"Aidan, anyone ever tell you you're crazy?"
I grunted as I pulled myself up the ledge, hoisting myself onto the landing before responding. "Hey, you weren't exactly unwilling when I asked you to come along."
My cousin, Kavon, quickly followed me up. "If I'd realized this involved climbing all over the outside of the palace, I'd have thought a little more before responding." He drew in a couple of quick breaths as he glanced around. "Do you know how much trouble I'm going to be in if we're caught? I'm supposed to be responsible, after all." While he'd never really minded hanging out with me, at times he felt like he was expected to set an example for me, since his 16 years of age made him the elder of the two of us by 3 years.
"We won't get caught," I replied. "I've done this lots of times, but you've never known, right?"
"Well, we have kind of wondered were you'd disappear to at times, so this does explain a lot." Kavon turned around. "The view's not bad."
We were standing on an old ledge that had originally been a part of the defenses, back when the city had been smaller. When the city of Toskel, originally just a small settlement of a few hundred people surrounding the palace, had grown, and better defenses added in other, more strategic locations elsewhere, the particular window that had been there had been walled up as a part of other palace projects, leaving the small ledge that we were now standing on. I had spotted it one day when I was 7, and had soon figured out a way to climb up to it. I'd used it at times to get away to think. Eventually, for some reason, I'd decided to show Kavon the spot, so one day, finding ourselves with some spare time during the noontime meal (we usually shared it together, as he worked close enough to the palace to make it practical to meet up, eat, and then get back to our jobs within the hour we were allotted), I'd talked Kavon to come up there.
"But still," Kavon said, "we'd better get back. You have to get back to training with Master Grendan, and I've got to get back down to the shop before Master Faltor starts wondering where I am." Kavon was apprenticed to Master Faltor, one of the city woodworkers (though Kavon was expected to make journeyman status by the end of the year), while I was apprenticed to Master Grendan, the palace master archivist.
"All right," I said, a little disappointed. When I'd apprenticed the day after my twelfth birthday to Master Grendan, I knew that my childhood (or at least most of it) had come to an end, but knowing that didn't make it any easier to accept. In many ways Kavon wasn't the only one of the two of us who was supposed to be "responsible" now (as more than a few adults spent no small amount of time reminding me). We quickly made it down and started walking back to the palace entrance, where we'd split up and head back to our respective jobs.
"So, you hear anything more about that envoy that came in last week?" Kavon asked, referring to an envoy that had come to see King Quillan, the monarch of our kingdom of Skronina, from the nation of Andares, Skronina's neighbor to the east.
I shook his head in the negative. "The only thing I've heard is that they're from Andares's king, here for some sort of meeting with King Quillan. Why, I don't know."
"It's odd," Kavon said. "It's not like we've been on bad terms with Andares, but it's not like we've been all buddy-buddy with them, either. There haven't been formal diplomatic relations between Andares and Skronina for as long as I can remember."
I nodded. I certainly didn't pretend to understand all the intricacies of diplomacy, either. We soon arrived at the palace entrance, and parted ways with a "See you later!" and a wave. I greeted the two guards at the entrance, who waved back. I'd gotten to know most of the guards who were rotated to that position at least well enough for us all to recognize each other on sight.
I spotted my best friend, Camryn Hostler, and waved to him. He was apprenticed at one of the local inns, and met his mom for lunch every day in the palace (as his mom worked as one of the cooks there in the kitchen, and the inn he worked at was practically a stone's throw away). I regretted that I didn't have time to stop and talk to him, as I'd be late if I didn't, but I called out, "See you tonight!"
"Right!" he called back with his usual grin.
I headed back into the palace archives, where I picked up the cataloging I'd started that morning of a group of botanical books borrowed the week before by some government official or another for some problem some of the farmers were having in the south. I had just finished when Master Grendan came in.
"Ah, Aidan, there you are," Master Grendan said. "We have an audience with the king in an hour."
"The…king?" I said after a few moments of shock, my voice squeaking, as it'd had a tendency to do over the past few months. While I'd certainly had dreams of meeting the king, I'd never really thought of it ever occurring in reality!
"Yes," Master Grendan said somewhat impatiently. "You'll have to head home and get cleaned up. Change into your best clothes. Go, quickly! Come back here when you're ready."
I hurried home, my mind racing. I could understand the king wanting to see someone like Master Grendan – who was, after all, the palace master archivist and a Very Important Person (since not just anybody got to be the palace master archivist) – but what could King Quillan possibly want with a 13-year-old who'd been an apprentice archivist for barely a year?
Arriving home, I practically burst through the front door. My mother, Darcie, who was in the kitchen, gave me a quizzical look.
"Aidan, what's wrong?" she asked. "You didn't get into trouble, did you?"
"No, Ma!" I called out over my shoulder as I headed into my small bedroom. "Master Grendan says we're to meet with the king in less than an hour, and I need to make myself presentable."
"The king? Aidan, are you pulling my leg?"
"Ma!" I exclaimed in exasperation as I started pulling out the necessary clothes. "I wouldn't joke about something like this!"
"I don't mean to be rude or say that I don't believe you," my mother called out, "but why would King Quillan ask for you?"
"Dunno," I said. "Master Grendan didn't say."
I scooped up my clothes and charged into the bathroom. I wouldn't have time to heat water for the bath, but I didn't really mind. While summer was coming to an end, the weather was warm enough that a cool bath wouldn't feel bad. I filled up the bath (our house was in a neighborhood that had indoor plumbing, on account of my father having a good job as a mid-level government official), stripped, and climbed in. Grabbing the bar of soap, I vigorously scrubbed myself before dunking my head under the water, vigorously rubbing my hair.
Coming up out of the water, I released the plug at the bottom of the tub, allowing the water to drain out. Stepping out onto the mat and grabbing a towel, I quickly started drying myself off. I nearly jumped out of my skin when the door opened, but it turned out that it was only my 10-year-old brother, Rhys.
"You're going to meet the king?!" Rhys exclaimed excitedly.
"Yes," I said, rolling my eyes. Rhys wasn't too bad for a kid brother, but he could sure be annoying sometimes! "Hey, Rhys, either come in or go out. Don't stand there and let all the world gawk."
"Oh, sorry," Rhys said, stepping into the bathroom and shutting the door. "Still, is it true? You're going to see the king?"
"Yeah," I said, rubbing my hair vigorously with the towel before dropping it and grabbing my underclothing, pulling them on. While I would have felt rather uncomfortable getting dressed in front of most people, for some reason being naked in front of Rhys (or his being naked in front of me, for those times in which he'd have reason to remove his clothes around me) hadn't ever really bothered me, even after a few comments about his being jealous about my having some pubic hair. "And before you ask, no, I don't think I could bring you along."
"Awww," Rhys said, who'd wanted to go meet the king even more than I wanted to. One of his biggest fantasies was to be a great knight who was personally sent by the king on all sorts of heroic errands.
"Look, the king probably doesn't even want to see me specifically. I'm probably just going so that Master Grendan can have someone take notes for him or something like that."
"But still, can't I just go along? I'll keep real quiet, and stay out of the way. You won't even know I'm there!"
"Sorry, little bro, I don't think it works that way. Look, I'll be sure to remember what it's like, and I'll tell you tonight when I get back, okay?" I said, pulling on the last of my clothes.
"Okay," Rhys said, still sounding disappointed.
I slipped on the pendant that indicated that I was an apprentice archivist (as everyone who worked wore a pendant indication their profession and position within that profession), and combed my somewhat shaggy dirty blonde hair in the mirror (using a mirror of highly polished metal, as even my family didn't make the kind of money to be able to afford one of the somewhat rare – and rather expensive – glass mirrors used by the very wealthy and the nobility), my brown eyes staring back. I was already 5'6" in height, and thought I was rather on the skinny side, especially when comparing myself to people like Kavon.
But I knew I couldn't stand there staring at myself all day, so grabbing the clothes I'd been wearing and dumping them into the clothes hamper, I headed out.
"Don't forget – you have to tell me everything!" Rhys called out from where he stood at the front door.
"I will!" I called back over my shoulder.
I rushed most of the way to the archives, slowing to a walk a short way before I arrived so that I could use the time to catch my breath. When I arrived back at the palace archives, I found Master Grendan, decked out in his own best clothes, waiting there.
"Good," Master Grendan said. "You're back, with a few minutes to spare. Let's go now, though. It's better to be a few minutes early, especially when you have an audience with the king."
As we headed in towards the inner sanctum of the palace, I continued to wonder as to why I was being brought along. Finally, I could stand it no more.
I swallowed hard and took a deep breath. "Master, I was wondering something..."
"And what might that be, young apprentice?" Master Grendan asked.
"It's just...why am I coming along? I'm just an apprentice."
Master Grendan was quiet for a few moments, and just when I was afraid I'd overstepped my bounds, he spoke up. "I must confess, I don't really know myself. I received a summons this morning. I was directed to attend a meeting at two at the king's office, and I was to bring someone from the archives who could be immediately spared fully for an undisclosed period of time, literate enough to reasonably read and write on their own, and who could handle the rigors of such things as long-distance travel. Admittedly, the only one who met all the qualifications and who was available on such short notice was you."
I nodded, my mouth going dry. What was going on? While many of the other archivists in the kingdom could (and did) travel for long periods of time (we had to at times as part of our jobs), by the way Master Grendan phrased his reply, it sounded like they didn't have time to bring in someone from another archive in another part of the kingdom, which limited them to the few of us who were assigned to the palace archive and the branch archives within the city. Master Grendan was out (he, like most other older archivists, couldn't travel for too long, as a result of getting on in years), and if I was being brought along (as I was, according to Master Grendan, the apprentice who could read and write the best, by far, out of all the apprentices, on account of my having been taught at an early age by my father), it must have meant that none of the journeymen were in a position to be unavailable for a long period of time in their normal assignment on such short notice (they must either be out on assignment at the moment to outlying areas or were starting families of their own, or both). But knowing all that still didn't bring I any closer to understanding why I was the one being selected, or for what.
We soon arrived at the antechamber that led to both the Great Hall and the king's private office (which was located next to the Great Hall), and Master Grendan identified us to the majordomo sitting behind the desk near the doors to the Great Hall.
"Please have a seat," the majordomo said as he rose, gesturing to several chairs by the wall before he headed through a side door. Master Grendan and I sat down. I wondered just how long were we supposed to wait.
"Don't fidget," Master Grendan quietly said through the side of his mouth at one point.
I was about to protest that I wasn't fidgeting, but then realized that that's exactly what I'd been doing. "Sorry, Master," I said.
After what seemed like an eternity to me, the majordomo reappeared. "His Majesty will see you now."
Master Grendan thanked the man as we rose, and we headed into the door that the majordomo had gone through. I looked around to find myself in an office, somewhat ornately decorated, with several other people already inside. Master Grendan went over to one man, who was wearing a crown, and knelt. Though I'd never seen the King Quillan up close, I immediately realized who the man was, so I quickly moved up beside Master Grendan and knelt as well.
"Please, rise," King Quillan said, and Master Grendan and I complied. "It's very good to see you, Master Grendan."
"It's good to see you as well, Your Majesty," Master Grendan said, rising rather slowly; I quickly offered him my arm for support as he got up, which he accepted gratefully. "May I present to you Apprentice Archivist Aidan Marsatal," he said to the king after fully rising.
"Your Majesty," I said politely, giving a rather nervous bow, and he nodded at me.
"Cutting to the chase," King Quillan said, gesturing to us to take two seats near him, "I'm sure you're both wondering why I summoned you here."
"The thought had crossed our minds, Your Majesty," Master Grendan said, with a smile and glance in my direction.
"I would like to introduce to you the ambassador from Andares, His Excellency Magan Forseth," King Quillan said, indicating a very well-dressed and well-groomed individual seated across from him; Master Grendan and I murmured the appropriate greetings, which he acknowledged with a tip of his head.
"The good ambassador brings a letter from King Osvaldo, expressing a desire to reopen formal diplomatic relations with us. It naturally goes without saying that we would love to agree, and we have concluded a few basic points that needed to be addressed by me specifically on our end.
"We do have someone from the diplomatic corps available to send as an ambassador for Skronina to the court of Andares. Omarion Kroaswell is knowledgeable about Andares, having been a merchant in his younger years and having traded extensively there. However, he was blinded 15 years ago in a tragic incident, and while he is more than willing to serve as our ambassador, it's felt that there is a need for someone to be his eyes for him in certain situations. Normally, he has a favorite aide to help him with such things, but the aide is presently on a leave of absence for several months up north to attend to a personal family situation, and as a result the ambassador doesn't have anyone available to help out at this time on such short notice, and we were hoping if you had someone to loan us in the capacity of an aide to Ambassador Kroaswell.
"Ambassador Kroaswell is anxious to be underway, since both our mages and Ambassador Forseth's own have determined that Anxion Pass will soon be hit with a series of summer storms making passage difficult, if not impossible during that time. It is also felt that the party should leave immediately, particularly as a week-long Andares festival, in accordance with their main religion, starts in just under a month, and Ambassador Kroaswell would like to have the embassy set up and operational before then."
Master Grendan smiled. "Archivist Marsatal could be spared for a time, Your Majesty. Of course, I'm sure you understand that I'd like him back eventually. He is proving himself rather useful in the archives."
Things did begin to make sense to me then. Archivists, besides being trained to handle (rather obviously) archives, often functioned well as aides, particularly to high-ranking members of the government, as the training we receive to work in the archives has often translated well to administrative work within the government (there were times us apprentice archivists would even get some group training with those apprenticed directly to government officials as aides). Most government aides, and more than a few of the government officials who hadn't been born into the nobility, started out as apprentice archivists (including my own father, which is how I'd gotten into the field). So it certainly made sense to send along an archivist (even if that archivist was still an apprentice) to assist the ambassador we were sending.
"Not to worry," King Quillan said. "The appointment is only until Ambassador Kroaswell's regular aide becomes available and can be sent to the court of Andares." King Quillan turned to me. "I trust you will not need much time to prepare to leave. The plans are for Ambassador Kroaswell and his entourage to leave at three thirty."
"Not a problem, Your Majesty," I managed to say, totally unprepared that I'd be having a conversation with the king himself. Master Grendan had always stressed the importance of being able to pack quickly, as, in his viewpoint, an archivist never knew when he or she would have to leave immediately, without much time for packing. "Is there anything in particular I should take with me?"
"The usual items for a long trip and assignment," King Quillan said. "Because you'll be traveling by caravan, expect the journey itself to take around two weeks, and expect to be in Jaana for several months, so pack accordingly." Jaana was Andares's capital city. "Since you will likely be in court as part of your duties, be sure to take along one or two very good outfits. More clothing can be obtained there, of course, but it's best to have some already available for any formal functions that might come up while you get settled in."
"Yes, Your Majesty," I said.
Master Grendan and I left after a few more pleasantries were exchanged and I'd received directions as to where to meet the convoy. I raced back home, charged past my confused mother, and headed into my bedroom. I kicked off my boots, then pulled off my pants and tunic.
Rhys, who'd followed me in, said, "Well?!"
"We're reestablishing diplomatic relations with Andares." I told him. "I'm to be an aide to our ambassador there for a while, a few months from the sound of it."
Rhys' eyes went wide. "Wow..." he said quietly after a few moment.
Meanwhile, I'd pulled on a set of traveling clothes and boots, and the clothes and boots I'd been wearing, along with several sets of clothes, went into the two packs I had for just such an event. I grabbed my packs and headed back into the kitchen.
"Ma, I've got to go away for a while," I said, setting down my packs and proceeding to tell her what I'd told Rhys. She sat down, looking like she was in a state of shock. "Ma, are you all right?" I hesitantly asked when I'd finished.
She shook her head yes. "I'm sorry," she said in a slightly trembling voice. "I was just surprised, that's all. I mean, your father and I have always known since the day you were first apprenticed that there'd come times where you'd have to be away for noticeable periods of time, but still..." She wiped away a tear. "We just always thought that it would be a while before that would happen."
Admittedly, they weren't the only ones who'd thought that. "Ma, it's not like I'm being banished or anything," I said as I walked over to her and put my arm around her, trying to think of some way to assure her. "It's only for a few months until the ambassador's regular aide can get over there. Then I'll be coming straight back here."
"Oh, I know, honey," she said, standing up and pulling me to her. "You're just growing up so quickly."
"Ma, I'd better get going," I said after a few moments.
"Right," she said, letting me go. "Now, you be on your best behavior, and do everything you're told."
I rolled my eyes (though not before making sure she couldn't see me doing that first), then looked over at Rhys, and suddenly he rushed over and wrapped me in a big hug. "You take care," he said, sounding like he was trying to hold back tears.
"I will," I told him; I fought back tears myself.
I grabbed my packs and headed out the door. I arrived at the designated location, near the innermost set of gates to the palace, to find preparations for what I assumed to be the convoy that would be going to Andares. Putting down my packs for a moment, I remembered that my father would on occasion refer to a situation as "organized chaos," and looking around I could certainly understand what he'd mean by such a statement. Not only were a lot of the people preparing the wagons dressed in the garb of palace workers, there were also several people who were dressed in clothing that was not like any I'd ever seen before, and I assumed that they must be some of the people who had come with Andares's ambassador and who would probably be returning with us.
Suddenly a hand dropped on my shoulder, startling me. I turned to find my father standing there. He scooped me up and wrapped me up in a bear hug – even though I'd hit a growth spurt a while back, he was still much bigger than I was.
"Now, you be on your best behavior," he said, "and do what you're told."
"Don't worry, Pa," I said. "As I already told Ma, I will."
He released me and put his hands on my shoulders, looking me in the face. "Yes, I'm sure you will," he said with a smile. "Write to us as much as you can, if it's possible. You know your mother – she'll worry enough as it is, even with regular communications." He paused for a moment, then continued. "This is a big opportunity for you. More than a few masters I've met in my day would give their right arm for this kind of an assignment. Pay attention to what goes on around you. You never know when something might come in use."
"Yes, Pa," I said.
A man dressed in ornate robes came over to where we were standing. I noticed that he was being led by one of the palace pages. "Apprentice Archivist Aidan Marsatal?" the man asked when they stopped near us. He stared straight ahead, even though we were a bit off to his side, and I realized that this must be Ambassador Kroaswell.
"That's me, sir," I said.
He turned in my direction and held his hand out. "It's good to meet you," he said. "I'm Omarion Kroaswell."
"It is good to meet you, Sir," I said, taking his hand and shaking it.
"Ah, you've got a good, firm handshake," he said with a smile. "Forgive my next question, but you seem rather younger than I expected. How old are you?"
"I just turned 13 a couple of weeks ago," I told him.
He was silent for a moment, then said, "I must confess I'm a bit surprised. I had expected someone..."
"Older?" I asked with a smile, and he nodded. "It's all right," I said. "I don't mind your question, Sir. Only us apprentices were available to commit to this trip on such short notice, and I'm the best. Or so Master Grendan says, anyway."
"I've had the opportunity to interact with Master Grendan on several occasions before, and I've found that he has a habit of knowing of what he speaks," Ambassador Kroaswell said. "Your parents must be proud."
"We are," my father finally said. "Ambassador, I'm Laken Marsatal, Aidan's father."
"It is good to meet you, Sir," Ambassador Kroaswell said. "I just want you to know I'll take good care of your son."
"I'm sure you will, Ambassador," my father said. "Now, I'm sure you've things to get done before you leave, so I'll get out of your way. Aidan, until you return, fare thee well. Mr. Ambassador."
"Fare thee well, Father," I said, and Ambassador Kroaswell also uttered the phrase (but replacing "Father" with "Sir," of course).
I watched my father leave, wondering how long it would be before I saw him (and the rest of my family and friends) again. I regretted not being able to say good-bye to my 19-year-old brother, Nasir, or my 17-year-old sister, Shalonda. Both were married, and were living in parts of town that I wouldn't be able to get to and return from in the amount of time I had. I was certainly going to miss them, and their spouses and kids!
"Here, before I forget," Ambassador Kroaswell said, reaching into a pocket and pulling something out. "Since you are, at the moment, a diplomatic aide rather than an apprentice archivist, it does necessitate a change in your pendant." He presented me with a pendant that was of different markings and coloring from the one I had on.
I took off my apprentice archivist pendant, and put it into my pocket. Taking the pendant he held out, I put it on. While I knew I was supposed to do that (and therefore wouldn't get into trouble for it), it felt a little strange to be wearing a pendant different from the one I'd gotten accustomed to wearing over the past year.
"Come, I imagine we still need to get your stuff loaded up," Ambassador Kroaswell said.
We quickly located the caravan master, who made sure I got my packs loaded up in one of the wagons. I was told I would be riding in the same wagon as Ambassador Kroaswell. I was also told it would be a little bit before the last of things would be ready. Feeling jittery, I walked about a bit to try to burn off the nervous energy. I soon realized that my travel had taken me right by the inn that Camryn worked at. I spotted him nearby, doing a bit of work outside, and I quickly hurried over.
"Ho, Aidan!" he called out when he saw me approach, a grin forming on his face.
"Ho, Camryn!" I replied. "I don't have a lot of time, so this'll have to be quick. You know that envoy that came from Andares?" He nodded, and I continued. "Well, we're reopening diplomatic relations with them. Our ambassador's leaving...and I'm going with him as his aide!"
"Whoa! No way!" he said, his astonishment clear on his face.
"Yes way," I replied, showing him my new pendant. "It'll only be for a few months. His normal aide's not available right now, so I'll be our ambassador's aide until the other aide is able to get there. I just wanted you to know, and to say good-bye for now."
"I've gotta admit I'm jealous!" Camryn said. "I'd jump at the chance for such a trip." We were quiet for a few moments. Then he said, "Well, take care. Write if you can, and I'll see you when you get back. And you get back, you know you gotta tell me everything that happens."
"Yeah, you and Rhys both," I said, and we both laughed. "Hey, if you could do me a small favor?"
"You know I will."
"Make sure my regular pendant gets back to my home," I said, taking it out of my pocket and handing it to him. "I won't be needing it until I get back."
"You bet," he said.
"I'd better get going," I continued. "See ya!"
"See ya!" he said.
I headed back, and as it turned out I made it back with only a couple of minutes to spare. All too quickly the signal to get into the wagons was given, and we were off. After we left the city, I watched it shrink into the background, and I tried to keep a brave face on.
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