A Crime of HonorTristen Kozinski & Keegan Kozinski / Fantasy
A Crime of Honor
By Keegan and Tristen Kozinski
Surr Portrait – Keegan Kozinski
copyright June 2017
Other stories by Keegan and Tristen Kozinski
The Darkness That Slept
The City of Locked Doors
Keegan’s comic strip
A Crime of Honor
The Burning Forest crackled and spit overhead, it’s smokeless, ever-burning leaves showering those who rode beneath them with flecks of glowing cinders. A swell of air rolled through the caravan, compounding the already sweltering heat and filling their nostrils with the scent of char.
A wagon groaned down the line, drawing Surr's gaze back along the caravan of leather-cloaked riders to where the driver coughed into his mask. Noticing his lord’s attention, the man lifted a hand to wave at Surr: it was nothing. He turned back to the front, grabbing the edges of his leather coat and adjusting it to cover the paper sword belted at his hip
The wagons behind him carried several thousand pounds of khamut grain, papyrus and ivory: their quarterly tithes to the crown. One of the wagons also carried twenty-five bars of Irat, the Red Gold they dug from the Ash Seas: true tithe.
Keira rode up beside him on an uneasy horse shod in rubber and iron to protect it from the embers. She let her soothing hum fade away and pulled aside her featureless black mask, revealing a crimson face. "Majesty, the wagons will not last much longer."
"No more than a couple hours for the worst cases."
"How many are there?"
He nodded and raised a clenched fist, calling for the caravan to halt. The ash floor parted beneath him with a cough of smoke as he reined his horse to a stop. "Use the Arrac paste to reinforce the wheels and transfer as much weight as you can to the horses."
"Are you certain, Majesty? We cannot know how far we stand from the end of the forest let alone one of the outposts. Using the Arrac could leave us stranded."
He shook his head, edging his own, much calmer mount, toward a surer stretch of ground. "We are not far now; the Arrac is just to ensure we reach the forest’s edge."
Keira bowed from the saddle and returned down the line, calling for the engineers to retrieve the Arrac: a fireproof, but deleterious, mixture designed to protect the wheels as a last resort.
The engineers rushed to accomplish Surr's order; every second they spent slathering Arrac on the burnt wheels of one wagon allowed the forest’s detritus to consume the wheels of another. As they worked, Surr reached a hand into his coat pocket, cautious to protect a piece of cloth near his heart from the falling embers. The fabric shifted at his touch, reassuring him that his promise was intact as the words he had written there filled his mind: three words written five times, once for every person he had made the promise to: 'I will return.' He relinquished his contact and pushed the memory of his wives and children from his mind; like his emotions, he couldn’t let them affect his decisions now.
Keira rode up beside him. "It is done."
He nodded and motioned for the caravan to start moving once again, disturbing the little mound of ash that had already gathered around the wagons. They traveled another four hours before the soot-blackened trees finally parted around them, opening onto the charred grass of the Inner Kingdom.
Surr shed his coat and draped it across his horse's hindquarters. "Check all the contents; make sure none of it has been damaged." Keira nodded and fell back, replacing her unadorned mask with the red and black one of Surr's household guards.
The wagons groaned out from the forest one by one and drew to a halt in the open space, their various caretakers gathering around to scrutinize them and their contents for damage. The wheels received particular attention because iron coating could only do so much against live ashes.
Surr turned his gaze north, searching the horizon for the Chalat Outpost's marking smoke. No roads crossed the Burning Forest because the paths never survived the fire, and the very nature of its trees made it impossible to walk a straight path. As such, one could never be certain where they might emerge. Thus, the border outposts light colored fires and blow great plumes of smoke into the sky, ensuring travelers could find them. He caught sight of the telltale green smoke rising in the East and returned to the wagons.
Keira emerged from the bustle to meet him, her red hands carefully rolling a finger-length scrap of paper into a scroll. He pulled up in front of her and leaned down to accept the missive. "What are the initial damage reports?"
"Poor. Less than a handful are sturdy enough to travel any distance; we'll need to replace the wheels at Chalat if we want the wagons to reach the capital."
Surr placed two fingers in his mouth and blew a piercing whistle. "We'll drop the grain off at Chalat; they can handle the rest while we continue." A red and black falcon swept down from the sky to alight upon his arm, its dark eyes looking little short of vicious. He fed the bird a morsel of dried meat from a pouch at his waist then slipped the scroll into a canister tied to its leg. "Take this to Chalat." The falcon gave a cry, and he flung it skyward, where it circled once before carrying their damage report to Chalat's craftsmen.
Surr watched it fly into the distance. "Have you spoken with the soldiers again, made sure they understand my intent and fully realize the possible ramifications?"
"Are they aware those ramifications will extend to them and that they are under no obligation to continue?"
"Yes, they have all accepted the consequences."
He nodded and turned his gaze down to her. "Very well. Please inform the crowns men that we’ll be entrusting them with the grain in Chalat."
"They will question your decision. You rarely accompany the tithe past the southern edge of the Burning Forest, and never follow it all the way to the capital."
"Inform the captain that we carry a special cargo and that, I, fearing recent banditry, wish to deliver it myself; they will not question my caution."
"As you say, Majesty." She bowed, kissing her fingertips and touching them to her brow. Rising, she spun on her heel and marched to a cluster of pale-skinned men in sleek green armor. She spoke to them, and they responded politely enough at first, but their voices and mannerisms soon turned harsh. One of them, the captain by his blue helmet crest, shoved past her, striding toward Surr with long, pounding steps.
Despite his small stature, the man showed little trepidation as he reached Surr and doffed his helm. "Your Highness, I must insist we accompany you to the capital, leave your own troops with the task of guarding the grain. We know these lands far better and while your...." He glanced back at Surr's troops with an evident struggle to restrain his words,"...diversity might serve you in the Southern Kingdom, it is a custom poorly suited to the Inner."
"While your words have merit, Captain, I am unfamiliar with the abilities of your soldiers and that makes it difficult to command them effectively should a conflict arise. More importantly," Surr raised his left hand, baring the wide, rust-hued lines encircling his arm, "you are unaccustomed to my abilities, and I am unwilling to endanger your lives through that ignorance."
The captain shifted his stance, widening his shoulders and grinding his feet into the charred grass. "Your Highness, I really must insist; the Emperor does not permit foreign soldiers into the capital."
Surr watched him for a long heartbeat, pressing down with his eyes. The captain resisted this coercion, but not without cost. The soft, natural glow that accompanied everyone in the Inner Kingdom faded from his person, leaving him with a distinctly smaller presence. He shifted again, his fingers tightening on his helm. "Your Highness, please stop this, I will not be bullied!"
Surr sighed inwardly. 'So be it.' He reached inside himself and called forth a box. It materialized in the darkness of his cold detached mind, an image perfectly imagined. It was rectangular and sleek, carved from rich cherry wood with dragons and flames emblazoned upon its surface. Surr took the box in his mental hands, feeling his thoughts warm from the heat it exuded, and turned the latch. A burst of heat swelled out, coloring his thoughts with anger. He took this passion and channeled it into his hands and jaw, tightening the first and hardening the second. Even though the law protected soldiers from a nobleman's wrath, Surr's anger still carried enough threat to force compliance.
"Captain, you forget your place. I am a High-Prince and the ruler of the Southern Kingdom: it is not your privilege to challenge my word." With a sharp yank, he pulled his horse away and glanced back over a shoulder. "If you doubt my loyalty to the Emperor, then I would remind you that I have sworn oaths that would make your heart stop. Keira, are the wagons ready?"
She, hitherto hanging back, rode up beside him and nodded. “Yes, Majesty.”
"Then let's go." The call to move out sounded, and he nudged his horse forward, locking his anger back into its box. Beside him, he felt Keira's muted glee despite her concealing mask; as a former nonhuman inhabitant of the Inner Kingdom, she took a certain, vengeful glee from any situation wherein he bullied its soldiers. "Lock it up, Keira, we have no quarrel with them."
The glee vanished. "Yes, Majesty, forgive me; old memories linger."
"Then put them aside, they have no place in our acts here."
She bowed her head. "Yes, Majesty."
They crossed into Chalat several hours later and rode onto the cobbled streets without pomp. Even if they had galloped through the gate to blaring trumpets, the various soldiers, craftsmen and general inhabitants would have paid them no mind; they had no interest in a Moorish lord from the Southern Kingdom.
This disinterest changed when he rode into the carpenter yard and the chief artisan rushed out to greet him.
The aging, portly man reached Surr and bowed, wiping at the wood shavings on his clothing and doffing his hat. "Your Highness, it is an honor to serve you."
Surr ignored the stares quickly turning in his direction. Like all outpost governors, Chalat's head carpenter bowed only to High-Royalty. "Do you have the wheels I requested?"
The chief artisan flinched and dropped a second bow, his hat suffering in his clenched hands. "I'm afraid not, your Highness, we did not have the time to fulfill your request, and another caravan claimed the only wheels we had in stock." The artisan twisted his cap harder and looked at his feet, uncertain of how Surr would react. There were laws forbidding lords from punishing the lower classes, but there was also a difference between a lord and Surr.
"Do you know where I might find these individuals?"
The chief artisan sagged with relief. "Yes, Your Majesty! They're in the restaurant across the street waiting for us to finish outfitting their wagon."
"Have you finished?"
"No, your Highness, we were about to begin."
"Would you please hold that action for a few minutes, I wish to speak with the merchants."
The artisan bowed again. "Of course, Your Highness."
Surr withdrew across the crowded street to a small restaurant that appeared to specialize in smoked meat. Due to the fine day, the majority of its patrons occupied the outside tables, including a contingent of Chalat's soldiers. As a result, the interior seemed mostly empty, a supposition supported by the general lack of noise.
Keira dismounted as they arrived. "I will speak with the merchants and acquire the wheels, Majesty; is there aught you would like from inside?"
She departed, leaving Surr alone but for a quartet of his guards. The wagons, Inner Kingdom soldiers and most of his retinue had stayed outside Chalat to avoid clogging the streets.
A roar of bawdy laughter drew Surr's gaze back to the soldiers. One of the Chalat soldiers stood before an overturned seat with a Chiary youth sprawled on the ground before him. The small, blue-skinned creature scrambled to his feet and leapt away from the guard, clutching his serving platter before him like a shield. The guard followed him, hurling a tankard filled with ale at the creature so its contents splattered across his face. "Come on, send the girl back!"
The Chiary scowled. "If you had behaved less like a pig, she might actually consider serving you!" The Chiary ducked behind his platter as the guard flung the remaining ale at him, soaking the thin coating of feathers on the back of his head and tail.
The guard lunged forward and caught the Chiary by his collar. He lifted the youth off the ground and tore the serving platter from his hands. "Well, I don't want any feather-skins touching our food, so I guess you'd better find somebody else."
“Let go of me!” The Chiary smashed his forehead into the soldier's nose and dropped to the ground as the man reeled back.
The soldier lunged forward, one hand pressed to his bleeding nose, and struck the Chiary across the face hurling him to the ground. "You'll behave yourself while you're in Chalat, or we'll cut your tail off!"
"You can try--"
"That is enough." They both turned to look at Surr, the guard defiant and the Chiary frowning. Surr stared at them from atop his horse, one eyebrow slowly rising at the guard's defiance. "The abuse of any individual is prohibited, and debasement qualifies as such."
The soldier moved forward. "No one cares, he's just a bloody feather-skin, doesn't even belong in this part of the country. Plus, did you see what-"
"Where he belongs is not your concern; if you do not wish him to serve you out of personal prejudice then so be it, but you will not strike him again."
"This is none of your business, so take your pompous ass and march back south where you belong!"
"Watch your tongue," Keira's voice snapped across the courtyard startling the guard, who spun around to face her.
He sneered. "That Moorish prince of yours might call you a soldier, but that won't stand here!"
Although the mask concealed her face, Keira's anger leaked into the air, dangerous and palpable. "Hold your tongue, imbecile, you do not speak to a low-born water-baron." She advanced. "You stand in the presence of Surramad Hakara, High-Prince of the Southern Kingdom, Lord of the Ash Seas, Blood of the Sun, Heir of--"
"Enough, Keira, we do not have time to inflict all my titles on him. Grab the boy and let's go."
She strode past the stuttering soldier to grab the stunned Chiary and drag him back to Surr.
The guard, meanwhile, slumped to his knees. "Please, for-forgive me! I-"
"I am done with you, go." The soldier sprang to his feet and fled, leaving Surr to rejoin his entourage.
Keira nodded at one of Surr's guards, sending him back to the wood yard, and swung up into her saddle, pulling the Chiary after her. "The merchants have agreed to sell their wheels to us if you purchase the entirety of their merchandise."
Surr nodded acquiescence and addressed the young Chiary, "What is your name, boy?"
The youth squirmed behind Keira, his tail curling in the air behind him. "Baciles. Why did you do that? You just cost me my job, and now nobody'll hire me!"
"And I fully intend to repay that debt. I can offer you a lump sum of money, or employment in my service."
The youth's eyes widened. "What? Serve you! A High-Prince! What would I even do?"
Surr shrugged. "I'm sure we could find some use for you."
"No, I'm not buying that some blood of the-whatever is going to hire me! You're full of horse--"
"Hold your tongue." Keira elbowed him in the gut.
He grunted and wheezed. "Is that all you know how to say?"
Surr felt the box of amusement stir in his mind and pushed it a little further down. "Do not make this decision lightly, what I will require of you is far from easy and will not see you hailed as a hero."
"Yeah? What are you going to make me do? Clean the latrine? I've already done that a hundred times."
Surr glanced back at him, the box of amusement stirring once again and this time he let it open a crack. "No, we're going to kill the Emperor."