It was almost dusk by the time Carlowe left the palace. Despite being the heir to the throne, he was being surprisingly left alone. The guards did not even question his departure. In fact, most of them cast their eyes away from him as he passed.
But he was used to this. In fact, his whole family was. His father was known for being rather unforgiving to anyone that stood in his way for any reason. The Ramos' did whatever they wanted and however they wanted it done.
Perhaps that was the reason for the Rebellion in the first place.
As soon as he stepped outside into the cold northern air, Carlowe felt like he could breath again. He inhaled it deeply within his lungs, taking in the familiar smells of smoke and metal.
Egor's cottage was not far, just a few lengths beyond the palace gates. Carlowe had traveled there before, often for council from his friend or to escape the suffocation he felt being inside the palace for too long.
He walked with his head down and hood up, not wanting to attract too much attention. Once their Crown Prince, he was now the people of Aesir's King, even if they didn't know it yet. He was the King over all of Calaria, much t0 the Rebellion's dismay.
Egor's cottage was tucked a ways beyond the busy streets of the city, fenced in properly with a large door and straw roof.
A few goats and sheep eyed Carlowe as he opened the front gate, stepping quietly onto the cobblestone path. He knocked on the door swiftly.
After a few moments, the large wooden door swung back and Egor, his large and trustworthy friend, stood before him.
"Your Majesty," he greeted him, bowing his head slightly.
Carlowe stepped inside and removed his hood. "Oh, please don't. I haven't been coronated yet, anyway."
"Nevertheless, you are the King."
"Yes," Carlowe mused. "Much to our Rebel prisoner's dismay, I'm sure." He removed his gloves and tucked them into his belt, glancing around Egor's cottage. "Where have you put her, anyway?"
Egor scratched the back of his head and sat down on one of his kitchen chairs, stretching his long legs out before him. "Well, I thought of putting her out in the old goat shed. But with it being so cold and everything, I thought it best to keep her inside."
"I wise decision, for sure. So?"
"Ah!" Egor replied, sitting up a little. "Under the rug, down in the cellar." He poured himself a glass of something and pointed to a large fur rug on the other side of the room.
Carlowe nodded and walked over, kicking it aside. He found a wooden trap door with a handle to pull on. Beneath it was a ladder and a lantern hanging on a hook just below. He climbed down easily and surveyed his friend's cellar.
There were several dried vegetables hanging from the ceiling and an entire wall of shelving filled with other jars of food. On one end was a un lit fireplace that looked as though it extended out beyond the cottage. On the other end were what looked like iron bars. Carlowe could see the Shakel girl sitting down on a small bed.
"Well," Carlowe began, walking over towards the cell bars. "It looks like you've got a nice set up here."
She grimaced, only half of her face lit by the lantern he carried. "I'd be a lot better if it didn't feel as though it was snowing down here."
"I'll have Egor start a fire down here for you, perhaps bring you down some hot stew and a drink."
Carlowe watched as she didn't respond. He could see the dirt on her cheek and the mud caking her clothes and boots.
"What do you want with me? What kind of deal?"
Carlowe set down the lamp and pulled over a chair. He sat down carefully and placed a fist beneath his chin. "How is your wound? Is it healing properly?"
Adrina rolled her eyes. "You didn't answer my--"
"How's your wound?" He repeated, interrupting her.
The Rebel sighed, touching her shoulder instinctively. "Fine. It should be healed soon enough."
Carlowe nodded. "I'll get you some more medicine if necessary. And I should change your bandage before I go."
"I'm perfectly capable of changing my own bandage, thank you."
Carlowe smirked slightly. "I thought we already settled that matter."
He watched her eyes found his again. "What deal?" she demanded.
Carlowe sighed. "It's too early for me to discuss exact arrangements, but I wish to speak openly with the Rebellion's council."
Adrina sat up straighter. "And you think I could help how?"
"For leverage, of course," Carlowe replied. "Without you, it could be seen as a trick, an ambush, of course. Before no one's integrity or intentions would have been in question, but now..." he trailed off, thinking back to that arrow and the chain of events that followed.
"Everything is different now," she finished for him.
Carlowe nodded solemnly. "I'm afraid that our history of well-prepared battles and a war of integrity no longer holds true. Anything can be justified now."
Adrina tucked a piece of her hair behind her ear and furrowed her eyebrows. "What is your plan, then?"
Carlowe stood, pacing back and forth. He couldn't believe that he was conversing and conspiring with a leader of the Rebellion army. Much less, the one that had killed his father, Calaria's King, not even a few days ago.
Then again, wasn't that the point?
He wanted to put a stop to this war, to the pain and division of their people. As the King, he had every right to lead the people into whatever direction he saw fit. Uniting them, stopping the war was what he thought was best.
But the only way to do that would be to talk with the leaders of the Rebellion. If they would even want to speak with him in the first place.
Could they even believe in the Dominion's desire for peace? That, he did not know.
But then again, that was where Adrina would come to show her worth.
"Peace talks. That is my plan. With the war and our world in the state that it is, I'm hard-pressed to believe that the Rebellion would believe anything I say or promise."
"You're not wrong," Adrina added, waiting for him to finish.
"If I could promise your safe return, in exchange for a meeting with the Rebellion's council, do you think they would accept that?" He asked, turning to her.
The Rebel sat for a moment, before meeting his gaze again. "I don't know. I'm sure that the Rebellion wants me safely returned, but I don't know at what cost. What if they thought it was a trick? A trick to slaughter them all at once and cripple the Rebellion beyond repair?"
Carlowe placed a hand underneath his chin. "We could meet in southern lands, with only me, an advisor and Egor as security. My safety has to be somewhat of a concern. If something happens to me, then any chance of peace goes along with it."
There was a pause as Carlowe waited for the Rebel to answer. He knew that in some ways it would be a leap of faith, but it was the only plan of action he could see.
"Why do you want to do this?" She asked after a moment.
Why did he want to do this?
Before he let himself think too much upon it, he answered. "It is in the best interest of the people. This was had been waged far too long and I am tired of our people dying for something that could be fixed by simple conversations of compromise."
She seemed to dissect his answer. "Why do you need me?"
Carlowe turned to her, searching her eyes for what he hoped was there. "You are the only one they will trust when it comes to me."
After a few moments of silence, Carlowe walked over to the iron bars and unlocked them. He stepped inside and watched as Adrina shifted away from him slightly. "I've just come to inspect your bandage," he told her.
Her posture relaxed at his words and she slipped a piece of her clothing off of her shoulder so that her wound was now exposed. Carlowe reached for the bandage hesitantly and then removed it slowly. He noticed her wincing at its removal and attempted to work as gently as he could. Once the wound from the Snow Cat was fully exposed, the two of them inspected it together.
"It seems to be healing fine," she offered quietly.
Carlowe nodded silently and reached into his cloak, pulling out a fresh roll of gauze. "Now before you protest," he began with a slight smile, "I am still under the firm belief that you cannot change your own bandage."
He felt her sigh, showing a hint of amusement. "Fine. You are in charge, after all."
Carlowe held his small smile and continued to wrap the bandage around her arm. Her skin was soft beneath the tips of his fingers and he could feel the heat radiating off of her. When he was finished he smoothed the bandage out with his thumbs and glanced up at her.
Her eyes found his almost immediately and he marveled at how deep and warm they were, like the bark of a tree or the color of a brown stone. She seemed to be staring back at him, their faces only inches apart now, mostly covered in the shadows of the cellar.
Suddenly, there came a sound far away, that of the bell tower of the palace. Instinctively, Carlowe jumped back and stood swiftly. Adrina pulled her coat back up over her shoulder and furrowed her eyebrows at him; a look he was used to by now.
"I'm afraid that I have to return back to the palace. There are things that I still need to take care of." He smoothed down his cloak and sighed heavily, already feeling the tightening in his chest.
"What do those bells mean?" She asked him as he began to turn away from her.
Without glancing back, Carlowe took in a sharp breath and fixed his eyes forward. "My brother has returned."