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Chapter 14: Confrontations

The two nobles who’d accosted me look at each other, and then start laughing. “Way to burst your cover, dude.” The young man, probably ‘Master Malin’ himself says, grinning. 

“Are you one of Yaluda’s?” The lady asks, suddenly friendly. I glance between them, bemused at their strange reactions, and then suddenly remember how Blix had called them allies of Yaluda. 

“No need to answer that.” Master Malin says, patting my shoulder. “Only one of his and Blix’s would dare use my name but not know my face.”

“I don’t know his face from the guard though.” The lady peers at me. “Were you recruited specifically for undercover missions?”

“How did you know–?” I begin, and she misunderstands.

“Even though Prince Yaluda doesn’t really talk to us anymore, we still try to keep an eye out for him. That includes watching who comes and goes in his guard. We’ve been friends for forty years after all.”

“Although the last nine of them he hasn’t been very interactive.” Master Malin says, clearly sour about it. “At least he still trusts us enough to use our name for his spies though.” He adds, suddenly brightening up

I glance back and forth between the two as they continue chattering. “You’ve got it wrong.” I break in, “It was Sir Smedigan who told me to use that excuse, not Yaluda.”

“Sir Smedigan?” Master Malin says, and then bursts out laughing. “SIR Smedigan? My goodness, if he knew you were calling him that–! Lutti did you hear the man? Sir Smedigan!” Master Malin struggles to get his guffaws under control. The lady, Lutti, pats his back, struggling to control her own giggles. 

At my confused face, she explains. “He hates his given name, don’t ever let him hear you calling him that. The fact that you paired it with his title? Even worse.”

“Oh.” I say, slightly disappointed. I had thought him telling me to call him by the Prince’s nickname for him meant we were closer. Did I misunderstand? 

“So,” The lady says as soon as Master Malin has regained his composure. “Where were you off to in such a hurry?”

“Well, I wanted to get away from the chapel. There wasn’t any real need to run, since I’m disguised like this, but I wanted to get back to Yaluda’s study as soon as possible.”

“Well…” Master Malin winces as he glances up and down my outfit. “There could be a small problem with that. Manservants that work for the royal family have a different uniform from those that work in the general palace. You’d stick out like a sore thumb. Sir Smedigan as you call him–” He chuckles lightly again, interrupting himself, and the lady elbows him to get him back on point. “–probably never even noticed. He’s good at the hands on parts of disguising a person, but not great at details like that.”

“Oh.” My face pales slightly. “How am I meant to get back inside the tower then?” The two glance at each other and nod. 

“We could help you.” The lady offers. “We have access to the same disguise kits as Blix, as long as he hasn’t moved them.”

“Or,” Master Malin adds on “We could bring you to where Yaluda is right now. He, the King, and the Generals should be finishing up a strategy meeting right now in the War Room.” 

“True.” the lady concedes, turning to look at him. “Yaluda didn’t tell us about this, so he may not appreciate our help.”

“That’s why I suggested delivering him. It might be received better than just hijacking his mission, whatever it is.” The man concurs.

“It certainly gives us less time that we could have spent questioning him.”

“You think Yaluda would think we’d go so far as to question his subordinates just because he cut us out of his shenanigans?”

“Who knows? These past nine years he’s been… Different”

“Are you two married?” I break in, seeing a pause in their conversation. The way they banter, and almost accidentally cut me out, feels like what my parents used to do. 

“Oh, no! No!” The man claims “We are not married. My goodness, we completely forgot to introduce ourselves. This is Lady Lutti Tong, professional spinsteress and charmer at the same time. I’m Master Malin, as you may have guessed, but nobody calls me that. My enemies call me Benkint or that Bastard, and my friends call me Beni.”

“We didn’t mean to exclude you from the conversation. Sorry if it felt that way.” Lutti says, smiling at me. “We just need to know, would you rather get re-disguised by us, or meet up with Yaluda?”

“Meet up with Yaluda.” I say firmly. These people are nice, but I need to tell him about the moles in the PPG as soon as possible. 

“Then it will be our pleasure to escort you.” Beni says. He smiles at me, and so does Lutti. I smile back. 

They lead me into the antechamber to the Great Hall, but instead of heading forwards into the Hall itself, Luti presses one of the tiles to our right that make up the wall, and the wall itself seems to ripple before a small section slides inwards and allows us to enter. The scribes nearby pay us no attention as if this is an everyday occurrence, but I’m shocked. How many secret places are there in this castle that I’ve never seen?

I turn and stare as the wall slides shut behind us, a soft rumble the only acknowledgement that it’s moving at all. 

“How?” I ask, turning to look at Beni and Lutti after it’s done.

“Levers mostly.” Beni says, understanding the rest of my question. “Try not to look so shocked in the future, all the real servants know about these pathways. Your expression is a dead giveaway that you don’t belong in here.”

“Possibly literally.” Lutti adds on, snorting and moving forward in the dimly lit passage. 

“Don’t be rude Lutti!” Beni admonishes, following her. “Although,” He continues, more seriously. “What she says has some truth to it. If you’re going to be a spy here, you have to get good, and fast. Learn to control your expression or you very well could end up dead.”

“I’ll… keep that in mind.” I say hesitantly as I walk next to them. Do they really not know who I am? Do they just think I’m some random bloke Yaluda has working for him?

“When was the last time you actually talked with Yaluda? Didn’t you say nine years ago?” I ask, trying to figure out how much they do know.

“Yep.” Beni sighs, “Nine long years of silence. He went quiet right after that attempt on his life.”

“His and his sisters.” Lutti cut in. “We think he might blame us for her death. But we have no idea why. We’d been working together for so long, if we were going to rat him out we would have done it when he first got rid of the stupid doccuments. He has to know that.” Her shoulders slump disheartenedly. 

“They were close.” Beni says, picking up the story where she left off. “After her death he became… a lot more moody and suspicious. The only person he still seems to trust is Blix.” 

Moody? Suspicious? Those adjectives don’t sound like the Yaluda I know at all. I glance down at the floor in front of us, raising my eyebrows. The Yaluda I know is sincere, charming, and clever. I remember the expression he made when he laughed and feel my face heat up. I’m glad it’s dark in here. 

“I wish he would still talk to us.” Lutti says, more than a little nostalgic. “He had the best schemes. Everything was so exciting when we were a team. Now it’s just me and Beni, trying to figure out how we can help when nobody important will communicate what exactly we’re supposed to be helping.”

“What do you mean?” I ask. “What have you been doing?”

“Mainly just trying to keep the King’s ire and suspicions away from Yaluda. We manipulate the gossip among the nobles to keep everyone’s attention elsewhere and attempt to alert Blix if we catch wind of anything serious, but he’s as mum as Yaluda’s been.”

“Well… he’s always been the Prince’s hound.” Beni smirks. “And I don’t think he really likes us that much. We’re too chaotic for him.”

Lutti grins. “True that.”

I try to take back control of the topic again before they go on another tangent. “So what have you overheard exactly? Anything recently on the Joar, Letland or Yamat families?”

“Oh, is that who Smedigan asked you to keep track of?” Beni asks, I nod, but he isn’t even looking at me anymore as we turn left. “Hmm… Nothing much that I can think of in particular. At least nothing useful, unless he wants to know about ballroom gossip.”

“Well, there was that one time–” Lutti begins,

“Oh yes then!” Beni cuts in, an excited gleam in his eyes. “We’ve spotted Muttak Letland, a well known cousin of Maddox, the house leader of Letland, meeting privately with High Priest Frokard five times in the past month!”

“He’s also related to the Yamat’s through marriage,” Lutti adds on. “His wife is one of Valdkin Yamat’s– the head of House Yamat– nieces.”

“Oh yeah, I’d completely forgotten about that.” Beni says, and grins. “Nice catch Lutti. What about you–?” He pauses, waiting for a name.

I hesitate. They don’t seem to have realized that I’m an escaped prisoner yet. If I give them my real name, it’s almost certain they’ll make the connection, since they’ve obviously been paying close attention to the castle going-ons. If Yaluda doesn’t trust them, I don’t want them to know that he broke Faladel, Briareth, and I out. 

“Ahhh… don’t quite trust us that much, eh?” Beni says, still grinning, but his eyes look completely let down. 

“Don’t pressure him.” Lutti admonishes him, whacking him gently with her fan. “Put away those betrayed puppy eyes of yours, he could have a family that he needs to provide for. Giving old gossip-mongers like us that info could put them in danger.”

“‘Remember to see things from other perspectives’ Lutti I know, I know.” Beni replies, rubbing the back of his head. “It’s so much easier just to manipulate them without empathizing though.”

“That’s why you’re still single.” Lutti claims, taking a sharp right. I follow her, glancing back at Beni as he mutters something I can’t quite catch under his breath.

I stumble into Lutti’s back as she suddenly halts. I nearly fall over, catching myself on the edge of an oil lantern. When I let go, it swings gently, casting strange shadows on the stone walls. 

“We’re here.” Lutti announces. Glancing ahead over her shoulder, I realize the tunnel ends in a door with a tiny glimmer of light shining through. 

“This is where we’ll leave you then.” Beni adds on. “Right across from this peephole is where Yaluda, his father, and the various ministers exit. They’ll leave in order of prominence, with the King first and Yaluda last.”

“Wait a second,” I break in. “If it’s order of prominence–”

“Shouldn’t Yaluda come second?” Beni interrupts. “Technically, yes, but he hasn’t for years. The king put that change in place way before he tried to assassinate Yaluda–”

“Probably intended to be a punishment and a deterrent.” Lutti cuts in. 

“Yes, thank you Lutti.” Beni steals back control of the conversation “But since the relationship between the two has never gotten any better, what was intended as a temporary punishment has become semi-permanent.” 

“Basically, all you have to do is wait for all the ministers to leave and Yaluda to come out, and then leave the servant’s passage and make contact with him.” Lutti explains. “They should be done in what, five minutes?” She asks Beni.

“More like ten.” Beni says, and then adds. “We can’t pretend to know everything that goes on in that princes’ head. He’s changed a lot since his sister died, become more closed off, doesn’t chat freely with us anymore. But let him know when you see him, we’re always on his side.”

“Will do.” I reply. Although Yaluda doesn’t trust them, they seem quite friendly. I want him to trust them, so that next time we meet, I’ll be able to tell them my name without hesitating. 

Lutti and Beni wave goodbye and disappear back down the way we came. Left with nothing else to do, I sit on my basket of laundry and wait. Seconds stretch into minutes, the only movement is the flickering of the nearby lamp, the shadows bouncing softly. Every so often I get up and peek out the peephole in the door. Finally, I hear the creak of a door and chattering voices. I jump to my feet, my sluggish boredom replaced with adrenaline. They are finally out of the meeting. I watch through the tiny hole in the door as first the King, and then his favored advisors and lords pass by. Seemingly endless parades of dwarves in fine, brightly colored fabrics parade past before I hear a door creak, and then shut with an almost imperceptible click. And then Yaluda appears, looking more tired than I’ve ever seen him. 

His eyes are dull as he trails behind the King’s procession, his expression hinting that his mind is far away, and unsatisfied with something. Did he not like the outcome of the council meeting? Something inside me itches to burst out of my hiding place right then, to go and comfort him and talk about whatever is bugging him. I suppress it, waiting till he’s past my door to slip out and follow him, abandoning the basket of laundry. 

I’m not the least bit stealthy, but I’m not trying to be. Why should a servant have to be stealthy after all? Instead I try to look purposeful as I sidle up next to Yaluda and tap him lightly on the shoulder. 

Obviously startled at being disturbed from his musings, he straightens a little and turns to look at me. His golden eyes widen, and his lips form a perfect O as he immediately recognizes me. 

“Bal–!” He starts, and then hesitates, glancing in front of us at the tail end of the procession of ministers. They’re already quite a few paces ahead and talking loudly, but it is clear Yaluda doesn’t want to take any chances. 

“What do you think you’re doing here?!” He hisses. “You’ll be killed if you’re caught!”

“I kinda need your help.” I reply quietly. “Smedigan–, erm. Blix, snuck me out, but we both forgot tower servants have a different uniform than normal footmen. Basically, I need your help getting back to your study.”

Yaluda glances between me and the group in front of us. The nobles have all nearly rounded the corner ahead, either not realizing or just not caring that their Prince got held up by a suspiciously familiar looking servant. The prince in question flicks his attention back to me, and grabs my hand, quickly pulling me in the opposite direction. 

His hands are distractingly soft, a sharp contrast to my rough ones. I suddenly realize again what different worlds we’re from. He’s probably never had to hoe a field in his life, much less push a plow. Likely the most strenuous thing he’s ever experienced has been sword drills, enough to train him but not enough to cause any callouses.

Yaluda shatters my musings by yanking me back into the room they were using for meetings just a few minutes ago. I have only half a second to take in my surroundings before he shoves me into a padded armchair and plops down in the one next to me. 

“Blix put you up to this? I swear I’m going to kill that idiot someday!” he exclaims combing a hand through his loose long hair. 

“Don’t blame him!” I quickly break in. “I was the one who suggested it, he was quite difficult to convince and only helped by procuring the uniform.” I fidget my hands self-consciously, even to me they feel rough. “Everything turned out fine, nobody noticed me and I got some interesting information out of spying like this. There was a man– probably a noble of horse joar –who confirmed your guard has a spy in it!”

Yaluda frowns, “The confirmation is good, but it’s not like we didn’t suspect that much before. What’s more important, are you completely sure no one noticed you?”

I can’t quite meet his eyes. “I wasn’t noticed really, not by anyone who’d wish me harm –so now all that’s left is to get me back to the tower so I can tell the group all the other things I overheard.” I finish, placatingly.

Yaluda’s frown doesn’t abate. “What do you mean ‘not by anybody who’d wish me harm’? Who exactly found you out?”

“Well, Blix said…” I explain how I ran into Beni and Lutti, and how they helped me out. “They seem like a rather nice pair, why did you cut them off so suddenly?”

Yaluda sighs, “It’s complicated.” He begins, looking uncomfortable.”

“If you don’t want to explain–” I begin, but he cuts me off.

“No, I should at least give you some sort of explanation. You deserve that much. After the failed attempt on my life, I was more than a little shocked. I no longer felt safe with anyone because I knew that, for them to get so close to me– into my very chambers! –without any of my spies hearing whispers in advance that something was going to happen, it meant someone had betrayed me. 

“For over a week I cut off contact with everyone. I just stayed in my room and considered and reconsidered every action that I, that my friends, had taken over the last month. I only went out when it was strictly necessary. I was so reclusive that for the first couple of days, rumors went around that the assassination attempt had suceeded.” Yaluda’s face is twisted with some dark emotion I can’t quite name as he recollects that time. I can easily imagine him sitting quietly in his darkened study spending hours just staring into nothing, a cold, flat expression on his face as he tries to figure out what went wrong. 

“That must have been a very difficult time for you.” I say gently. Yaluda blinks, as if suddenly remembering I’m there again. 

“It was.” He admits. “Blix was the one who broke me out of it. He got me going again. After that, I cut down the number of people I trust significantly. Tell me, did Benkint and Lutti ever explain their reasoning for helping me to you?”

I think back to my conversation with them. “Not really.”

“Their motivator was excitement. Yes we were friends, and they believed in the same ideals I did, but when I first brought them in on my plans–” Yaluda lips flatten as he presses them together tightly, he looks like he just bit into something sour, and I realize this probably isn’t a pleasant memory for him. “Their reactions were,” He continues “instead of shock or worry, delight. Beni said, and I quote ‘ That’s so cool. It’s just like a story.’” Although it’s clear Beni had probably said the words excitedly, Yaluda says them flatly. No emotion, his face carefully expressionless. “When a person’s main reason for helping me is excitement, being on ‘the moral high ground’ is just a bonus. Who’s to say a better bonus won’t tempt them away? Or, when excitement turns to fear, if their families are under threat, when they could lose everything if they continue to take my side? I can’t risk widening my circle with people who aren’t as deeply invested as me. Excitement can be gotten in a rebellion, but it can just as easily be found as a double agent for my enemies.” 

“You really think they’d switch sides like that?” I ask doubtfully. 

“If they’re families’ are at risk? Who knows?” Yaluda chuckles sourly.

“Wouldn’t you? Weren’t you guys close friends?” I press.

“Friends, yes. Close, not really.” Yaluda replies “It’s hard to find people you can safely rely on here. Most of my better friends I’ve found have been from lower social standing and when I wasn’t looking for friends.” 

“Well, there’s a lot more of us to choose from.” I joke. Yaluda takes me seriously though.

“Yes, the variety definitely helps. It’s easier to find good people when there’s more to choose from.”

We’re silent for a few seconds, staring around the large oval table surrounded by chairs and a throne at the head. Behind the throne are two massive pillars with long banners hanging from the ceiling all the way to the floor. In between the pillars is a window of colored glass drawing out the symbol of the royal family, the crown over the crossed spears, in a brilliant gold.

“Did you know,” Yaluda begins, staring at the window with me. “Blix was actually from the lower classes?”

“”No.” I answer, surprised. “I didn’t, how did he end up becoming your bodyguard?”

“It’s a rather funny story actually. It almost sounds like something out of the legends. He started as a stable boy who enjoyed watching the young nobles and squires spar, but he’d never carried anything more dangerous than a hot poker. Sometimes, if he was truly lucky, he’d be able to prepare the prince and princesses’ horses for an outing. Of course, he ever actually saw them in person, preparing their horses was the most exciting his life got.” Yaluda pauses.

“Until…” I prompt him, amused that he’s telling the story in third person.

“Until,” Yaluda continues, smiling briefly at me. “He met a strangely dressed servant boy who was determined to go to the city. He wouldn’t say why, or who– if anyone –was sending him. He just wanted to go, and for some reason he thought Blix would let him take a pony with him.”

I chuckled, seeing where this was going. “Of course.” Yaluda adds “Blix, being a good stable lad, refused. Next, the strangely clothed kid tried to bribe him, offering gold that was clearly too much for a simple servant boy to have. Blix refused again, and this time attempted to call out to a nearby guardsman so he could catch what was clearly a thief.

“The boy, completely freaked out by the idea of the guards coming to get him, jumped Blix, trying to fight him and knock him out. The two tussled, rolling around in the hay and spooking horses left and right while trading punches. In the end though, Blix was clearly the winner. The strangely clad boy had a broken nose, one of his eyes was swollen shut, and he was black and blue pretty much everywhere. Straddling him to make sure he didn’t escape, Blix called out for the guard.

“Triumphantly he presented his catch to the man who came running, and he was completely astonished when the guard clapped handcuffs on him instead. The next thing he knew, he was in jail awaiting his execution. Nobody even bothered to tell him why. However the reason behind it became rather obvious, when, a few days later, he was led into the execution pit in the castle grounds and he looked up at the royal box and saw the prince’s bandaged face. One of his eyes was still swollen shut, and he had a cold compress on his nose. At that point, Blix lost all hope of surviving. No one ever survived after assaulting a member of the royal family. Right before his head went on the chopping block, a clear commanding voice spoke out. 

“‘Wait.’ it said. ‘Father, I would like to spend my yearly pardon on this boy.’

‘What?’ a second, deeper voice responded incredulously ‘What nonsense is this? He attacked you, a member of the royal family. The punishment for that should be death.’” I chuckle as Yaluda mimics the King’s pompous voice. His face miming the emotions of the characters. He hesitates, and shoots another grin at me, breaking character for a moment before diving back into his story weaving.

“‘I agree with you, Father, however, he never realized he was attacking nobility, much less royalty. After all, I was in the guise of a servant. In the worst scenario, he probably thought I was at his own station of life. In the best scenario, he thought I was a thief or even an assassin making my escape and was trying to do his duty.’ The prince protested. 

‘Regardless of intent, he injured a member of the royal family, he cannot go unpunished.’ The King countered. At that moment Blix looked up and his desperate eyes met the uninjured eye of the prince who smiled at him. 

‘Of course.’ the prince agreed, ‘however, I suggest a severely reduced sentence. Have him become a semi-permanent squire to the worst knight you have– Sir Wogen. You know, the one whose squires keep leaving out of exhaustion and who has never yet declared any of his students ready for knighthood.’

‘What!’ the King exclaimed. ‘You know knighthood is the path to becoming a General in the army. Only nobles can become squires! You want a stable lad to achieve this honor!’

‘You think any noble would find slaving away under Sir Wogen’s training, always at his beck and call, an honor? If this young man can handle that for years on end, if he can actually manage to complete Sir Wogens’ training regime, he is more than deserving of knighthood!’ the Prince argued. The King however, remained unmoved.

‘Knighthood is for nobles, not stable boys.’ he claimed.

‘Not even for honest, hardworking, and just plain talented ones?’ The Prince asked. ‘Father, you know how long I’ve been in personal training. I’ve learned plenty of fancy unarmed combat tricks, yet he managed to beat me with no weapons, no practice, just talent. Nor did he budge on giving me the horse when I offered him more money than he earns in three years.’

‘You tried to bribe him?!’ The King exclaimed. Blix couldn’t tell if he was shocked, furious, or both. But the prince only shrugged. 

“Doesn’t really matter.’ he claimed ‘what matters is, he rejected me instantly, and tried to call the guard. That’s when I jumped him. Really,’ he added on thoughtfully ‘It should be said that I assaulted him, since I started it. I thought he’d be easy to overpower and I could get out for my excursion with no further delay.’”

I chuckle again, Yaluda is a great storyteller. “You admitted it just like that?” I ask, grinning.

“Well, it wasn’t like I was going to get in trouble.” Yaluda says grinning “everyone except Blix knew that I snuck out a lot in my own.” he does the little finger quotes again “‘disguises’ I’m pretty sure the watchmen were specifically instructed to ignore me. Of course as a child I had no idea of that.”

“How old were you?” I ask.

“Well…” Yaluda pauses for a second. “Yeah, I think Blix and I were seven or eight. Blix might have been eight. He’s slightly older than I am.”

“Just seven years old and already a little rebel.”

“Pretty much.” Yaluda agrees. “But onto the end of the story. The King finally agreed to assign Blix to Sir Wogen after Prince Yaluda blatantly referenced the corruption running rampant through our generals at the time. Needless to say, he wasn’t happy at all, but Blix was alive and after that incident we quickly became friends. We would spar together in training, although he would always beat me and my– my sister.”

“Your sister trained in sword fighting?” I ask, more than a little surprised.

“”Well she always wanted some excuse to hand out with the big kids.” Yaluda answers blandly.

“Were you close?” I ask, and then hesitate. “Nevermind, you don’t have to answer that one. It’s a little personal.”

“No! I–” Yaluda pauses, collecting his thoughts. “I don’t mind sharing stories of her. I want to tell them. Nobody ever talks about her anymore, and it feels like they’ve forgotten her completely. Sometimes,” he adds on softly, “I wonder if they would forget me that easily too if my dad had succeeded. If no one would talk about me. I know I’d hate that. So I want to remember her, tells tories of her whenever I can to show how she existed.” He chuckles ironically. “It’s like the opposite of a sore spot for me, so,” he looks at me, his golden eyes almost vulnerable as we stare at each other. “Feel free to ask any questions you want.”

We just stare at each other for a while, I glance away first, and clear my throat before asking, “So, what was your sister like?” I don’t know if that was the right question, if this was the right action. What the Prince just shared with me felt so personal, so… desperate. I don’t know how to respond. My fingers twitch nervously and I fold my hands together as Yaluda replies. 

“Istere was–” he chuckles sadly “–so alive is the best way to describe her I suppose. She put her soul into everything she did. She had passion, ambition, a drive to reach for the best future possible. She had rigorous morals and a dream she wanted to fulfill above all else. At times, she was hard to read. But I always knew her actions were taken to get closer to her goals.” He blinks hurriedly, staring down at his hands. I lean over to look at his face, trying to gauge his expression. To my surprise, I see a single tear sliding down his face. He quickly smears it away.

“It’s not your fault.” I cut in hurriedly. He looks a little shocked. I’m not sure what to make of that expression, so I blunder on. “There was no way you could have known your father would drag her into this and have her be killed.”

Yaluda laughs, and it’s not even his ironic laugh, it’s his genuinely amused laugh. I stare at him, even more befuddled. Was something I said funny? Was it not guilt over his sister’s death that had sparked his tears?

Instead of explaining his odd behavior though, Yaluda simply says “We should get going, I can tell you more about Istere on the way.”

He gets up from the big table and pushes his chair in. I follow suit. He holds the door open for me while I finish, and we walk out together. He leads us down the hallway in the opposite direction that the king and his ministers went when they originally left the room, before ducking into another servant’s passage.

“Seriously,” I mutter, “does everybody know about these things?”

Yaluda overhears me. “No, none of the temporary guards know then, and only the servants know all of them. I just know a couple of the important ones because my sister and I would use them to dodge patrols when we were getting into trouble.”

“Which, I get the feeling you did often.” I say jokingly.

“You just might be right.” Yaluda shoots a grin back at me, his teeth flashing in the muted light of the servants tunnel. “Ah! Here we are,” he announces a couple of seconds later. “Disguise room!” He snags a lamp off the wall, and, shadows spinning wildly, opens a door on the left side of the passage. Grabbing a long skinny stick from a batch by the door, he deftly opens the lamp, and spreads its fire to a number of sconces along the wall. As he goes out to return the lamp, I study the room. It’s small and squarish, as if a 2-year-old tried to copy a square, but couldn’t get the lines quite straight. A think rug covers the cold stone floor, and six chests– two on either side, one right next to the door, and one across from it– line the walls. Other than dogs, and a small curtained changing section, the room is completely barren.

Yaluda comes back in, quickly shutting the door behind him and throwing open one if the chest lids. Out pops the hem of a frilly dress, hitting him square in the face. “Ugh!” he mutters through her mouth full of silk, “I forgot how stuffed these are.”

Tossing aside the plume helm of a newly promoted knight and one belled shoe of a performer of some kind, she pulls out a green tunic, and after rummaging a bit more, a gold star pin and a white undershirt.

“You can keep your belt, shoes, and pants, but the rest needs to be replaced.” He elaborates, handing the items off to me. “Go behind the curtain and get changed, I hope I got your size right.”

“It looks fine to me.” I confirm, and go to try the stuff on. 

I briefly wonder why Yaluda requested I get changed behind the curtain, before I try to imagine Yaluda getting changed in front of me, and quickly realize this is definitely for the better. 

Behind the curtain, which is semi-translucent to let light through, a mirror is hung. Glancing into itI finish straightening myself out, and, once my face has cooled down a bit, head on out to get the Prince’s approval. 

His lips curve into a smile as his gaze slides up and down my new outfit. I feel my skin heat again under his close inspection. 

“Very fine.” He says, and then immediately flushes his eyes widening. “That came out wrong! The clothes– I meant– they fit you well, not–!” He stutters.

Amused at his uncharacteristic blunder, I take pity on him and break in. “I know what you meant.”

Still blushing slightly Yaluda says, “We should get going.” And hurries out the door, not even bothering to put my old costume in a box. After dousing the sconces, I follow him. 

Yaluda keeps up a brisk trot through numerous servant passages and often crossing normal halls as well. I quickly lose track of where we are, and just trust him to know which pathway is best. We eventually exit the building through a side door, and then, after quickly glancing right and left, Yaluda gestures that we should continue onwards. “Wait.” I pull him back, “We don’t need to rush, hurrying around like this makes us look rather suspicious, don’t you think? Why don’t we just walk normally?”

“I suppose you’re right.” Yaluda concedes, “I just didn’t want to linger in the palace passages any longer than we had to. Most of the nobles are out in the afternoon, so the servants use that time to clean their rooms. I didn’t want to run into any of them in the passages.” From a ways behind us, there is a brief clatter, as if someone just dropped something on the floor. Glancing back, Yaluda adds on, “Besides, I thought you wanted to get back, your friends are probably worried about you.”

I think back to how I snuck out in the middle of Faladel and Briareth’s discussion, not ever mentioning where I was going. “Yeah,” I agree guiltily, “They’re probably pretty freaked out by now.”

“Especially that prince of yours– Faladel wasn’t it? He’s quite uptight from what I’ve seen, so I’d bet he’s a worrier as well.” Yaluda muses, stepping out of the doorway and onto the cobblestone path. He suddenly glances back at me, as if only now registering what I’d said. “You did tell him and Briareth what you were up to, right?”

I flinch guiltily, and then shrug at his exasperated expression that clearly asks what in the world I was thinking, leaving without telling my companions. But instead of giving him a proper answer, I direct our conversation back to a safe topic that I actually have a good response for. 

“First of all, Faladel’s not my anything,” I say, and then reconsider, “Well, except for perhaps my friend. Maybe. And he has his reasons for wanting to stick to his rules.”

Realizing that I planned to leave it at that, Yaluda presses o, curious. 

“Oh? What reasons?”

I hesitate, considering my next words carefully as we round a bend. “I don’t actually know them, but he certainly seems like the type to have them, even if he doesn’t talk about them.”

“True that.” Yaluda laughs quietly to himself. “Although I sincerely hope he’ll be able to bend his rules a little this time. We need my father out of the picture if anything is ever going to change around here.” He stops at the tower door and opens it for me. I smile at him.

“Agreed.” I reply, walking in. The door closes behind us with a click. 

We start up the stairs, Yaldua cautioning me that we should discuss more mundane matters now that we’re back in an area where as he puts it “the walls have ears, and the paintings eyes.” I remember the peephole I peered out of and decided he definitely has a point. After climbing a few sets of stairs in silence, I find a topic that’s interesting enough, but also wouldn’t raise any alarms from interested ears. 

“So you were close with your sister, but what about with your mom? She died when you were young, right?” 

“Yes, she died when I was eight.” Yaluda’s hand tightens around the guardrail on the stairs for a second, but then he releases it and continues climbing up the cylindrical staircase. “I guess we were close when I was really little, it’s hard to imagine a mother and son not being close at the start. But once I began to gain my own ideas and opinions, it was clear they differed vastly from hers. And she disapproved. Harshly. As I grew older, she became more deeply involved in the church, more under the thumb of the High Priest”. Yaluda stares morosely at the underside of the stairs above us and I realize this wasn’t as good a topic as I’d originally thought. 

“What about the current queen? Your stepmother? Is she any better?” I ask, scrambling for someone else to talk about. 

Yaluda pauses for a second, seeming to give the matter some thought. “No, if anything, she’s worse.”

“Oh.” I say simply. There really isn’t much else I can say to that. “Wait, did you hear that?”

“What?” asks Yaluda. “I didn’t hear anything.”

“Maybe I imagined it.” I say, glancing down, “I thought I heard a soft scraping sound.”

“Probably a servant opening an old passage. Come on, we don’t want to be out here if they enter the main area. It’s best if we get seen as little as possible.” Yaluda replies and hurries up the next flight of stairs. We quickly reach our floor– we didn’t have that much further to go –and duck inside the library. Blix, who’d just come out to replace one of the other guards, meets us at the tapestry, and shows us inside. 

Briareth jumps up to greet us immediately. 

“Blix told us where you were, but you shouldn’t have run off!” He exclaims, giving me a hug.

I’m not much of a hugger, but I awkwardly pat him on the back until he releases me. Faladel is still sitting down, but he’s watching us over his cup of still steaming hea. 

“We’re glad you’re safe, but please next time let us know where and when you’re going somewhere? We were really scared when we first realized you were gone.”

“Skip that!” Briareth announces. “Take me with you next time! It’s boring in here! There’s only so many times you can play poker before going insane. Especially when somebody–” He glares over at Faladel “–keeps winning!”

“It’s not my fault you can’t keep a straight face.” Faladel says, and, chuckling, takes a sip of his tea.

“Sorry, Briareth.” Blix adds. “You may be short by elf standards, but you’re still a good finger taller than any dwarf I’ve ever seen, and with the castle all fired up since we broke you out, that’s more than enough to get you caught. So, unless you fancy another trip back to the dungeon, I’m afraid you’re staying here for the foreseeable future.” 

“Oh come on!” Briareth exclaims, throwing his hands up in the air. 

“That goes for you too, Balderk.” Yaldua says.

“What?!” I protest, “But I was fine! Nothing happened!”

“But it could have.” Yaluda says grimly. “Next time you might not be so lucky. That’s why I’m putting an end to this now. Unless both Blix and I have agreed it’s necessary, none of you are going out.”

“Sounds reasonable.” Faladel says, and finishes the rest of his tea. But Briareth and I both see it differently.

“You know you’re basically imprisoning us again, right?” Briareth asks. “Yeah, it’s prettier. But it’s still a prison.”

“You might want to change your minds after you hear the information I’ve gathered.” I say stoutly.

“Share away if you’re so confident.” Blix says, looking more than a little interested. We all sit down and I tell them the entirety of the conversation I overheard behind the tapestry, and then the one I had with Beni and Lutti.

“They’re good eggs, Yaldua.” Blix says after I’m done. Faladel offers me some tea– he’d already poured a cup for everyone else, –but I wave him away, my eyes fixed on Yaluda

“Perhaps.” Yaluda allows. “But I’m more interested in the fact that the PPG has spies. Balderk had mentioned it to me earlier, when he first found me outside, but I wanted to hear your take on it.”

“Well, it’s not really a shock, you and I both knew it was more than likely. This just confirms it and narrows down my list of suspects a lot.”

“And the fact that he’s waiting for a powerful “narcissistic lunkhead” to die is also helpful.” Yaluda adds, “Someone in the church clearly doesn’t like my dad.”

“It’s most likely the High Priest.” Blix replies. “Because of those new laws restricting church authority that the King passed recently.”

“Yes, you’re right! Ever since then, they’ve been on terrible terms. Good catch Blix.” The prince says thoughtfully. “And good job finding all this out Balderk. Even if it doesn’t help us directly, it’s still good to know what the other powers that be are doing. Especially when they’re working together to cook up something.”

“Not good enough to let me back out again though?” I guess, looking at Yaluda’s still firm face. 

“No.” he confirms. “It’s just too dangerous. I don’t want to put you– put oru whole operation at risk like that.” Blix opens his mouth, but before a single syllable can escape, Yaldua cuts him off. “However, Blix, you can re-establish contact with Beni and Lutti. Tell them they’re on a need-to-know basis, but we’ll use their information when they have anything useful.”

Blix smiles, obviously pleased with this outcome. “Excellent.” He says. 

I stare at Yaluda frowning. “It’s not like they wouldn’t snoop around anyway.” he defends his decision. “I’m not putting them in unnecessary danger, nor am I trusting them outright.”

I lookaway, Briareth slurps his cup of tea loudly, and then changes the subject. “Well, Faladel still doesn’t want to kill anyone, but he agreed it might be necessary since we can’t force the King to abdicate. However, from the sound of it, we may need to change your little plan from outright outright murdering him.” He gulps down the rest of his tea and holds out his cup for more. Faladel refills it with the last of the pot as Blix, Yaluda, and I stare at him. 

“Why?” Blix asks.

“Well because that priest guy and the suspicious nobles are waiting for him to die.” Briareth says. “Once he’s dead, they kickstart their plan, which probably involves you all being dead shortly afterwards.” he takes another gulp of tea, and then immediately spits it back into the cup. “HAAHHT!” He gasps. 

Faladel blinks, “Excellent deduction, Briareth.” He says, clearly mulling it over in his own head. “From the way everyone talks about this priest and those noble houses, it’s quite probable they’re plan is to dethrone you, Prince Yaldua, as soon as you take power. That’s when you’ll be most vulnerable after all.” 

“So we need allies.” I say grimly. Everyone turns to look at me. “What?” I ask, feeling my cheeks heat up. “I was in the army for ten years after all, you do pick up on simple tactics after a while. This situation isn’t too complicated. You either find some allies to watch your back when you take the throne, or promise these guys something so that they won’t attack you right after you gain control. Unless you can convince them that a frontal assault won’t work or will deal them significant damage even if it does work, they have no reason to agree to any deals. So the first option, gaining more allies so they won’t dare try anything, is the safest bet.”

“Nobody was questioning your competence, Balderk.” Yaluda offers. Briareth looks like he’d love to cut in, but Yaldua continues too quickly for him to make an interjection. “You make a great point. The only problem is getting people to agree to ally themselves with us in the first place.”

“Choosing who to trust.” Blix clarifies, “And how much to trust them with.”

As soon as the last words leave his lips, the door to our room swings open and a young dwarf marches in and announces, “I want in!”

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