Percival felt like a human being for the first time since his capture. The
clothes the men had brought him were a good fit, and a welcome change after
the rags hed been living in since being stripped of his armor. They
were simple; a green shirt, black pants and leather boots that came to just
below his knees. Still, while the fresh trappings were a valued gift, he
was more thankful for being allowed to wash and shave.
Although the guards had said the meal he was to share with the Captain was lunch, far too much time had passed since they had delivered the water and then disappeared. After darkness had overtaken the small amount of light that permeated his cell, and the air noticeably chilled, he resigned himself to another night of hunger. Sitting cross-legged on the small bed of straw, he decided upon offering an evening prayer to Sadie.
His devotions were rudely interrupted by the same two officers who had accompanied the fat man earlier. One shouted to him in the near-darkness, The Captain is ready for you!
He finished the prayer by offering humble thanks for his blessings and rose to his feet. The men fumbled with the mass of keys until they finally located the correct one for the cell. The taller of the two stepped inside and gave an order: Put your hands behind your back.
Percival did as he was asked, as there was no point in resisting. A second later he felt the rough texture of rope encircle his wrists, and then the man turned him around. Start walking towards the stairs. Dont try anything stupid. Were both armed.
The knight gave a nod as the two men flanked him, their hands firmly gripping the hilts of their swords. Up the stairs they went, and Percival could tell that his intuition was correct. He was on a boata massive one. Looking around the deck, even in the darkness, he saw that she had three masts full of sails, a wide hull, and a small army of men running ragged to keep her moving towards the star-filled horizon.
The men led him to the stern of the ship, and then up a staircase which brought them into the Captains dining room. It was lush, with a large wooden table and well-carved chairs set elegantly atop an exotic-looking rug. Lamps hung about the room provided a fair amount of light, and fresh-smelling flowers brought fragrance that did a good job of hiding the stench of tar.
Seated at the table was the fat man who said in a sly voice, I dont believe our guest will misbehave. Cut his ties.
Wordlessly, one of the guards sliced through the rope binding Percivals hands and then pushed him down into a chair by his shoulders.
Keep your hands on the table, the fat man ordered.
I think we can speak civilly to our guest, Troian, a woman who appeared in the doorway reprimanded.
Troian was apparently caught off guard by her, jumped to his feet and gave formal introductions. Rise in the presence of our Captain, Kylan Locusti.
The guards yanked Percival back up, as he stared at the black haired woman and realized she had been the man with the awkward beard in the Pit.
You seem surprised, the woman said to her prisoner as she took a seat and waved him back into his chair. I expected less of a reaction from a man who married Zexens Silver Maiden.
Chris never hid the fact that she was a woman, Percival retorted. We accepted her for what she wasand followed her regardless.
Kylan held his gaze. A romantic notion, but not necessarily a sound business practicenot in my case at least. I keep my fathers image and name so that his old enemies believe he is alive. Keeping his legend breathing has saved me many hassles.
A knock came on the door before Percival could respond, and the food was delivered. His stomach growled audibly at the sight. It wasnt tasteless gruel, but fresh cooked fish, seasoned vegetables, and a loaf of hot bread. As the servants placed the meal in front of them he had to fight his instinct to just grab the food with his hands and eat.
The woman smirked at the Zexen. Our meal appears to have arrived. She turned to the guards and Troian with a raised eyebrow and they followed the servants out, closing the door behind them.
Kylan served the food, and as she placed a plate in front of Percival she said, I suppose youre wondering why youre here.
It had crossed my mind, the knight said as he took a bite of the fishit was delicious.
She smiled at him as she finished chewing a piece of bread. Of course, Andrew.
You know my name is Percival, he said, glancing over the top of his glass.
Correction. It was. On this ship, you will be called Andrew.
I dont understand, the knight countered, as he cut another piece of fish. What purpose does forcing me to answer to a foreign name serve?
It serves my purposes.
Do you always give responses that make such little sense?
Kylan glared at him. They make sense to me. Its my ship. Youre a guestwhether you want to be here or notand I will call you whatever I wish.
Percival could see this was going nowhere and tried to cut to the heart of the matter. Are you going to tell me why Im on this boat or not?
Suffice it to say that Im fulfilling a contract, she replied.
Yes. My client paid me a rather handsome sum to capture and keep you.
The knight fought the urge to laugh as he put his fork down. Me? You must be mistaken. No one in Zexen would ransom me. Im not valued by any of them. Im not even worthy of one of their precious titles.
Who said they wanted to ransom you?
Why else go through all of this?
Thats not for me to say.
Surely your client told you.
No. I care little for details in such matters.
Resigned to the fact that he would not get any further on the subject, Percival asked the question that had been consuming him. What will happen to my men?
Kylan finished chewing a bit of vegetable and said, Ah, such noblesse oblige.
Stop mocking me and answer my question.
I dont think youre in the position to be making demands, Andrew.
They are good men and deserve better treatment than to be left in that hell to rot.
She gave him a wink as she took another bite of fish. Ah, but they arent there any more.
Where are they?
That depends on how loyal they are to Zexen, she replied with a smirk.
Percivals patience had vanished. What the hell is that supposed to mean?
It means, my dearest Andrew, that your pathetic good men will be given an option. If they make the right decision, theyll keep their lives.
Youd execute them for refusing whatever sick desires you wish for them to fulfill?
In a word: yes. Ive even created a device that ensures a swift death. No more hanging or beheading by axe. The first way is too boring and the second too messy.
He pushed what was left of his meal aside. Then use this thing you are so proud of and kill me now. I want nothing more to do with your group.
Ah, no, Kylan said as she put his plate back in front of him. That would be too easy. Besides, my contract guarantees your well-being. Your men were just collateral damage.
He reached over the table and grabbed her around the throat. All of his manners, training, and restraint left him as instinct took over. His voice became animalistic as he thought of his men, chained like dogs and treated worse than rats. Ill kill you right now if you dont release them!
Kylan was amazingly calm, given that his hand nearly encircled her neck. Ah, but you wont, Andrew. My men have orders to sack Iksay should anything happen to me while you are on this ship. It wouldnt even take my entire fleet to crush both Budehuc and your village! If the winds are right, that run-down castle is less than five days sail from our current spot on the chart. Once we land, it would be less than a days ride to Iksay. I bet your sons would be so happy to see youif even for a moment before I slit their throats.
Percival released his grip in defeat and sat back down in his chair. The woman sneered at him, the creases in the corners of her mouth telling that she knew all of his weaknesses and how to exploit them. And for that, he hated her.
Rubbing her neck, she jumped up, opened the door to the cabin and called in two guards. Take Andrew to the hole. Leave him there for three days. No food, no water. Hes got quite a temper on him, and I wont have that on my ship.
The guards bowed their heads to the Captain and hauled Percival to his feet. One of them snarled, Come now. Dont make us be rough on you!
Reluctantly, the knight allowed the guards to lead him to a grate on the bow. The smaller of the two yanked it open and said, Get in or well put you in!
Percival sat down and dropped into the hole, feet first. It was too short to stand in, and not wide enough to sit. Resigned to lean in a most uncomfortable position, he sighed, and again begged Sadie for a swift and confirmed death.
Chris finished packing her things in the darkness of Torries living room, with just a small lamp for light. She had asked Salome to leave early, not because of time, but so that her children would not be awake to see her go. It was hard enough to say good-bye the night before, and if she had to do it again, she might not be able to. Before she tucked them into Torries guest bed, she gave them both instructions to be on their best behavior, to eat their greens, and to always remember that no matter what, both she and their father loved them.
As she was tying up her pack, she heard shuffling in the hallway behind her. Turning around, she saw the dark eyes of her elder son peering around the corner. Realizing she had noticed him, he walked into the room, and sat on the small sofa.
Ryan, she whispered. What are you doing up so early?
He shrugged and looked at the floor, I just wanted to see you off.
Chris set the pack on the floor and sat next to her son. Motherly instinct told her that something was bothering himthe toes on his bare feet were curled in anxiety. Pulling him onto her lap, she saw his cheeks were damp, and so she asked, Whats wrong?
Im scared, Mother. I know I shouldnt be, but I am.
She held him in her arms as if he were an infant again and brushed his hair out of his face. Its all right, Ryan. Theres nothing to be afraid ofeverything will work out, youll see.
He nodded ever so slightly and rested his head on her shoulder. I heard you talking to Louis. I know whats going to happen to us if you
Nothing is going to happen, she interrupted him, and then kissed his cheek. Guilt suddenly filled her, so she felt compelled to ask, Do you want me to stay, Ryan? We could just go home.
He considered a moment, and then shook his head emphatically. No. I want you to go get Father. I want us all to go home together.
Cuddling him closer, she gave him a kiss on the forehead. We will.
He sat up and faced her, finding some hope within her words and touch. I know we will. Father used to always tell me that nothing is gained without a risk. I know youre going to be in danger, but I will pray for you. Then youll be sure to be safe.
Chris pulled him into a tight embrace, his innocent rationale touching her heart. Oh, how she hated to leave himto leave them bothbut it was for best. Soon she would return with Percival and the four of them would go back to Iksay and never part again. She kissed his cheek again, and then whispered, Promise me youll look after Geoffrey while Im away.
Of course, Mother. He pulled back to look her in the eye, and then spoke in a voice that mustered all his strength. And and if something does happen and we have to go with Louis, I understand. And when Geoff is old enough, Ill make sure he does, too.
All right, she said as she fought the strain in her own throat. With another kiss, she gave him a compliment he was sure to hold in the highest regard. Your father would be proud of you, Ryan.
Chris led her horse to the city gate, impatient for this quest to end, even thought it had yet to start. She wasnt surprised to see that Salome was already there, waiting for her, and performing a ritual she was all too familiar withthe farewell before dawn. Knowing it would be rude to approach her friend and his wife as they offered each other words and kisses of promise, she busied herself with checking her saddle packs and girth.
A few moments later, she heard her name called and looked up at Salome and Ardeth, pretending to notice them for the first time. Leading her horse over, she offered her hand in greeting to the other woman as Salome stepped away to give orders to the knights that made up his escort.
Its good to see you again, although I wish the circumstances were different, the brunette said. You have my sympathy and my prayers.
Thank you, Chris replied, and then paused to find a more intelligent answer, which did not materialize. But Im confident that things will work out in the end.
I pray that they do, Ardeth said before glancing at her husband.
Chris followed the womans eyes as a glimmer of the last farewell she said to Percival tickled her memory. Upon leaving, he would always say to her, Farewell my love, but not good-bye. How she wished to hear those words now, but she knew she wouldnt. So, in a gentle voice, she just commiserated with the other. Yes. I know what its like to have him gone all the time. Home for less than a week, and then back he goes until Goddess knows when.
Ardeth nodded, and adjusted the weight on her braced right foot. Chris, I dont mean to doubt you, but why are you going to put yourself through this?
I intend to take care of this problem because its tearing the people in our country apart. Families are being destroyed every day just because the Council is greedy and unable to negotiate a peace we all deserve.
Thats why I respect you, Chris. You may have a personal stake in this journey, but you are still thinking of everyone else. She took the former knight into a friendly embrace. But please, be careful.
I will. She said as she returned the hug and then smiled at the woman. Your husband never let me act recklessly in the past, and Im sure he wont now.
Ardeth gave a tired grin to Chris and then whispered, Youre right, but please keep an eye on him as well. I need him back more than ever, now.
Milady! Salome called, interrupting the conversation, just as Chriss curiosity had been piqued. Wed best get on our way.
She gave a quick nod to Ardeth and then mounted her horse. Turning to offer a wave from the saddle, she saw the Captain receiving some sort of token from his wife. Glancing away again, she knew a few more hushed vows and one last kiss would be exchanged before they departed for Brass Castle. Its always the last one that hurts the most, isnt it, Percy?
The road through the Zexen Forest was one rather frequently traveled, and although threats were minimal, Chris was thankful for the escort. The two knights rode five or so horse-lengths ahead of Salome and herself, and although she couldnt hear them talking, it seemed to be a very lively conversation. The ride was leisurely; there was no need to rush, and so the pace was set at a walk.
Still, despite the safe surroundings, pleasant weather and easy ride, her friend hadnt said a word since they had left the capital a few hours ago. She could tell by his furrowed brow and downcast eyes that something was troubling him. Turning to the Captain riding on her right, she offered a sincere observation and question. You seem awfully quiet today, my friend. Is something on your mind?
He gave her a slight nod, which neither answered her question nor confirmed her statement, but she didnt push him. Salome had always been a quiet, reserved man, and when he spoke, others listened. Still, for all his shared wisdom and benevolence, many demons tormented him, and Chris was one of the few people he would confide in.
After taking a measured look ahead to make sure their escorts were out of earshot, he said to her: I told you once we all fight for our own reasons. For some it is their family, and for others it is their love of Zexen. I would like to believe that by defending our country, I am preserving the lives of my wife and son. But lately, I dont feel that I can justify that. Call me selfish, Chris, but I was secretly hoping the Council would let me resign.
Thats certainly not selfish. Many people are sick of the warand it wouldnt surprise me at all to know those closest to the frontlines are hurting the worst. She sighed as she gave the horse a little more rein. I think the only people who arent tired of this war are the Council.
And those profiting from it, of course.
Of course. It only adds to the feeling of being used as a pawn someone elses crazy game.
But thats not the only thing troubling me, Chris. He drew a long breath before continuing, as the lines on his face pulled into a frustrated grimace of concern. Ardeth told me last night that we are expecting another child. I want to be happy, but I wonder what will happen to me. Will I even be there when its time? Will this poor child just wind up resenting me like Jael does for never being around?
Chris wanted to offer congratulations, but her stomach twisted with Salomes rationalization. Although hed never admit it to her, she knew Percival felt the same when she told him Geoffrey was coming. Unsure of what to say, all she managed was: Im sure your son doesnt resent you at all.
He might not say it, but sometimes I can see it in his eyes.
Are you sure youre reading his expression right? I cant imagine Jael feeling that way. He has such a good heart.
Im sure of it, Chris. Im sure thats what hes thinking, because he looks at me with my own eyes.
Only the sounds of the horses hooves were heard as Chris formed a suitable response, and even then she wasnt sure what comfort it would be to Salome. Years ago, Ryan asked me once why Percival is never home. I didnt lie to him. I told him the truththat his father was protecting us, and that required him to leave us from time to time. He understood that. Im sure Jael does, too. Im sure he misses you terribly, and just hates to see his mother lonely.
Perhaps, but I still feel that sometimes I am neglecting those that are most important to me, even if I try to validate it with my own rhetoric.
Chris nodded to him in sympathy as Brass Castle came into view above the trees. I think we all do that, my friend. It goes with the territory of this lifea life we chose.
Yes, but we choose it when we are too young and naïve to think of long term consequences.
Are you saying you regret becoming a knight? She tried to hide the surprise at her question, but wasnt very successful.
No, he said with a sigh. I dont regret it, but I will admit that I was enchanted by the romance of it, as Im sure you were.
She smiled, desperately trying to make light of the situation. Of course. What child doesnt fantasize about putting on a suit of polished armor and riding a fine horse into battle?
Salome shook his head as his tone hardened and horses hooves clipped on the cobblestones that led to the castles gate. Sometimes I wonder if the reason we wear polished armor is just so that its easier to wash the blood off.
Chris stood in front of the wooden door and raised her fist to knock. Ever since the moment that Louis and Salome explained the Councils instructions for her, she knew exactly whom she would ask to be her escort. Yet standing here in front of his quarters, she knew her request would be met with a battle, and one that she was ill prepared for. Regardless, she had to leave the next morning, so gaining his cooperation was vital.
Once her fist hit the door, it swung open; apparently it had not been latched correctly. And there, in the room, in quite a stage of undress was none other than the Swordsman of Rage himself. He froze as she stared at him in shock for a moment, neither of them daring to laugh at the faux pas. Finally, she quickly apologized and slammed the door shut.
A few moments later, he opened the door, now decent and smiled at her, the blush on his cheeks still tingling.
Im sorry Borus, she said before giving him a gentle tease. But you do know how to latch doors, dont you?
He didnt give her more than a shrug of his shoulders as he ushered her inside his quarters. The room looked just like Percivals, but the furniture was much more luxurious. Motioning to the sofa on the far side of the room, he just simply said, Youre back.
Lowering herself onto the couch, she smiled at him. I am, but Im not staying more than a night.
He brushed his blonde hair out of his face as he took a seat next to her. Thank the Goddesses! Youve decided to listen to reason.
Youre going home, right? Youre taking the children and going back to Iksay, he said in an uncharacteristic cheerful tone.
She met his dark eyes. No, Borus. Im not.
His brow furrowed in worry. Where did you leave them, Chris?
With Torrie. And Louis is helping, too.
Borus closed his eyes tightly in frustration as a sigh slipped between his lips. He wasnt sure what to say, or even if there was any point in it.
Chris raised an eyebrow at his disapproval. You think Im crazy, dont you? You think it was an easy decision, dont you!?
He rubbed the back of his neck. I just find it unbelievable that youd abandon your children at a time like this! If it was because you needed money--
Chriss eyes narrowed at her friend as the charge began. I didnt abandon anyone, Borus. While I cant afford to give expensive gifts to small children, I can certainly scrape together enough money to make sure they are well fed.
He scoffed at her. You left them with Torrie and Louis? A child and a cripple? How protective can the two of them be? Im sure you learned that Torrie moved out of my parents home and now lives in one of the slummiest areas of Zexay.
Chris lashed out, and her tongue was sharper than her blade ever had been. You are so arrogant! At Torries age I was commanding the Army, and Louis is quite capable of taking care of himself. I find it despicable that you would insult both of them! She smirked at him, Or would you rather I have left them with you? A knight past his prime who drinks himself to death on a nightly basis and wakes up next to whatever barmaid he can convince to return to his room?
His face contorted with many unpleasant responses but he swallowed all of them, as a tense pause stretched through the room. She was right, and he knew it, so all he offered was a defeated shake of his head and a somber response. Youve made your point, but they still need their mother.
She jumped to her feet, a bit of guilt hitting her for continuing the battle even as he waved the white flag. How the hell would you know what they need! How the hell do you know how hard it was for me to make this decision! Youre not even a parent!
Borus flinched as the last blow stung what was left of his ego, but he kept his tone soft. No, Im not, and one day, if Loa wills it, I hope to be one. But I do know that leaving those kids in a strange city while you run off to prove something you dont need to prove is stupid and pointless.
She sat back down next to him as she considered his words, knowing an apology for her attack wasnt necessary. Long moments of needed silence held between them, and when she finally found the courage to say exactly what she wanted, her voice faltered before she could finish the sentence. Im not proving anything to anyone. I just I just
You just what? He asked gently.
I just want Percival back, she whispered, as she felt a knot form in her throat.
Borus pulled her into a warm embrace and rubbed her back soothingly. He knew she wouldnt crynot in front of him at least.
Without looking up from the comfort of his arms, she said, Before you say hes not coming back, then if thats the case, I want to know that so I can tell my children. I dont want them living the nightmare I went through with my father.
I guess I can understand that. They deserve to know the truthwe all do.
Chris nodded as she sat up and broke free of his grasp. Yes. We all do. Even if its not what we want to hear. Still, Im sure hes alive. Dont ask me how I know. I can just tell.
He took her hands and squeezed them as he gave her a smile. I have that feeling, too.
Will you go with me, then?
She glanced down at the floor. The Council has charged me with finding Lilly Pendragon and questioning her about the so-called Tinto Army.
Borus laughed, Sounds like a wild goose chase.
It is. The Council just wants me out of their hair, Im sure. Will you come? Im leaving tomorrow morning for Karaya. Lilly was last seen there.
I dont know how welcome either of us will be in that place, he muttered.
She touched his arm gently. Neither do I, but its time for us to atone for our sins, Borus. Perhaps this is just a test that Loa wishes us to pass together.
Maybe, but Chris even if I wanted to go with you, I cant.
What do you mean you cant? Salome said I could take anyone I wanted, and I chose you.
He rubbed his forehead in tormented deliberation before giving her an answer. Its not that. Im sure my duties will be covered. I just dont think you understand the position Im in.
What are you talking about?
He looked away from her and out into the distance. I promised Percival that Id never let you do something like this, and now not only am I failing to stop you, youre asking for my help.
She gave him a tiny smile. Yes, but you also promised me once that youd always fight by my side as well, Borus.
I know, and that complicates matters even more, he said as he met her eyes.
Holding his gaze, she said calmly, But Im here and hes not.