Seven wary travelers appeared in the hours before sunset. They approached the cityy as two guards dressed in mismatched armor and rags were closing the main wooden gates. One of the guards was young, inappropriately young, and his oversized helmet slipped every so often over his eyes only to be brushed back absently. The other was a middle aged man and obviously the senior of the two. The travelers had been in their sight since noon. After all, it was hardly possible to ambush a city surrounded by unobtrusive grassy hills. The geography was also great for tiring out advancing enemy troop before they reached the city walls, that is, human enemies of course. The darker do not tire. The guards had seen the travelers approach from a distance, and had had plenty of time to discuss their course of action.

Through the years, it was not uncommon to receive small groups of the Exiled from the forest, and the tired citizens of Amayfield usually welcomed their cousins with open arms. Those that returned often spoke fondly of their time in the forest establishment. However, the harsh conditions and frequent boarder skirmishes were taxing and when they heard that the Alankeirans that had remained lived relatively normal lives, the decision to return to their homes had been a logical one. After all, the king himself had disappeared after the last battle and there was no guarantee that their efforts would ever be recognized.

"Friend," spoke the big one. "Any keep you can offer us will be repaid by what we can afford in supplies."

The younger guard's jaws dropped. His eyes filled with the size of the man before him. It was the older guard who greeted the group.

"How much will you be offering?" said the old guard with a glint in his eye.

A slim girl pushed through the others in the group and put a hand on the big man as if to push him back from the negotiations.

"We're honest folk here," she growled. "If you can't provide us with any stay, then take us to someone who can and we'll talk with them. We're tired from a day's travel and in no mood for tricks."

The guard eyed their tattered clothes. The garments had been washed and dried recently, but the dark stains at the hems were enough for his seasoned eyes. Both women in the group would be more than welcome inside – there was always a shortage of women, though he was certain that the red head would be trouble for any man near her. The large man could be trouble, so could the sturdy one at the rear, but the dark haired boy might make a good apprentice. There was a scribe of sorts at the back – they were usually useless. His gaze lingered for a moment longer on the pale boy in the wagon. The boy's smile unnerved him.

"We'll take the women and the boy at the back," said the guard.

"What?" the fierce one demanded. "Guard! These travelers will have entry whether it be with your permission, or with your head." She drew a shiny dagger from her waist suggestively.

The guard licked his lips and retreated. "I'll sound the alarm," he threatened. "If I do, you'll all be dead."

"Excuse me, sir," a little voice dispelled the tension. The young guard tugged at the trousers of the big man. "Excuse me, sir, but I'll take you through if Gerald doesn't."

"Quiet, boy, or I'll skin you," the older guard hissed,

"My mother told me to bring home a man with a good arm," said the little guard, unafraid. He pointed at the giant before him. "I see a good arm."

"You're ruining everything," the old guard clutched his head. "I told the chief you were no good but he wouldn't listen."

But the little guard was not listening. He pushed his helmet back from his eyes.

"You can come through under my authority." Those words sounded strange from a child. "This way!"

The travelers left the old guard fuming at the gates and followed the little guard into the city.

---

The streets of the city were lined by shops with sloping roofs and higher buildings rising up behind them. Patchy stalls crowded the city entrance, selling sweets and vegetables and funny looking charms to ward off evil. The city folk stopped to stare at the travelers as they passed. Some were curious, others glared or scowled.

The king walked beside the wagon so that he could keep close to his magician. He was worried by how fragile Tiam seemed to be, even after Amayble had mostly fixed him. Despite his mild protests, Tiam was eventually persuaded to rest in the wagon rather than risk further injury. For a moment, their eyes met and Reilly quickly looked away.

Mika could still walk, but he wouldn't be hauling anything heavy for a while - the slay's blades had cut deep in to his shoulder. The man wore a crooked smile as a way of hiding the pain, but Reilly was certain that Mika was hurting. Canon was shocked into silence, but unhurt. Red was unhurt but as moody as ever. She kept snapping at anyone who gave her a chance, slinging rude slurs around like a drunk sailor. Wolfram had taken charge of the wagon and simply shook his head sadly at his sister's abuse of language. There were no dramatic dizzy spells or proclamations of love from Amayble for her king today. She had seemed deep in thought when they left their camp that morning and had started to stumble every other step. She hugged a frayed cloak tightly as she walked and kept looking around with wide eyes. Of course, Reilly remembered, this city belonged to his father.

"Not more men," one of the shopkeepers grumble. "We don't need more men."

Reilly glanced at the speaker and got a sneer. He turned to Tiam who shrugged and smiled.

"Would you like me to turn you into a woman?" Tiam asked innocently.

"Can you do that?" Reilly asked.

The magician grinned. "It wouldn't be hard. You're halfway there anyway."

"Thanks," Reilly mumbled. Tiam's words brought back embarrassing memories from the previous night where he had cried and screamed for help. Like a girl, he sighed, but in my defense, I'm pretty sure any normal person would have done the same. Seeing strange bulges try to work their way out of a human body was not something anyone needed to ever see.

The main street spiraled inwards from the gate and ended in a courtyard framed with stone pillars. The fountain in the centre was turned off and filled with street scraps. Reilly took in the scene around him with dull eyes. Despite his enthusiasm for uniting his people under his kingliness, the attack last night and the travel had worn him down to a mere shell only capable of walking and some shallow conversations. Perhaps after some rest he would regain some sense of self.

"This way," the little guard took them down a side road lined with bricks and dusty windows. They reached a green door at the end on which the little guard knocked.

"How many apples in the apple tree?" asked a deep voice from behind the door.

"Forty-nine and a thirty-one," the guard said.

Reilly looked to Tiam again for an explanation. Forty-nine and thirty-one apples? What ever could this mean?

"It's a code," Tiam explained.

"Thank you, Captain Obvious," Reilly replied sarcastically. "What does it mean?"

"It possibly refers to the number and type of people," Canon stepped up to answer. His voice was small and trembling as if he hadn't quite recovered from the night before. "If you separate the number thirty-one and subtract three from one, then you get two. Incidentally, there are two females with us."

Reilly quickly did the math for forty-nine, which came to negative five. Females must have been categorized by a positive number whilst males were negative. It coincided with the attitude of the city folk.

The door swung open to reveal a boy in his early teens. He studied each of the travelers with caution before saying, "forty-nine is not a good number."

"But mother wants - ," the young guard began to protest.

"Fine. The big man can stay here with the women, but we can't accommodate the others," said the older boy.

"Look, we're only here for a little while," Reilly protested. "And we're paying you for the time we're staying, so can you just let us in?"

"No."

Reilly felt the first wisps of anger warm his chest and make his heart beat faster. He wanted to shout things like 'respect my authority' and 'how dare you defy me', but not only were such phrases shameful clichés and likely to have little effect, Wolfram had also convinced him against revealing his identity if possible. It seemed strange to go back to being a random person after being treated as a king for some time.

"We cannot be separated," said Wolfram.

"Then all of you will sleep on the streets and be at the mercy of the Patrol," said the older boy. He crossed his arms and blocked the doorway.

"We shall take our rations elsewhere," Wolfram replied with a stern look. "Perhaps others will better appreciate the fruit juices and meat-"

"There will be no one willing to take you all in," the older boy licked his lips and glanced aside.

Liar, Reilly thought. You want that tasty scackna meat, don't you? The king had eaten a good part of the monster that had greeted him on his first day. It tasted good. It tasted like crab seasoned with sweet revenge. The rest had been preserved and they carried some of the meat with them for barter.

"Mother said-" the little guard protested again. His eyes drifted over to the parcels on the wagon.

"I know what mother said!" the older boy rubbed his nose. "Fine. For now, step inside, but if you're lying about your rations, then you'll be sleeping on the streets."

They piled through the door and into the dimly lit building.

It was a reception room of sorts that led into a larger space. There was a small counter by the corner and the wooden floor was polished in places. One wall was lined with embellished, round windows with rusty frames. Another wall was taken up by a lush painting of the city streets filled with the warm glow of sunlight. The painting showed window sills of overflowing flowers and pot plants by the doors. Protruding from the space behind the counter was a neat row of hooks from which strange nuts, shells and general litter hung with keys and chains. The ceiling was a bit low, which must have been a bother for Wolfram, and every now and then, running footsteps from above would send dust down through the cracks in the floorboard above. The air smelled of sweaty children.

After unloading the necessary luggage, the young guard that had led them through the gates went with Wolfram to find a safe place to keep the wagon and the tents for the night. The older boy introduced himself reluctantly as Jared.

"We run this place in an orderly way," he said. Laughter and shouting could be heard from above. "One large room will be leased to you and it must be kept clean at all times. We provide one bowl of stew per day as part of our service and you will be responsible for the rest of your meals. You must return here before dark each day and no one will be permitted in or out once the door has been locked."

Jared paced like an instructor before new recruits. He paused and gave Reilly a look suspicious enough to be criminal.

"And there better be no strangeness about you lot," he said with his arms crossed. The way Jared glared at Reilly more than implied that he thought he was perverse.

A flurry of thoughts rushed through Reilly's mind. He pointed an accusing finger at Tiam.

"I'm not-" Reilly began, face flushed.

"Deny it, but you've got a queerness to you," Jared said, holding up his hand. "Wagging that fat tongue of yours will not change my mind."

Reilly didn't know whether to be impressed or offended by Jared's misguided bluntness. He looked helplessly to Tiam who tried to look serious, failed, and let loose a grin that implied wicked thoughts. Canon on the other hand, was red with silent rage. The king half expected the man to explode in to that 'how dare you…' lecture he often used to bring guilt into the hearts of would-be rebels. He could always count on Canon to be angry for him. So instead, he chose to be impressed.

"You see right through me," Reilly tried to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. He wanted to try a different tactic, one that might get them somewhere. "You must be a very good leader and we are sure to feel safe under your protection."

Jared puffed out his chest and his eyes glazed over with arrogance. During his stay with the Exiled, Reilly had learned that a small compliment could go a long way. The compliments he had dished out for the Exiled had them skipping every second step. Well, most of the Exiled anyway. Red leant over to speak in his ear.

"I would have slapped you for such obvious manipulation," she breathed.

"Aren't I glad that you're on my side already then?" Reilly whispered with a smile. "You are truly an asset to my – OW!"

A numbing pain shot up Reilly's arm from where Red had touched it. It was like touching a car door in winter and being zapped by the static electricity. Jared was looking at them suspiciously again and Reilly tried his best to keep a neutral expression.

"Now we shall discuss payment," said the boy.

"Now wait one minute!" Canon finally spoke up. He stepped forward and glared down at the boy. "We will negotiate with your leader only. You are merely a child. It is absurd that we should submit to a boy who isn't even old enough to shave!"

I'm not old enough to shave, Reilly commented silently. But you're a king, that's different, another part of him retorted. So a king is free from discrimination against age?

Well, not really, but no one's going to say you're too young to your face. They'll do it snidely.

The argument in his own head drowned the argument between Canon and Jared. In the end, it all worked out because they were allowed to rest in their room until 'Mother' returned in the evening. After a while, Wolfram joined them with the little guard clinging to his arm.

"Oh, get rid of him, brother," Red snapped, glaring at the little boy. "We can not afford to get attached to these people."

The little guard looked up at Wolfram with puppy dog eyes and Wolfram looked away. Slowly, sadly, the guard peeled himself off the big man and shuffled dejectedly to the door. He closed it behind him, leaving an uncomfortable silence.

"Do you have to be such a bitch?" Reilly blurted and then regretted it. He didn't mean to pick on Red. It seemed that everyone was unreasonably snappy.

Red did her best to look offended, but blinked too much. He pretended not to see the tears brimming in her eyes because he wouldn't have known what to do anyway.

"Let's all calm down, friends," Mika said. "No words between us until we've all rested and are in better spirits."

"There are only two beds," Amayble pointed out. "And sleeping in the same room as unbetrothed men is unthinkable."

Two beds was an overstatement. The corner room was barely large enough for them to fit all comfortably. Two straw mattresses - clean but old, were pushed against the wall. The room was void of any other furniture.

"We can put up a canvas to divide the room," Mika suggested. "And then Wolfram, Mister Canon and I will lay on the floor."

"Why?" Red demanded. "Why not you, Canon and Tiam, or Tiam and-"

She stopped herself and simply glared at Reilly.

"Of course. Not Rion," Red said flatly. Her look said all there needed to be said. Reilly was getting special treatment.

"I'm ready to sleep anywhere," Reilly said neutrally, though the look he returned was not.

"Firstly, Master Tiam is wounded badly and so has priority," Wolfram levelled his gaze at his sister. There was sternness in the big man's voice that Reilly had not heard before. "Secondly, in case anyone has forgotten, Rion is our Sovereignty and should be paid proper respect. Thirdly, dear sister, unless you are offering a constructive alternative that takes the group's comfort into account before your petty grudges, then it is best that you keep your mouth shut."

The room was silent. Not even the sound of running footsteps and laughing outside could penetrate the tension. Everyone looked from Wolfram, to Red, then to Wolfram. The harsh criticism from her brother might have shattered a lesser woman, but despite the slight quiver in her lips, Red showed no signs of offence.

"My behaviour is inexcusable," she managed to say.

"Yes, it is," Wolfram replied. There was no forgiveness.

Red searched his brother's face but didn't find what she was looking for. She sniffed, turned on her heals and marched out of the room. The door slammed loudly behind her.

"Ahhhhh," Reilly flopped to the floor. The thud made everyone jump but he didn't care. The tension had eased and the relief made him feel weak. Never in his life had he been so utterly exhausted.

"This is my spot," he said, curling up in a corner. "Seriously, someone go see if Red is ok and everyone else get to sleep." Though as he was saying those words, he felt himself drifting to sleep so the last part probably sounded more like 'wabble wabble wabble'.


B.B.: This is going to be the last chapter posted on this version of the story. I made the mistake of not setting up the story properly at the beginning, it is getting progressively harder to write. Having said this, I will not be abandoning this story - I shall endeavour to re-write it during the holidays. It will be bigger, clumsier, more perverted and funny. Thankyou to all the support I've received and see you around!

Special thanks to WyrdWolf - amazing little dude.

Reilly: Ok, if this re-write thing is going to happen, I demand superpowers. Anti perversion shields or something.

Tiam: And I want a bigger... part.

Red: And anything that these two are a part of, I'll have no part in! All men are swine... oh, except for you brother!

Lofae: sigh. Twiddles thumbs. Not that I'm complaining or anything, but...