The Lost Heir: Chapter One
By Rivera Sun
Ari Ara swung her leg over the window ledge and peered down the high stone wall of the House of Marin. She was about to break a dozen rules and frankly didn’t care. If she couldn’t sneeze without offending somebody in Mariana Capital, then she might as well have a little fun while she was at it. In the three weeks since she’d arrived, she hadn’t been out of the House of Marin once. Instead, she’d been cooped up in her quarters enduring a mind-numbingly dull crash course in conduct and manners. Her tutors were a set of stodgy old toads whose disapproving frowns curved across their faces like the gargoyles glaring from the spouts of the rain gutters. After the first, tedious welcoming reception – where she’d apparently shocked the nobles by breaking every single law of etiquette ever invented – the Great Lady Brinelle had postponed all other events until the Lost Heir learned to behave in accordance with her newly-discovered rank as a double royal.
Sitting on the window ledge of her luxurious quarters, the long-lost daughter of the late Queen Alinore of Mariana and the Desert King Tahkan Shirar snorted in exasperation. It was hard to follow rules if you didn’t know they existed! She’d like to see the pampered nobles get thrown into the High Mountains without any guidance . . . they’d realize quick as lightning that there was more to know in life than which fork went with the salad!
Ari Ara felt like that caged bear cub trapped by the villagers: constantly on display, poked at by everybody, and roaring with frustration as they tried to train the wild out of her. She’d been scrubbed red and raw, fussed over until she wanted to scream, scolded until her head hurt, and kept indoors until she thought she’d go mad with boredom.
Meanwhile, just over the rooftops, the siren song of Mariana Capital called to her. If she leaned out the windows far enough, she could catch the smells of roasting nuts, fresh-caught fish, and ladies’ perfumes as the aromas wafted on the breezes. She could hear the vendors’ songs as they hawked their wares. Mariana Capital rose like a crown atop a large island in the middle of the vast Mari River, packed wall-to-wall with houses and shops. Three bridges spanned the narrow East Channel while the wide East-West Bridge crossed the bulk of the river on the far side of the island. Riding into the city on her first day, she’d gaped at the crowds of people and craned her neck to stare at the towers and tiled roofs climbing the crest of the river island. She’d ogled at the enormous houses along Marin’s Way, but all she’d seen since the moment they’d turned into the courtyard of the House of Marin was the insides of rooms. The Great Lady said she could only go into the city with an official escort and that couldn’t be arranged for weeks.
The constraints of her new life rasped against her like a cat’s tongue until a blister of resentment and a searing itch of curiosity rose inside her. She’d never been forbidden to go places before. As an orphan, no one had cared where she’d roamed across the black cliffs and deep forests of the High Mountains. Each day, the rolling tones of the Great Bell in the top of the University Tower called to her, and secretly, she promised she would come.
Which was why, on this fine and foggy morning, Ari Ara was sneaking out to see the city. She’d risen before first light, slipped on her old training clothes, thrown the hood of her black Fanten cloak over her conspicuous red hair, and climbed out the window. Honestly! She wasn’t some Capital noblegirl who’d slept in fluffy beds all her life. She had run wild across the mountains as a child, fended for herself as a Fanten shepherdess, and been an apprentice in the rigorous trainings of the Way Between under the stern watch of the Great Warrior Shulen. She could take care of herself!
Ari Ara stretched her fingers out. Slick moisture coated the surfaces of the stones. River mist veiled everything in sweeps of white and shadowy grays. The building bent slightly with the curve of the island and a long stone ledge extended the length of the wall. Ari Ara tested the cracks in the old mortar between the granite blocks. She grinned. Easier than chasing yearling lambs down from the cliffs! She slid her toes onto the narrow ledge and began picking her way carefully along the length of the building The mist shivered as the first touch of dawn light rose over the distant mountains. The fog condensed and hunkered down thickly over the city. She could hardly see her hand, let alone the river below or the guards on the parapet at the top of the house.
Perfect, Ari Ara thought with a grin. This type of weather made everyone sleep in . . . and after last night’s festivities, even the maids would be sound asleep until mid-morning. She, on the other hand, was wide-awake, since she – and her deplorable manners – hadn’t been allowed to attend. Her absence had set off wild speculation among the guests that the Lost Heir was as stark raving mad as her father, the Desert King. Several nobles had even tried to sneak into her quarters to find out the truth, but the guards turned them away.
Ari Ara concentrated as she stretched over a tricky section around a stone carving. Her wiry muscles tensed. Her grip slid over a slippery spot. A sheen of sweat beaded her brow. Once past the statue, she quickly reached the corner of the house and picked her way down the drainpipe to the narrow alley below. She wiped her damp and grimy hands on the sides of her pants and pulled her Fanten cloak tighter around her shoulders.
While the nobles slept, the city stirred. The clang of dawn bells and clank of kettles echoed hollowly in the streets. Shrouds of mist walked up and down the cobblestone roads. Figures loomed alarmingly then vanished in the cloak of gray. Murmurs of voices ran through the alleys and bounced off stone walls. Ari Ara quickened her pace through the tangle of alleys that curved like the coiled river dragons on the emblem of the House of Marin.
She rounded a corner and toppled out onto what could only be Merchant’s Way. A grin burst across her face at the sight of the street she’d heard so much about, but never seen. Here, it was rumored, you could find everything from ripe tomatoes in midwinter to your true love on summer solstice. The haggling and trading started at first light and rose loud enough by noon to be heard on the distant west bank of the river valley. Merchants traveled by lamplight to reach the street before dawn. Pushcarts, horse-drawn wagons, and heaps of merchandise piled up on tables, crates, and blankets packed the edges of the market road. Already, cooks and servants jostled shoulders trying to find the freshest produce of the day, shouting out orders for cases of herbs, flapping hens in crates, baskets of eggs, bundles of onions. Ari Ara edged her way through them, eyes wide.
“Lookin’ fer something?” a street urchin bellowed, clutching a woman’s arm. “The maze of the market’s fixed in me mind! I’ll find anything you want, lady!”
The woman shook the urchin off and swept onward. The market shifted each day; there was no order to the awnings, tents, and tables except the whims of merchants and the friendships between flower sellers who pulled up carts next to each other to gossip and share a pot of tea. A potter spread out his shelves next to a carpet seller; an apple grower sat next to a book-and-bauble vender; brand new wares were placed beside antique and salvaged goods; pipes and tobacco were sold near herbal teas for lung health. The humble (shoe polish and sealing wax) stood by the exotic (singing birds and eels in glass tubs). Above the street, rows of shops opened on top of stone steps. Watermarks from the spring floodwaters marked the foundations. Flower baskets hung in the windows. Banners declaring the shops’ specials hung from hooks beside the doors.
Ari Ara wove through the teeming crowd, listening to snippets of conversations between serving maids, snatches of sharp bargains being haggled by farmers over the price of turnips, bantering exchanges between odds-and-ends merchants who swapped and gambled on what the vagaries of the day would bring to the cart. Round women waved handkerchiefs to get each other’s attention. Small scruffy boys whistled through their fingers. Market girls with baskets poised on their heads flirted with young warriors on their way to the Training Yards.
Just as she was about to round the next bend of Merchant’s Way, a hand grabbed her arm, locking like a vise around her wrist. Ari Ara jerked, startled.
“What are you doing out without your blue mark, eh?” a huge smith growled at her.
“Huh? What?” she stammered, scrambling to figure out what he meant.
The smith snatched up a strip of blue fabric from the rags stall next to him and tied it around her wrist. The rag merchant, a dour woman with a pinched face, stared coldly at her, skinny arms crossed over her flat chest.
“Don’t let me catch you roaming about markless again,” the smith scolded gruffly, muttering about thieving desert demons as he shoved her down the street.
“Those water workers are more trouble than they’re worth,” the rag woman grumbled to the smith. “It’s madness to have so many Desert People here in Mariana. After all the wars we’ve had with them, they’re likely to rise up and rip our throats out in the night.”
“Ah, but the nobles are raking in a fortune on their work,” the smith answered with a shrug.
Ari Ara wanted to protest that she wasn’t a water worker – whatever that was – but then they’d demand to know her true identity, and she couldn’t reveal that! Instead, she slid out of sight among the crowd, rattled by the encounter. Ahead of her, she spotted a coat marked by a blue slash of fabric sewn in a diagonal across the back. The tall, thin man walked behind a rotund, white-aproned chef who was making choice selections of fresh-foraged mushrooms and spring herbs. The water worker carried an enormous pack into which the day’s purchases of berries, bread, fish and cream were loaded. Ari Ara stared shamelessly, a thrill of recognition searing through her at the bronzed skin and almond eyes of the man. Her heartbeat quickened at her first actual sight of her father’s Desert People outside of a stiffly formal greeting to the ambassador on the first night. Feeling her gaze, the thin man turned, shooting her a quick flash of a smile and a stern look accompanied by a jerk of his head to tell her to get on her way.
“Best not to dawdle, young one,” he murmured. “Water workers like us can’t be caught idle.”
Ari Ara started after him, trying to follow the blue slash, but she stumbled into a passel of old women arguing over who got the plumpest duck and lost sight of him. As she circled around the women, Ari Ara saw other water workers with the blue mark, all Desert People, all carrying loads and running errands with haste.
A ripple of motion behind her made her duck. A Marianan street urchin sailed past, rifling her hair with a hand swipe that had been intended to knock her across the back of her head. The ragged child kicked the next water worker and knocked the parcels out of a third man’s arms.
“If you want something delivered in one piece, it’s best to use an urchin!” the boy hollered, racing away as the desert man muttered a curse under his breath.
Up and down the Merchant’s Way, roving packs of urchins – city orphans who refused to live in orphanages – darted through the crowded street like minnows in a stream, carrying messages for coin and delivering packages. They idled by the booths and shops, waiting for customers to come out then offering to carry parcels back to homes. They sidled up to merchants and asked if they needed pick-ups or deliveries made. They bought candies at a markdown and carried the maker’s branded trays up and down the streets, selling and sampling, and pointing people back to the maker’s stall. And, Ari Ara noted, they picked pockets, swiped apples from carts, and nabbed chestnuts off trays with nimble fingers.
They plagued the Desert People like hordes of biting flies, pinching and kicking the water workers as they hurtled past. They even snatched bundles and tossed them back and forth like balls while the frantic blue-slashed water workers scrambled to stop them. Twice, urchins tried to trip Ari Ara, but she was too quick. She leapt over the outstretched legs and strode purposefully onward – the spitting image of a young errand-running water worker – all the while trying to sort out how the Desert People wound up as servants to their enemies.
And why did the urchins hold such a hard grudge against them? she thought, dodging a rotten apple chucked at her head.
A congested tangle of the crowd carried her between rows of houses and out onto a wide plaza. Like most of Mariana Capital, the open space bent irregularly. The northern row of shops stretched longer than the south, the eastside shops wider still, and the west side held no shops at all, only a long line of statues. Ari Ara crossed the foot-worn cobblestones toward it.
The tallest statues loomed like giants as she drew close. They were stacked in a wide row, one in front of the other, sometimes five or six deep. Numbering in the hundreds, they stood like a still and silent crowd, watching the foot traffic on the plaza. Each was carved out of stone; some granite, others marble. A few were hewn from the black rock of the High Mountains, and she couldn’t imagine how they moved the huge slabs of stone so far. She spotted smaller statues, too, even a collection the size of her hand. From the weather marks and styles of dress, she guessed that they had been carved one-by-one and added over time. Small offerings lay at the feet of some; others stood unadorned. In the center stood three tall statues of the famous brothers: Marin, Shirar, and Alaren, caught for all eternity in the historic moment of dispute that had founded the two countries of Mariana and the Desert. The torn halves of the Map of the World lay in Alaren’s hands, the slice of the Border Mountains at his feet. Marin and Shirar glared fiercely at each other, swords in hand. A dozen small ledges were carved into Marin’s pedestal, each festooned with flowers, candles, and offerings. Shirar and Alaren’s feet were bare.
“I’ll come back,” Ari Ara promised to the forlorn statues, “and bring something to you both.”
“Don’t bother,” grumbled an accented voice behind her.
She whirled and saw a young water worker staring up at Shirar.
“We leave offerings to our ancestor, but those urchins steal them,” he explained.
The boy spat onto the ground near Marin’s base.
“What’s between you and the urch – ” she started to ask, but an angry voice interrupted her.
“Wipe that up,” an urchin commanded, shoving the desert youth by the shirt. “Your spit isn’t fit to scrub our sewers.”
Ari Ara stiffened. He had no right to scoff at anyone else’s grime! The urchin was as filthy as an untended statue. Rips in his trousers showed his grubby knees. His feet were black with dirt. His jacket was a collection of patches, all of which had seen better days.
“The urchins’ thievery of offerings is a greater insult to your ancestor than my spit!” the water worker shouted back. “Marin would be ashamed of you! Even if he hated his brother, ancestor spirits are ancestor spirits. You shouldn’t disrespect them.”
Ari Ara saw the urchin’s fist clench. As his arm drew back, she darted between them, knocking the blow aside with a move from her training in the Way Between.
“Fight!” someone hollered.
A crowd of urchins, shoppers, and merchants gathered. A handful of water workers raced over, ready to help the youth. Ari Ara spun to stop the desert boy from launching himself at the urchin youth. She twisted him to the left and sent the urchin rolling across the flagstones to the right.
“Stop!” she shouted, but the jeers and cheers of the two factions drowned out her words.
She ducked under the urchin’s punch and grabbed his arm, pulling him off-balance and to the side. The desert boy charged after him, so she leapt and caught him by the waist, dropping to the ground to use her weight to bring him down.
“That’s no water worker!” someone shouted, recognizing the girl. “That’s the Lost Heir!”
Ari Ara cursed under her breath as she knocked aside another blow. The Way Between was the most controversial and fascinating subject in the Capital besides the Lost Heir. The Way Between, or Azar in Old Tongue, was neither fight nor flight, but everything possible in between. It was a way of changing danger to mutual safety, bringing the thrust of violence to a halt without causing further harm. She and her mentor, the Great Warrior Shulen, had finally convinced the Great Lady to let them start holding public trainings . . . she hoped she wasn’t ruining that opportunity.
“Stop!” she hollered, sliding between the two and holding out her hands.
The boy clenched his fist; she slid in front of him and stared him down. The urchin shifted to spring, she pivoted to thwart him.
“Quit yer brawlin’,” a voice ordered in a snap of command that froze all the urchins in place. From the sidelines, a dark-haired urchin girl swaggered out of the crowd. She was skinny as a ragged yarn string and close to Ari Ara in age, no more than a year older. Her hair was braided in hundreds of strands, each wrapped round with a colorful cloth and threaded with glass beads. Her blouse was as white as any shop girl’s, but her breeches bore a patchwork quilt of fabrics, cut in a style that defied and mocked convention. A bulging pouch hung from her leather belt. Crimson stockings rose to her knees. A vest of stitched strips of cloth was buttoned with a row of strange, odd-shaped buttons, no two alike.
“Who are you?” Ari Ara asked.
“Rill – short for Everill,” the girl replied with a proud toss of her head. “I’m a Capital urchin. A first-class South End river dog at yer service.”
A rash of snickers and chortles erupted from the urchins, making Ari Ara suspect this girl was more than just any old street urchin. The girl winked and a slip of a grin flashed across her foxlike features. Her eyes flicked up and down Ari Ara, taking her measure.
“If you’re really the Lost Heir, give me your blessing,” she demanded, reaching out her dirty fingertips in an appeal to the fabled Protector of Orphans.
Ari Ara blinked in surprise. All orphans invoked the Lost Heir as a special saint and protector, calling out in times of sorrow and need. Until this moment, Ari Ara hadn’t realized she had stepped into the very legend she had grown up praying to. The urchin’s eyes drew level with Ari Ara’s and in a flash of unguarded honesty, Ari Ara recognized the intense yearning in the girl’s face. It was like holding a mirror up to her own. A hush fell over the crowd.
“I don’t really have any magic powers,” Ari Ara confessed.
“Yer the Heir,” Rill objected. “You’ve got all the powers in the world!”
Ari Ara sighed.
“Not until I’m officially confirmed,” she admitted, remembering the tedious lecture she’d received on the year-long waiting period before the nobles validated her claim to the throne, “but I can promise to look out for my fellow orphans with any power that I have.”
She reached out a hand, unconsciously imitating the handclasp of warriors, indicating loyalty and unbreakable oaths. Rill sucked in her bony cheeks and spat into her own palm. Shocked cries broke out around them, but Ari Ara didn’t hesitate. She spat into her own hand and reached for Rill’s. The urchin snatched her hand back with a challenging gleam in her eye.
“Do you mean it? All we get from nobles is lies and empty claims,” she complained.
“I’m not a noble – or wasn’t until recently – and my word is as good as yours,” Ari Ara shot back as the hot bite of her temper flared.
“Prove it to me, then. Grant me a boon,” Rill demanded.
“If it is in my power,” Ari Ara cautioned.
“I hear yer bringing the Way Between back to the warriors. Let the urchins study it, too.”
Surprise shot through the crowd of Marianans at the request. Everyone knew that the Great Warrior Shulen and the young Marianan Champion Emir Miresh had vowed to return the nearly extinct art of the Way Between to the Training Yards. No one had considered opening those trainings to ordinary citizens and street urchins . . . until now.
In a voice only Ari Ara could hear, Rill begged.
“We urchins is kicked down and beaten by anyone bigger’n us – and that’s everyone. Offer us yer strength, Protector of Orphans, your magic as it may be, in the form of the Way Between.”
“Done,” Ari Ara declared, slapping her palm into Rill’s hand.
The girl’s eyes lit up with excitement. She lifted her fist above her head in victory and a rippling cheer burst out loud enough to make bystanders flinch. From every direction, the call was returned from pint-sized lungs of children. The urchins’ scrawny arms and pumped fists waved vigorously into the air. Ari Ara’s eyes narrowed, realizing that Rill’s request had been calculated and executed with all the skillful maneuvering of a war general.
“Who are you, really?” Ari Ara demanded to know.
Rill leaned in close and spoke in a breathless whisper.
“As you are to all Marianans, so I am to the street urchins of the Capital. Everill Riverdon, known to some as the Urchin Queen. We are now in yer debt and at yer service.”
“Rill!” an urchin boy hollered from a lookout point on one of the statues. “The Watch is coming!”