Silently the skyboat lifted into the air. The wind elemental’s hands clasped the hull and pushed the colossus, larger than the largest sea ship, effortlessly up into the clouds. Skysailors stood at their posts; lookout, archers, the navigator and the weather singer who guided the tempest. High above them in the mast flew the princely flag, but on deck, all was quiet.
‘There isn’t any wind,’ Bo said, surprised.
The captain smiled. ‘The tempest sends all the airflow around the ship. Otherwise we’d be blown off the deck when we get up to speed.’
‘Ah, yes.’ Bo felt annoyance at his own rather obvious remark. He turned and with great daring, stared down at the rolling landscape. Forests and castles passed in a blur and to his surprise, he wasn’t even sick in the tempest’s mighty grip.
Their speed was impressive, and two hours after Bo’s arrival in Fantus’s temple, they approached Camp Dirdahn.
‘Smoke ahead!’ the lookout cried.
Officers shouted commands and the embarked troops prepared for battle. Bo and Leudra stood by the railing and watched the dark clouds rising up through the treetops. All seemed quiet on the ground. Bo saw soldiers raking out the smoking remnants of the tents and carrying away the dead and wounded. When the troops noticed the skyboat, they paused in their work and waved excitedly.
The prince leaned over the railing and stared down at the long rows of bodies. ‘What kind of monsters did this? So much devastation, so many victims.’
The young mage nodded. ‘Firebirds.’
Then he saw Ghyll already waiting, with Olle beside him and behind his shoulder Torril with the royal banner lance. The blue-and-silver pennant was stained black, but radiated a clear message.
Bo saw again that fleeting, regretful smile around Leudra’s mouth, and suddenly he understood its reason. Through his position as prince and Ghyll’s cousin in the female line, Leudra was heir presumptive to the throne. Should he have cherished any illusions in the years of Ghyll’s absence, they would all be dispelled now.
The skyboat came to rest above the hillside leading to Camp Dirdahn’s main entrance. The crew threw down the landing nets and a few men climbed down rapidly to fasten the mooring lines.
‘We have arrived, Highness,’ the captain reported finally. ‘Shall I have the chair prepared for you?’
‘What chair?’ Bo said.
The sky captain smiled and pointed to a solid wooden armchair beside the gangway. ‘There it is. Especially for senior passengers and for those who are old or infirm. With it, we can effortlessly lower you to the ground, Adept.’
‘No time,’ Leudra said curtly. ‘We will go down the net.’
‘We?’ Bo protested, but the prince had already gone overboard and climbed down with the agility of a skysailor.
The young mage sighed. He rolled his robe up to his waist and followed him down carefully.
The prince walked to the beckoning banner. His armor gleamed in the sun, his dark brown cloak billowed from his shoulders and his face was stern.
Ghyll watched him approaching, too tired to step forward. He wondered vaguely what impression he made, black-stained and with his face shiny with burn ointment. He had recognized the skyboat’s standard as the Prince of Leudra’s, so this must be Wyllander, his cousin and only blood relative. The regent had described him as an honorable man. First Noble of the kingdom and a powerful lord, yet the prince came to him. Did he know who the King’s Lieutenant was? Bo went beside him, limping slightly. How did he get there? Had he gone for help? Then he wiped all thoughts from his mind and waited.
‘Baron Halwyrd?’ the prince said. ‘I’m Leudra.’
Ghyll looked at the man who was a slightly older image of himself and nodded. ‘Welcome, prince, your arrival is timely.’
Olle’s glance went from one to the other. Suddenly he began to chuckle and Leudra looked at him questioningly.
‘My foster brother, Olle thu Maubyn,’ Ghyll said. ‘He knows me very well.’
‘Apologies, Highness, for a moment I thought I saw double,’ Olle said. ‘This will loosen many tongues.’
‘Let them wag, it’s only temporary,’ Ghyll said. ‘Come to the headquarters tent, we will talk easier there.’
On the way there, they passed a gallows with the battered body of a young man. The expression on his dead face showed his last hours hadn’t been pleasant.
‘A spy,’ Ghyll said through clenched teeth. ‘One of our returning units discovered him in a tree just outside the camp. He carried a spyglass and a sketch of my face. The man was a mentalist, powerful enough to report my arrival. His comrades were hidden deeper into the forest and on his signal sent the firebirds to the camp. They thought to repeat Tinnurad.’ His face twisted. ‘I was present when they questioned him. One of our corporals was a former jailer and knew the tricks of the trade. He and his men weren’t gentle. After an hour, the spy told all he knew. Not that he knew much. Apparently, he was hired for this job only. Still, I… I wanted him to suffer. For Tinnurad, you see.’
The guard at headquarters saluted and held the flap open. This tent was a bit smaller than the one Davall had used. It was the adjutant’s office. Colonel Tovias’ mind had snapped during the attack. He sat outside on the grass, staring into space and crying.
Ghyll lowered himself onto a folding chair and stretched his aching leg in front of him. ‘I am glad you’re here, prince,’ he said. ‘The 6th has been hard-hit. Over three hundred wounded, and as many deaths. Fifty others were unharmed, but their minds couldn’t cope and they broke. General Davall is injured. They had to amputate an arm and he has burns all over his body. How he managed to crawl from his flaming tent is a miracle in itself, but he lives. Colonel Ysweel was killed, and Colonel Timm-…’ for the love of him, Ghyll could not remember the man’s full name.
‘… Raute,’ Olle said.
His foster brother nodded. ‘Timm-Raute was with his men on patrol in the forest when the birds came. He returned swiftly and took command. They were his men who captured the spy.’
‘Baron,’ Leudra began, but then he shook his head. ‘We are alone; let’s stop pretending.’ He knelt on one knee in the sand and offered the hilt of his weapon. ‘Royal Highness, I offer you my sword and my troth.’
Ghyll stared in amazement at the prince. Then he quickly put his hand on the knob of his weapon. ‘Gratefully accepted, Prince of Leudra,’ he said, as he bent over to help the other to his feet. Leudra laid his hand lightly on Ghyll’s forearm and came up smoothly.
‘Welcome back, my cousin and King,’ he said with a smile.
‘The prince is not surprised,’ Olle noted dryly. ‘I think he knows more than we do.’
Leudra chuckled. ‘Your appearance here surprised me, Ghyll, not your existence. When I reached my majority, the regent told me you lived. He wanted to ensure I cherished no illusions about my chances on the throne.’
‘You were disappointed?’ Olle asked casually.
‘No, Maubyn, I wasn’t. House Leudra never cherished ambition for the throne and I was not going to change that.’
Then his face tightened and he clenched his fists. ‘Cousin, your friend the firemage has done his best to explain the urgency of the situation to me. I must confess my imagination fell short. What happened here I never thought possible. What are those monsters that can destroy an army of two thousand men?’
‘They are the same firebirds that turned Tinnurad into a smoldering heap in only hours. We have kept a few, if you want to see them.’
Leudra nodded. ‘Please, I want to be able to recognize the enemy.’ Then he hesitated. ‘Why do you sneak through your own kingdom incognito?’
Ghyll repeated what he had told General Davall. When he had finished, Leudra looked him in the eye.
‘Are you telling me that someone did murder the whole royal family? I mean, there have been rumors, but can you prove it?’
‘Not yet. But I’m not going to rest until I can. As long as nobody knows I am Ghyllander III, I can investigate things reasonably undisturbed. Though I’m afraid my enemies aren’t co-operating. That makes things a bit awkward.’
The prince stared at him. ‘You think this attack was meant for you?’
Ghyll nodded. ‘That spy confirmed it. They knew I was coming and Zino’s presence was an extra incentive.’
‘Prince Zinobad of Opit. He believes there is a connection with the murder of his father and his brother.’
‘Zinobad is here? Where is he?’
‘The crown prince assists with the rebuilding. Anyhow, Timm-Raute has things well in hand now. The subofficers of the Guard are mostly great; without them, the camp would have been lost. It’s their superiors who are incompetent.’
Leudra’s face tightened. ‘I know. The sons of the rich bought most of the Guard posts in Leudra City, in order to dazzle their social circles. The lords of the realm, on the other hand, demand quality for their money. That means you’ll find all the capable officers in the provinces. In Leudra City and Rhidaun-Lorn we get the rest, those who aren’t fit to oversee latrine detail.’
‘One of my friends recently called them fair-weather soldiers. I thought he was joking.’
‘Unfortunately, it’s true. The purpose of this training camp was to better the quality of the officers. We were clearly too late.’
Ghyll thoughtfully tapped his fingers on his knee. ‘The kingdom has no use for fair-weather officers, not any more. Mages and priests have to study for their position, so why should the army be different? This business of buying your ranks must end. Uncle Jadron always spoke strongly against it, and he was right. We need his idea for a military academy. Wylland, you were already working on it. Can you distill your ideas into a proposal?’
‘Cousin, what you’re saying amounts to a revolution in the army. And you want me to take your chestnuts out of the fire?’
Ghyll chuckled. ‘You’re not afraid of a few generals, are you? Should any officers protest too much, I want their names. I have some additional arguments on hand.’
‘Demotion, forced labor, public flogging,’ Olle said grimly. ‘They will probably be sensitive to my suggestions.’
‘Mainal’s Beard, Maubyn, don’t put such ideas into the king’s mind,’ Leudra begged.
‘Oh, he doesn’t have to do it in person. I would be pleased to attend to those resisters. After all, I have no title or fancy reputation to lose.’
‘Now that you remind me of it,’ Ghyll looked thoughtfully at his foster brother. ‘The lordship of Maubyn is most certainly not enough for the king’s brother. Surely we’ll have some nice titles available, a dukedom or something.’
‘What!’ Olle shot up straight. ‘Forget it, you hear!’
‘What must Ghyll forget?’ an amused voice said from the tent opening.
‘Zino, that maniac would make me a duke. Tell him he can’t do that to me.’
The Opitian prince threw his cloak over a chair and sat on it. ‘Ooh, but calling your king a maniac is asking for the most severe punishment, a dukedom at the least.’
‘Ah,’ Olle growled, ‘you’re no use either.’
Ghyll stood up and said, ‘Zino, may I present my maternal cousin, Wyllander Prince of Leudra. Wylland, this is Prince Zinobad of Opit.’
Ghyll’s cousin bowed. ‘Welcome to Leudra, Highness.’
Zino took another good look at the other prince and laughed. ‘There goes your incognito, Ghyll my friend. One look at you two together is enough for the wildest assumptions.’
Ghyll groaned. ‘You too? It is time to leave. Maybe the skyboat can give us a lift back to Leudra City.’
Bo had retreated into a corner of the tent and struggled with the problem of his self-portation to Fantus’ temple. He called up the image of a mana tap. Such a simple thing, he thought. What had he done last time? He gathered some mana and sent it to the imaginary tap. Something in his head did ‘brrt-click’, the same as when he opened a temple portal. Cautiously, he sought the nearest temple. Yes! The tap in his head shivered and a line linked him to a temple portal. He froze and stared at the thin gleaming thread connecting him to the temple of Throm on the Orodauner Plateau to the west. A Green temple… almost guiltily, he broke the link and sank down on one of the boxes that lined the side of the tent.
Ghyll looked at him and said something, but Bo didn’t hear him. This was contrary to everything, he’d been taught. His instructors had repeated it time and again. ‘You can’t connect to portals of other Orders. It’s impossible.’ Now the impossible had happened. A mighty rage welled up in his breast. They’d deceived him! All those grand mages at the Institute had been lying straight-faced. Why? Quickly, he sought Throm’s temple again. Seconds later, he found himself in the Green portal. His cursing shocked the local priest as much as his sudden appearance, but before the man could react, Bo flashed somewhere else.
That evening, the other Companions didn’t see their firemage again. At one point, they heard a door slamming closed. When Ghyll went to look, he found the bedroom Bo shared with Zino, locked. On his call came only a loud snarl for an answer.
In the end, Ghyll had a mattress brought in and the excluded prince spent the night on the floor of the living room.