Chapter 2
An Unlikely Savior

AZ 1454 - Early Summer
Hesperia, Zephyr

Preserving the home front was not an easy task, even under the best of circumstances. However, these were not the best of circumstances. The cost of raising the invasion fleet put the kingdom massively in debt. Trade, both domestic and foreign, was slumping and the crops were failing. They could probably limp through this year, but next year would be devastating if the situation did not improve.
Of course all the ills the kingdom was suffering were a heavy burden for Daphne to bear, but at least in those matters there were tens, hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands diligently working to remedy those ills. The pain and sorrow over the death of her father was different, though. It was a burden she had to bear alone. None could share it with her and that was why it weighed on her more heavily than everything else.
She tried to stay busy to keep her sadness from overcoming her. Every day she personally inspected the cisterns and pallets whose enchantment supplied fresh food and water to the troops fighting thousands of miles away. Though the chances of getting word from the distant forces were slim, she worked with her military staff to raise a provisional Fourth Legion in the event that reinforcements were needed in the East. All these efforts were comparatively small, but Daphne was willing to do whatever she could for her people at home and abroad.
To keep the morale of the people high, Daphne gave public addresses once a month to encourage her subjects and inspire confidence in the righteousness of the war effort. The crowds were huge the first several times, but the turnout had been steadily dropping in recent months. Nevertheless, the public appearance of a member of the royal family would always attract a crowd of thousands.
She stood in the balcony of the mansion belonging to Lord Polycarpos, the First Eparch and chief magistrate of Hesperia. Overlooking the Plaza of Autolycos, the balcony was an ideal location to address the public and was often employed by lesser officials. Her audience had already gathered by the time she reached the mansion, so there was no need for her to wait.
Lord Polycarpos went to the balcony first to provide her introduction. A dignified old man, he was widely regarded as one of the foremost orators of their generation and the Princess Regent went to great pains to emulate him. Facing the crowd, Lord Polycarpos made a broad sweeping gesture before beginning to speak.
"People of Zephyr, my countrymen, lend me your ears! In these twilight years, we have a glimmer of the evening star to remind us that the Light is never extinguished, even as the Darkness falls around us. Here is our evening star! I most humbly present Her Royal Highness, Princess Daphne."
A roar of cheering and applause filled the air as Daphne stepped forward. She took a moment to observe the faces of those who had gathered in the plaza. As expected, local Hesperians represented the greater part of their number, but she could recognize by subtle variations of dress and manner that many hailed from locales all over the kingdom and even beyond their borders.
She began slowly, as softly as she could while still being heard.
"My countrymen, my friends, as I speak here before all of you, His Majesty the King and his warriors of the Light are valiantly fighting against the nefarious hordes of the night in the accursed Darklands. You all have suffered privation--we all have--but remember how much more our brave fighting men suffer for all our sakes. I call on you to persevere in your daily endeavors, for not only the fruit of your labors but also the strength of your spirits sustain our men in the heart of darkness.
"Their duty is to overcome the evils that threaten our safety and our peace. They fight for our sake and for the sake of our homeland. It is our duty to preserve this land--our home--so they have a home to return to once the final victory has been won. If our hearts remain strong, that power will be felt by those who fight for us, no matter how great the distance that separates us.
"Peace and blessings be upon all of you, on your families, on the fruit of your lands, your flocks and herds, and the works of your hands. May the Light guide our path in these days of dusk until we see the sun smile on us as it rises in the East in celebration of our great victory."
Daphne's words were met with a renewed ovation from the public. She could feel the hearts of people even without focusing her powers of the mind. She knew the difference between true sentiment and a mere play guided by hollow protocol or, worse, coercion. So far, the people at large were sincere in their support and it was a great encouragement for her.
After her speech, it was Daphne's custom to make a brief tour of the city. She insisted on walking rather than being carried around in a palanquin. It gave her the chance to get close to her people, or at least closer than she usually was. Naturally, it was a source of constant complaint from the Royal Bodyguards who sought to minimize all possible risk to her person. Some risk, she would often argue, was worth taking and raising the morale of the people was certainly worth great risk.
As she walked through the streets, the Bodyguards formed a defensive circle around her, allowing no man or beast any closer than two fathoms. In addition to the circle, she had two men both in front and behind her for close-quarter protection. It did not allow her to get as close to the people she actually wanted, but she had to make some compromises with the brave men who dedicated themselves to safeguarding her life and limb.
Just as she was passing through the central square, something unexpected happened. A youth burst through the crowd and the defensive ring with a drawn blade. Before Daphne could even react, he collided with her and the two fell to the ground. His body was on top of hers, and the rush of panic and confusion all around nearly paralyzed her. As the turbulent wave of emotion swept over her, she heard the youth grunt as if something struck him.
Having recovered from their surprise, the Bodyguards rushed at the youth, but he sprang to his feet and jumped over them. Violently shoving his way through the crowd, the youth chased down a man cloaked in black. Once he closed the distance between them, he thrust his blade at the cloaked man, wounding him in the shoulder.
Falling on his back, the cloaked man revealed a loaded hand ballista, which he immediately fired. The youth dodged the quarrel when three Bodyguards plunged their spears into the cloaked man's body. As for the youth, he was tackled by two other Bodyguards and pinned to the ground.
"Are you injured, Your Highness?" one of the Bodyguards asked as he helped Daphne to her feet.
"No," she replied, still dazed by the internal chaos gripping everyone around her.
Looking at the ground nearby, she saw a quarrel from a hand ballista split down the middle. Following the path the youth took to pursue the cloaked man, she noticed a faint trail of blood. Against the protests of the Bodyguards around her, she approached to the youth. At a closer view, she saw a quarrel sticking out of his shoulder blade.
"Let him up," she commanded the Bodyguards pinning the youth down.
Their reservations were clear, but they had no choice but to obey. They let the youth up slowly, keeping a tight grip on his arms. Daphne got a good look at him for the first time.
He was a couple years younger than her with light brown hair and cool grey eyes. He was clad from head to toe in a peculiar sheer black garment, over which he wore a short, sleeveless tan robe girded with a leather belt. Across his chest was a bandolier with a at least a half dozen throwing knives and fixed to the back of his belt was a sheath for the shortsword that lay near the corpse of the cloaked man.
"You were trying to protect me..." Daphne said tenuously, "am I right?"
"Yeah," the youth replied, far too casually for someone addressing royalty.
"You!" one of the Bodyguards barked, striking the youth with the butt of his spear. "Mind your tongue! You are in the presence of Her Royal Highness!"
"Stop it, please," Daphne intervened. "Look at him. He is not a man of Zephyr . He does not know who I am or our ways and I forgive him his impropriety. He saved my life at the risk of his own. He deserves a reward, not this harsh treatment. Now release him."
The Bodyguards reluctantly let go of the youth's arms. Daphne walked around to his wounded shoulder and took hold of the quarrel.
"Do not move," she said. "This will only hurt for a moment."
She plucked the quarrel out, causing the youth to yelp in pain. The sight of the blood oozing from the wound made her heart flutter, but steeled herself to remain focused. She then removed the glove from her right hand and pressed her bare palm on the wound. She began to chant in a low voice, channeling magical energy into the youth's injured shoulder. When she removed her hand, the wound had healed completely.
Amazed, the youth touched the healed wound, muttering, "I don't believe it... How did you--?"
"The blood of the Xotika flows in my veins," Daphne replied, briefly brushing back her hair to reveal a pointed ear, "and my magical abilities are stronger than most full-blooded humans. My name is Daphne, the daughter of King Solon of Zephyr. May I ask your name?"
"I'm Uriel," the youth replied, "as in the light of God."
Daphne could tell Uriel's lack of propriety offended the sensibilities of the Bodyguards, but now that he was under her protection, they did not hit him again. She found Uriel's straightforwardness to be refreshing. Not even her brother or her parents would speak so casually to her. It was as if she were a normal woman. She liked the feeling.
"Would you please accompany me to the palace?" the Princess asked. "I would like to reward you for what you have done."
"Oh, I wouldn't wanna impose on you, miss."
"I insist."
Uriel shrugged.
"Well, if a lady's gonna insist, a man oughtn't resist..."
Daphne demurely held her hand to her mouth to cover a chuckle at his little rhyme. Her bodyguards were not so amused, though.
"Your Highness, I must protest," the senior Bodyguard insisted. "It is far too dangerous to bring a stranger into the palace."
"This young man saved my life," Daphne countered. "I intend to show him my gratitude for what he has done and better hospitality than he has seen thus far. To do any less would be a stain on the honor of my family and this kingdom. You will treat him with all due respect as my honored guest."
"Yes, Your Highness," the Bodyguard grudgingly replied.
Uriel returned his sword to its sheath and started to wander off.
"Where are you going?" a Bodyguard demanded.
"Surely you have not changed your mind about accepting my hospitality, good sir," Daphne said.
"No, it's not that, miss," Uriel replied. "I'm lookin' for my cloak and my kit. I threw 'em off when I went to save you. I hope no one pinched 'em."
"One of you," Daphne told the Bodyguards, "go help him look for his... kit."
Daphne did not know exactly what his 'kit' was supposed to be and she did not intend to search his mind to find out. A short while passed and Uriel returned with a leather satchel and a ragged, dusty brown cloak.
"It ain't much," he said, "but it's all I got and I'd've hated to've lost it."
Intellectually, Daphne knew there was a world of difference between a person of rank like herself and the average commoner, but it was truly striking to see someone whose every earthly possession fit in a bag that could not hold even one of her outfits. She knew little of the world outside the palace and she was almost thankful to her mysterious attacker for affording her this opportunity to learn more.
Wrapping himself in his tattered cloak, Uriel joined Daphne as the Royal Bodyguards escorted the two of them back to palace. A couple men remained behind to collect the body of the cloaked man and any other evidence from the attack. Daphne scarcely paid a second thought to uncovering the identity of her attacker or learning the reason for the attempt on her life.
As soon as they entered the gates, the senior Bodyguard turned to Uriel and told him, "You must surrender your weapons."
Without a word of complaint, Uriel pulled off his bandolier and drew the shortsword from its sheath and handed them over. He then pulled out a throwing knife from his collar, a handful of little spikes out of the inner lining of his robe, and an iron rod strapped to his boot.
Several of the Bodyguards looked at him in a mix of incredulity and consternation.
"Is that all?" the senior Bodyguard asked.
Uriel thought about it for a moment and then something came to him.
"Oh, wait."
He pulled out another small dagger from his boot and handed it to Bodyguard holding the rest of his weapons.
"That should be it," Uriel said.
Daphne could sense that the Bodyguards wanted to search Uriel further, so she decided to step in.
"If our guest has forgotten anything," she said softly, "the servants will find it when they wash his clothes, and they will promptly turn it over to you for safekeeping." Turning to Uriel, she said, "You must be tired from your journey. A bath and some fresh clothes would surely revive your spirits."
Holding up his hands, a reluctant Uriel replied, "Really, miss, there's no need to go to all that trouble."
Smiling, Daphne said, "I insist."
Amused, Uriel returned her smile and said, "Well, if a lady's gonna insist..."
Nodding to a nearby chamberlain, Daphne said, "See that our guest is well tended to. I wish for him to be ready in time for dinner."
The chamberlain bowed and called several servants to escorted Uriel off. Daphne then went to make her own preparations for dinner. Within the palace walls when there were no formal ceremonies to be had, the Princess could dress more simply and she was glad to put away the full regalia she was expected to wear for public appearances like her speech.
When it was time for dinner, Uriel was presented wearing a tunic and a short chlamys. He looked uncomfortable in what was for him alien dress but carried himself with what grace he could. Daphne had him seated in the place across from her, her brother's seat. It caused many whispers amongst the other guests and much louder secret grumblings and discontent that were too strong for the Princess to block out without exerting any undue strain. What she could not block out, she could ignore.
After the blessing had been said over the meal, Daphne took up her cup and raised it as she stood from her seat, saying, "Honored guests, I can see that you are wondering why a stranger among us is seated in my brother's place. This young man truly deserves to be seated in such a place of honor because without his valiant deed this day, I would not be standing here now. Allow me to present Uriel of..."
She had to stop and look to Uriel because she did not know where he hailed from. All Uriel could do was shrug at her unasked question, forcing her come up with something.
"Uriel the Traveler," she said. "I and all my kingdom are in your debt. Health and prosperity to you, sir."
"Health and prosperity," the other guests responded mechanically, raising their cups to answer the Princess' toast.
After taking a long sip from her cup, Daphne sat back down and sought to strike up a conversation with Uriel.
"It is clear enough that you are not a native of this land," she said. "Perhaps I should have asked this sooner. Tell me, good sir, where exactly do you come from and what is it that you do?"
Uriel scratched the back of his head as he spoke.
"You can stop with the 'sir', miss. Your fancy words and manners are wasted on someone like me. Just call me Uriel.
"But to answer your question, I really don't come from any one place, you see. My grandfather is from Hijima, the Sun Isle, which is up near the Eastland, and my grandmother was from a tribe of desert nomads down south on the mainland. Now, their only child was my mother, who married a legionary from Kyanopolis out west. My father deserted from the Legion and after I was born, the five of us lived as wanderers, goin' all over the lands of the North.
"I set out on my own a couple years ago as a treasure hunter. I look for old ruins and bandit hoards and things like that, scavengin' what I can for a profit. I came here after hearin' tales of abandoned Duergar tunnels in the mountains. It was an opportunity I couldn't pass up."
"What brought you here to Hesperia if your destination is the mountains?" Daphne asked. "Would it not have been easier to sail into Nulos?"
"It's a big town," Uriel replied. "Lots of people. Thought I might get some information before takin' another ship around to Nulos. Then again, I'm kinda sick of the water, so I was thinkin' about just walkin' it.
"I'd just gotten into port this mornin' and I was wanderin' around when I saw everyone gatherin' for your speech--nice speech, by the way. I was lookin' for a tavern when you were crossin' the square and that's when I saw that man in the black cloak takin' aim at you."
Daphne could not help but credit Providence over Fortuna for their encounter, but she also sensed the caprice of Fate at work as well. What would drive someone like him to get involved? she wondered.
After a moment's hesitation, she put that thought into words and asked him, "Why did you save me?"
Uriel shifted uncomfortably and said, "Well, I reckoned you were pretty important judgin' from all those men you keep around you and it didn't look like they saw it comin'." He looked at her earnestly. "Of course, I didn't do it just 'cause I thought you were important. Even if you were just an ordinary girl, I wouldn't've just let that man kill you."
Daphne was touched. This young man, who most people would dismiss as a common rogue, displayed as much chivalry as any knight. He was a man of the world yet somehow did not seem terribly corrupted by it all. She was totally fascinated by him. She wanted to learn more, but was mindful not to get ahead of herself.
"For saving my life, what kind of reward would you like?" she asked him. "Name it and you shall have it."
Gesturing to the plates spread out before him, Uriel said, "Really, all this is more than enough. I was just doin' what any good red-blooded man would've done."
"Is there truly nothing you desire?" Daphne asked, leaning forward. "Surely there must be something."
"Well, I'm a treasure hunter, after all," he replied with a chuckle. "There's plenty I desire, but I couldn't ask anythin' of you."
Daphne reclined back in her chair and folded her hands.
"In that case, may I make a request of you?"
Uriel seemed to be taken by surprise, but he did not let it show for long.
"What is it?"
"I want you to stay with me."
His astonishment was not particularly unexpected, nor was the similar reaction from the rest of those seated at the table. She quickly explained herself before anyone could jump to conclusions.
"I owe you my life and I am not content to let you go so easily. You are a very interesting person and I want to learn more about you and the lands beyond our borders. My family is abroad at the present and I am in want of a companion, someone to talk to. Naturally, you would enjoy all the comforts of the palace. I could even pay you a modest stipend for your trouble if you like."
"Your Highness, this is unacceptable!" the High Chamberlain interjected. "It would not be proper to host a foreigner and a commoner within the palace walls! To say nothing of the impropriety of keeping casual company with such a man. I must insist that Your Highness withdraw the offer."
"Has Zephyrian hospitality gone so cold in my parents' absence?" she asked sharply. "This young man saved my life, need I remind you, and I intend to repay him for it. Surely there are none who would dare to think I would allow my honor to be sullied, or that the men of the Royal Bodyguard would fail in their duties."
She cast a critical eye on the assembled guests before saying finally, "My offer stands." Softening her demeanor, she looked to Uriel and added "It does not have to be for a long time. If your heart is set on going to the mountains, I will not stop you. What is your answer?"
Uriel looked around somewhat awkwardly. What would he say? The temptation to pluck the answer right out of his mind or even to influence his decision was terrible, but Daphne restrained herself from abusing her powers for selfish gain. Though it only took a matter of moments for him to answer, the anticipation was almost unbearable.
"You don't have to pay me," he replied. "I mean, if you're really so desperate for companionship that you'd want someone like me, how can I say no? Just remember that I do have my heart set on explorin' those Duergar tunnels, so don't expect me to stick around for too long."
Daphne's heart leapt. She was so happy that tears were beginning to well up in her eyes.
"Thank you, thank you!" she exclaimed.
She had been alone for so long, but it now looked like she would finally have a reprieve. Perhaps she could release some of the emotions that she had been bottling up for so long. Perhaps the easygoing youth would prove to be the remedy for her troubled mind and heart. Perhaps she would find a long-lost sense of peace.