Chapter 1 - Nick

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Deeply emerged in the world of Jari Fariq, Nick sunk lower on the pillowed bench and turned to page three hundred and twenty-five. The carriage rattled as it continued along the steep mountain path they had been on for hours; all he had eyes for was the Scorian Lord who had dared to question Queen Rhanis' claim to the throne and was now pages away from his fictional death.

The last three days Nick had spent most of his time in the eight-by-eight coach, either eating, sleeping or slowly working his way through the books that Princess Lana had picked out for him. So far, they had been the best days in moons.

General George stretched his legs, the tip of his shining black boot accidentally bumping into Nick's. The two exchanged a brief look, which was all apology Nick needed. 

All in all, he had come to appreciate the General. When the man wasn't staring at the passing landscape of forests, meadows, and the occasional stream meandering through, he was filling white papers with his neat, cursive handwriting, which—given the often rocky roads—was quite the accomplishment. 

And he didn't talk unless Nick started a conversation, which hadn't happened too often either. Why talk if reading was an option?

Nick turned back to his book, to Queen Rhanis smacking the defiant nobleman. She was holding a lengthy speech of how Jari Fariq could not serve Scoria any longer if he didn't acknowledge her power. The man still refused. Then as she snapped her fingers, ordering the muscular hangman to raise his golden scimitar and end the Jari's life, the carriage braked abruptly and Nick was flung into the air, book and all.

Accompanied by the sound of the horses braying like donkeys in mating season, he banged his head against the leather roof. As the carriage twisted and turned harshly, he and his books were flying to all sides and mingling with papers, bags, and weapons. He fell on the General's back and was thrown back to his side where he landed feet first on the velvet bench.

With a sharp jerk, they came to a quick and sudden standstill. 

A sword was smacked into his face. He was lying on the General's left leg, his butt pressed against the bench. He dropped the book from between his fingers as a coughing fit hit him—half choking on own spit and half the wretched cold he had been suffering from since the second day of the army camp.

The General removed the books that had fallen onto his stomach and got up, unintentionally kicking Nick. He stuck his head through the half-open door. "Jarvey! What was that for?"

"I'm afraid we lost a wheel, General," said the coachman, his voice shaky and unsettled. "One of the front wheels to be precise."

"Which sounds worse than it is. From what I can see, it's still in one piece." Michael shouted as he and his horse trotted alongside. "But, General, you might want to step out for a moment."

"Fine." The General shot Nick a pointed look, beckoning him to get out.

Nick obeyed by scratching his throat and snatching his book with him. As he stumbled out of the carriage, the damage became visible. The back wheels were inches from the ground, still spinning around, and the whole front seemed to have sunk into the muddy ground. Further down—in the shadow of a knotted cedar—Lieutenant Michael got off his horse and bent over the loose wheel.

Lieutenant Wallace, on the other hand, sat high on his pitch-black horse and gazed into the vast pinewood forest on the hill, his hand resting on his sword. In stories, this would be the moment that bandits came running out of the forest to rob the money in their pockets and the clothes off their bodies.

"Don't just stand there like a muttonhead," the General barked. "All there is to fear is travelling the mountain roads when it's dark and we don't see where we are going. Go and help Michael."

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