Kyen of Avanna stood in the shadow of his own statue.
The statue smiled down, posing with an arm on his sword, with his cloak flared, with a confident lift to his chin. In the shade he cast, the living warrior drooped.
A line of blazing light, curving from one rooftop-studded horizon to the other, split the washed-out sky over the two warriors’ heads. It cast the shadow over Kyen, bleached the cobblestones, and glared off the pale buildings edging the city square. A man in breeches led three horses behind the statue. The clops of hooves on paving stones rang through the empty space. Across the square, another swordsman appeared with two paper-wrapped packets in hand. He ambled up to Kyen’s side.
“Kyen!” Seeing the look on Kyen’s face, his grin faded. “Kyen?”
The clopping of hooves receded.
With a growing scowl, the swordsman waved a hand in front of Kyen’s face. He drew in a great breath. “I said, KYEN!”
A woman with a grain basket on her head cast them a wary glance and hurried on.
Kyen blinked. His stormy gray eyes drifted to the other swordsman. “Oh. Hello, Finn.”
“Don’t you ‘hello’ me. Are you going deaf or what?”
Kyen’s eyes, finding the two packets in Finn’s hands, lit up. “Sandwiches? I’m starving!”
Finn passed him a packet and sat on the statue’s pedestal with a huff. Kyen joined him. Tall, skinny, and black-haired, Kyen cut a sharp contrast next to Finn, a younger, shorter, brawnier redhead.
Kyen ripped the paper off his sandwich and stuffed it into his face.
“I called your name like ten times,” said Finn.
“Yoo ih’?” Kyen asked with his mouth full.
“Yeah, I did.” Finn jerked his sandwich’s paper off. “Right in your ear.”
Kyen swallowed to say—”I’m sorry”—before chomping another bite.
“I think it’s getting worse,” said Finn.
“Wha’s geh’ing worse?”
Finn fixed Kyen with a serious frown.
Kyen stared back, oblivious. “What?”
Finn shook his head and turned his frown on his sandwich.
“You don’t want to go back, do you? Is that it?” Kyen poked the last third of his sandwich into his mouth as one bite.
Kyen chewed while he waited for Finn to say more. When he didn’t, Kyen swallowed and pressed him. “Then what? You’ve been out of sorts all morning.”
“It’s just—trade counsels, treaties, grain accounts, nobles, etiquette, dances—argh!” Finn buried his hands in his red hair. “How am I going to stand it, Kyen?”
” You’re smart. You’ll do great.”
“I’d rather be doing this—” Finn waved his sandwich at the city square; a piece of tomato flopped out and splatted on the paving stones. “Eating sandwiches. Wandering the wilds. Hunting bandits. Living among my people. I’m not… I’m not going to be able to do that anymore once I’m king. It’s the end, Kyen.”
Kyen stooped, picked up the tomato, wiped off the street grit on his pants—most of it—and popped it in his mouth. He chewed thoughtfully.
“You’ll get to be with your father, though, and your sisters.”
Finn snorted. “All ten of them! I know I’m just being stupid, but…” He gazed sullenly at a cart entering the squared. It tottered under its load of hay. “My life is over.”
“Can I?” asked Kyen, staring at Finn’s sandwich.
“I’m not hungry.” Finn passed the sandwich over.
Kyen stuffed the entire half in his mouth and chewed with a look of bliss on his face.
Finn glowered across the city square.
A castle wall of beige sandstone dominated the far side. Two life-sized stone griffins flanked the gatehouse, a square-ish tower with battlements and turrets, where two guards in red livery stood at attention. Above rose the castle keep, an imposing block of a fortress standing several stories high.
Hopping from the pedestal, Finn turned his back on the castle. He started across the square. Kyen, still picking crumbs from his tunic and eating them, hurried after him.
“Eh, Finn? We need to go that way.” Kyen pointed over his shoulder at the castle.
“I know, but I want one last night as a free man.”
“That doesn’t sound like a good idea…” said Kyen. “I promised your father, the king, I’d have you back by sundown. Today!”
“Relax. A day late won’t make any difference. I refuse to end my career as a wanderer without one last hurrah!” Finn brandished a fist at Kyen.
Kyen looked dubious. “Does this mean we’re staying at an inn?”
“Stale bread. Bad ale. Hard beds. Fleas and rats. That’s going to be some hurrah,” said Kyen.
“Not just an inn. Thee inn.”
Finn stopped. At the far end of the square, a pale building with hazel shutters sprawled out in both directions. Wheatberry Inn: read the golden lettering painted beneath a wheat stalk. Beside it, an arch opened into stables where carriages lined up—carriages coming, going, hitching, loading.
“Isn’t this where the grainbarons and nobility stay when they visit your father?” asked Kyen.
Finn grinned and rubbed his hands together.
From the nearest carriage, a footman helped a man of great, velvet-wrapped girth down to the ground. Two young ladies alighted after him; their amber tresses hung in curls, their soft slippers sparkled, the deep poof of their skirts swished. Their whispers and giggles carried over the neighs, clops, and wheel creaks to the two swordsmen.
Kyen froze at the sight of the ladies.
“Time to make my impression,” said Finn.
“No,” said Kyen. “We are not staying here. No.” He turned to leave.
“Kyen.” Finn caught his arm.
“Do you know what those are? They’re princesses!” Kyen said in a fierce whisper.
“That’s the whole point!” Finn whispered back. “I’m set to be coronated after the next harvest. Do you know what happens after that? I have to marry. If I’m not ready to choose, I’m gonna get arranged to some princess I’ve never met. She could be a fiend underneath!”
“Your father”—Kyen wagged a finger at Finn—”charged me to keep an eye on you. I don’t approve of this.”
“I’m just scoping out my options. Nothing more.” Finn smiled and shrugged. He slipped away towards the inn.
“Finn!” Kyen hurried after him. “Finn! Just promise me—if they find out who I am, we’re in big trouble.”
“Relax.” Finn tugged at his tunic and smoothed his hair. “They won’t even notice you.”
He ducked through the doorway before Kyen could get another word in.
With a groan, Kyen slunk in after him.
Subtle conversation, sweet perfume, and savory kitchen scents enclosed the two swordsmen the moment they stepped into the common room. A long table accommodated a montage of patrons: navy, burgundy, cream, and brown silks; swathes of delicate lace; curls of ribbons in cascading ringlets; hats with towering crowns or enormous feathers.
Kyen looked pale.
Finn swaggered up to the innkeeper’s counter. Leaning against it, he rested a hand on the pommel of his sword and surveyed the room. A nearby brunette with rows of bows down her dress looked up at them.
Finn winked at her.
She stiffened and looked away.
Kyen buried his face in his hand.
“One room, please,” Finn said to the innkeeper, setting down a stack of gold coins.
The innkeeper stared. “The charge for a single night is only five coin.”
“Oh. Forgive me.” Finn cleared his throat. “I shouldn’t forget the tip.” He set another stack of coins—this one twice as big—next to the first. “Have our rooms ready by sunset. And a meal. Good man!” Patting the innkeeper on the shoulder, Finn sauntered back out the door.
“Sorry.” Kyen winced at the innkeeper then darted out after Finn.
The innkeeper stared as his door swung closed behind the two swordsmen.
Outside, Finn ambled to the stable archway. He beamed and nodded as a young noblewoman and her handmaiden walked past. The two gave Finn an uncertain look before hurrying away.
Kyen turned his face to the wall as they passed. Once they’d gone, he came up next to Finn.
“Do you realize how ridiculous you’re being?” Kyen asked in an undertone.
“I’m not a war hero like you. I have to compensate with a little extra charisma.” Finn winked at another young lady staring at them through the window of her carriage. Kyen blocked the view of his face with his hand.
“You want my reputation? Take it. Please,” he said. “We’re supposed to be back at your father’s!”
A crash of glass and a muffled scream burst out overhead. Both swordsmen covered their faces as broken shards rained down.
Finn frowned as the last splinter shattered to the ground. “What the—?”
He and Kyen looked up.
The rear half of a lion scrambled through a broken window on the second floor. Its plumed tail snaked in after it.
Kyen and Finn looked at each other.
“That wasn’t just a griffin,” said Finn.
(Continue to Chapter 2 Here!)