Princes of Purt:
Chapter 6, In Court
Victa could hardly believe it. They had given him clothes fit for a prince. He looked very handsome. His long slender braids had been redone and fell nearly to his waist with each one tipped in a gold bead. Zou looked very handsome. Flawless dark skin, perfect features, and eyes of a Purtan; yet he was not the man he had been.
She walked over to him. He stared off at nothing, as always, but he was expected to be here, after all it was the Ulam Bac celebration of the crowning of Tyeldwar, the Holy Father James’s own father. The crowning had been weeks ago and shown with image captures. A network of crystals that relayed the events, only if there were no storms between, played the event out as if it was happening right there. There had been a few flaws in it, but they had all seen it. A grand feast had followed and now the court ball.
Zou sat in a small side chamber that normally would have held a long table with banquet foods, but with the food limits imposed by the emperor, the meal was over and there were no side tables.
He sat where they had left him. Many looked for him, but didn’t see him tucked away in the side chamber, half hidden by a drape. Victa walked over to him and stood right before him, but he didn’t see her. She touched his hand.
“Zou,” she said. He blinked and slowly looked up to her. She smiled, “You want to join us?” she asked, offering her hand. He looked at her as if not understanding for a long time. They had said he had battled the evil sorceress of Awens and had won the fight, forcing her back, but he had sustained terrible brain injury.
Magic was not always a great or fun thing. Just as Victa was about to turn away and leave him he got up. He seemed to be half asleep. He was there, just not all the way. She took his hand in the grip of a friend who knows the other. She smiled at him. He was very handsome and even with her new-found rank and place in the courts of Ulam Bac, she had never thought she would walk as a friend with someone so amazing. She hoped that she was that to him and not just a nameless face.
They left the small side chamber and moved out to the hall. She kept him along the outer wall until they found a nice place to stand and watch the dancers. He held her hand, standing there seeming not to watch at all, but then for a moment he would seem to be seeing everything… then it was gone again.
“Did you know they call you hero of Gauleraunt. That you not only led the fight against brutality, you wrote the letters for them that when they reached the emperor, he sent a true king?” She watched him, hoping to read a reaction from him, something, anything. She had the patience to have done no less with a woman she didn’t know at all and woke her… why not Zou, as well?
“I used to be just a food servant here; that’s what they call you when you work for nothing but meals. But then the empress made me a gardener and since I have done well with it, I have been made a master gardener. I work on the city’s parks to make them function better, to clean them up and try to use them to either feed people or feed animals we can eat. It’s a hard job, as there are a lot of people in Ulam Bac and more are moving in as the lands get too hard to tame and trade is broken by storms.” She watched the empress enter the room, quietly from a side door. She came with her son in her arms.
She was dressed so simply, a smooth gown that fit her with elegance. She had only a thin silver chain with a single emerald on it as jewelry and not even painted fingernails. Even with her influence in the court, the lavish and layered look of the court held on. Many of the men had adopted the low stiff collar of the emperor’s wardrobe, making that small detail almost a standard.
The empress was lost to the crowd as she moved into the hall. Victa talked about various people who were out dancing. She sighed. “Someday I will learn to dance like that,” she said a dreamy sigh. “Maybe you have to fall in love first,” she sighed again, watching a couple dancing nearby, seeming to float over the floor.
Zou snorted a little. “Dumb book…” he muttered. She almost cheered. He might not have heard a word she had said, but he remembered her.
“That was not a dumb book,” she defended. “It was a very good book for what it was written about.” She almost laughed when he slowly looked over at her. He didn’t seem to be able to focus on her, but he had at least turned his head.
“Ah, Victa!” a young baroness said, walking up with a troop of other stunningly beautiful women. “Who is your friend?”
“This is Zou,” she said. “Zou, these are several women of the court.
“I am Baroness TyraGalla,” the beautiful woman said, offering her hand.
“You forget he is still recovering from injury, Baroness. His response’s are rare and far between.”
“All the better,” she replied. “There is only one real response from a man that matters and I plan to find out if it works.” She moved to take hold of Zou, pulling him with her. Zou stepped back from her and struggled to focus on the woman before him, trying to make his eyes work.
He spoke in Dacan at her, sounding fluent, if nothing else. The woman looked a bit shocked.
“What did he say?” she demanded of Victa.
“He said something along the lines of you being a breeding cow,” a tall Elite Purtan said walking up to them. He was one of the few Elites who moved freely about the court and city. Most had rules so defined they did not talk to anyone but the emperor and showed no emotion or reaction of any sort. This man was different. He was stunning in a sharp sort of way, moved about as if he was a lord, and yet wore the uniform of an Elite. “A bit more involved than that, but I would remind you that he has trouble relating, not that he is unaware of the world. If you had any sort of magic in your bloodline, you would know that. I think he thinks very low of you.”
She huffed and turned away with disgust and a hint of fear at the tall Purtan with his deep Norwood accent. The man actually smiled after her.
“What did he truly say?” Victa asked him.
“I don’t speak Dacan,” he said with a clear hint of humor. “I am able to read emotion, though, and he does not like that woman at all.”
“He is aware then? I wasn’t sure,” she said.
The Elite nodded with a pleasant little smile. “Yes. He is very frustrated. His mind is working just fine; it’s just that when he tries to pull it into his body in order to relate, it goes still. So he watches as if he is in a dream. He is here, though, and fully aware.”
“Has there been any word on whether or not he will heal?”
“The emperor has asked Father James to return to Ulam Bac to look into it himself. He has sent orders that I am to be… Prince Zou’s body guard for now.”
“Prince Zou?” she asked. “I did know that rank could just be given.”
“It’s not. Zou is the son of King David. He is heir to the throne of Crouse. That’s a secret, though,” he winked at her with an easy warm manner that seemed very odd coming from an Elite.
“Are you certain you’re an Elite?” she asked, not sure what to think about him or the way he looked at her. He had very powerful eyes that made her feel he was looking right through her.
He laughed softly. “That is the nicest compliment I have gotten is several thousand years, I should think. Yes, I am. I am called Umren. It’s an Ezeeran name, but the man who gave it to me was Ezeeran and as I could not recall the name I wore before then… it works.”
“I’m Victa,” she offered, not certain how their ranks worked or if he even wanted to know her name.
“I know,” he smiled at her and moved to stand beside Zou as he looked out over the crowd of dancers. “We all know you.”
“Elites,” he said, “the masters out of Norwood.”
“Why?” she laughed, trying to think why they would know her at all.
“Look at the crowd,” he gestured out over the people. “You see them, moving and stepping… like a herd of sheep. They are bland copies, one like the other, all trying to be something more. Sometimes in that flock you find a mountain goat, or a wolf, or a unicorn… each trying to be just another part of the flock. You are no flock sheep.”
She laughed a little at the idea; she could almost see it. “What am I? A muddy little gopher?”
He laughed softly. “No… well, maybe,” he laughed a truer laugh, “but that was not what I was thinking, though. My point is that some people stand out in ways that most cannot even begin to see and you are one of those. That alone has won you fame in the right circles.”
“Hmm. Well, I am not certain how I feel about being known by every vampire in Ulam Bac. I think it makes me a bit nervous.”
He looked over at her with a great sparkle to his eyes. “You should feel protected,” he said. “Nothing ever happens without your permission and there are those who are so protective of you that any slip at all would be met with very firm reactions.”
She sighed sadly. “And yet, here I stand – alone again – at a court function.”
“Alone? What are Zou and I? Phantoms?”
“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” she said with a little laugh.
He stepped over, offering his hand. “Care to dance, lady?” he asked.
She laughed. “You’re teasing me now.”
“No. I would love to.”
She took his hand with caution. “No biting,” she warned him with humor.
“I promise,” he said with a smile that was very dangerous for any woman’s heart.
“Don’t go anywhere,” she told Zou. “I’ll be right back.”
Zou didn’t even seem to notice, but Umren nodded to him with a little bow. Victa went with the tall handsome man out to the floor. She was suddenly scared she would fumble the steps and look all the more foolish to the Baroness and so many others.
“Relax,” he said softly. “I’ll lead you through it. I’m very good at this.”
She took a deep slow breath. He stepped her into motion and the more she let herself just look at him, the smoother the dance was. It was amazing; her heart raced and she felt as if she was flying. She barely noticed the room at all and the music just seemed to fill the space about them. The world seemed to shift to warm spots, flowing light, and a softness to all things.
When the dance spun to an end and she found herself with her arms crossed and held back against Umren, she saw the world remaining that way. It was still that way with the crowd coming back in as he led her off the floor toward Zou. It began to fade only slowly, and as the light faded, she saw him as if in a double vision. He stood behind himself, one of him dressed as a prince, the other in his old travel clothes. She looked to Umren startled and saw him watching her with a very serious expression.
“What did you just do?” he asked her softly as they reached Zou.
“Me?” she asked. “What did you just do?”
He shook his head ever so slowly. “I didn’t do anything. You did that,” he said very seriously.
She swallowed, afraid for him for a moment. She was very concerned that she might have done something that would compromise his self-control.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
“A little flushed, but I’m fine,” he told her, slowly letting her go.
“I didn’t mean to do anything. I don’t know what that was…I…”
He smiled reassuringly at her. “You did nothing wrong. Like I said, you are something other than the rest. Don’t be afraid of that.”
“Umren,” the empress herself walked up to them with her little boy toddling at her side.
“Empress,” he said with a bow to her.
She picked up her son and looked to Zou, who stood looking blank-eyed into space.
“How is he?” she asked.
“Trying to reweave his soul back into his body and having a little trouble with it. He is fully aware, though. The damage was pretty bad to his brain. He had to use a very powerful magic. It would be like having a horrid fever for way too long. The fact that he lives at all is a bit shocking. He is doing wonderfully for what he has been through. He is a strong man.”
She nodded. “You adopt him, Victa?” she asked.
“Not really, Empress. He traveled with me on the train out of Amdor. They helped me escape. It was I she was after and he who paid for it. He managed to let me know he knew me. He read one of my books and said it was very stupid, to say the least, and today he said dumb book, so…” she shrugged. “I hope it’s a good sign.”
The empress nodded. “It is a good sign.” She reached out and touched his face and switched to Dacan. “I have sent for Kelly. I need her here and maybe she can help you fix this.”
Zou managed for a moment to focus on her, but he didn’t say anything. She lowered her hand. “Dave is hunting after the sorceress with Theo. They have her trail. They said that it has something to do with the burns making her easier to find. Theo is very eager to take her down while she is still injured. Dave feels very bad for not catching what happened and won’t come back until he kills her for you.” she said.
“Father…” he whispered. The empress almost looked ready to cry.
She nodded. “Shannon told him. Yes, he is. It didn’t make it any better for him. It made him sick. He almost killed you for being Ta’Zan.”
Zou nodded a little, then his focus slipped away and his face went blank again. Tavia sighed. “You’ll get back to us. I know how it feels; hold on. It will come back together.” She looked to Umren. “Take care of him.”
Umren bowed to her. “I will,” he promised.
“Try to spend time with him,” she told Victa. “If he knows you, it might help him pull a few things together.”
She nodded. “I will. I owe him that and much more. Did they say he was alone? Did the king hear anything about the man he was with?”
“With?” Tavia asked. “No. He was alone.”
Victa shook her head. “He was traveling with a man I thought was his father. He called him Druid. He was amazing, Empress. There was such… quiet calm. I don’t even know how to explain him, but he was a great man and not likely that he would leave Zou, but less likely he would have gotten killed.”
“I’ll ask Dave about it when I get a chance. He came alone.”
She shook her head. “Druid was special,” she said. “He had a grace to him that was hidden under unkempt hair and rugged clothes. Only the emperor himself seems to hold such power. He was powerful in a way I cannot explain, but I know it as surely as I see the power in Shannon.”
“Maybe Zou will be able to tell us where he is soon.” She nodded to them and moved on with her son laying his head on her shoulder. Victa watched her go with a heavy sadness for the woman.
“She isn’t very happy,” Victa said, shocked she had said it out loud.
Umren nodded. “She is very far from happy. She is a powerful woman, but has lost more than most souls ever hold. She feels painfully alone here.”
“She is. All she has is a baby and her duty.”
Umren looked over at her from the empress, who was now talking to the master of the mason’s guild. “Would you like to walk in the garden? Some of the lost army are there and they might like to see others as well. Maybe it will do Zou good to see he is not alone in this court.”
She nodded. “I would love to walk in the garden,” she said honestly.
Chapter 7, Derek and Hunter
DaHane eased himself out on the roof edge and slid carefully down to the gutter. His bare feet caught the deep lip and he carefully stood up. The wind hit him along with the sunshine. He spread his arm and wanted to shout, but held it in. If he shouted, he would be seen. Up here on the rooftop he was free.
He had the best view up here. Below, the entire city could be seen, but the yard was right below him. Outside was a parade as the emperor returned along with the regent from Amdor and the Holy Father James. DaHane couldn’t see them yet, but he could see the inner yard where the real homecoming would take place.
The empress and all the others who mattered waited on the steps, while servants stood to the side ready to take horses, to whisk away luggage, and get the yard cleared as fast as possible. There was Umren, the master of Elites here in Ulam Bac, Victa, several senators, Tyra`Ara, her son Valen, and the emperor’s little brother, Keeden. Keeden was playing with a flower he had picked someplace, while Valen was gripped firmly by his mother to keep him in place. He looked like a caged and chained animal ready to bite his keeper and flee. DaHane felt sorry for the boy. He himself was supposed to be in “official clothes” and standing there, but he wasn’t. His mother was out on the steps; she had just gotten in today as well and went there directly. DaHane had fled up here and now breathed in the air and enjoyed the day.
There was no storm, no storm in weeks actually, and spring was wonderful. The sun was golden, the wind was warm and felt only up this high. It blew through his red hair that he let fly free, thick, and softer than any Purtan might wish for. He had stripped off his shirt and his shoes and left them back at his window escape. Now just in his pants, not even a belt, he felt almost right. Purtan court dress was modest, skin was rarely shown, and his desire to wear less than expected had driven his nanny and his tutors all crazy.
The door of the tunnel from the great yard opened and the cheering poured in through the gate. Everyone was mounted and moved in through the doorway. First came the Elite who went with the emperor everywhere. Then came the wizards who were history-keepers and shield-workers. After them came the emperor in his leather – a red tunic this time with dark blue under it all. He was followed by the Holy Father James in his pure white and right behind him came the regent.
DaHane had not seen the regent since they had come here. The man had seemed to vanish. His heart beat a little faster at the sight of the man. The Regent of Purt was a powerful man, the only known Red Purtan alive, and either feared or revered. He had a short temper that was famous and yet had a mercy that was almost saintly. His task had been to find a king for Amdor and he had failed. He had found many worthy lords and warriors, but he had not found the true line of Amdor. It was sad to see him return without that accomplished. The fact he was there at all seemed odd.
As if his thoughts made the regent look up, the man looked right at DaHane. He saw him, he had to. DaHane dropped down to be partly hidden by the sheer height of the building he was on. The regent turned his attention back to the yard he had entered.
The lords dismounted while the Elites took the horses and vanished through another side door. The hooves clattered on the stone yard, a sharp sound carried up to where DaHane hid. Despite the noise, voices carried up as well.
“Report,” the emperor said to Umren in Norwood.
“Confirmation has been made.”
“Aware, but not functioning in his body.”
“Accomplished; I have not spoken to her yet or seen the reports.”
“And DaHane?” he asked as he handed his reins over to an Elite.
“Manifesting both his father’s attributes as well as his mother’s tendencies.”
“All of them?”
“He is young yet for the most obvious, but it won’t be long.”
The emperor looked to the two small boys in the grip of Tyra’Ara. DaHane hated that woman; she was a cold firm-handed woman who had little if any love for anyone or anything.
“How are they?” he asked the woman who held the children with a cold hand.
“As to be expected.”
“How are you, Keeden?” the emperor asked the boy. He looked from his flower to his brother. He smiled and went to him, reaching up to be picked up. The emperor did just that, picking up his little brother. Valen squirmed to be let go to go be picked up as well, but his mother tightened her grip.
“He’s a child, Tyra,” the regent said, “not a prisoner of war. Let him go.”
She turned cold eyes on the regent, about to say something, but Valen tore free and ran to the regent. The Red Purtan picked the boy up in exactly the same manner that the emperor had picked up Keeden.
“He is not a farm boy; he must learn to master himself and stand in his place!”
“He is a child. He won’t stay that way for long; let him have just a little of his life be free and innocent. He will have plenty of time to master things other men won’t and to stand in his rank and place.”
“He will one day rule Krent, and hold power in his hand that must be mastered.”
“One day, maybe. Not today.”
“There will be a meeting called soon. Be ready to be there, and be nice to that child, Ara; he is only a toddler,” the emperor said firmly.
The two men went inside, each with a child on one arm. DaHane sighed. It was odd to have the emperor ask of him. No one asked of him. He had no father to pick him up or be kind to him. He sighed and folded his arms around his knees. His father was dead and gone and no one wanted a half Sphinxen boy in their inner circle.
He closed his eyes and let the sun soak into his skin, trying to forget how lonely and sad he was. He just wanted someone to want him close and near. Purtans were an affectionate race, often holding hands with friends and giving hugs to any they liked, but sphinx were closer yet, sleeping in beds that held whole families all curled up together. His mother had explained that other races are not that way so much and had gotten him several pets to curl up with. A pet cat just didn’t amuse him so much anymore. He wanted something more than just that.
The shoes hurt; DaHane wanted to dig his feet into the grass of the yard and feel the dirt, but he had to wear the shoes and he had to sit at the table and do his studies. At least he was outside; it was just too nice to be locked inside, even his tutor said as much.
He tugged at the collar of his shirt and wished he could just run away. He didn’t look like his mother; he looked Purtan and except for a slight difference in his bone structure, he may well have been. He wanted out of this life and he wanted a friend and he wanted to take his shoes off.
“You look miserable.”
He looked up, startled to stare at the last man he thought to see in the small garden. The regent stood in black silk in the cut and form of the Elites, but with stunning embroidery over it all in a dark shade of maroon. He wore a sash of dark green and a belt of gold links that wound about his waste twice, but that was all he wore in way of showing any rank. His hair had been bound back in a tight braid so it wasn’t that noticeable.
DaHane started to get up, but the regent motioned him to stay sitting. He took a seat on the on the far side of the outdoor table.
“I… the clothes don’t fit me right.”
“Is that why you like to stand on roof tops with as little on as possible?”
DaHane blushed and dropped his head. The regent didn’t seem to notice as he leaned back, stretching a little. DaHane dared to look after a moment and found the man looking off at a bird on a tree branch.
“I was told I could study here, but if you want the garden I can leave,” DaHane offered, knowing he should.
“Leave?” The regent asked. “Why would you leave? I actually came out here to talk to you.” He leaned forward on the table. “I am told you are having a very hard time dealing with things right now. You don’t want to study, you skip out on things that are asked of you, and you all but refuse to be normal part of court.” He folded his hands. “Your mother isn’t sure what to do about it. In the Sphinxen culture, the men and the women are raised very differently and don’t interact that much beyond certain things. She has no idea what to give you or what you need. I think you need to just be given the option.”
DaHane looked at him, not sure what he meant. “The option?”
The regent nodded. “You have begun to show a little bit more of your father in your makeup. Your wizard cores are staring to wake up and stir up the Sphinxen magics, like pouring water into a jug that has settled. All the sediment on the bottom is swirling. You must begin to learn how to master that. Male Sphinx do not often have any magic. If they have any it is limited and takes a great deal of work to wake up.
“So you now have an option.” The regent rubbed his knuckles. “You can stay here, learn magic, and study the way it is done here, or you may go and find a private tutor and learn it as anyone else would. The question is do you want to be a merc wizard, some house wizard for hire, or do you want to be trained as a Von Valreen?”
“Being a Von Valreen gets me nothing. I hate it here. I am alone and unwanted and…” he had to stop for the amount of emotion that was rushing up. The regent looked at him a bit shocked.
“Unwanted?” The regent almost sounded hurt. “DaHane, do you not know your great-grandfather fought to take you with him? He wanted you with him, at his side. He was told that when you prove that you are going to have the self-mastery of a Von, then you would be free to go with him. With your link to the bloodlines and the sheer power of your blood, it was too great a risk to allow you to be out there until you mastered your magic enough to defend yourself. You would be far too tempting to any Blood within reach of you. Shannon refused out of concern for you, not as an afterthought.
“I also impressed upon your great-grandfather that he could not bribe you with a throne to make you do it. I hate politics; I detest my job. I would never want to be a king, and I would never allow anyone to force you to take on that burden. You might want it… I don’t know. Shannon and I have fought about it more than once. You need to stop and think, ask yourself, what sort of man do you want to be? You can take the lessons you gain here and go anywhere, but if you take off and learn at the hand of a lesser teacher, you can’t come back. Do you understand?”
“You want me to stay and learn here.”
“Of course I do. I sympathize because I was also forced to be something I really didn’t want to be, but because of what I learned as a child, I am able to do what I do. I am free to go places others can’t and to understand thing others overlook.”
“Why do you care? You’re maybe Von Valreen, but you didn’t even grow up with my father. What am I to you?”
The regent watched the young man a moment. “Salma told me that when a male reaches a certain age, he becomes his father’s son. Up until then he is his mother’s child. When he becomes a son, he inherits all the magics his father had mastered at the time of his conception. The older, the wiser, the more experienced the father, the greater the son can be. It is a genetic benefit you have and one the elves have but manipulate to keep certain people in power and others out of it. She is very afraid that when you hit that age, you will find all the magics of your father pounding through your heart, driving you crazy.”
“So? I might learn to say a prayer,” DaHane replied, trying not to let his disgust and contempt for it all show too strongly.
“Your father was a very powerful wizard, even if he didn’t admit it. He knew and did magics that went far beyond the priesthood.”
DaHane played with his pen awhile, not wanting to talk about his father… it made him sad and lonely. He just wanted friends. He didn’t want to think about magic and about fate or rank or anything. He wanted to ride a horse at full speed, he wanted to jump off a cliff into the surf, he wanted to fly away from here.
“I don’t fit in here,” he said softly.
“I want you to meet someone. He is the same age as you are. In fact you two were conceived the same night, as far as I can guess.” He stood up and offered a hand. DaHane stood and took the hand, not certain the man meant him to, but the regent folded his hand around DaHane’s and led him from the yard. DaHane tried not to admit how good it felt to have someone touch him, even as small a thing as the touch of a hand. His tutor was just inside the door and opened his mouth to object. The regent gave him a look that made the man back up a step. DaHane had to fight not to giggle.
“You know your father didn’t fit in well, either. He was a chubby red-headed boy with glasses who tripped over his own feet at your age. Having a friend made all the difference in the world.”
“Father James!” DaHane had heard all the stories about how close they had been.
“Do people tell you that when they were younger, though, Jamie used to be horribly cruel to him?”
“No,” he looked up at the man who towered over him. DaHane sighed; he’d never be tall as a Purtan, never.
“Jamie was very mean. He was everything your father wasn’t and your father was everything he wasn’t. Being a Hennen was a curse to your father. He was famous and wealthy and put in a monastery with the poorest of boys. It was a tactic to make him want to go home, but all it did was make him very depressed and lonely.”
“Is that when you got to know him?”
“Sort of,” the regent said. “The point is that you are not the first boy to be asked to fit a space he does not easily squeeze into. I sympathize, I empathize, and I am sorry.”
“I cannot imagine you never fitting in. Every woman and half the men in this court would die happy for you to pay attention to them for just a day.”
The regent laughed. “Do you know how I met Shannon?” he asked.
“They say you were out hunting and ran into him.”
“No. I was running away from an abusive teacher. I was ready to become vampire food, or fall off a cliff, or freeze to death at that point. Anything to get away from him. I was so blinded by my desperation that I ran right into Shannon. Can you imagine? Running into him?”
“I cannot imagine him allowing it.”
“He was distracted. He had not realized there was a Von Valreen in Norwood’s forests. He wasn’t really paying attention in this realm.”
“He killed the man and then marched me home and more or less told me to not be such am impulsive idiot; that lords of Purt needed to behave like lords of Purt. He still tells me that.” The regent scowled, a little annoyed, then looked over and smiled. “You and I are more alike than you think.”
DaHane wanted to think so; he wanted his uncle to think so, but he doubted it.
They went through the halls and down a long hall to another section of the palace all together. In a long narrow garden that grew between two low wings with pillared walk ways, standing alone before a windowed wall, was a man. He was amazingly different. He had dark skin and long black hair done in many tiny braids. He stood in the sun, not moving at all.
He had to be Zou, the dark-skinned man who had led the revolt in Kill-Abben.
They walked over to where Zou stood looking blankly at the garden beyond. Victa was out in the garden working with several other young women, not a bad view in DaHane’s mind.
“Zou, this is DaHane,” the regent said. “DaHane is the son of Salma and Oirion. Zou is the son of David Sailor and a woman who was very close to them all. I can’t say her name for her sake and his,” he added after a pause. “If the escape had not happened as it had, you two might well have been born together and raised almost as brothers.”
DaHane looked at the man. If they were the same age, why is it always that he was treated as a child and this man was praised as a hero and given a place as an adult.
“Is it because I am short?” he asked out-loud.
“You mistake things,” the regent said, understanding at once. “You seem to think that you are seen as a child and misread love and concern for the reactions reserved for children. There is a great deal of fighting going on about you right now. Only as you fail to apply yourself does the fact your mother is neither human nor sphinx in the normal sense, nor any race recognized in the list by the angels, become a problem.
“Some want you to be a Von Valreen; others say you’re not even a full race, but only because you seem to be unable to keep up with your Purtan peers.” He sighed looking at Zou. “I think you are lonely and bored out of your mind. That’s how I spent my entire childhood. I think I can see the same thing in you both, but I think it is getting worse and ugly for you as you are sphinx and you are not getting what you need.”
DaHane looked up at the regent. “What does my mother do? Why is she gone all the time?” he asked.
“She is working with others to try and create a grid of lode stones that are absorbing the energy of the storms. She has a sensitivity toward where the energy is going to flow and pool that others simply do not have. She is able to allow us to set up the stones before the pools start, not having to wait until they do, then hunting them down and repairing the damage. Her work is why we have better weather this year. It’s not a healing; it’s a fix until we can fix the bigger issue.”
“Yes. And when it comes down, the Sphinx will be a nation, a race worthy of trade and diplomacy. I really had hoped you would have a very strong position here by then. Your grandmother is less than happy about you and I want it very clear her attitude is not really a good idea for her to hold onto.”
DaHane looked back to Zou and sighed. At least he wasn’t brain-dead.
“I hate the books, the clothes, the rules. I want to move, I need to move. I hate it…”
“If I could DaHane I would take you myself and have you be my apprentice, give you hands-on instead of books to learn by, but I can’t. My life is just too dangerous right now. I barely feel prepared for it myself. I can help you find a better place and more suitable tutors than those Tyra Ara assigned to the palace, though. But, you have to decide what sort of man you want to be. Sphinxen mothers lose track of their sons after so long; you have to know that. Salma is different, but she just doesn’t know what to do with you. No one does. So I’m asking you, what do I do with you?”
DaHane looked at him with an odd awe. No one had ever talked to him so openly and plainly. No one had ever just asked him what he wanted and here he was, the regent himself, asking.
“I don’t understand why I have to keep reading,” he said. “I read three forms of Purtan and I know the history as well as most in court. I have passed every fighting test and yet I get no better teachers and no outlet. I can think, I can move, I want to do something!”
“There are several option. One of them that has been hinted at is that you could become a White Guard. The only trouble is that if you do, it’s for life and you cannot take the throne of Valreen. Your grandfather has loudly objected.”
“Yes. He wants you. All you have to do is prove you’re ready to go. All you have to do is understand that you are a man – a young man, but not a child. I am certain that until he was put in a position to make a choice and act, Zou felt himself a child under a teacher’s wing, and then he was dropped into that moment. You see how it ended?
“That is what is feared. Zou escaped with his soul and may well recover fully, but at a price that will haunt him his entire life. I really do not want you to have to go through that. If you would just stop and really think about things, you might find some answers.”
DaHane shifted on his feet and considered. He felt better for the simple touch of holding some one’s hand, his heart felt better, his gut was unwinding and his deep anger was settling. He did not want the regent to let go; he did not want to stand there alone. Anything but that.
“What other options do I have?”
“You could work as a secretary, but I think that is a horrid idea. Another is that you could work with the guilds. They are hiring guards while they work on repairing the city. A lot of what the jewelers guild is doing is stripping the gold out of all the churches in Ulam Bac. You could work as a guard for that. Your job would be to defend it from robbery, watch their backs, and watch the priests. You’d need to record, in your own ledger, how much was taken and how it was packed. It’d be your job to protect them, but also to protect the empire’s gold. The emperor needs that to repair the empire. Every sliver counts. You could go in, change your name, drop the ‘I’m a bored prince’ feeling and be a man looking for a job.”
“I might like that,” DaHane said.
“Now,” the regent looked at DaHane, “while you let that sink in a little, I’d like to address you both. Both of you are the sons of people I care about a great deal and who want very much to be a part of your lives, but for many reasons are denied that. Zou needs a friend, someone to just hold a hand. His race demands no less or they will spin off into insanity.
“Zou, you need someone to lead your body around. I think it will work well enough. Now, DaHane, while Zou isn’t really able to say much, he is very aware of things and from what I am told, he has a very stubborn streak with a great sense of humor. I think that you two should try and think of each other as family and watch each other’s backs. If either of you need anything, let me know. Come to me as long as I am here.” He took DaHane’s hand and folded it around Zou’s. He dug in his pocket and pulled out several silver coins. “If you two young men go out through that door and across the yard, there is a wooden gate on the far side that leads into the Keepers Yard.
“It is a small town inside the palace, kept for servants and guards. There is a tavern there that many bored young nobles find their way to. One rule; you don’t use your real names and you don’t get into any fights. No fights, I mean it. As long as you hold to that, I will make sure that it will be overlooked if you two go there.”
The regent left them with a fistful of money and walked away. DaHane looked at Zou.
“Well?” he asked, not expecting any response.
Zou looked over and smiled a tiny bit. “Dark Malt,” he said.
DaHane smiled. This could be a great thing. He grinned. He had never been to a tavern before. He put the coins in his pocket.
“Alright fake names then. Well…” he considered. “How about I name you and you name me?” he asked suddenly. He wanted to see if Zou would talk again. “I’ll call you… Derek.”
Zou seemed to consider for a moment, then nodded. “Hunter,” Zou said. “I like it. Hunter and Derek. What are we?” he asked as they headed for the tavern the regent had told them to go to. Zou didn’t answer, but he walked along with DaHane, now called Hunter.
The tavern was a lot larger than they had thought it would be. It had two fire places, one at either end of the main room. The place was set up in a great cross with the bar in the center of it all, facing all directions. Tables stood around the central bar with booths along the walls. Only one of the fireplace arms had tables just for sitting; the other had a table with some sort of ball game going on. The back length had tables for gambling and what looked like a target on the back wall.
They took stools at the bar. A very pretty Purtan woman came up to them with an easy smile. “What can I get you two?”
“Deke would love a dark malt and I’ll take… oh, why not. We’ll just take a pitcher of that.”
“Fossan,” Zou said.
She smiled and nodded, leaving them to get the pitcher.
“That’s nice to look at,” DaHane sighed, watching her walk away. Zou smiled and put his hands on the bar.
“Regent knows…” he said, trying to say more, but let it go with his eyes going blank for a moment before he managed to make them slowly focus again.
“I think he knows a great deal. I like him,” DaHane said. “Certainly because I am not making my eyes burn staring at a book so boring it would kill a lesser man.”
The woman returned with the pitcher. “Is that all I can do for you?”
“Talk to us…” Zou managed to say.
“Maybe later,” she laughed as she walked away, but with a fun glance back at them.
“Oh yes, come talk to us…” DaHane sighed. They both sipped the beer. DaHane wasn’t so sure he liked it. Zou actually laughed at him for his expression. DaHane laughed back and sipped it carefully. He loved the change of environment and the fact that he was sitting with someone who was there with him and actually seemed happy about it.
Watching the women who worked there certainly helped as well. He couldn’t remember the last time he was so simply happy. He was quite content to be there watching when he saw the last man he thought would be there. He had to look again to be certain, but he had spied on the man more than anyone else. There he was – not dressed as himself, of course.
He had plain dark clothes, worn and faded. The leather was obviously taken care of, old, good quality, but nothing fancy. He wore it over thick dark cotton. Typical fingerless gloves favored by many guards, covered his hands. He had his hair bound back in a tight smooth tail that was braided and looked oddly short. He had added a set of ear rings that caught a hint of the light and held it.
He had on a leather belt that wound about him three times and held a battered but solid looking leather purse, a short sword, and a long dagger. The emperor looking like any of a thousand Purtans who came to Ulam Bac to try to find work as a guard or as any such thing. Most turned into petty thieves and hungry jobless beggars. Only those who were hired to work in the palace were welcome in this little town within the palace grounds. He took a seat at the other side of the bar, off to their right. He ordered a drink and sat there with his head bowed, turning the mug in his fingers between drinks. DaHane could not make himself stop looking and yet he was certain he was going to get into trouble for being there.
“Ah, that’s Rellen,” the woman said coming back and leaning on the bar before them. “He’s a guard for Princess Salma. He doesn’t say much, keeps to himself.”
“For Princess Salma?” DaHane asked.
“Oh, yeah. She has to have body guards at all times. Many dark wizards want her blood. The emperor himself picked out her guards and she is never alone. They say she is so beautiful that men fall in love with her on sight and that she has the blood of a priest in her. It makes her very desirable to the dark powers, I understand. It’s funny though. He seems too unremarkable. To think he was hand-picked…” she shrugged. “So what do you two do?”
“Oh, we’re just guards. We have been working for Lady Victa. People don’t like her for her heritage, you know. It’s not a glamorous job, but we get to wear swords to work,” he grinned. “Poor Derek got hit in the head with a rock that someone threw at her and is still a little ringy. Knocked him out right cold, but the healer says it will heal in a few months and he’ll be fine. It got me out of duty for awhile to make sure he doesn’t do something stupid.” He smiled even more. “He’s got a hard time talking and keeping his eyes focused, but he’s fine. Just playing it up a little,” DaHane confided.
She laughed softly. “So how old are you two?”
“Twenty,” he lied, “born about three days apart, honestly. It’s why we became friends – same tavern, same drunken weekend, for the same reason.” He laughed. “That was a painful weekend.”
She laughed a little. “I bet,” she said. “You two got girls at all?”
“Nah, we haven’t been in Ulam Bac that long and we been working a lot. Derek has better luck than me on that level. I think it’s the dark skin; makes him exotic,” he teased.
Zou smiled and took a sip of his beer.
DaHane still noticed the emperor sitting alone at the bar. He sat there a very long time while the girls came over and talked to them in turns.
“Can I buy Rellen a drink?” DaHane asked the current girl who was talking to them.
“Sure,” she said. “He drinks a pretty expensive drink, though. It’s a Dacan coffee with a dwarven fruit whisky in it.”
“I’ll pay for it,” he said. “He looks like he could use it.”
She left to go make the drink. DaHane looked at Zou. “How are you doing?”
“Not too bad,” Zou said, as if there was nothing wrong with him. He laughed a little and took another drink.
“Maybe drinking that nasty stuff is good for you.”
“I like it. Try something lighter. Like a wheat beer or a white wine; all the girls like white wine.”
DaHane laughed at him and his tease. The regent was right they were going to be friends and he could tell that already. Zou had a great spark of humor in his eyes and DaHane laughed at Zou as he decided what to do with being called a girl for his dislike of the dark beer. DaHane laugh again at hearing the laughter of his new friend.
“Wow,” the first woman came back at the laughter and looked at them both. “You do have a voice,” she said to Zou. He shook his head and took another drink as if to deny it and hide that he had just laughed outloud. “I’m Mai by the way.”
“I’m Hunter and this is Derek,” DaHane said.
The more they drank, the more Zou seemed to emerge from his inner prison and the more fun they had. They had finished another pitcher when the emperor, posing as Rellen, walked over.
He put his hand on DaHane’s shoulder. “Remember that there are those who would love to sip your blood if they knew who your fathers were. Watch your comments and watch your back,” he gave Zou a very serious look. “I’ll get you a flask of something better than that swill. Maybe it will help.” He left them both stunned: the emperor had seen them, knew them, and let them stay.
“Swill?” Zou asked, a little hurt.
DaHane laughed. “I told you it was nasty.”
End part 6 edits