Cariolta awoke to an unpleasant yet familiar smell. As her eyes adjusted to the morning light streaming through the canvas shell of her wagon, she found that her normal caregiver had been replaced with an unwashed thief.
“Why in the hells are you here, Warlis?” she grumbled as she rolled away from the stench.
“Your guardian angel is out training and I drew the short straw for watching you while she’s gone,” Warlis grumbled right back at her. “You sound terrible. What’s wrong with your voice?”
The Princess sat herself up for the first time in over a week, pulled together some composure, and glared at Warlis. “I just woke up.” Warlis stared back dumbfounded, not because of the piercing glare, but because of the Princess’s appearance. “How… how do you do that?”
“Do what?” snapped Cariolta, having recaptured her regally dismissive tone.
“Your hair and make-up… It’s perfect. How? You’ve been nearly a corpse for the last ten days.”
“Women have their secrets. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’d like to go for a walk.” Cariolta climbed from the wagon with grace and poise, concealing well the fact that she could still barely hold her own weight.
Exiting the wagon, she entered a world that felt strange and alien. Dawn had just broken over the rolling jungle hills. Upon one of these, their caravan had parked for the night. A band of jovial merchants was breaking down tents and serving up a savoury-scented breakfast amongst the vibrant ferns of the hilltop glade. They joked and laughed as they worked; occasionally they would break into humorous and tasteless songs.
She wandered unnoticed through the madness feeling almost like a ghost. She found her comrades in what was either mortal combat or a beautiful dance. Kish, Kazé and Prag lunged and spun in and around each other as they sparred. The Princess was awestruck by the grace with which Kish could move. Her makeshift wooden swords seemed to wind around her and flutter like ribbon as they deflected the incoming blows from her mercenary opponent. She fought with such fluidity that both Kazé and Prag seemed to be forced to follow her movements and themselves become extensions of her deadly dance.
As enthralling as the dance of battle was, she managed to pull her eyes away from it long enough to see her young friend standing a few yards away from them, grinning wildly as he mimicked every movement. It was a sight to watch as he wasn’t only mimicking Kish’s dance, he was mimicking the movements of all three. It was a twisted yet dazzling mesh of Kazé’s, Kish’s and Prag’s attacks, defences and recoveries.
Just as Cariolta was beginning to get her bearings and come to terms with the supernaturally peaceful and beautiful environment, she was assaulted quite horribly.
“Pardon, Your Majesty, but now that you’re up and about, I’ve some papers that really need signing.” An older, yet distressingly attractive caravan woman had approached her with a sheaf of paper and an inked quill. Her businesslike tone did little to conceal the distinctive voice of the singer from the night earlier and the spokeswoman from the border crossing.
“I… what?” Cariolta was having so much difficulty assessing the situation that she had once again misplaced her royalty.
“You’re being kidnapped, dear, and I need you to sign some consent forms.” The smile of the woman made Cariolta trust her so much that it made her uncomfortable.
Cariolta found the quill in her hand and a sheet of very officiallooking parchment beneath it before she could even consider what the woman was rambling about.
“That one there is your acknowledgement of abduction. That’s just a formality to say that you know you’ve been kidnapped and are being ransomed off.”
Cariolta was so confused that she was having trouble remembering how to sign her name. The woman was speaking so quickly and confidently that the Princess didn’t even consider that she didn’t in fact know that she’d been kidnapped, nor why she needed to acknowledge the fact.
“This one here is permission for a third party porter. That one is very important. It gives us permission to transport you. Yes, two copies of that. Thank you.”
Cariolta’s brain was still not keeping up with the events. She was still trying to get her hand to sign her name properly every time.
“Next is the tariff form. Since you crossed the border, you need to agree that the cost of that will be added to the ransom and given to the porter rather than the kidnapper.”
Cariolta had a short moment of clarity. “Wait! Who kidnapped me?” she blurted out as she signed the third copy of the tariff form.
“Oh, my dear. They haven’t explained it to you yet.” The woman changed her tone of voice to a much more comforting one, which was even more disconcerting for the Princess. “My name is Esmei, I’m the matron of this caravan. Your dark-skinned friend there is your official kidnapper, but it’s all for bureaucratic reasons. See, we don’t have the licenses needed to escort royalty, but we’ve got the right ones for aiding and abetting kidnapping for the purposes of lawful ransom. So in order to take you to the capital, we needed you to be kidnapped, see. We do this all the time, Kish there will just charge the cost of standard royal transport as ransom (plus the tariff charges for a hidden body). We’ve done this a few times, nothing to worry about. This trip has the good Lord’s blessing and protection, though with that firecracker girl and mad boy you’ve got with you, I doubt we’ll need it.”
Cariolta was somewhat comforted by the explanation, although the idea of lawful ransom was a little foreign. As clarity set in, she suddenly felt a wave of nauseating guilt wash over her. She blushed nearly enough to get through her face whitener as she tried to apologize. “It’s because of me, then, that you had to… had to give your virtue…at the border.”
Esmei gave a hearty laugh and interrupted the Princess’s awkward apology and dropped any pretence of propriety. “I ain’t had a lick of virtue since I was a lass of thirteen summers. An’ if it weren’t for the
good Lord turning things around for me, I’d likely be turnin’ tricks on the streets of Antiq. Now my relations with the good captain are my personal business an’ he treats me finely if I do say so.”
“And what about the poor little boy?” Cariolta asked as she filled out the last of the confirmation of identity and terms and agreement forms.
“Oh, Tummis?” Esmei chuckled. “He never even got to see what he was beaten for. Them pictures are there for the guards. Poor lonely boys. If they didn’t get to confiscate anything, they’d go stir crazy out there. We’ve got an understanding with them. We hide some artwork of questionable moral nature and then they search us for it. When they find it, they glare at us, we blame one of the kids. And then we move on. The kid gets a beating, but then he gets a heap of sweets and gets to be the hero of the caravan for a few days. The kids usually fight for the right.”
The matron gathered up the last of the papers from Cariolta, handed her a receipt and her copy of the contracts and trundled off to get the caravan moving again.
The sparring trio had noticed the somewhat shattered porcelain princess and wandered over to see her. “I’m happy to see you back on your feet,” said Kish, wrapping the Princess in a gentle hug. It was a tender gesture, though somewhat diminished by the dripping sweat running down Kish’s face and arms.
“Thank you…” replied Cariolta softly, “Thank you for taking care of me… and for keeping me presentable… and for everything”
Kish responded only by tightening her hold around the weakened girl’s body and tipping her head so their foreheads met. It was a pure and touching moment; an unreserved expression of friendship, loyalty, and even possibly love.
Or it would have been. Having finished his shadowboxing match with himself, the boy had chosen that exact moment to start singing. And he sang as he always did, with joy, enthusiasm and entirely without tune. The women fell into each other laughing.
“Come on, Deadweight,” shouted Prag, “or we’ll leave without you.”
“You’re not one to be giving names, Captain Bloodloss,” Cariolta glowered. “Or have you forgotten the leg of this trip you spent tied to my horse?”
As Kish helped Cariolta back to the wagons, a curiosity rose in her mind. “How is it that I’m barely able to walk and you were sparring full out with Prag and Kazé this morning?”
Unfortunately Prag overheard the query and elected to enlighten the Princess with all of his usual charm and decorum. “‘Cause Her Majesty, with all her magical training, thought it might be fun to take the lightning bolt square in the chest. You’ve got a cat’s luck that your heart didn’t get charbroiled.”
The boy licked his lips at that comment in a most disturbingly innocent way.
Prag tried to ignore it and continued. “I shunted most of the energy through my sword and down my leg. It’s still a bit achy, but I’ll be fine. Thanks for your concern. Kazé’s fur does a pretty good job of absorbing and dispersing magic. His paws were a bit sore for a couple of days, but besides that, he was fine. You’re the only one clever enough to tangle with a wizard without any defence.” After the final insult, Prag turned to help strap down supplies onto a wagon.
Between her sore body, Warlis’ stench, Kish’s sweat and Prag’s manners, Cariolta was left feeling in dire need of a long bath. Seeing no such amenities available in the glade, she sighed deeply. She mounted her creaky, canvas-covered excuse for a royal coach and they set off into the jungle.