The Behemoth Heart
The dungeons of Athoes were a dark and cold place, with sconces usually far enough apart that deep pools of shadow and darkness formed between them. Most of the cells in the dungeon were empty besides families of fat rats and large spiders nestled in deep corners. But the fact did little to quell Kacia’s trembling. It was not the icy cold of the dungeons, but the darkness that had the small woman quivering in fear. She stopped frequently in the scant pools of light, taking deep breaths to regain her composure before sprinting to the next point of light.
After almost an eternity of searching, she finally arrived at the cell she needed. The person who had drawn her down into the bowels of the palace in the first place. The figure was hunched in the corner of their cell, humming a soft melody to themselves, unaware of Kacia’s presence.
It wasn’t until the ambassador moved closer to the bars and blocked more of the light wavering through them that the melody died and the squeaking of rats became the only sound. Kacia almost hesitated to break the heavy silence, the weight of it felt reverent in as if she had stepped into a sacred place, but finally she cleared her throat asked in a tone she hoped was confident,
“Captain Wyther, I presume?”
The figure let out a loud guffaw which sent the rats scattering from the cell. She heard the figure shuffle in their corner and could feel eyes roaming her skin, sizing her up.
“Call me Aggy, I doubt my crew would claim me as their captain anymore, nor any sane crew for that matter.”
The figure pulled itself towards the weak light to reveal a disheveled woman. Her dark skin was streaked with dirt and muck, her black hair hung in clumpy tangles around her face, but the clearest sky blue eyes stared up at her, untouched by the squalor around her, as clear and bright as if they were meeting on the street.
“Very well, it’s good to meet you Aggy. My name is Kacia, and I believe we have some business together.”
“We do?” The woman’s head rolled to the side, a thin smile creeping onto her lips and something unsavory swimming in her eyes.
“Indeed,” Kacia continued quickly before any more thoughts could enter the woman's head, “you’ve been visited, and so have I.”
The smile immediately disappeared and she reached out to grip the bars, using them to pull herself up to her full height. Kacia forced herself not to move away from the overwhelming smell of soiled clothing and infection that rolled off of the other woman.
“You’ve seen it?” Aggy hissed, eyes wide and desperate, “I haven’t gone completely overboard?”
“Well, let's just say I've seen it but not in my waking hours, however, like you have. They came to me a few nights ago and told me to find you. You know about what's happening, don't you?”
The woman drew back into the shadows, her fingers tangling themselves into already matted hair. Kacia watched as she began to pace, every movement smooth and fluid even with how tense she looked. Finally Aggy stopped and turned on her heel to face the bars again, pointing a finger at the ambassador.
“I’ll tell you anything and everything you want to know when you get me out of this cell. I don't care how you do it, break me out, pull some strings, I don't care. I just . . . I can’t stay in here.”
Kacia didn’t respond for a few minutes as she mulled it over in her head. She wasn’t sure her words held any sway to the King, or Robert, as he was now in charge of their, well, whatever it was they needed to be doing. They certainly wouldn’t let loose a dangerous criminal on her behalf simply because she’d had a dream one night. Inwardly grimacing at the probably lie, she nodded to Aggy,
“I’ll try my best, but I’ll need something to convince them we need you. What do you know, Agatha Wyther?”
Aggy snorted and retreated further into the darkness of her cell, shaking her head and sliding back down into her favorite corner. She was quiet for long enough that Kacia began to wonder if she was going to tell her anything, but she finally spoke in a quiet, awe-filled voice as she recalled what she’d been put through.
“It appeared so suddenly, like a flash of lightning and with a deafening roll of thunder. The air crackled with power, its presence was so heavy I swear I could see the world bending around it. But no one else saw it, no one could feel it, and it didn’t look at anyone but me. It had so many eyes, but I knew it was looking at me.
It told me that I had lived a wretched life, that I was up to my elbows in innocent blood, but despite that I had been chosen to help in the upcoming war. It was offering me a chance to change, a chance at forgiveness. And boy, if war would give me that chance then I could do that. War is all I’ve ever known.
I asked which war it was talking about. The only war I know that's going right now is the border skirmishes Atheos has with Ebulous, but that's not a war. It’s not like the wars of old, it's just a pissing contest. But the thing wouldn’t tell me, it just said there's a war coming and that I would be needed. I told the thing that i was good at war; at murder and theiving. I could tell that disappointed it, like it had expected more from me, but instead of sayin anything it reached out and took my head in its hands and that's when the pain started.”
She groaned and cradled her head in her arms, “the pain was blinding, I couldn’t breath, I couldn’t move. It put something there that isn’t supposed to be there. It’s lodged in my mind but it isn’t mine and it burns,” she sobbed, her voice reaching a hysterical pitch, “it burns so much and there's nothing I can do because it’s not mine. This place makes it worse, I see things in the shadows, and i see things in the light, and i don't know which ones scare me more. I haven’t slept in days, Kacia, I don't even know what year it is any more! By the creator it burns!”
There was a sickening thud as Aggy slammed the side of her head into the wall, sobbing. Thud, thud, thud, thud. The sudden change that had come over the woman caught Kacia off guard, she took a few steps away from the bars of the cell as a nauseating cocktail of repulsion, empathy and fear shot through her veins. Fresh fear about the pirates' sanity, and her own safety crawled up her spine and whispered doubts into her mind.
“Agatha-” She hesitantly reached out towards the bars of the cell, but quickly drew back as the pirate began to scream.
Her wailing echoed eerily around the mostly empty dungeon, filling it with the ghosts of her anguish, and suddenly Kacia was running. She threw her hands over her ears as she ran, praying she wouldn’t trip on anything in the dark as her heart hammered wildly in her chest. The screaming continued and followed her all the way up the spiraling staircase and finally stopped its pursuit once she tumbled into the brightly lit palace hallway.
Kacia stumbled away from the dungeon entrance, not looking where she was going, just going. She wanted to put as much distance as possible between herself and the tortured woman below. The long hallways were mostly empty, only the occasional guard patrol caused Kacia to dart into hiding. The ambassador quickly found a staircase heading up to the private wings of the palace, planning to head back to her room. The silence of the hallways was soothing to her nerves, she hugged herself and tried to steady her heartbeat.
Her eyes were on the floor as she walked, taking in the exotic patterns of the carpet but not really focusing. The screaming had dredged up memories of things she'd wished had stayed dormant. The face of her mother flashed before her eyes, twisted in pain and begging for help. Then her fathers form floated into her mind, back to her, never looking at her, always fixed on his tome’s. Stern, raised voices. The ruler, then the belt, and finally the knife. She shuddered and hugged herself tighter as the yelling continued to echo in her mind.
No, that wasn't right.
She could actually hear yelling.
Her steps faltered as she looked around for the source and spotted a door, open just a crack, where the sound was pouring from. Part of her urged her to continue on, to keep her nose out of other people's business. She took a few more steps down the hall, she was an ambassador after all, it would reflect poorly if she was caught eavesdropping on some poor couples quarrel. She stopped as the yelling continued and chewed on her bottom lip. Her teachers had always encouraged her curiosity, and the yelling was beginning to sound angier and angier by the second. Relenting to her curiosity and stepping lightly, she made her way over to the door and peeked inside.
Kacia didn't dare move the door open any further, so her view of the room was a narrow one, but she caught sight of a figure pacing back and forth. When they turned towards the door, she immediately recognized the man that had been sitting next to Robert at dinner. His face was red from yelling, and he was gesturing wildly, throwing up his hands at someone across the room that she couldn’t see.
"Well why can't you?" He shouted at them. "Why can't you ask more of him? Doesn't he know we're almost destitute?
There was a muffled reply, the voice softened by a sob and distance from the door.
"He listens to you more than he does to me, and I'm his own brother!" The man snapped, "so when he comes back you'd better figure out some way to haul your thin, sorry ass out of that bed and beg him for more money."
Another reply was cut off as the man hurled something across the room and Kacia had to clamp a hand over her mouth to stop from crying out.
"I don't give a damn! Beg or die you wretched bitch!" He shrieked.
Kacia felt her heart break for whoever was on the other end of the barrage, similar memories pushed to the surface of her consciousness but before she could be lost in them she forced herself to focus on the weak sobbing that came from the room. The man stopped yelling, and through the gap Kacia watched him lean against the vanity that sat against the wall, breathing heavily, and bury his head in his hands. Finally the man said,
"I'm sorry, Maggie. Please, drink your medicine. You know I'm just stressed, I hate seeing you like this."
Kacia watched as he turned around and looked through the vanity drawers for something. He pulled out a small bottle and grinned to himself, before the mask of tired sadness was back. He shuffled out of view, the sound of a drink being poured and finally,
"drink now my dear, that’s it, every last drop. Good. I'll be back to check on you later."
Kacia pulled away from the door and ducked into an alcove a few steps away, praying silently that the man wouldn't come her way. She heard the door creak open and then a soft click as it was closed, and risked peeking her head out of her hiding place.
She'd been right, it was the same man with Robert earlier, except instead of scowling, or looking tired like he had in the room, he was grinning like a madman, his eyes bright with a sick kind of joy. He let go of the door handle and leaned back, examining the bottle he still held in his hand, and chuckled softly to himself.
"Maybe I'll have the boy check on you instead, oh what I wouldn't give to be a fly on the wall."
She frowned in confusion and ducked back into the alcove. Something about the whole situation wasn’t sitting right in her, so she waited until the echo of his footsteps had died away and quietly made her way to the door. Taking a breath, she wrapped her hand on the handle and steeled her nerves before heading inside the room.
It was a large, opulent parlor with the doors to an adjoining bedroom that had been left wide open. Kacia cleared her throat and called out,
"Excuse me, I don't mean to intrude but I heard yelling and-"
She stopped before she crossed the threshold into the dark bedroom, dread crawling up her skin. There was a woman in the bed, she looked familiar to Kacia somehow. She had sickly, ashen grey skin and wiry brown hair. But what had stopped Kacia was the woman's condition: her breathing was labored and foam was bubbling up between pale blue lips. She hurried over to the bedside and gently shook the woman,
"Ma'am? Can you hear me?"
The woman's eyes were unfocused and bloodshot. Whatever she'd been given was working quickly, and the window to act was quickly running closing. Kacia swore quietly as she hurried through the mental lists of poison's native to Athoes, and their cures. Root of the Yag tree caused labored breathing but not disorientation. The Asher's Foot flowers petals could cause the foaming and disorientation but not the difficulty breathing. Golden Thrush feathers could cause all three visible symptoms, but the woman's insides could be liquifying and there was no coming back from that.
The woman sucked in a painful, rattling breath, bringing Kacia out of her panicked thoughts. She looked around for the glass the man would have given her, and snatched it from the bedside. Taking a sniff, she almost gagged on the overly sweet smell tinged with rot that wafted out from it. Berlotwart. She'd know that smell anywhere.
Using all of her strength she rolled the woman onto her side as the foaming worsened and the woman began to heave. She ran back into the parlor where she found a pitcher of water and clean glasses. She smelled the water first, and when she was sure it hadn't also been poisoned, she poured a glass and reached into one of the bags on her belt until she found the crushed pearls and Ghanin powder. She mixed them into the water as she rushed back to the woman's bedside.
The woman retched as she entered the room, and continued to suck in rattling breaths. Kacia grimaced at the sight but hurried over, hooking an arm around her to get her sitting before putting the glass to her lips. The woman let out a small sob and turned her head away, refusing the drink.
"Please, you need to drink!" Kacia cried out, "I'm trying to help you."
She tried again and this time the woman either relented or was too weak to refuse again. Kacia made sure she drank the whole glass and then gently set her back down on her side. She waited, gripping the glass with both her hands to the point it started to crack. If she was right and it was symptoms brought on by Berlotroot poisoning, the antidote would start acting immediately. If her symptoms didn’t subside, however, it meant Kacia had been wrong, and she was going to have to watch the woman die.
After an agonizingly long minute, the woman's breathing eased significantly and the foaming began to subside. The ambassador finally let out the breath she'd been holding and hurried from the room back into the hallway where she called out for help until her throat was raw.
It didn’t take long for the room to be crawling with maids, the hallway with guards and for the palace physician to be woken and dragged from his bed to see the woman.
She was hardly surprised when she spotted Robert rushing down the hallway, hair wild, dressed only in a shirt and breeches. As he got closer, Kacia could easily see the resemblance, and cursed herself for not catching it sooner. He stopped in front of her, breathing hard, and asked,
"is she alive?"
"Yes, she's alive and stable now that the physician is with her."
"Oh thank the Creator." He stumbled to the closest wall and collapsed against it for support.
"Who is she?" She asked even though she felt she already knew what the answer would be.
He looked at her, eyebrows furrowed as he had some internal debate, before finally he looked away, "my mother, Lady Magdalene Evereene De'huel."
Kacia nodded slowly as her arms reflexively wrapped around herself, the weight of everything that had just happened finally crashing down on top of her. She watched as Robert pushed himself off the wall and stopped a guard as he passed to ask,
"has anyone been sent to find my father yet?"
The guard nodded and gestured to where Kacia still stood, "when Captain Masters recognized your fathers description the ambassador gave, he sent a patrol to go find him."
Robert released the guard, nodding slowly before he turned and disappeared into the room. The guard watched him go before turning and bowing to Kacia,
"thank you for saving Lady De'huel, ma'am. She's always been the heart of the palace, and some would even say Atheos. I don’t know what we would have done if she'd passed in such a violent manner."
"Oh, um, you're welcome. It was good fortune that I was walking by when I heard everything."
He nodded and left, marching down the hallway and disappearing around the corner. Kacia stood, still hugging herself, and chewing her fingernails as her thoughts wandered. Movement from the door drew her gaze straight to Robert's.
"Is she still doing okay?" She asked, worried that perhaps the Lady's condition had turned for the worst.
He nodded and she let out a sigh of relief before he spoke, "no, no she's fine. The physician will stay with her tonight. He told me to leave since I was distracting him with my pacing." He closed his eyes and rubbed the back of his neck, suddenly looking exhausted.
She was about to suggest he get some rest when he opened his eyes again and asked, "can I walk you back to your room, ambassador? Who knows where that mad man is lurking."
Kacia hadn't even considered the thought of being attacked in the palace, but the knowledge that his father was still at large unnerved her enough to accept the Roberts offer. They walked in relative silence back to her chambers, where he insisted on doing a sweep of her room before he seemed sure enough she wasn't in any immediate danger. He bid her goodnight, advised her to lock her doors tonight, and left.
With heavy limbs, she pulled off her clothes, and pulled on a nightgown before crawling into bed. A deep, dreamless sleep found the ambassador quickly after the events of the day.