It was with an overwhelming sense of unreality that Aurora listened to Walter's story.
"Jasper managed to use some of the magic of the Sanctuary to stay there and watch out for you in case you tried to draw from its benefits," he briefly gave her a hard look, but it melted away almost as quickly as it had appeared – he would have to get used to not being angry with her anymore. "We were able to correspond through the map table. When you left, its owner no longer commanded its powers alone, and so Jasper was able to make use of it."
Walter paused to watch the passing horizon. The sun was lowering now into what promised to be a spectacular sunset. Threads of rich orange as hot as a flame wove together with blushing pink. The gulls were sleepier; their calls were less urgent as they swung in lazy circles around the crow's nests and sails.
The distant ringing of a bell seemed to rouse Walter from his thoughts; "We thought that table was the last of its kind – only the combined Will of your mother and the Hero Garth had brought it into being. But there is a twin – and it is still within your mother's castle."
The rest followed in a predictably grim fashion: Logan, furious she had escaped from his clutches, searched the castle high and low for evidence of where she might have gone. His men tore the city of Bowerstone apart, looting the corners of the lowliest hovel for a hidden crack in the Resistances' hiding place. Fortunately, none of the rebels were discovered – but a great many innocents were killed, used as bait for the Resistance. For weeks after her disappearance, women and children were dragged into the streets, screaming, as Logan's fanatical contingent of Elite soldiers grabbed them by the hair, skirts - a tiny foot. They would hold public executions, sneering at the crowds to save their victims, then would subject the innocent to all forms of torture. At that point in time, Aurora had been ensconced in a safe house, blissfully ignorant of Logan's crimes. It had been the combination of her lack of preparedness and Walter's mad determination to end the bloodshed that that destroyed their plans that fateful night in Bowerstone Industrial.
After Aurora failed to kill Reaver and fled, Logan was once again enraged at being thwarted. And then, as quietly as a spider whispering to a fly, was alerted to the possible existence of a Hero's secret hiding place by none other than the devil himself.
"Reaver," Aurora spoke the name with hatred through a wall of clenched teeth.
"Yes," Walter agreed, his bushy brow lowering. "He knew of the map and Sanctuary as a fellow Hero. With his help, Logan uncovered its location and made use of it with alacrity."
"Jasper was there when Logan finally managed to get in. I'm not sure how he did it, since he's not a Hero. I never told you this, but Logan tried to use the Guild Seal once. It rejected him – he had none of the Heroic powers. It was only because I tracked his every move that I managed to save the Guild Seal from destruction. Your mother had given it to me in confidence before she died. She expressly forbid me from sharing it with your brother, but somehow he discovered it. I think he would have punished me directly had he not been under the impression it was gone. But it seems that, as far as he was concerned, his goal was to take power – however he could get it. I became irrelevant."
"What… what did he do to Jasper?"
Walter cleared his throat, fighting the swell of emotion he felt as he tried to find words to explain, "Took him prisoner. Tortured him, interrogated him for days. When Jasper refused to tell Logan anything, Logan had him publicly hanged."
Aurora cried out in anguish and covered her face; Walter embraced her with one arm, trying to hold her together as she dissolved with pain. Jasper had been family to her and to imagine him suffering such a hideous fate… It were as though she would simply unravel from the agony, like a poorly sewn rag doll. Walter gave her a little shake.
"I know, Little Bean, I know." He pushed a section of greasy hair from her eyes; tears left behind the tracks of grief in the dust on her face. "You must be proud of him, for he told Logan nothing and withstood incredible cruelty to protect us all. Jasper was a brave man and is worthy of honor."
Aurora hiccuped and nodded, but burned to scream in rage. She might have, had she not already exhausted her appetite for theatrical anger in the last two years. Jasper deserved more than that from her – he deserved her full commitment to bringing down her wretched monster of a brother. She sniffed loudly and wiped at her face, noticing dully how her head throbbed with the vestiges of her hangover and how her throat felt hollow and dry.
"What of the Sanctuary?" she demanded, imagining with a vicious pleasure going there and retrieving her mother's favored Dragonbone hammer, then using it to crush Logan's head.
"It's unsafe, Aurora – Logan could go there any time, as far as we know. Which we don't, because we haven't a comparable map table to check. The only Heroes recorded to possess such an object are your mother and her former Hero companion, Garth – who I haven't seen or heard from since I fought in the last war at Samarkand. He helped us overturn a tyrant there as it was his home country, then he disappeared into the Blade Mountains."
Aurora considered this; the likelihood that Logan had appointed a special guard within the Sanctuary to keep watch for her was about fifty-fifty. He was cautious, her brother, but he was also arrogant and greedy. He may very well have cleared the place out or – worse – destroyed it out of anger when he discovered it would be of no use to him. Because, however he had managed to use the map, he could not use the weapons, nor the books or the armor that had been specially made for her mother's talents. Either there would be nothing there at all, or there would be one more idiot for her to kill. There was only one way to find out.
Aurora stood up and turned to face Walter, her countenance one of absolute determination.
"I'll be back," she reassured him and, before he could do more than slacken his jaw, she summoned the Will deep within her to transport herself to the place of refuge her mother had built so many years ago.
There was the echo of a shouted protest, and then resounding silence. The Sanctuary was unlit, with cobwebs hanging from every corner. Aurora didn't move, watchful for the sign of any threat, but her senses told her she was alone. Following the initial high guard, she was bewildered. Her brother could have accessed a great many of her secrets; why had he left them to simply molder in darkness?
Aurora entered each room of the strange, circular place her mother had made into a kind of home. The weapons stood neatly within their stands, spiderwebs joining across their facets and handles in wispy ignorance of passing time. The armor was not polished or well-kept; much of it would need to be replaced. The weapons possessed special Will within them, and so were virtually indestructible, but a Hero's strength requires minimal protection. Whatever armor had been made had been done so with an eye for maximum mobility with little fatigue. Leathers and more modern jerkins with metal accents had been constructed for her mother's statuesque form. Now, they stood abandoned, their emptiness stern and haunting.
There was also a clothing closet, which still held many beautiful pieces her mother had treasured. They were dusty and somewhat moth-eaten, but their damage was minimal. There was a treasury, the operations for which Jasper had been deliberating over. It appeared her mother had not been so foolishly trusting as to leave that entirely unguarded, and so a series of spells had been erected to protect whatever lay within. Thus far, their components eluded Aurora. She did not understand this magic and had never been able to open the door.
There was a training room, a kitchen, and sleeping quarters. All were untouched, grey with a coating of dust. The final room was the one she most dreaded – its value was far beyond the others in terms of what Logan could gain in plunder. Aurora slowly made her way to the library.
As she had expected, the room had been left as if blown about in a wind torrent. The shelves were mostly stripped, with many tomes carelessly tossed to the floor. A few volumes were missing; it was inevitable that he would do this, but it still made her feel sick. What knowledge had he gained that she had not yet had time to learn? Or, more accurately, which she had neglected to take advantage of before her disgraceful bolt into the wilderness? What would he know when they next faced each other that she had not been counting on? Aurora ached to call for Jasper, to watch as he neatly put everything back together and reassured her it was "only a small mess," but he was gone. Her chance to save him had been thrown away by her own carelessness. Aurora gripped the frame of the door with white fingers; well, she would not allow herself the luxury of cowardice again. Enough people had died because of her incompetence.
The room needed to be reorganized, but there was no time now – not without reinforcements. Carefully, Aurora took some of the weapons, several pairs of gauntlets, and a new set of clothes. She couldn't completely conceal their absence, but she applied an ice gauntlet and managed to camouflage the gaps with webs of ice across the now-vacant spaces. It would have to do. Knowing Walter would be in a fit, Aurora closed her eyes once more and summoned her magic.
The noises of the ocean and boat were jarring after the stifled silence of her mother's old retreat. As expected, Walter was going mad, Ben at his side as Walter blathered on in his guttural voice.
"Oh! There she is!" Ben pointed helpfully; Walter swung around, his hands curled like talons in front of his face. "Aurora!"
Without ceremony, Aurora lowered the pack she had also stolen onto the deck; some weapons clanked into placed next to it. She nodded, "He's been in there, conducting searches, but there's no one on guard. I took some things I needed."
Ben helped himself to a rifle and let out a low whistle of admiration; "Now this is a fine piece of machinery."
Aurora gifted him a cold stare, "It was my mother's."
Smiling in what she presumed he thought was a winning manner, Ben returned it to her, nodding his respect. "And she had very good taste." Slowly, he backed away next to Walter, who was beside himself.
"You could have been killed, you idiot!" he told her, his face white. Aurora shrugged.
"Either it was going to be Logan, who has no powers, or some of his Elite cronies - who have no powers either. Whoever it was, I would have blasted them so far out of our dimension, not even the Temple of Shadows could have retrieved their essence."
"But then where would you be?" he demanded, still outraged. Aurora sighed, "Perfectly fine, as you well know, having fought alongside my mother. Have you learned nothing of the strength of Heroes?"
Ben chuckled, "Well, mate, I'll just say it: you've got your work cut out for you!" He rolled between his heels and the balls of his feet, arms folded behind his back and eyes twinkling.
Aurora coolly ignored him; there could be something said for noble training. It gave you the skill not to make a fool of yourself, even when others presented reasonable temptation to do so. Benjamin Finn was an irksome man.
"I would like to retire to my cabin and take a bath; I have some clothes, but there wasn't any food in the kitchen."
Walter was not finished, "You expect me to get you food after what you've done?!"
"What I've done," Aurora retorted calmly, "Is secure the tools necessary for me to proceed in an effective manner. There will be a confrontation with Logan, Walter. I might as well not be afraid of it." Steeling herself against the agony she felt saying his name, she added, "Jasper wouldn't have wanted me to behave that way, and neither should you."
This seemed to cause Walter to short-circuit. He understood her wisdom, but wanted to labor the point of his aggravation a bit more. As it was, it had been a tiring day, and with an almighty sagging of his body he seemed to let it go.
"Alright, I'll see if the mess can make a plate for you. Bloody lunatic." Walter stomped off, muttering to himself.
Left behind in the vacuum of his considerable presence, Benjamin Finn and Aurora stood in awkward silence. Finally, garrulous man that he was, Ben attempted to breach the divide.
"Lovely sunset; and baths are wonderful for hangovers. I'm sure your head will be much relieved."
As much as Aurora hated to admit it, it embarrassed her how obvious her drunkenness had been – not to mention the subsequent suffering it brought her. It did not befit a woman of her breeding and so she responded in a way that did.
"Excuse me," she replied, her tone brittle. She hoisted her loot over one shoulder and walked away, back as straight as a pin. Keeping her chin elevated, Aurora thought that, though Queen of Albion she may someday be, for now she would settle for a Princess who knew how to use icy tact. And a Dragonbone hammer.
Finn sagged a little with relief when she vanished out of sight. Whoo! The hostility on that one! She could teach some pirates a thing or two about evil stares.
Ben had traveled with pirates for a time when he was still a young lad. Mother had died, his brothers following shortly after – save poor John, who went to prison. With father a hapless drunkard slowly dribbling away his savings at the pub, Ben sought out other opportunities. It was either that or stay put and inherit the unhappy task of running his father's shop in a small village outside of Bloodstone, and he simply could not imagine himself trapped there. One day, he'd be hanging the sign and before he knew it, years would have passed to find him tracing his father's steps from the counter of his shop to the stool at the pub. That was no fate for Benjamin Finn.
Although, to be fair, being a pirate had not been the best plan, either. It had sort of happened by accident; he'd found his way to Bloodstone, the bustling harbor of Albion in the west. There, sin and revelry found their home amongst the docks where trade made its final stop before heading north. Ben had been agog at the scene; whores pranced in the streets without a trace of shame, hawking their wares as proudly and openly as the women who sold bread, potions, and meat had in his home market. Drunkards fell down in the streets, scattering refuse and vomiting where they lay. A tattooist made good business near the warehouses where sailors took their stock; Ben could still remember the toothless leer of a man who'd watched him pass, his brawny arm held out for the tattooist to trace a pattern of ink over his skin. When the tattooist saw the man's expression, his eyes had briefly raised, and Ben had caught sight of his strange earrings – glittering hoops suspended from large holes in each earlobe, framing a face entirely covered with blue paisley and writing.
Bloodstone had not been a difficult place to blend in if you didn't want to be noticed – no one cared for a young boy who'd run away from home. They were far too interested in the flourishing of local industry and how they could get in on the profit. Ben was very interested in some profit himself, but found that employment was difficult to come by if you weren't a criminal. Those few poor souls who rallied against the inhospitable conditions to provide honest wares were few and far between and none were willing to take on the responsibility of an apprentice. Ben could hardly blame them; with so many rough kinds prowling the streets, robberies were a common occurrence. And it was not difficult to steal or illegally trade for an item someone tried to make and sell honestly. There were two blacksmiths in the town and one folded not long after Ben arrived; though his weapons were of good quality, he refused to trade for stolen merchandise and tried to turn corrupt sailors into the authorities. The night his house was set alight, he slunk out of town without a squeak of protest. Ben never saw him again.
After begging for a time, Ben managed to convince the local tavern to take him on. His bed was a moldy cot in a room the size of a storage closet and he worked seven days a week until the sun had risen for dawn, but it was a roof over his head. He washed glasses and ran trays to waiting customers. Some of them took a liking to him; older wenches would pinch his cheeks and maybe give him a coin, if he said something particularly charming. Ben learned the value of a pretty word quickly; it served to please many customers into treating him well, and managed to fend off some hostile clientele who might have otherwise had him beaten. He was taken into the alley a time or two for his cheek, but he always managed to come back to work the next day – bruised maybe, perhaps bending a little at the waist, but ready to watch those sovereigns wink in the light as they exited ladies' skirt pockets.
It was one such night in the tavern where he had met William Parker – an innocuous name for a man dreaded by all who sailed Albion's seas, a man who had built a reputation worthy of Captain Dread himself. Dread was a pirate of two hundred years prior who transformed himself from a villain on a boat to a gang lord who demanded regular payment from most of the coast cities before his death. William had not yet reached such proportions of status as to warrant regular tribute from locals in exchange for him not beheading, burning, dismembering, or generally robbing them blind, but he had managed to secure a heavy respect from the citizens of Bloodstone and, considering their hardened outlook, that took some doing.
William frequented the tavern where Ben worked, laughing raucously with his men, accepting free pitchers of ale and rolling wenches enthusiastically across his knees. Ben often watched Parker with envy, wondering what it had taken to rise above the muck of this place and find a way to be free. William sailed when he felt a favorable wind, stole what he wanted, and spent little of the coin he had taken as businesses eagerly offered for free what others would have to steal to pay for – all to avoid his displeasure, or even perhaps secure his favor, whichever happened to come first.
This did not mean he was a popular man, however – fear more often breeds loathing than love, and William's "followers" were no exception. Finally, some fisherman grew tired of his antics – screaming and shouting until five in the morning, pouring ale on patrons' heads when they came too close to his table, trying to grab women already spoken for – and attempted to ambush him. It was a busy night for the tavern; most of the town had turned out for a drink and a bit of fun. Light as thick as butter shone in slats through the windows from the lanterns outside, mingling with the cool wisps of moonlight. The air smelled sharply of alcohol and sweat as body after body squeezed in from the harbor, their voices rising in a cacophony of catcalls and screeching laughs. Music played from one corner, while the scattered sounds of dice being tossed rattled against the surface of wooden tables, quickly followed by the whoops of the victorious, as well as the groans of the unlucky.
Ben wove his way through the crowd, tray risen high to avoid collisions. He was covered in sweat and ale, having already been pushed down several times as people broke into fights or fell over drunk. One whore had been particularly fond of him all night, trailing his "little buttocks!" through the crowd with a grasping hand. Not that Ben entirely minded, but he had a job to do. Just as he sighed with relief and went to wipe his brow, his burden having been safely delivered, the door opened once more to admit a gust of salty air and a crowd of fishermen. Their expressions were grim amidst the sounds of excess in high swing; Ben paused to study them, sensing trouble building.
He did not have to wait long; William was parked in one corner with his men, relatively subdued with so many witnesses at hand. The fishermen wasted no time in making their business known; before most knew what was happening, a table had been overturned, spraying the air with flecks of ale and hot candlewax. Screams and shattering glass made an orchestra of chaos as the fight broke out. William would have been overwhelmed by sheer numbers, had it not been for Ben.
In Bloodstone, a good brawl was relished as much as any other pastime, and the patrons of the bar did not miss an opportunity to get in a few good swings. When it became apparent that the fishermen intended an ending more brutal than a decent bruising, minor chaos morphed into genuine panic. People scrambled to get out of the way; others became caught in the bloodlust. At first knives were drawn and then the first shot rent the air, clouding it with gunpowder. Ben folded against the bar as the crowd seemed to expand in its haste to exit the tavern, his eyes wide and searching the scene. William was beating some man to a pulp in one corner; most of his men still stood, but were separated from him, caught in their own battles. A group of men were closing in behind him, their circle contracting with the promise of a hand tightening around a throat.
Ben didn't know what made him do it; perhaps it was his admiration of Parker or an instinct towards protection. In the bedlam, a pistol had been dropped. Ben saw it clearly through the flurry of movement, the background noise of violence fading away behind his concentration. Ben had only fired from a pellet rifle at cans, but he was a good shot. Without further thought, Ben retrieved the pistol and veered around, seeking a good perch. Pushing back through the crowds, he clambered onto the wooden bar, behind which the keep cowered, his hands over his balding head.
William Parker was aware of his predicament; he had drawn his own weapon, but even with it cocked and ready to pull, he was outnumbered. Teeth clenched, the pirate cursed under his breath, swinging his gun back and forth in an open threat. His attackers leered aggressively, hesitant, but not deterred. One among them held a bat of considerable girth; furiously, he raised it, and went to smash the skull of Parker in. William fired a warning shot at the man's foot; from his other side, a sailor lunged.
When the second shot fired, William's men roared their frustration, prevented from reaching him in time and fearing the worst. But, to their amazement, the sailor who had gone for William's throat was the one wounded. Everyone froze to watch as he staggered back, clutching his wrist. From it a blade fell and clattered to the floor, rivulets of blood following in the knife's wake. The sailor cursed; most of the men who had been ready to attack a moment before withdrew, their bravery lost in the face of a second gun. As the last of them clattered out – the sailor stumbling hurriedly out the door behind them – all the pirates remained, staring at a boy holding a smoking gun.
"Boy," William Parker barked, one eyebrow raised in skepticism. "Was that you?"
The air was still filled with smoke; Ben looked upon the astonished pirates and gulped. "Yes."
There was a moment of silence and then, William Parker, hardened mercenary and thief of the seas, threw his head back and laughed.
And so had begun Ben Finn's pirating career; it had been short, but fruitful. In fact, were it not for Major Swift, Ben had every confidence he'd be dead or imprisoned by now. Good thing he could shoot as well as he did or he'd never have made it into the army.
Thinking of that time made Ben wistful. He missed the early days of his military career, when he'd been a busy soldier of the Queen's Royal Army, fighting worthwhile wars overseas. Ben was twenty-one when Logan took the throne four years ago; since then, he'd been relegated to increasingly minor duty under Major Swift's command. The more Swift voiced objections to Logan's tyrannical rule, the more the King had dismantled the pillars of his mother's army, until they were nothing but scattered contingents posted to the remote corners of Albion, with all the major assignments occupied by his Elite Soldiers. Frankly, Ben was surprised he hadn't just killed them off, considering Swift and he were Loyalists (the term the revolutionaries had used to refer to themselves before revolution became necessary). They, like their former Queen, believed in a democratic monarchy, where issues of state were voted upon by a house of representatives and then approved by the Queen. Logan had taken her government apart about a year after taking the throne, stripping the ministers of their voting power and ruling from on high – something that had not been done in Albion for over five hundred years since the fall of the Old Kingdom. Ben felt in his deepest heart Logan had to be stopped. Not since he had joined Major Swift had something inspired this much conviction in Ben Finn.
Which was why he was so doubtful of their current course of action. He could understand finding the Princess; every movement needs a figurehead and she was the Queen's daughter and a Hero, which made her especially qualified for the job. She could inspire a nation to feel the courage it would need to fight Logan back – the only question he felt they had to ask was, when? It seemed to him that this was merely a girl with some special abilities she didn't know how to use. Would it not be better to put someone more experienced in charge and stow her for display at a later time?
Ben had said as much to Swift before leaving with Walter the month before without much support offered in return. Major Swift, like Walter, seemed to operate under the thin hope that the daughter would be like the mother and had dismissed Finn's concerns. Ben trusted Swift like a father, but he hoped that his and Walter's convictions would not be the undoing of all their hard work.
After enjoying some food in the mess, Ben went back to their set of cabins below deck. Her Royal Highness would have already eaten and bathed, no doubt. He didn't know what he could offer her in terms of assistance, but it seemed at least civil to pop his head in, if they were going to work together.
Walter was returning from a conversation with the captain when Finn got below deck. The waters were relatively calm for springtime, but the boat still bucked with nauseating regularity. Ben was glad for the experience he had at sea, or this might have been a very unpleasant journey.
"How's our prickly ward?" He asked Walter, ducking under a low beam in the ceiling. The door clapped shut behind him; Walter was standing next to his bed, rifling through papers. At Ben's question, he scowled.
"She's the Hero of our movement, Ben. Show some respect."
Ben shrugged, "I didn't mean any disrespect, Walter – only to suggest the Princess has had a rough time of it." He tried to smile winningly. Walter glared.
"I know what you said to Major Swift, Ben. You don't know Aurora like I do; when we get back and in the swing of things, you'll see just how much of a leader she can be."
Ben somewhat doubted it, but chose not to answer. Instead, he asked, "How long until we dock?"
Gathering the papers together and shuffling them back in order, Walter shook his head. "Five days or so; I wish it were sooner." He retrieved his pack and stowed some of his things inside it, turning back to sit on the bed. Ben went to sit across from him.
"What's the plan when we get back?"
Walter rubbed his beard thoughtfully, "I've got to discuss it further with Aurora, but Swift needs to meet her. He's still stationed in Mourningwood Fort, which is a few days' ride from Bowerstone. And then, of course, there's Page."
Ben winced; Page was the leader of the Bowerstone Resistance. She had worked in the factories as a child and grown up to educate herself and develop a variety of fervent opinions. It wasn't that he didn't respect her intentions, but she could be a difficult woman to deal with.
"I have a feeling that meeting won't go very smoothly."
Walter nodded, blowing out through his whiskers in a tired sort of way. "Page doesn't like the thought of involving someone connected to Logan, but that's where she can be shortsighted. She's a good lass, but a revolution cannot be won on principles and gunpowder alone. It needs a beating heart. That's Aurora."
Ben chose to neither agree nor disagree with this statement; "So, Page first and then Swift's Brigade? It only makes sense to pass through Industrial on the way to the fort."
Walter was stubbornly resolute not to exclude the Princess, "We'll finalize the plans with Aurora. Now, why don't you get some rest?"
Walter went to check on Aurora and Ben lay back, content not to get involved at the moment. He wasn't sure why Swift had sent him on this mission in the first place. Perhaps he thought Ben needed the bit of action to keep him from getting restless. Either way, they had their prize in tow and would soon be back in the city of Bowerstone. Ben decided he could worry about his usefulness then and let Walter, Page, and the Major handle the rest.
Aurora looked upon her fair capitol and nearly winced. The screeching whistle of a boat arriving in the dock rent the air, along with steam and smoke from the factories. Beggars were knee-deep at the docks, jostling alongside the workers who loaded and dispatched crates from shipping boats. Some of the men she saw had obviously once been soldiers, their bodies encased in the rags of her mother's now antiquated Royal Army uniform. That man Finn made a point of handing them coin as they passed by, his face drawn and tense.
Bowerstone Industrial had split from the main part of Albion's capitol city when Reaver built the first factories almost forty-five years ago. Industrialization was in its infancy then, but - in his typical fashion - Reaver maximized on its potential. He swept in like a plague, buying up property faster than the Crown could document it. Before long, most of Bowerstone was employed in his factories. Initially, the promise of new industry brought hope. People dreamt of opportunity in the city – a chance to move away from the arduous life of farming towards comfort and equal share of Albion's wealth. That, sadly, was not to be.
"Page is in the Sewers!" Walter had to raise his voice to be heard above the chatter of the crowd and the gears of industry. The factories were in full swing, filling the air with soot, sweat, and noise. Walter had told Aurora about Page; she hadn't known where to begin any better than Walter had and so had made a show of thinking his suggestion over before agreeing it was a sensible plan. Aurora didn't want to let Walter down; nor did she want to give that smug idiot, Finn, any more reason to smirk at her inexperience. She supposed that she was already on her way to being royalty in that sense – faking forethought or understanding to cover for her utter lack of direction.
The sewers were famous in Bowerstone. They had been constructed not long after Aurora was born and were built to pour their waste directly into the canal out into the ocean. The result had been to destroy that which had once served as a small oasis for locals to fish and swim. All leisure had been narrowed to include only what could be found in the local pub when people came off twelve or sixteen hour shifts. Children no longer attended school in Bowerstone either, instead joining their mothers, fathers, and extended family in the factories. Not that an education would have afforded them much opportunity now anyway; Logan had closed Albion's only university not long after he took the throne. As swiftly and surely as a predator cornering its prey, her brother and Reaver had trapped the people of Albion into a life defined by what the rich allowed them, with no means of real escape.
There were a few areas which allowed a modicum of freedom through farming, but it was not an easy life. Those who made their living that way in Oakfield and near Brightwall on the east side of the country still had to rely on her brother to purchase their goods. Without his cooperation, they would have had to surrender their goods to his Elite Soldiers without any pay. Logan had stationed them in every major town in the country, and there were several patrols specially appointed to move from station to station, so that smaller towns and villages could be inspected on a regular basis – even if they weren't a source of goods. Soldiers took what they wanted and moved on, often drinking and eating most of the town's supplies. They raped women who didn't submit willingly to their charms, and would hang men who went to stop them. No one felt safe in Albion – no one felt they had any place to hide.
That was why Aurora had gone to Bloodstone and Rookridge. No one there cared about the law. In fact, they relied on illegal activity to live, so the soldiers would merely appear, be offered some form of payment in exchange for their speedy departure, and leave. She had never had to worry about them focusing on either town for very long, or about feeling the need to protect some hapless citizen. There were no innocents in Bloodstone or Rookridge, leaving the Princess off the hook when it came to inconvenient heroics. All she had to do was buy her whiskey and blend in with the crowd.
Aurora sighed as she looked upon a crane lifting some supplies from a dock by the canal into a factory. Her eyes travelled down the length of the crane into the stream of people passing her by. There was a man pushing a merchandise cart, his face as gray as the smoke rising from the Stacks (the nickname for the line of factories along the canal). Behind him, two women asked for money, one with an outstretched hand, the other with a skirt hoisted suggestively above one knee.
As they passed the tavern, some drunkards were thrown out. Aurora could hear breaking glass and the sound of a piano playing. The men cast into the street cursed vehemently, trying to right twisted shirts and tilted hats. One of them reared around and nearly slammed into her, his eyes bloodshot, his face haggard and covered with white stubble.
Everything smelled in Industrial; the scents of oil, decay, and hopelessness. They carved a path through the weaving crowd, Aurora's stomach growing sick from the sights and sounds. The odors were no help either, but she had to admit to herself that it was less to do with the smell than the thought that she could have been helping these people for two years, and didn't.
"Here we go!" Walter suddenly veered to the right, sliding out of sight on a narrow staircase into the underside of the canal. A bridge erupted to the left, bowing gracefully into the west end of Industrial. Aurora followed him, tailed by Ben, and they descended into an area often referred to as the Pits, where people injured in the Stacks went to live after they could no longer afford Reaver's rent.
The Pits were slightly quieter, muffled by the bridges above. A few fires flickered in empty oil drums along the side. Inside the segmental arches carved back into the walls of the canal, people huddled against cool air and detection by authorities. Most of the time, the Elites didn't bother coming down here. They had tried finding the Resistance in the sewers, but had been unable to track them. When they were lacking in sources of folly, the Elites would sometimes come down here to take one of the homeless away for "questioning", which usually meant torture. If they were lucky, the individual would be returned to the Pits, riddled with injuries. Most of them never came back at all.
Walter nodded to the men and women who lived here; his saber rattled in its scabbard, tied to the belt on his waist. People did not bother them, but did not welcome their presence either. The Resistance had to be cautious here, not only because of the authorities who wished to capture them, but because of the Pits' homeless who'd be willing to betray them for a hot meal, or a chance back into the Stacks. Some of them had lost their job for a political reason – refusing the advances of a foreman, usually, or maybe being caught stealing some food. As a result, the Resistance's location moved often. Today, it appeared to be under a factory that riveted weapons and large machines. Walter showed her the door, keeping his back to it and scanning the area for spies.
"Now," he whispered, "This is the last place I was able to access the Resistance headquarters. It's been three months since then, so they'll have moved. The way they let people know where they've gone is by scratching a code by the door. Look around in the stone for something like a symbol, not a word."
While Walter and Ben kept lookout, Aurora searched every cranny and brick next to the door. At first, there was nothing, but then she found a tiny scratch that looked like it could be a sun, or a glaring eye.
He came to inspect her discovery and quietly cursed.
"That means it's being watched," he told her. Grabbing her arm, Walter began to exit the area at a quick pace, his eyes rolling in every direction. Finn followed them closely behind. She heard the soft click of him loading a pistol.
"We need to get out of here, now. We can go to-"
As they careened around into an entry leading into the Cesspools (an underground exit from and entryway into the Sewers), a nasal tone cut across their hurried whispers.
"Well, well, well…." Nigel Ferret, the king of crime in Bowerstone and her brother's long-held toadie, emerged from the shadows. A cigarette smoked in his hand, his face leering down at her from a higher platform. "It appears the mouse has come home to the cat. Hello, Dearie!"