By David A. Wimsett
Rivalry and Plots
Prince Ryckair Avar knelt at the edge of the fencing ring. Heavily quilted pads covered his arms, legs and chest. He wore a helmet and visor. In his hand was a blunted practice saber.
He watched his brother, Prince Craya, kneel motionless at the other side of the ring. The dragon mark on Ryckair's chest began to burn and itch again. He gritted his teeth. Father of Dragons, he thought. Not now.
Yetig said, "Fence." Ryckair pushed himself up. Craya was on top of him before he was able to stand. Ryckair just managed to raise his blade and deflect his brother's blow. The burning on his chest intensified as he fought to concentrate.
Ryckair had never won a match against Craya. It was clear to him that his brother had inherited their father's skill with the sword, not he, and Craya seized every opportunity to taunt his brother over it.
A trickle of sweat slid down Ryckair's forehead and into one eye. He blinked repeatedly to drive away the sting.
More than anything, he wanted to win just once to stop the taunting. He wasn't a poor swordsman. Craya was so much better, and not just at swordplay.
Though Telasec had thought them identical twins at birth, each boy grew to become distinct. Craya had dark, striking features. Young ladies of the court vied for his attention at balls and banquets. Ryckair, with sandy blond hair, was quite ordinary to look at. This alone caused him to be eclipsed by his brother, but Ryckair also carried the dragon mark. Some considered it to be a sign of good, others of evil. None wished to be too close to it.
Ryckair parried a blow and searched for an opening to repost. He found none.
Craya lunged. Ryckair was barely able to deflect the attack. The burning itch on his chest struck again. It had begun as a gentle tingle the previous year. When he told Orane about it, the chief Kyar said it was nothing to be concerned about, though he offered no explanation. The tingling had intensified to an incessant itch and finally to the wretched burning he now felt.
He tried to force it from his mind, along with the buzz of conversation filtering from the young officers who urged the match on. The uniformed men and women formed a circle around the two princes and watched intently. It was apparent Craya could win at any time. Simply winning no longer amused him. The new sport was to see how hard he could make Ryckair work before the final touch.
He spied Yetig watching from the sidelines with the practiced eye of a master. At nearly fifty, he moved with the grace and agility of a man half his age. His jet black beard showed no sign of gray. There was always a sense of excitement and impending danger about him. Over the years, he had risen in rank from captain of the King's guard to narech, replacing Waser who had died six years after the twins' birth.
Craya lunged and landed slightly off center. Ryckair saw an opening. With practiced skill, he arched his blade around Craya's defenses toward a touch. Ryckair thrilled at the look of surprise in his brother's eyes.
Craya beat his brother's sword aside with a desperate slash, then dropped and rolled into Ryckair's legs, knocking him to the ground. Craya was up in an instant, his blade within inches of Ryckair's throat. "Yield, brother. Call me sword master to all present."
Ryckair struggled to no effect.
Craya laughed. "You spend too much time in the Kyar's vaults and not enough practicing on the field as a king should. Well, now you must do penitence. Lick my boot, brother dear." Craya put his foot in Ryckair's face.
Ryckair grabbed it and shoved Craya to the ground. He jumped up and raised his saber. Craya gave a howl of rage and got to his feet.
Narech Yetig's voice cut across the combat. "Hold."
On command, Ryckair pulled back. Craya pushed forward. Ryckair barely raised his blade in time to parry a strike to his head.
Yetig grabbed Craya by the wrist. "I said hold. In this yard I rule."
Craya shook himself free. "It doesn't matter. I still won."
"No, Highness. I award this match to Prince Ryckair."
At first, Ryckair thought he had misheard. Then, a wave of excitement washed over him.
Craya turned to Yetig. "I had him beaten. In a real battle he'd be dead."
Yetig collected the fencing sabers from the brothers. "You committed one fatal mistake, Prince Craya. Instead of finishing your enemy while he lay on the ground, you taunted him. A soldier has no such luxury in, as you say, a real battle. Any hesitation allows your foe time to form a plan, as Prince Ryckair did when he grabbed your boot."
The thrill of victory now ebbed as Ryckair saw the effect it had on Craya. He hadn't wanted to win a match as much as put an end to the taunting. Now, he saw the humiliation Craya felt and a sudden sadness filled him for having taken away something that his brother cherished so deeply. "I didn't have a plan, Narech Yetig. I simply acted in desperation."
"Desperation is sometimes the best plan in battle, Prince Ryckair. Remember that. Both of you. The lesson is ended."
Yetig left the field. Ryckair called after him, "Craya really won."
Craya said, "I don't need you to defend me." He turned and walked away.
As Ryckair watched him go. A sour pit formed in his stomach as he remembered a time when they played together as boys and shared secrets.
He returned to his chambers in the north tower where servants helped him bathe and change into white breeches and a blue doublet. His steward handed him a simple silver circlet unadorned with neither jewel nor image. Ryckair placed it upon his head.
Two guards accompanied Ryckair down the tapestry-lined corridor that connected the north tower, where the living quarters were, to the south tower that housed the administration of the monarchy.
Between the north and south towers, just off the corridor, was the royal audience hall. Ryckair paused at its rear entrance for a moment, then entered.
Light streamed through an immense vaulted ceiling made entirely of crystal. Ryckair stood on a raised dais where the two thrones of Carandir stood. Ahead of him, down the north and south walls of the hall, were eighteen wooden boxes, one for each of the noble houses. They were separated from one another by waist high walls. Ryckair had always thought of them as miniature fortresses. At the foot of the thrones, encased inside the crystal sphere, was the crown.
He walked down the steps and stared into the eyes of the dragon crest. They terrified him. He was certain Craya was better suited to rule Carandir, but still, he feared that the key might chose him after all. This was a thought that Ryckair hid from everyone, even Orane, to whom he confided his greatest secrets.
The idea of Baron Dek's daughter came to mind. Her people had originally come from Au, one of the walled city-states east of the swamps. They followed strict codes of ethics that included customs that male suitors were required to obey, especially in the case of arranged marriages.
The twins were not allowed to see her or images of her, not even as portraits or statues, until she was presented in court with a chaperone after the boys turned twenty. Although their practices had become tempered after some from Au settled in Rascalla centuries before, they still maintained more conservative views than the majority of Carandirians. Ryckair's grandfather had met Mirjel when she was a young girl. Out of respect for Dek's traditions, he had given no report.
In the corridor across from the audience hall was another set of metal doors that were decorated with the reliefs of dragons in flight. Ryckair gave the doors a push and they opened silently. He walked through and left the guards to take up position outside.
Ryckair wound his way down a labyrinth of corridors. The walls were constructed from large blocks of stone that fitted perfectly, even after having stood in place for thousands of years.
Glowing crystal globes supported by silver brackets lined the corridors. They had given off their soft light for longer than anyone could remember. Orane had once told Ryckair that the globes were one of the last relics left by the wizards before they vanished and that none were able to explain how they worked or create them again.
He reached a door and knocked. Orane's voice said, "Enter."
The chief Kyar looked up from a set of papers. The flicker of a fire in the hearth shone off his balding pate. He laid the papers on his lap and smiled. "Highness, what a pleasant surprise. Come in. Have some kan."
Kan was a spicy, invigorating drink brewed from ground herikan root. Orane grated some into two mugs and added water from a kettle that hung by a hook of the hearth.
Ryckair took a sip, enjoying the refreshing flavor. "Thank you, Master Orane. I thought I might be able to work on that passage from the Kura Kar before supper."
"Epic poems before meals? I'm not sure how that will affect your digestion. Besides, why spend time on that old sonnet? It's been a part of popular folklore since Avar's time."
"I've been working with several Kyar to translate a newly discovered version I found in a small book that was hidden inside a cut out cavity of a larger volume. It gives a very different account of a meeting in a north continent forest between King Gotenag and his enemies."
Ryckair and Orane sipped their kan and talked of the day's events. The Prince described the duel he had just won and how he hoped it would end Craya's taunting.
"He would have won in a real fight," said Ryckair. "He's better than I am. I felt guilty, like I had taken something away from him. He wasn't just angry, he was hurt. I could tell. You probably think that sounds foolish."
"Not at all, Highness."
Ryckair gazed into the fire. "We used to be close, Master. We always wanted to go everywhere together."
"Do you remember when Baron Dek brought us little statues of mounted riders?"
"They were made of silver, weren't they?"
"Yes. My horse had a ruby on its forehead and Craya's had a sapphire. We were just nine. I polished that statue every night and imagined riding off in search of adventures.
"I had an archery lesson one day and Craya got both statues out. He dropped mine and knocked the rider's head off. When I came back he said, 'Ryckair, if I did something terrible, something really awful, would you still love me?'
"I answered, 'Of course.'
He said 'Forever?'
I said, 'Yes, forever and ever.'
Then he held up the headless statue.
"All I wanted to do in that moment was hit him. I remember clenching my fist. He waited for me to strike and I saw how afraid he was that I hated him. The anger made me shake, but I couldn't hurt him. I said it didn't matter and went outside. No one was in the stables. I pounded my fist against a hay bale and shouted." Ryckair smiled. " It scared the horses."
"And did the win today ease the anger?"
"I hate it when he humiliates me in front of the officers and I really wanted to win, but it felt so empty when he looked at me with such loathing in his eyes, like I didn't have a brother anymore."
"Are you certain it's hate and not avarice for the crown?"
The fire hissed and popped. Ryckair closed his eyes and leaned back into the chair. "Never a crown can split apart, to sit upon two heads. The victor needs hide a smile, the other hot tears not shed."
"So, you read Feena after all."
"The poem always seemed like nonsense before. Now it's too clear."
"What of you, Highness? Do you not desire the crown?"
Ryckair stood and starred into the flames. "I've been afraid to speak of this, Master; but, it's eating at me. Craya is better suited to be king. He's a better soldier and a better commander. I don't deserve to wear the crown."
He expected Orane to lecture him on duty and the foolishness of his fears. Instead, the Kyar poured more kan. "The crown is a terrible weight, yet, the key will choose who is fit to rule. Nothing can change that."
The prince sat back down. "It may sound cruel, but I never missed my parents when I young. Mistress Telasec was like a mother and you a father. Now, it's as though something's gone. I think about my parents at night, especially my father. It's like I have a hole in me, right in my chest. Craya is the only family I have left. Now, I'm losing him."
Craya paced across the plush rug in his private audience hall. His anger had cooled enough for him to think seriously of revenge. He called out, "Ackella."
A tall, blond Carandir officer entered the room and bowed. Craya said, "Sit down, Lieutenant. Take some refreshment."
Ackella reclined on a divan and filled a golden goblet with wine. "How may I serve Your Highness?"
"Where is my brother?"
Ackella wiped his mouth with his sleeve. "He is with Orane, Highness."
"The Kyar." Craya picked up a lesson book and slapped it rhythmically against his palm before throwing it across the room. "Books are for fools, Ackella. Remember that. What about Yetig?"
"He examines reports of attacks in the swamplands."
Craya clasped his hands behind his back. "How could he humiliate me in front of the officers like that?" The Prince thought of the years he had spent studying Yetig's drills, reading his papers, even emulating his commanding walk. Craya stared out a window to the parade ground where a company of Carandir troops drilled with pole arms. "Ackella, who do you serve, Yetig or me."
"I serve you, Highness. The Narech I placate."
Craya said, "As I have known well over the last year. You are my eyes and ears in the palace. Ryckair has stepped too far. I want you to watch his movements constantly. Report everything he does, everywhere he goes, and everyone he talks to."
Ackella nodded his head. "I am your servant, Highness."