Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Crown of Stars by L.E. Bryce

Prologue

Zhanil barely noticed the man entering the nursery. From the pile of painted soldiers, animals, and blocks, he picked up the wooden horse that was his favorite toy—white with a red saddle—and gave his friend Arjuna the horse with the blue saddle. Both horses were chewed around the ears, and the paint was peeling from the hooves and underbellies. These were the signs of well-loved toys that had belonged to the boys for as long as they could remember.

Zhanil saw the flash of metal from the corner of his vision, but did not turn or realize something was wrong until Arjuna cried out.

Arjuna fell to his knees on the carpet beside him. Zhanil saw the man, whom he did not recognize as one of the servants, and the blood dripping from the knife in his hand. Bewilderment kept him from moving or crying out, even though Arjuna bawled on the floor nearby, and the man inched toward him.

A figure, disheveled and wild-eyed with rage, appeared in the doorway behind the man. Zhanil's only coherent thought was a name: Adeja. Open-mouthed, he watched his guardian—whom he knew was ill with a fever—seize his would-be assailant, shove him into the hallway and fall upon him with terrifying violence.

Shadows told the rest of the story. A knife rose and fell, and droplets of blood spattered against the wall in time to the sounds of one man pummeling another until there was only silence.

The next thing Zhanil saw was Adeja, covered in blood, looming like a nightmare before him. Adeja stared at him, then steadied his wobbling frame against the doorjamb and lurched forward to gather Arjuna into his arms. "It is only a scratch," he rasped, his throat sore. "Stop crying. He's gone now."

Arjuna buried his face in his father's chest and sobbed. Zhanil looked from him to the pool of blood spreading in the doorway, then heard the alarm spread through the household. "What happened?" he asked.

Adeja, still hugging Arjuna close, looked at him. "Someone tried to kill you."

Part One: The Sun at His Back

Chapter One


"This is a terrible idea," said Adeja. "I hope you realize that."

Standing by the window with his arms crossed over his chest, Zhanil presented an impressive image: dark-haired, tall, and strong, much like the uncle for whom he had been named. At eighteen, however, he was also stubborn and naïve. Age will cure him of this foolishness, thought Adeja, if it doesn't kill him first. "Your grandfather put you up to this, didn't he?"

"Why must you think my every thought or action comes from him?" Zhanil asked irritably. "You think he tells me what to do, yet whenever I speak to him, or to my parents, they think you're the one leaning on me. No one gives me credit for having my own opinions."

"I'm not about to give you credit for such a ridiculous idea," said Adeja. "Ampheres has military ambitions. I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if he intends to start acting on them."

Zhanil moved away from the window to take a seat behind a desk cluttered with papers. While he kept his weapons, armor, and riding gear in good order, his clothes and other belongings were a different matter altogether; it was a habit which his parents deplored, and which Adeja overlooked once he realized he could not do anything about it.

"Whenever I visit, Rhodeen is usually the topic of conversation—it's either that or marriage—and Grandfather wants me to be present whenever he receives Turya ambassadors. Father doesn't like his meddling, and neither do I, but I assure you this was my own idea. I think I should at least see the kingdom I might be asked to invade before I agree to anything."

"Under normal circumstances, that would be a wise decision," said Adeja, "but if the Turyar discover who you are, they'll kill you at the border."

"Of course they would, which is why we're going in disguise." Zhanil shuffled through some papers and found a scrap of parchment. Adeja could not see what it said, but guessed the prince had made yet another of the lists of which he was so fond.

"We, my prince?" asked Adeja. "I never said I would come with you."

"I hardly think you'd let me go alone," replied Zhanil. "Then again, I'm not convinced there'll be that much danger, not if we plan correctly. Khalgari travelers cross the border and conduct business with the Turyar all the time. A small party of, say, four men in plain clothes wouldn't attract notice."

Stepping forward, Adeja tapped the list with his forefinger. "In all this meticulous planning, did it once occur to you that the Turya embassy might have spies watching your every move? If you leave Bhellin, you'll be followed, and if you try to cross the border, armed men will be waiting for you. It's suicide."

Zhanil remained unmoved. "Not if we go through Ottabia," he said. "My great-uncle has an estate there, and there's a sanctuary of Abh very close by. We can travel openly to see Olmor and visit the sanctuary with a larger party, then a few of us can slip out as pilgrims. Father is on good terms with the chief priest, so Bedren can help cover our absence in case any Turyar come looking for us."

Adeja paused, realized Zhanil was absolutely set on this course of action, and sighed. Damn you for being so sly, he thought. Then again, teaching the prince to be deceptive was his own fault. "I'll think about it," he said, "but that doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to go along with it."

* * * *

After leaving the prince, Adeja took lunch with members of the palace garrison, ignoring their conversation to contemplate his next move. Zhanil had acquired his headstrong nature from both parents, so it was only natural that he would insist on having his own way.

"Hey, you, soldier."

A pewter spoon tapping the edge of his plate brought him back to attention, and Adeja found himself staring at Kendro, one of the guards from the inner plaza. "You want something, ugly?"

Kendro nodded toward his soup. "You gonna eat that, or sit there moon-faced while it goes cold?"

Sephil would want to know what Zhanil intended to do, and he would not want to hear it from a secondhand source. I'll have to be the one to tell him. Adeja waved Kendro away, dunked a piece of bread into the soup, and finished eating.

At the outer gate, Adeja signed himself out of the palace, tucked his entry chit into a pocket, and walked the short distance to the temple precinct. Khalgar shared many gods with Tajhaan, which would have reassured Adeja had he felt the urge to pray; his lapses were a bad habit for which his otherwise soft-spoken wife reprimanded him. "How will your son learn reverence for the gods if you don't teach him?" she asked.

"Better Arjuna learns to watch his own back, rather than rely on some god to do it for him," he answered.

Tucked amid the larger temples was a small compound devoted to the worship of Abh, the god of healing. Adeja walked unchallenged through the gate and into the main courtyard, where several servants and a priest recognized him. He approached the nearest man, offered the ritual greeting, and asked, "Where is the prince? I need to speak with him."

"In the kitchen," said the groom. "Should I let him know you're here?"

Adeja waved his refusal. "No, I'll find him myself."

These days, Sephil spent most of his time in the sanctuary, living there four months out of the year, leaving only for important festivals or personal emergencies. Sephil's interest in the priesthood had brought him much credit over the last nineteen years, negating most of the slurs and rumors of past indiscretions. Yet while he enjoyed a favorable public image, he also had a genuine vocation, finding contentment through prayer, meditation, and charitable works.

Adeja found him in the sanctuary kitchen, helping the cooks fill bowls of soup to feed the destitute who came seeking succor. "My prince, I need to speak with you."

Sephil glanced up, clearly surprised to see him. "Is it urgent?"

"It's about your son."

"These days it usually is, Adeja. What has he done now?" Then, seeing Adeja did not share in the joke, Sephil changed his tone. "Has something happened to him?"

"Not yet, but I need to speak with you before something does."

Handing his ladle off to another priest, Sephil removed the apron he wore over his robes and followed Adeja into the corridor. Once he confirmed that they were alone, he asked, "Now tell me what is wrong?"

"Zhanil is talking about going to Rhodeen."

Sephil's eyes widened. "What?"

"He intends to go in secret," explained Adeja, "with three or four men for protection. He claims he wants to see what Rhodeen is like."

"Was this his grandfather's idea?" asked Sephil. "Gods help him if it was. He will get himself killed crossing the border."

Adeja shook his head. "No, he claims it was all his idea. I've warned him against going, and done everything else I can, but he won't listen to reason."

"But you cannot stop him," finished Sephil. Suddenly he seemed much older and frailer than his thirty-nine years, and Adeja had to restrain the urge to place a comforting hand on his shoulder. "He will not listen to me either, Adeja. He thinks I am too much the pacifist."

"Young men are foolish," said Adeja. "Most of the time only experience can cure them of their delusions. Zhanil's set on this expedition, and he's old enough to do as he wishes. If he goes, I'll go with him, of course, just to keep him away from Shemin-at-Khul and Cassiare. There's plenty of interaction between the Turyar and Khalgari travelers on the frontier, so he might be perfectly safe there as long as he maintains his disguise."

"But you are Tajhaani, Adeja," said Sephil. "People will notice you."

Adeja smiled to reassure him. "I lost my accent twenty years ago, my prince, and my coloring isn't much different than most Khalgari. If it makes you feel better, I could stay at home and have Amset and Nahar go with him, since they both speak Rhodeen, but I think you'd rather I went along."

Sephil put his face in his hands and slumped against the wall. "If anything happens to him, Adeja," he began, "I do not know what I will do."

Ignoring the risk, Adeja placed a steadying hand on his arm. "If anything happens, then neither one of us will come back. It'll be all right, my prince. As long as he listens to this old soldier and doesn't do anything foolish, I think it'll be all right."

Sephil nodded, yet looked no less apprehensive than before. "I do not want to have to explain this to his mother."

"No doubt he'll tell her himself," said Adeja.

"Will Arjuna be going with you?"

"No, he goes to the academy in two days."

"Give my love to him," said Sephil, "and tell Zhanil I wish to see him before he goes. If he hesitates or says he is busy, tell him it is not a request, and that I will come looking for him if he does not."