Sitting on her own at a table near the door of the dining hall, Leila covered her mouth with her palm as she yawned. A few were having breakfast at this early hour.
Zahra grinned at her when she entered. “Too sleepy to grab your breakfast, Your Highness?”
Leila chuckled. “I don’t feel like eating right now. I’m here to find Minjun.” Kungwan’s successor was almost three decades younger than the late Archmage, yet he was currently the most senior mage among the ones who had survived the Battle of Paril. “He is an early bird, I was told.”
Zahra furrowed her fair brow. “What is your business with him?”
The very mage they were talking about was entering the dining hall when Leila said, “An assignment he gave me,” said Leila. And a couple of answers he owes me.
The slim dark-haired mage grabbed an empty tray and headed to the serving counter. The cook gave him two boiled eggs, one apple, and a loaf of bread. They are reducing our rations, she thought, watching the slim, dark-haired mage place his full tray on an unoccupied table.
“Now is your chance.” Zahra nodded her chin pointedly at Minjun Sen who rarely wandered the ship unaccompanied. Leila should seize this opportunity before any of the other Koyan mages woke up hungry and joined their new leader.
Minjun Sen greeted Leila upon seeing her coming to him. “How is your progress?” he asked her as he peeled the eggshell.
“I finished it,” Leila replied, the impression on his face and the way he left the egg gladdening her.
“Unbelievable. Even for a Koyan” Minjun Sen was still gaping at her. “Master Yesen was not exaggerating your talent.”
“He was not.” Leila looked him in the eye as she continued, “Now, would you tell me what this was about?”
At this point, the Koyan mage remembered that he hadn’t finished peeling the eggshell. “Not before I hear you recite them all, Queen Leila.”
“Please, don’t.” Leila gave him a warning look before she took a deep breath. “I promise you are going to hear them all. But seriously, I can’t wait any longer.” She leaned toward him. “I need to understand why I was asked to memorize the entire Index of Incantations?”
Minjun’s faint smile reminded Leila of Master Jihoon. Except that the late mage had had chubby cheeks instead of these bony ones in front of her. “Curiosity could be torturing, I know. But believe me; it is too soon to talk about that now.”
Leila smiled nervously. “Then you have no idea how torturing curiosity could be.”
Thankfully, Minjun Sen was kind enough to postpone his hearty breakfast for a few minutes. “The book I asked you to memorize is literally one of its kind. Compiling all these incantations was quite a huge task that nobody before or after your great grandmother Lady Nelly had done before. When Yesen told us about your amazing ability to memorize a page just by looking at it, we thought you could help us protect this invaluable book.”
“By memorizing it?” Leila asked dubiously.
“If this book is damaged for any reason, we will never be able to access any of those incantations until the end of days,” said Minjun. “Unless you help us make a dozen copies of it when we settle down.”
Leila found his concern about that book a bit strange, especially in the current circumstances. “Is this about teaching your mages how to use the incantations to stop the demons?”
“Only summoners can do that,” said Minjun. “But finding summoners among mages has always been harder than finding mages among normal people. We couldn’t just ‘try’ our mages to see if they had the ability to summon. But that might change with the books you will help us have.”
One thing Leila knew about summoners was that they were a rare kind of mages. A kind even more powerful than the legendary Kungwan Sen. Could it be possible she is the one? Leila could not help glancing at the Murasen girl who had just finished her breakfast.
“You surely can keep this conversation between us, no?” The Koyan mage leaned forward toward Leila. Why might her quick look at Zahra worry him?
“The Index of Incantations is not a secret, Minjun Sen,” Leila admitted. “Some of your mages know about it already.”
“They know about it, but they have no clue about your bigger mission.”
Leila shrugged. “Why not?”
Minjun raised a hand to respond to the mages greeting him as they entered the dining all. “Because of the seers, Princess.” He lowered his voice. “The more people you tell about the book, the higher the chances the seers find about it.”
The seers; they had been Goran’s greatest assets in his glorious war to conquer all of Gorania and build his own empire. Regretting aiding Goran in his bloody campaigns, the seers had decided to live in the shadows forever, and since then, they had been remembered in the old versions of Tales of Gorania as the traitors who had turned on their rightful ruler. Through the ages, hundreds of trackers had been hired to find those people, either to punish them for their treachery or to make use of their gifts. But no one had ever found a seer because he wanted to. If a seer felt like telling you something, he would know how to reach you.
“What is the problem with the seers?” Leila asked. “It was that seer called Wang who warned King Masolon and Queen Rona of the Army of the Cursed.”
Two Koyan mages brought their breakfast to Minjun’s table to join him. “Later, Princess Leila,” the new leader of the mages promised. After a couple of seconds, Leila felt stupid that she didn’t get he was dismissing her politely.
Leila took her leave, but Zahra was gone already. Still not feeling hungry, Leila refused to take a tray from the serving counter, and all she accepted from the cook was one red apple.
“Not hungry, Your Majesty?”
Leila turned at once when Queen Rona’s voice came from behind her.
“I didn’t know you had your breakfast here, Your Grace,” said Leila.
Rona gave her a faint smile. “I don’t.”
“Your Grace?” the cook exclaimed upon seeing his queen a few feet away from the serving counter.
“You finished what Lord Thetcher assigned you to do?” Rona fixed him with her gaze.
The cook cleared his throat. “We promise we will finish before afternoon, Your Grace.”
“Afternoon?” Her Grace repeated disapprovingly. “We have two hours before we disembark.”
The cook’s lips quivered as he said, “We ca…we can’t, Your Grace. I don’t have enough men to finish this soon.”
“Then why didn’t you say so to Lord Thetcher from the beginning?” she snapped. “How many soldiers do you need? Ten? Twenty? A hundred?”
The cornered cook swallowed before giving an answer. “Twenty will do, Your Grace.”
Rona turned to Leila and took her hand as they both exited the dining hall. The moment she spotted General Idwin on deck, she called out to him. “Send forty men to the kitchen. We need to get done with the supplies.”
After the general went to see to Rona’s order, Leila couldn’t hide her worry as the Bermanian queen walked her to the bow of the carrack. “Are we running low on food?”
“I’m trying to avoid that,” said Rona, gazing at the distant Skandivian coast. “We don’t have horses to carry the supplies that suffice us for four days of marching on foot. That’s why we need to split all the food we can carry on all of us.” She turned to Leila. “What would you do if you were in my place?”
The question took Leila off guard. Dividing the supplies on five thousand people? That was quite a tedious task. Such an idea would never cross Leila’s mind. A tedious task, yet vital, she thought. Only an iron-willed leader like Rona would do what was necessary to protect her people no matter how hard it seemed.
“I can’t better your idea, Your Grace,” said Leila.
“Surely, you can.” Rona looked her in the eye. “You are smarter than me. You are probably smarter than anybody else on this ship, Your Majesty.”
“I’m not.” Leila knew she sounded nervous. “I can’t be a strong queen like you. Or like Aunt Sania.” She breathed heavily upon saying the name. “I can’t be called Your Majesty.”
Rona’s facial expressions softened as she leaned forward toward Leila. “We can’t learn how to swim without jumping into the water, my dear. And like it or not, you will have to jump soon.”
Leila held Rona’s gaze. “You speak as if we have defeated Koya in the War of the Last Day already.”
“We will win the War of the Last Day, and you will return to Murase to rule your people.” Rona laid a gentle hand on Leila’s shoulder. “Believe me; your aunt and I were not born ready to lead. We were hardened by the battles we had to fight. And you, Queen Leila, will have to survive much harder battles.”
Leila wished she had Rona’s faith. “Your belief in victory,” she started, hoping Rona knew something she didn’t. “Is it based on anything Wang the Seer told you?”
“Wang the Seer,” Rona scoffed, her wide grin revealing her teeth. “He didn’t answer the only question that mattered to me.”
Because she wouldn’t have liked the answer. Knowing that seers were never wrong about the future, the thought alarmed Leila. It should alarm Rona too.
The Bermanian queen was walking away when Leila said, “He didn’t tell you whether we would defeat the demons or not, right?”
Rona stopped, glancing over her shoulder at Leila. “I asked him if I would be alive to witness the War of the Last Day. ‘I only see what I’m allowed to see’, was the bastard’s answer.”