Dawn of Wonder – the first 2 chapters
Directly over a country lane, a young squirrel was clamped to the limb of an ancient walnut tree. Tawny hair all over its body now rose and quivered as moss began to prickle underfoot.
The deep, shuddering stillness flowed through the woods. In and amongst the trees, fur and feather trembled in a vice-grip. The squirrel may have lacked the words for what stole into its mind, but in the same way that it knew the terror of jackal teeth and the lure of high branches, a vague yet frightening awareness was taking shape. Somewhere, many miles distant, something was stirring, changing … wakening.
Then the feeling passed as swiftly as it had arrived and the squirrel let out its breath and looked around. It lifted a paw and examined the mossy bark, sniffed, and turned quick eyes to the ground, to the leaves, to the sky – all in vain. As before, there were no answers to be found. It was the second time since winter that this alarming thrill had surged through the air, departing without a trace.
But something else now caused little eyes to dart and ears to twitch, something quite different. The leaves strewn across the forest lane were beginning to quake and shiver. Several pigeons that had been huddling on the ground burst away in all directions with a wild clapping of wings. For the squirrel this was warning enough. It fled across the branch, disappearing up the walnut trunk and into a knot hole as if drawn by a string.
Before it had a chance to push its head out, a horse and rider hurtled around the bend, apparently unaware of the recent quieting of their surrounds. Hooves slipped on the moist surface, flinging up dark clods, but there was no slowing of pace – wide eyes and foamy flecks suggested that the pace had not slackened for many miles. The tall rider’s green military coat whipped and snapped around him as he leaned forward in the stirrups, head close to the horse’s plunging neck. In his fist, crushed against the reins, was a rolled sheet of paper. The speed, the foam, the clutched paper … Anyone he passed by would have instantly read the look on his face: Please, let me not be too late!
All around, farmhands dropped their tools, and even the long grass, silvered and heavy with dew, caught the mood and leaned forward.
Everyone’s eyes were fixed on an old stone bridge over the Brockle River. The walkway was narrow, the stones doubtful, the wall slippery, and there was a lot of air underneath. To the farm’s adventure hunter who would give his name as Aedan and his age as almost thirteen, it was irresistible. It wasn’t just the lure of danger, but something it afforded that was far closer to his heart – friendship.
Under a scruffy head and smudged face, there was no missing the eager young eyes that were bright with hope for the morning’s project. Adventures, he had discovered, became cold and lonely things if he couldn’t, at some stage, get friends to share them. And friends, even old friends, were never quite on the level of companions until they shared his adventures.
Whether or not the friends actually wanted to share them tended to have little effect on the outcome. Aedan had become an expert in coaxing and nudging – and perhaps one or two of those nudges might have been misunderstood as shoves, but they had been given with the best intentions. Everyone was always glad afterwards. Mostly.
It had taken much work and perhaps one or two improvements on the facts about the landing, but Aedan had finally convinced Thomas to attempt the dreaded jump. The images he had painted with his words were irresistible – the thrill of the leap, the wonders of soaring flight, the softness of dropping into water. Deep, icy, emerald water that clinked and rattled in the chasm below.
Thomas, after explaining to Aedan once again that he did not want to do this, and being assured in the most ardent terms that he did, finally conceded and lifted his shaking hands from the lichen-coated wall. He raised himself by unsteady inches until he stood wobbling on the cold stones a dizzy height above the river. The soft, pink skin on his back was alive with shudders.
Many eyes watched from various points along the sheer banks but only one other person was on the bridge. Kalry, a year older and half a head taller than Aedan, bit her lip as she glanced at Thomas and then peered beyond him, over the wall. It was a long, long way down.
“W – what if I land on a fish?” Thomas was staring past his toes into the hungry river. “These trout have got spines on their fins. If they are pointing up and I’m going down, it could be like the time I …” He turned a glorious ruby red and glanced over at Kalry.
When she smiled encouragingly at him, he attempted a careless chuckle, swung his arms, and almost lost his balance.
“Oh tripe!” he gasped, regaining control of his shivering limbs only just in time.
Aedan was getting worried. He had to help his friend past this remarkably creative pessimism. How did Thomas manage to think of trout fins?
“Fish always keep one eye looking up,” Aedan said. “They think falling people are eagles, so they get out the way.” He had a strong suspicion that this might not be entirely true, but it should be, which was almost as good.
Kalry’s wrinkled nose told him what she thought of it, but he shrugged off the uncomfortable feeling. Disarming encouragement radiated from this short, scruffy boy.
He tried again, “Once you’re in the air it feels just like flying. The only frightening part is before you jump,” he said.
Kalry frowned at Aedan and opened her mouth to speak, but he fixed her with a stare and shook his head. She narrowed her eyes, but held her tongue.
He was about to try the angle of “If you don’t do this now you’ll hate yourself forever” when he was distracted by a sound that drifted over from the main farm buildings.
The faraway pounding of hooves that had been steadily growing erupted into a harsh cobblestone clatter. He looked just in time to glimpse something pale and green flashing across the gaps between dairy, stables and feed barns. The last opening was broader and revealed a large grey horse and a uniformed rider. They dashed between labourers at a reckless pace. Instead of halting before the main courtyard rail, the horse actually jumped it and pounded up the fine lawn to the very doorstep of the manor house. Then the timber shed blocked the view.
Aedan’s curiosity caught alight, but he stamped the flames down. Nothing could be allowed to distract him now. The interruption, however, gave him an idea, a spark of inspiration that matched Thomas for creativity.
“The rumours of lowland bandits or slave traders could be true this time, Thomas. This might be your last chance before you are made a slave for the rest of your life. Or beheaded. Or … or … locked in your room while our soldiers fight them for years and years until you are too old to make the jump without getting killed.”
Thomas flinched. “You mean people can actually die from this jump?”
“Of course not. Even Kalry’s done it.”
“But you just said it would kill me if I was too old.”
Aedan frowned and kicked the stone paving. “I didn’t mean that part. It sort of sneaked in there without me actually wanting it.” He glared at Kalry with an unspoken demand for help, but the girl’s hazel eyes were now full of laughter. She shook her head and buried her amusement behind a tousled mass of sun-and-barley hair. Aedan had to soldier on alone.
“Think of it, Thomas. Once you jump you’ll be one of us, one of the Badgerfields Elites. And … and you can have my second sling.”
“Didn’t you break it yesterday?”
“It could be fixed.”
Kalry, the smile still lingering, held her hands up with a look that was really a soundless groan. Aedan was equally unimpressed with the strength of his arguments, but he was grasping now. The golden moment of decision was passing by, and it would not come again.
Just then a cloud drifted in front of the sun. Thomas shuddered as an inquisitive breeze explored his soft skin.
“I – I think I’ll wait for it to warm up a bit first,” he said. “Anyway, I want to know what’s going on at the manor house. I can see lots of people running.”
Aedan’s and Kalry’s eyes met, and something flickered between them. As Thomas bent over – the first of several careful manoeuvres in getting down from the wall – two pairs of hands reached up and provided the “encouragement” that they would later claim he had as good as requested.
The howl of terror that split the morning and echoed down the chasm would live on in Aedan’s dreams for years to come, always bringing a sigh and a smile. The falling boy actually ran out of breath before he hit the icy river, allowing a theatrical pause before the sharp smack of belly and limbs. It was the loudest landing they had ever heard.
“Aedan, I think we might have killed him,” Kalry said, her eyes on the frothy impact point far below.
Without a word, Aedan was over the edge and in the air, plummeting towards his friend. Kalry was not far behind. She was airborne by the time Aedan hit the water.
The river crashed up around him. He always said that cold water felt less wet, more like liquid stones. It certainly felt that way now as the brisk current jostled him downstream. His feet throbbed from the impact, and he’d forgotten to block his nose resulting in a stinging shot to the brain, but there was no time to worry over such things. The moment he surfaced, he spun around looking for Thomas.
Kalry landed about six inches away and gave him the best fright of his young life. By the time he could see again, she had taken the lead in the rescue of their friend.
“Kalry, you wind-brain!” he spluttered. “You – you could have made me shorter!”
Kalry laughed as she swam away with the current towards the disturbance in the water that was Thomas. He was gasping in snatches. Eyebrows raised almost to his hairline indicated that he was still experiencing the full force of the shock, and the cold – the Brockle was a river born of snowmelt and hidden by forest until it rushed into the sun only a mile upstream. The two rescuers caught up and guided their friend out of the current onto a sandy bank. He crawled from the water in a series of desperate jerking movements.
“I’m going to kill you Aedan,” he gasped.
I’ll kill you twice.” He panted and coughed up an impressive quantity of river. “I’m going to hang you and after that I’ll skin you alive.”
“You mean ‘skin me dead’. That’s what people are after you hang them.”
If Thomas was impressed by Aedan’s expertise in the area, he did not show it. He whimpered as he touched his belly. It was blushing like sunrise, as if he’d spent the day sprawled out on the sand and been scorched to a crimson perfection. Even Aedan winced at the sight, but he recovered quickly and leaned forward.
“So did you catch a fish?” he whispered.
“Aedan!” Kalry said.
Thomas glared, assembled his still-wobbly legs beneath him, and clumped away. He seemed to have forgotten that he was a mild boy and stopped after a few yards to cast a very dangerous look back at the guilty pair.
Aedan tried to look apologetic but then realised he didn’t feel apologetic. He knew Thomas would thank him one day. Well, perhaps not quite thank him, but at least join in the laughter.
Or at least not scowl at the memory.
Though it hadn’t gone exactly as planned, Thomas had finally shared the adventure.
When they were alone, he turned to Kalry, “Another successful mission for the Elites. Thomas is a member at last.”
“I feel horrible,” she said.
“It was good for him. He’ll be happy about it one day.”
“I think I’m going to feel horrible until then.”
“Nonsense. Make him a pearlnut pie and he’ll forget everything after the first bite.”
“Will you help me search for the nuts then? They aren’t easy to find this time of year.”
“As long as it’s quick. I want to see what all the fuss is at the house. And as long as you don’t expect me to bake.”
“We have to give him something nicer than the fall, so you won’t be baking.”
They let the bright spring sun dry them as they jogged over the hayfields towards the mysterious pearlnut tree. This tree, a curiosity known to the whole midlands, was unnaturally big – several hundred feet high, its smooth leathery trunk almost as wide as the hay barn. Every autumn it produced large nut-like seeds with a translucent milky flesh that Kalry described as a mixture of pecan nuts, honey and snow.
But there was more that intrigued them than the size and the magical taste of the kernels. In the last year something strange had happened. It was Kalry who discovered it by putting her ear to the trunk and listening as she often did. With a startled cry, she’d leapt away. But fright dwindled before curiosity. When she pressed her ear to the smooth bark again, her expression slowly melted into quiet wonder.
“It’s sighing,” she explained, “not in a sad way, but big and full with thoughts of delicious soil and warm sun and crisp, clean air that drifts high up where pearlnut leaves can tickle the feet of cheeky low clouds.”
Aedan argued at first that it was just the sound of wind passing down the trunk the same way those hollow, eerie sounds pass down a chimney when the sky is restless and the house is empty. But then he too put his ear to the tree. It was quiet for a long time, and he was almost out of patience when he heard a deep rumbling breath that didn’t sound much like wind and that made him think of soil and sun and air. Still, determined to prove his point, he stepped back to indicate the wind in the boughs.
There hadn’t been any.
Since then he had always felt a slight quiver in his bones when approaching the tree, and he felt it again now.
But before he and Kalry had covered half the distance across the east field, their attention was drawn by William, the elderly but still-strong farm manager, who was engaged in a lively discussion with Thomas. William pointed to the manor house and the boy raced away. Then William spotted Aedan and Kalry and started running towards them.
“Now we’re in for it,” said Aedan.
Kalry was watching William. “I don’t think he’s coming to talk about the bridge,” she said. “He’s running. He never runs.”
Aedan stopped. Kalry drew up alongside him.
“There’s Emroy,” Aedan said, pointing at a red-headed youth, “going like he’s got a wasp in his rods. Hope he has. And isn’t that Thomas’s father over there by the sheep pens? He’s running too.”
Old Dougal was surging up the hill, limp forgotten, hands flailing about him as if attempting to gain some additional purchase from the air.
“Aedan,” said Kalry, taking his arm. “Something has happened. Aedan, I’m scared.”
“You!” It was William, bellowing as he came within range. Though his words were aimed at them, his eyes cast frantically about the perimeter of the farm. “Get to the house now! Keep in the open and move quickly!”
“What is it?” Kalry asked, but William was already bounding away and turned only to yell,
He was not a timid man, but the worry beneath his words was thicker than flies in a pig pen.
William threw his voice out across the fields. From all directions labourers began hurrying towards the manor house, shaken from their stations like over-ripe apples in a wind grown unsteady – the first gusts of a storm.
When Aedan and Kalry reached the courtyard outside the main buildings, they found a small crowd of farm workers gathered in fluttering nervousness. Dresbourn, the farm owner who was also Kalry’s father, stood at the front of the crowd in earnest conversation with the stranger in the bright green military coat.
Half-a-dozen men were posted as lookouts, standing on the nearby roofs of hay barn, dairy and timber shed. The uniformed stranger paced before Dresbourn and called regularly to the lookouts.
Aedan was balancing on an empty wheelbarrow, peering over the heads that towered in front of him.
“Can you see what’s happening?” Kalry asked.
“I think he’s waiting for everyone to get here.” Aedan said. He jumped down and they headed over to a cart that had just been loaded with hay. After some scrambling, interrupted by a series of sneezes, they were balanced at the front edge overlooking the restless gathering.
There was some assurance to be found in the backdrop of the grand manor house. It was three storeys high with solid walls, heavy doors, and thick oak shutters on the windows. It could certainly be made secure, but in truth, it was no fortress. The peaceful midlands did not call for battlements or turrets.
Aedan fixed his eyes on the stranger who had most people’s attention. He was an impressive man – tall, powerfully built, even intimidating, as could be seen from the fawning of those near him. Though his words did not carry to the back, his posture and manners told of great authority, an impression cemented when he turned from the lookouts to the swelling crowd with bold, intelligent eyes, eyes that caused most to find sudden interest in their shoes. This, Aedan thought, was no mere soldier. This was the kind of man the great histories were filled with, and he was here in the rural Mistyvales!
Aedan and Kalry leaned forward, trying to catch the spillage of several dozen conversations beneath them, but it was clear that nobody had the slightest clue as to why they had been wrenched from their labours – not that anyone minded. The two friends listened all the same, wild speculation being no less exciting than actual facts, and as there was nothing they could do to hurry things along, this seemed the best way to endure the waiting.
They made an unusual pair. Both were without siblings and had, by all appearances, adopted each other. Aedan was a short boy whose brown skin owed as much to sun as soil, whose clothes were constantly sprouting new rips and stains and never lost the smell of wood smoke, and whose eyes were either brimming with adventure or lost in deep musings that, when spoken, seemed strangely misplaced in a boy so small and grubby. The workings of his young mind were in fact so extraordinary that he was sometimes referred to as the Brain. Dorothy, who ran the kitchen and was forever pursuing his muddy steps with a mop, quickly amended this to the Drain.
What proceeded from Aedan’s thoughts was a combination of boyish mischief and deductive genius. In superstitious circles, some whispered that he was unnaturally gifted – or tainted. The menfolk, especially the old soldiers with whom Aedan was forever discussing the wars, were repeatedly astounded by his knack for thinking like a seasoned military strategist. The women were appalled. Their efforts to direct his thoughts to milder, more age-appropriate interests and to steer his feet along cleaner paths met with absolute failure. He remained stubbornly battle minded and mud brushed.
Kalry, on the other hand, was able to share most of Aedan’s adventures and yet remain surprisingly neat and clean, which in Aedan’s estimation was more or less to miss the point. There was one part of Kalry, however, that was never neat. It was her hair. Aedan had once said that she could conceal herself anytime by leaping feet first into a hay rick. Unfortunately the implied comparison was a little too good, and after seeing the look on her face, he had never mentioned it again. The problem was that Kalry’s hair was not that easy to tell apart from hay – it was a stubbornly untameable, straw-like mass that hung long and wild down her back. It fell in an assortment of braids, stalk-like shafts and rebellious curls. The whole effect of the wind-blown tangle was something that drew concerned pats from grandmothers and barbed teasing from children. Aedan secretly adored it, though he couldn’t bring himself to say so. As he saw it, Kalry’s wild hair was to her what coppery leaves were to autumn.
He spotted Thomas on the far side of the yard and was trying to gauge how angry his friend was when Kalry interrupted his thoughts.
“What’s that mark on your neck?”
He stiffened. “Nothing.”
“Was it Emroy? Does your father know?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” After a while he glanced at her and recognised the soft frown he hated seeing.
But he couldn’t tell her. Not about this. When a tree was being ruined from inside, the bark would hide its shame, at least for a time. Aedan had kept his bark wrapped tight. He wanted none to know, least of all Kalry.
But there was another reason he could not speak of it. When he had confided in Brice, the news had reached the boy’s parents, and Aedan had been asked to stay away from their farm. He wasn’t going to lose Kalry too. The silence strained between them and he began to feel very lonely.
“It’s not that I don’t trust you,” he said. “The thing is … well, Brice and I aren’t friends anymore because I told him.”
Kalry looked at him and at the bruise on his neck again. Her voice was gentle when she leaned over and whispered in his ear.
Aedan caught his breath.
She leaned back. “It’s him isn’t it? He did this.”
Aedan was silent, his jaw grinding.
Kalry put her arm through his. “See, I’m still your friend, and I won’t tell.”
His throat bunched up tight and he felt pools forming in his eyes. It took all his concentration to keep them from spilling, to keep the pain inside. But Kalry would know anyway; she mostly did. And she held his arm fast.
The last group of labourers arrived, breathing heavily, eyes casting frantically around them. The stranger appeared to be concluding his discussion with Dresbourn and making ready to address the crowd.
“First to guess his origin?” Kalry offered.
“If you are prepared to lose,” Aedan said, glad of the diversion.
“I won the last three, remember.”
“Well I wasn’t really trying my best.”
“Who says I was? Let’s both try our best this time, then there are no excuses.”
“Deal.” Aedan spat in his hand and offered it to Kalry who grimaced and brushed the glistening palm with a handful of hay.
“Boys are such barbarians,” she muttered.
The stranger raised his hands for silence and the courtyard fell into a deathly hush.
“I am glad that you were able to get here so quickly,” he said as he paced before them, his agitation all too obvious. “Your manager is to be commended for his promptness and efficiency” – he indicated William who acknowledged the compliment.
“I am Lieutenant Quin of the Midland Council of Guards. I have been assigned to the Mistyvales, to sound the warning that will soon be ringing through every corner of the midlands, and to assist in protecting our people. I am here to oversee and strengthen whatever defences are in existence. Sir Dresbourn of Badger’s Hall has examined my commission.”
In spite of his surging curiosity, Aedan felt himself shrink away at the mention of Dresbourn’s noble title. He hated being reminded that Kalry was of noble blood. In the rural Mistyvales, social distinctions were not given much weight, but the potential for separation still haunted him. Dresbourn, however, did not appear displeased at this reminder of rank. He took a deep breath and puffed up – an unflattering effect for an already puffy-looking man – before closing his eyes and inclining his head, indicating that the lieutenant should continue. The man turned back to the crowd, shook his arms and straightened the green coat of his uniform.
“For the past thirty years, the central midlands has been unthreatened by Lekran slave hunting, especially the wind-flung areas like this. Rumours and warnings of slave traders have always turned out to be as empty as cargo holds in the wake of pirates. The consequence is that these areas have been softened by ease. We fear that this has now been discovered.
“Recently, one of our parties, while scouting south of here, sighted a Lekran slave convoy from a distance. Our men were outnumbered and could take no action, so they rode to the nearest town, Glenting, where they discovered that dozens of townsfolk had been taken. One here and one there as they became isolated. The slavers were swift, not one was seen, and not one captive escaped. We suspect that Glenting is only the beginning, that all isolated midland areas will now be seen as lagoons full of trapped fish.”
“We should move to the town centre!” Dougal shouted in a thin, wheezing voice. “Keep the women and children in the middle. Reinforce the walls. Let them try take us there. We’ll show these filthy Lekrans something they’ll carry to their island graves!”
There was an outburst of agreement, disagreement, and a general din of nervous commentary. The lieutenant raised his hands for silence. When the last conversations had died away, he shook his arms and straightened his coat again, a shadow of annoyance or perhaps discomfort crossing his face.
“I am glad you made that suggestion. It is a good one, but in this case I think we are too late for that.”
He paused to let his meaning sink home. The eyes that stared back at him were growing large and white. Men edged to the outside of the circle, grasping pitch forks and shovels.
“Yes,” Quin said, nodding at them, “I believe they are already here, and unless I’m sorely mistaken, this farm will be the first target. It is the ideal size, and sufficiently isolated. If I am right, then travellers attempting to reach the town, even large groups of us, would make easy targets. On the road, the advantage is theirs. They are well-armed and highly trained. We would stand no chance.
“Sir Dresbourn agrees with me that the wiser move at this stage is to fortify the manor house until it looks like a sea urchin. My orders are to ensure that you do not make yourselves vulnerable, so I must insist that you remain here until guard reinforcements arrive tomorrow. Sir Dresbourn has already agreed to this. Do I have your cooperation?”
There was a murmur of agreement. After a brief conference with Dresbourn and William, Quin began issuing instructions. Riders were dispatched to the farm’s homesteads. Everyone was to be brought to the manor house. Livestock in distant fields was to be left for the evening; only the nearby fields could be cleared. Nobody was to move alone or unarmed.
Among the older listeners with longer memories, there were deeply worried faces, and some of the younger children were crying.
Aedan frowned and turned to Kalry. “Think it’s real this time?” he asked.
“Never been real before,” she said, “at least not in our time.”
“Well, even if it’s not another snot-in-the-wind story, I think we’re safe here with everyone around.”
Kalry sighed. “You with your snot and spit. It’s no wonder you can’t write poetry when your brain is full of ideas like that.”
Aedan was about to say that he thought poetry the only repulsive one of the three, but Kalry pre-empted him. “Want to finish the game? I’m ready to beat you again.” She grinned.
“Alright bigmouth,” he said. “You go first.”
“Only if you promise not to use my ideas.”
“Don’t! … spit in your hand again.”
Aedan lowered his hand and blew out his cheeks at this girlish silliness, then folded his arms with an almost-concealed smirk and settled back to listen.
For years, the two of them had been sharpening their uncommonly acute minds with games like this that intrigued yet baffled their friends – and even some of the adults. Aedan enjoyed the challenges almost as much as he enjoyed winning them, but it had been a while since he had tasted the sweetness of victory.
Kalry took a breath, glanced over at the lieutenant, and began. “I think his uniform is from either Rinwold or Stills. They are the only towns that would have such ugly fashions like the hideous pointed collar and the swallow-tail jacket. He struts like a rooster when he walks and he looks at us like those snobby south-midlanders who only pretend to like other people. And … what was the other thing?” She narrowed her eyes. “Oh yes – and his accent is high. He says each word really carefully, like a man who has studied how to make speeches. None of that seems like backward Stills, so I say he’s from Rinwold. What’s your guess?”
Aedan was silent for some time. “I’m just confused,” he said at length. “Every time I tried to settle on an idea he did something to squash it.”
“You still need to put your origin down before we ask him.”
Aedan thought again. “My first idea, and the only one that seems to work, is that he must live near the sea because he kept making boat and fish comparisons. I don’t know what sea urchins are, but I’m sure you don’t find them in the midlands. I’ll choose something coastal and not too far north, like Falls Harbour.”
“The sea comparisons … Good point,” she conceded. “I remember that now. We might both be right though. He could have grown up at the coast and moved away later, but if he did, he must have worked very hard to lose the western accent. Let’s go find out.”
They clambered and slid down the hay and dropped off the back of the cart under a small shower of straw and dust. Dougal had pulled the lieutenant aside and was whispering questions, nodding rapidly at the brief answers and then attacking with further questions. The lieutenant was giving all the signals – tapping hands, stamping feet and wandering eyes. He finally tired of the business, and while making a last reply, he spun on his heel and strode away, directly towards Aedan and Kalry.
The annoyed cast of his features changed as he saw the slender young girl with the warm eyes. He smiled.
It was only a flash, but Aedan had a sudden impulse to push him away.
“Lieutenant Quin,” she said in her bellish voice, “can we ask you where you come from?”
The smile slipped and he narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean by that?”
Aedan was liking this lieutenant less and less. That was no way to talk to Kalry.
“We have this game,” she explained. “We try to guess where people are from by using clues. I guessed Rinwold, and Aedan guessed a coastal town like Falls Harbour. Did we come close?”
Understanding eased his features, but he remained aloof when he replied. “Rinwold it is. I congratulate you. You are as discerning as your father. It is always a pleasure dealing with others of noble blood.” He kept his eyes on her.
Aedan flinched. He had wanted to ask further details, but was only too happy when the man turned and strode away. He wondered why a soldier had bothered to find out who was related to whom.
“I don’t like him,” Aedan said.
“That’s because he made you lose your fourth in a row,” Kalry laughed. “And wasn’t I right about his snobbishness? Wanted us to know about his noble blood too.”
Aedan was frowning, lost in thought. “Kalry,” he said, “if he hadn’t been wearing that uniform, would you still have thought he was from Rinwold?”
“Well that’s the point, isn’t it? We’re supposed to use all the clues that we have to lead us to a conclusion.”
“I don’t know. Maybe he got a good promotion through a friend, and he’s actually spent most of his life doing something shady in one of the seaports. That would explain his bad manners. And there’s something else about him. Something I can’t put into words. Something that worries me. If this slave business actually turns out to be real, I don’t think I want him in charge.”
Kalry looked at Aedan. Her eyes had grown a lot more serious. “He did make a lot of sea comparisons, didn’t he?”