The arrow narrowly missed the nest but sailed high among the branches, dropping finally some distance away.
"On your left, Kaidan!" Crown Prince Beren Seramis peered keenly at the spot where his arrow fell. He had been aiming for the squirrel now safely stationed on an impossible branch, chattering away at him.
Kaidan brushed aside his unruly red curls and wiped at the sweat pouring down his neck. He offered the arrow back to the prince. "Perhaps Your Highness might try a larger target," he mused.
Beren shrugged. "Nah, I think I'm done for the day." He handed the bow and quiver to his servant and ran a slender hand through his spiky, dark hair. "Let us return to the castle and see what a mess my father has gotten himself into!"
The two young men turned their horses to the road and set off in a light trot.
Beren glanced sidelong at his servant and saw a pensive frown on the boy's face.
"What's wrong, Kaidan?"
The servant sighed. "Forgive me, Prince, but I do not think it wise to treat the King's business so lightly; after all, you will be King, yourself, someday."
Beren snorted. "Yes, and then I will bear the scrutiny of old men who think they can rule better than I can, and who delight to whisper behind my back while slathering me in compliments to my face!" He shook his head. "Some say my father's generosity in putting Gifted citizens to work in whatever capacity uses their Gift is a generous one—but the Council is convinced that there will come a time when the Gifted ones will rise up and demand even more rights."
Kaidan shrugged and tried to diffuse the tension. "That is only conjecture—"
"I hear them talk, Kaidan!" Beren snapped. "I know what they say behind Father's back, the way they corner me in the hallway or talk around me as if I don't exist."
"You have the power to change anything that does not please you—"
"But what if I don't want to change anything?" Growled the prince. "What if I would rather just continue having the freedom to be myself and make my own choices, and let the Council run the kingdom?" He forced himself to calm down when a small river sloshed through the grass toward him, flooding the forest path and causing the horses' hooves to sink in the mud.
"It's not as if Father is really doing any ruling just now, either," Beren continued. "His rules and convictions might be fair and just, but the Council takes his laws and amends them with their own stringent regulations, giving the illusion that he doesn't care about the kingdom, when in fact the laws themselves are produced out of a caring and considerate heart, to protect both Gifted and unGifted people!"
Kaidan answered calmly, letting Beren have his own fire without adding fuel to the discontent. "You do not wish to be King, Prince Beren?"
The young man huffed and urged his horse a little faster. "I don't like being manipulated and forced into a choice I don't want to make," he stated.
"No one can force you to do something against your will, Highness," Kaidan reminded him.
They arrived at the gates of the castle and two stable hands met them to take the reins and care for the horses.
Beren stroked the neck of his steed and cupped his hands under the animal's nose. There was not a well nearby, but his palms overflowed with fresh, clean water. The horse drank its fill, and Beren released his hands, shaking them dry and wiping them on his sleeve.
"I've tried to get Father to use more precise wording in his laws, but he says he won't—he says he would be more worried about compromising what he believed based on someone's interpretation, than of the outcome of that interpretation. He stands by the laws he makes."
"The laws that are unjust?" Kaidan supplied.
"Not by any of his doing," Beren muttered, "but yes."
They reached the main entrance just as a crowd of young men staggered through the door, yelling and whooping and carrying on.
"What's all this?" Beren asked. He recognized the young men from his fencing class in the city—for the services of the realm's Master Swordsman, Sylvanis, was available to all, and not restricted to the castle.
"Old Silly-Van has taken ill!" One of the boys threw his arm around Beren's shoulder. "He won't be able to teach for a few days—and that's just enough time for us to join the pleasure cruise on a short trip to the Imperials—won't you join us, Bear?"
Beren felt his frustration lift as he listened. The Imperial Islands were devoted entirely to every sort of entertainment, and pleasure cruises circulated regularly. He could leave and return in the space of a couple days, and find enough to divert his mind from the cards of the kingdom, without missing anything of grave importance.
"Well, I would certainly love to, Hancock," he replied. "Provided my father has not already made plans."
"Come on!" Hancock persisted. "What's a few days? He'll hardly even miss you before you will be back!"
Beren's eyes traveled to his servant.
Kaidan nodded. "Do what you think is wise, Prince—a temporary respite would not go amiss."
Beren grinned; wisdom had very little to do with this particular decision. Besides, he thought, it would be good to make this decision for myself, to strike out on my own.
He patted Hancock on the shoulder. "Don't leave without me," he assured him. "I'll just go pack my things."
Hancock cheered. "We leave at dawn!"
The next morning, a cloaked figure stopped by the Mage's door and left behind a small chest. By the time Mage Korsan opened his door and discovered the chest, the Prince had missed the morning meal. Korsan sighed as he laid eyes on the crown Beren left behind. Why would the Prince do something so foolish—and just when the Queen would have told her son that he would soon be welcoming a brother? Days turned into weeks, with no sign of the Prince. Word spread about pirate sightings around the Imperial Isles, and that they had attacked at least one pleasure cruise, but no one could be sure whether anyone had survived the attack or not.
King Balwyn fell ill, and the Queen delivered a healthy baby before passing away, herself. The Council claimed Regency, and Korsan found himself banished from the castle. On his way out to the Wilderness, the Mage stopped by the house of a trusted friend.
"Gordan!" He greeted him warmly. "How does your little family fare?"
Gordon's wife smiled at the Mage. "You see well," she mused. "I have only just learned that I am carrying a child."
Korsan swung his talisman before the woman's belly, flat though it was. "It will be a girl; what would you name her?"
The goodwife's eyes shone with hope. "If it is a girl, I want to name her Velora."
Korsan nodded and turned back to Gordan. He gave the woodsman a small chest, tightly locked. "Keep this safe," he charged him. "Keep it hidden. The one to whom it belongs will come searching for it—but do not reveal its existence to anyone else."
Gordan nodded and resolved to bury the chest in the hard-packed ground under his own bed.
Korsan had left a message of his own, to be delivered to Beren, wherever he may be found, telling the prince what he had done to keep that crown safe. Unbeknownst to everyone save the Pirates and the unfortunate traitors in the Prince's entourage who arranged the attack in exchange for vast sums and the opportunity to disappear from creditors and bookmakers, Prince Beren had been imprisoned, beaten and starved long enough to deprive him of his memory, and forced to serve on the pirate ship that had mounted the attack. For more than a decade, he slaved on many ships, abandoning his name as his merciless masters never used it anyway. At last, the ship he was on encountered a mighty storm, facing waves that no sailor had ever seen. Only one boat survived—a lifeboat, carrying the nameless deckhand. The waves crashed over the boat, tossing the man to and fro, but never overturning it. He lost the oars one by one, and then merely rode the churning sea, praying for the sight of land as the blackness of unconsciousness overtook him. As if Fate finally heard his plea, the sea quieted, and a miraculous current carried the boat and its nearly-dead passenger toward the harbor on the mainland—the very same harbor, as it happened, that he had departed all those years ago...
Aurelle huffed as Erlis nearly lost her a third time in the twisting streets.
"Remind me again where this contact of yours told us to meet her?"
Erlis pulled up short as the harbor patrol marched past, covering her face with her hood and turning away. Only when the soldiers passed out of earshot did she dare move or speak.
"Edri told the contact that she would be waiting just inside the western courtyard, and we would find the west gate unlocked."
Aurelle grabbed Erlis by the shoulder as someone started pointing and whispering. A quick illusion aimed at their eyes, and the villager immediately forgot whom she was looking at and went about her business.
"I wish Velora and Korsan could have come with us," she muttered as they moved on.
"Korsan said he needed to retrieve something, and he needed Velora to help find it," Erlis reminded her. "Evidently whatever it is holds the same importance as getting us into the castle to rescue Jaran and the Phoenix."
"His name is Damaris," Aurelle supplied with a snort. "I just hope we aren't too late; what do you suppose they will do with them?"
Erlis felt her pulse accelerate as the castle walls came into view. "Jaran is a Prince, so they cannot morally or legally do much with him; Damaris, as a known thief and a wharf rat, I am not so sure."
The gate stood just ahead. Erlis glided forward and gave the latch a gentle push. It swung open without a sound.
The healer turned to Aurelle. "What do you see?" She asked the Illusionist.
Aurelle examined the figures on the palm of her hand. "Three soldiers along the wall; two in the parapet, one posted along the corner."
Just then, the figures shifted. Aurelle clenched her fist and the image vanished. "We go now!"
The two women dashed forward and made it to the door without causing any alarm. Carefully slipping inside just before the next patrol rounded the corner, they found themselves in a long, dark tunnel that seemed to slope under the castle itself.
"If I remember rightly," Erlis mused, "we did come to the right place, since the dungeons are down here."
Aurelle gasped. "You think they're in the dungeon?"
A rippling laughter carried down the tunnel toward them. Aurelle and Erlis inched forward till they could finally see a pale sheen of light emanating from a doorway. Within the doorway stood a figure in armor, her long crimson hair swept back to reveal the jagged glint of three scars: Edri Rodan, the girl who stepped in front of a lion to heal a Gifted man.
Erlis sighed with relief as they neared her. "Edri, it is good to meet you—" she stopped.
The eyes that met hers were not those of a healer. Crimson dye still dripped off the ends of her hair. Erlis tried to back away, but found that her body no longer listened.
The imposter laughed again.
"Well! So this is what had my bodyguard on edge in the last few days!" Gushed Zayra, the Mad Queen. "She's fine, by the way; I have her all nice and tucked away with happy thoughts. She thinks it's yesterday, can you believe it?" Another maniacal cackle. Zarya turned. "Follow me."
And Aurelle and Erlis did; they had no choice in the matter.
"Where are you taking us?" Aurelle demanded as they ascended the stairs heading away from the dungeons. Evidently the Queen did not share the same sympathies as the rest of them, concerning the welfare of the two captive friends.
"We're going back to where it all began," said Zayra.
"What do you want with us?" Edri asked as they walked toward the entrance to the north tower. She had never been in it, since the Council had reserved it for their "scientific experiments," but she had often heard the screams.
"What do you think I want?" Zayra snapped. "I want to be Queen! And you two are going to make that happen!"
"How?" Asked Aurelle. "We're Outcasts, we don't have the authority—"
Zayra stopped short and stamped her foot. "It's not the authority I want, it's the power!" She screamed. Whirling on them, she pointed to Erlis. "You are a healer with more power than Edri could ever dream of! I want you to do what she never could: heal my broken brain." She broke into a wide smile. "Can't have a Madwoman for Queen if she's going to demand 'Off with their heads!' at any moment! And you," she pointed to Aurelle. "You're an Illusionist and a Seer. Your visions can tell me where the True Crown is: the Crown of Prince Beren."
Aurelle glanced at Erlis, who was rubbing the scales on her hand again. "Why do you need the crown?" She asked slowly.
"Idiot!" Zayra shrieked. "Because only the one who wears the True Crown is fit to sit on King Balwyn's throne as the undisputed ruler! Those Black Twins think they can just charm everyone into getting their way..." She sauntered around behind the women and hooked her arms through each of theirs. "But I will be the one with all the power in the end!" She marched forward into the main laboratory, dragging her unwilling assistants behind her.
Jaran felt Damaris huddled against his back; it was like strapping a man-sized chunk of live coal to his body, but he suppressed the discomfort in light of their present situation. It was awkward, really, walking past all these soldiers so intent on doing their jobs and doing them correctly—and yet they allowed the two high-risk prisoners walk right out of the dungeons, behind a soldier whose only instructions were, "Follow me."
He led them down the halls till they reached the eastern tower, a place Jaran knew well. He shuddered.
"What is it?" Damaris whispered.
Jaran turned his head and cupped his hand over his mouth. The soldier didn't appear to comprehend their conversation, but he didn't want to risk trouble.
"This is where the Crazy Queen lives," he said. "The Council ran experiments on her, and—" he hesitated. "They used me, used my Gift to alter her brain."
Jaran felt Damaris' body heat shift subtly, as it did when he felt agitated, such as with anger or fear. "So... What kind of Gift do you think she had? Would the Crazy Queen be able to enchant someone to—"
"Break two prisoners out of jail?" Jaran finished, glancing at the back of the soldier's neck. "Who knows?"
The soldier stopped in front of a doorway and turned to face them.
"You have nothing to fear," he said.
Behind him, the door opened of its own accord. The two young men—still in their chains—watched and waited for further instructions.
The soldier did not move.
Slowly, carefully, Jaran and Damaris inched forward, stepping past him. Still, the soldier did not react. They entered the open door, and Jaran gasped in surprise.
Damaris stopped, utterly stunned by the beauty before him.
She sat in a cage of pure gold, robed in rich, resplendent fabrics from her chin to her toes. On her head she wore a crown of the most resplendent jewels set in rare metals. Only her face showed, tastefully painted and completely flawless. Damaris felt like he was looking at an angel in human form.
Jaran seemed to know her. He stepped forward, chained as he was.
"Azelie, what are you doing in a cage? Were you the one who saved us? How? Why?"
"Help me, Jaran!" The eyes stared at him earnestly, as the voice seemed to emanate from all around—everywhere except the one to whom it should have belonged. "The Queen commanded that I should never speak again, and I have not been able to utter a word since. It is by her command that I have been trapped in here, something pretty for her to look at rather than her own face. The lock—I cannot open it. I did enthrall the guard to bring you here. You must help me!"
Damaris stepped forward, and Jaran could tell he heard Azelie's "voice" as well.
"If we help you," he said slowly, speaking softly in the presence of such resplendence, "will you help us escape?"
Azelie nodded. "No one should be imprisoned as I have been. Set me free, and from now on you can be my guar—"
"Well! What have we here?"
The harsh voice drowned out the rest of her telepathic words.
Jaran and Damaris whirled around.
Two stately figures dressed in black emerged from behind a pillar. Jaran tilted his head.
"Wait," he stammered. "I know you!"
"Of course you do!" Said the Lady Regent. "We are the Twin Regents, the Guardians of the Realm."
Jaran shook his head. "No... Something else—"
"You aren't the real rulers!" Damaris shouted. "And you aren't interested in guarding the realm—if anybody should be ruling, it's him!" He raised a hand and pointed at Jaran. "He's the real prince!"
The Lord Regent raised his eyebrow. "But he isn't the Crown Prince, is he?"
Damaris gaped as the two Regents came close. The Lord Regent looked Jaran straight in the eye. "You look almost exactly like your brother did the last time I saw him."
Jaran fought to keep his face impassive, but he couldn't help the tiny spark that raced up his arm. "I never knew my brother," he stated.
His Lordship chuckled. "Oh, well we ought to arrange some kind of reunion for them, shouldn't we, Javira?"
The Lady Regent giggled and clapped her hands. "Oooh! I know just the thing! Why don't we hold this prince for ransom?"
Javira's twin brother tilted his head toward her in mock confusion. "Ransom?" He echoed in exaggerated tones. "What would the ransom price be?"
Javira smiled and stepped close to the prince. Something in her touch, in the way her eyes never left him--it held him captive, compelled him not to move. "The price would be the True Crown, of course. After all, it went missing when the Crown Prince ran away, so everyone knows he must have taken it."
"He didn't run away!" Jaran felt like a scared young boy again, arguing with his old nurse who grumbled against the rest of his family. He had not thought about it for so long, he'd somehow forgotten that he ever had a brother. "He was killed, or--"
"Or what?" The Lord Regent cut in.
Jaran noticed something in the gleam of his eyes. "I know you!" He gasped. The memory of himself as a young boy unlocked other memories--of growing up alongside the nurse's adult children, who never seemed to age as Jaran did, who remained the same year after year...
"Kaidan?" Jaran gasped. "Kaidan Clissander? The washer-woman's son?"
Kaidan snorted and rolled his eyes. "And yet so much more! Yes, finally, the little prince comes home!"
Jaran glanced between the ageless twins. "You're Gifted like the rest of us! But you were the ones to issue the Outcast Ordinance!"
Javira smiled, but Kaidan answered. "No--we merely got the Council to agree to it. And your brother isn't dead, Jaran. Goodness knows I tried! But my spies tell me that he is, in fact, heading for this castle even now--after I worked so hard to get him captured by pirates, the spoiled brat managed to survive!" Kaidan sighed heavily and wagged his head. "I suppose if one wants something done correctly, one must do it oneself." He smiled at Jaran. "He's coming for you--coming to save his little brother." Kaidan and Javira both drew matching daggers from their belts.
"He'll never see it coming," Javira gushed.
Harlock jumped awake from where he had sat to rest briefly--or so he thought. From the heaviness of his body, he had been deep asleep for several hours more than he intended. He glared at his pocket. "Jay?" he growled.
The light of her wings flashed from within the chest holding the crown. Harlock lunged for it. "Hey!" he said, flinging open the lid and waving her away. "What are you doing? Get out of there!"
"I did what I must!" Jay maintained. "I have completed my mission."
"What are you talking about?" Harlock packed up the belongings and strapped them onto his back. "What mission? We're not even at the castle yet."
"It wasn't the beatings that took your memory, Harlock."
Beatings... Harlock stiffened at the unexpected memory of being tied to something round and rough, as heavy clubs and stinging whips ate at his back. "Beatings? I was a sailor, wasn't I? Maybe not a very good one--"
"On the pirate ship; they beat you and they would have killed you if they had known who you were; I took your memories so that you and they would never find out."
Harlock clutched his head in his hands. "You did this to me? You made me forget who I was?"
"I did it to save you. But now I'm giving them back. It's time to remember."
Harlock felt the fear and dread seize his throat. "Who was I, Jay?" he asked in a small voice.
"I cannot go with you into the city. I have placed all the memories in the crown you carry. When you place it on your head, your memories will return."
Harlock closed the chest and locked it again. "No way!" he snapped. "It doesn't belong to me, it belongs to the Prince. No way am I putting that thing on my head!"
"No!" Harlock tightened the grip on his pack and turned his back on the one constant in his life, the one being who had been close to his side. "You've betrayed me by taking all those things from me. I don't want to listen to you any more. If you don't want to come with me to rescue the Prince, that's fine. I don't need you!" He marched down the path into the city, the one that would take him straight to the castle.
Jay appeared in front of him. "Harlock, if you would just--"
"I. SAID. GO. AWAY!" He raised his hand and blasted her with water--and such was his anger that it immediately turned to ice, trapping her and falling to the ground. Harlock picked up the ice ball and hurled it away as hard as he could. He turned back toward the castle and marched on. He would save his friends and make a new life--and no one would be able to stop him.
Part 12: "Exchange">>>>>
Part 12: "Exchange">>>>>