Chapter 1: A Restless Heart
She knew that the only way for a princess to escape the Castle, a vast stone cage with a heavy lock, was to be decisive and have firm resolve. Most of all, there must be a plan.
She on the other hand had none of the above.
If she could get past the twenty or so Castle guards who roamed the halls of the royal apartments, there was still the Imperial Knights and their quarters to consider. They were stationed on the way to the main exit. The only way to get past the Imperial Knights who were almost always awake at any given hour training, studying or practicing in their hall was to get them all drunk or distracted—which was a tall order as their foremost pillars of behavioral training was "discipline" and "self-restraint." Even arguendo, by some act of God or a stroke of luck the knights were preoccupied and she managed to make it to the front door and out the other side; as soon as they found she was missing it would be a matter of hours before she was back where she started, if the Commandant had anything to say about it.
As the leader and High General of the Imperial Knights, the Commandant was the pillar of propriety and it was definitely unfit for a royal of her status to be out and about unaccompanied without an escort. Commandant Flynn would consider fifteen feet from the main gate of the castle to be far enough for her to get some "fresh air" if she asked for permission to take a walk. Though young in comparison to his predecessors, and in the past a personal friend of hers, the Commandant had all the makings of a fine leader who held fast to all the rules and expected those around him to do the same without exception. But his way of life and the way of life in the castle was something Estellise found stifling.
Forty-five guards held silent vigil atop the high wall of the upper quarter of the city at any given time. As her horse raced down the cobble-stoned main avenue alight with the golden hue of its newly installed gas lamps, she didn't expect to go unnoticed. Especially tonight, on her cousin Ioder's eighteenth birthday, the guards would be especially vigilant. As the Empire had gone so long without a standing ruler and figurehead, and Ioder was to be coronated in six month's time, he was the Empire's most precious person at this point. She recalled the conversation she just had with her cousin, a few hours before the festivities began.
"Who would miss me in all your glory?" she had asked simply. The court musician had sent a mandolin player and violinist to open aired garden in the center of the Castle to entertain the guests with duets in the afternoon. Their wistful tune played through the air with gentle ease. She and her cousin had found a quiet corner away from everyone else by the fountain's edge. The were retreating momentarily from the hubbub of preparations.
Though the festivities had not yet begun, many had traveled from distant lands to honor Ioder's birthday. He was, after all, the young man who would be Emperor and High Ruler of All. As the Empire spanned the entire globe, in his high title "All" really meant everything. Everyone, including their married and unmarried daughters would be vying to catch the young prince's eye if they could.
"We've known each other all our lives. You are my nearest relative. Hmm...let's see, I don't know, I would miss you," said Ioder. While out of earshot of others, he and his cousin's manner of speech was notably more casual.
"We're only third cousins," said Estellise playfully. "I dare say you will do fine without me."
"Let's say, for the sake of argument, that your bold move is miraculously successful; where would you go?"
"I don't know," she said quietly, looking at her wavering reflection in the ripples of the fountain pool. Her cousin sighed as if to say, You see my point? Though she was the slightly older of the two, it often felt as though it were the opposite. He was level headed and she was more intuitive. An answer of "I'll know when I get there" was not something the prince wanted to hear from her.
"You've studied more than I have, cousin," began Ioder. "But I have been out in the world more than you. Without an escort you could hardly expect me to agree to your plan--or lack of one."
"I do have friends," insisted Estellise.
"Who are not here." He looked rather stern at this time.
"I know the way," she insisted.
"Did you forget that the only barrier we have to protect the City is the outer wall? Remember the various monsters and beasts that dwell on the plains and the forests outside?"
"I did not forget them Ioder, don't speak to me like I'm three. You have forgotten that I was trained by knights, the same as you."
He sighed with resignation. "Is there nothing I can say to change your mind?"
"I have decided," she said resolutely, though in her heart she could still feel the turmoil.
"It's not like you needed my permission to go. You'd take off even without it. But I'm glad you told me. The Commandant will chase after you and I will pretend I knew nothing," he smiled. "Just take your sword and shield and don't forget your passport."
"I don't want to take my identity with me," she suggested softly. He looked at her suspiciously.
"Very well," he said with a relenting sigh. From his vest pocket he took out a silver token shaped like a small shield, the size of one's palm, carved with the Royal Crest and adorned with a gray tassel on one end. "Take this then." She did. With this token she would be able to purchase food and supplies from any Fortune's Market around the world, and she would be given safe passage on any of its vessels. The Market's Guild of course would charge it to Ioder's account so she had to make sure to spend wisely, but it would essentially give her access through any checkpoint or imperial hold anywhere on the main roads.
"Thank you," she said gratefully. "If Flynn catches me, I will say I borrowed it without your knowledge."
"Like he'd believe that. If you get caught, I'm in for an earful. The Council is going to have a fit," said Ioder.
"You and I both know that I'm not the Council's favorite. They and the Knights have chosen you as our great uncle's successor. I'm little more than a court ornament. Like the chandelier in the main hall."
"That's not true," insisted Ioder. "With your intellect I would have you consider a Council post, or an advisory post at my side. Your ability to quote passages and recall minute details never fails to astound me."
"Aside from being your personal walking library," she grinned, "Is there any other use for me here?"
"I could marry you off to create a lucrative alliance with another family," he suggested playfully. "The president of Fortunes Market has a brother, as you know."
"You wouldn't dare," she stiffened.
"I'm kidding. I wouldn't do that to you. If I didn't consider you so much as a sister, I'd marry you myself," he joked.
"The Council would never have that. Not after everything that's happened. Somehow my being the impending sign of ultimate doom upon the world seems to have really put a dampener on my candidacy," she said with a helpless little laugh. "I was the ill-favored choice for succession from the beginning. Women have never been quite as popular in our history as Empresses."
"You are my successor if anything happens to me," he suggested.
"Heaven forbid," said Estellise, hitting him lightly in the arm as she used to when they were children. "You shouldn't say things like that. Besides, I think they disapprove of the company I've kept in the past. I'm always finding excuses to not be in the Castle, or always trying to slip past my ever faithful personal guards…. No, I'm the perfect tool to utilize if anyone wanted to stage a coup. My lineage is as strong as yours and if someone wanted a puppet princess to replace a good ruler then I am that candidate. Your best bet is to send me away before you're crowned. If no one knows where I am, then you're safe in that respect."
"Your thoughtfullness gives you credit, Estellise. I 'll miss your counsel. But we both know that you are not doing this for my sake," grinned her cousin. He knew her too well.
"I don't know what you mean," she said, purposefully looking away in a nonchalant manner.
"Since your last escapade of saving the world, I've noticed it. You long to be outside of Zaphias again, to see your friends, to be yourself. You are bored out of your mind in the vast expanse of the palatial grounds stifled by the grand tradition and pomp of Court. Your eyes were brighter when I met you at Heliord. I thought you resembled a wild flower then."
"If only I were born a man, I would be able to venture out and do anything without anyone's permission," she said ruefully.
"Ah, but if you were born a man you wouldn't be as endearing, Estellise. I'm sure that Commandant Flynn finds you so. I could always marry you off to him, and that would not be a bad match."
"No," said Estellise, choosing her words carefully. "No, it wouldn't. In many ways Captain—I mean Commandant Flynn is the perfect man. But I'm—" she began.
"Flynn won't be able to anchor you and the Castle isn't large enough for you to spread your wings," finished Ioder.
"If we had this conversation before, perhaps I would have accepted," she said quietly.
"Before you met him you mean. If you fly to him now, I am certain he'll protect you."
"I don't intend to see him on my way out. I won't have the time. And I don't need protection."
"Pity, then," smiled Ioder mysteriously
"A great pity," said Estellise trying to hide a smile.
Her reverie faded into the present and she could hear the distant sound of clanking armor and horses on the path immediately behind her. Estellise tapped her horse with her leather reins into a gallop as she passed the main entrance to the Middle Quarter of the City before the guards at the gate received the message to detain her. The main gate was up ahead. Her cloak covered her finery, as she had no means of changing before she left, but her gown did not hinder her from riding in a very unladylike fashion. She would have to buy traveling clothes when she reached the nearest Fortune's Market or vendor's cart. The sound of her horse's hooves cleared the path in front of her from any stragglers on the evening street. Though because of her cousin's party many of the guards in the city had been asked to guard the Castle tonight, she could not expect the City to be completely unguarded. Hers was by far not the subtlest means of escape.
It was just as she could see the main gate of the middle quarter of the City that she noticed they were clamoring to close it. Amid the sound of her horse's hooves against the cobblestone she could hear the distant, voluminous ringing of a bell. The Commandant would be fast upon her. If only he would leave her be. In his mind she knew that he saw her as a frail, powerless and sheltered princess, too emotional to make any informed decisions regarding her own fate, who would wither outside of the castle walls. She did not want to be that girl.
Estellise halted her horse as she knew they would never make it. She brought her horse down a sloping alley to the right, into the Lower Quarter. Beyond the Lower Quarter was a side gate to the outside, and in effect the fastest means of getting out of the City by way of the outer wall. It had easy access as the tradesmen and commoners were the least protected in the City, hence, fewer guards and fewer gates. The Commandant would never be able to send a message to the Outer Wall in time, as they could not hear the Castle Tower from there.
Just as her horse turned the corner she stopped to check her direction. In the Lower Quarter the side entrance to the Wall was more difficult to see, and up ahead, there were still people in the street. In the Royal Quarter and Upper Levels many people cleared the streets by sunset, as there was not much to do at that hour but go inside. Not so in the Lower Quarter as Estellise noticed in the past. The local beer halls and taverns were quite lively with the hum of people, shouting and singing. People were still milling about in the streets. She slowed her horse to a canter, paused and hesitated. She did not want to trample anyone but going on foot was out of the question in this dress.
Just then, an old man crossed the street to talk to her. She recognized him at once as Hanks, a kindly old man who was almost like a local magistrate or mayor of the lower quarter, though he held no official title. He was obviously sharing her concern of the connection between her horse and the people up ahead.
"Can I help you?" he asked.
"Mister Hanks," she said as she pushed back the hood of her cloak to reveal her face in the glowing torchlight.
"Princess!" he exclaimed in surprise.
"Is there another way to the Outer Wall?"
"This street is the most direct, but I reckon you will not be able to avoid the people on any street going in this direction, not at the pace you were going at before."
"I'm in an awful hurry," she said. She looked back anxiously and she could see the Imperial Knights on horseback coming down the far end of the avenue.
"Say no more," nodded Hanks. She bowed politely from the saddle. They in the Lower Quarter were accustomed to butting heads with the Imperial Guard as the former group considered the Guard as bullies, and the latter considering those of the Lower Quarter riffraff. Hanks ran up ahead of her into the crowd, took two fingers to his mouth and blew a hard, sharp whistle at them. All eyes were on him and he waved his arms and shouted that they should clear the road. They immediately did so without hesitation and Estellise took that as her queue to break into a gallop once again, the hood of her heavy cloak properly in place again.
The second her horse passed the old man she recognized the street. She had once before hurried out of this area with the Imperial Guard at her heels. As she recalled the feeling of her hand fitting into a warm and calloused one pulling her behind a man with long, jet black locks that smelled of fresh grass and dew everything around her started to move curiously in slow motion. In that instant her heart pounded with her horse's acceleration and she felt a little light headed. The sound of her heart was in her ears now, masking all other sound. Just as she passed the fountain she turned her head towards the inn on her right. Her hood caught the wind and blew back, letting her pale, short cropped strawberry blonde hair fly out.
In the moment her eyes met his gaze she felt a spark of recognition between them and she forgot to breathe.
His hair was as unfashionably long as ever, and he was stepping out of the tavern without his stylish hat that she fancied before. It was a pity that he left the Imperial Knights as Estellise thought, when comparing him with he best friend Flynn, they stood as equals in both stature and ability. The slight smile that was ever on his lips faded in that moment of acknowledgement as she flew by, but as always his dark eyes were alert and bright. In that moment she felt her resolve to leave the city without telling her former protector, traveling companion and friend faltering. She was losing herself in that dark gaze.
It wasn't until she saw that he had one arm around another woman with amiable chest size, whom Estellise instantly named "Harlot" in her mind and not without a little jealousy for the sake of her own smaller chest that she felt her face fall into an uncharacteristic glower before looking away.
Time began moving again at its proper pace and Estellise easily galloped to the Outer Wall. The instant she was cleared from the crowd Hanks whistled again and the people poured into the street once more, this time to block the Imperial Knights who had to pull their horses to a stop rather harshly and not without complaint from their mounts. A few almost lost their seats in their saddles. As the crowd and the Knights exchanged words and hurled long enduring frustrations at one another, the Knights cleared a path from the far end of their group to let the Commandant through.
"My knights will divide in two, taking the two adjoining streets and head to the West Outer Gate. The rest of you fall back and give instruction to the messengers to send word by eagle and by horse to our outposts to return Her Highness at once. Furthermore—" he began, but was stopped short from behind by an Imperial Guard of the Prince's house wearing the crimson livery of the royal family.
"Sir, Commandant Sir!" the messenger saluted before he handed Flynn a small note. The Commandant's brows furrowed but he said nothing, though the gloved hands tightened around his horse's reins suggested he was upset. He let out and exacerbated sigh.
"Never mind. Back to the Castle, all of you!" he shouted and turned his horse around. He spotted his best friend Yuri and Hanks in the crowd and tipped his helmet towards them in greeting.
"But Sir, the Princess—" said his First Lieutenant Sodia. Flynn's tight expression in her direction told her to let it go. She shouted for the others to fall out and they all cantered back to the Castle in a neat row behind the Commandant.
"Well that certainly doesn't happen every day," smiled Hanks as he rubbed his snowy white head. He turned to Yuri. "Whaddya still standing around there for, boy? Ain'tcha goin' after her Ladyship?" Yuri looked at him blankly for a split second before his arm dropped from his lady companion's shoulders back to his side and he turned to go get his things from his room.
"Wait, Yuri," said his lady friend for that night as she held his arm back. "What's this about? We haven't even started the evening yet!" He shrugged her off and disappeared. The look on Hanks' face told her that the Princess had a greater hold over Yuri more than she could ever achieve even if she spent her life trying to take Yuri for herself. She sighed let it go at that, returning to the tavern to nurse her pride with a tall flagon of beer.
Footnotes: Please RxR. If you need to flame me, don't let me stop you. Please leave a review if you're stopping by. If you like the story let me know. I'd post it even if no one reads it or if only one person told me they liked it, as you can tell from my other stories. But encouragement and useful critiquing is what drives writers forward.