Phylar looked back at the slumbering form in the bed. Jonesh curled around the pillows, her long black curls askew across the sheets. Phylar slipped the keys from the table and shrugged into his robe. He took one final look around at the chamber he’d spent the last four years living in, and shut the door.
He ran down the hallway. This was the only danger: that some guard, zealous and careful, would be prowling the halls of the King’s section of the castle, intent on finding a stray servant. Phylar couldn’t be found. He streaked past the stairs that led down to the receiving rooms and on toward the kitchens. Luck was with him; no one was about.
The second stairs were dark. He knew them by touch, padding down each one carefully lest he slip on the slick stone. He opened the door to the covered walkway, the wooden pillars dark and the carvings shadowed. He scanned the nearby rooftops, but no sentries yet walked. It was another half-hour til crow’s call, and he’d timed his escape perfectly.
He sped down the walkway, still shoeless, his sandals held by the laces in one hand. He reached the bottom and paused. The courtyard radiated light from the moon, silver and bright. The inlaid pattern in the stone seemed shadowed, ominous. He bent and slipped the sandals over his feet, lacing them with sure movements. The postern gate was ahead of him, shadowed by the tall hedge. He heard the snort of a horse, outside.
Phylar streaked across the courtyard, his heart pounding. He pulled the keys out of his pocket, found the right one, and unlocked the gate.
“Phylar. You’re late,” the gruff voice greeted him.
“Only by a little, Captain Lorgin. Better that than discovered.”
“Is all in readiness?”
“Yes,” Phylar confirmed. “I left her sleeping in the chamber; the King is unattended.”
Lorgin regarded him with a black eye, his eyebrow ridge shadowing his gaze and making it sinister, threatening. “You betray your lover so easily, then?”
Lorgin flushed. “She’s not my lover. I was captured, I’m a slave like you.”
Lorgin grunted, but didn’t correct him. He didn’t have to, Phylar heard it anyway. He knew what the conscript soldiers thought of him, a too-pretty boy with the eye of the King’s daughter. “Just stay out of the way, Boy,” Lorgin grunted.
Phylar moved to the side, intimidated despite his brave talk. The soldiers were all large men, clad in rough boiled leather and bearing knives and short swords. Only Lorgin had a mount, but one of the lower-ranking soldiers came to take it away. Lorgin nodded to the men behind him and disappeared through the gate. Phylar counted thirty men with him and felt his stomach clench with fear. Despite what he said… He looked up at the windows of the castle, high above where he stood.
He was a slave. Nothing more. He turned away, to run to the village and hide, but something made him stop. A flash of light flared behind him and he turned. A bunting, bright and woven of beautiful lambswool, waved forlornly as it was consumed by fire.
“Wait!” he cried, running forward a step. “You didn’t say you’d burn them…” He stumbled to a stop. A palace guard lay ten feet from him, his throat a bloody mess. Phylar stumbled away, vomiting into the hedge, its rough branches pricking his skin.
He turned in spite of himself to look at where Lorgin disappeared. The screams started and he could hear Jonesh among them, demanding to see the leader, demanding… demanding to know what they’d done with Phylar.
Phylar caught his breath on a sob. She didn’t care about him, she couldn’t. She was a spoiled daughter of kings, used to taking boys from their families as Phylar had been taken. He’d been forced to do her bidding, to father three children on her body. He hated her. He turned to run and couldn’t make himself get even as far as the gate.
Lorgin appeared, dragging someone by the hair. With a start, Phylar recognized Jonesh. He threw her, nose bloodied, to land on the stones in a heap. Her head came up and Phylar met her gaze, felt the shock of recognition as she saw him, realized what he was doing, where he stood. The keys felt cold in his hands, a mute accusation.
“Phylar!” she cried.
Lorgin’s hand cracked sharply across her mouth and she fell flat on the stones at his feet, weeping. “Silence! You will speak when told to, Slave, and at no other time!”
Jonesh looked up at Lorgin, her nose streaming blood. She said nothing, but stared at him with hatred and tears in her eyes. Lorgin ignored her and turned to Phylar. He tossed something and Phylar caught it out of reflex.
“Your payment, Boy. Go and spend it wisely.”
Phylar stared at Jonesh, then looked at Lorgin. “What of her?”
Lorgin laughed. “You care nothing for this whore, you said so yourself. You were nothing more than a slave in her bed, a breeding stallion for the King. What does it matter what we do with her?”
Phylar gaped at him, at a loss for what to say.
“Go, Boy.” Lorgin tossed another bag and it landed at Phylar’s feet. “Take an extra payment and find a real whore to sate yourself.”
Several of Lorgin’s men laughed cruelly. One, standing near Phylar, grabbed Phylar’s arm roughly and dragged him toward the postern gate. A second scooped up the bag that Lorgin had tossed and threw it out of the gate. It slammed shut behind them, the locks sliding home with a sound of finality.
Phylar clutched his bags to his chest and stumbled toward the village, trying to shut out the sound of the screams behind him. A great gout of flame sprang up, lighting the trees around him with an eerie glow. Phylar began to run.