Chapter Five: The Beginning
Cakoto trudged through the early morning, grimacing in mild disgust at the amount of cleaning that would need to be done after last night's celebrations. He was not unduly worried that his daughter and the prince hadn't returned the night before; as he understood it, Lillia's school friends had had a party and he assumed they'd attended. He hadn't seen Chisk either, and that was a good sign as it likely meant she was keeping an eye on them.
So, Cakoto wasn't worried. He was slightly unnerved when he reached the council's chambers and found Chisk standing outside the door, fist poised to knock, only to lower it and sag her shoulders before repeating the process. But, he wasn't worried.
"Morning Chisk, Happy New Year."
She jumped and whirled to face him, her tail spinning about her like a skirt, and almost knocking him over. She flushed a moment and apologised, before nodding and turning back to the door. "Good morning General."
He raised an eyebrow and joined her at the door. "Something the matter? For you to visit the council this early is unusual."
"Oh... I have a number of concerns about... about the prince's presence here..." she trailed off. Now that she thought about it, this was all a waste of time, really; were the council not already tired of telling her again and again that all was well? She was not the amalr for this job, and yet even if she were, would it be possible to convince the council to evacuate without solid proof?
"Have you seen Lillia today?" Cakoto asked her, and she stiffened, averting her gaze.
'Poor Cakoto... He may never see her alive again. I must get everyone out of here, so I can reunite with Lillia, and so Lillia can see her father. I must. I gave my word.' She was spared the difficulty of answering him when the council opened its doors to Cakoto, ready to hear his report. When they saw her, she heard a collective moan; since Vlad's arrival in their society, they dreaded the sight of her.
"All right Miss Chisk, let's get this over with. What do you have to say today?" Council Member Diane enquired.
"That is..." she stuttered, "That is a long issue, actually... I should probably come back later..." 'Get a grip! You're wasting precious time!' "Ah, but, it's also kind of important so..."
"Then speak. I never thought I'd see the day when you would have trouble voicing your opinions Chisk," Council Member Roawan joked, the crow-man who claimed leadership.
She bowed her head a moment, shifting uncomfortably and pulling herself together. Herself, and her argument. "Yeah, sorry. I'll just speak my mind then. You see, I've been growing... a little anxious, about Vlad...imir's presence. It isn't as if I don't like him any longer, to be honest, he's kind of grown on me; that's what bothers me so much."
The beetle-man leaned forward, large eyes making her more nervous. "Go on," he clicked.
"I am... concerned that he is a distraction, perhaps. The king let him go so easily, and he has been here so long... still, all our attention has been focused on him. The king's actions seem to matter less and less to us. I mean to say, what if Vlad's purpose here wasn't to spy, or to threaten or hurt us, but in fact to keep our attention away from other activities? A decoy, maybe? I just... I'm afraid that the king, who we all know wishes to eradicate us, intends to attack us. He successfully planted Vlad among us, even managing to make us think it was our own idea to do so, and now I think he's preparing to attack."
"This... sounds reasonable, at first," Diane murmured, "However, it's ridiculous. The king wouldn't attack with his son among us, and we've made certain that the boy is trapped here. Also, even if he were to attack us, what do you want us to do about it? Ready ourselves for battle?" They all laughed, and Chisk wasn't heartened when she saw Cakoto joining them.
'Is this what Vlad has to put up with all the time? Man, it sucks!'
"Yes," she said smoothly, and their laughter ceased. They eyed her now as if she were mentally unsound. "In a way, at least. I do not mean for us to fight them; that would only result in our demolition. I want us to evacuate."
She'd almost expected them to laugh again, but they shook their heads and sighed. They were taking her seriously now. "Miss Chisk; we cannot stage something of that nature so easily. Certainly not on the basis of mere suspicion either. Nor can we send anyone near the palace to investigate – with Prince Vladimir in our hands, it would be suicide. An evacuation does not only involve everyone packing up and moving out."
"To begin with, we would need a new, well hidden location to go to, and our tracks to be well concealed. Difficult by all accounts in this climate. No one will want to leave their homes willingly, and they would be forced to take only what they could. There are children and the elderly, and they aren't suited for travel in their conditions. And in the end, the King's Army would only track us down and slaughter us anyway, providing he intends to attack at all. How long would we wait to be safe?"
Cakoto nodded. "It cannot be done."
She prepared to go on, to protest and make them see sense; Vlad knew the inner workings of King Carlos's mind, and he knew what was going on. But she couldn't use him as back-up; they'd be resolute if she did that. However, she didn't get the opportunity; Denina, a rabbit-amalr bounded (quite literally) into the hall and gasping for breath cried out, "The Prince and Lillia are missing!"
There was instant uproar, and Chisk shifted to the side as Denina pushed forward. It was bound to be discovered eventually. "They-they," Denina puffed, "haven't been seen since... yesterday afternoon."
"Everyone remain calm!" Roawan boomed. "Now, this doesn't mean they've definitely vanished. Chisk, Cakoto, have either of you seen them?"
"I haven't seen them since the fireworks last night," Chisk stated truthfully.
"What?" Cakoto squeaked, "I thought... I haven't seen her since she went off with you then."
"Nobody panic," Roawan continued. "We'll search the village first. Then, we'll send out search parties."
Chisk nodded and left the hall. For the time being she needed to drop the issue of evacuation, as this is what she would do, were she not clued in on the situation. But, tomorrow she'd be back again. She'd use this for their benefit. She could tell the council that Vlad had obviously taken Lillia, and returned to the castle. She could say that this was further evidence that Carlos would attack them. She could do it after all – at least, she prayed she could.
'Vladimir. You must keep your promise; your promise to me, to Lillia, and to the whole world. You will become King, and you will save us.'
"Stop," Lillia gasped, skidding to a halt in the snow and bracing herself against a tree. They had finally emerged from the depths of the amalr's forest. Yesterday Lillia had oh-so-carefully crept into her father's room and stolen the key for their cuffs, which they had abandoned back in the forest to enable them to run faster. But having used so much energy, it was about time they gave it a break.
Vlad estimated that it would be at least a day before search parties were sent this far, so he was quite sure that he and Lillia were safe. He squatted in the white a few metres from Lillia and looked away. She needed a moment to gather herself. She'd just fully grasped that she was leaving everything she knew behind, perhaps never to be seen again. "Hungry," she finally muttered, "Do we have any food?"
"Of course," he assured her, "But I recommend we save it a while longer," Vlad continued peering ahead of them and up at the sky, "I have a feeling we need to find shelter soon. There's going to be a blizzard."
Lillia glanced up at him, alarmed. "A blizzard? Then what are we sitting around here for, we need to find shelter... what?" she stopped herself as she saw Vlad's smirk.
"Relax," he told her, "I wouldn't have stopped in the first place if I thought we didn't have time. You don't need to rush yourself, ok Lillia? I realise this is harder for you than it is for me. Don't think I don't. So take a moment; I'll keep an eye on things."
Lillia blinked, cheered that Vlad was looking out for her, but nervous now that she knew it was possibly going to blizzard. Besides, now that she wasn't moving, she was aware how terribly cold it was. She felt lucky to be wearing the thick white coat and warm pants she was dressed in, because Vlad was wearing a rather thin looking jacket and a t-shirt underneath. She knew he'd asked for clothes he could wear anywhere, but he must be freezing. "I'm good now. We can move on, Vlad. I can gather my thoughts later if I need to, but it's true we can't waste time. Even in comparison to the blizzard, we've got to make it to the nearest tribe within the next three days, right?"
He nodded. Vlad had already estimated when it would be that his father would begin the attack. Three days was the minimum time they had if they wanted to convince the closest tribe – the 14th – and move away before Carlos destroyed the 17th Tribe and reached the 14th. Speed was essential, but Vlad was still considerate of her feelings. 'Other than being irritatingly clever and talkative, Vlad has to have some other flaw,' she thought, 'He can't always be this nice.' Scrambling to her feet, she shifted the weight of her bag to her other shoulder and began to trudge after him through the snow again. They needn't run anymore, and they couldn't afford to expend that kind of energy anyway.
It was hard going. Vlad grimaced as the partly melted snow soaked through his shoes and socks to his pale feet. The wind was getting stronger, and his cheeks were red; the snow had changed to flecks of ice and were whipping his face like little razor blades. It was painful, cold, and his nose was runny. "Ugh," he grunted every now and again, "Seen anything?" They were looking for somewhere appropriate to dig into and shelter for the night. A snow cave, and soon, or they wouldn't have time to make it.
"Nope," she replied, teeth chattering, "Can't be doing this much longer, right?"
Vlad dared to widen his eyes; he'd been squinting to keep ice out of them. "There," he grunted, pointing, "That will have to do." They pushed through the sludge toward the indicated heap of snow. It wasn't exactly ideal, but as Vlad had said, it would suffice. Lillia dug around in her bag for the pairs of gloves they'd had the good sense to pack, and passed a pair to Vlad. Thus they began digging, and prayed it would hold so they wouldn't freeze.
Some time passed, and Lillia became increasingly edgy. "Is it just me...? Vlad, I feel like someone's watching us."
"If that's the case, they're most likely from your tribe," he replied bluntly. "They may get caught in the blizzard.
"What? We have to go and help them, I can't let them freeze to death," she protested, starting to get to her feet, but Vlad jerked her back down again.
"Absolutely not. It was their choice to follow us, and so their own fault. Going after them, we'd just get ourselves killed and not help anyone. Just ignore it, alright?" She gaped at him, and probably would have gone off anyway, but a rather large lump of snow smacked her in the side of the face, and she recognised the truth in his words. This did not mean that she wasn't digging through the snow half-heartedly, dreading what might be happening to her kin.
The dark-haired girl tugged on the reins of her horse. It snorted in frustration at being stopped yet again, but she was being careful. The horse was the only one they'd trained to be ridden in the snow.
Before, when her brother had first gone missing, she'd gone searching for him alone. This time she knew precisely where he was, but couldn't retrieve him. She felt more annoyed than the horse.
The reason Sarita had stopped her search for Vlad right now was that she could see a small group of amalr meandering through the white wasteland before her. They were shivering, and looking panicky; she was glad she was alone, because they may have fled if she'd brought a guard with her. She waited patiently for them to notice her, and was surprised to see that the one who appeared to be leading the search party sent the others away as they approached. The girl had a long peacock's tail which trailed behind her, bright against the plain background. Sarita recalled her mother mentioning someone like this.
"Who are you?" she demanded, "State your business."
"Sarita Bela, third in line to the throne of Kailani. I'm looking for my brother."
The amalr shifted uncomfortably, and squinted suspiciously at her. "You're looking for Vladimir?" Sarita nodded. "We can't give him to you."
"Well, no, but if you would only allow me to speak with him – on behalf of my mother. There are things he doesn't understand. He was never told," she pleaded, eyeing the peculiar girl, and wondering if in telling Vlad what she had to say, she might change his mind on things.
"You don't follow me," the amalr replied, "I mean we really can't hand him back over. Even if we wanted to. But you mustn't tell your father this. I shouldn't really be saying; I suppose Vlad would want me to, and so then Lillia would side with him, but they're not here so I can't be sure."
"Not here," Sarita repeated, "What do you mean by that?"
"They've disappeared. Vlad and Lillia. They're planning something to save us, as I understand it, but I don't know any more than that, and it's much more than I meant to say at any rate. You should be leaving. We can't have humans around here, especially with Vlad gone – but you can't say a word to anyone about that. Vlad wants to do this, it's not that I asked him to or anything. If your father knew we didn't have Vlad anymore, he'd be free as a bird to attack us."
Sarita snorted, taking in the blues and purples of the amalr's features and studying the horizon as if she believed Vlad would just walk right up to her and prove this silly girl wrong. "Not that it would have stopped him anyway. He is going to attack you, regardless of the danger that puts Vlad in. I expect he thinks he can stroll in and take him back, but I daresay that won't be happening anymore. Thank you for letting me know. If this is really what Vlad wants, then I'll do you a favour; I will do my best to stall Carlos from coming here, but it won't last long. I recommend you get out of here, quickly, alright?" The amalr nodded, and Sarita turned her horse back towards the castle. "Then good luck. If you find my brother, and he has even a single scratch on him, I will hold you and your miserable little tribe responsible. There isn't a thing that my sisters and I wouldn't do for Vlad, and that includes avenging him, so be careful." With that, she took off, sending up a flurry of powdery snow in her wake.
As the search party began to return to her side, Chisk stared after the young woman. She had always believed that she would do anything for Lillia, but when she saw the expression on Sarita's face, she knew that her loyalty to Lillia was greatly diminished. There was something terribly deadly about the loyalty Sarita, and apparently her siblings, had for Vlad. Everyone was a threat in their eyes, especially now their little brother was in trouble. It was possible they'd even murder their parents for him, if he asked.
Chisk couldn't believe she was actually afraid of them.
He sniffed, glaring across the snow cave at the third occupant. He hadn't really expected this, and it was not really as bad as if it were anyone else, but nevertheless, it was a nuisance.
They, meaning Lillia and Vlad, had survived the blizzard in their icy cell. However, in the process of the night, they'd managed to collect a new arrival. And as Vlad watched, the figure slumped across the floor stirred. He shook his head, recalling how it had happened.
The previous night, Lillia and Vlad had crouched in their cave, wondering if they should light a fire or not, because it might melt their surroundings. In the end, they didn't light it, and Lillia fell asleep early, shivering against her bag. Vlad stayed awake, wanting to make sure she didn't die, and that was why he heard the pitiful cries for help out in the blizzard.
Well, call him a hypocrite, but he went out when he could no longer stand it, and without looking at who it was, dragged them in with Lillia and he. Twice, he'd nearly collapsed himself out there and all because one of Lillia's friends couldn't resist following them.
"Glad to see you're back with the living," Vlad remarked as the figure slowly sat up, rubbing his stiff and aching limbs, "Anaia."
Drowsy yellow eyes blinked in recognition of their owner's name. "Oh Vlad!" Anaia said brightly upon recognising him, "Geez, thanks a lot; I thought I was dead for sure."
Vlad's eyes narrowed angrily. Anaia looked a little taken aback; he had yet to see Vlad genuinely angry. "And you would have been too if I had been able to sleep; you kept me awake. It's the only reason I decided to go out there at all. Consider yourself lucky; I might have died too, you realise? What in blazes are you even doing here?" he demanded viciously.
Shifting uncomfortably at this new side of the human, Anaia glanced once at Lillia's slumbering form and chose to get a little worked up himself. "Well you can't exactly blame me, can you? You're the untrustworthy human prince, and from my view you might have been kidnapping Lillia. I was about to join Aliesi for the new year, and here I see two shady looking characters running away together. Now what was I supposed to think? For that matter, what was I expected to do?"
Vlad looked ashamed. "I... yes, but..."
"I have as much business in this matter as anyone, if it's what I think it is. You and Lillia were up to something alright, probably trying to save the world by yourselves. Idiots. I thought you were supposed to be the smart ones!" Shaking his head and raising his arms in some kind of half-hearted shrug, he continued, "I want to come with you guys. There's hardly any point in sending me back now, I'd probably get killed again."
Vlad's anger appeared again making Anaia feel like Vlad was a whole other person. "Absolutely not. If you die out there, that's your problem; I won't make it my responsibility. I've already had to take oaths stating I'll die for two people. I refuse to do anything even remotely similar for anyone else. Besides," he said, obviously struggling to remain friendly, "your sister is back in the tribe. You wouldn't leave her would you? She could die in the meantime."
Anaia made to stand, succeeding only in banging his head painfully on the icy roof, and sank back onto his knees. "Oh," he hissed, clutching his head in both hands, "so that's what this is about? Why do people have this stupid idea that twins can't bear to be apart? Is it just because we look the same?" He snarled just as if he really were more animal than human, "Well, it isn't a bit true! I'll bet you have some kind of plan in place to protect them; from what I've seen, you hate letting people get hurt, so I'm sure she'll be fine. She'll realise I've gone with you, and no doubt she'll respect that. So even if you turn me away now, I'll follow all the same. Ok, your highness?" he finished mockingly.
Leaning against the cave wall, Vlad sighed and rolled his shoulders. "Very well, you've convinced me. Now you just have to worry about Lillia."
They descended into a frustrated silence, and Anaia waited impatiently for Lillia to wake up and shatter it. He wasn't relaxed with Vlad in this weird mood; he'd only known the prince a short time, but he'd never known him to behave this way. It was a subtle change, because it wasn't just that Vlad was angry, there was something different in what he said. It was as if he didn't care about anyone but himself, and Anaia believed this wasn't the case. 'What's got him like this? Is it just his way of showing he's worried about me, or something?' For whatever reason, Anaia doubted that was the root of the transformation.
At last, Lillia's violet irises revealed themselves and she sat up and stretched just like cat. Glancing at both Vlad and Anaia, she seemed confused, like she couldn't work out why she wasn't alone. Then she remembered that she'd run off with Vlad and looked at Anaia, even more confused. "Um, Vlad... why is Anaia here?"
Vlad sighed. "Your friend has decided to join us; he was the one following us."
"I was stuck in the blizzard when your friend," Anaia growled, "came out and brought me here. I've decided to help you guys."
Lillia blinked. "Well... that makes sense..." she paused. Of course she didn't like the idea of Anaia being put in danger, but truthfully his presence made her more comfortable. "Did you and Vlad have some kind of fight? I thought you liked each other..." she said, still quite confused.
Here Vlad looked guilty. "Well... yes, a little. It was my fault, and we're alright now," he said. Anaia frowned, peering at Vlad in something akin to awe. Split personalities? He'd changed all over again... maybe he was just nice in front of Lillia?
No, that wouldn't make much sense. "Um. Yes. We're fine." Still frowning, he turned back to Lillia and asked, "Where are we even going?"
"The fourteenth tribe," she said, yawning, "So Vlad says – it's the closest tribe to us, so that's the first stop."
Vlad took up the monologue, "Because we're going to warn them of the imminent danger."
"That's the plan?" Anaia said disbelievingly, "You can't possibly warn every tribe across the world before the war begins – your dad's got armies everywhere!"
"I know! That's just the first part."
"So the second part is...?"
"I... think of a better plan?" Vlad whined, "I don't know yet; I'm not the answer to everyone's prayers, you know? Look, first things first, let's at least head for the tribe. I mean, we'll feel a little better if we at least take some kind of action, don't you think?"
Lillia looked around her at the icy prison they were sitting in and couldn't help but agree; when faced with a crisis, taking any action at all, however useless made you feel better. "Yes, I can see your point. But Vlad, you've said a million times 'this plan will be dangerous, people could die' and as far as I can see, the plan so far isn't all that dangerous."
He scrambled to his feet, scratching his head. "… What I know… I know that it is now impossible to stop people from dying. Whatever else happens, whether we end the war or not… a lot of people will lose their lives. You and I, we could be among them. I wanted everyone to be prepared for that fact. Besides, anything we do now is going to be risky. Anything we do that has even a sliver of chance against my father and his army could be fatal. That's what I meant."
There was a heavy silence following those words, and Lillia tugged at her hair, peeking anxiously between Anaia and Vlad, feeling that somehow, what Vlad was saying wasn't really as true as it seemed. Essentially, Lillia had always been a positive person, and she was loathe to relinquish any hope in a situation as hopeless as this one. Even so, part of Lillia suspected that the amalr really and truly wouldn't make it out of this.
"Well," said Anaia shifting his position and brushing his pants casually, "I'd love to sit here and contemplate the inevitable and swiftly approaching extinction of my race, but I kind of have better things to do, you know?" Vlad glanced over his shoulder, frowning in vague confusion, and Lillia's lips twitched in the ghost of a smile; perhaps it was a good thing that Anaia had followed them and decided to join them. They were going to need someone to break these terrible silences for them.
"Right," Lillia agreed, crawling to the entrance of their ice cave and out into blinding white sunlight, "We've got to start moving. We can't waste the time Chisk buys for us, eh?"
The others followed her out. Anaia broke into a grin. "Oh wow! It's so bright!" he exclaimed.
Vlad tilted his head and pulled a bemused expression. Those words he felt basically summarised Anaia's entire character, though he added on further consideration not necessarily his intelligence.
Lupita and Rosita rose with practiced unison as Sarita entered their room. "No luck," she told them bluntly, and their faces fell. "I met with one of the amalr who attended the negotiations. Not the one mother described to us," she added, sitting down opposite them on her bed, "the cat girl, I didn't see her. This was the peacock one which spoke with the cat girl." Sarita's eyes watered a little. Just thinking about the last time her little brother stood within his home bothered her; such a cold return, and something which must, she supposed, have only convinced him to go with the amalr. Did they really treat him better than his own family?
Obviously, she knew Vlad didn't regard Koray with the same adoration and love that she and her sisters did; a result of not knowing enough, and only seeing her fear. Someone who cowered before a man Vlad passionately hated was never really worthy in Vlad's eyes. Looking down and examining her hands in her lap, she reminded herself that it was quite possible that Vlad hated Carlos more than even she did; a feat she saw as almost impossible. And Vlad had good reason not to love his father. In fact, Sarita had heard the stories from Rosita, and she had never even considered that Carlos was even his father. Carlos did Vlad the same courtesy of being cold – part of Sarita understood that part of her 'father', that this was the way a ruler had to be with his family, that he had the largest pressure in the world on him, and that he had to raise his heir accordingly. But she couldn't forgive him.
Knowing that Vlad's parents weren't amazing, Sarita could accept that Vlad would prefer this foreign race of mutants who had basically accepted him… as a hostage, or in the words of the cat amalr, as a pet. But hadn't she and her sisters always done their best to make Vlad feel loved? Was that not enough? Sure, they couldn't give him the friendship he probably craved from others his own age, and they weren't the same gender, unable to fully understand him and his problems. But they'd done all they could. She supposed it wasn't really enough. "What happened?" her sister's voices interrupted her thoughts and she looked up.
"Oh… Well I rode out and got pretty close to the forest too, but there was a group of amalr wandering around the edges and the peacock one, she came over to me and demanded to know my business. Once I'd told her who I was and what I wanted… just to see Vlad again… she told me I couldn't."
"Why not?" Lupita cried, beginning to pace, "Why can't we see our own brother? Just speak to him?"
"That's simple," Sarita replied, watching her with wary eyes, "It's because Vlad's not with the amalr." Lupita froze and Rosita actually glanced up from her silent and contemplative state. Sarita shrugged and tried to explain, "All this amalr would say is that her friend – that cat amalr – and he had run off somewhere together. They've got a plan to save the amalr. Apparently, this is what Vlad wants. He's sided with them, and you know what that means."
Rosita nodded sharply. She was the quiet, dark and most loyal of the three. "Of course. If Vlad is with the amalr… then so are we."
"Right. So I told this amalr that I would stall Carlos from attacking, as long as I could put it off… you'll all help too, naturally." Sarita paused, tugging at the hem of her skirt. "And um… someone needs to go and speak to mother."
Rosita stood and swept out of the room. "Ok," Lupita said, "I guess you and I will go talk to Carlos. Rosita can handle mother better than any of us, especially when it comes to Vlad and Carlos."
"You mean," Sarita corrected her, brushing snow out of her hair in preparation to speak to the king, "when it comes to the circumstances of Vlad's birth." Her sister nodded. They didn't need to say any more, their memories of that event, though they were both very young at the time, were crystal clear. Both girls shuddered. "It's cold…" Sarita shook her head, giggling nervously, "Uh that is because it's snowing I guess. I meant, it's time to go see 'dad'." They snorted and shivered again, darting out of the room.
Rosita slipped silently into her mother's room. Her eyes grew sad as she thought of the last time her mother had been forced to retreat to a room of her own. "Mother?" she called out, kneeling beside the bed where Koray was lying, "Sarita is back."
Immediately, the olive-skinned woman sat upright, crawling to the edge of the bed and leaning down to look at her daughter. Rosita flinched faintly when she saw how her mother's skin had been marked by cruel and greedy hands. "Did she see Vlad?" she pleaded.
Miserably, Rosita shook her head. "No. She says the amalr have somehow lost him. He ran away, with the cat girl from the negotiations. But he is safe. The peacock amalr spoke to her, and she says he's chosen to help them. We have to as well, of course," she added matter-of-factly, "But at the moment, I am more worried about you mother."
Koray tensed, sinking into the mattress. "I'm fine."
"No you aren't. Carlos has abused you again mother. Please don't be ashamed of that. He's the one who's done wrong, and you have every right to be afraid. No one thinks less of you for it – Vlad just doesn't know the truth." Rosita paused. "You love Vlad, don't you mother?"
Feeble laughter escaped the queen's lips. "What kind of question is that? Of course I do. And I'm so… so proud of him." Noticing her daughter remained silent, she tacked on, "I don't need to seek approval from him, though, if that's what you're asking. He's my son, it should be vice versa."
"Well it should be but it isn't and that's not right. Part of that is because of how Carlos has raised Vlad - you and I know he isn't the most understanding of human nature. But you don't help by behaving the way you do. You need to be stronger; I understand why you're afraid of Carlos, but cowering before him all the time when Vlad doesn't know the truth can only be seen as ridiculous to him!" she scolded.
"He's a smart boy. He's so smart. He'll work it out."
"He hasn't. May never, now. You should have told him." Her gaze was cast downwards as she scrambled onto the bed beside her mother. At once, Koray struggled like a little girl towards her and Rosita wrapped her arms around her, soothing her in the ancient tongues. At last she said, "Mother… should we go and speak to them again? The ones who gave Vlad to us?"
Koray only squeaked in horror muttering, "No, I don't want to know, if I know, I think I'll die." When her mother proceeded to chant this under her breath, Rosita accepted that her mother was beyond logic for the day. She might return again tomorrow.
"It's so cold," Lillia sniffled.
"I'm hungry…" Anaia whined.
Vlad rolled his eyes. "Of course it's cold. It's snowing and it's winter. And naturally you're hungry, but you can't have anything because Lillia and I only brought enough food for two people, not three, and now we have to ration it a lot more. Well done everyone. Stop complaining." This, frankly, was just Vlad's way of complaining.
Lillia hissed at him. Really hissed, just like a cat. She hadn't realised it was going to be this annoying travelling together; it felt as if none of them really liked each other. Anaia hurriedly sped up and walked between them, essentially stopping any real argument developing. Instead he asked, "Uh, so how far away is the fourteenth tribe, do you think?"
Vlad glanced back at Lillia, raising an eyebrow questioningly. She sighed, her breath misting, and rubbed her hands together in a vain attempt to warm them up. "Hmm…" she purred, "Maybe take us the rest of today to get there… might have to stop for the night again though. Blizzards are common around here."
They all groaned and prayed they wouldn't have to make another snow cave. Somehow, this united feeling eased the tension that had built between them, and they matched pace with each other, trekking on and on, bracing themselves against the wind. When they reflected on it later, they realised it was nothing compared to what they faced in the long days to come, and it hadn't even been that long a time, really. But when they were in the midst of it… it was horrible.
Orange light streaked with grey began to colour the sky and Anaia abruptly sunk into the snow. "While I trust dear Lillia's sense of direction immensely," he puffed, "I have no inkling of where we're even going. Everything looks just the same to me. And it's twilight now and I'm hungry, and even if we didn't have to build another snow cave, I think we really need to stop. Coz I don't want to keep moving at night."
Lillia shot him a glare, muttering under her breath a brief string of Kailanian insults running along a feminist vein and accusing Anaia's lineage of a number of interesting faults. Vlad frowned when he picked out something about 'mutant stock' and Anaia swiped at her leg half-heartedly. Shrugging, he turned his gaze to the horizon. "I think we can make it before nightfall… look, isn't that their settlement in the distance there?"
Lillia squinted and tilted her head at various angles, trying to make it out. "Uhh… maybe?" Heaving a sigh she shifted her bag to her other shoulder. "Alright, we'll try and get there. Come on Anaia, on your feet." The ferret boy reluctantly stood up saying that whether the place in the distance was the settlement or not, he supposed it had to be better than camping out in the snow again.
As they drew closer, it became apparent that it was indeed the fourteenth tribe's village, and the three weary figures heaved a collective sigh of relief. It looked incredibly inviting after a few days in empty white wilderness.
Lillia stiffened, ears twitching at the sound of a bell being rung ahead of their arrival, and she grabbed Vlad's arm to stop him going any further. "Wait," she mouthed, and Anaia nodded in agreement.
Two reptilian looking amalr approached out of the smudge on the horizon and called quite unnecessarily, "Halt! State your names and your intent."
"Lillia and Anaia of the seventeenth tribe," Anaia called cheerfully, "and our good friend Vladimir. He's a human, but he doesn't bite."
"We're here with an urgent warning," Lillia added, "and we hoped you could give us shelter for the night before we move on. We have a lot of ground to cover."
One of the men held back while the other came right up to them. "Why are you travelling with a human?" he lisped, a thin forked tongue slithering from his mouth.
"Like Lillia has said, we're carrying an urgent message; I'm Prince Vladimir. I'm a captive of the seventeenth tribe," Vlad explained without revealing too much; it was pointless to detail everything now only to repeat it later.
"The amalr may pass," one snarled, "but the human will remain here under guard until further notice."
Anaia hurried onwards without another thought, but Lillia sent Vlad a quick desperate look over her shoulder before she followed, assured by his brief nod. Trekking through the snow at Anaia's side she wondered what she would have to say to the council leaders here. Vlad was human and less adapted for the icy circumstances; whatever she said would need to be concise and persuasive or Vlad could get sick and slow them down.
As it turned out, she didn't have the opportunity to say anything. Anaia was proving his worth by speeding ahead of her and reaching the council before she could, already launching into an argument. "We've got bad news," he was saying, "but if you want to know what we've got to say, you've got to let Vlad into a building and feed him. He's human, he'll die out there. He hasn't got fur or anything else useful apart from inside information from the palace."
"Inside information?" a huge broad-shouldered man repeated curiously, small brown ears twitching atop his head. "Well you there," he pointed with a hairy hand to another lizard-soldier, "go and fetch the human boy and bring him here in irons." Resting his beared chin in his other hand he nodded to Anaia to continue speaking. "Tell us your news then youngling."
As Anaia began to explain how Vlad came to be in their 'possession', Lillia gazed around the cosy council chambers. Unlike the stone walls of the seventeenth tribe's buildings, the fourteenth tribe had opted for wooden constructions that reminded her of log cabins. The walls were adorned with colourful paintings and the floor carpeted in fur rugs donated by members of the tribe. But aside from this, Lillia noted that the fourteenth tribe was much more organised than her own; all the soldiers were reptilian, with hard scales like armour, and where they had exposed flesh they wore metal plates or thick white fur. They were also very clearly hostile and battle-ready, carrying weapons with a hard look in their eyes. As for the council, there was a definite leader; the man who was like a bear, and then three elderly amalr on either side of him, like advisors to the leader as opposed to equal rulers.
At least they were ready for battle already, she thought optimistically, and yet they were perhaps not ready enough. "The point is," she interrupted her companion, "Vlad knows how his father thinks. I'm sure you'll doubt his judgement; he is a human, and this could easily be a trap… but you weren't there, and you haven't spoken with him about his family. One gets the impression he hardly likes any of them sometimes. It's not impossible to believe that he might sympathise with us, is it? There are those among the human race who want to protect us already. It's guilt, isn't it? Weighing on their consciousness. They have to act, just to make themselves feel better."
"So the prince thinks that his father intends to make war against us?"
"We've stolen his son," Lillia admitted, "and threatened the king. He has men who will affirm that we threatened the human race, if he pays them enough. He's the richest man in the world, and the most powerful. He can lie to everyone and have just cause for war, if ever there was such a thing."
The bear-man sat back with a thoughtful expression that did not change even when the soldiers returned and threw Vlad to the floor. He didn't seem to mind, curling up on the soft warm carpet. "Vladimir."
He glanced up. "Yes?"
"War. Your father really means to fight us?"
"Yes. He would desire little else, sir."
"And for what reason are you helping our race? Don't tell me it's sympathy. Don't tell me it's because you hate your father. There is more, is there not? You look like someone who doesn't speak all that he thinks."
Vlad sat up, shrugging weakly. "If there's another reason…" he hesitated and then closed his eyes, looking to the ceiling. "Well, there might be. But that's my business. I'm sure it would help to persuade you I'm being honest, but what have you to lose? What do I gain by telling you that my father is going to kill your entire species? It wouldn't hurt to expect it anyway. I'm surprised you don't already." Looking the leader in his eyes, Vlad said, "But if you fight him… you will undoubtedly die."
"Be that as it may, what else can we do against the might of the King's Army? We're not fools Vladimir. We know what we face. The King has the largest army there has ever been in all of Kailani's – Earth's – history. Tell me what we should do."
And Vlad slumped and fisted his hands. "I have no answers. To be honest, I know already that nothing can be done, that in truth my father will have his way." He stood up, running his hands through his hair with the manacles clinking. "But, have you never wanted to just… rebel because you can? Rebel, just for the effect it will have on someone? We'll lose the coming war, but if we're going to lose no matter what we do, we may as well choose the way that will let us go down with dignity."
"So we go down fighting, then?"
Lillia looked between the two men and felt suddenly very small. If Vlad had never believed they could survive… then why was he even trying?
"If that's the way you think will let you die happy, by all means," Vlad answered, "As for me, I think I'll be happiest if I tried to win."
'Oh,' Lillia thought, 'it's not about living. It's about trying to live. The fight to survive… even if it fails. Will that really make him happy? Is it good enough for me?'
"I'll be happiest if I die by my own father's hand, to be perfectly honest," Vlad continued and everyone grew still, "because I could never kill someone. But it should be him and I, in the end, shouldn't it? I could never kill him. But he could kill me. So it may as well end that way. But I think I'm not ready yet. And are you?"
"I'll discuss this with the council," the leader replied calmly, "for tonight we'll provide you with a room; you can share with the ferret-boy, and the lady can have a room to herself. We'll unchain you, feed you, supply you, and when we have made a decision, you may leave."
"Thank you," Anaia said, bowing low to the ground. Lillia copied his action, but she noticed with some surprise that Vlad neither thanked him nor bowed in respect. He would later explain that in that moment it would have been hollow; at the time, he was on equal ground with the council and he'd sensed that. Besides, technically speaking he was their future-king. He didn't have to pretend to be inferior when he knew he wasn't.
Again, Lillia felt that Vlad was a multi-faced being whom she could never truly see eye-to-eye with, no matter how much she tried, or how long she knew him.
Sarita looked at her mother's pitiful form curled up on her bed. Since early that morning she hadn't moved from that position in spite of all her daughter's coaxing, and she refused to eat. Carlos had even checked on her with something Sarita thought may have approached concern, but he had quickly grown frustrated with her and left.
The woman's hair was stringy and hadn't been brushed, her skin pasty and pale and her eyes were getting red from her constant crying. The bruises and cuts on her skin were not always Carlos's doing, though Koray swore the others were accidents when she'd tripped or brushed up against a cabinet or some such thing.
"Mother, please get up. You're really not helping anyone like this; you'll get sick."
"I don't understand. Where is Vladimir?"
"You know the answer mother; he is with the amalr. Safe. We've got to stall Carlos if we want to protect him. We need your help."
Koray didn't move. "Where's Vladimir? Bring him to me. I want to see my son."
Sarita backed out of the room and closed the door. There was no point trying to reason with Koray on days like these, for she wouldn't listen and understand. She knew they were losing their mother with every passing day, but she did not know how to stop it.
Chisk sat moodily on the stairs leading to the council building, watching others pass in and out without any trouble. She had gone to the council several times now trying to convince them to evacuate but with no success, and had on her last attempt been banned from entering unless she had something else of significance to say.
Her father stood before her with a sort of pitying expression on his narrow face. "You can't expect them to take your word for it darling."
"It wouldn't hurt to leave just to be sure. It's not hard to believe the King wants us dead, is it?" she muttered.
"But if we evacuate and it turns out to be for no reason, it will cost us time and resources that we can't afford to waste," he explained soothingly.
"Ha! So, we'll just risk our necks instead? Not me thanks. If the council refuse to evacuate by tomorrow, I'm leaving on my own. I don't want to die. You ought to come with me too dad."
"Are you certain you know nothing about Lillia and Vladimir's disappearance? They never said anything to you?"
"Do you think I would keep it a secret if I did know something? I never trusted Vlad, why would I let Lillia go off on her own with him? I'd want to help her dad. I can't believe she's gone, but I'm going to go after her."
"We've found no trace of them. You'll have no idea where to go."
"Better to leave with no idea of where I'm headed than to stay here and be killed by the King's Army. I'm convinced that they'll come for us. And maybe, maybe Vlad suggested it to me, maybe he told me that evacuation was our best shot. It's because it makes sense that I believed him, not because I trusted him."
Her father wrapped an arm around her. "Is that what he spoke with you about that day in Council Member Diane's chambers? When he requested to speak with you in private?"
Chisk wriggled free of his grip and stood up, beginning to pace. "Partially. He…" she glanced at her father and continued, "He made a pledge to me."
"Really? What nature?"
"He swore to protect Lillia and myself should I ever need it with his own life. It wasn't the royal oath or anything, but it sounded genuine to me. I think the idiot has some kind of hero complex that finally has a chance to emerge. It's not so difficult to understand him if you force yourself to think about it from his perspective. I don't expect anyone to agree with my decision; I chose to entrust him with Lillia's safety, though I assure you I didn't know why I needed to do so… I had no inkling that he would run away with her. But I do believe he will look after her, and so I'm doing all I can to look after the people he left behind in my care."
A young woman with long black hair and a thick furry tail darted forwards suddenly, rushing into the council building. Chisk, recognising her as Aliesi and Anaia's mother, followed after her with her father at her side. "My son is missing," the woman was saying to the council, "I've been looking everywhere for him; I assumed he was just with friends after the New Year celebrations, but he's vanished! And my daughter said he left the village on New Year's night!"
"What?" Chisk spluttered, "Anaia's gone?"
The woman turned to her, "Do you think the human prince stole him too?"
Chisk frowned. Could Vlad have taken Anaia with him? Why? What did he need with the ferret boy? Why hadn't Aliesi said anything? It didn't add up. Vlad said he was taking Lillia, but he'd never said anything about Anaia or anyone else. Still… what if Anaia had gone of his own accord? What if the fool had followed them? Had he caught up to them? Was he hurt?
"I don't understand. I can't see why Vlad would take Anaia too."
A/N: Badadaduuum! I finally, finally finished chapter five! It's a miracle! I left this story alone for so long to gather dust after I lost all the contents of my flash drive and had to rewrite chapter five entirely, and try to record all those future plot points again. I may never get the original stuff back, but this will have to do. I can't say I'm too fond of this chapter; it moved a little too slowly, but I had to write those scenes because they were important. Next chapter: The King's Army will march. Review please, though I know it's been ages! Also, this chapter was really long! 22 pages. I hope you like!