The streets of Nistrain were cold with the impending rain, Jan pulled his collar closer to his ears as the wind whistled through the town. He passed the warm steaming grates outside bakeries, people hovered near them and stamped their feet. Jan walked quickly towards the palace, although it wasn’t far.
He arrived by one of the smaller entrances, passing in under the thick arch way. The guards searched him quickly, though he was not carrying a sword. Although the soldier felt down his boots, He waved Jan through into the small courtyard. The guard was often on duty, and knew Jan always wore the blade concealed there.
In side, the wind died down considerably, behind the high thick walls, the capital almost seemed to disappear. He watched the horses hanging their heads over the stable doors and snorting in the cold. He offered his knuckles to a soft nose and reached back to scratch it’s ears. The horse fixed its large eyes on him solemnly.
Around the courtyard were scattered braziers for the guards to chafe their hands together in the cold. Around one of them Jan noticed a young woman with a number of the soldiers and some of the older grooms. Adeth was an old friend of Jan’s. Although he had not seen much of her recently, being busy with the king’s tour, besides, she rarely came to the palace.
He entered the circle and easily slipped his arm around her waist. She gasped happily when she saw him and threw her arms around his neck cheering her greeting. “Jan! It’s so good to see you, how have you been?” She pulled away to look up into his face. She was flushed from the braisier and flirting with her little crowd of boys. Her complexion was still the fair pink peach he remembered when he had met her all those years ago. Though her white gold hair had dulled slightly in their southern city.
The knot of boys had faded back into the courtyard sensing defeat. She wrapped her bare arms around herself and shivered and they headed into the palace together and out of the cold.
“why do you tease them like that, Adeth?”
“Oh, force of habit I suppose, got to keep in practice” she winked at him. Jan had forgotten how petite she was, her head only reached half way up his bicep, it was pleasant to have a woman look up at him for a change, Su’Len was the same height and could look him directly in the eyes. A vision flashed in his mind of Adeth looking up at him from even lower down, but he cast it half-reluctantly aside. #
The King was in a large room with two huge fireplaces at each end. Jan handed his jacket to one of the page’s and bowed to the King. Adeth’s curtsey was low and slow beside him. Her wiskey coloured dress swished against the floor as she confidently kept eye contact with the king. He was leaning back against the deep cushions on his chair with his long legs stretched out infront of him. His right hand was hovering over a dish of dried apricots. He didn’t take his eyes off of Adeth until she had settled in a chair on his left. Jan raised a single eyebrow at Adeth, who pouted her lips to keep from smiling. So that’s the way it was.
The doors opened again to reveal Ortil, who joined Jan and bowed. “Ah, Ortil. Excellent, is Doriel coming?”
“Yes your majesty, he is on his way.”
The King popped another apricot into his mouth and chewed on it slowly for a moment, thinking. “Well, we’re still waiting on the Queen and then I think we can get started.” He shifted to the other side of his chair and leant towards Adeth, whispering conspiratbly to her. Jan looked away.
Ortil was carrying the cluster of maps under his arm and headed towards a table near the large windows, to take advantage of what little light there was. He started to spread them out on the table, Jan pulled up a chair. His eyes kept drifting over to where the King and Adeth were sat, their heads bent close together, a sickly feeling settled in his stomach and rumbled there. The King’s Hand had drifted to rest on Adeth’s knee now.
When the Queen arrived, the atmostphere lifted, Adeth melted into the back ground quickly, and The King rose out of his chair to meet his wife. Kasia brought action to the room, she dismissed the spare members of the court cluttering the room and immediately took control. She energised the King and everyone around her, suddenly an air of excitement had taken over the group.
“Are we still waiting on Doriel?” She asked, seeing that the captain was missing. “Well, nevermind, he can catch up later.” She nodded to Ortil to begin.
“This is the route that Jan and I suggest,” Ortil had drawn it out in thick blue ink to mark it clearly. Jan noticed that this copy had been altered to include the small town of Faarel, as they had discussed. “The only question we still have is what we do once we cross into Effsduel.” Collectivly the group bent in to examine the map. “Are we going to move directly towards Fud?”
The King exchanged a look with Kasia, before answering. “Yes, I think so. There is no need to waste any more time once we are in their territory.”
“I agree.” Said Jan. “I’d like to spend as little time as possible near the border.”
The tour took the King deep into the neighbouring kingdom, ruled by King Kirkiras. “We must get this situation under control. I am bringing Lord Yamisil with us, He has met with King Kirkiras before and I can trust his diplomacy.” Kasia was also going to travel with them into the north. “I can’t wait to see the capital again.” She smiled easily. The tour was a peaceful one, but there was always anxiety when a king was on the move.
After the King was clear on the route and a list of the entourage was presented, and edited (Kasia’s firm hand drawing lines through the names), Jan began to sense that his headache was coming on again. Ortil gathered his maps together and left quickly to begin to put the new plan together. He was relieved to finally have Kasia sign off on the route and make sure that the King was happy as well. She had travelled more extensively than her husband and knew the process of a royal tour. Her final say was all that he had been waiting for before preparations could be made in earnest.
Jan was still sitting at the table, worried that standing up would start his splitting headach in earnest.
“Jan?” He looked up quickly, too quickly. He winced and opened his eyes slowly. Adeth was across the table from him, leaning forward looking concerned, “are you alright?” Kasia was staring at Adeth. Her eyes glittered, angrily taking in her low cut bodice and pretty face. Jan tried to recover.
“Yes.” He stood up slowly and reached for the Queen’s shoulder to turn her away from Adeth. “Are you looking forward to the journey, M’Lady?” Jan guided the Queen closer to one of the gigantic fireplaces. She twisted over her shoulder to throw another look of daggers at Adeth who had started to fidget with her hair. Jan winced again, wishing Adeth had just stayed in the shadows, it wasn’t her place to butt in to a circle like that and now she had drawn the Queen’s attention to her.
Kasia straightened up to reply to Jan though, and pointedly ignored Adeth in the corner. Jan could see the king slowly drifting towards her and he knew that Kasia could see it too. His head was pounding, and the heat from the fire was scortching and distracting. Luckily it seemed that his headache had now caught her attention and Jan was pleased that Adeth would be out of the firing line.
“Jan, I wanted to talk to you anyway. Come with me into the next room, I actually have a present for Su’Len.” She tucked her hand into Jan’s elbow and steered him towards the door, leaving Adeth atanding very close to the king. Kasia didn’t even glance their way, she was very aware of a burning knot in her stomach where her rage was plotting and she knew she needed to remove herself from the room.
She practically dragged Jan along the corridor and into a small bright room. He dropped into a wide soft chair and put his head in his hands. It was pounding, worse than this morning. Kasia was silent watching him, taking in his pained face and pale skin. She called to a servant in the hallway. Soon two mugs to tea arrived. They sipped the hot water and it seemed to help Jan alittle.
“Maybe it would help to talk? Take your mind off it?” She settled against a large desk, leaning on it while he stared into his tea. He reluctantly agreed, although all he really wanted to do was go home, he knew he could not leave the Queen until she dismissed him.
“The girl in there,” she waved her hand “Is she a friend of yours?”
Jan cleared his throat. “Yes, we worked together years ago.”
“She’s very pretty, I’ve noticed her a few times.” She paused and fingered a piece of silver jewelry around her neck, “What was her name again?”
“Yes, that was it. And where does she come from? What family does she have?”
“None, I don’t think. She’s from Greetil. That little island in Effsduel. It’s beautiful there.”
“Did you meet in Greetil?
Jan shook his head. “No, it was after I arrived in Nistrain. We’ve known eachother for years.”
“Did you bring her today?”
“No.” Jan suddenly realised what KAsia was doing. He would have to keep an eye on Adeth and make sure the two women didn’t kill eachother. Her voice had hardened as she dropped the pretence of small talk.
“And will I find at the last minute that her name appears on Ortil’s retinue list?”
“I think that it is very likely that she will.”
Kasia nodded. A quick knock rang out through the room. “Come in.” The queen called. A short man walked in wearing all black. His collar was done up to his chin where it squeezed his flabby neck. The queen introduced him as Julien, a physician that was visiting court.
“I thought I ought to send for someone, Jan you really are suffering aren’t you? We need to make sure you’re well enough to make the journey.” Kasia fussed and actually ruffled his hair. Jan for a moment thought what a wonderful mother she would be some day. But remembering what Su’Len had mentioned earlier, he wrinkled his nose at Julien and started to get up, protesting but Kasia put her hand out to stop him. Jan fell back in the chair.
Julien came up close to Jans face. “You’re not sleeping?” Julien’s voice was light, almost femine and Jan flinched away when he reached to touch him. Julien peered instensely into Jan’s face for a moment before Jan remembered that it was his turn to speak.
“Yes. I mean no, no I haven’t been sleeping.”
Julien opened a black case he had with him and took out a small bottle with a dark liquid inside. Jan noticed that when he tilted it in the light the liquid was a very very dark red.
“What’s that?” Jan asked.
Julien explained that it was an opium tincture to help him sleep. “Just a drop or two under the tongue before bed.” Julien clicked his fingers and let his head flop to the side parodying sleep and then popped back up and smiled. Jan took the bottle. Opium was incredibly expensive. The opium fields were actually on the northern slopes near the Effsduel border and there were some significant raids recently that had driven up the cost of the valuable resin.
The door closed behind Julien and Jan let a breath go. He knew he wouldn’t be using the small bottle of potion. Something about the man had made his skin creep. The cool touch of his fingers and the look in his black eyes put Jan on edge and he knew Su’Len wouldn’t want to trust his tincture. Wishing Kasia would allow him to leave was all that he had in mind at that moment.
Jan stood up and put the small vial on a side table. Once he was standing Kasia suddenly took his hands in both of hers and pulled him to face her. She dropped her voice low and her hands were a cold vice.
“Jan, I need you to do something for me on the tour.” She did not let go of his hands and Jan narrowed his eyes to concentrate. “I need you to bring Julien with us.”
“Alright, I’ll get Ortil to add him to the list.” Jan tried to pull away and glanced at the door hoping that that was all that the queen wanted. His head was throbbing with a hot and painful rhythm.
“No.” She tugged him back around to face her. “I need you to smuggle him into Fud for King Kirkaras. I know that he is a brilliant physician and could cure his leg. Kirkaras is only smuggling because he is treating his injury with Opium.”
“Why can’t he just travel with the group?”
She clucked her tongue against her teeth. When she was alone she dropped her queenly elegance a notch. It almost made her more commanding when she became her real self, the protocol was such a façade. Jan’s hands were still pressed in the insistence of her grip.
“Yistril has taken a dislike to him –“ Jan interrupted her quickly
“I have to say, Kasia that I don’t particularly like him either.”
Her eyes were wide and she hesitated. She bit the corner of her lip before she went on. “I’ve seen him perform miracles.” A shadow of a smile passed across her face and she let go of his hands to hide it. Jan frowned. He was going to have to coax the story out of her. He wished she would just spit it all out, a steady ache had started in his stomach almost as if it was pulling him homeward.
“Kasia. What is this all about? What miracle?”
“If Lord Yamisil or even the King puts a single foot wrong on this tour and the kingdoms don’t remain friends, I may be cut off from Effsduel forever. Kirkaras might not admit to stealing our opium, after all it would make him look weak. Yistril is riding north to accuse him and I just cannot see it going well. If we could bring Julien with us, without them realising we could solve all of this.” Her voice was pleading now.
Jan strode to the door and looked into the hall where a boy in a neat suit with blue was hovering for the queen’s orders. “Could you call Julien, the physician in please?” The boys eyes widened and he looked passed Jan’s shoulder behind him. Julien turned to look and saw Julien waiting in the corridor. His hands were folded in front of him calmly waiting as though he knew that Jan would want to see him again. A dark look of satisfaction was on his wide features. Jan stepped aside for him to go inside.
Julien walked slowly back into the room and gently placed his black case on the desk. Kasia had taken one of the chairs and smiled at Julien as he came back in.
“I’ve told him about our plan Julien.”
Jan held up a hand to quiet her and looked hard at Julien. He was so busy studying the man that he missed the outraged look on the queen’s face. No one hushed her.
“My Queen has asked for secrecy in this matter. Why would that be?”
Julien’s high soft voice began his story.