Arc 1: Coming Storm
Chapter 1: Clouds
She survives the slash to the throat, which seems to her miraculous until she has to live through what comes after. It’s a noiseless shriek, a muffled sob, a grunt of enjoyment, and the scraping escape of a body pulling itself out the window. Her housemate hits the leaf-strewn ground bodily, bolts upright, then runs outside the limits of her frame, able that it is. She knows she has to go north, north, north like a chant, north like a worn-down hymn. As a glow of flame tints the sky behind her with plumes of smoke, she runs past crop-sown fields and skids to a halt, banging on the farmhouse door.
Knox startles awake, swinging out a fist, knocking over the water basin on the bedside table. Swearing, he leaps from bed, pulling his nightshirt off to crudely wipe up the mess. There is no smoke on the wind. There is no fire in the distance. There is no-one panting at the door. Only water puddled on the stone brick floor, threatening to dampen the plush rug inches away.
The bedroom door opens, and a maid peeks her head in. “I heard noises, Prince Knox. Is all well?”
“’s fine. Just spilled water, I got it. And don’t call me-”
“Oh! No, no, let me!” she interrupts. Pulling a rag from the pocket of her nightgown – Are castle workers ready to clean even when they sleep? he wonders – she shoos him away. He sighs and abides, sitting himself back onto his bed. When she finishes wiping the floor dry, she stands, reclaims the basin from the floor, and says, “I’ll refill this for you, Prince Knox.”
“You don’t hafta… And really, don’t call me-”
As she walks out the door, she chirps, “I’ll bring a fresh nightshirt, too, Prince.”
“For the love of the Highest Kings, I’m not a Prince!” he calls after her, a little hopelessly.
Whatever else there is, the closing of the door is greeted with relief. He slumps, pinches the bridge of his nose. As if living through it himself wasn’t bad enough, his sleeping mind continues to recreate that night through the eyes of all involved, one by one…
He can’t possibly go back to sleep after this. He never can, after the nightmares, and the accumulation of four hour nights is not helping him in his present situation.
Sighing, he stands and approaches the room’s writing desk, fumbling around the surface for matches. Finding them, he strikes one into flame and holds it to the wick of the nearby lantern. Eyes squinting against the sudden light, he twists the knob so it burns low – no sense in wasting oil – and sits down. There is an ink well built into the desk, and an ornate feather quill lays beside it. It never ceases to amaze him, how fully equipped the many rooms of the castle are.
Just as he reaches for the writing utensil, the door pops open, pushing his heart up into his throat as he startles in his seat, seizing and brandishing a nearby letter opener and before realizing it’s only the maid again. She squeaks, miraculously not dropping the bowl in her hands, then apologizes for surprising him, saying with a tinge of fright, “I should know better than to sneak up on men like you.”
He doesn’t ask what she means. He doesn’t need to. He just sets the improvised weapon down and hangs his head.
She places a fresh washing basin on the bedside table and pats his shoulder after a moment’s hesitation, then leaves. He wrenches himself out of his wallowing and finally takes the quill, pulling paper to him and writing.
I miss you. Only been here a day and they are already trying to make me stay more. They want me to be an advizer. What am I to advize them of? I am good at living quietly, happily, with my wife and my son and with my hands in the dirt. Nothing else. If they think I will take their stupid offer they are wrong. I just want to come back to you. I hope I will soon. His Highness wants to meet Junior, wants to call him grandson. I do not want to make a King angry, but I think I would rather die than have Junior exposed to this. There is so much extra. That is the best word I know for it. Not extra like a big dinner by the fire. Extra that is waisted and pointless.
I think it was a mistake to leave. The blood hadn’t even dried. I can already hear you telling me not to be so morbid, so I will stop there, but I know you know my thinking.
The meeting is today. I guess they needed to give everyone time to get here. It feels strange, being asked to attend a counsel of the Inner. Everyone here is calling me a Prince and giving me special treatment, but I am just a farmer.
The sooner I leave here, the better. I will write again soon.
He folds the missive in half and rises from his chair, stretching. It is early enough that his clothes have not been laid out for him – a practice he has yet to grow accustomed to, and certainly would not engage in if he knew where to get them himself. Shrugging, Knox slips into the simple affair he wore on arrival, folded on the nightstand after being cleaned. They are simple garments, but that’s how he likes it. As he leaves his chamber and makes a beeline for the staircase, the thought of how his estranged family will react to his choice of wear brings a satisfied smirk to his face.
Knox rounds a corner onto a landing, then stops short upon seeing a figure looking out the window, gold glinting around his waist and cloak brushing the floor, colors dark and fabrics fine. The figure turns his head, and Knox recognizes him.
The man in question smiles. “Knox, my brother. You’re up with the birds.”
Knox bites back a blistering comment on Mikhail’s familial terms, keeping his tone neutral. “Yes. Good mornin’, Prince.” With that, he starts up the rest of the staircase.
He does not stop when Mikhail calls his name.
After several more flights Knox reaches the Kit – a room at the top of the tower, with wide openings in the wall baring the room to the chill of autumn and full of caged pigeons. In neat script over each cage, the city that the enclosed pigeon delivers to is engraved. A handful are simply marked with a star, and these are locked; few people carry a key. They are magically augmented pigeons that may deliver anywhere – one of the most complex and difficult Spoken achievements. The birds are priceless.
That’s what Knox overheard the servants saying, anyway.
Knox does not have one of those coveted keys, so he slips his letter into one of the small bags kept in a basket by the door, takes a nearby quill, and scrawls on the label:
His directions given, he approaches one of the cages labeled “Connerick” and opens it, coaxing the bird onto his hand. Gently, but clumsily, he ties his delivery to the bird’s leg and holds it out one of the spacious windows. With a ruffling of feathers, it is off.
Knox watches it go from bird to dot to invisible in the pale dawn, then stays a little longer to watch the sun slide up the smokestack over the city wall. He thinks longingly of the trees back home. Is this what it’s like in Rendel, the nation to the south, or in parts of Qu’an which skirts the desert? Even this place, City High, is “quaint” and lacking in technology, but he is used to his rustic town where the hedgespeaker accounts for what otherwise is missing.
His stomach rumbles, rousing him. Sighing, he descends the stairs to face the day – and, hopefully, some breakfast. After finding his way back to his room, he is pleased to see the maid – not because she is cleaning, but because he has a question for her.
“Where’s the kitchens?” he asks, smiling when he notices her give him a surprised once-over. “I like these clothes better,” he offers by way of explanation.
She shrugs, lowering her eyes. “The kitchens are just outside the castle – but your breakfast is here, my Prince, at the table.”
“I’m not a Prince,” he says stubbornly, though not with much fire. “Please, just… talk t’ me like I’m normal. I’ll go crazy elsewise.” He glances at the table and sure enough there’s a simple fare of bread and water.
The girl stammers, her tucking of the bedsheets slowing. “I-I’m n-not sure that’s a good idea… Prince.”
He sits down. “Why not?”
“I might get in trouble for such a thing, my Prince.”
He takes a bite of his bread and chews in thought as the maid fluffs a pillow nervously. “What’s your name?” he asks after swallowing.
“Agnes, my Prince.”
“Hallo, Agnes. I’m Knox. If others’re around you can treat me like some prince, but otherwise, I’m just a farmer. How’s that sound?”
“…A-alright. If that’s what you prefer, I guess that’ll be fine…”
He winks at her. “You’re an angel, Agnes.”
She flushes and picks up her pail and rag, starting to curtsy but stopping herself. Instead, she inclines her head. “I’ll be going, then.” She retreats from the room.
Knox takes another bite of his bread. “Well, that’s one problem down,” he says to himself, mouth full.
“But there’s still the small problem of a war on our hands, yes?” The voice rings out crisply, its owner leaning in the doorway with a small smile on his face.
Knox’s face sours to see Mikhail a second time. Swallowing, he shrugs. “There’s that.” In truth, the idea sickens him; his gut seems to drop from his body when he so much as thinks about it. But a faraway battle can’t measure up to what had already occurred just three nights ago. “Why are you here?”
Mikhail enters the room, sitting at the table with Knox. “I wanted to prepare you. For the Council.”
Annoyance stabs through him. “I’m not a dope, Mikhail, I don’t need you schoolin’ me.”
The prince raises his hands. “I know, I know. I only wanted to make sure we were… singing from the same songsheet, yes?”
“And what songsheet’s that?”
Mikhail seems to hesitate before speaking. “The Council will want to know about… about what happened.”
Knox sighs. Taking another bite of his bread, he ruminates, letting the silence draw out for a moment. He can’t blame Mikhail for his apprehension, or for faltering. There are no words to describe what had torn its way through his memory. Attack, massacre, bloodbath, battle – they don’t call to mind the way blood had stained Annie’s pale hair pink, or the tremble in Ida’s hand as it closed her son’s staring eyes.
He has yet to talk about it. But for retribution, he will. “Yes,” he says. “We’re singin’ from the same songsheet.”
“Good,” says Mikhail, letting out the breath he was holding. “Good.”
For a moment, Knox feels no animosity. Only quiet mourning and a certain sense of awe that the sun still rose today, in spite of it all. It’s a long time before he speaks again. “I’m not going to be an advisor.”
Mikhail’s eyebrows tug upward like they’ve been caught by a pair of fishhooks. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
The animosity that had lifted so briefly falls back into Knox, making him roll his eyes in spite of himself. “What would I advise you of? I don’t know anything. I can tend to my crops, I’m a fair hand in a fight, and a good friend. That’s all. I don’t belong here.”
Mikhail strokes his clean-shaven chin. “You do seem out of your element,” he admits reluctantly.
Knox laughs; it’s a brief sound of disbelief. “You think?” But he’s uncomfortable. Mikhail has the look of someone who’s just had an idea.
And that can’t mean anything good.