I Will Stand Alone: Part Four
As they followed a dank passage in the underbelly of the palace, Jazan asked Seji, "So what's this conspiracy about?"
Seji looked around. "Should we really be discussing this out here?"
Jazan said, "Trust me. If we get caught down here together, we'll be in enough trouble that it won't make a difference."
Seji sighed. "It's mostly about accountability. You know that in most other monarchies, the kings are at least somewhat accountable to their lords." Jazan nodded, and Seji continued, "But there's none of that here. Asking the king about what he's been doing with tax money is a good way to disappear. So there are a half-dozen of us who've been trying to put together the picture of just where all the money the king keeps strong-arming from his nobles is going."
Jazan winced. He happened to know that quite a lot of it went to pay mercenaries for the king's dirty work, or to buy rare and dangerous materials for his workroom. Neither of which Razul would appreciate his nobles prying into.
If they pried too skillfully, they might even learn about his secret quest for immortality. And that particular quest was one that Razul would kill to protect.
Jazan knew from the look of the stone around them that they were no longer under the palace – this network of tunnels was ancient, dating back to when rogue Fire Faeries could be expected to attack regularly and the only safe place to travel was underground. He was familiar enough with the palace network – he often used it if he wanted to travel more or less unnoticed, since the spells down there were sparse and weak, easy to foil.
What he hadn't realized was that, outside of the palace, these tunnels weren't particularly well-maintained. The stone was dank with mold and mildew, and many of the cobbles under their feet were crumbling. Some of the side tunnels had collapsed completely. Jazan tried to keep his senses open – his magical sense as well – so he'd have a little warning if the low ceiling was about to give way. He felt cramped, claustrophobic – if he'd been much taller, he'd have been rubbing the tips of his ears against the ceiling. He kept his tail curled up close to him, not wanting to drag it against the dirty floor.
Seji seemed fairly familiar with these tunnels – he led the way with a lamp held high. Jazan had set a globe of light to hover above them as they walked as well – it was an easy spell for him, and he trusted himself more than he trusted oil and slightly dented brass.
The tunnel they stopped in front of looked as though it had been blocked off – characters in Old Qasalan warned of cave-ins ahead. But Seji touched the barricade in three places, and it swung open. He said, "This way leads to my city house."
This tunnel was dry and well-maintained – Jazan was able to take a deep breath as they went down an incline and to a remarkably realistic-looking cave-in which turned out to be another secret door, with various alarm spells and listening spells woven in that Seji had to disable before they could pass.
They went up a stairway in silence, to the cellar of the house – various boxes and barrels were stored in here, down below the earth and away from the heat. Other doors lead to other storeroom and cellar areas. Seji strode to one of them, knocked softly, and said, "It's me, girls."
The door opened.
The first one out was an eventide Draik about Jazan's age, or perhaps a little younger, with long black hair and a slender, clever face. The other was a yellow Usul of roughly twelve, stocky and hazel-eyed with the slight feeling of an aura of power common to all mages.
Seji said, "I don't know if you've been formally introduced. Jazan, this is Kirielle," indicating the Draik, "and this is Pashki," as he pointed to the Usul. "Kiri, Pashki, this is Prince Jazan."
Kirielle blinked, then dropped quickly into a curtsey. "Your Highness!"
Pashki scowled – she seemed to have far less awe for his position. "Our parents say you're the king's errand-boy."
Kirielle hit her younger sister in the shoulder. "Now's not the time, Pashki – if you didn't notice, we don't have many other options! I'm sorry, Your Highness."
Jazan didn't like the way the younger girl was looking at him – he was risking his own skin helping her. But he also knew that the fact that his act was good enough to even fool his father was part of the reason he'd lasted so long. He said, "I've got even less reason than most to be loyal to the king. I promise you, I'm on your side."
Pashki clearly wasn't convinced. "Then if you don't like the king, why do you always help him?"
Jazan wanted to retort with, "Well, if you don't like me, why are you still talking to me?" But Pashki was just a child. He tried to arrange what he wanted to say. "I'm in the palace all the time. And I'm my father's heir. If he starts thinking I'm not merely his lackey, he'll decide that I'm trying to get the throne a little early, and I'm going to disappear."
Pashki's frown turned a little more thoughtful. Kirielle said, blushing, "Your Highness, please forgive my little sister. She's always talked more than is good for her."
Jazan shook his head. "Don't worry about it, Kirielle. And please, call me Jazan."
She smiled a little. "Call me Kiri then, Jazan. Kirielle's too much of a mouthful."
Then Seji said, "If we're all quite done," his voice carried a warning, and he glared at the Usul girl, "we need to leave. Jazan knows of a safe room in the tunnel network."
But both of the girls stood up straight and tall – Jazan had a feeling that this was about to go badly. Kiri said, "We're sick of hiding. We want to come with you."
Seji slithered backward. "Girls, your mother would have my head for that – and I'd deserve it!"
Pashki pointed out – they clearly had their argument ready – "But what if the rescue mission fails? Are we supposed to sit around in some windowless safe room until we go crazy?"
Kiri said, "Pashki's got her magic. You know she's strong. And I could scout for you or be a distraction or anything else you needed."
Seji replied, "We've got magic – that's why I got the prince! We'll be able to handle it, girls."
Pashki said, "But you have to admit that we're not little or helpless enough to be liabilities. Until you know what your plan is, it would be irresponsible for you to write us off."
Jazan had to admit that Pashki had a point – there were very few people that could be trusted to help them, but the daughters of the lord and lady they were trying to rescue were definitely two of them. With himself, Seji, Nightsteed, Kiri, and Pashki, that was five on their side. Jazan doubted there would be many more – Seji's other conspirators were probably all noblemen and noblewomen, and they'd be reluctant to stick their necks out and face exile from Qasala at best.
Seji looked at him – clearly looking for backup. But Jazan couldn't lie – not when they needed all the help they can get. "Maybe we should keep them a little closer-by, until we make our plan. It's true that another mage could be useful." Then he remembered some magical theory Nightsteed had made him read. "Actually, very useful. I'll never turn down any extra power – not when we're going to need a lot to get past all the dungeon spells – and if I'm working with another mage, my father will be less likely to pick out any spells that I use as mine. Like muddling a scent to keep a Lupe off your trail."
The two girls' eyes lit up. Seji laid his head in his hand. "Jazan, you're supposed to be on my side!"
He shrugged. "I'm on the side of whomever is most likely to get us out of this alive. And I think we can't rule out Pashki and Kiri helping us – not if you two are willing."
Kiri said firmly, "It's our family – of course we're willing!"
Seji sighed. "Looks like you're in, then."
Jazan said, trying to start making a plan, "We've got the four of us and Nightsteed. He and I will have to start nosing around as carefully as we can, to find out where Asyir and Masazi are and how they're guarded."
Seji said, "I don't think we need to worry about the rest of the conspiracy – Masazi created her diversion to give them time to hide the evidence. There'll be no way to connect them to anything besides what Asyir or Masazi might say."
Pashki shook her head. "Mother and Father would never rat their friends out to Razul."
Seji said softly, "They might if you were held as hostages to ensure their good behavior. Which is why you two need to be very careful. If Jazan or I tell you to run like the Darkest Faerie is after you, you need to do it."
Jazan wondered what it was in here that made him feel a little different – a little crowded. It wasn't the dim storeroom itself – he was used to windowless places, and it was far roomier than the tunnels.
Then he realized that it was the fact that he was in here with three other people, all talking openly. He'd never talked like this with more than one person at a time before – maybe two, once or twice. He wasn't used to the fact that here were three other people that he could trust, maybe even rely on.
He was so accustomed to the fact that he only had Nightsteed – his assistant, his mentor, and his only real friend. Seeing that circle expand so suddenly, even under these dire circumstances, made Jazan smile a little despite himself. He tried to keep his emotions under control – now was not the time to lose the mask that he'd crafted so carefully and worn for so long.
Pashki, however, was not one to disguise her glee. She clapped her hands together and said, with a grin on her face that boded ill for anyone who got in her way, "Let's go, then – we've got a jailbreak to plan!"
To be continued...