Chapter One JURA
Jura imagined it sounded like rain. The steady tap of grains of sand pounding against the glass walls and ceiling was almost musical. The sands were still untamed but she was safe from the dangers of the earth. No, death was more likely to come from inside– and she was late.
Her robes were on backwards. The last several hours plotting what to say and just how she would say it had all been a waste of time. It was doubtful the Thirteen would take the young woman seriously, especially if she wasn’t even capable of dressing herself. The gold and purple stitching on the formal black court robe was only slightly different in the front than the back. Would anyone notice? Jura could feel their eyes watching her, swore she could hear the occasional chuckle thrown in her direction. She wanted to run, she wanted to die from embarrassment right on the spot.
Don’t panic, you don’t have time to change, just breathe. She inhaled sharply, letting her breath slowly leak out between clenched teeth. Had the justice dome always been so tall? She felt dwarfed by the massive walls towering around her. She lifted her thick maiden’s braid as a trail of sweat escaped from the nape of her neck to drip down the stiff collar of her robe. She sidled to a pillar on the least populated side of the dome, and pressed her back against the cool marble.
The members of the Thirteen milled about the concave room, flitting in and out of conversation and tossing distrustful glances at one another. No one else was wearing the traditional court robes and Jura suddenly remembered they were only used on voting day or when foreign diplomats were present. She bit her bottom lip and her blood rushed into her cheeks. Wearing them now proved her inexperience, wearing them backwards showed she was an inexperienced idiot. Her spectacles slid down the bridge of her nose and she sighed as she shoved them back up. Why had she even worn the flaming things? The glasses, not the robes. Although they were both giving her trouble. She scanned the room and noticed that almost all of the Thirteen had arrived, the council meeting would start in a matter of minutes.
If the council didn’t accept her, her house would lose everything.
Kader, Eighth of the Thirteen, was making his rounds with refreshments. The members of the Thirteen took turns serving one another, and Jura was grateful that she didn’t have to add the duties of serving girl to her growing list of anxiety. Kader stopped in front of her to offer water from his silver serving tray. She reached for a glass and was about to bring it to her lips when she became aware of the Eighth’s beady black eyes following her movement. She paused, her hand faltering in mid air. Water was the standard beverage during council meetings. Not only was pure water a nod to the Thirteen’s stature, it was also the most difficult liquid to poison without detection.
Jura rolled the glass in a slow circle, watchful for any residue that might have stuck to the clear goblet as it tilted. Was he watching to see if I will drink it or just curious because I shouldn’t be here? She raised her eyebrows and forced the corner of her lips to tilt upward. Kader inclined his head politely before turning to offer water to another council member. She deliberately set the glass down on the floor beside her. She wouldn’t drink from it, just in case.
There isn’t enough water in the world to make me wear something so scandalous, Jura frowned in response to the woman who had caught her attention. Not only was Denir, Fifth of the Thirteen, flirting prettily, but she wore a low cut golden gown that clung to her figure. She smiled up at Jabir, the Seventh, a tall narrow man in neutral shades of gray with dark curly hair and a devilish gleam in his eye. He leered down at the Fifth.
He’s married, isn’t he? Jura couldn’t remember and honestly, it didn’t seem to matter. She struggled to place a name for a few of the others but couldn’t recall any to mind except that of Ahmar, the Third, and father of her closest friend. He was in deep conversation with a man who seemed impossibly wide for his short stature. The fat man’s jowls quivered as he spoke and he leaned back from the Third nervously, his hand hovered just above his sheathed dagger. It was forbidden to have one’s Arbe in attendance and nearly everyone carried a weapon. The dagger seemed to be the favored choice although Jura noticed a few scimitars and even an assegai strapped to the back of a tall, skinny man in pale yellow robes. Jura fingered the whip holstered at her waist. No one, aside from Kader, had even acknowledged her presence. If she had acted when she first had the thought she might have been able to sneak away before the–
“Daughter of the First, good evening. I almost didn’t see you there, skulking away in the corner as it were.” Velder, Second of the Thirteen, lifted a hand and twisted his fingers into the complicated gesture that signified a greeting as he walked toward her.
“Making a new fashion statement, I see?” He raised his eyebrows.
Jura muffled a groan, of course he’d noticed her fashion faux pas. She grimaced before intertwining her fingers and wriggling her thumbs in reply.
“Councilman Velder. How good to see you.”
“Indeed. And how very odd it is to see you, alone. Where is the First? It’s nearly time to start the session.” The councilman’s long, tapered fingers stroked his thin gray mustache.
This was the moment she’d been dreading. Council meetings were closed to all except the voting members of the Thirteen families, everyone knew that. Jura was not the voting member, her father was, had been for the last twenty years, and now they were stuck with her. Her worst nightmare had come true.
“Yes. I mean, no. That is, the First is…indisposed.”
Velder frowned down at her. “Is that so? His presence is needed to preside over the council meeting.”
“I understand,” she mumbled. Father hated when she mumbled. If he was here he’d have pulled her by the ear and given her a lecture on leadership and her responsibility to the family name. Leaders didn’t mumble. Her fingers flew up to her throat, as if scratching at her tender skin would send the words pouring forth. She just had to spit something out, anything.
Anything but the truth.
“Councilman Velder, the First is–”
“Absent for the second day in a row.” Velder’s dark eyes narrowed. “The people of the Republic can not rule themselves. The First–”
“The First is indisposed!” She had not meant to shout and she lowered her eyes, frowning at her shoes. People would stare.
“He is unwell,” she said in a softer voice. Her tongue darted out to moisten lips gone impossibly dry. She considered drinking Kader’s offered water, even poison was better than this.
“I will judge in his stead.” There. The words were strangled, but she’d said it.
Velder barely concealed his chuckle beneath his hand. “With all due respect the Thirteen would never approve.”
“The Thirteen? Or you?” Velder had never liked her. He didn’t seem to like anyone. Jura bit the inside of her cheek to keep from screaming. Her hands were shaking, so she squeezed them into fists by her sides. She was seventeen years old, hardly a child. She could do this, she had to do this.
Father will never forgive me if I cause the house to lose Rank.
She pushed her dangling spectacles up the length of her nose and glared at the councilman. At least, she thought she was glaring, it felt like she was squinting up at him, and she hoped she appeared stern. She felt ridiculous.
“I am the only heir to house of the First.” He didn’t respond and she took the opportunity to raise her voice and address the room. She flinched when her voice came out as a high pitched squeak. “It is my duty to serve as interim First if my father is incapable. His sickness–” She frowned, correcting herself, “His minor illness has forced me to step forward and fulfill my duty as his heir. Who will oppose this law?”
“Not I,” chimed out Fatima. Jura rewarded her with her best smile. Fatima currently held a low Rank, she was from the House of the Eleventh or Twelfth. Jura could never keep the Rankings of the lower houses straight, they were never stagnant and the bottom three didn’t even have a vote when it came to Rank. The councilwoman probably thought her quick approval would secure her position when the next vote occurred.
“I second it,” Ahmar boomed. He was the Third and father of Amira, Jura’s closest friend. He was her best bet at gaining quick acceptance from the Thirteen. The giant of a man tossed a curious smile in her direction.
Jura hid her sigh of relief behind her grin. His approval was all she needed, the others would all follow.
Velder stepped back, bowing low. His face was apologetic, but his tone dripped with sarcasm as he straightened and said, “Of course I, as a humble servant to the laws of our great Republic, would not have a place to question it. I will, naturally, accept your ruling. It’s such a shame his Greatness is too ill to issue the proclamation himself…” he trailed off, raising a bushy brow.
She let out a sigh and squared her shoulders, glaring up at Velder. This time she was sure it was a glare. If she didn’t appear tough the vultures at court would peck at her. It was only a matter of time before someone discovered her secret.
“The council has spoken.” Thank the Everflame. She shot another smile in the direction of Fatima and Ahmar. “Consider this matter closed and call the council meeting to order.” She brushed past him and hurried up to the dais before he called her bluff.
She struggled to keep her pace normal, the result was an awkward cross between a jog and a shuffle, as she made her way across the dome to her father’s chair. She stumbled into the seat.
It was the duty of the Second to call out the beginning of the session and Velder did so as she straightened in the imposing glass throne meant for her father. Like most of the palace, the massive throne was made entirely out of glass. This late in the day, the setting sun shone through the crystal clear domed ceiling, casting out prisms of pale pink and dusty orange that shone down on her and created a natural spotlight. Jura clasped the seat of the throne, squirming against the rigid glass. She tried to ignore the fact that all eyes were on her. They probably all saw her as a little girl playing dress up. Well, she had more important things to think about. For instance, how was she to lead a meeting she had never attended?
As acting head of council, she was granted four votes. The house in the number two Rank held three votes, the Third house held two votes and the six remaining houses held one. The bottom three council members had no vote at all. The First also had final say on any crimes worthy of a death sentence and in all matters of war. Though they held weekly meetings, the council only voted on the rankings of the council members once a month. Today was not a voting day. At least something was going her way.
The Thirteen seated themselves in a neat row of chairs lined against a long stone table ahead of her and Velder took his position just to the right of her father’s throne. The first citizen was called for judgment. After a few minor issues were judged, Jura began to relax. The session was going smoothly and there were only two citizens left to place judgment.
The first was a complaint between two merchants. One merchant argued the other was poaching on his district by setting up a stand of pottery not far from his own and selling duplicate wares. The other potter argued that his product differed. Jura granted the second merchant a stake of property in a neighboring province but placated him by giving him more property than he’d had before. Easy. Velder called in the final citizen.
“This is Tylak,”Velder sneered. “Citizen of Ish.” His voice dripped with condemnation. Ish was the poorest of the thirteen provinces, probably because its leadership was held by the Thirteenth, a position that was never stable.
Tylak, a slave name and yet he had citizen status. Interested, Jura leaned forward. It was rare for a slave to gain enough wages to purchase his freedom and even rarer for a slave to be granted such freedom from his owner.
“Tylak is charged with thievery,” Velder paused, meeting her eye. “The council suggests execution.”
Jura squeezed her father’s chair so tightly it was a wonder the glass didn’t break off in her hand. It was true that execution was the maximum punishment, but it was seldom carried out. Especially not for a crime as petty as thievery.
“I see,” she whispered.
Velder smiled, revealing teeth stained brown from tobacco.
She cleared her throat. “What did the accused steal?”
“Fire.” He paused, his gaze sweeping over the seated members of council before settling on Jura. “From the Everflame.”
“Is this true?” Jura looked down at the young man, his appearance was unkempt, but he appeared strong rather than haggard. His dark hair was greasy and hung in lank locks over his pale face.
The man shrugged.
Velder’s eyes burned into her. She looked up at him. “What proof stands against the accused?”
“He was captured within the walls of the glass tower, carrying a torch, and he is no Fire Dancer. Where else would he have acquired it? He has stolen Fire from the Everflame and as such has stolen from the Republic. This is unnatural magic at work, this man is clearly dangerous. Not to mandate an immediate execution would make the Republic seem weak.”
Jura understood his implication. The Second was testing her. Pompous, manipulating worm.
If she did not order this man’s execution she would appear weak and she would lose any footing she’d gained today. But how could such a man, how could anyone besides a fire dancer, have done such a thing? Unless… she squeezed the throne tighter to keep her hands from shaking in excitement. After all this time, was she finally being faced with some tangible evidence? What did this man know? She leaned forward.
“Tylak, was it? Tell us how you accomplished such a feat. Answer me truthfully and you will be spared.” She ignored Velder’s glare. Tell me, please.
The young man lifted his face up to her and she resisted the urge to gasp. The man had gray eyes that cut into his chiseled features and smoldered with hate. A pale, jagged scar traced from beneath the corner of left eye down to the edge of his lips. He was beautiful. He was terrifying. Jura swallowed against the massive lump in her throat.
“I didn’t steal anything. But kill me, I don’t care.” He spat at her feet.
Velder backhanded the man and he fell to his knees, head bowed. He said nothing else. “Greatness, his insolence must be punished.”
Jura could not take her eyes off the man. He was dirty and poorly dressed but he didn’t look like a crazed villain. And yet, according to Velder, he was entirely too dangerous to be allowed freedom. A man that could accomplish what this man was accused of was more than just an idle threat to her family’s Rank, he was a threat to the entire Republic. He was also her only chance. What kind of person would dare to steal from the Everflame? Could she really sentence this man to his death? Did she even have a choice? She needed more time.
She nodded. “See that it is done.” The prisoner was escorted from their judgment hall. Jura watched him leave.
“Was that all?” She couldn’t wait to get out of there.
Jura stood up, wishing nothing more than to run to her chambers and tear off the insufferable robes. “Velder, call the session to a close”.
She hurried from the auditorium and was jerked to a stop so quickly her glasses flew from her nose.
“Flames,” She mumbled, stooping down to pick them up. She pulled her arm from the stubborn grasp of her friend Amira.
If the circumstances were different she would have been happy to see the friendly face. Amira was opinionated, tall, and beautiful: she could have befriended anyone in the court. Yet despite her busy social calender she had chosen Jura, who normally preferred to spend her time alone. If not for Amira, Jura would spend all of her free time gardening or reading in her room.
“I thought I saw you enter the judgment halls,” her friend squealed. It was a trait that bothered Jura in most people but on her best friend it was endearing. “Tell me everything! And how did—wait, are your robes on backwards?”
Stalling for time, Jura adjusted the delicate frames of her spectacles and once again perched them on her nose, only to have them slide down the bridge and dangle precariously. She should have left the flaming things in her room.
“What’s going on?” Amira pressed.
Immediately, Jura wanted to tell her. Amira had just returned from a tour with her father. It was the first time the Third had opted to take his daughter along and the two hadn’t had alone time in weeks. There was so much to tell her.
She wanted to fall into Amira’s arms and cry to her that she had just killed the one man who might hold the answers she’d been searching for. That she didn’t want the position she was thrown into, that she was worried for her father.
But she couldn’t tell her anything.
“My father is ill,” she said slowly, working out what information was safe to share. “It was my duty to attend council in his stead.”
Amira’s khol lined eyes widened. “I can’t believe you did that,” she was squealing again. “Well, tell me everything. How was it, what happened? Your father must be on his deathbed to allow you to attend the session.”
Amira had always wanted to attend a session but anytime her father went away on a business trip he’d always chosen her younger brother as his representative. Her eyes narrowed and her lips drew into a pout in the tell tale sign that she was jealous.
“Nothing serious, I’m sure he’ll be back in no time at all. He’ll definitely be back by next week’s meeting.” Jura forced a smile as years of conditioning kicked in. The histories contained countless stories of houses that had fallen simply because they’d thought to confide in a friend. Her father would want this kept a secret.
None of the Thirteen could be trusted. No one could, except maybe Markhim.
Her Arbe stepped up behind her and Jura started at their arrival, still not used to their presence. Unable to attend the meeting, the four bodyguards had been forced to wait outside the Justice Dome’s imposing double doors. They appeared now, a silent towering mass. Grateful for their intrusion, Jura excused herself to flee to her rooms. Amira would have to wait.
She entered her chambers and dismissed her house staff immediately, needing to be alone. She ripped off the robes and they landed in a heap on the cool stone floor. She sank down beside them and let the hot tears slice down her cheeks. She had just killed a man. He’d known that she would and he’d hated her for it. And she’d given the orders to end his life. The knowledge was crushing.
She drew in a shaky breath and wiped at the tears, they served no purpose and even though she never wanted for water she knew better than to waste it. Father hated when she cried. She’d never seen him cry, not even when mother had died. She could just imagine the disappointment in his eyes if he saw her now.
She shouldn’t have allowed Velder to bully her into the execution. If she talked to the prisoner, convinced him to admit how he’d done it, she might be able to reduce his sentence before his execution was carried out. And although she didn’t want the man’s death on her conscience, she had to admit that questioning him served another purpose. If the man truly did know how to accomplish the impossible perhaps he held other secrets. Maybe he held the key to the answers she’d been searching for all this time.
It was unlikely she could maintain control of the Thirteen for very long. It was only a matter of days before someone would demand to see the First. What would she do then?
She knew she was alone in her salon but she thoroughly checked again to be sure. The room was sparsely decorated, despite their vast family wealth her father believed they should live a frugal lifestyle. Jura didn’t mind, her only luxuries were found in her books and she had hundreds of the leather bound pages resting on shelves that lined the stone walls of her chambers. She frowned down at the weathered ornate floor rug before pulling it back to reveal a heavy trap door. The door was large and imposing, it took all her strength to pull it open. She descended the small ladder into the darkness, blinking to adjust her eyes.
The man inside was bound and gagged, he stared up at her with furious dark eyes. He tried to speak, but the gag prevented it. Jura knelt down beside him, careful not to get too close.
“I’m going to remove the gag but you mustn’t alert the guards. Can you promise this?”
Her father narrowed his eyes but nodded. She pulled down the cloth that covered his mouth and offered him some water which he gulped down greedily. Water dribbled down his chin and she flinched at the waste.
“I’ve brought you some dates as well. Do you want them?”
He said nothing but allowed her to feed him. It reminded her of a few years before when she’d dislocated her shoulder after a strenuous training session. Jura hadn’t cried out but her father had known she was injured and had called the session to an immediate close. Later that night he’d fed her honeyed dates spread with goat cheese, Jura hadn’t even realized he’d known they were her favorite. She fed the dates to him now but, after he’d eaten a few, he turned away from her and sat back against the stone wall, as far away from her as possible. She pulled the gag back into place with trembling fingers, she couldn’t blame him for hating her.
“You know I can’t let you out. Not yet. You’re not well.”
He said nothing. Could he even understand her?
“I’ve told the Thirteen that you are ill. I’ve been covering for you. I even attended council meeting today and judged in your stead.”
Her father’s eyes narrowed. Apparently he could understand. She’d known that information wouldn’t make him happy. He was probably horrified that she had stepped in. Timid little Jura, trying to lead the entire Republic, even she knew the notion was ridiculous.
“I had to,” she continued. “It’s for the good of the Republic. I’m doing this for you,” she paused. “I think you would want me to, if you were more yourself.”
Without meaning to, her eyes fell down to the delicate gold chain that dangled from his wrist. It was as beautiful as it was deadly.
A blood chain, a relic from more dangerous times. Once attached to it’s captive, the tiny chain used some sort of magic to render its captive under its complete control. The person controlling the chain controlled the person who wore it, her father was nothing more than someone’s puppet and Jura was determined to find out who was his puppet master.
She couldn’t understand where the blood chain had even come from, she hadn’t even known they actually existed. Someone had gone through a lot of trouble to find one and Jura raked her brain, desperate for an answer. As the First of the Glass Palace and leader of the Republic, her father had any number of enemies, he always had. And now, so did she.
“If you could just tell me who did this to you. I know you’re still in there Father, somewhere. Please. Please? Tell me. Who’s done this to you?” She wanted to reach out and shake his shoulders but she kept her arms by her side. Her father hated to be touched, even when he was himself.
Still, the First said nothing, closing his eyes and leaning his head back as though to sleep. Jura sighed. She would have to find answers on her own.
Three days ago her life had been very different. She had been in the gardens when it happened. She often spent her mornings surrounded by the lush greenery in the courtyard. It was a frivolous waste of water maintaining the gardens, but her mother had loved them. There was a vast assortment of ferns and palm fronds which bordered the fountain in sturdy clay pots. Several squat fig trees and a few dwarf citrus trees dotted the perimeters. There were several different varieties of flower, but Jura favored the delicate petals of the white Jasmine. They had been her mother’s favorite and the fragrant flowers reminded Jura of her mother’s presence and happier times. As was her habit, Jura had spent the morning tending to her flowers when she’d heard the strangled cry.
She’d turned, only to find Akkim, her personal bodyguard, lying in a pool of his own blood. A spear protruded out from his back. A spear that she quickly realized had been meant for her. Standing there above Akkim was her father, fury in his eyes as he reached down and yanked the spear from Akkim’s still twitching body. The feeling of terror was still branded in her brain and yet the finer details of the moment were lost to her. She only remembered that her father’s movements had seemed so languid, would never forget the look of the frightening sneer that had rolled over his thin lips.
She still couldn’t quite understand how she’d managed to defend herself. She was half his size and the attack had been so unexpected. If she hadn’t been carrying her tiny garden trowel she’d have been unarmed. She accredited her survival to years of Akkim’s training in self defense. Her father, like every parent who was a member of the Thirteen, had required it as part of her studies and she was grateful for the training that allowed her to reflexively swing the tiny shovel at her father with all her might.
She’d hit his temple and he had crumpled immediately at her feet. Horrified, she’d knelt beside her father, praying for a pulse. She’d found one, along with the blood chain on his wrist. At least, that’s what she suspected it was, she’d never actually seen one before. It matched the descriptions she’d read about in the histories and it would explain her father’s uncharacteristic attack.
It had been easy enough to summon her father’s personal Arbe to cover up the mess in the courtyard. An Arbe would never share their secret, couldn’t share such secrets and Jura would protect her house at all costs. It was what her father would expect from her.
Akkim had died saving her life. She would never forget his sacrifice, the way his blood had pooled at her feet. The pain of his loss caused tears to form in her eyes and snapped her back to the present. She was crying for the second time today and that was unacceptable. She brushed the salty liquid away and took her father’s face in her hands, forcing him to look at her. She didn’t care that he didn’t like to be touched, he needed to listen.
“I know you. I know this isn’t your fault. I will find who has done this to you. And I will make them pay.”
He lunged at her then and she cried out as she fell back out of harms way. The chains that bound the First were sturdy and gave little room for him to move about. He snapped at her like a wild animal, as though he meant to tear her in half with his teeth. With a strangled cry she scurried out of the crawl space, slamming the door behind her. Safe back in her chambers above, she sat heavily on the floor staring down at the trap door, struggling to regain some normalcy to her breathing. She began counting to still the rapid beating of her heart.
She started at the gentle knock on her chamber doors. “Just a moment,” she called out. She hurriedly replaced the rug and stood on top of the door calling out that the knocker may enter. Had she remembered to gag him? Could she hear her father calling to be freed or was that her imagination?
Velder stood in her doorway and offered a smile that bordered on leering. Jura realized that her robes still lay in a heap on the floor and that she was wearing nothing but a thin shift.
Sandstorms. Was there no end to my humiliation today? Velder noticed everything but she hoped he would at least have the decency not to mention it.
At least all her clothing was modest, even her underwear. Thank the Everflame she was still covered from neck to toe, though the material was indecently thin for outerwear. She crossed her arms over her chest.
“Greatness you left the session so quickly I didn’t have a chance to commend you on your excellent leadership skills.”
Jura resisted the urge to openly roll her eyes. “Thank you, Second.” She smiled, taking small pleasure in the fact that serving under her must irk him.
Velder grinned in response and Jura wondered why the mere sight of his teeth made her skin crawl. Jura lifted her chin under the scrutiny of his predatory eyes and cleared her throat.
“Surely you could have waited to speak to me of this tomorrow. I assume you had another reason for disturbing me in my private chambers?”
“Of course. Your presence is needed in the Great Hall. That is, the presence of the First. I would summon your father but as you say, he is indisposed.” Velder’s smile deepened.
“Indeed he is,” Jura replied. “I’ll be right there.”
Velder bowed low and left. Jura shut the door after him and released a pent up sigh. Velder had the most to gain from her father’s incapacitation. As the second of the Thirteen, he would be the next in line if anything were to happen to herself and the First. Not that her death was needed for Velder to move forward in Rank. A simple voting at the next session could accomplish that, but her father had tried to kill her. If the commander of the chains had meant for her father to kill her and them himself Velder would have been the one with the most to gain. Jura put him at the top of her list of suspects.
She pushed thoughts of conspiracy aside for the moment and wondered instead what had occurred. Why was she being called back to the Justice Dome not even an hour from her earlier departure? Opting for a more simple day robe instead of the heavy ceremonial ones she’d worn earlier, she hurriedly got dressed. Not too quickly though, as she double checked to make sure nothing was backwards or inside out.
Her Arbe waited for her outside the door and for the second time that day she was thankful for their presence. Arbe was the top line of defense for the ruling and influential. Trained from infancy in martial arts and espionage, there were none better. Except of course the Shadow Dancers. The Shadow Dancers were said to be a secret group of assassins, thieves and spies. There was no proof of their existence and many believed the guild was nothing but a story to frighten children. You just saw a blood chain that’s not supposed to exist, she reminded herself. If they do exist, they could help with Father.
Unlike the rumors of Shadow Dancers, there was no disputing the existence of Arbe. Anyone who could afford to purchase an Arbe had one. In fact, it was common to have more than one and some felt that the more men they had as bodyguards the more it displayed their power. Jura’s father had never agreed with this practice, he argued that any man who needed more than four men protecting him was weak, nothing more than a fool flaunting his wealth. Because everyone had one, Arbe were no more than accessories to the upper class and Jura imagined that each Arbe knew more secrets than the supposed guild of spies.
Of course, Shadow Dancers weren’t required to cut out their own tongue like those men handpicked to join Arbe.
Her own Arbe followed her, never more than five paces behind and she found their presence distracting. Her father had gifted them to her on her tenth birthday and she’d never cared for them, preferring instead the singular company of Akkim. Akkim, the man who had told her bed time stories of far off lands as a little girl. Now, with him gone and her father locked away she was utterly alone and her Arbe was vital to her safety.
Still, she was grateful that her father didn’t believe in the practice of keeping two Arbe, she couldn’t imagine what she would do with eight men in tow. In Jura’s mind, the glass halls of the palace were more than enough protection. The only stone in the palace was found in bedchambers and that was only for privacy’s sake. The glass served its purpose well, it was near impossible to sneak up on a council member when every hall was made of clear, paper thin glass. A few days ago, Jura had felt safe enough to travel the glass halls on her own, oblivious to the open stares she’d receive from the other twelve families. After recent events, Jura didn’t judge those who felt the need for extra precaution and she was thankful for the quiet presence of the massive men that guarded her. They never let her out of her sight.
Was there a way for them to spill her father’s secret? The four men were more than aware that she kept her father locked away in her cellar. What did they think of her? Would they tell? Without a tongue or the ability to write that would be hard. The members of her and her father’s Arbe were heaped on her growing list of anxieties.
She entered the large auditorium where she’d been little more than an hour ago and was startled to find the golden banners displayed. Why hadn’t Velder specified the reason she’d been summoned?
The gold banners were only shown when foreign rulers or embassies were present. The entire delegation of Thirteen were already seated on their benches, they were all wearing their ceremonial robes. Once again, she was dressed as as outsider and once again she had no time to run back to her rooms and change. With a soft sigh, Jura took her seat on the glass throne.
“Announcing his Royal Highness Sto’ Ne, Grand Wave Master and Admiral of the Three Oceans.” The crier bellowed out and Jura’s eyes were drawn to the imposing figure who entered the hall.
He was massive, tan, and bare chested with white blonde hair that had colored stones braided in, it fell down past his shoulders. He strode across the hall followed by a dozen men and women with the same flowing hair and silk transparent garments that fell in waves of silken fabric. Their sheer clothing and exposed skin made Jura blush. No one in the Republic went about in such an uncovered state and she gripped the edges of the glass throne, steeling herself to gaze the sea king in his face. It did not matter that his was the first bare chest she had ever seen, and she refused to notice the ripple of thigh muscles underneath his sheer trousers. She bit her bottom lip and kept her eyes trained above his head.
The sea king stopped in front of her and bowed low. “I hope I’m not intruding upon a time of mourning. The First…”
“Is indisposed.” Jura bit the inside of her cheek. The excuse was sounding repetitive, even to her.
“I am Jura, heir to the Sand Sea and Speaker of the Dunes.”
The sea king smiled. “Of course, I met you once before, though that was years ago and you were just a girl hanging on her mother’s robes. You look the spitting image of her. Same tiny stature, her long black hair and amber eyes… I was very sorry to hear of her passing.”
He looked away and Jura was aware of the compassion in his green eyes. It was rare to find such lightly colored eyes in the Sand Sea and for a moment she couldn’t look away. Her own eyes, amber flecked with gold, were an anomaly and a source of Amira’s random spurts of jealousy. She shook her head and forced herself to follow society protocol, wriggling her fingers in the formal greeting.
She didn’t know much about the sea people. Most of her knowledge came from the extensive histories she’d read on the Tri-Alliance. She knew they were a proud race, their religion deeply rooted in everything they did. The colored stones tied in his air twinkled in the waning sunlight and she wondered at their significance. She hoped she wouldn’t insult the king. She offered him her best smile.
“I apologize my father could not meet with you in person. I hope you will allow myself to stand in his stead.”
The sea king smiled again, “Certainly. My own daughter, hellion that she is, would do the same. At least I hope she would.” His face turned serious, “Am I free to discuss serious matters of politics?”
Jura caught Velder’s watchful eye and inclined her head, knowing he’d overheard. The hall cleared out save for the members of the Thirteen and the sea king’s entourage. A chair was brought out for the king and placed on the dais beside her. Jura clenched her fist to keep from fidgeting.
“Your Majesty, you’re very far from home. What has brought you to the Sand Sea?”
The sea king looked over to the members of the Thirteen and then back to her, his eyebrows wrinkled in concern. “I’m sad to say this visit was one of necessity and great urgency. Greatness, I’ve come to discuss matters of war.”
Jura’s own brows knitted together in response and she caught her bottom lip between her teeth. “War? I don’t understand. The three kingdoms are at peace. The treaty–”
“Is null and void after my people were captured and sold as slaves to Kitoi.”
“That’s impossible.” Wasn’t it?
“Is it?” The king’s voice was low and fierce. “It’s common knowledge you land dwellers practice slave trade.”
“The slaves are the chosen people. They–”
The sea king held up a silencing hand, interrupting her. “While it’s hardly my place to question your country’s politics its always been quite understood that the peoples of my kingdom are off limits.”
Jura chose her next words carefully. “Of course. And if Kitoi has breached the terms of our peace treaty I can understand why you would be upset enough to leave your kingdom and seek answers.”
The sea king sat back in his makeshift throne. “Upset? Greatness, this breach in contract is an act of war. I came here to see if I had the support of the Sand Sea.”
“And you will have it. But I can not condone entering such a war without proof,” she paused. What would father do? She looked out at the Thirteen and found that each of them watched her intently. Ahmar looked concerned, Velder amused. The First was responsible for deciding all matters of war. She was responsible. She couldn’t make a decision lightly.
“Do you? Have proof?”
The sea king stood, fury in his eyes. “Your father is indisposed you say?”
Apparently the sea king also wondered what her father would do. She had to remain strong, she had to, but she couldn’t enter a war lightly.
“Your majesty, when and if you can provide proof of Kitoi’s actions, you will have the full support of the Sand Sea’s soldiers. Until then, my hands are tied.”
The sea king shook his head but his voice was full of sadness, not anger. “Your father is someone I once considered friend. I hope that you will come to see the error of your ways. It appears I’ve wasted valuable time in coming here. I should return to my people. I have much to prepare for.”
He turned and swept from the hall, his entourage following in a rush of silk.
Jura fell back against the glass throne unsure of what had just happened. Have I made a mistake? Or is it right erring on the side of caution? Kitoi had never given any indication they were dangerous. They were a small yet powerful kingdom that, while on the border of the Republic, operated entirely on their own. She knew it was best not to act against her neighbors without any proof.
It wasn’t fair that she had been thrown into such a position, forced to make decisions in matters of life and death. Unbidden, her eyes turned to the spot where just an hour before she had sentenced a man to his death. Had he really stolen fire from the Everflame? And if he had, was that truly a crime to be executed for or should I have questioned him further? I’m making a terrible mess of everything. She took a deep breath and reminded herself to focus on saving her father, she needed his strength. She needed to question the slave, find out what he knew, if he really had access to secret magics. She had less than a week to come up with a plan.