The morning light streamed through Robert's windows, slowly warming the space and chasing away the shadows of the night. He'd been awake for hours, watching the sun slowly rise on the horizon over the distant haze of the Silver Desert. Robert hadn't slept much, his thoughts had been racing all night, his fears keeping him awake. Some of it had been relieved when captain Masters had knocked on his door in the middle of the night, Roberts father bound, gagged and held by a patrol unit.
He hadn't hesitated to send his father to the dungeons. If his eyes never laid sight on that mockery of a man ever again he could die happy, he decided. In any case, it wasn't his decision to decide what punishment would befall his father, not in the long run. That power was still held by the King, even when he wasn't present in the city.
Word had spread almost immediately that Kacia had been the one that saved Lady De'heul, and no doubt his father had heard it too. After he'd been apprehended, Robert had breathed a little easier knowing that at least the ambassador was safe from whatever kind of revenge his father might have been cooking up.
His father had never been a kind man. It was whispered around the palace that the King and Magdalene had been in love before the king had been chosen to rule instead of his older brother, Robert's father. The monarchs of Athoes were chosen, and could not take a partner, or lover. They ruled alone and then chose the next King or Queen when the time came. So the King and Maggie admired each other quietly at a distance.
The scholars, the kings designated advisors, feared Maggie staying in the palace would bring temptation and ruin to the King, so they devised a plan to send her to Thul'kutra and then put her on a ship to Creator knows where.
Maggie was devastated when she found out, but there was nothing she could do. That is until the King's brother heard of her plight and made her an offer. As family to the King, his brother could not be forced to leave the palace by anyone but the king himself. He offered to marry Maggie.
The King had taken the throne from him, so he would take his beloved as his own. He reveled in the idea of forcing to watch him marry the love of his life, to watch their children be born and grow, to watch them grow old. To have all the things the King could not.
Maggie detested the idea. She knew what kind of man the brother was. But as the day of her departure grew closer and closer, she began to grow desperate and finally relented. They married within the month. It was a mixed affair; some supported the brother and others mourned Maggies choice.
In any case, the King did not give his opinion on the matter, but visited Maggie every chance he got until she spent more time with him than she ever did with his brother.
Within the first year Maggie was with child and months later gave birth to Robert, who would be her one and only child. It was whispered in the palace that Robert was the king's son, and not his brothers. It wasn't long after that she began to get sick. It wasn't much of anything at first, everyone suspected it was a cold, or just extended exhaustion from the birth. But she never got any better.
Over the years her health slowly began to decline. Robert had never known a time when she was healthy. He suddenly wondered if his father had something to do with that.
The thought made his blood boil, and he jumped up from his chair and began pacing. It was only the restraint of responsibility that kept him from sprinting to the dungeons and beating the man senseless for an answer.
A knock on his door startled him from his thoughts. Robert straightened out his clothes and caught sight of himself in the floor length mirror across the room. His hair was disheveled, his clothes wrinkled and sitting oddly on his frame. He had dark bags under his eyes, which weren't bright and clear like they usually were, there was a storm brewing in them. He scowled at his reflection and turned away.
The knock came at the door again and Robert strode over and grabbed the handle. Suddenly a voice in the back of his mind whispered warnings and cautioned him to breathe. For a moment he debating ignoring the voice and ripping into whoever was on the other side of the door, but finally he relented and took a deep breath to calm the roiling storm inside him. When his heart rate was back to normal, he opened the door to find Sinclair on the other side. His friend gave him a thorough once over with his eyes before finally fixing Robert with a concerned look.
"I heard about your mother, so I won't ask how you're doing, but I will ask if you want me to sneak you food from the kitchens, you know, like we used to."
Robert leaned against the doorframe and didn't try to hide the smile that lit up his face. The offer to avoid the stares and whispers he'd receive from the grand hall during breakfast was a tempting one. But the King's warning still rang through his mind. He shook his head,
"As much as it hurts to turn down an adventure in the kitchens, I'm afraid I must. I think i'm just going to sit with my mother for a while, besides I'm not very hungry."
In reality, he didn't know what he was going to do, but he was pretty sure he wasn't ready to see his mother laying in bed, so weak she couldn't open her eyes. It took all he had to keep his composure. If Sinclair noticed anything, he didn't bring it up. Instead he put a hand on Roberts shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze,
"If you need anything, or if you need to talk, I'm here, okay?"
Robert nodded and squeezed his hand with his own,
"I know, thank you Sinclair. You've always been a good friend, better than I probably deserve."
They stood there for a moment before Sinclair withdrew and gave him one last mischievous grin, "well there'll be more sweet rolls for me then! I'm off the plunder to the kitchen, if you don't see me later then the chief caught me and threw me in her stew."
Robert laughed and watched as his friend retreated around a corner , and was about to close his door when he spotted the Ambassador from Ob hurrying down the hallway towards him. His lifted spirits suddenly felt the weight of the world again and he stepped out of his room to meet her,
"Ambassador Kacia, are you alright?"
"Ah, Robert, good morning. I'm fine, but I wanted to talk to you about something before our meeting this afternoon." She bowed her head to him and then looked pleadingly up at him with her startling golden eyes.
He could only nod and move aside as his mouth went dry. As she slid past him, notes of lavender and old books wafted over him. Kacia stood in the middle of the room, looking around in awe at the intricate carvings and paintings that adorned the walls and ceiling.
"This place. . ." She murmured quietly.
"It's called the sunrise room, it's for potential future Kings to reside in. I'm not a huge fan of the extravagance honestly." He explained as he closed the door.
"It's beautiful." Kacia finished, reverent awe in her voice. "Not just the painting, but the design and architecture. See how it's designed? I imagine that when the sun is rising that the light shines on these back walls, and the gold and white reflect the light. And then the same happens on the other wall when the sun sets, and the way the light reflects around the ceiling sections. I imagine it's even more beautiful during the full moon."
She gestured to the struts, alcoves, and the small dome set into the ceiling as she spoke, her eyes bright as the word spilled from her lips. She caught sight of him staring at her and turned a deep red,
"Oh, I am sorry! I get so caught up in myself sometimes. You don't want to listen to me prattle on."
"No, no its fine. I've never actually thought of it like that," he admitted sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck. "I've always just seen a room, it's nice to actually see someone appreciate it."
He offered her a small smile which she returned with a bright one of her own. He cleared his throat and finally moved away from the door. He strode quickly over to the corner of the room where two chairs sat and gestured to them,
"So, what did you want to talk about?"
Kacia took a deep breath as she sat before beginning,
"Firstly, I want to make it very clear that I'm not asking this just because of what happened last night. In fact, put my actions as far from your mind as you can when ---considering what I'm about to ask. Okay?"
Robert nodded slowly, confusion clear on his features. Kacia continued quickly before she lost confidence
"Okay. There is a prisoner in your dungeons, her name is Agatha Wyther. She was visited by what we in Ob call a divine messenger. I was also visited and informed of her importance in whatever it is that is coming our way."
"Wait, you mean Agatha "The Howler " Wyther? The pirate queen? The woman who raided Athoes' coastlines for years without remorse? That Agatha?"
Kacia shuffled in her seat and nodded with a grimace, "yes. I know it's not ideal, but at least hear her out. She knows more than any of us right now. She's willing to talk if you free her." She then related everything that had happened during her visit to the dungeons, leaving him to listen in stunned silence until she'd finsihed.
Robert shook his head, "I can't Kacia, even if I wanted to repay your kindness last night. For one the King himself sent her there and only the King can order her back out. And even if I could, there would be outrage. I don't think you understand how much people hate her, Kacia. Agatha set fire to most of our coastline and slaughtered thousands, mostly just for the fun of it."
He watched the ambassador crumple in on herself, her arms going around herself and her eyes falling to the floor.
"I figured this was a longshot." She sighed, "is there any way she couldn't least attend our meeting this afternoon?" She pleaded as they locked eyes.
He looked away and rubbed his face with a groan. It was a bad idea, a very bad idea, especially if any of the scholars found out and decided to send a report to the King. He peeked through his fingers to find Kacia still staring at him, looking hopeful. Something inside him violently rallied against disappointing her.
He sighed heavily and dropped his hands from his face,
"Fine. She can come to the meeting but-" he held up a hand to stop Kacia as she opened her mouth, "but it must be done in secret. We'll have to smuggle her from the prison and somehow get her to the meeting room without anyone knowing."
Kacia nodded, "if you can get the guards away from the dungeon entrance, then Osii and I can take care of the rest."
Robert nodded and ran a hand through his hair, "alright, I'll get them away from the doors 2 hours before our meeting. You'll probably have an half an hour to get into the dungeons and get Agatha out. I'll give you my copy of the dungeon master key, it will open her cell." With that he stood and hurried over to one of his cabinets. After a bit of rummaging he pulled out a brass key decorated with delicate filigree along its length.
He held it out to her and watched as she jumped up and hurried over to take it, their fingers brushing as she did.
"Thank you, I promise that this will be worth it."
He nodded and opened his mouth to say something but quickly shut it again and swallowed the surprising words. He had been about to tell her that he trusted her.
Instead he cleared his throat, and tried to avoid her gaze as he said "well I suppose I'll see you at our meeting. I should probably get ready and then distract those guards."
"Yes, of course. Thank you again, Robert." She bowed her head, turned on her heel and strode to the door.
He could only watch as she threw one last smile over her shoulder and left and suddenly he was alone and confused. He got washed and dressed out of habit more than conscious action as he tried to keep her smile, the smell of her out of his head. When he couldn't he groaned and whispered,
Osii watched from the end of the hallway as the guards at the dungeon entrance were led away by Robert. It hadn't taken the soldier long to convince the guards to follow him. She was mildly impressed.
Her smaller companion shuffled beside her; she hadn't stayed still the entire time they'd been waiting. In fact, she'd been endlessly moving during breakfast, and as they were collected their notes for the meeting.
Finally Osii had had enough,
"I don't suppose there's a reason why you've been unable to contain yourself today?”
“I’m not fond of the dark.” She admitted without a beat, her eyes glued on the backs of the guards as they were led away.
"Well, at least this time you won't be alone. I can still go down on my own, you know." Osii offered.
But Kacia shook her head, "I don't know how'd she'd react. At least she knows me and the deal we made. I'd rather try to snuff a silly childhood fear than you potentially get shanked by a mad-woman."
Osii relented and dropped the subject as the guards disappeared around a corner. Quiet as cats, they snuck over to the dungeon door and slipped inside. Kacia led the way down the stairs and into the darkness. It seemed to take less time to reach Agatha this time, and whether that was because of Osii's presence or their limited time, Kacia wasn't sure.
But the pirate queen was already at the bars when they reached her, grinning from ear to ear.
"I wasn't sure you'd actually come through," she admitted as they stopped in front of her.
Kacia fumbled through her various bags and pockets to find the key Robert had given her.
"Technically we haven't. No one can know you're gone, and I'm afraid after a few hours we're going to have to sneak you back in."
The woman slumped, disappointment twisting her features.
"But in the meantime, we can offer you a hot shower, and a good meal." Kacia added, hoping to lighten the woman's mood.
She only sighed and nodded, "it's better than nothin I suppose." She admitted half-heartedly. Agatha looked up at Osii and let out a low whistle, "you're pretty big, ey? Will you be joining me in my bath?"
She gave the ambassador a sly grin, her eyes bright and hopeful.
Osii couldn't help but let out a chuckle and turned to Kacia,
"I like this one."
"Yes, she certainly has charm, doesn't she?" She rolled her eyes in response before finally finding the key and unlocking the cell door.
Agatha took a hesitant step out and looked around. Somehow she seemed smaller in the wide open hallway than she had in her cell.
"Alright lasses, lead the way," she gestured widely towards the darkness.
They hurried through the heavy dark with Kacia in the front, Agatha in the middle while Osii brought up the rear. They had to go slower than they would've liked as Agatha hadn't walked any kind of distance in months.
Her legs completely gave out when they reached the stairs and Osii easily scooped her up and threw her over a broad shoulder, wrinkling her nose and trying not to gag at the overpowering smell.
"I think I might actually have to join you for that bath," she grumbled as she took the stairs two by two.
"It's not like they let anyone clean up down here," Agatha shot back, but there was no bite in her words, too tired to defend herself.
They finally reached the door at the top of the stairs and peeked outside. The guards were still gone but a gaggle of courtesans were lingering in the hallway, listening intently to gossip and occasionally letting out cries of delight and shrieks of laughter.
Kacia groaned inwardly; courtesans were even more observant than guards most of the time, they had to be if they wanted to keep on top of the rumor mill. They could also talk for hours. She looked over her shoulder at Osii and hissed,
"What should we do?"
"Go out and distract them, then meet us back at your room."
"Me?" She squeaked, curling in on herself. "I can't talk to them! They'll eat me alive," she glanced back through the crack in the door at the beautifully adorned and perfectly manicured women.
Kacia could feel Osii rolling her eyes, "nonsense, they'll love you if only for the fact you're from a mysterious city that was closer to myth than reality till a few days ago. They'll probe you for juicy tidbits and then leave; simple!"
Despite Osii's reassurances, Kacia still squirmed and chewed her lip. It wasn't till Agatha piped up that Kacia suddenly found the frantic courage to go,
"Perhaps I could go out and regale them with stories of my exploits at sea, just waltz right out there smelling like a cesspit and say-"
"-no! No. I'll go, just, please stay quiet. No one can know you're not in the dungeons."
Kacia took a deep breath and let it out before slipping as out from behind the door as quietly and quickly as she could. She adjusted her waistcoat and undershirt before striding towards the group and plastering on her best smile.
"Excuse me, I believe I'm lost. Could someone show me the way to the grand library?"
The courtesans all went silent when she had begun speaking but when she finished they all burst into life, each talking over each other and the bolder ones even hooking arms with her and leading her down the hallway.
"Of course dear! Although I can't imagine our grand library is anything near Obs stores of knowledge." One said.
"Although ours does have the biggest collection of Descent related information, being so close to it and all." Another added with a thoughtful tap of her fan to her chin.
"What's it like in Ob?" A younger girl asked.
And with that she was led away by the gaggle of excited women, asking her questions and trying to impress her with knowledge about Athoes.
Osii chuckled to herself and waited a few minutes before slipping out of the dungeon and kicking the door shut softly before legging it down the hallway in the opposite direction.
Robert sat in the designated meeting room a few hours later, flipping through the reports in front of him for the fifth time. Sinclair rolled his eyes and pushed off the wall he'd been leaning on, sauntering over to the table where Robert was.
"If you hadn't agreed to this outrageous plan you wouldn't be worrying this much." He announced with an exaggerated sigh. "If only you'd asked dear old Sinclair for some advice, we could have avoided this whole scandle."
Robert scowled, and ignored his jibes but inwardly cursed himself. His friend was right, of course. He shouldn't have indulged the ambassadors ideas, he shouldn't have trusted her so easily. The King had even warned him, he'd told him he couldn-
Suddenly the doors to the meeting room were thrown open, destroying Roberts line of thought. A woman he'd only seen in wanted posters sauntered through the doors, grinning from ear to ear, wearing a simple loose fitting white shirt and black breeches.
"'Ello, 'ello everyone! Your certified insane criminal has arrived."
Behind her were the two ambassadors: Osii looked as stoic as usual, but the joyful light in her eyes gave her away. Kacia on the other hand looked mortified as she quickly shut the doors behind them.
"Did you have to be so loud?" She asked, exasperated.
"I was born to be loud, it would be an affront to the creator if I denied that simple fact." She shot back with a wink and a grin.
Kacia just shook her head and slid into the closest seat, letting out a long sigh. Osii chuckled and gave her a shoulder pat as she sat beside her,
"It's okay, the hallway was empty."
Kacia just shook her head again and Robert couldn't help but shoot her a sympathetic smile. The Pirate Queen sat at the head of the table and put her boots up on the table. Sinclair rolled his eyes and took the last empty seat at the table, mumbling to Robert.
"Only you get to be this lucky."
Robert flashed him a grin before clearing his throat and standing,
"Well, I'm glad we've all managed to make it here in one piece. As most of us know, we’re not actually sure why we’ve been called together other than the vague threat that something is coming, it might be linked to past events, and we need to be prepared for it.” He looked at Agatha, trying to keep his face and tone neutral, “I’ve been told that you know more about what we need to do.”
The grin she gave him made his skin crawl. Agatha shuffled deeper into her chair, resting her hands on her stomach.
“I suppose I do,” she mused as she stretched out in her chair, immediately reminding Robert of the old, mean palace cat that spent its days lounging beside the fireplace in the kitchens. Somehow he wasn’t surprised when she continued, “but I won't be giving it up for free.”
He slumped into his chair, biting back a tired sigh. He waved a hand for her to continue, and she wasted no time listing her conditions.
“I want to be out of the dungeons. Now, that doesn’t mean I want to be free. I know now I have to face the consequences I created for myself. I’ll be more than happy to be a prisoner for life, I don't even need good food. I just can’t go back to that cell.”
All eyes in the room snapped to her in surprise. The slimy mirth that had been smeared on her expression mere moments before was nowhere to be found. Her eyes were clear and serious, she was sitting up in her chair, her feet no longer on the table. Robert blinked and leaned back, studying the woman at the head of the table with a new measure of respect.
“Go on.” He replied, letting neither his tone or expression betray his feelings.
She took a deep breath, “and I’d like to help with whatever this is. If you all leave to travel somewhere, I want to come. If you have a meeting, I want to be there.” She started trembling, “if the thing that visited me was right, and I have a shot at-at-I don’t know, feeling even a single moment of peace again before i die, then I want every opportunity to make that happen. To make things right.”
Agatha wrapped her arms around herself before leaning back in her chair, signaling she was done. Robert watched her for a moment, fascinated by how quickly her entire character had shifted. Before he could speak, however, Sinclair scoffed beside him,
“You’re not actually considering this are you? Isn't enough that we even risked this meeting, and now she wants to just have free reign? No, absolutely not. Robert you can’t agree to this.”
“And why not?” He shot back, annoyed that he’d inserted himself into the decision.
He looked shocked that Robert even had to ask, gesturing wildly towards the pirate queen. “She’s a murderer! She’s insane! You know that she’s claiming that some ‘being of light’ visited her and offered her redemption, right? Do you have any idea how insane that sounds, Robert. She’s a master manipulator, a master strategist, and an absolutely ruthless murderer. She’s playing us, she’s playing us all.”
Robert held back the biting words that clawed their way up his throat and forced himself to listen to his friend. He had always seen the best in people, whereas Sinclair had always seen reality. There had been plenty of situations he could have avoided in his younger years if he’d thought so coldly of the world like his friend did. He looked up at the pirate queen as he mulled it over. Yes, she was a murderer, it had been the first thing he’d brought up to Kacia when she’d asked for her presence at this meeting. She was insane, by most people's account, and Robert had thought so too until the night before. The improbability of it all had made Robert just a little bit more open to the idea of a higher power. He’d been raised to believe in the Creator, his mother had taught him about them whenever she’d been strong enough to talk. He’d never believed in it, but it had given his mother hope, and it had taught him to be kind, which had gotten him further in life than anything else had. If the Creator was real, and had saved his mother by putting Kacia in the right place at the right time, then maybe the pirate Queen wasn’t so insane in believing she’d seen a messenger of light.
But then again, Sinclair was right. Agatha had avoided capture for years by being very intelligent and manipulative. Would she really be leaning into the seeking redemption thing if she was lying though? Surely she would have chosen something more believable than being given a second chance by an invisible creature. Why would she have allowed herself to get caught in the first place?
He groaned and buried his head in his hands, why couldn’t anything in life be easy? He thought. Robert took a deep breath as he gathered his thoughts and then looked up at his friend to find his eyes already fixed on him.
“Sinclair, do you remember the day we met?”
He sat back in his chair, eyes narrowing and shaking his head slightly. “No, no you don't get to play this card.”
“Yes, yes I do. If I hadn’t given you that second chance, who knows where we’d both be!”
“This isn't even remotely the same situation!” Sinclair snapped.
“You stabbed me!” Robert yelled back.
His friend shrank back in his chair and finally broke eye contact, his ears burning. “I wasn’t trying to kill you,” he defended himself quietly.
Robert nodded, “I know that now but if i’d never heard you out, I probably would have lost the chance to gain the best friend I’ve ever had. We should at least give her a chance, I’m not saying we trust her, but we should at least hear her out. Who knows, maybe one day we can all sit back and laugh about this.”
Sinclair shot him a smirk, “lets not go that far. But,” he shrugged and glanced between the pirate and Robert, “it’s your funeral.”
He grinned, “you’ll carry my casket though, right?”
Sinclair let out a barking laugh, “they’ll have to drag me out of your grave before they bury you.”
Osii cleared her throat, breaking through their moment, glancing between them with a small smirk, “so, you’ve decided?”
Robert looked back to Agatha, “for now I can try and work something out that will allow you your own room, under guard at all times of course, and I will convince the scholars to allow you into all official meetings pertaining to our current task from now on. These things I promise until the King returns, then your fate will be up to him.”
Agatha suddenly sagged in her chair, like she was a puppet whose strings had just been cut, “thank you,” she said, although it was barely a whisper and so full of emotion and relief that she almost choked on them.
She stayed slumped for a few minutes, seemingly getting a hold of herself again, before opening her eyes and leaning forward, the unsettling glee sliding back onto her features as she spoke, “and now my end of the bargain I suppose. We are dealing with something from the age of the Titans, and the Great Mage herself, and I’m afraid our journey will be taking us deep into the Descent itself.”