There he goes. Mad.
Symon glanced back in the direction of Arcporte Castle. The salt breeze invaded his visor, its cold telling of the night to come. As the wind whistled through the slits and crevices of his steel, he watched the torches on the rampart light, one by one. All while the topmost windows of the West Tower darkened with the onset of dusk.
He glanced down at his vambrace. The crimson spots looked far less grotesque at sunset. Then again, so did the severed heads, though darkness would have treated them kinder.
As two guards dragged the headless corpse aside, another two struggled with a Lost Soul. Far more squeamish than the first handful, he kicked and wriggled under the firm grips of his captors.
“Mercy! I beg His Majesty, please! Mercy! Mercy!”
A sense of embarrassment blended with pity washed over Symon. A horrible way to die, really. Symon looked past the condemned man to the two guards who had removed the headless corpse. As though tossing a sack of grain, they heaved the body into the pit before wiping their hands on their leather-scaled breeches.
Symon couldn’t hear the thump of the corpse over the wails of the next convict. Yet, he knew the body had fallen. He was sure of it. It foreshadowed the next one to come, along with the dozen or so others they still had to finish off before nightfall. Then the oil would be poured, the kindling stacked, as it had gone on for the past several days.
He shook his head at the thought, nearly ignoring the axehead as it rose. The bloody executioner didn’t even bother to wipe the blade. Then again, how could he? He hadn’t the time.
As if awakening from a trance, Symon suddenly found himself on one of the terraced steps which ringed Mar-by-the-Sea Cathedral. How much time had passed? An hour? Mayhaps. The thin stench of ash remained in the air; despite Symon’s efforts to stay downwind, the breezes had shifted, as if the air itself wanted to avoid the mass of death their kin had created.
Armor and mail stirred as Ely came up beside him. “You think we’re far enough away?”
Symon turned his head. “Whatever do you mean?”
“From, you know.”
“I just said I don’t.”
“Bloody hell, you too?! I swear, am I the only one left with any sense? Me?”
“Ely, say your piece.” Or, as Father would say, “Hold your peace.”
“The, what did Dawkin call it?”
“‘Contraband.’ And I can hear you.” Dawkin glared at them with narrow eyes. “Good thing only the Voiceless are around. Your voice carries, Ely, when you’re this nervous.”
“Hey, I, I just –”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, we are far enough way.” Dawkin held out his right hand. The silent knight nearest him passed him a lit torch, which Dawkin lowered to the ground before him.
The barrels. The pitch-black substance. One of the monks had finally uttered the name. Seaflame. That brother, tied and bound, had chewed through his gag and screamed it as they had doused him and the remaining prisoners in . . .
“Don’t –” Symon started.
The wet grass before Dawkin’s feet consumed the torchlight faster than any kindling imaginable. Like a crazed serpent, a twisting blazing line raced from their terrace down the rest of the earthen steps. Upon reaching level ground, the curved band of fire straightened as it headed towards the Our Lady of Arc Monastery.
The brick. The mortar. The timber. Gone. Replaced by a white sphere that grew to engulf the monastic grounds.
Symon shielded the slit of his visor. His forearm managed to block the blinding light. The heat proved to be a different story. It washed over his vambrace before flooding in through his visor. His helm filled with what felt like dragon’s breath. Indeed, the air inside felt as if it was bubbling on his very pores.
Staggering back from the blast, Symon unlatched his helm. He tossed it aside, liberating his head from the cauldron his covering had become. Though the heat persisted all around him, he gasped for air, hoping against hope for a cool, seaside breeze.
Alas, Mar answered. The swelter subsided. The refreshing wake from the harbor returned, which met the sudden sweat that dripped from every edge of his face.
Symon looked to the monastery. Tongues of orange and white clung to the few bones of its frame not obliterated. Aside from those remnants, in the absence of the edifice, flames danced, as wild and excited as rabid hunters celebrating their first kill.
Silhouetted before the incendiary glory, Dawkin stood, having not moved from whence he dropped the torch.
“Dawkin,” Symon coughed. “Your eyes, you should turn away.”
“My vision is fine. The blast did nothing to me.”
“Still, it’s like staring into the sun.”
“It’s brilliant. All is right. And that is why . . .”
“What? Why, what?”
“. . . It will send a message . . .”
Within an hour, Symon found himself revisiting that message. Looking up from the rooftop of a tavern on the Curved Wharf, the monastery continued to burn brightly, albeit with less vigor. The once roaring white flames had subdued, taking on an orange glow licking the few remnants of the building’s frame. A few tongues had also made their way to the grasses of the grounds not immediately incinerated by the blast. Those outliers made quick work of their victims, marking their newfound conquests with fires of blue and violet.
The variety of hues made a feast for the eyes. A dazzling array of combustion. An enchanting performance of destruction. One could very well overlook how the display marked not creation nor celebration but death.
Footfalls echoing up the stairwell drew cursory glances from Symon and his brothers. Gerry emerged, the steins in his hands clanking together, threatening to slip from his hands. He managed to persevere, resting the four mugs onto the top of a barrel.
“The pub is swarming with talk.” Gerry motioned to the fiery hillside with his stein.
Ely glanced at the three remaining mugs. He made no move to grab one. “What’d they say?”
“A great many things. In support, mostly.”
“Of the King. They feel his – our – efforts to combat the insurgency sweeping the island is a good start, one which will root out evil . . .”
Or sow it. Symon stared at the rooftop beneath his feet as Gerry continued. A ruse at listening, for sure. For out of his peripheral vision, he eyed Dawkin.
Their brother brooded in his own way. He resisted the drink as Ely – another oddity – while he focused on the hillside as it burned. He nary glanced elsewhere, nor blinked, or otherwise moved. It was as if he feared the fire would extinguish should he took his eyes from it.
He wants it to burn, Symon knew. Then. Now. Forever. That concentration he bore had persisted ever since he assumed the role of Jameson at Glic Anglisk Castle. Sure, he had taken command and issued directives as any one of them would have. But upon entering the courtyard . . . Seeing the carnage . . . The other men-at-arms, on the ramparts, and those felled from the walls. Then the reports, followed by visits, to the surrounding villages, whose tales of tragedy rose into the air as ribbons of smoke. One at first, then several, each slowly crawling against the blue, polluting the sky no matter which direction they swung, as if to taunt them. Come and see. What awaits. For Marland. For King Jameson.
Gerry stopped himself while Dawkin rose from his seat to grab a stein.
“What do you mean ‘alas’?” Ely began.
“You smell that?” Dawkin prodded.
“I do.” Symon wrinkled his nose. He noticed it mere seconds before Dawkin spoke.
Gerry sniffed. “Ashes?”
“The winds shifted. The smell’s reached Smallquarter now.” Dawkin finally turned his back to the blaze, sauntering in no particular direction as he drank.
“And that means something?” Ely asked.
“Smallquarter,” Dawkin said, “is filled with hovels and taverns and houses of pleasure. It’s the one place – well, perhaps not the one – let us say it’s the best place in Arcporte to lose oneself. A man can crawl into a hole there and spend months in his own heaven or hell without ever knowing what’s going on in the outside world.
“If any of the Lost Souls evaded us, or if any dared to sympathize with their cause only to shirk from the public upon seeing our justice, the ashes – their scent, their flecks in the air – will make it known no enemy of our kin will escape. We will hunt down every fox, all the devout, and any other who contemplate doing us harm.
“The name Saliswater will become synonymous with unquestioned authority. No more conclaves, with their barons or sons casting shade on our rule. No more questions. No further doubts. The Foxhunter. The Gauntlet. And now, King Jameson – The Sword. All will know the unmerciful strength of our dynasty. Stories of our power will echo from our kingdom to the heavens, to the great Everhall itself. Kin Saliswater. The eternal rulers of Marland.”
Dawkin downed the contents of his stein before tossing it from the rooftop, nary a care for how it landed.
“Ashes for ashes,” Dawkin muttered as he gazed upon the dying flames on the hillside. “Death for death. As Grandfather and Father taught us. As it should be.”
The haunting scent of flame and anguish subsided – or perhaps their tolerance had grown – as another breeze snuck in on them. A chill one, from the harbor, sinking into the depths of their bones. Ely and Gerry pulled the collars of their coats tighter. Even Symon shifted with the cold. Dawkin, his eyes adrift from his brothers while his thoughts wandered, stirred not.
His fire burns from within. His anger. His rage. Propelled by his better judgment, Symon stood. He must be stopped.
A hand met his chest. To his surprise, Ely, now on his feet, met him with the softest gaze he had ever witnessed. Not quite hope, nor despair, nor sympathy. A sentiment altogether different. And yet somehow, appropriate.
Symon relented his charge toward Dawkin, taking a step back.
“Do you remember the last quarantine?” Ely asked.
Dawkin turned, narrowing his eyes while his shoulders rose. “The one a few years back?”
“Aye. The second wave of Silver Fever we’ve known. ‘Twas not nearly as bad as the one which left Geremias here bedridden.”
“The mage said I developed a resistance from when I was young,” Gerry said, “even if I still bear the scars.” The memory of his illness flooded back to him, prompting him to rub his forearms.
“Still, Father ordered the cities to shut their gates. The lockdown sent our economy into a tizzy. Coin fell in value. The price of flour crested. The paupers complained. The barons whined. Even after the fever relented, the threat of usurping continued. If I recall Father’s words correctly, the Conclave vowed to call an emergency session.”
Dawkin scoffed but offered no words of response, so Ely continued. “You had ascended. Gerry confined himself to Terran just to be safe while Symon made the rounds to check on him regularly. All that left me to my own devices. So I took advantage by partaking of the pleasures – the holes you call them – of Smallquarter.”
“Vulgar,” Dawkin chastised. “Even for you.”
“Tsk, tsk, brother. I wasn’t finished. For you see, while I found myself in the alleyways between establishments, I chanced upon a street performance. A troupe had made its way to Arcporte by way of a merchant vessel to set up shop in one of the well-traveled squares. I don’t recall the exact narrative of their play, only that it was boisterous and funny and entertaining as all hell.
“Afterward, I approached the manager of the acting troupe. Following a round of drinks for him and his best players, a wave of brilliance overcame me. I plopped all the coins I had right before them and proposed a play of such intrigue, a tapestry of satire, that it would capture the minds of princes and paupers alike.”
Dawkin raised a brow. “You? Wrote a play?”
“Well, don’t say it like that. The truth of the matter is I didn’t write anything. I merely provided the idea for the story, encouraging the manager and his entertainers to fill in the gaps.”
“So, he obliged?”
“The coin helped. After all, what’s the point of entering a career in theatre if one cannot exert a bit of influence, at least some control?”
Even in the shadow of darkness, Symon caught sight of Dawkin rolling his eyes.
“So the show went on, as they say. The first performance occurred in the slums of Smallquarter and some other random hovels of Arcporte before moving on to a few other townships in Marland. The acting troupe eventually circled back here where they set sail and were never heard from again.”
Ely paused. Dawkin waited for more, along with the rest of them. After a moment, Dawkin raised his hands and shoulders. “That’s it?”
“I thought so. Then many months later, when I was in disguise at some random tavern, I overheard a quartermaster and his crew squawking over a play they’d seen in Belgarda. It turns out, my sponsored production had made its way to the Kingdom of Saints.”
“Honest?” Gerry piped.
“As veracious as the ash we see falling.”
Dawkin continued to feign interest, though, in truth, his mind still seemed elsewhere. Symon, on the other hand, found himself intrigued. ‘Twas unlike Ely to spin a yarn of such detail without committing to a point or two.
“Of all the tales to tell,” Symon began, “why speak of that one? And why is this the first we’re hearing of it?”
“Alas, you pose two important queries, brother. Though the order you present them in is wrong. I must answer the latter first to give you context for the former. For you see, the play I told was all about Father.”
The three of them perked. The hairs on the back of Symon’s neck rose. Dawkin glared bewitchingly at Ely. Even Gerry – not accustomed to confrontation – leaned forward, threatening to pounce onto his feet.
“Before you jump to any conclusions, let me say my piece. The story took place in court and the quarters of counsel. It told of the dealings and drama Father had to deal with to contain the threats of Silver Fever. First, the quarantine. Then, the assignment of mages to the most affected hovels of the island. This was followed by setting prices, appeasing merchants, and, of course, the threats to his very seat on the Throne.26Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡGlacltw5eJ
“Of course, in reality, all those events unfolded in the drollest, most boring ways possible. The true story would have lulled the most outspoken babe to sleep. I knew I had to accentuate the plot points as much as possible. Which is what I did on the night I proposed it to the acting troupe. With the help of the tavern’s spirits, I exaggerated Father’s ordeals. One minute, his actions led to tragedy, then the next, satire, and finally, comedy. On and on I went, fabricating more and more, pint after pint . . . So that by the end, the play presented stood far apart from history. Father – never one to self-promote – emerged the reluctant hero, a ruler who never spared the rod, a monarch a step ahead of all his usurpers . . .”
Ely stopped. He stared down, finding his pointed gestures and mimicry had led him to the lip of the roof. He balanced himself – one foot on the ledge, the other extending behind him – before hopping back towards the center. He composed himself, taking a moment to straighten the ruffles of his clothing, before resuming his narrative. Only now, with a more somber tone.
“I know you think I acted as Prince Fool, considering the drinking, whoring, and trickery I portrayed. I admit, that . . . side of me . . . had its part. No matter. Whatever my intentions that night in the tavern – or those of the acting troupe or of the audiences who went on to see the play – something arose beyond the control of any.
“From what I know, the story of Father evolved. It grew in scope and range, portraying Father as a ruler above every other in merit and ability, one who had been blessed by Mar’s grace. By the time the sailors I overheard had seen it, his legend stood as unquestioned. His stellar reputation had seeped into every rank and class of Afarian society, from the lowly paupers of the streets to the proudest royals of the Continent.26Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡrxGChEtxJX
“Although I lacked the maturity to see it at the time, in hindsight, the signs of his newfound prestige made themselves known. Perhaps you can remember? Those in Court addressed him with less haste, more reverence. Magistrates reported more merchants paying their tributes on time and fewer quarrels on the streets. Even the Conclave restrained their bickering, with hardly an utterance arising on the supremacy of Kin Saliswater.”
“You would lead us to believe your little play had everything to do with cementing Father’s legacy?” Dawkin quipped.
“Yes, I would.”
“Ever the skeptic,” Ely quipped. “You can believe me.” Ely looked to Dawkin, who shook his head. Next, he glanced at Gerry, who offered a blank stare, before turning to Symon, who likewise knew not what to make of his yarn. Perhaps satisfied by their consideration, he continued. “Or you can write me off, like all of you have when I’ve experienced my highs and lows. Just do this kingdom a favor: don’t lie to yourselves. Whether they started in the highest court or the dankest of gutters, rumors and legends have a power all their own.”
Ely stepped before Dawkin, his eyes piercing the night which had settled between them. “Word of what you did, in the name of King Jameson, will travel near and far tonight. Past the Marlish Sea. Onto the wide Vortriac Ocean. To the shores of Port San-Mont. And all of Afari. Including the courts of every kingdom Father sought to make peace with . . . You sealed our destiny, brother. By neither chance nor fate, war will be delivered to us, the result of your actions.”
Dawkin stared back, unflinching.26Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡj2DtkVyXZx
“Defend yourself!” Ely snapped. “Do you even care what you’ve done?”
“I care,” Dawkin whispered. “More than you will ever know.”
“Our legacy, the dynasty Father and Grandfather fought so hard to make for, for us, it lies in ruin.” Ely pointed to the monastery, whose inferno had died to mere embers. “There’s your evidence. You – nay, we – will be known for this story, Dawkin. This horror you created.”
“You think me the jester?” Ely shouted. “What people say about Kin Saliswater will matter.”
Dawkin rose. He set down his stein to stretch. He made his way to the exit, stopping only when Ely cut off his path.
“I wish I had the foresight to know what you would become,” Ely said, offering one last reflection to Dawkin before he tried to escape. “Then I would have emptied the coffers to warn the peoples, to pay for the play of the Monster of Marland.”
Dawkin’s eyes transformed, overwhelmed neither by defensiveness nor rage. Rather, by pity.
“Your point is well-taken. And yet, you miss the most important part. The play – our story – it doesn’t matter how we control the players or how it unfolds onstage.” Dawkin cleared his throat. “What counts is how well we influence the audience.”
The winds shifted. The stench of ash swelled. Symon’s eyes watered. He blinked.
And with that, Dawkin had taken his leave. 26Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡ4wMEJwcorQ