Prīnceps Crafræl was abruptly awoken early on the first morning of his furlough.
The fire pit in the centre of his old quarters was out. Smouldering ashes were all that remained of a blazing fire from the night before. Crafræl entertained the thought—albeit briefly—of stirring it up and returning to sleep.
He forced himself out of bed and walked over to the window. The first thing he noticed was all the Praetōrēs walking the streets. The increased patrols and harsh jackboot conduct came after yet another incident in which the Rēx Regum’s swift reprisals had cast fear over the people.
Great watch towers and spires reached up to the skies. Atop the towers were the horn blowers and the Sagittarii. The horns came from the Jedena who roamed the western mountains. Under Rēx Regum Cor’Emal Bedra, Atlåntis had become a police state. As long as there had been Bedras on the throne of Gērenia, the capital had never been overrun, due mostly to these towers. There had been no caste-wars between the houses in ages. In one decisive move, then, Prīnceps Cor’Emal had killed his brother as well as the Cyr’læn Rēx mid-senate conclave. He declared that he was Rēx Regum and stood over the Cyr’læn nobles and whatever Rēx they would elect to replace their deceased monarch.
Crafræl remembered the bronze statues of bygone heroes centred in every open square and plaza. They towered over a hundred feet into the open air.
There were grand marble fountains pluming with vast sparkling sprays of multi-coloured water, courtesy of the local clergy. The Atlåntean architecture was sweeping, rising more than ten stories high, and in some of the senatorial and temple quarters, the buildings were even higher. Not even Euclid himself could have managed these trifle wonders—and people still wondered how the Atlånteans built the pyramids.
Lost in his sombre thoughts, he he heard Kemptlin, his childhood governess, enter the room.
Crafræl groaned audibly; there was no way he was going to go back to bed now. He turned to regard her
She marched into the room with an authoritative air. He groaned louder, hoping this would somehow dissuade her in her duty.
Kemptlin would not be deterred in her task. By order of the Rēx Regum, Crafræl was to submit to his childhood governess during his stay in the palace. Making the Prīnceps miserable gave the Rēx Regum immeasurable pleasure. Crafræl was nineteen, but felt no one at home had taken notice of this fact.
Kemptlin was a large, flat featured, muscular woman with the temperament of an Optiō Minor.
Draped over her left shoulder was a coarse black towel, and in her right hand, a coral blue abrasive sponge. Kemptlin’s high-pitched voice was only emphasized by the nasal passages of her elongated and stuck up nose. She pointed with her finger, as only she could point, with silent demand that Crafræl disrobe and step into the chamber’s bathing tub.
Crafræl might have smiled but he knew better. His governess had not changed one bit in all the years since he left.
In the Legio, he understood his role and was accepted, if grudgingly. At home, he was still an unwanted inconvenience. Crafræl fervently wished to explain to his dear governess that he had, in fact, already bathed the previous night.
Crafræl exhaled explosively, trying to capture the fading vestiges of his recurring dream. The one of the elusive woman. A woman with exquisitely stunning eyes.
Crafræl shook his head in an attempt to clear the lingering fog of sleep that seemed to have gotten lodged behind his eyes. Sighing regretfully, he put all thoughts of the confusing dream behind, and with tremendous mental restraint, followed the directions of his governess.
“Big mistake. I should have insisted on staying at the barracks!” Crafræl growled at her.
Kemptlin grunted her inarticulate disdain at her ward’s choices.
“Ever consider a career as an Optiō?” Crafræl asked. “I think you would have a real talent for it.”
The tub was long and deep, made from grey marble, with black trim, shinng so it almost glowed in the crystal lamp light. It was raised up on a dais so servants would have an easier reach to aid them in their jobs.
The dais and the floor were made from matching cream-coloured, grey-streaked marble. Crafræl preferred to simmer in high heat, but the only temperature he got when Kemptlin was in charge was decidedly on the cool side. The floors of his quarters were bare except for a few throw rugs made of bear pelts.
Kemptlin grunted and snapped her fingers like a dictator. Without any further delay, Crafræl stripped and descended into the tepid water. He reminded himself yet again that there was no point in trying to tell his ageless governess that he was of sufficient age to bathe himself.
“You just can’t reason with a person who is a master at playing a deaf, silent, and stubborn old crone.”
Even if he tried to convince her that he was able to wash by himself, she would only continue her laborious chore. Only by the strict order of the Rēx Regum did he consent. She seemed to take a spiteful delight in scrubbing vigorously with that infernal sponge. With a grim, unrelenting determination, she made him suffer from sharp tugs and pulls on his ears only to be dragged by the same convenient handhold into the never-ending deluge of suds and lukewarm water. Crafræl was roughly towelled off, which brought the remaining pleasurable mystery of his dream to an abrasive end.
After the agonies of Kemptlin’s speed bathing, Crafræl was shaved, trimmed, and coifed. She physically forced him into the formal military family kilt, a woollen red and jet-black pattern with dull golden cross-stitching and trim, matched with a linen jerkin and leather, calf-heightboots, also jet-black with golden trim. Lastly, the traditional Gērenian’s poniard of the highland royalty was tucked into the right boot. Kemptlin hung and tied his matching plaid.
Then with impetus—invested by a hitherto unknown god—his dear governess ushered her resplendent Prīnceps to the main hall. She closed the door firmly and departed. Crafræl deliberately ran his fingers through his short, charcoal black hair.
Later, at board, Crafræl eyed his twin, irritation clipping his words. Nayd smiled at his conflict-minded brother. He shrugged, nonplussed by the other’s sour disposition. He ate slowly, savouring each morsel.
Nayd’s hair, Crafræl noted, remained in the neat and immaculate pattern his own governess had arranged. A serving maid arrived and laid out bread and meat with fruit and cheese. She was about to ask if they needed anything more, but Crafræl dismissed her with a look. He had retrieved a bottle of Byzantine red from the kitchens and proceeded to pour, spilling large droplets over his hands.
“Ræf, relax,” Nayd said with a grin. “When do you return to duty?”
Crafræl turned his body and sat cross-ways on the bench, his elbow on the board. His eyes burned, but he continued to stare unblinking into space. “Two weeks, if father doesn’t find an excuse to send me back before then. I don’t understand why you’re being reassigned. We’re a little shorthanded on Tribunes and sending us halfway across the continent to spend hours in chamber, talking endlessly, is a waste.” Crafræl made a sound of disgust.
“I agree that the transfer is not to my liking. I am being placed as ambassador to the crown. I won’t complain about that. Fighting is more your thing than it is mine,” Nayd said, stretching expansively.
Crafræl reached out and poured himself more wine. Mulling the spicy liquid, he found it too cool. He tossed the dregs from his cup, reached over, and placed the bottle next the small brazier.
“Isn’t too early for that?” Nayd asked. “You look like you drank enough last night for an entire platoon.”
“The hells you know, Nayd!” Crafræl moaned from beneath the morning’s hangover. “You don’t have Kemptlin for a governess.”
Nayd sighed and dropped that line of questioning. “Have you been able to—” he looked around, “speak to your… friends?” he asked, stressing the final word.
Crafræl raised his head and watched the other people in the hall with hooded eyes. There weren’t many, but he didn’t recognize any of the senate’s usual cronies and lapdogs.
“Some, but they’re all too afraid. Centuriō V’Rek, Dumil, and Cobin-Gothen have pledged their legio. Prīmipīlus Coris has his ass on the fence, but I know if we rally enough supporters he’ll commit. I haven’t spoken to any of the others yet. They’re still out on campaign.”
“V’Rek and Dumil… hmm. How long do you think it will take you to reach the others?”
“I can’t make excuses to travel out where they are without rousing suspicion or being Over the Hill. We’re not ready yet, Nayd. We don’t have the manpower to confront the Rex.”
“We can’t wait forever.”
“What do you suggest, big brother?” Crafræl asked. “Should I challenge our father to a duel? I’d be a standing pincushion for every shaft and quarrel before I finished speaking!”
“Who else have you been speaking to?” Nayd asked.
“D’rel and Cols, why?”
There was a nervous twitch in his eye, he looked haggard and worn. “I just want to know who’s on my… our side.”
Crafræl grunted his disparagement. “Have you heard anything more about the disappearances?”
“Nothing concrete. But the Dux Rectionis seems to be involved. There was a report that one of the missing people turned up wandering out near one of the king’s estate houses. His eyes were white with cataracts.”
“That happens to many people. Why is that significant?”
“The man was twenty-two. The reports stated that he smelled like spoiled meat left too long in the sun.”
“Were you able to track him down and get some details?” Crafræl asked with a mouthful of food.
“No. He was killed by some overzealous garrison troops during a training exercise.”
Crafræl snorted. “How convenient; we both know what that means. Something about what you’re saying disturbs me.”
“All of it,” Crafrael chuckled. “I’ll have someone look into it. So, tell me, how was your trip to Silesia; were you able to persuade the Queen to support us? What about the Illyrians?”
“Yes, she agreed to provide her Munīfex to help us. But the Illyrians are adamant in their neutrality. Our Düm’tæn won’t help, they’re too afraid of the legiōnēs.” Nayd hesitated. “Ræf, I don’t know if I should be that involved in this, I should have more distance with this plan. It’s just that… I have other priorities.”
“Oh really, Nayd?” Dark hostility overlaid Crafræl’s words. “We’ve planned this since we were boys, and now you want me to do all the work?” Crafræl sat up straight.
“Ræf, I’m with you on this, but, uh… I have been working on something else.” Nayd said.
“You’ve been working on something else since we were young. I don’t like it.”
“There’s a good reason for that brother, trust me. But it’s personal. Please stop prying.”
“When? When will you have time? You’re a Tribūnus, an ambassador, you’re not father’s lackey. What’s taking so long to finish? This is because our father never beat you like he did to me, isn’t it? Or is it because he never hurt you? You’re the heir! Not the unwanted cursed child! And now you’re telling me you want distance? If you want to sit on father’s throne, you have to stay committed!”
“Ræf, don’t exaggerate. I am fully committed,” Nayd smiled without meeting his brother’s eye, but he lacked conviction.
“Exaggerate!” Crafræl was halfway out of his seat. “If you weren’t my brother— ”
“Don’t finish that sentence Ræf!” he warned. “You just need to trust in the gods.”
“What?” Crafræl rolled his eyes. “Since when do the gods have anything to do with us? You were never worried about the edicts before! And now you sound like a Praelātus! ‘Trust in the gods’, what’s that supposed to mean?” Crafræl spat. “Let the gods hang!”
“I see they made you a Principālis,” Nayd said, changing the subject again. “Well well, my brother, a Principālis! Do you have any other good news?”
Crafræl shrugged, indicating a negative. “Principālis Pek died a month ago in the Ural Mountains, so I got moved up. We lost the whole ship, too; left us up to our asses in Ural savages. That little turd took the Praefectus with him, right over the rail. He was so scared he held on to him like some kind of life preserver. That sheep-shagging lowlander always kept the armory key in his scrip.
“We had a bitch of a time tearing the door off the armory, then we crashed. Tore the hull clear through. I lost a dozen men right then and there. Good thing I always keep my gear with me. After the crash, the ship tilted over and I flew into the wall of my quarters. I got a rivet bolt through the back of my left shoulder, right here. Thought for sure I was going to stay skewered there. Rohd and N’rel crawled through the wreckage of the ship and pulled me off just as those Ural sons-of-whores came pouring into our crippled ship, screaming to Odin.” Crafræl shuddered, took a long drink from his steamy mug, and closed his eyes. “The Ural are just as bloodthirsty as their Mįdgárd cousins. I only had enough time to pull my blade and run it into the first of those savages before they swarmed the ship. The floor was at an upwards angle and slippery as a Silesian sausage. I don’t know how I kept my feet.
“They never stopped coming, wave after wave. It was man, for man, for man, for man; three against one.” Crafræl rubbed at his temples, trying to banish the unpleasant memories. “The Ural don’t believe in retreat; they think that dying in glorious battle dispatches them to their vaunted Valhalla. Unfortunately, the Praelātus survived, he hid under his bunk kissing his own ass, the cowardly, dress-wearing sod—”
“— Ræf don’t talk about praelatī like that,” Nayd reproved. There was a strange insistence to his voice.
“I’ll talk about those phallus-impaired pederasts anyway I want,” Crafræl said. He took a deep breath and stabbed his fork into the meat. “I’m sick of the chicanery!” He leaned his head against the wall, arms folded, head down, and smouldering eyes up. “We’ve been cowed by that maniac. ‘Do this, do that,’ without even a whimper. What about us, huh? Are we just sheep?” Crafræl’sfist struck the board. “No, not even his own sons are given a thought.”
“Ræf, calm down—” Nayd snapped.
“By the gods, Nayd, enough!” Crafræl stood, disrupting the board and overturning the fruit bowl. Heads turned and conversations ceased.
“Why do I continue to put up with him?” Crafræl demanded drawing out each word, hoarsely. “Are we cowards? Give me the word, brother, and I’ll end him.”
“Ræf, no!” Nayd jumped to his feet. “We’re not alone,” he hissed.
“What? Are you turning tail like our big brother?”
“Keep it down, Ræf,” he said motioning with his hands. “It’s prohibited to speak of Belgrave, the—”
“God’s above, Nayd. Take your politician’s speech and cram it between your creases,” Crafræl said, jabbing a finger at his brother. He turned and punched the wall, cracking his knuckles and breaking the skin.
Nayd lowered his voice to barely more than a whisper. “Keep it down. We can’t talk about him, you know that. Father had Belgrave flogged and exiled. They threw him off the edge of Atlåntis to drown! Don’t talk about it here; they’ll report you.”
Crafræl slowly turned and faced Nayd, his eyes searching. “He was not afraid to confront Father; he was the brave one,” Crafræl whispered.
Crafræl refreshed himself in the small fountain near them. Nayd tensed, pale eyes scanning the room. Crafræl stared inquiringly at his brother, then looked around the room. He spied several off-duty Praetōrēs entering the hall.
“What?” Crafræl said facing his brother. “I don’t care what they think.”
Crafræl walked around the table. “Hey you, you no-good layabouts, on another treasury paid-for break?” Crafræl didn’t care what trouble he started, his words got the Praetōrēs’ collective neanderthal attention.
“Ræf, don’t—” Nayd cautioned.
“Stay out of this, or join me, Tribūnus.”
Crafræl advanced on the approaching group. There were six of them, this would be easy pickings.
“Are you talking to us, little boy?” said the leader.
“Mind your betters, Munīfex-boy,” her ugly friend added.
“Why don’t you drop dead or go stick you head in a latrine?” Crafræl re-joined, imitating Prin, his mother’s young maid. “Me and the Tribūnus can smell your stench from here,” Crafræl declared, as Nayd stepped up next to him.
“What was that, boy?” the first Praetōriānus asked again, clearly not recognising the Prīnceps.
“If you insist on speaking to me, latrine breath, you should, at least, address me by my proper rank. Here, let me spell it out for you grade school drop outs. That’s Prin-cip-ali Munīfex-boy,” Crafræl said as he turned his shoulder stripes to them.
The foremost of the bunch, a tall, narrow-shouldered woman, levelled a hay-maker at Crafræl’s smiling face. It was so predictable, he should have seen it coming. Instead, Crafræl saw stars behind closed eyelids, and with that they swarmed him.
Crafræl brought up one knee to the groin of the Praetōr who had hit him. As she doubled over, Crafræl planted his elbow square on the bridge of her nose, flattening it against her cheek with an audible crack and a spurt of blood.
Nayd spun away from them, twisted, tucked in his gut, and thrust out his ass, narrowly avoiding each of the blows from the others. He ended the circuit and proceeded to give the second pompous Praetōr a sound drubbing.
Crafræl knew he would catch flak from his bodyguard for this, but it was too much fun to pass up.
After they finished mopping the floor with the Rēx Regum’s elite thugs, the brothers stood to one side to catch their breath. Crafræl met the eyes of the other people in the dining hall. There were looks of fear, shock, and astonishment, but all of them met his gaze with looks of grim approval.
Nayd panned the room with his pale brown eyes for a moment more, then shrugged uncomfortably. “Let’s get out of here,” he said, taking his brother by the shoulder.
“Yes, let’s go,” Crafræl answered with a smile.
They left the Praetōrēs to pick themselves up, and without a backwards glance, exited the hall. Crafræl watched his brother out of the corner of his eye, and cracked a grin just as they left.
“So,” Crafræl asked conversationally as if nothing untoward had just happened, “tell me how your last trip with the Silesian Queen went?” He raised his voice loud enough to carry. He pulled a rag from his scrip and dabbed at his bloody knuckles.
“Nerve-wracking,” Nayd admitted.
“Nervous, you? What do you have to worry about, mister Tribūnus? Are you so ghost-shy of royalty that you need me to perform your ambassadorial duties too?” Crafræl chided him mischievously.
“Do you mind? Tribūnus is my rank, and already you want to get in on it, too? You’ve been Principālis for what, a few weeks? Shame on you,” Nayd cried in mock despair, throwing up his hands. “How many titles can you hold on those herculean shoulders of yours?”
“As many as I can get. I hear her Majesty’s quite a handsome lady— striking, in fact. You used to be oh-so-articulate with the ladies when we were younger,” Crafræl said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Remember how you used to stutter every time Bel spoke to you, how you used to stare at her bodice with owl eyes!”
“Ouch… Ræf, that’s a little low. My boyhood infatuation with Bel was just that. You used to be smitten with her, too.”
“Who wouldn’t? Do you remember the size of her—” Crafræl whistled and cupped his hands in front of his chest. “Ya, I thought you would. Alright. No more comments, I promise, Mr. Charming….”
“Enough already, I don’t want to be late for my meeting. What are you up to?”
“I’m going to check in on an old friend.”
The brothers parted ways and walked off in opposite directions.
Not long afterward, Crafræl turned down a familiar corridor. In the hall stood a vaguely familiar guard. The guard could have been chiselled from stone for all the acknowledgment he gave the Prīnceps. The maid, Prin, also stood to one side. Bashful and wide-eyed, she greeted Crafræl.
Strange, what is she doing here? Crafræl thought.
Crafræl opened the door to the scriptorium. The room was empty save for two people. He was surprised to find his mother there, sitting on the edge of Kebin’s desk. The two whispered in an animated dialogue.
If he was surprised, she was doubly so. Her fine, wheat-gold tresses framed eyes so pale you could hardly discern their cerulean tint. She appeared discomfited, as if she had been caught at something.
“You two know each other?” Crafræl asked, with raised eyebrows.
Brin stood and smoothed out the front of her dress and pulled at her neck line.
“Yes. We’ve known each other for many years. Master Kebin brings me books.” She made a hasty grab at a book on the desk. “I do love to read,” she said, clutching the volume to her bosom. Brin made a hasty retreat to the door and gave her son a peck on the cheek.
“How long will you be home?” she asked.
“A couple of days,” he replied.
“That’s great. I will be in today’s games. Do you have the time to come and see me?”
“I will happily make time. I am surprised father lets you participate. Isn’t it unseemly for the queen-concubine to be naked in public?”
“Pshaw. Everyone else participates naked, why should it be different for me? I think Cor’Emal wants to show me off. Stop by my rooms later for dinner, we’ll play a game of Kings and Queens.”
She was gone before he could reply.
Crafræl’s oldest friend sat at the desk, feathered pen in hand. The Master Scribe was staring at the Prīnceps, hand poised in mid-air. He placed his pen into an inkpot at his elbow and removed the glasses that were resting on his nose.
“There you are, my boy!” He stood and scooted around the table. The two embraced each other.
“Hello, Uncle Kebin,” Crafræl said. He was not, in fact, related to the scribe, but it was how the Prīnceps felt about his old friend. A mentor, friend, and more a father than the man who was married to his mother.
The smile on the man’s face was like an autumn sunset, warm and fatherly.
“Please sit,” Kebin said. Crafræl flopped into the comfortable chair.
“What’s the last book you read?” Kebin asked with a grin.
Crafræl took the bait. “‘The Principals of Proper Etiquette’.”
Kebin made a sound of disgust and shook his head. “That’s the book you were looking for the day I met you. The day you barged into this room. You were hiding from that gods awful Kakmit; the guard. I still can’t believe that they’re teaching from that book. I have never known anything good to be in it. Now tell me the truth, what was the last book you read?”
“An ancient old tome, De Re Militari.”
“Now that is positively ancient. I’m surprised you found a copy,” Kebin leaned forward in his chair.
Without answering the unspoken question, Crafræl produced the book and handed it over to Kebin’s eager hands. The Scribe took the book reverently. He applied a meticulous eye to the binding, the papyrus edges, and even smelled the ink on the pages.
“This is a noteworthy reproduction. 3523?” Kebin questioned, with upraised eyebrows.
“Nineteen, in fact. I bribed a Byzantine book dealer I met in Gaul.”
“Excellent. May I?” Kebin asked, indicating the book.
“Yes, I’ve finished it.”
“How is Rohd? And the other one, the blond boy with the missing tooth, what’s his name?”
“N’rel,” Crafræl offered. “He has all his teeth now.”
“Yes, that boy.”
“Both of them are well. Did you hear about my promotion?”
“And your transfer. Tell me about Lēgātus Devic,” Kebin said, his eyes on the book.
“I have no respect for the man. He is a complete, unmitigated ass and in no way a competent leader. I believe we will work well together.”
Kebin chuckled at the mind of his young friend. “I’m glad to hear you are well and prospering. I get reports, but hearing it from you makes it real.” Kebin smiled. “You need to write more,” he chided gently.
Crafræl looked around the room. “Where’s the picture of your wife? Did it get damaged?” Crafræl asked.
“No, no. I moved it into a scrapbook along with the rest of my family pictures. They passed on years ago. I don’t need them on my desk anymore. Her memory is with me.”
“Then she will never be completely gone. How’s my mother?”
“She is well.”
“I never knew that you were friends.”
“Yes. We’ve known each other for many years. She enjoys reading. And I am ostensibly the librarian. I find books for her.”
“Right. All that last-century poetry.” Crafræl mimed gagging and winked at Kebin. “I’m glad she has a friend in you. How is Beltane? She still works for you?”
“She is well. And yes, she still guards the scriptorium. We have luncheon once or twice a week. Is Rohd with you?”
“Good. Prin is eager to see her and N’rel again.”
“N’rel should get around to marrying that girl one of these years. Before she loses interest.”
“I doubt that will happen. She set her cap for him before you left for the Akadamy.” Kebin said.
Crafræl smoothed the fatigue off his face with a hand and stood. “I need to be going. Is there anything I can get for you while I’m home?”
“Not that I can think of. But if you see that book dealer again maybe you could check if he has any of these.” Kebin scribbled a note and handed it to the Prīnceps. “What are you up to tomorrow?”
“I’m going to see a young friend of mine out in the country near Elam Værtis.”
“Would you be interested in luncheon today?” Kebin asked.
“That sounds like a great idea.”
“Will you be going to the games?” Crafræl asked with a sly look.
Kebin coughed uncomfortably and blushed. Crafræl laughed and squeezed his friend’s shoulder.
The two old friends walked out together.