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Caught Between Kingdoms: Part Ten

by parody_ham


"What do you mean, Seria—"

     "Uuugh..." the guard's voice echoed through the chambers. Her shoulders cracked as she stretched about. "I need a vacation..."

      "Go!" he whispered.

     Lisha gripped her humming wand and pressed herself against the wall. In the background, Marielle was stirring. She blinked a few times before focusing her gaze on the frightened Aisha.

     "Lady Lisha?"

     The Aisha had pressed herself against the wall, and could only respond with a whimper. It was too late. The guard stood up from her post and immediately noticed the open door. Her metal blade slid out of its scabbard.

     "Who goes there?"

     "Dormite!" Lisha said, sending green mist into the hallway. The guard slumped to the ground, but not before shouting for help. Lisha glanced back at Setarian and sprinted up the stairs, shutting the prison door behind her.

     A few minutes later, after Lisha seemingly managed to escape, the guard awoke from her slumber once more and approached their cell. A cut trailed along her cheek. Setarian guessed that her sword remained on hand at the time the guard fell asleep, but dare not ask to confirm. The ordeal made her demeanor noticeably less amicable.

      "Who was that?" she asked.

     Setarian glared at Marielle just as she opened her mouth to speak. When he followed up with a low growl, she sucked in her breath and crouched into the shadows.

     "You were probably just dreaming, Jenna—that's your name, right? I heard you mention something about a vacation."

      "Yeah, that's me. I know what I saw, Serian. You can't tell me that this isn't real." She traced the cut with her left paw, wincing at the sudden contact. "That was no dream."

     "And I am an honorable Eyrie," he said as matter-of-factly as he could. Long strands of purple fur dangled in front his face. "If I said I didn't see anyone, I didn't."

     "And that's the story you're going with? Seriously?"

     "Pretty much, yes."

     She thumped her thick, furry tail against the wall.

     "We'll see what the king has to say about that one."

     Setarian could not help but laugh. "I'm sure you will."

     When she stormed off, Marielle eyed him suspiciously.

     "Why was the court's scholar here?" She tilted her head to the side.

     There was no use hiding it, but when there were so many listening ears...

     "What was your mother like?" he asked suddenly. She winched as if punched in the gut.

     "Don't change topics on me, Setarian. I know what you are doing."

     Hearing his real name seemed almost unnatural. It took a few seconds to regain his composure.

     "Do you, now? Why don't you say that to my face, flower girl?"

     She did.

     "Ow..." Setarian whined, lamenting that the sore spot had been impossible to reach with his shackled paws. Nearby, the prisoners seemed to cackle at his suffering. "That hurt, you know. Especially when..." he motioned her closer, lowering his voice to a whisper. "Lisha is this kingdom's only hope."

     "It was just a little tap..." she said, rubbing her sleeves nervously, "but what do you mean by that, Setarian?"

     He looked at the ceiling, wishing he could tap his chin while speaking. "What do I mean? Let's see... well, for starters, that this mystery guest's charade is a trap. That Lord Kass personally told me a tambourine dancer's diversion would signify the start to their attack. You know, nothing important."

     Her eyes narrowed. "He told you such sensitive information? Just who are you supposed to be, anyway?"

     "I wish I knew."

     "And if you are truly a Darigan, did you not just betray your Lord by telling her such information?" Before he could get a word in edgewise, she continued. "Whose side are you truly on?"

     Setarian gritted his beak together and remained silent. Many more asked questions of him that day, including Marielle and Lady Evelyn. He let his mind wander. Almost every question he responded with a "maybe" or "I don't know", and even that was only after their interrogation became too unbearable to ignore. Even then, those answers did not suffice.

     The lady knight gained what information he would relent, but only after he had been covered in sticky, rotten vegetables. "King's orders," she said, even as his cell mate asked ever-so-politely for the bombardment to end. Lady Evelyn continued about her duties as planned. At least, Setarian thought bitterly between rounds of rough treatment, nothing bad happened to Marielle. When she claimed to have been asleep at the time of the incident, they turned to him instead.

     "Who visited the cell? What did they ask you? Why did they come?" Rarely did the questions deviate much from these three.

     Even his efforts to mentally escape the cell proved fruitless as he defaulted to thoughts of the Lupe, Bradley, and his accursed charred doll. Marielle and her mysterious parents haunted him as well. One of which, he thought warily, likely threaded them together by blood. At one point, he almost found the courage to ask Marielle about them—even in front of his ever-hospitable visitor—but his courage all but left at each ripe opportunity.

      Have I become so weak? An ache formed in the pit of his heart, but he dismissed it as hunger pains. Knowing will only make this torment worse.

     Only when it came time for the Court Dancer to perform her charade did their focus finally shift away from him. The blindingly beautiful Aisha entranced the King in a musical spell long enough to be a distraction, but Lady Lisha, he overheard, exposed her as a threat and saved the kingdom. At first the king laughed at the idea that Kass would attack given their peace treaty, but once the dancer was exposed, no longer did he doubt the Lord's intentions. Jeran, who was at the time cut off from King Skarl, now prepared his men for war.

     At that point, Setarian considered his life a success. Although a traitor, he had saved the capital city from Kass' underhanded assault. Amidst his silent celebration, Marielle was quick to remind him of how he betrayed Lord Kass, even if she meant no harm with her endless questioning and commentary.

     Certainly the act was not to save King Skarl. But then... Kayla. Lisha. Jeran. They were worth saving.

     In Lisha's futuristic world of ruined castles and long-finished battles, Setarian often imagined her parents. Feeling uncreative, he thought them to be an Aisha and a Lupe, both with red fur. One day, they might pick up a book with worn pages and a tattered cover. With meticulous precision, they would peel back each page, listen to the crackle of the parchment as it fell back, and read the faded words in silence. Among its illustrations, they would see pictures of their children smiling among a host of Skarl's men, maybe even some of their long faded letters home. Spared would they be from reading about untimely demises or somber struggles. And sitting cross-legged on the Mother's lap would be her younger brother—her real sibling—wondering what was causing his parents to cry.

     In the end, he knew Lisha would remember him. He selfishly hoped that she would write a sentence or two about their adventures. Even a namely mention would—wait. Serian. That name was all but a fabrication, and little else would be known of him besides that. No Neopian scholar would waste time on a nameless orphan.

     He felt alone once more.

     I just had to think of an alias, didn't I?

     Since Lisha's visit a few days before, he heard various voices, including one he recognized as the Court Dancer. The fervor of her anti-Meridell sentiments only grew as time past. Shouts of Kass' soon-to-be triumph filled the halls until just a few hours prior. Setarian could see the wildness in her eyes as they carted the magically bound prisoner into the darkness. It was all too apparent that her trip into the catacombs would be a one-way journey.

     The prison gate creaked open, breaking his train of thought. Judging by the dots of light coming from gaps in the prison stone work, it seemed too early to be dinner time. It proved difficult to look above Marielle's shoulders as she approached. Without warning, her bony arms locked around him in an embrace. Tears were streaming down her face. Were they there before? He could not remember. Behind Marielle stood the old Ixi guard—the one who had tried to care.

     With a wave, two others followed behind the knight. Their heavy plate mail creaked loudly in the dungeons. One was the Lutari guard, Jenna, the other a Bori he did not recognize. Both wore tight pony tails that rose above their metal helms and long blades at their waists. They rushed to Setarian's shackles and unbound him with a rough tug. His fur had grown so long it caught in the metal binding and tore when he was ripped from the wall.

     "Stop it!" Setarian shouted. Marielle stood to the side, biting her lip. When they continued to move him, he became afraid. "Wait. What is going on?"

     "They are freeing us, Stranger."

     "Apologies, Serian." The bearded Ixi winced at the tearing sound. "Be more careful with him, for goodness' sake! You'll hurt the poor child even more."

     "But sir," barked the Bori, pushing Setarian to a standing position. He promptly fell over. The other guard propped him up and whispered apologies. "We have no time for gentleness. The Kingdom is soon to be under attack!"

     Setarian perked up his ears. "Under—"

     "Yes," responded the Ixi.

     "But why release—"

     "Thank Lady Lisha." Setarian's ears fell back at the sound of her name. "Hurry along if you can stand. If not, we'll keep you up. Either way, we need to move."

     They rushed towards the throne room, Marielle in tow. The dainty Usul paced behind with only one guard to push her forward. Setarian had the honor of having his head supported by one knight and his body held in place by a guard. While they walked Marielle found herself fussing with his purple bangs, parting them away from his eyes. From the corner of his eyes came her hands, dirty from the prison floor, but still somehow soft and sweet. His eyes closed and he tried to imagine his Mother, whoever she had been, but all he could see was darkness.

     The throne room seemed different somehow. All of its décor was stripped from the walls except for a tower-sized banner that hung above the king's throne: the sigil of Meridell. Shuttered windows made the room look dark and foreboding, and the once lush red carpet was blackened with singe marks left behind from a magical duel. A product of the Court Dancer, I bet, that accursed enchantress, he thought.

     King Skarl stood in front of his throne. He sported a decorated red and blue cape that swept above a golden doublet. Some of his men gathered around either side of the throne, including a thoroughly winded and stressed-looking Jeran. It looked as if he had just repelled an early wave of attackers before running inside.

     Stirrings of hatred awoke in Setarian as he gazed weakly upon the king in his full splendor.

     "Serian." The King spoke firmly. All eyes turned towards the Eyrie's limp form. "Do you wonder why you are here?"

     The temptation to mock him proved difficult to overcome, but he had enough sense to avoid such banter.

     "The Court Dancer," he said weakly. "I could hear her shouts in the prison hold. You defeated her, I take it."

     Skarl nodded his meaty head up and down. "That witch would have overcome us if not for Lisha's insight. But what I wonder is why someone like you, a Darigan prisoner, would caution us of her identity."

     Setarian looked down at his tangled, dirt-covered purple coat. Given all of the grime, it looked quite a few shades darker than it had ever been in the citadel, almost black. Skarl began to tap his foot in anticipation at Setarian's silence and motioned him to speak.

     "It was hardly out of love for your crown." Skarl grabbed the hilt of his sword, which at the present was still stowed in its golden sheath. Just as the King opened his mouth to speak, Setarian cut him off, intent on finishing his speech. "But for the few who showed me compassion, I thank you. It is for you that I saved Meridell—or helped to, anyway. For the ones who named me family, friend, ally. They were all I thought of as I shriveled in that cell."

     "Enough. You have made your plea." He turned to Marielle, his clawed hands locked in a tight grip around the sword's handle. "And you. What is your relation to this child?"

     Oh no.

     Marielle's dress had been so badly soiled from her stay, she looked a street urchin. She clenched her fist, and Setarian could feel her hurt radiating from a distance away. The General tightened up, worried as to how much she would say. "None. No relation at all, your highness." Setarian could feel his heart breaking, but knew her lies to be for the best. When the King scoffed in disbelief, she continued, "but he is surely a product of my people, as you can easily see. So I ask a pardon for him, as you did for my Mother when you sent her into the wilds. At least let him live in the light where he might be happy. He will find a place somewhere."

     The tenseness in the throne room was palpable. Even the slightest movement of the armed men echoed within the near empty chambers. Setarian felt knotted up and confused, too stunned to respond. King Skarl dabbed a sausage sized finger against his chin, brooding in silence for almost a minute. No one dared to make a sound.

     If he sends me to brave those cold nights alone, with my paltry strength, I would be an easy target. I would die. But I'm sure he's well aware of that.

     "I am a just king," he began, "a merciful ruler, unlike your Lord Kass. But I must think of my people as well." Setarian's tail wrapped around his legs. He braced himself for the inevitable. "As it has gotten late, I will allow you one last night with Jeran. In the morn, you will be escorted to an orphanage until we deem you old enough to live on your own. And—"

     "What of my training?" Setarian asked wryly, although he knew the answer already.

     "Your training?" the king laughed. "You must think me a fool if you expect admittance into any position of military merit. You will live out your days as a peasant, Serian, and be thankful I allowed you such an honor."

     You're much more of a fool than you know, Skarl.

     Setarian could feel his blood boil, but he knew any sort of snide comeback would land him in the dungeon again. This time, he assumed, it would be for good. He forced a curt nod, glaring as he did.

     "Is that any way to address your king? A nod?" He turned to Jeran. "What do you say?"

     Jeran bit his lip, but shook his head emphatically. The fact that the king addressed him then and there seemed to make him upset. "N-no, your Grace. He should be bending at the knee."

     Skarl gestured his thanks to Jeran before cracking a grin. "So, little Darigan. Are you willing? Either that or you will spend the rest of your days in darkness."

     You wish to demean me. To crush my fight until I have none left... How cruel you are.

     The guards lowered him to the ground where he could only stand for a few seconds before falling to his knees, head rolling forward. From those long days in the cell, it proved difficult to move much at all. His muscles screamed at the slightest twitch. And so the pain continued as he curled his left paw into a fist and tried to steady himself with it. Setarian's wings unfurled, long and unruly, larger than before and almost strong enough to balance his weight. All the while, water pooled in his eyes and trickled down his mane. His Ixi friend, the elderly knight, turned away from the scene, and instead preferred to knead a paw through his long, wispy beard. Jeran appeared to busy himself by staring at the scorched rug.

     His eyes met those of the overfed ruler. "Yes.... King Skarl." You horrible, oafish tyrant of a king. Kass should steal your throne; you don't deserve it.

     Skarl clapped. He then turned to Marielle, who looked at him in sheer disbelief.

     "Be happy, I spared your kin. Now go about your life as you did before, peddling stems. And just to be sure of your safety, we will provide you a guard for the next week or two. After that, you will be on your own." Before she could protest, he waved his hand to the guards that had been watching the two of them. "I believe I have spoken about these issues enough. There are much more pressing topics to discuss. Kass' troops are on their way."

     So long as Lisha and the others are safe, may they burn your castle to the ground.

     "May I have your permission to leave, your Grace?" Jeran asked. "To see to Serian's health?"

     "Go, but be quick about it. We will need your tactical prowess later."

     "Of course, my King." He bowed, and then jogged over to Setarian, who had since fallen to the ground. Most of the knights found themselves staring at the broken Eyrie as if he was some sort of spectacle. Only one stepped out of line.

     "Sir Borodere, I believe your friend is in need of some assistance," the bearded Ixi croaked, gently propping Setarian up.

     Jeran shook his paw firmly before scooping Setarian into his arms. "Thank you, Sir Greyson."

     Out of the corner of the Eyrie's eye he could see Sir Greyson nodding and Marielle being led out of the throne room from the large wooden doors. The older knight followed behind with concern written on his face and offered to assist. When Jeran insisted that he had the situation under control, Sir Greyson about faced, but not before wishing Serian a happy life and to come to him whenever he needed something. Just as the door shut, their groups divided.

     "Mariana!" she shouted, then lowered her voice to a hush when the guards seemed irritated. "Her name was Mariana, dearest stranger."

     Why tell me now, Marielle? Why now?

     They approached Jeran's room, and Setarian could not help but hide the shame in his eyes. There in the corner of the room remained a cot, and in it sat a green Quiggle, Lisha's friend Morris, who appeared to be Jeran's new squire. When he spotted the two of them, he leapt from the bed.

     "D-do you need any help removing your armor or getting ready for battle, Jeran?" he asked.

     The knight shook his head. "Tell me what you hear in the meeting, Morris. I'll be there when I can be."

     He kept his gaze as far away from Setarian as possible scant a couple of nervous glances. With a tense bow, the Quiggle dashed away.

     During the time he had been imprisoned, he had grown as tall as Lisha, though still quite a bit smaller than his knightly friend. It took quite some time for the castle servants, ordered under Jeran, to bathe the dirt and muck out of his fur. Two nurses had to hold him steady so he would not fall into the cold, bubbling water. After agonizing minutes of them combing his long, wet fur, they left the shivering Eyrie on a freshly made cot surrounded by towels.

     Before Setarian's fur was sufficiently dried, Jeran called the others to his room that night. They took turns giving him gentle hugs; Kayla said he looked like a fluffy Petpet, a comment that made Setarian blush. He stopped fighting their affection after Lisha ran in, teary-eyed but energetic as per the usual. She had been locked away in her study after the King had found out about her secret visit. They would have punished her far more severely, but saving the kingdom lessened her sentence. After tonight, she had told him, it would be a good while before Skarl would let her roam without some sort of "protection." Kayla, surprisingly, seemed the most upset with the ordeal, and squeezed him so tightly he could scarcely breathe.

     "I thought you would be in there forever," she said, wiping away a tear. "We missed you, Serian..."

     "I..." he coughed. "I could tell."

     When she dashed in and out with a giant pile of bottles, some of which were bulging out of her bag's many pockets, Setarian's eyes widened.

     "And what are you doing to do with all of those?" Setarian pushed himself against the headboard. When he looked situated, Lisha handed him a leather jerkin and tunic in his size. He hastily put the jerkin on, despite the soreness in his wings.

     "Well," said Kayla, "I think these will cure your wounds and make you a healthier and happier Eyrie! Or turn your fur pink. I haven't quite tested all of these yet, didn't have time to. Oh, but don't look at like, Serian, I'm sure these potions will work!"

     ... I'm starting to wonder why I've missed these Neopians so much.

     All of the potions worked to varying degrees. After three super strength potions of vitality, he felt less weak, but the achiness remained. One of them helped to strengthen his wings, although being in a cramped space for so long, they felt crooked and the feathers danced in every direction. Luckily, his fur did not turn pink, but an "eep!" from Kayla sent him running towards a mirror to see a face full of unkempt purple fur... and blue lines under his eyes. Lisha offered to use a spell to reverse those effects, but Setarian vehemently opposed the idea. The girls agreed to tie up his fur in order to get it out of his eyes, but the pony-tailed look never suited him. Even Jeran could not help but stifle a laugh.

     He wished it could have gone on forever, the good times. A knock at the door startled the lot of them back to reality. Jeran's squire had returned, pale-faced and breathing heavily.

     "Jeran... they need you. The King... The King wants us to prepare the defensive. We only have hours... hours... before they attack."

     "Morris, please calm down. They can take defensive measures, but a few of my bravest and I have already planned a proposition to the king: we are going to the root of the problem."

     The Quiggle balked. "You mean—"

     "Yes, a sneak attack."

     When Lisha gasped, the knight patted her on the head and mussed her fur once more. "Don't worry, Lisha. It'll be fine. The King will have to agree with us. With the size of the Darigan army and the magical prowess they possess, a covert operation is the only way. I'm sure he'll agree with us; you'll see."

     "You mean to kill Lord Kass?" asked Setarian in a quiet voice. "And watch the citadel crumble without a leader?"

     Jeran's ear twitched. "That is exactly what I mean to do."

     His wings folded underneath him, stinging as they pressed against the plush bedding. "But aren't you putting your life at risk? Kass is... Kass is incredibly strong."

     Part of him felt like a traitor again, speaking as if Lord Kass could or should be defeated in battle. In a way, it seemed fair. Kass did, after all, treat him like a traitor and put a bounty on his head. After his imprisonment, however, it felt wrong to swear fealty to the oafish king. Kass would have found far more painful ways to punish him, probably throw in some torture for good measure, but he would have been allowed back. Maybe. Then again, Skarl would have made him a knight... if the King never learned of his origin. The swirl of all of these thoughts made Setarian feel sick to his stomach.

     Even if I was a discarded tool, did I not swear my service to Kass as well? He rubbed his head in frustration. Why am I so confused? Who am I anymore?

     "Serian, I appreciate your concern, but... well, this is tactical talk, and nothing a normal Meridellian should worry about. Besides, I'm sure my men can take him. We're not Skarl's best for nothing." He grinned weakly, patting the metal shoulder pad. Its Meridell insignia glowed in the candle light.

     "Of course," Setarian responded curtly. "Why listen to a peasant?"

     "Oh, Serian..." started Kayla, who fiddled with her silken robes.

     "I don't have time for arguing," Jeran sighed, putting his palm to his face, "and I should have known better than to say any of this in front of you." He paced over to Setarian while the others bit their tongues. "It's a shame, really. You would have made a great knight... but hey, don't look so glum. Many peasants have risen to greatness." Jeran mussed his fur with his gloved paw. "Good luck out there, little brother." Without another word, he and his new squire ducked out of the room.

     All the luck in Neopia would not be enough to help me now. Not here, not in Meridell.

     After a rather awkward bout of silence, Lisha bounced onto the bed next to the aching Eyrie. Gingerly, the Aisha placed her paw around his shoulder. The cold touch made him flinch. "Serian, he didn't mean anything bad. We'd love to help you more, but it's the King's orders, and what he says goes. Besides," she said as she rested her head against his side. Pain shot up his arm, but he tightened his shoulders and ignored it. "I'll come and visit you once I'm allowed to, and I'll sneak in some magic lessons when I can. Actually..." she tapped a finger against her chin. "How about I teach you a spell tonight?"

     "Why now? You've turned me down for months."

     Her shoes drummed against the bed side. "Because I was worried. To this day, I have yet to find record of anything like what I saw back then."

     Thank Kass for that. It would have been a disaster.

     "There's no reason you would," he said as she handed him a trainee wand. "I am who I am, Darigan or not."

     "Well, I know you're a Darigan and all, but I know not all Darigans are bad. I've read plenty about them in my history textbooks and met some nice ones along the way. Besides, I want to help. You are my little brother after all. Anyway, enough chit-chat," she said, imitating Jeran's serious-faced-teacher look, "our time is limited and I want to teach you a slowing spell."

     "A wha—"

     "It makes the air thicker so as to slow the approach of Neopians like..." She rubbed her arms nervously. "Well, like the rogue guards who hurt you. You could be in the city and not feel scared. And I... I just want to make sure you'll be okay out there."

     Setarian rolled the instrument in his hands, feeling the smooth surface of the wood. At the thick end was a cursive S. Suddenly, she plucked a small, white feather from his wing. When Setarian yelped, she apologized with a hurried bow, saying that she needed something that would not make much sound when moved. He grunted in response and would have continued to glare if not for the feather hovering in midair. Well, that and the sound of Kayla cooing as a pulse of purple light glowed around the now darkened feather.

     "I'm afraid I don't have the time to teach you levitation, but slowing spells are relatively basic. Watch." Her wand stopped glowing and the feather began to drift. "Navi."

     The small feather still descended, but drifted down at a crawl speed.

     "Wow," said Kayla and Setarian in unison as Lisha motioned Setarian to try as well.

     "N-navi," he said sheepishly, feeling his magical energy trying to escape. It took all of his concentration to maintain the spell without triggering an incident like before.

     The feather drifted to the ground.

     "How about we try once more," she said while trying to fix Setarian's posture. She then grabbed the feather from the ground. "Why don't we—"

     The door flung open, revealing the stone-faced Lady Evelyn in its wake. Setarian whipped the instrument behind his back.

     "I'm sorry, my lady," she began, "but your studies await."

      She backed up against the bed. "Just a little long—"

     "King's orders. Either you can be escorted or brought up by force. The choice is yours, my lady. And Lady Kayla?"

     The Zafara jumped. "Y-yes?"

     "Watch the priso—guest. Watch over the guest and make sure he does not try any funny business."

     "O-of course, your knightliness."

     Tch. Rub it in, knight. It'll only make me dislike the kingdom more.

     Lisha slipped off of the cot and shuffled towards the door, but not before hugging Setarian once more. She slipped the feather into his paws.

     "You'll always be a little brother to me," she said, as she was pushed out the door, "always."

     A sudden emptiness filled his heart. It nagged at his mind and reminded him how alone he truly was, how little there would be offered for him in Meridell. With Bradley Agris continuing to destroy what little chance he had at normalcy, all seemed lost.

     Left alone, the duo forced some small talk, but it only went so far. She was hardly a magic user (besides potion craft), but encouraged him as he attempted again and again the slow the feather's fall. After each unsuccessful attempt, he brought up the book again, the one that spoke of two wars and the future of the Meridell kingdom. She would always change the topic.

     "I will curb my curiosities after one question," Setarian said, the thirteenth trial with the float spell had come and gone. She pouted, but let him continue. "That lieutenant who had a picture of the pre-war citadel, just who was he?"

     "Ugh." Setarian had never seen her angry. He doubted he wanted to, either. "Fine, just one question. I think his name was Lieutenant Dorian, but you'll have to ask Lisha. Early in his career, he grew fond of an Usul who had grown up in the Haunted Woods. Mariana? No, that doesn't sound right. Maybe it was Maria? Anyway, I think the Usul he liked used to dance for the king about twenty years ago, long before any of us traveled back in time. But yeah, Dorian abandoned his post and was found out. That's all I know." She crossed her arms decisively. "Really, that's it."

     But that's—

     "Did they have a son?"

     "One question."

     "But did they?" He held his breath when she went silent.

     "You're lucky I like you so much. Yes, Serian, they did."

     "...And his name is Setarian, isn't it? Like, Kass' General Setarian?"

     Her eyes narrowed.

     "Just how often did you peek at Lisha's textbook, Serian? I could have sworn I—"

     "I didn't. Not after you read to me that one time."

     "Then how—"

     "Say, my wing joints are kind of hurting still. Do you have something for that?"

     "I do, but... hey, you can trust me, right? You won't get in trouble if you tell me the truth. We're friends, Serian, so why are you hiding secrets?"

     Because some truths are better left unsaid.

     "The flower girl from the prison hold," he said with a shrug. "She told me a lot about Neopian history. I was merely curious is all."

     "I mean... I guess that makes sense. You sure there's nothing else to it?" When Setarian shrugged, she stood in silence for a few seconds, then reached into the pile of glass bottles and uncorked one filled with shimmering black liquid. The concoction turned bright red when swirled. "This potion should help, I hope. Your owies... they're pretty big this time. Drink it slowly. This one tastes very lemony, I would know. It's probably a little bitter, too, but I hope it's not too bad."

     Luckily, this potion turned out to be a complete success, better than the last couple, despite its wretched taste. After one sip, he could feel the tears in his wing tissue mending. He could even hover over the bed and flap a few feet into the air before landing down on the sheets. It allowed him a cursory glance out of the window to see bushes and trees swaying in the breeze. Kayla seemed impressed and even spread out his wings with her paws to inspect them.

     "You'll be a great flier one day," she quipped. "Maybe your wings are good enough to fly with now? I'll have to see if we can find you a teacher at the orphanage..."

     Setarian nodded absentmindedly, looking over his shoulder at his right wing; the feathers growing there were small, but still growing. I need no teacher but time, Kayla. I only wish you could fly with me. It's really too bad that you lack wings... my friend.

     He tried a few more flaps into the air and could hold his body weight with some struggle. It felt good to be able to fly again, but would it be enough to land him an escape? He felt drained despite downing all sorts of her special potions. When all but them was used, a single multicolored potion remained. She lifted it in front of her face and stared at it for a while, as if in awe of its many hues. "It'll make you sleep really well," she said, turning the potion in front of her eyes. "You'll want to enjoy tonight's rest a bunch since... well... I'm sorry, Serian. I really am." She pulled the brim of her blue, star-covered hat over her face.

      Feeling a surge of emotion, Setarian grabbed the bubbling potion out of her grasp, almost knocking her out of a wooden chair. "Since there is nothing you can do, let me enjoy this last potion alone. Please."

     She seemed hurt. Setarian clamped his beak shut and stared out the wide open window. The night sky almost looked beautiful in a way; the stars were so plentiful tonight. Candles flickered from in the distant open windows like gems.

     "You really... you really want to be alone? After all that we've been through?"

     "Yes." When she did not seem satisfied with that response he hastily added, "I'm sorry, Kayla, but yes."

     She forced a grin, but her stiff body language said volumes. "If that's you want that, I guess it's okay with me. Um, I'll be right outside the door, ready to tuck you in, okay?"

     The former General offered an awkward hug that she gladly accepted. He almost hated to let go of her embrace, knowing full well it would be their last. "You're too kind, Kayla. I'll miss your enthusiasm when I'm gone."

     With a half turn, Kayla crept out the door. Her voice seemed strained, perhaps even higher than usual. "J-just let me know if you need anything, alright? Whenever you need me, I'll be there for you. Just like Lisha, Jeran, Morris and Boris, I care. I really, really do. And when you feel alone, just give me a holler. I'll make a special pick-me-up brew for you."

     "Well... thank you, Kayla. You'll be the first to know."

     She gripped the handle tightly before closing the door behind her. Her sniffles could be heard from outside in the hallway. They were growing louder.

     The wooden headboard made a great place to punch.

      Setarian hated to lie to Kayla, but it was either escape tonight or be trapped in a place with cruel little children for Kass knew how many years. If he even made it that far, he mentally added. Surely he would be blamed for every spoiled crop and crying child as long as he, a Darigan, was on the loose. During war time, it would be even worse. It would not take long before he would be disposed of, and Skarl would not have to dirty his meaty claws at all.

     A crafty Skeith that King Skarl is, giving me a sentence worse than imprisonment. At least in the citadel I have a chance. Maybe I can pick up work in the military once more. As long as my identity stays a secret, all will be well. No one has to know who I am.

     He lifted himself out by the window, flapped his wings a few times and hovered above the windowsill. The wand remained tucked away in a pocket. When he looked down at the gardens below, a wave of dread rolled over him.

     I could die, he realized. But I have no chance in the wilds of this city alone. Not now.

     Leaving the unopened potion on the bed, he jumped from the windowsill and spread his wings to fly.

To be continued...

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Other Episodes

» Caught Between Kingdoms: Part One
» Caught Between Kingdoms: Part Two
» Caught Between Kingdoms: Part Three
» Caught Between Kingdoms: Part Four
» Caught Between Kingdoms: Part Five
» Caught Between Kingdoms: Part Six
» Caught Between Kingdoms: Part Seven
» Caught Between Kingdoms: Part Eight
» Caught Between Kingdoms: Part Nine
» Caught Between Kingdoms

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