A/N: Sorry for taking soo bloody long to get this out. Work, then a lack of work, now trying to find work, plus trying to find an agent and stuff like that. Anyway, enough excuses. Hope you enjoy. Next chapter to follow soon.
“It was an accident,” Caution said to the room in general. “I didn’t mean it.” She forced herself to look at Andy’s motionless body, then whimpered and looked away in horror. It was probably the fifth time she’d done this in as many minutes. “It was an accident,” she repeated. “I had to. He was going to kill Creep. I had to.”
The knife was still in her hand. It had slid up Andy’s chest as his knees buckled and gone deeper as he fell forward into Caution—and she had pushed it deeper still as she tried to push Andy back. He had fallen backwards, knees folding under him as he went. She’d never let go of it.
“Okay,” she said, pulling herself out of her trance. “Okay. We fought. He tripped and fell into me. No. I found him like this. No. They’re going to know it was me. If they find him here, they’ll know it was me.” Caution started to pace. She couldn’t tell Creep. If anyone found out he helped her—but she had to tell Creep. But she couldn’t. “They can’t find him here,” Caution told herself, as the thought formed. “So they won’t.
Caution sat on the corner of the bed and went over it one last time. She said it aloud; she had to get the details right. “Okay. So the servant kid showed up and said that Andy wanted me to be in the chambers by the time he got there. So I hurried here and I waited for him in the parlour. I was there for… twenty minutes, maybe. About that. Anyway, he was taking a while and I thought that since it was—No; is. I don’t know he’s dead. Since it is his first night back, I’d get a little dolled up. So I came in here and found him gone, blood everywhere and screamed for help. That’s it. I can do this.”
Caution immediately began to ransack the room. Andy wouldn’t have gone without a fight. She knocked things over as quietly as she could, dumped unlit candles on the floor, swept the sheets off the bed. That was all easy. Next was the hard part.
Caution knelt on the floor and picked the knife up from beside Andy, where she’d left it. She turned it in her hand, so the slightly curved blade curved toward her. She lifted it above he head with both hands, took a deep breath and plunged it into Andy’s chest. There was a snap as his sternum separated and Caution was sure she’d faint. But the knife was buried up to the hilt; the worst part was over.
Blood bubbled up from around the knife and for a second, Caution thought about so forensic drama, where the strikingly gorgeous M.E. Had proved the victim was already dead when he was shot, because corpses don’t bleed, ever. Caution pushed the idea out of her head. They probably made stuff up on those shows all the time.
The trick now was believing Andy was somewhere else. As far away from her and the castle as he could be. He had to be somewhere else. If she could turn a penny into a cigarette, she could move a body. She just had to get it to the outside of the cone-shield that protected the castle; it would roll the rest of the way. As hard as she could, Caution imagined Andy was gone. He’d vanished and rolled down the traffic cone. He was gone. Then he was.
Caution breathed out a sigh of relief and was suddenly aware of the flood of tears streaming down her face. She looked down at the pool of blood where Andy had been, the blood on her dress, the blood on her hands. Then she threw up.
She staggered toward the door, not stopping to get into character; it wasn’t necessary; no one could act that kind of gut-wrenching terror. She’d made it through the parlour and into the hallway before she remembered she should be screaming.
She couldn’t. She managed a half-whispered “Help,” before the heat that was settling at the base of her neck spread up to her nape and her vision faltered She stumbled forward, her foot caught and everything went black.
The rough carpet dug into Caution’s cheek, but it was oddly relaxing to lye there and have nothing to worry about except getting stepped on by whoever was running down the hall.
“Highness!” shrieked the maid to whom the footsteps belonged. “Are you hurt? Did you fall?”
“Andy,” Caution answered breathlessly, remembering her purpose. “He’s missing. The King is missing.”
“Missing?” the maid asked, slowing down. “I’m sure he—”
“There’s blood,” Caution said quickly. “A lot. I think he’s been kidnapped.” She burst into tears, totally independent of anything she’d planned.
Much to Caution’s surprise, the maid did not stop to comfort her. Instead, she stepped over the fallen queen and took off running toward the bridal chambers. A moment later, she emerged, shouting that the King had been taken. She stepped over Caution again on her way back and disappeared down the hallway, still shouting.
Caution pulled herself to her feet. She was nearly sick again. Walking her hands along the wall, Caution stumbled down the hall in the same direction she’d been going. Not even a minute later, the maid came back, this time with a soldier in tow. They both rushed past Caution without even a glance in her direction.
Caution realized she was truing to run, still using the wall for support. She tried a few awkward steps on her own to avoid a mounted torch, pitched forward and was caught under the arms by a man she hadn’t even noticed was there. Whoever he was, he was warm and familiar, and when he’d set Caution upright again, she’d closed on him immediately and hugged him as hard as she could.
A moment later, it occurred to her that she should at least glance at his face. She leaned back a little and saw the grave baby face of Byers.
“Oh, thank God,” Caution muttered aloud before pulling him in for another tight hug.
“What happened?” Byers asked, his voice vibrating through his chest and against Caution’s cheek.
“Andy,” Caution sniffed. “He’s gone.”
Caution was almost expecting Byers to break out of the hug and take off to see for himself. Instead, he squeezed her back and cupped one hand protectively around the back of her head. Caution could feel his itchy bird-watcher’s beard catching in her hair as he rested his chin on her head.
Caution woke up in her own gigantic bed. Before she opened her eyes, she could tell she was surrounded by people, all waiting with bated breath to she if she’d be okay. Someone was holding her hand. It was a man and it wasn’t Creep, but that was as much as she could tell. She was holding it as hard as she could, which alarmed her slightly.
“Sorry,” she muttered opening her eyes. “Byers?” she said, as the cook came into focus. “What’re you doing here?”
“I carried you hear,” Byers explained, colouring.
“He wouldn’t leave you,” explained a nearby maid in a tone that was half accusation, half admiration. “He insisted on making sure you were safe.”
Before Caution had a chance to acknowledge the maid or thank Byers for his kindness, another of her observers pushed forward to the bed.
“What happened?” the new man demanded.
“I guess I fainted,” Caution said stupidly, before she realized what he was talking about. She added hastily, “Did you find Andy?”
“Not yet,” said another man, from the other side of the bed.
Caution recognized the voice as belonging to one of the royal advisers. “We must know exactly what happened.”
For hours after that, Caution told the story: She’d gone to the chambers, but stayed in the parlour. She’d decided to change her clothes, gone into the bedroom and there had been blood. She was sick at the sight of it. She’d run into the hallway and fainted. After that, they knew the rest.
It seemed like the royal advisers had been multiplying since Caution was last in a room with them. They surrounded her bed in groups of two or three and each demanded a full account of exactly what had happened. Every sentence was interrupted, every word questioned. And Creep was nowhere to be seen.
Caution asked for him repeatedly, and refused to let Byers leave until Creep arrived. But each time she mentioned him, the adviser—or maid, or soldier, or whoever was interrogating her at the time—would simply tell her there were more important things to worry about, then go back to asking questions Caution had already answered.
When it was over, and they had finally dragged from Caution every piece of information she could give, two guards were posted outside her chambers and she was left alone with the cook.
“What were you doing in the hallway?” Caution asked, after a moment’s uncomfortable silence.
“I heard you had fallen ill,” Byers said quietly.
“Oh. Well, thanks for coming.”
“It was my pleasure, Highness.”
There was another minute or two of silence on both of their parts. Again, it was Caution who broke it.
“I really need to find Creep. Do you think you could—”
“He is ill.”
“What? No, Creep doesn’t get sick. I mean, he’s never gotten sick in the whole time I’ve known him. What’s wrong with him? Why didn’t they tell me? Why didn’t you tell me?”
Byers sighed. “I am the cook. It is not my place to contravene the wishes of the King’s advisers.”
“Okay, so why didn’t they want me to know?”
“They said you would be too worried over him to be useful in helping to find the King.”
“Oh. They’re probably right.” She sighed. “But Creep might be able to help find Andy,” Caution said, desperately hoping he wouldn’t. “I need you to get me to him.”
“They say he’s in the tower,” Byers muttered, more to himself than to Caution. “Perhaps if—Do you think you can walk?”
“Yeah. I think. I’m not exactly sick. I mean, I feel sick. I think I’m just upset, you know?” Caution shifted uncomfortably under Byers’ stare. “I can walk,” she said finally.
Byers stood up. Caution swung her legs over the side of her bed and did the same, albeit shakily.
“Have they sent the search parties out for Andy?”
“I do not know.”
“Let’s make sure they do.”
She had told herself over and over: act like you would if you didn’t know he was dead. “I’m gonna see the advisers first, tell them to set up a search.”
“I don’t think they’ll be pleased.”
“I don’t think I care.”
Byers smiled. “Then we shall go to the advisers. Do you know where we might find them?”
“The big scary room, I’m willing to bet,” Caution said, swaying as she crossed the bedroom.
Byers looked completely lost.
“I know where I’m going,” Caution told him. “I’d just prefer not to go alone.”
Caution crossed her parlour to the outer chamber door and Byers followed.
The advisers, not surprisingly, were non-plussed when Caution appeared in the big scary room, most of her weight supported by the cook. They immediately began insisting she go back to bed.
“Not happening,” she told them. “First, I want to know what’s being done to find my husband.”
Caution could almost be angry at the unjust treatment she was receiving in the wake of Andy’s disappearance. Here she was in a strange world and her husband was missing—you’d think they’d at least try to be comforting. Of course, her thoughts gave way to guilt, guilt so strong she nearly collapsed.
Byers caught her and directed her to a chair.
“We have sent three hundred men to find the King,” one of the men informed her coolly. “I trust Her Majesty does not object?”
“No. Check everywhere. And find out how they got in to take him.” Caution paused to breathe and concentrate on not falling off her chair. Then she sighed, straightened her back and added, in the most regal tone she could muster, “In future, all decisions like that are to go through me. I want to be consulted about everything.”
“You ask a great responsibility,” one of the advisers put in.
“And I’ll be glad when my husband returns and takes over. Until then, it is my duty as Queen.”
Under different circumstances, Caution would have laughed at the shocked expressions of the old men. Right then, she had bigger worries.
“I’m going to talk to Creep. If he’s sick, we’ll get him better. Trust me: this castle can’t function without him.”
An adviser who looked relatively new stepped forward, and, to Caution’s extreme shock, bowed. “Your Majesty,” he began. “The scout reports that the enemy forces are travelling through the mountains.”
“I, uh… weren’t we going to head them off before they could do that?”
“The King thought it imprudent.”
“What? How is it imprudent to—forget it. How long until they get here?”
“That number? A week. Two, if we are lucky.”
Andy would have been useful about then. He would have at least been able to come up with a plan.
“So what do you guys think?”
“I think we are doomed, Highness,” said the new adviser.
“Not helpful,” Caution barked, momentarily forgetting that she felt like death. “Sorry, but no doom-talk. Do we wait here, do we meet them half-way, what?”
The room erupted into arguments so loud and confused that Caution and Byers were entirely forgotten. Some thought the castle should be fortified. Some thought a surprise attack was their only hope. A few suggested full-on retreat.
Without knowing why, Caution stood up and began waving her arms for them to be quiet. Eventually, the noise died down and she was left standing in the middle of the room, all eyes on her.
“Um,” she said, while she tried to remember what had seemed so urgent. Then it hit her. “We have to warn the Chonti!”
For a fraction of a moment, the room was dead silent.
“What would that solve?” someone wanted to know.
“Warn them about what?”
Caution took a breath. “At the eastern base of the mountain range, there’s a Chonti village. If—”
“No there isn’t,” someone interrupted. “I know every village for a thousand miles and—”
“Shut up. It’s there. Send someone to warn them. Now.”
One of the younger men (he was probably about fifty) bowed and said, “Yes, your Majesty,” before running out of the room.
“That’s more like it,” Caution said, almost smiling. “I have to go talk to Creep. “We’ll warn the Chonti and I need you all to come up with the best way to deal with the enemy people. Our chief concern is finding Andy. Arrange something; question the villagers. I need to find Creep.”
Caution left with Byers moments later.
“That was inspired, Highness,” he said, as they walked toward the central tower. “You seem to be feeling better.”
“I think I just got my fifth wind,” Caution told him, forcing a weak smile.
When they reached the door, Caution knocked once, then pushed it open.
Creep was sitting on the edge of his cot, fully dressed, buttoning a sleeve. He nodded to Byers.
Byers nodded back. “I had better be going, Highness,” he said with a quick bow. He nodded to Creep again on the way out. “Sorcerer.”
Creep nodded back. “Cook.”
“Um, that was weird,” Caution said as the door swung closed. She sat down next to Creep and finished doing up his button for him. “I heard you were sick. Are you okay?” She didn’t wait for a response before slapping her hand on his forehead to check for a fever.
“Fatigued, that is all.”
“You had me worried.”
Creep took Caution’s hand of his forehead and kissed it.
“I guess you heard about Andy,” Caution said after a minute.
“He is missing.”
“Yeah. They’re looking for him. Um, three hundred men, they said.”
“They will find him soon.”
“You seem unhappy.”
“There was a lot of blood.”
Creep didn’t answer.
“There’s something else,” Caution ventured slowly. “The enemies, they’re almost through the mountains.”
Creep jumped up. Caution grabbed his arm and pulled him back down.
“I’ve sent word. They’ll be warned. I need you to help with Andy.”
“I don’t know. Do a spell or something.”
“I cannot. Not yet.”
Caution was relieved but confused. “Huh?” she asked eloquently.
“My magic is… draining.”
“It will build back up quickly.”
“But… I don’t get it.”
“Have you been practising your magic lately?”
“Not enough to find Andy, I don’t think. I could try, if you told me what to do.”
“That is not why I asked.”
“Have you done any difficult spells?”
“I, uh… I…” There was no way she could tell him. “I turned pennies into cigarettes,” she said finally.
“Ah. Anything else?”
Creep nodded. “You must be more careful with your spells, Caution. For my sake.”
“I don’t get it,” Caution complained, once more feeling the effects of the nights’ events. “Did I mess something up?”
Creep sighed. “You do exceedingly well for someone of your experience. Nonetheless, you are using too much energy.”
“I’m kinda drained lately,” Caution said slowly, “but you don’t have to worry about me, Creep. I just need more practise,”
“Perhaps, but I need you to wait before you do anything else.”
“You do not understand.”
Caution blinked. “And you thought I was confused before.”
“No human, not even an adept, could perform the spells you have performed without years of meditation and training. The focus required—”
“But I did. I mean—What about my necklace?”
“Magic, essentially, is energy.”
“It must come from somewhere.”
“The enchantment that causes your necklace to work is maintained by my energy.”
“I maintain many such enchantments. The shield around the castle, for example, takes considerably more energy.”
“But… I don’t want you running yourself down.”
“I am happy to do this for you, Caution.”
“But—Okay. But then I still don’t get—”
“Why you must stop performing spells?”
“That necklace was enchanted specifically for you; it will not work for anyone else.”
Caution stared patiently, waiting for him to continue.
“It serves as a sort of conduit, a like between ourselves. Each time—”
Caution smacked Creep hard in the arm. “Jerk, why the hell didn’t you tell me? I’ve been stealing your energy to do stupid spells, and you didn’t even say anything.”
“I did not think it would matter. I did not expect you to attempt spells of the magnitude—it does not matter. I will be recovered shortly.”
Caution felt queasy for the hundredth time that—day, night, morning. “I think I need to go to bed,” she said suddenly. “How long until you’re better, do you think?”
“I am already quite well enough to move around, Caution. My magic will return to me fully within two days, I should think.”
Caution sighed. “I don’t want you straining yourself.”
“Likewise,” Creep said, standing up. “Please, go to sleep. I will tax my health less if I am not worrying over yours.
Caution sighed again. A stronger woman would have fought to stay awake and by her man’s side, but even the part of Caution that wanted Creep’s protective arms around her was getting lost in yawns and blurred vision.
“So much for my fifth wind.”