EXCERPT: The Seventh Cadence: Prelude, Part 3
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The Seventh Cadence
Prelude (pt. 3)
King Jeremiah breathed in the salty air of his city. The sunlight warmed his aching muscles without the oppression of summer’s humidity. A cool, gentle breeze carried the murmurs of market trade and spirited away with the hark of freedom.
He was finally home.
He slowed his horse to ride next to Samuel. He’d retrieved the boy from Stronghold Aear to accompany him back south. The journey took several worry-fraught days, and while an entire company of men would have slowed him, a solo ride would have been reckless beyond even his own appetite for danger.
The road opened to a broad avenue where trade wagons could easily access the Crown Palace’s storerooms. The delta’s streams brought a river taxi filled with men and women—their courtship in full bloom. He smiled at the picture of young love, uncaring as they allowed their passion to carry them into a future of love and prosperity. In that moment, Jeremiah couldn’t remember the horrors of battle. None of it could cast a shadow in the radiance of his people’s joy.
He looked at the squire. As if too afraid to look at his king directly, Samuel kept his eyes fixed on the palace ahead. The journey had been nearly wordless between them. At first, Jeremiah welcomed the silence. But once the Crown City was within reach, Jeremiah realized that the squire was avoiding him altogether, doing and saying just enough to be compliant but never more.
“You can look at me,” Jeremiah said. “Just because I’m the King doesn’t mean I’m some god to be revered.”
His new apprentice risked a glance. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
They trotted on for another moment of silence. Children skirted the horses’ paths and Crown City citizens removed their hats out of respect when they realized it was soldiers—if not their king—among them.
“Go on,” King Jeremiah said. He looked Samuel in the eye. “Speak your mind. Perhaps Bendeth didn’t allow you to do so, but, under my roof, I expect your honesty.”
Samuel looked at Jeremiah. His mouth opened once before it snapped shut.
“I mean it,” Jeremiah said. “Speak.”
“You left your troops,” Samuel said. “You abandoned the battlefield. A man’s honor is all that he has. Why would you lose your honor for … for …”
“For a woman?” Jeremiah finished for him and caught the squire’s eye long enough to confirm his suspicions. “We’d won, Samuel. They didn’t need me for the final push into the mountains. If anything, it’s a victory lap and a chance for soldiers to kill a few more men so that they have at least one story for the taverns that isn’t tainted by the fearful smell of their own urine.”
“High Lord Bendeth won’t forget this,” Samuel said. “He’s a Desolate-bound looger, but he believes in honor.”
“‘Looger … I keep hearing Bendeth mutter that word. What does it mean?”
“Looger. One who is only interested in one’s own affairs.” For the first time the entire journey back to the Crown City, the boy perked up. “The etymology of the word is quite interesting, actually. The Ehrel word …” Suddenly aware of himself, Samuel apologized. “I’m sorry. It’s not my place to—”
King Jeremiah waved a hand. “I told you to speak your mind, Samuel. I won’t punish you for obeying me.” He smiled. “You’re smart. I like that. You should leave wars to people like me—our kingdom’s dolts.”
“I studied under High Lord Bendeth’s scholar,” Samuel said. “I was to replace him, but the kingdom was running short on men to fight.”
A moment of silence passed between them.
“Why did you leave?” Samuel persisted. “You must know as well as I do that High Lord Bendeth still resents you for taking away his rightful place as a ruler to his people.”
“I granted him High Lordship so that he may rule his tribe and region within Hzorah’s domain. He still has his authority.”
“That means little to the son of a Herre,” Samuel said. “The Ehrel tribe are as proud as they are honorable. To be benched second to another ruler is as good as not being a ruler at all. When you left the field—”
“I abandoned the throne to a successor,” Jeremiah sighed. “I know that. But I led the winning charge. The soldiers know that. The First League will confirm it. And if Bendeth attempts to challenge me, he’ll have the entire Hzorah tribe to fight off.” He locked eyes with Samuel. “That is if he manages to strike me down first.”
Jeremiah didn’t like to make threats, especially ones he had no intention to back up with steel. The Hzorah and Ehrel tribes were long rivals, but petty squabbles of land were put aside for the good of their people. He’d thought Bendeth saw the ultimate virtue in that, even if it meant a blow to his own pride.
“He won’t forget it,” Samuel said as they reached the palace gates. “When the opportunity comes, he’ll take what he believes to be his.”
King Jeremiah’s hand found the hilt of the Crown Sabre. “And when the opportunity comes, I’ll welcome his attempt.”
King Jeremiah dismounted his horse and handed the reins to a stunned guard before crossing the short bridge that led to the Crown Palace grounds. “He’s exhausted. See to it that he is taken care of. Groomed well.”
“Your Majesty—” the guard began, but Jeremiah didn’t stop to hear the man’s response. Two First League guards fell into step in front of and just behind their king, and two runners sprinted ahead to announce his approach.
The party crossed the short bridge that arched over the tributary and split the palace grounds into its own isolated plot of land. Jeremiah focused on the Hzorah mark on the black leather of the First League armor. He traced it with his eyes, focused on the rune’s shape to give his mind something other than worry to occupy it.
Behind the thinly overcast sky, the sun had reached high noon, but the palace courtyard lacked the buzz of activity he’d grown accustomed to. There was an eerie quiet. A quiet he hadn’t heard over the palace green since he and his father had first conquered the eastern reaches and taken the Crown City for Hzorah. It had been a tranquility born of reverent appreciation of victory―a victory that secured the Hzorah tribe a dominant hand in the war.
Jeremiah glanced to the palace’s receiving bay. There were no deliveries. Before he could stop himself, he looked to the banner above the north gate—but there was no banner. It had been lowered. Then, as if his ears had suddenly awoken, he heard the bells. Low in pitch, they droned in a metallic, bittersweet ambivalence.
The king clenched his jaw as pain pierced his heart.
“The bells,” Samuel said. “Doesn’t that mean …”
At the palace’s northern entryway, he saw his son, Gabriel. The child had only seen three years, but he’d already developed a personality that resembled his own—at least that’s what everyone who’d known him in his youth constantly reminded him. Gabriel pulled against Marium’s hand, eager to rush across the palace green to reunite with his father, but the nursemaid held steadfast. A set of palace workers joined, ready to take his armor and sword, and serve him water after his journey.
Prophet Davin stepped onto the landing, joining Jeremiah’s son and nursemaid. In his arms, he cradled an infant wrapped in a light blue swaddle.
“Is that your son, Your Majesty?” Samuel asked.
Jeremiah jogged the remaining distance, leaving Samuel behind. Gabriel broke free of Nurse Marium’s hold, and Jeremiah smiled as he scooped up the young prince. The boy giggled and chattered as Jeremiah carried him back to the palace. He humored the babbling child, responding as if he’d truly asked where his father had been all this time.
“Your father had to fight back the bad men! Guess who won? Guess? Your father won!”
But the joy of reuniting with his son was muted by Prophet Davin’s sad gaze. He absently set Gabriel back down before meeting the prophet’s eyes. “How is she?”
Prophet Davin shook his head. “I’m sorry.”
Jeremiah had known the probability from the moment he’d received the message at the foot of the Shadow Peaks, and he’d prepared himself for the worst in the days he’d journeyed south. He’d seen the solemn gloom about the palace as he approached. He’d heard the bells tolling tragedy. But none of it dampened the impact of the Prophet’s words. His chest felt tight under his leather armor, and his stomach felt ready to reject what little he’d eaten.
“But with every tragedy,” Prophet Davin said, offering the small infant to his king, “there is a new beginning.”
Jeremiah took the child and gazed on his small, soft face. The child slept without acknowledgment of the bells, or the terrible grief, or an absent mother―a mother whose face shared so many of the same features as the child she’d left behind.
“Did she name him before …” Jeremiah paused, his voice failing him.
“No,” Prophet Davin said. “She only left this.” Prophet Davin held piece of parchment, folded and sealed. “Her final words for you.”
“He’s a beautiful child,” Nurse Marium said. “And strong. A true blessing. He will be a great warrior like his father.”
Jeremiah gave her a courteous but weak smile of thanks. With his free hand, Jeremiah took the note. “Seth. His name is Seth.”
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