The prince is dead.
Never thought I’d be the one to write that, before scribes and historians got the chance. Then again, never thought I’d end up in front of the king on the last day of Autumnal, called to court on a secret, urgent errand…
It’s been an odd day.
I guess I should feel special, somehow. Honored. Chosen. But no – I feel nothing but dread… well, dread, and boyish excitement, to be perfectly honest. The wiser, older (much older) part of me knows trouble with the highborne brings disaster for the smallfolk, and with this excuse of a harvest gone and the portents for winter even worse than the last… I fear for Jayceson, for Senaia, and for myself… for myself most of all, I write with shame.
Maybe that’s why I agreed to this damned fool… thing (quest? no… ’tisn’t grand enough to call a quest): that foreboding. That, and the threat of the king’s guardsmen. It’s a fool’s errand… though I actually saw the royal fool, lurking in the shadows as the old king spoke. Why don’t they just send him?
Because motley and bells would hardly go unnoticed on the Northroad; not even in the stranger parts. Besides, I’ve a suspicion he’ll be much needed in the castle. Even so…
Arches! Sorry – Patron Obris (my old priest) said I had a tendency to ramble when putting words to paper, and it seems I’ve not outgrown the habit – not that I’ve had much chance to learn. But if this journal’s some kind of record – unofficial as it is – I should probably try to make it somewhat sensible. Start at the start, end at the end, as he used to say – Obris, that is. I still have no idea what to do in the middle, though. To anyone reading this, I apologize – for that, and for my spelling. I’ve always been better at putting words together than letters. Obris said they liked to slide around each other whenever I put quill to…
Arches of the earth, I’m doing it again!
Alright: from the start… that is, today, the day after Autumnal (should I explain that? I hope not – unless some Outerlier or backwards dwarfish is reading this, they should know their feast days at least). The Capital sat eerie quiet this morn; everyone sleeping off their honey-mead or wishing they were, like the poor sods struggling to pack their wagons across the market square from where I sat. I saw one – a rice-man from the lower Steps – make the same trip from cart to stall and back again three times before remembering the coin purse he’d been going for at first.
I shook my head. I’d hardly teetotaled, but I’d had sense enough to take the heavy stuff before the festival really got going. Best to be hungover when the customers are too drunk to notice. I went back to what coin Jayceson and I had squeezed from our watery haul of vegetables – not nearly so fresh now as when they left Ellingston. The quarter bulls slipped cold from my fingers in a rhythm of four: plink plink plink, one, plink plink plink, two…
Jayceson (who’d not had a drop to drink, by Fires!) loaded the last leavings of cabbage and cellar-root into Mortin’s half cart. He’d lent me the thing, as he had for years – with promise of payment in writing, as usual. As the coppers on the table dwindled, I began to wonder if we’d even break even. That never used to be a question in the Capital market, but now…
A bright whiney and the thunder of hooves cut my worries short – my worry, and my count. The rice-picker glanced up from the sack he was loading with a doe-eyed gaze, saw what he saw, and took a full five moments to duck behind his unsold grain. Jayceson had a far-too-heavy bag on one shoulder (oh, to be young again!); he dropped it to the cobblestones and pointed. I might’ve scolded him (as though its contents could’ve been made any more worthless) if I weren’t already turning.
A half-dozen horses, heavy set and heavy shod, bore a half-dozen riders – unarmed, far as I could tell – into the square. I breathed a sigh of relief: rider and horse were grey-brown as the walls around them. The city guard had been tramping up and down the lane all feast-week, scowling down from spotless geldings for anyone earning dishonest coin. Not that I was: I’m a king’s man to the heart, and never broken a one of his laws – none as they can prove, anyway – but red-blue trim on long white cloaks make me sweat, the same as everyone.
My relief had barely registered before a sinuous wall of horseflesh sprang up around me. I almost toppled my little table and spilled our profits (if there were any) to the pavers as I leapt up. The beasts weren’t Capital white, but their sheer size still made my scalp bead. The world became a howlaround. Jayceson was lost from sight – his voice cracked as he called out. The other farmers kept silent – for fear or cowardice, I cannot say.
At last the tempest slowed. The riders stared down, hooded to a man. Their faces – what I could see of them – were city-round and hairless as a child’s, and as one of them fumbled out of his saddle, his hood slipped off a brow bare as his cheeks. Clergy, then. They made no effort to hide the pentaforms ’round their necks, but I failed to notice them in my deduction. The sinking in my stomach didn’t help either.
I’ve nothing against the church; I couldn’t pen this complaint without their teachings, after all. But right then, I wanted nothing more than to roll the old cart out the city and home as soon as it was loaded. Priests do meddle, don’t they – though mostly in the affairs of lordlings. What could they possibly want with an old grey farmer?
Me. Their leader (no more than two years Jayceson’s elder) said as much: they wanted me, following them… alone. The bald-cheeked, bald-crowned priest – standing much-too-close – sent a pointed glare at Jayceson when he said it. Their animals had parted enough for me to see him standing over the spilled tubers, with a dumbfound expression on his wide, flat face – inherited from me, not my Senaia. Pick them up you dolt! I nearly yelled, before the churchman coughed.
Accompany them… where? He wouldn’t say. Why? He couldn’t say. Then why – I dared to ask, voice quavering – should I go with them? They were priest – not guardsmen.
Again, silence – silence, and a raised left hand. He cast one look to the other farmers: unlikely to be believed, even if they did speak. I managed not to gasp, thank Fires above – but my eyes did widen at the sight of his ring. Two limbs of brass and four bright gemstones – like grains of sunlight on the points of a compass – sat upon its silver face. The questions stopped there: where the signet of the king goes, I go… no matter how strange the course.
A word with Jayceson (to leave before the gates shut if I hadn’t returned… and pick up those taters!), and we were off. The other farmers had busied themselves by then, watching from the corners of their eyes as we all do. A half-dozen horses clattered away, a half-dozen minus-one riders on their back. The unhorsed priest grabbed me by the elbow, pulling me towards an alley between two apartment towers. The civics keep stacking those things up – I suspect they’ll keep at it ’til all the space between the walls is gone. The dark passages between are no good for anything but warmth… or sneaking coppers from the unwary. I wasn’t nervous, though – dazed, yes, but not nervous. My pockets were empty, and I saw a faint blue glimmer in the eyes of my companion. I’ve rarely seen magyk done – and only paltry tricks at Rite – but I’m sure it’s more than equal to any city-thief.
The alley was the first in a maze branching like ivy through the wide lanes of Oldtown. I lost all sense of direction ‘tween those narrow walls by the third turning; the sun had disappeared, and I began to wonder – still unworried – why we didn’t take one of the main avenues… or one of the horses, for that matter. The Capital’s a big city – the grandest, save for Ælfal – but it shouldn’t take the better part of a morning to get from market square to castle keep… or more accurately, the keep’s kitchens.
We reached that end later than we could’ve and far later that I liked. My silent guide – who’d said not a word since we left – scurried ‘cross the narrow gap between the last apartments and the castle wall after checking, rechecking, and triple rechecking we weren’t followed. A few vagrants, sleeping in the warm lee of the alley, had rolled their heads as we passed, but we’d largely ignored each other. The priest pressed himself into the inset door, beckoning me follow as he fumbled with the keys pulled from his cloak. As I did, I glanced up to see two round helmets silhouetted ‘gainst the autumn sky on the parapet above. We must’ve looked like ants to them. I guess the priests weren’t so worried about blue-backs spotting us – the silence of soldiers is oft trusted by their masters.
The lock clicked after a long struggle, and he ushered me (or rather shoved me) into a dim enclave of red brick and soot-black stone. Cookpots big as bathtubs lined the walls, fit for a king’s feast… all unlit, unused, and unwanted. Only what torches were needed were lit, casting little pools of light and deeper shadows behind. Yester-eve, it must’ve been bright and hot and elbow-to-elbow with cooks and waiters, rushing to the voracious needs of the highborne appetite. This morning, it was occupied only by the wordless priests, waiting our arrival – as they had been for quite some time. Unseen, unfriendly eyes stared back as we stumbled in. They made a pretty poor kitchen staff – just as well no one was in a feasting mood today. My guide joined his fellows, recounting our journey as though it was the gravest he’d ever undertaken (which, by his age and city-privilege, I don’t doubt). Another priest – older, and even more self-serious – stepped forward and demanded I turn out my pockets. They were empty – I’d left what might’ve lined them in the square. I only hope Jayceson had the wherewithal to tuck it away: the lad’s bright, but…
Satisfied I was unarmed (as harmless a creature as ever walked this Vale, I am), he grabbed my shoulder with a little more force than was needed and gave me a shove – likewise unnecessary – towards the back of the kitchens. A set of spiral stairs cut into the wall behind the dumbwaiter. My young guide fell in behind us (finishing his remarkably unremarkable tale), and his comrades behind him. The king’s crest kept my feet moving, but that wave of cloak and magyk pushed me up the stairs a little faster. What have I got mixed up in? The thought – treacherous as it might be – rolled through my brain with every cold and turning step.
Round and round and up and up, and up… I’m no lounger, but my legs whinged as we climbed. The great hall sits on the highest floor of the keep, a hundred feet or more up from the streets and peeking out above the walls. I’ve heard serving staff in the markets speak of its feast days: how the curtains on the great picture windows are thrown back and the air comes pouring in bright and clear as the breath of the mountains. The stones – they say – glow like embers as the day draws down.
There was nothing glowing about them today. No crisp, sharp air, either – just dark and silence and smoke beneath the rafters. I stumbled through the double doors into a cavernous place, lit by two censers filling it with little light and the smell of burning spice – burial spice. I couldn’t see much of the hall – only the dais where those fires burned – so I won’t disdain one of the greatest works of men (so called) by describing it. But the dark illuminated much. Everything disappeared in shadow; even the royal red and blue of the banners faded into dun-grey. What I could see, through the smoke and strangled light, were four seats flanking two thrones, and the barest outlines of their occupants. The king and queen I recognized by the shine of their crowns and the glimmer of their silver hair. The others…
I make a habit of not keeping pace with the whirl of royal gossip; such talk seems unfit for my kind. But that forbearance makes my knowledge of them passing at best. The shadows hardly helped, but I squinted into them as the priests drew me towards the center of the hall. The two chairs on the left held fair creatures I assumed to be the princesses. A stifled, sniffling sound came from the younger: little older than a girl (though it’s difficult to think of royals as such) and sitting close as possible to the queen. One ancient hand, shrouded in lace and velvet, rested on her arm. It was then I noticed her veil: thin, black, and the same as all the women wore.
To the right of the king sat another daughter – certainly no girl. Her veil was pulled back; raven hair fell boldly from her keen, pale face, and even where I stood at a fearful distance, her eyes shone like flints of ice. They were not eyes which would deign tears – not when anyone could see, at least. To her left, in the seat nearest the old king, sat another elder – not near as old as he, but greying at the temples beneath his pointed white cap. His robes made recognition easy; the chief sorcerer, pontiff Exhillion, sitting at the right hand of the throne.
The seats on the dais were full – but I had the unshakable feeling someone was missing.
Others in the room were harder to see. I already mentioned the fool, unable to hide as his bright raiment caught the firelight; the flames leapt up again, and a second set of priests appeared in the dark corners of the hall… along with the king’s guardsmen, cradling crossbows loaded and more than ready. As my guide’s grip tightened on my shoulder, I shot a backwards look at the stairwell. Two previously invisible soldiers flanking the door pushed it shut and posted themselves – and their cruel poleaxes – between me and my escape. Arches, I swore – then, for good measure – Arches of the earth. I abandoned the mayfly notion: there were more guards at the main entrance, beyond the abandoned tables of the hall… not that I’d be able to reach it. Not without sprouting a goodly crop of arrows from my back.
The wave that carried me to this deadly dark became a wall with only one opening, in the direction of the king. My reverence turned to fear as he leaned over to his holy man, exchanged some whispered word, and rose… slowly. Painfully slow. No wonder rumors swarm ’round his health like mudflies in summer: the effort nearly sent him toppling from the platform. The pontiff moved to catch him, but he waved him off. King Grett cleared his throat – though dryness seemed lodged there still – and raised his eyes to mine. Fires glimmered in their ancient, striking depths… and in their tears.
“The prince is dead.”
A father might’ve found some kindlier way to say it – especially with mother and sisters listening. Snifflings turned to sobs, and the queen’s lips trembled, but the eyes of the older princess stayed fixed – frozen and steel-sharp. It was the king’s eyes which showed he suffered most. They were empty; empty, and falling back into that emptiness, as he fell back into his throne. He gestured to his sorcerer, too weak to stand or speak again. Exhillion rose, robes fluttering from his seat.
It’d been a wasting disease – at least, that’s what I think he said. The wizard had some other name for it; his kind always does. The prince had caught it in the Outerlies, ranging beyond the northern mountains with the Wardens of the Firn. Exhillion had warned of the danger. Alexi hadn’t listened.
It’d been a slow death – painful, lonely, and horrifying. The queen shifted in her seat as the holy man described him at the last: skin ashen, eyes glazed, young muscles withered over bones one could count across the infirmary. Even the guards had dreaded watching him. The final week had been worst: he could take neither food nor water without losing both in the most violent way…
The queen’s elbow took a sharp dig into her husband’s ribs; I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re bruised. The king’s hollow gaze turned to his wife, then the priest. “Enough, Geon.”
Exhillion – ready to describe the prince’s last moment in needless detail – bristled at his given name (I’d never heard it spoken, like most in the hall). He seemed on the verge of some retort, before his shoulders rolled back and he turned, smiling, to the monarch. Something flashed between them, almost visible in the dark. There’d be no better time for the brewing storm to break, but the clouds settled; Geon took his seat. The question of why (why?) I was there, though – why the royals were telling me, a Gräzlander, that Alexi had died – only grew stronger.
It was answered a moment later. The king turned with a disinterested wave, and a boy no older than Jayceson emerged from the shadow of the dais, looking as out of place as I felt. His hair was curled, the bright blond of summer sun, but his face was pale and trembling as the deep north freeze. He hurried over the empty floor fast as his page’s uniform – blue and red and too-tight about the frills – allowed. It’s pattern was more dignified than the fool’s – who still waited to break the stifling seriousness – but its colors (dimmed by the dark) were much the same. An expensive gift from the poor boy’s parents, doubtless, before they sent him away from whatever happy childhood he’d enjoyed. Yet it was less impressive than the bundle of velvet silk he carried, stretched out in both hands.
The boy stopped a few paces distant, inclined his head, and bowed (bowed!) in front of me. Fear turned to horror: out of everyone in the hall, here was this boy, kneeling to me. He’s probably the son of some favored lordling – even he stands higher than I! And yet he bowed, raising his hands and holding the package between them aloft a long moment. Then he opened it.
I’ll be honest: at first, I thought it was a rock. It was certainly smooth and grey as any riverstone I’ve ever sent to skipping, if just a little bigger. Only the crossed lines of the royal signet marred its surface, chiseled deep into the face.
My heart unclenched. The summons – and the terrible news – had all been a lordly game; a prank on some poor peasant, played out for their amusement. Alexi wasn’t dead. It was just this stone, marked with his symbol: a puppet-prince of sorts, dead – but never living. The joke was sick and I’d been made the fool (after they’d bored of the real one), but wasn’t that so much better than the alternative?
The fool’s hope died the next moment. The king didn’t rise – I doubt he could – but he cleared his throat once more.
“Long live the prince.”
Long live the prince!
Long live the prince…
Living echoes turned his words to thunder ‘tween the walls. I looked up from boy to throne; the king’s eyes, emptier than ever, were fixed on what I’d mistaken for a skipping stone. Then I understood… and leapt back from the accursed thing.
The poor priest behind me was nearly bowled over. I hardly noticed. Like the king, my mind was filled with what the boy was holding as far from himself as he could manage. Even through the cloth, he touched it only with his fingertips. I’d heard stories of secondvessels – dark and putrid tales from wanderers fresh off the Firn – but to actually see one, holding the ashes of a royal heir…
Something stopped my ears: something which wouldn’t stop ringing as the king spoke again. The only words I heard were of the ancient kings in the days before the sun; how their bodies, the first vessels of their lives, had been burned on great, dark bonfires and pressed into earthen vessels – second vessels, vessels of death – to wait the coming of the dawn… barbaric and desperate, even in the Dark Days. But in the halls of the keep, at the heart of mankind’s power… it was more than monstrous.
The king – his voice barely rising above the strain in it – droned on. I had to ask the sorcerer to repeat it later, as he handed me this journal (he seemed a decent enough fellow, by the by: speaking to me man to man where some lords won’t even admit that kinship). No one outside the castle knew Alexi was dead, and the king wanted it to remain so. His reason’s simple enough, even for me: the prince was the only male child he and the queen had ever or would ever roll out – without him, the Vale will have no king when the old one passes. That’ll be sooner than later it seems, despite all his priests and physics. And the ælfs… well, they’ve always been discontented with their borders. It’s a wide Vale after all – and they’re powerful. More powerful than men, perhaps. Why should they stay in their cold little corner?
Until now, the pure and ancient fire in every prince’s veins had kept them in terror behind their walls. If that were extinguished…
The king didn’t know what boldness they might attain. He didn’t want to know. Ælfal is far away, but its spies are many – or so Exhillion claimed, as he tucked this book between the maps, supplies, and most-welcome coin set aside for my journey. Alexi was known to disappear into the wilds, sometimes for years. A few well-placed rumors of his adventures, and no one would ever suspect the crown prince was now a secondvessel, carried north by a small farmer – least, not until his father died.
Until then, the king would remind the Ælfali what other powers he commands. His armies are already called to the northwest border; I don’t know what the legionnaires are being told, but I doubt it’s anything near the truth. Even so, the ælfs will see them and remember – in spite of all their might – they’re just as small as I am, when set against the throne.
But there’s still the matter of the prince’s body. They couldn’t discard it like so much refuse, nor keep it in the tombs below the keep; the carving of a royal sepulcher would hardly go unnoticed. Alexi knew as much: he’d been the one to ask for cremation – common still amongst the Wardens – before the last of the doldrums took his reason. Geon explained (when we were well out of the queen’s hearing) that the prince had often cried out for his home – home, home, the Firn, the Cliffs, the Gräzlands. Though his words were beyond sense at that point, his old tutor believed that he wanted his ashes returned there. Exhillion’s history served him well: the ashes of the barbarian kings were sealed, then released on the winds of the first sunrise, to touch the light they never lived to see. Alexi’s would be freed on the cold winds of his home.
That’s where I join this secret game. The High Cliffs aren’t quite on the Ellingston road, but the way is near enough that if anyone recognizes me (ludicrous as the idea is), they won’t suspect anything more than a forgetful old farmer. And if I really do forget my purpose, and tell them all… well, all they’ll do is laugh.
So that’s why I’m here: sitting in one of those cramped apartments I complained of earlier and writing it all down before it fades. Age is a friend to no tale-teller, they say, and already the fog is rising. I’ve been kept here the better part of the day; Jayceson they sent north in the company of a priest who shares my shape (poor beggar) and still has some hair left him after years of magyk. If anyone notices them amongst the throng, they’ll think I left the city with my son… so long as they don’t look too close. Paranoia makes anything possible.
I worry for Jayceson – though he has company, and the benefit of Mortin’s half-cart to get him home. The king, in all his wisdom, thought such a vehicle – or even an animal – would draw too much attention. I’ll be crossing the better half of this wide Vale on foot, and my legs are already aching from two longish climbs: the stairs to the keep and the stairs to this chamber. Dear me, I’ve fallen in deep waters… deeper than this old grey head, for sure.
It’s more than worry – in all honest truth, I’m afraid. Apologies for the handwriting; I still haven’t stopped shaking. I’ve left the castle, but I’m still in the presence of royalty – even if it’s dead royalty. The prince sits beneath the flickering tallow on the table where I write, the carved limbs of the royal signet casting long, black shadows. It’s the sign I followed to the keep; now it’s the sign I’ll follow north, on the orders of a dead man.
It’s that strangeness which makes me take the sorcerer’s advice. Well… that and boredom. Thank Fires someone started working the kitchens again: a modest dinner and supper came – cold and stale – to break the monotony. I’ve scribbled the whole day away: Jayceson and his companion need a head start after all, and I need the confusion of the gates at sunup, or so his majesty commands.
This job (and yes – that’s the word for it) is the very reason I learned my letters, or so I’d like to think. My oh-so-patient teacher-priests could hardly have imagined it, but I can’t think of a better use; a few more sensible ones (or a few more than a few), but none so grand. Not that anyone will ever read this: not even old Geon. I certainly don’t plan to return his journal – or the pack, or the leftover coin – when I reach the Cliffs at last. They’re all just a mite too precious to give away.
But I think I’ve spun enough words for one day – more than I’ve written in years, I realize, turning back. The cobwebs of disuse have blown away and landed on these pages, and I got tangled up in them more than is wise. Boredom: that’s what did it – the boredom of this plain little cell in Northwall. Small wonder city-brats raise such archish rabble, living in sunless places like this. I can only hope words come as easy on the road as they do in the city… and maybe a little clearer, once I’m out of this choking air. I love the city at festival, but the call of open sky has grown too loud to ignore – unless that’s the voice of some muse, come to help this deluded poet-farmer. Can you hear me, muse? I beg your help. Your help – and your company. It’ll be a lonely trip without them.
~this volume has been adapted from my father’s traveling journal. it was recovered long ago under circumstances as yet unclear. i’ve corrected as may errors in fact and grammar as i could. the spirit of his tale remains unaltered~