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Chapter 16

I ran to the castle, slowing only when I got within seeing distance of the guards. Once the building loomed in front of me, I stopped.

My mind cycled through ways to get in. The front door was the obvious one, but the question was whether or not the guard would let me in after having seen me once or not at all. The other option was scaling the thing and considering the jagged rocks, it would be easier than other walls have been. Still, it wasn’t appealing.

I let out a breath and drew my shoulders back, deciding to try my luck on the front door. I let my cloak flow behind me and I walked with enough confidence that it felt more like I was strutting than anything else.

“Who are you?” The guard asked suspiciously.

I frowned, my lip pushing forward into a frown. “You don’t remember me?”

The guard didn’t say anything.

I sighed. “Cole didn’t tell you about our meeting, did he?” I looked him up and down, throwing in a curveball. “Or you’ve forgotten like the lowly soldier you are.”

The guard stiffened. “I would remember if I’d been informed about a meeting," He growled.

“Hmm,” I replied noncommittally. “So, are you going to let me through or not?”

I could tell he wanted to say ‘not.’ It was sitting there, right on the tip of his tongue.

“Why do you need to meet with Prince Cole?” The guard asked reluctantly, still eyeing me with suspicion.

“He wanted some information,” I said lazily, my hand wandering down to show off the knives at my hip.

The guard’s eyes widened and he shifted back almost imperceptibly. “I see. I’ll send someone to go get Prince Cole, then?”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “How long will that take?”

The guard smiled coldly, his hand sliding down to the weapon he no doubt kept on hand. “I wouldn’t know. I’m not privy to his schedule. I’m sure he will fit you in eventually.”

I watched him, studying him carefully. “Well, I’m sure he’ll let me have a few words about the service here when he does get here.” I looked at the guard and shrugged. “And how his guard was so gracious.”

The guard’s face flickered in confusion, but it didn’t last long because I took a swing at his face, my hand falling into a fist mid-air with my thumb on the outside just like I’d been taught. The guard’s eyes watered and I hit him again with the hilt of my knife, finally knocking him unconscious. It was harder than I remembered it being.

“You know, I could’ve just let you in,” An amused voice said after a moment. The undertone was one that I’d become all too familiar with in the last day.

I finished deliberately sliding my knife into my belt again before looking up at Cole. “Well, you were taking a little bit too long.” I glanced at the unconscious guard on the floor. “And you also need to get better guards. This oaf was beaten just by falling for everything I said.”

“Well, unfortunately, you are good with words,” Cole replied.

I looked up in surprise to see him studying me with intrigue. It was disconcerting.

“I’m surprised you think so,” I said eventually. I angled myself towards the rest of the castle. “Now, shall we get moving?”

“I suppose,” Cole sighed, beginning to walk down the hall.

I followed him silently, tensed but not nervous. I was ready for almost anything, but I wasn’t afraid of what could happen anymore. It was a step in the right direction, but it also made me lazy.

I refused to be lazy.

“So, I realized that I never asked what you were planning on doing overnight,” Cole said conversationally.

I forced myself not to stiffen. “I’ve found arrangements,” I replied calmly.

Cole turned to me with a raised eyebrow, still walking. “You have?”

I smiled frigidly at him. “You sound surprised,” I observed.

Cole looked away, “People in Black aren’t as hospitable as they used to be.”

“Is it because of the food shortage?”

“Sometimes,” Cole replied, not offering to elaborate.

“Are the others still there?” I asked, meaning our little meeting area. It was just hitting me that they couldn’t always stay there. In fact, it was a wonder that they were all there so often.

“Probably not,” Cole said disinterestedly.

“Hmm,” I replied in kind. “I suppose I’ll just wander around for a bit, then.” I began looking around interestedly.

“Mmm-hmm.” Cole wasn’t paying attention at all anymore.

I began walking away, making short plans in my head. Before Cole came to, I dashed off. As soon as I went to turn a corner, he called out for me in indignation. I grinned and kept going.

I rounded a few more bends, looking for specific things. The first was the kitchen, the second was a bathroom because as they said back home, nature calls.

It took longer than I’d expected, but I finally found the kitchen. I slipped in, short enough to duck below the edge of the counters, slipping past the occupied cooks. They were conversing easily as they leisurely cooked. They had enough time until lunch to be relaxed.

I glanced around, my eyes landing on different utensils and wooden cutting boards. A bag of flour sat next to a bag of oats and other grains were lined up next to them, labeled but too far away for me to read.

As my eyes kept skimming the room, I saw another door. Right before my eyes, a man came up holding a sack of potatoes.

Well, that’s a lucky coincidence.

I tried to peek through the door, but I was too far away to see much. Though, given what I’d seen of this crazy place, it was probably a root cellar. I still couldn’t decide whether this place was more futuristic or historical compared to the mainland.

Crouching below the counter, I crept towards the door and slipped in. Right behind the door was a set of stairs that I carefully descended. It was dark and the only light came from beneath the door. By the time I got to the bottom of the stairs, that light barely deserved to be called light. Instead, I could call it a teasing illumination that may or may not be a figment of my imagination since it didn’t really light anything up.

I crept deeper into the room; my hands stretched out in front of me. After a couple of steps, I felt the hard, cold wall hit my palms. Sliding my hand down the wall, I kept searching for things. I slid my foot forward, feeling along the wall.

I kept searching, there was just... nothing.

I took another step forward, not bothering to feel, and ended up tripping over something. My hands flew from the wall to beneath me, trying to catch me. They landed in a mound of hard, rough, cold things. Trying not to imagine all the possibilities, I pushed myself up and ran my hands over it.

No way, were these... carrots?

I almost laughed. I kept digging through them, but tucked a few in my cloak, buttoning them in. I took a careful bite of one and chewed, letting the taste stay on my tongue. It had been so long since I’d had a vegetable. I hadn’t even been here that long, but I remembered that at home before everything went down, we had eaten broth with meat and flatbread. It sounded horrible, but I’d grown up on it and had known it as good food.

I kept wandering and found only another bag of potatoes and a few more things that felt the same, but I couldn’t figure out what they were in the dark. The room was fairly large, but what really struck me was how empty it was. I was wandering through the royal cellar and I wasn’t finding the abundance of food I thought I was going to.

For the first time, I wondered if the royals weren’t just being selfish.

What if they were looking out for their own lives?

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