In which our Heroine discovers a new City
Runs up against annoying laws
Takes her life in her own hands
And finds herself making the best of things
Part the First
This city is perhaps the site that I am certain I will do the least justice to, in terms of description. Whatever happened to me there, no matter how horrible it seemed in the day to follow (and it seems impossible that all we endured took little more than a single day) I shall always remember Ocean's Cove as a city of extraordinary beauty. In a single glance, I understood exactly why those crowds outside were so desperate to get in.
The avenue we now rode on was pristine gray stone, cobbles laid so evenly that there was not a single bump noticeable as we went along. The stores that lined the roads were built of the same material, but carved and decorated in such a way that each façade was almost like a work of art.
On the apothecary's signboard, silver inlays detailing various herbs surrounded the sharp lettering of the sign. On the other side of the road, a bookseller hawked its wares by a window display, in which the lovely dark leather of the bound books contrasted beautifully with the deep red velvet upon which they rested.
It was impossible to remain indifferent to the harmony and peace of this city. Pervaded by the constant smell of the sea and the calming sound of the tide, we all looked around in wonder and delight, the younger members of the group running to each window in turn and begging their parents and guardians for a coin to buy one of the colorful sticks of hard candy in the sweet shop window.
In truth, I wanted to act the same way, but Davenn and Prince Edward's solemn demeanors restrained me. As they were walking, though, I saw no reason not to swing down from the wagon and join them, stretching out the muscles in my legs (though they were already so stretched they felt as though they'd been racked).
Even the excuse of aching muscles could not stop me, and Davenn was amused when he saw me, grinning stupidly away and gasping with the best of them.
"Isn't this fantastic, isn't it beautiful!" I enthused, barely keeping my voice down, "I thought it would be some terrible hole next to the ocean, where the houses were sea caves. This is just…even back home we don't have cities this gorgeous!"
Davenn just looked at me, bemused. "This is one of the richest cities in the kingdom, and it is the capital. How could you think it would be a wretched sinkhole?"
"I don't know," I said honestly, still smiling, "sometimes it ends up that way in the books, so you can see the corruption of the government, or something like that. You can't tell me that you can look at this place and not be happy about it, can you? Or have you been here before?"
"I have not, but oddly enough, I find my joy sufficiently restrained by the fact that we might be drawn and quartered by tomorrow night." A smile lurked around his mouth as he said this, grim as it was. I gave him a playful slap on the shoulder, though even by my standards, it was half-hearted.
"Trust you to take away my fun. This is the first cool thing I've seen since we started walking through that bloody forest."
"Interesting. We oughta get you a language spell so you can understand my slang. I'm getting tired of translating for you."
"I think we have more important things to worry about, and of all spells to want with us at this particular moment in time, a language spell is quite far down my list. Not including, of course, the one that you have on right now."
"Well, I guess it's a good thing. Now you really have to test out the limits of your magic."
"Believe me, if there were a gentler testing-ground I would be very grateful indeed."
I smiled at him. "I know you'll do well."
He did not return that smile. "If I don't, we might have reason to bitterly regret it."
"Are the odds against us really that great? After all, we made it here with the Prince in human form…all we need to do is get to the castle in time and get him in sight of the King and Queen. The rest of it should take care of itself, after that."
"You are forgetting the cousin, whose plan is to murder all of his relatives by tomorrow night. And we have no idea how he plans to do that. Add to this the fact that he is likely to have planted some very poisonous lies into the ears of Edward's parents, and we have a very sticky situation to unravel."
A pause. "Thank you, Davenn, you have just managed to ruin my mood entirely."
That made him smile. "I am always ready to do my duty."
Grumbling, I murmured, "How is that duty?" before wandering to the other side of the wagon. Prince Edward walked far out in front, and his attitude recently had been such that I didn't feel comfortable engaging him in conversation. Besides, he was likely to be pondering everything that Davenn had spoken of, so it wasn't fair (or politic) to trouble him right now.
It was in every way frustrating. There was no reason to expect that agents of this evil cousin would be jumping out of every alleyway to capture us and drag us from our target. As far as we were aware, his two outside accomplices, namely Raveena the fairy and Karyn the enchantress, were out of the picture.
The only person that this cousin would recognize on sight would be the Prince, who currently walked swathed in a great black cloak. No danger there. Davenn and I were also dressed perfectly to match this troupe of performers.
So regardless of how unexpectedly comfortable I felt in this situation, no one I knew was willing to share with me the joy of seeing something new and beautiful. Of course, I didn't really expect Edward to share it in any case; after all, he'd been banished in such an embarrassing fashion that he probably would have been happy enough not to come back, especially in a similarly ignominious way.
Oh well. If there was no one to share it with, I made up my mind to enjoy it to the fullest on my own.
And there was much to enjoy.
We were now moving out of the market section and into the area of town that dealt with public buildings. By looking in through the windows (from a distance, though, as I'd lost the impulse to act so much like a child) I could distinguish the archives, the library (my feet itched to take me over there) a possibly religious building, for the interior resembled the sanctuary of my church back home (except much grander) and an academic building.
This area of town, like the last, was busy with people out and about, carrying books and various other things. Unfortunately, unlike the area we had just moved through, our presence was certainly not appreciated. Men and women alike, dressed to the nines in beautiful clothing, turned up their noses at us and I caught some very pointed remarks as they hurried out of our way.
"So entertaining, but must they be allowed to parade down our streets in this disorganized fashion?"
"How they do smell! Living on the road, can they not jump in a lake every so often to wash away the stench?"
"Be careful, my dear…they might have something catching."
Some of them were harmful, others were just silly in their pomposity, but all of them were to a specific point; we were a distraction, but when all was said and done, we were the dirt beneath their feet.
Certainly it was easy to feel quite sour towards these people. For all their beauty, cleanliness and superiority, they certainly had not mastered the common feelings of compassion, understanding, and kindness. Nor did they realize that they might be entertaining an angel in disguise; I watched anxiously as Prince Edward's face (when I could see it) was growing progressively darker and darker.
The rest of the troupe seemed to expect this treatment, for though I saw many discomfited faces, they took it in stride. As I'd only been to two major cities (plus the magical one that would not suffer such a crowd of mortals) I could not tell if this reaction was standard, but if it were, I could not imagine how these people could suffer it in silence.
Well, I could. Even from situations back home, it was understandable. These were the underclass; they had to practice their livelihood or starve. The scorn they incurred in doing so, though demeaning, meant nothing in the face of this ultimate dilemma. Perhaps in their own group they could get a bit of their own back, in mocking these uptight men and women with some seething satire.
I certainly would have.
Passing by these buildings certainly took my enjoyment down a couple of notches, and it struck me how much I preferred the other areas of Senorrah that I'd seen; Gold Mountain City, with its atmosphere of pioneering hardiness, the smaller cities that we'd seen merely from the window of a stage…even Mazorka was honest in its spite for the mortal kind.
This place was just snobbish. Perhaps with a right to be so, but even in that case, they didn't even try to disguise it. Looking at the way these people behaved, I wondered if Sir Edward had ever been much different from them. If he were really coming back into his old personality, how long would it be before he similarly despised Davenn and me?
The thought was unsettling, and I glanced towards the Prince, desperate for some glimpse of the friend I'd made and the companion with whom I'd traveled.
He seemed completely lost in thought.
We walked for another few minutes without incident, but then, up ahead, as we saw a crowd of scholars crossing the road before us, Amarin waved us all to a halt. The oxen champed at the bit, stamping their feet, and chunks of mud and filth fell off their hooves onto the clean streets below. Actually, we'd been leaving quite the trail of muck behind us, and I could tell that it was annoying and offensive to the people before us.
Two of the children hadn't noticed the halt called by their leader, and, still laughing merrily, they dodged out in front of the wagons and collided with some of the men crossing the road.
Immediately, with a grunt of shock and anger, the man slapped the child that he could reach hard across the face.
I gasped as the child squealed, and sprang forward to help her.
"How dare you!" I exclaimed, helping the little girl off the hard pavement and examining the dark bruise that rapidly swelled across her cheek. "What the hell were you thinking?"
"Watch your tongue, woman," he sneered at me, raising his hand again, "you have no right to question me."
I let go of the child, who immediately scampered back to her father, seeking the protection of his strong arms, and raised my own fist.
"You wanna have a go, asshole?" I said, trembling with rage, "Let's see if you can hit a girl as well as you can hit a child."
"Jozia, I beg you!" I heard Amarin's voice behind me, and could almost see his face twisting with anxiety. "She is unhurt, all is well!"
But the red haze of abject fury was filling my vision and I would not let my fists unclench. Standing there, I felt as though I could have pummeled that man into a gooey mess, if a hand had not taken me from behind.
Unthinking and still ready for a fight, I lashed backwards with one elbow, catching the man behind me in the stomach. The hand let go and I swung to face my opponent.
It was Edward's shocked face that looked back at me. I heard the reaction of the man behind at seeing his face (my blow had knocked his hood backwards) and thought, oh, shit.
Edward quickly pulled his hood up and managed to hide his face quickly enough so that the rest of the crowd, murmuring among themselves about my shocking behavior, had not managed to see it.
"That is enough, Jozia," he snarled at me, and when he took my wrist in a grip of iron, I didn't try to fight it, "you forget yourself in the presence of these august men."
"Ri—right," I stammered, turning briefly to bow towards the man I'd insulted (though I still wanted to smack his smug face) "Sorry."
He considered the pair of us with an air of almost idle curiosity. "'Sorry' is not half enough," he said, finally, "but I suppose it is all I may expect from you. I may get satisfaction for your impertinence at another time."
That was ominous. Still murmuring, the group moved off the road and I, shamefaced and almost in tears, rejoined the troop of gypsies, and, in silence, we continued our trip.
It was the fact that my gesture was regarded as unappreciated and dangerous that finally made me cry, face so red that I felt as if someone had slapped it. The rest of the group, including Davenn and the Prince, shunned me, and though the injured child, still riding on her father's shoulders, looked as though she would like to speak to me, lacked the courage to climb down and make her way over.
So, crying silent tears, we finally arrived at the encampment for entertainers in the courtyard of the Palace and set up camp for the night.
Part the Second
"Are you all right?"
Davenn finally made his way over towards where I sat, around the campfire for the women and children, and whispered slowly to me in English. He really was plumbing the depths of his powers, branching out into spoken languages, not just written ones.
Though my tears were long dry, I had to bite my lip to stay calm as I answered, flatly, "Not really."
"I'm sorry about this," he murmured, touching my elbow to encourage me to stand. Walking together, it was only at a distance from the fires, he switched back his native language. "We should have told you more about how to behave before we got into the city."
"So I was just supposed to stand there while he hit that little girl?" whispered fury rose in my voice. "Is that the proper code of behavior?" Damn, but I started crying again.
"Unfortunately," Davenn said, sighing and handing me a handkerchief into which I noisily blew my nose, "you were. You have to try to understand…"
"I understand!" I snapped, balling up the cloth in my fist. Then, with a shuddering sigh, my grip relaxed. "I understand," I said again, hopefully more gently. "In samurai era Japan, the upper class could behead anyone they so desired, for nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I do understand. I've just never had to deal with it face-to-face before."
He nodded, considering me. "It's strange," he said, as we leaned against the cool stone wall of the courtyard, "when we were nearly killed by the fairies, you weren't angry at them…that I can remember, anyway. But now, when someone hurts a person you never knew in your life before…"
"It's different," my interruption was weary. "The fairies had a…a kind of right to do what they tried to do to us. It made sense, in a weird way. But this just…there shouldn't be any rule that allows people to do that to a child."
"There is, though."
"Yeah," I was still sullen and hurt, a dull throb pounding between my temples; a mix of shame, anger, and frustration.
"We need to get some sleep; there's lots to do tomorrow. If you don't want to sleep in the wagon, you can come and share the wall where I'll be sleeping. There's a spare pallet."
"I might take you up on that. All the women have been glaring daggers at me all night…you know," I wanted just one more rant on the subject before behaving, "I don't get why they're angry with me! You'd think that someone willing to stand up for their relatives would be welcomed, not shunned like a bloody leper!"
"Think of what can come of such rebellion, though. They could be beaten, exiled, or executed, depending on whom you offended. This is a dangerous game we're playing, Josie. There are rules that must be followed, whether openly declared or not."
Livelihood or starvation…loss of dignity or death. Hadn't I just gone over that subject in my head?
"All right. From now on I'll be good, I promise. But I don't want to stay near them tonight."
"Very well. I'll take care of it. Just stay here for now."
I lingered by the wall while he retraced his steps towards the twinkling firelights. Standing there, feeling the cool air of night swirling around me in the gentle breeze, I felt lonelier than I'd realized I could feel. All around me, in the night, were other troupes of performers who had their own groups, who understood each other and the workings of their world.
I was the only outsider…the only fumbling moron. And as such, by both sides of the social equation, I was unwanted and a nuisance.
It was embarrassing and humbling and I hoped that I would never have to come up against such a situation again. Was this culture shock?
If it were, I didn't want to feel it ever again. Perhaps I was in the wrong field of study.
Chuckling bitterly, I leaned against the wall and slumped down. Just one more day…just one more day and then everything would be over. I'd either be back on my way home, or…
But the 'or' didn't bear thinking about. Instead, I left it at, 'in another day you'll be back on your way home.'
That was a comforting thought, at the very least. I couldn't stand to think about my parents…I'd already been gone two weeks longer than the end of their vacation. They probably would have called all my friends by now, and found out that none of them had even heard of my 'plans' to come and stay with them.
Thinking about my parents, my home and my friends just made me even more miserable. The great black word 'misery' rose up around me like a poisonous miasma, and unable to fight it, I just put my head on my raised knees and sighed deep.
My pity-party was interrupted, though, when the doors leading from the Palace proper into the courtyard suddenly slammed open. A group of men, armed to the teeth (I could see the faint moonlight glinting off their upraised spears) marched through the encampments of the entertainers, scattering people right and left. They made a straight line for the last group to set up that day: ours.
Though my first impulse was to run back and see what was going on, I reminded myself that remaining hidden was probably a better option. That man had seen Edward…a terrible certainty that these men had been sent to find the Prince and his companions occurred to me.
If the worst happened and they took Davenn and Edward and if they didn't find me, I'd be the only one who would come after them and save them.
Oh, God, help me!
Thankfully my clothes were dark and the night was similarly black. If the moon didn't shine, I'd have a chance at escaping notice. Of course, half the camp had seen which way Davenn and I had walked, and if they ratted me out, I'd be in serious trouble.
Going slowly, I inched my way along the wall until I came into the periphery of another camp. This one had only five members, all of whom were entranced by the scene happening at ours. They also had a wagon.
As hard voices echoed over the entire courtyard and Sir Edward was dragged forward, I flung myself on my stomach and wiggled underneath the wagon, hiding in the shadows and looking out between the wheel spokes as the Prince was clubbed over the head and fell to his knees.
Trembling, I watched Davenn come forward and help the Prince back to his feet, after which they were both cuffed and dragged back towards the Palace by three burly guards. The rest of them remained in the area, talking (if you could call their gruff demands talking) to Amarin and gesturing avidly. They lined up the rest of the troop and had a head count.
They were looking for me.
Nightmares like this are standard fare for me. Either I'm hiding and someone is trying to find me, or I'm running, endlessly running, and the entire world is out to catch me.
My heartbeat thundered in my ears and my palms grew clammy with sweat. There would be nowhere to run inside this courtyard, nor would there be anywhere better than this to hide. If they found me, it was all over.
Wanting to close my eyes and bury my face in my hands, I didn't dare, and instead kept my eyes fixed on the soldiers who were rummaging the wagons of our camp. Smaller numbers were breaking off, hurrying in other directions, including the one indicated by Amarin as the direction I'd gone with Davenn.
Other groups were questioned, including the one that sat merely ten feet away from me. The wagon creaked above me as another couple of soldiers rummaged around inside. By now I was drenched in cold sweat and had to open my mouth in order to breathe. Thank God the wagon had a low frame, for between it and the ground there was very little space for the weak firelight to penetrate. Of course, that meant that I also couldn't shift around at all, and lay basically spread-eagled beneath it.
If anyone looked…
Don't think, don't think!
Holding my breath until my lungs screamed for air, I didn't move a muscle and waited until the men climbed out of the wagon and moved off somewhere else. I nearly gasped out my relief, but managed to muffle the sound my pressing my face fervently against the cool stone beneath me. I might have cried from sheer dizzying relief.
However, it was a long time before I could cautiously look around again. The bands of soldiers roamed the entire courtyard, searching wagon after wagon until they finally decided they couldn't find anything and headed back towards the Palace. This didn't reassure me, and I did not move even then.
I was right not to. Within twenty minutes, another band of soldiers came out into the courtyard and passed through, obviously to continue their search outside the Palace walls. More guards remained inside the yard; probably as a safeguard should I decide to 'come back'.
Now what was I supposed to do?
It was a good question, but I had no idea what the answer should be. If I came out, they would be on me in a minute…besides, even if I did reveal myself, I had nowhere to go. Amarin's camp would undoubtedly shun me, if not call the guards the moment they caught sight of me. The way forward was shut and barred. There was only the way back…
Shifting again, stilling my tap shoes with one hand while the cobblestones grated harsh against my ribs, my thoughts turned that over. I could only go back. That meant sneaking out of the courtyard and back into the city. And what should I do even if I managed to find a haven for the night? How should I make my way back into the castle in order to help Davenn and the Prince?
Still, I thought, watching the soldiers gather around the campfires, it was probably the best option. There was no use of thinking about tomorrow until I knew I would even see tomorrow.
But if I knew minimum-wage workers (as these guards were certain to be and as I certainly did) they would probably do their job as quickly as possible, come back to the safety of the courtyard and go to sleep. That would be my chance to sneak out through the doors, praying all the while not to be noticed, and find an alley to spend the night in.
I had one advantage in that none of them knew what I looked like, even if Amarin's company had described me to the guards. My most distinguishing feature was my hair, but that could easily be hidden with a veil.
There was also the benefit that I still had my tap shoes with me. No one had yet seen me perform, so I could try auditioning before the gates the following day, and sneak in then.
Even as these plans crowded into my brain, crushing helplessness overwhelmed me. This was certainly the worst fix I'd been in since I arrived in this blasted world. How was I supposed to do this all on my own, without knowing who was good and who was evil, while my two allies were locked up?
My tears had all been cried out, though, so all I could do was wait, head pressed to the ground, in anticipation of what I hoped would happen actually happening. It seemed to take forever (everything was lost in the fire but my tap shoes and the lump of gold in my pocket) but eventually, the party of soldiers came back just as the sky had reached full brilliance with stars.
Slowly, the campfires winked out, and the guards also, after warming themselves well, banked their fire and stretched out beside it.
After another long while, holding my shoes off the ground with one hand and easing myself up with the other, I wiggled my way out from under the wagon. Coming upright after such a long time of being horizontal on painfully hard ground was excruciating, but it was gratifying to see that the courtyard was entirely dark.
I was even more gratified to see that there were some items of good use to me in the back of this wagon. One of them was an enormous cloak that I snatched and wrapped around me immediately. The other was a half wheel of cheese wrapped in a dark blue piece of cloth and two links of cured sausage. I pilfered these as well, sending a silent apology to the people who used to own them, and retraced my way until my back was flush with the courtyard wall.
Then, edging slowly and carefully, eyes scanning the wall overhead for any sign of lookouts, I made my way towards the open gates, looking around them for a long time for any sign of watchers. Thankfully, there seemed to be none, as earlier in the evening the women in the camps had been so adamant that the soldiers were spying on them as they changed that the Palace guard was dropped from the walls. I inched my way outside unobserved before breaking into a cautious jog.
From there, it was a free-for-all. I sprinted for as long as I could, finally ending up near the harbor (always a seedy place) where I found an open tavern (not difficult) and bartered my way into a room in exchange for helping with some of the barmaid's duties. It didn't seem wise to spend the gold unless absolutely necessary, especially since I really didn't want to distinguish myself by seeming to possess any sort of wealth.
The three hours I spent waiting tables was enough punishment to make me wish I had just shelled out the gold, but when I finally made my way up the stairs to where my straw pallet awaited, at least I was tired enough not to think or worry anymore when my head hit the pillow.
Part the Third
Waking up was a hellish trial. My body was so itchy that the desire to scratch outweighed the desires to pee, eat, and get something to drink combined. There were fantastic red welts on my legs and arms, and I whimpered as rubbed at them gently. God, what sort of bugs were they breeding in the sheets?
Making my way downstairs, I found out where the outhouse was (an experience hopefully never to be repeated) and then helped dish out some of the morning gruel in exchange for a bowl. While I ate, the hostess noticed the welts growing on my arms and legs, and clucking with sympathy, offered me some sort of solution that helped take away of the itching.
She also offered me a job, should I ever need it. Apparently my skill with customer service worked in other dimensions as well. I was flattered (though not remotely tempted) and assured her that if I ever needed work I'd be sure to come back.
"Though what I'm really hoping for is a chance to entertain in the Palace tonight," I said, chewing around something that felt like a lump of congealed fat. "I've got a very interesting dance routine."
"So you're after the reward too, are you?" The woman asked, her burly arms lifting a massive teapot skillfully away from the roaring hearth fire. Quickly and deftly she poured us each a cup of tea, which I gulped down greedily. Even with the raw sugar inside, it was much more welcome than the breakfast gruel.
"Yeah. Do you know if I have any chance?"
"I don't. I know a few people hereabouts are going to try to head up to the Palace to show off in front of the gate, so you might ask them. When they come down for breakfast, I'll let you know who they are. You wanna help me slice some vegetables?" she continued, heaving herself away from the chair with a sigh. "We've got such a crowd here because of the festival, I'll be grateful for the extra hand. No sooner do I get one meal started than I've got to prepare another."
I happily offered my help, but first ran upstairs in order to get a few mouthfuls of cheese and brush off my costume, which was much the worse for wear considering how much it had been through. A bath would have been lovely, but the possibility of one was so far from reality that it was laughable. I couldn't even remember when I'd last bathed, and I was growing used to smelling badly and being around those who smelled badly.
Still, there was a cracked mirror and a wooden washbasin in my room, and by them I washed my arms, hands, legs, and face. The dirt sluiced off me until I had to empty the basin twice (by throwing it out the window into the sea below) and finally I was a little more presentable.
Tripping downstairs again, I took up a butcher knife the width of my palm and started slicing up root vegetables while listening to the kindly woman's chatter about festival time and the entertainments she'd seen.
Apparently, these monthly festivals were the only holidays all year. All businesses (except those that made profit by it) were closed on these days, and the streets were flooded with street vendors and entertainers of all sorts. Of course, the best entertainers were sent directly to the Palace, and no commoner was allowed entrance except in that fashion.
There was a chance to get in, still, and I savored that thought. If I could just get in, I'd have a chance. Not a great chance, but a chance.
"I was a dancer too, when I was young. Gypsy blood runs in these veins," she declared, proudly. "I still can turn a step, too. They've seen the best dancers in the country, though, so if you wanna get in you're gonna have to be something amazing, to be sure."
"I've traveled a long way to get here in time," I replied. Boy, had I ever traveled! "I think I've got something they've never seen before."
There was a quick thundering of footsteps on the stairs, and two children burst into the room, clattering to their places around one of the long trestle tables. The hostess immediately loaded a tray with two bowls of gruel and sent me to deliver them, which I did, just as the two parents and various other people trooped into the room.
Hurrying back to get their bowls of breakfast, I overheard them speaking about traveling to the Palace that day in order to be the first to exhibit for the spotters outside the gates. So, when I took their food to them, I asked if I could accompany them up to the Palace in order to put in my own bid for selection. Thankfully, they said they were more than welcome to have me.
My last task as barmaid was to help the hostess finish up chopping vegetables for the midday meal, and then I went upstairs and made sure I'd not left anything behind. Then, tearing a strip from the bottom of the cloak I'd stolen, I wrapped it around my head, turban style, and improvised some stage-makeup. This involved getting a stick of charcoal from the fireplace and smearing it around my eyes until I looked like a red-and-black raccoon. God, but did I look terrible!
Still, it hardly mattered. This was my last chance; I couldn't afford to be picky.
Somehow, I had become this Quest's last hope. Though it often ended up that way in the books, somehow I didn't want it to be this way in mine! Another thing I couldn't afford, though, was to second-guess myself. I'd gotten into this mess, and by hook or by crook, come what may…I had to get my friends and myself out of it.
With that thought, I lifted my chin and squared my shoulders in my best performer's manner, and walked out of the room, shutting the door firmly behind me.
Whatever else might happen, in a day (half a day, really) everything would be over.