Skip to content

Chapter 16: Blackmailed

When I eventually recover enough from my embarrassment to take my head off the table, the mood is highly awkward. Nobody has said a single word since Briareth’s “Sorry”. Briareth is tending the fire and Faladel is playing solitaire. We each carefully avoid making conversation except when strictly necessary for the next couple of hours. 

I don’t really mind the silence. It allows me to think, to refocus myself on why we’re really here. Assassination. Peace. Returning home. Those are my goals. Those have always been my goals. Possibly crushing on a prince isn’t among them, and will not be among them, although being friends and staying friends after all this would be nice.

Someone eventually comes to clear away the tea tray, and brings supper back. While we eat, I formally forgive Briareth, even though in my head I forgave him hours ago. This lightens up the mood a bit, but overall we’re still too quiet as we head to bed. Faladel has always been quiet, and with Briareth seemingly stepping on eggshells now, and me not good at starting conversations, we have quickly gone from a bright cheerful group to almost as somber as a funeral. Instead of happily wishing all of us goodnight as we each climb into our cots that are set up at the far end of the room, Briareth sits on his and stares introspectively at the fireplace. I watch him until I fall asleep. 

 In the morning things are brighter, more cheerful, especially when Blix and Yaluda arrive with breakfast. They’d visited the kitchens and brought back with them a bunch of fresh, deliciously sweet pastries and jam filled breads. As we happily devour the warm, fluffy goodies, Yaluda says that one of his guard members got in contact with Ludgera and she’d suggested bringing her boyfriend in on this today, and at the same time going over the blackmail she has. 

“Isn’t this all happening a little fast?” I ask.

“Better to throw ourselves in the deep end then act too slowly and get caught.” Blix replies firmly. “We’re prepared for at least this much, and the faster we act, the less time our enemies have to prepare a counterattack. Basic wartime strategies.” I nod slowly, understanding his reasoning. 

“Since we’re all agreed,” Yaluda shoots a quick glance at Faladel and Briareth, neither of whom raise an objection, “I told her to come after breakfast. She should be here within the hour. She’ll pretty much be in and out, dropping off her evidence, and introducing her boyfriend to the lot of us. We agreed that he won’t be told anything beforehand or have any knowledge of where this room is located.” 

“Excellent.” Faladel confirms.

“Will you be hanging out with us until they come then?” Briareth asks. 

“Of course.” Blix confirms for himself and Yaluda. “We even brought more teabags.” 

I roll my eyes while Faladel enthusiastically inspects them. “I would never have guessed that dwarves have so many types of teas.” He says. “Is this tea actually blue?” He asks, pointing out one jar with only blossoms. 

“Yes, but if you add lemon, which I like to, it turns purple.” Yaluda confirms. Faladel, obviously intrigued, goes to make us a pot of blue tea.

Blix and I pass on the tea, but Faladel, Yaluda and Briareth sip happily as we just talk. Sometimes it’s about coup plans, often times about culture differences, and a few times plans for what they want to accomplish after the war ends and peace is reached. Faladel quizzes Yaluda at one point on religious policy, and how that intersects with public policy for the dwarves. 

I watch, slightly in awe, as Yaluda highlights his plans to slowly strip political power from the church. It’s a plan that will take decades, it might not even be finished within his lifetime, but he has it all planned out. He even has a few safety strategies in place for when things inevitably will go wrong. Blix chimes in a couple of times, pointing out weaknesses that Yaluda needs to protect from, but it’s in more of a coaching fashion than in real criticism. I watch as Yaluda comes up with solutions on the spot. I knew he disliked the church, I mean, I don’t hold much fondness for it either, but he actually plans on taking action and doing something about it. Since he’s the prince, I probably shouldn’t be surprised, but this isn’t the only thing he’s put such detailed thought into. Further talks reveal he has at least that much detail on even the most minute policies that Faladel brings up. 

When I compliment him on it, he flushes slightly and says. “Remember my words from when we first met in this room? I’ve been ready to take over my dad’s position for years.”

“Yeah, and now you want to speed that process up a bit.” I reply, recalling the rest of his bluff.

“Ugghhh…” He groans. “Please don’t remind me. I don’t even know how I thought you all would fall for that.” A soft knock comes from the door, interrupting us, and Yaluda straightens. The knock repeats itself, two hard, three soft. “She’s here.” He says, and then, louder. “Enter.”

Someone, presumably a member of the PPG, opens the door, and in walks Ludgera, wearing a surprisingly businesslike day dress that mimics the army uniforms button pattern, and another young dwarf with the Yamat’s Unending Eyes embroidered on his off-shoulder cape, bright scarlet curls, and a black blindfold covering his eyes.

“Are we there yet?” He asks, turning his head towards Ludgera, even though it’s useless since he can’t see her. 

“Yes, you can take off the blindfold now, Agnark.” Ludgera says calmly. “Let me help you.” His blindfold comes off, and his startling purple eyes stare out at us, shocked at the scene he’s taking in. 

“Wai–wha–what?” he stutters, turning to look at his girlfriend for an explanation. “Those are the escaped prisoners right? And that’s the heretic prince?”

“Yes, they are.” Ludgera confirms, “Give me a chance to explain, Agnark, I know your families have no lost love for eachother, but they can help us.”

“And what do they want in return?” Agnark asks, shooting a burning glare at Yaluda and Blix. I gulp. There is a lot of pent up hatred in that glare, even Ludgera notices.

“Just information, stuff I’ve been collecting on the high priest. You know, I’ve told you about some of the stuff my family has on file against him. Tax evasion, bribery, drug smuggling, that weird cult thing…”

“UMM What?!” Blix and Faladel say simultaneously. 

“How do you know you can trust them with that sort of thing?! Over half of them are elves for goodness sake!” Agnark bursts, Ludgera puts a soothing hand on his shoulder. 

“Uhhh… I’m not sure where you’re seeing a third elf.” I protest.

“You’re an elf lover and a traitor, you count as one of them.” Agnark says, brushing me off.

“Sorry!” Ludgera mouths behind her boyfriend’s back at my indignant expression. She puts a steadying hand on his shoulder. “I know it’s a lot to take in Agnark, but you don’t have to be rude. I don’t know if they can be trusted, but they don’t know that they can trust you and me either. So really, it all works out.”

He frowns at her, but doesn’t dispute it. Instead he says, “We need to have a long talk about this later, when nobody else is listening in.”

Briareth slurps his tea loudly. “Oh don’t mind us. You can continue as long as you want.”

“We really shouldn’t.” Ludgera says, “I only told my mother I was out for a walk, I need to get back pretty much as soon as I can. Meet me tonight, Agnark? In the usual place?”

Agnark’s eyes soften. No matter how he feels about us, he’s clearly not angry with her. “Of course.” He says gently. “I look forward to seeing you then, skipper squirrel.” 

It’s obviously some sort of nickname, because she chuckles, smiles, and replies in turn.“Me too, my prickly hedgehog.” She leans forward and caresses his cheek. I look away, embarrassed to have seen such a sight. “Promise me you won’t make any rash decisions in that time?”

“I promise.” He reassures her. Then, turning to stare at our table group coldly. “Do I have to wear the blindfold on my way out too, Your Highness?” He loads the words with acid, but Yaluda doesn’t seem to mind. 

“Of course. I’ll have one of the guards escort you.” He says, full of rigid formality. At the click of his fingers and a sharp whistle, a guard enters. When he leans towards Yaluda for instructions, I hear Yaluda whisper, “Take him the long way round, through the servants tunnels. And then walk him around outside a bit before dropping him back here in front of the tower’s doors. Let him be confused.” 

Right before the blindfold goes back on, Agnark shoots one more worried look at Ludgera. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine. I just have to explain all the blackmail to Yaluda and–”

“Please don’t call him by his name.” Agark interrupts, and I think I detect more than a little jealousy. 

“Fine.” Ludgera smiles indulgently. “I need to explain the blackmail to the Prince, but we’ll see each other again before you know it.”

Agnark is obviously not entirely convinced, but allows himself to be blindfolded and led out of the room. As soon as he’s gone, Ludgera turns to us, and drops a bundle of tied together papers on the table, right next to the nearly empty plate of breakfast pastries. She pulls another bundle of papers from a discreet pocket in her dress, and, following my gaze towards these strange additions, explains, “The dress is custom designed to suit my needs. My parents were generous.”

“This–” She continues, untying one of the bundles of paper and splitting it into three groups, “Is the paperwork surrounding all of the blackmailing and smuggling the high priest has been doing to keep his drug dens secret and well stocked with Blumwort, Cailing, and numerous other illegal substances. There are also records proving the purchase of the drugs, sketches of some of the officials involved, and eyewitness testimonies to their authenticity and the existence of unlicensed and blatantly illegal drug dens in some of the major city chapels, along with one that exists in the palace chapel. Since inebriation of the mind during worship breaks some of the cardinal doctrines of the church, there is no way the high priest, who would be judged in an internal court, would remain in power after this. After all, more than a few of these papers have his signature on them.

“This second one,” She begins untying and sorting the next group, “Includes all the churches tax records, donation statements, and claimed profits from subsidiary businesses. Ever since the high priest took power, the amount claimed in donations has skyrocketed, and the subsidiaries wouldn’t even appear to cover their building’s costs. Which is blatantly different from what their records have shown is normal for the past two-hundred years. They’re obviously avoiding business taxes by claiming them as ‘donations’. The church didn’t even try to cover this up, because the tax officials are so busy and their pay so miserable, that it was easier to bribe them to keep it out of the limelight instead.

“How did you get your hands on those?” Yaluda asks, seemingly impressed despite himself. 

“I have a penchant for sneaking into off-limits areas when I’m supposed to be at parties. Whenever I’m caught, I just act drunk out of my mind. Gets me away everytime, and no one questions that sort of behavior from a lower noble.” She snorts, “I might actually miss that.”

“And you’re sure of their authenticity?” Blix presses. 

“Of course.” Ludgera replies, almost indignant. “They came from the home offices of the Head Secretary of the Treasury, a Major General, and Lord Yamat himself! You can peruse them at will and they will stand up to any sort of scrutiny.”

“Excellent work.” Briareth says briefly scanning a few of the documents. “But I imagine the Head Secretary of the Treasury doesn’t throw parties a lot. How did you manage to get into his home office?”

“A girls got to have some secrets.” Ludgera retorts. Briareth studies her

“And a very good pair of climbing boots I’d hazard.” He adds.

Ludgera flushes. Judging from her expression, Briareth hit the nail on the head.

“I have to be going.” She announces, avoiding everyone’s eye contact by fixing her dress. “I probably won’t see you all for quite a while as my work is pretty much done here. Good luck.”

“Hopefully we won’t need it. I hate to rely on such a fickle thing.” Yaluda replies as Ludgera swishes out the door.  “Well,” he continues, “now that that unpleasant task has been finished, Blix and I have to move out. We have a priest to blackmail. And– before you ask– No. None of you can come with us. We’re supposed to be using information against him, not giving him things to use against us.”

Our responses are pretty much the same as the last time he announced something like that.

“Oh, come on!”

“Sounds reasonable.”

Only mine has changed. “Have a good trip.” I say, and then gruffly add. “Try not to die.”

“Don’t worry,” Yaluda flashes me a devastating grin. “I will.”


“You two have gotten closer now, haven’t you?” I say, frowning at Istere. “I specifically told you that was a bad idea.” 

“You did. But he’s very easy to get close to. He’s so honest, empathetic, and understanding, even if he hides it all under a gruff front. Even you were won over by him.” Istere grins at me. Goodness, sometimes she looks so much like her late brother. I sigh, I shouldn’t let that distract me. I’m supposed to be discouraging her. 

“Me? What do you mean I let myself be won over?” I ask faux indignantly. 

“You specifically disobeyed my order, and let him out to spy.”

“He found a good loophole.” I say defensively. “And it was a good idea. We got valuable information.” 

The current crown prince arches an eyebrow and smiles at me, and instead of retorting asks, “So where do you suppose the High priest would be currently?”

“It’s only shortly after breakfast time, Prince Yaluda,” I say, the still strange moniker sliding past my lips without hesitation, just as it has done for nearly two years now. “I would guess he is in morning prayers in his study.”

“Let’s go pay a visit to his study then.” Istere says smiling, and I wipe the nostalgic thoughts from my head. Even considering the idea of the princess as Yaluda being ‘strange’ could trip me up with a bad reaction. I must keep my thoughts in order if I am to keep her alive.

“Lead the way.” Istere startles me out of my thoughts, and I hurriedly descend the stairs with her following at my heels.

When we step outside I begin to breathe easier. Even though I can see more people outdoors, I always get the distinct feeling that less people are listening in to any of our conversations. My slipups– small, but in my eyes almost constant –are noticed less. We stroll slowly, quietly through the palace gardens and over to the priests’ corner. Their homes are stationed in the palace wall, right next to and above the tiny palace chapel. Really, it’s much smaller than the city ones. When I first saw it I was stunned, I’d been expecting something huge and extravagant. But although the inside is more than a tad gaudy in its golden splendor, it was kept small so as not to overshadow the palace as a whole, and generally, to be seen as more exclusive. If a chapel can only fit 50 or so people, then far less than that will be invited to services after all.  

We enter through a door in the palace wall to the ‘priest dorms’ although technically the supposedly sparse rooms in question hold more officials of the church, and high donating guests than actual priests. And from the implications of some of the documents the crown prince is currently carrying, their rooms are probably far more lavish than the simple wooden doors that we walk past let on.

The passage is tight, cramped, and musty. It was built as the opposite of ostentatious so that it would communicate devotion instead of pride. It was a good intention to be sure, but now as Istere follows me, I worry at the lack of passage branches, and the terribly small amount of room to swing a sword if we are ambushed. My instincts scream at me, knowing that this place is a den of drug addicts and hostiles who plan on disposing of my charge as soon as her father is out of the way. I caution Istere to be quiet, as quiet as she can, as we travel deeper and higher in the wall. At one point, I stop her, and duck behind a stairway as someone descends. I can’t catch a glimpse of their face, but they don’t see us either, so it is okay. Then we head up to the next level. 

The top level, right underneath the guards pathway on top of the wall, holds only two rooms, one at either end of a passage. Normally, it’s wide enough for two people, but the stairway in the center of it narrows it down to one. The air here smells a lot worse. It’s not musty, the arrow slits at this level prevent that. But they let in the city air, which is much more polluted from all the industries that the capital holds. I’ve long wondered how the smog– which pervades the city’s surroundings for miles around– seems to disappear entirely once you enter the castle grounds. It almost feels like sorcery, but I shudder to consider the cost of such constant upkeep. Breathing this dirty air again reminds me of my questions, and I wonder if this sort of slip up in whatever filters the castle has is intentional, to discourage unwanted explorers from entering this area.

I confidently lead us to the door nearest to the end of the stairs, and then freeze. Voices nearby are getting closer. I grab Istere’s arm and yank her back down the passageway towards the opposite end. She understands the gravity of the situation, and doesn’t protest as I rush us both to the opposite door, yank it open, and softly almost close it behind us. 

I scan the room we’re in quickly. Empty– except for a few cleaning tools and a couple of cabinets. It’s more of a closet than a room. I briefly wonder why it is on the same floor as the high priest, but don’t have time to consider the implications. The voices have gotten louder, and one of them is instantly recognizable. 

Istere gasps, and then immediately covers her mouth with a hand as if to stifle the already escaped noise. She’s peering through the crack I left in the door, her eyes wide and almost pained. I grimace. Too late to avoid that drama. Already half knowing what I’m going to see, I duck below Istere’s head so I can peer out as well. 

The queen is walking away from the High priest’s quarters, the man in question at her side. 

“Your majesty, the next special adoration of the god Bureck is taking place at next week’s new moon. May I presume you’ll be there?” 

She smiles at him beatifically. “Of course, I would never miss a special service.” 

“Excellent.” I can feel the High Priest’s slimy smile from here, and I shudder, unnerved. “Until then, this should tide you over.” He passes something to her, and her hand snatches it before I can make out its shape. 

“Thank you.” She says simply, her eyes fastened on the object now clutched in her palms. He waves her off as she turns and descends the stairs. 

“What was that all about?” I mutter as the Head Priest goes back into his room. I straighten up and step away from the door. 

Istere stares after her mother, glumly. “I’ve tried to warn her about him before, but she never listens. Now, they’re even having secret meetings?”

I shake my head. “Just because we didn’t know about it, doesn’t mean they’re secret. Plenty of people come to visit the priest in his study when they want to meet for a private confession. It doesn’t have to be anything dramatic.”

“Perhaps it is nothing. But then what did he give her?” 

“I don’t know.” I admit. “But the way I see it, we can either go follow and confront her and ask about it, or we can continue with our main objective.” Istere looks torn, watching as the door swings shut behind our prey. “What will it be, Your Highness?” I prompt. 

She grimaces, obviously pained by her decision. “The high priest. We know he’s alone now. We can’t miss this opportunity.” I don’t correct her. The high priest could have someone else meeting with the queen and himself who just didn’t come out to see her off. It’s unlikely, but it could be true. However, correcting her to acknowledge this other option would distract from the firmness of her decision and sow doubt in her mind. I need her confident and strong if we are to pull this off. So, instead, I pat her back, a silent praise for her decision not to go after her mother. 

“Let’s wait here a while longer, we don’t want to make it obvious we saw their meeting.” I caution. 

“Smart.” Istere smiles at me, and finally backs away from the door. We wait, a long, boring five minutes. I count the seconds as they pass, and, by the time I’m done, Istere has paced the room twenty-seven times. 

We leave our storage room, and quickly and quietly head over to the High Priest’s chamber. Istere enters without knocking, her back straight, her eyes burning with intensity. Here stands a true Crown Prince, risking everything for the peace and prosperity of her country’s citizens. 

I watch in the background, a silent, guarded threat, as Istere, blatantly lays down the few papers she brought with her from Ludgera’s piles. They are important papers, they show the authenticity of our threat. They are not, however, the most dangerous ones. It was my idea to leave those behind in case the High Priest attempts to get rid of us and the incriminating evidence in one fell swoop. I watch as Istere takes a leaf out of Faladel’s book, and blatantly lies, telling the high priest that if we don’t return, she’s instructed that a few members of the PPG ‘leak’ these other papers straight into the hands of the Kings’ secret service, who will have no problem making them public to diminish the church’s power and popularity among the masses. 

“If you continue with this nonsense about getting rid of me once my father has died, if I so much as hear any whispers of plans between you and House Yamat, make no mistake, these papers will do more than see the light of day. They will be spread to all corners of the land. You will be ruined. You will face trial. And any sort of jury would be bound to convict you with this evidence. There will be riots in the streets and people hollering for your blood.” A spark of anger and defiance, probably stemming from pride, rises in the High Priest’s eyes, although his benign smile never breaks. I put a hand on my sword warningly. The spark dies out as Istere continues. 

“If you side with me, break off this treason with Yamat, these papers will never see the light of day. I guarantee it on my name. More than that, you will be allowed to continue avoiding taxes in this fashion while I’m in office, although I expect the drug rings to either be reduced by a severe amount or wiped out entirely.”

The priest looks, his gaze intensifying as he lets his mask drop for a few seconds, straight into Istere’s golden eyes. He appears to be actually considering the offer. “I suppose,” He begins, his mask sliding back into place as if it were never gone, “that you won’t do the favor of telling me where exactly you got these papers from on account of our new friendship, young Prince?”

“You will address him as ‘Your Highness,’ or alternatively ‘Your Majesty’ as would benefit his station.” I warn, hand sliding once more to my weapon. 

“Of course, of course, don’t get up on your high horses. It was a simple mistake!” The priest laughs, an almost genuine deep laugh. “Your Highness, please, call off your lackey.” 

At least that last part was sincere. I think to myself as Istere gestures at me to stand down, and I slowly release my sword. 

“Then you accept our proposal.” Istere says, and although it isn’t a question, the priest confirms it. 

“Seems like I have no choice.” He smiles, and although it is intended to look menacing, underneath I think I detect some greed. Our offer was better than he was expecting. Most likely, he thought we’d only come with threats, only sticks. But Istere brought carrots too. 

“Oh, there is always a choice.” Istere says, and I have to fight to control my expression at her unintentional hypocrisy. “You just chose the one that saves your skin a little longer.” My Prince might hate Ludgera, but she definitely took notes when she was threatened by her. 


After sitting around all day, where we play lots of card games, drink lots of tea, and are very bored in general, Yaldua and Blix report back with a job well done. 

“The High Priest is on board. He’s a slimy bastard, but he knows how to save his skin.” Yaluda says, looking more exhausted than I feel after having to fend off Briareth’s shenanigans all day. “He won’t bother us anymore or collude with Lord Yamat. He’s too scared of our information.”

“Excellent.” Faladel says encouragingly. “So, what’s your next move? I’m assuming ours is to stay in your study.”

Yaluda hesitates, blinking for a couple of seconds. I can actually see Briareth’s hopes rising. “Of course.” The prince crushes them, completely oblivious. “I’m surprised you accept it so easily, Prince Faladel, I would have expected you to kick up more of a fuss like your subordinate and Balderk.” 

 I feel a brief burst of excitement that he separated Briareth and I, using my name and just calling Briareth ‘your subordinate’. I don’t squash it down, but neither do I fully accept it. Instead I analyze it, trying to reason out its source and mainly failing, barely listening as Faladel presses again for Yaluda’s game plan. 

“… have to build up my base of support,” I hear, when I tune back in. “Balderk was right, I need more allies. Threatening the Priest might break up Lord Yamat’s plan, but I have a gut feeling it’s not going to be enough. Finding trustworthy people might take a while, but at the same time we can be doing other things. Gathering information on how and when the King’s food is prepped. Who tastes it? Can they be bribed? How can we sneak poison in without anyone noticing? We can also gather any ingredients Briareth needs to make the poison during this time.”   

After a few awkward seconds, Briareth realizes everyone is staring at him, and he stops letting his tongue stick out of his mouth as he concentrates on making a tower of teacups. Placing the last one carefully at the top, he turns to Yaluda and explains. “The ingredients will vary based on the result you want, Your Highness. Fast acting? Or slow acting? Painful? Painless? I can make a lot of types, and you’ve already narrowed it down quite a bit with the ‘no signs of poison’ bit, but I need a game plan, or at least a game outline, before I can even start to list ingredients.”

 “Hmmm…” Yaluda studies him, considering. “We probably want something painless that will stick in his system for a few days before killing. You can do this?”

“Of course!” Briareth says, “Accumulating poison, or just slow acting with few symptoms?”

“Slow acting would be best. We wouldn’t want to have all our planning go to waste if he suddenly changes routines.” 

Faladel grimaces at all the talk of murder, and excuses himself, but I stick around as Briareth and Yaluda chat late into the night, with Blix taking notes on some herbs and minerals Briareth lists. Apparently, they seem innocuous, but are deadly when combined under certain conditions. When Yaluda and Balderk leave, Blix has a long list of things to get his hands on, and both Briareth and Yaluda seem satisfied. 

The next few days ruin that for Briareth though, as boredom takes hold again. Things are happening, very important things. Yaluda makes allies, creates strategy that even intrigues Faladel a bit, and he and I talk late into the evenings on various topics. More about his sister, more about my family, our memories from childhood, our dreams for the future, his favorite books. I admit to him that I haven’t read much. I haven’t had time or passion for that sort of entertainment since I left school, but his adamant retellings spark interest in me. He promises to show me the castle library when this is all done. 

I tell him about our farm, stories of the different animals we’ve had over the years, and the old midwives’ tall tales from the village I grew up in, and what it was like to chase fireflies in the fields at dusk, and the one time I saw stars fall in the night. He shares more tales from his childhood, including more cute mimicry and animated story telling. And whenever he has to leave, to head off to bed or to complete another task, I make him promise to tell me more next time. 

Once in a while, even Ludgera and Agnark Yamat come by. Agnark has sworn in front of Yaluda that he’ll take our side. Apparently Ludgera was right about him having more loyalty to her than he does to his family, because he makes it clear that she is the one reason he’s working with us. Yaluda seems almost pleased by his admission, telling me that his grumpy acceptance feels a lot more real than if he were to support us all the way. 

During one of the few evenings we’re all in the study together, Blix is called to the door by a hesitant knock, and when he returns he looks… troubled. 

“Bad news.” He says, “Well, it might count as good news for us, but I doubt you’ll like it, Your Highness. Remember how the King’s plan to wipe out the elves needs all elves gone from dwarven territories?”

“Of course.” Yaluda confirms. “We talked about it a few weeks ago, right? You said it would probably take years because of the cost of manpower. We just don’t have enough soldiers for the sort of offensive that could accomplish that in a few months.”

“He found a way to get the soldiers. He’s lowering the training from two years to six months, and the serving age from eighteen to–” Blix gulps, the disgust obvious on his face. “Thirteen.”

The room erupts into pandemonium.

“Where did you hear this from?” Agnark Yamat asks instantly,

“What the–” Briareth begins.

“They’re literally taking children now?!” Faladel’s look mirrors Blix’s disgust.

“My little brother!” Ludgera wails.

Yaluda and I are both just frozen, our mouths dropped open in mirrored shock.

“One at a time! One at a time!” Blix shouts as he is bombarded with questions. “It was Beni and Lutti who got this information, they overheard a meeting of the King’s Advisory Committee. One we were not told about. Yes, thirteen is normally still childhood in dwarven territories Prince Faladel, apparently, however, that is about to change.” 

As he wards off more questions, I watch as Yaluda’s face hardens a bit as he accepts these new facts. “So what’s the new timeline?” He asks when all the bustle is over. 

“The renewed attempts to ‘oust the elven invaders’ as the council is putting it, will start as soon as training is finished for all the new recruits. So, approximately six months after this is announced.”

“And when will that be?” Yaluda presses. 

“I don’t know your highness. I expect in less than a week since they’ve already finished discussions.”

“This should turn the tide of public opinions against them right? So if we want the people on our side, we should wait till after it’s announced to get rid of the King.” Briareth says, immediately planning for this new adjustment. 

Ludgera breaks in at this point. “No! That’s too late, once they’ve made the announcements, people will start being taken! My baby brother–!” She starts sobbing. “I may not be nice to him all the time, but I don’t want him dead!” Agnark instantly attempts to comfort her, gently taking her hand, patting her back, and murmuring soothing things under his breath. 

Yaluda lets out a sigh. “If we kill the King before it’s announced, Briareth’s right, we’d be losing out on a huge advantage. Having public opinion on our side would change the whole playing field. And if that means a few people have to be taken? So be it. We can just have them released as soon as I’m crowned and peace is declared. It’s not like your brother is going to die from a month of training.”

His words are harsh, but pretty accurate. He stares at Ludgera coldly, and I suddenly realize this lack of sympathy he’s showing her probably has a deeper reason than exposing her to the harsh truth. This is a little bit of punishment for how she forced his hand into accepting her offer over a week earlier. It’s not nice, but it’s understandable that he’s holding a grudge. I probably would be as well. 

“Have a little empathy!” Agnark shouts at Yaluda, obviously not feeling nearly as charitable as I am. “You’re basically saying, that because you want some stupid advantage, her family member has to go through hellish training for over a month!?”

“We all make sacrifices.” Yaluda says simply. 

“I may not like him, but I don’t want him dead!” Ludgera whimpers, still lost in her fears. 

“I know, I know.” Agnark says, stroking her back as she buries her tearstained face in his shoulder. He chuckles softly, “If you did want him dead, he wouldn’t be alive right now.”

“Yeah, and your girlfriend would be in prison.” Yaluda says, unimpressed by the romance. “Stop fussing already. I doubt nobles, even ‘lower’ ones as you claim to be, would be the first group targeted in a massive roundup of young dwarves. If we act quickly enough after the news is announced, your little brother won’t be in any realistic danger. However, if you really don’t want us to follow Briareth’s suggestions, come up with a better plan.” 

Agnark looks ready to fight Yaluda at this point. He’s absolutely furious, and Yaluda’s carefully blank face isn’t helping anything. Neither is Blix’s hand on his sword, but Agnark is so busy glaring at Yaluda, I’m not sure if he even notices the not-so-subtle threat. It’s only Ludgera’s hand, reaching out and holding steadily to his arm, that stops him from lunging at Yaluda.

“It’s okay, Agnark.” She claims, still sniffling. “He’s probably right. If it weren’t for Prince Yaluda, we wouldn’t even know about this. At least we have the chance to prevent anything from happening this way. We just need to think of a plan.” Agnark releases a hissed breath, obviously trying to calm down for her and struggling to rein in his emotions. “I think we should call it a night here, we can get in touch in the morning, after we’ve had the chance to think things through. Come up with a plan.” She uses Agnarks shoulder to steady herself as she climbs to her feet, then she offers him a hand up as well. 

“I assume that is acceptable, Your Highness?” She asks, almost completely recovered already. I notice a brief flicker of surprise flash through Yaluda’s eyes, followed by what I suspect to be a smidgen of respect. It quickly disappears though. 

“Yes.” He says, “You and your boyfriend should probably leave now.” 

Once they are gone, he and Blix also bid us farewell. “We each need time to ruminate over these developments, and we all need rest. Things could get hectic very quickly from this point on. Briareth, please, finish that poison as soon as possible.” 

“Will do!” Briareth says, somehow more chirpy than he was before all this chaos.

We head off to bed like normal. And although this new discovery swims through my brain, I find myself more tired than I expected. I fall asleep quite quickly once I pull my covers up around me.

However, my dreamless sleep is disturbed in the middle of the night by a commotion outside the door. Vague shouting reaches my ears and I blink myself awake. “Whaa…?” I mumble, cracking my eyelids, the glowing orange coals the only light illuminating the room.

“Izz there some–” Briareth yawns loudly “–body there?” The voices sound clearer as I wake up more and I quickly clamber out of bed and walk across the smooth cold floor towards the door, trying to hear what they’re saying.

“We know he’s in there! You can’t fool us! Why else would a member of his guard be on duty here in the middle of the night?!” A familiar male voice shouts.

“We need to speak with him immediately!” A female voice adds on. “You can at least tell him we’re here right?!”

“Oh come on!” the male voice butts back in as the guard probably denies them anything.

“Beni, Luttie,” I greet them, opening the door, “What are you doing here in the middle of the night?” The guard looks like he wants to protest at my appearance, but gets cut off before he can. 

“Wait, this is where you’re staying?!” Beni says, looking shocked, “No wonder we couldn’t find you!” 

“I told you he looked familiar, he’s Balderk Ungart, you know from the trial months ago! If he’s here and the guards are here–” Lutti adds on, putting the pieces together.

“No way, are the elves bunking here too?” Beni says, just a second slower than her. He tries to peer into the room behind me. 

“Seriously,” I say, trying to pull them back to the topic at hand. “What are you doing here? Is there an emergency?”

“Umm… Kinda, sorta, well…” Beni glances at Lutti and her tapping foot before deciding “–definitely. This would definitely count as an emergency. You all need to get out of here as soon as possible.”

“Wait, why? What’s happened?”

“You can tell us you know!” Briareth chimes in from behind me, much more awake now that something’s going on. 

“Since we know that they’re in there, can we go in now?” Beni asks the guard, who just sighs, and gestures for him to go ahead. I open the door a little wider and the guard joins Beni and Lutti coming in. Faladel has just rolled out of bed, and blinks sleepily at us. “What exactly–” He says, looking towards the two new dwarves, “Is going on?”

“An emergency,” Briareth explains simply. 

Faladel sighs, “Exactly what we don’t need.”

“Don’t bother stoking the fire!” Lutti scolds the guard, who had just picked up a poker. “We need to get out of here! Hide any evidence that you all have been living here!”

“What? Why?” I ask.

“Did someone find us out?” Faladel says, catching on quicker. “Are they looking for proof?”

“Just proof that the Prince is hiding something. They don’t necessarily know you’re here. Even we didn’t know you’re here. All we heard is that they’re raiding here soon! They could be here in less than an hour! We need to get you out and wipe all traces of you living here!” Beni explains.

“Are there any important documents Prince Yaluda left with you all? Anything that could compromise things?” Lutti cuts in urgently. 

“No– Nothing!” I say, remembering how he took the blackmail papers with him.

“Wait!” Faladel exclaims. “The list of ingredients! Briareth, where did you put it?!” Briareth hurries to his bed and scrambles around in it for a few seconds, “Got it!” He calls back, and rushes it over. Lutti snatches it from his fingers and rips it to shreds “Woah, lady! We needed that!” Briareth exclaims. 

“Make another one.” She says coldly, scattering the scraps among the embers of the fire. Then, turning to the guard she asks “How did you get the beds in? We need to take them apart and get them out of here.”

“I don’t take orders from you.” The guard says cautiously.

“Now isn’t the time for that!” Beni snaps. “We’re on his Highness’s side! They’re going to break down that door in under an hour, come storming in here, and look for anything compromising. Three beds and a room that has clearly been lived in, when three prisoners escaped a couple months ago, is pretty compromising!”

The guard glances between Lutti and Beni, and Faladel, Briareth, and I. Eventually he admits. “The beds can fold and be hidden behind one of the bookcases. I’ll show you how. The breakfast table will have to be broken apart though, we carried it in from a different part of the castle, and we wouldn’t have time to move it if you’re telling the truth.”

“Is there a place we can store the broken parts?” Lutti asks instantly. 

“Yes, you can store them in the same hollow as the beds. There should be room.” The guard advises. With all of us working together, in five minutes the room looks as good as new. 

“Excellent!” Lutti claims, “Now let’s get going! Did His Highness or Blix ever mention another safe room to you guys? Anywhere you could hide if this spot got compromised?!”

“No, nothing.” Faladel says, “Where should we go?” Beni and Lutti exchange glances, communicating with just their eyes. 

“We know a safe place.” Beni says, “It’s a bit run down, but nobody will find you there. Come on!”

“Wait!” I break in, seeing them all turn to go. 

“What?!” Snaps Lutti. “We don’t have time–!”

“What if they go after Yaluda himself?” I ask, “Nobody’s warned him! If they go after him, he won’t have any time to prepare his room, much less escape if they decided to capture him!”

“Oh buttery bloomers, you’re right!” Beni exclaims. 

“Beni! Language!” Lutti scolds. “Can you go warn him Balderk? It’s late at night, if you keep your face covered, you won’t even have to dis–”

“I don’t know the way.” I interrupt, feeling almost physical pain at the admission. I can’t help Yaluda. He’s helped me so much and yet–

“Sir guard?” Lutti asks hopefully, but the guard shakes his head. 

“I still don’t trust you. You’re taking the elves away someplace. What if you’re actually the only raiders there are, tricking us and going to bring the elves to the king’s men? I’ve sworn to serve the Prince, and the last thing he told me was to not let the elves, especially that one” he points to Briareth “leave my sight.” 

“Ughhh!” Beni exclaims. “We need to get going!” Lutti leans towards him and they whisper together in an undertone for a few seconds. Eventually he nods. 

“I’ll take you.” Lutti says, turning towards me. “I know the way to his room, so I’ll take you. We can explain it to him together when we get there, and you can add credence to my story.”

Without further ado, we spit up. Lutti practically drags me up three more flights of stairs and then down a long hallway and to a door on the left. 

“Who exactly–” I gasp out, between pants “is raiding the study? Why? How did they catch on?”

“It’s the church. We think someone else besides Young Miss Tirade saw you and the prince together, and now they’ve gone and blabbed. The High Priest probably wanted to catch you together, but he would settle for anything that could turn suspicion on the Prince. From what Beni and I overheard earlier tonight, it sounds like he’s furious after being blackmailed by His Highness. He can’t risk Prince Yaluda escaping unscathed after hearing about the incriminating info you all have. He probably thinks he needs some leverage as well, or he just wants to strike first. Honestly, I think all that Blumwort he sells has addled his brains…” Lutti spews out explanations as she drags me along behind her through twisting tunnels. We finally halt panting, right next to a closed door. 

“Blix, you should be glad you’ll never know the curse of binders.” I hear Yaluda’s voice complain. “You can’t do any sort of exer–” Lutti doesn’t even bother to knock, she barges right in. 

“Prince Yaluda, sorry to use the secret passage like this but–” We both freeze, shocked. “What the–?!.” Lutti gasps. 

Yaluda is standing in front of the mirror in his bedroom, wearing a loose tunic that does little to disguise the obvious bumps on his chest that I would swear were never there before. He’s holding his beard in his left hand, and his chin and cheeks are smoother than if he’d just shaved. Shock, and then a brief second of fear plays out on his face. 

“You can’t be Yaluda.” Lutti says, stating the obvious, and breaking me out of my shock. Slowly reality begins to sink in. A dagger twists and rips its way through my innards as I realize that it was a lie. He– She? They? It? It wasn’t Yaluda at all. It wasn’t my friend, my confidant, my crush. It was someone else entirely. Someone who lied, as easily as it breathed. Someone who’d fooled me with the hopes, the dreams, the personality taken from a someone who was, in all likelihood, a dead man. My heart broke slightly as I realized that all my trust had never been and would probably never be reciprocated by this creature. The person I believed to have been friends with was a lie. It was living a lie, and I had just been another facet of that lie.

“Why?” I gasp, then “who even are you?” I see a face twist in pain, mirroring my own. Anger clouds my vision though, my self-defense blocking it out. 

“Wait!” The person I had always called Yaluda says, “Please–” it’s hand reaches out to me. And I wait, freezing the pain and anger. I want–I need an explanation. 5 seconds pass, then 10, but it’s mouth just moves emptily. It can’t say anything. There’s nothing to say because everything we shared was a lie. And it knows nothing can defend that. It’s hand falls, and I leave. Behind me, I vaguely hear Lutti running to catch up. She says something, but I can’t hear her. She takes my hand and I follow her, empty. I have no will left to protest. My brain has effectively shut down. I’m a shell. A single tear falls into my beard, and it stays there. 


“What have I done?!” A horrorstruck Istere wails as she collapses into my arms just a few seconds after the door closes. 

“That’s why I told you not to get close to him. I knew this might happen.” I grumble, lifting the Crown Prince off my shoulder and walking her over to the couch. 

“I can’t help it, he was so sincere, so beautiful, I just wanted–”

“You wanted to be close to a person without being honest with them. It’s not healthy. And when the truth came out he reacted badly. You can’t blame him.”

“You were the one who forbid me to be honest!” She accuses, sobbing even louder.

I sigh. This whole fiasco is a mess, and although I know I shouldn’t blame the Prince for taking it out on me– her brother would have been way worse about it– it still makes it no easier to bear with. “Because I’m trying to protect you, Your Highness.” I remind her, struggling to stay calm myself, taking a seat next to her to give her my handkerchief. This next bit is more than a little difficult for me to say. “And I admit I was probably wrong there. My reasons were good. Our reasons were good. After all, if anyone had suspected that you survived instead of your brother, the word would reach the king eventually and he’d have no problems exposing you and then eliminating you. If the noble houses saw you as female, they’d see you as weaker. They’d up their attacks, be more likely to back the King, and never support you in any coup.” My harsh words, statements of fact though they might be, only cause her to cry harder. “It will be okay.” I say more gently. “We can still try to salvage this. We didn’t know the elves were okay with working with females before. Although they may have a few more qualms now than earlier because we were caught in a lie, I’m sure they’ll be able to see the reasons behind it. And as for your relationship with Balderk Ungart, although he’s definitely hurt by your actions– by you following my advice– he gave you a chance to try to explain before he left–.”

“But I froze!!” Istere interrupts me with a wail. 

“Doesn’t matter.” I press. “It means he’s willing to listen. And probably still willing to work with us. Even if you two don’t ever mend your relationship–” Istere starts crying harder and I realize I’m definitely not doing a great job, “–which I think is very unlikely ” I hurriedly add on, trying to mend things a little, “he won’t betray us just because of hurt feelings.”

Istere cries for a while longer, and I just hold her waiting for the waterworks to dry up and give me back the powerful, determined young lady who won’t let anything get in her way.

Eventually she sniffles and asks. “You really think we have a chance of making up?”

I swear, those big golden eyes, so like her brothers’, won’t stop putting me on the spot. I can’t lie to her. “It all depends on how betrayed he feels. Your relationship will never be quite the same, obviously. But if he can stand to wait a few seconds for you to try to explain yourself, it’s almost certain he doesn’t hate you and there’s a chance there for healing. You just have to give him an explanation, a sincere apology, and then time to decide for himself what he wants and if he can trust you a second time. After that it’s up to him if you can become friends again.”

“That doesn’t sound very certain.” Istere says sadly. 

“Well, it’s not.” I say bluntly, tired of all the drama. “You’ll have to trust him to want this relationship fixed as much as you do. But first of all, we have to figure out what exactly caused them to bust in here through the secret passageway. Somethings happening out there, and it’s obviously not good.”

Istere stares at me, her normal self finally resurfacing. 

“Oh my stars! You’re right!”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: