Chapter Six

Kalo Patwa hunched in shadow on the eastern horizon, the sun rising behind it in eight rays of golden light. The good omen lifted Arnol’s spirits as he pulled his coat tighter around him in the chilly dawn air. Wilan had said it was always hot here—or rather, he had written it—but this weather pleased Arnol greater. He was one for snow and rain, for cold days in warm inns. Already the heat of midday here was intolerable, but he would endure, at least until victory would make it so.

Luvic stood beside him at the rail. The once-pale skin of his bald head had already turned red and peeled away, leaving behind mottled flesh that made him look even more the animate corpse than his gauntness did. Had his lieutenant not been known to him for so many years, Arnol would have been frightened of the man’s appearance alone. Instead, he knew to be more frightened of his heart.

“Cold today,” Luvic said.

“It will warm up again in a few hours. Then we will wish it were dawn again.” Luvic grunted, then picked at his teeth with a long fingernail.

There was not much to say that would keep them from the inevitable: how to proceed with the war. It was to be a war, what with such a large force under Arnol’s command. Even the two carvels lost to storms with all hands and natural losses to disease were not enough to diminish the might Arcinia would bring to bear on this petty island king. And all they needed now that Keranta had proven himself was to take the capital from men who fought with sticks.

“Did Keranta say where we should land?” Luvic asked.

“Somewhere on the north shore. His friend is not expecting us, but he will come soon enough when he sees our ships on the horizon.”

“True.” The wind picked up again, and Arnol thought them only an hour from the coast. It was hard to tell in these strange waters, so unlike the calmer Great Bay. Out here, far beyond the narrow gap between Corastia and Callira, the sun was harsher, the winds fiercer, and no chart yet made could tell of all the reefs and shallows that threatened to end any voyage nearly before it began.

Yet providence had shone on them thus far, and there was no reason to suspect that it would cease to do so. Providence meant victory; revenge; the wealth of kings. For Arnol in this moment, the shore of Kalo Patwa may as well have been the shore of paradise.

Two hours passed on the waves until the island was finally within range of their landing boats; time enough for each of the thirty men Arnol had selected to put on their armor and prepare their arquebuses for anything they might encounter here. But the closer they rowed, the more Arnol’s heart sank within him. What began as a few men on the beach swelled to a dozen, then a mass of brown flesh that he could no longer enumerate. Only Lati and Keranta’s presence at his side kept away the worst of his fears, and even that did not diminish the lingering thought that this was where he would be betrayed.

Men with skin the color of dark wood met their boats in the surf, taking hold of lines and boats to pull them ashore. There must be fifty such men here, though only a few were armed. Anxiety mixed with wonder on the faces of his own men; Arnol’s attentions, however, were only for Keranta. Any hint of trickery would mean their deaths. For his part, Arnol would do his best to add this pretender to the list of the dead before he fell himself.

But once all his men had disembarked safely and assembled on the sand, he began to feel that his fears were unfounded. At the highest point of the beach, surrounded by guards decked in feathers and some sort of spiky helmet, stood a man who could only be the chief of Kalo Patwa. His own clothing was grander than any Arnol could see, with gold hoops thicker than a man’s thumb hanging from his distended ears. Arms of thickly corded muscle rested on a strange wooden club in the shape of an axe, to which were tied feathers in hues rarely seen outside of Irritaschia. It was this man who Keranta approached first.

Lati was at Arnol’s side in an instant, pushing through the growing press of bodies on the beach. His accent as he interpreted for the pretender and chief was just as thick as ever, but Arnol knew that he would lost without him.

“Keranta just greeted the man, calling him Juyata. He says we are his allies and that we are on our way to the City of the King. He asks that Juyata let us purchase supplies here for our journey.”

Keranta had said nothing of purchasing, Arnol thought. From the man’s assurances back on Kalo Malut, he had made this place sound like a paradise of fruit and fresh water, where men could take and take and never come up empty. But Arnol reasoned it was no matter; even the meanest Corastian trinkets could command a high price here, where their like had never been seen before. He would need to meet with Luvic about this later, for the chief was speaking again.

“What is he saying now?” Arnol asked Lati. A few seconds passed.

“He says Keranta is welcome again after a long absence, and that he will be glad to sell us whatever we require. Also, he asks if we will stop at Kalo Nubi on our approach to the City of the King.”

“And we shall,” Arnol said. A sudden surge of confidence swept him from his place in the rear of the company until he stood at Keranta’s side. His voice betrayed none of his fear.

“I am Arnol Geserren of Gorram,” he announced as Lati struggled to join him and translate.

Arnol Geserren Talgorram eje.” Certain that Lati was prepared, Arnol continued.

“I come from a land far across the sea to punish the King of Jewaktana for a grave insult to my country and my own blood. With me are thirty-six ships and over a thousand men, who you see there beyond the shore.” He turned briefly, pointing to his armada at anchor in the distant waves. Looking back to Chief Juyata, the man must have been trying hard to hide his reaction to such an impressive sight. Certainly, a man such as he could not appear weak in front of his men.

“Keranta has told me,” Arnol continued, “that in order to secure your help, we must first attack your enemies to the south. This we will do gladly. Are we agreed?”

Mudeli hede?” Lati asked. The words hung in the air as Arnol’s breathing slowed once more, the spirit which possessed him now diminishing. It was the first time he had looked to Keranta since their landing, and the man’s face was serious; not quite grim, but lacking all friendliness and amusement. Arnol’s confidence wavered.

Had he broken some tradition? Infringed on some code of etiquette these people held? Perhaps so, but Keranta’s pleasantries would not win them the support and supplies they required; only a show of force could do that. After all, if offense was to be taken and then avenged, the men who surrounded them would need to defeat over half their number armed better than these island people had ever seen. They looked brave and strong, but Arnol knew of no valor that could pierce iron.

It was Chief Juyata who spoke first.

Hala re ruja, Keranta?

Haye,” the pretender replied.

Rase piki. Rapiki yiguguya iyimari.” The man’s gaze fixed on Arnol and those firm muscles tensed slightly as he took up his wooden axe and turned to face Keranta again.

“Follow,” Lati said, making a pointing motion with his chin. He did so, shouldering his arquebus and falling in behind the translator and Keranta. One glance at Luvic and the other men did the same, forming a tight bunch around their commander. If there was to be any trouble here, then it would not be his men who came out the losers.

The bay and its fleet of warships fell behind them as they made their way up the beach and into a thin forest of strange trees, their green branches rattling in the northwesterly wind. A few minutes’ walk brought them near indications of a village: where only a few little houses stood watch with nets and halved fish drying in the morning sun, now they grew more dense. Fields of some leafy vegetables could be een still farther off, but the island chief did not lead them that way. Instead, they turned and came to a stop at a large open space before a large house on stilts that could only be his. It stood higher than a man with steep, narrow stairs leading up inside, and a half dozen more armed men waited outside bearing spears and swords. This would not be the place to start any trouble, if indeed it was his men who started it.

Iyijake,” the chief said, pointing to Keranta and Arnol.

“Enter,” Lati added, moving to do so, but Arnol was more cautious.

“What about my lieutenant?” he asked, motioning with his head toward Luvic. The chief did not falter, nor did he wait for Lati to translate.

Bagi tui,” he replied. The meaning was plain enough on the man’s stern face. He turned to face his guards and said something to them which Arnol could not hear, then ascended the steps and bid Arnol follow him.

Looking to Luvic, he did not need to tell his lieutenant to be on his guard outside. He fell in beside Keranta with Lati behind him, wondering if this is where he would die.

Chapter Five

A light breeze carried with it the mingled scents of a thousand flowers, brought from all corners of the kingdom and beyond to surround the princess with loveliness, yet none of it could draw Bariti’s thoughts away from Daruntala anymore. Ever since being brought to court from Keranta’s manor two days south of the capital, even a million blossoms would not be enough to wash away the stench of what had occurred here in the night the usurper prince had claimed the throne. Who had been butchered where she sat? Where had her father been cut down by men he once trusted? All was cleansed of their blood long before she arrived nearly a month ago, but the images were as vivid in her mind as if she had seen them in person.

The morning sun was cresting the high walls of the citadel and still, her second sister was nowhere to be seen. Nuwan had always taken too long to get dressed. Bariti only hoped that she did not treat their breakfast this morning as some sort of audience, despite her status as second wife. Doing so would only add to the discomfort of what would surely be a discomforting talk, if Bariti could only find the words to say and a way to say them. After all the princes and diplomats, it was her younger sister who made a princess of Jewaktana the most nervous.

She found her mouth dry, and her cup the same on the gilded table before her. With a wave of her hand, a servant who had been waiting in the shadows of the porch approached with a pitcher of water mixed with letaya leaves and ginger. The woman poured in silence and retreated just as quickly as she had come. Her lips puckered at the taste of the bitter water, and Bariti hoped that her little Jayatna would live long enough for it to take effect.

A flash of yellow caught her eye as Nuwan entered the garden in a rush of silks. Always hurrying, Bariti thought.

“My apologies, sister,” Nuwan said, taking the seat opposite her.

“None are needed on such a fine morning.” She took another sip of water, this one more for herself than the child growing inside her. “Breakfast will be along shortly.”

The breeze calmed, giving way to the sound of Nuwan catching her breath, and Bariti thought more on her younger sister as her heart dreaded what it must do. But how to begin? Continue in talk of nothings until the time and place for talk of more passed her by again, as it had the previous night? Wasted opportunities become a wasted life, her father had said, and she wondered how many more could pass her by before the time to act had passed as well.

To Bariti’s surprise, her sister was first to break the silence again.

“You never have company this early in the gardens; even the servants are always sent away. So why did you call for me?”

“Can sisters not enjoy each other’s company?”

“Of course,” she replied, and lapsed back into silence. Only the rustling of leaves and distant bird calls could be heard but hardly, drowned out in the princess’ ears by the beating of her heart.

A pair of servants approached from the porch, bearing trays of something steaming in the cool morning air; a pair of silent bows later and they were gone. They left two bowls of porridge, topped with greens and boiled eggs. Even if the soup had not been so hot, Bariti found that was no longer hungry upon looking at it. She could not tell if it was more nausea or her nervousness, but she would have to maintain her illusion of normalcy somehow, one mouthful at a time.

For her part, Nuwan ate as heartily as ever and had soon devoured half her bowl. Such a sight would have been shocking to any but Bariti. What princess and wife to a general could be seen dining at court with soup smeared across her chin?

“Why do you wait, sister?” Nuwan asked with a mouth still full of food. “Especially now that you eat for both you.”

Then this was it; the moment when the mask fell away. Bariti could keep it on no longer, not from her. One deep breath and she began.

“Daruntala knows that I am with child. Only the days ahead will show if he intends to kill me or my child. Perhaps both.”

“Is there nothing we can do?”

“If he means to keep me alive, then this knowledge is still secret. All I can say for certain now is that Hakil must not know, at least not yet. If I survive what is coming, then I shall tell her myself. But if I do not…”

“I understand, sister.”

“I did not wish you to learn what I have, in the way that I have learned it. I had hoped that you could stay innocent in all this, but the future will not allow it. We will do what must be done.”

“And what is that?”

“Daruntala must be stopped.”

“Killed, then.”

“Yes. Not just for our own sakes, but for that of the kingdom. I have given it much thought in the past weeks and given time, we may be able to assemble enough nobles loyal to our cause that we can accomplish our goals. But I will need your help.”

Bariti noticed that she was sweating, and she felt detached from everything around her, as if everything she had said was only a shadow play she watched once. There was peace in truth, but this truth had been the hardest.

Anger grew on Nuwan’s pretty face, beginning at the slim line of her mouth and wrinkling her brows at the last.

The silence that came after continued until the porridge before them had already grown cold. Finally, Bariti spoke again.

“Say what you must, sister.”

“I thought I knew you well, that there was no secret you kept from me. But I see the truth now.”

“Sister, know that I never wanted to hurt you. To let you be hurt. By anyone.”

“I feel like I should hate you for keeping this from me, but I cannot. I still know you, just not the hardship you have gone through. Keeping up this mask of yours for so long… It must have been torture. But how else could you have managed what you did? I suspected it was your idea that we marry Keranta.”

“Everything I did was for us, sister. Please understan-”

“How necessary was I to your plan?” Nuwan interrupted. “Or Hakil? Did you think that she could have no further use than to secure the general’s loyalty? Was there no other family that could not be tied to us by our youngest sister? How high was first wife Bariti to climb before she would be contented? And now, to think only of our standing and power when our husband—yes, our husband—might be dead on some forsaken island?”

“Do you not see, Nuwan? There is more here than only our family. Our step-brother must be stopped.”

“Of course I see it. You are not the only one who notices, but you act your part well. Aloof but perceptive; feigning carelessness but inwardly vicious. I suspected for a time, wondering what had changed in you when we were children. At first, I thought it only the beginnings of womanhood but now I know better. Now I know you think yourself a puppeteer if only to avoid being the puppet.”

It was true—all of it was true, and Bariti had known it after a fashion—but hearing it now, from the lips of one she trusted over even her noble husband, hurt her deeper than any slight at court. But had she truly trusted her sister if all she ever showed her was the self-interested girl, contented to laze in comfort while her inward self used anyone it could toward the end of her own preservation and power?

She had certainly trusted Nuwan and Hakil to continue as they had without too many questions or improper observations, but had she given her younger sisters the chance to live their own lives? Had the world they knew given them the same?

“I did not know, sister. Please… Do not hate me for what I did. For what I yet must do.”

“I cannot. Not yet. Not while Daruntala sits on our father’s throne. But when all this is done, we will need to speak again.” Pushing away her chair, second wife Nuwan Latevisha Jewaktana Surankaje turned away from Bariti, a storm cloud driven on fiercer winds than the princess could imagine.

“I welcome it, sister,” Bariti called to her as she reached the shade of the porch.

“Should you?”

As Nuwan disappeared into the palace, Bariti forced the mask back into place once more; the time for tears would have to come later as well.

Chapter Four

The apparent ease with which the Adusinate had granted him an audience with their leader surprised Keranta, though he would never show it. All that he did must appear to be part of a plan, which it certainly was, but also one in which he had unending confidence. As it was, he did feel confident. He had been given the night before to devise more of his plan for retaking the capital, and his years of service as commander of the royal armies had done him well.

But now, the challenge was different. Arrayed before him in a large tent were the foreign captains, strange men with fierce faces that had likely seen as many battles in their own lands as Keranta had in his. The one in the center was different, though. They called him Adanul, and while he did not appear as old as the others or even as old as Keranta himself, it was obvious that the rest heeded his counsel above any others.

He would be the one to befriend first, the general thought. The constant intercession of the Adusinate’s translator, a slight man named Lati whose accent in the speech of Lewangwati told of islands far to the west of the capital. How someone from a place so distant had ended up in the company of these sailors, much less how he came to speak their tongue, were questions for another time. All that mattered now was whether or not the man could be trusted to convey Keranta’s plan without error or falsehood.

“My name is Keranta Surankaje, and my kingdom was stolen from me by my wife’s brother, Prince Daruntala. Instead of killing me, the traitor left me here on this island. I would do anything to take back what is mine.” Only Keranta, he thought. Not Ajan Keranta. Though his words were meant for Lati’s ears, his eyes never left Adanul’s. As soon as the translator had finished his message in that clipped speech he had somehow learned, Adanul spoke.

“And how can we believe you, Keranta? Surely, you can give us more than your word.” Thankfully, he could. Among the few possessions left to him after his hasty exit from the capital by night was a single piece of wood, marked by the royal house and naming Keranta leader of a campaign in this farthest frontier in the kingdom. That this campaign was to be waged by him alone was only a technically, for the formal requirements of his exile could not be brushed aside even by Daruntala’s brashness.

Keranta withdrew it from his pocket and handed it to Lati. The man pored over it, turning it upside-down and examining it so closely that he almost risked a splinter. Finally, Adanul interrupted him and extended a hand. Passing over the little token, he nodded once to Adanul and then to Keranta while speaking in the other man’s language.

The stranger spoke again, as the translator took the piece of wood back and returned it to Keranta.

“Very well. There is also a debt owed to us by the court in Lewangwati. In our country, the harming of ambassadors is a serious offense, and one for which I personally seek recompense. I propose that we work together in claiming what is rightfully ours.”

It had not occurred to Keranta before that this Adanul could have had some relation to the ambassadors. As much as these faces looked similar now, he supposed that they would cease to do so as his familiarity with them grew. Furthermore, the details of the men’s faces had now faded into memory, and not only as a result of their torment. It was the screams that cut through the fog of years most clearly. Such things were common in war, but what was expected on some distant battlefield was quite unexpected in the lavish surroundings of court, where the cleanliness and order or even the smallest details were looked after purely for the pleasure of the royal beholder. Such a place was not meant for dismemberment and death, and so most of the onlookers had no preparation for what they saw embodied that had only been known to them before from plays and puppets.

But Keranta was prepared, and should have known that the Adusinate would be back with a mind for vengeance. Let theirs come with mine, he thought, and on my terms.

“It pleases me that we can help each other,” he replied. “As I know the enemy’s strengths, I offer to guide you on your journey to the capital. I can take you around their armies and fortresses, through country their commanders either do not know or fear to cross. We can strike them where they are weak and gather the king’s enemies against him, after which Lewangwati will be open to our forces. Any payment you ask in return will not overshadow my joy at seeing the traitors punished and my kingdom restored to my hands.”

His hook was now baited, and dangling it in front of such hungry fish almost brought a smile to his lips. The hardest part was always the waiting; not knowing if the Adusinate would heed him, even if the translator’s words were correct. It always had been so, in negotiations that had taken him all over the kingdom. Now was no different, despite everything that told him it was. He must give them time to confer amongst themselves.

It took less time than he had anticipated. Only a moment’s worth of pleased looks and laughter had passed before Adanul turned to Lati and gestured toward Keranta.

Shudis ner dereh,” the foreign captain said.

“Tell me more.”

“Do you have a map?” Keranta asked.

Fudeli ned ere esedereh?” Adanul turned and said something Keranta could not hear to a man at his rear, who then darted out of the tent and into the growing dawn light. The silence that followed gave the general time to think.

His flight out of Lewangwati had taken him to this little island at the far northeastern border of the kingdom, near the edge of any map he had ever seen in the archives. What interested him more than what lay beyond it were three of the many larger islands to the south: Patwa, Nubi, and Laku. He hoped it would not take much convincing to gain Adanul’s support for what he was about to do, given his promise of treasure in return.

The bearded man returned carrying what looked like a rolled-up square of animal skin, which he laid out on the table between Keranta and the Adusinate captains. Keranta’s breath caught within him at what he saw: everything he had ever known, every distant land on which he had ever fought or negotiated or even dreamed of, sat within the lower right-hand corner of the drawing. Far to the northwest, in the corner nearest Adanul, a vast island made all the efforts of the dead king—every dead king, really—of Jewaktana seem like a child’s innocent mockery by comparison. When a single nation could encompass so much land, and what he imagined in an instant to be so many people and tongues, to what then did all his own kingdom’s blood and treaties add up? Was the Kingdom of Holy Victory nothing more than a collection of specks on some foreigner’s map?

But this thought did not strike fear into the heart of the general who had brought the trophies and slaves of so many of those victories back to the City of Kings. Instead, it only encouraged him. Ajan Keranta Surankaje had not earned his epithets by cowardice.

The time had come for the Many-Splendored General to show himself once more. He reached out to point at what appeared on the map to be an empty space.

“We are here,” he said, looking to Adanul. “Kalo Malut. The capital is here, on Nuritjuka.” Land of Gold. Let their translator try that one. His finger traced a curving path back to Kalo Malut. “We must be careful as we pass through the kingdom, or else we will alert my enemies.”

That much was true, both of those who bore no love for Keranta himself and the kingdom in general, but he could distinguish between them better than many supposed. He thanked Bariti for that, and felt a sudden pang of loss at their separation. What revenge he could take at the hands of these Adusinate was only an appendage to being with her again.

The strangers took their time before answering him.

“What is the best course?” Adanul asked through Lati. Keranta brought his finger back to the space between their location and Lewangwati, settling on a smallish lump that stood for Kalo Patwa.

“Make for this island, where there is much water and game. We will gather what supplies we can before turning here.” He drew a fairly straight path to what he knew to be Kalo Laku. “I have allies here who will join us in attacking Lewangwati, but only if we give them Kalo Nubi first.” The last island was nearer to Kalo Patwa, a squat lump of earth barely worth mentioning, except that its new chief had thought to entertain the kingdom’s enemies too many times.

It was not for Adanul to know that this last statement was a lie; after their campaign together against the eastern islands, Ganita would have joined Keranta to the bottom of the sea without question. But the general of Jewaktana’s armies had not become such without a sense for knowing an opportunity when he saw one.

“Can we not simply sail around Kalo Nubi if it poses a threat?” Adanul asked, resting his chin on his hand.

“Perhaps to one of our small ships, but certainly not to your own. And of course, our spoils there will only be a taste of what I can offer you as king.”

Adanul let loose a grin that a more experienced man would have suppressed at what appeared to be such an easy victory, and that was when Keranta knew that the only victory here this morning was his own.

Chapter Three

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.

Chapter Two

“I assure you, your majesty, this is only a routine procedure. We must see to your majesty’s fitness of body. After all, the body and spirit are one, and the fitness of one affects the other most drastically.”

Bariti Latevisha Jewaktana, princess and first wife of the exiled General Keranta, had already exhausted her excuses to the court physicians. To avoid them any further could provoke wrath, if not their own then that of he who had sent them. She looked to Nuwan and Hakil, her younger sisters. Their brows were wrinkled in concern, which was for the best; had they shown fear, it would have meant that they understood the true import of this examination. Bariti knew, though, and could not show her fear. She had the illusion of flippancy and immaturity to maintain at all costs, lest the usurper Prince Daruntala know her heart, as well as he would know her secret as soon as the physicians had looked over her.

“I thank you for your concern,” she protested, “but I am as healthy as I have ever been. Are there no more wounded to see to in the palace?”

“But your majesty must take precedence,” replied another woman. Bariti thought she could see a tear in those eyes, worn by lines of age and worry in years of service to the kingdom. “King Daruntala insisted.”

So their hand was just as forced as is mine, she thought. Not that it made her situation any easier to accept. Instead, it only spoke to the depth of Daruntala’s conspiracy. Had he threatened their families? Or had he even needed to voice a threat after seeing to the slaughter of their king and half his household servants? She doubted it mattered what the prince had done, or that anything in her power could convince the old women to lie for her, and her own body would not be able to conceal the truth for long even if they did. Should that happen, all of them—princesses as well as physicians—would be as good as dead.

Bariti cast her eyes around the room. At the thought of what she would be subjected to, the gilded furnishings of her bedroom suddenly felt cold, as if they were made of stone. The heavy curtains drawn over the windows to preserve her dignity, or at least what would remain of it, left the room airless. Or perhaps that was only the breath caught in her chest. Finding her sisters’ gazes, she tried her best to tell them to look away without words. Nuwan got her meaning somehow, and gave Hakil a nudge with her elbow until she followed suit.

The princess disrobed and took her place on the examination chair. The physicians were well-practiced, having tended to princesses and queens since the time of her grandfather. Henija, the one with the worried eyes, had seen to Bariti’s hurts more times than she could count, always with tender hands and heart. And now, knowing that they were all now only tools of her step-brother, even unwilling ones, cut her deeper than any of Henija’s surgical blades ever could.

Daruntala knew this just as well as she did. He had ever been among the cruelest of her many step-siblings, and the shame of seeing the favor he should have received as first son go to his brother-in-law had never left him. Behind her tears at the murder of their father, Bariti held a knowledge of the usurper prince complete enough to see his actions as logical in a way that only he could justify.

The other physician sounded concerned for a moment, then motioned for the third of their number to approach from her place near the door.

“Let the record state that the princess is not intact,” she said, as the third woman scratched a note into a small piece of wood. Henija craned her neck to peer at Bariti over her thighs.

“Is it true that your majesty has had relations with her husband, Ajan Keranta?”

“It is,” Bariti replied. “But to my knowledge, my sisters have not. It would please me if they were spared this indecency.”

The worried look returned to Henija’s face.

“I apologize, your majesty, but the King’s orders were quite explicit.” The King. Bariti had called her step-brother by his stolen title aloud, but she would never call him that in her heart.

“Proceed,” she said, leaning back until only the intricate patterns of the ceiling were visible. Following those lines, in their brilliant colors and whorls that she swore continued eternally without merging, was the only healing she had. With the fact now known that she could be pregnant, it was only a matter of time before they learned that she was. The physicians would only have to wait a number of weeks, either until she missed her blood again or until the signs of the child within her began to show.

She had always liked the name Jayatna, taken from the old story of the hero-prince who snatched the sun from the jaws of a giant serpent, and though she did not know the full extent of her brother-in-law’s plan, she mourned her unborn son already.

Henija’s gentle hand on her shoulder startled Bariti, and when she turned to look at the woman, she saw that the physician’s other hand held the robe she had left on the ground.

“Our work is complete, your majesty,” she said. “You may clothe yourself again.” So Daruntala would not even attempt to put on a pretense of a complete examination, she thought. Only what was strictly necessary for his designs. Bariti took the robe and dressed in silence.

Hatred grew in her heart, steady as boiling water that threatened to spill over the lip of its pot but never did. It was the game she would have to play, and indeed the game she had already played for longer than most in the court could ever suspect. Only Keranta had known her heart and he had been taken from her.

There were nights when she wanted to scream and some when she cried, blaming her tears on the pains of her monthly bleeding. Without him there to receive her secrets and her longing for a world without the need for such things, she felt like a shadow puppet without a puppeteer. What plans she had made for their betterment then could always rely on the support of her husband, whose armies could solve any problem that his natural charm could not. And now… What was she to be but a puppet dancing on the whims of another? And how long was she to dance? Until she was used up and then discarded?

As much as she hated the thought, Bariti knew that her salvation may not come from her husband. She had never even heard of Kalo Malut until the court cartographers had pointed it out to her, an island so small and meaningless in the designs of the kingdom that she had first thought it only an accidental spot of ink near the border of the map. Now it was her husband’s only home, and his last if Daruntala had his way. The usurper had been wise to not kill Keranta in the capital, and he would think himself wiser still to end the threat of his return in some faraway place, from which truth could be dismissed as rumor and rumor could fade into mystery.

And now he thought to end the threat of Keranta’s line. Bariti was sure of it, as she would surely do the same in Daruntala’s position. Perhaps the two of them were not as different as was supposed. This thought had disturbed her greatly in the first days of her step-brother’s rebellion, but the passage of time had softened the blow of what she now regarded as a truth. Had their father risen to such heights without his own streak of viciousness, or had their mothers’ families, for that matter? And viciousness was so relative anyway. What was unnecessary or cruel in the eyes of one was mere practicality in the eyes of those who practiced it, and Bariti was nothing if not practical.

She had always been a planner, as had her husband. It was one of the things she loved about him, and the one that had most assured to her that their union would be to their mutual benefit. Daruntala was much the same, but he was predictable; he always had been, and so Bariti began to see how she could turn his plans to help her.

The first action he would take was to ascertain the threat posed to his reign by Keranta, who alone of the generals and husbands of the royal blood could pose one. With the general out of the way, the next step was happening in this moment. Nuwan now shivered in the physician’s chair, not from the still air but likely from growing fear. Perhaps Bariti had underestimated her middle sister in assuming that she did not know the import of their present situation. If she truly understood, then that would yet prove valuable in the days ahead. If not, then the time would surely come before the end when Nuwan must be taught in the ways of court life before those ways broke her. Hakil would have to come later.

Though they were under threat simply because of who they were, the greater danger came to Bariti as mother of Keranta’s child. The only question that remained was whether Daruntala would attempt to kill her outright—a dangerous proposition, given the delicate alliances that rested on her wellbeing—or only kill her child. Only. It was such a simple word, and one that could not convey the true terror she felt at the possibility.

If her child was killed, then Daruntala’s ambitions for her were not yet accomplished. The thought struck fear into her like she had not felt before. To keep her alive could only mean that he sought to preserve her family’s loyalty, but to do so without bearing an heir through her would be a grave insult.

That was it, then. The usurper prince, her step-brother, meant to use her to father his heir. Or at least he would do so if he did not simply kill her and attempt the same with Nuwan or Hakil. He was rash enough for the latter, but the former… Only the years of maintaining her illusion better than any dancer held character could stay the revulsion she felt at that thought.

The physicians had finished with Nuwan, and now it was Hakil’s turn. Despite her anger, she did not look away. It was nothing she had not seen before, for they often bathed together and dressed each other for court functions, but now it was different. She could not see her sisters as objects, as wombs for the usurper, but she knew that he did, and for that she would kill him unless he killed her first.

Chapter One

From the moment Ajan Keranta Surankaje read his brother-in-law’s pronouncement, he knew that this little outpost in the farthest corner of the kingdom was not to be his new command: it was to be his prison. A spit of land known only to traders and the court cartographers, Kalo Malut had been an observation post in the early days, before the civil war had dragged all of Jewaktana’s scattered armies and fleets back toward the capital. Now, it was the place of the general’s exile. Keranta hated it.

Every passing day for nearly a month now only deepened the dread that he would die here despite his best efforts. That Bariti, his first and most-loved wife, would become but a concubine to the usurper Prince Daruntala, assuming he let her live at all. That everything he and his father-in-law had built would follow them both into the grave.

He wondered sometimes if he would even have to wait long for death. How many days until the traitor sent a boatload of soldiers to kill him in his sleep? And it would be a boatload, because a man who had risen as high as Daruntala had would not have gotten there by underestimating his enemy. His only mistake had been leaving Keranta alive, and he knew it. Keranta knew it just as well.

The mountain that stood at the center of Kalo Malut was old and dead. No doubt its violence had been a thing to behold in days long past, but its slopes were now green and peaceful. In those first days, it had not occurred to the general that he could be compared to this mountain: his famed potency become only an overgrown memory. The thought of Daruntala entertaining this same irony enraged him nearly beyond his ability to contain it. If nothing else, Keranta would live only to kill him.

Atop the dead volcano stood a little watchtower, equally overgrown and now resembling a haphazard tumble of stone. The handful of fishermen and their households down on the shore knew not to disturb Keranta up here, so high that sometimes he could nearly touch the clouds. If beyond those clouds some god or goddess could be moved to favor him, now would be the time. Until they did, he could only remember and plan.

His had been a short road from nobleman’s son to general of Jewaktana’s armies; even shorter for many of his enemies, and there were many more to replace those he had killed in battle. Keranta of A Hundred Battles, they had called him once. From the walls of the capital to the farthest stretches of the empire, the Many-Splendored General had put down more kings and petty lords than most could count. Doing so had earned him the king’s favor, above that of his own son and heir. It had earned him three of the king’s daughters, more beautiful and charming than any maidens in the kingdom. It had also earned him the jealousy of the prince, and his exile here on Kalo Malut: useless island. Keranta believed it.

Though the thought of leaving here no longer kept him from sleep, it occupied nearly his every waking hour. It was not just getting off this island that possessed him, but also what he would do afterward. Killing Daruntala and all who had aided him would be only the beginning. The old king’s death at his son’s hands had likely left the capital in a fragile state, with nobles clamoring for power and attention in the wake of his passing. Another such shift in the delicate balance of families and alliances could just as easily end in Keranta’s death, and that of his own family.

It was always to Bariti that his thoughts went next. The way she smiled, setting the little golden pegs in her teeth glittering in the soft candlelight; the tenderness of her embrace after he returned sore and bandaged from battle; the sharpness of her mind, trained equally well in the arts of song and politics. Two of her sisters were just as much his wives, yet they would never take Bariti’s place in his heart.

The sea breeze picked up suddenly, bringing with it the smell of salt and rain on the horizon. His eyes were drawn away from the fallen stones around him to the gray line that marked the edge of the world. It was a world that had grown much larger several years ago, when men unlike any he had seen before had come from far across the sea to call on the King of Jewaktana. Fools as they were, they had thought to threaten him into paying tribute to their own king. Keranta had been there that day, and he had watched with the rest of the court as the ambassadors’ ears were cut off and their cheeks were branded like those of thieves, but he had not laughed as the others had. The general was too cautious for that;  he only remembered and planned.

So many in court had feared an invasion from far away that their eyes had gone blind to the treason that grew within. That, or they had helped it take root and eventually grow to choke out their true king. Daruntala had acted swiftly. Whether he was truly Keranta’s match or simply once fortunate remained to be seen, but all that mattered now was that the prince had won. Instead of standing at his father-in-law’s side, sailing from victory to victory with thousands of warriors, the general only commanded fishermen and farmers, who between them owned a handful of wooden clubs passed down from fathers and grandfathers who had long ago submitted to Jewaktana’s might.

They were more faithful subjects than the scheming nobles behind Daruntala’s rise, Keranta noted. Every day since his exile here had begun, one or another among them brought him food or water, and each of them bowed deeply at his approach. He did not understand every word they spoke, nor could they address him properly in the noble speech of the capital, but he forgave them for it. If anything, he would have to remember this little island when he eventually took his revenge on the usurper. Perhaps he would repay their gratitude tenfold in gold, or take certain of their sons to train with his armies; perhaps he would do both and more. While it would do him little good to make such promises now, it at least helped him to focus less on his pitiable present and more on the rich potential of the future.

Strange shapes in the distant waves stole his attention. He wondered if they could be waves themselves, but closer inspection dismissed that idea. Sails, Keranta thought. Sails he had seen before, docked at the capital three years prior. But then, there had only been three ships, one great and two small, and perhaps one hundred men between them. What Keranta saw now was an armada; he counted no less than ten great ships, and perhaps twice that many smaller ones. Even then, at this distance there could be more and he would not know until they came closer to the island.

They would certainly come here. Given how far out Kalo Malut was from any other port of value, they would have to stop for supplies. Keranta could only assume what the strangers might know about the island, but he guessed that they would want to sail around to the northeast and land away from any potentially hostile inhabitants, and the same was true if they wished to keep their approach secret from the capital. But it was a secret no longer, and for that Keranta thanked the gods.

And in the back of his mind, the beginnings of a plan took shape. These Adusinate as they called themselves were surely headed for the capital, and Keranta knew that the mutilated faces of their ambassadors were cause enough for any king worth his throne to risk such an expedition. A ruler who suffered such a grave insult without reprisal would be seen as weak just as much in some faraway kingdom across the sea as they would back in Lewangwati.

Keranta knew what he must do.

The northern face of the mountain was bare of the tall trees that dominated the south, and so he took that path to keep the strange fleet in view. It was not a path he had taken many times before, but he managed it well enough. Not knowing how quickly the Adusinate ships could sail against the wind, he could not determine whether he would beat them to the shore or not. He aimed to make his entrance after they had landed.

He wondered when the last time one of the fishermen from down below had come up this way, for every so often the little path was lost to trees and vines as he neared the base. Several times, a new one would intersect his own and branch off in its own way. Keranta supposed it would not matter in the end; after all, he only needed to go downhill.

An outcropping stood out from the foliage to his right. Clambering up on top of it, he grinned to see that his prediction was so far correct: the Adusinate were making for the northeastern coast, where a little bay marked the only other place where ships of that draft could venture without risking their hulls. Though the largest Jewaktana outriggers were only perhaps half the size of one of these triple-masted vessels, Keranta suspected that the principle was the same. It reassured him that these men from such a distant place that not even the royal cartographers could name it had the same worries and fears as any other mortals.

And he knew from the incident at court three years before that they also bled as mortals did. Without their powerful weapons—what the court armorers had taken to calling fire lances—and metal armor, they died just as easily. Many of them would die before his plan was complete; he knew this without knowing every detail quite yet, but as he drew nearer to the boats, his goal became ever clearer in his mind.

Ajan Keranta Surankaje would take back what was rightfully his, and these strangers would help him do it. And if doing so also broke their ability to threaten his kingdom and his people ever again, even better. The salt breeze lifted his flowing hair out behind him like a banner in the wind. His goal was clear, and the means of his deliverance fought the surf before him. The moment was over, as he brought himself back from a silent prayer of thanks for that wind.

It had given him the end of his brief exile and soon enough, it would give him his revenge.