Author: Lloyd McKenzie
Content Warnings: Violence, police brutality
Tarot Cards: Justice, The Lovers
“Are you awake?”
I felt my breath catch. Of course I was awake. Every morning, I now awoke before the sun without fail, waiting to see if the mystery had finally concluded and her voice would no longer echo in my head. And every morning, for the past six months, her voice broke the quiet of the pre-dawn gloom and my heart would pound against my chest in response.
The mental connection felt instinctively familiar, even if I had no clue how to truly explain it. But with just a slight flex of a mental muscle, I could open my mind to her.
“Indeed I am.” I responded, hoping my nervousness didn’t leak through. “Are you still traveling?”
“Yes, although my carriage should be arriving today, finally.” She heaved a dramatic sigh, “I’ll be so happy to sleep in a proper bed tonight.”
“And your carriage is pulling into the city of…?”
The laugh that burst into my mind was light and teasing and made me close my eyes in pleasure. I could practically see the smile that had to accompany a laugh filled with that much joy.
“Ah-ah-ah…,” I imagined her finger wagging in mock reproach. “Nice try, but no.”
“Can you blame me for trying to learn about the owner of the disembodied voice in my head?”
“The fun is in the mystery… Right now I’m everything and anything you want. Why ruin the fantasy with a little dose of reality?”
And so our morning conversations always went. This familiarity was a far cry from when I first heard her voice cut through the noise of the tavern that fateful night months ago. I thought I was going mad for the longest time despite her incessant and increasingly impatient assurances that she was real and that I wasn’t insane, and that no, she really didn’t know what the fuck was happening either.
Once the dawnlight started to break the horizon, it was time for work and I began to make my way towards the Station. It was a short walk; most of the city watch lived in provided housing less than a mile from the Station. A few were high rank enough to live within the Station’s impenetrable walls.
I joined the procession of citizens that was flowing through the open gates of the Station. There were plenty of citizens who had jobs inside the Station; administrators, cleaners, cooks, and the like. None of them were considered part of the city watch, however, and weren’t afforded any benefits besides a few copper pieces each at the end of the day.
I always attempted not to call attention to myself, but it never mattered. The forest green vest and headband I wore, hallmarks of the city watch uniform, were always noticed instantly. A bubble of empty space formed around me as the rest of the workers scattered away from me. Anxious whispers and head nods in my direction followed me all the way to the gates.
Inside the station walls, the various buildings were organized in an efficient grid. I marched straight ahead and entered the tallest building in the complex; the station headquarters. The headquarters towered over every other structure in the Station; easily double the height of the walls.
I made my way to the back of the building and walked onto one of the lifts. The attendant kept his eyes lowered as I walked up. “To the top, please. I need to see the chief,” I tried to say gently. The attendant still scrambled to prepare the lift and nearly bent in half as he gestured me inside.
The lift smoothly hissed its way upwards, flashing past floor after floor as it rose to the top suite. At the top, there was a waiting area of perfectly minimalist taste; a simple desk and single large painting on one side of the wall and an arrangement of chairs to the right. I nodded to the attendant behind the desk and she stood to bow, “Greetings, Captain Matthias. Father is expecting you. Please feel free to enter.”
“Thank you, Halan,” I nodded back, then turned towards the dark wood doors and pushed them open.
Inside was a similarly stoic office. A strip of windows along the far wall revealed a gorgeous view that framed Father. The light from the windows backlit most of his features, which only made him seem more imposing.
“Good morning, Father,” I said, inclining my head. From an outsider’s perspective, it would have seemed like the comment hadn’t even registered; his face solid and stern. But I saw the subtle shift in his eyes. Not warmth, but pride. His approval simply stating that what he saw before him was satisfactory. From him, it was everything.
“Matthias, I am glad you are well.” It came out as a low rumble, a thunder roll off in the distance. He walked towards me and my eyes could start to continued, “I need you on a specific assignment. The King’s crown is being brought out of the vault in preparation of the ascension of the prince. We’re responsible for keeping it safe and secure while the artisans put the finishing touches on it. You’ll be in charge of the security group tasked with its safety.”
I stood a bit straighter, understanding the gravity of this assignment. That crown was worth more than half of this station; workers included. If so much as a fly landed on it, my head would roll. While anxiety already started worming its way into my stomach, at the same time, pride swelled in my breast. Father could have picked a dozen other guards who were higher up the chain than I was. But he still chose me.
“I won’t let you down.” At this, Father finally shifted, closing the distance in two heavy strides. He reached up and squeezed one shoulder with a comfortable pressure, and his face cracked into the slightest smile, “I know you won’t.” Then he broke the connection and started walking back to his desk. I waited a beat to make sure nothing else was coming but once he sat down it was clear the meeting was adjourned and I made my way out.
“Am I allowed to sigh now? I just got handed the biggest job of my life.”
“Sounds like we’re in similar positions. What’s yours?”
“Can’t say. You?”
“Sorry, can’t talk about it either.”
“Well… So much for that conversation.”
“Sorry, maybe we’ll be able to talk normally at some point in the future.”
“Just stroll on up, I’m always happy to chat.”
“I could be standing right next to you right now. Have you ever considered that?”
My breath quickened slightly. Yes, I had thought about that situation. Multiple times, in fact. Every time, I seem to catch someone’s eye for just a blink. The same thought always runs through my mind: Is this it? Have I found her? And without fail, the moment passes and nothing happens.
“You don’t even know where I am. How could you sneak up on me? We’re nowhere close.”
“We barely know anything about each other, you don’t know.”
I paused for a second. Despite the constant teasing, there was something of an unspoken rule between us of not revealing any identifying information. I knew from her perspective, she didn’t want to be tracked. From my perspective… I didn’t want to be avoided. Leaving things unsaid meant fate could still plop us in front of each other. Saying something solid put the choice back in our hands. And that was terrifying.
“I am in the San-dour capital city,” I said, not truly realizing what I’ve done until the thought was already out.
There was silence for what felt like an eternity. A golden rule broken, and now I was in terrifying territory. Eventually, there was a simple whisper. “…Oh.”
“Uh… So am I.”
I stopped in my tracks. I had been halfway to the barracks at this point and became a statue in the middle of the flow of station traffic. Citizens stumbled to shift around me in as respectful of a way as they could manage.
“You’re what? You’re here? Where? You mean we could meet?” Questions stumbled out of my head before I could stop them. But there was no response.
“Hello? Are you there?” But there was silence. I don’t know how long I stood there, but I did not hear anything from her end. She had closed the connection.
I made my way to the garrison in a daze, barely acknowledging the other guards who passed by. All I could hear was the silence. Idiot. What did you think was going to happen? ‘Oh, let’s meet for tea!’ You should’ve just kept quiet.
I tried collecting myself before entering the fortress of a building. Regardless of what I was feeling, I could not disappoint Father. I took a deep breath and pushed open the doors, entering into an open chamber. Paths to the barracks spiraled off on the east and west of the building, but the entrance area doubled as the main training platform. Even now, the ringing of steel on steel echoed throughout the space as the guards drilled. Before the door finished closing behind me a voice from the side rang out, “Hail, Captain Matthias!” and immediately all activity in the training room stopped. All hands snapped to attention and the room rang out in unison, “Hail!”.
I strode into the center of the room, every step transforming me more and more into an avatar of Father. Evoking his stoic look, straightening my shoulders to match his style. I commanded the space as readily as he did. A jester with a commander’s hat, I thought. But it would do.
“Brothers! I need six guards for one of the most challenging tasks we’ve had yet. Babysitting.” An expectant chuckle rippled through the group and scoffs were made between pairs. “I know, I know. But the pup is ready to climb up onto the throne and we need to keep his toys safe.” I said, patting the air. I waited a beat then I let the warmth drop from my voice, “Father’s order.” I intoned solemnly. The room silenced. “And Father’s orders are?”
“Absolute!” came back the chorus.
I nodded, “Outstanding. Now…” I trailed off as I looked around the room. I made eye contact with a choice few individuals. “Leo, Andrezj, Brienne, Maris, Levi, and Roman. With me in thirty. We’re heading to the artificer’s tower.” The six guards snapped to attention and headed off to prepare.
The artificer’s tower was the tallest building in the station. Seventeen stories with a spiral staircase on the outer edge heading all the way to the top. Each floor was the domain of a different mad scientist under Father’s service. Usually the guards stayed away from the tower in fear of getting caught in some explosion or latest alchemical experiment.
The tenth floor was the jeweler’s floor. The master jeweler, a scrawny, tight-eyed, shrewd-looking man, rubbed his hands together nervously as he spoke, “We of course appreciate Father’s generous offer for increased protection. The added security brings such… comfort to myself and the rest of my jewelers.”
“We’re just doing our due diligence, master jeweler,” I said, ignoring the jeweler’s poor attempts at an ingratiating smile. “How long until the crown is ready?”
“We’ll have to work throughout the night, but I assure you the crown will be ready in all its splendor by the morning,” the master jeweler said with another deep bow.
“I’ll leave you to it, then.”
I patrolled the room slowly, taking in every detail. Hoping that if I stared long enough, the dangers would reveal themselves out of exasperation. There was nothing particularly extraordinary about the space. My guards were spread all throughout; two of them standing watch outside the main door to the workshop. All along the edges of the room, the walls were crammed with various cabinets and tools the jewelers have collected over the years. Work benches were scattered throughout the spaces, but they were all abandoned as the jewelers all gathered around the central table and the impressive bounty laid upon it.
The crown jewels were enormous. Fist-sized rubies were surrounded by diamonds and sapphires in a dazzling display of wealth. The sacred symbols of the realm, a golden sun half-eclipsed by a silver moon, topped the ensemble. Many jewels were currently removed from their settings as the jewelers worked fastidiously to clean, polish, and inspect every piece of the crown and jewels.
I scanned over each of the jewelers. Several of them had a similar air to the master jeweler. A bit of nervous energy that seemed to only still when a ruby was in hand. Most were silent, but a few of the jewelers chattered softly with each other. It was grueling work, but none complained or seemed to slow down at all. I could respect the diligence towards the task at hand.
I looked up at Roman, who kept a silent watch above. I could make out most of his details, but some were already becoming hidden in the gloom. He caught my eye and gave a silent thumbs up; all normal from his point of view as well. I started towards the door to check-in with Leo and Levi when…
I heard it.
That floaty, high, tinkling laugh that had echoed in my head so many times before. I was truly hearing it, for the first time, with my actual ears. My body froze as my head snapped towards the source that was coming from the table of jewelers. One of the female jewelers was half covering her mouth with mirth still in her eyes. A joke or story having caught her unawares. Almost as suddenly as the laugh appeared, it was cut off. I saw this jeweler’s eyes widen, flick over to mine for the barest moment, before immediately lowering and her presence practically collapsing in on itself.
My eyes were now trying to make sense of the person they were trained on when for so long all I had available to me was that voice. I’ve constructed dozens of fairytale images of who that voice might belong to and the person in front of me looked both familiar and perfectly unknown at the same time.
I strode directly towards her, almost in a daze. She kept her eyes forcibly downturned, trying to fully block out my presence even when I was right next to her.
“What is your name?” I asked her, in barely a whisper. She did not respond or look up. The conversation between the other jewelers died as they realized a guard was towering over their work.
The master jeweler audibly cleared his throat and said with what he assumed was an ingratiating smile, “Uh, this is Penelope, Captain Matthias. She is here on loan from the southern station to assist with the restoration of the crown jewels. She just arrived this morning, but she comes with glowing recommendations.”
I never took my eyes off of her, even with the master jeweler rambling away. “Just arrived this morning, you say? By cart, I’m assuming.” Her silence continued to stretch, her eyes never moving from the ruby she mindlessly turned over in her hands.
“Will you not even look at me after all this?” I said through the connection, and I saw her flinch. My heart couldn’t decide if it wanted to stop or slam into my chest until it exploded. I saw her shoulders rise and fall with a sigh before she turned towards me, her eyes meeting mine and holding them. Her honey-colored eyes blazed into my soul so strongly I couldn’t even contemplate looking away. I could not parse what emotions were swirling in them and that brought me more anxiety than I could bear. Was she happy to see me or furious?
She took a step towards me and I became very still; afraid any movement might scare her off. I stared as she reached up and cupped half of my face, looking as deeply into my eyes as I was into hers.
And then her voice was in my head again. “Why did it have to be you?”
I was certain I was misinterpreting something. “Why would that be a prob-” I nearly finished my sentence before catching a solid elbow to the nose. She had already disabled two other guards inside the room by the time the stars stopped flashing in my eyes.
I regained my balance and spluttered through the blood streaming down from my nose, “Stop her!”
Her head snapped back towards me at the sound of my voice, her auburn hair flying around her. A sad smile graced her face for a moment, before hardening into a grim line. Leo and Levi burst in through the door, but were already too late. She whipped her hand down and I saw a small pebble flick from her hand and impact the floor, a great billowing cloud of darkness suddenly erupting from her feet. Leo gave a sharp yelp of alarm before being consumed by the miasma. I immediately lost my sense of direction. Couldn’t even see my own hand swiping at the cloud in front of my face.
“Where did you go? Why are you doing this?” I shouted into the abyss of my mind. There was no response. A few of the guards had started fanning away the black smoke with their cloaks and slowly the picture of the room returned.
“The jewels are gone!” a voice shouted. Penelope – the name still felt so strange – was obviously no longer here. But where did she go? I looked towards the door but Levi, ever diligent, had his back pressed against it. He met my eyes and quickly shook his head, answering the silent question – no one had gotten past him. I scanned around the room and felt a breeze as my head whipped towards the left, one of the windows in the room now open and a rope tied to a heavy jeweler’s table pulled taut across the bottom lip of it. I dashed over to the window and looked down.
I saw her. Making her way down steadily; hand over hand. She must have been seven floors down now at this point.
“Stop!” I shouted again, uselessly. She didn’t even look up.
“Please.” I said through our connection.
She paused then. Her head turned up towards me; too far for me to see her eyes let alone read whatever emotions were reflected in them. But then her eyes were torn away and she continued her descent; faster now.
Leo rushed up next to me, one of his eyes black after his encounter with Penelope, and saw her on the rope. His eyes glinted with grim satisfaction.
“Let’s cut it and help the bitch down” he growled out, already moving towards the rope. My hand shot out in a stiff block before I even realized it.
“No. Just… Make sure that rope holds.”
“Sir?” Leo asked in confusion. But then I leapt out the window, my hand burning against the rope as I practically fell down the side of the tower. I bumped and tumbled my way down, going at a ludicrous speed and ignoring the shouts of agony from my hands, but I was nearly upon her in seconds.
Penelope, feeling the jostling on the rope, looked up and immediately went wide-eyed as she saw the tumbling brute falling directly towards her.
“What are you doing, you idiot?!” her mind shouted, as she tried to speed up her descent. But my mad drop caught her about ten feet off the ground; crashing into her as I tried gripping the rope tighter to slow down fully despite the harsh protest from my hands. We flailed and fell the rest of the way, landing in a heap on the unforgiving dirt that stole the breath from my lungs.
I tried my best to get up, but my body simply wouldn’t respond. The best I could do was to cough and shift in agony on the ground.
“You…. idiot…” the slow voice of Penelope drifted into my head, in obvious distress. I eventually strained up onto my hands and knees, crawling towards her as she attempted to drag her body away. I fell bodily on top of her. No graceful way to prevent her from moving besides using my stature against hers. I caught the scent of her hair as I tumbled against her. Smoked oak and spiced wine filling my nostrils. I had imagined getting to discover this scent, her scent, for so long, but never imagined this scenario. She tried struggling against me, but was no match against my bulk and in this helpless position.
The rest of my squad rushed out of the building and eventually were able to take her into custody and to clean me up from the ground. And just like that, the night was over. I was escorted to the medical building to treat my ruined hands, and the rest of the squad received backup to continue guarding the jewels through the night as Penelope was taken to the prison. The crew offered me congratulations after congratulations. Bringing me to the station pub and heartily laughing as they already retold the story of my swan dive out of the window to catch the wicked thief to the cheers of the gathered guards.
I felt like a shell throughout it all. All I could see were her eyes. Turning towards me with a depth that I could hardly fathom. Couldn’t parse out if I was truly seeing hope and regret or if I was only imagining what I wished to see. The raucous gathering swept me up and around the tavern for an unknown amount of time. Suddenly, the roar of voices died in an instant.
Before I could fully register the change, someone shouted “Commander on deck!” and instantly the scrape of chairs filled the pub as everyone stood and saluted Father as he entered through the doors. He surveyed the room. Held the silence for just a moment extra because everyone knew he could before he softly intoned, “At ease” and the hands lowered and chairs scraped once more as quiet conversation slowly restarted; everyone keeping a watchful eye on what Father did next.
Father made his way towards me; powerful strides closing the distance in but a few steps. I rose to give him a quick salute again as he paused in front of me. “Matthias, you have done an exemplary job tonight. Your quick thinking and bravery have made the guards and our nation proud.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said crisply, not feeling a particular urge to respond further. Father gave no sign that he noticed my quietness and continued, “I would like to personally question this thief who had deigned to attack us. I would like for you to join me. As the main captor, you deserve that honor.”
My back stiffened as a swirl of emotions flooded through my mind. Did I want to see her? Could I see her after being the one who captured her? My stomach twisted into knots at the thought, but Father could not be denied. “Of course” I said woodenly, “It would be my pleasure.”
Father nodded once then turned, already making his way out of the pub. I gave Leo a companionable pat on the back and a nod of acknowledgement to the other guards before following behind him. We made our way through the compound in silence, our boots crunching in the gravel as we approached the prison. The guards on duty gave a salute to Father that he lazily returned, as he didn’t break his stride and entered the prison. We traveled upwards and south through the squat, five storied building. Getting to the second floor and one of the rooms on the far wall. There were three guards in front of the door.
“Leave us,” Father commanded, and there was no word of disagreement as the guards saluted and made their way towards the entrance of the building. Father unlocked the door, and entered. I followed closely behind.
Inside was a single torch high in the ceiling that gave a weak light through the room. There was a hard bed and a bucket, and a single blanket to help with the chill of the room. Penelope stood proudly in the center of the room, defiant against the cold and the obvious pain she must be feeling from her tumble down the tower. Her lip was split and left eye and cheek bruised. I felt my neck flush in unexpected shame at the sight of it.
“You gave us quite a fright, thief,” Father started in a somewhat jovial voice. Striding towards her at an angle to start pacing around her. Penelope kept her eyes staring straight ahead, not even flicking towards me even though I was less than ten feet away from her. “Stealing the crown jewels was ambitious beyond reason. Foolish, even. Why go after something so guarded? Who put you up to this?”
Father stopped his strolling when he was directly in front of her again, his pitiless eyes boring down into hers just inches away now. Penelope stayed silent. Giving no sense that she had even heard him.
Father sighed and struck out as fast as lightning; the back of his hand clapping into the side of her face so suddenly that Penelope’s eyes bulged in surprise. She collapsed to the floor in a groan. I picked her up from the ground, not even realizing I had moved until my arms were already cradling around her and helping her get her feet under her again. Father’s eyes narrowed as he watched. I cleared my throat, and tried to ignore his eyes boring into me as I looked into Penelope’s. I held back the urge to cup her reddining cheek and kept my hands firmly on her arms.
“Why do this?” I asked myself. Trying to sound stern, but not fully keeping the hurt out of my voice. Was there a betrayal that had happened? She owed me nothing. We had never truly opened up to each other. We did not learn of each other’s name until today. And yet, I felt I had known her through our conversations. Through our shared time together. Having all of that blown up was hard to make sense of.
“Why?” I said again, into her silence.
She finally broke eye contact, her eyes searching the corners of the room before returning to mine. Still resolute and defiant. “This crown is an insult to every citizen whose back the royalty and guards have stepped on in their hunger for power. You all live without a care in the world while the rest of us are starving and dying and subject to your whims and fantasies. This crown is an abomination and needs to be destroyed. Or given back to the people, at least.”
Father stepped forward and I instinctively let go of Penelope and stepped slightly off to the side. “You think you know everything in the world? We are running a nation. This requires sacrifices from many for the continued prosperity of our way of life. The citizens are proud and grateful to be a part of this great nation. As you should be too.”
Penelope barked a harsh laugh in Father’s face, “Grateful? Grateful to have our lives monitored and controlled and put down from birth to death? Proud to scrape a bare living while you all never know the word hunger? What pride is there for me? This nation is a joke and you should be ashamed to have a part in it.”
Father’s expression didn’t change but I felt him tense next to me. His hand shot out once more to backhand Penelope, but stopped just shy of contact; Penelope winced as the wind from the swing tickled her cheek. It took a moment for me to realize that the reason Father’s hand stopped was because my hand was locked around his wrist. I felt Penelope’s eyes on me, but I could only look into Father’s bulging, disbelieving eyes as I tried to understand what I was doing myself. I fumbled with my words as my mind tried to catch up to the reality of what my body was doing.
“Father, I know that what she did was inexcusable, but perhaps there could be some benefit to listening to what these citizens-”
“There is NO EXCUSE for this kind of blatant disregard for the ruler of this society!” Father bellowed, ripping his hand out of my grip. I had never seen him so furious. “Any hint of rebellion is a dishonorable act that must be stamped out immediately. Anything else would just give way to pandemonium sweeping through the land.”
Penelope laughed to his face, “It’s pandemonium for people to want to be more than beggars? For anyone to question how things are? That’s a very fragile structure, is it not?”
“Silence!” Father roared, and swung on her again. I shifted myself bodily in front of her, checking the swing with my shoulder and forearm to kill the power behind it. “Father, please wait!”
“What foolishness is this, Matthias? What spell are you under? My patience only goes so far. Stop this foolishness at once!”
“You should tread carefully, Matthias.” Father’s voice suddenly dropped to a cool whisper, “This familiarity with a thief does not look good. A thief sneaks into a high security tower while you’re on duty? You’re showing her favor and protecting her? People would start asking questions. Start whispering your name in the same breath as hers. Do you want to end up on the gallows with her? Think sensibly, man!”
Father’s words all washed over me except one phrase hit me like a sledgehammer.
“The gallows?” I repeated dumbly. Of course, a part of me knew that would be the punishment for attempted thievery at this level, but my mind simply didn’t want to process the thought.
Father looked at me incredulously, “Matthias, what spell has this witch put on you? Do you know her? Tell me truthfully now. I can’t protect you son unless you tell me everything.”
I stared dumbly at him, uncertain how to even speak now. “I… know her. And I don’t. I can’t fully explain it. But Father, please, we can’t kill her.”
“I’d rather die with my head held high against you lot rather than die struggling under your cruel heel.” Penelope said with a brave face. But I saw the slight shake in her right hand.
“Penelope! Please…” I said through a choking breath. Something shifted in her eyes as she saw the growing panic in my eyes. Everything felt like it was all collapsing. Everything slipping through my fingers and I had no way to stop it all.
“Father, I… Please… We can’t kill her… We can’t.” I could hear how pathetic my voice. A mewling babe begging their parent to change their mind. It felt just as hopeless.
“She hangs tomorrow. And afterwards you will wipe her from your mind. Come along now, son. We need to put this behind you.” Father turned and started towards the door.
Time slowed down to a crawl. My mind reeled as too many thoughts raced through it, trying to make sense of the current situation. I was paralyzed in place; rooted to the ground unable to stop Father or help Penelope. I felt helpless and confused. Then I heard a quiet whisper in my mind, “Matthias…” and I looked over at Penelope and saw her smiling at me. There was still some hesitance there. Some uncertainty given that we were still so new to the idea of even seeing each other’s faces. But the smile was genuine, and warm and… accepting. Accepting of her current situation. Accepting that she was about to die and was at peace with it. And in that moment I realized… I was not.
I moved quickly. Closing the distance to Father in two long strides before I silently wrapped my arms around his neck and clamped my hand over his mouth, kicking his legs from under him so I towered over him. Father let out a muffled gasp and gave an attempt at clawing and struggling at me, but the advantage was too overwhelmingly on my side. I held my lock for several agonizing seconds as he struggled until he finally succumbed to the lack of oxygen and drifted into unconsciousness. I released him before any permanent damage could be done; my long held loyalty making it impossible to even think of killing him. I did gag him and tie him to the bed stand, however.
I stood up from my work and moved towards Penelope. She had stood and stared wild-eyed throughout the last mad sixty seconds of activity. She could scarcely believe what was happening either. I was breathing heavily from the adrenaline but couldn’t find any words to say. “Uhh… Hi”, I settled on.
“…Hi,” she responded.
“So… I have no idea what I’m doing. But I’d like to figure it out with you, if you’d let me.” I said haltingly. She blinked a few times, before a smile finally cracked across her face and her tinkling laugh danced through the air. A genuine release of tension after the madness of the situation.
“Ok,” she said, still chuckling. “I’d like that a lot”.
Afterwards, we stole out into the night. I pretended to be transporting the “prisoner” to the main guards’ tower on Father’s orders, and somehow I was believed even through my nervously halting voice.
“You really are awful at lying,” Penelope commented dryly in my mind.
“I never made a habit of doing it!” I protested as we moved past another set of guards.
We reached the stables before any major alarm was raised. By the time the true scope of what had happened had spread throughout the guards and they started scrambling, we had dashed through the main gates and out onto the open trails; hooves thundering under us as we urged our mounts on.
We rode through the night and stumbled through the morning. Blending into the wash of travelers and traders moving along the main roads. Despite our exhaustion we kept moving throughout the day and delved off into the woods to stay out of sight. We didn’t talk much throughout that mad first day. Sleeplessness and nerves keeping us focused on simply putting one foot in front of the other. But eventually we made camp for the night. The smartest choice would have been to trade watches through the night, but we both collapsed onto our bedrolls as soon as they were laid out.
My dreams were troubled by all sorts of images. I could see Father’s disappointment in me, and the disgusted looks from my fellow guards. I saw myself paraded through the streets of the Station as crowds jeered and called me names and shouted “Traitor!” I saw an angry mob burning down my house and jeering in the background. I struggled through the night assaulted on all sides by these nightmares.
I don’t know when I mercifully slipped into dreamless sleep, but I stirred feeling a light touch on my shoulder.
“Hey… Are you awake?” The familiar greeting was like dawn breaking and feeling its warmth on my face. I opened my eyes, and saw a pair of honey-colored eyes looking back at me; her face inches away from mine. I reached out and cupped her face, brushing a strand of hair with a finger. She smiled and the memory of the nightmares blew away into the breeze. I smiled at her and drank in her presence.
“Indeed I am,” I said with a smile. And nothing felt more right.