* * * * * *
A blocky figure clad in black scaled the walls of the Golden Castle. It was not an easy feat for a man, as the castle itself spiraled beyond the clouds, and he was at an altitude where a bird would feel lightheaded. The man had little on his person except for his black garb from head to toe, and a belt that carried a few knives. He was dangerously under-armed, but lightness was his key to scaling such a monstrosity of a castle. He propelled himself with handheld hooks, each one registering a ting-tang-ting-tang that went unheard by the patrolling Golden Guard.
Weary, the man in black hoisted himself over a railing. The balcony was dark with the night, and only half of the moon shined down on the man’s perch. He scanned the area before he slumped into a corner. He placed his hooks upon his belt, catching his breath before he would scale the next section of the castle—the part that led to the Queen and King’s chambers.
And then a shadow dropped in from above, landing right in front of him.
“Not in my house, stupid,” the shadow said, the growl of her tone adding to her threat.
The assassin jumped to his feet, and the shadow plunged a fist into his lower gut. He doubled over, and the shadow planted her shoulder underneath his torso. With a soft grunt, she flipped him over the railing. He did not have a chance to grab his hooks or other weaponry before he fell.
The smile of self-satisfaction that spread across the face of “Tina the Terrible” was covered by her mask—a black veil sewn into the hood’s rim of her black cloak. Her black garb was as sleek as panther’s fur. She only had fourteen years of life under her belt, and her tight outfit could not hide her budding figure. The steel bra she wore underneath her black shirt may have exaggerated her breasts, but it was better for witnesses to think of Tina as being more voluptuous than her true persona, Princess Azedeh Davani Sunflower.
She watched the invading assassin’s black figure become a red speck when he splattered upon a lower circle level of the castle. Tina allowed pride to warm her, for she had been an assassin for only two years, and that was the first time she had been able to toss a man by her own strength. She did feel a bit bad for the patrolling guards who came across gravity’s work, and their retches echoed in the quiet night.
Tina gazed at the next castle level above her head. This was the fifth assassination attempt she thwarted in a month. The first three men were slain by the Golden Guard before the would-be killers could get past the castle gate. The fourth killer fell to her death when she underestimated a leap between balconies. The fifth one was idiotic enough to brag about his plans in a local tavern that Tina staked out to eradicate the scumbags of the kingdom she was destined to inherit. With each passing night the princess spent in her Tina persona, the more she realized that the kingdom her parents protected was out to slay them.
No one threatened her family, and she would not be able to sleep until she saw for herself that her parents were safe.
Tina opened a small pouch upon her belt filled with Sticky Pads (as they were commonly called in Turrack, although they were actually lily pads that developed a sticky goo so amphibians would not slip off them during mating rituals). She placed a pad upon her gloves and the soles of her high-laced boots before she scaled up the next level of the castle. Although the plant was not strong enough to be a true adhesive, it did allow her to hang onto the wall long enough to propel herself upward. She barely broke a sweat, having performed such physically exhausting acts several times before.
She was only three feet away from the railing for the upper level above her. She reached up with her left hand, but the pad had run out of goo and she slipped. She dangled from her right hand, but it was not powerful enough to keep her up. She slid slowly down; the world beneath her dangling feet was nothing more than a tiny speck from where she was.
Tina swung her body upwards just as the goo on the right pad gave out. She outstretched her feet, hooking the toes of her boots between the base and the steel bars that made up the railing. Her heart bounced from her throat to her belly as she hung upside down, apparently destined to meet the same fate as the man she had just tossed. Her body still swung from her momentum, and she used the palm of her gloved hands to pull herself up, keeping her feet around the bars. Tina grabbed the railing bars when she was within reach. She unhooked her toes from the bars, using the remaining goo of the Sticky Pads on the soles of her boots to climb over the railing.
Tina was more alarmed by the light of torches and lanterns than by her brief (and somewhat reoccurring) brush with death. She darted to the shadows, flattening her back against the wall. She had not heard the firm footfalls of the Golden Guard, but she was too distracted from her near fall to have been paying attention.
Stupid girl—if there was one thing that she learned as an assassin of evil doers, it is that inattentiveness leads to a humiliating death… or capture if the vile fiend has worse plans in mind.
There was no one patrolling the area she was in—a bit alarming for Tina since this was where her parents’ chambers were located. She slunk in the shadows, being careful not to step in the areas lit by the torches. The flames should have been snuffed out hours ago. Could it be possible that her parents were still awake? Perhaps another assassin had slipped past her, using the man she just killed as a decoy as he performed his deadly task.
Tina quickened her pace, not being mindful of the echoes of her steps.
Curtains of gold billowed through the open door that led to her parents’ main chamber. Tina looked for evidence of a break-in but saw nothing. It was possible that her mother had become overheated in the summer night and opened it up for air. Tina peered around the open door, making certain that no one saw her dart inside.
She tucked herself into a roll and landed upon her feet behind a large couch of crimson. She was in the sitting area of the chamber, which had half a dozen such pieces of furniture in the gilded room, but none of them could camouflage the princess in black. She thought about hanging from the ceiling like a bat, but the room was lit with enough lanterns to make even the darkest corner seem like dusk.
“I cannot stay in this room any longer,” the voice of Tina’s mother rang from behind the closed door of the adjacent room. “I need the cool air that fills the sitting room.”
“But we risk someone hearing our debate, my Queen,” protested the calm and authoritative voice of Tina’s uncle.
“The woman with the lilac eyes rules all,” retorted the voice of Tina’s father, “even those bound to her by marriage. I do not think we need to fear anyone hearing us.”
Tina searched in a panic for a proper hiding place. There was a wardrobe against the wall behind her. It seemed a bit plain in comparison to the extravagance of the room as it was not painted with bright colors or encrusted with jewels, but it was carved from ancient Rustigold steel and had been in her family for over 500 years. It was also empty and large enough for Tina to hide inside.
She jumped into the antique wardrobe, keeping the door ajar, and watched her family enter from the other room.
King Randall Sunflower poked his head out first. He still had the build of a Quester brave and true, but now the hairs upon his head matched the Snowy Mountains of the northern kingdom in Andra. His jaw was shaven clean to avoid the appearance of a “snow beast.” His fluorescent orange eyes still twinkled with the energy of his youth, and he scanned the area with such intensity that he made Tina shrink where she squatted when his gaze came to the wardrobe. He was wrapped in a golden silk robe stitched with the image of a sunflower across the front, flashing the bare mahogany skin of his limbs. He wore matching slippers but bore no crown upon his head.
“See, dear brother? There is no one around to hear our discussion. I ordered the Golden Guard to give me privacy, and thusly they are not patrolling this area.”
“Works for me,” said Queen Yamita as she barged past her husband. Her swollen belly nearly flattened him as she waddled past, plopping herself upon the couch that Tina had just abandoned as her hiding place.
“Much better,” the Queen sighed as she allowed the summer evening’s breeze to ruffle her golden silk nightgown. Her ebony skin glistened with sweat, and the bare feet she planted upon the ottoman were swollen from the burden of oncoming motherhood.
“I would like to close the outer door just a little bit,” said Vencel Delphinium as he entered the sitting room, still dressed in his high court doublet of crimson with the sunflower image across his chest. His red eyes surveyed the area, his square jaw clenched. “You never know when a grunt may pass by unaware of your privacy orders.”
From behind Vencel, silent but no less intimidating, entered his wife, Kyla. Her hair was the color of midnight, pulled into a tight, high ponytail. She wore a high court doublet similar to her husband’s but gold in color, and a long sword of gold steel was sheathed upon her belt. Her caramel skin made her one of the paler people in a land hostile to those who were not dark. There was a rumor that anyone so foolish as to make any kind of mocking comment about Kyla’s skin would have found their necks broken with just a glance, and Tina believed it.
“You and Kyla know the men best, Vencel,” Randall replied, “but do not plague yourself with fear. This discussion shall end shortly, and you both can enjoy the pleasures of your marriage soon enough.”
Randall chuckled as Vencel and Kyla blushed—lucky guess, but Randall’s mind always dwelt on such affairs.
“It is already over,” Queen Yamita said, throwing a cold stare at her husband. “I already told you to tear up that letter. That was the end of it.”
“You were the one who changed the words of our kingdom from ‘Resolve your own problems’ to ‘We stand as one,’ ” King Randall replied. “Are you suggesting we ignore the pleas of this young Quester who claims to be kin with Gerald the Generous?”
Gerald—that was a name that rang familiar in Tina’s mind, although more from the stories her father told her as a child than of living memory. She had only four years of life under her belt the last time the Quester from Quaal visited the castle, but he gave her a wooden sword for her birthday. The gift was disapproved by her mother, naturally, but the play fights she had with her father were the first time they bonded. Before that, Randall was too awkward around such a delicate little girl for him to spend much time with her. The only memory Tina still carried of Gerald was the forlorn expression on his face when he left her aunt’s chambers to return back to Quaal.
Queen Yamita snorted. “My words reflect the unity of our kingdom, not the willingness to risk our necks for a war that is not ours. Gerald has not written a letter to my sister in about two years, and the broken heart she carries gives me no reason to jump to his kin’s aid.”
Randall shuffled to his wife, sitting down next to her. “If it were not for Gerald, you would not have survived long enough to become queen, and we would not have the beautiful children we have created.”
Randall rubbed the Queen’s belly. Her hand met his and she gave his fingers a squeeze. “I still would prefer it if you were to ignore the letter. I shall deliver our third child in a few weeks, and I would not have you miss the birth for any delay in Quaal or an unforeseen death in a foreign battle.”
Tina held the lump that formed in her throat.
Randall emitted a deep chuckle. “My dear, just because you gave me a crown does not mean that I have buried Randall the Rambunctious for dead. I lived in Quaal for twenty years, and I did not perish by sword or otherwise.”
“But you have not been to Quaal in sixteen years,” Vencel piped in as respectfully as he could. He strolled around the room as he spoke, patrolling the area like any proper foot soldier, his orange eyes surveying every inch of the décor.
Tina closed the door of the wardrobe before his gaze caught her. Kyla stared in her direction but made no motion toward her hiding place. She remained standing, stiff as a board, ever vigilant with her duties. It was not hard to believe why people thought Vencel was the “nice” co-Head Commanding General of the Golden Guard.
“I am certain Quaal has not changed that much,” Randall snapped. “Besides, going there may be the only way I can find Gerald. I am certain he would not leave Tatiana brokenhearted for any reason, unless something wicked overcame him.”
“Did the letter reveal anything about his fate?” Yamita asked, concern tainting her tone for the first time during their discussion.
“No,” Randall sighed. “It only mentions that the nuns of Quaal have ravaged the lands laying waste to everyone and everything, and they plan to do the same throughout the land of Andra.”
“Their wickedness has already spread,” Vencel said, finally sitting down upon the couch next to his brother. “I was hoping to report this to you in private, dear brother, but I suppose it shall help things out if the Queen hears this as well. As you are both aware, I have received numerous reports of a figure in black slaying any Turrack trader who crosses the border into Quaal.”
“I heard the black figure was Tina the Terrible,” Randall said with a shudder that cut Tina’s soul. “She constantly leaves the heads and dead bodies of wicked people upon my doorstep. I have no doubt she is leaving me a warning and shall try to make an attempt on my life at some point.”
I leave you the bodies so you know that the evil people are dead and you are safe, Tina would have protested, but she held her tongue to keep her location secret and made a mental note to stop leaving bodies… well, not counting the man she just threw over the railing.
“Tina tends to slay those who are notoriously wicked,” Kyla piped in, “and I thought it was uncharacteristic for her to kill innocent traders. We sent our best men to investigate, and they reported that there are several, possibly thousands, of black figures patrolling our borders. All of them were women who wore the same outfit.”
As Kyla spoke, Vencel went back into the adjacent room and returned with a sack stained with blood. He took out a nun’s habit, torn with the gashes of swordplay. “Is this not the garb that nuns wear, as Gerald the Generous drew in our records before he last departed?” he asked.
Randall gazed upon the cloth and nodded. “If Quaal’s problem has spilled upon Turrack land, then it is my duty as King to defend our people and vanquish these nuns.”
“There is still the matter of the Law of Royalty Restrictions,” Yamita said. “A Turrack royal may not leave this kingdom under penalty of death.”
“A law I have been trying to overturn for years,” Randall growled.
“And every time you bring it up with the people, they refuse to eliminate it. If you are caught leaving Turrack, the people could vote to have you executed, and my authority cannot save you from that fate.”
“But I am not of pure royal blood as you are,” Randall protested. “I still think the law does not apply to me since those of common blood are allowed to travel to other lands if they wish.”
“And very few do so,” Kyla commented, “except for trading, and that has dwindled because of these killings.”
“I would think the people would be more grateful,” Randall lamented. “I saved them from mutant dandelions. I spread the kingdom’s wealth and rebuilt the slums as a respectable place to live. I have traveled to every village and helped the people in all that I can.”
“Perhaps that is why they do not want you to leave,” Yamita said. “You are such a beloved king that they would hate to lose you to some wicked fate… as would I.” She rested her head upon Randall’s shoulder and nuzzled his neck.
“If anyone should journey to Quaal, it should be us,” Vencel said, taking Kyla’s hand. “We are the Head Commanding Generals of the Golden Army. I would think that title would come with the responsibility of protecting these lands.”
“Yes,” Randall said, “but to protect from the inside. Besides, you two know nothing about Quaal’s terrain.”
“You and Gerald made plenty of maps that we could use,” Kyla replied.
“It is not the same. Things could have changed in the sixteen years I have been absent.”
“You recently proclaimed that it would not have changed very much,” Vencel said, crossing his arms over his chest.
Randall laughed. “All right, so I spoke hastily. However, even if the lands are in ruin as this Renee the Righteous has described, I would still know enough to figure out where I am and where I need to go.”
“And where exactly do you need to go in Quaal?” Yamita asked.
“To the Dark Castle, where the monks rule over the survivors of the onslaught.”
“And how far away is it?”
“About three weeks, I believe,” Randall muttered.
“So three weeks to get there and three weeks to get back. You would have to turn around the minute you arrived to get back in time for the birthing.”
“Six weeks is plenty of time since you are not due for eight.”
“I could deliver early, or have you already forgotten that our son arrived four weeks before the birthing doctor’s prediction.”
“And the babe that grows in your belly may not be born at all if these nuns invade our lands. I must protect Turrack, even if I have to break the rules to do so. If the people catch me and vote for my death, so be it.”
Tina’s masked lilac eyes grew wide.
“No one shall know,” Vencel said. “I shall remain in Turrack and feign that you have grown ill and must be restricted to bed rest. Kyla can order guards to protect your chambers so no one enters and discovers the truth.”
“So shall my husband travel to Quaal alone?” Yamita snapped.
“I shall take only three hundred men with me,” Randall said. “They shall have to be high ranking men who have been by my side in previous battles, for the ones who did not try to kill me when I lead them toward death in previous battles are the only men I can trust with this secret quest.”
“I have listings of such men,” Vencel said. “We should probably add some generous compensation of gold to ensure they keep their mouths shut.”
“Dead men tell no secrets,” Tina muttered under her breath, fingering the hilt of a knife upon her belt.
“If it comes to that, then so be it,” Randall spoke to his brother as he cracked a yawn. “The night has grown late. We should get as much rest as we can before I depart.”
“You shall leave with your men and supplies in three nights from now,” Vencel said. “Leaving in darkness shall aid with secrecy.”
“I am still not happy with this,” Yamita chimed as she stifled a yawn of her own.
“And I shall suffer for the remainder of my days because of your ill content,” Randall grumbled as he escorted his wife to bed.
Vencel and Kyla snuffed out the remaining light. Just as he snuffed out the last lantern, Kyla whispered into his ear.
“I shall meet you in bed, dear. Something in the air has pricked the hairs upon the back of my neck. I want to make another round along this floor or I shall never be able to concentrate on… us.”
Vencel smiled. “Your diligence is alluring. I do not sense any danger, but do what you must. All I ask is that you do not keep my bed cold for long.”
He kissed his wife long and hard upon her lips before departing. Kyla faced the wardrobe, her hands placed behind her back at ease.
“Rest is not easy to find when Tina the Terrible stalks the Golden Castle.”
Tina jumped upon her aunt’s back, cupping both her hands around Kyla’s mouth. Tina had snuck out of the wardrobe during the smooching—another silly mistake people often made to let their guard down.
“You do realize I must accompany my father,” Tina whispered into Kyla’s ear.
“Curse it, Azedeh!” Kyla hissed.
Kyla was strong, swift, and had nearly a foot of height on Tina. She spun around and wrapped her arm around Tina’s waist before she could jump off. Tina flipped over and Kyla carried her as if she were a board of wood tucked under her arm. She cupped her firm hand over Tina’s mouth as she carried her out of the chambers.
“I can walk, you know,” Tina said as Kyla carried her down the hallway, her voice muffled by her aunt’s hand.
“Be silent, child,” Kyla replied with a tone of ice.
Tina swallowed hard. She had faced foes of greater strength than her aunt, although none of those evil men were as terrifying as when Kyla was angered.
Kyla took her to the closest washroom. Tina landed upon her feet when she dropped her, allowing Kyla to lock the doors. The room was as extravagant as the rest of the castle, with a large tub of white marble big enough for six grown men. The room had a purple carpet lush enough to emulate the softest bed, and the windows carved into the wall allowed enough moonlight to enter so that it illuminated everything.
“I should have known that if any ears were to pick up our discussion, they would belong to you,” Kyla said. “I thought we have discussed before that ‘Tina’ was not to be seen in the Golden Castle.”
“That was before ‘she’ heard an assassin brag about his plans to slay the Queen and King,” Tina replied. “By the way, sorry for the mess on level six. I am certain the men shall have his guts cleaned up before sunrise.”
Kyla grimaced. “It is not your duty to protect.”
“It shall be when I become queen, and I need a lot of practice—but I am not in the mood to have this discussion again. I shall need you to cover for me as well when father takes his journey to Quaal.”
“You must remain here,” Kyla growled. “You are of royal blood and cannot leave Turrack.”
“I also cannot leave my father’s back open to the swords of wicked foreign women.”
Kyla sighed, but her stern expression did not lessen. “You have heard plenty of tales about your father’s adventures in Quaal. He can take care of himself.”
“You did not seem so certain of that when you spoke to him.”
Kyla clenched her oval jaw. “When your father asked me to train you as a proper Quester, it was only supposed to be in self-defense—to protect yourself from those who mean to harm you, not to go out seeking dangers.”
“Father may have been one of the mightiest Questers in Quaal years ago,” Tina continued her argument, “but today is a different matter. He has sixty-five years of life under his belt now, and he is not the strapping youth he was when he first ventured into those lands. I would feel better if I were nearby to ensure his safety, even if I am restricted to the shadows… I know you would feel better, too. After all, he made you the first female commander of the Golden Guard in our kingdom’s history. You owe him for that and much more.”
Kyla took in several deep breaths before she released a sigh. “It is bad enough that I know about your secret and your father does not, but I can only coax my daughter to be your double for so long. It works for a few days, but this journey shall take weeks. My Evangeline does not have the eye color required to be you if Azedeh must appear in court.”
“That shall not happen, for I have no doubt that my mother shall oversee all court matters. She may be swollen with my newest sibling, but she is strong and never shirks on royal duty. Also, you can tell people I caught the same illness my father has, and just have Evangeline wrapped up in my bed hacking and sneezing. It shall give credibility to my father’s alibi.”
Kyla’s frown melted as her lower lip quivered. “Every night that you come to me with fresh bruises and gashes, I die inside. If you were to perish before your father’s eyes, even to use your body to shield him from danger, I can just envision him taking his own life after your inner light disappears in his arms.”
“And I shall plunge a blade into my own chest if he perishes on this journey,” Tina said, her tone jumping as lumps formed in her throat. “If anything happens to him, I shall only blame myself for having the means of protecting him and not exercising them.”
Kyla stood silent, holding Tina still with the gaze of her eyes—that piercing stare as green as a meadow coated with the morning dew. “Come to my workshop after lunch tomorrow. Now go to bed and do not let anyone see you in that outfit.”
Tina obeyed without argument. She took out more Sticky Pads and climbed out the window, crawling along the castle walls back to her chambers without being seen (although she later faced another stern lecture from her aunt for performing such a dangerous feat).
She arrived at Kyla’s workshop precisely when her aunt ordered. Tina was Princess Azedeh again, dressed in a silk gown of pink and white lace with a swooping neckline that stopped just above her bosom. The workshop was located in the royal stables, as Kyla found that it was the only place with proper ventilation for her leathering and blacksmith hobby skills. Her area was actually three stables combined into one, with the tools of her craft decorating the walls and benches. She had sent the stable workers away, ensuring a private audience with her niece.
Kyla helped Azedeh up onto a stool. The princess had to sit with her legs folded together across one side, as her dress did not allow her to properly straddle her perch to keep balance. She thought it would be great practice to tighten her abdominal muscles.
“I have given thought to how you may travel without being noticed,” Kyla spoke in a hushed tone, just in case her words were to echo into the ears of those outside the stables. “The men shall take three carts of supplies with them as part of their disguise as traders. You shall stow away in a trunk that shall be loaded into one of those carts.”
“That would never work,” Azedeh said after a short thought.
“I would carve air holes,” Kyla replied.
“That is not the issue. I risk becoming trapped when a heavier trunk is placed on top of me. If that happens, I cannot escape in time to be of any help in case father needs me. Also, if some curious guard were to take a peek, I would be caught.”
“You could slip into the cart and hide behind the trunks,” Kyla suggested after a thoughtful pause.
“That would work at night, but I still risk being seen in the daylight.”
“You should ride your stallion from behind,” Kyla said. “I would suggest following on foot like you usually do with your evil victims, but you would be footsore before you leave Turrack and would not be able to keep up.”
“I do not think I could follow on horse, either,” Azedeh said. “I would have to travel several miles behind to remain unseen. If something happens, I would not know about it until I caught up and found everyone slain by the nuns. Also, the stable hands shall notice my steed missing, and that shall raise questions.”
Kyla fell silent with thought, but it was Azedeh who broke the quiet.
“I shall have to strap myself underneath one of the carts,” she said. “That way, I can remain close to father while remaining unseen.”
“If a wheel or axel breaks, you shall be caught dangling underneath,” Kyla pointed out.
“If that should occur, I can slip away quick enough so that no one sees me when they peek underneath. A leather harness shall suffice, one I can slip in and out of with ease. I shall be like a pack upon a traveler’s back, except I would hang from the belly of the cart.”
“That would work,” Kyla replied, “although you shall suffer soreness from the bumps along the road.”
“I know how to keep my muscles warm,” Azedeh said, flashing a smile. “You taught me how.”
Kyla took her measurements (adding a few inches for the steel undergarments) and worked on the harness for two days. She barely finished the job when Tina dropped in from the ceiling at her workshop upon the night of her father’s departure.
“We shall have to make this quick,” Kyla said after she caught her breath. Tina’s sudden drop-ins always unnerved her a little.
Kyla buckled the harness around Tina’s torso. It was a bit snug, but not enough to restrict breathing or movement. The princess-assassin truly felt like a pack about to be strapped upon someone’s back.
“The other straps buckle around the axel,” Kyla explained. “What are you taking with you for protection?”
“I have my weapon of choice hidden underneath my outfit,” Tina replied, “along with some that are sheathed upon my legs and arms.”
“And your steel undergarments?”
“All complicated locks of my steel bra and crotch piece are latched to defeat any potential pervert.”
“What about food and water?”
“I can sneak enough out of the carts during the night to sustain myself.”
“I have two pouches of Dandelion Paste to heal any wounds I may suffer.”
“For some reason, I fear that may not be enough for you.”
Tina took off the harness and was glad with how quickly she could remove it.
“The men are getting ready now,” Kyla said. “My husband shall make one of his usual motivational speeches that shall distract them while you strap yourself in. You shall not be able to follow me on foot. You are swift, but they are located in the open fields on the outside of the back gates. You shall not have any cover as the grass is only chest high and there is no other coverage.”
“I anticipated that,” Tina sighed. “I shall have to resign with being in your saddlebag.”
“Even my largest bag would be too snug,” Kyla warned. “People could potentially see the outline of your body crammed into it.”
“It is dark, so I doubt anyone would notice. Also, I shall ride upon the left of your horse as the men tend to approach your right side when they ride up to you.”
“We may not have a choice,” Kyla groaned. “We certainly do not have any time to think of anything better. My husband is expecting me shortly to accompany his ride back to the castle… after your father has departed.”
“Thank you for all your aid, dear aunt.” Tina stood on the tips of her toes and planted a kiss upon Kyla’s cheek.
Kyla grabbed Tina and yanked her into a tight embrace. “Be careful out there, child,” she said. “If either one of you perish, I shall be the one to perform a dramatic suicide.”
She kissed Tina upon her brow before she let her go.
Thus it was that Tina contorted her body into a tight ball to fight into Kyla’s largest saddlebag. The harness strapped upon her petite frame made the leather bag even tighter, but Tina just had to suck it up. A burning sensation in her gut made her aware that this would not be the worst of her oncoming journey. Once Kyla secured the latches of the bag, she rode her brown horse out of the stables.
Tina wrapped her arms around her head as she bounced against the side of the horse. Her lungs did not have the space to take in any deep breaths, so she had to keep telling herself that the cart ride shall be just as uncomfortable and to think of this trip as a warm up. She kept flexing her muscles, reducing the risk of cramping. It was nearly twenty minutes before Kyla’s steed reached the back gates of the city, and another twenty before she reached the fields. If Tina could have seen through the bag, she would have admired her uncle and aunt’s stealthy skills, for they got three hundred men and ten carts (they needed more than originally anticipated) out of the gates without suspicion—not to mention Randall. The men were not dressed in their golden armor but in plain clothes, such as traders would often wear when going abroad, but their protective uniforms were stored in one of the carts for future use.
Tina listened to the sound of men’s whispers, but the leather of the saddlebag smothered most of their words. She heard the hooves of a horse approach Kyla, and her aunt turned her steed aside so the protruding saddlebag was hidden by the beast’s body.
“My brother is making a speech up front,” Vencel said to Kyla, mounted upon a black stallion. “I shall make one back here for the men who cannot hear him, but I fear such boastful idling shall allow time for someone to discover our doings.”
“I shall ride around the group,” Kyla volunteered, “and make certain that no one lurks in the shadows.”
Except me, Tina thought with a smile.
Vencel nodded before he shouted, “Gather around me, men! I must give you all one last briefing before you depart with the King.”
The men gathered around their leader, turning their backs against Kyla as she made her ride toward the carts. She brought her horse to a stop when she reached them, located in the middle of the army.
“Now is your chance,” Kyla hissed as she unlatched the straps upon her saddlebag.
Tina jumped out. She stumbled on her feet for a few steps, for all of her flexing did not prevent all muscles from cramping, but she made use of her situation and tucked into a ball, rolling underneath the closest cart.
She lay still until she saw the last of the hooves of her aunt’s horse speed away.
Tina crawled upon her hands and knees to the head cart. She strapped the harness upon the front end, around the steel beam that encased the spinning rods connected to the wheels. She silently cursed herself as she realized that her legs dangled without restraints. She took out some of the Sticky Pads from her pouch and stuck them to her back of her boots. She planted them against the bottom of the cart and her feet stuck, keeping her legs up—the goo worked better when it was not supporting her entire body weight.
Vencel and Randall rode toward each other when they finished their speeches, meeting halfway at the cart Tina was strapped to. They dismounted, and it was odd for her to see the well-worn boots of a commoner upon her father’s feet, but he was in disguise like the rest of the men.
“Thank you, Vencel, and thank Kyla too,” her father’s voice boomed. Tina could not fully see them but heard the sound of them patting each other’s back in a last embrace. “Do not look so forlorn, dear brother. Although the reasons for this parting a bleak, my heart is lifted to return once more to the land of my adventures.”
“You do not need to be as bold as you used to,” Vencel said. “Please keep that in mind.”
Randall laughed in a manner that Tina knew must have shaken his belly.
“Onward to Quaal!” Randall shouted, but the men knew better than to cheer—Kyla’s stern expression reminded them to keep quiet.
Tina’s body jerked when the cart went into motion. Dirt that was kicked up from the wheels smacked her face, but her mask protected her well. If only it could have deflected the rocks.