Etana the Coward: Part Six
Princess Alastrine stopped walking as they immerged into the open street, facing the empty marketplace.
“Are you happy to be home?” Etana asked, looking around. The large stone buildings of the inner city loomed from the shadows, the gentle aroma of spices still lingering in the air.
“It just doesn’t feel like home,” Alastrine said with a sigh, tearing her gaze from the empty market and instead looking ahead. In just a few paces they’d reach the gateway to the palace, and then they’d meet the guards... and soon after that the whole of Thornstone would know that Princess Alastrine was home and safe.
Etana smiled as warmly as she could manage. “Are you ready?” she asked softly, nodding towards the gateway.
“I’m just being silly,” Alastrine announced. She took a large, readying breath and nodded. “Yes, I’m ready.”
The next couple of hours whirled past in an array of confusion, tears and shock. Dawn was fast approaching by the time Alastrine was whisked off to bathe and change into some ‘decent’ clothes, and Etana was finally allowed to return to her chamber to catch a few hours' sleep. Then there were a couple of days where everything seemed to stand still; the whole of Thornstone held their breath as Princess Alastrine convalesced, a handful of healers attending her every need. The Advisors did nothing, the market buzzed with gossip and rumours, and Etana, now essentially jobless, barely left her chamber.
The next week, however, began with an announcement. The market was closed and the stalls cleared away; a rainbow of strong Lupes built a podium at one end, on which two thrones were placed and less exotic chairs were arranged for the two Advisors. Shortly after lunchtime the market filled with pets of all shapes, sizes and species – and not long after a small procession approached the podium and took their chairs. The servants had discovered a room on the second floor that overlooked the market perfectly, and Etana joined them as they leaned out of windows to hear the announcement firsthand.
King Moris was a rotund royal Ixi with the same bright lapis lazuli blue eyes as his niece. When he stood up the crowd automatically fell silent. He gave a satisfied smirk.
“My dear, loyal subjects,” he began, in a drawn-out simpering voice, “I, King Moris the Sixth of Thornstone, have decided the time has come to pass on my throne.” He paused, allowing the crowd a moment to murmur amongst themselves. “As I am sure you have noticed, my dear Princess Alastrine has finally returned to her home – and in perfect time to accept the throne from me.” He indicated to the second throne, on which she sat attentively. “And so, in precisely one week, the palace will host the traditional Passing of the Throne Ceremony and finally dear Princess Alastrine will become Queen Alastrine the First of Thornstone, as was always my most prominent desire.”
Etana drew a deep breath and stepped back from the window. That was it. It was over. The Rebels had won!
* * *
Even in the forest Etana hadn’t seen so many different types of flowers and greenery. Bunches of cut flowers arrived throughout the week for Alastrine, and towards the end of the week vases and pots of flowers were beginning to appear in preparation for the Passing of the Throne Ceremony. A large hall Etana had never seen before was being redecorated in Alastrine’s honour. The deep crimson curtains were replaced with delicate pink lace drapes. Thornstone’s finest seamstresses were busily creating new tapestries depicting an entirely fictional battle between Alastrine and her masked kidnapper.
Oakes had taken pity on Etana and given her a job, too, making all sorts of bread for the party. Etana threw herself into the work ambitiously, trying all sorts of recipes she’d stored away in her mind but never dared try back in Fourth Town. Wholegrain breads with diced chilli and cheese; sweet white breads with raisins, apples and cinnamon; plain breads topped with cheese and seeds; wholesome brown breads filled with morsels of dried meat and diced onion; and her personal favourite, a large loaf thick with chocolate. She experimented with recipes of her own which, although simple, proved popular among the other kitchen staff and so ended up on the menu, too. Etana discovered that any questions about her life before the palace had now been quashed.
Etana wasn’t sure where to get flowers inside the city so, on Sunday evening, she wrapped a fresh sweet loaf in a clean tea towel and went searching for Alastrine. She’d seen her often since the announcement almost a week ago, although the only words that passed between them were too polite to really be considered ‘talking’. One thing that Alastrine had uttered, however, was an open invitation for Etana to visit whenever she wanted.
Etana emerged into a richly decorated corridor towards the top of the palace. She was surprised to see that the corridor was completely empty – there wasn’t a single guard in sight. Maybe Alastrine had insisted that she could take care of herself, Etana reasoned, and forced the guards to leave. She continued up the short corridor at a slower, stealthier pace.
She knocked hesitantly on the door at the end of the corridor – then again, more forcefully. There was silence – then a clatter inside, and the sound of shattering glass. Her heart seemed to be buzzing and her stomach was nowhere to be found. Something clicked inside Etana; automatically, she dropped her bread, grabbed the little dagger she kept in her belt and pushed the door open slowly, relieved to find it well oiled.
Alastrine was kneeling on the floor, grimacing; she clutched one paw to her chest and one eye was puffy. A wide, cloaked figure stood between Etana and Alastrine, golden sword glinting in the lamplight, apparently unaware of Etana’s arrival. Etana fumbled along her belt silently until her paw fell upon the potion vials. Without looking she withdrew the freezing potion and eased the cork from the vial’s neck. A chill breeze blew through a shattered window as the cloaked figure advanced on Alastrine, waving its sword to indicate the Princess should stand. Alastrine climbed to her feet determinedly, showing no sign of having noticed Etana.
“I worked so hard,” the figure said in a hatred-distorted voice, “All you have is birthright and a favourite uncle – I worked for what I have, and soon I’ll have nothing!”
Etana pushed as much terror to the back of her brain as she could, forcing herself to breathe evenly. If she didn’t do the right thing now then... well... what use was she? She stepped forward shakily, then again, taking it one step at a time until she was so close to Alastrine’s enemy that she could smell roses and tea. They were very close to the window now, Alastrine standing with her back to the open air. Etana wondered how many more ‘moments of truth’ she’d have to face – then she grabbed the cloak’s oversized hood and tugged, revealing a head of wild curls.
Registering nothing but the most vulnerable spots of the uncovered enemy, Etana chose the bare neck to splash with freezing potion. Her movements were jerky, her arm numb and quivering – but the yowl that escaped her new enemy was somehow satisfying.
The satisfaction was short-lived. The cloaked figure swung around, jamming the hilt of her sword down onto Etana’s left shoulder. Etana crumpled, bashing her elbow and then, lurching sideways, the side of her head smacked against the hard floor. White spots burst across her vision, but through the almost comical stars she still saw the twisted, fierce expression on her assailant’s familiar, white-furred face. Her blood boiled and her heart froze; Advisor Oakes...
She rolled sideways instinctively as the blade flew downwards; it missed her by a fraction of an inch, slicing the petal-pink carpet instead. Etana felt something grab her arm and scrabbled awkwardly to her feet, allowing Alastrine to drag her along.
They flew through the doorway, along the corridor and clattered down the stairs like a gang of hungry Skeiths. Etana’s brain screamed for her to be quieter but she couldn’t stop running. The truth of their situation was slowly seeping into Etana’s brain, astonishing and petrifying, making her aching legs wobble.
Etana had never been to this part of the palace before. Alastrine pulled her through a doorway, down a short flight of stairs and into a huge, open courtyard full of trees and flowers in pots, benches and even a small pond. Etana shot her companion a questioning look.
“The King’s Guard sleep on the other side,” Alastrine said breathlessly. “This is the quickest way.”
“Stop!” Etana hissed, clinging to Alastrine’s arm and bracing herself. A white figure stepped onto the bridge ahead of them, walking with calm, measured steps. Quickly she tugged her companion behind a particularly bushy tree. She reached up and unhooked her necklace, fixing Thyora’s Tear quickly around Alastrine’s neck instead. “Don’t take this off.”
“Etana...” Alastrine began, but Etana shook her head and checked her shoulder tentatively. It was throbbing excruciatingly but still seemed to work. She tested her dagger-wielding arm, and the same was true of her sore elbow. Pleased that she was in one piece, Etana turned back to Alastrine.
“Do you think you could get to the King’s Guards another way?” Etana asked, peeking through the leaves on her tree and watching as Oakes came closer.
“Well... yes, but-”
“Without Oakes noticing?” Etana murmured, flexing her paw in anticipation.
“Yes, but, Etana... she’ll know we’ve gone.”
“No. I’ll divert her attention. You just get to the guards.” She prepared to stand upright once more as a paw shot out and grabbed her.
“Etana, no! She’s... she’s mad! Please, Etana...” Alastrine implored, eyes wide.
“Go,” Etana ordered, standing up. “Go!”
With one last fleeting glance at Etana, Alastrine hurried between a small collection of trees and disappeared. Etana broke into the open, dagger first. She heard Oakes sigh.
“Well. I didn’t suspect you, my dear Adonia,” she said wearily, shaking her head. “I thought you were like me.”
“I’m not like you,” Etana said quietly.
“Please, you have to understand. King Moris gave us power; he chose Advisors he knew could rule his realm better than he could. He chose me, Adonia. I had no connections but he thought I was worthy to rule his realm. Now he’s going to take it away. Don’t you see? I know you understand – it’s the same for you, isn’t it? Pedin gave you a chance, he believed in you. Wouldn’t you have done anything to keep him in his Advisor’s chair?” Oakes was close, now, and again Etana could smell the roses and tea. It made her stomach roll. “Adonia... will you help me?”
Etana had read books about mad, powerful pets turning on pets they believed threatened their authority. She’d never liked those stories; she preferred a good, heartfelt motive, preferably one she could almost identify with. And here was Oakes, mad and powerful and terrified of losing the thing she’d worked so hard for... and still Etana hated the story. She couldn’t sympathise with Oakes or her motive. It made her feel sick just to think that Oakes thought them similar.
“How can you think that? How can you think that you deserve to rule Thornstone? You’ve been doing your own thing for so long you’ve forgotten that your duty is still to serve the king!” She gestured wildly, cringing as her shoulder protested. “Princess Alastrine will rule Thornstone compassionately and fairly. She deserves the throne.”
A door banged and a handful of heavily armoured guards filed out, swords at the ready. Oakes’s eyes blazed. She looked at Etana once more, then fled, surprisingly fast. The guards began after her, but were weighed down by their impractical armour. Hopeless! Etana screamed in her head. She sprang after Oakes, pursuing her back into the palace then out into the open street. Oakes glanced over her shoulder and growled when she spotted Etana. She hurtled down the empty street, down an alley and towards the Third Pass. When finally the risen road was in sight Oakes swerved into another alley. Etana almost missed it, and scraped her arm against the wall as she turned at the last minute. Oakes appeared to be tiring and Etana was catching up when the white Kougra flung herself at the wide, tall steel-grey bars of the great Thornstone Gate.
Cornered! Etana had Oakes trapped, pressed against the gate – but of course life was never that simple. There was a jangle, then a click and the gate creaked open. Oakes stepped through the gap and began to slam it shut. With a burst of energy Etana wedged her foot between the two sides of the gate. Oakes slammed the gate vehemently against Etana’s foot twice, sending a ripple of pain up Etana’s leg and making her yelp – then Oakes gave up and let go of the gate, whirling across the silvery grass. Biting back a scream Etana ran forward again, this time slowed by an inescapable limp. Even so, she wasn’t far behind Oakes.
They followed the long stone wall of Fourth Town, turning at the corner to face the woodland. Spotting that Etana was catching up once more Oakes dived into the forest, crashing through the undergrowth. Etana sprinted after her, breathing raggedly. Finally she had an advantage; Oakes appeared unfamiliar with the outside, tripping and stumbling over tree roots and getting caught on vines and thorns. Etana, however, had been here once before – and this information seemed to instil her with much needed confidence. The ground was growing soft and merciful underfoot, cool mud slathering Etana’s burning, tingling foot. Through the ringing in her ears she could hear water.
Oakes stopped in surprise for just a moment at the river’s edge, but it was all Etana needed. She lunged, dagger raised, and bowled Oakes to the ground with a splash. Momentarily stunned, Etana swiped with her dagger and met only water – then Oakes spun Etana over, face first into the shallow water. Etana struggled, trying to shake her dagger-wielding paw free from Oakes’s solid grip. Oakes lifted Etana’s paw and violently smashed it against the pebbled riverbed until Etana, managing to lift her head a little and gasp a breath of air, released the dagger.
Writhing, Etana felt Oakes grab the back of her tunic and lift her from the water. She was thrown and hit the muddy river bank, winded. Oakes held Etana in place with a foot and raised her sword once more. Etana closed her eyes, not wanting to watch the golden blade descend.
Someone screamed, and suddenly the pressure of Oakes’s foot was removed from Etana’s chest. She sat up quickly, pulling the burning potion from her belt before she’d even noticed that the fight was over – a dozen or more Rebels were pressing a subdued Oakes’s against a tree, binding her there with thick, long vines and solid-looking ropes. Etana’s paws suddenly felt weak and the potion slipped from her grasp, landing in the slick mud with a ‘plop’.
“I didn’t expect her to be so strong,” Oakes muttered madly, her eyes glazed and tearful, “If she hadn’t overpowered me back then... none of this would have happened. Princesses aren’t meant to be strong...”
There was a shadowy arm around her shoulder and a pair of concerned eyes staring at her. Etana hadn’t even noticed Brogan arrive, but now she leaned heavily against him, her remaining energy gone.
“Come on,” Brogan murmured, giving Etana a gentle tug, “Let’s get you home.”
* * *
The next day the city was heaving, and Etana was sure she spotted more than one Rebel amongst the crowd – Smith, Brogan and Pedin were all there, although Etana didn’t see Carp. The Passing of the Throne Ceremony was long and full of words that even Etana didn’t understand; she was fascinated by it all, right from the sudden appearance of an emerald-embedded crown to the long, elegant ceremonial sword and old-fashioned weighing scales that represented protection and equality.
After the ceremony Alastrine made her first decisions as Queen. She stood alone on the podium in the marketplace and surveyed the crowd, unable to keep a smile from her face.
“I’m sure by now you’ve all heard that, unfortunately, Advisor Oakes has shown herself to be unworthy of remaining at the Advisors Table. I’m sorry to say that Advisor Winch has also decided to leave us, although for very different reasons; I beg you all to wish him a very happy retirement. I’m sure you’ll all agree he deserves a break! Maybe somewhere sunny, Advisor Winch? You must be bored of all this rain.” Alastrine beamed at him, and Etana was surprised to see him grin back. “However, I am pleased to welcome back to the Advisors Table the fantastic Advisor Pedin, and also Advisor Smith – I’m sure many of you remember her.
“Now, all those of you that have been practising your sums,” she winked at a gaggle of pets who’d been given the day off school to attend the ceremony, “will already have noticed that makes us one Advisor short of a Table! Thus I would like to extend an invitation to Etana,” she gazed at Etana with her intense eyes, “who in just a few weeks has saved my life innumerable times. I’ll, of course, give her time to think this offer over, but I sincerely hope she’ll join the Table.”
Etana was breathless, and barely heard the rest of Alastrine’s speech, although she understood that all Rebels were to receive official pardons. She felt someone touch her arm and turned to see Smith, a thoughtful smile on her face.
“Well, would you look at that,” she said, “Your name’s starting to fit you.”
Etana was puzzled for a moment, then Smith’s words sunk in – and she was right. Smith was right.
* * *
Brogan cut a slab from a particularly chocolaty loaf of Etana’s bread and, grinning, added a dollop of cream from a silver bowl. The hall was filled with pets, some dancing, some eating and others just socialising. Etana had decided to rest her throbbing foot and had chosen a chair by the buffet table, where she had easy access to the cook’s specialty pasta dishes.
Etana gazed around the hall, picking out faces she recognised; Winch was dancing with Smith, although neither seemed particularly familiar with the dance; Alastrine had found a group of Rebels among whom she seemed perfectly comfortable; and the once-King Moris had fallen asleep at one of the small tables. Etana frowned and turned to Pedin, who was sitting beside her and chomping merrily on a seafood dish.
“Oh,” Pedin replied, raising a large chunk of seaweed to his mouth, “It turns out he was the one passing information on to Oakes. Needless to say the Rebels have their own way of dealing with traitors.”
Etana nodded, returning to the pasta. She’d absorbed so much in the last few days that news of Carp’s betrayal didn’t surprise her. Etana chewed slowly on a flat hoop of pasta.
“What are you going to do about Alastrine’s invitation?” Pedin asked after a moment. Etana sighed.
“I really, really don’t kno-”
“You should take it,” Brogan said suddenly. “I think you’d be perfect for the job.”
“You do?” Etana asked softly, her throat feeling tight and dry. She swallowed her mouthful with difficulty.
“Just so long,” Brogan said, addressing Pedin, “as you promise you’ll take care of her?”
“Yes,” Pedin said, meaningfully, “I promise.”