One: Left Behind
Smoke spiraled into the lavender sky, lording over a russet-skinned woman who stood subdued beneath it, surrounded by ashen debris. Soot shamed her pretty face and covered her thin arms, cradling a similarly tarnished baby girl. Tear-tracks tainted their cheeks, but silence dominated their mouths, as if no longer able to grieve all they’d lost.
Nuelle approached. Ash clung to his brown hair and leather tunic. It coated his pants, and boots, his face, and hands, like he’d wallowed in it. He extended empty palms toward the woman and her precious child. “I’ll give you the oil of joy for mourning.” His fingers met the mother’s cheek and he wiped away the grime. “Garbs of praise for the spirit of heaviness.” His other hand met the soft forehead of the silent, baby girl. “And a crown of beauty for ashes.”
Nuelle’s eyes opened to his bedchamber and morning’s hazy, golden glow. He tossed aside his new, cotton bedsheets and they landed atop Mugro, sleeping with his auburn wings curled around his fuzzy body.
Nuelle jumped out of bed, his achy back and limbs shouting protest. Lazy Mugro’s ears perked, but his eyelids remained shut. The room’s door thrust open. Hunched, 300-year-old Lady Lovehart and her equally as ancient husband skittered inside, wearing cream, velvet robes. Nickelite’s smoky beard hung past his knees, and Lady Lovehart’s silvery wisps swirled down to her ankles. She wielded a duster.
Nuelle shoved open his wardrobe keeper—full of empty hangers. The back-wall mirror reflected tired amber eyes and unruly brown hair half-grayed with ash. Bathing could wait till evening—he’d get soiled again before then anyway. At the bottom of the wardrobe keeper lay the leather tunic, pants, and boots he wore yesterday—beside his breastplate and sword-belt.
“Your majesty, don’t tell me you snuck in through a window again.” Lady Lovehart pulled aside the terrace curtains across from the bed, allowing brighter golden light to flood the chamber.
I have to evade him for now. Nuelle tossed the tunic over his head. “Now why in Zephoris would I want to avoid you or Nickelite, my lady?”
“Aye, don’t ‘my lady’ my lady, your highness.” Nickelite ambled to Nuelle’s side. “I told you, you’re too young to woo her. Besides, she’s too stubbornly in love with this work of art.”
Lady Lovehart dusted off the curtains, dispersing ash. “Whoever said he was too young?”
Nickelite raised skinny fists. “Don’t make me spar the boy and show you just how young he is.”
Nuelle sat on his bed and slipped into his boots. “I’ll never spar you again, Nick.”
“Ah, come on. My back is healed, and my hip is in its rightful place.”
Lady Lovehart peered over her shoulder. “No it’s not.”
Nickelite shot her a look before peering into the open keeper. “Where are all your garbs?”
“I donated them to the people of Middren.”
Mugro growled as his paws twitched—though his eyes remained closed.Nickelite grabbed his beard and waved it. “You should donate this lazy mutt.”
Nuelle rose and stood in a battle stance. “Don’t make me change my mind.”
“You best back down if you still want a wife, Lord Nick.” Lady Lovehart opened the terrace doors. A warm, rhythmic breeze flowed into the room. Gentle chords lulled and then swelled, a vibrating hum carried by a soft drumming.
Pushing Nuelle’s fists down, Nickelite peered with yellow eyes shaded by shrub-like brows that begged for a trim. “Why don’t you take your armor and sword with you to Middren? You never know when you’ll need to defend yourself against someone as fierce as me.”
Nuelle glanced at his breastplate and sword-belt. Dust spotted the hilt of his sheathed weapon. He sighed as he grabbed the sword-belt and quickly strapped it on. “I’ll be fine, Nick.”
Lady Lovehart jabbed the air with her duster. “Better safe than speared, your majesty.”
Nuelle frowned at the elderly couple. This was Agapon, not the Obsidian, so why were they advising caution?
Lady Lovehart froze before the cotton bedsheets. “What happened to the silk ones, my lord?”
“I donated them to Middren.”
“How thoughtful.” She yanked the sheets, jolting Mugro into frantic flight and barking.
Nickelite shook a fist at him. “Quit griping at my bride and go eat your morning meal.”
Mugro growled before zooming over to Nuelle and licking his face.
“Not now boy, I have to get back to Middren.”
“That you do.” Sir Amador’s strong voice strutted into the chamber before he did. His open, gold knight helmet flaunted his blue eyes, tan face, and closely-shaved beard. His sword-belt equipped with dagger lined his hips, and a large, leather rucksack mounted his back. His son, Ave, trailed, wearing his usual pearly-suede attire—minus the apron. Rather than baring weapons like his father, Ave held a basketful of iris-fruit bread.
Nuelle smiled at him. “I take it you’re joining us today?”
“Your father gave me permission,” Ave replied. “And I didn’t even have to bribe him with frostcake.” He slapped Sir Amador’s breastplate and continued. “Though I had to bribe Papo with sweet-stem and vigor-root stew.”
Nuelle’s stomach rumbled. “Stop, you’re making me hungry and I don’t have time for morning meal.” He strode out of the chamber and into the jasper hallway, Sir Amador and Ave following.
“You can have some of the bread I made for the villagers.” Ave extended the basket.
“It’s all right,” Nuelle said. “They need it more than I do.”
“Until you discover your prodigious gifts”—Sir Amador shoved Nuelle and Ave—“you boys could use extra weight so it’s not this easy to push you around.”
Nuelle unsheathed his sword and raised it. “Though lighter does mean swifter.”
“You haven’t forgotten my lessons?”
Tane. Nuelle held in a sigh as Brother approached from the hall ahead with Prince Antikai. In an iron breastplate and leather garbs, Tane stood a foot taller than Kaimana’s prince. Sweat dampened Tane’s tousled, brown hair—no doubt from combat training. Antikai’s purplish-black strands fell neatly at the sides of his dry, clean-shaven face. With his glinting blue eyes and pointy nose, he appeared younger than his thirty-two years. And though he’d been staying at the palace for months, he still seemed…out of place.
Nuelle sheathed his weapon. “Fair day, men.”
“It’s been ages.” Tane smiled as he scratched Nuelle’s chin. “Is that premature stubble I see?”
Antikai clasped his own chin. “Or simply ash.”
“Or,” Tane said, “maybe all this restless service is aging you.” His smile faded as he sized up Nuelle. “You look like a peasant. Is this what you meant when you told Father you wanted to lead by example?”
Nuelle released a sigh. “I—”
“Don’t have time for a bath or much else.” Tane dusted off ash from Nuelle’s head. “Of course, learning to serve is more important than getting trained to rule.”
Nuelle’s heart stung. “The villagers at Middren are close to being fully functional again. When they are, we can continue our classes and spar before Father.”
Antikai chuckled. “How bold. You wish to once again humiliate your elder brother before the Supreme King?”
“Ouch.” Ave tucked his basket under an arm and clasped his belly with the other. “I felt that one.”
Tane snatched Antikai’s wrist and spun him around, twisting his arm behind his back. As he grimaced, Tane smirked and then spoke. “You mean like this?” He released and Antikai staggered, Sir Amador and Ave laughing.
Nuelle frowned and addressed brother. “What a way to lead.”
Tane’s jaw tensed.
“Pardon me, my lords.” Sir Amador gestured ahead. “We need to get going.”
Tane stepped close and tapped Nuelle’s cheek. “Run along, Nu’. More pressing matters await you.” Tane let his hand fall as he and Antikai strode past..
Nuelle swallowed down the guilt and walked onward, beyond the four intersecting ruby halls. He reached the triple staircases and rapidly descended the center one.
“Sometimes,” Ave said, “I forget which of you is the older one.”
“Except when they’re sparring.” Sir Amador smirked. “Though you did impress that last time.”
“Yeah.” Nuelle jabbed a thumb toward the rucksack on Sir Amador’s back. “Extra supplies for the villagers?”
His Sentry gave a nod and shifted his gaze. Nuelle lifted an eyebrow at Ave as they reached the last stair and stepped into the Grand Foyer, lathered with the aroma of freshly baked bread. Ave shrugged and then took a deep breath. Nuelle did the same, his stomach grumbling again. Minty-sweet mangeen loaves; sugary, melt-on-your-tongue iris fruit bread; savory, rich-cream stew with brye sticks—
“My three heroes!” Ave’s mother, Lady Purine, bustled their way with a hand-basket. Dough splotched her pearly-suede dress and dark brown hair, pulled back in a delicately braided and netted bun.
Sir Amador pressed a fist to his breastplate and staggered. “Did I die while in battle, because I must certainly be in eternal paradise.” He bowed steeply before his bride.
Lady Purine’s slanted eyes shimmered as she handed him the basket. “For your journey. You men need to eat, too.”
“Oh, my lady, the only thing I need to taste is your sweet lips.”
Ave waved an invisible spoon. “Layer it on like frostcream, Papo. I’m taking mental notes for my future Lady Purine.”
Sir Amador drew her in for a kiss. She pulled back and scratched his closely-trimmed beard. “Try not to stay out too late tonight. I miss you.”
Nuelle’s head bowed. He was so concerned for the Agaponians at Middren, he hadn’t considered his Sentry who had a family here at the palace. And so do I… Nuelle peered at Lady Purine. “I’ll make sure we leave before dusk today.”
She curtsied. “You’re the sweetest prince I know.”
Ave pecked Lady Purine’s cheek and then she sauntered off, swinging her hips while Sir Amador howled. Nuelle led the way out of the Supreme Palace. The daystar beamed from above, and glowing amber life orbs floated in the air. A chariot sat on the white dirt, its doors open, with ivory vanaphs on either side of them. The creatures’ long necks and six wings twitched, ready for flight.
Heronia stood by a third vanaph at the front, tying a saddle. Her wavy purple hair flowed from a knitted hat down to her hips. She sported her usual laced dress and leather pants. “My lords.” She bowed her head gracefully and then smiled at Ave. “What a pleasant surprise. Welcome aboard, Master Cook.”
“Fair day, my lady.” He flashed a confident smile, though his eyebrow twitched. Whispering, he addressed Nuelle. “Neither of you told me deluxe ivory cake was your steer-guide.”
“We wanted to ensure you joined our mission solely for the people.” Nuelle hopped into the chariot. “Congratulations. You passed.”
Sir Amador chuckled as he and Ave followed Nuelle inside and then closed the doors.
“Son,” Sir Amador said, “you really need to stop comparing women to food.”
Ave still spoke in a hushed voice. “Come on, Papo, you know I don’t mean it in that way. There’s a food to describe any person—inside and out.”
Nuelle reached across to the front-facing window and opened it. “Heronia, would you say you’re like a deluxe ivory cake?”
She stroked her vanaph’s mane. “Elegant, sweet, with a fair complexion.” She smiled prettily. “I guess that’s quite accurate.”
Ave crossed his arms and grinned smugly.
“Well done, Master Cook.” Nuelle patted Ave’s shoulder. “He’d like to go on an outing with you this evening, my lady.”
Ave uncrossed his arms and squeezed the basket as Heronia fiddled with her cap. Sir Amador stifled a laugh with his gloved fist.
“Um…” Heronia said. “Where would you like to take me?”
“Actually,” Ave replied, “I would prefer cooking you a meal.”
Nuelle raised a finger. “Just make sure you don’t order anything with dragon spice, my lady.”
Hearty laughter escaped Sir Amador.
Heronia finished tying the saddle. “I shall consider it…”
Ave gave a wry grin, and Nuelle closed the window.
Sir Amador pushed Ave’s head. “What are royal friends for?”
Ave brushed back his now-disheveled bangs. “Thanks, your highness.”
Nuelle gestured to the bread basket. “Keep seeing the world through the eyes of a cook book and maybe one day you’ll be a husband.”
Sir Amador shouldered Ave. “And a father.”
As they all smiled, Heronia hopped onto her vanaph and grasped the reins. “All right, girl. To Middren!”
All three vanaphs’ golden hooves kicked off the ground and they soared into the sky. Nuelle peered out of the window as the topaz Supreme Palace, his home, grew farther and farther away.
The weary day’s end brought a welcome chill to the small, now fully-functional village. Nuelle sat on one of the unused logs and wiped the sweat from his brow. A long bath would be his reward tonight.
“You look like one of us, Prince.” Little grinning Anya tiptoed near from her and her family’s new cabin. Her skinny arms hugged four water mugs, and dim life orbs danced around her as if mimicking her girlish glee. She slowly bended toward Heronia, seated on another nearby log with Ave, whose pearly attire had soiled itself brown. They took a mug each and then Anya sashayed to Nuelle. She curtsied as she handed him a mug. “And you smell like a peasant, too.”
“Thank you.” He chuckled and wiped mud from her tawny face, though his dirty fingers only made her cheek more russet. “Your village is worth it, Anya.”
She batted her purple eyes. “Will you marry me?”
Ave spewed out water, Heronia laughing with him.
Nuelle smiled at the confident six-year-old. “Can you give me ten years to think about it?”
“Of course. I’ll wait for you forever, Peasant Prince.” She kissed his cheek, spun around, and then skipped back into her cabin as Sir Amador emerged from it. He gazed up at the lavender sky, spattered with slowly darkening clouds. “Forgive me, my lord, but you did make a promise to my bride.” He gestured to the rucksack on his back, the one he refused to set down all day. “And I still have an errand to run.”
Nuelle rose. “An errand?”
“One King Nifal tasked me with.” Sir Amador looked up again. “I have to deliver the sack not too far from here and it’s close to the meeting time.”
“Then we’d better get moving.” Ave and Heronia stood. “Maybe we’ll make it back in time for evening meal,” Ave said. “I’m starved.”
“Me, too.” Heronia waved to a group of dark-skinned women and children huddled around a cauldron perched over blue flames. Two little boys wearing Nuelle’s princely garbs “sword fought” with sticks. His heart ached as he grasped his real sword, tucked uselessly in its sheath at his hip. But, now that all of Middren had decent dwellings and other necessities taken care of, he could finally return to training with Tane the next morning. Brother had waited patiently—for the most part—and would be thrilled at returning to their daily routine. The last few times they sparred, he was tougher than usual…more passionate than ever to bring his younger brother to a higher level of skill.
Nuelle waved to the women. As always, they blew kisses and told him to pray about pursuing their daughters. And as always, he answered with a polite, “I’ll consider it, my ladies.”
Heronia walked ahead with Ave, whispering something to him, while Sir Amador strode at Nuelle’s side. Nuelle eyed the mysterious rucksack. “So what’s really in there?”
“I ask that you wait until we are inside of the chariot, my lord.”
Nuelle’s heart rate spiked and his palms moistened. “I’ll grant your request.”
As Heronia mounted the guiding vanaph, she tossed her purple hair over her shoulder and smiled briefly at Nuelle before facing forward and grabbing the reins. He frowned as Ave opened the chariot door for him and Sir Amador. When the door closed, Ave’s blue eyes narrowed, and he donned a wry smile. “Just when I start to get my hopes up, deluxe ivory cake exposes her real motives for being all buttery with me.” His voice imitated a feminine pitch. “‘I was wondering if Prince Nuelle ever talks about me, and if you know what attracts him most in a woman?’”
“Good question,” Nuelle said and then turned to Sir Amador. “But I have a better one that’s supposed to be answered now.”
The vanaphs ascended. Once the village disappeared beneath the clouds, Sir Amador finally faced Nuelle. “This sack holds a very dangerous weapon that is no longer safe in the palace.”
Nuelle tensed, Ave also stiffening.
“What weapon?” Nuelle asked. “And why wouldn’t it be safe at home?”
“I’m afraid that is all I can tell you, my lord.” Sir Amador leaned over and stuck his head out of the window. As he gave Heronia directions, cold sweat coated Nuelle’s already moist neck. There wasn’t a place in all Zephoris safer than the Supreme Palace, where the Supreme King—Father himself—dwelled. Many palace servants and Elite Knights faithfully served for decades, centuries even. So what—or who—caused Father’s concern?
Fifteen silent minutes dragged by until the chariot descended in the midst of a dense forest on the outskirts of Onipur, the next town north of Middren. When it landed, Sir Amador spoke firmly. “King Nifal commanded that you both are to stay in the chariot.”
“But”—Nuelle closed his mouth. If Father gave the command, he needed to heed it. “Okay. We’ll stay back.”
“I won’t be long.” Sir Amador climbed over Ave, opened the door, and leapt out of the chariot.
When the door closed, Ave ran his hand through his hair. “So maybe we’ll make it home for dessert. Mother said she was gonna bake puffle cakes and—”
“Shh.” Nuelle crouched to the parallel bench and peered out the window. Sir Amador stood under the shadows of vast orange leaves, one hand on the rucksack’s shoulder-strap, the other gripping his sword’s hilt. Someone cloaked in an emerald robe emerged from the trees in front of him. He slid the rucksack off and held it out. Green Robe just stood there like a statue, hesitant. Sir Amador shoved the rucksack in Green Robe’s arms before unsheathing his sword and waving the person away. Green Robe backtracked and stumbled. The emerald hood fell, revealing long purplish-black hair and wide, blue eyes.
Nuelle and Ave jumped. “King Bertil!”
“Why would King Nifal want Antikai’s father to have the dangerous weapon?” Ave asked.
Nuelle shushed him again. King Bertil ran and disappeared into the forest ahead. As Sir Amador looked around, three shadowy figures rose from the magenta grass behind him. Pale, human skin rapidly formed on the shadows. Sir Amador spun around. Masculine limbs elongated from the surprise visitors, and soon, three beastly men with torn, ebony garbs faced him. Scarlet wisps dangled from the head of the center man. One side of his face sagged as if overstretched, while the other half accentuated every bone and vein. A baggy vest draped him, and crimson fur covered one of his arms, leading to a clawed paw. Teal tufts topped the thinnest man standing to the left. Though his head and legs faced forward, his torso twisted to the right. And beside him, purplish gray bangs shaded an eye of a shirtless, nearly eight-foot man whose shoulder blades protruded from his back like broken wings.
Heronia scrambled off her vanaph and ran into the chariot. “Prince Nuelle, what’s going on?”
His heart-rate climbed as he addressed her and Ave. “Stay here.” He pushed the door open and crept out of the chariot. He crouched under the tree’s covering and crept closer to the gathering.
“Amador, you look well kept,” Crimson-Claw purred.
Sir Amador squinted, his hand on his hilt. “Zagan?”
Nuelle squeezed his sword’s hilt. Antikai’s Sentry. But what in Zephoris happened to him?
The too-tight side of his face smirked and he gestured to Twisted-Teal. “And you remember your good friend, Jilt.”
Sir Amador gaped while Jilt winked. Zagan pointed his clawed-paw at Bone-Wings. “And Brone.”
Sir Amador’s face contorted as he pointed his sword. “What welcome curse has befallen you savages?”
“This is no curse,” Zagan said. “This is the Obsidian’s blessing, old friend.” His head tilted to the side, his droopy cheek dangling. “Where’s the rucksack?”
“I’m afraid I have to cut this reunion short.” Sir Amador swiped his sword at Zagan. He vanished while broken-wings Brone swung his massive fist. Sir Amador dodged it and lashed his blade. Brone slapped Amador’s forearm and he staggered.
“Papo!” Ave shouted from the chariot.
Unsheathing his sword, Nuelle raced toward the battle. As he neared, the ground quaked and a cloud of steam burst from the grass beneath the giant. A gushing fountain surged from the ground, raising him with it. Sir Amador’s prodigious gift swallowed his adversary.
Zagan vanished as Jilt appeared several yards behind Amador. Glowing-green energy streams extended from Jilt’s hands like whips. He snapped them at Amador’s ankles. The energy wrapped around them, and Jilt tugged, yanking Amador backwards and causing him to drop his sword.
The vibrant whips dragged Amador toward the savage man.
Zagan appeared outside of the chariot. Nuelle hollered and sprinted that way with sword raised. Zagan faced him and grinned as he neared. Nuelle swung his blade. Zagan’s claws smashed into it. Blue sparks burst and the sword flew out of Nuelle’s grasp. He raised his fists and punched Zagan’s tight cheek. Something cracked. Zagan’s blue eyes glinted as the bones on his face shifted. His crimson-furred arm raised and swiped down. His claws slashed across Nuelle’s jawbone and thrust him onto the grass.
Nuelle writhed as blood spilled and pain seared through his face.
Amador closed in and jammed his sword into Zagan’s shoulder. He roared as he veered around while yanking out the sword and chucking it aside. His clawed hand swung. Amador blocked with an armored forearm and kicked Zagan’s chest. He crashed against the chariot door, bending it inward. Heronia screamed while Ave cheered.
Amador unsheathed his dagger and lunged forward. Zagan reached his human hand beneath his vest and removed an iron, sawtoothed dagger. He rammed it into Amador’s stomach, stopping him.
“No!” Ave shoved open the other chariot door as Nuelle fumbled to his feet.
Amador groaned. “Go.”
Zagan drove the dagger in deeper. Blood spilled from Amador’s mouth. Nuelle raised his fists. Amador stomped as his eyes rolled back. A steamy spout burst beneath him and Zagan, whisking them both hundreds of feet upwards and blasting Nuelle back. Hot water rained on him and the chariot. His head reeled. King Nifal commanded that you both are to stay in the chariot. Sir Amador’s firm warning echoed in Nuelle’s mind, but his heart screamed for him to stay.
“Papo!” Ave appeared beside Nuelle. He pushed himself to his feet and grabbed Ave’s arm.
“We have to go.” Nuelle despised himself as he pulled Ave back toward the chariot. Heronia scrambled out of it and ran to the guiding vanaph.
Ave stared up at the bursting water, his hair soaked. “We can’t leave him!”
The vanaphs stamped their hooves and hovered above the ground.
“Hurry!” Heronia tugged the reins, the three vanaphs growing more and more frantic.
Nuelle used both arms to hold Ave, fighting with all his strength, and dragged him back into the chariot. He yelled as Nuelle slammed the door. The vanaphs shot into the dark expanse, leaving the forest and Sir Amador behind.