Chapter 1:

Nantšan // Strange Beginnings

In Search of Prose

It was a quiet day in the Royal Gardens, something that made High King Yunan quite happy. The scene before him was a picturesque one: ladies playing a game of charades in delicate gowns as beautiful as the blooms around them, and gentlemen deep in conversation about a certain acting troupe's leading ladies. No quarrels, no worries, and certainly no one present to stir up trouble.

He allowed himself to relax into his chair and gazed at the statue of his late mother that sat smiling among the rose bushes. She would be so proud. After the Hundred-Year Slumber and the war that took place during its occurrence, Rocosia had been divided. Even after the High Queen's awakening, the kingdom of Vedya and its supporters weren't so happy to have the capital moved back to Dansia. For forty years, the High Throne of Dansia fought to unite the nations under one banner once again. For twenty more, they sought to re-establish popularity and catch up on all that had happened in the world while Dansia lay asleep. Finally, for two, Yunan had managed to rule the kingdoms with diplomatic skill beyond his teenage years.

Yes, his mother would have been proud. Maybe she would have even joined in the ladies' games. No doubt she would've been a sight to see. He could almost picture her miming out the actions of a goose, only to honk accidentally and send the younger women into a fit of giggles. Speaking of the ladies of the court, he noticed that they had gone silent. Fans of intricately carved bone now hid their mouths, and they stared at the garden's gate as footsteps grew closer.

The court was still, a herd of deer ready to bolt at a moment's notice. The gatekeeper looked anxious, and whispered something to the herald next to him. A royal guard entered the gate, and everyone let out a collective sigh of relief.

But the footsteps hadn't stopped. In fact, they were louder by the second. The court began whispering, and Yunan gripped his chair. The herald, now thoroughly shaken, cleared his throat.

"Announcing His Lordship, Van of Leora."

As the Loran family fanfare rang out, the gathered courtiers took the time to groan. 

Loran. The name itself had once carried connotations of the dignity and grace of the Duchess and the skilled leadership of the Duke. Not anymore. 

A disheveled mess of chestnut curls sat atop the young lord's wide-eyed and rosy visage with all the dignity of a dandelion's blossom. He bowed ever so slightly before making a beeline to where Yunan sat. The king sank back into his chair and prepared for the worst.

"I have an announcement!"

"Your High King allows it to be told."

Another hasty bow, and Van pulled out a crumpled mess of papers. Some kind of speech, perhaps.

"As you all know well, this past week I've been absent from court."

"And what a nice week it was," a lady whispered to her seatmate.

"I've spent that time in utter solitude, reflecting on what would make me happy. You see, dear fellows, life at court has become dull. I take no pleasure in conversations like I once did, and I'm tired of the same old games being played. To spare myself from this mundanity, I've decided something."

"If your High King permits," Yunan interjected. Van nodded eagerly.

"Yes, if you'll allow it, Yunan."

A gasp came from somewhere in the garden. Yunan rolled his eyes and motioned for Van to come closer.

"Look, Van, I know we've known one another for ages, but it's court. You can't just call me that in this sort of atmosphere," he said, under his breath.

"Apologies, Yun—I mean, Your Highness. I don't know if I'll ever get used to it." There was a hint of hurt in the lord's voice. Nevertheless, he turned around to address the full court.

"My mother raised me in the arts, like any gentleman should be raised. Despite being so far away from her, something she once told me has been repeating in my mind: 'poetry is the heart of a nation.' I never questioned it when I was a boy, but it's been the center of my musings this week. How can something as simple as rhyming verse keep the blood of a nation pumping? It's a question I don't think I can find the answer to in a single place." He took a deep breath. "Ladies and gentlemen, I ask the permission of the High King to go on a quest."

A stunned silence, then small murmurs, and then a sudden realization swept across the garden. Lord Loran, leaving court? Going to some far-off area of Rocosia where he wouldn't be around to think out loud during serious conversations or recite classical poems while imitating the voices of those present? No more attempts at dressing Lady Aida's pet duck in different bonnets and waistcoats as it tried to escape his grasp? It had to be a dream.

Yunan could feel every eye trained on him, hungry for his reaction.

"Lord Loran, what would this quest entail?"

"Well," Van shuffled his papers around. "My thought was that—that I would simply leave the palace and start a journey across Rocosia. Ah, and I'd catalogue the poems I'd find along the way. I want to write a book, you see, and—"

"Without a single guard?"

"I—I hadn't thought about that."

"Lord Loran, do you have a personal guard?"

"Not at court, no."

Yunan saw the pale faces of his courtiers. They were desperate, pleading.

"Some would call it a fool's errand, Lord Loran. But, as I see it, it's a chance for you to grow. Consider my permission granted, I'll personally oversee the choosing of guards to accompany you."

"Really, Yunan? The highest thanks to you! I'll begin preparing at once!"

With that, Lord Van Loran was gone, leaving nothing behind but a few sheets of paper and the scent of fresh ink.

"Your Royal Highness," Lady Aida stood and curtseyed, Sir Hibi the duck in her arms. "How can we ever repay you?"

Life in the Royal Guard was difficult for Zyara Talyan. It was hard enough being surrounded by men physically stronger than she would ever be, but even harder being thought of as out of place.

The overskirt she was required to wear weighed her down, and she thought about just ripping it off one of these days. But she couldn't. She had a reputation to uphold.

"Oi, zazenne."

She almost bit her tongue at the word, looking up from her meal to find whoever said it. Low chuckles rippled around her, and her cheeks flushed. She couldn't get angry. For the sake of every girl who dreamed of standing in her shoes, she couldn't.

"Zazenne!" It came from behind her now, and she fought the urge to turn around. Someone—perhaps the speaker—pelted her with some sort of vegetable. It hit her square in the back, and hard enough to where she knew it would stain if she didn't clean it soon. No matter, she was almost done. Just a few more bites, and—

"How did they let someone as pretty as you into such a rough line of work? If I was your captain, I would have made you into a nice wife instead. Come over here, darling, I'd like to look at your lovely face."

"That's enough!" She slammed a fist on the table. "I have not served my country and my high king dutifully for you to talk to me like I'm some kind of plaything. I will not tolerate any poisoned honey from the likes of you or your friends, emeska. You can call me weak, or fragile, or any other adjective you want, because I will prove you wrong. But this is outrageous. I'm no one's bride, not even—"

"Zyara, your composure." A reassuring tap on the arm from the guard sitting next to her. She could feel the fire coursing through her veins, and willed it to die down, despite the dining hall filling with laughter at her expense.

"You can't keep letting them prod you into this situation. They want a reaction, because they think it's funny. For once, go to the captain and tell him what's going on."

"He won't understand, Emil. What man can?" She propped her head up with her hand.

"I'd like to think I've done a good job." His gentle brown eyes warmed her.

"You're understanding, but you don't truly understand. I'm in a unique position here."

"One that the captain put you in. He's got faith in you. You're the first for a good reason."

"It'd be nice if anyone else saw it that way."

"Be patient, you'll prove yourself in time."

Horns cut through the moment to announce the arrival of a royal herald, with every guard in the hall instinctively standing at attention.

The herald himself, dwarfed by the men around him, looked a bit nervous.

"Announcing His Royal Highness, Yunan Amavyasha of Dansia, Delight of the Seven, High King over all Rocosia; as well as the Captain of the Guard, Lord Zeiran of Yòria."

The boyish high king entered first, wearing an ensemble of pale blue that matched his dark hair and fair complexion well. He was followed by the ruddy and scarred Captain, who wore the standard turquoise and white uniform of the guard with a couple of medals on his chest. Zyara recognized one as the Rose of Dansia, given to those who had fought alongside the high king's father during the reunification of Rocosia.

"My fine fellows!" Zeiran threw his arms wide and grinned. "Your High King is putting together an escort for Lord Van Loran, and has come to make sure I pick the right men for the job. Seeing as I have so many good men, this will be difficult for me. Requirements are few, but be prepared for a long quest. Lord Loran is going to be traveling the world over, and who knows what kinds of dangers lie out there? Maybe you'll get to see some evil spirits, or even a witch. There's plenty of treasure to be found out there in the world, and only a few of you will get to discover it. Maybe you'll find the lost kingdom of Luminora, who knows? Who'd like to volunteer? You lot can relax and chat about it."

There were shouts of excitement, and the gemstones and fine weaponry dreamed up by the guards were described in such detail that they were almost tangible. The high king laughed, and Zeiran motioned for the hall to be quiet.

"Captain Zeiran is exaggerating, as I knew he would. This isn't a journey of wealth, at least not the tangible kind. My old friend, Lord Loran, is collecting poems from all seven kingdoms and needs a trustworthy guard to go with him. If any of you would like a chance to get out of the palace for a while, it's a good opportunity."

As quickly as the excitement had flared up, it dissipated. Those who had been assigned to guard Lord Loran during previous events were the quietest of all. Zyara never met the young man, but had heard that he was, well, stupid, for lack of a better term. What a reputation to carry.

"Send Emil, he'll be able to keep him under control," someone called out. A chorus of "ayes" rung out, and Zeiran crossed his arms.

"You have my attention. Emil, where are you? Would you like a chance at fame and fortune?"

"I'd be honored, sir." Emil made his way up to the front of the room.

"That's my boy, I've never known you to turn down an assignment." Zeiran clapped a hand on his shoulder and shook him back and forth. "You have my full trust. What does His Royal Highness think? Emil is one of my best, and always a good conversationalist. He's got a good head on his shoulders."

Yunan inspected him, and gave a nod of approval. "If you trust him well, Captain, so do I."

"Welcome to your first assignment outside the capital, boy, I'd say you've earned it."

A mixture of raucous laughter and hearty cheers rang out. Zyara could hear everyone around her snickering, pushing their friends and telling them they'd be next.

"Send Ìzan, sir!"

The men groaned before laughing amongst themselves again. Zyara couldn't help but laugh with them this time. Ìzan, the prettiest guard in the whole kingdom. Ìzan, the guard who was most likely chatting up the ladies of the palace right now and had no clue he was being volunteered. The same Ìzan that snuck into a masquerade while he was supposed to stand guard outside, earning him a week's worth of the most boring patrol course possible. Sending him would be a joke. But that was the nature of this mission, wasn't it? An airheaded quest for a few written scraps of paper.

"Yes, get him out of the guardhouse!"

"Ship him off!"

"Alright, settle down, men, I hear you. You think we should give him a taste of responsibility, correct?" Zeiran seemed unfazed by the nomination.

"Teach him a thing or two!"

"Emil, what are your thoughts?"

Zyara wondered what Emil would say. She couldn't hear him over the chant of "ship him off" that had been taken up.

"He has potential," Emil said.

"The potential to make his father cry!"

"The potential to abandon his duties for good."

"Quiet, you lot!" Zeiran said, "Despite your giggling, Ìzan is a skilled swordfighter and a fairly good negotiator. If Your Royal Highness allows it, I'd like to test his mettle."

After some deliberation, Yunan nodded.

"Now send the zazenne! Give him a reason to go!"

Zyara's blood ran cold. To be stuck on a mission with Ì, she wouldn't accept.

"We don't need a woman here!"

"Leave the real stuff to us, Captain!"

She grimaced. 'Real stuff.' As if escorting a high ranking noble wasn't 'real stuff.' If it wasn't for Ìzan, maybe she'd go. Just to spite them. 

"Zyara's more than welcome to come with us," Emil furrowed his brow. "I believe she's got the intelligence to round out the skill set we have, and I think the captain would agree with me. If this mission is so easy, why don't any of you volunteer? It'd be an easy paycheck, wouldn't it?"

"Well said, lad," Zeiran said.

Stunned, Zyara found herself approaching the high king despite the thought of being stuck with Ìzan revolting her to her core. She knelt before Yunan and lowered her head.

"You may rise, loyal servant. If the captain sees something in you, I expect to see it as well."

"I will not disappoint." As she got up, she turned to face her peers and hardened her face. She'd show them. She hadn't been suggested and picked on a whim, she had been chosen.

Next to her, Emil smiled.

"Captain, I think a few more men could prove useful. Zyara, what do you think?"

"The opposite. Captain, a large party would draw more attention. If Lord Loran hasn't left Dansia in a while—"


"Your Highness?"

"Lord Van Loran has never been outside the kingdom's borders. I think you're correct. Outside of Dansia, he has no reputation. No one will know who he is out there, and a large unit protecting him would be strange. Besides, times are peaceful. There's no need for a grand escort."

Zeiran cracked a few knuckles. "I'm but a servant of the High King. Sorry, Emil, but I have to agree with these two."

"I'll leave you to see to the rest of the preparations. Thank you for your time and cooperation, Captain, I trust that Van will be safe in the hands of your men—and woman." High King Yunan shook Zeiran's hand, and was escorted out.

For once, 'woman' wasn't spat out like a dirty word. More like an amendment to recognize her as a part of a team. Zyara felt a thrill deep inside her stomach, and couldn't help the smile that broke out on her face.

"Alright, you two," Zeiran scratched his head absentmindedly. "Who wants to tell Ìzan what his buddies have gotten him into?"

"Have I ever told you how your eyes sparkle in the light? It's as if Eterne herself has painted stars in them, and I'd like to watch the story they tell."

"Ìzan, you flatter me so!" A coy lady batted her eyes at the handsome youth who held her hand ever-so-gently. His hair fell in wispy strands across his face, and his upturned eyes gave him an elegant, yet still boyish look. Ìzan was happy with himself.

"Oh, but I haven't even begun, Milady. Are you certain you aren't descended from the Anshya? Your porcelain skin rivals that of the goddesses themselves. At the next festival, I should like to see you in—"

"Ìzan, there you are."

The lady gasped and hurried away, leaving Ìzan with nothing but the scent of her perfume. He sighed, and looked around for whoever called him. He could continue the chase later. A sturdy young guard with his hair in a sensible bun, not someone he recognized. But after him, a familiar face! Who wouldn't know the lovely Zyara, maiden among men in the royal guard? Hair cropped to her chin and pulled back halfway, and a stern face to match her demeanor...not his type, but a beauty nonetheless.

"Miss Zyara," he bowed. "And...?"

"Emil. Captain Zeiran sent us to get you. Consider us your compatriots from now on."

"Compatriots? You make it sound like we've all been assigned to something." He let out a chuckle.

"We have been," Zyara said, face as icy as always. "Three days from now, we begin escorting His Lordship Van Loran across the country."

"What? I never heard about this."

"Of course you didn't, you're never present for anything."

"Zyara, you don't have to be so harsh," Emil laughed nervously. "I vouched for you, Ìzan. You're one of the best swordsmen in the guard, and a smooth talker on top of that. I figured you'd want a chance to prove yourself, given your family's reputation."

"Don't remind me."

"You can't talk your way out of this, Ìzan."

"I'm sure the captain can make some kind of exemption. Maybe Lady Aida will need a personal guard for the next week or so. Or maybe a guard for Hibi so he doesn't wander—"

"Tough luck." Zyara's eye twitched. "High King Yunan himself finalized our group."

His breath caught in his throat, and he let out a half-laugh, half-choke.

"The High King? You've got to be joking. Why would he care about some ragtag group of guards dragged along by Lord Loran the Rice-Brained?"

"Lord Loran happens to be a close friend of his."

"You know, that explains a lot. Why, Lady Aida was just telling me how he called His Highness by his first name in court today. Speaking of which, I should find her. Who knows what type of young rogue could be lurking in the shadows, waiting for someone as pretty as her to cross his path?"

"Ìzan, I'm afraid you've got to start packing," Emil clapped him on the shoulder. "Tell her ladyship goodbye, though. Maybe she'll give you a trinket or something."

"Or maybe she's got another admirer somewhere she can snuggle up to." Zyara turned on her heel and strode off. Emil followed shortly after with one last sympathetic smile.

The hallway was quiet, and the orange light of the setting sun cast long shadows on the walls. Outside, an older couple strode across the well-kept lawn, chatting together as if nothing at all was happening. If only they knew what had just occurred inside. What would they think? He envied them, so unoccupied with things like wealth and status. If he was that well-off, maybe he wouldn't be in the guard to begin with.

But it was no matter. He had ways, naturally. And if he could find a way to gain some kind of fortune during this 'quest' business, maybe he'd get to go home a lot sooner. Yes, that would be the plan.

Despite himself, he smiled, and started for the guards' quarters to begin preparing.

Emil approached the door of Lord Loran's living quarters, taking a deep breath. The guard posted outside gave him a friendly wave, but stayed quiet.

"I've come to notify his lordship of the formation of his personal guard. May I enter?"

"One second." The guard rapped on the door. "My lord, a member of the guard wishes to see you."

"Oh, marvelous! Do come in, and never mind the mess."

Before Emil could step forward, the door was open and the young lord was shaking his hand.

"I was told you're the leader of our merry band. Emil, correct?"

"Yes, my lord." Emil noticed the ink spattered across Lord Loran's gloves, and checked his own hands. Sure enough, black splotches were there, although they'd been clean moments earlier.

"Call me Van. We're around the same age, are we not? No reason to bother with titles. I'm just a man like you!" Lord Loran pushed some papers off a velvet chair and motioned for him to sit.

"I don't know about that..."

"Sure I am! You, me, just a couple of youths with dreams as vast as the starry sky. You know, I've been thinking of going on some kind of journey for quite some time now. Haven't you ever wanted to go on an adventure? Get out of the city, breathe the fresh air?"

"Maybe once or twice. Honestly, I wouldn't mind staying here."

"Oh? Why is that?"

"The pay's good, I love the scenery, and—"

"Don't tell me," Lord Loran sat down in the chair across from him, studying his face with overflowing excitement. "You're in love, aren't you? Somewhere in this city, a fair maid waits for you to return, wistfully sighing the hours away and penning a letter about how much she wishes you were beside her. What a wonderful thing, love! So full of caprice, so evasive, and yet entirely worth the wait. Of course, I've never experienced romance myself; I'm not counted among the lucky who have. But tell me about her, Emil, what drew you together?"

"I was going to say my family's been here for generations, and I don't like leaving them." Emil blushed. He couldn't tell if his response even registered in the lord's mind. 

"I was right, we are the same! How exciting, to take one's first steps outside their native land! The world is opening up before us!"

"Before two others as well, your lordship—"

"My lordship, my lordship! If you have any respect for frivolous titles, you'll do as my lordship says and call me Van. No more, no less, please and thank you!"

"Y-yes, well—"

"You may continue, friend."

Emil shifted in his seat. "The others—I assume you want to hear about them?"

"Ah, yes, the others! I do, most certainly. Tell me, who else is joining us on this grand quest?"

"Well, there's Ìzan. He tends to slack off a little now and then, but he's well spoken. And a fine swordsman, in addition to that."

"I believe I've seen him before at court, yes. A true romantic, well-skilled in chivalry. To have even a quarter of his charm!"

"He'll be flattered."

"This is no mere flattery, Emil, he is wonderful! If I were a storyteller, he would serve as the perfect protagonist. Can you picture it? A lone cat among wild beasts, ready to duel for the honor of his lady-love. It would be the most popular tale in the kingdom!"

"I'm sure," Emil mustered up a smile.

"So, you've relayed two out of four members of our party, with myself as the fourth. Who is the third? No doubt a man of brawn and might, to tie this inexperienced, yet intelligent group together," Lord Loran jumped up, then planted a foot on his chair like a ship's captain. "A man able to climb the highest peaks, fight the toughest of foes, and carry anything we might pick up along the way!"

"I'm afraid you may be disappointed, then."

"Why? Did Yunan not send the best men he could muster?"

"No, it's just that our last party member is my friend Zyara. She's—" Emil stopped, seeing the slack-jawed expression on the lord's face. He braced himself for the questions he knew were coming, getting ready to go on the defensive.



"She?" Lord Loran grabbed Emil's shoulders and shook him back and forth. "What an incredible twist! A rose among thorns, doe among bucks! Disguised as a man, perhaps, in order to not draw the ire of her fellows? Or maybe one who embraces her femininity, with soft voice and a softer heart? Which is it?"


"Ah, how disappointing, those archetypes would make for such an interesting tale. But still, what drama! What intrigue! I must prepare a list, I have so much I want to ask her. So, so many questions! But first, I must gather my belongings. If I don't, I'm bound to forget a thing or two," Lord Loran glanced around the room. "Now that I know who will be accompanying me, I can rest well. It pains me to say this, but goodnight, Emil. I hope everyone is ready to go bright and early tomorrow morning."

"We will be," Emil said.

"Great to hear, great to hear! Now please, take your leave. May Luminaria send you the best of dreams." Lord Loran placed his arm around him and pulled him towards the door. One knock, and Emil's visit with the lord was over as suddenly as it began. The guard posted outside shot him a sympathetic look.

"Good luck."

"What an eventful day!" Van flopped onto his bed. In truth, he was shocked. The silence of the court, the granting of his request, and three promising members of the royal guard hand-chosen by Yunan himself—it brought a strange warmth to his chest. It brought him back to his mother's chambers, where he sat as she recounted the adventures his father had gone on or was in the middle of, singing them in verse. Back to the days of studying the works of Lord Feirun, developing such an affection for them that he would fall asleep with his father's illuminated edition in his arms. Back to the realization of the weight behind his mother's words. Poetry, the heart of a nation. Now, more than ever, he wanted to understand what she had meant. He had the chance, and he wouldn't waste it.

He couldn't help but hum along with his memories as he pulled himself up and began packing.

"Father is riding away to war
Sing peryade, ūta peryade 
Taking up banner and shining sword
Ūta peryade..."

Noticing a quill away from its station, he picked it up to carry it back to his writing desk. The sheet of fresh parchment, half-covered with its crumpled brethren, called to him. What better place to start a quest than at the beginning, where it all began?

He forgot his prior task, sitting down and brushing the parchment mountain aside. Dipping the quill in the ink, he jotted down the first verse and kept on going.

"The colors of Loran fly proud and high
Sing peryade, ūta peryade
They seek out their foes with a deadly eye
Ūta peryade..."

More and more followed, and when he was done he looked over his work. A few spelling mistakes aside (he stopped a bit to think of what "nrood" might've been), it was there on the page. The first of what he hoped would be many to come, to be shared with anyone who would care to read them. Thinking of that matter, he made a footnote translating the old text of the song's refrain: "come back, come back safely."

It sung to him as he went back to gathering up anything that could be useful. It was more than just a refrain now, but a promise to himself. He would return, alive and well and with countless poems to share. Now, if only he could find a case that would hold more than a few inkwells...