Sacrifice

Chapter four: Preparations

It seemed that no sooner had Ziyan read the heavy letter that they had said their farewells and were crossing the long, icy viaduct to the mainland of Pessolanius. They passed through the kingdoms of Cora, Denou, and Feldanra before reaching the boarders of Despartus, and then it was a half-day’s journey to the Palace at Rahd. They only stopped to sleep when the horses could go no further, often travelling during the night, eating along the way. On the way up, they had stopped for rest in various villages, and any palaces they came across, but this time they did no such thing.  It had taken them nearly two weeks to make the trip from Despartus, and they made the return trip in just less than five days.

Before leaving, Nolle had tried to find Xarthanias only to turn a corner and catch him with one of the Rolan princesses he had noticed at the ball. Nolle thought of sweet Belladia and was momentarily blinded by anger, but he had turned away without a word. No matter what happened, Xarthanias would always be Xarthanias.

As they trotted homeward, Xarthanias, Nolle, and King Ziyan had continued arguing about the Island Pilgrimage. They acknowledged that there was no choice but to keep the agreement and adhere to the Queen’s demands; they were in a time of peace after the ten-year war with the neighbouring kingdom of Valota that ended less than twenty years before, and another war was not a happy prospect. Nolle had reluctantly agreed to go as well, if only because he knew he could keep his head better than Xarthanias.

It was the same principal his father put forth when demanding that, even if it only helped in a small way, Nolle and Xarthanias would go through intensive lessons in survival and other things needed to make the journey. They would learn as much as they could, starting with the most essential and working their way down, in the time it took for the miners, scientists, botanists, and others to locate the proper amounts of each of the required Pessolanian resources. Some were so rare that it would prove to be quite the challenge to find enough, and the King didn’t know how long it would take or even if they would succeed. The king spread his supplies among the others in the procession and rode hard ahead, arriving a day and a half before the rest of them to begin with the emergency preparations.

Now, as the Queen, the Princes, and their escort trotted abreast to the dawn up to the palace, Nolle indulged in tentative deep breaths of heady, moist morning air. His smoke-damaged lungs coughed only a little as they were wrapped in humid warmth. He smiled warmly at the palace growing out of the trees, and though there was much to be done, he could hear his bed calling softly to him in breathy tones.

Before Nolle and Xarthanias had a chance to dismount, Queen Arlynaura told them to go directly to the palace study, and leave their horses to the hands. Nolle’s shoulder’s sagged as he gazed in the direction of his room, and a yawn escaped. Nonetheless, he strode alongside Xarthanias after the Queen as far as the stairwell leading to the study, and then they continued on by themselves. There was a fierce determination in his bloodshot eyes, but Xarthanias’s fatigue was noticeable as well. The ride home had given them the chance to ponder the mission that lay before them, and now that the ride was over the implications of what they were about to do began to sink in. Step by step they made their reluctant way up the stairs, faces grim.

A stained-glass skylight high above them glowed slightly with the awakening sun, adding colour to the otherwise sleepy pallor of the palace. Though few people could begin to tell them apart by just their faces, Nolle couldn’t see much of himself in Xarthanias. They had the same hair and eye colour, and basic shape, but Xarthanias’s eyelashes were thicker and longer, Nolle’s lips more full. When Nolle looked at his brother he saw not a mirror image, but an imitation born of an artist’s brush; remarkably similar but differentiable.

But only to the competent eye.

When the boys were welcomed into the King’s study, their father looked at Nolle and then his brother, greeting them, Xarthanias, Nolleban. Xarthanias flicked an amused look Nolle’s way.

Father, they replied. Xarthanias took a seat in an elaborate wooden chair without waiting to be invited, and while King Ziyan glared at him, Nolle followed suite. The King sighed, evidently deciding what he had to say was more important than chastising them. The windows of the study almost covered the entire southeast wall, but a line of trees blocked the sun from illuminating the room, and so three torches and a chandelier were still burning. To keep himself awake, Nolle agitatedly played with the flame of the nearest torch with his mind. He could sense the sharp heat, but of course felt no pain.

King Ziyan leaned back in his chair, regarding his sons with unreadable bloodshot eyes. If Nolle and Xarthanias were tired, the King was on the brink of sudden unconsciousness. His eyes were red, blond hair entirely dishevelled, and hands trembling slightly as he shuffled the mountains of papers on his desks. It seemed he was too tired to concentrate, but he made a subtle motion with his hand and behind him a panel in the wall creakingly flipped over to reveal a huge detailed map. Pessolanius, Cremavium (hail the land of lore) and their surrounding islands were displayed. King Ziyan spent half an hour detailing their journey, emphasizing that it was imperative to make it across the Cremavian Sea before the six-month stormy season. Even though the gatherers had not yet finished their work, if they departed in a week and travelled swiftly they would just make it.

It’s the shortest and straightest course, but also the most dangerous, the King warned them. Very few people travel it. I have not. No one that I know ever has.

If they had been home when the letter arrived, they would have had more than two weeks’ lead over where they were now, but they had to make do with what time they had. After promising them they would have their own maps when they left, and telling Xarthanias to make haste selecting an Escort, the King ordered them to get some rest, because intensive training would begin after dinner.

I wish I could come with you…drifted the king’s thought before they left the study. But it is a rite of passage to go on your own, no protection whatsoever. But you are still so young… He rubbed his eyes and yawned, chin drifting toward his chest before jerking up again. With that their father turned to his arduous work.

* * *

Xarthanias woke Nolle from what seemed like only five minutes of sleep. They washed and dressed for dinner that lasted twenty minutes and was only attended by the King and Queen and the Princes, and then they were whisked to the fifth-floor study to learn about the forest: edible and poisonous plants and insects, the best way to find certain game and fowl. Xarthanias had already chosen his Escort: apart from Nolle, there was Belladia and Osarius Yugo. Osarius and Fredric were a package deal, and Fredric was invaluable anyway.

King Ziyan had gone with almost twenty of his followers, partly to protect the precious cargo, but Xarthanias reasoned that fewer people meant faster travelling, fewer mutinies, and fewer people to keep track of. They would also be less noticeable and a smaller target for potential thieves. The king grudgingly acknowledged that it was smart thinking.

Being a woman, Belladia went through additional training on mending and healing. Women were an essential part of the Escort, but usually there were at least three or four, not just one. Traditions and propriety were overshadowed by the urgency of the situation.

Outdoors in the approaching twilight, they were put through challenging telepathy training regimens to improve their telekinesis, so they could track, catch and kill their food. The maps they were trained to create were so complicated, they weren’t sure they could replicate them when the need arose. Finally, they were simply taught to adapt the mapping they had already learned, and hope it would be enough. They would have to travel as lightly as possible to save time, and so hunting and gathering were necessary skills. They all failed almost all the activities, which put their instructors in states of terror over how the King would react. They were drilled over and over and worked late into the night, and by the time they retired for bed they had only improved a little. They couldn’t believe that they hadn’t yet been home for a few days.

Their lives continued to revolve around training. Nolle’s fingers were often blue and he grew short of breath noticeably more often, which he blamed on too much drawing and not much exercise. His eyes blacked out more than once and he was forced to compensate using mental spacing, probing with his mind to find his way around. He noticed strange red blemishes on his stomach and legs, which would alternately clear up and reappear. He felt sick inside, seeing this, but they were not painful or even itchy, and he could mostly ignore them.

A week later, the miners and scientists managed to scrounge up the necessary resources, the Escort had managed to at least pass, if not excel at, their training, and they were all as ready as they were going to be.

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