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Chapter 17: Trust Issues and Turmoil

Lutti and I eventually arrive in a small, obviously almost forgotten sector of the main castle building. I’m still too dazed to care about our actual location, whenever I try to concentrate, the only thing my mind returns to is the pain. The person who pretended to be Yaluda’s shocked face, pained face, inability to give any explanation. So I try not to think at all. Instead, I collapse onto an empty bed as soon as we arrive while everyone else speaks around me in hushed whispers.

“Is he okay? Did something happen to Yaluda?” Briareth’s voice asks.

“Well…” Lutti’s voice hesitates. “You could say that.” She goes on to explain what happened. I roll over, covering my head with a pillow, trying to block them out. 

“YALUDA WAS A GIRL ALL ALONG!!” Beni shouts, effectively bypassing my efforts. 

“No you idiot. Yaluda was Istere in disguise all along.” Lutti says. My mind automatically tries to find where I know that name from, it was someone important to Yaluda. His sister? Yes, his dead younger sister. Although obviously not dead now. “I wonder how long she’s been living as her brother? Did he ever even survive the assassination attempt?” Lutti asks my next question, but nobody can answer her. 

“No wonder Balderk looks distraught.” Faladel murmurs, so softly I almost can’t hear him. 

“Well, at least this explains the false beard!” Briareth claims, obviously trying to cheer everyone up.

“Wait, you knew he was wearing a false beard all along and you never once commented on that?” Faladel asks, incredulously. 

“I assumed he– well, she –was just afflicted with early onset hair loss from inbreeding or something! I thought it would be rude to pry about a topic she was clearly uncomfortable with.” Briareth defends. I can imagine all eyes in the room staring at him. “What?” He asks. “I still don’t think I was wrong to avoid bringing it up.”

“Question,” Faladel says, “It doesn’t really matter to me if Yaluda was this Istere person all along. But did you ever tell them that we moved? Or that they had the chance of being raided tonight?”

“Not exactly, Balderk ran out of there too fast. I couldn’t have him running around on his own, so I followed him without giving Istere and Blix the news. We can’t risk heading out to warn them right now, besides that passage was only ever going to be used in emergency situations. I don’t know about Istere, but Blix at least should definitely realize something’s wrong. Hopefully, he’ll be able to get her out of there.” 

“If Istere has been pretending to be Yaluda since the assassination attempt,” Beni adds, “It would explain a lot of changes.”

“A lot.” Lutti agrees

“How long have you known them? Yaluda, Istere, and Blix?” Faladel asks, and Beni and Lutti take turns answering him. They continue chatting late into the night, and, eventually, my ears learn to tune them out and I finally fall into a deep dreamless sleep.

When I wake up, my stomach rumbles, telling me it’s probably nearly noon. I slowly sit up, feeling completely at ease for all of five seconds, until memories of last night hit me full force. The warning of the raid, running through the tunnels, Yaluda– not Yaluda. I slump back in bed, suddenly wondering if my hunger is that important after all. All I want to do is stay here, safe from all thoughts, and fall back asleep. Maybe if I do that, it will turn out that yesterday never happened, and everything will go back to the way it was before. When we were close friends and confidants. 

But did that ever even exist? I wonder, as I roll over and shut my eyes. Did Not-Yaluda ever really trust me? I banish those thoughts. He, she, whatever not-Yaluda wants to be known as, had to trust me at least a little bit. Those stories we shared, the emotions, the hopes, the dreams for the future. Something in there had to be real. There’s no way Not-Yaluda could have faked all that. Some of it? Definitely. Most of it? Maybe. But not all of it. There was no way none of that was real. 

If it was all faked, I don’t know what I’ll do.

I try to fall asleep for a while longer, but I can’t, and Briareth bursting in through the small door to the bedroom shouting “Balderk! Breakfast muffins! If you don’t come now, I’m going to scarf them all!” doesn’t help. 

I glare at him from under my covers. “You can have them, just leave me in peace.”

“Told you that wouldn’t work.” Faladel’s wiry voice calls out from another room. He peers through the doorway around Briareth. “It’s okay, Istere’s not here. Not sure if you heard, but apparently that’s Yaluda’s real name.”

Yes, that was Not-Yaluda’s name. I blink at him. Somehow, amidst all the fog in my mind, I’d forgotten that. 

“Well, okay then.” I mumble, crawling out of bed.

“I wasn’t really going to eat all your muffins you know.” Briareth tries to cheer me up as I head into this other room. It’s smaller than Yalud– Istere’s study was, but it feels similar. Bookcases, a desk, and a nice table set up for us. The floor here is tile instead of wood, and the ceiling here is a lot higher and also tile, but other than that and a bit of the layout, the basic setup is the same.

“What is this place?” I ask, glancing at Faladel.

“I don’t know exactly.” Faladel answers me, “Neither did Beni or Lutti, and they seemed rather dejected by that fact. It’s somewhere deep in the castle, an abandoned little place by all accounts. They’ve been fixing it up and keeping eyes away from it, but that means they can’t really press for information on it without alerting others to its continued existence.”

“Faladel said it feels familiar.” Briareth says, his voice muffled behind a mouthful of muffin crumbs. 

Faladel flushes a little. “I don’t know, it’s something about the size, the layout, I have no clue why, but–”

“It feels like Ya– Istere. It feels like Istere’s study.” I say. I caught myself earlier this time. For some reason that doesn’t make me happy. Faladel glances at me, I can practically feel pity emanating from him like waves, and I don’t like it. I’m too tired to confront him though, instead I ask “Who brought the muffins?”

“Beni. He told me everyone is fine, they’ve alerted Lutti and Agnark that we’ve had to move.” Briareth says. “Everyone’s meeting here for a strategy session in about an hour.” 

I stare at my muffin, wondering if I can avoid that reasonably. I don’t think I want to confront Istere quite yet.

“You don’t have to participate,” Faladel says, as if reading my mind. “But it might be good for you if you do.”

“Yeah, and we’ll be here to support you.” Briareth chimes in. “You may have gotten close to the-person-you-thought-was-Yaluda while you were here, but you were our friend first, and we’ll always have your back. Besides, I’m sure you’re dying to ask this Istere person some questions.” His face suddenly darkens. “I know I would be.” Faladel and I stare at him, rather shocked by his ominous expression, but it quickly clears up to his normal smiling demeanor and he asks “What?”

“Nothing,” I avoid, not wholly convinced. I eat my muffin in silence while Faladel and Briareth try to make small talk. Blackberry, blueberry, or raspberry muffins? How do they think the raid went last night? Did we get everything out of there? What will our plan be from here on out?

It’s during the last question, while I’m slowly pushing around muffin crumbs on my plate, that Blix, Lutti, Beni, and… Istere enter the room. Istere is back to wearing the false beard and long loose robes. The chest bumps, almost certainly breasts, have conveniently disappeared again. I focus grimly on my plate of crumbs, but my eyes keep sliding back to Yaluda’s face. Istere’s face.

I’m still not used to looking at Yaluda and seeing Istere yet. Those golden eyes meet mine, but I immediately turn my attention back to my plate. 

“Are Ludgera and Agnark going to join us?” Briareth asks, getting up to greet the four newcomers. 

“Hopefully soon.” Blix replies. “We sent Ludgera a messenger, but who knows?”

“Hey Balderk.” Yal– Istere! Istere! Says to me softly. 

There are so many things I want to say to Istere but none of them come to mind. I don’t have anything to say, but I don’t want to not say anything. “Hi.” I reply lamely, not even looking at Istere for a response. I can hear the silence at our interaction, the tension in the room. 

“Anyone want some tea?” Faladel offers, sounding very stressed. He’s probably desperate to defuse it. “I can make us all a pot.”

“I’d love some tea.” Briareth agrees. 

“Me too.” Lutti says, sounding grateful. Faladel leaves the corner of my vision with the teapot. Five minutes have passed when he arrives back, but really, nothing has happened. He pours the tea, people compliment him on it, but again, all the words fade to nothingness in my mind. Nothing important passes anyone’s lips, even though by now Briareth looks like he’s ready to burst with questions. It feels like everyone’s agreed to wait till the last two members of our team get here before anything happens. 

At some point, Beni wanders off to a side door that I hadn’t noticed before and procures cookies. They’re rather stale, and quite bland, but everyone nibbles at them, waiting for someone to break first. 

Nobody does. Eventually, after what feels like hours of awkward small talk, Ludgera and Agnark arrive. Ludgera looks frazzled.

“What in the world happened? Why did you move?” She immediately questions us.

“Why are you now so hard to find?” Agnark asks, looking annoyed. “Seriously, we got lost like three times with your lousy instructi—” He cuts himself off as he spots Lutti and Beni “Who are those two?” His voice is obviously on guard, but also very derogatory at the same time. A strange mix of tones. I glance at him and Ludgera, actively beginning to take notice. 

“Loyal friends. They can be trusted. As, I hope, can you.” Istere says, and then reaches up and takes off the false beard.

“What the–” Ludgera begins

“You’re a girl?!” Her boyfriend interrupts

“How?” She asks.

“Why?!” He exclaims.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Ludgera turns to him, “She had to keep her identity secret. Was your brother the one who died in the assassination attempt? You knew someone would come for you, you were vulnerable as a female and next in line to the throne, so you just made it look like you died instead.”

“You’re the first one to figure it out that quickly.” Istere says simply, basically confirming everything. “Come and sit down. Now that we’re all here, we have a lot to talk about. 

“So, um how should we refer to you?” Briareth asks as Ludgera and Agnark join us at the now overcrowded table. “Yaluda? Or Istere? What about pronouns? This has been really bugging me. Should I think about you with he pronouns, or she pronouns, or something else entirely?”

“Well, it’s not like you, Balderk, and Prince Faladel wander around outside a lot.” Istere shrugs. “So I really don’t care about pronouns or titles. But for the rest of you,” She glances at Lutti, Beni, Ludgera, and Agnark individually. “You can use whatever you want in your head, but whenever you talk about me aloud, use male pronouns and call me His Highness or Yaluda at all times. You never know who might be listening, and I can’t have anyone finding out that I’m still alive instead of my brother.” 

“If I may,” Blix cuts in. “Istere will always be Istere to me in places I know are safe from prying eyes. She can’t replace Yaluda, and she’s not trying to. But even in my head, when I’m all alone in the middle of the night, it’s The Crown Prince or His Highness. After all, that is what you’ll be calling her in public, it’s best to practice it in private as well, lest you let something slip. But you shouldn’t be calling her by her first name out and about in court anyway. That’s the way I’ve been thinking about it.”

Istere, but still him. Still The Crown Prince. I mull over it, staring at my plate. Somehow, it fits all of this madness perfectly. I glance up at her, meeting her golden eyes for less than a second. She was ready for me, waiting for me. I look away again. It’s obvious she wants to talk to me, and our disastrous not-conversation from last night rings in my head. Is she going to try and give me a private explanation? Do I want a private explanation? 

Yes. I think to myself I want, I need to hear the reason why she didn’t tell me. Did she just not trust me? What in our conversations was real, and what was fake? I’m suddenly struck by an even more frightening thought. Will I be able to trust her now that she’s lied to me once? She hid everything so well…

I shake that thought off, trying to dismiss it offhand. She wouldn’t, right? There’s no way. But it sticks around, and sours my mood. 

“Balderk.” Faladel breaks into my thoughts. “More tea?” I blink realizing that I’ve been lost in my thoughts for quite some time now. Agnark and Ludgera are gone, and I don’t even know when they left. 

“Sorry, what?” I ask Faladel.

“Tea?” He asks again, holding up a pot of what smells like mint flavored water. I acquiesce, just to have something to mess around with really. When he leans over, I whisper “Where did the Yamat kid and Ludgera go?”

“They had to leave, something about a family meeting for Agnark, and Ludgera never stays long.” He replies quietly, shooting a worried look my direction that does not go unnoticed. “Is this too much for you? You can excuse yourself if you want. Claim you’re tired or something. Yesterday was hectic for all of us, so I don’t think anyone would find it weird.”

“Four out of the six people in this room already know or suspect exactly why I’d be doing such a thing.” I reply. “And the other two are curious and observant. So, even if it wouldn’t be ‘strange’ it would still be ‘telling’.”

“You don’t have to always be strong, Balderk.” Faladel says softly, as he moves away.

But I do. I think as I watch his retreating back. If I’m not the strong one, who am I?  

I slowly pretend to sip my hot tea as I watch the conversations around me over the rim of my teacup. Beni and Lutti are questioning Istere eagerly. Something like: ‘why didn’t you tell us?’ 

Istere replies surprisingly along the same lines that she told me ages ago. “I didn’t think I could trust you. Blix told me how you responded when my Brother first let you in on the plot to keep Prince Faladel’s existence in prison a secret. You were more interested in adventure than in the morals involved. Because of that, and because I never really got to know you, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk.”

“Why did you tell her that, Blix?” Ask Lutti

“Didn’t you even explain how Yaluda himself was acting at the time? He was doing it for revenge! Morals had nothing to do with it!” Beni claims.

“Technically, from what the Late Prince told me,” Blix replies stoutly “It was a case of both revenge and morals. Yes his friend was dead, but from the war, not from the actions of a specific person. So his revenge was causing a chance at peace. One good turn– saving the life of an elf –would hopefully lead to another once that elf returned home.”

“So, technically, he got his revenge on the war itself by creating voices for peace?” Briareth asks.

“Exactly.” Blix nods. “Of course, there could have been more motivations that he just didn’t share with me–” 

“Nonsense!” Istere cuts in. “The two of you shared everything with each other. He told you far more than he ever told me.”

“Only because he wanted to protect you, Your Highness.” Blix says, putting a hand on her shoulder and smiling at her. “Much like I do.”

“Did you just admit to keeping things from His Highness?” Briareth asks, semi-jokingly. I accidentally swallow some tea in an attempt not to laugh and end up coughing and spewing it back into my cup. 

“Sorry.” I mumble once I’m done with my coughing fit. “It went down the wrong tube.” As they return to their conversation, I zone out a bit again. Istere’s reply to the question of why not to involve Beni and Lutti was much the same as it had been when she was Yaluda. A few changes, like that Blix had given her the account of how they first reacted, but otherwise, the exact same. Was she still hiding something, or had she been telling the truth all along?

“How did you and Blix meet?” I ask Istere, interrupting a conversation that I didn’t hear and don’t really care about. 

Istere looks startled, possibly because of my interruption, possibly because she wasn’t expecting me to talk at all. She drops her former conversation immediately to answer mine, but from everyone else’s sudden interest, they don’t really mind that much. 

“It was different from what I told you.” She admits, cutting to the heart of the question. “I told you the story of how Yaluda and Blix met, the one Blix told me. The first time I met Blix was when Yaluda introduced me to his ‘new friend who’d broken his nose.’” She does the finger quote thing again, and my face twitches as my heart throbs. Either that was her own gesture to begin with, or she’s completely adopted it since her new life as her brother began. Not noticing my changed facial expression, Istere smiles wryly and continues. “I was skeptical about him to say the least. We only grew close after he helped me in the aftermath of my brother’s death.” 

“So…” I begin hesitantly, and at her expecting look I realize I can’t back down. I need this answer, no matter how hard it hurts. No matter how many people are listening in right now. “How much was real?”

Istere appears to understand me, even though my question is very broad. “Everything I could say truthfully, I did. Sometimes I knew that if I told you the truth, you would figure it out. The stories of Yaluda’s past interactions with other people, well, I had to tell Yaluda’s story and not my own. But I swear to you, I told you about me as much as I could. My dreams, my goals, my plans, and most of my relationships. Not with Blix obviously, but my relationship with my mother– those were all me. Those were Istere.” We lock eyes. Vaguely in the background, I see Faladel shooing Briareth, Beni, and Lutti into a side room to give us some privacy.

“How do I know you aren’t lying again?” I ask, although I’m almost convinced already, I can’t be quite sure. It could just be my heart wanting to forgive and forget, convincing me to set myself up for another painful betrayal.

A look of shock passes over Istere’s face, followed by a rueful, sad smile. “Of course you should wonder. I didn’t think…” She trails off. 

“How do you know you can trust me?” She says after a few seconds of silence. “Well, I don’t think I can give you any proof. I’m sorry about that.” I feel a brief surge of pain and sadness, and extinguish it. Of course there’s no proof. As far as I’m aware, no sort of magic or sorcery can detect lies. What was I even looking for? “Honestly,” She continues, her thought trail apparently mimicking mine. “I don’t think there’s any real proof that I can give you to show you I’m not lying. Blix was right, this really is all about trust.” 

“Who is Blix to you?” I ask, curious and slightly upset that she’d talk about this, about us, with him. 

She sighs, and thinks for a moment before replying. “Blix is my compass. He keeps me pointed north, pointed towards solutions, whenever I get lost. Emotionally, mentally, a few times physically.” She chuckles at a memory I don’t share. “I suppose you could call him my counselor. I trust him to always hold my and my brother’s best interests at heart. However, he never opens up to me. I think he thinks of me as a duty. Something he must protect because my brother left it to him. That’s our relationship.” 

“How many people have ever opened up to you?” I ask, consumed by curiosity.

“One.” She says, “And then I betrayed his trust.” She looks at me, sadly, and I realize who she’s talking about. “I will always regret that, and I hope he’s willing to someday give me a second chance. I wouldn’t expect it of him. Honestly, I’m not sure I would be capable of such a thing myself. But if he ever wants to confide in me again, to trust me again, I would ingrain it on my soul to never betray that trust.” 

I suck in a breath. I wasn’t expecting this. I wasn’t expecting an apology. I don’t know how to respond. I can’t respond. Not now. Not with my feelings swirling around like this. 

“I have to go. Bathroom.” I stutter out, as I make an obviously hurried exit, my ears burning. 

Ingrained on her soul. That’s a big step.

It takes me a while to find a bathroom where I can hide, and I spend only five minutes in there before Faladel comes and finds me. I’m fully clothed, just sitting on the pot, and trying to think things through. I keep getting stuck in loops though. 

Can I trust Istere? If I trust her, I could get hurt again. If I don’t trust her, I lose a good friend. If I do trust her, and she doesn’t betray me, will I always wonder when the next betrayal is coming? But no betrayal could be as big as lying about your whole identity. Well, according to her, actually about very little of her identity, as little as possible in fact. But can I trust that that is true? Can I trust Istere?

Faladel’s soft call through the door– “Balderk?” his voice kind and worried, yanks me from my spiraling thoughts. “Balderk are you in there?”

“Yep!” I grind out. “I have bad poo, whatever it is will have to wait!”

I can practically feel Faladel’s hesitation through the door. I hope he’ll go away, but “I just wanted to tell you that Beni and Lutti have left now. You missed your chance to say goodbye. Istere’s going to be leaving soon as well, do you want me to pass on a message?”

I freeze. “Gone so soon?” I ask. 

“Yes, another meeting with the King and his top officials. Because she was just alerted today about this meeting, they probably have a controversial item on the agenda that she’d normally come prepared to fight against. She’s guessing that this meeting will openly introduce the law to lower the conscription age.” 

“Ahh.” Is my only reply. 

“Do you wish to say goodbye or no?” Faladel asks. I stay silent. 

“Balderk, if you’re decent, may I come in?” He adds on after nearly a minute.

I’m not sure what causes me to say it, but “Fine.” I allow gruffly.

Faladel, slowly opens the door and enters. His long blond hair is messier than it was when I first met him, but not by much, and his golden eyes, a darker shade than Istere’s, look at me with sympathy. 

“Are you okay?” He asks me, sitting on the cold tile in front of me and staring up at me, hands folded around his knees, and head cocked a few inches to the side. 

“Probably not.” I admit, not looking at him. 

“Hmmm… That’s okay. Probably even to be expected in these sorts of circumstances. You really liked Yaluda didn’t you?” His eyes widen, “Oh, you don’t have to answer that if you don’t want to. I don’t want to put any pressure on you.”

Oddly, his insistence that I don’t have to answer makes me want to open up more. It’s so much different to my reaction to Briareth’s prying, that I snort before I admit. “Probably. I think I liked him. Well, her.”

Faladel notices my correction. “Since we only knew her as a ‘him’ back then, I think it’s safe to refer to that version of her as a ‘him’. You don’t have to correct your memories if you don’t want to.” 

I nod, and we stay silent for a while, staring at each other.

Eventually Faladel sighs, and asks, “All these new revelations, with her not being the person you thought he was, do they change your feelings for her?”

I consider the matter, glancing up to the high ceiling above as if the tiles there will give me an answer. It takes me a while, but Faladel waits, not even shifting his position. 

“No.” I eventually admit. “The parts she showed me, the things that I loved most about him, she claims they’re real. They’re really her. And I suppose–” I fidget my hands. “I can kinda see why she had to hide it. She didn’t come out and tell me, I didn’t get to ask, but I can guess. Telling anything would put her in danger. By the time we grew close, it was too late to say anything without turning it awkward. I just wish she had borne with that awkwardness to admit it to me.” 

“You should tell her that.” Faladel says seriously. 

“What?! I can’t!” I immediately exclaim.

“Why?” Faladel asks, calm despite my sudden panic

“Uhh…” I hesitate, trying to find the reason behind my gut reaction. “Embarrassment?”

“Awkwardness?” Faladel offers, and my eyes widen. I want to reject his implications of accidental hypocrisy outright. The two feelings aren’t similar, they aren’t the same. But… I can’t. They are actually very similar on a surface level. There’s more to it though– “It’s more than that.” I try to convey this feeling to Faladel. “It’s more than awkwardness, it’s–” I want to say weakness, but it doesn’t feel right. 

“Vulnerability?” Faladel offers again, hitting it spot on. 

“Yes.” I admit gruffly. “I don’t want to be vulnerable with her again, not so soon after…” I trail off, but Faladel understands.  

“Of course.” He says, appearing to consider the matter deeply. “Do you think all vulnerability is bad Balderk? I notice you hesitate to share your feelings sometimes, is it because of this reluctance to be vulnerable?”

“Vulnerability isn’t all bad.” I protest, “I mean, I’m being vulnerable with you now aren’t I?”

“True.” Faladel says, smiling.

“But…” I hesitate. “Yes, I don’t like doing it often. I don’t like sharing my feelings, I don’t like appearing weak.”

“Oh?” That one word makes me want to explain it to him even more.

“I’ve always been the strong one in my family. The one everyone relies on. The man of the house. If I showed fear, or pain, my sisters would worry. They’d care for me, yes, but they’d be worried. I didn’t want to cause them worry. When I got stuck in the army, vulnerability was a weakness that could be punished. I know in my head it isn’t bad, but being strong has become a part of me. More than just a part. It’s most of my identity.” I admit.

“Do you think that’s a good thing?” Faladel asks.

“Considering where it came from?” I hesitate. “Probably not. I’d like to change that, but I don’t know how.”

We sit in silence for a few seconds, I begin to think the conversation is over, but then Faladel says. “Well, to change, you could always make a you that isn’t always strong.”

“What?” I ask, “I don’t understand.”

“Hmm…” Faladel hesitates. “Like what you’re doing with me right now. You said this vulnerability was okay right? So, go try to be vulnerable with someone else.”

“Someone like Istere?” I ask, seeing where this is heading. 

“Not necessarily.” Faladel corrects. “It doesn’t have to be Istere, it can be anyone you feel a connection to. Well, except me, because you’ve already done me. It could be Blix, Lutti, Beni, or even Briareth if you want. He’s surprisingly nice to people who open up to him.”

“He seems like the type who’d just make fun of you.” I say, frowning. 

“I’ve had numerous mental breakdowns around him now, and he’s never made fun of me during them. He sometimes makes fun of me afterwards, but it’s always good natured.” Faladel promises.

“I still don’t think I’d feel comfortable with him. With pretty much any of the people here actually.” I admit. “I only grew close to Yaluda.”

Faladel hmms again. “Well, perhaps it is too soon to ask this question, but do you think eventually, she’ll deserve another chance to meet your vulnerable side?”

“Yes.” I say. “Well, I hope so. Someday. That day isn’t today though.”

“That’s perfectly fine, I wouldn’t expect it to be.” Faladel claims. “What do you think would help you get closer to that day?”

“I don’t know.” is my immediate reply, but Faladel’s silence makes me reconsider. “Well, I suppose knowing her better, having her be vulnerable with me, it might make me more comfortable. Especially because she said she was honest in as many of our conversations as she could be.”

“And you trust that?” Faladel asks, neutrally.

Surprisingly, “Yes, unless she was faking both Istere and most of Yaluda, which I can’t see any reason for, I can trust that she wanted to be honest with me.”

“Do you still want to get to know her? To have her be vulnerable with you, so that you, in turn, can be vulnerable with her?”

It might be my gut, it might be my stomach, it might be my heart, but I don’t think she wanted to hurt me. The terrified look on her face when she was revealed to be a she, the twist of pain as she realized what she’d done, what I felt– maybe I’m just going soft, and maybe that’s a good thing. All I know is that I want to get to know the prince. The true version of her, not the half-her she cooked up to pass as a boy. 

“Balderk?” Faladel asks, probably worried by my silence.

“I have to go Faladel.” I say, standing up and walking to the door, purpose adding a spring to my step. “Thanks for helping me get my head on straight.” 

Faladel smiles. “Glad I could finally be of some help.”

I glance back at him, wanting to go on my way, but something about that sentence striking me as wrong. It takes me only a few seconds to pull up the conversation. It may have been nearly a month ago, but it left an impact on me. He was feeling so useless when he was locked up. That ‘finally’, the fact that everyone around him has done something to help our cause and he’s only hindered it and slowed it down with his strict moral code…

“Are you okay, Faladel?” I ask, hesitating, the door half opened. Faladel stares at me from his position on the floor.

“Maybe not, but I will be.” He smiles at me. A smile so genuine it almost hurts. “I’ll be perfectly fine.” He insists, unfolding his legs and getting to his feet. “You go talk to Istere, tell her your thoughts and feelings. That’s the only way you’ll be able to begin to heal and form whatever relationship you plan on having. True friendship, true love, starts from vulnerability.”

“Okay.” I say, wondering if I should try to press him more, but knowing that I’m terrible at these sorts of things and Istere is about to leave. “Thank you.” I offer, right before I walk out the door. “You don’t know how much this means to me.” 

It’s the best I can do at this point. I think to myself as I hurry down the hallway.

I retrace my steps to our main dining room, the room that reminded me of Istere’s study. Apparently though, my way was the long way round, because Faladel beat me there. He’s standing at Istere’s side as I enter, reading a missive over her shoulder. She looks troubled, more than troubled in fact, outright worried.

“What’s going on?” I ask, worried as well, despite myself. Faladel and Istere both start to explain at the same, time, but then Faladel stops. 

“You should explain, you’d understand this situation better than I.” 

“Yes.” Istere says, and then starts again. “My mother, the current Queen, Friedalein Gewalt, has been kidnapped.”

“Wait, what? How?” Briareth asks, entering the dining room through the bedroom door. “How did anyone figure out she was important to you?” 

“I don’t know. It was the church who did this, they sent this ransom note.” Istere holds up the note and glares coldly at it. “First our old hideout’s location, and now my identity? They have entirely too much information on our current operations. Someone’s been blabbing, but we don’t have time to root out a spy.”

“What do they want?” I ask, “They can’t reasonably kill the Queen can they? I mean, she’s the Queen!” 

“Oh you’d be surprised at what they can get away with.” Blix says, raising his eyebrows. I remember the King’s attempted assassination of his kids, remeber that he never took the blame for any of that, and revise my position. “Okay, so they’re threatening to kill the Queen unless you…” I trail off meaningfully, waiting for Istere to fill in the blanks. She does of course. 

“Unless I turn myself in, say that I was the drug smuggler all along and had concocted the papers to frame the High Priest, and reveal that I stole the prisoners and were using them to commit treason in a plot to kill my father.”

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