This is the start of a six part novella narrated by Kord FitzHelen excerpted from the start of a novel (Working title Prince Errant). He previously narrated Banker of Stirnberg ( Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 ) This takes place a few years prior to the events of that story.
* * *
Poetically called the Garden of Blades, the small plaza was disappointing. Six planters holding sad looking trees shaded the aisle down the middle from casual observation. It was also not along a useful pathway. Brick setts and slate flagstones formed an almost perfect dueling alley along the shade. It was the spot the dueling club met to turn their swords upon each other, giving the unassuming space its name. The club was an unsanctioned organization within the University of Karststadt. I’d joined it because I knew my family would not approve. The whole point for a lot of the members was to gain a dueling scar. So the club used sharpened blades, and consequently needed to meet in secret.
Under the sad trees, I stood with five other young men. Four of them bore scars on their cheeks. All had hair trimmed short on the sides, with the longer hair on top swept back. Being the fashion among students at the university, my hair was in the same style. Loose white linen tunics, black trousers and laceless riding boots finished out the fashion of the day among students. My opponent was the only other unscarred young man. He had dark hair, an unmemorable face and gray eyes. I think his name was Edvin Klaus. Two took up position to keep watch for interlopers. The others handed us our blades. The Stirnberg rapier was heavier than typical rapiers, and had more ability to chop and slice in addition to stab. It was long, thin and double-edged.
Edvin and I took up our positions and readied our blades. At a sweep of a small handkerchief, Klaus lunged. Steel sang as I parried. He blocked my riposte and stepped back. With a few more quick probing strikes, we assessed each other’s aptitude. Edvin was very close in skill to me.
We didn’t get vary far in the fight before both lookouts cried, “Guards!”
Klaus and I skidded away from each other, our eyes darting about, seeking an exit. But, the Garden of Blades only had two. It was part of why so few people came back there. Thinking quickly, I tossed my sword on the rim of the nearest planter and hurried to stand beside the two closest students. Eyes wide with realization, Edvin followed my lead. Shields raised and batons at the ready, the guards swept into the Garden of Blades. The half dozen of us offered no resistance to the score of them, saying nothing, but permitting our wrists to be bound. The swords were not hard to find, but were some distance from anyone’s hands. With six suspects and only two blades, the guard captain glowered at us. The Furst had forbade dueling, but witnessing a duel was not a crime. If we all remained silent, the guards would not be able to prove which of us had held the swords.
Instead, we were bodily dragged to a main street, and loaded into a wagon.
“So what’s going to happen?” Edvin asked, breaking the silence.
“The good Captain will throw us in a cell,” I said. “We’ll stay there until someone reminds him University students are subject to trial by the University and not the City. Then we’ll be turned over to the Provost.”
“You been through all this before, have you?” the Captain asked, his lower class accent markedly separating him from the lot of us in manacles.
“No,” I lied. “I studied the law.” The wagon set off, our score of escorts pacing it on foot. In the bright light of summer, the buildings around us almost shone. Some were made of limestone. Others were timber-framed with white stuccoed infill. Still others were made from a mix of these materials. We didn’t have far to be carted, arriving at a blockhouse built into the old wall of the city. The old wall was still there, too short, and enclosing only the innermost precincts. This tower the guard operated out of had been one of the defensive bastions before the new wall enclosed a much larger area. We were dragged from the wagon and into the dark interior. My eyes didn’t adjust to the gloom until they were throwing me into a small cell. They did me the courtesy of unchaining my wrists before bolting the door with me inside.
I sat down, breathing in the musty aroma of the room. There was no furniture, only bare stone. The only light seeped through the barred grille set near eye level of the door. It was so diffuse that I couldn’t identify the source. I didn’t know this particular guard captain, but if he were trying to make a point, he might draw out the process as long as he could manage. After all, everyone he’d locked up had engaged in at least one duel in their own time and gone unpunished.
In my case, I didn’t end up waiting long. Provost Hoch was an unwelcome sight, but an inevitable one. His steel gray hair and black tailcoat were immaculate, as always. His overlarge and angular nose distracted from the remainder of his strong facial features. His stern countenance glared at me as I rose to my feet.
“Can you speak for this one?” the guard captain asked.
“Kord FitzHelen, yes, he is one of mine.”
“We’ve got five more.”
“Give me a moment with this one, please.” Hoch closed the door and cuffed my ear. I flinched back, more startled than injured. “How many times have I been summoned to find you in a jail cell?”
“I lost count,” I lied.
“Tell me, FitzHelen, how do you find the time to study with all the trouble you get in?”
“That’s simple, I do recitations in my cell,” I said, sarcastically. Hoch’s expression conveyed his lack of amusement.
“With your fellow troublemakers, I can reassure myself that successfully redirecting their efforts will correct their academic troubles.”
“Energy spent running around causing mayhem isn’t something that can be redirected to work at a desk,” I said.
“Be serious for a moment,” Hoch snapped. “The moment you graduate, you no longer get a visit from me in these cells. You’ll be dragged before a magistrate and face the full fury of the law. And you’re very close to that day.”
“The moment I graduate, I can leave this gods-forsaken city.”
Glowering, Hoch banged on the door. It opened.
“I’m afraid I have to take this one with me. His dog is waiting out front and will escort him back to the university.”
“He’s not a dog,” I said, but Hoch was already on his way to the next cell. Dejectedly, I walked out of the blockhouse and back into daylight. Wendel was indeed waiting for me. The Cynocephali were only brought into the Imperial fold relatively recently. The dogmen had been outlaws and goatherds in the mountains of the Ostgelb, until they’d been pushed out onto the plains north of the Drowned City. There, trapped and beaten, they’d accepted the suzerainty of the Volkmund. It was still an odd sight to see one walking about a human city, and odder still when he wore a regular waistcoat and trousers. Physically, the Cynocephali greatly resembled humans, save for their furry, dog-like heads and excessive chest hair. Wendel and I shared a hair color, blond, though it covered more of his head. Ears flat, eyes narrow, he growled at me.
Their inability to vocalize human language made many mistake dogmen for simple animals. They were not, and Wendel understood volkssprache, even if he couldn’t speak it for lack of a proper voicebox. Conversely, I could understand growltongue, even if I could not speak it. Our conversations were carried out with each of us speaking our own language.
“Why do you do this to your family?” he asked. He could have meant ‘pack’, as that and ‘family’ were the same word in growltongue. Loyalty to the pack was so ingrained in Cynocephali mentality that it might have been an immutable part of their nature. It was Wendel’s disapproval that stung worse than that of the Provost or my family.
“Wendel, I have told you.”
“You have said vague things,” the dogman growled.
“I-” I paused, meeting his gaze. His anger was a mask, I saw pain there. My disloyalty hurt him on a fundamental level. Cynocephali might not be dumb beasts, but they were not as smart on average as humans. Nuance was difficult to explain to them. My own irrationalities harder still.
“Let’s start walking. I’ll see if I can articulate it.”
Wendel motioned to the street, and I preceded him. “So, why?” he asked.
I looked at the crowds and waited until none were in earshot. Luckily, it was not a bustling road we were on. “They have repeatedly taken away that which I actually cared about,” I said.
“You’ve never been to Sudtor, have you?”
“I have not.”
“Well, there are some old dwarfworks there that I liked to explore. Mostly just a few old walls sticking up from the dirt. One day, I followed a stream up into a cave and discovered a whole grotto. It was an old bath house, buried by the ages. I would sit there in solitude, soaking up the mystery and silence of the place. Naturally when I’m gone for hours on end, my mother asks where I’ve been. I innocently tell her. Next thing you know, they’ve dug up the grotto and rebuilt the old bath house. Now there’s no solitude, silence, or mystery left.”
“I see,” Wendel said.
“Then there was the time I found a star that had fallen out of the sky. I watched it land, and dug it out of the hole it made with my own hands. This time I was wise enough to plan to keep it a secret, but they caught me carrying it back to my room. I was forced to tell what it was, and they took it away. I never saw it again.”
“Stars are odd things.”
“Then they took away my hills, woods, and rivers.”
“How?” Wendel asked.
“They sent me to live at the Moor House. There is nothing but flat emptiness around there. Then, just two years after that, they took away my freedom by sending me to this University,” I said.
“This city isn’t bad.”
“If you like cities.” I sighed. “And now they’re taking away my birthday.”
Wendel stared in silence. Anyone less familiar with dogmen would miss the confusion in his expression.
“I was born on the anniversary of Prince Kord’s coronation, which is why I was named after him. Now that he’s been Furst for fifty years, that’s all anyone is paying attention to. I’ve been forgotten. Again.”
* * *
The city of Karststadt was divided in two by a cliff. Perched atop the cliff was the Palace of Karststadt. Around its foundations clustered Topside, the more upscale half of the city. At the foot of the cliff was Lowtown, or the Low City, traditionally the less affluent district. Due to the lack of space Topside, there were districts in Lowtown that were not so bad. But the University of Karststadt was in Topside. It had been founded and greatly funded by the Furst of Karststadt, and could not be consigned to wallow in the squalor. The lack of available contiguous ground meant the residential houses were just that, houses bought from burghers scattered about the neighborhood.
Explorer House had not been one of the initial crop of houses within the university. It still grated me that I’d been stuck there. It was also painfully obvious why. The portrait of my father over the fireplace said it all. It had been painted before I was born, some time during his first voyage. It showed him standing on a balcony, a foreign cityscape behind him, dressed in the eclectic medley of attire he’d picked up on his journey. It would be easier to cope with if the seats in the common room did not all face that fireplace. They were nice seats though. Soft, supple, dark brown leather, overstuffed with cotton imported from halfway around the globe. Cherrywood wainscoting below maroon and gold wallpaper filled the space between the parquet floor and the embossed copper ceiling panels. With the bookcases and small side tables matched to the wainscoting, it had the potential to be a nice and cozy spot. If not for the other students.
They were all young men from monied families. In any other House of the University, they’d likely be from respectable families. But, the Explorer House had been founded by an eccentric bastard, so the more respectable the family, the more strongly they avoided it. That did give the petty burghers more spots to send their sons to. It all stacked up to put me in an awkward situation. Anyone with half a brain and an ounce of ambition saw me as a gateway to both my father’s lucrative mercantile network, and the powerful Grosz family. So everyone ‘knew’ me, while I didn’t know any of them. I could have had a pack of toadies if I wanted. But that did not appeal to me. I’d rather be left alone. Dark, bitter, and violent thoughts percolated through my head as I fought to blot out the sounds of the other residents blathering away.
“Are you deliberately ignoring me?”
“Yes,” I said, before looking up. With a start, I sat up straighter. I had not expected my father to arrive in person. He had plenty of underlings to run errands for him. He still resembled the portrait on the wall, though his blond hair and beard were neater. He was dressed in a red ochre waistcoat instead of the more outlandish garb of his voyage. “What are you doing here?” I asked.
“That’s my question to you,” he said.
“I live here.” I left off the, ‘ever since you sent me away,’ I didn’t want an argument breaking out between us. Though that might send away the sycophants.
“You’re supposed to be getting ready for the Jubilee processional.”
“Since when?” I asked.
“You were always going to ride in the processional. You’re going to be carrying our banner.”
“Neither of the twins wanted it?” I asked, forcing myself to rise from the chair. I was slightly taller than my father, not so much that I loomed over him.
“They have other roles, just as I do. Now go get changed. I know Wendel brought your suit in.” He motioned towards the stair, and I hesitated. The two words I had hoped to hear my father utter, even as an afterthought, did not appear to have crossed his mind. They certainly didn’t cross his lips. I headed up the stairs to the floor with my room on it. I passed a bevy of boys residing in the Explorer House. And most of them were still boys. The youngest the University admitted a student was fourteen, and fully half of new students were that age. The rest started in their later teens. I had been fobbed off upon Provost Hoch at the earliest possible time. My home for the past six years was tucked away in the back corner of the third floor. The solitary window provided a view of a bare stone wall a mere arm’s length away. The furniture was just as stately as that in the common room, but there was hardly enough space to pace.
Wendel stood beside the doorway, his head bowed. While there was room for him to wait inside the room, it would be too cramped for us to pass each other when I entered. I acknowledged his presence and stepped inside. I frowned at the outfit. I had no quarrel with the riding boots or black trousers. The red ochre tailcoat, yellow tunic, and blue and green cravat were another matter. The colors were those of my father’s coat of arms, but looked better on the griffins and globe than they did in suit form. I could petulantly refuse to cooperate, but my heart really wasn’t in it. The thought of causing Wendel more pain through strife in his pack rendered me meek for the moment. I changed into the trousers and tunic, then had Wendel assist with the tailcoat and cravat. For neatness’ sake, if nothing else. Getting the riding boots on was a two-person task, but one we’d tackled before.
With an utterance of thanks, I headed down to the common room. Wendel would take care of the discarded clothing. It was his job, after all. My father was still there, telling tales to the other residents. He liked telling tales, though he pretended not to. As one of the few men acknowledged to have circumnavigated the globe, he had a heap of them to tell at a moment’s notice. I waited until his story ran its course and he shooed the other boys away.
“There’s one more thing,” my father said, searching his pockets. He found what he was looking for and pinned it to the lapel of my coat. It was a ribbon of blue, black, and white. Hanging from it was a gold bird. It had wings inset with black onyx, a fleck of garnet for an eye, and a teardrop-shaped pearl for a breast. In its talons was a tiny rendition of an ox.
“The Raven Coast Roc?” I asked.
“Everyone in the procession will be wearing one. The fancy ones are for family, less fancy ones for everyone else.”
“Well, I suppose…”
“Now, you’re a rider, so you’ll need to head to the palace stables to pick up your assigned horse, and the banner. Someone there will be able to point you to the proper place to wait.”
I waited. Still he did not utter the only two words I wanted to hear. Instead, my father turned me to face the door, and gave a push between my shoulder blades. I took the hint and headed outside.
“I guess I won’t have a happy birthday,” I muttered to myself.