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Devlin of Duncaer, Chosen One of the Gods, Defender of the Realm, Personal Champion of King Olafur, King's councilor, and General of the Royal Army, muttered to himself as he strode through the corridors of the palace. The few folk who saw him took one look at his face and discovered urgent business elsewhere. It was not just his appearance that gave them pause, though his green eyes and black hairnow streaked with whitemarked him as a stranger here: the first of the Caerfolk to enter into the service of their conquerors. Rather it was his reputation they fled, for it was well-known that the Chosen One had little patience for fools, and his power made him an enemy few wished to have.
As Devlin reached the chambers that served as his offices, the guard on duty took one look at his face and swiftly opened the door, forgoing the formal salute. Devlin slammed the door shut behind him.
Lieutenant Didrik looked up from his papers. "The council meeting went as expected?"
Nearly four months ago, when Devlin had been named General of the Army, Lieutenant Didrik had been detached from the City Guard to serve as Devlin's aide. Some thought the lieutenant too young for the task, but his age was offset by his proven loyalty and friendship. And Lieutenant Didrik knew him well enough to know when Devlin was truly angry and when he was merely frustrated, as now.
"The council sits and talks and does nothing," Devlin said, unbuttoning the stiff collar of his court uniform. "And the folk in the palace flee like frightened sheep whenever they catch a glimpse of me."
Lieutenant Didrik nodded. "It would be easier to convince them you were tame if you did not growl."
"I do not growl."
"Yes, you do."
Devlin gave a wordless snarl and began to pace the small confines of the outer office. Lieutenant Didrik remained seated, his eyes following Devlin's restless movements.
Devlin paced in silence for a moment as he tried to shake off the frustration of that afternoon's council session. Four hours, and little enough to show for it. He was not made for such. In his past he had labored as a metalsmith and a farmer. Both were hard trades, but each carried the reward of being able to see the fruits of his labors. But now the Fates had conspired to turn Devlin into a politician. No one knew better than he how ill suited he was for the task. Court politics was about compromises and alliances, jockeying for influence and trading favors. It took skill to navigate the treacherous waters of the court, and time to get anything accomplished. Time they did not have.
Worse, Devlin's voice was but one of sixteen, and no matter whether he whispered or shouted, he could not bend the council to his will. Instead he had to reason, cajole, flatter, and bargain, and try to be content with the smallest of victories.
Such as the victory he had achieved today. "There is some news," he said, dropping into a wooden chair across from Lieutenant Didrik's desk. "The council approved the proposal for recruiting trained armsmen. Word is to be sent to all the provinces at once. With luck we should have a hundred before the snows, and perhaps a thousand by springtime."
Lieutenant Didrik leaned back and smiled. "That is excellent news. Why did you not say so at once?"
"Because it is a victory, but at a cost. I had to agree not to urge the King to train the common folk who live in the danger zones," Devlin said, running the fingers of his good hand through his short-cropped hair. He was still not convinced that he had done the right thing, and yet there had seemed no other choice. Even those councilors who normally supported him had been united in their opposition to his proposal that the common folk receive weapons training, as was the custom in his homeland. To Devlin it was simple logic: make use of the people that had the most to lose in an invasion; teach them to be effective fighters rather than see them slaughtered.
But the councilors' concerns were not for the present dangers but for their future power. A peasantry that was trained in the arts of warfare would be far harder to control. The common folk might even take it into their heads to rise up against those they perceived as unjust. Devlin acknowledged the risk, but had argued that those who ruled wisely had nothing to fear. His words had fallen on deaf ears.
"Perhaps there will be no need. Since Major Mikkelson and his troops repelled the landing force in Korinth, there has been little trouble along the borders. It may be that the worst is over," Lieutenant Didrik said.
Devlin shook his head. "I do not believe our enemies will give up so easily."
They were still not even sure who their true enemy was. The invaders in Korinth had been a mercenary troop, in the pay of someone they could not even name. It was only chance that had led Devlin to discover the plot in time to repel the invasion. The Royal Army had made short work of the would-be invaders, but Devlin knew better than to suppose that this was the end of the threat.
Yet where would the enemy attack next? Devlin and his advisors had wracked their brains trying to divine the strategy behind the enemy's seemingly random attacks. Without knowing whom they were facing, they were reduced to guessing.
The trouble was that Jorsk had grown into an empire whose very size made it difficult to defend. The Royal Army could not be everywhere at once. Devlin had to deploy his troops carefully, which was why he had proposed arming the common folk to serve as a first line of defense.
"The armsmen will help," Lieutenant Didrik said.
"Aye. Draw up a list of those provinces most in need and a plan to allocate the armsmen. I will want to see it tomorrow." He closed his eyes and leaned his head back. The council sessions wearied him in a way that hard labor never could, for it was an exhaustion born of frustration and a sense of his own inadequacies. "Anyone would make a better councilor than I."
"Do not speak such folly," Lieutenant Didrik said. "Without you, the soldiers would have sat idly in their garrison rather than meeting the invaders on the shores of Korinth. And you were the one who sent the Royal Army out to patrol the highways and survey the border fortifications."
Comforting words. But such actions were only a fraction of what Devlin had hoped to accomplish when he had accepted his position. Then he had been sure that with the King's backing he could set this Kingdom to rights. But he had not counted on the numbing effects of court politics, or that his influence would wane as memories of his heroism faded.
Now he was left to struggle as best he could. A lesser man might have given up hope, but Devlin was the Chosen One, bound by Geas to serve the Kingdom as long as breath remained in his body. He could not conceive of surrender. He would not rest until he had fulfilled his promise and made this Kingdom safe.
The last chords faded away into silence, and Stephen lifted his hands from the harp strings. A scattering of applause broke out from the assembled guests, and Stephen felt a warm rush of pleasure as he bowed his head, acknowledging their praise.
It was seldom these days that he had a chance to play for an appreciative audience. Not that he was lacking in offers. Quite the contrary. If he accepted only half the invitations that came his way, he could have filled every night and most of his days. It had taken a while for him to realize that the invitations were proffered not in appreciation of his musical skill, but rather because of his well-known friendship with the Chosen One.
At least tonight he need have no such fears. Soren Tyrvald was not a member of the court, but a wealthy wine merchant. On several occasions over the past two years Stephen had played for him, entertaining his guests. Tonight was just another such gathering.
Stephen caught his host's eye. Merchant Tyrvald nodded, then rose and signaled to the servants standing in the back of the room, who began circulating among the two dozen assembled guests, offering chilled wines and sweet pastries. During the interval the guests would refresh themselves, giving Stephen a chance to rest before the second half of his performance.
Stephen bent his head down to the harp, plucking lightly at the strings as he retuned them. The old harp was a lovely instrument, but the worn pegs meant it couldn't stay in tune for more than an hour.
"A delightful performance," Merchant Tyrvald said.
Stephen lifted his head, startled. He had not heard the man approach.
Setting the harp back on its base, he rose to his feet and gave a short bow. "Your praise honors me, Merchant Tyrvald."
The man smiled, his round face and bald pate giving him the appearance of an indulgent uncle rather than the shrewd trader that his reputation held him to be. "Please, I have told you before. I am Soren to my friends."
Stephen inclined his head but said nothing. It was a fine line he trod. Stephen, son of Lord Brynjolf, Baron of Esker, could well address a wealthy merchant as an equal. Stephen of Esker, the as-yet-undistinguished minstrel, could not afford such familiarity.
"Come, walk with me a moment," Merchant Tyrvald said. He took Stephen's arm and led him in a circular path around the drawing room, nodding and smiling in acknowledgment of his guests. "The tune you played at the end, that was a new one, was it not?"
"Yes," Stephen said, feeling absurdly pleased that Merchant Tyrvald had been paying such careful attention. "It is a new composition I am crafting."
Stephen had composed songs before, writing lyrics, then setting them to music. This time it was the melody that had come to him. He had tried in vain to find words to fit the haunting tune, until he finally realized that the melody needed no words to convey the emotions he felt.
"A pleasant tune, yet at the same time unsettling. Does it have a name?"
"I was thinking of calling it 'Waiting for the Storm'."
As they reached the back of the room, Merchant Tyrvald nodded to one of the servants, who drew aside the silken hangings. They stepped into a small chamber, and the hangings fell back into place behind them.
Stephen's heart sank. There was no reason for Merchant Tyrvald to take him aside for private speech unless what the merchant had to say had nothing to do with Stephen's performance.
"I need to give you a message for the Chosen One," Merchant Tyrvald said, the affable smile melting from his face.
"I will not be used this way," Stephen said, turning on his heel to leave. "I am here as a minstrel. Speak to me of my music or not at all."
"Hear me out," Master Tyrvald said. "Five minutes, in return for all those times I gave you employment before anyone knew your name."
Stephen took two more steps, then his feet dragged to a halt. Merchant Tyrvald had been a patron to him, in those days when Stephen had been reduced to singing for his dinner in dockside taverns. If any other had made this request, Stephen would have continued on. But he owed the man, and so he turned around.
"Five minutes," Stephen said slowly. The elation he had felt moments before had vanished.
"Your friend is causing quite a stir. Even the merchants of the city can talk of nothing except the Chosen One."
Stephen's eyes narrowed. "Devlin. His name is Devlin."
"Lord Devlin, then," the merchant said. "The reforms he proposes have frightened many, and they begin to wonder if the cure is worse than the ailment."
Was this some kind of warning? Devlin had been the target of assassination attempts before, but none since he had vanquished Duke Gerhard and exposed his treasonous plots. "Do you threaten us?"
The merchant shook his head. "Not a threat. Say rather some advice. One with my reputation often finds himself consulted by merchants and nobles alike. These days I hear strange whispers. Voices saying that Devlin of Duncaer is not the true Chosen One."
"What nonsense is this? Has he not proven himself a dozen times over? Where would we be if Devlin had not risked his own life challenging Duke Gerhard to a duel and exposing his treachery for all the world to see?"
"The late Duke was a traitor, none will deny. But now many also say that the Gods had turned against the Duke and that anyone could have slain him. Your friend was merely a convenient instrument."
Hot anger surged inside Stephen. "Devlin nearly died that day," he said, his fists clenching at his sides. He would never forget what he had witnessed. Devlin bleeding from dozens of wounds, cradling his maimed hand to his chest, staggering slightly as he fought to stay upright until he was sure that justice would be served. In his worst nightmares Stephen revisited the horrors of that day, watching a friend come within inches of the Dread Lord's realm.
"Memories fade," Merchant Tyrvald said. "And heroic deeds are soon forgotten. Now the courtiers worry about their future, and the Chosen One frightens them, as do his plans. So they gather and whisper. They say that he is not the true Chosen One. That if he were truly anointed by the Gods, then they would have given him the Sword of Light as proof of his calling."
"The Sword of Light has been lost for two generations," Stephen pointed out.
"And there has been no true Chosen One for as long. Not one to measure up to the heroes of old. You know it as well as I."
"Why are you telling me this?" Stephen asked.
"Because I believe the Chosen One is right. There will be war, and sooner rather than later. Though if you speak those words outside this room I will deny having said them. This new rumor is a clever attempt to discredit the Chosen One, for he draws much of his power from the belief of the common folk. And it is these folks who cling most tightly to the old legends. Soon, they, too, will begin to ask why he does not wield the Sword of Light. I thought it best he hear this first from a friend rather than an enemy."
Stephen ground his teeth in frustration. So much for his vow not to be used as a pawn in these games of politics. But he could not ignore the information the merchant had given him. Devlin would have to be told, and Stephen would once again find himself sucked into the political quagmire he had tried so hard to avoid.