The Fallen Diadem
Claire was punishing us, even two days later. First, it had simply been extra manual labor, but now she was attacking our weak spot; our stomachs. Far above in town, everyone was raucous enjoying the fruits of Amaranth’s dragon slaying. The seductive breeze of roast dragon meat kept wafting down into the pit of Vichtstein, so powerful that it was like we were next to the fires ourselves. The noise of thousands of people revelling and relaxing taunted us as we sat beneath Claire’s cold gaze.
We had no meat. Our plates had nothing more than a rice and bean mix with roasted carrots. It wasn’t even made by Gerome, the good chef, his apprentice had been forced to whip it up for us as punishment. Claire had dragon steak and made a point of cutting every bite off and chewing it in front of us.
When a plate of meat was put down in front of Neeka, the conspiring began.
“We need a distraction.”
Charlie whispered, “Mr. Smith will smuggle us some meat just to keep us away from his daughters.”
Xon hung his head, tapping a claw on the table. “Claire first problem. Guard thin. People at town rather than here.”
“She’s not leaving us alone. She knows.”
Claire scraped her knife against her plate and stared at us. “I can hear you talking. There’s like twenty people tops in this camp. You can hear everything,” she said, pointing her meat-laden fork at us. We all watched as a drip of buttery juice fell of of it.
Neeka sighed and leaned on the table as she fiddled with her plate. “I don’t know what you three did, but you obviously dug your own hole. Why don’t you just be hopeful that the slaver has to fight another dragon when he pushes his dingy out to sea?”
The ship that Amaranth had commissioned was almost complete, and hauling wood for it had become half of our daily labor. It left me almost too exhausted to train with the instructor, but the day of attacking the castle would be soon. If we hadn’t paid our debts off by then, I wondered if we’d be forced to leave Vichtstein to keep working for the Order. My expectation was that just getting to the castle wouldn’t be enough. If it was that easy, someone else would have found the diadem by now.
“Oh come on, this is cruel and unusual!” Charlie begged, and Xon nodded agreement. “You could at least share some with us.”
“Oh?” Claire responded, and held up her fork like a conductor’s baton. “You’re begging for a girl’s meat? How daring of you.” She ate the bite of meat and chewed it slowly, then licked her lips clean.
It took Charlie a moment longer than it took me to catch the innuendo. He conceded defeat on the spot and dropped his head to the table. Xon prodded him a few times and, when he didn’t react, the dragonkin stole his plate.
“If a dragon does attack, I would like to see how he fights,” I mused. From where we were sitting in the corner of the camp, I could still see the glow of the commander’s tent. Amaranth Arnstein had made an appearance at the start of the festivities before retiring for the night.
A clattering of iron brought my attention back to the table. A soldier had walked up to us and stood between Claire and Neeka. He had a set of manacles in his hands. “The lord wishes to see her.”
Suddenly, I couldn’t hear the party. The noise of wind and whispers vanished from my mind when I saw the fear in Neeka’s gaze. The clench of leather around my throat felt like the day they had put it on me. I had almost forgotten our true station. They had been treating us like workers, not slaves, but that’s what we were.
Claire rose from the table, coming to eye level with the man. “What for? She’s my responsibility, so if she has done something wrong he should be speaking to me first.”
The soldier was unmoved, staring out from behind his helmet’s visor. “He didn’t tell me why. He did say you may join if you wish, ma’am.”
Color appeared in her cheeks, but when she opened her mouth to speak, Neeka slammed her fists on the table. “And what if I don’t want to?” she demanded.
“The lord’s commands are not an option, slave.”
“Don’t give us that shit!” Charlie roared, clutching his fork like a weapon. “Everyone knows what the Piedtriesians are like!”
Claire’s gaze swung on him. “Shut your mouth unless you want to be flogged in town square.”
He laughed. “As if that’s enough to stop me?”
“If that’s not, then you will be put to death.”
I put my hand on Charlie’s shoulder. I could feel the rock-like tension in his muscles. “What exactly do you think you’d be able to do? Amaranth fought a dragon. We can barely fight the fallen. Are you going to get yourself killed to accomplish nothing? Do you just want to die feeling good about yourself? You don’t even have a sword, remember?”
That broke him. He sank back into his chair. Xon’s face was unreadable as always, and Neeka wouldn’t look at me. She was chewing her lip and I hoped she wasn’t going to try biting her own tongue off again. Only Claire gave me a shallow nod, an acknowledgement that what I had done was right.
“Well then,” she said, shoving her plate across the table to us. There was only a few more bites of meat left on it. “I shall accompany her to see what the honorable Lord Amaranth wants with her.” After that, Neeka let the manacles be put onto her and she was dragged away, taken to the commander’s tent for the night.
Charlie’s gaze turned on me once they left. He still gripped his fork.
“Easy,” I said, keeping him at arm’s length. I spoke quietly, far quieter than our conspiring had been. “You’re the one missing a sword; not me."
Given the empty status of the camp, no one stopped to ask us where we were going. Weeks of leniency and going in and out of the palisade to fight the fallen had built a blind spot around us, one which we took straight to the back of Amaranth’s tent. It was made of heavy canvas, built not just to withstand rain but even arrows. The knight had left the window flaps of his tent open, allowing breeze in and his words out.
“Are there any other survivors of your tribe?”
“I don’t know,” Neeka answered, and the three of us hesitated. Perhaps we had been hoping for an excuse to not do what we were about to do.
“It sounds like it was the Prust Family that attacked your home. They were nearly thrown out of the Queen’s court last year. Do you know why they would have gone to the Britalian Woods? Is there a diadem there? One of the Lances?”
“Prust family, Slan family, what exactly is the difference? You people attacked my home, unprovoked.”
“Watch your tongue, slave, unless you’re asking for help removing it from your mouth after you failed at doing it yourself,” Amaranth snapped back.
“Neeka,” Claire interjected, using a soothing voice. “I know that the political situation of foreign countries can be confusing; but, you can’t blame Lord Amaranth for what they did. Guilt lays with individuals not with countrymen. Their actions may well be denounced by the Queen of Piedtri and actions can be taken against them.”
Amaranth continued, “Listen, cat, I work for the people of Throne, the empire of the world. Britalia has signed the accords. Should it fall under my domain, it is my duty to protect your people.”
“Then why are you here? You could be in Britalia putting a stop to it if you really cared!”
Not for the first time, I desperately wanted a proper map of the world. I knew we were roughly between Piedtri and Drusca, but Neeka had never told me where her home was. Let alone noble families invading other territories. Amaranth seemed to only be interested in the diadems though, the politics were just a pre-text.
“I’m here for the diadem. One that does not belong to anyone, one that can be claimed without bloodshed. I am to take the throne. I will sit upon the throne of the world and I will save it. I can’t afford to bother with other problems until then. If the Britalian Woods were hiding a diadem, and it’s fallen into the hands of the Prust Family, I will have to destroy them and claim the diadem for myself. To attack them without my own would be suicide. This world has a thousand problems. It is the virtuous goal of every man to tackle the largest problem he can, not to stop for every trifle.”
“You’re the same to me,” Neeka said.
Amaranth sighed. I could hear him shift, perhaps he sat down. “Begone then. If you won’t cooperate with me there is no merit in forcing it. Once I have the diadem, I will have other means of learning what the Prust Family is doing. And for the three of you lurking outside my window, you may leave as well. You’re not half as quiet as you think you are, and you’re ten times too bold for the skills you possess.”
All three of us leapt a step back, clutching our weapons. We stared at the window like an arrow would come flying out of it. Instead, Claire came charging out the front. The one guard stationed in front of Amaranths’ tent stuck his head around the corner and just shook his head at us. He seemed fully aware of how useless his job was.
Claire came up to us without saying anything, she just crossed her arms and waited. I didn’t know what to say, and Charlie seemed unable to do anything but stare at my old sword I had given him. Xon tried to hide his pole-hammer behind his back. She looked us over one by one till each of our heads drooped with the weight of our own stupidity. “I’m going to have to punish you for this, you know.”
“Don’t ask like you’d enjoy it. I’ll figure it out in the morning,” she said, shaking her head. “Did you forget what I told you in the excavation? Lord Amaranth is an honorable man. You’re lucky to be serving him. You just don’t realize it.”
She had told me Ascalon had been a woman, and I had never seen him separated from the spear. If the spirit still resided within the weapon, then obviously he wouldn’t do anything to Neeka. I had been an idiot, but then again, so had Charlie and I was certain Claire had thought exactly the same. She would have been dressing us down till our ears bled if she hadn’t.
We turned to slink away, hoping the knight would ignore the indiscretion, but as soon as Neeka stepped out of the tent to get her manacles unlocked, Amaranth called out again. “Send the boy in, not the Druscan.”
That meant me. Claire shoved me in after taking my sword away, and then I was alone again with the Holy Lance. He didn’t have his armor on, just his linen clothes. The only weapon I saw was the magic spear Ascalon, which was leaned against one of the tent’s support poles, though he obviously didn’t need another. Despite him sitting in a chair, his feet kicked out and one elbow on his writing desk, I felt the need to stand with my back straight. The spear flickered, and he said, “When I first met you four, it seemed like the other boy was the leader.”
“Charlie is, yes.”
“You’re the one who led them here to sneak up on my tent though. I’m guessing he wanted to just stab my valet. Don’t do that. He’s more of a butler than a soldier.”
“Yes, sir. We made a false assumption. I’m very-”
“Don’t apologize for trying to protect your friend. You’ll make me feel like a monster. I’ve got enough on my conscious for that. Where are you from?”
My mouth went dry. I thought about lying, but there was something about the spear. Something told me that was a bad idea. “I don’t know. I don’t remember much from before I met them.”
Amaranth stared at me, reading my face. I was glad I hadn’t lied, but the truth was hard to believe. “Have you thought more about my offer?”
“I have. I still don’t know if I should take it. Though, I’m surprised you’d still extend that offer to a thief.”
“I extend the offer to a boy whose potential is being wasted by the state of the world. If you’d like to pay your debt off first, tell Claire you want to be an oarsman when we shove off.” A dozen things flashed through my mind at once. The ache of my shoulders from rowing. The bleeding pain of torn blisters. The splash of cold water. The snapping of a dragon’s maw as it attacked the ship. Of falling overboard. I could feel water slam over me, how it smothered me when held under for too long. I could feel the burn and the panic, the fear of drowning as hands held me down beneath the surface.
I felt cold, and no fire or candle would be able to drive the chill from my bones.
Amaranth smirked. “If you survive, you’ll clear your debt and be a free man when Brekhart returns.” His words did the trick.