Polain took a sip of herbal tea, working on calming his nerves. His cabin, a small building in Fort Asfalis where he stayed when he came, was quiet, the only sounds being the sounds of boys training outside. His room was simple, and looked as much like a Jotiese room as he could manage to make it. The table he knelt at was low to the ground, the pillows soft and made from silk, the lantern made from paper, his bed rolled up neatly and tucked into a corner; there were times where he even managed to forget that he was in Caitha, and thought that he was back in Jotai. Then, someone would walk in and ruin the illusion.
That was exactly what happened that day. Just as he finished off his first cup of tea, the door opened and someone’s heavy footfalls entered the building. It almost sounded like his visitor was stomping their feet as they walked in.
“How many times must I tell you to take off your shoes before you walk in here, Commander Silas?” Polain asked without looking behind him at the door. “It took me a long time to save up the money for these tatami mats, and I don’t wish for them to be ruined by your muddy boots.” He could hear him slipping his boots off of his feet.
“Alright, I’ll save your precious mats from destruction,” Silas muttered. He walked over and plopped down on one of the pillows, his legs crossed. Polain almost asked him to kneel on the pillow – after all, that was how one sat in the presence of an officer in Jotai – but he managed to resist. Though he’d been in Caitha for almost twenty years, he still had a hard time with how informal they were. Only the gods (may there names be praised) knew exactly how he managed to keep patient with this Mirinian, who was informal even by Caithian standards.
Besides, his posture wasn’t the thing he was most concerned about.
“Would you like some tea, Commander Silas?” Polain asked as he poured himself another cup of tea. “Or perhaps a change of socks? Yours seem to be worn through.”
Silas looked down at his soiled socks, with holes that let both of his big toes show. By the gods (may their names be praised) how long had he had them? They looked like he’d taken them off of a corpse. Even by Caithian standards it was inappropriate.
“I think I’ll pass on the socks,” Silas said, looking back up. “I’ll take you up on the tea, though.” Polain poured him a cup of tea, which he downed in a single swig. It almost pained him to see it.
“Commander Silas, would you mind not swigging this tea?” Polain asked as he poured him another cup. “It’s been quite hard to find it as of late, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t drink it like cheap liquor.” Silas took the cup and made sure to take the tiniest, daintiest sip of tea he could manage.
Polain took a sip of tea. “Now, what is it that you need? I assume that you aren’t here simply to have tea with me.”
“You know that kid Eza brought in earlier?” Silas asked. He took another sip of tea. “He claims that he’s prince Kael of Gishk.”
Polain frowned. He’d met prince Kael years ago, just before Raul killed the Gisken royal family. He’d been a small, almost frail child, due to the fact that he wasn’t old enough for sword training and spent most of his time inside with his younger siblings. Even if he had survived the massacre, there was no way that he survived much longer than that, let alone eleven years.
“Does he really think that?” Polain asked. Silas nodded.
“He even told me to get you down to the brig to see him, as you know who he is,” he said. “I think he may be a little desperate, though; he knows that I’ll take the ax to him if I decide he’s a Gisken assassin.” He took a few sips of tea, enough to finish off his cup.
“I suppose I should see him,” Polain said. “It may be his final request.” Silas gave him a weird look.
“Seriously?” he asked. “As far as you know, he really is an assassin; you aren’t dying on my watch.”
“With all due respect, Commander Silas, there isn’t much he could do to me while he’s in chains,” Polain said. “Anyway, it would also be quite dishonorable for me to refuse a prisoner’s final request; I will not risk being eternally damned for something as simple as this.” Silas sighed and rubbed the back of his neck.
“Sometimes, I don’t think I’ll ever understand that religion of yours,” he grumbled. “If you’re going down there, at least take a few guards down there with you. Chains or not, he’s a Gisken who managed to bang up one of the best fighters I’ve ever seen. I know you don’t think there’s much he can do right now, but I’d rather not take the chance.” Polain nodded, though he found himself a little surprised; Silas had never tried to give him orders, before.
“If you insist, commander,” Polain said as he finished up his cup of tea. “I certainly hope you don’t mind if I finish this pot of tea, do you?” Silas sighed.
“Of course not,” he said. “I know how seriously you Jotiese people take your tea time.” He held out his cup. “I’ll go ahead and help you with it, if you don’t mind.”
And so, for the next few minutes, the two worked on finishing the tea, making small talk about that year’s crop of Rook recruits, how things were going in Semata, even the possibility of a marital match for princess Marion, which she was fighting even harder than the other men that had tried to court her. After the final drop of tea was gone, the two stood up, put on their shoes, and walked to the brig.
It was dark in there, dark and clammy. The passageways Silas led him down were narrow enough that they couldn’t walk side-by-side, and the place smelled of human waste. It was the kind of place that Jotiese officers wouldn’t be caught dead in; however, he’d learned from his time in Caitha that it was quite normal for officers here.
Finally, long after Polain had become lost in the winding passageways that were Fort Asfalis’ brig, they stopped in front of a cell.
Silas pulled out the keys. “I would make this short and sweet, sir; the men probably know there’s a Gisken down here, and they’ll want blood.” The cell door opened with a creak, and Silas gestured inside.
“After you,” he said. Polain stepped into the cell, then looked back at him.
“I would greatly appreciate it if you were to stay out here until I’m finished in here,” Polain said. He could see that Silas wanted to protest, but for once in his life, he managed to keep his mouth shut.
“Yes, sir,” he said with a nod. He shut the cell door, but didn’t lock it.
Polain looked behind him at the Gisken. The boy was young, perhaps eighteen years old, and was dressed in furs like a Kurzhian; the shaved head, a common occurrence on the border between Kurzh and Gishk, sealed the illusion. The boy perked up the second he saw him.
“Commander Silas told me you wanted to see me,” Polain said as he knelt in front of him. He had to admit, there was an air of familiarity about him, as if they’d met before.
Then again, his face looked like every other Gisken he’d ever met.
“I didn’t think he would actually get you,” he said. He slowly began to adjust himself, making his chains jingle.
“Now, you know who I am, but I’m afraid I don’t know who you are,” he said. The boy frowned.
“I’m Prince Kael,” he said. “Don’t you remember me?” Polain shook his head.
“I’m fairly certain that I’ve never met you before,” he said. “Besides, Prince Kael died with the rest of his family eleven years ago.” The Gisken looked down at his feet for a few seconds, as if trying to decide what to say, then looked back up.
“I know that I don’t look much like the kid you met years ago, but you have to believe me,” he said. “I’ve been hiding out until I could reclaim my throne, which I can do in a few weeks, and I couldn’t tell anyone who or where I was because of Raul.” Polain gave him a look, which the Gisken took with frustration. Then, he sighed.
“I remember when you came to Gishk a few weeks before the incident,” he said. “You gave me a training sword and tried to get me interested in fighting.”
Polain paused, confused. It was true; he had given the young prince a training sword, in the hopes that he would stop humoring his younger sisters with tea parties and would get out into the courtyard and start training to be a proper soldier. It was something only someone very close to the family would know.
Even so, he tried to keep his face from showing it; if this was an imposter, he would only be encouraged by a positive reaction.
The Gisken began to chuckle. “Mother was so angry; I wasn’t sure who she was going to kill first: me for breaking that Vercourian vase with it or you for giving it to me.”
Polain felt an icy grip on his heart. The Gisken was two for two, now. For the last few days of Polain’s visit in Gishk, Queen Helena had been angry about the vase. It had been a one-of-a-kind and special enough to her that she’d hardly spoken a word to him or her son for almost a week. Only a few people, including Polain knew that, and other than him, everyone who knew about the incident was dead.
He was beginning to see it. While he certainly didn’t look much like the boy he’d met eleven years before, there was still a resemblance: The olive skin, the big brown eyes, the narrow nose, the soft jaw… now that he saw it, he knew exactly who it was.
Polain stood up, his mind running laps. He would need some time to think this over.
“If you’ll excuse me, I have some other business to attend to,” Polain said stiffly. Trying to ignore the confused expression on the boy’s face, he turned around and walked out of the cell to find Silas, leaning against the door of the cell across from that of the prince’s.
“How was your private conversation with the mad man?” he asked. They began to walk toward the exit of the brig, winding their way back through the labyrinth of narrow corridors.
“I think he may be telling the truth.” Silas stopped and turned around, a look of shock Polain didn’t think possible for him etched on his face.
“Then, you’re even loonier than he is, Polain,” Silas sighed, shaking his head. “Why the hell would you think that?”
“He knew things that very few people beyond the royal family would know,” Polain said. Silas cursed, folding his arms over his chest and rolling his eyes.
“Well, that’s sound reasoning,” he muttered. “Let’s let a Gisken lunatic roam around the country, claiming that he’s some dead prince. Seriously, Polain, I think all that green tea has gone to your head.”
“That wasn’t the only thing, Commander Silas,” Polain said. “He looks a lot like King Alberich did, minus the shaved head-“
“-Which is a sign that it’s a sham,” Silas argued. “Last time I was in Gishk, having a shaved head was pretty frowned upon; it showed that someone was a criminal. Why the hell would you trust the word of a man the Giskens think is a criminal?”
Polain sighed as he began to rub the back of his neck. When put that way, it certainly didn’t look all that great. How was he supposed to explain something he only had a gut reaction to?
“You’re probably right, Silas,” he said. “But there’s something about him… every time I look at him, I think of King Alberich. It’s like those gut feelings you and Eza have all the time.” They continued to walk down the corridor.
“So, are we staying the execution, then?” Silas asked. Polain nodded. Silas sighed, almost as if he was disappointed.
“And what do you plan on doing with him when you leave tomorrow morning?” he asked as he looked up at Polain. “Don’t tell me that you’re going to leave him here; the only thing that’s keeping that bastard from getting killed is the fact that they think he’ll be gone, soon; if you take the executioner and leave the condemned, someone else will do it, and it sure as hell isn’t going to be pretty when it happens.”
“I can assure you, Commander Silas, I will not be leaving Kael here to rot,” Polain said. “He’ll be coming with us to Semata; if he really is Prince Kael, he needs to be at a safe distance from the invasion front and Marion needs to be introduced to him.” Silas smirked.
“I don’t suppose you’ve told her about him, have you?” he asked. Polain began to rub the back of his neck.
“I didn’t see the need,” he said. “Until today, I thought he was dead; there didn’t seem to be a point in telling her that they were supposed to be married when they were old enough.” Silas snorted as a boyish grin came to his face.
“She’s going to be so pissed.”