Secrets and Shadows: Part Six
With trembling hands, Arianna flipped the last page of the tattered old journal and hissed in rage when she read the last line. She slammed the cover shut and pitched the book across the room, knocking a picture off the wall in the process. “I can’t believe this!” she snarled as she stalked across the room and stooped over to pick up the journal. She opened the book again, but contrary to her wishes, the handwriting in the book had not changed. “I don’t believe this,” she repeated, and paced along the side of her bed. She ran her hand through her disheveled mane and groaned in despair. Preoccupied with the cloth-bound dilemma clenched in her hand, she did not hear the sounds coming from outside her door, a thump as if someone had fallen, and a shuffling noise as something was being dragged down the stone corridor. She threw herself down on her bed and closed her eyes, and then noticed that could faintly hear approaching footsteps, and then there were two voices talking outside her door, and then the footsteps of one person receding down the hallway. The guard on her door must have changed. With a start, she realized what she had to do. She ran over to the door and pounded on it, calling out, “Who’s out there?”
She was answered by a male voice, slightly muffled by the wooden door. “It’s Private Jamen, ma’am.”
“Thank the powers that be,” she whispered, and then said louder, “You have to open the door. There’s something really important that I have to tell to Lord Darigan. There’s a conspiracy group which is trying to assassinate him.”
“Huh?” the soldier said. The Eyrie heard his footsteps shuffle on the flagstones outside the door, and then, “Say that again?”
“There’s a group of people who are going to kill Lord Darigan.” There was a long pause, and then the sound of a heavy weight dragged away. The door opened, and Arianna saw a Red Mynci in leather armor standing in front of the doorway, staring at her with surprise.
“There’s a group of people who are going to kill Lord Darigan,” the Eyrie repeated. “They’re going to do it really soon. I know it sounds crazy, but please, you have to believe me,” she begged the Mynci, who stood there, gaping at her with his jaw dropped.
“How... wha?” the soldier mumbled as he stared with wide eyes. He shook his head and then collected himself, but Arianna could see by the way that he tensed his shoulders that the information had upset him. “How do you know about it?” he asked cautiously, and licked his lips.
“From this,” and she brandished the book. The Mynci drew in a breath in surprise when he saw the battered green book she held in her hand. “This is supposed to be a journal,” she continued. “It’s in my handwriting, but I never wrote this. Someone is setting me up to take the blame for this plot, and when I find out who...” Her voice was dangerous as she trailed off. She moved her left hand to her thigh, as if to grip the hilt of her absent sword, but then sighed and lowered the book when she remembered that her sword had been confiscated yesterday, and the only weapon she had was a small pocketknife. “I need to tell Darigan about his. He needs to know that I’m still loyal to him, that I would never betray him like this.”
“Of course,” he answered, his tenor voice shaken with astonishment, and stepped aside to let her into the hallway. He flinched when Arianna brushed past him, and the Eyrie frowned in puzzlement when she noticed his reaction. She followed the Mynci down the hallway, shrugging off her concern.
After the two vanished around the corner, the stone corridor was utterly still for a long moment. Then the silence was broken as a ghost Tonu in the uniform of a simple soldier dragged the bound and unconscious body of a guardsman out of a storage closet and into the threshold of the Eyrie’s doorway.
* * *
Lieutenant Arianna tried not to fret as she followed the nervous Mynci soldier through the corridors of the Citadel. She wasn’t sure if her guide was taking her on a very circumspect route to the parade ground on purpose, but he must have had his reasons. The twitchy little monkey kept looking over his shoulder at her, as if he was worried that she was going to run away. As if! There was too much at stake. Lord Darigan’s life was in danger, along with her reputation. So she kept pace behind the Mynci, grinding her beak as the soldier dawdled along, leading her through empty tunnels and isolated terraces. She grimaced when she heard the distant sound of applause. The ceremony must have already started.
“Where are we going?” Arianna asked, alarmed, as she followed him up a staircase which led to the ramparts of the citadel. She peered over the wall, and she could see Lord Darigan and the other dignitaries seated on a platform in front of a waist-high stone wall. Rhydel was sitting directly to the right of her liege, and she could see the clouds swirling in the air behind his head. The lord chamberlain Caecillius was sitting to Darigan’s left, wearing his best set of court robes. At the very end of the line, Commander Bhrack sat hunched over in his chair, grimacing at the crowd in his normal surly manner. His friend, the Yurble personnel secretary, sat next to him, scanning the courtyard as if he were looking for someone. Rhydel sat on the edge of his chair, and though his clothes were freshly pressed, there were dark circles under his eyes, and he looked frazzled. Arianna barely refrained herself from cursing---if the Silver Kougra appeared that worried, it meant that he hadn’t had a chance to speak with her liege lord.
“We’ve got to hurry!” Arianna growled at her guide, who looked down at the crowd and then at the downward staircase in front of them.
“After you,” the Mynci said nervously, and gestured for the lieutenant to step in front of him. She frowned in puzzlement, but complied. She trotted down the stone steps, one hand on the railing, and rounded the bend at the bottom of the staircase. And then stopped in befuddled surprise when a brown Xweetok stepped out of the shadows and aimed a crossbow at her face.
“What in the world?” she cried in outrage as she stared at the pointed tip of the arrow, which was only two yards away from her beak. She silently cursed herself for leaving her chain mail shirt back in her closet. The thin linen shirt underneath her leather jerkin would not be enough to protect her from an arrow.
“Get your hands up,” the Xweetok commanded, and gestured with his crossbow. Arianna slowly began to raise her hands in the air, when suddenly a flicker of motion behind her betrayed an imminent attack. Only instinct, honed by months of intense hand-to-hand combat practice, saved the Eyrie from instant unconsciousness. She spun on her heels, and raised an arm to deflect the descending fist while her other arm shot forward to strike at the suddenly confused Mynci. He staggered to his knees and raised his hands to protect his face, and received a savage kick to the chest for his lack of attention. He crumpled to the floor, but the Eyrie’s second enemy took advantage of the opportunity given to him. The Xweetok threw down his crossbow and leapt upon her back, wrapping his long, thin arms around her torso in a bear hug and tried to wrestle her to the ground. She grunted and then slammed her elbow backward, hard, and the unarmed crossbowman staggered backward, clutching his stomach. Lieutenant Arianna advanced forward, and grabbed the Xweetok’s leather vest and slammed him to the wall.
She snarled, “What is the meaning of this?” The crossbowman cringed and tried to squirm out of her grip, but she pressed him to the wall harder and leaned closer. Her beak was only inches away from his nose. “Now listen here, you little traitorous rat. You are going to tell me what is happening, and you had better do it fast, because Lord Darigan’s life is in danger, and so is yours if you don’t tell me how to save him. Now talk!”
“Not so hard!” the Xweetok whimpered, and Arianna pulled him away from the wall and set his feet on the floor. “I’ll tell you everything you want to know, just don’t hurt me any more,” he pleaded, and then looked past the lieutenant’s ear and shouted, “Now!” Just as the Mynci staggered forward and threw a punch at the back of the Eyrie’s head, Arianna danced aside. The Mynci’s blow caught the Xweetok square in the face, and the crossbowman collapsed to the grey flagstones, completely unconscious.
With a savage snarl, the Mynci pulled a dagger from his belt and charged forward, raising his arm for the downward stroke. Arianna caught his wrist and for a second they wrestled in silence, broken only by the sound of their breathing. Then, in a swift and well-practiced motion, Arianna swept her opponent’s feet out, and twisted his arm so that the dagger dropped from the traitor’s suddenly numb fingers. The Mynci did not even have the time to cry out before he collided with the ground and was knocked out cold.
“Powers have mercy,” she muttered as she stared at the two fallen enemies, and then rubbed her arm, which ached from blocking the first blow. “If the conspiracy set up an ambush for me, they must be preparing to strike. I must act fast,” and without a moment’s further hesitation, trotted down the stairs which hugged the stone wall. When she reached the landing, her speed increased as she aimed herself toward the reviewing platform on the other side of the courtyard.
“Stop the ceremony!” she cried out as she ran through the middle of the aisle, passing row upon row of surprised spectators, who expressed their outrage at the interruption in a buzz of dismay. She continued on, unheeding their confused questions, until she ascended the platform and made a quick bow to her liege. “Lord Darigan, your life is in danger!”
“Lieutenant Arianna,” Darigan replied. The normally amiable lord greeted her with a puzzled frown, and lowered his voice. “What do you mean by causing this commotion?”
“Just what I said. Ambassador Rhydel and I,” she gestured to the Kougra, who stepped forward to stand beside the Eyrie, “discovered a plot to assassinate you when we were lost in the Citadel two days ago.”
Darigan looked very carefully at the earnest face of his lieutenant, and then turned to his new ambassador. “Is this what you so urgently wanted to speak to me about?” Rhydel nodded silently.
“M’lord, don’t believe these lies,” Commander Bhrack growled as he pushed himself forward. “The Eyrie’s gone mad, lost what few wits she had in that feathered skull of hers. I told you she couldn’t be trusted. I had her confined to her quarters, but apparently she escaped and now is trying to convince you of this insanity.”
“I take threats against my life very seriously,” Lord Darigan replied coldly. “You never told me that you had imprisoned one of my officers. Am I mistaken of the fact that I am to be notified whenever one of my trusted lieutenants is disciplined?”
The Tonu commander was too infuriated to feel the sting of his liege lord’s words. “She’s mad, I say, and is clearly unfit for duty. Come on, boys,” he called to the loitering troop of guards, “take her back. I’m sick of her madness.”
“It’s not madness,” Arianna shouted at her commander. She pulled the battered green journal out of her leather jerkin, holding it fiercely in front of her like a shield. Then, remembering her audience, she turned and presented it to her lord. “My lord, I discovered this hidden away in my room. I believe it is the proof that you need to believe me.” He took the small book from her hands and began to delicately flip through the pages, quickly skimming the old journal’s entries. The whole Citadel watched breathlessly for minutes as Darigan’s face turned surprised, puzzled, astonished, enraged, then completely and utterly expressionless as he examined the last page. He looked up at the Eyrie as he flipped the book closed
“Sir,” she said quietly, “this is not my writing. I would never dream of such a thing even in my worst nightmares. I have been loyal to you, to repay you for the trust that you have given me. I would never betray you.”
“Yes,” her lord replied, and reached out to grip her shoulder. “I was right to put my trust in you. I thank you for opening my eyes to this conspiracy.”
“Oh really?” an unseen voice asked, and a short black Yurble pushed its way through the crowd to stare at Lieutenant Arianna. Commander Bhrack jolted in surprise and attempted to pull his friend back out of the spotlight, but the personnel secretary shrugged him off and continued to speak. “I don’t see what’s so trustworthy about her. I mean, look at her,” and Simon pointed an accusing finger at the Eyrie. “Does she look trustworthy to you?” He asked the crowd, which muttered to itself and shifted uneasily.
“I would kindly ask you not to make unsubstantiated allegations about the loyalty of one of my finest officers,” Lord Darigan said with a voice of cold steel. “This is neither the time nor the place for that discussion. Now please return to your seat and we shall---”
“Oh, I’m not making unsubstantiated allegations,” the Shadow Yurble continued on, raising his voice. “I’m simply speaking the truth. I’m know that she wrote that journal that she’s so carefully waving about in her defense. I don’t think she’s a trustworthy officer at all. Why, if any of our fine citizens out there knew,” he waved his arm toward the crowd, “about the reason why she is untrustworthy, why, they would exile her in an instant!”
“Simon, what in the blazes are you doing?” Bhrack growled at his friend.
“What are you saying?” Arianna asked, staring at the Yurble with growing horror. Her gut began to tighten with apprehension as the secretary continued to rant.
“Look at her! How do we know she’s not going to follow in her father’s footsteps? Betrayal runs through her family.”
“No,” Arianna whispered, “I can’t believe this is happening,”
With a cruel glint in his eye, the Yurble grinned at the crowd. “Aren’t you going to ask who her parents are? Ask who her father is! Who else could it be, a Darigan Eyrie skilled with weapons and words.” He stabbed a finger toward the benumbed lieutenant and shouted triumphantly, “She’s the daughter of Tyrant Lord Kass!”
“No,” the Eyrie moaned as she hid her face in her hands, “no, no, anything but this!” Her heart sank and her ears rang to the shocked silence echoing throughout the courtyard. Every face was riveted onto her, and then an angry murmur began to grow. She could feel the hate-filled eyes of the crowd drilling into her, burning away her barriers, and torturing her with the heritage that she would never be able to escape. For half of her lifetime, she had been protected from the prejudice against her, had lived among the populace and served them faithfully. And the moment that her dark secret was pulled from the safety of the shadows into the harsh and unforgiving bright light of day, the people turned against her, forgetting her years of loyalty because of an accident of birth. Would she always be blamed for the sins of her father?
She dropped her hands, and stared blankly across at the milling crowd. She turned to Rhydel, whose genuine concern covered his entire face, and to her liege lord, who looked at her with guilt in his eyes, blaming himself for his failure to protect the secret of her heritage. The Draik chamberlain wrung his hands together in despair. Just like Darigan, Caecillius had watched over her career and shielded her from the worst of the prejudices. From his position a few steps behind Lord Darigan, Commander Bhrack stood uncomfortably, torn between his hatred of Arianna and the conviction that her parentage would lead to betrayal, and confused humiliation over what his younger friend had announced in front of the Citadel. Several high-ranking officials who had been informed of her parentage watched with sympathetic eyes. The remaining courtiers on the platform who had not been privy to her secret stared at her with a mixture of shock and dismay. Lastly, her eyes settled on the smirking figure that had destroyed her reputation. Simon the personnel secretary. The little treasonous weasel was enjoying her suffering immensely. Treasonous. The word resounded in her head.
“Isn’t it convenient how you knew this information?” a voice called out, and Arianna was surprised to discover that it was her own. It was as if someone else had taken control of her voice and mind. Her voice sounded very firm and calm, and suddenly all of her anxiety disappeared as a sudden realization dawned upon her. Her voice continued. “Only a handful of people know the truth of my shameful birth. Lord Darigan, Chamberlain Caecillius, Commander Bhrack and Ambassador Rhydel, a few others... and the conspirators.”
“Are you implying that I am one of these conspirators?” the Yurble replied arrogantly, and something in the tone of his oily voice triggered a subconscious connection in Arianna’s head.
“So you were the one at the head of the group,” she announced in a loud, clear voice which carried across the courtyard. The personnel secretary frowned and opened his mouth to issue a rebuttal, but she cut him off. With mounting fervor, she continued to speak. “The secret meeting held in an empty storage room in the most remote part of the Citadel. The group of traitors, hiding in grey cloaks. And you were their leader; you were the one who ordered the creation of this journal. You were the one who stole the records of my life and all of my personal information, forged this diary and set me up as the scapegoat of your own evil deeds. But I will not take the blame for your treason!” Arianna shouted, and as if she had been plunged into an icy mountain lake, her senses and mind were restored to her. She blinked in surprise.
“I knew you would cause trouble,” the Yurble growled loudly. “From the moment that our meeting was interrupted, I knew that you would threaten our plans.” he hissed with venom. Then froze in horror as his words echoed throughout the suddenly-silent yard. “Oh no,” he said, shocked dumb by his outburst. “You don’t understand,” he pleaded as Lord Darigan stared down at him, and the nearby guards fingered their weapons. “That’s not what I meant. What I meant to say was, that, she---”
“Seize him!” Lord Darigan commanded coldly, and a flurry of soldiers descended upon the master conspirator, who shouted his innocence to deaf ears. In the resulting activity, no one noticed as a single soldier slipped away from the group and headed toward the battlements with sinister intentions in mind.
* * *
Panting breathlessly from exertion, the ghost Tonu conspirator hurled himself up the staircase, nearly stumbling over the unconscious figures of his fallen companions. He swore as he stared down at his two comrades, lying limply on the cold paving stones. His mind raced as he debated his options. The conspiracy had been blown open, and there was no hope of avoiding the close scrutiny which would soon follow. The only other possible choice was to finish the deed, so that the Shadow Council could rise above the ensuring chaos to take their rightful place at the head of society. He stooped to pick up the discarded crossbow, automatically checking to make sure the arrow was undamaged. Pressing the wooden butt of the weapon against his shoulder, he looked down from his vantage point and examined the confused throng of people milling about down there. With careful deliberation, he took aim at a small figure in the courtyard below, and squeezed.
* * *
Out of the corner of her eye, Lieutenant Arianna noticed a dark shape high up against the walls, and she looked across the yard and up into the ramparts of the surrounding walls and saw a small silhouette of a burly soldier surveying the commotion below. Her guardsman’s instinct made her instantly suspicious of the uniformed figure so far removed from the action, and so she surreptitiously moved forward to stand within a few steps of her liege lord. Her keen Eyrie vision detected a flicker of motion, and she stepped in front of Lord Darigan to put herself between him and whatever was happening up there. But the assassin’s arrow had already been released.
The crossbow bolt struck Arianna high in the shoulder, and she cried out in surprise and pain. Half a second later, a spectator shouted wordlessly, and all chaos broke lose. Arianna staggered to the side, stepping perilously close to the edge of the platform as a bustling mob of couriers and guardsmen surrounded Darigan. A squadron of soldiers peeled off and ran off in pursuit of the rapidly retreating figure of the would-be assassin. A trio of babbling officials descended on the wounded Eyrie soldier, but she fended them off with her uninjured hand. “Go away, I’ll be fine. Just go out and find the person who did this.” She gritted her beak and took hold of the arrow, and with a smooth motion drew it out. The pain almost made her black out. But only a muffled whimper escaped from her beak, when other Neopets, weaker in character, would have screamed in agony. The lieutenant tossed away the arrow and examined her shoulder, which throbbed in response to her careful touch. The wound radiated pain, but fortunately it didn’t seem to be bleeding very much. She applied a makeshift bandage with a clean pocket handkerchief and took the opportunity to look around at the surrounding chaos.
In the midst of the commotion, the leader of the conspirators decided that now was the time to make his getaway. While the crowd was distracted by their attention over Darigan’s near death, Simon would escape the Citadel, and make his way down to mainland Neopia. There were other kingdoms to conquer, other rulers to depose. He was young, ambitious, and had a devious mind and a shrewd intellect. And he would have succeeded in his escape if it hadn’t been for the Darigan Eyrie. But her blazing red eyes latched onto him as he tried to worm his way into the mob.
“You!” she snarled, and stalked forward to grab his tailored brocade shirt. “You’re not getting away with this!”
The Shadow Yurble struggled fiercely to free himself from her grip. He bared his teeth in a fierce grimace as he threw himself from side to side, but the Eyrie showed no mercy. She hung on tightly, despite all of his efforts to free himself. With a burst of strength, the Shadow Master planted his feet firmly on the ground and lunged forward. His curled horns connected with Arianna’s keel bone in a fierce blow. She recovered almost instantly and grappled with her attacker, but the force of the charge drove her several steps closer to the edge of the platform, and the swirling clouds gaping hungrily over the edge. Desperation gave the Yurble one last surge of strength. With a bloodcurdling scream of rage and frustration, he hurled himself at the Eyrie. Locked in a tangled ball of flailing limbs, they plummeted off of the platform, and disappeared into the churning mass of clouds.
To be continued...