“Caution, I must provide an heir to the throne. If my father must die, I would like him to do so secure in the knowledge that this is a possibility.”
“I am leaving in a matter of days to ride into battle.”
“If I go to war unwed, I may die before ever providing an heir. My father knows this. He also knows that this war is unavoidable. I must marry. I know you said before that our marriage was an unlikely prospect, but the prophecy states that you will be queen. It seems reasonable that—”
Caution put her candle-free hand up to silence him. “Look, I understand that you’re upset about your father, but getting married isn’t going to make him well.”
“It is true that I find the prospect of his death difficult, but it is not the reason for my asking this of you. In truth, I was considering this option prior to learning the severity of his illness. I have been thinking of asking you since you met with him yesterday.”
“That long?” Caution asked inaudibly.
“I require an heir,” the prince repeated. “You are to be queen. Marrying is the only reasonable way to ensure both.”
Caution opened her mouth, then closed it again. “I can’t listen to this. Getting married is not something you do because it’s reasonable.”
“You would be provided with everything you desire.”
“Andy, this isn’t a negotiation.”
“No,”the prince said, suddenly going stiff. “If it were, I should simply say that you would be allowed to marry the Crown Prince and you would accept the situation as to your extreme benefit. You would be lucky to marry so high above yourself.”
Caution turned and walked away. She could hear Antaetharon trying to keep up, but the lack of light forced him to move slower than she could with the candle. She had no idea where she was, but kept walking until she had found her way to the back garden. From there she found the door to the kitchen, and eventually made her way to the west wing. More than anything, she wanted to find Creep and tell him about the whole horrible episode. She settled for finding her chambers and trying to get some sleep.
The sleep, it turned out, was easier to imagine than get. Caution tossed and turned for what felt like hours, turning over in her head all the things she could have said to the prince. None of them seemed right, though, not after what he had learned about his father. She resigned herself to thinking about what she could have said if he’d proposed the same way, but wasn’t distraught by the impending death of a close relative.
Caution woke up early. She looked out her bedroom window, past the garden (which was now full of serious-looking men in armor) to the view beyond. For a split second, Caution thought she could be quite happy in M’leo. Then her memories of the night before surfaced.
“Son of a bitch,” she muttered under her breath. She left the curtains open and went into her dressing room.
Caution would have been quite happy to put on the clothes she’d been wearing when she arrived in M’leo. They were, however, nowhere to be found. She opened the wardrobe and picked out the simplest-looking dress she could find. It was beige, off-the-shoulder and had baggy, elbow-length sleeves. The skirt was only just past knee-length, but given the colour and cut of the dress, Caution decided it would look fine with bare feet—and anyway, she had more important things to worry about than how she looked.
Caution used the basin and cloth to get clean. She stuck her head in the basin as well, reasoning that sopping wet hair was better than sweat-soaked and smelly hair. She wondered when they’d had the chance to change the water, but was glad they had. As soon as she was dressed she went in search of Creep.
The castle was full of people. If it had been busy the day before, they needed a new word for what it was now. There were servants everywhere, running around, getting the castle ready for whatever it was servants got ready for. They were all talking quickly and quietly and Caution got the distinct feeling they were talking about her. Other than the talking, and sideways glances, none of them seemed to really notice Caution, which she was happy about.
Caution found Creep in the garden, very near to the kitchen door. He was standing perfectly still, and for a second Caution wondered if she was going to have to step in with a a heavy stick. None of hundreds of men that were gathered around the garden actually looked at her as she approached him. In fact, they were doing their very best to not look at her, while paying far-too careful attention to everything she was doing. Creep turned to face her.
“Thank God,” Caution breathed, as she reached him. She had planned to start immediately into a rant about the prince’s proposal, her refusal, and her having to find her way back to her chambers in the dark. The whole thing was a bit too embarrassing, though; she could just picture Creep folding his arms over his chest and saying something like, I leave you alone for one night and this is what happens.
“Creep, can I ask you a question?” Caution said after a while.
Caution gasped. “Oh my God!” She flung her arms around Creep’s neck. “Oh my God, you used slang. That’s so cute!”
Creep sighed and rolled his eyes. “Ask your question.”
“What are you doing?” Antaetharon’s voice demanded.
Caution looked to where the prince was standing. She realized that she still had her hands clasped behind Creep’s neck. “Dancing,” she said, smiling at the absurdity of the situation.
“I was not addressing you,” the prince said coldly.
“Caution was showing me a dance of her people,” Creep said, pulling out of Caution’s grasp.
“It looked like an embrace.”
“Jealous?” Caution chuckled softly. She wished she could take it back. It probably wasn’t the best thing she could have said, under the circumstances.
“Hardly. Actually, I wish to—”
“Look a distraction!” There was a zzzt noise, and Caution found herself in a tree. “… Uh… Creep?”
“Why am I in a tree?”
“I gathered your intention was to distract the prince, then run.”
“I improved upon your plan.”
Caution peered out from behind a branch, and decided they must almost halfway to the back of the garden. In the far distance, she could make out the prince, looking around confusedly. She wondered what kind of trouble Creep was going to get into for pulling a stunt like that, but the thought occurred to her that whatever it was, he could handle it.
“What was your question?” Creep asked, from the branch above the one Caution was sitting on.
“Oh. Um… right. I was going to ask you what your name is.”
“You may continue to call me Creep.”
“Yeah, I know, but… before I came along, what did they call you?”
“Il gh’at Mon fi.”
“That’s pretty. I hope it means something better than mine does.”
“It means three hundred and fifty second.”
Caution adjusted herself so that her back was against her branch and she could look properly at Creep. “Please don’t tell me you’re the three hundred and fifty second kid in your family. That would just be too nasty.”
“I am the three hundred and fifty second Chonti to work as a sorcerer in Craté castle,” Creep explained.
“So your name is just a number?” Caution asked, horrified. “Didn’t your parents name you?”
“If they did, I am unaware of it. They sent me to apprentice here as a very young child. The tradition of numbering the Chonti sorcerer has been in place for centuries.”
“Well that’s… awful.” Caution was about to bring up the prince’s proposal when something else occurred to her. “The magic you use, it’s be pretty powerful, right? I mean, it must be, if you can just zap us into a tree from half a mile away.”
“So they treat you like you’re sub-human and number you, but you’re allowed access to powerful magic? Doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
“To tell you the truth, I am reasonably certain that the royal family has very little idea of the power a sorcerer harnesses when he works magic. If they knew what it entailed, I believe I would have been relieved of my post some time ago. However, I have never given the king a reason to doubt my loyalty; most of the magic I work is worked in secret.”
“Unbelievable,” Caution laughed. It was time, she knew, to tell him about Andy’s proposal. Or it would be. Later. “So,” she said after a while, “what were you doing in the garden?”
“Waiting for you.”
Caution stared up at him. “You were… you knew I was going to be looking for you in the garden?”
“I did. I did not know that you would be wearing a night dress.” He smiled for a second. It was creepy.
Caution looked down at her dress and shrugged. “It was the only thing I could find that didn’t have puffy sleeves.” She could feel her cheeks turning red and decided it was time to change the subject again. “So you were waiting for me? How come?”
“There is something I wish to give you.”
“Really? What is it?”
“This.” Creep leaned forward with something in his hand.
Caution took it from him and examined it. It was a necklace, with what looked like a moonstone pendant wrapped in silver.
“Creep, it’s beautiful.” Caution said, pulling the leather cord over her head. “What’s the occasion?”
“I am glad you like its design,” Creep said. “However, beauty was not my sole intention.”
“The necklace is enchanted.”
“… Come again?”
“It functions as a translator. While you are wearing it, you will be able to understand what is said to you, regardless of the language spoken. Likewise, those you speak to will know the meaning of your words.”
“Wow. So this is… that’s why you buggered off before, to make this?”
Caution sighed. “I don’t know what to say. Thank you.” Then, all at once, and without any warning, it came out: “Andyaskedmetomarryhim.”
Creep displayed a disturbing lack of surprise. “I suspected he might.”
“You—what? Why the hell didn’t you warn me?”
“I did not want to alarm you.”
“I trust you accepted.”
“Uh, I really didn’t.”
“I mean, I was nice to him about it, but God, can you even imagine? I think he was just asking me because he’s upset about his dad, you know? He wants to start a family because his is going to be gone.”
“He requires an heir,” Creep said simply.
“Yeah, so he kept saying. Guys in this place are real romantics, I guess.” Caution did her best imitation of Andy’s bold, tenor voice: “Hi, I know I’ve known you less than twenty four hours, but please, marry me so we can procreate and I can thereby fulfill my filial responsibilities.”
“He was ungracious in his request?”
“Extremely. I mean, it was fine. We were actually having fun. The night before last I was helping him out with the whole war map thing, we were cooking, we went for a walk. Then yesterday, I hung out in the war room, and he was really nice to me, even though his advisors were being total asses. He even arranged a picnic for us… then the servant showed up, and Andy asked me to go with him to see his father, and I couldn’t very well say no. Then he finds out his father is dying and all of a sudden he wants to get married.”
Caution had known Mr. Creep long enough not to expect him to try to say something comforting, but she had no idea what he was going to say.
“You said you saw the most current map?”
“Oh, um… Yeah. But they just have one map now, and a piece of glass, and little statues. That was my idea, actual—”
“Did you note the location of the enemy forces?”
“I… yeah. They’re spread all over. They’re all north of the castle, just north of that big mountain range thing…”
“On the east or west side of the mountain range?” Creep prompted, with a little too much anxiety in his voice for Caution’s peace of mind.
“West,” Caution said slowly. “Why?”
Mr. Creep said nothing.
“Creep? Creep, what’s wrong?” Caution asked slowly. “You’re not going to hit me again, are you?”
Mr. Creep looked down from his branch. “No. It is just…”
Caution felt a sudden pang of guilt for ever having doubted Creep’s ability to feel. Of course he felt. He felt everything, he just didn’t show it. He was showing it now. His almond-shaped eyes were wide with fear, his mouth hung open as he fought desperately with himself to come up with words. Then he was fine, as if nothing had ever been the matter.
“Creep, what’s going on?” Caution asked.
Creep started to climb out of the tree, and Caution did the same to avoid being stepped on.
“Creep,” Caution repeated when she reached the ground.
Creep landed on the ground beside her, with nothing more than a slightly bent knee to cushion his fall. He straightened and brushed the dirt off the front of his robes. “At the western-most side of the mountain range, on the southern the base of the mountain Maenaus, there is a village.”
“I didn’t see it on the map,” Caution half-whispered, realizing Creep’s problem.
“It would not have been there. It is a Chonti village.”
“They’re not on the maps?”
“Those that are permitted—those that the king and prince are aware of—are shown on the map. This village is… secret. It is inhabited by Chonti unwilling to live as a lower race.”
“But… Andy will send men to defend them, once he knows they’re there, right?”
“I… do not know.”