before

Without a king

An Unusual Friendship
Year 395
How Lord Tandrael West Draulin met Captain Roland

            Tandrael leaned against the rickety railing, looking out at the port below him. It was bustling with activity, even late into the evening. The cargo ships were being filled so that they could leave first thing in the morning, the fishing ships were bringing in their catch for the day. Two large warships were moored off to one side, silently looming over all the smaller boats. Tandrael loved the port - the salty air and the sound of waves crashing against the docks. Even though the port itself was unfamiliar, the sounds and smells were always the same and reminded him of home.

            He’d been in Co for a few days already, sent to meet with the new Lord Co, Nata. Tandrael’s father was supposed to be there, but he’d been sick for quite some time. Tandrael knew that his father’s chance of recovery was slim. Lord West Draulin was getting old. As much as it pained him to think about it, Tandrael knew that it wouldn’t be long before he stepped up to take his father’s position. He had been training for the role his whole life, so he wasn’t particularly worried about the responsibilities. At the same time, he didn’t want to become Lord West Draulin, at least not yet. He was twenty-three, still young, and he wanted to cling to his freedom as long as he could. Being the lord of the city was an honour, of course, but a stifling one.

            Suddenly something thudded against the back of Tandrael’s head. He flinched out of the way, his left hand instinctively reaching up to rub his head. A Crelan was standing nearby, his arms wrapped around long beams of wood he was struggling to carry. He looked about Tandrael’s age, probably a couple years younger. His dark hair was long and tied back, though some strands had fallen loose. Black tattoos ran down his bare arms.

            “Sorry mate, didn’t see you,” the Crelan said. He shifted the way he was holding the beams. “You’re alright, aye?”

            “Suppose so,” Tandrael replied. The pain was already fading.

            “A Teltan, huh? Not many of you ‘round here,” the Crelan continued. “You must have come in for Lord Co’s ceremony. You a knight?”

            Tandrael shook his head.

            The Crelan’s eyes widened. “Great Roe… you’re the lord, aren’t you? I just hit the lord. Are you sure you aren’t hurt, mate? I mean, your lordship?”

            “I’m fine,” Tandrael waved his hand dismissively. “Really, don’t worry.” He didn’t like being fussed over. People seemed to think that being a lord made him fragile.

            The Crelan seemed reluctant to leave. “What are you doing here?” He nodded at the deserted alley around them. “Are you lost? The back streets can be quite maze like.”

            “I went for a walk, wanted to see the port,” Tandrael said.

            “Aren’t you lords usually followed by a pack of guards?”

            Tandrael smirked. “I may have left them behind.” The Crelan raised an eyebrow and Tandrael laughed. “You don’t understand, it’s very tiring to be constantly followed. I wanted to be alone.” He waved out at the port. “I wanted to feel the wind and see the ocean and have a moment to myself. That said, I am a little lost.”

            “Well, mate, if you give me a moment to deliver these beams I could help you out,” the Crelan said.

            Tandrael nodded. “That would be excellent, thank you. Where are you heading?”

            “Just down to the port.” The Crelan shifted the wooden beams and began to follow the street which gently sloped down to the port.

            Tandrael quickly caught up. “Let me help you,” he said, scooping up the top few beams before the Crelan could complain. They were heavier than he expected, and very cumbersome. He had to carry them at an angle in order to not scrape the walls at the edge of the street.

            The Crelan didn’t argue, and led the way down into the port. They added the wooden beams to a pile near a large fishing boat. Tandrael’s arms ached by the time he dropped the beams. He couldn’t understand how the Crelan had been carrying them all on his own.

            An older Crelan approached them. He was short and stocky, his face weather-beaten like many older sailors. “Boy!” he shouted down the dock as he got closer.

            “Aye, sir?” the younger Crelan stood up straight and stretched his arms. “’Brought everything you asked for.”

            “Who’s the Teltan?” the man asked. “I’m not paying him.”

            Tandrael watched the exchange silently. Usually, his finely made, deep blue tunic would indicate that he was wealthy. The crest ring on his right hand should’ve given away his position. Apparently the sailor wasn’t very observant.

            “’Doubt he wants to be paid, sir,” the Crelan replied. “We’ll be off, then. See you first thing in the morning, aye?”

            The old sailor narrowed his eyes and nodded.

            The young Crelan briskly walked back towards the city and Tandrael followed after him.

            “Seems like a pleasant man,” Tandrael commented.

            The Crelan laughed. “Aye, well, he was hiring and I needed the money. Thank you for the help, by the way. Seems like you’re the good kind of lord, the kind who doesn’t think they’re the Goddess’ gift to the world.”

            “I’m hardly a gift,” Tandrael agreed.

            “I never thought a lord would help me carry wood,” the Crelan smiled. “Especially not after I attacked him with it. My sister won’t believe it.”

            Tandrael shrugged. “I like to believe that being born rich doesn’t make me an invalid.”

            “That’s a good approach, mate. I like it.”

            It didn’t seem like that had been walking long when the castle appeared in front of them. The Crelan really knew the quickest way around the city. He walked up to the front gates with Tandrael and dramatically flourished towards them. “The castle, your lordship.”

            “Thank you.” Tandrael moved towards the gate but stopped and turned back to the Crelan. “You never told me your name.”

            “Oh, didn’t I? It’s Roland, your lordship.”

            “You can use my name, if you’d like. I’m Tandrael.”

            “Long name,” Roland commented.

            “My friends call me Rael.”

            “I suppose I’ll have to become your friend then, aye?” Roland smiled and saluted lazily. “Glad to be of service, Lord Tandrael. Perhaps we’ll run into each other again?”

            “Perhaps,” Tandrael agreed. Roland began to walk away so Tandrael turned around to face the guards by the gate. “Lord Tandrael of West Draulin,” he said. “Are you going to let me in?”

            “Your men have been looking for you,” one of the guards said, his tone accusatory. He called through the portcullis and slowly it was lifted. Tandrael strolled through, knowing that any moment his knights would find him. His captain would surely lecture him about wandering off on his own. Tandrael sighed. He was not looking forward to it.

 

            A few days later Tandrael managed to lose his guards again. He headed out through the streets, trying to remember the way to the little outlook he’d found last time. It gave such a good view of the port, and it was secluded. Perfect for his relaxing moment alone.

            It was a beautiful day. The sky was clear and bright blue. There was a strong wind, which seemed to be giving the seagulls a bit of trouble as they circled the fishing boats. Tandrael smiled to himself. He loved being outside, near the ocean. It was better then the stuffy meetings in the castle.

            “What kind of man gets lost in the same place twice?”

            Tandrael didn’t turn around; he was enjoying the view too much. “Maybe I was looking for someone.”

            “Aye? A girl, then?” Roland leaned against the railing beside him. “Lots of pretty Crelan girls around, if you’re interested.”

            Tandrael decided to go along with the game. “I was looking for a sailor, actually. I met him a couple days ago. He treated me like a person instead of some snobby lord who had to be tiptoed around. It was a nice change.”

            “Ah, I think I know the man,” Roland said. “So you like that then, do you? Being treated like a person?”

            “I am a person, aren’t I?”

            “Aye, I think so. So, West Draulin? Pretty important man, aren’t you?”

            “I don’t have any power yet,” Tandrael said. “My father Tandrin is still Lord West Draulin. Goddess willing he will be for a few years yet.”

            “You don’t want the job?”

            “I’ll get the job regardless and I’ll do it when the time comes. But I’ll miss being able to go out and look around,” Tandrael said.

            “I thought a lord could do whatever he wanted.”

            “In theory, I suppose. But in practice we need to put our duties first.”

            “Well, mate,” Roland nudged him gently. “If you’re looking to be a normal person for a day, I’ve got some work to do down at the port. Can’t promise you’ll be paid, though.”

            Tandrael smiled. “Some work sounds good.”

 

            They worked silently for about an hour, moving crates and gear onto the fishing ship Roland worked on. It was tiring, but Tandrael found it relaxing at the same time. It felt good to be out doing something, even if he felt like his arms might fall off by the end of the hour.

            The old sailor was there, directing them and a few other Crelan workers. For the most part the man ignored Tandrael. His attention was on Roland and the others, the people he paid and could therefore control. Tandrael found himself disliking the man more and more as time went by. He was rude to all of his workers, occasionally insulting and yelling at them with hardly any reason to do so. Most of the abuse seemed to roll right over Roland, he took it in stride and kept doing his job. The other workers, most of them younger, couldn’t handle it as well.

            They had a short break at lunch. Roland showed Tandrael a little fisherman’s cart at the edge of the port. A middle aged Crelan couple were running it, the man in charge of the fresh fish and the woman in charge of various pastries. Tandrael bought two buns coated in fruit preserve, and the two young men sat on a nearby crate to eat.

            “So why are you working for him?” Tandrael went straight to the question that had been buzzing in his head all morning.

            Roland shrugged. “Like I said, he was hiring and I needed the money. I recently took over the care of my younger sister, you see.”

            “How old is she?”

            “Almost seventeen. Old enough to get married if she wasn’t so stubborn. But our father refuses to support her any longer so she lives with me now. I do what I can.” Roland smiled sadly. “Suppose you don’t understand, having all that money at your fingertips.”

            “It’s the city’s money,” Tandrael said. “I can’t just use it whenever I want.”

            “Still better off than me, aye?” Roland licked the last of the fruit preserve from his fingers and stood up. “Break’s over, mate. If you plan on sticking around.”

            “I’ll stay for a few more hours. Anything to keep out of the meeting rooms,” Tandrael said, getting to his feet.

            Back at the ship, the old sailor already had the younger Crelans working again. A few of them were up in the rigging, but one boy, the youngest, was crying. The old sailor was yelling at him, telling him to join the others above.

            Roland grumbled something under his breath and strode across the deck. “Aye, sir, leave the boy alone. I’ll go up.”

            “You need to go pay the carpenter,” the sailor replied.

            “Let the boy do it.” Roland stepped between the boy and the sailor. “I’ll go figure out what’s wrong with the rigging. I understand it better than he does, aye? The boy can take some money across the port.”

            “I don’t trust him to do it.”

            “Then I’ll take the money over later.”

            “It needs to go now,” the sailor growled.

            “Sir-“

            Tandrael saw what was coming. He moved quickly, pushing Roland out of the way and grabbing the sailor’s fist. “You don’t want to go hitting your workers,” Tandrael said calmly.

            The sailor yanked his hand away. His face was red with rage. “Who in the Goddess’ name are you? The boy has it coming. Get out of here before I beat you, too.”

            Tandrael stood up a little straighter. He knew exactly how to make himself look more like a lord. “Who in the Goddess’ name am I?”

            Roland was getting to his feet. “Rael, don’t concern yourself with us. You’re above this.”

            Tandrael ignored him. He could tell, from the expression on the sailor’s face, that the man was beginning to get worried. It was one of the few situations when Tandrael he enjoyed the way people got nervous around him. “I am Lord Tandrael of West Draulin, heir to the city.”

            The sailor’s eyes widened in disbelief, and he took a step backwards. “That isn’t possible.”

            “Lord Tandrael!” The shout came from the docks. The sailor looked about ready to fall on his knees and beg for forgiveness, but Tandrael was distracted. His knights had found him. The five of them burst onto the ship, swords drawn.

            “A bit of an overreaction, gentlemen,” Tandrael said with a sigh. “I’m hardly being held prisoner.”

            His guard captain, Sir Yorc, walked across the deck towards him, completely ignoring the now cowering sailor. “My lord, you can’t keep wandering off whenever you feel like it. What is going on?”

            “I’ve been working,” Tandrael replied, shrugging casually. “Looking for some new talent to bring back to West Draulin. Roland,” he turned to the Crelan. “My friend, are you willing to relocate? The pay will be fantastic.”

            Roland glanced quickly at the old sailor before looking at Tandrael. “Rinila…”

            “Your sister? She’s welcome to come. I know a house near the waterfront I’m sure she’ll love.”

            “You’re truly offering me a job in West Draulin?”

            “If you want it.”

            “Yes.” Roland nodded firmly. “Aye, yes, I want it. I’m coming.”

            Tandrael smiled. “Excellent.” He gestured carelessly at the sailor. “Yorc, report this man for needless abuse of workers. Roland, join me.” He didn’t even look at the sailor as he led the way down the gangplank. Roland walked beside him, the knights all trailed behind, confused.

            “You can really turn the lordship on when you want, can’t you, mate? I’ve never heard you speak like that. Might be confusing if you keep switching between the two personalities.”

            “Personalities?”

            “Rael and Lord Tandrael.”

            Tandrael grinned and put an arm across Roland’s shoulders. “Roland, my friend, you’ll get used to it.”

 
 
The Reasons to Enlist
Years 409 - 413
Where did Tannix's knights come from?

Money

Year 409

 

            “Get up, you stupid boy.”

            His legs were roughly kicked, and Mandell groaned sleepily. It took him a moment to really understand what had been said, but when he did he sprung to his feet. In front of him, with crossed arms and tapping one foot impatiently, was the boy who had kicked him.

            If Mandell had stood up straight, he would have been a good deal bigger than the other boy, but he didn’t. He stooped his shoulders and tried to make himself look smaller. Mandell was pretty sure that his size was one of the reasons the young lord hated him. Arsad was fifteen, about three years older than Mandell, so he must have found Mandell’s size annoying.

            “You were asleep, again,” Arsad said.

            “Sorry, my lord,” Mandell mumbled, staring at the straw-covered floor.

            “Excuse me?”

            “I’m sorry, my lord,” Mandell spoke more clearly.

            Arsad smirked and wiped some imaginary dust off of his expensive tunic. “Well, are you going to tell me why you were asleep?”

            Toying with the servants seemed to be Arsad’s favourite, and only, pastime. Mandell never fought back. Had Arsad been another farm boy, their interactions would have been very different, but Mandell needed the job. He needed the money Arsad’s father paid him.

            His situation was pretty common. He was the oldest son of a poor farming family. Before getting the job at the estate, Mandell had helped out on the farm. Once his younger siblings were old enough to help, he’d been sent off to find a way to make money.

            “Well? Have you gone mute?” Arsad asked.

            Mandell shook his head. “Sorry, my lord.” He knew better than to say that the reason he’d fallen asleep was because Arsad had given him so much extra work the day before. Mandell had been hired as a stable hand, but Arsad always found other jobs for him to do. “I was asleep because… I was tired.”

            “You were tired?” Arsad said. “What about the last time you fell asleep, or the time before that? We don’t pay you to sleep.”

            “No, sir,” Mandell agreed.

            “Shall I tell my father?”

            Mandell shrugged.

            Arsad leaned against the stall behind him and crossed his arms. “Aren’t you going to ask me not to?”

            Having seen the exchange between Arsad and other servants before, Mandell knew that he wanted a show. He wanted Mandell to beg and humiliate himself.

            Arsad sighed. “Well?”

            “No,” Mandell said firmly.

            “No?” Arsad’s voice went up as he got more frustrated. “What do you mean, no?”

            Mandell suddenly decided he had had enough. He straightened his shoulders and stared Arsad straight in the eye. “No.”

            “I’ll have my father fire you,” Arsad said. “I’ll make sure you never get another job. Your family will starve because of you, is that what you want?”

            Both boys were aware that they’d attracted a bit of an audience. Other servants and stable hands that had arrived for their day of work were starting to gather. They all disliked Arsad, and the thought gave Mandell a little more confidence.

            “I can find a better job.”

            “I highly doubt that, you stupid half-breed mutt.”

            Mandell didn’t realize he’d punched Arsad until the boy was on the ground, clutching his bleeding nose. Mandell glared down at him, his fists clenched. Arsad clumsily shuffled backwards without getting up. He seemed equally afraid and angry, his eyes wide and his gaze locked on Mandell like he expected another attack. None of the other servants moved to help him.

            Mandell stepped forward and was pleased to see that Arsad flinched. “I’d rather be a “half-breed mutt” than a spoiled Telt brat who can’t defend himself.”

            Furiously, Arsad got to his feet. He dragged his sleeve under his nose, staining the fabric red with blood. He paused as he took in Mandell’s size, and looked at the servants around them. “Are none of you going to stop him? He can’t insult me like that. He can’t insult Teltans like that!”

            Arsad didn’t seem to notice that most of the servants were Native, or like Mandell, half Native and half Teltish. For a moment, none of them moved. Then one older man stepped forward. His name was Vel, and he was the head stable hand.

Arsad smiled. “Finally. I’ll have you rewarded handsomely for – what are you doing?”

            Vel walked up to Mandell. “You need to leave before the lord finds out what you did. He’ll have you arrested for that. Maybe even killed.”

            Arsad had started yelling for his father’s guards. Mandell suddenly realized what he’d done. Vel was right. He’d be arrested and probably killed for attacking the young lord.

            “Mandell, listen. Go to West Draulin.”

            Mandell stared at Vel, hardly understanding what the man said. The horror of the situation was sinking in. “What?”

            Vel started dragging him between the stalls, towards the back door to the stable. Arsad was still yelling. “Go home, tell your family you were kicked out for falling asleep. Tell that story to anyone who asks, and go to West Draulin. It’ll be easy to find a job there. But if people hear you attacked a lord, even an idiot boy like Arsad, they’ll turn on you. So lie.” Vel swung open the back door and pushed Mandell through it. “Go. May the Sisters bless you.”

Not many people prayed to the Sisters. It was an odd belief that was hardly ever brought up outside of the family. It was the belief that Zianesa and the Teltish Goddess were a pair of long lost sisters who had found each other when the Teltans had landed on New Teltar. The belief varied widely from family to family, and only existed in families with Native and Teltish blood.

            Mandell was eager to give the proper reply. “And may the Sisters-“

            Shouting broke out behind them as the guards found Arsad, and Mandell ran off without finishing his sentence. He headed for the corn fields, hoping that the tall plants would make it easy to hide. Once among the corn, he slowed down and crept through the stalks, careful not the shake them. He knew that if he was careful he would be able to get to the outskirts of the lord’s land, and he knew that the guards wouldn’t care enough to keep chasing him then. They probably didn’t like Arsad any more than the servants did.

            West Draulin wasn’t too far, only a day on foot. There would be plenty of jobs there, Vel was right. It would be easy enough to find one, and send money back to his family. He could probably find a higher paying job, too. Mandell’s fears drifted away as he excitedly thought of the possibilities. He could help in a stable, he was good at that. Or maybe he could find work with a blacksmith or ship builder.

            Then something occurred to him. Why not go for the highest paying job there was? Mandell grinned to himself as he made up his mind. He’d enlist in the army.

Legacy

Year 410

            Jalor spurred his horse into a gallop and lowered his lance. He concentrated on the lance and his shield, trusting his well trained horse to run straight. As always, time seemed to slow down a bit and his mind focused on the opponent galloping towards him. He ignored the cheering of the crowd and fluttering banners and flags that adorned the track.

            Jalor’s lance shattered as it hit his opponent’s breastplate and the jolt of it broke Jalor’s focus. The crowd cheered louder as Jalor looked over his shoulder to see that his opponent had fallen off of his horse. At the end of the track, Jalor’s horse slowed and he tugged on her reins gently, getting her to walk back towards the middle of the track. The opponent was standing, unhurt, and pulled off his helmet as Jalor approached.

            Jalor slid from his saddle and took off his own helmet before shaking the other man’s hand. “Uncle warned you, Grenn.”

            “So he did,” the young man said with a smile. He was Jalor’s older cousin and had already made quite a name for himself in Vasel’s cavalry. “I expect you’ll be after my job, next.”

            The cousins turned to wave at the crowd and bow to the fancy spectator box. In it sat their uncle, Lord Vasel, his wife, and their children. The youngest daughter, Gallea, got to her feet and stepped forward. She was holding a white rose, which she held up to the delighted cheering from the crowd. Jalor had given it to her as a token before the joust. The eldest girl was holding a flower Grenn had given her, but she was still smiling and clapping. Gallea sat down when her father got up.

            Lord Vasel raised his arms to silence the crowd. Once they’d settled down, he started speaking in his booming voice. “Well done, Lord Jalor and Sir Grenn. Allowing my youngest nephew to show off his skills was the perfect way to end the day’s festivities! Jalor, you’re almost a man now. In front of the people of Vasel, I wish you luck as you travel to West Draulin. You’ll remind them that Vasel is not simply a small farming city as they like to believe!” The crowd broke out into cheers again. Compared to West Draulin, most cities were small. Vasel was even smaller, but the people were fiercely proud of their city. There was no hope in quieting them again, but Jalor just managed to hear the last line of his uncle’s speech. “May the Goddess guide you.”

            He and Grenn led their horses off of the track. Before they headed off to their separate tents, Grenn put his hand on Jalor’s shoulder. “West Draulin?”

            Jalor smiled. “Why try to take your job when I can get a better one?”

            Grenn laughed and turned away. “Good luck, little cousin,” he called over his shoulder.

            Jalor went to his own tent. Before bothering with his armour, he untacked his horse and started to brush her down. Unless he was in a hurry, he always settled down the horse himself. He had been training to join to West Draulin cavalry, and he firmly believed that personally taking care of his horse strengthened their bond.

            He left her happily drinking out of a bucket, and went into his tent to take off his armour. Normally he did this by himself, as well. Everything neatly went into the chest he kept his jousting gear in. He pulled a clean green tunic over his head and walked back out to his horse. It was late in the afternoon, and he planned to reach his family’s villa before the sun set.

            He swung his lighter riding saddle over his horse’s back and slipped the bridle over her head. The heaviest thing he had with him was his sword, which he only carried around because his parents insisted. They said that if he was going to ride into the city, he had to take a guard or his sword. He always chose the sword, although luckily he never had to use it.

            He rode through the city carefully, keeping to the less busy, outlaying streets. As soon as they hit the farmland, he nudged his horse lightly and she broke into a gallop. It was a wild, joyful run, and Jalor let her go for as long as she wanted. When she got tired, she slowed to a relaxed walk.

            There was nothing Jalor loved more than being out in the fields with his horse. On the way to the villa, they passed by many small farms. Jalor liked to greet the people he passed. He said hello to a young woman carrying a bucket of water from a nearby stream, he shook hands with an old man herding a flock of sheep, he smiled at a pair of boys carrying firewood. Just as he liked having a connection with his horse, he liked having a connection with the people who lived around Vasel.

            At his villa he rode through the gates and straight to the barn. A stable hand offered to take the horse but Jalor waved him away. He had just finished brushing her when a girl burst into the stall.

            “I was told today to start packing your things for your trip to West Draulin!” The girl threw her arms around Jalor’s neck. “You never told me you were going to West Draulin. How could you? What’s wrong with Vasel?”

            “Nothing’s wrong with Vasel,” Jalor said, hardly surprised by her reaction. “But if I want to do really well in the cavalry I can’t stay here, people may think my uncle is just favouring me. Not to mention Grenn. I don’t want to compete against him.”

            “No one will think that! Everyone knows how talented you are.”

            “Jousting is different.”

            The girl started crying. “But we’ll never see each other if you’re in West Draulin.”

            Jalor sighed. “Brina… we always knew this couldn’t last.” He had never planned for their relationship to last. Brina was pretty and loving and he did care about her, but his parents would have never approved. She was one of the servant’s daughters. He had first kissed her a few months before, the day after his fifteenth birthday, when he had been feeling particularly reckless. They’d had their fun, but he had known all along that he would be leaving.

            Brina was still crying, but she nodded. “I know, I do… But I thought it would last longer.”

            “I’m not leaving for a few more days.” Jalor gently wiped away her tears and gave her a quick kiss. “And I’ll visit.”

            “You’ll find a pretty girl in West Draulin and you’ll forget about me. I know that.”

            “I’ll be too busy training to meet girls,” Jalor said. “But you’ll forget about me quickly enough when the next boy comes along hoping for your affection.”

            Brina smiled, though it was clear she was still upset. “I’ll never forget you. But you love Vasel! The farmland, the forests, riding and hunting with your hawk. You won’t have that in West Draulin. You’ll hate it there.”

            “I’ll have vacations,” Jalor said. He knew Brina was right, he likely would hate the confines of West Draulin. But West Draulin had a bigger army, and he was sure he could rise through the ranks quickly. “I’ll be important there.”

            “You’re important here.”

            Jalor took Brina’s hand and led her from the stall. “Not that important. I’m the younger son. Jallen will get everything and unless I achieve something great, I’ll become another obscure relative that no one remembers. I don’t want that.”

            “People get forgotten. I’ll be forgotten. But what’s the use in complaining about it?” Brina asked.

            “You won’t be forgotten, Brina. I’ll always remember you,” Jalor promised. They stopped walking in the shadows of the barn, where nobody could see them. “Now, let’s enjoy our time together and stop thinking about the future.”

            Brina sighed and hugged him tightly. “I’ll still miss you.”

            “I’ll miss you too,” Jalor said, and he meant it.

Excitement

Year 410

            There was a thud as the axe embedded into the wooden block. Evrik tightened his grip around the handle and gave it a sharp tug. When that didn’t work, he wiggled the axe back and forth until it was loose enough to slip out of the wood. Evrik smiled to himself as he ran his fingers over the cut. It was deep. The deepest he’d ever made. He was getting stronger.

            Behind him, the bushes rustled and Evrik spun around, holding up the axe. When he saw who it was he lowered the weapon with a sigh. “What do you want, Evran?”

            “Father sent you to collect wood hours ago. He told me to come out and make sure you hadn’t hurt yourself.” Evrik’s older brother stepped into the clearing and eyed the wooden figure Evrik had been attacking. It didn’t look much like a person, but Evrik had draped one of his father’s old shirts over it. “What are you doing?”

            “Practicing.” With the axe, Evrik gestured at a pile of chopped wood near his brother’s feet. “I finished with that first.”

            “So who is it that you’re killing?” Evran asked.

            “No one,” Evrik said with a shrug, turning back to his wooden figure. “Just a person.”

            “Just a person? What does that mean?”

            Evrik shrugged again.

            Evran was silent for a moment, then he nudged the pile a wood with his foot. “I’ll help you carry these back home, yes?”

            “Yes, thank you,” Evrik said. He walked over to join his brother, but couldn’t resist glancing back at the figure. “Evran, do you want to be a farmer forever?”

            Evran crouched and started to stack the wood in his arms. “What else is there for me to do?”

            “Something exciting.”

            “Killing people?”

            “I’m bored,” Evrik complained. His brother stood up with half of the wood, but Evrik didn’t move to pick up the rest. “All I do is check on the animals or chop wood.”

            “That’s because you’re still a child.”

            “I am not. Evral’s a child.”

            “You’re two years older than him, it doesn’t make a difference.”

            “I’m not a child,” Evrik said. He pointed towards the figure. “Look at what I can do.”

            “You can hit a wooden figure with an axe. Isn’t that the same as chopping wood? Anyone can do that.”

            Evrik frowned. He turned and took a step closer to the figure, while unhooking his hatchet from his belt. He held it lightly in his right hand, hesitated a moment, and threw it. It slammed into the wooden figure, just to the right of the middle of the chest portion. He turned back to his brother.

            “Tell me that anyone can do that, Evran.”

            Evran’s mouth was open in shock, his eyes wide. “How did you do that?”

            “I practice. I started with knives but I like the hatchet better.” As he spoke, Evrik walked to the figure to retrieve the little axe. “I used to play games when I chopped wood. I’d pretend I was a great hero and the wood was a horrible monster and I’d defeat it over and over again. But it was too easy, so I made up different monsters - flying ones that I had to throw knives at. I want to go to West Draulin.” Evrik returned to his brother’s side and picked up the rest of the chopped wood. “I want to join the army and go on adventures like the ones grandfather used to tell us about.”

            “West Draulin is days away, why don’t you go to Vasel?”

            Evrik could hear the new respect in his brother’s voice, and it made him smile. “West Draulin has more important lords and ladies. Vasel barely has an army.”

            Evran laughed. “That’s true. Maybe one day you’ll even speak to Lord West Draulin in person!”

            “Don’t mock me. It could happen.” The brothers stopped at the edge of a road to allow a rider to pass by. Their family lived close enough to Vasel that they often saw nobles riding along the road between the city and their huge villas. The boys admired the fine horse and the rich clothing of the young man riding her. The lord, who was about Evran’s age, smiled and nodded at them in greeting. Once he was out of earshot Evrik turned to his brother.

“I could work for lords like that one day.”

            “Maybe.” Evran said.

            “Do you think I should go? I’ve been thinking about it for a long time.”

            Evran nodded as they started walking again. “I think, if this is what you really want, then you should go. I can take over the farm, our sisters can get married, and Evral can find a job in the city, if he wants. But what I just saw you do was special. A gift from the Goddess herself. I think it would be a tragedy if you don’t put that skill to good use, and use it to do something you enjoy. I want you to be happy.”

            Evrik thought about his words. He had always been afraid of sharing his dream with his brother. Evran loved working with the animals and the crops. He was perfectly suited to life as a farmer and Evrik had always been afraid that Evran wouldn’t approve. At the same time, he had always looked up to his brother and wanted his support.

            When their little farmhouse came into view, a new thought popped into Evrik’s head. “What will father and mother think?”

            “I think they’ll be worried but proud,” Evran said. The brothers carefully stacked the wood in the little shed beside their house. Their younger sister Elline was sitting on the porch, sewing. They knew their mother and older sister Ellana were preparing dinner, and Evril was with their father in the barn. “You should show everyone your skill before we eat. When they see what you can do, they’ll have to understand why you want to go.”

            “Do you really think so?”

            “I think it’s the best way to tell them,” Evran said with a nod. “I’ll get Evril and father. Elline! Get mother and Ellana to come outside. Evrik needs to show us something.”

            Their sister looked up from the tunic she was repairing and sighed. “Just because you’re the eldest doesn’t mean you can order me around like that.”

            “Please?” Evrik said hopefully.

            “Fine. I’ll do it for you, not because Evran shouted at me.” Elline neatly folded the tunic and put it aside before heading into the house. Evran, laughing, went to the barn.

            It took his family a few minutes to assemble, so Evrik took the time to set out a block of wood to throw at. He was nervous. Before Evran, he had never shown anyone his trick, and he was worried he’d mess up. He backed up a comfortable distance and stared at the target, taking deep breaths to calm himself. In the forest he could throw quickly and with relatively good aim. He knew that if he thought about it too much, he was more likely to make a mistake.

            When they arrived, Evran gathered their parents and siblings together. He said something, but Evrik didn’t listen until he heard his name. He looked at his family, taking in the confusion on their faces, and the encouraging smile on Evran’s. He made up his mind.

            Like in the forest, he unhooked his hatchet. He didn’t pause and think and try to aim, he threw it quickly, letting his muscles do what was familiar. The axe head buried into the wood with a loud thud, and then there was silence. Evran broke into a cheer and Evril joined in. The girls gasped. Their parents were frozen with identical looks of shock.

Evrik smiled at his family and with new confidence, said, “Father, mother, I want to join the army in West Draulin.”

            His parents moved forward and pulled him into a loving hug.

 

Family

Year 411

 

            “They’re Teltish!”

            “They’re half Crelan, mate. Don’t try to ignore that.”

            The twins hated it when their father and uncle argued. It was always about the same thing. Their father always insisted that the boys were Teltish, but no one could deny that they had taken after their mother’s side of the family. They had dark Crelan hair, they spoke like their uncle, and even their names sounded more Crelan than Teltish.

            Their father, Kander, hadn’t been around often. The boys didn’t dislike their father, they had simply spent more time with their mother and uncle.

            Uncle Roland was the epitome of a Crelan sailor. He had dark hair and a beard, with tattoos running down both arms. He always arrived at their house dressed in black, always with a sword, and often wearing his large hat with the blue and green feather. The twins had spent much of their time with him, practicing knots and learning everything their uncle knew about sailing. They had listened with rapt attention at the stories he’d told them about the Old God of the Sea and the Sailor King. They had memorized the words of all the old shanties the Crelan sailors sang.

            The boys thought of themselves as Crelan, a fact that constantly upset their father. It was why he had insisted on them picking up a skill that wasn’t associated with most Crelans - archery. To his delight, the boys were naturals. Kander had high hopes for them joining the army, a respectable Teltish occupation, as opposed to joining their uncle’s crew.

            Kor and Ender were hiding in the hallway when their father and uncle started the familiar argument. The men never argued around their mother, but she had just gone out to the market to buy some last minute things for dinner. The boys weren’t sure what to do. They didn’t want to pick sides; they didn’t want to upset either of the men.

            “My boys are going to get high paying jobs,” their father was insisting. “You’ve seen them shoot, they’ll do well.”

            “Aye, they’re good,” Roland agreed. “But they’re my nephews, mate. You know how well they’ll do in the navy. Lord West Draulin is much more likely to notice them if they’re with me.”

            In the hallway, Ender nudged his brother. “We should say something.”

            Kor rubbed his neck, feeling the thin scar there. It had almost been a year since the boys had tried to shoot each other’s arrows out of the air. They’d improved since then, but never again made the mistake of aiming at each other. “Say what?”

            “That we’re not one or the other.”

            “We’re Crelan.”

            “Aye.” Ender nodded. “But they’re never going to stop arguing about us. So, we should say we’ll join the army. That’s what father wants. And we’re good.”

            Kor sighed. He knew his brother was right, but despite how much they enjoyed archery, neither of them wanted to join the army. They wanted to be out on the water with their uncle. He nodded, and pushed open the door.

            The twins walked into the room and stood side by side. Their father and uncle fell silent. Kor and Ender exchanged a look, and then Kor took a deep breath.

            “Ender’n I were thinking. We’re old enough to be squires, ay- yes? So, we want to enlist.”

            “We thought Uncle Roland might put in a good word for us,” Ender said, trying to appease both men.

            Kander smiled, “I’m glad to hear it, boys. We’ll go up to the castle tomorrow-“

            “Wait, father,” Kor said. “There’s one more thing. We want to keep sailing when we’re given free time.”

            “Ander.” Their father crossed his arms. “You won’t have time for sailing in the army.”

            Kor narrowed his eyes, and Ender stepped forward slightly. “Father, you know he wants to be called Kor, aye?”

            “And you’ll have to drop that ridiculous habit,” their father said dismissively. “The men won’t take you seriously if you stick “aye” at the end of every second sentence.”

            “My name’s Kor.”

            Kander looked at him. “Of course. You decided to drop the only part of my name either of you had,” he said bitterly. “Kor. Could a name sound any more Crelan?”

            “Mate, don’t take the lad’s choice so personally.” Roland’s voice was calm. He was used to derogatory comments and didn’t let them bother him. “It was confusing calling them Ender and Ander. The choice is a practical one. Lads, if this is what you want, I’ll talk to Lord West Draulin.” Roland smiled kindly at his nephews. “I’ll try to gain you some favour, but you’ve got to earn it, aye?”

            The twins nodded.

            Their father still looked annoyed. “Very well, then. Tomorrow I’ll take you two to enlist. You should be ready to do some shooting, show the men what you can do.”

            They all heard the telltale sound of the front door opening, meaning that their mother was home. Kor and Ender glanced at each other, relieved. Although Kander and Roland didn’t get along, they both loved and respected Rinila enough that they wouldn’t fight when she was around. She walked into the room a moment later, carrying a loaf of bread and a bag of potatoes.

            Kander moved to take the bag from her. “The boys want to enlist.”

            “They’re only ten,” Rinila said.

            “They’re the perfect age.” The pair of them walked into the kitchen, leaving Roland and the twins behind. The door swung shut behind them and their voices were muffled.

            Ender was the first to speak. “Uncle, we don’t want to join the army.”

            Roland put a hand on his shoulder and crouched in front of his nephews. “I know.” He lay his other hand on Kor’s shoulder, turning him slightly so he could look both boys in the eye. “I know it’s a hard decision and you made it to please your father, but I believe you’ll do well. You’re very talented, both of you. Your parents and I are very impressed.”

            “Father never seems impressed,” Kor said.

            “Aye,” Roland agreed with a slight smile. “He’s upset quite often, but he’s upset because of how much he cares for you both. He doesn’t feel like he has much in common with you.” Then he glanced towards the kitchen door. “You’re young. If you decide you don’t enjoy being squires, we’ll work something out, aye? I’ll help you.”

            The twins smiled, grateful for their uncle’s understanding.

            “We have to give it a chance. Maybe it won’t be so bad,” Ender said.

            “Maybe,” Kor said with a shrug. “Maybe next year, we can join your crew, uncle.”

            Roland chuckled. “Maybe. But Ender’s right, give the army a chance. The pay is excellent, and I know you two are talented enough archers to go far. Promise me you’ll try for two years. Then, if you’re still unhappy, I’ll help.”

            “Aye, we promise,” Ender said.

            “Aye,” Kor agreed, a little more reluctantly. “We promise.”

            “Good lads. You’ll do fine. Roe and the Goddess will look out for you.”

            “Won’t Roe be angry we’re not sailors?” Kor asked.

            “Of course not, lad. You’re Crelan. We’ve got the blood of the Sailor King. Roe always watches over us.” Roland squeezed the boys’ shoulders and stood up. “It’ll be some time before dinner, why don’t you two go outside and play for awhile?”

            The boys gladly went outside to get away from the adults and sat on the porch. Their house was at the end of a street, giving a clear view to the port and ocean below. The twins sat silently, watching the tiny people moving around the port and ships.

            “As long as we stay together, I’m happy,” Ender said quietly.

            Kor smiled and nudged his brother. “Aye. Soldiers or sailors, we’ll stay together. I swear it in the name of Roe and the Goddess.”

            Ender nodded solemnly. “I swear it in the name of Roe and the Goddess.”

Duty

413

            “Atricen! What have I always told you about pulling out that knife during a fight?”

            “That is isn’t respectable,” Acen replied dutifully, but he didn’t let the matter drop, he never did. “I don’t understand, father. You say that the lords won’t trust me, but if using my knife saves a lord’s life, will he really care that it isn’t respectable?”

            Acen’s father stood across from him in the small courtyard. It was supposed to be their last duel, a father and son bonding moment before Acen was sent off to join the army. It wasn’t surprising that they’d started bickering. Acen had been training his whole life, and he was just as good, if not already better, than his father. However, where the older lord loved all the spoken and unspoken rules about fighting, Acen didn’t see the point. When it came down to it, he thought that being able to defeat his opponent was more important than following the rules and dying because of them.

            “Atricen, who are you?”

            Acen knew what his father was getting at. “Lord Atricen from West Draulin, second child to Lord Atrick, never going to inherit anything because Aveya’s getting it all.”

            “And?” his father prompted.

            “And a knight, one day.”

            “And knights fight like knights. I haven’t been training you your whole life for you to turn around and fight like some farmer’s boy. You’re a lord, Atricen, so you must act like one.”

            “But it doesn’t make sense,” Acen said. “Why should we all fight the same way? Everybody has different strengths and weaknesses and wouldn’t it be more effective to play to them? If I was one of the big lords I’d appreciate it if my guards fought to the best of their abilities instead of being chivalrous towards the people attacking me.”

            “If you were one of the big lords you could hire those people, but you aren’t,” his father said. “Now, put it away and let’s get back to fighting like gentlemen.”

            Acen slipped the knife back into its little sheath and held up his dull duelling sword.         He attacked first, suddenly, and in moments had knocked his father’s sword to the ground. He stepped back to allow his father to retrieve his sword. Duelling was boring. It was all the same patterns, the same movements, over and over again. Acen doubted that a real enemy would stick to the arrangements. Anyone who was desperate to kill someone would do whatever it took. His father had never seen a real battle. His father looked at fighting like a gentlemanly sport. Acen rolled his shoulders and held up his sword again, but his father shook his head.

            “No, Atricen, we’re done for now. You’re clearly ready. Now tell me, when we go meet Lord West Draulin tomorrow, what are you going to tell him?”

            Acen slipped his sword under his belt to free up his hands. “That I’d like to be a knight?”

            “You’ll have to be more polite than that, but yes. Now tell me what you’re going to do. What is the goal?”

            Acen sighed and repeated the words he’d said time and time again. “I’m going to go into training to be a knight, within a few years I’ll be knighted and then I’ll try to become the captain of a unit.”

            “You’ll try?” his father asked.

            “I’ll become the captain of a unit,” Acen corrected himself, although he knew it wasn’t a certainty. “I’ll make the family proud.”

            “And do you know what the greatest achievement would be?” his father asked, but continued before Acen could answer. “Next year, Lord Tandrix will be ten years old, which means there will be tryouts for his guard. You’ll be the perfect age. If you really want to make me proud, you’ll become the captain of his guard.”

            “Everyone in his guard will be highly talented, father,” Acen said. “I think it’s unrealistic to assume I’ll be the captain.”

            “If you want to achieve our goals you need to assume you already have,” his father said.

            Annoyance bubbled up in Acen as his father said “our goals”, but he didn’t comment. Instead, he nodded. “Yes, sir.”

            “You’ll be an excellent captain, Atricen. This time next year you’ll be one of the most famous knights in the city. You’ll do our family proud.”

            “Thank you, father.” Acen couldn’t deny that the idea exited him. Becoming a captain would allow him some control over his knights, which meant that he could let them fight to their strengths. He could show people like his father that fighting wasn’t a game with strict rules. A good knight had to be creative and spontaneous. A good knight had to be able to use a variety of weapons and know how to fight against a variety of weapons. The possibility of sharing his ideas with people who would listen was thrilling.

            “You’ll be in the meeting rooms and you’ll learn the kingdom’s secrets.”

            “Lord Tandrix will be going to Zianna, to join the Order,” Acen said.

            “Yes, but that will give you more time to train. And when he’s a grand general, you’ll be his right hand man.”

            “Why wasn’t I sent to the Order?” Acen asked, distracted by the thought. He was a lord who wasn’t inheriting anything, which made him perfectly eligible for the Order. “Lesser lords have gone.”

            “You know this, Atricen. I decided that you would not go. We are from West Draulin. Our family has served the West Draulin lords and ladies for generations. Your duty is to become a captain, just as it’s your sister’s duty to carry on the family.”

            Acen’s attention shifted. He’d heard a noise behind him, and his father’s voice faded into the background. Acen resisted the urge to look over his shoulder. It sounded like light footsteps, followed by the quietest scraping noise.

            Acen spun around, his training sword already in his hand, and met the other blade mid swing. He twisted the tip of his sword, catching the other blade and flipping it away from the attacker’s hand. The man, one of their family’s guards, backed up and held up his hands.

            “Very good, Atricen,” his father said.

            Acen held the other man at sword point for a second longer before relaxing and turning around. “Am I to expect attacks until I leave tomorrow?” He was annoyed, but pleased with his reaction. He could tell his father was surprised.

            “This is the kind of testing and training you’ll go through. You need to be alert at all times, especially when you’re guarding Lord Tandrix.”

            Acen gestured at the guard, who looked wary. “Clearly I’m on alert.”

            His father smiled. “I suppose we’ll see about that, my boy.”

 
 
 
 
 
An Expensive Gift
Year 414
Origins of "The Greatest Thief"

            “Mother…”

            “Hush, Finagale. Whining won’t solve anything. I’m cutting your hair whatever you say.”

            I sighed and rolled my eyes. Out of habit, I blew my bangs away from my eyes and then groaned when my mother chuckled.

            “And you tell me it isn’t too long?”

            “I like it,” I complained.

            “You look like a Telt,” she pointed out patiently.

            I froze. If there was one thing in the entire world I didn’t want to be, it was a Telt. My mother started to hum to herself as she gently cut away my hair. I behaved and stayed still for the next couple of minutes, until I heard her put down the knife and she ruffled my hair.

            “Much better, don’t you think?”

            I ran my hand through my hair and sighed. “It’s not awful.”

            “That’s my good boy,” mother turned my head and kissed my cheek. “It’s late now, you should get some sleep.”

            I hopped off of the bed and brushed loose hair off of my tunic. “Here?” I asked, trying my best to not sound too hopeful. I loved staying with my mother, but it didn’t happen very often. She was young and beautiful. I’d heard men compliment her perfect skin and her long, curly hair. I knew what she did and I understood why I couldn’t always stay, but I was always hopeful.

            “For now,” she said with a smile. She was trying to look happy, but she looked a little sad instead. “Unless someone calls for me. Come now. Lothian Dusk has come and gone and it’s time for little boys to go to sleep.”

            “I’m not little,” I argued, as I climbed back onto the bed and snuggled under the sheets. “Good night.” I couldn’t stop the yawn that came after my words.

            “Good night, Finny.” She leaned over to kiss my forehead, and I fell asleep soon after.

 

            I woke up before mother when I heard knocking at her door. There were always sounds at the brothel, and usually I managed to sleep through them. After a pause the knock came again, more insistently.

            “Zila! Wake up! You have a client!”

            Mother tightened her arm around me. “Send him to someone else. I have Finn,” she called back sleepily.

            “He asked for you,” the girl replied through the door.

            Mother sighed heavily. “Who is he?”

            “The castle guard. He came in complaining about how he had the worst watch assignment and how the only thing that kept him awake was imagining you-“

            Mother clasped her hands over my ears, but it didn’t matter. I’d heard it all before.

            “Sabrine! I have Finn!” she said shrilly.

            There was a pause. “Sorry. But he’s getting impatient.”

            “Yes, I know. I’ll see him.” Mother released my ears. “Finny-“

            “I know,” I rolled over so that I was facing her and could snuggle into her arms. “I’ll go in a second.”

            “I’m sorry,” she stroked my back. “I hate sending you away. I’m a terrible mother…”

            “No you’re not!” I sat up, my eyes wide and horrified by her suggestion. “You’re not terrible! You have to work. Everyone has to work. I understand.”

            She met my eyes and after a moment a small smile crept onto her face. “Of course you do. My smart little son. I love you more than I’ve ever loved anything in the world. Zianesa willing, one day I’ll be able to take care of you.”

            “I can take care of myself,” I said, trying to make her feel better.

            “I know you can.” She ruffled my hair and kissed my forehead. “Come back tonight. I’ll get food.”

            I slipped from the bed and pulled on my boots. Outside the day had just begun and I took a moment to lean out of the window and look at the people down in the street. Then I hopped onto the windowsill and got ready to climb.

            “Be careful, Finny. Don’t fall.”

            “I never fall,” I promised my mother, as I started to climb.

 

            I walked through the streets of Zianna, perfectly comfortable with my surroundings. I hadn’t lied to my mother, I could take care of myself. I’d already been doing it for years. The first thing I decided to do was find myself some breakfast.

            The streets were lined with merchants, and plenty of them sold food. I quickly found a little stall covered in pastries, and picked a nice spot across the street to sit and watch it. I had to be patient. Customers came and went, but always in small groups since it was so early in the day. It wasn’t until an hour had passed that my chance arrived as a crowd of people stopped by the stall.

            I slipped into the middle of the crowd. No one paid me any attention as I reached out and grabbed a small bun. I slipped it under my sleeve before anyone could see it, and squeezed out of the crowd. When I was far enough down the street that the pastry booth was out of sight, I took out the bun and ate it.

            Then came the mystery of what to do for the rest of the day. I could practice climbing, but that was boring. I could go to the tavern and watch the card games, but no one would let me play, even if I had money. I could steal something, but that presented no challenge. I wanted a challenge.

            I was deep in thought when I turned a corner and the wall at the other end of the street caught my eye. The dividing wall. That was a challenge. I ran down the street and came to an abrupt stop in front of the wall. I couldn’t climb it from there, I would be too visible, so I rushed down the nearest alleyway to get further from the main roads. Then I stopped. With my hands clasped behind my back, I stared up at the wall, letting my eyes flicker back and forth and look for a path. It didn’t take me long to find it.

            “I never fall,” I whispered to myself. “Zianesa, protect me.” I flexed my fingers, rolled my shoulders, and started to climb. I repeated the prayer to Zianesa over and over in my head. It took forever, but gradually the top of the wall got closer. I refused to look down. I concentrated on my feet and my hands, making sure every movement was secure and safe.

            And then suddenly I was on the top. The wall was fairly narrow at the top, but there was more than enough room for me to lie on my back. I took a few deep breathes, then spread my arms and laughed. There was nothing above me but sky. I stared at it as I caught my breath, then I sat up and dangled my legs over the side. The lower city spread out in front of me. My dirty, beloved city. I thought I could make out the brothel mother worked at.

            I shook that thought from my head and spun around to face the upper city. I had seen it before, but never from above. It was beautiful and white, with wide clean streets and large buildings. I loved it, but not the way I loved the lower city. The upper city looked like something out of a dream. I stared at it in awe before finally starting to climb down into it.

            Instantly, I felt like I was trespassing. Natives didn’t belong in the upper city. Everyone knew that, but here I was. Everything was so bright, even the shadows didn’t seem enough to keep me safe. I knew it was risky, but I was too curious and excited to leave. So I snuck between buildings and kept to the shadows as well as I could.

            I huddled near a staircase and watched a wide section of street. There were lots of people wandering around. Almost all of them looked rich. Men wearing bright tunics and carrying fancy swords. Woman in colourful dresses and sparkling jewellery. Children who looked like they’d never gone hungry a day in their lives. Pale skin and blond hair. Telts. I hated all of them for what they had – money and food and nothing to worry about. It wasn’t fair.

            A young woman walked by, and the sparkle of her necklace caught my eye. It was gold with three red stones. The image of my mother wearing it popped into my head and I knew I needed it. It was beautiful, and no one in the entire world deserved a beautiful necklace more than my mother did.

            I watched the woman carefully, moving from shadow to shadow to keep up with her. She lead me to what I assumed was her house, a large, two storey building. A servant stood guard at the door and let her in after a brief greeting. I knew I couldn’t follow her that way, so I relied on what I was good at and climbed up the wall.

            Zianesa must have agreed that mother deserved that necklace, because a window on the second floor was open a crack. I pushed it open and squeezed through. I was about to close it behind myself when I heard voices in the hallway and dove under the bed.

            The door opened just as I pulled my feet out of sight. I watched a pair of expensive shoes stroll into the room, followed by a pair of worn slippers.

            “It’s freezing in here! Close the window.”

            “Yes, ma’am.” The slippered feet walked over to the window and pulled it closed. There was a slight click as the latch was put in place. “Let me help you with that-“

            “Thank you.” Part of the young woman’s fancy clothing fell to the floor. “I cannot believe him! How dare he tell me I’m not pretty enough! He wants Holyn – everyone knows she just wants his money!”

            “Pay him no mind. If he marries her he’ll learn the truth soon enough. Come now, ma’am, your bathwater is going to get cold.” The servant finished undressing the rich woman, and they disappeared through a doorway. Only when it sounded like they were busy did I slip out from under the bed.

            The young woman’s fancy clothes were draped across a chair in front of a little table with a mirror. The necklace was on the table. I tiptoed over to it and picked it up. “Thank Zianesa,” I whispered, because she had to have been watching over me. I hurried out of the window and made sure to close it behind myself. Then I rushed to get as far away from the house as I possibly could.

 

            Lothian Dusk was falling when I returned to the brothel. I couldn’t go through the front door because, as I’d been told time and time again, men didn’t like seeing children walk in and out of brothels. It reminded them that they might have children they didn’t know about.

            I wondered for a second if my father ever thought about whether or not he had children. I wondered if he had other children, if I had brothers or sisters. Maybe he was married with a family. It didn’t matter. He was probably a Telt anyway.

            I climbed up to my mother’s window and knocked. If she didn’t open the window before I could count to twenty, it meant she wasn’t there or she was busy with a customer. She opened it at fifteen.

            She tugged me into a hug and brought me over to the bed. There was a clean cloth spread over the sheets, and it was covered with food. There was a whole loaf of bread, a block of cheese, a little cooked fish, and two apples. Mother was smiling, happier than I’d seen her in days.

            “I promised you food, Finny. Come on.” She lifted me onto the bed and sat down on the other side of the cloth. With a small knife, she started to cut up the food and divide it evenly between us. “Tell me about your day.”

            I ate each piece of food as soon as she put it in front of me. “I went to the upper city.”

            Mother looked shocked. “You did what?”

            “I went over the wall.” I grinned at her. “It was easy.”

            “Finagale!”

            “I never fall,” I promised her once again, and I shoved a piece of cheese into my mouth.  “I got you something.”

            She probably thought I meant an old dress or pair of shoes, but she still managed to look excited. “Did you?”

            I waited a moment before pulling the necklace from my pocket. Mother gasped and her hands covered her mouth. For a while she was still, then she reached out to slowly lift it from my hands. “Finn, this must be worth hundreds of siyas.”

            I shrugged. “You deserve it. Zianesa helped me take it. You’re the greatest mother in all of Zianna.”

            Mother was crying. “Oh, Finny – I can’t, I… This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

            I smiled then, pleased with how happy I’d made her. “You don’t care that I stole it?”

            She laughed through her tears of delight. “Finagale, one day you’ll be the greatest thief in Zianna.”

            I liked the sound of that.

 
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