Midnight Star

Chapter twenty-six: Midnight Star

The rain continued long after dark. It washed the scent of acid from their clothes and hair, but it didn’t wash away the trepidation. Osarius refused to look back at the Ridge, and Alapar wished that the only memories she had to avoid lay behind her. In truth she was sandwiched between two heartaches, and a step away from one was a step toward another. She was glad to be still now, drying in the moonlight, if only for the moment.

The terrain had gone from flat to rolling and then to towering hills. The grass had lost its deathly pallor and leaf-bare trees had appeared in loose stands. The clouds swarmed ahead of them like harbingers, but a few had stayed behind to dump barrels of lukewarm rain on them. Everyone knew they needed it, but at this point all anyone wanted to do was sleep on a real bed, not relish small pleasures. Usually Alapar loved to get soaked in rain, but the drops had drawn out of her merciless shivers that she hadn’t been able to quell.

When everyone had grown tired of walking in the cold, wet half-light, they had stopped to make camp on top of the largest hill they came across and huddled under the water-proof blankets. When the deluge finally stopped, they had taken a quick meal of soggy berries and nuts, which did more to dampen their spirits than the downpour did. Maybe use a different word for ‘rain’ since you use it a few times.

They had hoped to reach Rena before sunset, but the going was slow. Out of respect for Osarius, everyone led their horses. Aww! In truth, Rena was beginning to take on the form of fantasy, and it seemed they would walk for three more weeks and not reach it. Maybe changed ‘seemed’ to something else since again, you used it twice. Once again Alapar was covered with the blanket of collective gloom thrown by her companions, and she was nearly powerless to resist its downward pull.

She had been quiet on the walk. Even if she had wanted to talk, Fredric had abandoned her to walk with Osarius in his time of grief. She wished she could tell him how she grieved as well, and that she missed his goofy presence. But even he didn’t laugh now, and she felt that truly the world must have been painted black if Fredric no longer laughed.

And even if Fredric had been walking with her, her throat was raw. If only her mind could emulate the quietude of her lips!

She turned on her side, facing west. Today they had walked as far away from the Kenase as they could without losing sight of it. If the Ologo had stunk, the Kenase stunk worse. She and her father had walked on the other side when they had fled Rena, so at least she wasn’t on the same path. She wondered if her doll was still where she had dropped it all those years ago, when her father had refused to stop the carriage to allow her to get it. Using the orbalite in her pocket, she tried to space out the plain, but it was too far away, and the concentration hurt. The logic was lost on her then, just as her curiosity punctuated by baffling longing was lost on her now. Perhaps that moment marked the transformation of her father from the carefree, teasing man her mother had married to the stoic, matter-of-fact and admittedly cold man who had raised her since they left.

“Once upon a time, there was a very beautiful Princess, and she and her father got to go on a long, exciting journey to a place of great magic. The Princess was happy and excited.”

“No she wasn’t,” said Alapar, protesting her father’s ridiculous story. She had laughed yesterday, but suddenly she was screaming. “No she wasn’t! She wasn’t happy, she wasn’t!” She dissolved into inconsolable sobs while her father watched, helpless and lost, resisting the urge to join his daughter in boundless sorrow.

Thunder rumbled somewhere and Alapar rolled her eyes as the memory pressed down on her, trying to crack her and dismantle her composure. One thing was for certain, she was not getting any sleep. Her dress was still damp from its soaking, but she hoped it smelled better. Even she was beginning to notice an odour, and it was more than just acid burn. Everyone stunk.

The wind had died down to weary sighing. She slipped out from the blanket she was sharing with Belladia and Osarius, and crept around the sleeping bodies huddled close together. Walking to a place where the hill began to curve downward, she sat and stared toward the south, her chin resting on her trembling knees. She considered the view. The curious stars prodded insistently at the hems of the clouds, taking every chance they could to gawk at the melancholy below them. The moon, in its cold authority, refused to be completely erased, and Alapar rested in its undulating glow. She could barely make out lights in the misty distance, shining on the clouds above. Adlin, the place where her nightmare began. And apparently where it would never end.

She wanted to stay on this big hill forever rather than take one more step toward Rena. She needed to escape the pull the place still had on her, the dark brown eyes that beckoned her to come home. More than anything she wanted to see him, but if only it didn’t mean going back to that place!

Oh, how these people had changed her. So ruled by their emotions. She knew she had to be sensible now, because many serious problems trailed her and many waited for her in Adlin. Reason was her only weapon.

Someone touched her, and she nearly screamed. It was only Fredric, that senseless sack. Her shaking reclaimed her.

“You know, I think my mother died around here,” he remarked, thoughtful. She looked at him incredulously, wondering what sort of morbid stunt he was trying to execute. “We only ever took this way to Rena once, because I wanted typo! to take the path my father and my uncle the King had taken when they took their Pilgrimage. There had been more members of the Escort then, twenty or thirty, and I wondered why Xarthanias chose only four.” He seemed to remember himself, and sat down beside her. “Anyway, we always knew there were siederharks, but I guess for some reason my parents thought we would be lucky.” Was that a tear? “We weren’t lucky. They tore her apart when she got up before the rest of us. We managed to scare off the pack of three or four, and she bled to death while we couldn’t do anything. They ripped her stomach apart.”

She continued to stare at him, and he stared back.

“She died when I was twelve.”

Her eyes stung nearly unbearably, and she fought to keep control. She wasn’t really sad, she reminded herself, she was simply absorbing Fredric’s agony. But it felt like hers in a more profound way than before. She’s so coldly logical and reasonable, like a robot! This was probably the reason I didn’t like her at first.

Sure, she had no mother and no father now, and sure she was an orphan, but those were the problems of a child. She was basically an adult, and she had to figure out what to do. Where could she go? The thought of facing the intermingled pity and disgust of her old peers sickened her, but it wasn’t as though she could live by herself. She would be like the women who were examples of how to become outcast from society. She supposed she was obligated to find a husband now, someone who could lift the shame and allow her to gain back some respect. She wondered if there were still people who wanted to kill her, loyalists and relatives of her uncle. Who could protect her from them? What’s more, who would want to marry her now? She had effectively tarnished every shred of what reputation she could have fallen back on. This does well to show what kind of culture she hails from.

What waited for her in Rena other than more heartache?

An idea pricked her – she could stay with the Escort. They seemed like capable young men, something like brothers, and they had treated her well so far. She could stay with Fredric…YES!

But no, that was stupid. Gah! She glanced at him and though she couldn’t see his eyes very well, he emitted a sort of longing that matched her own.

“I know we are basically strangers, but you could tell me what is bothering you. About why you don’t want to go home.”

Because it would mean leaving you, she wanted to say, and pinched herself. She remained silent.

“What’s wrong?”he insisted. “I have never met someone as brave as you. You watched your father die, like I watched my mother, and yet you are still so composed…”

Was that a touch of envy she sensed? Uncomfortably, she shifted away from him.

“I could tell you, but I won’t,” she whispered. Hopefully he knew that her throat was sore from her near miss with the acid lake, and didn’t make the mistake that she was weak.

The sky rumbled anxiously to itself. The deep muttering made Fredric glance up for a moment, his face outlined against the darkness and the stars. His tangled red hair, thick and long, looked like dried blood in the moonlight. That’s oddly attractive. Alapar examined his profile carefully, recalling how his strong brown eyes foiled his gentle mouth and impish ears. Was he handsome? she wondered. She decided it was something she would figure out later, once she needed something to distract her from the other man on her mind.

They watched the hazy lights of Adlin for a few moments while Alapar deliberated. “So I guess it is nearly  Eraga Alidi,” Alapar commented, in an effort to change the subject.

Fredric laughed at her, shaking his head. “No, it isn’t! Where did you learn your calendar? Pessolanius has the same units of time.”

She shrugged, resisting the urge to strangle him. “I was never very good with astronomy. It was only a guess! What’s the week then?”

She caught a glimpse of his white teeth in the moonlight as he tilted his head back. The clouds were clearing a little for the moment, and he pointed. “We are not even in the month of Eraga yet. Did you learn of the ten sun constellations, and the five moon constellations?”

“Vaguely,” she whispered, clearing her throat. Many an hour she had spent with her father on cloudless nights, as he tried to teach her how to tell the times of the year. Many a frustrated sigh had passed both their lips as she failed miserably.

He waved his hand, as though he could clear the clouds away with his mind. And maybe, one day, he would be powerful enough to do so. “Well, you know that the sky is divided by the constellations, and the months are determined by which stars the sun passes on its way up in the morning. The weeks are determined by the moon’s passage of the moon stars, when the moon is not new, that is.” Alapar leaned forward and watched him intently. He seemed to be explaining this much better than her father could. He closed his eyes and he sent her an image of the clear night sky, except some groups of stars were unnaturally bright. Ten constellations below five others, in a ring around the sky. All of them were different. Fredric made them light up as he named them.

“Lellik, Ligi, Keram, Thani, Kwa, Lema, Kudio, Sabach, Kwashi, and Eraga. The sun constellations.” Her eyes were closed now too, and she nodded. His soft, thoughtful voice threatened to lull her to sleep, but she was determined to learn the calendar. “We are in the last days of Kwashi, Eraga starts in two days.”

“How do you know?” she breathed, reluctant to interrupt him.

“Do you know your weeks?”

She could lie and say “vaguely”, again, but she just shook her head. “No.”

The map of sun constellations in her mind dimmed, and the five constellations above lit up brighter. “The weeks are determined by the moon-stars. Those constellations are Shethom, Meuni, Alidi, Ciamyra, and Imouc.” She watched the image behind her eyes in fascination. “And the final piece of the calendar puzzle is Aldarian’s Chariot.”

The one thing she did remember. “Eight stars for eight days of the week.”

He nodded, and she was surprised at how happy she was that he was pleased with her. “That’s right! So can you tell me what day it really is?” The image disappeared and she was thrust back into the present world, dominated now by Fredric’s eager brown eyes as he beseeched her. She gazed at the partial map of stars above them, churning the new knowledge in her head into a response. Neolai, Duxeolai, Roseelai, Caturolai, Cinelai, Zirelai, Senepelai, Hegiolai. Those were the names of the Aldarian’s comets. Fredric had said they were two days from Eraga…

“Kwashi Zirelai Imouc?” she asked, though she knew.

“Very good!” His smile was like a star. She tentatively returned it, and then they both returned to gazing at the overcast sky. “Do you see that star there?” Fredric pointed, and she had to lean into him a little to see what he was indicating. “That’s Zi-Dixen, or the sixteenth star. The midnight star. It is in the middle of the sky, and so it is officially Kwashi Senepelai Imouc .” He sounded slightly grim. “We now have eleven days to reach Eriaz.”

What could she say? It was none of her concern. She nodded and they returned to their silent observation.  

Suddenly, without looking at her, he rested a hand on her hair, and then gently took her hand. A thousand thoughts exploded in her head, but one burned the brightest: How many times had he taken her hand, and she barely knew him? she realized in horror. Vaguely she recalled the decorum lessons she had received as a child. Especially those pertaining to appropriate interaction with men. She had to start remembering that if she was going back to Renian society. She quickly pulled away and strode back to the group of sleepers. Trying to use her horror to cover another, pleasanter, more persistent feeling, she crawled under the blankets. This time, she strictly forced herself to think only of sleep. Poor, clueless Fredric.

When she opened her eyes it was dawn. A misty, chilly dawn. Osarius had nudged her awake with his toe. Kicked her, really. To her embarrassment she found that everyone else was ready to go. They just had to pack up this last blanket. Hastily she scrambled to her feet, dizzy with sleep. Fredric smiled suddenly, with a look as though he was about to make a joke, but she glared at him so fiercely that the thought stopped cold in his mind.

Fredric flushed bright red, making everyone glance between him and Alapar with knowing expressions. He wanted to shove them all down the hill. That would be funny.

They packed up, and marched down, careful on the slippery grass. Nolle did fall, and though he nearly laughed, he was stopped by a look from his brother who roughly drew him to his feet. Their progression was silent. In about half an hour it was raining again, a cold, damp drizzle. Xarthanias removed his cape and gave it to Osarius, who took it without meeting the other boy’s eye. Bare-chested Nolle, who had given his shirt to Fredric, took his own cape from Ribbon’s saddle. Alapar, in her thin dress, shivered, and after a minute of everyone staring at her expectantly, Belladia removed her cape, balled it up, and launched it at Alapar’s head. XD

“T-t-hank y-you,” Alapar rasped. She shook so hard that she couldn’t fix the clasp, and Fredric moved forward to help but she glared at him again and turned away, finally managing.

Wounded, Fredric walked on the other side of Osarius, shielding himself from the tiny girl’s wrath. He wondered what had possessed him to take her hand last night. What kind of spell had she cast on him, that she was all he thought about? He felt so natural around her he often forgot himself. And it confounded him that he was so upset that she had rejected him. They would be leaving her behind today, and setting sail for a faraway land. There was no reason she should have taken up residence in his thoughts.

At once he realized that he was staring at her again, and the fury in her eyes made him feel like she was ready to come over and give him a good word-lashing. He scowled back this time, wiggling his eyebrows and turned away with exaggerated haughtiness. Why did he favour her so much?

Because she was the part of him that he wished he could be. Brave, composed, sure of herself. He knew that she wouldn’t have panicked if she had been him, watching his mother bleed out, missing the narrow opportunity he had to save her. She had tried, at least, to help her father, even if doubt had saved her and condemned him in the end. When Fredric’s mother had died, there would have been no consequences to her if he could have simply ignored his queasiness and gone to her side sooner. He sniffed and quickly wiped away a regiment of tears.

While Fredric continued to deliberate over Alapar, Xarthanias broke away from Nolle to walk with Belladia. “Hopefully we get to Adlin soon,” he told her, rubbing his hands over his thinly clad arms. “I don’t know how much longer I can stand this rain.”

After a pause and a furtive odd look, she carefully said, “Yes.”

“I think I just want to sleep for a thousand days, more than anything.”

“I agree.”

“Maybe we can explore Adlin together if we have time. I’ve heard that they have these beautiful – ” She wasn’t even paying attention to him. He took her hand, gave it a little squeeze. “The most beautiful gardens you could ever imagine. Filled with gems and gold and flowers you could never dream of.” He smiled brightly with blue lips, but her hand felt like dead weight, and her face was like a stone. After a moment, she met his gaze with a cold one of her own. It was like she had died. Repulsed, he took back his hand and strode away from her.

A shadow loomed up beside her, surrounded by an angry essence. You need to do your duty, Belladia. She refused to acknowledge his presence. She was afraid she might burst into tears. Up ahead, Nolle frowned and  talking with Chimley – or at least, Nolle was talking, Chimley was probably answering in telepathy – and she wished with all her might that Nolle had been born first. You have a responsibility to protect the kingdom, as I do.

She whirled on him and brought him to a halt. “You know what, Osarius – ? ”

Concerned, he grabbed her hand and pulled her forward again, pleading with his eyes for her to be quiet. The rain darkened his hair and made his green eyes seem brighter, feverish.

This is only a mission you gave me, Osarius. I’m tired of playing his games. I’m sick of it, do you understand me? She easily yanked her wet hand from his grasp. “You can take your duty and shove it up your – ” She received a sharp pull on her hair for that. She glared at him with all the rage of all the years. Why don’t you do it yourself? Why don’t you keep your precious crown prince from tearing your stupid kingdom apart? After shoving him with both hands, she strode away to walk by herself. She could feel his concern when she almost slipped on the wet grass. With a huff she righted herself. Stupid boys.

Because, he thought to himself as he watched his sister tumbling about, I’m just not as pretty as you are.

Nolle nudged Chimley again, who made a sound like an angry squirrel. “And that’s three!”

Your point? Chimley asked, moving out of nudging range. 

“My point is that you and I are the only sane ones left. Alapar is mad at Fredric, Xarthanias is made at Belladia, and Belladia is mad at Osarius.” He waved his hand in emphasis. “Actually, it looks like Xarthanias is getting ready to be mad at all of us again.” His brother was fiddling with the key around his neck, and agitation was blooming like fire on his face. “Better brace ourselves, looks like he is preparing to play investigator.” He saw that Chimley was staring off into the distance, his eyes worried. “What, are you mad at me too?”

Yes, Chimley replied. I wish you would stop talking to me. I wish you would leave me alone.

Nolle huffed. “Well, then. Fine, I will.” And he marched away, muttering something about finding someone sane to walk with. Chimley forgot about him almost as soon as he left. He had bigger issues on his mind.

Why had he stepped in to save Xarthanias? Why couldn’t he have just let the boy die? It would have made everything so much easier, one more obstacle to the throne out of his way. He tried to remember why he had done it, why he had been so sentimental and blind, but his previous reasoning eluded him completely. Not for the first time, he wished his father was here. Brainless as he was, he usually did have interesting ways of escaping from situations. He always claimed that those Voices told him what to do, but Chimley didn’t care.

Osarius and Xarthanias were arguing. “You do realize,” Xarthanias said, voice tight, “That if we get there it will have all been for nothing. If something has been taken from the chest, the Queen will spare us nothing in her punishment.”

“He told you he didn’t take it, Xarthanias,” said Nolle, joining the two. Soon everyone except for Alapar had gathered around them. The misty rain became a more pronounced downpour.

“Oh, be quiet Nolle, this isn’t your job.”

“Why, you arrogant – ”

“Nolleban! Have some respect!” snapped Osarius.

“You are not my father! No one tells him to respect me!”

“Yes, Osarius, stop trying to boss everyone around!” yelled Belladia. “And Xarthanias – ”  her words died on her lips when he turned to face her with cold, expectant eyes. She dropped her gaze and hid behind her brother.

“What, Belladia?” he asked calmly, his eyes still and hot. “What is it, my sweet? Is that why you have been acting so out of sorts with me lately? It was you. Was it not?” He reached behind Osarius and snatched her forward by the wrist. She nearly slipped. “Do you know what you have done, you insolent girl? You have endangered the entire kingdom!” He shook her, his anger consuming him like fire.

Osarius closed his hand around the wrist that held Belladia. “Xarthanias.”

What?

“With all due respect, take your hand away from my sister.*dramatic music*

Belladia made a choking noise, fighting her tears and her fear. Xarthanias was still a moment, and then he lunged for Osarius. Deftly, Fredric plucked Osarius back and stepped between them, looming above Xarthanias, thin and twiggy but empowered by his will to protect his friend. He had jumped off a waterfall for Osarius. Xarthanias was the least of his worries. “Something you want to say to me, Xarthanias?”

With a ringing sound, Xarthanias’s sword flew from its sheath on Shimmer’s saddle and into his hand. “Get out of the way, Fredric,” he snarled, bringing the tip to rest at Fredric’s throat. “I have an in-subordinator to deal with.”

Fredric laughed coldly, making the sword draw a bead of blood on his throat. “You aren’t serious. The only insubordinate one you should be dealing with is yourself.”

Osarius drew his long knife from his belt. It was the one they had used to make their raft, which had rendered it dull and unimpressive, but no one doubted it could do the proper damage in Osarius’s hands. He pulled Fredric away by his hair and faced Xarthanias, reluctant but resolute. “As your faithful friend I am going to tell you something, your Highness. Any thoughts about hurting my friend or my sister had better be followed by plans for your funeral. Make either of them bleed again and I will stick you like a pig!”

Did you just threaten my life, Osarius?” Xarthanias screeched, bringing his sword down. Belladia screamed and Nolle held her away, retrieving his own sword, just in case. Fredric felt the need to protect Alapar, but she peered around him, her eyes fascinated by the violence. Osarius blocked Xarthanias easily and whirled out of the way. Xarthanias was about to advance again and put his sword through Osarius’s heart when Chimley suddenly stood between them, his hands out at his sides.

STOP.

Both Osarius and Xarthanias fell on their rear ends with shock. This made me laugh probably harder than it should’ve. Chimley marched to where an open-mouthed Xarthanias lay, motionlessly watching, and took his sword by the blade and plucked it out of his hand. He did the same with Osarius’ knife and hurled them both to the north from which they had come, so fast they were invisible the moment they left Chimley’s hand.

What is wrong with you? he mentally screamed at Xarthanias. Chimley was small, but at the moment, as Xarthanias lay prone on the ground, he seemed even bigger than Fredric. His dark eyes glinted, obscured by his wet, black hair. Though he had no essence, he nonetheless appeared surrounded by smoldering flames.

Trying not to shake, Xarthanias got to his feet, and Chimley wordlessly helped Osarius up. Breaking free from Nolle, who was also dumbstruck, Belladia ran to her brother and clung to him. It was me, Chimley began. At once Xarthanias started toward him, but when he got to where Chimley was, he wasn’t. I did not say I opened that ridiculous box, he said. Xarthanias whirled to face him, and Chimley spread his hands in apology. I was walking through the woods, flying really, when I spotted something. I see things differently than you all, meiren blood, you know, he reminded them, just to make himself clear. But something caught my eye and I almost didn’t believe it. There, hidden under a bush of thistles, was a white adlin.

“White adlins don’t exist!” Fredric exclaimed in delight.

It does for me. To you it looks just like any other adlin plant, but I can see the white. Anyway, I took it, and I mixed it with some other common stuff, and I gave it to you, Xarthanias.

For a moment, Xarthanias stood with his mouth open, looking like a brain-dead donkey. Beautiful description. “But why?” he finally managed.

Chimley deliberated. He didn’t really know why, himself. He felt just as baffled as Xarthanias looked – though hopefully not as stupid – and he had a feeling the answer lay beyond his understanding. In his heart perhaps. He shuddered and nearly gagged. What kind of sap had he turned into? Very cleverly, he shrugged and looked at his feet.

“You do care about me,” Xarthanias marvelled quietly. “You go on like you are some sort of heartless god, but you do have a heart, and meiren or not, you are human after all!” Carefully, making sure that Chimley didn’t take off again, Xarthanias stepped toward him and gently touched his shoulder. When Chimley deigned to look up, Xarthanias’ eyes were almost…kind? Uncomfortable but kind. “By custom’s law I…oweyoumylife.” He muttered the last part, and took his hand away. They both looked at the ground and shuffled their feet, and as Nolle watched them, he was hit again with the sensation that he had seen Chimley before. It screamed at him to remember. His face, his eyes, so familiar! And at the moment, he looked just like Xarthanias somehow. Nice tension.

None of that. I don’t need your life, it will never be as good as mine. Oh snap! Xarthanias glowered, his face flushing red, and things had returned to their rocky normal. Oddly enough, though Chimley knew he had just thrown away yet another valuable opportunity, he knew he would never go back on his decision. Maybe if his father had been here, but he wasn’t, and he had left Chimley to figure it out on his own. You can repay me some other way. For instance, I could really, really use a new cloak. He spread his arms to display how threadbare he had become. The clasp was missing, and underneath, his black shirt was nearly see-through with holes, and his trousers had worn away up to the ankles. Laughing, Xarthanias boxed Chimley on the head.

“Alright, we’ve wasted enough time!” he called. “If we want to make it to Adlin by next year, we are going to have to move! Now, we ride!”

Belladia insisted that Osarius ride with her. Chimley, for once, didn’t immediately reach for the packhorse, instead letting Xarthanias tow it. Fredric and Alapar eyed each other suspiciously, she expecting him to make an immature comment, he expecting her to scratch out his eyes, before Fredric reluctantly offered her a boost onto Fang’s back. At first, she would barely touch him, but when they picked up the pace she was forced to wrap her arms around him. Because of the rain, they weren’t actually going that fast, but it only increased the sickness in her stomach.

She couldn’t find a way to reason her way out of her horror at approaching Adlin. At the moment, all the logic she had only proved that she should find a way to stop her journey now. She would stay in the land between her father’s ghost and her mother’s ghost forever, never quite leaving or joining the other. That would be a satisfying existence, she decided. But she couldn’t think of a way to get the Escort to leave her here. 

When she carefully peered around Fredric, she didn’t quite know whether she was seeing things. It seemed as though a patch of blue sky had appeared on the horizon, smudged by the mist in the distance. She moaned as Fang slipped on something, quickly regaining her balance, jarring Alapar.

“Did this always used to be here?” someone shouted up ahead nearly half an hour later. Alapar barely heard them. But she did look up when Fang slowed to a walk, and then, stopped.

Before them lay a field of blue. Alapar started and dismounted along with everyone else, staring in wonder at the land of blue seodyms in front of them. Xarthanias, closest to the edge of the field, bent to pick one up. She didn’t notice Fredric leave her side, but he took the seodym from Xarthanias and examined it. Everyone gathered around.

“When did these get here?” Fredric was asking when Alapar got up the nerve to take Fang’s reins and lead her forward. “I thought seodyms only grew further north. They are the flower of Geneya and they are rare even in Despartus.”

“These are my favorites,” said Osarius happily.

Alapar had an idea. “Oh, these have been here for years,” she said, picking a flower herself and twirling it in her fingers. Droplets of water flew into the air. “I used to live around here, before my mother died and my father moved us to the Belt. I remember she used to pick some for us every day for the table. For my hair.” She swallowed. “Anyway, I will be saying goodbye soon. My house is just over that hill, across the river and off in a little forest.” Too far out of your way, she hoped.

Fredric stared at her. She quickly looked away. His brown eyes seemed almost disappointed. She didn’t want to let herself feel what he felt. Now was certainly not the time.

No one said anything, as a matter of fact. Feeling awkward, she let the flower fall.

“Onward, then,” Fredric muttered. She couldn’t help thinking that he was a little rough as he boosted her onto Fang.

The greyness above made the flowers look a little steelier than actual sky blue, and it was disconcerting riding through such a solid carpet of it. Light thunder above added an ominous tone to the atmosphere.

Alapar wasn’t prepared to crest the hill and behold the sight of Adlin.

The valley cupped the great city rested in verdant hands. A lot of the buildings were painted with gold, and if the sun was out the city would be sparkling unbearably. Alapar remembered this from the first time she had climbed to the top of this hill. Just on the horizon and slightly to the west, the sea was a stark grey smudge. In the city they could see the tiny moving dots that were people, the colourful centre and the dark, sooty outskirts. Most of the buildings in the city were tall and slender, topped with bulbous and pointed domes, garnished with statues and colourful banners that whipped silently in the wind. The city went on farther than they could see except for the small patch of ironclad sea. To their left was a knoll, and through it was a large round hole where the Kenase flowed. Beyond this grassy bridge was the wood Alapar had mentioned.

“Where’s the palace?” Fredric asked, squinting at the city.

Alapar knew that it was impossible to see from here. The palace was in a valley deeper within the city, surrounded by hills like these ones that made it impossible to find from their tops. And it was just as choked with other buildings as the rest of the city, so you really couldn’t see it until you were standing on its doorstep. You couldn’t get there unless you knew where you were going.

“Well, I guess I will be going now,” Alapar said, edging toward the woods. At least she could watch them until they were out of sight, and then sneak back to the hills to figure out what to do.

“Wait, Alapar, we do not know where we are going!” Nolle protested. “It looks like a sort of maze down there!”

“And?” she asked. “You can ask anyone down there where to go and they will take you.”

He raised his eyebrows. “You must have been to the palace before, right? Do you not know how to get there? I fear we will be down there for days.”

“Then we will not bother you further,” Fredric added hopefully, looking suddenly perkier.

“I…”

“Come on, you owe us. Or me at least. Your hero, remember?”

She refused to look at him as the decision tore her apart. She honestly did not want to leave them just as much as she did not want to step foot in Adlin, never mind come within four feet of that palace.

“Please, Alapar?” Fredric asked, his tone light, teasing as always. He knew she was reluctant, afraid, to go. He who had told her she could tell him her fears was trying to force her to relive them. But suddenly she realized something she had been hoping she wouldn’t realize – there was no way she could live alone in the wilderness. It was foolishness. Truly, she had no real reason to be afraid to go to the palace. She was safe now. She had always been free to come back, her exile had ended long ago. Yet somehow she felt that she was betraying her father by returning. It was like she was turning her back on him, going back to something he had tried so hard to keep them away from.

However, her father was dead, and she had to make the most of what she had left.

Slowly, she nodded, and took the lead. None of them noticed the three pairs of eyes watching them from behind the high banks of the river. Except for Chimley, of course. He did not say a word.

As she walked, Alapar drew up her hood and pulled it as low as she could. “My father and I…got into some trouble the last time we were here,” Alapar said truthfully. “It is safer for me if I am not recognized.”

“Trouble?” asked Fredric with undue interest. “What…sort of trouble?”

“None of your business, Fredric,” Osarius reprimanded him.

The border of the city was marked by guard towers. No wall surrounded it, and upon inspection Chimley saw that almost all the towers were empty. They were painted bright red and golden banners hung between them, covered with silver Caredish lettering.

“Welcome to The Kingdom,” Alapar translated in disgust.

“How do they keep raiders out?” Fredric wondered. “There’s no wall.”

Alapar wrinkled her nose. “They claim to have the best military in all of Pessolanius. It’s a show of their arrogance.” The obvious opulence and arrogance is amazing.

The quickest way to the palace was through the heart of the city, but Alapar decided to keep to the dark outskirts. The further from the centre of the city, the poorer the areas, and Alapar kept nearly to the very edge. She had remembered being very frightened when she had come here, because of all the angry yells, cries of pain, and arguments shouted at the tops of lungs. Naked children as thin as sticks lay in wait to beg for food, while their parents searched the trash. And there were often people fighting to the death over scraps. And the odour was usually one to make someone claw out their eyes. Today, though it was quieter than she ever remembered it. They heard the low murmur of voices and the moaning of the wind, and the clopping of the horse’s hooves. There was little light on the streets due to the shadows of the tall, dark buildings. As their eyes adjusted to the dimness, they could make out people huddled in alleyways. The smell of cooking food wafted through the area, and every now and then they came across a coloured banner hanging from one of the buildings. Two children, lean but not bony and dressed in clothes that didn’t look worn I think you mean worn at all, chased a ball in one alley. Some men cooked what smelled like goat in another. Faintly, some women were singing as they hung laundry out to dry.

Everyone stopped to look at the Escort as they drifted past. The singing stopped. The laughing and banter stopped. Whispers drifted in the wind. 

Alapar tightened her hood around herself and walked faster. Everyone walked a little closer together, keeping their eyes up, and Fredric touched Alapar’s arm reassuringly. She hadn’t realized she was shaking again, ever so slightly. One of the horses spooked at a noise in the dead silence, and the clunk of their supplies echoed in every direction.

“Are you sure this is the way to the palace?” Xarthanias asked nervously.

“Shhhh,” Alapar replied.

“Don’t worry, Alapar – ” Nolle started.

“Don’t say my name!” she hissed.

He spread his hands. “We will protect you, don’t worry. If something happens, we’ll make sure you’re safe. I did not know this would be this dangerous for you.”

“No more dangerous than living in a crumbling house.”

People gathered on shadowy stoops and low doorways, openly staring at the strangers. Thunder rumbled overhead, and a lightning flash made Shimmer rear. The chest flopped dangerously on her back. Xarthanias quieted her and continued to lead her with one hand on the chest. The wind seemed to grow stronger with every step.

Nobody realized that they had arrived until Alapar suddenly stopped. They finally looked up and were surprised to find a tall golden palace rising before them. They stood at one of the back entrances. Its colour was muted in the darkness, but it rose above all the other buildings in full regality. The spires were just visible, and the towers were twisted into the strangest shapes. Alapar noticed that some had been removed, some had been added, some had been replaced. But she could still make out where her room had been, and her father’s room. Her mother’s room was just around the corner.

“You there!” said one of the guards with a thick Caredish accent. “Ho! Who are you?”

“The Escort from Despartus,” Xarthanias answered tiredly. “Prince Xarthanias of Rahd.”

Suddenly Alapar lost all her nerve. She would become a serving wench before she would go back there.

“Alright, this is it,” Alapar said, reluctantly turning to face them. She was almost willing to call them friends. At least, they were people her age with whom she had spent some time, after years of being alone with just her father. For the first time in years she had friends again. She sighed. Maybe she would see them when they returned from their journey, just to say hello. And then she would return to serving drunken men in the tavern.

One by one, the Escort stepped forward. They reached out and squeezed her hands, bowing their heads in farewell.

“Where’s Chimley?” Belladia asked.

Everyone murmured in surprise. They had lost him somewhere along the route in the slums. Or maybe before…no one quite remembered.

“I’m sure he will be back. He wanted to come with us to Vaupen Island. He’s probably just off being Chimley.” Osarius muttered something that sounded obscene. He shook his head in annoyance, but smiled at Alapar. “All the luck,” he told her. She nodded, trying not to sigh again.

Fredric was last. Oh, why not? She thought. She ignored his outstretched hands and threw her arms around him instead.

Her hood fell back.

“Ho! Look there!” cried one of the guards.

“Ho! I don’t believe me eyes! Alapar! Little Princess Alapar, back from the exile!”

Alapar had gone stiff in Fredric’s arms, frozen with horror.

Princess?” exclaimed the Escort. Duh, duh, duh!

Author’s Notes:

As usual, I send this to you pretty uncut. But I still welcome all comments, even if you think it’s something I probably know, I might not know, so go ahead and just say it.

This is the product of nearly a month of choppy, inconsistent writing.

I have decided that people don’t use telepathy that much, only when they want to have private conversations or if they just want to be different, like Chimley.

Feedback questions:

  1. How’s the intrigue level in this book? Should I have made the little duel with Osarius and Xarthanias a little longer, a little bloodier?

I think the battle could be longer and bloodier, but there is definitely a lot of intrigue and tension going on, especially near the end.

  • Did I have enough build up to the explosive argument between Osarius and Xarthanias? I want to establish what a foul mood everyone is in and how fed up they are becoming with one another.

Yes, I was just chuckling to myself as every little thing built up and up until they all exploded. It was both funny and frustrating in the sense that you just wish they would grow up.

  • Where do you think Chimley went?

I have no idea. To contemplate his newfound sappy, sentimental side? To eat spiders? To check out those kids he saw?

  • I was pretty tired when I wrote this, and I wrote it in chunks over several weeks. How’s my flow?

Pretty good, some places might need a second look, like where you used the same word or variation of the same word multiple times in the same sentence.

  • Any emotional parts to discuss? Anything that I should look into making more emotional?

Fredric telling Alapar about his mother’s death, Chimley and Xarthanias’ little moment. I think Fredric and Alapar could have a bit more something to their conversation. It seemed a little random of Fredric to tell her this with no provacation, and it also seemed a little one-sided, since Alapar just sat there and told herself that Fredric’s mother being ripped apart wasn’t sad.

Final Comments: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (but mostly the last two)

The tension between the Escort was great, I really liked the build-up and the blow-up, although it seemed like everyone got involved just a little too fast, like someone got picked on by Xarthanias and suddenly everyone had to put their two cents in, like they were all just waiting to say what they’ve been meaning to say about him for years. Maybe if Chimley steps in just slightly later, let them get in a few good blows first, get the blood flowing. And he could be a little bit more defensive and grumpy when Xarthanias starts to figure out that he cares about him.

Now, Alapar, who I didn’t like that much at first but now I do, might be less of a fan favorite for two reasons. One, she is so cold you find it hard to like her, especially at first, and you wonder what Fredric sees in her. Two, she, to put it bluntly, is slightly whiny. But people say that about Frodo too, which I don’t believe is true. I can understand her circumstances and knowing her whole story, I can see where she’s coming from, however, people can see Frodo’s whole story and understand his burden and still accuse him of being whiny. This doesn’t mean you should change her, I just want you to be prepared for other reader opinions. Personally, I think she’d be just as whiny as anyone else in her situation. As in, everybody else would be acting the exact same way in her circumstances.

And, the end. Major cliffhanger which irks my reader side and thrills my writer side. I can’t wait to see Alapar with Prat and the Escort’s reactions when she is forced to tell the truth. I want to see some angry Fredric because she never told him. And she could push him away more and say something like; “Why should I tell you? You don’t know me.” Of course it all depends on which direction you want their relationship to go, but make it explosive and poignant whatever you do.

All in all, I think it worked really well. The only real complaint I have for this chapter is how FREAKIN’ LONG IT TOOK YOU TO WRITE IT!!!

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