“Now you’re not listening,” Archel moaned.
“I am too,” Cassie said, adding, “the Advisors won’t listen. And, you want me to do something about it.” She gave him a bland smile, “what can I do?”
“Give them a message.”
She tilted her head, “what message.”
“We need help.”
“I don’t think that your Advisors will like that.”
“They don’t have to know,” Archel’s emerald eyes sparkled, “you don’t have to tell them.” He whispered, insisting, “we have to do something.”
Cassie shook her head, “I’m not saying you’re wrong, but what if they find out?”
“What are they going to do? Fire me? I didn’t ask for this…” he waved an arm around the sweat stinking Elite’s Training Center.
“Well,” she tapped her foot, “what do you want me to say?”
“I don’t know. I never begged another country to help before!”
Unamused, Cassie said, “me either.”
“You’ll figure it out.”
“If you say so,” she muttered under her breath as Colonel Dagon stepped out of the recesses and approached.
“Attack,” Colonel Dagon ordered.
Swinging herself downwards, she grabbed a rod from the floor and swung it out, nearly connecting with Archel’s forehead. The boy stumbled backwards.
“Again!” Colonel Dagon ordered.
Cassie lunged at Archel, who attempted to slide to his left thereby deftly avoiding her attack but managed to trip over his own feet and somehow dropped them both to the ground.
“Up!” Colonel Dagon ordered.
Archel helped Cassie up, as he muttered something about not being in boot camp which set her giggling. A secret pinhole let loose a ray of joy that pierced his heart every time he inadvertently caused the colonel to scowl. So far nothing made the scowl appear faster than giggling. A quiet, perverse voice in the dark cloak of his mind whispered: What else would get him riled? He shook the useless thought off as Cassie came at him with some new weapon—a…what’d he call it? Cedi Altam…no. No. No. Cedo Alterem. “Give us another,” he mumbled, throwing off Cassie’s latest attack with no small amount of effort.
“I didn’t hear you, recruit,” Dagon stated.
“Cedo Alterem,” Archel sounded off.
Dagon suppressed the urge to grin, “very well.” He pointed at the winged pair of crossed swords that hung from the wall of the Elite’s Training Center, “gladii ales deus Mercurii.”
Though this was only the first week of military training, Archel already well understood—a few wallops to the back of his head on the first day ensured it—the unspoken question he was tasked with answering. He sounded out, “the winged god, Mercury’s swords. Gifted to the first Elite for bravery. And then, enshrined in the ETC as a reminder that, though winged, Mercury cannot beat Pater Tempus.”
“Translate,” Dagon ordered.
“Even the Elite meet unbeatable foes,” Archel stated firmly. His eyes straight ahead, his shoulders pulled back, and purposeful deep breaths going slowly in and out of his nose.
“Meaning,” Dagon asked, his full attention on the statuesque, yet slightly wavering, young regent.
“All die,” Archel said regretfully.
Dagon firmly grabbed the boy’s shoulders and shook him, “even…” twice, “Mercury.” He put out his arms in the Soldier’s Offering, open palms and lowered chin.
Archel matched the gesture, making sure his eyes never left Dagon. At that same moment, he heard some barely recognizable sound to his right. Distracted, Archel dropped eye contact to turn his head toward the noise. From his peripheral vision he saw a grey streak approaching his face. He jumped back, narrowly avoiding Cassie’s attack and landing right into Dagon’s. He struggled with the colonel, desperately trying to wriggle loose from the man’s iron grip. He bucked, hit, kicked, and tried everything all at once, but nothing worked. With an absolutely painful thought, well, that was pointless, an exhausted Archel sank into Dagon.
“Lesson?” Dagon asked, as he put Archel down.
“Never turn your back on a girl,” Archel shot Cassie a dirty look. She smiled and bowed.
“True,” Dagon smiled politely at Cassie, then asked, “lesson?”
“Uh. Um.” Come on. Think of something. “Sometimes there’s no way out.”
Dagon waited long enough for Archel’s weight to shift from one leg to the other. When the boy seemed just on the edge of changing his answer, Dagon said, “lesson.”
“Um,” Archel sighed, shrugged his shoulders, and waited for the blow which never came. Just as he thought it would he blurted out, “people pretend.”
Nodding, Dagon repeated his teaching mantra, “lesson.”
Archel stared up at the head of Mercury’s Elite Guardsmen, what else does he want from me? Struggling not to shout, Archel growled, “I don’t know.”
“Think,” Dagon ordered.
Think, boyo. Fintan’s voice echoed in his head. As he thought of his former teacher, a tear threatened to run down his cheek. Out of desperation Archel stepped forward and sang, “yesterday’s heroes are tomorrow’s old, we kneel before them when they scold. Stars are born. Stars will die. It’s not for us to wonder why.”
“Why sing?” Dagon asked, tilting his head to the right.
Archel lifted his emerald eyes and in all seriousness he repeated Fintan’s words, “‘if you can’t perform under pressure, you’re not fit to lead.’”
If he’d known where Praeceptor Archeleus had heard the phrase, Colonel Dagon might have been slightly irked, as it was he refrained from laughing by saying, “lesson.”
With ringing ears and directed attentions, the two Mercs didn’t notice when the Phoenix’s song ended. They did, however, see and feel the exact moment that the breathless, rigid Kent released the jeweled fence and collapsed into their arms. Carefully carrying him a few feet away, the Mercs stood over him, taking a moment to stretch out their stiff shoulders and backs.
“Do you think he’ll be alright?” the Merc asked.
Balin looked at the unconscious battered bard, and said, “sure. He just needs rest.” Bending down, Balin put his feet shoulder width apart, slipped his forearms under Kent, and then lifted. He rocked on his heels for a moment, gaining his balance. As he pushed up with his toes and his calves, he said, “don’t forget, when you report, this is the Bard.”
“I…I didn’t know,” the young man bowed his head.
Nodding once, Balin straightened up, his arms full of an unconscious and practically emaciated youth. He warned, “don’t touch it,” while glancing at the innocuous sunset rosebush. Without another word, he spun around and headed along the northern paths, back to the Bard’s Quarters where it was likely that the Celatrix was waiting.
In shock, the Mercury’s Elite Guardsman watched Balin set each foot firmly before moving forward at which pace they’d make the Bard’s Quarters around dinner time. He shook his head, and then turned back to the Phoenix Rose, his charge. After only an hour of a watch spent marching around the roses, he’d begun to wonder what new level of insanity he’d stepped into when the young bard came barreling through the Gardens. A little song and electrocution, Mack sighed, that’ll get the heart beating. He shook the thoughts off. Though a newly frocked Ensign, Mack knew that what he’d heard coming out of that rose bush when the Kaiser died was nothing short of—apocalyptic—he shuddered, took a step back and cautiously stared at the unassuming roses of Poterit Don. After steeling himself, Ensign Mack recovered his fallen rifle, straightened his gig-line and resumed his route as if nothing had happened.
In the safe house, Jougs stood near the basement door, listening to the muffled sounds of the justice’s torture, saying, “he acted impulsively.”
Cocking his head to the left, Vorant laughed, “you mean, ‘seized the opportunity that presented itself.’”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Jougs frowned, “he’s been irrational since that night. All I’m saying is: two weeks?”
“Careful,” Vorant warned, he knew what Jougs meant, but would never say it, not with the Inquisitor in the same building.
Before Jougs could answer, the basement door opened, revealing a blood splattered Inquisitor who smiled at them with cold satisfaction. “You’ll never guess what I just learned.”
The duumviri stared at him, wearing confusion under masks of angry eyes demanding, “what?”
“Raven’s Drop,” the Inquisitor smiled and traced a circle in the air, “back to the beginning. They hold traitors on the same block as slavers,” he leaned in, conspiratorially whispering, “both are capital offences.” He removed his bloody gloves as he spoke, “damn thirsty work!” Walking into the kitchen, he kept talking, “if they caught the boys like the old man insists, then we’ve got to pick them up.” The duumviri could hear the refrigerator door open, the plastic scraping of an unscrewed lid, and the deep gulps of a dehydrated man acting irrationally. Then, the Inquisitor said, “Raven’s Drop,” as if that answered every question the two men might have. He carried a bottle with a light blue liquid sloshing inside, at the basement door, he raised the bottle to the duumviri in a brief salute before disappearing behind the door and down the stairs.
At the Inquisitor’s behavior, Jougs silently pleaded with Vorant who’s smile grew as he nodded. Pacing the living room, Jougs waited for the remote sound of screaming to resume, before saying, “I don’t think he’s with it.”
Rolling his eyes, Vorant repeated, “‘with it,’” then snorted, “none of us are. What’d you expect in this line of work?”
“I expected professionalism,” Jougs insisted.
“What’s more professional than handling business as it becomes available?” Vorant shrugged off Jougs’ concerns. Yes, the Inquisitor had spent an ungodly amount of time on the justice. No, it wasn’t the justice that they needed. Yes, it was worth it as they now knew what had happened to Adonis. No, they hadn’t developed a plan, but every scream was proof positive that one was forthcoming. If the battered old man told the truth, then whatever the next plan, they’d have to get inside the prison. Breaking into prison? Still keeping his own counsel, Vorant added, “just wait until he shares the plan.”
Something in Vorant’s smile sucker punched Jougs who involuntarily stepped backwards while suddenly seeing clearly. “Oh,” escaped his lips as he also started nodding.
“Oh,” Vorant repeated, his chin down and head imperceptibly bent.
Big bosomed, Clara ‘Chondee’ Darin stared out the cabin window at the sprawling valley vista that spanned before her. Unaided, she could clearly see the smoke tendrils that drifted over the majority of houses and joined together forming a thick grey cloud blanket. She wanted to stuff the fireplace as full as she could get it; instead, she left the window to climb under a giant pile of blankets. As she wriggled around, the entire mound threatened to fall. Once she’d managed to pop her head out of blankets, she immediately drew it back into the warmer folds.
“A week, my ass,” she muttered into the cloth. Every time she ventured out of the covers, she took stock of different areas of the house. He’d promised a well-provisioned safe house on the way to their new life. Check. And two weeks earlier, he promised he’d meet her in a week. Not check. In the darkness of her covers she bit her lip and held back tears. I gave up everything and he’s not even here. She heaved, sniffled, and thought, sonofabitch lying ass bastard! Exquisite visions of his head snapping backwards at the impact of her fist drew a slight smile as tears silently rolled down her cheeks.