|The Advocate Prince
Author: CMLee PM
Prince Cinos is feared and reviled as the most treacherous mind in the land of Orillia. He bends the law to his will and twists people into webs of his control, but when the tide of magic swells, one girl will gain the power to end his reign forever.Rated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy - Chapters: 35 - Words: 167,783 - Reviews: 10 - Favs: 9 - Follows: 14 - Updated: 06-11-13 - Published: 10-17-12 - id: 3066268
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
The prince was a quiet prisoner. So quiet as to make Balin uneasy. After the first night, Cinos had not even bothered to express any animosity toward his captor. Balin would have felt much better if the prince had yelled, spat, and fought. Of course, knowing the prince, that was probably why he didn't.
Still, the Arlian commander was determined not to allow his cousin to see him squirm. He acted as if he found the prince's behavior perfectly normal.
Balin knew Gloria was angry, but at least he could see it on her open, slightly sunburned pink face. Gloria's emotion was less fury and more like the irritation of a cat when you rub it the wrong way. Sometimes she slumped alongside him with her bag over her shoulder (she had refused to allow him to carry it). But just as often she would forget that she was cross, and she would straighten and walk with the simple enjoyment of walking.
Balin had spent his entire life with people like his uncle, who hid their real emotions, or with people like Cun, who he wished would hide their thoughts. As a result, Gloria's honest, straight-forward expression made him smile. Of course, she only got more irritated when he smiled at her, which just made him smile more.
It had been the tail end of summer when they had started north. Now they woke most mornings to a crisp bite in the air. One of the few times the prince spoke, he had been observing a tree that had burst into bright red. "Hirsyl zashel mei kei zi hor'stel."
"More Arlian?" Gloria asked.
Balin nodded. "It means: 'Autumn, the cheery melancholy of a world about to die.'" The commander raised an eyebrow. "It would seem my cousin enjoys classic poetry."
"Not really," the prince answered, catching a red leaf in his hand. "That poem is one of the few I tolerate."
Balin might not call him a prince out loud, but it was nearly impossible to think of his cousin as anything else. Even covered in dirt and wearied to the bone, Cinos held himself with an innate dignity. And there was not another cursed being in all the land who could match him at being more of a conniving donkey's rear—the true office of any prince.
Balin shrugged. "Poetry is an indulgence for a commander, but I keep a few books. That one's a bit pessimistic. I would not say that the world dies in autumn, merely goes to sleep."
A gust of wind tugged at the fallen foliage in the prince's hand. He released it to disappear in a swirl of its brethren. "For the tree the world sleeps. For the leaves it dies."
That was the most the prince spoke in the next few weeks. At least, to Balin. Sometimes the commander could hear Cinos and Gloria murmuring to each other at night when they thought he was asleep. From the cadence of the prince's voice, it did not sound like they were whispering sweet nothings to each other. The prince could be cooking up some plot, and no matter what Balin felt for Gloria, and no matter what Audrey had already told him about her, she might yet choose the prince over him. Balin was probably a fool for not listening. But he was not the prince, and he was not his uncle.
The first night, after Balin seemed to sleep, Gloria had tried to untie the rope that Cinos was tied with. Balin had tied the prince's bindings to his own wrist, and he had felt the tug. Still, he pretended to sleep. When Gloria could not undo the knots, she got out a knife, only to hiss with frustration when the knife wouldn't cut it.
The next morning Gloria boldly asked what the rope was made from.
"A friend's well wishes," Balin answered as he stirred their breakfast in the pot over the fire.
A thought dawned in Gloria's face. "The same friend who helped you escape the dungeons! It wasmagic."
Balin made no response, but this did not stop Gloria from looking triumphant. Her face glowed on the other side of the cooking pot.
"Your mistress perhaps?" The prince did not sound accusatory, simply inquisitive. Nevertheless, Balin felt a certain defensiveness rise up in his throat. He repressed it. He could not admit to anyone that Audrey was not his mistress, especially not the prince. No matter how much he wanted Gloria to know it.
Gloria, however, seemed more interested in the breakfast pot, poking the porridge experimentally with a spoon. Balin leaned back on his rock, and crossed his arms over his chest. "Since you are speaking to me again, cousin, there is something I would know."
Cinos inclined his head. "I am your humble hostage."
Balin rolled his eyes. "I am sure you tire of hearing about what you did to your mother. But could you explain why? You must have known for some time that your mother had a spy. You could have thrown her in the dungeon or blackmailed her at any time. Why now?"
The prince shrugged. "I have my reasons. But to know them you must trade something with me."
Gloria looked up from the porridge. Balin shook his head. "I won't play your games. But Gloria looks as if she might like to know."
The girl shook her head as well. Even grimy from travel, her copper hair had a bit of shine that rippled in the light. "Not me. It's obvious. I only wanted to see if you would trade something with him." She ladled some porridge into her bowl.
Balin raised an eyebrow. "Obvious?"
"Well," Gloria said around a spoonful of her breakfast, "I don't know the particulars, but he must want to protect her from something, mustn't he?"
"From what? Her freedom?" Balin demanded. Why did women turn into utter fools when it came to royalty?
Gloria blinked at Cinos as if she could read his profile as easily as the pages of a book. To Balin, his cousin looked as opaque as ever.
"Well, I know he thinks very highly of his own skills at deception but not much of anyone else's. They told me in the castle that the queen had a spy and would not tell Cinos who it was. He does not trust any schemes that are out of his control."
"That makes sense." Balin chewed thoughtfully on a piece of dried apple from his pack. He had tried to share the fruit with only Gloria, but she had given half her portion to the prince. "Still, that doesn't explain how Cinos is protecting her. It sounds more like he thinks his mother's plotting against him."
Gloria shook her head. "No, if that were the case he would have worked harder at interrogating her. Instead he just kept her in the dungeon—and away from plots that he can't be sure are safe."
Balin looked at Cinos who only shrugged helplessly. "Women will persist in thinking me charming." It was probably the first joke the prince had made during the entire journey. Balin did not find it funny.
Gloria, though, appeared to have missed the joke entirely. She spoke like a patient governess who tells you that you've misremembered your times tables. "No, I don't think you're charming. But I do not think you're completely evil either."
Cinos gave her an unpleasant predatory smile. "Why is that?"
"Because you try too hard to seem that way."
The prince did not answer, but he was no longer smiling. Balin shook his head. He could not credit Gloria with being right, but how could a girl, who grew up away from everyone, even appear to know so much about someone as complicated as the prince? Balin knew that Flora was the only person the girl had ever seen.
Of course, Balin knew nothing of Flora. He had tried to gather information about her, but he had not been able to justify all the questions he would have liked to ask. If Nemis was to be believed, Flora was the blackest of witches. Audrey also did not portray Flora favorably, but she had never elaborated as to why.
Neither opinion helped Balin. The commander never took his uncle's words at face value, and Audrey was far too mysterious to be entirely trusted. Whatever the guardian was, Gloria was a product of her education, and Balin would have given a lot to know exactly what that had been.
"It is a shame that you give the prince so much trust when he cannot return the favor. Perhaps it's not his fault, though," Balin allowed, nodding to Cinos. "The court is not a place to grow one accustomed to truth."
Gloria sipped some tea from a pewter mug. Her voice echoed slightly in its depths as she spoke, "Oh, he trusts me even if he won't admit it."
Cinos raised both eyebrows. "I had no idea."
Gloria's smile was both childlike and devious, as if she had placed the winning piece in chess. "I knew back in the woods, when Nemis caught us. If you did not trust me, you would have thought it was at least possible that I had been plotting to give you to the Arlians. Instead, you tried to let me go. If you had suspected me, you would have connived to make me stay. You would only let anyone out of your control if you trusted them."
The prince considered this. "Are you confessing?"
Gloria waved a finger. "Ah, it is too late. You cannot take it back. You trusted me then, without even pausing to think, and even now you do. We both know I could not have had anything to do with finding Nemis. Maybe V—" here she cast a quick look at Balin. "Maybe I was indirectly responsible. But you trust me, even so."
"Or perhaps you give us both too much credit." Cinos poked disdainfully at his porridge. Balin thought the one upside to the tasteless mush was how much the prince hated it.
"No, I don't," Gloria disagreed with a confident smile. The prince either had or pretended to have lost interest and made no reply.
Someone not bothering to hide their presence rustled in the bushes before Balin saw Cun's bulk battling through the undergrowth. The man looked to be alone, but Balin could not imagine that Cun traveled on his own accord. He had to be acting on Nemis's orders. The commander swore under his breath and tried to think of how he might dissemble his way out of this mess when the large uncouth man swept a rather incongruous bow. "Highness."
Cinos looked up from his earthen bowl of porridge as regally as he might have from the head of a feast. "Cun, you have taken long enough."
The man shrugged. "You did not pay for speed, just as you never paid me enough to reveal Nemis's position."
A brief smile twitched onto the prince's face. "We both know there wasn't enough gold in Orillia to bribe you into risking your neck to expose Nemis. Strange, since your normal line of work is far from risk."
Cun's grin revealed a diamond set in one tooth. "Good soldier's work is far less risky than your spy work, but what's a man to do when the prince incarcerates the rest of his band?"
Honest soldiers didn't travel in bands. The unpleasant picture clicked in Balin's head. "You're a mercenary! And on the prince's payroll!" The commander was not sure which fact disgusted him more. He rose, weapon in hand, but Cun held up a leather-gloved finger.
"I think not, Commander."
Cun held himself differently, and his speech had changed. It could not be called more cultured, but where it had once been deliberatively vulgar, it was now only straight-forward roughness. The change put the lie to all the years Balin had known the man. It had all been an act. A very tacky act, but Balin had never paid attention. He had just assumed … Balin swore again. The commander could not imagine what terrible weapon Cun was about to pull from behind his back. He readied himself for a knife or sword.
It was a pigeon.
"A pigeon? You're going to fight me with a pigeon?"
"Yes." Cun smiled, an expression like a taut piece of rope being pulled into a curve. "Think now, Commander. Next to Nemis you're the smartest Arlian I know."
The stone hit the water in Balin's mind, and the commander lunged at the pigeon, knife in hand. Gloria gave a high strange sound between a whistle and a coo, and the bird came to her.
They all stared at her as she cradled the pigeon in her hands, delighted as if she held a baby chick on market day.
"Fine call, Lady. Where did you learn it?" Cun asked.
"Flora keeps this kind of bird, and she taught me how to give them orders. I think she used them to send messages to someone. I just liked to watch them waddle about."
Balin sheathed his knife and walked coaxingly toward Gloria. "It is very important that you give the bird to me, Gloria. It has a—"
"Message." Gloria finished. "Yes, I see it." She stroked the bird's feathers, the message wrapped around its leg nestled against her thumb. Then, mostly to herself, "I wonder who Flora would have sent messages to."
"That message will explain to your uncle what you have done." Cinos said with a nod of confirmation from Cun.
Balin growled, seething from the prince's arrogance. Did they think that they could scare him by threatening to go to his uncle? Why did they think he had left? He no longer feared Nemis's wrath.
Of course, his men did not currently have the resources to face Nemis. That was a large part of the reason he had stayed with the general for so long. But Balin consoled himself that Nemis would have to find his camp before the general could attack it.
"If you think your camp in the north is safe, you are mistaken. I suspected you were plotting against your uncle during your trial. Then five hundred plus men went missing from our ambush on the insurgent army. These men were with the army before the trial but not after. They were warned sometime before the ambush."
Cinos gave Balin a long look as if hoping he might say something about this, but Balin would not give him the satisfaction. Let the prince wonder how Balin had extracted only his own men while he was in a stone cell. The velvet satchel with Audrey's lock of hair was warm against his chest, almost as if it agreed.
After the space of another silent moment, Cinos continued. "I thought it was an interesting coincidence, so I alerted Cun and asked him to track the missing men. Your men knew there would be no one left from the Arlian army to scream about deserters. The Orillians would also be too busy mopping up the rest of the insurgents. But Cun's the best tracker money can buy, and even a clever group of 500 men have a difficult time staying unseen. Cun may not have been willing to give up Nemis's location, but he had no such qualms about your men. He communicated their location to me before our unfortunate encounter with the elves."
Cun shrugged and grinned at Balin in a mock apology.
The commander kept his face carefully blank. He had never given any confidences to Cun, nor were any of his men likely to have talked to him. Balin also could not think when Cinos would have had time to speak with Cun. Although, Cun could have handed him a note discreetly. It was also possible the prince was merely fishing for answers and had gotten a lucky guess with the north. Balin held onto that hope.
"Seventy degrees by one hundred and thirty-three." The prince looked up at Cun, "I believe that was it, correct?"
"You've a good memory your highness." Cun inclined his head as if in respect.
A foul feeling settled in Balin's stomach.
Gloria started as a piercing whistle made the pigeon dart out of her hands and back into Cun's. He shoved the bird into a small, square, wooden cage. It flapped its wings indignantly but eventually settled down.
The prince gave Cun a wry half smile. "Good to see you earning your keep as the Land's finest pigeon wrangler."
Cun gave an impressively elegant stage bow for one of his bulk while holding the pigeon's cage aloft in one hand.
"Now, I could have Cun release this bird. I could also have Cun kill you. However, believe it or not, I prefer you and your men alive. You make a fine balance to Nemis, so I will make you a deal."
Balin shook his head. All this talking was making him impatient. He itched to strangle the prince, but he would rather not do that in front of Gloria.
Just as he thought of her, the girl stepped in front of him, scowling at Cinos. "I won't let you hurt each other."
Balin was both touched and a little humiliated that Gloria did not think he could protect himself. What could she do? She glared at Cinos and the prince actually paled slightly and touched his head as if he had a brief headache. But, afterwards, he gestured to Cun.
The big man set down the pigeon and stepped next to Gloria. "Sorry, little miss," he said and swept her over one shoulder. She shrieked and pounded on the big man's back. The pigeon flapped against the cage, as if it wanted to help, but the bird only succeeded in tipping the cage.
"Surely you know I would never make any deals with you," Balin spoke over Gloria's cries of indignation.
Cinos grinned. "But here I think we share a goal. I wish to destroy Nemis utterly and completely. It suits me that you should take his place."
"How do you propose to help?" Balin asked, mostly to distract Cinos. If he could get himself in the right position, he might be able to surprise Cun. He moved as if shifting his weight and watched Cun out of the corner of his eye.
"The ransom for me," the prince replied. "That should be more than enough to outfit your men for battle, even to give them an advantage despite their smaller size."
Balin gave a growl of disgust, partially aimed at the prince but also partially due to the temptation he felt. "I told you, I'm not a bounty hunter."
"Ah, but this is not the ransom Nemis was going to collect." Cinos assured him, his confidence was beginning to make even his travel-worn gala suit look regal. "This is the perfectly legitimate reward you get for returning me as a hostage of war."
Despite how repugnant Balin found the prince, this offer gave him pause. His men needed supplies. They had enough to keep them in hiding but not enough to put them into full battle capacity. Nemis usually got his supplies by raiding Orillian villages, but Balin refused to do that.
"It would seem that you plan to make me the hostage." Balin pointed out. Though he had no intention of allowing that. Cun wasn't far off. Still, with the way Gloria was squirming and hanging over the man's shoulder, it would make attack rather difficult without hurting her.
Cinos raised the palms of his hands. "Absolutely not. Hostage taking is a military maneuver; I leave that delight entirely to you."
"I don't think you can go back to the castle, or you wouldn't be out here in the first place. Where is this ransom to come from?" Balin demanded, trying not to admit, even to himself, how much he and his men needed the funds. His men in the north were already working in the small towns as protection or labor to earn money. But he had not planned for battle with Nemis so soon. If the prince did bring the general down on his camp, his men would not be prepared.
"I provide well for my men. The men I sent to the sirens carry enough to pay you the money your men will need to play soldier. My men will also be compelled to give you ransom if I am in danger. They know what a reward my gratitude can be. You'll have to trust me to give you the rest of the ransom once I'm re-established. But, even if I double-cross you, I'm sure your army has plenty of rabbit warrens where they can hide, and they'll still be the richer for it."
Balin frowned. "What will prevent your men from attacking me and receiving you for free?"
"I would order them not to. I'm also willing to put myself in a position where you could kill me if they make a move. Although, I warn you, you will get nothing if you do kill me."
The prince had not yet ordered his man to murder Balin. He had also yet to order Cun to release the bird. Balin's men desperately needed funds, and while he might be able to take on Cun, Balin could not necessarily stop the message to Nemis at the same time.
He didn't mind risking his own life but not those of his men. "Fine!" The word tasted sour in his mouth, but Balin reached out to shake Cinos's hand. The prince only raised an eyebrow.
"Oh," Balin said, and untied Cinos's wrists.
Cun finally set Gloria back down, and she glowered at them all but then said briskly, "Since we're all finally agreed to find the sirens, we'd better get on with it."
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