Torture. It was torture for Kane to travel to the Black Kingdom, knowing that with every step, he came closer and closer to his death. Pyralis had managed to speak with Cian to tell him to try and save all of the rebels, but Cian already knew Kane’s stipulation. He said that they would certainly try, but the only one who was more or less guaranteed to survive was Pyralis.
Kane put on a brave face. He said that he was alright with that, that he wouldn’t have it any other way, unless all of his men could be saved, but deep inside, he was wishing that he had run when Cian offered in the woods. Immediately after these thoughts, he felt the guilt well up inside of him, but it was the truth. He was a coward. He wanted to run, run far away. He wanted to rewind time so that he was back in his workshop with Cian by his side, but that could never be. Kane chose his path. Now he would have to walk it.
The journey was long. It took three days before the forest even began to thin, and those three days were filled with something so irritating that Kane almost forgot where they were headed.
“Walk smoother,” the White Queen demanded, sitting upon her throne as four servants carried it along the trail. They looked exhausted. “You’re giving me a headache.”
Kane gritted his teeth. If his hands hadn’t been bound behind his back, he might have punched her. Cian strode up to the White Queen’s throne. “Majesty, perhaps we should stop for the night. We are nearing the Black Kingdom, but it is getting late. We still have to disguise ourselves as Black Knights and you as a common person. It would be best if we make camp here and proceed in the morning.”
The White Queen turned her nose up at the idea, but said, “Very well.”
The company came to a halt and the men began setting up a huge tent for the White Queen, complete with a mattress and blankets that they had been forced to lug along. The servants set her throne down, but she stayed on it, watching everyone else work. “What did you say my disguise would be?” she asked Cian.
“A common person. It is the best way for you to blend in and watch.”
The White Queen wrinkled her nose in disgust. “A common person? You would have me wear rags?”
“It is only for a little while, Your Majesty,” Cian said, his irritation nearly echoing in his voice. “Immediately after it is over, we can return to camp and you can change.”
She huffed. “Fine.” Turning to a servant, she snapped her fingers. “Wine.” He blinked at her. “Wine,” the White Queen repeated angrily. The servant hurried off.
Kane settled with his back to a thick tree trunk. He didn’t have a whole lot of mobility, being that he was tied to the other prisoners, but he managed to get halfway comfortable. Leaning his head back, Kane looked up at the stars. They seemed so far away, so distant. He wished he were on a star. At least then he wouldn’t have to here, waiting to die.
This would be the last time he would ever see the stars. The thought made Kane sad. Nearly everything made Kane sad. He closed his eyes and tried to tune out the sounds of people making camp, but couldn’t manage to go to sleep. He gave up trying and instead watched the men move about, serving the White Queen, hand and foot. Kane’s eyes followed Cian as he bent down to help unroll a long sheet of fabric for the White Queen to walk on.
Cian looked up just then and met his stare. There was such sadness, such pain, such guilt in his eyes that Kane had to look away. He fixed his gaze in the distance, and a single tear leaked from his eye.
“Kane,” Pyralis said quietly. He was shackled next in line to Kane, and was sitting close. “Everything is going to be alright. We’ll get you all out of this. Cian has a plan, I know it.”
“Let’s hope he does.”
Cian waited until everyone was asleep to leave his tent. Walking as quiet as he could, he moved to the sorcerer’s tent, the only one other than Cian and the White Queen to have his own. He wasn’t as strong in magic as the White Queen was, but he was useful. It was good that his power was reduced, for the White Queen would never abide having a sorcerer better than she was. She would certainly have him killed if his skill ever surpassed hers. Just like the others. There was a reason there was only one sorcerer left in the White Kingdom.
Pushing the small oil lamp through the flap of the sorcerer’s tent first, Cian came following after. He stepped inside and was forced to stoop. The sorcerer sat up, blinking and bleary eyed as Cian tried desperately to remember his name.
“Malakan,” he said in stiff greeting.
“What are you doing here?” Malakan asked irritably. “It’s the middle of the godda-”
“I’m here on behalf of the White Queen,” Cian interrupted with authority. “She requires an explosive device which can be remotely activated.”
Malakan’s thick brows lowered. “Why would she want that?”
“It is not your place to question the will of the White Queen.” Cian met Malakan’s suspicious eyes and held his gaze. “That is, unless you wish to defy her. And you know as well as I that such an act would be ill advised.”
With a grunt, Malakan looked away. “Fine. When does she want it?”
“Tomorrow at daybreak,” Cian replied.
“What?” he asked, blinking.
“Tomorrow at daybreak,” Cian repeated. “You are to give it to me. Do not tell anyone about it, and do not discuss it with the White Queen. The chance that you will be overheard is too great.”
Malakan was still stuck on the time frame. “Tomorrow. At daybreak.”
“Is that an issue?”
“That’s in about five hours,” Malakan estimated.
Cian turned, ready to head out through the flap. “Then you best get up and get to work.”
Feeling Malakan’s glare on his back, Cian stepped outside and straightened. They had one shot at this. It had better work.
Naida wasn’t ready. As night came to a close, Naida sat in Grayson’s house, watching the light streak over the horizon. It was today. It was this morning.
“I’m not ready,” she muttered to Grayson.
“You’ll be fine,” he assured her. “I must say, I think the chances of this plan succeeding are far greater than your previous plan.”
Naida drew in a deep breath. “Should my hands be shaking this badly?” She held up a hand, which was visibly vibrating.
Grayson let out half a chuckle. “Good thing you aren’t an archer. Shall we go over the plan one more time?”
“So from what you overheard, there are going to be archers on the building facing the platform, where the rebels will be lined up. What you’re going to have to do is take out all but two, the two weakest.”
“Great,” Naida muttered.
“I have faith that you can do it. You’re good with that mace, and you’ll have the element of surprise. You can probably get two or three before they can react. In addition, archers aren’t generally good at close fighting,” Grayson said, reassuring her. “You have the advantage. Then, when two are left standing, you’ll use the one as a hostage, forcing the other to pick off any guards around the rebels. That should give them time to run, and then you’ll run yourself.”
Naida nodded. “That’s the plan.”
“You realize that after this you’ll be a fugitive?”
“I’m okay with that.”
“So tell me again why I couldn’t have just set fire to the platform last night?” Naida asked despondently.
“Because if you had done that, you don’t know where they would’ve taken Kane, or how they would kill him. You’d be waiting to see what they did before you could make a move. That is never the position you want to be in. Predictability is everything.”
Naida lowered her head. “There is so much that can go wrong.”
Grayson shrugged, the familiar rattle of his chains actually calming Nadia down a bit. “All the best plans are that way.”
“And do the best plans usually work?” she asked.
“No, not usually.” Her face fell. Grayson added, “But there’s an exception to every rule.”
“Right,” Nadia muttered, just as a trumpet sounded outside. Her head snapped to the window where a crowd was beginning to gather.
They were here.
It was time.
Cian prayed to God that this would work. He felt the rough stone in his hand, and a heavier glass object weighed down his pocket. Malakan, cheekily complaining about not having anything better than rocks to use, had given him the explosive and trigger earlier that morning. Now, walking into the city in black armor, Cian hoped that it was ready to go.
Leading the way into the town square, Cian approached the roughly built wooden platform, complete with trap doors underneath dangling nooses. He raised his hand and the soldiers pulled the prisoners to a stop behind him. He turned and saw the White Queen melt into the crowd.
Stepping over to the platform, Cian made a show of inspecting its workmanship, making sure the trapdoors worked and that the nooses were properly tied. As he stepped down, he kneeled at the base with his back to the crowd, pretending to look at something on the side of the platform. Instead, he slipped one hand into his pocket and removed the glass orb.
Cian was glad for the shoddy workmanship, for between the ground and the platform, there was a gaping hole just large enough for him to slip the explosive in. Cian stood and gave a nod to the other soldiers, who marched the rebels up onto the platform.
They were one noose short, according to plan. Cian had sent a note saying that there were nine prisoners to be executed, but there were really ten. He smiled inwardly, but showed his anger as the men were lined up, one at each noose and Pyralis awkwardly by himself. Before the soldiers could force the prisoners to loop the rope around their heads, Cian burst out, “Stop!” Everyone froze. “Why are there not enough nooses?”
One of the true Black Soldiers said tremulously, “I- We were told nine, sir.”
“The order was clearly ten.”
“Give me the elf.” The man looked at Cian dumbly. Cian said again, “Cut the rope and give me the elf. I’ll watch him until these men have been hanged, and then he can take one of their places.”
“Yes, sir.” The soldier cut the rope which bound Pyralis to Kane and led him off the platform. Cian took the piece of rope like a leash and held onto it. In his other hand, he rolled the trigger rock over and over again, getting ready.
As the Black Soldier went walking back up onto the platform, right past where Cian had planted the bomb, Cian raised his hand to his lips.
“Solinare,” he whispered to the rock, just as the sorcerer had told him to.
The corner of the platform exploded.
The corner of the platform exploded. Naida cursed loudly, rushing forward. Damn it, she thought. What idiot did that? This messed up her whole plan. She had been hiding on the stairs leading to the roof, behind the row of archers. She had been ready to leap at them, to fight, to win. She had been ready to save the day.
And then some rash idiot had just gone and messed it up.
Naida leaped at the first archer in line, the one with his sight trained on Kane, but she wasn’t fast enough. Her mace smashed into his back with a sickening thud, but he had already released the arrow. It soared through the air, and Naida watched in horror. There was nothing she could do as it buried itself in Kane’s neck.
“NO!” she screamed, tears blurring her eyes. “No...no...” Vaguely, Naida was aware of the other archers suddenly realizing she was there, and drawing their weapons. All Naida could see was Kane, crumpling to the ground.
A flash of metal swung towards her arm, but she managed to block it with her mace just in time. And all of a sudden, Naida’s mind was clear. It was sharp with anger and rage.
Kane was dead. And these people were going to pay for it. Settling into a fighting stance, Naida raised her mace and shot them a challenging look. “What are you waiting for?” she asked the archers who had stepped back warily. “Let’s fight.”
Cian watched in abject horror as the bomb exploded and then nine arrows buried themselves in the rebels. Kane took one in the throat and crumpled to the ground. People were screaming. People were running. A few fights broke out. But none of that mattered. Cian dropped the rope that connected him to Pyralis and sprinted to the platform, coming to a stop next to Kane and ripping his helmet off to look down into the eyes of his brother. They were dull with pain.
Pressing his hand to Kane’s neck in attempt to stop the bleeding, Cian said unsteadily, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry. I didn’t think about them having archers, I’m so so sorry.”
Kane choked as he looked up at Cian. “It’s... okay...”
“Kane,” Cian sobbed. “Kane, don’t die on me. You can’t die, don’t die, please don’t die.”
Managing a weak smile, Kane said, “Sorry.” And then, all at once, the light faded from his eyes and he went limp. Cian took his hand away from Kane’s neck, sticky and warm with blood.
His brother’s blood was on his hands, in more ways than one. This was his fault. Cian should have known there would be archers. He should have realized. Spinning around, Cian looked up to the rooftop where they must have shot from. Standing there, a bloody mace in one hand, was a girl with a long braid and a fierce expression. She glared at him, and then disappeared over the other edge.
Pyralis came running up to Cian. “We have to go,” he said urgently, sounding on the verge of tears himself. “The White Queen is coming.”
This jarred Cian into action. He stood up, taking one last look at his brother’s body before nodding to Pyralis. “We have to get to the castle. When we take the White Queen down, we do it for Kane.”
“We do it for Kane,” Pyralis agreed.
They turned an ran, leaving Kane behind. Cian kept his eyes trained in front of him. He didn’t look back.
Every part of Nadia wanted to scream. Her heart felt so raw that it surely shouldn’t still be working, and her arms were heavy. She’d just killed or terribly injured nine people. She could still see their faces in her mind, even more clearly now that her anger had diminished somewhat. And when Naida had looked over the edge and saw that same man there, Kane’s blood on his hands, she knew. Even before he ran off with the elf, she knew.
This was his fault.
There was no rational explanation for blaming him so intensely, but Naida wasn’t being rational. Even if he hadn’t caused the explosion, he was the one who captured Kane, and he would have seen him hanged regardless. Naida hated that man with every fiber of her being.
She was on the ground when she saw him take off with the elf, so Naida sprinted after them. In a few minutes, her leg muscles were burning, but she kept pushing on, not letting them out of her sight. She would find out what they were up to if she could, but that wasn’t her main mission.
Her main mission was to kill that man as painfully as possible.