Secrets and Shadows: Part Seven
Ambassador Rhydel shouldered his way through the underbrush of the forest, panting with exertion. He staggered forward, stumbling over a fallen tree branch before catching his balance in the middle of a small open spot miraculously free from plant life. He looked around carefully, scrutinizing the earth for any signs of activity, and was disappointed. He cupped his hands around his mouth, again shouting “Lieutenant Arianna!” with a voice hoarse from overwork, and then listened intently. The only response was the twittering of birds and the sigh of the wind. He dropped his sweaty hands to his side, wiping them on his jacket on the way down. His once-expensive clothing was smeared with dirt and torn from tree branches and thorns. He rubbed at the dark circles underneath his aching eyes with a dirt-encrusted hand, then fished a burr out of the dirty silver fur on his arms. He took a quick drink of water from a half-empty canteen and then continued further into the forest. His ears pricked as he heard a distant but unmistakable sound; the gentle babble of a running river. He pushed his way further through the brush, stopping only to detangle his clothing from the grasping fingers of a tree branch, before he wormed his way through one last hedge before reaching the river. He dropped to his knees and filled his canteen up with the pure, cold river water, then stood up to survey the vista. His eyes followed the river’s course, and he frowned in surprise when he noticed a dark shape several hundred yards farther down the river’s edge.
His curiosity piqued, he moved toward it, carefully picking his way across the smooth stones of the riverbed. The dark object grew in size and shape, and the Kougra began to hope that it was who he had been searching for. When he got to within a hundred yards, he was overjoyed to see that it was Lieutenant Arianna, alive and well. The Darigan Eyrie was perched on a flat rock at the edge of the river, with a long stick stretched across her lap. As Rhydel approached closer, he could see that the long stick was actually a tree branch that the lieutenant was whittling down with a small pocketknife into a quarterstaff. She looked tired, and her cheeks were thin from hunger. Her pants and boots were splattered with dried mud, and the sleeves of her linen shirt were tattered and stained, yet she seemed strangely happy.
“Lieutenant Arianna! Thank the powers that be, you’re alive!” Rhydel cried out. The Darigan Eyrie jerked in surprise and whirled around to find the source of the sound. She glared at him with the blazing red eyes and haughty stare that were so reminiscent of her father that for the briefest moment, the Kougra could think of nothing other than Lord Kass. Then when the Eyrie realized who had spoken, she relaxed visibly and expelled a long breath.
“Ambassador Rhydel,” she replied. “It’s good to see you again.” She flipped the small pocketknife closed and stood up, holding the finished staff in one hand as she stepped forward to greet the ambassador. “You seem surprised to see me alive,” she said wryly as he trotted up to her and gripped her arm in a warrior’s handshake.
He grinned at her. “Everybody up there,” he pointed at the distant shape of the Citadel hovering far up above their heads, “thinks that you’re dead. They seemed to forget that Eyries have wings.” He looked at her closely, scrutinizing her face, and then asked carefully, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. The wound from the arrow wasn’t very deep, and it’s healing up nicely. I manage to find a cave farther downstream, and I found a patch of wild berries to keep me from starving to death. What about you? You look almost as disheveled as I feel.”
“I’ve been down on the ground with the search party since the first day. I’ve barely gotten a full night’s sleep ever since the presentation ceremony. These last several days have been exhausting. I don’t know who has been working harder; the search and rescue party down on the ground, or the investigation team up in the castle. Both groups have been pulling double shifts trying to find you and decode the conspiracy. They’ve now accounted for all of the conspirators. They found the Yurble mastermind yesterday.” The ambassador made a face. “Or rather, what was left of him. He hit the ground rather hard. He was the last conspirator that they were searching for. Most of them rest of them fought to the death rather than be captured, but the two that you knocked unconscious were captured and convinced to talk. They decided they would rather go to Master Vex than to the headsman. They said that the group had existed for nearly a year and a half, but the plans to assassinate Darigan had begun only seven months ago.”
“Why did they do it?” Arianna asked sadly.
Rhydel sighed and ran his fingers through his dirty hair. “They ran through the records and all of the conspirators had various reasons to be disgruntled with Darigan and his administration. The majority of them were guardsmen, except for two clerks and Simon. There were eleven of them in total. Five of them had been passed over for promotions, and blamed Lord Darigan for showing favoritism, rather than admitting to themselves their own lack of worthiness for a promotion. Four of the soldiers had been severely punished, three for theft, and one for dereliction of duty. One of them had lost a brother during the First War with Meridell and wanted to avenge his brother’s death. The Yurble was a little tougher to figure out, but eventually it became apparent that his intelligence and ambition, combined with his lowly position and no hope of further promotion, grew into a case of megalomania. Because Simon’s job gave him access to the personal files of almost all of the Citadel’s staff, he was in a position to comb through the files, looking for potential dissidents who had cause to hate the current administration.”
“So that’s how he found out who I was,” Arianna said softly as she stared down at her hands, which were gently holding the wooden staff. The Silver Kougra shook his head and continued.
“Surprisingly enough, no. The classified information on your heritage was under the direct control of the chief personnel secretary. Your official file, the one that Simon had access too, was completely innocuous. Not even a hint that there was something even remotely mysterious about your past.”
“But then how did he find out?”
“Commander Bhrack eventually admitted that he let it slip in a personal conversation a few days before the coup had been scheduled. They quickly changed their scapegoat.” He grimaced. “Apparently they had previously decided to blame me for the attack, figuring that a foreigner would be a believable target. But they also feared that King Skarl would send some of his own men to investigate the crime and would discover their deception.
“As you can imagine, Lord Darigan was extremely upset by the Tonu’s action. ‘Fury’ is too mild a term to use. Commander Bhrack was utterly humiliated by this mistake, and compounded with his previous character failings, high command and public support was calling for him to step down. The commander resigned his commission, and Captain Daniels got a promotion. Bhrack will be given a nice quiet retirement on a distant outpost, far away from the Citadel.”
“I feel guilty,” Arianna murmured as she stared at her hands. “I shouldn’t be pleased to hear he lost his commission. He was a miserable commander and a wretched, stubborn man, but I shouldn’t wish such a punishment like that on anybody.”
“Well, we don’t have to debate about that now,” the Kougra said jovially, and extended his hand down to help pull the Eyrie up. “We’ve got to get you back to the Citadel, and the sooner the better. Preferably before the steward get any further in organizing your funeral. They’ll be a bit shocked when they realize that all of their hard work in planning it will have been in vain, but they can make up for it by planning a parade to celebrate your return.”
“I’ve decided that I’m not going back.” Arianna said quietly.
“What?” Rhydel asked, his forehead furrowed in confusion. “You’ll be treated as a hero.”
“I thought about it carefully over these last couple of days. If I go back, no matter whatever I try to do, I won’t be able to shake off the stigmata of being Kass’s daughter.”
“But you saved Lord Darigan’s life! Right now, the Citadel is mourning your death and honoring your memory. They have the most extravagant funeral planned for you. It would be a shame if they had to perform it. Come back with me, and let’s give them a real cause to celebrate.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she sighed, shaking her head in resignation. “Even if I go back, even if I am hailed as a hero and adored by the masses, they will still think to themselves, ‘There goes Arianna, daughter of a traitor’. I don’t want to be known as Kass’s daughter for the rest of my life! I want to be free, free to be myself. I want to be known for who I am rather than who my father was. Don’t you understand?” She pleaded desperately, and the tone of her voice wrung the ambassador’s heart.
“What are you going to do?” he asked mournfully.
The Eyrie looked off into the distant horizon. “I will go west. There is a new land there, a place where a warrior is measured for the strength of his or her virtues rather than their parentage. I will go there, and start a new life, free from the baggage of the old. I’ll finally get the chance to be myself. Let Lieutenant Arianna die an honorable death, so that I may rise from the ashes to live again. Please! You must understand why I want to do this!” she cried out in desperation.
Ambassador Rhydel looked searchingly at the Darigan Eyrie’s face, tense with anxiety and hope. His mind slowly examined her argument. It was true that she would be forever known as Kass’s daughter if she returned to Darigan Citadel, no matter how much she would ever accomplish in her own name. Everyone in the Citadel would always remember who she was descended from and judge her for that. He looked back with shame at his own lapse in self-control. For the briefest moment, scarcely more than a heartbeat as those blazing red eyes stared right into the very depth of his being, he could think of nothing other than the heritage that she had tried to avoid for half of her lifetime. She could go back to the Citadel and face a lifetime of sidelong glances and whispers when her back was turned... or go on to a new life and a new identity.
“Yes,” the ambassador said slowly, sadly. “I understand why you must go. But I will be sorry to see you leave,” Rhydel said as he leaned forward to grip her arm once again in a warrior’s handshake. “You’re an honorable soldier and a good friend. I wish you success.”
“Thank you,” she replied, with tears in her eyes. “I wish I had the chance to know you better. Keep my secret in the name of friendship, and I will thank you for the rest of my days. Powers be with you.”
“Powers be with you,” the Kougra returned the blessing, and then watched as the Darigan Eyrie shouldered her weapon and set off purposefully for the distant horizon. He stared after her until she vanished from view into the obscurity of the forest, then sighed and turned to begin the long and arduous trek back to Darigan Citadel.
A message from the author:
I got the inspiration for this story from the Storytelling Contest #254 prompt over a year ago. Although my story was not chosen by that particular contest, the basic plotline (female Darigan character meets male Meridell character, and together they defeat a plot to overthrow Lord Darigan) stuck in my head, and I liked it so much I decided to try to write a short story about it. The characters changed---the Darigan Aisha became a Darigan Eyrie (my favorite pet) and the Lupe soldier became a Kougra diplomat, and after the addition of several minor characters and more plot events, it became apparent that this story would take a series to tell. I worked on it on-and-off for about a year, depending on my enthusiasm for typing and the amount of schoolwork to distract me from it, but after many long months of work, it was finally completed and submitted to the Neopian Times.
I’ve got lots of people to thank. First off, I would like to thank all of the readers who sent me their appreciation. Getting wonderful complements from random strangers makes all of this effort worthwhile!
I would also like to give a special thank-you to all of the wonderful people in my guild who gave me advice on this story and helped to create the finished version that you see in front of you: my guild leader Krissy (fabulouskrissy20); Parity (parityshot) who suggested the name for Caecillius; Hannah (catpant); Shelley (no1dale); Kelly (me_loves_lp); Berryboy (berry_boy23); Darkfalcon (darkfalcon 1267); Kristina (things_i_love); Airi (paidekas); Andi (dragonngirl); Betty (whitemist8); Debbie (coffeel0ver); Trucker (wondering_truckerha); Dragonlover (drag0nl0ver22); and last but not least, Bruce (viperous28). Not only did they provide proofreading and constructive criticism, they also provided friendship and support, which is just as important in the long run. Awwwwww, thanks guys!
Lastly, I would like to thank TNT for accepting my story into the Neopian Times, and especially the overworked people who comb through hundreds of Neopian Times entries each and every week to sort out the hidden gems and publish them so that thousands of people can enjoy them.