Sweet Belladia

Chapter six: Sweet Belladia

Belladia Yugo tugged on the lace of her travelling boot, pulling it tight enough that it would not fall off during the walk. Her parents were not fond of these boots, but she was wearing them as an act of ruefulness. They were white with pink floral stitching in flowing, swirly patterns, the only feminine pair she owned. Around her neck was a bright blue cloak secured with a sparkly red coralite brooch, and she wore a tight fitting blue travelling dress. Her blonde hair was secured back with dozens of jewels, with one long curl hanging over her temple passed her shoulder. Since it seemed this was the last chance she would have to dress like the woman that she was, she had ensured that she did in fact look like a woman. A princess. She had made sure her little sister Daymial was dressed in a similar way, much to the girl’s chagrin. She loved to play dress up but not when her older sister told her to. Belladia crooned at how adorable the little girl looked. Her mother, Princess Delaira was not yet up and her father was reading in their sitting room. Princess Delaira would get Belladia prepared for her journey when they returned, but for now she wanted to enjoy the freedom of her skirts. It was also a way of showing her displeasure at her current situation.

Since learning that she had been drafted into the Island Pilgrimage Escort, she had been plagued with the subtle feeling that it was a brainless idea. She had seen neither hide nor hair of the twins until two days after their hasty return from Rolo Island, and when they finally came to her family’s section of the palace it was only to ask her and her brother to be a part of their Escort (after a brief explanation of the nature of the quest). She was surprised that they would even ask, since she was, in fact, a woman, and had been about to decline when her parents jumped in and told Xarthanias (who had barely brought himself to kiss her hand when he saw her) that they would be honoured if Belladia came with them to Vaupen Island. Osarius was not there at the time, but they agreed on his behalf also.

Mother! Belladia exclaimed, a rare outburst, but oh, she wished she had protested more. I do not want to go to Vaupen Island with them!

Princess Delaira took her daughter’s face in her hands. Nonsense, Belladia. This will be a good experience for you! You should be grateful that you are even able to go. In the Old City a girl of your standing wouldn’t even be allowed to look at a sword from thirty yards, let alone take one up and go on an adventure!

Princess Delaira had been born and raised in Deshale, the “Old City”, and her parents brought her up to be stiflingly proper, never allowing her to do much more than needlepoint, music lessons, and dancing. “A princess doesn’t do that” was the mantra of her childhood, and she vowed if she had a daughter, she would give her all the freedom possible. Belladia was almost never told no unless her mother was reminding her to “have no restrictions” and “let no one tell you that you cannot simply because you are a girl.” Her parents were kind and encouraged her to take part in many activities and supported her passion for artistic design, feminine though the passion was. However, their encouragement could often turn into coercion.

Father, is it not dangerous? she asked pleadingly when her mother was out of earshot.

He had laughed a little. Of course, my dear. I was in King Ziyan’s escort when he went, and he and I and old Prince Thellius were the only ones to make it back of the twenty of us. But just use your wits! A woman without wits is like a horse without legs. It was an old joke between them, but he wouldn’t meet her eye. She shuddered as she thought of her cousin Thellius – he seemed to have lost the ability to speak, and refused to leave his house unless it was nighttime.

No amount of pleading or reasoning worked. She was going, and the one good thing about it would be that she could ensure that Osarius was alright. She could not imagine sitting at home for months, worrying away her time, agonizing over whether he was safe or even alive. Now that she thought about it, she wondered if she wouldn’t have found a way to follow him if she had not been invited. Bossy and overbearing though he was, she did not want to imagine life without him.

The other highlight was that she would be able to be with Nolle a little more. Since she had started courting Xarthanias she rarely saw Nolle more than once or twice a week. She saw that Xarthanias could be over-possessive and easily jealous. She tried to stay away from Nolle due to one incident that involved Nolle almost losing an eye because he had made her laugh a little too much; she missed his company. At least on the Pilgrimage she would be able to see him, even if they did not talk.

She was now ready to go to Rahd on a final errand before the foreboding trip. It was also a chance to spend some time with Daymial, whom she hadn’t been with much since training alongside the twins with Osarius and Prince Fredric, the fourth member of the Escort. The little girl bounded after her sister each evening as Belladia stumbled up to her room without a word, exhausted from physical conditioning or harsh mental exercises, or dry studying of boring subjects. Especially her medical instruction. Daymial had resorted to temper tantrums which earned her nothing but dirty looks.

Today was the first break Belladia had had, the day of the departure. They would leave at noon, so she had just enough time to run the bag of golden pennies and jewels to Mr. Sans in the city and then return home so her mother and father could finish preparing her and Osarius for the trip.

Set, Day? Belladia asked of her sister, who stuck out her tongue and scowled. They went through a door that led from their sitting room into the East Garden. As she gazed for a moment at the palace splashed with bright sunrise, the feeling of foreboding passed through her once more. Whatever happened on this Pilgrimage, she would always hold her home close to her heart.

* * *

The ripening orange sun rose from the horizon like someone tentatively getting out of bed. The colorful clouds grabbed at her, begging her to stay with them so they could keep their marvellous hues. Inevitably, the sun broke free and continued on her upward journey, leaving the cloud canvases wiped clean; stark and gray they remained, omens of the storm to come. Chimley, high up in his tree house, inhaled the scent of the distant rain. Restless and frustrated though he was, the prospect of the shower excited him; there was something fantastical about seeing the sky, so depthless and proud, brought to tears.

Another sunrise, another day, and still he had made no progress on his mission.

The good news was that the royal twins were back early from wherever they had been. It had been over a week since then, and not once had they wandered into his part of the forest. On this day he was considering taking alternate action. He only had to think of a plan. While he considered his options, he revolved the gifts he had acquired for the twins around his head like a string-less mobile. Apart from the vedelite dagger, Chimley had quite the collection; more impressive daggers, rings, brooches, satchels, bridles, and spices. He polished the metal goods every day and kept the cloths free of wrinkles and stains. They were all safely hidden away in an apple wood case in one corner of his tree house. He didn’t know what else his spoiled cousins might want.

To the south, the city of Rahd glowed in the sun. The streets began to teem with people: peddlers and soldiers and early-morning shoppers. Chimley often speculated about what it was like in the city, but had never had a reason to go. He preferred to stay in the cover of his forest, unseen and unbothered by other people. His father usually instructed Chimley to stay when he went to Rahd, and even when the order was not given, Chimley didn’t ask to come. Now he wondered if he shouldn’t go just to take a look around, and maybe it would inspire another gift for Xarthanias and Nolle. He reasoned he may as well do something while he thought about his next move. He hopped from his balcony to a nearby branch, and then dropped the remaining forty feet to the ground; after telekinetically rearranging the big dark leaves of his tree to hide his tree house, he embarked on the journey into town.

The world was soft and quiet, making his senses especially sharp and his reflexes especially out of control. A bird took flight in the trees not so far up, and he jumped out of his skin. He thought he could sense the Teidekos in every shadow, behind each tree, and was constantly tensed to defend himself in case of a surprise attack. It was one way they amused each other; pouncing without warning and fighting until somebody surrendered. Paranoia was a drawback of heightened senses.

“This is ridiculous,” he thought out loud. Even the sound of his voice startled him. Stopping, he took several deep breaths, forcing his predatory mind to stop working double-time and just focus on the journey ahead. He was nearing the edge of the forest, and the town rested a stone’s throw away. As he composed himself, a bloodcurdling scream of the highest possible pitch shredded its way into his ears, undoing all his efforts toward sanity.

Before he knew it, he was dashing headlong toward the sound.

He was two hundred feet from the source of the dreadful scream before he could gain enough control to stop; the city of Rahd was farther away than when he had started. He ducked behind a tree, and then slowly peered around as the scream came again.

There were five of them, men in dark cloaks with the hoods pulled up to hide their faces. Two of them had a woman with golden hair pinned to the grass, one held an identical little girl no older than ten off to the side, and the other two appeared to be standing vigil. The woman valiantly tried to kick her way free, uprooting small trees with her mind to assault her attackers, which the graphite in their pendants easily deflected. Chimley drew back to the other side of the tree, eyes wide. As an egocentric who had never performed an act of valour in his life, one part of his mind screamed at him to do something, because the woman and the little girl obviously couldn’t escape on their own, but the other part, the part he figured was really his father’s influence, told him that it was none of his business, he should just continue on to the city to fulfill his mission, which was his business. Women only got in the way, anyway.

Of course, even being as self-serving as he was, he wasn’t the kind of person to walk away from a terrified pair of damsels in distress.

He had never made a habit of listening to his crazy father anyway, so he pulled his knife out of his belt and leapt from behind the tree, landing on one of the vigilantes and tackling him to the ground. A blunt blow to the head with the hilt of his blade rendered the man unconscious, and when the other vigilante tried to come to the rescue, Chimley’s deadly fist snaked out and felled that man too. He was careful to pop him in the head only enough to knock him out; on principle Chimley didn’t kill people that weren’t on the list. He had the attention of the other cloaked ones. They stood frozen, watching him. He rose to his feet and faced them, holding out his knife.

Let these girls go.

They looked at each other, and one of the men holding the young woman tilted his head slightly to the side. The man holding the child let go of her and dove into a bush, extracting a large pouch and dashing off into the forest. The rest regarded the skinny, shaggy haired boy with crooked teeth before them.

“The jewels!” shouted the young woman. Not wasting a moment, Chimley flashed to the man’s side, and yanked the pouch away. He was back to the scene in less than two seconds, before the thieves could figure out that they should run.

Instantly, the three men sprang away from the girls, lunging at him. He danced around them effortlessly, swooping down and hauling the young woman to her feet. Pulling her toward the child, he shoved the pouch of jewels at the woman and pushed the two behind him, taking up a protective stance. He kept his eyes on the three men as they regarded him tensely. Chimley could feel their essences shifting and searching, uncertain of what to do. Chimley only hoped they didn’t realize he wasn’t wearing an orbalite pendant. Though he had telepathic powers, he had no graphite to immunize him against the attacks of others. His dark hair already gave him away as an outsider; hopefully they didn’t try to snap him in half, because if their maps were strong enough, there was nothing he would be able to do about it.

The little girl behind him made a whimpering noise, and the young woman stepped forward. “Thank you, sir. She made a superior face at the three remaining men. “I told you they would come for me. I suppose more palace guards on the way?” This she said to Chimley, who blinked in surprise.

He cleared his throat, trying to make his unused voice sound authoritative.Uh, yes…?”

The cretins glanced nervously at one another.  They held up their hands, sinking slowly to their knees. “We surrender, Princess. Mercy? We only wanted money for food.”

The young woman—the princess—looked sadly at the man. Lies. You are nothing but thieves. Your auras are all the evidence I need.

The man shrugged. Surprisingly, Chimley’s blood boiled. The woman’s lips were pressed into a line.

The woman turned her head away. Be gone, now. I do not want to so much as sense you again.  Though her essence was soft, her thought was threatening.

They scrambled away, stopping only for their downed comrades. When they had gone, he turned to the grandiloquent young woman and the girl. The woman gracefully knelt to gather the little girl into her arms, pressing her lips to the child’s forehead. After a moment, the child squirmed away and stood with her arms crossed. The woman took up the pouch of jewels, taking hold of the girl’s hand. Both wore their hair in a twist of intricate braids held in place with jewelled accessories. The woman wore a bright blue dress and a royal blue cape held in place with a red coralite brooch. The girl was dressed in a similar way. Straightening, the woman turned to him with eyes like a soft, misty grey dawn. Her smile was like a world-weary angel’s.

Thank you very kindly, sir, for rescuing us as you did. She inclined her head.

Chimley sheathed his knife. He almost marveled that this princess was talking to him—him!—before remembering that he too was royalty, a crown prince no less, and this woman was a most likely a lesser cousin of his. Yes, ma’am. Now, good-bye.

She reached out and caught his arm. He jerked, and it took all he had not to instinctively fling her into the trees. Wait. What’s your name?

He sighed. Chimley. And you?

Clutching the jewels close to her, the Princess offered him a genuine smile. Princess Belladia Yugo of Rahd, pleased to make your acquaintance. This is my sister, Princess Daymial. Say hello to Chimley, Day.

Hello. She gazed at him with half her face hidden in her sister’s skirts. Chimley’s benevolence was running out, and so was the morning. He had to admit that Belladia was pretty, as far as princesses go, though it wasn’t enough to hold his attention for long. Soon all he saw her as was an object in his path; he suddenly needed to go to town.

I will be on my way now, he thought to her, and before Princess Belladia could say anything more to him, he let himself melt into the dense trees.

As soon as he was orientated towards the city of Rahd, it was only a few minutes’ run to the wall, and by then he had all but forgotten about Princess Belladia. Pausing for a moment, he decided it would be better to simply hop the wall than to bother with the gate watchers. He took in the busy morning bustle of the affluent city. Vendors, shoppers, and the ever-present mail carriages racing past each other on the street. His father talked frequently about the mail carriage system, and it was concluded by Chimley that Shaethan secretly wished he had a job with the delivery service.

There were only two real streets in the city, starting with the road that fed in from the rural land between Deshale and Rahd, circled the capital city and spiraled inwards. At the centre of the spiral the road shot out again, cutting through itself and continuing on through Despartus. It was like a seven-tiered spiral with a diametric line from the outer edges. Only a handful of mail carts worked at a time, a couple trotting around the spiral towards the centre of the city, one trotting outward, and some working the road around the city and halfway to  Rena and Geneya. Circling Despartus and its neighbouring kingdoms was another mail road joining up with other metropolitan delivery networks. As the mail carts galloped by on the streets, people tossed parcels and letters aboard, and if the postage was marked to be delivered on their way the workers on the carts tossed them on the doorsteps of the recipients, but if they had already passed the intended address the mail was handed off to a carriage travelling in the opposite way, and there was a timed assembly-line type passing system for kingdom-to-kingdom deliveries. The carriages had to keep up a quick and steady pace to make it to the rendezvous points at the moment of the other carriages for a smooth handoff without stopping. The moment a new cart complete with fresh horses and workers stepped into the spiral for duty, whoever had been working the longest could leave, and tossed their mail bag to the new team. This usually happened in half-hour intervals. With eight teams in each direction (inward, outward, and kingdom-to-kingdom), one team worked exactly half an hour every three and a half hours from sunup till sundown.

Chimley traveled the straight road until he reached the centre of town, the business plaza. Not many people guarded their thoughts here, or attempted private conversation; the telepathic cacophony gyrated in his mind, nearly impossible to shut out effectively, and essences like pea soup pressed constantly around him. On top of that were the smells: prepared food, fruit, and animals. He must have looked rather agitated, because a group of girls walking arm-in-arm down the cobblestone street stopped to give him peculiar glances. One of them giggled and hid her face behind one of her friends. Their essences were shy but intrigued. Chimley bared his teeth at them in a silent snarl and continued walking, reminding himself that it didn’t matter what anyone else thought of his appearance; he could steal the life from any one of them in less than a minute if they gave him any trouble. He was not in the mood to live by principle anymore—the city set him on edge.

He decided he would look into the shops and see if anything caught his eye. He crept into the one that, upon a cursory evaluation, appeared the least hectic. Stepping through the beaded curtain that served as a door, he saw that his previous decree was a misstatement; the shop was empty of customers, however, more than a dozen blond-haired children chased each other back and forth and around and around, screaming and trying to wrestle each other. There was a tired looking woman watching them, and that was all. Chimley wasn’t sure how she could be so close to sleep with the screaming toddlers racing around her shop. He wanted to cover his ears. She noticed him before he could leave. Her face lit up the dullness of her store.

Good morning, sir. I’m Dezalaire Valodacia. Can I help you with anything? she asked enthusiastically as the children screamed and zoomed around them. Chimley shook his head and turned to a collection of carved gyllalium statuettes of horses and historical figures (mostly Thegin Fin Despartes), each with their own inscriptions in Old Gedian. He picked up a statuette of Thegin Fin’s horse Hop rearing and pawing the air, the bright red gyllalium rock smooth on his fingers.  Eval s’yhet tesryf egats fau nytania. Love is my first assassination. Chimley almost smiled at the irony, and briefly wondered if he shouldn’t give it to his cousins simply as a witticism. If they could even read the Old Script. The one next to it was of Fin sitting cross-legged in front of Hop, who was looking to the side at something, ears pricked in curiosity. Tal nyar amauc. Let the rain come. Still not appropriate. None of the other ones conveyed the proper message either—even though he himself was unsure of the message he wanted—so he abandoned them for the decorative plates on the sill of the only window. As he turned he nearly stepped on a four-year-old girl who was reaching for the doll she had dropped at his feet. He jumped back.

Seali! Watch where you are going! snapped Dezalaire, leaping off her stool and scooping up the child. She smiled at him apologetically. She looked to be in her thirties. I have no place else to keep them, and if I put them in a back room I’m afraid it would be destroyed. A little boy threw himself at his mother’s legs, upsetting her balance a little. Another boy tugged at the edge of Chimley’s cloak, thinking to him, You’re strange-looking. The mother’s eyes were creased with stress.

It does seem that you have your hands full, Chimley offered, not knowing what else to tell her. The little boy let go of his cloak and pounced on one of his sisters, dragging her to the ground.

Yes. She peered at him, and he kept his gaze level. How old are you?

Ten and six.

What do you work as?

The questions put Chimley on alert. I don’t work, he answered cautiously.

She smiled, tucked a strand of long blond hair behind her ear. Brilliant! You know, I’ve been searching and searching for someone to mind these little monsters while I run the shop, and I haven’t had any luck—

I’m sorry, Madame, but I’m afraid I cannot. Chimley was barely able to hide his contempt as he regarded the children. Seali had jumped on top of a chair and was waving her arms around like she was giving a royal decree.

Oh. Are you certain? She rested her hand on the head of a girl by her side.

Yes, quite. My father insists I focus only on my studies.

Her eyes brightened with awe. Are you a scholar? she asked delightedly.

How could he tell her that he was studying usurpation, regicide, and hostile takeover? Yes, I am a scholar.

Wonderful! What are you studying?

Murder, betrayal, manipulation. He blanched and flicked his eyes around the shop. Anthropology…

Well, I wish you good luck and good studying. And if you ever want a job, you know where to find me. She curtsied, still smiling, and he bowed his head before leaving.

To his dismay, something caught his eye and he paused, one foot on the stoop. He pushed down his desire to flee the noisy (and slightly smelly) shop at once, and grabbed the figurine from the shelf. Excuse me, milady, what is this? He dragged himself back to Dezalaire, showing her the cut crystal butterfly scratched with musical notes, an eleven-rayed sun behind it. Underneath the base was unartfully scratched a circle with a line through it. Prohibition. Catching sight of the circle, Dezalaire gasped and snatched the thing from Chimley.

“Oh, those vandals!” she exclaimed.

Madam?

Dezalaire’s mouth was pulled into an angry line. “How can you not know?” she wondered. “The butterfly is the symbol of Pavliona Eleode, the old queen who made the deal with Thegin Fin when Despartus was born. The sun stands for eleven kingdoms. And this,” she flicked the circle, “is a symbol of the Capraiwan, a superstitious group from around the village of Pukwaoi near Adlin who believe the queen to be an evil enchantress. They believe that Despartus should cut off all ties with Siyemeir and especially Vaupen. Yet they insist that the queen is alive and communicates with them. We call them the Pavliona Cult, and they’re worse than Malevolents, in my opinion. They often attack the Pilgrims of the Way.”

Dezalaire talked as though Chimley should know what she was talking about. What “deal”? He asked. And what pilgrims?

She gave him a look. “I thought you were a scholar?” she asked sceptically.

He clenched his teeth. Women and their stupid questions. Not from here, he replied, trying not to snap.

“Oh, well. When Thegin Fin discovered Despartus, the queen wanted to take it over and expand the Siyemene Empire, but Thegin Fin wanted to protect the land against greed. As you know, people left Vaupen Island in droves to come here and help Fin, and the queen and her dissolving army were outnumbered. The queen and Fin were peaceful, however, and instead of defeating her he offered her a deal. He would be king of Despartus, and in return for peace from Siyemeir, every generation gifts of gems and herbs, and other things of unique value to Despartus, would be sent to the royal family of Vaupen. It didn’t take long for this to morph into a tradition where the heir to the throne gathered an Escort and led the way to the Island to deliver the king or queen of Vaupen the chest of gifts. The Pilgrims of the Way.”

Chimley was disturbed to find that he was so absorbed in Dezalaire’s little story that he didn’t notice the children had all fallen to their mother’s feet like flowers, listening as intently as him.

Why hadn’t his father told him any of this?

Thank you, milady. With a respectful bow, Chimley left.

Stepping outside was like resurfacing from the bottom of a lake. The sunlight was unbearably bright after being in Dezalaire’s poorly lit shop, and even though the audible noise of the children faded, the telepathic disharmony of the streets returned sevenfold. They were now filled with people; Chimley had thought it was crowded before, but now there was barely any room to move. Riders astride temperamental horses and pedestrians alike pushed their way around each other, the occasional glare exchanged as items were knocked out of hands and shoulders were bumped. Back stiff and muscles tensed to defend himself he stepped away from the doorframe and into the human river. He always wondered how people could tolerate being in such close proximity to each other all the time. How much time would he have to spend in town when he became king? The only solace he had was that the Palace at Rahd was at least a mile and a half from the city.

He stayed well into the morning, determined in spite of his trepidation to acquaint himself with every nook in the city. When he finally couldn’t stand it anymore, he found the straight road and began the laborious swim through the people.

A young woman carrying a high stack of boxes bumped into him as she hurried passed.  The stack tottered and then tumbled out of her arms, bumping many people as they fell to the cobblestones.

Pardon me! Chimley thought snappishly. She looked at him helplessly with light brown eyes. One thing was for sure, he hoped to never have another day like this again. First the princess, then Dezalaire, now this. Women, women, always in the way. Without saying anything else, Chimley made a sweeping gesture and the eight boxes rose from the ground and restacked themselves in the girl’s arms. She gave him a grateful look; one that Chimley thought lasted a little too long, and then was on her way. He wondered where she was going in such a hurry as he watched her get swallowed in the crowd, and what was in those boxes? No matter. Back to the woods. He wanted to see if Pgeden was busy so that he could practice his combat skills. And maybe win another present for Xarthanias and Nolle. Coming to town to find something was a useless idea when he had all the resources he needed.

Deep down, though, he knew he had simply been curious. He knew all he wanted to know now.

What you looking at, eh? someone said, and Chimley felt a large hand enclose his arm. It was only then that he realized he was still staring at the last place where he had seen the girl. The threatening essence and the fight in the other person’s voice instinctively made him ready for a battle, and he was barely able to keep from rolling the person over his shoulder and slamming him into the ground. Breathing deeply through his teeth, Chimley slowly turned to see three men only a few years his senior stationed before him like militants. They had bulging arms and swords in sheaths over their shoulders, a generous assortment of knives in their belts. The one on the left had a bow and arrow, and the one on the right grasped a battle axe in one hand. Chimley narrowed his eyes and clenched his fists, waiting.

You having trouble keeping your eyes to yourself? Chimley wasn’t sure which one was speaking to him, but he could only guess it was the one in the middle with twitching jaw muscles.

I do not know what you are talking about. Do you mean the young maiden who dropped her boxes?

In a manner which Chimley thought was much uncalled for, the man in the middle gave his shoulder a hard shove. Chimley didn’t even try to intercept him. Making a scene in the centre of town would not go over well if his father found out. Maybe if he could get them to follow him into the woods…The thought curled his lips into a smile. He hadn’t been in a real fight in so long. The thugs he had saved Princess Belladia from in the woods hardly counted. These men looked like they would actually put up a good fight. And unlike the Teidekos and his father, these were people he could dish out real punishment to.

What are you smiling at, eh? Do we amuse you? Stay away from Claria, do you understand? Another shove. This time Chimley caught the man’s hands and put both index fingers in his left hand, holding them above both of their heads in an unbreakable grasp.  Bringing his nose within inches of the other man’s face, Chimley spoke out loud, “Beautiful sword.” He smoothly removed it from its sheath and walked away, melding into the sea of people and heading toward the city wall. He kept his mind on the three men, and after only a second they shot after him, pushing people out of the way in their dash. Wonderful. Chimley swiftly eased through the crowd, breaking into a run when he reached the place where the street wasn’t lined with buildings. He cut across the small plot of land that separated him from the wall, and then hopped up onto the stones, standing to observe the approach of his pursuers. They were barely winded and charging full speed toward him. Smiling tauntingly, he twirled the plundered sword once in his hand and dropped to the other side of the wall. Only a hundred metres to the woods.

Something flew passed his head and stuck into the soft ground an inch from his next footstep. A gold-hilted knife. By an unseen force, the knife was pulled out of the dirt and flew straight for his face. He was able to stop it just before it stabbed him in the eye. Now they knew his dirty secret: he was unprotected by graphite. An outsider.

They shot more knives at him, and he in turn buried them hilt-deep in the dense wood of the trees just ahead. His ears picked up the soft thud of running feet behind him. He shot into the protection of the trees and right up a towering redwood, stopping halfway up to watch them glare at him. Taking a quick inventory he saw that they each only had one knife left. He glanced at the sword in his hand and was surprised to find the butterfly with musical notes inside of a circle with a line through it. Capraiwan? He didn’t want to give them time to dig out the other knives, so he swung branch-to-branch deeper into the forest, letting himself fall back to the earth after a few minutes so that they wouldn’t get too discouraged. He used the blade of the sword to deflect a dagger, and when he reached his treehouse tree, he whirled to face them, a smile that promised death shadowing his darkened eyes.

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