My second book, The Crown Princess’ Voyage, picks up right where The Gift-Knight’s Quest leaves off. In it, Derek finds that he continues to struggle with cultural identity and sense of belonging, going so far as to request being formally knighted by Chandra instead of just being a gift-knight representing his old homeland. However, there are bigger problems in the world that will not necessarily put his personal struggles on hold, but frame the context in which he will personally struggle for the near future. One of those problems is the growing unrest among the lower classes of Kensrik, and also the middle classes which have the time and energy to create unrest and impose it on people who are more desperate than them. No matter where unrest is coming from, it’s dangerous to have ties to the Kenderleys even in parts of their own empire’s capital, and I sought to illustrate this with a scene that could have gone a lot worse for Derek than it actually did.
“Lord Michael” was a top contributor to The Gift-Knight’s Kickstarter, and paid for the right to make an appearance as a character.
Derek woke up that morning feeling a sort of heightened self-awareness. It was his first morning as Sir Derek, and he wanted to catalogue anything that felt different.
As he brought Gale out of the Palace stable and mounted the horse, he thought the only difference was the clothes. They were neither uncomfortably itchy nor the riding leathers he was used to. The sword, perhaps, was the other thing of note—it was longer and wore differently. It looked like a wonderful ceremonial piece that he hoped never to rely on in the thick of battle.
Derek admitted to himself that he felt no different.
He needed to try his best to feel different, though, because Chandra might press him again if he seemed less than satisfied with life. He forced his anxiousness downward until he could picture a small smooth stone in the pit of his stomach. That was the mass of his unwelcome feelings, segregated from the rest of himself and compressed into a dull ambient discomfort of the gut.
“Well, Gale, up for a trot through the city? Lots to see.” He patted his horse and spoke while waiting for guards to open the Palace gates.
The errand for the day seemed simple enough: ride until he saw a sign that read The Son of the Sun, a pub some ways distant from the Palace. He supposed it wouldn’t do for Lucen to seem too close to the Kenderleys, physically or otherwise. He also thought these meetings of the cabinet, a sort of council, must be rather more fraternal than what he once witnessed in the Plains.
Haggling with dozens of others to pass laws would probably drive one to drink.
He missed the feeling of the road and the wind rushing through his hair; the ride stirred old ghosts for a moment until he needed to slow down for the safety of others. The streets of Bayrock were busy as people went about their daily tasks on foot. Sellers had already set up their shops, and the few that did not already have regular business loudly hawked wares and catches to passersby. There was an all-encompassing odour of fish that one had to live with in such a city. Derek supposed, to be fair, that people living in Bayrock might feel the same way about the smell of manure wafting into the towns of the Plains from nearby farms. He would have enjoyed the crisp mountain air best on his first journey to Kensrik, if he wasn’t in the thick of battle with his own fears.
Indeed, Bayrock was the same hive of people he remembered it to be. No, nobody was rioting in the streets, so Lucen must be doing his job well enough. Derek could not help but notice, in peripheral vision, the glances in his direction. The glances seemed innocently curious back when he was closer to the Palace, but as he rode along, they became shady.
If knights were once highly regarded members of society, that time was nearly gone. Derek was a curiously dressed thing; a gaudy expression of an era almost done, perhaps. It might not be clear to most of them that his title had changed at all. The pieces of conversation snatched by his ears were even less comforting.
“Did you hear about them bringing in Friedrick the other day?”
“Oh, terrible. Beat his son stupid, he did; young man’s on death’s door.”
“Who just figures out to resign from the Army now? Far too late if you ask me.”
“The way I see it, hard to argue with Frieddy. They’re Chandra’s sons now.”
“Yeah. One thing if they got out after the last boss died; that’s when it should’ve been clear…”
“Look at that rider. Who does he think he is…?”
Derek pretended not to hear them. At least they had not yet escalated to direct jeers, or casting stones. He was not about to start anything.
Fortune aligned properly for him on this first part of the journey. First, no angry mob picked a fight; then again, his attire was far removed from that of the hated guards, far more ornate. Second, Lucen was in his office, and had received the message telling him to expect Derek. Gale was tied to a proper post and Derek was let in with little delay.
“There was a strange matter of this letter recently sent to us.” Derek explained. “The Crown Princess wonders if you were aware of anybody liable to send something like this our way.”
Lucen accepted the letter for perusal. He examined the symbol on the broken seal and the calligraphy, his eyes finding nothing that had yet to be noticed.
“This looks quite elaborate, whatever it is. Too serious to be a joke, or it has me fooled; too well-written and phrased to be from just anybody. Somebody paid someone well, yet it doesn’t look like it has a clear purpose. No name or title to the sender? No place to which Chandra was invited…?”
He handed the letter back to Derek. “But if it’s real, Sir Knight—and congratulations—and I know you look out for her welfare more than I: she’s not going to have a pleasant time anywhere else in the world with the attitude I saw the other day.”
“Well, far be it for you to lecture gentry on how to behave.” Derek quipped.
“It’s no light matter you discussed the other day. And the only disappointment is that she acted unusually like how an ordinary person would if the best suggestion given was to legally kick herself out of home. You know her a lot better than that, Prime Minister, probably as well as I do. You know that’s not how she usually is.”
He nodded. “It’s fair, I never saw this before either. I just say it out of concern. People in extraordinary situations can’t survive by just being ordinary. They must rise to life’s challenges.”
“Well, what do you suggest Chandra should do? I hear what people say. I know you must hear more than I have during one short ride here.” Derek put the question to Lucen.
The Prime Minister sighed.
“Does it matter what I suggest in the end? Chandra will do as she sees fit. I would like you to keep this in mind, though: it’s getting more and more difficult for me not to formally ask her to leave, for her safety. You can believe me or not. I might not wholeheartedly trust that invitation, but if the map arrives? It sounds like somewhere she’s welcome to go.” He replied.
“What little I’ve heard makes me want to head off the streets for my own safety, really. What was that about a man named Friedrick?” Derek observed and asked.
“Friedrick and the soldier boy? That should be the least of your worries.” Lucen advised.
“Did you know that two wealthy traders and their wives were found murdered in their beds this morning, and four other families have gone into hiding? The Upper Chamber’s adjourned until the Lords and Ladies can return from hiding; too few sitting members to give anything a fair reading.”
Derek wondered if any of the dead were the other mysterious figures from his knighting, who were on the upper level with Chandra.
“If you’ll excuse me, I’m fighting this undertow of paperwork, and sorry that I know nothing of the letter…” Lucen concluded the meeting.
The meeting was short and fruitless. Derek knew Lucen could not be responsible for the letter, as it didn’t seem like something Lucen would do, but any information would have been helpful. At least Derek could enjoy the ride back to the Palace. He wished that simple pleasure could make him happier.
He hardly felt superior to Chandra for her outburst earlier in the week. It was the sort of display Derek might have put on, not too long ago. And yet, it showed cracks in her façade; her power derived from the perception of emotional balance was waning. Things were likely to get worse, too.
Derek left the short meeting to find that Gale was not tied to the post as expected, nor was the horse gone. Some figures were trying to lead the reluctant horse away.
“Hey!” He called out.
The figures let go of the horse and lined themselves up in Derek’s way. They were rather stout, and not wanting for height.
“Oh, this one yours?” One of them asked.
“We both know he isn’t any of yours.” Derek quipped.
The man took a quick look around.
“‘Ey, lordy? D’you see where you are? Ain’t a palace. Ain’t where you should be.”
Derek let his hand approach the hilt of his sword, gradually, as he talked.
“I should be on the back of that horse.” He said.
“I wouldn’t draw that out,” bellowed a voice, “it’s what they want. Street rules, once you’ve got a weapon out and they don’t, they feel justified. You never know how many more of them are watching.”
Derek let himself look away from the stout men when he saw six guards and heard some hoofs.
The next statement was meant for the would-be horse thieves.
“Let the fancy man back on his horse and he’ll be on his way. And so will you, none the worse for it,” said the man on horseback.
The thieves traded glances at each other, and decided to flee. They liked three against one better than being outnumbered. Besides, Gale had been most uncooperative.
Derek nodded at the mounted man, impressed.
“You’d best get mounted before another group thinks different about it.” The man said, before Derek could begin to thank him.
“Yes, I believe I shall,” Derek said before mounting Gale.
“Has it always been like this?” He added in query.
“This sorry turf was once my home. I’m Lord Michael. Ride with me, fresh knight, and I’ll see you to the Palace.” Lord Michael said, and introduced himself.
They rode slowly, the six guards on foot surrounding them in formation.
“Thank you, Lord Michael. I’m Sir Derek.”
“I know who you are. You’ve been a knight for one eve and part of a morn. I can’t say street wisdom must have been a requirement, though at least you’re fighting fit; not hiding much of a belly under those fresh garments.” Lord Michael smiled.
Derek suppressed a blush. It was good to know that not every stranger who witnessed the knighting had been slain. Embarrassing to meet one, but good that Lord Michael still lived.
“I’m fortunate you haven’t gone into hiding like the others.” Derek observed.
Lord Michael explained. “Some of us went to the country, while others make plans to move into the Palace just to say they never truly fled their home city. I was undecided until one of my guards sighted you. I thought you would get into trouble. As much as I want to spare my own hide, I don’t believe we should just call ourselves noble by birth unless we’re willing to do noble things.”
Derek nodded. “I’ll tell the Crown Princess of this. Ride nowhere else; bring what you have to the Palace.”
There was a moment of silence.
“That’s exactly what I’m doing, Sir Derek. What you see, these six men, the horse and the clothes on my back, that’s all that survived the fire.”