Kachina’s muscles ached from the not-so-lovely accommodations of the castle dungeon. She hadn’t slept much at all, worry for Cecil and Kachina’s own fate plaguing her mind. The only good thing about the dungeon was that Kachina had, for once in her life, gotten a full meal. Of course, she didn’t eat much of it at all, and the plate of leftovers was abandoned in the corner of the cell.
The sun had begun to rise, if the rays of light shining through the high, solitary, tiny window was any indication, when the cell door of Kachina’s prison cell swung open. A pack of guards, each with tall lances at their sides, were waiting for Kachina to get up. When she didn’t move immediately, one of the guards grasped her arm and forced her to her feet. Another tied her hands together behind her back, and Kachina considered how well matched she was against half a dozen guards. The sight of the sharp pikes atop of the guards’ lances changed Kachina’s mind, and she complied with the guards’ wishes.
She was marched out of the dungeon and throughout the castle surrounded by the guards, and Kachina wondered why she was under such scrutiny for a simple act of thievery. No one had been killed and she didn’t even clean the whole caravan out. A night in jail seemed to be a sufficient punishment, perhaps some unpaid slave work to work off the value of whatever she had stolen. This seemed to be a bit much.
Then again, she apparently had robbed from an important caravan. It wasn’t exactly her fault that she had mistaken them as refugees from one of the border villages. Why had some royalty pretend to be refugees in the first place?
Kachina was nearly frog-marched into the throne room where she was bodily forced to bow to the queen. She kept her head down, finding no other alternative than to obey at the moment, but she did try to wrestle her hands free from their bonds.
“Allow her to stand.”
Kachina stood up and came face-to-face with the queen. The queen’s face was stoic and serious, her short blond hair as straight as her back. Standing on either side of her throne were two men, one that shared her blond hair with mage robes draped over his shoulders and the other with darker hair. The latter was the swordsman from the caravan and the marketplace, and Kachina could not help but stare at him in puzzlement for being there.
“Young lady,” the queen said, capturing Kachina’s attention. “You had stolen something of great value from a caravan yesterday. Why?”
Kachina raised an eyebrow. “Forgive my bluntness,” she said, trying to keep the bitterness out of her voice, “but some of us need to steal to survive. Not all of us are born with servants and silver spoons in our mouths.”
“Watch your tongue, or I’ll cut it out for you,” the swordsman said, his tone casual yet firm enough that Kachina believed that he had done just that to someone before.
Still, she retorted, “Then you’ll never get answers from me, will you?”
“Peace, Jeharraz,” the queen said, placing a hand on his forearm when he stiffened. To Kachina, the queen added, “I am sorry you feel the need to resort to such depths in order to survive. However, there was a very specific treasure aboard that caravan. Where is it?”
“What treasure are you talking about?” Kachina asked. “From my place, the supplies I took were junk compared to what you royals must be used to.”
“There was a scale,” the mage said. His tone was calming, a soothing comparison to Jeharraz’s bold sounds. “It was a gray-blue hue, about the size of a fist…?”
“That thing?” Kachina asked. “If you want another, I can skin a fish for you.”
“No,” Jeharraz said, “we must have that specific scale. Where is it?”
Kachina tried to bite back her smirk. “What would you do if I said I sold it?”
“She does not realize what she has done,” the queen said, cutting off whatever scathing remark Jeharraz would have uttered. “You are not from Gronn, are you?”
“Do I sound like it?” Kachina asked back.
“People have been traitors to their countries before.” Jeharraz’s sword was out of its sheath. “Tell us where the scale had ended up. Quickly, now! We don’t have the time to waste dealing with you.”
“Apparently you must because I’m still here,” Kachina snapped.
“Please, miss,” the mage said. “That scale is an important instrument against Gronn. Surely you have noticed Gronn pressing against our borders? Refugees from those destroyed border villages trying to seek sanctuary in our capitol?”
“Maybe,” Kachina said, “but I’m more focused on staying alive. I don’t have much more than those whose villages have been destroyed.”
“We can aid you in that,” the queen said, “if you aid us in this.”
Kachina’s interest was piqued. “How do I know that’s not a lie? Most folk I deal with aren’t too honest.”
“You have my word as Perion’s Queen,” she said. “I will aid you, be it getting you a job or a home in the capitol or a monetary reward, if that is what you choose.”
Kachina mulled over the woman’s words, curious as to what kind of job the queen could get her. Not many were interested in the work of a thief, and those who were interested were generally worse in character than a thief. Still, if it could grant Kachina a semblance of a better life for herself and Cecil, then she supposed she could try to cooperate with the royals.
That, and she probably would just be sent back to the jail cell should she ultimately choose to decline sharing the information the royal family sought.
“Okay then,” Kachina said. “I would like at least a job once this is over and done with.” Both the queen and the mage next to her nodded, but Jeharraz stayed stoic. “The scale is safe at my little cottage out in the western woods. Besides myself, there is a young girl. We found each other a few years ago, and have been surviving together ever since.”
“I will deploy a unit to go searching the woods immediately–”
“You won’t find it.” Kachina interrupted Jeharraz, and she returned his narrowed gaze with her own. “You’ll need my help to navigate those woods. They’ve become unruly since the royal family stopped caring for it so many years ago.”
“You have cheek,” Jeharraz said, “to be able to insult the royal family like so.”
Kachina crossed her arms. “Just as the royal family insults its people for not caring for all walks of life.”
“How did you get free of your bonds?” the mage asked, cutting off anything Jeharraz might have said. The mage’s tone was full of curiosity more than alarm, and he waved away the guards that had jumped to secure Kachina’s hands once more.
“A trade secret,” Kachina said, and the mage merely raised an eyebrow.
“Very well,” the queen said, “then you shall lead us there. Jeharraz, Ellery,” Both men bowed to her, “you will escort this young lady–”
“Kachina. My name is Kachina.”
A ghost of a smile flickered on the queen’s face. “Jeharraz and Ellery, you will escort Kachina into the woods and retrieve the scale. Kachina, I will begin to inquire about possible job openings for you. I will require you to return here so I can get a better idea of your skills other than freeing yourself from ropes and robbing caravans.”
“Sure.” Kachina shrugged but then thought better of it and gave the queen a brief bow. “I will be bringing my friend with me.”
“Of course.” The queen waved them away. “Go now and return as swiftly as you can.”