Authors: Sam Bowring
‘I guess now we know,’ Thedd continued, nodding at Bel’s hair and chuckling. ‘A recent improvement, I’m told? I hope that when I am Throne we will grow to enjoy each other’s confidence, just as you and Naphur did.’
‘Sounds easy enough,’ said Bel. ‘But the last words Naphur and I shared were far from kind.’
Thedd’s smile became a little forced. ‘You are right to be upset,’ he said. ‘I am tactless, forgive me – this is not the right occasion. We shall speak later.’
‘Come, Bel,’ said Fahren, mercifully appearing. ‘We have things to discuss.’
As Fahren, Bel and Jaya made their way out of the Inviolable, Gerent Brahl caught up to them. His physique did not suggest a man who was easily puffed, thought Bel, so the rosy colour in his cheeks had to be the result of something else.
‘High Mage, Blade Bel,’ said the gerent. ‘We must speak immediately.’
‘I had hoped –’ began Fahren, but Brahl cut him off.
‘I’m sorry, Fahren, I must insist. Perhaps you will be so good as to accompany me to the barracks?’
Fahren sighed. ‘Very well.’
They sat around a table in the meeting room. Jaya, surprisingly, had suggested she would make herself busy elsewhere. Bel had to remind himself that perhaps she did not
to be embroiled in all the fuss that seemed to accompany him wherever he went.
In the absence of a sanctified Throne, the gerent and High Mage were the two most powerful men in Kainordas – Brahl the military leader, and Fahren commanding the magical forces. Bel wasn’t sure if one technically outranked the other, but it did not seem to matter: the two men spoke as equals.
‘I shall talk plainly,’ said Brahl, seeming to relax a little now that he was in his own space. ‘Thedd was right about one thing – our need for strong leadership. I don’t know when war will come but I suspect,’ he eyed Bel closely, ‘that it will be soon. Total war, all-out war, at the end of which there will finally be a victor.’
‘I see you are a man who believes in the prophecy,’ said Fahren. ‘That is well.’
‘It is hard to ignore,’ said Brahl. ‘We know the shadow possesses a blue-haired man – and miraculously, today, one is delivered to us. I do not understand, High Mage – I thought there was meant to be but one.’
‘I shall explain,’ said Fahren. He proceeded to give the gerent a detailed account of Bel’s birth and the time that followed. Bel listened with interest, enjoying hearing a story in which he was the main character. Brahl frowned throughout but did not interrupt.
‘These are strange tidings,’ he said when Fahren was done. ‘I’m not sure I understand your motives in keeping Bel hidden. Our people have long believed the blue-haired child was lost to the shadow. It would have been good for morale had they known we still could hope. But I suppose it is done, for better or worse, and we must look to the future.’
‘Indeed,’ said Fahren. ‘Now, for what reason have you called us here?’
Brahl shifted uncomfortably in his seat. ‘Thedd,’ he said.
‘What of him?’
‘I do not . . .’ Brahl screwed up his face. ‘I have never been one for subtlety, but these are difficult words to speak openly.’
‘They will not leave the room,’ said Fahren. ‘What is it, Brahl?’
‘We need someone strong to govern us, yet Thedd has no military experience – by Arkus, he’s hardly even been to court! The way he runs Tria is haphazard at best, even down to his own household. I have been there, Fahren, I have seen his servants, circles under the eyes from overlong hours and unrealistic orders. And you remember the trade fiasco with the Zyvanix?’
‘And the Throne, Arkus rest him, at one stage even considered stripping Thedd of rank – perhaps you did not know I was privy to that. Does that sound like the kind of man to lead us?’
Fahren stared hard at him. ‘You want to change the traditions of a thousand years?’ he asked. ‘You are suggesting . . . treason?’
Brahl scowled. ‘I don’t call it treason to strive to protect our people as best we can. Will they thank me for upholding tradition if it means losing their homes and their lives? I simply don’t think Kainordas can afford such a ruler during these tumultuous times.’
‘The prophecy does not say
there will be war,’ said Fahren.
‘High Mage, they have killed our Throne, the blue-haired man is revealed, and the people clamour for revenge. Now is the time to build our army, while hearts are hot. At the very least it would be prudent. Even if war comes not tomorrow, it will be soon.’
‘Indeed,’ Fahren acceded. ‘Well, let’s say that I happen to agree with you. What is your plan?’
‘Until this morning I was going to suggest . . . well, that you, High Mage, take the crown. There is even precedent for High Mages doing so when a Throne in unexpectedly lost.’
Fahren turned white. ‘Not when there is a clear heir,’ he said.
‘That was before . . . well . . .’ Brahl glanced at Bel. Bel realised what the man was getting at, and mixed feelings fired through him. Imagining what he could achieve with ultimate power was interesting, yet he also knew it would be a shackle. He felt a burning desire to begin his mission to find the Stone, and he didn’t see how he could do that and also rule Kainordas. Bel had always had a love-hate relationship with his responsibility – while he enjoyed being special, he did not think he would have chosen to bear such a burden as currently rested upon his shoulders. Maybe that was why he rushed towards his goal – so that he could get it done, out of the way, then get on with the business of basking in the glory. If he was Throne, however, the responsibilities would never end, even after victory.
‘I don’t know you well, Bel,’ said the gerent. ‘Though I’ve heard some tales, especially of how you fought in Drel. Arkus knows I would have taken more interest in you had I guessed . . . at any rate, the people will surely rally to you. I could not imagine a more natural figurehead.’
Bel nodded. ‘And when the time comes, I will gladly lead the charge. However, I was born to fight, not to rule. You have heard Fahren speak of what I must accomplish – I have been charged by Arkus himself to retrieve the Stone of Evenings Mild. Thus, for a time at least, my path leads elsewhere.’
‘I agree,’ said Fahren. ‘A direct order from Arkus should not be ignored.’
‘I see,’ said Brahl. ‘Then I return to my original suggestion. The High Mage has always been revered, seen as powerful and wise. The best part is, I happen to know that’s true.’
Fahren shifted uncomfortably. ‘But to seize the throne – that is a little different from stepping into an interim stewardship, as has been done by High Mages in the past. It cannot be denied that Thedd is the closest blood relative to Naphur.’
‘Your reluctance is exactly why it should be you and not him,’ said Brahl. ‘We simply cannot take the risk of jeopardising everything so Thedd can play out his fantasies.’
‘Easily enough,’ said Brahl. ‘I command the military, you command the mages . . . what does Thedd command? Some backwater fort in Tria?’
‘We still need a reason,’ cautioned Fahren. ‘We cannot simply say, “Sorry, you are not good enough.”’
Brahl licked his lips. ‘I could arrange for something to . . . befall him.’
Bel had not been expecting such a bold proposition. His admiration of Brahl grew – the man was obviously willing to do what it took.
‘I should not include the blue-haired man, perhaps, in such a discussion,’ added Brahl apologetically.
‘I care not,’ said Bel. ‘If Thedd stands in the way of the greater good –’
‘Unjustly eliminating the man makes things easier in the short term,’ Fahren interrupted, ‘but ultimately would not solve our problem. There are others in line to take over, some as self-interested as he. As the blood lines grow muddier there is room for debate, and civic upheaval could be more damaging right now than Thedd Naphur on the throne.’
They lapsed into silence. Bel got up and went to the window. It was so irritating that they needed to concern themselves with one silly noble when they already faced so much. He felt a rising need to do something and thought again about accepting the crown, but the idea simply did not feel right
It would mean extreme constriction at a time when he needed the freedom to move. And why did he need a crown, when the hair on his head already set him apart from, even above, all others? The people would follow him no matter who sat in some tall seat in the Open Halls.
‘Fahren will be Throne,’ he said, turning away from the window, ‘because I will it to be so.’
They stared at him.
‘Who will argue with me?’ he said. ‘I, the champion of the gods? Do you think any would dare?’
Behind him, through the window, the light seemed to shine a little brighter.
‘Perhaps,’ he continued, ‘when Arkus appeared to Fahren and me, he even told us that Fahren must accept the Throneship should anything befall Naphur – reluctantly, but for the greater good? Can anyone claim otherwise? The blue-haired man needs strong men behind him, and who is stronger than the Grand High Mage?’
There was an awed look in their eyes as they listened, and he knew he was convincing them.
defy me?’ he asked. ‘Would
defy the will of Arkus? Do I even
need to explain myself to you
It was clearly a rehearsal for the case Bel would make before the Sun Court, but it was effective nonetheless.
‘It is no small thing to include the Sun God in a lie,’ said Fahren hesitantly.
Bel drew his sword, and it blazed in the light that streamed through the window.
‘Does it look as if he has a problem with it?’ he said.
In With the Old
In With the Old
In With the Old
The Sun Court atop the Open Castle was the fullest Fahren had ever seen it. Word had spread that two things of great import would occur here this day: the formal introduction of the blue-haired man and the appointment of the new Throne. The Open Castle was always full of representatives from the various states of Kainordas – Borgordus, Centrus, Dennali, Cindeka and Tria – but it was rare that all of them would be in attendance at the same time. Bodies crowded almost to the very edge, the lack of any wall or rail making some of the jostlers nervous, despite the magic that stopped anyone falling. Even the carpet from the stairwell to the dais, where the golden throne Borgordusmae stood shining, was packed.
Fahren began by introducing Bel to the court, which went smoothly enough. He spoke of how Bel had been kept in hiding until the time had come to show him to the world. There was some dissent over whether hiding Bel for so long had been wise, but Fahren pointed out there was little point in objecting to things that had already come to pass, and that the people should now rejoice upon hearing the good news. He moved on quickly to speak of how Arkus had appeared to Bel and himself, to give them directives, although he was deliberately unclear about when this had happened, whether it had occurred before or after Naphur’s death. He also did not go into specifics about Bel’s mission – the less public knowledge there was of that, the better.
‘And now,’ Fahren said, ‘to the matter of the Throneship.’
Thedd Naphur emerged from the crowd, smiling expectantly. He moved towards High Overseer Varta, who waited by the throne with the Auriel in her hands. It was cruel, in a way, that they had not warned Thedd of their intentions – but better to catch him by surprise lest he organise some defence.
Bel strode between Varta and Thedd, halting the man’s progress. Gerent Brahl also appeared, though next to the blue-haired man little attention was paid to him. There were murmurs of confusion, and people craned their necks to see.
‘My apologies, lord,’ said Bel, not sounding sorry at all. ‘Our orders from Arkus extend also to the Throneship.’
Thedd faltered, then drew himself up haughtily. ‘Whatever do you mean?’
‘He spoke, in his wisdom, of where certain pieces need to be in place to ensure the maximum chance of defeating the shadow. You have a part to play too, oh Trusted Naphur – to rally the troops of your home state of Tria.’
‘That should be easy enough,’ said Thedd. ‘Our soldiers are loyal and strong, and who are they to refuse the man who was once their Trusted, now their Throne?’
‘You misunderstand me,’ said Bel. ‘Arkus charges that the Throneship go to another.’
‘What?’ spat Thedd, for a moment all decorum gone. He struggled to suppress his temper. ‘With all due respect, Blade Bel, the Throneship is my birthright.’
‘These are trying times,’ put in Gerent Brahl stoically. ‘Sacrifices must be made. The world is changing, and we must change with it, lest we be defeated. It is sad indeed that the traditions of so many centuries must be abandoned.’
He sounded as if he really meant it, but Thedd was not finished. Some of his friends moved behind him, shooting dark glances around as if they thought themselves more formidable than they actually were.
,’ said Thedd, appealing to the court in general, ‘we need unity. This is not the time to muddy the waters with desperate plays for power, whether or not they come from the blue-haired man. I mean no offence,’ he turned to Bel, ‘but you are young, and perhaps not well versed in the ways of politics.’
Bel’s amber–gold eyes flashed brilliantly in the blazing sun. ‘Do you dare defy Arkus?’ he asked menacingly. ‘Do you doubt his wisdom? If so then it is
, Thedd Naphur, who works against unity, by condoning the betrayal of our god!’
The court fell silent. Thedd opened his mouth but couldn’t seem to summon any words. He looked to his supporters, who glanced amongst themselves uncertainly. It was a perfect plan, really, thought Fahren. Thedd wasn’t left with a leg to stand on – he could hardly rebuff the blue-haired man, the High Mage, the Gerent of Borgordus
the Sun God they claimed to represent.
‘Well then,’ snarled Thedd, ‘who does
say should be the Throne, if not the rightful heir? You, I suppose?’
‘No,’ said Bel, and Fahren stiffened. He did not look forward to what was coming. It was for the greater good, he told himself, and Arkus
seemed to give his blessing – or had that merely been light shining through a window?
‘The High Mage Fahren,’ said Bel, ‘is powerful and wise. We face terrible magic from my counterpart, and it makes sense that we have one who can match him. That is what Arkus has willed.’
‘But . . . but . . .’ Thedd rallied. ‘Fahren already has responsibility, as the Grand High Mage. He can still fight this counterpart of yours.’
Bel did not budge, but folded his muscular arms across his broad chest, emanating resolve. Looking at him now, Fahren reflected, it was easy to be awed. It was easy to
‘It is,’ said Bel, sounding out each word clearly, ‘
what Arkus has willed
. And there is a simple enough way to prove so to the disbelieving, which you know well enough, Thedd Naphur – by placing the crown upon Fahren’s head.’
Fahren saw signs of relief in the court, for which he was thankful. No doubt many of the nobles thought that Bel would attempt to seize power and, despite the colour of his hair, he was still a young man they knew little about. Fahren, on the other hand, was a familiar authority, and they had taken plenty of orders from him over the years. There was an acceptance from them that Fahren could
with his well-tuned empathic senses.
Thedd was forced to retreat with a glower that Fahren suspected would live on in his heart for a long time to come. Bel and Brahl stepped aside, gesturing at Fahren to approach Varta. Trying not to seem hesitant, he forced his feet to take him to her, and knelt. She nodded at him, then raised her voice to speak a prayer to Arkus, which he only heard with half an ear. Above him she held the Auriel, glinting, and he watched it descend with a sense of dread. Then she set it upon his head.
For the slightest moment it hung loosely – if it did not accept him, their lies would be exposed. Despite this, he would have been relieved had it fallen loose and static upon his brow – but instead, with faint nausea, he felt it tighten. The gold ‘rays’ of sun that protruded from it burrowed into his hair, adhering to the contours of his scalp, proving that Arkus accepted him as leader of the light and making it impossible for any to deny. Even him.
Cheers broke out as Fahren approached Borgordusmae, climbing the steps to the seat of power from which his old friend had presided for so long. Naphur would not object, surely – he’d had no love for his cousin and always kept him at arm’s length. Still, as Fahren eased himself onto the throne amidst the crescendo of cheers, his doubts did not abate. Nothing would ever change the fact that he had risen to power through a falsehood.
, he told himself.
For the greater good.
Fahren stalked up the stairwell of the Open Tower, two blades closely dogging his heels. Already he found it irksome being shadowed everywhere he went, and realised now why Naphur had always resented it. The gerent had even spoken of adding mages to his guards, citing the ease with which ‘the previous Throne’ had been assassinated by Losara. Ridiculous! Had Brahl forgotten what a powerful mage Fahren was in his own right?
He reached his quarters and shut the door on the guards behind him. A petty gesture, he supposed, but he had never asked for them and was more capable than they would be at fending off an attack. As he glanced around his quarters, Fahren wondered when he would move to the Throne’s rooms in the Open Castle. He
stay here, maybe – as the Throne, he could pretty much do anything he liked. But since he was no longer High Mage, another would shortly be appointed to the role, and it was only fair that they reside in these traditional quarters. Varta was his first choice, although if he promoted her then High Overseer would simply become another role that needed filling. Already he felt resentful of the mantle of rule, felt his freedom disappearing and his responsibilities building.
No wonder Bel had avoided it.
For the moment he simply wanted to rest and collect his thoughts in familiar surrounds, before the feast that evening in celebration of his ascension. He entered his study on the way to the bedroom, and paused as an unexpected sight met his eyes.
A golden bird chirped softly and scratched at the tabletop, a tiny message tied to its leg.
‘Hello, my dear,’ said Fahren. ‘How long have you been waiting?’
The sundart chirped again and hopped towards him. Not one of his, he realised – probably it carried a message of congratulations from someone or other who had not been able to attend the ceremony. He reached out and the sundart allowed itself to be stroked as he unclasped the message from its leg. Uncurling the small roll of parchment, he discovered it was no mere obsequious nicety, nor did the sender even know that he was now Throne. Of course not, he chastised himself. No one had known what Bel, he and Brahl had planned, and there had been little time for news to spread. Woolly thinking in his old age. This was a message to the High Mage from one of his subordinates, and it made for interesting reading indeed.
Fahren went back to the door and opened it. ‘Fetch Bel Corinas,’ he ordered. One of his guards nodded and quickly departed.
Maybe they had their uses after all.
From the other side of the court, Jaya watched Bel. He had not extricated himself from the proceedings as swiftly as Fahren had, nor did he seem inclined to. Nobles were lining up to speak with him, keen to curry favour with the man of power – some more zealously than others. Meanwhile she was left alone, apparently forgotten, though she didn’t really mind. She had other things to occupy her – such as nimbly relieving a noble or two of their valuables. It was the perfect hunting ground, actually, for none of these colourful courtiers expected a common thief to be moving amongst them. She supposed she should try to restrain herself, but the risk, she estimated, was minuscule. Everyone was jostling to get closer to Bel so they didn’t notice her brushing by, agile fingers darting in and out of pockets, or quickly untying purse strings from belts. These idiots had so much money, they probably wouldn’t even notice that they’d been robbed.
Soon, Jaya realised she had secreted more booty about herself than was easy to hide, and with some regret she slipped a bundle of coins
into the coat of the man she had taken them from
Wondering what on earth life had come to, she moved nearer to the dais, to get a better view of her odd lover.
It had been a strange thing when he’d told her who he really was. He’d done it after he’d come to fetch her from Kadass jail, where she’d been imprisoned for vandalising the property of the fat noble Assicon Cydus. Throne Naphur had promised Bel that the charges against Jaya would be dismissed, and even in the uproarious aftermath of Baygis’s murder, Bel had gone to the jail to make sure the promise was kept. In truth, the Throne probably had not cared one way or the other by that stage.
The two of them had gone immediately to The Wayward Dog where, in the afterglow of lovemaking, he had told her that he was the blue-haired man. Surprisingly, she’d believed him. The closeness of their connection made it hard to doubt him, for she felt she would easily spot any lie, and the story he told was too wild not to be true. There had been the possibility, of course, that Bel believed what he was telling her simply because he was insane, but then he had taken her to Fahren, who had confirmed the tale. And if any doubt had lingered, visiting the mage Tomeo the previous morning had certainly erased it.
Believing it, however, did not mean she wasn’t also dumbfounded by the news. What were the chances that she would end up sharing the bed of the blue-haired man? For Arkus’s sake, she hadn’t even known there
a blue-haired man in Kainordas.
, she had thought,
what are the chances of anything, really? What are the chances that a particular bird would be singing in a tree at a particular moment on a particular day? Yet if I saw a bird singing in a tree, I would not disbelieve it.
‘What are you smiling about?’ Bel sounded amused. She hadn’t noticed him approach, but now that he was by her side the rest of the court was staring at her – no doubt wondering who she was. She ignored the attention – it too was something she was going to have to get used to, she supposed.
‘Oh nothing, little bird,’ she replied. ‘Nothing that need concern you, anyway. What has torn you away from your sandal-licking new friends?’
Bel grinned. ‘I am sent for by the Throne.’
‘Ah,’ she said. ‘Well, you had better be on your way.’
She realised he was giving her a funny look.
‘Are you coming?’
,’ she said, suddenly very happy. ‘Yes, of course.’
As they made their way down the many stairs to the bottom of the Open Castle, Jaya’s happiness at being included suddenly galled her.
‘So,’ she said, half to herself, ‘this is how it will be? I’ll follow you around dutifully?’
‘What?’ He turned, surprised.
‘Well, I seem to have become attached, somehow, to this great fate of yours. Not really the future I had planned out for myself.’
‘I didn’t think you had a future planned out for yourself.’
the plan,’ she muttered.
Bel frowned. ‘What’s brought this up all of a sudden?’
‘Not sure.’ She shrugged. ‘Maybe seeing you up there, in the court . . . it made it all very real.’
real, Jaya,’ he sighed. ‘Look, I don’t want you to feel trapped by this. By . . . me.’