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 Sleeping Beauty, Chapter Five: The Escape

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Xandra



Posts : 169
Join date : 2010-09-17

PostSubject: Sleeping Beauty, Chapter Five: The Escape   Sat Nov 28, 2015 11:52 pm


“In which rules are challenged, and a decision made.”

****

Once upon a time, in a land far away, there stood a glorious kingdom, shimmering as a radiant jewel upon the horizons of its neighboring lands. Long had it been the ruling power of the realm, unrivaled in its glory. The pride of the south, it was a golden beacon of hope, promising art, music and beauty to any who sought it out.

There had been two kingdoms, once—but that was many years ago. Now, there was only the one, and it was beautiful in its solitude.

The Kingdom of the Cross, the grand axis of knowledge and culture, shone brilliantly in its prosperity. Its cities bathed beneath the gracious sun, it seemed that all its bricks and stones were gold, its crops pillars of emerald, its seas and skies the richest sapphire, the skin of its people all sparkling bronze. Never before had the denizens of these lands been more content. But then, when you rarely experienced need, or want, contentment was a common feeling.

Yes, times were good for the flourishing Crucian capital, where all things rich and magnificent gathered, drawing commerce from all around the world to its busy markets.

That day, a foreign face mingled with the crowd of visitors and townsfolk alike, as they traversed the brilliant and lustrous streets, lined with vendors of every type. Fresh vegetables and fish, dried meats, silks, tapestries and fabrics in all colors and patterns, colorful trinkets and gems, all offered by eager merchants from behind their stalls to anyone carrying the scent of gold. Clad in demur colors, the traveler took little interest in the charming wares and goods being brandished at every side, a basket tucked quite safely beneath his cloak as he made his way, heedless of the enchantment all around—for to him, enchantment lived elsewhere, and all business in this city was done.

Passing by bustling markets and colorful bazaars, the scent of freshly baked goods fading away, the scene transforming at once into one far more tranquil, yet equally lively as the cloaked man made his way out of town. Here, nearing the borders, there were no streets crowded with merchants, but little plazas where the children ran and laughed while the women sat and chatted, working patiently through their laundry. A picturesque image of a place unburdened by suffering, free of worry. Where little ones were free to play, people to gossip and to work. A perfect place to live.

For carefree people. Normal people.

As he passed from the outskirts, the traveler headed inland, away from the sea and the sun of which the Cross was so rightly proud. Inward instead he roamed, across the vast plains of the meadows surrounding the blossoming kingdom. Up the hills and away from the people, he carried his few chosen supplies, unaffected by time nor distance as he trekked his way to a place few people rarely sought: the Great Western Forest. The rumored home of the magical world.

Passing through the close-grown trees, distance itself gave way to weightlessness, and every step seemed to blur the majestic greens and browns and ambers around him as he made his way towards his destination. Curtains of vines and carpets of groundcover silently marked the trail, weaving a well-masked path throughout the endless sprawl of the forest, all giving way at last to a simple, tiny glen, unknown to man in the depths of the woods. Here, the trees and bushes formed a beautiful enclosure, stretching endlessly up and about to encircle the lush little clearing. And here, protected from all the world, stood a quaint little cottage.

Built of wood with whitewashed walls, it stood two stories high, bedecked with many windows from which to view the beauty all around. The second floor was only half the size of the first, added in recent years to accommodate a growing child with much-desired space. Around the house lay a prosperous garden, boasting every herb and flower the forest could produce, all grown high in fragrant bunches to soothe the soul with every breeze. Several smaller trees sprouted up about the glen to shelter the house, offering shade from the midday sun at either of its sides, and a delicate creek trickled its way through these, sparkling crystalline in the sun as it made its way back into the woods. The grass here grew high around the ankles, with a path of crisp and flowering groundcover trailing to the ornate wooden door. Now this, the traveler felt, was as perfect as any painting. All they had sought to make it, for all the time it had taken…a safe and peaceful place, in which to live their lives.

The people in the town had no idea what true peace felt like. Not compared to this.

The heavy door swung open with the telltale ‘creak’ of a hundred thousand passings, opening into the well-furnished interior of the cottage. Years of biding time and forging had produced a home unlike any other. Richly colored curtains adorned all the windows, masterfully woven rugs spread here and there about the floors, and well-made furniture stood tucked against every wall, offering many places for the man to rest his feet. One of these, as it happened, was already occupied, and he had little time to rest besides. Things to be done and all. He moved aside, brushing his cloak hood back as the door swung gently closed. “I’m home.”

Forest green eyes fell presently upon the cloaked man, and their oversized owner straightened up in his seat. “Hey…” he greeted, perched on a couch built of logs just as big as himself. They groaned under his weight as he stood, lazily brushing back the black hair wildly splayed across his nape. “It’s been quiet without y’ here. How did it go?” He took both cloak and basket from the newly arrived man, passing into the adjacent room to put these things in their places.

“Those need washing,” said the smaller man, indicating the many ripe fruits in his purchase. Raking the hood-rumpled blonde locks from his eyes, he removed his glasses, heaving a small sigh. “It was as it always is—picturesque. Depressing.” He set his spectacles aside on the nearby table, then set about removing his gloves. His fingers were stiff. “It’s sickening, really…how little idea they have…”

“Happens when y’ never leave your homes,” the deep voice called from the other room, accompanied by a brief clattering. Then, as he reappeared, he added, “You better not let im’ hear ya’,” leaning in the archway of the door.

But the golden-haired man merely rolled his eyes. “If he’s not down here already, he isn’t coming down. He’d hear if he wanted to hear.” He dropped his gloves on the table, and leaned against it to tug off one of his shoes. For all that walking, his feet were actually starting to ache. He carefully worked off the other. “Ungrateful whelp…he’ll have to deal with bread and soup again. I had thought to buy meat this time, but all they really sell is fish this time of year, and he won’t eat that, of course, so there’s no point in wasting the coin…”

“You work too hard,” the other sighed. Advancing, he guided him to sit, kneeling down before him. “Should let me go.” He took hold of one small, sore foot, massaging it. People like himself were built strong and resistant for work and travel. Others were little and frail, weak to the elements and strain. He should have gone instead—but then, he had his own task between those walls. “Got any strawberries?” he glanced up, keeping his poor foot captive. “Had a long face before, they’d cheer im’ up.” He switched carefully to the other.

“Yes, yes, I’m sure I got some…” The smaller man rubbed his eyes, only somewhat comforted by his companion’s care. There was still a lot to do, as always. Resting would only mean having less time to accomplish the rest. Excusing the usual remarks concerning his own fragility, he slumped back in his seat. “Where is he, anyway? Up there pouting again, no doubt…” As he had been when he departed, denying him the right to tag along for the dozenth time. It was trouble enough having to leave the forest to purchase the things they could not grow or fashion. Having to bring him along—

He paused, his sore eyes sliding open again. He could hear no footfalls on the upper floor.

“Still…even when he’s sulking, he makes a great deal more noise.” Too much, at times, as was only proper for a teenage boy. Reluctantly, he tilted his head back to stare at the ceiling above them, and listened.

No sound rang from the upper floor. No scuffing chairs, no shuffling or stomping of feet. No books being dropped, or little creatures being played with. It was completely silent.

“It is uncomfortably quiet up there.” Could he be sleeping, so late in the day? Wishful thinking, he knew. Slowly, he turned his head back down to look at the man still grasping his foot, now frozen at the joint realization. “Dema…when is the last time you actually checked on Kolya?”

As the wind whistled blithely by the cottage, a fall of ivy fluttered lightly against the trellis adorning its far side. High above, a lonely window stood open. Its occupant was certainly gone.

And his guard was certainly in trouble.

****

The forest at midday was a symphony of sounds: the branches rustling, the wind whispering, birds singing and tiny beings crawling through the boughs and brush on their way to wherever they were headed. Bare, callused feet strolled easily over the grass and stones and soil that made up the floor of his whole world. Staring up at the endless canopy seemingly miles above, he smiled. It was beautiful here—layers of greens and golds, and scents, and sounds—but he had seen it all before. He had counted the trees within walking distance of the cottage, climbed them all and collected their leaves. He’d explored their branches for as high as he could reach. His formative years had been spent creeping quietly through the brush like the other fuzzy little creatures that dwelt here. Creatures that knew no other place, and would likely never leave.

It wasn’t enough for him anymore.

He loved the forest, of that there was no doubt. Under the patient tutelage to his uncles, he had learned to respect it, and it and its denizens had always been kind to him in reply. He was lucky, he knew, to live where no other humans did, knowing its secrets, having explored the farthest reaches, beyond where other men had gone. And yet, as he existed among the many trees, and animals, and stones, he found he longed for unfamiliar faces. He knew those of his caretakers so well from so many years in their company, and he knew his own from the surface of the springs and ponds that dotted the sheltered land. But he couldn’t remember any other faces in the world—none but those he’d seen in books, in drawings and in sculpture. For as much as he loved the richness and freedom of the natural world, he could think of nothing else but finding others of his own kind. Other people.

But men never came here, because the forest forbade it—because men were destructive. They took from it selfishly, and left it in pain. Others could not be allowed here, and so, his only companions had been the three who had raised him, the forest creatures, and the spirits he felt watching over him.

It was a sad realization, one that occurred to him more and more as days went on. He would never have a friend here, who would speak to him in his own tongue. He would never have anyone to talk to who did not already know him well beyond words. Never anyone to tell secrets to, to walk with, to play games with. He would always just have his uncles, and the forest. And he was tiring of the forest.

By its grace, he found, he could always find his way to where he wanted to be. The wood just seemed to know his heart. Recently, each time he slipped out from under the trio’s watchful eyes, he found himself at the edge of the forest, on the hills overlooking the lands. The cliffs were high, and offered him a view of all the greater realms—both the prosperous Kingdom of the Cross, and the hollow Empire of the Star. Again, today, he found himself passing from beneath the closely woven trees, ignoring the whispers of the wind as it beckoned him to stay.

There, he climbed a sunken boulder, and stood barefoot atop it to stare down across the plains, to the places where other people lived. Sometimes, when the townsfolk went on errands between the many villages, he could see them…just their shapes, just enough to know that they were like him. Those from the Cross were always colorful, dark-skinned and full of life, while those from the Star seemed always weary, painted in grays and burdened by years of toil. He had heard his uncles speak of it over the years, enough to know at least in part why things were this way. The Cross was prosperous because the land was kind and their ruler strong. The Star was not because its lands were harsh, its leaders long-since lost. He could tell them apart, even miles away, the people who lived where he wanted to be. So many of his questions could only be answered by others, for the three certainly wouldn’t answer them. If he didn’t leave someday, he felt, he would live forever, never knowing why.

As he stood, he watched an elderly woman pushing a wheelbarrow along a broken path. It had been paved once, the way the streets were paved in books he read, but the grass and the earth had retaken it, and turned the road into a pit-filled hazard. Kneeling down, watched her struggle along, guiding her rickety cart to wherever she was headed. She was from the Star, he could tell; her head was covered by a kerchief, her skin was pale and her clothing heavy. He wondered if she was traveling toward the Cross, with the hope of better luck. A treacherous walk, from what he'd heard--even by horse and cart, that journey would take near half a day. Perhaps it wasn't the Cross, then, but just to another village. To find something, or someone.

She was brave, he found himself thinking. At least she was going somewhere. Having an adventure. If his uncles had their way, he would never do the same. The forest, in all its beauty and majesty, was all he would ever know.

Unless…carefully, he shifted, sliding to sit on the oversized boulder. He stared at the grass beyond the brush, beyond the cliffs, and wiggled his toes.

“Don’t even think about it, princess.”

When you’d only ever heard three voices, you didn’t have to wonder who was addressing you. “Every time,” he sighed. Instead of jumping down, he remained on the rock, tugging his long legs stubbornly up to his chin. He could run, of course, but he would only get caught, now that he was out in the open. No racing through the woods today, seeking for his freedom. The game was already up. He turned his head to look sullenly over his shoulder at the newly-arrived figure. “It never fails. How do you always find me?”

Clad in leather jerkin, well-fit pants and a cuff-sleeved shirt, dark hair cropped to his ears and pale eyes ever-patient, Boz was instantly recognizable. The dark-haired man just smirked at him, his hands perched on his hips. The square, crimson stone at his throat dazzled as he stepped into the light. “You’re easy to find.”

He snorted, only somewhat insulted. “Can’t be hard with only four people to choose from…”

“Kolya,” came the chastening reply. He pouted a little, kicking his feet off the rock as his uncle drew steadily nearer. He sensed the hand coming before it ever grasped his shoulder, but it still felt heavy when it landed. When he turned his head, he was met with pale eyes not unlike his own, and a patient smile that he was starting to resent. “Don’t be unfair…you know why we live here. You know why we’re the only ones.”

“I know,” he agreed, reluctantly. But now that the topic was on the table again— “but I’m tired, Boz. I’m tired of having nothing to do, no one to talk to—”

“You have us, don’t you?”

He opened his mouth to retort, and at once, he hesitated, as the older man’s eyes gave an uncomfortable shift. He wanted someone else. It was the truth, but he knew that if he said it, he would hurt his feelings. Frustrated as he was, he didn’t want that. He knew Boz didn’t mean any harm…none of them did. They only wanted him to be safe, and to them, safe meant far away from other people. Even if it meant he had to be lonely.

With a sigh, Kolya turned his eyes again to the plains—to the old woman with her cart and shawl. She was still shuffling along, pushing the heavy thing with her, no matter how the pitted road jostled her and pushed her back. As he watched, he saw a man running from the village she’d left, chasing her with apparent alarm. He was either going to help her, or going to bring her back. He sighed; he knew what that was like. There was nothing worse than being lovingly carted back when all you wanted was to escape. Still, he couldn’t help but be jealous of her. If she was going back, she was going back to town. And he was going back to the woods. “I can’t stay here forever…”

The hand on his shoulder shifted, moving to rake tenderly back through the length of his hair. He had always done that. He hated when he did it—it made him want to listen, no matter how much he disagreed with what he had to say. “Come on,” Boz said, and grasped his shoulder with his other hand. He helped him down off the boulder, wrapping an arm around his narrow shoulders. “You’ve probably scared Aleksei to death…and I’d bet you got Dema into shit when you vanished. Let’s go let them know you’re okay, huh?”

Not that he had much of a choice! Defeated, the teenager nodded his head, dragging his long dark bangs from his face as his surrogate father led him back to the woods once more. The trees seemed to shift and part as always when Boz took him home, shortening the distance to his impending scolding and punishment.

But what more punishment could there be, than to be kept from the world when all he wanted was to see it?

****

Towering high above its surrounding lands, the Cross Palace shone as the sun itself. Old as their people, the castle contained the best of the kingdom: its strength, keeping enemies at bay with its solid stone walls; its luster, exhibited in every rich detail, from the polished, emerald marble tiles of its floors, to the crimson tapestries, embroidered with jewels and gold falling from the tall, golden brick walls; its wisdom, for all of it was treasured here; and its identity, for everything the Cross ever was and would be always sprouted from within its heart.

Such a gem was an emblem, a symbol to remind every single Crucian citizen to be proud of the magnificence of their glorious kingdom.

Just like the town’s crowded streets, inside the palace, it was very lively as well. Here, merchants were not to blame, but musicians and jesters, courtiers, ladies and gentlemen alike, scholars, priests and patrolling guards, each playing their role in the colorful picture of the castle corridors.

Among these people, several figures were made to blend in; maidservants, all clad in demure greens, ochres and whites, rushed from hall to hall in an ever-mounting state of panic. Already, the onlookers were talking, aware of the servants’ plight: His Royal Highness, Prince Sanctus, had once again failed to appear before his tutors. The Queen Regent would not be pleased—the heir had to be found.

It was at times like these, now so common since the last year, that every cleric, every counselor, even the lowliest of maids, invited all gossiping tongues to practice humility—another virtue passed down from times of old, so frequently forgotten in the face of grandness and of scandal, and yet, so easily recalled when things didn’t go as planned inside these pristine, perfect walls.

How to excuse a missing prince?

“Dear Lord, where is he? Was he really not in his rooms?” the maids wondered to one another, again and again, running short of all the darkened corners to inspect for signs of the missing youth. They blended in perfectly with the dull marble floors, yet stood out on the red carpet dressing the many corridors. Their livery was intended to make them stand out only when their service was required by their betters, so that they would remember their place.

“Not since past brunch, when he changed clothes to head to lessons.” A maid clad completely in ochre addressed the questions with a curious sense of calm. She held clear status amongst her peers. “He ventured out dressed lightly. Perhaps it is down on the piers where he will be found.”

A lost crown prince was bad enough, but one escaped to the docks? The outrageous suggestion shocked and appalled the passing courtiers, and yet, the dread of having the Queen Regent find out touched all souls present, and soon enough, a small party of brightly armored guards was send into town. Troublesome or not, it was not anyone’s place to judge the heir…especially not when judgmental words traveled so quickly to the ears of those who would repeat them.

Not far from the chaos concealed behind the golden walls, a more tranquil scene took place down at the royal stables, away from the music and drama of the court, and the scents of lavish foods and goods. Here, the only scents were those of hay, sweat and manure, the only sounds the chatter of horses, and the clatter of hooves. It was here, among the many rows, that a young man of auburn hair and sun-kissed skin redressed himself in borrowed clothes. Beside him, a robust stallion finished its meal, fully geared with bridle, tack and saddle. This wasn’t a sleek and muscular horse, like the other stallions resting in their stalls. No, this blue roan was made for traveling long distances and rough roads. It didn’t belong inside a stable, or out in the crop fields, but outside with his equally adventurous master, now geared up for a setting far different than the blessed Cross.

With the guard patrols headed for the piers, all that remained about the stables were a handful of passing servants and busy stable boys. Away from the bustle and fuss of the palace, in this quiet and peaceful scene, no one thought strangely of the sight of a young rider escorting a gray-toned horse away from the grounds. No one paused in their work.

No one thought to stop him.

****

“You want to what?”

The forest beyond the tiny cabin quivered at the resounding shout. Things in the peaceful glen, it seemed, had suddenly become less peaceful.

Kolya looked briefly between his other guardians, searching for their support. There, he found little to back him; Boz was busily whittling a figure in his chair, while Dema sat quietly nearby, inspecting the floor. Clearly, they were less concerned with his remark than the smallest (and loudest) of them. “I want to go to town.”

Aleksei snorted from his place at the washtub, slamming a helpless fruit into the waiting basket. The cerulean gem dangling from his left ear sparkled brilliantly in the afternoon sunlight, casting blue reflections across the wall, and the offending boy. “You must be out of your mind. You have the unmitigated gall to sneak out, only to get caught and come back talking about leaving again? Did you fall out of a tree? Have you hit your head?”

He sighed. Asking anything of this nature was difficult enough normally, but when Aleksei got angry, all room for discussion ceased to be. Still, since he’d already dragged it back into the open again, he thought, and so he might as well continue. He was already in trouble—it couldn’t get much worse. “I’m going to be eighteen soon,” he said (and all three of them cringed in sync). He looked between them, managing a half-hearted smile. “Do you really plan to keep me here forever?”

His surrogate family exchanged a communicative glance: Dema looked at Boz, who looked at Aleksei, who looked back, and then Boz sent it right back to Dema. The general consensus was understood. “Well,” Boz said at last, “We certainly plan to try.” He smiled.

Kolya rolled his eyes as the dark-haired man went back to his carving. Did everything have to be a joke? “I’m serious.”

And in a way, so were the trio—unrealistic as that wish might be.

“Not like we dun want you to, but…” hesitating, Dema—the babysitter of the bunch—looked up at the boy with sympathy. “It’s too dangerous outside.” And he was barely a man, in their eyes.

Touching though the argument was, he had heard it a thousand times before. “I know,” he sighed, “But—”

A sudden ‘BANG’ from the kitchen cut him off. Another piece of produce sacrificed to Aleksei’s temper. “Drop it,” the smallest man snapped. “You aren’t leaving, and that’s final.” And with that tone, it certainly was. The door was as good as shut on that topic.

And they wondered why he so longed for others, when all their conversations were held this way. There were no real discussions here; everything was either a lecture or an argument, and by the end, he was left with nothing but more questions and frustration. So many years, and even as he grew to their heights and spoke in their words, they treated him still like a child. Every answer was ‘because I said no’ and ‘you don’t understand,’ without explaining why. As he looked between the other two, discouraged, he knew they wouldn’t support his bid. None of them wanted him to leave, and so none of them would even discuss it. The subject was closed.

But he thought of that old woman, trekking determinedly along the broken road, and he couldn’t just let it go. For several long moments, Kolya merely stood against the wall and contemplated, curling his long hair absently back behind his ears. That couldn’t be the end—he had to find a way to make them see. At length, he lifted his head to peer into the kitchen, where the most temperamental of them was busily washing his purchase. At that, he frowned. Perhaps a different approach? “You went to the Cross market again?” he found himself inquiring.

“So I did.” Aleksei paused to look back over his shoulder at him, visibly daring him to question further. Pinned beneath those midnight-hued eyes, he was briefly cowed by the prospect of challenging him. Satisfied in his command, he turned back to his work. “What of it?”

“Why don’t you buy from the Star?” It was an honest question, though one he’d asked before, with similar motives.

He slammed another poor, defenseless piece of fruit down in his basket. “Because I assume you don’t like rotten fruit—unless you care to correct me.” His voice was clipped and dour as it always was when he was tested. He picked up another piece to wash, pressing his sleeve further up his arm. His glasses balanced precariously on the tip of his nose as he stared fixedly into the washbin. “Don’t start on this now, Kolya. I know what you're doing, and I’m in no mood.”

Written off again! “You’re never in any mood.” It just slipped out.

BANG!’ The fruit was barely wet that time before it was crushed in with the others. The pale-haired man turned his head just far enough to look back at him in silently warning.

“Careful,” Boz murmured wryly, his eyes fixed on his whittling, “I’m sure there’s a knife in there somewhere.”

Well now another door was open, wasn’t it? “But the Cross doesn’t need the money,” Kolya argued all the same. It was one of the many things it seemed would never make sense to him—something that was never fully explained, no matter how he asked it. He looked between his uncles, searching for some sign of agreement, but found none. “The Cross is successful; they aren’t in need. The people in the Star need it more, don’t they?”

Aleksei bit out a cold little laugh. “And just what would you know about that?”

“I know that the Crucians wear gold and gems,” he fired back, standing from his place against the wall. If it was going to be a fight, it might as well be a good one! “Their crops grow green and their clothes are all patterns and colors. You think I don’t hear you three talking, but I’m not deaf, and I’m not blind. The Stellacians are living in the dirt…they don’t have anything. So what if the Cross’ food is better? Their people are rich—they don’t need more money. The Star does.”

“So you’ll eat rancid meat and rotten potatoes to help them?” The bespectacled man scoffed. “A handful of coins won’t mend what’s broken there, and there’s little point in making you sick.”

“Kolya,” Dema’s low voice intervened, drawing him back from the edge of the kitchen. The boy looked up accordingly. “I know you feel for em’.” Sensing the conversation heat up, the thoughtful giant attempted to intervene, unsure of how to appeal to both the headstrong boy and the temperamental man. “Know how ya’ feel, but us alone can’t change the Star. All y’ can do is live on and be grateful for what y’ have.”

Boz nodded his agreement, lowering his carving once more. “It’s better to leave it be,” he sighed.

Leave it be? “But…” He stared between his guardians in disbelief. For as little as he knew of it, even he could see the misery the people of the frozen lands were forced to endure. He could hardly stomach the thought of coin flowing into privileged hands when others went without. And his uncles went out into the world! They had seen with their own eyes what he had only ever gleaned from overheard conversations and watching from afar. Surely, they had to care, didn’t they? Was he the only one? One side was suffering, the other wasn’t. What was so complicated about it? “We’re forced to give our money to those who don’t need it, because they’re better off than the people who do? How does that make sense?” At the general lack of response to his question, he couldn’t help but feel like he was talking to an empty room. Again. Frustrated, he rapped a fist against the wall. “It isn’t fair!”

Aleksei slammed down his washing, and Kolya quickly bit his tongue as he whirled to face him. “You’re right!” the smaller man shouted, “It isn’t fair! Life isn’t fair! But there’s nothing you, nor I, nor anyone else can do about it! Can you understand that?” His face was flushed in a rare expression of real anger, outside of his usual moodiness. He approached a handful of steps to lean in the kitchen doorway, bracing himself against his own temper. A damp hand rose wearily to his forehead, pressing over his eyes behind the lenses of his glasses. After a moment, he spoke again, his tone controlled once more. “Our five or six coins will not feed those people, child, and they will not fix their problems. So, please, stop bringing it up. There is nothing we can do.”

As the other shifted slowly to return to his task, Kolya sighed, leaning back to rest against the wall again. No matter which way he approached these topics, no matter how he posed his questions, it always came back to this. Leave it alone. Let it go. But he couldn’t. Something in him wouldn’t let him let it go. For years, he had snuck to the forest’s edge to watch the people pass, and even then, he had seen that something was wrong. He could see the way things were, but he couldn’t see why they were that way. If he wouldn’t be allowed to go and see for himself, he at least wanted someone to tell him why.

But Aleksei would never tell him, he knew—he was trying to be the responsible one, as had always been his station. Boz was equally unhelpful; while he tended to take the role of the good guy, opposite the other man, he always found a way to wiggle out of really addressing the issues at hand.

That left it to Dema—his chosen nanny, his surrogate older brother. He wasn’t as good at maneuvering out of conversations, and so he didn’t speak, to avoid the trouble. This debate had been had a thousand times before, and it always closed with him being told that he didn’t understand, and that he didn’t need to know. He was expected, as their child, to take them at their word and accept that things were a certain way. But the condition of the world was their reason for keeping him. He would never comprehend the reason for his captivity if he didn’t learn of it. And if they had their way, he would never do so. Dema was his best option.

Leaving his place at the wall, he crossed to where the largest man was sitting, and perched on the arm of his chair. “Why?” he asked, directing the question specifically to him. “Why can’t we do something to help, even something small? Is it so wrong to try?”

Stuck between the blade of his ‘son’ and the wall, the man could only avert his gaze, briefly glancing to Boz and Aleksei for help—but the former merely shook his head, the latter entering once more to pin him with a warning stare. “Y’ already are,” he sighed. “You care, Kolya.” That was the first step to making a change. It was the rest of steps that he and the others dreaded. “But one or four people dun’ matter. It’s not enough. Y’ need more, and those people can’t afford to care. They can’t change.”

“But if someone doesn’t do something, how can it change?” the boy asked, though he knew it was in vain. “There has to be someone who can make a difference, hasn’t there? If anyone out there can help, they sure aren’t trying. And how are we better than them, turning our backs because we’re only—”

“That’s enough,” Aleksei cut in sharply. “This topic is pointless, and it’s finished now.”

And then, the door was slammed on him. Again. For all his reasoning and persuasion, for as hard as he tried to get through to them, he remained paralyzed by their authority over him. At a word, all opportunity vanished. But Kolya was tired of being told no, and so, he stuck his foot in the door. “No, it isn’t,” he spat, standing from Dema’s chair. “You can say that it’s done as many times as you want, but it isn’t. It doesn’t change anything!”

“And neither does bring it up, again, and again, and again!” The smallest of them had had enough, of the topic, and of their charge’s impertinence. He only got worse, the older he grew. That was the trouble with children. “We can see that you want to help, Kolya, but this isn’t like in your books! You can’t just step out the door and fix things, that isn’t how it’s done!”

Boz set his carving aside, wryly perching his chin in his hand. “Mind your blood pressure.”

“Shut up!” the pale-haired man snarled down at him. He rounded on the teenager again, his temper finally taunted free. “You have no idea what’s out there! No idea what it’s like! How miserable that world is. The things that could happen to you, the things that desperate people do—”

“Well if you’d let me leave,” Kolya shouted back in frustration, “Then maybe I’d know!”

At once, a tangible silence descended over the tiny cottage, and every person in that room suffered a sense of inescapable change. That phrase had set something in motion—something that, now, could not be stopped. It was a valid point. He had no idea, because he had never gone…because his adoptive parents had protected him from it. But how was he to learn if they couldn’t bear to tell him…if he never had to face it?

Slowly—ever so slowly—Boz turned his head to look up at Aleksei, who stared fixedly at their headstrong child, glaring so intently back at him. His lips parted, but for once, nothing came out, and then they closed again. The discomfort was clear on his face. This would not end well.

For a moment, the stalemate stood. Aleksei’s dark eyes stared across at Kolya, whose impossibly gray ones stared right back, unflinching in their resolve. It was a frightening moment, in which the others were powerless to act. And then, the answer came—spoken softly, but with a weight that shattered. “Fine.”

“Fine?” Dema arched a brow, unsure of what had just occurred.

Kolya jumped, startled by the answer. “What?”

Whaaat?” Boz echoed, his voice spiking uncomfortably out of its natural range. He gawked up at the bespectacled man, who merely continued to focus on the boy. “Aleksei—”

The smallest of them took a moment to collect himself, taking a breath and drawing a hand back through his golden-brown hair. The faint strands of silver marking it were less pronounced than those of his other caretakers, but they always seemed clearer with that gesture. His fingers lingered briefly on the deep blue sphere strung from his earring, rolling it between his fingertips as he spoke again. “You want so badly to know the state of things, then so be it. I was just telling Dema how I’d planned to buy meat anyway.” He turned his head to orient on the green-eyed man, his gaze startlingly firm. “Dema will take Kolya to the Star castle town, tomorrow, to purchase what I require. Try to find something that isn’t expired or ill-fed, pay them whatever they ask. That way, they will have our money, and Kolya will have the visit to the town he so longs for.”

“Really?” The remaining two were speechless, but Kolya could barely contain himself. What Aleksei’s hopes for this exercise were, he couldn’t be certain. All he knew was that he was going to town for the very first time, with full permission. Suddenly unable to restrain his glee, he closed the distance between them and latched onto the dour older man, nearly bowling him over in his haste. “Thank you!” he exclaimed, beaming. “Thank you…”

Though usually unsettled by such contact, Aleksei merely smoothed the boy's ruffled hair, staring over his shoulder at the other two in the room. His gaze communicated volumes to them. “Go and finish the washing,” he said, patting him on his back. “We need to discuss the details of this little outing. You can have the strawberries when you’re done.”

For as unhappy as he had been before, he now felt twice as glad. He couldn’t find it in himself to be disagreeable any longer. “Yes, sir,” he said, and—sparing an excited glance to the other two—he hurried into the kitchen, to finish the chore Alek had started. He thought dryly as he rolled up his sleeves that he would try to be nicer to the fruit than his surrogate mother had been.

As the boy fell quickly to his task, the youngest of the three chosen guardians made his way calmly into the room proper, unfolding his loose sleeves as he went. He perched himself in his reading chair, folding his hands primly over his knees. His face remained unreadable.

Boz made a beeline for his seat, coming to lean against the back as he stared astoundedly down at their healer. ‘Did you finally snap?’ he projected, mortified. ‘Is that what this is? Are you insane?’

“Alek?” Dema followed; perching himself at the blonde’s other side, he took a seat on the arm of the chair. “What’s your plan?” he inquired, lowly. Clearly, there had to be one. Otherwise, he would not have given in.

Aleksei reached up to tap a finger to their defense’s forehead. ‘Don’t let him hear,’ he reminded him, silently. ‘He’ll listen if he can, you know that.’

‘You do have a plan, right?’ Boz insisted, clearly unsettled by the whole situation. He spread his hands, momentarily at a loss. ‘Because it looks like you just told him he could go to the fucking Star. And that can’t be what you just did.’

‘Not that the two of you were much help,’ their youngest sent back, bitterly. But his companions merely continued to stare down at him, intent, needing an explanation for this very sudden shift in stance. Finally, he sighed, sitting back in his chair. ‘Telling him no was only going to work for so long, and clearly that time is done. My plan is just that: let him see what he’s only been eavesdropping on for the past seventeen years. He can pity them all he likes, but once he sees the truth of it, with luck, he’ll lose interest in his want to be like them.’

‘We’re really letting him leave?’ Their leader wasn’t so certain he was comfortable with that. They hadn’t spent all that time safeguarding him, only to let him just wander away. It didn’t feel right. ‘This is the Star we’re talking about. Are we really going to let him just go?’

‘Not just go—Dema will go with him. And what choice do we have? How else can we make him see, if he doesn’t see it for himself?’ He sighed, lifting his hand once more to finger the talisman dangling from his ear. Even as he spoke, the sphere began to glow—a sign of his unease. ‘The world is not the way he thinks it is, and it is because we kept him here that he doesn’t know better. He doesn’t understand that good things can’t just be done for people…that people will take advantage, or even try to hurt him. He has to see for himself that there is no magic beyond the forest—just unfortunate circumstances, which he is powerless to change.’

Much though he disliked it, Boz understood what he meant. They had tried to tell him a thousand times that the world was not safe for him, and that the things they told him were unchangeable, even if unfair. He could be told a thousand more times and never accept it. ‘You’re right.’ His hand floated up to cover the angular gem strung from his necklace, which itself began to radiate a warm, crimson light. He managed to subdue it. ‘It must look so simple from here,’ he sighed, wordlessly. ‘Letting him actually go and see for himself might make him realize that things aren’t so easy as they seem in his books. Maybe seeing it up close would make him understand…get it out of his system.’

‘The overwhelming truth of it, with luck, will make him realize that he is powerless to interfere. And once he’s had a taste of it—safely,’ Aleksei added, grasping their defense’s forearm, ‘with Dema to protect him—perhaps he’ll stop thirsting for it. Better to let him go supervised than to refuse and assume he won’t go alone.’

That, they knew, was the real threat. It was a wonder he hadn’t tried it already. At least with Dema there, they could guarantee his safety…and his anonymity.

But would he really let it go? As he stared down at Aleksei’s fingers, so close to his gauntlet, Dema couldn’t help but wonder. Kolya was a good and loving boy—perhaps too much for his own good. It was in his blood to be so kind and so stubborn, after all. There was a chance that their plan would backfire, but what else could they do? The boy was unhappy, and wouldn’t be moved. Their hands were tied. ‘I’ll take good care of him.’

‘You’d better,’ their healer said, tensely, ‘Because if anything happens to him—’

‘Nothing will.’ Leaning from his place against the chair, Boz peeked around the corner into the kitchen, where their young charge was busily washing fruits and placing them (nicely) into the waiting basket. As he watched, the boy snuck a strawberry into his mouth, hummingas he worked at the task. While, normally, he might have smiled to see him so pleased, he could only look quietly on, feeling the magnitude of this choice weighing on his shoulders.

Whatever way it went, things would be different from now on. There was no going back.


To Be Continued

****

Recap:

The Forest-Dwellers
-Kolya: a peasant boy, who has lived his whole life in the Western Forest. For a lad of seventeen, he is very intelligent, prone to eavesdropping and questions, and highly conscious of the suffering of others. He has a penchant for escaping unnoticed from the cottage, much to his uncles’ shared frustration. Though he dearly loves them, he can’t help but wonder about the world he’s only seen from afar.
-Kolya’s “Uncles”: the dysfunctional trio that raised the boy. Comprised of Boz (a charming carpenter), Aleksei (a reluctant homemaker), and Dema (essentially his babysitter), he calls them his uncles, though he knows they’re not related. They are wildly overprotective, and have forbidden Kolya from ever leaving the forest. The only visible sign of their collective age—which should be around 40—is a bit of gray sprinkled through their hair. It’s clear they’ve been together a long time.

The Tribes
-The Crucians: the whimsical people of the Kingdom of the Cross. Golden-skinned and dark-eyed, they are artisans, musicians and tradesmen, lighthearted and largely carefree. Under the rule of the Queen Regent, their economy is thriving. They are a people with an abundance of pride, and a shortage of worries. Their markets are preferred to all others in the surrounding realms.
-The Stellacians: the resilient people of the Empire of the Star. Pale and dark-haired, they are laborers and craftsmen, once well-known for their technological superiority. With the fall of the Empire, the Star’s economy is non-existent, and hard living has taken a visible toll on its people. Harrowed by harsh weather and a lack of a ruler, they seem to press on through sheer force of will alone.

Story and Characters Copyright © Xandra and Countess-D 2010-2012
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Sleeping Beauty, Chapter Five: The Escape
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