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Fiction: The Library of Eristat / The Seven Suitors, Chapter 1
A serialized mystery in a fantasy setting.
Author’s note: The Seven Suitors is a novel-length mystery in a fantasy setting I’ll be serializing here. It’s also the follow-up to the Library of Eristat story you may have read. Reading the Library story is not strictly required, but I'd recommend it if you’ve never read it before. The connection between the two will become clear as this story progresses; trust me on this.
I'll make the book available on Kindle later if you prefer to read it all in one place, if you want to read the remaining chapters before I finish serializing here, or if you want to purchase or review as a way to say thanks if you enjoyed it. I'll serialize one "chapter" of significant length each week here, and have it run for about three months
“If you’re here for the funeral, you might as well stay for the wedding.”
Silas blinked, as the words shook him out a half-asleep state brought on by the warmth of the castle’s great hall. Silas drew his eyes away from the ornate gold casket and the crowd around it to take a look at the man in bright green robes leaning up against a pillar. “I beg your pardon?”
“Aeolian weddings put the rest of the world to shame. Endless feasts, drinking, frolicking, it’s not something you’ll soon forget.” The man in green smiled warmly, shifting his weight off the column. “You’ve seen how we bury our dead, you should see how we celebrate our living.”
Silas glanced at the crowd around them. Most of the other guests had chosen a similar approach to his own, dressing in muted colors. Some were clearly there for other reasons, but they at least affected a solemn air, in stark contrast to the boisterous demeanor and gaudy green robes of the young man standing next to him. Silas didn't know enough about local fashions to say whether he was looking at an important lord in royal dress, or a court jester of some kind.
Silas smiled nervously, suddenly very conscious of how he might be perceived if he got this wrong. “I’m sorry, I don’t follow you.”
“I don’t mean to presume.” The man in green shrugged his shoulders. “But if I had traveled all this way, I wouldn’t want to miss it.” He extended his hand. “I’m Alexander. Youngest of the house of Roth.”
A quick shake. “Silas. Youngest of the house of Nareth, but also the eldest.”
That made the man in green laugh, leading to shushing sounds and dirty looks from the more sober-minded guests, which Silas did his best to ignore. Alexander didn’t seem to care. That was strange all by itself. It could mean that Alexander was someone important enough to be able to act as he pleased, or someone so utterly inconsequential he had nothing to lose. At the very least, Silas didn't want to shrug him off before settling the question.
Alexander was smiling at him. “Well. That explains why I haven’t met any of your family. Where does the only heir of Nareth spend his time when he’s not crashing funerals?”
“Outside your kingdom. Our own lands are a month’s journey to the south, over the mountains.” Silas spoke the words quickly, rushing through a rehearsed answer. “And I’m here to pay my respects.”
Alexander laughed again, as Silas gave up all hope of getting through the event without making a scene, or of not being associated with one. “If you’ve been planning to pay your respects for the last month, I may have to steal your fortune teller. Or your spy.”
Silas flushed the mildest shade of red, realizing what his words might have implied. “It’s nothing like that. I had heard this was a beautiful place to visit.”
“Beautiful is right. We have many lovely treasures that are the envy of the world. But I can guess which one drew you here: Rowena, the crown jewel of the entire country.” Alexander flashed a knowing grin. “And speaking of which, will you be sticking around for the wedding?”
“What’s this about a wedding?” Silas interjected. He attempted to shuffle towards the corner of the room to attract less attention, with Alexander following along. “I haven’t heard anything about a wedding.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to have.” Alexander took on a conspiratorial tone, resting one arm over Silas’s shoulder. “But take it from a local. Over the next two weeks, the lovely young princess of Lithos—the tales of whose beauty I’m sure echo across your family’s halls—will fall madly in love. Rowena will be swept off her feet by some handsome young noble, and after a whirlwind romance, announce her intention to marry. All of Aeolia will rejoice, and their grief over her father’s death will give way to celebration. Love will blossom in the spring air, the house of Lithos will be made whole again, and some lucky man will have Rowena all to himself. And all in the next two weeks.”
Silas looked at Alexander skeptically. “Who is your fortune teller?”
Alexander laughed again. “I don’t need one. It’s a political necessity.” Alexander grabbed a drink from a passing tray, taking a sip as Silas studied him. “In case you haven’t been paying attention at all, her father, the late great Lord Owen is dead. The claim falls to her, but the princess can not legally rule alone. Within two weeks, her claim to the throne vanishes if she does not marry within that time. Her position in the world depends upon her falling desperately in love, therefore she will. And willing to assist her will be every young noble in Aeolia... and perhaps a few from beyond.” He elbowed Silas in the ribs. “You couldn’t have picked a better time to show up.”
Silas winced, the mild physical discomfort of Alexander’s nudge briefly distracting him from his more intense social discomfort. Alexander seemed not to notice either, as he lifted his drink in the air. “So as I said, why not stick around for a while? Try your hand at romance. See if you can sweep the poor girl off her feet. Be her knight in shining armor who defends her from the evils of the world, or the dashing rogue who expands her view of it.” Alexander grinned at him. “And in the worst case, you can make a respectable showing of yourself, then stick around for the wedding with the other losers to drink away your broken heart.”
Silas looked at Alexander thoughtfully, letting his guard down enough to let a bit of emotion show through. “Do you really think I’d have a chance?”
Alexander raised his eyebrows and looked at Silas like he was the one who chose to dress up like a green peacock for a funeral. “Good heavens, no, of course not. But you should absolutely try.” Alexander seemed to have acquired a second drink, which he handed over to Silas. “You’re not going to succeed, but you’d be a fool not to try.”
Despite the fact that the possibility of competing to win the princess’s affections had only been dangled in front of him within the last minute, and despite the additional fact that within Silas’s heart there burned a secret heresy that the disturbed state of affairs being discussed was proof their entire world was mad to its very core, he couldn’t help but feel a tinge of indignation at the implication that there was something he wouldn’t be the best at. “And why exactly wouldn’t I be able to win?”
“As the princess herself will soon be telling any number of young men: it’s not you, it’s me. I happen to be the one who’s going to win.” Alexander clinked his goblet into Silas’s, pausing until Silas took a heavy sip that flirted with mild inebriation, feeling the cold liquid burn down his throat as he paid the price to hear the rest of what Alexander had to say. “I’m going to let you in on a little secret, my long-traveling friend. Something that gives me an edge over every noble desperate to make a name for himself and every brash seducer.”
Alexander’s eyes softened and the brisk pace of his words began to slow. “A lot of men will be pursuing the princess because they want her title and her lands. It’s dishonorable, but all too common.” Alexander looked around the room, seeming to rest his eyes on a few faces in particular. “For those not born in the right circumstances, leading her household would give them a place in the world and let them escape their family’s shadow.”
“Like the youngest sons of the world?”
Alexander nodded, without seeming to take offense. “Indeed. Even more will be pursuing her because of her beauty. Whether out of lust for her appearance or the pride of having her on their arm, they’ll see her as vulnerable and think this is their chance to finally tame her.”
“But I...” Alexander gripped his glass tightly and looked downward. “I’ve known Rowena my whole life. I know the sort of woman she is: gentle, wise—beautiful inside and out. She’s the most incredible woman I know. And I intend to pursue her, for her.” Alexander breathed in deeply and took on the most sincere tone Silas had heard him use yet. “I will surpass every opportunistic suitor, prove myself to her, and win her heart. Because what sets me apart from all of them is that I truly, and deeply love her—not for what she has, but who she is.”
Alexander cleared his throat and looked away, his eyes apparently watering from his own speech. Silas studied him carefully, as Alexander’s body gradually began to relax into its previous carefree pose. It had been a moving speech, well executed. Suspiciously so, in fact.
Silas frowned, hesitating to say anything even as Alexander looked over at him expectantly, clearly anticipating a reaction of some kind. His mind explored different scenarios as he worked to answer a single question. It was the question he had been working to resolve since the moment this noble had walked up to him, in fact. Could it really be that simple?
“You’re lying, aren’t you?” Silas performed the words carefully, attempting to betray no judgement in his tone.
Alexander burst out laughing and clapped him on the back. “Really. I thought that was one of my better deliveries.” He grinned. “How can you tell?”
Two years ago
The crown jewel of Aeolia was getting married. Rowena spared a second to wonder who they would be inflicting that title on next, brushing the thought away as the obvious answer threatened to distract her from what she wanted to focus on today.
The bride Lucinda in many ways resembled Rowena more closely than her own sister. A twin, if not in appearance, then in the political circumstances which defined their lives. Both of their mothers had never given either of them a brother, and their fathers had loved them for it anyway. Both of them had been called beauties of the realm—although Rowena suspected that when your dowry included all your family’s lands and a title besides, they would have been offered the same compliments alongside any possible features nature could have chosen to bless them with.
A young bard, probably hoping to leap up the ranks of the nobility, had once composed a ballad for each of them. Rowena had politely sat through a mediocre musical composition made worse by a strained metaphor that compared her to the soft beauty of the pale moonlight, modest and pure. Lucinda, of course, had been the sun.
Tracing back the timeline of Lucinda’s love life was a tricky exercise. By popular accounts, she’d been involved with Raynor, the man about to become her husband, for around six months—that was when he announced his intentions to seek her hand, pitting himself against all her other hopeful suitors. But Rowena knew enough to validate the gossip that featured Lucinda’s final conquest as a regular spoiler in her love life: dashing the hopes of potential fiancés, and humiliating his rivals who thought they finally had her all to themselves. No sooner would one young noble convince himself that he had finally monopolized the affections of the famous flirt, than he would find Raynor curled up with her on palace grounds, and discover all of his plans and invitations abruptly rebuffed. But not long after the other hopefuls for her hand had been scared off, Raynor would suddenly be nowhere to be found, leaving Lucinda sometimes tearful, sometimes having already moved on herself. Rowena often wondered (although she kept such thoughts to herself) whether Raynor chased Lucinda more for the love of her, or for the competition she attracted.
Rowena had lost count of all the love letters Lucinda had excitedly insisted she read over the years (including a few that were suspiciously similar to letters Rowena herself had received from a certain mediocre bard she suspected of recycling his material). There had been penniless paupers suggesting they run away together, title and fortune be damned. (a bluff neither of the girls felt the need to call). Rowena took a guilty pleasure in snooping on the confessions of devotion from allegedly aloof nobles who moved in their circles. Lucinda’s personal favorites were the anonymous admirers pouring out their hearts with no hope of requital. There was even the occasional hate letter from some spurned would-be lover, promising to never again speak to her. Lucinda had told her that was the surest sign to expect more unsolicited heartfelt correspondence.
Rowena had followed the ups and downs of the quest for Lucinda’s hand along with the rest of the kingdom, taking solace in the fact that her friend couldn’t possibly take all the men, however many hearts she might break along the way. Living vicariously through her friend was a more attractive prospect than getting her own courtship underway, she was in no hurry to begin that phase of her life. But Rowena told herself that when her time came she would be a little bit wiser for it.
It hadn’t been Lucinda’s first proposal, or depending upon whose story you believed, her first engagement. A shady merchant seeking inside information told Rowena there was money to be made by betting on the wedding being called off at the last minute. But Rowena knew better. She’d seen the two of them break up and get back together enough times to know they were meant to be together. Six months ago, when Raynor decided to get serious and court Lucinda the way her family always hoped he would, no one was sure what to think. But he managed to surprise them all. The wild young couple was finally settling down, and Rowena couldn’t be happier for her friend. This is what growing up looked like.
The wedding looked to be a lavish affair. Raynor’s house was as wealthy as Lucinda’s, and so the marriage had the air more of an alliance than a charity case or a transfer of wealth. Their lands combined still didn’t match Rowena’s—a fact she had no desire to ever comment on, and possibly even live with, knowing what it meant for her when her time came. But still—no expense had been spared. The couple’s future home buzzed with activity: lush red carpets were rolled out onto every square inch of the grand halls, musicians rehearsed to ensure there wouldn’t be a quiet corner in the castle, and the cooks were preparing enough food to feed all of Aeolia for a day. An informal alliance of guests (splitting their time between the party and the politics) had already begun to congregate near the kitchen, hoping to intercept the incoming choice morsels of food and gossip. Rowena expected her own focus to be even more fulfilling: namely, tending to the bride.
Lucinda’s dress was a poorly kept secret for those who knew her. She had landed on the perfect dress, size, and fit a full year ago, and had been unable to resist the urge to let her friends and admirers sneak an occasional peek at it. Raynor might be one of the only ones left who’d never been allowed to look at it, another indication Rowena had taken as a sign that their relationship was more serious than either had let on.
Rowena tiptoed into the bridal suite, peeking around the corner and observing the silhouette of her friend before making her presence known. Lucinda was definitely dressed up for the occasion. She faced the window, the statuesque illusion broken briefly when her dress flowed with the movement of her body as she turned to face Rowena. She was radiant, everything about her shone from head to toe... everything except for her eyes.
Lucinda’s eyes were red and her face was damp. She smiled half-heartedly as Rowena reached in to give her a hug. “So this is what a married woman looks like.”
“Come on, I haven’t kept you waiting that long.” Rowena tried to smile, but she was beginning to grow concerned. Lucinda seemed to be wearing a solemnity that went beyond what she was expected to show for the occasion. She looked tired... and defeated somehow.
“It’s all over except the ceremony and the party.” Lucinda sighed and let her arms fall to her sides. “Paperwork has been signed. Seals have been stamped. If I were to walk away now, this would all be his.”
Rowena stood in silence, unsure of what to say. She had come expecting a certain amount of drama—why should this be any different than anything else involving her friend—but Lucinda seemed to be oblivious to her presence. Normally this is where she’d say something sensible, put a positive spin on things, and bring Lucinda back to reality. But the crown jewel of Aeolia seemed to be convinced she was already there.
“He’s going to be yours too, you know.” Rowena spoke softly, gathering her thoughts and trying not to let her concern show through. “I know that’s what you’ve always wanted. He loves you.”
“Does he?” Lucinda looked at her and sighed. “Maybe he does. Maybe he did. But that’s not why he’s marrying me.”
“Why else would he be doing it?”
“Family. Wealth. Pride. Does it really matter?” Lucinda gazed out the window. “He climbed the tallest tower in the castle to steal an engagement ring he’d heard I’d been given because he loved me. He’s taking my wealth and my lands because he thinks it’ll be good for him.”
“You don’t know that!” Rowena tried to push past the sinking feeling in her heart, searching for the words that would wake them both up from this bad dream. “If that was all he wanted there are plenty of other rich heiresses he could have chased.”
Lucinda gave Rowena a sideways look. “Oh, don’t give me that, you’d be much too smart for him. I’m talking about what happened to his brothers.” She waved her hand in the air. “Both married for less than a year. Both already taking mistresses. I asked Raynor if he disapproved. He didn’t. I asked him if he would care if I took a lover myself. He said no, not as long as I gave him a son first.”
Rowena could hardly believe what she was hearing. She was all too familiar with the situation Lucinda was describing—she had long suspected marriages of convenience sustained not by love but obligation were the only thing holding some dynasties together. But she’d never seen any evidence of that in her own family or Lucinda’s... or anyone remotely close to her.
“So I suppose there’s that to look forward to.” Lucinda laughed to herself, and for a moment she seemed like her old self.
“How long have you known this is how it was going to be?” Absurd as she knew it was, Rowena couldn’t help but feel a little bit cheated that the day she’d spent so much time looking forward to and building up in her mind was turning out nothing like she had expected.
Lucinda grew quiet. “I’m really not sure. I knew things were going to be different when he asked me to marry him. He told me he was ready for us to grow up, move on with our lives. Join the adults, put childish things away—we couldn’t live the way we’d been living forever. I just didn’t know what he meant by that until now.”
Rowena felt herself blinking back tears, trying to keep herself steady. There was no good reason for her to be the emotional one right now. There had to be something she could say, someone she could talk to, something that could be done to fix all this. This couldn’t be how it all ended.
“I’ll tell you what though.” If Lucinda had noticed Rowena’s own emotional state, she didn’t give any indication of it. She was gazing out the window once again at nothing in particular. “If I had to do it all over again? I wouldn’t have even picked a favorite. I wouldn’t have tried to rush to the ending. There’s no point looking forward to the climax and thinking it could make it all worth it. I’d make them chase me forever.”
They said Aeolian weddings were the finest in the world. But as the party raged on that night, and the quality of both the alcohol and the dancing on display began to diminish, Rowena found herself sitting off in a corner, lost in her own thoughts.
Lucinda was only a few years older than her. Rowena’s mother had liked to tell her and her younger sister the story of how she’d been given a chance to see what the future had in store for her. A gifted fortune teller had spun out the story of what her life would be like with all the men courting her, allowing her to pick the life she wanted to live. Rowena felt like she’d been given her own chance to see what her future held. While she had never seen herself ending up with someone like Raynor, knowing him as long as she did, she’d been as taken in as anyone in thinking he was going to be an ideal match for Lucinda, the man who was going to make her happy. She had been so sure. None of Lucinda’s other relationships had that same spark, that same passion that always drew them back together. And if she couldn’t count on that, what could she count on?
Her father walked into her field of view, causing Rowena to look up at him.
“As glad as I am to see you solving the world’s problems by yourself over here, there are a few young men very disappointed not to see you on the dance floor.” Owen smiled at her.
If it had been anyone else, Rowena would have forced a smile and laughed at the feeble joke. Instead, Rowena simply reached out to hug her father, who held her wordlessly. After a few moments, she looked into his eyes. “Were you and mom really happy?” Rowena said softly.
“We were.” Owen blinked, taking a second to work through a momentary loss of composure. “More than I can really say. The only thing that’s given me anywhere near as much joy is you and your sister.”
“Well.” Rowena swallowed. “I don’t think Lucinda is going to be quite that happy.”
“So that’s what this is about.” Her father pulled up a chair and sat down next to her. “She made her choices, she lived the life she wanted to live. When your time comes, I’m sure you’ll find someone worth bringing in to our family.”
“And what if I don’t want it to come.” Rowena’s voice cracked. “It’s not fair. Right now I have all the power. Men are willing to follow me around and pretend to be whatever I think I want. But the moment I marry one, everything I have becomes his, and it’ll be the last choice I ever make. It’s just not fair.”
“It is absolutely, and inexcusably not fair.” Owen spoke slowly and calmly. “But neither is it fair that we get to live at the top of the world with all of our needs provided for, while others struggle to get by or work for our benefit. If you want to take all the injustice out of our lives, there might not be much that remains.”
“I know, but still.” Rowena sighed, realizing she shouldn’t feel sorry for herself—but when had that ever stopped anyone. “I know that for me to get married next is what everyone expects, but I don’t want to do it. I’m not ready. I don’t know if I ever will be.”
A few seconds of silence passed before her father spoke next, his voice gently carrying the weight of the world with it. “I understand. I would never ask you to do anything you’re not absolutely ready to do. But I can’t be there for you forever. And when that day comes, you will have certain choices to make. And I would be a poor father if I did not do my best to prepare you for them.”
Rowena scrunched up her face, wondering if her father was just trying to trick her into focusing on a different worry and get her mind off her current problems. She wrapped him in a tight hug, having no better response. “You’ll chase away all the boys for me until then though, right?”
Owen returned the hug and stroked her hair. “Don’t worry. If anyone out there wants to bother you, they’ll have to go through me first.”
Continued in Chapter 2, now available here.
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