A/N: Ages may be slightly off, but they're close enough. It's AU, alright? That means I can have cell phones and wifi in Tortall too….right? You know, for the sake of the story? Also, Tyrans have similar features to the Marenese (Marenese?), according to me. Wow, I'm definitely stumbling around in the dark, aren't I?
Thanks for the reviews, favs, and follows!
Huge thanks to Sweetmari for being an awesome beta reader.
Jonathan of Conté, former heir to the throne of Tortall, muttered a curse and slumped against a nearby wall. He was exhausted to the point of despair. He decided at that instant, that he was doomed to perpetually wander the streets of Tortall, forever maintaining his fragile guise of anonymity. He never realized just how many unnamed towns and villages lurked on the outskirts of Tortall's larger cities. He'd originally planned to travel for a while and let things settle down a bit. Well, a "while" had turned into almost two years and it was high time that he found a place to settle. Unfortunately, finding said place was far more difficult than he'd thought it would be. After a near miss with Roger's men, he'd pondered whether or not to leave Tortall altogether. However, news and demand for his capture must have spread, and he knew that he'd be in more trouble if a foreign kingdom found him. They'd likely bring Roger his head in hope for some alliance in return. Tortallans, even ones looking for a reward, might spare him the beheading.
Haunting one small village after the next, he'd made his way into the northern reaches of Tortall towards Scanra, discarding one after the other. Maybe it was a bad idea to settle in a place with such a small population, but he figured that these were country and mountain folk, and they were unlikely to have ever seen a rendering of his face. He was certain he could go unnoticed.
Luckily, this village looked slightly more promising than the previous one. The buildings were a rag tag mixture of wood and stone. There were a few markets stalls up in the distance, and he could hear the faint sound of people talking. Snow blanketed the roofs and the streets were hard with ice. Jon wrapped his thin coat tighter about himself, shivering in the chill of the air. The cold went bone deep, mingling with the exhaustion that had already settled there.
Counting the buildings, and his numbers were not his best skill, he estimated that the village boasted a population of about 300-400 people. It wasn't a well-off place, by the looks of it, so he would have to be careful to watch his mannerisms. His inherent nobility had almost given him away countless times. He also had the features of a noble, aristocratic some may say, but there wasn't much he could do about that — short of breaking his own nose to make it crooked, of course. Since he didn't fancy that idea, he went for rubbing dirt on his face. He didn't bother with the dirt for his clothes. They were dirty, stiff and worn enough after over a year of traveling. He had tried magicking his looks for a time, but he couldn't keep up with the constant drain of energy. So dirt and threadbare clothes was as good as it was going to get.
Glancing at the sky, he reckoned that he had quite a bit of time before the sun went down. Encouraged, he shouldered his bag full of his meager belongings and set off to find a place that would be willing to trade work for room and board. He needed to commune as the Voice later that night, but then…then he could sleep.
Later in the day, Jon found himself sitting on a corner next to a street magician. He didn't even care that the snow was making his clothes damp and cold. He'd gone to almost every inn or tavern in the vicinity, looking for work. They'd all turned him out. He'd even considered heading in to the local brothel, but he decided the women there might be just wily enough to figure out his identity. It was also most likely visited by passing nobles or knights returning from Border Patrol near Galla or Scanra. Whatever the women's professions, he had no doubts as to their intelligence. They'd put two and two together if someone so much as mentioned in passing that he looked familiar.
Turning back to magician, he watched as the young man caught his final ball, finishing his set of juggling. He then bowed slightly, holding a hand out to the side. The set had consisted of the normal tricks — cards, juggling, and making things pop out of nonexistence. The people surrounding him clapped and some dropped copper bits into a small pan at the magician's feet. After watching him for the better part of the day, Jon decided that the man was good…maybe too good. His own gift was in no way a small amount of power, but this man…well, his gift spoke of blatant power and was practically seeping with magical strength.
The magician was obviously not a native Tortallan, nor was he a native to the life of a common peddler. His black hair was long, for one, not cut short like most commoners. His skin was tanned, but dirty from the road. Unusually tall, he still looked to be 5-6 summers younger than Jon himself. His clothing wasn't out of the ordinary, a bit large on his frame, but the fabric seemed to have once been fine and had an unusual cut. Jonathan couldn't quite put a finger on the origin of the style, though. Carthaki? No, couldn't be. The man's features didn't look Carthaki, more Marenese or Tyran, if Jon was correct. Although people moved all over, these days, it was hard to pinpoint birthplaces. Besides, how could a mage from the Carthaki Empire end up here? With a gift like that, the man belonged in a high-ranking position, not disguising powerful magic as cheap tricks on a street corner.
He sighed. No one was where they were meant to be anymore. His own case was the most backwards, perhaps. Somehow, he had ended up roaming the lands, and Alanna had ended up ruling them. Of course, it was his own planning that ultimately put Alanna on the throne. He sent up a silent prayer to the gods that she had burned the letter he had left her before fleeing Corus.
They had never really reconciled the things that had happened between them. He had no doubt that she had heard of his dalliance with Josaine. He also remembered that she had been angry, no — furious, that he'd been trying to make her life choices for her. Then he went and asked her to marry Roger and become Queen. He had asked so much of her, and she had acquiesced. She knew her duty to Tortall, and her feelings or maybe lack there of for Jon would never change how she felt about the kingdom. He practically ached with the need to contact her in some way, but he knew he couldn't. Not now. Things were too precarious and his anonymity too fragile.
A small shuffle near him brought his surroundings back into focus. The street magician was packing up his meager belongings and counting the money he'd made for the day. Jon stood and brushed the dirt and snow flurries from his breeches. He glanced at the man and was suddenly struck by an absurd idea. Maybe he should join the man and they could be a duo of powerful mages performing child's tricks on street corners. Suddenly, he was overcome by a fit of hollow laughter. He laughed at how unfortunate his situation was, how ridiculously desperate. He laughed at how he couldn't even be a street magician, because he used as much gift as he dared to hide his identity and location. He laughed because even using his gift to hide his location could give away his location, if another mage sensed him and recognized his power. Roger most likely had mages searching for him for that very reason. It felt good to laugh, even if the laughter was more of a maniacal hysteria borne of weariness and desperation than from anything genuinely humorous.
He sobered quickly, however, when he found the magician's concerned and suspicious eyes on him. The man's dark gaze shifted from Jon's hands to his own purse, probably wondering if Jon would try and attack him or something. The man's large hands shook, and Jon spied a faint shift of magic as the man prematurely prepared for battle. Jon hesitated, with shaking hands like that, it seemed as if the man wasn't used to using his gift for battle. No matter, Jon couldn't risk even a minor magical confrontation out in the open.
"Sorry, friend," Jon said placating, holding his hands up in surrender, "it's just been a really long day."
The man blinked and the tingle of magic faded from the air. Breathing a sigh of relief, Jon watched as the man ran a hand through his hair, letting loose the leather tie that held it back from his face. "I know the feeling," he said, and Jon believed him.
Jon leaned against the wall and gestured at the man, "Been in town, long?"
"It's hardly a town," the man muttered, bending down to snatch the leather tie from the snow, "but I've been here about three days. I'm heading south tomorrow morning, however. I hear the money is better near Corus."
"Indeed, it is —I mean, I've heard it is. Never been there myself," Jon said, cursing inwardly at his small slip. A small plan, however, began to form in his head. It would be risky, but may be worth it. If this man was as powerful as Jon believed, Alanna could make better use of him than the streets would. Not to mention, he needed this mage out of his vicinity, for the man's power would only draw attention to his location.
"Ever thought of performing for Their Majesties? I hear they're mages, they may enjoy it."
The man quirked a brow, considering it for a moment, before shaking his head, "I'm — how do I put this? I'm not sure it would be wise for me to go near such powerful people at the moment."
Jon smiled, "Lying low, are you?" He raked his gaze down the man's clothing, "Not from around here, either. You're not a criminal on the run, are you?"
The man narrowed his gaze defensively, "No more than you. Just tired of men with power."
How odd, that statement, and quite spot on, Jon realized. Almost too spot on. Deciding that this conversation was becoming dangerous very quickly, he decided to just risk it. He was knee deep in it anyway, and for some irrational reason, he trusted this man.
Jon walked forward, reaching up to put a hand on the man's shoulder. He ignored the stiffening of the man's posture and the tingle of defensive magic in the air. Jon did notice that there were faint white lines around his fingers where his rings once sat. Clenching the hand into a fist, he gestured with it towards the street, "Look, walk with me will you?"
The man looked at him, seemingly considering his options, and then nodded. They set off down the street, taking care not to slip on the icy terrain. Finally, they came to a stop in a crowded area, where merchants were hawking their wares to passersby. The man looked around and Jon felt a small wave of magic fall over them and the merchants' voices quieted.
He looked at the stranger in question and he shrugged in response, "You're a mage, I can sense it. You must be able to sense me as well. I might as well make this conversation private. My name is Arr — Numair. It's Numair. "
Jon took note of the name slip, belatedly realizing that this man might actually be a criminal on the run, but he'd already decided to go for it. Might as well dive a little deeper.
"I'm Jon," he said offhandedly, realizing his own error almost immediately. He rapidly continued his talking, hoping that maybe the man wouldn't remember the name, "Look, I suggest that you go to Corus. The money is better, but that's not why you should go. Get and audience with Queen Alanna, just her, not the king. King Roger would not take kindly to a mage with powers like yours. You can, however, trust Alanna — the queen. Tell her that you've been sent by me and would like to help out with her…her cause."
Numair looked a little shocked at all this, but he seemed to take it in stride. He gestured that they continue to walk, as to not look suspicious. As they navigated the small crowd, Numair pondered, "What 'cause' would this be?"
Jon came to a halt, twitching his lips into a grim smile, "What do you know of the political situation in Tortall?"
As it would turn out, Numair knew very little of the situation in Tortall. He had been, as he put it, "wrapped up in a political situation of my own". They had found a small inn and tavern, one Jon hadn't stopped in yet, and the two men sat down at a table. The tavern was crowded, so with the silence spell, their conversation would neither be noticed nor missed. Numair gave him a very guarded account of his background, although he did let slip two important things — he was indeed Tyran and he was a Black Robed mage. If Jon's memory was correct, this man was the youngest Black Robe in history. After this, Jon explained the events of recent years, trying to keep his voice even and his version of the events very impersonal.
After a mug of ale and a small meal each, the history lesson was over and Numair simply stared at Jon, his mug halfway to his lips. He gently set the mug back down the table, "So, what you're telling me is that the Queen is still loyal to the rightful king, which is you, obviously. And —"
Jon spluttered and practically spilled his drink on the table. He glanced around wildly, doubting for the first time the reliability of the spell that Numair had put up, "How did you — ? When did I —?"
Numair held up a hand, "The rightful king's name is Jonathan. He's in hiding. You introduced yourself, most foolishly I might add, as 'Jon'. Honestly, I'm surprised you've stayed hidden thus far. And relax, the spell is quite sound, I assure you."
Jon shook his head, like a hound shaking off water, and finally looked back at the Numair. The tall mage smiled gently, "You've nothing to fear from me."
Well, he had decided to trust the man. Turns out, he was going to trust the man with everything. Wondering if he'd just upended the entire possibility of ever getting his crown and kingdom back, Jon spoke quietly, "I sincerely hope so. Please, continue."
Numair leaned back and placed his hands on the table. His shoulders pushed back slightly, and he raised his chin a bit. This was a slight, but noticeable change in the man's demeanor. Numair seemed to know how to carry himself around nobles, and in this case, disgraced royalty. However, when he spoke, his tone was still conversational and open, much unlike the guarded words and razor edged comments of many courtiers Jon had known, "Disregarding for the moment, the possibility that you might be a mad man, I've a question. I must confess that most of my magic is purely academic. You're certain that the queen will be able to make use of me?"
Jon grimaced, "I see. Alanna does know battle magic; she may be able to help you a bit. I'd teach you myself, but I'm afraid we'd start a riot, and I have terrible luck with riots." He paused for a moment, shaking his head to himself before continuing, "As to making use of you, I'm hoping she has some plan other than remaining queen. Knowing her, she probably wants that crown off her head as soon as possible. Alanna…well, she didn't want to be queen, not really, and especially not like this."
Numair looked at him oddly, "From the little I've heard about the Tortallan court, it is rumored that Queen Alanna married the crown, not the man. She simply lusted after the power that came with it. Would she take kindly to a man like me?"
Jonathan let out a strangled laugh, "The rumors have her all wrong. Alanna's never suffered from a lust for power, only a lust for adventure. She was my squire, you know?"
Numair's eyes widened as Jon nodded, "She hid her sex for eight years. She's the first female knight in a very long time, and a vision with a sword in her hand. But she will take well to you, so long as you know how to talk to her. Just don't beat around the bush, and don't get near her if she's wielding a live blade."
Numair and Jon both winced at this, Jon having personal experience and Numair having a vivid imagination. Jon continued, choosing his words with care, "If she doesn't know what to do with you in regard to me, she will definitely know people who can keep you hidden and safe."
Numair nodded, still looking a bit unnerved at Jon's description of Alanna. He then blinked and glanced at Jon, a new question in his eyes, "Why do I need to be hidden and safe, aren't they hunting for you?"
Jon laughed bitterly, "I have a feeling there are men hunting for you as well. A Black Robe…at your age. Anyhow, Tortall is not safe right now, not in the least, and definitely not for powerful mages. To be honest, you'd do best to just leave Tortall altogether, but if you'd like to help me, I'd be grateful. If I ever get to where I am meant to be, born to be, then I will return the favor."
"And how do I know that this isn't a trap? Why should I trust a stranger on the street?" Numair asked honestly.
"Look at us," Jon said, gesturing between them, "Who has more at risk here if it's the truth, you or me?"
Numair hesitated, before nodding, "I will try to get an audience with Queen Alanna, and that is all I will promise."
Jon smiled, feeling hopeful for the first time in weeks, "Thank you."
"How do I convince her that I've met the real you?" Numair asked.
Well, that was quite a snag. Having known the King of the Rogue for quite a while, Alanna was considerably more suspicious than she used to be. George had taught her well. Not to mention the possible truth that being a monarch could demolish the idea of trusting completely. She would be unlikely to trust the words of a stranger, much less a foreign one. It was ironic to think that Alanna, who had quite literally turned her back on court politics for so long, was now positively drowning in them. She'd be a hard person to convince.
Jon thought hard, trying to think of something only he would know about Alanna. He eyed the barmaid as she passed them, refilling their drinks. She was a lovely blonde with a smattering of light freckles across her face. She eyed Jon up and down, an indecipherable expression flitting over her features. As she walked away, Jon grinned, a wicked gleam in his eyes. "27."
Numair looked horribly confused, "Pardon?"
"Just tell her that I said, '27'….and tell her…tell her that I'm sorry."
Jon would have liked to apologize to her in person, but he had no idea if he'd ever get to talk to Alanna again, let alone see her. As he looked at Numair, he took note of the dubious expression on the tall man's face. However, Numair finally nodded, "I will."
They both stood up, Numair drained the rest of his ale, and Jon felt the spell lift. As Numair went to walk away, he suddenly turned and looked Jon in the eye, "Why did you trust me with this?"
Jon shrugged, holding his hands out in an honest gesture, "I've been around deceitful people my whole life. I had a feeling, and well, you just looked…different."
After Numair left, most likely going back to his rooms at an inn, Jon felt a myriad of emotions. He was hopeful, for Numair would be very useful if a rebellion ever occurred. The only problem with that was that he had absolutely no idea if there was ever to be an opportunity to get his throne back. Maybe the people were content. No, that wasn't right. Tortall wasn't a complete mess, but it was on its way. Roger didn't neglect the nobles, but he had little regard for the common people. He ruled by inciting fear in the people, and he wouldn't be happy with just Tortall. Eventually he would move on other kingdoms. Roger wanted more than a kingdom – he wanted an empire.
However, there was very little he could do about that at the moment. All his life he'd been in a position of power. Now, he had to stand by and hide while he put the weight of a kingdom on the shoulders of his best friends. It wasn't as if he didn't have his hands full, but they were full of minor issues, like finding a place to stay and work. He'd been groomed to be a king — to hold millions of lives in his hands. Yet, here he was struggling to live the life of a common man. Was he truly capable of being a good king? Could he rule any better than Roger?
His life was rapidly unraveling like a ball of string rolling down a hill, all the while tangling itself into snares along the way. Why was he worrying about his capabilities regarding a crown he didn't wear yet?
A loud noise snatched all conscious thought from his mind, and for a single breathless moment, he thought he had been found and was being attacked. His hand went to a sword he no longer wore and his gaze steadied itself on the pretty barmaid, who stood before him. She looked down at him, where he was sitting at the table nursing an empty mug. Irritation colored her features, and he realized that she must have been trying to get his attention for a while.
"If ye are going to drift off, find yerself a bed, no? We've payin' customers who'd like yer table."
Her accent was that of a mountain lass, and a commoner, but it seemed forced, almost unnatural on her lips. Odd. However, he could hardly ponder her accent when she was glaring at him like that — and she wasn't the only one. In the front, hovering by the full bar, a group of three men eyed him a bit fiercely. They were obviously the "paying customers".
"I was just — I have a lot to — very well." His way with words had deserted him. He must have been on the road for too long. Alanna would have killed to see Jon trip over his tongue in front of such a lovely girl. Thinking of Alanna, however, was not good for him at the moment. Jon stood from the table, wincing as his back protested the movement. How long had he been there?
The men quickly stalked over, shoving him a bit as they claimed the table for themselves. Jon followed the barmaid to where she was wiping down the bar counter, remembering that he'd yet to ask for a job at this inn. He stood there a bit awkwardly for a moment or two, until the young woman glanced up. She wiped her hand on her apron and cocked a hip, eying him for a moment before she settled on a sigh, "Ye don't have a bed, do ye?"
"Nor much more money, I'm afraid," Jon said honestly, "I was actually wondering if you'd consider taking me on as a hand around the inn in exchange for room and board. I'll do anything you ask — well, maybe not anything— but I —"
She held up a hand, and walked past him and into a back hallway behind the bar. Confused, he followed her, getting ready to plead…and possibly beg. He was running out of time, and he had to find a private place to commune as the Voice. As he opened his mouth, she glanced back and shushed him gently, and then she shouted in the direction of a room towards the end of the hallway, "Mum! I've a man here who'd like to work for us!"
A moment later, a middle aged woman came into view, strands of graying hair whipping about her face as she walked towards them with her eyes on a piece of parchment in her hand. Not even looking up, she spoke, "I told ye before, Amelia, we're not taking on any — oh!"
She had finally looked up, and upon fastening her gaze on Jonathan, she halted, her mouth open in an almost comical expression of surprise. She crinkled her brow as she looked him up and down, then she glanced at her daughter, Amelia, raising her brows as if asking a question.
Amelia nodded sharply, an unspoken conversation passing between the two women. Finally, the woman walked forward, "Well then, I suppose we can find something for ye to do around here, lad. I'm Melra, and this is my inn. This is my daughter, Amelia. She'll show you to a room."
Jon could only nod, utterly astounded that he had actually found a place to stay and work, and a little more than suspicious as to why Melra had changed her mind about him. There was little chance that they knew who he was, given where they were. Besides, who was he to turn down what might be his only chance?
Amelia tugged at his sleeve, and he thanked Melra and started to follow the daughter back out into the dining area. He heard Melra speak and turned around quickly, "Pardon?"
"Yer name, son. What's yer name?"
"Geoff Cooper, ma'am," he said quickly, using the new name he'd adopted a few days ago. He'd been changing names every now and then, hoping to erase any chance of a trail. Melra nodded, smiling a bit, "Well, Mr. Cooper, we'll speak again in the morn. I daresay I'll have found some tasks for ye by then."
Jonathan gave a heavy sigh of relief as he shut the door behind him. Glancing about the room, he took stock of his new home. There wasn't much, just a sturdy dresser, bed, and a small table. There were two wax candles on the table, along with a bucket of melting snow that he'd fetched after Amelia had left him. The bed, at least, had a heavy wool blanket, which he was thankful for given the rapidly cooling temperature.
He lit the candles with his gift and used a bit more to warm the water slightly. He didn't have the energy for much else. With a bit of time before communing as the Voice, he laid down on the bed, reveling in the warmth and comfort. It had been a long time since he had slept in a bed. Content to drift off for a while, he rested his head against the wall, feeling his eyes drift closed.
A sudden flare of heat flooded his bones, and Jon nearly jumped from the bed as the air was scorched around him.
"Mithros! What in the —"
"You are quite correct, my son," a voice spoke, the sound of it was almost too much to bear, as if this voice wasn't meant to be heard by mortals.
Jon looked and stumbled from the bed, nearly falling to his knees before the man in front of him. The man was inhumanly tall, with deep, night black skin that contrasted greatly with his shining gold armor. He carried a spear, the tip being the source of the raging heat that blanketed the room. This, this had to be Mithros, the God of the sun — and, among other things, war.
"Be still. You're not the first to see me, you know. Just ask your Lioness, she's had a glimpse of me."
Jon was finally able to stand straight, but he kept his knees locked just in case. He forced out a small laugh, "I'd doubt Alanna would take nicely to being referred to as my Lioness."
"All the better that my sister deals with her then, yes? I've much to talk to you about, and very little time. My sister once spoke to Alanna of Trebond regarding a crossroads. Let's just say that the crossroads in question did not yield a foreseeable result. The state of Tortall is in limbo. We, the gods, have quite an interest in seeing Tortall to a more stable state. Whether that be in your hands, is up to you. But, be certain, war is coming, Jonathan of Conté, and it will be vicious."
"When is war not vicious? Is that all, then?" Jon was, for some reason, angry. One of the great gods had deigned to make an appearance only to tell him what he already knew. Mithros, however, merely laughed.
"Mortals are so fickle, are you not? However, I can help you to an extent. Just as my sister has taken an interest in certain mortals, I have an interest in you. I will protect your location. Do not waste your power on that. I can also provide you with a secure way of speaking to Tortall's Queen. You both have unique connections with us, and we can make use of that. Keep a keen eye out, and I will appear to you when the time is right for that meeting."
"Keep an eye out? Wait, what type of meeting? When —"
Mithros merely raised a hand, "It will eventually become clear, but I must go. I will see you soon, Jonathan of Conté."
Jonathan spluttered, calling out for answers that he so desperate craved, but the God was gone as soon as he had appeared. The room's temperature dropped, and Jon belatedly realized that his shirt was smoldering a little. In fact, all his clothing that had previously been damp was now dry. Staggering back to the bed, he collapsed on the blankets, trying to work through this turn of events. Mithros, himself…and when had Alanna seen the Great Goddess?
He had seen and spoken with a God and all he had come away with were more unanswered questions.
And a warning.
War is coming, Jonathan of Conté, and it will be vicious.