THE PEASANT GIRL
By Anonymous, Eureka, MO
Chapter OneNINE YEARS LATER
“My lord the King . . . a rider from Eae’Marka . . . arrived bearing news . . . a few minutes ago.”
The herald’s halting tones cracked open the silence of the throne room, echoing eerily and reverberating off the marble and plaster walls. The only light that brightened the gloomy hall ached from the cracks in the shuttered windows, painful, orange and forced, like the light from a dying sun.
A single candle burned dimly at the right hand of the King, the flames flickering and dancing like sinister spirits. Unnatural shapes leapt across the walls, illuminating brief snatches of frescoes bearing scenes from the Dancing Days: splashing dolphins; laughing merpeople; beautiful, ethereal wraiths with yellow eyes that glared through the smoke. But the Dancing Days were over, the proof lying in the faded colors and chipped edges of the once insouciant frescoes.
The sickly sweet scent of burning incense assailed the herald’s nose, clogging his sinuses. Sweat coated his palms and his jaw trembled. He wished the King would dismiss him so he could leave this haunted room. It was a tomb, preserving the bones of a once powerful nation, white and wasted by time.
Finally, the King spoke, his voice old and worn, fluttering like a moth upon the ears of the herald.
“What news from Eae’Marka?” he said hoarsely.
“The Jarzac assembly will be here in a matter of hours.”
Was it a question or a statement? The herald couldn’t tell. He remained silent.
A distinct question this time.
“Hours, my King,” the herald affirmed. His head swam with the fumes from the incense. The light from the candle in contrast with the darkness around him burned his eyes.
Finally, the words he was waiting for.
“You may leave.” The King spoke slowly, wearily. The words hit the ground hard, borne down with the weight of their meaning. They were crushed words, defeated words.
The dark, smoky room was defeated.
The hunched old King in the gilt throne was defeated.
The herald fled the room through a side door, the light from the corridor momentarily piercing the smoky gloom of the throne-room for a few brief seconds before the door slammed shut, leaving the old King in darkness once more.
In darkness, and defeat.
King Condell used to be a strong King, a handsome King, a powerful King. His youth had been untroubled and peaceful. But now, as he stood on the very threshold of senility and decline, war advanced threateningly upon him.
Curse those Jarzacs! Condell thought, his feeble hands forming fists. Why couldn’t they have remained with Mavar and King Magran, tyrant though he was? Why couldn’t they have left good enough alone? Why couldn’t they have attacked any of their other neighbors? Why choose Cariden? Cariden had just finished fighting wars with both Nairona and Acbar. Must they fight another so soon?
Condell placed his head in his hands, hunched in his mighty throne, a disturbing paradox: the majestic, gilt throne, seven feet high and wrought with intricate designs . . . and the aged, hunched old King, his beard long and his hair gray, his fingers trembling with a combination nervous anticipation and arthritis.
Cariden was defeated before the war had begun. The long, twelve-year war with Nairona and Acbar had left the country crippled, destitute, dejected. Cariden’s armies were wholly depleted, the few veterans that remained were disheartened and mutinous. The royal coffers were empty. The taxes were heavy. The people were starving.
And now the Jarzacs were upon them, demanding a formidable annual tax in exchange for a peace treaty. In other words: Pay or die. Jarzac needed the money after the long war with Mavar, but Cariden needed the money too.
Cariden simply couldn’t afford to pay the tax. But if Condell refused, Jarzac would attack. Attempting to buy time, he had requested an audience with a Jarzac embassy in order to discuss terms.
But the time had arrived too soon.
Condell could think of no alternative to their ridiculous demands.
He pressed his fist against the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut. The imprint of the orange-framed barred windows burned his eyes.
Cariden had no allies. No funds. Not even a measly ounce patriotic fervor. They were crushed.
His advisors had come up with only one, final alternative to open war with Jarzac: a political marriage with the Jarzac princess, Jayzaree.
Condell was already married. There was no noble in his court of high enough status to marry a princess. That left one person, one person Condell was loathe to force this burden upon. But it seemed he didn’t have a choice any more.
He reached out and gripped a long, knotted rope hanging by his right hand. He closed his eyes tightly before pulling down once sharply. Somewhere distant, the harsh clanging of a bell could be heard. Several seconds later, a servant entered the throne room.
“My lord the King.”
“Summon his royal majesty the Prince,” Condell said through his teeth, not opening his eyes. The side door banged shut with somber finality.
. . .
A few minutes later, the main doors to the throne room were thrust, spilling the glowing, golden light of the rising sun into the gloom of the smoky throne-room. All principal buildings of the capital city of Arc’taveon faced east.
In the doorway stood the Lord Prince Caerus, son of Condell and Mithia, sovereign rulers of Cariden, heir to the throne.
He wore nothing but a loose, white loincloth that trailed to just above his knees and his hair was tousled with sleep, yet his eyes were hard and alert.
Some nerve in Condell’s heart twinged when he saw his son. Even drawn from bed and sleep at the crack of dawn, Caerus was vigilant and ready. He would make a good King of Cariden someday.
Condell had always been proud of his son, proud of his bright mind, proud of his athletic abilities, proud of his handsome face, subtle demeanor, and noble endeavors, and now his heart ached as he saw him standing before him. Some men were born princes, but they would never truly be a Prince. Caerus was a Prince to the core.
That was what worried Condell as he prepared to tell his son of his decision.
Before Condell could say a word, Caerus spoke.
“I will not marry the Jarzac princess, Father,” he announced, his voice cold and clear, his tawny eyes glinting gold in the bright sunlight.
Condell glared at Caerus, suppressing the sudden burst of pleasure at his son’s flawless intuition.
“You don’t have a choice, Caerus,” Condell said coldly.
Caerus chin lifted perceptibly and a muscle worked in his jaw.
“I always have a choice, Father,” he said quietly, his eyes hard.
Condell’s fist slammed down onto the golden arm of his throne.
“You will do this for your country!” he growled.
“How is marrying some . . . stranger a deed for my country?”
Condell leaned forward intently in his chair, speaking fast and low.
“If you do not marry Princess Jayzaree, I will be forced to declare war upon Jarzac! Cariden cannot take another war and come out victorious!”
“Forced, Father?” Caerus said, lifted an eyebrow, a slight smirk playing on his lips. “Forced to declare war on Jarzac? No one can force you to do anything. I know of the tax the Jarzac demands. And I know how you can pay it without forcing me to marry against my will or declaring war. Simply increase the taxes on the people by one or two percent, perhaps even three percent,” Caerus said fixedly, his voice businesslike now. “If you were to tax every Carideen citizen just three percent more, no one will notice the difference, and yet the sum total will be thousands, maybe even millions, more than you could collect otherwise.
“We have defeated Nairona and Acbar. Demand your right as victor to tax their citizens as well. You could easily acquire the necessary sum for the Jarzac King and a surplus each year. Use the surplus to pay off your war debts. When Cariden has risen again, we will break free from under the grip of the Jarzacs and show who is truly the greatest empire in the world.”
Condell clenched his teeth.
“The people are the boiling point, Caerus. If I raise the tax a single neruna it’ll tip them over the edge and we’ll have a full-scale rebellion on our hands. If I want to keep my throne and my head, I can’t make risks like that. And Nairona and Acbar would never agree to pay us. They know how weak the wars left us. They try to start another war, and then look where I’d be! Fighting three nations at once! Defeat would be immediate!”
“We could negotati—”
“Negotiate!” Condell roared. “Blast the negotiations! Do you want to live under the Jarzac’s thumb for the rest of your life, constantly groveling at King Gryphon’s feet? Do you think I want that for you when you ascend the throne? No! It is impossible! I have gone over this time and time again with my advisors. The only option is for a political marriage between you and Princess Jayzaree.”
“No.” Caerus met Condell’s furious gaze evenly.
“You will marry Jayzaree,” Condell growled, gripping the arms of his throne with white fingers. “When the Jarzac embassy arrives in a few hours, you will meet with them and—”
“No,” Caerus said again evenly. “Explore the options, Father! I will not marry some barbaric, foreign monster!”
Condell eyed his son shrewdly.
“I know you better than that, Caerus,” he said. “You don’t hold to such petty prejudices. Why, you almost sound like those Cargan fools up in the north!”
Caerus scowled angrily.
“What are your real reasons, son?”
Caerus broke his gaze with his father. He stared at a fresco of a dolphin as he replied in a low voice, “I don’t want to marry for political reasons.”
“Then for what?” Condell demanded suspiciously. “Don’t tell me actually—”
“Yes, I want to marry someone I actually love,” Caerus said angrily.
Condell laughed aloud and Caerus glared at him.
“Can you not have Cramer marry Jayzaree?” the Prince said, his voice wavering on the edge of pleading.
At the mention of Caerus’s younger brother, Condell merely shook his head.
“Cramer is too young,” he said. “And besides, the Jarzacs would never accept the second-born. I know without asking. You will marry Jayzaree and bring peace between Cariden and Jarzac. You will be the savior of our nation. It’s only right as the first-born.”
For the third time, Caerus looked his father straight in the eyes and said in a cold, flat voice, “No.” Then he turned and walked out of the throne room.
“Caerus,” Condell growled, fully expecting his son to turn around, admit that he was wrong, and say that he would marry Jayzaree and meet with the Jarzac embassy at once. Caerus was that type of boy: prone to fits of rebellious anger, yet always repentant and obedient in the end. Cramer was the opposite: he would meekly obey at first and then grow difficult and disobedient in the end, often refusing flat out to do what was requested of him.
Caerus continued to walk away.
“Caerus!” Condell yelled. His voice echoed off the walls of the throne-room.
The great double doors began to close.
“CAERUS!” screamed Condell. The doors banged shut.
Condell slumped in his chair, rubbing his aching head for a moment before yanking angrily on the bell pull. A servant hurried in.
“Tell the Jarzac embassy I will meet them an hour hence,” growled the King. “Say that I have important matters to discuss . . . matters of political marriage.”
Caerus would come around. He always did in the end.
. . .
Condell flung open the doors of the meeting room. The Jarzac dignitaries sat still and motionless in their chairs, not even raising their eyes to the Cariden King, not even trying to show an ounce of respect. Condell considered them through narrowed eyes. Pompous fools, the lot of them, dressed in rich purple garments embroidered in cloth of silver.
“Do you not stand in the presence of a King?” Condell demanded after a moment.
The lead dignitary (Condell could tell by the pretentious magnificence of his robes) finally turned his eyes appraisingly on the King.
“We stand only before a true King,” the man said. “And a true King would entertain important dignitaries from another country in the throne-room, not some measly hole-in-the-wall meeting place.”
Condell smothered his anger deep within himself, breathing deeply to calm himself.
“I would do exactly so, my Lord, however the palace, and the throne-room specifically, are being completely renovated, and I would never place you in that sort of situation,” he lied smoothly. He longed to fling insults back at these arrogant fools, put them in their place, show them that they weren’t as high and mighty as they liked to think they were. But he couldn’t risk it. Too much was at stake.
“Hmph,” grunted the spokesman. “To business: have you considered our offer?”
The men watched the King carefully. Condell let them wait in rigid silence for a moment before answering. He savored the tension.
“I have considered your offer,” he said slowly. “I have considered your offer, and I regret to inform that I decline. Cariden will not pay Jarzac a peace-tax, no matter the circumstances.”
“Yes, you should regret this unfortunate decis—”
“Because,” Condell continued, cutting off the lead dignitary, “I have come up with a better idea.”
The man paused, a scoff etched across his face.
“Fine then,” he snapped. “Let’s here this ‘better idea.’”
“Political marriage,” Condell said smoothly.
The room was immediately in uproar, the dignitaries all crying aloud in disgust.
The lead speaker’s face was white with fury.
“Do you really intend to suggest that our beloved Princess Jayzaree marry one of your filthy mongrel sons?” he demanded. Condell’s jaw clenched but he held his peace. This moment was critical.
“Where else would you find a better husband for the Princess?” he asked, letting his words sink in. “All of Nairona’s sons are married. Acbar’s only son lies on his deathbed, and if he survives? Well, I understand that even if he survives, he will be in poor health until the day he dies, which, considering his frailty, surely lies in the not-so-distant future. And Mavar? You, my friends, are much to wise as to link yourself to Mavar, your main antagonist, after your understandable and honorable secession. Who else does that leave but Cariden and the Cargans? And what civilized nation would even considered wedding a member of their royal family to a Cargan barbarian?
“True, Cariden is experiencing a slight recession momentarily, and our army is weak from the twelve-year war fought with Nairona and Acbar. But think! Think of how we defeated two countries banded against us! Think how we underwent such an age of laughter and dancing that an entire time period was named the Dancing Days after us! Think how, if this is us at our weakest, how strong truly we are!” Condell held out a hand to encompass the lavish decorations and colorful frescoes decorating the room. This particular meeting room, and not the throne-room, had been chosen for a reason.
“Perhaps you still consider the peace-tax a flawless method of subduing us, passively conquering us, but let me warn you: we will rise again,” Condell continued. “We have always risen again and again will we rise. And if you do not ally yourselves with us permanently through this political marriage now, if you insist on enslaving and tormenting us, when we do rise again, Jarzac will be the first to be crushed!” Condell paused and let the message sink in, scorching the embassy with his burning eyes. But then he softened his tone.”
“My son Caerus,” he said, “is young, and handsome, and strong. Fierce, perhaps, a bit untamed, but what youth isn’t? Every man must have some fire in his blood. I know how you love your Princess. It is a sign of your sincere, dedicated loyalty. And I can assure you that Caerus will be the best husband you can choose for her, the only option you truly have.”
Silence. Condell didn’t break it. He merely stood, watching them take it in. The dignitaries all appeared to be deep in thought.
Finally, the spokesman said, “You have given us much to consider, my lord. We beg a day or two to ponder this unexpected option.”
Condell nodded graciously. “You have as long as you need. You may even return to Jarzac and deliberate with King Gryphon, if you so choose.”
The men gave him their thanks and Condell swept from the room. Once he reached his private chambers, he stood quietly for a moment, and then sank into a chair slowly, pensive yet satisfied. Age had not decayed his abilities as a great orator.
All was saved. He was fairly sure of it. He had sensed a sort of victory towards the end of his speech, he had seen the looks in the eyes of the Jarzac ambassadors. He had no doubt that they would return to Jarzac and try to convince Gryphon to wed Jayzaree to Caerus. In a few years, after the protracted negotiations between the two nations were completed, the wedding bells might be ringing, Cariden might be saved.
If only Caerus would agree to marry her.
Condell pondered this. He called a close servant to him and muttered a few low instructions, then leaned back in his chair, feeling pleased. Love, ha! Caerus would never fall in love. Caerus couldn’t fall in love. Love was for commoners. But Caerus was a Prince.