Chapter twenty-nine: Path to Glory
Night birds called to each other merrily, and a soft breeze brought the scents of the forest. It had been warmer during the day but the night snuffed out the life of the air around him. The lights from the houses blinked in the distance.
Before him was a massive building, its finer features easily distinguishable in the flood of torchlight that bathed it. Guards on either side shone a light in his face as he gave them his name, before they permitted him to come through the doors. Inside, the halls and décor reminded him a little of the Palace at Rahd, but everything was so much newer and shinier, The paintings on the wall looked freshly finished, and the flagstone floor was polished to a gleam. Ethravaim had told him to come in through those relatively small, purple double doors. Shaethan hoped he was ready. He had never been one for public speeches. How would he convince them to help him? Or, more importantly, that he could help them? Tonight could set him on the path to reclaiming his kingdom for Chimley, and finally appeasing those Voices. Unconsciously, Shaethan rubbed his thumb over the place where the ring had been. For the thousandth time, he hoped that Chimley was looking after it.
He had left the Kucein’s house after about twenty minutes of awkward conversation. The children had followed him, begging him not to leave so soon. He had tried to catch Drei’s eye, but she seemed determined not to look at him, instead turning into Ethravaim’s arms as they bid him good night. Shaethan passed a few restless hours in the hotel, forcing down some food that he no longer remembered, flipping through a few books in the library, and finally going for a walk before leaving for the council meeting early. He had gotten lost several times following Ethravaim’s terrible directions and finally had to ask a passerby where to go. Not a great way to calm his nerves.
The dimly lit room was like an amphitheatre, with rows of seats rising above the centre floor. The middle of the room was raised to accommodate a ring of tables, a raised stage in the centre of the ring. It was like being inside of an upside-down beehive. The front half of the table ring was occupied by about two dozen people, seated on chairs that were like benches. Ethravaim sat in the middle of the throng, an empty seat beside him. When Shaethan cracked open the creaking door, the low chatter ceased and Ethravaim turned to him, wordlessly beckoning him toward the empty seat. Shaethan tripped on the last step before taking his seat, and banged his knee on a table leg as he scooted his bench seat-forward. Discreet coughs and cleared throats broke the silence that followed.
Ethravaim stared at Shaethan as though trying to decide something. Finally, he rose from his seat and climbed the second set of steps up to the stage. After another hard look at Shaethan, he began to speak.
“War Council affiliates, we are congregated here today to continue our deliberation on behalf of King Tenavrais and the Security Council. The King desires a war with Despartus due to the fruitless treaty negotiations and the generations-long stranglehold on meiren goods that the nation has maintained. Along with that, Orelan Wespiser has been little more than a garbage dump for Despartan exiles, such that at this time…”
Garbage dump for Despartan exiles. Shaethan began to shiver, remembered his time in prison before being deported to Wespiser, remembered the fear, the uncertainty of the new, hostile land. He rubbed his ring finger even harder, blocking out the Voices that weren’t really there: Failure, failure, you will pay.
I haven’t even tried yet, he pleaded with his imagination.
The elderly councillor seated beside Shaethan touched his arm. “Are you alright, friend?”
Shaethan jerked out of his distraction. “Sorry,” he muttered. “Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia.”
The councilman stifled their assenting laughs.
Ethravaim droned on. “Furthermore, it has come to our knowledge that the sovereigns of Rolo have fallen ill of favour with the…um…Despartans. Consequently, King Cuahalm has informed me that they will be amalgamating themselves with us posthaste…”
“Fear of big words,” Shaethan explained, risking a smile.
The councillor laughed, nodding in agreement. “I was Lord Ethravaim’s tutor when he was a strapping young lad. Always the show off, needing to prove his intelligence.” The man winked. “I’ve always told him that when it comes to speeches, especially ones we’ve heard twice a week for the past year, less is most definitely more.”
Shaethan nodded, absorbing this unintended piece of advice. He would stick to the point. He would not try to embellish or manipulate as Ethravaim did. He would simply state his business and hope for the best.
“And with that in mind,” Ethravaim finished, “I call upon Eminar Rao of Rahd…Despartus.” He seemed to have to force himself to say the name.
Shaethan stood, upsetting his bench with a loud scraping sound, and traded places with Ethravaim on the stage. He faltered for a moment. He was very high up. Clearing his throat, he tried to calm himself, to keep them from detecting his nervousness.
Start talking, he advised himself. He smiled uncertainly, then more confidently as he remembered his angle. “I would like to correct Lord Ethravaim.” Everyone sat forward eagerly, encouraging Shaethan to look them all in the eye. “I am Prince Eminar Rao of Rahd, Despartus. Some of you may know me by my former name, Shaethan Cheva. I am one of the exiles that Ethravaim spoke of. But more than that, I am the true heir to the Desparatan throne.”
There was a collective gasp, and Ethravaim sat up. This was something Shaethan had not shared with him previously. Evidently, Drei had not mentioned this either. Fie, that she had been married to a prince from that place.
Shaethan began to walk around as he had seen Ethravaim do, motioning with his hands for emphasis. “You might know that I was passed over for kingship, in favour of my younger brother, the current and fraudulent King Ziyan. I’m much like you, shut out and cut off from the bounties of Despartus. Except perhaps, I’m worse off than you – my own family did this to me.” He lowered his arms, suddenly overcome by his emotions. He looked pleadingly at the council of men, who, save for Ethravaim, looked sympathetically back. “I know what it feels like to be deprived and betrayed, and treated like garbage. I need my kingdom back, and I believe you might be able to help me. And I promise, I will not shut you out. When I am king again, I will ensure that there is a fair share of the gifts of the land for everyone.”
Everyone except for Ethravaim stood and cheered, stomping their feet. It went on for several minutes, until Ethravaim stood and jogged up the stairs to the stage, nearly shoving Shaethan over. “Excuse me…I beg your pardon…HEY EVERYONE SHUT UP!” He heaved a breath as the noise slowly died down. “Now, let us take a brief recess before reassembling. We must plan our next manoeuver.”
Everyone slowly filed out of the council atrium, leaving Shaethan and Ethravaim alone on the stage, carefully avoiding looking at each other.
The wind howled in the tall, greyish buildings overhead. Kefele stood on a shed with one of his father’s billowing black capes, pretending he was flying. Milek, Tohon, Gabin, Orenda, and Sage raced around below, playing spit tag in the firelight glow. Milek was “it”, and he propelled a gigantic ball of saliva at Orenda, who shrieked and shoved him into a pile of broken plywood. He shouted and floundered around, trying to get up, but the other children continued to play, Orenda trying to spit on Tohon but ending up catching Sage instead.
Kafele jumped off the six foot shed, spreading his cape-wings wide, landing with a painful oomph on the flagstone road. He limped over to Milek and offered him a hand up. The boy rubbed his back before shaking himself off and charging back into the game. Kafele sighed and used the rusted bucket steps to climb back up onto the roof of the shed, where Milek had ordered him to keep lookout. He drew patterns in the dust on the tin. How long did it take to scam tourists and hock faulty and counterfeit wares to aristocrats? Orenda’s uncle and his gang should have passed by now. They had been searching for him all evening, and it was dark, and Kafele was hungry and just wanted to go home.
“Milek!” Kafele called. The other boy stopped to look up at him and was ploughed into by Tohon, both of them ending up in a heap in a pool of torchlight.
“What?” Milek snapped, rubbing his undoubtedly bruised backside.
“When is it someone else’s turn to come up here and keep watch?”
Milek looked even more annoyed, but then smoothed his expression. “Kaf! You’ve always been telling me how you wished you could do something useful. Keeping watch is the most important thing any of us could do!”
Usually, any of the children would have submitted to Milek’s logic, but Kafele’s growling stomach would not be sated by empty words. He stood up and brushed himself off. “No! I’m going home!”
Milek shrugged, turned and aimed a spitball at Gabin. Kafele huffed and clambered down the shed, leaving his lunatic friends behind. Wrapping the cape around himself against the slight chill of the wind, he began the long walk to the other side of the ’Skirts and the promise of a lukewarm meal. His mother usually didn’t question where he went, but that was only if he was home before dark. He knew he would be in trouble but he would take whatever flogging he would get for a piece of stale bread and cat milk butter. Who cared if he missed out on Milek’s crazy plan to get Salmalin to rob the Escort? Adults were selfish and petty – as if they would give Milek or any other of the gatherer children a single coin from the chest!
Or whatever it was that was in that chest. Probably not money. This was Despartus, after all, the land of fairy magic and mystical treasure.
In a way, Kafele mused, the people of the ’Skirts were kind of like a family. Anyone’s kids could eat at anyone else’s table, and if someone was caught in the rain, they could duck through anyone’s door stoop and receive a blanket and a candle to keep warm. Salmalin did share some of his profits with everyone. At least Kafele’s family might be able to afford a piece of cake for once, or even new shoes.
“Steady! Steady now!” a voice shouted to the left. Curious, Kafele momentarily abandoned his path toward home. Around the block in Starheart Square, some hockers were pulling up a large tent. About twenty skinny, mangy-looking dogs were tied to grates in the road, barking and rolling over each other, their leashes becoming hopelessly tangled.
“Ho! You there! How, now?” Kafele asked, going over to the dogs. They jumped at and scratched him, and he rubbed them behind the ears.
The men paused and glanced over at him, faces cast in shadow. There were about ten of them. There was more light here than where Milek and the others were, but it was still hard to see. “Didn’t you hear, youngster?” one of them replied “There’s going to be a festival tomorrow!”
“A festival!” Kafele exclaimed. “We haven’t had one of those in months! Why now?”
One of the men shrugged. “Who cares! I think Prat the Brat has coerced another girl into marrying him. It’s something about a girl, in any case. But the only thing that matters is we will be eating good tomorrow!”
Kafele laughed as one of the dogs licked his eyebrow. “Well, it would be good to have something interesting going on for once!” He hugged the dog close, almost strong enough to keep it from wriggling away. “Hey, how much for a dog?”
The men laughed again, but there was a dark note to the sound now. “Them there are high class performing dogs! Best ones in Pessolanius. I think they’re worth more than you!” Their guffaws brought tears to Kafele’s eyes. He kissed goodbye the dog he liked and stood to leave. “Hey, where you going, youngster? If you want to make some money I know some ladies – hocks to it, even some men – who would pay a good price for such a good-looking boy as you!”
Terrified, Kafele turned and fled, running as fast as he could in a direction he wasn’t quite sure of. Eyes down, he didn’t see who was in his path until smacking into him headlong.
“No!” he screeched, clawing and kicking against the arms that held him. “Let me go!”
“Hey, hey!” said a deep male voice that permeated the air with the smell of cheap alcohol. Whoever was holding him quickly let go, but placed a hand on the his shoulder. “What’s this about? I ain’t gonna hurt you, ajomatein.”
Kafele sniffled and wiped his nose. It wasn’t the first time he or any of the other children had gotten such offers from would-be pimps, but it was late, and usually Kafele was home after dark. “Just trying to get home, sir.” He risked a glance up at the man, and gasped. “Master Salmalin!”
The gangster patted Kafele on the head and walked on, swaying slightly on his feet. “Got business to attend to, kid. You shouldn’t be out alone after dark.”
“I – wait, look here, sir!” Kafele raced after him and put out his hands to stop him.
“Now, kid, how many times you gonna run into me tonight?”
The boy firmly planted his feet. “Wait, listen to me! I believe it will be quite worth your time!”
A small smile played at Salmalin’s pinched lips. “I highly doubt that, child. Do you have a purse of gold coins? A parcel of virgin’s hair? Your big-boy teeth?” He laughed and continued on his inebriated way.
Why was it that adults always assumed he had something stupid to say? That he was worth no more than a warm meal or a bundle of parchment? As a matter of fact, even his friends didn’t seem to think he mattered much. They didn’t care whether he joined in their games or played by himself. Salmalin was a conman and a crook, but also Kafele’s best shot at proving himself more than what everyone thought. He would show Milek. He would show all of them! And he would get some cake for his mother and brothers and sisters. Maybe it would even save him punishment for being out so late.
He picked up a nearby chunk of plywood and launched it at Salmalin’s head. “Hey!” he shouted. “Listen to me!”
The man stood still for a moment, then whirled on the boy and seized him by the throat. “Alright, I’ve been patient enough with you ragamuffins!” The man called him an unrepeatable name and shook him. “Now you run along home or so help me – ”
“Pilgrims of the Way!” Kafele choked out, kicking his legs which dangled about a foot off the ground. He scraped at Salmalin’s hands, gasping for breath. “The Heir and his Escort!”
Salmalin loosened his grip a little. “What of it, rat face?”
“Meiren treasure!” he yelled, then coughed. After a moment, Salmalin dropped him.
“What are you talking about, boy? You’ve got ten seconds!”
In a heap on the ground, Kafele choked and clawed at his throat, wracking coughs. “We…saw…” he heaved.
He took a ragged breath and stood, squaring off against the master of the streets. “We saw them. The travellers from Despartus. The ones who deliver the gifts to the qu – er, to Vaupen Island.” They weren’t supposed to consider the king or queen of Vaupen as their sovereign. According to Renian doctrine, Rena was the kingdom and its ruler was the ruler, against any mother country titles that Vaupen might claim. “They had that box, the one that they take there every few decades or so? They had it.” Although, Kafele hadn’t actually seen them himself, so he really hoped Milek wasn’t just imagining things like usual.
Wasn’t Salmalin listening? “The chest. It’s full of meiren treasure. It could be worth more than the palace.” The boy lowered his voice to a whisper. “It might even be worth more than the military base and the armoury.”
Salmalin kneeled, bringing his alcohol-drenched breath to Kafele’s eyelevel. “What of it, boy?”
“We…my friends and I…we want you to steal it!”
Salmalin laughed, and Kafele gagged on the poisoned breath and stepped to the side. “Do you, now. Commit high treason against the honored guests of the king.”
“Yes! It would make us all so very rich!”
“You can hardly make use of riches at the point of the executioner’s sword, my dear boy.” But Salmalin seemed to be pondering. He rubbed his stubbly face with a gloved hand. “You don’t understand, riches, child, and you won’t until you have it taken from you. But you can hardly make use of it in the hands of another, either.”
The man looked intently into Kafele’s eyes, before reaching under his cloak. The boy gasped and turned to run, almost screaming when Salmalin caught him by the edge of his oversized cloak. “Here, child.” When Kafele turned to look, Salmalin held a pouch in his hands. With trembling arms, Kafele reached out to take it. “You’ve been most helpful, my boy. I hope you’ll keep being loyal to me.” Patting the boy’s head again, Salmalin disappeared into the shadows of the ’Skirts.
Still trembling, Kafele opened the pouch to find a few fistfuls of gold coins. He threw a hand over his mouth. This could feed his family for months! They might even be able to buy a proper house with it!
But what he really wanted …
The boy skipped back the way he came, catching the sound of his shrieking friends somewhere out in the night. He continued on, toward the men with the tent. “Hey!” He yelled at them. They hadn’t made much progress. The dogs began a chorus of barking.
“Ho! It’s that kid again! Decided to take us up on our offer?” One of them made his way toward Kafele, who launched his pouch of money at the man’s head.
“How much for a dog?” the boy asked, kneeling to untie his favorite one.
While the men counted the money, dumbfounded, Kafele led his new puppy away.