Val had always dreamed of the city of Mirabay, the glittering capital of their country. Home to the king, his lords, ladies, knights, and dames. He wasn’t naive enough to think of it as a place of wonderment, where streets were paved with gold, where dreams became reality. He reckoned it would be little different from Trelain—good bits and bad bits—albeit on a far larger scale.
He stopped his horse when the city first came into view, the king’s palace sitting majestically on the hill overlooking Mirabay. Even from that distance, Val could see the twin campaniles of the cathedral, as well as some of the turrets of the old castle on the Isle. He had never been here, but felt as though he knew the city well. Almost every story of Chevaliers and heroes he had ever been told had started within the walls of the city before him. To finally visit was at once exhilarating and terrifying. He felt some pride, too. He was going to take his place at the Academy and seize the future he had always desired, but thought would be forever beyond his grasp.
As he urged his horse forward and continued toward the city’s gates, he thought over the last few days. They had been a true taste of the life that lay ahead of him. Val wondered which of the three bannerets he had recently kept company with he would come to most resemble: the bragging Beausoleil, who showed his true worth at a critical moment and shamed everyone for not having thought highly enough of him; Cabham, who had seemed competent, but proved to be nothing more than a fame-hungry coward; Gill? Val had spent more time with Guillot than with either of the other two, but still didn’t know what to make of the man.
On the one hand, Gill seemed like a man who had given up on life, or one whom life had given up on. Either way, he was as unlikely a candidate to ride off to save a village from marauding dragons as Val could imagine. He certainly didn’t fit the image of the old Chevaliers of the Silver Circle, who were, according to legend, handsome, decked out in shining armour, and armed with courage that never wavered. Yet Gill had all the substance that was needed.
In the old stories, the Chevaliers never got knocked down. Gill did. Often. But he got up every single time and tried again. He had kept getting up and trying until he’d won. Val wondered how Guillot had fared against the last dragon. That matter would have been long decided by now. Val felt rotten having left him to face it alone—it didn’t seem like something an aspiring banneret should do. He understood why Gill had sent him away, though. Ostensibly it was to deliver a message, but he knew what Gill’s intention was, something that was confirmed when Val noticed that the letters Gill had given him were addressed to the master of the Academy. Gill had lost people, and didn’t want to lose any more. He had sent Val away to keep him safe. More than that, he was a man who did his best to make good on his promises, and knowing he faced death, he was keeping the one he’d made to Val: sponsorship to the Academy.
After that odd little cup, the one used in the Silver Circle ritual, was stolen, something in Gill had changed. Val had been so caught up in the idea of finally realising his own dream that he hadn’t noticed at first, but he’d worked it out eventually. Resignation was something Val had seen often in Trelain—people doing the same thing, day in, day out. They accepted it because they knew there was nothing else for them. Resignation might have made the drudgery easier to bear, but it killed something inside. The thought made him feel nauseous. He should have stayed. Should have helped, but he hadn’t. Gill had known exactly how to tempt him away, and he’d gone. Regret wasn’t much use now.
Val knew he’d likely be dead now, if he’d ridden out after that last dragon with Gill. No one had ever done a selfless thing for him before. That was why Gill was a hero, more so than any of the old Chevaliers with their glittering breastplates and magical swords. He put others before his best interests, and Val knew it had probably cost him his life. He loved Gill for that.
He stopped his horse again, and turned south, looking back at the mountains he had come from. There, he knew, Gill had fought the last dragon, near a village no one had ever heard of. But Val knew. He knew the village was called Venne, and he would be sure to tell anyone who would listen what had happened there. Where the last of the Chevaliers of the Silver Circle had faced the last of the dragons.
Val chuckled to himself. He knew he gave far too much weight to the old stories. Now he was getting carried away by having been a bit player in a new one. Even he, a lad of sixteen summers—perhaps seventeen, he couldn’t be sure—was too pragmatic to take all that romantic nonsense at face value. He’d need to empty his head of such thoughts before he entered the Academy, or the other students would think him a country fool.
Giving the mountains one final look, Val prayed to all the gods that Gill still lived, that the dragon was slain, and that there might be some hope of the man finding whatever it was his life was missing.
* * *
Val was determined not to look like a wide-eyed country bumpkin as he rode into Mirabay. He didn’t have much money, but he knew what little he did have would be stolen in the blink of an eye if he advertised the fact that he was new to the city. As discreetly as he could, he asked a patrolling officer of the watch for directions to the address he wanted, then did his best to appear as though he knew his way around and that the short sword at his hip wasn’t merely for decoration.
The officer said the address Gill had given Val was located on the southern bank of the River Vosges, near the Academy of Bannerets. Just the mention of the Academy got Val’s heart racing with excitement. He had dreamed of going there from the moment he had first learned of it, and now it seemed he was about to realise that dream.
He kept his excitement contained as he rode along the dirt street at a modest pace, one that he thought befit a young gentleman. What little he knew about the nobility came from watching those who had passed through the Black Drake inn at Trelain, where Val had been employed before convincing Gill to take him on as a squire.
Despite his high spirits, Val couldn’t help but detect an air of tension in the city. People glanced about furtively, as though they were on the lookout for someone, or something. Val presumed it was the dragon and wanted to laugh out loud at their cowardly behaviour. Although he was not too proud to admit the beasts terrified him—especially the ones he had seen up close—the nearest one was miles and miles away. Even flying, it would take at least a day to reach Mirabay from the mountains—perhaps longer; Val wasn’t certain how fast they could fly, or for how long. Even then, there were plenty of farms and villages to keep it interested along the way. He reckoned it would be weeks before a dragon had cause to be within a hundred miles of the city, assuming it still lived.
The houses lining the street were fine—far grander than anything in Trelain. Val started to wonder about the man Gill had sent him to. He was obviously very wealthy if he could afford to live in a neighbourhood like this, but then again, Gill was a lord, and everyone knew lords were wealthy, and only hung around with other lords.
Eventually Val found the house he was looking for, a pale, stone edifice pocked with ornately framed windows. Large, slate-grey double doors sat at the centre of the façade, with a smaller wicket door set in one of them. He dismounted and rapped the heavy bronze knocker, then stood back to wait. His heart was racing, and his mouth was dry. He had no idea what to expect. How would this man react to his arrival? Would he do as Gill had asked? There was always the possibility that he would refuse, a thought that Val had not allowed himself to entertain up until now, but that dominated his mind as he counted the seconds.
He heard a latch scraping on the far side of the doors, and the wicket door opened. A slim man with lank hair hanging down to his shoulders—less well dressed than Val would have expected for a house such as this—filled the breach. He regarded Val with a hostile stare.
“What do you want?”
“I’ve a letter here for the master of the house.” Val held it up, but out of reach.
The man scrutinised the address, written in Gill’s neat hand, and frowned. Val wasn’t convinced he was able to read, but he certainly wanted to give the impression that he could. Val couldn’t manage more than a few words himself, so he didn’t condemn the inability, only the desire to mislead.
“Hand it over. I’ll see that he gets it.”
“It’s to be delivered in person,” Val said.
The man took a moment to consider. “Wait here.” He shut the door behind him, leaving Val standing on the cobbled street to further consider the neighbourhood. It was quiet, and the day was heading into early evening. Val hadn’t given any thought to where he would stay for the night. On some level, he expected to be whisked straight to the Academy and shown to his dormitory, but he realised that wasn’t very likely.
He waited there for some time, like the unwelcome caller he was beginning to suspect he was, before the latch scraped again and another man appeared at the door—this one bespectacled and better dressed, but with an equally hard face.
“I understand you have a letter for Maestro dal Volenne?” the man said.
“I do,” Val said, once again showing the letter. It was all he had to prove his credentials, and there was no way he was handing it to anyone but the master of the Academy.
“My name is Burgess Prenneau, Crown Solicitor. I represent the Crown in the matter of Maestro dal Volenne’s estate, and am officially authorised to receive all correspondence addressed to him.”
“I don’t understand,” Val said.
“Are you claiming relation, blood or otherwise?” Prenneau said, ignoring Val’s question.
“No, I … What’s going on here? May I see Maestro dal Volenne? I was instructed to hand this letter to him personally.”
Prenneau seemed to relax when Val said he wasn’t a relative. “I apologise,” he said. “Maestro dal Volenne is deceased. He died intestate, with no known successors, so his estate is reverting to the Crown. I was appointed to deal with the matter. I can accept the letter and add it to his documents, but I’m afraid there will be no reply.”
Val’s heart sank. He had no idea what to do or say.
“If you knew the Maestro,” Prenneau said, “I commiserate for your loss, but I’m afraid I’m extremely busy. The Maestro was not the most fastidious in managing his affairs and there’s a great deal to do.”
The awkward silence that followed made it clear that it was time to go. Val doffed his hat and turned to lead his horse back the way he had come. Only moments before, he had been on his way to fulfilling a lifelong dream. Now he was alone and adrift in a great city, with no idea of where to turn.
Trelain might have only been a town, not a great city like Mirabay, but it was big enough to teach Val many important lessons about life, and how dangerous people could be when you were at the bottom of the food chain. Though he had no idea where to go next, he knew better than to start asking passers-by for suggestions of places to stay. Before he knew it, he’d be lying in the gutter with a cracked head, an empty purse, and no horse. Probably no boots, either.
He’d seen it happen, and pitied the unfortunate victims, but felt a measure of contempt for them too—as often as not, they had invited their misfortune on themselves. People could be vicious, and for many, an easy target was hard to pass up. There was no way he was going to make that mistake. Gill had sent him here to start his journey to becoming a banneret, and Val was damned if he was going to fall at the first obstacle.
He had a decent amount of coin in his purse, given he’d been a mere stable boy until a couple of weeks earlier. He’d always been a saver, and at an establishment like the Black Drake, clients tipped well, not to mention the tidy sum he’d made charging a penny a peek to see the head of the first dragon Gill had killed. When it came time to fly the nest, he’d had enough for travelling clothes and a horse. How many lads his age could say the same? He’d be damned if he let someone take a single stitch of it from him.
Coin he might have, but in a city like Mirabay, and an area like the one he was currently in, it wouldn’t last long. He needed a day or two to think through his options, and didn’t need anywhere fancy. He ambled through the city in as casual and familiar a fashion as he could muster, carefully surveying his surroundings without, he hoped, looking like he was lost.
The amount of gilt work on the signs of shops, taverns, and inns gradually decreased as he wandered; clearly he was reaching more affordable areas. He’d been working his way along a great limestone block wall when he came to the gate and archway and stopped.
The carved lettering atop the arch read, ACADEMY OF BANNERETS.
Val allowed himself a wry smile at this long-dreamed-of sight. He was finally there, but he wouldn’t be passing through the gates as a student. Perhaps it had been too great a dream. The opportunity to throw himself on Gill’s good nature had been too good to pass up, but he had expected too much to come from it. Still, how many of those who would pass into those hallowed halls could say they had hunted and slain dragons? Nothing and no one could ever take that away from him.
He urged his horse on. There was nothing to be gained by tarrying there, and he wanted to find a bed for the night before it got dark. He’d spent long enough on the road, and after his disappointment, reckoned he deserved a little comfort. He took the next bridge over to the island in the centre of the river. The street led along the side of the cathedral and out onto a square. There was an inn directly opposite, called “the Little Palace,” that had all the earthy charm of the type of place he liked, and had least expected to find in the centre of a great city like Mirabay.
He rode across the square, where market vendors were packing up their stalls for the evening, through the small archway at the side of the inn, and into its stable yard. He whistled for attendance, then felt awkward when a lad around his own age appeared.
“I plan on taking a room for the night. See to my horse, if you would,” Val said, realising he’d put on a deeper voice than his usual one. He tossed the stable hand a penny and took his bags from the saddle before heading inside, feeling like an idiot with every step for attempting to sound older than he was.
The interior met his expectations; he could only hope that the price did likewise. A group of men were gathered around a table in the centre of the taproom. There were enough of them to have claimed every stool in the place, leaving all other tables without seats. The bar was empty but for the keeper, who leaned against the shelving behind it, his arms crossed.
“A room, if you’ve any,” Val said, doing his best not to slip into a deep voice again, but only partially succeeding.
The innkeeper gave him a suspicious look, then nodded. “A florin a night, and you’ll have the room to yourself. For tonight, at least. Breakfast too. You’ll have that to yourself for as long as you’re here.”
He chuckled and Val did his best to laugh with him, as he felt men of the world did. He had the uncomfortable feeling he wasn’t fooling anyone, however. The hair on his chin and upper lip was darkening in a satisfying way, but it was still too light and sparse to be proud of.
“I’ll take it,” Val said. “Could do with some food now, too.”
“Three pennies for stew. Five for beef.”
“The stew will be fine.”
“Since those lads is having a private conversation,” the innkeeper said, pointing to the large group of men, “best you sit up here at the bar.”
Copyright © 2020 by Duncan M. Hamilton