The Fallen Diadem
Charlie had been the first to get grabbed, and had a black eye to show for it. I hadn’t resisted so much and let them tie my wrists together. Pleading to the guards wasn’t going to do me any favors. Xon was pleading. Pleading for pants. They had dragged him out of the bath and he had nothing but a hand towel to protect his dignity as he knelt on the stone pavilion next to us. I felt bad for him; to a human his scales seemed like clothing to an extent, but I knew he felt naked.
Neeka surprised all of us. She got tossed on the ground, wrapped up in so much rope she looked like an anchor line. The soldier who had brought her was the one bleeding from four claw marks across his face. Charlie whistled as she ground her teeth. “Damn Neeka, what happened?”
“That’s them my lord,” a man said, and we all looked up. The rider we had robbed was walking down the street towards us. He was a bit hard to make out with the sun to his back, but I recognized his voice. It sounded to me like he was playing things up, trying to drum up sympathy.
Amaranth Arnstein was next to him. The sight of that knight made me hang my head. “You were robbed by these kids?” the commander of the army asked as he stepped up in front of us. The soldiers uniformly grabbed us by the scruffs of our shirts, or just Xon’s shoulder, and made us look at him.
The thin man wrung his hands together. “It was a most grievous mistake on my part, my lord. They took me by surprise and nearly ran my heart through. I barely escaped with my life. As it was, they cut my purse belt off as I escaped,” he explained with a flourish of his cloak and the hole Charlie had put there.
“And you’re sure it was these four?” Amaranth asked.
“Certainly. They had masks on, but these four are known thieves in the area. What’s more, I recognized this one’s blade. He stole a Druscan Officer’s Blade somehow. Look, pull it out and see for yourself,” the thin man said, gesturing at Charlie’s side.
Our leader had been grinning until he saw the soldier’s hand reach down to his side. “Don’t you take that from me!” he snapped, and I think he might have bit the man’s hand if he hadn’t been jerked back. The sword was taken from him and handed to Amaranth Arnstein.
The knight held it up and looked at the make of the crossguard. “Alright. On my honor as a Holy Lance, and on the word of Sir Brekhart, execute the four of them. For grand theft of war funds.”
I nearly fainted. I slumped down till the soldier was holding me up by my shirt. All I could think was that I should have ran or fought or done something.
“My lord!” The plea didn’t come from any of us, it came from Mayor Cassius. The old city lord ran forward, sweat beading on his forehead as he tried to catch his breath. “My lord, please reconsider. These four are orphans from the wars. They have no parents to take care of them. How much could they have stolen? Make them repay it but do not kill them. They are victims of the war!” he begged.
I had always thought he was a good man deep down, he wouldn’t have kept his position as mayor if he wasn’t. I just had never heard him do anything but scold us before. His panic made tears start flowing down my face.
Amaranth was unmoved, but his attention changed from the sword to the mayor. “They stole the funds we needed to bring proper shipbuilders from Port Pelagus.”
I turned on our leader. “Give them the money back.”
Charlie looked like his teeth were about to crack, he was gritting so hard. “I already did,” he said.
The soldier who had taken Charlie’s sword produced the bag we had stolen from Sir Brekhart, the purse Neeka had filled as well, and handed it to Amaranth. The knight hefted it and Mayor Cassius let his breath out. Then Amaranth spoke. “Where’s the rest?”
My mouth went dry and I tried to count up what we had spent: a bit of food for a few coppers, Xon’s bath had been a whole silver, and I didn’t think Neeka had managed to make up her mind on what to buy yet. The purse had held one thousand silver coins even. I couldn’t imagine Amaranth could feel two coins missing. “It’s all there, isn’t it? We’ve barely spent anything from it.”
Sir Brekhart snarled. “You conniving rats. He means where is the other bag? You stole both purses. That’s two thousand silver coins!”
“Bullshit!” Charlie shouted. “That other purse was on your right hip, I only cut off the one on your left! Don’t you lie just because you’ve got a title. I bet you can’t even swing that sword you’ve got.”
Sir Brekhart immediately drew his blade but before he could point it at Charlie there was another at his own throat. Amaranth had stuck the tip of Charlie’s sword against Sir Brekhart’s jaw close enough to give him a shave. “Did you just draw steel against prisoners without my permission?” the knight asked, and Sir Brekhart dropped his blade at once.
When he was allowed, he fell to one knee and hung his head to grovel. “My deepest apologies, my lord. My passions were enflamed by their brazenness.”
Amaranth’s gaze turned on us. “Two thousand silvers were sent to Port Pelagus. This is not even half. If you value your lives, produce the rest of it.”
I jerked forward and spoke up. “Sir, what Charlie said is true. We only took one of the purses. We didn’t cut his belt off. He’s lying to you!”
Mayor Cassius had staggered back from the pavilion, his own legs as weak as mine. He collapsed onto a bench and pressed his hands together in prayer. None of the gods were here to help us.
“We return the money and you will spare us?” Xon asked. He was bluffing. I knew perfectly well that he didn’t have a thousand silver on hand. Maybe he had a gem hidden worth a few hundred, that wouldn’t have surprised me, but not a thousand silver.
“Don’t bother Xon,” Neeka said. “He’s from Piedtri. He’s a dirty slaver born and raised.”
Amaranth shook his head. “Quite an interesting bunch you four are. A bilingual dragonkin on the wrong side of the world. A boy with the blade of a Druscan Blade Master. A felinid who was once a slave. And a boy who was recognized by Ascalon. I suppose killing you four won’t bring the money back. I don’t know how you lost it, probably paid it to some thieves guild in the area, but it doesn’t matter. You’ll work off the debt. Put them in collars.”
At first I didn’t understand what he meant. I had the impression we weren’t being killed, but my gut told me it wasn’t any better. Then the steel-laced dragon hide loops came out. There was a bit of uneasiness in the soldiers as they followed Amaranth’s orders, but one by one they held us in place and forced the collars around our throats and pinched them shut with rivets.
“No!” Neeka screamed, rolling on the ground and kicking. The soldiers piled on top of her, trying to hold her in place as she thrashed. “No I won’t let you! I’d rather die!”
“This crazy bitch. Gag her!” one of the soldiers shouted. I saw them force a belt into her mouth, pinning her down with it as blood poured past her lips. She had tried to bite her tongue off, and it hadn’t stopped them from putting the collar on her.
Sir Brekhart lingered at the edge of the pavilion. I couldn’t read his expression. There was something rotten in that liar’s glare.
I wanted to kill him. He deserved to die, but he was out of my reach.
Charlie tried to jump to his feet. He screamed, “Give me back my father’s sword!” but Amaranth had already left.
We were left in the pavilion for only a short time as the soldiers discussed what to actually do with us, how to interpret their leader’s orders. Eventually they told us to get on a cart and they took us back into Vichtstein. Neeka had to be loaded like cargo, but she seemed to have calmed down. She wasn’t trying to kill herself any longer, but she wasn’t doing or saying anything. The look in her eyes was dead.
“We’re screwed,” Charlie said. He was flat on his back, staring up at the sky as the cart bounced its way down to the lake at the center of Vichtstein. “We’ll never pay off this debt.”
Xon nodded. He was just grateful they had let him get dressed. “Slave wages are five copper each day. The four of us would make two silver a day; so five hundred days of slavery.”
Charlie sighed. “You’re forgetting interest. They’ll probably slap a twenty percent interest rate on top. You’re also assuming they work us every day. If they decide that they have no use for us on rainy days or winter days or something, we don’t get paid and we still get interest.”
“I didn’t realize slavery was legal here,” I mumbled, resting my head against the side of the cart. “I guess Neeka knew… Amaranth seemed like a hero when I met him.”
Charlie snorted. “Welcome to reality, Mark. No one knows the real heroes. They die nameless in the mud, or executed in the street. The survivors are all villains in stolen capes.”
Our conversation died off after that. No one brought up the idea of escape. It was a silly idea. The collars were hideously tough to cut and any smith caught helping us would get the same punishment we would; execution.
The mud field where Amaranth had fought the dragon had been renovated in the last few days. The soldiers had flattened it out and piled rubble into walls around a small camp. The main host was still in the fields above, but several hundred soldiers had put up tents within the fallen city.
We were dumped in one corner and left with one soldier to guard us. He wouldn’t even look at us, just sat on a rock and waited. Eventually, we heard the voice of our new owner. It was loud, angry, female, and familiar. “What do you mean I’ve been re-assigned? I’m a vanguard captain!” Claire shouted. I couldn’t hear the response, but a moment later she came stomping around the corner. She huffed and brushed her short, brown hair back as she glared down at us. “What the? You two? What in Helios’ name did you two do?”
I looked over at Neeka, but she hadn’t even flinched. I had to be the one to answer. “We stole from a liar.”
Claire was at a loss for words as she appraised us. Even Charlie wasn’t up for trying to ingratiate himself with her. “How much did you steal to get collared?”
I shrugged. “Half as much as they think we stole. Sir Brekhart pocketed the rest and blamed us.”
Xon held up his fingers. They were symbols I didn’t quite understand. I had never spoken to him about his mother tongue. “We owe one thousand silver.”
“One thousand?” Claire asked, her shoulders drooping. “I have to babysit you until you pay off one thousand silver? That’ll take weeks. I’ll be gone from command for weeks. No one is going to respect me anymore. I’m not going to get any honors. I’m doomed. I’m ruined.” Our caretaker collapsed against the wall next to us, staring vacantly at the sky and mumbling to herself, somehow as distraught about it as we were.
Charlie and I shared a glance and a shrug. “Wait, what work are we going to be doing?”
The soldier who had been watching us stood up and dusted his backside off. He turned and looked over his shoulder at us with a heavy smile. “You’re going to be tunnel rats. Explorers if you’d prefer. M’lord Arnstein is trying to find a tunnel into the castle. I suggest you pray for hazard pay.”