“Our mage says it looks like rain.” The gap-toothed attendant squinted as he stared into the haze. “Can’t say I see it myself. Mayhaps a fog.”146Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡdMfftK2hjj
Dawkin grunted as he set the trunk against the wall. He pivoted on his heels, ready to retrieve another.
“Whatcha doing?” the attendant screeched.
Dawkin ground his teeth. “My work.”
“Not like that, you won’t. Don’t you see those stains on the wall? If it rains like the mage says it will, the water will run down the wall –”
Dawkin held out his hand, noting the darkened trail past rains had left. “I’ll move it, I’ll move it.”
The attendant opened his mouth wide, revealing his gums, as his hands shot into the air. “Bloody knights.” He stomped away. “Not a tad of sense with that lot, there is. Can’t even move a trunk without ruining it.”
Dawkin breathed deep as he bent down to drag the trunk from the wall.
Five more trunks later – which he moved and moved again – he came across the one he had set out to find. Braided with bronze studs over ribbons of embossed tin, the leather-covered trunk required a bit more heft on Dawkin’s part. He carried it to the main storage quarters along with the others, waiting for the carriage attendant to depart for the privy before moving it to the barracks assigned to the Voiceless.
There, he threw open the trunk. He drew a few volumes from within, including the one he had sought. Laying them on one of the bunks, he admired their calligraphy for a moment before retreating to the washbasin in the corner.
Removing his prosthetic nose, chin, and cheekbones, Dawkin scrubbed the makeup from his face. A knock from outside the locked door caught him with a towel over his face.
“Occupied,” he shouted, hoping the knight on the other side would recognize his voice.
“‘Tis me,” Artus replied.
Dawkin sighed. He unlocked the door for his grandfather, retreating to the trunk he had brought as he entered.
“They’re about to begin the Conclave,” Artus announced.
“Good,” Dawkin said, his back to Artus. He knelt to throw open the lid to his trunk. “The sooner they start, the quicker we end this. This place is so, so damp and cold.”
“You picked it.”
“A choice I now regret. I thought earthen forts were supposed to be packed tight, to avoid all these drafts.”
“Like other castles, they have ventilation shafts. I suppose some may have broadened or swelled over time.”
“Perhaps.” Dawkin tossed aside a few wares from the trunk, whose contents had shifted considerably on the carriage ride over.
“May I lend a hand?” Artus asked.
“Thank you, no.”
From behind Dawkin, Artus sighed.
“What?!” Dawkin asked.
He pivoted on the balls of his feet, ready to meet his grandfather’s disapproving stare, perhaps even a scowl.
He met the back of his fist instead.
Dawkin tumbled onto his back. Stunned and shocked, he looked up at his grandfather. The old man, with fists closed, towered over him.
“What in the blazes was that?”
“You’re not a spoiled, sniveling prince anymore. You are a king. Act like one.”
Dawkin sat up, caressing his jaw. It did not hurt per se. Rather, the mark stung his pride more than anything.
“Are you angry?” Artus prodded.
“You should be. Your behavior as of late has been deplorable.”
“What?” Dawkin shuffled up to his feet. “What are you talking about, Grandfather? Have you lost your wits?”
“No. Have you?”
“Me?” Dawkin, dumbfounded, knew not whether to seethe with anger or retreat in guilt. “You, I, I – What is the meaning of this?”
“You truly don’t know?”
Dawkin knew. His eyes narrowed at the name flashing through his mind.
“Say it,” Artus insisted as if reading his mind.
“But he, he questioned me.”
“As is his right. Like your other brothers.”
“He’s different. That damn warrior. He disappears for months at a time – with Ely and Gerry and nearly the whole Court – and then returns to scrutinize my every move, as I knew he would. Him and his pious, self-righteous attitude.”
“Listen to yourself.” Artus approached Dawkin, unclenching one hand while the other remain balled. “You know your brother. You anticipated his behavior, his reaction, to what you did in his absence and that of your brothers. And still, you act blindsided, offended by his criticisms. What’s more, you turned craven. You decided to sedate him rather than stand by your actions and defend yourself in the Fourpointe Chamber.”
“The lot of them would have confined me to Terran.”
“So be it. ‘Tis their right.”
“They have no claim to judge me. They weren’t here. They didn’t see what we – what I – saw. In the countryside. On the streets. The madness. Hysteria. The loss of control. One that would have surged from the gutters and sluices of every slum we have.”
“You don’t know what it’s like.”
“I do!” Artus – straightening further, now with both hands balled – stood squarely up to him. “The Century War did this to many. Far too many. I watched as men with wit and courage such as yours would march off to the battlefield with ideals and dreams of glory aplenty. They would pass a town or village close to the front, maybe one pillaged, and witness the horror of war on the common. The fear. The desperation. From an enemy real or imagined, there one moment and gone the next. It was never the actual combat that claimed them. It was always what they saw before or after which came to haunt them. And not just the foot soldiers. Knights. Barons. Kings . . .”
The last utterance hung in the balance, crippling Artus’ resolve to speak sense to his kin. His concentration wavered. He leaned away from Dawkin.
“Grandfather?” Dawkin began.
“Audemar. My son . . .” Artus turned away. Whether he spoke his name out of nostalgia or had lost his senses – believing now the one before him was the late king – Dawkin dared not say.
“At the castle, when you met me in the library, you said you had something of importance to discuss. With me. Along with my brothers. About our father. And us.”
“Oh, that. Yes.”
“Grandfather, what happened?”
“You . . . you were . . . born . . .”
The door creaked open.
Dawkin exploded with rage. “Who dares to disturb the King –”
The soft white face of Taresa peeked in, her eyes set on the two.
Artus spun around to meet her stare as well. He and Dawkin – as if ghosts caught in the act of a haunting – remained agape as Taresa entered. Doe-eyed, she approached, with the slightest of smiles repressed from her lips.
“What are you doing here?” Dawkin blurted.
Taresa bristled a tad. Her hint of amiability dissipated, replaced at once with regal formality. “I am a queen of Marland now, am I not?” she pressed.
“In Ibia, a queen has the right to enter every chamber of a royal residence, be it a temporary shelter or permanent dwelling. My tutors of etiquette informed me this is also the case here on this island. Were they wrong?”
Taresa nodded, accepting the confirmation. She glanced at Artus. “The lords collect in the Hall. You are expected. Before the king.”
Taresa laid her hands over her waist, waiting for a response. Artus and Dawkin shared a look. Artus finally relented. “I take my leave.” He looked to Dawkin. “I will see you before the Conclave, King Jameson.” Then to Taresa. “Your Majesty.”
Taresa waited until the door closed, leaving her alone with Dawkin.
“I suppose I must prepare,” Dawkin said.
The Queen glared at him.
“The barons will be waiting,” he continued.
Her silence assaulted his confidence.
“Is there something on your mind?”
“Why do you do this, James?”
“Your behavior. How you treat me. One minute, you are the kindest, gentlest man I’ve ever met. The next, you turn me aside like some used harlot.”
“Taresa. I –”
“I’m not finished!” Taresa breathed, composing herself, as Dawkin pursed his lips. “Just when I think I know you, you show me . . . another side . . . of yourself. One righteous. One awful. All those in between. I meet a different man every time.”
Taresa paused. In that respite, Dawkin considered the possibility of discovery. How much has she seen? Does she suspect? Worse, does she know?
Before Dawkin could compose himself to answer – rather than sputter – Taresa pivoted. She searched the room, circling the bunks and racks of the barracks.
“You quarter your mute knights here?”
“They truly cannot speak?” She wafted up to a rack of halberds. She extended her hand to a curved blade, her fingers tracing the air just beyond its edge.
“Words aloud, no. They lack the ability. They communicate by way of their hands.”
“Have you ever known them to have outbursts? To blurt out a phrase they later had to apologize for, earnestly?” At the last word, she ventured a gander at Dawkin.
“No. I haven’t.”
“You would do well to learn from them.” Taresa pulled her hand away from the halberd. She retreated from the rack, taking position only feet from Dawkin.
“I suppose you’re right,” Dawkin relented.
Taresa looked away for a moment, thoughtful. Dawkin considered saying something before her stare returned to his eyes, arresting the whole of him. “I never thought I’d want a man to mince his words with me. I always believed I wanted something – anything – different.”
“I’ve only known my father and mother as composed. As a solitary figure, people see King Felix as a stoic, careful man. I’ve witnessed only a few bouts of emotion from him, such as a raised voice here or a reddened face there. Yet never has he allowed himself to show a bit of his true form, whatever that might be, to the Queen. He addresses her like he would a duke or baron of the Court.
“And my mother, she just accepts it. She talks and talks as if she’s in the presence of one of her chambermaids. She giggles. She screams. She even curses. All he does in response is wait, his tone never an octave higher when he’s finally granted a moment to speak. That’s who he is in the presence of his beloved, the woman who bore his daughters. A statue.”
She relented, searching for a wisp of empathy, any sign that the man across from her could relate.
As a matter of fact, Dawkin could.
How many times have I been groomed, trained, instructed to act not only as a royal – but the royal people last saw? How often has Ely returned from a manic episode or Symon from a sparring match, with me expected to pick up where they left Jameson? Even now . . . Who am I to this woman? My wife. The queen.
The mother of Gerry’s child.
“Taresa,” Dawkin started, then stopped himself. Not met with interruption, he continued. “I fully expect you will see sides of me both royal and intimate. While I have been groomed for the Throne my entire life, I can not, will not, portray any part of my personage fraudulently to you.
“That will undoubtedly . . . present some problems at times. Perhaps even today, if these barons manage to crawl under my skin. Rest assured, when I lose my senses, I intend to return to them, and you, if you’ll have me.”
Taresa grinned. She extended her hands to Dawkin’s, her fingers interlacing with his.
“I shall like that,” she replied.
Dawkin held her stare. Far shorter than a husband should. And yet longer than appropriate for any man with the wife of another, even that of a brother.
“I have something to show you,” he blurted, cutting the occasion short.
“What is it?”
“I, uh, um, these books here.” He pointed to the volumes he had laid on the bunk. “My grandfather came to check on me, on these, to make sure they arrived in fair condition. The lot of them have been passed down from generation to generation.”
“All of them? Some look so new.”
“Well, a few are. Like this one. And that.” He pointed to The Weald Tales. “I’ve carried on the family hobby of collecting rare books. It’s a Saliswater tradition. One I hope we can carry on someday with our son.”
“Yes. Either would be brilliant. Like their mother.”
Taresa blushed, turning away from Dawkin to kneel before the bunk. She placed her hand atop each open volume as she glanced from one to another.
“You may take a few volumes back to your, I mean our, royal quarters if you like,” Dawkin said as Taresa admired the manuscripts. “Even in this drafty fortress, I heard from the attendants that the hearths warm the rooms well. I’ll have them start a fire, so you may enjoy a cup of tea while –”
“Oh, how interesting.”
“Yes, the volumes offer such a wide breadth of prose and poetry.”
“No, that isn’t it.” Taresa placed her hand atop one of the pages of The Weald Tales. She stretched her fingers as she pressed her palm to the parchment. Then, she withdrew it. “Look.”
The calligraphy, having been of solid black ink, flashed alive in tones of copper and auburn. The lettering shone brightly before returning to its original hue, save for a few letters which stood apart, telling their own story.
Dawkin bent beside Taresa, mesmerized by the phenomena. “What did you do?”
“I only touched it.”
“Is it . . .” Enchanted? Magical? No, it cannot be. There must be some logical explanation.
It dawned on him. “Put your hand to it again. Then pull away quickly.”
Taresa did as instructed. Upon drawing her hand away, only a few letters came alight.
“Now rub your hands together vigorously. Create some heat and press both hands to the page.”
She followed his directive. After ten seconds, Dawkin reached for her forearms, which he raised from the book.
Beneath, the lettering flickered, lush and bright.
“Brilliant,” Taresa murmured.
“Heat,” Dawkin whispered. “It responds to heat.” He straightened up before pivoting to scan the barracks.
Atop a bench laid the standard-issued supplies all Voiceless carried on assignment. Dawkin rummaged through the nearest, finding the objects of his need: a flint and candle.
He lit the candle, his hand cupping its flame. Taresa scooted aside as Dawkin approached the manuscript.
He held the leaf of fire a finger-length above the page. It flickered to no particular breeze, the wax it melted threatening to fall.
“Careful,” Taresa whispered.
“I have it.” Dawkin held his free hand under the coalescing beads. A droplet fell to his index finger. It stung. Yet Dawkin did not wince. For before him, the parchment transfigured.
A spectrum of tones – some metallic, others with deep hues – sparkled as the black ink faded. As bright as reflected sunlight, it shone. Dawkin and Taresa fought the urge to look away.
As quickly as it flashed, the scene subsided, though this time, the letters left in its wake persisted for seconds. Long enough for the two of them to read.
“I can speak Marlish,” Taresa began. “But my reading of your language is lacking. I only managed to pick up every other word or so.”
“Then your comprehension is fine.” Dawkin blew out the candle before tossing it aside. He slammed the book shut. “It’s Old Marlish.” He rose, taking Taresa by the hand.
“James, what is the meaning –”
“We need to get you to safety. Quickly. Before it’s too late.” 146Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡ6eDi3VWroV