1 - A Fool's Journey

An ambitious little kingdom is thrown into chaos with the arrival of a gift from a rival, that is far more than it seems at first glance.

"The King sends fools to protect his secrets..."

The officer followed his young companion's gaze to the figures dancing in the firelight.  His power did not extend to the foreign emissary and his men, so he pursed his lips and redirected his irritation.  "Worry about yourself.  Your father sent fools enough when he let you accompany your brother on this mission."

The young man sat up sharply, scowling.   An angry retort sprang to his lips, but he bit it back at the expectant expression on the officer's face.  This was what they wanted from him.  The men saw nothing but an upstart bastard, there but for his father's grace.  They watch him for signs of danger, a feral beast in the midst of men.

Unwilling to play his part, he grabbed the weapon at his side and disappeared into the woods full of petulant youth.

His father had not sent him.  This was supposed to be an easy success for his royal half-brother.  Though neither side had met, much work had been done on both sides to devise a treaty acceptable to both kingdoms.  The Prince, a timid boy of twelve, was sent to transport the final document, a gesture that would have more weight had the boy wielded any power to sway the course of the treaty.

It was his first responsibility to the kingdom.  Though the boy was unaware of it, the promise of a royal marriage upon enactment of the treaty would be the second.

The young man had only been privy to the discussion because he had no name to distinguish him from the servants and slaves that milled around the room where it took place.  Being so invisible wounded his pride, but proved to be somewhat of an advantage in his situation.  He stored the information, and buried his wounded pride.

The walk did not soothe his nerves.  It was far too feeble to undo a lifetime's worth of hurt, but he welcomed the physical movement and cool night air.  On his return some time later, the camp was silent.  Unstoked, the fire quickly died out to flickering embers, and the men were forced to huddle beneath their blankets to stave off the cold.

A small, terrible thought entered his mind.

He could see the foreign emissary clutching his satchel to his chest, and he thought of the advisor who slipped an envelope into the thing while they said their goodbyes.  None of his business in any way, and yet-

The curiousity was too much to bear, and he tip toed past the sober, dozing guards, and the ones drunk enough to sleep through the end of the world, should it come that night.  Crouching over the emissary, he reached into the satchel until his fingers felt a small envelope.

A sound startled him, but a nearby guard merely rolled in his sleep and began to snore.  His heart raced.  Despite defying his father's orders without hesitation, he knew how disastrous being caught stealing correspondence from an emissary of peace would be.  There was no point in abandoning the entire thing, now that he had his prize in hand, so he calmed himself and spirited the envelope out and some distance away from the main area of camp.

He waited, staring at the wax seal adored with an eagle, as his heart slowed to a reasonable speed.  Though never formally educated, unwanted children like him had more than enough opportunities to gain experience with more illicit skills.  More than an orphan or two earned coppers here and there, taking messages between frugal business owners and illicit lovers.  He learned how to open and reseal a letter before he ever came across one that held information he cared to read.

In the moonlight, he could make out the bold, uneven handwriting.  Not something written by the King's scribe then.

'May it bring you all the health, wealth and happiness you deserve' it read, without addressing who it was to.

In other words, a complete disappointment after all the effort he went through to steal it.  And yet, the eagle was a symbol of the foreign King, displayed on banners and tapestries, and emblazoned on the uniforms his men wore to escort, among other things, this very boring note.  Something about it was unsettling.  What was the it the note referred to?

The emissary did travel in an ornate carriage, with a rather out of place plainly hewn wooden box strapped to the back.  How odd that his mind should run to that, when it was far more likely the letter was some uninteresting scandal meant for a lady of the court, accompanied by a trinket small enough to remain unnoticed.

And yet, once it popped into his head, the second terrible thought would not leave.

He looked back over his shoulder towards the carriage and the mystery box, and yelled out loud as he came face to face with the young Prince standing an arm's length away.  "What are you doing?!" he hissed.

"I wanted to ask you the same thing," the boy answered, all innocence and curiousity.

"Nothing.  Reading a letter.  It's private!"

The boy's eyes burned holes through his lies as he stared, unmoving.  "What's your name?"

"Brand."  He spoke quietly, aware of  how still his body went waiting for the Prince to raise the alarm.  The urge to lie about his name came too late.

"You're not with either group here, are you?  I've been wondering about it, but you disappeared at the castle."

Brand was growing angry being at the mercy of a boy who would never know he spoke to his brother.  "No.  I'm on a secret mission for your father..." he lied, slowly, to give himself some time to let a tale form around it.

"A secret mission?!"  The boy was excited at the thought.  It seemed to overwhelm his earlier suspicion.  "Of course!  That's why you had to steal the letter!  What does it say?"

Now he swallowed his surprise and terror that the boy had been watching him the whole time, and handed over the letter doubling down on the lie.  "I think it has to do with the box over there, but I might not get another chance to check it before it gets presented to the King."

The Prince's eyes went wide.  He was no stranger to talk of all the dangers that surrounded his family, and his father in particular.  "We must not let that happen!"  His mouth drew into a straight, determined line.  "They'll know the letter was opened..."

Brand tapped his nose knowingly.  "Do you trust me?  The King wouldn't send a fool on such an important secret mission, would he?"

Having won over the one ally in the camp that could prove useful, Brand made a show of lighting a match and carefully resealing the letter without marring the eagle's form.  He outlined his plan, which amounted to walking quietly around the drunks that didn't wake the first time, and breaking in to the box without so much as a metal lock to hold it shut.  When they inevitably found dirty clothes, or travel rations, he would breathe a sigh of relief and reassure the boy of his father's safety.

Brand went ahead to slip the letter back into the emissary's satchel, easier now that he rolled away from it.  The boy made his way across the camp with exaggurated stealth and fear.  It made him seem somewhat endearing, and for one mission Brand was willing to forget how much he resented him.

The carriage was unattended, and Brand used his sword, wedged beneath the nailed down lid to slowly coax the wood pieces apart.  The cheap wood creaked somewhat as the lid gave way, and moonlight streamed in to reveal its contents.  A young woman more beautiful than any he had ever seen before lay sleeping peacefully inside.  Brand reached out and touched two fingers to her eyelids before he even knew what he was doing.  Her eyes flew open and the Prince, watching from behind him shrieked.

Though little else roused them, the Prince's guards lept awake at the boy's cry.  The noise finally roused the emissary, who was embarassed his men were caught drunk and asleep, and began kicking them awake.

Brand knew his entire life was coming to a swift and pointless end as both sets of guards moved towards him, and then-

"I've rescued a damsel the Northerners are keeping prisoner!" the Prince announced.  Every eye in the camp slid to the jubilant boy and his discovery.  The Prince was not old enough to give the command that would have to follow, so the officer did it for him.

"Arrest those men, until we can get to the bottom of this!"  Outnumbered, and slowed with drink, the foreigners were easily subdued and tied up.  The emissary swore and threatened every man there, but for naught.  In the middle of all the commotion, the young man breathed a sigh of relief and took a moment to be grateful for the boy's outburst.

Months of diplomacy and the entire journey might have come to nothing... but for the moment, Brand was mercifully forgotten once more.

 ~*~* To Be Continued *~*~






The End

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