Sephil nodded his acknowledgment, though he had no need to be told. More than once he had come this way, and knew that when the barren, rolling hills of Ottabia gave way to greener, more level country the people would no longer owe allegiance to Khalgar. Captain Assuras would lead the party down the rough track into nearby Meduin, where in the town inn Sephil would be able to enjoy a proper bath for the first time in several days and sleep in a real bed, rather than a cot in a drafty tent.
Comfort came with restrictions, however. Wherever he went, Sephil did not insist on preferential treatment, but in Rhodeen he was a king. The more he tried to downplay his royal status, the more others honored him.
I remember a time when these people neither knew who I was nor cared. Had his father-in-law not ordered him to ascend the throne alongside his son as a living link to the dynasty that had ruled before the Turya interregnum, Sephil might have remained happily in Khalgar as a prince and high priest of Abh, a king’s son and king’s father, and free from the duties that came with wearing a crown.
Since then, no one forced him to stay in Rhodeen and rule. Unlike his son, he had never been groomed for power.
The inconveniences of a journey to Rhodeen, with its backward system of roads and citizens clamoring for his attention, seemed a small price to pay for the privilege of seeing his grandchildren again. In his baggage were gifts for his two grandsons, and he intended to remain in Shemin-at-Khul until the queen was safely delivered of her third child.
As his small party approached Meduin, people paused in the fields and streets to watch him ride by. Curious children followed behind, lingering even when the Turya sentries waved them away. Others called out greetings. Here Zhanil would have grinned and waved back, even ridden over to exchange a few words with the townsfolk. Never as outgoing, and thoroughly embarrassed by the attention, Sephil managed a polite smile as Assuras led the way toward the inn.
The elderly innkeeper met him on the porch. Two boys led by an unusually dark young man came forward to tend to the horses, while several Turya women, jangling with silver and amber jewelry, jostled forward with gifts.
“Deros,” Sephil said to the innkeeper, “I do not recall sending word ahead about my arrival.”
Grinning through the gap in his front teeth, Deros nodded. “The sentries see everything, sir.” Gnarled fingers made a cursory gesture toward the mounted Turya archer who had trailed the party into town. “Go on, Shamash!” he shouted. “They’re all right here.”
As Shamash rode off in a cloud of dust, Deros chuckled at Sephil. “There’s a good room waiting for you upstairs, sir, and the wife will have hot water for your bath, no extra charge.”
“You know I will pay my bill,” said Sephil. “But these gifts…” Embarrassed, he indicated the fine blankets and jars the straw-haired women laid at his feet. “I could not possibly accept them.”
“Oh, that’s nonsense, sir.” Deros led the way inside, while the women picked up the offerings and followed. “Just be careful your men don’t get too deep in the jars. It’s been more than one Khalgari visitor who’s spent the next day sick after drinking too much kumiss.”
For form’s sake, Sephil sampled the kumiss at supper, taking care to smile through the bitter taste. It truly does taste like horse piss, he thought. Turya cuisine and trappings did not appeal to him. Years earlier, Zhanil had sent him a beautifully embroidered coat, which he only wore once. One look in the mirror, with another from his wife, convinced Sephil that he did not cut a flattering figure in Turya garb. In fact, he thought he looked rather pathetic. “Next he will try to send me one of their bows,” he had muttered.
Turya healers matched the priests of Abh in skill, so he could not offer his services in payment for the hospitality he received. After a meal of boiled potatoes and roast lamb, he found the woman Uzhena, who had healed Zhanil of an arrow wound, and presented her with a packet of medicinal herbs. Each time he passed through Meduin he remembered her with a gift, however much she demurred and claimed that any debt incurred was long since paid.
“You do not travel like a king,” she observed. “The older east-landers complain you should be loaded with gold and silver, and have more servants and guards. They say they have seen a king travel this way before.”
Sephil nodded. “That is my father they remember. As a priest I am not accustomed to such ceremony, and I know my son does not care for it, either.”
“With turkan Kalmeku you are right,” she agreed. This was the name the Turyar had given Zhanil, which meant ‘little star’ in their language. “Too many servants and too much baggage slow a man down. His wife does not even come with him, or his children.”
“Ardal and Thanol are still young,” said Sephil, “but I know they are already learning to ride. As for my son’s wife, I do not believe she knows how.” Not only that, he knew, but like any properly bred Tajhaani royal woman, Saraji did not attend court or even venture far from her apartments. Zhanil had enough to do to get her to remove her veil before company.
Uzhena answered with a most unladylike snort. “This is not a fitting wife for a turkan.”
offered a wan smile in agreement. Uzhena was the first Turya woman he
had ever met. Since then, others had assured him that most women from
the Turya-lands were as bold and outspoken as she. Therefore it did not
surprise him to hear such criticism of the queen, especially when his
own sentiments toward her were lukewarm.
That night, in a dark, narrow room smelling of dried herbs, he slept uneasily.
Exhaustion meant nothing whenever he crossed the border into Rhodeen. Even the air tasted green, redolent with memories and regrets.
Earlier in the day, he had noticed the young man with uncommonly dark features who took his horse. Something in the man’s black eyes reminded him so strongly of Adeja that it gave him a start. “Are you Tajhaani?” he had asked.
The groom shook his head and smiled, revealing perfect white teeth. “I am Samnos. My mother was a woman of Rhodeen, sir. My father…” Here he shrugged. “She was married to one soldier and bedded another, or so I’ve heard. It’s nothing to me. I make my own way.”
So like Adeja it made Sephil ache to hear it. Even without a Tajhaani accent, the man’s father might have been looking back through those deep, dark eyes and smiling as if to say, I’m still here. Or was the resemblance merely the product of a bereaved lover’s fancy?
Sephil said nothing more to the man with his Rhodeen name and accent, and tried to put the matter out of his mind. For everywhere he turned in this green country, he yearned for some glimpse or reminder of his lost love, and the precious months of intimacy they shared before intrigue and dynastic duty pulled them apart.
He wrapped his arms around his torso, seeking the warmth only memory could now grant. He could not fool himself into believing Adeja was there with him. Not even summoning Samnos to his bed would complete the illusion. No matter the truth, and Sephil had no doubt how it had come about; those strong arms around him and that firm body pressed against his back would not be the same. Samnos would never understand what his king needed, or care what his nameless father had once been to an unwanted scion of the royal house. Not even Arjuna, Adeja’s legitimate son, too busy with his military career to spend much time with his mother, would have understood.
Sephil squeezed his eyes shut, but could not stop the tears leaking from the corners of his eyes, or the ache threatening to turn his next breath into a sob. In this way, he finally fell asleep.
After a hot breakfast, Sephil set out in the chilly dawn. Meduin’s Turya sentries accompanied his party until the next settlement, then turned back. Sephil did not pause in this town or the next, nor did he announce his coming. Anyone who noted his passing saw only a high priest of Abh traveling under Khalgari escort.
Another, larger town awaited him that night, with fewer Turya residents and proportionately more fuss once Sephil was recognized. The mayor, a florid old gentleman, hobbled out on his cane, bellowing at scores of grandchildren and great-grandchildren to get out of his way so he could greet the king. Then came the usual compliments, and the formulaic recitation of which kings had passed through the town when.
“I had two grandsons already when Brasidios last slept here, and just newly married when his father rode this way,” the man announced.
Sephil patiently listened to his account, smiling blandly when other, even older townsfolk interjected with their recollections. One ancient crone, her milky eyes staring unfocused into space, called forth the memory of Sephil’s great-grandfather, Ardahir III. But to Sephil, these were not people or even marble effigies in a crypt, only names in books—or, with his father, a collection of humiliating episodes he preferred to forget.
His audience, he quickly noticed, did not mention the previous ruler, the Turya turkan Arzhati. No one had to tell him that there were many in Rhodeen who preferred to pretend that the Turya interregnum had never taken place.
Word of his approach spread faster than he could travel. In each town, Sephil, tired and hungry from the day’s ride, encountered throngs of people who turned out to greet him. With a gracious smile belying his exhaustion, he sat through long-winded speeches and hastily-arranged pageants before he was finally able to dismount. While his progress during the day remained unimpeded, Sephil knew the closer he got to the capital the more ceremony he would have to endure.
After a sleepless night spent tormented by second-rate musicians serenading him outside his lodging, Sephil drooped in the saddle. A rider with greater skill might have slept along the way, but he feared the moment he nodded off he would find himself on the ground.
Beside him, his groom Piras sympathized. “River travel would be less burdensome, my lord.”
Less burdensome, yes, but not yet possible. Sephil had seen his son’s ambitious plans to modernize Rhodeen. One of these was a project to dredge the estuary of the Tham, the major tributary of the great river that bisected the kingdom, and establish a port town to welcome sea traffic. Merchants from distant Juva and Thrindor, and even the continent across the southern sea could more easily do business in Shemin-at-Khul, while a journey from Khalgar that now took weeks might be accomplished in less than a fortnight.
Such projects, however, required money, manpower, and support, none of which Zhanil possessed at the moment. Bringing Khalgari engineers in to repair the damage done to Shemin-at-Khul during the Turya occupation had proven difficult enough. Four years later, he still aimed to train native engineers to expand and improve Rhodeen’s antiquated system of roads. His efforts regularly met with resistance from the local nobility who resented foreign intrusion, and from Turya chieftains who failed to see the necessity.
Sephil agreed with Piras. “Yes, but sadly I think it will be many years bef—”
Shouts erupted in the fore and rear of the train—the hue and cry had been raised. Sephil looked around him, yet saw nothing to warrant Assuras’s sudden wariness. Why is he balking at shadows? Typically a man of good common sense, the captain should have known better. We are in no danger this far into Rhod—
An arrow suddenly whizzed out of nowhere, barely missing his cheek, and lodged in the captain’s throat. As Assuras grunted and fell, his twitching hands still clutching at his spouting carotid artery, Sephil felt Piras seize him around the middle. His strangled cry vanished amidst a cacophony of shouting men and the neighing of agitated horses. More arrows cut through the air. Sephil heard the dull thuds as they pierced the earth all around him, but by then he was facedown in the grass with Piras draped protectively over his back.
Baggage carts toppled, sending trunks and bundles tumbling onto the ground. A jar shattered, spraying wine, and the draft horses struggled in their traces. Sephil froze in terror, waiting breathlessly for the arrow that would find his sleeve, his head, his exposed arms. Who would do this? This was Zhanil’s kingdom. “What is going on?” he choked. Piras’s body over his meant he could scarcely breathe.
“I—” Piras’s reply terminated in a grunt and shudder. Sephil called out again, this time yielding no response.
Hooves trampled the earth nearby, then heavy footfalls. Sephil heard jingling harnesses and rough voices. A pair of boots halted beside him. He smelled the oil used to keep the leather supple, and churned mud and horse dung. Suddenly the weight lifted off his back, but before he could brace himself on his arms and get to his feet, hands seized his shoulders and hauled him upright.
He blinked, gasping for breath, for some support amidst the chaos. It took him a moment to realize the men crowding around him were neither his attendants nor his rescuers.
Everywhere he looked he saw carnage. Bodies riddled with arrows lay prone in the grass, some pinned under their fallen mounts. Wounded horses struggled in the turf, ceasing only when a club or quick knife to the throat ended their suffering. Sephil glanced down at his feet to where Piras sprawled on his stomach, an arrow protruding from his back, his eyes staring sightlessly.
Sephil started to bend down to close the groom’s eyes, but the restraining hands only tightened their grip, eliciting pain. “You have no time for that,” said a voice.
A balding, massively built man came toward him, trailed by several archers and swordsmen. All were light-haired, all native Rhodeen. Staring at him, Sephil could not grasp at what had just occurred, only that the man now looming over him looked like a mercenary, a thug. “Do you know who I am?” he asked shakily. In another moment, he thought he would vomit.
To his utter amazement, the brute executed a perfect courtly bow. “You are King Sephil Brasides,” he said. “Yes, we know who you are.”
“Then why have you attacked my escort?” While he spoke, channeling every ounce of his failing nerve into remaining calm, Sephil could not help but stare at Piras. His groom had served him faithfully for more than twenty-five years, remaining by his side long after he could have retired. A knot formed in his throat. What am I going to tell his family? “We were on our way to Shemin-at-Khul.”
The mercenary merely laughed. “And so you are,” he replied. “Except now we will be your escort.”