Chapter three: The Curse of Ten
He stumbled blindly through the forest, tripping over feet as useless as if he were in a state of intoxication. He thought he couldn’t possibly have the strength to go on, but always the terrified screams of the children drove him forward. The smoke was thicker than ash and as hot as the fire, dragging merciless iron claws through the inside of his throat, mouth and nose. He had never known smoke so relentless in its pursuit of torture.
Once again he saw the small cottage in the woods, stone supported by a framework of bourgan wood beams that collapsed one by one. The shallow, ever-weakening shrieks were the only things he could hear as he crawled on hands and knees toward the house that was now a pyre; yanking open the side door, he saw them. Two little boys and a girl. Her legs were pinned under a monstrous wooden beam, and the boys, five and two years old, tried desperately to free her while she screamed at them hoarsely to get out before they burned to death. Broken glass crunched under his feet, and the house reeked of strange chemicals burning in the blaze. He could barely concentrate enough to remember that he needed to get them out immediately. A shelf fell from the wall beside them, glass containers shattering on the stone floor that was hot to the touch. The toxic fumes grew stronger, choking him.
Not wasting another second, he took one boy under each of his arms and deposited them outside. He felt wooden and barely able to move, and an anvil was rolling around inside his head. He barely made it back inside the cottage for the girl, who was swimming in unconsciousness while the beam crushed her legs. At the age of fourteen, he was unable to telekinetically lift things heavier than what he could lift with his arms, and his state of fume-induced confusion he hadn’t a prayer of mapping strongly enough to lift the beam from the girl. He tried with his arms, and slapped her awake so she could help him, but even together they couldn’t move the beam an inch. Giving in, her head fell back. She tearfully demanded that he take care of her brothers before a sobbing gasp filled her lungs with noxious air and she died.
He had never seen someone die before, let alone someone so young, and his panicked cries and pleading were to no avail. He could feel himself slipping into unconsciousness as well, and with the last of his strength and presence of mind he dragged himself from the blazing cottage moments before the stone roof collapsed, burying the young girl forever.
And there he lay, sobbing forlornly alongside the only two children he had been able to save.
* * *
Even after three years, the dream was still preserved and repeated in near-perfect detail. The dream, along with his pounding head and unidentifiable sense of foreboding, gave him a feeling of what kind of day it was going to be.
His lids did nothing to block the early-morning sunshine that slammed into his eyes relentlessly. Pulling the snowy covers over his head was ineffectual. Slowly, he surfaced from his alcohol-permeated sleep and became aware that he was back in his room in the Palace at Kabila Valley, though he refused to open his eyes. He was distantly aware of three sharp bangs, as though an elephant was stomping down the hall. The sound came again, knocking his head with hammering pain. The pain travelled to his stomach and squeezed.
Nolle…said a voice from faraway. He felt it like blows from inside his head. He moaned and rolled over, the motion sending ocean waves of nausea through his stomach. A memory, like a caged bird, fluttered against his semi-consciousness, unclear aside from a feeling akin to his physical nausea. Uneasily he pushed the memory down, not desiring to know more about his condition other than he had had entirely too much to drink the night before. He had never drunk so much in one night in a long, long time. He wondered how he used to be able to stand to be hungover like this on a fairly regular basis.
With a jolt he realized that someone was tapping at his door, and the voice wanted him to get up. Having shown incredible restraint thus far, Xarthanias threw open the door and barged into Nolle’s room, yanking off Nolle’s covers and jerking open the white blinds to allow entrance the rest of the stabbing sunbeams. If Nolle thought it had been too bright before, now it was agonizingly so. He wished vehemently that he could conjure up a map strong enough to shatter Xarthanias’ pendant and rip him to shreds. Instead, he sent a glass pitcher hurtling against the wall by mistake, right above Xar’s head. His wretched twin effortlessly caught the volley of shards and sent them into waste basket before they could gouge even one of his eyes.
Good morning, Brother, said Xarthanias mockingly, shaking the bed a little to get Nolle’s attention. Pleasant sleep, I expect?
Nolle slit his eyes to gaze at him, then cringed and closed them again. Even thinking hurt. He said nothing, and tried desperately to return to the Land of Sleep.
Xarthanias was having none of that.
“We have been summoned to an emergency meeting in father’s sitting room,” Xarthanias said cheerfully, enjoying the grimace his voice brought to Nolle’s face. “A messenger from home arrived today, and the letter he brought has put father in quite a state.” He motioned with his hand, a habit that used to help with concentration, and pulled clothing from the closet across room to drape over Nolle’s legs. “Don’t just lie there! I am not allowed to know what it says until you come, though I don’t see why. Considering what you did last night, I thought you would be confined to your room for the rest of our stay.” Whistling loudly, Xarthanias padded out of the room. One of the shards in the waste basket rose up, but Xarthanias shut the door too quickly.
…what you did last night…
Unbidden, fragmented recollections of a ballroom balcony intruded in his thoughts. Gonyi’s insults, a metal bucket of ice water, a gargantuan bubble of the irresistible Rolan wine. He had barely been able to see through the alcohol-induced haze in his brain…could two glasses of that wine truly put him in such a state? He had only taken three, hadn’t he? It was the number that came to mind when he tried to remember, though he couldn’t be sure. It wasn’t like four glasses was that much anyway…And then he remembered what Xarthanias had said, something about an emergency meeting. His heart sank to his knees. His eyes stung.
Nolle liked the surreal feeling that wine gave him – it put him in an excellent state of mind for drawing. But this effect was usually maintained with a few sips every now and then, certainly never five glasses at once!
Despartus was on the brink of war with Rolo, and Ziyan, though a weak diplomat, had been working so hard to make peace. And Nolle had managed to throw away all of his father’s work in six glasses of wine and one foolish act of defiance.
There was nothing he could do besides beg for mercy, and not hold up this meeting.
He managed to dress himself and shuffle up the three flights of stairs to his father’s quarters, one floor beneath the chambers of King Cuahalm. His head didn’t implode as he hoped it would. One of the palace chamberlains opened the door for him.
It was like being hit with a heat wave when he stepped through. He felt the bombardment of his father’s rage before he saw it, and when he did it was all he could do not to turn and run. Trembling slightly, and trying to keep from hunching over from his headache, nausea, and shame, Nolle stepped into the sitting room from the entrance and appraised the scene. He felt like he was twelve again. Four chairs arranged around the fireplace where Queen Arlynaura, Xarthanias, and King Ziyan were seated. The final chair waited menacingly for Nolleban Cheva.
In the King’s clenched left fist was a cracking wine glass ready to shatter, and clutched in his right was a crumpled letter. What a brilliant shade of purple the King’s face was! Against the backdrop of the stark white room it was like violets on a summer day, and his lips were sky blue. Xarthanias looked amused and their mother looked grim, and Nolle was frozen in place. His father was a tall, slight, fair-haired man but at the moment he appeared as the giants of Udeno. Nolle’s mind was blank except for the sight of his father’s apoplectic face and …what you did last night…what you did last night…what you did last night… running through his head three times for every beat of his racing heart.
The fiery fury prevented Nolle from moving when his father ordered him to sit down; his mouth opened as though he wanted to speak, and then his eyes squeezed shut and a small groan escaped. His headache surged, sevenfold. Head swimming, he forced his legs to move him toward the empty chair beside his mother, who was sitting next to the seething King with Xarthanias on the other end.
Glittering perilously near the fire was the envelope the letter had come in. The seal of the Siyemene Empire, the butterfly with musical notes for markings, was broken jaggedly in two. They sat a moment in silence. Queen Arlynaura finally placed her hand on the King’s arm, and he took several deep breaths until his face was almost back to its normal colour. With a quivering hand he passed the letter to Xarthanias, who quickly scanned it, and then it came to Nolle.
Dear King Ziyan Berkelias Cheva of Despartus, Pessolanius:
It has been brought to my attention that you have given birth to the Heir Apparent of the Tenth Royal Dynasty. I extend my fondest and most sincere congratulations that your country has managed to survive for this long since King Thegin Fin Despartes. I do hope your family is well, especially your son, Prince Xarthanias Shaethan Cheva of Despartus. I understand that it is your tradition to indulge in many Ceremonies and Festivals of Ten, and in keeping with your young country’s traditions I would like to put forth some of my own Ultimatums of Ten pertaining to this generation’s pilgrimage to Eriaz, Vaupen Island.
To reiterate upon this historical agreement: The Island Pilgrimage is embarked upon by each subsequent heir to the Desparatan throne to honour the covenant made before the birth of Despartus. This covenant was between Thegin Fin Despartes, later to be the first King of Despartus, and Queen Pavliona I of Vaupen Island, Siyemeir. It was forged in lieu of a total takeover of Despartus, and is upheld to this day to ensure the power remains with Despartus. This agreement ensures that the precious substances in the region of Despartus are shared with its mother-country (Vaupen Island) and are preserved by the Despartans from greedy purging of its powerful treasures. It is meant to ensure the continuation of goodwill between Vaupen Island of Siyemeir and Despartus of Pessolanius.
In spirit of the Honour of Ten, this generation’s pilgrimage shall be made within the year of the Ten Full Moons. Your Heir Apparent and his escorts shall be expected to arrive at my Acropolis before the tenth day of the tenth month of that year. Considering your devastating oversight of a timely arrival on your Pilgrimage, King Ziyan of Despartus, I will not hesitate in the event that your son is late to unleash the war that’s been a long time coming. Your father’s good standing kept me from retaliating against you, but as you have not redeemed yourself I will have no grievances this time.
In addition, I will be expecting a tenfold sum of the original quantity of alms: tenfold amounts of all the crystals, metals, gases, liquids, herbs, minerals, jewels, etc., due. If my requirements of time and benefaction are not met with the utmost care, you shall pay more than this. Consider this a threat of the sincerest form on behalf of me and my people.
I wish your son happy travelling and a timely arrival, and may he prove more honourable than you did, King Ziyan of Despartus.
Queen Avalinia Hinda Eleode XII of Vaupen Island, Siyemeir
Nolle saw the words, and though they were clearly written, he didn`t understand. Vaguely, he remembered hearing of a rite such as that, indirectly, not part of a lesson but in a passive conversation. Having regained most of his composure (his eyes still blazed like the fire), the King explained.
As it was said in Queen Avalinia’s letter, it is customary for the heir of Despartus to journey to Vaupen Island to deliver an offering of Desparatan goods, as per the terms agreed upon centuries ago by Thegin Fin Despartes and the Queen of Vaupen Island at the time.
Nolle blinked. But this is the Year of the Ten Full Moons. The tenth day of the tenth month—that’s hardly twelve weeks away!
He knows that, Nolleban, Xarthanias chastised condescendingly.
I still don’t understand, Nolle insisted. What agreement?
The King took a breath. Since it seems that the time has come, I suppose I must tell you the story now.
The twins were nearly overcome by sleep enduring their father’s dry story. He had few pictures to show for it. The abridged rendition is as follows:
Thegin Fin Despartes was a famous scientist/explorer who lived long ago on Vaupen Island south and slightly west of Despartus. His prolificacy was such that Queen Pavliona I (Queen of Siyemeir at the time that Despartus was constituted) could find none better suited to the task of sailing to find new lands for her to claim. It took much persuasion, but Thegin Fin eventually did sail out, and discovered the scientific oddities known today as Revetu Island and Despartus. When Pavliona arrived, she and her crew of miners made quick work of Revetu Island to dig up the precious resources, leaving it in ruin, and when they moved on to the mainland called Pessolanius, they were met with a resistance made up of Thegin Fin himself, his son Sabre, and the warriors from all the Native tribes of Despartus. They were able to keep the Vaupian intruders at bay for a small amount of time, during which Pavliona sent for her military. However, the messengers she sent were in disagreement with her greedy treatment of the strange and beautiful land, and instead rallied the people of Vaupen Island to sail to the new land and protect it from their selfish and cruel queen. Vaupen Island was known for always being ill-esteemed toward their monarchs—their history is saturated with uprisings and assassinations and regicides—and Pavliona I was considered one of the vilest queens for her extraordinary obsession for getting what she wanted. On the shores of Pessolanius, Pavliona and her military were greatly outnumbered as they faced the Natives and their fellow Vaupians. They fought for many months until most of the Queen’s soldiers had been killed or taken as prisoners of war, and the Pessolanian side was still strong in numbers and in spirit. The account in the library leaves the story at this: with no way to win, Pavliona was defeated, and Thegin Fin had managed to conquer Despartus for the people of Vaupen Island, saving the land. What remained unwritten and recounted aloud were the conditions of Pavliona’s surrender.
When Pavliona had first come to Pessolanius with intentions of digging it up, before the resistance, Thegin Fin had attempted to strike a deal with her. The terms of the agreement were that she would leave the mainland as it was, considering she had already pillaged Revetu Island, and in exchange for peace he would send regular gifts of jewels and other Desparatan resources as a show of ongoing good will. Pavliona only accepted the offer after her humiliating defeat, and by then it was more of an act of charity on Fin’s part. And so, the Desparatan heir from every subsequent generation led an expedition to Vaupen Island baring precious gifts. Over time, it became a rite of passage for the heir precedent to assuming the throne.
The custom must be perpetuated! concluded the King when the story was finally over. A sort of hysterical panic seeped into his essence, threatening to flare into heated rage again. I know this; I do not want a war; but the Good Queen does not seem to realize you, Xarthanias, are only seventeen! The Pilgrimage is usually only done at the age of twenty-five, at the very least, right before Coronation. He ran a thick hand over his face. I was a little young when I went at twenty-two, but you have no training at all for surviving on your own and making a journey and commanding a ship. There was so much I intended to teach you, so much you still need to learn. I never dreamed you would be going so soon, never dreamed it. With another unconscious squeeze of his hand, the fractured wineglass shattered into several pieces, scraping the King’s palm. Before the pieces could hit the ground, Ziyan directed them into the fire one by one, shaking his head and muttering under his breath about war on all sides. Now he was pale as the room.
But father, said Xarthanias with a touch of conciliation, I will have Nolle with me. He excels at solving problems, and he can get us out of anything. Nolle was almost touched at his twin’s acknowledgment of his superior reasoning skills, but he knew that Xarthanias saw this as another one of his grand adventures. The grandest yet and one he couldn’t get in trouble for to boot. He was therefore saying whatever he thought would seal the deal for him. Nolle had no intention of going, since he didn’t feel like dying three years short of adulthood. That Xarthanias was trying to make Nolle’s presence a condition of permission to go on his adventure piqued Nolle’s irritation.
Xarthanias, you do not understand! boomed the King, making Nolle jump, jarring his pulsing head. I had almost all the training and preparation I could get, but I barely made it back alive! I lost most of my Escort, and as you read, almost brought war down on this country because we were almost too late. Rarely were any of those expeditions successful with fewer than a dozen calamities. It’s as if those journeys are rigged for disaster! If you two go, you will have to leave very soon, and I can’t even promise you will survive, let alone get Avalinia her gifts! A vein could be seen throbbing in the King’s forehead. Nolle had never seen his father so worked up before. …the letter…has put Father in quite a state. What an understatement! Understandable though it was, the fierce outrage was quite unnerving. For Nolle, whose aching head made it difficult to concentrate, the news of his brother’s looming demise hadn’t quite sunk in.
Queen Arlynaura was better at containing her emotions, but a tear slipped down her cheek as her husband foretold the deaths of her sons.
If we go? questioned Xarthanias. Father, we must go. Despartus depends on it.
Such a grim decision: certain death or fatal war. Would the King be so upset unless he knew the Queen’s army would defeat them? But why would it, if it couldn’t all those centuries ago?
King Ziyan glared at Xarthanias, whose self-sacrificing words weren’t fooling him. We will discuss this at home, Xarthanias. For now, we must leave immediately. The King rose from his chair, dismissing the meeting. Queen Arlynaura and Xarthanias returned right away to their rooms, but Nolle paused a moment at the second floor landing to glimpse the start of a fresh snowfall. Tracks of people, horses and sleighs were losing their shape under the piling flakes. No one had even mentioned Nolle’s prank. Not having the repercussions to deal with made him rueful to leave the snowy wonderland.
A hand closed over his shoulder, before Nolle could sense who it was.
My son, intoned the king, trying to sound stern. But now that his wind was spent, his eyes drooped, and his words were empty of inflection. Do you know what this means?
That Xarthanias will die and I will be the tenth king, Nolle replied glumly, pulling away from his father and leaning on the railing.
No, Nolleban. Do you understand what you did last night?
Nolle said nothing.
You ruined all the progress we made with Eram. You should have seen Cuahalm…And now we have to leave, so soon.
I can talk to the king, father. I don’t know what got into me…Besides eight glasses of wine.
No! The thought echoed off the walls a hundred times. Do you know what I had to go through to convince him that he shouldn’t talk to you? His version of talking means stringing you up a pole and letting you crystalize!
Nolle flinched. As if he didn’t deserve it.
Ziyan shook his head. You and Fredric…he didn’t finish. And now we have to leave so soon, and we haven’t had a chance to smooth things over with Eram.
Well, why don’t you and Mother stay? You don’t need to come with us, you know.
ABSOLUTELY NOT! The king whirled and grabbed Nolle’s arms. For the first time, Nolle realized that he was taller than his father now, by almost three inches. Nonetheless, Nolle shrank from his father’s gaze. I need to be there to oversee your training. Something needs to be done to make sure you two at least have a chance of making it to Siyemeir alive. Nolle tried to pull away from his father’s blood-constricting grip, and he was finally released. I am facing war on both sides, Nolle. My one potential ally is now an enemy again. This one is not worth losing the two of you, even if you are complete idiots.
Ziyan turned and stormed away, yelling at attendants to start packing up their things.
On second thought, Nolle couldn’t wait to return to the soothing warmth of his tropical home.
* * *
Chimley spread his arms wide, inhaling the morning air. It was good to be up with the sun again.
Early morning dew beaded on the leaves and on the grass, and the coolness of the night still clung to the air. Some of the night birds had not yet turned in for the day, and their calls were the only thing to pierce the morning stillness. Chimley’s feet were a silent presence on the soft ground as he drifted through the forest. His dark hair fell in his eyes when he stopped to listen intently to the echoes of the woods. He let it shade his eyes, his blood boiling as he recalled his last haircut. His father refused to let it grow past shoulder height. Every few months, despite his attempts to circumvent his father, Chimley found himself hunted down and bound, kicking and biting, drugged, and sheared like a sheep.
This year would be different, though. Chimley had the gift now, and nothing, not even his father, could make him get a haircut ever again.
The Teideko were ghosts in the forest, and only one attuned to their routines would recognize their soft noises. This and the fact that he could feel their presences with his mind. They had already been up for hours, tidying things up and getting children ready for the day. Chimley continued on.
His father had been gone three days, and he did not know where the twins were. The only thing he had been able to ascertain from spying was that the king and queen and the princes had gone away to some far off land for a vacation or a meeting or whatnot, and he did not know when they would be back. His agitation had kept him up most of the night, and when dawn began to break, he couldn’t see the point in pretending he was going to get any sleep.
Soon, the lazy Haqian River became visible. It was communally filled with warm water from the many Ologo Mountain hot springs. Far from the cover of the trees, its grassy banks extended wide except during flood season when the river engulfed the space, making the trees tremble in fear of drowning.
Sitting on the bank, wearing absolutely nothing as far as Chimley could see, was his Teideko friend Pgeden, watching the river intently. His long, tanned back looked even darker in the shade from his body, and his tangled hair was like midnight. Tensely, Chimley crept into the nearest stand of trees, forcing himself to calm down before he proceeded. His shadow would not give him away this time, and he couldn’t sabotage this advantage. Silent like the night.
Pgeden shifted, and Chimley stiffened, holding his breath, but all he was doing was reaching for something in the grass beside him. He had not sensed Chimley’s presence yet? Teidekos were hardly telepathic; they just had an eerie way of knowing things. Encouraged by Pgeden’s oblivion, Chimley sank down onto his hands and knees and slunk as deftly as he could toward the warrior. When he was less than a foot away and still hadn’t been detected, he positioned his feet under himself and pounced.
Pgeden yelled but was cut off as they both tumbled headlong into the water. Chimley was shaking with laughter as he swam to the surface, bubbles swirling like little diamonds as the golden sunlight hit them. Pgeden was swearing at him in whatever language the Teideko spoke, but he was smiling. He reached out and slapped Chimley upside the head.
Chimley was an arrogant, egotistical young man who rarely showed any emotion besides cold disdain, but something in the young Teideko warrior had made kindred spirits out of them. They were so much alike, and both recognized that the other was imperious; they therefore had nothing to prove to each other. They spent the majority of their time competing over a barter or another in pursuits such as racing or fighting, and once in a while they would undertake a building project together. They almost never spoke, as Chimley wouldn’t understand Pgeden anyway. He sent messages telepathically, and sometimes Pgeden would nod or try to sign back, but it was a mostly a useless endeavour because they were always doing something.
“I got you, I got you good!” Chimley crowed, forgetting to use telepathy, though he knew Pgeden would understand. Still laughing, he sent Pgeden an imploring image. Pgeden rolled his eyes at Chimley, a very non-Teidekan gesture. Without showing any sign of consent to Chimley’s request, he started off down the river, barely disturbing the water with long, powerful strokes. Normally Chimley would have attempted the same grace and fluidity, but as Pgeden had cheated again, Chimley dove in, and was soon in hot pursuit. It had been a long time since he had seen Pgeden, as he could only go anywhere when his anally retentive father was off on one of his mysterious trips. His father’s absence always put him in good spirits, and he even won the race. Pgeden and Chimley crawled out of the water, Pgeden frowning a little. Chimley’s smile had the grandeur of the Palace at Rahd.
“You may choose,” Pgeden said haltingly, concentrating on the words. He walked off, his naked skin glistening. Chimley glided after, eager to claim a prize. Pgeden crossed the border where the trees stood vigil, striding directly to the tree he wanted. It was identical to the others in every way; bigger around than a horse was long, green with moss, branches strong enough most of the way up to build a secret tree house. Pgeden ran his fingers over the wizened bark before pulling open a secret door to reveal a hidden compartment containing a cache of weapons, remedies, and instruments crafted by Teideko hands. Chimley was interested in neither the bottles of oil nor the gardening tools; his eyes were drawn instantly to the neat pile of poison darts, vedelite daggers, and slingshots, among other things. He selected a dagger, feeling its weight, its sharpness. Once it had passed his inspection, he turned to tell Pgeden he would have it, but Pgeden was gone.
Shrugging and slightly disappointed, Chimley shut up the cache and sprinted silently into the sun-dappled forest.