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“Do you want the good news or the bad news first?” were the words that tumbled out of the healer’s mouth when he exited the castle’s infirmary.
Aidan gripped his lance tight enough to make his hands start smoking, but he calmed down enough to say, “Good news.”
“The queen is getting better.” The dark-skinned healer glanced back toward the infirmary and murmured something about how odd it was that the queen was doing so well. “Quite a turnaround, really.”
“That’s excellent,” Aidan said. His grip loosened on his weapon as he tried to peer into the room beyond the healer. “What’s the bad news?”
“Come and see for yourself.” The healer gestured into the infirmary and followed the soldier in. The room was quiet, save for the soft footsteps of the men, as he checked on the women in the beds.
Queen Mystral had a healthy pink color in her cheeks, and her chest moved in a steady rhythm as she peacefully slept. Jars and containers of ointments and medicines were on the bedside table, and Aidan glanced through them, his curiosity demanding to know what the medicines were, how they were made, why the country didn’t put more emphasis on the healing arts instead of focusing on the army.
The princess, spending much of her time between running the country in her mother’s absence and visiting the infirmary, was lying on the bed adjacent to the queen. Princess Anila’s pale face was wrinkled with distress, her breathing coming in ragged breaths, and sweat was upon her brow.
“The bad news,” the healer said slowly, “is that the princess is not getting better.”
“Her Royal Highness wasn’t sick.”
“She is now.” The healer took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair, messing it up even further. “Quite a turnaround, really…”
Aidan raised an eyebrow. “You said that already about the queen.”
“It applies to the princess too,” the healer said. His eyes were downcast and his shoulders shook from his deep sigh. “I’m sorry…”
“You helped the queen,” Aidan said, “and I’m sure you did your best for the princess. Perhaps she’ll have another turnaround, as you say.”
The healer shook his head. “I don’t think so. I don’t believe that the princess will get up again. Princess Anila wasn’t responding to any of the remedies I tried with the queen. In fact…”
Aidan prompted the healer when the other man wasn’t going to elaborate on his own. “In fact what? What is it?”
The healer’s words dropped to a whisper. “I’m not even sure the queen responded to my remedies. It seems the gods have a hand on her shoulder. Her recovery is nothing short of a miracle.”
“You must have done something,” Aidan said. “I’m sure this miracle wouldn’t have had a chance without your help.”
The healer suddenly chuckled. “Are you always this encouraging?” he asked. “Are you the type of soldier that cheers on his opponent in a spar?”
Aidan rolled his eyes. “If you’re done, healer–”
“Doyle.” The healer stuck out his hand to the soldier. “My name is Doyle Lorz.”
“Aidan Basset.” The soldier returned the handshake. “Now, if you’re done here, the soldier at the front gate will give you your payment. I’ll keep an eye on the queen and the princess.”
“I’m sure they’re in good hands with you.” Doyle tipped his hat to Aidan. “Call me if anything changes.”
“Of course.” Aidan watched the healer go. Doyle’s firm footfalls receded from Aidan’s ears only to be replaced by the lumbering steps of Queen Mystral’s closest advisor.
“Her Majesty?” Zion came into the infirmary, his gaze riveted on the queen’s prone form.
“The healer said she’s doing well,” Aidan said. “Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the princess… Hopefully she’ll make a turnaround just as her mother had.”
Zion made a noncommittal grunt and took a seat beside the queen’s bed. Aidan cast one last look at the princess before leaving the care of the women to Zion.
It was a mere two days later that the queen was well enough to personally plan her daughter’s funeral.
She was cursing herself for not having the foresight of wearing a veil around the back of her neck. With her dark hair up in its ponytail, the tiny grits of sand were having a field day stinging her tanned skin, the wind whipping the pieces as if her neck was a target. Her eyes glanced at her partner’s back, promising herself not to utter a word of complaint, seeing as he did not mumble any curses against the sand flying by his narrowed, unprotected eyes as he gazed stubbornly at the sea of sand surrounding them.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked softly.
His response was her only indication that he had heard her words above the wind. “How Aknia will survive this threat…”
“We will survive it brilliantly, just as we do whenever unfortunate circumstances happen.”
His chuckles were bitter, humorless. “I am glad you still have some of your optimism,” he said, his light cape being tugged and pulled as the wind tried desperately to yank the material off of his shoulders in order to brand him with its hot sand. The cape, like its wearer, would not yield to the desert’s arrogant power, however. With a flourish, he turned back from the deep hills that he had been staring at and walked past her. She followed just a few steps behind him obediently.
“The Sword of Fire is not here,” he said, his shoulders slightly slumped as the pair trudged through the heavy sand.
“Perhaps another part of the desert?” she suggested, handing him a flask of water. Although warm, the liquid at least quenched the dryness of their throats. His head shook slowly, allowing drops of precious water to spill out of the flask, evaporating before they had even finished their run down the leather covering.
“Not that I can sense. It must already be gone.”
Her eyes stared at the sand that she passed by as the two walked back to the outpost. “How…?”
“The same way the Sword of Water has disappeared, I suppose,” he said with a grumble. “You are certain the Sword of Earth has been sealed?”
“The Earth Guardian had guaranteed it,” she said. His steps halted, causing her to almost knock into his back, and he turned to her in a fluid motion, his crimson eyes hard like the steel of his daggers.
“You did see the Sword sealed with your own eyes?”
She hesitated to respond and immediately cursed herself for her pause. “No,” she said. “I am afraid I did not. I took the Earth Guardian at her word, without demanding to see the Sword for myself–”
“By the Light…”
He seemed to have growled out the words, turning away from her. His walk began again, his steps longer, faster, and she struggled to keep up. Eager to redeem herself for her foolish mistake, she said, “I will return to the Forest of Illusions once we get back–”
“You will not,” he said. “I will go to the Earth Guardian myself while you remain with the queen.”
Her face burned hotter than the sand scorching her feet, but she nodded. “As you wish.”
“I need to see the Sword with my own eyes.” His voice drifted back to her on the wind, and she allowed herself to smile behind her protective veil at his reasoning. Silence brushed over the pair for a while, until she spoke again.
“What are we to do about the Swords that have disappeared?”
“Find them,” he answered without hesitation.
“Your dragon Toasted—”
“Toasty,” the tower man, who had introduced himself as Fraden, corrected Brom as he poured tea for the four of us.
“Whatever.” Brom waved his free hand dismissively. His other hand was holding the ice-encased rock that Luella had spelled up against a nasty bump that he had gotten while chasing down Toasty. The dragon itself was perched back up on the roof, but its snout was nearly poking through the window as it watched us lounge around the small dining table its master had set up in the tower.
Brom continued with, “Your dragon has been terrorizing the nearby village. We were commissioned to slay it and rescue any of its victims that happened to still be alive here in the tower.”
“You’re mistaken,” Fraden said, settling down next to Simon. Simon raised an eyebrow at me from across the table, either at the man’s blunt and confident statement or at me smuggling the tea saucer under my coat.
I figured the fancy plate could earn us a few gold coins since it didn’t seem like we were going to be rewarded for rescuing anyone.
Fraden didn’t notice, as he kept a steady gaze on Brom. “Toasty has never gone near the village, and he certainly hasn’t taken any so-called victims.”
“We smelled burned corpses,” Luella said.
“Toasty likes his food cooked,” Fraden said, “but he doesn’t eat humans. Too sinewy and stringy with muscles.” I clamped my mouth shut, not wanting to ask how Fraden would know that particular detail. He added, “Toasty mainly hunts deer and bear from the forests. Once in a while he’ll head toward the sea to snatch a shark if he feels like seafood.”
“Pretty sure we can tell the difference between cooked bear meat and humans,” Brom said. “That, and the village people have seen maidens getting kidnapped by a large, flying reptile. What’s your answer for that?”
“Have you tried the wyvern caves to the north?” Fraden sipped at his tea, his smallest finger sticky out as he held up his cup.
“Were we tracking down the wrong creature?” Simon deadpanned.
Luella groaned and stood up, her chair scrapping against the floor. “Well, let’s go, then! There’s no telling how many people may be in trouble with these wyverns!”
“Wait.” I stopped her from moving and looked at Fraden. “Why are you here alone in a tower with a dragon?”
“I enjoy Toasty’s company more so than people’s,” he said with a slight shrug. “Besides, there’s not many who wish to get too close to me once they find out how large my guard dog is, you know?”
“Huh. Fair enough.” I got up, my curiosity satisfied for the time being.
“If you four are not frightened off by Toasty,” Fraden said as we straightened out our belongings, “then you are welcome to visit anytime. As long as, of course, you don’t try to steal any more of my belongings. Please return the saucer to the table.”
Simon snorted as I sighed and took out the small dish from my pocket, returning it as requested.
“We apologize for that,” Luella said, and I ignored her narrowed gaze while heading to the door. “Perhaps we will take up on your offer to visit again, Fraden. Thank you for the information and take care.”
“Sorry about, uh, attacking, I guess,” Brom added as we finally left. When we were further down the road, Brom turned to me. “You must be losing your touch if he noticed a little tea cup plate missing.”
I smirked and merely opened my pack while we walked to wordlessly reveal the tea kettle nestled among my other treasures.