The sun was about to set on this strange, little island in the south seas and Arnol Gesseren Talgorram supposed he would still not lack for questions by the time it rose again. Around him sat men who had advised his father, God rest his soul, a few of whom had even fought the Vedan hordes at Jigmaren and other such fields of battle. However, even some of those men seemed just as surprised at the events of this afternoon as Arnol was.
It had been a hard voyage, harder still on the little trading ships than on Arnol’s carrack Saint Ferian, but one that would be well worth its cost if the tales of Jewaktana’s riches were to be believed. His own cousin should have told him those tales himself, if the island king had not cut out Wilan’s tongue to the amusement of his court. Ever since the man’s return, Arnol had borne them nothing but contempt, and what pittance he had inherited as a fourth son had bought him the commission he now sought to fulfill. Nearly his every dream since then had found him on a shore much like this one, taking back his family’s stolen honor with shot and sword. He had no higher ambition than seeing the perpetrators dead; that, and becoming enriched beyond his wildest imaginings.
And yet, when the opportunity had presented itself to kill a member of the Jewaktana royal family who had strolled out to meet him unarmed on the beach, he stayed his hand. It was not pity that did it, and he prayed it was not cowardice. His father had always said that a leader was cautious; not overly so, but just enough to avoid acting before he understood the situation. Perhaps caution, then. No matter what had caused him to not simply shoot the man on sight, he was grateful for it.
From the conversation around him, others of his companions felt the same way.
“It was providence that brought him to us,” said Luvic Nareas. The harsh light of their fire made his gaunt, bald head look like a skull. “His knowledge of the kingdom is more useful than any map.”
“I concur,” added Harald Allemont. “But that knowledge could prove dangerous if we are not careful. What say you, Arnol?” He took a moment to think.
“Providence it may be, especially if he is telling the truth about his exile. I wish to learn from him if possible, but the question now is how we determine what exactly is the truth of this.” He waited until he saw some nods around the fire, then continued.
“First, though, we must understand what this could mean for us, and for our venture. If his words are true, and he truly is the rightful king of Jewaktana, then we can expect tribute enough to make us all lords. I have no reason not to believe Wilan’s account of gold in every room of the palace, even on the bodies of peasants and porters in the capital of Lewangwati. Surely, the rightful king will owe us an immense debt for winning back his throne.”
“But how do we determine if this Keranta is telling the truth?” asked Harald. “Any of those fishermen on the other side of the island could have walked out of the forest and said he was king. We need proof.”
“And we will get it,” Luvic said.
“Or not,” Arnol interjected, and every man in the tent turned to look at him. “We will follow him, take his lead for a time or at least give off the appearance of doing so. If his information proves incorrect at any time, or even seems to be the right information given for the wrong reasons, we can always kill him.”
“And if he is telling truth? If he is the rightful king?”
“Let the islanders worry about their succession. Whoever sits in Lewangwati now will either welcome us gladly for ridding him of a pretender to the throne, rightful or not, or else we will kill him too.” That sent up a few chuckles from the assembled men who could see the wisdom in such a plan. It went unspoken but certainly not unthought that, should Arnol and his men need to kill the king of Jewaktana, it would be simple to place one of their own in the dead king’s place.
And who better to do that than the leader of their company, who had risked his last remaining treasures and very life for the success of this endeavor? He had never fancied himself a king, not even in the sleepless nights of longing after this present plan had become clear to him, but he would not shirk the opportunity should it present itself. Perhaps all he needed to do was set out on a course where it would and take it, rather than simply waste away dreaming of it. Father’s other advice had always been that providence shines brightest for those who bring their own torch.
He was so lost in thought that he almost did not hear Genes Halleten’s words.
“Do you forget the lesson of Ergenio Talfane?” the man asked from across the fire. Silence took the place of vocal confidence then, even shaking Arnol’s own. “His ambitions died with him on an island much like this one, all because he underestimated these people.” A few murmurs arose around him, and Arnol knew he had to act fast.
“I read Jaris’ account of the voyage just as you did, if not more closely. We will not repeat his mistakes.” The set of Genes’ jaw and harshness in his eyes told Arnol that he still had much to say on the subject, but chose to keep it to himself instead. All for the best, he thought. If pressed further, he wondered how well he could have defended himself, especially when it came to light that he was bluffing.
Jaris’ prose had always been so imposing, giving such a technical outlook on the ill-fated voyage that even the sense of adventure that should have come from reading of distant islands was lost in logistics and the vague sense that the man had been attracted to his captain and mentor. What drew Arnol more were imaginings of the place not as Jaris had described it so dryly, but as Wilan had: gold on every neck and furnishing, and women new and beautiful like nothing any Arcinan boy had ever known. And of course, the thought of making himself king would now never be far from his heart.
“I agree with Arnol,” said Kell Heserant. “Ergenio was a fool to think that fighting one warlord or another would bring him anything but his own death. What we have here is an opportunity for so much more, and what bounty ever came without risk?”
“None that was worth it,” Arnol joined in. And I know literature as well as you do, Geres. “After all, did not an Ossirian sit on the throne of Qepperdan for nearly twenty years? Whatever power favored him has surely not expended its influence just yet.”
More laughter. Good, Arnol thought. It meant that even if Geres and a few others could not see things his way, then at least their voices would be drowned out by the growing chorus that stood behind him. And if those men who joined him were driven by nothing but their greed, then they would behave predictably. Assuming this Keranta was of their same mind, then he could be used just as easily, only to be just as easily dispatched if he could not join them of his own free will. Men were men no matter where they lived, it had been decided at Ponterae when Arnol was but a boy; even these islanders whose customs and language had once seemed to be not even human.
And if men were men—greedy, lustful, treacherous, and quick to forget— then a man like Arnol Gesseren could achieve more here than had ever entered into his most far-reaching dreams.