Prince Sargan puffed his cheeks as he circled the combat ring, keeping a nervous eye on his challenger. Sargan’s feet slipped in his sandals atop the sandy ground, and his thighs burned from skulking sideways. He longed to scratch the constant itch on the fleshy stomach beneath his leather belt, but that would mean dropping the weapon, and his uncle would yell at him again. The mid-morning heat grew heavier still, and his sweaty hand held a tenuous grip on the rough hilt of the wooden sword.
“Dear Phadite,” he uttered quietly to the goddess. “How I despise swordplay.”
Sargan’s opponent, Prince Rabi of Urul, wore a grin and an easy stance as though the heat had no effect on him. Lean and strong, at fifteen sommers Rabi was already an accomplished swordsman. He could strike and end this farce whenever he pleased.
But he won’t. He hasn’t finished playing yet.
Sargan let go a sigh as he lumbered along like a fat river crab.
“This isn’t a dance, Prince Hog. Strike!” His uncle’s familiar growl filled the ring from the platform above, and laughter flowed from the stalls where the other novice soldiers watched. The loudest sniggers came from the benches where Sargan’s royal cousins sat.
Once again Sargan was to be their entertainment. He glanced at the high seats where a number of city-folk chatted quietly amongst themselves, old men mostly – diehard enthusiasts of the old fixtures, now banned in Azzuri. They would make their unlawful wagers on the sword practice of soldiers. Sargan lowered his gaze to where his band sat. Alangar gave him a nod meant to encourage him, but the concern on the overseer’s brow was poorly disguised. Ibbi sat next to Alangar, his blank stare one of boredom, his tablet nowhere in sight. No one would bother making wagers on Prince Sargan in the ring. There was no point.
Sweat trickled down Sargan’s face, tickling his nose. His palms were wet now, and the sword more slippery in his hesitant grip. Just strike and get it over with, he thought as he blinked up into the white Zraemian sunshine. Desert dust floated in the air. It had blown in with the north wind over the last quarter-moon and now lingered, trapped in the closed confines of the combat ring, making breathing even harder.
“Strike!” General Mutat repeated.
Sargan spied his uncle through the haze. Uncle-general Mutat stood with the other officers on the platform that jutted out and above the stalls. His uncle’s height made him easy to spot, and his linen skirt – so white and crisp. The general’s eyebrows, thickened and defined with black kohl, drew together in a stern frown. A scowl curled his lips. His nephew was a laughingstock. Again.
Pushing down the rising bile, Sargan twirled the sword hilt in his hands, and returned his gaze to Rabi. The young prince grinned. His pointed nose and chin reminded Sargan of the rats that ruled the granaries and city gutters at night. The fact that his mouth seemed permanently open, revealing two large front teeth did nothing to dispel the image. Rabi’s head was shaved, in the Urul fashion, save for the thick, black braid at the back – like a rat’s tail. Rabi the Rat. It had a ring to it.
The rat’s grin hardened. “If ever the day arose,” Rabi said, “in which the fate of our two great cities came down to a battle between you and I, the outcome for Azzuri would be most grievous.”
Sargan winced. Thank the goddess he’d never have to face such a duel. Sargan’s brother, Hadanash, would inherit their father’s seat. Sargan was destined for the temple and a quiet world of books and study. Sword practice would be a distant and unwelcome memory. An utter waste of time. Why bother with it at all? Sargan bowed his head and his arm fell to his side. The wooden sword landed softly in the sand.
“Pick up your sword,” his uncle yelled.
“Why don’t you just strike and get it over with?” Sargan asked Rabi.
Rabi smirked. “I thought you’d never ask.” He lunged and struck Sargan in the arm with the very tip of the wooden sword.
Hot pain ripped through Sargan’s elbow before another smack came to his left flank. He scrunched his eyes tight and put his hands up protectively, but a new pain slammed his other side making him crumple to the ground and scream like a child. Sand was in his nose, his throat, his ears – but the laughter in the stalls rose like desert wind. He blinked up into the dusty sky, holding up a hand. “Mercy, please. I surrender.”
Rabi laughed. “You truly are the worst soldier in all Zraemia, Prince Sargan.” Rabi raised his eyes to the platform. “General, would you give me a worthy challenger? Your nephew is even worse this quarter-moon than the last.”
Laughter rang out again as Sargan sat up and coughed. The general commanded another novice to take up the fight ‒ Alangar.
Alangar, overseer of Sargan’s warband, would turn seventeen sommers in the coming days, and his arms and legs were already muscled like a seasoned soldier. He would be a worthy opponent. Perhaps too worthy. Sargan cast a glance Rabi’s way and enjoyed the flash of doubt on the rat-prince’s face.
“I hope you get walloped, gutter rat,” Sargan muttered under his breath as he brushed sand from his face and arms. He winced as he tried to stand and pain gripped his stomach. But Rabi was not yet done with him. The Urul prince lifted a sandled foot to Sargan’s arse and pushed. Sargan fell face down in the hot sand. Raucous laughter erupted again around the combat ring.
“In the mud where you belong hey, Hoglet?” Sargan heard his royal cousin Ilbrit shout, and ugly sniggering followed. Sargan shook sand from his face. Of course Rabi would milk the moment.
“All right, Prince Rabi. Let’s have a real fight.” Alangar had entered the ring and was already in a crouch. The muscles in his thighs gleamed in the sunshine.
Up in the stalls, there was a flash of movement as city folk raced down to place their wagers. Ibbi was already scribbling on his tablet.
Sargan stood as quickly as he could, leaving his wooden sword where it had fallen. He glanced up to the platform to see Uncle Mutat shake his head. Sargan’s face flushed with heat, his shame hurting more than the cuts and grazes to his sides. He limped from the ring, and down a passage to the cool armoury beneath.
Prince Gutter Rat had been right. Sargan performed even worse today than last practice. At least then he’d wielded his sword, not that it had met any target. He sat on a bench in the dim room and rubbed a hand through his long hair, pulling the leather tie away. Sand fell everywhere.
What was his father thinking? Sword practice was a stupid waste of time that did nothing but humiliate Sargan and entertain the novices. Perhaps that was the purpose – to show them how swordplay shouldn’t be done. Sargan wiped more sand from his face and stood, clutching his fleshy side with one hand. It was time to retreat to his poetry.
Sargan’s skin prickled from the cool water. Dust, heat and frustration washed off him as he swam the length of the pool. His lungs burned as he held his breath and glided to the very bottom then back up where he flicked his long hair and breathed hot air. The pool was nestled beneath lush green palms in the royal courtyard on the lowest terrace of the palace. Sargan floated on his back and relished the few moments of solitude. His fingers walked along the ample side of his stomach and he winced when he prodded – bruises already showing. He took a breath and dove again, but anger and shame lingered like the desert dust, intent on reminding him of his failure as a soldier. His failure as a prince.
Poetry. It was his only escape.
Unlike his brother ‒ the heir-prince Hadanash ‒ Sargan couldn’t impress with swordplay, but there was no better poet in the burgeoning city of Azzuri than he. Not even his tutor Qisht, or his sister – though her verses were largely prophetic – could command imagery and wonder like Sargan’s poems. He evoked laughter and tears in the most succinct of verses. His audiences held their breath with anticipation. He’d rather have that power than any command a sword could enforce.
Sargan lifted his chin and his chest swelled as he stepped out of the pool. Yes, he could almost convince himself he was princely in some way. The warm air touched his skin, drying him almost immediately. He threw a stretch of linen around his waist, tying it at the centre, and sat on the warm tiles under the shade of a palm where he’d placed his things.
He picked up the clay tablet that lay next to his satchel and scanned the words, appreciating the cadence. Sargan enjoyed the story it told, a tale of an ancient aeon and a battle between two great cities – Bahantia and Erus. Unlike most epics, it didn’t end with a grand battle, and one victor – the hero. This one ended in peace. The two kings put aside their grievances. Put aside their lust for war. Put aside their ambition and negotiated peace with nothing more than plain conversation. Dialogue. Talk. Avoiding bloodshed. Sargan regarded it as one of the most noble lessons history taught. He hoped it would send a message to both his father and King Amar-Eshu of Urul.
Flutterings whirled in Sargan’s stomach. The King of Urul, their known enemy, would arrive before the next moon to meet with Sargan’s father-king, and to reclaim his brother Rabi – exchanging Sargan’s brother Hadanash in the process. It would be two sommer’s earlier than the original agreement struck between Rabi’s late father, King Amar-Khamunah, and Sargan’s father. But when Rabi’s brother-prince took the Urul throne, one of his first decrees was to announce the end of the exchange and his intention to collect his brother the very next sommer. The new king’s pronouncement had sent waves of nervousness through all Zraemia and whispers of the Great War to Come sprang to life once more.
Sargan’s poem must be ready. He took a steady breath and picked up a damp cloth to wipe the tablet. He then tested the tip of his stylus – sharp. He brought the quill to his lip and looked up to the vast blue sky in thought. It was important he laboured the point of the futility of war.
A loud splash disturbed his focus and water showered down on his tablet. Rabi had stepped into the pool’s shallow side. Sargan closed his eyes with a sigh. He wrapped his two clay tablets in the damp cloth, placing them carefully into his satchel along with his stylus.
Rabi’s head popped up, and he swung his braid and splashed about for a moment before heading for the steps. Rabi wasn’t a confident swimmer, and he never ventured to the deeper side of the pool.
Perhaps I could challenge the rat to a swimming fixture, Sargan thought with a flush of wickedness.
Rabi stepped out of the pool, naked, his body showing the sure signs of manhood. His muscles were lean and defined and a sprinkling of dark hair covered his groin and formed a soft line on his abdomen. Sargan puffed his cheeks as he tied the string on his satchel. He and Rabi were the same age, but their bodies couldn’t be more different. Where Rabi already had the physique of a young, strong soldier, Sargan was soft and round with no visible musculature to speak of. Rabi’s skin was brown and already bore scars from the field. Sargan’s remained a pale gold, almost pink in places. A coward’s complexion, his uncle-general told him.
The young women in the palace looked at Rabi with eyes that spoke of a certain desire whenever he passed. The same girls only held their hands to their mouths and giggled when Sargan approached.
With a sigh, Sargan placed his feet under him and tried to stand but his fat stomach prevented him from gaining momentum.
Rabi laughed and held out his hand. “Here, let me help you.”
Reluctantly, Sargan took Rabi’s hand and was hoisted swiftly onto his feet. “My thanks.”
Rabi grinned, slyly, just like he did in sword practice, and before Sargan gained his footing, the rat let go his hand.
“Agh!” Sargan’s feet danced backwards, his arms whirled, and he fell like a sack of sand, landing hard on his arse.
The rat laughed.
Forcing down a whimper, Sargan rolled onto his knees. An extra bruise on his buttocks would be added to his tally of injuries.
“Here.” Rabi clutched beneath Sargan’s armpits and he was hoisted onto his feet.
He pushed away and spun to face Rabi with a snarl. “Leave me alone.”
“Ah, come now, Sargan. I was only toying with you.” Rabi smiled a wide grin revealing his two large front teeth. “We have to have our fun while we can, you and I.”
Rabi stood a full head higher than Sargan, which meant he’d grown a lot since three sommer’s past when the royal exchange had taken place and the Urul prince became their permanent guest, a diplomatic hostage. Back then, Sargan had been the taller one. All the other noble boys their age had grown too, but Sargan remained a squat honey dumpling by comparison. A fact that earned him the nickname Prince Hog, which his uncle-general enjoyed saying over and again. Princes were not meant to be short and fat. All the epic poems told of princes tall, strong and handsome with silk black hair to their waist, skin tanned, and muscles that gleamed.
“Nita!” Rabi flicked his head to call for the servant girl.
Sargan sighed and bent to pick up his satchel. He’d have to find a corner of the palace to continue his poetry, perhaps the lotus garden. Or the kitchen gardens. The aroma of fresh herbs was always calming.
“Nita!” Rabi bellowed again.
“You won’t find the servants now.” Sargan pursed his lips and turned to look up at the prince. There was a graze and a bruise on his arm. “They’re busy with the preparations for the evening’s banquet.”
“I cannot wait for the season to reach its peak and for my brother to come and retrieve me.” Rabi wiped water from his arms, and the graze began bleeding. “I grow weary of the laziness of your slaves. They are not disciplined near enough. Every whip in this palace is coated with dust and cobwebs.”
Sargan turned to leave. He’d heard this argument a thousand times. In Rabi’s eyes the city of Azzuri had a second-rate palace, smaller and plainer than the Golden Palace of Urul, the heart of Zraemia, where Rabi belonged. The food here was bland, and the slaves lazy and impertinent. In Urul, everything was better. It was a ‘truth’ known by all Zraemians, Rabi would say, and even by the gods themselves as cited by that famed Zraemian epic.
The Aurannan was an ancient legend recited in the streets of every Zraemian city from Higlash to Praeta, and all noble families housed a private copy on gilded tablets. It provided a moral code every citizen aspired to live by, but it also held a prophetic element, one Rabi enjoyed repeating until Sargan was sick to death of hearing it – that Zraemia would one day unite under one city, one king. Rabi believed that day drew close.
“The sooner my brother takes his rightful position as king of all Zraemia the better.”
There it was. As expected Rabi brought up the prophecy and his brother-king’s calling to it.
Sargan turned slowly. The graze on Rabi’s arm was still bleeding and a red streak of it now glistened in the sunshine. “I take it you lost then?”
Rabi frowned. “What?”
“Looks like Alangar got a strike in.” Sargan pointed to Rabi’s arm. “It’s a good thing we still use wooden swords.” Sargan pursed his lips to hide a smile as he turned and walked away.
“Why do you allow him to speak to you that way?”
Sargan’s eyebrows rose. He turned slowly once more to face the rat.
Rabi was looking at him, head tilted. “General Mutat, I mean. He’s your uncle, but the way he calls you Prince Hog, the way he laughs at you, mocks you. No prince in my city would be treated like this. No servant, no slave, no general or even an uncle would dare talk to a prince like that. I wouldn’t stand for it.”
The burn of humiliation Sargan tried to cool suddenly flared to life, and his cheeks warmed.
Rabi seemed to be waiting for an answer, standing there, still naked in the afternoon sun.
Sargan licked his lips. He’d asked his father this very question once before. Why he allowed his brother-general to humiliate his own nephew – a prince, second in the royal line. But his father only waved him away and muttered something about war and truth and being a leader. Leaders, heroes, were never humiliated in the epics.
“Well, what’s the answer, Prince Hog?”
“How dare you.” A new voice entered the courtyard.
Sargan and Rabi both turned to look at the edge of the pool where Sargan’s sister now stood. Heduanna was carrying her cat, Smite, but she put the creature down to remove her skirt, and soon stood before them naked. Heduanna was a true beauty. Men and women from cities all over Zraemia revered her. Even now when her skin seemed paler than its usual golden sheen, she was still beautiful. Her hair fell down her back, shining in dark waves to her waist. Even without makeup she was a beauty to behold. She dove into the pool with the grace of a heron. Sargan sneaked a sidelong glance at Rabi. The rat prince stood with mouth open, eyes wide.
Heduanna swam the length of the pool and climbed out on the other side, the deep side, the water dripping from her lithe body. She combed her long black hair with her hands and the fullness of her young breasts rose seductively. Sargan glanced back at Rabi whose eyes were even wider, mouth open just a touch more.
Thanks to the royal courtyard and this pool, Rabi had seen the princess naked on more than one occasion. Something many Zraemian men, and some of the women, would give an arm for. But the way he watched her, it was like he’d never seen her before. Had he stopped breathing?
Heduanna walked over and stood in front of Rabi with hands on her hips, legs slightly apart. She too was shorter than the prince but she gave Rabi a level stare. “Well, what do you have to say for yourself? Why are you speaking to my brother, a Prince of Azzuri, in such a disrespectful manner?”
Rabi blinked, and a deep blush was beginning to form on the Prince’s cheeks. “I-I-I was just making conversation. It won’t be long now before I must return and I was thinking your brother and I should make an alliance if we can.”
His sister lifted her chin toward the linen rack and said, “Fetch me a towel of linen.”
“Of course, Princess.” Rabi rushed to the reed shelf and grabbed a roll of linen. The beginning of an erection stood prominent before him.
Sargan almost felt embarrassed for him. His sister gave Sargan a wink and he clamped his lips together in an effort to stop a giggle from escaping.
Rabi returned with the linen and handed it to Heduanna who snatched it from him and toweled her arms.
“Where is your linen? Why do you stand around so indecently?” she said.
Rabi’s blush spread even further. “I-I called for Nita but she hasn’t come.”
“Nita is busy. You should know to attend to such things yourself.”
Sargan could not help but smile, he felt like rushing to his sister and embracing her like he used to do all the time when they were children.
“Of course, Princess.” Rabi bowed his head.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Off you run.”
Rabi bowed once again before turning and running off, his erection bouncing.
“And, Rabi?” Heduanna said, as she tied the linen around her chest.
Rabi’s face was entirely red now. “Yes, Princess?”
“Please employ a roll of linen. I don’t want you distracting the servants with that little thing.” She gestured to Rabi’s groin.
Rabi’s eyebrows curved and his lips quivered before he raced to the rack to cover himself with a stretch of linen and finally retreat.
“Thank you, sister,” Sargan said, still smiling.
“It was my singular pleasure, brother.” She finished tying the linen, then she put a hand to her forehead, and walked hesitantly to a stone bench in the shade of a palm and sat, taking a deep slow breath.
Alarm flared in Sargan’s mind. His sister was still recovering from her latest convulsion. This was the first time Sargan had seen her upright since it happened three days ago.
A cacophony of giggles emanated from the other side of the pool, and Sargan turned to see a group of his female royal cousins entering the courtyard, and preparing for a swim. They glanced at Heduanna before whispering to each other and giggling once more.
“Sister, are you well?” Sargan ignored his cousins as he turned back to his sister, concern making his voice waver.
“Well enough. I’m not yet used to exertion.”
“Did you have—”
“Have you spoken to Father yet?”
A frown crinkled her smooth forehead. “Not yet. I’m sure he will summon me soon.”
Their cousins were in the pool now making splashing noises and their giggles filled the space. Sargan turned his shoulder to better ignore their antics and saw Qisht enter the courtyard.
Qisht was many things to many people, tutor to Sargan and Heduanna, overseer of the palace servants, and key advisor to the king. Qisht had taught Sargan everything – letters, numbers, history, medicine, politics, astronomy, poetry and more. They had a lesson after the morning meal every second day. Often Heduanna would also take part in their lessons. But lately, she’d grown rather uninterested in what Qisht had to say. She was fascinated with chasing the slave boys at night, and even the guards, apparently. Sargan had heard the rumours, and he knew most of them were true. His sister’s entry into womanhood had brought with it a lustful desire that drove gossipy tongues, especially those of their cousins.
“Princess, how are you faring?” Today Qisht wore a face full of makeup. Heavy kohl lined both eyes and brows. Ochre dusted his cheeks and lips. His short hair was oiled and combed back, not a hair out of place. His pristine white skirt ended mid-calf and sported not one wrinkle. He wore a matching collar and wrist cuffs of turquoise and gold, gifts from Sargan’s father-king. He looked more princely than Sargan ever could.
Sargan’s sister did a poor job of concealing her dislike of Qisht. Her mouth pinched back as though she’d just sucked a lemon. “I am well enough.” Her gaze found the pool, her dark lashes prostrate, as though bored, as though she addressed a kitchen servant, rather than a high-ranking one.
“Hello, Qisht,” Sargan said.
Qisht nodded. “Good afternoon, Sargan. I hear your sword practice did not go so well.”
Sargan winced. If Qisht already knew about his performance that morning, his father would also know. He shrugged. “Surely it is of no surprise to you.”
Qisht reached out and patted Sargan’s shoulder, a look of sympathy in his eyes.
Sargan should despise that look, but he couldn’t help but appreciate it now. It was nice to have someone understand the humiliation swordplay caused him. “I just don’t understand why Father wants me to carry on with it. I’m to go into the temple soon, and Father relies on my scribing more and more with every court session. Why does he need me to humiliate myself? And why does he allow my uncle-general to talk to me the way he does?”
“Your father has his reasons for everything he does.” Qisht gave him a smile. “Perhaps you should tell him how you feel.”
“I tried once before.” Sargan released a slow breath. “Father wouldn’t be pleased if I complained. He’d tell me I need to practice swordplay. It’s what princes do.” He shook his head. “But when I’m a priest, I’ll not need to battle a man in a sword fight.”
“Sargan.” His sister brushed her hair with an ivory comb she’d retrieved from the rack, and spoke to him as though he now bored her too. “When are you going to grow up? You are a Prince of Azzuri. You must become a man, and soon. You must be stronger than this… this snivelling child.”
Sargan sniffed. Her words stung. His sister was so confusing. Mostly she supported him, defended him, but other times like this, she only seemed to criticise.
Heduanna stood and gave Qisht a brief glare before walking off.
“Princess,” Qisht called after her. “Your father wants you present in his reception room after sundown. High Priest Lipit intends to call.”
She paused and threw another squinted stare at Qisht before leaving.
The royal cousins were still in the pool, though they had grouped in a far corner and Sargan noted how they watched Heduanna leave and whispered to each other in an obvious fashion behind their hands. Sargan frowned.
“Your sister resents me because of my relationship with your father,” Qisht said.
Sargan raised his eyebrows. He’d never heard Qisht speak so frankly before. Sargan’s mother had died long ago. His father had not had relations with anyone for years after, until Qisht came into the palace and into their father’s service when Sargan was a young child. Sargan’s father had won Qisht in a wager with the old king of Urul – Rabi’s father. King Amar-Khamunah was drunk at the time, or so it was rumoured. Qisht was a brilliant scholar and proved a shrewd political advisor. As it turned out, he was also a sound lover, and Sargan’s father regularly took him to his bed. Everyone knew about it. But Heduanna didn’t like it. Not one bit.
Sargan shrugged. “My sister seems to get moodier the more she grows into womanhood.”
Qisht smiled. “That is true, my friend.” He glanced at Sargan’s satchel. “Is that your poetry?”
“Yes, would you like to hear it so far?”
“I would like nothing better.”