The front of the castle was wide, plastered in blue bricks with white fringes, with opened gates indented in the middle of it. A larger complex poked out behind the front wall, and a multitude of high towers with pointy, red-tiled roofs. The castle stood on a hill surrounded by trees on both sides, with a path leading towards the town about an hour away.
“Let’s go in!” Dema cheered, while Lostina eyed the place with suspicion.
“You really think this is a good idea? Do you even know what happened?”
Dema planted her chin on her hand, and hummed in thought. “Well, I know it’s gonna be a big alchemy showcase? Also, the story kept making references to her speech, but never shared the actual speech. I’m curious!”
“Ah,” Lostina let out. “You got lost in the allure of a noodle incident.”
Dema looked up. “A what?”
“Honestly, too hard to explain. Just temper your expectations. Such things usually kept from readers when depicting the actual event or actually solving the mystery would be underwhelming.” Lostina took a deep breath. “I’m honestly getting a little nervous. She’s a villainess, isn’t she? We are going to survive, right?”
“Right!” Dema let out suddenly, looking a bit more worried. “Forgot you’re not immortal!” After scrunching up her eyes for a moment, she dismissively added, “Ah, well, it’s gonna be fine. Little rabbit will protect us.”
Theora blinked. Protect them from what, exactly? Now, Dema had gotten her nervous too.
For a second, Lostina looked like she was regretting her life choices, but then just shook her head, scratched her neck, and pointed leftward through the gates towards the far end of an area on the castle’s inner yard.
“So, there, you see that door? That’s my best guess to where the treasury is. Go in, fetch the Frame of the Lost, then run.”
“What does it look like?” Theora asked.
“Honestly, I’m not sure. In the original work, they were just referenced, not described. It was a wonky side-detail at best. I’ll know what it is when I see it.”
In the meantime, more visitors were making their way past them to enter the castle; the princess’ speech was attracting quite an audience. They all vanished inside another, smaller but still pompous entrance on the inner yard, presumably leading to some kind of audience hall.
Dema kept staring after them, obviously longing to go inside too, and Lostina stared at her in turn.
“Did Fiantanne and I really end up doing things together in To Hell With the Author? Honestly, I have trouble imagining it.”
Dema’s eyes darted toward her. “You were bummed out after what you did to Gonell, big time. So, you latched onto the first person you could find that needed your help. And then you went on to do some heists together, to level you up. She’s also how you met back up with Gonell later.”
“Oh.” Lostina frowned. “I see. But this time around, I have the two of you, and Skuld. I’m not alone.”
Dema nodded, then pointed to the castle. “But she would be.”
That, somehow, seemed to convince Lostina to at least give it an attempt, and with a low-voiced soft curse at herself, she went through the gate. Dema made a silent victory jump outside of Lostina’s view, and then scuttled after.
Meanwhile, Theora did her best to somehow assess potential dangers. Traversing through the yard, she made a mental map of the area, surveyed potential evacuation routes, and made estimations on how many seconds they’d take to pass through. She also took note of the inventory, and peeked through windows in the castle to estimate its inner layout.
The inner yard was pretty; a dirt patch with some smaller gardened hills, although most flowers had fallen out of bloom by now. There were pillars to each side, loosely separating the yard from roofed corridors leading inside the castle itself. One corner was filled with crates and wagons and hand carts, some of which apparently contained produce and were worked on by castle staff.
But even they seemed to be about to leave their posts and enter the audience hall as well.
That hall was bustling full. It wasn’t gargantuan; not as big as the throne room of the King, but it was sizable, and at least a hundred people had crammed their way inside. It was lit up by chandeliers hanging at the walls, as well as a large dome-like glowing structure right in the centre of the ceiling. Dema fetched Theora’s hand so they would not be separated as she led the three to a nice spot a bit to the side, on a small elevated part of the floor, so she could see across the heads of people despite her average height.
Someone stood on an indoor balcony attached to the upper half of the end of the hall.
“There she is!” Dema cheered, and pointed at the girl.
Fiantanne was small, but knelt on a small box to make it over the balcony’s balustrade more easily. Behind her were a man with a white wig, wearing formal, blue attire, and a fancily dressed maid. They stood tall and proper, staring at the air in front of them, while the princess was busy with a little contraption she had beside her; it was hard to make out, but seemed like some alchemical magitek-setup.
Then, all doors leading to the hall were closed by castle staff, including windows. In fact, they weren’t just closed — they were being locked.
Finally, as Fiantanne was ready, she stood up, cleared her throat in a thin and high voice, and turned towards the crowd. Cheering erupted, and while it resounded, she patted down her boyish, adorned but practical military azure attire, to smoothen it out, while fixing her wavy and long pale-silver hair. She had white gloves on, and none of her skin was showing except her pale face.
“Yes, yes,” the princess eventually said, and her voice rang loud and clear. “I know, I know. I have graciously delivered myself up on this balcony in a tiresome journey just to let your little eyes stare up at me in awe, I am aware. No need to be so loud about it.”
A few people down in the crowd chuckled. Lostina rolled her eyes.
“As we would have it, I have made you gather up today on the third anniversary of my rule in order to share a large decree, but that comes later. First, I want to start off the festivities with a little speech, and then — fireworks! While working hard on ruling over you little folk, I am not neglecting my studies in the arcane art of alchemy, and would like to showcase some of it today.”
Some people cheered, including Dema. The princess didn’t seem very impressed.
“Yeah, yeah. Cut the crap. Anyway. We all know that the lands are threatened every day by the advent of Errata. And, we all know that the King — god bless his soul — is a little dipshit who does fuckall about it, and instead collects taxes all day to fund his little main city project. What I’m trying to say is, now more than ever, we have to stand up for ourselves! We all need to take responsibility for each other, and then, hopefully, resist against whatever the world sends at us. Yes, yes, no applause please. Just listen properly. You hear me? Ingrain what I say into your little brains, as if it was the last thing you’d ever hear from me. Take care of each other. Let nobody tell you how to live your lives. Nobody. In any case, here goes.”
She took out a magitek contraption. A device with an elongated barrel, a handle, and a little hook where she put her index finger. Then, she aimed the long side of it at the dome above everyone.
“As a person, I am very flawed,” Fiantanne said, as she fastened her grip on the handle. “And yet, you all continue to be nice to me.”
With her other hand, Fiantanne pulled up another contraption — a helmet of sorts, except it was like a bowl of glass.
“For that, I will now take revenge!”
With that, she pulled the trigger, and a loud bang resounded. Theora focused for a moment, and recognised a tiny piece of metal shooting out from it in amazing speed, and then, it crashed into the dome at the ceiling, causing it to shatter. Immediately, some kind of fog flooded the hall.
The fog tasted sickeningly sweet. It had a multitude of different colours, like the morning sun dispersing through mist in a swamp. The fog seeped into Theora’s skin, went through her nose and mouth, and she could see the hint of colourful glow permeate through the veins on her arm as it made its way through her body. This was rather interesting.
It was soon after that a wave of sudden, immense fatigue hit her.
An all-knowing, all-encompassing, extremely heavy need to slumber. Like an irrefutable command of incredible power. Theora was willed to rest by something wildly beyond her control.
Except, Theora had already gotten to sleep a lot inside the Shade. She’d rested even more afterwards, in the bath house, and now, she was on a date with Dema inside her favourite book, and while it was definitely stressful in its own regard, the person who had to do all the thinking here was Lostina, not Theora. She’d helped rebuild a village for three months, had gotten to laugh for the first time since she could remember, and had cried a little too.
And, it would be harder to protect her companions if she were to doze off now.
All things considered, right now, Theora really didn’t feel like sleeping. And so, she pushed the command aside.
It was not time to sleep.
She shook her head slightly, in hopes of getting rid of the dizziness, and then, she heard shuffling noises in her surroundings. With a quick gesture, Theora caught Dema and Lostina mid-fall.
“Are you alright?” she asked, but noticed they were both unconscious. Confused, she gently let them down, only to realise that everyone else in the hall had collapsed as well, in the brief moment Theora had taken to shake off the imposed fatigue.
Everyone except Fiantanne, who now quickly jumped off her pedestal. Suddenly, a little plush dragon weaselled its way out of her uniform, and came to a close on her shoulder. “You killed them all!” he let out in a scratchy voice.
“It’s sleep! Just sleep! I was worried for a second, but I guess since it’s me, there was no chance of failure.”
“Sure, sure,” the dragon murmured.
“Alright, now, where do I put the letter? I guess the pedestal is fine? They should find it, right?”
The dragon huffed. “You’re still on about that?”
“Why, of course. You thought I was bluffing?”
While they kept bickering, Theora returned to Dema, gently shaking her. “Hey, wake up,” she murmured. “It’s not time to sleep.” She repeated the same procedure with Lostina, but to no avail. Both of them seemed really out of it.
Theora swallowed, leaned down, directly next to Dema’s ear, and whispered, “I lo— like you.”
Alright, this was tough.
“Excuse me,” Theora shouted up at the balcony, then pointed at her companions when the princess poked her head out. “Could you wake them back up? I need them.”
“What!” She angrily shot up, grabbing the balcony reeling, and bowed over dangerously far. “Why are you awake! Damn, I must have messed up, after all. This sucks. Don’t get in my way.”
“Please wake them back up. I tried shaking them gently but to no avail.”
Fiantanne clicked her tongue in annoyance. “I can’t. They should have worn a helmet if they didn’t want to fall asleep. Sucks to be them. They’ll wake up within a few hours, don’t worry. Totally safe.”
Theora blinked. “Then, please let me know where I can find some things I need,” she pleaded instead.
Fiantanne rolled her eyes. “Fine. If it means you’ll stop pestering me. Let that list be known!”
Theora nodded. “Blankets and cushions?”
“Sure, whatever. Pick a random guest room.”
“Are there enough?”
The princess t’ched. “Enough for what? You realise I’m in a hurry, right?”
Theora gestured around the room. “I don’t want anyone to be cold.”
“Ugh,” Fiantanne grunted. “Could you be any more annoying? Fine!”
She ran off through the door in the balcony, and after a while, returned, throwing cushions and blankets down into the hall, then ran away again to fetch more. Meanwhile, Theora put everyone into safer sleeping positions than what they had collapsed into.
All of them had a resting heart-rate, and a healthy complexion. Theora’s crude medical analysis resulted in the determination that they were indeed most likely just in an artificially induced state of sleep. Not that she was a doctor at all, but having spent millenia walking across battlefields had given her a vague idea.
When everyone was wrapped up warm, Theora looked back up at Fiantanne, who was begrudgingly throwing the last few pillows.
“I have another request,” Theora said. “I need to do some things, but I would not like to leave my companions out of sight. Could I borrow one of the carts in the inner yard?”
Fiantanne let out a loud, frustrated groan, then fetched a flask and rubbed a few droplets of what was inside onto her arms. Then, she jumped off the balcony, and floated across the room. She took a key from one of the sleeping staffers, and unlocked one of the doors, gesturing at Theora to come after.
Outside, she pushed the flask into Theora’s hand. “Here. Hard to make, but I have some in my luggage. Take this cart—” she kicked a medium-sized wooden box with two wheels and a handle to pull it — “And when you get to a bad spot, pour some of this tincture on it. Disables gravity for a few minutes, so you can pull it through air. This flask should last until they wake up. And now, begone.”
She stormed off into another entrance of the castle, muttering at herself, and meanwhile, Theora moved both her companions into the cart, wrapped them in velvety blankets and secured them lightly with ropes so they couldn’t fall out.
These sleeping beauties needed to be safe and sound. Only their faces stuck out from the sheets, with Dema’s horn poking against a pillow and Lostina’s strands of hair tugged between folds. Both now lay there lost in dreams, side by side, with peaceful expressions on their faces, their bodies shifting slowly with their calm breaths.
Theora let out a soft sigh.
She should stay here until everyone woke back up, right? But still, at the very least, she needed to check out the treasury in the meantime.
While she was still deliberating, Fiantanne came back out of the door, luggage in hand, and made her way over the inner yard.
“You didn’t have to do all that,” Finatanne murmured. “The hall will stay warm, I have heaters plugged-in, and the concoction I used has some protective properties built in. Could have just left them lying around.”
“But you still helped me do it,” Theora murmured. “What are you even trying to accomplish?”
“I’m running away, obviously. They all secretly hate me anyway.”
“They literally love you,” the dragon squeaked in annoyance.
“Well, they shouldn’t.”
“Why put them to sleep first?” Theora asked. “Could you not have run away at night?”
“Pfft!” Fiantanne let out. “I’m a little girl, I need a head start. Plus, if I commit an atrocity first, they won’t actually want me back. Also, I am their ruler. I have every right to—” She clicked her tongue. “Anyway. After what I’ve done to them, I can’t possibly keep ruling. They’ll let me leave for good.”
“You don’t want to be a princess,” Theora concluded.
“Obviously. Who’d wanna rule over anyone? I was born into this position, and when it finally fell on me after my uncle died, they kept pushing me to make decrees. I decreed that half the funds of the kingdom be used to build shelters for those in need. I cut the budget for royal festivities in half to provide food. I had them build a hospital from the tax money they pay to the royal family each year, and had it provide help for free. And they just kept praising me.”
“Of course they’d praise you,” the dragon yelped. “You are improving their lives. Under your duke, they lived in poverty.”
Fiantanne gave an exasperated sigh. “We’ve been over this, Laticula. The only reason these decrees are necessary at all is because the royal institution exists in the first place.” She looked at Theora. “You wouldn’t believe how much convincing it took for my advisors and the higher ranks to even accept these small things. The people should be toppling us all, not praising me. And now that I’ve chosen the route of a villain, they will finally have to accept that.”
“I still think you should have just ran away,” Laticula murmured.
“Ugh, fine. Whatever.” She looked at Theora, adding “Don’t get in my way.”
Theora nodded. “Alright.”
“No,” Fiantanne huffed. “Don’t listen to my commands.”
“I was just honouring your request out of consideration,” Theora answered.
At that, Fiantanne blinked. “What, such a thing exists? Anyway, are we done?”
Theora shook her head. “My companions and I came here to steal—”
A Frame of the Lost. Would divulging that information threaten Lostina’s plans?
“… Something, from your treasury. I would like to ask for permission to do that.”
Fiantanne frowned. “Something? Honestly I don’t really know what’s down there. Well, technically the stuff’s all mine, but I don’t need it anymore, so do what you want with it. These things were only catching dust. The townspeople will inherit all of it today, so if you have something to give in return, leave it there. Stragglers might arrive at the castle any second, so I need to get out.”
With that, she plodded off, her high heels clacking over the pavement.
Once Fiantanne was gone, Theora made her way to the entrance Lostina had indicated earlier, the two of them in tow. The insides of the castle were lavishly adorned; red carpets with golden embroidery, rose-coloured walls with paintings, crimson corbels and engravings of all kinds caused not a single part of the architecture to be bland or simple.
Theora used a few drops of the potion to make the cart hover over the ground when she gently dragged them up and down stairs. After a while, she found the basement. It took quite a while for her to find a small staircase leading further underground in a spiral, at the end of which was a large iron gate.
She broke it open, and veered into what she immediately recognised as a place to store valuables.
The side walls of the long hall were lined with chests, all locked. Theora popped them open one after the other, and found mostly gold inside. In addition, two long rows of pillars parted the room. Each was shaded faintly blue, and had a ring of glass around it, giving storage space for what appeared to be expensive weapons, armour, other pieces of equipment and magical items and contraptions. Some contained valuables — gemstones, jewellery, rings.
Theora looked at the items on the first few columns in detail. Down here was complete silence, except for Lostina’s light snores and the occasional sleepy sigh from Dema.
“Come fetch me.”
That sudden voice hit Theora in mild surprise. Well, it wasn’t really a voice.
It was a vague, abstract feeling. Something tried to make itself known, perhaps, tried to get her attention. It took her a while to notice what it was.
At the very end of the hall, on a sleek but well-crafted pedestal, stood a small coffer. Its base colour was a dark blue, wrapped in several silver metal stripes both vertically and horizontally, with thin curves of embellishment lining the intersection points asymmetrically, giving the entire chest both the appearance of elegance and sturdiness at the same time.
Theora slowly approached, the wagon’s wooden legs scratching across the marble floor. There was a phrase edged in the wall right behind the coffer, saying “Free for the taking.”
She frowned. Why would someone put a sentence like that inside a treasury? Weren’t treasuries constructed to discourage stealing?
As she came even closer, the calls rang louder in her head, though they didn’t become any more clear or comprehensible. Still, she got the intent; the coffer wanted to be fetched away.
Eventually, Theora could decipher a small lettering stretched above the coffer’s keyhole.
It said, “DO NOT OPEN.”