“Kale, that happened three months ago. You have to let it go, it wasn’t your fault. I thought it was a great idea too until, you know, the horse decided to just graze instead of go home. The problem was-” Stephen was trying to speak with a very hot potato in his mouth. He finally spat it out. Kale watched the potato fall. Watched the steam rise and dissipate. Stephen had never seen Kale so disinterested in starting a new year. Stephen knew, he could see just as well as everyone else, that Kale had once again passed beyond the teaching of his masters. To Stephen, they seemed like growing spurts that he had no control over. He would suddenly master the skills being taught to him in a week and would then be left to work the same techniques that came naturally to him for the remaining months. Kale was bored.
“Kale, snap out of it.” Stephen snapped his fingers to make a point. Kale picked up his fork and slowly mashed his potato. Stephen watched the slow process. “That’s it.” Stephen stood. “If you’re not going to find your girl, then I am.” Stephen threw down his napkin and stormed out the room. He returned a moment later.
“I’ll do it on Sunday.” He sat down and quickly finished his food. Kale was pulling his first bite to his mouth under the gaze of Stephen when an unfamiliar man entered the room. Stephen straightened and Kale turned. The Headmaster led him to the center of the room.
“Listen up.” His voice bellowed over the crowd of boys who slowly closed their mouths and turned to look at the newcomer. Stephen noticed his companion perk up. “I would like to introduce you to the Academy coordinator. He manages all four Academy’s in Dyritica. Students, please feel free to introduce yourself in your own time to Master Drekken.”
Bace woke suddenly. His head was pounding. He sat up and squeezed his head between his palms then lay back down and rolled over. He focused on quieting his breathing and the room grew quiet again. He closed his eyes but then furrowed his brow. Sitting up again, he looked over at the bed on the other side of the small room. His roommate had an impenetrable habit of snoring. The bed was empty. Bace stood and tried the door. It was locked, as always. He looked at the bed again and then returned to his own. In the morning he quickly found Brenda.
“I have a roommate, don’t I?” He whispered. Brenda looked over and nodded.
“Bace, it’s common to hallucinate with your head injuries. This means it’s also possible that you were dreaming. Your dreams might feel very real.” She said gently. Bace nodded and turned back to hauling water. Brenda watched the man from the corner of her eye. She didn’t like seeing him on edge but she feared she had done everything she could.
As the months continued for Bace so did the seasons. Autumn arrived suddenly and before he knew it winter was throwing as much snow as it could at them. Bace’s duties changed with the seasons. He occasionally found himself working alongside Grid in the stables but never lost the responsibility of the ‘kitchen hauler’. He was the muscle the ladies needed. Spring arrived before long and soon Bace’s boots were coated with mud.
“Bace, would it hurt you to wipe your boots on the mat before coming in here.” Edith scolded him as he entered with a bag of flour over his shoulder.
“Is that the extra one I ordered?” Gena asked him from across the room.
“Yup, it just came in.” He replied and slapped it on the floor.
“I thought you ordered two extra for dinner. He has thirteen guests coming and six bags simply won’t make the cut for that many.”
“Especially with three courses.” Ida shook her head.
“But the driver just left.” Bace straightened the bag as it slid over on its side. The ladies looked around at each other and the room grew silent but for the boiling water and hissing fire. Bace stepped back in anticipation. He was all too familiar with how this kitchen was run. Suddenly the ladies erupted and started pointing fingers. The arguments carried up the stairs and soon they had some of the serving staff gathering at the top of the stairs. Bace listened to the arguments for a little while longer then finally held up his hand as Gena looked like she was one word away from wringing Edith’s neck.
“Ladies, hey!” He yelled. The arguments stopped and the ladies turned. “I’m sure we can figure something out. We’ll just have to change the meal plans.” He said calmly. Gena nodded. Ida suddenly held up a finger.
“We do have an extra sack of rice from last week.” Brenda interrupted the old woman’s thought as she pulled the sack down from the shelf. The ladies turned and nodded. None of the ladies understood what Ida was saying so it wasn’t uncommon for them to ignore her.
“We could make pudding and rice instead.” Edith chimed. The ladies slowly started nodding. Bace watched contentedly as his group of cooks slowly started working through the problem and substituting one thing for another. Bace waited until they were settled in case they needed anything from him. Gena finally turned to him.
“Bace, could you run up and see if there is any extra milk to spare in those poor dried up milkers?” She pleaded. Bace nodded and ran up the stairs. He found the milk-maid in the stables but she refused him even a glance at her cows. Even with the shortage of ingredients the cooks still managed to make a feast fit for the company they were receiving. After managing the trolley all evening Bace was set free after dark. Company was expected to remain on sight all night. It was only rumors, and Bace could only imagine how twisted they were by the time they reached the kitchen, but it was said that their master had invited a Count and his Countess to spend the evening under his roof. The rest of the company was unknown but all had sailed in on their own ships. Bace wandered to the docks after dark and stood gazing at the reflection of the moon on the water.
“I’ve always loved these mountains.” He spun as an older woman approached him from behind. She stepped onto the dock and Bace noticed her shoes lying on the path further up the hill. Her face was elegant but not unwise. Her eyes were kind and her smile was sharp. Bace watched her approach but then turned back to the lake with his hands clasped behind his back.
“What are they called?” He asked. She turned and looked down at him. Her neck arched like a great swan.
“They are called The Ender’s Crown. It is said that for each time the moon shines in this valley the King is blessed ten-fold. The stars always shine so much brighter in this valley.” She smiled and stretched her neck back to look at the sky. Bace felt his throat go dry.
“Did you say The Ender’s Crown?” He asked. She lowered her gaze to meet his.
“Yes.” Her brow lowered as he stepped towards her.
“What does it mean?” He asked.
“Ender. What does it mean?”
“The Ender is what we call our Queen. She promises to end our troubles and make our country great.” She seemed pleased with this but Bace could only just manage to keep his panic from surfacing. He nodded and swallowed.
“Please excuse me. How rude. I am Lady Countess Mordana of Dename.” Bace held his breath.
“Lady Countess.” Was all he managed to spit out before bowing roughly.
“How were you to know?” She smiled contentedly. Bace shrugged and then quickly tried to read the new expression on the woman’s face. “And your name?” She asked.
“Oh. Bace. Just Bace.” He replied. She smiled.
“There are none as great as a wise and humble man. Servant or not.” She smiled. Bace drew in a breath and nodded. The woman turned and started up the path. Bace turned back to the water and tried to process and lock away everything he had just gathered.
Marked, marked, prey of the dark. Slay he who bears the Ender’s mark.
Marked, marked, prey of the dark. Slay he who bears the Ender’s mark.
The words repeated over and over in his head as he lay in bed that night. He couldn’t stop them from threatening his temper. Later that night his roommate joined him and the room was soon filled with his snoring. Bace glanced over at his companion and then back at the ceiling. He eventually fell asleep but woke with the same depressing words repeating in his head. He rubbed the scar on his shoulder and started his duties. Cob quickly joined him as he loaded a sack of flour on each shoulder.
“What are you thinking?” Cob asked. Bace looked at him sardonically. “So what if I’m in your head. Tell me. I want you to say it out loud.”
“Why not. Sometimes if you say something out loud you notice what’s wrong with it.”
“I don’t have anything, Cob.”
“Of course you do.” He prodded.
“I don’t.” Bace threw the flour to the ground and stood.
“But you – I do.” Bace watched the man closely, suddenly interested.
“You what? You can’t think for yourself, Cob. You’re in my head. You can’t have your own idea.”
“But where’d I get it from then?” He asked, scratching his head.
“Where’d you get what?” Bace’s voice lowered.
“For escaping?” Cob started nodding but Brenda suddenly opened the door above and floated down the stairs. She smiled at him as she drew on her apron.
“Glad to see you haven’t fallen in the well again.” She joked then tossed him an apron. “Boss wants you to wear it all the time. Says it’s more professional.” She shrugged. Bace tied it on without a word and then ran upstairs to finish unloading. Brenda was still the only one in the kitchen when he started hauling water.
“I saw you made a little friend last night.” She glanced behind her to see the young man’s reaction.
“She was far from little.” He said as he cautiously tested the new beam he had built for the well.
“She was very beautiful.” Brenda grinned as he bumped his head and then glared at her.
“She’s a Countess and twice my age. Plus, she’s Daini.” Bace said, clearly trying to make a point that he wasn’t interested.
“I’d be careful you didn’t say that too loud.” Brenda winced sarcastically. She wasn’t in the mood to elaborate and she knew Bace wasn’t either. Bace pulled up another bucket and dumped it in the barrel beside her. He plodded back to the well and hooked the bucket back on. She watched him lower it again. Listening till the bucket hit the water with a hollow expression. She leaned her back against the table.
“How much longer?” She asked. Bace continued pulling on the rope. “How much longer are you going to take this, Son?” She asked a little louder. Bace grabbed the bucket, pulled it over the side, and slammed it on the ground.
“Are you even real, Brenda?” He hissed.
“What do you mean? Of course I am.” Her brow lowered defensively. She pushed up her sleeves, spreading flour up her arms.
“Are you sure. Because – I don’t even know what to think any more. I can’t think clearly with my headaches. I see people that aren’t there and I don’t see people that are there. How do I know what is and what isn’t?” He exclaimed.
“You see more than one now. More than just that fellow – Cob?” She asked. Her head tilted.
“Well, no. Just Cob. Please tell me there’s a fellow named Grid who works in the stables.” He suddenly looked at her, slightly horrified.
“You’re missing the point, Bace. You’ve chosen to live this way so you must learn how. No, it isn’t natural but there has to be a way for you to live with it.”
“Like what.” His voice rose.
“I don’t know. Maybe stop hitting your head.” She threw her hands in the air and turned back to the dough on the counter. “So?” She asked after a few long moments of silence.
“So, what?” Bace scooped the bucket up and dumped it into another basin, growing quiet.
“You never answered my question.” She grunted as she threw her back into kneading. Bace grew silent and worked on gathering another bucket of water. He dumped it in the basin before answering, slowly feeling a clarity spreading through his head.
“Four months to the day. You can mark my words.” He hung the bucket again and lowered it, missing Brenda’s smile.
Early next morning Bace’s eyes snapped open. He sat up and tried to peer through the dark at his roommate’s bed.
Bace threw his feet over the side and stepped onto the floor. He pulled at the blankets on the other bed but then heard a soft sound in the room. He froze and then crouched as the sound filled his ears again. He heard it again and slowly lowered himself further to the ground till his ear was resting against the wood. The soft smell of damp soil suddenly reached his nose and his head jerked back as something made a sound under the bed. After making it an embarrassingly safe distance across the room Bace turned and listened again. The sound seemed far away now. He crawled back to the bed and pushed himself under on his belly before he could think twice. He grunted as the floor suddenly disappeared beneath him but he managed to grab onto the floor on the other side of a large hole to keep himself from falling. He felt a long piece of wood slide into his hand. He jerked his hand away, bringing the piece of wood with him.
“Ow.” He whispered but left the wood in as a soft glow suddenly lit up the bottom of a shoulder-width shaft running roughly ten feet down then leveling out and turning west. He suddenly heard the gentle humming of the man he had been rooming with and the soft scraping of metal against dirt. He was about to call out when he heard his door being unlocked. He quickly scooted back and jumped into bed. Once he was sure the ‘waker’ was gone he rose, dressed, and then ripped the piece of wood from his hand. He winced as blood poured from the wound and then ripped a long strip of cloth off his blanket. He wrapped it around the wound and then stood and started for the door but then remembered his roommate. He quickly slid under the bed, careful for the broken wood around the hole this time. He whistled as quietly as he could down the hole. The humming stopped and after a bit of scuffling a head appeared.
“You’d better get up here before the waker comes around again.” He called down and the man, seeing the light at the top of his tunnel, gasped and started climbing up the side. Bace pushed himself back and returned to his bed, pulling on his boots with one hand. The man slithered from under the bed like an earth worm and then stood with his feet apart.
“How long have you known?” He asked.
“Relax. I just found it today. I noticed you disappearing at night some time ago but I couldn’t figure out how.” Bace said up to him as he re-wrapped his hand. “Don’t worry, I have no intentions of getting on your bad side.” Bace forced a humorous grin and stood. The man watched him carefully.
“You swear?” The man asked and Bace noticed he was gripping his digging tool rather tightly in his fist. Bace figured it was time to remind the man that they were on the same side. He planted himself and clenched his jaw.
“We all wish to run from this place and I have no intention of ruining another man’s plans so long as they don’t ruin mine.” He warned. His roommate dropped his shoulders slightly and dropped the digging tool on his bed. He stuck out his hand.
“Bazil.” They shook hands and then Bace walked out the door. Bace continued his duties as any other day but Brenda noticed his hand as he was hauling water. She quickly sat him down and started checking the wound. She glanced up at him suddenly and smiled.
“Doesn’t all this hair get in the way?” She pushed it out of his eyes but it fell back. He didn’t answer so she quickly turned her attention back to the wound. “We’re pretty lucky, you know. I don’t know a lot of slaves who have it as easy as we do. You should be glad you’re not owned by a lesser man.” She glanced up at the dull eyes of the young man and then started wrapping up the wound. When she finished she quickly stood and moved behind him. He turned and held up a hand defensively.
“What are you doing?” He asked quietly.
“Oh, relax.” She pushed the hand away and watched as he reluctantly surrendered. He felt her grab his hair and pull it back. “You know what I think?” She asked but then continued a moment later knowing that the young man was not likely to answer. “I think this work is too easy for you. Maybe you would have been better off somewhere else.” She smiled as the man sighed quietly. “There.” He felt her hands move away but his hair stayed in place. He reached back and felt a small ball of hair tied high at the back of his head. He turned and looked at her.
“What is it?” He asked.
“It will keep your hair out of your eyes.” She walked away and returned to her bread. Bace stood. “It looks good.” She smiled without turning around.
“Thanks, mum.” He joked dryly and then ran up the stairs.
“You’re beginning to bore me, young man.” The man grumbled.
“Young master, you have been earnestly seeking my counsel on the matter for a week already. What is driving you to take such action? It’s unprofessional.” The man was taller than he imagined, now walking beside him. He had managed to catch him in one of the many hallways of the castle.
“Sir, you have to trust me.”
“Look-” The man suddenly stopped and turned to face the Battlemaster. “All you’ve proven to me so far is that a very large group of people have written down accounts of a man’s existence. You have yet to explain why one man’s life is so important. Young man, you are the best I have. Try and explain why I should send you into enemy lands.” The Battlemaster froze, his mouth agape, but couldn’t find anything to say. His Master finally turned and continued down the hallway with the guards close behind.
Stephen and Kale sat alone. They were finishing yet another year and despite Stephen’s encouragements Kale remained sullen. He was thinner than Stephen had ever seen him and his eyes were hollow, losing more of their light every day. He mostly poked at his food with his fork but he still worked harder on the field than he ever had before. Stephen stuck by his side but had a growing fear of the older man. Like Kale was a creaking bow being pulled back a little further every day. An experienced archer would know to change the string; make his bow new again. But with nothing to renew him, Stephen knew Kale would eventually snap.
“Kale – why are you doing this?” Stephen asked quietly at supper. Kale shifted his gaze from his plate to the fork in his hand. He slowly stabbed a piece of chicken and then raised it to his mouth. He forced himself to chew and then slowly lowered the fork to the plate. Stephen slapped his hand on the table. “Did you ever think that maybe if you weren’t so cold in the last few weeks that Audri might have stayed behind?” Kale’s gaze shot up. “She thought you were pushing her away. Why else did you think she decided to go with her family?” Audri was Kale’s sweetheart. Stephen had managed to find the young lady that had ran into Kale in the market nearly a year ago. Since then Kale and Audri had come quite close but Kale’s grief was consuming him, forcing him to draw deeper within himself and further from her. Just a week ago she had left with her family to visit relatives living in Southrow.
“That’s it.” Stephen stood and threw his fork on the ground. Kale listened to him leave as the room grew quiet and all eyes turned his way. Stephen fled to the barn and quickly bridled his mount. He jumped on, leaving his saddle, and cantered down the road into the city. As he drew past the first house a lamp flickered on in the window but he kept his pace. His mount tried to slow but Stephen kicked him on. Many small buildings flew by, including Bace’s late residence, and he finally slid to a stop at the docks. He felt his chest smack into his mounts neck as they finally stopped. He realized how heavy the beast was breathing and he quickly patted him on the neck.
“Sorry.” He apologized but then noticed a young woman standing on the dock facing his way but a scarf was wrapped around her eyes. She held a long staff and she seemed concerned. Stephen watched her, not sure how to interpret her behavior.
“Who are you? Are you a Knight?” She asked. Stephen looked around then back at her.
“I’m Stephen. Who’s asking?” He shifted further back on his mount and swung his other leg over so he was facing the woman.
“Danni.” She replied.
“I don’t believe you.” Stephen blurted before thinking. The woman laughed.
“You sound like you’re in a hurry.” She said a moment later. Stephen was still trying to figure out why she had scarf around her eyes. Was it a game?
“Not really.” He sighed and looked back the way he’d come. The woman moved towards him. Stephen pulled his leg back over to the other side and watched as she stepped up and ran her hands along his mounts neck. He watched as she stroked the mane and then his mare’s soft nose.
“What are you doing?” He finally asked. She smiled and laughed again as his horse nuzzled her shoulder.
“Hey, take it easy.” He pulled back on the bit slightly.
“It’s alright, Stephen. I’m quite used to horses.” She said as she continued running her hands along its face.
“Why are you doing that?” He asked again.
“It’s how I see, dear. I don’t have eyes like you so I see the world by touching.” She smiled gently and then let go and stepped back.
“What happened? To your eyes, I mean?” He asked.
“That’s a story for another time.” She replied awkwardly. “So what’s a young Knight such as yourself doing away from the Academy after dark?” She asked and Stephen suddenly realized how low the sun was sinking. He fought the urge to rush back and looked down at the woman who was smiling softly again.
“I don’t really know. Guess I was hoping to find something out here.” Stephen looked at the ships moored to the docks. Their soft rocking was soothing against the pink water trying to match the sky.
“Well, the Port is a swell place to find something. Maybe you’ll even find yourself.” Stephen looked down at her confused but then saw the sarcastic grin on her face.
“I lost a friend a while ago. I guess maybe I thought I’d find him here.” Stephen suddenly found himself saying. He dismounted and walked to the edge of the dock and sat down with his legs dangling over the water. He was surprised when Danni joined him. He watched her sit and then reach down. Her fingers were only inches above the water. She sat up.
“I guess you could say he almost died here. Maybe not the best place to look for someone.” Stephen stared down at the water sadly but Danni perked up and turned her head towards him.
“Don’t tell me it’s that fellow that washed up here from further upstream. The fellow with the beard – one tone to his voice?” She asked. Stephen looked at her, his brows furrowed. “About my height?” She said quietly.
“Sounds like the guy.” Stephen said stiffly.
“He’s gone?” She asked. “I can’t imagine why.”
“Wait – you know Bace?” He asked. “How in the good Lord’s name do you-”
“Well we’ve run into each other a few times.” She said, suddenly startled, and leaned away. Stephen drew back and lowered his voice.
“A few times?” He asked.
“Just twice. But tell me, dear, has he gone? I mean is he dead?” She leaned towards him again.
“Well, I don’t know. I guess he kind of disappeared two years ago.”
“Two years?” She exclaimed.
“Well, not quite. A year, eight months and twenty-four days.”
“Well that’s terrible.” She said sadly. They sat quietly as Danni dipped her long staff into the water below. She pulled it in circles and then lifted it up, listening for the sound of the dripping water. Stephen watched with curiosity and then leaned his back along the boards. He crossed his hands behind his head and watched as the stars slowly appeared.
“Well, my dear Stephen. I’m afraid I should be on my way.” She slowly stood. Stephen sat up and then jumped to his feet.
“You’re okay on your own. It’s getting pretty dark.” He said without thinking. She turned around and smiled. “Right, never mind.” He watched her leave before grabbing the reins and leading his mount down the dock. When they reached the other end, they turned down the street and Stephen mounted. They started off at a trot but his mount was suddenly spooked as a figure jumped out the door of Audri’s house. Stephen quickly soothed his horse and then peered at the figure.
“Audri?” Stephen nearly choked.
“Stephen.” She ran forward so he leaned down as she grabbed onto his leg. “Tell me, how is Kale?” Stephen bit his lip and looked away. His mount snorted and stamped nervously, still recovering.
“Not well, Audri, I don’t know what to do with him anymore. He’s just grieving.” Stephen whispered.
“He’s had two years to grieve, Stephen. He must move on.” She said up to him.
“How is he supposed to move one when we don’t even know whether Bace is alive or not? There’s no closure.” Stephen felt a lump form in his throat. His cheeks were suddenly wet and he realized he had started crying. He wiped them quickly away and then sniffled.
“Oh, Stephen, I’m sorry.” Audri said up to him, suddenly softening. She squeezed his leg. “Tell me what I have to do.” She pleaded.
“You’re the only one.” Stephen sniffled again and dragged his sleeve across his nose. “That’s it, you’re the only one who can help him. I don’t know him like you do. What are you doing here anyway? We thought you’d gone with your family.”
“I decided not to go. I couldn’t leave Kale at a time like this.”
“Then why didn’t you come see him?” Stephen snapped.
“I was afraid.”
“Afraid of what?” Stephen asked.
“Afraid he’d stopped loving me.” She watched as Stephen laughed.
“Audri, he thought you’d stopped loving him. Can’t you see?” Stephen asked but Audri was shaking her head. “He lost a friend, mentor, brother, whatever you want to call Bace and now he thinks he’s lost you. Are you surprised he’s acting the way he is?” Audri grew quiet. She looked towards the Academy sitting on the hill to the north of the city. She finally turned her gaze up to him.
“Will you take me to him?” She asked. Stephen nodded and helped her on. She wrapped her arms around him and then held tighter as they started forward at a canter. A few minutes later they rode up to Kale’s Section. Audri dismounted.
“If you’re spotted you’ll be seriously reprimanded and banned from ever stepping foot on the Academy grounds.” The words felt rehearsed as they came out of his mouth but Stephen felt he needed to say them anyway. She patted him on the leg and then ran into the shadows towards Kale’s window. Stephen returned to the barn and smiled as he unbridled his sweating horse. He quickly washed and then started through the shadows to his Section.
“Bace, this is ludicrous.” Brenda mumbled as she pushed him into a chair and retied his hair. “You had four months to think. Nay, nearly two years.” She whispered and tugged on his hair. He winced but sat still and tried to keep himself focused.
“And yes, you are an idiot for getting poor Grid involved.” She finally released his hair but he felt as if his skin was being ripped from his head. He stood but she noticed him squinting. She pushed him down again as Grid suddenly ran into the kitchen.
“Bace, you have to get your uniform now or not at all.” Grid said from across the room and snatched a bun from the counter. Edith slapped him as he ran out. She then turned to Bace.
“If you ask me, it’s a foolish idea.”
“At least he’s actually trying. Better now than when he’s old and decrepit like the lot of us.” Gena raised her eyebrows and pointed a floury finger at the ladies.
“We wish you the best, Bace. Whatever the outcome.” That was Gwen. Ida suddenly turned and hobbled over with a ladle in hand. Bace watched as she drew close and grabbed his shoulders with the ladle dripping on his shirt. Her old eyes shone brightly into his. She placed a hand on his face.
“Sedt nuumb, viti eho asden denade plou.” She smiled sadly and then kissed him on the forehead.
“Thank you, Ida.” He replied and then watched her limp back over to her soup. Bace had never seen the kitchen so alive. Their master was having a ball so it was their job to feed over one-hundred guests. Their master had even bought extra slaves exclusively for the event. Bace was fortunately trading in his apron for a freshly washed greeting and management uniform. The master, intent on looking as impressive as he could, decided to put all men in the same uniform to escort guests from their transports to the ballroom. Then, to top it off, he wanted half of the men to stand for the entire evening around the perimeter of the ballroom for decoration. Grid called it ‘one step away from having your head stuffed and mounted on the wall’ but Bace saw it as the perfect opportunity. Brenda finally finished and then pushed Bace across the room. He followed Grid upstairs and then dressed with the hundred other men in the courtyard and spilling into the stables.
“Ships up!” They heard a call from outside. Bace looked over to Grid who was struggling with his collar button. He seemed distracted and Bace realized his hands were shaking.
“Hey.” He said quietly and then a little louder. Grid looked up and finally pushed the button through. “It’s going to be fine. Just focus and follow me. Keep close.” He ensured quietly. Grid nodded and swallowed loudly. They finally pulled on their boots and then started towards the docks together. The paths were lined with torches feeding flames six feet in the air.
“The ladies better hold onto their hats.” Grid giggled as he eyed the eye-level flames nervously. Bace glanced up and grinned as the flames soared overhead. Enough men were already greeting the first ship sliding in so Bace led Grid to the next one coming in. They waited patiently for the dock-men to finish their job. Grid shook his leg anxiously.
“Relax.” Bace said quietly, suddenly reminded of Kale. Grid stopped shaking and rolled his shoulders. Before Bace could stop him, he started forward and eloquently bowed and offered his hand to the young lady shakily walking down the gangway. Her shoes clacked against the wood the whole length of the platform. She blushed and took his hand. He had her giggling uncontrollably by the time they stepped off the dock. Bace shook his head and quickly greeted an older man entering the dock.
“I’m sure I can find my own way, slave” The man didn’t even glance his way. Bace, without missing a beat, quickly turned and helped the man’s wife onto the dock. She laughed breathlessly and took his hand.
“Oh my, never again.” She smiled briefly and then released Bace’s hand to catch up with her husband. Grid was back a minute later and joined Bace to wait for the next ship.
“I’ll tell you, I have never met a young lady quite like that.” Bace glanced up at Grid but another call drew their attention to a new ship entering the bay. Another pair of slaves started for the ship but a second ship was close behind.
“You could almost call that a fleet.” Bace said. Grid smiled.
“Good thing he has four docks.” The men looked at each other and then started towards the ship coming in. “Did you know that our master, technically speaking, has enough dock space to have his own quay. Think about it, he could have people paying him to dock here. However, in all formality-” Grid quickly shut his mouth as a disapproving glare was thrown his way. They waited as the gangway was let down and then watched as the silhouettes of nearly a dozen ladies appeared at the top.
“Baron Demer. He has twelve daughters and four wives.” Grid crossed his arms and whispered down to his companion. Bace winced and watched the ladies slowly start down the ramp. Grid stepped forward with his special flare and immediately had a lady on each arm. The rest followed suit and gathered around him as he led them inside. Bace turned to the last daughter who appeared to be the eldest. She gave him a demeaning look but then took his hand as she stepped onto the dock. She released and then started following him inside.
“You ever feel like you’re being forced to do something.” She suddenly said. Bace glanced at her and realized that she was expecting him to answer but he could see the sarcasm in her face. He forced himself to relax and let a charismatic smile take over his face.
“If you’re looking for someone who can relate to you I think you’re talking to the wrong person.”
“You don’t seem so bad.”
“Someone say I’m a bad person?” He asked.
“I wish they had.”
“Why do you say that?” He glanced at her again.
“Because then I wouldn’t have met you and immediately fallen in love with your smile.” As they entered the building the kindness in her eyes left and she refused to even glance at him. He bowed as they separated and then ran into Grid who was rounding the corner. They returned to the docks together but were then instructed to return inside.
“Don’t stand too far away so that you can’t hear me, but not too close so we look suspicious. Find someone that has your build and height and match features as close as you can. Make sure that you can take them down when the time comes and make sure their single so their lady doesn’t recognize her man’s suit on another body. Look impressive but not like you’re paying too much attention. Don’t smile but don’t frown either and you must not look anyone in the eyes. Our goal here is to disappear as soon as we enter the room but we must still have a presence so our master doesn’t have us thrown out. And you must remember that we agreed that if either one of us falls behind, you’re left behind. Don’t come back for me, because I won’t be coming back for you.” Bace said as they turned into the room and took their stand along the wall. Grid copied Bace’s stance and then started scanning the room.
“How about that fellow in the red jacket dancing with the green lady.” He asked quietly.
“He’s too big and he knows how to handle himself. Think smaller.”
“I’m not as small as you, Bace.”
“Fine, think – slighter.” He replied. Grid glanced around.
“How about the peacock in the blue and purple by the middle north window.” Grid seemed pretty confident with this choice.
“He has black hair, Grid.” Bace said as he continued scanning the room.
“Well then it looks like our only option is Mister Belligerence by the wine table there. You’re either going to have to go with size or hair color, my friend.” Bace glance over at the large red-headed man pumping his fist in the air. His face was flushed as he argued his opinion to the group around him and then filled his gut with more liquid.
“That’s ridiculous, three of you could fit into those trousers.” Grid shrugged and then suddenly spotted a thin red-blond walking along the wall trying to go unnoticed. Bace noticed the man and then watched Grid in the corner of his eye. He waited until he was confident that Grid had spotted the red-blond.
“Got him?” He asked and Grid nodded. Bace started forward and Grid followed. They separated after a few strides and Bace let his friend find his own way as he started for his own man. He approached a stalky, dark haired older gentleman with a big nose.
“Excuse me, Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to come with me. There’s been some complications with your ship that we’d like you to oversee.” He said quietly. The man looked at him quizzically.
“Ship? I don’t own a ship; I came from inland in my carriage.” He said.
“Oh, my apologies. It must be-” Bace quickly started struggling to pull a small piece of parchment from his pocket. He glanced up and spotted Grid leading his victim from the room already so he made a show of sifting through a stack of blank parchments.
“I insist we do this in private.” The man suddenly said as glances were thrown their way.
“Yes, sorry, Sir.” Bace said and started leading the man from the room. Bace led him out and then turned down the first hallway leading to the kitchen and the slave’s quarters.
“What-” The man started saying. Bace quickly spun as he caught sight of Grid tying up an unconscious man at the far end of the hallway. He knocked him hard on the skull and then dragged him over to Grid.
“This is crazy.” Grid said as Bace ran back and closed the door at the other end of the hallway.
“We can put them in one of the rooms.” Bace said and they quickly dragged their men over and switched outfits. They straightened each other’s uniforms and then continued down the hall. They passed the kitchen and Bace spotted Brenda at the bottom. She was smiling. They passed through the door and Bace’s heart jumped into his throat as he collided shoulders with an older woman. He tried to hide his face but the Countess called out his name.
“Sir Bace. I never expected to meet you here.” Bace turned slowly to face her and sized up her personal escorts. She saw the look in his eyes and widened her smile. Grid stopped a few feet away. “Please, I must insist that you have a dance with me.” She grinned kindly. Bace glanced back at Grid, then at Cob who appeared around the corner, then back at the Countess and her men. “I insist.” She held out her hand but Bace could see the danger in her eyes. He reluctantly took it and escorted her into the ballroom. The strings started up another song so they walked straight through the crowd and joined the dancers.
“This is my favourite.” She smiled as Bace led her around and watched her closely. “I must apologize for our last meeting. How very embarrassing.” She smiled.
“I didn’t see your ship outside.” He finally said quietly.
“I was late.” Her smiled slowly faded. Bace felt the music reach deep inside of him. A simple tune had never meant much to him. This one seemed to slow time and stop the world around him.
“So what’s it going to be then?” He asked. “I’ll take you with if I must.”
“What if I let you go?” She asked.
“You have no reason to.” He intoned.
“Hmm, you’re right. That would be no fun.” She paused. “Let’s play a game. You win, I let you go. But if I win-”
“I get it.” He growled. She glanced at the guards then back at her partner.
“Good, a willing participant.” She smiled at him as he glared. “You must understand
what I’m doing for you, though.” Her eyebrows lowered quizzically. “I like you, Bace. That’s why I’m giving you a chance.”
“Whatever. Just tell me what the game is.” He warned. Her eyes shone as she glanced around the room.
“Do you see that man standing in the doorway smiling rather indefinitely?” As they spun again Bace caught sight of him and then glared at the Countess.
“You said you’d give me a chance.” The Countess opened her eyes wide and quickly shot down the interruption.
“You are going to introduce us and then whoever is able to make the man laugh first is the champion.”
“He’s my master. He’ll recognize me straight away.”
“Oh please, you couldn’t meet a man more disconnected.” Bace felt his heart flutter as the song stopped but he led her away and walked her immediately over to the man. He quickly changed his presentation and bowed gracefully. His master smiled at them.
“Sir, may I have the honour of introducing Lady Countess Mordana of Dename.”
“Yes, thank you. The honor is all mine.” He took her hand and kissed it. “And you, Sir?”
“Ah, no introduction needed. I’m just her escort.” Bace smiled as warmly as he could,
hoping for a laugh. The man smiled and nodded then turned back to the Countess.
“My Lady, I never thought I’d have the pleasure of having you under my roof again.” The Countess laughed and then touched his arm.
“Please, I would never have fallen asleep tonight knowing I was missing one of your parties.” The Countess laughed again but the man seemed content to hold in his air. Bace glanced away and suddenly met eyes with one of the servers. He saw a spark light in the server’s eyes so he quickly looked away. He glanced up again a moment later and saw the server whispering to one of the guards. Bace felt his legs go numb. He turned back to the Countess and his master who seemed to have settled into a fit of flirtatious arguing. He glanced back at the server and the guard then tuned into the conversation.
“But I could never dance, even as a child. My mother tried and tried but my feet always seemed to drag behind me.” His master stuck out his chest.
“Which is perhaps why the term ‘light of foot’ comes from the less fortunate.” Bace interrupted flatly. They both turned to him quietly.
“Uh - why is that?” His master asked awkwardly.
“Well they don’t have gold inlaid into their boots.” He smiled triumphantly as his
master let out a loud rolling laugh.
“Yes, how insightful.” He laughed again and Bace could feel the Countess watching him closely. After a few more words the master excused himself and pranced into the crowd. Bace turned to the Countess who regarded him proudly.
“I hope to meet again someday, my dear Sir Bace.” She watched him bow and then disappear down the hall. He felt Grid join him from behind.
“I told you not to wait.” He said as they sprinted down the hallway.
“You also told me that the point was to get away unnoticed in a disguise.” He huffed.
“I don’t trust her.” Bace sprinted ahead.
“Speaking of which.” Grid said when he caught up.
“Too much to explain.” They sprinted through the courtyard and then slowed before entering the barn. The stable-hands stepped forward but Bace rushed them and quickly jumped on the nearest horse. Grid found his own, pushed down a fellow slave and then mounted. The guards ran forward but the two men fled the building just in time. They turned north and galloped along the length of the palace. They could hear the guards yelling but they pressed on until they met the trees. They continued their pace long into the night, cresting many hills and soon forgot the sound of the water. All their ears knew was the sound of the wind ripping through their hair and their mounts hooves pounding against the road. Bace finally pulled up when he felt his horse stumble. Grid flew past but stopped a few hundred feet down the road. They turned into the trees and stood quietly until their horses stopped panting. Bace listened for any pursuers and then entered the road again. Grid entered shortly after.
“We should keep riding through the night.” Bace said. “We could go a little slower now.” He said, glancing back down the road again. He looked back at Grid who was shaking his head. “You’re not coming?” He asked.
“No way. I’ve got a different home to turn my nose to.” He said. “I have to find my sister.” Bace slapped him on the back.
“Stay out of sight. I got you out once; I’m not doing it again.” They laughed quietly.
“Yeah, well, you stay out of trouble.” The two men shook hands and then Bace watched Grid ride away. Cob appeared suddenly on a big horse. Bace looked up at the stars and let out a breath. He lowered his gaze to meet Cob’s. Cob glanced behind him and then at Bace who was smiling like he’d never smiled before. They shrugged together.
“Let’s go home, Cob.” He said quietly.
 “Good luck. I will always remember you.”
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