The wind lifted whispering voices from the Sea of Grass, the great plain that stretched across the hillocks and shallow valleys of northern Mordania.
Tharan-Tul, Great Shaman of the nomadic Thrun, crouched with his back to a roaring fire, watching the night sky revolve above Eirdon. His gnarled, large knuckled hand gripped his wooden staff. The wind tugged at his long hair and the folds of his heavy, embroidered robe. The fire flared behind him.
He had watched many nights now. As Shaman, he read the sigils and interpreted the circles that were woven through all life on Eirdon.
Toward the east, two stars rose and began to climb. Then, finally, a third star equally as bright as the pair crested the horizon and began to ascend the great dome of the sky into the gathering of stars called The Weaver, glowing with diamond brilliance against the deep velvet night.
It was the conjunction of three planets, as Tharan-Tul had expected.
He smiled knowingly, and nodded to himself.
“So,” he said to the soft voices whispering from the grass. “So… it has begun... again.”
He had many names.
Aylam Josirus, Lord Stettan, The Surelian Solution, who used his dead mother’s tribal name - Menders - as his sole identity, stood alone outside the door of the royal birthing chamber in the Great Palace of Mordania. With the exception of two guards blending into the shadows cast by flickering gaslights, the only other person in the corridor was a sharp-faced young woman. She was visibly sulking.
Menders ignored her. He had no interest in anyone else’s despair.
Menders had been commanded to Court that morning when an official summons arrived for him at the home of Commandant Komroff, headmaster of the Mordanian Military Academy. He’d returned to the capital city, Erdahn, the previous night from an in-depth and extremely dangerous covert mission in Surelia.
This mission had taken him two years to complete and had resulted in the elimination of a threat to Mordania that had become known as “The Surelian Problem”. Menders’ success had required the sacrifice of the last years of his teens and a romance that would have ripened to marriage. He had arrived at Court expecting to be rewarded with the position of Court Assassin. At the age of twenty, he was considered the greatest assassin who ever lived.
Instead, he had been made guardian of the Queen’s second child, which she was laboring to bring forth at that moment. Not even the Heiress, but “the spare”, whose impending birth had never been announced.
Worse still, Menders was to go with the newborn child and the rest of her household to a remote royal estate in Old Mordania, more than two days’ train travel from Erdhan.
The posting was for the first sixteen years of the child’s life. By the end of that time Menders would be far too old to be an assassin, the necessary bodily flexibility and lightning reflexes diminished by advancing years. His career was over. There would only be years buried away in the country as the official guardian of a little girl.
He was angry, confused, run through by the spear of betrayal. He should have been celebrated as a hero. Instead he was being sent into exile.
Menders was of an unprecedented age for anyone to be appointed Head of Household for a royal child. Such positions went to retiring military commanders or Courtiers who had become obsolete, often men with families of their own. They would hire nurses, governesses and tutors to raise the child, taking little interest in the proceedings. Menders had yet to acquire wife or family, and considering the remote location he was being sent to, his chances of doing so would be nil.
He had been handed professional and social death.
Perhaps the child wouldn’t survive the birth, or would be a boy, who would be snuffed out before he drew breath. Only Queens ruled in Mordania.
There was a sudden bustle behind the doors of the birthing chamber, followed by the thin wail of a tiny baby. Menders closed his eyes and then swallowed. The child hadn’t died and it would never have been allowed to cry if it had been a boy. It was a girl and his fate was sealed.
The door of the chamber opened and a woman beckoned to the sharp-faced girl. She scurried inside.
Moments later the Queen herself walked out, followed by the usual crowd of sycophants who fawned on and scraped to her day and night. She was tousled and reeking from her confinement, her red hair soaked with sweat. Although she had delivered a child only minutes before, she was heading back to the Great Hall, where she and her entourage would doubtless drink into the night. No bed rest for her. Mordanian Queens were bred to be tough.
Menders performed the formal obeisance of the Mordanian Court, slowly lowering himself to one knee, his head inclined against the other, his arms outstretched at shoulder level. According to Court protocol, this position was sustained until the royal personage acknowledged the one who performed it. Menders managed a covert glance toward the Queen in time to see her shoot a scathing glance at him from beautiful aquamarine eyes. Her lip curled in distaste and she walked on without acknowledging him or releasing him from his humble and uncomfortable posture.
Menders’ comprehension of his miserable situation became perfectly clear.
Should Morghenna VIII take a dislike to anyone at Court for any reason, that person disappeared. It was obvious from the way the drunken bitch looked at him that she disliked him - for reasons unknown.
Menders rose slowly as the Queen and her followers moved away down the hallway. He was sickened by the odor of unwashed bodies. He’d heard the Queen was prone to fits of melancholy and did not bathe regularly or groom herself. Menders’ nose wrinkled in nauseated disgust. It wasn’t only the sweat of labor – this was the reek of days, even weeks without washing.
The Queen’s Chamberlain burst from the birthing chamber, holding a bundled blanket. He rushed over to Menders and shoved it into his arms.
“Lord Stettan, I present you with your ward, Princess Katrin Morghenna of Mordania,” he said briskly, looking in the direction of the Queen and her party, obviously desperate to follow them. “You are to leave immediately. The Royal Train is waiting for you at the station. Further instructions will be forwarded to you. You are supplied with a wet nurse, cook, guard and physician. All the documentation you require will be provided before your departure.”
With that, the man scurried in the wake of the Queen and her Court, leaving Menders standing there holding a newborn baby.
He’d had no experience with infants. Children were part of the scenery, little things that clung to the hands of women or who dashed about and got underfoot in the street. He held the infant at half arms’ length from his body, stiff and uncomfortable, as if holding it close might break it.
I could kill it, he thought. Babies die all the time for not much reason. They die in their cribs, in their sleep. A pillow would do the trick, or a bit of poisoned water in its food. Then he would be free of his sentence as this lump of flesh’s guardian for a decade and a half. He’d killed so many and this was hardly a person yet.
He looked down at the bundle, and saw that they hadn’t even bothered to dress the child, that it was still slightly wet and naked except for the folds of blanket. It seemed to be asleep, and he was surprised, after hearing that newborns were red and crumple-faced, to see that it was a delicate pink, with a damp fuzz of downy golden hair on its head.
Just then the baby wriggled. Menders instinctively drew it closer to his body, cradling it in his arms. It made a tiny mewing noise, and opened its eyes.
They were a startling electric blue. They looked up into his as if this minutes-old child saw him, knew him and accepted him entirely, for exactly what he was.
Menders shifted her into the crook of his left arm and extended his right forefinger in her direction, touching the back of her tiny hand.
She grasped the tip of his finger with strength he would have never expected from such a miniscule piece of humanity. Her fingers were delicate and perfect, tiny dimples showed where each finger met her hand. There were pearly fingernails, so minute that they were funny and touching at the same time.
Menders felt a torrent of warmth in his chest. A sudden lump rose in his throat while tears stung his eyes. He smiled, then kissed the tiny hand as if acknowledging the most elegant lady at Court.
If this child is to be given to me, then she is my child, he thought.
In all his years of service, Menders had never failed a mission. At that moment he swore an oath to himself that he would never fail this Princess of Mordania.
“You are my little one,” he whispered to her, feeling drawn into the depths of those blue eyes, stricken with love he had never felt before. He would be with her forever, so long as his heart beat, this tiny, precious, pink and golden girl who had been given to him with no more thought than if she had been an outworn shoe or greatcoat. If her mother had no love for her, he had love to give that would more than make up for it. He would protect her and care for her all of his days.
He became aware of commotion all around and looked up to see that the luggage of Katrin’s household was being dragged out the door and loaded onto sledges. His own case and trunk, which he had been ordered to bring to the Palace, were being loaded with everything else.
The sharp-faced girl caught his eye. She tried to take the baby but he shook his head and cuddled Katrin close to his heart. He wrapped her securely against the cold and followed the luggage out into the long midwinter twilight.
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