With painful slowness, Naida’s muscles began to loosen and she could move again. With a gasp, she rolled forward onto her chest, her muscles shaking with the strain of being held tight for so long. Drawing in a shaky breath, Naida pushed herself up and stood, striding angrily into the room.
She was not in a good mood. “What the hell was that?” she demanded of the man whose upper torso was wrapped in chains. He sat in a chair looking at her her with a twinkle of amusement in his eyes. “Were you trying to kill me?”
“Not you specifically, no,” Grayson replied. “And to answer your first question, that was my home security.”
Naida blinked at him. “I could’ve died.”
“You’re the one who came in.”
“That’s because you didn’t answer the door.”
Grayson heaved his shoulders in a shrug that took some effort. “I couldn’t very well do that, could I?” Naida glanced at the chains which pinned his arms uselessly to his sides.
“You opened this door,” Naida pointed out, jerking a thumb over her shoulder.
“No, you did. By touching it, see.” Grayson looked proud of himself and Naida scowled. “It is impressive that you survived, though. The whole point of those measures was that so if someone had been sent to kill me, they would be at least incapacitated, if not dead. Defending myself has become a bit of a chore, I’ll admit.” He nodded towards another chair. “Please, have a seat.”
Talk about paranoia. Naida looked at him warily, but sat down. “Why don’t you just go to the blacksmith’s and have those chains cut off?”
Grayson let out a subdued laugh. “If it were that easy, I would’ve done it already, wouldn’t I? No, these are my burden, and I must bear them. I’ll survive. Now tell me, why are you here?”
She hesitated. “I’m not entirely sure.”
“You risked your life on a whim?”
Naida glared at him. “I didn’t know I was risking my life until I had already done it.”
He tilted his head. “Fair enough. How did you find me?”
“My boyfriend Kane. He said that if anything ever happened to him and I was in danger, I should come here.”
Grayson sat forward in his chair, his brow furrowed in interest or concern, Naida wasn’t sure which. “And has something happened to him?”
“He was captured by the Black Queen’s men,” Naida said, her throat tight. She forced down the tears.
Temporarily silent, Grayson looked legitimately saddened. “I’m sorry to hear that. I liked him.” He frowned. “Are you in danger now?”
“Not yet,” Naida said vaguely.
He looked at her warily. “What do you mean by that?”
“I’m planning on getting him back.”
Grayson stared at her. “That’s suicide.”
“Maybe. But when I go down, you can bet I’ll be taking down with me as many of the bastards who took Kane as I can.”
“That is a noble but stupid plan,” he said. “And what did you come to me for? For help?”
“If you’re willing,” Naida replied.
“And if I’m not?” Grayson asked.
She considered him. “Then I’ll walk away and find someone else to help me.”
Silence fell as Grayson thought about it. His chains rattled as he shifted in his seat. “Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll teach you, train you as best I can, but I won’t go with you. I’m not quite as young and reckless as I used to be.”
Naida tried to force down her skepticism. How would he be able to train her while he was wrapped in chains? She swallowed her misgivings and answered gratefully, “Thank you.”
“In return you’ll have to do something for me.”
Naida cocked her head and asked, “What?”
Grayson gave an easy smile. “Well, two things actually. Firstly, I’ll need you to bring me food every few days. I have money, but I don’t leave the house. Kane used to do it for me, but now...” His face fell.
“I can do that,” Naida said quickly.
“Good. And the second thing you have to do,” he said, peering at her, “is make it out alive.”
Naida scowled. “I’ll obviously try my best.”
Grayson shook his head. “I know that look in your eye. I had it once, and look where it landed me,” he said, gesturing to his chains. “You’ll try, but if the opportunity presents itself for you to do something reckless but satisfying, you’ll take it. I’m asking you not to do that. Not only because I don’t want to waste my time training a walking dead woman, but also because you’d regret it, if you had time. You’re of much more use to Kane alive, so you best stay that way. Got it?”
Naida almost protested, but she saw his point. Staying alive didn’t seem like the worst promise to make. “Fine.”
“Good.” Grayson nodded to a jar across the table. “Take a few coins out of there and come back in the morning with food. We’ll start training then.”
Naida did as he asked, then pulled the door open and looked out into the hall. The rug was back, covering up the hole in the floor. Naida was sure it had fallen with her, but it looked undisturbed. “How did the rug get back?”
Grayson grinned. “Magic.”
“Isn’t there another way out of here?” she asked.
“No. Go on.”
With a frown, Naida stepped into the hall, walking forward slowly, testing the floor before she put her weight on it. When it gave beneath her toe, she knew she had found the edge of the hole. Naida took a few steps back, and then leaped over the hole with a running start. As she landed on the other side, she stumbled for a few feet, trying frantically to catch her balance before she reached the slits in the walls. Not fast enough, Naida went barreling past them, and felt them slice the air behind her. She let out a breath and pressed a hand against the wall, panting. That was just blind luck. If she had been any better at slowing down, she would’ve been in two pieces just now.
Naida could hear the blood pounding through her veins as she caught her breath. She was still alive, she reminded herself. This was definitely going to get old fast. Recovered, Naida headed for the door. She wasn’t sure whether she was looking forward to returning the next day.
Cian knelt in front of the throne. “Your Majesty.”
The White Queen smiled. “Rise, Cian, my faithful. This is the rebel band? And their leader, too? You continue to deliver. Magnificent.” She clapped her hands as a child might. “Who’s the leader here?”
Kane stepped forward. He was the only one with his head raised proudly. Silently, Cian willed him to bow, but he didn’t. “I am.”
The White Queen descended from her throne, sweeping towards Kane. Even when she stepped up to him, he stared straight ahead, unmoving. “You...You’re young. Very young. Why did they make you the leader?” She put a hand under his chin. “What makes you so special?”
Kane clenched his jaw, but didn’t answer.
The White Queen spread her arms, her long sleeves drooping to the floor. “Well? Are you not going to bow before your Queen?”
“You’re not my Queen,” Kane said flatly.
The White Queen smiled. “But I am rescuing the Black Kingdom from the hateful tyranny of the Black Queen. Do I not deserve your loyalty?”
Kane didn’t reply.
Trailing a finger across Kane’s jaw, the Queen turned and took a few steps away before looking back. “Unfortunately, rebels can never be trusted. How could I take your promise of loyalty, knowing that you tricked the Black Queen and betrayed her?”
“There was no promise of loyalty.”
The White Queen ignored him, continuing unperturbed. “No, I suppose I’ll have to kill you.” All of the rebels stiffened. The White Queen spun to face them again, her hands clasped. “It’s a shame really,” she told Kane. “You would have been a fun one to break,” she said slowly, ending the last word with a sharp click.
Kane stared at her, hatred in his eyes. Cian watched in abject horror. Everything about Kane suddenly screamed I told you so, and he had. He had predicted that the White Queen wasn’t as nice as she seemed, but Cian had ignored him, dismissed him. He didn’t want to admit it. And look where that had ended them. The guilt welled up inside Cian, threatening to consume him.
“As it is, killing you is far less messy. What do you say, tomorrow?” the White Queen asked, glancing at Cian.
Cian saw his chance. “With all due respect, Majesty, I think we should wait.”
She frowned. “And why is that?”
“If we execute,” a chill ran up Cian’s spine at the word, “them tomorrow, then the whole affair can be swept away, dismissed without impact. Instead, I recommend we let word out to the Black Kingdom that their beloved rebel group has been captured, but keep it under the Black Queen’s name. We’ll let the fear spread, let them lose hope.” Cian hated to continue, but he had to make it believable, something that the White Queen would expect to come from him. “Then, after perhaps two weeks, ‘The Black Queen’ will execute the rebels and all of the festering hate for her will come to a climax. They’ll be without their saviors, and will begin to despair. At that time, we sweep in and continue our plan, with public favor on our side.”
The White Queen considered it for a moment. “Very well. Maybe we can even make the execution public in the Black Kingdom,” she said with relish. “Fine. We will go with your plan, Cian, I trust you. Guards, take them to the dungeons. Cian, go with them and then report back to me.”
Cian bowed and led the way out of the throne room. He didn’t meet Kane’s eyes. He couldn’t. Cian swept right past the guards, the people sitting in the hall and everyone else he passed without notice. His mind was elsewhere. The whole group marched down to the dungeons in silence, but Cian could feel the glares boring their way into his back. They all blamed him, and rightfully so. This group wasn’t the first he had led to their deaths, but it was the first he felt guilty about. Cian wondered if that made him a bad person. Probably.
The rebels were deposited one by one in the cells, taking up almost an entire row. Cian offered to lock Kane up himself, and the guards gladly let him. They had their hands full with the other eight men, who were struggling quite a bit despite their shackles. Cian walked Kane away from the others, to the next to last cell in the row. He took his time with the chain.
“I’m sorry,” Cian whispered. “I’ll get you out of this. If we take you to the Black Kingdom, all it’ll take will be for a little distraction and you can escape.”
Kane looked pale, but resolved. “I told you, if my men die, I die. Do you plan to save all of us?”
Cian didn’t say anything. He pulled open the door to the cell. “I’ll talk to the White Queen. Maybe I can get her to spare all of you.”
Kane raised a brow and stepped in the cell. “Are you still glad to be serving her?” he asked snidely.
Cian frowned. The guards were working their way down the row, and were almost in earshot. “We’ll talk later,” he whispered hurriedly. “I’ll be down.”
As the guard walked over, he clicked the lock into place. “Any trouble?” the guard asked.
“Nothing I can’t handle,” Cian replied. Kane shot him a look. “Are they all secure?” he asked, nodding to the row of prisoners.
“Good,” Cian replied. He headed for the entrance just as another group of two guards and one prisoner passed. It was an elf, which was unusual. He looked young, maybe a year or two younger than Cian, and had sandy blonde hair. He also looked scared, which was to be expected. Cian stepped into the shadows so that they could pass.
When they had gone by, Cian trotted up the stairs and returned to the throne room. He knocked and was admitted immediately. The White Queen wasn’t in as good of a humor as he had left her.
“Is something wrong, Your Majesty?” Cian asked as he entered.
“Yes. There’s a spy. Look at that paper,” she ordered, pointing to a crumpled up ball on the floor. Cian stooped down and picked it up, smoothing it out as he stood. It was a drawing of his face. He blinked.
“What is the meaning of this?”
“Flip it over,” she ordered.
He did, and found a picture of a strikingly familiar woman. “Why is the Black Queen-”
“Exactly,” the White Queen said, her voice strained. “It might make sense that he came to spy on you to learn about me, but why have the Black Queen’s picture? What’s worse is what she is wearing. Look closely.”
Cian looked back down at the picture and noticed the choker necklace that was drawn around her neck. For a moment, he forgot to breathe. He looked up at the White Queen’s grim face.
“Someone must have seen her. She was supposed to have been entirely isolated, but the fact that she is wearing that necklace in that picture means that someone has had contact with her since we took over. The spy didn’t give any answers, but we can force him to,” the White Queen said. She tapped her long nails on the arm of the throne with rhythmic clicks. “He seemed pretty scared when he left here. Give him a day or two, let him panic. Then I want you to go interrogate him.”
Cian inclined his head. “In what way?” he asked, wondering whether she meant interrogate or torture.
The White Queen’s mouth pressed into a hard line. “In any way necessary.”