Friday, October 10, 2008

Chapter Nine

Word Count: 4,087

Shortly after leaving the farm, Malik-Tor and Syndra-Kai arrived at a crossroads and turned west. They continued to travel for about an hour, when Malik finally took pity on Syndra, who was obviously uncomfortable, perched precariously on the saddle and hanging on for dear life. Her horse was prancing as well, sensing that her rider was unskilled.

Syndra slid down from the horse and stood on wobbly legs for a moment before saying, “People travel on these things willingly? My body feels like it has been jolted from top to bottom!” She rubbed her buttocks to ease some of the ache there.

Malik laughed, saying, “You will get used to it in time. Let me give you some suggestions. First, you are sitting all wrong. You have to move with the motion of the animal, that is why you are being bounced about so. Next, you must hold the reins in a firm grasp, yet loosely enough to allow the horse to move her head. You have had a death grip on those reins and the pommel, and the horse cannot sense you giving her direction. You can also indicate how you would like her to move with your knees.”

Syndra-Kai looked doubtfully at the horse, comparing her small size to the mare’s frame. “I don’t think she likes me.”

“At the moment, you are probably right. She knows you are a new rider, and it makes her nervous. I’m sure you will be friends in no time,” Malik assured her. Taking the reins of both horses, he led them down the road, giving Syndra-Kai a chance to stretch her legs and work out some of the cramps from riding. He grudgingly gave her credit for not uttering a word of complaint since they had been traveling, yet at the same time he wrote it off as royal stubbornness.

Walking at his side, Syndra-Kai checked out their surroundings. She had never seen such wide-open spaces; the trees, grass, and small animals she occasionally spotted fascinated her. Malik watched her out of the corner of his eye, marveling at her innocence. Charming though it was, that same innocence would land them in trouble if he did not give her some words of advice.

“You must learn to watch your reactions around people, Syndra,” he began.

“Inaya, remember?” she said, not looking at him but at the road ahead.

“Inaya. As I was saying, we are lucky that couple back there was not suspicious of us. People do not trust each other when times are bad, and they have been so in Lunatia for some time.”

“I am beginning to recognize this. And I have every intention of remedying things when I return to the palace and assume my rights as Empress,” Syndra said.

“It is not that simple. If you are going to travel among your people, you must act like one of them. Right now, you still have the mannerisms and the attitude of one noble-born, and amongst us commoners, that will not get you very far. Argh, it is too complicated, why must you do this?”

Syndra looked up at him, her violet eyes shining. “Why? When my people are being deprived of their property, or robbed of their rightful earnings, like that farmer described back there? When there are slums feeding on the scraps of Lunatium, one of the richest cities in the world, and nobles sit inside their fine homes, oblivious to starvation and disease?” Her voice rose as she continued.

“I have not been outside the palace one day yet, and already I know I am doing the right thing. I have to see for myself what is wrong, or how am I supposed to make things better?” She turned to face him, her tone accusatory.

“I thought that is what you wanted to see in Lunatia. Is that not why you really returned home? You have traveled the world, seen atrocities, and seen wonders. You could have stayed gone, yet you chose to come home. Did you not feel your country crying to you? Is that not why you agreed to help me?”

“I chose to come home because my father was dying!” Malik shouted. “And because of your stupid little custom, I foolishly waited, to avoid being caught up in the games nobles play with commoners. I did not get to see my father before he died, and all the same, still managed to be dragged to the palace to ‘service’ you! You are no better than any other noble; you are using me to do what you want, without taking into consideration how I might feel about it!”

Syndra did not back down from his ire, but she did lower her voice. “If there had been any other way to accomplish what I felt was necessary, I would have done so. I thought I sensed in you a true desire to help me achieve the things I wished. I guess I was wrong. All the same, if you did not want to lie with me, no one forced you when it was just the two of us. You touched me of your own free will, and we lay together as two equals, not as noble and commoner. It does not matter what you say now, there was no objection from you last night at all when it came to using my body. Or was that just your form of revenge for my ‘using’ you? If that is the case, then we are even.”

Malik glowered at her reminder of what had passed between them just the night before. “That was a mistake, Princess,” he sneered, “And not one that will be repeated, I promise you.” He started down the road again, but then stopped abruptly and spun about to face her.

“If we are truly even, and I am nothing more than your guide on this quest, then you must listen to me. We are going to set some ground rules.” He looked at her carefully, waiting for any sign of rebellion. She stared back, the passion in her violet eyes still apparent, but the fires were banked. She nodded in acquiescence.

“Very well. First, when we are around other people, you will not speak; until I think you are ready. You may tell me what you wish to know, and I will ask the questions. You listen. Understand?” She nodded again.

“Fine. Second, you must learn some basic survival skills. You are like a child out here, and you cannot run free without being aware of the dangers. I can help you with this, but you must do as I say. Are we clear?” She nodded again.

“Good. As far as anyone else is concerned, we are brother and sister, traveling to visit family. That is all anyone needs to know. Now, there is a village ahead, and we are going to see if we can exchange some of this silver for something less conspicuous, and purchase some more supplies. You will learn how to do everything, and you will do it without complaint.” He ran a hand through his hair.

“I cannot believe I am agreeing to this. I still say you are quite mad to embark upon this journey, but I can see that you are determined. However, I will not escort you around Lunatia for a whole year.”

Syndra opened her mouth to object, but Malik stopped her. “No, and here are my reasons. I can show you what you need to see, and you will learn much in a very short amount of time. Lunatia is not so large that it will take a whole year to travel to every corner. I will take you to each province, and through the mountain pass, which should be passable for travel in a few weeks. It would not be wise to linger too long in any one area, or we might arouse suspicion. When we have completed our route, you will return to Lunatium, and you will let me go my own way. I think it might be a good idea for you to travel abroad if you can. Lunatia thinks it is the greatest nation in the world, but you can learn much elsewhere as well. Spend the rest of your time doing that.”

“How long do you think it will take to travel through each province? I want enough time to find out what troubles each face in particular,” Syndra said.

Malik thought for a moment. “This is a good time of year for such a journey, so if we are lucky with weather, and you are able to learn what you want quickly, we might be able to return within about three months time.”

Syndra considered this. At least he had seemingly resigned himself to the task, even if he resented it. She would need to take some time to consider precisely what she wanted to learn to maximize the time he was giving her, but she felt no real concern about that.

The notion of traveling this way had not even occurred to her until she heard the boy, Kin-Tal, mention Malik-Tor in the Great Hall on the day of the Choosing. She had been fully prepared to take the throne and begin making sweeping changes, such as her mother had proposed, but as she had mulled things over in the last few days, she had realized how unprepared she was.

When she had heard that she could not become Empress for yet another year, she decided she would take advantage of that time to learn more about the needs of her country, and Malik-Tor seemed perfectly suited to be her guide. Though he had spent most of his time abroad, he would be familiar with the rigors of travel, and would be capable of protecting her from danger.

The fewer people she had around her, the more honest the people she might encounter would be, and Malik’s writings told of his dealings with people. He could get them to talk about anything he wanted to know. That would be a useful tool for her to have at her disposal.

Syndra met Malik’s eyes again, and nodded her agreement. She held out her hand to confirm the deal, and Malik took it. His eyes were wary, and it saddened her to see the mistrust in them. She had no desire to hurt him; she wished he would see that. She lowered her head, and as she did so, a few of the braids wound through her hair tumbled free of the hood she had worn to cover her head. The silver beads that capped their ends caught Malik’s eye.

“Those will have to go,” he said, lifting one of the braids up. Only nobles wear silver decoration. We will look for some copper or wood beads for you instead. You can no longer wear your hair in the royal style, either.”

Syndra-Kai snatched the braid from his hand. “These beads were my mother’s, I thank you not to touch them.” She knew she was being deliberately rude, but could not seem to help herself when confronted with his brusque treatment of her.

Malik frowned. “Well, get them out of your hair and hide them before we get to the village.” He stomped away from her, taking up the reins of the horses again and walking at a quick pace down the road.

Syndra-Kai followed behind, picking at the beads in her hair, trying to remove them. She had never done her own hair before, and after the adventures of the night before and the day so far, her hair was a hopeless tangle. Her efforts to free the silver beads only made it worse, and she stopped in the road, stamping her foot. She had managed to snarl her hair so badly that the silver beads were entangled and catching up more hair as she tugged at them.

Malik turned at her mews of frustration and chuckled at her dilemma. This angered her further, and she glared purple fire at him as he approached.

Brushing her hands away from her hair, Malik looked at the mess. “Do you have a knife?” he asked.

“In my pack, why?” Syndra-Kai said.

“Because the only way these things are going to come out now is by cutting them free,” he replied, as he started to scrounge through her bag.

“What? No! I have never cut my hair; do not touch it! I can get them!” She began yanking harder at the silver, tears coming to her eyes.

Having found the knife, Malik tried to still her hands and tackle the beads in her hair. She struggled against him, the tears falling faster. “Please, don’t,” she whispered.

He caught her chin in his hand and tilted her face up until his yellow eyes caught hers. At first, he was angry, but the sincere look of distress and sadness he saw in her face touched something deep within him. Against his better judgment, he bent down and touched his lips to hers, softly as a butterfly landing on a flower. Her breath caught in her throat and her efforts to get away from him stopped abruptly.

Lifting his head, he said, “I am not going to hurt you. I will only cut out the silver, I promise. We will find you a comb in the village, and you can fix your hair later. If you are going to continue this journey, they have to come out one way or the other. Will you hold still?”

Stunned into silence by his kiss, and gentled by the tenderness she felt from him at that moment, she nodded silently. She sniffled as she tried to still her tears. “I am sorry; I am acting like a silly little girl. Do what you must,” she said.

Malik turned her around, and cut the small silver beads free from her hair, trying to cut as little hair as possible. He dropped each bead into her open palm. There were twenty-five in all, and when he was finished, she put them in the sack that contained their money and put it back under her shirt. Malik clucked a little as he gathered her hair, winding it into a bun at the base of her neck and securing it with a leather tie. He handed her hood back to her, which had fallen to the ground in their struggle.

Syndra-Kai was ashamed of herself. Carrying on so, over her hair, for the Empire’s sake! She would not have blamed Malik a bit if he had turned back in the direction they had come and insisted on bringing her back to the city. She was relieved that he did not, yet bemused by his tender actions towards her. She caught up to him a moment later, hood secured, and walked beside him silently as they approached the village.

The ‘village’ was in fact a good-sized town named Lucilium, indicating they were still in the province of Lunatia, as town names began with the same letter of their province. Malik-Tor strolled down the main street with purpose in his stride, checking shop signs. At last, he spotted a moneylender and tied up the horses outside. He grabbed Syndra-Kai’s arm and dragged her behind him through the door.

The shop owner came from the rear of the store, which appeared to serve as his residence as well, since he seemed sleep-tousled and was brushing the crumbs of his breakfast from his shirt. It was apparently far earlier than the normal time he entertained customers. Malik dropped a few silver coins on the counter. “I was wondering if you might be able, and willing, to exchange these coins for me?” he said without preamble.

The clerk’s eyes brightened at the sight of the silver. He picked up one of the coins and polished it on his shirtfront, examining it closely. He cast a dubious eye at Malik, taking in his clothing and stubbled countenance. He tried to peer around him to get a good look at Syndra, who kept her hood pulled close around her face. Their clothing was travel stained, but of good quality, so the clerk cleared his throat and agreed to the exchange.

“It’s not often I see coins of this quality outside the city,” he said, obviously fishing for information. Malik ignored the man, waiting patiently as coins of gold and copper were painstakingly counted out. Syndra-Kai’s eyes boggled as she watched the growing mound of coins. She had not realized the silver coins she possessed were worth so much. She realized now Malik’s wisdom in exchanging the coins and insisting on the removal of the silver beads in her hair.

After taking his share for the exchange, the clerk thanked them, and the pair entered the street again. Malik stopped every so often at various shops, delighting shopkeepers as he entered and made his selections. Syndra-Kai helped carry goods and load them onto the horses in neat packs. There was far more involved to traveling than she had anticipated. They purchased a tent, blankets, extra clothing, cooking items and utensils, and other camping accoutrements.

Finally, Malik appeared satisfied that they had purchased all of their immediate needs, and turned his eyes to defense and hunting. In addition to a bow for hunting, Malik purchased two deadly looking short swords and a pair of daggers. It was illegal to own weapons greater than arm’s length, but both the swords looked dangerous enough. He packed one on each horse. Syndra-Kai questioned him about this, saying, “Why should we require a sword? Let alone two of them?”

“Recall the story I gave the farmer and his wife about being robbed?” Syndra nodded and Malik continued, “That is all too common an occurrence, I’m afraid, and some protection is necessary. When we have time, I shall teach you the rudiments of self-defense.”

“Really? You will teach me to use one of these?” She reached out a hand to touch the hilt of one of the weapons. Malik forestalled her.

“Eventually. Come, we still have much to do. At this rate, we will need a separate packhorse.”

When she was not watching Malik-Tor’s skills in negotiating with the merchants of the town, Syndra turned her attention to its inhabitants. She saw children walking with their mothers and she smiled and waved her fingers at them. They giggled and hid behind their mother’s skirts. There were only a few children in the palace, but Syndra always enjoyed playing with them when she could get away from her tutors and Xan-Rul.

She looked carefully at people’s faces, noting the general expressions of resigned capitulation to life. There was not much laughter to be heard anywhere, except where it entered the street from some drinking house. She avoided the rude stares from the men of the town, but also noted the curious glances and twittering of women they passed as they stared at Malik. A stirring of some new emotion welled up in her at the women’s looks of open lust. She glared at them when Malik was not paying attention to her.

Malik-Tor strode with an air that might have been called arrogance had it been on a lesser man. He nodded politely to those he passed, and spoke quietly to shopkeepers. He never encountered someone he did not treat with respect, but he was distant all the same. Merchants hurried to do his bidding, and he walked unchallenged in the street.

Syndra-Kai began to see some of the man Malik-Tor had been as he traveled in foreign lands. He had the unique ability to blend into the crowd, yet stand out from it at the same time. He commanded respect, yet responded with diffidence. It was an intriguing mix. She was thankful for his quick and efficient handling of their business, and in less than two hours time, they were fully equipped and ready to resume their journey.

Malik stopped outside one last shop, gesturing Syndra-Kai to precede him. Until now, she had been his dogged shadow, saying nothing, as he had instructed, only listening and watching intently. When they entered the shop, Syndra let out a gasp of delight. There were in a shop for women’s accessories, and like any other woman, Syndra-Kai lingered over the brightly colored ribbons and beads for sale. The shopkeeper approached them. “Can I help you?”

Malik spoke, saying, “Yes, I am looking for a few trinkets for my sister, here. We were unfortunately robbed on the road late last night, and she is lacking some, uh, womanly items she is used to.” He nodded to Syndra-Kai, and took a step back to see how she would react to the new situation.

The shopkeeper turned to Syndra expectantly. She removed her hood, and although her hair was still a snarled mess, her beauty could not be denied. The clerk was taken slightly aback at first, but quickly resumed his poise and directed Syndra’s attention to a few pieces he said would complement her.

Malik watched Syndra’s actions carefully, hoping she would not demand he buy the whole store for her. She had been watching him carefully as they toured the shops in town, and seen him bargain and strategize over their needs, and she had learned quickly. She selected a small hand mirror, a comb and brush set of polished bone, and a few ribbons and beads for her hair of diminished tones. He was surprised at her choices, but pleased that she had followed his example and been frugal.

The shopkeeper thanked them, and Syndra-Kai clutched her package close to her chest as they turned to leave. Malik helped her astride her horse outside, and she found the packs surrounding her made her feel more secure in her seat. She tucked her items in a pocket of the new saddle, and took hold of the reins with newfound confidence. She had conducted her very first piece of business with success and she was inordinately proud of herself. She turned her mare to follow Malik as they left Lucilium and turned toward the mountains.

Syndra-Kai pulled out her comb and started to tackle her hair as they rode, gently teasing the knots loose, until her hair was floating in loose waves down her back, shining brightly under the spring sun. She put the comb away and pulled out a ribbon, which she tied around her hair tightly to secure it away from her face.

Finished with her toilette, she urged her mare forward and caught up to Malik.
Malik looked at her out of the corner of his eye as she approached. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as he noted the improvement in her appearance and her look of joy as she rode. She met his golden gaze with her violet one, and an unbidden surge of warmth blossomed in his chest. He looked away, but Syndra-Kai nudged her horse closer to his and laid a hand on his thigh, which was even more disturbing than her look had been.

“Thank you,” she said. “You have taught me a great deal today.”

“It was nothing,” he said, pulling his horse away to lead hers again, thereby removing her hand from his thigh, and delivering him from succumbing to temptation. “Come along, I want to be well on our way to the mountains by nightfall. We will set up camp then.”

Syndra-Kai’s face fell as she resumed her position behind him. She glared at his back, remembering his words from earlier about not repeating his ‘mistake’ of the night before. Her intuition told her that he still desired her, and every glance they shared reignited a heat within her own body as well.

She stubbornly turned her thoughts to their destination. She had read many things about the silver mines of Lunatia, and heard overseers as they made their quarterly reports to her father. Silver production had fallen in recent years, and she was curious as to the cause.

Although she occupied the working parts of her mind with thoughts of the mines, her subconscious was still struggling with her attraction for Malik, which she felt certain was returned in kind. It would be interesting to see if his promise to stay away from her would be possible to keep, as it became a secondary intention on her part to see if she could tempt him to break it.


Anonymous said...

How long can they possibly pretend to be brother and sister? lol

Kestrel said...

Not long, LOL... They are just fooling themselves, and they will get called on it too... :)