The experience of the sailor turned to fact before the prince’s eyes, and they made landfall in the port of the city of Goman barely two days after they had fended off the attack of the other ship. The message which had been left for them at them of that encounter, one which promised eventual destruction and death to them all, had been at the forefront of the prince’s mind since the moment he had read it.
Miran had wasted no time in inquiring whether the captain knew anything of the emperor who had been saluted at the end by way of a farewell from the mysterious enemy sailors. However, the captain had closed the discussion almost immediately with the statement that he was not the man to come to with such questions, which seemed to him best answered by those at the court, and therefore the prince should not waste his time asking the wrong people, whilst he was on his way with all speed to the right ones. Complying with the man’s bluntly worded request, Miran had installed himself near the fore of the ship, keeping as well as he could out of the way of the sailors as he silently watched the approach to the harbor.
Almost before the ship the ship was properly tied to the docks, the captain of it was at Miran’s side again, offering assistance.
“Now then, my lord, you’ll be wanting to get off this moment I suppose. Landsmen usually do.-“
It seemed to Miran that the captain intended to take unnecessary time getting to his point, so the prince, whose desire to reach the next moment had become greater with every one that passed, simply cut him and got to the point himself. “I believe you were going to lead me to a man who can take me across the desert. Can you not?”
“Ah yes, that.” The captain replied. Signaling to a crewman to retrieve the prince’s bow and arrows, and to another to make ropes ready, the man turned back to Miran and continued. “I said it before, so I shall do it. I know the man and I’ll take you to him myself in a moment.”
The man was as good as his word, and it was truly only a short time later that Miran was once again equipped with his bow-staff and his bag and standing on firm ground again. In addition to the other things, he had taken with him the note which had been delivered by the enemy shaft, and which was now rolled and resting in the bag among his carving implements.
There they were delayed several minutes, as the boat’s chief sent some of his men for a litter in which to convey the prince to their destination. Miran was at first insulted by the supposed implication that he could not keep up with the others, but the boatman was quick to assure that this was the least of their reasons. As they waited, he explained himself.
“If we were to carry you to my uncle’s house, it would serve to convince him that you are a person of some importance, for remember, he does not know the prince by sight, and to come up to his gate as you are would not convince him you speak the truth. Secondly, by acting this way we can perhaps escape notice from curious people who would hinder us. For litters are an ordinary thing in this country. A bowman with a limp is not, my lord. And here it is now, so please get in.”
The litter was not just a simple stretcher, as Miran had expected it might be, but included a tall frame from which long green curtains had been hung. Having one of the sides rolled up so that he would be able to see, he got into it and turned back to the boatman with a new question. “Would the man not believe you if you said the prince was among you? Does he think you a liar?”
“I assure you, my lord, he does not. But he respects only two things; business and the throne. For you, he will do this for who you say you are. From me he wants only goods.”
Without further delay, Miran consented that they should start, and the four crewmen raised him from the ground as the boat- master went ahead to serve as their guide. The watchman at the harbor gate gave them no trouble, and lowered his head in deference as Miran was carried through. Miran, however, took no notice of this, as he was thoroughly occupied with taking in the sights and sounds of the city which had appeared before him.
The streets visible to him were lined with tightly packed mud- brick buildings of varying heights. The roof of each was flat, and Miran could see that shades had been set up atop several of them. In fact, almost every building also had a shade set up over the doorway, so that no more than two yards of space in the middle of the street was left uncovered. And the noise! Having subsisted in his hermit-like existence almost since he was born, Miran had grown up without an accurate idea of what a city of people would be like to experience. Moments after passing inside the harbor wall, the typical sounds of the city had begun, amplified as they were in his perception by his inexperience, to hit him from all directions. Falling onto his side, he released a cry of pain and tried to cover his ears.
In a moment, his bearers had stopped short as the man guiding them moved alongside the prince. Miran shifted one hand to allow the man a word and said loudly in reply “There is more life here than I can yet bear. Wherever we are going, get me away from this!” Granting his guide but a moment to accept the order, Miran reached up and closed the curtain which he had earlier requested left open. His situation hardly eased by this action, he lay on his back, resting his head on his palms and trying to press his arms against his ears. Closing his eyes, he wished that he had remained on the island.
As his charge began trying to isolate himself, the guide spoke quietly to the four carriers. “Come now, turn this way. Our charge would rather take the quietest way than the shortest.”
The better part of the next hour had passed by the time Miran, who earlier succeeded in dozing off, was awakened by the sudden flash of light caused by his guide’s swift removal of the curtain shading him. The man explained himself without offering an apology. “My lord, we have reached my uncle’s door.”
Miran said nothing in reply immediately, but only threw his arm up to protect himself from the glare coming on him over the other man’s shoulder.
When he was ready to look up, he saw that they had already entered a courtyard bounded by high walls. Looking immediately for the doorway of the house, he saw a servant silently standing there, apparently awaiting orders. Wasting no time, Miran confronted the man.
“Is your master at home?”
The servant’s manner surprised the prince, as the man’s reply, delivered almost casually, was “And who am I to say that he is at home to?”
At this answer, Miran and his guide spoke almost in unison.
“I am the king’s son! Count yourself fortunate I will not tell your master of your manner here.”
“Him you do not know, though he is as he says. But me you have seen more than once, sandal-scraper. Tell your master at once that we are waiting.”
Without so much as a word of apology to either the prince or the master’s kin, the servant disappeared within the house, looking visibly displeased at the necessity of actually doing something at this time.
While they awaited the master’s appearance, Miran and his guide stepped into the shade of the doorway which the disagreeable servant had vacated. A few words from the boat-master sent the crewmen who had been bearing the litter back from whence they came, Leaving Miran and the boat-master alone in the courtyard.
Several anxious moments had passed before a different servant emerged from the depths of the building. This man was perfectly civil, saying simply “If you will follow me, my lords, my master is waiting to see you.”
“Well that is nice of him.” replied the boat-master “And will he rid himself of that other fellow who was guarding the door when we arrived? If I was rich I would more highly of myself than to have such an insult watch my door.”
“The master will do as he wishes. Come along, please. You are keeping him waiting.” The servant turned on his heel and began to walk deeper into the house. The boat-man, however, could not resist the urge to get in the last word.
“And if he knew the man on his doorstep is the heir to the throne, he would be out here to serve us himself. Now take us to him.”
The merchant’s house was a minor maze of rooms, and Miran and his guide were led through several different ones, all richly furnished, before coming to a doorway which opened onto a covered walkway like those in cloisters, which in turn surrounded a vibrant garden in which the master and his family could be seen enjoying the relative mildness of the space in which they sat. The merchant was deep in a thick book, and took no notice of the arrival of his nephew or the prince until the servant had announced them.
“Master, may I present to you your brother’s son, Ledarren. Also a man with him, who calls himself the son of the king.”
Looking up only when the introductions had been made, the merchant snapped his book shut and handed it over to the servant. “Take this to my room.” Turning his face toward his guests, he said “You, my boy, know as well as I do how you deal with me. Come to me with something I can sell, or I will not allow you to stay five more minutes under my roof. As for this man, I know not his face or his name. Who am I to believe that he is the man he calls himself?”
“Well, my uncle, do you believe the word of the lady whom you take in your charge to the capital every month? You know she is of the royal blood. This man, as she surely must have told you once at least, is her brother whom the king desired hidden. He now desires to return to his home with all speed. Knowing that you had charge of his sister, I brought him to you at once. Will you do as he asks or will you incur the wrath of the king?”
Only now rising from his seat, the merchant answered his nephew as if he had been insulted. “You and your crew of wharf-rats have the same charge that I take on, do you not? Of course I know the lady comes from the palace. As for her brother, only you and I have the honor of her confidence concerning him, and that you also know. If this man is the same, he will get home. You, however, will leave my presence now.”
“And it is gladly that I do so.” Retorted the sailor, as he turned on his heel. Offering Miran a salute, he strode out without once looking back at his uncle.
Left alone, Miran faced his host with a sigh. “If you require proof that I am indeed the prince, I am unable to give you any. Your nephew assured me that you would take me at my word on the strength of your respect for my father. Is this true?”
Signaling that a servant should bring them refreshments, the merchant replied “There are no other noblewomen hiring my caravan every month, and neither have I ever set eyes on you before. She has honored me with the knowledge of her purpose, and because of that I knew that the prince would be coming to me before this month had passed. I see her face in you also, and so I have full confidence that you are the prince. As such, my lord, my caravans are at your service.”
By this time, a servant had come alongside them, carrying two chilled drinks on a platter. The nobles each took one, and carrying them, began to walk in the large garden, side by side.
“Have you had, sir, any news of my father or my mother? Whether they are in health or not?”
“I cannot say yea or no, my lord. News cannot travel more than one or two days faster between here and Gaimaron than my own caravan can, and that takes six or seven days if all goes well.”
“But still your news is less stale than mine. Your nephew’s boat came out to me only once in a month, and I did not always care to speak to him. In fact, we did not. I spoke only to my sister, and she did not always come herself.”
“I understand you all too well, my lord. My nephew has never learned respect. As for my lady Miranda, to visit you took a month of her life in the travel alone. She could not come to you often without arousing confusion in the palace.”
“When last I heard, my lord, the king and queen were both still in the world. Come, give me the honor of your presence at my table. I will send word to my drivers that you have come and wish to depart at first light tomorrow.”
“As you wish. If I knew anyone else in the city at all, I would be slow to reject your offer, knowing of your good standing in the eyes of the eyes of my sister.”
Railon dismounted from his horse and mopped his brow with his free left arm, as he held the animal’s reins with the other. Steady on his feet, he simply stood and gazed at the great walls of his brother Torlan’s capital, Gaimaron, a sprawling metropolis which had grown up alongside the river Ishbana in the days of their forefathers deep in the past. Twenty years had passed since he had departed for parts unknown through these same great gates, and Railon thought that he could finally afford to return to his own people now, for surely the mad warlord who had hunted him in years past had by now forgotten that he still lived.
His idleness before the gate was not due exclusively to the hopes and memories which had again risen to mind at the sight of a wall long unseen. The gates had not yet opened for the day, and Railon was in the midst of a line of people who had come toward the city for their own purposes from all directions. Dressed as he was in plain traveler’s garb, he was confident that he would not be recognized by any common man unless he were to introduce himself. Only a few days ago, he had passed through the city of Trevlendair, where he had been surprised to see his brother’s banner flying from the roof of the governor’s villa.
The quiet of the early morning was broken suddenly by the sound of great horns, blown by men stationed in the towers which housed them to watch for any that might toward the city for good or ill. Just as suddenly, in the same moment the gates began to open and the line of people waiting outside assembled themselves to pass through. Railon made no attempt to move any faster than those behind him required, determined to enjoy his return as much as he could. As he was in no great hurry, he simply meandered through the streets observing the life of the city with a curious eye. His brother had turned out a wise king, it seemed. Everywhere Railon looked, there was peace and prosperity, and nary an empty building to be seen.
When two hours had passed since his entrance into the city, Railon began to feel hungry. Fortunately, he found himself within yards of a busy tavern when this feeling came upon him, so, tying his horse to the post in front of the building, he made his way inside, passing several old men enjoying pipes and small talk in the quiet shade of the awning. At this early hour, there was hardly anyone in the place, and Railon was soon refreshing himself with some of the best Gairadane fare he had ever tasted outside the palace itself. On finishing, he took two coins from his bag, set his mug over them so that they were hidden, and walked away. This behavior had been the custom in Gairadane since he had been a young boy, and he cared not whether it had changed; it would be his way.
Having eaten, Railon emerged from the tavern newly resolved to go straight to the palace and meet his brother, for he had twenty years of stories which he no longer wished to keep to himself a moment longer than he felt necessary. There was no need to ask anyone he passed to remind him where the palace stood, for the gilded roof on it stood yards above the surrounding buildings, making it clearly visible to all those walking the streets.
Railon rode slowly until he came to the gate, which stood open. He could not, however, pass through, because the portcullis had not been raised. This was remedied in short order though, as the two men whose task it was to do this began as soon as they became aware of his presence. As they worked, one called out “Who are you, and what business do you have with the palace, traveler?”
Still astride his horse, Railon answered “You, my friend, have good eyes in your head. I am a traveler indeed. Are you old enough to remember the lord Railon? For I am that man, who left for distant places long ago.”
“Aye, my lord. I remember you, who used to spend more time in the taverns than here in the palace. It may be a good thing yet that you did, for the king is not well.”
“The king is not well? Then waste no more of my time. I must see him with all speed!” The moment the barrier had been raised high enough for him to pass through, Railon rode in dismounted, making straight for the doors without another word to the guards, and leaving his horse there for them to attend to. Opening the doors for himself, he soon found himself face to face with a young woman in a dress of pale gold. Seeing immediately that she was no serving-maid, unless Torlan had fallen into such extravagance as that, he stopped and saluted her.
“My lady, I have not seen you before. Froom whence have you come to grace these halls?’
“Neither have I ever seen you before, sir, so I would know the same of you. For my part I come from nowhere but these halls alone. I am the princess Miranda. I wait not for you, but for my brother, who I hope will come soon.”
“Ah, you are the princess, Miranda? And you have a brother? I also come from here, though I left before you had come into the world. I am your father’s brother Railon. I hope he has spoken of me before. The guards say he is not well. Perhaps my arrival will help in his recovery.”
Signaling to a servant, Miranda replied “Yes, my lord uncle Railon. It is true. My father and my mother both are ill, and I know why. He has spoken of you to me, though little but to ask if you had come. He will be glad to see you. This servant will lead you, if you like. I will stay to watch for my brother.”
“Very well, fair and noble niece. I take my leave of you to attend at your father’s side. Be well.” Thus departing Miranda, Railon followed the servant, though he knew the halls of this palace as if he had trod them only yesterday. When at last they had come to the king’s room, the servant stopped and knocked, announcing the visitor.
“Sire, a man who calls himself your brother Railon has come.”
The voice of an old and tired man answered from within. “My brother, is he? There was only one. Send him in here.”
At this, the servant pushed open the door of the room, and Railon entered. He found Torlan, not lying abed as he had expected, but standing and looking out of the west-most window of his room. He turned at Railon’s entrance, setting on the sill a masterfully carved representation of a mounted warrior and leaving it as if it was something he had no wish to share.
Railon approached his brother with measured steps, giving no sign that he had seen the carving. “Hail, my brother. I know well that I have been away longer than is wise, but I have returned, to travel no more, and I am happy to see that you are yet alive to meet me.”
“Alive I am still, my brother, but perhaps not for long now. Only one thing is keeping me on my legs, and that is a last sight of my son whom I sent away like a coward. If I could have his forgiveness for that, I would pass on in peace.”
Moving to set a hand on Torlan’s shoulder, Railon said “Then there is hope for you yet, I say. I met your daughter in the hall when I arrived. She spoke of waiting for your son.”
As he spoke, Torlan began to make his way past Railon to reach the bed in the center of the room. Noting this, Railon gave him a shoulder to lean on as he walked. “My daughter, Miranda? She saved me from death many times in the years that have passed. She has been the light in these dark days of my queen and I. But I fear she has lost her taste for dying elders and quiet halls. Many times I have called for her and she was not to be found.”
Helping his brother settle himself on the bed, Railon answered “Do not despair, Torlan my brother. I have no doubt that your desert flower thinks always of easing your days. I think you will know this soon. And now, if I may give my respects to the queen?”
“I do not think you could. She wants none but her own maids about her in this state, not till she feels her last day has come. Send your words by Miranda if you must. Surely she visits her mother, even if she leaves her father to fade alone. Bring me that carving I left by the window. You should see it before we part.”
Railon spoke no word in reply. He simply crossed the room twice, carrying back the carving he had seen Torlan holding when he had first entered. Torlan took it from him and displayed it as if Railon had not already gotten a close look. “This is my son to me. Nothing more than a block of wood he has carved to look like any man on a horse. There are many more, and not all riders, but this one is the one I have kept with me to remind me of him. The rest remain with my wife and daughter.”
“It is fine work. It shows his will, and that he has skill he may yet use. It is a good symbol of a son worthy of your name.”
Speaking in sadness rather than anger, Torlan answered “I would have you go now, brother. Your words have done me more ill than good.”
Knowing what it was that Torlan was referring to, Railon respected his wishes and departed the room in silence, giving a military salute to the ailing king as he did so. From the king’s room, he went straight back to the hall where he had first met Miranda. Approaching her where she sat before a small loom which had not been there when first he came, he said “Your father says that your mother will see not see me, but that you may be able to visit her in my stead. If you would convey my respects and good wishes to my lady the queen, I feel that I must go back out into the city. You have great strength to live as you do here. I bid you good day. I shall return on the morrow to see whether your father is any the better for my having come back.”
“Farewell, uncle. Each passing day brings health and cheer closer to these halls. It shall not be long before all is well again.”
“I know that you mean you have sent for your brother to return here. But now you must pray that you have not left it too late to do the good you wish.”
“I know it well, and I pray with all my heart that I have not. Peace be on you till you return.”
“I wish the same to you.” With these words, Railon departed the palace the palace to find lodging for the night in some inn nearby. He gave little thought to the quality of it, for his mind was burdened with the pain his family had been bearing through all the years he had been away. As he lay down on the straw bedding in the poor man’s hostel he had chosen without care, he murmured to himself “I should have returned for them. This is my place, here and now.”