The invasion had happened two centuries ago but there were still people that felt like strangers in their homeland. Reans often saw traditions that weren’t theirs as inferior, but they tolerated them. They taught their language to the children and it was so widespread now that they dared call it the common tongue. They favored their collaborators and made them nobles. Once they had grown enough, most of the land they coveted fell without bloodshed. When confronted with the choice between exotic wine and facing an organized military of tens of thousands, most kings handed down their crown to become dukes. Those who didn’t were vanquished and forgotten.
Although she was Rean by birth, Kayla had spent most of her life with people that weren’t. She had been taught History through tales told at night. That might have been why she had so much contempt for noblemen.
Yet, the prospect of working for the Court did not bother her. The issue had been settled long ago and even those who kept their old traditions did not foment any revenge against the Empire. It was the attitude of the Rean people rather than the Empire itself that bothered them.
By the time she was done brooding, they’d gone through a patch of wood and reached a road. Boredom found her faster than she would have thought and she spent some time detailing her companions’ appearance. Aleander had traded his blue and white livery for a grey woolen shirt and mail. The patched up cloak could have given the impression he was a common man if he hadn’t been perched on top of a purebred Sundust horse.
Ardens, her brother’s mount didn’t seem to like the purebred all that much. He was keeping a distance with the seneschal, and Toikem did nothing to upset him. Her brother was a large man with dirty blond hair braided all the way down to his saddle. He had inherited dark brown eyes from their father, while she retained the hazel irises of their mother and the jet hair of a grandparent. In fact, she had very little in common with him, physically speaking. People who didn’t know they were related had little reason to assume they were.
She started humming an old tune and was soon asked where she’d learned the ballade. It turned out Aleander was equally fond of The Lizard Crack – a public house renown for the quality of its liquor and the sensuality of its choir. “Whistle that in the barracks,” the seneschal said, “and you’ll make some friends, I tell you!”
The conversation went on, easing the ride with memories of inns and landscapes. She had traveled half her life and there were still places in the Empire she hadn’t heard of. She truly got interested when Aleander started talking about foreign lands. He had been to the Great Isle, Arvia, a place she had always dreamed of, with forests that had never known axe or fire. Aleander described it as similar to the Wildlands – the central region of the Empire – without the wildlanders. Only the Arvian shores were inhabited and it held the greatest navy in the world.
“How can it be they build ships if they don’t cut down trees?” she asked Aleander.
“Arvia go as far as to import wood, bricks and lime. They have no industry whatsoever. Their whole economy relies on the fruits, vegetable and spices of the forest – luxury products in and out of themselves. It is said they have slaves, but the slaves have silver. The only concession they make is to sleep in the dormitories. They are forbidden to build or buy houses.”
“It sounds like a wonderful place.”
“It is, to an extent. The forest is a giant, beautiful thing, but it is murderous. Pickers die each day going into the trees. It is also a place where strangers aren’t allowed to settle. They would sooner marry their slave – which they do – than take a prince for a husband.”
“Why is that?”
“The Great Isle keeps itself above politics. It was a colony once and knows how brittle alliances can be. The only fresh blood on Arvia is the one of Islanders – a people who forgot their own nation.”
On the side of the road, a thin tower appeared. A ruin, really, its tip had crumbled and stones lay on the ground around it. When they passed by it, Kayla could have sworn she saw a piece of metal glim in the sun, by the loophole. Her mare took the lead and Kayla grabbed a javelin. Toikem followed her without question, and put on his shield.
Aleander’s destrier ambled calmly after them.
“Something wrong?” the seneschal asked, amused.
“I saw something,” she warned him. “A crossbowman, I think.”
He ran his hand in his shaggy beard. “Well, I would rather there be two.” He stopped his horse and turned toward the tower. “Guards!” he shouted.