Azriel shivered. A winter wind blew through his thin shirt and jacket, tossing the material around and chilling him. Wisps of snow slithered away from the modest hills of snow that had guarded his balcony door throughout the entirety of winter and hidden from that day’s first, weak spring sun. Despite the cold, Azriel gripped the frigid stone railing tightly. He kept his head turned upward and focused on the stars, ignoring the sheer, sharp drop of Jerrick Hill beneath him. Though the vantage point gave him an eagle’s view of the valley and the edge of Dothan and Heshlon territory, the knowledge of empty air and unseeable boulders far, far below him made his fingers tremble.
He cleared his chilled throat. “As all of you know,” he addressed the twinkling gathering, “the kingdom of Gaulantis has seen many heroes that have earned starhood.” Azriel rather liked the way his voice carried across the chasm and into the sky. He puffed out his chest and stood taller before his ascendant audience. “There was Laban the Great, the first Jerrick king. Oh! And Athalia the First, the Padan who brought the Padan and Jerrick clans together. One of the greatest heroes is my father, King Milcom. But for all the heroes Gaulantis has seen, tonight will mark the beginning of its greatest hero’s journey- a journey to starhood that no one has seen before.” Strands of his shoulder-length hair loosely lashed his face, but he continued to hold fast to the secure railing. “I know some of you earned starhood through healing or through pledging yourselves to the Eldest’s priesthoods.” He tilted his head slightly. “I’ve never understood why those routes are heroic. There’s no danger or fighting or saving people from evil warlocks. Besides, I’m pretty sure joining the priesthoods is illegal.”
He blinked, realizing he’d deviated from his prepared speech. “Anyway, I’ll be taking the warrior’s path. I’m going to be like Laban, the first of my father’s line, and my father.”
A star over the tallest mountain in the mountain range to the East, called the Mouth, grew brighter as he paused. “I’ll be made a King’s Emissary tomorrow.” His soft voice was carried away by the wind. “Father’s holding a feast for me tonight to celebrate, and I know he’s been preparing a great speech to say in front of the clans. At Ben Gurion’s King Emissary banquet, Father told everyone about his strength and true Jerrick resolve. I-I’m sure he’ll say something about the glory I’ll bring him and the kingdom.” He nodded curtly to himself. “Yes, that’s what he’ll say! He’ll talk about how I’ll lead his knights into battle and protect our lands from the Rephaim. He’ll say-”
“Azriel, where are you? We mustn’t be late.”
Azriel jumped. “I’m out here, Mother.” He rushed from the balcony back into his room, forgetting his heavenly audience. Her hand was still on the wooden door handle on the inside of his room.
She frowned in concern. “What were you doing out there? It’s too cold to be outside without a coat.” She crossed the room, her heavy skirt brushing the length of his leg, and pulled the balcony door shut. The warmth of the small fire to his left quickly penetrated the cold he’d let in.
“Sorry, Mother.” Azriel hung his head. He hated to make her unhappy with him. “I was only talking with the heroes in the stars. I was-”
“That is no excuse for going out in the cold. What if you’d gotten sick?” Briskly, she closed the heavy drapes and covered the balcony door. Next time, talk to them through the window. I’m sure they’ll still hear you.” She put a hand on his back and gently pushed him toward the fireplace where, behind the grate, the fire eagerly consumed the resilient cores of the charred, flaky logs.
She knelt in front of him, her soft blue dress elegantly pooling around her. “Will you do that next time?” Azriel kept his eyes moving in an arc around her, rotating between the painting of Ramoth over the mantle, his book-covered desk between the fireplace and balcony, and his wardrobe to the right side of the hearth. She sighed with an unbecoming frown. Lightly grasping his chin, she gave him a warm smile. “What were you telling the stars this time, Little One?” Her smile widened as he finally met her eyes.
Azriel beamed. Life was always better when his mother was happy. “I was giving them a brief history of Gaulantis. I wanted to remind them of the legacy of our heroes, and I was telling them how I am going to be better than them all!”
“Is that so? Did you have a grand speech prepared?” She chuckled as he nodded enthusiastically. “I’d love to hear it.”
“Well, it would go something like this.” He stepped out of her reach and assumed the position his father’s advisors would take when they counselled him; with one hand holding the fold of his coat at chest-level and the other held in the air as if he held a wine glass, Azriel cleared his throat.
“The kingdom of Gaulantis has had many heroes. From Laban the First to Athalia the Great.” His mother snorted in a rare unladylike moment. “Oh! I didn’t mean that. I meant Laban the Great and Athalia . . .” Azriel slumped, his face hot, as she laughed. “It sounded much better before.” He spoke to his toes quietly. She gathered him in her arms, squeezing him tight. Her hug and flowery scent calmed him.
“I’m sure it did.” She kissed his forehead as she stood. “Hurry and get your coat. We mustn’t be late to your birthday celebration.” Azriel raced to his wardrobe without waiting for her to finish and pulled down his thin, formal red dress coat that matched his vest. He put it on as he headed to the door that led to the corridor. Tonight was the start to his journey toward herodom and starhood. He had never been late in his dreams; he did not intend to be late now.
After struggling with the second sleeve for a moment, he opened the door and ran out.
He flailed in the blackness, becoming entangled in unseen tentacles. His cry for help was muffled. Was he in a dream? No, he must be in the binding magics of a warlock that intended to kidnap him. How was he-
Several pairs of hands grasped him and pulled him free. He blinked in the sudden bright torch light of the corridor. He looked every which way for the magical enemy. “Forgive me, Your Highness.” A young woman, dressed in black Inquisitor robes, smirked at him. “I seem to have gotten in your way.”
“Yes, you have.” The iceness of his mother’s voice sent a chill down his spine. “You best be more careful.”
The Inquisitor’s smirk stayed, her purple eyes glinting strangely. She inclined her head. “I am at your command, as always, my Queen.” She bent to pick up a small notebook that was at her feet. She quickly slid it into the depths of her robes. Azriel didn’t envy the darkness that little book was now lost in.
“Go on, Azriel.” His mother pushed him down the hall in the direction of the banquet hall. Even though she was shorter than the Inquisitor, she looked down her nose at her, her jaw stiff.
Rushing down the corridor, the red and gold tapestries of the Jerrick clan that lined most of the halls in the castle flashed by him. Standard after standard and depiction after depiction of Jerrick heroism imprinted on his mind, the images and colors and unidentifiable emotions swirling into an incomprehensible blur. Maybe, if he went a little faster, the blur would become nothing. Heroes did not let feelings get to them. Neither would he. The stone walls echoed the pounding of his feet, chasing him relentlessly.
Reaching an alcove at the end of a hallway, Azriel checked to make sure his mother was still behind him. She floated down the hallway in her regal blue dress, a snowflake amidst the flame. As a looming shadow behind her, the Inquisitor stalked smoothly. With poise, the queen avoided the reach of the encroaching red and gold, but her shadow threatened to envelope what the flames couldn’t reach. He stepped toward her but stopped. The banquet hall was the other way. Azriel ran a hand through his hair, not sure whether to continue on or to protect his mother. Bouncing from foot to foot, he waited for them to reach him, contenting himself with some type of movement. When they did, he took off down the next corridor and bounced again at the end of it only to dash away when his mother and her companion arrived. This pattern continued until they reached the banquet hall.
Azriel stopped short in front of the large set of double doors. The clamor of those on the other side penetrated the thick doors. A coldness originating from his heart spread through him. His fingers were heavy. His ears turned to cotton. The pumping of his heart failed to rouse his stiffened body to run back to his balcony, where standing over the cliff seemed safer than what awaited in the banquet hall.
Since the time of Laban the Great, all sons of Jerrick lords served as a King’s Emissary at the age of twelve. Though, in more recent years, some had served as Emissary Squire’s instead, a lesser honor. Once selected, a King’s Emissary would then spend several years travelling around the kingdom with specially selected Squires, acting as the king’s voice. He and Ben Gurion, as the king’s sons, were expected to serve as King’s Emissaries for three years as every prince since Laban the Great had done. Azriel had looked forward to this day for a long time. Tonight, he would celebrate his birth, his new rank, and the beginning of his heroic journey. It was the day he would start to follow in his father’s footsteps. What if he failed?
“Are you nervous, Little One?”
Azriel’s heart leapt in his chest. Somehow, he’d missed the tell-tale clicking of her shoes. She soothingly caressed his shoulder-length hair, though her movements were stiff. The Inquisitor stood several paces back between two torches.
“A little.” Looking down at his shuffling, finally mobile feet, he hid his face behind his hair. He slowly dragged the edge of his shoe along the mortar between two stones in front of him. “Do you think I’m too thin?”
Her fingers tugged at his chin, prompting him to meet her purse-lipped expression. “Who said that?”
Azriel flinched. “Fa- Uncle Laban said the clan lords would question him.” He stared at the door behind her.
Her thin eyebrows drew close together and her pursed lips turned white. “You are just the way you should be. You are my perfect little boy.” The queen tucked a loose piece of her brown hair into a hairpin irritatedly. “I am proud of you and that’s all that matters. Understood?” She continued to hold his chin gently until he nodded. She smiled softly and touched her forehead to his. Her blue-grey eyes were a little fuzzy due to their closeness. “Now, I want you to enjoy yourself tonight, alright? This is your special night.”
Azriel smiled a little and nodded, relieved that the cold was dissipating thanks to her touch and encouragement. Taking his hand in hers, she stood and pulled him into the banquet hall.
The last of the coldness in his body disappeared as he entered the intensely lit and roasting banquet hall. Candles decorated every corner and ledge. Wax was already dribbling down theirs side. Four large fireplaces, two on one side of the room and two across from them, danced happily upon their generous wooden nests. The grey-silver tableware reflected the light, increasing the brightness of the room. In this light, the hall couldn’t be far off from what a wizard’s legendary Deep Fire sanctuary must look like. The sanctuaries were sacred places for wizard kind. It was where the sun at the core of the earth came closest to the surface. The tale of Abram, an ancient wizard of the Thyatira wizard bloodline, described them as massive, cavernous places of reverement where a wizard could manipulate the power of the Deep Fire to their own use and discover dragon egg nests. An Inquisitor who’d tracked a witch to one of these sanctuaries reported to his father that it was so hot, the earth continuously cracked and fissured, and these fissures were filled with the sun’s liquid heat.
It was certainly hot enough here to be a Deep Fire sanctuary. Adding to the heat of the fires was a large, milling crowd of various clan members. They stood around the food-laden tables, talking at various levels of vivacity with their immediate companions. Most of the hall was occupied with the men and women of the Efron and Jerrick clans who were more than prone to boisterous outbursts of laughter, rowdy shoving and back-slapping, yelling, and lively hand-waving. The four boars prepared for this feast sweated among them, nervous that vigorous conversation would mean vigorous consumption.
Azriel and his mother came close enough to the two intermingling clans to catch a single conversation.
“Your grandson’s going to lose his Pit title in the next tournament, Parmashta.” A thickly muscled Jerrick man folded his arms smugly over his chest, his thick, smithing-built muscles bulging. “Prince Ben Gurion will be back then. My own boys’ll be back too.”
“Ah, yes!” An older and taller, lithe man with dark skin and white hair, smiled brilliantly down at the stocky Jerrick, unfazed by the challenge. “Your boy, John, and your sponsor.” He waved his hand as if searching for something in front of his face. “Oh, what’s his name?”
Jeremiah’s leathery face darkened, and his golden eyes thinned. “Gilon.”
“Yes! Gilon! Now, that boy has some skill. Quick for one of your clan. Nearly bested my Gideon several times.”
“He beat Gideon twice, Parmashta.”
Parmashta waved his hand again, this time dismissing the comment. “Both technicalities, I’m sure. Not to worry.” He comfortingly patted the stouter man’s shoulder. “He wouldn’t be an Squire for Prince Ben Gurion if he wasn’t, but Gideon is unmatched even among my clan. Only I can best him, which is only right as one should never disrespect their teacher.” Parmashta wagged a finger as if teaching a valuable lesson. “Besides me, only royalty ever stands between him and the title.” Jeremiah seemed about to say something, but Parmashta plowed on. “Even if your boys could defeat Gideon, he likely won’t be at the next tournament as he is to be one of Prince Azriel’s Squires.”
“A shame. Gilon will just have to take the tournament for him.” Jeremiah smirked.
“Ah, no, my friend. Alas, Prince Ben Gurion will take it. He hasn’t lost yet, and I don’t expect he should ever be let to lose.” Jeremiah’s face reddened. If he replied, Azriel was too far away to hear it over the din.
Azriel pulled at his mother’s tight grip, trying to go back. His uncle Abiathar called his enjoyment of going from group to group to hear the stories shared and asking them questions as The Path of the Curious. This name, in part, was due to several of Azriel’s younger cousins tagging along with him, which was both annoying and enjoyable, depending on how helpful they were to his purpose.
His mother’s grip tightened as Azriel tried to pull away. As she continued to pull him through a less populated area of the hall, the smell of sweet meat, rolls, and other delicious foods filled his senses. These foods covered the two long tables that stood perpendicular to the dais at the front of the room.
Movement to the left of the dais caught Azriel’s attention. A half dozen Gaulantis clan nobles chatted among each other as they glowered at the loud Jerricks and Efrons. The Gaulantis wore vests and long, fashionable riding coats. The three men kept their hair short, while the women wore their thick hair in long tails at the back of their heads. Unlike the Jerricks in their thicker jackets, the people of this clan had no sheen of sweat. They were perfect and beautiful. Which made sense as they were a true wizard bloodline. He’d heard they secretly used magic to keep themselves young. The three Inquisitors, who stood behind the group, assigned to watch over the members of the Gaulantis clan never varied from their task, seeming set on being the ones to discover if the rumor was true.
However, one among the Gaulantis seemed to be the only one not using this magic. This was his mother’s uncle, Amnor. His face was accentuated with lines that were nonexistent on his fellow clansmen, even ones that had greying hair. The lines were especially prominent around his eyes and corners of his mouth. An inch or two over his eyebrows was a second pair- two thick indents into his skin, making his glower deeper and fiercer than the others. He still appeared much fairer than members of other clans, but quite an ugly member of his own clan.
The dark wraith-like Inquisitors with the Gaulantis were only a handful of those in attendance. They, like the physical guards, stood along the walls, their eyes skimming over the guests with suspicious squints. Glancing over his shoulder, his mother’s wraith studied Azriel and his mother, her top lip curled and the corners of her mouth twisted up. Stiffening, he looked away.
As he and his mother climbed the stairs onto the dais, Azriel looked around the room again. He caught sight of a few Gilgals with their death-like skin. The legend behind their appearance had been giving him nightmares for years. As the story went, the Gilgal clan used to look like their sister clan, the Thyatira, who had fiery red hair and sun-loved skin, and a strange love of ridiculous hats. The once combined clans were the original inhabitants of the land that now made up the kingdom of Gaulantis. When the Gaulantis clan came and conquered the area, the Gilgals forfeited the tasks the Eldest had set for them to do and followed the Gaulantis. It was said, the Eldest cursed them with an unnatural, near lifeless appearance for their betrayal.
It must be scary to be cursed by a God. Every year when he went to the Gaulantis clan home city, Ramah, it was his goal to ask a Gilgal how it felt to be cursed, but his grandmother distracted him with scary and terrifying pranks. Seeing a chance now, he tried to pull out of his mother’s grasp again, but she held fast.
Resigning himself to simply observing the crowd, he spotted a few Thyatira in their oldly angular, pointed, wide-brimmed hats. Easily spotted over the heads of nearly everyone, a small cluster of Padan stood stoically with their tall wooden poles toward the back of the hall.
Finally, Azriel spotted a friend: Princess Taryn of Sidon, a kingdom of merchant lords. She stood next to her father as he chatted animatedly with a particularly gaunt Gilgal. Her freckled face and green dress stood out amongst the Gilgal purples and Jerrick browns and whites. She and her father made frequent journeys to Gaulantis with their trade caravans and ships throughout the year, and while they were visiting, she spent most of her time with Azriel. Between their adventures in the gardens or castle halls together, and with a few of Uncle Abiathar’s children, he shared his stories with her, and she shared her love of plant life, something he found quite boring.
Taryn gave him a little wave behind her father’s back. Azriel’s face heated. He immediately turned his attention to the rafters. What was he doing? She’d waved at him before. He’d never felt the need to ignore it. Why was this time any different? Confused and guilty, he returned to her, raising his hand, but her father was ushering her away toward another lord. Taryn must be so angry with him. He couldn’t blame her. He’d heard girls could stay angry for years, and, throughout that time, pretend the person who’d made them angry didn’t exist. Hopefully, she wouldn’t do that to him.
“Ho, ho! There’s the birthday boy!” Bounding over to Azriel, Abiathar’s light green eyes sparkled merrily. His two oldest children, Eliora and Shiblon, flanked him with the same sparkle in their eyes. Being three years younger than him, they were Azriel’s most common companions on The Path of the Curious. Dressed in his Warden dress uniform, Abiathar stopped in front of Azriel and raised a fisted hand to his chest, over the Jerrick clan boar insignia, in a salute. “Your Highness!” He emphasized the last syllable as his fist hit his chest. His children mimicked him, their chests puffed out importantly. He could barely hide his grin as his children stifled their giggles.
Azriel couldn’t help laughing. “Stop being silly, all of you!” His cousins’ fell into fits of loud giggles which made him laugh harder. Abiathar grinned toothily at the three of them while his sister frowned. “Besides,” Azriel stood taller when he got control of himself, “you should call me King’s Emissary instead of Your Highness. It is my title now.” He shrugged. “Well, it will be tomorrow.”
“You’re right.” Abiathar crouched, still trying to look serious. “Tell me this, King’s Emissary,” he paused, giving his chin some exaggerated taps, “who was the first King’s Emissary?” Eliora and Shiblon gathered close around them, bending forward eagerly to hear their cousin’s answer.
“That’s easy! It was Arvin, of course. The nephew of Laban the Great. Did you know that he was the only King’s Emissary to not be accompanied by Squires?”
“Really?” Shiblon gawked. “What did he do?”
Eliora rolled her eyes. “Nothing, of course. An Emissary can’t do anything without Squires.”
“That’s not true.” Azriel frowned at her. “I could do all Father’s missions without them.”
The two folded their arms at the same time and fixed him with an eyebrow cocked, quizzical gaze. “Then why do you have them?” Eliora countered. Shiblon affirmed her question with a single nod.
“Because of Arvin!” Azriel waved his free hand at the air next to him as if Arvin stood there with them.
Abiathar pulled his children to his sides. “Why don’t you let Azriel tell the story of Arvin?” He looked down at the both of them. “Remember, we mustn’t ask more questions until the first is answered. Right?” The twins nodded curtly, their movement as identical as their features. Abiathar looked up at Azriel with a wink. “Tell us about Arvin, O great King’s Emissary.”
Azriel chuckled. “Like I said, Arvin was the nephew of Laban. His mission was to warn the Imperial family of the Rephaimian Warlord’s insurrection. Arvin completed his mission and arrived with an Imperial army to assist the Gaulantis forces in the battle of Jashon Pass. To honor his death in the Rephaimian Wars, Laban instigated the King’s Emissary role.” Azriel took a sharp breath and continued. “I’m sure glad I get to have Squires with me. Journeying alone for weeks like Arvin did would be lonely.”
“He died?” Shiblon looked back and forth between Azriel and his father with wide green eyes. “Do King’s Emissaries die? Is Azriel going to die?” Azriel stiffened.
“Of course, my son isn’t going to die.” The queen glared at Shiblon who cowered into his father.
Abiathar’s smile slipped as his jaw tightened. After fixing his sister with a hard look, he turned to his son with a comforting grin. “That’s a good question.” Abiathar shook his head. “There are accidents sometimes but, no, King’s Emissaries don’t die.” He hugged Shiblon to him for a moment. Then he reached out and ruffled Azriel’s hair as he chuckled. “I don’t know how you store all you do in that mind of yours. I bet you’re smarter than the King’s scholars now.” He winked again.
“Of course, he is! They’re buffoons compared to my Azriel. They all are.” The queen hissed quietly, one eye on her Inquisitor that was still close by. Azriel nodded in agreement, trying to remember what buffoons were.
“Ah, Daya, cheerful as always.” Grinning widely, Abiathar stood to embrace his sister.
“This is not the place to, ugh, hug.” Daya stood stiffly; her arms stuck to her sides within his embrace. One hand still gripped Azriel’s hand. She always pretended to be grumpy with her brother, but Azriel knew it was all good fun. “Let go. Now.”
He stepped back, releasing her. “Can you believe little Azriel is twelve? And about to become a King’s Emissary. I can’t believe it!”
Eliora and Shiblon scooted closer to Azriel. She held a hand up to one side of her mouth. “Does your mom not like hugs?”
“Neither can I.” Her hand squeezed Azriel’s painfully. He tried to pull away, but she only clutched harder.
Azriel grimaced. “We hug all the time.”
Abiathar stepped closer to her again, his attention lingered on the inquisitor a moment. “I understand you’re worried, Daya.” His head bowed close to her ear so she could hear his whisper. Azriel attempted to pry her fingers off. They held fast, her knuckles going white. His own knuckles began to ache. Shiblon noticed and tried to help him to no avail.
“It’s not right! My little Azriel shouldn’t be forced into a Jerrick world. He should-”
“Queen Daya.” Eliora pushed between her father and aunt. Placing her hands on her hips, she glared at her. “You’re hurting Azriel’s hand.”
Shocked, his mother released it. Azriel rubbed it tenderly. “I’m sorry, Little One! I didn’t realize-”
“Come on, Azriel. Let’s sit down.” Abiathar lightly guided Azriel away from his mother by the shoulder. He paused to ruffle Eliora’s hair. “Well done. You looked just like your mother.” Eliora giggled and held her head high as she walked with them. Abiathar turned back to Azriel. “Guess who gets the seat of honor.” Forgetting the pain in his hand, Azriel looked at the empty seat to the right of his father’s on the royal dais. They walked behind the chairs set at the royal table toward it.
“Well, it could be Princess Taryn’s father.” Azriel’s mind worked quickly. “He usually has the seat of honor when he visits. Or maybe another clan lord. The Padan leaders aren’t usually here, so maybe they might have this seat.”
“Guess again.” Abiathar wiggled his dark brown eyebrows as he always did when he had a surprise. Pulling Azriel to a halt behind the seat of honor, he smiled proudly.
“Oh! It’s me!” Azriel beamed at his uncle.
“Of course it’s you.” Eliora rolled her eyes again. “How could you forget it’s your birthday!” She held out her arms and shrugged, waiting for his explanation.
“Eliora.” Abiathar sternly shook his head.
Her arms immediately dropped, and she looked down. “Sorry, Azriel. I didn’t mean to be mean.”
“That’s alright.” Azriel hadn’t minded. He was disappointed with himself for forgetting the importance of today for even a moment. “I think my tutor told me I’d have the seat of honor yesterday during our lessons, but I wasn’t really listening. He... he can be sort of..."
"Boring?" Uncle Abiathar prompted.
Azriel shrugged. He supposed he should feel guilty for talking badly about his tutor. His mother told him that servants did important work that kept the castle in working order so the royal family could focus on the kingdom. It was hard to believe a boring man like Bohan was important especially since he learned more from his books than his tutor.
"Yes! And sometimes his theories don't make sense.” Azriel made sure his mother was too far away to hear him. Shiblon was standing in front of her chair acting out whatever story he was telling her. Her shoe tapped impatiently. Her Inquisitor had joined another along the wall well behind the table on the dais. “The other day he suggested that..."
Abiathar snored. He leaned heavily on the back of Azriel’s chair, his head nestled on his arm. “Is he asleep?” Azriel looked at Eliora. She smiled mischievously as she shrugged. She crouched and crept under the table. Azriel curiously leaned closer to his snoring uncle. Could someone sleep while standing? Shouldn’t Gwydion have fallen over by now?
Eliora had crawled under the table and wiggled her way onto Azriel’s chair. She now stood next to Azriel, examining him. She held a finger to her lips, “shh!” Abiathar released a startled snore. Azriel and his cousin stood statue still as he readjusted his head’s position on his arm. When he settled in, they relaxed.
Eliora’s mischievous glint returned. She held her fisted hand over her father’s ear, one finger extended. Slowly, she inserted it.
Abiathar shot up and cried, "Basilisk eggs are green!" Azriel and Eliora stumbled back. She fell onto the table and he onto the ground next to his chair, smacking his head against the side of the table.
Uncle Abiathar laughed heartily. He lifted Eliora into his arms and extended a hand to Azriel. “Are you alright?” Azriel nodded, his cheeks a little warm.
As he took his uncle’s hand, his little cousin smacked her father’s chest. “You scared me! I thought you were asleep.” Abiathar chortled.
Azriel rubbed the sore spot on his head. “Once, when I fell asleep during my lessons, I yelled the same thing when I woke up.”
“I know. You told me.” Uncle Abiathar smiled cheekily. Shiblon joined them, pouting a little when he realized he’d missed the fun. His father patted his head comfortingly. He then pulled back Azriel’s chair and motioned for him to sit.
Azriel sat slowly, like he had seen the Bishop reverently do on worship days. Special days, like today, deserved reverence. Azriel smiled proudly at his mother, who settled into the chair on the other side of his father’s. She grinned back.
Abiathar squatted next to him, his daughter still in his arms and Shiblon squeezing his way in. “Tonight we honor the hero you’ll become, Azriel.” Uncle Abiathar often let Azriel join him and his children as he performed his duties as Warden. During these times, Azriel told them everything. Abiathar would listen and not get angry, like his mother would sometimes. Azriel would tell them about the stories he had read, his dreams to be a hero in the stars, and things he would never tell his mother, like finding Princess Taryn’s love of plants strange. Sometimes, they even ran around the castle or at Abiathar’s home pretending they were the heroes of a fabled adventure.
Abiathar placed a hand on Azriel’s arm. “You’re going to be better than even Abram and Athalia. I know you are.” Azriel sat taller under his uncle’s proud gaze. His cheeks hurt; he was grinning so wide.
Azriel slouched, running his hand through his hair nervously. He turned slightly, his eyes barely peeking over the chair. The man stood with his hands behind his back, looking at the same time as a scholar studying a fragile scroll and a stern judge.
“Ah! Hello, Cale.” Abiathar stood and clapped the other man on the shoulder, earning him a pointed stare.
His children raised a fisted hand to their chest. “General Cale.”
Eyes rolling slowly closed, Cale raised a hand to the bridge of his nose. “Little Abiathars.”
Shiblon stepped forward. “My name’s Shiblon actually.” He pointed up at his sister. “That’s my-”
“Warden, you should leave your children with your wife.”
“She’s got her hands full with the other ten. Besides, they’ve gotten quite-” Abiathar chortled when Cale raised an impatient hand. “Come on, kids. The feast’s going to start soon.” He led the way to their seats next to his sister.
After releasing a long sigh, Cale turned toward Azriel. Quickly facing forward, Azriel sat stiffly. The chair to Azriel’s right scraped against the stone as it was pulled back.
“Happy birthday, Azriel.” Uncle Cale’s face was set in his usual disdainful frown, putting Azriel on edge.
“Th-thank you, Uncle Cale.” Azriel slouched away from the disagreeable frown, but it had already been turned away from him.
Cale was short even for a Jerrick. But he was not as thick or stocky as Azriel’s father and the youngest royal Jerrick brother, Laban. No Jerrick was as big as Uncle Laban. Cale was thin and had perpetual grey bags under his eyes emphasizing his constant golden glare.
“My lady.” Uncle Cale nodded to Daya. She turned her back on him to speak only to her brother. Her finger circled the top of her slightly warped greyish silver wine goblet. Azriel loved the ring the glass cups in the Ramah made when she did the same movement to them.
Cale finally sat beside Azriel with a short, quiet sigh. Azriel stiffened. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Cale stare hard at the mingling clan lords and ladies below the dais. The room moved about him seeming to turn ever so slowly as the lords and ladies moved from friend to friend and acquaintance to acquaintance, as Inquisitors left their posts to follow a suspect individual, as servants rushed to finish the last of the preparations. Throughout, his fingers rapped. Thunking heavily from pinky to pointer finger, they fell in quick succession. After a short, measured pause, they rapped again. The pacing of the banquet hall matched itself to his direction, pausing between each rap, then hurrying to as his fingers fell. His brow furrowed past its natural crimped state whenever his cadence was disrupted.
“You can stop staring,” Cale grunted. Sucking in a breath, Azriel trained his eyes on a Jerrick woman laughing heartily at something Taryn’s father had said. He held perfectly still, not daring to breath. When the burning of his lungs became too great and when Taryn raised a concerned eyebrow, he emptied his lungs loudly. By the time the burning sensation disappeared, his attention had been drawn again to his uncle’s hand.
Uncle Cale grunted again. “This is going to be a long night.”
“The king should be here by now. Cale, go fetch him.” Still facing her brother, Daya flicked her hand at Cale, who stiffened, his fingers pausing mid-rap. His frown lengthened as he turned his stern stare to the queen’s back. Azriel’s gripped his armrests. His mother had a particular dislike for Cale, but he could not determine why. He had learned a long time ago to not ask her questions about his father’s brothers.
Finally, Uncle Cale inclined his head a little even though she wasn’t looking. “My Lady.” He stood and left through a door behind them.
Once the weight of Uncle Cale’s presence was gone, Azriel beamed out at the throng before him. Abiathar was right. He was going to be greater than all the heroes he read about. Everyone here tonight was going to witness history in the making. His journey to the stars was finally here.
Azriel’s dream faltered when he smelled a familiar waft of alcohol. He ran a hand through his hair again and flattened his back against the chair, unsure if the scent meant Father or Uncle Laban had arrived. Or both.
“Of course, I didn’t forget my son’s birthday, Cale.” The king’s rough voice slurred a little. “This is a very special day!” Azriel stared ahead, a grin slowly spreading. A special day, he mouthed to himself.
The room erupted in whoops and shouts of the king’s name, and Azriel nearly fell off his chair. The Jerrick lords and ladies clapped and called enthusiastically, ignoring all others but their king. Clapping politely, the Gaulantis and Gilgals smiled tightly. Gulping at his heart to stop racing, Azriel clapped along with them.
The large chair between him and his mother was pulled back to allow his father’s thick frame enough room to fit between the table and chair. His blonde hair and beard accentuated his merry red cheeks. He held up his hands joyfully, as if embracing the room as one.
“My lords, ladies. My friends! It is so good to see you all.” His embracing gesture shrunk to enfold the sweaty mass of Jerricks and Efrons that primarily stood between the two long dining tables, as well as the giant Padan. “Thank you all for coming on this special day.” Cheers echoed off the stone walls. The king cast his broad smile upon all his clan and the Efrons. “Let’s get the ale flowing, shall we!” Another loud assent drowned the room. “Enjoy, my friends.” Servants carrying pitchers of ale flooded the room. The king sat with a satisfied grin as his clan members stumbled and bumped into each other in their rush for their mugs. Staring at his father, Azriel willed his father to turn his smile onto him.
“I think you’ve had enough, Your Majesty,” Uncle Cale, who stood behind and between the king’s chair and Azriel’s, waved a servant away from Azriel’s father.
“I don’t care what you think.” The king’s expression darkened. The brothers locked glares; their near identical bronze-gold eyes fought silently. Azriel was not envious of his uncle. He slid as far away as he could on his chair, careful to keep his movement minimal so he would not draw his father’s scowl.
After a moment, Uncle Cale bowed his head tightly. “My Lord.” He returned to his seat. The king briskly waved a servant toward him. He leaned back in his chair and took in the room with a satisfied grin. Azriel scooted closer to him now that the scowl was gone.
“Where’s Laban?” King Milcom frowned over Azriel’s head at the empty chair on the other side of Cale’s chair. Azriel wiggled, trying to raise himself into his father’s line of sight. Just as their eyes met, a servant moved between them to pour ale into the king’s goblet.
“Ah, excellent!” Azriel’s father rubbed his large hands together excitedly. Azriel slouched and glumly watched his father throw back his drink and then hold out his cup for more.
“Laban is unable to attend,” Cale answered.
Thank the Progenitors. Laban would distract his father more and would likely make him forget the customary King’s Emissary speech. The speech in which the king pronounced his trust and blessing upon the new King’s Emissary. It was the beginning of everything. It had to happen.
But since Laban wasn’t here, Azriel was sure his father was purposefully ignoring him. He must be waiting until the speech was delivered to acknowledge him and so make it more special. Yes, that had to be it. He sat up straighter now that he knew what his father’s plan was.
“I knew he wouldn’t be able to drink more than me.” The king grinned into his goblet. “He’s probably drooling in a pile of his own vomit right now.” He threw back his head as he laughed loudly. Azriel rubbed his ear, chuckling along with him. After taking a long sip, his father instructed, “Let’s get my son’s birthday celebration started, shall we? Cale.”
“My Lord.” Cale stood to ask all the nobles to take their seats. Azriel’s father waited until the clamor of chairs stopped to wobble to his feet. He raised his mug to his lips and chugged the rest of its contents. Streams of ale ran down both cheeks into his thick, blonde beard. When he finished, he slammed his mug onto the table, the remnants of ale splashed onto his wife’s dress. She started slightly, then wiped at them discreetly, her lips thin.
“Now that’s good ale.” He grinned lopsidedly. The Jerrick clan showed their agreement by thumping the tables. Several foreigners and other clan leaders grabbed their spilling drinks and held them protectively. A loud belch erupted from King Milcom. His clan responded with a wave of boisterous laughter accented with the giggling of Abiathar’s children. The queen cast her husband a quick glare.
His father held up a hand until the hall quieted. “Today,” the king began, “we celebrate my son’s birthday! I couldn’t be more proud!” Azriel puffed out his chest. He wiggled to sit taller, wishing his feet touched the ground, as the entire hall turned their attention to him. “Even as a newborn babe, I was proud to call him my heir.” Cale stiffened beside Azriel. Heir? “He didn’t get any Gaulantis in him. Thank the gods for that!” He laughed heartily. Some of the Jerrick lords laughed with him, while others weakly chuckled. Amnor’s double eyebrows drew deeply together. “He has never disappointed me. Well, as little as a son can. Every son disappoints their fathers at some point, but Ben Gurion has proven to be a very able son and heir.” Azriel’s gut twisted.
The king turned to the seat of honor. He raised his mug, which a servant had quickly refilled, to Azriel. “Happy bir— wait, where’s Ben?”
Hello, everyone! I hope you enjoyed the first installment of this Path of the Chosen storyline. The stories that take place in the kingdom of Gaulantis are full of adventure and interesting, unique characters as well as cultures, so stick around!
I do want you all to know that these stories are for all of you. I want to give you what you want to read. For example, if you want to know more about the Inquisition or Laban the Great, or if you want to see Abiathar, his kids, and Azriel roleplaying a Gaulantis adventure, I'd love to do that. I have a plot and storyline prepared, but if you all want to spend more time with certain characters, have questions about lore, or want to go to a place that's been mentioned but not visited yet, I will do my best to give that to you. I will provide these through the narrative, so it may take me a few weeks to address them in some cases. But know that these stories are dictated by you and by the Eldest.
Let me know what you want to read more about in the comments!