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Chapter Two - Council

“Ah, the welcome trumpet! Father has returned,” said Aram, standing up and readying to leave his aide. “We will talk later; I am going to await Deyas.”

The trumpet then blared again, twice in quick succession followed by one long draw. Aram had not heard this call before, and looked at Naphine, who also frowned in puzzlement. “What does that -” Aram began to ask.

“The king requires our aid!” exclaimed Naphine, jumping up from their bench and quickly gathering speed. Aram followed; his heart suddenly sunk in concern.

They were in the rear gardens of the palace, and it was a long run to the front. Panting, they rounded the stables and saw a crowd in the distance. The king was there, as were Deyas and Hisae, mobbed by the palace staff and guards. Spurred on now more by curiosity than alarm after seeing his kin standing, Aram slowed to a jog as he approached the king.

“Father!” he shouted above the ruckus. “What has happened?”

“Ah, my son,” Dunos replied with a hint of sadness in his voice. “It seems somebody wishes me a king no longer.” He unsaddled from his horse as Hisae paved a way to Aram.

“There was an attack on your father this morn, Aram,” said Hisae. “While we were hunting, an assassin tried to murder the king. Marek saved your father’s life by spending his own, as a good soldier should, but there is still much distress in these events.”

“Get the Royal Council together,” said King Dunos, marching towards the palace. Aram remained motionless, staring after his father.

“Captain Yarian!” barked Hisae. A strong, battle-scarred man came before him.

“Yes, Commander!” said the captain.

“I want triple strength on the walls. Nobody comes into or goes out of the Palace or city without me knowing. Understood?” said Hisae.

“Yes, Commander, it is done,” replied the captain.

“I know it is,” said Hisae. “Also, Lord Noina of Glamorne is visiting Lord Vosian’s estate; bring them both here. Our lords do not choose brave guards, and I fear for them. I feel uneasy about enemies I cannot see.” Hisae turned to follow the king, but paused and added, “…and get everybody back to where they’re supposed to be…the council will discuss this, and I want to keep it quiet for now.”

“Understood,” replied Yarian. Aram jaunted into action as Hisae ran past, after the king. He started to jog after them, but soon dithered to a stroll as his thoughts again preoccupied him; are his people behind this? He wondered. The groups dispersed; the stable boys took the horses, the guards returned to their posts, reinforced, and the servants returned to their kitchens.

As they walked away Deyas eventually freed himself of the smothering affection of the elder women in the palace. He ran beside Aram; “those women are mad,” he said to his older brother. “All I said was I shot the assassin and –”

“You shot him?” Aram interrupted, awakening from his pensive stare.

“I did! He was hiding behind some bushes, and I couldn’t see him at first, but when he started running away I ran after him and shot him in the shoulder. He still got away though…but the guards are after him.”

“I’m impressed, Deyas. That’s very brave of you…where were Hisae and father during all of this?”

The young prince looked back to the dead guard being carried off to the barracks, and became silent. “Well…Marek…” he said, and light tears welled in his eyes as he looked to the ground.

Aram looked intently at Deyas, but then put an arm around his brother and held him as they walked. “It’s ok…don’t think about it,” he comforted. He would ask Hisae that himself, he thought.

They entered the great courtyard of Tyer Palace, where a large stage lay on the northern side. It was constructed from a rich cream marble received as a gift from the people of north Glamorne when the palace was built. The same marble also decorated the yard and giant pillars were cut and lined on the east and west sides. They supported the royal structure above, and served as footways and corridors within the palace itself.

Many entrances to the palace lay about them, but the one they chose led into the Hall of Kings; also known as the council chamber and the throne room. The hall was on the western side of the palace and the sun, stretching into the afternoon cast shadows on its entry.

The ministers on the palace grounds joined them as they entered, busying themselves in chatter. These were the Advisors of Astonia; the king’s council, and the king’s friends. A servant brought a large goblet of wine to the king, who had stopped in front of his throne. Above it was a giant portrait of himself, accompanied by the portraits of his fathers. He took the wine and gulped it; his shaking hand hidden from view. When finished, he unconsciously tried to crush the chalice, and when he realised it would not bend to his will, he threw it to the ground producing a loud clang. Silence enveloped the room after the ringing air subsided.

Dunos turned to face the small gathering. His large stoutly frame and aging skin were far different to the young man in the likeness above him, and the resolve of youth had all but escaped him.

“Where is Rae?” Dunos barked. “Get him here at once.” A page scurried away in search of the Affairs Advisor. “We will wait for him to arrive. For the moment, give me more wine,” he said, and collapsed onto his throne. His eyelids struggled against the weight of the events, and he sighed as they closed.

A young girl rushed to pick up the chalice and disappeared through an oak door. Soon, a bustle of servants entered the throne room; carrying pitchers and goblets and trays of meat. A grand table was brought before the king, where his counsellors would sit, and upon which the victuals were placed. Hisae, Aram and the four advisors present seated themselves; Rae and the two lords expected were still missing. Dunos opened his eyes and noted the offerings.

“Your Highness!” said Rae, as he hurried in with not two, but three lords straggling behind him. “I apologise for our absence. Xenaar arrived from Hornaine this morning, and we had just met to—”

“Did you not hear the call?” interrupted the king.

“We did, my lord, and we—”

“Never mind, sit,” ordered the king. Rae and Xenaar crossed glances and bowed to Dunos as they took their seats. Rae sat next to Aram, while Xenaar sat further out in the arc. Noina of Glamorne and Vosian of Mandone quietly completed the assembly as they too took seat.

“As most of you are by now aware,” began Dunos, “there was an attack on my life today. In the hundreds of years of our kingdom, not one of my fathers have ever faced a perverse an act as this. Be it a traitor or a foreign enemy, such actions will not be tolerated, and I recognise it as an act of war. This rogue escaped, but the sword of Astonia will be swift in its justice once he and his conspirators are found.”

“Here, here!” the Astonian council cheered.

The king paused as yet another flask of wine was brought to the table. He held out his hand and a servant boy offered him a goblet. He shook his head and took the flask instead. “Are there any here present that might have deeper knowledge of this incident than I?” The king eyed his council, one by one; suspicion obvious. The lords suddenly became very uncomfortable, and fidgeted under the king’s stare.

“Your servants are loyal,” said Hisae, the only one unmoved by the king, “to the King and Astonia.”

“Is that right, my faithful commander?” asked the king. “Do you know all that is the minds of your brethren? If one were to somehow be responsible for this deed, shall I hold you accountable? Perhaps it may be wiser to talk only of yourself, at present,” said Dunos.

Hisae looked noticeably perplexed by the king’s words, but now stood up and responded, “As always, you are right, my liege.” He then turned to his left and right and address his fellow dignitaries. “My lords, the king wishes to know your loyalty, and as his Personal Guard then so do I. Anyone here that does not feel loyal to the king stand up now and leave this room.”

Aram chuckled, but quickly reconciled when he saw the solemness in Hisae’s face as he eyed each advisor’s reaction. The five royal advisors – palatial lords to the people, and the three provincial lords remained silent. The king, struck by the simplicity of Hisae’s thought, was amused. A wide grin overtook his sombreness and soon a deep rumble of laughter emanated as he threw back his head and roared. His large voice charged the room and within moments the tension evaporated. Hisae was the only one not laughing as he sullenly sat back down.

“So, after that enlightening statement by our Commander, I want to hear what you all have to say about this,” said the king, in a much lighter tone.

Relaxing, Noina, Lord of Glamorne spoke first. “My Lord, these dark days see many growing enemies. Instinct tells me that King Norsvok is behind this attack. The Bhutane Mountain militia of my province report men of bland dress have been scouting across Vaas River. When approached they have fled, so I cannot confirm their identity. Nebhutan has long dreamed of connecting her lands to the sea, and Astonia, being the smallest of her neighbours would be especially attractive to her talons. I suggest sending spies to see what they are up to!”

“Nonsense!” boomed Dontian, the Military Advisor. “Nebhutan have no such ideas! It is to our south that we must hawk. King Ramaan’s tongue is sweet, but his dagger is sharp. Lord Muadli rarely visits Tyer from Guiphir province these days. Why? I say he is in league with Hladin already, and together they plot. Rae will agree with me on this,” he said and promptly crossed his bulky arms.

All eyes turned to Rae.

“There may be some hint of truth in what Dontian says, my Lord,” said Rae. “It seems there has been unusual quietness in Guiphir province. Ramaan has apparently made very little effort to remain in contact with us, and trade is dwindling to a halt. Perhaps he foresees an event that as yet we are unable to distinguish, and is fortifying himself without our knowledge.”

The King sat with his chin supported by his fist and elbow. He mulled over his advisors’ words, and said, “I do not know what designs Ramaan or Norsvok have for Astonia, but we must find out if they include our annexation. The rogue sent to take my life fled south…and where would a failed beast run but straight to his cave?”

Xenaar, Lord of Hornaine’s eyes glinted. “Yes, my Lord! Then he has come from the south! The treacherous King Ramaan must pay for this villainy, for where else but Hladin would this serpent strike have taken birth? I implore you to declare war on Hladin, and teach that scoundrel a lesson he will not forget!” he said.

As Xenaar spoke, Aram’s unconscious shifted uneasily. “My Lords,” he said, after a slight deliberation. “I do not think we should so hastily judge our neighbours…at least until we have proof they wish us harm. My aide, Naphine, has just recently returned from abroad. During his visit with King Ramaan he did not feel anything but welcome. Perhaps these were the tricks of a scoundrel, or perhaps not, and for us to so quickly declare war would be misgiving.”

The King and his advisors faced the young man in scrutiny. “And what do you suggest we do?” said Xenaar. “Wait for his veil to fall? Wait until the king is dead? Perhaps you too are in league with this villain.”

Aram scoffed in reply. “That is an interesting remark, Lord Xenaar. I do not see this as a threat to my father, but to the Astonian way of life, and I would have the least to gain in this room, save for the King, if Astonia were to fall.” He then turned to Dunos, and said softly, “Father, I would like to travel to Hladin. I wish to meet Ramaan for myself, and while I am there I can observe him. I will not be so unsubtle as to indicate our suspicion, but I will give you an answer for his hatred, or neigh, of Astonia upon my return. If Ramaan indeed harbours ill will towards us, then at this point I suspect I shall be taken prisoner. If my life falls forfeit then my sacrifice will be warning to you of his betrayal, and I pray that this knowledge will arm you in defence.”

“These are brave words for a young prince, but very naïve,” said Dontian, the military advisor. “Do you think Ramaan would be so easily drawn out of his shell if he was not ready to reveal himself?”

“Do not be so hasty, Dontian,” said Rae. “There is some wisdom in what Aram has said. I have confidence that he may unveil the true colours of Hladin, inexperienced though he may be.”

Dontian eyed Rae for a moment, when his expression changed. “As you wish,” he said, and retreated further into his chair; his broad chest heaving.

“I would accompany you, Aram, as it is my duty to do” said Rae, “but I fear that I must remain with the King to administer the security of our lands just yet.”

“I will go with you,” said Hisae abruptly, then sharply turned his attention to Dunos, expecting a reply.

“Fine, fine,” said Dunos. “Take only a handful of men with you, so that you may travel swiftly. The rest of you; it is your task to ensure the safety of yourselves and your lowers, and to prepare arms from your provinces. If an adversary is willing to service the dishonour of an assassin, and a poor one at that, I am keen to test their mettle against hardened soldiers and steel.

“Rae, send word to Misrai of Sul-Phor and Muadli of Guiphir to attend council here in one week. If they are still loyal I know not, but their presence here will still be comfort to an aging king.”

“Yes, my lord,” said Rae. “I will send messengers immediately.”

“We are done then. Leave me now,” said the king, as he rubbed his temples and took another swig from his flask. Aram remained as the others left, and Hisae waited by the door for the prince.

“Father, may I speak with you?” said Aram.

Dunos rubbed his eyes and looked at his son. “What is on your mind?” he said.

“Do you really believe Ramaan is responsible for this?” asked Aram. Dunos gazed into his flask and imperceptibly shook his head. Hisae walked up beside Aram and stood in attention. Dunos looked at him questioningly, without giving his son an answer.

“My King, Heron is still yet following the rogue, and until I return I will instruct Yarian to report to you alone when news comes in,” said Hisae. He then turned to Aram and said, “Do not fret, Aram. We will soon find out who wants a fight so badly!”

“Aram,” said the king. For a moment they stared at each other, sharing a moment that they both knew, deep inside, may never have been had the day progressed differently. “I am sick now from more than just tension of the mind. My healers have told me that I must stop this affair with wine…and yet wine is the only solace I receive in a life grown stale. I feel like I am alone in the desert, and vultures are already picking which parts of me they will feast on first,” he said, as he lifted his flask and gave a gruff laugh while taking another swig. Aram looked away from his father and stared at the king’s feet. “You will make a better King than I, my son, but you must be careful of being too kind.” To this Aram looked sharply back up.

“I am not blind to what you do,” said the king. “I have done many things in my life that I would do differently were I blessed with a second life…but such is the clarity of hindsight. My proudest moment, however, will always be when I first held you in my arms.”

“Yes, father?” said Aram.

“You looked at me through your tiny eyes, barely open, and I could see a tiny little smile. You then dribbled and relieved yourself on my Robe; which the maids made quite a fuss over.”

“Ha! I remember the day,” bellowed Hisae. “They only time a king would endure such an act I’m sure!”

Dunos smiled as warmly as his weariness would allow at his son, and said sincerely: “If this assassin had succeeded, I would leave this world knowing that at least my people would have you to protect them, and lead them.”

Aram felt a knot envelop his chest, and his throat stung in emotion. “Father…I am honoured…that you have such faith in me.”

“Of course I do, Aram…you are a Son of Astonia. Only through the divine can one explain the wonder that it is to be a prince of these lands,” said Dunos. “From the essence of life you are crafted by Mohisis himself, and brought into this land to bear his will. This has been the Way from Admon, his sons and so, to my father, to myself and to you. As you know, each of your Astonian fore bearers have developed our kingdom in some keen way. Your grandfather, Nylos, expanded Astonia to include the mountainous Sul-Phor, from which we gained valuable copper and iron, as well as the massive deposits of gold and silver that we can so freely barter with. I have brought luxury to Tyer, and created a hierarchy of great efficiency. How you immortalise these lands and your name is for you to decide, when you are King, and I have faith that you will do it well.”

Aram, for as long as he could remember, had not heard such words of confidence from his father. For the first time in his life he could identify with the royal blood that coursed through his veins. He was empowered by the king’s words.

“Thank you, father,” he replied. “I will leave for Hladin come dawn.” The king nodded and returned to his thoughts. As Aram turned and marched away – a man on a mission, Hisae cocked an eyebrow at Dunos, and then too turned to leave.

As Aram and Hisae left the throne room, they heard a horse galloping from afar. From the main entrance they saw Deyas, gleeful, riding towards them. Hisae turned to Aram and nodded at the young rider. “Naphine?” he asked. Aram smiled and nodded in return, and both swept out their arms and waved to attract the immediate attention of the prince.

Deyas was already trying to slow the horse down as he approached them. “Whoa!” he cried, and “Araaam make it stoop!” as he whizzed past. Aram could only clutch himself, laughter bursting from his every seam as his younger brother tried helplessly to control the horse, eight times his size.

After Deyas had been led on two circuits around the stage, Hisae, wiping a tear from his eye decided to alleviate the poor boy’s suffering. He climbed up onto the stage and as the horse passed a third time he ran and jumped onto it, landing squarely behind the prince and grabbing the reins. Deyas twisted and looked at him in astonishment; Hisae returned only a sly grin.

“This is how you stop them when they misbehave,” said Hisae, pulling the reins with all of his considerable strength. The horse whinnied and snorted, shaking its head. It soon slowed down and bucked in protest. It neighed before landing, and was now grunting and breathing heavily. Hisae slid off; reins still in hand, and walked to the front of the horse. He put a hand on the horse’s nose and rubbed it slowly while looking it in the eyes. “You can get off now, master horseman,” he said, shooting Deyas a look of amusement. Deyas, ruffled but nonetheless still excited, hopped off and bounced over to Aram.

“Did you see that? Hisae stopped the horse!” Deyas proclaimed.

Amidst a chuckle Aram said, “Yes, I did see…I also saw how fast you were going! So you’ve seen Naphine, then?”

“I have!” Deyas replied. “He said he wasn’t supposed to tell me, but because I looked so sad he said that you wouldn’t mind if he took me to the stables! Are they really all for me?”

“Of course…you’ve got to have something decent to ride if you’re ever going to be a proper prince,” said Aram, giving his brother a quick wink.

To that Deyas stood awe struck and wide eyed. “I am a proper prince!” he soon protested. “But thanks! I’m going to ride all of them every day from now on!”

“I hope you do,” smiled Aram. “How did you like this one?”

“It didn’t listen to me!” replied Deyas. “One minute I was in the stables, then the next I was by the barracks and then suddenly I was here! It wasn’t very hard to make him go, but he just went on his own way after that…lucky you were here, else it would have galloped all the way back home and taken me with it!

“Naphine said that these white horses were from Oscarthia. He said that they were not broken in properly, which is why I shouldn’t ride one yet…”

“But that did not stop you, obviously,” said Aram to the young prince’s sheepish grin. “Listen, I have to go to Hladin for a little while, so you’re going to have to look after father while I’m away. Hisae is coming with me.”

“Why are you going?” asked Deyas.

“Well, we’re going to try and get to the bottom of the attack this morning…maybe Ramaan will know something, or even help,” replied Aram. “I will be back before you know it, and in the mean time get to know your new horses…tell me which ones you like the most.”

“Okay, I’ll see you soon!” said Deyas, bounding away towards the stables, to choose another to ride.

Hisae had been with the horse while Aram was busy in kinship, and he brought it over when Deyas left. “This one isn’t very happy,” he said. “I think it may be missing a mate.”

“Poor beast,” said Aram. “See what you can do for now; I have to go and visit a friend before we leave. I suggest we get a good night’s rest before departing tomorrow, too.”

“I will talk to Yarian and secure some men and provisions. You be careful outside of the palace, hear?” said Hisae.

“I will,” said Aram, who then started towards the stables. He had a sudden urge to borrow one of his brother’s horses…there was something strange about the one he met earlier.

Aram rode through the bustling marketplace cautiously. Mirei lived in the less savoury north eastern deck, guiding his journey through the central bazaar. He wore a black hooded cloak, to shield him from both the cold later afternoon breeze, and the unwanted eyes of strangers. The market men were hailing passer bys, inviting them to purchase their goods at throw away prices, as they were getting ready to go home. As Aram rode passed, they were silent – not that they could recognise him through the shadow of his hood, but that they were fearful of his midnight horse and attire.

As Aram neared the end of the market district, he came across a woman huddled under a blanket, clutching a baby and rocking slowly. Her pale, thin face stared blankly away and she did not notice Aram by her side. He felt along his belt to his pouch. It was full. He opened it and removed a coin for the woman, but then paused. Slipping the coin back into the pouch, he dismounted and crouched next to her.

“My lady?” he said, removing his hood.

The woman turned and looked at Aram with dim recognition. Her dry tears marred the otherwise perfect distribution of dirt on her face, and Aram felt nauseousness sweep over him. ‘Is this the luxury that father has brought to Tyer?’ he asked himself, as her vacant eyes drained his heart.

“Why are you here?” he gently asked her.

The woman blinked a few times and fresh tears welled in her eyes. “…He’s gone…” she eventually said, and hugged her baby closer.

“Who’s gone?” Aram asked.

The woman continued to rock and again she said, “He’s gone…gone…”

Aram thought for a moment, then; “Your child?” he said, softly. The woman gasped and her eyes shot down, pulling the child from her breast. Almost on cue, her baby lifted its arms and tried to catch her nose. Aram was relieved…her child was alive, although obviously not for much longer. “Your husband, then?” he said, as she continued her rocking. The woman glanced at him. She nodded, and hid her face in her child, whimpering. Aram put his hand on her arm, and then lifted her chin to face him. The tears had coursed new rivers down her cheeks. “Where has he gone? It’s okay…you can tell me.”

“You!” she said, and suddenly a fire lit inside the woman. “Your father took him!” she spat.

“He did?” said Aram, genuinely surprised. “Where did he take him?”

The woman squinted trying to penetrate Aram’s expression, before lowering her eyes. She began cowering as the tears quickly doused her spirit. Satisfied his ignorance was real, she said, “He joined your soldiers and the king ordered him to scout deep into Nebhutan. For six months I did not hear from him, and my landlord threw me out after Isaan was born…as I had no money to pay him. I soon learned that he had been killed and the king refused to support a dead soldier or his wife.” She then looked up to Aram again, and with a strong, hoarse voice said, “That’s why I’m here!”

Aram was bewildered. He could not understand how his father could have had such a policy, and he quickly gathered his thoughts. “Will you come with me, now?” he said. “I have somewhere that you will be welcome.”

The woman looked at him in renewed spite. “Why would you help me? You’re one of them!” she protested, and nodded towards the palace. “Let me be,” she said, and again clutched her child, rocking him to sleep.

Something was definitely wrong, thought Aram; how deep among his people did this hatred go? “Please…come with me,” he urged. “I wish to right a very bad wrong.” The woman paused and looked at Aram for a while longer, searching his face for any sign of betrayal. Seeing none, and too weary to struggle any longer, she sighed and nodded. Aram helped her to her feet, and she limped to the horse. “What is your name?” he asked.

“Ianda,” replied the woman, quietly.

Without Aram saying another word, and very much to his surprise, his horse knelt to the ground to let Ianda climb on. Aram stopped, staring at it. The horse snorted at him, so Aram then jumped on too, in front of the widow and her baby, as she held his waist. He hooded himself and grabbed the reins, but soon had a dim realisation that he may not really have been the one in control.

The horse lurched, and started moving at a steady gait.

“What is your horse’s name? It is very nice,” said Ianda, sniffing.

After a brief pause, Aram said “Buen-oh,” twisting to smile at his passenger. “I believe that means ‘One of Many Surprises’…in Induran.” Buen-oh only whinnied in her response, and Aram patted his newly named horse.

They gathered speed, with Ianda holding onto Aram and her child between them. Aram led Buen-oh to the Magic Inn, in the northeast deck; a public house where he had a special relationship with the owner. He climbed off the mount and helped Ianda down to her feet. He then led Buen-oh to a small water trough, leaving her in the company of other horses, and said “Come,” to Ianda as he entered the rowdy inn.

Inside, they were greeted with the traditional hum and laughter the inn was renowned for. Aram scanned for the mistress of the house but could not see her. Upon removing his hood, a strong voice called out from beside him.

“I thought that was you!” said the voice. “Silly boy, coming to this place dressed like that…I would have mistaken you for the common scoundrel himself if not for this young lady with you.” With that the stout woman peered closely at Ianda. “My goodness dear…you look terrible!” she said, and started picking at Ianda’s clothes. “Oh no, we’ll have to get you out of these.” She then took a big breath; “Bria!!” she called, and then smiled at Aram.

Aram made a face. “Mia, don’t be mean. Ianda…please have a seat and we’ll get you something to eat.”

As Ianda left them, a short, wrinkled woman hobbled over to them; “Bria here, Mamah,” she said. Upon seeing Aram, however, a great smile crossed her face; “Oh hi to Aram! Me glad to see…so sweet young boy,” and stood on the tip of her toes to pat him on his cheek. “Are you wife yet?” she asked, sincerely.

Aram laughed. “No Bria, no wife yet…maybe soon you will be my wife?” he replied.

“Aah you nice boy,” said Bria, pinching Aram’s cheek, “but too young for Bria. Bria like older man…he shorter!” her wrinkled eyes spread wide as she said this.

“Oh, I’ll keep looking then,” said Aram, trying to make his frown look sincere.

Before Bria could list the twenty thousand ‘young’ women she knew that Aram would just love, Mia chimed in; “Bria, go get soup and give to this young woman sitting here,” she said. “Bring some milk for her baby too…and some fruit, and bread, and some meat,” she quickly added. Bria peered at Ianda to make sure she could see her.

“Yes Mamah…Bria be right back,” she said, as she hobbled away again into the kitchen.

“How has Bria been?” asked Aram. “Has she settled in okay?”

“Well look at her,” replied Mia. “When you first brought her in she was lifeless…now I can’t get her to stop moving for five minutes! She’s really taken to this place.”

“I’m glad…I knew she’d find a home here…” said Aram, staring after the cook. He had found Bria only three months ago, as he passed an abandoned house on this same deck and heard a cry from inside. Investigating, he found Bria there, howling, but refusing to tell him what had happened to her. He begged her to come with him, but she would scuttle away whenever he approached, so he left her.

He came back to visit her eight times over as many days, slowly earning her trust. He brought food, clothes and even a puppy the Royal Guard had reared. When it first pawed her, she was afraid, but soon pawed it back; her tensions somewhat eased, allowing Aram to find out more about her.

In broken speech, Bria told Aram about her trip to the city. Her family had heard great things about Tyer, and wanted to experience it for themselves. She was born in a place called ‘Farway’, although Aram was never quite sure whether she meant it as a distance or a name. Her grandchildren were with her when they started. Soon into the journey everyone became very sick, and only she seemed to have been spared. Her family all died, and now she was alone. When Aram heard this, he told her that she could not possibly have been alone, since he was there with her, and after a small moment to think she smiled and patted him on the cheek. She then agreed to go with him, and he brought her to the Inn where she could be with others who were also alone once, but no more.

Mia scrutinized Aram as he was lost in thought. “Don’t you ever get tired of skirting the city looking for strays?” she whispered, as Ianda quietly sat nearby, holding Isaan to her chest, and looking uncomfortably around the tavern.

“Never,” Aram replied defiantly; strays were a term Mia used that he was not very fond of. “She wasn’t my purpose for coming, but our paths did cross on my way here.”

“And your purpose?” asked Mia, slitting her eyes in mock suspicion.

“I need Mirei,” said Aram, immediately regretting his choice of words.

“Praise Mohisis!” squealed Mia. “You’ve come to your senses at last!” she then took another deep breath; “Mirei!!! Get here NOW!” she shouted, and then smiled again at Aram.

“I meant for…something…” Aram said, trailing off as a young, very beautiful woman floated down the stairs towards them.

“Oh, I’m sure she won’t mind; even for that!” Mia said, winking at him.

“Oh, lord…” said Aram, meekly.

“Hi, Aram,” Mirei smiled as she reached them. Aram found it difficult to avoid blushing after Mia’s vivacity. “You called, Mamah?” she asked Mia, who was taking pleasure from Aram’s fidgeting.

“Well, your prince here was just telling me how much he would love to take you upst–“, Mia began purring.

“How are you, Mirei?” Aram interrupted, quickly.

“Much better now that you’re here, isn’t it, Mirei?” Mia quickly followed, grinning at the young woman. “She’s been going on and on about you ever since you last came here!”

Mirei quickly looked away in embarrassment, but soon back to Aram; her smooth skin becoming rouged.

“I’m well, Aram,” she said, her eyes now fixed in his. “Is there something I can do for you?” It had only been a few weeks since he had last seen her, but he had forgotten what she did to him…or rather, he decided in his mind, he tried to avoid seeing her because he knew what she did to him.

“Yes, but first -” Aram turned to the mistress again: “Mia, thank you for looking after Ianda,” he said. He pulled the pouch from his belt and placed it into her hands. “If you have not already guessed, I want you to give her employ. She has…sacrificed much for our kingdom, and she deserves the same service in return.”

Both women looked at Ianda, who was watching Bria trying to force some fruit down the throat of a young man sitting next to her. She giggled as the poor man waved his arms wildly about, begging to be let go.

“Bria! Not him!” cried Mia. She looked up at Aram and shrugged with a smile. “As long as she can see further than Bria, she’ll be fine,” she said, and winked at Mirei as she walked past to rescue her guest from the clutches of her cook.

As Aram watched Mia scold Bria, apologise to the man, pick up the tray and turn to sit with Ianda, he felt a light kiss on his cheek. He turned and was at face with Mirei.

“It’s really wonderful to see you again, Aram,” she said, as she leant over to hug him. Aram returned her hug, finding it very hard to let go again. “Are you glad to see me too?” she asked, impishly, as they parted.

“Very…” was all Aram could muster.

“Good. Now what can I do for you? Let’s sit, and you can tell me what’s on your mind,” Mirei said, as she took his hand and led him to an empty cove. “Have you eaten? You must be hungry…I will be right back,” leaving him without waiting for a response.

“No I don’t—” Aram started, but she had already gone. He relaxed and looked back over at Ianda. She was nodding and shaking her head frightfully as Mia fired questions at her like “Can you cook?”, “Can you sew?” and “Have you ever stolen anything?” mixed in with reassuring remarks like “Good girl”, “That’s okay, you’ll have no reason to now”, and “Well everyone just calls me Mamah, yes I know Bria’s twice my age!” Aram was glad he had brought her here…it was impossible for him not to trust her, he realised, flamboyant though she was. He knew that Ianda would very quickly trust her too.

Moments later Mirei returned with a tray of house delights. She had tied her long silky black hair into a loose tail while she had been away, allowing her large brown eyes to shine. She smiled at him as she came.

“Here we go! Pumpkin soup, a fresh loaf, and this strange spiced meat that Bria conjured today,” she said, as she nudged him further into the cove to sit next to him. Before he could even thank her, Mirei had already scooped some bread in the soup and was rushing it towards him. She was turning into Bria, he idly thought as he took the bread and put it in his mouth, then suddenly cowered at the implication as the old woman sprang from the kitchen, with both a tray of meat, and a decided look of determination on her face.

Mirei, seeing the fear on Aram’s face piped up: “What’s wrong, Aram? Don’t you like it? I’m sorry, I’ll get you something else,” and then started to leave again. Aram grabbed her wrist before she could go.

“No-no! It’s fine…I was just thinking about something else,” he said. “Please sit…I need your help.”

“Is something the matter?” she asked, concerned.

“Well yes, actually,” said Aram, taking a brief moment to gather his thoughts. “Something happened today, which has me very worried.”

Mirei said nothing and only nodded him to continue.

“Someone tried to murder my father this morn,” he said glumly.

Mirei gasped. “What? Oh Mohisis, is he okay?”

“He was unhurt, and keeps his integrity,” said Aram, “but I know that he has been devastated by this. He will never admit it, either; this is the first time anything like this has ever happened to a king of Astonia!”

Mirei moved closer to Aram and cupped his face in her hand. “I am so sorry to hear that, Aram…tell me,” she said, “what can I do to help?”

Aram studied her as he leaned into her palm, welcoming her touch. Her flawless skin, her soft lips, and her seductive eyes were enough to imprison any man. Even enough to imprison a prince, if he let them.

Mirei’s hand started quivering ever so slightly; the affection in her eyes overwhelming. He took her hand and held it in both of his. “I need you to go somewhere for me,” he said at last.

Again, Mirei nodded him to continue.

“Naphine returned this morn, and has brought news of some distress in Sul-Phor,” said Aram. “The people there were very inhospitable towards his company, and an old man gave him reason for their hostility. He said that men in cloaks had been visiting the towns and spreading rumours of the king…there had been talk of arms against us…”

Mirei had listened intently to every word, “…and you want me to find out what is going on?” she said, as he paused.

“Exactly,” said the prince. “Stay as a guest at the palace tonight, and at dawn I’d like you to go into Sul-Phor and delve into the heart of this menace.”

“Of course,” said Mirei, looking down to her hand in Aram’s. She took her free hand from her lap and grasped Aram’s, tightly. Looking up to him, she smiled and said, “I will do anything you ask of me.”

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