An Escape and a Gilded Cage
They had made it as far as the Wooden Grove. Still so close to where they’d started, yet a journey of a hundred leagues all the same.
For a fortnight, in the bowels of the Fortress, its still unused and deserted prisonhold, Astor had taught Deia how to slink around just beyond the peripherals of others’ vision, silently and quickly. At least he’d done it as well as he could without others’ vision being an actual factor. Altair truly must have been utterly disinterested in throwing people in cells; Astor tried not to think about what he did instead, to those who displeased him.
Fortunately, Deia was small like him—smaller even—which was a clear advantage. Contrary to her flare for the dramatic once one had her trust, she was naturally rather quiet, another advantage. And despite her initial despair, she had been a quite eager and astute student. Finally, he had decided it was time to leave the dungeon, and eventually, the Fortress. He had had no idea which route they would take. That, unfortunately, would have to be decided on the move.
It would take them a full moon’s turn to get out, scavenging what sustenance they could, when and where they could, which wasn’t nearly enough. But they had to make it enough for now. He had overheard enough of the whispers among servants to know that Altair was killing his enemies, real and perceived, without hesitation or regret. Astor could die knowing that the risk he had taken and the resulting punishment had been worth it; but damned if he would let that happen to Deia. She had done nothing but endure humiliating violation by a monster.
Before he could determine by which gate it would be safest to leave, they had to make their way around to within earshot of each of the three. Then several days would have to be taken to survey the gate, taking mental note of the guards’ activities: when their shifts changed, who tended to man which shift, whether they were Aesha’ani, Kartha’ani or both, and which seemed more interested in their tasks than others.
This was a level of sneaking and spying far beyond any Astor had ever undertaken.
The Dragon Gate was the first for which they headed, knowing it was the least likely to offer any real chance for escape, and so might be ruled out before even reaching the other two. On the other hand, it was also the largest, with the heaviest flow of traffic, therefore the greatest chance of being able to simply blend in with the crowd and slip out.
But that would have to be done in broad daylight.
The Dragon Gate was a fifty-fifty gamble, he decided. The Kraken or the Wolf might be the better choice.
And so, they moved when they could, always in the dead of night, and sometimes only yards in a day. Working their way around the grounds of the largest royal keep on Morgadesh.
Some hiding spots were fairly secure; others felt far too out in the open for their occupants’ taste.
On the thirty-first of the longest and most grueling nights in their very young lives, Astor stood up from where they hid in an alcove near the kennels of all places, preparing to move the gods knew where next—and smacked dead into another living soul, something he’d managed to avoid for weeks.
Heart in his throat, Astor reared back with the large jagged rock he kept constantly in hand or within reach—he had left his dagger uselessly buried in Altair’s thigh—with the full intention of bashing in a skull if he had to. He had never killed before, and the thought nauseated him, but he would do it for Deia.
A sharply whisper-shouted, but familiar oath pierced the air as the figure desperately ducked, throwing an arm over his head. “Astor, you little weasel, put it down!”
“Are you going to hit me with rocks every time we cross paths now? Where have you been?”
“Everywhere,” Astor answered, keeping his voice low and glancing at Deia just behind him, thankful to the heavens she hadn’t screamed. “I stabbed Altair–”
“You did that?” Cain murmured, clearly stunned.
“I did that. We made a run for it from the King’s Tower and hid out in the dungeons for a fortnight… or so…” It had been hard to keep track of time with no visible way to do so, but Astor was reasonably sure he’d done a well enough job. “What’s the date?”
“Second summer, thirteenth day. You’ve been missing for over a moon’s turn and a half! How are you still alive?”
“Rose petals and horse water mostly,” Astor replied dismissively, glancing anxiously around for others who might happen by.
“Well… what are we doing standing here? Come to the tower.” The tower in question was the Falcon Tower. Cain had modest quarters just below Cullerton’s beneath the rookery. Slipping silently through the dark, they reached it quickly and disappeared inside.
“Why did you not come straight to me?” Cain asked curiously, lighting several candles in the sitting area of his two-room home, just enough to light the place without attracting unwanted attention at this late hour.
“I didn’t want to involve anyone who didn’t have to be. You have enough to contend with, with this new ‘king’ in residence,” Astor explained. “And besides, I didn’t know who was still alive and who was… dead…” he trailed off, noticing the profoundly sad look Cain was suddenly giving him. “What?”
“Tucker,” Cain said softly, sympathetically. “He’s gone.”
“‘Gone’?” Astor echoed, feeling himself blanch.
“Altair summoned him for questioning, and… he didn’t like the results,” Cain answered reluctantly.
A soft squeal escaped the back of Deia’s throat, the first sound she’d made since running into Cain.
“Do you know how?” Astor insisted.
“A dagger to the throat,” Cain nearly whispered.
“Oh, no!” Deia exclaimed, beginning to weep.
Astor sank onto a nearby settee, holding his head in his hands in despair. Deia sank down next to him, hand on his arm consolingly. After long moments during which he let silent tears drip to the floor, he said, “I saw the kennels. All my dogs… they’re dead too. But I had hoped Tucker got out somehow. With the queen, perhaps.”
After more long moments of silence, Cain seemed desperate for something pleasant to say. “You two seem rather cozy. Are you…?”
“Yes,” Astor replied, grateful for the reason to smile, if weakly. “Not that it’s been a terribly romantic courtship as of yet.”
Deia smiled sweetly at him, sympathetic tears still in her eyes.
“Hell of a story to tell the grandchildren,” Cain murmured, busily putting together a tray of food as he waited for water to boil for tea. “Where do you plan on going once you get out of here?”
“I’m a born-and-raised Majeri,” Astor said. “My mother still lives in the city. We’ll go be with her for a while.” The destination he’d known all along; it was getting there that had been the problem. He blanched again. “Gods, telling her her son is dead is going to be heartbreaking.”
“Deia… it’s Deia, is it not?”
“Deia Fuller,” she confirmed. “I’m a… was… a chambermaid.”
“Where is your family, Deia?”
“My father died when I was little,” she answered quietly. “My mother, she’s… not well. I have no siblings. The Fortress was supposed to be my life. I have friends here,” she finished sadly.
“It will be your life, my lady,” Cain said determinedly. “When a Maquesta is back on the throne and you can return.”
“Where is the king?” Astor inquired, frowning.
“The dead one, the fake one, or the phantom one?” Cain retorted bitterly. “The answers are, I don’t know, I don’t care, and, I don’t know.”
“King Gavin’s body is in the dungeons. So is Prince Liam’s,” Astor said in a fearful whisper, as if speaking treason. He and Deia had come across a discarded torch, lit it with an old flint and steel found at the guards’ post, and had been exploring the black cells, the forever lightless places where the worst offenders were kept. It was in one of those that they had made the grisly discovery.
Cain stopped what he was doing and stared at Astor a moment, stunned. “Well, wouldn’t the new queen love to know her beloved dead husband has been condemned to the dungeons like a criminal?” he mused aloud, his tone heavy with anger and contempt.
“Queen? Princess Haylia?”
“She’s married Altair,” Cain muttered, as the kettle finally began to whistle.
“Bloody hells! Why?”
“Do you think she had much choice?”
Astor sighed. Likely she hadn’t.
Cain added cups of tea to the heavily laden tray and brought it to his guests. “Eat now. You must be half-starved.” He sat in a chair beside the settee and frowned, deep in thought for long moments as Astor and Deia eagerly did as told. “Well. We can do nothing about any of that. Gods, I feel so bloody helpless!” He banged a fist on his thigh in frustration. “But there is one thing I can do. I’m going to help you get out of here.”
Now, on the same day that, half a world away, the king conferred with the empress and the girl his brother had loved fraternized with a prince, Astor and the girl he loved sat once again surveying a gate, this time the Shield Gate. They had been here for five days.
Leaving, in the end, had been so simple, it was ludicrous. They, accompanied by Cain, a known Fortress servant, had simply walked out through the Wolf Gate, citing “king’s business” and accompanied by a large falcon so as to appear on an actual mission. What the guards assumed that bird-based business was, Astor had no idea, but he didn’t much care. They were out. Almost.
“I dare not leave the Fortress grounds altogether; I might not get back in, and there is… someone on whom I must keep an eye,” Cain had explained somewhat evasively. “Not to mention birds to send and receive. But at least you’re beyond the curtain walls; the grove wall should be easier. I’m only sorry I did not run into you much sooner.” He would go back in by the Dragon Gate.
Astor and Deia had taken several hours and worked their way around the outside perimeter of the Grove, keeping to the areas with the thickest growth, until they had gotten here. Where they waited for a chance to slip out, so close to their destination, yet so, so far away. They had a small satchel of provisions that Cain had put together, but those were beginning to wear thin.
As was Astor’s patience.
“That’s it,” he finally decided, standing up out of the underbrush and dusting himself off. “Let’s go.”
“What are you doing?” Deia whispered loudly, alarmed. The gate was, at the moment, vigilantly guarded, those who entered and departed carefully watched, just as it was at every moment.
“A better chance than this just isn’t going to come along,” he declared. They would just have to hope to the gods these particular guards weren’t on the lookout for two people fitting their description. The last time Astor had spoken to Altair, it had been with a blade, and not kindly.
As luck would have it, a large family was coming down the road from the direction of the Fortress. Astor ducked out of sight, motioning for Deia to stay quiet. Just as the family got past them, he grabbed her hand, and they slipped out right behind them. The idea was that they appear to be just two more children of the couple, who appeared absorbed in deep, concerned conversation.
Astor’s heart was damn near beating right out of his chest; his ribs actually felt like they might crack. From the expression on Deia’s pretty face, she was contending with the same. They passed through the gate into the city.
Not a building’s space from the wall, one of the younger children turned and looked at them. Pointing, she called, “Mama! Who are they?”
Astor nearly yanked Deia around the corner, putting the Flaming Forge Smithy between them and the sight of the gate guards. Hurriedly, he zig-zagged his way down the streets for a dozen blocks, keeping a firm grip on Deia’s hand, before he dared slow down.
On a narrow street between a barbershop and a haberdashery, he stopped, holding his breath, listening for signs of pursuit. But the worst they got was curious looks from passersby. Astor let his breath out to allow himself to catch it, nearly laughing out loud with relief.
“We did it,” he marveled. “We’re out.”
Deia, who had looked like she might kill him, suddenly began to laugh herself. “You are utterly insane, I thought I might clobber you!”
“Well, apparently the best place to hide,” he said wryly, “is in plain sight.”
Still inside the Fortress, Haylia Ashworth Maquesta Rothford—no; she’d been ordered by her new husband to drop Maquesta—only wished she could escape from her own home, which had become a prison.
Her days were spent sitting on a throne she had no right, as things stood now, to occupy—a puppet, a pretty, familiar face to put the Aesha’ani citizens’ minds at ease when they came to court each day. Her nights were spent lying in a bed she had no desire to warm, the bed of a murdered king, the father of her murdered husband—having relations with the man who had killed them, raped her cousin and stolen everything from her true king. Or the bed of a queen who died with no notion of the destruction to which her sons’ House would come.
Celeste was seeming more and more despondent of late, sinking into a similar state of despair to that in which Haylia had wallowed so recently. And the princess had noticed evidence that she had taken up with a young Kartha’ani man—that could pose problems, she worried.
Like many women, she came to long desperately for Trystane, only in a much, much different way. He was the only one who could save her now—and he had tried, once not so long ago—but he had disappeared, an utterly baffling circumstance. Her brother was not one to flee from danger, which meant–
She could not even bear to finish the thought.
She had been allowed to resume communication with her mother, but all correspondence was intercepted before it went in or out, and Altair had ordered she discourage the duchess from any sort of retaliatory action with each letter. He wanted Anglica’a to sit, benign and nearly defenseless, for as long as possible. He seemed to have no interest whatsoever in it, which made her wonder just what exactly he planned to do with the extra kingdom he had lying around. But then, little Altair did made much sense at all.
Olessa ended each message with reassurance that everything would be as it should soon. She never defined what she meant by “as it should be,” of course, so Haylia could only hope and assume that it was her surreptitious way of implying their definition of the phrase, not Altair’s. Either way, Haylia had the impression that Olessa knew things she did not dare disclose in a letter.
Haylia was working on convincing her husband to allow her to see her mother, just once for a few moments. But she knew even that was a very long shot, and even if the convincing was done, the likelihood of mother and daughter being allowed to visit unobserved was even lower. Altair simply did not trust his queen enough yet—and likely would not for a very long time, if ever. Altair Rothford was not the trusting sort.
But if she ever hoped to gain his trust, even a modicum of it, she must be absolutely nothing less than the perfect wife and queen.
Which meant employing every ounce of performance skill she had ever acquired in her nearly twenty-two years in the life of a royal. It meant smiling when she felt like crying. It meant displaying poise and charm when she wanted to curl up in a ball on the floor and die. And it meant pretending to enjoy, or at least not loathe, her wifely duties, in and out of the bedchamber. Knowing all this was the reason she had been able, remarkably, to pull herself out of her stupor and force coherence and attentiveness in herself once more. That, and the encouragement of at least being able to see her mother’s handwriting on parchment again.
The worst thing of all of it was that she was beginning to see a side of Altair Rothford that nobody ever did—nobody, ever. She was beginning to see inside his mind, which was still very much that of a spoiled yet neglected child.
He was becoming more and more human to her, and it made her profoundly uneasy.
She would never, ever love him. After everything he had taken from her and her family, she could never bring herself to so much as like him. But there was one state of mind that could be more persuasive even than love: empathy.
She must act the perfect wife, while trying desperately to be the cold, self-centered princess she had let many believe she was. It was a very, very thin line to walk.
Ashe woke suddenly, reaching for the dagger he kept close at hand these days. A soldier always had a weapon close at hand, but this one stayed practically in his hand when he could get away with it. He had become increasingly edgy day by day since watching a ruthless blade inserted into the throat of a houndmaster whose only crime was loyalty to his true queen and others who were.
He had been sleeping more deeply than one might expect for some time, and his head felt heavy. He was beginning to suspect that someone in the kitchen had been ordered to put something in the Aesha’ani men’s evening beverages to make them sleep soundly—all the better to keep them in check, especially at night, during the best plotting hours.
“Put it away, Lockert,” a gruff voice commanded. “It’s only me.”
He had to wait for his eyes to focus better in the dark before he realized who “me” was. Sir Barron Mikelton. Ashe was caught by surprise and forgot to salute; he only stared at his superior, perplexed. What would make a war strategist come calling on him, a soldier of the lowest rank, in the middle of the night?
“I need to speak with you,” the older man announced in a low voice. “Outside.”
“Aren’t they lacing your drinks, too?” Ashe couldn’t help but inquire as he pulled on his boots, a bit more sourly than he really should when addressing a superior.
“They are,” Mikelton conceded, “but I’m not drinking them. I have plenty of my own stashed away in my quarters.”
Oh, to be an officer. They slipped out of the barracks before another word was spoken.
“It has taken me some time to glean enough information to pinpoint even one man within Aesha’ani ranks whom I was reasonably certain was only feigning obedience to ‘King’ Altair and his wolves.” Not many to whom Ashe willingly spoke seemed able to utter that name without that sarcastic note attached to the word king. “I trust I chose rightly?”
Ashe frowned; the man implied that there may be Aesha’ani men who had actually turned their cloaks. What would possess any to do that? “You did, sir,” he said, the cool, though stuffy, summer night air helping him climb out of his heavy-headed haze. “But, well, I’m not feigning, really. I do obey, I just don’t like it.” Even implying an admission of disobedience to a superior did not come naturally, especially one he actually respected.
Genuine hopelessness. That was the only reason he could fathom that might make a soldier of the Sisters accept their new king: a lack of hope that the real one was coming home. The thought made Ashe angry, and profoundly sad.
“That is what I meant. You were a member of Q– Princess Clío’s personal guard, do I remember correctly?”
“You do, sir; or I was before… I am worried for her. And… for one of her maids.”
Mikelton raised one eyebrow slightly at that last. “Oh? Well. They are safe,” he assured, keeping is voice as low as he possibly could and still be heard.
“Where are they?” Ashe whispered.
“I honestly do not know. The king divulged that information only to those who had explicit need to. What I do know is that he has some sort of plan, or is devising one. Were you involved in the queen’s escape from here?”
Ashe shook his head. “I wasn’t.”
“Do you know who was?”
“Well, you’re about to find out. I am, agonizingly slowly, making contact with people who may be able to help me. Spying and whatnot—mostly spying for now, as I haven’t a clue what else to do for the time being. You’ll all need to keep in touch with each other as well, so we all remain on the same page. I do not know what the king’s plans are, but while he carries them out, we need to keep loyalists loyal, and that means letting them know their king is alive, and that they’re not alone. We may need to rise up from within in the end, and there is of course strength in numbers.”
Ashe frowned slightly. Mikelton seemed to be rambling uncertainly, which was unusual for the seasoned war veteran.
Mikelton caught his look and sighed. “Ah, lad, I just feel so helpless. General Drake, myself and many officers are a little lost right now, I must admit. Altair of course has his own versions of us among his own men, so we do not even know exactly what our jobs are supposed to be at this time. We try to go about our business as usual, but there’s not much of that under the circumstances, so we lay low and find busy work when there isn’t some Kartha’ani demanding this or that from us.” He sighed again, frustrated.
Ashe could certainly understand the feeling; he and many of his peers felt much the same way of late.
“Will you help us quietly keep contact with those you trust?”
“Of course. I have the names of many right at the front of my mind.”
“Good. I knew once we found one of you, you’d lead us to many others. I’m putting it to you to decide on four or five others, men you trust implicitly, and make contact with them. I’ll need you to make yourselves available day and night. A small group of us will secretly meet every so often, to share information and… whatever else needs sharing. Then you and your men will act as go-betweens. Do not say anything to anyone you do not trust with every fiber of your being. Can I trust your judgement on that?”
Ashe nodded, trying to appear more sure than he felt. Spying and covert operations were not exactly his specialty, but someone had to do it.
“Good. Meet me at this hour three nights from now, at the base of the Falcon Tower. Find those four or five men in the meantime, and we’ll all meet then.”
“What about the laced drinks?” Ashe implored. “I can’t remember the last time I woke in the middle of the night without being shaken.”
“They only administer it late in the evenings. Stop drinking anything after dinner each night.”
Ashe considered. That was so simple he felt like a fool for having not thought of it already. Then again, he hadn’t been altogether sure his suspicion was correct. He would have to at least pretend to continue receiving the drugged beverages, so as to avoid someone noticing a change in habit and forming their own suspicions. He nodded. “Alright, sir. You can count on me.”
“I do not doubt that, soldier. Just remember, do nothing and say nothing to no one without thinking it through first. You never know who might turn out to be your enemy under pressure.”