The crowns dog, p.10
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       The Crown's Dog, p.10

           Elise Kova
 
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  “My prince, I don’t think it wise.”

  “And why not?”

  “The men and women, they’re already quite fearful of the circumstances. I have already asked them all to share any knowledge they had of Renalee. Pushing them further will likely only result in more discomfort.”

  Baldair considered Nana’s counsel. “I will still have a guard sent. The local authorities need to have these matters documented.”

  It was rare to see the prince taking charge and being responsible. Jax wondered if it was going to be the beginning of a trend. He barely caught a snicker at the idea of a mature Baldair running any kind of official business.

  “Following this, I want any of the staff who don’t feel safe in these halls to be dismissed,” Baldair added.

  “My prince, if everyone who doesn’t feel at ease left, it would leave us quite short-handed,” Nana cautioned. “Might I recommend you leave with them, for your comfort?”

  “I will not have people waiting on me in fear.” Baldair went back over to his chair, addressing the first point. “Furthermore, as I’ve told you, we’ll be staying until this matter is resolved.”

  “If you dismiss the local staff, certain allowances may be required when it comes to the day to day.” It was a nice way of phrasing that Nana and the few people they had brought with them from the Imperial Palace wouldn’t be able to maintain the household at the level Baldair and Erion were accustomed to. Jax didn’t personally lump himself in with them. He could survive quite substantial discomforts.

  “The three of us have gone on hunts in the wilderness. We can cook our own food, prepare our own beds, do our own laundry. I, for one, will be more than happy to manage if that is what’s required.”

  Neither Erion nor Jax objected. Their prince had spoken—though Jax had to purse his lips together momentarily at the amusing notion of Baldair actually doing laundry.

  “Very well. I will let any who are uneasy as a result of the recent events know that they are encouraged to depart with the blessing of their prince.” Nana gave a small bow and, when Baldair said nothing further, departed.

  Erion pushed back his chair, a small smile playing at the edges of his mouth. He seemed to have picked up on Jax’s amusement. “You’ve done your own laundry?”

  They all knew that task had been relegated to Erion on their one—singular—aforementioned hunting trip.

  “I’m sure I can, if I need to,” Baldair said defensively.

  “You’ve cooked your own food?” Jax wasted no time in following Erion’s lead.

  “I cooked twice on that trip.”

  “I remember the first meal being so inedible that not even the dogs would eat it.” Erion squinted, as if putting great effort into recalling the memory.

  “I do believe the second made us sick.” Jax made a show of the same effort.

  “And I do believe I’ve had enough of you two for one day!” Baldair threw up his hands in defeat. “Be ready to head to the city guard’s office in the morning, right with the dawn, so we can see someone up here.”

  “I think he’s trying to punish us with an early start,” Jax whispered, intentionally loud enough for Baldair to hear.

  “I think he’s forgetting that he’s always the last to wake,” Erion whispered back.

  “I can hear you both,” Baldair called to them, already in the hall. “Mother, why do I invite you anywhere?”

  The prince retreated to the sound of their laughter.

  14. JAX

  THE MIDDLE-AGED MAN behind the only desk in the small guard office of Oparium was unfazed by the disgruntled royal before him.

  “What do you mean you can’t have a guard come to the manor?” Baldair asked incredulously.

  Jax had expected a lot more from the guard of one of the biggest cities in the South. The building they stood in, while fortified, wasn’t much to write home about. There was one desk behind which the captain sat, a man by the name of Brut. Before him were messy stacks of yellowed ledgers and sheets of paper with labyrinthine scribbles entrapping peoples’ names and corresponding times. The rest of the room stored weapons, a narrow bookshelf of records, and a varied but simple assortment of vials, salves, and weapon-care supplies.

  It was nothing compared to the wide, dusty training grounds of the palace or the rows of personal offices for the majors of the Empire. Jax realized his perception of what a city guard was, and should look like, had been vastly altered from living in the home of the Empire’s militia.

  “Forgive me, my prince, but I’m afraid there simply aren’t enough to spare today.” The captain clearly didn’t enjoy refusing the prince. But he was a military man, a veteran of the War of the Crystal Caverns. He understood refusal did not always mean insubordination, especially when it was the tough choice of pleasing a prince or protecting his city.

  “Why not?” Baldair demanded.

  Brut opened one of the books, thumbing to a page. He pointed at a long list of names. “All these men and women—soldiers—they were sent to the capital a week ago.”

  “Why?” Erion asked the question that hung on Jax’s lips before he could so much as breathe a syllable. “Some kind of training?”

  The man shook his head. “We received the Imperial summons just before...” Brut produced a sheet of paper after some shuffling. “Skirmishes along the Northern border, potential troop reassignment to ensure the overall safety of the Empire.”

  Jax’s eyes scanned the page. It didn’t say much else. But the Emperor was demanding an awful lot of troops for some skirmishes, especially when the West had no shortage of magical and non-magical manpower local to the Waste. He straightened away from the desk, glancing at Erion. They both had been born from a conquered land, and the Empire was merely one nation shy of owning the entire continent. It wasn’t a far leap for the two of them to jump to the same conclusion.

  “How strange…” Baldair hummed, clearly not making the same potential connection Jax had arrived at so easily.

  “When was the last time you heard from your father?” Erion asked.

  “Not since we arrived and I wrote to let him know the journey had been no trouble.” Baldair shrugged off the suspect letter demanding military force.

  Jax let it drop. Erion said nothing further as well.

  You do not question the will of the Emperor. The nagging voice worked its way to the surface at the mere mention of the Emperor Solaris.

  While the fact was particularly important for Jax to remember, with his life owned by the crown, it was a truth no one could deny: Baldair’s father would do as he pleased. He was the Emperor Solaris, “chosen” of the Mother Sun… If he was looking toward Shaldan in the north, then any one of them would have as much success of circumventing a conflict as they would calling off the dawn. Jax kept focus on the matter at hand, fighting the battle that was before them rather than the mirage of war on the horizon.

  “I can rearrange the patrols to account for it tomorrow,” Brut offered.

  “There’s nothing we can do to see it happens today?” Jax would sing Baldair’s praises for many fine qualities. Patience was not one of them.

  “The only guard I could’ve assigned the task is responding to a request from the portmaster to inspect the cargo of a ship.”

  “The Lady Black?” Erion asked.

  Jax was startled by Erion’s sudden interjection. Captain Brut mirrored his expression. “Wh-why yes. How did you know?”

  “The ship was mentioned at the jewelry shop up on Ridge Road when I spoke to them yesterday, said they were having problems with the portmaster.”

  Comprehension relaxed Brut’s brow. “Yes, well, the portmaster suspects they are trying to smuggle in jewels from the West without paying proper taxes.”

  “Why does he suspect that?” The defensive edge was so narrow along Erion’s words that everyone but Jax missed it. It was something they shared as perceived foreigners, despite being equal citizens of the Empire.

  “Says he cau
ght wind of some gemstones popping up in these parts he doesn’t remember checking.”

  “Clerical error?”

  “That’s what I said.” Brut gave a nod to Baldair. “But he insisted there’s no mistaking Western rubies.”

  “We will go in this guard’s stead,” the prince announced. Jax’s mind was already working around the potential connection of the rubies. “We’re fully capable of checking some inventory.”

  “My prince, I don’t think that’s… It’s not a task I’d see done by someone of your status or skill.”

  “I insist.”

  There was no further discussion on the matter.

  The guard Brut had sent was just leaving the portmaster’s office when they arrived at the docks, breathless from their hurry to cross town. Baldair explained the situation to the man, and, while he did cast a questioning glance at Erion and Jax, he didn’t press the matter with the prince. The guard handed over the supposed inventory list and started back up Main Street toward the humble office of the guard.

  “He thinks we’re in cahoots with the ship to smuggle things in.” Erion stole Jax’s exact sentiment with the dry remark.

  “Don’t be so sensitive.” Baldair laughed.

  Erion rested his hand on the pommel of his sword. “It’s not a matter of being sensitive; it’s a matter of fact.”

  “Well, it’s known even here in the South that the West looks after their own.”

  The familiar expression was an ideal borrowed from the Academy of Arcane Arts in Norin and applied to the Tower of Sorcerers in the Capital. Something steeped in Western culture that, fortunately, branched out in some respects. The ideal was a stab of pain.

  Jax knew its truth all too well. He knew it to be true for some when Erion, the son of one of the highest lords in the West, had come to him despite the fact that Jax had been in a jail cell and on trial for murder. He also knew the truth that, for most, it was merely words, as no others from the Academia of Arcane Arts had even breathed a word in his defense.

  Jax wouldn’t have wanted them to.

  “Not all of the West,” Erion murmured. The noble kept his eyes on the ship they were headed toward, but Jax quietly applied his own agreement.

  The docks bustled with people. Sails unfurled as a ship began its departure. Men grunted as they hoisted nets of fish from the holds of larger vessels. It was almost impossible to maneuver without nearly bumping into someone carrying some kind of trunk or crate from vessel to cart or cart to vessel.

  Jax managed in a trance, his eyes focused on the ship before them. It was a narrower build, a cutter designed for moving over long voyages with speed, like what would be required of runs between Oparium and Norin. That was where his knowledge of seafaring ended. But he didn’t need an extensive knowledge of ships to know the Phoenix of Mhashan emblazoned on one sail. The other boasted a family’s crest he didn’t recognize.

  He fell out of step with Baldair, letting the prince lead. Erion dropped back half a step with him. Jax was silently thankful for the other man’s intuition.

  “Erion, whose ship is this?” he asked quietly, appreciating the man’s intuition.

  “Field of murrey, two swords fesswise in sable,” Erion stalled, reciting what Jax could see with his own eyes—two black swords on a crest of deep crimson. “The Lady Black belongs to Lord Twintle.”

  Jax’s throat tightened instantly at the name. An old lord of the West, infamous for his staunch desire to protect everything he deemed “tradition” from the “deadly tide of change”. He was the sort of Lord who would know the names and lineage of every Western lord and lady.

  Erion clasped Jax’s shoulder with a firm squeeze, the motion only marginally reassuring. “There’s no world in which a lord would be traveling on his own vessel for a merchant run,” he encouraged. “The captain will be someone much lower.”

  Low enough not to be in the remnants of the old court of Mhashan. Low enough not to know the name Jax Wendyll. That’s what Erion was trying to tell him, but Jax would be unconvinced until they were on and off the ship.

  A surly deck hand sat at the end of the dock where the Lady Black was roped. He whittled away at some wood with a pocket knife, carving a trinket that only he could yet envision. His aqua colored eyes looked up as they approached.

  The man jumped off his crate with a start.

  “How did you two get off the boat?” he asked while pointing his meager knife at Jax and Erion.

  “We were never on the boat.” Erion sighed.

  “Magic.” Jax wiggled his fingers and flames sparked up them.

  The man bumped into the crate he’d been sitting on previously as he took an involuntary step back. Jax grinned wide. Setting someone off-kilter made him feel in control. It took back a small amount of power in situations that he would otherwise be powerless in.

  “Jax, not now,” Baldair scolded.

  Jax lowered his hands obediently.

  “We’re here on behalf of the city guard,” Baldair explained. He pulled at a chain around his neck, flashing the Imperial seal that was a sort of master key to the Empire. There was no door that didn’t unlock for it, not even bank vaults.

  “M-my prince?” The man looked between them, so startled he’d dropped his knife. “Forgive me, m’Lord, I didn’t realize.”

  “We’re personally investigating this ship’s cargo at the request of the portmaster.”

  “Most generous of you, my prince.” The man didn’t seem to know that only one bow at a time was really necessary. “These Westerners are up to some shady business.” His eyes drifted over Erion and Jax. “Not you, these Westerners.” He pointed to the ship.

  “Most Westerners are up to shady business.” Jax continued grinning. He took the opportunity for levity to continue to push down the rising panic he’d felt at the mere idea of boarding a Western vessel. He hadn’t been back in the West in three years, but something about boarding the ship, being surrounded by people he may have one day had a chance to know in a different life, filled him with dread.

  “Not helpful, Jax.” He wasn’t sure if it was Erion or Baldair who chided him. But he held his tongue.

  “Drop the rope ladder!” the sailor bellowed up to the deck.

  A woman with hair pulled back in intricate braids poked her head over the upper railing. Shock overtook her face as she stared down at them.

  “Don’t just gawk, girl. This is an Imperial prince who’s waiting on you,” the man scolded.

  She disappeared in a blink, a rope ladder materializing before them in her wake. It was an unconventional means to get on and off a ship. Jax wouldn’t be surprised if the captain was protesting the hold on his goods by making it more difficult for any inspections to happen.

  The crew was assembled behind a towering man. He stood with an air of authority, long hair held away from his stubble with a sheen of grease and sea salt. Judging from his clothes—marginally finer than the rest of the crew’s—it wasn’t a stretch to assume he was the captain.

  Then he spoke and removed all doubt.

  “They sent a prince to inspect my goods?” He tilted his head to the side. “That’s a bit much, no?” The man spoke with a Western lilt to his words, a certain way the ‘a’ was held that reminded Jax of bygone days he would have preferred to forget.

  “It should be an honor to have the attention of an Imperial prince,” Erion spoke. He placed weight back into his accent as well, something Jax had watched his friend work hard to school out of his speech when he was spending time in the South.

  “Oh, I’m honored.” The man chuckled. “Just don’t want to waste your time.” He spread out his arms. “I’m Captain Dower, and it’s a pleasure to meet you, Prince Baldair.”

  While everyone knew there were only two princes in the Empire, most had never laid eyes on either. And yet the captain knew exactly whom he was addressing. Baldair was known for his Southern features, taking after both his parents. Aldrik, however, had gained much from his late mother,
the first Empress Solaris. This was one of the rare instances where his dark Western hair and eyes may have been welcome, even helpful.

  “Let’s set this matter behind us. My cabin is this way. I’ll let you review my logs and written inventory, complete with signatures all the way from Norin.”

  Jax didn’t say anything. He let the conversation rush past him, as though he stood on a rock in the middle of rapids. The less he said, the less attention he drew to himself, the better.

  “My prince, may I propose we go with the good captain while Jax goes directly to the hold?” Erion motioned to the papers they had received on behalf of the portmaster. “We can check at the same time.”

  “Good suggestion.”

  This ship was not their mission, and Baldair seemed equally eager to complete the task so they could return to what they truly wanted to devote their focus to: getting to the bottom of Renalee’s death.

  “I leave it to you.” Baldair handed the papers to Jax.

  “Jax?” The captain stroked his scruff thoughtfully. “Unique name, that. I heard of a man named Jax a few years back. Did something quite monstrous, somehow didn’t lose his head, and became a dog of the crown instead.”

  Both Baldair’s and Erion’s hands flew to the pommels of their swords. Jax rose his hands to his head. He played with his hair, tying and untying it in a knot, the feeling beneath his fingers discouraging flame. He’d had no idea how they thought of him in Norin. Did they see him as a monster?

  He grinned and spoke before Baldair had a chance. “You caught me! Though you’re a little late, as the crown got me first.”

  “This matter has long been decided and needs not be discussed further.” Baldair gave Jax a cautionary glance, and Jax obliged the silent command.

  “I don’t know if I want such a man—”

  “If Jax isn’t endeared to you, then you have only yourself to blame now.” Baldair handed him the inventory reports that had been mailed ahead of the ship to Oparium. “I trust Jax to do the right thing more than any other guard.”

  Jax accepted the papers with a front of nonchalance. He wouldn’t speak about himself further; Baldair had commanded it, and the less people really knew about him, ever, the better. The forced ease also hid his surprise—and shame—at the idea of how much stock Baldair put in him.

 
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