“Kaj?” Aleana peered through the doorway into the prince’s bedchamber, finding him lying on his bed, arms folded behind his head, looking up at the ceiling.
“Hello, Allie,” Kaja said without looking at her.
“Are you all right?” she asked him quietly, standing at the foot of the bed.
“Me?” Kaja seemed surprised at the question. “Of course.”
“What are you doing?”
“Looking at the carvings,” the feline pointed upwards to the engravings where the wall met the ceiling. “Do you know, if you follow them around, they tell the story of my great-great-great… uh… well, I think its eight greats… grandfather, Ethan Irontooth? See, it begins there,” he indicated a corner. “There was a war at that time, too. We seem to have been in a lot…” he paused for a moment, then continued. “Anyway, it starts with him leading his troops to victory over the Northland Icedwellers… a costly victory, and one that took four bloody years to ensure. Or at least they thought it was ensured at the time, we’ve never really put an end to it as you know, but he settled them for fifty years or so, so I guess it was something of a victory after all.
“Perhaps the most important thing is that during that time, there was little communication between the armies in the north, and the palace. Rumours abounded. More than once, Ethan was reported dead, only for the next month to bring tidings that he and his best knights had evaded death or capture, and instead come upon the enemy from behind their own ranks, ensuring victory for our soldiers in the chaos that followed.
“Meanwhile at home,” Kaja moved his finger to point at the corner of the room. “He was being betrayed. Lord and Senator Grellori Driftwood accused Ethan’s wife, Elenia, of treason, and had her imprisoned. In Ethan’s absence, as senior member of the senate, and especially as many felt Ethan may not return, he was able to assume power. By all accounts, not an enjoyable time for the people,” Kaja indicated the next wall, where a crowd of engraved people seemed to be rioting outside a palace.
“When Ethan returned to find Grellori in the seat of power, and his wife imprisoned, he had Grellori executed within hours, against the merciful protests of his queen. It was strange though – even as the senator was lead to the guillotine, he continued to swear that he had not betrayed the king, that he had assumed control only because of a greater threat to Ethan’s rule.
“Later that same night, Ethan’s wife revealed to him the truth. She confessed that she had betrayed him, that during his absence she had kept the company of one of the knights who had been left to guard the city. Against another man, adultery would still have been a crime punishable by jail sentence, but against the king… indeed it is treason, punishable by death, as she admitted, and as Grellori had claimed. Although saddened, Ethan forgave Elenia, for he loved her dearly, and could not face bringing her to trial. It was a secret that has never left our family, and perhaps to our shame, it is Grellori that our history books still show as being in the wrong.
“Of course, he was, in many ways. His rule was harsh, his methods of law enforcement swift, and frequently unfair, but… the fault is perhaps not entirely his. I do not know what my eight-greats grandmother would have wished for. Whether she felt that had she remained faithful to Ethan, Grellori would never have shall we say, fallen from grace, or whether she believed he deserved his punishment for the crimes he had committed once he rose to power… Perhaps it doesn’t matter. It was long ago, after all.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Aleana asked softly, sitting on the edge of the bed.
Kaja shrugged. “Interesting story, I guess,” he half chuckled. “At least I think so. You know, they say the patterns of history tend to repeat themselves. Perhaps disloyalty and treason simply run in my family… I wonder if history will look as kindly upon me as it did upon Elenia.”
Aleana frowned. “You have committed to wrong, no act of treason.”
“Are you sure?” Kaja looked at her. “We have one hundred and seventeen members in our senate. That scroll was put on display to them, beside three other examples of father's writing and signature, and one hundred and six of them judged it genuine. Even though they may not be experts, that's a huge majority! Can I be so sure that I am not in the wrong? Have I the right to be that arrogant?”
“Do you believe you are wrong? That you are being arrogant?”
The leonin sighed. “I don’t know,” he said simply. “Those orders have a degree of sense to them, taken with a view of the kingdom as a whole. They do ensure security for Lordenor…”
“Not to mention loss of freedom, and a police state,” Aleana added. “Would father have considered that a fair trade for security?”
Kaja thought for a few seconds. “I don’t think so,” he said at last. “But who am I to judge?” He turned over onto his side, facing away from her.
“You are his son!” Aleana exclaimed, staring at the back of his head. “You are in line to the throne, and it is to you the people should look in father’s absence!”
“I am also the one who is regularly not chosen as father’s advisor at matters of state,” the leonin sighed. “To my shame, it is only simple biology that left me as regent in father's absence, and perhaps kindness on his part that he did not issue orders to the contrary. Too long have I ignored the politics of our kingdom. I've had my fun and played my games when I should have been attentive to the kingdom. Do you know, I even had a castle built once, when you were just a baby?”
Aleana shook her head. “I did not...”
“Good,” Kaja said, sounding slightly sulky. “I wanted that to be my little secret. Hid it in a one line item on the budget papers. Guess nobody ever reads those things. Don't think even Tier knows it's there... Wonder if it's still manned. It must be over a decade since I left orders to keep a garrison there on the quiet... Oh I expect to get such a beating if Brig Riv finds out.”
Not knowing what to say, Aleana just shook her head again, looking quite baffled.
“I'm sorry,” Kaja sighed. “I never expected this, I thought I would have years before I needed to shoulder responsibility. I can only hope that I'm the only one who will suffer the consequences of that...”
Aleana closed her eyes, unwilling to admit that she had been thinking much the same.
“What is past, is past,” she told him quietly. “You cannot change what you have done, only what you will do.”
“Which won’t be much, if those guards stay where they are,” Kaja nodded at the doorway to his chambers, on the other side of which were two armed soldiers.
“They let me in…” Aleana said hesitantly.
“They won’t let me out,” Kaja stated. “I tried. They declared that they are under orders to answer only to Tier,” he growled.
Aleana’s eyes narrowed. “That's ridiculous! Can they do that?” she demanded, standing and turning towards the door.
“Where are you going?” Kaja intercepted her, rising with feline speed.
“To see Tiernach. This is ridiculous. I have certainly seen you two fight before, but putting you under guard is intolerable! I do not know what he was thinking with those orders, he has clearly lost perspective. I shall talk to him, and perhaps we can reach a compromise.”
“You will do nothing of the sort!” Kaja exclaimed. “Allie, maybe you haven’t noticed, but he accused me of treason! This is not sibling rivalry here, this is serious, this is…” he broke off.
“This is what?” Aleana prompted.
“This is…” the leonin sat on the edge of the bed, frowning. “This is… this is a bid for the throne,” he said quietly.
“How so?” Kaja challenged. “In one day he's gathered support from the majority of the nobles, put the military under their command, declared martial law, and removed me as an obstruction. Is it coincidence that this happens within days of father sailing for the Freelands?”
“I…” Aleana paused, thinking. She didn’t want to admit it, but Kaja had a point. “Why?” she asked. “Why would he do that? His first love has always been to study, he's not possessive, he doesn't so much as have any ornaments in his chambers, or private serving staff! Where is the need for land, or riches? Where is the lust for power? Or...” she thought for a moment. “Where is the lust for power over people, anyway?” she amended, looking slightly uncomfortable.
Kaja shook his head. “Well he sure had some today. I should have guessed sooner, you know. It was that look he gave me when he wanted me to let him read out the new rules...”
“The one he used to get when we were boys. The one that says 'Hey Kaja, let's swap clothes and fool the servants we're each other!'”
Aleana couldn't help smiling. “I had no idea you did that.”
“Oh yes, quite a few times. Always seemed like fun for the first couple of hours...”
“And then...?” Aleana winced, suspecting there was a sting in the tail.
“Somehow I always ended up getting swished for something he'd done earlier in the day.” Hanging his head, Kaja laughed bitterly. “Always his scapegoat...”
“Tier, how long is this going to go on?”
The princely feline looked up, eyes widening for just a moment, briefly showing his surprise to find anyone else in the garden this late at night. Usually he would have the grounds to himself during the night watch. It was the one small window of peace he could find each day.
“How long is what going to go on?” he asked, straightening the front of his traditional red tunic before leaning once more upon the railing of the gazebo. His bright gaze fell across the fountain, the moonlight glittering on the water as it ran down the stone. That this conversation had been inevitable made it no more welcome to him.
“Between you and Kaj!” the young woman exclaimed, unable to hide her annoyance.
“What would you have me do?” he asked quietly. “He has stated that he will go against father’s orders at every opportunity. You know that I cannot allow that. And nor should you.”
“I would have you compromise!” Aleana exclaimed, standing beside him and looking up at his face, finding him looking unexpectedly drawn and tired. Some of the belligerence left her as he looked down into her eyes. “This is getting ridiculous, Tier,” she told him. “You’ve kept him locked up for three days! That's not right.”
“I cannot compromise, Allie,” Tiernach explained. There was no anger in his voice, just a heavy weariness, the tone of one acting through duty rather than volition. “I must obey the orders that were left to me.”
“So when someone argues you have to keep them out of the way?” Aleana frowned.
“Nobody will harm Kaja,” the leonin sighed, looking up at the moon overhead, his expression sad. “He's my brother, how could I allow that? But I cannot allow him to go free if he is intent on disrupting affairs of state that have already been laid out by our father. I can only hope that in time he comes to his senses and we can once again work together for the good of the kingdom.”
“But are you really that sure that what you are doing is right?”
“Yes!” Tiernach spoke with surprising passion as he turned to face her, his hands gripping her shoulders. “Yes, I am, Allie. I promise you, the greater good is being served. Even if it seems harsh now, it will be right in the end.” Taking a deep breath, he held her in his gaze for a moment before realising his feline claws were pricking into her coat. He turned away to lean on the railing again, head bowed. “It will be right in the end. I swear it.”
Aleana sat down in one of the wooden chairs in the gazebo, looking at the leonin’s broad back. He seemed so sincere, she realised. For a moment, she wondered if Kaja had been wrong in his judgement that Tiernach was making a bid for power. What was it that was driving Tiernach so?
She looked out over the darkened gardens, the edges of bushes and hedges picked out by the light of distant lanterns, and sighed softly. Whether or not Tiernach was acting out of genuine concern for the kingdom, she could not agree with his actions, Aleana decided. The taxes and forced labour were too high a price to pay for supposed security. Genuine belief in his actions or not, Tiernach was just plain wrong.
The problem of course, was the the majority of the senators appeared to be on his side.
“I will talk with Kaj,” she said quietly, standing and placing her hand upon the feline's thick upper arm. “If he will agree to it, would you be willing to at least review the orders? Perhaps they are necessary, but perhaps there are adjustments that might be made to make them more acceptable to him. You will have a better chance of implementing them if you work together. Right now, many of the nobles are hesitant and uncertain. Presenting a united front will do much to assuage their concerns.”
Tiernach looked at her over his shoulder.
“Very well,” he said softly. “But understand that I cannot compromise the security of the state. All I can do is attempt to explain the necessity of the measures that must be taken. I might be able to change the method, but not the required effect.”
“I understand,” Aleana nodded. She rose, and made her way quietly back to the palace through the moonlit gardens.
Tiernach watched her retreat thoughtfully. He had to admit she had a point that reaching a satisfactory compromise with Kaja would unite the nobles more effectively than anything he could do alone, and... he would very much like to be on good terms with his brother again. He realised that he was gripping the wooden railing hard enough to leave claw marks, and forced himself to let go.
The orders from the First had barely been justifiable, but if he could have Kaja’s support, then his chances of implementing them were good. If he could not persuade Kaja... then there was little choice but to keep him locked up on charges of treason. At least that would keep him out of harm’s way – and it did seem probable that there would be incidents of significant violence in the future. Maybe later, when his plan was complete, when he had the knowledge that the Brotherhood offered... maybe Kaja would understand then.
As the streets of Seabreeze city went, Aleana thought, this one seemed particularly pleasant. Running along the river-front, and with it's northward end brushing the palace grounds, the houses were all well maintained. Mostly single storey affairs, many had roof beams that projected several feet out over the road, from the ends of which hung numerous lanterns that kept the whole street lit in a cheerful warm glow.
“Evening, ma'am,” a cheery faced lutrani touched the rim of his hat as he passed.
“Good evening,” she echoed, rather pleased he hadn't recognised her in the shadows of her hood. “Oh, excuse me?”
“Do you happen to know where Brigadier Riverthorn lives?”
“Certainly,” the lutrani's rounded face broke into a smile. “Fine gentleman that brigadier, only last weekend helped me clear a rotten old ash tree out of my yard before the next storm dropped it onto my roof. Lives just yonder, northernmost riverside house,” he pointed along the road.
“Thank you,” Aleana returned the smile, feeling rather grateful that streets near the river collected a predominantly lutrani population. Many viewed them, on the whole, as rather too chatty and boisterous, but it was also very hard to find one of their kin who wasn't helpful and well meaning. When in doubt for who to ask for help, find a lutrani. That it had been Brigadier Calinan Riverthorn who said this made it no less valid a point.
“Welcome, ma'am,” her helper touched his hat again. “Good night to you.”
Of course, Aleana thought a minute or so later, the brigadier was something of an exception to that whole chatty and boisterous thing. If anything, he looked outright terrified to find her on his doorstep. Given the way he leaned out and glanced along the road, she wasn't sure whether he was more worried that she was there, or that she was there alone.
“Don't blame the gate guard, I refused the escort,” she said, and he blinked at her a few times. It was odd, Aleana thought, to encounter him out of uniform, just a simple linen tunic and trousers, and sandals that displayed his furry toes.
“I see,” he nodded. “You didn't have to come out this far, your Highness. If you needed me you had only to...” Aleana cut him off with a shake of her head that made the tassels around the edge of her hood dance.
“I did not want to talk in the palace. May I come in?”
“Of course, Princess,” the lutrani stepped back to allow her entrance, closing the door behind her as she lowered the hood of her cloak.
Aleana looked around curiously, realising that this was the first time she had visited the brigadier's personal dwelling. The house appeared to be much like its owner – tidy and disciplined, with no unnecessary decorations. The front door had led her directly into the main sitting room, which was cosy and clean, lit by several lanterns of the brass and glass design favoured by lutrani for their ability to withstand all manner of weather and waves.
To her left, a fire and a doorway, both of which seemed to lead through to the only bedroom. One comfortable looking armchair faced the fire, while a second gazed out through an open double doorway in the far wall. The doors were flanked on either side by large round windows, the glass set in a brass web of concentric circles. To Aleana's right, beside another porthole-like window that looked northwards towards the palace grounds sat a set of shelves with several books, one plate, one bowl, and one cup. A table sat under the window, its bright red cloth somehow drawing attention to the bare, but polished, floorboards underfoot.
“You have a beautiful home,” Aleana smiled, privately wondering how come a brigadier's pay wouldn't stretch to something a little larger. Still, it was clean, refined, and cosy. A pleasant place to return to at the end of the day, she thought. Somewhere beyond the twin doors at the far side of the room, she could hear the rush and gurgle of the river on its way down into the city. Walking over, she poked her head out into a neat wooden porch that dropped it's vertical struts down into the water. “Oh!” she exclaimed, the lamplight from within the house revealing the shape of a modest size riverboat.
Stepping out onto the porch decking, she estimated the craft to be about fifteen paces in length, its deck currently a little below the level of her feet.
“Tide’s out,” the lutrani explained, appearing at her shoulder. “She’ll bob back up again by morning.” He held up a lantern to illuminate the vessel. The hull displayed smooth, clean lines, the caulking on an almost flush with the thickly varnished wood. Aleana realised that only the rear end of the boat had a cabin – the front was simply missing a large portion of the deck, and had a number of large wooden beams projecting upwards from the hole.
“Are you building this, Brigadier?” she asked.
“With a little help,” the lutrani gave a whiskery smile. “My people know all there is to know about boat building, but to find the best timber, strong, flexible, and durable, to cut it perfectly such that it won’t splinter or break under strain, that’s when you need to find a sciurel craftsman – which is why most of the shipwrights in Seabreeze are a partnership operation. I had the hull made in a dry dock, and they towed it up here for me.”
“But you did all the rest?” Aleana was rather impressed by the unexpected hobby.
“I did,” he nodded.
“I had no idea you were so talented.”
Clearing his throat, the brigadier looked rather embarrassed. “She’s nothing special, really. Just something for my later years. Maybe take my niece on a fishing trip some time.”
“Quite the contrary!” Aleana told him, admiring the green paintwork on the aft cabin. “I think this is a wonderful vessel. Would it be all right if I attend her launch day?”
“Highness, I would be most honoured if on that day, you would launch her yourself,” the lutrani bowed graciously. “But... something tells me you aren’t here to discuss my hobbies.”
Aleana sighed. “No, I need to talk to you. About the senate meeting.”
“Ah,” the lutrani nodded, briefly rubbing his rounded muzzle and wincing slightly. “Would you like to sit down?” he asked, gesturing towards the firelit armchair behind them, and she nodded and followed him inside. “By tradition, my people should offer their guests a barley ale or cherry wine,” he said, looking slightly awkward. “But I think your father would probably have my head if I do so. May I offer you some camomile and apple tea instead?”
Aleana giggled. “Of course you may, and yes please, I would love some,” she nodded, finding her gaze drawn to an embossed shield above the fireplace. Edged and inlaid in gold, the patterning was intricate and beautiful, seeming quite abstract yet somehow giving an impression of intertwined leaves and flowers. The lutrani noticed her gaze as he donned a thick leather glove and lifted the kettle off its place above the fire.
“It belonged to my father,” he said quietly. “And my grandfather before him.”
“This is the royal crest,” Aleana said, reaching up and brushing her fingers over the very centre of the design.
“It is. The shield was given to my great grandfather for his services to the king, Arnhelm Irontooth.” The lutrani set the kettle down upon a small table beside armchair, pouring it into an earthenware teapot.
“The assassination attempt?” Aleana looked up as the brigadier reached onto a high shelf, retrieving two cups that looked like they hadn’t been disturbed for a while. He nodded.
“Then this was hardly sufficient repayment…” Aleana breathed, looking back to the glittering shield. “The family history says that Arnhelm’s rescuer barely survived.”
“My great grandfather’s duty was to protect the king. He would have done so, even were the cost his life, as would I,” he said simply. “Repayment is not required.”
Aleana smiled. “Well I feel like you deserve a medal, even though you were not injured. I am glad that at least some of those around the palace are so loyal.” She sat down in the armchair near the fire as the brigadier dragged the other over from the far side of the room.
“You are concerned about the loyalty of someone with access to the palace?”
“Aren’t you?” Aleana asked.
The brigadier looked thoughtful. “There have always been, and will always be I fear, those among the nobles who would turn against your family, for the right price.”
Aleana frowned. “You know what I mean,” she said, not even putting a hint of a question into her voice.
The lutrani looked uncomfortable, and didn’t meet her gaze.
“Brigadier...” she sighed, her eyes downcast. “I really think we have a problem. And given the circumstances, I feel I must ask where your loyalty lies.”
The sturdy lutrani drew himself up straight, looking quite offended. “My loyalty is to the king, unto death or honourable discharge from his service, as my oath states. I do not take such things lightly, Princess, as you well know.”
“No,” Aleana nodded. “But I suspect you are feeling... a little conflicted. I can understand that. Whether you would side with Tier or Kaj, either way your duty is fulfilled – and either way, you are acting against the house of Irontooth.”
Bowing his head, the lutrani let out a heavy breath, but said nothing.
“And since your primary loyalty is to the king, you need to make a decision about whether the orders left by him are fake, or valid. I won't hold it against you either way,” Aleana said gently. “But I would dearly like to know what you think.”
Lifting the teapot in both hands, the lutrani looked at it, as if trying to see through the glazed pottery and divine information from the chamomile flowers within. “It would not have been typical of his Majesty to issue such orders. They... do not display his usual moral values.”
“Thank you, Brigadier. May I ask what you are going to do about that belief?”
Instead of answering immediately, he poured the tea, the warm, sweet odour filling the room. “What do you want me to do?” he asked at length. “And perhaps equally, what does Prince Kaja want me to do?” he asked, handing Aleana one of the cups and sitting in the vacant armchair, and she suddenly realised the reason for the large indent in the cushions at the back of the seat – it made a perfect recess for someone with a stout tail to curl it around and out over the arm of the chair. She was more used to human and leonin furniture design, her own people obviously lacking any such appendage, and the feline race being somewhat more supple and flexible in that department.
“Are you quite sure in your choice?” she asked gently. “I am sorry that it places you in a difficult position.”
“My duty has always been to protect the king and his family. I cannot believe those orders originated with him, a point on which both yourself and Prince Kaja evidently agree. Under the circumstances, my task is to protect and obey those members of your family who challenge their authenticity. If that means working against Prince Tiernach, it is only because duty compels me to do so until such time as he, you, and Prince Kaja can reconcile the matter between you. Even your father would never question a soldier for carrying out his duty. At least, should I be wrong, I certainly hope he will see it that way.”
Aleana sighed softly, a feeling of relief filling her, every bit as warming as the tea.
“You are a true gentleman and officer, Brigadier,” she smiled. “Thank you.”
The lutrani nodded gravely.
It was a clear autumn night on which the two carriages converged on the dark and windy little road on the northern rim of the palace grounds. To either side, the rough woodland that was allowed to grow untamed along that border loomed dark and forbidding in the moonlight, the last of the season's foliage intertwining around and above, blotting out all light from the nearby city. Beneath the wooden wheels of the wagons and the sturdy hooves of the harnessed horses, fallen leaves crunched and rustled. With only a few farmhouses further northward, there were few more isolated places that still classed as being within the city.
At the urging of their drivers, the harnessed horses brought their burdens to a halt a short distance from side road speared off to the south, a narrow little lane, just barely visible in the shadowy moonlight. One by one, the passengers and drivers disembarked, forming a rough assembly at the side of the road. Aleana exited last, refusing the brigadier's hand, instead hopping down unassisted. It was a statement – a hint to not suggest for the seventh time that she stay out of the action tonight.
For a moment, the brigadier was tempted to try anyway, but he knew there wasn't really time to argue, or rather, there wasn't time to argue further. They had already had what the lutrani would have classed as a strong debate on exactly what they were about to do. Put bluntly, it seemed stupid, and since he found himself in a position of responsibility to keep Aleana safe, he had said so. Unfortunately, she was the princess, and he was just an officer in the royal army. Duty demanded he accept the order, when order it became, and he had done so.
It was fortunate that Lord Oakroot, the outspoken vulpani senator, had taken the leap of faith required to drop a note over the back of Aleana's seat as he left the chamber. A note that contained the address of the inn at which he could be found. A high class, but out of the way affair tucked away behind the cathedral. From the lord's second floor rooms, he and Aleana had quietly worked together to establish a list of those noblemen and senators whose loyalty to the king ran deepest – and who could tell the difference between his words, and the lies that were being spread in his name. Perhaps one day, history would record that inn as the place where a coup was averted. Or perhaps it would record it as where the great conspiracy of Lordenor had started. Hopefully today, all it would record was Lord Oakroot's signature as he checked out.
Dressed in muted earthen tones, carrying well concealed weapons, that list of people was now assembled on the road, and the brigadier turned to face them.
Leftmost stood Kennin Oakroot, son of the senator, a gentle lad in his early twenties, but the brigadier could see a spark of his sire's bravery in the young vulpani's eyes, and indeed he had immediately volunteered to serve in his father's stead. Not that his father had failed to step up for duty, but he was ageing and walked with a limp, where Kennin was young and able bodied. It had seemed wiser to allow the older vulpani to proceed ahead of them to make such arrangements as might be necessary to keep the presence of those who were to follow him a secret. If things went well and they didn't all end up in the palace's prison cells, that was.
At Kennin's side, Lord Brook Reedwake, a lutrani slightly too young to be comfortable with his title, tossed a pebble with one hand, hefting a sturdy looking leather sling with the other. “Don't worry, milady,” he smiled. “We know what we're doing. We'll get the job done right. Are we ready?” he asked, looking around, but hesitated as an older, stronger hand landed on his shoulder. The hand was owned by the older, wiser, Lord Finton Ashwell, a lupari carrying only a walking cane – although the brigadier knew from experience that appearances were deceptive. Lord Ashwell was neither lame nor infirm, and with a twist and press to the handle, he could very quickly be wielding something a lot more threatening than a wooden walking stick.
“Easy, youngster,” the lupari said quietly. “Don't be so hasty. Let's not rush in and blow the whole operation, eh?”
“Take your cues from Lord Ashwell, lad,” the brigadier nodded. “And try not to act on impulse. I can see you're keen, but keen can make for stupid, and stupid makes for one more wooden cross by the roadside. Understand me?”
Brook flushed under the brigadier's gaze, and mumbled something inaudible as he studied the dark road underfoot.
“We understand, Brigadier,” Kennin spoke on his behalf. “You can count on us.”
“Good lads,” the lutrani nodded, glancing at the next member of the party, one Brachus 'Irons' Sedge, senator and army colonel, and possibly the toughest old leonin that the brigadier had ever served with. Scarred from many a battle, sporting a red bandanna that covered the stump of one ear and his blind eye, he was nonetheless tall and imposing. It was rumoured that he may have had some distant kinship to the royal bloodline, but it was a matter he neither mentioned nor took advantage of. Irons Sedge was a leonin who got where he was going his own way – and the brigadier suspected that would have been all the way to general by now, had injuries not forced his early retirement. Still, he was a good man to have along. He could be trusted to keep Aleana safe, even if it cost him his life.
“All right,” the brigadier nodded. “You know the plan, you know your jobs. Go to it.”
The horses in the palace stables were well accustomed to a peaceful, safe night – something Aleana definitely suspected was working in her favour as she and Colonel Sedge carefully sneaked through the small entrance at the rear.
“Will they be all right?” she whispered quietly.
'Irons' Sedge smiled toothily in the moonlight, his feline eyes flashing. “They'll be fine. No horse will willingly stay in a burning building. They'll be down the end of the paddock long before they're in danger.”
That was probably fair, Aleana thought. The stables were left open that the animals might choose where to spend the night, and many of them were out on the grass.
“Worst case, plenty on the table tomorrow night,” the leonin added, and Aleana grimaced. Sometimes she forgot that their feline race tended to look to a rather broader selection of meats than most other races. Somehow she always found it wrong to consider eating an animal with which one might form a friendship.
Irons was evidently not troubled by such thoughts, the veteran soldier instead swiftly locating several large bales of hay. Proving that age had in no way diminished his leonin strength, he heaved them into a pile at the back of the building. Aleana noticed he had however chosen a spot furthest from any of the horses, and where none of them would be caught between the fire they were about to set, and a safe exit.
Pulling a small vial from his tunic, Irons sprinkled its oily contents onto the hay. Then they waited for the sound of the palace bell.
Watching from the shadows at the side of the road, the brigadier and Kennin crouched silently in the gloom. At the far end of the road they could make out the glow of a brazier, around which clustered half a dozen soldiers. They had of course been posted the same day Kaja had been imprisoned in the palace. Tiernach wasn't sloppy.
Of course, neither was the brigadier. Expecting something similar, he had already tried to make a 'routine inspection' the previous day, and had been turned away. Very politely, very gently, but turned away nonetheless. Special orders from above. As a soldier himself, the lutrani knew better than to push the matter. It would be a point of pride for these men to stand up to him. In fact, circumstances being otherwise, he would have reprimanded them had they not done so. Just one reason he was very unwilling to get into a fight with them.
One more reason being that they were a group of twelve trained soldiers, while the brigadier had a princess, a middle aged lord, two fresh faced young gentlemen and a retired old colonel with an eye patch and one good ear.
So, something special was in order, and that should be coming... about now, he nodded to himself as the great bell in the palace tower rang once in its velvet-hushed night time voice. He glanced at Kennin who had evidently also heard the bell, and smiled. Placing his hand on the vulpani's shoulder, he began to count slowly.
The consternation amongst the soldiers was visible, even at a distance and in the dark. The huge bronze bell was now ringing loud and continuously, no longer a gentle reminder to change the watch but an alarm, an appeal for attention and help. Which was predictable, given that the palace stables and store houses were now on fire. The brigadier could envision the confusion now reigning in front of the palace, as the officer of the watch tried to decide where to send soldiers. With two equidistant fires in opposite directions, would he attempt to two form lines of men to pass buckets from the well, or would he have to sacrifice one of the buildings the save the other?
He didn't envy that officer. Most likely the night would end with at least one set of smouldering ruins.
And there went the guards, as to be expected when the emergency alarm bell was ringing. They hurried on past where the brigadier and Kennin crouched in the shadows without sparing a thought for anything other than making good time to the palace.
Excellent. Giving them half a minute to be out of earshot, the brigadier stood up and made his way along the narrow roadway.
“How'd you know they'd all go?” Kennin asked breathlessly, trotting alongside.
“Standard protocol. We maintain that the watch is kept on the mausoleum to honour the deceased members of the house of Irontooth. Only the royal family and the commander of the guard know its real purpose – meaning that anyone posted here wasn't going to feel any great pressure to stay should an emergency occur. Figured nobody would have bothered to explain to the rank and file just why there were a dozen of them posted.”
“Right...” Kennin nodded.
“Also we got lucky,” the brigadier admitted. “Rather expected there to be a couple of them left.”
The vulpani winced, but the brigadier simply chuckled. “Worry not, lad. I can take any three of our young pups in a fair fight. Dear me, doesn't stop 'em trying in training though, no matter how many black eyes I dish out. Brave crew our lot, good sturdy stock the whole bunch. Right then,” he continued, striding up the stone steps to the heavy oak doors of the mausoleum. On either side, tall columns of marble cast deep shadows in the moonlight and the flickering glow of the guards' brazier. Pulling a large keyring off his sturdy leather belt, the brigadier located a solid looking iron key and fitted it into a lock that had been shaped to look like some strange creature was sticking its tongue out.
Kennin jumped as the doors swung inwards with a deep, resonant creak of hinges, a wash of lantern light spilling outwards, glinting off the three pikes levelled at them. Evidently Tiernach was that smart, then, the brigadier realised. An unfortunate matter on which to have underestimated him
“Major Ridgeway,” the lutrani nodded his acknowledgement of the large leonin directly in front of him. “Lieutenant Beechbough, Lieutenant Willowden,” he added, glancing at the sciurel and lupari to either side.
“Good evening, sir,” the tall feline said, quite calmly, but not lowering the point of his weapon, his large hands quite steady on the shaft. “Looks like a rather bad night out, don't it?”
“Exactly why I'm here, Major.”
“Really, sir?” Ridgeway raised on heavy looking eyebrow. “Alarm bell ringing like that and you pay the royal graveyard a visit?”
“I'm sorry, sir,” the sciurel lieutenant Beechbough said quietly as the brigadier remained silent, raising one hand to push back the shining steel helmet that seemed just slightly too large for her russet furred head. “We were given orders to watch out for something like this.”
“I see. Who by?”
“That crazy new general, one that got sponsored by Prince Tiernach,” the lupari said, an expression of apology on her face.
“Keep a civil tongue, that's a superior officer you're discussing!” the leonin snapped, and she subsided. “Willowden's right though, sir,” the big feline addressed the brigadier again. “Orders direct from the general: any intruder to be detained for questioning. Including any member of the palace guard, army, or navy. I have to obey them, sir.”
“Yes, I imagine so, Major,” the brigadier nodded slowly, running his mailed knuckles along one side of his blunt muzzle, scratching his whiskery fur. “Not that it seems right, does it?”
Now the leonin looked uncomfortable.
“Come on, you've read the news scrolls by now,” the armoured lutrani pressed, relaxing his posture. “You know what's occurred in the senate.”
Ridgeway nodded. “Treason, sir. Betrayal of the king.”
“Betrayal of the king,” the brigadier repeated. “A king much loved by his people for fairness and generosity. A king who has never issued an oppressive order or set an unreasonable tax in his life. A king who, as the scrolls are shouting, has just done both – a few days after he left the city.”
Behind the leonin, Kennin could see the sciurel and lupari looking at each other uncertainly, then turning their gaze to their major, waiting for his reaction.
“Bore the king's signature and seal, sir, everyone knows it.” Ridgeway stated. “Can't argue with that. Whether his majesty chooses to issue orders in person or by proxy ain't for me to question, and my orders stand. I'd ask you to take a seat just over there, please. And you young 'un,” he gestured with his pike point at Kennin.
“How long will you keep obeying those orders, Major?” the brigadier asked calmly as he turned and made his way outside, halting on the fourth step down to look up over his shoulder. “Do you know what's next?”
“Not my place to ask, sir.”
“They were talking labour camps in the senate as I recall. Round the clock in the mines, pretty sure that was mentioned. Heavy taxes. Increased policing – by the military. Martial law. Abolishing the justice courts. Do you really think that's an order in keeping with the king's normal rule?”
“We're at war, sir. Special circumstances.”
Kennin noticed the other two soldiers were hanging back again, looking at each other with expressions of worry. It occurred to him that perhaps the brigadier wasn't actually talking to the leonin major at all...
“A war which King Irontooth has been handling adeptly, and which has continued for some time already. Are you really telling me you don't find the timing suspicious?”
“Even if I do, sir,” Ridgeway rumbled. “I can't change orders, I can't change the chain of command, and I can't change the evidence. Orders signed and sealed by the king, delivered by Prince Tiernach, protested by Prince Kaja. And yes, sir, I do know exactly what this mausoleum's for.”
“Ah. Well, in that case, I guess there's little point in further discussion.”
“No, sir, there isn't. I –“
Whatever Major Ridgeway had been about to say would have to remain a matter of mystery, because with immaculate timing both his lieutenants hit him with the hafts of their pikes, the shorter Beechbough striking him hard behind the knees while Willowden gave him a sharp jab between the shoulder blades. While neither did him any great harm in his guardsman's armour, it did make him take a step forward – right into empty space. With a shout, he toppled down the stairs. Sidestepping gracefully, the brigadier's elbow found the back of the major's head, quickly ending the argument.
“Oh gods,” Willowden was standing with gloved hands over her canine muzzle, her eyes wide in the firelight as her pike clattered to the ground. “Fern, what did we just do?”
“You just assaulted a superior officer!” the sciurel told her, pulling her own pike convulsively across her chest and staring back with wide eyes, her bushy tail rigid with anxiety.
“Me? You hit him first! I just...”
“Lieutenants,” the brigadier coughed, and they looked at him. “I would be obliged if you would either run for help, or tie the major up and render some assistance to this young gentleman and myself,” he indicated Kennin, who shuffled on the spot as they looked at him.
“We're going to get in such trouble for this,” the lupari hung her head, covering her face.
“Yes, you are,” Fern Beechbough nodded, stepping forward, pulling a sturdy looking set of leather wrist binders from a pouch on her belt. “But I guess I'm in trouble with you. You're right, of course, Brigadier,” she went on, glancing up at the lutrani as she heaved the unconscious leonin onto his front and set about tying his arms behind him. “It's not right, not at all. Known that since the last news scroll, but how's a palace guard supposed to question a prince, or a general?”
“How about I match your prince, and raise a princess against your general?”
“Aye... that might do it...” Lieutenant Willowden peered out between her gloved fingers, her tail perking up to a more cheerful angle. “You serious, Brigadier? You've got support?”
The lutrani gave her a whiskery grin.
“Well I suppose you and...” she looked at Kennin.
“Kennin Oakroot,” he said automatically under the scrutiny.
“...wouldn't be here if you weren't,” the lupari finished, then peered closer at Kennin, narrowing her eyes. “That Oakroot?”
Lieutenant Beechbough laughed. “Ain't that typical. Everyone's in on the revolution except me.”
“Never said anything about a revolution, Lieutenant,” the brigadier said curtly. “But we need to get our princes some time apart so they can cool off and we can get to the truth of things. Pick one.”
“All right,” the sciurel nodded, standing. “I'll go with yours, sir. Anything that gets my old da' a break on his taxes.”
“Yes,” Lieutenant Willowden agreed. “Yes, sir, we're with you. How can we help?”
“Find a lantern each, and follow me.”
They did so, and hurrying up the stone steps, casting eerie shifting shadows behind the columns as they moved. The brigadier made his way to the large flag that hung from the wall at the back of the chamber. Sandwiched between the two lieutenants, trying not to pay too much attention to the sarcophagi on either side, Kennin watched as the brigadier tugged the sheet sized cloth down. Behind it, where he had expected solid stone wall, was an alcove.
“Come here, lad, give me a hand,” the lutrani beckoned, and he hurried forward. A trapdoor. Grasping the iron ring, he heaved upwards, a task which proved quite a challenge even for the both of them. A puff of dust rose as the door finally reached tipping point and thudded down onto the stone floor.
“What...” Kennin scratched an ear in confusion.
“Don't you know, lad?” the brigadier grinned. “All the best stately homes have escape tunnels. Now then, Willowden, you come with me. Beechbough, take Kennin to the end of the road and wait. If anyone comes back, stall them. Say anything you have to, sing and dance for all I care, just don't let them back here, right?”
“Right, sir,” the sciurel nodded, and Kennin hurried after her, glad to leave the shadowy mausoleum. She nudged Kennin with her elbow as they paused at the top of the stone steps. “Can you sing?”
“Good. I sing like a rusty door, I'll do the dancing.”
Watching the sciurel head off through the graveyard, bushy tail bouncing behind her as if already working out a beat, Kennin wasn't entirely sure whether she was serious.
“Prince Kaj-ahh!” the brigadier instinctively ducked as the heavy, free-standing candle rack whizzed through the space where his head had been moments before – which was a gap around the sliding panel in Kaja's study wall. The metal bounced off the wall with a clank, sending several candles flying across the room.
“You?” the leonin boggled at the brigadier, arms raised, improvised weapon poised for a second swipe.
“Yes,” the lutrani nodded, briefly checking both his ears were still attached as he straightened, tugging his tabard straight and trying to regain his dignity.
“Why are you in my wall?” Kaja asked, still holding on to the candle stand as if not quite trusting his eyes.
“Prince Kaja, you remember all those times you didn't listen to me when you were a boy?”
“Yes...” the leonin narrowed his eyes.
“One of them was apparently my explanation of the escape tunnels built into the palace.”
“Ah. I knew I should have listened more often.”
“Indeed. Although as it happens, it wouldn't have mattered if you had.”
“I see,” Kaja lied. “So I take it this is a rescue?”
“It is. Also I believe it's...” the brigadier added, glancing past Kaja, an expression of worry appearing on his face.
“Arson,” the lutrani told him, nodding towards the loose candle that has just set light to the base of Kaja's curtains. “Might I suggest you follow me?”
Kaja did so, hurriedly forcing himself into the confined space between the walls, finding himself nose to nose with a lupari in a guard's armour.
“Er... So where did you come from?” Kaja asked, realising that he, unlike the brigadier, was not going to squeeze past her in the narrow corridor.
“Later, Highness,” the brigadier called out over his shoulder, taking the lantern from Lieutenant Willowden's hand and turning to lead the way.
“Um, I was guarding your escape route, milord,” she smiled sheepishly over her shoulder as they moved after the lutrani.
“Right... Guarding it from who?”
“You I think,” she winced. “Sorry...”
“That's quite all right, it seems you've learned the error of your ways.”
After only a few paces, they started to descend what was possibly the narrowest and most ridiculously small spiral stairway Kaja had ever had to force himself through. Exactly who decided that an escape route for leonin should be quite this compact he wasn't sure, but he felt like there was some degree of revenge in having set fire to that architect's finest construction.
“Brig Riv?” he asked. “Is it all right to just let it burn?”
“Top floor, corner room, Highness,” the lutrani answered. “The palace might burn, nobody in it will. And hush now, if you would, I do believe we're passing a main hallway...”
Taking the point that a talking wall was going to draw some attention at the best of times, Kaja decided to just shut up and follow. For the moment, anyway.
Kennin looked decidedly glad to see them as they approached.
“Anyone else?” the brigadier asked.
“Everyone,” the vulpani nodded happily. “Except the guards,” he added as the brigadier glanced around.
“Good,” the lutrani hurried down the road to the carriages where Irons Sedge was waiting for them.
“Highness, good to see you. Mission complete, everyone returned and aboard, sir,” he saluted the brigadier who returned the gesture with a smile.
“Good man. Right, Highness, if you'd be so kind as to jump in up front? Beechbough, Willowden, get yourselves in with Lords Ashwell and Reedwake there,” he indicated the rear carriage. “Last thing I want is pretty faces in bright armour drawing attention to us and giving the game away,” he said this last so matter of factly that both lieutenants blushed and hurriedly darted inside their nominated vehicle. Kennin briefly wished he'd thought to say something similar, but the moment had passed.
“Head west for an hour or two if you would, Colonel,” the brigadier looked at Irons Sedge, who nodded. “If anyone's seen us, I want them to have to guess which way to go. I'll take Prince Kaja, Princess Aleana and Kennin here northeast, away from the city on every side road and dirt track I can find. Hop yourself up and drive if you would, lad, I'll borrow your horse and ride point. If you see me give her the spurs – whatever you do, don't follow.”
“Right...” Kennin nodded. A little taken aback by the volley of instructions, he clambered up into the driver's seat as the brigadier unhitched his horse from where it had been following behind the carriage. Glancing down, he watched as Kaja climbed inside.
“Hey, Allie,” the leonin said as he sat down on the padded seat.
She looked at him coolly. “Hello, Kaj. How was your day?”
The leonin chuckled. “Remarkably quiet, actually. Plenty of time to think things over.”
“Oh. Did you think of anything new?”
“Only that as soon as I get a chance I’m going to kick Tier right in the...” the carriage started with a jolt, the clip clop of the horses’ hooves sounding outside the small windows. “What about the rest of them?”
“They will meet us at the Oakroot estate,” Aleana said. “Brig Riv thinks travelling as a large group will make us too conspicuous.”
The leonin nodded, then sighed. “I’m sorry you had to do this, Allie.”
Aleana shook her head. “This was not your fault.”
“I shouldn’t have challenged him so openly,” Kaja growled, grinding his fist into the palm of the other hand.
“Actually, I believe that was for the best. Had you not done so, it would have been difficult to find people to help me. As it was, at least some of the nobles came to your aid.”
Kaja nodded. “We have some good people.”
“We do,” Aleana agreed. “Unfortunately I do not know if they outnumber the not so good ones.”
“I see...” Kaja leaned back onto the seat and closed his eyes.
Looking out of the window, Aleana watched buildings pass quietly by on either side for a few moments before drawing the curtain. “We should be out of the city in a few minutes,” she said quietly.
“How long until we get to Oakroot’s estate?”
Aleana coughed softly. “About three days, maybe four,” she admitted. Kaja groaned. “We needed someone we could trust,” she went on defiantly. “If I had chosen wrongly you’d be back under lock and key within the week. As would I, more than likely.”
Kaja nodded and yawned, the slight bouncing of the carriage making him feel sleepy.
“Do you think we’ll ever have a normal day again?”
Aleana shook her head ruefully.
“Me neither,” Kaja sighed.
Katrina knocked on the door, and waited. No response. She knocked again, frowning. Still no answer. Hesitating for a moment, she put her hand on the handle, and pushed the door open.
The room inside was in near darkness, the only light coming from two candles against the near wall. Opposite the door, the large window showed a starry sky, outlining a dark shape in the middle.
“My Lord?” she whispered, closing the door behind her. Tiernach stayed quiet silent, giving no sign that he had heard her. “My Lord, I was told that Kaja has escaped.” Still no reaction. She padded up quietly behind him, her heartbeat sounding traitorously loud.
“Kaja, I might have expected,” Tiernach spoke quietly, not turning to face her. “But Aleana is also missing. It seems neither of them are to be fooled by the First’s orders.” Without warning, he slammed his fist into the window frame, which creaked ominously.
“My Lord, I understand your feelings, but this need not...”
“Need not what?” Tiernach demanded, turning, and the expression on his face made Katrina take a step backwards. The darkness seemed to gather about him as he moved towards her, the candles dimming, and all of a sudden any doubts she may have held about his power vanished. Tiernach was dangerous. And angry. That was bad. “Need not interfere with the Eye’s plan?” He gripped her shoulders, holding her in front of him, his glittering eyes examining every inch of her face as if he could see through to the bone beneath.
“Yes, my Lord,” Katrina said softly.
Tiernach scrutinised her for a moment more, before releasing her, turning away in disgust. “And what of my plan, Katrina? All this I do... do you believe it is merely for myself?”
“I do this for them, as well as me!” Tiernach shouted, gesturing out of the window. “For their good as well as mine I made this deal! For their lives as well as my own! And this, this is how they show their trust in me! They run from me, believing that I would do them harm! I who have sacrificed so much for them!” For a moment, Tiernach’s eyes seemed to burn brighter than the candles, but a second later he slumped, turning back to the window with a bitter laugh. “I should not have permitted the First to force my hand.”
“No harm has befallen them yet, my Lord,” Katrina reminded him softly.
“How long can that last. I don’t even know where they are any more.”
“Then I shall find them for you, my Lord.”
“They are not to be harmed!” Tiernach turned his head to glare at her over his shoulder.
“And they shall not be, my Lord. I will ensure that every commander in the army is aware that if they are seen, they must be returned alive at all costs.”
“You would have the army deal with this?”
“My Lord,” Katrina spoke carefully, choosing her words selectively. “Prince Kaja has disappeared after being accused of treason. Princess Aleana appears to have aided him in this. There are those who will see this as an admission of guilt, and who will look only to you for orders. You are now the only member of the royal family with contact with the senate, the only ruler still in the capital. In the eyes of the people, you have been confirmed as the rightful regent of the king.”
Slowly, Tiernach nodded. “It does present... opportunities...” he admitted.
“Yes, my Lord,” Katrina reassured him. “Your judgement in all things can no longer be challenged. You are in a position of great power. Is this not what you need?” Without really thinking, she put her arms around his waist, stretching up to rest her chin on his shoulder and they both looked out at the dark sky. “Do not worry about this, my Lord,” she said quietly, surprised that he hadn't shrugged her off. “This is only a temporary problem, I promise. Focus on your studies, do as the First bids you, complete the plan.”
“Yes,” Tiernach whispered. “But not the plan, my plan,” he corrected her.
“Your plan,” she echoed. “This has all been in aid of removing obstructions to control of both kingdoms, my Lord. Now you can concentrate on building the Brotherhood’s army.”
“You know about that?”
“The First trusts me, at least with information. Does the work go well?”
“To a degree. It has worked with animals. The First seems to have found some distasteful use for them.”
“Perhaps. But will it work?”
“Yes,” Tiernach’s voice was hushed. “It will work. In due time, the army of the Brotherhood will march, and the Eye will have its wish.”
“Then all your plans will succeed, my Lord,” Katrina tightened her arms about him. “Have no fears. I will deal with today’s problems. I will return your brother and sister, it is only a matter of time.”
“Very well,” Tiernach nodded tiredly.
“You should rest, my Lord,” Katrina stepped back, taking his hand and tugging him towards the doorway to his bedchamber. “Come. Let me take care of your worries. You’ll feel better tomorrow, I promise.”