GREAT CONSTELLATIONtake you – FIND HIM!”
Beneath the yellow flowers, brambles sliced his hands. Climbing the rocky slope was tearing the flesh from his fingers. Tryst ignored the blood and pain, his eye on the shadow above him.
If it was a cave …
“We must bring proof – or there will be no gold.”
Somewhere, behind him, Jason was trying to cover their tracks. Unless Jason – no. Jason wouldn't betray him.
Tryst ducked below the brush, wincing as thorns caught his hair, his clothes. His shoulder. Reaching the cave would only work if they never saw him enter.
If it was a cave …
Seven days earlier, he'd surveyed the east view from the council room.
Green hills, thick oak, blue sky. And wildflowers. All bunched up together, as if the mountain behind had pushed it all out of its way. It lacked the discipline of the palace gardens, but there was something Tryst liked about the sheer wildness of the view.
At one time, the King's council room had been open all around. The room was at the top of the palace, and should have commanded a superb view of Missea, the King's City. The seat and pride of the Skullan people. But over the thousand years since the first war, the arched openings had been sealed one by one, until only the east view remained. And the King's first minister urged that sealed as well. To protect King Bactor.
The door burst open and Tryst slipped behind the arch pillar, for all the world as if he were twelve instead of nineteen.
“Move the Devon garrison to Gold Harbor. It's the stepping stone to the city, and far too vulnerable.” Even if the rasping voice hadn't revealed him, Tryst would have known Charis, the First Minister, by his words. Charis always wanted to prepare for battle – or to launch one.
“Too provocative, my friend,” King Bactor's voice was strong, inspiring confidence. A true King's voice. “If we must do that – and I'm not convinced we must – let it be after the Comet Final.”
And now Tryst felt like a foolish twelve-year-old playing hide and seek in his father's Council room.
“If they attack this year, they will fill the city during the Final. That's what I would do. We'd never count the troops until it was far too late.”
“Do you think the Trumen are as clever as my First Minister?”
Tryst stepped out. His father saw him, but Charis had his back turned. The two stood on either side of the giant council table – a table surely meant, Tryst suddenly thought, for more than one adviser.
“I will defend my people.” Bactor joined his son at the window, smiling warmly. “I will fight a war, if the stars steer it so, but I will not provoke one.”
“The Chronicles –” Charis realized Tryst was in the room.
“Minister Charis.” Tryst nodded.
“My Prince.” Charis hid his annoyance well, but Tryst knew the First Minister didn't like to push the King in front of others. His father believed it was out of respect, but Tryst thought Charis preferred to keep his influence from being widely known.
None the less, it was widely known.
“We shall speak later, Majesty,” Charis bowed again. “The Prince's epourney begins tomorrow, does it not? You will wish some time together.”
Tryst waited until the First Minister was gone before grimacing.
“Minister Charis is a wise adviser. You would do well to appreciate him.”
“Is war so close? Should I not remain?”
“According to Charis, war is always close. No, my son. The epourney is key to becoming a man, and a future King must first be a man.”
“But I can help you. Everything I need to know I can learn right here in Missea -”
King Bactor burst out laughing. Tryst suddenly felt twelve again.
“You wish to rule the Skullan people without ever setting foot outside Missea? Without talking to them in their villages, standing beside them on their ships? You wish to decide the fates of Trumen without ever seeing who they are, how they live?
“Ignorance, my son. A blessing in a woman, a fault in a man. And a fatal flaw in a King.”
All of Tryst's carefully marshaled arguments faded. Like it or not, he was going on the epourney.
The horses stood in the east courtyard. From here they would be relatively unseen as they departed. Though the mountains seemed impenetrable, there was a path that lead through them and beyond to the rest of the world. His father would say to the rest of the kingdom, but there were in truth whole continents unaware of the King's claim.
The path was long and difficult, which was why the castle was safe with the mountains guarding its eastern side. An army would march a long, dangerous trek, some of it single file, to use that access. They could carry nothing but what would fit on a horse, and find themselves very tired and thirsty before arriving. And they would be spotted hours before they reached safe cover.
Most visitors, of course, approached the other way, into the famous Gold Harbor. In the thousand years that Missea had stood, no one had ever successfully attacked the port. Only three had dared try.
Tryst had grown up with this lesson among the many. Not until today, however, did he come to appreciate it.
An epourney is undertaken with a best friend/companion, and a prince's epourney with no less than three. Baldar, Mauric, Jason, and five of the elite personal guard. He could have taken more – many more – but if he must do this journey, he preferred to travel light.
Jason had burst out laughing when he said that.
“What better way to see your kingdom than from behind a wall of armed men? How else can the citizens warm to you?”
Jason and Mauric were Tryst's best friends. He had eight prince-companions, but these two were good fellows, not afraid to make a joke or tell him he was wrong.
And today Mauric was late as usual. Jason calmed his spirited gray mount as a stable hand soothed Tryst's pretty white steed.
“Finally!” Tryst heard the oaken doors creak – but only Kellan emerged. Kellan was least of the prince-companions. A good political family, but in truth he shared not a common thought or opinion with the others. And he was a good ten years older.
“My Prince,” Kellan bowed. “Mauric is taken ill this morning, and begs that I go in his stead. So that you may start your epourney at the appointed time.”
“I don't think...”
“Kellan!” Baldar strode over to shake Kellan's hand. “Now we'll have some fun! My Prince, you must hear Kellan's newest trick. He's perfected a Minister Charis imitation.”
They both waited expectantly, eyes sparkling with laughter. With confidence.
After the briefest hesitation, Tryst nodded.
It was only later he realized Kellan had mounted the dappled gelding. The horse he always rode. Mauric's black had not been brought to the courtyard.
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