Free Reign

Arkaen Sentarsin, son of High Lord Johannus Sentarsin, loitered in the hallway, kicking a booted toe against the wall. His father’s study door remained firmly shut, the noise of his fidgeting not enough to disturb the discussion within. Negotiations over Arkaen’s future. Arkaen’s father hadn’t seen fit include him in those talks. Just another asset of the province, traded away for what stability could be found under High Emperor Laisia’s growing corruption. As if any alliance his father might plan could protect them if High Emperor Laisia chose to turn his gaze on them next.

A door opened further down the hall, releasing a muttering cluster of his father’s lower lords. Arkaen straightened, his nerves tingling as he cast around for a distraction. But his personal guard, Vaiyen, wouldn’t be in the palace for nearly two hours. The central figure—not a lord at all, really, empowered to speak with the voice of Arkaen’s father in minor points of debate—caught sight of Arkaen and excused himself from the group. The other lords sauntered away as Oren Kalmer strode down the hall to face Arkaen.

“What brings you to the formal business wing, young lordling Arkaen?” Oren inclined his head in a slight nod. The barest deference to Arkaen’s rank as heir to the province.

“Father is negotiating a contract for me,” Arkaen replied. “I’m waiting until he needs my input to finalize the details.”

Not that his father would ever ask his opinion. Oren’s frown told Arkaen that he was aware of Arkaen’s insignificance to the negotiations, as well.

“Your lord father will no doubt summon you when he has news to share,” Oren said. “Until then, I do believe you have lessons to attend.”

But it’s about my—” Arkaen’s whine cut off at Oren’s raised hand.

“Forgive me, young lordling.” Oren dropped his hand with a smile. “I’m afraid I have several matters yet to manage for your father. Allow me to escort you to our latest political adviser. It seems you had some trouble locating his study yesterday.”

With a sulky frown, Arkaen followed in Oren’s wake as the steward led him away from his father’ study. The stone walls of his home keep hung too close for comfort, the fading tapestries his mother had hung to lighten the feel now too worn for their purpose. Just more reminders of the lost joy her death had inflicted on Arkaen and his younger sister. Arkaen dragged his booted heels on the floor, the scrape drawing a glare from Oren.

“Princes don’t pout, young lordling,” he said.

“Princes don’t get sold to strangers like prize breeding stock,” Arkaen countered.

Oren shrugged. “It wouldn’t be the first time and likely won’t be the last. And if the worst you suffer under our emperor’s rather profligate reign is an unpleasant wife, I hope you’ll count yourself fortunate. Too many of your people suffer far worse.”

“Then why doesn’t father do anything?” Arkaen kicked at the wall again, forgetting Oren’s disapproval. “Sentar Province has the resources. We could at least send aid to the northern lands, and if he’d lead the empire in talks we could—”

“It’s more complicated than that,” Oren said, shaking his head. “The north has more complaints than a simple idealogical dispute.” He paused beside a plain door and leveled a stern glare at Arkaen. “Which is why you need to attend lessons. Now mind your tongue with your tutor. Proper manners make proper lords and our empire could use a proper lord or two.”

Arkaen laid a hand on the latch with a sigh. “Yes, Oren.”

He’d never have let another servant speak to him like that. Not even Vaiyen. But Oren wasn’t really a servant. Not in the way his father’s pages or cooks were, at least. Oren had been connected with the family since Arkaen was an infant and possibly before. He’d practically raised Arkaen and his sister when their parents had been too involved in the ever more treacherous world of imperial politics.

“Oren.” Arkaen’s word caught the man mid-turn. They stared at each other, Arkaen tense under the questioning gaze of his mentor.

“Look after Sayli, will you?”

“As I always do, young lordling,” Oren replied. He cast a glance at the door. “You expect to experience some harm in your lessons?”

“No, I just—” Arkaen shook his head. He couldn’t tell Oren. Oren might understand, but he’d never let Arkaen go, no matter the cost. “I just worry about her. She’s been so isolated since mother died.”

Arkaen met Oren’s eyes again and saw the understanding there. Oren knew without being told. Of course he would. For an instant, Arkaen was sure Oren would say something—do something—to prevent him from slipping away.

“Well, be safe, young lordling,” Oren said, turning away. “Our province needs you more than you know.”

He strode down the hall and stepped around a corner, leaving Arkaen at the door wondering if he’d misread Oren’s look. He couldn’t be approving of Arkaen’s half-formed plan. Hardly more than a thought that had been brewing since Arkaen had learned of his father’s meeting this morning. But Oren was giving him a chance to slip away. Whether he meant it or not, Arkaen would never have a better opportunity.

Releasing the door handle, Arkaen turned on his heel and dashed down the hall. Even if Oren intended to let him go, he wouldn’t have much time. Maybe a quarter of an hour before the entire keep was hunting him. It should be enough time. He detoured down a side hall and slipped out a servant’s door into a yard stinking of pungent horse droppings. Close enough to the kitchen gardens for fertilizer without spreading the stench through the keep. Arkaen peeked around the corner, searching the broad courtyard for any sign of activity. None yet. His father’s guards would check the stables first, then the weapons master. By the time they realized he wasn’t in the keep, Arkaen would be well into Torsdell proper.

Arkaen slipped past a barrel of rainwater and edged around the keep, disappearing into the broad alley separating the fine houses from his father’s home. These homes were a jumble of varied styles—stone monoliths beside sprawling wooden mansions depending on the personal style of the merchant or minor noble who’d built there. The more prominent Sentarsi lower lords kept full town estates toward the edges of Torsdell. Beyond the immediate view of the high lord’s palace, where they could imagine the town one of their own holdings. In other provinces the lower lords built their city residences as close to the high lord’s palace as possible, but fawning had never bought leniency in Sentar province. Not before Emperor Laisia’s recent excesses, at least.

With a sigh, Arkaen edged down the lane, scanning for the smaller alley that led toward the commoner’s tavern where Vaiyen had once taken him. Run down, with rough-hewn benches and watered down ale Arkaen’s father wouldn’t serve to his least esteemed rival. But for once, Arkaen had sat in a tavern and shared a private drink with a friend—far more than a friend. An ally. A voice he trusted and a shoulder he needed now.

As the twists led him further from the wealthy districts, he shed his fine silk cloak. More for fashion than warmth, anyway, and his sister had far more interest in fashion than he ever could. Arkaen glanced back at the palace, pausing at the mouth of another alley before the towers of his father’s keep vanished from sight behind the building. This marriage plan didn’t make any sense. Baron Weydert was a long-time family friend. A loyalist in every sense of the word, while others among the lower lords challenged his decisions. But Baron Weydert sat in his father’s study negotiating a marriage contract for Arkaen’s bed. There couldn’t be any real value in further that alliance more. Not that Arkaen would have been any happier with a different woman.

The jostle of voices, shouts, and music echoed down the alley, growing in volume as he neared the door. A warm glow spilled through the windows onto the cobbles beyond. Wealthier farmers and merchants shared tables, a few guardsmen in his father’s flashy gold livery at one table by the door. And in a corner, visible through the window beside him, Vaiyen.

Arkaen cursed. With his father’s household guard seated by the door he couldn’t possibly slip inside without being caught. And he couldn’t afford to wait them out. Oren would never openly defy the high lord. Arkaen knelt, foraging among the dim cobbles of the street for loose pebbles. A loose stone too large for his needs—no need to break the window—the rough edges of a few replaced stones. His fingers dipped into a greasy pool of warm liquid and he snatched his hand back. He wiped his hand clean with a shudder.

Finally, he found a few loose bits of pavers and edged closer. He tossed the first rock at the window, focusing on the lower edge of the thick glass. A clink against the frame, barely earning a glance at the window. A second. Tap-clunk against the window, then the frame. Vairen looked over again. Arkaen tossed a third pebble. Tap-clunk-tap. Vaiyen snapped alert this time, watching the window close enough to see the pebble hit the window on the rebound. He peered outside and Arkaen stepped forward, just into the edge of the light to raise a hand in greeting. In moments, Vaiyen dropped a handful of coins on the table and slipped out the door.

“Arkie, what are you doing?” Vaiyen asked, joining him in the relative safety of the alley. “If your lord father finds you down here, he’ll—”

“It doesn’t matter.” Arkaen met Vaiyen’s eyes, the diminutive nickname barely registering. He bit at his lip. Looked away. “Father’s planning a wedding.”

“Oh.” Vaiyen looked away and stepped back.

The silence stretched out, hanging between them as Arkaen tried and failed to meet Vaiyen’s eyes again. What had he expected, anyway? Not like a common-born house guard could challenge the high lord. And Arkaen wasn’t entirely sure Vaiyen would want to.

“Arkie.” Vaiyen frowned. “Look, I’m sorry. I know you don’t want this, but—” He paced away, pausing at the mouth of the alley to stare back at the tavern. “I know you aren’t surprised. You’ve been of age for a wife for two years now. You’ve a duty to the province.”

“Gods above, Vaiyen! I don;t give a damn about my duty.” Arkaen slammed his back against the wall, running a hand through his hair. “I can’t believe you’re giving me that line. Don’t I have a duty not to lie to my future wife? To honor my wedding vow and not take another to bed? Is this how you expected us to end?”

Vaiyen flinched, his shoulders trembled, and he laid a hand on the wall. Gods. He had expected this end. And maybe Arkaen should have as well.

“We couldn’t have kept doing this.” Vaiyen’s words still cut, though Arkaen had known they were coming. How long had he Vaiyen been waiting to be freed from Arkaen?

“It’s not just about your duty,” Vaiyen added. “Emperor Laisia banned any union such as ours near ten years back. If anyone learned of us, Arkie—”

“Lord Arkaen.” Arkaen’s pain shifted into fury at the repeated nickname he’d long hated. “I’m not a dog to nip at your heels, begging for scraps.”

“It’s not like that,” Vaiyen protested. “It’s just—”

“I would have fought for you.” Arkaen pushed away from the wall, each breath aching in his chest. “I would have refused this arrangement. Argued for another solution. I would have sacrificed everything for you.” His body shook with the force of his pain, anger laced in every movement. His jaw ached with suppressed tears. “I came to ask if you would come with me. Run away, find somewhere we could be together.”

“What about the province?” Vaiyen’s shock turned his voice harsh. But the shifting of his gaze revealed his true fears. That Arkaen would find a way to make that happen.

“The province has never given a damn about me,” Arkaen said. “Why should I give up everything for them?” Shaking his head, Arkaen turned away. “I would have fought for you, Vaiyen. The least you could have done is tell me you didn’t want me to.”

“Ark—” Vaiyen stepped forward. “It’s not…Just wait!”

Arkaen ran away, down the alley, ducking around corners to avoid Vaiyen’s following steps. Stupid for a noble in fine clothes to lose his way in these streets. Torsdell had its share of thieves, and though they’d never attack the high lord or his son in the finer parts of town, these streets were anything but fine. But his eyes burned and he couldn’t choke back the ache of sobs in his throat long enough to pick a direction that might be safe.

When he was sure Vaiyen wasn’t following, Arkaen paused long enough to take stock of his surroundings. A wider street at the end of the alley opened onto another tavern. One that made Vaiyen’s haunt look expensive. Hide stretched across he windows in place of glass and the door was barely more than a slab of wood attached to one wall. Too poor for any proper maintenance, and he hated to think the quality of the ale. But damn he needed a drink.

“You lost, boy?”

Arkaen froze at the end of the alley, eyes locked on the thickly muscled man leaning against the door to the tavern. A thrill of fear ran up Arkaen’s spine.

“Ya ain’t this’n’s usual type.” The man nodded at the door behind him. “Reckon you don’ wanna be near here in them clothes.”

No need to look down to know what he meant. Arkaen’s tailored breeches and embroidered tunic looked nothing like the loose trousers and plain shirts commoners wore. In Vaiyen’s favorite tavern he might have looked rich. Here he could only look like a target. Arkaen glanced back, but no one else lurked in the shadows waiting to ambush him. But that meant he’d have to have to bluff his way out of this.

“Nah, ain’t needing no thing but a drink.” Arkaen could tell his attempt at a commoners accent failed before the man laughed.

“Don’t try, boy. No one gonna think yer anything short a rich.” A smile eased the harshness of the words, turning his expression kind. “Yer what? Noble’s bastard?”

Arkaen nodded. A lie, but one close enough to truth that he could probably pull it off. A better bluff than his plan. Unless someone recognized him. But in this part of town that seemed less likely. Still, this was his home city. While he wasn’t known for wandering the streets, Arkaen was hardly unknown.

“Tell ya what.” The man examined him. “You got training? Most noble boys do, though does ya a shit lot a good here. Might find a place up north, though. Them Sernien rebels could use a good blade.”

“I don’t…” Arkaen forced a smile. “May see about it. But I best be gone.”

He couldn’t just run off and join a war. Though the war wasn’t truly in swing yet even in the north. And he’d planned to leave, thought for other reasons.

The idea settled into his thoughts as he walked. What other choice did he even have? Stay and marry Baron Weydert’s daughter? Live a lie. Or tell his father the truth and hope he escaped the emperor’s vicious retribution? Vaiyen had already given up on him over the emperor’s orders. The thought stopped him.

What if the Serniens won? What if he led them to victory and convinced Vaiyen that they could be together. It was mostly fear keeping them apart.

Arkaen turned down another alley, diverting from the path that would take him home. After all, if his training could save others from the emperor’s cruelty, could he really say no? The image played in his mind. Himself leading the disorganized northern cities to victory. Returning a hero on a finely trained war stallion and proving himself to his father and the province at once.

Navigating toward the edge of town, Arkaen shivered at the bite of the wind. If he’d hid the cloak instead of throwing it aside he’d be able to retrieve it. But Serni was only a few days journey and then he’d be among the rebels. How bad could it really be?


All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

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Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

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