91-The Tunnel

Before departing, we tossed the office. We left the windows open, and as a final touch Rakov smashed the lock on the door. If any of our people came back to the warehouse, they ought to see the door and windows and stay away. If they got all the way inside, they shouldn’t linger. I sent Domjoa off with a long list of tasks—including finding out what had become of my men who’d been distracting the garrison. The rest of us followed Trinh through the city.

There were still crowds in the streets, but the atmosphere had changed. It was only a matter of hours from the King’s death, but the column of smoke from the palace was much bigger and darker than the ones from the celebratory bonfires throughout the city. Rumors of soldiers on a manhunt poisoned the revelry and leached the joy out of the night.  The closer we got to the palace, the thinner and more furtive the crowds, until it was just the five of us slinking in the darkness between streetlamps.

Trinh took an unexpected turn down an alley to the left, then he stopped and shifted some garbage bins around. Rakov stepped up to help and I tried not to think about the smells in the alley around us. The men grunted and metal clanked as they hauled open a sewer grate. I moaned at the thought of the things found in sewers as I watched Rakov nimbly sit on the lip and then drop from view. I didn’t hear a splash, but maybe I was deaf. Ayglos approached the hole, then after only a second’s hesitation followed Rakov. I made myself step up to the hole and peer into the darkness, Rakov stood maybe eight feet below, holding a hooded lantern. I didn’t see water, but I did see a ladder, which the men had forgone. Not to be outdone, I sat on the lip and then jumped into the hole, bending my knees and tucking into a roll before I could think through the wisdom of such a move. I bounced back to my feet, still on dry stone. Mercy of heaven. The lantern splashed patterns on the cylindrical room, and revealed two dark passages, one leading north toward the palace, one leading west.

Quill dropped in, then Trinh climbed down using the ladder as he lowered the grate.

“It’s not connected to the sewer,” said Trinh, answering everyone’s unasked question. “Though it does drain into the sewer.” He took lantern from Rakov and started down the northbound tunnel at a brisk jog, Quill behind him, then me, then Ayglos and Rakov.

The air was dank, but not foul. The tunnel was so narrow that occasionally Rakov’s scabbard scraped against the stones. The walls were dotted with carvings. Kings, castles, hunting parties, dragons, knights…I wondered if they told one story or many. Trinh led us with unfaltering steps through several junctions, as if he knew these tunnels very well. This must be how he went in and out of the palace so readily. Perhaps also how he got into the city without being seen that first time after he woke up.

Trinh stopped abruptly, holding up his hand to hold back the rest of us. Quiet, inconsistent murmurs accompanied by the occasional shuffle drifted back from around the bend ahead. Dousing the lamp, we edged forward until we were close enough that Quill exclaimed, “It’s Vaudrin!” and slipped by Trinh before any of us could react.

Trinh turned up the lamp and moved forward as cries of joy greeted Quill. Around the bend, the tunnel was strewn with men in blue uniforms who were scrambling to their feet. They saluted Quill, but when they saw Trinh they whipped to face him instead. Hope lit their faces at the sight of a living Kegan. Their uniforms were splattered with blood, and almost all of them were bandaged one place or another. Several of the standing men were missing shirts under their blue coats. The shirts, I realized, had been sacrificed to bandage the wounded. My heart twisted as I remembered days traveling with these men. I flinched for my pack. I still had the satchel from Boitumelo—I hadn’t used it since leaving Rhydderhall—but there was no way I could treat this many.

At a word from Trinh the men sunk back to the floor, exhaustion evident in their every move. Trinh and Ayglos walked to join Quill and Vaudrin in the center of the tunnel. Rakov stayed behind me.

I stopped at the first man and crouched to inspect the bandage on his arm—I met his eye and smiled at him, as if there was anything I could do about his wounds. I smoothed his hair off his forehead and he smiled back at me. I stood and turned to another man before I could drown in the emotions rising inside.

Vaudrin bowed to his King, “I am glad to see you, your Majesty, and your Highnesses.”

“I feared there would be no one,” Trinh was talking, “How many did you save?” Not, ‘how many did we lose.’

“I have forty here, only the men who could run were able to escape when we withdrew from the ballroom. The Queen must have expected the guard to react violently to the King’s murder, for she had us outnumbered at least three to one, and her army was clearly ready and waiting for the order to move in.” Vaudrin shook his head. “Jemin and I were lucky to pull out this many.”

Jemin.

I hadn’t gotten very far down the tunnel—stopping at each man to wish I could help him with more than a gentle touch—but now I stood and looked for the burly form of the guard with whom I’d stormed Gillenwater’s garrison.

“There is a chance the men in the barracks were able to escape to one of the other tunnels.” Vaudrin continued. “I have sent two of my men through the tunnels to see if they can find any others.”

I spied a hulk on the floor just past the conference of princes and hurried forward. Quill and Ayglos made room for me to pass and I dropped to my knees next to Jemin. He smiled wearily at me. Alive.

“Your Highness,” his voice was tired but lacked the rasp of death.

Tears pressed on my eyes and choked my breath, it took me a moment to manage, “Are you hurt?” I didn’t know why I felt so overwhelmed to find a friend survived even when I’d forgotten to worry for his life.

“I’ll look like a spotted cow tomorrow I’ve got so many giant bruises,” replied the guard. “But I’ll be alright.”

“We have returned for Naran and Hestria,” explained Trinh, and I blinked at Hesperide’s real name.

Vaudrin nodded, his expression turning grim. “I wish I could tell you where they were.”

“I believe they are still in the palace; we will find them or find where they are.” Trinh looked around the company, then said, “Focus on getting these men out. Fade into the countryside. Head for Magadar. If you find the men from Gillenwater, tell them the same.”

Vaudrin looked surprised. “My King, we’re leaving?”

“I will not lose more men in this fight,” replied Trinh, the blankness of his expression more frightening than anger, “You’re leaving. That’s an order.”

I waited for someone to argue with him, but no one did. Our plan for Naran’s rescue hadn’t factored them in, they were battered and had suffered heavy losses. Magadar seemed far for a regroup, but perhaps it was best given the Queen’s armies closing in on the city.

“Are we ready to go, then?” asked Ayglos after a moment’s silence.

Trinh nodded, and after clasping Vaudrin’s hand, he turned and led the way again down the tunnel.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Deanne says:

    So exciting to hear the plot moving on! … And thankful Jemin is still a part of it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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