The fireworks malfunctioned, and when they struck the gatehouse of the Lower Palace, the night air was filled with three sudden flashes of bright yellow. The funeral garlands that draped the towers vanished, a spider’s web incinerated, and then a dull orange glowering enveloped the gate. If there was any doubt, the screaming of the crowds and the ringing of the bell put them to rest: the gatehouse was on fire.
Kadar gripped his spear more tightly. All of this he saw from the steps of the Silver Chapel, the highest point of the terraced gardens of the Upper Palace. The fire muted the stars above and the rest of the royal city faded into shadow. He lost sight of the river Moloi, of the thousands of squat sandstone buildings and the parched streets. All he saw was the burning gatehouse and Conqueror’s Square before it, filled with the silhouettes of panicking mourners.
“Gods!” said Missen, one of the seven other Royal Wardens of the Dead who served alongside Kadar. “Just look at that fire!”
Kadar did, and it reminded him as all fires do, of his home village. Of the last time he visited it, of how they had arrived too late, and of how the barbaric Sainidan deserters had already put it to the torch. Nothing remained of it but ash and bone. His family, all dead. His best friend Amaz, dead. And the love of his life, fair Amari, also forever lost.
Even fifteen years later, the memory was bitter.
“The guards have a handle on it,” said Kadar. It was a dramatic blaze, but manageable. Soldiers were already bringing in water and sand, and the palace had weathered much worse.
Still, it was a tragic end to the fifth night of the king’s Week of Mourning. The first four days were for lament – first quiet and then loud – but the fifth marked a change to celebration. Celebrating the king’s life and deeds on the fifth, his line on the sixth, and the future on the seventh. The common folk sometimes got too celebratory on the fifth. Thankfully, kings died rarely.
But then Kadar noticed a group of fireworkers in the Square not panicking. Indeed, they made their way towards the gate, and his breath caught in his throat when he saw them light more incendiaries and aim them at the gate! This time the explosions were bigger and about a dozen soldiers were caught alight. Their sudden screams drowned out all the noise of the city for one excruciating heartbeat.
“Did you see that!?” Missen asked. “We are under attack!”
Kadar didn’t answer. Could it be? There was another round of fireworks, and this time a second, deeper bell joined the discord of the night. Last time Saint Enor’s bell had rung was when Prince Namvirat rebelled against his father and marched on the city, nearly sixty years ago.
Missen charged into the night, sprinting down the delicate garden paths of the Upper Palace to help with the defence of the realm, and the other Royal Wardens followed him. Kadar took one step and then stopped hard.
As a Royal Guard, his duty was to protect the royals and their palace at all costs. But serving as a Royal Warden of the Dead, his duty right now was to stand watch over the bodily remains of His Royal Highness, the king, who reposed on a marble catafalque inside the Silver Chapel. It was unthinkable to leave the king unattended as he made his journey from this life to the next.
A thousand thoughts raced through his mind as he weighed which duty to obey. If Missen or one of the others had remained behind it would have been so much easier. Perhaps the king would forgive him if he left, if it was to protect the other royals? But no, a king must not be abandoned.
A part of him pined after the troubles of his youth. Trifles that seemed so overwhelming at the time, and were so simple compared to his life as a knight.
Knighthood had of course been his greatest dream as a child, same as it was for all of the other kids in his little riverside hamlet. He spent countless afternoons with Amaz, retreading the steps of all the legendary heroes, from witty Kenon and his silver spear, to noble Memnoran who fell at the walls of Sagar, and even the long-winded and conflicting epics of Tansit.
Kadar sparred with Amaz, and though Kadar had always been strong and big for his age, Amaz was fast. He had a rat’s knack for survival, and a treacherous left hook. They argued about Tansit many times, but once was particularly vehement. Amaz swore that Hormar was the better swordsman, and so they put it to the test. Each boy grabbed his sword – the best branches the woods offered – and they fought hard.
Kadar thought himself winning, and then suddenly he found himself on his back, dizzy and with a bleeding nose. He’d no memory of how he fell and it was only through the testimony of the other boys watching that he learned about the left hook. He vowed then never to fall for it again.
But destiny had other things in mind.
Those were simple problems from a simpler time. Could he abandon his post now, to serve his other post? Ought he to? And why would anyone attack the palace anyway? It’s not like they’d manage to sneak an army through the whole city–
His mind silenced when he heard the faint scatter of pebbles. When he whirled around he just barely saw a shadow shift in the darkness, moving towards the Silver Chapel.
“Halt!” he bellowed, lowering his spear and already moving.
The chapel had no walls and its roof rested on a forest of pillars. From each hung a brazier dedicated to one of the Ninety Saints, and they illuminated the most revered monarch as he lay resting on his final nights in this world. And by brazier light, Kadar caught glimpses of a figure slinking.
And then of all things, when the figure approach the catafalque, it suddenly dashed from the shadows and – with the audacity of all the Thirty-Three Hells – laid its hands on the royal person!
And snatched a jewelled chain of gold from the king’s neck.
Kadar roared and lunged with his spear, nearly skewering the thief. The man’s life was forfeit. This was his trial and Kadar was the judge, for it was forbidden for the lowborn to touch a royal. And a dead royal could only be touched by the purest of priests.
The thief rolled backwards across the marble floor and jumped to his feet, nearly having his throat impaled on Kadar’s next jab. But then the thief veered right, between two columns, and Kadar’s long weapon became more a hindrance than an advantage. He dropped his spear and drew his court-sword – a blade as long as his forearm and about as wide, perfect for resolving a dispute with a rival on more intimate terms.
The thief was fast but Kadar was faster, and he slashed and stabbed constantly with the blade. The thief couldn’t afford to turn his back on Kadar, and neither could he continue backpedalling blindly while avoiding the sword.
Suddenly the thief kicked, catching Kadar unaware. Not enough to hurt, but enough to buy himself a breath, which he used to draw a heavy wooden club bound with iron bands. He swung it, but Kadar had already brought his shield up to deflect it. And then the thief swung again, and then twice more.
Kadar grunted. The other man was strong, yes. Maybe once a soldier. He must have realized that running would be death. Ah, but fighting would also be death. Only the best of the best were appointed as Royal Wardens, after all.
When the thief drew his arm back for another blow, Kadar charged him with his shield. He slammed him right into a pillar hard enough to crack a rib – yet the thief still held onto his club, and he managed to swing it over Kadar’s shoulder. It struck him in the side of the head, strong enough to blur his vision.
Kadar stepped back. There was something wrong with his helmet, something bent. The damn thing made it hard to see, so he wrenched it off just as the thief was catching his breath. Once more the man raised his club as Kadar charged him, but this time Kadar knocked his arm away with one swing of his shield, and then he knocked the man to the ground with a second swing.
The thief collapsed with a grunt and a heartbeat later Kadar was atop him, raising his sword for the kill.
“Kadar?” the man gasped, his eyes wide.
Kadar pressed his sword right at the man’s throat, and scowled. His face was smudged with dirt and blood, but beneath that beard was a memory made flesh.
It was the scar that did it, a knuckle’s length along the left temple. Amaz earned it the year they were both twelve, after mouthing off to Luro. A lifetime ago.
It was the same year they found themselves sitting on the sun-kissed banks of the Naima, right by the Big Rock and surrounded by reeds and croaking frogs. Their feet soaked in the cool waters, and with their hands they tore apart a nectarine pie – baked not an hour ago. Their faces were covered in crumbs and filling, and their laughter rang out across the river.
They never did get caught for stealing that pie.
Only now, it seemed Amaz had turned to stealing bigger things. But how could it be?
“Kadar,” said Amaz. He winced, something in his chest broken. “Is that really you? I thought you were dead.”
“After all these years,” Kadar said. Could this man truly be Amaz? “I thought you were dead.” Kadar did not lift his sword, but this man seemed like Amaz. He seemed so real. Even his eyebrows were knotted the way Amaz’s got when he was frustrated. The way he looked when Kadar betrayed him.
Amari was the love of his young life, and Kadar simply couldn’t imagine a future without her – and so he decided to make her a Bridal Offering. He set his heart on an amber necklace with a copper chain, but its price was out of reach, even when he indebted himself to the smith.
It was Amaz that helped him fund the rest, but only when Kadar convinced him he meant it for Raya – Amaz’s sister. When he made the offering to Amari instead, the deception cut twice, for not only would Amaz and Kadar not be joined as brothers-in-law, but it was no secret that Amaz himself had fallen for Amari.
That was the second time Kadar encountered Amaz’s left hook, and as they were nearly men then, the force of the blow was many times greater.
“Praise the gods,” Amaz wheezed. “It is good to see you.” Despite the dirt, despite the blood, the smile on that bruised face, the relief – it looked genuine.
“You would steal from the king.” Kadar’s tone was cold iron, honed through decades of practice. A far cry from his tumbling heart. Incredulity warred with duty warred with joy.
“What use has a dead man for gold, brother?”
That word, brother, bit deep into Kadar’s heart. They made peace by the time Kadar and Amari’s betrothal was official, and they had once more become inseparable friends when the war came. When the lord’s son rode into their village to pick conscripts. When the whip was pointed at Kadar, he bade farewell to Amari, and made Amaz promise he’d take care of her until he’d return. Amaz swore it. Kadar pressed the necklace into his hands, and they embraced as brothers.
“Watch your tongue,” Kadar snapped. “The king is no mere man.”
Amaz’s eyes studied Kadar’s, and his laboured smile faltered. “Forgive me,” he said. “Of course. But a man must care for his kin. The village is in desperate need of gold.”
“You lie,” Kadar said. “Everyone died. You died.”
Kadar left a conscript and never returned home. A decade of war took him all around the world, and valour in battle and the grace of the gods had granted him wealth, distinction, and ultimately a knighthood. And yet stopping the Sainidan was beyond him. They burned his roots away and freed him.
“No!” said Amaz. “When we heard the Sainidan approached, we assumed the worst. We – some of us – packed up and fled. Some…” His voice drifted away. “Some remained behind. They didn’t make it.”
“They live?” Kadar’s heart thundered. “My family?” The last came out in a hoarse whisper. “Amari?”
“Yes,” Amaz said, his grin widening again. “She’s–”
Almost. Amaz almost got him. But they weren’t children anymore, and Kadar had seen too much violence, done too much violence. This time he noticed Amaz’s left hand moving surreptitiously. He drove his sword through Amaz’s throat before the thief could strike him.
Amaz seized and shuddered and then was still.
And when his left hand unclenched, Kadar saw it held an amber necklace on a copper chain.