Suddenly flooded with brilliant emerald light, the kitchen staff froze. Without giving a second thought to the sudden disco, Preston the Head Cook yelled, “snap to! Hungry people waiting! Go on!” His business as usual attitude hid his shock at seeing a young woman appear out of thin air. He spun towards her with a metal whisk in one hand, saying, “I don’t care who you are. You ever just pop in here like that again, I swear to Mercury, I’ll turn you over my knee! Do you know how close you came to making Scott drop the tray he’s carrying?” For his part, Scott had chosen that moment to disappear through the swinging doors leading into the Dining Hall. Regardless, Preston continued, “damned Royals, just come and go as they please. No consideration for those who slave away making sure they have all the luxuries they need. Ridiculous,” he shook his head as he turned back to the mixing bowl, “if you’re hungry, I suggest you find a seat out there,” he waved the whisk like a magic wand.
Unable to help herself, Cassie bellowed laughter at the grumpy cook’s back. She snorted, “you’re just like he said!” At the instant she thought of Kaiser Rudolpho, she shrank into herself, all humor evaporating.
It wasn’t her laughter, but the sudden lack thereof, that caused Preston to whip back around. Facing the distraught Messenger, he left the whisk sitting in the mixing bowl, and crossed the room to her side. He put a hot hand on her shoulder and pulled her to his chest, saying, “I know, little one. I miss him too. He was an arrogant, troublesome ass,” the nearest line cook gasped, “but he was our arrogant, troublesome ass.” To the gaping line cook, he growled, “back to work, eh! Potatoes don’t chop themselves.” As he escorted her through the kitchen to an unofficial break area, typically used in the summer for overheated staff, he continued to bark orders, “finish mixing that batter. Lay it out. The oven’s already set.”
“I don’t feel so go—”
Before Preston realized she was collapsing, the Messenger was on the floor awkwardly contorted around her overstuffed backpack. As one of the few people in the realm fully aware of the special medical needs of the Imler family, Preston knew exactly what to do. “Sugar water. Ice. Now!” He didn’t look to see who’d follow his orders, rather he bent down to scoop the unconscious girl up backpack and all. He carried her to his private office, where he put her on the sofa that he’d kept since Kaiser Rudolpho was a boy. Once she was on the couch, he carefully pulled the backpack off, and laid her down.
Standing in the doorway, the newest line cook waited without speaking.
“Well, don’t just stand there,” Preston ordered, “letting the ice melt, give it here!”
“Uh, here,” the youth said as she offered the dripping cubes to her impatient supervisor.
“Grab that chair,” he said. “Right here. Good. Now, sit down and hold this on her neck.” He maneuvered out of her way. “Keep the ice on her. She wakes up, give her the sugar water. Got it?”
“Yes sir,” the novice line cook answered.
“I-I’m fine,” Cassie mumbled.
“Obviously,” Preston replied as he left them in his office, ordering over his shoulder, “sugar water.”
“Quiet!” the Inquisitor ordered the security guard who’d begun sniveling when she realized that the approaching men were her kidnapper’s accomplices.
Jougs elbowed Vorant, jutting his chin in that ‘do you see this?’ manner. Rolling his eyes and shaking his head, Vorant shrugged it off. Jougs briefly touched his tender chin, definitely time for Plan C, he dropped his hand. Though walking side by side, after six years of working well together, the duumviri had come to an impasse.
The Inquisitor shoved the woman against the wall, “stay,” he commanded. “We need to lay out the maps,” he indicated the door to the Interrogation Room where he’d previously spent a great deal of time with the Darin family, “there’s a table.”
The duumviri stopped before the door, knowing full well that they’d never gotten the chance to clean up the mess. Neither man gave a lick about the dried gore, they were concerned with the intelligence of returning to the scene of such a nasty crime. Knowing full well that Vorant would never speak up, Jougs said, “should we be here?”
Narrowing his eyes, the Inquisitor squared his shoulders, sucked in his breath, and puffed up his chest. He took two steps toward Jougs, answering, “this is the last place anyone will look for us.”
Shrugging and feigning indifference, Jougs turned the knob and pushed the door open. The brilliance of the overhead light blinded him. He stepped back into Vorant, who promptly shoved him into the room. Jougs blinked repeatedly in the painfully white light.
“That’s odd,” Vorant said.
“What is?” the Inquisitor asked.
“Well. It’s just...I mean...we were in a hurry to get the body,” the security guard squeaked, “out. But, I always turn the lights off,” Vorant answered.
With one hand he shoved her head into the wall, hissing, “shh,” before adding, “probably left on by those idiot Mercs. They were the last down here.”
“You’re the ones!” the security guard cried out.
The Inquisitor chortled, “of course, love! Did you think I was joking?” He stroked her hair, whispering “that’s sweet,” then he grabbed her by the arm and pulled her into the Interrogation Room where Jougs and Vorant stood waiting. The Inquisitor pushed her towards Jougs, saying, “tie her up.” He then kicked through the shattered glass on his way to the table he’d previously used to lay out his torture toolkit. While Jougs secured the woman to the same chair that had held Daphne Darin prisoner, Vorant and the Inquisitor relocated the table to the center of the room, directly under the overhead light.
“So...what’s with the broad, boss?” Jougs asked as he approached the table.
Pointing out their location, the Inquisitor said, “as you can see, this tunnel is the key to getting anywhere in the underground.” He tapped the map, “this is the remodeled section. According to the justice, we’ll find the tunnels still intact. They just didn’t feel like maintaining the whole place. The cheap bastards bricked up everything.” Unrolling an even older map, he laid it over the first. The changes were immediately obvious, “I’ll be damned! Old Shiny Baldleaf was telling the truth,” he pointed to a couple sections. “Raven’s Drop, here we come!”
Pushing up with all his kitty might, Commander Samuel Felis shoved and shoved on the hilt of the sword he’d seen Jougs move to activate the secret passage leading under the Heart of the Seven Faeries. Regardless of how much effort he put into it, he just did not have the necessary strength to budge the statue. Damn it, he silently cursed as he hopped down from the ancient fountain. Once on the ground, he stretched out his front paws, first the left, then the right. With his cat ass high in the air, he gave it a little wiggle. His tail darted back and forth as it slowly retracted. In a full body shudder, his fur seemed to evaporate. Arching his naked human back, he drew in his hands, first the right, then the left. After a decent stretch, he pushed himself up onto his knees where he weaved and held back the nausea. He slowly surveyed the clearing and verified that he was still alone. It took him little effort to move the sword hilt the half inch required to trigger the secret passage. So stupid! He momentarily contemplated changing back, but knew that the energy required for back-to-back transformations would incapacitate him for a solid ten minutes. As it stood, after two weeks in cat form, he was certain to have plenty of issues getting his feet under him. Like riding a bike, he thought. Leaning onto the fountain, he heaved his mass up, and staggered back a few steps. Never will understand, he shook off the second wave of nausea, right before the urge to puke took hold. After expelling the contents of his stomach, he used the back of his hand to wipe the slime off his chin. Shuddering, he refused to look at the mess, recalling his last cat meal of gopher. Backing away from the nasty, he slapped a hand on the edge of the fountain, took one look down the stairs and muttered, “dirty son of a dick weevil!” Though descending a relatively short staircase would take the average man less than a minute, Felis held to the rail, and eased his way down like an 80-year-old. At the foot of the stairs, he glanced back, sighing, “small favors,” as the world above disappeared. Blinking in the dim light, he focused his energy on moving forward regardless of the growing cold that started in his bare feet, shriveled his package, and caused him to hug his upper body.
Sitting in his office chair, Colonel Gawain Dagon listened patiently as General Willard Isaac Tomlyn raged about the ineptitude of civilians and children leading war efforts. The belligerent general had already eaten up 30 minutes of Dagon’s precious time and by the manner in which he was pacing, it seemed he was in no hurry to vacate the premises. Stifling a yawn, Dagon exhaled sharply and nodded. When Tomlyn stopped speaking long enough to take a breath, Dagon interjected, “I understand your concerns, Will.”
“Oh, don’t try to blow me off.”
“Now, Will. That’s not—”
“I’ve had enough of the games!” Tomlyn practically shouted.
“Do not yell at me, in my office,” Dagon ordered.
Tomlyn stopped mid-step, cocked his head to one side, and for the first time since entering Dagon’s office he said something that didn’t piss Dagon off, “that wasn’t my intention.”
Standing up, Dagon said, “I know.” As he walked around his desk, he continued, “our hands are always bound by law. If we’re law abiding.” He leaned against the edge of his desk, saying, “the boy has much to learn. Unlike the Advisers, he can be taught. Point of fact, we’ve only a short time to teach him before the law says he must lead us.” Dagon looked down at his throw rug, contemplating the situation.
“It’s not just the Advisers,” Tomlyn began, “who wouldn’t know barrel from butt. It’s that damnable Whistler. If I hadn’t watched the paper-pushing pansy prick… He’s a backstabbing, regulation-manipulating sneak. The only reason he replaced Michaels was because he forced Kaiser Imler into a corner. Not that I have to tell you about it.”
Bracing himself with both hands on his thighs, Dagon pushed his shoulders up, straightened his back out, and popped his neck. “I remember. And, if I had any proof...” he shook his head, “conjecture never solved anything.”
“Conjecture? Ha! That old Rumpled-fore-skin! I can’t prove anything, Gawain. But, I know he’s in the same camp as the Oathbreaker. I can hear it in his voice as he tries to drive the War Cabinet. He’ll never command the Regs as long as he’s fourth in line. But, that’s not a long line when you’re a conniving shit. Mark my words. Either of the other generals fall… I’ll be the last he comes after. And, I swear to you. Mercury as my witness, I’ll put one in his forehead.”
“Hey, now, Will! Don’t go talking like that outside of this office. Anyone else hears you, they might take it the wrong way.”
“They can be damned! I’m not playing these games!” Tomlyn growled.
“My office,” Dagon reminded the angry general.