Untitled and Unfinished, Ch. 5
It’s Donovan’s turn to look at me funny. “Whatever for?”
“We have to warn her.”
Erika folds her arms in front of her, raising an eyebrow. “About what?”
After breathing deep, I calm down and slow my thoughts. This is too vital for me to mess up. “Call me crazy, but I think someone might show up soon who’ll want to ramp up the tension between Taura and Scorpus. Someone who’s probably already snuck into one of the castles, and that’s why the princess came to us alone.”
Everyone’s staring at me now, even Melinda. She’s brought the wagon to a slow crawl just to join in on the stare party. Their faces are all asking me the same thing: What in the world are you talking about, Claire?
“L-look. Just hear me out.” Goodness, this is hard to describe without sounding like a lunatic. “I think there may be someone behind all this—a traitor in either the court of Taura or Scorpus. And this person will be all too happy to cause trouble between the kingdoms if it means they aren’t looking at him.”
I see Jason shoot straight up at that last part. “You mean like a distraction?”
“Exactly like a distraction.” I point to Donovan, catching his attention. “Even you agreed that it was strange the princess arrived cloaked and without an escort despite the new tensions between the kingdoms.”
“If we call you crazy, then I must be extra crazy,” says Erika, “because you make an odd amount of sense.”
Donovan shoots her a look—a mix of disbelief and frustration. “You can’t be serious. There’s no proof that anything Claire has told us is true; she just blurted it out.”
The embarrassment I’m feeling already grows to crushing proportions, so I shrink into myself. My attempt at justification is riddled with pauses and stammering as I fumble for another way to tell them that I’ve seen plotlines like this before in other stories, and I’m seeing them here because we’re actually in a book. But saying literally all of that is sure to make them write me off.
Finally, I settle on this: “My experiences have taught me to perceive the world in a vastly different way from most people. I can’t exactly divine the future, but I can see patterns if I have the right kind of information. That’s why I think there may be a traitor at work here.”
“And what do you think this traitor will do once we find him?” asks Franco.
“He might mess with the Aura Gate. Maybe he already has. I don’t know why he’d do it, but that’s probably what’s up.”
Melinda and Donovan are eyeing each other. The newbie three are sharing questioning looks between themselves, too. I can actually feel my insides sinking at this because I know they don’t believe me. It would be just like one of the stories if they all dismissed me now only for at least some part of what I said to come true after a tragedy. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could stop the tragedy from happening this time? Oh, who am I kidding? I’m not even supposed to be in this story, never mind—
“We should at least let the commander know about our concerns,” Melinda says suddenly. “Better safe than sorry, yes?
The uncertainty is strong in Donovan’s voice. “Perhaps….”
Jason pounces on the front of the wagon a lot like how I did it. “Then let’s go already! If we hurry, we can catch up!”
The reins snap away, spurring the horse into a run. I don’t know how it does this, but it manages to go just a bit shy of a full gallop despite carrying a wagon occupied by six people. I’ll pass on questioning it.
Last I recall, Commander Redford departed on foot; it didn’t look like any horses or carts were missing when we left the church—but then, I didn’t bother to keep count and wouldn’t have been able to remember the exact numbers if I did. So as Mister Speedy Horse takes us forward, I keep a lookout for the commander’s group and the princess. I see the newbie three doing the same out of the corner of my eye.
After several minutes of empty dirt road, grass, and trees, I see the people we’re looking for finishing off some Shadow Snappers. To my surprise, the princess is fighting with them using some streams of light magic. Before we’ve stopped, Jason and his friends jump out of the wagon and rush forth to help out by slaying the only other Shadow Snapper in the vicinity. I jump out with Melinda and Donovan as soon as the horse stops.
Commander Redford looks our way with a quizzical look in her eye. “I appreciate the help just now, but what are you doing here? You’re supposed to be back at the barracks.”
Melinda bows upon approaching her, followed shortly by the newbie three and Donovan. “Apologies, Commander, but Claire had some concerns she felt the need to express as soon as possible. She can explain better than I.”
That’s about when I finally catch up to everyone else, and once I do, I don’t even bother taking a breath; I go right into repeating my deductions to Redford and the princess. Their reactions are a lot like the others’—utterly bewildered and confused at what the crazy out-of-towner is saying. Thing is, I can see the princess blanch and go rigid as I’m talking.
Just before I can ask about it, she cuts in with a breathless, “How did you know?”
It takes a few seconds for the question to sink in, so I fumble around for a response. “Er… know what?”
“You said you believed a traitor may exist within the governments of Taura or Scorpus. I do, too. That’s why I traveled here alone; that’s why I wanted to talk to Maria here.” She points to the commander as she says the last part. “She has been a stalwart friend ever since I was young and she was but a squire. I trust no one more.”
So I’ve been right on the money so far—and that means we need to figure out who the traitor is straight away. I tell the princess just that.
She nods in agreement and then requests that we all head back to the capital with her. Since she wants to remain as discreet as when she left, we’re to follow her up to a certain point on the road and then break away to find another way into both the city and then the castle.
From there, Redford assigns us into groups to enter from two different sides of the capital. She and her group will head in from the east while the rest of us are to go in from the west. If anyone asks what we’re doing in the capital, we just tell them we’re looking for more volunteers to join the Redford Guard. At the earliest opportunity, we’re to meet the princess in the castle courtyard, and an entrance near the back we’ll need to find will take us there. Hopefully, we can reach it without getting caught—but that means it can’t be obvious who we are and why we’re there.
With the plan all sorted out, the commander sends Natasha back to convey the news to the remaining Redford Guard. From there, the rest of us head out for the capital. The newbies and I aren’t exactly first picks for a mission like this, but since we’re among the only ones who know what’s going on and that just five people won’t be enough, the commander has no choice but to trust us.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that this next part is where the newbie three really prove their chops. As for me, well… all I can do is hope I don’t screw anything up. I left the plank ex machina back at the watchtower, so either I’m going to have to resort to fisticuffs or I’ll need to find an actual weapon.
Entering the capital goes so smoothly, I almost can’t believe it happens as fast as it does. One quick question-and-answer exchange between the knights and Donovan, and we’re in. Just like that. Seriously. I won’t look a gift horse in the mouth. You wouldn’t either, would you?
Oh, right. We have limited communication here. Never mind; you don’t have to answer that.
Anyway, once we go in, Melinda spends the next few minutes trying to find a place to park the horse. The massive crowds don’t help her much. Heck, I barely can see the white stone tiles that pave the streets because of all the people moving to and fro. Speaking of stone, all the buildings seem to be made of it, and only their basic shapes and sizes keeps them from looking identical. At the southern end of the capital city sits a silvery castle whose towers stretch into the sky. It reminds me of the castle in the Disney logo, believe it or not, except more symmetrical and missing two towers. Somewhere in the back must be that courtyard the princess mentioned, but it’s not visible to me from this angle.
Jason and his friends are studying the castle already, but he’s the one who asks, “See a way in?”
Erika purses her lips together, drumming the side of the wagon with her fingers. “Not ‘in,’ per sé… but I can think of a way to get us around the back without raising suspicion. We can blend in with the huge crowds until we reach the castle.”
“All right. Then what?”
“There’s not enough space for a moat, which means we can walk up to the castle walls and find that opening Princess Vivian talked about. After that, we’ll need something to keep the knights’ attention off of us.”
“That should be simple,” says Franco. “I can conjure a simple spell that can cause a ruckus for some of the guards to find, and we’ll slip through while they aren’t looking.”
Donovan shoots a look over his shoulder. “You’re not talking about anything drastic, I hope.”
“No, of course not. We just need them away long enough for us to move.”
“We don’t want it obvious that we’re part of the Redford Guard, then,” says Melinda. “The princess requested as much.”
“That means we’ll need some disguises and hide our stuff,” I add.
Jason points to himself and his friends, smiling wide. “Leave that to us. We’re pretty good at this kind of thing. You can join us, too, Claire, because you’re the only other person here without a uniform.”
I think a part of me just toppled over upon hearing that, but somehow, I’ve remained upright. “Wait wait wait—me?” And to my split-second horror, Jason nods in response. I’m not going to have a choice here, am I?
Then Melinda’s voice cuts in with, “Look over on your right, everyone.”
When I do just that, I catch sight of a wide-open space in a lot with several horses, carts, and wagons all lined up in rows. It looks like a giant stable, actually, but the roofs only cover the horses. Goodness gracious, I think I’m staring at a medieval-style parking lot; the nearby sign that says Public Stables is only hammering it home. And Melinda’s pointing to the place.
“I’ll leave our ride here,” she tells us, “and Donovan and I will stay with Rocky while you four head out.”
Part of me freezes, dumbfounded. “Who’s Rocky?”
“The horse,” answers an amused Donovan. “We never told you his name before, did we?”
I shrug it off. “Well, you have now. I was just going to call him Mister Speedy Horse if you hadn’t said otherwise.”
He and Melinda laugh at that, and then it’s game time. I jump out of the wagon following the lead of Jason and his friends, after which we make our way through the ever-changing human maze of crowds. Keeping up with the trio isn’t a problem for me since I come from a busy city. It just requires close observation, quick thinking, and staying on your toes.
After a few minutes, Jason heads over to some vendor stands. Erika and Franco run off somewhere; I don’t see where exactly. It looks like the setup of some unspoken plan, so I stay close enough to Jason to hear what he’s saying to the hat vendor in front of him.
Yes, you read that right—a hat vendor. And the hats are everything from simple to far more elaborate than necessary. Seriously, one of those hats is made of nothing but feathers. Why am I going on so much about a silly hat? Because Jason is holding it up right now, talking loudly enough that some passers-by turn their heads.
“Wow, I love all the exquisite colors on this!” He’s talking about how the feathers cover every color in the rainbow, of course, in a tone of voice very clearly acted. Then he proceeds to lay it on thick: “I have to say, I’d never even think it was possible to make a feather hat like this. My eye for color isn’t even a fraction of what yours is!”
The vendor laughs quietly. “Oh, stop. It was no big deal, honest. I’m sorry to say that the hat’s already taken, unfortunately. Someone put dibs on it yesterday, and I didn’t have enough time to make another.”
“It’s all right. I don’t have much money to spare anyway.” Jason sets down the rainbow pimp feather hat on the stand and picks up another—one that’s tall with a red-and-white stripe pattern on it. I suppose it wouldn’t have been as obvious of a tribute if it didn’t also have a short white brim, but for me, the reference is clear as crystal. How about you?
A strong gust suddenly passes through, nearly toppling me over. All the curtains hanging from the vendor stands flap up, right alongside fruits, cans, boots, and a few hats—but not the two hat I pointed out somehow. Amidst all that, I see a couple of pale-colored sheets fly by as if riding the wind. Before I can see what’s up with that, a hand grabs me by the arm and drags me into the rushing wind.
By the time the wind dies down and I stop moving, I see that I’m nowhere near the vendor stands anymore. I’ve come around a corner and under a bridge, putting me near a stream. Beside me are Jason, Erika, and Franco, each of them holding some cloaks and jackets and doing a lousy job of not giggling. They share high-fives, and that’s when it dawns on me: I think they just stole those cloaks.
When I ask about it, Jason’s quick to shrug it off. “Wouldn’t be the first time we’ve resorted to that tactic.”
“Besides,” adds Erika, “that vendor I took the stuff from has plenty more. It’s no big deal.”
I have half a mind to ask how no one noticed the obvious thief distraction tactic the three just used, or how they’re going to explain how they obtained the cloaks, or if they needed to resort to something that elaborate at all. But in the end, I keep my mouth shut. I’m not sure what’ll happen if I point out things like that to anyone in-universe, and I also don’t want to blow our luck here. If this allows us to pre-empt one of the most classic plot twists there is ahead of time, it’ll be worth it.
At least, that’s what I hope.
My train of thought ends when a gray cloak appears in front of my face. Looking up, I see Erika’s the one holding it for me, saying she nabbed something for each of us.
I’m half-aware of my own movements as I take what I’ve been given and drape the new piece of clothing around my shoulders. For the first time since I arrived, I blend in with the world of the book. The three do the same with each of them donning the cloak whose subtle color tints matches their own: red for Jason, blue for Erika, green for Franco. The long jackets go to me, so I stash them away. At least now I’m wearing something that can conceal them.
“All right. Let’s head back to the public stables.” And with that declaration, Jason waves for us to follow him.
My constant thought of please don’t ask please don’t ask must’ve worked because Melinda and Donovan don’t ask at all about how the trio and I retrieved our new clothes; I just hand over the jackets to them and that’s it. Once we’re all geared up, we head towards the castle. Again, it’s not hard for me to keep up with them despite the crowds, so we make good time in reaching our destination.
Like Erika guessed earlier, access to the castle from the city streets isn’t hard. There’s a steel gate, sure, but it’s open and watched over by a pair of knights. The wall itself curves away from the gate and around the back, so we use that as our guide moving forward. But while we sneak through a crevice that deposits us to the inner castle area, something catches my eye—or rather, the absence of something.
There aren’t a lot of guards this way. In fact, the number of them just drops once the front of the castle disappears from my view. On top of this, I don’t see a hint of Commander Redford or the guards she came with, or even anyone stationed atop the walls. I’m not the only one noticing this, either, because I see everyone else eyeing the area, too.
It’s a little while longer when Jason finally states the obvious. “Something’s not right.”
“Indeed.” Melinda stops moving once she speaks, prompting the rest of us to do the same. After making a quick scan of the area, she points to a small golden gate some ways ahead of us across from where we are. Unfortunately, it’s ever so slightly ajar. “That looks like the courtyard up ahead, but someone’s already gone in. We need to be cautious.”
Donovan steps forward. “I’ll go first. Melinda, cover me. The rest of you, inspect the area but stay alert. Be prepared for anything.”
We give our okays before he motions for us to get moving. The newbie three and I shuffle past the gate as fast as we can, weaving right behind Donovan and Melinda. I glance over just to see if anything’s amiss in the courtyard itself, but a lot of tall bushes block my view. I just know that beyond them is a wide open space.
Looking ahead, I see hedges lining both sides of the fence that surrounds the courtyard. The continued absence of any guards remains the only oddity I can spot until I notice a hedge out of place. It’s the only one that juts out from what is otherwise a uniform line. Franco must’ve seen it, too, because he whispers for Erika and Jason. While the trio reunites, I head to the out-of-line hedge and look down.
Shoot. It’s just as I feared.
Sprawled in front of me is one of the castle knights knocked completely out cold.