Chapter 10 – The Fire – Part II (The Prequel)

Waltario put a cloth on Ines, “Here, kid. You must be cold. This mist has a certain chilly air around it,” he said, glancing at the dense mat of clouds. The loud claps of thunder made the girl cower and wrap herself in the olive-colored blanket. It felt so soft and warm, that she could drop back to sleep in a second. Still, riding such a bizarre metal beast was way too exciting to fall asleep. It cut through the air smoothly like the wind, sweeping above the dusty road barely leaving any trace.

Waltario was maintaining a constant, calm speed. He didn’t want to reach home too quickly as he had to make up some lie before bringing the child in the palace. Lying was a difficult thing for him. Although his strategic and fighting skills were much appreciated, his father had always scolded him for being blunt. Being honest in every situation could turn into his disadvantage, but Martin liked that. As a king, he’d wished to have someone who could never lie to him. Constantine, on the other hand, admired Martin’s artfulness in conversations and was determined to grasp some of that. So far, in important international conferences, when some internal things were better to remain a secret, he kept silent most of the time and just nodded to whatever the king was saying, marveling at how deceiving wordings can be.

“Oh, that’s Master Astute,” he heard the girl’s crystalline voice, which disrupted his flow of thoughts. Close into the distance, he saw a man stepping out from the misty forest and positioning himself in the middle of the road as to block their way. He wore a brown cloak like most of the Arid Kingdom travelers and, hadn’t Ines recognized him, Waltario couldn’t have told he was the White Castle’s commandant. Before stopping the vehicle, Constantine whispered to Ines, “Cover your face well and don’t look at him. He mustn’t find out who you are.” Ines listened to him and drew the blanket over her excited eyes. This entire secrecy game was starting to get fun.

Waltario got off and walked toward the quiet commander. After the strange and persistent Rainbow Mist, he was sure Astute had some explanations to give his neighboring state. Or maybe it was really bad news and the White Castle wanted to announce them that the war was getting out of their control. Waltario’s steps became draggy for the last couple of yards before reaching the commander who slightly bowed his head instead of saluting. Constantine did the same while trying to read something on his face.

“General Waltario, our meeting here must remain a secret,” Astute said with his diplomatic smile.

“I know. What—”

Astute’s icy eyes shifted to Ines. “Who’s the girl?” he asked, a clap of thunder joining his voice.

Waltario’s breath was cut off. His lie wasn’t ready yet, but that didn’t mean he would give himself away. He clenched his jaws and curled his fists only to realize his right hand was already shaking. One deep breath and he maintained his gaze expressionless, his mind concentrating on keeping his right hand still. His father had taught him to never allow his hand to involuntarily lift up to the back of his head. That could instantly betray his nervousness. But so far so good. His right hand was tense like an arrow in a bow.

“She’s a… she’s… from there. I mean, but why…?” he stammered, trying to make up a lie right on the spot. It was a useless struggle. Words were impossible to find and his left hand was already resting on the nape of his neck.

Astute watched him for a second then his smile turned into a smirk. “All right. You don’t have to tell me. I understand. A divorce doesn’t end so easily.”

They both started to laugh, Constantine feeling relieved and embarrassed at the same time. He had to consider himself lucky things had turned out this way without him saying anything clearly.

“What brings you here?” he asked to divert the discussion.

Astute let out a sigh. “Today’s ambush was a heavy blow to my soldiers, but thankfully, we managed to come out to light. You did well to block the circulation around here. I came because I heard a man of yours had been attacked.”

“Oh, it was nothing. Your soldiers did an awesome job of keeping everything covered by the mist. The merchant is safe now, and don’t worry, he hasn’t seen any of your people or your fighting techniques.”

“Good. I put out the fire on that carriage you left behind. I apologize on behalf of my community for failing to keep our troubles within our boundaries.”

“It’s fine. Nothing of great consequence happened, so we’re not going to make a fuss about this,” Waltario assured him, knowing that this talk was mostly a custom rather than showing real concern. Most of the White Castle members were too arrogant to care about the simple inhabitants of the Arid Kingdom. But the continental supervisors, the Central Palace, were eager to give punishments to those who failed to maintain the peace between the states, so despite their superiority, the White Castle had to abide by the rules, too. 

“Thank you,” Astute replied, making to leave. “Then keep the road blocked until tomorrow to give my people enough time to clean up the mess the devils did today.”

“Sure.”

Master Astute glanced again at the girl who was having fun cloaking herself in the military blanket. “You picked a dangerous day to take her out,” he said, intrigued to find out more about the general’s personal affairs.

Constantine shrugged and chuckled shortly as he’d learned from Martin to be one of the best answers in delicate situations. It worked.

A bit disappointed, Astute said his farewell, then walked back into the foggy forest, vanishing in the eerie atmosphere. Waltario finally relaxed his shoulders and went to the vehicle, amusing himself to see Ines wrapped in the blanket like a mummy. He slid a finger to lift the covering on her purple eyes. “You’re having fun, aren’t you?” he said, then turned around immediately as he heard a chorus of alarmed voices.

“General! Are you all right?”

His soldiers from the barrier had come to check on him. Astute had definitely planned well his appearance and disappearance. Perfect timing to go away before others could see him.

Constantine approached them. “I’m fine. It was just a mild fire after lightning had struck a tree.”

He saw his soldiers’ smiles stretching under the helmet’s protective glasses. “We were so worried,” one of them said. “We thought something really bad had happened when we saw the merchant’s horse jumping over the barrier and running wildly.”

“Yeah. It had foam at its mouth,” said another.

They all laughed, glad that their general was safe and sound. “Where’s the merchant?”

“I sent him to the watchtower. He was too scared to walk this way along the mist.”

The soldiers nodded, then turned their heads in Ines’ direction. The general stiffened once again.

“I can’t believe someone would let their children go and play in this area,” one said.

“Maybe she got lost,” other commented.

“Maybe she’s a beggar.”

“Or an orphan.”

The soldiers started chattering on that subject each wondering about how their general had found the child. Still, none of them dared to ask the question directly, so Constantine was relieved he could postpone the process of thinking of a proper lie. All well until Price Soris arrived and ran to the vehicle. “Oh, Princess! Are you all right?” he asked, peeking under the makeshift hood which nodded.

The prince had done his best to follow the soldiers after the frightened horse had passed by. Everyone was too focused on getting to the general as soon as possible, so they forgot about him resting in the tent.

Waltario watched the soldiers’ puzzled faces then went to the prince, ignoring the murmur of questions that started behind his back.

“So this was your princess,” he said, laying a hand on the boy’s shoulder. Soris turned around and looked up with gratitude. “Thank you, general.”

“I should thank both of you. If it weren’t for you two, the merchant might have died or at least gotten hurt today.”

Soris grinned and Ines snuck out her head to lift a smile at him. Waltario watched their bright faces for a moment, remembering the talk with the king and Inerishia’s letter, then commented to himself, heaving a sigh, “Now I have two kids in my care.”

The two started giggling then Ines suddenly remarked, “Oh, the bottle!” She lowered a sad gaze on the boy. “I’m sorry. I didn’t find it.”

Soris nodded then hung his head. “It’s all right,” he mumbled, digging in the road’s earth with his foot. “We’ll get it next time.”

“The carriage is still there. We can go search for it now,” the general said, bringing back the hope to both of them.

Soris rejoiced and jumped on the vehicle’s saddle. “Let’s search for it together!”

I hope you enjoyed today’s post. Thank you all for your support!

(Next chapter is going to be the last one.)

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