Caution blinked once or twice. “What?”
The muddied knight turned immediately to her. “Allow me—” He stopped, suddenly unsure how to continue. “I am very sorry,” he said finally.
Caution collected her wits. She knew exactly what state they’d found Andy in, but she shouldn’t know. “Sorry?” she asked. “But this is great news. Where is he?”
“He is in the forest, Your Majesty.”
Caution tried to look confused. “What’s he doing there?”
The messenger finally took pity on his ditzy Queen and let her in on what the advisers, lack-luster and stone-faced, had already figured out. “Your Highness,” he told her, “the King is dead.”
“No he’s not,” Caution shot back, with a short, forced laugh. “He can’t be.”
“I’m afraid it’s true, Your Highness. You have my deepest condolences.”
“He can’t be dead,” Caution repeated, worried that she was overdoing it.
“What have you done with his body?” one of the advisers asked, saving Caution one more insincere protestation of mistaken identity.
“He’s not been moved, Sir,” the knight answered, still staring at the floor. “We—Captain Moorson thought it best to send for the sorcerer.”
Everyone spun to face Creep, except Caution, who couldn’t bring herself to look at him.
“Where was he found?” Creep asked flatly.
The messenger, either because he was tired of bowing or because he hadn’t gotten the memo on Chonti equality, stood up to face Creep. “In the woods, near the Elmmyer Hollow, but it—forgive me. Perhaps the Queen would be more comfortable elsewhere?”
“She bloody well would not!” Caution shouted, before Creep could say anything. “If it really is Andy, I want to know what happened to him.”
The man sighed and went on. “He was found in the woods,” he repeated, “but we do not believe he was killed there; there are no signs of a struggle. Not one leaf disturbed, save for—forgive me, Your Majesty—where the animals have gotten to him.”
Creep did not answer.
“His body was found with a knife buried to the hilt…” the messenger’s resolve seemed to be wavering. His voice faltered under the stares of Caution, Creep, the royal advisers, and (for reasons unbeknownst to the knight) the cook. “…heart,” he mumbled, followed by “…some kind of ritual.”
“I will prepare at once for departure,” Creep told the now-silent room. “It was right to leave the body in place. Any traces of magic might be disturbed by transportation. I assume the rest of the search party stayed in place to guard the body until a full identification can be made.”
The knight bowed yes.
Creep turned to leave the room.
“I’m coming with you,” Caution said, gathering her skirts and chasing after him.
No one else moved, but Caution could hear the room erupt into shouts behind them as the door swung closed.
Caution matched Creep’s stride, but it was a long time before either of them said anything.
“My deepest condolences,” Creep said, as they reached the central tower.
Caution had no idea how to answer, so she didn’t.
“I do not understand,” Creep said, after a pause, “how anyone was able to get into the castle to take him. Nor how they left again without my knowledge.”
Caution shrugged weakly.
“Through the town, back into the hills, all without being seen. It does not follow.”
Caution tried desperately to think of an answer. Anything would be better than staring silently at the floor, which is what she was doing.
“It is irksome,” Creep finished, and it became obvious that he expected an answer.
Caution racked her brain. “Back?” she said finally.
Creep raised an eyebrow.
“You said back to the hills. Why did you say back?”
Creep looked confused, which, under other circumstances, Caution would have found unbearably cute. “Ah,” he said, after a minute. “Back in the direction we walked from. The place the knight mentioned is near where we were attacked by the robbers.”
Caution smiled, in spite of herself, remembering that day. It seemed a hundred years ago. Despite the fight, that day had been calm, downright carefree, compared to the last few. She’d almost been gutted only the day before, and yet felt inexplicably safe in the woods with Creep. To think that Andy and his father wouldn’t let Creep fight made her blood boil. If they’d known what he did on Earth, how he’d dealt with her stalkers, they would have probably would have had him killed. She thought about him demolishing her Abiku attackers. It was a wonder the King had even let him carry a sword.
“Creep? Where’s your sword?” She hadn’t seen it since the night she was attacked.
“It is odd you should ask,” he said after a minute.
“No it isn’t. Why?”
“Because I left it very near to the place we were just discussing. What made you think of it?”
Caution was hit with a particularly unpleasant sick-dizzy sensation. “You need to get it back,” she told him urgently. “You really need to get it back.” She could feel herself starting to cry and didn’t bother trying to stop. The advisers had been the ones who suspected the affair in the first place. Creep’s sword would be plenty for them to invent motive and means.
“Caution,” Creep said, sharing her alarm, if not her reasoning. “What is wrong?”
“You need to get it back,” she repeated. “The soldiers… get it back.”
“How do you propose—”
“Magic! Just zap it back here. I don’t care. Do something.”
Creep shook his head. “Caution, I do not have the strength to—”
“Get it back,” Caution barked. “That’s an order.”
Creep said nothing for a long time. He stared at Caution, or through her, she couldn’t tell.
The sword appeared on the cot beside them. Creep’s knees buckled under his weight and he went down.
When the page came in some twenty minutes later, Caution was still kneeling on the floor with Creep’s head in her lap. Creep was barely conscious.
“Your Highness!” the page exclaimed, falling to the floor beside her in a frantic bow. “I did not expect you. Forgive me.”
“Get up,” Caution told him quickly. “Go find a doctor.”
“No doctor,” Creep whispered.
“No doctor,” Caution repeated to the boy as he turned to leave. “What do you need?” she asked Creep.
“Nothing. I will be fine. Ask the news.”
It took Caution a moment to figure out what he was saying. She turned to the page. “What do you want?”
Caution reflected that this poor kid probably had never been in the presence of royalty, or if he had, he had not been expected to converse with it. “Sorry. You came here to tell Creep… what?”
The boy gave himself a shake. “I had come, Your Highness, to inform the sorcerer that His Majesty’s Royal Advisers bid he leave at once to his destination, which, Your Highness, the sorcerer is aware of, and I need not repeat nor be privy to.”
“Ah.” Caution said. “Go tell them that he will leave when he’s damn well ready. You may tell them that is a direct quote from me.”
The boy bowed nervously. “Your Highness,” he said, scurrying out of the room.
“You don’t have to leave today,” she told him. “Rest a bit. I mean, he’s not getting any deader.” The last part had slipped out accidentally, and she could only pray that Creep was too out of it to have noticed. “If it’s even him,” she added quickly.
“Caution, there will not be another time. The enemy forces approach, the citizens of M’leo grow nervous, and no one will obey you fully while there is still a chance that your orders may be undone by the King. I must leave today. Within the hour, in fact.”
“Creep, this is insane.”
“I never said it was not,” Creep said, sitting up with difficulty. “That does not change what must be done.”
“Then I’m coming with you,” Caution told him flatly.
“You may serve your people better here,” Creep told her, climbing to his feet.
“No,” Caution said, climbing up behind him. “I wasn’t planning on staying here anyway. Look at you; you can barely walk. No way in hell you’re going alone.”
“I had planned on coming back with an escort.”
“And how were you going to get there?”
“Magic,” Creep answered flatly. “That is no longer an option.”
“And you think this group of guards is going to care if you’re sick or if you get hurt? I’m coming with you. If it all goes to hell while we’re gone, then… well… at least we’ll be together, right?” She forced a smile at him.
Caution took a deep breath. Traveling through the city around the castle had not been pleasant. The peasants looked even more down-trodden and miserable than they had when she first saw them, and seeing their Queen, the palace sorcerer, a small group of soldiers and a train of stodgy old men leaving the castle in a time of crisis did little to life their spirits. She’d also gotten used to the fresh air that blew in from her upstairs window, and the air in the little town was positively fetid by comparison.
But now she was back in the countryside. She breathed deep again. As they passed through vast farmland and rolling green hills, Caution started to wonder how on earth she’d survived being stuck in the castle for as long as she had. She could have left, she realized, or at least asked if leaving was an option, but it hadn’t even occurred to her. Now she wasn’t sure if she could go back. If anything other than going to see her dead husband had been the reason for the trip, Caution would have broken into The Hills are Alive about then, guards and advisers be damned. She glanced side-long at Creep. By the look on his face, he’d have to be damned to, if she was going to sing show tunes.
It was a beautiful day. If Caution had to complain, her only complaint would have been how ill and unhappy Creep looked. Plus the fact that their expressed purpose in going was to look at a dead body. She also might have mentioned that her ass and thighs hurt because this was the first time she’d ridden a horse in nearly ten years. Luckily for all concerned, she didn’t have to complain, so she simply breathed deep yet again and kept riding.
The trip to the woods was far shorter on horseback than the one from woods had been walking. Even riding relatively slowly, it seemed like the journey was over before it got started. Caution was sorry to see it end. She dismounted awkwardly from her horse with the help of one of the soldiers who had accompanied them and stumbled over to Creep’s horse.
“Someone give him a hand down,” she ordered, before Creep had a chance to slide out of his saddle. He wasn’t looking so good.
A group of soldiers appeared at the entrance to the woods and after acknowledging Caution, began to chat with the ones from her envoy. Soon, the horses were tied up, a group of men had been assigned to watch them, and Caution, Creep and the advisers were being escorted through the woods on foot.
About five steps into the forest, Creep motioned for Caution to hang back with him. She slowed down. So did three of the soldiers.
“You guys go ahead,” Caution said, realizing that Creep wanted her alone. “We’ll catch up.”
The soldiers looked distinctly uncomfortable. “Your Highness,” said one of them, “you would be safer with us.”
Caution tried to look less annoyed than she felt. “I have extraordinary faith in Creep’s abilities. He’ll look after me.”
The soldier who had spoken, to his credit, was a fast thinker. “Forgive me, your highness, but you have not been to the… area. A guide there would be most useful, would it not?”
Caution suppressed a smirk. “There’re nearly three hundred men guarding it?”
“That is correct, Your Highness.”
“Three hundred men standing around in a forest. Yeah, I think we’ll manage.”
The soldiers, sufficiently subdued, wandered off ahead.
Caution linked arms with Creep as they walked slowly behind. “What’s up?”
“Caution, why did you tell me to retrieve my sword?”
She had not been expecting that. “Uh. Well.”
Creep blinked. He looked greener than usual.
“There are a lot of soldiers in these woods. I mean, a lot. I didn’t want them finding it. I mean, you’re not exactly supposed to have it, are you?”
“It is used in some rituals. They are aware I poses it. I am not—was not, I should say—allowed to carry it on my person. It was not supposed to leave the central tower.”
Caution sighed. “Right. So, if they found it, it would be really bad, right?”
Creep coughed lightly. “Not bad enough to warrant this,” he said, clearly referring to his weakened state. “Your concern seemed more urgent.”
Caution was getting sick of playing the ditz, but she couldn’t see a way out of it. “What do you mean?” she asked innocently.
“Why should you worry now if anyone learnt I sometimes carry a sword? Your laws have made it legal.”
“Yeah, but—I guess it wasn’t as important as I thought. I’m sorry I made you all, uh, drained.”
“We must communicate better, Caution.”
Rich, coming from someone who hardly spoke to her and almost never to anyone else.
“This could have been avoided.”
Caution felt sick. Not because she’d ordered Creep to run himself down, or, at least, not just because of that. Mainly, she felt sick lying to him. The common belief seemed to be if you could trust someone, there was never any reason to lie to them. Except to protect them. Caution reminded herself that that’s what she was doing: protecting him. She was lying to him for his own good. So why the guilt?
The Imperial Guard was either very good, or their numbers were significantly less than they claimed. As Caution and Creep approached, less than fifty of the nearly three hundred men were visible. The ones they saw bowed to Caution.
A man in heavy armer with a terrible waxed moustache approached them, bowed again, and said, “Your Majesty,” and then continued talking.
Whatever he said after his initial greeting was lost on Caution; she was far too distracted by Andy. She couldn’t actually see him, just the nearby clearing where the advisers and a group of three or four soldiers huddled around him, muttering.
“If you’ll come this way,” the knight with the moustache said, gesturing slightly toward the clearing. “I trust Your Highness will want to identify your husband yourself? From what I hear of you, you will not be satisfied otherwise.”
“Um, yeah,” Caution said weakly, forcing herself to meet the man’s eye.
“You speak better M’leoian than I would have guessed. I warn you, Highness, The King has been run nearly clean through with a knife. There is blood around the wound, blood on his mouth, blood on the ground beneath him. From the look of him, he has been in the forest since the night he was taken and his body has sprouted maggots. It will not be a pretty sight, leave alone the smell.”
Caution waited for the punchline of the knight’s unnecessarily graphic warning.
“I do not want you throwing up on my shoes,” he explained finally, without a hint of humour.
That was probably the most direct anyone other than Creep and Marylin had ever been with Caution. It was oddly refreshing, even then. She decided that she liked Mr. Moustache, even though there was an excellent chance he would figure her out and see her hanged for Andy’s murder.
The man with the moustache – who, Caution later figured out, was Captain Moorson – gestured toward the crowd surrounding Andy and started walking. It was only when they started to follow him that Caution realized she and Creep still had their arms linked. She slid hers free from his as discreetly as possible and prayed that Mr. Moustache hadn’t noticed.
Andy’s body wasn’t as bad as the captain had made it sound; it was worse. Moorson hadn’t mentioned the paleness of Andy’s face, the blueness of his cracked lips, the sunken flesh underneath cloudy blue eyes, nor the part where some fuzzy woodland creature had chewed off most of Andy’s fingers. He had mentioned maggots and the smell, but he hadn’t done justice to either. The flies had been left out all together.
Caution felt her stomach struggle to get out of her body. It went up first, but was blocked by her heart, which had made its way into her throat. It lurched downward next, to just below the waist, but abandoned that plan of escape and went back to see if the heart had moved yet. This was her doing.
“It’s him,” she mumbled weakly, trying not to look at Andy’s eyes. “It’s definitely him.”
Caution looked at Creep.
Creep looked at the man with the moustache. “Captain Moorson, move your feet.”
Caution threw up twice, once near Andy, once on a tree maybe fifteen feet away. She had refused to let anyone come with her, and now she regretted it, because rejoining the group alone would mean all eyes back on on her. She approached them slowly.
All eyes weren’t on her; they were on Creep. No one even noticed as Caution slid in between Captain Moorson and one of Andy’s advisers.
Creep was crouched beside the body, with his hands held palms-down, about four inches above Andy’s chest, on either side of the knife. Caution watched in growing trepidation. For a long time, Creep didn’t move at all. Then something changed, just behind his eyes. Caution saw the moment in slow motion, every tiny tick of Creep’s face indicating that he’d worked it out. He could feel her energy—his own stolen energy—on Andy’s body. Kneeling down on the ground, he soaked the air around him with an immense feeling of betrayal.
Creep looked up and met Caution’s eye. He didn’t look hurt. He didn’t look betrayed. He looked livid. There was a burning anger in his eyes that went so far beyond hate that Caution was sure she’d burst into flames under his glare—and somehow, even that seemed favourable to enduring one more second of him looking at her like that.
“I know who did this.”