Daxton was captive again, struggling not to take it in ill grace. This time, it seemed unlikely that Esha could rescue him.
It was a captivity far more posh and sometimes far less comfortable than his time in the Red Queen’s dungeons. Nobody, as far as he knew, was dying because of him, which was very pleasant. He had his own bed to sleep in, baths as often as he wanted them — and then some — and very nice food, occasionally in excess of what he could either want or need.
It was beginning to seem, however, that he’d had more freedom when chained in the dungeon. For one, the Red Queen had often left him alone — sometimes for days on end. For another, although there had been a script to follow with the Queen, it had been an easy one, and involved very little actual lying. It had helped, too, that he hated the Red Queen.
Daxton didn’t hate his parents, and he certainly didn’t hate their staff or any of the other people complicit in this captivity. There were courtiers, hangers-on, and installations, people who might as well be furniture for all they could budge, that he felt less than entirely fond of. But even the worst of those, bumps on the log of his parents’ court, Daxton did not hate. In his life, he’d only truly hated the Red Queen and sometimes, on bad days, her guards.
He endured four days of fittings and primping, feeding and grooming and being treated like a prize horse about to be shown. Then Daxton climbed out of a window in his bed-chamber and made his way, via ivy and window-ledges, all the way down to the ground and from there to the mercenary camp on the other side of the stables.
Mercenaries, he found out quickly, were much more attentive than servants, especially as the duchy and the nation were still in a state of war. He was caught before he got within fifty feet of the camp, and only the quick eyes of Karron, Esha’s friend, had saved him from being perforated by an over-eager guard.
“You shouldn’t be here, your Lordship.” Karron insisted this while dragging Daxton into a tent. “You’re going to give everyone a fright, and you might get hurt.”
“I’m noticing.” Daxton smiled wryly. “Next time, I’ll come in the front entrance.”
“Next time? Your Lordship, there shouldn’t be a next time. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re at war!”
“I just wanted to see Esha.” He knew he sounded plaintive and childish. He felt a little of both. “I wasn’t putting myself in that much undue danger. At least, not compared to my time in the Red Queen’s cells.” He lifted his chin a bit and stared at the junior mercenary.
“Look…” Karron deflated a little bit. They often did, when Daxton gave them that look. “We want to see Esha, too. But they’ve got her in the palace somewhere, doing all these fittings or something. It’s not like we can help you break into your own home. I’m pretty sure that’s treason or something.”
“It’s only treason if it’s the royal palace.” Daxton’s answer was a bit distracted. “It’s just — oh, I don’t recall, something minor like ‘entering without leave’ in a ducal manor. She’s in there?”
“What, you didn’t know?”
“I,” he answered perhaps a bit more candidly than was wise, “have been washed, scrubbed, preened, and petted to within an inch of my life. You’d think I was being put on show instead of having been rescued.”
Karron gave him a look that very nearly made him blush. “Well… you are, in a sense, aren’t you? Both of you.”
Daxton flinched. “Do you — do you think Esha is going to hate it?”
“Oh, yes, entirely.” Karron was so straight-faced that for a moment Daxton honestly thought she was serious. Then her smile bloomed, bright and happy. “For about three minutes, until she remembers that all the attention is coming with you as a husband and all the other rewards. And, remember, she came after you. She managed to do what nobody else did. The Red Queen is going to have her face on wanted posters all over her nation — that’s plenty of attention even before the wedding and all this primping.”
Daxton folded in further on himself. “I didn’t ask for that.”
“What, would you rather have been stuck in the dungeon?” Karron scoffed. “Look, we’re mercenaries, remember? Soldiers. Attention is gold. She’ll be fine.”
“…But she’s not here.” Somehow, it only made him feel younger and sillier.
“Nope. And neither should you be.” Karron took his arm. “Get thee back to the manor, before someone worries. Here. I’ll walk you. That way you won’t get lost on the way.”
“Thanks so much.” It was nice to know he hadn’t forgotten sarcasm in the dungeons.
“Always happy to help.” As they headed back across the wide courtyard, its fountains now getting a scrub-down in preparation for the wedding, Karron continued in a much quieter tone. “Besides, they’ll be less skittish if you’re with a soldier, and then maybe you and I can get in to see Esha. We miss her too, you know. We were worried about her, when she went off after you.”
“I — that’s good.” His heart twinged. “It’s good to be missed.”
She shot him a strange look. “Did you — did you think you weren’t missed, when you were in the Red Queen’s dungeon?”
“I’m not the most important person in the nation, not by a long shot,” he demurred.
“That’s not what I asked.”
Daxton sighed. Her gaze was far too penetrating.
“I — I knew my parents would miss me, when they had time. But I didn’t imagine I was worth rescuing, and it wasn’t so onerous as all that. I wasn’t tortured.” He felt a guilty twinge, remembering how many mercenaries had died in attempting to rescue him. “I didn’t know people were coming after me.” The Red Queen had told him, but… “Not really.”
“That must have been very lonely.” Karron veered off to one side of the courtyard, heading to an entrance nearly hidden by some slightly-overgrown bushes. “We used to use this, when I was a kid…” she trailed off. “I don’t think you remember me, we were supposed to stay out of sight. But my mother’s a cook here, in the kitchen.”
“Oh!” He studied her again. The nose was rather distinctive, but the ears — “Ashan, right? She makes the best nut rolls.”
Karron lit up with a broad smile. “That’s her. Okay, so if we go in here — it’s not off-limits or anything, people just forget it’s here — I think this is the wing where they’re keeping Esha.”
Daxton grinned at the entrance. “I suppose,” he joked, “it’s my turn to rescue her.” Hopefully she’d take it in better grace than he had.
“All those fittings. Miles of silk. Lace. Beads! The dangers are many and awful. Be brave, your Lordship.” Karron pushed him gently towards the doorway. “Be brave.”
Laughing for the first time in what seemed like years, Daxton prepared to brave his parents’ home to rescue his bride-to-be from being pampered.