CHAPTER 25 - A PRINCESS AND AN IMAGINARY RAT

The sudden gust of cold wind left him shivering.

"Tell me the noon sun helps with the cold," Fayte said, stepping out of the building with Jeremiah.

"It helps," Jeremiah told him.

"Really?"

"No."

With no means of communicating with the agent, Fayte decided to follow Jeremiah back to the herbalist's shop. The people of Eres Star City didn't seem comfortable with the cold, but they did not appear to be bothered by it either. Still, the city was much more quiet than Jeremiah said he was used to.

"They dare not let their children play outside," Jeremiah told him. "Wise of them if you ask me."

"How many of these false knights are there?"

His friend shrugged. "Thirty, maybe forty even. I don't know. But they are one of the same. False knights, donning an armour that they could only dream of truly possessing. I have seen the way they treat the citizens. My lord greatfather would turn in his grave if he saw with his own eyes."

Iyden Vladertz, father to Jeremiah's grandfather and once Lord-Knight of the Order of the White Shield. During the War of Darkness and Light, it was he who marched the Order to face the army of the Black City, but it was Fayte's father who brought the army back.

Jeremiah walked openly with his shield and armour. At first Fayte had thought that was the reason why people avoided them, looking away or intentionally walking away from them. Jeremiah had thought so too for he said nothing. Then two knights appeared in front of them.

We were being followed.

Two more knights showed up behind them and the crowd began to part quickly. The street was wide much like Rondiar's, giving them plenty of space to fight in. Word must had gotten to Orson Reydar that the Lord-Knight's son was in the city.

"Jeremiah Vladertz," a knight in front of them said. "The magister wants to see you."

"I only just returned from the castle gate trying to seek audience with him," his friend said, flexing his fingers. He means to fight.

"The magister didn't want to see Bianca, but he wants to--"

"--Lady Bianca," Jeremiah said, sparing no courtesy. "You should not have need for a squire to lecture you on simple manners, sir knight."

Jeremiah really wants to fight.

The false knight spat on the ground. "Take them."

Right then, two dark gloved hands reached from behind the false knights, seized their necks and ended them. The false knights clanged to the ground like a fallen suit of armour, reminding Fayte of the time when he and Emily had knocked one over when they were younger. Four men in hoods and cowls dragged the bodies away, quickly disappearing into alleyways. Only the agent remained.

"A squire should not be courting battles," the agent said, wrapped in a thick leather cloak with his hood worn down. "Even if he is a Vladertz."

With the sun now Fayte could see that the agent had grown a bit of beard since he last saw him in the slavers' camp.

"Battles have been courting me since I returned from my tourney," Jeremiah told him, turning to Fayte. "Will you be fine with him?"

Fayte nodded. "Go on, I will see you later."

"With the Princess I hope?"

"With the Princess," Fayte assured him. I hope too.

The agent took him in the other direction.

"I assume Lady Bianca will comply with the Underlord's proposal now?"

What is his motive? "Yes."

"Good. Then let us waste no more time." The agent had taken him into the main road that led straight up to the Eres Star Castle. "Danfred Greyblade had long been an enemy of the Underlord. Even today his actions have made the Underlord's life very difficult. There are no undertunnels connecting the interior of the castle to the city. Nor are there holes or gaps in the massive walls that surround the castle. The only way in is through the gate."

"And you wish to have me use my father's seal to order it open," Fayte guessed.

"That is all the Underlord needs of you," the agent said, grinning like it was such a fair deal. "In return you get the Grace of Hylan."

Fayte understood now. "And the Underlord gets one of Hylan's greatest strongholds. That is why I was told not to inform the Order."

The agent looked at him, the grin slowly fading. "You don't have to be the High Sage to realize that."

"No," Fayte gave him his answer. The look of contempt that flashed across the agent's face gave it all away. The Underlord needs me. "Lady Bianca may be willing to give up her city but not I. Find your own bait."

"You favour a crumbling city of stone and ice over the Princess of Hylan?" The agent laughed softly and looked at him.

Fayte felt a sudden sense of a cutting fear ripping into his heart. His hand found the handle of his sword but he could not draw it. Perhaps it was the sun piercing his eyes, but for an instant of a moment the agent's eyes changed. Fayte swore he saw the pupils of his eyes flash crimson. It scared him into drawing his sword but the agent seized him by his cloak first.

Fayte was yanked forward to meet him eye to eye but still the agent smiled at him.

"Clever boy," the agent said, his voice soft and his tone deeper now. "The Underlord could use someone like you."

"I am a squire of the White Shield," Fayte told him, attempting to free himself but the agent had a tighter hold on him than he realized.

"You are a squire because the Underlord allows it," the agent said to him. The tip of a dagger rose between Fayte's eyes. "You breathe because the Underlord allows it."

For a startling moment Fayte thought that the agent would kill him, if only to show that it was foolish to believe someone such as the Underlord would need him. It didn't happen. The agent released him and put away his dagger. He began walking again not up the main road but to a side road, into a narrower street where there were fewer people.

He followed the agent and they went up the road silently. The buildings grew taller and duller the deeper they went into the city. Grey stones were the main material used to build the houses in Eres Star City, most other materials would not stand the cold. The street wound up and they scaled a flight of steps onto the second tier of the city. They went into an alley where the buildings towered over them, keeping the sun from entering. Crates and barrels were placed all over the back alley. There were no rats or any stray animals here. It was cold and dead.

"Blind yourself," the agent handed him a piece of linen.

He means to take me to an undertunnel. Fayte complied.

The agent took him by the shoulder and led him. At first Fayte tried to memorized the directions, twelve paces forward, a left, eighteen paces forward, a right, five paces forward- Then the agent spun him around and they were tracing their steps back. The agent did it three, maybe four times, and it accomplished in confusing Fayte enough to lose his direction.

"Careful, there are steps leading down from here."

Fayte reached to his sides and found walls on both hands. He pushed his arms apart and carefully descended. A few times he slipped; the steps were frozen, but the agent kept him steady. There seemed to be no end to the stairs and the air grew warmer. The wall had begun to curve at some point, and Fayte gave up counting the steps by the time he reached a hundred. It might have been a hundred more before they were finally at the base.

A series of steel locks and hinges clicked and squeaked. He could hear the frost crumbling and the heavy door moaning its unwillingness to open. Fayte was shoved through and when the door slammed shut, the agent took away his blindfold.

Little good that did. They were shrouded in pitch darkness. Stale air, dry, and this stench… decay. I'm in a tunnel.

"Come," the agent said, a faint glow emitting from his ring.

Fayte recalled getting Emily a lumastone ring before. I should have gotten one for myself as well.

Then again the glow was too faint and here it served only to guide him and not to illuminate.

On and on they went, the tunnel never seemed to end. Many times they came upon a crossroad where the echo of their feet scurried off in several directions. As far as Fayte could tell there was no way to differentiate one tunnel from another. There was no change in smell or taste in the air, nor sound or temperature. Unless he can see in the darkness, he is travelling on memory alone.

Suddenly the agent stopped.

The lumastone ring grew brighter and Fayte could see the agent, pressing his right ear to a wall in front of them. His left eye stared at Fayte as he listened. For a while the agent did nothing but listen. With the wall being made of bricks, Fayte wondered if he really could hear anything on the other side.

"Behind this wall is Captain Resfield's cell," the agent said, his voice barely left his lips but in here it was like a shout. "Say not a word and make not a sound."

"You said the guards were your-"

"The guards may work for the Underlord but I cannot be sure they are still there. The Saldarians may have changed them since my last visit. Now…"

The agent yanked on something - handles, two of them - and an entire section of the wall budged out. He pulled again and the wall came out. Like a shield of bricks, the agent lifted it and carefully set the wall aside. Without a sound, he bent low and looked into the cell. Once it was clear, he pushed through the little gap and climbed up into the cell. Fayte realised that they were on a lower tier. He grabbed the sides of the little gap and pulled himself up.

I'm surrounded by people.

The agent's ring had gone out and they stood in darkness. All around him Fayte could hear the breaths of many people. They were so faint that he would not have noticed them if it had not been this quiet. The ease of the motion of their breathing was meditative, conservative. These men were trying to save their strength. He moved towards--

"--LET ME OUT!" someone screamed. "HELP! PLEASE! I SWEAR THERE IS A RAT HERE!"

"Calm down, Princess," a man right next to Fayte said, his voice was dry but Fayte could sense a deep, rumbling strength from his tone. "There are no rats here."

"Well something just brushed against my leg!" she cried. "Please, please, please, lock me elsewhere! GUARDS!"

A key was turned and a heavy lock loosened. Fayte heard a door swing open and light poured in. He was standing a cell larger than he had thought, memorizing the space between him, the agent, and the gates that held them in. At once he counted eleven grown men and four women, all of them in a tattered shirt that looked too thin provide any warmth. Their legs were chained together and their hands to the walls. All of them were on their feet, forced to stand or hang by their wrists. Three of them were unconscious.

"Quiet down there!" a man, one of the dungeon guards, yelled at her. "Ain't no rats but che 'magination!"

And the door was slammed shut again, leaving them in darkness.

Fayte had a crazy idea all of a sudden. Sera watch over me.

The agent spoke, "Alright, it's safe to-"

Fayte drew his sword and charged at him. Out of nowhere he was jabbed in the face and his sword taken from him. He hurried to his feet but before he could stand the agent kicked him down again. A dagger was drawn and Fayte felt cold steel pressed to his neck.

"Tell me," the agent asked, his voice barely a whisper, "after you've killed me and freed these knights, how do you intend to escape? Did you think you could find your way around the undertunnels?"

The dagger was taken away and the agent lit a torch.

"Who's there?" Emily asked. "Captain Resfield?"

"Hush, my Princess," the Captain said, squinting as his eyes slowly adjusted to the light. "It is no one."

Captain Resfield was the oldest with a thick black beard around his face. His shaggy black hair hung over his face in curls. Fayte had once met Captain Resfield when the man had donned his armour. In this grey tattered shirt, the Captain now was a shadow of the man Fayte remembered, but from what he could see of the man's eyes behind his curls, Captain Resfield still had eyes that shimmered with strength.

Fayte turned away from him and started towards to the three unconscious knights.

"Don't bother," Captain Resfield told him. "They're dead."

Fayte looked at the two men and the single woman again. No, knights don't die so easily. He went up to each of them, shook them and check for a heartbeat.

"Not good with orders are you?" Captain Resfield scoffed and turned to the man next to him. "How do they train squires these day?"

"Squire?" Emily asked. "Fayte? Fayte, are you there?"

"Hush, my Princess," Captain Resfield said again. "Lest you want him caught."

The cell door swung open and the agent tossed him the torch. Fayte hurried past him and stopped when he saw Kamille locked in the opposite cell. The girl glared at him, sitting on the floor in the middle of the cell with her hands and legs chained together.

"Haven't seen you in a while," he said. If Kamille is here… Fayte brought his torch closer to the cell. "Rinmar."

The Prince was chained to the wall behind Kamille. Their cell was smaller, enough only to fit maybe four prisoners.

This doesn't make any sense. "Why are you locked up?"

"He came to rescue me," Emily explained, her voice quivering. "Fayte, is that really you?"

Sera, what game are you playing with me? How can Rinmar be here if the Saldarians are behind this? Unless… Fayte gave Rinmar one last look before he hurried to Emily. "Can you open her cell?"

"I can," the agent said.

"But you won't."

The agent smiled.

"Emily, are you hurt?" He tried to stick the torch into her cell but she was locked in the larger cell. Fayte could not see her anywhere. "Where are you? Can you see me?"

"I'm chained to the wall, and yes, I can see you," she said, shaking her bindings. Her voice made her sound small and frightened like a child. "I'm… I'm well."

The agent laughed softly.

"I know you're scared," Fayte said, cursing in his head. I'm so close, just so close! "But I'm here to save you now."

"No, no," the agent corrected him. "He's not here to save you yet."

"Fayte, who’s that?"

A scum. "An associate. He's going to help me save you once I do something for him."

"Do what?" Emily struggled against her chains. "Fayte, don't do anything rash, alright? I don't want you getting hurt because of me."

The agent went past him and stood by the dungeon door.

"Don't worry, I know what I'm doing." He considered throwing the torch in, but that would do no one any good. "Why is Rinmar here?"

"To save your Princess," Rinmar said, his voice the weakest so far. "And Hylan… Where's Ye'Jou?"

"Safe," Fayte told him. "You are aware that you are being imprisoned by your own people correct?"

Rinmar groaned. "I know not of their plans. I have yet even meet this Scygard Emily told me about. She was with a group of men when I found her on the road. The Scygard was not there. I attacked them with Kamille but they overpowered us. There was a mage with them."

"Saldarian mage?"

"Hylan mage," Rinmar said, breathing heavily. "Fireballs and others of the like."

"My Prince you are wounded," Kamille said. "Please speak no more. Save your energy."

Suddenly the lock was opened and the door swung open. A man looked in and jumped when he saw the agent standing right next to the door.

"You scare me, my lord," the dungeon guard said.

"Leave us," the agent said.

"I cannot. The men who took over the Magister's Court are coming. They wish to speak with the one who claims to be a Prince."

CURSE THIS! Fayte threw his hand against the iron bar, shaking it and pulling it with all his strength, blistering his palms and straining his muscles. He wanted so much to just tear down this gate, but he hadn't the strength. And even if he did he would never be able to get her out of here unharmed. CURSE THIS!

"Emily, I need to go now," Fayte said, lowering the torch. He didn't want her to see his tears. Curse this… "I promise I'll come back for you."

"Come on." The agent snatched his torch and pulled him by the arm.

He could hear Emily sobbing.

"Don't lose hope," he said, his tone gentle but his heart filled with rage and frustration. Emily was right there. She's right there! But he was powerless to do anything. "I will save you."

"I know you will…" she whispered, her voice trembling.

The agent shoved him back into the knights' cell and locked them back in.

Fayte went up to Captain Resfield at once. "Tell me what to do," he said as softly as he could, not wanting Emily to hear how lost and afraid he was. "Please, tell me what to do. I'm just a squire!"

Captain Resfield looked into his eyes.

"You are not just a squire," he said, his lips slowly curled into a toothy smile. Captain Resfield had a few his front teeth knocked out, dried blood clung to his gums and teeth. "You are a squire of the White Shield."

HOW DOES THAT HELP?

"We are leaving!" the agent snapped at him, shoving him to the floor. "Quickly!"

Fayte crawled back into the hole and fell through it. The agent was right behind him, moving quickly to replace the wall. He could hear the door swinging open and numerous footsteps entering the dungeon.

"Where?" Someone said, and Fayte knew this voice. The Scygard mage in the tent.

He hurried to the wall once the agent had fitted it in and pressed his ear against it. The agent was doing the same, listening intently.

"Open it." The Scygard said and a few seconds later, "UNCHAIN HIM! NOW! My Prince, I beg you please forgive me! I did not know that you were-"

Someone was struck to the ground with a painful yelp.

"Sword," Rinmar said, his voice so weak they could hardly hear.

"My Prince, please!" the Scygard said. "Let me explain, please, PLEASE NO-"

There was a strangled cry as steel crunched through leather and cut through flesh. A second body hit the floor.

"Be at ease, Uncle," Rinmar said. "You were not… not the one who imprisoned me."

Not as cold blooded as I thought.

"Th-thank you, my Prince, thank you for your graciousness. You there, unchain the girl. I should have known. You must be the one who brought the Prince here!"

"I did no such thing!" Kamille said defiantly. "Now is not the time, old man. Our Prince is wounded and starved. Unless you wish to see him die-"

"Kamille…" Rinmar sounded very tired, almost like he was dying. "Please…"

"Come, my Prince, slowly now."

Just whose side are you on?

"I can walk myself," Rinmar said, but the strength of his voice disagreed. "There are three corpses… in that cell. Remove them and-"

"Don't touch my men, you filthy sandworm."

"How dare you speak to the Prince in that-"

"Leave him, Uncle," Rinmar said, coughing. "Have it your way… old knight. You will join them soon enough." They moved further away, their voices growing softer. "The Princess… no use to us dead. Send some food to her… leave a torch in her cell. Leave her as she is… and this spoiled thing will lose her sanity…"

Oh no.

"I AM NOT SPOILED!" Emily screamed. "Just very well taken care of!"