"Selig had placed me next to the fire, both as a way to emphasize my honor – what little honor I had left – and as a way to keep me from dying of a chill. He had made it more than clear during the past three years that he considered me a frail creature, incapable of enduring the hardened life of a soldier. But, then, his opinion was shared by all in the Tascanian Army."
He has lost his title, his work, and everyone's respect. That will be the easy part.
When Corbin is taken hostage by York, the King of Fossenvita, he refuses to surrender to the sadistic King's demands that would allow York to win the war between the world's two kingdoms. Only thus, Corbin believes, can he help the petties of Tascania, on whose behalf Tascanian nobles such as himself are fighting the Fossenvites. Rather than lose his honor, Corbin accepts York's "gift": a wounding that will prevent him from ever again fighting with his blade.
But Corbin lives in a world that has been at war for generations, in which only the nobles who command the battles and raids are considered to have honor. Stripped of his title and his ability to fight, Corbin begins to see that the petties alone may hold the answer of how he should live his life. Maimed as he is, though, Corbin cannot seek answers from the petties unless he receives the help of one man: York's son Firmin, who has warned Corbin that he will betray him.
This novel is the first volume in the Princeling fantasy series. Princeling is part of Sweet Suffering, a cycle of speculative fiction series on friendship, romance, and faithful service amidst hardship and transformation.
He kept us waiting, of course.
It was a damp, chill-filled night, with frost crackling underfoot. The air was colder than an icicle except where the hissing fire tried to scare away the winter. Selig had placed me next to the fire, both as a way to emphasize my honor – what little honor I had left – and as a way to keep me from dying of a chill. He had made it more than clear during the past three years that he considered me a frail creature, incapable of enduring the hardened life of a soldier. But, then, his opinion was shared by all in the Tascanian Army.
Our own King was late as well, but for a different reason: he stayed until the last moment in the forest south of the truce ground, giving Eimund his instructions. The rest of us, princes and aldermen alike, stamped our numb feet and blew on our hands, huddling in one unranked mass like apprentices seeking each other's warmth on a cold night.
"Cold I can stand," commented Marlin, "and darkness I can tolerate. But a night like this, cold as death and darker than dried blood . . . Why, you can't see so much as a tree outside the firelight."
"I remember a night like this, oh, about forty years ago," said Janarius, a tall, deep-voiced alderman who had reached the age where he was given to reliving battles in his mind. "Cameron had us attack the Fossenvites' winter camp by starlight alone, and we nearly slaughtered their army then. If Cameron had only managed to reach their King . . . Still, we're close to the final victory now. We'll win this year."
"You say that every year." Selig kept his comment under his breath; I suspected I was the only one who heard him, for he and I were standing shoulder to shoulder. His arms vibrated as he rubbed them energetically against the icy breath of the wind.
"No starlight tonight to guide us," said Obert, always determined to get the facts right. "Which is just as well; that means the Fossenvites can't attack either. How much longer do you think they'll keep us waiting?"
"Until their King has amused himself by seeing us turn blue," said Marlin grimly. "He's watching us, you can count on that – and probably listening as well, so be careful of what you say."
"This cursed darkness," complained Obert. "If only we could see them!"
I felt the darkness pressing all around me like cold earth flung into a grave. Almost, I could imagine I was atop Wolf Hill, standing in the night-black stillness, hearing the growls around me. . . . I shivered.
In the next moment, Selig reached over and pulled my cloak tighter closed. I restrained myself from pulling away; instead, I concentrated my thoughts on the sable valley around us. Faintly came the sound of rhythmic pounding. I felt my stomach draw inwards before I realized that the noise was arriving from the wrong direction.
"Our King's here," I said, cutting short an argument between Janarius and Selig as to how many petty villages we Tascanians had to raid before we could claim the coming year's victory.
Cloaks rustled against each other as everyone turned to face the horses galloping toward us. Marlin called out a greeting, and then the horsemen were upon us, their mounts snorting in protest as they were pulled up abruptly. Smoke filled the air from the torches that had lit our King's way. The King gave a laugh as he thudded to the ground beside his horse, making some small jest about it being too warm near the fire. Then he fell silent as, one by one, the princes came forward to give their homage.
I waited until the others were finished; then, ignoring Selig's hand against my back, I came forward and knelt in front of the King, taking up his hand to kiss his ring. By now, I had this performance so well practiced that I could do it in one smooth move.
"Corbin." We had last seen each other only that afternoon, but Varick's voice, as usual, was a mixture of affection and anxiety as he spoke to me. He lifted me to my feet, saying, "Gentlemen, give us leave, if you will."
There was a murmur like the rattle of wind-touched leaves as the others vacated the coveted spot next to the fire. Varick drew me toward the flames. I quickly pulled my cloak against my body, lest the cloth catch on fire.
"Corbin, you can still change your mind," he said in an undertone as he leaned close to me. His voice rasped slightly in the unique manner that marked him off from other men. "You and Selig may go back to the camp if you wish."
Faintly, I heard the mutter of the nobles. The midwinter wind blew to my ears a word or two of what they were saying. Deliberately raising my voice so that the nearby men could hear me, I said, "Sire, I would appreciate it if you would allow me to stay. There remains a small chance that I might have information which would be of service to you at this meeting."
Varick was slow in replying. When he finally spoke, it was in a voice as loud as my own had been and in words carefully chosen. "I have no doubt you will be able to contribute much to this meeting, Corbin. I am grateful you are willing to take part in this talk."
I nodded but said nothing, for my stomach was beginning to churn again. A moment later I heard the sound I had been anticipating: hooves pounding against the hard winter ground as horses raced round the side of Wolf Hill to reach us.
"Torchlight, sire!" called Obert, having sighted them before hearing them. "It's York and his men."
The frost on the ground crackled once more as the nobles around me hastened to reach their positions of appointed honor. Though I had not moved, Varick said to me in a low voice, "Stay where you are." Then he stepped a bare half-pace forward, leaving me close to his side, like a shadow that mirrors its original.
Selig, panting from haste and excitement, appeared at my left side, a mere alderman promoted to a position of higher honor purely for my sake. He reached over to my cloak again, but I had already remembered to sweep it back across my shoulders to show that I was unarmed but for the dagger no fighting man would ever strip himself of.
The horses arrived at the fireside at a war-gallop. A horse emitted one great squeal of protest; then its forefeet fell to the ground with a thump. York's great, bellowing laugh, like the rumble of dangerous thunder, filled the still night. Without thinking, I let my hand creep onto my dagger hilt; then I remembered where I was and quickly let go of the dagger, though I could be sure no one cared whether I was touching a weapon or not. Least of all York.
"You chose a cold night for this meeting, Varick," shouted York across the fire. He was still on his horse; his voice travelled above our heads like a dark cloud. "I can't say that I think much of your men's fire-making skills. Shall we see whether we can combine our efforts to make a better fire by throwing our torches into the flames?"
Below the renewed murmur of our nobles, Varick said, "A trick?"
I opened my mouth to reply, but realized in the next moment that he was not turning to me for advice.
"You may be sure of it." I could just hear Marlin's low voice on the right side of Varick. "But what the trick is, I don't know."
"There's only one way to find out." Varick raised his voice as he said, "If you find this soldiers' fire too tame for your comfort, York, we would certainly not want you and your men to suffer. Locke, Davin – add the torches to the fire."
There was a moment's pause as the torchbearers, who had been standing several paces back from Varick, made their way to the fire, trailing warmth and smoke as they went. York's sharp orders to his own torchbearers were followed by the thud of boots as the Fossenvite soldiers dismounted. Twenty men, York had been told to bring to this truce meeting; I heard Selig count in a whisper, then stop short of twenty, satisfied.
"King and Commander of Tascania," York said with firm formality as he came toward the fire, "I greet you in the name of my people, noble and petty alike, and I swear to you that, as long as we stand within the light of this truce fire, neither I nor my men shall touch our blades. I present unto you, as witnesses to my oath, Granville, Prince and Duke of the Long Fields; Ridley, Prince and Duke of the Grey Mountains; and Houghton, Prince and Duke of the Black Forest—"
"You were told to bring your sons." Varick's voice had just the right edge of coolness to it. He had learned since becoming King that York was only amused if his enemies stormed against his conniving.
"—and my younger son, Firmin, Prince and heir to my heir," York finished smoothly. "Lenwood is unfortunately unable to come tonight, as he is still recovering from an unexpected arm wound he received in last month's battle."
York did not even bother to emphasize the word "unexpected"; the implication was clear. The silence that followed was so deep that I could hear Marlin's quick, heavy breathing.
"As I informed you last month, York, Prince Marlin inflicted that wound by accident." Varick's voice was slow and deliberate. "But even if he had not, your son – either of your sons – deserves far worse than that. A debt remains to be paid."
"Certainly," York replied cheerfully. "We owe a member of the Tascanian royal family one arm wound – I think you will find that we have not inflicted such a wound on you or your brother this year – and you owe me or my sons. . . Well, let us just say that a large debt remains to be paid. That is, if you ever get near enough us to repay it. But you have not yet given me your oath, Varick, and this makes me exceedingly nervous."
He sounded anything but nervous. The wind was blowing from the north again, sending billowing clouds of smoke into my face and running icy fingers down my bare chest. I tried to pretend this was the only reason I was shivering, but I pulled my hands back to where York could not see that they were closed in fists. In the quiet voice he used when he was close to losing his temper, Varick repeated the time-honored words of the truce oath before adding, "I present unto you, as witnesses to my oath, Marlin, Prince and Duke of the Narrow Pass; Obert, Prince and Duke of the Lakelands; and Meaghar, Prince and Duke of the High Reaches. You already know my brother, Prince Corbin."
At his final words, Varick's voice turned colder than the wind. As for York, there was no mistaking the smile in his voice as he said, "Indeed, yes, we are well acquainted. And may I tell the Prince how good it is to see him looking so well these days."
"You may not," Varick said as sharply as a blade. "Kindly refrain from addressing my brother, York. You have said enough to him in the past."
"Certainly, Varick," replied York mildly. "You are the King and Commander of Tascania. I ought not to have addressed one of your subjects at such a meeting."
Beside me, Varick began to shake with anger. Though by this time I was feeling so ill that I was sure I must be green in the face, I quickly and unobtrusively reached out to touch Varick's back. I felt him tense himself into control once more.
He said flatly, "Corbin is not my subject, as you well know, York. That is a topic we will discuss at another time. For now, I wish to learn why you have recently kidnapped men from the Petty Partition. This is one of the first times in eighty years that either Fossenvite soldiers or Tascanian soldiers have abducted petties from that place, and so I desire to know whether you are unilaterally rewriting the Rules of War."
"Discard the Rules my own grandfather wrote?" York's voice remained light. "Those Rules will always be followed while I'm alive. I merely sent a few men in to bring home certain criminals who had fled to the Partition."
"That is the whole point of the Partition." Varick's voice remained neutral, without any of the sarcasm that would have accompanied this statement if it had been spoken by York. "It allows the petty people a place of refuge. No noble may enter the Partition—"
"The men I sent were not nobles."
"—nor may anyone drag a petty out of the Partition in order to hand him over to a noble," Varick concluded steadily. "You know the Rules as well as I do, York, since, as you say, your grandfather composed the Rules my great-grandfather agreed to. I repeat, why have you broken the Nineteenth Rule of War?"
York gave a chuckle, a deep chuckle that was louder than the sound of the flames crackling between the Fossenvites and the Tascanians. I felt the sickness force itself up my throat. To distract myself from thoughts of York, I concentrated my attention on the men around him. Underneath the fire's roar came the crackle of frost as the Fossenvites shifted slowly in their places. They were edging themselves closer to the border line that the truce fire marked; they were now within a few steps of our land.
I did not move my head, which had been turned in York's direction all this time, but my hand moved quickly out. Varick's hands, as I had expected, were crossed behind his back, in the stance that the King adopts when talking formally to other men. I tapped his wrist once, hard, in the signal that Janarius had taught both of us many years before.
Varick caught my hand as it began to slide away; he squeezed it once to show me he had understood my warning. York was saying, in a gentle voice which alone would have alerted me to the danger, "Perhaps I just wanted an excuse for us to get together and chat. It has been three years now since we last talked, has it not? And then, of course, you were not King, and so we were limited in what we could say to each other. Are you enjoying your reign, Varick? I confess that I don't see the same fire in you that existed in the previous King – but of course it is always hard to outperform the dead. I remember your predecessor telling me that his father had foretold he would be the one to end the war by leading the final victory charge—"
"York." Varick's voice could barely be heard above the snapping and popping of burning wood. I knew that he had only delayed this long in interrupting because he had been trying to determine the source of the danger. "Your men are coming too close to the border; I would appreciate it if you would halt their advance. Moreover, I see that you have not pulled back your cloak. Would you kindly do this so that we may be sure you are not sword-armed?"
"Certainly, Varick." York's light reply held so much amusement in it that I felt myself grow stiff with fear. Recalling my wits, I reached out to tap Varick's hand again . . . but in the same moment, Varick stepped forward. My hand met nothing but empty air.
Across the fire, York was saying in the delicate tone he used when making a rehearsed and deadly speech, "I promise you, Varick, I am concealing no forbidden weapons. See, I will take off my cloak altogether to assure you—"
I drew breath to speak, sensing there was little time left in which to attract Varick's attention, but at that moment my cheek was stung by the edge of York's cloak catching my skin. The cloak whooshed through the air as it passed me, and then there was silence, undisturbed even by the crackling of the fire.
Of all the unexpected things which happened that night, the most unexpected was this: I was the first man to guess what was about to happen. Perhaps this was because the others were recovering from the shock of being suddenly plunged into darkness. I, on the other hand, was still concentrating on the sounds around me, and in the next moment I heard the sound that all of us had feared would come: the hiss of metal.
"Be at guard!" My voice flung itself upward from the truce ground and began to bounce off the sides of the surrounding hills; the truce ground had this trick of magnifying words spoken in its midst. I had shouted as loud as I could. Then, having conveniently revealed my location in the dark to all the Fossenvites, I did the only thing I could under the circumstances: I dropped flat on the ground.
As I fell, my cheek was grazed once more, this time by a blade – not aimed at me, I guessed from its angle, but at Selig, who was still standing protectively next to me, and who would have caught hold of me and placed me in greater danger if the blade had not met its target. Selig's wail mingled with the cries of the other Tascanians who had not been able to dodge the assault in time. I heard Varick's voice rise above the confusion in one desperate shout: "Corbin, run!"