Chapter 5: Day 2 - Waiting
Intelligent was not a word often used to describe Malum Scouts, but their leader, Namon, was thorough. She hoped he had focused his search in the direction of Kianne, but she expected him to send a few decent trackers north through the forest. They were certain to pick up enough evidence of a trail to continue searching the route to Crystal Palace.
The thought of Crystal Palace brought a dreamy smile to her lips. Ever since the Malum had off-handedly mentioned the Palace with the same contempt they spoke of everything that was not their own, Rin had a burning need to see it. The pull of this place was inexplicable. Before the nightmares started, she used to dream about it as a perfect marble tower gleaming in the sun. If she closed her eyes, she could see the milky white turrets sparkle as they rose majestically from the middle of a beautiful glade.
She jerked awake with a gasp. Now was not an opportune time for thoughts of Crystal Palace. Calm and content were not helpful emotions when keeping watch for a Malum scouting party. She was more tired than she cared to admit, but she had more than one reason to avoid sleep. Partly, she dreaded the return of her eerie dream. The creatures of the Mist were bad enough for one day; her nightmare was too much to endure.
Forcing herself to stay alert, she continued waiting as long as she could stand the idleness. She neither saw nor heard anything beyond the animals that dared to make their home in the unpleasant stretch of forest that served as a buffer between the Mist and the Bellicus. As afternoon passed uneventfully into early evening, she finally gave up her vigil and returned to the cave.
She watched Alexander briefly, afraid to wake the sleeping Prince. Simply put, he made her nervous. Something about the way he looked at her convinced her he could read her thoughts. And he spoke to her as if she was a person. She was accustomed to being ordered around, insulted, or ignored, but compliments and conversation were new to her. Why did her heart beat a little faster when he looked at her with his piercing green eyes? What did he see?
She chided herself for wasting time and found her voice to wake him.
He yawned and blinked his sleepy green eyes at her. “Have the Malum come?”
“No,” she responded.
“Why does that worry you?” he asked.
She stared back at him warily. He really must be able to read her thoughts. Her trepidation was hard to explain. “It is as if they just let us go.”
“They might have a Plan B that doesn’t involve us,” Alexander reasoned, “but I doubt they would let that pearl out of their grasp without a fight. They probably expected us to head west to Kianne.”
She had no response. She was not privy to the plans of the Malum, but she knew them well enough to be leery of seeing no trace of them.
“Should we stay here?” he asked when she did not reply.
She shuddered involuntarily at the thought of spending any more time underground. “No, unless you are not feeling well enough to travel.”
“I am a little hungry and a little dirty, but otherwise, I’m feeling more like myself.”
His cheerfulness helped raise her spirits a tiny bit.
“I can fix both of those problems,” she promised.
“By all means, Princess, lead on.”
“We will keep going, then.” She tried to muster more confidence than she felt. “Whatever they have planned is sure to come soon enough without us waiting for it. We have a few hours to travel before it is dark again.”
Pepper awoke and struggled to his feet while Rin watched him with worried eyes. He limped over to her, bravely ready to follow wherever she would go. Rin knew he would refuse to let her go on without him, so she restrained herself from bothering to suggest her self-appointed protector stay behind.
Rin took a match from her satchel and lit a candle, passing the light over to Alexander. He followed her out through the curtain blocking the light from this glowing room and further down the tunnel.
“Are my eyes adjusting, or is the tunnel ending soon?” he asked, noticing the faint gray tinge on the walls.
“The tunnel ends just ahead,” she agreed, pointing.
“Too bad the cave system doesn’t stretch further north.”
Rin did not share his regret. She had no desire to become a mole, and she was relieved to see the dim vine-filtered light up ahead.
She pushed aside the vines clogging the entrance and motioned for the Prince to wait while she double-checked for signs of Malum passage. There was no more Malum activity than there had been minutes earlier, which made her uneasy, but time and options were running out. She pushed the leafy barrier aside for Alexander and Pepper to climb out.
“All we need to do is follow this stream north.”
She pointed out the stream that bubbled along before disappearing into the rocks of the cave they had just left.
Rin dropped her cloak unceremoniously to the mossy ground and shook a thick cloud of dust out of her plain black dress and her long dark hair. She noticed the Prince watching her, but she felt a tiny bit braver among the sunlight, rocks, and trees.
“I do not suppose princesses wander around dusty caves.” She tied her hair back, and gladly let the bubbling spring splash away the dirt on her face and hands.
He gave her a faint smile and said, “Only the ones worth knowing.”
While he scrubbed the dust off his own hands and face, she went on a search for food. Withdrawing a small dagger from her satchel, she sliced a few bunches of berries from a spiky bush and gathered them in her skirt. She pulled a large, knobby-looking yellow root from the ground. When she returned to the stream, she rinsed off the dirty root, broke it in two, and handed a chunk to Alexander, along with a huge bunch of berries.
He eyed the berries. “How do you know they’re not poisonous?”
She thought over his simple question.
“I suppose,” she began slowly, considering, “their smell?”
He smelled them deeply, but shook his head. “They smell like nature to me.”
“The white ones on that tree are poisonous.” She reached up to pull down a bunch. “These smell sour.”
He smelled those dutifully and shrugged.
“Where did you learn so much about plants? Who taught you?”
“No one taught me,” she replied.
“The leaves for the tea you gave me,” he tried for more information. “How did you know they would work?”
“The tree the leaves come from is blue.”
“Blue is a peaceful color.” She shrugged.
Antsy to be moving, she gathered up her things and led the compliant Prince up the bank of the stream while he explained.
“One of my teachers was an herbalist by trade. She was quite skilled in using plants as medicine and tonics and such. She tried her best to force on me a familiarity with the plants around Kianne City. I can identify a hundred species of plants in a book, but when I was tasked to locate ten edible things in the forest just outside my own walls, I failed spectacularly. Not only were none of them edible, five were highly poisonous. One of them gave me a rash that made me itch for a week. She threw up her hands and changed my assignment to writing two full pages on how thankful I was to be in a position where I would not have to be responsible to find food and shelter for myself.”
His attempt to poke fun at himself was successful, and Rin felt a little more at ease with her unnerving travel companion, enough to ask him the question on her mind.
“What is it like to live in a palace?”
“Pretty much what you would expect, I suppose,” he answered with a disinterest that surprised her. “Kianne Castle is a huge place, with servants, parties, dinners, gardens, stables, a moat with…to tell you the truth I don’t want to find out what’s in the moat.”
Rin was confused by the matter-of-fact, bitter tone. “You do not sound very happy there.”
“Oh, it’s not the place, it’s…I don’t know. It’s the isolation from the world. And my mother and brother...” His eyes clouded. “It’s not as happy a kingdom as it was when my father was alive. My brother inherits the crown, and he—” Alexander cut himself short. “Anyway, it’s not the idea of a castle that bothers me. I mean, take Crystal Palace. I love it there. That castle is steeped in history. The entire structure is carved from white marble. It was nicknamed ‘Crystal’ because of the way it sparkles in the sun.”
His words were exactly what she had pictured.
“It sounds wonderful,” Rin sighed. “I tried once to ask Shrilynda to let me go there, just to look at it.”
“How did that turn out?” he asked.
“She was furious,” Rin admitted. “She told me if I ever crossed Crystal River, I would be sorry.”
He turned to her sharply. “You don’t suppose that’s why we weren’t followed.”
Rin paled. “There would be no reason if I could never reach Crystal Palace.”
“I’m sure you’ll make it to the castle,” he tried to comfort her. “You have to meet Aunt Athena. She is what makes the whole place beautiful. The castle’s resident Sorceress-in-training, Serena, is another story. You can go through life without meeting her, but—”
Rin, who had noticed Pepper’s ears swivel to pick up a sound, silenced the Prince with a hand to his arm. She listened and soon heard a faint crashing coming from directly in front of her. After confused consideration, she decided it was only a single person making far too much noise to be a Malum Scout, and although it was nearing Bellicus territory, Bellicans never traveled alone. Just to be safe, the three concealed themselves with the help of some bushes and waited for the traveler to come into view.
Finally, a figure appeared, but what Rin saw was too perplexing to make sense. Weaving through the trees was a young woman wearing a clingy deep purple dress. Her lips and eyes were stained a complimentary purplish red. She should have been pretty; even in the cold shadows of the forest, she managed to sparkle. Eye-catching jewels glimmered on her neck, wrists, waist, and even adorned her golden-blond hair. Every ounce of her cried out to be noticed. Maybe that was the problem. She carried herself with a cold air of regal self-importance, like she was trying to convince herself.
The dazzling woman was unhappy about the environment she trekked with impunity, but she was neither afraid nor lost. No, this haughty woman stomped along with purpose. Rin hesitated, tempted to follow her instinct to let the unwelcome stranger pass by.
Alexander caught his breath, flabbergasted. “Well, speak of a demon,” he muttered.
“Why would we want to do that?” Rin asked uneasily.
“It’s an expression,” he murmured offhandedly, and he pushed a branch aside for a better view.
“That,” he whispered emphatically, “is Serena.”
Rin was puzzled. It made no sense to encounter a resident of Crystal Palace in this part of Thorn Forest. Why would a Sorceress be traveling alone in the woods in the direction of the Malum village, and how? Her head reeled with the implications.
“Are you sure?” was all she could say, her voice barely audible.
He did not bother to answer a question that was rhetorical in the extreme.
“We should find out why she is here.” Rin’s voice mirrored the trepidation in Alexander’s eyes.
He shrugged unhappily but offered no objection. She patted Pepper on the head, and he settled behind the bush to watch per her silent instructions. The two-legged travelers came out of their hiding place and startled the regal woman, but only for a brief moment. Her self-assured demeanor softened instantly into a mask of sweetened innocence. Suddenly, she was a lost girl with every indication of sincerity.
“Prince Alexander,” she exclaimed in astonishment, tossing her blond hair behind her shoulders and opening her clear blue eyes wide for effect. “Dear friend, you startled me! I am so very glad you’re all right.”
“Oh, please” He rolled his eyes.
Rin was surprised at the change in the Prince. He was instantly tense and surly.
“Why are you here, Serena,” Alexander snapped.
“Looking for you,” she pouted sweetly. “When I heard you had disappeared, I was so very worried. They told me you had been kidnapped by the Malum.”
Serena ran her eyes down Rin with purpose. With a look, Rin felt shabby, sleep-deprived, and covered with the remnants of a day’s travel through caves and forest.
“Who is she?”
The words came out in the same sugary tone, but their effect was the same as if she had walked up and slapped Rin in the face. Rin was accustomed to this kind of abuse, but normally it was more direct. What bothered her most was the thought that this horrible person had come from her Crystal Palace.
“None of your business.” Alexander shot down Serena’s innocent act coldly.
Serena was unconcerned with his lack of openness, like she had expected to find them all along. Her suspicious behavior was starting to lead Rin toward an ominous conclusion, but she was not quite able to grasp what her mind was telling her.
Serena tossed her silky hair with a shrug.
“Your forest trysts are your business, Alex. Regular commoners too boring for you? You thought a Malum girl would heat your royal blood? He is a charmer, isn’t he, sweetie?”
The last comment was directed knowingly to Rin. She would have taken a Mist creature or a well-armed Bellican soldier over the uncomfortable gaze of this haughty Sorceress.
“Remember that night we got caught out in that rainstorm? I don’t think either of us minded being soaked to the skin. How long were we stuck in that barn?” She toyed gleefully with a diamond necklace at her throat.
Even Rin could not escape her meaning. The Prince was annoyed, but he was either unable or unwilling to offer an objection to her accusation. He tried instead for information.
“How did you get here?”
Serena’s perfect magenta mouth twitched in amusement. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
The verbal sparring was going nowhere, and Rin noticed dusk creeping stealthily upon them. An attempt to cross Bellican territory at night would be suicide, but she did not trust this cruel, rogue Sorceress. Irritated by the lack of appealing options in this unforeseen situation, Rin removed her satchel and tossed it under a tree with a thud.
“It is dark,” she said with a tone of finality. “We should eat and stop for the night.”
Serena smiled prettily, a forced position for her manicured lips. She looked straight at Rin for the first time since she had encountered her.
“What a good idea.”
The words were disguised as a compliment, but the tone implied a joke meant only for Serena.
A distressed Alexander bent close to Rin’s ear. “Dealing with Serena is like playing with fire,” he murmured. “She’s dabbled with powers no one else knows about, and I’m not sure whether she has control of them or they have control of her. Obviously, she’s up to no good. Be careful.”
Rin nodded slightly to acknowledge the words he spoke, but she did not know how to use them. They both watched Serena pull a glass vial filled with a cloudy blue liquid out of a lush silk bag slung across her smooth shoulder and pour it in a circle in the middle of the clearing. Back in her bag, she retrieved a pinch of white powder and flicked it into the circle. In a brilliant blue explosion, a table heaped with food appeared in the center of the clearing. The table was complete with three ornate chairs.
Unconcerned with her dubious dinner guests, Serena settled in the head chair and ran her finger across a lavish cake. She licked the cream off her finger with a coquettish smile. Without being fully aware of what she was doing, Rin’s hands already grasped the wooden back of one of the chairs at the table. A bowl of ripe strawberries pulled her in like a magnet.
She had never seen a strawberry so red and so perfect, the size of her hand. Was she sitting down? As she smelled the strawberry already in her fingers somehow, she was conscious of Alexander and Serena continuing to goad each other.
“Why should we trust you, Serena?” he demanded.
“Your tone is not very nice,” she pouted.
“Are you going to tell on me?”
Serena fed off his growing irritation with glee. She slunk around the table to lean on his chair.
“Oh, I could hurt you far more than your mother ever could,” Serena purred in his ear.
This was an unpleasant distraction. Rin flinched as Serena’s lips trailed down Alexander’s neck and her fingers trailed down his chest. Rin’s strawberry dropped to the table.
“Or I could do things that are much more fun.”
“There’s about as much a chance of that as you had back in that barn, Serena.” He swatted her hand away disdainfully.
“He is such a tease, isn’t he, little forest waif?” Serena spoke to Rin like they were confidantes now, pushing a cake dripping with caramel in front of her.
“There is no way we’re eating that, Serena. Knowing you, your whole goal in coming here was to kill us both.” Alexander spat out in exasperation.
“First of all—” She punctuated her words by walking across his shoulder with her fingers. “You are very hungry. Secondly,” she said, placing a tempting bunch of grapes on his plate, “what reason could I possibly have to hurt you, old friend?” With that, she picked off one of his grapes and popped it in her mouth.
Rin had already eaten a spoonful of chocolate custard before she realized it was too late to stop herself. They both ate until they were full and beyond. The food never seemed to disappear, and they never stopped wanting more of it.
As Serena reached to pull a rope out of her bag, a flash of light sparkled from her hand. Rin recognized the ring on Serena’s finger. Her eyes widened, and a corner of her mind began to clear. That was a Malum symbol. She must be working for...
“Thirsty?” Serena interrupted Rin’s thoughts, lacing the rope through her fingers as two brimming goblets appeared before Rin and Alexander.
Suddenly, Rin felt thirstier than ever before. She could think of nothing but quenching this overwhelming thirst, and her suspicious fear vanished. Driven by some strange, consuming passion, she instinctively picked up the goblet and drank. On the edge of her awareness, she realized Alexander had done the same. Then, her world dimmed, and she saw nothing.