The journey had been unpleasant at the beginning but had taken a strange turn as they approached the capital. Once the soldiers had commandeered a couple of coaches for transport, the three prisoners were ungagged and forced to tidy themselves up. They were provided with new clothes. Prag and Cariolta were given courtly dress befitting nobles and Kish was again forced into the simple garb of a servant girl. They even provided all the powders and creams needed to get Cariolta looking like a porcelain doll again as she was, at that point, smeared and battered looking.
The purpose of all of this became clear as their coaches rolled to a stop. They were in the palace courtyard when Mercutian, also looking courtly, began to explain in a voice dripping with insincerity, “You’ll be meeting with the king today and I expect you all to be on your best behaviour. He’s in a very delicate state and we don’t want to shock him.”
They were pulled from their carts and into the courtyard where they met a terrifying sight. Lounging in the yard was a great dragon, saddled and harnessed. Its silvery scales gleamed in the warm tropical sunlight. It lazily followed their progress through the yard with one great eye before yawning and apparently going to sleep.
“Since when does Caneria have a tamed dragon?” whispered Cariolta.
“There’s no such thing,” replied Kish under her breath. “They only serve themselves. They’re too hungry and greedy to be tamed.”
“Well, the Prince rides it around the skies to show off all the time,” Prag added. “So you decide who’s serving whom.”
The guards silenced them quickly and led them into the palace. The walk through the halls was distressingly quiet. There was none of the normal bustle of a palace. There were plenty of guards, both mechanical and human, and there was a smattering of servants polishing this and that, but there were no courtiers, no pages, none of the lords and ladies that would be expected. For most of the trek through the marbled hallways, their footsteps were all that they heard.
The throne room itself was practically a tomb. The alcoves along each of the walls were filled with statuesque Reapers and the only living thing in the room could have been mistaken for a corpse. Slumped in the throne was a withered and decayed old man. He was draped in the trappings of a king and the only sign of life in him was his slow, wheezing breaths.
The procession stopped and the human guards were discourteously dismissed before Mercutian summoned the attention of the king. “Your Majesty!” shouted the old mage. “We have captured some of your enemies!”
The King woke with a start but his eyes failed to focus. “Enemies?” he mumbled. “Enemies everywhere. You protect me, Merc, you and Vestin.” He drifted off into incoherency.
“Uncle Bertren!” shouted Cariolta, “It’s me! Cariolta!”
King Bertren stirred into a brief moment of lucidity. “Oh, Cari, you changed your dress,” he mumbled quizzically. “Why are you over there? Come sit by me.” He smiled weakly and his eyes lost focus again.
“I don’t think so!” A confident male voice came from behind the dais. “She is clearly an imposter, father.” Prince Vestin, Crown Prince of Caneria, slid out of an alcove and flashed a wicked grin at the group.
“Imposter!” The crumbling old king curled into his throne. “Spies everywhere, everywhere. Protect me, my son.”
“Imposter?” cried Cariolta desperately. “I am no such thing. Vestin, you know me. And my companions are no less than Desida Kish, Battle Maiden of Desidan, and your own Lord Pragmethion III of Antiq. We are friends of the court.”
“Your disguise is weak, my dear.” The prince smiled with cunning and a smug sense of victory, “Pragmethion is well known to us as an infamous criminal and conspirator against the court. That servant girl is clearly nothing more than what she appears. You may deal with her as you see fit, Mercutian.” They exchanged a knowing look between them, exposing their conspiracy.
Prag was looking resigned to his fate and contemplating how many chances he was going to get to beat the damned princess that got him into this mess before he was executed. Kish, shackled and underdressed, was starting to wish for a swift execution as she expected that being property of the old man would be far worse than a simple death.
Cariolta was far less accepting of her fate. “Vestin! Friend! Cousin! Why are you doing this? You know me. I didn’t die in the fire at the palace. I wasn’t even there that day. Why can’t you believe me?” She started
Vestin clapped slowly. “A very convincing performance, miss, but
Princess Cariolta escaped those flames and came straight here. In fact, she agreed to be my bride. Isn’t that right, my dear?”
On cue, Princess Cariolta stepped out from behind the dais to join Prince Vestin. She moved with elegance and grace and fell in naturally at the side of the Prince. “Yes, my love, you protected me and you will help me rebuild my shattered kingdom.”
Her response seemed painfully scripted and it made Prag wince, but he had to admit that the disguise was flawless. The voices were even almost a perfect match. She looked a little more delicate, slightly more feminine, but then again she hadn’t been trudging through the wilderness for the past few months.
Prag was impressed, but his royal companion was flabbergasted. “Cariolta?” she shouted in relief. “You’re alive!” Her voice dropped an octave as she spoke. “But who was burned at the palace?”
The young man’s voice coming from the captured princess caught the entire room off guard. Prag, as usual, was the first to bring voice to the situation. “Come again?” he blurted.
“Cariolta, it’s me, Prinin! Remember, I left that day dressed as you!” His boyish voice echoed through the chambers as the confused group put the pieces back together.
Kish leaned and whispered to Prinin, “She’s the imposter, love. We saw Cari’s body ourselves… I’m sorry.”
Prinin started to weep and slumped into Kish’s chest as Vestin and his Cariolta began to chuckle. “A man?” Vestin laughed. “How could a man expect to impersonate my perfect fiancée?” They strode calmly down the steps to the marble floor to join the prisoners.
Once out of the earshot of the half-deaf king, Prince Vestin began to speak in a lowered voice. “My dear boy, it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re going to be executed this afternoon for treason regardless.” He smiled with an evil that shouldn’t exist in a man.
“Why are you doing this, Vestin?” Prince Prinin shot back. “We were friends; our families have been allies for centuries. Your nation is a peaceful paradise, why would you risk war?”
Vestin laughed. “Peaceful paradise, you say? Corrupt and rotten to the core.” His eyes grew wide with passion and excitement. “Unity is found only through a common enemy! My splintered nation is full of conspiracy and treachery bred through complacency and security. We’ve been so long your ally and neighbour that we have forgotten war from without and are turning on ourselves,” he snapped viciously. “And through thisb new war that I have made, I will expand my territory twofold and be king of two nations. I will shred the barbarian hordes of Desidan and feast upon their foolish child king, leaving them just strong enough to be an ever present enemy of my peoples, but no threat. Even less so without their precious Battle Maiden.” He was ranting manically but maintaining his hushed tone so as to not wake the king. “With my princess, I will unite two nations and reign supreme over the pathetic peoples.” He licked his lips to add disturbing emphasis.
The false Cariolta interjected, “With his and my kingdom united, we will usher in a new era of prosperity for both. Vestin will lead the Canerian army headed by Mercutian’s Reapers and unite the fractured and disorganized troops of Haelund.” She smiled mockingly at Prinin. “We’ll be praised as heroes. And nobody that would ever recognize me as an imposter survived the castle fire. I have to thank Cariolta for being such a shut-in. Your little trip from home was the first time in ages that she’d been away from the palace alone in years.”
“You’re both completely mad!” shouted Prinin. “Thousands will die meaninglessly.”
“Of course they will.” Vestin sounded ravenous. “It is war, isn’t it? Wouldn’t they have died anyway if you had led them? This war was inevitable. We’re just taking advantage of it.” He brushed Prinin’s curly blonde hair back out of his face, gently. “It saddens me, though, that the real Cariolta had to die for my glory. I did care for her once.” He grabbed Prinin roughly and kissed him deeply before throwing him back. “Sorry I can’t stay for your execution, dear, but I have a war to fight and I wouldn’t want to give the impression that your lives are worth my time. Guards!” he shouted “Escort these traitors to the executioner.” Twenty men filed in along with a half-dozen Reapers. Prag and Prinin were then marched out of the throne room. Kish remained chained and guarded by the Reapers in the room but otherwise was largely ignored.
“My Lord, before you leave, I have brought you a mighty gift.” Mercutian bowed deeply and presented the sword of Lord Cailo in its exquisite white and silver scabbard. “It is a meteoric blade. If you can raise it above your head, then you are truly a mage of power to rival even that of the dread King Ashunar.”
The old wizard laid the sword on the castle tile and released his spell over it. The tile beneath it immediately cracked under the weight. The Prince smiled confidently, hovered his hand above the immaculate blade and began to mumble softly, summoning magic to him and forming a spell to lift the blade.
Prinin and Prag secretly exchanged glances as they were marched through the corridor back to the courtyard and the dungeon beyond. Prinin was trying to silently discuss possibilities of escape and Prag was attempting to reconcile the fact that his travelling companion had been
a man all along. Neither were getting very far. However, as they walked, a wild torrent crashed down the hallway and into the throne room. It smelled like the colour of blood and went entirely unnoticed by all but Prinin and a single guard who was suddenly and violently ill.
Prinin inhaled deeply through his skin and a half smile crossed his luscious red lips. New possibilities had just presented themselves as he focused on holding a little of that magical torrent inside of him. “You could be a wizard, Private,” he said to the retching guard. He smiled and marched on more confidently out the doors, past the dozing dragon and on into the dungeon keep.