The Blind City
Charley knew this was a great opportunity. All he had to do was walk up and say something. It was all very simple, easy even. But Charley couldn't feel his feet anymore and his hands were sweating and the books he was holding suddenly felt very heavy and really should be cataloged and put away and he also had to finish Gaius' translation and dust the archives and find the scrolls that one of the professors needed and …
… just about a million other things that did not include walking up to the very tall, very handsome, and very overwhelming Sir Thaddeus Constantine.
Why would Sir Constantine even want to talk to him? He was the most decorated knight of his majesty, King Arthurius II. He had been on countless adventures, killed over a dozen dragons, defeated the Three Black Witches of the North, and was the only soul who was able to enter the Misty Forest and come back alive. Not to mention half a dozen other noteworthy credentials that most knights could only dream of earning in their lifetimes, nonetheless in the seven and twenty years of Sir Thaddeus Constantine. And, just to make it all that much harder to approach him, Sir Constantine was considered to be the most handsome bachelor in the kingdom. With his thick, raven hair, sharp blue eyes, and generally hardened, muscled body, it was hard to find him without the usual gaggle of simpering maidens.
But, Charley supposed, the Royal College was a rather dull place in comparison to the glamour of the palace court. There were no crystal chandeliers, vast gardens, or priceless works of art. The college library was stocky and homely. Despite the tall ceilings, the place was packed with ancient books, valuable scrolls, and many other important artifacts. The tables were spread haphazardly between the shelves and locked display cases. To make it more disorderly, they were often moved around by students making study groups.
The shelves used to have some order, but many had to be installed continuously with the growing collection. So it happened that new shelves were just pushed into corners that were empty enough to hold them. The general disorderly look put off most vapid nobles. It was a place of knowledge for the students, and for grouchy professors who just wanted some peace so they could do their research in privacy.
Charley had always loved the college library. He admired the Royal College even when he was child. He could never hope to be enrolled, however, because he was the son of a farmhand and not of noble birth. But he didn't spend so many of his adolescent years teaching himself to read and write for nothing. At sixteen, he was able to apply to at least work for the library. The Royal Librarian, Gaius, felt enough pity to take him on as an assistant and scribe. Since most of the professors didn't want assistance from the son of a peasant, Charley spent most of his time cataloging the collection and doing odd tasks for Gaius.
So, instead of gawking from behind the shelves of the architecture section, Charley should have been doing the job he was so lucky to have. But it wasn't every day that he could have a chance like this. Sir Constantine barely ever came to the library and often only stayed long enough to take some dusty book back to his personal quarters. Charley had little idea what he did with the books, but it wasn't an important detail at the moment. What was important was that Sir Constantine was here, alone, and didn't seem to be in any hurry.
Charley's arms ached as he clutched the books to his chest; two books on Aettrial and one on the construction of the Royal Palace. He had come around to put them back on the shelf when he noticed Sir Constantine browsing the shelves.
Naturally, he had let out something like a squeak of terror and hid behind the nearest shelf. Sir Constantine had looked up at the sound, but not having seen Charley, he went back to scanning the books.
Charley knew he had nothing to be afraid of. He was the Royal Librarian's Assistant, after all, and was supposed to help anyone who came in. He had every reason to walk up to Sir Constantine, inquire what he was looking for, and point him to the correct materials. Then politely ask him to remove his shirt so Charley could properly examine that body which no tunic or leather could ever entirely conceal.
Or he could run away now and pretend he wasn't thinking such things about a man whose station was so obviously above his own. So, committing himself a coward, Charley turned to make a retreat and, in his haste, proceeding to slam into the bookshelf behind him. The act knocked about a dozen valuable books from their perched position, right onto his own stupid head.
"Ah!" He ducked, but one of the larger histories managed to clip the side of his head. His vision flashed briefly in pain and Charley felt through his brown, wavy hair for signs of blood. His fingers touched something wet and his stomach churned.
"Are you alright?"
The voice was deep and rough and rippled down Charley's spine. He looked up automatically, eyes widening in terrible embarrassment as Sir Constantine stood above him. He looked a little confused, probably because of Charley's sudden and clumsy appearance.
Charley immediately looked away from those deep blue eyes, feeling a little breathless that Sir Constantine was even looking at him, nonetheless inquiring about him. "N—nothing. It's nothing," Charley managed to say and reached out to gather the books up. His right hand was stained with his own blood and the sight made him freeze again. He was never good around blood and he willed his nauseous stomach to settle.
Something soft pressed against his face and Charley almost flinched to see Sir Constantine crouched before him. He had pulled out a handkerchief and held it against Charley's head. "Hold this. Do you have a healing kit here?"
Charley lifted his hand to his head again, startled to feel Sir Constantine's hand below his own. "I think … in the office," he murmured, trying to remember. But it was hard to think with Sir Constantine so close to him and his hand was still pressed against his head.
He nodded, face serious, not at all mocking, but serious. "Good. Can you stand?"
Charley tried and was immensely relieved that he could. He still felt painfully embarrassed that Sir Constantine had to hold onto his elbow, but at least no one else was around to witness. He took a step away from Sir Constantine's grasp. When he began to walk towards the office, Sir Constantine immediately followed. Charley stopped. "I'll be alright. You don't have to trouble yourself."
Sir Constantine gave him a strange look. "It would be dishonorable to abandon you."
Charley flushed. A heavy book falling on his head really wasn't that dramatic to require words like dishonorable and abandon. "No, truly, I'll be fine." He shook his head for good measure and immediately found himself swaying from dizziness.
Sir Constantine's hand was around his elbow again. "I will accompany you to the office." His tone of voice offered no arguments so Charley merely accepted the small kindness. Any other noble or professor would scoff at his stupidity and leave him to his own consequences. He was sure it was only Sir Constantine's training as a knight that spurred his actions.
The walk to the office was short, but Charley's head was really beginning to throb. Gaius was not present there, having run off to the palace on some errand. He sat himself behind the desk, in Gaius' chair, and searched the drawers for the healing kit. Gaius lived in a perpetual state of disorder, which was probably why the library had such a haphazard appearance. Charley futilely searched through the documents and miscellaneous items of the desk, but could not find the kit. Sir Constantine, with very little hesitancy, went straight for the mantel of the cold fireplace, and, moving several books aside, located the kit. He brought it to the desk.
Charley stared at it dumbly for a moment. "How—?" He looked up and Sir Constantine shrugged.
"I know how to find things." He pulled the spare chair from against the wall and seated himself in front of Charley. "Let me apply the balm. I can see it easier."
Charley was feeling very overwhelmed that the living legend he read about in storybooks was seated less than a foot away from him. It was also surreal that he was leaning forward and letting Sir Constantine clean the wound. "Sorry about … I mean, thank you. Thank you."
Sir Constantine only nodded, using the clean linen from the kit to wipe away the blood. Somehow, to Charley it was less disturbing when Sir Constantine was cleaning it away.
It wasn't until Sir Constantine was applying the balm did he speak. "So, does this happen often?" His voice didn't betray whether he was mocking or just curious.
Charley flushed. "I'm usually quite careful around the collection. Gaius would never keep me around if I kept—"
"I meant you lurking behind bookshelves to spy on me."
Charley flushed redder. "Oh," he whispered. "I really wasn't … I just … " He swallowed thickly and turned his eyes down.
He heard Sir Constantine ripped off the edge of the linen, and felt him wiped away the excess balm. He did not reply to Charley's lack of an answer. "It is only a scratch, but head wounds always appear worse than they are. It will heal in a few days." He tucked away the remaining supplies in the kit and stood up. He paused, just slightly, as he close the lid to the healing kit. "And don't think much on it, I'm used to people trying to lurk behind me."
He began to move away and Charley automatically reached out and grasped his wrist.
"Wait! I wasn't—" He noticed his hand and quickly let go. Sir Constantine didn't seem angry, but he was hard to read. Charley took a deep breath. "I just wanted to say something to you." He stared at the floor, feeling like a small child who had gotten into mischief. "I don't see you around here often and you always seem to leave quickly. Because you lingered, I thought … " He chanced a look up, meeting those startling eyes that stared unflinching into his. "I was wondering if you needed any help?"
Sir Constantine was silent for a moment. Then his lips quivered and Charley thought he might start grimacing. Instead, Sir Constantine's lips broke into a small smile. Charley was so taken aback at the gesture that he almost gasped in surprise. He had never been close enough to Sir Constantine to see him smile. But it was quickly suppressed as Sir Constantine attempted to contain himself. Despite feeling like a fool, Charley had liked that brief smile. It made him seem approachable and generally … happier.
Sir Constantine's next words, however, still had an air of barely suppressed mirth. "So you toppled half a bookcase, hoping to ask me if I needed any assistance?"
Charley felt like an idiot. Well, perhaps it was idiotic to get in such a twist over helping another patron to the college library. But this was Sir Constantine! Not just some moldy professor. Charley felt his face become red in anger and he quickly stood up. He wasn't going to open his mouth and allow himself to say anything else stupid. He would just leave and possibly never show his face in public again.
He had almost nudged past Sir Constantine when a strong hand took him by the shoulder. "Wait. Please sit. I don't mean to make a jest of you."
Charley could hardly believe it, even if Sir Constantine's face was now entirely composed. "If you don't need my help, then I have a lot of work to do," Charley snapped.
Sir Constantine's grip slacked a little and his eyes softened just enough Charley a bit distracted from his anger. "Please, you misunderstand." His thumb rubbed against Charley's shoulder then, in almost a comforting way. But he released him almost immediately and Charley wondered if he had just imagined it. "I could use your assistance, Charley. Truly, I meant no harm."
Charley's eyes widened in surprise. "You know my name?"
Sir Constantine shrugged. "I've a habit of learning the names of those who lurk behind me." He paused, and Charley wondered if that was some sort of jest. "Also, the Royal Librarian frequents the palace and speaks quite highly of you."
Charley wasn't sure if he believed that answer anyway. He was sure his name was probably known in the court because many professors and nobles alike threw a small fit when Gaius took Charley, a peasant, as an assistant. "You really need my help?" He didn't want to force Sir Constantine to mollify him.
Sir Constantine sighed, his face a mask again. "Yes. I'm in need of some information about the Blind City."
"The Blind City?" Only a few professors were interested in that ancient city. Ruins had been found a little over twenty years ago, which led to several excavations of the underground city. Most adventurers had already tired of the ruins, since there was little material wealth remaining there.
Sir Constantine nodded. "Yes, I've found your collection on the city to be rather vague on the details."
Charley frowned. "I've just finished a couple volumes of discussion on the Blind City. What details are you looking for?" He had dropped those books because of his spectacular idiocy, but he wasn't about to bring that up again.
Sir Constantine shrugged nonchalantly. "Architecture … building layout? A map of some sort?"
"Then you will need to be in the Cartography section." Charley, mostly talking to himself, began to walk briskly towards the section. "I believe Isoleces was fond of composing maps of ancient cities. He was also one of the first parties to excavate the ruins twenty years ago." Charley never had much of an interest in map making, but many scholars giving lectures wanted the maps to use as visual cues. Gaius often sent him there to dig up applicable material.
He didn't even look to see if Sir Constantine was following him. The Cartography shelves weren't impressive to look at, as the precious scrolls were kept in locked drawers. He quickly unlocked Isoleces' drawer and quickly flipped through the numerous scrolls. Gaius had placed small cards between each scroll so they wouldn't have to be unrolled and examined for content. He spied the one on the Blind City that he thought would be there. He pulled it out and turned around to present it to Sir Constantine.
Who was standing so directly behind him that Charley nearly broke his nose on Sir Constantine's muscled chest. He hadn't realized it earlier, but Sir Constantine was quite a bit taller than him.
"Oh, sorry." Charley tried to not sound totally dazed. Putting his thoughts back to his work on not how warm Sir Constantine was when he hovered so close, Charley quickly moved to one of the nearby display cases and unrolled the scroll.
"What is this written in?" Sir Constantine stared at the scroll. His expression could have been something like hopelessness, but Charley couldn't quite tell.
"Old Dailic, Isoleces was unnaturally fond of it," Charley answered. "I can read it relatively well, though Gaius would assure me that I'm missing the finer metaphorical nuances." He pointed to the heading. "Aettrial was a common name for the Blind City by scholars. It means 'unseen' or 'underneath' or some variation."
Sir Constantine leaned forward, frowning. "This is annoying," he muttered under his breath.
Charley felt himself tensing. "Well, I can give you a dictionary of Old Dailic. Or is there something in particular you are trying to find?"
Sir Constantine was running his fingers along Isoleces' fine brush strokes. The map was very detailed, but also very cluttered. Isoleces also had the habit of giving strange, aloof descriptions of particular details, instead of basic phrases or titles.
Sir Constantine finally leaned back. "I have an errand that requires me to delve into the ruins. I was hoping for something more of a guide map."
Charley was curious to what 'errand' would lead Sir Constantine into the ruins. But he was confident it was probably less of an 'errand' and more of an official order from the king. Charley knew, as a lowly assistant librarian, he wouldn't be privy to such knowledge.
"Well, perhaps with your capabilities there could be little difficulty in you exploring the ruins … " He looked over the map. "But Isoleces has listed here several dangerous areas. Unstable architecture, cave collapses, and such. He also has written some strange cryptic phrases that I would have to study further; apparently some areas are hard to access. Gaius could also translate, if needed, but he said he wouldn't be back until tomorrow. Not many of the professors still study old Dailic, unfortunately. Perhaps if you had a certain area in mind, I could point out the safest route? I will need time to study it, of course." He doubted Sir Constantine would tell him any details, but he couldn't help but ask.
Sir Constantine stared at the map, his eyes slightly unfocused. "I should have left already," he murmured to himself. Then he didn't say anything for a long moment. He stared at the map, his eyes roaming through it listlessly. Then he slowly drew his gaze to Charley and held it there for an uncomfortably long period of time. "Were you born in the city or the country?"
Charley blinked dumbly, completely thrown. "I was born in Stonewell, just outside the city."
"Have you ever traveled?"
"Ah, well, no. Never farther than the second ring of the kingdom."
Sir Constantine fell silent again. His eyes went a bit distant, obviously contemplating something very important. "It can't be helped. You're going to have to come with me."
Charley choked, he couldn't help it. "Wh—what? What are you saying?"
Sir Constantine didn't look upset at Charley's reaction, only more determined. "Yes, there is no other option. If I'm to go burrowing in the Blind City, I'll be needing a guide."
"But—but … Gaius! He is much more qualified than me, a true scholar, and a member of the court!"
"No, the Royal Librarian is far too precious to Art. He would never let me take him."
Charley ran a hand through his hair, trying to comprehend why Sir Constantine would even consider bringing him on a royal errand. Or that Sir Constantine was apparently so close with King Arthurius II that he called him 'Art'. "Surely, there is someone else much more capable of being a guide for you. I'm only the assistant librarian and a lowly peasant."
Sir Constantine only stared at him and Charley felt himself shrinking. "You said there are no professors here at the college who can read this map, yes?"
"Well, I'm not entirely familiar with all their studies—"
"Are there any other maps of the Blind City?"
"None that I know of, but I'm sure if I inquired to Gaius he might find something that could be useful or—"
Sir Constantine put both hands on Charley's shoulders, making Charley feel impossibly small. "No, you sound like exactly what I need."
Charley flushed, swiftly subduing the fluttering feelings he felt from those words. "A peasant, my lord. I'm only a peasant. Surely I am not important enough for such a task."
Sir Constantine smiled, another small one, but a smile all the same. "You've read those silly books about me, yes?"
Charley nodded slowly.
"Then you know where I came from."
Charley lowered his eyes. Sir Constantine's life was always told something like a fairytale. He was the son of a farmer who, through his great skill, became the most famous and revered knight of the present. Charley always liked that part of the stories, even if it was often very brief. But it was hard to think of Sir Constantine, with his strength, skills, manners, and posture, to be anything but a legendary knight. Not a son of a peasant, like Charley.
Sir Constantine was still looking at him. Though he had never asked if Charley wanted to go, it was obvious he wanted some affirmation. Charley knew he should decline; it was far beyond his station to accompany Sir Constantine anywhere. It was already improper that he was in his presence at all. But something about the idea was enticing. Sir Constantine was known around the world for his adventures. If Charley could somehow be a part of one of those adventures … well, it was a hard offer to refuse.
Charley still didn't look up, instead staring at his scuffed shoes, ripping at the seams. He would need to get a new pair, a sturdy pair. "I will have to request a leave of absence from Gaius."
Sir Constantine's hands squeezed his shoulders gently. "I'll tell Art to put in a good word, if needed." His voice was light, a small jest.
Charley chanced a glance up. When he was a boy, he imagined what it would be like to speak with Sir Constantine, or just be in his presence. He was now about to far surpass those childish dreams. He felt his hands shaking slightly, though he didn't know if it was from nerves or excitement. "I thank you, my lord, for honoring me with this."
Sir Constantine backed up, waving his hand. "No, no 'my lord'. This journey will take many days, weeks even. You shall address me by Thaddeus or I shall go insane."
Charley blinked. “I—I thank you, my lor—”
"Thaddeus," Charley tried hesitantly and Sir Con—Thaddeus graced him with a different smile. Not one made from his lips, but with the slow brightening of his eyes. As Charley felt his heart beating in his ears, he was quite sure he was entirely unprepared for the coming days.
Charley had been traveling for two days alone. Sir—Thaddeus had insisted that they travel separately until their meeting point at one of the second ring towns, Stony Creek. He was stiff and tired from traveling in a jarring, bumpy carriage. It had been raining, but then it started to pour. Then the carriage broke down, the wheel jammed in the mud until it snapped. Then Charley had to walk the three miles or so to the inn in the pouring rain, without his cloak. Because he had some precious artifacts in his satchel and couldn't let them get wet. So he covered it with his cloak and walked through the rain and mud like some madman. By the time he reached the inn, he couldn't even remember why he was there. He had never been so far from the capital and all he wanted to do with curl up in front of the fire and die.
He gave his name to the servant who approached him. She brought out the owner who gave him a very strange look. While Charley was feeling just a little murderous, for the first time in his life, he would let this man live if he brought him to a place that was warm and dry. The owner led him up the stairs to the more private and expensive rooms. He knocked on the door and stuck his head inside before ushering in Charley.
It was a rather large room, for such a small inn. But Charley didn't take in much of the surroundings, not even Thaddeus standing to greet him. Instead, his vision narrowed in on chair near the fire, with a soft looking cushion on the seat. Charley dropped his precious satchel at the door and immediately threw himself upon the chair, thanking the gods that he was no longer on his feet and nor was the chair being jostled by rough country roads.
Dimly, he heard Thaddeus thanking the owner and shutting the door. He might have even heard Thaddeus picking up the contents of his satchel and laying them out so they could dry better. Charley really didn't care though. He had developed a pounding headache an hour ago, so he leaned forward and held his head in his hands, moaning softly.
Thaddeus came to stand beside him. "I take the rain caused a mishap with the carriage I sent?"
Charley nodded, feeling too weak to answer.
"Why did you not wear your cloak?"
Charley looked up, glaring with as much strength as he could. Not at Thaddeus, however. No, his target was miles away, probably sleeping in a warm and dry bed. "Because Gaius would skin me."
Somehow, he managed to stand and rifled through the contents of his satchel. Everything inside was dry, thank the gods, and he pulled out the worn scroll that had been folded. He placed it on the table nearby. "I can't exactly take the original map that Isoleces made. Gaius, luckily for short notice, has a hobby of copying works of Isoleces. He had only done one copy of this particular map, because of the amount of work and detail. He let me take his copy, but if it were to be damaged, or worse, completely destroyed, he will react like I destroyed the original."
He laid out the map as Thaddeus perused it. Charley continue to look through his things, making sure everything else was dry. He had brought a few reference books, a couple on translating old Dailic, a bibliography of Isoleces, some studies on the Blind City itself, his own personal journal, and a few blank journals if extra notes were needed. It would probably be the only time he could personally explore the ruins, and he wasn't about to let the opportunity of research go. Even if he wasn't a student of the college or a scholar of any sort, he didn't want to be completely useless either.
"Is that all you brought?"
Charley had been thumbing through the bibliography when Thaddeus spoke. He jumped, forgetting the man was even there.
"Well, I have some clothes and a bit of food. Why?" Charley had actually wanted to bring more books, but he figured his pack would get too heavy to carry then.
Thaddeus reached over, examining the books. "Do you have a healing kit?"
Charley swallowed. A healing kit did sound like something good to bring, but he had truly never thought of it. "Ah, no, sorry."
"How about a weapon? Or a dagger for self defense?"
Charley looked down at his books, suddenly feeling very stupid. "I've never used any weapon. I didn't even think of it."
Thaddeus sighed and leaned back. "I'll buy you a dagger in town before we leave. Even if you don't know how to use it, it is better than nothing."
"You don't … I mean, I'll buy it myself." Charley felt indignant, even if it was reasonable.
"With the wages you receive for being a librarian's assistant? I've a feeling those have already been spent on some items like these." Thaddeus held up one of the books.
Charley flushed. True, his wages were low and he did tend to spend his spare money on more books to read. But … "If you didn't realize, this was all a little short notice. I barely got Gaius to agree to my absence, never mind researching how to pack for a possibly dangerous journey!" His voice sounded a little hysterical at the end, but he couldn't help the next words. "Is it going to be dangerous?"
Thaddeus had been staring at him with a slightly annoyed expression, but a smile was trying to tug at his lips. "The problem with journeying with me is that even if I'm not looking for danger, danger has a way of finding me." He put down the book. "But I'll not argue, I understand this is something a bit outside your usual activities."
"A bit!" Charley slapped a hand over his mouth at the outburst.
Thaddeus' lips twitched again. "And I've seen that you've had a long, tiresome journey already. Dry up and go to bed, there is still a ways to go from here." With no more words, Thaddeus looked back down to the map.
Charley could only sigh, rub a hand over his face, and retreat to the next room that held the beds. He didn't even have the strength to be embarrassed.
Charley couldn't help but find Thaddeus fascinating. Despite being the country's finest knight and a member of the court, he could blend in awfully well with the small town of Stony Creek. Charley found himself fading behind him as Thaddeus argued and bartered with the merchants in the square. But he did manage to get Charley some reasonable equipment and supplies for navigating the ruins of the Blind City. Charley did his best to thank him and not feel too embarrassed about his attitude last night.
Either Thaddeus was being polite and ignoring it, or it hadn't bothered him much. Either way, he seemed entirely too casual around Charley. Charley assumed it was some sort of act, to keep up appearances of being just another traveler who wanted to explore the ruins. While he was getting supplies, Thaddeus also relentlessly questioned the locals about the ruins and any new activity within them. Most had little to say. The merchants and farmers were too busy earning a living to explore the ruins. They did mention some small bandit gang was holed up there, but hadn't caused too much trouble for the town. Brigands and bandits often temporarily used the ruins as a hideout, but the place was too unstable and maze-like to make a good permanent location; too much risk of being cornered if the law ever decided to raid the place.
As noon set in, they finally began to make their way to the main entrance of the ruins. It was a long hike to the opening, over two hours through the dense forest. It was the hottest part of the afternoon and Charley felt like crying out for mercy. Naturally, Thaddeus was hardly breaking a sweat. Charley hadn't been outside this long since he was a child. He was also growing increasingly curious as to why Thaddeus needed to enter the Blind City. Perhaps out of exhaustion and suspense, Charley eventually gave into the urge when they began to get closer.
"So." He tried not to pant. "Is there somewhere in particular you would like to find in the Blind City? Once we reach the entrance, there will be several passages to chose from."
Thaddeus, who had been gazing out into the tree line, gave him a shrewd look. Charley wondered if he had asked too soon. "You heard the townsfolk speaking of a small band of brigands that might be inside, yes?"
"I have strong reason to believe they have taken something very precious. We'll just need to look around for clues and search for a convenient area for brigands to camp out."
Charley frowned. From the gossip, the brigands were only five, maybe ten men strong. It seemed unlikely that they could have the power to take something precious from the royal family. Or even any high ranking noble. It was very common for anyone of substantial wealth to have something of a small army to protect them and their possessions. Charley wanted to ask more, but Thaddeus had already looked away, back to the trees.
Charley wished he could say something, anything to have a real conversation. This was a chance of a lifetime, to ask the greatest knight of the country about his grand adventures, his relationship with the king, or anything really. But Charley had only read about Thaddeus in storybooks. With only catching glances of him in the library, there was little he could converse about without sounding like a total idiot.
But as an aspiring researcher and scholar, Charley knew this was the opportunity to find out more than what the histories and story books had to offer; a real, personal interview. But it was hard for him to think, sweat beading down his neck from the heat and exercise.
Luckily they were both distracted when they came upon the old excavation site that held the main entrance to the Blind City.
They walked from the tree line to a huge bowl-shaped gauge cut from the earth. Charley imagined that the first to discover the ancient archway had found pieces of it sticking up from between the tree roots in the dense forest. But now it was almost totally exposed. It was very tall, and very narrow. With the lack of interest from explorers and researchers, it had begun to sprout new foliage, and the stones were wearing from erosion.
But it was still magnificent. Some believed it to only be a 'back door' of sorts, the real entrance probably destroyed many decades before. Even before navigating down to approach it, Charley immediately threw off his pack and pulled out the map copy. Isoleces' had drawn an immaculate miniature copy of it, complete with symbols or runes that were no longer visible on the rough stone. Charley quickly dug through his things until he found his own journal and a stick of charcoal and immediately sat down to make his own sketches.
"What are you doing?"
Charley flinched, practically forgetting that Thaddeus was still there. He looked up sheepishly. "Oh, just taking some notes. Gaius would flay me if I ignored an opportunity like this." He quickly started a few rough sketches, feeling slightly embarrassed. He knew he was really just being a translator for the map, but he had never had an opportunity for research like this.
Thaddeus seated himself next to him and Charley could feel him looking over his shoulder. "You've studied the ruins before?"
"Well, no, not really. I'm not a … I'm not really in the position to conduct research like the scholars and professors."
There was silence for a moment as Charley's charcoal scrapped across his journal. He hadn't much practice with drawing, so he was trying to be careful to get the proportions correct.
"How did someone like you get involved with the college?"
It wasn't a cruel question, though certainly many had asked Charley that in a most unkind way. Thaddeus, however, was soft and just curious sounding. Charley actually stopped to look up at him, making sure he didn't detect any mockery. Thaddeus wasn't looking at him, but at the sketch. "I've never gone to school, if that is what you are referring to. I taught myself to read and write at a young age. My father didn't approve much but my mother supported me and let me spend hours studying instead of tending to the farm with my father."
"You taught yourself?" Thaddeus almost sounded impressed, but Charley knew he couldn't take it to heart. Many nobles looked down on him for his self-education. He had made great strides being an assistant to Gaius, but he didn't have the knowledge that a proper schooling gave. At eighteen, he was still woefully behind most noble children in his education.
"Yeah, you could say I was obsessed. It was difficult, but it was a long time ago." He shrugged, finished up his sketches with only a few notes. He began to put his things away. He stood up and found himself looking down at Thaddeus.
Perhaps it was the afternoon light, now fading, but Thaddeus' eyes seemed more intense and blue and looked at him with an expression entirely unreadable. "What were you obsessed by?"
Charley flushed. He shouldn't be ashamed, many people in his small town tried to teach themselves enough to read the tales of Sir Thaddeus Constantine. But the man before him now was wearing only a simple tunic with light leather armor, and an undecorated sword lying casually at his hip. He wasn't in shining armor, astride a massive steed like so many of those illustrations. He was just a man and somehow that was much more intimidating.
"Oh, I just wanted to learn, I guess." Charley really wished Thaddeus would stand up. It didn't seem right that he would sit there and look up at him.
"You guess? It takes an incredible amount of fortitude to get where you are now, you know." Thaddeus sounded almost like he was scolding, but not in a cruel way.
Charley looked away, not knowing how to respond. It wasn't that teaching himself for so many years was easy; he still remembered it being very difficult. But most nobles didn't seem to understand. He should know that Thaddeus might have an idea, being born from a peasant family himself, but the man seemed so much greater than a farmer's son. It was hard to draw the path between the two. The stories never helped, romanticizing the details so that Thaddeus almost seemed to have a practically royal upbringing.
Thaddeus stood up. "Well, let's go inside and have a look around."
They headed into the basin and looked through the narrow entrance of the archway. With Thaddeus leading, they headed down the darkened and crumbling stairs. With the light fading outside, Charley let his hands slide along the walls so he wouldn't fall. He couldn't see much ahead of him, with the darkness and Thaddeus' body shielding the view. The stairs seemed to go down a very long time. The map hadn't really indicated how long they went, though Charley knew that most of the city was buried very deep within the earth.
They were silent, for a time, with just their footsteps on the worn stone echoing in the narrow stairwell. Charley wished for a light; he knew Thaddeus had a few torches on hand, but he also knew that they shouldn't waste them. Depending on how far they would need to enter the Blind City, they might not make many trips to the surface. Not that they were going to spend days down there, which Charley fervently hoped. A little adventure was fun, but he was quite unused to sleeping on the hard ground.
"Thaddeus, where—ah!" Charley tripped as his foot hit an uneven step. His hands scrapped against the walls, to no use. He fell forward, reaching wildly out to catch himself. He ended up colliding into Thaddeus, who also fell forward in surprise. They landed on something hard, though Thaddeus took the brunt of the fall as Charley fell on top of him. He tried to scramble off, but Thaddeus' strong arms reached out and held him still.
"Are you hurt? Don't move. I'll get us some light."
Charley froze and was relatively certain that he was straddling Thaddeus' thighs, but he didn't move. Thaddeus only took a moment, but suddenly there was a soft blue glow emitting from between his fingers. It was some sort of rock, tied to a leather cord around his neck.
Charley stared at the strange light, not as bright as a torch, but still enough light to see that he was, indeed, straddling Thaddeus and that he should be getting off now. He began to back up, but Thaddeus had a hold of his wrist. He didn't seem to notice Charley's position, but was looking at his hand.
"I think I have something for that." Charley finally managed to look down at the hand that Thaddeus was gripping so tightly. He had suffered a rather deep gash when he had tried to grab the wall earlier. Strange that he didn't feel it, but he could feel every one of Thaddeus' movements as he retrieved his bandages from his pack.
"I'm sorry," Charley muttered.
Thaddeus pulled out a thin white strip of cloth and began to wrap it tightly around Charley's palm. "It is nothing. Just a scratch. You can put some balm on it later. We should … " As he was tying up the wrap, he suddenly seemed to lose his train of thought. He was staring at Charley's uncomfortable position. His eyes became very wide, staring at Charley's legs, which were currently wrapped around his hips.
Charley quickly tore his hand away and scrambled off. He knew his face was a blazing red. Thaddeus took only a moment more to recover and he wouldn't meet Charley's eyes. "I'm sorry," Charley tried again.
"It's … it's quite alright," Thaddeus responded, but he still wasn't looking at him. Instead he held up the rock from around his neck so it could illuminate more of the room they landed in.
Charley turned and saw the stairs they had descended. A step near the bottom seemed to be missing. Charley suspected that Thaddeus, being much taller, barely noticed, while Charley had obviously completely fallen. He looked back to Thaddeus, who was already standing and having a look around the room. In one corner, there was a small, abandoned campsite. Thaddeus reached down and touched the dark coals.
"Still warm. Someone has been here within the past few hours." He began to search through some of the trash left behind. A rusted pot and a worn blanket, from the look of it.
Charley turned his eyes to the other corners of the room. It was very small, barely the size of Gaius' office, and looked more like a natural cave than part of the ruins of an ancient city. The walls were curved and the ceiling low. Near the abandoned campsite there was a hole in the ceiling. Possibly a chimney of sorts, or even just a natural rock formation. Besides for the stairwell, there was no other exit and Charley frowned.
He quickly pulled out the map, but could not read it well enough with Thaddeus on the other side of the room. He stood up and walked over. "Can I use that?" He motioned at the glowing rock. Thaddeus straightened up and held it in his hand so the map was illuminated. Charley stared at the strange rock. "What is it?"
"Fairystone. I acquired some from a vampire lair. It feeds off magical energy to stay lit."
Charley, even though he held the map, still stared at the fairystone. From this close it was smooth, almost like polished glass. "You have magic?"
Thaddeus shrugged. "Enough to light this, though I've never cast a spell in my life. Probably had a mage for an uncle. What does the map say?"
Charley tore his eyes away from the fascinating stone and looked to the map. "Well, we came in through this entrance." He pointed. "But the map indicated we would have come into a very large room." He looked around the small space. "Maybe the room collapsed?"
Thaddeus looked around as well. "I'm positive those bandits made camp here. And they wouldn't have if there was only one entrance and exit. They always need an escape route."
Charley looked for a hint on the map, slowly reading some of Isoleces' notes. Near the entrance, he had drawn a detailed picture of the stairs. Apparently, they were decorated with small pictures carved into the stone. Thaddeus had moved away, looking around the walls for some other clue.
Charley looked at the stairs, but he only saw worn rock. He knelt down at touched the bottom step. It had cracked very badly, enough that it didn't seem connected to the stairs anymore. The step above it was missing, as Charley had tripped over it. There was something strange about the steps though. The step above the missing one did have some faint lines. Perhaps with some cleaning and better light, they could be carvings. However, the step below it seemed to have no decoration or any indication that there ever was.
Charley reached over, feeling the edges that didn't quite meet the wall and began to pull the step towards him. It was heavy, but slowly, it began to move.
Thaddeus came over at the noise. "What are you doing?"
Charley heaved the stone, barely moving it. "I think something is wrong here."
"Why does it sound strange?"
Charley didn't really know what Thaddeus meant, but as he slowly inched the stone away from the steps, it did have a strange sound to it. Thaddeus leaned over and helped slide it away from the entrance. With the fairystone close, something shimmered from beneath the loose step. Together they managed to pull it completely away from the stairwell and they both found themselves look at a metal grate. Thaddeus quickly unlatched it and pulled it open and a thick rope was tied to the bars, leading into a dark descent.
Thaddeus looked down into the opening, but his fairystone could not light it enough for them to see the bottom. Charley rocked back nervously on his heels. Going down dark, uneven steps was one thing. He didn't know if he could survive crawling down a rope into some pitch-black abyss. "Do you think it is safe?"
Thaddeus grabbed the rope, twisting it in his hands. "It is good rope and it's obviously been used. It could be that there was a cave-in at the top of the stairs leading to that large room on your map. Bandits must have managed to clear the stairs enough so someone could still drop into the main room. I'll go first." He shifted his pack so it was more secure on his back.
Charley looked at the opening nervously. "Are you sure? You'll have no idea where you will drop."
Thaddeus stared at him and Charley wondered if it was rude of him to question Thaddeus' abilities. After a moment, he seemed to come to a conclusion and shrugged. "I've dropped into much more dubious circumstances." And, with little preamble, he lowered himself into the hole
With the fairystone leaving with him, Charley could only stare at the dwindling light. The rope seemed to go on and on. Charley could no longer make out Thaddeus' face, only seeing his small, bobbing light. His theory about the cave-in seemed reasonable, as the room he was entered was very large, and very deep. Eventually, the light stopped bobbing and Thaddeus called out.
"I've hit bottom. Can you climb down?"
Charley clutched the bars of the grate, feeling himself already beginning to shake. "I'll try," he called out.
"Okay, I'll get a torch lit then so we can see."
With practically no light, Charley stashed the map back into his pack and tied it to his shoulders. He didn't want to risk losing it. With trembling hands, he felt for the rope, loose since Thaddeus let go, and gently lowered himself into the hole. He inched down, painfully slow, petrified of losing his grip and falling to certain death. He felt himself clearing the small opening and entering into the large room. The air was much colder here and he knew that if he were to reach out, he would not find a wall near him. A flash of light suddenly burst into his vision and Charley froze. Then he realized that Thaddeus had lit a torch, which illuminated a great deal of the room around them.
It was a grand hall, with archways and turrets carved into the walls. There were more carvings here, deeper and more pronounced than the ones on the worn stairs. It was a room so big that the royal palace's great hall would only rival it. Charley clung to the rope, still in midair, and could only look around in awe. There were many branches leading in innumerable directions. The rest of the stairs were there, mostly destroyed. The ceiling above him was rubble. He wanted desperately to look at the map and see what Isoleces wrote about this place. Was it an entrance hall? A dining hall? Or something else entirely? Charley could feel sudden excitement in his bones and quickly shuffled down the rope, suddenly uncaring about hesitancy.
Thaddeus still stood below him, peering up to see him safely down. Charley reached the ground with unsteady legs, excitement and terror making him feel a little weak. He almost fell, but Thaddeus caught him by the elbow. Charley could only cling to the arm and continue to look around. "This is absolutely amazing. They said the Blind City was huge, but this is extraordinary. I bet this is how the first explorers felt. It's absolutely amazing." He smiled at Thaddeus, who was looking at him with a slightly startled expression.
Thaddeus looked around, as if trying to understand Charley's excitement. "It is very … large."
Charley quickly gathered himself and stood straight on his own feet. It was silly of him to be acting like an overexcited child. "Well, I'm sure you've seen place a hundred times more interesting than these old ruins." No wonder Thaddeus found Charley strange in his naiveté, it was a wonder he wasn't already laughing at him.
Thaddeus still didn't look at him, but continued to examine the room. "Perhaps, but I usually don't take time to appreciate where I go. There is always something that needs to be done … "
He should have realized that Thaddeus wouldn't take the time to appreciate ancient architecture when there were enemies that needed defeating and lost treasures to reclaim. Suddenly Charley didn't feel as embarrassed, but more melancholic. The shift in emotion confused him and he pulled out the map to distract himself.
"Well, we have some choices now for which direction to head." Isoleces had labeled this room Conoti o Lec, Entrance of Light. A strange name, but perhaps when Isoleces explored the ruins the stairwell was much more illuminated and so exposed more of the room. Or it was some metaphor, Charley couldn't really tell. He had named each of the main exits as well, Osch o Sens, Osch o Ilates, Osch o Lecaris, Hall of Stone, Hall of Wood, and Hall of … Charley scrambled for his dictionary. It was something to do with light. But he could not think of what.
"Shall we press forward?" Thaddeus, who had also been peering over his shoulder at the map, pointed to the entrances. "This one looks like a good central path. Since we don't know where to look, I figure heading towards the center of the city might be a good start."
Charley still had his finger in his dictionary, but he looked at the map. Osch o Lecaris was the central path. He looked up, around the room and pointed. "I believe it is that way. Isoleces has written some notes about the appearance of the arches. 'Tallest tree', he wrote. It is the tallest arch and seems to have carvings that look something like branches. He calls the path Osch o Lecaris. Though I can't be sure what lecaris means."
Thaddeus sighed. "A more important question is why he didn't just draw the arch instead of giving a vague description." He didn't wait for a response from Charley, torch already in hand. He began to head towards the large corridor. "If it's not immediately important, we should press on. That campsite by the stairs was probably abandoned not an hour ago. The brigands are probably deep inside in a more secure lair. I want to be more familiar with my bearings before they detect us."
Charley nodded and began to follow when he noticed something. Thaddeus' posture was different. He looked stiffer, perhaps nervous, or maybe more focused. In any case, Charley felt it was not his place to disagree. He could also do more research and observation after they've taken care of the brigands. Well, after Thaddeus took care of them. Charley really didn't want to get in the middle of any sort of fight.
Thaddeus tread carefully through the long hallway, obviously keeping an eye out for any disturbances. Charley stared at the walls, all riddled with pictures and carvings with meanings he had no idea of. Sometimes it looked like people dancing, or maybe battling. There were long designs that could have been wind or fire or anything. A couple times, they tread upon a small hallway the branched off. Thaddeus would usually take a couple steps down it and have a quick look around before coming back.
"What are you looking for?"
Thaddeus frowned. "Clues, ideas, I don't know." He ran a hand through his hair and Charley did not like the idea that Thaddeus could be nervous.
He felt he should ask, though his voice came out soft. "What exactly did the brigands take?"
Thaddeus was looking down another hallway, glancing into a small room that looked shapeless. Probably all the artifacts within it had been taken by now. He sighed and headed back to the main hall. He seemed to think over the answer carefully. "You must promise not to breathe a word of this to anyone. No one at the college or the palace."
Charley nodded. "Yes, I promise." Few would listen to him anyway.
Thaddeus hesitated in the middle of the hall. "My brother."
Charley blinked. "What?"
"My brother. He has been taken from his home in the country. I've been searching for him for a long time now. Only recently did a report come in that someone saw him with these particular brigands. It makes sense; these ruins are a maze and would be easy to keep someone locked in here for a long time."
"Why would someone take your brother?" As soon as Charley said it, he knew it was a stupid question.
Thaddeus' face seemed to shut down. "Those dear to me are often in danger from my enemies."
"Oh," Charley mumbled. A famous knight must have powerful enemies who would do despicable acts like kidnapping someone innocent to blackmail Thaddeus.
They continued walking down the hall, but Thaddeus suddenly seemed a little less tense. "He's my only family now. My mother and father are long dead. I also had a sister, for a short time, but she died when she was a child."
Charley had never known this. Sure, storybooks said Sir Thaddeus Constantine had grown up with a family, but they were never specific. It always seemed that Thaddeus just sprung up from the earth, ready to battle for honor and glory. "I never knew. What were your parents like? Did your father ever see how famous you have become?" Charley wondered if he was being impertinent.
"No, he had died before Sir Laurentius took me as a page. But my father was … a great man." Thaddeus' eyes looked at the walls, but he didn't seem to see them. He didn't look sad, however, just lost in memory. "He taught me everything I know. He saw greatness in me, long before any haughty knight decided to look at me."
"How did he know how to handle a sword? Wasn't he a farmer?"
Thaddeus looked at Charley, something like pride hidden in the curve of his eyes. “He was a mercenary, long ago. Not the best, but he did very well for himself. My mother's father owned the farm and only agreed to wed them if my father put all his earnings into the property and worked the land instead of selling his sword. He did, for her, but he never lost his touch and he told me all his secrets."
The stories never had that part included. A mercenary for a father? It hardly seemed fit for the king's finest knight. But Charley could tell that Thaddeus only had the utmost respect for his father. "Did he teach your brother as well?"
Thaddeus frowned. "For a time, yes. But Robert was never as interested as I was. I think my father also saw more talent in me, though I'm not positive."
He fell silent, walking steadily ahead. He didn't look down the side halls as they passed anymore. Charley held the map in front of him, but he wasn't really reading it. "He's fine, I'm sure. If your father made you the man you are today, I'm sure your brother can handle himself as well."
A hand fell on Charley's shoulder, warm and strong. Thaddeus graced him with a slight smile. "Thank you. I can see why Gaius likes you."
Charley flushed and looked back to his map. His chest felt warm and his heart beat a little harder. No wonder Thaddeus was popular in the court; he was too nice, even to those obviously below him. "Well, we'll soon come into another large room. Isoleces calls it The Steps to … Lecaris. I still don't know what it means."
When he entered the room, at least he knew what Isoleces meant by 'the steps'. Though the room had many other smaller side halls, a massive expanse of stairs engulfed most of the space. They were very wide; a hundred men could walk down them, side by side. They led down into a deep abyss. Even as Thaddeus held up his torch, it could not hope to penetrate the bottom.
Charley looked at his map and read a small note by Isoleces: 'a path for many to find, a path of worth and judgment'. Charley had no idea if Isoleces was being poetic or if it was something important.
"What does the map say is down there?" Thaddeus asked.
Charley frowned. "The Judgement of Lecaris. He has actually written several notes about what is at the bottom of the stairs. But mostly about a … door and … a test, maybe? He does mention judgment a few times. But from the map, it looks just like an ordinary room, otherwise."
Thaddeus glanced over. "It is a good location for a stronghold, even a treasury of sorts."
"Do you think the bandits are there?"
Thaddeus shrugged. "It looks like a good position. If there is some sort of 'test' that the bandits have figured out, it would give them good protection, perhaps even a warning of intruders trying to enter. Best way to find out is to go have a look."
Charley felt nervous going down the stairs, he didn't know why, but the air was different there. He followed, however, because it did seem like a logical solution. After what seemed like a hundred steps, some disturbance became apparent. At some point in time, part of the ceiling collapsed and the path was riddled with gigantic boulders. At first they walked around them, but they became so numerous that they had to crawl over them. Isoleces hadn't mentioned this, so it probably happened more recently.
It was tiring work and Charley began to wonder what time it even was. The stairs and boulders just seemed to go on forever and he didn't know if night had fallen yet. "Shall we stop soon? I'm in need of a break."
Thaddeus was halfway up the next boulders but he stopped, sighing. "Yes, I suppose. It is probably late into the night. Here, let's make camp between some of these. It will give us some cover."
Charley nodded and followed Thaddeus between the boulders. Sitting down, they would be practically invisible. Charley could only hope that one of the bandits wouldn't come by and decide their slit their throats in their sleep.
Thaddeus put the torch on the ground between them. It was growing dangerously low and probably would only stay lit for half an hour, maybe. Charley quickly rifled through his pack to find some fruit and jerky to eat. He hadn't realized how ravenous he was. His legs also ached and the stone floor was hard and cold. Thaddeus had purchased a sleeping pallet for him in town, though he wondered how much it would help on lying on the rock.
Thaddeus, after putting his things down, proceeded to survey their immediate area. Charley could only assume he was making sure they were in a secure location. After laying out his pallet, Charley pulled out the map and his journal. He wished he could have lingered behind and taken notes about some of the more interesting carvings. But he supposed some basic observations would have to do. After writing for a bit, he pulled out his dictionary and proceeded to try and figure out what lecaris could mean.
After a good ten minutes of looking at the entry of lec in the dictionary and feeling totally lost, Thaddeus finally settled down beside Charley. "Something troubling you?"
Charley looked away from the entry. "I'm still trying to figure out lecaris. I think it's some declined version of lec."
"Light, usually. Or knowledge or magic or power or about a hundred other meanings." Charley frowned, staring at the entry. If he was fluent in old Dailic, like Gaius, he could probably divulge its meaning. As it was, Charley could only make useless guesses. "Isoleces also made some other notes about the Steps to Lecaris. But it isn't helpful because they seem so strangely cryptic."
"What does it say?"
Charley flipped through his dictionary. "Judgment of … threads. Proof of one's connection and … spirit? Or magic. Pass through the door to Lecaris." Charley continued to frown. "You know, most other cartographers and historians aren't this vague. They try to be informative and to the point. I think Isoleces just wants to be difficult."
Thaddeus chuckled slightly. The sound of it seemed to startle him and he quickly stifled it.
Charley stared at him. "It's okay to laugh, you know. I have always found Isoleces vexing."
Thaddeus smoothed out his own pallet. He was silent for a long moment and Charley wondered if he had said something wrong. Finally, Thaddeus sat on his pallet and looked at him. "Perhaps I'm not accustomed to laughter. It's been a long time since someone has drawn it from me."
Charley stared into those blue eyes that looked at him with such a strange expression. If he were someone different, perhaps it would be an expression of affection. But Charley couldn't see why Thaddeus would look at him with affection, when he had the attention of so many nobles at the court.
Eventually, Charley could only turn away, his chest feeling a strange twinge. Thaddeus spoke then. "Well, you can put it away for now. I'll take watch tonight."
"Are you sure? We can take turns, if you like."
Thaddeus shook his head. "I seriously doubt you have ever held a night watch. No, I'll be fine."
Charley looks away, feeling a bit ashamed, but he couldn't deny Thaddeus had a very good point. He crawled into his pallet, already hating the cold, hard rock beneath him. He tried to settle down, but he knew it would take a long time before he could fall asleep. Instead, he rolled to his side, trying to look at Thaddeus who was barley lit by the dwindling torch and his own fairystone around his neck.
"Hm?" Thaddeus leaned forward and snuffed the torchlight. The bluish glow of the fairystone was very dim and made his features almost indistinct.
"How did you become a knight?"
Even in this light Charley could see Thaddeus was confused. "I thought most people knew that."
"Yeah, but the stories aren't always true."
"I suppose." A pause. "It started with a contest in the small town nearby the farm; a dueling competition. It was only meant for the local boys and some from the neighboring towns. There wasn't much of a prize, but a small sum of gold. My father had died earlier that year, and I felt it a good way to prove my skills in his memory. Because there were so many contenders, they split the competition between two days. I was quickly an easy favorite and quickly defeated the local farm boys. On the second day, in the finals, Sir Laurentius was passing through and decided to watch. When I was named victor, he stepped in and ask for a duel against me.
"Everyone thought he was crazy to want to duel against a peasant, but I suppose he saw real talent in me. We drew swords and he quickly won, being larger and more experienced than myself. But he asked me if I wanted to leave with him and train to be a knight for the king. I was young, not yet seventeen, and very eager to leave the slow life of the countryside. My name was changed from Thomas, my given name, to Thaddeus, a knight's name." He sighed heavily. "I saw Laurentius as this amazing man, like a father when my own had just died. It would take me years before I realized just how false that image was."
Charley looked at Thaddeus was half-lidded eyes. "I've only heard rumors. Most nobles don't want us commoners knowing the scandals of court."
"Laurentius was a harsh man, though it took me time to see that. The rigorous program he had us pages go through was far too extreme. But I had no idea and I was desperate to prove my worth, despite being overworked and half-starved. The former king, Arthurius I, was no better and even so young, I began to see signs of his corruption. When I began to question, I was soon sent to war in the Borderlands."
"But you became famous there, for rescuing all those men."
"Yes, though I never saw myself as particularly heroic. The Borderland War seemed just an exercise in gaining land and wealth, not honor. I began to lose sight of why I was becoming a knight. What the point of upholding honor was when my mentor and king obviously were dishonorable men? When I stormed the Hold where my men were being held, I never expected to survive. I nearly didn't. I just wanted to show a little bit of my worth before I became too entangled with the schemes of Sir Laurentius and King Arthurius I."
"But you became a hero and then came back to dethrone Arthurius I." Charley began to wake up a little more, sitting up.
"I may have had the support of the people, but I could do very little politically. In the end, they turned against each other and ended up destroying themselves. The most use I could give was to support Arthurius II, who I knew was a good man."
Charley sat up completely. "You do yourself little justice. I knew many people who think you as a hero, not just a legend from storybooks, but someone who saved them personally. Arthurius I was a tyrant and few could stand up to him. I remember reading about you in storybooks and how you stood out from the other heroes because you were real. You were strong and clever and stood against those who were so much more powerful. You came from a farm, much like me, and were able to walk with such powerful men. Commoners living in the capital were afraid of the old king, but you gave us hope that his reign would soon end. His majesty Arthurius II is a good man, but it took a truly great man like you to get him to power. It was because of your stories that I taught myself to read, in hopes that one day I could prove myself as well."
Charley stopped and realized that Thaddeus was staring at him with something like wonder. He flushed and quickly lay back down on his pallet. "I'm sorry. I mean … I'm not the only one who feels that way."
Thaddeus didn't say anything and Charley quickly turned over so his back was facing him. He couldn't see Thaddeus' face but he knew the man probably thought he was crazy. The silence grew on and Charley eventually found himself drifting off to sleep. Not quite before he dropped off, he heard Thaddeus say something, though it was hard for him to understand. It sounded like …
Charley was awoken suddenly by a cold hand on his mouth. Immediately, he panicked, but he opened his eyes to the soft glow of Thaddeus' fairystone and his hurried whispering. "Don't panic. We need some cover."
And Charley found himself being pulled to his feet. Still half asleep and very confused, he didn't put up much of a fight as Thaddeus pulled him into a deep crevice between two large boulders nearby. Thaddeus extinguished the fairystone and wedged Charley in with him. Charley suddenly realized that he was rather closely pressed against Thaddeus in the tight crack. His hands were on Thaddeus' chest and his head was pushed against the space where his neck met his shoulder.
But a noise soon distracted him from any inappropriate positioning. In the pitch-black of the cave, a soft torchlight began to climb down from the top of the stairs. Then two voices drifted from it. With only whispers, it was hard to make out most of the conversation.
"Eli seems confident enough … won't be able to make it past … good hostage … we should move soon, but Eli … wait, what is over there?"
Charley tensed as the light suddenly stopped and moved closer with purpose. Thaddeus tensed as well and Charley realized that Thaddeus' hands were clutching his upper arms. The two, presumably, bandits, came into view, a short man with a mousy, pointed face, and a very muscular man. The larger man had not less than four swords attached to his body, which seemed a little excessive. But the smaller man had no visible weapon. He did hold a rather lumpy satchel and Charley wondered if they had just come from some sort of heist.
They quickly spotted Charley and Thaddeus' things, having been left out in their haste to hide. They edged forward cautiously, looking around. The torchlight swung dangerously close to Thaddeus and Charley's hiding spot. Compulsively, Thaddeus pulled Charley closer to him, until Charley could feel the other man's pounding heartbeat.
"Hm, no sign of them now. This torch is cold." The smaller man observed and began to rummage through Charley's pack. The larger man continued to pace around the campsite, looking to the tops of the boulders for signs of them. Luckily, he kept his eyes trained upward and did not notice he was perilously close to them.
"They could still be nearby, Lithe," he grumbled.
The smaller man, Lithe, snorted. "Undoubtedly, left his knife here." He pulled out one of Charley's reference books. "Strange equipment to bring. Wonder who he'd … ah!" He had found Charley's journal. Charley didn't think there was much useful information in it, but he held his breath all the same. It was his personal journal after all. "Well, well, bet Eli would like a look at this." Lithe stood up and held out the journal.
The larger man took it and only glanced at it briefly. "That is all?"
Lithe was beginning to rummage through Thaddeus' things now. He quickly found another battered looking journal. Charley hadn't even realized that Thaddeus kept a journal. "Here it is. Come on, we'll need to hurry."
"Should we leave the rest?"
Lithe shrugged. "It won't matter. Let's go."
The large man nodded and with unexpected grace, he crawled up and over the boulder. Lithe quickly followed and the torchlight began to disappear from sight. It was several long moments before the light and their voices completely ebbed, but still Thaddeus held Charley in place.
A few, long silent moments dragged on as both of them strained to hear any more of the bandits. There was nothing. Thaddeus suddenly relaxed, as the danger was gone, and Charley found Thaddeus' head resting on his shoulder, his face pressed into Charley's neck.
"Only a couple of scouts," he murmured.
Charley didn't know what it meant, but he was thoroughly distracted by Thaddeus' breathing against his neck and the somewhat pleasant feeling of being held. "Why did they want our journals?" His voice came out tight with nervousness.
Thaddeus sighed and began to move away, pulling out his fairystone in the process. Charley tried to ignore how cold he felt now that Thaddeus had returned to the campsite. "Information, probably. Though I try to be careful, it's hard for me to keep my movements secrets. No doubt 'Eli' is the leader and he is aware I have come to confront him."
Charley gathered his things where Lithe had scattered them. "What should we do?"
Thaddeus was already pulling his pack over his shoulder. "Press on. We don't want them knowing our exact location. Those two were heading to the bottom of the steps, we should follow them."
Charley nodded, rolling up his pallet. It all seemed like some fun adventure until now. That larger bandit looked seriously dangerous and Charley had no doubt he would not survive if that man were to attack him. "Yes, let's go."
They traveled in almost total silence. Thaddeus kept his fairystone clenched in his hand, so that the light was low. It was too indistinct for Charley, but he couldn't seem to raise his voice against it. There was an awkward tension between the two, whether from their closeness in their hiding spot, or Charley's embarrassing confession just a few hours earlier.
The awkward silence seemed to stretch on for hours, only broken by Charley's heavy breathing. Which only served to remind him how completely different they were. Thaddeus moved with relative ease, silencing footfalls and short jumps. Charley could only lag behind, slipping and scrambling, and generally making noise in the stillness around them.
He wished they could talk like before, but the situation was different now. The bandits were somewhere nearby, perhaps even within earshot. But he had liked their conversation, even if he tended to say stupid things. Thaddeus never pointed them out, as so many nobles would have. He did not talk down to Charley, but talked with him. Only Gaius had treated Charley in such a familiar manner, but Thaddeus was different from Gaius. Thaddeus was … just different. Charley would have to sort through his confusion and embarrassment at a later time, when they weren't trying to evade bandits in an underground city.
The boulders began to spread out again and the shapes of the steps were prominent in the dim, blue light. Soon after, a massive wall was spread out before them. They both just paused and stared at the wall for a moment. It was huge and stretched all the way to the ceiling. While Charley could make out the lines of pictorials and other carvings, he saw no sign of a door or a pathway. Thaddeus held out his fairystone for maximum light and walked from one side of the wall to the next.
"Well, those bandits came this way. They had to have gone somewhere," Thaddeus murmured.
"Could there have been another opening among the boulders that we missed?"
Thaddeus ran a hand through his hair, in frustration. "Could be, but that would take hours to uncover."
Charley pulled out the map again. There were no side paths from the steps, according to Isoleces. Though it didn't mean the bandits or anyone else over the years hadn't created a new one. Again, he looked to Isoleces' cryptic descriptions. He mentioned a door, but Charley couldn't be sure if that was metaphorical or literal. He began to dig through his books, to see if any other authors had mentioned this area.
Thaddeus lit a torch and placed it near Charley. "I'm going to scout around. You can stay here if you need to." He didn't even look for an answer before moving off with only the dim glow of his fairystone. Charley sighed as he left, wondering if he had truly upset Thaddeus earlier. He hadn't meant to blurt out those embarrassing details about how he had obsessed over Thaddeus enough to teach himself to read and write.
He sat down and glanced through his books. He found only one mention of the area, though it wasn't much, only a footnote by the author name Rubenio: 'The ancient people of Aettrial had the common assumption that all people were endowed with magic. Unlike our current understanding that only few have the gift, the people of Aettrial thought every person had a soul and every soul was made of magic. The more "good" a person was, the purer the magic. The more "evil", the more diluted the magic. When entering sacred, inner parts of their city, people often went through simple tests to make sure their magic was pure. One famous test was The Steps to Heaven, as named by the philosopher Isoleces. Citizens would have to walk down a massive staircase past guards who had probable means of detecting their magic. Observations are inconclusive of this test. At the bottom, the citizens are placed in front of the Doors of Judgment. If they pass through, then their magic is pure. Of the accuracy of these tests, we can only guess.'
Charley looked to Isoleces' map. Lecaris must have meant 'heaven', or there were some other steps that Charley was not seeing. He looked to the wall. There had to be a door here, if someone were to pass through it. He ran his hand over the stone; it felt normal and very solid. This could not be a cave-in, the carvings were intact. Rubenio had said this area named by Isoleces, which means that he would have used that word for a reason. Charley looked to the lines Isoleces had written about the steps.
"Judgment of Threads," he murmured. He knew very little about Isoleces' philosophy, but he knew that 'threads' was a common theme. Something about … Charley rubbed his face. He was tired from lack of sleep. A sudden, indistinct thought came to him that desperately wanted to know if Thaddeus would ever want to see him again after this.
He forced himself to focus. He remembered Gaius talking about Isoleces' philosophy on so many occasions. Threads were … connections between people. Connections people make … Charley knelt to the floor, trying to remember.
"What are you doing?" Thaddeus had returned.
"Love!" Charley suddenly leapt up, somewhat startling Thaddeus. Not even caring that the other man probably thought he was insane, Charley whirled around. "Isoleces said that the relationships we form are made of threads. With parents, they have tied their threads to you and eventually you must, in return tie them back. With friends, we mutually reach out and tie the threads between us. But lovers … well, when you are in love, you do not tie your threads, but entangle yourself within the thread of the one you love. Doing so, you can feel every movement of that person. And with unrequited, it is painful, as you can't untangle yourself. But with two lovers, they tangle themselves together so tightly, that their threads become one thread. Isoleces' says that when this happens the thread is 'refined to purity' and the only direct path to paradise or 'heaven'. It is one of Gaius' favorite quotes."
Charley lifted up the torch to have a look at the carvings. "Rubenio said the door will test your purity and Isoleces' says it is the Judgment of Threads. It must have to do with that philosophy."
He looked over the pictures, searching for a clue. He walked down the wall and noticed an area where the stone was smoothed and untouched. Charley ran a hand over it, but it seemed normal to him.
"So, how do you pass the test? You need lovers?"
Charley flushed, feeling slightly embarrassed. "Perhaps, but Isoleces could be exaggerating. I mean, many have explored this place, right? They couldn't have all had lovers on hand to walk through the door."
Thaddeus stepped closer. "Maybe they found a way around."
Charley looked back at the map. "Isoleces hasn't indicated any and he has labeled certain things within this room. See? Archway of Justice, Throne of Wisdom, etc. I have no idea what those are, but it must mean he was able to get inside."
Thaddeus reached out and placed his hand beside Charley's, testing the wall as well. "I couldn't find any other way out of here than just to go back up the steps. The bandits must also know how to get inside."
Charley wasn't paying close attention, because the wall suddenly seemed to have a different texture. It was still solid, but softer and warmer feeling. Thaddeus removed his hand, probably wondering why Charley was staring at the wall like some idiot. The cold, hard stone suddenly came back and Charley rubbed it curiously. "Wait put your hand back."
Thaddeus didn't say anything, but placed his hand against the wall. And, once again, the wall's texture changed. Cautiously, Charley slid his hand over Thaddeus' and the wall completely gave beneath them. Thaddeus actually tripped slightly forward and both their hands disappeared from view. Automatically, they both stepped back, breaking apart.
"Whoa," Charley breathed. The stone on the wall was still intact, even though their hands just passed through it a moment before.
Thaddeus looked at his hand curiously. "Some illusion, I bet, and a very good one to last this long."
Charley nodded dumbly and slowly turned to Thaddeus. "Should we try to … pass through?"
Thaddeus flexed his fingers. "It seems harmless enough. You ready?"
Charley wasn't, but he also wasn't about to give up now. Thaddeus' face was a mask of concentration and took his hand. Cautiously he pressed it through the wall like it was air and not stone. He took one step forward, also placing a foot inside. "It feels like there is, at least, a floor there. Let's go."
And suddenly Thaddeus was pulling Charley in with him. Charley automatically closed his eyes and pressed himself against Thaddeus' back, not wanting to be left behind. It didn't feel like they were passing through a wall or anything at all. Just like they were only taking a few cautious steps forward. Thaddeus suddenly stopped and Charley tensed.
“Open your eyes, it's safe."
Charley opened his eyes slowly and took a look around. They were in a small hallway with a low ceiling. He looked behind and saw what looked like solid rock. "I have never seen or read anything like that before. You'd think they mention it a little more clearly."
Thaddeus snorted. "Yeah, something like 'to get through, you just need to hold the hand of another person.' That's it. Why all the poetry and philosophy?"
His comment was logical and Charley heartedly agreed that Isoleces was a bit melodramatic to be taken seriously, but the comment stung all the same. According to Isoleces you had to be lovers to path through the wall and for Thaddeus to immediately dismiss the notion … well, Charley was beginning to get a bit too melodramatic himself. Charley detached himself and opened his mouth to say something of an agreement when the floor suddenly gave way beneath him.
Charley woke to a terrible pain in his head. He groaned and tried to cradle it, but his hands weren't moving. They were tied up. He opened his eyes to a dimly lit room. It looked to be some unrefined cave, not one of the carved rooms of the Blind City. Candles were placed into the walls, giving a dim light. It was a small room and Charley was lying on a simple pallet. He managed to sit up, his headache pounding from the movement.
"Ah, so you've decided to join the waking. Has Thomas worn you out so much?" A man entered a small opening, so small he had to crawl through. Charley hadn't even known it was there. The caved curved a bit on the other end, which Charley suspected led to another opening. The man was tall and his face was lined with premature wrinkles, though he looked little older than thirty. All his clothing was black and the loose fabric around his neck was probably used as a mask. No doubt, this man was one of the bandits.
Charley didn't answer; he had no idea what was going on. He had fallen, after they passed through the wall, but he could hardly even remember the fall. Was it a trapped set by the bandits? Was it an accident that the bandits took advantage of? Only one thing fell to his lips. "Where is Thaddeus?"
"Thaddeus? Not Sir Thaddeus Constantine? I didn't know you were so close, Charley." The man smiled, a thin line. He pulled Charley's journal from his shirt. "Well, I had a pretty good idea."
Charley looked at the journal and wondered if it would be any good to deny it being his. He remained silent.
The man came to sit in front of him, folding his long legs beneath him. "Don't look so worried, Thomas will be here soon, no doubt. In fact, I'm testing him to see how long he takes."
Charley didn't know how this man knew Thaddeus' original name, but he supposed any interested party could probably figure it out.
He placed the journal in front of Charley. "You can have this back. I've read it all anyway." He paused after putting down the journal. "I could untie you, if you want. Didn't know how you'd react, but I think you won't run. Well, you could try, but you've no idea where you are. And while Thomas knows how to find me, he won't know how to find you deep within these ruins."
Charley flinched as the man came closer, and roughly undid his bonds. The man sat back, another grim smile on his face. Charley rubbed his wrists briefly and looked to the corner where a large exit might lead. But the bandit was right, he was already missing, he shouldn't run unless he knew where he was going. "Who are you?" he asked instead, picking up his journal.
"Well, if you call Thomas 'Thaddeus', then you should call me Eli. Now, shall we talk for a bit until Thomas decides to join us?"
Charley was silent.
"Okay, I'll start. Why are you here?"
Charley didn't know what to say, so he decided to keep it simple. "I was asked to come."
"Thomas asked you? Did he tell you what he was looking for here?"
Charley frowned and didn't answer.
"Oh, I know what he is looking for; just want to make sure you do. He's looking for his brother."
"Do you have him as well?" Charley spat.
"Yes, I do have him, but Thomas probably didn't tell you everything. But that will be revealed soon enough." Eli stood up and began to pace the room. "Sorry, can't sit for too long, I get antsy."
"What do you plan to do with me?" Charley hoped he didn't sound as frightened as he felt.
Eli stopped mid-step. "Nothing horrid like you're imagining. I wasn't planning on separating you two, but I was intrigued by what you wrote."
"What about it?"
Eli frowned. "Do you care about Thomas?"
"What?" Charley felt thrown.
Eli stepped forward. "I mean, it's obvious that you admire him to an unusual extent, but do you care for him? Do you love him?"
Charley flushed, despite himself. "I've no idea—"
Eli suddenly crouched in front of him and Charley flinched back. "Answer me."
Charley couldn't meet his eyes. He was totally unprepared for such a question, and given by such a person. "I'm just a librarian's assistant. I'm here to help read the map."
Eli was quiet, but didn't move away. His eyes were a dark brown and piercing when directed so thoroughly. And somehow familiar.
A small noise broke Eli's concentration, something like rocks sliding against another. Eli straightened up and backed away from the hole he had first entered through. "Well, Thomas was faster than I expected." He glanced briefly at Charley, his grim smile back. "At least he seems to care for you, librarian's assistant."
Charley looked between Eli and the hole. There were more shuffling sounds and eventually Thaddeus' head pressed through. His eyes immediately landed on Charley, and then he looked to Eli. He quickly passed all the way through and put a hand on the hilt of his sword. He did not draw it. "Your men seemed to have disappeared."
Eli shrugged. "They are actually waiting for me not far outside." He motioned to the other end of the cave. "Over there is almost a direct entrance to the surrounding woods."
Thaddeus frowned. "Why don't you run?"
"I figured we could catch up, Thomas. Or does no one call you by that anymore?"
"I could say the same to you. I guess we've all changed a bit, Robert."
Charley looked between them, forgetting to breathe for a moment. Eli was Robert? Robert was with the bandits, their leader? Did Thaddeus know this before?
Eli laughed bitterly. "Ah, so you have confused your poor librarian's assistant. Why didn't you tell him?"
"I … couldn't be sure. I only had a few clues to follow." Thaddeus glanced to Charley. "I didn't want to believe my own brother would choose to become such a person."
"Chose? Since when have I ever had a choice? Maybe it was three years ago when I decided that becoming a criminal was easier than constantly being captured by them? Or maybe it was ten years ago, when you never did anything more than help around the farm and play with your swords?"
Thaddeus' hand on his hilt was white. "I've always come back for you. I always came to rescue you."
"I only needed rescuing because of what you had become."
Thaddeus was still for a moment and Charley could see him pleading with his eyes. "I only wanted to bring honor to our family."
Eli laughed again. "Hardly! You wanted to prove you were better than father. Father who died from a broken heart! You thought it was shameful." He spat the word and Thaddeus flinched.
"I would have always come for you," he murmured.
Eli rolled his eyes and they landed on Charley. "You know what you become when you are associated with the country's finest knight? A target. Oh yes, it's all fun and games, being kidnapped for blackmail. But then it starts to wear on you, the farm starts to suffer and you wonder, what is the point? Why should you be the pitiful hostage when you could be one who is never detected?"
"You don't have to—"
"Don't have to?" Eli abruptly whirled around in an angry circle, before finally facing the wall, as if to calm himself. "You know what happens to you, librarian's assistant? You become trapped. Choose your cage wisely." He looked back to Thaddeus. "I've already chosen mine."
Thaddeus could only stare at him. "Please, Robert, I've been looking for you for so long. I can help—"
"I've already had enough 'help' from you, brother. The only reason why you've finally found me is because I thought he should at least know what happens to those who are ever close to you." Eli started walking towards the exit and Thaddeus stepped forward.
"No, don't follow me. Don't try to find me again." Eli glanced back at Charley. "He'll let me go, you know, because he knows he could offer me nothing. For all his honor and fame, there is nothing he can give." Then he disappeared around the corner.
Charley stared at the spot where he had been, not knowing what to think. Thaddeus came and knelt before him. "Are you okay?"
Charley nodded, feeling a bit numb. "Was it true?"
Thaddeus hesitated. "I didn't know Eli and Robert were the same. There were some clues, but I couldn't be sure … "
Charley nodded again and looked down at his hand, still wrapped with the bandage Thaddeus had made for him. He couldn't even feel the wound anymore.
"It was also true that I felt a bit … ashamed when my father died."
Charley looked at him, but Thaddeus was now looking at the candles around the room, his eyes distant. "My mother died in childbirth to my younger sister, Clara. Father was heartbroken, but he loved Clara. She was his favorite and his most precious child, because she was all he had left of my mother. She died when she was only nine, from a fever. He … couldn't get over her death. He pined for her and wasted away. I was young, and naive, I didn't understand why he would die when the one he loved was lost." He turned back to Charley. "I understand now."
Charley didn't understand though. He didn't understand so many things. He sighed, placing a hand against his forehead. "Well, I'm glad it's over."
Thaddeus sighed beside him. "Yes, it's over."
The haphazard bookcases, tables, and desks of the Royal College Library never looked so fine. There was no unrelenting darkness here and no danger of mysterious bandits. Charley was useful here, knowledgeable, and eager to get back to work.
Gaius leaned against a bookcase, watching as Charley sorted through the alchemy section. A professor had taken out numerous books on the subject months ago and only recently returned them. It was hard to remember how they all managed to fit.
"It's hopeless," Gaius said. "We'll need to reorder the entire shelf." Gaius was a slim man, with sharp eyes that could spot a misplaced book from across the room. He had unfashionably long black hair that he kept tied or braided back. He often complained about it, but he couldn't be convinced to cut it. Charley had no idea why.
Charley frowned, pulling some of the books back out. "But did we have any new materials come in? They had to fit in here at one time."
Gaius shrugged. "Can't remember. Maybe we should just encourage someone to start taking them out again." He knelt beside Charley, picking up one book and looking through it absently. "You know, I saw Sir Constantine looking through them yesterday. Maybe he has an interest?"
Charley tensed, but otherwise tried to look unaffected. "I wouldn't know." He hadn't talked to Thaddeus since they parted way from Stony Creek four weeks ago. He wondered if he should try to seek him out, but Charley was hardly ever allowed in the palace, nonetheless the court.
When Thaddeus never showed up again, Charley assumed their tentative connection was over. How Gaius saw him here yesterday was a mystery and probably not true. But Gaius liked picking on Charley in that way.
"You know, if you want to talk to him, you could come to the palace with me."
Charley shook his head stiffly. "That won't be necessary."
Gaius sighed, rather dramatically. "You know, it's obvious you want to talk to him again. I don't know what happened on your little adventure, but obviously there is something unfinished."
"I wouldn't know." Charley repeated. He knew there was nothing to finish. He knew Eli's words had gotten to Thaddeus, about trapping those close to him. It was known throughout the capital that Thaddeus kept no companions besides for the king. It would be obviously annoying to constantly have to keep watch over every person who loved him.
Not that Charley thought himself a lover, or even a potential lover, to Thaddeus. He had enjoyed being close to him for a short time, but being back in the capital, it was obvious not even the smallest of friendships could exist. They lived in completely different realms. With Charley sequestered to the library, or his home in the poorer quarter, he could never hope to enter the palace and seek out Thaddeus. And Thaddeus … well, perhaps he had realized that Charley was far beneath him.
Charley wasn't looking at the disordered books in front of him anymore, but at the small scar on his palm. It had been nice, for that short time, to think Thaddeus saw him as more than just the commoner, but a person, a friend, and someone who he seemed to care about.
Gaius suddenly straightened up. "Well, that settles it."
"What?" Charley blinked and came back to himself.
Gaius took him by the elbow and pulled him to his feet. "Come on, we have an appointment."
"Appointment?" Charley hadn't heard this before.
"Yes, with the king."
"With his majesty?" Charley tried to pull out of his grip, but Gaius had long, strong fingers.
"Yes, I forgot to mention it."
"Why should I come?"
Gaius paused for a moment. "Because I want you to." Then he began to pull Charley away.
Charley pulled back. "That is not a reason, and what about the alchemy books?"
Gaius was stronger than him and managed to start dragging him from the library. "Leave them. Nobody will notice anyway." And he took no other resistance. Charley let himself be dragged away. He might as well let Gaius lead him on, and then escape quietly when he had a chance.
Despite his plan to run as soon as possible, Charley really didn't want to enter the palace. He had never been inside officially. Once he had to find Gaius and used the servant entrance to get someone to find him. But Gaius was now leading him up through the main entrance and the guards were staring at Charley like he was a smudge of dirt on the heel of someone much more important. Or maybe they were staring because Gaius was practically dragging him inside.
"Gaius? Gaius! I don't think I should be here. Can't we—"
"Quiet Charley and stop struggling. You're acting like a child."
"I'm the child? Who is the one—"
Charley cut himself off as his eyes landed on a man descending the massive stairwell. He was dress in fine clothes, though they were only an embroidered jacket and vest with riding pants and boots. His hair was a short a golden brown color, as tousled as if he just ran a hand through it. He was dressed like any other noble, but for the golden circlet on his head that told his true status.
Charley immediately wrenched away from Gaius and proceeded to bow profusely. "I'm sorry, your majesty. I shouldn't be here. I'm leaving now. My apologies, your majesty."
But Gaius stepped in front of him, unabashed. "Art, we have a problem!"
Charley gaped at Gaius, but the king looked only confused. "What are you talking about now, Gaius?"
Gaius strode up to him and, taking him by the elbow, proceeded to whisper furiously in his ear. It was strange, seeing Gaius act so improper before the king. Especially since Gaius was taller than his majesty and showed him no respect. But the king seemed quite used to it. He frowned at Gaius and whispered back just as furiously.
With the two of them so distracted, Charley whirled around to make his escape. Instead, he found himself smashing into a very solid, and warm, wall. He blinked and was a little horrified to see Thaddeus standing there, looking as the whole scene with utter confusion.
"Charley? What is going on?"
Charley flushed and quickly stepped away. It hurt to see Thaddeus' blue eyes looking at him; he didn't realize how much he had missed it. It was depressing how much he missed it. "I was just leaving."
"No, you aren't!" Gaius was back at his side, an iron grip on his elbow.
Charley glanced at the king, who gave him a half-hearted shrug. "Well, if you're so persistent, Gaius. Very well, come with me. You as well, Thaddeus."
Charley felt like shrinking into the ground and hoping everyone would eventually forget about him. But Gaius had him in his hold and was pulling him through the lavish hallways, pass parlors and gardens and servants who just bowed as the king passed. Though they did glance up to stare at the entourage.
Eventually they found themselves in an expansive office. The desk itself was as large as Charley's bed. There were tall bookshelves lining the walls, and an unlit fireplace in the corner with two large cushioned chairs. Gaius took one of the chairs, relaxing immediately. The king went to sit behind the desk, and Charley and Thaddeus hovered awkwardly near the doorway.
The king leaned back in his chair and folded his hands. "Charles Steward, correct?"
Charley bowed slightly, deciding to hold his tongue, in case he would start blubbering uncontrollably.
"Good, Gaius has brought to my attention your … qualities."
"Accomplishments, Art. He's very accomplished."
The king rubbed his forehead. "Yes, accomplishments. Well, Gaius has seen fit to inform me of these and I have decided that some steps need to be taken."
Charley was utterly confused by this. Accomplishments? He had done nothing of the sort. Or, at least, nothing the king should take note of. He looked too Gaius who just looked smug, like a cat with his prey in sight.
"So I've decided to make you an official member of my court." The king started pulling out documents from his desk. "If you sign these, they will show your new citizenship. You must answer my summons when given and you can purchase a residence within the capital, as well as land in the country. In fact, you should probably look into that soon, it will give you better credentials." He filled out the citizenship papers and Charley felt all the blood drain from his face. This couldn't possibly be happening. But the king was sliding the papers towards him. "Sign here and here."
Charley couldn't feel his legs, but they moved forward and he was staring down at the document. "I—I don't … I don't think I—" he tried to stammer out, but Gaius cut him off.
"Sign it, Charley, or I'll make you translate all of Isoleces' forty orations." Charley stared at him, wondering how this could be real. Gaius glared back. "And then I'll make you discuss them with me … at length."
Charley's hand was reaching for a pen before he could think. Feeling lightheaded, he signed and suddenly found them being folded up by the king, given the royal seal, and handed back. Charley clutched it with numb fingers.
The king rose to his feet. "Well, now that it's official, welcome to my court Lord Charles Steward. I look forward to seeing around from time to time. I hear the college is accepting applications, I'm sure they will appreciate you studying there." Charley stared at him; the idea of being able to apply made the room wobble a bit. "Oh, and one last detail. As a member of the court, I can assign you a knight to act as a bodyguard and comrade. He will be living with you and accompanying you to all official events. As you are a new member of this realm, I see it necessary role." He looked up, passed Charley. "Thaddeus, would you accept this honor?"
Thaddeus stepped forward. "My lord … Art. I could not refuse, but are you certain—?"
The king waved his hand dismissively. "Quite certain. I've had you at my call for long enough. It's time you've stopped adventuring and settled into a more stable lifestyle." He smiled and he somehow looked not like a king, but the kindest man Charley had ever seen. "You are a dear friend to me, Thaddeus, and I only want your happiness." Thaddeus nodded his head, saying no more.
Gaius leapt to his feet. "Now that is done! Art, I have some serious concerns to address about the alchemy section in the library."
The king sighed and nodded tiredly. "We'll talk it over tea in the blue parlor, Gaius. Let's leave these two to discuss arrangements." Then he seemed to glide out of the room, Gaius quickly following. The door clicked behind them.
Slowly, Charley turned to face Thaddeus. "I—I don't know what to say. This is rather sudden." The folded paper felt strange in his hands.
Thaddeus wouldn't look at him either. "Well, as his majesty said, we'll need to find proper accommodations for you. It is tradition that I live with you, at least for a time."
"You don't have to!" Charley blurted. Thaddeus' eyes were wide, staring at him. "I—I mean, it's alright if you don't want to. Or if you want to refuse all of this. I don't want to force you."
Thaddeus placed his hands on Charley's shoulders and they felt so achingly solid and warm. Charley looked away, flushing. "I wouldn't have agreed unless I was truly willing." He paused. "Would you look at me?"
His voice was soft and almost … frightened. Charley looked up to find those blue eyes staring so deeply into his. "I've missed you," Charley whispered softly, unintentionally.
Thaddeus' eyes softened, but he didn't smile. "I'd thought you'd want no more association with me."
"No, no, I didn't mean to offend—”
"You haven't offended. I meant about what my brother said. It's true, you know, it's a danger for yourself to be closely associated with me."
His voice sounded so sad and so desperate that Charley found himself taking one of Thaddeus' hands from his shoulder and holding it tentatively. "I know, but I also know that you will be there to protect me. I trust you, Thaddeus." Cautiously, he held the hand to his lips and kissed it softly.
"Your hands are shaking."
Thaddeus' other hand reached up and gently cupped Charley's chin. "So are yours," Charley whispered back.
And suddenly there was no space between them. And no paper in Charley's hand, but somewhere on the floor. And Thaddeus' arms were wrapped around his waist, pulling him closer still. And Charley's hands were around Thaddeus' neck. And he desperately hoped he would never have to let go. Because he had never kissed like this before or been kissed like this before.
When they parted, Charley could only hang on, unwilling to move away yet "I can't … I can't believe this."
Thaddeus smiled and Charley felt dazed by the sight of it. "Good."
Charley grinned for a minute more, and then it suddenly vanished. "I have to find a permanent residence don't I? 'Buy land in the country'? I don't think it's going to be possible."
Thaddeus took his hands and began to lead him to the door. "You know as a knight of the realm, Art gave me some land years ago. I've never been there, always too busy to settle there. Would you like to see it?"
Charley nodded and found himself blushing so ferociously that he pressed his cheek into Thaddeus' shoulder. "I guess I'll also have to change my name to Charelius or something ridiculous like that."
Thaddeus wrapped an arm around his shoulders and opened the door, he laughed, softly but growing in strength until Charley could feel it to his feet. "If it makes you feel better, you could always call me by Thad. It sounds much less ridiculous than Sir Thaddeus Constantine."
"As long as you continue to call me Charley."
As they passed into the hall, Charley looked up. Thaddeus … Thad didn't notice but continued to look forward, the shadow of a smile still in his lips. He had smiled at him before, even laughed. But this was different. His body was loose and face relaxed. With those few short days together in the Blind City, Thad had never shown such traits. Always tense, concentrated, and focused on the mission.
Charley leaned, experimentally into his body, feeling it bend beside him. Not a wall or some muscled statue, but a person at ease.
And Charley didn't know if it was the first time, or if Thad would always be like this. But it didn't seem to matter, because right now he was happy. They were both happy. And it was good.