The setting sun tinged the sky with shades of gold. Waves lapped at the sandy beach as the tide rolled in. White foam licked at the few rocks that littered the length of the beach that formed the small cove near the village of Shell Beach. It was a peaceful spot, visited by few of the village’s residents. The few who visited were glad for it, though as far as one of those people was concerned, there was only one person who went there at all and that was him. He’d never seen evidence of another human being there, nor had he encountered another soul, and that was just how he liked it.
Large feet clad in crude brown leather boots with thin soles stepped from the sand and into the mud at the edge of the ocean, watching as the water rippled and swirled around them. This was one of the things he loved the most about the ocean. It didn’t care who you were. It didn’t care if you were a man or a woman, rich or poor, powerful or unknown. It simply was. As far as the ocean was concerned, you were insignificant. You were just another living creature, and you meant nothing to it. It had existed long before you had come into existence and would continue to exist long after your bones had faded into dust.
That’s probably why Kal Valorn is the way He is, the owner of the boots thought bitterly as he bent to pick up a small stone. He drew his arm back and, with practiced precision, skipped it across the surface of the water. He watched until it sank beneath the waves a good distance from the shore. That cold and uncaring bastard is why I’m standing here right now instead of in my rightful place.
His tanned hands balled into fists. The sheer arrogance of that…that… He squeezed his eyes shut. How dare He? What gave Him and His brothers the right to come to our world all those hundreds of years ago and tell us what to do? We were doing just fine without them. It was war; things get messy. What else do you expect? Things would have sorted themselves out, eventually.
A sea bird shrieked nearby as if in response to the anger in his thoughts. It was the same thing night after night. Every night, he visited the cove. Every night he railed at the injustice of his life, practically shouting his anger at the Sky Lords. It had been the same thing ever since he and his mother had come to this miserable hole of a village. Not once had he gotten any kind of reply other than the evening calls of the beach dwelling ranas birds.
All that’s about to change, however, he thought with a grin. He turned around and headed back down the beach with long, determined strides, heading towards Shell Beach. Mother will worry if I’m late for supper. I should be on time tonight of all nights. After all, it’s my last one here. If I’m very lucky, I won’t be seeing this place again for a few years if at all.
It wasn’t long before the small collection of thatched roofs that comprised the village came into sight. Smoke curled lazily up out of identical chimneys, heading towards the sky. He could smell the various odours of cooking food and incense. He could hear the last echoes of the small hand bells used by the local priests of Kal Kiterr the Wood Lord. The small shrine at the centre of the village was little more than one of the wagons used by travelling traders; the only difference was that it did not have wheels. At one time it had, but they had long since been removed.
A slow, nasty smile curled his lips. Kal Kiterr, You and Your brothers will pay for the humiliation You have rained down on my family one day soon. That much I promise You.
With that thought on his mind, he walked up the sandy path to the small hut he shared with his mother and opened the door, noting the squeak of the hinges as he entered.
The smell of his favourite foods wafted into his nostrils. Up until then, he hadn’t been hungry, but in that one instant he was ravenous. He looked up; his mother was waiting for him at the table, her hands folded in her lap. His chest swelled with pride as it always did at the sight of her. She looked every bit the noblewoman, despite everything thrown at her for the last two and a half years. Her once knee length silky blond hair had been cut to shoulder length right before they had fled the Imperial Palace at Dathren Cove—the only home he had ever known—in part to prevent herself from being recognized and in part because such a vast amount of hair would be impossible to maintain without her army of servants. She had insisted that he get a similar hair cut and had done it with her own hands and a sharp knife. Her skin was void of the cosmetics that had been popular at the time of her exile, but even so she was a vision of beauty. To his eyes, she was the most beautiful person he had ever seen. To him, the yellowish skin and black hair of the Dovalians just seemed bland and lifeless. He knew full well that to them he and his mother seemed somewhat exotic in appearance, but it was not unheard of for Jiinalese people to settle on the coast of Doval.
If only they knew who it was who came to their village on that day, he thought as he sat down. They would have turned us in to the authorities before we could blink.
“You came home much swifter than I thought you would, my son,” the woman said, nodding.
“This is an important night for us. I couldn’t afford to be late.”
She nodded again. “You’re a good boy, Nuren, and as fine a son as any mother could ask for. You’ll be missed after you leave.”
“I promise I will write to you as often as time permits.”
“You have said as much before now. Do not mistake me, my son; I believe that you will try, but I know far better than you do how an army works, what a recruit goes through in the first few seasons in a training camp. Oh, you may have time to write every day at first, but that will change as your duties increase. I know you; I have watched you grow. You are every inch your father’s son. I expect to hear that you are the very best recruit from this region, and after that I expect to hear very little from you until you have graduated and assigned to your first post. Know that my expectations are high in this. I expect that you will graduate with high honours, that your graduation will be swift, and that your first posting is somewhere with great prestige.
“You are your father’s son. As such, I expect that you will climb rapidly through the ranks and one day become a powerful man and do your father and I proud.”
Nuren nodded. “Mother, will you tell me what happened to him?”
“Why is that so important to you?”
“He’s my father. I deserve to know what happened. You never really told me why we had to leave our home so suddenly. All you said was that Kal Valorn had betrayed our family, and that it was the fault of a woman that we had to go, but who she was or why the Water Lord would betray us…you never told me why. I think I deserve the truth after all these years. If I’m to go and serve in the Dovalian army, an army that has spent countless generations fighting against our homeland, I should know these things. Tell me, mother, why you brought us here and taught me to hate the Sky Lord I was raised from birth to love and revere. Why must I now pretend to revere a Sky Lord I hate?”
“Our food is growing cold,” was her reply.
Nuren blinked and lowered his eyes. He knew what she meant. That was to be the end of the discussion and she would tolerate no further questions on the matter for at least several days, if not for another whole season. He swallowed an angry lump as his mother served him the choicest bits of the white krelai fish that had been cooked in a traditional Jiinalese manner. Carefully, she ladled sauce over the fillet, taking great care to cover as much of the meat as possible. When she finished, she looked up at him, an expectant look on her face.
Trying not to betray his anger, he picked up a fork and sliced some fish apart from the larger chunk with the edge. He stabbed it and popped it into his mouth. It was very hard to stay angry with his mother as he savoured the sweetness of the fish as it mingled with the slightly bitter tan coloured sauce. That dish was the first one he could remember tasting from his childhood. It was a difficult dish to prepare properly as the ingredients for the sauce needed to be precisely measured and cooked. If the measurements were off, even a little it tasted wrong. Even worse, if it had been cooked too hot or not hot enough or even for too long or not long enough it could go horribly wrong.
He had learned at a young age that even though his mother was a noblewoman that her skill at preparing jarua sauce was unmatched. It was not a dish she had made often since coming to the village as Jiinalese sea wine was hard to come by in a place as poor as Shell Beach despite its proximity to Jiinal. It had hurt her pride to not be able to prepare it as often as she would have liked. That she had done so on this day told him just how seriously she was taking matters. He knew just how little wine she had left in her stores, wine that she had bought with money gotten from selling her precious pearl broach, a piece his father had given her as a token of his love on the day they married. He also knew it had wounded her to offer such a beloved piece up for sale, selling a pearl here, a scrap of gold there until the whole thing was no more.
It couldn’t have been sold as a whole, he thought, remembering her explanation while prying the flawless pearls from their settings. It was far too distinctive. Her explanation of where the parts came from must have been enough for that trader, though anyone who would believe that someone as sublime as my mother could come from a long line of pearl fishers is a complete idiot. Anyone who has ever seen a proper pearl fisher would know that her skin is too smooth and perfect, her hands do not have the right calluses, and she bears none of the scars associated with that dangerous profession. She would never admit as much to anyone, but I know she can’t hold her breath as long as she should be able to for a Jiinalese.
His mother continued to serve him the best parts of the small meal, taking great care to make sure he was enjoying it. Only once she was certain that he was did she take any food for herself. Such was the custom in Jiinal.
When he finished, he clapped his hands in front of him and bowed his head. “I thank you for this delicious meal. I will not forget your kindness in preparing such a feast for my farewell.”
“I only wish I could have done more,” she replied bitterly. “It is so hard to come by the ingredients to make fefey at this time of year.”
“I imagine liola nuts are hard to find outside of their growing season.”
She shook her head. “Even so. When we were living in the palace there was never a problem. We ate whatever we want whenever we wanted and growing seasons be damned.”
“You miss it,” he commented.
“It is hard not to. I have lived in luxury my entire life. To have to live in this…place is degrading.”
“I remember living in the palace, too, mother. I hate it here, though I admit perhaps you find this much harder than I do.”
She forced a smile onto her face. “I’ve come to see it as something of a blessing in disguise. This hole we live in—I won’t deign to call it a house as I’ve had closets larger than this—has more than adequately prepared you for life in an army camp. The Dovalians are not as sophisticated as we Jiinalese. Their camps are cramped and crowded with poorly made tents to use as shelter. They seem to think such things build character much quicker than more civilized means.” She snorted. “It is small wonder that we could always defeat them in battle. They worry far too much about unimportant things.”
“I will remember that,” he promised.
“I know that you will. Come, Nuren. Help me tidy up one last time and then we will sit by the fire as we did when you were young.”
Nuren woke the next morning long before his mother did. The sun hadn’t risen yet; An’katerr’s single pearly white moon was still in the sky. His mother customarily slept later in the day than he did, trusting that her son would not get into any trouble before she woke up. He had always been careful to not give her any cause to believe otherwise. At the very least, he made sure that any trouble he got into was the kind he wouldn’t get caught doing. He took one last look at the comfortable Jiinalese style clothing, feeling his chest tighten with regret.
I won’t wear clothing like that again until I return home, he vowed. I swear on the moon, bringer of the tides, that I will go home one day. I will make my mother proud and restore the proper order of things.
He stripped out of his night clothes and put on a pair of rough black pants, a short sleeved brown tunic, and black leather boots that felt too tight for his feet. There were no mirrors in the house so he had no idea what he looked like now, but he imagined that he looked quite foolish dressed as a Dovalian army recruit. Dovalian brown looked terrible up against his tanned Jiinalese complexion and although he’d never worn anything made of or coloured copper, he imagined that it wouldn’t be all that flattering either.
He sighed. All officers in the army wear copper coloured armour, so it is something I will eventually have to deal with.
As a recruit, he wasn’t allowed to bring many of his possessions with him as the whole point of training camp was to focus recruits on learning the arts of war, something Nuren had been learning from the cradle. He smiled. At least I will have an advantage on the others this way. I will have to make it appear as if I am gifted at what I do. Act natural and not as if I have been doing this for as long as I can remember.
He laid the rough brown satchel on his bed and put the spare uniform he’d been given inside, as well as all of his extra under garments. On top of that, he laid down one pair of Dovalian style clothing that looked nothing at all like his uniform. He saw no reason to pack his winter clothing; if the Dovalians were at all smart about things they would issue him standard winter gear when the time came for such things.
The last thing he packed was a small bundle that was rectangular and as long as his arm was from his elbow to the very tip of his middle finger. His mother had given it to him the night before as they had sat together beside the small hearth fire. He hadn’t had to open it to know what it was. Wrapped inside the deep blue silk was a small dagger. It was highly ornamental but was more than sharp enough to be effective as a weapon. Tiny pearls no larger than valaris seeds ringed the base of the hilt. The hilt itself was engraved with a stylized version of his proper Jiinalese name. Anyone unfamiliar with Jiinalese calligraphy wouldn’t know how to read it, which was possibly why his mother had felt so secure in letting him take it. He caressed the hilt through the wrapping, feeling the grooves of the name.
He much preferred his birth name over his current one, though that was not a surprise since he had been called by it for fourteen years from the time of his birth until the day his father had disappeared from his life. He had hated his mother for the name she gave him when they fled the palace and cut off his hair. To the Dovalians, it had no special meaning, no implications behind it. To them, a nuren was a kind of hardy sea crab that lived in the deeper waters the local fishers visited. It made sense for them to have a Jiinalese boy in the village with a name like that.
Ignorant peasants, he grumbled. It would never occur to them to wonder what the Jiinalese meaning of the word nuren is. Anyone from the islands would know and think I am trying very hard to hide something. Who would give their child this name after all? I am faceless, no one. I have no name. To be nuren is to be nameless.
He clutched the dagger. It had been a gift to his mother from his father on the day he was born, as was the tradition in Jiinalese noble families. The birth of a son merited a decorative weapon while they often celebrated the birth of a daughter with a gift of jewellery, though sometimes a gift of fancy fabric was given instead.
He was to have been Emperor one day, Nuren mused. Perhaps father was waiting until he merited having more than one wife before fathering other children. I was his Heir; maybe that was all he needed to be considered for the throne. He shrugged and tossed the dagger into the satchel, covering it with a light blanket, another change of clothes, and a second pair of boots. He tied the satchel closed and went to look in on his mother.
Her part of the house was curtained off with a worn and thread bare piece of pale blue fabric. It had once been a rich, deep blue, but age and hard use had faded its colour. It was still a lovely shade, but it was not what it once had been. Once, it had been a long, elegant skirt worn by the wife of the Crown Prince. It had been ripped apart and sewn into this curtain.
He pulled it aside and looked in. It was too dark to make out her features, but he could tell from what little he could see and what he could hear that she was still sleeping and would be for many hours still. He nodded and let the curtain fall closed again. He went into the common area and ladled some water out of the water barrel to have a drink. If he had not done so, he might well have missed the pale brown rectangle lying on the table.
Nuren set the ladle back down on top of the barrel and went to pick it up. It was a letter from his mother, written in Jiinalese. He unfolded it and read the first couple of lines.
I know you have many questions, my son, but I beg of you to not read this until you have reached your destination. You and I both know that you will leave the house long before I have woken up. I wish I had the courage to tell you these things in person, but I fear that I used the last of my courage on the night I forced you out of your safe, comfortable bed and brought you to this hellish, sorry excuse for a life. This is no place to raise a prince. If you have already reached the camp, then I hope that you had a safe journey unbothered by wild animals or bandits. If there is no one around, please keep reading as I have much to tell you and little time in which to write these things.
He folded the paper and put it under his shirt. As much as he ached to know what his mother wished to tell him, he had a good idea as to what was written in her letter and so would find the patience to do as she wished.
I could never deny my mother anything. She knows that, curse her. He shouldered the bag and went over to the door. Taking one more glance around the small building that had been his home for two years, he nodded. Farewell, mother. I hope you stay well and that we will meet again someday soon.