There was nothing special about him.
He traveled with a satchel over one shoulder, his gait slow, ignorant of the world rushing on without him. His clothes; threadbare, vest open, every button gone, shoes worn out. The traveler didn’t appear to mind, meandering as he was through tall meadow grass beside a trickling stream. He strolled with a full smile on his lips, eyes bright as he gazed all around. Rarely did he look ahead, yet his steps were certain, and he never stumbled. When he looked forward, there was a light in his face that left no room for doubt: He knew his destination, but he was in no hurry to get there.
Crouched against a hillside west of the stream, Yeshton watched the man. One hand gripped the pommel of his sword.
One thing Yeshton didn’t understand: How could this man have a price on his head? Not that Yeshton would receive any reward for bringing the traveler in. As an Amantieran soldier under Duke Lunorr’s banner, this was duty, not fortune. But by capturing the wanted man himself, no one else could claim the reward either. Two hundred gold kana was a lot of money.
Yeshton’s eyes narrowed. Is he from Shing?
The black hair and short stature implied it. Was this simple man a spy for the KryTeer Empire? In that case, the price was too low.
But the Shingese weren’t really of the KryTeer Empire. Shing had surrendered only five years ago. Odd that a loyal spy would come from there so soon. A paid informant, then? Not duty-bound but seeking profit or maybe a decent meal. The latter was probable, judging by his apparel.
You’re a soldier, man. Do your job. Yeshton raised his hand, bracing to signal the other men stationed in the shadows around the point of ambush. The traveler approached the sloping path between two steep inclines. Yeshton had guessed right. This was the way toward Kavacos of Rose Province, the Royal City of His Majesty King Jetekesh the Fourth.
The rabbit strolled toward the snare.
Yeshton pressed against the slope. Patience. No mistakes.
The traveler stopped before he reached Yeshton’s position and turned to study a large elm. Had he seen Brov hidden in the higher branches?
The traveler whistled up at a nesting bird. The bird trilled a reply. Hitching the satchel higher on his shoulder, the man continued walking.
Three more steps. Two. One.
Yeshton signaled and his men appeared around the hill, three wielding bows and arrows, the rest with their swords unsheathed. Yeshton stood tall and folded his arms as the traveler stopped to gaze up at the eight armed soldiers.
“Jinji Wanderlust,” Yeshton said. “By order of Her Majesty Queen Bareene, you are under arrest.”
The man turned to look up at him, a gentle smile on his lips. “What is my crime, sir?” His accent was faint. His eyes were a teal blue color. Perhaps not from Shing after all.
“Rabble-rousing,” Yeshton said.
Jinji blinked. “I can’t see how that is so.”
“Contend with the queen if you dare. You’re to come with us.”
“I will come.” Jinji hitched up his satchel again.
Yeshton nodded to Kivar, who slung his bow over his shoulder and moved down the slope. Near the bottom he stumbled. Jinji darted forward and grabbed the man’s arm before his feet caught even ground.
“Take care. The dew is abundant this morning.”
Kivar jerked from his grasp. “I don’t need your help, spy.”
Jinji held out one wrist. “Do I go in irons?”
Yeshton looked him up and down. Pale and thin, white threading through his hair, though he appeared little older than Yeshton; perhaps thirty years. “I doubt that will be necessary.” He trotted down the hill and started along the path. His men followed, Jinji at their center until they cleared the hills and reached the horses tethered to several fallen trees. Yeshton untied his horse and swung up into the saddle. “Can you ride, Wanderlust?”
The man studied the horse. “I’ve never tried, but I can learn.”
“We don’t have time. Nallin, help him up behind me.”
The young soldier helped Jinji to clamber onto the horse’s back. He rested his hands against Yeshton’s shoulders, his touch light as a breath. “I am ready.”
“Move out!” They rode in single file, following the rough path to straighter, wider roads, where they spread into two columns. Twenty minutes later signs of civilization appeared along the King’s Highway. Yeshton’s eyes darted every which way. Amid the wagons and peddlers, he found several unsavory faces, but none looked ready to hinder an armed company; not even for a royal reward.
Jinji Wanderlust began to hum.
Yeshton glared back at him. “Stop that.”
“Is something amiss?” asked Jinji.
“Yes, you. Are you so unconcerned with your fate?”
“What, pray, is my fate; do you know?”
“Sedition usually ends in death.”
“Indeed, so do all things. But I am innocent of inciting crowds in Amantier.” The man’s tone was not the whiny protest of other condemned men. His smile remained.
“Say what you will. Queen Bareene feels otherwise.”
“Her Majesty does not know me yet.”
Yeshton snorted. “Will that make a difference?”
“I should think so. Is a man condemned before his trial?”
“You’re a foreigner,” Yeshton answered.
“My mother was of Shing,” Jinji said. “My father, Amantieran.”
“Then you had best hope your father appears at your trial.”
That wouldn’t help the man’s case.
“What is your name?” asked Jinji.
“Because in my head I cannot help but call you ‘the man who frowns,’ and I think it would be better to call you by name.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Yeshton. I am Jinji, as you know.”
Yeshton tightened his fists over the reins. “Stop that.”
“It’s not a pleasure. Your situation is bleak. Don’t hum, don’t smile, don’t exchange pleasantries. You’re going to die. Do you understand, or are you mad?”
Jinji laughed. It was a soft sound, like water. “Such a dismal outlook. Of course I will die. Everyone will, someday. But today, in this moment, I am alive. That is enough for me.”
Yeshton stared at the road ahead. “You are mad.”
“Perhaps,” Jinji said. “Or perhaps you are mad, not I. Who can say?” His voice was still smiling.
As the stone gates shut behind him, Yeshton let out a breath and pushed his shoulder-length, dark blond hair away from his face. After the hustle and bustle of Kavacos, the palace grounds were a welcome reprieve, frequented by only the handful of guards on duty. No incidents had occurred on the streets outside, but there had been a lot of inquisitive gazes.
The captain of the guard stood on the gravel drive. Was the heat too much or had he been born with that snarl? “This is the infamous Wanderlust?”
Yeshton helped Jinji stumble off the horse, then swung down. “It’s him. He fits the description and he answers to the name.”
The captain looked Jinji up and down, then turned his critical eye on Yeshton. “And you are…?”
“Yeshton of Duke Lunorr’s militiamen. He sent us to confirm a report of Wanderlust’s location, then bring him straight here, should the informant be truthful.”
Yeshton pulled the crinkled parchment from under his hauberk and smoothed it before he handed it over.
The captain read through it as he sucked at something between his teeth. “All right. Wanderlust is now in the custody of Her Majesty the Queen.”
Yeshton saluted and stepped back. He kept his gaze away from the prisoner.
The captain signaled with his hand. “Jinji Wanderlust, you are hereby under arrest for sedition.”
The prisoner made no sound as two armed guards stepped from the shadows of the gate. One claimed his satchel. Yeshton moved beside his horse; its body heat wafted under the scorching sun. Sweat pricked Yeshton’s brow. His eyes wandered to Rose Palace. Its sandstone towers stretched wide and tall across the green lawn, and the banner of Amantier limped in a half-hearted breeze.
The captain of the guard glanced his way. “Still here?”
“Duke Lunorr will want proof I’ve obeyed his orders.”
The captain grunted and ran a hand through his short, coarse hair. “I bet he’ll want the reward, too.”
“His reward is the queen’s smile.”
The captain snorted. “Right. And yours?”
“Only proof I’ve done my lord proud.”
With a sigh, the captain gestured, and a young boy scampered from the shade, paper and quill in hand. “Jot this down, boy: ‘To Duke Lunorr of Sage Province. Your men did high service to Her Majesty the Queen this day by bringing in the notorious Wanderlust. He will stand trial for his crimes against the Crown. Her Majesty’s smile is yours.’ Got that?” The captain snatched the parchment and quill. He scrawled his name and rolled the parchment up. “Take it and begone. You’re stinking up the royal gates.”
Yeshton took the parchment with murmured thanks. He glanced toward Jinji as the captain turned away. The prisoner eyed Yeshton with an open smile, even as the two guards flanking him set hands on his shoulders to guide him to his fate.
“I am glad I met you, Yeshton. Farewell.”
Yeshton turned away, but the man’s eyes remained in his vision. Bright and unafraid. No accusation harbored there. Yeshton swallowed and looked at his waiting men, then swung up into his saddle. “Move out.”
It was odd, Yeshton thought as he rode through the gates and entered the milling streets of Kavacos. Most traitors were heralded by angry mobs on their way to trial, but no one had tried to waylay Yeshton or his men, though they had a highly prized criminal in tow.
Why? Why was Jinji different?
He spotted a crowd of children staring at him and his companions with wide eyes.
“It’s him,” one whispered, “the lost knight.”
“Nuh-uh,” said another. “He’s Prince Sharo.”
A third shoved the second. “Does he look like a prince to you, you poxy oaf?”
The second boy shoved back. “Course not. Neither does Sharo though.”
Yeshton turned away, hiding a smile. Even in these dangerous times when the world was at war, children played make-believe. He remembered long, long ago pretending to be Sharo, fabled prince of fairyland.
A woman darted into the street ahead of Yeshton. His horse reared as he yanked the reins. The woman danced out of the way.
“Watch it, wench!” Brov barked from his own startled mount.
She bobbed an apology as Yeshton laid a calming hand on his stallion’s neck. “Terrible sorry, I am, honored sirs!”
“No harm done,” Yeshton said. He shot Brov a look. The man held his tongue.
The woman bobbed again. “You’re most kind, honored sir.” She whirled on the children. “Hush, ye fools. Don’t play near the palace.” She swatted one boy’s backside. “Get away. Y’know the queen hates fairy stories. Off with ye.”
The children scattered, shouting and laughing. Yeshton frowned up at the high spires of the palace visible beyond the gates. It seemed silly to ban fairy stories because of a war, but then fear did strange things to people, even queens.
The Lady Queen
Queen Bareene stretched out on the settee and kicked off her slippers to flex her toes. With a sigh she sank her head into the pillows, then glanced across the room to where her son sat in silence before the fire in the hearth.
She puckered her lips. “Do not fret, my dear boy. It isn’t the end of the world.”
Prince Jetekesh threw up his hands. “How am I ever to govern the land if you keep intervening, Mother?”
Bareene’s smile stretched wider. “It was a sensitive issue, darling. You hesitated.”
“I was thinking!” Jetekesh snatched up the poker and prodded at the burning wood. “For all of two seconds before you took over!”
“Please don’t sulk, dearheart. It spoils your looks.”
Jetekesh smoothed his face. He was a fine-looking young man, twice what his father had been even before his illness ravaged him. Straight golden hair framed the prince’s face and fell past his shoulders in the present fashion of young men. His eyes, a beautiful teal blue shade, danced in the firelight. His cheekbones, high and delicate; frame lean, not yet a man’s. He promised to be tall, but not gangling. A perfect specimen of good breeding.
Ah, yes. He would make a fine ruler, if only he learned to control his temper.
“Mother, next time I hesitate, count to five. Can you promise me that at least?”
“Whatever you wish, pet.”
A scowl gathered at his brow, but he sighed and relaxed his face. He was learning, just…slowly. “Thank you, Lady Mother.”
A knock hammered the door. Bareene sighed. “It had better not be about your father. He’s so demanding these days.”
Jetekesh started to rise, but Bareene waved him back down.
“Come in.” She narrowed her eyes. “We never walk to a summons.”
A servant poked her head inside. “Your Majesty, Captain Frebe of the Royal Guard seeks an audience. He comes with a gift.”
“How intriguing.” Bareene sat up and smoothed the layers of her full dress. She tucked her toes under the fabric and nodded. “Let him enter.”
Frebe marched inside and bowed. Bareene’s lip curled as the reek of sweat and stables wafted toward her. “This had better be important, Captain.”
“I would not come otherwise, My Queen.” He straightened and waved his hand. Two more pungent guards entered, a papery-looking wayfarer between them.
“What in the name of all the holy saints is this?” She eyed the threadbare apparel. The cut of his jaw and the fine lines of his cheeks. The upward slant of his eyes. “You bring a Shingese peasant to my private parlor, Captain?”
“Your Majesty, I present Jinji Wanderlust.”
Her eyes darted up and down the frail frame before her. A smile tugged at her lips. “Oh really?” She rose with a rustle of cloth and approached, gathering her skirts to keep them back. “You are Jinji Wanderlust? You’re the madman selling tales of sedition to my people?”
“I am named Jinji,” the prisoner said. “But I do not claim the title Wanderlust.”
“You really ought,” she said, drawing as close as she dared to half-blood filth. “I gave it to you.”
He inclined his head. “I thank you, Your Majesty, for the gift.”
“You know why I gave it to you, I daresay. You’re an elusive man, wandering from place to place, avoiding those sent to keep you from your foul purpose. It’s poetic, perfect for the seditious storyteller who ignores my royal decrees, don’t you think?”
“Are you a storyteller, truly?”
Bareene pursed her lips and turned to Jetekesh. The boy stood beside the fire now, his eyes flickering with light as he studied Jinji. “Two hundred gold kana just to catch a storyteller. Really, Mother?”
“Stay out of this, precious.”
Jetekesh’s eyes flashed. “Why should I? Am I not to be king when my lord father dies? And won’t you bow to me, your lord son?”
Bareene curled her hand into a ball, nails digging into flesh. “Not today, dearest. This man is not a toy, but an enemy.”
“Honestly, Mother, you sound paranoid. He’s one man, if that. How much harm can he do?”
“You might be surprised,” Bareene said. “He came through Kavacos last Autumn, didn’t you, Wanderlust? You stirred up a lot of trouble then, telling tales of pretend princes coming to claim what belongs to them. Oh, you might have fooled the masses, but you don’t fool me. I know a KryTeer sympathizer when I hear one.” She rested a finger under the prisoner’s chin. “You thought to hide your heritage under that filthy Shingese face, but I smell KryTeer on your breath.”
“I am not of KryTeer,” Jinji said. “Perhaps you smell the onions I ate for breakfast.”
Her eyes narrowed. Was he mocking her?
“Mother.” Jetekesh rested a hand on her shoulder. “Let me have him. Please?”
She whirled on him. “Why?”
“Because he interests me. Let me have him, and when I’m bored, you can torture him, or boil him, or whatever else you had in mind.”
She studied her son’s face, the curiosity in his eyes, and she smiled. It might be a good teaching opportunity. “Very well, Jetekesh, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. He’s a menace and a threat. Be careful and don’t let him escape.”
Jetekesh waited until Mother was gone before he ordered the captain and his guards to depart. When they hesitated, he sighed. “Tifen is nearby. Leave us. I’m fine.”
When the doors closed after the guards, he turned to Jinji. “What a fascinating figure you cut.” He moved to the settee and threw himself against the pillows, then snapped his fingers. His protector stepped from the deepest shadows of the room and approached. He bowed. “This is Tifen, my bodyguard. If you try anything, Wanderlust, he won’t hesitate to spread your guts across my courtyard. Do you understand?” He motioned to a decanter and Tifen poured him a goblet of bloodred wine.
“Yes,” Jinji said, “I understand.”
“I understand, Your Highness would be more respectful.” Jetekesh sipped the wine and licked his lips. “But then, the Shingese aren’t a respectful people, are they? Shing doesn’t consider any of its conquerors to be worth respecting, so my tutors tell me. Odd, that. You would think that a people constantly trampled by other countries would understand their place in life.”
“The people of Shing respect those who respect others,” Jinji said.
Jetekesh swallowed a second sip of wine and chuckled. He sank deeper into his pillows. “Tell me a story.”
Jinji smiled. “Your mother forbade the telling of stories.”
“My mother isn’t here. Besides, that law has been in effect for some time, and yet you seem to have a reputation for the trade just the same.” He stretched out a foot and kicked a nearby chair. It wobbled before it settled back down. “Sit.”
Jinji sat. “How old are you, Your Highness?”
Jetekesh straightened with a scowl. “I am eligible to wed next spring.”
“So you are.”
“You don’t seem very old yourself.” Jetekesh studied the white in his hair and the light color of his eyes. “Or perhaps you are very old. I can’t quite decide. How old are you?”
“Thirty-two,” Jinji said.
“But your hair is turning.”
Jinji fingered a snowy lock. “Yes, it is.”
“What a meek creature you are.” Jetekesh stretched across the settee. “You remind me of my mother’s pet birds. Are you going to tell me a story or not?”
“What would you like to hear, Your Highness?”
“Oh, anything.” Jetekesh waved a hand. “How about that pretend prince Mother mentioned? The one coming to claim what belongs to him. Is he meant to oust me?”
“He is not a prince of this land,” Jinji said. “His name is Sharo of the land of Shinac.”
Jetekesh laughed into his goblet. “Shinac? And where is that?”
“Nowhere and everywhere.”
“How…evasive. What would it be like to rule a land such as that?” Jetekesh sat up and handed the goblet to Tifen. “Is it like Tifen here? So near, yet easily forgotten?”
Jinji met the prince’s gaze with a smile. “You mock, and yet you almost understand.”
Jetekesh shrugged. “I guessed; that is all. So, how did Sharo lose his kingdom?”
“He was exiled.”
“His father the king.”
Jetekesh clicked his tongue. “Sounds like a foolish prince.”
“No. His father was more the fool.”
Jetekesh eyed Jinji through narrowing eyes. “Be careful what you say.”
“I speak of the king of Shinac, not of Amantier.”
Jetekesh folded his fingers over his flat stomach. “Why was his father a fool?”
“Because he feared his son and threw him out.”
Jetekesh sighed. “We’re going in circles. Why did the foolish king throw his son out?”
“He was afraid. You see, in the king’s greed, he took whatever he pleased. He never cared about the consequences. But all actions carry weight, just as a stone plunging into a lake will cause ripples. One day as His Majesty King Darint returned from hunting in an ageless wood, he beheld a maiden fair above any in his kingdom. She disappeared into the woods, but he could not forget her beauty. He was already wedded, but his queen was barren. Seizing his chance, King Darint ordered the woman found and brought to his castle. By the time she arrived, the present queen had met with a horrible accident. King Darint commanded the fair maiden to wed him. She could hardly refuse. One year later Prince Sharo was born.”
Jinji’s eyes found the fire.
“Well, go on. Why did the king exile his own son when he had no other heir?”
Jinji stirred and met the prince’s gaze. “You must understand something about Shinac. It is what most folk call fairyland, a realm of magical beings and magic itself.”
Jetekesh chuckled. “I recall tales of Shinac, I think. I had a maid servant who often recited rhymes of fairies and dragons and other rubbish. Is this what you do, sell fairytales to my father’s kingdom? And my mother actually thinks you a danger?” His gaze drifted across Jinji’s face, then his clothes. “You appear ready to splinter. Can you even lift a sword?”
“I’ve never tried,” Jinji said, a faint smile touching his eyes.
“Never mind. You were telling me of Shinac and its magical prince.”
“Just so. And you are more right than you know. You see, Shinac was once part of this world. It was in the place now called the Drifting Sands.”
“Shinac is a desert?”
“No. It disappeared years ago, leaving only desert behind.”
Jinji spread his hands. “Magic.”
“Oh, yes. I forgot; this is a fairy story. Pray tell, why did Shinac leave our world?”
Jinji’s smile faded. “Because we were greedy and wanted its magic for ourselves.”
“And the people of Shinac wouldn’t share?”
“They couldn’t share. We aren’t magical. We cannot wield magic unless certain conditions are met.”
Jetekesh sniggered. “You almost appear to believe Shinac is real. Indeed, you almost make me believe it’s real. That’s quite a gift you’ve got, Wanderlust.”
“It is real.” Jinji’s smile was back, quiet and reflective and almost sad.
Jetekesh threw his head back and laughed. “Oh, you are something else! Utterly mad, aren’t you? So, Shinac is real and it’s…everywhere? And nowhere, so you said. Does it just float somewhere above our heads, invisible?” He leaned forward. “Are there fairies dancing around my head?”
“Magic is difficult to understand, even for those who believe in it.”
“So, then, this prince of yours, this Sharo; his father threw him out. It seems to me your Shinac is no different from our world, even for all its magic.”
“There were some who lived in Shinac who wielded no magic but vanished with the land just the same. King Darint’s line was among those privileged few, but then his ancestors usurped the throne of Shinac’s true kings.”
“Oh, so he’s an impostor king, like KryTeer’s emperor. But how did non-magical people defeat magical creatures?”
“By very dark means, my prince. King Darint was aware that his line was not the true one, and he had been careful to silence any stirring whisper of the true king’s return. But he was not as careful as he thought. Indeed, he brought his own undoing upon himself when he caught the forest maiden, a descendant of the fae kings of old. Through her—”
“Fae kings? What are they?”
“In a way.”
“All right. Go on.”
Jinji’s eyes darted to the hearth. “If you please, Your Highness, I’m chilled from recent illness. Might I sit a little closer to the fire?”
“Tifen, move his chair.”
“I can manage, Your Highness.” Jinji took up his chair as Tifen moved toward him.
“Nonsense. You’re my guest. Besides, I doubt you have the strength to carry it far.”
Jinji allowed Tifen to take the chair, and they walked together to the hearth. Jinji sat and stretched out his hands to warm them near the flames. “King Darint first began to suspect his son was different when the boy kept vanishing from his lessons at an early age.”
Jetekesh shrugged. “I vanished from mine all the time.”
“He didn’t hide, Your Highness. He disappeared. Into the air itself.”
Jetekesh considered that. “Lucky boy.”
“At first the king refused to believe his own eyes, but the boy became stranger and stranger with each passing year. In his early years, he was close to his father and, if you will allow, quite a spoiled child. His mother did not know what to do with him. Sharo bullied the servants, and whipped his horse, and did all the sorts of things refined young men shouldn’t do.”
“He’s a prince,” Jetekesh said. “He can do what he likes.”
Jinji nodded. “So he felt. But remember what I said of ripples in a lake. There are consequences for every action.”
“Please.” Jetekesh slumped against his pillows. “Your stories were interesting at first, but now I see the truth of them. You’re not telling tales; you’re selling morals, which is altogether different and much less pleasant.”
“Forgive me if I seem to preach. I mean only to tell stories, and you asked after Prince Sharo yourself.”
Jetekesh snorted. “Don’t think me a fool, Wanderlust. You tale-weavers always tweak the story to accommodate the present audience. What is your goal here? Teach the heir apparent to mind his manners? ‘Say please and thank you and don’t beat your horse, else the goblins will eat you.’ So my tutors used to warn.”
“It isn’t a bad way to live,” Jinji said, “but it isn’t my purpose. I did not intend to come to the palace, Your Highness. Remember, I was arrested by your queen mother.”
“It wasn’t your plan, perhaps, but you’re taking advantage of your misfortune as any sensible man would. However,” Jetekesh leaned forward, “you would fare better to flatter me, rather than teach childish morals. I’m of half a mind to throw you in the dungeon.”
“You may do as you wish, Your Highness.”
Jetekesh snorted and ran a hand through his hair. “You don’t know how to treat royalty. First you preach and then you patronize.”
Jinji bowed his head. “My apologies if I offend. It is not my intention. Indeed, I didn’t intend to tell any stories this day. I feel…rather weak.”
The prince rose and paced the room, passing his hand over silken drapery. “What is your intention, Wanderlust? What is your purpose in coming to my kingdom and feeding lies to my people?”
“I only wish to give them some happiness.”
“By telling them of a land that allegedly abandoned us because we weren’t good enough? Such an inspiring thought!”
“I tell them of people who daily overcome struggles much like their own.”
“You are a madman, Wanderlust.” He stepped to the window and stared at the waning sun. “What changed the prince? What made him stop whipping his horse and bullying his servants?”
“He learned to care for others above himself,” Jinji answered. “He learned that a leader serves his people, not the other way around.”
Jetekesh turned a quiet sneer on the storyteller. “Mother was right. You are a danger. You bring your Shingese philosophies into my country, convincing the masses that they need a benevolent and weak-willed ruler to serve them. Well, we don’t need that. We need strength. We need power. We need absolute fealty, and you are undermining everything my lady mother and I are working for. I hope you find my dungeons to your liking, Wanderlust. They certainly suit your purpose.”
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