Birdie was trying so hard, but she was struggling to keep up through the murky waters of the sewers. “Come on, sweetie,” Charlie encouraged, not letting go of her hand. “Come on, we have to hurry.” He could hear the din of a fight behind him, as the last of their loyal bodyguards tried to hold back the invaders.
“But where are we going?” the young princess asked worriedly. “Mama said to go to the cathedral—”
“These barbarians don’t respect the church,” Charlie spat. “We have to get out of the city. We’ll make for the garrison at—”
“Your Majesty,” interrupted a commanding voice, and two figures strode from a side tunnel, the filthy water hardly daring to touch them. Charlie pulled back sharply, his sword raised and his sister protectively behind him. “I wouldn’t make alternate plans just yet,” the man continued, in a tone of easy arrogance.
He stepped more into the light from the flickering torches and Charlie tried to calm his pounding heart for the coming altercation. How could that face, that voice, be so like the one in his dreams, unless some kind of witchcraft was involved? Those piercing eyes, those sharp cheekbones, the way he moved with grace and strength… Rumors did say this warrior consorted with dark spirits who did his bidding, allowing him to perform feats and divine information no mortal man could. And always at his side was his most deadly lieutenant—a woman with pale eyes and a sober gaze that seemed to cut right through Charlie. What hope did he have, against people who could invade not only his homeland but also his dreams?
“I’m not going to harm you, Your Majesties,” the man claimed. “My name is Roman, and this is Jane. Do you remember me?”
It was an odd question. “Of course, we know of you,” Charlie admitted, but defiantly. “Your villainy is infamous!”
“I’d call that a no,” Roman said dryly to Jane, who nodded. The hard way, then. “Prince Charles, isn’t it?” he asked in a conversational tone, strolling closer. Charlie hefted his sword again and Roman raised his hands in a placating gesture. “And Princess Katherine. The royal heirs.”
“They call her Birdie,” Jane added wryly.
“Birdie? How appropriate,” commented Roman.
“Stay back!” Charlie ordered, for all the good it would do.
“I am not going to hurt you,” Roman repeated calmly. “I will never allow that to happen.” Charlie had to tear his gaze away from those mesmerizing eyes before they made him believe it.
“Charlie,” Birdie squeaked behind him, clinging to his belt.
“You must be frightened,” Roman empathized. “Come with me, I’ll see you’re taken care of—”
“Stay back!” Charlie ordered again, jabbing with his sword, and Roman backed up slightly. He really didn’t know what he was going to do, they obviously couldn’t stay here in the sewer forever. “What have you done with the King?”
“Your stepfather is in custody,” Roman replied, as if he represented some kind of authority of justice. “Perhaps you are too young to realize what he was doing to your country—oppressing the people, stripping the land—”
Charlie was not too young to realize it, merely too young to do anything about it. “Are you to be our liberators?” he sneered.
Noise exploded behind them and he risked a quick glance, seeing the invaders burst through into the tunnel. “Jane,” Roman ordered, and she sprinted past the young royals to meet the band pursuing them. “Charlie,” Roman said, regaining his attention, “look at me.” He felt almost compelled to do so. “I conquered half the known world to find you, little prince,” he stated, charming and sincere at the same time. “I will not let you go. Or you, little princess,” he added to Birdie.
Jane was apparently telling the others to leave, that she and Roman had this under control. Charlie put Birdie and his back more to the wall, trying to keep both of the enemies in sight. He really had little in the way of advantage here, but there had to be something he could do.
“You claim to be an honorable warrior, yes?” Charlie asked the older man.
“Well, not really—”
Irrelevant. “Let us duel, then,” Charlie offered desperately. “You and I alone. When I cut you down, swear your dragon will let us go.” He nodded towards Jane.
“Dragon?” Roman repeated with delight. “Hear what you are called in this land, Jane!” She rolled her eyes, unimpressed. “Are you a fair warrior, little prince?” he asked with some amusement.
“Charlie is the best!” Birdie insisted stoutly from behind him.
“Then a duel would be to my disadvantage,” Roman claimed facetiously. “I will test your skills in some other way. Less violent.” Charlie flushed, finding his tone somewhat… inappropriate, or maybe it was the way his eyes raked him from top to bottom. “Surrender your sword and I swear neither of you will be harmed. Think of your sister,” he pressed, which Charlie already was. “She will not survive on her own, even if she gets free. Come, let us get out of this muck and go back to the castle.”
Perhaps this was sensible. But Charlie simply couldn’t give in to this invader, it went against everything he had been taught. “Run that way,” he whispered fiercely to Birdie, indicating the way they had come. “Now!” She pelted off and Charlie lunged first at Jane, then Roman, determined to take them both on.
It was foolish; but sometimes, Charlie seemed to make things happen if he wanted them badly enough, and he had never wanted anything more than he did right now. He whirled and pivoted, jabbed and parried; both Roman and Jane had their swords out now, and Charlie imagined it was like when Sir Christopher taught him to take on multiple opponents—he envisioned himself back in the stable yard, entering such a profound state of concentration that it was as if he was moving through the steps of a dance he had practiced many times. He heard Roman swear, and spared a slightly smug though—who was the ‘little prince’ now?
Roman brushed the blood off his face where he’d been hit by the sword hilt. “Enough of this,” he declared with irritation. “Jane, get the girl.” Charlie moved easily to block her. “No, you’re staying with me,” he told Charlie, and he seemed to rise to a higher level, intruding upon Charlie’s dance with new steps that finally beat him back to the wall and dashed the sword from his hands.
Charlie took a deep breath, anticipating the final blow, but instead Roman only leaned in close, a heavy hand on his chest. “Very good, little prince,” he murmured in Charlie’s ear, and a disturbing tremor ran through the teen that was not caused by exertion or fear. “Your powers are growing. Let’s see what else I can teach you.” And with that, Charlie’s world went black.
He dreamed of the enemy again. His dreams were chaotic and fragmentary; he could feel himself awaken, barely aware of his surroundings, before he was dragged back down into a world where nothing made sense. Roman was at his side, his friend, his lover, as the places changed and faces rose and fell around them, the only constants each other, like two stars circling one another. Everyone expected Charlie to understand what was going on in these dreams, so he played along, even though there were so many things he couldn’t remember—not that he didn’t know, rather that he had known once and then forgotten.
He woke up unsettled, disoriented, and realized he was in his room in the castle. He was clean and the injuries he had sustained in his escape attempt had been treated, and his sword was in its scabbard close at hand. Nothing at all might have changed, the weeks of fear and rumors, the hours of terror, just another vivid dream. But Charlie knew that wasn’t true. He had only to look out his window to see soldiers flying Roman’s red-and-purple banners camped in the courtyard below.
Time to be smart, Charlie told himself. Roman obviously didn’t want him dead. Charlie could be seen as a focal point for resistance, or a legitimate heir accepted by the people—either way, Roman might keep him close. Or might imprison or execute him, there was precedent for all those things in Clarison, and in most other countries.
Priorities: Charlie had to find his sister. And, he added after a long pause, his mother. His stepfather was likely inaccessible, and Charlie wasn’t eager to see him anyway.
Leaving his sword behind so as not to provoke, Charlie tried the door to his room and found it unlocked. There was a guard outside, however, who looked up with interest.
“’Allo,” he said, with an unfamiliar accent.
“Hello,” Charlie returned politely. What did one say to one’s jailer?
“I’m Wart,” the man continued. “That’s me name, I mean. Wart.”
“Wart,” Charlie repeated dubiously. It was best to make a good impression on people, he decided. “How do you do, I’m Charlie.”
Wart laughed. “Oh, everyone knows who you are, Your Highness!” he claimed, not meanly.
“Oh.” Charlie was used to this, of course; but it would make stealth rather difficult.
“You goin’ out?” Wart inquired after a moment, when Charlie just stood there.
“Am I allowed to?” Charlie asked curiously.
“Sure!” Wart told him cheerfully. “Only I’m supposed to follow you everywhere, that’s the thing. For protection.” Whose, was not specified.
“Alright,” Charlie agreed gamely, as if his agreement was needed. “I wanted to see my sister. Do you know where she is?”
“I think she’s in her room,” Wart suggested, as if he really had thought it over. “You goin’ there?”
“Yes, I think so,” Charlie decided. He waited a moment longer, in case Wart remembered he was actually supposed to restrain Charlie; but when he didn’t, Charlie stepped out into the hall, and then started walking towards Birdie’s room. Wart trailed him dutifully, greeting other soldiers they passed in the hall, who glanced at Charlie with interest but said nothing.
Outside Birdie’s door was another soldier—a woman, not to be trifled with from her stance and expression. “’Allo, Nell,” Wart greeted cheerfully.
“Wart,” she returned coolly. She had a serious purpose here.
“Hello,” Charlie told her. “Is my sister in? May I see her?”
“Alright,” Nell shrugged, so Charlie opened the door. She stopped Wart from following, however. “General said, no one enters but the prince,” she informed him.
“Well, General also says, I’m s’posed to follow the prince!” Wart countered with exasperation.
Charlie left the two of them to hash out this detail and slipped into Birdie’s chamber, shutting the door behind him. “Birdie? It’s me!” he called.
A rotund, maternal woman popped her head out of the inner chamber. “Oh, greetings, Your Highness,” she said hurriedly, bobbing a curtsey. “It’s your brother, miss—”
Birdie flew from the room and into his arms. “Charlie! I’ve been so worried about you!”
He squeezed her tight in return. “Are you alright? What happened?”
“I tried to run, but Jane was too fast, and she caught me!” Birdie relayed, her eyes bright with excitement but not fear. “And Roman had you, and I thought you were dead!” she continued dramatically, emulating a swoon. “But you weren’t. Are you hurt?”
“No,” he assured her. “What’ve you been doing? Where’s all your ladies?”
Birdie danced around the now-spacious room with glee. “Roman dismissed most of them!” she crowed. “He said high-born ladies make good conspirators. There’s just Fizzy left.”
“Your Majesty,” murmured Lady Fizholm, Birdie’s only sweet-tempered lady-in-waiting.
“And then he sent up May and Molly from the kitchens!” Birdie added in delight.
May was the woman, Molly apparently her daughter, about Birdie’s age. “Hello,” Charlie told them, as it seemed they were all in this together now.
“So now we can just play all day, and not do embroidery or have comportment lessons!” Birdie concluded with delight.
Well, at least someone was enjoying the invasion.
“Princess, the General did say you should continue your other lessons,” Fizzy reminded her gently.
“I’m to learn sword fighting!” Birdie claimed, and Charlie’s eyebrows rose. “So I can be a warrior like Jane!”
“How long have I been asleep?” Charlie asked. Clearly it was long enough for the conqueror to charm his sister, though dispensing with her hated lessons and dour companions was a quick way to start. Still, he was glad to see that Birdie was happy.
“Listen, Birdie.” Charlie caught her and stilled her capering, kneeling so he could better see in her eyes. “You must have some care, alright? Things are very unsettled right now. Stay with those you know, don’t sneak off, alright?” He rubbed her arms, wanting to impress upon her the seriousness of the situation without frightening her.
“Roman says he won’t hurt us, Charlie,” Birdie told him, prepared to utterly trust anyone who seemed to offer her kindness. It was both a beauty and a flaw.
Inadvertently he met Fizzy’s eye above Birdie’s head. “I’m sure he won’t,” Charlie conceded to his sister, “but there are many strangers around, rough soldiers. Keep your distance from them, alright?” He kissed her forehead and stood. “I’ll speak to Lady Fizholm now,” he indicated. “I’ll come to see you every day, alright?”
“Alright,” Birdie agreed, skipping off to play with Molly. Only high-born girls had been deemed fit to be her playmates in the past, and they were as starched as their mothers. “I’m glad you’re okay, Charlie!”
Lady Fizholm approached Charlie, but waited until Birdie’s voice could be heard from the other room, immersed in a new game, before she spoke in a low tone. “The General indeed dismissed her other ladies,” she confirmed, “partly for fear of the influence their husbands could wield on the Princess, but also, I think, partly because she didn’t like them.” Fizzy was not prone to imagining such things for the sake of drama. “He did give the impression of caring about her well-being. She is to resume her lessons in the schoolroom tomorrow—history, music, literature, but also math and science!” Charlie’s expression of surprise no doubt mimicked her own. “The General has rounded up Sir Mallory to be her tutor.”
“Rousted him from his stupor in the tavern?” Charlie predicted, rolling his eyes. Another person who had managed to miss the invasion.
“The General says Sir Mallory is a most learned man, when sober,” Fizzy shrugged.
How Roman knew this was a mystery, but Charlie supposed Sir Mallory’s reputation must have spread even to the barbarian camps. “And what of your husband?” he asked her.