Somebody/ Tell me why my strategy/ Fell apart/ Tell me why you broke my heart.
Prologue ~ Londre Tower, Londre, Ishmeria
Ishmeria is at peace.
Terian smiled and set the newspaper down on his desk. The details were fairly accurate and the caricature of him not too insulting. He couldn't be that bad a tyrant, he thought with an amused smile, if the press at least dared to satirise him. It had helped that he had funded their printing press from the royal reserves, and ended the heavy censorship and enforced propaganda that had plagued them under Eselred's rule – he wanted Ishmeria rebuilt as a civilised nation, full of wise scholars and bards, and most of all he wanted to be told what was really going on, not what people thought he wanted to hear. He wasn't that interesting to caricature either; unlike Eselred, he had no particularly prominent or ugly features, He looked a lot younger than his thirty years, his face handsome and brooding, his blue eyes piercing, his dark curled hair kept short. For once in a long time – it felt like forever and was probably far too long, so that today's generation and their children had grown up knowing only war – there was nothing but good news to tell.
It had taken five further years before Ishmeria looked even remotely hospitable. The unnatural plagues and disasters had died down; the priests had explained to him that the magical disturbances to the balance of the land were a result of the Gems being misused, and that the restless dead and other malevolent creatures that were now rarely sighted in the forests had also been summoned or created by the massive waves of chaotic magical power from the Gems. The natural wildlife was returning to the forests and the crops were growing in the right seasons again, bringing with them a more stable economy. Towns were rebuilding everywhere. Although some pro-Lankshire factions still caused trouble and there was still infighting on a small scale in some areas of the South, the country seemed to have a truly unified goal at last; bringing their once beautiful land back to its former glory.
Despite being the largest scale battle in the entire history of the War of Gemfire, Terian's victory, if he could really call it his own, had been rather paradoxical, even anticlimactic. Their armies had met outside the gates of Londre. The forces had been fairly evenly matched, the Dragon locked in combat with the Pastha and unable to join in, forcing the two Generals to rely on good tactics alone. Then, out of the corner of his eye, Terian saw the deposed King jump from the walls and simply disappear off the face of Ishmeria, never to be seen again. Minutes later, a messenger had run up to him (messengers, like civilians, captives and priests, were considered dishonourable targets in battle) and passed him a scroll with the royal seal; a declaration of surrender. Conspiracy theories abounded, and the Ishmerian Times was still capitalising on some of the more ridiculous; Fey abduction. Demonic possession. Terian secretly leading a double life as Eselred.
There were debates over Terian's ability to reign, of course, and speculations about the future, as many apprehensive as there were hopeful. The people were calling for a formal celebration to make the transition from war to peace seem more real, more final. Always the levelheaded one, his younger sister Anise had had warned him that their resources were running low. Eselred had wasted most of the country's funds, and he was determined not to make the same mistake.
Above all, whatever his faults as a King, he would not be another Eselred.
"Anise, could you pen a letter for me?" he asked suddenly.
"To whom should I address it, Your Highness?" she asked, dipping her pen in her inkwell.
"To whom it may concern," he said, "Honoured friends, His Majesty the King of Ishmeria wishes to formally invite you to a celebration of our new-found peace and our ongoing reconstruction efforts..."
"Oh, we're having a festival? But we still don't have much money or food spare, you know..."
"We'll have saved up enough by the time our guests arrive. They'll have far to travel."
"Should I inform the couriers they'll be running up north?"
"Ah, no, further than that," he smiled, "Which is the fastest and sturdiest ship in the harbour?"
"That would be the trade ship Uncharted Waters," she said, and added, "It leaves again tonight. Now we actually make enough grain to import, we have a good trade relationship going with El Salia. You should think of signing an official trade agreement. Talking of ships, the Bureau of Homeland Security wants to know why we still don't have a proper navy..."
"A trade ship might be apprehended by pirates, but nobody will ask questions," he mused, ignoring her latest in a constant stream of urgent petitions, "I want our most reliable messenger on board that ship, and a few more guards than usual; say its because of fragile cargo. Don't tell anyone outside the family. There's a chance this could go wrong, or be misinterpreted."
"You're always up to something, brother," she said irreverently, giving him an impish grin, "So, what do you want written?"
Thirty seconds later, there was a knock at the door that he recognised as his younger brother, Bryan. He had spent all day in his room, studying as if his life depended on it. He was the University of Cambry's most distinguished patron and he was supposed to be taking an exam in three days' time. Terian sighed, "Family doesn't need to knock, Bryan."
"Your Highness, the Princess Robyn and her entourage are here... she wishes to speak with you in private..."
Terian raised an eyebrow. It was a rare occasion that Eselred's daughter ever came out of her chamber, rarer still that she spoke to him. Since being freed from the Tower's dungeon, he expected her to be shy around strangers, maybe ashamed to be her father's daughter and afraid that the people would hate her for it, or even for the necessary but drastic measures she took to allow anyone the chance to stand up to her father – unleashing the magic from Gemfire, the crown of Ishmeria, by removing its gems, in order to summon the ancient magical guardians that protected the isle. However, he had also expected her to long for freedom, and to quickly warm to the peaceful new Ishmeria and the people who preferred their young, beautiful, tragic Princess to their untested King. He effectively ruled jointly with her, although he could not write up an official alliance with Lankshire, in case Eselred was not truly gone from the isle.
Of course, he was expected to marry her at some point. However politically convenient it would be to have ties with the old Lankshire dynasty, he had no such plans. He was afraid to mention such a thing to the Princess, in case he sounded too forceful – he was technically her conqueror, and it would be easy to misinterpret his wishes as something less than innocent. He was worried that she was afraid of him, and was appearing aloof and uncaring in order to avoid showing weakness. Furthermore, he did not actually love her. He admired her beauty, inner strength and bravery. He wanted to protect her and make sure she did well in life, and not to be haunted by the phantoms of her past any more. That wasn't enough to be considered love. He didn't really even know her. He had never met her before he had carried her out of the front gates of the Tower, and since then, she hadn't talked to her. When they did speak, her closest retainers always followed her everywhere: Lady Karla, a far tougher old battleship of a woman than the Uncharted Waters, and Griff, a homicidal Southern ex-border guard who protected her with his life. They terrified him, and clearly did not approve of his un-Lankshire impurity. He was not going to risk their wrath, and he did not wish to marry a girl simply because he had rescued them from Eselred's captivity. He had rescued the entire nation from Eselred's captivity. That would be far too many wives.
"Tell Her Majesty I would be deeply honoured to meet her as soon as I have taken care of a small matter of business."
"She says, would you like some help with it? She is worried that you seem awfully busy lately and she can help with a lot more of the work."
"Tell her..." he smiled, imagining her reaction when she found out. If he played his cards right, he would finally be able to prove that he was not her father, and was not her conqueror either, "Tell her I'm keeping it as a surprise for her birthday!"
Forest of Stowe, Vermilion
The small boat drifted silently towards the shore, where its owner, a tall, broad-shouldered figure whose features were entirely hidden beneath a leaf-green hooded cloak, moored it, fastened the oars to the side and jumped out. He did not make a sound apart from a faint splash as he landed in the shallow water before disappearing into the thick forest, where the mist was rising.
The forest was untamed, not a place where people lived (although, he considered, the perfect place for a weary exile to live out the rest of their days in peace, no longer hassled by the remnants of whatever politics led to their downfall) and so there were no waypoint markers or even footpaths. Together with the ethereal white haze that slowly enveloped the land like a burial shroud, it was difficult to navigate through the tightly packed trees that fought for space, their roots snaggling across the canopy floor and threatening to trip him up. With his quarterstaff, he carefully prodded the ground before him to check for anything he could stumble over. Cautious as he was, the lone traveller could also hear everything around him. He sensed no human presence but the air buzzed with life. Nocturnal animals were beginning to stir from their slumber; fireflies that danced like the dying embers of flames as they courted each other, bats with their strange high-pitched cries that he could barely hear, shapes that flitted across his vision as small, wary animals darted from one bush to the next, afraid to become the next meal of the distantly howling wolves. He paid them no heed. No wild animal would be interested enough in him to bother taking the risk of approaching him, not when their food was already so plentiful. In turn, he had no need to disrupt their world. He could afford no distractions at all; his mission was both vital and urgent.
Almost unconsciously, his large hands reached inside the folds of his cloak, where he located the reassuring weight of the letter concealed there. Once again he mentally recited the contents of the message, together with the long list of people he was required to deliver it to, and their locations. He wasn't far away now. Despite the remote land, the dark and the mist, the lack of even a clear sky to navigate by, he knew exactly where he was going.
Quite suddenly, he felt the atmosphere around him change. One by one, the animals began to fall silent. He stopped still, one hand tightening around his quarterstaff. Behind him, he heard the first rustling in the bushes, slightly too hesitant, too deliberate, to be an animal. The sound was soon followed by similar noises from all directions. He was already surrounded. His pursuers were well trained and thorough, just as he knew they would be.
He whipped out his staff, swinging it in a wide arc to deflect a thrown knife. Jumping over the bush in front of him (and the trap concealed within it), he swung the staff in the other direction, parrying the curved blade of the first assailant, lunging at him from behind the nearby tree, with enough force to knock it away so he could close in for a blow that cracked the man's skull. Then he broke into a run, weaving his way through the trees, his staff a whistling blur as he defended himself against the silent, dark-clothed assassins who poured from the trees. Time ceased to flow, instead leaping from one present moment to the next, one turning after the other, a counter-blow for every attack. Staying on route was as important as staying alive; letting them sidetrack him was as much a defeat as his death.
Suddenly, he saw light and knew that he was near to completing his mission. Or was everything getting too bright, suddenly? He felt light-headed, a strange sense of peace mixed with dread washing over him despite the adrenaline and the natural flow of battle that spurred him on. He distantly realised that his body was failing him. Irritably, he snatched at something by shoulder that was obstructing his view slightly. That was when he discovered the tiny dart. It hadn't drawn blood; he hadn't even noticed he had been shot. Of course, if an assassin was hired by people with as much money as he knew they had, they would be using poison.
His eyes narrowed, grim, silent determination replacing his earlier casual battle-thrill. In the balance of things, his life was of no import, but he could not fail his mission. The message would be delivered. Time enough to surrender to death afterwards; all the time in the world.