|Damaris Kemp, "The Phoenix"|
The harbor was no place for children.
Thick smoke clogged the air as the particles of pollution settled and collected in the form of slag coating the ground. The massive storm with its great quantities of rain should have been enough to wash any other port clean, but here in the harbor, it only made the muck worse. Wizened, reeking people of every shape and size, all discolored to a uniform, pallid grey, shoved and shuffled their way up narrow alleys and docks. Not even the wide, bold flounces of the nocturnal women could rescue their lack of appeal—but it didn't stop them from trying.
A creaking ship pulled into the sloop, and its crew disembarked.
"Get what ye can, lads," barked the captain. "We've a mighty haul and a long voyage ahead of us. No tellin' how long it might be till the next chance to enjoy ourselves."
The crew dispersed eagerly. A few joined the crowd pressed around the booth where the Illusionist sat. She said not a word as flashing images poured out of her fingertips, twisting and galloping to vanish among the crowd.
Glinting eyes regarded the scene from a high vantage point. A small body curled in a crevice as the gaze found its mark. Slowly, the nimble feet scurried down the side of the wall. Quick as a spark Damaris moved, hovering here, only to vanish and reappear somewhere quite different. Each movement brought him closer to his goal.
He slipped in the empty spaces between people. They might skid a little on the slick ground, but not he; his feet found the secure spots amid the muck. Damaris glided among them like smoke, his eyes focused on hunting out money belts or pouches. The ones who knew the harbor held their pouches clutched in their hands; the ones hanging too low on the belts were also not good to grab, because the mark would miss the weight. The chink of a coin caught his ear. He glanced forward, and saw a large man just digging coins out of his purse. Damaris scurried forward. As the hand holding the purse came down toward the low-slung pocket, deft hands intercepted it, subtly dropping a rock exactly the same size into the sagging mouth, letting the pouch jingle as he did so.
The mark never suspected a thing. Damaris narrowed his body and prepared to waft backward the way he came.
"Oh my!" A voice squawked, as a soft thing impeded his movement.
The mark turned at the noise, saw the tipsy old woman still tilting precariously—and the shameless runt holding his own coin purse.
Damaris felt the coldness of dread wash over him. Of all the dandies in the audience, he had to pick the pirate as his mark!
The burly man scowled and snapped the boy up by his collar.
"Oy!" He snarled, tossing Damaris in the open before everyone. "Try to steal from me, you scurvy rat?"
Damaris dropped the purse; riches be damned, the only thing he wanted in this moment was to disappear with his skin and his life still intact. He scrambled backward, but thick boots stepped out of the crowd, more crew members advancing in defense of their mate.
Meanwhile, the mark advanced on him, drawing the curved cutlass and brandishing it with expert menace. "People think we pirates is lawless, but ye might be interested to know there be pirate law, too."
Damaris trembled as the boots behind him and the soft tone of the gravelly voice caused him to lose the will to move. The pirate kicked him in the chest, sending him sprawling, and before Damaris could react, the pirate stepped on his arm, pinning him down.
The cutlass flashed in a direct line over his shoulder.
"D'ye know what the penalty is for STEALING?"
The blade swept down... Damaris cringed...
A strange but deafening snap split the air—but Damaris felt no pain, only that every hair on his body stood straight up. The pressure left his shoulder and he heard the cutlass clatter to the ground at the same time he smelled the pungent stench of burning flesh. A thud and a puff of dust resounded beside him. Damaris opened his eyes to behold the glassy, empty, terror-stricken visage of the pirate, arm still outstretched to deliver the severing blow. Damaris scrambled back as the pirates surged forward to inspect their fallen comrade.
One of them looked straight at the terrified boy.
"He's dead!" He announced.
"I didn't do it!" Damaris squealed the words before he could stop himself.
Denial only fueled the accusation.
"Sure ya did! Yer one o' Them, ain't ye!"
"Thief! Thief—and a MURDERER!"
Damaris didn't know what they referred to—only that he needed to leave. He jumped to his feet like a spooked rabbit and scurried off down the road, hearing the shouts of the pirate crew behind him.
No matter how he tried, he knew he would never get anyone to believe the truth about the pirate's death. In the briefest flutter of his eyelids, Damaris (though he wondered if he imagined it, himself) had actually seen the miracle that had killed the pirate and saved his life:
A bolt of lightning, out of a clear blue sky on a warm summer day.
Damaris shook his head and kept running. After all, the Harbor was no place for children.
Jaran cradled the light-flare in his hand until the energy surge died. His cuffs were just out of reach, and besides, they might be the wrong material. He didn't want to risk doing damage to himself in the attempt to escape.
The young boy in nothing but short trousers and a loose vest—his fellow prisoner—stared at him wide-eyed. Jaran wondered if he'd heard stories from the harbor-thief he'd saved when he first arrived at the harbor, back before he'd really mastered his ability.
Jaran closed his empty hand and leaned back against the cell wall.
He heard the boy's chains clink.
"It was you!" He choked. "You killed the pirate!"
Perhaps he had heard of the incident, then. Jaran opened his eyes. "Killed?" He frowned. "No, you must have heard wrong. The man was still standing when I left; I only meant to make him drop the sword."
The boy shook his head. "No, he was dead, all right. All cooked up inside. You did that?"
Jaran opened his hand, and a tiny spark hopped into the air and disappeared. "Guilty as charged," he quipped, knowing how much his advisers would have groaned at the terrible pun.
The boy stared at him with less awe and more fascination. "You saved my life!" he cried.
Jaran frowned. "No, that can't be," he mused. "I saw the pirates leave the port; they said they burnt the thief alive in his own house." He had felt such remorse at the thought of an innocent boy dying because of something he did, that Jaran nearly considered taking his own life—which was how Erlis found him.
A shudder rippled through the scrawny body. "They did burn my hut," the boy said softly. When he looked up at Jaran, his eyes glowed like they held real tongues of flame in them. "I couldn't get out, I thought I would die—but when I woke, there were ashes all around me, and I had flame inside of me." He opened his hand, and called forth a ball of fire. He grinned to see the older boy flinch backward. "It has been within me ever since."
Jaran tried to be grumpy, but the cuffs restrained his hands at an odd and uncomfortable angle. "Born from the ashes, eh? Rather like a phoenix. What's your name, anyway?" He asked.
"Damaris," the boy answered. "What's yours?"
"Jaran; tell me, Damaris—when they burnt your house, were your parents with you?" The only thing that could make this worse is if the boy had to also witness the demise of his family—not that Jaran knew what that felt like.
Damaris shrugged. "Parents? I doubt if I ever knew them at all. I live alone, picking pockets and stealing from merchants for this half-hearted, mindless shuffle they call 'living.'" He smirked at his cell mate. "How about you?"
Jaran shrugged. "I never knew my parents either. They both died the day after I was born."
Damaris chuckled. "Was your father poisoned and your mother heartbroken?" He shook his head. "Korsan told me that was how King Balwyn and Queen Gracelle died, when the Lost Prince was born. He said the realm lost a great leader that day, and we are left with the power-hungry Royal Council, until the Crown Prince is found."
Jaran snorted. "Maybe it would happen faster if the Lost Prince hadn't managed to get himself thrown in his own dungeon!"
Damaris flinched so hard that a small flame struck the floor and ignited some straw wedged between the flagstones. He quickly stomped it out, but the shock remained on his face. "Are you really the Lost Prince?" When Jaran nodded, Damaris jumped to his feet. "Then what are we waiting for? Wouldn't that make you the Crown Prince as well?"
Jaran shook his head. "I am Prince Jaran Seramis, that is true; but I highly doubt I am this legendary Crown Prince meant to overthrow the Twin Regents. I can only guess that he might still be out there somewhere—It's funny," he mused.
"What is?" Damaris was still trying to wrap his head around the idea that he could be unjustly arrested and imprisoned in a dungeon WITH THE FABLED LOST PRINCE OF THE REALM.
Jaran gave a wry grin. "I've lived my whole life thinking I was alone—and just now I discover that I may yet have a brother I know nothing about—oh, and by the way, he's destined to return and reclaim our father's throne!"
"Jaran?" A voice issued out of the emptiness beyond the cell.
The night watch had taken up their posts some time ago. The two young men fell silent and listened intently. The evening torches flickered dimly. Jaran almost wished they had glowlamps down here instead of flame.
"Who's there?" He asked the growing shadows.
The door to their cell creaked open slowly. Damaris could barely make out a roughly human-shaped shadow behind the door.
"We don't have much time," the voice continued softly. "You should probably run while you have the chance."
One Mage and three women gathered in the back of the small dispensary. None of them looked very happy.
Velora swore. "They must have grabbed the kid while we were all fighting; I should have suspected something when the fire stopped coming!"
"It is I who should have been paying attention," Erlis replied mournfully. "I swore to protect Jaran, and then I go and allow sanctuary to the very person hunting him down!" She scowled at her foolishness. "He warned me not to trust her, but like a noble idiot I ignored him—if I had listened, we would have escaped long before the ambush!"
"Her?" Aurelle tilted her head. "You mean the Hunter?"
Erlis nodded. "She appeared in my courtyard, badly wounded; Jaran wanted to leave her unconscious or at most merely set and bandage her wounds," she looked down at her palms, glowing faintly in the daylight. "But in my arrogance I convinced myself that I could heal her instead of bandage her, and that maybe she could be turned to our cause."
Korsan dropped his talisman with a clink. "Instead, she became the beacon to bring all these soldiers to your location!"
"And," Velora added, "she got away!"
Aurelle was still lost in thought. "The peacekeepers know our faces now," she murmured. "There won't be any of us able to get into that castle to stage a rescue."
Erlis looked up. "We may not have to," she mused. "I can use my position as apothecary to make contact with the other healer in the castle; she serves as the bodyguard for the Council's Queen." She glanced at Korsan. "She is Gifted, that much I know. I can only imagine that they must not know of her Gift, or surely she would fall under the Ordinance."
Aurelle snorted. "The Golden Goose? I've heard of her; she's crazy."
"But this healer might be our only chance, since she is Gifted as we are," Korsan pointed out. "And perhaps the..." He faltered, "deranged queen might be just insane enough to become our diversion."
Velora's eyes lit up. "Wait," she said slowly, "what about Harlock?"
Korsan frowned. "Whom?"
Erlis gasped. "You've met Harlock? When? Where?"
Aurelle nodded. "He was—Velora and I met him in the woods, after ambushing a detachment of soldiers. He warned us that the Hunter was coming."
Erlis smoothed the scales on her arm. "He must have seen her in the early hours; that's why he left without saying anything."
Korsan waved his arms impatiently. "Who is Harlock?" He demanded.
"Another Gifted," Velora answered. "He had water manipulation—but the last we saw of him, he didn't seem interested in helping anybody but himself."
"Not to mention that we have no idea where he is now or how to find him, even if he were willing to help us rescue the boys!" Aurelle grumbled.
Erlis glanced at her old friend from the palace. "Korsan, what is it?"
The white-haired Mage had gone very pale and rigid, gaping at Velora with wide eyes. His voice trembled as he asked, "Did—did you just say this young man you met could manipulate water?"
Harlock jerked awake with a snort as the wagon rocked to a stop. He poked his head out from under the tarp.
"Trees?" He cried in confusion. "What—" He twisted this way and that, but there were only trees as far as the eye could see. They were not in the town, but down in the deepest, thickest part of the forest. "Where have you taken me?" He demanded.
The wagoner shrugged. "It's where you needed to go, wasn't it?"
Harlock swore. "I told you I needed a ride into the city!"
The wagoner crossed his arms and stuck out his chin. "Did not either! You said you needed to find something in the forest! I remember it clear as day! 'Sides, what would the likes of me do in a high-faultin' Capitol city? Simple folk like me don't belong in a place like that!" He squinted down his nose at the man. "Now if you don't mind, stranger, I have other business to tend to—business called 'getting home to my family'—and I'll thank you to get your ungrateful arse off my wagon!" He dropped the reins into his lap and crossed his arms like a petulant child. He lifted not a finger until Harlock—with many oaths muttered under his breath—slumped off the back and sauntered to the side.
The driver grinned, snapped up the reins and waved. "Be seeing you!"
Harlock managed to keep from losing his temper until the wagon reached the top of the hill. Just before the driver and his ridiculous hat disappeared, a sudden deluge drenched him right through, though there didn't seem to be a cloud in the sky. Then the wagon was gone, and Harlock stood alone.
"All right, Jay!" He growled. "Come on out!"
The fairy slowly crawled her way out of his pocket. By the way she flew in reluctant squiggles, he knew that his suspicions were not mislaid.
"You did this to me!" He jabbed a finger at her. "To us! You messed with the driver's head and convinced him to go south to the forest instead of keeping to the north road toward the city!" He was so angry, he stomped his foot and a wellspring of water erupted from the base of the tree he stood under. "Why?" He roared at her. "Why would you do that? Is there something you're not telling me?"
"I have never lied to you, Harlock," Jay tried to defend herself.
"Not to me!" Harlock exploded. "But why are you keeping me from going to the city? Why did we have to leave those Outcasts? Velora said that one of them was a Mage—he might have been able to help me! Those two Outcasts the driver mentioned? One of them had to be Jaran! I could have been there to save them!"
"I am trying to save you, Harlock!"
"That's what you keep saying, but so far, I can't tell!"
"There is something you need," Jay insisted. "Here in the forest."
Harlock folded his arms over his bare chest and shivered. "What I need is a shirt, maybe even a jacket! But no, I have to chase you all over the realm, and you won't ever tell me anything!"
"Please, Harlock; you must trust me!"
"I don't think I can, Jay. You've done enough."
"Harlock." With the one heartfelt knell, Jay flew up to his face, close enough for him to actually make out some of her features. "You must come with me to find the answers you seek. Just this one last time, and I promise to hide nothing from you."
Harlock tried to scowl and stay mad, but she stared at him with such purity and penitence that he couldn't. In one explosive sigh, his anger dissipated. "All right; just this once, and then we are going to the castle to rescue the kid and you will not stop me again!"
"Of course," Jay responded. "Follow me."
She zipped off into the underbrush. Harlock followed her easily—just like he had for as long as he could remember.
Not far from where they had fought, Jay came to stop in a wide clearing that bore the remains of a small village—now heaps of ash and blackened stone. She wandered among them, and Harlock followed.
"What happened to this place?" He mused as she searched various piles of rubble.
"Fire; what else does it look like?" Jay replied. "One building caught and then the rest of them went up in flames." She paused to survey two skeletons, entwined with one another where they died. "While their residents cowered inside the burning rooms," she finished. Finally, she moved to a heap of ash. "Here it is; you'll have to dig for it."
"Here what is?" Harlock grumbled, brushing away the hash to the hard-packed mud below. "How do I know when I've found it?"
"Believe me, you'll know."
As he dug, a slow realization began unfolding in Harlock's mind. He could clearly picture the village as it must have looked before the fire—but at the same time, he could think of no reason on earth why he would visit such a remote place. Was this his childhood home, perhaps? Would he find something that pertained to his life before the boat?
What in the blue blazes would such a thing be doing buried under a heap of ash in the middle of a forest?
Finally, his fingers connected with something hard and slippery. It felt wooden, so it could not be just another rock. He finally dug deep enough to loosen it and pull it out.
In the light of Jay's wings, Harlock could see that the object was a small oaken chest. Being buried had done it no favors, but at least the outside being intact assured him that the chest had done its job of protecting whatever was inside it.
Carefully, Harlock reached inside the locking mechanism and pressed the prongs to release it. The chest flipped open, and the first thing Harlock saw was a thin piece of parchment. It wasn't even really aged; whatever this was, it hadn't been there for long. He opened it to read the message inside.
Keep this safe for my return.
Again, his memory clicked and spluttered, but Harlock could not place it; had he known a man named Beren, once upon a time? The name Korsan sounded familiar—but why?
He reached into the chest and felt something hard and thin. Harlock pulled it out to look at it in the moonlight.
It was a tall circlet, set with jewels. A crown fit for a prince.
"Whose is it?" He asked Jay.
She wavered carefully.
"It belongs to the Crown Prince," she answered.
Harlock smirked. He'd seen the reward posters, he'd heard the rumors. "Well then," he said, dropping the crown into his knapsack, "we'd better head up to the city to return it to him!"
Part 11: "Betrayal">>>>>
Part 11: "Betrayal">>>>>