It was a loud snap some five hundred feet away that woke Anladet in the middle of the night. While her eyes adjusted, she waited, hoping it had been a nightmare. From some place different there was a squelching sound, like someone stepping in mud. She snapped up a dome of silence and shook Al until he awoke.
“What?” he asked.
“Cultists,” she answered and heard him suck in a breath. “We’re in silence now.”
He still whispered. “What do we do?”
“Hope that they don’t find us.”
He shook his head. “Yes, but…” He slid up to his knees. “I had hoped for more time to recuperate before needing to use magic again.”
“Wait, Al.” But, he had already dug his fingers into his forearm and inhaled sharply.
“I need to be on the spot. If nothing else, at least I can hear them better. If we get attacked, I want you to run with Silfa.”
It wasn’t a great plan. Al could take out one, maybe two cultists. But, what about the others? There were sure to be several together. She couldn’t use her magic and also run with Silfa.
She saw a lantern approach their outcropping. By this point, Silfa had awoken and buried her head into Anla’s chest. “I’m going to drop the silence so that we can hear them, okay? Al, Silfa, we need to be extremely quiet.”
They both agreed and she counted down. “…a fire over here,” they heard. “Can’t tell when it was last used.”
“There are some footprints. Fresh. They were here.”
“Should we go on ahead or turn back? This is pointless trying to find them in the dark.”
“Would you like to go back to the masters and tell them you gave up?”
The man with the lantern stood in front of their camp. Anla held her breath while Al moved a leg to kneeling, balancing himself with one hand on the ground. They didn’t know how many were outside and therefore she hoped he had the common sense to only attack if the man found them.
“They could be in Hanala by now,” the man said as he started to move away. “They’re not here.”
“I don’t see any prints moving away.”
“And I don’t see anything at all! We don’t even know if this was them. If they were here, they would have kept the fire going. They either didn’t come this way or left yesterday.”
“We’ll head back, but this is on you.”
Anla listened hard to the sounds of the two men receding. After they were over a quarter mile away, she said, “We need to leave.”
“Agreed,” Al said. “Silfa, we’re sorry, but have to go. They’ll be back in a few hours to look for us and we don’t want to be here when they come.”
She nodded her head against Anla’s chest, then stood to get her things. The three tied rope to each other and began walking in the opposite direction. They stopped in a small town called Deshka, where they resupplied. Anla made sure that Silfa wore her cloak with the cowl up, should anyone be too nosy about who the girl was.
Exhausted, they camped out near the trail that evening and ate another dinner of stew, this time with much less desperation for seasoning. They played games and sang songs with Silfa, hoping that they could make the time she had spent with the cultists disappear. While she didn’t cry for her family anymore nor have any nightmares, Anladet especially worried the girl might have some lingering problems in the months to come.
They entered Hanala in the afternoon the next day and made it to the ducal palace around dinner time. They kept Silfa’s cowl up while she gripped Al’s torso, her head resting on his shoulder. He gave her a play-by-play of where they were and how close they were getting to her home, full of details given with an amazed tone of voice.
It was a hard building to miss, the palace. It wasn’t a heavily fortified monstrosity, like some castles Anla and Al had seen in their lifetimes, nor was it overly ornate. It did have a strong presence, a practicality that was subtle in the architecture without being daunting. The fence, for instance, was half stone and half wrought iron, rising ten feet and ending in arrow tips. The gardens, of what could be seen, weren’t filled with dainty flowers that needed constant care. They were manicured sections of local flowers, hardy but pretty.
The palace wasn’t on a large estate. It was mostly the chateau with a few side buildings for servants’ and guards’ quarters. It was surrounded on all sides by townhouses owned by the rich. They were the ones with the tiny gardens of Genale flowers, tropical, brightly colored, and fragile. They had the eyelash patterned fences and gingerbread under the eaves, the cobblestoned streets in constant repair. It was almost as if one could ignore the palace looming on the horizon and focus solely on their feet to guide them to the seat of the government for Sharka.
They circled around the perimeter until they found the street (named Riyala after the capital of Genale) that Silfa had suggested. It was quieter than the others and therefore less likely to attract a crowd.
“We’re almost home,” Al whispered to Silfa. They were across the street from one of the side gates. “What should we do?”
“Who’s at the gate?” Silfa asked.
There were six men, two outside and four inside. He described them all to Silfa, who rattled off their names. “You know all of the soldiers in your father’s household?” Anla asked.
Silfa nodded. “The peerage aren’t quite like you and I,” Al explained. “Anyone truly of noble blood, being slightly related to Magrithon, have some advantages. They call them ‘merits’. One of them is a good memory for names and faces.”
“That sounds like a strange power to have.”
“Not if you put yourself in their position. They meet thousands of people in their lifetime. It’s good for relations if you can identify people immediately.”
“You want to speak to Captain Raines and no one else,” Silfa said. “These men aren’t high enough to bring us to Daddy.”
“Okay,” he said, “here we go.”
They crossed the street and approached the soldier who looked the eldest. “Hold,” he said. “Turn away and go about your business.”
“Our business is with Captain Raines,” Al said.
“And what business is that?” the man asked, eyeing both Al and Anladet thoroughly. One of the other guards approached.
Al looked around and beckoned the man to come closer. When he did, Al moved Silfa’s cowl back enough so that the man could see her face. “We’re returning Lady Silfa home to the duke.”
The man’s thick eyebrows shot up even before he checked, studying Silfa’s face quickly. “Get the captain here, immediately!” he yelled. “Open the gate!” As if ready for just such an occasion, the two guards inside snapped smartly into their routines: the one on the left began unwinding the winch to open the sturdy gate while the other took off at a brusque pace inside.
Two stood next to gate while the third man tried to pry Silfa off of Al to no avail. She clung to him tightly and would not let go. “We’re all going in together!” she said firmly.
“Yes, m’lady,” the soldier replied and stepped back. The four soldiers made a protective arch around them, to keep anyone curious away from the group.
Captain Raines arrived within five minutes, asking the guard to debrief him before approaching. “Sir, please put down the Lady Silfa.”
“No!” she yelled. The captain stepped back a moment. “I want to stay with Al and Anla.”
“She’s grown rather attached to us,” Al explained. “If I hold her for a little bit farther, it won’t create a predicament, will it?”
“I suppose not,” the captain said. He walked right in front of the three of them while they were flanked by eight new soldiers the captain had brought with him.
The three were escorted past a courtyard with grass and beds of flowering trees. The doors to a side atrium were opened for them by servants. Inside, the doors to the next room were made of an exotic wood with glass insets. Gold inlaid a border and clustered at the handle, which were opened by the same men.
Al looked over at Anladet and became painfully aware at how offensive they must be to the nobility. He hadn’t bathed since Outrick. He hadn’t brushed his hair, which he assumed was sticking up wildly. Anladet was still wearing the same pair of men’s trousers and button down shirt she had when they first met. He skin and face were covered with dust from the road, save for the tracks her sweat had run down. At least her hair was clean from her bath a few days ago.
Their steps slowed as they entered the main lobby for the seat of the duchy. Just the chandelier alone, a majestic artistic piece of crystal and colored glass, was enough to cause Al to gawk. He turned to Anladet, to see her reaction and was surprised to see her looking down in sad contemplation.
“Silvie?” someone called from one of the wings. A woman wearing a dark purple velvet dress and heeled shoes that echoed throughout the hallway emerged from the left. Decorum would have dictated she not run, but motherhood often trumped situations like this. She picked up the many layers of skirts in her fists and covered the distance in mere moments. When Lady Silfa began to squirm, Al bent over and let her down. She ran into her mother’s arms, hugging her tightly. The duchess had collapsed to the floor and rocked her daughter back and forth, smoothing her tangled hair.
Al folded his hands and looked away, to give them privacy. When he looked up, the two of them were gone. In fact, everyone had left the room in quite a hurry, even the servants. There were no thanks from anyone.
“I don’t like this,” Anladet said.
“Well, we’re here at least. They wouldn’t expect us to show ourselves out.”
A few minutes later, a majordomo stepped in from the right wing. “This way,” he said, not looking at either of them. He led Al and Anla through a conference room, a library, and a parlor, before opening the door to a room and closing it behind them.
Behind an ornate desk, signing paperwork, sat the Duke of Sharka. Al, who had never met a nobleman aside from the third son of an viscount who had attended several classes with him, was less than impressed. The man was balding and had a weak chin. His clothing looked disheveled. Wrinkles lined the sides of his eyes and cut a deep furrow into his jowls. His eyes were bagged and dark underneath, though perhaps that was a recent issue due to a lack of sleep from worry. He didn’t paint the regal picture of virility and grace Al assumed all the nobles bore.
The duke looked up quickly and looked as if he wanted to say something before he eyed them up and down. He looked down at his work again and didn’t offer them a seat. Al wouldn’t have wanted to sully the man’s cushions anyway. “The head of my guards tells me you brought my daughter back.”
“That’s correct, Your Grace.”
“I’m .rd Alpine Gray and this is my partner, Anladet.”
“…Deerborn Auchindol,” she finished for him.
The duke nodded briefly. “And how is it that you found my daughter when all other groups failed?”
Alpine hadn’t expected the return of the duke’s daughter to come with an inquisition. He hadn’t had any time to come up with a story that would cover Anladet’s gifts. He cleared his throat. “Your Grace, I arrived in Hanala two weeks ago looking for work as a wizard. I happened to run into my partner perhaps a week ago, who informed me about the kidnapping of Lady Silfa. We discussed our options and decided we could offer something more to the investigation by forming a team and trying ourselves.
“We found our first clue near the palace. It was a scrap of a uniform with Magrithon’s sun sigil on it. We determined that, unlike what most people thought, we weren’t dealing with a political situation. We headed west and caught up to the group four days ago near the Great Gheny Bay. We captured one of the guards and he told us to find the lady in a tent near the water. Nearby was a group of men worshiping Magrithon in a perverse way. Anladet swam in the water and snuck in through the back, freeing the lady from her bonds. They swam to where I was and we took off before the men suspected our subterfuge. We trekked through the woods due east to Hanala and only arrived a short time ago.”
Al finished speaking and waited. The duke said nothing. In fact, Al was unsure if he had heard him at all. Finally, the duke finished writing and looked up. “An exemplary tale, wizard. There are a few issues.”
“Issues, Your Grace?”
“Yes, issues. Holes large enough to drive carriages through. You say you came to Hanala a few weeks ago, looking for work. Did you know that I take special interest in knowing the names of all the wizards employed in Hanala? It’s always good to know the names of talented, intelligent individuals in your city, should you need to call upon them for whatever reason. We do tend to get a fresh batch of wizards from Amandorlam shortly after graduation, but that was months ago. This year was also a Cyan year, not a Gray year, so your name would have stuck out to me in the registry. Yet, I do not recall your name being on there. Either you broke the law by not registering or you were never here. Or, and this seems more likely, you aren’t even a wizard.
“You also say you found a scrap of uniform from these Magrithon worshipers when my men combed the grounds looking for anything, anything out of place. I even joined the men looking and I do not consider myself poor when it comes to those skills.” The Duke stood, leaning against the table with his palms flat. “So, am I to assume two unskilled people found something where hundreds of men, where I, failed?
Al’s mouth was dry. He looked over quickly at Anladet, who was backing away towards the door.
“Do you know what I think, ‘wizard’? I think you and your partner kidnapped my daughter in hopes that I would offer a sizable reward. You made up this story about this group of men while you hid in the city. You waited a few days, then came for the money. Is that right? Do I have the gist of things?”
“S-sir, Your Grace, n-no,” Al stammered.
“Always, Al,” Anla said under her breath. “They always try to take everything from you. Let’s go.”
“No, you won’t be leaving,” the Duke said, his face red with anger. “You’re under arrest for the kidnapping of my daughter, Lady Silfa.”