August knocked on the door twice before a voice commanded him to enter. Taking a deep breath, he pushed against the heavy door and stepped inside. He was greeted with a seemingly empty room.
A yawning fireplace took up a majority of the left side wall, with a couch and two chairs arranged in front of it. An orange glow flickered against the dark material. An intricately patterned rug—of twisted vines, violets, and willows—lay beneath the furniture, the greens and purples fading into browns and blacks in the dimly lit room. A large bay window on the far side currently provided no light as it faced the east. In front of the window was a wide, wooden table covered in large swaths of parchment. August knew if he were to approach the table, he would see dark lines marked across various maps, showing the movement of troops.
On the right side of the room, against the wall, was a closed cabinet, which August knew held an array of imported alcohol—Ravard known for his eclectic taste in various spirits—and a few sets of crystal glasses. Two doors stood on each side of the cabinet, the closed one leading to what August assumed to be the Captain’s quarters, while the other opened to his office. August could hear someone slamming something heavy down a hard surface, followed by the faint scratching of a quill against parchment.
Rolling back his shoulders and straightening his spine, August strode into the office. Ravard—a wide-shouldered man, who stood a least a head above August, with a thick black beard and a bald head—stood behind his desk, hands pressed hard against the wood. His face and neck still looked a bit red as if he had just been yelling, the vein visibly cutting through his forehead giving further proof.
A younger man lounged in a chair opposite to Ravard, dressed in a lavish green doublet with silver trimmings, and black trousers tucked into well-polished boots. A thin band of gold sat in his wavy hair the color of raven feathers—its shifting hues blue and purple in the dying sun. The man was writing something on a piece of parchment in front of him, but paused at hearing August’s approach, turning his jade green eyes on him.
“Your Highness,” August said, acknowledging Prince Reinar Evensnow, the Queen’s only child and heir to the throne.
The Prince stared at August expectantly, but August did not move a muscle, keeping his posture straight as a rod.
With a pampered sigh, the Prince said, “Well, I am hurt, but I cannot expect much. I still hoped that after six years of living and training on the castle grounds would teach you respect, but you continue to prove me wrong.”
Captain Ravard’s head whipped in August’s direction, a glared centered directly at him. “Private Blackwell, I command you to bow before your Prince.”
The Prince waved his arm. “Don’t trouble yourself. I will earn the respect I deserve, someday. For now, we have more pressing matters. Ravard, I leave you to explain to August what we have just discussed. I assumed you will tell him, yes?” At a grunt from Ravard, the Prince stood. “Good evening.”
He nodded to both men, before making his way out the door. Ravard bowed deeply, while August side-stepped out of the Prince’s way. Once the outer door was closed, Captain Ravard turned back to August.
“Take a seat, August,” Ravard grumbled, his voice a deep timbre. He gestured toward the chair the Prince just vacated, while taking up his own seat behind the desk. He began shuffling papers, as August walked further into the room.
He took one look at the crushed velvet chair, but choose to stand. Ravard shook his head, but made no further comment. Coming upon the paper he was looking for, he withdrew if from the pile and handed it across the desk to August.
Before August could scan over the words, Ravard continued, “The Prince has informed me that he is choosing you to be one of the leaders on the next mission outside the wall. Of course, I disagreed with his decision, because this mission is too important for an inexperienced soldier such as yourself, yet he seemed to think otherwise.”
August looked back down at the paper. It was an official decree from the Prince, stating that he requested August Blackwell to be one of the leaders on the Nourtris Mission. The Prince’s flourished signature was scrawled across the bottom, along with his official stamp. No other information on the mission was stated, but August assumed that was something he would find out from Ravard.
“What’s Nourtris?” August asked.
“It’s the name of the largest camp of magic users left outside of Varis. The Queen has grown furious and impatient of its persistent blockades. It’s been cutting off trade with Segrelia in the south for far too long. Therefore, it’s been decided by the war council to send three teams consisting of five soldiers each to take the camp down.”
“And the Prince’s decree…?”
Ravard sighed. “The young Prince believes that he has enough experience and knowledge of the war to pick a team to add to the mission. He has put his authority over the council and is forcing them to send another team, one of his choosing. He came here this evening, to inform me that you are to be the leader of his team.”
“Why me?” August asked. Ravard was right. There was nothing special or experienced about him.
He had been in the army for six years and had yet to be sent outside the city’s wall. The closest he had gotten was patrolling the inner gate. His only duty there was to check merchants’ papers before they left the city with their various carts and wagons. Other than that, he was mainly running through the daily drills and training exercises demanded of him. There were even a few classes on history and whatever information gathered about the enemy, but nothing seemed that dire when he had not been faced with the real thing.
The Prince could not have been so oblivious either. He had to be aware of August’s hatred of the Crown, the Prince included, even if the Prince had spared him from the gallows. Maybe this was just the Prince trying to break down August enough to finally get him to bend under his command. If he could force August into captaining a team, the Prince would have full authority and might have the chance to win August over. It was also putting too much weight on the hope that August might come to respect him.
There was also another possible reason to send such an inexperienced soldier on a dire mission. It could be an easy way to dispose of someone without it being an upfront murder. Maybe the Prince was rethinking his decision about saving a criminal and, instead of killing August outright, he was just going to send him out to die at the hands of magic-users.
“The Prince believes you have the certain skills needed to get into the camp undetected.” August looked up to see Ravard watching him with clear concern written across his face. “I don’t know what he sees in you besides that of any other soldier.”
August finally took a seat in the chair across from Ravard, the captain’s comment churning up new pathways in his mind. His eyes raked over the words of the decree again. Reluctantly, August had to acknowledge the Prince’s way of thinking. More than just trying to win respect, the Prince needed a criminal’s mind, and their evasive way of thinking.
Staking out for days, tracking the guards’ movement, mapping out the area, hiding unseen in the shadows, sneaking through a maze of hallways, picking the heavy lock on the padded door, it was all coming back to him. The Prince must have known that August was cunning enough to be able to break into the Royal Treasury and able to get off the castle grounds before even a single guard noticed. The Prince’s words at August’s trial came back to him. With a calculating mind as his, he should not be sentenced to death. The Earth Mother would grieve at such a loss, something we would all come to regret. It was August’s mind that gained the Prince’s interest and what saved him from a brutal fate. This must be the Prince’s chance to prove that he did not save a criminal for an absurd reason.
At the same time, the Prince was foolish. August looked up at the map Ravard had hanging from the wall. Nourtris, the magic-user’s camp, must be situated somewhere between Varis and the capital of the country to the south. Onryx, that southern country, had its capital, Segrelia, on the southwestern part of its land. August traced a line in his mind from Varis to Segrelia. The distance was long enough that he would be well beyond the wall that no one would notice if he happened to slip away. If he planned this perfectly, August could desert the company before they reached Nourtris and escape into the woods he knew lay thick outside of Varis’s wall. He could head west or even make a direct run to the border.
Different escape routes had begun to take root in his mind. He only had to agree to the mission. August stood up and slammed the decree down on the desk. Ravard flinched at the sudden movement, but looked at August for an explanation.
“I accept,” was all August said.
With a reluctant nod, Ravard drew up the quill beside his right hand, dipped it in the pot of ink and held it out of August.
“The war council would like a signature on the decree to show a formal acceptance to the Prince’s terms.” August took the quill and signed his name at the bottom, underneath the Prince’s signature. Ravard took the parchment and rolled it up once more. “Tomorrow morning you are to report to the castle grounds outside the Tower to meet your team.”
“Yes, sir,” August said, standing straight and giving the captain a slight bow, before making his way toward the door.
The Prince had made a foolish mistake in trusting that a criminal’s willpower and overwhelming hatred could be broken down from simple drills and a few boring patrols. Instead he had built up the criminal’s strength, allowing that hatred to be nurtured in the dark—stroking embers into raging flames. With this decree, August had a chance, a chance to escape the chains binding him to the Crown until he was strong enough to strike back.