Sam sat cross-legged on the ground while a fire burnt before him. On the other side of the raging flames, his brothers, his mother, and his friends, all members of the Ma'hala, watched him with piercing stares. The time of decision had come, and Sam already knew what his choice would be. He only hoped he was making the right choice.
When Sam had turned sixteen and had legally been recognized as a man under Suriveinde law, he'd joined the rebel fighting force best known as the Ma'hala. The group was the one for which his father had died, and his grandparents before then. For thirty years, the group, whose name was derived from the Fraund word for "freedom," had fought against the Nioraande family, who had seized power in 1823.
In the early years of Ma'hala, the rebel numbers had been low. After the Nioraande family had cancelled centuries of democratic process in the country, too many people had been frightened of King Joel II's brutal policies of retaliation against those who stood against his rule. In recent years, however, as the rights of the common people had continued to dwindle, the Ma'hala had swelled in ranks.
It was precisely because of this recent growth in support that the leaders of the Ma'hala had been able to formulate the plan they now needed to execute. If one of their number could infiltrate the royal court and befriend the secretive Joel Nioraande or one of his family, that person could find a time of weakness for the king in which his fellows in the Ma'hala could strike.
Ever since his father had died when Sam was only ten, he had been raised with the knowledge that the once peaceable, utopian country of Surivien had been seized by the violent tyrant. Sam had been trained to hate his king, and had been groomed for the day when he would serve as the honored freedom fighter would free his people from Joel II's horrors. Sam was entitled to such an honor only because his father and grandfather, along with five other great thinkers, had originally formed the Ma'hala all those years before.
The night of Sam's first and twentieth birthday was also the night when Sam would chose whether to fulfill the carefully laid plans of years. The fact that the night was his birthday was almost meaningless; the Ma'hala's plans had simply reached fruition at the right time of year.
He stared at the familiar faces across the fire. Orange flames distorted otherwise recognizable features, making Sam's brothers look like demons and his friends look like grotesquely grinning sadists. Disconcerted, the young man looked away.
He remembered how, when he had been a child, Sam's father had taught him the principals of honor. He'd told him when it was acceptable to kill a man, and when it was more honorable to stand down. The wise parent had instructed Sam on many things he wouldn't really understand for years, and above all else, had ensured that his son utterly revered honor.
Sam had always believed spying was an inherently dishonorable profession. The greatest heroes of war didn't work in darkness or hide their actions; such traits were those of a man who is ashamed of what he does. Sam had been raised to believe that he could greatest serve the cause of the Ma'hala and his own conscience by standing up and fighting in honorable battle. There was no other way to fight.
Therefore, when, three months before his birthday, Sam had been awakened in the night by his excited mother, he had been astonished to learn that she'd wanted him to become a spy for the Ma'hala. He had always understood that he was thinner, weaker, and shorter than his other brothers, but he had hoped courage would more than make up for these set-backs in the heat of battle. He'd never imagined that his mother would want to remove him from such chances for honor by sending him to the Nioraande palace.
The more Sam had learned of the Ma'hala's plans, however, the more he'd come to see how necessary a spy's work was. Despite the inflation of their ranks, the Ma'hala were being too quickly killed off. Their most recent attacks on the royal family and their supporters had been ill-planned. They needed information from the inside; they needed a spy who knew the schedule and inner-workings of the most prominent members of the monarchist government.
In the end, Sam recognized the importance of a spy's work, and he mentally justified it in the same manner that his mother did. If a spy could serve the cause of the Ma'hala as well as or better than a foot soldier, then his actions were justified. Any personal squeamishness on Sam's part was far-outweighed by his knowledge that he performed a great service for his people in his secretive work.
All in all, there was nothing more to think about. Sam had made his decision long ago. He looked back toward his friends, and wasn't so unsettled at the way the fire distorted them. He needed to distance himself from all that was familiar, because for the next several months or even years, Sam would need to pretend not only that he didn't know who they were, but that he hated their cause.
For the sake of those present, who couldn't hear his thought process, Sam said, "I'll go."
Four weeks later, Sam saw the white brick castle for the first time. He rode a placid brown mare that had been given him by his fellows in the Ma'hala toward his goal and ruminated on the situation he was about to enter. All his life, Sam had heard that the Nioraande family represented all that was evil and corrupt in the world, and he couldn't help but let this prejudice of the monolith that loomed before him.
Noting the time, Sam urged his horse to stop and began to set up for lunch. Although the castle was visible, Sam predicted that he would need two or three more hours to reach it. Just because he was close to his goal, Sam could provide no excuse not to stop and eat.
His meal was a meager one- he finished off the last of the unidentifiable salted meat he'd bought from a greasy-looking merchant a few days ago, and washed it down with sour ale. Hardly satisfied but at least fairly certain that he wouldn't be hungry again for a few hours, Sam climbed back into the saddle in order to resume his journey.
Just as he was about to take off again, however, Sam tensed at the distinctive sound of a woman screaming. In the sudden silence that ensued, Sam tensed, wondering whether he'd simply imagined the scream. A moment later, the shrieks resumed, and Sam spurred his horse to a sprint forward.
For endless minutes, Sam raced through the woods, continuously drawn by the unknown woman's cries for help but unable to find her. Sam raced past tries and over fallen logs, traveling so fast that at some points he feared he would be thrown from his horse and would be unable to help the woman or himself.
Finally, just when Sam and his horse were both breathing loudly enough that he feared he would lose the sound of the woman's screams, he came upon the troubled female. She wore a long blue dress, and her golden hair, which had once been curled and pinned atop her head thrashed freely in the wind. The hem of her dress was dirty and torn, making Sam wonder why she'd been walking in the woods when a woman with means enough to afford such a dress had to have easy access to any horse she wanted.
Sam didn't have much time to ruminate on such mysteries, however, for the cause of the woman's distress was readily apparent. She clutched a rotting piece of wood with which she tried to fight off a brown bear. The bear, for his part, stood on its back legs and growled menacingly. Had the situation not seemed so desperate, Sam might have wondered what the woman had done to anger the beast so much.
The woman, for her part, swung her makeshift club at the bear, who growled and continued to advance. In a lucky stroke, the woman actually hit the bear with the club, but the wet wood broke into a thousand fragments, leaving her utterly defenseless. Having not yet spotted Sam, she had to believe her screams and calls for help were useless, but she stubbornly continued to shout even as the bear advanced.
Just when it seemed that she had no reason to hope, the bear's growls transformed from those of anger to those of pain. While the woman had made her last desperate efforts to fight, Sam had dismounted and charged at the bear. One jab to the bear's ribs was all Sam needed to draw its attention away from the helpless woman and toward himself.
He tugged his sword from the bear's flesh, and assumed a fighter's position while the bleeding animal roared again, then dropped to all fours to approach its attacker. Man and beast circled one another, then Sam charged forward once more. Despite his small size, Sam had been trained to fight, along with every other member of the Ma'hala.
A single swipe beheaded the creature, bringing Sam's first battle as a spy to an abrupt end. He panted a bit, then turned and walked back to his horse to find a rag with which to clean the blood off his sword.
"Sir, please," the woman called when Sam was halfway to his horse. "Don't go quite yet."
"I'm not going anywhere," Sam assured her as he reached his horse and dug in a saddle-sack for a suitable scrap of cloth. "I'm just cleaning up a bit."
"Oh," the woman responded, simultaneously sounding both relieved and crestfallen. Sam found what he sought and in two swipes had cleaned his sword. The woman watched what he did, then said, "You saved my life."
"Forget it," Sam replied, mounting his mare. "Any man who considers himself honorable couldn't leave any woman to her death."
"Perhaps," the woman replied, stepping in front of Sam's mount so that he couldn't ride away. The task of steering his horse around the woman would have been a simple one, but clearly, the woman wanted to talk, and although Sam wasn't really in the mood to make friends, he thought he may as well wait and listen.
"There aren't many men who would call themselves honorable any more," the woman proclaimed.
Sam was inclined to agree, although he considered his brothers and his friends to all be honorable men. If the people of the country allowed Joel Nioraande to rule him without protest, they had no dignity or they were cowards, or both. Any of those traits was enough to disqualify any man from being honorable, in Sam's opinion. He wasn't ready to give away his secret or his political outlook, yet, and Sam rarely lied if he could avoid it, so he gave a non-committal reply. "I suppose, if you say so," he grunted. "It's hard for me to know, because I'm not from around here."
"Really?" the woman asked, her eyes flashing. "Where are you from?"
"Up north," Sam replied, fearing to give the name of his province, for it was known for its revolutionary tendencies. "I've left home to set out on my own, though, so there's no need to talk of what has passed."
"Where are you headed?" the girl asked.
"Nioraande castle," Sam replied. "I don't know anyone there, but I had hoped I could serve my king until I had proven myself enough that I could set out on my own."
The woman laughed, and for an embarrassed moment, Sam feared he'd said something wrong. Then, she stilled his fears by saying, "What a coincidence! I live in Noiraande castle. In fact, I am a relative of His Highness. Perhaps I could find a way to ensure that you find wok of some sort. After all, my cousin will want to reward you handsomely for saving my life."
Sam's first impulse was to kill the woman where she stood; nobody was about to see, so he wouldn't risk his position by doing so. However, the woman's offer was tempting, and such work could be useful for him to explain why he remained in the castle while he worked as a spy. There was always later to kill.
"That sounds wonderful," Sam proclaimed.
The woman stepped around Sam's horse and lifted a hand, indicating that he should help her into the saddle. Sam reached for it, when the woman pulled it away and declared, "I wouldn't want to get a bad reputation, though, even if you did save my life. Only a very foolish girl indeed would ride with a man whose name she doesn't even know."
Sam smiled as he realized what a mistake he'd made in forgetting to introduce himself. "I am Samuel Hugo," he said, borrowing the last name of a famous Suriviende poet. If he introduced himself using his true last name, Le Saux, he risked being recognized. His father and grandfather had both been too notorious for their names to go unnoted, even among uneducated females.
"I am Peyton Mertiour," the woman replied. Once more, she extended a dainty hand, and this time allowed Sam to assist her up to his horse. She easily swung up into the saddle, making Sam think that she didn't need his assistance at all, but had extended her hand for propriety's sake.
As they rode, Sam found himself breaching basic rules of dignity to ask, "How is it that a woman such as yourself found herself alone in the woods without a horse or bodyguard?"
"Oh, I hate riding with guards," Peyton replied. She didn't seem to notice the question was rude, or if she did, she didn't care. "The village is so safe anyway, there aren't any of those horrible Ma'hala around. Then, all the guards can think about is what would be good to hunt and when can we stop and eat, when all I really want to do is ride through the forest and maybe stop to gather some lilacs."
"And why didn't you have a horse?" Sam prompted.
"I did, at the beginning of the ride," Peyton replied. "I dismounted, though, to take a closer look at some flowers, and didn't even hear the bear approach. I should have known something was wrong when Thistle grew so skittish- she's always such a good horse. Well, by the time I thought she needed reigned in, my horse had already fled and a bear had cornered me. Then, you came."
Sam sighed, but held his tongue. Leave it to a woman to be so foolish as not to pay any attention to her horse's senses until it was too late! "You say you are the king's cousin?" he asked.
"Why, Samuel," Peyton sighed. "If I didn't know any better, I'd think you were in love with me, what with all these questions you're asking. Oh, look!"
Sam followed the path of Peyton's extended arm to see a white horse grazing a few yards away. "It's a horse," he said, not quite sure why the sight had excited Peyton's attention so much. Noting its saddle and bridle, he continued, "It's a tame horse, probably from the castle."
"It's Thistle!" Peyton cried. "Oh, please, let me dismount and I'll ride her back home. She's a very good horse, but doesn't follow very well."
Sam brought his horse to a stop, then asked, "Do you need help dismounting?" Peyton assured him that she didn't, and proved her words by climbing to the ground. Once she was there, Sam mused aloud, "Well, I suppose this means that you won't be accompanying me to the castle, then?"
"Oh, of course I still will!" Peyton proclaimed. "Fear not, even though Thistle doesn't follow, she can still ride side-by-side with any other horse."
Sam smiled at the pretty woman, then said, "Very well. Because you are most familiar with these parts, you can lead the way."
"Oh, hardly," Peyton replied. "A woman leading a man, even a stranger? Ridiculous! Don't fret, I can tell you where to go if you are uncertain, but you must ride side-by-side with me, even if Thistle will not let you go before."
"Very well," Sam responded. "I suppose propriety must be kept at all costs."
"It must indeed," Peyton replied.
When they arrived in the royal stables, Peyton adopted the commanding tone of any noble woman as she ordered the stable boys to wash down and care for Sam's horse. Inside the castle, Peyton introduced Sam as her "very dear friend and guest to the night's feast," and ordered that he be given a room, clean clothes, and all the respect due to a companion of Lady Peyton Nioraande.
Within his room, which was easily the size of Sam's entire house, the spy sniffed at the warm carpeting rugs, the large four-poster bed with layers and layers of cushioning and blankets, and the private bathroom. Although he was slightly tempted to be wowed by the luxuries, he reminded himself that they were paid for with the sweat and blood and King Joel II's unruly taxes.
Despite his slightly forced disdain, Sam took a long, warm bath and changed into the clothes Lady Peyton's servants had provided for him. In red leggings and a red coat trimmed with gold, Sam felt as though he was indistinguishable from the very nobles he'd learned to hate.
An hour later, Peyton's servants arrived again to escort Sam to the "upcoming feast." As Sam couldn't think of any upcoming holy days or holidays, his self-righteous disdain grew; how could any king justify the money Nioraande spent on lavish feasts with no apparent cause?
In an effort to further justify his opinions, Sam struck up a conversation with one of his accompanying servants. "What is this feast celebrating?" he asked, certain that the servant would reply either that he didn't know, or that they weren't celebrating anything in particular.
"You mean you do not know that today is the prince's birthday?" the servant gasped in astonishment.
"Oh, of course!" Sam gasped, although in reality he'd had no suspicion that the king's only son was being celebrated. At the servant's mention of the prince's birthday, Sam vaguely remembered hearing about the child's birth a few years before. "How old is His Highness?" he asked conversationally.
"Eight years old today," the servant responded.
Sam nodded. Although he was too young to remember when it had happened, his mother, when teaching him history, had told him that King Joel II had been very old when his first child had been born. The first queen, Madison VI, had been barren and eight years had passed before the king had set her aside for a younger bride, Iris I. Even after that marriage, however, Queen Iris had been unable to produce an heir, leading to speculation that the king might himself be infertile. All such suspicion had been laid to rest when the prince had been born. Sam wished he could remember the prince's name.
He couldn't very well ask the servants for more information, though. He held his tongue while they lead him through labyrinthine passages and down a staircase, at the bottom of which waited Peyton. Her red dress trimmed in gold and scarlet was a perfect counterpart to Sam's own, leading the spy to wonder how the woman had arranged to have clothes made to fit him and match hers so quickly.
Like any fine gentleman, Sam extended his arm, and Peyton took it. From the floor, he could see that the candles lining the hallways lead to a hall just around the corner. Already, the sweet melodies produced by the minstrels tickled Sam's ear. "Shall we?" he asked.
"Lead on, kind sir," Peyton replied.
Arm-in-arm, the couple strolled through the corridor, which quickly opened up to an opulent ballroom filled with long tables. Sam tried not to allow his jaw to drop while he surveyed the wonders before him: platters upon platters of fine food, well-dressed lords and ladies everywhere he looked, and minstrels and jugglers who mingled with their guests and showed-of their talent.
Peyton laughed a musical chuckle, and observed, "Why, Sir Samuel! From your reaction, one could imagine that you've never attended a royal feast before!"
"I haven't," Sam responded. "I come from a very small village, and the progress doesn't come near enough often enough. Before today, I had never before laid eyes on royalty."
"Well then, we will have to remedy that shortly, won't we?" Peyton asked.
Sam wasn't certain how to respond, so he latched on to an earlier complaint and said, "You can call me Sam."
Peyton smiled. "Very well, then, Sam," she said.
She steered him before the whole congregation of celebrants, and took their seat at a table just short of the head. From where he sat, Sam could see the people he assumed to be King Joel II, Queen Iris I, and the prince. Leaning toward Peyton after taking a seat, Sam admitted, "I'm very ashamed, but I must confess that I have forgotten the royal prince's name."
"He is Drake Nioraande," Peyton replied.
"Thank you," Sam responded, but he and Peyton had little more time to talk as a juggler appeared and began to perform. He tossed balls, burning sticks, and fruits from the meal into the air, and by the time he was finished, Sam had no further desire to eat the shiny red apples and polished pears. He and the other patrons at the table applauded politely, then the juggler departed.
"Don't worry, the real fun will begin soon," Peyton assured Sam.
"What do you consider 'real fun'?" Sam asked.
"You'll see," Peyton answered. "You're going to have to meet everybody, you know, because they'll all want to know who my guest is. You'll like most of the people here, though. They are all very fine and well-bred."
Sam was desperately trying to think of a reply when a young woman with bright red hair and an equally bright blue gown approached the table. Seemingly breathless, the newcomer spoke as though Sam wasn't even there, crying, "Why, Lady Peyton! You have always been such an advocate of propriety, and yet I can't say that I have ever seen this young man who accompanies you tonight! Everyone wants to know who this mysterious gentleman is!"
Peyton blushed at the insinuation, but accepted the comments with grace, replying, "Oh, don't you know Sir Samuel from the north? He has come to the castle to serve as the guard to His Highness King Joel himself. Needless to say, when I met Sir Samuel earlier today, I felt it was my duty as a fine lady and as a resident of the palace to invite him to dinner myself."
"Guard to the king?" the woman repeated. "He's a bit small, isn't he?"
Sam blushed a bit at the reference to his stature, even as Peyton rose to defend him. "You may say what you like, but you haven't seen Sir Samuel in action!" she declared. "Although he is quite short indeed, what Sir Samuel loses in height he more than makes up for in bravery and strength. I have seen him fight with my own eyes, and I assure you, a lady such as yourself should consider herself lucky to be in the company of such a fine gentleman."
The woman furrowed her brow, then leaned toward Sam, shutting Peyton out of their conversation. The way she leaned caused the tops of her breasts to peek from her low-cut dress, and Sam tried to keep his eyes on her face without making clear that he had to concentrate to do so. "Pleased to meet you, Sir Samuel," she said as she extended her hand. Sam clumsily accepted it and gave it a chaste kiss while the woman continued, "I am Lady Jeannie, daughter of the Duke of Parviounge. I hope that I will be seeing you a good deal more about this castle."
"I hope to see more of yourself as well," Sam responded, still trying to look anywhere above the obnoxious girl's neck. Although he was eager to terminate the conversation, he felt that he had to be as honest as a man could be in his situation, and said, "Lady Peyton does me too much justice, however. I am not a knight, and therefore do not deserve the title of 'sir.'"
A slight hint of a smile played at the edges of Jeannie's lips even as she observed, "But I thought that all royal guards had to be knights."
"It is a common misconception, and one easily made by the uneducated and frivolous," Peyton declared, seemingly eager to insult the other woman when she could. "Just because all of the current guards are knights, however, that doesn't mean they must be. Why, a hundred years ago King Matthew XI had an entire contingent of non-knight guards."
"That was a hundred years ago," Jeannie responded with barely concealed annoyance.
"And King Matthew XI was the last king before the democratic revolution," Peyton concluded. "In a way, our royal King Joel is like Matthew's heir, is he not? If he allows dear Samuel here to be one of his guards, I don't think there will be any danger of controversy."
"'If'?" Jeannie repeated. "What of this word, 'if'? I thought you said Samuel would be a guard. Now are you uncertain?"
"Hardly," Peyton responded. "I haven't asked for permission yet, but I'm sure the honor will be awarded him. After all, he saved my life just this past afternoon, slaying a ferocious bear on-foot while I was lost and alone in the woods." She accented the story by slipping shivering hands around Sam's arm.
"Really?" Jeannie replied with dropped jaw. "Is this true, Samuel?"
"Well, the rescue was hardly as daring as Peyton might like to imply," Sam said, grateful for the chance to enter the conversation again and speak for himself. "Please, though, call me Sam."
Jeannie smiled, looking as though she'd won a small battle or something. "Very well, Sam," she said. "And, do you hope to be knighted for your work?"
The question brought Sam up short. He had heard of the virtue of knights, but he had also heard of the oaths of fealty they were expected to swear to their king. Although Sam could justify lying and a great deal else for the sake of his work for the Ma'hala, he could not break his oath.
"I have no desire to be knighted," Sam replied, adopting an air of humility in the hopes that a good performance could draw attention away from his attempts to turn down the honor. "I am simply a poor country boy who hopes to serve his king; I never had any intention of making a name for myself or of gaining fame through my actions."
Jeannie seemed so astonished, she did not speak for several seconds. Then, she gasped, "Sir, you are a man of honor indeed!"
"Yes, he is," Peyton replied. "Pay no heed to his overly humble words, though. He was very brave when he saved my life today, and I want everyone here to hear of his exploits."
"Oh, have no fear," Jeannie called. "They will hear of them."
After the redhead had departed, Peyton smiled and smugly proclaimed, "By the end of the hour, everyone here will know who you are and what you did for me today. I don't like Jeannie very much, but if you ever need someone to spread a bit of gossip for you, you can count on her."
Sam felt himself feeling a new level of respect for the woman who sat beside him. Her entire conversation with Jeannie had seemed natural and spontaneous; he'd never imagined that Peyton had planned to tell the other woman all that she had. "You exaggerated your rescue too much, though. No one will believe what you've said of me."
"Don't worry," Peyton responded. "No matter what I say, Jeannie will exaggerate the story ten fold. Everyone knows to believe very little of what she says, but when she tells the story of the heroic knight who rescued me, everyone will want to know the truth about you, and you'll build enough of a reputation that His Majesty will have no choice but to knight you. You shouldn't have told Jeannie you're not interested in a title, though. It'll make you seem hypocritical when you receive it."
"I don't want a title," Sam insisted.
"Why ever not?" Peyton responded. "It will make things much easier for you when the time comes for you to accept your position as a guard."
"I can't become a knight," Sam explained, his mind racing. "I didn't say why when Jeannie was here because I was embarrassed, but. . . I can't. It's illegal, because there is no noble blood in my veins."
Peyton laughed as if Sam had said something funny, then sighed, "That means nothing. Don't you see? I am cousin to the king, and you will soon be a trusted friend! He can make things happen, and if you simply tell him your grandfather's name, His Highness will give the old man a title and you will have record of noble lineage."
"I can't do that," Sam complained. "I don't know my grandfather's name."
"How can you not know your own grandfather's name?" Peyton demanded.
Inspiration struck. "I don't know who my grandfather is," Sam declared. "My mother was a prostitute, as was her mother before her. Had I been born a woman, I would probably still be in my home village, but I would be working in the family trade. Because I was born a man, I was able to leave and seek my own fortunes, but I fear that I have no hope of receiving any honor pertaining to my family or lineage."
"I had no idea," Peyton gasped, her hand covering her mouth.
Sam continued to look down, feigning shame. "I know," he murmured. "I can't blame you for something you never knew. But that's why I can never become a knight."
Peyton continued to look down in solemn respect for a few moments. Finally, she sighed and said, "You don't need to worry about your inability to become a knight. My cousin listens to my advice in a great many things- not in matters of policy, of course, for I am only a woman, but if I recommend that you be allowed to become one of the king's guards, he will listen."
Sam nodded, and said, "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Peyton responded. "Now, come on. Let's meet more people. This time, I promise that I won't exaggerate your exploits."