The White Queen’s fury was something to behold. Few had seen it pure and untamed, but more were about to. She clenched her fists and looked around for Cian, having lost sight of him after the bomb went off. Not finding him, she strode up to Mikhail, Cian’s second in command.
“What the devil is going on?” she demanded.
Mikhail looked distracted. He waved a hand. “I’m sorry, ma’m, I don’t have time to explain. Rest assured that we’re taking care of it, just go home. Don’t panic,” he said, looking over her shoulder and waving another soldier over.
The White Queen fumed. “Excuse me-”
“Please, ma’m, we’re very busy.” Mikhail went to step away, but she grabbed his arm, letting her nails dig into the fabric on the inside of his elbow.
“Mikhail! You do not speak to your queen that way,” she snapped, voice dripping with anger.
Mikhail turned paler than a ghost. “Oh my, I-I’m so so sorry, Your Majesty. I didn’t recognize-”
“Yes, these god forsaken commoner’s clothes,” the White Queen spat. “Tell me what is going on and I will overlook your error. Though you should always know when your queen is speaking to you.”
“Yes, Your Majesty. I agree, Your Majesty. You’re most merciful, YourMajesty,” Mikhail stammered.
“What is going on?”
“Oh, yes. Someone had planted a bomb on the corner of the stage. When it was detonated, the archers stationed on the rooftops shot the prisoners before they could run. It was all taken care of.”
“And the elf? Where is the elf?” The White Queen demanded.
“He was with Sir Cian,” Mikhail replied.
“Where is the elf now?” she snapped in frustration.
“I don’t know. I assumed Sir Cian could handle him-”
The White Queen demanded, “Find him. Find them both.”
“Yes, Majesty,” Mikhail said, hurrying off. The White Queen stepped up onto the good side of the platform, standing amongst the dead bodies, and looked out at her soldiers, trying to control the people panicking and running around. The Black Kingdom. These commoners, these plebeians. The White Queen hated them, but they were so valuable to her.They were incredibly valuable. In just a few short weeks, her plan would come to fruition and the Black Kingdom would be hers.
It would be bliss.
The Black Kingdom would do the work, the White Queen and her kingdom would reap the benefits. The White people would love her for lessening their workload, and the Black people would love her for liberating them from the cruel reign of their tyrant. Their taxes were so high now that the exorbitant amount for which the White Queen would ask would seem a great relief.
The White Queen would be loved everywhere. Then, slowly, she would tighten her grip on both kingdoms. After it was far too late for the people to do anything about it, she would become the leader she always dreamed of being. Cruel, ruthless and strong. She would show them who was in control, she would have an army ready to serve her, willing to bow at her feet. She would be so powerful. Draw them in with honey, then shut the trap. And then, once everyone was devoted to her, they could move on to explore other places, take other kingdoms for their own.
It would be magnificent.
“Your Majesty,” Mikhail said, interrupting her thoughts. His eyes still held a healthy dose of apprehension. Good. “I spoke with some of the guards, and one saw Sir Cian and the elf running off after the explosion. They ran to the castle, where two guards were killed at the door. It seems they went to visit Czar Salvatore.”
The White Queen’s delicate brows knitted. “What for?”
Sweat broke out on Mikhail’s forehead. “He...he gave them the keys to the Black Queen’s room.”
The White Queen froze, standing as still and pale as a statue of marble. “Say that again.” Her voice was like ice.
Mikhail hesitated. “He gave them the keys to the Black Queen’s room.”
She took a deep breath, a dangerous calm stealing over her visage. “And I take it her room is now empty?”
“Well,” the White Queen said slowly, “First, you are to have Salvatore executed.”
“Yes, My Lady,” Mikhail said, bowing his head.
“And second, I want you to find me the three best assassins between either kingdom. Bring them to me when we return to the White Kingdom and I will choose which of them gets the honor of either capturing or killing our three refugees,” the White Queen said with a sneer. She looked around at the carnage on the platform. “And for God’s sake, clean up this mess.”
Naida was not doing well. She had followed the stream of soldiers into the woods, watching from behind the trees, but she realized how poorly thought out her plan was. She had no food, no supplies, only a bloody mace and dirty clothes. Naida watched the soldiers return to camp, but there were too many around for her to try to nip in and grab anything.
In addition, she was tired. Naida was so tired. Every muscle of her body screamed with fatigue, and all she wanted to do was to curl up and go to sleep. She was hungry, and her head still hurt. Allowing herself just a brief moment of rest, Naida sank down onto the dirt, hidden effectively from the camp by large ferns. She leaned back on her palms and looked around for berries or something to eat when she spotted something.
There were three sets of horse tracks leading from the camp deeper into the forest. They were hidden by ferns for the most part, but from her low vantage point, Naida could see them clearly. The elf and the knight, and...who else?
It didn’t matter. These had to be their tracks, Naida thought. Maybe it was just wishful thinking, but it was the only lead she had. She had to find them, to catch up before they got too far away. And for that, she would need a horse.
It seemed Naida would have to brave stealing from the soldiers after all. Luckily, the horses were tied up at the edge of the camp. Forcing her tired muscles to move, Naida slipped around the outskirts of the camp to the post at which five horses were tied. She waited until the nearest soldiers seemed occupied before slowly, quietly sliding a saddle across the ground towards her. No one noticed it disappear into the bushes.
Hoping that the saddlebags were already packed, Naida grabbed a long stick and used that to catch the leather loop of the strap on a set of saddle bags. She slid it closer, and it caught on a rock, falling over and producing a could of dust. One of the soldiers looked over and Naida’s breath caught. His eyes glanced right over it, and she relaxed, pulling it the rest of the way into the bush.
Picking both the saddle and bags up, Naida walked deeper into the forest, keeping low. When she came to a small clearing, she left her supplies there and went back. Reaching up through a bush, Naida ignored the sharp sticks scratching at her arms. With deft hands, she undid the knot on the nearest horse’s tether and let the rope fall loosely into her hand. A soldier walked by and she froze.
After he passed, Naida gently tugged at the rope, leading the horse through the bushes. She was certain someone would hear it clomping through the brush, but no one paid any heed. Someone had just arrived with some sort of important news, and everyone was clustered around him. Naida wondered if it had to do with the escape of the elf and the knight. As the horse cleared the bushes and moved out of sight of the camp, Naida stood up, leading it through the forest and to the clearing. She saddled it there, and peeked inside the saddlebags. All they held were a knife, a small pouch of dried meat and a hunk of moldy cheese. Well, it was better than being empty.
“Easy, easy,” Naida whispered as the horse whinnied and stomped its foot. She mounted it and pointed it in the direction to which the tracks led. “Come on, boy. Let’s catch them once and for all.”
She kicked the horse in the side with her heel, and it galloped off into the forest.
The Black Queen was quiet, which wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, but so was Cian, and the silence was getting to Pyralis. He understood that Cian was mourning and that the Black Queen couldn’t talk at all, but he loved to talk. That was part of the reason he and Kane had gotten on so well; they were chatty. After going only five days by himself in the woods, Pyralis decided he didn’t want to go through such conversation withdrawal again. But now that he had people to talk to, they didn’t want to talk to him. Go figure.
“Hey, Cian,” Pyralis said, riding up next to him. “How are you doing?”
Pyralis frowned. “Are you sure?”
“Well, if you ever want to talk-”
“I won’t,” Cian replied flatly.
Pyralis’s frown deepened. Well then. “Okay.” He spurred his horse forward, coming up beside the Black Queen. “Hi.”
She nodded to him.
“How are you?”
A smile. For the first time, Pyralis really got a good look at the Black Queen. She had washed off in a river earlier that morning, so her face was clean and fresh, and her hair fell in pretty black curls. She was underfed, thin, but seemed pretty strong. Perhaps she had kept in shape during all of that time in her room.
“Are you glad to be out?” he asked.
Dark eyes widening dramatically, she gave an enthusiastic nod.
“Is it alright if I just ask you some yes or no questions? I’m bored,” Pyralis said sheepishly. The Black Queen smiled in return, so he took that as a yes.
“So...You’re an elf, right?”
“Me too,” Pyralis said unnecessarily. The Black Queen laughed silently. “Um...Do you have elf magic too?”
The Black Queen hesitated, then shrugged. Pyralis frowned. “Was that a yes or no?” She simply shrugged again. “Okay....If you don’t mind me trying to figure that out?” With a slight smile, she shook her head. “Did you once have magic?” She nodded. “But you don’t now?” She shook her head.
Pyralis paused. “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. And... your voice? Were you once able to talk?”
She nodded. Touching a thin finger to her lip, the Black Queen then pressed her palms together like Cian had the day before, shaking her head sadly. “Uh... You mean they’re connected.”
Eyebrows raised, she nodded. “So when you lost one, you lost the other,” Pyralis confirmed. Another nod. “Black Quee- Er, should I call you that? Or, you know...Your Majesty?”
Wrinkling her nose, the Black Queen shook her head. Pyralis cracked a smile. He liked her, even if she didn’t talk. She seemed to have a bit of a sense of humor. “Do you have a name? I mean, I’m sure you do, but do you have a name you wouldn’t mind me calling you?” Pyralis asked, rambling a bit. “That is, if it’s not disrespectful to call you by a first name. I don’t min-”
She held up a hand to stop him, looking amused, then nodded once. Pyralis grinned. “What is it?” The Black Queen looked at him helplessly. “Right. Okay, we’ll make this like a game.” It was something to pass the time at least.
“So how many letters is it?” Pyralis asked.
She held up three fingers.
“Three letters. Okay... Does it start with an A?” he asked.
She shook her head. Raising a finger, she drew what looked to be a backwards N in the air. Then, Pyralis realized that it would seem backwards to him, but was really an N. “N,” he said. She nodded happily, drawing a Y next and then an X. “Nyx,” Pyralis said when she had finished. “Nyx. I like it. Like the night.”
Nyx nodded and gave a slight smile.
“So it’s alright if I call you that?”
She nodded again.
Pyralis grinned. “I’m Pyralis Wycliff, if you didn’t know.”
With a straight face, Nyx offered her hand, as if they were strangers just meeting. Pyralis took it and shook it. She pulled away with a smile that he returned. Nyx might look a little intimidating in that tattered black dress, leather corset and daggers in her sash, but she was actually pretty nice, Pyralis thought. Even so, he wouldn’t want to mess with her when that long stick was off of her back. He got the feeling she was wicked with it.
“So do you know where we’re going?” Pyralis asked.
Nyx shook her head, then tilted it and pointed at Pyralis’s chest inquisitively.
“You think I know where I’m going?” he asked with a light laugh. “No, not really. I just wandered around until I got to the White Kingdom. I have a vague idea from the view of the lake and the castle from Esmira, so I think we’re going in the right direction. I can’t really be sure.”
Then, a thought fell like lead in Pyralis’s mind.
“Any last words of advice before I go?”
“Mark where you leave. Mark the beginning of the trail you take,” the Guardian replied.
Pyralis had forgotten what the Guardian had told him. He had gotten so caught up in the wonder of going beyond the walls, the desire to run off and explore the forest that he had forgotten to mark his path. His stomach twisted. If only he knew what the point of marking the path was, maybe they could work around it. But what would happen it was enchanted somehow and they could only return from the way they came? Or something similar and just as terrible?
Suddenly, Pyralis didn’t feel much like talking any more. Here Cian had done his part well, and Pyralis had failed. He had failed them all. Glancing back at Cian, Pyralis’s heart twisted again. He wasn’t sure why, but the thought of failing Cian was the most terrifying thing in the world. If they couldn’t get back to Esmira because of a stupid mistake on Pyralis’s part, then Kane would have died for nothing.
And Cian would never forgive Pyralis.