The son and heir to a noble, Nedim Melchion has always been used to the more illicit pleasures in the high society of the Divine Kingdom of Lis, where laws are harsh and punishments harsher. So far his money and status have protected him from the grim realities of life…but now that the Protectors who police the land have a new leader, life has taken an unwelcome turn for the worse.
What could be more unfashionable for a noble in his prime than being forced to wear a pilgrim brown tunic while trudging through the dangerous mountain kingdom of Methar to pay homage to the Gods at an ancient shrine? Bound to serve by a Rite invoked by his devout older brother, Nedim can do nothing but count the footsteps until he can get back to his friends, his favorite tavern and his decadent ways. But as he and his traveling companions are guided through the land of the love gods by a handsome young monk, will Nedim find reason to change his ways?
The monks had provided so much breakfast that by the time we finally set off, I felt bloated and idle. Mother Kiti had offered Brin some bottles of wine for the journey, which – much to everyone’s disappointment – he had refused. My spirits dipped as I contemplated what lay ahead, all of which was to be endured in a condition of unwelcome sobriety. A foot-numbing trudge through a land full of poisonous creatures and mistrustful inhabitants – not to mention the apparently treacherous cavernous pass Brin had neglected to inform us of – to a little-known shrine in the back arse of nowhere, where I would kneel to the Thirteen, none of whom I believed in, and force words of penance I did not mean to spill from my mouth, all in order to satisfy my brother.
It was remarkable how firmly Brin believed that I would return to Lis a changed man – not the same wretch who would, after having visited the holiest of sites, resume drinking and fornicating as I had every intention of doing. Brin’s convictions had always been his strength and his tragedy. He had fully believed the Protectors would welcome him back into the fold right up until the moment they stripped him, held him down and forced the burning brand against his flesh. For a moment I felt sorry for him, but then I stumbled on a stone and wrenched my ankle. When I’d limped off the pain, I trailed sullenly behind the group, cursing my brother once again and feeling more than sorry for myself.
What would they say at the Duck and Swan if they could see me now? Nedim Melchion, heir to the Melchion title and fortune, a desirable bachelor in his prime who had the pick of the most beautiful and discreet women the city had to offer – not to mention the finest wardrobe – now to be seen trudging along behind a donkey on a rocky mountain path sporting muddied leathers and a dismal brown pilgrim’s tunic. The situation could not be any worse. I would be a laughingstock, and would surely not hear the end of jokes about “filthy adventurers” – the travelling, sword-for-hire types upon whom the nobility of Azmara looked down from great heights.
I was no stranger to travel, but even in the most basic surroundings I had always prided myself on maintaining at least a modicum of style and grooming. From what I had learned from others who had undertaken such a journey, it appeared that pilgrims were required to show their devotion by being dirty and unkempt at all times, concerned only with spiritual matters. Taking in the mountain landscape around me, I comforted myself with the thought that at least there were few about who would see me in such a dismal condition.
Lana was striding along at the front with Brin and Kari while Kel led the donkey back down to the bottom of the path, where Matativi’s statue sat staring blindly into the distance, the dagger tucked once more behind its back. We turned left onto a narrow path which maintained a gentle downhill trajectory. The air was lush and smelt of rain on pine leaves and the mist had lifted a little, revealing thick forest to the left side and a plunging drop on the other. When the pebbles I kicked went over the edge, their fall was a distant rattle.
Snippets of conversation drifted to my ears over the crunch of my boots and the song of morning birds.
“So you know a little of our language,” Kari was saying to Lana.
“When I was a girl my family employed a nanny who hailed from these parts. She spoke of Methar often and sadly, as if she could never return home. I never really understood why.”
Kari scratched his chin, deep in thought. “Perhaps she was a criminal or an apostate, an outcast. Only the truly desperate among us seek employment in Lis.”
Brin’s hands formed fists, but he said nothing.
Lana tugged at her long braid thoughtfully. “Perhaps. But I do not understand. We also do not favor your God, yet you freely allow us passage through your land.”
Kari seemed to consider Lana’s words for a moment. “There is an old saying here, selire meteen. It means something like look to your own. The affairs and beliefs of outsiders do not concern us. But for those who have turned their backs on our Lady, Methar can be a cold place.”
“Perhaps it is not so different from Lis after all,” Lana said with a sidelong glance at my brother, then began making safer conversation about the beautiful scenery around us and the different birds and beasts she hoped to see on our journey. Thoroughly depressed, I tuned out Lana’s gay chatter and listened to the rush of a nearby stream and the silence of the mountains that loomed all around us.
On a normal day back in Azmara I would not yet have arisen from my bed. The servants would be laying out the finest silks and leathers for me to don before I would indulge in a long and lazy lunch on my balcony, gazing out over the harbor where the trading boats were docked, a hive of colorful activity. When the wind blew in from the east, it would carry the scent of spices and fruit and jasmine. In the evening I would make my way to my private rooms at the Duck and Swan where my friends – men and women like me, heirs to nobles, idle and beautiful and completely lacking in devotion – would be lounging on the plush cushions, eating fat purple grapes from golden bowls. The innkeep would serve the finest smuggled wines and any woman I chose, and then the evening would begin – drinking games, filthy jokes that would have made the Protectors’ ears wither and fall off, culminating in some wholesome bedplay, should the whim seize us. All of which I was supremely talented at, and enjoyed immensely.
The beauty of being born into money meant that as long as I took a few rudimentary precautions, none of Lis’s harsh Immorality laws would ever apply to me. If I’d been a believer, I would have kissed the feet of all thirteen Gods in gratitude for my privilege. The Protectors were powerful, but they did not have enough men to prevent all the land’s sins. To compensate, they employed private citizens as their eyes and ears, and a coin purse slipped into a pocket could render them blind and deaf in no time.
I was so deep in my memories of those wonderful nights at the Duck and Swan that I had not noticed that Kari had fallen into step beside me until he spoke.
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Alex Douglas is an author at Torquere Press.