Chapter 13



ur family is in poverty! I work day and night to put food on the table. I haven't been paying your outrageous taxes because our lives depend on that money!" the peasant pleaded, his bushy eyebrows knitted as if he couldn't decide to be angry or apologetic. Blaze watched with an obvious lack of interest as Winslow quirked an eyebrow, taking notes on the situation.

            "Yes, yes. But unfortunately your family does not come before the law. Taxes must be paid for the benefit of Saldi. And breaking the law results in death. I'm truly sorry," he said in a businesslike tone. Blaze seriously doubted that Winslow was sorry at all. He felt a little bothered at the state of the peasants. Their clothing was torn and tattered and they smelled strongly of livestock. The peasant's family could be seen watching through a window with no glass—a wife and two kids. She caught his eye and quickly pulled the curtains.

            They were on another boring expedition to the outskirts of Mora—the capitol city of Saldi—to take care of issues such as this one. Blaze tagged along to get out of The Palace for once. Anything was better than meetings. Seeing his presence also scared the people into obeying. It was a win-win solution.

            "I will not stand for this!" the commoner began to rant. "Prince Stefan would never have done this to our people! Long live Prince Stefan!" Winslow's gaze turned hard. Blaze scowled. How dare he defy his superiors! Winslow motioned for the peasant to be returned to his household and the soldiers complied, dragging the enraged man by his arms and tossing him into the doorway. As soon as the door was slammed, Winslow turned to Blaze and said, "Burn the house."

            "What?" he asked, taken aback. He was angry, but burning the house with the family inside seemed a little drastic.

            "You heard me," the old man snapped. Who was harassing their betters now? "Rebels must be punished. The people cannot be taught to obey unless they are shone the consequences of doing otherwise."

            "What about his family?" he countered. "Killing all of them would be considered melodramatic on so many levels."

            Blaze fully expected his wishes to be granted, but Winslow did something way out of character. He stepped closer to him, their faces so close he could feel his breath. "Listen, Your Highness," he spat, "I am the head of the Blackmasks, and they have orders to kill you if you even try to lay a finger on me or my authority—Carlon's son or not. Not to mention I know what you've done, and I can make sure that everyone within a thousand mile radius knows by tomorrow. I can make your life miserable. I've taught you everything you know, but unfortunately you are too much of a nitwit to be qualified to rule a country. So leave the decisions to me." Blaze was too stunned to think as he nodded stupidly. He looked at the house and it instantly caught on fire. Winslow nodded with satisfaction and turned back to the carriage, dishing out orders to the guards. Then his anger kicked in. It was clear who was in charge now, even if nobody else knew it. He obviously couldn't openly expose him, but he could defy him in a more clandestine fashion.

            "I need to go to the bathroom," he told the guards, motioning toward the bushes behind the house.

            "Yes, Your Highness," replied the soldier solemnly. "I'll make sure no one disturbs your....privacy." Blaze nodded and started off toward the house. Gesturing for the guard to stay there, he made his way around to the back and checked to see if anyone was looking. After confirming that he was alone, he searched the cottage for a back door. Seeing no such convenience, he began to panic. Through a small window he could see the terrified faces of the peasants as they held each other close. The window! It wasn't big enough to fit through, but he could take care of that. All he had to do was hold out his hand and the wall around the window burst into flames and collapsed to the ground. Come to think of it, he could have done that without the window. Never mind that, he had an innocent family to save.

            Extinguishing a path to the family, he ran to them. At first they cowered, thinking he had come to torment them. "Come with me! I can get you out of here!" he ordered, picking up a bawling little girl. The wife finally nodded to her husband and he picked up the other child. He was about to go back the way he came in, but a plank fell down in front of him, blocking the path to safety. The heat was growing hotter and sweat began to trickle down his temple as he scanned the room for the quickest way out. Beside him another flaming beam fell and the baby's crying became louder in his ear, reminding him of the lives that were at stake. He could extinguish the entire house, but that would surely attract Winslow's attention. Frustrated, he kicked the plank in front of him. It gave way, snapping in half and falling to the floor. Oh, he thought stupidly. Jumping over its remains, he ran through the hole he'd made in the wall and into safety. The rest of the family followed close behind.

            "Thank you!" the wife cried, falling to her knees in front of him. He was still a little out of breath.

            "Shhh. They'll hear you," he panted, pulling out the pouch of coins he kept in his coat and handing it to her husband. "Take this. Do me a favor and don't mention this to anyone. Get out of here before they find you." He nodded gratefully, as if words couldn't express his gratitude. There was a certain feeling of satisfaction in helping these people that Blaze hadn't felt before.

            He watched as they escaped into the country and then turned back around the corner of the smoldering house. The soldier stood dutifully where he'd left him, not commenting on the lengthy time he'd spent "going to the bathroom." Blaze smiled, unable to hold back his delight. Winslow would never know.



"Tell me again why we have to stay in a hotel when we have royalty with us?" Mark asked as they walked through the crowded streets of Aroth. Landon couldn't help but marvel at the size of it. Everywhere he looked there were people advertising their goods or rushing about their business. Carts and horses made their way through the bustling crowd, trying not to run the pedestrians over. It amazed him how many people could fit on a narrow cobblestone street at once.

            Walls of tall buildings rose up on either side of him like a canyon, making him feel slightly claustrophobic. The houses were fancy and finely crafted, very colorfully painted and expensively decked. Farther into the heart he could see larger buildings towering over the rest. But the largest and most magnificent of all was the Palace of Adria, where the King resided.

            "Because," Chelsea sighed, "it would be considered very rude to just barge in on their hospitality without an invitation. We have one too many enemies here and I do not wish to make another one."

            "Your brother did it," he pointed out.

            "My brother was very bold. I doubt they will tolerate another intrusion. We don't even know if he is staying at the Palace anyways, but I'm not taking any chances." She had a bought some new dresses now that they were in public so they didn't stand out too much. Mindi and Kira, however, refused to wear anything ladylike.

            Even so, they still attracted eyes because of their blonde hair. Saldians still weren't welcomed with open arms after all these years. It irritated Landon to no end.

            "Why don't we just let them know you're here? Maybe then the King will invite you," Jeaine suggested absently as she watched a juggling street performer.

            Chelsea shook her head. "We need to stay undercover for a while. We'll be a much more noticeable target if we reveal ourselves. Besides, if I know Stefan—which I do very well—he's lying low, too. If anyone knew he was here other than the King then the news would travel to Blaze for sure. Our best bet is to listen around for rumors or clues. Then we'll plan what to do next.

            "Jeaine and I will check out a room for us to stay in. The rest of you can do whatever you want. I suggest listening and watching for hints about Stefan. He's either staying at the palace or at a hotel. Meet us at The Elf's Hammock inn before sundown. If you don't show up we will come looking for you. And Mark, please don't do anything stupid."

            Bowing low, he said, "Yes, Your Majesty." He stood up straight. "Whatever you say, Chels." She regarded his sarcasm by a faint smile. Jeaine and Chelsea left, leaving him, Mark, and the twins loitering by a meat pie stand. "Well, see you later," Mark said, taking off down the street and disappearing into the crowd.

            "Can you take care of yourself or do we have to babysit you?" Mindi asked Landon, putting her hands on her hips. He still wasn't used to her clipped attitude.

            "I think I can manage alone," he retorted.

            Kira shrugged. "Suit yourself."

            And they were gone.

            He stood there for a moment, staring at the place where they had been a second before. How did they do that? Shaking his head, he stood for a moment longer, wondering where in the world he should go. He began strolling down the street, trying to remain as covert as possible. After a few minutes of meandering through the multitude, he picked an inn at random and entered it.

            The common room was pleasant and calm. A few men talked business over wine at small wooden tables. A crowd watched a game of dice in the corner. It was like a milder version of a tavern.

            Joining the throng of dice-watchers, he pretended to be interested in the game as he listened for any interesting news. Hardly anyone noticed him, though some did eye his sword. They weren't particularly common on a man's person—wearing swords about was usually a sign of wealth or dangerous activity—but it wasn't all that uncommon either.

            The men nearest to him were discussing taxes. Another group of merchants were negotiating prices. The guards compared swords. The serving girls loitered, chatting about the men they thought were handsome. A lot of fingers were pointed in his direction.

            The all too familiar feeling of being watched made him glance over his shoulder. Nobody seemed too suspicious. He told himself he was just becoming paranoid.

            He was about to return his attention back to the debate two men were having about whether a wolf or the man's attacked dog would win in a fight—Landon, personally, betted on the wolf—but something out of the corner of his eye made him freeze. A man he hadn't noticed before had brushed his cloak just a tad farther back than he should have, revealing a set of pricey looking daggers. Landon snapped his vision back to the game as the cloaked man's gaze passed over him. Out of instinct, Landon memorized what the man looked like. He was tall, about his own height, and had a black goatee. Something about him seemed....sinister.

            He noticed Landon watching him and returned the stare. Unable to tear his eyes away, they sat staring at each other for a long moment. He was saved when a serving girl approached him and cut off his view.

            "Hello," she said, smiling widely. Near the door the other girls giggled. "What's a man as handsome as you doing all alone?" The giggling turned into a wild burst of laughter. He glanced, amused, in their direction and they immediately quieted.

            He decided to play along. "Waiting for a pretty lady like yourself to come along." He sounded terribly a lot like Mark. She giggled along with the other girls. "Can I get you something?"

            "Oh, no. I should really get back to work. I was just wondering if you needed something," she answered. What was the point of saying hello if you didn't have anything to say? He knew better than to ask.

            The cloaked man caught his eye one last time as he walked out the door. Curiosity got the better of him. "I'm fine, thank you. Well, it was a pleasure talking with you, but I, too, must be going."

            "Pity. Will I see you around?" She blushed as he took her hand and kissed it.

            "Perhaps. I come and go with the breeze. Goodbye." And with that he swept dramatically past the other girls who now openly stared and back into the street. He could almost see why Mark enjoyed wooing girls so much.

            Key word: almost.

            The sun was slowly sinking down the sky, staining colors in the clouds. He had to hurry.

            The suspicious man wasn't hard to spot after he'd joined the mass. Landon let him walk a safe distance ahead and then followed, doing his best to appear casual. Every once and a while he would lose sight of him, but his billowing cloak gave him away every time. He was surprisingly easy to follow.

            After a few minutes of tailing, the cloaked man made an abrupt turn into a dark alleyway between two houses. There was a network of alleys behind the houses, and there was no doubt there were dangerous men to be found in there, but reason doesn't speak its loudest on adrenaline pumping moments. He hesitated for an instant, debating on whether or not he should enter. Was this really a good idea? Curiosity won over and he followed the man. He had to know what he was planning on doing with all those daggers.

            Trying to step lightly, he began to have a few misgivings as the light of the street became smaller with every step. Shadows consumed the alley until he could barely see what lay ahead. He was about to give up and turn back when the cloaked man spun around, several more men materializing out of the darkness behind him. His first reaction was to run, but several more blocked the path to the street. Drawing Tempest, he made sure he could see all of his enemies as he moved into a defensive position. He didn't want to make the first move in case there was a misunderstanding. Several of the men drew their own swords or weapons, including the cloaked man, and all thoughts of misunderstandings left his mind. He was in survival mode now.

            A few of them stepped closer and only then did he see that all of them except the cloaked man were wearing masks. Now he understood. They'd used the cloaked man to lure him into their trap. He'd purposely exposed his daggers, knowing that he would follow. And now they had him surrounded ten to one.

            A wave of fury overcame him—he had been so stupid. Abandoning all rational sense, he lashed out, striking the closest man and taking him out. He'd caught them by surprise, but it would only work once. They were ready for him.

            Several swords came at him at once and he ducked, kicking the legs out from under one of them. Two more approached him and the clang of colliding metal rang through the air as he fought both of them at the same time. He was doing well so far, but there were more of them, and they were attacking in groups. He wasn't going to last long.

            The worst part was that there was no wind he could summon between all these tall buildings. It was up to him and Tempest to make it out alive.

            Kicking the nearest man in the stomach, he fended another man off with his sword and anther with his fist. The swords shone brightly the darkness, flashing through the shadows as they met. He let his sense of hearing and touch override his vision, allowing his instincts take over.

            There were many good swordsman that knew tricks he'd never seen before, but he learned from them even as he fought, using their own moves against them. It was effective; however, not near enough to save him.

            As he slashed at one man and tripped another, three more advanced. While two charged, the third came in on the side and cut his arm. "Oh, come on!" he yelled despite himself. His arm was stinging. "Whatever happened to fair play?" The sound of a dagger being unsheathed behind him caught his attention and he spun around to face the cloaked man. His dagger was poised to kill. Before Landon could react, the dagger fell from his hand. A shocked expression crossed his face before he fell to the ground. Landon looked up to see a tall man—taller than he was—pull his sword from the cloaked man's back. He had light brown hair and a straight nose that fit nicely between blue eyes. Landon guessed he was somewhere in his twenties. Something about this man looked disturbingly familiar, but he didn't have time to wonder where he'd seen him from because the familiar man shouted, "Behind you!" Landon twirled around, cleanly slicing a few unlucky Blackmasks that had gotten too close in the process. Both he and his newfound ally began fighting them off, back to back. The other man was obviously well acquainted with swordplay, which was lucky considering the odds of anyone coming to his aid at all.

            Together they narrowed the numbers until, finally, the last one fell to the ground. They both stood there, panting, and stared at each other. He was no doubt wondering the same thing Landon was: Who are you?

            Their silent question was interrupted as the guards chose that moment to find him. A minute earlier he would have considered that a miracle, but now as he surrounded by dead bodies, looking about as guilty as it gets. Help had suddenly become a nuisance.

            Sheathing Tempest, he slumped against the wall and waited for the guards to come. There was no hope of running now.

            "You there!" one of the two guards called, jogging up to the scene. He looked at the bodies lying at his feet, then to him and the stranger. His eyes widened. "Prince Stefan," he addressed the stranger, bowing low. Prince Stefan! Now he knew why he'd look familiar; he reminded him of Chelsea.

            Prince Stefan nodded to acknowledge him. "I'm sorry if I caused a ruckus. This poor man was ambushed and I had to help. None of this is his fault." He didn't even know who Landon was and he was still defending him!

            "I'm sorry, my lord, but the law says that he must be taken to prison for the night. Tomorrow he will face trial," said the other guard firmly, eyeing his sword uneasily.

            Stefan saw his nervous gaze and quickly sheathed it. "I don't blame you for doing your job. Rules must be obeyed. But I assure you he was acting purely out of self defense." He turned to Landon as the guards seized his arms. "Don't worry. I don't have much power here, but I'll get you out somehow."

            Landon nodded and realized this was the ideal moment to tell him. "Thanks. Can you do me one more favor? Go to The Elf's Hammock and ask for Chelsea. I'm pretty sure you know her. Tell her what happened and that I won't be able to make it back to the hotel in time." He looked utterly shocked at the mention of Chelsea.

            "Chelsea's here?" he asked, baffled. Landon nodded. "Looking for me?" Landon nodded again. "And you know her?"

            "Yes," he responded. "Tell her that Landon is in jail and why. She'll be worried sick about me."

            Stefan still looked a little stunned at the news. "I'll tell her. Tell me, how do you know her?" The guards began tugging on him, urging him to get a move on.

            "I'll tell you later. Thank you," he told him, then let the guards steer him towards the castle dungeons.



"He's probably just running late," Jeaine said for the fourth time. Chelsea thought she was trying to convince herself as much as she was trying to convince the others.

            "Landon's always late," Mark said. "Of course, that was usually because he was waiting up for me...."

            "Not helping," she growled, glancing toward the door of the inn. They all sat around a table, waiting for Landon to show up.

            "We should have gone with him," Kira said, frustrated.

            "He said he could take care of himself," Mindi retorted.

            "That's probably because you used the term "babysitting!" Nobody in their right mind would agree to being babysat. It's a pride thing." Mindi just shrugged.

            "Calm down! If he doesn't return, it isn't anyone's fault. Perhaps it's time to look for him. Jeaine, you stay here in case he comes back...." she trailed off. The door had opened and inside stepped the last person she was expecting at the moment—Stefan. Without pausing to think, she flung herself at him, wrapping her arms around him. He laughed and hugged her back.

            "Stefan, I....I...." she stammered, wiping back some tears that were beginning to form."I've missed you so much. How did you find me?"

            "I've missed you, too. Funny story. Before we get into that, though, who are your friends?" Chelsea turned to look at the others, who had walked over to see what was going on.

            "Forgive me. I've forgotten my manners. These are the people that have saved my life on multiple occasions. Mark, Jeaine, Mindi, and Kira. Everyone, this is my brother, Stefan." Stefan nodded to them politely. "All we're missing is Landon...."

            Stefan shifted his weight to his other foot—his nervous habit. "Speaking of Landon—"

            "You've seen him? Did he find you?" Chelsea interrupted.

            "Actually, I found him. He told me to tell you that he'll be spending the night in jail." Jeaine gasped loudly and she could have sworn she heard Mark say, "That's my boy." He proceeded to tell them the full story of what had happened. "I told him I'd get him out, but we're going to have to wait until morning; when he faces trial for murder."

            "The two of you took out ten men?" Mark exclaimed. "I wish I had been there!"

            "Landon is in jail an all you can think about is the fight? Really, don't you even care about your best friend?" she scolded, sighing with exasperation. He threw his hands up defensively.

            "Sure I do. What did you want me to say, anyway? I'm not a fan of restating the obvious."

            She turned back to Stefan. "Are the jails okay? What do they do to the prisoners? Is he going to be alright? Please tell me he's going to be alright." He looked infuriatingly amused.

            "Relax. He'll be fine. We'll rescue him in the morning," he reassured.

            "Do you know who Landon is?" she fretted. He had never seen her like this before.

            "An amazing swordfighter," he answered, wondering what she meant.

            She glanced around to see if anyone was looking and lowered her voice. "His name is Landon Evers. His parents are the legends. He killed King Carlon at age seven. He's also a Windsinger. Do you realize what this means if we can't get him out?"

            His eyes widened. "How did you meet him? Never mind, we can discuss this later. You should go to bed."

            "But—" she protested.

            "Go to bed. He'll be fine." She stood for a moment, then sighed and headed upstairs. It didn't matter if they had just been reunited; he was still going to be the older brother.

            Landon was going to be alright. She recited that line in her head as she marched up the stairs to her room.



Stefan watched her go, wondering why she was so fretful all of the sudden. He was a legend, but there was something more. His little sister had always been levelheaded. "Is she—dare I say it—in love?" he asked her companions.

            "In love?" the pretty black-haired girl named Jeaine giggled. "More like head over heels."

            "Does he like her back?" he asked curiously. This Landon character seemed like a good guy from the few seconds he'd known him.

            "Infatuated," she confirmed. "They are such a cute couple." He nodded. His little sister was in love! Now he just had to bail her lover out of jail.


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