Here’s the third chapter of THE WAY INTO CHAOS, on sale now. If you missed the earlier installments:
Lar’s valet had laid out three suits for the prince to choose from. While Tejohn stood against the wall and waited, they discussed each at length. Eventually, the prince combined two, choosing a bright red linen coat with a green-and-yellow-checked shirt. Tejohn wouldn’t have dressed a clown in those colors, but the prince could do as he liked. He always seemed comfortable with his choices, even when he made them sober. The queen wouldn’t like it, but she had asked him to make sure the prince arrived sober, not fashionable.
Eventually, they made their way into the main courtyard. Controlled chaos was a kindly way of describing the work being done there, and the king and queen were in the thick of it.
“My prince! There you are!” Kolbi Arriya raced up the stairs and clutched at the prince’s sleeve. She was the king’s shield bearer, which had once been an honorable position for a talented and well-born young warrior, but in these luxurious imperial times had become a counselor and royal secretary.
She scowled at the prince’s clothes, then at Tejohn. Kolbi herself wore the Italga gray and red, although her clothes were rumpled and soaked through with rain, sweat, or a combination of both. She would not be joining the royal family at the dais looking like that. “You know where to go, my prince? Be sure to let Sincl know if you want to sing first, last, or somewhere in between. He will accommodate you.” She rushed breathlessly toward the food tables without waiting for a response.
Lar laughed, then stopped at the top of the stairs and looked out over the throngs of people. The king covered his face with his hand and turned away in irritation at something one of the chief servants was telling him; the queen stepped in smoothly to resolve the problem. Lar seemed to find the whole thing amusing. “Twenty-three years between Festivals. Do you think my bride will do as well?”
Lar was betrothed to the daughter of the head chieftain of the Indregai Alliance. The girl lived inside the Morning City and was as much a hostage as the Freewell children. When she came of age, they would marry, forging a peace with the people of Indrega and allowing some troops stationed in East Ford to be relocated to the turbulent west.
Tejohn could not help but notice that the prince had asked if his bride would organize the Festival as well as his parents, as though he himself couldn’t be bothered. “I have not met her, my prince.”
“She’s a terror. Only twelve years old and already thinks she’s sitting on the throne.”
Tejohn nodded politely. Typically, no foreigners would be allowed inside the walls of Peradain at all. She and her retainers would be locked up for the next ten days in her big, comfortable house with a watchful guard all around. She would not get within five hundred feet of the Evening People until her marriage was consummated and she’d proven herself loyal to the empire. If that was even possible.
Tejohn gestured toward the royal dais. “Perhaps we should take our place.”
“Not up there,” Lar said, then began moving through the crowd toward the yard below. “I want to wait in the pen with the other singers.”
“Not now, my tyr!” Lar was unexpectedly fervent. Almost fierce. “This…production my parents are putting on may please the Evening People and it may please the merchants and generals and scholars and…and everyone. But I am here as a singer. I will sing my song–which is not a bawd, I assure you–and then I will find a jar of wine and do as little as possible for ten days.”
Tejohn studied Lar’s expression. For this, he finally shows some spine? “My prince—”
“After my song, I will no longer need a chaperone and you can go where you please, but right now, you will come with me to the singers’ pens. I’ll wait there, just as you once did.”
They crossed the courtyard and entered the winter garden at the north end of the yard. Singers and musicians, most of them looking ill-rested and underfed, lounged on benches or sat beside the evergreen shrubs. It was obvious none recognized the prince, because none thought to jump up and offer him their seat. Lar didn’t seem to notice; he moved to the wall overlooking the courtyard and dais.
Sincl found them by the rail and solicitously arranged for the prince to sing the last song of the day, at his request. One of the musicians began to nervously pluck at his lap harp, and Sincl rushed toward him to give the man a sharp kick. Tejohn was glad to see his back; the performance master was a jittery, sweating, nervous wreck.
Down in the courtyard, the tents had been erected long ago, and most of the commotion now centered around the food tables. Servants arranged identical delicacies on each of the six tables: sourcakes, onion soups, pickled compote, leaf rolls, wet rice, and more. The Evening People did not eat animal flesh, so for the rest of the Festival, there wouldn’t be a roasted chicken breast, boiled snake, or stuffed lamb’s heart to be had for any amount of gold anywhere in the Morning City.
Palace guards came through the garden, searching the singers for weapons. Their commander was named Kellin and he was an old friend of Tejohn’s. They were of an age, often playing cards or sparring in the gym. He seemed on the verge of asking a question, if only he could think of a way to say it.
Tejohn knew what the question would be and he didn’t think he could bear to hear it. “I’m here as the prince’s guard,” he said abruptly. “I have no song to sing.”
Kellin nodded, looking a bit disappointed. Never a man for frivolous words—or serious ones—he clapped Tejohn’s shoulder, bowed to the prince, and moved on. When his men had finished, they moved on to the actors in the next garden.
“Col!” Lar called happily. The prince’s friends swarm around them. The Freewell girl was there, and so was her older brother; Bittler had indeed brought him, but he hadn’t convinced them to wash. Still, someone who didn’t know them would have though them respectable.
Lar and the Freewell boy embraced as though they hadn’t seen each other in months. Tejohn hated to admit it, but Colchua Freewell did look more like a prince than Lar Italga: his face was broad and handsome, his smile bold. “We couldn’t let you make a fool of yourself without us to jeer from the crowd!” Colchua said.
“Thanks, Col,” The prince answered. “I can always rely on you.”
“Nervous?” The Bendertuk boy asked, grinning.
Lar nodded yes while he said, “Absolutely not. Why should I be?”
They laughed and talked about inconsequential things as a shadow passed slowly over them. A flying cart circled above the palace. It settled down on top of the Scholars’ Tower and, judging by a flurry of movement Tejohn could barely see, discharged a few men before floating away again.
The Freewell girl broke away from the group and stood beside Tejohn at the garden rail. The dais where the king and queen would stand was below them in the courtyard. It wasn’t proper for singers, actors, mimes, and clowns to stand on higher ground than the royal family, but the portal would open down there, in the usual place, so the rightful order had to be upended. Merchant families, palace servants, notable scholars, and honored guests lounged on balconies, or leaned out windows, or sat on the edges of roofs or promenades.
But there were no tyrs in attendance. Not the loyal ones, not the treacherous ones, none of them.
“Those men down there are palace guards, aren’t they?”
The Freewell girl pointed to a line of men standing fifteen feet behind the thrones. Each held a tall pole with a different colored streamer attached. “Those are athletes,” Tejohn answered, trying to keep the irritation out of his voice. There weren’t supposed to be any guards or soldiers in the yard when the portal opened, but of course, Kellin also had a duty to protect the king and queen. “They’ll be competing in the games.”
“I recognize them.” If that was true, she had sharp vision, and that made him even more suspicious. It wasn’t rational, but few important things were. “They aren’t carrying weapons, though, are they?”
“The Evening People can sense weapons, so no, the athletes are unarmed.”
“Then why… Oh! They’re each holding a pole and streamer, and I’ll bet there’s a sharp metal point at the bottom, right? A spear point?”
Tejohn wondered if she was trying to goading him somehow. “The metal tip allows the pole to be set into the ground. They are not weapons.”
“Right,” she answered. “And those skull-crackers you’re wearing on your wrists are just jewelry.”
There was a sudden flash of light, and a sound like far-off lightning. Tejohn jolted upright, startled. The portal was opening, and soon the Evening People would appear.
The servants who were not supposed to be in the courtyard rushed into the palace. Everyone else hurried to take up their positions, even the king and queen. The scholars, “athletes,” and servants accompanying the royal family–and even the scholars were considered royal bodyguards, although Tejohn was careful not to show his opinion on that–assumed postures appropriate for welcoming respected guests. In the garden, the singers, actors, and other wastrels pressed against the rail, crowding around the prince and his entourage for a proper view.
The flash of light returned, and the disc appeared. It hovered in the air on its edge like one of Twofin’s hoops, and the surface was like a pool of water with bright sunlight reflecting from it. At first, it looked larger than Tejohn remembered, almost as wide as two men lying heel to crown, but no, it was the same.
The Freewell girl shifted position, and he realized she was in a perfect position to fire an iron dart at one of the Evening People as they came through. Tejohn tensed, ready to slam his metal bracer onto her collarbone if she drew something from her sleeve or began to cast a spell, but her hands never left the railing.
He looked back down at the dais. Nothing happened. Tejohn realized he was holding his breath, and exhaled. Had it taken so long for Co, the leader of the Evening People, to step through the last time? He wondered if he misremembered the events of that day, now a generation gone.
Then there was a terrible sound, like an animal roar mixed with a man’s scream. Before it faded, monsters charged through the portal onto the dais.