I’m not sure what I expected out of Amelia, but I’m sure I expected her to stumble. This was Amelia, my flighty, proud-but-friendly foster sister, the girl who had been Tiana’s number one motivation for becoming a knight. She was easily saddened, although quick to recover, and not one who had experienced troubles in her life, discounting the last three weeks and the one prior kidnapping attempt. A girl like her shouldn’t be much different from a sheltered middle to upper class girl from Robert’s native land.
But there was one thing about Amelia that I had forgotten. She was a trained and disciplined princess of Orestania.
Her face became a cold mask as she stared down at the lady knight doing a dogeza beside her. Without saying a word, the princess turned on her cushion in order to face her.
When she finally spoke, her voice was frostier than I had ever heard before. “I appear to be receiving this confession from a daughter of Gandon in the Southern provinces. Should it not be coming from a knight of my royal father?”
Chiara’s dimples formed as her lips tightened into a grimace. She nodded and stood up from her dogeza, the style that was used in the south. She moved away from the table to take up her skirt and descend into a deep curtsey, in courtly Atian style. It was a bit rough, clearly something she hadn’t learned as a child, but it was decently executed anyhow.
Then, instead of bowing her head at the bottom, she folded at the waist, falling forward in a gesture that had gone out of fashion ever since décolletage become too low in the capital to allow it.
She stated, “Your Highness, I am ashamed. I have betrayed you and my liege lord, His Majesty The King. I carry no sword here to lay in front of you, in order for you to take away, but I would turn it over to you if I had it.”
Amelia continued to stare at her. It was quite natural in this situation that she wouldn’t immediately tell Chiara to raise her head. This wasn’t an apology but rather a confession. Her confessor could let her stay in that position as long as she wished.
“I wish to know the reason for your betrayal,” Amelia said, her voice still even.
“My father has my biological mother’s life in his hands, Your Highness. And he showed me proof of other traitors within the Royal Knights, so I dared not report it. He would learn, and she would be killed.”
Amelia’s brow twitched. She’d been deprived of her own mother at birth, so I’m not sure how that resonated with her.
“I suppose it is natural that my life was worth nothing compared to that of the woman who bore you,” Amelia said, but every bit of that frost in her voice remained as frozen as before.
“Your Highness, it isn’t like that!” Chiara cried, still firmly facing the floor. “It wasn’t supposed to cost any lives! Sir Denian was only supposed to be knocked unconscious! And you were supposed to be handed over to your cousin!”
“And, of course, you weren’t supposed to become a captive as well,” Amelia noted. “Your only role was to persuade me to not try to escape, as you did.”
She sighed, and nodded.
But I said, “No, that wasn’t her only role.”
Amelia looked over at me with her eyebrow raised.
“Somebody told them where you would be, Your Highness,” I explained. “Your trip to Atius was in secret, and planned at the last minute. If somebody didn’t tell them when and where you were going, how could they have pulled this off?”
“But it was at the last minute…” she said, pondering the question. “Could they really organize that fast?”
“They planned everything in advance and were waiting for the opportunity. Probably, they prepared it for your first trip to the Palace after your father went north to join the troops. They needed an insider to tip them off, once it happened.”
Lady Chiara wasn’t saying anything in response, which was as good as confirmation.
“They had probably already killed their previous informant,” I mused. “The one that tipped them off about your trip to visit your grandmother.”
When I first came to Huade, I stumbled upon an attempt to kidnap her by Tabadan raiders. The Provincial Guard treated it as coincidence that the raiders took a royal, but…
Amelia’s eyes grew wide. “You think that was the same people?”
“Tabadan raids as far as Atianus have become rare under King Owen, thanks to his efforts to beef up air defenses. It’s too strange that one of the few raids just happened to find the princess of the realm. They had insider help on that attempt, as well.”
“Why didn’t our people get information about this plot out of the prisoners you took?”
“As a law enforcement matter, the Royal Aerial Force would have turned them over to the Provincial Guards for questioning,” I told her. “Duke Parna’s people.”
Her shoulders dropped slightly. I could see on her face the dawning comprehension of just how much somebody in Duke Parna’s position could accomplish in pursuit of evil.
But she kept her dignified face as she turned back to Chiara. “Do you admit to this?”
“I do, Your Highness,” she said, still addressing the floor. “I told them when we were going and where. And I wore a tracker that they could follow.”
A tear finally managed to escape Amelia’s eye as she pressed her lips together. “But you’re a victim, too. They turned you over to those tribesmen with me.”
“Since they betrayed you, do you honestly believe that your actions have saved your mother?”
The knight’s shoulders trembled. She shook her head.
I sighed. “What do we even do with you? Legally, I need to arrest you and bring you in for trial. We’re not exactly in a position to do that.”
“Why did you even stick around after you two escaped?” Brigitte wondered. “Shouldn’t you have run as far from Her Highness as you could?”
“It was still my duty to protect her, Miss Brigitte,” she answered. “And I never intended to evade punishment from the beginning. Once my mother was safe, I was going to turn myself in.”
I wondered, “Shall we at least let her get up, Amelia? Or do you intend to leave her like this?”
“Get up, My Lady,” Amelia told her, ice still in her voice. “And only speak to answer questions. I don’t care to hear your voice for a while.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” she whispered, and unfolded herself from that difficult position. We were done eating at this point, so she began stacking plates on the tray to bring them outside for washing, leaving one plate with the remaining food.
As I took a roasted pepper from it, I told her, “My fairy sense is quite strong, My Lady. If you run, I will know it.”
“I have no intention of escaping justice, My Lady,” she answered stiffly as she stood and carried the rest away.
After she had returned to the kitchen, I looked at Amelia. “So they brought you to that guy’s harem for some reason. Why in the world would they have gone through so much trouble for that?”
“Parna’s people thought we were payment for letting them do as they please in his lands. But…” she frowned and pondered her hands for a bit before continuing. “…the people who helped us escape said that was a lie. They said that an underling of the Demon King had replaced the Berado king, and that the Demon King wanted me for some reason. They didn’t know why, but I was going to be turned over to him soon.”
“Did they say how they knew this?” I wondered.
She shook her head. “No. But Chiara used magic to verify that some of the people guarding the harem really were demons. That’s why we decided to believe them.”
“So how did you end up here?” I asked.
“This is where it gets weird,” she said. “They managed to get us out of the Tabadan camp and brought us into the woods, then two of them somehow changed themselves into copies of us and left.”
She looked worried, and appeared to be watching me to see if I believed her. But I just nodded. I already knew Diurhimath was involved, which meant that unfamiliar, powerful magic was involved.
After I didn’t question her, she continued. “They said they were going to lead the pursuers into a neighboring tribe while we went underground. If you got here the same way I did, you know what I mean by ‘underground’.”
I nodded. “It’s called Ilim Below, Amelia.”
“Do you know… how far it goes? We traveled for miles, through tunnel after tunnel. And saw some amazing caves. They thought we would be able to travel all the way to Arelia using those tunnels. But when we got to that last big cavern, all of the sudden they said there were a large number of demons ahead that they hadn’t expected. We couldn’t keep going, but there was a place nearby where we could hide until they found a different way out. Then the bodies of our guides turned into clear things just like those gardeners and one of them brought us here while the others went to fight the demons.”
Amelia looked at me as if wondering again whether I would question it, but I simply tightened my lips and nodded. “This matches up with what an acquaintance has told us. Although you just told me a couple new things about what his ‘spirit craft’ can do. I didn’t know he could imitate living people. I wonder if they could fool my fairy sight.”
She looked confused by what I was saying, but she relaxed a little. “So you believe me?”
“First of all, you’re here, where you couldn’t possibly get to on your own. You probably don’t realize exactly how extreme this location is, even with what you have seen.”
Her eyes told me she wasn’t sure what I meant, but I didn’t explain myself. I decided to wait for another time to find out how she and Chiara were interpreting the impossible scenery outside, that could neither exist underground nor in the massive mountain range they had been in. Maybe they had told themselves it was an illusion, which wouldn’t exactly be wrong.
I asked, “You said he… I mean they made copies of you two?”
She nodded. “They touched us first and said they were copying our auras. Then they turned into perfect copies of us, right down to our voices and clothes! They said it wouldn’t fool strong spirit users, but it would fool most people and regular spirits. I saw it, but it’s hard to believe it’s possible.”
“I know very little about spirit magic, so I can’t say what’s possible,” I admitted. “But the Berado were fooled into thinking you went to the Amaga tribe, so it worked.”
Although they didn’t seem to have fooled Lord Moram, who said Amelia had never been in his territory. Perhaps, he saw the fakes, but recognized them as fakes. I wish he’d mentioned it.
“How many people were helping you?” I asked, although I was pretty sure the real answer was ‘one’. What I meant was, how many projections did he send to them?
“There were five. The two women that copied us and three men. They all had black hair and eyes, just like you.”
Elder colors. He must have used acquaintances from the Elder times as his models.
“You went underground right there in Berado territory?”
“We had to climb a mountain first,” she said. “High in the mountain, we entered a long tunnel down to a cave. We hid from demons a couple times, until we entered a tunnel that they called a ‘highway’. They told us the demons would have trouble following us through it, but I don’t know why.”
I sat and thought for a bit. With a frustrated tone, Amelia huffed, “Tiana, I feel like you should be questioning this more! Those men turned into something weird at the end, you know? And this place, it doesn’t make any sense! And how could all these tunnels and caverns exist?”
I had already decided I was going to tell her about me, or at least as much as I had told the others. So, I smiled and patted her hand. “Let me explain it to you.”
She tipped her head, giving me a questioning look.