Ten

A Sentarrian Princess

“Hold onto your sword, Tehveor!”

“I’m trying.”

“Trying?” Master Gregorn’s horse pranced in front of Shaton. “You will be nineteen next week! Trying won’t make you a king. Trying won’t keep you alive. Trying isn’t good enough. With your sword on the ground in real combat, you would have already been dead.”

Tehveor fiddled with his reins, wondering how he was going to hide the calluses on his hands. He had stayed up late last night with guests in the castle, allowed only four hours of sleep before he rode to Sentarra. Master Gregorn made up for the lost time yesterday, requiring a rather grueling session. It was difficult to fight when your eyes were closing.

Master Gregorn sighed, glancing toward the fading stars. “Go back to the castle. It will be light soon.”

Tehveor rubbed his face, wondering how long he could keep up these predawn sessions. He must, or he would be forced to give up one life or the other unless he figured out a way to live both.

“I want you out here earlier tomorrow,” Gregorn said. “All this late night frolicking must stop. You are not Erish.”

“They will suspect something if I don’t stay.” Tehveor rubbed his eyes. “His Majesty requires it.”

“It is your choice to stay at the castle,” Gregorn said. I don’t care if it throws him off your scent, I don’t like the way you kneel to his every whim. It is not befitting for a king.”

Tehveor grit his jaw. “What I do, I do to protect Sentarra. If the Erish king suspected any sort of threat, his soldiers would swarm this place.”

“Then leave!” Gregorn snapped.

“I can’t,” Tehveor said.

He slid from Shaton’s back to snatch his sword from the ground. He was good at fighting on foot, blocking blows with both hands, but adding a horse to the mix required him to use his right hand when his natural instinct shouted to use his left.

He swung back onto Shaton, eyeing the gray sky. “I’ll return as soon as I can slip away.”

Gregorn frowned, but Tehveor ignored it as he kicked his animal passed the circle of torches that light the fighting ring, feeling the pressure press against his chest.

In Sentarra, time seemed to stop. His commands were obeyed, although sometimes grudgingly. One day, he’d be greeted enthusiastically with a shred of parchment that revealed one more bit of the legend that lined up with current events. Sometimes a new Sentarrian would join life in the caves, either drawn by instinct as the shepherd boy who’d discovered the caves, and now kept his flocks nearby, offering meat and wool, or traveling from a distant clan of Sentarrians, wishing to see the foretold prince with his own eyes.

But once the cave walls and secluded valleys did not surround him, once growing light ushered the sun over Eirlerre, his focus, his very personality must shift. His knowledge was muted, his eyes downcast. He must stay cheerful enough to not worry his mother, yet sufficiently subdued to avoid attracting the king.

Cottages dotted the landscape, growing closer together as he neared the town. The businesses were still dark, and even the farmers bringing their goods to market had not arrived.

But the shutters to the Tevere Breotte banged as the window to the kitchen bumped against the walls.

Tehveor grinned as a young man’s straightened near the wood box, calling toward the window.

“Ayth, Eslaveth! Wake the whole inn while you’re at it.”

Shaton lurched, then limped, tucking his ears against his head. Tehveor swung down, running his hand down the scarred knee to lift the hoof. “Ah, you picked up a rock,” he mumbled, trying to pry the stone from the wedge in the shoe.

“Do you always talk to your horse?”

It was a girl’s voice now. She leaned from the dining window, hands still on the knobs of the shutters.

Tehveor jerked, then ducked his face again as she laughed.

She disappeared, then emerged from the door, looking like a forest-dweller with long, dark curls and a brown woolen tunic. Her eyes twinkled as she held a hoof pick toward him. “I understand the task is easier if you use one of these.”

“Thank you.” Tehveor accepted the tool and turned back to Shaton.

The girl leaned against the post to watch him. “You’re late today.”

“You noticed?” he asked.

“I notice everything,” she said. She drew lines in the dirt with her foot as she hurried on, “I’ve been trying to guess what you do. I never forget a face, and I’ve never seen you in the inn, yet I see you nearly every morning.”

“Did you decide on something?”

“I think you must either be a spy for the king or a bandit.” She planted a hand on a hip. “Which is it?”

A smile played across his face. “I assure you, it’s the bandit.”

Her eyes crinkled. “Liar.”

Tehveor grinned, handing her the pick. “Then I suppose you’d better keep guessing.”

“Will you tell me if I guess right?”

Tehveor laughed. “If you guess right.”

“What’s your name?” the girl asked.

“Katomeir.” Tehveor raised his eyebrows with his answer.

She stared and burst into a laugh. “You’re lying again!” Her curls tossed as she shook her head. “You really ought not do that. It’s a nasty habit. However, I’ll flatter you by pretending to believe you.” She backed away from him toward the inn. “Well, Katomeir, I’ll continue guessing until I have solved your mystery.”

“You never will.” Tehveor bowed toward her and mounted his horse. “To whom do I owe my thanks?”

She studied him. “Eslaveth. And that is no lie.”

Tehveor nodded toward her, picking up his reins. “Eslaveth.”

What would she think if she realized that she was the only peasant in Eirlerre that he could call by name? As the door to the bakery opened, Tehveor commanded Shaton to step away from the girl. No questions. No scrutiny.

The sun was peeking disapprovingly over the walls by the time he released his horse in the back field. Tehveor slipped through the same passageway he’d blocked when he was a child, finally understanding why it was there to begin with.

“Master Tehveor!” Thymon called out, hurrying over with a blue vest in his hands. “Where have you been?”

“Shaton picked up a stone, and Master Gregorn kept me later than usual.”

“Darshon has already come in looking for you,” Thymon said.

Tehveor frowned, loosening the strings to his wet boots. “What did you tell him?”

“That you rose early to finish your translation of Martal’s History of War.”

Tehveor blew out a breath, deciding not to change out of his black shirt. He reached for the vest. “I hope he doesn’t mention anything to Master Remarr. I’ve scarcely begun that.”

“Better hurry,” Thymon advised.

Tehveor buttoned his vest as he hurried down the hall, dodging servants with clean linens.

The stairs gave him time to switch demeanors. The prince must go into hiding, taking his swords, commands and legends with him. He was a korvier now. And korviers did not keep their families waiting, no matter how sleepy they felt. He nodded toward the doorman who let him into the family dining room. Slanted sunbeams poured in from the courtyard through the opening around the top of the wall. Tehveor ducked his head, mumbling an apology toward the king before sliding into his place.

Setta sent a tight smile. Despite the elegant fare of colorful fruit, steaming breads, boiled eggs, and cheese, the air was so tense that Tehveor felt he would choke if he tried to speak.

Darshon sent a silent greeting, then cast a pointed glance toward his father. The man’s skin was tinged several shades darker than normal. It was hard to tell if his jaw or hands were more tightly clenched.

Tehveor’s back tingled. It wasn’t hard to play the role of a coward here. His stomach clenched with worry that the king’s anger was directed to him. Kael caught his glance, then looked away, eyes remaining vague and unreadable.

Margaret cut her meat with such skill that her knife and fork never touched or tinkled. Remarr studied Tehveor before turning back to his food with a glint of suspicion in his eye.

The servants tiptoed around the chairs to serve. King Galephy stabbed his meat, eating with jerking movements while Kael blinked hard, teetering on the brink of slipping off his seat and crashing to the floor.

Galephy spoke in a low voice that still shattered their tentative grasp on calm. “Kael, concentrate on your lessons. I won’t need you today.”

“Yes, My King,” Kael whispered.

King Galephy shoved away from his chair to stalk from the room.

Several people, including a few servants, let out their breath. Margaret closed her eyes. Remarr stood before anyone could ask Kael questions.

“We should begin work.”

Kael rose, leaving his food untouched. Once they were in the library, all conversation remained limited to the inner workings of Eirlerre’s trade with Kathonia.

Tehveor translating his book from T’erish into Erish on paper, and then into Sentarrish in his head. Noting a T’erish word that appeared very similar in sound to a Sentarrian word, he was contemplating the meanings of both when Thymon brought him a book.

Master Remarr glanced up when the door opened, but resumed his work with Darshon as Thymon whispered, “You left it in your room.”

Tehveor checked to make sure Kael was engrossed in his own lessons before bringing the book under the table. Flipping through the pages, he continued to read his translation as his fingers explored the contents. He almost dropped the loose paper when it slid free. Bringing it forward to see it in the light, he glanced toward Remarr and then down at the paper.

It was Master Gregorn’s handwriting.

Come as soon as you can.

Come? Now?

Tehveor frowned. He’d told Gregorn over and over that he could not slip away to Sentarra in the middle of the day without risking someone following. He flipped the paper over to check the back for any more instructions but found it blank.

Half an hour and twenty lines of translation later, he still was no closer to guessing what might be happening in the caves. Deciding that his duty as a prince outweighed his duty as a student, he slipped from the room while Remarr was too busy to ask where he was going.

It was a short hike to the field where Shaton dozed. Tehveor slipped a bridle over the horse’s halter. He ran, jumping onto the animals’ bare back like an ancient tribesman, guiding the horse through the woods surrounding the castle.

Crossing the town and meadows, he arrived at the side of the steep cliffs.

“I’m here,” he called to the guard. The boy jumped up, running to wrest a torch from the wall, but Tehveor waved him off. “Just take the horse, will you? I don’t want to ride him through the caves.”

“Yes, My King.”

Tehveor winced lightly. He didn’t like the title, but, unlike at the castle, it was spoken with such earnest eagerness that he couldn’t bring himself to correct his people.

He wasn’t king, not yet. But he was their king in their mind, appointed by Fate. They did not need a formal ceremony to swear allegiance to him. The common workers jumped at any chance to serve him, be near him, or receive the slightest acknowledgment that he’d noticed them.

If only the masters felt the same way. Tehveor braced himself as he searched the chambers for the man who’d insisted he’d gone against common sense.

“Gregorn?”

Gregorn ducked into the doorway. “Celestion! I’m glad you came. I worried you would fear to slip away.”

“I did, but it sounded important,” Tehveor said.

“It is.” Master Gregorn motioned for him to walk with him. “Another piece of the legend has manifested itself. Do you remember the princess whom the legend foretells will be searching for her father?”

“Yes.”

“According to the legend, she and her father will be reunited on the eve of Sentarra’s victory and turn the tide of the battle for freedom.” He led Tehveor through a small opening as he continued, “Her story is closely intertwined with yours. We’ve searched for her for years, but today she has come. Her bloodline is correct, and she found us because she is, indeed, searching for her father.”

“Is he here?” Tehveor asked.

“No,” Gregorn answered. “None of the masters here have children. And her father will not be a commoner. But Fate is moving, Tehveor, faster than we would like. Sentarra is quickly becoming ready for leadership.”

“But the leader is not ready for Sentarra,” Tehveor finished.

Remarr shook his head. “Fate isn’t going to wait for you to take the kingdom when you feel ready. It’s thrusting it at you, and if you cannot adequately rule it, it will be destroyed. You must come in the daytime as well as early morning.”

“How am I to slip away without others becoming suspicious?” Tehveor asked.

“You must find a way. Skip your lessons. Or better yet, come here to stay.”

Tehveor grit his teeth, tired of arguing for what he couldn’t explain.

Master Gregorn sighed. “I know it’s not what you want, but you must do something. You cannot prepare for a lifetime as king, training for only three hours in the morning. The king will not summon you at lessons, and it is not Master Remarr’s place to question you. Even if he did, he has likely guessed that —”

“Stop.” Tehveor held up his hand. “I’ll think of something.”

Master Gregorn blew out a slow breath. “There are four scribes working to translate the papers left by the ones who foretold of Sentarra, to discover anything more of the legend. There are still many things we do not know. Until we learn to read the original language, we have no idea how accurate even the translations may be.”

“And what of the princess?” Tehveor asked. “Does she know anything more?”

“Her name is Shannondant,” Remarr said. “She has been raised knowing that she is part of the people of Sentarra. There are many things about the legend which she does not know or understand, but she is devoted. She will be your most loyal subject.”

“She will have fairly keen competition with Decharo for that title,” Tehveor chuckled.

“Yes.” Master Gregorn replied, distractedly. “Tehveor. Shannondant’s coming thrusts us into a new era. We miscalculated your birth, searching for you four years before you were actually born. Now it seems that your kingship will come before we expected. It is likely that your opposition will grow, and, should the Erish king discover your secret, you must be able to defend yourself.”

He turned into the chamber where he slept, rummaging through a wooden box before he pulled out a small vial on a string. “This is from the plant of Serrentrice. Properly prepared, it will neutralize nearly any poison on contact. The herbalist who knew its secrets has died, and we don’t know when we will find another who knows how to extract it. Do not use it lightly, but keep it with you.”

Tehveor frowned, as Mauran’s face rose from the darkest corners of his memory. “What about Shannondant? Is she in danger of being poisoned?”

“No. Not any more than the rest of us. It’s you they will target.”

“Where is she?”

“She was with Decharo at the Light.”

Tehveor nodded, confidently enough that Gregorn did not protest his dismissal. Trying to find an explanation for Remarr for why he left, and a better one for the Sentarrian masters on why he must stay at the castle, he hurried toward the Light Chamber, pausing outside the doorway to watch Decharo and the girl.

She looked slightly younger than him, with straight, copper-colored hair and bright eyes that roved the walls. Decharo stood nearby with his hands tucked behind his back as a servant, yet unable to tear his amused eyes from the girl.

“What do the markings say?” She pointed to the inscriptions on the wall.

“It’s an ancient form of Sentarrish,” Decharo answered. “We don’t yet know how to read this alphabet. Only the later forms. Tehveor’s trying to decipher this one, and I’m sure he’ll find a way soon.”

Tehveor smiled at Decharo’s blind faith. He had been working on unlocking the secrets of the language, but progress was difficult and slow.

“Princess?” Tehveor asked.

Shannondant spun, flinching at his eyes before she dropped a curtsy that pleated her hem against the floor.

“My King.”

Tehveor shook his head. “Prince, but you don’t have to call me that. I’m not king yet.”

She smiled as she rose. “What? Is korvier, prince and king too many titles for your comfort?”

Tehveor chuckled. “A little.”

Behind her, Decharo bowed low and backed to the wall near the wood box where he was supposed to stand when the leaders entered the room. Shannondant motioned toward the burning circle. “Decharo told me this is the Light which is to be kept burning for Celestion to rebuild Sentarra into a country again.” Her eyes sparkled. “That was my favorite part of the legend growing up, yet I always imagined the circle differently. I thought it in the open on top of a cliff. That’s the version I always heard.”

Tehveor nodded. “Most bit of the legend has two or three different versions. It’s part of what makes things so confusing.”

“Spinning stories,” Shannondant said. “We’re good at embellishing, aren’t we? Do you know my part in the legend?”

Tehveor sat next to her. “What do you know?”

“Only that I’ll find my father on the eve of Sentarra’s victory.”

Tehveor sifted through the facts of Sentarra that he had gleaned over the years. He shook his head. “It doesn’t say much about you. Your father will be a key turning point in the war after you have found him. That is all I know, though I’m sure there is more in the writings.”

“I thought the legend was all in one place.” Shannondant tilted her head. “I thought it was a book or something.”

“No. The writings of Sentarra are individual papers, stored among others which belong to Sentarra’s history. Much of the legend has been passed down by mouth, gaining a few different versions. When we learn to read the original language, we can read what was actually written by the prophets and find out which of the tales are true.”

“Does it ever frighten you?” she asked.

“What?”

“Knowing there are people reading writings which could tell what will happen to you. What if you had to go into battle knowing you were prophesied to die in it?”

Tehveor glanced toward Decharo, finding the boy’s eyes flicker to meet his. “As far as I know the prophecy only foretells the rise of Sentarra, not beyond,” he replied slowly.

“Do you mean once we have set up Sentarra and fulfilled the prophecy, Fate will not have such a strong hold on us? That you and I will be free to make our own choices?” Shannondant asked.

Tehveor eyed the darkest parts of the caves. “I think we are free to choose now. That is why we must be careful to make the right choices.”

Her face darkened, echoing the pressure that he felt. “And if we make the wrong ones? Will the prophecy never be fulfilled?”

Tehveor shook his head firmly. “I do not think Fate will allow itself to be ruined. Fate will work around your choices, either turning you back to your path, or find someone else who will walk it.”

Decharo frowned, and Tehveor realized he’d never spoken his theory aloud.

“What if you make the wrong choice?” Shannondant asked.

It was strange to have someone who understood his position. He bit back the urge to ask her if she lay awake at night, worrying she was leading her people down the wrong path, but he settled for the simpler answer of, “I’m not sure.”

Shannondant shook the gloom away, smiling. “I don’t suppose it matters for you. As long as you are dedicated to Sentarra, Fate will put you on the throne despite the choices you make. You will become a king. You cannot help it.”