Hm, Rin mused, seems I've joined the alleycats after all...
The scents of passion mixed with the scent of the road, the horses, and days of being unwashed; Rin put her foot down.
“Baths are in order, my prince.”
Cavik gave her a wry smile, as if he heard her thought, though he was referring to the baths.
“I think you’re right.
In the waters of a natural pond inside the palace grounds, they scrubbed themselves clean, their backs to each other.
Afterwards, soaking, Cavik watched the guards snuffing out the torches before discreetly finding other duties, leaving the two of them alone.
Rin looked up, saw them leaving.
“Something you want to tell me, Cavik?”
“I think you’re going to make a fantastic queen.”
She smiled at that. “Let’s see what your mother has to say, first.”
He flushed, then nodded in acquiescence; it bothered him that he had no control over what happened with his family.
He held out little hope for favor; he’d have to tell them who she actually was, and as much as it was fated, he wouldn’t lie to his parents, but he hoped against hope that they’d come to accept her.
They languished a bit longer than they should have, knowing that when they emerged, things would be set in motion that couldn’t be stopped.
The moon reached its zenith, their skin was wrinkly, and the water had chilled since they’d entered it.
“It’s time,”Cavik said.
Rin didn’t answer, her expression unreadable.
Cavik, to be honest, felt a little fear himself, but he’d never tell her that.
Clearly, she was trying to calm herself, marshal her being, as it were, for the unpleasant task ahead.
She didn’t look up at him as she dried herself. “Yes?”
“We needn’t do this tonight, if you don’t want.”
She looked at him then, those bi-colored eyes concerned, but with a glimmer of amusement in them.
“What will change by morning?”
“They’ll be fed, and in a better mood.”
There was some merit to that, but Rin really thought there was no point in delaying it.
“They’re not going to accept me, Cavik. Seriously, we only met today, and we may have already made an illegitimate heir.”
He stared at her to see if she was joking, but she didn’t seem to be.
“You mean you-?”
“I don’t know. I don’t keep track; it comes when it comes.”
“Don’t do that, Cavik. I asked, and you consented and…did your part.”
She couldn’t help smiling then, and his answering grin was lopsided.
“I think it was actually your part.”
She laughed. “That’s rude, my prince.”
“It was,” he said, walking towards her, “but you liked it.”
She looked up at him.
“It’s you I like, gods help me.”
They kissed lightly, and stepped away from each other to finish dressing, he in semi-formal finery, and she in a clean dress provided by Irin, before things got out of hand again, and they needed another bath.
“What’s this about, son?” King Evin asked.
“You disturb our rest, Cavik," Queen Silia said.
“I want you to meet someone…”
“Now, Cavik?” Evin was angry.
“Well, it’s sort of hard to explain…”
“Since you’ve awakened us, as if we’ve not enough to do tomorrow, you might as well try,” Silia said, her arms folded.
Outside the door, under the eyes of a scowling guard, Rin put her head down to hide her smirk.
Cavik liked to go in disguise among the populace, ‘to seek adventure.’
Sio had asked that since he indulged in such folly, he might as well spy.
Cavik agreed, and discovered that on the outskirts of town, the people were restless and dissatisfied with the way their fortunes had turned under his father’s rule.
It made Cavik angry when they cursed the man, but he kept his cool, and more often than not, was able to draw them out.
His father made what reforms he could, but not having total authority, a lot of them got stalled, and eventually dropped, by his Royal Advisors, and a more cantankerous and self-serving lot, Sio could not imagine.
As Cavik exited the tavern, he saw a jet black tent, all by itself, pitched on the very edge of the town border.
Against the bright sky it looked like a portal into the void.
Wit saw where the prince was looking, and slowly shook his head: “Don’t do it, my prince.”
“Whose tent is it, Wit?”
“It’s the tent of a hag, ugly beyond description, foul beyond darkness, and you’ll want nothing to do with her. She’s an oracle, of sorts. Captain Lio often used her skills before battle, but as we’ve had none lately, I know of no one else who seeks her out.
“How she sustains herself, and why she lingers, are matters of curiosity best left alone.
“Let’s return to the palace.”
Cavik began walking toward the tent.
“I’ll not be held responsible for this folly, Cavik!”
Wit left him, returning on his own.
Cavik pulled the flap of the tent aside; it was heavier than it looked, and he wound up putting more effort into it than he realized he would need.
A burst of light split the darkness, and the silence hit Cavik in a wave.
Incense fought a futile battle against the scents of age, death, decay, and swamp, and Cavik coughed and put the front of his shirt over his mouth and nose.
A shadow detached itself from the darkness, and a lantern was lit.
In its light was the silhouette of an old, bent woman in dark robes.
She held the lantern up to her face, and her good eye flashed in anger as she hissed at the intruder.
“You disturb my rest, whelp. I will make you pay.”
In an instant, Cavik was kicking at air, his feet off the ground, his hands pushing down and against something he couldn’t see.
It seemed as if a giant hand was trying to squeeze his guts through his throat, and he gurgled in protest, trying not to breathe, because the grip would grow tighter when he did.
In desperation, his hand flailing about at his side, he found what he needed, and tossed the bulging purse of gold at the hag’s feet.
Some of the coins spilled out onto the floor.
She studied them for a moment by the lantern’s light, then let Cavik drop in an undignified heap, holding his throat.
“Here,” she said, handing him a large cup of water. “There’s no witchings in it, I swear.”
She laughed at her own joke; Cavik did not, but gratefully drank the water,
She turned away, lighting nothing else, and beckoned for him to follow her by its light of that single lantern.
Through a beaded curtain of white they walked.
The hag set the lantern down; though it was daylight, no other light penetrated the tent’s utter darkness.
All part of her strategy…
“There are no strategies to summoning, my prince. The night beasts of the field would take unction with us both if I were to try.”
Cavik followed her voice, because even the lantern did nothing to allow him to see where she was.
She was already sitting down at an old, worn, scarred table.
“Come, Prince Cavik,” she took the cards off the shelf, and smiled at him; it was almost pleasant.
"Sit down please.”
“What is it you wish to know?”
“About my future wife, please.”
“Why would you seek heartache?”
“Please, oracle, I have nowhere to go; don’t make me command you.”
“Very well.” She gave the phrasing a wry twist, but she was already shuffling the cards.
As she started to lay them out, her blind eyes got wider, and a tear spilled from the right one.
“I would spare you, Prince Cavik. The road ahead is darker still, and there are no lanterns on it.
“Leave now, and I won’t hold it a charge against you; take the purse back too, if you don’t believe me. Save the princess, and save yourself—“
“Tell me, old woman!”
The oracle shrank back in her seat, afraid look at him now.
She flicked the final card forward from her calloused hands and cried out in anguish as she saw it.
“What did you see?”
She didn’t answer him, but she brushed the cards with her arm off the table, and sent them flying.
“Go your way, fool child. Your wife and queen comes to you on the road to Issik. She will be marked in the face, around the eyes, though I see no detail of how.
“She will pass by your fishing spot before evening; wait there, and when events begin to unfurl, never say you weren’t told.”
“But you never told me of the events you saw beyond our meeting.”
“No,” she admitted, “but I did warn you.”
“Her name is Rin.”
© Alfred W. Smith Jr.