CHAPTER 2, PART 1
It was a sunny, late summer afternoon. A young girl was sitting on a small stone wall surrounding the ornamental fountain in the town's busy market square.
Most of the people in the market square ignored the girl, busy in their own tasks to pay her any mind. Every once in a while, however, a stray set of eyes would glance in her direction as this or that gentleman or nobleman would pause to admire her. This wasn't too unusual and occurrence. The girl was quite lovely, and there was some sort of innocence that drew eyes towards her.
Arial giggled softly and ran her fingers through her long blond hair. 'Just look at them scurry around. From the way they act, one would think the fate of the Kingdom rested upon their shoulders.'
The people of Phans weren't quite that bad, but Arial's assumption was rather close to the mark. Phans was a good sized town, on one of the smaller main roads leading to Darsia. Its main draw was its large market place.
She shook her head at all of the people, a good half of which were not native of Illyon. The Illyans got on her nerves so bad. Stuck up, the whole lot of them, even the peasants. 'Even the street beggars put on airs, like they were minor nobles of Karin.' That was the truth. The people of Illyon did think themselves better than the people of their neighboring countries, and had a bad habit of looking down at them.
Arial much preferred traveling through Trans than Illyon. The scenery was much nicer for one, with large virgin hardwood forest and rugged mountains. Or Darsia, wit its lush foliage and fragrant breezes. Illyon was mostly farmland, except near the borders. And the atmosphere was much nicer in either country than in Illyon.
"Actually," she sighed wistfully and stared up at a few puffy clouds dancing high in the sky, "I would much rather be home in Lyrin." But that, that was impossible.
A sudden commotion from the eastern end of the market square broke into her revere. As she turned around, a small frown on her lips at the disturbance, she saw a large group of people near one of the fruit vender stalls. Once again, Arial sighed.
'Some poor beggar child probably got caught sealing food again.' And the crowd had gathered to watch the punishment mete out. She shuddered. How gruesome.
For a country that prided itself on being the most civilized of the Five Kingdoms, they had some barbaric practices. Thievery was punished by the removal of the thieves hand. Usually by a sharp knife, followed by no medical aid. Arial had heard that most of them died of blood loss.
In Lyrin, that would never happen. In Lyrin there was no reason to steal for food. No one went hungry in Lyrin. But then again, this was not Lyrin.
"I cannot wait to get to Darsia," she muttered as she stood up and started to head to the inn she was staying at. They had planned on being there for the fall festival, but that wasn't for another month.
As she walked past the crowd, the expected scream was not heard. Instead, there was the sound of excited babble. What was going on? Her curiosity stirred, Arial swerved from her original course and started to weave her way through the crowd to see what was going on, her small stature making it easy to get through. Maybe she had misread the situation.
Once she had made it through to the front of the crowd, she froze at the sight before her. Near the small stall were two well dressed noblemen with a couple of retainers. The tallest of the two nobles, a blond, had dismounted his horse and was in the process of giving the vender a small pouch of coin. He was holding onto the arm of a small boy with his other hand.
While she watched the transaction, she listened to the muted conversations of the people behind her. Apparently, she had been correct in her first assumption. The boy had been caught stealing. When the vender was about to give out punishment, he had been stopped by the two nobles. It appeared that the blond noble had been highly upset by what was about to occur. He had ordered the vendor to stop and offered to pay him for the fruit.
Everyone watched in amazement as the blond noble then bent down. He smiled as he gave the scared boy the fruit. The child sputtered out a thank you and then bolted, quickly disappearing in the crowd. The noble turned and walked back to his horse.
All the spectators, realizing that the show was now over, started to wander away to whatever it was they were doing before the attempted theft had occurred. In a few minutes time, everyone was gone. The only person to remain was Arial, who was rather shocked by what she had just seen.
The tall blond noble was an Illyan. But he had acted totally out of character to what she was accustom to. He showed kindness, generosity and mercy, three traits which she had never associated with Illyans.
While watching him mount his horse, an expensive one of Rainis stock, she glanced over at his companion. A Transian? How unusual. And only two retainers between the both of them? Something was going on here. She gave each of them a searching look. Hmmm...
She did have to admit, privately, to herself, that the Illyan noble was quite handsome. And he looked extremely well on the horse. He was dressed all in green, incidentally the color of the royal house, with long golden blond hair falling just below his shoulders. He had the most amazing lavender eyes...
His companion was rather handsome as well. Admittedly, he was a bit on the chubby side, which was a rather good sign that he was a connoisseur of fine foods. His short hair was a sort of dark bluish-grey, a rather unusual color, and he had the darkest blue eyes she had ever seen. His robes were made of several shades of orange (which was the color of the royal house of Trans) and brown, which looked quite good on him.
The two retainers were Illyans. Both seemed to pay more attention to the blond, and both wore sulky expressions on their faces. It was quite apparent that they were not happy with their lord's actions.
"Excuse me Miss," Arial looked up in shock at the blond noble. He had cocked his head and was staring at her. "Is there something amiss?"
Seiji watched as the young girl blushed in embarrassment at being caught staring. She looked quite young, probably not too much older than thirteen. The girl shook her head, sending her long blond hair flying. She gazed up at him with huge purple eyes.
"Oh no, My Lord," she replied in a soft, musical soprano voice which was lightly laced with humor. "I was just standing here in astonishment at the sight of an Illyan noble showing kindness to a mere peasant, and a thief at that."
Seiji's eyes narrowed. She had ended her sentence on a mocking note. He held out his hand as Adrin tensed up at the implied insult.
He gave the girl a closer look. For a child, she was quite forward. And she wasn't an Illyan herself.
"I do believe she is a Lyrian," Shu whispered to him. "Rather far from home isn't she?"
Seiji nodded absently at Shu and then addressed the girl. What she had said bothered him. And in light of what he had just interrupted, he wanted to know more of what she thought. "And are such acts of charity so uncommon?"
Arial nodded. "Uncommon is not quite the word I would use though, My Lord," she said pertly. "To be honest, I have never heard a Illyan outside the Church preform any type of charity. Your people think quite highly of themselves, and charity is below them. Some kind of cultural thing, I believe." The two retainers gasped.
Seiji turned to Shu, shock in his eyes. "Is what she is saying true?" After a moment Shu reluctantly nodded.
"I am afraid so Seiji. Over the years the Kings separated themselves from the common people, and then the countries began to isolate themselves from one another." Shu gave Seiji a rueful look. "And do you know how difficult it is going to be to get to Wynsion because of this?"
Seiji nodded. Wynsion had always been the most isolated of the five kingdoms, even before the countries started to isolate themselves. The only countries they still associated with was Lyrin. Even the ambassador from Wynsion had never been to his home country. He had inherited the position from his father.
Unnoticed by the two princes, the young girl was listening to their conversation with great interest.
Seiji placed a hand to his forehead. "This is giving me a headache." He looked away from Shu, and saw that the girl was still there, her eyes full of curiosity. "Young lady," he smiled a charming smile at her, one which had always worked on the ladies at court, which she readily returned. She was quite the lovely child he noted. "Have you been in this town for long?"
"Yes, My Lord. For several weeks now."
"Then you must know your way around quite well." She nodded. "Can you tell us which are the best inns in town."
Arial cocked her head at him, and then looked at the Transian noble. "There are three inns in town you would find suitable. There is the Heart and Rose. It is a very fine inn on the western end of town. Many Illyan nobles stay there. Then there is the Lyon. It is at the northern end of town. Most of the Illyan merchant lords stay there."
"And for the third," Shu softly prompted. From the way the girl had been speaking, she didn't seem to think much of the two inns she had just mentioned.
Arial gave him an impish smile. "The Star Haven. Many nobles and merchants not of Illyon stay there. It is at the eastern end of the town."
"And that is the one you prefer, isn't it?" Shu said.
"Yes. My brother and I always stay there whenever we come to Phans."
"You and your brother?" one of the retainers asked derisively, giving her a cold once over. It was obvious he did not think much of her.
Seiji was shocked. He could not believe Ellery would embarrass him like that.
Admittedly, the girl did not look like she would be staying at a fine inn. Her cloths were neat and clean, but not what a well breed lady would wear.
A flowing light blue shirt of some unfamiliar silken material fell halfway to her knees, a long white scarf bounding it about the waist. The loose sleeves of her shirt ended in tight embroidered cuffs at her wrists.
She was also wearing tight black breeches, and he was not accustomed to ladies wearing breeches, and soft leather ankle boots dyed to match her shirt. Her ears were double pierced, a sight he had not seen before, and the earrings she was wearing were long and seemed to be made of seashells. The front lacings of her shirt were partially undone, showing a necklace made of the same material as the earrings.
What does your brother do?" Shu enquired, shooting Seiji a firm look that told him not to say anymore.
She gave the retainer a cold look, then faced Shu. "He is a minstrel. A very good one." The pride in her voice was quite evident. "The Star Haven has Shin play for them whenever we are in the area.
Shu nodded thoughtfully. That made sense. He was about to ask her another question when the clocktower rang out the time.
"Oh hell," Arial swore softly, startling all four men. She was late. "I must go. I promised Shin I would be back a half-hour ago." She inclined her head to the two lords. "Excuse me!"
Seiji and Shu watched as the young girl ran down the street, her knee length hair swinging behind her.
Seiji turned to Shu. "An interesting child. Did you believe her?"
Shu nodded thoughtfully. "I don't see any reason she would lie to us. Considering how she was dressed and how she acted, I'd say that she was telling the truth."
At Seiji's arched eyebrow, Shu explained. "Seiji, you must get out more. The girl is a Lyrian. Most Lyrians wear outfits like that, more practical for the way they live."
"I'd say," Shu continued as Seiji thought over what Shu was saying, "that she is probably from a noble Lyrian house."
Seiji and the retainers stared at Shu in astonishment. Shu sighed and brought a hand to his brow. "Her speech pattern is not that of a Lyrian freeman." He explained. "And her cloths," Shu frowned to himself at that. "Her shirt looks to have been made of assin silk. That is very expensive. I don't even have anything made of that."
"Assin silk." Seiji mussed. "Doesn't that come from the far East?"
Shu nodded. "Either she is from a wealth family, which is highly unlikely, considering what she just said, or she has connections in Darsia or Kiyymos."
"Hmmmm," Seiji looked thoughtful. And curious. "I do believe we will need directions." Seiji turned to Adrin. "Find out where the inn Star Haven is at. We will be staying there."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Arial ran up the back stairs and entered her and Shin's room. "Sorry, sorry," she panted out. Arial leaned against the closed door and tried to catch her breath.
Shin looked up from the lute he was tuning. "What happened Ari. You are never late."
She walked away from the door and sat down across from him, on her bed. "I saw the most incredible thing today, an Illyan with compassion."
Shin gave her a shocked look, and then laughed. "Arial, you make it sound as if a miracle occurred."
"Hmph!" Arial stuck her nose in the air. "Well! What a thing to say. Do you want to hear what happened or not?" she growled.
'Well,' Shin thought. 'If nothing else, it should be an entertaining story.' "Go ahead, what happened?"
Arial told him what had happened. As she came to a finish, she noticed the serious look on his face. "Is something wrong Shin?"
He looked up at her. She sounded worried. "Maybe. Two young nobles of two different countries, traveling with only two retainers? During a time that the caravans are hiring mercenaries for protection?"
She nodded in agreement. "I thought so too. Strange, isn't it?"
Shin nodded, and sat aside his lute. "I do believe we will be leaving tomorrow." He gave her a sly smile. "How does Darsia sound to you?"
"Great!" Arial enthused. "I was just thinking how nice it would be to leave Illyon." Then she frowned. "do we have enough money?"
"Oh yes. Ebon is very generous. We will have more than enough to get us pass the border and to Savan without having to stop for any engagements."
"How long will it take?" she asked him wistfully.
"Straight travel?" She nodded and Shin thought for a moment. "It will take us a week to get to the border."
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Seiji and Shu were seated at a small private table eating their dinner. Ellery and Adrin were out checking the horses.
This inn had been a pleasant surprise. It was run by one of Shu's countrymen, a swarthy man named Ebon who took his role of host seriously. The inn was well cared for, the staff friendly, and the rooms they had been shown luxurious.
Shu had been impressed. "There you go, good old fashioned hospitality. I haven't been offered that since I left Trans."
Seiji shot him a baleful glare. He had never realized how important his people thought of himself. "No need to rub it in."
Now they were enjoying one of the finest meals either of them had ever had, the innkeepers wife was an exceptional cook, listening to the music provided by a mistral in the corner of the room.
As they ate, the music stopped, and Seiji saw that a new minstrel was taking over.
'I wonder if that is the girl's brother?'
The young man was a Lyrian, and looked to be about fifteen years old. He was dressed similar to the girl, with a light blue silken shirt tied at the waist with a white scarf. His breaches were white, however, and his blue boots were calf length.
His ears were pierced, only once, and he wore a silver cuff in his right ear.
Unlike the girl, his hair was light auburn brown, cut short in the front, fluffy bangs in the front, with a long braid falling halfway down his back. His eyes were a sea green color one rarely saw.
'If they are related,' Seiji thought as the first minstrel left the room, 'they look nothing alike.' He had heard that sometimes happened in families.
The young minstrel picked up his lute and began to play a sad Illyan love song. In a moment, he began to sing.
'A minstrel?' Seiji thought in amazement as the song carried across the now silent. 'He is equal to any bard I have heard.'
He turned and glanced at Shu. From the surprised look on his face, it was apparent that Shu hadn't expected anyone of such talent to be working as a minstrel.
The young man had a sweet tenor voice that had the ability to capture the audience. Everyone stopped eating and listened. Most people with this much talent had entered the Bardic Collieum at this age. Why was this young man working as a minstrel?
After the song was over, he went into a lively Transian dance piece. The patrons in the room returned to their meals.
After they finished their meal, Seiji and Shu made their way out of the crowded dining hall. As they left the room, they saw the young girl walk in from a different door and sit down next to the young man.
"Did you see them?" she whispered to Shin. He nodded thoughtfully.
Yes, he had seen them, and even more important, he had recognized one of them, the Transian nobleman, who wasn't really a nobleman at all.
'Something is going on. Something serious. And I don't know if I want to get involved.' Shin glanced at Arial out of the corner of his eye as he continued to strum his lute. She had picked up a small flute and had joined him. Should he tell her what he knew.
No, he wouldn't tell her. There was no need to bother her with this. She already felt bad enough about the problems she had caused him already. No need to make her worry about something she had no control over.
'I do wonder though,' Shin stared at the door the two young men had left through. 'Just who is the
Illyan Noble that Prince Shu is traveling with?'
(to be continued...)