Branwen crouched down again to examine the plants.
They were not growing well. She didn’t know if it was the weather this season, or something in the soil. Maybe there were too many pests around.
But, it was not good for her, whatever it was. Without the crop she would go hungry, and she would not be able to keep the small plot. She’d probably have to sell it and return to being a soldier.
She had mustered out the army four years ago now. She was grateful that she had never been called back to service, as well as for the fact that she had saved enough to start fresh here.
After her family had been killed by bandits she had not wanted to return to her hometown. Too many memories.
But perhaps she would have to now.
She sighed and straightened up, stretching her back with her hands. The sun was just rising overhead, and it was warm on her shoulders, pleasant. It would have been a perfect moment if not for the twinging.
Sometimes the scar botherer her still. It cut from her lower back down, and across the backs of her legs. It had cut deep, slicing a lot of muscles, tendons, and into at least one organ.
It was for the better that she was not interested in marriage as she couldn’t have kids. The one orphan she looked after was enough. Irfon.
She had found Iorwerth curled up beside the road two years back. She had been on her way back from town.
Almost passing him by she had stopped at the last moment and asked him what was wrong.
When he had answered that his parents had been killed by bandits she knew that she would have to look after him.
So she had. He still didn’t call her mother, and she didn’t say anything to acknowledge that she thought of him as her son, but both knew, and needed the other to get along.
Grabbing the basket of potatoes she trudged back through the fields, the tall saw-tipped stalks of the aern sprouts rubbing against her legs.
As the sun set on the tiny but beautiful valley high in the mountains she looked up and saw a strange sight.
Something was gliding down out of the sky. It was too big to be a bird of any kind, but too small to be one of the riding beasts.
It looked like a person, gliding gently on the air currents.
But that was impossible. How would they even have gotten up there in the first place?
As the form banked and glided out of sight behind the trees Branwen shrugged it off and continued back towards the farmhouse. The crops would work out, as they always did.
Or they wouldn’t, and she’d need to take on some extra work, guarding a merchant caravan for a trip or two, just enough to earn the money to pay for the extra food.
Either way it would work out, just like it always did.
Hiros lounged in a corner of the tent.
The others were in the center, still gambling, but he was in his usual place, draped across the pile of cushions, netting, ropes, and tent-cloth that comprised his, well, nest.
And he was afforded that privilege because he was what made the bandits so successful. He was allowed to have his eccentricities, his little insane foibles, needs, and quirks, since he was the only one, the only one in the entire band who could Sketch.
He took a long puff of his pipe and blew a bluish black smoke ring into the gamblers. Though they coughed and one or two shot him a glare, none of them said a thing.
They couldn’t. Because he’d pick a fight, and the Chief would skin anyone who so much as laid a finger on his precious Sketcher.
Yes, sometimes it felt good to be a king among lesser men.
Hiros had always known that he would never amount to much.
Fifth son of a cousin to the Lord of the House he had never had a chance at inheriting, nor at being given any kind of important position or benefit.
First was the heir, second was the spare, third went into the army, and fourth became a tradesman or merchant. Thats how things were done in Laeros.
But the fifth? The fifth was an extra. They were unneeded. The only reason he existed was because his parents had tried to have a daughter to wed to the neighbouring lordship in order to secure ties.
And so Hiros was never much given anything as a member of the House.
But outside of it he knew he could be so much more.
The Sigil of Links. It sounded unimpressive, but it had built up a moderate fortune for his family as traders.
But they hadn’t used it to its full extent. Hiros knew how to use it fully. He’d learned in his travels, and then killed those who helped him learn it.
Funny how gratitude worked among thieves. But nobody could know the full extent of what he could do, not even the Chief.
Because that’d take away all his advantages.
And what Hiros did do was make ties between things.
A crystal here, and a crystal there made a convenient window. This seashell, that drum, a good way to listen in on other’s conversations. The glass there, and the glass here, a nice way to slice someone’s hand, maybe even poison them if he was lucky.
And of course, his favourite and most secret use, a link between one piece of ground and another, maybe two similar forest groves, or a pair of bluffs overlooking water.
An easy way to jump across the world in seconds.
Of course his family had mostly used it to move pens in other cities, have instantaneous communication or delivery of letters. Maybe, if they were feeling really smart, make a link between their enemy and someone on the street; when on ended with a dagger their hearts and the other began to bleed out, everyone knew who was to blame.
Because his family was also not particularly subtle.
Hiros wasn’t naturally subtle either, but at least he knew the value of it.
Which was he kept his many side deals a secret from the Chief. After all, it was nice to be able to do whatever he wanted in a bandit camp (and there was always plenty of food, wine, spoils, and women that he got shares of with no fighting required).
But, it would be another thing entirely to be able to do whatever he wanted across a duchy, an island, an entire empire.
So, he kept his options open, kept each of side deals secret from his other partners, and wasted his time bothering bandits as they gambled.
Yes, Hiros had always known that he wouldn’t amount to much.
So it had been a pleasant surprise when he realized that he could indeed amount to much much more than most people ever even dreamed of.
He blew another smoke ring before getting up.
Maybe it was time to pay the captives a visit. He had a few itches he wanted scratched, and not a one of them he felt like relieving for himself.
Yes, it was indeed good to be able to lord it over others.
And so, in his own way, he was a indeed a king.
Rens marched down the hallways, sword at his side, shield on his back. He was not wearing the ceremonial armour anymore; he was in his full battle plate.
Soldiers nodded to the guard captain as he passed, and he nodded back in respect. His soldiers were good, the best that the kingdom had to offer.
Yet someone they had still managed to fail.
He wanted to pause before entering the throne room, take a measure of himself and prepare. Get ready to face the two.
But the news would not wait.
Pushing the doors open he didn’t break his stride as he advanced towards the war table.
King and Queen were both in their ‘war regalia’. They were both wearing light suits of armour that would allow them a maximum range of movement for Sketching, and both had their weapons of choice, slim dueling swords, belted on their right sides.
They looked so similar, faces in grim masks, that Rens could see why the two were so happy as a couple.
He could also see how worried they were for their son.
Coming to attention he clicked his heels to get their attention.
“Majesties. The guards have reported in; there is no sign of the Prince’s body anywhere down below. We must assume that he either managed to use the Basic of the Air Sigil in order to glide some distance before landing, or that he was moved after reaching the ground”
He tried not to imply that their son was dead, but it was difficult. The Crown Prince could not very well have been moved after landing below if he was well. There would be signs of a fight or some kind of resistance to those moving him.
Alternatively, if he had had enough strength left to use the Basic then he would have been able to glide to safety somewhere, unless he expired and fell from the sky before then.
But where would he have gone to that was not the entrance to the lower wing?
That was the only logical step, unless of course he feared more assassins among the guests.
Rens still found the entire thing a bit suspicious. The Lady Inari just happened to go to the Prince’s quarters in the middle of the night in time to see Robert fall off the balcony and the Lady Juniper collapse?
Something about it just didn’t strike him as right, but he was not currently in a position to look into it, being too busy running the search for the Prince, or his corpse.
“Captain Rens. You disturbed us to bring us useless information. Why?”
“Majesties, I think that we cannot attempt to keep this secret any longer. If we are to expand the search area we must give an explanation for why large numbers of soldiers are sweeping the villages, farmlands, and forests, or else people will grow even more scared than this news will make them”
“Captain. Your words are duly noted, although you have not put enough thought behind them”
“Of course sire”
Rens bowed and tried to leave, but the King motioned for him to stay.
“You don’t know why do you? If word of Robert’s absence gets out there will be political upheaval, possibly rebellion, definitely posturing, and the chance of a war. If the Lomwar Principality launches an attack on us while we are busy searching for Robert then it would mean disaster! Distracted from within by our own concerns and quelling any possible rebellion, and assaulted from without it would be hard to win in the same way as in previous wars; at the very least there would be many casualties.
“Now that you know why it is that they were ill considered you can-”
“Philip. The Captain is just trying to do his job. He doesn’t know of the political situation, and is not expected to. Captain, I apologize for my husband’s behaviour. You are dismissed”
Bowing again Rens turned and left hurriedly, almost running into Natasi as she walked in.
“My apologies Lady”
“There is no need Captain. Actually, if you will wait here a moment, I have a proposition that I would like to propose to the King and Queen. It involves you”
He turned and stood at attention again. He did not trust her at all. First she finds Robert, now she happens to be coming in as he was leaving, maybe overhears details that are dangerous for outsiders to know, and then happens to also have an idea that involves him while he is still there.
It was too much happenstance, too much coincidence.
His fists tightened in their gauntlets, the leather creaking as she swayed towards the King and Queen. She walked like she owned everything, a kind of swaggering strut that also managed to sway, showing off for all the men in the area.
It would be unacceptable in one from the islands, and was only barely tolerated in those from the mainland. In his opinion it should not have been tolerated then either, but she was an important guest, and so was afforded the benefit of the doubt.
She had stopped him when he was too far away to listen, so he only caught snatches of the conversation.
“Expedition…accompany…Accomplished Sketcher” from Natasi and at first a strong and firm “No!” from the Queen and King.
However, as Natasi continued to talk to them the responses began to get less firm until they were thanking her for suggesting it.
How she had talked the King, let alone the Queen, into changing their minds was beyond Rens. It, in his mind, should not have been possible.
And yet there it was.
In his mind, one more reason not to trust her.
And she was coming back his way. A return to professionalism was called for.
“Captain. Their Majesties have approved my suggestion; I’ll go with you as you search for the Prince. The two of us will be in charge of the expedition while the main group will be made up of whoever you choose. We leave tonight, as soon as you have assembled the team, the finest cavalry, and I am ready”
“Of course Lady Inari”
As she walked past him Rens could not help but shake his head.
He was now answering to her? A Captain of the Royal Guard, answering to an outsider, not even someone from the Torin Islands! He was not sure how far she would push her authority while they searched, but she would likely delay them, no matter what she did.
What had she done? How had she done it?
And most of all, what would she do next?