Shadows moved across the stone façade, and the sounds of rapid footsteps echoed out into the slumbering city. Neither of those sprinters uttered a word, but their conversation was implied.
If she was caught, she wouldn’t make it out of the neighborhood alive.
Neither of them saw the dark silhouette on top of the buildings beside them, moving along as they did. If they had looked up, perhaps they would have seen the golden circles around the sentinel’s eyes.
A gasp rang out from the young woman, as she turned a corner and almost spilled into the canal. The wooden railing there was the only thing that saved her from tumbling down into that murky, foul water. She righted herself and looked over her shoulder.
Her pursuer drew close.
The woman caught her bearings and broke into a dash once more, charging down the side of that path. As a sob broke through her lips, she managed to squeak out a passing scream between gasps for air.
That late in Tanner’s Row, anybody who was awake knew better than to help a wayward girl.
Lucky for her, the man who watched her wasn’t from Tanner’s Row. That masked fellow ran along the buildings, fleet of foot yet quiet, and as he went, he kept those golden-rimmed eyes trained on the man who gave chase beneath him. As he pursued the woman, he moved between the houses in that poorer district of the city, his footsteps seeming to reverberate all around her.
Those golden eyes couldn’t help the man in green hear any better, but he was almost certain that her heart was close to beating out of her chest. Though she was panicked, the masked man above remained calm and composed. He moved around those houses as well, looking down at the fellow below, keeping his bow ready in his hand.
The woman ceased her rattled escape, unsure of where she could turn to find sanctuary. With the bandit continuing to move between those buildings, the man in green stopped as well, crouching low to remain out of sight of both those citizens of Argos.
A whistle rang out in the area, and both she and the man above were certain it came from further along the canal path. Once more, the bandit emerged into that open area. The starlight did little to illuminate his features, but the woman knew that he was there, and she shrank away when she noticed his silhouette.
The man above, with his much stronger vision, could distinguish more of what the bandit was doing in that low light. The masked man saw as he lifted his hand to his face. A moment later a flame sparked to life.
That time, it was the vigilante’s own heartbeat which thumped uncontrollably. He couldn’t shake the memory of the man responsible for the death of his late mentor.
But Jerrod Vela, the Magician, was dead, he was sure of it. Whoever that man below was, he was a pretender at best, and an unhinged criminal with nothing to lose at worst.
That man above blew out a steadying breath and set his eyes upon the bandit once more. The flame he summoned danced on the tip of his finger and illuminated his face enough for his features to be seen—by the woman he pursued, and the unseen fellow on the roof of one of the buildings nearby. Shaggy, dark hair fell along the sides of his face, framing the upturned eyebrows that left him looking almost devilish. A scruffy beard stretched as he cast a mischievous smile at his prey.
“Get away from me!” the woman cried.
“Now, now,” the rogue replied. “I’m not leaving until I get what I came for. You took something that belongs to me.” He advanced on the woman until she teetered back a step.
She looked over the railing bordering the canal, then, but before she could think to head in that direction, the sound of a missile ripping through the air resonated in that quiet area of the city.
The arrow smacked into the wooden guard, halfway between the two citizens. As that thud echoed into the area, the man who launched it forth dropped from the building.
“Move along,” the vigilante spoke to the woman, though his eyes never left the bandit across the way.
Gasping in relief, she did as told, spinning about to make her way back through Tanner’s Row.
“I thought I felt someone watching,” the rogue said. That smile grew brighter as he considered the new arrival. “I could feel your eyes burning a hole in me.”
“If you don’t stop chasing helpless women in my city, I’ll leave you with more than one,” the man in green said, reaching over his shoulder to grasp another arrow.
The bandit looked away, stroking his beard as though that threat left him wounded and considering how to react. When he spun back toward the stranger though, he lunged forth, slinging his hand ahead like he was throwing a ball. Just before the object left his hands, a new flame appeared there. It whipped through the air and flew past the man in green when he stepped aside. That flame landed against one of those crude stone houses and slid down the side for a few moments before extinguishing.
“You’re not him,” the rogue said, standing taller as he came to terms with that thought. He licked his thumb and snapped his finger, then, bringing another flame to life on the end of that digit. “You’re not the Silver Serpent.”
For a moment, the man in green stared across the way, his shoulders rhythmically lifting and falling as his breathing became fiercer. That brief moment of reflection did little to calm him, though, and he drew his weapon, tugging back on the bowstring and letting his arrow fly.
The rogue’s eyes went wide as that missile came screeching toward him, and he vaulted over the vault, rolling down the slope toward the canal. He righted himself as he went, leaping over the shallow water at its bottom. Once there, he turned about, waiting to see if that masked man followed him.
Unable to soothe himself, the man in green did give chase, stepping over that wooden guardrail, but hooking his back leg on it to keep to the high ground. Away from those houses, the starlit sky left him with a better observation of that would-be thief.
“That last shot wasn’t a miss,” the vigilante insisted. “It was a warning. Stop where you are or I’ll make sure you’ll never run again.”
“What, stop right here?” the criminal asked. “And then what? We’ll talk before you let me go on my merry way?”
“Don’t,” the other man protested. “This won’t end well.”
With a smirk on his face, the smarmy rogue let a chortle rise up into the night. “It ends well for one of us, friend.” He moved at once, bending low and running his hand along the water that flowed at the bottom of the canal. As soon as he touched that murky liquid, fire came to life atop it, and traveled along the length of the rest of the canal, as far into the distance as the masked hero could see. With a salute, the bandit charged alongside those flames, leaving his foe behind.
The vigilante squared his jaw, letting those golden rings in his eyes glow all the brighter as he peered down through Tanner’s Row. Those flames danced along the water farther than even his enhanced vision could detect, and he knew that he had been eluded.
There would be time to find that fellow later, he reasoned. It wouldn’t be long before the citizens of Argos emerged from their homes to see what brightened their alleys so late at night. Bowing his head, the man in green moved on, disappearing into the shadows where he could find them.
* * *
The door creaked open in the foyer, and the advisor passed a wary glance in that direction. He set down his quill beside the inkwell and gathered up his robe around him. As he made his way to the door, he gathered up the tall staff he kept there before slipping into adjacent hallway.
Spare for a few candles, the building was dark. Still, those few licks of flame that wavered on the first floor were enough to illuminate the figure that entered his home. His lone servant for the night had moved along, leaving only one person who he supposed it could be.
“I thought I heard someone in here earlier,” he said. “But it was so late, I was certain it was just my old ears playing tricks on me.” He snapped his fingers, sending a spindle of flame from the gem atop his staff to a chandelier that hung from the center of the ceiling. In only a moment, all the candles there were lit, a trick the man had perfected many years before.
Down below, the man in green bowed his head. “I’m sorry Edmund,” he offered up a solemn reply. “I expected everyone to be asleep.”
The advisor noticed the weariness in that young man, and began his descent around one of those wide-spiraling staircases. “Prince Kelvin, you’ve not gone a single night without donning that outfit. Don’t you think you owe it to yourself to find some peace, even if it’s only for a short while?” He paused as he reached the marble floor below. “Think of tomorrow, won’t you?”
Kelvin reached up and plucked the green domino mask off his face, sweeping his dirty-blond hair away from his eyes then. “I don’t have time to let things be. Jerrod’s attempt to use the Arcanax Compendium may not have worked as favorably as he hoped, but it still spread far enough. There are new citizens out there who have powers awakened within them, and not all of them are worthy of such responsibility.”
“And it can wait, young man,” Edmund insisted. “You’ve put enough of yourself on the line these past few days. Those same people who you’re out there looking for are trying to stay hidden. How do you think they’ll feel when you chase them into a corner? Things are too dangerous now—too unpredictable.”
“I can handle myself out there,” Kelvin said. “I don’t need you to worry about me.”
“Someone has to,” the advisor replied. “You don’t think Marin wondered every time whether or not she was sending you out into trouble you weren’t going to come back from?”
“But I’m here now, and she’s not,” he shouted. At once, the lad locked his jaw, embarrassed by that sudden outburst. It wasn’t princely, and certainly wasn’t kingly. His composure soon became he least of his worries as he contemplated those words that lingered in the air. The bitter truth was laid bare before him, and he looked about as though he could see the foolishness of that revelation in the room, like ghosts of the past. Tears lined his eyes, and he couldn’t disguise the sniffle that escaped his nose.
Edmund walked over to him, laying his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You are not to blame, Master Drakos. You did not lay the final blow upon her but gave her a reason to go on living as long as she did. She thought the world of you, and in a way, her spirit lives on with you.”
Kelvin sank against one of those marble pillars in the foyer, falling to his rump on the cold floor. “I don’t feel like it does. None of what she taught me is still with me. It’s as though, now that she’s gone, I’ve forgotten all the lessons she imparted on me. Not just the ones that I take out there in the dark of night, behind the mask, but the ones that she tried to explain would make me a good king. I don’t have the restraint I once had, Edmund. I almost killed a man today.”
“Does he still draw breath?” the advisor asked.
The prince bowed his head. “Yes. But it was only because in my rage, I missed my shot.”
“Perhaps you didn’t. There is good in you—more than you know. Those qualities don’t just wash away because we can’t see the sun for a few days.”
For a long while, they remained there in silence. The older fellow leaned on his staff, and the young prince kept his head between his knees, staring at the ornate cracks in the floor. He brought his thumb up to his face to wipe away the tears on the rim of his eyes.
“What am I to do, Edmund?” he asked. “She was the one who taught me everything I know. Everything I’ve become is because of her.”
“And that doesn’t change just because she’s gone,” the fellow said. “This is just one more lesson. We don’t get to keep hold of everything forever. Learning to let go with poise and dignity is a difficult thing to master.”
He sighed then, leaning against the side of that pillar as well. He couldn’t ignore the aches and pains that his body reminded him of. Still, he spun about, falling down against the same pillar on the opposite side. “I miss her, too,” he finally said when he reached the floor. “This city has lost someone of great import, and only the fewest people truly know it.”
“My father is moving things along as though she was just a family servant. He’s already made new arrangements for me. It’s like he doesn’t even remember how much she meant to my mother—how much she meant to me.”
“Nathaniel—the king,” Edmund corrected, “he means well. This isn’t something he takes lightly, I’m sure. But he needs to make sure you’re looked after, and not by some fool that doesn’t understand the risks that come with instructing a young prince. Where is he sending you? Will it be to Icarus to learn alongside your brother? Or perhaps to Aderline to learn more about diplomacy and what it takes to be a representative for—”
“No, it’s none of that,” Kelvin replied. “I’m starting at the Roche Academy. They don’t usually accept new students until the northern thaws, but because I’m the prince…”
“That’s a tremendously auspicious facility,” Edmund mused. “There’s a good history there. The heirs of some of the greatest families of Argos attend there. And yet…”
The prince peered over at his old companion, only seeing the advisor’s robes and his outstretched legs. He couldn’t help but let a silent chuckle shake his frame upon seeing that.
“You won’t have a single mentor there,” Edmund revealed. “You won’t have individual time with those that do guide you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ll be learning alongside a few other peers, other juveniles like yourself. Roche is a fairly large conservatory, with a sizable faculty, but it won’t be the one-on-one mentorship you received from Marin, or that Helios gains from Icarus.” He turned to his side, passing a sideways glance at the young man. “It won’t be a bad experience, I assure you. My grandson attends Roche, and he has learned a great deal there.”
“It won’t be the same,” Kelvin muttered. “It won’t be Marin.”
“No,” the older fellow conceded. “I don’t think that anything ever could.” He sighed, taking in the same emptiness in the room that his young companion did.
As he traced those lines in the marble floor to the far end of the foyer though, his attention was brought to something else instead. More marble was present there in the shape of a bowl, fixed against the wall in a bracket. Beneath it, a quartz vessel held a sizable amount of water, and that liquid rippled every time a drop from the upper container escaped into it. Lines were chiseled into the quartz container, indicating the different time that had passed.
“It seems I’ve let another night escape me,” Edmund revealed. “And you’ve spent another night distant from the castle. After everything that has happened, I think that your parents finding you gone from your room might have them send the guards on high alert. A kidnapping would not be unheard of after all the other madness we’ve seen unfolding in this city.”
“You’re evicting me from your home?” Kelvin mused as he climbed to his feet. “You know I’m your prince, right?”
“Aye, I do. And I know that you’re also the king’s son. I like my head where it is, and I plan to keep it there as long as I can.” Edmund reached up, accepting a hand from the prince, who hoisted him off the ground. When he stood across from the prince once more, he clapped the lad on the shoulders. “I know that these have been trying times for you, Master Drakos. But you don’t have to do everything yourself, and you certainly don’t have to do it all now. Take some time to grieve. Take some time to find some respite.”
“I don’t know what that would feel like,” the prince said with a shrug. “For the past year it’s been nothing but lessons during the day and…well, different kind of lessons after the sun falls.”
Edmund reached the side of that room where the water clock was and slid a small iron arm beneath the marble bowl. “You’ll need a decent distraction, then. One that won’t get you killed or discovered. Both our days will be busy for a short while, but when things grow calm again, I’ll have you out to my villa along the southern coast. There’s something Marin would have wanted you to see there.
“In the meantime,” he went on. “Yes, you’ll have to get going out of this old goat’s home. I must prepare for another council meeting, and I’d rather not share the road with King Nathaniel’s truant son, if I can avoid it. Change out of your other persona before you leave, though, won’t you?”
Kelvin looked down, realizing that he still wore the green ensemble he’d fashioned together. As Edmund began the ascent up those stairs once more, the prince grumbled to himself.
“I didn’t forget,” he muttered. “I was just distracted.”
* * *
She stood there, in the doorway, looking at the drapery beside the open window. Those layered curtains, a medley of red and white, danced in the breeze. Her eyes were stained from the tears that she couldn’t shy away from while she stared into that room.
Queen Selene blamed that on the vision she saw behind those layers of fabric. She could swear she saw her friend there, casting her gaze down upon someone they both adored. That ghost of Marin didn’t look to the bed, but through that opened window into the city. The queen shook her head, taking a moment to blink away the strain she felt in her eyes and in her heart.
When she opened her eyes again, her friend was gone, as she ever would be.
So much had changed within that city in so short a time. One thing remained the same though. Selene’s son was just where that flash of Marin was looking. The prince was no more in his bed than he was standing before the queen, as it had been for every night since the Silver Serpent had perished.
She could only hope that her child was safe out in the shadows.
Selene, lost within her thoughts, didn’t hear those approaching footsteps at first.
“How is he?” she heard then.
Unable to hide her surprise, it was all she could do to stop from leaping into the air. When she glanced to her side, she saw the weary figure of her husband there. On reflex alone, she reached forth, and pulled the door shut.
“There isn’t anything to be ashamed about,” Nathaniel said. “Mistress Cortes was the first person he’s lost. It’s understandable to be worried about him.”
“He just needs time,” Selene replied in feigned agreement. “What of you, my love? You’ve had a trying several days as well.” As she spoke, she guided her husband away from their son’s chambers.
Nathaniel groaned as he followed his wife’s lead. Together, they walked toward the tower at the end of the hall. “My father warned me that there would be days like this. Besides the fighting in the streets, word is Peritas is adding to their fleet. As I understand it, we’ve fallen into disarray with our diplomatic efforts in Daltain. And we still have masked mercenaries getting in the way of the work our guards are struggling with.” He shook his head then, scoffing. “And all this is going on while I have to pretend I don’t know anything about a coronation anniversary celebration. What a waste of our treasury.”
Looking aside, Selene nodded, but barely clung to any of those last words. She felt his finger under her chin then, and as he pulled her back to him, she could see the care in his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You have things closer to our family that you’re concerned with while I’m stretched all over the kingdom. That’s not fair to you, or to Kelvin. When he wakes, I’d like him to spend some time with me.”
The queen reached out and squeezed her husband’s arm. “When he wakes,” she agreed. “I’ll remain up here for now. I must choose my attire for the service today.”
“I should be there,” Nathaniel said. “Not for her, but for you.”
Selene swallowed away the tension building in her throat. “I know you are busy. I won’t hold it against you if you can’t be pulled away from your duties.”
The king slipped his arms around his wife’s and pulled her close. “I will do what I must to see you happy.” He kissed her atop her head then, and as they parted from that embrace, he made his way into the tower. His footsteps echoed throughout that stone structure, until they were muted by the plush carpet on the floor below.
When Selene returned to the doorway before the prince’s room, she pushed it open once more. In that short time since her husband had found her there, the sun began to rise. Rays of light cast in through the drapery, and before she realized it, she entered that room. Once more, as she had many times before, she found herself leaning against the windowsill, looking up to the sky.
“Please,” she said. “Let him come home.”
* * *
As a cool morning breeze moved through the streets, he found that he couldn’t budge from that spot. He knew he’d been there for a long while, but it wasn’t until someone walked in front of him that he realized he was mesmerized by the sight.
“Good morning, Prince Kelvin,” the citizen spoke.
Kelvin shook away his stupor and waved to his subject before they had passed too far. Still, he found he couldn’t pry himself away from that house. The door was blocked by a single plank of wood, though no distinctive markings were on it—there was no sign of who had asked for it to be done.
“What have they done with your home, Marin?” he whispered.
He looked about then, as though just speaking her name was taboo, and he expected someone to hear it. It was that momentary panic that led him to realize how late it was. He looked to the east, seeing the sun peek some of the distant buildings in Argos, and knew any hope of getting rest was scarce.
Without wasting anymore time, he sprinted up the road.
When the prince came into sight of his home, he shook his head. There was no sense in making his way through his hidden path behind the castle. With the sun in the sky, the guards would have thought nothing of his movements. He offered a nod to the ones patrolling closest to the main entrance, and then hurried inside, careful to avoid anyone who might ask questions or express more concern than he wished. If anyone mentioned anything to either of his parents, it could attract more attention than he desired.
As he made his way down that main hall through several of the leading chambers in the castle—the banquet hall, the inner courtyard, and a small pair of annexes that led to shrines away from the city’s busy temples—he managed to avoid any glances that would question his dubious arrival at that early hour.
Just before he reached that corridor that ran off perpendicular to the main hall, he could hear the voices that resonated farther beyond. He knew that his father had likely already made his way to the throne room, abdicating any notion of free time so that he could attend to matters that people couldn’t or wouldn’t handle on their own. Those matters were ever present, Kelvin remembered. He’d sat in on a few of those sessions on occasion, hoping that he could convince his father to take a leave from the castle after one of those events. It was never to be, he knew. The line of people was never-ending. The citizens of Argos had difficulties beyond what they could solve on their own, and even the king’s council could not handle every concern that came before them.
Nathaniel didn’t have the means to take care of every problem in the city. That was why people like Kelvin and Marin had to do what they did in the alleys of Argos under cover of night. That was why…
The prince paused again, then, realizing that he kept thinking of things in those old ways. He still supposed that his mentor, the legendary Silver Serpent, would join him in one of his late-night forays.
But it was not meant to be. Perhaps as Edmund said, she would be in there in spirit, but Kelvin felt that even that was lacking since her untimely passing.
As he felt those emotions welling up in him again, he ducked into that corridor, hurrying his steps so that he could find some respite in his chamber.
That climb up the tower felt so much further then, and he almost couldn’t bear to pass into the adjoining hallway. How could he feel at home in that castle when he hardly felt at home in his own skin?
He peered down the hallway and breathed out a sigh of relief when he noticed that no one appeared to be nearby.
When he ran to his room and swung open the door, however, he tensed up at once, for his mother was there at the window, gazing out into the city.
Kelvin thought to pull the door shut once more and venture to the castle’s library, but before he could reach the knob, his mother had already cleared her throat.
“I’ve been waiting her since before dawn,” she revealed, then. “You know you aren’t supposed to leave the castle grounds before first light—not without a guard watching over you.” She turned toward him then, and he could see the disappointment on her face—or was it worry? “It’s not safe in the streets of the city just yet. I don’t want what happened to…” The queen’s words trailed off, and she looked about as though she were searching for some way to end that thought in a manner that would be less painful for both of them.
“She was your friend,” Kelvin recollected. It wasn’t as though it was the first time he understood that, but in that moment, he knew that someone else probably hurt as much as he did for her loss. “I always forget that you knew her before you knew me,” the prince said. That statement came off as a bit of a tease, and his mother narrowed her eyes, mocking annoyance by those words.
Finally, Selene nodded. “Marin was my friend before I even met your father, you know. She might be the person I knew longest who was still in this world.”
“What are you going to do now that she’s gone?” Kelvin asked.
His mother moved away from that window then, taking a seat upon his bed. She alternated glances at him and the floor. “I’m going to try to remember the good times. I’m going to remember that we once were happy together. I’m going to remember that even though she didn’t have any children of her own, she loved me enough to help me raise one of my sons. And I’ll remember that she did a wonderful job in that endeavor.”
The prince squared his jaw at that comment and found himself moving across the room to sit beside the queen. He set his head on her shoulder, wrapping his arm around her side.
She leaned over as well, her head sitting atop his. “Today will be a difficult one for us both, my son.”
* * *
He sat in that room beside the woman, holding her hand. Edmund rubbed his thumb against her fingers every time he felt a trembling raise up in her body. Neither of them looked at one another, their gazes instead drawn to the man in the cot in the center of that small room.
“Nerian will recover, Diana” Edmund said. “I’m sure of it.”
Though he was an advisor for the king, he found that trying to play the same role for his sister was not so easy a thing. She feared the worst, still remembering the sight of her son when they brought her to the infirmary to see him. Blood caked all of his face, and she couldn’t tell what had caused his injuries. The reasons were manifold, though, she learned. Some of that blood was from enemies he had bested, but most of it was from him. Shrapnel left his face looking ragged, and the ferocity of the explosion left his face burnt and scarred.
Her son no longer bore the brunt of that damage, but there were scars there that the medics were certain would never fade. The right side of his face looked as though it was scrubbed off. That explosive device left him tattered.
“He may wake,” Diana conceded. “I don’t believe he’ll ever recover. We had a physician here who said that he may never walk again.”
A forced grin was upon Edmund’s face then. He tapped his hand against her wrist and pulled away, knowing that she was going to need that moment of doubt.
Still, he couldn’t help but instill her with that dollop of hope instead.
“It was good that you found a physician,” he said. “They often have a more direct way of seeing things. But you shouldn’t discount the gods, you know. Faith is often the greatest healing, and it’s always in abundance.”
“What do the gods know about healing,” his sister said. “Where were they when a mob was making their way through the streets of Argos?” She realized the harshness of her words—both in her tone to her brother, and in her blasphemy of the gods. Diana buried her face in her hands then, worried that she might have just invoked their wrath.
Perhaps Nerian would never wake up.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know I shouldn’t be this cynical. My son still breathes, and that is a miracle all on its own right now. I just…I don’t think I’ll ever grow used to what he does. He isn’t like you and me, Edmund. He’s like his father, and his uncle.”
“He won’t meet the same fate,” the king’s advisor promised. “We won’t let it. We’ll do whatever we can to keep him with us.”
She nodded. “Perhaps I should go to the temple to pray for his recovery.”
“I’ll be passing a shrine on my way to my council meeting,” Edmund said as he rose from his seat. “I’ll stop in and say a prayer for him.”
Diana reached out and grabbed her brother by the crook of his elbow. She pulled him closer, placing his hand against her brow. “Thank you for visiting with us. You don’t know how much it means to me.”
“He’s my nephew,” Edmund said. “I want him to be well as much as you do.” He squeezed her shoulder as he walked past.
Soon after, he was outside in the streets of Argos, not far from the castle. The meeting with the rest of the king’s council would begin shortly, and he had that one extra stop to make, he knew. Without hesitation, he made his way to the west, hopeful that the darker days were finally behind the city.
* * *
“We can’t simply send the Argosian fleet to Norkoth and fire upon the lagano and hope the wind will guide our volleys,” Bellweather argued then. “The lizards are too far inland and trying to surmount some kind of naval authority over them would take too long. Peritas could notice the movement of our ships and take that as an invitation to strike.”
“All due respect, but if we don’t send someone to Norkoth to try and secure the mines there, we may not have the means to keep up with the opposing fleets anyway. Wars are won with iron, Jonathan. We won’t have enough to keep our soldiers armed.”
“Wars are won with money,” the king’s treasurer protested. “It’s my job to determine how to spend Nathaniel’s coin, and I’m certain when I tell you, spending money to hire mercenaries to do the job our fleet should be doing anyway is as flawed as it is pointless. We’d be no closer to earning resources that way.”
“Then what do you suggest?” Bellweather pressed. “You won’t be making much money at all if the kingdom is overrun. Or do you have a reserve plan in store in just such an occasion?”
“That’s enough,” they heard then. After only a few moments, they saw the third member of their group cross stone bridge that led to their meeting place. Edmund wore a scowl that they could detect even from there. “I can hear you both arguing from the castle proper. If my old ears can detect you with ease, what do you think that means of all the young, able-bodied servants inside?”
“You’re right,” Jonathan said as Edmund took his seat. “It’s been a difficult few days, and we’re all still on edge.”
“How is your nephew?” Bellweather asked. “I heard he was on the front lines when that uprising occurred a few nights ago.”
Edmund shook his head. “He’s as alright as can be hoped for as of now. What about your own boy? He had his own issues of late, didn’t he?”
“There was an odd happening at the Leister Music House,” the other advisor said. “He’s still recovering as well, but the clerics aren’t so sure he’ll ever be fully restored. The damage was beyond what they’d ever seen, according to Brother Wallace.”
“This council has had its share of misfortune over the past few days,” Edmund mused. “Where is Greenboro?”
Jonathan sat straighter in his seat and opened his mouth to speak before thinking better of it. A moment later, went ahead anyway, aware that keeping his secret would not end well. “You two are not the only ones with family problems. Mister Greenboro has sequestered himself in his manor, because he’s been unable to shake the truth from his recollection. While the guards were trying to liberate the city from the shadow organization that found they were endowed with new abilities, some of our people were…not quite themselves. Timothy’s sister was among the mob that had no control. Since Nerian was hurt in that same excursion, he’s been a little wary about coming here.”
“That’s nonsense,” Edmund said. “It’s as you said. People were stripped of their free will. They served a madman even though they had no choice in the matter. Timothy should have come to me. I hold no ill will toward him, or his sister.” He leaned back in his chair, thinking about all the terrible things that had wrapped up not only the king’s council in recent days, but the city as a whole as well. His gaze made their way to the other empty seat there at the table as well—one that had only been sat once before its owner passed away. “It really has been an awful run of luck for the lot of us, hasn’t it?”
“We all yet live,” Bellweather said with a shrug. “As I understand it, there was some loss of life, but none that affect the state of our city so.”
Edmund grew tense as those words reached his ears. He wanted to cry out, to demand that his peer acknowledge that Marin Cortes had just as much to offer to Argos as any of the men seated at that table. He knew better than, and bit his tongue before he could make any impassioned comments.
“We’ll have an abbreviated meeting,” the eldest advisor said then, opting to steer the conversation away from the topic of that fateful night that pitted the citizens of Argos against one another. “Before I arrived here, you both grew loud about something. What caused such a volume among the two of you, and what couldn’t wait until I arrived?”
Jonathan couldn’t refrain from flashing a grin at the older fellow. “I thought you could hear us from inside the castle?” When his teasing jibe wasn’t accepted with as much mirth as he’d hoped, he shifted and bowed his head. “It’s nothing quite worth worrying about yet, but one of our mines in southern Arthica seems to be running dry lately. Our workers haven’t been able to produce much workable alloy, and that puts us in a very bad situation with Peritas.”
“We’ve been growing our military base almost side by side with them for the past decade,” Bellweather added then. “Now that we’re set to struggle, Peritas may have the chance to outgrow us.”
“And if they can outgrow us, they can outmaneuver us,” Jonathan said.
Tapping his knuckles against the table, Edmund looked to Bellweather then. “When I first heard your arguments, you mentioned Norkoth. Argos has steered clear of that island for centuries. Why would we go back there now?”
Bellweather lifted his hands to quiet the other men. “It’s true, we’ve been told to avoid that island for much longer than any of us have been alive. However, we haven’t been very good at listening. Several times over the past decade, we’ve had spies land on the island and try to see what information they could garner from it.” He reached under the table then, and plucked a rolled piece of parchment off the ground then. A moment later, he had it unfurled, rolled out atop the table. Within a moment, he pointed to a few different places on the map, bringing the other advisors’ attention to the parchment. “It’s difficult terrain to get a proper feel for—”
“A dense jungle, a sweltering volcano and an indigenous people that want nothing more than to rend the flesh from our bones?” Edmund mused.
“I’ll give you the jungle,” Bellweather said. “That wouldn’t be a journey I’d want to take part in. But the lagano don’t care about our people,” he insisted. “Suffice it to say, on more than one occasion, our spies have crossed paths with them—never declaring themselves as subjects of Argos of course—but they’ve made it out to tell the tales of their meetings. The tales of the lagano savagery may be exaggerated. And as for Norkoth’s volcano, we have nothing to worry about. It’s been dormant for some time.”
“You’ve really done a lot of research on this foreign island,” Edmund said.
“It has a great deal of untapped potential,” Bellweather said. “If we approach it from the right angle, it could elevate us far beyond Peritas.”
“But it’s as Jonathan says,” the eldest advisor pressed. “If we send our resources there and things do not unfold as we expect them to, we may give Peritas the head start they need to eventually overtake us, not only on the island of Arthica, but in the greater theater in the southern seas.”
Bellweather grumbled and tilted back in his chair. “I understand. It seems I’ve become a bit outnumbered here. You know: if Greenboro was here, we’d be all tied up, and we’d be arguing about who to nominate for the other seat.”
“We still may,” Jonathan teased. “I’ll admit, your plan has some merit. I do think, though, that sending Nathaniel’s forces to an island crawling with lizardfolk may end up freeing up another seat on this council. But what if there was another way? And what if we could use that other method to fill that seat over there?”
Edmund arched his eyebrow then. “What are you on about then?”
A confident grin was already on Jonathan’s face before his peer finished speaking. “Hiring a fleet of sailors that fly the king’s flag would be costly and could potentially open up suspicions from our foes. But if we sent one ship that was crewed by sellswords that were prepared to protect laborers who would set up our mine for us—including setting up protective measures therein, of course—we could save coin, fulfill the plan and we would have plausible deniability should Peritas accuse us of some kind of underhanded ploy.
“Now, this wouldn’t be an easy task, and it certainly wouldn’t be recommended for someone without a certain leadership and charisma,” Jonathan went on. “If one were to take on such a difficult task as this, they’d earn quite the merits from the king. One would earn praise from us as well, I’d wager. Perhaps one would even earn that seat over there, wouldn’t you think?”
A chortle shook Edmund as he shook his head and looked away. “And I suppose you already know the ‘one’ you’d recommend for this endeavor?”
“I have an incredibly short list,” Jonathan said.
“Bring him in,” Bellweather said. “If this is the smarter decision—and it may be—I’ll endorse a suitable candidate.”
Jonathan let a grin spread his lips. “Who said anything about ‘him’? I believe, in this case, that the right man for the job is a woman. I’ll summon for Erinys (Torna), and have her attend our next meeting.”
“That’s a start,” Edmund pressed. “Now that we’re making some progress with the issues at hand, perhaps we can move through the rest without much delay. There’s still the matter of King Nathaniel’s coronation to go over.”
Aware that there was still much to discuss, the men opened their leather-bound tomes, and brought out their quills, ready to continue their business.
* * *
The room was impossibly dark, and the man found that he tripped into several of the items strewn across the floor then. Exasperated, he grumbled and stopped where he was, considering his options. He narrowed his eyes—not because he was trying to see any better in that darkness, but because he had an idea worth trying. The man dragged his thumb across his brow, gathering up the sweat that gathered just at his hairline. Once he was satisfied with that, he held out his hand. By willing the flame to life, it was as if his thumb had become a candle.
That old warehouse was illuminated then. It wasn’t much to go on, but the man saw the final resting place of those old, dilapidated trade goods, and better traced his path.
Though the warehouse was no longer used for its intended purposes, it wasn’t without its use to the new tenants. Walls had been fashioned in some places, closing up the place and leaving it somewhat less exposed. He’d made his way through the area several times before, but each new return left him feeling somewhat mystified. It was as though every time, its inhabitants moved things from one side of the building to the other.
There was no sense of familiarity there.
He only knew he drew close when he realized the sound of the crackling flame on his finger had dissipated. The fire still wavered and danced, but there was no sizzling noise there. The man tapped his foot for good measure, and when he couldn’t hear it reporting against the wooden floor, he was sure he was where he meant to be.
As he looked up, four distant torches lit on the other side of that final, long chamber. He could only see the fellow across the way by the glistening of his brow. Those torches must have been hot indeed.
He started to speak but couldn’t ignore how foolish he felt when the words didn’t leave his lips. No, they never even formed in his throat, he remembered. Whatever power that man wielded, it prevented any sound from entering the air around him. If a bull came crashing through the wall beside him, there wouldn’t be a snort, a thud, a clatter—nothing.
The visitor took several steps back, dragging his feet across the floor. When he finally heard his boots shuffling against the grain of those wooden planks, he let out a sigh of relief—one he could hear. Several other intentional sounds were produced and listened to: the clearing of his throat; the sniffing of the crated goods that still remained in the warehouse; the snapping of his fingers as he willed that solitary flame on his thumb away.
“We didn’t meet the Silver Serpent today,” he said. “We thought we had him, but it was just some kid in an imitated outfit. We’re getting closer, though. I can feel it.”
There was only silence in return, and the man attending the meeting at the warehouse wondered if that fellow across the way in the chair was able to hear him from that distance. That time he did narrow his eyes to see well. That dark-skinned young man moved his lips, but no sound reached him across the way.
The man who could summon fire clicked his tongue and stepped forward, back into the sphere of that magical soundlessness.
Not everything was silent, he remembered.
“The Silver Serpent is the only thing that could stand in our way,” he heard. Those words reached him as a garbled, distant hum, as though he were lying at the bottom of a pool of water and could just barely make out the words of someone standing above. He could also tell by the cadence of that statement that it wasn’t the first time those words were said. “While he still draws breath, our plans cannot be brought to fruition.”
With a nod, the visitor stepped back, that time before trying to speak in that zone of silence. “After what happened in the city a week back, this city has taken on a whole new life. There are more people like you and I than ever. The Silver Serpent has his hands full, and I’m guessing that’s why we saw his impersonator instead. You have my word though, we’ll find him. Next time I see that other fool I’ll take him out myself.”
He didn’t wait to see the man on the other side of the room speak that time.
“See that you do,” those rich, deep words resonated. “I can feel that time is running out. We have to move soon.”
The visitor nodded. “This job would be easier with another body out there in the streets,” he said when he was clear of the quiet. “She’s ready, I know it. Let me bring her out into the world and really put her powers to the test. Between the two of us, we’ll definitely be able to track down the Serpent.”
That time, the man at the back of that long chamber said nothing. The persistent silence in that sphere of influence left the visitor feeling uneasy, until he saw that plaintive nod across the way.
With a smile on his face, the guest pivoted on his heel, and headed back the way he came. With another set of eyes, he would surely find the Silver Serpent, even if he had to scour all of Argos to do it.
* * *
He sat alone in his room, his mother long before vacating his room in order to prepare for the services of that day. Kelvin looked out into the open sky, wondering how such a sad occasion could occur on such a beautiful day.
He blew out a steadying breath as he climbed from his seat on that cushy mattress and made his way to the window that the queen stood at not long before. Those golden rings appeared on the outside of his irises, and he looked at all those places in his father’s kingdom that reminded him of the events that led them to that point in time: The Leister Music House, where he found out about the woman he and Marin called the Banshee; far beyond the city where the tops of two old towers connected by a bridge, where he found a dependable ally; the old overlook near the center of town where a hero fell…
The prince played that image over in his head, again and again. Was there something he could have done? Was there some way he could have taken Marin’s place?
Remembering the details of that night sent a cold shiver up his spine. There was tremendous loss to all of Argos because of the senseless violence that Jerrod Vela brought upon the city. Scores of people lost their lives, and tens more had to live with what dark deeds they carried out while under the influence of someone they didn’t even recall.
Jerrod’s sway was still present in the city, Kelvin knew. While the Brotherhood had been fractured, the thought that they had found everyone was a foolish notion.
“That’s why I have to keep going out there, night after night,” the prince whispered. He realized that he had spoken to no one in particular, but when he heard those words echoing in his head again, he imagined Marin standing there in back of him, looking over his shoulder and telling him not to be so brazen and bold. “You don’t get to tell me those things anymore.”
That memory—that ghost of his mentor—said nothing while he imagined it. When he blinked away his enhanced vision, and turned to try and spot Marin, she trailed away like smoke on an extinguished fire.
Left alone, Kelvin bowed his head. In that dejected state, his eyes drifted to the trunk that he kept beneath his bed. Once, he kept his attire there, but no more. That green outfit he wore was safely in place at Edmund’s manor. The old advisor had taken another set as well, that one silver and fashioned for a woman. Marin’s tricorne hat was hidden with her outfit as well.
That trunk though, that held something far more important to him. He looked to the door, satisfied that it was closed enough for him to satisfy his curiosity. Kelvin fell upon his knees, and pulled the chest from beneath the bed, careful to flip the latch up in silence. When he swept the lid open, it was like Marin was there in the room again.
The white-handled rapier caught a glimmer of sunlight and reflected it all around the room.
“Someone has to carry on the legacy,” he whispered to the sword. “I’m not ready to be the Silver Serpent yet, but I’ll do what I can to become worthy in your eyes. I’ll be waiting for a sign.” He ran his fingers along the edge of the trunk, almost too reverent to draw too close to the sword. After one more glance at the blade, he closed the lid, and pushed the chest back under his bed.
That should have been the only goodbye he needed to say to Marin, but he knew better.
It was going to be a long day.