Brightholm – Summer Capital of Selwhin
The royal wing of the castle was quiet this early in the morning. As silent as a tomb, one might say, if one were prone to flights of fancy. Surrounded by so much stone, with not even the stirring of mice to remind you that creatures lived and breathed within the walls, it could be a cold, dark place in the wee hours.
I was dressed in the attire our athletes favored: linen shorts, with a sleeveless tunic draped over my tightly bound breasts. Because of my scant clothing, the chill in the hallway I waited in quickly became pervasive. I crossed my arms over my chest and shifted back and forth from foot to foot to keep the goosebumps at bay.
Come on, Lys, I thought.
As if I had summoned him with my impatience, I soon heard the familiar echoing slaps of a pair sandals against flagstones coming from somewhere around the nearest bend. The footfalls grew steadily louder, until a large young man appeared out of the gloom and into the torchlight. He was half a head taller than me and nearly twice as wide, with a body made for hefting war hammers and swinging broadswords. Clad only in a pair of linen shorts and a heavy, weighted leather vest, one would be forgiven for thinking him a champion wrestler instead of a prince.
It seemed both his fingers and his attention were occupied with the ties on the right side of the vest, because as he neared me, head down, I had a perfect view of his famous auburn curls.
“Ahem,” I said before he bowled me over.
His head snapped up in response, his hazel eyes meeting my black ones. “Lady Mara,” he said, his voice a deep, cultured baritone.
“Prince Lysor,” I answered with a quick bow.
He slowed his pace as he reached me. “Will you help with this? I’m still half asleep and can’t get the ties to stay.”
“Of course, your highness” I said.
He lifted the arm closest to me, and I ducked under it and made quick work of the laces as we walked.
“How far did we say this morning?” he asked.
“To the marshes and back,” I answered.
“We’ll have to be quick about it. There was some sort of disturbance further down the coast yesterday at Invess. Mother and her councilors are still trying to decipher the strange messages that arrived concerning what exactly took place. I’d like to be back when they do.”
“Well then, I hope you can keep up,” I teased, moving from one side of the vest to the other, which was still unlaced.
I was a faster runner than him, always had been, but three times a week since the queen and her court had retired to the summer capital we’d met in this hallway to run the royal beach as the sun rose, and he was starting to gain on me.
Without the vest, I feared he might even be able to surpass me. The garment in question weighed a good forty pounds by now. I didn’t envy him the extra burden, especially not this morning. I’d passed through an inner courtyard of the castle on my way here from the barracks, and the air was already so saturated with humidity that it had felt as though one could drown in it.
“There,” I said, tying off the last strands and straightening back up.
“Thanks,” he said, shrugging his massive shoulders in obvious discomfort. A frown creased his brow as he glanced at me. “I swear this thing feels heavier and heavier every week.”
I had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from grinning. It felt heavier because it was heavier. As soon as I had realized that he was close to outpacing me, I’d started sneaking into his chambers and slipping more weight into the pockets of the vest to slow him down. Part of me felt a little guilty for that. But then another part of me thought back to the prank he had played on me three months ago that involved tossing a pissed off goshawk into my bedchamber while I’d been sleeping and my guilt evaporated. Plus, a little humility was good for a prince. He had to learn that he couldn’t always come first in everything, and in the long run the added weight would only serve to make him a more capable soldier on the battlefield.
The purpose of the vest was to mimic the metal chest plate he would wear in combat, build his endurance and stamina up so that when it came time to go to battle, his reaction time wouldn’t be slowed or his energy drained by a load he wasn’t used to bearing. I figured that meant the more weight he practiced with now, the better, though I somehow doubted he would thank me when my duplicity was eventually discovered.
We slowed as we reached a large tapestry depicting a scene so faded that I could never decide if it was supposed to be a forest, or a colonnade. Lysor looked left, I looked right, and when we were sure the coast was clear, he swept it aside and quickly opened the door beyond. The winding staircase on the other side of it was shrouded in shadows. Only a single torch was lit in it, much further down, judging by the weakness of the light.
“Let me go first,” I said, slipping past my prince. “If you break your royal neck on these stairs, your mother will flay me.”
He made a sound of annoyance in the back of his throat, but let me lead. I moved at a glacial pace, my arms spread out and my hands braced on the walls on either side of us in case I truly needed to break his fall. I had only been half-joking about him dying on my watch. I was a captain in the army, after all, and since his Prince Guard wasn’t with us, I’d be damned if anything happened to him when I could be held responsible for it.
We reached the bottom without incident and picked up our pace through the long, wide corridor it deposited us into three stories below. I had to lengthen my stride to keep abreast of him, for he was practically jogging with impatience. Not that I was complaining. The temperature only dropped the further we descended into the depths, and the movement helped to warm my blood. Two more turns, one more hidden set of stairs, and we were far beneath where we’d started, at the very base of the castle. I pushed the heavy door open that would lead us to freedom, and we exchanged the chill of the stone passageways for a warm ocean breeze filled with the clean scent of salt and the distant tang of marsh.
I paused just outside and breathed deeply of the fresh air as I surveyed our surroundings. The castle sat near the edge of a granite cliff face that dropped nearly fifty feet to the pounding surf below. Droplets of salt spray alighted on my skin even at this height, and the roar of the crashing waves was so loud that I could barely hear the nearby guards calling out to us in greeting.
We returned their hails and then headed left along the spit of land between the castle’s foot and the cliff edge. Still more guards patrolled it, walking in pairs, and we were forced to greet each set as we passed. I would have gladly ignored them, but the prince always made a point to treat everyone he met with kindness. Normally, I found it endearing, but this morning it quickly became an annoyance, what with the half regiment worth of troops that seemed to be on watch.
Eventually we came to a set of stairs carved into the granite. It led down to the long spit of blindingly white sand that spread three miles to the north of the castle, all the way to the edge of a marshy swamp that marked our halfway point this morning.
The sun crept ever closer to the horizon as we took the stairs down, the clouds to the east lightening from dusky gray to rose pink to daffodil yellow. Though the castle we left behind had been modernized during the last few decades, the foundations it sat upon were ancient, and this staircase, with its rutted grooves smoothed low by half a millennia of foot traffic, served as a reminder of just how old it was.
The megalithic statues that rose from the retreating tide like an advancing army of titans only brought the point home. They were set apart in the water off the royal beach in hundred-meter increments, standing on towering stone edifices that must have taken a veritable horde of workers to set in place. What they were supposed to depict or who originally built them was anyone’s guess, for it was said that they pre-dated even the foundations of the castle. The one nearest us, at the foot of the stairs, had a vaguely humanoid body, and a single, massive wing spread out from the top of the back. The other had been lost to the sea, leaving it lopsided, and the head was completely missing from the body.
Tarigan, the queen’s chief archivist, claimed they had been likenesses of the gods we once worshipped. I shuddered and looked away from them, unnerved as always by their size and deformity.
We paused at the bottom of the stairs to pull off our sandals and toss them toward a nearby pile of driftwood. I immediately sank my toes into the soft sand, the lower layers of which still retained some of the warmth from the long, sun-drenched day before. The breeze had shifted in the night, rolling gently off the sea, cooling the air some. Not enough. Every time it lapsed, I could feel the humidity I had experienced in the courtyard trying to claw its way to dominance.
I shifted my focus toward the beach we would be running and saw the usual guards stationed along it to ensure no harm came to the prince. No, not the usual guards, I realized, counting. They had doubled the watch for some reason, just like at the cliff edge.
I thought back to what Lys had mentioned in the castle, wondering if that had anything to do with it.
“What sort of disturbance do they think it was?” I asked him, pulling my arms over my head in a stretch. “Or can you not say?”
Yes, I was a captain in the army, and yes, I was a member of the aristocracy, and yes, Lys and I had been friends for years, but that didn’t mean that I was privy to all of the same information that he was, and I never wanted him to think that I was using our friendship to ferret royal secrets out of him.
“I can say,” he answered, mimicking my stretch as best as he could. It was tough to get arms that big to bend like mine did. “Mother didn’t ask me to keep it to myself. Though I prefer it if it stayed between us.”
“Of course,” I said, holding the stretch for a beat longer before twitching up the hem of my shorts so that they didn’t pull taunt on my legs when I sank into a low lunge.
“The first birds that arrived from Invess made it seem as though it were some sort of raid,” he told me, switching arms.
I frowned up at him in response.
“Ghost Isle pirates, do you think?” he asked.
I turned my gaze toward the sea, mulling the question over. I was the youngest daughter from a small noble household on the south-western coast of the country. Our castle looked out upon the roaring Serpent Straits that separated Selwhin from the Southern Wilds. My early years – before I had become an officer in the Royal Army – had been spent listening to my father’s many lectures about the people who served our family, and whom, in turn, we were also responsible for.
“Mara,” Lys said when I remained silent.
“Ghost Isle pirates? I don’t know, maybe,” I told him. “There are still rivalries between the fishing villages. They raid each other in the lean times. It could have been that. Or something else.”
“But aren’t the lean times constrained to late winter and early spring?” he asked.
“Usually. I can’t remember a single raid on one of our villages around this time of year. The autumn storms have already started. Their nets should be bursting from the shoals. But the Ghost Isle pirates haven’t been heard from in years, Lys. Decades maybe.”
“Hence the confusion,” he said.
I stood up suddenly, frowning at him, something in the back of my mind demanding my attention.
“What?” he asked.
“It’s…well, it’s probably nothing, but did the reports include any mention of an odd fog?”
His gaze shuttered. “Why?”
The look put my hackles up. “Something my grandfather once said about some terrible thing that allegedly happened during King Bartholomae’s time. He told this wild story about an unholy mist creeping up the coast and causing all manner of chaos and confusion in the villages it descended upon. Even said it wiped one clean off the map.”
Lys remained silent for so long that I felt the need to add more.
“But that’s just a tale an old man tells his grandkids to keep them in line when they’re misbehaving, right?” I asked.
“Is it?” he countered.
I bent my right leg at the knee and grabbed that foot with my left hand behind my back, stretching my quad, all the while meeting my prince’s level gaze and hoping he would elaborate.
His balance had always been shite, and he stepped closer to me, placed his large hand on my shoulder, and used it to steady himself as he mimicked my stretch. “One of the missives mentioned a fog. And there was something in the archives about that old tale your grandfather told,” he said.
I hissed a breath in. “No.”
“I swear it,” he said, meeting my gaze. “They dredged it up last night and were awake until the wee hours pouring over it.”
“Did you get a good look at it?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I scanned it quickly as I took it from one of the royal archivists and passed it to Mother. All I remember was the mention of fog, a village named Maral, and a survivor with glowing eyes.”
“What?” I asked, staring up at him in disbelief.
It was then that it happened, as if the attacker had sensed my utter distraction. A blur of motion out of the corner of my eye appeared, streaking right toward the prince’s head. I moved without thinking, all of my years of training coming to bear as I whipped one of the knives strapped to my lower back free from its hiding spot and hurled it with practiced, steady fingers.
Time seemed to slow, and I watched Lysor’s eyes widen in confusion and panic and maybe even a trace of fear as he ducked sideways out of the path of the blade – not that he needed to, my aim was true, and it would have merely stirred a breeze as it passed his delicate royal curls. As it flipped end over end, I pulled two more weapons loose from their sheaths, but paused when the scene registered and I realized what I was seeing.
A seagull, startled from its nest by our proximity, had taken to wing. It faltered and fell out of the air, already dead, my blade buried in its breast.
There was a cry from the forest line, and I looked up to see the guards there rushing to defend their prince.
He held up a hand and forestalled them. “I’m fine!” he called, then in a softer tone that only I would hear, “Just a twitchy captain nearly un-earring me.”
“Un-earring? You’re so dramatic sometimes. And, hey,” I said, hoping my skin had darkened enough in the summer sun that he couldn’t see my embarrassed flush. “I take no chances with your life.”
“My hero,” he said, dryly, before bending at the waist to pull my blade free. “Poor bird.”
Poor bird, indeed. At least it had died quickly. I looked away from it, my stomach turning. I’d always had a soft spot for animals – even seagulls, who most people on the coast thought of as flying rats – and the sight of its little lifeless body made want to hang my head in shame for my jumpiness. People I had no problem murdering in defense of my prince, but animals? They were a different story.
Lys cleaned the blade off and handed it back to me. “Where were you even hiding this thing?”
I lifted the back of my shirt up and resheathed it, then pulled the hem up to the bottom of the linen binding my breasts and turned in a slow circle so he could see the veritable armory I had strapped to my torso.
“You’re not the only one who runs with weight,” I said, dropping the shirt when I was once again facing him. “And how did you not notice the odd way my shirt stuck to me after a run?”
His skin was several shades lighter than most Selwhinians thanks to his father’s northern blood – a honeyed olive where mine was deeper bronze – and so the color that sprang to his cheeks was unmistakable.
“I noticed,” he said, waving a hand in the vague direction of my chest. “I thought it was some exercise corset or something.”
I shook my head at him in disbelief, suddenly reminded of how sheltered he was. “Those are only for women in danger of blacking their own eyes when they run.”
He frowned at me in confusion. “Blacking their own eyes…”
Nope. No way was I going to explain that to my prince. This conversation was awkward enough already. Like a coward, I turned and started running.
He caught up a moment later, grinning. “I get it,” he said.
“So what did the other missives from Invess say?” I asked, changing topics.
“False alarm, basically,” he answered. “And sent from the same hand who sent the first missive saying Invess was lost.”
“How can you tell it was the same hand?”
“The writing was identical. The signature, too. And then there was the seal.”
“I’m sensing a ‘but’ here.”
“But my mother is concerned that the sender, the mayor of Invess, could have been forced to write the second letter under duress.”
“Ah,” I said, understanding dawning.
“We’ve sent a scouting party.”
“Invess isn’t too far south of here,” I said, glancing out to sea, my gaze skirting past the monoliths that stood as sentinels in the tidal pools. “If it was Ghost Isle raiders, they could easily use it as a launching point to attack the castle.”
“That’s my mother’s fear as well,” Lys said.
The doubled guard now made sense.
A troubled thought struck me then. “Makes you wonder if we haven’t heard from the Ghost Isles because they’ve been biding their time. Building their forces so they could launch a larger attack.”
“And developing strange weapons like that fog.”
We picked up our pace then, as if the pirates were at our heels, and our conversation fell away, the only sounds between us that of our labored breaths as we raced each other.
I beat him, in the end. Because the night before I had added two more pounds of weight to his vest.
Copyright © 2019 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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