Aiga is dancing and spinning around, singing merry songs, some new, some old. Everybody at the inn cheers for the bard and congratulates her. At long last, a patron of the arts has approached her and is willing to invest in her. Education, new instruments, grand audiences and, most importantly, getting her first Falkorian hat.
“Mind if I sit here?”
It’s a fine-dressed lady in her fifties, moon-silver hair, and the neck of a person who hasn’t starved in their life.
“Of course”, I reply. She has already pulled the chair beside me.
We sit in silence as the youth engage in late evening conversations. The woman looks at me. From the symbols on her face of bone, I can read she’s an illusionist, though the rest of the symbols are hidden. She smiles.
“Wonderful daughter you have”, she comments. Her big round ears slightly tremble as she listens to Aiga’s melodic voice. She closes her eyes to relish in every musical note.
“I’m flattered”, I retort; “but she’s not my daughter.”
“Oh. Well then, she talked about you like you were her father.” She sits upright and purses her round lips as she observes the bard. “She is a gem yet to be polished, but I believe I can do a splendid job with her before I send her to Falkor.”
I smile. It’s unusual for a bard as young as Aiga to have found a patron, willing to cover most, if not all, a creative soul's needs.
“Glad you came across each other”, I reply.
“She told me you are a storyteller”, the Falkorian lady ventures. I respond with a subtle nod, and she looks pleased. “I always ask storytellers for the same thing.”
“Which is?”, I ask.
“A story. A rumour. Something I do not yet know.” She smirks, and with the smirk she makes her purse clink. A clear sign she has coin. A lot of it. “Are you able to deliver that?”
I smile. I look at Aiga, happy as she’s ever been, making some new short-term friends a few tables across from ours.
“Have you ever heard of Ylech?”, I ask the round-eyed lady.
“Ylech, one of the Vasarigan Kingdoms? I feel insulted." She waves her hand, as if she's scaring off a summer fly. "I have heard all about King Zival. He was defeated in battle a decade ago, thank the gods. Nobody should be allowed to have that ridiculous amount of strength.”
“Ah, but have you heard how his daughter got her hands on the throne barely a spring ago?”
“A woman ruling Ylech? Hah! That will be the day!” Her face changes as I remain impassive. “You cannot be serious. This must be one of those unfounded rumours.”
“I’m sure the Historians’ Guild will be happy to provide detailed insight on this.”
She looks at me in the eye, and I can see her disbelief is dissipating. Or perhaps she would rather listen to embellished facts rather than an accurate yet lengthy explanation.
“Let us hear it then, about this queen of Ylech.” She folds her arms on her robust chest but, for the first time that evening, she seems to be paying attention to something other than the bard, her most recent investment.
A Queen’s Duty
When King Zival XII died in battle, Mezala was only two years old. To say this brought the kingdom of Ylech too close to being wiped off the map wouldn’t suffice to describe how big an impact this had in the island's history.
“The king’s death is also the death of the Kafkara bloodline!”, cried the people.
“Who will take the throne now? Why didn’t the king have sons?”
“Infertile queen!”, yelled others. “Down with the infertile queen!”
“We must preserve the infant! Only she can bear royal children!”
Mezala’s mother, Queen Izina, was baseborn, and nobody in the kingdom of Ylech would take orders from a woman that didn’t have a drop of royal blood in her veins. Even if infertility had been a pressing issue in the Kafkara bloodline after centuries upon centuries of inbreeding, she was the one to blame.
“What happened to my beloved is terrible, but there is still hope!”, she cried from the wooden balustrade. “Princess Mezala will be of age in ten years. I am sure she will have grown horns by then, and she will find a suitor. She is the daughter of King Zival XII!”
But Ylechians no longer had any use for Queen Izina. She was beheaded three months after the king’s passing by order of the king’s advisers. Anything to keep the peace.
Evidently, the advisers took over the royal duties, and prepared Mezala for the future to come.
“She must always be protected”, said the captain of the Ylechian guard.
“She must learn the art of motherhood”, said the head caretaker.
“She must be properly fed so that she will give birth to male heirs”, said another of the advisers.
As the only remaining heir of the Kafkara bloodline, Mezala was expected to bear children. Many of them, quickly, and as soon as she was able to.
The kingdom of Ylech was torn. There were those who patiently waited for a new king, perhaps a long-lost relative, or for the queen to come of age. Others saw no longer the need for a king if the royal blood had been finally lost.
When Mezala was five, two tiny bumps appeared on her forehead, much to the advisers’ relief. By the time she turned ten, she boasted the distinctive beetle horns of the Kafkara bloodline. The last of her kind.
“You will be the mother of the future king”, Mezala was often told. “And once the king is of age, he will rule, and we must give him suitable wives. And while that happens, it is essential you continue to bear children. It is your duty to bring back the Kafkara family to its former glory.”
It was on her eleventh birthday that a joust was held to find her a suitor. An ideal chance for the baseborn to secure a place in the palace, where meals abounded and water was never scarce. And their own blood would become part of the Kafkaran royalty.
It was no surprise that one of the strongest warriors of the kingdom won, a man named Kzor. He was ecstatic when he was brought to the palace. The food! The colours! The spirits! The drapes! But after much celebration and finding his way to the queen's alcove, Kzor didn’t wake up the following day. Mezala had ripped his ribcage open.
“He tried to attack me”, she told the advisors. “The guards weren’t there, so I took care of him myself.”
Another joust was held, and it was a smith who won. But the day after, he had also been gutted out. The same fate awaited a knight, a farmer, a tailor, another knight, and finally a hunter, who was butchered beyond recognition.
“Clearly young Mezala is not suited to mate, let alone have children”, said one of the advisers. “Imagine leaving the future king in her hands!”
“She has the strength of a thousand men, just like her father”, said the commander of the Ylechian guard. “She may not be suited to be a mother, but surely she is strong enough to lead Ylechians into battle. To unite them. To become a queen.”
“Have you lost your mind? Ylech is already in shambles as it is! What we need is an heir! A king! Restore the Kafkara bloodline! No one will follow a queen!”
Yet rumours of young Mezala having murdered her suitors in cold blood spread across the small kingdom of Ylech. Ylechians didn’t believe in a lot of things, but they believed in the law of the strongest.
Mezala was twelve when she was crowned queen. They coated her horns in gold for every Ylechian to see. She was beginning to grown a thick elytra and insect wings on her back. A trait many thought had been lost down centuries of inbreeding.
To the advisers’ surprise, she was welcome by the whole island. A true Kafkaran. As strong as the former king, if not stronger. A queen they were willing to serve and follow into battle.
And though she is still indeed very young, Queen Mezala has already fought in the front lines, serving as a shield to her people and protecting the small Kingdom of Ylech from harm.
Whether there will be any other Kafkarans after her, that remains to be seen.
“I am almost shocked you know so much about Ylech.”
“I don’t. I just embellished what little I heard.”
The lady patron doesn’t reach for her purse but keeps staring at me, as if trying to discern if there are any symbols on my face of bone. Perhaps I am a historian in disguise.
“Oh well”, she finally says. “I hope those bugs are eradicated, the sooner the better. The strength of a thousand men, hah!” She laughs. “Nothing fire cannot burn. Anyway”, she adds, standing up; “pleasure sharing this moment with you.”
“When are you and the bard leaving?”, I ask. I spot Aiga in the middle of a small crowd, changing the colour of the water in their drinks.
“In a week”, the patron replies. “Enough for her to say good-bye to this forsaken place.” She looks around and a grimace of disgust breaks through her round features. “Farewell, storyteller.”
“If you don’t mind me asking”, I add just as she turns around. “Ylech is a small island. In fact, so small most people haven’t even heard of it. Usually of very little interest to…” I measure my words carefully. “…to someone of your status.”
The lady laughs as if I have just given her the greatest compliment she has heard in a very long time.
“It was my mother the one who came up with the idea of burning the Ylechian king down.”
“Did she advise the Council?”, I venture.
“Not quite.” Then, as proud as she can be, she adds: “My mother was the one to set him on fire.”