How Not to Poach a Unicorn


Having crossed the river they were now in Haelund territory. They were somewhat comforted by that fact. Ashun had been as hospitable as its reputation suggested. Being back on home ground offered some measure of safety. In addition, Cariolta’s royal blood should command a great amount of fealty should she be able to convince anyone she was, in fact, the Princess.

They traveled at a steady pace, but without with the haste and fear that had dominated their earlier flight. Prag’s lack of concern about the remaining Shadow Thieves of Antiq was a great comfort to the company. He explained in detail how they were thieves and how good they were at that. He cited at great length numerous daring heists and clever burglaries that were attributed to the Shadows. Most of the stories seemed to have been shared with him over a pint of ale with an old friend, whom he had now shot. He eventually went on to explain that despite their expertise with inanimate objects, the Shadow Thieves were sorely lacking in interpersonal skills.

“They just don’t know how to deal with people,” he said. “Well, not living ones anyway. They’re so awkward, the whole lot of them freeze right up at the thought of actually having to kill anyone.”

Prag’s chatter was nearly endless and it took very little time for his companions to drift into their own thoughts. It was unfortunate that they didn’t pay more attention to his ramblings as they would have learned a great deal about the inner workings of international organized crime and some surprising details about the politics of Prag’s home country of Caneria. Instead they traveled in ignorance, viewing Prag’s voice to be little more than white noise soothing them into their own internal distractions.

They traveled for four days like this. Kish, having at length given up on her personal mystery, finally commented on Prag’s apparently inexhaustible series of anecdotes and tasteless jokes. “How is it possible you’re still talking? Do you even stop when you sleep?”

“Sorry what?” Prag was startled by the sudden realization that someone might actually be listening to him. “I wasn’t paying attention.”

It seemed that Prag had developed the ability to talk at great lengths about one thing while his mind was entirely elsewhere.

“What do you mean you weren’t paying attention? You were the one talking!”

“Yes, well I find that people feel compelled to engage in conversation to fill the silence on long journeys. I had things I needed to think about so I just filled the dead air. Did I say anything interesting?”

Kish paused, feeling somewhat embarrassed at not being able to answer. It was not a feeling she was at all used to or comfortable with. “I wasn’t listening.” She muttered.

“That’s as it should be. Cari? What about you?” “Huh? What? Sorry, I wasn’t listening.”


“Don’t even bother.” Grumbled the wolf, annoyed that he had just suffered through four days of intolerable noise only to discover that its only purpose was to grant the generator of it peace of mind.

“How about you kid?” Prag shouted to the boy, who had run ahead “Did you like my stories?”

Much to the confusion of his allies, he shot back a wide grin that made them feel like he had. He then gestured wildly as he had spotted something from the top of the hill.

Rushing to crest the hill, the group breathed a unanimous and simultaneous sigh of relief. They had reached civilization, or at least a reasonable facsimile of it. Down the other side was a small hamlet with a well travelled road leading away from it and off into the distance where, perched on a tall distant hill, they could just make out a large walled structure.

“That hill off in the distance should be Baron Taimon’s castle.” Cariolta squinted and pointed at her destination “We should be able to reach it by tomorrow night if the weather holds.”

It didn’t.

It began to drizzle. They passed through one tiny village after another. They passed a couple of small taverns and stared back at them mournfully. They had no money with which to pay for food or lodgings and filthy, heavily armed strangers do not attract much charity, doubly not when they travel with unusually large wolves.

The rain fell ceaselessly in its cold leisurely manner. Everyone was chilled to the bone and on the open, grassy fields they couldn’t find any shelter to sleep under or dry wood with which to make a fire. The mud from the road clung to their shoes and climbed their legs. To make matters worse, the cloaks started to shrink after they had been soaked through for some time. The metal clasps seized on them so badly that they had to cut them loose. Hence their only protection from the rain became undersized soggy dead-weight.

Even Cariolta, who had remained perfectly preened throughout their trials, couldn’t keep clean. The layers of her skirt lost their starch and they sagged and clung to her legs making it nearly impossible to walk. She tripped more than once and the rain refused to fall with enough vigour to wash the mud with which she was now caked away. Even her perfect dolllike face began to run. The mud intermingled with streaming black mascara and rouge, turning her into the sort of swampy terror that children

are taught to fear. The only thing that could have made Cariolta more miserable would have been if one of her companions had been chipper. Fortunately everyone else was as dismal as she was… except for the kid.

He was absolutely thrilled. He loved the feel of rain on his skin and the way that the mud squished between his toes. The villages were full of buildings and people and all sorts of four legged things some big and brown some small and pink; some were noisy and others quiet. He didn’t like the way that the other people looked at him so he stayed close to his friends in town, but in the fields he scampered and played and rolled around.

After almost two days, they reached the outer walls of the fortified manor house. Cariolta pounded on the doors with enough ferocity that the dozing guards of the wall looked out from their covered posts searching for an incoming thunder storm. They were not at all happy to find instead that a group of armed guests had arrived and were attempting to batter in their door using their fists.

“Taimon had better be here or I’ll have his head!” Cariolta was half screaming and half crying. Her strength gave out and she fell to her knees.

Before the guards could even let out a “Who goes there?” the boy decided to help with the door knocking. It seemed to him that the Princess was trying to get inside and that he should probably lend a hand.

This keep is in relatively peaceful lands and, fortunately for the travelers, few troops are garrisoned at the manor. They are instead out patrolling the territory, maintaining control of any strange things that might stumble south across the border from Ashun. They counted themselves very lucky indeed that, due to the rain, the only two armed guards about were on the wall. Moreover, they were taken entirely by surprise when the reinforced iron door to their keep flew off its hinges and went skittering through the courtyard.

The time it took for the guards to find their crossbows let the equally surprised party of waterlogged travelers dash inside and find an unlocked building in which to hide. That was where their short run of good fortune ran out. They found themselves inside a mess hall with a dozen men in various levels of uniform. It took very little time for the whole room to make a decision and the travelers witnessed military precision at its finest as the surprised soldiers tossed spears back and forth and dashed into formation. They quickly found themselves staring at the end of a dozen spear tips. The soldiers, proud of their rapid reactions and finely honed teamwork were utterly baffled by the reaction of the invading force. Instead of fighting back or surrendering like proper invaders should, they ignored the spears entirely and started desperately to calm down a teenage boy in their midst who seemed to be the only one at all offended by the spears being pointed at them.

The boy didn’t like spears. He had been surrounded by spears once before. The men attacked him and his friends. That was very bad. They were doing it again. It was the same. He started to draw his sword, but his friends tried to stop him. Prag tried desperately to hold him back while the Kish and Cari spoke very quicly in soft, soothing voices. He didn’t know at all what was going on so he sat down and pouted until things decided to make sense to him again.

Once the boy had sat down and the attention of the filthy invaders had been earned, one of the soldiers spoke up. “Who in the hells are you and what are you doing here?”

Cariolta’s composure returned like a bolt of lightning. She whirled on the men and broke their line with her glare. “I am Princess Cariolta Mendrana dur Hael and if someone does not summon the Baron this instant I will have every one of you hanged for treason.”

Prag couldn’t contain his laughter. He watched as a group of professional soldiers were reduced to quivering children by a few words from a skinny, mud covered girl.

“Miggins!” the sergeant sputtered out “Get his lordship.”

A man broke away and ran through the rainy courtyard. The others kept their spears up, but Prag doubted any had enough courage left in them to thrust.

A couple of long minutes passed and Cariolta’s command of the situation began to wane. Just as the soldiers began to doubt her claims, a very unhappy man in a dressing gown stepped through the door. “What’s this I hear about…. Cariolta?”

“Taimon.” She spoke with enough confidence to make those looking at her believe that she was in full court dress and wielding the power

of an empire. “This is a poor way to greet a royal party.”

“Indeed it is Princess. Please come inside. Miggins, show Her Highness’s entourage to the servants quarters and find them a bath. Put their dog in an empty stable.” He was trying to wrest control of his men from Cariolta’s commanding voice which was surprisingly deep and forceful.

Kazé shattered that attempt by responding in a voice so deep and ferocious that the entire squad of soldiers took a step back. “I should think not,” he growled.

“That will not do at all, you Lordship.” Cariolta recovered her audience’s attention. “This ‘dog’ is Tsukinokazé, Alpha of the northern Moon Clan and this woman is Princess Desida Kish, daughter of the late King Desidor Vrul of Desidan. They are royalty and shall be treated as such.

“Come again?” stuttered Prag, who was uncharacteristically caught entirely off-guard.

“And these other two gentlemen?” queried the Baron, ignoring the mercenary’s question.

“They are by no means gentlemen, but they are my companions and I will not yet be separated from them. We shall all be needing to bathe and eat.”

“Well then cousin, it would seem that I have quite the dinner to arrange. This way Your Highness.” his formality and courtesy were automatic reactions and his mind was obviously entirely disconnected from his mouth. He’d just had three missing royals break into his manor by force and demand a warm bath and something to eat. He thought that he should be asking a thousand questions about where they had been and redoubling the guard, but all he could think of was how upset his wife was going to be about the mud on the carpet.

Taimon saw to it that bath water was ready for his unexpected guests and then set about preparing rooms for them. Normally he would have had servants do this task, but he wished to avoid the wrath of his wife. He sent servants to announce the visitors to the lady and stayed well out of harms way while she digested the surprise.

The bath house was prepared and the guests were left to lounge in the warm soapy water. The ladies were given the use of the Baron’s private bath, which was large enough to host an elegant party in.

The two men were left in the guest bath. Prag was unimpressed at being left to play babysitter to his young friend. The boy didn’t entirely understand the purpose of bathing. He splashed about and made a horrible mess. The only saving grace of the ordeal was that despite his enormous strength, the boy was entirely unable to hold onto a bar of soap.

Kazé was, by his own request, accompanied by a small troupe of terrified servants who spent a nerve-wracking hour scrubbing, showering and brushing the wolf. He made a passing attempt to ease the tension, but his rumbling stomach contested any claims that he made about not wanting to eat any of them. His bath was interrupted by a frightened and embarrassed servant who had been sent to ask what Kazé ate to which he emphatically and unhelpfully responded “Anything.” After that there was no hope of gaining their trust so he just enjoyed the warmth.

Both the Baron and Baroness were pleased that their company had taken their time in their baths. The manor was in no way prepared for entertaining royalty when they had arrived. After an hour of mad panic by the servants and some of the soldiers, the worst of the dust had been swept under the rug. By the time they had finished their baths and had gotten dressed in the fresh clothes that had been laid out for them, a hastily prepared dinner was waiting for them as were a Baron and Baroness in courtly attire.

Cariolta made an honest effort at keeping up appearances. She had made herself up again and looked for all the world like the porcelain princess she was expected to be, but her eyes and stomach betrayed her. She barely greeted the lady of the house before she dove into her plate. The others weren’t even as polite as that. It wasn’t until the Baroness made a startled comment that anyone even looked up from their dinner.

“I think your young friend is eating our fork…. Your highness.”

said the lady, who was rather distressed at the sight.

“I’m terribly sorry.” said the Princess comfortingly “Hey! You! Stop that! No!” She spoke firmly to the boy who, having consumed his fork, had resorted to eating with his hands.

“Hey you?” chuckled Baron Taimon. “Do you not even speak to your bodyguards by name?”

“We don’t really know his name. And he’s not really my bodyguard. He’s just… Him.” Cariolta suddenly felt very rude for bringing the boy into their house, not even knowing what he was. “Again, I’m sorry. We’ve been through a terrible ordeal and I’ve forgotten my manners entirely.”

Cariolta stood. She drew herself back together and the room fell silent as the Princess once again shone with her inborn nobility. “My friends, our gracious hosts are the Baron Taimon Orl and his good lady Verena.”

The two stood and bowed with appropriate rigidity for their station before Cariolta continued. “My gracious hosts, my companions are the Princess Desida Kish and High Alpha Tsukinokazé. Also with us are our guide and bodyguard Prag whose contract with us has expired, I believe. And finally, this young man is our unlikely saviour, though we know little else besides that.”

Prag chose this time to ruin the formalities and interrupted with his mouth full of steamed partridge. “I believe my contract is up for negotiation. I’m willing to extend it to tomorrow after breakfast, free of charge.”

Cariolta’s airs faltered for a moment. “I’ll hold you to that Prag.”

She said flatly.

“And when, by the by, were you going to bother telling me that Kish here was actually the Battle Maiden of Desidan and not your lady in waiting, eh?” Prag was purposely trying to get a rise out of the princess. He didn’t like formality and gloried in its destruction.

The Baroness decided that she had made enough attempts at being polite and seeing as none of her company seemed keen on maintaining courtly protocol, she too dropped her overly courteous attitude and interrupted the impending verbal duel. “Could I ask how your rather unusual party came to be knocking on my door? Or more, knocking through it?”

“Ah yes. I’d forgotten about that.” the Princess recoiled slightly. “I suppose I do owe you an explanation and I suppose then that it would be best to start at the beginning.”

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