The night around us was silent as a hunting owl, with only the rush of wind outside reminding us that we were the prey being searched for.
“We shouldn’t still be here,” Alleya hissed. The dust of the stone floor and the bookshelves now coated her dress. It was no wonder she looked miserable. She’d always been the one to take care of herself. Perhaps it reflected her class – she was the daughter of some lord or other – but more than anything else I’d always felt it a reflection of her. To see her blonde hair hanging limp against her shoulders tugged at my stomach with guilt.
“Where else can we go?” Riyuel asked, in a biting tone that asked for silence rather than an answer. She had been quiet for some hours now, half-hidden behind one of the many bookcases in the room. I picked myself up from the floor, brushed down my trousers with a quick swipe of my hand, and squeezed through one of the narrow walkways to find her.
The room was small and far over-populated by books even when they were neatly stacked on their respective shelves. Now, with half of them scattered across the floor and in piles on every available surface, there was barely room to move. I tripped just as I reached her, sending a tower of them sprawling across the floor to join others until there was no way of telling which ones fell and which had always been there.
My clumsiness made Riyuel smile, at least. She could do that much easier than Alleya these days, but she did it less than she used to. She was curled up in the corner, nestled between a wall and an almost naked bookcase, her knees pulled up to her chest to allow a heavy tome to rest across them. I wasn’t sure she was much help – even if she’d been able to read well in her native language, all these records were in Ythian. For every page that she scanned for information, there was a page I couldn’t be sure didn’t contain what we were looking for.
I think she knew I was doubting her, because she looked up from the blur of words to meet my face. “I’ve found some mentions of Ilmark, but nothing specific. Letters that suggest a brother and sister were more than friendly, but nothing happened between them.”
“Do you want to keep looking?”
Her eyes said yes even as she told me no. “Listen, Finn,” she said, laying the book to one side but keeping the pages open. “It’s a duty to do this. I will help the prince.”
She leaned over and turned the page to peruse the book from a different position, one that made it hard for us to keep eye contact. The fact that she didn’t want to talk to me made it even more difficult for me to bring up the subject, but I knew I had to ask. “Riyuel... You know what we’re doing here, don’t you?”
“The same thing we were always doing,” she replied, not bothering to meet my gaze. “Finding information for the prince.”
“Which prince?” I asked softly.
She could have dodged the question easily enough – the one she worked for, Ilmark’s prince. Both were valid without actually answering the question I couldn’t ask: did she know the truth?
It had been nearly a month since she’d seen me beaten and bruised by a small group who had known. Through nearly a week of agony and failing to rest properly between scouting missions, the only comfort had been the knowledge that I didn’t know whoever had betrayed me. The princess knew, of course – I’d told her from the moment I’d known, even as I told her it hadn’t mattered and that I would continue to serve her as before. And the envoy of Cinion’s king had been sent to look after me, so naturally he’d known all along. But the rest of them, the small band of Renith that I loved like brothers and sisters – they hadn’t known. I’d bitten my tongue so many times, having been on the verge of telling one or another of them, but I’d never managed to get the words out.
The men – complete strangers that we’d barely spoken to – had betrayed my identity with a few badly-thrown punches. I still didn’t know how they’d known. I just knew that none of the Renith had betrayed me. They couldn’t have done.
They could now, though. I was sure that Riyuel knew the truth, or had at least guessed at it. I was too afraid to ask outright, because knowing that she knew for sure would change everything. All the same, I needed to hear her answer.
I saw her glance across at me, the glimmer of a smile somehow lost in the rest of her expression. “The one I care about,” she said, and turned away fully. I watched her bury her head in the records again for some time, waiting for her to look at me again, hoping she might give me more of an answer. She didn’t.
I picked my way back through the debris of a hundred years of record-keeping to where I had been standing before, leaning against one of the few bookshelves that as yet remained intact. I pulled one of the tomes from the shelf and began half-heartedly flicking through.
Alleya watched me with a sour expression that didn’t quite meet her eyes. Her eyes just screamed that she was afraid, that she wanted to go home. That she wanted to stop running now. At fourteen, she was by far the youngest of us. I’d made a mistake in bringing her so close to danger. And yet... And yet, so few of the others were educated in any way, let alone able to read such small script. Was it safer to have brought a young girl than the princess, better to endanger one life than another?
I’d made the decision regardless. We were here now, the three of us hidden in an old records room close to the capital, desperately trying to find something that might save Ythith’s prince and his sister. I knew the information we were looking for had to be here somewhere. Something, anything, that proved they weren’t a threat to Prince Thienn. Some dilution of the royal bloodline, an illegitimate bastard, a secret affair. Hidden somewhere in the records was some sort of proof that neither the prince nor the princess were in line for the throne, that neither stood in Thienn’s way. We hadn’t worked so hard to protect them both only to have them snatched away and murdered in order to secure the throne.
As long as Thienn continued to search for them, the lives of all their associates were in danger, including the Renith. If death didn’t await us, then torture would, until we divulged the whereabouts of the young royals. There was no other way but to find something in this room.
I scanned down the page with my finger, the back of my mind muttering ‘Ilmark’ over and over. Any mention of Ilmark, any mention of the royal house, any mention of the bloodline...
Surprisingly, the passage that jumped out at me had no mention of Ilmark whatsoever. It referenced a different name, one that I’d heard once before, in conversation with Esu. I might not even have recalled it if the page hadn’t jogged my memory; it wasn’t the sort of thing I’d committed to memory. For exactly that reason, I had to double-check.
“Alleya, do you remember where you put the book that mentioned the Cinish records?”
She looked up at me with a distinct frown. “Outside, there are men hunting for us, Finn. We’re looking for information on Ythith, not Cinion. Don’t get sidetracked.”
“I’m not. It’s important. Can you remember which book it was?”
She gestured towards a small pile lying to her left. A few moments later, when she realised I needed her to be more specific, she dug out one with a deep blue cover. “Careful,” Alleya told me. “It’s an old one.”
I could see that just from looking at the binding. The pages were barely being held together anymore. All the same, I prised open the cover and turned the pages as gingerly as I could while still being quick. About fifty pages in, the coat of arms for the Cinish royal family had been embellished in loving detail some decades ago. The page was torn, and the script on the reverse was difficult to read in places, but it confirmed what I needed. I folded the corner of the page over, rubbing the crease between my thumb and forefinger to make it stand out more than the rest of its crumpled neighbours. Then I closed the book and tucked both it and my previous read under my arm.
“Riyuel, take Alleya back to the princess. Stay there for a few days.”
She appeared from behind the bookcase, standing with her heels off the ground and a broken expression that I didn’t think I could fix. In that instant, I knew she knew, and had known for a long time.
She stepped closer, until she was near enough to brush against my arm. As she was about to move away from me to Alleya, I asked her how long she’d known. She paused mid-step.
“A while,” was all she said. “Where are you going?” Her voice was quiet enough that Alleya wouldn’t hear.
“To do my duty.”
She reached a hand up to brush against my cheek. “I still have to show you a mountain. Don’t forget. A real mountain, not...not little Ythian hills.”
It was something she’d been teasing me about since we’d met, and a promise not to forget each other when everything else had ended. A dream of the future we’d both been hoping to reach. “I won’t forget,” I tried to tell her, but the words caught in my throat. I ended up mouthing them instead. She mouthed something back. I didn’t catch it.
I didn’t wait for her to collect Alleya and go. There was a chance that the building was surrounded by Thienn’s guards by now. The least I could do was play decoy.
Outside the windowless records room, the world was dark. Only the faint illumination of torches moving in the distance guided me through the streets. They would be held by the guards patrolling the area. I headed straight towards them.
It wasn’t long before I was close enough for them to be aware of something moving in the shadows, and they split up to scout the area. They needn’t have bothered. I was already walking to where they’d split up from. One spotted me, and began running over, shouting. It turned out he wasn’t the first. From behind me came a whisper in my ear that was all the more menacing for sounding jovial. “Lost your way, little princeling?”
“Idiot,” said the one who’d come running. “This one’s not the prince.”
“He’s one of that lot, though. How nice of the little mouse to come out and play during our watch.” The first guard, a stouter man with the beginnings of a new beard. “I’m sure Prince Thienn will be pleased to meet your acquaintance at last, little mouse.”
“Even more pleased if I sell out my friends, am I right?”
They missed the sarcasm in my voice. “Got ourselves a traitor, have we? I hope you didn’t expect us to go gentle on you ‘cause of it, mouse.”
Something blunt – I think maybe an elbow – hit me square in the back of the head. My vision blurred to black only a few seconds later.
When I came to, I was face-down on a cold stone floor. The tiles were clean, not dirty and smeared like those of the records room. I had never been here before, although I suspected I knew where it was.
“Tell me,” instructed a voice from somewhere in front of me, “how precisely do you expect him to tell us anything when he’s gagged? Somebody untie him.”
A guard approached from my left with a clatter of armour, and removed both the cloth that had been stuffed inside my mouth and the rope that bound my hands behind my back. I knew that there would be guards surrounding every exit and that there was little point in me attempting to escape even if I wanted to. Doubtless they were confident of that, too.
Ignoring the soreness of my wrists, I pushed myself up from the floor into a standing position. Immediately, the darkness began invading my vision again, and I fell to my knees.
“No need to bow, honestly.”
Prince Thienn was leaning forward in his throne, staring at me with an expression that had yet to fully decide between contempt and curiosity. He seemed displeased at my lack of reaction to what had probably been intended as a joke. “My men inform me they found you wandering the streets.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“What pretty little manners you have.” Thienn dropped the smile almost as soon as it appeared on his face. “My brother and sister are both very intelligent. They wouldn’t let their little mice loose in the streets, now would they? So why don’t you tell me why you wanted to be found?”
I cast my gaze around the room briefly. The hall was large in every direction, with a high-vaulted ceiling and thick wooden doors on either side of me. Each door was flanked by a pair of guards, and another pair stood to either side of the throne. None of them appeared to be holding the books I’d had under my arm before I’d fallen unconscious.
The throne itself was on a raised platform, two steps up from the height at which I was knelt. It didn’t make Thienn any more intimidating than if we’d met at eye level. “I brought with me a couple of books, Your Highness,” I began. Thienn’s laughter interrupted me.
“Were you going to read me a bedtime story, little mouse?”He was smiling openly by this point, but it was by no means a friendly expression. If anything, it was manic.
“Yes, Your Highness. Only I appear to have mislaid the books.”
Thienn actually looked up from me to address his guards. “Well?” he said. “One of you must have them, do you not?”
The two books were placed by my side before I realised. I turned to see the stout guard retreating to his position some distance behind me.
Prince Thienn slouched back in his seat, knuckles rested against his mouth. “Are you going to read or not, little mouse?” His voice was muffled by his hand, but I could hear him clearly enough. “They don’t look like bedtime stories.”
“They aren’t, Your Highness.” I carefully opened each of the books to their respective marked pages. “They’re ledgers. Birthing and historical records.”
“How dull. Boring me to sleep won’t save you, little mouse.”
“I’m not here to save myself.” I laid my hand on the small navy book that was still desperately clinging to its pages. “This is a Cinish annal from the year 1296. It documents Ythith’s split from its suzerain nation following the Belreuth War. It also makes some small mention of the subsequent changes to the legal jurisdiction of both resulting monarchies.”
“And this would interest me why, exactly?” Thienn asked in a bored tone, but he was no longer slouching. He fixed his gaze straight at me.
“Because, Your Highness, it states that in the event that an inheritance dispute goes unresolved for more than a year, Cinion holds the right to intervene on Ythith’s behalf.”
“I think you’ll agree that political relations between Ythith and Cinion have rather changed since 1296.” Prince Thienn wore a relaxed smile as he glanced from the annal to the other book. “I do hope that one has a similar amusing tale of my brother and sister’s desperation.”
“Actually, Your Highness, this is merely a birthing record. It’s of more importance to me than it is to you.”
“What would a little mouse like you want with a birthing record?” Thienn asked. “I would have thought your bloodline ran through the gutter.”
“It’s quite interesting, actually,” I continued. “I traced back both our family trees. Given the long lifespans of the Cinish, I’m fewer generations away from the monarchy before the nations split. Which means, Your Highness, even a bastard like me is more of a threat to your position than your brother and sister.”
“You do realise I’m going to have you executed for treason, don’t you, little mouse? It doesn’t matter if your blood is blue or the colour of mud. For following my dear brother and sister, you’ll die regardless. You were always going to die, threat or no.”
“I don’t think you’re quite listening, Your Highness. I’m not the bastard of Cinion’s king.”
“You’re the one who isn’t listening. You’ll be executed regardless. You’ve lost, little mouse. I don’t expect you to tell me where my brother and sister are hiding. I’ll find them eventually. And when I do, they’ll be dealt with. A little history book isn’t going to convince me to spare them.”
I smiled. “I’m the bastard of the king’s bastard. There are at least five others ahead of me in line for the Cinish throne. As you say, relations between Ythith and Cinion haven’t exactly been perfect, but I think they’re quite likely to ally with the enemies of those who kill one of their heirs. If you kill me, you risk forcing them to side with your brother and sister.”
“That’s a neat little plan you have,” Thienn said, still smiling. “Except that if the bastard of a bastard manages to be sixth in line, there can’t be all that many Cinish left.” He exaggerated a pout. “Such a shame they got hit by that sudden plague right in the middle of a war with us, don’t you think? I doubt they’ll even notice another of them is dead.”
His smile returned. “You’ve been quite amusing to play with, little mouse. I’d rather have liked to keep you around. Such a shame you chose the wrong side.” He stood up from his throne and walked over until he was close enough to look down on me properly.
“Bastards don’t get a proper execution, I’m afraid, especially not traitors.” He turned to the guard nearest him. “Take him outside. Try not to make a mess of it.”