One: Day of Sorrow
The King of Auroth wept with his people. A cold wind blew off the sea, sweeping south through the city's wide, paved streets. It rattled windows and sent a shiver through the funeral procession winding its way through the city like a huge, multicolored serpent. Leiton Stromsaul, King Leiton now, watched over it from a vantage outside the city. He was surrounded by the mausoleums and tombs of generations of dead men. Kings and nobles, wealthy merchants and pious peasants, they were all interred in the same place. The Last Rest sprawled along the coast, surrounded by short, thick walls topped with iron posts. A city of the dead beside mighty Auroth's thriving metropolis.
Leiton held himself still despite the chill and the cloying, horrible grief still fresh in his heart. The funeral procession was leaving the city gates and it wouldn't do for so many people to see their new king's weakness. Tears were bad enough, but he couldn’t stop them. The Honor Guard came first, mounted and dressed in gleaming plate, led by General Meershen Toiran and the standard bearers. They were two dozen strong, riding in ranks, leading their lord to his grave. The Red Eagle of Auroth flew beside the Golden Hawk of House Stromsaul. Behind the Honor Guard came the Growers' Guild, dressed in velvet and silk of dark brown. The earth where mankind found his food and his final rest. Then came the pall bearers, thirty men in dark greens and blues for the forests and the seas that fed Auroth and protected them. They walked in unison, surrounding the wagon where Leiton's father, Tharon, lay in state. Behind them, a sea of men and women clad in crimson robes, for the blood of the King and his people. They were still pouring out of the city when the Honorguard reached the Last Rest and stood aside to let the procession pass.
"It's time," Elisara said beside him. The princess took Leiton's hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. Leiton smiled at his sister. She wore black for mourning, same as her brother, with a grey veil for the misty place between this life and the next. She smiled back at him, in complete control of herself as always. Leiton found the sadness in her green eyes, deep and dark but well-concealed. Her slim features betrayed not hint of it. She'd been close to their father. Closer than perhaps anyone else. The wind swept her dark hair into her face and he brushed it aside.
"It's too cold for autumn," he said, satisfied that his voice didn't crack. "We're only a week out of summer."
"Small talk about the weather?" She asked, giving him a flat stare. "Is this the time for that, my lord?"
Leiton shook his head. "Nerves," he said. "I'm sorry. And don't call me that. You're still my sister."
"As you wish, sire," she replied. "Come on, the procession is almost to the grave."
Leiton let her lead him down the hill toward the gathering below. People filed in, encircling a modest mausoleum of white marble. There was no gilt or lavish decoration, just a simple carving with Tharon's name and the dates of his life and rule. The king had never been an ostentatious man and his will was strict in what manner of burial he wanted. Leiton had protested it, but as usual his father's wishes overruled him. He smiled to himself at that. He had fond memories of late night arguments, pushing his father to make one decision or another, to let him take the reins of the kingdom as his health failed.
"Soon enough, son," Tharon always said. "Do not saddle yourself with such responsibility before your time. I've a few more months in me. Enjoy your youth before it is gone."
It was gone now, and he was King, but he found himself longing not for freedom and the carefree youth he'd left behind. I just want him back, Leiton thought.
The pall bearers were moving the king's glass coffin off of the wagon when Leiton and Elisara arrived. They were soldiers and noblemen, merchants, priests, peasants. Tharon had picked his own pallbearers, men who he shared something with. Leiton watched them work until one looked up. Hyleth the Kingsward grinned and Leiton couldn't help but grin back. Hyleth was his brother, by nurture if not nature. A broad, muscular man around Leiton's age, he was a commander in Auroth's army. He'd been an orphan, near as anyone could tell, wandering the streets of Auroth, crying and begging for scraps. Elisara was the one who found him on a trip to the market with their nanny. She'd insisted on bringing the poor wretch home and he'd been there ever since.
Hyleth's smile faded and Leiton could see the grief there. He wasn't much for hiding things. His angular features seemed to fold in on themselves, his grey eyes grew misty and he wiped away tears with one large hand. His wild blonde curls were pulled back in a leather tie at the back of his neck and he was clean shaven for the first time in five years. Seeing him in his sorrow brought a sob to Leiton's throat, but he swallowed it and nodded his thanks to the other pallbearers. They lifted the king's coffin and carried it inside the tomb.
"Today, we have gathered to mourn King Tharon Stromsaul and to honor his legacy." An aged priest in the garb of Aneen, god of death, emerged from the crowd. He wore grey robes, loosely tied at the waist with a simple belt, and his head was completely shaved. He placed himself just outside the tomb, beside Leiton and Elisara, and turned to face the gathering. The pallbearers shuffled inside but remained in place. They would not leave until the end of the service. "King Tharon ruled Auroth for forty years after the passing of his father, King Horkar the Brave. His reign was marked by peace and prosperity. He brought about a treaty with Kennor and expanded the kingdom southward, bloodlessly absorbing the Calchindar city-state. At the end of his life, King Tharon's beloved Auroth nearly rivals the Shandar Empire across the continent in wealth and strength. So today we gather also to give thanks to our departed ruler, for a lifetime of work that has made this land great."
A cheer went through the crowd, loud enough that a passerby might mistake the funeral for a celebration. Leiton winced at it. His father's legacy was peace and prosperity. Treaties with Kennor to the west, trade agreements with Polith isle to the north, expansion in the south. He'd passed laws that granted unprecedented privilege and social mobility to the lower classes. But, had he? Other men had done those things at his behest. His generals brought peace, his merchants and ambassadors brought trade and prosperity by his decree. To Leiton, Tharon's legacy was two children who adored him, a ward who worshipped the man rather than the king, and a household full of happy memories.
Elisara squeezed his hand again and Leiton left the bittersweet thoughts behind. He looked out at a sea of faces, many of them openly weeping. He cleared his throat as the first snowflake drifted into view. "The gods teach us many things about death," he said. "Aneen says that the dead live on in another place. Ha'tar tells us the glorious dead join him in his Citadel until the end of time, waiting for the Old Darkness to return. Tolath's priests say that his faithful are gathered to aid him in making thunder and Gunda's followers are taken to a magical realm beneath the seas. My father believed that a man who led a good and just life would find warmth and light when he passed. I hope he has found some of the peace he brought to this realm."
Leiton smiled at Elisara as she stepped forward to take her turn. She spoke passionately about their father, weeping unabashedly when she told stories of their youth and the strength Thoran showed when his wife, their mother, lost her life to sickness. Leiton concentrated on keeping himself composed, focusing on the increasingly heavy snowfall that was already starting to stick to the hair and clothes of the mourners. Kina giving her blessing, he thought. Father always looked for signs from the gods, subtle things to show the right path. He was no soothsayer, but he had always been devout in his belief. Elisara finished her eulogy to a soft, respectful applause and stepped back for the priest to finish his ceremony.
"Your father would be proud if you both today," the priest said before turning back to the gathering. "Our beloved King Tharon has passed from this life to the next. He is survived by his son and heir, King Leiton Stromsaul, his daughter the Princess Elisara, and his kingdom. May we strive each day to live up to his memory."
The priest released the mourners who began the long trek back to the city with much more enthusiasm, likely owing to the unseasonal cold and snow. The pallbearers finally emerged from the tomb as masons stepped in to seal it up. Hyleth spotted Leiton and Elisara immediately and crossed to them. He threw his arms around both and crushed all three of them together.
"How are you holding up?" Elisara asked.
"Me?" Hyleth said. "I'm alright. How are you doing?"
"We're surviving," Elisara replied, taking Leiton's hand again. "Will you join us tonight? We're going to have a small gathering after midnight in his garden."
"I'll be there," Hyleth said. His eyes lingered on Elisara's face too long before he tore his gaze away and faced Leiton. "My King," he said, and bowed.
"Not with you, brother," Leiton said. "Just Leiton to you."
"Never," Hyleth said, grinning. "You wouldn't let me call you Prince Leiton, I'll be damned if I can't call you King."
Leiton rolled his eyes. To most people, being in the presence of a prince or a king was awe-inspiring. For Hyleth, it was a chance to make fun of him somehow. "I should have you banished to keep you from pestering me," Leiton said.
"That's your prerogative now, my lord," Hyleth said and turned back toward Auroth. Leiton sighed.
"You walked right into that," Elisara said, smiling.
"Fair enough," Leiton said, taking her hand. They picked their way through rows of gravestones and tombs toward home, back to a city that felt colder now for more than snow.
Hyleth returned to Auroth alone. People hurried past him on the road, kicking up the fine dusting of snow that covered everything, pulling up the hens of robes and dresses to keep them dry. The Honorguard rode past him single file, the thunder of their hooves muted by the snow they packed on their way. Hyleth kept to the side of the road, lost in thought. What was his place now? He'd been King Tharon's son in all but name. He'd called Leiton his brother as far back as he could recall, but the reason for his life in their household was gone. Maybe it's time to move on, he thought. He could leave the castle, move into the barracks or a home of his own. His pay was good, he could afford something small in the city, maybe meet a nice miller's daughter and settle down. He knew that for a foolish thought the moment it came to him. He'd only ever love one woman and she was beyond his reach. He'd gone to Tharon, ailing on his deathbed, and begged the king to let him court Elisara. Tharon, as always, was kind and stern at the same time.
"You're a good man, son. A great man, maybe, but you cannot have her hand. If I were any other man, I would be proud to give my daughter away to you, but this cannot be." Elisara's duty was to marry well, a man of high nobility to secure her brother's rule and continue the royal line's tradition of branching out into the other highborn families. Hyleth, though Tharon loved him, was not a nobleman. He sighed. So that was it? He'd stay in their home and pine for a woman he could never marry? There must be another option, he thought. He considered asking Ha'tar for guidance, but the god of war was not a counsel to seek for matters of love. Even so, Hyleth fingered the silver sword he wore on his neck. A symbol of Ha'tar, it always seemed to calm him. Indeed, the cold metal shifted his thoughts from Elisara...