Duplicity: Part Seven
Gali quivered while the guards poured a bitter liquid down his throat. All parts of his body shook out of control, disobeying his every command. He wanted to push the guards away, ask them what was going on, but he could not.
“Darn it,” muttered the Skeith guard who was holding him in place. “Stop moving, please, we’re trying to help you.”
“He’s not in charge of his motions,” said his partner, a Buzz whose hair was neatly tied back in a ponytail. She applied more pressure to Gali’s head to keep it steady against the wall. “I know this is unpleasant to gulp down, but that’s because it’s an antidote. You’ve been poisoned.”
Gali would have nodded or made a sound in reply.
“You think he understands us?”
“No way of knowing,” replied the Buzz. “They tell us to talk to them just in case they can.”
The rest of their conversation consisted of a meaningless string of sounds Gali could barely make out. Eventually, the stream of bitterness rushing through his mouth ended. Then he found the guards staring at him, watching his erratic motions slowly subside until Gali was completely stationary.
Just for a few seconds, his heart stopped beating, leaving a strange, motionless silence in his chest. Gali could control the movements of his eyes for a brief few seconds before the world faded into darkness. And his heart, once he could not hear it, started again on its regular beat.
He woke up to the sound of clinging metal. Beyond the bars, a pair of steel boots glimmered in the sparse light. Gali pushed himself off his low straw bed slowly, squinting to see who was outside. Heavy armor covered a tall figure of a Lupe.
“Good, you’re awake,” the figure said. “We need to talk.”
Gali remained ever-silent and did not move. Whoever that man was, he was not part of the guard.
A few clicks of metal preceded the cell door creaking open. The Lupe pulled Gali by the collar of his tunic and almost threw him out the door. Gali could not even stand up before he was pulled along through the dungeons. He could barely command his clumsy, unbalanced feet to keep up.
One, two . . . one, two, he counted every time he’d managed to finish a whole pair of steps. Whenever he and the Lupe passed through a torch, Gali tried to sneak a look to figure out who he was, to no avail.
Eventually, they stopped in front of a room, which the armored Lupe unlocked. He gestured for Gali to step inside. Gali stood still for a few moments. It had dawned on him that he had been following orders here and rarely giving them a second thought. He wondered what would happen if he disobeyed, if he got up and ran, but his failing legs soon brought to light the most probable outcome.
“Get inside, assassin. What are you waiting for?”
Gali shuffled into the room. It was a stale, blank little space with a long table and two chairs on either side. He automatically took the farther seat, while the Lupe remained standing across him. When the armored figure stepped into the light, Gali saw the face of Prince Jeran Borodere.
He never imagined he’d see anything but prisoners and guards for the rest of his life, and here was one of the most important people in Meridell, and one of the Neopians he’d tried to assassinate, right in front of him.
“Hello,” said Jeran. “How was your day?”
Gali didn’t say anything.
“I was told that you were a quiet one.” Jeran leaned on the table, coming more into the torch’s light. “Not unlike your other friends, I imagine. Your name is Gali, correct? The firstborn son of Ulric and Guliana Fairbassun, a bright young man who managed to get exiled from Brightden by the age of sixteen. That’s quite the accomplishment, if I don’t say so myself.”
Gali remained silent.
“Not on your end, though. The sword you stole was, in the grand scheme of things, a worthless piece of garbage compared to the riches Duke Garrington possessed. The real marvel is that the duke managed to boot you out so easily. My guess that it was less about the crime itself and more about trying to take over the Fairbassuns’ last remaining estates, and you refused to let your family take the fall.”
Jeran raised a brow when Gali said nothing still and continued on: “Your friends say that you’re a proud Ixi, maybe too proud for his own good. What I wonder is why you would take a job as a servant for a few years and crawl pathetically back to Garrington to do his dirty work.”
“I didn’t crawl back to him!” Gali slammed his fist on the table, then, realizing he’d not only spoken, but had done so rashly, tried to save his statement. At this point, they must have figured out all the evidence indicating Duke Garrington’s culpability, right? “I cared about my family. I didn’t want them to suffer anymore because of me.”
“So you didn’t lick the bottom of Garrington’s boots, but you did,” replied Jeran. “That’s absolutely adorable, so adorable, in fact, that I highly doubt it’s true. You would have done better to your family to just scurry off and disappear rather than risk dragging your their name through the mud.”
“I made a mistake, then,” said Gali, letting his words get ahead of him, “if you would have died like you were supposed to, they would have been all fine.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere.” Jeran laughed. “Yes, if I would have died like I was supposed to, Meridell would be stuck with a sick king and no ruling regent, chaos would ensue for a few days, and escalate as Duke Garrington is found so clearly, and with such compelling evidence, guilty of arranging the entire thing.
“It’d be enough chaos for anyone with any political instinct to feel like it’s the Day of Giving. At the same time, Garrington’s life would be ruined, the Fairbassuns would be free of him, and you would have your revenge. That was the entire point of it all, wasn’t it? Vengeance.”
Gali rubbed his clammy palms together and his mouth went dry. Every word Jeran had uttered rang true in some way. He was right; Gali would never kowtow to Garrington, if only because of pride, and it was to protect that very same pride he’d tried to bring him down.
But Jeran had no way of knowing any of this for certain. All of this had to be speculation on his part, albeit very astute speculation. Gali would have never guessed a former knight would be able to put all the pieces together.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
“Oh, so we’re still playing dumb? Very well,” said Jeran. “I know Garrington isn’t actually guilty of the assassination. The sorceress who foiled the plot described the aura of the amulet she dispelled as pulsating, which pure light faerie magic doesn’t typically do. Should I go on?”
Gali was silent, this time because he was speechless.
“Everyone has a limited source of magical energy, and this energy has to be spent wisely. It would be an incredible feat to accomplish such a powerful charm without channeling all your energy entirely into light magic. This all amounts to the fact that there had to be another source of magic supporting the spell at the ball, one that the sorceress had unknowingly squashed, leaving quite the mark on a certain someone’s chest.”
“Prince Rafael,” whispered Gali. It didn’t matter that he had just outed his former employer; Jeran had already known, anyway. He’d failed him already. He shrunk away from Jeran and bent over his stomach to stop his increasing nausea.
A colorless aura radiated from Jeran’s ring. “The same Rafael who, presumably, tried to poison you and your comrades-in-arms. It’s a good thing the guards were quick with the antidote, or else we wouldn’t be having our pleasant conversation right now.”
“He wouldn’t do that,” said Gali, clutching the sides of his head. Prince Rafael might have been a little underhanded, sometimes, but he was a treasured friend. “He wouldn’t do that!”
“Really? Perhaps he knew that you were always weak of mind, that you were going to betray him, as you did just now, might I remind you.”
Gali started laughing at himself, just now realizing how much of a young fool he’d been. He threw his entire life for some cold, false prince who he now knew didn’t care about him at all. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Jeran couldn’t help but crack a smile. Gali had not even questioned whether Rafael did indeed try to poison him. Very few had unrestricted access to the food the prisoners ate. The king, or the regent ruling in his place, did.
He flashed the ring in front of Gali’s eyes, focusing the ring’s magic to diffuse inside his mind. Gali’s head recoiled ever so slightly as he had the vague sensation of a claw going through the back of his skull and grabbing onto his brain.
Pain ricocheted around in his head when he tried to wiggle out.
“I’m sorry,” said Jeran. “Try to stay a bit calm. It hurts more when you move.”***
“It’s been a while since we’ve gotten shiny new equipment,” said Jeran, performing multiple movements with his sword in the air. “And I must say, it’s a nice change.”
“You sound enthusiastic about it,” replied Danner. He took out a practice sword from the weapons rack at the edge of the training grounds. “What’s the deal?”
For as long as Danner could remember, his best friend was always melancholy about his line of work. Jeran had always said he didn’t enjoy fighting or leading Neopians in battle, that he considered the inherent violence of his career as the most primitive and lowly stations in life, even as others saw him as a hero.
Sometimes, Danner found himself wondering how true that really was. Jeran was incredibly skilled at what he did. One would be hard-pressed to find anyone who could truly defeat him in a straight-up fight or manage to display more working knowledge of warfare than he did.
A world-class artist who worked for years on end to become the best at what they did would be said to have a passion for their craft, even if they looked at all their paintings and recoiled in disgust at them. He found it hard to believe that he could not say the same thing about Jeran.
He frowned. Come to think of it, he’d wondered a lot about him these days.
“Not that enthusiastic,” said Jeran. “I’m just glad I could finally replace a lot of that garbage we called weaponry. Never hurts to be well-armed.”
“Mm-Hmm.” Danner walked with Jeran to an empty spot on the training grounds, where they together practiced the rote stances and techniques they had learned so long ago. More often than not, Danner always found himself moving just a little sloppier than Jeran, just a little slower, not noticing details his friend would have immediately picked out at a millisecond’s notice.
It wasn’t long before he found himself falling on the wet, muddy grass for an umpteenth time too many and taking Jeran’s hand to get back up.
“You should really practice more,” said Jeran. “You’ve picked a lot of bad habits.”
“This is my job,” said Danner in-between pants. “You, on the other hand, I have no idea how you’re able to get practice in.”
“I have a lot of free time.”
“Oh, yes, I know that,” replied Danner. “Being regent must really be nice, having other people do everything for you while you sit back and drink jumbleberry juice out of a golden goblet.”
Jeran wagged a finger at Danner. “I’ll have you know that I have experienced many stomachaches from overeating. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life. Do you know how hard it is to choose what to eat or drink when you have such a large variety of delicious meals available to you?”
“King Skarl never seemed to have a problem with it.”
“That’s true, but the guy really loved food.” Jeran decided not to point out that Skarl didn’t eat much of anything anymore. “It’s certainly one kingly duty he’ll always be better at than me.”
“One of many,” said Danner through a slight frown.
“This should be good.” Jeran dropped his practice sword, stretched out his back and yawned. “I always love to hear your wonderful input on what I should do. You’re still hoping I issue an order to make sure all the drapes on the windows alternate between red and blue?”
“It would be nice if you could do that, it would make the exterior that much more visually appealing, you know, so it’s not just a dumb hunk of rock.” Danner took a deep breath, listening to the laugher and yells of the few present knights and squires at the other side of the training grounds. Clouds covered the sky, bulging with potential rain.
“I don’t remember King Skarl prancing around at the dungeons at night doing Fyora-knows-what,” he said. “You know, without telling anybody.”
Jeran’s good-humored expression withered a little. “I wasn’t aware I had to seek permission from you.”
“No, you don’t, but I’m very particular about security, Jeran, and I’d appreciate it if I could at least keep track of the goings-on of the prisoners accurately. I just want to know what you were doing there.”
“I figured I’d try to get one of the assassins to talk. Guess I couldn’t believe they’d be silent.” Jeran watched for any changes in Danner’s face to gauge his emotions. “Nothing came of it. Your job is really boring.”
“None of the assassins were in any shape to walk, move, or speak to anybody,” said Danner. “They were in a critical condition. You must have known that.”
“And why should I care?” asked Jeran. “They’re assassins. I don’t think too much about their well-being.”
The last response Danner expected was one of apathy, not from Jeran. Not from the Hero of Meridell, who risked life and limb to help and protect everybody he could, even the worst of his enemies. What was wrong with him?
“Evidently not. Gali, the Ixi, tried speaking to the guards today—a bunch of jumbled, paranoid nonsense. They say he didn’t recover well from the poison.”
Gali was outside the dungeons and in care, where Jeran could have him under control when he needed him—and now, he knew Gali would unquestioningly carry out whatever he was told to do. That meant keeping any confession or information that might reveal the innocence of Garrington sooner than the ideal time.
As for the others, well, they were kept under a mental lock. He doubted anyone would notice that something had changed about them. Whatever happened to them was hardly important.
“I find it hard to sympathize with a hired blade who evidently worked for someone who tried to get rid of him soon after. He had it coming.”
Danner grit his teeth as if to stop the fumes of anger from coming out. “Don’t you at least care about the fact he could have said something meaningful eventually?”
“He wouldn’t have added anything I didn’t already know. As far as I’m concerned, the sooner these Neopians can scurry off out of sight, the sooner Garrington is tried, the sooner I can get on with my plans for the future.”
Garrington would be found guilty, and he would be put out of the picture entirely, leaving a very unstable and powerful duchy up for grabs. Prince Rafael would have considerable influence on Giles, who would be a grief-stricken little boy; that was doubtlessly what he had planned on.
Of course, the regent could always claim its power after Rafael’s former servant betrays his master, and reveals the actual man behind the crime. Who could blame the regent if he decided to unburden a child from the constant charlatans around him trying to take advantage of his inheritance?
As for Rafael, well, he was another matter entirely. His transgression would require a different punishment than a simple legal system could provide.
“I—I’m at a loss for words right now. Whatever. I don’t have time for this,” said Danner. “You had better not do anything so cavalier again, you hear me, Jeran?”
Jeran raised a hand and smirked. “You should be more respectful, Danner. Giving direct orders is no way to talk to your ruler.”
Danner opened his mouth to say something, but decided to bite his tongue and take this reprimand at the last moment when he noticed Jeran’s smile was neither arrogant nor antagonistic, but somewhat cruel. His nose scrunched up in revulsion.
“No, no it isn’t, Borodere.”
To be continued…