Excerpt 3, The King Trials
Posted on April 16, 2017
Disclaimer: Some of this content may be NSFW. The subject matter is intended for mature audiences, as it deals with the sometimes unpleasant realities of life in the medieval ages, which helped inspire this fictional fantasy novel.
The Drunken Adventure sailed into the Shimmering Bay ahead of forbidding black clouds some of the Geghanese men aboard warned would omen ill for their galley. These were a superstitious folk with a sixth sense for treacherous waters, and they didn’t much like their passenger, the bastard prince eager to see his father’s kingdom again.
Luckily for Jason son of Hexar, the captain he’d hired in Nerimba had a boastful disregard for fickle sea goddesses and bad signs. He was a sight to see on the quarterdeck, laughing at the crude insults he rained upon crewmembers as he manned a spinning ship’s wheel. His ink-black skin gleamed in the bright sunlight as he pointed to the city that ran from shore to shore.
“Do you smell it?” his captain, Merman Jarrod, shouted against the wind. “The smell of land my friend!”
Jason wrinkled his nose, cringing. The smell of Shit Street, more like, he pondered. The rank of Southpoint reached their noses miles from port. He squinted at the tiny fishermen about their business up and down the long fingers of damp wooden piers. The flotsam of loose planks and city refuse washed up on seaweed-choked shores. Behind the smoke-strewn city loomed the curtain wall of the Silver Walls, sparkling like diamond as it had for thousands of years.
“You see? Merman Jarrod show you the way,” the captain roared to Jason from his deck. For added effect, he grabbed his crotch and lunged at the nearest Geghanese sailor, howling like a deranged wolf. “Awoooooh! You see? Awooooooh! Fuck your bitch goddess, you scabs! I give my seed to her mouth! Jarrod knows no sea goddess, for Merman Jarrod does not care.”
The baldheaded man carved a wry grin into Jason’s face. Smiling felt strange. He hadn’t smiled since his half-brother Erick perished in his arms two months before. Jason studied the kingdom he’d left behind two years ago, tasting the salty air on his lips.
Merman Jarrod joined him at the port beam. “Ah! So this is it! I’ve sailed six seas. I’ve traveled even to the Isles of Fire. I’ve never seen the castle of the First King.”
Jason exhaled softly. “And my king father’s.” My home. The only home I’ve ever known, imperfect as it’s always been.
“I can see why Elzura wanted the castle so.”
“Your ancestor wasn’t the first to try, or the last,” he told the captain. “And the First King’s castle hasn’t always been the object in wars. Loran is the westernmost kingdom besides the Isles of Rienne—and a natural staging point for invasions. The saying went that if you could control Loran—“
“—you can control Ansara and Casaan,” Merman Jarrod finished for him. “Trust me, my friend, you needn’t remind a Casaanite of that fact.” He made a face. “Yet why are the Walls described as silver?” He gestured to the unflattering red brick patterns that corrupted everything below the famous pearl-white battlements. “Have I been sold lies since boyhood?”
I suppose we all have. “It’s stonelust that tarnishes,” Jason said. “Men have always yearned for the stone that shines. Their theft leaves a hole that must be filled. No one knows where the silverstone came from, or how King Anjan brought it to Loran, so builders fortify the curtain wall with brick.”
Merman Jarrod toyed with a spry hair on his chin until he plucked it. “The peasants, eh?”
“Not entirely. Peasants can’t reach it all.” In fact, the worst defacers had typically been members of whichever noble house had their turn to sit the Walls, even the kings themselves, who stripped the castle of her stone as invaders plunder kingdoms, all to be smelted for statues and tombs and coin to pay for their debts. King Eduard famously started the tradition when he had his builders fashion the Silver Throne.
Even Jason himself had filched from the First King’s castle. Yet his vandalism had been for a worthy cause. After all, it was nearly a time-honored tradition for peasant suitors to make a gift of silverstone to their betrotheds. She was worth it, then as now. She’ll always be worthy of my heart.
“Is it as you remember it?” the captain asked. He snatched a passing crewman by his sleeve, giving orders to unwind two anchor chains
As I remember it. Listing on a balustrade, he gazed off at the piers, trying to picture his farewell of two years ago with the people he loved most. He had kissed Jasmine on her cheeks, and the stone maiden didn’t cry, not even then. Heather he had twirled about in the air, making wild promises about returning with lifelike dolls famous in Chi-Say. They’d had no such toys in the Brace, just games of death, as he learned.
His king father hadn’t been there on the docks that day, wrathful as he had been with his decision to defy him in the first place and leave for Parlisis’ foreign war. His absence had been a statement, and that statement remained as bitter as it had when he boarded his galley.
Yet there were fonder memories. Jason had married the love of his youth in this kingdom. No one knew of it beyond husband and wife—not even his half-brothers.
His last night in Loran had been with her, curled against each other on a fountain’s edge. The fountain water lapping on limestone sounded as real to him now as the waves breaking under The Adventure. If he closed his eyes, he could still smell the intoxicating rose perfume thickest around her neck, feel the canopy of her golden hair, taste the beeswax on her lips. Jason tugged on his bronze wedding ring.
I take you as husband, and love you forever, his secret wife had whispered in his ear, coiling her legs around his waist as she yielded to his loins with a moan. I give my heart to you and no one else. I love you Jason, always. I love you.
They’d lain there in a puddle of their sweat, Jason and his wife, loving each other urgently in the maze around Marion’s Fountain. The very next day, he sailed for war against Vhizadyn Neverknelt and his Muhregite Hordes in the dunes of the land held by many to be as sacred as the Silver Walls of Loran.
For what, glory? There had been no glory for Jason or his half-brothers, only the hot sun, misery, and death. He revisited the horrors of war in his dreams, the whir of flies that attacked rotted heads on spikes like angry hornets, the bloated corpses of warriors fluted with so many black arrows they looked like porcupines. So it was that the son of Hexar the Bold had lost all stomach for war before he could even make a proper name.
Merman Jarrod jolted him with a hearty slap on his back. “Lucky for you, eh?”
Jason looked at the hulking man queerly, wondering his meaning. The captain nodded to the solid gray curtain that all but concealed the sandstone cliffs to the east.
“Lucky for you the Geghanese goddess did not piss on us.”
“Not lucky.” Jason clamped his right hand, his sword hand, on Jarrod’s barrel arm. “We had an honorable captain, and I, a faithful friend.”
“And yet we could not save your brother,” the Casaanite said, almost reading his mind. “I am sorry, my friend.”
Erick. His tongue went slack. He could still taste the iron and pus he had inhaled as he sucked the poison from Erick’s wound, to no avail. Jasmine’s brother, whom he’d known only as a grown man changed by war, perished clutching a copy of the Twelve Testaments so worn its loose pages had scattered like feathers in a wind. If he closed his eyes, the bastard prince could still see the bright orange glare of his pyre flame raging beneath a pillar of black smoke. The waves he heard rumbling reminded him of the sea’s white foam as it pummeled a shore bedraggled with windblown pyre smoke.
He’d never forget the rank. The sweet fetor of his father’s son’s burning flesh was all he could smell for weeks. It’d even found its way into his clothes, forcing him to discard them in Nerimba.
“My brother’s death is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life,” he remarked softly. “He died fighting for a cause he believed in. The gods grant us no higher honor.”
The captain regarded him thoughtfully. “It was not the dead of whom I spoke, my prince.”
Oh, yes, my other brother. “Prince Garrett’s decision was his own. There was naught either of us could do.”
“Aye, I fear for him,” Merman Jarrod went on. “That ship he boarded, I’ve never seen its sigil before, my prince. And the Sea of Dracar is dangerous enough. I’ve never known a man to return from the World’s Edge.”
Jason grew frustrated. “He is a seasoned warrior and the crown prince of Loran,” he returned curtly, to signal he’d had his fill of conversation on this subject. “And I’ve told you, don’t call me a prince.” Even if I am the king’s trueblood son.
The ship captain made a grim headshake. “Such a terrible name, especially for a man of such honor as you, my friend. In my tribe, we would slit a child’s throat before we’d name him Child of War in any tongue.”
Death would be a mercy, thought the bastard prince, for whom startled looks and disapproving expressions had been par for the course since his youth. The Long Summer Rebellion had ended in a stalemate with his mother’s horrid death, but the tragedy hadn’t been enough for the lords and priests of his father’s Worthy Assembly, much of which had marched with Stoddard Trambar and his Army of the Gods. To heal the land and prevent an invasion, his still-grieving father begrudgingly fixed his wax seal and a scribbled signature to the parchment that declared his illegitimate son by his illegitimate wife would to his dying bear the name Warchild.
Irony wasn’t lost on the war-weary prince. I’d give all my remaining days to never draw blood again. Not even the Silver Throne could tempt me. None of it mattered. Nor would it ever change for Jason of the Long Summer. Vengeful lords like Gram Sothos wanted their proud noble house drenched in the tar of war guilt; so much better if it covered Hexar’s misbegotten son by Celice, and all the better if that child could never lay claim to the Silver Walls or ascend the Silver Throne.
Merman Jarrod unscrewed the top of his wineskin and tilted his head back for a gush of red-violet wine. “Now your brother, the crown prince—there was a man who deserved names like Warchild.”
Jason couldn’t disagree. Thick of arm and brave of heart, his half-brother by Harriet had their father’s courage without the volcanic temper. Such was his skill with brandished steel that Ansaran commanders took to calling him the Sandsword.
The bastard prince peered beyond the bow, toward the untroubled sky west of the storm clouds. Where are you now, Prince Garrett? he thought. And was it grief that drove you to madness—and to try for a land beyond the sea no one living has ever seen?
Weeks after the crown heir to the Silver Throne boarded an unfamiliar ship in the middle of a fog-blanketed sea at night, he still had no idea what to make of it—or what even to tell his king. The whole thing was maddening to think on, a bad dream from which he couldn’t seem to wake, made all the worse by the fact that Garrett and Erick Eddenhold had been the king’s only legitimate successors. Damn you for making me explain it, Garrett, you and your quest.
It was the prince’s scuffed boot he saw last, pushing off into the fog’s embrace, toward the shape of a galley with black sails.
“I leave to find the elves, little brother, for I am a coward, and we’ll need them soon enough,” Garrett had told him over the clack of his rowboat’s oars on water. “I leave Loran to you.”
But you leave to find something that may not exist, Jason had almost replied. And this kingdom is not—can never be—mine, not unless the Worthy Assembly wills it. But that would never happen, even now, with the case to be made that Jason was King Hexar’s only male heir. The Assembly would wage war anew on the Walls if his father dared bypass their power with a writ of legitimacy for his only son by Celice Sinclair, so loved for her beauty and hated for her role in playing Elzura to Hexar’s Eduard. Rest assured, you Worthy men, Hexar will never consider it.
“What will your king father make of your silks, do you think?” the Casaanite captain asked. He uncorked a wineskin and slurped on mulled wine.
I wonder if anyone would even recognize me. He looked up and down himself. I hardly recognize myself. He had on rich silk from Nerimba, sunset-orange pantaloons that rippled in wind, a cape stitched across the back with his house’s soaring griffon, leather boots ornamented with tiny decorative gold chains by their toes. Bronze was his sun-kissed skin, long and smooth the raven-black hair that spilled down his chest.
He was a far cry from the boy who had sailed east for the priestking’s Holy Wars. Two years had changed him, after all. The three brothers had had their fill of strange customs. They’d supped on honey-roasted duneboar with sultens in vast desert palaces made of pearl. They’d blown smoke from the ivory chu-churoo pipes beneath the harem tents of extravagantly dressed sandlords and their sultry-eyed moonwives. They’d even seen a two-legged merman coming up for air once while anchored.
And we weren’t always at war, were we, my brothers? We laughed. A brighter memory obscured the blacker ones. Once, in the rolling dunes of some wasteland, they’d asked for shelter with an oasis lord. After some quip by Garrett about his “purer” half-brothers, their host, by then slippery drunk, said he had just the answer, and snapped his fingers. In had walked the Sphinx’s Daughters, virgins whom the oasis lords of Nerimba prized for their midnight-black hair, olive complexions, and lilac-gold eyes, which it was said no man could refuse. Jason had refused because he was a husband, and Erick because of vows, but that didn’t persuade Garrett, who couldn’t resist the chance to call their cocks flaccid excuses for manhood. Jason shrugged off the insult easily, but not so Erick, who drew his blade in challenge. As ever, the prince named Jason Warchild had scrambled to make peace.
No peace had to be made that night. Dizzy on Nerimbaan liquor, the crown prince had unsheathed his sword so clumsily that he broke his nose with the pommel on his swing up. Jason had been the first to laugh, followed by a stunned Garrett and, finally, Erick himself.
Yet he’d understood Erick’s indignation. They’d refused the Daughters and moonwives and other beauties for their own reasons. Erick had his piety, and Jason a wife . . . and hers was the Most-Sought Hand in the Thirteen Realms. I take you as husband, and love you forever.
I take you as wife, he remembered whispering in her ear by Marion’s Fountain, drinking in her hair like liquor, and love you forever.
Southpoint was so close now he could make out faces in the Common crowd. There were the familiar black rooftops of Silver Street, and there, the market shanties of Fish Street, and all around the merchants.
“Is that your king I see there?” Merman Jarrod asked with a gesture to the escort crowded on one of the piers. Jason saw a familiar red-robed man with a dozen silver-cloaked knights. He searched for the hulk of his father, without success.
“No, not the king,” Jason answered him. “An old friend and my father’s advisor.” He decided against sharing which advisor. As their ship lurched closer, he recognized the Grand Inquisitor Charles Kerflue, his father’s spymaster.
“That is a good thing,” the captain replied. “In Casaan, a man that thin and small might make a nice stew, not a king. Such a happy reunion for you, my pri—my lord,” he corrected himself.
Sad as the truth was, Jason Warchild pondered whether his father had dispatched the gaoler for another reason. Are you come to escort me to the Walls, Lord Charles—or to a cell in your Red Tower? Hexar’s anger was as legendary as the king himself was unpredictable, and not even blood or friendship could assure personal safety. Jason had gone to war with a priestking’s approval instead of his. He didn’t know what to expect . . . or say, to anyone. Damn you for leaving, Garrett.
Merman Jarrod began pacing up and down his main deck, barking orders to scattered crewmembers. Geghanese sailors scaled mast nets, spry-footed as monkeys; others unwound the snakes of thick chains connected to anchors. Up top, two men unfurled the crimson and silver of his father’s fluttering colors. The griffon untangled itself from the wind-tossed folds, soaring on outstretched wings. Pride mingled with grief and sadness as Jason stared up at the banner, imagining the strong faces of his half-brothers, Erick with his disheveled mop hair, and square-jawed Garrett, the spitting image of their father.
Two years, and here I am again. The moment felt surreal.
The ship anchored beside Kerflue’s pier. The Geghanese seemed eager to be done with him. Needing no prompting from their captain, the sailors vanished under deck and reappeared with their cargo, chests full of loot from conquered villages and the gifts of grateful sandlords rescued from Muhregite control.
Finished with giving orders, the captain strolled back to where Jason stood. “They’re ready to be done of this journey,” he said of the Geghanese.
“Done of me, you mean.” Jason plucked a loose thread from his tunic. “And can you blame them?”
“Bah! They’re superstitious women, all of them.” Merman Jarrod crossed his arms, watching as two sailors struggled with an ornate chest; Jason realized it had belonged to Erick. “If I’d had me a proper Casaanite crew, we might’ve been able to sail in search of the crown prince, alas.”
“Prince Garrett made his own decisions. Now I must make mine.” Jason extended a gloved hand. “I hired the right captain. Thank you, Merman Jarrod.”
The captain’s gold teeth showed in his grin. “Pay me with good Loranian coin, my friend, that’ll be thanks enough.”
“As agreed, I paid you half what was yours in Nerimba,” he said. “Remain anchored here and I will see we pay you the rest after I’ve seen the king.”
Jason began to turn when the captain seized his arm. His grip was vice-like. He grinned still, but his eyes bespoke deadly seriousness. “We will not sweat too long here, I hope?”
He understood. This was a seaman accustomed to less-than-honorable dealings. “Of course. Tell your men to leave half of my chests on-board as insurance until you’re paid.”
Merman Jarrod left a tender pink whelp in the shape of his hand. “You are a man of honor, Jason son of Hexar,” he said, bowing. “Just remember what I’ve told you: To eat a sand viper, you must strike before it uncoils. But to know it’s a viper . . .”
“You must find its hood first,” he finished the Casaanite proverb, repeated often aboard The Drunken Adventure.
After embracing the ship captain, Jason tossed his left leg over the balustrade and climbed down the net. He found Grand Inquisitor Charles Kerflue at the end of the pier with an escort of twelve men lobstered in polished steel plate. He instinctively removed his bronze ring and stuffed it in a silken pocket.
The Grand Inquisitor bowed. “Lord Jason, it is a pleasure to set eyes upon you once more.”
The bastard prince received his father’s advisor in a stiff embrace. “It’s good to see you again, Lord Charles.”
If he’d matured into a man of nineteen these past two years, little had changed about the Lord of the Red Tower. Slender and frail, Charles Kerflue showed his more than sixty years in his pronounced stoop and liver-spotted hands. The Grand Inquisitor’s crimson robes fell twisting and curling from shoulders that seemed too brittle for the gold and silver chains of office that hung about his neck. If anything seemed different, it was the silver that flecked the hook of a tidy, jet-black beard below his chin; this the peasants called his real tongue, corrupt and dripping with the hot tar he smeared on his guests.
“I’ve informed your king father of your arrival, and he and his court await you presently,” Kerflue said, without dripping tar. “The trumpets will sound gladly for you.”
“How did my father know in advance that we would be here? A storm prevented us from sending word at Ramsport.”
The Grand Inquisitor smiled knowingly. “Why, I am his spymaster, Lord Jason. I know all things. Have you forgotten?”
He forced a smile. “I suppose I have.” And does he know about us, my wife? “I suppose you must also know that Prince Garrett did not return with me.”
The color drained from the spymaster’s face. “Where is King Hexar’s heir, Lord Jason?” The knights with him shifted uneasily at the note of concern in the advisor’s voice.
Damn you for making me explain, Garrett, Jason thought bitterly. Damn you, and damn your elves.