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Chapter 5: Revolution
Reznetha'ir was studying a large map of the Kingdom of Aesethna unrolled over a round, marble table in a large room in the private chambers when he heard the soft swish of a fabric brushing the door frame as K'tía entered. No one else was around, so he gave a small, respectful bow. "Your Highness ..."
Thin strands of black, razor-cut hair tapered past his shoulders to a fine, feathery point, but the rest of his shaggy hair framed an alabaster face and spruce-green eyes. His smile stretched the long, red scar that lay perpendicular across his lips.
For once, he was not dressed in armor. He wore black leather pants and belted boots under a purple and black brocade skirt that had seen better days. The embroidered, layered tunic he wore was fancy at one time, too, as were his black, fur-and-leather bracers. He was used to wearing ragged finery because he had been hiding from the Derra Eirlyn now for many years. The ragged condition of the Princess, however, seemed out of place, even in the buried ruins of Absin'navad. "Did you find Róbynn and get an answer about returning to the tavern?"
If spite of his friendly protocol, her nostrils flared as she approached. "You had no right sending Trizryn into the dark elf warrens. He is not a dark elf."
Reznetha'ir's brows rose at the angry, apparently well-informed, greeting. "Really? The last time I saw him without illusion magic he was the color of the night sky." He gave a poetic gesture toward the crumbling, black-marble ceiling.
"Appearance has nothing to do with it, and you know it. He is a surface-dwelling elf. He's Thályn. I'm as fascinated as anyone with wondering if it's possible to reconcile with the subterranean clans, but there are still too many tales of them being demented, cannibalistic, mind-controlling creatures to send him down there by himself. It is utterly irresponsible of you to think he'll be okay just because he looks like them."
The refugee camp leader sighed and folded his arms at his chest. "Trizryn is helping us of his own free will, and he is the only one of us with any chance of pulling off a successful, diplomatic journey to the underworlds. He doesn't need light to see. He can match their sorcery. And he has an enchanted translator and intimate knowledge about the gates. Plus, he's not too shabby at handling a blade, if necessary."
"He's one person."
"Who happens to have a talent for getting in and out of places unnoticed."
"Are you referring to the fact that he's a Derra Eirlyn agent?"
"Sounds like Róbynn discussed more than a good time to return to the tavern."
"I should have been told long before now."
"Perhaps," he easily agreed. "But we all have our reasons for keeping secrets. In Trizryn's case, he didn't want you compromised. Neither did I."
"I am your future queen. If you ever expect me to listen to you when I wear the crown, you had better tell me the truth about what's going on right now."
The fire in her aquamarine eyes and the passion in her anger were surprisingly strong. This was good. Reznetha'ir couldn't help but smile at the difference it made in the normally quiet and demure Princess's demeanor. "Then forgive me for speaking bluntly, Your Highness, but as such you've spent most of your life in the palace or the temple learning about idealisms, while insulated from the realities the rest of us face. Do you even understand what we mean when we say this is a refugee camp?"
"Of course I do. It's where people go when they've lost their homes."
"It's where people come when they've lost their lives," the camp leader corrected. "The Derra Eirlyn has determined these people are a burden to their otherwise perfect society. It can't scrape them off fast enough, and they can't afford to buy mercy."
K'tía folded her arms, too. "Perhaps they don't deserve mercy."
A thin, cynical smile touched the camp leader's lips. "Mercy is never deserved, or it isn't mercy. And you're beginning to sound just like your father."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You've just judged an entire group of people for being low-life scum without even knowing why they're here. You think they're hiding because they're dishonest, and therefore deserving of bad fortune. But sometimes—quite often actually—bad things happen to good people."
"Most people in dire circumstances bring it upon themselves."
"You're in dire circumstances right now. Did you ask to be abducted by the Derra Eirlyn's henchmen so they could use you to bait Trizryn? Did you deserve that?" He frowned and shook his head to answer his own question. "You tried to warn him that his summoner had a warrant for his arrest. You were trying to save his life—and Aija's—because you felt they didn't deserve default judgment and execution. But Trizryn broke the law to bring Aija here, and then you broke the law to spare both of them. So now you're hiding with the rest of us 'outlaws'. Remember that the next time you think to pass judgment on the others just because you don't know why they're here. You are no better than them." As soon as he said it, Reznetha'ir wondered if he had gone too far. It wasn't exactly the way to negotiate the favor of one's future queen.
The Princess looked appropriately insulted.
"There is one major difference between you and the other refugees, though." The camp leader grabbed the map and rolled it away, then cast a quick spell to shrink the large scroll to fit in the palm of his hand. "You can afford to buy mercy."
"You think I can buy my way off the hook just because my father's the Dheryl-Kin? He's more likely to make an example out of me because I defied him."
"When Trizryn was accused of conspiring to assassinate the Dheryl-Kin, had he been anyone else's son, or perhaps less trained in certain specialized skills—which he acquired because he happened to be nobility—he wouldn't have been given second chance. His life was spared as a favor to the Dheryl-Kéna." Tucking the small scroll into a travel bag, Reznetha'ir gestured for K'tía to accompany him.
She refused to budge. "Our mother was sick and dying. To execute her firstborn while she was on her deathbed would have been the premature end of her."
"No disrespect to Her Majesty, but would the council have made the same option available to the mother of a common thief? Should Trizryn's birthright excuse him from paying the legal penalty for treason?"
"He didn't try to assassinate the Dheryl-Kin. He was framed."
"Oh, I believe he's innocent, too. But is he above the law?"
"If he was he wouldn't have been sentenced to twenty years in the dungeon."
The camp leader shoved his hands in his pockets and moved to the doorway. "Yet treason is usually punishable by death."
Still seething, the Princess begrudgingly joined him in the hall. "If you think he was given special treatment, why is he having to hide from bounty hunters?"
"He did the one thing the Derra Eirlyn cannot forgive. He threw off their yoke. And now he is trying to free others, as well."
The camp leader cast her a side-glance as they walked down the torch-lit corridor of the ancient ruins. "Having a better life didn't make Trizryn a better person. But, his better resources and higher rank were enough to buy mercy. For most of the people in the dungeons, mercy has a price beyond their means."
"Our situation was different. It was a misunderstanding. The Derra Eirlyn picks no quarrels with citizens who obey the laws and make themselves useful. Its mission is to give every tribe—every individual—a peaceful kingdom."
"In theory." The camp leader dared to disagree. "When the Derra Eirlyn first formed two thousand years ago, perhaps the founders did have good intentions for uniting the surface tribes against the dark elves and their dragons. But their laws were written by a privileged few who liked simple answers to complex problems. And now, protecting their laws has become more important than protecting people. Look at what's happened with Aija. She's done nothing wrong, yet she's to be executed just because she's human. You helped Trizryn prove her innocence, but that changes nothing in the eyes of the law because she's still human."
"Some of the laws are a bit archaic, but ..." the Princess conceded.
"A bit? What about the laws regarding marriage? Are you ready to bed someone chosen for you based on genetic probabilities for breeding the best children?"
"Weak bloodlines result in weak magic."
He frowned and stopped walking to face her. "Bullshit. Your brother's bloodlines are all screwed up. Is he weak? Are you incapable of choosing someone for yourself? Is tradition more important than happiness?"
K'tía's pale cheeks flushed with anger. "Do I need to remind you who you're talking to?"
"Aija didn't know our laws, but you did. You're as guilty of treason as your brother and myself. But are the charges against any of you just?"
Her frown remained terse, but she answered nothing in response.
"I let Aija stay with us because I don't believe she deserves to die for being who she is," he explained. "I don't believe you deserve whatever punishment they've got lined up for you, for helping her." He extended a hand. "Come. See what made your brother realize the Derra Eirlyn no longer deserves to rule this kingdom."
Still skeptical, K'tía placed her hand in his and let him lead her further down the corridor. "I'll admit the Derra Eirlyn has problems, but we need their stability to keep the peace."
"Coerced peace is nothing but tyranny in disguise. The Derra Eirlyn operates on the premise that people are guilty until proven innocent, and therefore we need to be controlled. Not everyone wants peace at that price."
When they came to a stop again, it was on a balcony above a lower great hall that had been converted into a tent city. Placing a hand on the column next to her, Reznetha'ir leaned forward to see the various ages and races of fae below trying to carry on with their displaced lives.
The Princess seemed shocked, then appalled. "There are children down there."
"Yes, whole families … And some families that will never be whole again." The camp leader offered his hand again. She took it.
Placing her hand in the crook of his arm, he escorted her down the stairs like the Princess that she was. "When the subjects of a kingdom are viewed as a burden by their own leaders, it's time to get new leaders. Or … perhaps a new kingdom. Your brother stole the gate maps and summoned the Gate of Min so we could seek help from the humans beyond the Veil. But we've intercepted reports that the gates may be malfunctioning. We need to know they're safe before continuing to use them."
"Is that what Triz and Kassí were talking about when he first came to the tavern?"
Reznetha'ir nodded. "He thinks Kassi's father knew something about the gates. According to one of the reports, it looks like Kassi's father was one of the engineers, but he recommended that the gates be shut down years ago. The Derra Eirlyn apparently ignored him. We're curious about why."
"Nobody is supposed to know those gates even exist. I was told they were shut down to protect our borders. I had no idea one of them was still operable."
"The Derra Eirlyn still uses them. Triz was trained to use them after he became an agent. And Min seemed the most likely portal toward aid because the elves of Thálynessa used to have various alliances with the human druids of Winderbury. That's where Aija comes from.
"One of my other friends, Gáraketh, attempted to contact her, but he was killed. Trizryn wanted to know why and whether the human had anything to do with the murder, and the destruction of the gate afterwards, so that's why he brought her here. But with the gate destroyed, she has no way home, and now we have no escape or aid … unless we can find another gate that still works."
Reaching ground level, they crossed the cracked, dirty floor between the many multicolored tents. Fires were burning in rusted braziers, and the elves gathered around to warm themselves were chewing on small, greasy scraps of some kind of small animal.
One elf was carrying buckets of water on a beam across his shoulders to various individuals sitting in their "doorways". Two orcs hung a few items of clothing along the ropes of their tent. And a small faerie girl was attempting to lift another brazier filled with animal bones, broken rods, and empty bottles to carry it wherever they disposed of their trash down here in the caverns.
"You would lead these people out of relative safety in our own world to some alien land beyond the Veil?"
"That's just it—they're not safe here."
"There hasn't been an elven migration since The Homecoming. And that was a migration in—not out. Human witch hunters tried to eradicate all magic practitioners, there and here. You can't ask this kingdom to endure another invasion like that."
"Trizryn offered revolution. Aija offered a way out. These people have nothing left to lose. They'll take whatever they can get."
"Revolution?" K'tía stopped walking and faced the camp leader again. "He said that? War against our father? He wouldn't dare."
"Then you don't really know your own brother, do you? Because he also has nothing left to lose." He gestured for her to continue following him to the back of the great hall. "You volunteered to stay as a healer, so it would be best if you were down here helping people heal. Let me show you to your new quarters. Only temporary guests stay upstairs in the private rooms."
"You have a private room upstairs. Leader's special privilege?"
"I use that room for meetings. Most of the time I sleep wherever I find the space and time."
K'tía's attention remained divided between the shanty town and the scarred elf beside her. "And who are you ... really? When I was healing Aija's wound after the fight at the tavern, I heard what Triz said about Kassi recognizing your face, but Róbynn refused to explain."
The camp leader smiled at her curiosity. "I once served as a personal guard in service to your mother. I believe she was a good person whose life ended much too soon. And I always had hopes that you and your brother would carry on her vision."
The Princess tried hard to recall the faces of the guards that were always at her mother's side. "I'm sorry. I don't ..."
"The helm covered my face," he offered, easing her embarrassment at not recognizing him. "And I lost my position when she died because I had a disagreement with my captain. But as far as I'm concerned, I'm still sworn to protect her heirs." He scratched behind an ear. "Unless they turn out to be spoiled brats, of course."
Her brow lifted, but she seemed humored. "Surely you're speaking of my brother."
"Of course." He smiled again as they walked. "Anyway, it's my mother that could be a deadly association for myself and the others. I'm sure you remember the burning of the Golden Temple of Larakith in Serensa?"
Her jaw dropped in recognition of the name and event. "Knight Abehhendil was your mother?"
"For the record … she wasn't insane. She was angry. Her actions were deliberate." As he came to a stone door, Reznetha'ir pushed it open, then walked through with her.
Outside of the temple, the subterranean caverns were naturally hulled from a rich, black stone with green, blue, purple, and white veins running through it. Glowing crystals that matched the colorful veins grew out of the walls and ceiling giving the grotto a low, eerie light where there should have been only blinding darkness. Purple, tree-sized mushrooms, white ferns, and blue, bioluminescent succulents grew on patches of deep green moss and between rocks along the precipice path.
"After injuries at the previous rebellion made her unfit to hold her position," he continued explaining, "my mother drained her savings to pay for her medical expenses. She could barely afford food and was relying on the charity of family and neighbors. But when she received notice she was going to lose her home because she couldn't pay the rent, she decided the temple had more than enough gold and jewels to spare."
He noticed K'tía's attention was drawn to the bridge crossing the small gorge behind him. The bridge was of ancient dark elven design like the temple itself. It had purple and black spikes that looked like razor-sharp teeth, and it's base was made of something lacy and white. Water could be heard dripping into the underground stream below it. Bats could be heard in the distant tunnels that fed into the garden-like grotto.
Hands behind his back, Reznetha'ir strolled slowly past the bridge and further down the precipice. "Everyone thinks she snapped, but she sent me a letter before she did it. She complained about money going to waste on dead lords when it should be used to feed and house the living. She couldn't stand the way the nobles looked at her, judging her, even though she was in that broken condition because of years in their service."
"There's a compensation plan for warriors injured in the line of duty."
"It wasn't enough to cover her basic living expenses, and when you're already stretched as tight as you can go, all it takes is one tragedy to push you into a pit you can't dig yourself out of. My mother set the temple on fire to draw attention to the conditions fueling the rebellions in Serensa. And then the King had her beheaded for leading the rebellion. She was guilty of treason—the same charge your brother escaped."
"I'm … so sorry. I … had no idea."
"When you become queen, you put it right, you hear? You tell them my mother was not insane. Insanity is decorating a temple with gold and jewels in a province where half of the population is starving. That's where I returned when I left Brinnan. And that's where I started taking in people I thought I could help.
"My only condition in running this camp is that people share what they can afford to give, whether it's money, clothing, food, or time. These people won't be able to pay for your services, but I can offer you shelter and what food and medical reserves we have as long as you are willing to help take care of our sick and injured."
He gestured in surrender. "And now you have all the information necessary to report me to the King ... if you choose to do so."
"Yet you are foolish enough to trust me to keep it secret?"
"That's the nature of trust and mercy, isn't it? It's foolish. But so is excessive paranoia, which eventually becomes just cruel and destructive. I don't force anyone to stay here. They stay because they're treated better down here than they are up there, in spite of the fact that they have nothing."
K'tía paused to inspect with curiosity some ghastly white trees with blood-red fruit and no leaves. "My father's not a cruel man, you know."
"I know," he agreed, surprising her. "He thinks he's doing what's necessary to preserve the order for the greater good. The problem is his 'greater good' applies mostly to the Derra Eirlyn and nobles. It requires too many sacrifices from nameless nobodies who don't really matter in the scheme of things."
"Sacrifice ..." a wispy voice echoed in the grotto.
Reznetha'ir and K'tía froze in place, each looking to the other as if uncertain of what they just heard. But both of them turned toward the bridge.
The translucent figure of an elven woman stood in the center of the arch. She didn't appear to be wearing anything, and her hair looked stringy … wet.
"Is that …"
"A ghost," K'tía confirmed.
The elven phantom ran across the bridge back toward the great hall and disappeared, passing right through the stone door.
Reznetha'ir started after her. "I can't let her hurt anyone."
K'tía held him back. "I doubt she's a threat. She looked terrified. Ghosts only appear where there was a great enough tragedy to trap their energy." She looked over the precipice to the stream below. "Do you know if someone drowned out here?"
"No, but … as old as these ruins are, anything's possible. Several refugees have claimed they've seen ghosts in the temple."
"Do you know anything about what happened here?"
"All I know is it was marked as 'Absin'navad' on an old map that dates back to before the War of the Blood Reign."
"As a priestess of D'lóron, I know divination magic. I can try to contact her, if you like. Invoking spirits isn't illegal as long as they're not being bound with necromancy."
He shook his head. "We'll be leaving these caverns soon enough. The dead should be left to rest in peace."
"Spirits that remain in this world are not at peace."
Reznetha'ir scanned the grotto, but the only ghost-like thing that remained was a giant, broken spider web stirring slightly in the subterranean breeze.
"My new room won't be out here, will it?" the Princess asked with unease.
"No. One of the tunnels branching away from here has tents set up just like in the great hall." Still watching the shadows with suspicion, Reznetha'ir escorted K'tía down the stone steps that connected the precipice to a path of broken tiles that ran along the banks of the stream. "You may have to share a tent with someone else, but your patients are free to use any of the rooms in the private chambers while they're being treated. Most people knew to look for Tesler in the alchemy lab when they needed assistance."
"Tesler … Does he know Trizryn is a dark elf?"
"Yes, but Róbynn and I are the only ones who know he's royal lineage. Trizryn goes by his first name only while staying here. For your own sake, you need to keep your identity a secret, too. Some of our refugees may be hostile to nobles."
"Then why do you continue to address me with titles and protocol?"
"Habit, I suppose. And perhaps hope," he answered with a smile. "This doesn't have to come to a civil war, but if you cannot mend what's been done by the Dheryl-Kin and the Derra Eirlyn, their deeds will fall on your shoulders when it all comes undone."
"I appreciate your support, but your words still damn you for treason."
"If I am to lose my head for this, I choose to go out the way my mother did … fighting for something worth more than gold."
"Sounds like a waste of a perfectly good knight."
"Guard," he corrected. "I was let go before I got the chance at knighthood."
"Well, I can't promise I won't report you if I think Aesethna, or the Dheryl-Kin, is in peril, but one of the reasons I didn't report Trizryn is because I knew what fate awaited him if he was arrested again. I also knew Aija meant us no harm. While I'm here, I can give these people the same benefit of the doubt, at least."
"That's all I ask. Thank you." His eyes drifted back toward the bridge and stone door where the ghost had disappeared, but he continued to escort the Princess into the adjacent tunnels.