Ludgera (about twelve hours ago)
“What?!” I exclaim angrily, but the PPG member in front of me just shrugs at me silently, his ban on giving me any information unchanged by my incredulousness. “Why is nothing going right?!” I ask Agnark as I twist on my heel and head back– I don’t even know where now, just away from here. Away from the eyes. “We had it perfect,” I hiss, still upset. “all we needed to do was give them a little information now and then, we’d already done the heavy lifting, and now, they cut us off?!!”
Agnark pats me on the back sympathetically as he glares over his shoulder at the Prince’s knight behind us. “It’s okay Skipper Squirrel, we’ll figure this out. They needed us more than we needed them.”
“That’s true enough.” I release a pent up sigh. “I just hate being kicked out of the loop, we only just got in a few days ago, now that they’ve used our information to take that fat priest down a peg, they decide to cut us off!? It’s so aggravating!”
“If you want some revenge,” Agnark hesitates, his voice dropping lower. I inch closer to hear him glancing up into his clever, mesmerizing blue eyes. “We could just rat them out.” He murmurs, his hypnotic voice lilting with a playful promise of getting even.
Normally, I would be totally down for that. But right now, it doesn’t even feel like he knows me. Right now, revenge would only make things worse! I don’t respond verbally. Too many eyes and ears here– we hadn’t even dared ask the guard member for anything more than directions because of them– but my deep purple gown swishes as I turn away and march down the hall ahead on my own. A clear rejection of his proposal. However, behind my back, I signal that we need to meet later in our hiding spot. Something has to be done, even if that something isn’t revenge.
About an hour later, Agnark finds me inside of a crowded tavern that the locals call The Puddle, even though it’s official name is A Splash of White. In its heyday, this place was populated by rich merchants, and even a few curious nobles, but it’s famous white wine got diluted as profits dipped, and then the folks with deep pockets left for greener pastures, and slowly the tavern’s pearly exterior turned a muddy brown, just like the rest of this city. Now peasants come here for cheap booze, an easy laugh, and good music. Agnark and I come here to blend in, to pretend to be normal. It’s where we first met the other’s true self instead of just the shallow exterior. It’s where we fell in love.
Agnark slides into the bench next to me, and slowly lifts off my brown hood to display my blond hair, carefully tangled and mussed so it looks less cared for. I’ve changed into a simple brown smock and smudged up my face as well, but I still get a couple appreciative glances, until Agnark’s death glare sends their wandering eyes back to staring into their cups.
Agnark of course, still stands out. He doesn’t own any peasant clothes, so he stole one of his guard’s uniforms, and he tells his father that he’s going out with school friends whenever we’re meeting up here.
Smiling at me, he starts “So, shall we spill some beans–” He hesitates, seeing my raised eyebrow, “orrrr no?” He finishes, reading my mood.
“Of course not!” I retort, and then lower my voice somewhat. We may be in a crowded tavern, where it would be hard to hear us over the music and ambient chatter, but it never hurts to be careful. “Bringing down Istere means not being able to stop this stupid draft! I need my brother to be safe, which means that the draft has to go. He wouldn’t last a second on a battlefield, he probably wouldn’t even make it through training! Our parents didn’t even consider teaching him horseback riding, much less how to wield sharp, dangerous objects like swords because he was so physically clumsy and showed no interest in such things. If he suddenly gets put in a situation like that…” I sigh miserably and shake my head. “If Istere is still planning to end the war, which is very likely considering she hasn’t ditched the elves yet, she’ll also get rid of the draft. She knows we can’t rat her out, because we’re still counting on her to keep that promise. Spilling the beans, just because we’re pissed, isn’t an option, and she knows it.”
Agnark frowns slightly, but nods in deference, understanding my point.
“I’m still worried.” He says, sipping on some third rate beer he ordered. “What if Yaluda tries to get some revenge? Break us apart, like he said he would?”
“He– I mean, she. She wouldn’t do that. I think. Unless she thinks we did something. Which is ridiculous.” I frown, and Agnark’s frown deepens. “Most likely she just cut us off because she doesn’t want to hold to her side of the bargain, to allow my family that much control over imports and exports. Although, that is a little petty, which seems unlike her.” I muse, not content with my logic. “She’s so hard to read!” I exclaim, gulping down some of my own third rate beer. “You would think that would be a small sacrifice, especially because it doesn’t even affect her.”
“Yeah,” Agnark moves one hand on top of my own. “I really don’t see Yaluda’s reason for cutting us off. Still, I want to make sure we’re safe from any sort of repercussion that could come out of this, if he does think we’re guilty of breaking the agreement for some strange reason.”
“Isn’t it better to risk repercussions by not bringing her down than to risk my brother’s life?” I ask.
“I know that you’re worried about your brother, and I think you should be, but it makes me feel like–” Agnark fidgets uncomfortably, the way he does whenever he’s being vulnerable. “Well, like you care more about him than us.”
“Oh.” I say, hesitating. I care about my brother of course, but I care about Agnark more. I just don’t think this is a realistic threat. I need to explain this right, I don’t want him to misunderstand. “You know I didn’t mean it like that–” I begin.
“I know I just–” Agnark says hurriedly, trying to justify his feelings.
“Wait! Let me finish.” I take control of the conversation again, and then hesitate for words. “I–I honestly don’t think that threat was genuine. Istere might be capable of many things, but I think we’re strong enough to survive whatever sort of repercussions she throws at us. Our love isn’t that fragile, is it?” I smile at him, normally that sort of statement would send him over the moon. I expect him to smile back, to squeeze my hand, or perhaps to kiss me after a verbal confirmation.
But instead, he stares into his beer, still glum. And a nasty little voice in my head mutters, He’s hiding something. I mentally shake it off. He wouldn’t, but his behavior is still slightly off. I need to raise his mood, to press, but in an encouraging way. To get him to tell me what he’s really worried about. There’s something more than just Istere’s repercussions here.
“We can get over anything Istere throws at us,” I repeat, smiling confidently, squeezing his hand so he can feel my sincerity before I add, semi-jokingly, “Well, unless you’re hiding a ton of secrets from me that would make me absolutely hate your guts.” I list off examples on my fingers, “Like that you’re leading seven more girls on in secret relationships like this one, or you’re actually a spy for the king and are somehow using me in a plot that will cause catastrophic damage to someone I love, or that you’re somehow my twin brother that was lost at birth and you’ve known the entire time we’ve been together, or something else completely insane.” I grin at him, and he’s actually smiling back, “But even then,” I say, turning more serious. “I would trust you first. I would want to hear your side of things. Even with irrefutable evidence before me.” I don’t know how I can make it any more clear to him that I’ll listen and be supportive. That I want to hear what’s going on with him.
Agnark doesn’t seem to get it though. Either that or– something inside of me quivers. I don’t want to think it but– He doesn’t trust me back. That nasty voice whispers.
Instead, Agnark only laughs off my declaration. “You have a wild imagination to come up with those so quickly. Perhaps you read too many novels.” His teeth glint in the firelight, his beautiful smile for the first time feeling forced.
“I will admit, some of those plot twists were stolen.” I confirm smiling, but it’s also forced. And that hurts.
Agnark gets up from the table we were at, tucks his chair in, and turns towards the door. “My father is expecting me.” He says, “I have to get going.”
“Of course, see you later.” I offer.
I eat alone that night.
When I finally get home, the house is only dimly lit. My parents are out, probably trying to revive our old prominence by going to a party of some sort that I forgot about. There are servants around of course, but just the night crew, not a lot of them, and they’re easy to avoid. I quickly make it to my room. However, once there, I am accosted, and my disguise is noticed by my personal maid, a chipper dwarf by the name of Kit Mikkelt.
“Mi’lady! Don’t tell me you snuck out again!” She says, more joking than actual scolding. She knows very well what I’ve been doing, as she was the one who helped me find the best ways to sneak out in the first place.
“Why didn’t you remind me that Mama and Papa were going to be out tonight?” I ask her reproachfully.
She shrugs. “You can’t reasonably expect me to remember everything about your life mi’lady, that’s your job, no?”
I snort. Her humor, her knowledge of sneaking around, her ability to keep a secret, and our friendship make her invaluable to me. I don’t know where I’d be without her.
“Perhaps not,” I reply as I hold out my arms and she quickly strips me and gets me ready for bed. “But, still, I’d appreciate a warning. They were probably frantic with worry.”
“I told them you had gone to a friend’s house.” Kit says innocently.
“Do they even realize I don’t actually have many female friends who are in high enough standing to invite me over on a whim?” I ask.
“I don’t believe they do Mi’lady.”
“You know you can cut that out now, right? It’s just us here.” I raise an eyebrow at her.
“Just being safe in case one of the other maids sticks their noses in.” Kit says mildly.
“And why would they?” I ask, “You’re the only one who knows that I’m home yet.”
“True. True.” Kit says, tying off my nightgown. “So, how did your meeting with the cute Yamat boy go? Spill!” She hops on the bed and taps the seat next to her.
I grin at her half-heartedly. “You always know.”
“Whenever you two meet you’re normally ecstatic.” She responds, effectively avoiding the implicit question. “So what’s wrong? What happened? You’ll feel better when you talk about it.”
I sigh. “Remember how I told you we had met with the prince, and she was actually a girl all along?”
“Yeah, you nobles are so weird. Like that is something that legitimately belongs in a story. That shouldn’t happen in real life.”
“Sometimes I think you just bug me to tell me about my day, because you absolutely hated learning to read but you loved the stories I read to you when we were kids.”
“Perhaps, but that doesn’t matter! What about the fake Prince?”
“Well, we went up to one of her guards, you know, the private ones she employs, just to simply ask for directions to her new hideout.”
“Because the castle core is confusing or because you couldn’t ask to meet up any other way?”
“Bit of both actually. Agnark and I had wanted to talk to her about her plans going forward. He had some specific questions, I had more general ones–”
“And you can’t tell me what they are because plans are dangerous but secret identities aren’t.”
“Well, I really shouldn’t have told you her identity either, I just really needed someone to talk to after that.”
“Of course. Someone you barely paid any attention to suddenly turned out to be a pretty cool role model. That kinda shakes a person’s worldview a bit.”
“Exactly. Anyways, the guard said he was forbidden from telling us anything. Like literally anything except for the fact that he couldn’t tell us anything. The Prince was quite clearly cutting ties with us for no apparent reason!”
“Wow! What in the world?! Do you have any guesses? I mean, no apparent reason, no obvious one, but any thoughts?”
“I don’t know.” I flop back onto the bed, staring at the baby blue ceiling high above. “At first I thought it was because she didn’t want to hand over all those import and export rights. I thought it was a little wonky, but surely she didn’t suspect us of doing anything to break the contract first, she was just making the deal better for herself by cutting us out knowing that I can’t turn against her without probably sacrificing my little brother’s life. It would have been a bit petty, because really she wasn’t losing anything out of that deal, and petty wasn’t at all how I had thought of her, but it made sense.
“But then Agnark.” I sigh, and blink miserably at the ceiling. “Well, he started acting a little strange. He kept getting worried about possible repercussions from this. The Prince had made this stupid threat that if we somehow broke the promise to keep all this to ourselves, she would absolutely destroy our relationship. I wasn’t worried at all about this of course. In my mind, she was the one that broke it off first, so why go to the extra effort to make us even more unhappy? But Agnark kept pushing, it felt like he really was worried, even when I explained that to him. Even when I tried to reassure him. Of course, I got a little worried, that he had actually done something, that the Prince did indeed have some reason for cutting us off, so I tried my best to tell him that he just needs to talk to me, and I’ll be on his side. I’ll trust him first. Even if the Prince tries to use this to split us up.”
“His response?” Kit asks simply.
My eyes well with tears as I recall it. “He couldn’t even meet my eyes! He just left, spouting some nonsense about his father expecting him!”
“Ooof.” Kit hisses, sympathetically. “Not a good move.”
“Exactly! If he could just trust me!” I wail, turning to bury my face in my pillow, tears spilling over my eyelids. “He probably knew that I was figuring it out, I’ve told him lots of times he’s a terrible actor. I practically gave him the perfect opportunity to confess, and he didn’t! When was he planning on telling me? Is he ever planning to admit to it? Or was he just going to let me assume forever that the Prince cut me off for no reason?!”
“Calm down, Ludgera, just breathe.” Kit strokes my back. “You’ve told me that love in the stories is always fraught with misunderstandings. Couldn’t this just be another one of them? You, misinterpreting his worries…” She trails off, and I realize she’s trying to comfort me.
I turn to face her, tears still smeared on my cheeks. “I mean, it’s possible. But– and I say this in the best way possible, Kit– I’m not usually wrong about such things.”
“All the more reason to give it some thought, and not worry overmuch about it till the morning.” Kit says sensibly. “Things will look clearer then, well everything except the smoggy sky obviously.”
I chuckle, she chuckles too, and then we hear a sharp shout from a nearby room.
“KIT MIKKELT!! GET IN HERE THIS INSTANT!!”
Kit hesitates, obviously wanting to stay by my side and talk with me for longer, but I wave her away. I don’t want her to get in trouble. With a quick curtsy and an automatic “Mi’lady.” She swishes out of the room, leaving no trace of her presence, not even a lit candle.
The moon dances through the open drapes, casting shadows on the walls, simple objects warped under its pale glow, as I close my eyes and fall asleep.
I’m woken by a soft breeze on my face. My window must be open.
I blink open my eyes, and see soft dark blue ones shining in the moonlight.
“Can I come in?” Agnark asks softly.
I jolt upright. He’s visited my room at night before, but only after giving me proper warning! Blushing furiously, I pull my blankets up to cover my nightgown. “You can come in.” I say, slightly stiffly, “But you have to sit on the chair.” I nod over to a chair in the corner.
“Of course.” Agnark slides through the window, and almost glides across the floor towards the chair, keeping a wide berth from my bed. “I wouldn’t want to ruin your reputation.” He smiles at me, the deliciously sarcastic smile he saves only for me. I snort. Being caught with him alone at this time of night, even if we’re in the most conservative clothes imaginable and standing on opposite sides of the room, would utterly ruin both our reputations.
“What brings you here?” I ask as he takes a seat, and he instantly sobers up.
“I’ve come to apologize.” He says, “You probably figured it out already, but I was holding back at supper tonight, I needed to think.” I stare at him, holding my breath, waiting.
“Again, you’re clever, you probably guessed, that I told my father about Yaluda’s real identity. He’d somehow figured out I was seeing you, somehow found out that you and I had talked to Yaluda, but he had no clue what had gone down. He threatened your family’s livelihood, and then your life when I didn’t bend. He’s powerful enough, he really could kill you if he set his mind to it. I had to give him something, So I–I told him.” Yaluda covers his face miserably. “I knew it was wrong, but it felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. Afterwards, I was almost relieved that he had threatened me into spilling the beans. I told him almost everything, enough to cause them problems, but not enough to get them killed. Identities, but not locations. They may be crazy and work with elves, but they don’t deserve to die, and it was easy to say I was blindfolded whenever we went to their hideout. Technically, it was almost true!”
“When did this happen?” I ask.
“Right after we separated after learning Yaluda’s true identity. My father confronted me as soon as I got home. Please understand,” Agnark begs, a desperate look on his face. “I didn’t bend until he brought your safety into the picture, and once I realized how unhappy you were at these after-effects, I knew I needed to fix it somehow. So I– I decided to tell you outright. I knew you would hate being kept in the dark more than anything. And–” He hesitates. “If it counts for anything, I took the time to come up with a plan to fix it. To try and repair the damage I’ve caused. We can still help Yaluda and those elvish friends of his, even if they don’t let us in on their plan.”
He looks at me, deep blue eyes the same color of the shadows in my room. “I can tell you now if you want to hear it, or if you want, I can just leave and give you some time to think. You don’t have to forgive me, but know that I just wanted you to be safe and happy.”
I keep a stern look on my face, even though my heart caved to his desperate apology ages ago. “Tell me.” I say, firmly.
He smiles, delighted. “It will take a lot of work, and we probably won’t get any sleep tonight, but it will be worth it. I promise.” He says, whipping out a couple of sheets of paper and a quill.