Chapter twenty-eight: The Shadows Return
Alapar wished that she could be only a body.
She was the only one not asleep in their bathwater. She played with the bubbles, enjoying an unparalleled sensation of bliss as the water washed over her cuts and bruises and soreness and stiffness and grime that went right to her soul. Taking in her old home threatened to suffocate her and pull her apart. As it happened, she wasn’t sure what to feel first. She remembered how her mother used to bathe her and brush oil into her long black hair, a memory that threatened to collapse her composure.
Her mother, saying goodbye to her, the little girl who didn’t know that it would be for the last time. Her father, trying so hard to save her on the Belt, where she was too cowardly to help. Cowardice that ended up saving her for the price of the last parent she had left. Prat, trying to save her family, and it had all been for nothing. His dark brown eyes, trying to call her back home.
Not much had changed, really, from the little she had seen while being propelled down the halls by the servants. The palace still reeked of the arrogance she remembered.
Prat! Prat hadn’t changed a bit! She remembered days before the darkness that were painted in shades of gaiety and silliness, when Prat had to save her from the schemes she concocted. Sometimes they both ended up being punished by the Dedicated Childminder. Alapar remembered when she tried to build an elevator up to the kitchen window so they could steal chocolate truffles, and before it had been completed, Prat had tried to use it and it ended up collapsing on his father’s head.
She managed to laugh around the lump in her throat, making Shifra, one of the concubines attending her bath, give her a wide smile in return. “It’s good to be back, isn’t it, Your Highness?”
Alapar straightened her expression. “I’m not a princess, Lady Shifra. My title was stripped, remember?”
Shifra continued to smile as she worked the dirt out from between Alapar’s toes. Alapar noticed she was holding her breath. She sighed, smiling inwardly to avoid another comment, and leaned her head back against the tub. “Alas, how have things been since I have…left? Does Prat wear the crown well?”
Erieda, another of Prat’s concubines who was dabbing ointment on the rashes on Alapar’s face and arms, paused a moment, and Shifra glanced at her briefly. “Well…”
Alapar raised her eyebrows. She remembered all the sacrifices Prat had made for her, all the risks he had taken to try and save her family, and rescue her and her father even after her mother was dead. He had a way of inspiring others to action. Call it persuasion, call it manipulation, but she knew that he could change the way people saw the world.
“Of course he wears the crown well.” Shifra did not sound convincing at all.
Alapar tried to remember whether it was alright to pursue the topic. Was it slander of the king? She had known Shifra and Erieda a little when she was a child, but she was a woman now. She wanted to know what had been going on, even if it didn’t match her last vision. She was surprised by her curiosity. It had been so long since she had engaged in…gossip? Yes, that was the word. She wanted to know everything.
“Truly? I remember my cousin to have been a little…wild.” It wasn’t quite true, but she vaguely remembered that the women of the court tended to exaggerate. She figured she may as well get into the habit.
“Not wild, really,” muttered Erieda. “No, he has been quite bored of late. We all have been.”
And neither of them would say anything further about it. Alapar stifled a little huff of annoyance. Once she was finished her bath, they led her to the third floor to her old room.
She froze when she saw the door. She could hear the memories pounding, trying desperately to come out and torment her and trample her and smother her. Her face paled and turned cold, her hands clammy, and her heart thumped painfully. “No!” she cried, whirling away and lurching to the other side of the hall.
Hands on her face, she heaved quivering breaths, her eyes burning, threatening tears. Calm down, she tried to tell herself. Calm down, you’re acting like a fool. Erieda grasped her arm, trying to shake her into paying attention. “It’s alright, Princess, come on, let’s pick another room.” Shifra, who was taller than both of them by a head, walked on Alapar’s other side, shielding her from the door of shadows.
But she was saved from contemplating it further by the person who welcomed her into the other room.
“Nari!” Alapar yelled. After a moment of stiffened shock, she launched herself at her old friend, knocking them both onto the floor. Fie composure! Nari was laughing, showering Alapar with kisses and helping her up. Alapar had never felt more enjoyment from feeling like a child, had never felt more alive. Passing years hadn’t erased the steadiness, the kindness from Nari’s face, and she seemed to have grown more beautiful. Or perhaps it was the joy of seeing a beloved face after so many years. “I’ve missed you so much, Nari,” Alapar whispered, holding tight to the other woman’s waist as she pulled her to her feet.
“I didn’t want to believe it when they told me you were back,” Nari said, her grin too big for her face. “And that’s Princess Nari to you.”
There was only one way that could have happened. “Prat married you?” Alapar said incredulously.
Nari brushed back her black hair to reveal a bright orange jewel, stating that she was second queen. Impossibly, her smile seemed to grow bigger.
Alapar wasn’t sure how to feel about that. She should bow, she knew, her head level with her waist, but this was Nari, whom she had gone swimming with and picked burs and leeches off of and shared many secrets with. Nari quickly dispelled the moment, however, by grabbing Alapar’s hand and dragging her deeper into the room. Sitting her down behind one of the mirrored vanity tables. “Come on, Ladies!” Nari called, “I’ll do her hair, you take care of the rest of her.”
Shifra and Erieda floated around the room, taking boxes of different powders and perfumes and brushes that Alapar couldn’t hope to name from drawers and cupboards. They set to work, and the rhythmic pulling and poking and brushing threatened to pull Alapar down into sleep. It pulled the hardships of the past few days, the past few years even, out of her like tar, and for a moment she felt light as air.
Nari would tell her how Prat was doing. “So you married my cousin!” Alapar started awkwardly, breaking the concentrated exuberant silence and floundering for a way to bring up the subject with poise and grace. “How has he been? Is he as good a king as I thought he’d be?”
Unlike Shifra and Erieda, who had stiffened, Nari laughed and rolled her eyes. Her Caredish accent really came out for a second “Oh, Al, it isn’t about being a good king anymore. Really, we don’t need a king now, he is just there to look pretty. And surely you remember how…er, flamboyant he always was.”
Yes, she remembered, and was reminded again when she saw him earlier how dramatic he still was. Still, keeping her eyes from the mirror, she asked cautiously, “How do you mean?”
“Well, for example,” Nari said, patting Alapar’s hair finally and beckoning her to stand to be dressed, “he always insists on the Dedicated Herald making announcements when he is planning on going outside, so the commoners can come pay respects to him and kiss his hands.” Alapar wasn’t sure how to feel about this. She raised her arms so Shifra could slip something mesh-like and white over her head, though she was too busy mulling this little tidbit over to determine what the garment was.
“Well, he did like to be the centre of attention when he wasn’t skulking around,” Alapar commented, then cringed, realizing what a thing that was to say.
Nari laughed again, though it was a little stiffer this time. “And I guess you will see another example at dinner.”
Alapar remembered the ishaleyn. She remembered years ago, a few weeks before her life fell apart, some honored guests from Csilea came for a visit on their way to the Port. It was a tradition for the wives of the king to dance for honored guests. Alapar recalled the flowing trails of silk and undulation of colours as the women floated about, swaying gently like reeds in a pond. She had always wanted to be one of the dancers, graceful and paid attention to by everyone in the room, cloth going down to hide her feet so that she appeared to be flying, drifting above her own imagination.
They saw her smiling dreamily to herself, and Nari made a sound of annoyance. “Sure, it was wonderful when you were around,” she said a little disgruntledly, “but Prat made some changes since then.”
“Oh, what are you complaining about, Princess?” asked Erieda, speaking for the first time, securing a pin to Alapar’s…whatever she was wearing. “You and the other queens get to keep your clothes on.”
Alapar was shocked. “He makes you dance naked?”
Nari gave Erieda a look that was both amused and sympathetic. “No one dances naked, the Lady exaggerates. It’s just the vestiges are a little…”
“Humiliating!” supplied Shifra.
“Attention-grabbing,” corrected Nari firmly. “For the ladies, anyway. It’s true, not much has changed for us three queens. We still have our little performance at the end of the concubines’ dance. You’ll see.”
Alapar thought about this. She remembered life in the palace, with all its rules – rules that she only learned about while being punished by the Childminder, and usually forgot soon after – and then life on the Belt, where the rules were designed for nothing more than survival, not social image or royal grace or even politeness. The only rule her father had that wasn’t meant to keep her safe was the rule to never bother him when he was working, and to always keep everything in order. They created and discovered their own rules, of science and logic. Did the palace people know that there was a life more exciting that lay just beyond the northern hills? Did they know that there was more to life than parties and clothes and gossip and war?
“If you do not want to dance, then just talk to Prat,” Alapar suggested. They were finished with her and she at length peered into the mirror. She recognized the outfit immediately, and wished she hadn’t looked. There was a collection of white and gold jewels fixed into her hair, which was now so curly that it barely brushed her shoulders where it wasn’t confined by the quasi-tiara. Somehow her face looked clean and free of the memories of the past few weeks, and though her eyes were tired, their darkness was brought out nicely by the emerald necklace she wore. However, her face barely kept her attention for a few seconds. She stared down at her body. She was draped in white silk, a dress with a fluted skirt that went halfway down her calves in the back and a little higher than her knees in the front. The bodice billowed slightly under the delicate, spring green sash wrapped just below her breasts, tied in a bow at the small of her back. The ends of the sash trailed out behind her and nearly brushed the floor. There was only one shoulder, and coming off of it was a scarf-like trail of silk attached to the entire back of the dress. It followed the curve of her back where it dipped below her other arm and ended in two tails that were a little shorter than the green tails. And sewn in patterns of swirls and drops were a select smattering of pearls and diamonds and other gems that Alapar had forgotten the name of in her moment of horror. She was in her mother’s old dress.
“I am sorry, miss,” said Shifra softly, and Nari nodded with misty eyes. “King’s request.”
Vaguely, she wondered why he would want to do this to her. What was the sense behind this? Swallowing, she quickly turned away from the mirror, tilting her chin proudly. “Beautiful,” she tried to say, but it came out in a barely audible whisper. She refused to look at them, instead concentrating on slipping into the delicate silk shoes that went with the dress. She was the same size her mother had been in her forties. “Anyway,” she continued a little hoarsely, after she could no longer pretend to be having trouble with her shoes. “You aren’t animals, like the dancing tigers or horses. You are people, and why should another person be able to tell you to act like an animal?”
“We can’t just not dance, Alapar,” Nari snapped, frowning at her. Alapar flinched. But she wouldn’t back down. If she was going to be living here now, she didn’t want to have to watch people twirling their lives away if she didn’t have to.
“Nari,” she snapped back. “Trust me, you will not get into trouble for simply taking your concerns to him. As kids there was nothing I couldn’t talk Prat into, or out of. Maerej is gone, we should not have to pretend to be slaves to any man!”
Shifra and Erieda seemed to be considering this, but shied away at Nari’s gaze.
“You were children, Alapar,” Nari insisted, taking Alapar’s hands. “And he’s a man now, and the king. Things have changed since you left.” Nari sat Alapar down on the sofa by the deepest wall of the room. “You have no power, Alapar. Erieda and Shifra have more authority than you. You’re just a courtier now.”
Alapar clenched Nari’s hands and looked deep into her friends eyes. “Friendship crosses all barriers, Nari, social included. You should have seen how happy Prat was to see me. He embraced me, even though…well, Shifra and Erieda, you know how I stunk.”
“You were a bit fresh, Princess,” Erieda conceded.
“Years have gone by, Nari, but you and I, we are still friends. Prat and I, we are still family, and he is still the one who loved me so much he killed his own father for trying to harm my family and me. And because of his bravery, I’m going to be brave like him, and try and save you from being dehumanized.”
Nari laughed and stood up, reaching for an armclasp on the table. The Renians were not conservative with their jewellery, and the silver arm clasp with curlicues shaped like butterflies went nicely with the green-and-white dress. “You don’t even sound like yourself anymore, Alapar. The years have hardened you. Well, they’ve hardened your cousin too, even if they have spoiled him in the process. But alright, if you think that you can keep him from executing us – he has been craving a dramatic execution, mind you – then please do.”
Shifra and Erieda gave little cheers. The three formed a procession around Alapar, and they strode stately out the door. Now Alapar had nervousness to worry about along with everything else including her dress. She smiled furtively at Nari, however, and finally she could admit that it was good to be home.
Belladia nearly cried when she saw the warm water, the scented soaps and colorful oils. She had not realized just how dirty she had been until she was clean, her skin cleansed of grime and crust, scratches and scrapes free to heal. Even worries about Chimley, which had diffused onto her from Osarius, washed away, and she forgot about him entirely. The bath house was divided into five rooms, each with five baths that of late were fed from wells. When the baths weren’t being used for cleaning people they were used for cleaning clothes. No one was bathing that day, and so everyone got their own room, and two of Prat’s concubines tended each of them. It was their traditional duty to bathe honoured guests of the king. Alapar was led to a separate, private bathroom that the high royals like Prat and his favored wives used. In the halls and in the bathhouse, whispers bounced off each other excitedly.
“Alapar, the Princess, little Alapar has returned.” The apathetic palace had come to life as everyone rushed to prepare the extravagant feast Prat had ordered.
Belladia wasn’t sure what to think of this new turn of events. Alapar, a Renian princess? Maybe she should have treated her better. But her guilt was lost in the fatigue that overtook her, lost with the energy that was drawn out of her by the exquisite warm water. Soap that smelled good enough to eat. She would feel guilty when she woke up…
It was all the servants could do to wake the weary travellers and drag them from their steamy baths to get dressed. Unfortunately, being dressed was not something one could do while sleeping.
No one had realized quite how tired they were until they saw the high, soft beds with the warm blankets, a fire burning in the grate just opposite. It was a little before sunset by the time the Escort was done their baths and getting dressed in the fine clothing that Prat had ordered for them. It was too cold for flannel mesh, and so they wore silk, delicious silk that wasn’t full of holes and didn’t irritate their weary skin. No one was quite sure what to delight in first, being clean, the beds, or the soothing clothes.
The unanimous choice was bed.
As it so happened, they had only the chance to gaze for a few minutes but not to touch – they were in their rooms only long enough to don their last vestiges. Once again they were awakened from their delicious fantasies and dragged from paradise.
No one had realized quite how hungry they were until they smelled the food.
The five of them met up in the hallways, escorted by about twenty people, the concubines and other servants. Alapar came down last, drifting down the stairwell like an angel of green and white. Everyone, especially Fredric, did a double take when they saw her. Her hair floated around her in thick springy curls, her face was perfect and her dark eyes bright. The white and the green were a shocking improvement over the dirty greyish garb they had gotten used to so quickly. She still had an aloof, watchful expression, and she looked rigid yet content at the same time. Fredric felt a nudge to his side and looked down at Nolle, who thought to him, Close your mouth, you fool.
Fredric flushed and did so. “So that’s why you were so afraid of coming here! The horror of fine clothing and decency.” He couldn’t resist grinning and reaching out to pull on one of her curls, which caused all three of her attendants to reach forward and slap him.
She glared at him coldly.
“You look very nice, Princess,” said Belladia, dipping her head. This time Alapar blushed. Fredric found himself staring again, an uncomfortable feeling growing in his chest.
He was dressed in buttery yellow silk, a golden cape about his neck clasped with a green gem of some sort. Xarthanias wore red, Nolle wore blue, Osarius green. Belladia was a vision in violet, her golden hair swept up in a sort of bun with her bangs hanging loose over her eyes. To Alapar it was strange seeing these people in such finery, so accustomed was she to their traveller’s grime.
“Okay, yes, when we are done fawning over the girl and staring at each other can we please go?” snapped Xarthanias. “My stomach is going to implode any minute! I want food right now!”
Food. As one they started forward at a pace much faster than what would be considered polite. As they rounded the corner, the delicious aroma became stiflingly strong, and with one whiff they were off, nearly running. The servants at the entrance to the dining hall scrambled to open the door for them, but Xarthanias pushed past and yanked it open himself. Everyone stopped, woozy with the smells, just inside the door. There were eight long, thin tables arranged in a closed octagon. An octagonal table filled with brightly coloured drinks was positioned in the middle of it, with space for the drink servers to move about. The outside of the room was lined with tables filled with food, meats smothered in jams and different sauces, exotic fruits and vegetables and strange breads that looked like wood. There were puddings and glazes and jellies. Awed and starving, it was all the Escort could do to sit down politely and wait for the feast to begin. The servants and other attendants shot them dirty looks, no doubt horrified at their ungainly entrance.
Alapar sat down right next to Fredric. “You really do look lovely,” he murmured to her, smiling softly. She didn’t glare at him, but she didn’t smile back. He didn’t look so bad himself. His red curls gleamed like tempered copper, his cinnamon coloured eyes alive and bright. Yellow was perhaps not the best colour for him, but it certainly matched his personality. She suddenly found herself imagining him in deep midnight blue, or russet brown…
Less than a second after they were seated, Prat blew through one of side entrances, surrounded by half a dozen attendants, deep in conversation. Fredric wasn’t quite sure what to think about this King of Rena. He was so unlike his uncle Ziyan it was hard to believe they both had the same job. But there seemed to be something so off about Praithelon, like something in his mannerism wasn’t quite compatible. It reminded him of Alapar.
“…and when Alapar enters, I want the musicians to – ” the King suddenly caught sight of them. “Wait! What are you people doing here already? Vinu! Cansus! Get over here!” The Door Minders whom Xarthanias had pushed aside approached, heads bowed meekly. “I thought I told you to – ”
“Your Majesty, they shoved passed us! We couldn’t stop him!” They pointed at Xarthanias, who rose from his chair, his face going red. Praithelon whirled and strode over, the trains of his robes surrounding him like a cloud. The smell of strong, sweet spices assaulted Fredric’s nose.
“So you are Prince Xarthanias.” Prat appraised him critically, taking in every eyelash and fingernail. Xarthanias glared and clenched a fist. The cut on Fredric’s throat itched suddenly. If nothing else, he hoped Prat could get in a really good hit. At least then Xarthanias would have brain damage and Nolle could be king.
Unimpressed with Xarthanias, Prat turned away and gazed at Alapar, leaving Xarthanias standing angry and deprived of a fight. With nothing else to do, the prince plunked back down into his seat. Osarius gripped the boy’s arm and stared at him, evidently giving him a silent lecture. Fredric grinned and slapped Xarthanias’s shoulder. “Looks like you’ve met your match, Xar!” Surprisingly, Alapar cracked a smile. Everyone else laughed out loud.
“Alapar,” Prat breathed, speaking at a normal volume for the first time that day. He held out his hand to her and she stood dutifully, taking it and curtsying almost to the floor. He tugged her to her feet and pulled her into an embrace
Almost immediately he shoved her away from him, and she caught her foot on the leg of one of the chairs. Fredric barely stopped her from falling into his lap. “You still stink!” Prat stomped over to where Xarthanias was tensely seated and pressed his nose into the boy’s neck, nearly making him spill out of his chair in shock. “You still stink too! I thought I said I wanted them clean!” Prat had put on a bit of extra weight from sitting around complaining all day, and the fat on his face jiggled as he stomped his foot. “Dinner is ruined. Nayyam!”
As the others stared in shock at the display, Xarthanias rose again. Osarius caught his eye and gave him an encouraging nod. “Your Majesty – King Praithelon!” Xarthanias said through gritted teeth. Turning, Prat narrowed his eyes. “My apologies, but…did you just call me…ah…malodourous?”
“No, I called you stinky! You smell like the star-end of a river rat’s – ”
“Mind your tongue, Your Magesty.” Nayyam strode through the front entrance. “Now, what’s going on? Why is the Prince out of his seat? Why haven’t you ordered dinner yet?”
With one hand over his eyes in shame, Prat waved at the Escort. “They’ve ruined it. His Highness Prince Sarcasticus tried to trample the Door Minders. This was to be the feast of the year!”
“Your Majesty,” Nayyam snapped, bringing Prat’s tirade to an abrupt halt. “Show some decorum! We haven’t had guests in a long time.” Nayyam’s expression was one worn by at least half the people who had the misfortune to be in the presence of the king: Stop being such a brat, Prat.
Prat sighed theatrically. “Alright, Nayyam, as always you know best. My apologies…friends.” He wrinkled his nose as he said the word, and held his breath as he walked past the Escort to take his seat in the middle of the table farthest from the main entrance. “Sarcast – er, Xarthanias, come sit at my left side. Alapar, sit at my right. Nayyam, order the feast to begin.”
Xarthanias hesitated, glancing between Nolle and Osarius between whom he was sandwiched. “But I’m only the Prince – ”
“And who’s the king here?” Prat reminded him with a sweet smile, patting the chair. “Nayyam is right! We have not had such honored guests since birds could fly! Zenith, bring me the almauc wine,” Prat ordered as other people began to pour into the room. Prat beckoned Alapar and Xarthanias, his chosen honoured guests, to rise as everyone else took their places.
“Friends! I will keep this short, for the food looks ready to escape.” There was a spattering of chuckles. As Prat spoke, servants distributed loaded plates. “Welcome the Pilgrims of the Way, the Heir and His Island Escort from Despartus! It is because of them that the peace is kept between Pessolanius and Siyemeir. But more importantly, they have returned Alapar to us! Here’s to Despartus! And here’s to the greatest kingdom to ever be, Rena!”
“Glavasht! Saragtades Rena!” The guests cheered, smiling at Alapar, who ducked her head.
“Give me your glass, Xarthanias,” Prat ordered. Reluctantly Xarthanias relinquished it. “May your journey be paved in gold.” Prat poured the small bottle of almauc into Xarthanias’s glass, a tradition that was usually kept between kings. There was muttering of dissent as the three took their seats once again.
“Well, that was quite unnecessary,” Xarthanias muttered, quickly diving into his food before Osarius could lecture him again. He momentarily forgot his grumpiness at the taste of the delicious, perfectly cooked fowl smothered in peaches and something spicy. The Escort tried to be as polite as possible as they shoved mouthful after mouthful down their famished throats. May lightning strike them if they ever had to eat stale bread again!
Alapar was the only one who wasn’t eating like a wild animal. She barely took a bite of rib-eye apple tart before she was bombarding her cousin with her excitement. The childlike feeling hadn’t faded. “Oh, Prat, I was sure I would never see you again! As you probably know Father is dead so I’m all alone now, and I don’t know what I’m going to do about my reputation or how I will find a husband but oh! Do you remember that wedding we destroyed when I was eight? When we tried to steal the cakes! And do you remember when we tried to make those little dolls out of the cheese that Uncle brought specially for – ”
Prat laughed fondly, resting his hand on Alapar’s neck for a moment. “Alapar! Lirigwen, slow down! One thing at a time.” His eyes became serious, an unfitting expression. “What happened to Uncle Abiel?” he asked.
“Must we talk about this here?” Alapar had gone slightly pale and her thrilled smile froze on her face.
Finally seeing an opening, Nolle, who had been listening in along with Fredric, Osarius and Belladia, spoke up. “Alapar, you never told us you are a princess.”
Alapar bit her lip. “Well, I’m not exactly – ”
“Oh, Alapar, don’t be ridiculous!” Prat cut in. “The conditions of your exile died with my father! You are a princess now more than anyone else!”
She squirmed in her seat. “But my reputation –!”
“Who’s the king here?” Prat repeated. “What I say is what is! And I say you never lost your title. Right Nayyam?” Though he had been trying to pretend not to listen as he ate his bread, counting entrées till the end of his shift, Nayyam nodded. “Nayyam is always right. Welcome back, Your Highness.” He raised his glass and immediately everyone stopped their conversation and did the same. Scrambling for their drinks after a moment of expectant looks, the Escort followed suit. “Welcome back, Princess Alapar!”
“Glavasht!” The people replied.
“Exile?” Belladia whispered to Fredric, who shrugged and gazed with a disturbed expression at Alapar, trying to figure out what all of this could mean.
“As a matter of fact, in honour of the return of our beautiful princess, there will be a festival tomorrow!” Prat declared. “We have never had such cause for celebration. Urjun, write this down: It will last for three days, and I want all entertainers and wares people present.” The Dedicated Record Maker retrieved her ever-present pencil and parchment.
Fredric spoke up. “But, Your Majesty. Is the stormy season not bearing down upon us right this instant? I fear we do not have time to spare in Rena for three days. We must be on our way early tomorrow morning to set sail from Arghyml.”
“Actually,” Nayyam replied, “the matter of the stormy season is one that has been puzzling our Sky Minders for quite sometime. It seems that the malicious weather is quite far behind this year. It was a matter that the Sky Minders had been trying to bring to the attention of the king for quite some time.” Nayyam shot Praithelon a pointed look. Prat shuddered, preferring not to be reminded of his time in captivity in that dreaded octagonal room, tormented by the infernal golden bell.
“Then it is settled!” Prat enthused. “You simply must attend the festival. In honour of your courageous journey for the peace of our lands! It will be a fond farewell before you sail.”
Fredric smiled ruefully. “Indeed, our departure from Rahd was the contrary to cheer.” He and the king grinned at each other, both their smiles too big for their faces.
Nolle and Osarius were telling some elderly women about their journey, and how Alapar had been rescued, and soon the whole party was uncharacteristically silent, listening in. Alapar blushed when she realized they were telling her story so soon after such a happy reunion. “And when we finally managed to leave Blackwolf Ridge, we were one horse short and barely escaped with our lives,” Osarius said sadly. “We noticed that the mouth of the Verien was blocked up with decaying trees, and so we cleared it so that the floodplain could dry and hopefully wash the acid away – ”
“Wait a minute,” Prat interrupted. The guests blinked as though waking from a dream, released from the pull of Osarius’s smooth, quiet voice. “So what you’re saying is that it’s because of you that our water is so bad?”
Osarius bowed his head, “Your Majesty, it is our hope that with time the water will return to normal, maybe within a week or so.”
“Yes, from what I heard you did not have any water at all for quite a while,” replied Xarthanias. He barely remembered to reopen his mouth before shoving in a forkful of food. “You should thank us.”
“Thank you?” demanded Prat, leaning back in his chair with a catlike smile. “For what, for poisoning my country?”
“What? This shouldn’t be a problem for the greatest kingdom to ever be.” Xarthanias raised his glass of ceremonial alcuam. . “Saragtades Rena,” he toasted with a perfect Caredish accent. The guests remained transfixed by this social disaster, inwardly horrified at Xarthanias’s blatant sacrilege but morbidly curious as to what their king would do.
I swear, I can’t take him anywhere, Nolle thought to Osarius, who rubbed his temple where a headache was forming. Nolle laughed though, downing his drink. The buzz of alcohol made the whole thing seem funny. These past few weeks had been nothing but one long temper tantrum on Xarthanias’s part.
Prat continued to smile, but his eyes hardened into a dangerous look that only his family recognized. Alapar put her hand on his arm and whispered something to him. After a minute of staring at Xarthanias, Prat forced a laugh and answered back in kind. Xarthanias looked between them, his face growing red as a beet as the cousins tittered together. The guests mumbled uncertainly.
“Well, thank you for the faith, Prince Xarthanias.” Prat rose again, smiling tenderly at Alapar. “Friends, it is time for dessert and entertainment!”
Alapar perked up, wondering what Nari and the others had told Prat. She hoped they would feel better about performing now, and that they could enjoy the dance as much as she enjoyed watching it. And since she would be living here for the rest of her life, she would rather not feel the need to throw up her food at every special meal.
Prat clapped his meaty hands and several attendants stood up. Two of them went to bring out a large sheet of pale blue silk. Another two moved in position beside two large ornate doors at the side of the room. Yet another retrieved a silver heutan, a delicately crafted silver wind instrument. At another clap of Prat’s hands, the doors to the stage opened, the silk was laid down, and the heuti began to play his instrument.
And the crowd shrieked in a collective exclamation of horror. The stage was empty, except for a small pile of colourful clothing. The notes of the heutan cut off, unfinished. Prat stared wordlessly at the stage. “Sonet? Chephir?” he called into the emptiness. Nothing. One of the attendants climbed onto the stage and gathered the strewn garments. “Nari?”
“Aw, come on, the ishaleyn is the best part of the feast!” complained a young, thin man. Prat looked at an utter loss, and Alapar’s face grew redder and redder. What had happened to the shaleis, the dancers?
Nayyam stood and went to the king who was building up a temper tantrum. The old advisor spoke to him in a low voice. Prat bowed his head and nodded, forcing a smile as he turned to the stone-faced guests. “Alright, my friends, it seems we will not be graced with the presence of my shaleis this evening. So let us finish with desserts and retire to rest for the festival tomorrow!”
Sick with worry, Alapar could only pick at her dessert, until finally Fredric rudely asked if he could finish it. Too anxious to spare him a sideways glance, she shook her head and asked a servant to clear her plates away. She made idle conversation with her cousin, wondering if he could sense that the disruption of the dinner entertainment was because of her. He was notably upset but still smiled at her with the same tenderness. The dinner lasted for barely half an hour more. She never thought she would be so relieved to be done with the food and proper company for which she had longed for years.
The Escort bowed to the guests and to King Praithelon, who left first. Then the six exited through a different door. Night had fallen and the sconces in the halls were lit brilliantly, the glass windows shut against the persistent west wind. In a small entryway, Alapar said good night to her friends and turned toward her bedchambers. She was halfway to the landing when she was frozen in place by the sound of several screaming women, followed by a roaring, unfamiliar male voice:
“How dare you embarrass the king in front of his honoured guests?”
It hadn’t been hard to slink away from the group. Although, when he first made out the company of a few dozen marching toward the East, Chimley hadn’t been sure what to do. If he squinted, he could see that some of them bore shields or coats of arms with the symbol of the butterfly, sun, and prohibitory slash. Capraiwan…a superstitious group from Pukwaoi…Old Dezalaire’s words came back to him. He and the Escort were a stone’s throw from the sea of blue seodyms, and after he stared at the receding company for a full minute, he slowly sank into the stalks of the flowers.
It hadn’t been hard to disappear. None of them even looked back.
They paused at the top of the hill, and seemed to argue with Alapar, and then they disappeared beyond the horizon. Chimley sprung up and chased after the troupe he had seen. He followed at a fair distance, close enough to determine that there were thirty-seven men in all, armed with swords and clubs, spears, bows, and battleaxes. Their butterfly shields reflected the dull, granite sky. After about an hour, one of them started to hum and then they were all reciting:
Blood of fire, blood of gold
Remind us of the days untold
Days of ashes, days of kings
Bringing us these dismal things
Things before us, things behind
The chosen one, whom we must find.
And they repeated it, and repeated it, until Chimley found himself muttering along. After a few dozen rounds, new couplets were added:
Find the virtue, kill the vice
Find our chosen sacrifice
Sacrifice him, make him burn
Burn until the night returns
Blood of fire, blood of gold
Seal the magic’s prison hold. Somess
And they started again, on and on until they stopped to eat. The land had become so hilly that Chimley lost sight of them more often than he could see them. The sky was bruising into night, and Chimley hovered at the fringes of detection, watching them make supper. He wondered if he would find the men he had met in Rahd, but as far as he could tell, they weren’t among these numbers. That was probably better for everyone.
Were these the Capraiwan? Would they lead him to Pukwaoi?
He took pause. What exactly did he hope to find in Pukwaoi? He wasn’t even sure exactly why the symbol intrigued him so much. Maybe because it turned up twice in one day. Somehow, they had something to do with his father, with the mission he had been obsessed with for his whole life.
They often attack the Pilgrims of the Way…
The company had been so close to the Escort, and yet hadn’t seen them. Had a bloody battle just been missed?
He had almost an hour to sit and ponder before the travellers moved on. Chimley had been dozing but startled awake when someone gave a loud trumpet blast. Moaning, everyone rose from the ground, brushed crumbs off themselves and packed up. Night had almost fallen and torches were lit. A moist wind picked up. Chimley could smell more rain coming, and heard thunder rumbling ahead of them. A flash of lightning over the blackened sea.
The group travelled another few hours until Chimley could make out the lights of a very small village. Pukwaoi? However, three of the travellers veered away from the others, following a worn, overgrown stone path, and the rest continued on toward the village lights. Chimley deliberated for a moment, and then decided to follow the smaller group. Dezalaire had said from around Pukwaoi after all, not in it.
He wasn’t disappointed. The three came to a rocky outcropping, and cast their torches around until a handle was located. A door that looked like the rocks surrounding it opened, and the men slipped inside. Chimley waited a few minutes.
All of a sudden, it was like the rocks came alive. A faint golden glow emanated from them, and he swore he heard whispering all around him. Trying to push down his trembling, Chimley grasped the rough, rock-hewn handle and stepped inside, leaving the rock door slightly open behind him. He was in a narrow rocky tunnel, a stone floor that warped and twisted like ocean waves underneath him. The whispers coalesced into words.
Chimley, Chimley…Spider King, murmured the invisible voices. Chimley’s heart pounded.
Run, Chimley, run away from this place…And still, even though the demonic whispers urged him to go back, Chimley crept forward, his hands over his ears, but it didn’t mute the voices in the slightest. He had to know what was going on.
Finally, he could see a door in the never-ending tunnel. This one was an ordinary wooden door built into the stone, and it had no handle on the outside. But a small push revealed that it wasn’t locked.
Do not fail us, Spider King, the sinister Voices whispered as he pushed through the door, and into a calm, still place.