On the morning of winter solstice, the sounds of weapons clashing guided Brand to the courtyard where the housecarls trained. He had been there several times, pitting himself against the best of Leiknarr’s warriors. Usually in the evening hours, but this time, he made his appearance in the morning.
While the king’s warriors let any join them in the evening, the early hours were another matter. Every day soon after sunrise, the lady Svana took command of the ring, practising her weaponry against her father’s housecarls. As Brand entered the small yard, his line of sight was quickly blocked by two of the household warriors.
“You overstep,” one of them told Brand with a brusque voice. “If the king’s daughter wanted you present, you would have been summoned. Begone.”
“I thought the lady would be interested in testing her prowess against a knight,” Brand replied loudly. “Better opposition than her father’s carls, I wager.”
“If so, she will let you know.” The housecarl raised a hand, ready to push Brand back.
“Let him through,” Svana spoke. “On Thusund, we accept and even encourage boastful words – provided you can prove them.”
“Give me a sword, and I shall do so,” Brand declared.
His request was fulfilled with a shield in addition. Svana motioned for him to enter the ring. Besides her own shield, she wielded a short spear. As soon as Brand stepped forward, the princess struck. She attacked low where Brand’s shield could not protect in time. Swinging his sword, Brand barely parried the assault in time, pushing Svana’s spear aside.
The lady smiled, baring her teeth like a wolf. Several jabs with the spear followed, forcing Brand to constantly defend himself. The few times he could strike back with his sword, the distance made it easy for her to shield herself. The housecarls laughed and spoke among themselves, discussing the fight and Brand’s predicament.
Every time Brand tried to strike, he was met by the spear’s longer reach, forcing him to break off his attack to defend himself. Pushed back, Brand seemed increasingly in trouble; he could not make an offensive move, and sooner or later, Svana’s constant attacks were bound to find an opening.
As the lady struck her spear forward yet again, Brand changed tactics. He evaded and simply threw his shield into Svana’s face. As she raised her own shield to protect herself from his, Brand used his now empty hand to grab the haft of her spear. Pulling his opponent closer, Brand placed the tip of his sword against her throat, leaned against the edge of her shield.
The housecarls murmured amongst themselves. “You lost your shield,” one of them pointed out. “You’ll be vulnerable against your next enemy.”
“Yes,” Brand admitted, “but I won against this one.” He lowered his sword, and the princess gave a sly smile.
“Leave us,” she commanded, and the housecarls did so. “You do not disappoint, dragonborn. I had my doubts, observing you these past days, wondering if you would dare to make any moves.”
“If you wanted to see me take action, you could simply have summoned me,” Brand said.
“If I considered you a simple soldier, I would have. But you are meant to be a commander. What good is a leader who cannot take initiative?” She placed her weapons on the rack, giving Brand a look.
“There is truth in that,” he admitted.
“Tell me, what do you think of my brother?”
Brand hesitated. “I have not spoken enough to form much of an opinion.”
“He is clearly not fit to rule,” Svana continued, giving her own answer. “My father must be the only man in Thusund who cannot see this.”
“Yet as the king, his opinion matters the most.”
“While he lives. Once he is passed, the jarls will choose his successor. They are not blinded by familial bonds,” Svana claimed, pacing around the yard. “They will not follow someone as weak-willed as Sven.”
“Unless having a weak king would suit their needs,” Brand argued.
The princess stopped to stare at Brand. “You may have a point,” she conceded. “Certainly I can see no other reason why my father favours Sven. My brother would be an average king, accomplishing little nor causing waves. Thusund would continue as it has under my father’s rule.”
“You have greater ambitions, I take it.”
“I am not blind. I know supplies have been sent to Fortönn. In early winter? The only reason would be to prepare the island for a siege. You have come to us from Alcázar, dragonborn. What did you see in that fabled city of the South?”
Brand cleared his throat. “I saw the dungeons and made a hasty retreat.”
Svana wore a sardonic smile. “Yes, your strange journey through the Teeth, and with even stranger company. A princess of Alcázar and a dragonborn, wearing only rags.”
“That is her story to tell, not mine.”
The princess selected an axe from the rack and swung it around, cleaving the air. “And where will you go next, son of Arn? I heard that the eastern realms do not think highly of you.”
Brand’s jaw became clenched. “Opinions are divided.”
“If any man in Thusund had done what you have done,” Svana declared, “he would be shown the highest honour. Not exile.”
“Alas, I am not from Thusund.”
“But you are here now,” she swiftly pointed out. “I would never disdain a man of your skills. On the contrary, you would be given chance to show your qualities, and ample reward after.”
“I appreciate such words,” Brand said slowly, “but at present, there is peace in Thusund, and your father reigns. Much would have to change before you could follow through on such a promise to me.”
“Winter solstice is nearly upon us,” Svana mentioned. She looked up at the bleak sky. Even approaching noon, sunlight and warmth were scarce. “The Raven Days follow soon. Jarls gather, and the old grow frail. We may go to sleep in the eve and find the world completely changed by morrow.”
It took a moment before Brand spoke. “I shall remember your words.” He bowed his head. “With your leave,” he added, indicating his desire to withdraw. She nodded in acknowledgement, and the son of Arn left the daughter of Eirik.
Past noon, Jana left the library with a book in her hands. She had done so several times before in the past days, but on those occasions, she had afterwards retired to her chambers. This time, she went to another part of the palace, near the royal wing that lay hewn into the mountainside. The housecarls stood posted deeper in, where only lamps burned in the windowless hallways, allowing none access. Thus, Jana remained outside, walking the corridors where other courtiers could be found. She greeted them courteously whenever she passed any of them, but made no conversation. Instead, she continued walking in circles.
Eventually, she saw the prince coming down the hallway, followed by a housecarl. As he approached, she stood aside to let him pass as befitted his rank. Doing so, she brushed her arm against the wall and dropped the book in her fingers.
“Haki,” the prince said, extending one hand. With a low growl, the housecarl bent down, picked up the book, and placed it in Sven’s hand, allowing the prince to present it to Jana.
“So kind of you, Your Highness,” she said with a bashful look at the floor. “Forgive me for being so clumsy.”
“Think nothing of it.” He glanced at the title. “Ruminations upon the Art of Governance. I have read that many times.”
“I did not know,” Jana claimed, “but it is no surprise that His Highness would educate himself on such an important matter.”
“I am surprised, on the other hand, to see it in the hands of a lady. Or anyone,” Sven added. “I did not think anybody else in Dvaros even knew of this book.”
“Even an empty jar becomes valuable when filled with good wine,” Jana remarked. “There is much I may learn in Dvaros. Both how different the city is from Alcázar, but also where the two are similar.”
“Really? How would they be similar?”
“Both are limited in what may be built. For Dvaros, the mountain both protects and restricts. In Alcázar, the location of the twin harbours determines all,” Jana pointed out. “It is interesting how both cities face similar issues, and yet their situations are reverse.”
“How so?” asked the prince with a curious look on his face.
“Alcázar has land it may build on, yet it is entirely dependent on the sea. It cannot expand beyond what the harbours allow.”
“Your city is locked on land, yet if the harbour could be improved, it might expand towards the sea.”
“Interesting. I have had the same thought,” Sven declared. “The size of the harbour is too small to the detriment of the city. In fact, it was my intention to inspect the docks this afternoon.”
Briefly, Jana opened her mouth and widened her eyes a little, as if hearing this came as a surprise.
“You should accompany me,” Sven declared. “I would hear how things are done in Alcázar, in case we might learn from them.”
“I would be honoured, Your Highness.” Jana bowed her head. “It would be best I return this,” she added with a wry smile, waving the book in her hand. “Or Master Gnupa might be cross with me.”
“Of course.” Sven took the book and handed it to Haki, who had with patience and silence been waiting on his master. “Haki, bring this back to the library. Then run to the stables. We shall need another horse.”
The housecarl gave a grunt with a meaning difficult to decipher, but he walked ahead as bid.
Shortly after, three riders appeared by the harbour, attracting eyes from the few others present. Most were dockworkers or crew members from the ships moored. Some looked because they recognised the prince, others wondered at the housecarl, and the remainder were curious about the lady, whose appearance set her apart from the islanders. Another curiosity was that the woman wore a cloak with the raven insignia, whereas the housecarl had nothing to shield him from the bitter wind.
While Haki kept sharp eyes on others, Sven did not seem to pay them any attention. His own eyes rested on the fleet of longships, docked in the far end of the harbour. “Nearly half the piers are taken by warships,” he pointed out to Jana. “Yet they simply lie still most of the time, adding little trade or value. If we built another harbour elsewhere on the island, it would free up the piers for merchant vessels.”
“That is an excellent idea,” Jana exclaimed. “Have you mentioned it to His Majesty?”
“My father is too cautious, too set in his ways. An old man,” Sven declared with a hint of derision. “He wants the ships and its soldiers in Dvaros, as if the city could ever be attacked. With all the ships from all the islands, we have the greatest fleet in the world! Who would dare to threaten us?”
“Indeed,” Jana mumbled.
“Not to mention, between the mountain and the hounds, Dvaros is impregnable.” Sven pointed from the peak in the north to the lighthouses in the south, guarding the harbour entrance. “It is a waste to have this many ships moored here when there is no need of them.”
“And if you built a new harbour elsewhere, not only ships but also crews and craftsmen would move to this new settlement, allowing further room in Dvaros for traders,” Jana speculated.
“Precisely,” Sven said with approval. “It is such a relief to speak with an understanding mind. Dvaros is old,” he continued, “the oldest city in all the Seven Realms. Change is an unwelcomed guest here.”
“Your Highness have clearly given this much thought,” the lady spoke. “May I ask a question on my mind?”
“You may,” the prince assented graciously. He began walking down the docks, followed by his two companions.
“Once the harbour may accommodate more traders, how will Your Highness attract them? Given that trade in the west of Adalmearc is gathered in Herbergja, it would be hard to convince the merchants to trade in Dvaros rather than on the mainland,” Jana pointed out.
“A good point,” Sven granted. “Herbergja is useful to send trade further east along the river. At least, for trade south of the Weolcans,” he added with a sly expression.
“I see. You would gather trade from the northern lands,” Jana deduced.
The prince nodded. “Ships from Trehaf bearing furs, amber, and copper sail to Herbergja, where their goods are sold onwards to Alcázar. They might as well conduct that trade in Dvaros, especially if taxes are low and the market is less crowded.”
“You have thought of everything.”
“My lord, we should consider returning,” interjected Haki, who walked behind holding the reins of their horses. “The solstice feast will soon begin, not to mention, it will only get colder and darker.”
“I am sure you can handle both,” Sven replied dismissively, continuing on his walk. The housecarl gave a low grunt, looking at his cloak hanging around Jana’s shoulders. She mouthed an apology to him and followed the prince.
As they walked, more great ships flowed into the harbour. The last of the jarls had arrived, just in time for solstice.
When Jana returned to her quarters, late in the afternoon, she found Brand already present. “A dress has been sent to your chamber. For tonight, courtesy of the king, I suspect.”
“I better not disappoint,” she replied, entering her room. “How long until we must appear in the hall?”
“Sooner rather than later, I think,” Brand considered. He wore a blue tunic of cotton, and the hem was embroidered with silver threads. The belt around his waist was simple, but the bejewelled hilt of his sea-steel sword made up for this.
“I must arrange my hair first,” Jana told him, shouting from her room into the parlour. “The wind was dreadful by the harbour.”
“Did you enjoy the outing?”
“It was of great interest. Oh,” she exclaimed with a little frustration. “A simple braid will have to do. I have neither tools nor time for anything intricate.”
“You could simply keep it loose.”
“My lord Adalbrand, what a scandalous proposition.”
“It must be my years in Alcázar, they ruined my manners.”
Laughter came from Jana’s room to reach the parlour, and the lady herself followed soon after. Her dress was green, likewise embroidered with silver at the hem. The belt in black leather pulled the cloth together at her waist; shoes similar to those she had crossed the desert in, yet made with coarser craftsmanship, adorned her feet. “Alas, I have not a single piece of jewellery to wear.”
“Such trinkets would only detract,” Brand declared, extending his arm.
“Not all your manners are lost,” Jana replied, taking hold of him, and together, they left for the great hall.