The ship slowly rose in the lock.
Felek stood at the rail, watching the stone bricks slide downward. It was still magic, no matter how many times the teen had traveled up and down the Anne River. To see the small stretch of water between the two pairs of wooden doors raise and lower almost defied belief. Was there any greater proof in this world of the wisdom of King James? His Grace had brought not only peace and prosperity to the Polish people, but wonders like this.
Once again, Felek swore he would serve the man who had made his sister a Queen until his dying day.
"Keep those lines taut!"
The Captain's cry sent a shiver of guilt through the teen. All around him men and boys, some even younger than him, worked to keep the ship centered in the lock. Lines were fastened to the lock walls, sailors such as the boy beside him pulling in the slack as the vessel rose. The young seaman was shirtless, his muscles straining under skin tanned enough to almost resemble Shanna's brown coloring. His feet, too, were bare, gripping the wooden deck as he hauled in more line. Felek's finery stood out, marking him as ... special. He did not feel special. Felek felt...
"Cast off the lines!"
Felek found himself moving towards the bow of the ship. The doors before them were opening, oxen turning two giant wheels on either shore. As the seam parted, the upper river was revealed, stretching ahead south towards the capital. He could see the mountains on either side start to fade away. He saw the green of home.
"Unfurl the sails! Lockmaster, thank you for your time!" Felek saw the hulking man on shore wave back. Above, the sound of canvas filling with wind. Slowly, fighting the slight current, the ship began to move.
Red brick buildings rose all around the lake. Nowy Kiev had been a city of stone, of morbid grey blocks rising from the joining of two rivers. Nowy Warsaw was a city of color. Of life. Even many of the wooden buildings were painted, blues and oranges almost seeming to shout out to those who passed by. And green! So much green, even among the buildings! Parks, unheard of in the city of his youth, set aside by the King for the use of everyone. Even the main avenue leading from the Palace Hill down to the lake had islands of grass and trees dividing its two sides.
Felek's eyes followed the avenue to its end. The Royal Palace rose above the city, unfinished but still beautiful. Behind thick, smooth stone walls, his home for the last four years beckoned. He was servant to the King. He. Felek. Orphan. Son of a common laborer. Now on the verge of manhood. Of...
Colorful movement interrupted his introspection. New flags were being raised up the pole atop the communication tower inside the Palace walls. Raising a hand to shield his eyes, Felek tried to decode them. He was reasonably good at that, having spent long hours studying charts in the King's study. Without a spyglass, though, some of the more unusual flags could be hard to interpret correctly. The top flag was solid green, indicating it was meant for the Kikker port of Visvang. The second flag had a diagonal line splitting it into green and yellow halves. So, the message was for Chief Ajani. A second batch of flags rose up the other pole on the tower.
Felek shook his head. Again, the King was brilliant. Messages could be passed instantly across the island. Across the strait, to the mainland, to the farthest Polish outpost! There had been nothing like this in Nowy Kiev. There was nothing like it in the Kikker city of Saribit! For all that city had impressed Felek in his week there, he had seen nothing to match the creativity which now flowed from this Polish isle. There had been energy, yes. Life. But it had been static. Content. Content with its people's lot in life.
It looked to the past, not the future.
The wind shifted as the ship turned. The harbor was busy. A Gritic ship, its spiderish crab-like crew skittering over its rigging, passed them, two oar powered tugs assisting them against the wind until they were in the river current. From its tallest mast flew an orange flag, telling the lock to prepare for its coming. A boxy barge sat beside the largest wharf, oxen powered cranes lifting large crates from its hold. Felek had seen that same ship in Saribit, or its twin. Traders went everywhere.
Maybe he could become a trader. Travel. That was what this voyage for the King had awakened in the teen. He wanted to see more of the world. More of its people. The Poles could not stay within their walls and borders, the King said, as they had in the past. They had to reach out. Talk to their neighbors. Trade. Make alliances. They were too weak to stand alone. Felek could help. Had helped. Maybe, if the King was pleased with what he had done...
He had barely stepped off the gangplank when Ruta threw herself at him. He held his two canvas bags out, feeling incredibly silly as she wrapped her bare arms around him, head on his chest. He also could not help the grin which threatened to split his face. He could feel her thin body beneath soft fabric, her heat so different from the ocean breeze. There were stares from those around them, but none disapproving. Dropping the bags to the stone, he wrapped his own arms around her.
"I missed you!"
Felek, wisely, replied by hugging tighter. The trip had been too exciting for any homesickness to raise itself in him. He had thought of her, though. Often. Every new sight awakened a desire to tell his friend about it, a wish that she could be there beside him to experience it with him.
His arms loosened as she pushed herself back a bit, looking up into his face. Those big blue eyes sparkled.
"You smell salty."
"I am now a seasoned traveler."
Her fist hit his chest, the best indication of a joke well received. As her head moved, he noticed something. Felek cocked his head.
"Is that a new braid?"
"Do you like it?" Stepping back, Ruta spun. Her blonde hair was twisted in a complicated pattern. "Gizela tried it out on me. The girls in Fredrick are all doing it now."
"I thought fashion was supposed to travel from here to those backwards commoners on the continent, not the other way around."
"We are very inclusive here," she giggled. Bending, she grabbed the smaller of his two bags. "Let's go home."
They walked through the stone paved streets, hand in hand. The pace was slow. There was never any hurry when they were together.
"It went well?" Ruta asked. Her eyes were on a window display of blown glass. Felek shrugged.
"I'm not sure what His Grace expected, so can't say. I did what I was told. Have some messages for him. There were no problems, at least."
"Good." Her hand squeezed his. "Shanna was here just after you left. She's pregnant again."
"I know." Her thumb slid over the back of his hand, eyes meeting his. "Mom is starting to ask when I'm going to get married."
"Someone will have to ask first, naturally."
"Is there a long list of suitors?"
"Very long. Each with something in their favor."
"That's good. You deserve the best."
"Yes. I do."
Felek sensed a change as they entered the Palace.
The change seemed to be with him, he thought. The sights and sounds around him were the same as they had always been, but after a week's absence his mind saw them differently. There was a sense of separation, of being an outsider. Or, maybe, just an acceptance that there is more to his world now than this maze of hallways and chambers. He had walked streets which had been old before the first Pole had entered this world. How could that not change him?
Two young pages ran past, message slates in their hands. Felek didn't recognize them, but then the runners tended to be where the newest young servants started. Where you could prove yourself before moving up to less exhausting service. More than one son of a former Noble had not made the cut.
"His Grace wants to see you after the Council meeting," Ruta said. Her hand had left his, this part of the seat of government not the place for such displays. Felek let out a snort.
They turned a corner. The hall before them was filled with young men, from boys to full adults, loitering as those waiting for their master's pleasure. Most sat, backs against the dark wooden panel walls. A few formed circles, conversing softly. All looked bored. Bored, at least, until notice was taken of Ruta. As the two walked down the middle of the hall, conversations stopped, only to continue in a whisper once they had passed. Stepping closer to Felek, Ruta took his arm possessively. Her body also began to sway a bit more.
"Tease," he whispered from the corner of his mouth. She simply smiled.
The smile vanished. She stopped, grip on Felek tightening as the two turned. A young man approached, well dressed yet perhaps in the midst of a final growth spurt. The sleeves on his tunic were a tad short, wrists visible. His brown hair was cut short, apart from a swooping mass covering his forehead. Ignoring Felek, he bowed to the blonde beauty.
"Ruta. It's an honor. I have not seen you in weeks."
"Achym." Ruta did not offer her hand. Felek understood her reluctance, even approved, but the poor guy WAS trying his best with her. It wasn't his fault he was an idiot. Felek put his own hand out.
"Haven't seen you either, Achym." The teen was startled. He truly hadn't noticed Felek. His hand limply took Felek's.
"Felek. I thought you were away."
"I was until I wasn't." Fingernails dug into his arm. "I have to report, though. It was good seeing you." He released his hand as Ruta began pulling him away. Felek frowned as he turned to her. "That wasn't very..."
"Hey, you silly Pole!"
Felek stopped, eyes widening in joy as a brown splotchy creature rose from the left hand wall.
The Kikker strolled forward, arms outstretched. Felek grasped them, his friend gripping his own forearms in reply. Issa's grinning mouth seemed to take up his entire squat face, the entire top half of his head seemingly in danger of detaching and sliding off. Felek had yet to see such a thing happen to one of the frog-like creatures, so assumed it was not, in fact, possible. The yellow eyes on Issa's head turned to Ruta.
"Greetings, My Lady!"
"Greetings." Her voice seemed to laugh, but with the teen, not at him. Her eyes dropped to his waist. "Is that a new toga?"
"Yes!" Issa stepped back, looking down at his clothing himself. Blue ropes were braided and woven in a complicated pattern, falling from his right shoulder down to a skirt which did not quite reach his bowed knees. "A gift from the Chief, so I am better dressed for Royal meetings!"
"I like it."
"Blue is your color," Felek added. He actually didn't know if it was or not, but that seemed to be the thing to say when the conversation drifted off into fashion. A brown fist suddenly hit his shoulder.
"You went to Saribit without me! Why? Your Kikker is horrible! You needed me!"
"I did," Felek admitted. "I'm sorry, Issa. It just came up so fast, there was no time to ask anyone, or even think about it."
"He could have brought me, too," Ruta added, eyes glaring at him. "My Kikker is better than his."
"Your Polish is better than his, too!"
Felek knew better than to put up too much of a fight when the two started to gang up on him. Releasing Issa's arms, he put one hand on his shoulder.
"I really have to report. You staying?"
"I don't know. It depends on whether His Grace invites Chief Ajani to stay for dinner." Issa's eyes turned to the closed doors. "Nothing was said when we arrived."
"Well, we'll see you later, regardless."
"Good! You can tell me what you thought of those degenerate city dwellers!"
He had barely dropped his bags onto the floor of the Royal Chambers when a short ball of energy shot out of an adjacent room. The creature threw itself at him, strong arms grabbing his waist.
"Uncle!" Five year old Marik looked up with whirling eyes. "You're home!"
"Uncle!" Two more youngsters barreled across the polished floor. Fred got to him first, grabbing a spot not taken by his older adopted brother. Anne didn't bother with such things, grabbing onto Marik as if he was an extension of Felek. She looked up at him with wide brown eyes.
"Yeah! Let's play!" The two boys started jumping up and down, still holding him. Laughter came from behind them.
"Don't kill him!"
Ewa stood in the doorway, month old Bryda in her arms happily sucking away at a breast. Anne immediately abandoned the boys, running over to grab her mother's leg.
"Mommy! Can I hold her?"
"After she's eaten." With practiced ease, the Queen slowly walked forward, child still attached to her leg like a barnacle. Anne giggled at the ride. "Have a good trip?"
"Not bad," Felek said, hands on the heads of his two nephews. "I think I didn't start any wars or anything."
"James will be glad to hear that." Reaching him, Ewa leaned forward, giving his cheek a kiss. That he was now as tall as his sister still amazed Felek. She turned to Ruta, who stood away from the mass of children. "James sent word he'll be late. Would you tell the kitchen to send up the children's meals?"
"Of course, Lady." Ruta curtsied before turning to leave. Felek's eyes followed her out the door. As his attention returned to his sister, he saw her smirking.
"What did you get her?"
"I'm sure she'll love it."
"Uncle!" Felek looked down at Marik. "What did you get us?"
The King sat behind his desk, hands flipping through the stack of paper before him. Felek tried not to lean over, peek at which page was currently being read. He had not looked at the documents himself, his loyalty far outweighing his curiosity. He was curious, though. Not enough to ASK to look, but...
"Look, Daddy, she's flying!" Anne ran into the room wearing her nightgown, holding a porcelain Kikker doll above her head with one hand. Bare feet moving swiftly, she zipped behind the King's chair, around the desk, and back out of the room, long black hair flapping behind her like a cape. Felek heard the King chuckle.
"A breakable gift may not have been the wisest choice," James said. Felek nodded. "Storekeeper talked me into it. Those merchants are persistent."
"All part of the job." James leaned back in his chair. Felek could see how tired his King was. He had heard no gossip about the meeting, but both the merchants and shipwrights had been pressing matters. Either could have come to a head that day. "Was this it?" James asked. "No other messages?"
"Just her personal thanks, Your Grace."
"Hmm." James sat back up, ruffling through the papers. "Well, that figures. We'll have to try again later. This is all useful, though. Thank you."
"Anytime, Your Grace. I enjoyed it."
Felek realized his voice gave away a bit too much. The King chuckled.
"I'm sure you did. Ewa had reservations about your safety, but you did well. There's danger everywhere, but that can't keep us locked inside these walls."
"I agree, Your Grace."
The King pushed back his chair, standing.
"Now, if you'll excuse me, there are some princes and princesses who need to be tucked in."
Felek sat on the stone bench, looking up at the night sky. The sky had looked the same in Saribit. He had not traveled far enough to see different stars. Even the ruins of Nowy Kiev, from what his memory told him, had the same stars as their new home. The sailors had said, though, that if you traveled far enough north, new objects fill the sky. New constellations appeared as darkness fell. He tried to imagine that. Imagine a sky which was different from what he had always known, different than the changes between the seasons. King James had come from such a place. Shanna, too. To see different stars...
Soft footsteps brought his eyes to a star closer to home. Ruta was walking towards him, the hem of her dress swishing against the flowers edging the garden path. Felek slid over on the bench, making room. She sat beside him, hip touching his, hands folded in her lap. Reaching over, he took the closest, intertwining their fingers as he drew it towards him. Her body leaned against him.
"I missed you," she said.
"I thought of you every day." Raising their joined hands, he kissed her fingers. "every night."
"Where's my dolly?" Her eyes sparked. Felek chuckled.
"You're too old for dollies."
"Well, I'm in trouble, then, because I got you this." Releasing her hand, he reached into his pocket. Eyes locked with hers, he pulled out the necklace.
"Oh!" Her voice seemed to catch in her throat as Felek raised his hand, letting the charm dangle from its chain. It was a bird, about the size of his thumb, its wings stretched upward in flight. Ruta reached out, gently touching the small creature. "Oh, Felek, it's beautiful."
"I saw it, and thought of you. It's pure silver, but that's all I know."
"It's so life-like! So much detail." She cupped her hands under it, Felek releasing the chain as she took it. "Oh, Felek ... I don't know what to say..."
"I will." The words came from her lips without pause for thought. His eyes widened. She, too, suddenly realized what her heart had allowed her to say. Her head came up, startled. He saw her swallow.
"I'll marry no one else, Felek. No one else but you." Dropping the necklace into her lap, her hands came up to cup his cheeks. His eyes closed as her lips found his. The world and its stars vanished in their kiss.
He was home.