Far gone, those days, in that lost kingdom of mirth, where reigned the Varoq and Lisan of Teremlayne. Heralds rang out, to cheering crowds, the news of her birth, joyous: twins! Long awaited, the Prince Rivon and Princess Shallah were cherished by the court of their well-loved parents, whose wisdom protected the realm. Passed in bliss, the years of their childhood, playing in the garden, within the walls of that fair palace, attended by handmaidens, and well doted upon, when their mother, the Lisan, could not herself be present. Then came the years of preparation, given over to sages, for to undertake apprenticeship in all the arts, as their graces inclined. In archery, swordsmanship, and upon the horse, both excelled, delighting their parents. But also in the domesticities, arts, sciences and all things practical, especially in matters of business, history and the administration of the realm, nothing was found wanting. They were good students, grateful for instruction, and hardy of discipline. Fair of visage, ripening soon, they were as the throne and the scepter, the foundation of their parent’s happiness and hope; and well they wished to please, and pleased they.
So it was, that on the tenth year of their tutelage, Janmagus, the headmaster, was summoned to the Varoq, to make a report on the progress of his pupils. With pride, declared he their education complete, and, to demonstrate the depth and breadth of their readiness to the court, proposed he a great tournament, where all the children of the nobility might compete in mighty tests, for prizes in every subject. This pleased the Varoq, who said, “It shall be done as the Janmagus wishes. Let every requisition be made to his exact specification. And courtiers: let word be sent to our allies, to our lordly neighbors, to the lords and ladies of all ancient realms, that they might join us for this high occasion, and their children partake with ours in the contest.” To this, the Lisan added, “I will have for my son and daughter the most worthy, so it shall be, that on the evening of the tournament, we shall invite the victors here, to the palace, for a great feast, and dancing, to commence their coming of age, and the season of courtship.” A date was set, and the court was abuzz with undertaking and anticipation.
Not to be outdone, Rivon and Shallah took counsel together, upon the high tower, in the evening, as the sun set over Rismalah, city of marvels, nestled on two sides within mighty sandstone walls, never yet breached, on a third, the bay of Whimhalet, with its back, against the sheer mountain of Tirsmoc. “Brother, lookest thou keen, and trainest thou to the uttermost; few are the weeks that remaineth! For within grasp is that which has not lightly come into our ken, and a glory set to be won, is only for the losing.” With a nod, quoth he: “Fair sister, and wise, how be it, that at long last… our noon-tide cometh! Wondrous, is it not, that soon, we shall be put to the contest, and proving of worship, begin our season of courtship. Seemeth our destiny is written on the stars, and up may we look, to take the eagles that traverse the crags of Tirsmoc, as our neighborly companions, so high shall we rise!” Teasing, the Princess bows low: “Bow I to you, oh heir apparent, for perhaps the last time, as soon I shall be a-married to a higher prince, perhaps, even than thou! Mother protect us, lest of what birth your lady shall be, yet forsee I her beauty, unsurpassed!” And in mirth, her bow returned, until laughter took them.
Six fortnights passed in training, until spring-tide, when heralds betokened the arrival of their noble guests, and the days of games were at hand. Many, the flags that flew on the tournament field, crests on shields, neighing of horses, restless crowds a-cheering. And in the great tent of arts and sciences, the judges waited with their questions, their parchments and their quills. With great puissance did Rivon speed among the young men, and Shallah, among the damsels, for three days, until there were but few contestants left in every sport and skill, yet they remained.
Then, having lost the contest of swords and of pens, jealous grew Yerelen, Haute Prince of the Nossibileth, and conspired he of revenge. Long had his father, Tendralon, desired the kingdom of Teremlayne, and if he was not to win it fairly by the hand of Shallah in marriage… there were other ways. Opened he his purse, and availed he of fickle friends of coin, to lie with him in wait, at night, by the ships in the harbor of Whimhalet, to burn them, with torches, in the dock. Also spied he, the Varoq’s chamberlain, Mojareq, of character shrewd, and intoned he to him, to conspire. So it was that, on the last night, when all the palace was asleep, a terrible plot was afoot, and when the call “Fire! Fire!” went up in the port, the king was awakened, and called he his guards, picked men, and went he to see to the crisis. Yet as he passed through the market, empty at night, there lay in wait his ambush, and fought he, he and his men, nobly well, and proudly till the end, but they were outnumbered, and slain. Then Mojareq stole the criminals into the palace, where they seized the Lisan in her chamber, and set Tendralon on the throne, so that the next morn, the kingdom was overthrown, and conquered, and the world was upside down.
Sensing treachery afoot, Janmagus waked he, Rivon and Shallah, and bid them flee. By passage secret led them, outside the palace, to the outskirts of the city, to the foot of the mountain Tirsmoc, to the entrance of a cave, hidden in a cleft of the rock. There he left them with satchels of water, three days’ provisions, and the sad counsels of an old friend: “My dear ones… loath am I to leave you, and rue I this day of treachery and malice, but this at last remains: the kingdom of Teremlayne lives, as you live. Its ways forget not, but go, and learn the ways of the world. You may yet return, someday, and set right what has here transpired. But first you will need to make your way, and come to means, without which any enterprise you undertake will be doomed. Keep you well the secret of your names and your birth. Take here this rough cloth, although no disguise have I for your smooth skin, and noble brows. Oh, be strong. Fared you well these last three days, and made us all proud. But you were denied the final test. This is it, as the gods would have it. And I suspect the lessons will be different than we prepared for. Now go! Into the cave. Follow it where it leads. Three days, and this hidden pass shall lead you to the land of Mylear on the other side. There you will begin anew. Go now, dear children, go!” And gave he a tearful embrace.
To make the story short, ten years passed, of tears and travail, of silent desperation, fearful privation, and uncertain fortunes. After wandering, they settled in the city of Yish, where they separated to apprentice in different trades. Finding a spice merchant, Rivon took up with the caravan. And for Shallah, the loom, and the humble trade of the seamstress. Once a year, Rivon would return, they would have mirth, and regale each other with the stories of their seasons. Rivon would report on the wide world, on the wiles and ways of merchants and craftsmen, on the whims of noble customers, of the bandits and levies to beware, and strange friends of recent acquaintance. Shallah would recount the gossip of the seamstresses, and the fashions of the court, for which she made dresses, tapestries and the like. As apprentices, they slept on cots in their master’s workshop, and were paid just enough to survive. Their hands had callused, their clothes worn, and gone were the perfumes and hairstyles of the palace. On the outside, they had become simple, and gained a respect for the honest work done by “the simple,” which, as it turned out, were less simple than it seemed.
“Oh my sister, how far we have fallen!” Bemoaned Rivon, at the end of the tenth year. “I am but a humble servant of a middling merchant, as far from him in station as he is from the great merchants of Seramat! My cloth is poor, and poorer my fare, and for a palace, I have a tent! Woe is me! Born to be a prince! Not a prince, but first among princes! What good is all my learning now? That my bowshot hits a target from three hundred paces, while riding a warhorse is for not, for I bestride a camel. That I can recount the lineages of all the great families, and the history of this country and of its neighbors unto the 10th century is for not: instead, I make an account of the goods we buy and sell. My master appreciates my facility with languages and with numbers, but that is all that I am valued for.”
“Dearest brother, likewise I am forlorn. Long past is the season of courtship in which a girl should wed, and now I am still young, but too old for noble marriage. As for the men of my station, some are kind, others, fools, but none can match me in any art, nor could understand from whence I come. I make excuses to ward them off. As for the women, if they knew our story, how jealous they would be, surely. Jealously, then, have I guarded my secret. The story we agreed on, that we came from Lereminth by ship, to escape the famine in that year, has held, for that land is far and its customs are not well known. But how I long for love and for friendship, true friendship! When will these years of suffering cease? Is there any hope now, brother? Janmagus bid us to muster our strength, to make our way, to master the ways of the wide world, and to return to set right the realm. That seems as now but a dream.”
“I have not given up, dear sister. We have our plans. Let us keep to them, and hold out hope. The time of my apprenticeship is drawing to a close, and then I may set up my own caravan. I am saving all that I earn to begin my trade. I am observing close, the ways of the trade, so that when the time comes, I may prosper fast. But still, years it will be yet, before even a meagre fortune can be mustered for the overthrow of a state. And you, sister?”
“I sow my hope with every thread of the loom, and weave tapestries of hope. Rice is my meagre meal, and hope is the spice of the season. Soon, I too, will finish my apprenticeship. But without a husband, I cannot be legally established in the guild. You will need to move first.”
The only news that reached them in this time, was of their mother, the Lisan. Merchants would bring with them news from various ports and cities, and gossip would spread from the marketplace through to the rest of the city. Thus it reached Shallah first, who then recounted, dreadfully, to Rivon; the news that came from the port of Rismalah: that to cover up the murder of her father by his son Yerelen, the treacherous Tendralon of Nossibileth, to legitimize his seizure of the kingdom of Teremlayne, and to become, in the eyes of the law, the new Varoq, had forced the beautiful Lisan into marriage. Strong of will as she was, it was unclear how he had threatened her into this travesty: how many lives had she spared by her dread assent? Having induced a false marriage, the Tendralon dispersed the visiting nobles from Rismalah, and with them gone, had moved quickly to consolidate power over the court, and all the land. Yet scarcely three months passed before the Lisan, seemingly pliant, undetected by her guards, was able to secure a poison, and poison Tendralon in his private quarters. But before she could get to Yerelon’s chamber, she was caught by Tendralon’s men, and in a final act of defiance, swallowed the last of the potion herself. Now Yerelon reigned in his father’s stead: viper’s brood, deceit born from deception, as cruel, as vicious…
Torn open, again, the wound: upon reaching them, the story turned what hope they had into despair, anger and black revenge. So unto each other, swore they Yerelon’s death, in oaths anew, to avenge the beloved Varoq and Lisan.
Two seasons passed, on that, their tenth year of exile, when grevious events passed. On caravan to Uvapur, bandits beset and overcame Rivon and his fellow merchants, normally well defended, but unprepared for so many, thrice their usual number. They lost everything, every last coin; and sold, they were, into slavery, in the mines of Mereban.
Shallah heard nothing of this. But accustomed to his regular letters, began to dread. To Uvapur she went, forsaking all, to look for him. Silks she sold to a caravan, for safe passage, and forging a note from a master, with instructions, took she silks to the city, as her pretense for travel. Arriving, she heard the tragedy of the caravan. And bewailed she, her brother. Fearing for her safety, she presented herself to one of the noble families of the city, asking for work, and was received by the kindly master of the house, who asked no questions, but gave her work in the running of the household.
Shallah in her journal: “How long? How have I held on to the dream of my youth, of lordly marriage and queenly pursuits… Here I am, a maiden, caring for the lady of the house, and her children; as my mother’s maidens cared for me. This is not what I was bred for! Not the plan and purpose of my parents. The story of my life is sad, and I have lost the thread. Torn is the tapestry, and I know not how to weave it. Is there any plan? Any heavenly hope that this, my story, will be worthy of Janmagus, and the stories he and his sages taught? I see no way. I stumble on an unknown path, full of thorns, in the dark of a moonless night, guided by the scant light of a single candle.”
Ten years, again, passed. Rivon’s adventures took him far. For a full year, he toiled in the mines, which he swore would be the death of him. Though they broke down his body and spirit, he found succor in his fellows, whose travails he shared. After their meager repast, they were left alone each night, and he regaled them with stories, stories he had been taught as a child, which stories he told under a canopy of stars, to his slave brethren, in the long nights; and dreamed they all, for a precious hour or more, then again in their sleep, escaping to faraway lands. Then, in the blazing heat of the noonday sun, when the whips of the masters broke, it was Rivon, erstwhile Prince, who was first to the task, and first to take the blame, and accept the lashes for his men. So earned he their trust and love, and they, him.
Then it came to pass that there was a war in that land, and an army marched upon the mines, scattering the slavers like ants, and the miners fled. In the confusion, Rivon and his band regained their freedom. Finding a small fishing village, they worked among the fishermen for a time, fashioned for themselves a boat, and then set sail for larger port. So began nine years of travel by land and sea, and this same crew of former slavers, built they a small but thriving mercantile, trading in many goods.
Never could his mates cheer Rivon. He would brawl with them, laugh, and carouse… but ever they sensed him only half there, the other half, far away, sad, lost in thought. One day, Liselmi, his first mate, approached him on the prow, staring at the horizon, and asked, “Master, so pensive? What troubles ye?” “Oh Liselmi,” he crooned, “worry not for this old head. Once, long ago, I was supposed to be someone, somewhere. That place and that time come back to me, and the memory of them troubles me, even after all these years, when I should have let them go. I am no longer that man. Indeed, that man would not have so much as looked me in the eye.” “And yet, Master,” offered he up, kindly, “This troubles you, and creases your forehead show, of lost sleep and an unhappy spirit. What would it take to take away these troubles? You have brought us into a new life. We would that you too, were renewed…” “I know not, old friend. That life is irrecoverable. My parents are dead. My old friends would not recognize me, or believe that it was I, and even if they did, without my former station, would hardly give me charity. The ladies I gazed upon, they would recoil at the scars upon my back, my broken nose, and rough hands. And yet, this life, is empty of that promise of the old. I was prepared for greatness and yet am far from destiny, far from any life of meaning; erased, almost, in the sands of time. It is only my sister, and the search for her, whom I enquire after at every port and town… and the desire, someday, for revenge at the life I lost… that gives me purpose. Forgive me, I am wretched and mean not to cast shade on your joy.”
Buying, buying, everyone was buying, in that season, and Rivon’s little fleet made such a harvest. Ever discerning, Rivon would ask his customers after their comings and goings, and they would tell him of their great concerns. There was to be a great tournament in Teremlayne, in the great city of Rismalah, hosted by the Varoq, Yerelen.
Yerelen, whom, it was said by all the people, had ascended the throne all those years ago due to the tragedy of his father’s murder at the hands of his aunt, whom, as the story goes, also killed his uncle, the previous Varoq, after the mysterious disappearance of their children, during the last great tournament.
Now, to honor the noble deaths of the last two Varoq’s, and the continuation of his lineage, through Yereleen, his daughter, the princess, and Simachus, his son, the prince, he would host the same tournament for his children, to commemorate their coming of age. And all of the lords and ladies of kingdoms and lands far and wide were invited to bring their children, if they were of age, to compete.
Hiding his anger, Rivon thanked them for this information, and set sail, for Rismalah, that very night.
That same decade had seen a turn in Shallah’s fortunes as well.
Late one afternoon, scarcely a year after joining the household of a noble family, while tending to the larder, from a window she espied her master’s children playing in the garden, seemingly unattended. Concerned, but not thinking much of it, she came out, to behold a horrifying sight: a viper, a full six paces in length, coiled tight, poised to spring, gazing into the eyes of Beldan, a daughter of merely three years. With a shout for help, springing from the terrace, she threw the loaf of bread, like a discus, in a mighty toss, at the snake, whom she could not reach in time herself. Years of training finally paid off, as the giant loaf blocked the path of the snake’s head as it struck, stunning it. Without hesitating, she snatched Beldan, and leaped away. Where was her brother, of five, Sivian? There, at the edge of the garden wall, leaning over his mother, collapsed on the grass. She ran to them. Had she been bitten? Reaching her, she shook her “My Lady Vileen! Are you alright? … My Lady Vileen!! Wake up!” Eyes fluttering… she woke. “Oh, Shallah, I’m sorry, I must have fallen asleep. Is everything alright?” Then looking over her shoulder, she saw the snake, hardly a dozen paces away, gazing at them. Shallah, reaching up, plucked a pomegranite from tree and threw it. She hit the body, this time, as the snake reacted more quickly, and slithered off, into the bushes.
Word of the incident with the snake spread throughout the household, and that night, after dinner, the Lady Vileen and her Lord Geraid invited Shallah to private audience. Geraid began, “You have performed a great service this day, Shallah. Were it not for your heroic actions, I might have lost my daughter, even my son and precious wife. It is terrible to think what might have happened, and I am at a loss for how a snake could have entered the garden. How may I reward you for this noble deed you have done my family?” Bowing low, Shallah responded “I require no special reward for doing my job, your lordship. However, I have been considering the same question, the question of the snake.” Leaning forward, Vileen beckoned, “Go on.” “It is not like my lady to fall asleep unawares, and the gardener and keepers of the grounds would have caught a snake that large long before. Milady, have you considered that your water in the vase by your side was drugged? You were so drowsy, that only when I shook you and shouted, did you wake.” “Drugged!? But who would do such a thing?!” Geraid responded. “My Lord, I do not know. You may have enemies, both within and without the household, do you not?” “Hm. Not to my knowledge. I have raised concerns in the Council of Elders recently regarding our military readiness, and not all agree… But why would an elder resort to violence over a matter of policy?” He mused.
Vileen interrupted, “Shallah, do you feel that my family is not safe here, in our own home? If we’re not safe here, where can we go, what can we do?” Pausing, pensive, she closed her eyes for a full minute, then began, “Whom do you trust? Unconditionally?” “The cook, Hilmah, the butler and cupbearer, Jipsa, the captain of our household guard, Smit, and my first handmaiden, Elra.” Vileen replied, without a second thought. “Dismiss them all on a fortnight’s errand, with the pretext of preparing your house in the country for this summer’s retreat and festivities, and send Smit with them as an escort. Dismissing your allies will embolden your enemy. Whomever it is that is plotting against you in the household, we need to draw them out, to show their hand; not to know that you suspect them. Then once they are gone, draw your family near to you, and in the morning, ask for dinner to be prepared, to be delivered to you in your apartments that evening.”
“But without Hilmah to prepare the food, Jipsa to deliver and taste it, Elra to attend us, and Smit to watch over us: we are at risk of being poisoned, or worse!” Vileen protested. With dawning appreciation, Geraid continued, “Ah, I see now… That is precisely the point, my love. I can see now that there is more to our servant Shallah than meets the eye…” Shallah bowed, “Do you trust me, my lord?” “My head says that I am a fool for trusting you, after this one incident, with such a risky plan, under such dangerous circumstances. However, my heart is with you. Go! Do as you will. And do not fail.” Shallah bowed lower, and left the room.
So it came to pass, that on the next day, Shallah, inconspicuous, but ever discerning, uncovered not just one, but three, would-be assassins. The maidservant Belenzhal, the guard Pilroy, and Qin, the kitchen boy. On his trip to the market that morning, Qin had fetched a poision, Pilroy had let him through inspection, and Belenzhal, even as she mixed the poision into the wine, and walked into the very room where the family dined… unsuspectingly found a knife at her throat, a stern grip on her wrist, and Shallah’s voice, firm yet ice, commanding her to her knees. Shallah had arranged it all with Smit, before he had left, to leave his most trusted guard behind, and so, she had already detained the other two, before they could leave at the news of their co-conspirator’s apprehension.
Over the coming days, Shallah led the interrogation herself. Which was a lesson in manipulation making cruelty quite unnecessary. Isolating her prisoners, she quickly broke their trust through fear of betrayal, and as soon as she had one secret, she had them all. The plot led right to the culprit, Ereloc, Seneschal of the Prime Elder. The next day, with the help of Smit’s friends in the Prime Elder’s Guard, Geraid has Ereloc detained, and presenting the prisoners and their evidence to the Prime Elder himself, Ereloc’s plot is undone.
Ereloc, as it turned out, from reviewing papers seized from his offices, was under the employ of a certain Yerelen, Varoq of Teremlayne. The Serene Republic of Yish had been a loyal ally of Teremlayne these many years, and one of its principal trading partners. The Prime Elder himself planned to attend the Varoq’s tournament the following month, with his daughter and son competing for the hand of the Varoq’s children in marriage.
Wroth out of measure, the Prime Elder would have made haste to war, had not Geraid counseled otherwise. For the following had transpired, the night before. After Shallah’s interrogation of the prisoners, with Geraid, Smit in the room, at a gesture from Geraid, Shallah suddenly found a dagger at her back, and his hand digging into her shoulder. Without flinching, she merely raised an eyebrow and looked at Geraid. “Who… are… you?” He asked. “Show yourself. Right it has proven, against the odds, to trust my heart, but my mind demands an answer. I am no fool. This is no mere natural talent or bravery, you display, but training. You have been trained in the art of spycraft. Dangerous, above all arts. Even kings dread the very instrument that may kill them. Who are you?! Speak!” Composed in grace, with a low bow, spake she her truth: “I am Princess Shallah of Teremlayne, rightful heir, with my brother, Prince Rivon, to the kingdom, of which we have been dispossessed by the usurpers of Nossibileth, who killed our parents. These twenty years have we been in hiding, biding time for fortune’s grace. Now, may I kindly ask…” And at this, with an unexpected whirl of movement, shrug of the shoulder, back step, her knee was in his chest, her foot in his groin, the knife in her hands and at his bowing kneck: “May I kindly ask… that my identity remain concealed in your court? Grant me that and I will continue to serve you.” When his shock dissolved, it turned into laughter… hearty and joyous. “Oh, Princess. Forgive me. You will have more than you ask. I am your humble servant.” And he kneeled. “For you have saved the life, not only of my precious family, but of my lord, the Prime Elder… and are of noblest blood, for your father was beloved of all kings. Tell me, what I may do to repay you.” At this, she released Smit with an affectionate tap, whom, blushing but unable to repress a sheepish grin, accepted back his knife with a nod. “Then this is what you must do…” She said.
The Prime Elder was counseled, not to war, but to make every pretense of preparation for the grand tournament. Great efforts were made to maintain a manufactured correspondence between Ereloc and Yerelen’s other intermediaries, whom were discovered and either captured and replaced, or turned, or tracked and manipulated. So it was that Yerelen believed his enemy to be coming to him, ignorant of any treachery; with his spy at his right hand, ready, at any time, to take the throne. When the day came for the Royal Caravan from Yish to march to Rismalah, Shallah rode at its helm.
Meanwhile, Rivon’s flagship, Lion’s Revenge, pulled into harbor at Rismalah. To behold the fair city: to see its towers, its walls, its flags flying in the breeze, the merchants in the bazaar, the children at the beach beside the port, running from the tide, as he had, once… At the prow, he wept. Far enough from his crew, that they could not see. But faithful Liselmi, ever watchful, observed at a distance. And when the reverie had passed, approached. “Master, what would you have us do?” … “Gather the men.”
“Men, together we have risen from nothing, and by ties of fealty are we bound. I release you from those ties. Here! Take your share of the treasure, and leave, if you will. This is enough for any of you to hire a ship and crew of your own, and seek your fortune in the wide world. Go! Go and live your lives; be happy... But if you would stay, I go to meet my fate. Finally, I will tell you the one story I have withheld, these many long nights, looking at the stars. That some of you, perhaps, have guessed at. Behold the fair city of Rismalah. Here, I was born, and here, I was betrayed. T’was twenty years ago, but it seems like yesterday, when I was prince of this land, coming of age. Then my noble father was murdered, by my treacherous uncle, Tendralon of the Nossibileth, who forced my mother to marry him, before she poisoned him and herself in her defiance— and his jealous son, Yerelen, took the throne. Now it is Yerelen’s daughter and son who are of age, and their tournament is at hand, this very week… Fell deeds await me, but I would avenge their deaths, and restore justice to the realm. Many missions have we done together, in war and peace, but never have we undertaken the overthrow of a realm. Follow me not, if you would not risk all, for all. For a kingdom is at hand, and fain I would have thee among my court. But loath I would be to see you suffer in my cause, and turn to tragedy this happy company of ours, that might end so well here, on this dock, with a brother’s embrace, farewell, and kiss of fate. Leave me to my doom.”
Then, tearful, bag by bag of gold, hefty, bulging in their sacs, did he toss to the over-awed men, marveling at him, murmuring. And did clasp their hands and bless their foreheads, and laugh heartily. Sheepish did they slowly turn to collect their things, and some of them stood there, full of emotion, but not knowing what to say, or ask, or do. Until he came to hard Rollin, jolly Sidrian, sly Wacliv, and faithful Liselmi… whom, grins upon their faces, arms crossed, laughed at him to his face. This racous laughter caught the attention of the rest of the crew who spun around. Rollin spat on the deck. “Not on your life, you rascal, Rivon! We all knew ye grew up with a silver spoon up y’er ass. And call me blind if you haven’t had death written on that face from the beginning. Why do you think I’m still around? There’d been plenty’er oppotunities to leave afore this’un. But where else would I get such good storytelling and leader’in done? Goodness knows I couldn’t do it half so well me’self, and would rather be spared the stress of it, so I can focus on the fightin.’ And best ye keep this here coin, as I’d rather spend what I make at the nearest alehouse, or worse, than save it… so don’t ye dare give it to me! Y’er stuck with me, you idealistic goose, whether you like it or not.” And to this, there was a cheer, and a sense of relief, and every bag of cold was cask back in the chest with a clank, and the crew flooded around their captain with slaps on his back and a merry ditty.
That night, as the port lay quiet, and the city slept… the crew of the Lion were scattered about in taverns about the port district. Then, in the third watch of the night, “Fire! Fire at the port!” The call went up, and the city’s garrison rushed to the quarter. But by the time they arrived, the strangest thing had occurred: most of the ships had left port, and the only ships set ablaze were those of the Varoq’s own fleet.
Rivon knew that Yerelen was too cunning to fall for the same trick that he himself had divised on a similar occasion, so many years before. He would not come, with his guard, to the scene of a fire, as Rivon’s unsuspecting father had. But instead, would stay in the palace, and redouble his guard. Indeed, so paranoid was he of a betrayal like his own, that the garrison was, if anything, too strong.
All that was needed was a well placed rumor, and some evidence.
The next day, the final day of the tournament, Yerelen was perplexed and anxious. Not only had his plot failed, another will was clearly at work, against his own. Someone had spread the rumor, and set his ships on fire instead. How could they have known?!
To restore order, he did what came naturally to him: he blamed unnamed conspirators. “Someone among us,” he said to his noble guests, “is jealous of my reign and plots against me, and by extension, against you all. Wishes our overthrow. This happened to my forbear, my uncle, the Varoq, before his wife, the Lisan was ultimately discovered by my father. The same forces may be at work, even still. Call back your ships. My garrison will have the city in order shortly. And we will find the traitor.”
“No, we will not.” The voice of the Prime Elder of Yish. “Our ships escaped just in time. A rumor of your plot spread in the port, our crews were alerted, and did their duty to protect our vessels. There was not enough time for us to escape. But it seems that you would kidnap us all, when we least suspect it. A move of frightening ambition. Would you rule over all realms?” The nobility was silent.
Yerelen, alarmed at this insubordination, gave a signal to the head of the garrison. The garrison surrounding closed in around the guards of the noble households, who held their ground, although outnumbered.
Suddenly there were shouts heard, from the nearest streets of the city, adjacent to the tournament field. A mob had risen, and they were chanting. Chanting, what were they chanting? “Traitor! Traitor! Traitor!”
The garrison, now evenly matched, had to cover both the household guards of the nobility, and the mob, armed with staves and knives, but they were many, and angry.
The mob had been led to believe that the Yerelen had not only planned on burning the ships, but had planned on burning down their houses too. After years of oppression, and some “evidence,” it was too easy.
But facing an armed garrison, their ardor damped. The chanting died down. The garrison closed ranks. Then, out from among the crowd, Rivon stepped forward. He had waited for this moment, his whole life.
In a clear, booming, voice, that rang out across the field, so that every ear could hear, he cried: “Yerelen, I, Rivon, the true prince of Teremlayne, challenge you to a duel! You killed my father, the Varoq. And my mother killed your father, the Tendralon. Usurper, pretender and oppressor: answer for your crimes! These many years have I wandered in foreign lands, hiding from your spies, biding my time, waiting for this day. I have worked as an apprentice, suffered as a slave, and earned my freedom as a merchant. But today, I come to restore the kingdom. Not for my sake, but for my father’s, and for the people’s own sake: for that is what he would wish! Come! Fight me, you coward!”
Yerelen stepped forward to see the ghost from the past. He came to the front rank of his soldiery, stood only a few meters away, looked him up and down, and then turned to the nobles.
“This man is a fool and a liar. The real Rivon is long dead; twenty years ago — we all knew that and grieved for him. He passed with his father. Archers…” And raised his hand to give the signal.
“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you.”
All eyes turned. A lady had stood among the nobility, hooded and cloaked in grey. She threw off the garment, to reveal the blazing colors of the old kingdom of Teremlayne: yellow and gold. Which had been replaced by the black and grey of Nossibileth.
“Your son and daughter are my prisoners.”
The night before, Shallah had knocked on a door in the sage’s quarter, near the palace. Janmagus, now ancient of age, opened the door, and at the mere sight of her in the candlelight, changed as she was, in recognition, reached his hands for her face, and slowly, at first, tracing the lines of her forehead and cheeks, then suddenly, embraced her, with a hug like a father’s. All these long years, he had never given up hope for this day.
Then, for hours, Janmagus sat Shallah down, and as if she was still but a girl of fifteen, quizzing her. Asking her question after question of his sojourns, until he had as much of the story as could be had. And he wept much, for both joy and sorrow.
Through his fellow sages, Janmagus arranged for Shallah’s access to the quarters of the Prince, Simachus and the Princess, Yereleen. With picked men from the Prime Elder’s elite guard, she abducted them. In the confusion of the fire, they were not missed… until now.
“What?! It cannot be!!” Yerelen said. Then frantically looked back at his pavillion. Gone. “Where have you taken them!?”
She gestured. The Prime Elder’s guard had them, Ereloc, and all of Yerelen’s spies, in a circle, with swords pointing towards their necks.
“You see, oh Varoq, that your well laid plans have been found out. The Prime Elder was the first to discover the plot. But through him, the word has spread, carefully, and through secret channels, amongst the nobility. And we discovered your spies, long ago.”
“Indeed, we did not walk into your trap blindly. We have many more men in the city than you realize. — Men of the old alliances, show yourselves!”
Throughout the crowd, amongst the peasantry, grey cloaks were cast off to reveal armor, swords, and colors of their various kingdoms. The crowd themselves stood agahst.
The nobility cheered for her. She had been their savior.
“Had it not been for my brother, our ships would indeed have been burned last night, and that would have been disastrous. For on them we had smuggled aboard these reinforcements.”
“Your brother!?” Yerelen exclaimed.
“Yes, I am Shallah, Princess of Teremlayne, whom you dispossesed and whose parents you murdered. And your reckoning is now at hand.”
“Given that you are now outnumbered, and your own men know that a massacre will ensue should they resist, they will not remain loyal given that we promise our clemency. But for you, oh Yerelen, for the sake of justice, I propose a final match in this grand tournament of ours. If you win, you will be allowed to rule, and we will submit to your judgement. But if you lose, you will be our subject.”
She had with her, a servant, with a chest. She gave him a nod and he walked towards Rivon, opening it. Inside were a sword, and shield, and his colors. She had made them, by hand, for him, in the hope of this day.
Taking off his merchant’s garb, the crowd and nobility alike, saw his scars. And the cry went up among them: “The true prince is among us! The true prince is one of us!”
And so it was, that for fear of shame and want of escape, there, on the tournament field, the sages made ready, and all the old games were played, among all the nobility. Yerelen was defeated at every hand, and there was no doubt of the identity of Rivon and Shallah: they had not forgotten their old prowess, and finally, what they had begun long ago, they finished.
She was still unmatched of bow and of horse. The final match was of the sword, between Yerelen, and his picked men, and Rivon, and his. Yerelen fought desperately, like a madman, and with all the skill of training. Like wild beasts they clashed together, furiously they parried, and they moved in circles round each other. Until at last, ducking inside a blow, Rivon pinned Yerelen to the ground, with his foot on his chest, and his sword to his neck. The crowd and the nobles cheered, and were glad.
As for the fate of Yerelen, Rivon and Shallah could not bring themselves to exact the price of justice. So, instead, they offered him to the nobility, to whatever jobs suited them best, for which they would be accepted as closely watched servants. As for his children, they returned them to Nossibileth, although the inheritance of that kingdom now passed through their next of kin.
Great was the joy of the reunion of Rivon and Shallah, and much were they celebrated amongst their old friends, whom had not forgotten them. It was Shallah who reigned. And in her good hands, the kingdom prospered. Rivon gave himself to poetry, music, and all the arts. It was not long after, in the months that followed, that they both, finally, found love. Or love found them.
And great was the joy of the people, at their long lost Varoq and Lisane. They were known as The Fisherman and The Seamstress: he, for his stories, fisherman’s tales, could hook anyone, and were told and retold, in many lands; and she, for her ability to weave together the affairs of the realm into a harmonious pattern.
“So, was it worth it, sis? This terrible journey of ours? These scars, these years… What was it all about? I’m glad we finally ended up back here. But it seems like, well, we lost an awful chunk of our lives, were nearly broken in the process, and are getting quite a late start.”
“I don’t know, brother. I don’t know. I am pregnant now. I hope not for my story, for my children. And yet, every day I rule, I learn something of the meaning of those tapestries I wove.”
“And I… I finally have time to write. And I am beginning with our story, sis. Putting it to verse and to song. I might have had natural talent as a writer, but I woudn’t have had any stories to tell, or any practice in telling them, had I not gotten lost, kidnapped on the way to Yish. I used to tell stories under the stars, to keep my spirit from smouldering in the darkness of those mines. And the flame of those stories kept us all alive, I bet. There was a power in them, I didn’t appreciate when we were children. Many times, I wondered at the foresight of Janmagus, in teaching them to us, so carefully, as children. Almost as if he knew…”
“Children,” Janmagus interrupted, startling them. Even in his ancient age, he was so deft, and could be anywhere. “I hope you don’t mind me overhearing. But I’ve been listening, and I couldn’t help but interrupt…”
“You see, your stories didn’t go the way you thought they would go… the way you planned them to go… or your parents had planned them to go… You did not rise to the top. You were not perfect and celebrated. If you had been, maybe you would have been corrupted by it: instead of being celebrated for your noble character and pursuit of excellence, maybe status, fashion and celebrity would have taken hold of your hearts. Who knows what would have come of that season of courtship? Would you have found love, then? If you had ascended the throne in uninterrupted peace, would you have found wisdom, then? Who knows? Who knows? Perhaps not.”
“But what I do know, children, is that you became a Prince and a Princess, not here in the palace, under my instruction, but out there… enduring the trials and tribulations of the world, in all those years of adventure, and yes, of suffering. Those lessons were much more patient, and better teachers, than me. Your character, now, is immune to fashion, for it was forged in hardship. And your love is not fickle, but has roots that go deep, into the rich soil of those years of longing. What wisdom and art you have now, emerges from experience, and your hands are sure.”
“That is why I taught you the skills, of which you availed yourselves, so that you could survive, in any circumstance. I knew you would come back, and I waited. But it was who you would be, when you returned, that I was most curious to see. That is why I told you the stories. Without the stories, you could have become as cruel as the world, as cruel as Yerelen. And then we would not have replaced tyranny with justice, but tyranny with tyranny. There is more than skills, more than winning. The stories contained something deeper. Something of your true selves; something of all of us, of our story… Some memory of the beautiful and meaningful, the joy that makes the suffering worth it… And I knew you would remember the stories, but I am glad you let their magic work in you. I had faith, and you restored my faith to me, children. Thank you.”
“All that you were ashamed of, that lack and inadequacy; all that suffering and injustice of which you complained bitterly; and the endless longing…”
“Is returned to you, now. And has been made whole.”
“You had a story in your heads, and it was taken from you…
Thankfully, my dear children, the real story was better.
And your parents, would have been most proud.”