Without fanfare we pick up our journey once more. Apparently, the gash Irei received from me (which is also the only injury he acquired) is fairly deep, and is bleeding through the canvas on his hand. We stop so Shay can cut up more strips, rebandage his hand, and save more for later.
"What exactly is our general plan?" Ambrose asks as we ride onward.
"We're gonna give these relics to our best soldiers and send them back in to stop the war," I explain.
"I dunno Lace," he remarks. "We do make a pretty good team. And we're already past enemy lines. Why bother going back?"
"Then what will we do with them?" Fiona questions.
"We could go overthrow the king," Cerise suggests, laughing a little to herself. Everyone pauses to consider her answer.
"It's a good idea," Everett admits, being one of Davenport's military men. "It'll be a surprise."
"No, it's not," I snap, to everyone's surprise. "I'm not gonna let anyone risk their lives like that!"
"Lace we all agreed to follow you," Irei points out. "Besides, it's a good plan. They'll never see us coming."
"Well I'm making the executive decision," I shoot back.
"This isn't your decision to make," Shay chides. "It should be a vote." Naturally, I am defeated, 6 to 1. Guess we're gonna overthrow the king. Should be fun, I guess.
We eventually emerge back onto Moonstone Path, but we have to be extra careful. Now, we're technically in Treble territory, even though two years ago it belonged to us.
All along the road are a few dead Davenport soldiers, bile rises into my throat at the sight of them. Ambrose looks pale and drawn, and stops strumming his lute.
"I think I'm gonna be sick," Gia moans, squeezing her eyes shut and clamping a hand over her mouth. As we pass by I stare at the bodies with a morbid fascination.
"I remember this," Ambrose croaks in a hollow voice. His hands have stopped shaking, but he too looks sick to his stomach. "I saw this six months ago."
"The ambush?" Shay asks quietly, as we continue to ride away from the bodies.
"Yeah, except it was all of my friends," he remarks apathetically. "All but six." Everett looks heartsick as Ambrose revisits something that obviously pains them both. I see a leather-bound book sitting in a puddle. A sword sticking out of someone's chest. Now I feel sick too.
"Wasn't Perry working near here?" Cerise asks, worrying discoloring her voice.
"I thought he was moved west," Ambrose answers, but he doesn't sound so sure. Davenport has largely been lying to its subjects, and my parents have been doing their best to keep me in the dark. We have been on the losing side for the past three years, but if you asked an ordinary peasant, they'd say we've been winning.
Three days before I left home, I heard my father talking to his military advisors.
"Your majesty, Davenport cannot be held much longer," one of them declared.
"How long do we have?" My father asked, his voice rough with exhaustion.
"When the winter is over, there'll be no stopping them."
Now it seems there's no stopping the Treble army with or without the winter weather to make fighting conditions difficult.
"I had no idea it was this bad," Irei admits.
"It's been this bad for a long time," I sigh. "As soon as the winter fades away, there'll be nothing to stop them."
On that happy note, we pick up the pace slightly, and continue away from this wretched place. Along the way we see things that make my stomach churn: the burnt wreckage of an army camp, a rag doll in the mud, and scores of dead horses. Gia hops off her horse to scavenge arrows, but refuses to take them from the dead.
Up ahead is a small signpost. According to our map, this upcoming town should be Opal Pond, home to one of Davenport's largest markets. According to the signpost, it's now called Pizzicato Pond. Oh well.
"We'll stop and do a bit of shopping," I declare. All the girls raise up a cheer, but there's grumbling from the boys, minus Everett. He seems to like shopping. "Besides, we need to get our gifts for the exchange."
Pizzicato Pond's market is just as big as I remember it from when I was little. Open air stalls line the dirt roads, filled to the brim with goods of all kinds. Vendors try to entice us to buy their wares, always boasting that they can beat anybody's price. We split off so as not to give away each other's presents. I come upon a stall selling blank books, with homemade paper and covers.
"See anything you like?" The vendor asks, displaying his wares with pride. He appears to be about my age, with straw colored hair and gray eyes.
"This one looks great," I gush, picking up a medium-sized journal. It's got a patchwork cover of leather pieces and heavy blue fabric, with a small clasp made of a loop of twine and a pretty rock on a string to keep it shut.
"Yours for six sharps," he offers. My heart freezes when he mentions the Treble currency system. I didn't even think about changing over our gold coins.
"All I have are five aurums," I admit, my heart pounding in my chest. An aurum is the official name of the gold coins of Davenport. Sharps are the Treble equivilant.
"That's okay too," he says. "What brings you to Pizzicato Pond?" Now I must choose my words very carefully as I hand him the money while he carefully wraps the journal in brown paper. Who knows if there's Treble militia nearby.
"Family business in the capital," I lie, not even sure what the capital is called, or where it is located.
"Ah, well have fun in Adagio Lake," he smiles. At least I know what the capital is called now. "Tell your friends about me. My name's Scherzo Caesura!" I nod quickly, and then walk back into the crowd of shoppers. Ever where I look, it seems there's someone playing or selling an instrument. I pass a lute quartet, a trio of female singers warming up, and at least three people playing pan flutes. It's a very musical town. I bump into the others, who are all watching Ambrose play his lute in front of a large stall selling what I'm sure is alcohol.
"We should get going," I declare, to the group at large.
"We can't yet," Gia says, gesturing to Ambrose. "They filled up his flask in exchange for a half hour of music." The barkeep introduces himself as Virtuoso Divisi, and tells us we are more than welcome to accompany Ambrose. But Ambrose is playing songs he wrote himself, so nobody can really sing along. But he draws a small crowd, then we pack up and hit the road again.
"I had fun," Fiona smiles broadly as we continue down what is apparently called Largo Road in Treble.
"Yeah, there were some really cool shops," Gia adds. "I wish we could stay longer." The road we're taking is busy. We frequently pass merchants and travelers. Several tell us that they're returning from the festival of song in Adagio Lake. It must be a very big event.
All day we journey down the road, passing tiny towns, random outdoor amphitheaters, and musicians of ever kind. Ambrose forgets about his flask while exchanging information with other performers.
"I wanna live here," he grins. "This seems like a great place." We find a great place to camp along the road, setting up our tents quickly while Irei leaves to hunt. But there's a problem: all of the wood is wet, and there's no way we can start a fire with that.
"I've got this," Cerise declares, pulling out her wand. She squeezes her eyes shut, and a jet of blue flame catches the soaking wet sticks on fire. Then she promptly faints into her brother's arms.
"Is she okay?" Fiona gasps in horror, as Ambrose pours a bit of his ale down Cerise's throat. Suddenly Cerise is coughing and sitting upright. Her eyes are slightly out of focus, and blood drips out of her nose and one corner of her mouth.
"I'm fine," she rasps, pausing to spit out what I assume is blood. "Veneficum is not very kind to me."
"Why not?" Gia asks in confusion. For most people, myself included, veneficum is largely shrouded in mystery. In fact, my mother can recall a time when venefica and venenarius were burned at the stake, which was less than 30 years ago.
"You can't just cast veneficum without a material to channel it through," Cerise explains while mopping the blood off of her face. "Otherwise it'll eat away at your sanity and strength. At a certain point the effects are irreversible. Amber is one of the weakest materials to channel through, so I don't cast veneficum unless it's an emergency."
"Do you usually pass out?" Shay wonders nervously, seeming very uncertain of what to do.
"Well ignis aqua is a more difficult incantantio to master," she admits. "The tricky ones make me pass out. Easy ones just make me dizzy."
"Okay, I wanna know how we can help you cast incantantios without you passing out," I declare. "We need that sort of stuff in a fight." Cerise ponders this for a few moments, then says potio servatae is what she needs.
"It's a liquid to take right before a battle," she explains. "It should keep me from passing out, and I can work on the battle incantantios in my book." I make a mental note to go looking for that in the next town we pass.
Irei returns empty-handed, and we're forced to dip into our supplies that Vitalia and Fyren gave us. Worn out by the day's proceedings, everyone crawls into bed, grateful for the early darkness.
"What do we know about the relics anyways?" Ambrose asks. After a brief breakfast of dried meat and hard biscuits we are back on the road once more. Today's priority is finding a half-decent map of Treble without arousing suspicion, getting supplies, and finding potio servatae.
"I've only ever heard rumors and legends," I admit, tugging on my rabbit-fur gloves. It is once again a chilly morning, and my hands get very cold very quickly without gloves. "Nobody can agree on what they are, but everyone knows they're the most powerful objects in history."
"I think I read something about one of the relics being a pair of knives," Ambrose adds eagerly. "I'd love a new set."
"What about the ones you have now?" Fiona asks curiously, gesturing to the twin daggers strapped to his belt. Ambrose sighs pitifully as if recalling some long-lost memory that none of us will ever know.
"If I remember correctly, it was another poker game," Everett smirks, amused by Ambrose's melancholy expression.
"I loved those kukri knives more than any girl I've ever met," Ambrose sighs passionately, as Everett continues to snicker at him. "They were amazing."
"What's a kukri knife?" Shay asks.
"They're curved blades," he replies. We lapse once more into silence as we plod down the road. Honestly, the thing that made me start this journey was a little hand-painted picture book in the Davenport library. It was my mother's once, then it was given to my sister and I. The book told the story of eight brave warriors fighting a great evil.
Of course, it did not mention where they got the relics, what the relics were, or how they used their relics.
The road stretches long before us as we continue to plod along. We're in the blind, with no map to tell us where to go or how to get there. It's terrifying. A sign up ahead tells us we're approaching the town of Diminuendo River, and I mention that we will be stopping.
Diminuendo River is a small town. To be precise, it is a medium-sized cluster of buildings, with boathouses and fishmongers by the river proper. We drop our horses off at a stable for a few coins, then we formulate a game plan.
"Cerise, Ambrose, and Shay, you get the potio servatae," I declare. Basically, we have to have one princess looking for each item, because we're the ones with the money. One male escort per group should keep us safe as well. The gods only know what the towns in Treble are like.
"Everett and Gia, go get the map," I instruct. "Fiona, Irei, and I will get supplies. Meet back here in an hour." With that in mind, we start browsing the small river hamlet, looking for someone who might sell us supplies. Everything is going well, until we bump into a venefica, who pulls us into her tent of multi-colored cloth while claiming she can read our futures.
"Sorry but we really must be going," Fiona explains, trying to duck out of the tent. But the venefica is stubborn. She insists on us sitting down on stools in front of a rickety wooden table, while she pulls out a ragged leather tome from a chest. She quickly ties back her mane of curly blonde hair, and I'm startled to realize she can't be that much older than me.
"Your futures will be read," she crows. "By the great and powerful Allegrezza!" Never have I seen someone wearing such unusual attire. She's chosen a green, purple, and orange dress that does not fit her anywhere. To top it off, she's swathed from head to foot in scarves of all colors and patterns.
"Sit still," she commands, pulling out a lump of what I think is an emerald. She mutters something to herself as the stone begins to glow, and points it at Fiona. For a few moments nothing happens, then she loudly slams the emerald into the table, causing Fiona to jump with fright.
"You," she rasps, pointing to Fiona with a shaking finger. "You shall learn that your beauty is perhaps the greatest weapon you shall ever possess." Fiona looks slightly annoyed by this proclamation, she's confided to Gia and I that she is never taken as seriously as she'd like to be. Interrupting my thoughts is the venefica, who's now pointing the glowing stone at Irei. It simply drops out of her hand, and her eyes fly open, wild with some cloudy emotion I cannot place.
"You are lying to yourself," she proclaims in a sandpaper voice. "And lies warrant a commitment you do not have." Fiona and I exchange confused glances, while Irei looks as if he's seen a ghost. The next thing I know the emerald is being pointed at me, while she mutters to herself once more. The emerald is calmly set down on the table as she studies me closely.
"Whatever is coming, you are not ready, and will never be ready," she murmurs, her voice suddenly smooth and cool. "Heartbreak comes from familiar places." Numbly, I set a few coins on the table and walk back outside with my friends, confused by the fortune I received. It hits a little too close to home for my liking.
No one talks as I calmly purchase more dried meat and hard biscuits. Irei still looks pale and nervous, obviously affected by the crazy venefica's words. We wander around a few minutes more, then end up back at the stables, waiting for our friends.
Gia and Everett join us a few moments later, Gia's flushed pink with a wide grin across her face and neither of them make eye contact with each other.
"We've got the map," Everett declares, pulling out a roll of parchment. Sure enough, Piper Trail and Harmony Cavern are scrawled on there in black ink. But what were Gia and Everett doing, and why can't she meet his eyes? These are things I'll be interrogating her with later.
Ambrose comes around a corner, dragging an unconscious Cerise as Shay limps along behind them.
"What happened?" I ask, noticing right away the clumps of blood in Cerise's hair. Ambrose sets her down on a hay bale, and I notice a jagged cut on his forearm.
"Well we were in this little shop buying a few bottles of this stuff, when a Davenport bounty hunter recognized us," Ambrose explains, as Fiona bandages his cut. "He knocked Cerise in the head so she couldn't fight, then tried to get Shay and I."
"He got me really good in the ankle," Shay grimaces as she tries to move it. "He twisted it while I was aiming a kick to his you-know-where."
"Shay fought like a wildcat," Ambrose adds. "I never would've been able to escape without her." Shay gives him a small smile, stowing her brass knuckles in her pocket for some future battle. Thank God I decided to take her with us, instead of Gia and I striking out on our own.
"We should probably go," he suggests, as Cerise finally comes to, pulling a lump of something out of her sleeve. It looks to be some sort of jewel.
"They didn't notice I took their sapphire," she grins, then winces as she tries to move her head. Gingerly, Cerise climbs up on her horse, and assures us that she's able to ride without assistance. Just as we start down Largo Road once more, a small group of Treble soldiers ride up behind us.
"Hold it right there," the lead one shouts, nearly causing my heart to stop beating. He calmly pulls up beside me, and studies me carefully. It is very hard to keep the pleasant smile on my face as the five other soldiers surround my team. The last thing we need is to get in a scuffle with Treble soldiers.
"Where are you off to, miss?" He asks briskly, clearly a man with no time to waste.
"Family business in Adagio Lake," I lie, gripping the reigns to keep my hands from trembling.
"Interesting," he muses, scanning the others in my group. "What sort of business?" My mind is racing to formulate even a half-decent excuse when Ambrose suddenly speaks up.
"We're hoping to catch one of prima donna Cambiare's performances," he answers, nearly causing my heart to stop. Who is he even talking about? "Her parents were gracious enough to promise to buy us tickets upon our arrival in the city." I'm so overjoyed by the plausibility of Ambrose's lie, I could kiss him.
"Ah yes, the famous opera diva," the soldier grins widely. "I was fortunate enough to see her in concert several years ago. What a lovely voice." I nod enthusiastically, so grateful for such a clean lie.
"We've been looking forward to it for quite some time," I chirp in a saccharine voice. Thank the music god for the opera diva, whoever she is.
"Well I won't keep you any longer miss," the soldier says, kissing my hand politely.
"Thank you sir," I smile, and we ride onward as the soldiers head back for Diminuendo River. Everyone breathes a sigh once we're out of earshot, and congratulates Ambrose for his quick thinking.
"I heard that Virtuoso guy at Pizzicato Pond talking about it," he admits. "Thank the gods I remembered."
Thankful to be free of the soldiers, everyone is in a much better mood as we continue down the road, laughing and talking all the way.