Banac was desperate. He hurried through the streets of Padascel, pushing his way through crowds of people, ignoring the angry shouts that followed him. He did not even have the presence of mind to be awed at the buildings all around him, or the heaving, seething mass of humanity that boiled between them. Padascel was in the full flow of city life, but he did not notice. He had too much on his mind.
The only thing he could think of was finding the prince Berethel. It was a slender hope, a plan that did not deserve to succeed; but it was all he had, and so he clung to it. As he walked he repeated what he had heard, over and over. The meat district, at the sixth evening bell. Make sure all is ready. He could only hope that such a piece of information would be enough to persuade the prince to help him find Father.
But before he could seek the prince he had to know where he lived, and the task of finding out was proving impossible. No-one wanted to know him, no-one wanted to hear him. No-one wanted to stop and pay attention to a grubby street-urchin. They either ignored him or cursed him, or else aimed blows at him with heavy hands and booted feet, sending him scurrying away like a dog.
At last, tired, hungry, forlorn and footsore, he staggered away from the crowded streets to a quiet square between narrow houses, where he sat by a dried-up fountain brimming with refuse and nursed his aching body. He felt like he was about to burst with the urgency of his mission, but at the same time he could feel the first flush of excitement ebbing away. Maybe it was hopeless, he told himself. How was he supposed to find a prince in all the vast and tangled mass of Padascel? Why had he convinced himself the plan was worth pursuing, anyway? Who was he fooling, with his plans and his ideas? He was just a boy, just a weak, scared little boy. What could he do against the schemes of cruel men?
The bells of the city rang out again, jangling and clashing. When they died away Banac listened with his heart in his mouth. A single bell tolled twice. The second evening bell. He must have missed the first one. He had four bells left before the meeting was due to begin, and who knew how long that would be?
He looked up. A man was standing over him, looking down at him with a blank expression. In his hand he held a gold coin.
“Is your name Banac?” the man said.
“What’s it to you?”
The man turned and pointed. “That lady there gave me this coin to tell a boy called Banac the way to the house of the prince Berethel.”
Banac looked past him, but there was no-one else in the square. “There’s no-one there,” he pointed out.
The man looked again, blinked, then shrugged his shoulders. “Well it don’t matter then, do it?” he said, and began to walk away. Banac jumped up and called him back, and the man stopped and turned.
“Do you know the way to the house of Berethel?” Banac said.
The man nodded.
“Will you tell me?”
The man nodded. “You goes to the upper city,” he said. “Follow yon great road until you reach the first shrine to Maera, then count three shrines before you turn to the right and seek the square of the eagle fountain. There you will find the house of Berethel, though I doubt you will gain entry to it.”
Banac did not stop to thank the man. His heart was suddenly brimming with hope again. He sprinted away as fast as he could, and he did not see the dark-haired woman who watched him from the shadows and smiled.
Banac ran. He ran past the lamp-lighters strolling from post to post with their tapers on long poles resting on their shoulders. He ran past crowds of workers returning home from the fields, laughing and singing together. He ran past shops and taverns, around couples entwined in passionate embraces, past watchmen and guards, his feet pounding the cobbles. He had been given a chance — but if he did not reach Berethel in time that chance would be wasted.
So he ran, though his legs were cramped and his body screamed out for rest and food, and by twists and turns he ascended the long, winding street through the heart of the city, and came into the shadow of the mountain.
When the crowds had grown thin and there were fewer shops by the roadside Banac slowed to a panting walk. He had seen shrines already, small alcoves standing by the side of the road with painted statuettes standing in them and offerings scattered nearby. With his scant knowledge of letters he had been able to read the names on them: Beda, Baula, Cean, Maeca … But they were all men, and Maera was a woman’s name.
The bells rang again, followed this time by three tolls; and with them Banac’s heart beat faster. Time was ebbing away.
Then he saw her, standing in a shrine richer and more elaborate than the rest, her eyes gazing downwards at the child in her arms. Banac quickened his pace, counting the shrines now. One, two, three … He turned right at the next junction, following a narrow road between high walls. The light was fading, ebbing slowly from the pale sky as the clouds began to thin and the sun broke through at last. The man had said to look for the square of the eagle fountain, but as he looked around him now his stomach sank again. How was he going to find one square in the middle of this sprawling maze of streets?
Asking for directions was harder this time — people in the upper city had even firmer ideas about who they would and would not speak to — but in the end he managed to secure some details from an elderly servant in a burlap smock, and after following the directions for another ten minutes he came to a small square where a bronze fountain in the shape of an eagle threw a jet of sparkling water high into the dusky air. No buildings fronted on to the square, just high plastered walls with gates set into them. On the gates were nailed different crests signifying the different households that resided behind them.
As he entered the square Banac’s heartbeat quickened. This was the place. He cast around, looking for the house the old man had described to him. To his relief Berethel’s crest was easy to spot: the two birds with their wings intertwined were nailed to the biggest set of gates set in the highest wall of all, with iron railings running along the top. There was no time to think what to say. Stopping only to gather his nerves, he walked up to the gate and knocked.
He waited a few minutes, then knocked again.
Still nothing happened.
He jigged impatiently from one foot to the other, looking around to see if there was another way in. A tasselled rope hung in an alcove to one side of the gate; not knowing what else to do he reached out and pulled it, and jumped back guiltily as a loud clanging bell sounded from somewhere beyond the wall.
The bell died away, and there was silence again. Birds called to each other in the quiet dusk, their distant white shapes wheeling about the slopes of the mountain. Banac was just eyeing the railings on top of the wall, wondering if he would be able to climb over it, when footsteps approached on the other side of the gate, and a cracked voice grumbled to itself, and suddenly a smaller door within the gate was yanked open.
Banac found himself looking down on a gnarled, knotted individual whose nut-brown hair hung in a heavy mane upon his broad shoulders. The man’s face looked as though it had been pushed in with a fist: there was hardly any nose, and the eyes glared out from beneath sprouting brows.
“What is it?” the dwaeremer snapped, his voice as rough as his face. “Tradesmen’s entrance is at the back. You should know that, boy.”
He started to swing the door closed, but Banac darted forwards and held it open.
“No! Wait!” he said. “I’m not a tradesman. I’m looking for Berethel. The prince.”
“Oh, is it?” The dwaeremer snorted like a bull. “Well, he’s busy. You can leave a message or you can come back later.”
“No, you don’t understand. There’s not enough time. I need to see him now.”
“Now? Now?” The bushy eyebrows shot upwards impressively. “Well, your lordship, I beg your pardon if we can’t all run to your timetable. His highness is busy, and he don’t receive lads like you at the drop of a hat. Now get out!”
He flung his heavy shoulder against the door, almost knocking Banac off his feet. But Banac had come too far to give up without a fight, and he pushed back with all the strength he could muster. The dwaeremer had the muscles of an ox, and though desperation gave Banac strength he could barely keep the door from closing. He looked over the dwaeremer’s head and glimpsed neat buildings and well-tended gardens beyond, and shapes of servants hurrying here and there; but no sign of the prince.
“Berethel!” he shouted at the top of his voice. “Berethel! It’s Banac! My father is Beorod! The Scholar took him from my village! You were there! You helped me! I need help now! Berethel! Please!”
“Here! That’s enough of that!” the dwaeremer protested. “Carry on like that and I’ll have the city guard on you!”
But Banac would not be silenced. All he could think of was Father, and this one chance he had left to do something to help him. He carried on shouting and shouting, beating away the dwaeremer’s heavy arms when they came up to cover his mouth, leaning with all his weight against the closing door, repeating the prince’s name over and over again.
At last, as Banac was approaching the end of his strength, he saw someone coming towards them, alerted by the commotion. He could not see who it was, but hope rose up in his breast and urged him on to further efforts. With one last heave he thrust at the door, and whether by surprise or by chance the dwaeremer lost his balance and the door flew open, and Banac tumbled through and landed heavily on top of him on the gravelled path.
For a moment they struggled together, then a meaty fist smashed into Banac’s head and sent him rolling away, his ears ringing. He lay on the ground, gasping for breath. Everything had split into a double image and was veering back and forth in front of his eyes, coupled with a blinding pain in his head. He was dimly aware of someone standing over him, and voices raised in muffled conversation, but he could hardly make them out.
“… just some boy,” he heard the dwaeremer say. “I’ll get rid of him, m’lady.”
“You’ll do nothing of the sort.” To Banac’s surprise the other voice was a girl’s. She spoke with haughty confidence. “Look what you’ve done to him. He needs seeing to, not throwing out on the street.”
“But m’lady, with all due respect …”
“Oh, really!” The girl scoffed. “Do you honestly think this boy is some sort of assassin? Look at him! He’s half-starved, poor thing!”
“He’s a street urchin, m’lady, a nothing more. You’d do well to let me deal with him.”
“Would I?” The girl’s voice took on a steely tone. “Well I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’ve made up my mind. He obviously wants to see father very badly, and I’m going to let him. Then father can decide what to do himself. All right?”
Banac peered at the shapes above him. They were coming back into focus now: on the left was the dwaeremer, dark and bulky against the flat evening sky; and on the right …
His breath caught in his throat, and his chest tightened in a way that had nothing to do with Father or his quest. Standing on the right was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen in his life. She was not much older than him, her face was smooth and rounded, and her almond-shaped eyes were so dark they were almost black. The curls of her hair were tied up over her head and spilled down to nestle on her slim, delicate shoulders. She looked down at him with an expression of pity mingled with amusement, and the merest suggestion of a smile played over her lips.
“Hello,” she said, her voice like water flowing over smooth stones. She held out a slender hand. “I’m sorry for Delan’s behaviour. He doesn’t have a very good sense of humour, or any manners for that matter. I’m teaching him.”
Banac stared blankly at the hand, wondering what it would feel like to touch it. The girl laughed at his dazed expression, and at the sound Banac thought his heart would burst.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s get you up and into the house. We haven’t got all evening, have we?”
And at those words the spell was broken, and the memory of everything that was happening rushed back to Banac. He panicked and sat up, swaying as the pain in his head blossomed.
“I— I have to see Berethel,” he mumbled, the words refusing to come out right. “I have to talk to him … It’s important.”
“Yes, I heard,” said the girl wryly, grasping his hand and pulling him to his feet. Banac’s mind whirled again at the soft touch of her skin, and it was with great reluctance that he released her fingers.
“Come on,” said the girl, beckoning for him to follow as she started walking away along the path.
“M’lady!” the dwaeremer called Delan shouted after her as Banac followed on unsteady feet. “You’ll take him to the servant’s kitchen, I trust?”
“Don’t be silly!” the girl called back over her shoulder. “I’ll take him to the house to meet father! And if he gets violent I’ll deal with him — I’m sure I couldn’t do a worse job than you!”
Delan said something in reply, but it was deliberately inaudible and the girl ignored him.
Banac followed the girl through the compound, rubbing at the red mark on his face and staring at everything. As with most things in this strange city, he could hardly believe what his eyes were seeing.
The compound was large enough to have contained most of the houses of the village; two sides were taken up by a two-storey, white-plastered building; on the remaining side, to their right, was a long row of stables where Banac could see more of the short, stocky dwaeremen at work with spades and barrows. Apart from these workers the entire compound was deserted, the silence broken only by the humming of insects amongst the beds of flowers and clipped lawns. It was an unearthly place, trimmed and ordered, where nature had been imported and kept in its place with care and attention.
He realised the girl was still speaking. He turned his attention away from the gardens to listen to her.
“We don’t get many visitors here,” she said, “and if we do they’re usually stuffy old men — ambassadors and suchlike that father has to put up with for grandfather’s sake; or else they’re prim and proper old women with mouths like pinched leather and disapproving stares. We used to have grandmother visit us sometimes — she was good fun, always game for a laugh — but she’s dead now so …”
As she talked it dawned on Banac just who these grandparents must be. She was Berethel’s daughter, which made her ‘grandfather’ and ‘grandmother’ no less than the king and queen of Padascel. And she was talking about them as if they were normal people! A strange feeling came over him, something akin to guilt, as if he should not be listening to such things, and with that thought it occurred to him just who he had come to see. Berethel was a prince of Padascel — the son of the king! Why would he ever listen to what a dirty boy from a fishing village had to say? But it was too late to run away now. He was here, and the worst the prince could do would be to say ‘no’. He would just have to go through with it and see what happened.
“This is my house,” the girl said, pointing to the long white building “Father could live up in the Citadel if he wanted to, but he says it’s a place of corruption and lies, and he’ll have no part in it. I’d much rather live up there. It doesn’t smell so much, and I’d be able to see all my friends — they all live in the Citadel, and I have to walk up those horrid steps every time I visit because the carriage can’t go that way. It’s a pain. My name’s Elwaen. What’s yours?”
“Banac,” he stuttered.
Elwaen wrinkled her nose, repeating his name as if tasting it. “Banac. It sounds like a poor name. Are you poor?”
“I don’t think so.” Banac was confused by the question. “We’ve got everything we need.”
“Do you have a big house?”
“It’s big enough.”
“Bigger than mine?”
“Then you’re probably poor. What does your father do?”
“Every day. Does he have a job, or is he a man of leisure?”
Again Banac was puzzled. He had never heard of ‘leisure’ before. But he didn’t want this girl thinking he was a stupid country boy, so he said, “He fishes,” and a strange jealousy prompted him to add, “He’s got his own boat.”
Elwaen sniffed. “You don’t smell of fish.”
“Fish don’t smell.”
“Hmph!” Elwaen made a disapproving sound and pursed her lips, and said no more.
A broad wooden patio ran along the front of the house, overshadowed by a balcony on the first floor. Elwaen led Banac through the front door into a dim, cool atrium, then through two rooms so richly furnished that Banac could only stare with his mouth wide open, up a set of stairs to the balcony overlooking the gardens, and along to a large study flooded with the late evening light, where she told him to wait.
“I’ll go and fetch father,” she said. “Don’t worry — he’s quite nice really.”
Then she was gone, and Banac was alone.