His Highness, Faladel, and I dash over the city rooftops, and I’m surprised at how well Faladel can keep up. I trained at this for years, and forced his Highness to train with me so that we could take this route out of the castle if we were ever discovered. I certainly never thought we’d be using it to save the queen, much less be in the company of an elf while doing it! Surprisingly, we face very little resistance, both on our way out of the castle, and as we head straight towards the cathedral. We dodge a few guards, but there are a lot less of them than I expected.
Somethings wrong, but if we’re going to save the queen, we don’t have time to worry about it.
Faladel, despite his numerous layers of disguises and probable lack of training, is almost silent on his feet as we run across the rooftops, and he doesn’t even balk when we have to leap across a small street. He falls slightly behind when we transition to the steeper angled rooftops of the poorer residential sections of the city, but we only have to slow down slightly for him to be able to keep up. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was trained at this sort of thing. I want to ask him about it, but now isn’t the time. As we approach the cathedral, I let His Highness take the lead.
Just a few houses away from our target, right next to the cathedral wall, Istere holds up her hand in a fist, a sign for us to stop. I halt immediately, but it takes Faladel a few more steps to realize we aren’t going anywhere.
“Something’s wrong.” Istere says, frowning. “Where are all the mercenaries? We should have been intercepted by now.” I smile. She noticed what I’d noticed. Good.
Faladel cocks his head slightly, “Do you hear that?” He asks quietly, and I shake my head.
His Highness though, cups one hand around her ear and closes her eyes. Suddenly they shoot open, a startling flash of gold amidst her black outfit and hair. “Footsteps.” She hisses, “Down!” We all crouch low, and peer into the cathedral courtyard. From a tiny hut on the side of the massive church, emerges at least twenty dwarves, all dressed in ill-fitting uniforms of the city guard.
“I think we found our mercenaries.” I murmur, watching as their apparent leader dismisses almost all of them back to their posts and then starts walking towards us. He carries a lantern, and most of his men carry torches, illuminating weathered, bearded faces with harsh, unflattering yellow light.
Their captain slowly changes his angle of approach, heading slightly to our left and following a path. As he passes out of our sight, we breathe a collective sigh of relief.
“They can’t have captured Braireth and Balderk in there can they?” Faladel whispers, once all the guards– except two posted outside the shed they’d been gathered in– have left our line of sight.
“I don’t know.” Istere answers grimly. “But I think it would be best to assume they have.”
Faladel pales slightly as he processes this, and then his face hardens. “So it’s up to us to rescue your mother?” He asks. Istere and I nod at practically the same time. “We should get going then.” He says, and starts standing up, but I put a hand on his leg.
“Wait,” I caution. “It’s likely that if they captured Briareth and Balderk, their leader is going right now to report to the High Priest.”
“If we wait,” Istere continues, smiling as she draws the conclusion. “Both the High Priest and leader of the mercenaries should leave the house my mother is being kept in.”
Beneath the black hood and mask, and under the false beard, I sense Faladel’s smile as he understands. We slowly, quietly, approach the High Priest’s city home. It is far fancier than any of the other houses in this neighborhood, and it’s quite clear he spent a ton of money renovating it and the houses around it, although they don’t nearly have the same splendor. Light pours out of its entryway as we watch the leader of the mercenaries exits, and, following him, the High Priest. As soon as they disappear back into the cathedral courtyard, Istere gets to her feet, takes a running leap to the target roof, and slides in through one of the open fourth floor windows. Carefully, I follow her, and help Faladel inside, who’s obviously less talented at this than he is at rooftop running.
The fourth floor is almost completely dark, only illuminated by the moon and stars through our entry window, and the lights that make their way up the stairs. Slowly, we make our way from room to room, there are no servants here, no other people on this floor, only a few mice and bugs.
Downstairs though, there is light and there is a soft humming. I frown, the Queen can’t be the only person in this house right? Surely the High Priest left some guards, maybe they’re the one’s humming?
With barely a breath, I ask Istere, and she shakes her head.
“That’s my mom’s voice, Blix.” She whispers back, “She used to sing and hum me to sleep when I had nightmares. I’d know it anywhere. We have to get her out, before they come back.” I give her a sharp nod, and we descend the stairs. Although the lights here on the third floor are lit, the humming isn’t coming from here, it’s from below. While I’m hesitating, wanting to suggest that we search this floor in case it’s occupied, the humming stops.
We hear a soft thump and His Highness’s eyes shoot wide open with alarm. Cautiously, but quickly, she descends the stairs. The second floor’s main room is filled with a hazy purple smoke that tastes sour in my lungs and gives me a brief sense of weightlessness. Faladel wrinkles his nose, and then starts coughing loudly, retreating back upstairs for fresh air. Istere and I press forward though. Her breaths are quick and shallow, and her eyes flick around, trying to find the source of the strange gas.
A smell of burnt leaves, a scent that is familiar, grows stronger as the smoke grows thicker. As we enter the bedroom, I identify the smell. Blumwort. The drug that the High Priest has reportedly been smuggling, someone is burning it deliberately. I feel woozy, my mind is succumbing slowly to the gaseous narcotic. I glance at His Highness worriedly.
“We can’t stay here much longer, we have to find the Queen and get out!” I hiss.
“We’ve found her.” Istere says. I follow her eyes, follow the tip of her pointing finger.
The Queen lays on the bed. A strange device filled with glowing yellow coals and a pile of leaves stands on the bedside table, quickly emitting even more of the smoke, making it dense enough to knock someone out.
The Queen doesn’t look distressed, her face is smiling, she’s tucked into the bed, no chains or anything. If it weren’t for the fact that she’s still dressed in an evening gown, I would guess that she’d put herself to bed for the night. As it is, it’s almost certain that she at least was expecting the Blumwort to be burnt, if she didn’t light it herself. Which adds a lot of complications to our little rescue mission.
His Highness doesn’t pause to think about any of this however, she dives right into the smokey room and lifts the Queen off of the bed, struggling under her weight. I go and help her, and together, we carry her Majesty out and up the stairs. Faladel helps us hoist her through the window, and we slowly, carefully start heading back to the castle with our precious burden.
Once we are a few streets away, Istere’s eyes widen, she hands off her mother’s feet to Faladel, and grabs at her back pocket. My eyes mimic hers as I remember what she had stored in there. “Close your eyes!” She shouts, trying to cover the rune.
I shut them immediately, but the rune is so strong that it lights the inside of my lids as if it were day, and for a few seconds afterwards, I see an afterimage, and everything is tinged with orange.
“We have to get back to the castle!” I shout as soon as the afterimage wears off. “How in the world did we forget about that!” I hiss under my breath.
Needless to say, Briareth and I give nothing away to our captors, not even when the High Priest himself arrives. Briareth just keeps dodging the questions and insulting our ‘hosts’, driving the High Priest to actually stomping his foot like a child at one point.
Right after Briareth’s been given yet another resounding Slap! he wrinkles his nose and says “Your hand smells like a tuna and mayo sandwich that’s been left in the sun too long! Are you trying to disgust me into giving you information?”
The High Priest looks like he’d love to give a not-quite-withering response, but the mercenary leader, who appears to be very tired by this point, grabs his shoulder and stops him. He whispers something to the priest and they both look at me, before the priest nods back. I chew my lip nervously, I won’t give in. I won’t. No matter what, I won’t tell them anything.
But before they can start to try anything, a guard bursts in and says, “Sorry to interrupt, Sir. We have an incident. There was this bright light–” My eyes widen, realizing what it must have been, and Briareth suddenly kicks out and upwards, sending a dagger that was clutched between his bare toes right between the mercenary’s eyes, killing him instantly.
The whole room freezes for a second, out of pure shock. How did he even–? I wonder weren’t his feet tied to the chair like mine?
Then chaos breaks out as Briareth lurches to his feet, more daggers suddenly appearing in his hands. He throws one to me, lodging firmly in the chair arm after cutting the rope tying my right hand to the chair. In the same movement, he gets to his feet, his chair still attached to his arms, and launches himself backwards into one of our guards. The captain shouts for the mercenaries outside the door, as I cut furiously at the ropes on my left hand and ankles.
Five guards, the High Priest, and the mercenary leader… It looks like it’s going to be a difficult fight, especially since Briareth and I aren’t even free of our chairs yet, but Briareth gets rid of the two coming in through the door with two more daggers and the High Priest looks unarmed. That quickly changes though when he leans down and grabs the longsword of one of the now-dead mercenaries in the doorway.
“Give! UP!” He shouts at us, waving the sword haphazardly. “There are more men on their way here now!”
Briareth stares at him and raises an eyebrow. “Captain–” he says to the mercenary leader “–I’m guessing you’re a captain– You might want to relieve the priest of his sword. He looks like he’d be more of a danger to himself than to Balderk or I.”
The mercenary leader actually looks like he’s considering it for half a second, and then he draws his own sword, much more casually, and replies. “He’d probably refuse to pay me if I do that.”
“I won’t pay you a single copper if they get away!” The High Priest threatens, and the mercenary leader sighs slightly, beckoning his three remaining men to circle us.
By this point I’ve freed myself, and am standing back to back with Briareth as the circle slowly closes. Together, we knock away sword advances that get too close, but with only daggers we can’t do much. We’re going to have to do something drastic to get ourselves out of here, or we will end up in an even worse situation than what we started with. Briareth’s smug smile doesn’t fade however, and I hope he has a plan.
My best plan is to lunge for one of the guards’ ankles, or maybe make that the High priest’s. My eyes flick to my target and I reconsider. The guards might be better, they may still think that they have to take me alive, but the High Priest, terrible as his sword skills might be, looks ready to kill. I blame Briareth’s insults for that. I flick my eyes back to the three guards, trying to find a weak point, then to the door behind the mercenary leader. He’s the quickest way through, but he’s also probably their strongest fighter.
Before I can make a decision though, the room suddenly fills with orange smoke that smells like rotten eggs as Briareth shouts some nonsense. The only word I can catch in there is “GO!” So I lunge, blinded, at the Mercenary leader’s ankles. Through the smoke I can hear a few screams and shouts. I hit meaty, slightly hairy legs and blindly stab at the knees. A snarl of pain. A sword that strikes down and barely misses. It strikes again, leaving a trail of heat across my shoulder and back.
A shout from nearby, I hear the whistle of a sword whooshing through the air above my head and a thunk. The mercenary leader’s body goes limp and falls, I desperately dive to avoid getting trapped under it.
Suddenly the orange smoke is gone and I can see again. Maybe ten, maybe fifteen seconds have passed, but the results are drastic. Next to me lies the beheaded body of the mercenary leader, the High Priest stands over us shocked, his sword dripping the man’s crimson blood, staining the soft brown floor. Meanwhile, Briareth is just finishing off the third of the guards. Quickly cutting the stunned man’s throat, he strides over to the High Priest as I slowly stand up, suddenly feeling a sharp pain from my wounded shoulder, hot blood leaking into my shirt.
With a quick, firm strike from a longsword he stole off one of the guards, Briareth disarms the shocked High Priest.
“Seriously,” He says, shaking his head. “What sort of person holds a kidnapped hostage in a house under their own name? That is just so dumb.”
“I–I–” The High Priest stutters, lost for words as he stares at the dead bodies of his hired experts.
“I don’t want to hear it.” Briareth says, tearing at his already ragged clothes to create a gag and stuffing it in the High Priest’s mouth. “You were obviously too arrogant, thinking that nobody would find out that the place belonged to you, and even if they did, they wouldn’t have the guts to search it. Well, guess what? We did. You’ve lost, so give up. And don’t ever try something like this again.”
“Wait, aren’t we going to kill him?” I ask Briareth. The High Priest twists towards me, eyes absolutely terrified.
“No.” Briareth stares at the terrified expression. “Unfortunately not. I think his disappearance wouldn’t go unnoticed. People would ask questions, and it could lead to investigations which we won’t want. We’ll spare his life this time. Next time though…” He leans over, talking directly into the High Priest’s ear “You won’t be so lucky.”
He searches the High Priest thoroughly, snitching a vial of poison and a tiny dagger off his person. Then we take all the weapons off the dead bodies, and leave him, tied up and abandoned with the corpses.
“They’ll probably find him some time tomorrow afternoon.” Briareth confides in me as we head back through the city streets. “Right about when the bodies start to really smell in the heat. But if he’s got any survival instincts at all, it will get swept under the rug. If the others did their part and rescued the Queen, the High Priest doesn’t have any more hostages. And with that fiasco, he knows how incompetent he is, and how good we are. He’ll submit, or he will die.”
“I still don’t understand though.” I say, “How were your feet free to throw that dagger at the beginning? They had been tied to the chair, right?”
“Flexible toes.” Briareth shrugs. “And a dagger in my sock. Good thing those guys forgot to search us, otherwise, we might really have been in trouble!”
When we arrive back at our new room in the castle, everyone is there. I suffered the only injury in the group, so Blix tends to me while Briareth investigates the poison the High Priest had, and Faladel and Istere try to wake up the Queen. Istere has taken her beard and her disguise off, so when the Queen finally opens her eyes, her first word is her daughter’s name.
“Istere?” She asks. “Is it really you?”
Istere’s golden eyes widen, as if surprised that her mother recognises her. “Yes, ma, it’s me. It’s me.” She says gently as her mother reaches up and caresses her face.
“Oh! I knew it!” Her face breaks into a beatific smile. “I’ve finally reached you! His Holiness promised that the special retreat would do it! The rituals never worked before, I was beginning to lose hope, but–! Oh, I’m so grateful! I’ll have to give a huge donation this time around. Tell me dearest, how have you been? You’re older now, you look so lovely! How is the afterlife?! The other dead spirits haven’t been bullying you, have they?”
Istere starts to tear up a little as she smiles back. “Ma, I’m not dead! I never was dead. I’m alive! I’ve been alive all these years!” It’s clearly a relief to share her identity with the person who probably mourned her the most.
However, the Queen doesn’t seem to understand. Her still cloudy eyes blink in confusion at her daughters’ face. “What?! But that can’t be! You are dead! I mourned you, I went to your funeral. Wait, where are we?” She asks, finally looking around, taking a second to review her surroundings. “This doesn’t look like an afterlife, this looks like… a study?”
Her confusion is obvious, and Istere struggles to explain. “You’re back in the castle! You’re safe now. The High Priest– he was drugging you, using you.”
“That doesn’t make sense honey, the High Priest is a holy man, he’s a man of the church.” The Queen says firmly. “I can accept that you’re alive, that you’ve been alive all this time. Even if you did neglect to contact me.” She hesitates for a few seconds, pain crossing over her face as she realizes that she wasn’t considered trustworthy enough to tell, but then she continues as if nothing happened. “But even though you’ve miraculously survived for this long, that doesn’t mean you know everything. Those herbs were blessed, they were going to temporarily take me to the afterlife so I could visit your spirit. They weren’t drugs. The High Priest would never do anything so unscrupulous. This is another one of those mad ideas your brother put in your head wasn’t it? I bet it was his idea to hide the fact that you were alive from me this entire time too?!” She pushes herself upright, turning to glare at the rest of us.
“Where is he?! I know he’s around here somewhere! I want a word with him!” She shouts, her tone still commanding even though she can barely lift her own weight. “Who are these companions of yours anyway? They certainly don’t look like company a princess should keep!”
“Ma.” Istere says calmly, but I hear a hint of repressed frustration in her voice. “These are my friends. Blix here helped me survive after dad tried to kill me and –”
“You’re my step-son’s captain of his guards aren’t you?! Where is he?!” The Queen demands of Blix, cutting off Istere. Blix looks uncomfortably between Istere and the Queen, obviously not sure how to explain things.
“I’ll get to that shortly.” Istere says, trying to calm her down, “In the meantime, the rest of my friends here are Balderk,” I bow, assuming we’re supposed to all be pretending to be good dwarven citizens. “Briareth,” Briareth does a fancy swooping bow, that I have no clue where he learned, “and Faladel.” Istere finishes. Faladel doesn’t seem to get the message, and only nods perfunctorily.
The Queen sniffs, staring at us, unimpressed. “Istere my dear, what were you thinking! Only one of them appears to have even some sort of semblance of courtly manners. He is… Alright, I suppose.” She nods towards Briareth, “But the other two are just awful! Practically ruffians! The first one bows like a commoner, and the second one he didn’t even try! He’s so… tall too” Her face twists in disgust, and then her eyes flare with alarm “He is a dwarf isn’t he?! He isn’t one of those horrid elves that escaped that your father told me about! He said that Yaluda was harboring those elves, but I didn’t believe him…” She trails off, staring at Faladel.
“Ma.” Istere sighs, obviously more than a little fed up now. “Yaluda didn’t break the elves out, I did. I found out that you were captured–”
The Queen interrupts her again. “You did what?! Istere, you have to put them back right now! Those elves are dangerous criminals! They could hurt you, ruin your good name!”
“Ma, you’re not listening!” Istere shouts. “They are my friends! They’re not dangerous, they’ve been helping me!”
“They’re using you!” The queen shouts back. “Just like your step-brother used you and nearly got you killed! Where is that scum?! I want him here right now to answer my questions!”
“Well then you’ve got him!” Istere shouts back. “For the past two years, I’ve been Yaluda, because Yaluda was the one who died!” She hesitates, realizing what she just said. More gently she continues. “Ma, everything you thought was Yaluda for the past couple of years, it’s been me. I took his place, it was the safest decision.”
The Queen flops back onto the couch, staring at the ceiling, a look of shock frozen on her face.
“You…” She eventually says, “You’ve been Yaluda.” It isn’t a question. But Istere confirms it.
“Yes ma.” She starts tearing up. “Yaluda died that day. Father’s guards killed him, they tried to kill me, but I got away. He’s been dead ever since, and ever since I’ve been him.”
“So that one week after…”
“I was learning how to be Yaluda with Blix’s help. He found me, he protected me, and now we protect each other and work to make this castle– this kingdom a better place. We work to fulfill our dreams.”
“No.” The Queen shakes her head. “You work to fulfill your step-brother’s dreams. You work to fulfill his dreams!” She points at Blix, her finger shaking. “My daughter never would have maligned a priest, much less the high priest– my little Istere wouldn’t even have thought of breaking out convicted criminals from jail to help in some hairbrained scheme, to– to what?! I don’t even know what you’re trying to do here! It’s all well and fair to say you’re trying to make the world a better place, but what are you actually doing?!”
“I–” Istere’s eyes widen, and I instantly get why. She can’t tell her mother that she’s trying to kill her father. That would only make things way worse. “I’m going to create peace between the elves and the dwarves.” She says instead.
“But why?!” Her mother asks incredulously. “This war is destined. We’re winning! Your father was just talking of sending more troops so that those stupid elves can finally be wiped out and we don’t have to sacrifice any more of our children!”
“Do you even hear yourself, ma?” Istere asks. “Those new troops that father was talking about– they’re literal children! We are talking thirteen year-olds being sent to the front lines! Meanwhile, we have a way to stop all this slaughter right here!” She gestures at Faladel and Briareth.
“And what are you going to do with them? Sign a peace treaty?! Istere, you’re a princess, not a prince! Just because you’re dressed as Yaluda, doesn’t make you the heir! You have no power, and thank goodness you don’t, or you’d make everything so much worse! You could end up causing a civil war like this if you were a boy! Just,” The Queen sits up again and grabs Istere’s hand. “Admit that you were wrong about all this nonsense and come back. I can make your father see, make him realize you aren’t a threat. We can cover all of this nonsense up. Things can return to how they were.”
A tear slides down Istere’s cheek. “You’ve always been like this, ma. I don’t want to go back to the ignorant child I was before all this! My brother made me see things for what they were, you and father always tried to keep me in ignorance. And then Father went and killed Yaluda for doing the right thing, simply because it made him scared that his son was growing a spine, and now you blame Yaluda? You’re in denial. Denial about Yaluda! Denial about my father! Denial about me! Even denial about your beloved church! We have evidence! Evidence that they’re corrupt and have been misusing church funds for years, running a drug ring, avoiding taxes, and embezzling donations. But even if I showed it all to you, you’d never believe me! You’d never understand that things can be different from the way you see them! That you can be wrong!”
“I can be wrong!” The Queen argues. “But I’m not wrong about this! This isn’t who you are!”
“You don’t know who I am! You haven’t known for years! And that’s the problem!” Istere shouts back, and then she calms down. Quickly. Just a deep breath, and then all that anger and rage are contained. Constrained behind an iron mask of pure will. “I’ve changed mom.” She says firmly– no longer arguing, but just setting a boundary. “I’m not an eighteen year old who’s desperate to mold herself to your desires anymore. I haven’t been for years, and you haven’t been seeing that. I’ve grown into my own person with my own desires, not my brother’s, not your’s, not anyone else’s. I’ve learned that I can be a woman, and I can want power, and I can change the world, and that those aren’t exclusive. What will it take you to see that? To see me?”
The Queen blinks at her. “What are you talking about Istere? Who’s forcing you to say these hurtful things?! I’m your mother, of course I know you. You’ve been brainwashed, deluded by your brother’s friends and these– these elves. But we can fix you. We can return things to normal. I’ll talk to the High Priest, maybe he has some herbs that will make you feel better–”
“No! No herbs!” Blix cuts in suddenly, breaking the invisible wall between us and the queen and Istere. “There was no brainwashing, no need for fixing. This is the path Istere herself has chosen, and if you can’t accept that, then I believe it is time for you to leave.”
“You have no right–!” The Queen begins.
“You overstep your boundaries, Blix.” Istere snaps, interrupting her mother. “I would appreciate it if you stayed out of this discussion.”
“I’m sorry Your Highness, but as both your friend and your designated protector, I cannot stand by and watch this in silence any longer. The Queen may be related to you by blood, but that doesn’t mean you have to tolerate this.”
“I know, Blix.” Istere says. “And I thank you for your input. And,” She turns to face her mother. “He does have a point. We are getting nowhere with this discussion, ma. I think it’s time that we both take a break. Do you agree?”
“Yes,” The queen admits, swinging her legs onto the floor. “We both got a little heated back there, I think it best if we take a break for now. But please, do think about what I said. These– these new friends of yours,” her face twists as she says the words “they aren’t good for you. They’re using you. Once you come to your senses, I’ll be waiting. Your mother is always here for you dear.”
“Of course.” Istere says stonily, “And,” She grabs a paper off a nearby table. “Remember to take what I said into consideration as well.” Her face thaws a little, “When we told the church that we knew what they were up to with all the drugs and tax avoidance, they immediately went and threatened your life. So don’t go back to them, just lie low for a little while. Please.” She passes the paper to the Queen and then says. “This is proof of their treachery. A letter the High Priest himself sent us.” The Queen slowly takes the paper, her lips pursed. “And if you ever loved me at all, if any of my childhood really mattered, don’t tell father about this. About my identity, about the elves. Somewhere deep down, you know he’ll have me killed.” Istere finishes.
The Queen sighs and says “I’ll do what I can to keep you safe, my daughter.”
Istere turns back to Blix. “Can you escort her out, Blix? Blindfolded of course, we may need to move soon, but that doesn’t mean we can let even more people know about our location.”
Blix bows, going to help the Queen to her feet, but she pushes him away and stands– only a little unsteadily– on her own two feet. She submits to the blindfold without comment, but she doesn’t look happy. And the whole room waits in silence until the door clicks softly closed behind them.
“That could have gone a lot worse?” Briareth offers, first to break the silence.
“It could have gone a lot better as well. I forgot how set in her ways she is.” Istere groans, sitting on the couch her mother just vacated. “First with Faladel’s protests to killing, then with Ludgera and that Yamat kid, and now this rescue! Why is nothing going right?!”