Jenniah encounters trouble when she enters Kingsbury, Firkus fights with his conscience.
The spires of Kingsbury Castle stood tall and rigid, like proud soldiers on the distant hill. The city sprawled out around it. Kingsbury was home. Even the castle in Warrindal, hidden in the memories of Jenniah's youth, did not feel like home as much as these spires did. Although, to say she didn't miss the old capitol would have been a lie. Jenniah struggled with mixed feelings looking at the castle in the distance. Part of her felt relieved and happy that she was home, but another wanted to turn around and go back to the beautiful hall at Nygaard.
She had travelled several days hardly speaking. Every conversation she started with anyone other than Daren or Breann eventually turned to her father and their condolences on his death. Daren was trying to keep her mind off it and keep her positive. She was grateful that he hadn't brought up the engagement to Avron again. She didn't know why he had a problem with it but was thankful he had stopped arguing about it. She missed dancing and speaking with Avron every evening and his passionate kisses burned in her memory. Arguing with Daren about Avron only made her miss him more.
She looked back at her small group of servants being jostled in a cart behind her and saw how weary they looked, despite the proximity of their home. Her servant Breann flashed her an encouraging smile. Breann and Daren had become her best friends. She had even developed small friendships with some of the other servants and guards. She deeply valued the friendships she had made, even though her mother's lesson on betrayal kept resounding in her thoughts at night. She saw a different tale in Morak's hall. There she witnessed loyalty brought from love and friendship, not from fear. There wasn't a single scenario that she could devise in her thoughts where Jaax would betray Morak. She wanted that kind of loyalty, that kind of love and security to surround her.
She needed their support and their company to keep her motivated to return home. Without them, there was nothing stopping her from fleeing back to Nygaard, back to peace and security. There she could lie to herself and tell herself that her father is not dead, that her mother will be fine without her, that she isn't needed in Kingsbury, that Fayneland wouldn't care if she disappeared to Nygaard forever.
Thoughts had allowed time to get away from her. The evening light was growing dim, but they were too close to Kingsbury to camp and she knew her mother would have a fit if they slept at an inn instead of traveling the short distance to the castle. Jenniah sent a herald and looked over her group. The thoughts of home, warm food and a soft bed had energized them; she could see it in their eyes and the smiles on their lips. They picked up their pace, making the hour ride to the gate a little faster.
There was an unexpected explosion of cheering as they passed under the gate into the shadowy city. Thousands of people lined the streets to the castle, welcoming her home. Did mother order this? she wondered. It made her feel uncomfortable, as though she didn't deserve such a welcome. Still, she had no choice but to let it happen.
As they traveled through the streets, winding their way toward the castle, the guards were hard-pressed by the crowd pushing in. Many were trying to touch her in the hopes it would bring them some sort of luck. Again, she wished herself back at Nygaard where she could walk and speak with commoners without fear and without... this.
Halfway to the castle, where the buildings were larger and close together with small alleys between them, there was a deafening BOOM! Acrid smoke filled the air. A bomb had exploded on the left side of the street. Jenniah's horse reared at the sight and sound of the explosion and she barely managed to hold on. Dead people were strewn about while injured ones screamed in pain. Jenniah tried to spur her horse out of the chaos, but it reared again in protest. The street had filled with people. Some rushed to help the wounded, but most fled.
Her personal guards tried to keep people away from her when suddenly gunshots were heard. Several of her guards fell from around her. A pathway opened in front of her and her horse charged forward in fear. She barely managed to regain control of it.
She looked back and saw Daren and the guards that were left break from the crowd to follow her. Daren pulled his horse up to hers. They did their best to travel through the street, making it another block before the last of her guards were gunned down from somewhere up above. Daren quickly dismounted between their two horses and pulled her down with him and forced her to crouch. He was tried to make her as small a target as possible while using the horses and himself to protect her.
"Princess, it's not safe here." Daren's was barely audible over the screams and yelling from around them. "We need to get off Main Street. Might I suggest an alleyway?" She nodded her agreement and then another explosion further down the road went off, moving them to action. With the explosions and the gunfire coming from the left of the street, they instinctively ran to the closest alley on the right. It was skinny and dark with the roofs above almost touching. Daren grabbed her hand and they fled down the alley together.
Suddenly his hand let go with a yank. When she turned to see what was wrong she found him being held back by one grisly man and punched by another. She tried to help, to get the man to stop, but he just shook her off and flung her to the ground as if she was nothing.
Daren looked up, their eyes met for a moment, his full of sadness and fear for her. He mouthed the word run before his assailant hit him in the gut again. Movement from beside her caught her attention. She looked up in time to see a person's shadow loom over her.
*** *** *** *** ***
Smells of dirt, mold, and blood hung in the dark, humid air. Firkus peaked into the far back room of the warehouse. His fears from a few weeks ago had come to fruition tonight. Here was Princess Jenniah, of all people, tied standing upright to a post. Her head hung loose, unconsciousness. A young priest that had tried to help her was on the floor, bound and gagged. Blood matted his hair. All of this brought back a host of bad memories. A feeling of foreboding fell upon him.
The dim lamp behind him barely gave enough light through the doorway for him to make out the scene in the back room. Everyone in the gang was there behind him, huddled over the light of the lamp.
"An extra hostage means an extra mouth to feed."
"I say we keep him alive so we can ransom both and get more money."
"I don't think the Queen would really care about him or want to pay extra for him. Do you know who he is? NO? Neither do I. I don't think the money is worth the danger of keeping a second hostage."
"Maybe we should keep him for insurance, to make sure the princess doesn't try anything stupid, like running away."
"That's assuming she cares, what if she doesn't, then your plan fails."
As the gang continued to argue, Firkus realized he hadn't heard Billey's hoarse, hissing voice. Over the last few days Billey had been working on getting the gang to agree to help him capture the princess. He wasn't sure what Billey was going to do to her. No matter what, the whole gang was going to need to flee town. Guards were busy picking through the corpses on the street trying to find her. When the princess' body isn' found, the city is goin' to go crazy. Guards will be crawlin' everywhere lookin' for her. Firkus could imagine them busting down every door in the city just searching for her. Firkus finally heard Billey's voice, making him jump.
"Enough arguing," he hissed, the gang went silent. "We'll keep the man alive for now, he might become useful. Hey, dog!" Billey turned his attention to Firkus' cowering husk. "Are they awake?"
"Don' know," Firkus replied quietly, "I's too dark tah see."
"You don't know?" Billey stood and started walking toward him with the glow-lamp. "You really are a piece of worthless dung, aren't you?" He spit at Firkus as he walked passed him into room with the two unconscious people. He hung the lamp on a nail and turned back to the gang, "Well? Isn't someone going to clean them up and get them some water? We can't have them dying." He added in a whisper that only Firkus heard, "not yet, anyway." The gang disbanded. Billey grabbed the princess's hair and lifted her head so he could see her face. "Pretty thing. Such a waste for her to die here." He looked over at Firkus before he let her head drop and walked away.
Firkus just huddled in the doorway, haunted by all of the dead he had seen just an hour earlier. The screaming, smells of blood, burt hair and flesh, the chemical odor of the bombs. He had refused to help with any killing or planting the bombs, which resulted in several beatings. Killing wasn't in him. To make peace he had offered to club the princess unconsious, and he regretted doing it, but he wanted to make sure no one else would accidently hit her too hard. The last thing he wanted was a relapse of the incident with Chumley. And yet here he was. He wished Billey hadn't taken the job. Then again, he wished Chumley had never thought to capture the Vitarri man and the woman that helped him in Sobeck.
After a while, he heard a few people snoring in the other room. He realized that no one was going to wash the wounds or give them water as Billey had ordered. He looked about until he found a bucket and filled it with water from the sink in the washroom. He grabbed an old tunic of his, a cup, and Jayme's whiskey flask from the man's own sleeping hands. His mind returned to the awful night Chumley died. Grateful that he had paid close attention to the Vitarri man, he remembered clearly how the foreigner had cleaned and wrapped the gash on the woman's head.
After Firkus rinsed the blood from the man's head, he poured a little whiskey on the wound. The man woke, screaming through his gag from the burn of alcohol.
"Ssshhh. Don' yell," Firkus whispered. "I'm gunna give yah a drink. Yah don' wan' to wake the others." He removed the gag. The man didn't scream but stared at him intensly instead. "Firs' whiskey for the pain. Second is water." Firkus gave him a drink of the cheap whiskey, knowing it would taste foul to anyone that didn't drink it on a regular basis. Then he dipped the cup in the bucket and gave let the man drink his fill.
"Where is she?" The man whispered. He followed Firkus's eyes over to Princess Jenniah and cussed softly.
"She's alrigh', I didn' hi' her hard."
"You!" The man yelled. Firkus dropped the cup and forced the gag back into his mouth.
"Shush!" Firkus listened to the sleepers stir in the other room, but relaxed when the snoring resumed. "I didn' wan' to. I had no choice. I made sure she wasn' killed, or hi' too hard. I need to care for her now. Ssshhh." Firkus got up, leaving the gag in the man's mouth, and walked over to the princess. He could hear the man behind him, wiggling in the dirt to watch him better.
Carefully he wet a strip of the old tunic and wiped the small amount of blood from her long, wavy hair, knowing it could have been a lot worse. He poured the last of the whiskey on her small wound, waking her and causing her to flinch. The sight of her beautiful face scrunched in pain made him him flinch with sympathy. Finally, she blinked her dark eyes open and stared at him.
"I'm sorry," he whispered through teary eyes as he tried his best to bandage her head with the last of the cloth strips. "Here, I have water for yah to drink." A small sense of pride warmed his heart as he put the cup to her lips and watched her swallow.
"What are you up to?" Billey's voice made both of them jump a little.
"I's doin' wha' you said." Firkus replied quietly, picking up the things and retreating with hunched shoulders.
"I didn't realize you could be useful for anything," he walked up and inspected the bandage. "You surprise me, maggot. Now, out of my sight before I have a reason to beat you."
Firkus made a hasty retreat. He dumped out the bucket and carefully placed the empty whiskey flask back in Jayme's arms. That's when he heard it, the soft sound of whimpering coming from the back room. He could hear the man's muffled yelling through his gag and Billey curse quietly. Firkus peaked around the doorway and watched Billey kick the man until he was silent again. Then he stepped over to the princess. A knife glittered in the darkness as he played with its tip against her skin.
Chills went up and down Firkus's spine as a memory sprung to mind: a rich woman in a purple cloak saying "I don't care what you do to her, I just want her dead." He felt nauseated. He looked away, not being able to watch. Another memory wormed its way up: a man gently cradling an injured woman, tenderly trying to keep her alive while Chumley slept, not caring if she died.
Firkus looked back at Billey, slowly cutting the lacings of the bodice while licking the princesses crying face. This man found sick delight in her fear and emotional distress. Firkus knew he would be beaten badly, maybe killed, but he couldn't just do nothing. He had to stop Billey. That's when he remembered the man on the floor and knew what he would do.
A dagger found its way to his hand. He approached the man as quietly as he could, crawling across the floor. He noticed Billey was almost finished with the bodice. The man rolled as he wept silently, unable to watch what Billey was doing any longer. Firkus gently nudged him and saw the same pleading stare that he had seen in the Vitarri's eyes. Firkus gave him a small, reassuring nod and smile. Princess Jenniah's muffled crying was just loud enough to hide the sound of the man's bindings being cut. First the feet, then the hands. The man sat up quietly, rubbed his wrists, and gave him a look of gratitude before taking the dagger from Firkus' hand. Before Firkus could blink, Billey fell to the ground dead, and the princess's bindings were sliced through.
Billey's corpse stared lifelessly into Firkus's guilty conscience. Oh no, wha' have I done? I did i' again, the idio' I am. First Chumley, now Billey, and i's my faul'. All cuz I try and do the righ' thing. Stupid, stupid I am. His thoughts of self-loathing were interrupted by a strong hand on his shoulder.
"Thank you. Please, come with us," the princess said quietly while the man nodded in agreement. "Please, we could use your help," she added when she saw him hesitate.
"Bu' I helped Billey ge' yah. I clubbed yah in the alley," he whispered, shocked that anyone, but especially those two, would be asking him for help.
"Yes, but you helped us when we needed it most. I'm sure someone else would have knocked me out if you hadn't, but you are the only one to help. Please, we don't know where we are."
He looked at the princess's dirty, tear-streaked face and the hopeful sparkle in her eyes. He thought about the young priest and his kind, yet strong hand. Then, he turned his thoughts on the few gang members that were sleeping in the other room and the ones that were at lookout posts. Chumley'd call me a darn fool If I'd help them and a darn fool I am.
"Alrigh', I'll show yah to the castle. Yah need to keep quiet-like. There's others posted on the roofs ou' there." He was surprised to see genuine gratitude in their smiles.
Out he took them, hunched in the darkness of the night. Slinking through small streets and staying close to the walls, he took them further away from Main Street where the look-outs were posted to watch the movements of the guards. He mused at his followers' trust in him. They never questioned him, even when they were traveled down a road that took them further from the castle. Eventually, they were far enough away from the warehouse to travel more openly. He started heading toward the castle, working his way past the merchant district and into the rich neighborhood. It didn't take long after that to get back to Main Street, a block before the castle gate. The royal guard had intensified, walking the wall and watching the gate. Firkus was amazed at the size as he had never been this close.
"Open the gate for Princess Jenniah!" she called out after she dragged them into the light. Soldier's emptied out of the gate's guardhouse and a moment later the three of were surrounded with rifles aimed at them. "How dare you aim those brutish weapons at me!" Firkus could only stand in shocked silence at her response.
"Let me see! I know her face well!" called the captain as he pushed his way through the wall of guards. He took a moment to look Jenniah up and down. "Well, you look a little worse for wear, don't you Princess." Immediately the guns lowered away from her. "I recognize this man from the castle temple," the captain said as he gestured to Daren before he pointed to Firkus, "but who is this street trash?" Suddenly, the riffles were all pointed at him.
"Wait! He helped rescue me!" she yelled, getting them to lower their weapons. "Without him, I wouldn't be standing here. I want him properly rewarded. Take me to Queen Rheanna, please!"
The captain led them, while most of the others kept them surrounded. Firkus did not feel safe. He wanted to run, but it was too late. Chumley, wha' did I do? The loud thud of the castle gate as it closed and locked behind him made him jump in surprise.
Daren was grateful to be back home, back within the castle walls. He could tell the man that helped them was terrified, he oozed fear. The princess, though, had transformed from the frightened little girl on the street into courageous royalty. Her father would have been proud. With her head held high and her shoulders straight, she gracefully kept up with the marching men.
Before he knew it they were in the throne room, staring at an empty throne. Where's the queen? passed through his thoughts. His silent question was answered by the captain.
"She went to bed, your highness. Allow me to go wake her, as she requested, upon your safe return." He left after she gave a nod of consent. It took longer than Daren felt it should have taken for the queen to arrive, but then he could see why. She was fully arrayed in a formal court dress, covered in makeup, and with her hair pinned up. She didn't rush to hug her daughter. She didn't speak a word until she was seated firmly on the throne.
"Jenniah! Oh, I'm so glad you arrived home safely." Her voice was smooth and beautiful. Daren wondered how it managed to be devoid of any real emotion.
"Thank you, Mother. Both Daren and this gentleman," she motioned toward the scraggly, half-starved man, "were vital to my rescue. Please reward them generously."
"Most definitely. I had already set aside quite a sum for whoever could return my daughter. Tomorrow, I request your presence here, in the throne room. An Emissary from Vitar arrived a few days ago. We were awaiting your return."
"There is an emissary from Vitar? Why has he come?" Jenniah's confusion sounded in her questions.
"He came to discuss peace between our peoples. Hostilities between us will not end until we reach some sort of accord. So, if you wish to help spare our peoples' lives, you will make sure you are properly attired and presentable in the morning, ready for a long day of negotiations. Now, might I ask why you present yourself so dirty and indecently in my presence tonight?" Queen Rheanna's voice gave a hint of malice beneath her pleasant tone.
"My deepest apologies, Queen Mother," Jenniah said as she managed a deep curtsey, "I was in such a hurry to alleviate your worry over me, that I regrettably ignored the condition of my appearance. I assure you that it will never happen again." Daren was impressed by Jenniah's artful and diplomatic response.
"Very well. Now that my trepidation over you is at rest, I shall speak with you further in the morning." The Queen stood from her throne and began to turn.
"Queen Mother," Jenniah said, causing her turn back to her daughter, "This man has no home to return to for the night, I request use of one a guest rooms for the night." Queen Rheanna moved her piercing gaze and pursed lips to the trembling man.
"Is he nameless?" she asked at last. Everyone, even the guards, stared at him.
"Ffffirkus, yur Highness," he stuttered in reply.
Yes, of course Firkus may have a room... and a bath... with a set of clean clothes so that he might appear respectable in the morning." Looking at a sleepy servant standing by the wall, she commanded, "Make sure that it gets done, tonight. Assign him a personal servant to care for his needs." Queen Rheanna turned with a flourish and stormed out of the chamber.
A few guards left, returning to their posts. A few escorted Jenniah to her room while two walked with the man named Firkus. Daren was left to himself. He found the huge echoing hallways to be lonelier than he remembered as he made his way to the castle temple. I wonder why Queen Rheanna seemed so cold. Maybe it was because she was woken from sleep. Then again, how could a mother sleep when her daughter is missing and possibly dead? Troubled thoughts followed him to his small bare room in the temple. They remained through his bath, and even lingered as he lay in the comfort of his own bed, until finally sleep took him.