The Broken Hollow
Cassian stumbled through the portal into the significantly darker room, helped along by a rough set of hands, which shoved none too gently at his back. He pitched forward and landed hard on his knees on what proved to be a stone floor. Cassian glowered and turned to throw a colorful retort over his shoulder. But the opening was already closing, the bright, yellow light slowly disappearing with the sound of stone grinding on stone until at last, nothing. The portal sealed completely with an ominous, definitive thud.
All for the better, really. It would not have helped his cause if he had spoken. Though honestly, he failed to see how it could really get much worse.
Cassian hoisted himself off the floor, brushing the dust from his hands and turned where he stood to take in his surroundings. With the door securely sealed behind him, the only source of light was the torch hanging ten feet above his head, directly over the center of the room. It was not much to see by, but it was sufficient. Turning where he stood, he examined the chamber. It was not overly large, but even so, the shadows in the corners still extended for a few feet. Directly across from the door through which he had been rather unceremoniously thrown he could only just make out where the wall opened on either side, two feet from the adjacent walls.
He stepped closer to them, thick links of the chain hanging from his left arm skidding and hissing across the floor as he went. Behind each of those open spaces was the beginning to a labyrinth of hallways. A confusion of twists and turns, ups and downs. Endless miles of stone walls. Hallways strewn with the remains of those who had not made it. Hours of silence. Continuous cold and damp. The torches the only light.
Behind those openings lay the entrance to the maze of Broken Hollow. No, he definitely did not see how it could get much worse.
The prison maze Broken Hollow was built inside—and at points outside—the cavernous depths of mountain. Centuries ago, the mountain, once called Hollow Peak, had run deep with veins of caves and shafts. The king had enlisted miners who mined it for it's rich stone and the priceless gems that could occasionally be found. It was the greatest, thriving source of income for the kingdom.
But in the years of war that had plagued the kingdom as opposing factions fought and spilled blood over the right to rule after the king was deposed, the caves were blown out, the mines destroyed. With the loss of income, the factions had soon ceased, a new king was seated, and clean up began. When the last of the rubble was finally cleared away almost a generation later, all that remained of Hollow Peak was an empty shell. Nothing remained save a few columns of sturdy rock.
The king, in his infinite wisdom, had seen no reason to put the space to waste. The factions were beginning to grow restless, and he wanted to ensure that his line continued to thrive upon the throne. He had ordered a maze be built. Large and intricate, with paths that intersected and passages that seemed to last forever. He commanded it to fill the entirety of mountain, with no crevasse left unused. He wanted there to be as little chance for escape as possible.
More of the inside was blown away, clearing room for the ceiling. All the stone that had been recovered from the clean up was cut and polished into large bricks to be used to form the walls of the maze. Large columns were inserted every so often to replace the natural stone ones, ensuring that the mountain would continue to be supported. The king did not want to lose his prize prison.
It had taken nearly two generations to complete. Only one man—besides that first king—ever saw the full plans of the maze. Those who built it were only allowed to see it in sections. And no man could ever work in more than one section. When he finished, he was done.
The walls were built too high for the tops even to be seen. The torches—kept fueled by a constant supply of oil that filtered through a complex of pipes and pumps from a room in the castle through the peak of the mountain—were only put in to remind the prisoner just how empty the maze truly was. Just how lost a man could get. They offered no true light.
In time, the maze had come to be known as Broken Hollow—an acknowledgement of the mountain's past destruction, or perhaps the structure that now filled the empty shell. It was the most feared prison in the kingdom.
Ideally, those imprisoned could make it out, and there was the promise of a full pardon upon making the exit. The reality, however, was that the design and terms severely limited a prisoner's chance of escape. The maze encompassed the entirety of the inside of the mountain, a vast cavern of hallways connecting and intersecting, twisting and turning, and confusing.
There was no way a man could know which way he was going at which time. There were places where the maze ventured beyond the walls of the mountain, but the walls were still too high to get an accurate assessment. No provisions were made for sustenance. Rumors claimed that were chambers scattered amongst the puzzle of halls filled with an assortment of dried meats and fruits.
The only source that could be trusted promised a waterfall in a chamber in the outer quadrant. But given how long ago that accounting had been documented, Cassian figured that might have been fixed.
The halls were dark, the torches hanging high over the ceiling offering the only light, and it was said they were not in every hall. It was always cold, and survivors—those who were still lucid after the experience—recalled that after a while, they stopped ever feeling dry. Their clothing was always damp, skin clammy.
There was any number of ways a man could die in the maze. And sometimes, even those who escaped it, never really did. Too much time entombed in dark and silence and narrow halls drove many to insanity. The men who came out were not the men they had been when they had gone in. Very few ever made it past their first year outside.
Prisoners did sometimes have one advantage, however. According to the stipulations, a prisoner entered with whatever he had on him at the time of his arrest. This could be a blessing and a curse. Some men had little more than the clothes on their backs, some hefting weighty gear or heavy packs that they were forced to discard too early. But still others wound up with just the right accoutrements.
Cassian turned away from the doorways, eyes scanning the shadowed floor for his pack. It was of medium size and built for travel. And contained—among other things—some carefully wrapped pouches of jerky and grains and a couple bladders of water. He and his men had preparing for a rather long journey when he had been apprehended. He smirked into the dimly lit room as he knelt down to check that all his things were accounted for.
Who ever would have thought insubordination could land him inside Broken Hollow?
Satisfied that everything was still there, Cassian stood again, directing his attention to the next task. Meeting the other end of his chain.
Pairing was a recent addition to the prison, instituted by the previous king when he began to fear that The Ginton Pamphlet would result in more successes. Prisoners were thrown in in pairs, forced together by six feet of thick, heavy chain. It allowed for personal space, but it also made for a lot of extra weight to drag around. Cassian imagined it made for a rather gruesome experience when one man inevitably wound up dragging the body of the other six feet behind him.
And he knew it must happen. Never had two men appeared at the exit simultaneously. Chained or otherwise.
Cassian observed his partner, standing just inside the circle of light cast by the torch above. White trousers, loose at the bottom but tightening and conforming more to his legs as they moved up until the settled snuggly at his hips and thighs. A white hooded tunic that fell to mid-thigh with decorative lacing cinching in the sides and wide, flaring sleeves. The hood was down, allowing Cassian to see that his hair was pale blond, bound back in a loose braid. Cassian would hazard it fell almost to the middle of his back. He looked to be Cassian's height, with soft, rounded features, pale skin and likely pale eyes to match, though Cassian could not make out the exact color for the distance and poor light.
He was staring around the room much the same way Cassian had been earlier, looking weary, but not defeated. Cassian thought that a good sign at least. He would rather not have a partner who broke down on him. That would make navigating the maze harder. He must have felt Cassian's eyes on him because he turned slowly to face him, eyebrows raising in silent question.
"We should move on, I think," Cassian answered matter-of-factly. He glanced at the doorways. "Did you have a preference?"
"Does it make a difference?"
Cassian shrugged, turning back, "As to whether or not we'll make it out? No. But it would determine our strategy somewhat."
His partner cocked his head to one side. "How so?"
"If we take the left passage, whenever we come to an intersection or doorway, we always pick the left. If we take the right passage, we take only right turns."
"That's an… interesting strategy."
"It will limit our chances of running in circles. There are so many intersecting paths, it's easy to get yourself in a loop without realizing it." Cassian reached down to grab his pack, hefting it over his right shoulder. The pack was made with straps to slip over both shoulders, but the chain on his left wrist proved an insurmountable obstacle at the present.
He would have to work on getting it off later. A cursory glace at the lock earlier, before he had been tossed inside the chamber, had shown it to be a complicated contraption. Certainly he had all the time he needed now to sit and pick at until it came off. But right now they both were also possessed of the energy and awareness to make progress in the maze. Better not to waste it. "So… left or right?"
The man considered both passages again, one hand coming up to rub at his left cheek. "Right." He leaned down a lifted up a small sack, attaching it to a small loop on one side of his tunic. He looked at Cassian, giving him a definitive nod.
Cassian stopped just before the black opening in the wall, he turned back. "I'm Cassian, by the way."
His partner was silent for several seconds, seeming to be running through some sort of debate with himself. At last he sighed, "Aedelin."
Cassian adjusted the bag on his shoulder and started forward, entering into the maze of Broken Hollow.
-- / --
Aedelin sagged gratefully against the nearest wall and slid slowly down until he was sitting, arms crossed over his knees. He turned and glared resentfully down the dark hallway they were currently in the middle of. He was tired and worn. There was not a single part of him that did not ache from the long hours of walking. His right arm especially was sore and threatening to cramp up.
He sighed dismally, tilting his head up to observe his partner, standing just barely beyond the circle of light—as Cassian had been adamant about finding a lighted area before they had stopped. The man seemed wholly unaffected by the amount of time they had spent following one hallway after another. He looked as though he could go on for another round before he would even start to feel winded.
Never had it hit Aedelin so acutely just how poorly prepared all his time in studies made him. He tried to argue once with his parents that he should seek physical training of some sort. They had declined anything more vigorous than fencing with dull points. Intelligence and shrewdness were to be his only weapons; should the need for force arise? Well… that was what his uncle was for.
Aedelin realized now he should have fought harder. True, he could not have known the fate that awaited him when his uncle had called him home so abruptly. But it would be nice to feel as though he was not slowing their progress.
And he knew that he was.
There was the sound of something heavy hitting the floor, and Aedelin turned to see Cassian kneeling on the ground, digging through his pack and producing something wrapped in cheesecloth. Cassian unfolded it to reveal several long sticks. He held the bundle out to Aedelin.
"Jerky? We've been walking for some hours now; you must be hungry."
"Oh…" Aedelin blinked and lifted a hand to grab one of the sticks from the pile. He held it between two fingers, studying it—he had never seen anything like. Certainly his parents would never have allowed him to eat something so simple. He nibbled at it, finding it chewy and spicy and surprisingly good. "Thank you," he said when he was halfway done.
"No problem." Cassian took one for himself and wrapped the rest back up, returning the bundle to his pack and sitting back against the wall opposite Aedelin. "May as well while we're stopped."
Aedelin felt his cheeks flush, and he ducked his head, though he doubted Cassian could see it anyway. "Sorry…" he mumbled around a bite.
"For making you stop."
Cassian shook his head. "It was time to stop. We won't get there any faster if we push ourselves, and we'll sleep better if we don't push ourselves to exhaustion."
"But wouldn't you have liked to have gone farther?"
"The are miles and miles of hallways to get through and hundreds of more turns to make. We've barely put a dent in our journey. Stopping now won't hinder or help." He gave Aedelin a sharp look. "Wearing yourself down can only hinder our progress." He pulled his pack back toward him and dug rifled through it again, coming out this time with another cloth bundle and short, metal hook-like object.
The cloth he tossed to Aedelin. It bounced off his folded knees and fell to the floor, unwrapping itself enough to reveal that it was a cloak. A thick, though slightly worn traveling cloak. Aedelin looked at his partner curiously. "What's this for?"
Cassian was bent over the hook, bending and shaping it, but he looked up at Aedelin's question. "You should get some sleep. Spread that over the floor. It should buffer some of the cold."
"Oh…" Aedelin leaned forward, angling for a better look, the order to sleep ignored. "What are doing?"
"I'm going to attempt to pick these locks," Cassian held up his left wrist to clarify which lock he meant. "Losing the chains will make it a lot easier to move. And less tiring." He scooted forward on the floor until he sat directly under the brightest ring of light and set his left arm in his lap, turning his wrist until he had a clear view of the lock.
"Can you get it?"
"Eventually," Cassian glanced up briefly from where he was carefully twisting the hook inside the key slot. "It's a tricky mechanism to manipulate." He smiled ruefully. "We'll probably still be wearing these tomorrow." He turned back to the lock. "You really should sleep. Tomorrow will be more wearing, especially since it won't be all that peaceful on these floors. You should try to get as much as you can."
Aedelin sighed and stood up, spreading the cloak across the floor, just outside the ring of light. Cassian was right, much as he did not like admitting it, he did need sleep. He felt tired all through, and that was only after one day. He hated to think how it would be in the days to come.
He curled up on the floor, pillowing his head on his folded arms. Tired as he was, he was not likely to fall asleep anytime soon. The reality of the day was only just really starting to sink in now he was stopped and had time to think about it. He had been in too much shock earlier. Taken without warning and tossed inside the chamber. Then Cassian had started them down the maze, and it had been all he could do to keep up and follow.
Now they had stopped. The only sound the steady ticking as Cassian fiddled with the lock on his chain. And all he could think about was his uncle. He lifted a hand to his left cheek, rubbing it absently. His uncle.
He buried his head in his arms as the memories began to overwhelm him. His father had been ill, had taken a turn for the worst in the past month. He had been summoned from the monastery when only mere days separated his father from death. Aedelin had not even been given the chance to see him. His uncle had intercepted him partway through the journey home.
In all the rush of activity since his arrest, he had not been allowed to mourn his father's passing as he should have.
None had ever spoken what crime he was supposed to have committed to land him in Broken Hollow. He wondered if his uncle had even had to give one. It might have only taken having a handful of the guards on his side to ensure he be lost inside. Master Harlan had intimated once there was no strict regulation or catalogue of who went in and why.
He did not belong here. And yet, none of the guards seemed to care. Nor the men who had arrested him. He wanted to shout with his frustrations. To find his uncle and…
No. He shook the thoughts away before they could solidify. It could do him no good now anyway. It was done, and—for the time being—there was nothing he could do about it. Seeking to distract himself, he focused his attention on Cassian instead, still bent intently over his hand, occasionally pulling away to fiddle with the hook.
Centered in the brightest beams of light cast down, it was easier to make out his features. Aedelin had not taken much time to do so before they had entered the maze, and they had never stopped long enough in the light in any of the previous hallways for him to take proper notice.
He appeared young, though Aedelin assumed he was still older to his own 20 summers. He had thick, dark, almost black hair, cut short and straight. Dark skin smoothed over sharp, angular features, giving him a hardened appearance that belied the friendly tenor of his voice and the calm, gentle manner with which he addressed their situation.
Cassian was powerfully built, arms betraying a bulk of muscle beneath the tight sleeves of the tunic. There was a dagger just barely visible, peeking out of the top of one his boots and a larger knife sheathed in his belt at his right hip. He would hazard there was at least one more weapon of some sort hiding out in Cassian's pack. From the moment he had come crashing into the chamber he had been perfectly cool, confidence washing off of him in streams. It seemed there had never been a question in his mind about what to do or how to go about doing it.
Aedelin's last thoughts as he drifted off to sleep were that he could not have been paired with a better man.
-- / --
Cassian was again bent over his left wrist, fiddling with another hook, trying to fit it into the slot. Precisely how long he had been at it, he could not say, but he surmised it had to be a little over seven nights at least. He had not anticipated that the lock would be this complicated. He had already destroyed most of his hooks, the mechanism being tougher than the little pieces of metal could handle. Their trail could easily be marked by the broken remains left to rust in the halls where they had stopped to rest.
But he would be damned if he was going to give up. He was tired of dragging dead weight. And the sound of the heavy links sliding across the stone was as bad as the silence that took over whenever they stopped to rest. Cassian had little doubt that was why the chains were as long as they were. Just one more way to drive prisoners mad. If the dead silence did not break him, the grind of metal on stone would.
So would the clicking of the hook against the lock mechanism.
Cassian stopped fiddling with the lock, mind casting about for something to say that could break the monotonous silence. He darted a quick look at Aedelin who sitting with his back against the wall, knees folded up, and head cushioned on his folded arms, looking worn and exhausted and sore. The maze and hours of walking through halls that all looked the same were finally beginning to wear on Cassian; he imagined it was worse for Aedelin, who had obviously not received training of any sort and lacked the stamina to put forth the long hours they did.
Though he never complained, Cassian could tell it was wearing him down. But he doubted that stopping for more than those hours required for sleep would be prudent. Not every prisoner escaped, but that did not always mean a prisoner was dead. He imagined there was any number of prisoners still alive, roaming the halls looking for an escape of any sort. Ginton had approximated there could be anywhere from 10-15 men navigating the maze at any given time.
He had little doubt as to how many of those numbers were still sane. That more than anything, even removing the damned chains would prove to be the greatest challenge here. Keeping their sanity. He had no fears about being trapped inside forever. He was confident he could get them out. But it would still be a long, arduous process. There were some things he could not control, and others for which he had only minimal control.
He would do what he could to ensure those things stayed firmly in his control. That included drowning out the silence when he could.
"So what does a monk have to do to get thrown in the maze?"
"I don't know." Aedelin turned his head, blinking drowsily at him and smiling wryly. "I'm not actually part of the order. I only study there; the monks are my teachers." He shrugged, "My parents thought it a fitting education for my rank."
"Then what could get a student into Broken Hollow?"
"Nothing terribly exciting." Aedelin shrugged again. "You could say my ideas did not concur with those of the current king." He raised a hand, rubbing it absently along his left cheek. It was a peculiar habit Cassian had noted earlier. Cassian got the impression that Aedelin had been attacked or beaten before being brought to the prison. The thought made Cassian inexplicably angry. "What about you?"
"Insubordination." He could not help the smile, despite the sudden, brief rush of anger. "My commanding officer and I had a disagreement about a particular assignment." More accurately, he had refused a direct order.
"You're a soldier?"
"Knight, actually. One of the king's own."
Aedelin's eyes widened, head lifting slightly. "You were one of the king's guard?"
"I still am." He still had his spurs, his crest. As long as those were still in his possession, he was still in service to his king. By all accounts the guards should have confiscated those before sending him into the maze. The prisoners of Broken Hollow held no rank or title. They were stripped of their accolades, rendered less than the most common peasant. He supposed, however, there was something empowering in sending a royal knight into the maze. In sending any man greater than oneself into a realm of non-existence.
Cassian wondered how many noblemen had entered these halls as nobles.
Aedelin frowned, brow furrowing in thought. "For how long?"
"Almost twelve summers with His Highness, Lord Remier. Lord Brennus I knew only as Lord Remier's brother. I was arrested before his coronation." The one thing he had learned, though, was that the new king did not like to be told 'no'. Nor to hear the truth. But Cassian would gladly take the punishment; he did not kill innocents.
He felt the hook catch on something and slide into the lock and turned back to examine it. He gave the hook another twist, feeling it slide deeper. He grinned up at Aedelin. "I think I've almost got it."
This time Aedelin woke all the way up, pushing away from the wall and moving to sit beside him, eyes intent as he watched Cassian work. Cassian gave the hook a couple more twists, making sure it was securely in place then turned it sharply. There was a loud click followed by a snap, and the manacle at his wrist fell open, dropping heavily into his lap.
He turned the cuffs over and carefully extracted the hook from the slot, relieved to find it was still intact and looked more than capable of taking on one more lock.
"That seemed so easy."
Cassian nodded, "It is once you've bent the metal to the proper shape. That's the true challenge of these locks." He turned to Aedelin and grabbed his right hand, drawing it in to rest in his lap while he inserted the hook and once again began twisting and clicking it around. After some moments, the lock gave and the hook slipped inside, and seconds later, the manacle opened up, freeing Aedelin's wrist
The flesh underneath was raw and pink and appeared to be slightly swollen. Cassian held it into the light, inspecting the abused skin for infection. It did not seem to be, though he imagined it still must be causing him some pain.
He cursed inwardly. Of all the things to have ignored this entire time. And he should have, for many a time he had felt his own wrist chaffing and becoming sore under the pressure of the chain as they had moved. Somehow it had escaped him that Aedelin might be suffering, too. Might be suffering more.
"I apologize," he said, releasing Aedelin's hand, "I did not consider this when I had us walk those long hours."
Aedelin shook his head, drawing his hand back and gently setting it down in his lap. "It looks worse than it feels. Besides, it is not as though we had much of a choice. It's all part of the maze, right?"
Cassian considered this, staring down one end of the dark hallway. He supposed pain and suffering were all a part of the maze. But that did not mean he was free from relieving those pains where he was able. That was one of those things he should have had control over.
-- / --
Master Harlan had once tried to explain the difference between quiet and silence, without much success. Aedelin thought he had finally gotten it.
The monastery had been full of sounds. Even in the gardens where he had gone to find some peace and solitude between meals or before mass there had never been true silence. The twittering of a bird or the chittering of a cricket or the trickling sounds of water in the fountains were almost always assured in his quiet corner. Even during mass or the hours of silence one could still hear the chiming of the bells or the murmured prayers of visitors to the chapel.
Broken Hollow was completely devoid of sound. Endless miles and hours without the slightest sounds. Aedelin and Cassian had run through almost every possible conversation they could think up three or four times over in a vain effort to drown some of the silence out. There were moments when Aedelin thought he might just start screaming. Just so he could hear something.
The monastery was quiet, made him feel at peace with the world and his surroundings. The maze was silent, made him feel lost and cold.
There were times, while they were walking that Aedelin could feel it pressing in on him. Sometimes he wished they had the chains back. He imagined he would fling them, over and over, against the smooth surface of the stone walls. In his mind he could hear the echoing chime, the metallic ring as the surfaces clashed, and he thought that might have been just enough to alleviate the desperation bubbling up inside him.
In his dreams, the halls echoed with sweet song. There were no words, just a single note, floating steadily in the shadowed halls. With each turn he made it became louder, thrumming in the walls around him, caressing his skin and making him shiver. He turned another corner and the sound changed, became courser. Another turn it became shriller. Still another, and he began to shiver from fear.
The singing had transformed into a wail. Desperate and hollow. Underneath it he could hear the sounds of footsteps, rushing behind him, fast and furious. Seeking and soon finding.
Aedelin gasped, eyes snapping open. He struggled to sit up, but something was holding him down. Something solid and immovable was wrapped tightly around his waist, preventing his moving, keeping him down. He struggled harder, wanting to get up, to leave. The band around his waist squeezed tighter, pulling him firmly against a warm wall. Cool breath whispered across his ear as Cassian spoke.
"Rest easy, Aedelin. The nightmares cannot chase you while you are awake."
Aedelin stopped struggling. Awareness seeped into his dream-fogged mind, making him aware of the silence around him, the light above, the warmth behind him. Awake. He had only been dreaming. "No. Awakening only presents me with new ones."
A warm chuckle in his ear sent shivers down his spine. "Perhaps so. But at least you know there is a way out of these ones."
His waist was given a gentle squeeze, and Aedelin registered finally that the band must in fact be Cassian's arm wrapped snugly around him. Which would mean the wall his back was pressed against was Cassian himself. Surprisingly, he found that realization made him feel more relaxed.
Or maybe not so surprisingly. Cassian was warm, a much better buffer against the cold stone than his cloak was. He was also a lot more pleasant to lean against, a shocking revelation, certainly, but one he felt no shame in admitting at the moment. They were lost in the middle of a giant maze inside a mountain. Would continue to be for still longer yet. He would take comfort where he could find it, and in whatever form it presented itself.
With that determined thought in mind, he allowed the tension to ease completely from him, settling back more easily into Cassian's solid frame, reveling in the warmth and calm the move provided.
"Do we really know that there is a way out?"
"Men before us have found the exit."
"But do they ever really leave it? Master Harlan says that many lose their minds not long after leaving. Assuming they did not already lose it inside." Aedelin pulled away some, wriggling to turn around, wanting to see Cassian's face while they spoke. Cassian shifted slightly, making room for him, arm temporarily moving away, leaving Aedelin feeling bereft until he was at last settled and it returned again, solid and secure around him. "They all die within a year."
"It's true that most never truly recover, but there a small few who make it. Sir Mandek Ginton, for instance, not only survived the maze, he lived another twenty years after his escape."
"Was he intact?"
"Enough so that he could write The Ginton Pamphlet." Cassian's mouth tilted in a smirk when he added. "Though many would argue that was an obvious sign of his lunacy."
"Ginton wrote and distributed a pamphlet about what he had seen and experienced while in the maze, and about his own escape."
"I thought writing about the maze was illegal."
Cassian shook his head. "Only detailing an exact route or path. Or as Horace Baeley once tried—drawing a map."
"But you just said he wrote about his escape."
"Sir Ginton was not a conventional man. Most men enter Broken Hollow and see an endless number of black corridors and stone walls. Mandek Ginton entered Broken Hollow and saw a waste of time. He refused to go through it."
"Then how did he make it to the exit?"
The most dazzling dimple appeared on Cassian's face as he grinned; Aedelin forgot the thread of the conversation for a few brief seconds, until Cassian's answer drew his attention back. "He went above it."
"He—" Aedelin blinked. "What?"
"He managed a way to climb the walls, then he ran along the walls until he made it to the end."
"But how could he…" Aedelin turned to stare above them. Not even the light from the torch, as far above them as it was, could penetrate the dark enough for them to see where the walls finally stopped climbing.
"I don't doubt the walls were built upon and extended after The Pamphlet was published. He had not technically broken any laws, but he had still supplied those daring enough with a plan of escape."
"Would you have tried it?"
"Certainly not." Cassian gave an adamant shake of his head. He winked, offering Aedelin an answer before he could ask the question. "I don't care for heights."
"All for the better, then, I suppose. I'm not over fond of them myself."
"Then it seems we are a well-matched pair." Cassian shifted slightly, settling against the wall at his back, eyes drifting shut. "We should sleep now, Aedelin. We may not have walls to scale, but we do have floors to walk." He gave Aedelin a sharp, knowing look when he unconsciously tensed up. "I'll still be here when you awaken from your dreams. I won't let you get lost."
Looking into Cassian's intent blue-black eyes, Aedelin knew it was true. Cassian would get him out whole. Would not let him become lost in the maze. And in his dreams, he could hear the crickets in the trees and feel the sun on his face.
-- / --
The sun against his skin—even drowned as it was by the high stone walls, higher here beyond the bounds of the mountain—and the sounds of rushing water were as a balm to Cassian's travel-weary mind. Six days past they had landed upon a passage that had carried them outside the dark, damp mountain. Let them out into warmth and light and sound.
It had been slightly unwelcome first, for they had exited near to midday, when the angle of the light penetrating the high walls had been the greatest, making the light far brighter than what he and Aedelin had become so used to over the past month or so. It was almost another day before they could bear to lift their heads and greet the light fully. But the heat and the dry they had accustomed to rather quickly. Reveling in the fresh air and gentle breezes.
It was peaceful, walking by the light of day, sleeping under the stars. Also comforting, to have—for the moment at least—an accurate perception of the passage of time. They had taken what advantage they could of it, knowing full well that the next turn could lead them directly back into the damp dark.
Then, four days after leaving the confines of the mountain, they had hit upon one of the largest chambers yet to be founded within the puzzle of walls. Easily double the size of the chamber in which he and Aedelin had first started this journey, this chamber was as bright as the other had been dark. The expanse of the room meant that even the high walls could not truly keeping the sunlight out, and there were bright patches of warm, yellow light wherever they turned.
One wall of the chamber was supplied by the mountain face itself, though it had obviously been carved and polished to unnatural smoothness. Green mosses and white stones littered the landscape of the chamber, shining brilliantly in the early morning sun. From a point unseen high in the mountain, beyond the contrived ledge, a stream of water, no wider than a man, fell and splashed down onto the stone floor, where it then wound its way through the rocks and moss to escape through an opening and from there Cassian did not know.
Undoubtedly an impossibly hidden drain that would not allow for much more than water to escape. Though he would hazard that this point was so high up the mountain and so removed from any feasibly climbable areas that the worry of a prisoner worming his way through a drain was moot. Cassian was not inclined to chase after the stream of water to search out his suppositions.
He was more content to bask in the light of sun and sound of rushing water and be momentarily free from the idle thoughts and doubts that the silence had given him no choice but to think on. They had remained for two nights already and so too would they tonight, he suspected. The water proved too great a temptation to pass up.
They had bathed, scrubbing the grime and the dirt and the stench from their bodies. And when they were satisfied that all traces of the cave were gone, they had seen to their clothing, scrubbing them vigorously against the rocky bottom of the stream, cleaning them as thoroughly as they had themselves. Cassian felt human again, refreshed and revived, as he had not since the morning of his arrest.
Cassian tilted his head, glancing across from where he lay sprawled and relaxed upon the moss to where Aedelin sat, as he always did, knees to his chest and arms wrapped around them, staring ahead. The image might have appeared as any other moment when Aedelin sat down, except that there were no signs of exhaustion written into his soft features, no lines of worry or distress caused by his dreams etched into the lines of his face. He appeared meditative, eyes watching without seeing the gently rushing water some paces ahead of him.
His eyes were a dusky violent. Cassian recalled that fact readily enough, unbidden and unnecessary as the reminder was. He had noticed it their second day outside, after they had adjusted the light and been able to look about and truly see their surroundings. He had not been looking to see, could not recall being possess of a desire to know. It was just something he had noticed. The same as the silver highlights that had reflected brightly in Aedelin's hair. Hair so fair it might well be white.
Hair so fine and soft Cassian would believe any who suggested it was spun of silk. Another inadvertent observation, and one he mentally kicked himself for every time he recalled it. Aedelin was far above his rank. Indeed, a peasant would have been out of Cassian's reach. There were some lines knights of the Royal Guard could not cross.
Cassian closed his eyes and turned away, directing his gaze back to the blue sky above, slowly growing darker, redder as the sun prepared for it's decent. Aedelin had started sleeping with him, pushing into Cassian's arms and burying his face against Cassian's shoulder. Ever since the night Cassian had woken him from his nightmare and held him still in an attempt to calm him.
Those were the times when he made his observations. In the slide of Aedelin's hair across his arm or cheek as he settled in to sleep. Even covered in a month's worth of grime, Cassian could feel the softness of it. Long before even that, he had noted the satin of Aedelin's skin—perhaps the first thing Cassian had ever noticed about his young partner—as he had held the hand steadily in his own to remove the lock.
Aedelin's hair was hard to miss in the sunlight, so fair and light it caught the sun's rays and reflected them back just as brilliantly. Cassian could hardly be blamed for not overlooking it. His eyes, too. Though perhaps the desire to see them had been the most conscious once Cassian had realized that he could. They were the only part about Aedelin he had been unable to make out in the poor lighting inside the mountain.
He shook his head at himself. This was not a good direction for his thoughts to be taking. These were things he should not be dwelling on. Why then did his mind keep coming back to them?
Cassian knew he would not like the answer his mind was struggling to formulate, so he cut it off before it really took shape. This could not happen. There were some lines knights of the Royal Guard could not cross.
There was a slight nudge into his left side, the gentle rustle of cloth, and then a slight, familiar weight settled beside him, curling around him, silk-soft strands of hair caressing his cheek, the underside of his chin. Cassian's arm automatically lifted to wrap around Aedelin's waist, fingers resting over the curve of his hip.
Fingers tapped out a steady rhythm on his chest. Cassian valiantly resisted the urge to trap them beneath his free hand. Caress the satin-smooth skin.
Aedelin shifted against him, the fingers stilling their motion so that they lay flat against Cassian's chest. Slowly, Aedelin lifted himself up, supporting himself on one arm as he leaned over Cassian, face etched with lines of worry.
"You seem distracted." Aedelin tilted his head, frown transforming into a look of curiosity. "What concerns you so?"
Cassian turned his gaze to meet Aedelin's dusty violet eyes, already growing dark and indistinguishable in the waning light. Strands of hair not held captive in the braid at his back dusted over Cassian's face. "I would kiss you, I think." It was not what he had meant to say. He had meant to say one of a thousand other things. Whatever lie would be most readily believed. Would save him from betraying himself and his rank.
Aedelin's frown returned, confusion etched clearly within. "And this is cause for distress?" He showed no other reaction for Cassian's words, and he wondered how Aedelin could be so calm about it, when his mind reeled with the shock of how to take it back. He thought he might have preferred anger or reproach.
Whatever would have allowed him to sleep without worry of devoting another thought to the ridiculous notion.
"I am a knight, Aedelin. My duty is to my king; I can belong to no other." There could be no truer answer.
"Your king is not present now, Cass. You are your own man inside these walls." This was no small thing for Cassian simply to forget.
"But I will be the king's man again one day." Cassian turned away from Aedelin's intent gaze, staring once again at the sky, burning scarlet and gold now. "I should not start what I may not finish."
Silence stretched between them as the sky grew steadily darker, until at last, no light remained, and they were once again surrounded by darkness. Though this night, as with the past six, they would have the stars at least to keep them company. He could feel Aedelin's eyes still upon him, watching him. Eventually, though, he too moved, the tendrils of hair dancing across Cassian's skin as Aedelin shifted.
But the hair fell back almost immediately. Not the soft, feather-light touches of strands just beyond his reach. The slow caress as they slid over and around his skin. And then there was a warm press of lips to his own, soft and firm.
Cassian's eyes snapped back to Aedelin's, surprised to see them so close to his own. Even more so by the warm rush of air that passed over his mouth. Aedelin's eyes burned brightly, visible even without any light, and then he closed them, leaning farther into Cassian, pressing their lips more tightly together. The had on Cassian's chest slid slowly around to his shoulder, the other Cassian could hear slip long the moss upon which they lay, until he felt fingers tangling within his hair.
It was more than he should ever have expected and yet everything he had ever wanted, the taste in those lips, the feel of the arms around him. Cassian called himself every kind of fool, cursing his own weakness and failure, even as the hand and Aedelin's waist tightened, pulling Aedelin closer to him. His free hand buried itself within the plaits of Aedelin's braid, angling Aedelin's head as he sought to take the kiss deeper, tongue slipping out to trace the seam of Aedelin's lips, begging an entrance that Aedelin readily gave.
They were both breathless when they parted. Aedelin was wide-eyed, beholden of smile that spoke of both pleasure and surprise. Cassian could only stare, the knuckles of one hand gently tracing the smooth lines of his face. "Aedelin…" he spoke softly, reluctant to break the moment, even from necessity.
"Cass…" Aedelin nuzzled into his hand, eyes never leaving his face.
Cassian sighed, shifting to his side, folding Aedelin into his arms, feeling as Aedelin settled in, pressed his head into his shoulder, breath warm against his throat. There were too many things he needed to say. He was well and truly lost, and he could not afford to be. His rank did not allow it.
There were some lines knights of the Royal Guard could not cross.
-- / --
"So this is it?" Somehow, he had expected there to be a lot more fanfare. Though maybe that was on the other side of the door.
Aedelin frowned, casting his gaze about the chamber he and Cassian had entered only moments ago. It was reminiscent of the chamber from whence they had started their journey, though unlike that first room, only one passage led into this one. It was brighter, too, lit not only by the torch overhead, but by the seven smaller ones ensconced in the frame around the only other door in the room. Their exit.
He was again struck by the blandness of it. So long in the dark and damp. So many hours making one turn after another down endless miles of hallways that all looked the same. So much time lost. Something should now be gained. There should be something more than extra lighting waiting for them.
But then, why should he expect so. None knew of his presence here. His uncle would have seen to that. Aedelin clenched a fist at his side. His uncle… He had not thought on him, or any of what had transpired between them since that first night. It had not seemed relevant, with the exit so far away, the maze looming impossibly long ahead of them.
One hand lifted to rub idly at his left cheek, recalling the burn and sting from the blow his uncle had dealt him before sending him to his fate. The problem was suddenly very clearly before him, and he had no solution. No idea of where to start.
For a brief moment, he wished they were still in the maze. Where he still had time to think. Where the press of what waited beyond this door was not so great. Where his uncle did not exist. Maybe they could go back to the stream. They could lie out on the moss. He could press his lips to Cassian's as he had before; as he had not been permitted to since then.
They could pretend again that they were not separated by rank or duty. That there was no other world beyond the stone walls.
Aedelin shook his head, clearing the weak thought from his mind, clenching his fist tighter. No. The maze had allowed him to forget the problems outside for a time, but now they were coming back in full. His moment would come in its time; there was naught that he could do but face it when it did. He would not be cowed a second time. He would take back what was his.
He stared unseeing at the door as he gathered his resolve, wondering what was on the other side. Who would be waiting? How long would he have before his uncle learned of his escape?
"There are guards outside." Cassian spoke behind him, as if reading his thoughts. "This room connects to one underneath the castle."
He flinched. "The castle." He had not expected that. That the castle should be so close.
"Part of the lower dungeons. An old escape route before the caves were destroyed." Cassian stepped around him and approached the door, laying a hand against its smooth surface. He turned to face Aedelin.
"From one maze to another." He could not help the smirk, despite his worries.
Cassian's mouth crooked into a reluctant smile. "There will be more lights, and the path is much more straightforward, I promise." The smile faded then, Cassian's face becoming more serious. His voice held an edge of urgency when he said, "We should leave."
Aedelin nodded. "Yes. It would be a shame to quit now. After coming so far." There was no sense in delaying the inevitable any longer.
Cassian watched him for a long moment, eyes glittering darkly in the torchlight. Then he gave a stiff nod, as if he had reached some conclusion, though he said nothing. He turned back to the door and set his hand against the mechanism that would open the door, but he did not press it. He turned back to Aedelin. "You have followed me this far, Aedelin. Will you grant me the favor a little longer?"
"I don't…" Aedelin blinked at the request. "What's wrong? We've reached the end."
"Please." Cassian's voice was imploring, though the intensity did not fade. "Trust me."
"I have always trusted you."
Some of the tension seemed to ease from Cassian's shoulders. "Then do as I ask now. Cover your face and stay behind me. Do not move beyond this door until I say."
There was an edge of warning to his voice that Aedelin had never heard before. Not even when he had almost entered a chamber that had been 'claimed' by another of the maze's captives. A wild-eyed man in clothes that had been worn to near non-existence who had screeched and started to attack when they had gotten to near the opening.
The severity of it made Aedelin's breath catch in his throat, but he accepted the order without thought. Without question. He had said he trusted Cassian, and he did. He would. He lifted the hood of his tunic, bringing it up to cover his face. "Lead us out, Cass."
And this time, Cassian did press the mechanism. The door was surprisingly quiet as it slid along the stone floor, opening out into a wide room, lit by a multitude of candles and lamps. Aedelin's senses were immediately assaulted by the smell of beeswax and sulfur. They clung to the warm air of the revealed room as the dark had clung to the maze behind him. It was refreshing, to be reminded of these small indulgences, though he ducked his head behind Cassian's back to avoid the shock of light. It was not as harsh as the sunlight of a fortnight ago, but it was still a torture to eyes too used to dark.
He could hear the murmur of voices—the guards Cassian had mentioned. Perhaps two, maybe three. They appeared not to have noticed the opening of the maze exit. No doubt too accustomed to its remaining closed to remember that it ever did open.
Aedelin dug his hands tightly into Cassian's tunic, just below the near-empty pack, fighting the urge to move, to look. Now the door was opened, the desire to leave the maze once and for all was great. No matter the problems that would plague him once he was out. Freedom awaited him in the candle-lit room, smelling of beeswax and filled with the sounds of voices that were not his own or Cassian's.
But Cassian had warned him to stay hidden, and though he did not understand the reason for the warning, he had promised. He clenched his fists tighter around the course cloth, feeling the muscles of Cassian's back ripple beneath his knuckles as he moved forward, taking one step out into the bright room.
Cassian cleared his throat loudly. The murmurs stopped, immediately followed by a loud exclamation. "Captain! Sir." There was a loud shuffling, and Aedelin had the vague impression of the occupants of the room standing to attention.
"On whose orders do you stand guard here?" Aedelin frowned. Cassian's tone had changed again. It was stern, as a commander giving orders to his men. Cassian was a knight once more.
One voice answered, "His majesty, Lord Brennus."
But the other answered differently. Strangely. "My service is to my king. It is his command I await." Aedelin frowned, but Cassian seemed not to notice, merely nodding and moving one step further into the room. He could do not but follow quietly behind, hands still buried in Cassian's tunic.
The second voice spoke again, authority coloring his words, "Run to the barracks. Inform Captain Rayner that his honorable knight is back." There was a definite sneer in his voice as he spoke that last part. But as before, it went unnoticed by the others in the room. The only response to the words was the sound of footsteps stepping out of the room and fading as they moved farther away from the room.
"We are safe." Cassian spoke over his shoulder before he stepped fully into the room. Aedelin released his hold, stepping around and away from Cassian and pulling his hood back down. He heard the other man in the room gasp, but he did not look over that way. He kept his gaze only on Cassian, the only presence in the room he truly trusted, asking silently what was going on.
But Cassian was not looking at him. His attention was focused intently on the remaining guard, who had started speaking once again. And this time, Aedelin could not help snapping his head around to regard the man. All trace of derision was gone from his voice this time. "A month after you were imprisoned, the Captain started putting knights on the watch. It is not a knight's regular post, but we had no way to inform the soldier who do regularly take it. Lord Brennus might have become suspicious."
The guard—no, the knight for Aedelin noticed now the band on his right arm that bore the image of a falcon in the dive, the crest of the Royal Guard—stepped forward then, handing a folded bundle of cloth to Cassian. It was dark red, with just the hint of a design, drawn in a light, camel brown, rolling over a folded edge. The image would be a lattice work, four interwoven squares, intersected by two lines that wove through to form an X. The king's symbol.
Cassian accepted the tunic without word, unfolding it to reveal a sword hidden within its fold. Both he set carefully upon his pack, which he had already set down some minutes previously, and quickly stripped off the blue one he had worn through all their journey.
The red tunic settled almost perfectly over his shoulders, doing a better job to emphasize Cassian's powerfully built frame now that he wore one that fit and molded to it. It was illogical, that it could fit so well. None could have known how much he would change, how much thinner he might be as a result of the simple diet they had maintained inside the maze. And yet somehow, they had known. Or maybe it was only a lucky guess.
Cassian attached the sword to his right side. The knife that had previously been there he attached to his left side. He then knelt down to his pack, opening one of the smaller pockets in the front, producing a dagger and a black strip of cloth. The dagger he slipped underneath the sleeve of his longer undershirt until no trace of it existed. The cloth showed itself to be an armband bearing the falcon crest, and this he slid easily up his right arm, until it rested just on the edge of the tunic sleeve.
Aedelin could do no more than stare. Cassian was arming himself as though preparing for a fight. His mind buzzed with questions as the other knight's words filtered through it. The King, Lord Remier's former guard had been placed at the exit. The king's guard. The Royal Guard. There was no cause for the king's guard to watch the exit.
He closed his eyes as realization struck him, almost unsettling him. No cause for the king's guard. Unless they had already known. Unless… they had only been waiting.
Aedelin's breath caught on a surprised gasp, and he opened his eyes, immediately finding and meeting Cassian's steel grey ones. They glinted ferally in the candlelight. Aedelin felt his breath catch again, and it seemed a great effort to speak Cassian's name. "Cass…"
As he watched, wide-eyed and disbelieving, both men dropped to kneel before him, Cassian close enough to touch his hand, press it to warm lips. He bowed his head to answer the question Aedelin had no voice for. "I am Cassian Brenmarr, Captain of the Royal Guard." He glanced up then, locking their gazes once again. "It is an honor to serve my king."
-- / --
It was not possible to know the minds of every man. Nor was it possible to watch them all. It was a point that was drilled into every knight from the moment they began training for the Royal Guard. The only men to watch were the king and those immediately around him.
But that left no excuse for not watching those whose minds were well-know, no matter their vicinity. It had always been known that Lord Brennus coveted the crown. But the heir had been safely ensconced where none but a select few had known, as had been the tradition for almost as long as Broken Hollow.
With but a few exceptions through the centuries, the heir was always sent away after he had reached a certain age. The practice had been started as a means of discouraging those who would steal the crown. A means of preserving the line and ensuring it could not be wiped out all in one fell swoop.
There was a small division of knights, numbering no more than ten at most—fifteen once long ago, when one prince proved particularly stubborn about hiding—who ever knew where the heir resided at any time. The identities of the heir's guard was known only by a handful of people within the castle. Their soul purpose was to ensure that the heir's whereabouts were never know, and if rumors began to travel to closely to his location, they carried him off to a new one.
With such security, Brennus' desire for the throne had seemed insignificant. But they had not realized how much of a hold he truly had over parts of the castle. Not until it was almost too late.
Almost four months past now, the king, Lord Remier, had fallen ill, and there had been little hope that he would pull through. Three days before he passed away, Brennus sent the heir's guard to retrieve Aedelin from wherever he was hidden. Almost a fortnight passed, and then Brennus held conference with the king's advisors and the officers of the Royal Guard and the Sentry.
The heir, he claimed, had been halted in his journey by unknown vagrants. His guard was dispatched and the prince taken. He could not say where the attack had taken place, nor even how he had come by this information when neither Cassian nor any of his lieutenants had received such news.
There was too much wrong with the story. The Guard was not swayed one bit by it. Cassian immediately had his knights disperse to search out any information they could find. The heir's guard was significantly smaller, but they're training was more intensive. There was no way they should have been overpowered by vagrants.
Barely a full night had passed when Cassian was called outside the castle to a tavern in a village only an hour's ride away. Two of his knights had recovered one of the heir's guard, too drunk on guilt and ale to realize he was not better served by staying so near the castle. He had confessed two things: that the only vagrants were the traitorous guards themselves, and that the prince was already on his way to Broken Hollow, escorted by the guards not yet too shamed to continue.
His execution had been swift, though Cassian reflected now that he had not deserved even that kindness. While he was in the maze, Rayner had sent scouts out to track down the rest of the heir's guard. They were all as dead now as Brennus had wanted everyone to believe they were.
It had been a tricky task, trying to find Aedelin. The keepers of Broken Hollow were usually reluctant to reveal anything of their doings. The Guard now had to contend with the possibility that any of them could have been bought by Brennus, and they were reluctant to reveal their purposes until they could ascertain that the prince—by then the king—was alive and at the maze.
A few clever questions, however, was enough to confirm that Aedelin had already passed beyond the gates of the trail that lead to the mountain. That left them with very few options. They could not simply storm the castle and demand Brennus return the crown, they had no king to prove his crimes. The order for release from Broken Hollow could only come from the king. They could not demand that Brennus release Aedelin without revealing themselves.
And they had no way of knowing who amongst the regular soldiers and sentry could be trusted. So far as they knew, they were outnumbered. The only option left then—one that would ensure Aedelin's safety to the best of their abilities and buy them time to ascertain their allies within the castle—was to enter into the maze with the king.
They found their own guard to buy at the mountain, Rayner had prepared his pack with whatever he might need for an estimated three months, and Cassian had gone to the great hall to make a scene. He had been accurate in his accusations against Brennus without revealing any of what he knew. Brennus had seen only a political threat, and for that Cassian had to be made to disappear.
He had gone to Broken Hollow, with only a guard's word that he would get the partner he had paid for. Trusting that he would be able to get them out.
"I'm going to tear it down."
Cassian glanced up, unsurprised by the words, though perhaps by the setting in which they had been spoken. They were out in the yard, Cassian watching the other knights go through the regular exercises and offering his opinion where it likely was not welcome. Not that he was overly concerned. If he was going to be irritable, they could be as well. He had not been allowed to do much more than belt his sword and stroll around the yards watching others make use of said weapon for the past two days.
And that only because he had yelled and raised such a fuss the attendants in the barracks infirmary had had little choice but to let him go. Out of a misunderstood fear for their lives.
Near to three weeks he had been out of the damned maze, and still they insisted on coddling him and confining him to his bed as though he were a weakling. It was true he had lost a significant amount of his bulk and was wanting for more vigorous exercise. But, as he saw it, the only way to amend such a problem properly was by simply performing those exercises that had given him his bulk in the first place.
Oddly, none of the physicians had seen it his way, insisting quite forcefully on endless hours of bed rest and a continuous procession of food. Heavens above, he almost wanted to go back to the maze and his diet of jerky and water. Plain it may have been, but at least he had known what it was he was eating. If he could identify one item on the platters that had been carried to him over the past fortnight, he considered the meal a half-decent one.
He had agreed to the treatment at first. It had been obvious even to him just how much his time in Broken Hollow had weakened him after the brief confrontation with Lord Brennus. Though he had attributed a lot of that merely to exhaustion, supposing he would be made to sleep for a few days, then get up and go about his regular schedule as though he had never left it.
More the fool him, he realized.
This morning he had caused a rift when he left his bed in the early hours to break his fast with the rest of his men at their table. But no one had tried to stop him when he got up to follow them outside to the yard. No one had said anything until he tried to insert himself into one of the matches. Then everyone had had an opinion, and no matter how loudly he growled and swore, they did not give in.
There had been a time mere months ago when he had scared them all.
Cassian scowled and turned back to watch the match currently being played out. No doubt Aedelin—Lord Aedelin—had sought him out because he had heard he was about. Causing trouble. He offered a stiff nod to indicate that he had heard the new king's words.
"I'm going to send the soldiers through to clear it out. Then I'm going to tear it down. No crime is worth that Hell."
His voice was quiet and mellow, almost withdrawn as he spoke the last part. Cassian resisted the urge to turn to him, draw him into his arms as he had all those nights as they slept. He was a knight, assigned the task of protecting his king; not a lover gifted with the task of comforting. He had crossed that line once already. He would not do it again.
There was the rustle of cloth behind him, then a soft hand fell to his shoulder. "Cass."
"My Lord." Cassian clenched his fists tightly at his side and grit his teeth. He would not look around. He had no right to any such familiarity with his king. No longer.
"Captain Brenmarr." There was hurt in the voice, underneath the terse command.
Cassian did turn around then, his training forbidding him to deny a direct order. He was surprised—though he recognized he should not have been—to find Aedelin so close. Close enough in fact, his wayward mind informed him, that it would be but a simple move to lean across the small space that existed to kiss him. As once they had done in the fading sun.
He clenched his fists tighter and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, it was still only to see Aedelin standing far too near. And though he tried to make them stop, he met with only failure as his eyes began a trail over the parts of Aedelin visible to him at this distance, noting—against his better judgment—that the exhaustion and worry that had plagued Aedelin's manner and expression in the maze were gone. So, too the gaunt, pale skin resultant of his time in the dark. He was no longer so thin, the roundness in his cheeks announcing that the young king had likely been subjected to similar tortures of bed rest and gallons of soup.
Aedelin was wearing a tunic of royal blue with long, flaring sleeves and intricate stitching in silver thread on the cuffs and at the hem. The lattice work on the chest was also in silver, and Cassian kicked himself for noting that it matched the highlights of Aedelin's hair. And thinking of the silken strands only brought his eyes to them.
His hair was bound as it always was, the simple braid falling well to the center of his back, with scattered, smaller strands escaping to fly around his face. The only difference was the silver circlet passing across his forehead and disappearing into the plaits of his braid. Like the rest of Aedelin, the circlet, too, was simple in design, mostly a solid band, with a slight curve that brought it almost to his hairline at the center of his forehead before it straightened back out.
He bore no jewels on it, as his father and uncle had done—almost to the point of obscene.
"Captain Brenmarr." The hurt was still there, in both his eyes and his voice. They both felt the wrongness in the address, no matter that Cassian assured himself it was the correct way. "I am sorry to disturb you during your exercises." He paused briefly, ducking his head as if in thought. The fire was returned to his eyes when he looked back up, "I wanted only to thank you. For seeing me through the maze."
It stung, that Aedelin would be so formal with him, and again he had to remind himself that such was how it should have been. "I acted only in accordance with my duties, my Lord." He saw Aedelin's eyes flash, and he wondered at what could have inspired such a reaction. "I will always protect my king."
"Duty." Aedelin spoke softly, barely above a whisper, and this time it was he who closed his eyes. "It cannot all have been. I've never known such… liberties to be part of your duties."
His eyes were intent, daring Cassian to deny their shared kiss by the waterfall. "That was a mistake, my Lord. I forgot myself in the moment; it should not have happened."
"A mistake." Aedelin raised his chin, the anger flashing his eyes only just masking the hurt behind them. "You can stand before me now and say that it meant nothing. Tell me it meant nothing, Cassian."
He had raised his voice, his anger and hurt rising to alert those around them that their conversation was perhaps not so simple. Or innocent. The low murmurs and sounds of activity slowly died away, all eyes on them. "It is not permitted," he said softly, stiffly, too aware of the audience listening so intently.
"According to whom?" Desperation and frustration clouded Aedelin's voice now. "Who would care? Who here would think any less of you for it?"
"It is by my command." He had seen men greater than himself forget themselves and their duties for but a fleeting infatuation. How much worse would it be for a feeling he knew was much deeper? He would not fail to protect his king a second time. "I cannot allow it."
"I can." Cassian said nothing, only straightened his shoulders and squared his stance. There was naught that he could say to contend that. But he would not allow even that truth to sway him. "Damn you, Cassian. I am your king. Does that mean nothing?"
"It is not proper."
And the fight finally seemed to go out of Aedelin, his shoulders dropping, the tension easing from him as he took a small step back. He dropped his head, hiding his face—his eyes—from Cassian's view. Cassian took this as a dismissal and started to turn away. He would go back to the barracks, to the attendants still waiting to coddle him some more. Somehow, he would find a way to forget what could not be forgotten.
"Cass…" A hand at his wrist, another at his neck, pulling him forward. A warm press of lips to his, and then Cassian really did forget. The yard, the men, the argument they had had only seconds before. All his restraint and caution now seemed so silly.
He lifted his arms, intending to push Aedelin away, but they seemed to have plans of their own. Disobeying his orders just as everyone else around him was wont to do. One arm curled around Aedelin's waist, the hand resting at the curve of his hip as Cassian pulled Aedelin flush against him. His other hand came up to cup Aedelin's cheek, tilting his head slightly, asking as silently as he had once before to take the kiss deeper. A request that Aedelin answered just a readily, parting his lips as a man desperate for drink.
There was a deafening roar in his ears, blocking out all the sounds of the world around him. It was only after the kiss had ended, when he and Aedelin had parted, breaths gasping as though they had run the maze in its entirety, that he recognized it for what his was. The loud raucous cheers of the knights still gathered around them.
"You will not leave my side again, Cassian. I command it." Aedelin's voice was barely above a whisper, his eyes burning with passion.
Cassian knew the battle was well and truly lost. "As you wish it, my king." And he leaned down to seal the promise with another kiss.