Read house of lust epub format

Authors: Tony Roberts

house of lust

HOUSE OF LUST

 

 

Copyright Tony Roberts 2015

ISBN 978-1-51310-105-2

Website http://tonyrobertsauthor.com

Cover artwork by Lisa Ravenscroft


Table of Contents

HOUSE OF LUST

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

CHAPTER THIRTY

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

Principle Character List

Coming in 2016, the fourth tale in the Chronicles of Kastania, Path of Pride

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

The courtyard echoed to the ringing of steel on steel as the two youths swung their swords and hacked at one another. One was a lean, dark-haired boy with a pair of piercing blue eyes, the other slightly shorter, his hair not as dark as the first, and had paler blue eyes.

They moved back and forth, neither showing any sign of tiring.  Their blades were identical – short, slim blades with leather-bound hilts.  Neither were wearing any armour, being attired instead in padded jackets and loose-fitting hose.  The shorter of the two had a crest on his jacket, that of a shield divided into blue and white quarters and flanked by black wings.  The other had none.

Watching with interest were a number of people; blacksmiths, soldiers, townsfolk.  One or two other youths looked on, too.  In the background a looming stone castle towered above them, four floors of narrow windows or arrow slits looking out on them, some occupied by onlookers.

Both youths were gritting their teeth, neither prepared to back down.  They were well-matched, and if both hadn’t been so adept at defence, it was likely one or the other may well have collected a wound or worse.

Finally an older man with a scar down his face and possessing only one eye interceded.  “That’s enough, sire, Kerrin.  You’re both getting exhausted and a mistake may well be made.”

The two stepped back and bowed to one another.  Most of the onlookers burst into applause and the two turned and bowed to them, too.  Two servants came forward, cloths in hand, and the two perspiring boys gratefully took one each.  The older man collected the swords and sheathed them.  “That’s enough for today.  You’ve both done well.  I’m pleased with your progress.”

“Thank you, Panat,” the shorter of the two replied.  “I am pleased with how our sword play is progressing.”  He looked at his sparring partner.  “Your blows are getting harder, ‘Rin.”

Kerrin Afos grinned.  “As are yours, ‘Gan.  What’s the rest of the day to hold for you?”

Prince Argan of the House of Koros wiped his wet face and neck and looked thoughtfully at the stone edifice of the keep of Zofela, capital of the Kastanian province of Bragal.  “Tonight’s the big celebration – you’re coming, aren’t you?”

“Oh yes,” Kerrin nodded.  His voice, like that of Argan’s, was of that peculiar tone adolescents had when their voice started to break.  Both were twelve and growing up fast.  Sometimes they squeaked and at other times boomed.  They would have to get used to their new voices fast.  “I mean before then.”

“Nothing – at least I think so, unless Mr. Sen has something up his large sleeves.”  He grinned at his humorous observation.  Kerrin duly chuckled briefly.  “I could do with a clean-up after our spar.  You got a servant to do you?”

“Oh, yes.  She’s a bit clumsy but nothing to worry about.  I suppose Sasia will bathe you?”

Argan glanced at Kerrin.  He wondered at the edge in his voice, but he was used to Kerrin being a bit touchy about Amal, Argan’s personal servant, called Sasia by Kastanians.  Perhaps he was jealous of having one so devoted to him as the Bragalese girl was.  There again, Kerrin hadn’t been saved from a life-threatening situation by the witchcraft of another Bragalese woman, Metila, which had somehow given the young Argan a complete knowledge of the Bragalese language.  Amal had submitted to Argan at their first encounter, pledging her life to him, recognising him as some kind of special person,
Lakhani
.  “She always takes good care of me, ‘Rin.  You shouldn’t worry too much about her – I’m as safe with her as I am with you.”  He slapped his childhood companion on the shoulder and began to lope off the practice field, Kerrin following a little morosely. 

As they reached the border of the field, marked with a low wooden fence, they passed close to Argan’s younger brother by three years, Istan.  Istan was quite thickset and stocky; mostly, so Argan maintained, because of his eating.  Istan did have a healthy appetite, and a dark personality.  He had been a bad-tempered child and now at the age of nine was becoming snide and underhand.  He had his usual two companions close to him, two Bragalese boys from Zofela whose fathers had died in the taking of the town by Astiras Koros, Emperor of Kastania and the father of both Argan and Istan.

“You fight like a woman,” Istan observed, eating on a sweetfruit, speaking through his food.  He knew it irritated people so he did it deliberately, sometimes spitting his food out onto the listener.  As a prince he was only answerable to his father, and then only reluctantly.

“You sound like one,” Argan countered, wiping his face again.  “I’m surprised you’re here and not in the kitchen feeding your fat face.”

Istan’s mouth turned down.  “Once I’m emperor I’ll have you thrown into prison, you girl.”

Argan laughed and looked at the scowling duo behind his brother.  “You’ll never be emperor, Istan – you’re far too nasty to people.  Nobody will want you in charge, not even Jorqel.  He’ll make sure anyone other than you is named his successor.”  Jorqel was the heir to the throne and the older half-brother of the two boys.

“We’ll see.  He’ll not want a weakling like you as emperor – you’ll be too busy crying to rule the empire!”

Argan snorted and walked off, Istan’s mocking crying sound in his ears.  The two Bragalese boys laughed.  Kerrin glared at the two and then caught up with his friend.  “Why do you let him speak to you like that, ‘Gan?  You could beat all three on your own!  Let me teach them a lesson!”

Argan shook his head sadly.  “Those two horrible Bragalese boys, yes, but you can’t touch Fantor-Face.”  The nickname was Argan’s special name for Istan, named after a mythical beast that grew to enormous size.  “If you did, you’d be in trouble.”

“But not you – you’re his brother and also a prince.  I’d love to see you teach him a lesson!”

“Father and mother don’t like the idea of us fighting.  They always split us up and you’ve seen yourself how they protect him because he’s younger and smaller than me.”

“But he always starts it!”

Argan reached the entrance to Zofela’s newly completed castle, a stout looking stone construction.  It had been finished only the previous year and in a hurry because of the war with neighbouring Venn.  They stood for a moment at the edge of the ditch and looked at the four floors of windows and slits.  “I know, ‘Rin, but often people who start trouble are looked after by people who are too protective, and it only makes the trouble maker worse.”  He sighed.  His vocabulary was pretty good for one of his age, but that was down to his intense education.  In four years he would have to take up a governorship of a region and a generalship of a unit of soldiers.   The odd thing was that once he learned a new word in his native Kastanian language, he automatically knew its equivalent in Bragalese.  He couldn’t explain it; neither could anyone else, least of all his tutor, Mr. Sen.  “I’m going to rest until this evening.  Father will want me at my best for his celebration.”

Kerrin grunted in agreement.  “Eight years as emperor.  He will be happy.”

“I hope so.  Mother and he have been arguing today.  Again.”  He eyed one of the windows high up with a sad look.  He disliked it when his parents squabbled, and today’s blow-up was one of the worst he could recall.  The shouting had echoed down the passageway.  He had no idea what it was all about, but no doubt one of the servants would tell him.  Argan had a nice little network of friends in the castle who told him many things, and that included gossip about his younger brother, none of which was good.

He grinned at Kerrin and entered the castle, passing under the portcullis and acknowledging the salutes of the two palace guards stationed there.  There was a great entrance chamber beyond and staircases ran up on both sides, as well as arched doorways standing in three of the four walls.  Kerrin went off to his chamber to clean up, followed by a servant, while Argan began to climb the left-hand staircase, a wide wooden one with a smooth thick handrail.

Coming down the stairs was an armoured figure, a sword hanging from his belt.  A good-humoured man of almost thirty years of age, dark haired and sporting the latest fashionable facial hairstyle of a half-beard; he had a moustache and chin hair, but shaven on the sides of the face.  “Good day, young Prince,” he greeted Argan.  “A good workout?”

“Yes, Captain Vos’gis,” Argan said, bobbing his head.  “Apart from Fantor-Face being there.”

Captain Vosgaris, commander of the palace guard, glanced towards the entrance lest Istan was there, but relaxed when he saw it empty.  “Careful, Prince Argan.  One of these days he’ll hear you.”

“I don’t care about that, Vos’gis.  What can he do anyway?  Eat more?”  Argan laughed easily.  “Then he will be a fantor!”

Vosgaris smiled and shook his head in wonder.  “It’s best you two don’t start quarrelling tonight – your father has enough to cope with at the moment what with your mother and he at each other’s throats.”

“Have you any idea what that is all about?”

Vosgaris shook his head.  “Best not to ask, either.”  He saluted and carried on with his inspection, making sure all the guards were where they were supposed to be.  Security was only as good it was as at the present moment, and one could never be sure if someone was intent on causing harm to the emperor and his family.

Argan wasn’t convinced by the captain’s glib reply and sudden need to be gone.  He carried on along the stone passageway towards his quarters.  The new stone keep was a welcome change to the wooden castle that had come before.  They had gone through some discomfort and inconvenience during the construction but had finally moved into their new abode in mid-winter.

It had seemed cold and dark at first but slowly they had got used to it and the fires they had in their rooms helped a lot on both counts.  With a wooden castle a fire had to be small and carefully managed, not so now.  The dismantled walls and old castle wood had been used to make staircases and floor planking in the new keep.  A second staircase stood beyond a narrow archway off to one side of the passageway and Argan took this, acknowledging another guard’s salute.  This was a winding staircase in a turret and gave access to the upper floors where the imperial family resided.  The lower two were for guards, guests and everyday use.

Up on the third floor the rooms and passages were bigger.  The passageways were half as much wider again, and he could pass by guards without getting too close to them.  Tapestries hung from the walls here and other furnishings decorated the walls.  As he passed one open door, his mother looked up and spotted him.  “Ah, there you are, Argan.  Hold on a moment, I need to speak to you.”

Argan groaned to himself and stopped.  His mother was always fussing or fretting and he so wished she didn’t.  He stood stoically and waited for her to emerge, moving and working at a much faster pace than the rest of Kastania, as usual.  “Yes, mother?”

“Now I want you to be in your best outfit for this evening.  I’ve already told Sasia to make sure your best clothes are properly prepared.  And make sure you’ve washed and cleaned up as you’re all sweaty and smell like you’ve been working in a leather shop.”

“Mother, don’t fuss.  She knows already; I’ve told her this morning.”  Argan was just about the only one who called Sasia by her true name.  Bragalese children, orphaned from the war, had been adopted to serve the imperial family or other Kastanians and given new names, severing their identity with their past.  At least, that was the theory.  Argan knew the Bragalese would never forget their heritage, and he made sure Amal felt reassured by him whenever they were alone in his room.  He always addressed her in private as Amal and spoke to her in her language.  Amal’s respect for him had grown as a result.

“Hmmm, well I’ve told her just to make sure.”  Isbel looked at Argan severely.  “Is it proper for her to clean you, Argan?  I ought to provide a male servant for that.”

“Mother!  We’ve had this discussion before.  She’s fine and I do not want another servant.  One is sufficient.  To have two is indulgent.” Argan used the word as he’d heard it often enough at the dining table.  His mother was always using it to justify her reluctance to spend more than was absolutely necessary.  “And I don’t know what you mean by is it proper?  What do you mean, mother?”

Isbel pursed her lips.  “A young girl like that touching you.  You’re growing up fast and are now more of a young man than a boy.  She might make – inappropriate moves.  I would not countenance that sort of thing!”

Argan frowned.  “What sort of thing?”  He knew full well what his mother was implying, but he was at an age where grown-ups were not sure how much a twelve year old knew or was supposed to know.  “What?”

“Oh, nothing,” Isbel waved her hands in dismissal.  “Go and get yourself ready.”  She watched as he shrugged and went on his way towards his room, three doors down.  She returned to her room and slammed it shut.  Alone she could give vent to her frustrations.  She’d just finished composing a letter when she’d seen Argan passing, and now she looked at it once more, making sure it was phrased properly and contained just what she wished.  Satisfied she folded it and sealed it with her wax, then leaned back and sank into her chair, shutting her eyes.

She cursed her husband.  Emperor he may be but that didn’t excuse his philandering.  Their full-blown row that morning had been because she’d just found out about his affair with the Bragalese slave girl Metila in Turslenka.  Astiras hadn’t even been sorry.  He’d stood there and justified his actions as thanking her in the Bragalese way for saving Argan’s life.  Isbel had not been in the slightest convinced, and she had threatened to leave, and he had boldly told her if that was what she wanted, then so be it.  He would still be emperor and she would not be empress.

Stunned by his callous attitude, she had retreated to her room and not gone out again.  Now having thought on her situation, she knew she had little choice.  But she would not forgive him.  Ever.

Argan, meanwhile, had reached his room and gone in, passing the guard on duty outside.  In the two-room apartment he lived in, Sasia – or Amal – was patiently waiting.  “Hello, Amal,” he greeted her in Bragalese.


Lakhani
,” she curtseyed, lowering her head.  “You wish to be washed?”

“Yes please.  I’m all hot and sweaty.  Mother has been fussing over me like a fowl.  No doubt she’ll want to inspect me before I’m passed acceptable for the celebratory banquet tonight.”

Amal smiled and nodded.  She took his wet cloth and threw it down, then unbuttoned his jacket.  It fell to the floor, followed by his under vestment of white, now sweat-stained.  His youthful torso was smooth and unmarked, and the beginnings of adulthood was showing, with the widening shoulders and developing chest muscles.  Amal had no feelings of desire to him, for she knew her time of Growing Through had not yet happened.  Bragalese girls reached a certain age, then at that time they would undergo a sexual awakening called Growing Through.  It would be an uncontrollable outburst of passion which always resulted in them coupling with a male, and usually Bragalese families provided the man from one of their social circle.  It helped bond families.  From that time on the woman, for now that was what she would be properly called, would have the normal Bragalese sexual desires, that was to say, very strong.  They would however be in control of them, unlike at the Growing Through moment.  They would be in a passionate rage and nothing would be able to stop them.  Males had been known to get very badly scratched, bitten and injured at these times.

Argan and Amal had spoken of this recently, and Amal had expressed her ignorance of when it would come.  Any time from about thirteen to sixteen.  Nobody knew, but the signs would be clear for about a day or so.  Argan was fascinated.  He himself had no passionate feelings towards anyone, but he had been betrothed to a noble girl of about his age, slightly younger, called Velka.  She was due to visit any time to go through the betrothal ceremony, when the two were formally bonded.  They would not marry until both passed sixteen, but it was as good as an engagement.

“I have prepared your bath,” she said and led him through the room to the far side where a second door stood, slightly ajar.  This was the inner chamber, a bed chamber.  Here Argan was usually bathed by Amal.  A metal tub stood on the floor to one side, filled with warm water and Argan divested himself of his remaining clothes and stepped into the water.  Amal waited till he had sat down in it before commencing to wash him.  She, too, was now divested of her clothes save for a small loin piece.  Bathing someone often meant getting wet herself, so she had learned to only wear the one piece of clothing.  Argan shut his eyes and leaned back, enjoying the slow wiping of the cloth.

“When you marry Velka, will you still want my services?” she asked.

Argan looked at her.  “Yes.  You are my personal servant, and a friend.  I value you, Amal.  Velka will have to understand that.”

“What if she does not like me, or want me to bathe you or look after you,
Lakhani
?”

“I will tell her that you are to carry on as before.  I know grown-ups get funny about that sort of thing but I don’t know why.  It’s not as if you and I will ever get married, is it?”

Amal shook her head.  “What if I meet someone who I wish to marry?”

“Then you should.  If you want to.  I can’t see any reason why not.  People get so silly at times.”  He smiled at the young girl.  His eyes glanced at her chest, noting the beginnings of her breasts growing.  “You will soon be a grown-up, like me.  I hope we don’t go all silly like the others.”

“You’re not silly,
Lakhani
.  You are a very wise prince, unlike your brother.”

“Oh, him.”  Argan frowned and shut his eyes again.  “He’s just horrible to everyone, and gets friends who are just like him.  He couldn’t have nice people as friends as nice people don’t like him.”

“I hear what he calls you.  Are you not outraged?”

Argan grinned.  “He thinks he can upset me with his silly words.  I’m older and bigger than he is.  He can play being a silly fantor for all I care, and I don’t care what he calls me.”

Amal gently urged Argan to sit up and began wiping his back.  She then picked up a few salt crystals scented with oils and began rubbing them into his skin, infusing his pores with the aroma.  “When I reach my age of Growing Through I will change, so the older women tell me.  I will be wild and passionate.”

“I know – but I don’t know what that means.  I only hear people speak.  Will you be like Metila?”

“She’s a witch – I am not.  She is special.  But all Bragalese women are very passionate – I might not be able to wash you like this without – being passionate.”

Argan looked at her.  “Amal, you would not hurt me, you are my friend.  I would not want you to go and be the servant of any other person.  You’re a very special friend.”

Amal smiled, then put her arms round him and the prince embraced the servant girl.

___

Isbel meanwhile had breezed into Astiras’ chamber and dismissed the guards and servants.  Astiras sat on the edge of the bed, his greying head still, watching her warily.  The argument of earlier that day was still fresh in his memory.  “Have you thought further on what we said?” he asked.

Isbel picked up the letter that had started it that morning, an anonymous message that had been pushed under their door.  “So you did this out of gratitude for saving Argan’s life?” she asked, waving the sheet at him.  “Three times since?”

“You know Bragalese women, they are very – active.”

“And you didn’t think for a moment you’d be insulting me and our marriage?  We are not Bragalese, a race of rutting creatures, Astiras!  We are Kastanians, and marriage is supposed to be sacred and inviolate.”

Astiras waved a carefree hand.  “Everyone sleeps around – Amne does it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if half the people in Court here did the same.”

“I’m not sleeping around, Astiras!  Don’t you go comparing me to your wanton daughter.  I can see where she gets her habit from, too!”

“Bah!” Astiras stood up.  “It’s not as if I want to replace you with that witch anyway, so don’t go getting all hot under your jacket.”

“That’s not the point!” Isbel exclaimed, throwing the letter at her husband.  “I’ve been insulted and betrayed, and you’re too porcine-headed to see that!  Well go ahead and rut with that creature for all you want!  From now on you don’t touch me.  I have no idea where you’ve been or what you’ve been rutting.  I do not wish to catch anything nasty.  With any luck, that overused piece of flesh will rot off anyway.  It seems to be used more than what you’ve got between your ears.”

“What are you saying, Isbel?” Astiras stood before her, glaring at his wife.

“You can have your marriage – after all, we have our image to live up to, don’t we?  But you can forget about having me in your bed from now on.  Have a whole queue of servant girls if you like – put out a poster in the streets asking for young Bragalese girls to apply for a position in the keep.  That should keep you happy – or at least, that piece of flesh down there.”

Astiras growled.  “You’re talking nonsense!  I have no intention of taking anyone else – you’re my wife.”

“In name only from now on.  Don’t forget, Astiras, you’re mid-fifties now and getting no younger.  Your time is getting shorter.  I have ten years on you.  I’ve looked after myself, unlike you,” she pointed at his rounded stomach.  “I doubt you’ll be looked at for much longer with interest anyway.  Make the most of Metila.  When you go I’ll have my revenge on her!” and with that she turned and left the emperor alone in his chamber, looking thoughtfully at the still vibrating door.

He picked up the letter Isbel had thrown at him and studied it.  Who had sent it?  It was unsigned.  Someone here in Zofela had slipped it under Isbel’s door, someone with access to the keep and the inner chambers, and someone who clearly wanted to cause harm.

When he found out who it was he’d rip his head off and mount it above the Frasian Gate.  Then he might hurt him a bit.

CHAPTER TWO

 

The spring was fully upon the island of Romos and the herd beasts were all out in the fields grazing.  The land avians were all building nests or finding mates, and the sea avians were flocking to the rocky shores to find their seasonal niches now the winds of winter had passed. 

Prince Jorqel stood on the shore staring east across the Aester Sea.  The creatures of the sea and air were doing their thing, but apart from that nothing broke the vista of the waters.  No ship could be seen.  After staring for a moment, he grunted and turned.  The route back up off the stony shore was via a narrow path in between the boulders, and he took his time making sure he didn’t slip and fall.

Gavan, his right hand man, was waiting at the end with two equines, his and the prince’s.  Four other men sat in their saddles a little way back, watching in case anyone happened by.  They were there to make sure Jorqel wasn’t disturbed.  Gavan handed his master his reins and waited.

“Nothing again today, Gavan.  It seems the peace is holding.”

“Unless Venn are approaching from a different direction, sire.”

Jorqel looked thoughtful.  “They might consider it, but I think they will have learned a painful lesson.  If they move on us again I expect it’ll be by a much safer route.  They’ve tried twice now and come to grief each time.  I doubt their committee can make their mind up as to what to do next.”

“All the better for us, sire.”

Jorqel mounted up, settled into the saddle and nodded slowly.  The previous year Venn had sent a fleet of ships laden with men and equipment against Romos and had been dashed to pieces on the shore in a storm that had blown up from nowhere.  They were still finding wreckage and bodies from time to time washed up around the island.  Since that time Venn had agreed to a cessation of hostilities; an uneasy peace.  They had not signed a formal treaty, so it was clear the situation was temporary, but so much the better for Kastania.

Venn was no doubt training up more soldiers and equipping them, ready to try yet again, but for the moment the lands of the empire would not be violated by their enemy.  Jorqel was pleased, as his province was the closest to the advanced Venn supply depot on the island of Cratia, and it had been from there the lost fleet had sailed in the autumn.

As they rode slowly away from the shore, they followed the tracks made by the people of the island that ran between the farms.  Roads were few and far between, but on an island as small as Romos that wasn’t too important.  The farms supplied the island’s population with enough food for themselves, but not enough to export.  What Romos was famous for was its vine pressings.  The sweet fruits produced an alcohol prized around the empire, and once again, now under Jorqel’s management, the vintners were producing plenty to sell to the other parts of Kastania.

In the two years since Romos had been returned to Kastania, the depredations of the pirates had been erased and people once again could come to and fro as they pleased, trading in the market square in Romos.  The place was much more vibrant than before, and everyone agreed the prince was the best thing that had happened to Romos in a long time.

“We return to the town, sire?” Gavan asked.

“Yes.  I’ve seen enough.  Just make sure we have the early warning system back in place now.  The better weather might just persuade those carrion feeders to try their luck against us once more.”

“It will be done.  Do you think Venn will come?”

“One day, yes.  We’re too tempting a target.  I really want a decent garrison trained up sooner rather than later, so I want that mustering hall completed now.  We need to house the garrison away from the fort.  I don’t want my daughters thinking life is merely a barracks.”

Gavan grinned.  Jorqel was the father of three girls, Merza, Krista and Zora.  They had been born very close to one another, and his wife Sannia seemed constantly pregnant.  Merza had been born before the invasion of Romos, and Krista not one year into the rule of Jorqel over the island.  Zora had been born a year later and now Sannia was with child yet again.  “Another daughter to come, sire?”

Jorqel pulled a face.  “I would prefer a son.  Three beautiful girls are lovely, but it would be a welcome change to have a boy.  I would wish for someone to carry on the family name, after all.”

“And a general for the future.”

“That, too.  Sannia is loving motherhood but sometimes the smell of sick and pee and shit gets too much.”

Gavan laughed.  “Rather you than me, sire.  It’s enough rolling with a wench.  Fatherhood it not for me.”

“So you say, Gavan.”

“So I know, sire.  Why marry one woman when there are plenty of maidens wanting my attention out there?”

“Aren’t you running out of new ones to deflower?”

“Romos has plenty of farmsteads with desperate daughters, sire.”

“Oh so that’s why you readily volunteer to survey the island and take a census?  I may have to consider replacing your duties in that case.”

Gavan looked appalled.  “Sire, surely you would not deny me some pleasure in my duties?”

“I thought you took great pleasure in carrying out my wishes, Gavan.  I’m hurt.”

Gavan stared at his master, then both burst into laughter.  They rode on towards the nearest farm.  Ever since the war with Venn had begun, Jorqel had taken steps to fortify and make Romos harder to invade.  All round the coast where there were no rocks or cliffs, he had arranged for the army to lay traps and obstacles.  After all he did not want a repeat of his invasion success.  The only two places anyone could now land were in the two ports, unless they got someone ashore to clear the obstacles and that would take time and alert anyone watching.

That had been the second step he’d taken, arranging a series of watchmen to keep an eye out on the coastal paths.  Nobody would remain in one place, but move about and report to stations set up near each farm.  Any watchman who failed to turn up on time would also raise an alert.  Jorqel had been very insistent on that, and had managed to secure the co-operation of the farmers too which went a long way to securing an efficient early warning system.  The farmers were more than happy to help the prince, for in the two years he had been running the island, tithes and taxes had been cut, their families had not been raided for the most suitable daughter to service the garrison, and plunder and theft had died away to virtually nothing.  Of course, any society would always have one or two outcasts who could not – or would not – fit into it and as a result would turn to banditry or thievery.  So far Jorqel had been pretty quick to stamp down on any such activity, and the people had declared that they were far happier under the Koros than they had been under either the pirates or the previous regimes of the Fokis and Duras.

All through that day they slowly made their way back to the town of Romos and arrived just as the sun was setting.  The gates were open and they rode through, attracting cheers and bows from the townsfolk.  Jorqel acknowledged their welcoming enthusiasm with a wave, then led his men into the castle through the one and only gatehouse, dismounting in the grassy courtyard.  Stable-hands came to take the equines to their stalls and for a good feed and rub down, and to remove the saddles and harnesses.  They would need to be cleaned, rubbed and even possibly oiled, but that was of no concern to the tired and stiff riders.  Two of the men returned to their barracks, glad to be off duty once again, but Jorqel, Gavan and the two others made their way up the single staircase to the entrance of the keep, high up on the mound of earth.

Inside, Jorqel pulled off his gauntlets and threw them onto the table that dominated the hall.  The soldier of guard saluted.  “Is the princess in?” Jorqel asked, stretching his back and arms.

“Sire, she is upstairs.”

“Very well.  Gavan, I’m going to my quarters.  Make sure everything’s in order here.  Any issues let me know, otherwise I don’t want to be disturbed.”

“Sire,” Gavan slapped his chest and waved the two others to follow him to the small office on the ground floor. 

Jorqel stiffly climbed to the next floor and passed through a low archway, bending slightly.  A high-pitched voice came to him, that of a child shouting.  He smiled.  Merza was letting her opinion be heard by everyone again.  She was quite a little madam.  He passed a guard who bowed and he opened the nearest door and stepped in.

The room was littered with sheets and furniture.  Three beds lay against the walls and a row of small wooden boxes lay underneath them.  The middle of the floor was covered in a small rug which was half hidden underneath cloths, blankets, a few play things and children.

“Daddy!” a small dark-haired child shouted, seeing the looming bearded figure in the doorway.  The girl, dressed in white, sprang up off the rug and dashed to him, arms flung out wide. 

Laughing, Jorqel picked Merza up and held her above his head, giving her a little shake from side to side.  “How’s my big girl, then?”

“Daddy!  You’re back!  You were gone a long time!” she accused him, but smiled as her father held her close.  “What did you see?”

“Clouds, lots of water, farms.  What have you been doing?”

“Talking non-stop, dear,” another voice answered, close behind.

Jorqel turned and saw his wife, Princess Sannia, standing there, a pleased look on her face.  They kissed and half embraced, mindful of the muttering Merza.  “I wasn’t too long, just long enough to satisfy myself all is in order.”

“No Venn, then, I take it.”

“Nope.  How’s the tummy?”

Sannia smoothed her stomach, just beginning to swell.  It was her fourth child in three years and she was getting tired of being pregnant.  No sooner had she given birth, it seemed she was getting pregnant again.  Jorqel was a fine figure of a man and very desirable, but there were limits.  She would have to have a word with some of the wiser old women on taking something that stopped all this, at least for a while.  Sannia wanted to have the energy to be able to be a mother, rather than feeling exhausted and throwing up.  “No different than normal, dear.  Number four is growing nicely.”

“Only ten more to go, then,” Jorqel smiled, winking.

“No chance of that, Jorqel Koros.”  She took Merza who protested.  “Now, now, Merza, your father has to get out of those smelly clothes and wash, hasn’t he?” she said, staring hard at him.

Jorqel rolled his eyes and grinned.  “I take the hint, although it was hardly subtle.”

“You wouldn’t have understood it if it had been,” Sannia answered.  “Go and clean up.  Time the little ones were in their beds anyway.”

“Aww, I want to see daddy more!” Merza complained.

“Tomorrow you will.  He’s not going out again for a while.”  Sannia held Merza up for Jorqel to kiss her goodnight, then carried the still complaining girl to her bed.  The two other girls were still on the rug along with a middle-aged woman who had been employed as a nurse and carer.  She picked up the youngest, Zora, and Jorqel embraced the little girl briefly before the nurse put her to bed.  Krista put her hands up to Jorqel who picked her up.  The girl, a brown-haired fair-skinned delicate looking individual, squealed in delight.  “Daddy!” she said in a tired, young voice.  She was beginning to speak now, after a long time of not really doing so.  Jorqel theorised it was because Merza talked so much it was impossible to get a word in edgeways.

After the girls had all been put to bed and kissed goodnight, Jorqel went to change.  As he passed another doorway he halted and stepped back to confirm what he’d seen.  Seated by himself in a room set aside for the girls for their daytime activities, was a short, nondescript man with a cloak and hood, but the hood was thrown off his face.  He was recognisable which, in all probability, he wished for.  “It’s been a long time, Kiros Louk,” the prince said, entering the half-lit room and gently shutting the door.

Louk bowed briefly but remained in the chair.  Jorqel’s chief spy, Kiros Louk, had spent time in both Slenna and Romos before each had fallen to Jorqel over the past eight years.  He had been absent for a year and a half, but now, like some half remembered dream, had returned.  “Indeed, sire.  I have brought you news.”

Jorqel slowly sat in another empty chair and gestured with his hand for the man to continue.

“Nikos Duras is alive and well in Tybar lands.”

“As I thought, that canine!  Where is he?”

“Nowhere and everywhere,” Louk said enigmatically.  “The Tybar recognise his value in undermining your rule here and have allowed him to wander the frontier recruiting bandits, brigands and displaced people, all of whom have no love or affinity for either you or the empire.  He appears not to be forming one army, but a general movement designed to spread rebellion and dissent in both Lodria and Bathenia.”

Jorqel gritted his teeth.  “How is it that every time we try to make matters better here, a Duras works as hard to undo it?  What foul powers are protecting those
krolls
?  So they are in Tybar lands?”  

Kiros nodded, lacing his fingers.  “The Tybar do not have the manpower to guard their frontiers effectively, so these – irregulars – do the job satisfactorily.  My belief is that the Tybar tribes are busy further west and north in Amria and beyond Izaras.  There is something disturbing them further west.  What that is I do not know, but the people I spoke to expressed a real fear of whatever it was.”