Crownless – Chapter 1 (original draft)

Eamon Kelley had three quarters of the galaxy looking for him, some for good and some for ill, but for three solid years, there was no sign of him.  It was as if he was as dead as the rest of the royal family of the Hybrean Concord, dead thanks to what was described by investigators from the Veritan League as a tragic misadventure, the combination of a seemingly inexperienced pilot and an experimental ship being inspected by the court.  Most didn’t talk about how the royal family wouldn’t have been there if not for an invitation from the League to inspect the newest in a line of exploration vessels.  The League had been courting the Concord, seeking funding for an expedition beyond the Seal, the thick band of nebulae that separated the swath of human worlds from the rest of the galaxy.

Perhaps if both the Queen Dowager and the High King had not been so fascinated by the possibilities of simply exploring the nebulas, the whole affair never would have happened.

The loss would not have been so tragic if the king’s two teenage children, the younger prince and princess, had not been on school break and were on the trip with their parents and the Queen Dowager.  It would not have been so tragic if not for the sailing accident that took the life of the king’s brother six months earlier, if the line had not narrowed so much in the last generations.

And yet, though the line had dwindled thanks to accident and misadventure and simple chance and choice down to a narrow one, the Hybrean Concord would not abandon it.  Eamon Kelley was their king from the moment his father passed from life into death.  It didn’t matter that no one had seen the prince for more than two years before the accident.  He was their king, and he needed to be found.

So the galaxy searched.  They searched for three years, and in those three years, there was no sign of the lost prince, the uncrowned king of the Concord.  Some began to speculate that he, too, was dead, but the Council and Parliament of the Concord refused to believe that.  Perhaps they knew something more than everyone else.

A regency council was put together quietly and without fanfare.  It would keep the Concord in trust for the missing prince, the king who would be.

And they searched in all the places a missing prince might be except for the place where he really was.  He might have stayed hidden, too, if not for a misstep.

Some things are simply not meant to be.

Stretched out on his stomach, grass scratching against his cheek, he squinted at the clearing again.  It was just too big—too big to be nothing.  Since settling here, he’d made it his mission to learn every inch of these woods, and this clearing was wrong.  It was too big, the edges too even.  Something tickled at the back of his mind, just beyond his grasp.

He knew what it was that was bothering him, what was eluding him.  It was the answer to the riddle that the clearing represented.  The clearing itself was new, though he wasn’t sure how new—he hadn’t been out in this direction in nearly a year, thanks to autumn storms and a spring flood that barred passage through the floodplain between here and the spot where he’d made his home.  Still, it was only a few miles away.  Surely he would have heard—

Would I?  He squinted again, frowning.  It had been a strange set of seasons and he’d spent part of the spring and summer away.  Two seasons were more than enough time for something to have been done and escape his notice.

Still, he didn’t like the conclusion that was slowly forming, the ball of dread settling in his stomach, the sour taste at the back of his throat.

Would they dare?  It was possible.  Rumor had it that they were getting more bold in the last couple of years.  Usually, he tried not to think about the reasons for it but lately, he was starting to worry that was about to become impossible.

He closed his eyes, exhaled, and listened.  The sound of the breeze died away, the sound of birds—the sounds of all of the natural things around him that were part of his usual, everyday environment.  He lay there on his stomach in the grass above the clearing and listened for what was different.

There it was.  A faint buzzing.  And—something else?  It sounded like the very faintest sound of voices.  Was it possible?

Nothing’s impossible.  He frowned, opening his eyes.  One slow, deep breath, then another before he shifted bringing his hands forward, in front of his face.  Power came as a faint trickle at first, cool and and then warm, his draw carefully controlled.

Just need to be sure.  His fingers twitched and the magic extended, flowing from his fingertips and down into the the clearing below.  He hoped he was wrong, hoped it was nothing.

He didn’t think he was, though, and the spell would confirm it.

Slowly, the outline of the holographic shielding came into view in his mind’s eye, overlaid with reality by the spell he’d cast.  There was something there, just as he’d feared, something that wasn’t supposed to be there.

His jaw tightened and he slowly came to his knees, creeping back from the edge of the rise.  Whatever it was, it wasn’t that big.  There couldn’t be that many of them, and there was only one actor that would have the resources and the gall set up something like whatever this was—a hidden installation, small, something they didn’t want found.

Probably something set up to do things they would deny into oblivion if they could.

Well.  They’re going to be disappointed.

He crept back to the shelter of the trees, marking the spot on his map as he went, then started toward home.  He would need to see what he could find out about the place, if anyone local knew anything, had noticed anything strange.

And he would need a plan.

His gaze scythed one way, then the other as he strode into the village, hood pulled low to hide his face from the misting rain that had slowly spread downslope from the mountains to the north.  Westnedge was the nearest village to home and the source of most of his supplies, but while he was known, he wasn’t often seen.  That was by design, of course, because the fewer who knew where he laid his head day to day, week to week, the safer he felt.

Paranoia was something he’d never quite been able to shake once it had settled in, and it had been his companion for a very, very long time—and one that had served him well.

He stopped in front of one of the shops that lined one of the village’s narrower lanes, glancing up and down the street one more time before he tried the latch.  The door opened, a bell jangling softly as he stepped inside, casting one more look over his shoulder at the street before his attention turned to the shop’s interior.  The well-worn wood floors and counters were as familiar to him as his own home, clean, neatly organized.  Behind the counter, Val looked up from whatever he’d taken apart—some kind of mechanism was disassembled in front of him on a piece of red cotton, the parts neatly arrayed, a set of watchmaker’s tools laid out alongside them.

He pushed back his hood and set the latch on the door, reaching up to draw the curtain across its window.  He paused, frowning at it for a moment, then glanced toward Val again.  “New curtains?”

“In trade from Marielle for repairing one of their looms at the shop.”  The slender, dark-skinned man straightened and stood from the stool he’d been perched on.  “About a month back.  What’s wrong?  You have a look.”

He exhaled quietly, dropping the curtain into place before he crossed the shop’s floor to the counter.  “There’s something out there.”

“Out where?”  Val’s gaze followed him, brows knitting.

“Seven or eight miles,” he said.  “Beyond Bounder’s Creek and the old windmill.  In Harlowe’s Wood.”

“Mm.  What do you think it is?”

“I’m not sure yet, but it shouldn’t be there.”  He leaned against the counter, peering at the parts laid out on the cloth.  It wasn’t a watch—there were too many parts for that, and too big.  “Did anyone around see anything strange in the spring?  Maybe early summer?”

“Strange like what?”  Val shook his head.  “That term encompasses quite a bit.  Tea?”

He hesitated. “I shouldn’t.”

“Did you come  straight here?”

“Yeah.”

“Then you should.”  Val headed for the corner, for the hidden hot plate and the kettle perched atop it.  There were still a few comforts he kept from his life before coming to the Protected Zone.  All of them were like that in their own ways—little things that reminded them that they weren’t from the Zone even if that was where they’d happened to finally settle in, at least for a little while.  “How long were you out in the rain?”

“Only the last mile to town.”  He frowned.  His cloak wasn’t terribly wet, but that had more to do with him than the weather.  “You didn’t answer my question.”

“I did, I just answered it with additional questions.”  Val set two mugs on the counter, filling one, then the other, gazing steadily at him until he took one.  Satisfied, Val nodded, turning  to return the kettle to its hidden niche.  “Strange like what, Eamon?  Fireworks?  Lights in  the woods?  In the sky?  Strangers?”

“Yes,” he said.  “All of it.  Out of the ordinary noises, machines that shouldn’t be here—any of it.”

Val frowned, reaching for his mug.  “What the hell do you think you found?”

“One of their secret installations,” he said quietly, staring at his own reflection in the mug of tea.  His hair was too long again and he realized he’d forgotten to shave that morning—and probably the morning before, too, judging from the amount of stubble marking his cheeks and jaw.  “The places they bury out here so they can deny they exist.  It must have happened in the spring, I think.”

“You’d have noticed, wouldn’t you?”

“I was in Dern starting at the end of winter,” he said with a grimace, straightening.  “Lord Berem’s request.  Needed my eyes on the flocks before they started breeding.”

Val grimaced.  “I’d forgotten.  Thought you were keeping to yourself more than usual since there were new folk as of Midwinter Festival.”

He sighed.  “There’s always new folk these days, Val.  I just have to get used to it.”

“You’ve been here for a long time already, Eamon.  If someone was going to find you—”

“I know.  Dammit, I know.  I just—it’s hard to shake, you know?  The worry that somehow, someone’s going to recognize me and somehow that’s going to get people here hurt.”

Val’s brow arched almost delicately.  “And doing whatever you’re planning to do at that secret installation isn’t?”

He shot his friend a roguish, almost feral grin.  “First, they won’t know what hit them.  Second, they can’t hurt anyone here if they’re dead.”

“You don’t think they’ll send more?”

“They haven’t before.  Too much of a chance they’ll be noticed and someone will raise unholy ruckus.”

Val winced.  “At some point, you’re going to overplay your hand, Eamon.  I just hope I’m not there to see it.”

“I’ll try to make sure you’re not.  I owe you that much.”

Val snorted.  “You don’t owe me anything.  You don’t owe anyone anything.  We wouldn’t have made it this far without you and we all know it.”

He shook his head slowly.  “No,” he murmured.  “You would’ve been fine.  But that’s water under the bridge and a hundred light years away from here.  You’ll ask around?”

“I don’t have to.  Five months ago is when the whispers started, three months ago they stopped.”

“So whatever’s out there, they’ve been up and running for three months.”

Val nodded. “That would be my guess.”

His fingers drummed against the side of the mug as he tilted his face toward the ceiling, half lost in thought.  “There’s a lot of trouble they could have gotten up to in that amount of time.  It looked small, though.  Probably no more than a dozen staff.”

“But how many prisoners?”

“That’s the question,” he said, then sighed.  “I’ll have to watch for at least a few days, see if they slip at all.  Otherwise…”

“Mm.”  Val’s nose wrinkled.  “It’s the otherwise that I worry about.”

“Me too,” he admitted.  “Me too.”

“Can you take a dozen on your own?”

He smirked.  “Remember who you’re talking to.”

“Don’t get cocky.  One lucky shot is all it takes.”

“Well.”  He shrugged and took a long sip of tea.  “I might as well be dead anyway, right?  If I go down, it solves at least two problems for the Veritans, doesn’t it?”

“You think they’re still hunting you?”

“I think they’re still hunting Davion Drake, yes,” he said.  “And probably Eamon Kelley, too.”

“Good thing both have allies.”

He barely managed to hide his wince.  “Yeah.  Good thing.”  At least you’d think so, anyway.  He shoved the thought aside.  “I’ll swing  back through tomorrow.”

“For dinner?”

He grimaced.  “You’re going to insist, aren’t you?”

“People are worried.”

He sighed, nodding.  “For dinner, then. I’m sure it will allay some concerns.”

“More than a few.”  Val reached across the counter to squeeze his shoulder.  “Your secret is safe.”

“I know,” he murmured.  “But habits die hard.”

“Not one I’ll have you break, either,” Val said, releasing him.  “I like having a living friend.”

One corner of his mouth kicked upward into a wry grin.  “And I like breathing, so I think it’s a good thing all the way around.  At the Dapper Darling tomorrow, then?”

“Fifth bell?”

He drained his tea and tugged his hood back into place. “I’ll try not to be late.”

Val watched him as he crossed toward the door.  “If you are, we’ll send a search party.”

He grinned, nodding.  “Understood.”

Then he was gone, out into the street and the misting rain, only the jingle of the door’s bells left behind to mark his passage.

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