TAB Chapter 8
Quest For a Dying Ember
Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight
Luka Rowe - Part 2
It could have been a mistake to think there wouldn't be many people here. This is the sort of miscalculation that could have had a disastrous effect on my plans back home. There, most everyone has seen my face before and will see it again. There, a sound or a stray step could give me away and alert store owners of my whereabouts. If I had known about a crowd this size back there, I would have given up and gone home empty-handed. But, I'm not there. I'm not home with the same people as always, and a fault like this won't affect me now. Or, it shouldn't, at least.
I can see the outer walls over their heads. It's not as smooth as I thought it would be. Not made of level stone or evened out with grout or mortar. Instead the uneven stones are stacked together. Melted together even. It's hard to tell when one ends and the next begins. Stuck in between each layer, there are thin vines. Delicate little things that probably flower in the early spring. All in all, this border isn't anything like I imagined. Not even the iron gate. It's lowered, denying passage to the flood of hopeful people; People slowly growing more agitated. louder, pressing forward with more ferocity.
"What's the meaning of this!" A young man shouts, pressing himself against the metal bars. "Has his majesty forgotten to tell his own men of the guests he's invited?" The crowd grumbles, jeering at the guards on the other side of the gate. Even though the guards are wearing heavy armor it's not difficult to see their strength. It must be the way they stand. Straight, with harsh gazes cast out towards the mob. "Have you gone deaf? Or are people like you naturally dense?" The crowd chuckles, pushing even closer. A younger guard with a helmet fitting tightly to his plump face springs to life. But his expression is still frozen, like a spiteful stone, angrily provoked. "Look at that! they are awake!" The man chuckles, pressing his face closer to the guard. "Well, you gonna let us through or what?" The guard pauses, leaning his halberd against the stone wall. Then, slowly, he turns to face the man. And without a change of expression, he punches the gearing man through the bars. sending him lurching back into the suddenly silent crowd. The two closest to the gate, standing directly behind him step to the side, the man pulling back a girl wearing a large bonnet, defending her with one arm. The guard sniffs, dragging his now reddened fingers under his round nose.
"Listen here!" the guard shouts. "I haven't the smallest idea what mania it is that has brought you here, but if this persists," his hand floats back to its place on the handle of his weapon. "Force will be used." His eyes travel back to the man, now stumbling back into the mass. Hand covering his mouth that had only seconds ago been smiling. His chin looks wet.
The crowd doesn't know what to do. How could they? They were promised this chance; has it been canceled? Some of them are still holding the crumpled papers like they are supposed to be tickets. But they aren't. They're nullified. They shift, mutter, and a few push their way back down the path in defeat. I slip to the side of the door and move to the sturdy wall just outside of the path. Is that the wise thing to do here? To return home? To the families they left behind? Would they welcome them, even if they disappeared days before? Or, would they be angry? Would they criticize them for being rash and careless? Would those people be banned from that exploration they craved for? Or, would it even matter? Would they even care?
No. I shake my head. I don't have to think of such things. After all, how could I turn back now? I just wanted to see what it's like, and I'm so close! I've made it this far, and won’t be discouraged by a wall. A single wall has never been trouble for me before.
I glance down to the left, away from the gate and up a nearby hill. A small grove of trees has grown there, it actually looks like its spread to either side of the wall. They're much taller than the ones we would grow back home. From the looks of it, they provide much better shelter than a small, crowded alleyway. The crowd seems distracted by itself, wriggling along with people trying to get closer to the gate, and more trying to turn back. It's a mess. They won't notice so I leave the path and walk up the neighboring hill.
The trees provide more than enough shelter. I can barely see the horde from here and I doubt they'll be able to see me in this shade. The wall is overgrown. There are more of those vines than before. Some of them have tiny thorns among the leaves. I can smell something sweet coming from the other side, like citrus and honey. It's a delicate smell. Like the market during the winter when we don't have to worry about food. Fresh and warm.
My eyes quickly scan up and down the wall. There are handholds and places I can slip the tips of my boots. The challenge will be getting over quietly. I don't want to be found out as soon as I poke my head over the wall. I find a sturdy place to put my hands, and pull myself up.
There's a garden here. Not like the orchards I'm used to, even though there are delicately shaped cherry trees. Instead, I'm faced by rows upon rows of perfume smelling flowers and full mint bushes, interrupted on occasion by smooth stone pathways, similar to the ones that carry throughout the capital city. It's lively, with small insects, and colorful songbirds hunting them down, water features in the center of road forks. And, two people. Two guards, facing out towards another, much smaller gate.
They're just standing there like they’re scarecrows, scarecrows who lurch sharply at the birds who land too close to their feet. Scarecrows armed with uniform halberds, much like the indifferent guards standing watch at the front gate. Quickly, I dodge behind a large dogwood trunk. The fallen white petals make the ground a much quieter place to watch from. They don't move. Rather, they stay bound to the quiet path before them. The scenery on that side of the palace is almost entirely different. A sharp slope downhill, followed by a level looking path big enough to fit that carriage I saw a few days ago. The expensive, sturdy kind. Nobody's coming up that path, yet they stay fixed on it anyway.
On the other side of the garden is yet another wall, this time with a large, empty arch where I imagine an iron gate should go, but there clearly is not. The path cutting through the flower beds leads straight up to it, but I doubt taking that path would be a good idea. It's entirely unprotected, and the stones could easily echo against the soles of my shoes. So, shelter. Past this point it fades some, only having lower shrubbery and thin wisps of trees. Not enough to loiter behind. If I'm gonna make a break for it, I have to quickly.
I glance back towards the guards who are frozen, unmoving. The wall is quite tall, crumbling in some places too. They must be expecting a sound to alarm them. Quickly, I slink out from behind the sturdy dogwood, dodging its fallen twigs. I duck behind what looks like a droopy red camellia and check their positions again. still, nothing. I crawl down a slope, towards a low round juniper. Somethings coming. Someone! I leap behind the thick evergreen just in time, before another guard jogs out into the garden. He trots straight past me, down the path, and to the other guards who turn to greet him.
"There's been a breach," He spits, in a similarly deep voice to the guard from the front.
"What, did ya open the door for them?" the larger of the three chuckles. They fall silent for a moment. A second that's thick like hot caramel and just as dangerous.
"You," the first guard says. "Come round them up."
"How many are there?" another, smaller voice asks.
"Enough. And strong enough to lift the gate together."
"Right," he replies quickly. I hear a shifting of armor, and the two of them march back down the stone path, leaving me behind with someone much more alert.
He whistles, pauses, glances on either side of the wall, then leans against the sturdy stones. Not like before; not focused, or formal, in any way predictable. I sigh. This isn't as easy as it is back home. Normally, I wouldn't have to sit still like this. My legs are already sore from all the walking, and sitting on them like this isn't doing me any favors. I glance back at him, balancing his weapon against the adjacent wall. The arch isn't too far in the other direction, just a few yards really. If I go quickly and leap the last flower bed I could make it in a matter of seconds. A few seconds undefended, but a risk I'm willing to take today.
I'm so close.
I edge my way around the evergreen and crouch down. I glance back, one last time. Then, before I can regret my rashness, I spring forward. Past the young plum, over a bed of marigolds, around a harshly trimmed thyme.The second my shoes hit the stone, I'm inside. But, I don't stop. I keep up my pace,racing away from where the front gates should be.
I only start to slow past the third corner. where the hall opens up and is lined with dark, wooden doors. The wall facing outwards is spread with warped, colorful glass arranged to look like plants, people, and even beasts. Those tiny shards must magnify the light. The whole hallway feels warm, but not stuffy like my home in the winter when we keep the fire running as long as it'll live. This is more like how I imagine the sun feels like. So bright even the air around it relaxes.
The pattern of doors is interrupted on occasion by wall hangings: a painting of a white cat, elaborate swords hung up and framed. I pause and inspect their well-polished blades. I doubt they've been used in ages, if ever at all. Actually, the handles look like they've been imbued with sapphires, like they’re supposed to cut the hand of the user as well as the body of their enemies.
"What a useless thing," I chuckle to myself. A hurt hand can be ruinous as it heals. You can't work, or play, or fight, or do anything useful without worsening the scar. I can see my face in the blade. Is that a sign of how sharp it is? I look closer. No, it must be distorted. It's only been a day since I last combed through my hair, and I never rubbed mud on my face. I wipe my cheek with my sleeve, turning away from the sight. I don't need to worry about such a thing right now. I wouldn't have the time to fix it properly.
I step away, looking back down the bright hall, only to freeze. Someone's there. She's tall, healthy-looking, and clean. She's wearing a white dress that hangs elegantly down her poised frame; it makes a shocking contrast to the warm, umber color of her skin. A noblewoman. One who sees me, one who could very easily call for guards and end my travels here. Unless I can come up with something, and fast.
"Oh!" I say quickly, surprised. Widening my eyes and tucking a strand of loose hair behind my ear. "H-hello Miss," I quickly bow my head, polite before glancing around the hall, like someone who doesn't quite know where they are. She looks at me, with focused, clever eyes. Then she picks up her pace, walking faster. I fight the urge to turn and run back the way I came. But, if she's approaching me, that means she might not call for those armed men. I could get away from a confrontation with her. She stops, only a few lengths away from me. "Miss?" She glances behind me into the empty hall, then again behind herself.
"Sorry," she says softly like she's afraid someone could hear her. Like she could be in a similar position as myself. "Do you know where the meeting is?"
"Meeting?" I shake my head, mimicking her light tone. "I think I've gone and gotten myself lost." I chuckle. "Never was good with directions, not that they gave us any, to begin with."
"That's too bad." she sighs, crossing her arms. Her eyes bounce around the hall, on a constant swivel. After all, most people don't trust their ears in the same way I do. What a tiring thing to have to deal with, when you don't want to be found.
"Luka Rowe," I say, holding out a less scuffed hand and offering a smile. She glances down, hesitates, then takes it.
"Alexandra Fabian," she nods.
"The pleasure's mine!" I chirp. Her lips twitch like they want to smile, but don't quite remember how to right now. "So, I'm guessing you got one of his majesty's invitations?" I ask, tilting my head slightly. Actually, I wouldn't be too surprised. She looks like a clever, educated sort. like the more wealthy merchants who would come through town. Only, it seems to me she lacks that cruel ruthlessness that frightened local business owners. It wouldn't be entirely unrealistic if more people like her came through for the challenge.
"Yes, you as well?" I nod.
"Wow," I mutter as if to myself, but clear enough for her to hear "I guess all sorts of folks are coming for this!"
"There are more?" she looks surprised, glancing back past me.
"There had to be a couple hundred out by the front gate, didn't you see them?" She shakes her head.
"I came in from a different direction," she mutters, fiddling with a large, beautiful pendant hanging around her neck. It couldn't have been cheap.
"Oh, that's smart of you! It was a real mess out there, probably still is, to tell the truth." her shoulders drop, her face too. I wouldn't be surprised if she had to sneak in as well. She wouldn't be used to doing something like that. It couldn't have felt good. "Hey," I say tenderly. "Do you want to look together?"
"You know, for the meeting place?" I pause, glancing behind her. Not that I heard anything, but it's always comforting to know you have a second set of eyes on your side. "For some reason, I think I'd miss it on my own." I shrug. "Wouldn't it be better if we help each other out here?" She pauses, glancing in the same direction I had.
"Are you sure?" She mutters, before glancing down at her hands. "What if we both miss it?"
"What?" I giggle again. "Well, Miss Fabian, I've always been told that positivity is a strength!" I say, pointing to the corner of my wide smile. "Really, what could it hurt?" Her eyes look confused, but not angry or sad like when someone notices something of theirs is missing. Moreso, like she’s just surprised. She sighs, then nods her head.
"Sure." She smiles cautiously. "Right, what could it hurt?"
Each hall of the castle differs from the last. The second we turned the corner from the stained glass hall, the walls turned dark. Like they hadn't quite calculated for how far the sunlight would reach, and expected us to run on only the memory of the light. Then there was a hall devoted to stone alcoves with little metallic trinkets. Diamond encrusted eggs, oversized headdresses, small decorative daggers, and intricate music boxes. Truly a beautiful collection of things that could have fit in my bag, if I weren't with someone. Not like I'd know what to do with them past the point. I can’t possibly pawn them off, and they look useless and gaudy.
The next hall was lined with large, painted portraits. Past royalty and their families, their luxurious gowns, and elegant positioning. Like, if they were to start moving, they would move like Miss Fabian. Her eyes are watchful, darting from side to side as she walks just a little faster than I normally would. She looks the part. That is to say, If she were in one of these portraits, I might miss her. Mistake her for a past royal. She's probably the type of person who will win this. She just looks the type they'll want.
"Hey, Miss Fabian," I whisper. Don't be harsh with your voice after such a long silence. That only startles others. "Is there any reason, in particular, you decided to take this journey?"
"What do you mean?" She mutters, glancing up at a painting of a large woman in a pink velvet gown.
"Well, forgive me for guessing," I say, speeding up to walk beside her. "but it looks to me like you probably already had something at home, like the only reason you would take a chance like this is because you want something." I pause, glancing up to her relaxed face. "Or, is that just folly?"
"No, you're not wrong." She shakes her head.
"Oh!" I say excitedly, pressing my hands together. I was right! She is nobility, someone already familiar with this system, unlike myself. She glances down at me again. She probably hadn't expected my outburst. "T-then, Miss Fabian, can I ask what you wanted?" I say, shyly this time, folding my hands in front of myself.
"What I wanted?" she repeats.
"there must be a reason, right?"
"Yes," she nods, glancing back up to another portrait, this time of a man in gold armor. "It's complicated," she says, shaking her head. "I just thought there are some things we could do to make Amorith a better place. For everyone."
"Oh, Miss Fabian, that's so..."
There's a creaking sound, it's coming from behind us. I turn around in time to see a young man, with dirty blonde hair half stager from the doorway we just passed. He pauses, sees me, then Miss Fabian. But, when their eyes meet, his sharpen into something that could cause us more trouble than seeing a random noble or maid. He recognizes her.
"Alexandra," He says in a low, level voice. The kind that has to be rehearsed. The kind someone uses when they don't want to convey much of what's happening beneath. "What are you doing here?" He glances back to me, sharply with the same intensity, "And, who's this?"
"Luka Rowe, Sir," I say, bowing my head quickly. Enough to dismiss the strangeness of my own presence, but I doubt I'll be able to do anything in Miss Fabian's favor. That has to be up to her. He nods curtly, turning back to her instead.
"So, I thought they kept you busy tending gardens and reading wordy books. Have you gotten bored of those little things?" Her jaw tenses, before cracking into a painful-looking grin.
"It has been a while now, hasn't it Durmad?" He huffs.
"Now, what have you told her? Dragging a girl along with you, have you forgotten your place?" Mis Fabian's hands clench together, in a way that would leave little crescent moons in her palms.
"Sir," I smile up to him. "I don't think I understand you, I was the one to suggest looking together," I pause, as he glances back at me confused. "Is something wrong?" He clears his throat, stepping closer to me, almost as if to frighten away Miss Fabian with his presence.
"Well, Miss," he pauses.
"Luka, sir. Please call me Luka."
"Luka then." He shakes his head. "I would understand it if you've never heard of her before," he says, glancing over to the even more, angered Alexandra. "But trust me when I say, it would be better for you to stay away from the likes of her."
"Why?" I ask, tilting my head. "She seems like a lovely person to me, am I missing something?" I glance back to her again, and it looks like her elegant face is being stretched thin. Like she would say something if she could, but in this situation, she's the one disadvantaged.
"Well, Yes." He sighs. watching her in the corner of his eye. "Well, I can't go into much detail, but I'll tell you this."
"It would be best for you not to leave this place with her." He leans in closer, "I won't stop you going to that meeting together, but past that point, don't stay close to this one. Do you understand?"
"Wait, Sir, you know where this meeting is?" He straightens himself, running a hand through his hair, an effort to cover his frustration. I must have not been listening to his warning.
"Well, yes." he frowns.
"You have to help us!" I say, smiling. "We've been looking on our lonesome all this time, and haven't found a clue, not a single one!"
"Come on!" I cut him off, leaning in closer, and starting to whisper. "If you really wanted me away from her, wouldn't it benefit you to get us there quickly?" He steps back sharply, looking down at me. "I'll be really grateful," I chirp, shrinking back. He glances at her, scratches the back of his head, and opens his mouth. preparing to say something, when I hear the echoing sound of metallic marching coming from down the hall. "Oh!" I say quickly, reaching for Mis Fabian's clenched fist. "Don't you hear that?"
"What," she mutters through clenched teeth before her head snaps in the direction of the sound. She curses under her breath.
"We have to hide!" I say quickly, dragging her past Durmad, and pushing her through the door he'd left open.
"Wait," He says, spinning around to face us. I catch his hands. He has long, strong fingers. the dexterous kind people who spend their free time painting and writing have.
"Sir," I whisper, loud enough for him to hear. "Please say you won't tell, we can't give up here!" He starts to open his mouth again, preparing to say something, but I cut him off again. I can't let him refuse. "I'm counting on you," I say quietly, before reaching for the door handle, and pulling it closed behind me.
The rattling sound of guards comes closer until they must be right outside the door. Mis Fabian is petrified, pressed up against the wall of the small room with her fingers digging into her crossed arms. They must have had a history, clearly, and not a good one. But, even if she had done something to warrant that reputation, how could it harm me? And whatever it was, if she's still capable of doing it, could it help me in the long run?
"Hey," I mutter loud enough for her to hear it over the deep, muffled voices talking on the other side of the door. "Don't worry about that." she sighs, relaxing her hands back down to her side. like she simply reset her posture.
"You don't know what it is," her teeth grind together. "It could be dangerous." Dangerous? Something she is still capable of? Either way, It could be useful. But only if she carries through with the meeting.
"Yes," I nod. "But didn't you have a goal?" She glances back at the door as the voices and metallic sounds fade. "See, if you really believed in it, you wouldn't give up so easily." I sigh, shaking my head. "I can't tell you what to do, But making Amorith a better place sounds like a worthy cause to fight for, doesn't it?"
"Sure," she hiccups as the door begins to creek open.
"Hey," Durmad mutters, flinging it open. "Hurry up before I change my mind."