Caren Hahn

Burden of Power: Chapter One

“Are you the king today?”

Ria stood on the terrace and leaned against the doorframe to her father’s room. The sun was warm against her back, brightening the pale yellow stones beneath her feet so that she squinted against the light. A fresh breeze teased wisps of hair against her neck, carrying the sweet scent of apple blossoms from the king’s private garden.

“Of course I’m the king.” Sindal’s voice, emerging from the dark recesses of his room, held the beginning of a reproof. “Who else would I be?”

“I wasn’t sure.” Ria lingered at the threshold. Not because her father wouldn't welcome her, but because she was reticent to enter the shadowed room. This was the first warm day of the season, and she was loath to retreat indoors. Instead she peered into the room, struggling to see Sindal’s expression clearly. Bright sunlight spilled onto his desk from the diamond-paned window, but he sat just out of reach in the dimness, made all the darker for the light.

“The king would have been standing at my side when the Khouri ambassador arrived with his retinue,” Ria continued. “And yet, I was conspicuously alone.”

A sound like the rustling of paper.

“That’s not until tomorrow,” the king said dismissively.

“No, Far, it was most certainly today.”

Sindal’s chair creaked, and Ria sensed his bulk shifting.

“Are you sure?”

“Unless I simply imagined the lovely gift ceremony that took place an hour ago. Lord Melo brought a dazzling array of opals. And no, I’m not going to share, so don’t ask.”

“Why did no one tell me it was today?” Again the creak of wood straining.

“You mean this morning when Galinn came to fetch you and you refused to let him in? You’ve got to stop doing that to your own steward, Far. I made excuses for you, of course. But really, how did you manage for two years without me?”

“It was far longer for Galinn than for me,” Sindal said with dry humor.

Ria laughed and stepped into the room, leaving the warmth behind. As her eyes adjusted to the shadows, she noticed a pile of papers littering the floor near the king’s feet. “What are you working on that you lost track of the day?”

Sindal laid down his pen and pulled distractedly at his thick, sandy beard, leaving ink behind. The quill seemed to have leaked more ink onto his hands than the paper. Or maybe at fault was the upended inkwell, its contents spilling onto the discarded papers cascading across his desk and onto the floor.

“I can’t remember. I get so close and then it’s gone.”

“Remember what?”

In answer, Sindal shuffled through the nearest pile of papers and thrust one at her.

Ria gingerly stepped through the mess to take it, lifting her skirt to avoid sweeping the wet ink with her hem. It appeared to be a report of some kind which had now been repurposed to compose music. A roughly written staff spanned both sides, with notes dotting the paper and then crossed out in an angry frenzy.

“You’re composing! How lovely!” Ria glanced over the notes and a melody blossomed in her head. Without thinking, she hummed it through until the written music ended abruptly with a heavy ink blot. “It’s beautiful, Far. Is this your creation?”

“No. Yes, maybe.” Sindal yawned and stretched his back. “It feels familiar to me, but I can’t think of where it comes from. This is the closest I’ve gotten.”

Ria picked up a sheet of paper to examine from the untouched pile at the king’s elbow. “Is there a paper crisis I’m unaware of?” It was a personal letter from Merek Strong, her father’s First Captain over the Wall Guard. Beneath it lay an official report from Strong regarding the outer regions of Rahm where he and his troops guarded the borders of the land.

“Why are you composing on…” Ria shifted aside the discarded papers on the floor, peering beneath her father’s scribbles to discern the signature. Understanding dawned. “Ah, I see.” Her smile dimmed. “Far,” she said sternly. “These documents are all from Captain Strong.”

Sindal grunted. He grabbed the letter out of her hands and began scratching a staff right over the top of it, the hasty lines uneven and shaky. His head bent low over the desk, as if his wide shoulders could repel her accusation.

But she would not be deterred. “Troop reports, wall security, even some personal letters. Every single one of these papers came from Captain Strong, and you’re treating them like so much waste.”

Sindal stopped writing and glared at her, his blue eyes crackling a warning. “What does it matter to you?”

“He’s your oldest friend. I don’t know what’s really going on between you, but this feels…childish.”

“Childish?” Sindal’s hand shot out, angrily crumpling the paper and catching the inkwell as he tossed the paper to the floor. Ria gasped as black ink slashed the front of her gown.

“Far! Look what you’ve done!” She reached for a handkerchief, but it only smeared the ink, staining her fingers black. “Biren will never be able to get this out.”

Sindal cringed, and his face reddened. “I’m sorry, Ria. I didn’t mean to…I spent all night trying to remember this melody that won’t leave me alone, and I thought if I could write it down, maybe I could sleep.”

“You didn’t sleep all night?” Her irritation faded at his sheepish expression and bloodshot eyes. His momentary flash of ire was gone, replaced with regret.

Sindal yawned and stood, the chair scraping against the polished wood floor as he pushed his girth out of it. He had put on weight in the years she’d been gone, and since her return two months earlier she had yet to see him join the soldiers in training. At first she thought it was the winter chill that kept him indoors, but spring was erupting around the grounds and still he preferred to keep to his quarters. As he moved to stand before the window, the light emphasized heavy pouches under his eyes.

He’s gotten old, Ria realized suddenly. Somehow, the playful father of her youth was gone, and she felt an unspeakable loss. She stepped up beside him and took his arm, hoping to reassure him by her presence. He didn’t stand as straight as when she’d left Albon two years earlier, and now she was nearly his height. Across the terrace of blinding stones, fruit trees were just beginning to blossom in the king’s garden, forming a fragrant haze of white and pink. It was her favorite view in all of Thorodan Hall. Her own rooms had a less romantic view of the courtyard, and she was more likely to wake to the cackling of a rooster than the cheerful twittering of birds.

After a moment, Sindal shook his head. “You’re right, Ria. This is childish. I’ve wasted half my day trying to capture the ghost of a tune instead of tending to my duties. Was Lord Melo very upset?”

“He’s a Khouri,” Ria said with a wry smile. “Even his anger comes out as apologies and polite smiles. Besides, you can make it up to him this evening at the reception.”

Sindal groaned and ran a hand through his thinning hair. “Don’t you ever grow tired of it all? Don’t you ever wish for a moment’s peace?”

“Of course I do. That’s why I never learned to hunt, so there’s at least one entertainment from which I’m excused. While you and our distinguished guests are up before dawn chasing some poor creature in the damp and the cold, I’ll be enjoying a quiet morning alone with my feet warming by the fire.”

Sindal chuckled and squeezed her hand on his elbow. “Enjoy such luxuries now, my dear. They will be harder to come by when you’re queen.”

“I don’t know about that. Apparently I can ignore foreign dignitaries and lock myself away composing music anytime I wish.”

Her father prodded the papers on the floor with his boot. “I’ll have Martin burn these. They’re rubbish anyway.”

“Oh Far, don’t do that!” Ria snatched one off the desk. “Save one and finish it,” she commanded. “It really is lovely. It would be even lovelier if it were written up properly instead of scrawled over Captain Strong’s letters. I’ll ask for a clerk to copy it out on some clean paper and you can perform it for the captain the next time he comes to Albon.”

Sindal tensed. “Leave it alone, Ria. That’s a private matter.”

“Hardly. All of Albon knows that he refused your appointment to general. So he’s a fool. Men have been guilty of worse. How long do you intend to punish him?”

“You wouldn’t understand.” Sindal patted her hand again, but this time Ria felt a flush of annoyance.

I understand more than you think, she thought. Her father’s brooding. His troubled sleep. His disagreement with Captain Strong had left him shaken and unsure. But Ria wouldn’t say these things to him. For now, she was just pleased that his good humor had returned. If the price was enduring his condescension, her pride would weather it well enough.

It had weathered far worse in recent months and emerged intact.

She felt a tightening in her chest as she always did when she thought of Artem. It had been excruciating seeing him as she passed through Ardania on her return home to Rahm, his new bride on his arm. She’d already heard he’d married, of course. Even in the mountains of Branvik where she’d spent the summer, the court had talked of little else for weeks. They said the king of Ardania had nearly disowned his son over the unsuitable match.

“I’m sorry, my dear,” Sindal said, breaking into her thoughts. “I’m afraid I’m not very good company today.”

Ria roused herself and forced a smile, pushing thoughts of Artem away. “Join us for dinner, and all will be forgiven. If you’re particularly attentive to Lord Melo, I might even share the opals.”

“You know that those gifts are property of the crown and must be duly accounted for, not squirreled away in your room.”

“Tch, tch,” Ria said dismissively. “Then you lead the welcome ceremony next time. At least it’s not offensive for you to be taller than your guest. Do you know how uncomfortable it is to have to shrink as much as possible without appearing to slouch? If I were a man, my height wouldn’t be a point of insult.”

“If you were a man, you would be joining me on the hunt tomorrow.” Sindal’s smile made him seem years younger.

“Fair point. I suppose we both have our own onerous tasks, but that’s one I’ll gleefully leave to you.”

“You’re a strong enough rider. You should join us.”

“Far, did you forget who you’re talking to?”

He looked confused, and heat rose a little in her cheeks.

“Isn’t the point of a hunting expedition to…” she trailed off, hoping he wouldn’t make her finish. “Kill an animal?”

“Ah,” he nodded. “Yes, I forgot. I suppose you wouldn’t have to watch.”

Ria wrinkled her nose in distaste. “Forgive me, but I’d rather not embarrass myself in front of our guests.”

The words sounded ironic to her own ears as she bade her father goodbye and stepped over the piles of ink-stained paper on her way toward the door. As yet her father’s odd moods hadn’t become public knowledge, but she worried about the humiliation he would face if they did. Her eye caught Captain Strong’s signature and she made a mental note to ask Galinn about what had really happened between her father and his oldest friend.

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