Swamp Monster—Chapter One

“Last one to the garden cleans supper!” Kait yelled as she sped for the low stone wall separating her and the corn stalks rustling in the afternoon breeze. She was at least a hundred paces ahead of her brother and had a good deal of momentum, otherwise she would never dare to challenge him. He was Bian, “heir to the throne” and had been trained in all manner of strength and skill; his long legs and thin frame made him all the faster. She had never beaten him in any sport, nor did she truly expect that she ever would, but she enjoyed the fun of it and thus constantly pestered him with petty competitions. Today she had nothing to lose, besides—it was her turn for supper duty.

It had been a beautiful day in the valley. The entire morning was spent making preparations for the Harvest Festival and, after a fine lunch of stewed fish and rice, Kait had finished her music lessons early to spend the afternoon in the sunny field next to the temple complex. She normally entertained herself on days like this, but by a stroke of luck—or misfortune—her brother had canceled his afternoon training for the same reason.

Kait felt a thrill of triumph as she neared the wall with no sign of her brother, but it was short-lived. Without a sound, Bian raced by her in the last paces and was found sitting quite calmly on the wall as she flung herself into a sweaty, gasping heap on the grass below.

“Chea…cheater…” was all she could utter between breaths.

Bian’s voice jeeringly answered, “Maybe next time, Kait.”

Eventually she made it to her knees, still gasping for air and fighting a stitch in her side, when her brother stood, using her head as a support. The added pressure sent her back down to the ground where she lay unwilling to move as her brother walked nonchalantly back towards the complex. It looked like she would spend the afternoon by herself, after all.

Bian and Kait, formally “Kaitan,” belonged to the royal family of the Kingdom of Amon, a province-turned-nation on the coasts of Ha Mun’dai—the Southern Lands. The palace in which they lived and the adjacent City of Amon were located in a verdant valley, a stronghold surrounded by mountains and bordered by the ocean to the east—in legend, the place was called the Valley of the Gods. The beautiful river Lyrlyth ran out of the foothills above the ancient palace, watering the spans of paddies below. The entire valley rested on a terrace above the ocean, terminating in high cliffs along the north coast and tapering down to only twice the height of a man near the south. A narrow strip of beach lay where the terrace ridge was lowest, barely wide enough for two men abreast and often shifting with the current. It was this Valley of Amon that Kait called her world.

His Majesty King Jiam and the Honorable Queen Pen were good parents to Bian, Kait and Crisan, the youngest prince. All of the children were educated by the best professors, with Bian taking lessons at the hand of Master Mannon himself, the King’s most trusted advisor and wisest man in the land. They were also trained, as were all Amonites, in wielding the styl, a customary defense weapon that was tailored to each individual’s stature and disposition, and which was carried on one’s person at all times. The people of the Kingdom of Amon were known for their wearing of the styl, which when sheathed appeared as a mere walking stick, as a matter of fashion as much as function. The Kingdom of Amon had been peaceful for generations now; few had actually carried their styl into battle. Kait and Cris wore their styl in the traditional position, strapped to the hip by a belt or sash, but Bian, in his “princely” manner, wore his across his back, claiming that this was much more attractive to the “prospects.”

Kait thought her brother was anything but attractive. Too thin for his height, with dark hair that was always slicked back in perfect formation, he looked to her like an entertainer rather than a prince. Kait had inherited her mother’s looks, taller than most girls her age with shoulder-length locks of near-black hair that glowed in the sunlight. Cris took after his father, stout and sturdy, with an aptitude for climbing trees and an acute sense of entitlement. It was this quality that led to the uncommon circumstance of his absence from the siblings during Harvest preparations, as he had successfully convinced his parents to bring him on their annual business trip to Duneskeep on account of his tenth birthday. Mother had always stressed that Kait and Cris stick with each other, and they had been next-to-inseparable for as far back as Kait could remember.

The two oldest children had been left at home to “watch over the kingdom” as the King and Queen took Cris down south. They had taken no guard, as the King was wont, and had happily insisted that everything would be fine in their absence, promising to return in four days. Kait was anxious to show her mother the Festival preparations she had made—lanterns and bean cakes and candied fruits shaped like the moon. It was already the fourth day since they left, just a few hours before nightfall.

Kait often wondered how it was that her parents could get away with taking their trips unguarded, as all of the stories she had read kept the royal family safe within the gates of a fortified city, except for the most pressing occasions, during which the bulk of the armed forces were dispatched with them. Kait’s parents, on the other hand, would leave together on a whim and not return until several days later. It seemed very odd until she remembered that her parents were not the typical King and Queen, either—she had never heard of a princess with kitchen duty.

As per normal, Kait had been wandering while she thought, walking past the garden to the outbuildings of the palace complex. Each building had its own function—grain storage, records, stuff for caring for the animals—but she always ended up at the same one. A small building set apart from the others, the shop as her father called it, used solely for storing old things. Time-telling devices, rusty weapons, table settings, nautical gadgets, and books—oh, the shelves of books!—the shop seemed to offer something different each time she stepped in. Instinctively, she made her way to the wooden door set deep in a thick beam frame and let herself into the dusty silence.

Someone had been here. Trinkets were strewn across tables and shelves, furniture had been rearranged, and closet doors had been left open; someone was looking for something in a hurry, and didn’t have the courtesy to clean up, she thought as she combed a loose lock of hair back over her ear. Kait began picking her way through the rubbage and found that, although disorderly, the new “arrangement” gave her access to corners of the shop to which she had not been. She found it so fascinating that she forgot to close the door behind her, or even consider if the place was indeed empty before she started in.

Kait rummaged around aimlessly for a while, amused by the antiqueness of the things around her—old maps, a large chest full of odd-looking tools, even chairs had been stored in this corner of the building. One map in particular caught her attention, faded and brown with age, depicting the Valley of Amon. She gently placed the small folded paper in the pocket of her loose tunic, thinking that she could study the map on the following day after lessons.

A large contraption stuffed in the opposite corner seemed to call Kait’s name, with levers and gears and a wide clamping plate hanging above a soft work surface. Next to it stood a chest with a number of drawers laying horizontally, all very shallow with metal name plates affixed next to the handle. As she approached the machine, her hand reached out automatically to the lever above her head—it was smooth to the touch but not cold, and the mechanism still allowed it to swing with enough effort. As she pulled the lever to its lowest extent, now using both hands, the top plate pressed down into the soft surface of the table, momentarily leaving hundreds of little impressions as Kait lifted the lever away. She tried this cycle again and noticed that the indentations looked like letters and words. The princess swung her head under the plate and looked up—in the dim light from the window, she could make out hundreds of little letters all neatly set in rows, laid out in columns with headings and rules. She could not read the words on account of the receding light—it must have been nearly supper time—but she could tell that the letters were backwards. Then it occurred to her what this contraption actually was. It was for printing!

She looked around the base of the machine and sure enough found pots of dye attached to the frame, with thick, cloth-wrapped sticks soaked in each color. Under one of the dye-sticks was a little leather pouch, light-weight and round in shape. Kait plucked it up and extracted a plain little compass from the leather. Cris might like this, Kait thought as she pocketed her find.

Around the back of the base was a container of parchment, cut to just the right size of the printing plate. Kait’s eyes gleamed as she set to work. As she was no master printer, or even a novice at that, the process of positioning the parchment and applying the dye to the plate ended up with more color on her hands and arms than would eventually be laid on the print, but in the end she was ready to press. In the waning daylight she took a deep breath and reached for the lever. As she took hold of the handle, she heard a rustling behind her.

A hand shot out of the shadows and fastened on her wrist. She let out a scream and turned to plant a kick in her assailant’s midrange. Her foot was deflected by a strong chop with his other arm, but by then she had stopped struggling. She had seen her captor’s face: it was Bian.

“You filthy pyth­­-eater!” she yelled as she yanked her hand away.

“Oh my, does mother know you use that kind of language?” the crown prince asked, patronizing.

Shut it,” Kait spat, “you almost killed me.”

Bian replied in sing-song. “That’s what you get for staying out past supper time.”

”Mom and dad aren’t here so what does it matter?” Kait retorted. She paused for a moment, hearing her own question echo in her mind. Sometimes the king arrived late from his journeys, Kait thought, but never mother. She looked out the window to see evening gradually settling over the quiet palace yard—where were they?

“What’s this thing?” Bian said, taking Kait’s silence as defeat and trying to step over her to the printing machine.

“Wait, I found it! Let me!” Kait jumped in front of her brother and grasped the lever with both hands, swinging with all her might. The printing plate pressed down into the parchment, making the corners crinkle and rise off the substrate. The pair waited a moment, then Kait let the lever swing back into position.

As the plate retreated, brother and sister stood in silence as they scanned the print. It was a newsletter titled AMONITE NEWS featuring articles on current affairs, recipes and people who had passed away. The headline story was about a peasant couple whom had been appointed to become the next King and Queen.

“Nonsense,” Kait heard Bian utter under his breath as he finished the article. She had already finished, though she didn’t feel like gloating at the moment, and she had started on the supplemental section about how the kingdom had been ruled by the blood line for 18 generations, but there was no son to inherit the throne.

“When do you think this was printed?” she thought out loud as she scanned the heading for a date. “It must have been ages ago.”

The heading, apart from the title, was all in Old Tongue, which Kait hadn’t learned in lessons but she had picked up enough to make out numbers. Her eyes found it just as Bian read shakily:

Published Harvest Festival, day 15 month 8 year 480.

Blank stares met as the brother and sister glanced at each other. At some point, someone spoke what they both were thinking.

“That’s only twenty years ago.”

Bian was the first to shake out of it. “It’s written in Old Tongue, maybe it’s referring to a different era.”

“Yeah, we’ve got to be reading it wrong.” Kait echoed.

An awkward silence ensued while they both decided if they believed their own rationale, followed by a rumble from Bian’s stomach.

“Let’s go, Kait. Ma has dinner ready. She’ll be worried.” He took his sister by the wrist—gently this time—and carefully led her back through the shop as the last light of day crept behind the horizon.

• • •

Warm light and kitchen sounds spilled from the family dining quarters as Bian and Kait rounded the last outbuilding. Even at this distance, they could hear Ma Ha’s voice complaining about their tardiness. The most beloved cook and caretaker to the royal family, she had earned the title “Ma” as the children’s second mother, and she was never afraid to discipline them as such. Despite the prospect of lecture and additional chores, the brother and sister hastened across the field to the welcoming light of the kitchen, walking in silence through the encircling night.

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