For Miriam Cait, a long journey over the realms of the dragons ends at the capital of Xander’s territory, the ancient city of Alexandria. The shadows of majestic spires stretch over the large lake that separates the main city from the white-stone castle that is to be her new home. Unfortunately, trouble comes on the heels of their footsteps and Xander is called away, forcing Miriam to find her own way around the city, whether her sitter wants her to or not.
Her curious nature leads her from the underbelly of the underworld to the sweeping views of the clear lake waters, but a shadow creeps into the tranquil city. Hidden passages lead to secret intentions as Miriam delves into the ancient myths of her new world, and into the future plots of her old enemies. She will have to use all her wits, and all her new friends, to stay one step ahead of their foes as they play for the life of the city and her subjects.
“Are we there yet?”
Regrettably, the whine came from me, but I had to blame my butt. After eight days of travel it was hanging by a thread to what was left of my jostled spine.
“Nearly there,” Xander assured me.
I glanced around at the scenery and our shrunken party. Cayden and Stephanie had separated from us after we exited through the southern part of Viridi Silva. The scenery had changed with their passing. Gone were the vast expanses of rolling, tree-covered hills of the High Castle and woods, and in their place was a landscape of short stony mountains and small glens. Winding strips of trees broke the landscape and signaled that one of dozens of smalls creek supplied water to the cottages that dotted the hills. The water ended at small ponds where farm animals lapped up the precious resource.
“So what’s going to happen when we do get to this city of yours?" I asked him.
He smiled. "
You will be presented as my Maiden before my people and trained in your responsibilities.”
I raised an eyebrow. “What responsibilities?”
“As Maiden to me, you are queen of my kingdom. You will manage the palace and address any problems that arise therein,” he explained.
The color drained from my face. “Run the palace? I haven’t even run a business.”
Xander chuckled. “Do not feel anxious. Darda and many others will assist you.”
The road we traveled was a wide, hard-packed dirt way. We passed many carts as they rolled along in the same direction as our little group. Many of the drivers pulled to the side of the road and bowed their heads at Xander. He smiled and returned the gesture.
“So does everybody know what you look like?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “No, but they are aware only those of my house are allowed to bear the crest of my family.”
“And how many people are in your house?”
“It is only I who remain of the main branch, but I have a family of distant cousins who I have granted use of the coat. Unfortunately, you are little likely to see them for they do not reside in the city, but live abroad.”
My face fell. “That sounds kind of lonely.”
Xander smiled. “My duties keep me preoccupied. Do you have any siblings?”
I shook my head. “No, but there’s my parents. They’re divorced, but I still see both of them.”
He arched an eyebrow. “‘Divorced?’”
“Yeah. Don’t you guys get divorces over here?” I wondered.
“What does it mean?”
“Well, it means they’re not married anymore,” I explained to him.
Xander furrowed his brow. “We do not have that custom here. If one marries, they marry for life.”
I snorted. “That means you dragon lords take a big risk on the Maidens, don’t you? You could be stuck with someone you don’t like.”
He smiled at me. “I am grateful I will not have to consider this ‘divorce.’”
I shifted in my saddle and winced. “Speaking of divorces, my butt’s about to divorce itself from the rest of me. How far is it?”
Xander nodded at a long, gentle slope in front of us. “Alexandria is just over that hill.”
I craned my neck as we climbed the hill and peeked over the ridge. There, laid out on a small plain, was the city of Alexandria. The metropolis abutted a large lake fed by the snow-capped mountains to its northwest. The late morning sun in the east cast a dazzling glow on the white stone buildings with their timbered and shingled roofs. Steeples pierced the skyline, and a large square opened in the very center of the grid. The whole of the city was protected by a tall stone wall fifty feet high and half as thick. A single wide gate allowed entrance into the city.
The lake was nearly round with an active harbor filled with dozens of docks large and small. Sailing ships were anchored near the harbor, and smaller boats littered the docks. A small island sat some hundred yards out and was connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land. Trees covered its otherwise rocky shore, and I could see a large white obelisk near the far shore with a small stone building situated at its base.
The palace of my dragon lord was a majestic fortress of white stone situated along the northwest shore of the lake. It had four terraces that climbed halfway up the steep, white-stoned mountain. A gate at the bottom-most terrace had fifty feet of lake-front property before a long dock stretched out into the waters in the direction of the city.
Xander paused and studied me. “What do you think of it?”
“Wow,” I breathed.
He chuckled. “I am glad to hear you say so.”
I swallowed my amazement and nodded at the castle. “That must be pretty easy to defend.”
“In six thousand years, it has never been taken by outside forces,” he told me.
I arched an eyebrow. “What about inside ones?”
He pursed his lips and tugged on the reins of his steed. “Unfortunately, my family has not been immune to internal strife. But come. I am eager to see my home from a closer distance.”
We carried on and in a half hour had reached the gate. The archway towered thirty feet above our heads, and the two wood doors, made of six-inch thick boards nailed together with metal bands, were twenty feet wide. They were thrown open to the many carts, wagons and pedestrians that streamed in and out of the gate.
Three guards on either side had their backs to the arch and watched all who came and went. There was a small wood door in the left pillar of the arch. The guards noticed our regal group and stood at greater attention. Spiros rode up to the doorway and dismounted. The guard closest to the door knocked on the entrance.
A man stepped out and looked around. He wore the armor of a soldier but with a crooked, ragged felt cap on his head of shocking red hair. Perched on his shoulder was a small, gray-and-white hawk with alert yellow eyes.
Spiros smiled as the man saluted him. “How goes, captain?”
A crooked smile slipped onto the man’s lips and he saluted Spiros. “Better now that you’re back, Spiros You can take the blame for my mistakes.”
Spiros cleared his throat and jerked his head over his shoulder. The captain looked past him at us. His face fell and straightened a little more before he bowed. “Greetings, My Lord!”
His proclamation caught the attention of everyone around us. The pedestrians stepped back and gawked while the cart drivers hurried past to make room.
Xander smiled and bowed to him. “Greetings, Kinos. I see the city still stands.”
Kinos nodded. “It does, My Lord, but she shimmers now that you have returned.”
Xander turned his horse toward the long street in front of us. “I shall make the inspection myself, and if I should find a blemish I will give you the lash.”
“Spare some for my commander, now that he has returned,” Kinos added with a sly look at Spiros.
“I will do so,” Xander agreed, and with a bow of their heads we headed off. Spiros jumped onto his horse and followed behind.
I leaned toward Xander. “Who was that?”
“Kokinos is the captain of the city,” he told me.
I glanced over my shoulder at Spiros. “Isn’t Spiros in charge of that?”
Xander shook his head. “No. Spiros leads the castle guards and my personal retinue, and Kokinos does report to Spiros.”
“But you called him something else. Kino?” I guessed.
He smiled. “Kinos is merely a nickname. His true name is Kokinos.”
“And does that mean anything?”
“It refers to the color red in the ancient Alexandrian language. Kinos’s family is legendary for their hair.”
I looked around us at the broad cobblestone street. On either side were two-story houses made of dried brick, some with open shops for their bottom floor and others used completely for housing. Their walls were whitewashed to perfection and many had flower pots beside their wood doorways. Chimneys puffed out smoke from kitchen stoves and warmed the streets with wondrous smells. Over many of the doorways were carved a sword of stone.
However, I couldn’t help but notice the many stares we received. People stepped aside and bowed to us. The travelers in their cloaks gawked at our presence. Children leaned out their windows and waved to us. Some of them peeked out far enough for a necklace to dangle out from their necks. On the end of the jewelry was the same sword design as over the houses.
“So is this how much attention all your walks through town get?” I asked him.
“And sometimes a great deal more,” he replied.
I shrank beneath all those staring eyes and curious faces. The main road traveled through the large city square I had seen from the hill. An enormous fountain with three tiers sat in the center. Covered stalls lined around the perimeter of the circular square and people hawked wears of all kinds. There were fabrics, fruits, furniture, and small animals.
One small animal was familiar, and over our heads. A white hawk flew over us in the direction of the castle. I pointed at the bird. “Isn’t that-”
“Kinos’s own hawk. He takes news of our arrival to the castle,” Xander explained to me.
“I wish it’d take me. . .” I mumbled.
We rode through the square and back down the main street to the docks. The bustle of activity wasn’t slowed by our arrival. Crews loaded and unloaded boxes, crates, and all sorts of smaller objects and officials with clipboards made tallies of the wares coming and going.
Our retinue rode to the longest and most pristine dock in the whole of the harbor. It stretched into the water for two hundred feet, and tied to one of the tall posts was an elegant sailing ship. The ship was fifty feet long and half that distance wide. Its shimmering wooden masts matched the white sheets of its sails. At the head of its bow was a mermaid with a naked upper torso and a fish tail.
The deck and dock had a tough-looking crew with patched clothes and a few of them with scars on their arms and faces. One of them was a scraggly fellow with an eye-patch and a grizzled gray beard.
He waved a finger at one of the crew on deck, a man in a clean outfit. “Watch yerself there, sir! Keep your wits about you!”
The man sneered and waved his hand. “Ah knows, sir, Ah knows!” He picked up a wood box and walked to the gangplank. His foot slipped on a puddle of water and he crashed onto his rear.
The grizzled man shook his head and glanced in our direction. He squinted his eyes for a moment and a smile broke through his whiskers. “Well, well, look what the land rats brought to us.”
Xander dismounted and the rest of us followed suit. “Good day, Captain Magnus. I hope the winds are favorable.”
The captain limped over to us and nodded his head. “The winds are always temperamental, Yer Lordship, but today they are smiling on ye.” His eyes fell on me and his bushy gray eyebrows shot up. “What have we hear? Has Yer Lordship caught his fish of the sea?”
Xander half turned and gestured to me. “Captain Magnus Heinason, allow me to introduce you to my Maiden, Miriam Cait.”
The captain bowed his head. “It’s a pleasure to meet ya, My Lady. His Lordship’s caught a fine fish, a very fine fish.”
Xander nodded at the ship. “Is she sea-worthy, Captain?”
Magnus followed his gaze and grinned. “Aye, but for some landed fish on the crew. Some of me sailors went and abandoned ship for a better port at Bruin Bay, but I say ‘bah’ to them! None good pickings of ladies there, the fools!” His eyes flickered to me and he coughed into his hand. “That is, none good work to be got there, Yer Lordship.”
“May we board, Captain?” Xander asked him.
The captain stepped aside and swept his hand to the ship. “Of course, Yer Lordship, of course! Come aboard, ye and all yer men!”