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The king’s face was sunken. His cheek bones stood out in sharp relief under his blood shot, bagged eyes. His pupils were tiny, giving his eyes the appearance of being completely black. His frame was more muscles then I remembered, but it was closed packed and random parts of his skin clung tightly to the muscles while other parts sagged awkwardly. His hair was clean and pulled back and his attire was as colorful as ever, but he seemed to be a new person.
___ made a soft noise beside me and raised his eyebrows. I glanced from him to Druk, then rolled my eyes up at the king. As I raised my head, they sat back up slowly. Thanks to my warning, their reactions were subdued, an extra blink and nervous twitch.
The King smiled as he caught my eye, revealing a mouth full of unnaturally white teeth. “Jaha.” He waved at me to approach.
I hesitated a moment but his waving became more insistent. I stood, climbed the steps and prepared to kneel again, but he motioned to me again. It was impossible for me to get any closer while kneeling, yet I couldn’t stand over him. I ended up half kneeling, half standing on one step, crouching over the King in an attempt to keep my head below his.
This close to him it was harder to keep my face straight and look him in the eye, but I did. He dipped his head once to acknowledge me, then again so that we were face to face. “Jaha, leader of the Guard, my loyal servant, my darling scout.” His continued to smile as he spoke, but it didn’t reach his eyes.
“My King. What…” I caught my mistake immediately. His mouth still open to continue speaking, he grunted. I took it as permission to continue. “What happened? We were on our way back when we got your message. Is there something wrong? You look…tired.”
“No, of course nothing’s wrong. I was just anxious…” He leaned away and looked around suspiciously, forcing me to crouch closer so I could hear his next words. “I was just anxious to know if you found anything.”
I sighed in relief and smiled for the first time in his presence. The King’s already large smile grew in anticipation. “So everything’s fine.”
“Yes, now back to your scouting mission. Judging by your smile, can I assume that you found them.”
I stopped smiling immediately. By them, the King meant the Stars, the mythical creatures said to be made of pure magic and energy. Over a decade ago, the King had become convinced that the Stars were real, and that they lived beyond the ___ wilderness. First ___ and then Jaha had been charged with the task of leading the Guard on the scouting missions. No proof of the Stars existence had ever been found.
“My King, Sir, I…no.”
“Did you find anything?”
Hard as I tried, I couldn’t tear my gaze away from the King’s face. He was still smiling- his mouth too wide, his teeth to white, and his eyes expressionless. “No.”
He stared at me, shaking his head in disbelief. When I didn’t say anything else, his smile finally broke. He closed his eyes and grimaced, pushing himself further back into his throne as if to get away from me. I backed up quickly and dropped to the ground.
“My king, I am so sorry. I have failed you. Let me return home for a few days. My people are celebrating the Spring, but as soon as it is over the Guard, will fly into the wilderness again.”
The king held up a hand to silence me. I bowed low over the ground again. Seeing as the scouting missions were never successful, this had happened many times before, but the King seemed angrier than usual. I considered retreating back to the bottom of the steps to ___ and Druk while he wasn’t looking, but my limbs seemed frozen in place. A moment later I realized that I wasn’t breathing and I took a deep breath, willing myself not to panic and to keep my mask in place.
I sat up just as the King opened his eyes. There was no stretched smile now, nothing but anger.
“You have failed me—“
“—and though it pains we so say this—“
“Sir, please, give us a little more time.”
“—you are not doing your job.”
“Sir,” I raised my voice in my alarm. “We would set out now, if it would please you. We would not hesitate a moment to call our dragons.”
“It does not please me! You do not please me!” The King rose from his throne and shook his fist at me. I suddenly regained the use of my legs and I scampered down the steps backwards. I opened and closed my mouth several times, but nothing came out.
“None of you please me. I can’t believe that I left you in charge of these missions for this long. In fact,” he glanced around the room pointedly, “you’ve outlived your purpose.”
“My King, don’t you think you’re acting impulsively. We—“ ___ stood and took as step toward the King. There was a loud scrape of metal. The King’s men had unsheathed their swords, and half of the noble men had pulled out their hidden weapons, and all of them were pointed at ___. He raised his hands slowly into the air. “I mean the King no harm…My King?”
I locked gazes with the King as he reclined back in his throne. His smile was back and I even thought I saw him wink as he snapped his fingers. The men with drawn weapons began to spread out and circle the Guard. Those who hadn’t drawn weapons before looked completely bewildered, but they armed themselves now.
“Jaha,” Druk and ___ whispered on either side of me. I looked at them with a confused expression on my face. Then, “Jaha!” Druk yelled.
I jumped up and pointed towards the doors. “What are you waiting for? Go, now!”
A King’s man rushed me from behind. I dropped back to the floor, tripping him, and then jumped on top of him and pinned his arms to his sides. He bucked underneath me and clawed at my face. I kneed him in the stomach to still him and then rammed my foot down onto his swords hand. He cursed and dropped the sword immediately.
I picked the sword up and stood, taking a moment to weigh it in my hand. It’s cross guard had an added piece that made it difficult to use left handed and it was heavier then what I was used to, but it would do.
The King’s man slowly got to his feet, but before he could take a step toward me, I slapped the hilt of the sword across his face. He dropped to the ground unconscious. Before he hit the ground, another King’s man approached me. This one was more cautious, but I managed to knock him and another noble man out.
I had to stab the last man I faced. He was more skilled then the others and he almost managed to mark me, but his sword whispered past my skin without touching me. The momentum of the strike caused him to stumble and I hesitated only a moment before plunging my stolen sword through his back.
I turned away from the man quickly, but no one challenged me. Two of the Guard had managed to take out the King’s men guarding the door and were straining to open the doors. I rushed to join the group that was guarding them.
“Heavier then they look,” ___, the tallest of the men called out.
I glared over my shoulder at him. “Just open it.”
He grunted, pushing his shoulder into the gap that had appeared between the doors and slowly, the door opened. Then he pushed himself between the two doors and pulled at it from the other side, while two other men continued to push. When they’d managed to open the door wide enough for two people to slip through, I tugged on Druk’s arm and backed out.