What do you do when there are no more challenges in your life? For Stavin Ne'Aniston Zel'Andral, the thrill of being a prince has rapidly paled.
Book Five in the Stavin Kel'Aniston Dragon Blessed series.
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The Coravian Conflict
"Are we agreed that we are in a crisis?" King Teravan Zel'Darvin of Coravia demanded as he sat with his Council and looked around. His honey-blonde hair was starting to show strands of silver, but his eyes were still piercingly blue. "Can we at least agree on that much?"
The king's eyebrow hooded over his eyes as an unhappy expression clouded his face. Not that any of the ministers looked any happier than their king.
At his left hand, Queen Rowena sat back and just glared at the ministers. Few of the men dared even look at her. Rowena Ne'Pardin Zel'Darvin's temper was a known and feared quantity in the palace. And right now, she looked furious.
"We are, Your Majesty," the Minister of Agriculture said as he bowed his head. He was far older than his king, and his white hair was beginning to thin too much to brush over. "The harvest last fall was poor. There is no other way to say it. We are going to have to import grain from the other kingdoms. People are eating their seed-grain."
"At least the taxes on that much grain will help ease the strain on the treasury," the much younger Minister of Finance muttered. He was the only one who looked anything but miserable.
"No!" Queen Rowena shouted as she sat forward and slapped the table with an open hand, making the councilors cringe. "No. We are not going to burden our people with even higher prices on food on top of everything else. There will be no tax on the grain."
"Your Majesty, we must-" the Minister of Finance began, but this time it was the king who interrupted with a pointed finger.
"Rowena said no. It is going to be bad enough that they are going to have to pay higher prices to the Traders who haul grain into Coravia from Evandia and Luxandia without adding the tax. Grain and other food stuffs will not be taxed. And if you open your mouth about it again, you're gone." The king sat forward and glared at his Minister. "Do you understand me, Rahndas?"
The Minister of Finance silently bowed in his seat. He'd known Teravan Zel'Darvin since they were children, and he knew when to back down. Teravan's temper could be even more volatile than Rowena's.
Queen Rowena spoke softly as she said, "We have sent a message to Twin Bridges asking for a Trade Mission to be sent to us. Since their Minister of Trade is Prince Stavin, he should be sufficient to arrange the shipments we need." She shook her head and muttered, "He could probably do it himself with his resources." She looked around the room and grinned. "Yes, we'll make sure everyone gets to see his armor." She shook her head as her grin turned into a wry smile. "I want to see it as well."
Everyone nodded their agreement, though not everyone agreed. Minister of Trade Zel'Nerval was particularly bothered by the idea. Why couldn't we contact Luxandia or Reynadia? They both had normal harvests. Why does it have to be that defective little runt of a Farindian commoner? He doesn't belong in my kingdom. But he kept his peace. He'd known Rowena when she was just a girl, and knew she was a dragon-mad as a Zel'Karyn. Be a pity if something happened to him.
Prince Stavin Zel'Andral stood on the balcony of his suite, enjoying the chill breeze as he looked out at the lights of the city. It was seldom cold in Twin Bridges except in the depths of winter, but tonight the wind was from the north and brought with it a welcome hint of the mountains.
The view was almost as spectacular, though far different than the view from the royal suite in Kavinston. Twin Bridges spread out before him, a wilderness in its own right. The main city was home to nearly five hundred thousand souls, and the twin cities of East and West Bridge added another three hundred thousand. As it stood now, Twin Bridges was more populous than the original city of Lux, the ancient capital of the Empire of Luxand.
He heard someone behind him, and felt hands on his shoulders. "Dreaming of home?" Sharindis asked as she cuddled against him, her voice a lovely, warm contralto. He loved her voice as much as everything else about her. She really didn't have to ask, though. She was dreaming of the same things.
"Yes," he said softly, his own voice a light baritone that contrasted with his small stature. "Of Kel'Kavin. Of Kavinston." He turned and embraced her, resting his cheek against the swell of her breast and sighed. "I miss the simplicity of being just plain old Stavin."
Shari wrapped her arms around him, pressing his head against her breast as she bent her neck to place a light kiss on his hair. "You were never really 'just plain old Stavin,' Stavi," she pointed out. "Not for a very long time."
He took a deep breath and sighed. His voice had a bitter edge to it as he said, "Not since that fever. Not since I stopped growing. Not since the first time Harner called me The Runt." He closed his eyes and just held her. So much of his past had been defined by Harner and his friends.
Shari started rocking him gently side to side. "It still bothers you, even after all you've accomplished?" she asked. She knew the answer to that question as well. He still had nightmares that woke her late in the night.
Stavin kept his eyes closed as he nodded and took another deep, shuddering breath. He'd spent so many years frightened of Harner and his friends. Years dodging their blows and taunts. Years half-agreeing with them when they said he should have been killed as a runt.
He'd accomplished so much since then. He was a scholar who was sought out by scholars and scribes from throughout the Seven Kingdoms. Only six now. That was his doing as well, however indirectly. He was Dragon Blessed, given armor and a weapon made of dragon-scale by the dragon on the mountain above Kavinston. He was the first person in the more than two-hundred-year history of Kavinston to earn an officer's star on his first expedition. And the only man in history to earn the four hollowed stars of a Senior Warmaster. And as if that hadn't been enough, he'd been made a prince when King Kalin of Evandia had formally adopted him. Yet deep in his heart, buried under layers of scars from thousands of cuts, he still feared that he was The Runt that so many people had called him.
"Daddy don't cry," little Sahren said from his side, and he looked down at her. At just four years of age she was already tall enough to hug his waist.
"Daddy's not crying, Sahry. I'm just sad."
Sahren and Mahren both crowded in to hug him, and he let go of Shari so he could kneel and hug them back. Karlin hung back a little, then moved around to hug him from behind. Even though he was just six years old, he was tall enough that he had to bend down to hug Stavin's kneeling form.
Stavin held his children and closed his eyes against the tears that wanted to escape. Of everything he'd done, everything he'd acquired, these were his real treasures. He looked up at Shari and saw her proud smile.
"Let's go inside now," he said, giving the girls a final squeeze before standing. The whole family went into the suite and Karlin's valet closed the doors to the balcony. The Prince's Suite of the Royal Suites was usually a scene of chaos, but tonight it was tranquil. Just the five of them, and their five servants, were there. It was a welcome reprieve.
Stavin walked over to the desk he shared with Shari and picked up a slip of parchment. He shook his head slowly as he read it again. It was just a short note, a few words written in his mother's elegant hand, but it was sufficient to make his heart beat faster.
Harner is dead.
There was no explanation, but there really didn't need to be. Harner had always been a second-rate Warrior, despite the glories his imagination had lent him. The last time Stavin had laid eyes on the bully he'd only managed five white stripes--and Stavin had already worn his four hollowed stars for three years.
Shari took the note and crumpled it, then threw it into the fire. "Never again, Stavi."
"Never again," he said in a breathy whisper. "But I think I'll always hear those footsteps behind me."
Shari grabbed his shoulders and turned him toward her, then clasped his face with both hands as she stared down into his golden eyes. "Never again."
Stavin sucked in a deep breath, then closed his eyes and nodded. When he looked up at her again, he was smiling.
Shari smiled widely as she looked down into his eyes. "Have you thought about Kalin's idea?" she asked, grinning. "I'd like to go see Coravia and Moravad."
"So would I," he admitted. "And we can, now that Oradal is over a year old. He's officially Marina and Mark's heir. I'm not needed anymore." Even that came out as a bitter-sounding complaint rather than the simple observation he'd intended. Even dead, Harner is disturbing me.
Shari shook her head slowly at his tone. "You'll always be needed, Stavi. You're fourth in line to the throne, and you're still a Dragon Blessed Senior Warmaster, and Minister of Trade. But there's more to this trip than a simple Trade Mission. Kalin and Marina didn't say what it was, but I could see that Kalin is worried about something."
Stavin sighed deeply, then replied in a sour tone, "You're right, of course, but I'd rather just be a scribe."
Shari chuckled. "So would I. So, my darling husband, would I. But at least going to Coravia would get us out of the palace and Twin Bridges. This," she paused to wave her hand in a circle, "is about all I've ever seen outside of Kel'Kavin. True, it's more than most girls get to see, but I want more. I want to see the kingdom. I want to see the mountains. Stories are all well and good when you know that one day you'll be allowed to leave the valley, but I'm out of the valley now and I still haven't seen anything."
Stavin had to chuckle at that. It had only been a bit over three years since Healer Adept Fel'Aezar had restored Shari's vision, and she hadn't been allowed to leave the palace except for a few carefully orchestrated trips in an enclosed carriage. She had four years of sight-seeing to make up for now that she and Stavin didn't need to be so carefully guarded.
"We'll tell Kalin 'yes' in the morning, then start planning the trip. For all of us." He smiled as he looked at their children. "You'll all get to go see Moravad with us."
There was a dual squeal of delight from the girls while Karlin managed to just grin and dance in place. Stavin looked over at their servants and nodded.
"Begin packing. I think we'll be leaving in about three days."
* * *
King Kalin nodded as his mouth curved into a wide smile when Stavin approached him before council the next morning. "Decided to take everyone, did you?" he asked with a chuckle.
"Am I that obvious?" Stavin asked as his head tilted to the side in puzzlement.
Kalin chuckled again. "The walls aren't thick enough to drown out the twins. Take Dragon Watch with you. Dahvin will be put out, but Glori needs him home right now."
Stavin nodded. "I'll tell him personally and soften the blow. I'd like to take the new recruits from Kel'Kavin as well."
"You just want to take Kar," Kalin replied as he chuckled. "Can't blame you. Go ahead. I'll instruct General Zel'Kordil to let you have whoever you want." He chuckled. "One day I'll have to tell you about me and Dahral when we were young."
Stavin chuckled right back and said, "Thanks, Dad," and grinned at Kalin's bright smile.
* * *
Shari and Marina shared a smile over tea that morning. "I'm so excited!" Shari gushed, sounding like a little girl. "I'm finally going to get to see the kingdom, and Coravia as well."
Marina chuckled as she smiled. "You sound so excited. The mountains in Coravia aren't as impressive as the Mountains of Sorrow or the Mountains of Fear, but they are beautiful in their own way. The road to Moravad leads through the foothills and passes close to Zel'Karyn. You really have to stop and let them see Stavi's armor."
Shari chuckled. "And let him see Sang Del Dracl. I hope it's there."
"Because you want to see it every bit as much as Stavin does," Marina replied with a grin.
Shari bowed her head in acknowledgment of Marina's point. "Yes, I do. Oh, Marina, I'm so excited I can hardly sit still."
Marina sighed and shook her head. "I wish I could go with you. Teravan is my cousin, and he used to come over to visit us when I was young. I haven't seen him since he ascended to the throne eleven years ago."
"You are needed in the Council, Marina," Shari said as she gazed at her sister-in-law. "Kalin is deferring to you and Mark a lot more lately. I think he's pushing you two forward so he can step back a little."
"You're right," Marina said, then sighed. "Both about what he's doing, and why. Dad wants us to have more direct experience guiding the kingdom than he did. Granddad died suddenly while Dad was in the Army, and left Dad struggling for years to catch up. He wants us to be better prepared." Her expression clouded over for a moment. "Some of Granddad's Councilors tried to control Dad. Grandma Rebanna had to stomp on them pretty hard to get them to let Dad rule."
Shari nodded and smiled. "Well, you're doing wonderfully, both of you. One of the things Stavi and I used to worry about was how we would handle the responsibility if we had to take over."
Marina smiled softly and said, "You would have been fine. All your training as a scribe would have carried you through. And you'd have had help. Dahvin and his brothers, as well as the friends you two have made in the palace."
* * *
It took every minute of the three days to get the expedition ready to go. The guards were the easy part. Dahvin had, as expected, been upset at being left behind, but nodded his agreement that Glori needed him at home. She was due with their third child in just a moon and a half, and the trip to Moravad was scheduled to take a full year.
It was the royal luggage that caused the greatest delay. Stavin and Shari both grumbled about it, but their entire wardrobe was being packed for the trip. Two full-sized cargo wagons had been requisitioned for the purpose, and there were still going to be bags on top of the carriage.
The one bright spot for all of them was that they were going to be able to ride their horses for part of the trip. It was only during inclement weather would they have to ride in the carriage.
Karvik rode with the royal party. He wore the twin hollowed stars of a Warleader Third on his shoulder, and had been given the rank of Major in the Evandian Royal Guard. Technically, that made him the highest-ranking officer present because of the time he'd held his rank, but he was acting as second in command to Major Zel'Astel. The major's years of experience in the Royal Guard were too valuable to discount.
"Ready to go see the world again, Stave?" Karvik asked in a soft tone as he pulled his horse to a stop beside Stavin.
"More than ready, Kar," Stavin replied just as softly.
Karvik looked over at the children and grinned. "Looks like they're ready, too. Are you sure letting the girls ride is a good idea?"
Stavin chuckled. "You try telling them 'no'. Shari and I tried, but when they combine their talents there just isn't any way to get around them."
Karvik shook his head slowly as he said, "No thanks. I had a hard-enough time with my kids. Fortunately, Mom is here and they listen to her."
"Who doesn't?" Stavin asked as he cringed. Sahrena Kel'Carin was a force of nature akin to an avalanche. No one with any sense opposed her.
Major Zel'Astel rode to Stavin's side and bowed, then said, "We are ready to leave at your convenience, Your Highness."
Stavin replied, "Very well, Major. Have your leading element start out and we'll fall in behind them." Stavin shifted his attention back to Karvik. "You take the far side of the girls, Kar. I'll keep Shari beside me."
"Yes, Your Highness," Karvik replied with a grin and a bow, then wheeled his horse around to the far side of Mahren. Unlike Stavin, he had managed to retain his first mount, and Chana hardly needed his commands. She seemed to understand what was needed as well as he did. At sixteen years of age, Chana was a matriarch in her own right. She'd given birth to five foals over the years, had a habit of taking any young horses to task if they misbehaved. Mahren was riding Restala, her youngest filly.
The first thirty Royal Guardsmen led off, and Stavin brought his family in line behind them. Then the royal carriage joined the procession. Next came the remaining twenty Royal Guardsmen of Dragon Watch, and the nine new recruits from Kel'Kavin. The baggage wagons brought up the rear.
Stavin looked ahead, then stood in his stirrups to look behind them. He let loose a gusty sigh and said, "We look like a parade."
Shari laughingly replied, "All we need are jugglers and a menagerie and we would be."
"Don't say that so loudly," Stavin said as he laughed back. "That would be right in line with what passes for Kalin's sense of humor."
Shari laughed merrily and turned in her saddle, admiring the city as they passed. This was her first trip through Twin Bridges in anything other than an enclosed carriage. Those times she'd left Twin Bridges proper to visit Zel'Fordal House and Lady Glora.
East Bridge, like her twin city of West Bridge, was really a suburb of Twin Bridges. The cities had grown up around the termini of the twin bridges, though they hadn't been much more than caravansaries in the early days of the Land of Evand. With peace and prosperity, they had grown as Chosen families sought more land of their own. The area close to the bridges was dominated by the fine houses and mansions of the Chosen, but looming just behind them were the warehouses of the merchants. Often, the Trading Houses were owned, at least in part, by the Chosen lords closest to them.
House Kel'Aniston, the Trading House that Stavin had founded during his second expedition to Evandia, had a warehouse in East Bridge as well, not too far from the bridge itself. He'd bought it out of pity for a Trader who'd run afoul of the Traders' Guild and been stripped of his credentials. And his thousand-crown bond. Stavin had paid three thousand gold crowns for House Fel'Hesstan, enough for the Trader and his family to leave Evandia, and then just turned it over to his manager, Corinne Fel'Carvin. The purchase had made Kel'Aniston the third largest trading house in Evandia, much to the chagrin of the Traders' Guild. Given Stavin's position as Minister of Trade, as well as a prince, there wasn't much they could do about it other than sulk.
Farther along the road through East Bridge were the taverns and inns where common travelers could find beer, wine, food, and lodgings. And beyond them, at the very edge of the city, was the caravansary. It had been moved farther out just two years before by order of King Kalin to make room for more people in East Bridge. Where it had stood were now apartment blocks where the poorest families of the common workmen lived--built and managed by House Kel'Aniston.
Stavin and Shari shared a grin when they saw the enclosed play yard. It was full of happy, laughing children, with a few old women to keep an eye on them. When the royal party was recognized, all of the women came to the fence and knelt, bowing their heads in respect. Many of the older children joined them. Because of Stavin, many of these people had a better roof over their heads than they could have afforded anywhere else. And that drove many of the other landlords mad, which, truth be told, had been Stavin's main reason for the project.
He'd been sickened and infuriated by the landlords charging the poor so much that mothers were prostituting themselves in order to keep their families in even the poorest conditions. But there was no law against it, and Kalin had balked at the idea of interfering too much. So Stavin had simply started construction on several apartment buildings, and offered them for what were indeed ridiculously low prices. He was still turning a profit, though it was slim. At the rates he was charging, the buildings would take a hundred years to pay for themselves, but he didn't care. All that mattered was that he was doing something for his people.
They passed the apartments and caravansary, and ahead of them was the open road, bordered by fields of grain. Stavin heard Shari cry out in delight as a flock of pheasants flew across their path. The reason for their flight was soon evident. Dozens of men and women, and older boys and girls, were running to the side of the road, each going to his or her knees and bowing their heads deeply. A single file of Royal Guards moved between the commoners and the royal family, but they didn't try to stop the people from seeing Stavin. He was still regarded as a near-mythic figure in Evandia as the man who'd turned away a whole army single-handedly. Or at least that's what the bards and minstrels said he'd done. Personally, Stavin thought the sixty-thousand-man army behind him had something to do with it.
Stavin, Shari, and their children waved at the people, smiling all the while. Stavin knew himself far too well to believe the stories, while Shari knew the stories were just a pale reflection of the man she had married. The kids just loved the attention.
It took all day to reach the first town on their route. That was as it had been planned by the imperial architects when the province that had been called the Land of Evand had been founded by the Empire of Luxand. This road had been the Imperial Highway and ran from Twin Bridges all the way to Moravad, and on to Lux, the capital city of the Empire. Or the other way around, depending on how you looked at it.
The city wasn't much to look at. Being so far into Evandia let it do without walls. It was built mostly of wood, often with a stone foundation and half-walls. The roofs were mostly of thatch, and gave the impression of well-trimmed haircuts. Everything was as neat and orderly as could be expected of a farming community, but it boasted one inn that was fit for a king. Not many kings enjoyed camping on the side of the road. This building was built of all wood, with one of the few cedar-shingle roofs. The wood of the walls was so old, it had turned gray under Aranda's light. Three floors were evident from the arrangement of the windows. The royal party came to a stop in the yard and Stavin chuckled as the innkeeper rushed out to meet them.
"Your Highnesses, welcome to Fairlain. I'm Nester Bel'Kordan, keeper of the Silver Squirrel Royal Inn. Please be welcome." He bowed very low, and Stavin waited until he was standing again to answer.
"We thank you for your welcome, Innkeeper Bel'Kordan. Have you prepared the royal suite?"
"Yes, Your Highness. Your messenger arrived just after mid day. The Royal Suite is ready for you and your family."
Shari sighed and said, "I'm so glad to hear that," as she eased out of her saddle. "I'm spending part of tomorrow in the carriage. I've never spent that long in the saddle before, and I never want to again."
Stavin smiled but wisely kept his mouth shut.
Karlin and the twins had alternated between their horses and the carriage and were in much better shape than their mother. "Let us help you, Mama," Karlin said as he and his sisters rushed to her side.
"Thank you, darlings. Innkeeper, lead the way. I think I'd like a nice hot bath first."
The innkeeper bowed deeply, then said, "As you wish, Your Highness. Follow me, please." Shari and the children followed the innkeeper, and all four of their servants followed them. Behind them came all of the female Royal Guards. That was per their standing orders. Inside was also where the privies were.
"Your Highness?" Stavin's butler said from near Stavin's right leg.
Stavin looked down and nodded. "Take the travel bags up to the suite, Avrin. Get the drivers to help if you need them. I'm going to walk around a bit. I may not be as sore as Shari, but it's been a long time since I spent all day in the saddle." There was a soft chuckle from his other side, and he didn't even turn around when he laughed and said, "Shut up, Kar."
Karvik laughed out loud now that he'd been caught. "It's too bad we don't have a few greenlings along to see to the horses. That has to be the best part about leading an expedition."
Stavin laughed again, then dismounted and led his horse toward the stables. Five Royal Guardsmen rushed past him to check them out, then allowed Stavin and Karvik to see to their own horses. The rest of the royal party's horses were being seen to by the most junior of the guardsmen--the Warriors of Kel'Kavin. Most of them were men Stavin and Karvik had known for years, and were at ease with Stavin in a way few of the Chosen guardsmen ever would ever be. They had known him in training. They had known him before he'd climbed up to the dragon's cave. One or two had even called him The Runt on occasion. But now they knew him as Senior Warmaster Zel'Andral, the highest ranking Warmaster in their history, and obeyed him as they would obey any Warmaster. Such was their discipline and honor.
The horses seen to, Stavin led Karvik and the rest in a long walk around the inn. It was a big place, as was to be expected of an inn that had been built to accommodate the emperor. Not that any emperor had ever stayed there. If one had, the name would have the word 'imperial' in it somewhere.
Stavin led his men up to the inn common room. It was a nice place. The common room wasn't all that large, but it was obvious that someone was spending a lot of effort maintaining it. The walls were of dark wood that had been sanded smooth and polished until they reflected the light. The beams that supported the second floor were as well tended, but they had lighter wood inlaid in intricate patterns.
There were more Guardsmen than the inn could comfortably hold, but Major Zel'Astel had a solution to that. Twenty of his men, including the Warriors, were going to be standing watch for at least one third of the night.
"Major Kel'Carin, you and the new men will be integrating into the watches. It'll spread you out, but I think that's a good thing. You've all got a lot more experience on the road than most of the guards." He looked around to ensure his men were listening. "Try to pass on some of that knowledge."
"Yes, Major," Karvik replied and bowed, then looked at the Warriors. "You heard the major. Divide yourselves out, three to a watch section. There are a total of sixty-one of us, so sections of twenty." He looked around to ensure that all the guards were listening. "I'll be joining the last watch. Ladies," he paused to look at the female guards, "you'll be best employed upstairs watching the royal suite. You all need to be available to the royal family. If any of them, especially the children, come down-stairs, two of you will accompany each them. Even Prince Stavin."
"Hey!" Stavin protested.
"Even if he's in full armor," Karvik continued. He turned to look Stavin in the eye. "The king's personal orders to me, and you can't countermand them."
Stavin growled, "Kar."
"Don't even try, Stave. Major Zel'Astel has the same orders, delivered at the same time."
Stavin took a deep breath, then blew it out. He muttered, "Figures."
"Yes, Your Highness," Major Zel'Astel said, "it does. But don't worry. We're all going to try and let you have a little fun on this trip." He grinned broadly. "But just a little."
Arandar was just peeking over the horizon when Stavin led his family downstairs for the morning meal. The innkeeper and his staff had done a magnificent job of providing for all of them, and the guards ate the same things as the royal family. If any of them thought it was odd that princes and princesses were eating common fare, they kept it to themselves. The Warriors had explained deep in the night that oat porridge, eggs, and lean meat were the best things to eat when riding long distances. Rich foods such as they enjoyed at the palace didn't mix well with being bounced in the saddle all day.
Shari was visibly limping as she crossed the common room. "I'm riding in the carriage. I don't know what made me think I could ride that far on my horse the first day."
"We're going to ride with you, Mama," Mahren said. "My bottom hurts."
Karlin looked at both his parents and said, "I'd like to ride my horse. I don't feel that sore."
"You can ride with me and Uncle Kar," Stavin said around a mouthful of eggs as he examined his son, "but if you start feeling sore I want you to switch to the carriage. You've spent a lot more time in the saddle than your sisters, but this is still going to be a long trip. Don't overdo it at the beginning."
"All right, Dad, but--"
"No buts, Karli," Karvik interrupted, drawing Karlin's attention. "You can be seriously hurt if you try to ride too much too soon. Ease into it."
Karlin frowned, but nodded and said, "All right, Uncle Kar."
"Good man," Karvik said as he chuckled and gently punched Karlin's shoulder. "Ease into it and you'll be riding all day by the time we reach Moravad."
* * *
Major Zel'Astel came to Stavin's side and bowed. "Our men and women are fed, and the horses are ready, Your Highness. We've put the princesses' horses behind the carriage, and their tack on the roof. They'll be available if needed."
"Thank you, Major." Stavin looked at his family and asked, "Are we ready to go?"
"As ready as we will be." Shari stood and winced. "I'm so glad we brought extra pads for the carriage seats."
Stavin and Karvik escorted Shari and the twins to the carriage and made sure they were comfortable, then checked their own tack before mounting their horses. Stavin nodded to Major Zel'Astel and said, "Lead on, Major."
As in Twin Bridges, thirty of the guards rode ahead, then the royal family fell in behind. Stavin and Karvik kept Karlin between them. Stavin was, as always, in his armor, but not all of it. His mail, with all its protections, was on Karlin. The little imp was growing so fast it almost fit him. Stavin had tried to get the girls to wear his under padding, but they were just too small. Karvik was the only one who was close enough to recognize the change.
"Good thinking," was his only comment as he ran a finger along Karlin's arm.
The trip was routine, each day following the same pattern as the first. One Royal Guardsman would ride ahead of the party at mid day to ensure the inn at the next town was ready for them when they arrived.
* * *
It took five days to reach the first major city along their route. Denalvad was surrounded by suburbs of homes and small businesses, and Stavin remembered that the last census had reported that sixty thousand souls called it home. The royal party rode through the city for seven spans before reaching the low wall that marked the boundary of the original city.
A brace of city guardsmen was waiting there and stood as Stavin approached. "Prince Stavin, we are here to escort you to the city hall," the leader said with a sketchy bow.
"The inn first," Stavin commanded.
"Our orders are to bring you to Lord Mayor Zel'Walkin, Your Highness," the leader replied with just a bit too much arrogance.
Stavin looked the man in the eye and snarled, "I am not subject to the mayor's orders," as the Royal Guardsmen crowded close to glare down at the city guards. "The inn. Now."
The city guardsmen looked around nervously, then bowed and led the way. The inn was just a short distance along the main thoroughfare, and they were met in the yard.
"Prince Stavin," an elegantly dressed man said as he came down the steps, "welcome to the Emerald Eye Royal Inn. The royal suite awaits you."
Stavin nodded to the innkeeper, then looked at Shari. "Take the girls and go get settled in. I'm taking Karlin with me to go see what the lord mayor wants." He carefully didn't say, Probably wants to whine at me about Trade, in front of the city guardsmen, but Shari had spent too many hours at his side in the Council not to be able to deduce what was wrong for herself. He looked at Major Zel'Astel and nodded once. "Remain here with two sections. I'll take Kar and the third section with me."
The major smiled wryly, then bowed slightly. "As you wish, Your Highness."
Stavin smiled back and shook his head a little. It was still hard for him to give orders to men he'd accepted orders from just a few short years before, but he was getting used to it. He urged his horse toward the waiting city guardsmen and Karlin and Karvik joined him. Behind them in a column of threes rode nineteen Royal Guardsmen. All the guardswomen were, per their standing orders, staying with the princesses.
The city guardsmen led them at a walk halfway across the city to a large building. It was an impressive edifice, standing four stories tall and two dragons wide.
Karvik whispered, "Think they're impressed with themselves?" as they dismounted.
"Just a little," Stavin agreed while Karlin stifled his giggles with one hand.
When the Royal Guardsmen had dismounted, Stavin turned to Karvik and said, "Major, detail your men."
Karvik bowed, then turned to the guardsmen and said, "Five men stay with the horses. Five more on the steps. Four on point, five on our heels."
Almost as one the guardsmen snapped, "Yes, sir." No one was surprised when the nine Kel'Kavin Warriors immediately moved to bracket Stavin and Karlin. The rest of the men sorted themselves out with the most junior taking the horses and the rest taking the steps. When they had all reached their positions, Stavin nodded to Karvik and they headed into the city hall.
The doors of the building were open and a group of people stood waiting in the shade. When they reached the top of the stairs the four Warriors in the lead split two-and-two to the sides and came to a stop, standing at attention with their hands on the hilts of their swords. Stavin, Karlin, and Karvik came to a stop facing the men. When no one said anything, one of the lords stepped forward.
"Prince Stavin, welcome to Denalvad. I am Lord Mayor Nasval Zel'Walkin." He bowed, then looked expectantly at Stavin.
Stavin removed his helmet and replied, "I am pleased to meet you, Lord Mayor Zel'Walkin," then looked at the mayor with a raised eyebrow.
The mayor took an involuntary step backwards when he saw the light glint off Stavin's golden eyes, then someone behind the mayor cleared his throat and all the men went to one knee. A breath later the mayor did as well.
Stavin smiled slightly and asked, "Is there a reason you wished for an audience, Lord Mayor?"
The mayor stayed on his knee and cleared his throat, then said, "Yes, Your Highness, there is. There is a matter of Trade that we, the city council and I, wish to discuss with you in your capacity as Minister of Trade."
Stavin nodded. "Very well. We arrived fairly early so there is time so long as it isn't a major matter."
The mayor stood and bowed, making a sweeping gesture with his right arm as he stepped aside. "After you, Your Highness."
Stavin looked at Karvik and bent his head slightly. Karvik snapped, "Lead guards forward," and the four Warriors moved in front of them, entering the building and driving the curious back with pointed stares. Stavin and Karvik bracketed Karlin, and the rest of the Warriors followed in their wake.
One of the councilmen hurried forward to lead the way to the council chamber, and led the four guards in first. Stavin stopped at the door and waited until they had done a quick sweep of the room and returned to the door, bowing for him to continue. Stavin was once again struck by the similarities between the city council chamber and the king's council chamber in Twin Bridges. It seemed that the imperial architects had only had a few plans for the city halls and palaces. The table was oval, and there were thirteen chairs evenly spaced around it. The room was also oval and allowed just two paces behind each chair. There were no cabinets or tapestries for someone to hide behind, and that told Stavin something about the Denalvad City Council: These were distrustful men.
Stavin took the chair in the center of the table closest to the door, and motioned Karlin to take the seat at his right hand. Karvik came to a stop behind and between their chairs, and two of the lead Warriors came to a stop beside him, forming a protective wall of flesh and steel behind their princes. The other two Warriors of the lead element moved to put their backs against the walls beside the doors. Outside the room, four of the trailing Warriors took up positions on either side of the entry while the most senior walked forward and turned to stand back-to-back with Karvik.
The mayor and members of the Denalvad City Council filed in behind them, and every one of them eyed the Warriors with some trepidation. While each of them wore a tabard with the Evandian Royal Guard insignia, they were all in the full armor of the Warriors of Kel'Kavin.
The councilors sorted themselves out with two younger men having to stand against the wall since Stavin and Karlin had taken their seats. Once everyone was standing near a chair, Stavin and Karlin sat and gestured for the rest to take their seats.
When everyone was seated, Stavin looked at the mayor and said, "Lord Mayor Zel'Walkin, Councilors, allow me to present my son and heir, Prince Karlin Karlit Charvil Do'Kalin Zel'Andral, fifth in line to the crown of Evandia." He paused as the councilors bowed in their seats and Karlin acknowledged them. "Lord Mayor, you said you have a matter of Trade that you wished to discuss with me."
The mayor stood and bowed deeply. "Yes, Prince Stavin. It concerns the Favored Trader status that you granted the Aravad Traders' Council."
"You object?" Stavin asked, but his tone made it more of a statement than a question.
The mayor took a deep breath and then bowed. "Yes, Your Highness. The Kavadians are undercutting our prices. It's causing some difficulties for our Trading Houses."
Stavin let his mouth take on a bitter twist. "To be precise, Lord Mayor Nasval Zel'Walkin, primary owner of the Fel'Barton Trading House, it's cutting into your profits." The mayor looked surprised by Stavin's knowledge of his holding, but didn't say anything. "I'm fully aware of who each of you is and what your interests in Trade are. I expected a complaint of this kind after the messages I received in Twin Bridges. Let me make this clear: the Aravad Traders' Council is necessary to the health and well-being of the people of Evandia, especially in the old Farindian territories. They are primarily shipping foodstuffs into Evandia. The fact that they can sell grain at a lower price than you and still turn a profit says more about you than them." Stavin swept the room with a glance.
One of the councilors stood and bowed slightly, then plowed on without waiting for Stavin to acknowledge him. "Prince Stavin, the Kavadians are trying to run us out of business."
"No, Lord Zel'Jeslan, they are trying to build their businesses. Please try to remember that I am also involved in Trade. The Kavadian prices are lower than yours, but not significantly so."
"Prince Stavin, this must be stopped!" Lord Zel'Jeslan all but yelled, causing the eye of every Warrior in the room to focus on him.
Stavin raised an eyebrow before replying in a mild tone, "I suggest you remember who you are speaking to, Lord Zel'Jeslan. I also ship food from Kavadia into Evandia."
"You pay no taxes though," Lord Zel'Jeslan replied sullenly.
"I pay two and a half percent, as do all of the Aravad Traders who come to Evandia. Only caravans that I am personally accompanying are tax exempt. The Aravadian House of Kel'Aniston is separate from the Evandian House." He paused to shake his head and grimace. "Outsmarted myself that time."
Lord Zel'Jeslan shook his head as if wishing to deny Stavin's assertion. "That is beside the point--"
"That is precisely the point, Lord Zel'Jeslan," Stavin snapped, interrupting the angry lord. "You and your compatriots buy grain from our farmers at a low price since you control most of the market in this area, then sell it to the people of the cities at nearly twice the price. The Aravadian Traders buy in Kavadia at nearly the same price you pay here, then ship the grain all this way and still turn a profit while selling more than ten percent under your prices."
"Shut up," Stavin snapped, causing the surprised lord to close his mouth with a snap as he took a step back and fell into his chair. The look of shock on his face almost made Stavin smile, but he was really angry. "I understand that people starved to death in Denalvad last winter because they couldn't afford your prices. You, Lord Zel'Galvis, Lord Zel'Keltar, Lord Zel'Omron, and Lord Zel'Seraval," Stavin's head turned to focus on each of the lords as he spoke their names, "control almost all the foodstuffs brought into Denalvad. Or you did until we opened the markets to the Traders from Aravad. Understand me, my lords. You will not grow fat while people starve for lack of a spark."
"P-Prince Stavin--" the Lord Mayor stammered, but Stavin wasn't through.
"That will be all, my lords. Let this stand as a warning: I will ship food in here and sell at a loss if I need to in order to feed the people of Denalvad and the surrounding countryside. But if that becomes necessary," he said as he paused, and his head bent forward as his brows drew down over his eyes, "heads will roll." He swept the room with a scathing glare, and every man there seemed to feel the heat of Stavin's anger in the gaze of his golden eyes. Stavin stood, forcing the councilors to stand with him, then turned and just looked up at Karvik.
Karvik snapped, "Detail, form up," sounding way too much like Barvil for Stavin's comfort.
Stavin looked at Karlin and winked since none of the lords could see them, then led the way out of the council chamber. He waited until they were mounted before speaking to his son again. "Remember the joke about the farmer and the mule? First thing you gotta do is get their attention."
Karlin giggled while a low rumbling chuckle came from Karvik. "I'd say you got their attention, Daddy," Karlin said as he grinned.
"He does tend to do that, doesn't he?" Karvik asked with a grin.
Stavin grunted his amusement. "Find the Temple of the Nurturer, Kar."
"Yes, Your Highness," Karvik replied, then rode the short distance to where a group of City Guardsmen were standing. He returned a moment later. "Back to the inn and on through town. The temple is on the road to Coravia."
Stavin sighed and nodded. "Tomorrow then. Back to the inn, Kar."
"Yes, Your Highness," Karvik replied, then snapped to his men, "Form up!" The guards led off as they formed into a column of threes, and Stavin and Karvik once again bracketed Karlin.
"You know, Stave, you scared those councilors half to death back there," Karvik said conversationally.
"I meant to," Stavin replied.
"You wouldn't really behead Chosen lords, would you, Daddy?" Karlin asked.
Stavin nodded. "If I had to. But the warning I gave them is going to be sufficient. No one is going to starve in or around Denalvad this winter. Tomorrow we'll make sure of it." Karlin tilted his head to the side in an unasked question. "Tomorrow, you will make your first donation to the Nurturer."
Karlin's eyes went round in wonder. He asked, "The full donation, like in olden times?" He wore an excited expression on his handsome young face, and a wide grin.
"The full donation," Stavin confirmed.
Loren Jones lives near Tampa, Florida. He married Pamela A. Willis in 1983 and they have stayed together to this time, and have three adult children. A US Navy veteran, Loren served as a nuclear reactor operator on attack submarines for six years before his honorable discharge in 1986. Loren makes his living as an instrumentation and controls technician and writes because the stories won't leave him alone.
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A special note to TTB readers. All contents of this web site are copyright by the writers, artists or web site designer. If you discover any artwork or writing published here elsewhere on the internet, or in print magazines, please let us know immediately. The staff of Twilight Times Books feels very strongly about protecting the copyrighted work of our authors and artists.
Web site copyright © 1999, 2000 - 2017. Lida Quillen. All rights reserved.
Cover art © 2017 Brad Fraunfelter. All rights reserved.
This page last updated 07-25-17.
Twilight Times Books logo design by Joni.