News of the Queen
“Is there a reason we’re so near the city gate?” Selgrin asked as they entered a large square thick with city folk. He had been hoping Copius might find a quieter location to work.
The rain had stopped, leaving a chilly, overcast morning. They’d hurried out of the inn at the first sounds of the king awakening. After yesterday, it was apparent that the presence of a dogar and a graceless monk would only complicate matters.
Copius waved an arm expansively across the square. “Go where the people are, my father would always say. It was the secret to his success. I remember a day he made forty-three converts simultaneously. Of course, it helped that when he said ‘Let The One shower down on the unbelievers,’ a downpour of rain began. It was the fastest conversion I ever saw.”
“Uh-huh,” said Sel skeptically. “So you didn’t pick this location because of its proximity to the marketplace?” The smell of cooked meats hung in the air, mingling with the aromas from the other food stalls.
“I chose this area thinking the people might be open to the teachings of The One,” said Copius matter-of-factly. “But while we’re here, I do think we should take the opportunity to sample the local fare.”
“I bet you do.”
While some of the city folk crossed back or forth to the marketplace, many huddled under blankets or stiff in layers of wool clothing outside the gatehouse, desperate for some word on Her Majesty.
Copius directed him to one side. “Okay, you stand over there within earshot. Might do you good to listen, anyway.”
Selgrin groaned. “I knew I should’ve stayed in my room.”
“And maybe pull your hood all the way down.”
“Why should I?” asked Selgrin.
“Um… Then no one can tell you’re a dogar?”
Selgrin felt the blood rush to his face.
Copius threw up his arms. “It’s just all those dark looks we’ve been getting, I’m afraid we might attract trouble.”
He had a point. It was different here in Camere than in southern Draza. Selgrin hadn’t experienced this much outright belligerence since right after the Great War.
“Bring ’em on, I say. I think it’s all right for humans to see a dogar out in the open, minding his own business, doing nothing shady.”
“Fine,” conceded Copius. “How about you just stay put and try to look interested?”
“At the same time?” grumped Sel. “Next you’ll be asking me to stay awake.”
Copius gave him a hurt expression before beginning.
“A-A-All of y-you…,” he attempted miserably.
“Pretend your whole audience consists of me,” said Selgrin. Outside of several squatters, that was true.
Copius began again. “All of you who tie your souls to coin, spool, or scale, know th-there is one thing that every man, woman, and child clings to like their last piece of bread. Sir, c-can you tell me w-what that is?” Copius asked Sel, who dipped his head down in response. Why did this have to involve him?
Selgrin waited until the pause had grown long and uncomfortable. “Who do you think I am, Kalendistrafous?”
“It’s hope,” Copius continued. “Hope that we will someday be wealthy, that tomorrow will be better than today. Hope that a queen is safely returned to her kingdom.”
Selgrin noted the dark faces of those seated nearby, some bunched together, others alone. They were not here for Copius, but clearly they could use something to believe in.
“What does your god tell you about hope?” Copius asked. The more he spoke, the more his confidence seemed to grow. “Dela brings no hope, only a story that has already been written. Tymius says that luck trumps all. Would you pin your hope on a game of chance?”
An old lady with a cane puttered over, the first to willingly join the sermon. Next came a tattooed rogrom, tall and barrel-chested with skin that resembled a rocky mountainside. If ever Selgrin felt sorry for the plight of the dogar, he only had to remember the rogroms. Now there was a people in need of hope. Their kingdom had lain east of No Man’s Land, buttressing the Gadaron Mountains. Bent on glory and honor, they took it upon themselves to face the bulk of Azren’s army during the Great War. They paid a heavy price, their stronghold destroyed, their people obliterated. A few rogroms survived, but not enough to form a community. They became little more than an oddity, seen mostly in cities around central Draza, the vestiges of a dying race.
Copius continued with verve. “The god of opportunity tells you to take what you can get while you can get it. And the scales of Chardise let you balance your hopes against all your good deeds. But I have never met anyone who had done enough good deeds for it to matter. Blessed be The One. He gives true hope, the kind that comes from knowing that if you follow his teachings, you will never be poor, sadness will be unable to weigh you down, and death can never truly claim you!” His voice thundered.
Sel looked up at his friend with admiration. He could tell Copius believed what he preached. The way he stood with his chest thrusting out and the sun glistening off his bald head—it all added to the power of the sermon.
More people wandered over to listen.
“I have a story for all of you,” said Copius, drawing the crowd’s interest with a more conversational tone. “There was a boy in my hometown who spent his days working for an apprentice blacksmith. He labored long hours and came home sweaty and exhausted. His friends, they never understood why he toiled when he could just sit with them on the soft green grass eating apples. Do you know what he told them? He said, ‘I am working hard for tomorrow.’ That is what The One encourages. If you work for him during your lifetime, he’ll take care of you when you pass on. Your spirit will be allowed to exist forever in happiness and in peace.”
There was a shout from behind Selgrin. An influx of people surged in their direction—and then they were gone, like leaves blown past a sunken rock. Only the elderly lady with the cane remained, and even she was attempting to hobble away. Copius frowned, his moment of glory gone.
“Cope, over here.” Sel pointed to caravan of three horse-drawn wagons beset by a throng of people. Bold letters on their sides spelled out PIKE, with Old World writing underneath. The last time they had encountered a PIKE caravan, an Honor Guard lost a piece of his ear. Selgrin had met torturers less sadistic than that leader of theirs, Rives.
The crowd jostled around the wagons. Selgrin and Copius went over to see what the commotion was about.
“A message about the queen,” someone squealed nearby.
“I knew she was alive.”
“Out of the way!” barked another soldier as he plowed through the crowd, clearing a path for his ranking officer. Sel watched Copius practically catch the old lady, who lost her cane in all the shoving.
The ranking officer reached the driver of the lead wagon. “I’m told you have a message for the king.”
The driver glanced about nervously at the waves of onlookers. “I was given this while on the road.” He held up a rolled parchment with a wax seal. “It’s for King Brelin alone, concerning Her Majesty.”
“Come with me.” The guards made a protective arc below the driver’s position.
“But my goods—”
“You may have them brought to the usual area and unloaded while we’re discussing this business.”
Selgrin couldn’t help but notice the old lady leaning on Copius with her head stretched forward to better hear the conversation. These Camerians were rumormongers through and through.
The driver climbed down from the wagon, said a few words to one of his men, and followed the officer away. The onlookers dispersed to spread the news. Selgrin spotted the old woman’s cane on the ground. It was gnarled and decorated with a ram’s head. He scooped it up and returned it to its owner.
“Blessed be The One,” she said in a raspy voice.
Cope beamed, sure she had picked up the prayer from him. A few moments later, she was gone, lost among the crowd.
“I guess the show’s over.” Selgrin figured they would head back to the inn, where the king’s message would find its way. But Copius insisted they detour to the marketplace; apparently one built up an appetite converting the masses.
He was finishing a drumstick when two soldiers hurtled past them. A shrill whistle sounded in the distance.
“My gosh,” said Copius, tossing the gnawed bone to a dog curled patiently a few feet away. “Where do you think they’re going?”
“What are you asking me for?” said Selgrin. If he had his way, they’d be halfway to The Bed of Nails by now.
A third soldier nearly as thick as King Brelin came huffing by.
Pounding footsteps preceded the arrival of the ranking officer from earlier. He skidded to a halt when he saw them, two soldiers at his heels.
The officer gestured at Copius. “Monk of The One, you were at the PIKE caravan, weren’t you?”
“Have you seen the driver since?”
Copius stared back blankly.
“The one with the note for the queen. Has he been by this direction?”
“Take this,” he handed Copius a whistle. “If you come across him—him or an elderly woman with a cane—I want you to blow three times.”
“An elderly woman?” Selgrin asked, regretting it the moment he did. Suspicious eyes swept in his direction.
“You were with her earlier,” he accused
“So what if I was?”
“Maybe you are her.”
“Make up your mind. If I was with her, I certainly couldn’t be her.”
“You dogar are a tricky lot—”
A whistle blew, and more men came rushing in their direction. “Sarge,” yelled a man to the ranking officer, “they found the driver. He’s uninjured, but he lost the message. Claims the old lady snatched it from him.”
“Is that so? Take me to him.”
Forgotten, it was not long before they were alone in the street, outside of a few staring Camerians. Selgrin shook his head. He just wanted to get back to the inn before he could be blamed for anything else—which is exactly where they were headed when they heard three more whistles.
Copius paused. “Something’s going on.”
“Something’s always going on. For example, we’re going on to the inn, where we can rest in our own mite-infested beds.”
He kept walking in hopes Copius would follow. He didn’t.
“Someone whistled three times. Maybe they need our help.”
“For Dronilowyn’s sake, Cope, they don’t want our help. Heck, that officer thought I was at fault.”
“I have a funny feeling… I think it’s important.”
“One lousy sermon and the power of The One now courses through your veins. Is that it?”
Copius shrugged helplessly.
Selgrin let out an exasperated sigh. “Okay, okay. I’m goin’. But I’m not proud of it. Skulking around, spying on their troubles—this is exactly the type of behavior I don’t want people associating with us dogar.”
They set off at a brisk pace. He was still grumbling under his breath when they came upon a thin, orange-haired soldier emerging from a nearby alley. The sergeant they’d seen earlier arrived from the opposite direction with two lackeys.
“You again.” He glowered at Selgrin before turning his attention to the soldier. “What happened?”
The young man held a sword awkwardly away from his body. “By golly, she’s a fast one. I thought I had her.”
“And I thought I’d be retired by now,” said the sergeant. “Letting an old lady get the best of you—you should be ashamed of yourself.”
“I ain’t so sure she was as old as she looked. You shoulda seen her move.”
“Sarge,” said the soldier next to him. “This is the second of our men she has gotten away from. Do you think it’s possible she’s a dogar?”
“Possible? I would say probable.” He gave a hard stare at Selgrin. “Is there a reason you’re here?”
No reason at all. He shook his head.
“We came to see if we could help out,” Copius said.
“Unless you’re experts at catching old ladies, I would say not.” The sergeant turned back to the orange-haired soldier. “Which direction did she go, private?”
“I was in that alleyway when I lost her. She went that way.” He pointed his sword northwest.
Something about the soldier caught Selgrin’s eye. Was that the ram’s head staff tucked into his belt, the one belonging to the old lady? Why would he have it, unless…a dangerous thought struck him. No, it couldn’t be. He stamped it from his mind.
The private shuffled his feet. “I’d best be off if I’m going to pick up the trail.”
Seeing that he did not have a whistle around his neck, Copius pulled off his. “Here, take my whistle in case you find her.”
But the private should have had his own. He’d used it to call them all here. Or did he? Selgrin could not hold back his suspicions any longer. If the old lady was a dogar, perhaps that dogar was the orange-haired soldier as well. It would explain the staff he kept and the whistle he lost. Perhaps he hadn’t the time to retrieve the whistle before they all arrived.
Selgrin charged. He drove the private to the ground and struck at his face, pressing a forearm to his neck. He would have soon uncovered the truth but someone pulled him off and threw him down. A knee kept him there. When he tried to squirm free, a guard slugged him.
The private rose unsteadily to his feet. His hand touched his nose and come away with blood. “You got me. Why’d you do that?”
“You’re a dogar, that’s why. And not a good one.” Selgrin’s face stung.
The sergeant bent over Selgrin. “What’s the matter with you? He’s no dogar.”
“Then why does he have the old lady’s cane?”
“She dropped it during our row,” said the private.
“How’d you lose your whistle? Don’t tell me the old lady ripped it from your neck.”
“My neck? I keep it here.” Sure enough, he pulled the whistle from a pocket at his waist.
“Well…” Selgrin didn’t know what to say.
“Just a misunderstanding,” said Copius, coming to his rescue. “He didn’t mean anything by it.”
The sergeant signaled the guard to let Selgrin rise. “A troublemaker from the start. Wouldn’t be surprised if you’re in league with the old lady.”
Selgrin brushed himself off. He felt like a complete idiot. “Sorry. I thought…”
The private gave him a generous smile. “We all misjudge people sometimes.”
Selgrin knew the feeling.
“It’s my fault,” said Copius.
“No, I was just being a fool.” Selgrin watched the young soldier march away with his sword in hand. Dumb kid. Didn’t they teach them anything in training? It was dangerous to walk around with a sword unsheathed.
Then it hit Selgrin. He’d been holding the sword out for a reason. He had no sheath. Every soldier had a sheath—but not every dogar.
Maybe there was another explanation. Maybe.
“Halt!” When the private didn’t respond, Selgrin sprinted after him. It was crazy. Insane. Talk about giving dogar a bad name.
The sergeant called sharply after him. Guards chased.
Orange hair disappeared into the alley. Selgrin dove. He caught a foot and tripped the private. But before he could follow up strong arms flipped him on his side and shoved him into the ground.
“He’s the old lady, I swear it,” Sel shouted.
The private sat up. “I don’t know why he’s gotten all riled.”
“Ask him about the scab—”
A guard cuffed Sel in the mouth.
The sergeant was there. “Tie and gag him.”
“No, no,” said Copius. “Let him talk. He can explain.”
“He’ll talk, all right. It’s going to be a treat. Men will be lining up to watch the dogar talk.”
The private rubbed his forehead, looking genuinely sorry. Could it be another mistake? Truth be told, he didn’t look much like a spy.
As rough hands lifted Selgrin to his feet, he spotted a parchment on the ground. It must have fallen out of the private’s pocket when he fell.
The orange-haired soldier looked down at it, staring, then dropped his sword and ran.
It took a moment for realization to set in, that the parchment on the ground was the stolen message for the king. The guards released Selgrin to give chase. He and Cope joined in. The private darted up and down the streets, his hair standing out like a colorful pennant. Copius had his whistle in his mouth, blowing it like a madman. Another intersection lie just ahead, this one so crowded with city folk the soldiers had to force a path through them. By the time they reached the other side, it was evident they had lost their quarry.
The frantic guards kept searching, but Selgrin slowed to a stop, bending over to catch his breath. There in the street lie the ram’s-head cane. A stocky Camerian watched him as he picked it up. A woman to his left screamed an obscenity. Sel spun about; too many faces to count. The dogar could look like anyone by now. They would never find him.
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Tendrils of Darkness: Book 1 of The Black Trilogy comes courtesy of a partnership between Will Spero and Best Fantasy Books.
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