“You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.”
“You’re back sooner than we expected.”
“Are you complaining?” Ely asked as he removed a false mustache from his fulcrum.
“No,” Dawkin replied.
By Mar, how I hate the banter between them, Symon thought. “To the Fourpointe Table,” he insisted.
“Yes, yes,” Ely said as he wiped the adhesive from his face with a handkerchief.
“You dyed your hair,” Gerry noted, referring to the strands that peeked out from under Ely’s roundlet.
“Thoughtful of you to notice,” he replied as he swept the hat from his head and tossed it to a nearby end stand. He tipped a carafe of wine to his lips, not bothering with a goblet. “I took extra care with my appearance while in the city, seeing as how none of you trust me just yet to resume the role of Jameson.”
“And how goes it in Arcporte?” Dawkin asked.
Ely paused. He gave his brother a wry look. “You’re not going to like it.”
“Then let us have our chamber session,” Symon insisted. “If we are to have bad news, let us make it official.”
The four took their seats at each corner of the table. Symon eyed the swath of crimson that still stained the wood, a remnant of their past argument.
“Brothers,” Dawkin began. “Princes. I call this session to order.” He glanced at Ely. “If you please.”
“I did my rounds while out and about. In expeditious fashion I might add. I had nary time for a pint, let alone a woman.”
“On with it,” Symon interrupted.
“Right. So anyway, judging from the small talk and rumors I overheard - along with the news I paid for outright - our position is not good, my brothers.”
“How not good?”
“The Lewmarian presence in the north has the entire island on edge. Prices on all goods have increased exponentially. Barons are hoarding their stocks, leaving the common folk to fend for themselves. Mariners are readying their ships should they need make a hasty exit for the south, or for Afari altogether. Then there is the Conclave . . .”
Ely paused. It was unlike him to hesitate, Symon knew, whether he was in high or low spirits.
“What of the barons?” Gerry inquired.
“I heard different things. Mostly how they are not happy with us.”
“Prince Jameson. Kin Saliswater. Basically, the whole of our family.” Ely shot a look at Dawkin. “That move you pulled, sending Grandfather to the manor, that didn’t sit too well with the nobles either.”
“What else was I supposed to do?” Dawkin asked, referring to his ascension only the day before. “The Courts of both nations are ready to annihilate one another. King Felix and the Grand Duke are as untrustworthy as they come. Once their ships have been repaired, which can be any day now, they will probably leave at once, to return home and declare war on us. Then there are the Lewmarians, who will not bother with any one particular manor but threaten to march on the city itself. Grandfather needed to be secured. It was the only option.”
“You sound a tad melodramatic,” Ely suggested.
“No,” Dawkin warned. “Don’t you start!”
“Brothers, please!” Symon barked. His tone quieted them. “We need unity at a time like this. Ely, continue.”
“As I was saying, the rumors are a flurry regarding the Conclave’s next move. The most prominent theory circulating the taverns and markets is that the barons intend to hold a gathering soon at Highmoorr Castle.”
“Highmoorr?” Dawkin stated, shocked and dismayed. “There was no mention of that to me when I was above.”
“Me neither,” Gerry added.
“Then we know the rumor to be true,” Ely quipped. “A meeting so clandestine at a time such as this can only mean one thing.”
The four quieted. Symon knew what the other three were thinking, for he pondered the same.
“Well?” Ely prompted. “Must I say aloud what is on all our minds?”
“No,” Dawkin replied. “You needn’t. Father never trusted the Conclave outright. No monarch should. They support whomever is working towards their best interests. Sure, we may enact justice in the Name of the Crown. There have even been times when we have had to punish a noble or their son or two. The Conclave has always kept their distance and watched on, careful not to usurp a sovereign unless absolutely necessary.”
“Do they believe it is absolutely necessary?” Gerry pondered.
“But it’s been –”
“I know. Two hundred years since a sovereign was named by the Conclave.”
“A sovereign from our kin, when we overtook the claim to the Crown from Kin Noryxx,” Symon added, solemnly.
“Aye,” Dawkin said. “Now it may be our turn to be replaced.”
“Well then? What shall we do?” Gerry begged.
“One of us will have to ride to Highmorr Castle, to address the Conclave. That is the first matter with which to be dealt.”
“Are you mad?” Symon asked. “The Lewmarians are fiercer than any pompous Marlish noble. We need to amass an army and meet them in the north, before they wreak further havoc and destruction.”
“Raising an army is an act that requires the Conclave’s support. To do so, we must meet with them and make the argument for a thorough operation, one to which all the barons can agree and contribute.”
“Brothers.” Gerry’s look shifted from pleading to demanding. “King Felix! He must be addressed and coerced to stay. He’s nearly ready to leave, to take along his entire Court, including his daughter, Taresa.”
“Would you stop thinking with your member for one minute?!” Dawkin barked.
“Watch your tone!” Symon shot back.
A hundred shards, pounding the tiled floor in rapid succession, stunned the three. Near the door, they found the shattered remains of a wine carafe strewn over the blotchy puddle of the ambrosia that was once within.
“You see what you made me do?” Ely accused them, gesturing to the floor. “That was damn fine wine. Now it lies ruined. Because of the bickering between you three. Ugh, you disgust me.”
Without pausing for a response, Ely whisked away to another end table, where yet a second carafe had been laid. In typical fashion, he removed the stopper and chugged the contents, inhaling nearly half of the wine within.
“Something on your mind, brother?” Dawkin inquired with some apprehension.
“Why, so kind of you to ask, brother.” Ely sauntered over to the Fourpointe Table, which he casually hopped on, so as to take a seat cross-legged on the map laid out before him. “I’ve come to an important revelation: you all are mad.”
The three looked to each other, with none quite believing the accusation.
“Excuse me?” Gerry squeaked.
“And partially deaf, I also fear.”
“Ely, enough with your trickery of words. Out with your thoughts.”
“Fine, fine. Although when I’m done I hope you heed my advice, which will be plentiful but ultimately boils done to one fine point.”
“Which is . . .”
“The answer is right in front of you.”
Symon, perplexed, looked to his other two brothers to see if they had the faintest notion of what Ely had meant. Dawkin glanced at Symon, his eyes conveying an already tired sense of speculation. No, he doesn’t know. Symon then shifted his attention to Gerry, about to ask him for his own opinion, when he noticed his little brother shuddering. But why?
Their continued perturbation escaped Ely as he stood. The Fourpointe Table, of considerable width and density, held under his weight with ease as he took one careful footfall after another to trace the length of the map of Marland. “You see, each of you proposes a specific course, acting as though only one option at a time is open to us. Somehow – and this is the part that I find particularly astounding – you have avoided talking about a solution to our problems that is more comprehensive in its nature, one that utilizes the peculiar advantage that has been granted to us since birth.”
“No,” Dawkin replied as the unspoken suggestion by Ely dawned on him.
“What?” Gerry asked.
“He wants all of us to ascend,” Dawkin answered Gerry, though he continued to look upon Ely.
Hmmm, Symon considered. A bold proposition.
“Well, not all of us,” Ely said as he stared at the map, tapping it with his foot. “One should stay below, so as to preserve the bloodline should our plan go awry.”
“Is it?” Symon asked. “Ely has the right of it. We look the same. We all know the same land, manors and barons. We have threats on multiple sides. Why shouldn’t we – as Prince Jameson - address all these issues in different spots?”
“Because we will be found out!” Dawkin insisted, his eyes bulging at the truth he felt only he could see. “There will be witnesses in every location, every castle and field of battle. Even if we manage to succeed in each theatre – which in and of itself is a cold chance in Hell – we will still need to account for our multiple sightings in various parts of the island. Barons and their servants will talk of our deeds. Many will come to know of the impossibility. Suspicions will grow. At worst, our secret - of four brothers acting as one prince – will be revealed. At best, there will be talk of imposters, which alone will spur an inquisition by both the Conclave and the Church that would lead to our doom.”
“Dawkin is right to be so cautious,” Gerry added, his face turning solemn. “None of you were above when . . . it happened. Our enemy, or enemies, are more conniving than you think. Father was struck. Twice. Who is to say what those vipers would do once they got wind of all of us.”
“Listen,” Ely began once more, hopping from the Fourpointe Table. “Please do not misunderstand me. I agree that we cannot all go above and act as Prince Jameson in different places at the exact same time simply because of needs for him in multiple locales. I also know we cannot climb out from Terran together and tell the entire kingdom of our twenty-year secret. Neither will gain us the outcome we so desperately desire.”
“Then what is it you propose, exactly?” Symon prompted.
“I say three of us go above. One acts in one place, waits for an agreed-upon time before the other acts, while the third waits still longer before doing his duty. That way, it appears to the Court and the whole nation that Jameson was not in many locales at once, but was simply being expeditious.”
Dawkin rubbed his chin. “It could work.”
“But everything will need to be well-timed. Everything must be staged.”
“And that is why we are here, brothers. To plan.”
Symon leaned over the table. His eyes drifted to the map of the north. He studied the various grooves and indentations the craftsman had carved and painted, to symbolize the rolling hills, vast woodlands and rivers that intersected the land. So beautiful was the topography that in his youth, he had studied it for hours. Now, all the hindrances and boundaries presented a different sort of appreciation, one for the scarce time they would have to protect the upper part of the island and somehow return to Arcporte under the guise of a Mar—driven horse with no sense of fatigue.
“Even if we managed to pause in our efforts to account for our travels,” Gerry said, putting in part Symon’s concerns into words. “No one peasant let alone a baron will believe we rode from Highmorr to northern Marland to Arcporte to deal with all these matters.”
“We could stage the country’s best horses at different intervals along the routes,” Ely suggested.
“And we could be seen riding them,” Dawkin added, his interest in Ely’s plan growing stronger with every moment. “Yes, we will need to been seen riding to sell this idea. Not to mention, we should make haste from our positions anyways, so as to gallop in – in disguise, of course – to offer assistance to whomever is Prince Jameson at the moment.”
“But where would we get such horses?” Symon asked. “We will need every spare mount lent to our cavalry and to Kin Saliswater if we are to march north. Then if another rides to Highmorr . . .”
“I know where we can secure good mounts. Stallions. Mares. All great for hard riding.”
“Brothers, I am enthused by the flood of details,” Ely reported, a cat’s grin curling on his face. “Shall we make them all official?”
“Very well,” Dawkin replied, straightening. “Brothers . . . princes. What is decided henceforth will be official, bound by our word and carried out under the guise of Prince Jameson, not only for our safety as heirs to the Crown but for the continued preservation of Kin Saliswater and for the glory that is Greater Marland. What we plan here, and later carry out, we do as defenders of the realm. Do all agree?”
“Aye,” the three answered in unison.
“Then may Mar guide us to make the best decisions possible.”
“May Mar guide us,” the brothers repeated, striking their closed fists over their hearts.
“Brother,” Ely nodded to Dawkin. “Tell of your part in this plan.”
“As discussed, the Conclave of the Barons must be dealt with swiftly. We cannot allow them to sow dissent among their ranks or with the other barons. Therefore, I propose to ride to Highmoorr Castle –”
“At what hour?” Symon asked.
“At night. The fewer that see me the better.”
“Very well,” Symon replied, albeit with hesitation crowning his voice. “Continue.”
“I should reach Highmoorr in the very early morning. I intend to rile those entitled bastards from their beds. Perhaps a few will still be awake – and inebriated – leading to little resistance. I will demand a session of the Conclave be called. I will make my case for a Saliswater to continue to rule Marland. It will be an impassioned plea, a solid argument. One that is direct, bold and strong, leaving little room for doubt. Then the barons will cast their vote.”
“And if they vote to remove you?” Gerry inquired. “I mean, us?”
Dawkin sighed. “No matter. Even if they vote against us, they will still need to elect a new sovereign. Such a process will take weeks at best, perhaps months. Until the Crown is removed from our heads, we still rule. Still, we must at least pretend to ask for their permission to gather forces, if only to prevent strife and internal conflict further down the line.”
“So you make your case, the lot is cast and the barons share their decision. Then you ride from the castle,” Ely summed.
“What of you?” Ely asked of Symon, pointing his nearly empty carafe towards him. “What do you think?”
“With Dawkin’s piece done, there will then be the matter of dealing with King Felix or the Lewmarians.”
“Battles and engagements can be long, trivial events,” Ely quipped. “Should we deal with the Ibian monarch first?”
“No. He is a cunning man. An impatient one. Whatever hopes and assurances we feed him he will not accept. We need to prove to him that Marland is no weakling when it comes to our enemies, that we are still the victor that rose from the ashes of the Century War.”
“So? To battle?”
“That will mean that enough time will had to have passed between when I leave Highmoorr Castle and the start of any hostilities,” Dawkin stated. “You will need to wait to march from Arcporte –”
“No. No waiting.”
“But, Symon, you can’t lead the troops while I’m before the Conclave of Barons.”
“I won’t. Sir Everitt will. He is my – our – Right Captain. Before you leave for Highmoorr, you will decree, in secret, that all of Marland’s forces will fall under the command of his sword. You will write down the words, seal with wax and present the edict to him, to make it all official. Mage Wystan can serve as witness.
“You will then leave for Highmoorr while Everitt readies the soldiers for the march north. He will march long and hard so that our men-at-arms will be in defensive position by the time you leave the Conclave and ride to meet them. Of course, there will be no need for you to actually be there. I will trail after the lot of them, standing aside until enough time has passed to make your ride from one point of Marland to another believable.”
“I should still ride to the defenses to meet you, as you will need to be briefed should my case before the barons goes awry.”
“Very well. You may arrive and report on the Conclave, so long as you are in disguise, wearing one of Ely’s odd little moustaches.” Symon grinned as rubbed the tips of his fingers beside the edge of his mouth.
“Ha, ha, ha!” Ely retorted. “Laugh if you will. But my costumes have served us well.”
“So you fight the battle, or some part of it, after Dawkin does his bit. What of King Felix?” Gerry asked. “Should I deal with him?”
The other three looked to each other. Symon laid his eyes on his brother.
“No . . .” Gerry whispered.
“It is as Ely said,” Symon confirmed. “One of us must stay below.”
“But why me? Why not Ely? I mean, he nearly threw himself from the Sirens’ Cavern only days ago.”
“I have a certain way of taking care of myself in these delicate matters,” Ely assured his brother, ignoring the slight to his ego.
“What? With your wigs and clothes and all else?”
“For all his . . . antics . . . He handles the sword better than you,” Symon confirmed. “I hate to admit it, but we’ll need his skills of aggression above.”
“Aye,” Dawkin added. “He is the better fighter. And his wit, while troublesome at times, is as sharp as any. He can spot a threat from a mile away. You know this. That is how he has managed to weasel his way out of many a brawl and tavern fight all these years.”
“Barkeeps and wenches are one thing, but I speak of dealing with a king. Princess Taresa –”
“– is a princess, nothing more,” Ely said, coming up to Gerry to clap a hand on his shoulder. “Her father rules, and if he has it his way at this point, the Grand Duke will succeed him. Xain is as cunning as any fox we’ve dealt with, he is a royal deserving of another worthy adversary. Perhaps in time, you will be able to match wits with him.”
“Do not patronize me, brother.” Gerry threw his hand from his shoulder. “I am a prince as much as you, with all the same training and trappings.”
“You are one of four, and subject to the vote of this session.” Ely withdrew from Gerry to take his seat at the table. He lifted his feet onto the lip as he leaned back and cocked his head. “All those in favor of Symon, Dawkin and I ascending, to act as Prince Jameson, at separate times, say ‘aye.’”
“Aye,” Dawkin said.
“Aye,” Symon replied, albeit a tad quieter than his brother.
“And aye,” followed Ely. “All those opposed, say ‘nay.’”
Gerry chose not to reply with a word but with his departure.
“Gerry!” Symon yelled after him.
“Let him be,” Ely urged. “He has the gist of it.”
“Ely’s right,” Dawkin admitted. “Give him his peace. Ely, what will your part be in all of this?”
“I will need to stay in the shadows, until I know, or suspect, that you and Symon have been successful in securing the Conclave and protecting northern Marland. Neither of you must dillydally. Dawkin, you speak your speech, and Symon, you make a show of defenses. Neither of you stick around in your respective positions to come out the hero.”
“I will be quick with my words,” Dawkin promised. He shot a questioning look to Symon. “Will you remove yourself from the battlefield, whether we have vanquished the Lewmarians or not?”
Symon paused. Never before had he shirked from a conflict. To do so in the face of a warlord seemed so cowardly and unbecoming of a true sovereign-to-be.
“The Lewmarian threat, especially one led by a warlord, can stall and go on for weeks and months, no matter the strategy at hand,” Ely said.
“That is right,” Dawkin confirmed. “We need only to secure a position and set up troops along the northern part of the island. If Hunold’s forces are there and need to be engaged, deal with them with haste. If not, we cannot afford to wait around for a fight.”
“Set up a presence, fight only if warranted, and leave quickly.”
“It is strategy that matters, Symon. Not the hero’s fight. It is as Father would have done.”
“Yes, just like Father.”
Symon sighed. He knew his brothers had the right of it. “Very well.”
“Good.” Ely sprang from his chair. “Then when you and Dawkin have done your bit in the morning, I will plan on addressing King Felix and his Court. No need for me to wait for you for a briefing of events. I will fill in the gaps, make assurances to the monarch that both the Land and the Crown of Marland are safe—”
“And secure the treaty,” Dawkin reminded him. “Along with Taresa’s hand.”
“My, brother, you sound like our little hound, Gerry.”
“Ely,” Symon warned.
“All right, all right. I was just having a bit of fun, is all. Yes, I will also secure the necessary commitments that our father worked so hard for, may Mar rest his soul. I promise. Are you happy now?”
“Hardly,” Symon replied. “There is too much at stake for us to trust that Felix will remain while he thinks us gone. If Ely approaches him too soon, before we have finished our bit, then our ruse will be exposed.”
“Are you proposing what I think you are?” Dawkin asked.
Dawkin sighed. “I supposed sending away Grandfather was a hasty move on my part. He was none too thrilled of it, to be honest. I suppose we can summon him back. May do him some good. He can reign in Prince Jameson’s absence, while I attend to the Conclave and you deal with the Lewmarians.”
“He will not go unprotected, brother. I assure you. I will keep watch from the shadows, under the guise of a helmed knight. Or a serving wench if it comes to it.”
“You better do your part. We all must. The kingdom depends on it.”
“Very well.” Symon glanced at the door. “Is this session of the Fourpointe Table at an end?”
“Tis ended,” Dawkin confirmed. “I’ll ascend now, to make some preparations for above.”
“If you don’t mind, brothers, I feel the need to return to Arcporte. One can never have too much intelligence in such matters.”
“True,” Symon stated, though he knew his brother sought to quench his thirst for wine and whores.
With that Ely parted from them, hurriedly reapplying his false moustache as he left.
“Good fortune to you on your return above,” Symon wished Dawkin.
“Thank you. I will return shortly. What will you do in the meantime?”
Symon looked to Gerry’s empty chair.
“Remind our brother that the decision made at this forum was not personal,” Dawkin chimed.
“Aye, I’ll remind him.”
Dawkin clapped Symon on the shoulder. Symon did the same, looking on as his brother retreated from the chamber.
Symon headed to Gerry’s room. Upon discovering it empty, he visited the dining hall, then the kitchen and the privy. With no sign of his brother to be found, he turned next to the Siren’s Cavern before entering the underground bailey.
There, at the chamber he would have expected his little brother to visit, he discovered three of the Voiceless picking up an array of overturned weapons, racks and hay bales.
“What in Mar’s name happened here?” he asked, nearly expecting the silent knights to answer him with words.
The three Voiceless looked to each other, unsure of which of them should reply. The one closest to Symon raised his hand. In quick succession, his fingers spoke, telling Symon all he needed to know.
Damn, Symon thought, staring down at the mess. Such anger. And frustration. The poor lad. When trouble arises above – the kind he cannot handle – we vote for him to stay behind. He is always left behind. Tis unfair. Yet for his own good.
“I will have a word with him,” Symon assured the Voiceless. “Thank you for tending to this.”
He pivoted to head back towards the hall that lead past their rooms. Having checked everywhere else, he set his sights on the labyrinth of passages that curved in and around Terran. His hastily made way for the nearest one, hoping that Ely had not chanced upon his brother for fear another jab at his pride may send him into a fury.
The nearest corridor remained empty, as did the next few after. Symon passed knight after knight, whom he queried about his brother. All responded the same: he was nowhere to be seen.
Exhausting every passage he knew, he returned to the center of Terran, to quiz the three Voiceless further.
“Mar . . .”
The mention of their deity was faint, carried on a breeze that nary existed. Had a crash of the waves beyond the sandstone walls struck at that precise moment, it would have overtaken the whisper, to drown it out. Yet it did nothing of the sort. The name reached Symon’s ears, so that at once he knew from whence it came.
With all the care he exuded in battle, Symon climbed the steps leading to the outlook of the Siren’s Cavern. Every footfall of his approach enlightened him with sounds from Gerry. Most were sniffles and sobs. Peppered among the weeping were the fragments of a prayer, part plea, part condemnation.
“Why make me a Saliswater if I am not princely?” Gerry begged for an answer between whimpers. “Why, Mar, why?”
Symon hurried up the stairs to console his brother.
“I can hardly face my brothers.”
“For they know the cowardice of my soul. The fear I harbor. I wish they would never see me like this. Yet they have. They do. All the time.”
Symon crouched on the steps.
“I nearly pray for you to end our dynasty, so that we may shed our rights as sovereigns to live a normal life. That of a peasant, one in which we may know boredom. Where competition is not the norm, a life where one not need consider his own sense of worth. That is all I pray for, Mar. Not victory. Nor defeat of my enemies. Only for a simple life.”
Symon sat. Out of view of his brother, he listened as the fragments of gales from the sea delivered his pleas to the One Up On High.
“My life, Mar. I pray for a life all my own. My life.”
Symon considered. He silently replied with a devotion of his own.
Mar, consider my brother’s words
And end them.
For he does not belong to himself.
None of us do.
He is a Saliswater.
We are Saliswaters.
As my father proclaimed,
We live to serve.
His life is not his,
It is consecrated,
Like mine or my brothers,
For the greater good.186Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡcvk6Na9b0H