TOLD you I wouldn't abandon this story.
The updates won't be as regular as they are over the summer (where I updated a chapter practically every other day…) but I'm working on it.
As usual, this chapter is unedited and not the best. But it furthers the plot.
The darkness of the Steward's room was near total, with only a sliver of moonlight coming from between the curtains to fall over the oak desk. He had left hours before, and now only the soft, far-away tolling of the midnight bell disturbed the air.
Ateth pushed the door open gently, sliding inside and closing it behind her with a click. Moving quickly, she opened the curtains further to let in more light, then began her search.
She began at the bookshelves, pulling out everything that looked official, flipping through it, then replacing it carefully. Document after document, she let her eyes slide over the words. But there was nothing.
There was nothing on his desk besides spare parchment and a few empty books. She cursed, sitting in his chair as she scowled at the wood.
Nothing. Vorchay had been right. There weren't any documents that her mother had made before her death. Or if there were, they were long gone.
She sat up as she noticed a piece of paper with something written on it under the empty parchment. Curious, she slid it out from under the pile and began to read.
Her eyes widened as the blood drained from her face. "He wouldn't dare," she breathed.
Footsteps came in the hallway outside. She put the paper back hastily, jumping to her feet and, after a frantic pause of looking around for someplace to hide, slid into the shadows between two bookshelves, pulling her skirts close.
The door opened to the sound of voices.
"…sure you realize, we can't let such a person loose on the premises," Schotor was saying. There were two pairs of footsteps, one of them sharp boots, the other soft soled. There was only one noble who wore such hard boots.
"She's a Horsemistress, not a trouble-sprite," Vorrodo scoffed as he lit the candelabra on the small table before the hearth.
"Boy," Schotor called into the hall. "Make my fire." There was a muffled response. "I don't care if you're not the night shift, come light my damn fire before I skin your hide." He pulled his head back into the room. "Servants get stupider every year, I swear."
"Hm." The General didn't seem to agree, but he let it drop.
As a boy scurried into the room, looking sleepy but chastised, Schotor got out a decanter and two glasses. "Wine?"
"It's a little late for that, don't you think?" Vorrodo replied, relaxing into one of the cushioned chairs in front of the fire. The boy stoked it, baring some coals and nursing them until a small fire began to warm the room. He scurried out of the office with a hasty bow.
"It's never late." He poured himself a small glass and sat across from the General. "But anyway, I must say that she's worse than a trouble-sprite. Going around, swinging her sword like a violent hooligan… She has no boundaries. She's started in on Stoidsem, did you know?"
"I've heard rumors," the older man admitted. "But he's a big boy. He can handle a woman's teasing, don't you think?"
"That's no woman, that's a devil," Schotor growled. "Not that you have anything against her." His tone was accusing. "You've been spending quite a bit of time with her, from what I hear. Are you getting over your wife's death?"
"I talk with Vorchay because I enjoy the company of another ex-mercenary," Vorrodo corrected coldly. "Really, insults like that are below you, Schotor."
"You're right," the Steward agreed, although he didn't sound sincere. "My irritation made my tongue clumsy."
"Indeed." He changed the subject. "So what will you do about the Princess? She's been nearly glued to Vorchay's side."
"I noticed that as well. That criminal would be a terrible influence on the Princess, wouldn't she?" he said reasonably.
"Oh, I don't think so. Vorchay can be quite a bit like Ateth's mother at times."
Ateth froze. Vorchay? Like her mother? But Schotor had always told her that her mother was just as a queen should be: quite, reserved, pacifist, with a gentle nature…
Schotor snorted. "That's probably why she gets on my nerves so much. There was no one more stubborn than that old hag."
Did Vorrodo's eyes flicker towards the bookcases? "She was a fiery one, for sure. Her daughter was created in the same image. What if she tries to make a bid for the throne? You know, as her mother did against her younger brother."
"She won't," Schotor said smugly. "I've got things under control. After this matter with Atdmor settles down, I'll work out a treaty with Lixunah. Rchaveon is always expanding his harem." He grinned, swirling the wine in his glass. "What a match that would be! Just imagine the connections that would give us."
Her heart stopped in her chest.
"You'd marry Ateth off to that psychopath?" Vorrodo said, aghast. "Schotor, he's a godless, sadistic murderer. You can't possibly think-"
"I'm not just thinking, Vorrodo," the Steward cut in. "We've already started the negotiations. It's not as if she'd be alone, anyway. There's eighty other women and girls in His Holiness' harem."
"I've never heard of any children," the General said with a frown.
"There isn't any. He's barren. But that doesn't matter. He'll take Ateth- she's pretty enough. Verath would never attack us if Rchaveon's Empire was on our side."
Vorrodo was silent for a long moment, brooding into the fire. "I don't like it," he said bluntly. "He'd hurt her."
"She's a Princess. Her life belongs to her Kingdom, and it's her duty to use her life in the best interests of her people," Schotor drawled almost mockingly. "It will be a noble sacrifice on her behalf."
The General got to his feet. "It's getting late, Steward. Why don't we adjourn to our respective suites? That wine must have made you tired and tomorrow is another long day."
"Excellent idea." He put his glass on the table and got to his feet. He prodded apart the fire absently, letting it go down into glowing, flickering coals. They left the room, the door closing with a gentle click behind them.
The room, as before her entrance, was utterly silent once more. Ateth stood frozen in the darkness between the bookshelves, her hands clenched at her breast as if she had been thrust with a sword.
Impossible. It had to be a lie!
She wouldn't have believed it if it hadn't come from the Steward's own lips. But it had. And now, instead of seeming like an out-of-control conspirator, Vorchay was her only hope of salvation.
A sob of fear caught in her throat, and she swallowed it down, fleeing from the office.
She leaned on the table, her eyes pouring over the maps. A fire in the hearth fought back the shadows, assisted by an array of candles slowly dripping their innards over the edge of the table. Vorchay sighed, rubbing at her sandy eyes with one hand.
"Shouldn't you be asleep?"
She looked up to see Etrayos leaning in the doorway. She hadn't heard him. "It was a strange night. I've switched teachers. But I'm so nervous about it, I can't get to sleep." She smiled slightly at the irony.
He came into her room, closing the door behind him. He wore only a pair of breeches and a loose white blouse. "Well, I'm awake now so I'll join you." He came up next to her, looking at the maps. "What are these?"
"This is the distribution of mercenary companies throughout the Emud forest. You know, the mercenaries Vorrodo told us about," she said, tapping the largest map that had small red blots of ink spread along the Emud-Nyvestein border.
Etrayos frowned, leaning closer. "Five companies? Not bad. It won't hold off war, but it's a substantial buffer."
"Right. But here's another problem." She slipped a map out from under the top one. It seemed, at first, that there was merely one large blue smear along the side of Verath, as if someone had wiped the ink. Then he saw that they were individual dots.
"I talked to your agent, and this is the dispersal of Verath forces along their border," she said. "That's not something to spit at. There's only the area of Lyeirt between Emud and Verath, so if they decide to attack while we're in the middle of the coup…" She didn't have to finish.
"I got a message from Issas about that," he said, crossing his arms over his chest. "He warned me to watch our backs. Unfortunately, he doesn't have much power there as only the Heir's Guard, but he's trying to muddle their information network as much as possible to stall for time."
"That'll only last so long. Damn!" Her fist hit the table with frustration and she turned away. "We don't have time to wait for everything to be perfect. We needed Ateth on the throne yesterday!"
He didn't say anything. There wasn't much he could say.
Vorchay closed her eyes, rubbing at one aching temple for a long moment.
"Did I wake you up?" she asked.
"When you went downstairs to get water," he said, leaning back against the table.
Vorchay frowned, turning around. "I never went downstairs."
He stiffened, his amber eyes flashing.
"Are you sure it came from my door?" she asked, stepping towards him.
"No," he replied. He cursed viciously all of a sudden, whirling on the door. "Cavio's room is just down from yours. He's forbidden to go out at night. Hurry, let's go!"
She grabbed her sword, then followed him out her room, taking the stairs three at a time to the lower floor. "He took the back door," Etrayos murmured, leading her through the kitchen to the door. It was unlocked.
The street was empty. Etrayos cursed again, gritting his teeth. "Damn my ears! Now he's gotten away."
"Let's go see if there was anything in his rooms," Vorchay said, turning back and running into the tavern. He followed swiftly, locking the door behind him.
Up the stairs once more to her hallway, Vorchay reached Cavio's room first. One hand on her sword, she pushed the door open. A small twang, like breaking thread, came to her ears.
"Watch out!" He grabbed her, tackling her back against the wall as he threw his back between her and the doorway.
The firetar lit with a boom, scorching the back of his shirt and sending splinters of wood flying to stick in the wall next to her head. Etrayos grunted as a long piece of wood lodged itself in his back.
There were shouts from all corners of the building now, and men came rushing down the hall. "Where's Thom?!" he bellowed as fire crackled over the wood.
"Right here, sir!" a young man's voice came. A brown-haired youth came jumping up the stairs.
"Put this out, now!" the Angeughvor ordered.
The boy stopped the hallway stood still, his eyes focusing on the fire. Suddenly, a brightness lit about him, and the fire was smothered into nothing as quickly as it had come.
"Etrayos, are you all right?" Vorchay asked, her eyes worried.
"I'm fine," he said tightly, pushing off the wall and straightening. She didn't miss his slight wince as he turned to the men. "Find Cavio and bring him to me. If you can't bring him alive, then kill him. But do it now!"
Vorchay got to her feet as he barked out orders, then noticed a small, half-bandaged form standing on the stairs, staring at the hole in the building that had been made by the firetar.
"Atheur, what are you doing here?" she asked. "You were supposed to be at the stables."
"I was," he said defensively. "But the Princess came into the stables all crying and noisy and babbling about some marriage and demanding to see you."
"Marriage?" Vorchay repeated, surprised. Was Schotor going to marry her off? This could be the break Vorchay was looking for, to get Ateth on her side. "Go back and bring her here, but take the route Etrayos showed you. We don't want you followed."
"Wouldn't it be better to go there?" he asked.
"Perhaps." Her eyes went worriedly to Etrayos who was still ordering his agents about as they came to see what the explosion had been. "Just go, Atheur. Make it quick."
He nodded and scampered off, disappearing into the shadows.
Vorchay grabbed Etrayos' wrist as he moved off to get dressed and follow his men. "Etrayos, don't. You're hurt and you need to stay here."
"Cavio is more important," he replied curtly. He was the Angeughvor then, she could tell by the way he held himself and the way his eyes glowed with power. "For all we know, he's done betraying us."
"Have faith in your men," she said, insisting stubbornly. "Besides, this isn't your home city. You don't know it as well as your men did, so you searching wouldn't make things go any faster. And if you weren't here, then who would they report to? Me? I don't think so."
He opened his mouth to retort, then closed it again. "Damn a woman's logic," he said finally. "Fine, I'll stay."
"Good. Now come into my room so I can get a look at your back." She guided him firmly to her doorway and pushed him inside. She motioned for him to sit on the bed, then she sat behind him, gently pulling his shirt away from his burned back.
"How is it?" he asked, voice tight with pain.
"It's not too bad, except for this piece of wood." A long, sharp piece of wood was lodged in his shoulder. She got off the bed to get salve and bandages from a drawer, then came back. "I'm going to pull it out," she warned him. Then, taking it firmly, she slid it out as she would an arrow, quick and straight.
His breath hissed between his teeth as the wound began to sluggishly bleed. She pulled off the rest of his shirt to work easier, then began to wrap the wound. "You were luckily this wasn't a little lower. It only got muscle, but it could have punctured a lung."
"Either way it hurts like hell," he grunted.
Once she finished wrapping it, she began to pick out all the smaller splinters that were stuck in his back. She was still doing that when there was a small knock at the door.
"Come in," she called. Atheur opened it, followed by a wide-eyed Ateth.
"Where is this place?" she asked, coming in. "We took so many turns, I lost track." She saw Etrayos' back and her breath came in sharply. "What happened?"
"Nothing you have to worry about," Vorchay replied, plucking one long needle of wood out of a burn.
"Why is she here?" Etrayos murmured low enough for only Vorchay to hear.
"Shush. I'll handle her," she replied quietly, then looked back to Ateth. "What brought you to the stables in the middle of the night?"
Ateth remembered why she was there and looked as if she was about to break down. "Oh Vorchay, it's horrible! I went to Schotor's office to look for any documents that my mother would have made, but I found something else. It was a letter corresponding with someone in Atdmor, and it talked about a treaty to gang up against Verath!"
"What?" Vorchay snapped, staring at her.
"But that's not all," the young woman went on. "Once that war is over, Schotor's going to marry me into Rchaveon's harem." This time, she really did begin to cry. "Vorchay, I've heard horrible stories about that man and what he does to his wives. I think I'd rather die."
"Smart girl," Etrayos muttered.
Vorchay pulled out the last few splinters, silent as she thought. She began rubbing salve into his burns, drawing a painful hiss from her patient. "So what do you want me to do?" she asked. "I'm just a Horsemistress."
Ateth looked about to say something, then paused. She collapsed into a chair in front of the maps. "I don't know," she said finally, looking forlorn and desperate. "You were talking about taking back my throne. That's the only option I see left."
"You're right in that. But who's going to be the usurper? You sound like you want me to be the one to do it, but that's not what a Queen would do," Vorchay said heartlessly as she wrapped Etrayos' back to keep the salve undisturbed. She wiped her hands on her pants as she finished and stood, crossing her arms over her chest as she regarded the Princess with hard eyes. "A Queen wouldn't come crying to anyone. She'd buck up and find a way to do it."
Ateth frowned at this rebuttal. It obviously wasn't what she was expecting. "How am I supposed to know what to do?"
"You've studied history. You know what's been done. Where did they start?" When Ateth had no answer, Vorchay answered herself, like a patient teacher. "They start first with a question of what's legal. Can you get on the throne through legal, legitimate means? That's always the best way, since it requires less force. And you can, since there's nothing legitimizing their power."
"I have no support," she protested. "I can't get the throne with no noble supporters."
"You have more than you realize," Vorchay countered. "There's Vorrodo, for one, and he's a strong, respected ally. Now if we had a year or more, we might be able to slowly build up your base of power, but since it needs to be forthcoming…" She pursed her lips, thinking. "Where's Captain Thrael?"
"Thrael?" she repeated, surprised. She began to follow Vorchay's train of thought. "He lives a few leagues out of the city, in a small town called Brinkerstone. Do you think he could rally soldiers?"
"Not only the Palace Guard. He also has some strong ties to the monarchists." She glanced to Etrayos for verification and he gave a small nod. "But most of all, your power lies in the people. You should remember that."
"Why the people?"
"They love you, Ateth. They see you as the good Princess captured by the evil dragon," Vorchay said bluntly. "If you bring the power of the people to your side, then no one can stop you."
There was a rapid knock at the door. Atheur answered it, letting in a tall, gasping man. He held one hand to a wound.
"Sir, we haven't found Cavio, but we've found soldiers. Schotor has sent at least fifty men to detain you, the lady, and the Princess, under the charges of treason."
"So he did betray us," Vorchay said, eyes narrowed as she quickly calculated the situation. A plan was beginning to form in her mind.
She looked to Etrayos. He saw her plan as if he could read her thoughts and gave a sharp nod of agreement.
"Tell the others to start spreading rumors of a daring escape," Etrayos ordered, getting to his feet. "I want the stories wild, and I want them across the entire Kingdom by morning. Send the birds, if you have to."
The man looked surprised, but bowed and ran off to obey.
"Who is he?" Ateth asked Vorchay, looking to Etrayos curiously.
"Another strong ally," the Maelurian replied cryptically. "Atheur, would you run and get Avin for me? Meet us outside the south gate as soon as you can. And bring three other mounts, if you can." The boy nodded and ran off even as Vorchay strode across the room to her trunk. She opened it and began pulling out her armor, donning it swiftly.
"Is that really necessary?" Etrayos asked.
"Easier than carrying it. You might want to think about getting dressed as well."
"Not a bad idea. I'll meet you downstairs." He left.
Ateth was quiet as Vorchay armed herself, watching. "Who betrayed us? And how could they betray us when there wasn't a conspiracy yet?" she asked.
Vorchay buckled her sheath to the belt, tugging on it experimentally. "There's been one since I got here," she said honestly, going to the table. She began swiftly rolling up the maps and stuffing them in a bag. She passed the bag to Ateth. "Carry those, will you?"
"Why do you want me on the throne so bad?" Ateth insisted, scowling. "I know my people are suffering, but why should that matter to you? You're a foreigner from the north."
"Ateth, do my reasons matter so much?" Vorchay asked. "It's your right to be on that throne. Your people need you on that throne. If you don't get on that throne, you'll be married to Rchaveon. What other reasons do you need?"
"Yours," she said firmly. "You have to admit, it's rather strange for you to be helping me. Do you just want a Queen to owe you a favor?"
"No. I want someone competent on the Emud throne. And if you still think that's odd, you'll have to badger me about it later. Right now we need to be getting out of here."
Downstairs, Etrayos was waiting, dressed in black with a pack over one shoulder and a sword at his hip. When he saw them, he gave a sharp nod and led them out the back.
They crept through the city, moving swiftly to the south gate. Once there, they waited until the sound of hooves announced the coming of Atheur, leading a string of horses.
"Sorry I'm late. I had to circle around a group of soldiers," he whispered.
"It's all right. Did Diabli help you saddle them?"
"Of course. Avin's too tall for me to saddle her."
At a curt gesture from Etrayos, the portcullis rose just enough to allow them through, then closed behind them.
"Do you know the way to Brinkerstone?" Vorchay asked the Angeughvor.
"Naturally. This way."
The conspirators urged their horses on into the night, and disappeared from the capital city of Janabi.