The man says, "Do you need something?" from behind me, and I don't realize he's there.
It's late - I shouldn't be in the city. I can't see the man's face except for the flat plane of his forehead and the stubble clustered down his throat. He smells like beer and mud.
"No," I say. I step back and the cold stone wall nudges my back.
This doesn't happen often. I've known men and women to offer themselves on the street for a couple bucks - I've only done it once, and I know better now. Men will try to solicit anybody who looks in need or small enough to overpower. Far off, a group of people are laughing, but nobody responds to screams. You keep your head down around here.
"I could get you food. A bed for the night." He steps forward-steps around me, cutting off my angle of escape. The rim of the moon hides behind the rooftop across from me. Everything else is a mix of gray and black, hues of smoke, and the sky above glows brighter than the slick cobblestones beneath.
"No, thank you." I step to the side. That's when his hand snatches my collar, his knee pins me to the wall, and his face looms in close.
"Are you sure?"
This doesn't happen often, but when it does I know I'm alone.
He tries to pull me forward and away from the wall. The cobblestones are too icy to get traction. I slip and then twist around, and his hand tangles in the back of my coat. I'm small and thin, but he isn't much stronger than me.
"Calm down. I'm not gonna do anything."
He catches the side of my face with his knuckles just as I pull away. I crumple to the ground and struggle back to my feet, my eyesight dimming and my heart rattling around in my chest, but I get my feet balanced under me and scramble down the street.
I wait for him to grab me, but he doesn't. A block away I turn and see him walking the other way, his hands in his pockets. Sometimes they don't like a fight.
For several moments, I can only stand there and watch as he turns down the next street and keeps going. The fear drains away. The wind cuts through my damp clothes. I feel empty, tattered, and weak. This isn't where I'm supposed to be. I never used to have to fight off scraggly men in the street. Once upon a time, the world respected me, and now I'm it's battered waste.
The bar is a couple streets away now, so I turn and head in that direction. I am small, sick-looking, and angry, so anybody I see keeps walking and won't look at me. I don't look at them, either.
It's a little one-room bar that only serves beer and never washes its tables. When you step through the door, the compressed smell of alcohol and sweat can make you gag, but if you inhale deeply it won't bother you anymore. I don't come here often.
There's only one table that isn't full of people, and there's a man in a dark green coat sitting at the corner of it. He leaves as soon as I sit down at the other end.
A guy stumbles against me as he walks past and doesn't apologize.
Then, Will drops himself into the seat across from me and pushes a beer at me. "Haven't seen you in a while."
"Haven't been around in a while."
"You running from something or what?" He sits with his thick forearms resting on the table and leans forward. Will isn't a fat man, just wide and dense all over, with a broad chest and big bony hands.
"Just assholes in the street." I taste the beer and swallow.
"That isn't what I meant."
I shrug. My fingertips are raw and chewed, spread out on the greasy wood table. Some guy decides to climb on the table, and Will has to yell at him to "get down, shitthead." He doesn't get down, and Will ignores him.
"Hear about any jobs?" I ask.
Will slurps down half of my beer and shakes his head. "None hiring scrawny little refugees."
"I'm not a refugee."
He hums and nods. Will has a way of figuring things out without asking. He watches people - hard, and he doesn't look away when they notice.
Me, I just keep my eyes down and my shoulders facing front.
"Is that all you came for?"
He nods - I see it in the edge of my vision. "Hang on a sec."
The man on the table starts wailing out a love song, and the clod of people boo and dump beer on him. Will comes back with something bundled into a cloth napkin. "Just take it."
"Hey, wait." His hand lands on my shoulder before I can dart out. "Did you know the king?"
"Who?" I ask. The other men are talking too loud to hear me, but I look around anyway.
"The king. Did you know him?"
I shrug his hand off. "Everybody knew the king."
"What about the prince."
I shake my head. "The prince is dead."
"Why haven't you left? You could cross the border into Pallen and get protection. They like insiders, you know." Both of his hands are on my shoulders. I'm staring down at his shoes, and wondering why he decided to talk to me about this now, in public.
"I have to go."
He spins me around again.
"They never found his body. The prince. Did you know that?"
I have to shove him away. The motion propels me back more than him, and I bump into a burly man who cusses me out over his shoulder.
"I didn't. Thank you for the beer."
This time, he doesn't stop me. I make it out into the cold air with the bundle under my arm. The moon has crawled over the rooftops and hangs in the sky.
I don't look at anybody on the way home.
When Anthony walks into the king's room, he finds his master sitting on the edge of his bed, still dressed in his bathrobe and staring out the small, rectangular window.
"I'm sorry, master. I did not know you weren't dressed."
Caden blinks at him and scratches his neck. "Come in, then. Sit."
Anthony sits in the chair across from him, looking around at the clothes strewn around the hardwood and the green rug. "We heard news."
Caden sits up and tightens his blue robe around his chest. "From where?"
"From Pallen. One of your scouts came back."
"Oh," he says. He picks at a loose thread at the hem of one of his sleeves. "Is there any other news?"
He hums to himself and glances out the window again.
Anthony stands up and begins gathering the discarded robes and cloaks from the floor. He straightens up once he has an armload and looks around for the hamper.
"What about the prince?" Caden asks.
"Master, you have no sons."
He laughs. "No. The old one. Are they any closer to finding him?"
Anthony turns to look at him over the pile of laundry in his arms. "Dominic?"
"Andrenson's son. Yes."
"No." He carries the clothes to the hamper underneath the window. "They aren't."
Caden frowns. There's a book in his lap, and he turns it over in his hands. It's bound in a soft black leather and unlabeled. "Do you think he's still alive?"
"I don't know," Anthony says. He pushes the clothes deep into the basket and looks around for more.
"But do you think he could be?"
"I don't know." He picks up a purple robe and tosses it in with the rest.
Caden doesn't speak for several moments while Anthony continues to straighten the room. When he does, he puts the book to the side and looks out the door. "Are we alone?"
He makes a face at the question. "I'm the only servant allowed in this part of the castle, Master. Of course we're alone."
"Don't get smart. Shut the door."
Frowning, Anthony crosses the room and pulls the door shut. "Is something wrong?"
"No. Sit down." Caden looks at his hands and clears his throat. "I want you to find him."
He winces at the name. "Yes."
"Master, do you want me to kill him?"
"No. No, just bring him to me."
Caden glances out the window again while Anthony opens and closes his mouth. The sun illuminates traces of dust and smoke in the air. Somehow, the fine trappings of the room make it seem heavier and forlorn. The tapestries droop from their fastenings, and the grand polished wood of the bedframe has small scratches across its varnished surface.
When Caden turns back, he frowns. "Was I unclear? Why are you still here?"
"Now? Um. Master, I - you already have a team tracking him. I don't think I'll be of much help. Why do you want me to do it?"
"No, listen." He leans forward. "Dominic Andrensen would never leave this country. He'll be somewhere nearby. The team I hired is full of quacks. You are not to kill him or harm him past reasonable need. You are not to tell anybody that I sent you, either."
"It is not your duty to know why. Just bring him to me. Do you understand?"
Anthony sits with his mouth open for a few moments more, then closes it. "Yes. I understand." He hesitates for a moment, hoping Caden will elaborate or change his mind, but he doesn't, and Anthony darts out of the room.
I play my flute that morning.
I'm frustrated with the shaky, uneven quality of the notes, and how my own tentative fingers fumble over the holes and miss cues. At times like these my hands feel bulky and bloated, like I'm wearing gloves or playing underwater. The sound is sweet, but the pieces don't fit together, and the sound that floats through the ice forest is hesitant and awkward.
I take the wooden piece away from my mouth and look down at my fingers-dry from wind burn, chewed from my own habits. Disgusting.
I am not who I used to be and will never be who I want to be.
The bread Will gave me will last for a few days, but I should still look for a job, or somebody who will give me some money. I hate begging for money from people who are below me. I should not take from Will, for he is a peasant with honor if only a peasant. Caden sits in a castle while I collect pennies from the scum who kiss his boots.
One of these days, my luck will run out and the guards will find me, living miles from the castle. I don't know why they haven't yet.
I still don't remember how I escaped. My father died; the house servants died. But I found myself outside the walls. There's a gap in my mind - Caden attacked me, and I may have blacked out, but I can't account for how I ended up outside. I can't account for why they haven't searched this area, either.
I am forgotten waste from an abandoned regime. Maybe they have not found me because they do not care to.
It's a nice day. It's too cold for the new snow to melt, but the sun is still shining. Really, this is better than when it's warm, because when it's warm the ice melts to slush and soaks through my coat. The snow sticks to my boots and to the branches of the gray trees. I used to go hunting on days like these.
I do not want to go to the village today. I do not want to run into Will, and I do not want to listen to the stinking public jeer at my unwashed clothes.
I look at my flute again, but I put it down and turn away. Instead, I pull out my sword and work at honing the blade.
AN: I don't remember writing most of this, but I found these scenes on my computer, and was like, oh, what the hell.
Still returning reviews. If you reviewed the last chapter and I haven't returned it, PM me because it's a mistake.