"Children, we have a special visitor today," the teacher told his class. "Lord Haefyn is First Advisor to His Majesty, King Zavius. He is here to see for himself how well you have been learning your lessons."
"I just hope he isn't here to whip us when we get our answers wrong," whispered one boy to a friend.
"Yeah, the teacher already does just fine without any help," his friend whispered back. The teacher heard the exchange and turned a furious eye in their direction, causing the boys to abruptly become fascinated by their math work on the desks before them. Haven smiled. It would seem that boys will be boys no matter where you go, he thought. The teacher saw his smile and returned to his lecture. After a few more minutes, Haven turned and strolled out of the classroom.
This school was one of three new schools established as part of his program to improve Kor Opan. Children were coming in from all parts of the city to whichever school was closest to their home to spend several hours each day learning mathematics, reading, writing, and civics. Haven's goal for the curriculum, which he had overseen personally, was to create citizens that would be of value in any function within the kingdom. Thus far, the king and the parents of the students were pleased with the progress their children were making. Even so, there was an air of puzzlement about them whenever Haven listed the achievements of his schools system.
It won't be long before these students can outthink their elders, including the king himself, thought Haven. Once that happens, I will have my army and the real change can begin. He knew that by controlling what the children learned he could open their eyes to the Truth. By the time their elders discovered what the children were learning it would be too late for them to prevent the Revolution. Haven smiled at the thought as he walked down the hallway to the classroom where the oldest students were learning history. He paused at the open doorway to once again listen to the lecture being delivered.
"In the eight hundred and twentieth year of the City, Niall son of Martin became king of Kor Opan. This date is generally accepted as the beginning of the decline of Kor Opan. King Niall began a despotic reign marked by murder, rapine, and brutal taxation," the teacher said with a grimace. His face betrayed his true thoughts, causing him to look as though he'd been forced to swallow something obscene. I will have to have this one followed, Haven thought. He hasn't deviated from the prescribed material, but he looks as though he's about vomit. Perhaps a little more encouragement will help him to deliver the lectures without such displays.
The schools had been open for more than five months, and things were going well overall. But there was a disturbing lack of willing teachers for the civics and history courses. They all want to bring their personal views of history into the classroom, Haven thought. We need them to stay with the approved course of instruction in order to bring about the changes we seek. I wonder if the teachers might be more willing to cooperate if we increase their share of the wealth? They are vital to the future of the city after all; surely they will see the benefit in joining our cause.
Haven's next stop on his tour of the city was a new hospital. He was particularly proud of the increased quality of health care in Kor Opan. Thanks to him they now had healers established in a central hospital where they could control the cost and the quality of the care given to the citizens. They were operating at peak efficiency, but he was concerned over how they would handle any crises such as an epidemic or natural disaster. There would be a shortage of supplies and healers if the number of patients rose suddenly. Haven met his guards as he exited the school and began making his way through the crowds of people to the hospital. He liked to think of the four large men as his personal assistants, but the king had been very clear when he assigned them. Gray is entirely too worried about thieves and ruffians in the city, Haven thought. They would never dare to attack him. These men do have their uses, however, he thought as he watched two of the guards push people out of his path, letting him walk unimpeded through the market.
People were thronging in the open spaces here in the center of Kor Opan. Travelling merchants setup their shops in wooden stalls the outlined the large central square in the trade district. You could find crowds of people here at nearly any time of day. As long as the sun ruled the sky, you would find merchants hawking exotic fruits, vegetables, and spices brought in with the caravans.
"There he is!" A voice cried out in the crowd. Haven ignored the shout at first until he sensed the disturbance in the crowd near him and then saw one of his guards holding back a woman who was apparently trying to reach him. "Lord Haefyn, please… I just want to speak with you."
"Guard, let her through."
"But, my lord," the guard protested.
"I can protect myself adequately from a citizen if required," Haven replied serenely. "Let her pass." The guard shrugged and let go of the woman's arms, allowing her to step past him and close the Haven. She seized his hand so hard he briefly wondered if he'd been mistaken, then she fell to her knees before him.
"I'm sorry to interrupt you, Lord," she said. "I merely wanted to thank you in person. Your healing skills and your new hospital saved the life of my daughter. Without you, she would surely have died. Thank you, Lord Haefyn, and may the gods always smile upon you." She kissed his hand, her hot tears of joy running across the back of his hand. Haven laid a hand upon her head gently.
"Bless you, child," he said softly. He was truly moved by her thanks. Before coming to this place, he had rarely received gratitude for his skills. Now that he had experienced it, he felt a warm rush of love and pride. I've finally found my true calling, he thought. There were others in the crowd calling out their thanks for loved ones that had been saved, and Haven found himself awash in prayers of blessing and thanks. He was so preoccupied with the adulation that he failed to see the looks of distrust on the faces of some of the people at the outer fringe of the crowd.
He also failed the see the broadly grinning face of the Shadow Man watching from a dark corner of the marketplace.
* * *
"His Eminence, the First Minister of the Wraith King," the guard's voice rang out in the audience hall where Haven was working, announcing the visitor. Haven finished writing his signature on the document he had just completed, and watched his secretary heat the wax that would receive the imprint of his signet ring. After he had imprinted the wax, Haven finally lifted his eyes to gaze at his equal.
"Well met, First Minister," Haven said smoothly as he rose from his chair to greet his colleague. "It is so good to see you. To what do I owe the honor of your presence?"
"Greetings, Lord Haefyn," the Wraith minister replied with his oddly jerky bow. Haven privately thought that the First Minister must have been severely injured at some point to account for the stiffness with which he moved. He looked something like a mechanical toy, moving in fits and starts, rather than with a fluid grace he would expect from a person with such an exalted position. "I have the pleasure and the profound honor of bringing greetings from His Majesty." Haven's eyes widened. This is a first, he thought. They've been so distant all this time, and now the King wants to communicate? Even if it is only pleasantries, it's a start.
"I am deeply honored, First Minister," Haven said at last, bowing slightly. "Please, won't you make yourself comfortable? May I send for refreshments?"
"There is no need, but I thank you for the gesture. His Majesty has instructed me to invite you to our camp. He has heard great things of the changes you have made in the city, and would like to hear more of them from you directly."
"It would be my greatest pleasure to visit whenever His Majesty deems it convenient," Haven answered. He was impressed by the offer. To his knowledge, King Zavius had never visited their camp. In fact, now that I think about it, I've not heard of anyone from the city visiting their camp and returning to tell of it. Maybe this isn't such a good idea…
"I personally vouch for your safety, Lord Haefyn," the First Minister said as if reading Haven's doubts. "If your schedule permits, perhaps you would agree to accompany me back to our camp now."
"Y-yes," Haven stammered. "I believe that my afternoon is free of important tasks. Please allow me to make arrangements and then we shall be free to go."
"Of course. I understand how difficult it can be to extract one's self from the duties owed to the Crown."
Haven waved to a page and quickly explained his wishes. The boy ran from the hall to carry out Haven's instructions. Haven made small conversation with the First Minister until his guards arrived to provide his escort. His usual retinue of four guards entered the hall; one was burdened with a smallish wooden chest containing a rushed gift for the Wraith King that Haven hoped would be accepted and not taken as an insult. Haven gestured to the First Minister to walk with him, and together they passed through the palace and out to where their horses had been gathered. There were a handful of Wraith soldiers waiting for the return of their minister, already mounted and ready to leave.
Haven was busily thinking about his companion, and wondering what the visit to their encampment would bring. He only knew what Gray had related about the Wraith, which was a surprisingly small amount. It seemed that Zavius Gray had been content to gain the assistance of the Wraith Army without knowing what kind of people he had bound himself to. Haven found himself fascinated by what he knew of them.
The Wraiths were communal to the point of surrendering all individuality in service to their king. This was why he always addressed the First Minister by his title; that title was all the name the man possessed. Somehow, Haven had no idea how, the members of the Wraith Army were able to identify individuals despite the lack of personal identity. All members of the Wraith Army wore black metal armor that concealed every feature, making it impossible to tell what they looked like. Haven had a sneaking hunch that they weren't like other humans in this world.
When Gray had first told him of the lack of names, and use of titles, Haven had thought that perhaps the Wraiths were a hive mind of some kind, like ants or bees existing only to serve the leader of the hive. Haven wished he could find a tactful way to ask the First Minister to explain these details about his race, but he was at a complete loss for how to proceed without giving offense. And Wraith tended to respond with extreme violence when offended, from what he had heard.
"It is only natural to react strongly to something that threatens your existence, don't you agree Lord Haefyn?"
"Yes, I suppose that would be the case…" Haven trailed off as he realized that the First Minister was responding to Haven's thoughts rather than to anything he'd spoken aloud. How did you do that? Haven thought, intentionally forgoing the spoken word. Did you really respond to my thoughts directly?
"Yes, of course," the Wraith answered with a stridulating chuckle. "It saves time and prevents misunderstanding in most cases. Especially with disciplined minds such as your own." Haven thought about this, turning the answer over in his mind. He was at once pleased with the compliment and mildly alarmed by the lack of privacy.
"Do all your people possess this ability?"
"No, only the higher castes can dip into the minds of people outside our own race."
"Forgive me if I seem overly personal in my questions, First Minister," Haven said. The black armored visor turned in his direction.
"There is no offense in learning, Lord Haefyn. You are naturally curious about your allies; it is quite understandable to ask questions."
"Thank you. I welcome any chance to learn your ways."
"That is most fortunate for both of our peoples," the First Minister said. "It is my understanding that our King intends to offer you unprecedented access to our ways."
That's quite remarkable, thought Haven.
"Yes. It has never been offered to one outside of our people. But we have seen that you have an… unusual mind for a human." They rode in silence for a time. Haven was trying to simultaneously weigh the new information and keep his thoughts silent. They soon reached the western gate of the city and were passed through without challenge. There were fewer guards on this gate due to the miniscule amounts of traffic. Apparently, the local farmers and merchants would rather travel around to the southern or eastern gates rather than come so close to the Wraith Army encampment.
The camp began a mere stone's throw from the western gate, and was marked by a pair of tall black and red standards bearing the emblem of the Wraith King; a human skull clutched by a bird of prey. Haven's guards were looking around nervously but kept their comments to themselves. Haven noticed that some of the Wraith soldiers came out of their tents to silently watch the group as they rode through. They must be unused to seeing our people here in their own camp, he thought. He glanced at his companion to receive confirmation and saw the First Minister tip his head in acknowledgement.
From the number of tents and the area covered, I would estimate you have approximately five thousand troops here, Haven thought. Am I close? The First Minister smiled but did not immediately answer his query.
"You seem to take the concept of speaking directly from mind to mind in stride, Lord Haefyn. This is rather unusual for humans in this world."
"Perhaps," Haven answered noncommittally. "But in a dream, anything is possible." He failed to catch the startled look the First Minister directed at him, being somewhat preoccupied with his own thoughts. They continued through the camp, slowly mounting a low hill in the center. Haven could see that all of the roads through the camp converged at the large black pavilion on the crest of this hill. He assumed that this was the king's pavilion and their destination. Moments later, they were dismounting in front of the large tent and handing their reins to grooms that stepped forward to care for the horses.
"If it pleases you, Lord Haefyn, please follow me," the First Minister said, bowing and then leading the way into the darkness beyond the tent flaps. Haven had a momentary flicker of fear at the sight of the First Minister being swallowed by the darkness within the tent, but told himself he was an invited guest. Surely there can be nothing to fear for an invited guest, he thought, calming his fears and regaining control. He strode forward after his guide and into the presence of the Wraith King.
"I have the honor to present Lord Haefyn of Kor Opan, First Advisor to King Zavius the First," Haven bowed deeply as the First Minister announced him. He was nearly blind inside the tent, as there was very little light and the black silks of the tent blocked nearly all of the daylight from penetrating. "Lord Haefyn, may I present His Imperial Majesty Sceadu, Fifth King of the Wraith Horde, Master of the Abyss…"
"And many other titles besides, each equally obscure and pointless," cackled the dry voice behind the titles. "Welcome Lord Haefyn, We have heard many impressive reports of the changes you bring to Kor Opan, and felt it time We hear of them from your own lips."
"Thank you, your Majesty is most kind," Haven replied with a deep bow toward the point the voice had emanated from. He was still having trouble adjusting his vision to deal with the darkness within the pavilion. "I have brought a gift for your Majesty, as a token of my gratitude for your most gracious welcome." Haven waved in the direction of the guards standing behind him. The guard carrying the chest opened the lid to provide a view at the bottles of wine held carefully within the velvet cushioned interior.
"Excellent selection, Lord Haefyn," replied the King, obviously pleased. "These will provide a most welcome meal this evening. First, have chairs brought for yourself and our dear friend. These others can be taken to the cook to prepare for dinner."
"At once, my king." Haven wondered briefly about the curious wording the King had used. I'm certain he isn't referring to the guards as the gift for dinner, he told himself. The cackling laugh from the King sent a shiver up his spine in spite of his resolve. Before he could think of anything to say or even think on the subject, the First Minister was guiding him to a comfortable seat. Haven stumbled slightly as his foot encountered the chair leg and he breathed an apology for his clumsiness.
"Nonsense, Lord Haven," said the King. "I understand that your eyes are not used to the darkness in which we choose to dwell. First, have the attendants bring some small light for our guest's comfort." First Minister clapped his hands and two servants entered carrying glowing spheres of what looked like crystal of some sort. Is there a light burning in the crystal? Or is that a natural phosphorescence?
"These are fire crystals from our homeland, named thus for their light and not for any literal fire," First Minister told Haven. One of the crystals was a cool blue color and the other was a white-gold color. The overall effect was a pale green radiance where the two blended, with pale blue and gold on the edges of the reception pavilion. Haven could now see the others in the space rather well.
King Scaedu reclined on a low seat piled high with cushions and sheltered overhead by draped silk hangings. Everywhere Haven looked within the King's pavilion, his eyes found a riot of colors. Apparently, the Wraith preferred their beauty on the inside rather than turning it outward to the world. The two servants that had brought the fire crystals were obviously female from the shape of their silk clad bodies, though again there was no skin revealed. In their cases however, the black clothing was silk rather than armor. They did, however, carry long daggers tucked into the sashes that bound their slender waists. Haven directed his attention to the King before his thoughts could reveal too much interest in the servant's shapes and embarrass him.
The Wraith King was dressed in the same silk and leather garb as the First Minister, except that he also wore heavy gold chains around his neck and there were hints of gold glinting from various points on his armor. Rather than the helm and cloth wrapping that concealed the First Minister's face, the King wore a mask carved from black jade. His hair, the first hair that Haven had seen on any Wraith, was entirely white and flowed down past his shoulders. On his breast was a striking medallion suspended from one of the heavy gold chains about his neck. The medallion was formed of gold in the likeness of the Wraith Army banners that Haven had seen on the ride into the camp; a lacquered black raven with wings spread clutching a human skull made of amber. Haven was intrigued by the piece, noticing more details as he stared at it.
"Does this piece please you Lord Haefyn?" Scaedu asked, lifting the medallion in one aged hand.
"It is such beautiful work, your Majesty," Haven replied. "It is really quite magnificent."
"Permit Us to make a gift of it, then," the King said. He lifted the chain over his head, careful not to dislodge his mask in the process. He held the medallion in one hand letting the chain dangle. "I have worn this medallion since I became the heir to the throne many, many years ago." Scaedu said, dropping the royal 'We' as he handed the medallion to Haven.
"Please Sire, this is more than I deserve," Haven protested. The First Minister watched the exchange carefully, leaning forward slightly in apparent eagerness.
"Nonsense, Lord Haefyn. This gift will bring us closer together and promote greater understanding, where is the harm in that? As to the question of your worth, We believe that you will prove worthy of this gift and so much more. Consider it a down payment toward a greater future for us both. Now, forgive me but I must ask you to kneel before me to receive it. Our joints aren't what they once were." Haven detected a wry humor in the King's voice and found himself smiling in response, his objections forgotten. Without further protest, Haven knelt within reach of the ancient Wraith King.
"Do you freely receive this medallion, Lord Haefyn? And all that it pertains?" Scaedu asked, the chain hanging in front of Haven's eyes.
"I do," Haven replied. He felt the King's satisfaction somehow, and knew this was the answer he was hoping to hear. King Scaedu leaned forward and passed the chain over Haven's bowed head, letting the medallion settle upon his chest. "Thank you, Sire."
"Wear it in health, my son, and may it bring us wisdom and victory in this world and beyond."
Haven heard something in the King's words and his tone of voice that alarmed him. He put a hand to the medallion, intending to remove it and hand it back to the King, but when his hand touched the gold he felt a jolt of energy enter his hand like a jolt of static electricity. There was a loud rushing sound, like a vast wind carrying the sound of multitudes of voices, some joyful and some wailing in agony. Haven's hand fell to his side, lifeless; his eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed to the ground at Scaedu's feet. With a satisfied sigh, the ancient Wraith King settled back in his chair and closed his eyes with a contented sigh.
After a moment of motionless silence, the First Minister rose and bowed to the still form of the king he had served all of his life. Then he knelt and helped the servants reverently raise Haven from where he had fallen and carry him to a wagon waiting outside to return him to the city.
* * *
Haven's awareness slowly returned amidst a great confusion of voices. It seemed to him that he was awash in an ebbing flow of sound, babbling voices that intertwined so as to prevent comprehension. Who am I? Where am I?
You are Lord Haefyn, said an amused voice within his mind. And you are in your chambers within the palace.
"Who are you?"
I am Scaedu, your predecessor. We met in my pavilion when you accepted the Royal Seal from my dying hand and became my heir. Haven sat up suddenly, his eyes darting wildly around the room. He was alone, or so he thought. As his heart settled into a more normal rhythm he detected a slight movement in one corner of his room. Those are your servants, Mira and Tira. They are twins and both quite beautiful if they choose to reveal themselves to you. I do not recommend forcing the issue however, as they are also skilled assassins. Haven again heard the amusement in Scaedu's voice. He turned to look for the Wraith King but could not see him anywhere in the room.
I am much closer than that, my son, Scaedu said. I am part of you now. My consciousness has joined with yours and my power is now yours to use in the service of the People of the Shadow.
Then I am being possessed? I am in your thrall somehow? Haven thought. He heard the old King's laughter in his head.
I do not control you, Haefyn. Rather, I can only teach and advise you in the use of your newfound power. Such as how to silence the tumult you are hearing within your mind and return a semblance of peace.
What is that noise? It's giving me quite the headache, Haven thought.
Those are the minds of the people in your city. You are hearing them because they do not know how to close their minds and control their own thoughts. You are not hearing the Twins, however, unless they choose to speak or you speak to them.
I think I understand. But how do I learn to control this?
Lie back and try to relax, Scaedu told him. These are the lessons that my master gave me when I became Heir.
Images began to form in Haven's mind. Light and shadow, movement and stillness, the lessons took shape before his mental vision. What an amazing way to convey knowledge, Haven thought. He noticed that the images slowed and faded as he thought this, and willed himself to relax and yield to the flow of knowledge and experience. Soon, he was deeply bonded with Scaedu's mind, and the old King's power flowed around them both.
From their corners in the room, the Twins watched with joy in their hearts as the King That Was became the King That Is once more.