Chapter Twenty-Three

"Please let him go. You must have the wrong man. My boy could never do something like this. There must be some mistake, Emeret wouldn't hurt a fly!"

With a leaden heart, Idana watched as Laina was escorted out of the guardhouse. As they crossed the threshold, the innkeeper fell to her knees, cradling her head in her hands as she wept. One of the knights looked ready to drag her back up but his companion shook his head. There, they left her.

A better person would have taken the time to comfort the grieving mother. Lacet, as awkward as his bedside manner could be, was one such man. It did not matter if the world was ending, her master would always extend a hand to someone in need.

But time was of the essence. She had spent most of the hours since lunch searching for where Emeret had been held. Come the next morning and Idana was certain that there would be blisters on her feet. It had been worth it, though, that final push. Lady luck, it seemed, had yet to desert her.

As she passed Laina, Idana placed a hand on the woman's shoulder and gave it a supportive squeeze. When the innkeeper looked up, Idana forced a gentle smile to her lips. "It's going to be all right," she said, lowering her voice to maintain the disguise she had finally settled upon.

Several emotions darted across Laina's face, until only one remained. "I just want my son back, ma'am."

The defeated resignation in Laina's voice, accompanied by the look of utter dejection, was gut wrenching. It felt as if someone had reached into her chest and was crushing the insides. A very big part of her wanted to abandon the foolish errand she had set herself and give the innkeeper a hug.

"We'll see what can be done," said Idana, swallowing past the lump in her throat. It was as good a promise as any.

Knowing there was little else she could do, Idana sidestepped Laina and entered the dimly lit interior of the guardhouse. She was met by a giant of a man looming from behind a heavy desk that was covered by several stacks of, what appeared from a quick glance to be, important documents and reports.

"Name?" he growled as she approached.

"Anais of House Yaelyn," replied Idana, trying to inject as much of the swagger that the noble would have surely used.

The scratching of the quill stopped. Raising his head, the guard stared at her for several heart-racing moments as she wondered desperately if her illusion would hold up under closer scrutiny.

"Odd for you to come down personally," said the giant. "I'm assuming what happened yesterday is true, though the kid don't look much like someone willing to stick Lord Rothfarin with the sharp end. Could hardly believe it when they brought him down here."

Idana shrugged. "It's the quiet ones. They always surprise you."

"Too true." He rose to his feet. "Come on, the faster I take you down, the sooner you'll be out of my hair and I can resume counting out my winnings from last night. Don't suppose your father will want to keep this visit out of the official records?"

Mind still racing at how easy it had been to gain an audience with Emeret, Idana merely grunted an assent. It seemed good enough for the guard, who led her down a flight of stairs. A right, then a left and finally they were standing outside a heavy wooden door. When they arrived, the giant pulled out a large ring of keys. There seemed to be a dozen of the little silver, brass and copper things. What they used for, Idana could only guess. There weren't enough cells in this guardhouse located on the far side of the plaza.

Finally, he picked out a nondescript key and inserted it into the lock. The door clicked open when he turned it. "He's all yours, milady. Call for me when you're done. I'll be waiting out here."

She thanked him as politely as she knew how. The blond giant looked at her, a quizzical expression on his face. He opened his mouth to say something more, but by then Idana had waltzed in and gave him a jaunty wave. That seemed to satisfy the man and he left.

When the footsteps had faded, Idana allowed her carefully constructed mask slip. Instinctively, Idana knew she had slipped up. At all the other guardhouses she had stopped by, the guards had treated Anais with the expected deference that was usually reserved for the nobility. Here, however, it seemed as if the man knew House Yaelyn personally.

Why was that?

Qina had often said that Anais and her brother knew things that were beyond the purvey of their station. And while she had shrugged it off, perhaps there was a kernel of truth to the maid's words. It certainly seemed like there was much more beyond the surface of the silver-tongued noble and her brother.

Still, that was a mystery better left to another day, decided Idana. Right now, she needed to find Emeret.

The cells were poorly lit. For a few minutes, Idana stumbled around in the dark. It was not until she had tripped against the third loose cobblestone that she had the foresight to conjure a little fire in the palm of her hands. When she did so, many of the prisoners reared back. Some looked like rabid animals, their clothing in tatters and their ribs all but poking through the skin. Others seemed almost regal in appearance and sneered as she walked past.

"Please, please, please. Let me out! It wasn't me! It wasn't me!" Standing right at the bars was a young woman. Her short hair was tied into an unkempt bun. Grey stains covered her teeth and her eyes were bloodshot. She wore a simple smock, one that indicated middling wealth.

Idana tried her best to ignore the woman's pleas as she walked past.

Locked in the last cell, head down and rocking gently back and forth was Emeret. Under his breath, he was muttering something unintelligible. She felt her stomach drop at the sight of her friend. A part of her yearned to break him out and return him to his mother. Yet, such a thing was impossible. He stood accused for murder most foul. If he went missing, questions would be asked.

No, she needed to play it safe. Perhaps then, she could prove his innocence. But first, Idana needed answers. And she needed them yesterday.

Emeret only looked up when she rattled the bars a third time and called out his name. "Who are you?" he asked, voice exhausted.

Did she tell him the truth or continue the charade? In the end, the answer was simple. Though it had taken her hours to perfect the disguise, she would simply have to bluff her way out of the guardhouse. The glamour would have to fall.

"I'll tell you what I told the others: my mother had nothing to do with it. What I did, I chose to do of my own free will. Lord Rothfarin was a snake and he was poisoning this once great nation." There was little venom in his tone as Emeret said this. He might be a few years older than her, but Idana could see the tremble in his lips and the strain that the web of lies he had spun was costing him.

"It's me, Emeret," she said, dropping the spell and allowing him to see her as she truly was – albeit with a few little enhancements from Anais' collection of powders and rouge.

He seemed to flinch back, as if struck, surprise writ clear on his features. There was a moment of silence as he tried to understand what was happening. "You shouldn't be here, Idana," he hissed under his breath. "This place isn't safe for you."

She winked at him. "It's going to take much more than a murder to get rid of me, dear Emeret. You know that, already. I have magic and I've been studying up new ways to use them for maximum effect."

"These people aren't ruffians on the street! They won't be so easily intimidated by a bombastic display of spellwork. And if you had any sense in that head of yours, you'd return to Lastrune." A tinge of hysteria entered his voice, accompanied by a glint of madness in his eyes as he leaned towards the bars of the cell. "Take my mother and go! The both of you are in grave danger. Now that I've failed, they'll come for her next."

"I saw her outside," admitted Idana. "She's incredibly distraught, Emeret, but she didn't appear to be in any danger. Who are 'they' Emeret? Why would they want to target your mother?"

Her response seemed only served to agitate the messenger further. He rose to his feet and began pacing around the small cell he was confined in. Idana watched as Emeret ran a nervous hand through his matted brown hair.

"You must promise me that you will do all that I ask, Idana. For my sake and my mother's. Please," he said finally. When she did not immediately reply, he reached one hand through and grabbed her roughly around the lapels. "Swear it to me."

There was nothing else for it. Not after she had seen the shell of the man standing before her. Idana acquiesced.

Satisfied, Emeret told her all that he knew. He spoke slowly at first, struggling to find the words as he warred with both fear for his own life and the desire to protect his only family.

Nearly two months ago, he had been recruited by, what he had thought of a time, like-minded individuals. There had been pamphlets aplenty that had been handed out on Academy grounds and near his place of residence. Meetings had been held all across the city of Wyndhaven – in warehouses or in shops. It was meant to be a place for where like-minded individuals, disillusioned by the ways of the city, could gather and voice their frustrations about their lot in life. Whether that was due to not having a drop of magic in their blood or carrying the prestige of a blue-blood.

He had met many people that he thought were friends. People that understood how he felt. People that saw him more than just the son to one of the local innkeepers of the city. Promises had been made for a better life. And, at the time, the price did not seem very high at all. A few favours, here and there. That was all it had supposed to be.

Most shocking of all, Emeret admitted, was how he had so easily bought into their rhetoric. Focused on the ills that had plagued his life, he had swallowed their talk of change with ease. He allowed them to stoke his anger until it was far too late to back out.

"Why did you do it?"

To his credit, Emeret chose not to feign ignorance as to what her question was alluding to. He bowed his head. "It was for my mother. I didn't want to do it. Lord Rothfarin may have represented everything I hated about the current system, but to kill him? That was too extreme. Even for me."

"Yet you did," said Idana.

The accusation hung between them for several long moments. "What else was I to do? Though I did not know it, they had made me accomplice to their crimes. The Crown Prince's poisoning, the assaults in Everrun, and the violent protests that shook the streets before you had arrived in the capital. I played an instrumental role because of my status as a royal messenger."

Idana shook her head. "Couldn't you have told someone all this? Why didn't you make preparations to leave the city?"

His lips trembled. For a few precious seconds, Idana wondered if he had lost his nerve. That Emeret would clam up and refuse to speak.

After what felt like eons, the messenger looked her in the eye, heat in his voice. "They threatened me. Then they threatened my mother. If I reached out for help, they would kill her then and there." He slammed a hand against the metal bars. "What was I supposed to do, Idana? I don't have magic, at least not on your scale. And I don't have wealth or social standing. Who would believe me? Who would protect us? I did what anyone else in my situation would have done! That doesn't make me weak!"

By the end of the short tirade, he was breathing heavily. Knowing that she had pressed a nerve, Idana chose to wisely back off. Silence passed between them until she remembered that he had extracted a promise from her. "What now?"

"I don't expect a pardon," said Emeret. "What I entrust upon you, Idana, is this: tell King Delion what is happening. Warn him of the danger. This group that I was a part of, they won't stop. And if Lord Rothfarin was marked for death because he asked too many questions, I shudder to think what they might now do to further their plans. I've already failed. It doesn't matter what happens to me now. Just make sure the King keeps my mother safe."

It was a simple request, really. One she could easily have done. Yet the thought of crawling back to the King, without having redeemed her good name, felt like ashes in her mouth. Even if she was able to save the life of Laina. She was supposed to solve the mystery behind who had poisoned the Crown Prince. No one else. In her head, she had envisaged marching the perpetrator through the main entrance of the palace and presenting them to the King as a gift as he held court. And then, in return, her master would be returned with her. As hale and hearty as he had ever been with nary a scratch on him.

But perhaps such a thing was unrealistic, thought Idana. A fanciful scenario conjured by a child. She was not in Lastrune anymore. Nor was she in one of the many stories she had read over the years.

When she returned to her rooms, Idana was quick to remove the hastily constructed glamour. It was so much better walking around in her own skin. What if Anais or Qina had walked in while she was disguised? She knew, without a doubt, that there would have been questions aplenty. Though, now that she thought on it, it was passingly strange that she had not encountered either of them for the entire day.

Slumping down in the armchair she had claimed as her own, Idana ran through the conversation she had shared with Emeret. He had never said how soon she was to warn King Delion. For all intents and purposes, she could tell the monarch everything that Emeret had revealed once she had restored her standing with the King.

To do so, however, would break the trust of a person she had come to respect and like. It was selfish and deceitful. Quite frankly, argued a very vocal part of her, it served no purpose keeping everything she had learned secret. Hadn't Lacet taught her better?

She knew well what she ought to do. Knew what the right thing to do was. But there was also a very small voice, a devilish one, that whispered of tempting futures. Even though she knew it was not in her best interest to listen to it, Idana found it difficult to resist.

The belltower tolled the hour and Idana jolted at how late it was. Despite all of her hemming and hawing, she was still no closer to a decision. Everything had been so much simpler back home. It was all medicine and cures. There was none of the political manoeuvring that was such an intrinsic part of life in the palace. She did not have to worry about whether her words would put her in good standing with the court. A shame that she had never before appreciated the black and white nature of being an apothecary, her duties clear cut.

Suppressing a yawn, Idana rose to her feet. Her stomach grumbled in protest, but she ignored it. Dinner and supper were long since gone. Besides, she could not have entered any old restaurant or café on the streets of Wyndhaven wearing the face of Lady Anais of House Yaelyn. There would have been talk and then her ruse would have been discovered.

Then there was the fact that though they had become fast friends, there was so much she did not know about the silver-tongued noble. Who was Anais, really? And what kind of influence did her family wield?

The actions of the blond giant had surprised her. Worse of all, she had fumbled the role she had chosen to play. Thank Amoleth that the guard had not asked any more questions when she had left. In fact, he had barely acknowledged her presence when she had bid him farewell.

Before she could retire to bed, there was a knock at the door.

"Lady Idana, are you there? I've brought you some supper." Idana allowed a smile to grace her lips as she recognised the voice. Qina. It had to be.

With a simple twist of her hand and just a touch of magic, the door opened and in stepped the maid. Qina hid her surprise well when she saw that Idana was still near the hearth, though she did raise her eyebrows just like how Lacet would when she had magic in such a frivolous manner.

"Have you had dinner yet, Lady Idana? I brought a little of everything, if it pleases you. Don't worry, I had the kitchen warm it up in case you were hungry." Qina set the tray down on the small table near the door and removed the lid.

Like a trained dog, Idana began to immediately salivate at the mere scent. On unsteady feet, she approached, wondering what wondrous feats the cook had conjured up. Piled high on the small dish were all manner of food: from desserts to slices of roast beef or wild boar.

Wyndhaven had ruined any chance of once more enjoying the assortment of fruits, steamed vegetables and bread that made up most of her meals in Lastrune.

"How is it that you always know when to bring food?" asked Idana around a mouthful of tender veal. "It's almost ten. Most people would be abed by now, or close to it."

"Well, Lady Idana, I didn't see you this evening and I was a little concerned. Of course, I came right here after dinner, but you weren't here. You might have noticed Min has left for the evening. I let her out, you see. She was quite frantic when I got here."

Now that Qina had mentioned it, it had seemed strange that the familiar had not greeted her upon arrival. But that was Qina, through and through. Always looking out for the needs of others instead of her own. And just like that, her mind wandered back to the conversation she had shared with Emeret. Hells, what was she to do?

Idana set down the fork, mid-bite. The guilt squirmed through her insides, unsettling her stomach. Her appetite vanished and she stared despondently at the remaining food. Moodily, she pushed around a few stray peas and corn. She knew that the truth would only complicate matters.

"I know we talked about it briefly yesterday, but I was still reeling from everything that happened," began Idana. "Even now, I can't understand why or how Emeret would have done such a thing. He was my friend. Shouldn't I have seen the signs?"

"You can't blame yourself, Lady Idana."

"What would you have done, then, if I had killed Anais? Or if she had slain me with her sword?"

"Oh Goddess, how could you even ask me something like that! I know you only mean to process your thoughts about last night, I hope it is something that will never happen. The two of you have become so close these last few weeks that such a thing would be incomprehensible," said Qina as she straightened her dress and picked at the lint on her long sleeves.

"You didn't answer my question."

"And why would I, Lady Idana? Best not to dwell on such things. Now, if that is all, Lady Idana, I really must be going. As you've said, it's quite late and tomorrow promises to be yet another exhausting day."

Qina's response only served to aggravate the guilt that was slowly swallowing her whole. Against her better judgement, she pressed Qina further as she picked up the tray and was about to leave. "Humour me, Qina, please. Just this once. If I were to stab Anais with a dagger and leave her bleeding on the floor of the grand hall, what would be your immediate thought?"

"That you had lost your mind, perhaps," answered Qina. "Honestly, Lady Idana, it's bad enough that something like this should happen in the capital. Can we not move on to a topic that isn't so frightening and violent?"

"What if I said, before the knights took me away, that I had only done it under extreme duress? That some secret organisation had ordered me to do so because they would kill you if I didn't? What then, Qina? Would you inform the King? Or would you stake your position here in the palace and dig deeper in order to the find the truth of the matter?"

"Oh, Lady Idana, I don't see the point of all this. I know that you feel responsible, but none of us could have foreseen what happened. Give it time, Lady Idana. The Crown will see that justice is served. One way or the other." With that, the maid gave a shallow curtsy and headed for the door.

Alone once more, Idana made sure that the door was locked. For good measure, she conjured up a barrier of air so that even if someone with a key decided to visit again, they would find the entrance barred. Less than satisfied with how the conversation had ended, Idana retired to her sleeping quarters.

As she lay on the bed, staring up at the magnificently decorated arches in the ceiling, Idana found it difficult to drift away into the land of dreams. Her thoughts were churning a million miles a minute. It had been wrong to push her worries onto Qina. To use her as a means of justifying her actions and alleviating the host of emotions that were battling for dominance in the pit of her stomach.

When oblivion finally claimed her, Idana had reached a tentative decision after tossing and turning for several hours. She would honour her promise with Emeret. After all, it was the right thing to do.