Pyralis tossed up his reigns, leaned back, and groaned. “I feel like we’ve been looking for days,” he complained.
“We have been looking for days,” Cian answered.
“Ugh,” Pyralis groaned. “Will this forest ever end?”
Cian looked at him. “You’re the only one who’s ever been at this end of the forest. You tell us.”
“Right. Uh…” he trailed off, scratching his neck sheepishly. “Nothing’s looking familiar. I mean, a forest is a forest.”
“Well put,” Cian said sarcastically.
Nyx put a hand over her mouth and giggled silently. Pyralis rolled his eyes. “Sorry. I really have no idea where we are.”
“But you know where Esmira is, right?”
Pyralis hesitated for a fraction of a second before replying confidently. “Oh, yeah, of course. As soon as we get to the edge of the forest, I can lead you right to it.” The pit in his stomach dug in deeper with the lie. Well, surely if they just walked along the edge of the forest, they’d find it eventually, right? He changed the subject. “So, anyone know any traveling songs?”
His query was met with silence.
“Right…” Pyralis said into the awkward silence.
“If you can imagine, the White Kingdom wasn’t exactly the center of song and dance,” Cian said dryly. Nyx simply shrugged helplessly. “I don’t suppose there was much singing in Esmira?”
Pyralis gave a half shrug. “Not really. I mean, we had some bards, but they just spend most of their time making up threatening songs to make kids think that beauty was the work of Satan.”
Cian looked at him strangely, a smile tugging at the corner of his lip. He thought Pyralis was joking. “You aren’t being serious?”
“Er, unfortunately, I am,” Pyralis said lightly. “And you wonder how I turned out so normal.”
“No, I can’t say that I do.”
Pyralis glared at him, but it quickly turned to a grin. He chuckled. Cian was either finally developing a sense of humor, or letting what he had show. It was nice.
“So why were they singing songs about beauty and Satan?” Cian asked curiously.
“The Guardian told me that they decided to teach everyone that beauty was cursed in order to keep people from getting curious about what was outside of the walls. No one could see over them except for the Guardian, so we all thought he was cursed as well. If some kid happened to have the urge to take a peek, they hoped he’d be scared off by the fact that he could possibly glimpse beauty and then be going to hell,” Pyralis said matter-of-factly.
Cian frowned. “That seems like a…traumatizing way of doing things.”
Pyralis shrugged. “Again, I turned out fine, didn’t I?”
Raising a brow, Cian shot him a skeptical look. Pyralis punched him on the arm, and earned a stinging hand for his trouble. Punching armor wasn’t as effective as he had hoped.
In the past three days of wandering, everyone seemed to have loosened up. While the sadness still lingered in Cian’s eyes, he seemed to have found a way to push it down, to suppress it for the majority of the time. Occasionally, it would resurface, usually when no one was around. Pyralis had woken up in the middle of the night once to find Cian staring at the fire, silent tears streaming down his cheeks. He had longed to say something comforting, but he knew it wasn’t his place. Furthermore, Pyralis knew that Cian would have wanted that to remain private.
Pyralis respected that.
Regardless, Cian seemed to be doing much better than a few days ago, and he had even taken to talking to Nyx to allay the boredom. Pyralis was glad for the change. Now there was someone to joke around with, and Pyralis had found that to be a very good way of lifting the aggravated spirits of people wandering through a forest and never seeming to reach their destination.
Cian asked, “You weren’t afraid to go outside of the walls, then? You didn’t think you would be cursed?”
“Oh, I did on some level. I didn’t really believe it, that’s why I went up to see the Guardian. That and I was bored and a little stir crazy. He told me I wouldn’t be cursed, and he let me look out beyond the walls from his balcony. It was magnificent. It was beautiful, and I knew that I couldn’t stay there, in those walls, for the rest of my life,” Pyralis said. “There was just too much to see. And after he explained everything, I knew that I’d be fine if I went outside the walls. Well, not fine, exactly - after all, I was very nearly executed - but at least not cursed.”
Looking over at him, Cian said, “That was brave of you. Going to visit the person everyone said was cursed. Looking out over the walls.”
With a shrug, Pyralis replied, “It was either brave or rash. I’ve never been good at that particular distinction.”
The Black Queen rode up and tapped Pyralis on the shoulder. He looked over at her and she mimed singing. He frowned. “You want me to sing?” Nyx nodded happily. “I’m not very good at singing. And I don’t know any good songs.”
“Sing one of the ones about beauty,” Cian encouraged. “I’m curious.”
Pyralis nodded. “Okay… I hated them all, but I guess I hated this one least,” he said. Pyralis cleared his throat, and then sang,
"Speak not of beauty,
lest the devil come for you.
See nothing of beauty,
lest your would be wretched from you.
The devil lives in pretty things,
stay far, far away.
Satan has eyes and wings,
you can’t run away.
Keep your eyes on what’s safe,
Keep your mind on what’s real.
Let beauty run its course,
but be sure to take no part."
Pyralis finished and waited for a reaction. None was immediately forthcoming. After a few seconds, Cian said, “Well, that was… something.”
“Yeah. Can you imagine having that sung to you as a lullaby?” Pyralis asked with a humorless laugh. “Sweet dreams.”
Cian merely frowned. “It ought to be fun to visit that city. I’m sure we’ll be welcomed with open arms,” he said sarcastically. “Especially her,” Cian added, nodding at Nyx.
Nyx blushed, and so did Cian, apparently surprised that he had just called her beautiful. Pyralis felt a stab of something in his chest, but he wasn’t sure what it was. He ignored it. That’s what people generally did with feelings, right?
“I hear running water,” Cian said. “Maybe there will be a place where we can stop and let the horses drink.”
“Sounds like it’s just up ahead,” Pyralis replied. He was correct. They broke through the trees into a small clearing which featured a pool at he base of a small waterfall. The others dismounted and led their horses over to the pool to drink, bending down to fill up their own canteens, but Pyralis froze at the edge of the clearing. He got off of his horse in a daze. “I know this place.”
Without exactly knowing why, Pyralis ran his hand over the bark of the tree next to him. “I know this place,” he repeated. “I stopped here on my way, just a few days after I left Esmira. That’s even less by horse. We could make it ther- Don’t!”
Cian was staring down into the pool of water as if transfixed. Pyralis sprinted over, grabbing his collar and dragging him back away from the pool. “What are you doing? There are babies in there!” Cian said, his voice laced with delight and wonder. “They’re so happy-“
“They’re deadly,” Pyralis broke in.
“No, you haven’t seen-“
“Trust me, Cian,” Pyralis said seriously. “I stopped here for a drink on my way from Esmira. They grabbed my fingers and pulled me in, very nearly drowning me. I don’t even know how I go out.”
Cian frowned. “They look harmless.”
“They’re not,” Pyralis insisted. “Come on, let’s get out of here. The horses can drink from the stream at the top of the waterfall. I know the general direction now. We might be able to get there by morning.”
Nodding dumbly, Cian stood up and got back on his horse. Nyx was already mounted and ready to go. Pyralis turned towards his own ride, when Cian stopped him. “I guess you just saved my life,” he said. “So now we’re even.”
Pyralis scoffed. “We’re hardly even. I’m not sure we’ll ever be even.”
“Don’t be foolish. It’s not a contest.”
“I know,” Pyralis said as he climbed up into the saddle. “Come on.” He led the way, his horse deftly scampering up the rocks beside the cliff. Once over the edge, Pyralis’s heart picked up speed. Esmira wasn’t very far away. He was almost home.
Now he just had to find it.
Naida had been walking forever. Or so it seemed. In reality, she had probably been walking for a day or two, possibly three. Without the sun, passage of time in the tunnel was a mystery.
The one thing which kept her going, quite literally, were the various chests stationed along the corridors. They were spaced out considerably, but apparently someone had planned for the fact that whoever was walking in the tunnel might need supplies. When she had tentatively opened the first chest and found some sort of starchy cake wrapped in cloth, Naida had nearly cried with joy. It was sweet, chewy, and filling. It went excellently with the herb tinged water in the jar within the chest. Joyfully, Naida had blessed whoever stocked these chests. They’d saved her life.
Now, having already passed five chests, Naida was beginning to wonder for just how long this corridor went on. Not only were her feet getting tired, but Naida was getting bored. Luckily, the cut on Naida’s leg seemed to be healing decently after she washed it out with some herb water and wrapped it in the cloth from the cakes. She still limped, but it wasn’t as debilitating as it had been before.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the slope of the tunnel changed. It went from flat to an incline, and Naida struggled up hill, ignoring the stabs of pain in her leg. Up ahead, she saw a set of stone stairs, and her heart picked up speed. Stairs. That meant an exit. An exit, a way out. Naida could feel the sun again on her face. She smiled and limped faster.
When she reached the stairs, a hatch was outlined clearly at the top with light leaking in its edges. Reaching up, Naida pushed on it and was nearly blinded by the brightness of the outside. It took a few seconds for her eyes to adjust, and then she reached up and gripped the edges, pulling herself out. Naida managed to sit on the edge of the hatch, then swing her legs out. She looked around.
The tunnel had led to the middle of a city, a city unlike any she had seen before. Used to the primarily black color scheme of the Black Kingdom, Naida was caught off guard by the gray houses with gray slate roofs which surrounded her. She seemed to have come out in a hidden off corner between the backs of two houses. A cobblestone pathway stretched down the road, and a few people in gray clothes walked the streets, some carrying bundles of food, others pulling wooden carts behind them. It was all so odd.
Naida closed the hatch, and the patch of grass attached to the lid fell back down, blending right in with the surrounding landscaping. Naida looked up, and for the first time noticed the walls. She wondered how she could have missed them before. They loomed above her, tall and imposing. The stone was roughly hewn, but the wall looked solid. Idly, she wondered if it was built to keep people in or out.
Standing up, Naida pressed herself close to the building beside her. It seemed that everyone was dressed in gray, and if she went walking around town in green and brown bloodstained clothes, some eyebrows were sure to be raised. Inching around the back of the house, Naida had to duck under a window to avoid being seen. She reached the other side safely, and found what she was looking for.
Snagging a tunic and pair of pants off of the clothesline, Naida found the most isolated spot she could - behind a tree - and changed quickly. The pants were too large, but after rolling the waistband a few times, they were short enough to allow her to walk comfortably. The tunic fit alright. She dropped her soiled clothes behind the tree, figuring that she could come back for them if she really needed to. Regardless, they would certainly need a wash before she would wear them again.
Naida re-braided her hair, wiped the dirt off of her face and hoped she looked semi-normal. Taking a deep breath, she stepped out into the street.
The White Queen was glad to be back on her throne again. It was comforting. Here, looking down from her usual height, she felt as if something was finally going right. Recently, that had been a hard feeling to come by. Mikhail had just entered, and was in the process of bowing. “I have brought three assassins, Your Majesty.”
“Delightful. One at a time, please,” she said, settling back.
Mikhail nodded and stepped into the hallway. When he returned, a man was with him, tall and muscular. He bowed stiffly. “Your Majesty, I beg of you the honor of killing whomever has wronged you.”
The White Queen looked him up and down. “Rise.” He stood. Nearly six feet tall, he towered over Mikhail and looked strong enough to snap him in half. “How do you generally…kill people?”
“I find them,” he said slowly, “and I snap their necks.”
“And if they fight back?”
The White Queen nodded. He definitely had the attitude down. Even so, the White Queen knew Cian. Brute force meant nothing to him, as quick and smart as he was. “And if your opponent has a weapon? How are you with a sword?”
The man grinned a gap toothed smile and patted his belt. “I’ve got my trusty dagger.”
She gave an icy smile. “Thank you, that will be all.”
His smile flickering, the man bowed and left the room. Mikhail looked at her expectantly. The White Queen frowned, “He is not right. Cian would dice him to pieces before he even made a move with that dagger. Who is next?”
Mikhail glanced towards the door nervously as a man walked in escorted by guards. He held his head high and walked with an air of nobility. The White Queen immediately disliked him. He bowed, but did so reluctantly. “Get up,” she snapped. “Who are you?”
“I am Darian Gavano the third,” he said proudly. “I come from a line of noted assassins. My grandfather was the one who killed the grea-“
“I don’t care,” the White Queen interrupted. “What have you done?”
“Many wonderful things,” he said vaguely. “All very impressive.”
His arrogance was annoying. Turning up her nose, she said, “Alright, that is all I need. Leave.”
Looking a bit confused, he left. The White Queen looked at Mikhail. “This last one had better be good, or else it is your neck on the line.”
Mikhail turned pale. “I-I assure you, M’lady, you will take a liking to the final assassin.”
“I had better.”
The door opened a final time and someone walked in, covered up in a long black robe. The hood was up, but from the bottom edge peeked the tip of a sword sheath. The figure was slender and moved with a gliding motion over the floor, sinking into a graceful kneel. “Your Majesty,” they said as they inclined their head. The person’s voice was indistinguishable as to gender; it was silky and smooth, deep but not gruff. It could have been a slightly feminine male’s voice, or a slightly masculine woman’s voice. The White Queen was intrigued. “Rise.”
They rose, keeping their eyes downcast.
“Take off your hood.”
“With all due respect, Your Majesty,” they said calmly, “I would rather it stay on. If it is all the same to you.”
The White Queen frowned. “What is your skill with a sword like?”
“I am at my best with a sword in my hand, although I have been trained heavily in hand to hand combat,” they said. “I have not yet failed a mission.”
“And you will take this job, no questions asked?”
“Not a one.”
The White Queen nodded in approval. “Very well. It is your task to hunt down and kill the refugee elf and the White Knight disguised as a Black. If they have a woman with them, take her captive if you can. If not, kill her. Mikhail will provide you with sketches and as much information on their bearing as we have.”
The figure nodded. “It is an honor.”
“Do not fail me.”
“I won’t,” they promised. “Good day, Your Majesty.”
Mikhail followed the figure into the hall to give them the information. The White Queen crossed her legs and leaned back on her throne, smiling.