The Grey Room

Poltan forces are invading Malizan allies and declaring war against the most powerful country in the world. Yet as they start to suffer, the pressure on Maliz is straining in their fight for freedom and Justice.

At sixteen, Ida dreams of fighting and escaping from her life of royalty and expectation. When her brother leaves with his wondrous discovery left at the palace, she jumps at the chance to prove herself. So begins the journey that will change her and show Ida the truths that will reveal her heritage as she experiences things beyond her imagination: Sirens, Phoenix's and the thief of her heart

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5. chapter 5

I lay awake on my bed, staring at the greyed ceiling above it. I had all my clothes on except for my jumper and coat which lay at the end of the duvet alongside my bags. Fresh, cold night air trickled my bear arms and exposed cheeks. It stung my nose as I inhaled. Apprehension had taken over my body and I slowly regained control trying to slow my beating heart.

This was the day I had planned and fretted about the past forty eight hours and all I could do was run through all the things that could go wrong while I waited for Ram.

My ears were tuned for the slightest disturbance but what heard was the soft murmuring of the city falling asleep.  I embraced the normality of the sound in an effort to stay calm and wait. It held me captivated and still; how those many people didn’t suspect their princess to be about to run off.  It made me wonder about how much I didn’t know about the people who surrounded my castle, about what they’ve done or what they think of me.

An odd sensation tickled along my spine. Soft footsteps echoed from the end of my corridor. It must be Ram, I thought. Swiftly I got up and threw on my outdoor clothes and grabbed the two bags.  After a moment’s hesitation, I stuffed the letter from my pillow into my pocket as well.

Ram burst into my room. Sweat, from running, lined his pale face and his hair stuck to his forehead.

“Here.” He held out a glass bottle, note and a syringe. Inside the bottle was a strange purple liquid that seemed to shimmer. I blinked. “It’s the stuff from Bleddyn. I told Finn to take him down with the horses.”

“Okay.” I paused before I took the things from Ram’s hand. “I’ll meet you there within the hour.”

“Don’t be late.” He held my gaze, sincerity lined his deep voice. Then he turned and fled down the corridor. I went the other way.

I passed through the darkened corridors and wasn’t noticed by the night patrols. I slipped past them with ease, knowing when and where they should have been. I saw few familiar faces, but didn’t allow myself to linger on what that meant.

When I came upon the metal door, I froze. Memories from that night flashed through my brain. Guilt flooded me from seeing my brother’s vulnerability that he had hidden so well over the last few years.

Reaching into my back pocket, I extracted a lock pick and knelt by the door’s lock.  My Father had taught me many tricks, but none he regretted more than teaching me to open doors. I would run from the top of the castle and open every door to the bottom and time myself. The people behind these doors didn’t much care for me after the fifth time and they tried to ban me from doing it. I found another target soon enough.

Within a matter of heartbeats, the door had swung open to reveal the stairway. I put back the lock pick and heaved the bags back onto my shoulder. I stood there for a moment, listening for the sounds of a guard.

Unable to hear anything, I started to make my descent to Cináed. I took the first half of the steps quickly, determined not to waste time, but slowed as I hit the finale few.

I heard a cough and froze.  Feeling for my knife, I got ready to pounce by taking in deep breathes to slow my heart and concentrating on the dancing shadow of a man drinking.

From this angle, he looked too tall to be Treasach and too slender to be Hallel, another guard I saw enter the door. I noted his absence of a sword and took my chance as he went for a swing from his bottle.

Pouncing was never my style, but I managed to knock him out without trouble. He fell on top of me, and I lay there for a second, stunned at my own ability. The bottle had smashed next to me, red liquid oozing around the shattered glass. He had been drinking on the job, a soldier of Maliz. I shook my head and gazed at his features. Dark blond hair waved of his scalp and reached his broad shoulders that didn’t quite fit with the rest of his body. The starting of a beard surrounded his thin mouth and straight nose. I didn’t recognise him, but put his face to memory so I could tell Pilet of his drinking.

Realising I had wasted time, I shoved the man off me and reached for his keys. Racing over to the door, I plunged the first key into the key hole. It didn’t fit. I tried another. And another. I looked down at the mass of keys hanging of the large metal loop. I closed my eyes and leaned against the door. It was hopeless, my lock picks wouldn’t work on the lock, it was too complicated. By the time I found the key it would be too late. In that moment, I thought of Ram, how he hardly even question my lunacy, and I thought of Pilet who laughed in my face. A tear streaked down my cheek as I realised he was right, I was an idiot, I knew nothing of the world and the people I was meant to help govern.  I didn’t feel like a princess, I didn’t have the walk of wealth like my brother, or the wisdom of my father.

Opening my eyes to get up of the cold floor, I saw something glisten. I took a step forwards, my feelings of guilt vanished as I searched the desk. I knew it was stupid, it could be anything, a necklace, a ring. But hope gripped my brain as I looked for that glimmer. I started to get frantic as time ticked and I still hadn’t found anything. Faces flashed through my mind again and tears streaked down my face as I carried on, determined.

Then I found it. A diamond with five points, like a star. It held me captivated for a second before I picked it up and turned towards the cell. It was the same shape as the mould in the door. Past all logic, I put the diamond into the slot and held my breath. It fit perfectly. A light shone through the clear crystal and, for a second, I was blinded before I stumbled into the prison.

I looked up to see Cináed staring at me, impassively. I met his cold eyes for a second but had to tear away from his gaze. It scared me, the way he had no emotion. How different he was to a human was flabbergasting and hardly noticeable if you weren’t looking. A shudder reverberated inside of me as I strode towards him.

“I’m here to make a deal with you.” I stated. My mouth was in a straight line and I hoped I was giving him my best no-nonsense look.

He nodded. I carried on. “If you help me find the man who knows where the Phoenix’s are, I will give you your freedom.”

He simple looked at me, his face glacial.

“I don’t have a long time, you know. An answer sooner rather than later would be appreciated.” Sarcasm lined my words as I started to get fidgety.

            A smirk appeared on his beautiful, fine lips and I found myself over whelmed with his perfection. It was another thing that scared me about him; he had no faults on his image. No blemishes or things that could be changed, it was unnatural and I found myself repelled by it.

            “Fine” His light, even voice answered. He said nothing more, but held out his arm. He knew what I was about to do. Taking his arm, I rolled up his sleeve and took out my syringe that I had filled with the purple liquid. Gawking down at his arm, I gasped. His veins were coloured Gold, yellow and scarlet. They twisted and pulsed the full length of his forearm, looking more like fire coursed his body than blood.

            I quickly stabbed the syringe into him arm and injected the toxin into his red vein. I looked at his face which simply watched me, his expression never changing.

            When all the liquid was used up, I took some of his blood, as the small note that Ram handed me had said. Once the syringe was half full of the dark red substance, I moved it so it hovered above my arm. I paused for a second before slamming it into me. Gritting my teeth as the pain exploded in my arm. But my composer didn’t last as I injected the blood. 

            Fire tore at my arm, confusing me in pain. As the blood ran along my vein, it felt as if it was burning me inside out, scorching the delicate skin that protected me from the outside.

            Falling against the wall, I clutched my arm, watching it pulse though watered eyes. Rasped breathes escaped alongside moans of torcher an till I crashed to the floor and curled in a tight ball.

            A few seconds later, the agony was over. I lay still, breathing in and out, the memory of the pain still fresh in my mind. I squeezed my eyes shut and started to stand. Legs wobbly, I nearly crumbled down again. I made it, though and opened my eyes to stare at Cináed for a moment.

            “Ready?” He asked. Still dazed, I nodded and walked out the cell and towards the bags. I heard him behind me and signed in relief as I embraced my arm.

            About to exit the castle, I froze, suddenly aware of the silence that surrounded me. Whipping behind me I saw him stand there, soundless, as if the world moved round him. I stalled there, time ticking as I saw the night float by Cináed’s body as if there was a gap, a whole in the fabric of the universe. My palms started to sweat. Even the biting iciness of the wind failed to freeze the heat rushing through my being.

            I staggered as rain started to pelt from the sky, hammering down on to earth, threatening to wash us away. I felt it soak into my bones, drench my hair and splinter my skin. I collapsed as I noticed the rain divert from him, leaving him untouched from the wrath of the gods. Mud squelched into my clothes, leaving me the wounded, the broken, the defeated on the earth.

            Cináed came to over to me, he stood and watched the rain trickle down my skin. For a while, he said nothing, all I could sense was his magnificent eyes piercing me.

            Finally, he spoke. “Let me go, Ida.” Spoken softly, his words were carried by the wind into my ears. No. They were the wind.

            I clenched my eyes shut, and groped the grass underneath my hands. Then I pushed myself up, defiant, resolute.

            “We made a deal.” My voice shook a little, the over-whelming feeling that had overcome my senses still gripped to the edges of my body.

            He nodded and followed as I strode away and had the fright of my life.

 “Your Highness!” Screamed Acacia. Her dress soaked and hair tangled around her pretty face. “The-the Phoenix.” Her eyes were huge, staring in terror at the figure behind me. Then she turned to run. I quickly grabbed her.

            “Where do you work?” I demanded.

            “W-What?” She stammered, confusion lit her shaking head.

“Where do you work in the castle? What position?” I asked in even tones as a plan formed in my mind.

            “I, I’m the physician’s assistant.”

I smiled. “That’s what I thought. We’re going to need you. I’m sorry I have to take you off like this, you’ll be perfectly safe.” She went motionless.

            “What?” She squeaked.

            “That’s a direct order. I’ll get you some supplies, sure Ram can wait a little longer.” I started to run to the stables, dragging Acacia behind me.  The poor girl was half dragged along the grass as I rushed.

            “Ram!” I shouted as we neared the stables. “Come.” He came sprinting out into the rain. “Take Acacia and Cináed. I need to get her some stuff.”

            “What is she doing here? What took you so long?”

            “I’ll explain later.” I shouted over my shoulder, nearly at the castles door. I sped up to my room through the servants passages, then to the physicians where I knew all sorts of medications and herbs were stored. I grabbed pain killers and disinfectants and stuffed them on top of the clothes and other things I’d put in the bag. After A few other things, I went back to the stables, the rain was down to a drizzle.

            “You need to start learning to stick to a plan, Rat.” Ram scolded me from on top of a horse, as I walked into the royal barns. Cináed, Acacia and Finn were also astride elegant creatures that snorted and whined at the rain. Grinning at Finn I leaped onto Swallow, my pure white Harrio that flickered in contrast to the night. I’d had her since I was five, my first ever pony.

            “How long till the changing of the guards?” I asked Ram, fiddling with the straps.

            He started to lead the horses out, a paniked look crossing his face. “Five minuets.”

            “Well we better hurry, Heya!” I shouted and raced towards the gates with the others pounding behind me, trying to keep up. The wind flew through my hair, my bones, my soul and I felt alive like a Goddess of air.

            I slowed as I neared the exit. It loomed ahead, cantankerous and malevolent, daring us to defy the word of Maliz, of our King. I gulped as the others trotted up to me.

            “Ready?” Finn whispered at my side. His cheeky smile glinting at me with mischief.

            “When was I ever not?” Returning his grin, I urged Swallow forwards. “Do we just go through?”

            Ram answered me. “Yes. Laya and Greth are up there. They’re going to join us as we pass.”

            We carried on, quickly passing through till we came to the bridge. Waiting there, we heard the muffled clip clop as the final two people joined our party.

            “You took your bloody time.” Hissed Laya. The others simply stared at me with their eye brows raised. “I should have guessed.” She mumbled.

            Greth Fidgeted as he approached, his eyes crunched in concern. Everyone ignored him as we crossed over and started to gallop into night, heading East towards The city of Wassil.

            Wassil was well known for its silks that had the texture of clouds and colours so deep they were hardly imaginable. We had many of these fabrics dotted all over the palace, from the guests rooms to the high court, one of the numerous spenders that Maliz was blessed with.  However, it was said to be a very private place. Maybe private wasn’t the right word. But not many people travelled to and from Wassil, except for the traders who told stories of the place.

            I was sure many were exaggerated, enhanced to scare and intrigue costumers, but how many? It was the most lawless place in the country, no soldiers came from there, no servants, workmen.  It was a mystery I felt myself anticipate to unravel.

            There was this one story of a girl that I’d heard when I was ten. She was said to be no more than a baby really, a toddler whose hair already cascaded in loops down her little back. She was the daughter of a young man with tanned skin and hair the colour of ebony.

            He was said to have walked into the forest without any food, any water or anything and lived like an animal for four months.  No one heard a word, a sound from him all the while. His family was constantly at worry if he was dead and they found themselves slowly beginning to believe it was so. Except for his sister, who knew in her heart he was safe because they were twins with a connection unheard of.

            As the sun started to set, sending beams and twisted images along the fields of the country, she was proven right. The man came strolling out of the forest, carrying in his arms this toddler, hardly young enough to be his. But that’s what the city thought. The people, the crowd. Their uneducated brains made an excuse, saying the child was half phoenix, a curse to all.

They hunted them down. Shouting bloody murder, they stormed into the house of the man and his family, craving the blood of this small girl. Burning the house to the ground and slaughtering any who came screeching out, they ended with five bodies. Two were missing, the sister’s and the girls.

 

 

* * *    

            I groaned and nearly fell off Swallow as we stopped for the first time in twenty four hours. We still had days to go, but a rest was well needed among my knackered companions. My heart went out to Acacia, who had blisters and soars all over her body and could hardly move as we clambered to feed the horses and set about the camp.

My mind wondered to consider what it wanted more, food or sleep? My stomach grumbled and my mouth watered as I collapsed onto the floor, refusing to get up as Ram numbly kicked me.

“Get your royal arse off the mud or I’ll be dragging it through it.” He threatened me, hardly balanced on his feet himself.

“No. I’m the princess. Get me food.” Speaking into the grass, I teased him, not even bothering to turn my face to meet his.

Ram signed and I closed my eyes, drifting off to sleep as a huge weight flumped onto my back. I screeched and tried to hit him off me.

“Get off you oaf, you’ll break my back!” He ignored me and started to hum as he leaned backwards. I whined and acquiesced. “Alright, alright. I’ll get up, just get off me.” 

Jumping up, he pulled me with him and dragged me over to the campfire where the first tendrils of cooking swirled into my nose. The others were already there as Greth threw ingredients into a metal pot. He still seemed full of energy and I narrowed my eyes in envy.

Cináed lounged by himself, stretched against a tree with his eyes half shut, half watching us. Opposite him, Laya and Finn joked half heartedly as they tried to include the shaking Acacia who huddled in a corner, staring longingly at the food.

“Why did you bring her?” Ram finally asked as the food was brought round. I didn’t say anything for a moment as I gobbled down every last drop of the soap.

“She knows some medicine. And she saw us.” I ripped my bread and mopped up any rich drops I might have left.  Ram Looked at me and I stopped. “What?”

“It was unfair.”

“We need her.”

“She’s younger than you and she’s petrified.” He raised his arms to empathise his point. Ram’s good heart hardened mine.

“I brought her. She will learn to grow and this is the end of the conversation.” I stood up, brushing crumbs from my dirty clothes.

“Eed...” Ram started, a hint of an apology lurked into his deep voice. Walking away from him, I dropped my bowl by the rest, and went to crouch by Acacia.

Blond hair was nearly brown with muck and streaked across her pale face. She winced in pain as she moved her legs, making me soar with regret, but I instantly clenched it as I met with her innocent, fearsome blue eyes.

“We need to wash and sleep.” I begun, but she shrank away from me and I gave up with my false smile. “Right. Acacia, don’t pretend to me that you are weak or a shivering mess who can’t look after herself. My father trusted you once, he kept your secret and kept you safe. There must have been a reason so you look me in the eye. Look me in the eye.” I snapped. But it did the trick. “You will obey me and be part of this mission, I just hope we can do it without the sulking and then it will be ten times easier. I know you’re in pain and so am I. Now get up and come with me to the river and bring some clothes and a towel that I have packed for you.”

I stood up and strode to the river, picking up my bag on the way. Thoughts of how differently I treated to how Ram would, crept into my conscience but I squelched it. I was the heir to the throne.

“Laya,” I said before disappearing into the trees with Acacia. “We’re going to wash, are you coming?”

She turned away from Finn and came to join us with spare clothes slung over her broad shoulders. Mumbling something about sleep, we headed out into the greenery, aware of the boys staring holes into our backs. I didn’t turn. I could feel Ram’s frown as If it was my own and it hurt, deep down somewhere, I felt it hurt.

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