The jaw wound was the worst.
Rose settled as comfortably as she could while the healer worked on her; it was lucky she had maintained these contacts or Logan would have likely had her shot by now. She had lost that which was most important to him and it was a mistake he would not easily forgive. She had a lot of work to do.
After the Hero bitch left her bleeding, Rose had only a few minutes of dawn before the factory went back to work. It was the smile of Fortune and her comprehensive knowledge of Industrial that saved her from Logan's rage; if a factory worker had found her, Reaver would have eventually gotten word of her shameful defeat and it would have only been a matter of hours until Logan found her. He'd overturn every rock in Albion until she surfaced and the strength of his displeasure at that point would be far more than a lashing could satisfy. Rose stirred impatiently, trying to think around the stink of healing poultices and burning herbs.
If there was one thing Nigel had been able to accomplish during his superfluous existence it had been to hire some people that possessed talent which nicely covered what he lacked. Aliz descended from a powerful Toveriji clan and had learned enough of their arts as a child to serve the Rat Ferret's unscrupulous band well over the years. Were it not for her gentle but determined fingers, many of Industrials worst criminals would have perished long ago. This was only something the woman could live with because her assistance allowed her certain privileges, such as a secret clinic for the workers left for dead from Reaver's factories.
"Zis is very bad, Rose." The woman pronounced her name with an "r" so round it made Rose's tongue curl in her mouth. Or maybe that was the pain.
"It will have to do, Aliz. Please, just finish as quickly as you can."
The Toveriji sighed dramatically, shaking her scarf-clad head in disgust. It was not her way to leave a person with any injury upon exit of her clinic, but Rose was having none of her mollycoddling.
Carefully, she peeled away the bandage nursing the bullet graze on Rose's head. Rose winced, but noted with relief that the pain was significantly less than it had been upon arrival. There was a vague burn left in the trail on her skull; Aliz held up a mirror for her inspection and Rose hissed angrily at the loss of her brilliant red hair in an unbecoming, stark stripe of white skin.
"It iz healed, but your hair vill take longer." Aliz lowered the mirror and went back to the jaw bone, which had fractured under the Hero's kick. Her dark eyes seemed to radiate disapproval; Rose was not sure what for. She wondered if Aliz disliked her vanity in the face of worse dangers. Her jaw made a nasty clicking sound and the white hot flash of agony briefly blacked out her vision.
"You need to stay, rest. You are safe here." Aliz was uncompromising; she applied some more poultice to the bone and set it, her healer's touch radiating a soothing heat as she closed the cracks in the bone. Rose cried out and folded over with a whimper, wrapping her arms around herself to stop her hands from clutching her face. Aliz patted her on the back, collecting her clean bandages in her thin arms.
"You vill rest now." Aliz exited, softly closing the door behind her. Rose lay back on the bed, feeling the air evaporating her cold sweat.
A few moments of peaceful silence were abruptly shattered by a fist pummeling the door with a frantic assault; "Rose! Rose! Are you in there?"
Rose jerked upward in a panic, then recognized the voice. Sighing, she lay back down again. The door flew open.
"Go away, Stevie."
"No! Not until I'm sure you're alright!" The little girl's eyes glistened with unshed tears, her shortly cropped hair a mussed halo around her head. Rose sighed again.
Stevie was a young recruit for the Gang, as Ferret had fondly referred to them. She was a thief in training, but not one with much hope of a career. She had the "incurable condition of honesty," as Ferret had put it and was a master klutz to boot. Stevie was kept around as a useful distraction; usually, one of the leaders would make her cry and, before anyone was the wiser, whatever treasure they had sought was purloined from its rightful owner and Stevie was whisked away back into the crowd. With her huge eyes and sad innocence, she was a very effective draw for sympathetic potential witnesses to crime.
Rose studied the girl, her heart softening somewhat. It was not so long ago that Rose had been her age, secretly lost in the web of iniquity into which she had been ensnared. Rose had been less fortunate in her captors, had not had someone like herself to intervene when lips curled upward at licentious suggestions for how to use a new recruit. It was not the fault of someone like Stevie that Rose had her back against the wall; she was probably the only person in the world who cared right now if Rose was hurt in her skirmish, who would offer comfort instead of further violence. Rose took her hand.
"I'm hurt now, pet, but I'll be better soon. Aliz saw to it."
Stevie's bottom lip pushed out in a comical imitation of the posters of starving children posted in Industrial by the revolutionary activists. As was customary, the resemblance was unintended, and Rose suppressed the urge to laugh by petting back the girl's short hair, running her fingers through the loopy blond curls.
"Yes, I do." Rose sat up with care, not wanting to worry Stevie more than was necessary. Stevie leaned into her hip, looking up at the bandage wrapped around her face.
"What did that to you? Who?"
"No one, pet, it was an accident." Rose stroked her once more, running a hand down her back to pull her closer, resting the uninjured side of her face against the girl's crown. Stevie exhaled with a puff.
"I know you're lying to me."
"You should have more respect for your elders," Rose admonished, pulling her to sit next to her on the bed. Leaning even in the slightest made her head swim. As the spinning slowed, her stomach rolled into an unsettling churn. Rose protectively wrapped one arm around her midsection, hoping her face didn't turn green.
"Why does everyone treat me like a baby?" Stevie complained, sitting but not leaning into Rose anymore. Rose tried to come up with a suitable response around her exhaustion and discomfort; it was a staggering task.
"Because you're very young, love, and that's alright. You shouldn't worry about such difficult matters as we do."
"Ralfe does! He gets to do all sorts of things!"
Ralfe was one of the most talented young thieves to fleece Industrial for almost twenty years; he wasn't much older than Stevie, but he possessed a soul blacker than an old chimney sweep. Rose felt ill at the thought of Stevie somehow coming to match the likes of Ralfe.
"Ralfe does not get to do anything," Rose responded in a sharp tone. "He chooses to steal and hurt people; is that what you want?"
Stevie lowered her head sadly, her voice small, "No."
"Then stop whining like a spoiled Princess. You know I'm working on getting us out, it just takes time."
Stevie grasped her hand, her wide eyes imploring, "I'd do anything to help if it would stop you getting hurt. I'll do anything, Rose! Let me help! I'll even work in the Stacks!"
Rose nearly toppled over as she lurched forward to hold the little girl, "You will not! Don't you ever say that!" Rose took Stevie's face between her hands, making sure green eyes burned into blue; "You keep safe here, you understand? Let me handle everything. Your job is to stay safe."
Rose waited for her answer, her heart in her throat. Stevie was one of the few children who would listen to Rose anymore; when Rose had decided this was what she was going to do after Logan took an interest in her, a lot of them had been given hope – but years of promises and delays had dimmed the light in their eyes, each of them trailing away to join the shadows as Rose desperately tried to convince them to just wait a little longer until she could get enough money together to get them out. Stevie was the only one left, the one with a true heart of gold. Rose wouldn't let the bowels of this black, filthy place take her. When the time was right, when Logan wouldn't care where Rose had gone, they would flee into the country and live a simpler life - a life where Stevie could just grow, rather than be trampled under the sooty feet of Industrial.
"Alright," the word came willingly enough, but there it was – a slight dimming of hope, of conviction. It made Rose's heart beat faster; she was running out of time.
"Thank you, Stevie. I promise – no, I swear we'll be ready soon. I just have to do one more thing and then we'll be able to leave."
Stevie considered her words thoughtfully then asked, "Is it dangerous?"
Rose was tempted to lie, but she recognized the hardened look she had seen before as other children had begun to doubt – as the promise of something better became little more than a fairy tale and the reality of their existence settled into their hearts, sealing them over forever.
"It is, but I am going to be very, very careful. Do you believe me?"
Stevie stared into her eyes; Rose didn't blink. A moment later, she nodded. Rose hugged her gratefully, praying to whatever God that existed that she had enough time to save them both.
"Alright, please go fetch Aliz. I can't stand this bandage a moment longer."
Stevie did as she was bid, jumping onto light feet and scuffling from the room. A few minutes later, Aliz was back, her expression pinched.
"You no rest," she admonished, coming to inspect the bandage again. Rose scoffed impatiently.
"I've been through worse and you know it. Can I go?"
Aliz grunted and removed the cloth, testing the bone where it had broken. Although it was still tender, it held solidly, and so with a begrudging sound Aliz stepped back so Rose could stand up.
"Thanks as always, Aliz." Rose began to collect her weapon holster, securing it around her hips. As she wrapped another holster around her back, where longer weapons could rest, Aliz spoke.
"I know vhat you are doing; it is dangerous to challenge Hösök, you could die."
Rose knew what Hösök meant; she worked to keep her temper. Aliz was only trying to help.
"It is challenge or die, Aliz. You know that."
Aliz studied her seriously, her eyes glinting in the light. Finally, she nodded.
As Rose went to leave, Aliz stopped her one more time. "This Hösök is strong, yes?"
Rose confirmed it with some reluctance, answering only out of respect for this woman who had cared for her so many times; "Very strong."
Aliz came over to her, offering a small bag that clinked and rattled. "These are healing potions, take them."
Rose accepted the offering with surprise, "But why are you – "
"Hösök are spoken of much in my country, they are wielders of magic and of strength. If she had wanted to kill you, you would not have come here. You would be dead."
Rose stared at her, uncomprehending. Aliz nodded with satisfaction.
"Take it; if you find her again, I have feeling she will let you go, but not without hitting you first. She is benevolent, maybe, but has pride." Aliz thought about that and smiled, "I like that."
As Aliz went back to her fire, stirring some stinky concoction in a pot, Rose stood rooted to the spot. Could Aliz be right? Had the Hero spared her? But… why?
Aliz turned back and raised her eyebrows, "You are still here?"
Rose shook herself; she held up the bag once more in acknowledgement, "Thanks Aliz." And then she was gone.
The circular room belonging to the upper echelons of Parliament was thick with silence and the smoke of cigars shifted nervously between fingers. No one was willing to be the first to fumble his words.
Aldrich Durant, the oldest member of the Crown's Privy Council, observed his fellow ministers with the same canny intelligence which had preserved his access to the royal ear for over two decades. The man had not survived years in this seat without excellent reason. He was a man of principle, but one intelligent enough to know when to use it and when to keep his mouth shut. Now was an occasion for taking refuge in one's mind as events unfolded without. The reasons for this were complex, but came down to a single fact: the king was losing his mind.
Two years ago, this had become apparent when the Hero Queen's son exiled his own sister, Princess Aurora. Not long after the Princess went missing from her cold dungeon cell, the King's GOC (general officer commanding) disappeared after her, and Logan had been seized with an intense lack of reason that seemed to consume him in a conflagration of hatred and greed. Now, his coffers swelled with coin still stained with the blood of his people and a man more canny than Aldrich himself spun an invisible web of control over their gold-thirsty King: Reaver.
The industrialist in question had not yet arrived; in the years before King Logan took the throne, the Kingdom had been ripe with opportunity for its people. Queen Elizabeth was attempting to curb Reaver's reach through working with the Parliament and her trusted privy council to draw up legislation that would prevent him from monopolizing the newest technologies in the business of production and manufacturing. Reaver had attempted many times to be elected to office so that he could have a hand in writing those laws, but had been unable to discover an avenue which the Queen did not cut off with a dead end. Bloodstone had been his previous seat of power; it suited him, teeming as it was with vagabonds and criminals. But Bloodstone was not considered a valid port then, with all honest trade coming in through Bowerstone's harbors further north. Bloodstone was left to run itself, changing hands between its pirate kings according to who poured more gold into their scale's tray. Now, with Reaver running the Kingdom alongside Logan, all they had ever known had come under rapid change.
"Good morning, gentlemen! What fine weather we are having."
The distinctive clink of a metal cane tip meeting stone announced Reaver's arrival; he swaggered in, wearing a white tailcoat over black trousers and a bright red silk cravat pinned with an enormous diamond. The tailcoat's collar of fur swelled ostentatiously around the cravat, which accented his blue brocade vest that was an irritant to the eye. Every aspect of his person asserted brazen pride, from his brown chamois gloves to the frothy white spats over his black leather boots. Everything had been made with unnecessary expense, even for a man of wealth. Aldrich scowled, thinking what a peacock Reaver made in his colorful suit and how still like a pirate he was, despite his attempts at civilization. All others present, with the exception of that ostrich who thought himself a Golden Pheasant, Philbert Sudworth, had the good sense to wear combinations of black, brown, white and grey. Men in government should maintain some dignity in presentation, if not in behavior, Aldrich thought.
"Good morning, yourself, Reaver. You're late as usual and your comments on the weather want for accuracy. It is raining once more." Aldrich's bushy white eyebrows lowered in tandem with the deepening growl of his voice; he made no trouble to mask his dislike for the former pirate, but never went far out of reach of being dismissed as a grumpy old man in his commentary. He was not so foolish to assume that taking a direct stance at this point would accomplish anything but his own execution.
Reaver raised one manicured eyebrow, his smile wide, but his eyes glittering. The hatred was clearly mutual, but Reaver knew too that to challenge the Old Lion, as Aldrich was often called, would be far too risky – even in his elevated position. "Ah, Minister Durant, you are salty as ever. I hope it is only an indication of your continuing health, rather than a result of the increasing discomfort of age?"
Aldrich scowled; that hypocritical scallywag. Everyone knew he possessed more years than his visage suggested. There were documents of Reaver going back two hundred years and a portrait of him from when Elizabeth was an unknown young Hero, looking the same as he did standing in Logan's conference room this morning. Aldrich had challenged Reaver's hideous schemes when he himself was still a young man, shouting him down in the House of Parliament as he tried time and again to squeeze the people of their freedom. Reaver made no secret of his immortality, but the how of it had never been questioned – at least not by anyone who wished to remain alive. Aldrich had once managed to eke out that Elizabeth had discovered Reaver's secret to infinite youth, but no matter how many times he begged her to reveal it, she would not use this knowledge to thwart him. Even she had been too afraid to take it that far.
"I'm very well, thank you," Aldrich barked, shifting in his chair with unrest. Had he been a few years younger, he might have used his own cane for more than a shaky exit of his chair.
"And I am so glad to hear it," Reaver replied with false delight; across from him, Randolph Jewell, the youngest member of the Cabinet and privy council, smirked. The dark minister who oversaw – or rather, failed to oversee –the region of Silverpines stood with a regal bearing by the window, one arm perched upon its sill and the other bent to rest a curled hand on his lower back. The young man too assented to include some color in his wardrobe, with a muted red silk vest that glowed softly underneath his black coat. All allies of Reaver tended towards these shows of fancy, even at serious meetings such as these.
"Come Reaver, insincerity suits you far better than these good tidings," Randolph curled his lips down to belie his amusement, studying his clean fingernails as if bored. Reaver laughed.
"My dear boy, whoever declared that one was distinct from the other?" Reaver nodded to the seneschal, who had walked him to the meeting room. The seneschal nodded his respects in return and silently exited, closing the door behind him.
Reaver helped himself to some brandy and sat by the fire, across from Aldrich and the other elder minister, Egbert Babcock. Both Egbert and Aldrich were old men now; they had come to serve under Elizabeth together as freshly matriculated university students, green right to their ears. Aldrich had made it onto the privy council a hair's breadth sooner than his contemporary and both had made their mark upon the kingdom in the years since. Now, ambitions waned in the face of true danger – of a darkness enveloping their beloved kingdom so completely it might be wiped from the face of the Earth.
At least, the ambitions of honest men did. Aldrich's eyes scanned the perimeter of the room, cataloguing those who could be trusted separately from those who had put in their lot with the Industrialist pirate. There was Burton Westley, the minister of Brightwall who, while not corrupted by greed, was of an old-fashioned breed that so rarely descended as to actually visit the people he represented he was almost entirely out of touch. Burton sat at the large mahogany table alone, a cigar smoking gently in one hand as he ignored the caustic conversation and stared into space, carefully neutral towards everyone in the room. Near him, the sniveling Mallory Paget twisted his reedy hands by a small card table, currently folded up into a side table as no games were being played – at least not with cards. The minister from Mourningwood, Mallory was suitably dreary to match the mood of his district. His tall, skeletal form that folded slightly forward at all times along with his bald head and long, hooked nose gave him the appearance of a polite corpse. As Mourningwood held one of the nation's largest cemeteries, Mallory had always struck Aldrich sickeningly appropriate.
Next to Mallory was Philbert Sedworth; he was an insufferable noble who swam like a tadpole in Reaver's pockets, fawning over the man who had bought the largest mansion in his district, Millfields. Sedworth was sweating eagerly in his chair, awaiting an opportunity to please Reaver as Randolph had. While Randolph longed for the glory of Sedworth's post, the latter coveted the younger man's easy charm. Sedworth had been born to privilege – without it, he would have been less than nothing, with a constant sheen of nerves on his piggy face accompanied by seemingly compulsive fidgeting perhaps intended to distract from his pot belly and ladylike hands. Philbert smoothed the white hands over his own plain vest, his eyebrows contracting with worry that he had not joined the party of color declarative of solidarity to Reaver.
Finally, the second youngest minister of the privy council, Ferris Renfreed, sat hunched in the corner speaking to no one. Aldrich liked Ferris; he came from a poor farming family in Oakfield and had gotten elected after helping the local industry flourish with fewer deaths due to some ingenious changes he made to the farming calendar and commonly used equipment. Ferris fought for the rights of the people, which was astonishing in this day and age. Logan allowed his continued presence because he often presented with such good sense which Aldrich suspected helped to prevent the worst of riots. Ferris struck a balance that gave Logan advice that curbed his more barbaric impulses while still assisting him in achieving his own ends.
While Reaver smiled at them, his lips curved so far back it was painful to look at him, the clock kept time in loud, distinctive ticks of its dials. No one knew why they had been abruptly called together on this Monday morning. Aldrich's own letter of command from the King had arrived at the ungodly hour of 4:00am, when he was still struggling to obtain the easy sleep of men without aches in their bones. Aldrich suspected Reaver knew full well why they were there or would else not so closely resemble the cat that ate the canary and then saved the mouse for dessert.
Without warning, the door leading into the King's war room clicked open, admitting him into their midst in a crisp series of steps. The King shut the door behind him as all scrambled into kneeling positions, still clinging to glasses and cigars as they struggled to find their place. The last two to rise and fall to one knee were Reaver and Aldrich, with the latter only making it halfway to his feet before Logan stopped him with one hand.
"Please, dear Aldrich, do not trouble your knees."
The King's good humor took Aldrich aback; Logan had not spoken to him with such kindness since he had returned from his first trip overseas 4 years ago, when all the madness truly began. Aldrich allowed himself to be guided back into his chair by the young King, taking the opportunity to carefully study the other man's expression.
Though only in his thirties, Logan already had the tight look of a much older man. His face was sallow, with cheekbones much more hollow than Aldrich remembered them and an irritating little goatee that made him look more like a bandit than a king. Logan had always been such a handsome boy; he was almost twenty years older than his sister, a troubling difference that had left many asking questions of her parentage for years. Elizabeth had been firmly unwilling to discuss that topic, no matter how many times Aldrich pleaded with her to wed and dispel the restless whispers of her adversaries. Logan had the same level of determination about him now, but there was an edge to it that made Aldrich distinctly uneasy.
"Let us convene, gentlemen. I have news."
Logan led them all to the table; traditionally, the monarch would meet with their Privy Council in the throne room or the War Council room, as Elizabeth had called it. The latter was reserved for meetings of grave import that could not risk being overheard. This small conference and game room had also sufficed under Elizabeth's reign – she could drink and smoke with the best of them, after all, although she usually chose not to – but Logan had never once deigned to use it. All ministers present were too shocked to maintain their usually exact countenances and joined him automatically, some mouths agog.
Logan took the head of the table, his face alight in a manic excitement that chilled Aldrich to the bone. When he was certain he had everyone's attention, Logan smiled at Reaver, who nodded back with a regal air, as if giving Logan permission to share –
Share their news, Aldrich realized, sickened at the thought.
"Loyal ministers, a great criminal has returned to Bowerstone and will soon be apprehended. We are close to claiming a victory I have long hoped for."
"Your Majesty," Burton asked uncertainly, eyes sweeping around him to include his fellow ministers, "Of whom precisely do you speak?"
King Logan looked at Burton as if this were obvious, then seemed to shake himself somewhat, his face growing more disturbingly bright.
"My sister, Princess Aurora of Albion, has returned."
There was a collective wave of shock around the table as all the ministers absorbed this news. Ferris was white, his eyes boring into the table as he clearly fought some sort of emotion from his face. Burton merely looked floored, his open mouth underneath his mustache giving him the appearance of a startled walrus. Mallory, Philbert, and Randolph all reacted with glee, clearly understanding some other kind of consequence of this news that related favorably to the plans of Reaver, who was smiling with the same creamy contentment he had been a few moments earlier. Now, that grin had a carnivorous edge to it and Reaver leveled a challenging gaze at Aldrich, who stared blankly in return.
Egbert was watching Logan with poorly disguised distaste, although it went as quickly as it came. Although he and Aldrich were both only in their fifties, they sat before their peers with white, tufty hair and faces like walnuts. Egbert particularly looked delicate, although he was in far better health than Aldrich; he'd always been a small man and so gave the appearance of someone of no consequence. Aldrich knew better and nodded slightly to his old friend when a look of pure fire was sent his way.
Logan raised his hand for their attention once more, his own happiness a sickening lurch to witness as he rejoiced in the misfortune of his only sister. "I have sent my best man to secure the traitor and all her supporters. We should have her in custody within the hour."
"And what then, Your Majesty?" Randolph asked eagerly, leaning over the table with open hunger.
"Then she shall be imprisoned and her sentence determined by a specialized justice force of my most trustworthy ministers. The rest will be put to death," he added the last part with a casual flick of his hand, as if the lives of his sister's comrades meant less than nothing.
Egbert jerked in his seat, his mouth opening as if to speak, but Aldrich cut him off.
"Your Majesty, if I may?"
Logan considered his Old Lion carefully, wanting to determine the level of dissonance in Aldrich before granting him the floor. Finally, he nodded, appearing reassured by what he saw.
"Thank you," Aldrich cleared his throat, putting one hand to his chin in a thoughtful rub he hoped dispel any trace of the rage he felt for what Logan was doing. "I was just thinking about your sister's crimes against the Crown and wondered if it wouldn't be better to hold a public trial so as to make an example for your subjects?" Aldrich raised one inquisitive eyebrow, hoping to high Heaven this would work. If Logan were forced somehow to making his sister's trial open to commoners, he would be far less free to do with her as he wished. In fact, it might rally Albion's subjects to action. Aurora had always been beloved by her mother's people. They would not sit idly by while she was tortured and then hung, drawn and quartered like a common criminal.
Logan stared at Aldrich as if frozen; the older man could feel the thickness of the air growing as everyone awaited the King's answer, their breath bated and their ears keen.
Finally, Logan shook his head, "No, Minister Durant, I don't think so. The public was very fond of my sister and it would pain them to know what a traitor she really is. I do not desire it." The formal address applied to Aldrich told him everything he needed to know. Logan did not use their titles as a sign of respect or ceremony; it was a reprimand, a signal of his displeasure. Logan had seen right through him; Damn.
"As you wish, Your Majesty," Aldrich murmured, instantly bowing his head. Not for the first time, Aldrich's elderly heart picked up pace as he wondered if this would be the time that Logan finally realized how much his eldest minister despised him and had him thrown into the dungeons. Aldrich waited, working not to show any outward signs of anxiety as he prayed that he would be given the chance to work a little longer at his enemy's side.
"No," Logan continued with satisfaction, "My sister will be tried in the privacy of my throne room, where those best equipped to understand the measure of her actions and the most appropriate punishment will determine her fate. My mind is set."
There was a quick wave of knuckles meeting mahogany as Logan's privy council rapped their unanimous approval of his declaration. Aldrich followed them carefully, but choked back bitterness in his gullet at the thought that they had given the traditional signal for a settled vote when none of them had been allowed an opinion.
"Randolph, Mallory, Burton, and Philbert – you will assist myself and Minister Reaver in this justice council. Those remaining may be excused."
It was such an abrupt display of loyalties that Aldrich felt dizzy; it was also the first time in his tenure that he had not been included in a panel responsible for some major decision. Aldrich realized without doubt that Logan was onto him and had been for some time. The room spun.
"Ministers Babcock, Renfreed, and Durant – I thank you for your time here this morning." Logan studied them with glittering eyes, "You are free to go."
Ferris was up first, his face evidently burning with heat as he went around his chair to help Egbert up from his own. Aldrich had a harder time of it, chilled as he was by his newfound realization, and Ferris had to come back for him from the door when he saw that the other minister wasn't following them.
"Come, Minister Durant," Ferris encouraged gruffly, his commoner's accent oddly soothing. "I'll see you to your carriage."
Aldrich rose to knees shakier than usual, nodding his gratitude to the young man before turning to Logan. "Your Majesty, at your service."
Aldrich worked to hide his dismay as arthritis as Ferris led him from the room. For the first time he could remember, Aldrich Durant felt truly helpless. He imagined Walter, such an old and loyal friend, being lowered under the guillotine and shuddered. Already lost were a score of Albion citizens and Jasper, all to undignified and gruesome ends. Would the Princess and her fellows be similarly damned? Aldrich's stomach roiled and he stumbled on his feet, leaning heavily into Ferris as his hope, for the first time in nearly five years, took a deep plummet into the abyss.
A pink-cheeked messenger came hurtling down the hallway, a missive clutched in one hand. Before the door could close behind them, the courier slipped into the conference room, breathless with urgency.
Ferris went as if to continue down the hall, but Aldrich stopped him, listening hard. The young farmer froze with disapproval, then took a closer measure of Aldrich's face. Nodding somberly, Ferris leaned in such a way as to suggest Aldrich was resting. Egbert took his ease against the wall, staring casually out the window, his face almost bored.
The voices were too muffled to discern their words, but the tenor of the conversation expanded with tension. Logan shouted an expletive and the door widened briefly before shutting again, the courier expelled angrily from their midst.
The young man was shaking, obviously having thought he was to head to the gallows. Before he could disappear again, Aldrich gripped the young man's arm. He started.
"There now, young chap. Calm yourself."
The courier nodded gratefully, taking deep breaths. At Aldrich's invitation, they walked down the hall together, none of them saying a word. As they reached the end of the walkway, Aldrich stopped the courier and pointed with his cane.
"What is your name?"
The courier gulped, looking nervously at the three of them. "J-Jensen, sir."
"Good lad, Jensen," Aldrich praised, patting him on the shoulder. Jensen was shorter than the Old Lion and seemed to shrink under his approval, obviously desperate to get away from the upper floors of the palace altogether. Aldrich steered him toward the staircase, hoping he would become more amenable with distance from Logan.
"You musn't worry yourself overmuch, Jensen. The King is a stressed man and can appear far fiercer than intended."
Jensen nodded again, this time with a slight relaxation of his shoulders. He sincerely hoped that the old man was right.
"Of course," Egbert said, his tone thoughtful, "It really depends on the news you brought our King. There are those things that will truly displease him beyond all reason." Egbert gave Aldrich a sidelong glance. The two nodded at each other minutely. Ferris looked appalled.
"We will not allow anything to happen to you, Jensen." Ferris blustered angrily, his disappointment in the two other men evident. Aldrich pounced.
"Of course not, of course not! Although it would be easier…" Aldrich looked at Egbert, who picked up the thread.
"…If we knew what you had told him."
The elder men rounded on Jensen at the bottom of the stairs, both unyielding. Ferris stood just behind them, his mouth twisted in confusion and irritation as he failed to follow their scheme. Jensen quaked.
"I-I don't know if I'm supposed to…" Jensen appealed to Ferris, who was ready to intervene. Aldrich stepped on the younger minister's foot behind him, quelling any protest as he engaged Jensen's gaze once more.
"Young Jensen, we will do our utmost to ensure your safety, but we cannot proceed like blind men. What happened in the King's privy chamber?"
There was a pregnant pause as Egbert and Aldrich stared the courier down. Ferris rubbed his foot surreptitiously, eyeing the other minister's with distrust. Finally, Jensen gave in.
"It was a letter from someone to the King, telling him they couldn't capture his sister."
Collectively, the three other men exclaimed in surprise. Jensen leered away from them, startled. Abandoning all pretense, Egbert grabbed the young man by the arm, only to be joined by Ferris. Aldrich lacked the quickness to keep up with them.
"Jensen," Ferris said seriously, his face very close to the other man's; "This is of crucial importance. What else did the letter say?"
Jensen shook under their pressure, "I-it said t-that the Princess fought and got away. That's it, I swear!"
Ferris' expression wrinkled in confusion; "The princess fought?"
But Egbert and Aldrich were already miles ahead of him; they exchanged expressions of amazement and – for the first time in as long as either of them could remember - hope.
"Thank you, Jensen," Aldrich said with genuine gratitude. "You have done very well to tell us this. Now, about your safety…."
While Aldrich instructed the young Jensen to move into Bowerstone Market into one of his own vacant properties, with promises of employment in the Market for him and his entire family (if what Aldrich suspected was true, the courier and everyone he had ever cared about were going to need to leave the palace) the man's mind whirred with new possibilities. Jensen had already accepted a short letter of introduction and left by the time Egbert, Ferris and Aldrich were finally able to part ways in their carriages. While Aldrich's mind continued its work, Egbert secured the promise of a meeting from Ferris in the former's home the next afternoon. Then, the two old friends traveled separately until they reached the Market gate. Egbert told his man to wait and quickly stepped into Aldrich's carriage. For several moments, they both sat in silence.
"Think of it, Egbert," Aldrich murmured as if continuing an earlier conversation. "All his fear of going overseas, his insistence on cutting ties with Aurora, his imprisonment of his sister and then the feverish search when she escaped."
Egbert nodded, not speaking.
"Princess Aurora's namesake was our most successful colony, why abandon it? None of our investigations of this have yielded any answers, except that they seem no more interested in communicating with us than Logan is in allowing anyone contact with them. Something important happened there when Logan visited; something frightened him. And he needs the Princess."
Egbert waited patiently; this was a process they had gone through before. He did not need to respond to prompt his friend to share the full breadth of his thoughts. Not that they weren't in sync most of the time anyway.
Aldrich turned to him, his eyes focusing fully on the present for the first time in the hour since they had heard those fateful words from Jensen, The Princess fought!
Together, they spoke what they knew to be true as instinctively as they knew their own names.
"She's a Hero."