I’m writing the last scenes of The Invisible Hands — Part 3: Pawn Storm.
I had thought to almost, but not quite, reveal the identity of the Trachian prince at the end of this book, and keep the secret for the next book, The Invisible Hands — Part 4: Mate. This would have been a terrific cliffhanger, but I decided not to be cruel, and, besides, the revelation scenes are a perfect ending for this one. That doesn’t mean there won’t be some kind of nailbiter though.
For the second excerpt I chose most of the second scene of chapter 3, Visitors, featuring Anaxantis and Ravvid, one of the Clansmen.
I hope you’ll enjoy it.
Anaxantis is on campaign.
He has made an alliance with the Rhonoman Influence, and his army is camped some ten miles outside the proud city. The prince lodges at the villa of Arranulf and Hemarchidas, but some nights he spends in his tent, amidst his army, at the campsite.
This is one of those nights. There is much to organize and plan for. Anaxantis concentrates on the tasks at hand, but he feels lonely. He is not the only one…
After about half an hour he went over to his tent. Usually he dismissed both of the guards at the entrance and told them to join their friends at the fire. This evening he noticed Ravvid was one of the sentries.
“Gorny, you can join the others at the fire. Ravvid, I’d like a word with you, please,” Anaxantis said.
Gorny hesitated and then reluctantly wished them both goodnight. He walked slowly to the fire.
Anaxantis frowned for a moment and then went inside the tent, motioning Ravvid to follow him.
“Close the flap, Ravvid, please.”
The prince’s tent was a very elaborate structure, specially made for the campaign. The outside was made of leather. Inside there was a second layer which was subdivided into several compartments. The private compartments were in the back and only reachable through a labyrinthine maze of canvas corridors. The fabric didn’t offer all that much protection, but the sheer number of internal walls made it very complicated to know exactly where the occupant was at any given moment.
Ravvid did as he was asked.
“Why are you laughing?” Anaxantis, who noticed the Clansman was smiling, asked.
“You do realize you’ve made several guys unhappy, don’t you? And I think money is changing hands as we speak.”
“Oh, come on. Didn’t you notice some of the men tarry whenever you send them away when you retire for the night?”
“Well, now that you mention it… Why?”
“Because they hoped that what happened to me would happen to them.”
Ravvid was still smiling.
“That you would ask them to stay. To enter your tent and close it behind them.”
“No. You can’t be implying what I think you are.”
Anaxantis had become pale.
“And money is changing hands?”
“Bets were placed. Who. When. Where.” Ravvid kept a straight face.
“I don’t believe it.”
“It’s true nevertheless.”
Ravvid burst out in laughter as he saw the disconcerted face of the prince.
“But I never gave any of you the least cause to think—”
“You would bed any of us? No, indeed you didn’t. Don’t fret over it. It’s just a harmless pastime.”
“Did you ever… Did you think…”
“Nah. But I’m flattered the other guys will think so. I will deny it of course. Which will make them even more sure. They know how discreet you like to be.”
“I’m so glad I can help to build your reputation among the Clansmen,” Anaxantis said, not even trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. “As long as it is clear that…”
“Perfectly.” Ravvid smirked. “Besides, I wouldn’t like Echron getting the wrong idea.”
Anaxantis face lit up.
“Ah, yes. I saw you sneak away with Echron of Syrdunn that evening, when we camped on the plateau at the southern border.”
“And we thought we were being so careful, leaving the campfire separately.” Ravvid laughed again.
“With several whole minutes between you,” Anaxantis said, and he couldn’t help laughing as well. “Still, it’s embarrassing and annoying all the same,” he added, becoming serious again.
“It’s just a few of the guys and only some of us know.”
“Know? Know what?” Anaxantis asked, all of a sudden worried again.
“That you’re… not free.”
“There’s only a few of us who know. Or rather, who guessed. We’re discreet about it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You. Your brother. You and your brother. Half brother.”
Anaxantis had become fiery red.
“And you thought you had been so careful,“ Ravvid said softly. “Listen, Anaxantis. It doesn’t matter. We don’t know know. Not really. And each of us will deny it when asked.”
“How?” was all the prince asked.
“Little things. Nothing and everything. Things you’d only notice if you were in love yourself. Like I am.”
Anaxantis sat down at the table, still dumbstruck. Ravvid sat down as well and reached for the jar with watered down wine. He filled two stoneware beakers. They both took a swig.
“I miss Echron,” Ravvid said, putting his beaker down. “I still can’t believe he chose me. Of all people, me.”
“He chose you?” Anaxantis asked, feeling stupid.
Ravvid looked up.
“Oh, yes. And he wasn’t shy about it. You’d think with his slender frame and that childlike round face of his he’d be bashful. Forget it. One evening, when we were gathering wood, he followed me. When nobody was around he came up to me. ‘I like you,’ he said. ‘I like you very much. I want to get to know you and then I want to make love to you. It’s all right if you don’t like me. Say so now and that will be the end of it.’ He took me completely off guard. I dropped the wood I had gathered.” Ravvid grinned.
“Just like that, eh?”
“Just like that.”
“Hooray for little Echron, I say.”
“I didn’t know what to say, so I told him that. ‘Say yes,’ he replied and he pulled me over by my shirt. Then he kissed me, sort of deliberately slow, as if he wanted to try out how I tasted. He had an erection and he didn’t care in the least that I could feel it through both our pants. I thought he wanted more, but he drew back in the least discourteous, nicest way you can imagine. ‘First we talk and get to know each other,’ he said. Then he kissed me again. It was all quite confusing for a simple guy like me.”
“Love always is,” the prince said.
“One of the first things I told him was that I’m just an ordinary guy, the son of a hunter, who had lived most of his life in the woods and tanned the hides and cured the meat of whatever his father had shot, until he was old enough to go hunting with him. He will be a count one day. ‘Prince Anaxantis seems to think you’re good enough to be his friend,’ was all he said about that subject. So, you see, I owe you one. A big one.”
“Did the talking take long?”
“We talked whenever we could and before long we knew all there was to know about each other. Strangely enough, he didn’t seem to mind my boring stories of living in a cabin in the woods and occasionally going to the market in the nearest town to sell our wares. He said he had noticed I had watched him during practice.”
“Ah yes, I remember my brother insisting the squires keep up their training, even while we were exploring the border region.”
“Oh, I had seen him from the first day we set out on our journey. The grace in his step, the keen, darting eyes, the open face. I liked it all, right from the start. Even the slight hint of a stutter in his voice. And then I saw them training. So weird. Even the most rugged, older guys were wary when they were paired with him. I soon discovered why. No matter they were twice his size, they were also only half as fast. I noticed he had to hold back or they would all have been very short fights indeed.”
“Smarts beat strength time and time again,” Anaxantis said.
“Maybe, but that wasn’t it. It was smarts and strength. I remember one day when I went to the town with Father, we saw a company of acrobats and dancers in the market square. Some of them were so slender, you’d have thought they would break in two if they ever fell over. Until you saw them moving. Only then did their muscles and the incredible force they could exert become apparent. You don’t need bulk as some of the sons of highlander nobles seem to think.” Ravvid smiled to himself, then his eyes started to twinkle. “Oh, and did I mention how elegantly he moved while trouncing them?”
“I’m sure Ehandar likes him. He’s a sword fighter too.”
“Anyway, we got to know each other quite well pretty soon. I didn’t even mind. I was just happy to be with him. He made me feel special by being so interested in my crummy life.”
“There’s nothing crummy about you or your life, Ravvid mern Torckah. I can understand why Echron would be interested in you.”
“Then I discovered that trained muscles and a light, supple body are good for other things than sword fighting as well.”
“Ah, the talking stopped.” Anaxantis grinned.
“No, never,” the Clansman said and he grinned back. “It just got interrupted. One night, when I had almost reconciled myself to the idea that this was going to be a courtship of several months, he just got up and without a word he undressed completely. By the Gods, he was something to look at, standing there naked in the moonlight. He looked like a young god himself. ‘Close your mouth and get out of your clothes, Ravvid,’ he said in that singsong voice of his. He wasn’t in the least abashed. He was as comfortable naked as clothed. Completely natural, which I suppose it is, really… Sorry. I must be boring you to death and I probably sound like some overexcited youngster.”
“It seems there was much to get excited about.”
“There was. Take it from me, there was. I never thought Mirnidiry really existed but I’m not so sure anymore.”
Ravvid fell silent and his eyes lost their focus. Then he blinked, as if to dispel some mist that clouded his sight.
“I miss him, Anaxantis. I miss him something terrible. Growing up in the woods with your father being away all day and your mother being busy around the house, you get used to being on your own. I was used to it, and it wasn’t as if I was unhappy. I just wasn’t happy. Then he danced into my well-ordered rut of a life and turned everything topsy-turvy. And now I miss him.”
“I miss Ehandar too,” Anaxantis said. It seemed as if he wanted to say more but he stopped. Then he looked at Ravvid. “He makes me wear my scarf, you know, when it’s getting colder. I tell him not to fuss but he always does. I hope he always will, no matter how often I complain.”
“I know exactly what you mean. It’s nice to have someone care about you, not because they have to, but because they want to. I can’t count the times in a day I think, ‘Echron would have loved this sunset,’ or ‘Echron would have enjoyed this wine,’ or ‘Wait till I tell Echron. He’ll laugh so hard…’ Then I realize it will be a long time before I will be able to tell Echron anything.”
“I know the feeling. Then I remember that we are doing this to keep them safe.”
“How do you… manage?” Ravvid asked, looking into his beaker.
“I try to concentrate on the task at hand and plan for the ones that are coming. Though it keeps me busy enough, I can’t say it always works to perfection. But near enough. Speaking of tasks, I have one for you, that is, if you want it. With all this talk about our lovers I almost—”
Anaxantis stopped abruptly and flushed. Ravvid looked up.
“See, maybe it’s not such a bad thing that you invited me into your tent and had me close the front flap. They will talk anyway. Better they speculate about this, about something that didn’t happen.”
“Eh… yes. Yes, you’re right.”
“You said something about a task.”
“Ah, yes. The task at hand. Maybe you know that the last prince of Trachia fled his homeland about two years ago. He is believed to be hiding somewhere in the eastern parts of the Nyamethan territory.”
“Close to the Trachian border. Makes sense.”
“The problem is nobody knows exactly where he is or even whether he’s still alive. A Lorsanthian unit is chasing him. As far as we know without much success. I think it would serve our purposes if we could keep him safe and maybe even help him mount some form of resistance in Trachia. Lorsanthia still needs to keep a military presence there as it is, and I want to pen as many of their forces there as possible.”
“Have you suggested to the Rhonomans we invade Trachia?”
“No, I haven’t. I have something else in mind for our army. But we could spare a mobile unit of, let’s say, about two hundred men, all volunteers, to assist the Trachians in exile. Discreetly.”
“Our Rhonoman allies know about this little plan of yours?”
“More. They will also form a small fighting force to chase the Lorsanthians.”
“Ah, I see. They take pressure off the Trachians, while we offer active assistance.”
“Something like that, yes. Interested in leading our group?”
Ravvid smiled broadly.
“Sure. When do you want me to start?”
“First thing tomorrow. I can only spare about two hundred men. Divide them into skirmishes of about twenty men and take a Clansman to lead each skirmish. All of them have to be good horsemen and excellent shots. And they have to be volunteers to a man. Not the least pressure. I want regular reports sent to Arranulf. He’ll be staying at the villa and he’ll keep me posted wherever I am.”
“If they’re in hiding, they may not be all that easy to find. Maybe they won’t have the will anymore to try to reconquer their homeland.”
“Arranulf has been in contact with a few of their men. There are not many of them left. You’ll have to play it by ear, I’m afraid. However, come to the villa tomorrow afternoon and we’ll tell you all we know.”
“Okay. I’ll be discreet about it. I’ll find some excuse—”
“No need.” Anaxantis grinned. “Just tell them I gave you a special assignment and that I need to brief you as to the particulars. In short, tell them the truth. They’ll immediately discard it and think I need you for something else.”
This time Ravvid flushed.
“How could I ever think I could keep this a secret forever, even from people this close to me?” Anaxantis thought. “For the time being a diversion might suffice.”
“This might be a good time to start thinking how we are going to explain these rumors. To our lovers, I mean,” the Clansman said.
“Ah. Hadn’t thought about that. Is Echron the jealous type?”
“I’d rather not find out, if it’s all the same to you,” Ravvid mern Torckah replied.
“I understand. He is an accomplished sword fighter after all.”
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