as he turned the key to unlock the door. “You’ll alert Sir Everitt and half the guards.”
Symon barged in, shoving Ely aside as he took to the cabin to inspect it. He barely took three steps before a short orange burst lit up the chamber, forcing him to a halt. Ely shied away from the radiance as well, along with Gerry, who remained in his shadow.
“What the bloody hell –” Ely started.
“Hell is right.” Symon blinked as his retinas adjusted to the dusk.
Ely, his sight also compromised, groped until he found a lantern. With a spark from his flint, a flame came to life, a mere ant of fire compared to the monster which had just raged beyond.
The subtle glow revealed his brothers still in disguise. Though now they appeared more disheveled, undoubtedly from the recent chaos.
“Shouldn’t my Right Captain be here by now?” Ely asked, perturbed.
“He commanded me and two other Voiceless to stand watch while he convened with Captain Danyll and First Mate Josson.”
“What? Does he think he can issue directives in a time such as this? Without my consent? That entitled bastard.” Ely tore open the door to find two Voiceless waiting beyond the eave of the short hall. He broke into a trot. “Make way for your King –”
The air erupted again. Instantly, the cooling sensation of the sea air transformed into a thick, insufferable wall of heat. Ely – caught in mid-breath – gagged. The Voiceless, though shocked themselves, rushed to his aid. As they held him by the arms, his brothers fell beside him.
Ely, keeled over, struggled to straighten. He pushed away from the helping hands as the brightness dissipated and the air chilled once more. Shuffling onto the main deck, he scanned the sea and sky. Above, wisps of cirrus clouds held visual remnants of the blasts, the residual pigments fading into the stretched gray threads with each passing moment. The faint light cast from their heights shone on churned waters, as white-capped swells rocked the galleon.
The steady motion accompanied by the gentle glow would have been considered a romantic sight in any other circumstance.
Unfortunately, the mood – as reflected by the faces of all on board – betrayed the beauty.
Terror had supplanted every emotion and thought they had harbored before the eruptions as their collective faces reflected parted lips and widened eyes. Like children confronting death for the first time, their hope drained from them. However scared they remained, the lot of them stared east toward the beast which had riled their souls.
With the shore about half a mile off their starboard side, Ely could make out the ridgeline of Seylonna. Much of it stood as it did earlier that day, save for the billowing nebula and the two flaming streaks beneath it. The orange and white lines rippled, intimidating even from Ely’s vantage point. At once, he knew the raging fire at the water’s edge to be the port. Though too far to identify any of the particulars, he surmised the blaze had consumed the vast wooden planks of the wharf, along with its many buildings and perhaps even the anchored ships. But the second line, which stood parallel to the lower one, what could that . . .
“Oh, Mar . . .” he uttered.
The castle. The behemoth of stone. Of stone! Somehow it had flattened and burned, seemingly as quickly as pine needles to a cookfire.
Again, a blast erupted. The passengers and crew cowered, this time before a violet spark which sent debris up and outward. Boulders – some having once supported the foundation of the castle – rose to far heights as though feathers caught in a draft.
As Ely blinked in the wake of the latest flash, Everitt appeared. “Your Majesty! You shouldn’t be on deck. I gave specific orders –”
“Everitt,” Ely cut him off, “what happened?”
“We heard it first. A rumbling coming from the cliffs, from whence we set sail. No sooner did I turn when I saw the first blast of color. Blue. Dark blue coming from the castle, with a wave of heat. The whole western wall of it collapsed, sending boulders tumbling to the port below. Then the port itself blew, burnt orange that time. On and on it went, one explosion then another, like they were trying to compete with each other, every one that followed bigger and brighter and hotter than the last.”
“Very well, I see,” Ely said, his hands extended in an effort to calm his Right Captain. Sir Everitt, sweat having beaded from his recollection, panted. Ely shared a look with Symon then Gerry, who expressed their silent concerns. Never before had their personal guard ever displayed such panic, however subdued it may have appeared to others.
“James,” Everitt resumed, slowing his breath. “What say you of this?”
Ely perked, not accustomed to his Right Captain prompting him while under his guard. In doing so, he became acutely aware of the eyes upon him, and the ears turned towards his presence, including those of his brothers.
Damn it, he thought. If only I were in the sea now.
Very well. They want the King. Give them the King.
“Our ally, the Grand Duke of Seylonna, is dead. He follows his father, also recently deceased, to Mar’s Castle. As do the souls of those who perished in the fire, the names and likes of which we will never know.
“We do neither their Graces nor the subjects of their dukedom nor Mar Himself no honor by whimpering before a threat like beaten dogs. We will mourn their kind separately, in a church like good Marlish folk, when the time comes.
“That time is later. Now, we ready ourselves for the fight ahead. Oh, and believe me, there will be a fight. For like the fire that claimed our brethren in Arinn, this too will not go unanswered. Inquiries will be made. Our suspects questioned and tortured. Those responsible will fall to the blade or the noose. Rest assured, we will see justice. We will have the final word. Our answer to fire and treachery will be steel and brutality. Vengeance will come!”
His final words hung on echoes of quietude, so alarming as to render Ely self-conscious his speech had failed in its intent. Then Everitt, ever dutifully, thumped his right fist over his heart. The sentiment spread as sailor and servant alike mirrored the Right Captain’s lead, until others felt so emboldened as to offer a cheer. One, then three, followed by many more exponentially. Soon the whole galleon clamored with applause and cheers.
Another blast ruptured the northwest wall corner of the castle, sending that section down the cliff into the smoldering remnants of the port. Those on the galleon paused to view the chaos once more as Ely stepped up to the railing to meet the wave of heat in its wake.
“Sir Everitt,” Ely called, still emboldened by the reception to his speech.
“As I said, this threat needs to be answered. Sail north away from here as I mull our next course of action. And make haste. Whether up close or afar, we need to show this enemy their activities will not spoil our hopes.”
“At once, My King.” Sir Everitt glanced over his shoulder. The Captain and First Mate had come within earshot of Ely as he spoke, so they heard everything. With raised fingers and eyes focused, the men barked orders. The deck scurried in response to the flurry of directives from the ship’s officers. Sir Everitt took his place between the two, so when they had finished, he conferred with them the details of their route.
Ely, satisfied with the alacrity of those on board, leaned over the railing to survey the coastline. The thin lines of fires still raged but seemed less intimating, even as the head of smoke above them had grown, as had the bright streaks of lights stretching even higher.
“A rousing speech,” Symon commended, though the smirk on his disguised face said otherwise.
“Too much?” Ely asked.
“I liked it,” Gerry squeaked, coming alongside Ely opposite of Symon. In the scramble which had become of the deck, none bothered to stop and query the costumed brothers on their duties.
“Thank you, Geremias,” Ely replied.
“A little dark towards the end,” Symon offered. “Even Father would have raised a brow at your choice of words.”
“Didn’t he always? Besides, the words matter not. The fact I said them sober, without slurring, would have been more than enough to make him proud.”
“I suppose. Either way, it did the trick.”
“I appreciate your enthusiasm for my methods of ruling, brother. Your petty focus on my prose aside, I meant what I said. This needs to be answered.”
“Was that . . .” Gerry started, nodding to the burning ruins of Castle Seylonna. “Was it meant for us?”
Ely and Symon fought the urge to glance at each other, though both failed.
“What say you?” Gerry prodded.
Ely considered. “Well, we can assume one of two things I gather: either the perpetrator planned for us to be there tonight and set in motion a trap to destroy us and the Grand Duke.”
“Or?” Gerry asked, wary of the possible answer.
“The enemy watched us leave and then went about with the destruction. So we could see it. And hear the message: We’re being watched. Stalked. Hunted. Two attacks that nearly missed us is no mere coincidence.”
“It’s a pattern,” Symon concluded.
“So how do we answer it, as you would say?” Gerry replied.
“Tonight,” Ely replied. “After Everitt has done his shift and set the night guards outside my cabin, we need to convene a truth session, then discuss next steps in our . . .” What? Set of orders? The battle to come? Or worse? War?
“Our what?” Gerry inquired.
“Our duty,” Ely finished. For what more could he say?
“We also need to send word to Dawkin,” Symon added.
“Yes, and expeditiously,” Ely replied, nodding to the coastline. “Before he hears from other sources.”
Following Ely’s gaze, his brothers watched as further up shore a light came to life, solitary and controlled. A beacon. Its blaze burned orange, absent of any other hue or tone, casting up a column of white smoke. In response, another beacon ignited. A third, one to the far left, later replied. Like ghosts, wisps from their flames rose, foreshadowing to come.
“No mirrors, huh?” Ely quipped.
“What does –” Gerry began.
“Not now,” Symon urged Gerry. “Let us disperse.” He fought the urge to look at Ely. “You should walk the deck for a bit. Encourage the men. Look regal.”222Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡWdzXjhGWKS
“Aye,” Ely said. For ‘tis my role.
With his brothers slipping away to resume the responsibilities of their personas, Ely strode the length of the galleon. He slid his hands behind him as he consulted Sir Everitt before moving in for a word with Captain Danyll, then First Mate Josson. With each, he posed a few questions, suppressing his usual personality in favor of listening to counsel, just as he had been taught. He nodded when appropriate, then moved on, marching with his head held high. Attendants bowed as he passed. He looked on, tilting his head every so often.
Having made his rounds, Ely finally arrived at the quarter deck. By then, the ship had moved further offshore, though the coastline remained in sight. The blasts still consumed what little remained of the castle and port of Seylonna, though their subsequent eruptions turned smaller, their waves of heat and noise barely drawing the attention of the crew. As a result, the streaked tones of the cirrus clouds held less of their colors. The bright reds, blues, and other hues of earlier now gave way to pastels, not unlike those of a sunset. At once majestic and depressing, Ely studied the whole of everything before him.
From within, the surge rose. His familiar companion, the depression he had come to expect in such moments. Having already suffered his mania from earlier, this imposing episode proved not a surprise.
Though what happened next was.
Without any thought or will, the feeling dissipated.
Ely, shocked, looked around. The ship went on as it had. Along with her crew. And the sea. Nothing in his environment had changed.
So unfamiliar, Ely considered. Not entirely happy nor disappointed either, he knew not how to interpret the disappearance of the beast he expected. I should be overcome with worry. Anxiety. I ought to be consumed with myself. But I’m not. Why?
The image of His Grace, Ienello of Kin Amadorr, overwhelmed his mind. His stooped shoulders. His diminutive stature. His slight frame. His physical presence, however unimpressive, a beauty compared to the monstrosity within him. A soul wracked by depression. Always longing, in need of constant validation. Seeking the pleasure of drink and flesh to mask the pain.
And a far cry from the man I want to be.
Such determination had quashed the onset this once, Ely knew. Would it always? Perhaps not, though this one time, Ely would relish in the victory. Not of conquering some enemy beyond his borders, who he had yet to meet. Nor of winning over the hearts and minds of his subjects, which he knew would not last. This stood apart as a conquest of one he had fought his whole life.
He breathed in the salt air, which carried hints of smoke from the shore. Beneath, the sea churned in the wake of the rudder.
You damn fool, he thought. Of all the times you should jump, you choose now to find yourself.
“Bloody hell,” Ely said, turning his back to the sea as he leaned against the railing. “Mar sure does have a wicked sense of humor.” 222Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡgYJOE1mOnp