The wind gathered the coral curtains, tangling the fluttering material outside the window. From the stone ledge Chris eavesdropped on two women discussing medicinal supplies. The younger woman gave instructions while the older voice repeated the list of ingredients. The conversation was polite but direct, and it ended when the second woman left; closing the door behind her.
Instead of entering, he waited; watching the young woman brush her sandy hair at her dressing table. From the reflection in the mirror, he had a clear view of her serene face; he could watch the simple scene for hours as she lost herself in her thoughts. He longed to follow her into that blissful secret world.
“Standing there will call attention to yourself, what kind of thief are you?” She chided.
With no words to counter, he obeyed, entering the lavish room adorned with tapestries. Dropping the satchel on the wooden floor, he flopped into a cushy armchair. Time passed slowly there, the warm summer mingled with the scent of make up and oils, made the weary wish to linger.
She commented on his somber demeanor. But he shook the mysteries from his mind; unable to bring her into the world he left outside. Instead, he wanted to exist in this small little world of him and her. He studied her thin face in her reflection; falling in love with her grey eyes all over again.
“How is today?”
“He is in a bad mood,” giving a weak smile, “luckily he has ample distractions.” She shook her head erasing a thought she never uttered. “One of my ladies is with child, I decided to make a baby blanket for her.”
“Sounds like a nice gift.”
“Do you care about such things? It is so painfully ordinary.”
“Cecilia, you’re painfully ordinary is my harbour in a storm.”
“Then tell me the storm you wish to be weathered from.” The swishing of her skirts settled behind him; squeezing her hand he guided her to where she curled into his lap. He loved having her near him; engulfed by her being. He held her, stroking her arms with his thumbs as he spoke.
“I stumbled into something I shouldn’t be part of… Do you know anything about a guy name Bayliss? He might be orbiting the court’s outer circles to weasel his way in.”
“I am unaware of that name. What is his profession?”
“I don’t know; he’s trying to get investments into his new product or something. I was hoping you’d know if there was any connection between him and the king.”
“It is impossible to keep the emerging aristocracy straight. There was a time titles where given, but all that has changed now. Allow me to ask around, I can discover the answer you seek.”
“No, I can’t allow you to be involved.”
“Have it your way,” she traced her finger over his skin. “I had that dream again,” she murmured in a far-off voice.
“The one when you’re a little cat and you knock all your perfume bottles on the floor?”
“No, the one with the cottage. Pine trees as tall as castle towers, little forest creatures darting between our feet. A space for the three of us, far from everything. Have you ever dreamt something so lovely?”
“Once.” He cupped her face, bringing her soft lips to his. He melted into her arms, holding her against him, remembering the nights they had shared long ago.
A string of phlegmy coughs from the next room pulled her lips from his. In a heartbeat she was off his lap and at the door which connected her room to the next. She slipped inside, careful as a mouse.
From the bedroom, he listened to her go about her task. He watched from the crack as she poured a cup of water and helped a bedridden child drink. She hummed a song without words as the coughing subsided.
When the boy fell asleep, she whispered for him to join her. He walked three paces into the room and stood at the foot of the bed.
“He’s so small.” They boy slept in a sturdy four poster bed, which dwarfed his pale frail ten-year-old form. It was the middle of the summer yet heavy blankets hugged his body; Chris recognized the scent of sweat and the fever. Cecilia’s worse fear.
“He has grown so much since the last time you saw him.” He tried not to let the comment of his absenteeism sting.
Every matter of teddy bear and stuffed animals crowded his bed and the floor around it. Beady eyes and stitched smiles watched over him.
Alongside the wall was a table littered with apothecary bottles and herbs jammed in jars. A pile of towels, a water jug, and basin stood arranged at one end. In the corner of the room was a rocking chair and a stack of books overflowing the rickety table beside it.
He sat in the rocking chair, allowing the creaking to soothe his mind and grabbed the book on the top of the pile; laying the hefty hardcover over his lap.
He flipped through the dusty pages, noticing the illustrated depictions of the gods and goddesses. One page told a myth associate with the deity on the opposite page. The first letter was emblazoned with flowers and trees.
A miniature man, drawn inside the loopy letter depicted the storyteller. But the illustration itself was where the artist displayed his talents. A forest goddess with bow and arrow emerged from a lush forest. Tiny birds fluttered around her antlers and lilies flowed through her chestnut locks.
The next page was an ocean goddess with the fishtail and pearls. He browsed the collection of divine figures, until he reached a familiar page. A stately woman donning a sparkling diadem. The same one that sat in his satchel in the next room.
It wasn’t only the same picture; it was the same book. The one his mysterious client offered him in the park. His heart raced as his fingertips flipped through the pages.
He slammed the cover shut, opening the inside page, and read the elegant handwriting. ‘Property of E.J Sexton.’ It can’t be… he exhaled the breath he held; trembling as he reached for the card in his shirt pocket.
Studying the date and time of their meeting; he wasn’t a handwriting expert but it looked like a perfect match.
“Where did Tristan get this book?” He brought it to Cecilia who mixed drops from different bottles into a bowl.
“Lord Sexton allowed him to burrow it, he knows how much Tristan enjoys reading.”
“Okay, but who is he?”
“He tutors the princes.”
“Of course,” her glare told him to bite his tongue. He took a step back, imagining Sexton in the room. In the proximity of her and the boy.
The psychopath that took pleasure in destruction. A madman with an unlimited purse. That man, taught the future monarchy? No wonder they were in the state they were in. She ignored him and continued her tasking; using a dropper to drip a few drops in the sleeping child’s ears.
“What’s his address?”
“Because I need it.”
“No.” She pulled the bowl to her chest and left the room.
“No?” he followed her, closing the door behind him. “Cecilia, please.”
“Tell me why.”
“I don’t have time for this.” He gripped the satchel, slinging it over his shoulder.
A sense of urgency cascaded over his muscles. The diadem in the bag felt heavy, a burden he regretted to lug around. He needed it out of his life, it already impacted Milo.
Who knew what other associate would fall to misfortune? Had he made a mistake bringing it there? Risking her life; risking frail Tristan? He darted to her writing desk, flinging scraps in the air until he found a blank piece of parchment.
“You are starting to frighten me. What has possessed you?”
“Here, write down his address.”
“Why so you can steal from him.”
“What did you say?”
“Why else would you want the address of an influential lord of the king’s court.”
“I can’t believe you. I know I’m the bad guy here, I get it. But I have never once brought you into my world. You have this life, and I have mine. I don’t expect to step one foot beyond that door. And I don’t drag you out into the streets with an open hand. You know why? Because we’re different Cecilia. Our paths diverged long ago. Whether it’s outside the window or outside that damn door, the world we participate in is vile. So no, unlike your beast of a husband, I’m not using you to increase my wealth or reputation. Its imperative I meet with this Sexton guy. Not that I owe you any explanation but, as a matter of fact, I have something he wants. And I want to get rid of it. Now will you help me or not.”
Her cherry lips pursed and her nostrils flared, but she relented and wrote down the address. “Promise me you will take nothing from his home. I mean it Chris, not even a crumb.”
“Trust me I don’t want any souvenirs.” He slipped the note into his pocket as the door flew open.
“Your Majesty!” shrieked a servant from the doorway. “I heard- I heard an intruder! Guards!” she didn’t stay, she turned on her heels and raced down the hall.
“Dammit.” He raced to her wardrobe yanking out the drawers and tossing her personal items over the floor.
“I know, I know.” Returning to her side he drew his dagger. “Trust me, it’ll be okay. Now give me your earrings.”
“These? But you gave them to me.”
“I know, and I’ll give them to you again. But right now, we both need to get out of this with our heads attached. Good, now get close, and look like I’m going to kill you.” He heard the heavy footsteps climbing the staircase. A guard no doubt, he poised the blade to her neck, breathing in her scent one last time. “Until next time my love.” His lips graze her soft skin.
The last person he expected to see glaring from the doorway was Zack. He also didn’t expect to be on the receiving end of his legendary sword; poised to defend the lady fair.
But Zack’s stoic face turned scarlet when their eyes met. He clenched his jaw, prohibiting their familiarity in the open. He dreaded the scowling he was bound to spout once they returned to the Horse.
Perhaps a few beers would smooth the waters. But for now, Chris smirked, relieved that for once the Gods he didn’t believe in, smiled upon him.
“Chris, you bastard!”
He had to admit that Zack was light on his feet but it was his determinism that gave him a run for his money. He flung himself out the window, lunged into the tree and gripped the prickled branches on his way down.
His friend crashed behind him, snapping the fresh limbs in his pursuit. He was on his heels as they raced across the patched lawn of the inner bailey. But he gained a lead as he scaled the pile of broken stones against the bailey wall.
His callous fingers hoisted him over the uneven slabs until he reached the top. He urged his body alongside the top until he found an abandoned cart who was happy to have a passenger.
As Zack ordered him to stop, he found his way to the busy market. Even pushing through the crowds; the knight was relentless. But lucky for him the knight lacked the delicate grace of a street rat.
He lost his friend somewhere near the clock tower. Judging by the commotion it seemed like he collided with something, but he didn’t stick around to find out.
Instead, he returned to his favourite tree and relaxed near the crumbling bailey wall. The shade cooled his damp skin and a tiny inch worm crawled over his pant leg. He peered into the dreary space; even on a sunny day it left much to the imagination.
A sprawling venue used to coral soldier’s horses and military displays, grew wild with patches of scrawny trees and thorny bushes. The grass became a soggy carpet at any bit of rain.
The only plant that flourished was hearty rose bushes, but according to foreigners, their mute colours didn’t compare to gardens in Bellavere. But he didn’t visit for the floral decadence.
From the corner of his eye, Cecilia walked arm in arm with a lanky youth with glossy inky hair. The middle prince, Castellan’s youngest son from his first marriage. Her oldest stepson ignored them both choosing to play fetch with a hunting hound.
Tristan, as usual, was no where in sight. On one hand his illness kept him from most activities. On the other, few bothered with the boy, being third in line for the throne; most considered him a spare. He crouched lower when he noticed the elite guards pacing around the perimeter.
He pulled Sexton’s address from his pocket; holding it like a confiscated idol from a forbidden altar. The cryptic scholar had a name, an occupation, and a house. A phantom incarnate.
A sense of relieve rolled over him, soon it will be over. This was the last one, after this I walk. The words were empowering, it filled him with purpose. Until an agitated outburst deflated his ambition. He peered to over the wall but she and her stepsons had already retreated inside the castle.
Crouching through the branches he followed the frustration and was met with the sound of rattling iron and glass. Scurrying over the crumbling defensive he reached the source and stifled a laugh.
A woman with braided flaxen hair had climbed to the second row of windows and gripped the edge of the frame. Each time she pulled, the panes rattled, but didn’t budge.
He shook his head grinning at the rookie mistake. She demonstrated the exact reason the first two rows of windows didn’t open. A purposeful design to prevent people like him—and apparently her—from granting access. Nonetheless, her dedication impressed him.
A male voice shouted from beneath him. Chris ducked into another tree, slipping past the branches until he had a view of the newcomers. A child sat on an oversized broken slab dangling her feet. However, it was the raven-coloured cat shouting at the woman who piqued his interest.
“It won’t budge,”
“Try harder then, it is a window not a dragon, surely you can manage.” She didn’t respond. But he recognised a woman who was considering bludgeoning a demanding man.
“Why can’t we use the door?” the child asked twisting one of her pigtails around her finger.
“The guards refused us entry,” the cat explained.
“And we can’t come back… because?”
“Because later will be too late,” the woman added. “We need to speak to the king now.”
“So, we’re… breaking in?”
“Well, technically I am. But yes, that’s the plan.”
“Won’t we get in trouble?”
“Not if we’re careful,” she yanked at the window.
“What happens when you get inside?”
“Get to king Avalon. Tell him what we know. Then leave this kingdom before anything else happens.”
“Can’t we just ask nicely? Mommy always said to be a good girl. I don’t think breaking in is very nice.”
“We tried that, then Eclipse yelled at them and we almost got arrested.”
“Hmph, as if it was the first time today,” he muttered.
“It’s no use, it’s not going to open. I’m coming down.”
“No! Break it, I did not raise a quitter!”
He didn’t know where the desire to interfere originated but his mind raced with questions and possibilities. A talking creature was too tempting to ignore. Was it magic, or real, or did it matter? His curiosity demanded satisfaction.
As the woman climbed from the window, he resolved to allow Sexton to wait. A delay was worth it, he told himself; sensing she was an adventure all on her own. Which was why he climbed from his perch, stretching over the lowest limb to make himself known.
“You guys are the loudest thieves I’ve ever seen.”
“Who are you?” the cat insisted. Of course, he’s the protective one.
“Now, that’s something you don’t see every day.” He jumped from the tree ignoring the child and approached the panther. “Besides a pretty girl trying to break into the castle I mean.” He winked as she joined the group. He suppressed his surprise as she plucked a staff from the tall grass.
A Mage, now it’s getting interesting.
“I will not ask again.” The cat persisted, glancing at the dagger at his waist.
“I know you,” the Mage interjected.
“Not surprising, I’m known throughout the world,”
“You’re the guy that stupid knight was chasing earlier. What’s his name from Alexanderia?”
Did she just call Zack…he suppressed the laugh. “It’s hard to keep track of who is chasing me nowadays. So many fans,” he crouched down, “how do you get your pet cat to talk?”
“How dare you compare me to the most common, flea infested, animal in this godforsaken world!” he roared. Monstrous paws slammed against his chest; his weight knocked Chris to the ground where he came face to face with a set of claws poised at his face.
“You’re going to have to forgive Eclipse,” she spoke, unconcerned by the panther’s temper. “He hates the association to a cat or a pet or anything… domestic.”
“Got it…can you call him off now?”
“Let’s go, your majesty, he’s learned his lesson.” Eclipse’s ears twitch as the child gave a low whimper.
“Be thankful the twerp is here—otherwise—” he swiped his claws, missing Chris’s face by inches.
She introduced the group as she helped him to his feet. An odd assortment of travelers, he thought. The child had a rural naivety and the panther inserted himself as protector.
He knew of the dangers, but how much he truly knew was up for debate. But her, he didn’t have a reading on. A blend of guarded, sarcasm, and politeness was appealing. If she knew about the sickos in Lollardum she hid it like a professional. No matter, there was more than one way to get them to talk. He stood, brushing the dirt from his already dusty pants.
“Chris O’Connell’s the name, illegal acquisition is the game. You might’ve heard of me— my reputation goes as far as Sherseas.”
“Wow!” Sara exclaimed, causing the grin on his face to grow. “But what does acquisition mean?”
“I’m a thief, I steal things.”
“My mommy told me to never—ever—take anything that doesn’t belong to you.”
“What are you doing here?” Moira interrupted, guiding the child to her side.
“I was exploring my old haunts, and I heard you yelling so I came to check it out. I felt it was my duty to protect the castle at all costs,” he flashed his best charismatic smile.
“How noble,” Eclipse snorted.
“Alright. Listen, you want in the castle—I know how. Want help or not?” The Mage hesitated, as he suspected, she was cautious. She and the panther exchanged some words which ended with her reluctantly agreeing.
“Alright, but I warn you,” her staff pointed at his face, “any funny business and this goes so far down your throat you’ll be—” she eyed Sara who hung on her every word. Clearing her throat, she added: “you get the idea.”
It wasn’t the usual threat he received from a woman, nonetheless a Mage. But when she wasn’t looking, he smirked; yes, she’s interesting indeed.
The castle walls, once a strong structure separating the royals from the commoners, was now minimized by the surrounding buildings. No land was off limits to the modern housing crisis.
Businesses and homes rose from the mud as the wall and its interior struggled to accumulate. The denizen labored towards a new future, while the castle anchored them backwards. High walls of the overbearing past now crumbled from disrepair.
He guided them through the yard, careful to stay close to remain hidden by whatever the royals kept lying around. They passed a patch of wall with a patch of new stone filling in the old gap he used to frequent.
He remembered the other boys in the gang, daring each other to cross it and enter the yard. A right of passage for the brave or stupid.
He recalled the fear pumping through his chest the first time he crossed. His knobby knees trembled at the idea of sentenced to the Tower. A spiral citadel of torture which few returned.
Despite the fear pumping through his lanky limps, the second memory he recalled was the grass he spied on the others side of the gap. A sprawling lawn of greenery was alien to him.
But age punctured his childhood whimsy; he recognized the lawn for what it was; knobby clumps of weeds. Nothing beautiful grew from the toxic soil. He made a mental note to survey the castle perimeter later.
The castle was like a sinking ship; when they filled one hole it was only a matter of time before another appeared. Sara took care to avoid the swampy areas of the uneven ground, while the others paid it no mind.
Moira wasn’t in the mood to talk any more and Eclipse only spoke to urge the child to keep up. Despite the tension growing in the group, he felt confident that they could take out a few guards if needed.
They paused behind a slab that tumbled from the wall. Ahead of them was a narrow door which acted as a passage for servants and vendors, to pass through unseen by the wealthy.
Usually a clever rouse would grant him access but this time a two soldiers huddled together discussing something private. As the men talked, he recognized the taller one; the agitated stance was a familiar sight.
Why now? As if reading his mind, Zack glanced over in his direction; sporting the usual disapproving expression. Once the guard left, Chris stepped out of his hiding place, motioning for the others to remain.
“The thief always returns to the scene of the crime.”
“The only crime is in the queen’s bedroom,” he shouted back trying to lighten the tension.
“I know you have the earrings, have you any idea the trouble you caused?”
“I admit I didn’t consider the chance the dimwit servant would find you.” He was about to spin an excuse but Zack’s eyes narrowed, his attention drawn to someone behind him.
“Our favorite ray of sunshine,” Eclipse remarked, “the great Captain Dawson of the Alexanderian Knights.”
“What are they doing here?”
“We have business to settle,” Moira responded joining the panther’s side.
“Your pathetic story doesn’t tread any water. But by all means tell me another lie.”
“If I were you—”
“Is that a threat?” He gripped his hilt waiting for a reason to draw the sword. Moira instinctively moved her staff into a guard position.
Familiar with Zack’s prowess and skill; Chris stood aside waiting for the inevitable. On the other hand, he didn’t want to get between a Mage either. The air hummed; he felt it radiating through his muscles. A flock of crows burst from the tree, and the glint of the sun caressed the polished blade.
The Opal passed through the air rested its point at Zack’s heart. They stood opposing each other, daring the other to make a move. Their tempers boiled, waiting for an excuse to kill.
“Here, take them,” He stepped in front of the knight, blocking his view of Moira. The potential carnage from Zack’s battle rage, forced him to act. The earring’s dangled between his fingers. Time ticked at a glacial pace as he waited with bated breath for Zack to considered duty over desire.
“Why are you helping them?” He whispered.
“I dunno, seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“You’re unbelievable, you know that?” Zack relaxed his hand; breaking the tension. He accepted the earrings and replaced his sword in the sheath. “They said the girl is the queen’s new lady in waiting.”
“They lied to you, my friend. They have no intention to see the queen, they’re pretty adamant to meet with Allan.”
“I’ll return the jewelry then return to Alexanderia.” He said the next part louder so the group could hear, “King Avalon has answered summons to return to Alexanderia. He departed earlier today. With my duty complete, I will join them as well.”
“By horse or ferry?” Eclipse asked.
“Ferry.” He whispered goodbye to Chris then turned to leave.
“Next time, I’ll kill you where you stand.” Moira shouted to his backside.
“Are you insane, seriously, are you?” Chris shouted, blocking her path to his friend. Her complete disregard to her safety was astonishing. “He’s the top swordsman in Alexanderia! Personally trained by General Stone!”
“Lex Stone?” Eclipse interjected.
“The big man himself! Zack’s won every hand-to-hand battle he was ever in. He’s Stone’s right-hand man—and you need to watch yourself.”
“I stand by what I said,” she snarled. Sara moved to follow her but Eclipse bit her skirt before she could scurry off.
“Not this time twerp.”
“What’s her problem? She could’ve died. Zack is not someone to mess with.”
“Moira hates soldiers, but they aren’t very nice to her either so…”
“It is best to give her space, her temper is not something to witness.”