Etana the Coward: Part Two
It was cold. Etana frowned, opening her eyes slowly; blinking the world back into focus. Something small and hard was poking into her left shoulder. She hadn’t noticed it before.
She sat up gradually, half surprised that she could. Cold and stiff, she grabbed a nearby bookcase and drew herself to her feet. She cleared her sore throat, her back pressed against the shelves, but there was nothing to say. She gazed around the windowless room. Several bookcases lay on the floor, and puddles of books scattered the carpet as if it had been raining literature. She took a hesitant step forward and something crunched beneath her foot; a discarded Sleep Ray. Probably, she decided, how she’d achieved the incredible feat of sleeping for so long.
“Brogan?” she called in a small voice, feeling ridiculous; they wouldn’t just leave him here. “Brogan?”
In the hall a few picture frames lay on the carpet, and a table had been overturned, but everything else was painfully normal. Her kitchen was still scattered with her neatly trimmed herbs, plates still drying beside the sink.
Etana sprinted to the open kitchen door and into the street. Above her the sky was darkening. The bakery across the road was emptying its windows and the travelling bread cart was trundling along the road, its owner whistling cheerfully on his way home. Etana felt as if she’d swallowed a rock. She’d not only slept away the remainder of the night but the whole of the next day, too.
She moved numbly back into the library. What should she do now? She laughed out loud, her eyes stinging and throat tight. Of course, Etana the Coward would do nothing. She’d sit at home, mourning and alone. The thought stunned Etana to the very core of her being; the gentle tears stopped and her mouth fell open into a slack gawp. Etana the Coward, Etana the Coward, Etana the Coward. Etana the Coward wouldn’t save Brogan...
She raced up the stairs, across the landing and threw herself into her bedroom – the room she hadn’t used in so, so long. A thin layer of dust covered everything. She fell to the floor, crawling under the bed until her paws closed around the lace handle of a scarred and bruised old chest. She crawled backward and heaved the chest onto her bed, sending a spray of dust into the air.
She didn’t like this old wooden box. She hadn’t saved much from her apothecary life at the beginning of the Rebellion but what she had saved deserved more than this old box, which looked as if it could have been washed up after a shipwreck. She gazed at the contents numbly. A slightly chipped Laced Wooden Staff, a beautiful Sakhmetian Dagger and dozens of bottles with curled, yellowed paper labels lay atop a Forest Cloak. These things didn’t belong to Etana the Coward; these were the possessions of Etana, the king’s favourite potion maker.
She plunged her paws into the folds of the cloak and began to fill her pockets with the bags of gold she’d hidden there. Somehow Brogan had never asked her about money, although he must have known that working in a city apothecary that was favoured by the king himself was more lucrative than working as a librarian in Fourth Town. He probably didn’t want to remind her.
Back downstairs she took a muddy brown satchel and filled it with food and the most valuable books she could find. She remembered what Tam of the King’s Guard had said about ‘Being Faerie Queen’ and pushed that into her bag, too, as she wandered through the house, searching for her cloak. She found it draped across the overturned sofa on which Thomas had sat. She shuddered. She’d be cold without her cloak – but the thought of wearing something Brogan’s captor had been so close to made her freeze. There were still chocolate cake crumbs clinging to it. She couldn’t wear it. She’d use one of Brogan’s cloaks.
As she turned to go, her foot hit something. It rolled in an arch and hit her foot again: a tall green hat, through which she was sure she could almost see the floor. She chewed her lip for a moment and then thrust that into her satchel, too; she might need an Invisihat in the city.
The walk to the city was long. The library itself was pushed against the furthest wall of Fourth Town, which meant she’d have to cross the whole of the town before she’d even reach the Fourth Pass; a long rock road, built on a slightly taller platform than the city and its surrounding towns. Then there was the city to cross, which would be easier at night, at least.
It was properly dark by the time Etana reached the Fourth Pass and skipped up its seven steps. She’d told herself she’d have a short break at this point but she couldn’t bear to stop moving; she paused only briefly to tear into yesterday’s bread and nibble on a slightly wilted spring onion, but then she was moving again. The Pass was long and boring. There was no scenery to gaze at, only tall, shadowed stone, and her legs were starting to burn as if she’d dropped another of Brogan’s potions on her feet. No matter how much it hurt to keep moving, however, the pain tripled when she stopped. She pushed herself onward. It would be alright when she reached the city.
But it wasn’t. When she finally reached the end of the Fourth Pass she tripped down the steps and landed on the even stone ground with a crunch. For a moment there was a dizzy darkness. She waited for it to pass and then she climbed, cringing, to her feet and took a few stiff, wobbly steps forward.
She kept walking. When, an hour or so later, she reached the low wall that surrounded the City Market her stomach rumbled. The whole area was cloaked in the aroma of herbs, bread, spices, sweet cakes and pies, roasting meat and warm fruit. The stalls were all empty at night and the low stone ovens had been cleaned. It wouldn’t be long until dawn but it would still be a while before the market and palace came alive. She huddled under a stall and waited, chewing numbly on her own snacks. When eventually the sky turned light and pets were beginning to set up their stalls, Etana slipped into the crowd.
The palace stood behind the City Market, encircled by a tall stone wall. She walked through the opening with the same stiff, wobbly gait as the night before, and plodded steadily toward the guards who stood on either side of the palace door. They were like something from an old book, their long staffs crossed over the doorway, blocking the entrance. She ducked into a clumsy curtsey.
“I seek an audience at the Advisor’s Table.”
“The Advisors are very busy, child,” one of the guards said in a kind, wise voice. “Maybe your business would be better suited to an audience with the City Council.”
Etana dug wearily into her pocket and brought out a bag of gold. “I know they’re busy but I have to talk to them – about the dungeons.”
The guard sighed. He lowered his staff slowly, and his partner begrudgingly did the same.
“I hope you find the answers you’re looking for, child. Most that come to talk of the dungeons end up there themselves.”
Etana walked quickly through the door before the guards could change their mind, and as they brought their staffs back to cross the doorway she heard the second guard say: “For goodness sake! Why do you never take their gold?”
The palace was as grand was Etana supposed it would be. The floors were covered in red carpets with golden patterns, and the walls hung with rich tapestries. The odour of polish hung in the air. A tall green Aisha in a crisp white shirt, crimson tunic and neat red-brown boots offered her a flourished bow as she neared.
“Your destination, Miss?”
“The Advisor’s Table, please.”
“This way, if you please.” The Aisha stepped forward and indicated to one of many empty doorways, beyond which lamps burned welcomingly. “Proceed to the end of the passage and knock three times before entering. Do not wait for their word. The queue is concealed within.”
“Thank you,” Etana murmured, managing a frail smile. Her insides leapt with anxiety, terror and hope.
This passage didn’t have carpet or tapestries, and was surprisingly narrow. When she finally reached the solid wooden door at the end of the passage she did as the Aisha had told her; she knocked three times and then pushed open the door. From the way the guards and the guide had spoken she’d expected the room beyond to already be filled with waiting pets, but it was empty. At the very end of the colossal room Etana could see a square table, and a face. She held her breath and walked slowly – hesitantly – forward. Was she meant to approach the table? Was she meant to wait by the door until someone asked her to approach the table? Why hadn’t the guide told her how to behave? He must have known she was the first to ask for the Advisors. Maybe this was the wrong room. Maybe the guide had pointed her down the wrong passage, or she’d knocked on the wrong door.
“Ah, my first customer,” said a cold voice. A Moehog with the gnarled, dung-coloured face and ruby eyes of a Darigan watched her icily from behind the table. She’d expected something different; someone more welcoming or wise-looking. Instead she was faced with an advisor that wore armour over his baggy court clothes. She performed another awkward curtsey.
“G-good m-morning, sir.” Her voice shook. “I’ve b-brought treasures.”
“I suggest you get to the point.” He leaned forward. “Your treasure is hardly pressing business.”
“Sir, I’ve come to pay for my brother’s freedom,” she said quickly, trying to get all the words out at once. “He’s in your dungeons.”
The advisor fixed her with a serious gaze. “Do I know you, young Gnorbu?”
He leaned back in his chair, looking disinterested. “Well, there’s really nothing I can do for your brother. Paying for freedom is very outdated. These days prisoners tend to pay for their crimes in different ways – the hard way.” He grinned, showing a row of decaying yellow and black teeth. “But by all means, leave your treasures with us. We’ll ensure they’re spent wisely.”
Etana didn’t move. All her little aches and pains were quietened, her nervousness crashing to its death along with her hope.
“I have lots of gold,” she continued, in a monotone. She began to numbly unload the bags from her pockets, covering the desk. She was vaguely aware of the advisor frowning at her, stroking his chin. “Please, sir, reconsider. Brogan wouldn’t hurt a buzzer. He shouldn’t be in the dungeons.”
The advisor shook his head, looking somehow curious and suspicious at once. He lifted his head. “Are you sure I d-”
A door to Etana’s left swung open. She didn’t move; she held the advisor’s curious gaze as long as she could, her eyes aflame and crying out for her to blink. Only when the advisor looked away did Etana do the same – and it was only then that she noticed the two new pets taking the spare chairs at the Table. Gasping, Etana hurried two more curtseys. The white Kougra with wildly curly, white-blonde locks nodded politely in return, the gentle aroma of roses sweeping over Etana as she stood before the second Advisor.
“What is this?” asked the Kougra in a soft voice, peering at the bags of gold with interest. “A donation? No, I suppose that’s too cheerful a business for us to deal with. The City Council deals with donations... although, when I was a young advisor, I did once deal with a case of...” She lapsed into thoughtful silence, smiling at the gold.
“She wants to pay for her brother’s freedom.”
The Kougra advisor turned her interested gaze on Etana. “Really? I thought we’d stopped that years and years ago. Well, what crime do you want him freed of, dear? I suppose the treasury has been looking rather sparse just lately...”
“My brother is accused of being a Rebel.”
“We don’t free Rebels.”
For a moment Etana was confused, then she remembered the advisor at the end of the table. She turned to look at him; he was staring unswervingly at the corner of the room. His eyes were the colour of warm toast, and partially hidden behind a veil of rich, chocolate hair.
“Advisor Pedin is right,” the Kougra said with a sympathetic smile. “No amount of gold will persuade us to release a Rebel. You’d be better off finding yourself a new family, my dear.”
The Darigan Moehog nodded, considering Etana with a distracted look in his eyes. She shifted uncomfortably. There was nothing she could do to save Brogan. A cloud of hopelessness descended to envelope her.
“Do you know the Rebels?” the Moehog asked, still focusing his sight on Etana.
“No...” she replied uncertainly. The Kougra’s gaze was flitting between Etana and the Moehog, a gleam of curiosity in her eyes. Pedin the Xweetok shifted his gaze, seemingly following the sound of voices. Something in his eyes had changed; they seemed suddenly serious and... Etana shook away the thoughts. Why would the advisor seem afraid?
“Well, then, there’s truly nothing we can do for you,” the Moehog concluded, a wicked edge to his voice and a cruel grin creeping across his face.
“How could you help me if I did know the Rebels?” The words were out of Etana before she’d even thought of them. She breathed in harshly. Pedin’s eyes had roved from the corner of the hall and were now staring at Etana’s shoulder, his brow creased in a strange sort of frown.
“The king is kind to informants.”
“But are his advisors?” the Kougra asked inquisitively, tilting her head. “Winch, are you sure? The last spy we trusted is right now lying in a cell.”
“You,” began the Moehog – Winch – his eyes narrowed, “will trade information for your friend’s freedom.”
Etana nodded feverishly. “Of course! What do you want to know?”
“At the end of the Rebellion the King’s favourite niece and heir, Princess Alastrine-”
“Winch!” the Kougra exclaimed, appalled. “You’re talking about classified information with a commoner!”
“Princess Alastrine was kidnapped,” Winch continued, raising his voice. “If you bring me information on Princess Alastrine then I promise I will free your friend.”
“What sort of information are you looking for?” the Kougra asked, gawping at the Moehog, “You know the Rebels took her. Isn’t that enough? Shouldn’t the trade be the Princess for the Traitor?”
“Any information will help. You forget, Advisor Oakes, that the King made me responsible for finding Princess Alastrine. You have your Rebel Spy, I’ll have mine. Yours hasn’t been at all useful, anyway.”
“He’s given us some very reliable information!”
“Come back in a week,” Winch continued, giving Etana an intense look. “If in one week you can provide us with any new evidence on Princess Alastrine’s kidnap or whereabouts I give you my word that I will free your friend.”
“Thank you! Thank you, Advisors.” Etana bowed deeply and, forgetting her title of Etana the Coward, added, “Only fools would rebel against your rule. You are very gracious. Thank you.”
The three advisors looked stunned, but Etana didn’t care. There was something new inside her; hope. She could save Brogan. She hurried across the room and was just inside the corridor when a paw caught her arm. She pulled away sharply, gasping, and turned to find Advisor Pedin standing behind her, one paw pressed against the wall.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to alarm you.” He kept his voice low. Etana looked steadily into his eyes, reading them like a book; right now they showed sincerity and contemplation and puzzlement muddled together. “You forgot your gold. Etana?”
“Thank you,” she replied, taking the sack of little gold bags from his paw. He was different to how she remembered him. When he’d used to visit her in her shop he’d been gangly and clumsy. He was different now; not very tall, she noticed, but sensibly built and tidy; his maroon cloth boots matched his waistcoat, and his burgundy trousers matched his jacket. His shirt was perfectly white and his brown fur had a rusty tint. She smiled timidly. His sightless eyes were fixed on her right ear.
“Etana. I was sure it was you.”
Etana took a step back. She tore her eyes away from his relieved gaze, afraid of reliving their last meeting. Besides, she wanted to run all the way back to Fourth Town and straight to the Rebels. Lingering in the corridor was wasting time.
“Look, Etana – be careful,” Pedin urged, earnestly, “Pick your family carefully.”
To be continued...