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Chapter 18: Desperate Times

“That information is way too accurate.” Briareth says frowning. “You’re right, we definitely have a leak. The question is, who is it?” 

“No, the question is, what do we do?” Istere says, still frowning. “I can’t see any way around this. We have no clue where she’s being held, the deadline is tomorrow morning at the six a.m. daily meeting of Head Officials. There’s simply not enough time to save her, and I can’t let my mom die.” Her face twists in pain, but then she suppresses it, and, taking a deep breath continues grimly. “We may not see eye to eye, after all she unconditionally believes pretty much everything the church doctrines say. If the church supports dropping the conscription age to thirteen, she’d probably be fine with that. Despite this though, she was always there for me when I was little. The main reason she got so deeply involved in the church after I ‘died’ was because she wanted to make sure my soul was well off in the afterlife.”

“She never knew you survived?” I ask, dumbly.

Istere looks at me, her golden eyes pained. “Of course not. Nobody could know anything. As far as she knew her beloved daughter was corrupted by her step-son’s treasonous ideas, and died a victim of her husband and step-son’s feud, while her step-son survived. As I told you a while back, we don’t have a good relationship.”

“Just because you feel guilty, doesn’t mean you can turn yourself in.” Blix says.

“I know that!” Istere snaps, and then sighs. “Sorry Blix, I’m a bit stressed right now. I can’t turn myself in. But I can’t rescue her either. Of course, I can’t just let her die, I’m not that cold. And I certainly can’t sit around waiting for a solution to pop up, we don’t have time for that.”

I watch Istere sadly. This must be a hugely difficult scenario for her to be in. If it were me, I’d feel trapped. I want to comfort her, but… 

I shake my head. No. I just had this conversation with Faladel. There is no reason why I shouldn’t try to comfort h–

“You can think about it while we’re in the council chamber, Your Highness.” Blix breaks through my thoughts, “We really have to be going, we can’t afford to delay our departure any longer. We’re late enough as it is.”

“You’re right.” Istere says, laying the message on the breakfast table. Then, to us, she adds “As soon as I’m done there, I’ll come back here. This involves all of us, so I want you to be involved in the final decision.”

“We’ll try to find a way around it!” I shout out my promise as she turns to leave the room. She glances back at me, at first her eyes are wide with shock, but then they crinkle into a grateful smile. 

“I look forward to seeing what you come up with.” She says, and then turns and leaves the room, Blix swooping out behind her. 

As soon as she left the room Briareth pounced on the letter and scanned it immediately. “Yep, Istere didn’t leave anything out. Just normal kidnapper jargon, ‘We have your Mother, yada yada… Come here and do this and that by tomorrow morning or she will die.’ Damn it! I was hoping they’d accidentally included something we could use!”

“Obviously we can’t leave her to die, and we can’t fulfill any requests.” I say. “So, rescue plan?” 

“Rescue Plan.” Briareth confirms, handing the letter off to Faladel, who stares at it, deep in thought.  

“First we need to think about where they could be holding her.” He continues. “Faladel, can you find a map of the city?” Faladel nods, and strides off, still holding the letter. Briareth turns to me, “I’m assuming the church wouldn’t be brazen enough to keep her in the castle. They have very limited space here, and too many people come and go who could hear cries for help. So, do you know any buildings the church owns outside of the city?”

“I mean, publicly?” I ask. “Just the main cathedral. But privately they could own any number of houses.” 

Briareth frowns. “That makes things difficult.”

“Wait!” I exclaim, “The records! The ones Ludgera brought us! Even private buildings have to be listed there if they belong to the church as a whole. As long as the church paid for them as residential areas for priests, they can wipe them off their taxes!”

“And if they were trying to avoid taxes as much as possible..!” Briareth trails off, an excited gleam in his eyes. 

“There’s no way they wouldn’t have listed them all.” I smile. “They want to avoid paying as much as possible after all.”

Faladel arrives back with a scroll and a ton of paperwork. He unrolls the scroll, revealing a map of the city almost half my height. Placing the paperwork down on the corners to keep it open he says. “I overheard you needed some blackmail.” And gestures to the papers. “If we’re looking for specific houses, we’ve got a lot to sort through.”

“Excellent!” Briareth cheers, more than a little excited. 

Surprisingly, his enthusiasm keeps up for hours of sorting through paperwork. At some point we stop for supper, and only then do I realize that I completely missed lunch. The last thing I ate were the muffins this morning, and I’m starving. Briareth however keeps pouring over the paperwork as he munches on his food, spewing crumbs all over the place when he suddenly shouts “AHA!”

He lifts up a singular piece of paper. “I found it! The list of estates belonging to the church, how much they’re worth, and how much was spent on them in the past year!”

“Excellent work Briareth!” I cheer. Faladel stays silent, pushing the food around on his plate. 

“Faladel?” I ask, surprised he isn’t celebrating as well. 

He startles, then glances up at us, and says “Oh, you finally found it Briareth? Well done!”

“Yep!” Briareth says, seemingly not noticing Faladel’s distraction, “It even has all the addresses. And guess what? They’re all in the same area.”

“Really?” Faladel and I both ask at the same time. 

“Yep, give me a sec–” Briareth says, grabbing a quill and inkpot from the table. Dipping the quill in the ink, he begins to scribble on the map, drawing something. “Here’s the church, well, I suppose Balderk would call it a cathedral. And here’s where all the houses belonging to the priests are.”

“Of course they’d be right next to the cathedral.” I say, staring at the map. “Why didn’t I think of this before? Instead of building priest dorms in the cathedral space, ruining the view and not saving them anything on taxes, they just bought all the houses behind it and renovated them. Keep the view, save money, and keep the short commute for the priests!”

“There’s no way they convinced all those people to sell easily.” Briareth says, frowning. “I smell suspicious activity. But that’s not important right now.”

“Does that list say which houses are lived in by which priests?” I ask. 

“Yep.” Briareth confirms. “Shall I read them off to you?”

“Please do, I want to see if I recognise any names.” I reply.

“Well… Let’s see. Kildaht Dared, Tetra Kilip, Nortrud Bing, Frokard Wogen– wait, what do you think the ‘summer’ here means?” Briareth asks. 

Faladel leans over and peers over his shoulder at the paper. “Probably means he owns a second house somewhere else that he winters in. Are priests normally from the upper class, Balderk?”

“Yep.” I confirm. “If they were former nobility, and still have good ties with their families or unexpectedly became the sole heir, it’s not uncommon for them to have a second or third house somewhere.”

“Huh…” Briareth considers this for a few seconds before shrugging and continuing down the list. “Xink Canvard, Heinrik Hyk, Diemut Kajat–”

“Wait!” I stop him. 

“Do you recognise that name?” Briareth asks, 

“Maybe?” I say, “I’m trying to think, give me a second.” I consider the name carefully. Where had I heard it before? It takes much longer than a second– probably a couple of minutes, before I finally remember. I had to go all the way back to my pre-army days. It was a name tossed around by my mother and father, something about politics, I wasn’t paying much attention to pretty much anything back then. But a headline slowly came back to me. 

“High Priest Kajat.” I mutter. Then louder to the group, “Diemut Kajat is the High Priest.”

“Wait, really?” Briareth says, and then looks at the paper again. “Well no wonder his house has the most spent on ‘renovations and repairs’. Why does nobody call him by his name around here? It’s all ‘High Priest this, High Priest that.’” 

I shrug. “Formalities?” I offer. “You’d have to ask someone else if you want a better answer. But he’s always at the castle, he has far better lodgings here than any redecorated city house. So, where better to hold a captive than his city house that he keeps quiet about and almost never visits?”

“Where better indeed?” Briareth smiles at me. “I doubt he even accepts visitors there. I think we’ve struck gold, team!”

We quickly clear up supper and begin to start creating a plan. Blix and Istere return at some point, and they help flesh out the details. Throughout all this though, Faladel gives little input except when prompted, and seems very lost in thought. Eventually, worried, I bring the matter up. 

“What’s on your mind, Faladel? You’re not nearly as enthusiastic about this as Briareth.” 

“Oh, I am,” Faladel hurries to reassure me as almost all eyes in the room surreptitiously flick in his direction. “I’m just more worried about who exactly delivered all of this information to the high priest. I’ve been running it over and over again through my head. The group that benefits the most from this would obviously be the Yamats. After all, having the Prince out of the way because of treason means their path to the throne is clear. The church isn’t actually getting much out of this besides a boost to their pride, yes, the evidence will look all faked if someone else brings it up again, but who would? Yaluda was their main opponent and only because Briareth, Balderk, and I demanded that the war stop as part of our participation.

“Meanwhile, I keep going over the list of potential suspects. Technically, it really isn’t that many people. I’m assuming although you revealed your identity to all of us,” Faladel nods at Istere “You wouldn’t reveal it to your private guard because you know they have traitors.” 

“Yes.” Istere confirms. “Although the traitors there in almost all certainly belong to my dad, not to the church or Yamat.”

“That’s what you believe.” Faladel says, “But the important point is Blix is the only one of them who knows enough to tell. And, as I see it, even if I didn’t know about your close relationship, there’s no reason why if he somehow turned traitor, he wouldn’t tell everything, including our new hideout. Likewise, you would have no reason to betray yourself and us. I can vouch for Balderk, Briareth, and myself; so this really only leaves four people who could betray us.”

Istere catches on quickly. “Lutti, Beni, Ludgera and Agnark. And of course, Lutti and Beni were the only reason you guys escaped from the church’s first attempt.”

“Exactly.” Faladel nods. “I hate to point fingers, but…”

I’m almost surprised that Istere’s glare doesn’t set the map on the table on fire. “I hate it when I’m right about these things.” She hisses between gritted teeth. “They were so quick to leave after I told them my identity. Blix, make sure they don’t get any more information that could hurt us. Tell the guards to tell them nothing. We may have to move ourselves again, since they’ve visited us here once already. Set any guards we have here on high alert.”

“Your Highness, are you sure it’s a good idea to let them know that we know they’re the traitors?” Blix cautioned. “Perhaps it would be better to feed them a steady stream of false information.”

“Under normal circumstances, I would agree with you.” Istere says frowning. “However, things are moving too fast, and Ludgera is fiendishly clever. I don’t have time to plot out detailed false moves to feed her, and she’d catch on too quickly to anything less than excellent lies with at least a little evidence to back them up. Better to let her know that we know it’s one of them, and let her stew in fear of what will happen when we succeed.”

Blix nods, and goes to relay that information to the guard outside the door. Meanwhile, Istere doubles down on the planning, and as soon as we’ve worked out all the major problems, gone through it three times looking for more, and can’t think of any more complications that could throw it off track, we finally head to bed. Istere says she’ll wake us at three a.m so we can headout. 

I don’t think I’ll get any rest at all, but somehow, once my eyes close, I immediately fall into a deep, dreamless sleep.

It’s pitch black when I jolt awake, someone had grabbed my shoulder. For some reason, I’m not groggy at all, my mind is perfectly clear, and so when my vision focuses on Istere’s bearded face, I already know why she’s here. 

“Time to go?” I ask softly. She nods. 

“Everyone else is already up, you were the last one I woke. Is there anything you need to grab?” 

“Breakfast. Can’t save the Queen on an empty stomach.” I joke, Istere smiles at me and although this room has no lights, her golden eyes still sparkle. 

“Briareth thought the same. He’s already eating some eggs I had Blix grab.”

“I think I’ll join him then.” I say and smile at her. She smiles back, not quite as wide as the smile at my joke was, but I’m still grateful for it. I’m not sure if she understands that I’ve mostly made my peace with her identity, but this isn’t the time or place to talk about our feelings. Right now, we need to go save her mother. 

I hop out of bed and head into the main sitting room where Blix is going over the plan one last time with the others. Sure enough, Briareth has a small platter of hard boiled eggs in front of him, and he’s happily munching on one. Faladel nibbles one absentmindedly as he stares over Blix’s shoulder. I plop down in a chair and catch the ending of the lecture as I snag an egg and gulp it down. 

“Expect security to be up around the entire area. The High Priest will probably have mercenaries dressed in guards uniforms. It would be dumb if he didn’t, since tonight is the only night we’d be able to stage a rescue. Most likely Team B will face quite a few blunt questions and spearbuts before you reach your destination. However, if your costumes are convincing, you shouldn’t face any spearheads.” Blix stares at Briareth and I. “Instead of eating, you should probably be prepping those costumes.” He says.

“Hey, nutrition is important!” Briareth protests. “I make it a point not to go into any life threatening situations on an empty stomach, and every time I’ve made it back alive, so it has to be doing some good!” 

“What he said.” I say, stealing another one of the eggs on his plate. 

Blix sighs, but doesn’t nag us anymore, instead turning to Istere and Faladel to go over their group’s part. “Faladel, you should also get on your disguise, but that will have to wait until Briareth can help you, since you’re supposed to be dressing up as him. Remember, our job as Team A is to get caught and hold their attention in one place while Team B does the actual rescuing. We need to hold their attention for at least thirty minutes, but we won’t be enacting our escape plan until it gets dangerous or until we hear a commotion saying the Queen has escaped. Briareth, did you finish that flashing rune you said you could make?”

“Af caurse!” Briareth confirms through a mouthful of egg. He pulls a small stone out of his pocket and sets it on the table. Swallowing, he adds on “It won’t go off until four-o’clock exact, and then it will blind pretty much everyone around for at least a few seconds. I adjusted it so that it will alert you by heating up a little bit first, so you have time to close your eyes.”

“Perfect. Better than I expected. Thank you.” Blix says, Istere tucks the stone into her pocket. “I and Istere will go get on our disguises. Faladel, come join us after Briareth finishes your base disguise.” Faladel nods, and we split up. 

In fifteen minutes, we’ve all donned our disguises and meet up in front of the exit. Faladel, Blix, and Istere all look very suspicious in black clothes that cover their entire bodies. Faladel looks especially ridiculous, hunched over in a vain attempt to look smaller. Meanwhile Briareth and I just look like normal peasants. Shabby thin clothes, brown hooded cloaks, dirt smudged on our faces, nowhere near as eye-catching as Istere’s group. We head out first, at 3:20, making our way out of the castle from a secret passage that’s supposed to be an escape route for royalty. I’m almost immediately lost, but Briareth has it all in hand, perfectly remembering the instructions Istere pointed out last night to find it. Within five minutes, we’re out on the quiet city streets. There are people out, some carrying torches or lanterns, some darting between shadows, we join the shadowed ones. Somewhere behind us I know Faladel, Blix and Istere are making their own way out of the castle, and darting over the rooftops to get towards the church. 

Briareth and I head in the rough direction of the church through the lower districts, and Briareth only gets lost once. I’m super impressed. All those twisting alleys, and yet he still manages to find a way. However, even though it’s impressive, I’m still nervous. I don’t know where my friends are, if they’re in trouble or not. But I thrust those thoughts aside and focus on my current situation. Deep breath in, deep breath out. A soft fog in the air, grime in my mouth and throat. Cracks of sickly yellow light from behind closed doors and shuttered windows. Cobblestones so dirty that my feet make no sound on it. Briareth is certainly taking us through the poorer sections of the city. It’s probably the shortcut Blix had pointed out on the map. 

As we take a right, and then an immediate left, Briareth pulls me into a small crack between boarded up houses, and gestures to me to be quiet. In front of us pass a small platoon of guards, just seven, but they look a lot more grizzled and tough than any city guards I’ve seen. 

“Mercs” Briareth whispers after they’re gone. “Come on, we’ve got to keep going.”

“Oh, leaving us so soon?” A nasally voice snarls. “But the boys and I haven’t even shown you a proper welcome yet.” I twist around immediately, and see five big dwarves standing deeper in what I had thought was only a crack. Apparently, it opens up into a larger alley, and on the wall I spot a crude black swan drawn in pitch. To dodge the guards, we’d stepped into gang territory, and thereby declared ourselves fair game. Whoops. Big whoops.   

Almost all of the men accosting us look to be army rejects or scavengers– those who avoided conscription and have to live outside the law. A few have missing limbs, one is missing an eye, but they all look like they’ve been in numerous fights. Briareth, undaunted squares up, pulling two daggers from somewhere and tossing me one. 

“Yes.” He replies. “Leaving was our intention. Unless… did you want to try and stop us?”

Their leader, a dwarf with all his limbs and eyes, glares at us with both of them. “As soon as you stepped into Black Swan territory, you forfeited your right to life, limbs, and valuables. But you can leave if you and your friend can cough up ten gold each right now.” 

“Do we look like we can afford that?” Briareth deadpans. “You’d get more out of selling our organs than robbing us blind, mate.” 

“Well in that case, don’t mind if I do.” The man says, grinning wickedly. He draws a short sword, and almost all of his buddies draw weapons of their own, ranging from daggers to slingshots. Slowly, they begin to approach, probably wary of Briareth’s continued cocky attitude. 

They have reason to be. Suddenly Briareth throws the dagger in his front hand, hitting the slingshot guy in the knee, who’d been attempting to quietly load his weapon. He howls, his stone goes wild, breaking a nearby window, and all hell breaks loose. 

I dodge a short sword, and jab my dagger at the body that thrust it at me. Something inside me switches on, and instead of an enclosed alleyway, I can see myself on the fields of battle once more. Instead of a dagger, I hold a sword, and the same instincts that guided me then guide me now as I pull myself back to the present and thrust my dagger into the chest of the faceless dwarf in front of me. Grabbing his sword arm and twisting, I steal his weapon, facing my next opponent with something that has a bit more reach than a tiny dagger. 

As the fight goes on, I realize we actually have the advantage. Briareth is brilliant with his daggers, and since we’re in a tinier part of the passageway, the thugs can only face us two at a time. As I trade blows with another gangster, the clangs echoing through the dark streets, I realize that that was probably why he took out the only long range guy first. I grin, and snake my shortsword down to hit his hand, raising my dagger in the other to block his blow at my exposed face. He screams as the shortsword hits it’s mark, chopping one of his fingers off at the knuckle. Backing off, he snarls at me and then runs away. I gasp and pant, trying to catch my breath as I prepare for my next assailant. 

But none comes. Glancing at Briareth, I realize that besides the guy dead at his feat, and the guy dead at mine, we’re alone again in this alley. 

“Did we win?” I ask him. “Did they cut their losses and run?”

Briareth frowns at the deserted alley, but before he can answer me a bright light from behind us casts our shadows forward and onto the bodies. 

“Drop your weapons.” A gruff voice orders. It’s not loud, but it is commanding. Slowly, Briareth and I turn around to face this new threat. The mercenaries have returned, with reinforcements, and they all look pissed. Slowly, I drop my weapons, and I hear Briareth’s daggers clatter to the ground as well. This wasn’t supposed to happen. We weren’t supposed to be the group that gets caught. 

“Suspiciously competent peasants causing trouble on tonight of all nights?” The apparent leader asks. “We’re going to have to take you in boys. It will be easier for all of us if you cooperate.”

Briareth, surprisingly, stays silent. Somehow, even though they have over five times our number, I wasn’t expecting that reaction from him. He keeps his head down and his hands up in the air in a gesture of harmlessness, staring at the mercenaries from under his hood. 

“We won’t cause any trouble.” I say, realizing that their leader actually wants some confirmation. 

“Excellent.” He replies, and nods to his men. They quickly surround us, tie our hands behind our back, and march us off in the direction we were originally heading, towards the back end of the cathedral. Instead of stopping in any of the houses however, we head directly into the church grounds, and into one of the small buildings on the side of the cathedral.

It is a small, dirty room, filled with rakes and hoes and gardening materials of all sorts. Giving short instructions to his men, the leader soon adds two chairs to the mix. Without further ado, our hands and feet are tied to them, and our hoods are ripped back, revealing our faces. 

“State your name and business for being out so late.” The leader says, crouching so as to be at eye level with us. 

Thinking fast I say “My name’s Kiack, his is Dalton, we were out here because we–” I hesitate, trying to come up with a good excuse. 

“We we’re in need of meds for our ma.” Briareth takes over “We’d heard about a good dealer on 7th ave, and we was hoping to snitch from his stock. Those bandits hit us on our way out, probably guessin’ we hads the money for that sort of thing. We was just defendin’ ourselves.” As he weaves the story, he quickly adopts an accent and the cityfolk grammar. 

The leader stares at us, unconvinced. “You two don’t look like siblings.” It was true, Briareth’s skin tone and rust red hair were completely different from my brown hair and lightly tanned look. Neither of us really looked like cityfolk, I was obviously a country boy on close inspection, and our disguises couldn’t do much to hide that. 

“Chosen family still be family.” Briareth claims. “That’s what ma always told us.”

“Hmmm…” The captain says, seemingly unconvinced. One of the guards enters the tiny building, somehow stuffing it even more full with guards, and up to the front passes a set of papers. I gulp as I catch a glimpse of one of them in the leaders’ hands. 

They’re drawings of faces. Our faces– mine, Istere’s, Blix’s and even Briareth’s and Faladel’s. Slowly the leader of the mercenaries looks through the papers, carefully scanning the drawn faces. Then he looks at us, leaning forward to get a closer inspection.

Without warning, his hand snakes up and yanks Briareth’s false beard off. 

“Hey, that hurt!” Briareth snaps, dropping the accent. 

“Excellent storytelling.” The leader says dryly, and then, standing up and turning to face his men, “Tard, Aslak, and Igland– stay in here and interrogate these two. I want answers as to where they’re friends are by the time I’m back. Dangant and Urdlet, stand guard outside in case of trouble. The rest of you come with me. We need to tell the High Priest that his little friends actually did show up.”

He and most of his men march out, leaving only three in here with us. Briareth glares after them as the three remaining mercenaries huddle for a few seconds, discussing something. 

Soon, one of them approaches us. 

“So, you’re one of those elves and the traitor dwarf everyone in the castle was talking about a while back.” He sneers. “The boss doesn’t much like elves, or traitors for that matter, but we’ll see if we can at least grant you a quick death if you tell us where your buddies are. How about that?”

“That’s the best deal you can come up with?” Briareth snorts. “Demented old ladies can strike better bargains than you.”

“We aren’t telling you anything.” I concur, glaring at them stonily. “Easy death or painful one, neither would make us give them up.”

“Give up already! Your plan failed!” The dwarf shouts at us, angered by Briareth’s cheeky response and my stubbornness. “We know you didn’t come here by yourselves, So where’s Prince Yaluda!? We’re going to catch him and his pet guard soon, so save yourselves the pain of getting tortured by our boss when he comes back and tell us already!” 

Briareth chuckles, and shakes his head as my heart flutters. Our teammates haven’t been caught yet?

 “Oh this is brilliant!” He announces, laughing outright. “You don’t know where they are? Well your lives are going to be miserable!” 

“What?” The guard asks, “Why?! Where is he?!” 

“Not telling!” Briareth cackles “And it sounds like your boss isn’t going to like that. Here, out of pity, I’ll give you a hint.” He leans forward and winks at our captors.  “Yaluda’s not anywhere in the cathedral grounds! That narrows it down for you guys, right?!” 

“ARGGHH!” The guard moans, tearing at his hair and beard in annoyance. 

I almost feel pity for him. 

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