Curved blades fell to the ground as Thais ran forward, her arms enveloping her friend’s neck. That Kaio had followed her mattered little in this first moment, for he had saved her from committing the very lowest of sins. One day Thais was sure she would take a human life in battle, but this had not been her time. Out of the undergrowth soft footsteps preceded the arrival of Rachel, who seemed sheepish at their sudden appearance in the woods so far from Acrabar.
“What, in the name of Aius, are you doing here?” the princess demanded, both furious and overwhelmed with relief and joy. Without waiting for an answer the girl let Kaio go and dragged Rachel into an equally monumental embrace.
“We followed you,” Kaio replied simply, a look of errant smugness adorning his dirty face. “Isn’t that obvious?”
“Yes it’s obvious you dolt,” Thais growled, ripping away from Rachel to stare angrily into Kaio’s eyes. “What I can’t understand is why!”
“Why should we tell you?” the boy replied, eliciting a withering sigh from his cousin. They had reunited for barely thirty seconds and already her friends were embarking upon a battle of wits; or rather more accurately, a battle of witless insults. “You haven’t been exactly forthcoming. So why should we explain what we’re doing here?”
“Kaio stop,” the redhead ordered more firmly than the felt, before she turned on the princess. “Thais we were worried about you, isn’t it obvious?”
“I am perfectly well, thank you for your concern,” the fair girl quickly offered, before she waved her hand with a flourish at the two unconscious brothers. “Now be off with you. I have wasted enough time as it is.”
“Stop being so arrogant Thais,” Kaio reprimanded sternly. “You can’t evade us so easily. Not before you tell us why it is that we should leave you to gallivant across the countryside.”
“I do not gallivant.”
Stubborn eyes met stubborn eyes across the arbiter that was Rachel. She knew she held little sway in this battle and instead took herself off to the fallen young men‘s sides to bind them together before they woke. An exasperated expression of frustration escaped the lips of the disgruntled princess before quite suddenly she turned on heal.
“Follow me. I’ll explain, but not here. They might wake up.”
Without a word to one another Thais stalked over to Rachel’s side and aided her in tying the two brothers up. Once the young men were firmly bound the three Tituan youths stalked silently through the trees, aware that they were walking near to Scalper territory. They were the stuff of nightmares and not to be trifled with. The sun rose heavily in the sky, barely managing to skim the horizon where it stood limply at half-mast by noon. Finally, with a rolling plain breaking the distance through the trees Thais came to a halt, a small clearing satisfying her high standards and serving as a suitable arena to battle her friends.
“Here,” she spoke firmly, wheeling on her friends suddenly. “Here we can talk. I was told I must travel alone.”
“Excuse me?” Kaio demanded. “The seer told you to travel alone?”
Rachel made herself comfortable on a large slab of rock sticking out of the grassy clearing. For a little while she would observe and listen and as Kaio nor Thais showed any signs of entertaining a friendly prelude before attacking the issue at hand, Rachel was going to make herself comfortable until her evenness was required.
“She didn’t just tell me Kaio, she warned me that I would definitely fail if I let you come,” Thais explained to her protective friend.
“Of all the foolishness…this didn’t strike you as an odd request to make of someone?” Kaio exclaimed sounding amazed. “Honestly Thais have you no sense?”
“What?” the girl growled in anger.
“Why would it matter if you travelled alone if her true reason wasn’t to lead you into a trap?”
“Kaio,” Thais groaned despairingly. “Why would the seer lead me into a trap?”
“Considering how much the woman is hated by your family it’s not too unusual to assume that the seer harbours hostile intentions towards you.”
“She told me to walk from the city alone. She told me you would be in danger if I let you come. That’s what she told me Kaio! I’m no coward, I won’t put you or Rachel in danger because I’m too scared to journey my path alone. We can’t walk any path other than our own Kaio, you should know that.”
“But you can’t do this without us Thais,” Kaio complained passionately, his brow creased in the earnestness with which he held conviction in his blunt words.
“Pardon?” Thais now demanded. “What the Graces do you mean?”
“Exactly what I said, you’re not strong without us Thais. I know this will hurt your feelings and I’m sorry for that, but you need to know you can’t…”
“Of all the arrogant rubbish you’ve spouted in your life Kaio this is by far the most absurd thing you have ever said!” Thais erupted furiously. “You think me weak. You think me unable to protect myself! You call me a coward!”
“No Thais, not a coward. I don’t think you’re a coward, you’re the bravest person I know…”
“And yet I can’t travel my destiny alone, I need you to hold my hand and protect me from the dangers that lie ahead? Is that it Kaio?”
“Thais.” The fair girl looked from the object of her anger to find Rachel had moved to stand by her side, her calm face arranged in a soothing expression. “My cousin doesn’t think you’re a coward. He doesn’t think you’re weak. You know that. Don’t let his clumsy words hurt your feelings. He’s worried about you.”
“No Rachel, this time you’re wrong. He thinks he’s my saviour…”
“And rightly so princess,” Kaio spoke up determinedly. “Twice now we’ve saved your skin.”
Briefly Thais seemed suddenly humbled, she could not forget that it was Kaio and Rachel’s actions that had prevented her from becoming a killer. She could not ignore what the cousins had done and quickly she hung her head.
“For what you did back there in the woods I thank you,” she uttered quietly, before a stubborn frown wormed back onto her face. “But what are you talking about Kaio? When was the other time you saved me?”
“That first night, when you climbed down the vines and into the grounds. The King’s Guard, I stopped them from finding you. That’s how I helped you.”
“That was you? You ambushed them?” Thais seemed quietened once more. “You were watching me?”
“From the moment you deserted us on the riverside,” Kaio explained, his temper abeying at the sight of Thais’ expression. Thais looked from Kaio to Rachel and then back once more, her young forehead set in a deep frown. Gratitude was battling pride within her fiery mind, but eventually the former triumphed over the latter.
“Thank you,” she spoke softly, her dark eyes lowering to the ground. “But Kaio please, please tell me you don’t think you’re my saviour? I don’t think we could be friends if you felt I needed you.”
Across the clearing the young man’s shoulders rose and fell rapidly. Posed with such a question and such an ultimatum his turbulent emotions dragged his thoughts from one extreme to the next.
“No,” he finally replied in a gravelly voice. It pained him to admit these words. “No, you don’t need me.”
A small smile, relieved and gratified, spread across the princess’ face and for a moment she held Kaio’s gaze, thanking him for not letting his pride destroy their age-old friendship.
“How did you stay safe from the greymen and the gangs all this time?” Thais suddenly asked thinking of the vicious onslaught she had foolishly invoked and the days she had spent in the custody of the Harbingers. Graces, how she regretted saving Taelius Harbinger’s daughter now after his cold attempt to barter her life.
“Salt,” Kaio merely responded with a shrug. “We found a cave to hide in not far from the city, you had to climb down a narrow entrance to get to it, which we covered with salt. They could smell us, but didn’t dare come near. We’ve been hiding for days now, waiting for you to come down from the heavens. I was this close to climbing one of those giant trees and rescuing you.”
Rachel burst into reams of laughter while Thais grinned.
“I’m impressed,” the fair girl responded with a smile. “What the pair of you did was foolish. Brave, but very foolish as well.”
“As though you can tell the difference between bravery and foolishness,” the young man countered with a goading smile.
“Thais, the seer, she told you to walk from the city alone?” gentle words from a much recovered Rachel, who wished to steer the other two away from calamity once more.
“Yes,” the small girl answered, her face alive with the words the seer had spoken. “She told me that I would fail and bring death to those I dragged along with me.”
“Alright,” Rachel soothed, nodding to ease her friend’s dramatics. “That may be so, but Thais, haven’t you already done as she asked?”
With a wrinkled brow Thais shrugged her shoulders.
“Of course you have. There’s no suppose about the matter Thais. Did you or did you not walk from the city alone?” Rachel insisted, using her calm logic to push her younger friend into submission.
“I did walk from the gates alone,” the princess agreed, her brow knitted together in thought. Yes, she had done as the seer had asked. In fact, Alucia Dal Am had stated that she would not make the whole journey alone. Surely then, if she had completed the first part of the journey alone, there would be no harm in allowing Rachel and Kaio to join her, as long as she released them before the very end?
Quite suddenly Thais lifted two determined dark eyes to look first to Rachel, then to Kaio and then back again.
“Listen,” she finally spoke with such gravity that the cousins leaned in. “I’m going to Khaled-Dîn. It’s not going to be an easy journey. If you’re sure you want to risk your lives and join me I won’t stop you, but remember this, the seer told me I would reach my target alone. If I flounder and let you join me when I know I should walk alone then I’ll fail and we might all die a miserable death.”
“Sounds glorious,” Kaio muttered with a smile. Thais punched his arm with a smile of her own and shook her head.
“I’m serious Kaio Greenwood and would appreciate you trying the same,” the short girl laughed. “Promise me, both of you, that when I ask to walk alone you won’t follow me again. You can only come if you can let me go when the time comes.”
The cousins exchanged troubled glances, before they looked once more to their ring leader and nodded meekly. What could be done? They had no choice but to agree to these terms and hope the time would not come to pass when they might need to abandon Thais to the wilds.
“I promise,” Rachel finally answered firmly, her green eyes creased in earnest. Thais reached out her hand to take Rachel’s firmly.
“Thank you,” she whispered, before turning her darker eyes on Kaio. The boy seemed troubled. “And you? What say you?”
“I promise you too Thais. You know I do.”
The young man welcomed the girl’s hand when she reached for his to pull into the handshake she and Rachel were currently engaged in. The trio stared at their grubby fingers, feeling empowered by the heavy words that had bound them.
“Gallus of Apollo!”
Gallus sat up quickly on the stone slab he had been dozing upon and turned to look at the figure standing by the bars to his small damp cell: Anishka of Geraint. What a fearsome creature she had become. Her wild blonde mane exploded around her face in a halo, barely kept in check by a thin silver circlet. She looked like a lion about to pounce. Were it not for the slightly amused glint in her dark eyes then Gallus would have believed himself to be in a world or trouble. She had forgiven him at last it would seem.
“Nish,” the tall warrior called out with as much charm as he could muster, before he climbed to his feet and slowly approached the bars.
“Do not stroll into my city without so much as a letter, skulk around in a cell and then dare to ‘Nish’ me Gallus!” the proud woman countered firmly.
“I’m not entirely sure I strolled…”
“Yes, so I have heard. Bandying around with my soldiers were you?”
“Well, they have been charming hosts as you can see.” Gallus lifted his arms to indicate his spartan surroundings, eliciting a small chuckle from his cousin the queen. “But I do feel I am ready to part with their company.”
Queen Anishka of the Blue Throne looked her Denarien counterpart up and down for a moment, her expression strained, before she nodded and revealed a small set of gold keys from the sleeve of her cloak.
“I’m glad you have come Gallus,” she spoke softly as she unlocked the cell door. “I could do with your advice on a number of matters.”
“Do these matters concern the legions of cavalrymen marauding around the countryside arresting innocent travellers by any chance?” the tall man asked with a concerned frown. Anishka met his gaze, a deep pain lingering for a moment in her face, before she shook her head.
“Amongst other things, yes.”
The king of Denari ducked his head low as he stepped out of the poky cell that had been his home for the last ten hours. It had taken longer than he had expected for the queen to come to his rescue. He could not know it had taken this long for the whispers and the rumours to reach the royal house that a band of men had been captured who claimed to be important members of the Royal Confidence of Denari. Anishka had come as soon as the news reached her ears.
“You are looking thin Nish,” Gallus commented sadly when he looked upon the queen in the light. Anishka smiled dryly and nodded.
“And you look old. You are not nearly so handsome as you used to be.”
With a small chuckle Gallus nodded, before stepping forward and pulling the queen into a powerful embrace. She returned it readily and within moments the pair were laughing heartily. When they pulled away again their faces shone with joy.
“Come,” Anishka announced. “Your men have been released. You are all to accompany me to the Palace.”
Gallus’ mind drifted westward to the mountains briefly. His thoughts must have been laid bare because Anishka cast him a look of warning.
“No,” she stated firmly. “You are not going to escape so easily Gallus. The mountains can wait. I can understand your mission is so important that you forgot to alert me of your passing through Lapai-Dabu, but now you are here, you are joining me for supper and that is final.”
There would be no use in arguing. Besides, now he was here, Gallus dearly wanted to find out why the country seemed on such a high state of alert.
Waiting outside the cellblock was a large plain carriage. Selmain, Avery and Thalius were waiting inside and upon seeing their friend escorted by his cousin the queen they quickly rushed out of the carriage to show their proper respects to the formidable woman.
“Yes, yes,” Anishka uttered after watching the men bow politely. “I am sure you are all very happy to be out of the dungeons. Now get back inside so that we might save your friend the king a few extra moments. He is very keen to get back to the mountains you know. Though I suppose none of you will tell me why.”
Gallus met his friends’ curious gazes, but he shook his head in response. No, it would not do to speak openly of their mission north. Should it go successfully, then might be the time for talking to relatives about the whole sordid thing.
The ride from the military quarter of town to the palace far away in the luxurious northern quarter took nearly an hour, but finally they arrived at the Blue Palace. Many years ago it had been built as a twin to the Green Palace. Indeed, it was a one of four. Every nation in the Eden Alliance had a matching palace, designed and built by the same master craftsman. The white marble of each majestic building had come from the same quarry and the windows had all been created from the same fine sand from the pure beaches of Lisborem. The only aspect that differed were the tiles upon the many slanted roofs. These were designed to reflect the royal House that resided within that particular palace. Therefore here in Tirith Ahden, the seat of power for the Blue Throne, the tiles had been made from crushed lapis lazuli from the northern mines of Lapai Dabu. Whereas in Titua, where the Green Throne resided, the tiles had been fired using ground up jade. As the sun went down in Titua, the palace shone like a beacon.
Seeing the palace now made Gallus feel slightly uneasy. He always felt this way whenever he looked upon one of the identical palaces that were not his own. Anishka noticed his expression and smiled to herself. Some things never changed. Gallus of Apollo had always disliked the Blue Palace. So much so in fact, that whenever he and Eunus had come to visit as children, they had always preferred to pitch a tent in the vast grounds than to stay indoors in the warmth.
Queen Anishka led the men inside her palace and quickly up to a small drawing room. A fire had already been brought to life in the grand fireplace and waiting for them on a comfortable divan sat Dahn, Anishka’s long-suffering husband.
“Gallus!” the short bearded man called out the moment Anishka led her guests inside. “What a pleasant surprise.”
“An unexpected surprise I wager,” Gallus countered, though he readily strode forward to shake the hand of King Dahn.
“Quite,” came Anishka’s firm voice behind him. “Do sit down and make yourselves comfortable.”
Avery and Thalius cast one another a concerned glance before they delicately lowered themselves onto the edge of the darkest settee they could find. None of them had washed in days and their britches were filthy. The queen seemed not to notice and sat down in a large white armchair opposite her husband at the fire. A throne fit for a queen.
“Gallus, do sit,” she urged once more when the tall warrior had failed to do so. Gallus smiled and indicated his clothes.
“And ruin your beautiful upholstery Nish? I am not such a man.”
As though two firecrackers had been lit beneath them Thalius and Avery jumped up once more, their expressions sheepish in the face of Anishka’s amusement.
“You are being ridiculous! As you well know. Come now, the number of times the children have dragged half the garden in with them in this room are too many to count. Do not make me ask you again.”
The king of Denari smiled wryly and after nodding to his concerned men sat down on the whitest settee of them all. Once everyone had taken a seat and everyone had been served with a refreshing glass of wine Gallus finally felt it safe to ask a pressing question that had been weighing on his mind.
“Why are you at such a high state of alert Nish?” The queen glanced to her cousin and sighed heavily.
“It is a terrible headache! The western border has become a very unsafe part of the country. Farmsteads are constantly being raided and coaches are being robbed. We once believed there was but one rogue band of highwaymen to blame, but now we are no longer so sure.”
“How many are there?” Gallus asked with a frown.
“That, Gallus, is a very good question,” the queen replied with a sigh. “The most recent estimate the commander of the western legions brought to me showed me a figure in excess of a hundred men.”
“A hundred! So many? Where have the come from?”
“Oh, they are Lapaian born and bred,” Anishka growled, her dark eyes gleaming dangerously. “That is part of the problem. They only attack non-Lapaian farmers and coaches. It is as though they are trying to ethnically cleanse the western provinces and return us to the dark ages.”
Gallus let his eyes fall to the ground while his keen mind analysed his cousin’s words. Ethnic cleansing in Lapai-Dabu?
“And you have instated a weapons ban in those parts?” he asked finally, once the implications of his thoughts had made him feel to angry to carry on. Anishka looked to her husband sadly, before nodding.
“Yes, though it would seem we made quite a large error there. The law-abiding people of the western provinces obeyed the royal decree, reluctantly yes, but they agreed. It would seem these marauding…” Anishka struggled for a word. “Felons did not. If anything we have made matters worse.”
“Though you have made it easier to identify those who might be responsible for the violence,” Gallus countered, wishing to remove the look of self-pity from his cousin’s usually stoical face.
“And easier to arrest hundreds of innocent people as well.”
An unhappy silence fell over the occupants of the room while each pondered the grave turn of events. Lapai-Dabu had always been such a liberal free-thinking country. Even during the difficult times immediately following the withdrawal of the Southern Powers the Lapaian people had readily welcomed many of the thousands of refugees from neighbouring countries who had been left homeless.
“Do you know why these men are so displeased with the non-Lapaians all of a sudden?” Selmain asked quietly, entering into the conversation cautiously. Anishka seemed not to mind and she looked at the mage with a grim expression.
“Not conclusively, no. We know that many of them talk about The Speaker when they are captured, but we have no idea who this so called ‘Speaker’ might be.”
“So they are being rallied into a frenzy,” Gallus exclaimed with a deep frown. “By an unknown assailant with an unknown motive, who is no doubt in hiding and loyally protected by those he has brainwashed.
“Now you see where we stand,” Anishka stated coldly. “I am very sorry you have been caught up in all this. I will make sure every soldier wears a small portrait of you on their wrist in future.”
“I am sure that will not be necessary,” Gallus chuckled, noting the smile in his cousin’s eyes. He was not sure whether she intended him to believe there might be some truth to her words.
“No,” she eventually conceded. “But a little education on some of the most influential people in the alliance might be a good start.”
A small bell started ringing in the corner of the room making only Selmain jump slightly, which he sought to disguise by moving himself into a more comfortable position in his armchair.
“Well,” Anishka announced and she climbed to her feet. “I do believe dinner is being served. Gallus, I must insist you and your companions stay the night. I do believe venison is on the cards tonight, which can only truly be enjoyed with a strong bottle of Dahnian red wine.” The queen lingered on these last words and cast a glance at Avery and Thalius, who seemed to be salivating at the thought of the luxurious beverage. “However, if you are in too much of a hurry I can have you horses saddled within the hour.”
Gallus grinned wryly and looked to his men knowing he had already lost their support. They conveyed this much to him through matching pained expressions, which very nearly made the king laugh out loud. He managed to stop himself in time and nodded to his victorious cousin. Yes, once more Anishka of Geraint had beaten Gallus of Apollo. Would their contest never end?
“Very well. We will stay the night. As you can see, you have won the hearts of these proud warriors and I must say we have much to catch up on. It has been a long time since I saw Vago and Alexis. Will they be joining us this evening?”
“Vago most certainly, but that daughter of mine might prove difficult. The daft little thing has run away again. Something over being banished to the west tower for trying to run away the last time,” Anishka sighed.
“She sounds like her mother,” Gallus chuckled. “I remember a time when you spent four weeks hiding in your friend’s garden shed. How your father ever forgave you when you slinked home again I will never know.”
“Surely Gallus, you of all people must understand my dear father’s suffering. It has been a while since I saw young Thais, but I do believe she and my dear Alexis have more than their heritage in common.”
Thais. Gallus closed his eyes for a moment. How could he have forgotten her current absence from the Green Palace where she belonged? How long had it been now? What was the girl up to?