Of Lies and Deception
Nina dropped back in shock. She blinked a few times, almost not believing what she was seeing as Manon lifted her head from the crate she had stuffed herself inside of. Disbelief made her stutter as the princess lifted her legs up so that she was sitting down within the crate. She wrapped her arms around her knees, grinning sheepishly at her.
"What are you doing here?!" The cry came out probably more harshly than was respectful for someone that was royalty, but that was all Nina could manage to gasp. She shook her head wildly, grabbing for her temple as a headache started up behind her eyes. "How did you even-? No, just why? Why?"
"Er, are you mad?"
"Of course, I'm mad!" Nina slammed her Devoir back into its sheath. "Why are you here? How did you even get here?!"
"I snuck on board when they began loading up."
"You've been hiding here the entire time?!"
"No, I jumped ship a few days ago and did some tavern hopping. Of course, I have!"
"You do not get to be sassy with me when you're- Why are you here?!"
Manon grimaced. "Can I climb out first? There's a nail poking me in the butt and it hurts."
Nina made some unintelligible sounds of annoyance as she fought past the desire to smack her royal highness upside the back of her head. Of all the possible...
Growling angrily, Nina turned and began stomping away. Manon watched her go silently for a moment before climbing out of the box. Her legs unfolded neatly from the tight space and she jumped out. Nina didn't look back to watch her do so.
This was ridiculous. Now she had the princess on board. And now she had to figure out what exactly she was going to do with the princess.
Nina returned to the deck, angrily slamming the hatch down into stowage behind her. She didn't want to think about or see the princess. She fully expected her to follow her up and was surprised when it didn't happen immediately.
A few long minutes later, Manon finally emerged from below. She had taken the time to go through Nina's things and change into a plain tunic and stockings. Her boots remained unchanged, likely because Nina and Manon didn't wear the same size shoe. The clothing looked tight on her, especially around the chest and waist, but it still fit.
"What do you think?" Manon asked, holding out her arms for Nina's inspection.
Standing at the wheel, Nina glared at her. "I think that you're going to waste a great deal of my time by forcing me to return to Gwenael! I am trying to save Erec, I do not have the time to deal with your childish games! Don't you ever think about other people?!"
"No! No! No!" Manon ran over and grabbed the wheel before Nina could turn it. The paladin just glared down at her.
"What do you think you're doing?"
"I want you to take me with you!"
"Did you think I snuck on board and hid down there for two weeks for no reason? I was trying to come with you!"
"You could have asked like a normal person!"
"You would have said no!"
"You're damn right I would have said no!"
Manon blinked at her in surprise.
"What?" Nina snapped. She felt unreasonably angry. Her hands were shaking with the urge to grab the impetuous girl and attempt to shake some sense into her. The violent thought was not something she was used to having. Then again, when speaking with Manon, it probably wasn't all that unreasonable.
"I've just never heard you curse before," Manon grinned. "That's new. I like it. Do it again."
Nina growled, pushing Manon away from the wheel. "This is not a joke! Nor is it a game! Your brother's life is in danger! Don't you care about that at all?"
"Of course, I do! Why do you think I'm here?!"
"Honestly, I couldn't even begin to guess. I don't know what you could possibly gain from this except for the enjoyment of knowing you're giving me an aneurysm."
"Well, I won't deny that's a bonus," Manon tried to joke.
The glare Nina gave her made her clear her throat and look away.
"Look, I'm here because... this might actually be my fault."
"What did you do?!"
"Why do you say it like that?" Manon frowned. "I didn't sell secrets to Gascony or anything. I just... might have pushed Erec a little too far."
"He was tired of being treated like a child and I told him that, so long as you just kept hiring him trainers and never let him do anything, he would always be one in your eyes. I was hoping he would do something, I didn't think he'd insist on going to war!"
Nina frowned at her. "You're the reason he was acting so oddly?"
Manon shrugged. "I certainly didn't help. I mean, I was trying to. I do love Erec. I like teasing him, but that's because he's my brother. Tormenting him is only fun because of that. I don't want anything bad to happen to him. I certainly don't want him trapped in Gascony. This is my fault, Nina, I should be helping you."
Nina growled at her, fingers tightening on the wheel of the ship. "I appreciate the sentiment, your highness, but-"
"You should call me Manon. Very hard to stay hidden if you're calling me 'highness' all the time."
"It doesn't matter what I call you, because I'm taking you back home!"
"No! You can't!" Manon grabbed the wheel again. "Erec's already been imprisoned over half a month. If you turn back, it will be another month or more before you free him."
"That's my point!"
"Listen, I know I can help-"
"What can you possibly do?!" Nina threw her hands from the wheel. "You are a disrespectful, disobedient, gambling addict."
"I am not addicted. I just do it because it's fun. And I'm not even the one that gambles, I'm the one who takes the money from the saps who are addicted to gambling."
"That doesn't change the fact that you are less than worthless to me."
"Oh, yeah?!" From her belt, Manon yanked a purse. Coins clinked together as she ripped open the drawstring and let it fall open to reveal a mixture of gold, silver, and copper coins. While the silver was the most abundant, there was still a tidy sum there.
Nina reached out and took one of the copper pieces. She frowned at the impression and size, because they weren't Vasconian coins.
"How did you get Gacsonian currency?" Nina asked, lowering the coin to frown at Manon.
"When gambling addicts are desperate, they'll put anything up. Some of them only had foreign currency. It may be stamped from another country, but the metal is still precious. You should see the amount of Lloegyrian coins I have."
Nina tossed the piece back into the bag. She continued to frown.
Manon rolled her eyes. "You honestly think you can pass through with absolutely no money? See? I'm useful. You didn't think of this, did you? Anyone else who takes up foreign currency has it melted down to be re-stamped. I'm the only one who keeps it as is."
"Only because you can't have it melted without raising questions."
"Regardless of the reason, I have the money." Manon closed the bag again and tied it back onto her belt.
"Just because you have money does not make you useful. It would have been useful if you dropped it off and not boarded the ship yourself. You negated any use by adding yourself to it."
"I am useful!"
"What can you do?"
"Well, for one thing, I can point out the ship that's flying towards us that you haven't noticed yet because you're too busy being mad at me!"
"Wha-" Nina whipped her head around.
Her belly clenched tight to see a Gasconian scout ship that was heading towards them from the direction of the mountains. It wasn't a full warship, but it was part of the fleet. It was likely on the lookout for spies attempting exactly what she was going to try.
Cursing, Nina grabbed for the wheel, but there was nothing she could do. A scout ship was built for speed, she wouldn't be able to outrun it in a cargo ship. Worse, if she tried to, it would immediately make her suspicious.
Manon crossed her arms. "See? Not useless."
"Stop talking!" Nina hissed at her. "They're going to search the ship and they're going to ask us questions. Let me do the talking. Pretend to be a mute or something."
Manon rolled her eyes.
"Good work," Nina growled, powering down the thrusters to bring the ship to a stop. She was going to end up talking to Gasconian soldiers at some point, she might as well get her practice in early. If worse came to worse and she ended up having to fight...
Well, she just hoped that Manon could behave herself. The last thing she needed was a royal attitude to meet the soldiers. Commoners reacted differently, and while she could trust herself to act as a commoner, she doubted highly that the haughty and arrogant princess could do the same.
Manon just stood back and watched as Nina brought the ship to a halt. The paladin let out a long breath to dispel her nerves and put an impassive look on her face. She was just transporting some baby things across country lines. She wasn't suspicious. She and her... sister... They didn't look close enough to be sisters, their coloring was polar opposites. Sister-in-law!
Nina frowned back at her. Manon waved innocently.
Nina rolled her eyes and grabbed a spare coat from the room she slept in. She threw it at her.
"Put that on. The way I have it."
"Because Gasconian women have to wear the coats of either their fathers or their husbands or they'll be treated as whores. Put it on."
Manon frowned but she wrapped the garment around her shoulders similar to the way Nina wore it. The paladin rolled her eyes and walked over. She grabbed her hair and quickly began mussing it as she adjusted the tight clothing to try and make it look more natural.
"You're my husband's little sister. You're helping me because he broke his arm and wasn't able to come pick up the shipment with me. We're returning to him in Gascony."
"Where are returning? If they ask a city."
Nina blinked at her, unsure of how to answer.
Manon grinned. "We're from Modestus. It's a trade city near the border."
"How do you...?"
"You think I don't pay attention at all in my lessons? I'm not stupid. I just choose to be belligerent."
The girls turned and Nina frowned to see how close the ship had come. They were preparing a gangplank so they could cross over. The little scout ship wasn't close to the size of the warships, but it was still bigger than the cargo ship.
"Evening, ladies!" The man yelling at them pleasantly. "May we come aboard?"
"As though we have a choice?" Manon asked under her breath.
Nina ignored her. "Of course. What can we do for you, officer?"
He didn't respond immediately. He waited until the gangplank had been lowered and he could cross over, still smiling happily. He seemed to be a pleasant fellow, but Nina knew full well that he could be putting it on to put them off guard.
"Ladies," he nodded his head to them. "I'm Theodore. A pleasure to make your acquaintance."
"Good sir," Nina inclined her head, not meeting his eyes. She looked back and was surprised to see Manon behaving similarly. "I'm Nina. This is my sister, Manon. What can we do for you today?"
"Routine inspections. Nothing to worry about. Do you mind if my men search your cargo?"
"Of course, not. Be our guest."
"Wonderful. Do you have a shipping manifest, by any chance?"
"It's with my travel papers."
"Great! That's my next question answered. You there, Manon, go fetch them for me. Good girl."
Nina nearly flinched at him calling her a 'good girl'. If there was anything that might set off the princess, it was something so obviously patronizing.
Manon inclined her head. "Yes, sir."
She turned and walked back into Nina's cabin. Theodore watched her go, scratching his chin.
"So, what are you two doing out here?" It was phrased like a simple conversation starter, but Nina heard the barbed question underneath. He was seriously testing them.
"Shipping for my husband's store."
"And, er, where is he?"
"At home. He broke his arm. It's just me and my sister."
"That girl's your sister?" He looked immediately skeptical. Just as Nina figured he might.
"Sister-in-law. She's my husband's sister. She's helping me since he's stuck at home."
"Rather dangerous for two girls to be traveling by themselves. Where is home?"
"Not far. Modestus."
Theodore's face lit up. "You're from Modestus? My brother moved there. Maybe you met him? He works in the cobbler's shop."
"Oh, is he the one with the beard?"
Nina jumped, not realizing that Manon had come up behind her with the satchel full of documents in her hand. She was grinning at Theodore, but before Nina could hiss at her to be quiet, Theodore was nodding his head eagerly.
"Yeah, the little patch he's got growing here? It looks silly to me, but he thinks it's attractive." Theodore laughed deep from the belly.
Manon smiled. "He's nice. Remember when he made you those boots you love, Nina?"
"Hard to forget," Nina said numbly. What was she doing?
"Ah, I really should visit him more," Theodore grinned, taking the satchel. He started going through the contents of it, looking over their papers and the manifest. He glanced at the latter only for a moment before passing it to one of the soldiers who took it below deck to check it against the actual cargo.
Manon smiled at Nina's scowl as she clasped her hands together before her. She gave her 'sister' an innocent smile.
Theodore started reading from the papers to himself. He was mumbling along as he squinted at the paper, his eyes having difficulty focusing on the small writing.
Nina and Manon remained silent as the soldiers finished their check. The men came back up from the cargo hold and informed Theodore that everything matched up on the manifest and it looked like everything was in order.
"Well, you have all the right papers, and you two seem like nice girls." Theodore passed back the satchel with the papers. "You ladies have a nice day."
"Thank you," Manon and Nina said at the same time.
Neither of them moved as the soldiers crossed back over to their ship, most of them appearing bored and uninterested. This sort of thing was common to them. They hadn't even really been all that thorough in their search because they hadn't felt the need to do so. Theodore crossed over last, waving to the two as the gangplank was pulled back onto their scout ship.
Nina covered her eyes from the sun as its thrusters were pushed forward and they returned to the mountain to continue their watch. Only once they were out of earshot did she let out a long breath of relief, allowing her shoulders to relax. She peeked over at Manon to see the princess sighing as well, trying to hide it from Nina.
"How did you know his brother had a beard?"
Manon grinned. "I didn't. Either his brother had a beard or he didn't. Whichever was true, he would have kept talking. And it sounds better than just denying it outright."
Nina frowned, crossing her arms. "Where did you learn that?"
"Mother's lessons on dealing with boring stuff-shirts. I mean, nobles."
Nina rolled her eyes, hands on her hips. She returned to the wheel and started powering up the thrusters once again. Manon narrowed her eyes suspiciously.
"Just curious, you are continuing on, aren't you?"
Nina paused, hand hovering over the throttle. Manon crossed her arms.
"I just saved your butt! Half the questions he asked you only knew the answer to because of me! And I'm the one who got him talking. I know how to act my way through idiots like that. I'm good and you know it. Take me with you."
"Do your parents even know where you are?" Nina asked sharply.
"I left them a note. At this point, they know better than to try to come after me. It would be more dangerous to expose me now that we're so far in."
She was right. Though Nina hated to admit it, having someone from the royal fleet chasing after the princess would make this entire mission that much more difficult. Cyrille would know that. He wouldn't order a ship after her for just that reason.
And Manon was also right about turning back. It would add a great deal of time that Erec might not have to spare. Anything could be happening to him while he was being held prisoner. If he died or was injured because Nina had to turn back, even if it was Manon's fault, she would feel the guilt for herself. She had seen what it was like, watching her friend Nicolas go through the guilt of seeing his king maimed while under his protection. She didn't imagine that she, if put in a similar situation, would be able to do any better.
However, it went both ways. If Erec was harmed while she took Manon back, she would feel the full responsibility of it. And if Manon were injured because she allowed her to come along, she would feel the full responsibility of that also.
Nina took in a deep breath, and when she opened her eyes it was to see the princess doing her best innocent, pleading face. She was a rather good actress.
"I suppose gambling helps with your trickery."
"It certainly doesn't hinder it." Manon fluttered her eyelashes sweetly.
Nina shook her head, rubbing her throbbing temple. "I can't believe this..."
"I'll be good. I'll be helpful. For all that he's a prat, Erec is still my brother. The only reason he was out there was because of me."
Nina looked at her in surprise. She hadn't expected such genuine emotion from her. The false innocence had faded away and in its place appeared to be genuine remorse. It was hard for Nina to know if it was real or faked – at least after that display she had just given – but the stoop to her shoulders, the way her eyes had become shadowed and downcast, all seemed real enough.
"I didn't know I would push him into war. I just thought I would... spur him into action, you know? How was I supposed to know that he'd be a dummy who got himself taken prisoner?"
Nina stared at her for a moment, watching the guilt play out over her face. It was rather interesting to see the way she shouldered the blame for something no one else had put on her. It looked interestingly like responsibility, but that was so far from what she had come to expect from Manon that for a moment she couldn't believe that it was actually happening.
She sighed in defeat. "I can't believe I'm doing this."
A smile split across Manon's face. She let out a whoop of excitement as she threw her fist into the air in victory. Nina leveled a finger at her.
Manon paused, looking to her.
"You will do everything I say, exactly as I say it."
"Of course, my dear, lady paladin." Manon gave her a mock curtsy.
Nina grabbed her by the arm and jerked her back up. Roughly. Far more roughly than the pampered princess was used to being handled. She looked surprised for a moment as she frowned down at the tight grip Nina had on her arm.
"I am not playing. I am not speaking in jest. From this moment on, you are officially on assignment. You volunteered for this, and everything that comes with it."
"I got it. Let go."
"No, you don't. You will do everything that I say. When I say it. As I intend you to do it. You will not be willfully disobedient nor technically obedient."
Manon frowned up at her. She wasn't used to hearing such ferocity and unyielding authority in Nina's voice. As leader of the paladins, as a paladin in general, Nina had greater authority than even the crown prince, much less a simple princess. Nina answered only to the master of the Sacellum and the king or queen, in that order.
Despite her power though, Nina had never pulled rank on Manon. At least, not in this manner. Whenever she had forced the princess to do something, it was always by the order of the king or queen. This direct, authoritative maneuver was unusual for her.
And while she wasn't squeezing her arm hard enough to hurt, it certainly wasn't comfortable.
"If I tell you to run, you run. If I tell you to hide, you hide. If I tell you to play the sweet, innocent little girl and keep your mouth shut, you will do your best impression of a simple mute. We are going into enemy territory, and the danger is very real. If we are discovered, you will be killed and I will be lucky to receive a similar mercy."
"What does that mean?"
"It means that Gascony does not revere paladins as Vasconia does. In that country, I am considered a blasphemous freak. An abomination against the Lord. They call us unnaturals, and they treat us like slaves or worse when we're found."
"But that's stupid."
"It is what they believe. Your identity and mine must be kept hidden. My power must remain a secret. So, you will do whatever I say immediately. The time for your games and mischief is over. This is real life Manon, and now there are real consequences.
The princess frowned, but she nodded. "All right. I understand."
Nina released her arm and put her hand back on the throttle. She began pushing it forward, turning the ship back onto their course around the last hills of the barrier mountain range. Manon was rubbing at the abused part of her arm with a frown.
"Unnatural," Nina confirmed, her eyes facing forward.
"If it's so dangerous for you to go, why are you doing it? Why not send someone else?"
"Who else could we send?"
"Anyone. A knight. A guard. A spy, preferably. Don't we have quite a few? Why can't one of them go after him instead?"
"Spies are intended to gather information, not people. The whole point of a spy is that they don't draw attention to themselves. Rather difficult to do when they're breaking prisoners free.
Manon watched her for a moment, one eyebrow raised curiously. She couldn't help but notice that Nina had only answered half of her question.
The princess frowned, looking towards the horizon.
Jumping onto the ship had been a snap decision on her part. It was something that she had done because it had felt right. The letter she left hadn't been so much an explanation as a single line written so that her parents wouldn't turn the kingdom upside down trying to find her.
This was the first time Manon had ever snuck out for an unselfish reason. She wasn't afraid. She wasn't uncertain. She was only concerned for Erec and what had become of him.
And when she looked back at Nina, and the hard expression on her face, she wondered if maybe it wasn't her brother that she should have been pushing.
The glinting of sunlight off of tarnished metal drew her eye down to Nina's waist where her sword, Devior, was resting against her hip. At least, she thought it was Devior. She didn't remember the elegant sword having such a plain, almost ugly, hilt before.
"Are we likely to encounter... resistance?"
Nina turned her eyes to her, then followed her gaze down to her sword.
"If it comes to an all-out battle, likely one of us isn't going to be surviving it."
"Is that 'one of us' you?"
"I may be higher in rank than you, highness, but your blood is still more valuable than mine. If my death allows you to escape, then that will be the path I take. I would rather it not happen. Hopefully, I'm carrying this only for personal protection."
Manon frowned. She didn't like the way that Nina had so quickly dismissed her own value in comparison to hers. Honestly, she was such a useless princess that she regularly broke the law with her gambling ring and it didn't matter at all. As far as she could see, and as much as it hurt to admit, Nina was considerably more important.
Manon bit her lip, looking back at the sword. Her eyes darted up and down a couple times as nerves began twisting her belly into rolling knots.
Nina, focused on piloting, tried not to notice the odd expression on her face. Part of her was hoping that the princess was simply nauseated from the flight.
She tapped her fingers together. She fidgeted with her hair. Nina was tempted to tell her to just state whatever was on her mind, but she decided not to. The princess had to learn to speak for herself, even if she felt nervous about it.
Manon let out a wordless cry of frustration. "I can't take it! Nina, teach me how to fight!"
"What?!" Manon looked at her, slack jawed and heartbroken. "How can you deny me so quickly like that? You didn't even think about it."
"You want me to trust you with weaponry? Absolutely not."
"Please, Nina. I'll be good, I promise."
"You just drove away your dancing instructor. Why should I teach you fighting?"
"I never wanted to learn dancing in the first place. That was mother's idea. She seems to think that all young ladies and lords should learn how to dance."
"It's such a useless, pointless skill to have," Manon groaned, rolling her eyes.
"Maybe you just don't know how to apply it correctly."
"Nina, I'm begging here." Manon put her hands together to plead her case. "I've wanted to learn how to fight since I was little. Mother never let me because 'princesses do not fight, Manon. That's for boys. Now, come to your lessons'." Her Radelle impression was seriously lacking.
"That sounds like something the queen would say," Nina admitted. Even if the impression was terrible.
"It's verbatim what she would say and has said. Please, Nina. I can help fight, if it comes to that. I will be the perfect student. I can be, when I want."
Nina frowned, thinking it over for a moment. Mostly just to put Manon in painful suspense, but there was something to seriously consider here.
While Nina had no qualms about allowing the princess to learn combat, she knew that would fly in the face of what the queen wanted. Radelle had already made it clear, on multiple occasions, that she didn't think it proper for Manon to learn any sort of fighting, be it sword play, grappling, or even archery. She wished her daughter to be a prim, polite, and proper princess.
None of them were adjectives that Nina would use to describe Manon. Immediately, even without teaching her to fight, she didn't qualify for any of them.
She had a trickster's mind and a cunning wit that would likely get her into trouble one day. She knew how to gather people's secrets and use them against them. While she had been raised in the palace, she was also comfortable in the dirty streets where she would roam to conduct her business. A business that was quite lucrative, if her income from it was any indication.
If she hadn't been born a princess, Nina thought that Manon might actually make a good warrior and strategist. If nothing else, she had the skills to be a spy. It was a shame that her birthright took those opportunities from her.
And while Nina was inclined to side with the queen on most issues, those guidelines for Manon's education had been set while she had still been in the safety of the castle. Nina was now taking her to Gascony, where there was a possibility that she very well might have to fight for her life or to protect someone else's.
"If I do this for you," Nina fixed her with a steely look, "then you have to obey whatever instructor I find for you when we return home. Be it dancing, poise, or stable cleaning."
Manon hesitated and Nina could see her weighing the deal in her mind. How badly did she want to learn fighting versus how much she detested learning etiquette or manners or whatever other noble horror that Nina could inflict on her?
She gulped, forcing down her distaste, and nodded. "You have a deal. I'll be good."
"Excellent." Nina grinned. "See that jug there in the corner?"
Manon turned towards where she had indicated. Near the prow of the ship, there was a small jug that Nina typically filled with water in the morning and drank from throughout the day.
"Go get it."
Manon smiled and immediately ran off to obey. In seconds, she was back with it in hand. Nina nodded and indicated again. "See that ledge there inside?"
"The high or low one?"
"The high one."
"Go put the jug on that ledge."
Manon smirked. Was she trying to get her to do pointless chores to test her obedience? Well, she could do that easily. Nina didn't even watch as Manon walked inside to place the jug up on the shelf. The moment she heard it hitting the wood, she called back-
"Set it on the floor now."
There was a pause, but no question. Manon picked it up and put it down, crouching low to set it down.
"Put it on the shelf."
"Why am I doing this?"
"Because I told you to. Put it on the shelf."
The princess frowned but she squatted down again and lifted the jug up onto the high shelf. She had to stretch to reach it. As her arms fell back to her side, Nina yelled out again.
"Now put it back on the ground. Keep doing that until I tell you to stop."
"Because I told you to. You gave me your word that you would obey, Manon."
The princess blew a strand of hair from her face angrily, but she picked up the jug from the shelf and brought it down again. Then she came right back up and put it on the shelf. It had gotten just a little harder to do this time.
It only took a few replications of the motions for the pain to begin. But Nina didn't call out to stop and Manon would be damned if she was going to give up. She kept lifting the jug and putting it up and down without saying a single word of complaint.
Erec growled in effort as he lifted the large bale of cotton by the twine that held it together. He grunted as he lifted it up and added it to the growing pile that he and the other prisoners were creating on the wagon. His job was to take the bales slid onto the wagon and place them neatly. Which was both labor intensive and exhausting.
Sweat poured down his body as the sun beat mercilessly down upon him. Like the other prisoners, he was barefoot, bare chested, and burning from the time outside. They were given minimal clothing, only enough to cover what was considered indecent. Which, during the daytime when they were hard at work like this, wasn't nearly so bad as it was at night when the air cooled off and they had nothing to cover their chilled bodies.
It had taken days of this for Erec's skin to become accustomed to the constant cooking from the unforgiving sun. The redness had barely begun to fade as his skin darkened and roughened from the unfamiliar, harsh treatment all of this backbreaking labor was providing.
Though, he considered himself lucky today. To be the one placing the bales on top of one another was a better job than the man who was currently turning the crank that moved the machine that was crushing the cotton down into bales. There was a machine to do it, but it had broken a few days before Erec's arrival. Rather than fix it, the overseer had decided to just have the prisoners of war, his new labor force, crank the machine by hand.
Erec had done that task a few times already. It seemed relatively simple, turning the lever around in a circle. But it never ended and, after hours of the repetitive motion, he had felt like he was still turning that crank even once he had stopped.
He wiped the sweat from his brow, not wanting it to roll down into his eyes where the salt in his skin could sting the delicate organs. He already had enough aches and pains throughout his body, he didn't want to add more to it.
Erec had been rather proud of how well he had adapted to the battlefield. In fact, he had thought he had done very well roughing it outside of the palace walls. He didn't realize in his special tent where servants still did most of his hard labor for him that he was still being spoiled.
Out here, with no one but his fellow prisoners, and nothing but the cotton cloth wrapped around his legs and tied at his hips by a length of twine, he was truly 'roughing it'.
They were given plenty of water, the overseer didn't want them passing out because they were dehydrated. However, he was less giving with food. He often called them fat and ungrateful while stuffing his bloated jowls with whatever pastry his happy, simple wife had cooked up that day. She liked to bake, he liked to eat. It seemed a match made in the heavens.
The man, Stuart Kain, provided the crown with the cotton it used in the manufacture of soldiers' uniforms – at least the parts not made of leather or steel. In return for his service, the crown had given him a group of prisoners of war, including the ones taken from Erec's army.
Not that anyone here, aside from his own men, knew him to be the commander of that army, much less the crown prince of Vasconia.
And what a sight of a prince he was, burned and sweaty, half nude and covered in bug bites, while baling cotton in a foreign trade town.
Erec and the other prisoners here – they numbered one man short of a dozen – were worked to the bone every day. Then, at night, they were all forced to sleep in the barn in whatever position they could find to be comfortable, provided they didn't disturb the horses, of course. Sometimes, the heat from the day stayed into the night and the lack of clothing wasn't altogether uncomfortable. At least, it wasn't the most uncomfortable thing about the experience.
However, on the colder nights, when there were summer storms or fiercely blowing winds, the men typically all huddled together to keep warm. Erec's men, the five that were still with him – he didn't know where the others had gone – tried to keep him between them so he would be warmer without the others knowing that he was getting special treatment.
There was no doubt in Erec's mind, he was only alive because of his anonymity. His soldiers shared that same view point and the five of them were working together to try and protect him. They couldn't shield him from all the work, nor did he want them to attempt to do so. He was going to bear the burden of this, just as they did. Any special treatment would be easily noticed. However, more importantly, if his soldiers were going to do this, he was going to do it with them.
At the end of the work day was when Stuart finally fed them. Or rather, his happy wife that loved to cook fed them. If it were up to the man of the house, the prisoners would receive day old bread and maybe boiled potatoes if they were good. However, since it was his wife, Marthe, that fed them, they tended to get scraps of whatever the master of the farm had eaten.
And, Marthe did love cooking. She made a great deal of food every day. More than even her glutton of a husband could eat. The work was backbreaking, the nights were cold and hard on packed earth, but the food was not at all bad.
"Here you boys go!" Marthe beamed at them from behind the table where she was setting out all of the leftover food. It was harder to stretch it for nearly a dozen men, but Erec couldn't help but notice that she had been surreptitiously cooking more and more food. Stuart hadn't yet noticed, and the more compliments the prisoners gave her, the more she made.
"Thank you, Lady Kain," the men all nodded to her as they grabbed whatever they could get.
There were pieces of tarts and mini-pies, what was left from a turkey that Stuart appeared to have eaten near half of. There were indeed boiled potatoes, but they had been slathered in butter, topped with chives, and enhanced with sour cream.
The food had gone a bit cold, but it lost little taste because of that. Erec, having gotten his hands on some bread with a slice of cheese and some of the turkey over it, couldn't help but wonder what this manna tasted like when it was fresh from the oven.
"You all are too skinny," Marthe clicked her tongue over them. Though she loved cooking, her thin frame suggested she didn't enjoy the eating as much. She rather preferred other people to enjoy her food than to eat of it herself. Most of the time, she would get her fill just from the test bites she would take while preparing the meal.
"Take it all back with you. Don't want it to go to waste," Marthe motioned her hands over the spread with a wide smile. She wasn't a smart woman, but she was kind and giving. All in all, those traits were preferable in Erec's mind.
"Thank you, Lady Kain," he nodded to her as he loaded his arms down with as many of the puff pastries as he could carry.
Stuart wouldn't want to see them eating his food. Though he had already stuffed himself full off of it before they even came to it, and he never ate leftovers, he wouldn't want them to have it either. Erec didn't know if he enjoyed having what they did not or if he genuinely believed that they received all they needed through old bread.
"You're welcome, honey," Marthe beamed at him. "Go on now. Thank you for your hard work boys!"
Her husband's coat, that drowned her tiny body in cloth, had to be thrown back so that she could lift one arm to wave at the work hands.
Here in Gascony, Erec had learned, women wore the coats of their fathers from the time they started their monthly bleeds until they married. Afterwards, they wore their husband's coat. It was a symbol of their dedication and obedience to the men in their lives. By not even providing shirts for his workers, Stuart had essentially neutered them.
A man was expected to give the shirt off of his back for his woman, just as she was expected to wear it dutifully. Being without any sort of top, the prisoners were being reminded that they had nothing to give to be able to take care of a woman. And a woman without coat was treated as a whore and harlot, not worth the protection even a simple coat would bring her.
It wasn't until Erec came to this place that he realized why Nina wore a coat all the time.
"I'll be in to see you boys in a bit!" Marthe called out as they walked away to hide their feast in the barn so Stuart wouldn't see it. "Look forward to the next passage from Holy Texts."
Another thing that Erec had discovered that he never knew while being here. The people of Gascony were followers of the old doctrine of the Holy Text. While Vasconia had the old doctrines, they were held more as historical artifacts. The new doctrine, the one held as the correct doctrine, had been adapted from the old Texts but altered to more fit with the new understanding of how the Lord wished them to be interpreted based upon the visions and prayers of the masters of the church.
He also wasn't used to the Texts being used as entertainment. Which was how Marthe intended them to receive it when she read the book to them. She did it because she thought she was being kind, but the people in Gascony actually treated the Holy Texts with a fanatic type of dedication, adhering to the letter rather than the spirit or metaphorical intention of the word.
While studying the Holy Texts had been part of Erec's education, it had been treated as something serious to learn for the value of the lessons. It wasn't something that was read to him as though for a bedtime story as Marthe read it to the prisoners now.
As they walked, the men were talking and eating. This was the closest thing that they got to a break, the walk back to the barn. Once there, it was a race to fall asleep before the late-night chill could set in and make it harder to do so later. Not that there was much effort involved in the race. The back-breaking work during the day usually put everyone to sleep before full darkness had fallen.
Erec tried not to separate himself from the five others from his army that had managed to come this far with him. His men had become used to referring to him by name and treating him as just another pair of hands to work. While he would trust the other five soldiers, also part of the Vasconian army, he didn't want to risk more people knowing his identity than necessary.
The barn that they slept in, which housed the horses that were hooked up to the plows to till the field, was kept far from the main house. Stuart didn't like the smell of horse manure, it ruined his appetite. He kept the beasts far from him.
In walking all the way out there, Erec got to see the town of Modestus. Or, what was left of it now that the war had made its mark upon it.
Modestus wasn't a sight where battles had taken place. It was well past the barrier mountain range within Gascony. However, that didn't mean it was unaffected by the war. Modestus was a trade town. It was meant to be a place where goods coming from Vasconia through Antonin Pass were able to be distributed amongst Gascony at large.
With the war, however, trade had stopped between the two countries. Since Vasconia controlled the trade mecca of Gy-Hamelin, they were even able to limit what Lloegyr traded into Gascony, to an extent. And though Gascony did not have a lack of natural resources, the small town of Modestus relied upon a trade that simply wasn't occurring anymore.
Most of the young men had been conscripted for service. That left the streets filled more with women that were going about their daily lives. A few of them might look to the prisoners with interest, but their lack of clothing and therefore lack of funds or means would drive them away quickly. A girl couldn't have a lover outside of marriage here. And while it wasn't exactly encouraged in Vasconia, it was something that they accepted with far more grace and understanding.
Those women that weren't afraid of coming to them for their pleasures did not wear coats. Either because they did not have one or they left it at home, Erec didn't know. He did know that a few other prisoners would take them up on their sordid offers and either take the eager women behind the barn or in one of the horse stalls.
It was not the sort of setting he would have picked for a tryst. He did not take any of what was being offered by the questionably moral women. Though he received his fair share of propositions, he turned them all down with grace. At least, as much grace as a man wearing little more than a loincloth could muster while being solicited for sex by a loose woman in a barn.
With all the men gone and all the trade having stopped, Modestus was quickly becoming a town of poverty and need. Lord and Lady Kain were the only two still doing well because they owned the most land. Their cotton fields were keeping the town alive, if crippled. Little things, small repairs that were not of great importance overall, had already started to go by the wayside. And while such small damages were mostly cosmetic, it did speak to a greater loss in the community. Modestus was hurting because of the war, though no actual fighting had come anywhere near the town walls.
The barn that the prisoners slept in was well built and maintained – for the horses, if for nothing else. And, though it was seriously lacking in human comforts, it wasn't the worst place they could sleep. It was at least a sturdy shelter.
Once inside, the men quickly finished their food in anticipation of Marthe coming to see them. She wouldn't be coming alone, Stuart would be with her. It was his job to protect his wife, after all, and he wouldn't allow her to be around a group of prisoners behind a closed door so far from the house. If something happened to her, it would reflect badly upon him. She was the one who was wearing his coat, after all.
There was some general talking as they waited for her to arrive. She wouldn't allow them to sleep through the reading. That was disrespectful, she said. Marthe loved cooking and the Holy Texts and Lord help you if you disrespected either thing.
Mostly, what the men discussed, was the idea of freedom. They hatched half-formed plans of escape, each with bigger holes and risks than the last. They wondered at the state of the war, and they told stories of each other's families and loved ones.
Erec learned more of his men in this small barn than he ever imagined he would even when he thought himself to be close when sharing a battlefield with them. When first asked, he was worried he wouldn't be able to give them the same in turn, but they pressed until he surrendered. He told them of his bratty little sister, his fun-loving father, and his stern mother. He didn't have to mention their titles, and when he didn't, it almost seemed like he was a common soldier.
After talking about families, they immediately moved into talking about what special someone was waiting for them to come home.
And Erec found himself thinking, not for the first time, about Nina.
His people would have known what had happened to him by now. It had been weeks since he had been taken from the battlefield. Nina would have been one of the first people to be informed. Would she be angry or worried when she saw those scarlet scraps heading towards her?
The common soldiers told him of their ladies. Their wives. They spoke of beauty, grace, and enduring faithfulness. One of the men who regularly took up the Gasconite women on their sordid offers even offered his own tale of a delightful darling from back home.
When pressed, Erec began speaking of Nina. He didn't mention her by name, afraid that doing so would be too much to reveal. However, he could tell them of her dedication and loveliness. He could tell them of her long legs that seemed to go on forever and those frosty violet eyes that managed to warm him to the tips of his toes before lighting him afire with need.
Erec had never got to hold Nina. He had kissed her hand, and that was the most he had ever been able to claim of her. However, as the men exchanged their own dirty exploits, he found himself wanting to try some of their techniques and styles with Nina. When he heard the Gasconite women crying in ecstasy, he could only think of drawing similar moans from Nina's throat.
He hadn't seen her in so long, but she was the only thing on his mind. He liked talking about escaping, but he kept imagining a grand moment wherein he would get to return to her.
His desire was quickly and effectively blanketed when Marthe and Stuart arrived with their copy of the Holy Text to read them a nighttime passage. No man here wanted to listen, but Stuart promised retribution upon the man that did not. A happy wife cooked more delicious food than a miserable one, and Stuart did enjoy his food.
Tonight, Marthe read to them of a man's place working the fields or the forge. She liked such passages because she thought it gave them hope. It really only reminded Erec of the fruitless labor he was forced to perform each day, but the kind woman need not know of his misery if not necessary.
After she left, he and the other prisoners prepared to lie down and sleep. There weren't any women coming to visit them tonight. Probably because the next morning was when church service was held and they wanted to keep themselves as guilt free as possible. Erec really didn't judge people that chose to have a relationship before marriage. However, the women that were coming here seemed the kind to have multiple relationships at once regardless of consequence. More than a few still wore their wedding rings.
As the others were falling asleep, Erec stood and went outside to relieve himself. They didn't do so inside the barn, they liked to think they retained some of their humanity. For one activity, they went against the back of the barn, for the other they would dig a hole away from the barn entirely. Usually within the cotton fields. It was fertilizer, they would joke with one another. It was also one of the few means of vengeance they could take upon Stuart Kain.
Erec need only visit the back of the barn tonight. He did his business without issue, but as he was tying his dressing cloth back in place, he heard movement to his side. He turned curiously then nearly cried out in surprise to find someone standing immediately beside him.
"Good evening," the older gentleman said, grinning at the way Erec had nearly thrown himself back. He had a thick, coughing sort of laugh.
"Who are you?" Erec frowned at the cloak wrapped around his body which only made the hump of his back more obvious as he balanced his upper body on a thick, knobby cane.
"The better question," the old man asked, pointed a wrinkled, boney finger at him, "is who are you?"
"I'm only a prisoner of war. Are you lost, elder? Can I take you somewhere?"
More dry coughing met the suggestion. "You're funny. Only a prisoner, he says. I would almost believe you, if I didn't know the prince of Vasconia with my own eyes."
"Sh!" Erec hissed, casting his eyes about quickly. "Please, sir, you cannot say something like that out loud. If anyone finds out, I-"
Coughing laughter cut him off. "My, you're jumpy. Hint of advice, highness, when someone calls you out on a lie, don't immediately confess to it. They might be looking for that exactly. Play dumb for a little, see where it gets you. A master's advice."
Erec frowned. "You're... not here to report me?"
"Why would I report my own prince to the Gasconites?"
Erec was slow to understand. He gasped softly as he realized who he was speaking to. Or, at least, who he was speaking to worked for. He lowered his own voice.
"You're one of our spies, aren't you? Vasconia's spies, I mean."
"Spy. That's a fun word. Always loved that word." The old man seemed to shimmy and sway in place for a moment, concerning Erec who thought he was losing his balance. He batted away the prince's hands when he tried to assist him. "Don't do that now. I don't need help."
"I had no idea we had a spy so... advanced in age," Erec frowned at the old man.
Time had not been kind to this gentleman. It had dug out many deep lines into his face. His jowls hung low, and though his eyes gleamed with intelligence, his hands were shaking with the effort that it was taking to keep his cane held in his hands.
"False senility is an excellent way to gather information," the old man laughed delightedly. "When people ask you what you're doing, you can say 'I don't know' and they truly believe you. People treat the elderly like pets at times. It makes it very easy to get away with things."
"I see..." Erec said slowly, not sure that he did.
The old man waved his own excitement away, taking a rickety step forward. Erec frowned and tried to reach out to assist him, but he simply pushed his younger, stronger hands aside.
"Now then, to business, shall we?" He grinned, waving the prince down a bit so they could lean against the wall some ways from there and talk in relative privacy. "Been trying to catch you on your own for a while. The others like to buzz around you like flies. I suppose it makes for good companions, though it is annoying for trying to pass on clandestine information."
Erec stared at him. The longer they spoke, the better the old man's elocution. "Er, yeah... I suppose that's true. I didn't realize there would be anyone trying to give me clandestine information."
The old man knocked Erec's arm with his cane, keeping his balance perfectly without it. "You're a smart one, so Nina says. Act like it."
"You know Nina?" Erec's jaw dropped in surprise. He didn't think that Nina had anything to do with the spies in Gascony.
"I've met her..." The old man scratched his stubbly chin. "Do you really think the crown prince would go missing and no one would make attempts to find him?"
"Is that what you're here to do? Find me?"
"Aye!" He cackled excitedly. "And I did it. Yay me! I need to go get a message off to Nina now. She's going to be coming this way, it will be my job to find her and tell her where you are. How fortunate we are that you're right here in Modestus. I was hoping you wouldn't have had to go far."
"Wait, Nina's coming here?!" Erec frowned out towards the horizon as though expecting her ship to be appearing any second.
The old man hit his arm, catching his attention again. "You really don't consider your own station, do you? You're the crown prince, of course she's coming for you. Oh, and also Manon is with her."
"Sh! You'll wake the others."
Erec fought back the urge to yell before he could speak calmly. "Why on this Lord's great earth is Manon coming with Nina to rescue me?"
The old man shrugged. "Something about stowing away and Manon being a brat again. I didn't get the full story and Nina hasn't yet touched down so I can find out more."
Erec frowned at the way the man spoke. "You seem to know a lot about us. Who are you?"
"You can keep calling me a spy. I enjoy it. And it's not untrue." Hefting himself up with a grunt of effort, the old man bent himself over the cane again.
"All right, but that doesn't tell me who you are."
"My name is unimportant. You're never going to see my face again. What you do need to know is this:" He tapped his cane against the ground to make sure Erec was focused. "There will be others that come to speak with you. Other faces. Other bodies. There won't always be an opportunity to wait for days on end for you to be alone."
Erec frowned. "I'm sorry about that, but-"
The old man held up a hand, cutting him off. "I understand this time. You didn't know, you had no way of knowing. You should never have been in this position. Yet, here you are. So, it's time for you to learn and learn fast the ways of those of us that live in the shadows.
"As I said, you will never see this old face again. But, there will be others that come to you and need to give you information. You won't know them either, and they won't have time to explain who they are and give you proof or whatever else have you. Therefore, you will know the spies of Vasconia by this phrase, 'the might of iron holds nine'."
"The might of iron holds nine?"
"What does it mean?"
"What does it matter?" The old man chuckled, spreading out his hands. "When you hear that phrase, someone has information for you. If you cannot speak, simply say nothing and try to create for yourself, as soon as possible, an opportunity that you can. However, if you hear the phrase and you can speak, you will reply thusly, 'but the iron has turned to rust'."
"I suppose what that means doesn't matter either."
The old man held out his hands with a smirking grin. "I knew you were smart. Don't forget that phrase, it will be very important to you later. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go prepare for Nina's arrival."
"Wait!" Erec took a step after him, surprised by just how fast the old man had moved.
He turned back calmly, expectantly.
"When is she supposed to get here?"
"Well, that really depends on the wind, doesn't it? I can't be sure, it's rather difficult for me to receive good information all the way out here. This town really does leave much to be desired. Aw, well. We all want what we can't have. Good day, my prince."
Erec wanted to call out to him again. He had so many more questions. Why was Nina coming for him herself? Why was Manon, of all people, helping her? What was going on in the war? Were people worried for his disappearance yet?
He didn't get a chance to ask any of those nagging queries. The old man was already hobbling off towards the main road and Erec didn't wish to go after him. The Kain's had guards watching the roads and nearby fields for escape attempts. He'd hate to have his questions confused for one.
Though he didn't wish to do so when he was thusly unsatisfied, he turned around and walked back towards the entrance of the barn. The others were all sound asleep. His conversation had stirred not a single one of them.
He frowned at the dull spot on the floor where he was to sleep.