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BVC Announces The River Quest by Sylvia Kelso

The River Quest by Sylvia Kelso
Hunger Pangs
by Sylvia Kelso

Any Quester would expect a map, at least.

The River is dying.

Seven years have passed with no rain, no melting snow, and no reason why. Then Arxes, crown prince of an unimportant middling kingdom, sees in a dry canal a spring, where a maiden wades, wearing a crown of jewel-blue flowers. The kingdom’s soothsayer deems it an omen, revealing the drought’s cause is magic, with its only solution at the River’s mysterious Source. Arxes finds himself declared Quester, his sole advice for the journey, “Only set out!”

On the road, Arxes and his staunch comrade Ervan will track the River through desert, forest, city and steppe, encountering an emperor, an enchantress, a shaman, a witch. They will meet unforeseen friends and foes, gods, monsters, beings out of myth; they will risk the elemental perils of lightning, fire and ice. And before the River can flow again, the last in a long line of crucial decisions will bring the hardest choice of Arxes’ life.

About the Author: Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia. She has worked on a cattle station, in offices, as a waitress, and as a lecturer and academic at James Cook University. She mostly writes fantasy and SF set in analogue Australian settings.

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Chapter I


There was once a prince who lived in a middle-sized kingdom between a great river and a small sea. It was a conveniently sized kingdom, too big for the neighbouring empire to swallow, and too small to turn into an empire itself. The prince confidently expected to find his borders where his ninth great-grandfather had left them: on the canal which connected the great river to an eastern gulf, where for most of those nine generations his family had run a lucrative little harbour toll on trade going the quick way from the Golden Isles up-stream to the cities of the emperor.

Up there the sky grew white-nubbled and uneven, and the north wind occasionally brought a curious cold metallic smell that the king said was snow. The prince had never seen snow. In his land the earth was flat, seamed with irrigation canals by which his thrifty people managed the great river, dull yellow or red when fired into bricks, white when its dust flew up behind the herds of black goats and long-tailed sheep, a dull feathery green in the huge papyrus swamps; and greenest of all when it threw up groves of date palms, singing and swaying on the harsh blue sky. The prince thought it the most beautiful kingdom on earth. When he was not studying Arithmetic, Astronomy, Court Etiquette, Diplomacy (Imperial), Haruspication, Horse Manage, Robing and Rhetoric (Legal), he delighted to have out his pink-muzzled, milk-grey mare, and to ride among his subjects, discussing the latest poet and the best silks with which to embroider a falcon’s hood. His people were farmers of taste and elegance. As the high-minded heir of his father’s youth, the prince both hoped and expected to enjoy their company unhindered by the shackles of kingship for a long time to come.

Thus life continued, ample floods, good fish prices, little trouble with the emperor; until the drought.

First the rain stopped. That worried only the shepherds, since everyone else relied on the river. But presently the market gardeners found their plots ravaged by hungry sheep, and there were brawls, which led from feuds to tribal battles, and soon the spate of assault and homicide cases made the prince wish the office of Lord High Justice was not both vice-regal and hereditary.

In the third rainless year the river dropped, whereupon the date-farmers and papyrus croppers joined the water war. Blood-feuds made it unpleasant to ride about the countryside, where in any case there was nothing much to see: only dust, and withered plants, and little heaps of bones where animals had died in fields.

Worse was to come, for in the next two years the river shrank so far they had to dam the canal, lest the sea enter and turn all their water salt. So there was no more toll money to buy foreign corn, and water only along the river bank. With the stream so low, their beam-and-bucket swipes could not raise sufficient volume to run the big cross-country canals. The filthy brown stuff ran away through the cracked beds, and the exhausted workers despaired. And presently, people began to die.

The prince no longer rode abroad. He had sent his milk-grey mare to a royal friend upstream, where there was still grass, and a bucket of water did not equal a human life. Now he walked from the law courts to the funeral pyres, while the land and the people asked, “When will it end?” But the mourners cried, “Why should this thing come to us?”

The prince’s father had first remitted the taxes; then he gave interest-free loans until he had emptied the treasury; then he used the toll money to import corn; then he sent upriver to pledge the great emerald and diamond pendant of his throne canopy against an imperial loan. Then he sold the crown jewels; then the pearl-inlaid screens went, the silk carpets and ebony tables and the great hanging worked with bronze and green peacocks that had been the pride of his audience hall. The royal family ate off clay and wore cotton, and the priests stopped burning incense; but still the poor died and the sky stayed hard and empty as a dry blue slate.

The king grew silent. His eyes sank. He slept badly, said the gentlemen of the bedchamber, he ate nothing, complained the cooks. The bathman claimed to count the royal ribs. The court-jester was dismissed, to follow the poet and the story-tellers, the grooms and their horses, the falcons and their austringers. The king brooded, sitting for hours with his chin on his fist. And with the date palms dying and the crows fat as geese, in the seventh month of the seventh waterless year―the king took a fishing fit.

Every morning he would put on the coarse brown robe of a peasant, take his tall pole, and trudge off across the wasted fields to the river. There he would sit staring at his line, hour after hour, speechless, motionless. If he ever caught a fish, nobody knew what he did with it.

What with the famine, the walking, and the judicial wrangles, the prince had already become quite distracted, but now he began to fear for his wits. If they asked about the government, the king would only turn his black-ringed eyes on son or vizier, then heave up his pole, and tramp silently away.

Once the prince forgot himself. “Father!” he cried, hurrying behind through the marble gate. “What are we to do? Please wait! Please listen!” But the king answered never a word. On he went to the soft white powdery river verge, and there he stood, ankle-deep, baiting his hook.

Next day the vizier came running into court looking appalled and crying, “Your highness will please come quickly! At once!”

The prince was very ready to adjourn a murder case. Out they hurried into the yellow sticks and dry fountains of what had once been a lovelier rose garden than the emperor’s. “Well, Zopyras,” asked the prince, “what now?” They were old friends, having helped each other through many tight places among the shifts of a palace grown poor.

“Oh, oh, oh!” cried Zopyras, tearing his long white wavy beard, and, “Speak!” said the prince in a hurry, for Zopyras in the mood could go on for hours, “Oh-oh-oh,” like a public mourner, up and down the scale.

“Oh, oh, oh!” cried Zopyras. “The king! The king, highness! The king has turned fisherman!”

The prince began to feel irritable; he had expected something like a food riot. “My lord vizier,” he said, “we have seen the king fishing these last two weeks.”

“Oh, m’lord,” said Zopyras. And, suddenly, awfully, tears began to hop down the channels of his leathery old cheeks. “But today he is fishing in the canal.”

The prince and the vizier looked at one another, and presently the prince found a deep, horrible emptiness under his ribs; at length he decided it must be fear. He had always expected to rule the kingdom, to make decisions with everyone’s health and happiness depending on them. He had not thought to come to his inheritance in a dying land with a live king who was … there had not been a shoe’s depth of water in the canal for at least two years.

“Thank you, my lord vizier,” he said at last, very solemnly. “I shall go to the king.”

Looking relieved, Zopyras bowed and stood aside. The prince went down the dusty slope that had been a lawn, under the dusty arch between two wretchedly drooping sentinels, and out into his city’s narrow, white-washed, stifling streets.

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