“I’m a born citizen of this country. My family has been here since the country’s inception. Their shop has been in the family for six generations, and I recently submitted my application and took the entrance exams for the Royal Academy. I am fully within my rights—”
“To sod off, like the rest of the riff raff,” the clerk cut in, causing other clerks and soldiers and guests clustered around the registration tables to snicker and laugh.
Cowan flushed, but refused to back down. “I am fully within the rights of the law, which says every citizen—”
“Every citizen doesn’t mean riff raff too poor and stupid even to have the sense to wear a proper cloak in the cold,” the clerk retorted, stroking the soft rabbit trim on his own costly cloak. “Do you honestly think the King would be impressed by any piddling answer you could give to his challenges?”
“You know so well what the King thinks, do you?” A voice demanded, making everyone jump, whip around, and go pale. The clerk who had been troubling Cowan stammered incoherently.
Cowan flushed still darker—the stranger was more than a little handsome, and he had never felt so painfully his own ragged state. Though he had done his best to clean and comb out his blonde hair, fix up his plain, homemade breeches, undergarments, and winter-weight tunic, it must be painfully obvious that he was poor. He hoped it was not obvious he was destitute and homeless.
The stranger had black hair, cut fashionably short, and green, green eyes, the like of which Cowan had never seen—but they matched perfectly the small emerald stud in the man’s right ear. His own eyes were the color of mud, and he had never felt it so keenly. Cowan met his gaze briefly, before dropping his own eyes, but he’d had for a moment a fleeting impression of sadness, behind the more blatant anger. But that must be a flight of fancy, how would he notice such a thing in a complete stranger?
He was dressed simply, but elegantly, in a gray and green tunic with black leggings and undercoat, and a handsome black cloak lined and trimmed in ermine.
“—am sorry, Majesty.”
Cowan jerked as the clerk’s words penetrated, and his eyes shot helplessly to the stranger again. This—this was the King? He’d known the King was young; everyone talked about how he had taken the throne at only twenty five, three years ago. He’d never heard of how handsome and striking and—distracting his Majesty could be.
Realizing his mind was wandering again, Cowan tried to stop staring at the King and pay attention.
The King glanced his way and smiled warmly, and Cowan panicked, nodding and trying to smile and thanking and bowing all at once, only succeeding in barely keeping himself from tumbling over. He flinched as a few people laughed at him, little comforted when glares from the King silenced them.
“It is my understanding,” the King said, “that the King’s Challenges may be met by every citizen of this country. Everyone may try, regardless of his station. That is the law, unless I have always misunderstood the meaning of the phrase ‘every citizen’. Only the King may turn away a challenger. Are you King, clerk?”
“No, Sire. But I was only—”
“Then what gives you the right, any of you, to turn him away? How does he fail to meet the requirement of ‘every citizen’ when he has stated clearly, and I see has the papers to prove it, that he is a citizen of my Kingdom.”
His question was met only with silence.
“Precisely,” the King said, looking at each person until their gazes dropped to the ground and remained there. Then he turned to Cowan, who only barely kept his head up, still feeling the sting of humiliation—but even that faded away completely beneath the warmth in the jewel-bright eyes. If he had ever thought about meeting the King, never had he imagined it happening this way.
“What is your name?” the King asked.
“Uh—Cowan, si—your Majesty. Cowan Medaughs.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Cowan Medaughs. I welcome you to my challenges. Have you put your name on the registry?”
“No, your Majesty. They wouldn’t—that is—I have not, Majesty.”
The King’s smile widened. “Then, by all means.”
Looking much like he had eaten something sour, and blamed Cowan for it, the clerk slid the registry parchment across the table, along with ink and quill.
Taking up the quill, ignoring the eyes upon him—able to feel the King’s anyway—Cowan signed his name at the bottom of the registry. His hand was not quite as flowing and elegant as the more refined hands which had signed, but it was respectable. He ignored the murmurs of surprise when people realized he had written in court script, rather than the common script they had expected.
He glanced slowly up, feeling unusually shy. “Thank you, your Majesty.”
The King only smiled again, and waved the words away. “I announce the first challenge in an hour. I look forward to seeing what you will provide in answer to it, three days hence. Good luck to you, Cowan Medaughs.”
Then he turned and left, before Cowan could mange another thank you. Face hot, and not liking the hostile looks he was now receiving, Cowan fled. He went down to the market, straight to the food stalls, and obtained bread and cheese to last him a couple of days. He looked longingly at meat pies and pasties, hot buns and pastries, soup and stew, but managed to resist. His money was dwindling fast, and it had to last as long as he could possibly make it, until he managed to fine employment again.
Or managed to win some sort of prize in the King’s Challenges. Hah. What had he been thinking, really? Slipping away to a quiet alleyway, tucking away most of his bread and cheese and keeping out a small portion to eat, Cowan turned his mad scheme over and over again in his mind. What had he been thinking, honestly. He might have scraped out an education, but he was hardly a noble—and nothing proved that more than the way they refused him entrance to the Academy for want of the entrance fee. Which he knew they had made as high as possible, just to make it impossible for him. If he could not even get accepted there, what chance did he have being capable of meeting the King’s Challenges?
But, he reminded himself, he had no choice. Jobless, no new job in sight, down to his last few coppers, and the Academy farther away than ever…he had nothing to lose and everything to gain by at least trying the Challenges.
The Autumn Market and Festival was the most anticipated of the year, and the main feature of it was the King’s Challenges. It was said the brightest and cleverest and bravest in the country came to meet the challenges. The prizes varied, but were given only at the King’s discretion, when he thought his challenge had been sufficiently met. Three Challenges, over the course of nine of the twelve days of the festival. Three days to each challenge, with a prize awarded each day, and a grand prize awarded at the end.
Legend had it, that once upon a time a King had been so impressed, he had taken the winner as his Consort. More realistically, the prize was estate, or a position in the court, or simple wealth. Cowan would settle for whatever money or sellable item he could manage to obtain. Anything that would help him survive, or better still, provide enough to pay his entrance fee.
He shivered as the wind kicked up, reminding him all the more painfully that he no longer had his cloak, threadbare as it had been. Footpads had attacked him two weeks ago, while he was running an errand to fetch a book for his employer. They’d taken his money, his pen knife, the book, and ruined his cloak in the process.
His employer, displeased to lose such an expensive book to Cowan’s careless behavior, had terminated him on the spot. Since then, Cowan had not been able to find new employment. He was increasingly afraid he would have to go crawling home—and more afraid they would turn him away.
Finished eating, he slipped back out into the crowd, and made his way quickly toward the Grand Pavilion. He could hear them reading off the list of challengers, and pushed his way through the crowd, ignoring looks and curses and elbow jabs, bursting through just as his name was called, tripping over someone’s foot and crashing to the stones.
The Herald paused to sneer at him, while everyone else laughed uproariously at him. Cowan flushed, but wiped a smear of mud from his face and stood with shoulders squared.
“Cowan Medaughs,” the Herald drawled again, and rolled the parchment back up. “Challengers, face your King!”
The King stepped forward and gave a short speech, but Cowan barely heard it, too lost in staring. He was again struck with an air of sadness…no, that wasn’t quite right. It was something like that…but of course he should know it, he saw it every time he caught his reflection in a pane of glass or bit of shined up metal. Loneliness.
“My first challenge,” the King suddenly called out, and Cowan startled to attention, “should you accept it, is only this: Bring me the sun. Good luck, challengers. We will meet again in three days time.”
Cowan stood watching as the King left the dais upon which he’d been standing, vanishing into a tent. Bring him the sun? The sun, the sun… Around him, people jostled and clamored and cursed, railing about such an unusual challenge, which was like nothing they had ever heard before. It was not a usual challenge, at all. What in the world did it test? It was ridiculous, frivolous, absurd.
Ignoring them, Cowan thought and thought. The sun, the sun, how in the world did one bring the King the sun?
He strolled absently through the city, barely noticing the markets, the people, until he was stopped short by a little flower girl who shoved a bouquet of wilted wild flowers into his face. “Blossom for a bit, sir?”
“That’s it!” Cowan cried, and gave her a copper just because, and turned sharply, racing out of the city. He would have to travel quickly, but if he could find one…
Cowan stood anxiously with his ‘sun’ in hand, feeling increasingly anxious and hopeless as the other challengers approached with their own variations of bringing the King the sun. Beautiful works of sculpture, painting, jewels, someone had brought a sundial. Worst of all, someone with the marks of a professor of the Academy had brought the King a beautiful book of legends and tales concerning the sun from around the world.
There was no possible way he could compete with that book, not even with the wealth and beauty of the other ‘answers’. What had he been thinking, with his one stupid little thing? No doubt the tale to go with it was in the book, anyway.
He wilted where he stood, feeling sick with increasing dread the further down the list the Herald got, until at last there was no avoiding it. What did it really matter, everyone already thought him a laughing stock. One more day of laughter would not kill him, and after this he would simply bow out. He should never have gotten involved to begin with.
Except it was hard to remember that as his name was called, and he stepped out to the cleared square in the center of the pavilion, and the green eyes were already fixed upon him. Gods, it was so hard not to stare into those eyes. There was kindness there, and he suddenly found himself able to approach the King, if slowly.
Someone laughed, and his momentary confidence immediately collapsed. Wilted, he strode with head down to the throne, and extended the simple ‘sun’ he held—a bouquet of flowers, with long, lush petals of a brilliant gold hue, just barely orange at the very center.
The laughter increased as everyone saw more clearly what he had presented.
“Goddess flowers?” a courtier said. “Honestly—” he shut up as the King shot him a look, swallowing and sliding back out of the King’s line of sight.
The King turned back to Cowan. “They are beautiful. I am genuinely curious, Master Medaughs. How are these flowers bringing me the sun?”
“Uh—” Cowan slowly looked up, and fought down the shivering that threatened due to the cold, wishing he had his cloak so he would not shake quite so much. “At the very beginning of our Kingdom, before it was a Kingdom, wandering gypsies came here. Exiled from their homeland, resigned to wandering, they thought this empty land a blessing from their own Goddess. That is why people call them Goddess flowers—to those original gypsies, they were the flowers of their Goddess. However, in their native language, no longer spoken now save in very ancient texts and amongst scholars of that language, the words literally translate as ‘Sun Flower’ because they worshipped the sun, and the Goddess of it, and those flowers were long believed to be her tears, fallen to the earth and turned to blossoms.”
“Beautiful, and well done,” the King said with approval, smiling warmly. He stood up and slowly approached, and Cowan wondered when his heart had begun to beat so quickly. Only a step or two away from Cowan, the King stopped. “Though I’ve many fine prizes to offer, I think I know one which would suit you and please you best. It, and all that might be in it, are yours, for best meeting this day the Challenge of the Sun. You brought me the sun, so let me give you warmth.” So saying, he removed his black, ermine-lined cloak and swung it to settle on Cowan’s shoulders, pinning the emerald cloak pin himself.
Cowan stared in shock. “Majesty—”
“Your prize, and fairly won,” the King said firmly. “Take it.”
Cowan stared for a moment, then simply nodded. The cloak smelled of amber and orange, the sort of scent only a King could afford. “Thank you, Majesty.”
The King smiled, and squeezed his shoulder, so close for a moment that Cowan thought his heart would burst from his chest and now he could smell the orange and amber on his skin—
He flushed dark, catching the direction of his thoughts, and barely kept from scrambling back.
Then the King returned to his chair, and Cowan retreated to his own place, taking deep breaths in a futile attempt to calm himself.
“Challengers,” the King announced. “Many strong efforts on this first challenge were made, and one prize awarded. Let us see how you fair on the second challenge: Bring me the moon.”
Cowan stole one last look, before the King vanished, then fled as quickly as he could with the unfamiliar weight of a King’s cloak upon his shoulders. It was sinfully warm, and smelled like the King, and it was impossible to think of anything else when his mind was filled with the eyes and smile and scent and kindness of a man who would always be out of his reach.
Why did he care if the King was out of his reach? Cowan groaned to realize he was smitten, and how hopelessly stupid must he be, to be smitten with the King? But even the realization of his stupidity did not keep him from finding a solitary roof of an empty store, where he could curl up in the cloak and daydream about the King, and how to make him smile by bringing him the moon.
The moon, the moon. That was even more difficult than the sun. If only he could reach out and steal a piece—
He paused, as it suddenly came to him. It would cost him everything he had, and whatever he had to sell—minus the cloak. It was worth a small fortune, never mind the cloak pin, but he would never part with it, and for reasons that had entirely to do with the wrong sort of warmth.
Curling up in, soothed by what warmth he could have, Cowan drifted off to sleep.
The stares—glares—were heavy upon him, but Cowan refused to care. They all thought him worthless, an interloper, but he just could not bring himself to be bothered by it. Not when he could look at the King, and so easily forget about everything else.
Waking up two mornings ago, he had felt something hard. Thinking at first it was beneath the cloak, he had looked for a rock or piece of brick, but at last had realized the hardness was in the cloak itself. A few minutes searching uncovered a hidden pocket, within which was a small purse that would more than easily cover his costs.
He had nothing left about which to worry. He could go his way and not look back, and be content with what he had and could not obtain.
But…well…there was plenty of time for other things, and he had only two more chances to see the King, speak with him, and try to make him smile and look less lonely.
He waited anxiously as challenger after challenger approached the throne, offering more gems, flowers, other paintings and sculptures, books, glassware, china, even perfume—that made him sick with disappointment, until he realized it was only perfume.
Finally, finally it was his turn, and he approached the throne with a shy, uncertain smile. It brightened, however, when the King smiled back. “Master Medaughs. What have you brought me, in answer to the challenge?”
Unwrapping his fingers, Cowan presented the small, delicate glass bottle which he had held so protectively until then. It had cost him several of the coins he had found in the cloak, but seeing the King smile in wonder and curiosity, he thought it would have been worth it to surrender all of them. When the King had taken the bottle, he said, “Long ago, Majesty, in the early days of our country, not long after the first King had been crowned, the land was beset by a tribe of savages who possessed the ability to turn into wolves. They attacked, killed many, and worst of all they spread their shape-changing ability to the people here. But the alchemists, those long ago and long lost masters of the arcane, devised a tonic that drove back the savages and cured the afflicted. The basis for that tonic was this—a solution of pure silver, called ‘extract of the moon’ by the alchemists. The secret of its making was only recently rediscovered. It is used by farmers and villagers, when they can afford it, to create the wolfs bane potion to keep back the wolves that run thick in the forests.”
“Well done. Well done, indeed.” The King stood up, and once again approached him. “You are a most worthy challenger indeed, my fine historian. It is no wonder you hope to attend the Royal Academy. I am certain they cannot wait to see all that you might offer.”
Cowan almost laughed at that, and did not have the heart to tell the King that he was the only one who thought he deserved to be at the Academy. Given he had twice now won the challenge over at least one professor of said Academy, he did not foresee being accepted even if he did have the money. “Thank you, Majesty,” he said, and tried to bow his head deferentially, but he could not look away—it was all he could do to remain still, and not move closer.
“A beautiful piece of the moon you have brought me, a fine charm that once fixed many wrongs. Your prize, my scholar, shall be a lesser sort of charm.” He slid a silver ring from his finger, a simple ring set with the king’s symbol. A Service ring, Cowan realized. It meant that wherever he went, he would never want for food and bed—whoever bore such a ring, was granted such things without question, because he served the King.
“Majesty…” he shivered despite himself as the King took his hand, but instead of dropping the ring into his palm, the King turned his hand over and slid the ring onto Cowan’s finger. He held on a moment longer, then slowly let Cowan’s hand go.
Cowan looked up into his eyes, wanting so badly to lean in closer, to…to…
To do things he had no business doing, should not even be thinking. Someone, someday, would make the King happy—but it would be someone worthy, of the proper station, not some peasant struggling to survive and in possession of an education that clashed with every other aspect of his life. “Majesty,” he finally said, the word coming out more softly than he intended. “Thank you.”
“You are welcome,” the King replied, smiling, and something about his smile was different, but Cowan could not say precisely how. Satisfaction, maybe? He was not certain. Turning away, he reluctantly withdrew to his place, ignoring the looks and the loathing he could practically feel upon the air.
“Challengers,” the King cried out. “One challenge remains; let us see what you make of it. In three days, you are to bring me the stars. Good luck.”
The stars? Cowan worried at his lip, completely stumped on that one. Diamonds was the easy answer, or something similar, but there was no real star-like significance to them. No, stars were not diamonds. They were too distant and fragile looking for that.
He glanced over his shoulder as he left, and stumbled to halt in surprise, to see the King remained on the dais and was watching him. Flushing, Cowan turned hastily around and bolted from the clearing, making for his little rooftop, bundling up in the cloak he still liked to think smelled like the King.
As night fell, he sat so that he could look up at the stars in comfort, naming them silently, recalling all their stories, hoping for some sort of inspiration. He had managed sun and moon, somehow, surely he could figure out how to bring the King a star…and then what?
Would he win another prize? Would he win the grand prize? What was that? Perhaps he could ask for admittance to the Academy; that would be the wisest and most practical. With the King’s favor, maybe he would have to occasionally give an accounting of himself to the King. He would tell all that he had done, and the King would listen, and then…
Then what, he thought bitterly. Kings did not talk and idle their days away with students, never mind peasants. Once the challenges were over, he would have only his cloak to remember the King. He stood a better chance of catching a falling star than catching a…
Falling star. That was it. He knew where to find a falling star. Standing up and turning around, he looked toward the mountain. If he pushed hard, he could get there and back in three days.
“Cowan Medaughs! Cowan Medaughs! Cowan—”
“Here!” Cowan cried, bursting through the crowd, tripping as someone thrust a leg out, crashing hard to the pavilion stones with a cry of pain. Ignoring the scraped, bleeding skin on his hand, the way his elbow throbbed on the opposite arm, he clambered to his feet and strode anxiously forward. “I’m here.”
“Cowan,” the King said, startling him by using his first name. “I was beginning to fear you would not show.”
“I’m sorry,” Cowan said. “It took me longer than I thought.”
The King smiled. “Did you climb into the sky to get the stars, my scholar?”
Startled by the words, distracted by the smile, Cowan reacted without thinking. He burst out laughing, still grinning when he finally managed to say, “No, Majesty, though gladly would I climb that high for you if I could. I went only up the Painted Mountain, to the temple there.”
He flushed dark as the King smiled then, slow and pleased and warm in a way that was almost more hot. “Oh? I did not know the old priests there could call down stars.”
Cowan smiled, still distracted and pleased that he had managed to get them. He reached into his cloak, relieved to feel they were still intact. Extending his cupped hands, he dropped into the King’s cupped palms a handful of delicate star-shaped objects that seemed to be made of something like glass, but not quite that.
“In the days of the third King, Majesty, the Kingdom was again attacked. This time the men were armored, brutal, terrifying. The Kingdom was nearly lost, because we could not do them enough harm to slow them down and steal the advantage. Then the alchemists, together with the priests of the temple then often used, devised a clever little device. These are made of fairy glass, delicate, and it shatters into the tiniest of pieces. The priests were experts with the stuff, and made these little containers to hold a special substance devised by the alchemists. When thrown from the safety of the castle walls, these little containers rained down upon the enemy, shattering on impact, covering them with small amounts of a deadly poison that killed the moment it touched skin. Used in this manner, the damage was mostly contained to the enemies, and did not spread all over ground and comrades. They were extremely dangerous, however, and after the war was finally won the King banned them. But, throughout the war, the enemies referred to them as a rain of death. We, however, called them falling stars.”
The King smiled, stood, and approached him, taking both Cowan’s hands. “You are brilliant and clever, wise and hard-working. Tell me, my wise scholar, do you know the story of Consort Lore?”
Cowan frowned in thought, speaking slowly as he said, “Consort Lore was the consort and lover to the tenth King, and it’s said that he was made Consort after winning…” Cowan’s eyes widened. “Majesty—”
He got no further as the King kissed him, releasing Cowan’s hands to slide his arms around Cowan’s waist, immediately possessive but Cowan did not even think of pulling away or resisting, even if he should. The amber and orange smelled so much better, a thousand times better, upon the King’s warm skin.
This could not be, he had to be dreaming, such things did not happen to people like him.
But if he was asleep, he could figure out how to wake, and did not really want to. He blinked as they finally broke apart. “Majesty?” he asked, words so low none but the two of them could hear.
“I want you for my consort,” the king replied, “unless you have some objection.”
“Everyone else will object? I am hardly worthy—”
“That is for me to decide, and you,” the King said. “You have proven more than worthy; it is only for you to say yes or no.”
“I don’t understand why,” Cowan said.
“Because you are everything a consort should be,” the King replied. “That aside, you drew me from the moment we met, and I think you looked as lonely as I, and now we both seem less so.”
Cowan smiled, because this was true. He had been so absorbed in the King, in the challenges, that he had not felt lonely at all save when he thought of never seeing the King again. “You eased me. I hoped I eased you, but could not say for certain.”
“You do,” the King said. “I want you by my side.”
“That is where I would like to be, Majesty,” Cowan admitted, and smiled as he realized that he could be, would be, despite all odds.
“Then it is done,” the King replied, “and my name is Seay.”
“Seay,” Cowan repeated softly, before the King kissed him again, while around them the people could only stand and stare, shocked into absolute silence.