A tall, cloaked figure strode swiftly through the nearly deserted streets of the small farming town, pausing from time to time to more closely observe his surroundings.
“Hey now, what do you think you’re doing?”
The tall man froze, then turned to face a belligerent soldier; the armored man making no attempt to hide his irritation. “You stupid or something? By order of his highness, the great Prince Olver, none of you dirt-grubbers is supposed to be out past dark. Not until after he has his brother’s head on a pike, leastwise.”
“Terribly sorry, sir.” The cloaked man’s voice comes out as little more than a hoarse whisper. “I was just checking on my sister’s family, and I lost track of th-…”
The taller man was interrupted when the soldier stepped forward and shoved him, hard, down into the mud. “Don’t be losing track again. Now you can crawl the rest of the way home so you won’t be forge-…”
The downed man came to his feet with a startling speed, catching the gloating soldier completely off guard. Strong hands grasped the straps at the sides of his helmet, and a powerful wrenching movement ended with a wet *crack* from the soldier’s neck. The cloaked man cursed under his breath as he held up the corpse, taking a moment to set his feet properly before hefting the body over his shoulder and moving quickly back away from the town.
The man moved with surprising quickness, in spite of his burden, and in minutes the town was completely out of sight through the heavy rain. He paused for a moment, then sighed and took a tighter grip on his load before continuing. Many more minutes of trudging through the mud and rain followed for the cloaked man before he finally reached his destination; a half collapsed barn well outside of the town and off the road. Getting under the partial shelter still provided by the remnants of the roof, the tall man finally dropped his burden and began looking around.
The cloaked man whirled, and his reflexes proved good enough to snag the thrown object out of the air as it spun towards him. He examined the spade he’d just caught, then turned his attention to the man stepping out of the shadows in the back of the ruined building, also carrying a shovel.
“Your highness, you don’t need to assist me with digging a grave for this fool.”
“Nonsense, Walter.” The second man strode out into the rain, seemingly without care for the inclement weather. “The sooner we get this done, the sooner you can come inside and report. You know how I hate to wait.”
Walter sighed theatrically and followed his prince outside. As soon as a spot was selected he began digging feverishly, an attempt to save the royal from menial labor that did not go unnoticed.
“Don’t rush to the point of injuring yourself, Walter. I need you intact for this. Besides, a little exercise will do me good.” The cloaked man slowed at the prince’s request, but only slightly.
It took a solid half hour to dig a deep enough hole in the mud to conceal the body, leaving both men panting from the exertion when they finished. “Not quite the proper burial a soldier deserves, but it will serve for now. Mark the point, Walter. This man will be properly buried once this business is done.”
“Prince Milo, this man was a belligerent ass.”
“Many soldiers are.” The prince spoke calmly over his shoulder as he headed back into the ruined barn, his servant trailing behind him with an exasperated expression.
The duo made their way into the worst part of the wreckage until finally reaching the mostly intact, and notably oversized, fireplace. Milo pushed hard on a pair of bricks, and the two men sank quickly out of sight on the well concealed elevator. The prince looked back at his man as they descended, then burst out laughing.
“What is it, your highness?” Walter sounded slightly alarmed at the sudden display of emotion.
“You look like a half-drowned cat, Walter.” The prince had to calm himself twice before he could get all the words out.
“Your highness looks hardly better at the moment.” Walter cringed as he heard the words escape from his lips, but Milo only responded with another bout of laughter.
“Most likely.” The elevator ground to a halt, depositing the men into a large cellar area neatly cordoned off with hanging curtains. “Sadly we will have to survive a few more minutes of resembling drowned animals.”
The prince walked quickly to the back of the cellar as he spoke, pushing a curtain aside to reveal a table surrounded by large men in finely crafted armor. “Gentlemen, we apologize for the delay. I had to assist Walter in cleaning up a bit of a mess.”
Nods went around the table, and a few min struggled to hide grins at the waterlogged appearance of the last two arrivals. “Now, Walter, report.”
“Yes, your highness.” Walter paused only long enough to remove his cloak and toss it on a hook near a small warming stove. “As anticipated, your brother Olver has moved against you with all of his forces. He remains confused as to why you have not engaged him as yet, but hasn’t actually paused long enough to try and solve that mystery.” Several heads were shaken in disbelief around the table at the report. “Also as anticipated, he has begun to forcibly quarter his troops in the farms and towns surrounding our city, and is feeding them almost exclusively from stolen supplies at this point.”
The prince leaned over the table, a savage grin visible on his face. “Excellent. My idiot brother has done such a fantastic job building up such an army, then training and equipping them. I was momentarily worried that he might have actually developed enough wisdom to lead them at some point. Any signs that they’ve noticed our plan at all?”
“I had just finished my rounds in the final town on our list when I met our ‘friend’ upstairs. There’s no sign yet that Olver’s army has yet noticed that all of the ‘peasants’ they are stealing food and sleeping space from are in much better condition than the average farmer. With the soporifics we’ve been adding to their food in slowly increasing amounts STILL undetected, the plan is going perfectly so far. Our soldiers will slaughter most of Olver’s men tomorrow night, then fall back to the city for the final stage.”
A round of cheers went around the table, Prince Milo’s among the loudest, though the look in his eyes told a different story. This was shaping up to be the shortest war in the history of Cheles, but the prince knew that this was only the first battle in the real war.
Edward Damini sat patiently on a stool, and stared down at the woman chained to the floor of his cargo hold. Nothing about her looked particularly threatening. About average height, a little on the skinny side, the bright red hair was really the only thing that would have made him look twice at this woman in a crowd. But she’d also been part of a DISASTROUSLY moronic attempt to take his ship away from him, the only survivor of that attempt, and quite possibly his only realistic lead in finding out exactly how big of a mess he’d jumped into by agreeing to help the Princess of Cheles escape her own capital.
“You know she’s only pretending she’s still unconscious.”
Edward sighed as that very princess strode up behind him, glaring down at the imprisoned woman. “Yes, your highness. I was aware.”
A matching sigh came from the woman on the floor and she struggled to sit up and face her captors. “Well since we all know I’m awake, might as well have a conversation. Her I know,” the bound woman jerked her chin in the direction of the princess. “What do I call you?”
“Captain will do.”
“You’re not MY captain.”
“Your captain is dead, having gone down with his ship after one of the most monumentally stupid sneak attacks I’ve ever HEARD of, much less witnessed. You can call me captain while you’re aboard my ship, or I can have you tossed overboard so you can reunite with YOUR captain.” There was no trace of anger or threat in Edward’s voice, just a strictly matter-of-fact tone.
“Alright… captain. What do you want from me?”
“Who are you, and why were you trying to attack my ship?”
“We’re bounty hunters. Some people are willing to pay a lot of money for your royal passenger there. I mean a LOT. We were hoping we could convince you to split it with us, but one of the idiots below deck decided for some reason that we were invincible. That was NOT the captain’s order.”
“What was your captain’s name? And your ship?”
“Jakob Grints. The ship wa-”
“She’s lying.” The princess interrupted the answer with a disbelieving stare at Edward. “She’s OBVIOUSLY lying, she’s not even any good at it. Why are you listening to her?”
The middle-aged man sighed again and dropped his face into his hands, letting his fingers massage his temples in an attempt to ward off the headache he felt coming. From the floor, their prisoner threw on angry glare at the princess.
“I’m letting her lie to me, because if she THINKS I believe her, she might start to underestimate us. And then I could probably get some ACTUAL information out of her. But now that’s not going to work.”
“Definitely not, captain.” The redhead shot a victorious look at her captors. “And I am NOT a bad liar. I just wanted to see if you lot were any good at spotting a liar.”
“And that’s also a lie.” The princess waved her hand dismissively at the girl on the floor, then turned to the captain. “I apologize, captain. I haven’t been present at an interrogation before, and I thought this might be why you asked me to be here.”
“No, your highness. I just wanted to see how our prisoner reacted to seeing you here. It’s my fault as well, I should have explained the plan to you.” Edward stood from his stool and picked it up, walking over to the wall to hang the small seat on a hook. “Come on, we won’t get anything useful from her today.”
“Get me some water, before you go.” Both princess and captain looked down at the prisoner with neutral expressions, neither responding immediately. “Please.” The word sounded more like an insult than a plea from the redhead’s tone.
“I think… no. Perhaps you can have a few sips in the morning to wet your throat, for our next little game of questions and answers.” Edward and Lena turned to leave.
“You can’t do that to me!”
“I would recommend against shouting. It will only dry your throat out faster.” The captain didn’t look back as he offered his final piece of advice, though he did reach over to snag the princess’s arm to make sure she didn’t turn either.
The pair made their way out of the cargo hold together, with the captain interrupting the princess twice with shushing motions until he finally had the door closed behind them. “Sorry about that, your highness. Can’t let our prisoner overhear anything.”
“I don’t know about denying a prisoner water like that. It seems wrong.”
“Well, they do call you the Kind Princess for a reason, your highness.” Edward chuckled at the embarrassed look that made its way across Lena’s features as he spoke. “Don’t worry, we aren’t actually going to torture her or anything. One night without water won’t do any harm, but it might make her a tad more agreeable in the morning.”
“When are you planning to kill her?”
“Beg pardon?” Edward shook his head in disbelief at the words.
“We can’t just release her, and she’s already confessed to being part of an attempt on my life, even if she WAS lying while she did it. Conspiracy to murder or kidnap any member of the royal family is punishable by death. She will not be the first of my brother’s servants that I’ve had to execute, and I doubt she will be the last.”
The skyship captain continued to slowly shake his head. “You can be a hard person, your highness. It’s easy to forget that. But I’m not planning on killing the woman in my hold, unless she does something to make me.”
“Then how will we be rid of her?”
“We’ll have to make a stop at the Jiungli Archipelago on our way to Capari. It’s remote enough that she shouldn’t be able to cause us much trouble, and she’ll most likely assume that we’re headed to Suirway since that’s where most trade ships stopping at the Archipelago are headed. We’ll drop her off on our way out.”
“And you don’t think she might try to sneak back aboard the ship, or harm your crew?”
“No, your highness. We’ll be dropping her on the way out, literally. Into the water, as we’re sailing away from the islands.”
“Oh.” Lena paused for several seconds as she contemplated this. “Yes, I could see that working. Very well, I approve of this plan. You may proceed.”
Edward worked very hard to keep from rolling his eyes, or sighing again. “Thank you, your highness.”