Shadows danced on the wall as torchlight flickered capriciously. The heavy oppression of thousands of tons of stone overhead competed with the ominous darkness of this dark underground labyrinth to unsettle the unwary. The air smelled of moisture that had lingered too long even as the air caused shudders to climb up and down the spine. Those tremors were from fear, not chill.
"I'm an idiot and I can't believe I'm doing this."
Lena thanked Orakio that her soft self-recrimination was barely audible even to her ears. The last thing she wanted was to be caught down here, as it would not be easy to explain why she had a pouch full of meseta, a cleaver-like Orakian combat knife, and several metal canteens on her person. Of course, it would be even harder to explain why the Princess of Satera was creeping through Landen's dungeon like a thief in the night.
It had been several days since Rhys' wedding had been interrupted by the Layan dragon that had kidnapped Maia. Lena had been there, sent by her father to represent Satera in a cruel example of duty and diplomacy. Oh, she understood intellectually why she was sent to the wedding; to show Satera's willingness to forgive the unbelievable slight of her broken engagement. Her father had been willing to forgive the insult. It was hard for him be offended after he had received mountains of treasure due to the dissolution penalty in the original betrothal agreement. That did not make it any easier for her to watch the man she loved marry another.
When she had been first introduced to her future husband as a child, she had not liked him. He was a loud, noisy, and rude boy, nothing like a proper prince. The five-year-old Princess of Satera had gone to her mother to plead that she couldn't possibly marry someone so absolutely charmless. Her mother had laughed and told her that men were just very large boys, and one grew to be amused by their antics.
Her younger self had not been pleased and done her best to hide from the young Prince of Landen. Rhys, however, had taken that as an invitation to play and had always succeeded in finding Lena. No matter where she hid, be it in Shilka's garden, down in the dungeons, or anywhere in the keep, he always found her. It had taken time, but eventually she began to enjoy the game of hide and seek. When, and it was always a matter of when, Rhys found her, Lena had responded with a cheeky smile and the words "What took you so long? I've been waiting!"
They did not play together often, since their parents tended to limit their contacts to a few times each year. Each time they had played together, Lena had found that the loud, noisy, rude boy was becoming a passionate and sincere man. His direct joy in life had ignited a similar flame inside her. Out of the blue, she realized that she had fallen in love with her future husband. It was a happy thought. At least, it had been.
The day after a terrible storm, she had appeared. The cerulean-haired amnesiac with a beauty that outshone the sun itself had washed ashore. Rhys had been the one to find her. He'd acted according to his nature and rescued the poor girl. He had arranged for her to have rooms to live in, had given her a stipend and taken on the role of her patron at court. Everything had been properly done.
Lena had met the amnesiac a few times and recognized instantly a peer in nobility, but there was more to it than that. The Princess of Satera had always thought herself pretty, but Maia made Lena feel like a drab farmgirl in comparison. The cerulean-haired beauty had a slim, well-proportioned body that made Lena feel plump. She had taken to wearing a drape to reduce the emphasis between her buxomness and Maia's elegance. Fortunately, the concealing wrap also helped make her rear less noticeable. Lena was not ashamed of her voluptuous bust and bottom nor was she fat. It was just that she looked like an overstuffed Chirper in Maia's slender company.
Everyone had remarked how unusual it was for Queen Tesni of Landen to abruptly visit Satera. Lena had always been wary of Rhys' mother. There had always been something about the handsome matron that set off silent alarms inside her head. When the Queen of Landen had requested a private audience, her father had granted one with alacrity. Apparently, he had sensed something was wrong too.
Queen Tesni had coldly informed them that the betrothal was broken and that the sum specified to pay for the grievance was on its way. There had been something in Queen Tesni's eyes as she explained her presence in Satera was because it would have been unseemly for anyone else to deliver the message. Lena had not been able to figure out how Rhys' mother felt about the broken engagement; her father's subjects would have scorned her for a weakling if they'd seen her break down and cry the way she had.
It was inappropriate for royalty to reveal their emotions in a wild torrent of unabated tears. Lena knew that, but she had never felt like her heart had been ripped out through her throat before. Her entire life she had expected to marry Rhys. His charisma had turned her childish rejection into love. She knew that love could grow within arranged marriages and had hoped that she would eventually capture Rhys' heart. To be utterly rejected in favor of some mystery girl who could offer nothing, not even a name, had smote her hard.
Sore in love and in pride, her father had forced Lena to attend to the wedding. She had watched, sickeningly, foolishly jealous, as Maia had walked up the throne room in her pale blue dress, all elegance and sophistication, Rhys at her side. Seeing the two of them had felt like a thrust from a wicked knife into a bleeding wound that had then been twisted with delicate malevolence.
Deep down, Lena wanted Rhys to be happy. She understood that if he was in love with Maia, then marrying her would not have made him happy. She respected him for preferring to marry his love rather than take her as a mistress, as many noblemen did. That sincere wish for her beloved to be happy had not kept her jealousy at bay, but it had made it somewhat bearable. When her heart had not felt like imploding, at least.
Then the Layan monster had abducted Maia before Rhys could even utter the word "wife."
Supposedly brave warriors had screamed as loudly as the women at the dragon's roar. The only thing that had broken the spell of terror the monster had woven on her had been Rhys' futile attack on the beast. Lena had reached for her needler, only to remember too late that she had surrendered the flechette gun before the wedding. No one was allowed to go armed in the presence of the King. While it was possible to conceal a weapon, it took a great deal of effort that no one had thought necessary for a wedding. How wrong they had been!
It had not been a surprise to her when Rhys had sworn to save Maia. King Saiki's reaction to his son's declaration, however, had caught her unawares. Landen's prince had not been seen since his imprisonment.
There had been all sorts of talk since Rhys had been tossed in the dungeons. Nobles debated whether the Layans had truly returned, whether they meant to attack. They whispered in dark corners if perhaps Orakio himself had disapproved of the bride and had allowed the dragon-spawn to take her away. There were even whispers that Maia herself was Layan, but Lena privately felt that was the most absurd theory of them all.
If one felt charitable, one might suppose King Saiki firmly believed Orakio did not approve of the marriage between Rhys and Maia; within hours, messengers on behalf of the King of Landen had approached her party. They had insinuated that the King of Landen would be delighted to continue the ceremony with the correct bride. Since she was too depressed to be charitable, Lena deduced King Saiki wanted her dowry, the Kingdom of Satera.
On the surface, the king's offer seemed to give her what she wanted, but did she really want to force Rhys to marry her when he loved Maia? There were far too many things that would go wrong. He would hate her for not being Maia, for one thing. She'd have to live in the shadow of the mystery beauty for all of her days. A marriage under such circumstances would be a disaster.
Lena had taken refuge in Shilka's garden, the verdant enclosure that ancient lore said had been planted by Orakio's wife. A gardener to her bones, she had hoped that the beautiful plants would soothe her, but it had not worked out that way. She had been sitting on the stone bench closest to the plot of morning glories when Queen Tesni had arrived with two of her attendants.
The Princess of Satera had stood for the Queen of Landen and curtsied politely. A handsome woman, the blue-haired matron was as formidable in the arts of women as her husband had been in the arts of war. The two attendants had been with her in Satera, lithe young redheads in dresses of pink and gold, their expressions locked into permanent sneers. Lena had never seen the girls before Maia's discovery, but the Queen seemed to favor them highly.
"A terrible business, don't you think, Your Grace?"
The Queen's utterly banal words required some kind of polite response. "Certainly, Your Highness," Lena had agreed, her tone as bland as the older matron.
Lena had resumed her seat, aware that it was rude to sit before someone who outranked her without their leave, but she was in no mood to bandy words. The Queen's eyes narrowed slightly before she continued. "It truly is a pity. Rhys does love the girl so, and that's so rare for people in our station."
Twist the knife a little deeper, why don't you? Am I bleeding enough yet?
"But surely Your Highness must love His Highness, King Saiki?" Lena asked smoothly.
The flechette found its mark as dark emotion twisted underneath the queenly mask for just an instant. "He treats me with honor and respect."
"Yes, he certainly does. Honor and respect fit for a queen."
The blue-eyed glare bounced off Lena's skin. The smile Lena gave the queen was as bland and inoffensive as milk toast. Her redhead attendants chose that moment to join the dance.
"I do not believe the prince will ever leave the dungeon," said one, her accent one Lena had never heard before.
"Indeed. His passion for the Lady Maia grows stronger by the day. He would sooner die than marry someone else," said the other in the same way, her sneer an open taunt.
"I suspect that may be the case," Lena said carefully as she buried the pain their barbs were causing with the consummate skill at dissembling one needed to survive a royal court. "It's rather romantic, the young noble who loves his bride so much that he'll do anything for her. Such things are common in stories, but so rare in the real world, don't you agree, Your Highness?"
That barb hit deep. Queen Tesni's knuckles turned white as she gripped her skirts. "Yes, it is indeed rare, Your Grace," she responded, her voice barely under control. "Such commitment requires support to nurture and grow. Though all relationships require such help, from start to finish."
"Indeed?" Lena said, keeping her anger out of her voice as she heard the hidden message. "I would daresay the only thing worse than such commitment is a love blighted before it has lost its keenest edge. The disillusionment would poison a fresh wound and cause it to fester. In fact, I daresay the rot would provoke the victim to lash out, not only at the one who caused the wound, but at the innocent." Lena stood. "I take my leave, Your Highness."
Now she was creeping through Landen's dungeon, her eyes and ears on alert for the sound of footsteps. Her plan for freeing Rhys was not the best, but she had gambled that the lack of prisoners in recent years and Maia's kidnapping would be her allies in this endeavor.
Lena peered down the corridor. Two guards stood in front of a cell as the torchlight gave their heavy armor a mild glow. From what she had seen, they were the only people in the entire dungeon. Even the guard room had been abandoned as the castle had been locked down in case of more attacks from without. At least that had made it easy to filch the master key to the dungeon cells.
Her movements quick and soft, Lena moved away from the guards, counting her heartbeats as she got a rough idea of how far she was from her target. She took note of a niche that no amount of torchlight illuminated as she took out the metal canteens she had half-filled with turpentine. Lena had taken the solvent from the tower room that had become Maia's studio. The cerulean-haired girl had impressive talent with the pen and the brush, and it was the most obvious place to get the stuff.
When she had been a child, a painter had been in the courtyard of Satera's castle, engrossed in his art. Negligence had caused a canteen of turpentine to fall into a nearby pit fire. The resulting explosion had been loud enough to shake the entire castle. Lena hoped the sound would cause the guards to abandon their posts to investigate.
The corridor she had chosen to cause her distraction did not lead directly to the dungeon exit. Once she had freed Rhys, she could escape without bumping into any guards. More importantly, the sconces were adjustable and held two torches instead of the usual one. Lena shifted the torches so that their flames jointly focused on one spot. She moved down the hall and did the same at another sconce. She offered a quick prayer to Orakio as she quickly put the canteen in the middle of the flame, raced down the hall to the first sconce where she placed the second canteen, and continued on as if a pack of wild Moos were braying for her blood. When she reached her niche, she jumped into it, crouched down, and held her hands over her ears.
The minutes dragged on. Just when Lena feared she had made a mistake, a sound that seemed all out of proportion with the paltry size of the containers shook the foundations of the dungeon. Her ears rang a little as she took her hands away from her ears. She listened to the guards as their panicked voices echoed down the corridor.
"What was that?"
"The Layans! It has to be them!"
"Should we go see what it is?"
"But our orders..."
Then came the voice she had expected. "Go, you fools! Defend the castle!"
Metal beat against stone as the guards ran up. When the two of them had passed her niche and advanced deeper into the new darkness, she slipped by and raced to the cell they had guarded.
Rhys was there, dirty and unkempt, still in his wedding clothes. Her heart beat a staccato rhythm as she saw his handsome face, haggard with stress and lack of sleep. She ran toward his cell door and plunged the key into the lock.
She did not look up as she opened the door. "It's Lena. I'll help you escape. Follow me."
Lena thanked Orakio that Rhys did not question her coming to save him. How did you tell someone you were saving them because you loved them so much that you wanted them to be happy, no matter the cost to you?
When Rhys had exited the cell, she closed and locked it again. It would cause a mystery, which might buy him more time to flee. She took her bearings before she ran off in the opposite direction the guards had gone, Rhys in tow. The many times they had played down here came in handy as she led the way. Landen's prince was probably too tired to recognize where they were going, but she knew. It had been a secret between children of a hidden passageway. She did not know where the passageway led, but she knew where it was and how to open it.
They arrived at a dead end that looked identical to any other in the dungeon. She brushed her fingers along the wall, searching for the gap that existed on the third block to the right of the nearby sconce. When she found it, she pushed her fingers through the gap and took hold of the cunningly wrought mechanism that would open the passageway. Lena hesitated.
"Will you go after Maia?" She hated herself for the weakness.
The determination she knew so well banished exhaustion from his face. "I swore to bring her back and I will."
The words hurt her. She activated the mechanism. The dead end began to recede as the ancient machinery moved. Lena went to Rhys, avoiding his eyes as she handed him the knife and the pouch of money. Unable to stop herself, she grabbed him in a fierce embrace that obviously took the prince by surprise. "If that's what you want, then I dare you to find her!"
She would have loved to linger in Rhys' arms, but there was no time. Lena reluctantly let go and pointed down the newly revealed passageway. "Arm yourself well and go find Maia!"
With that, she turned and ran. She was doing the right thing. She wanted Rhys to be happy. If he was out of the dungeon, he was able to pursue that happiness.
So why did it feel like she had ripped her own heart out?