Excerpt for Stargazer/Trailblazer by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



Chapter 1

A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with the First Complete and Utter Misstep




This noise is absolutely infuriating.

Astra once heard about torture like this— they'd drip water onto someone's head at even intervals, then increase the amount of time between drops slowly. Then they'd switch the intervals between drops to random, and the victim, restrained and unable to know when the next water drop would come, would go mad with the continuous expectation and confusion.

That's how Astra feels right now, listening to water drip from the ceiling of this stupid tunnel every three seconds. Then four seconds. Then three again. After that, two consecutive, then five seconds apart. Then six. Then four.

It's maddening.

The light floating above her hand flickers with frustration, and her best friend speaks up.

“Calm down. It's annoying, but try to ignore it.”

The two of them have been walking for what feels like weeks upon weeks, but what Astra's phone says has been about two hours. Twists and turns through this maze of tunnels have all seemed to just be offshoots of one main branch, a larger pathway where the river is always audible overhead. Like a bizarre, massive stone spiderweb.

Balagtas is calm, easygoing, confident. Apparently, he is unfazed by the fact that literally anything could jump out from the darkness at them and swallow them whole right now. Astra does not want to be stuck with him in a giant tunnel serpent's stomach, arguing about why she should never have dragged him down here to explore.

“Easy for you to say,” the celestial mage retorts, unsettled by the noises coming from further up in the tunnel. “You're just oblivious.”

“I'm not,” argues Balagtas. “You're too tense.”

“I'm on my guard, unlike somebody here.” She sticks out her tongue at him. Her free hand leaves her jacket pocket, designated with the important task of making a rude gesture. “I won't name names, but it starts with a ‘B’ and ends with an ‘-alagtas’.”

He pretends to think, adjusting his long ponytail with one hand. “That's a hard one. Can I buy a hint?”

Astra doesn't grace him with a response. In fact, the only thing she graces him with is his head not being blasted clean off his shoulders. She makes another face at him and turns forward again, scuffing her feet on the slippery ground as she walks.

The tunnels are incredibly old, made from some unidentifiable kind of stone and far more stable than one would expect. Sounds of rushing water echo hollowly through depths uncharted; the tunnel system underneath the city of Norbourne seems to have been labeled “unsafe” and subsequently forgotten about over the ages. Maybe once the brickwork had been beautiful, skilled masonry for decorated but practical walls, but no longer. Today, Astra steps carefully on the floor, worn smooth by water with the mortar long eroded away. Drops from the arched ceiling join rivulets flowing away behind them.

“I guess this is uphill, then,” murmurs the towering man even though the slope of the ground is barely detectable. He brushes dirt off his leather jacket, also seemingly not bothered by the smell of standing water and centuries-old air. Astra wonders if perhaps they will suffocate from lack of oxygen.

“Where do you think we are?” she asks for the hundredth time. This time, it seems like they're closer to the inner city.

The exasperated look he gives her says enough, asking how the hell he's supposed to know and what the hell they're even doing down here. He returns to brushing the cobwebs out of his ponytail, and finally just gives up to tie it into a bun, spiders be damned. Near-silence takes over for a bit more walking.

It's as if her eardrums are being assaulted. Astra has never, before this point, known that water drops in an otherwise quiet tunnel could be so maddening. Nothing but hollow-sounding plips and plops and silence inbe—

A welcome change. Something new floats to her ears from further down the tunnel, and this time it’s not the skittering of bats or the echo of her own footsteps.

“Did you say something?” asks Astra. Balagtas shakes his head. Someone did, certainly, but the difference between the mystery voice and her best friend's calm, smooth baritone stretches wider than these stupid tunnels.

There it is again, realizes Astra, putting out her light.

“This little brat heard me talking about taking down Leonel.” The voice is confidently wrathful, the audio equivalent of maggots nesting in a corpse. “She's not going to live to blab about it.”

All that's left in the darkness is Balagtas’ vague, lanky silhouette— and a tall, vertical strip of light in the same direction as the voice.

“I think we're in someone's house or something,” realizes Balagtas. “This isn't good.”

It's unclear whether he's talking about their own misfortune, that of the “little brat”, or that of Leonel. Astra doesn't really care, but curiosity compels her to peer through the crack of light and eavesdrop anyway.

The space between a well-placed dresser and a wall, it seems, is what creates the strip of light in the tunnel. The armoire stands blocking an actual entrance into… wherever this fancy room is.

A man stands in the centre of it, facing away from Astra with his face obscured by long dreadlocs. He's as richly dressed as the room is decorated— that is to say, covered in deeply dyed cottons and silks with fancy leather and a few (probably real) gemstones. A few others, clad in identical dull red, more civilian-looking uniforms encircle him. One hands him a knife, another carries a person over his shoulder— a girl dressed nearly as nicely as the centre man but unconscious and limp with a bruise on her head.

“Don't tell me...” breathes Balagtas from above Astra's head. She doesn't get to tell him, though, because he ruins the surprise himself almost immediately after. “That's the Duke of Norbourne.”

In a strange turn of events, it seems to Astra now that the giant tunnel serpent is stuck in her stomach instead, as the realization of their location dawns on them both— the tunnels stretch all the way inside of Norbourne Castle.

Astra nearly bursts out laughing.

Well, shit.

The knife in the Duke's hands is getting far closer to the girl's neck than she would probably be comfortable with, were she conscious. Astra can't seem to tear her eyes away, even though she knows she'll probably throw up after what comes next.

That is, provided that what comes next is what Astra thinks it's going to be, which it's not.

What comes next is Astra being shoved out of the way by Balagtas, who scrapes most of the skin off his fingers wedging them into the crack and pushing the (undoubtedly heavy) dresser aside as if it's nothing. After that, instead of cleaning her own vomit off her jacket, Astra has to cover her best friend’s ass after his rash decision by doing what mages do and shooting magic at people.

“Intruders!” calls one of the men, and another runs towards the door, undoubtedly to find reinforcements. Or maybe because he's the smartest and wants to survive. Either way, it's too late for him, because Astra hits him with celestial energy, leaving his red uniform smoldering a bit. He's down with the rest of them.

Three men lay scattered at various locations across the room, holes burned into their clothes. Astra has learned that energy shots are enough to take a person out without putting their life in danger.

Balagtas grabs the girl from the man carrying her and kicks him away for Astra to handle. Once they're both back in the safety of the dark, Astra grabs the back of the dresser and hauls it back into place. One foot on the other side of the doorway for leverage, she strains her fingers just to hold onto it.

“This thing weighs a billion tons,” she complains between heavy breaths, shooting at the ceiling above the entrance enough to collapse brick down in front of it. “At least they won't follow us for now.”

Balagtas shifts the girl so that he's cradling her in both arms. “Pretty good there. You got ‘em all.”

“Except your two,” she corrects him as they start off at a quick, careful pace. “They were in worse shape.”

“Yours was cleaner,” he argues. “Less blood, the better.”

“If you say so,” shrugs Astra. She's focusing on her feet, the slippery ground providing no traction for her boots. Balagtas must be doing worse in his dressy-looking, inappropriate-for-tunnel-exploring shoes. “Let's hurry up and get back home. There's definitely other castle entrances, and they might be chasing us now. We don't want them to find your place by following us.”

She shoots at the ceiling again— collapsing a branch tunnel to make it look like they escaped down that one. Even though they've been down here for hours already, Astra can feel the energy returning to her enough to keep running.

It's a while before they reach home again.


***


Balagtas is laying the stranger gently on the couch, finally giving his arms a rest. The sleeping girl is all peaceful slender limbs and fluttering eyelashes over dark brown eyelids. Astra frowns— she looks frustratingly familiar.

“So what the hell was she doing in the castle?” she wonders aloud.

The look that Balagtas gives her is one of utter exasperation. “You do know who this is, right?”

Astra has no response apart from silence.

“She's the Princess, dummy!” He observes her silent, near-clueless stare. “You're not serious, right? The Princess of Norbourne. Next in line for the throne.”

To be honest, Astra has no interest in who or what she is or isn’t, but only curiosity about how she got into such a predicament. The Duke, apparently, has an interest in her life— enough to kill her with his own hands. Personally, Astra muses, I'd hire a hitman for her. And then hire a hitman for that hitman so the first one couldn't talk.

“So,” says Astra slowly, piecing together the puzzle, “we just kidnapped a princess, yeah?”

“Seems like it.”

“So we're federal criminals, yeah?”

“I guess.”

Oh, is that all?

The pair meet each other's eyes, nodding in false reassurance. “That's it,” says Astra to no one in particular. “Just a minor federal crime, punishable by death.”

Astra can feel her hands getting hotter. She steps back from the sleeping girl, Princess, whatever, and Balagtas. “You're an idiot. We're all getting killed now.”

“I couldn't just leave her to die.” His voice hardens into don't argue with me, resolution etched on a clay-colored face. “How could I just watch someone get killed?”

“I'm not saying we should have watched her die,” insists Astra. “There was probably a better plan than charging in and almost getting us killed too! Now they know our faces. We'll be executed. She probably isn't happy about us just dragging her off to god-knows-where, out of her own house.”

“We saved her life, Astra! What the hell else are we going to tell her?”

“How is she supposed to believe us? She just wakes up in a strange place, with strangers who say they saved her—”

Astra cuts herself off. A small voice has interrupted her.

“Excuse me,” comes a quiet, cautious voice like a rung silver bell. “Where am I?”

Balagtas blanches, reminding Astra of an overcooked yam, when he sees the Princess awake. Astra can't help but stare even as she stutters out, “You’re, uh, still in Norbourne. Closer to the edge of town.”

The Princess is nodding, rubbing her close-cropped hair with slender fingers. “You… saved me?”

“Kind of,” replies Astra.

“Kind of?”

“The Duke seems to have some vendetta against you,” puts in Balagtas.

“Um, yeah,” agrees Astra. “So can you, like, think of any reasons he'd wanna kill you?”

Astra!” snaps her best friend.

Oops. Too blunt.

“I'm sorry for her rudeness, Your Highness,” he continues. “We-”

“Actually,” murmurs the Princess, “I can think of a couple reasons. You have my thanks for saving my life— you can call me Nisha.”

That stuns them both into silence for a few seconds. The Princess, heir to the throne, doing something bad enough to warrant execution? By the Duke himself, no less?

“Your Highness—”

“Nisha, if you please.”

“Nisha, if I might ask what the situation is? We might be able to help.” Balagtas is focused on the girl, now sitting up on the couch. Astra knows that stance, the imperceptibly narrowed eyes, the expanded pupils— he's Reading her. And all his manners are bullshit. She's seen him pick his ears and wipe it on the pillow that the Princess is clutching to her chest.

Still, Astra can really only feel they've “helped” enough. Enough to land them in a big giant pile of crap. Why do more? She's alive. She can do the rest of it herself.

“It's true, I am in danger, but… I couldn't possibly ask for your help.” Balagtas’ offer is brushed away. “You've done so much for me already.”

“We could do it, actually,” says Astra. She can already feel Balagtas’ suspicious glare on her. “...For a price.”

The Princess cocks her head. She's listening, at least.

“It's actually not that big of a price,” admits Astra. “Not to you, at least. Basically, we get you home safe, you get us royal pardon. Kidnapping you is something we’ll be executed for.”

Even though Astra thinks it's a solid plan, the look on the other girl's face tells her otherwise. “I'm afraid it's not exactly that simple,” Nisha sighs. “I don't know if I can grant you pardon anymore.”

“What's that supposed to mean?” Balagtas asks, undoubtedly still searching her for any signs of lies or odd emotions.

“I may not be royalty anymore.”

“No longer royalty?” echoes Astra. “What do you mean? Did they kick you out because you decided to start a band instead of going to college? Did you get a piercing they didn't like? Do you—”

“It's quite a long story,” says Nisha, interrupting her, “and not many people are aware of this, but the royal family isn't allowed to Read or use magic— in fact, we're the only people in the entire kingdom who are forbidden from magic our entire lives.”

Astra has a funny feeling she knows where this is going.

“It makes sense. As monarchs, we govern the land, creating and enforcing laws on Readers and mages both. The population among most of the world divides into approximately seventy-five percent Readers and twenty-five percent mages, give or take a few. Even with a fifty-fifty split, there would be inequality among the two groups— and since governmental decisions are essentially the sole responsibility of the monarch, their being a practicing mage or Reader would give unfair bias to one group. A ruler who is neither can make decisions with no sway in their mind,” the Princess explains. “Since we the Norreau family have served Norbourne and the surrounding cities for centuries without using our powers, the potential for magic in our family is nearly dead.”

Nisha crosses one leg over the other, smoothing her silk pants. “But a few months ago, I noticed odd things happening around me. People would tune each other out, or think I was yelling when I wasn't. Telephones stopped working around me, and people I didn't want to talk to would lose their voice suddenly.”

Sounds familiar. Like before I knew I was a mage, and would light up my hands to read at night as a kid without even noticing. Astra nods at her to go on.

“So I started to think it was me— I'd concentrate on faraway sounds and suddenly everyone around me could hear whoever was playing the piano in another wing of the castle.” She sighs.

Astra looks over at Balagtas, who can sense her emotions. Conflicted, he mouths.

“I practiced my powers. I can do really amazing things, now, like change what people are hearing in conversations, or mute entire rooms.” Her voice falls to a low murmur. “But I've always wanted to be Queen, and I can't have both. I could have, if I'd hid it better. But my uncle caught me.”

“The Duke?” asks Balagtas.

“Yes.” She shifts her eyes in various directions as she speaks, taking in the sights of Astra’s home. “My father is… sick. He complains of pain in his stomach and chest constantly. The doctors can tell his insides are inflamed, but aren't sure why. I overheard them saying he doesn't have long if it keeps up— his liver could shut down, and the chest swelling puts pressure on his heart. If he dies in the next few weeks, before I'm twenty-one, I won't take the crown. My uncle will.”

This little brat heard me talking about taking down Leonel.

The icy weight of certain understanding settles into Astra's stomach. She draws in a breath.

“The King's name,” she says, voice strained. “It's Leonel?”

“My father?” asks Nisha, surprised, as if there's any other king in this country. “It's… yes, it is.”

“Your uncle is—”

“I know,” she murmurs grimly, cutting Astra off. Her taupe-colored eyes are downcast now. “There's no mysterious illness. My father is being poisoned by his brother.”

Astra wonders if there's any way for her to back out of this now. Why should she help this princess and her crazy, screwed up family? Astra has her own! All the effort going into just listening to this long-ass story makes her almost rather get executed.

“So what does this have to do with you being a mage?” she asks.

Nisha sighs again. “I'm… not the only one who noticed these things. And I'll admit, I messed up. I was using my magic to eavesdrop on my uncle and a few of his servants from the next room over, and the shock of hearing what he was doing made me lose control. I amplified their conversation by accident, and they caught me and knocked me out when I tried to run. You saw what happened next.”

Oh.

“I can't go home,” the Princess frets. “He’ll tell everyone and I'll be locked up for practicing in secret.”

“No, he won't,” says Astra easily. “He probably can't tell anyone.”

Both of them turn to look at her, confused.

“I mean,” she starts, “that’s a pretty heavy accusation. He'd only lose credit if he made it without proof. And how could he accuse you without telling them how he found out?”

“She's right,” realizes Balagtas. “And then he risks you spilling everything— what you heard, and what he tried to do to you.”

Astra nods. “Not to say you can exactly go back home, though. I mean, if he can poison your dad, he can poison you, too. He won't go after you slowly, either; he just wants to get rid of you.”

“But the police will still look for me. I'm the Princess.”

“Well, you can lay low here for now,” Balagtas reassures her, deep in thought, “but I take it you're wanting to save your father.”

Nisha looks offended at the very notion that she wouldn't want to save her father. “Of course I want to save him!” She clenches her fists, handfuls of childlike naivete. “I can't let my uncle take over Norbourne. I won't allow it. I have to go back home as soon as it's safe.”

I kind of feel bad for this girl, Astra can't help but think. Finally safe from that uncle of hers, and she's gotta go back to save someone else. “Well, I can help you with that,” she assures the Princess, with a toothy grin. “For the price we discussed.”

“I thank you kindly for all your assistance thus far,” replies Nisha formally. “And thank you in advance, Miss… Astra, was it?”

“That's it,” says Astra. She's still grinning. “Astra Lang, at your service.”


~~~


Chapter 2

If You Think About It, Why Are Drugs Illegal, Anyway?




“Miss Lang, what exactly are we doing in an area like this?” asks Nisha, sounding confused.

“Don't worry about it,” grins Astra in response, in a tone that would tell most people to worry about it. “We're gonna see some friends of mine; call it a welcoming present for you. And don't look so nervous. You're asking to get mugged.”

Cashmere pullover and silk pants abandoned, Nisha looks much more like a regular citizen now. Her face hides in the shadow of one of Balagtas’ old hoodies to avoid recognition, but she's still looking around nervously.

Maybe the dirty streets and gang graffiti are making her nervous? wonders Astra. They tend to make her feel more at home, though, so she can't imagine why.

The sun certainly does nothing to brighten the atmosphere, either— hidden behind an expanse of cloud, the weather serves only to make a grey neighborhood even greyer. The border of the slums and the city isn't exactly tourist material.

“I can't believe you've never been here,” remarks Astra, checking the time on her phone. 1:57. Right on time.

“I've really only seen the town square and the royals’ quarter—” she begins, but she cuts herself off. “Miss Astra! Those are gang members!

Astra turns in the direction Nisha is pointing, gently lowering her hand for her. “Don't point at— oh, those are my friends! Nice job, Your Highness.”

“Your…”

She trails off, but Astra is already waving at the crimson-jacketed pair.

“Early as always, Astra,” comments a tall man with a teardrop tattoo on his face. He blows the smoke from his menthol away from the group.

“It's a good example as a businesswoman,” she says with a grin. “Here's what you asked for and a little extra for the favor. Thanks, Jorge.”

The younger member, a skinny brown teenager barely taller than Astra, takes the half-full baggie of white powder from her. Jorge whistles. “That's way more than usual. Good thing I made you a nice one.”

He tosses something at Astra, which she easily catches. Examining the tiny glass marble and its pendant, her eyes widen. “Shit, it is nice! I owe you one, man.”

“Maybe you could start by introducing your scared-looking friend there.”

She'd nearly forgotten about Nisha, who's now standing behind her in an apparent attempt to not be seen (despite being taller). “Oh, right! Um, this is Jorge and Priya. I've known them for a long time now— four or five years maybe? This is my friend, uh… Nina.”

That was a weak lie, she chides herself, having realized mid-sentence that she shouldn’t exactly be giving out Nisha's real name. Though, she hadn't stopped beforehand to think up an alias.

“Good to meet you,” greets Jorge, scratching the cross tattoo on his neck. Priya, docile as ever, gives a nod. Jorge adds, “You're new around here, so I'll give you a tip— quit looking around like that. You look like you know something we don't, and it'll get you into trouble. Stay away from the real slums at least if you're gonna look so shady.”

Nisha's eyes widen a bit. Seems like she actually thinks that was a tip out of the goodwill of his heart. “Oh, um, it's a pleasure to meet you too. Thanks for the… concern.”

“No problem. Have fun with Astra,” he replies. He’s calm, collected, but Priya is Reading the girls’ energies. “Try not to get on her bad side. She's a mean one with that knife in her sleeve.”

“Don't tell everyone about that!” she snaps, adjusting the arm of her varsity jacket. “You wanna be on the other end of it or something?”

Maybe it's Astra's mistake, since most civilians don't typically threaten knife violence against visibly marked gang members, but Nisha looks legitimately terrified at her remark. Jorge isn't blind to this.

“Oh, come on, you're scaring her.” The soft chuckle in his voice is obscured by the rasp of his menthol. “Quit it.”

“Rude,” says Astra haughtily. “We should be going. Go ride your motorcycle or something. I don’t even carry that knife around anymore, anyway. I could kill you without it.”

“See you around,” calls the tattooed man. Priya speaks up, probably the only thing she'll say all day. “Bye.”

Astra begins to lead Nisha back the way they came, a roundabout track home to avoid being followed. “One time,” she mutters. “One time I pulled a knife on a guy, and he can't let it go.”

“You did what?

“Oh, he had it coming,” she says reassuringly. “Tried to get us to empty our pockets. He's lucky he got it from me and not Priya. She's really scary when you piss her off. I've only seen it once.”

For lack of anything nice to say, Nisha elects to change the subject. “What was that you gave him?”

“Oh, in the bag?”

A nod.

“Drugs,” Astra replies nonchalantly, twisting a black ringlet around her finger.

“...Drugs?”

“Drugs.”

Astra can't help but feel as if, every passing second, Nisha's expression grows closer and closer to that of a person who's made the biggest mistake of her life.

“It's called snow haze,” she volunteers, hoping that some information on the topic will make the Princess more receptive. “Popular stuff. Popular, expensive stuff.”

“And you're on it.” Nisha looks unimpressed.

“I am not,” protests Astra, affronted. “I would never. You don't know what that stuff does to someone.”

“Does it really matter? You're selling it.”

“Well, those two aren't doing it either. It messes you up after a couple times— there's no going back.” Astra crosses her arms. “Besides, it's their choice. If I don't give it to someone, they’re either gonna be seriously in danger from withdrawal, or they’ll just go get it from someone else. May as well make a few bucks, since they could die if they don't get it. Actually, if they've been taking it long enough, they'll definitely die, which, y’know, isn't really cool.”

Nisha‘s face of distaste is a little amusing. Astra giggles a bit. “You know, it’s not actually that harmful to a person’s body. It makes you really euphoric, for a few hours, and your magical power is absolutely incredible. That’s part of what’s really dangerous about the stuff. Shouldn’t you know that? You are set to rule the country in not too long, after all, if we manage to stop a certain someone.”

A small hesitation. A falter in her step. “You do have something of a point,” admits the sound mage. “Still, I can’t really condone you selling it right in front of me.”

“What? You don’t even technically know I’m selling it,” complains her less-than-legal city tour guide, in the best don’t be a killjoy voice she can muster. “I just gave it away. In exchange for another illegal thing— see, two negatives cancelling each other out. And, might I add, that thing was for you, so we can have a better chance at stopping, y’know, whatshisface.”

“For me?” echoes Nisha.

“Yeah, for you. It’s a booster.”

The Princess’s face goes from reluctant acceptance to absolute pallor. “What? An actual booster? Those are dangerous!”

“Well, everything’s dangerous if you use it wrong,” points out Astra in what she thinks is a reasonable manner.

“Well, boosters are dangerous even when you use them right!”

“That’s a matter of subjective debate,”Astra says. “For now, you having this is a matter of getting your uncle incapacitated and stopping him from killing your dad, yeah?”

“Maybe so,” murmurs Nisha, “but still…”

“Even if it’s illegal, it’s not like we’re going to kill him if we don’t have to.” Astra digs the little glass marble out of her pocket and hands it to the other girl. “Just put it on a necklace or something. As long as you have it on you, your powers will be a lot stronger than they used to be.”

“What exactly does that mean?”

Astra thinks for a second. “Well, I guess it just means you use less energy when you do magic. I personally don’t have a lot of energy in reserve, but my booster makes it so that I can do simple things for hours without feeling much fatigue. When we were exploring the tunnels, we walked for around two hours to get to the castle with a few twists and turns along the way, but I had enough energy to fight off some of your uncle’s people and light the way home. Without the booster, it’d be like running a triathlon.”

“Wow,” says Nisha, gazing at the marble in her hand. “That’s really amazing. I don’t know if I’ve ever really gotten too tired before, though.”

“You haven’t been doing much strenuous work,” points out Astra, twisting a stray ring of her curly bob around her finger. “Lighting a tunnel is easy for me, too— all I have to do is raise a little ball above my hand for a few hours. I could even do that without the booster. But fighting is a whole different matter since it takes at least ten times as much energy. And you never know what we’ll have to do when we infiltrate your castle.”

Infiltrate?

“You really know how to repeat things.”

“It’s just…” Nisha looks down at her feet. “Why would we invade Norbourne Castle? It’s my home. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

“Unfortunately, some more people will get a lot more hurt and maybe even killed if we don’t do it,” Astra points out. “It’s your choice, but you can’t be afraid to get your hands dirty when you’re trying to do something big.”

“I guess we are trying to make sure the Duke’s plot doesn’t follow through,” she admits. “I just hope everything is okay in the end. I don’t want it to be too late to save my father.”

Astra sighs. She doesn’t want to point out that every day wasted outside the castle, not taking action, is a day they get closer and closer to the King’s death. The Duke had been smart, though— poisoning slowly instead of with a single meal of cyanide or something else instant. Nobody would know he was being poisoned; a mysterious illness is a much easier enemy to blame than the King’s own brother.

“Well,” she says, “we should act quickly. He knows you know now, so he might take quicker action. He was being cautious, going slowly, but he might toss it to the wind now that he thinks you could make this public.”

“You’re right,” says Nisha, sighing too. Gray-brown eyes gaze up at the cloudy sky. “You’re really helpful, Astra. Thank you for doing this.”

“Other way around, Your Highness,” Astra replies. “I just don’t wanna get executed.”

“All the same, the only thing you’d be executed for is saving my life,” she murmurs. “I owe it to you to get you that pardon.”

She has a point there. “Well, we still chose to get you out of there in the end.” Or rather, Balagtas did and then Astra rushed in to make sure he wouldn't die. “So don't worry about it.”


***


“Back already?” Astra asks, thinking it odd to see her best friend home so early. “What happened to work?”

He's ducking through the doorframe now. “Road closed, so I closed shop early. They're searching for you, Your Highness.”

Nisha's eyes widen. “For me? The police?”

“They questioned me,” he recalls, placing his shoes in a neat pair on a rack and sighing. “Thoroughly. Even though I'm supposed to be just a regular citizen. They're cracking down this hard on everyone.”

Astra frowns, clicking her cell phone off as Balagtas sinks into the couch next to her. “But they must know it's impossible to find someone by just questioning everyone. And road closures? For a kidnapping?”

Skinny fingers on the TV remote, Balagtas flips to the news channel— no, not the news channel. A newscast interruption on regular television.

“-Norreau, Princess of Norbourne, has gone missing. The royal family is both puzzled and frightened by Her Highness’s sudden disappearance from right inside the castle,” reports one news anchor from her desk. “Local authorities have shut down all exits from the city, but fear it may be too late as she could already be outside of Norbourne.”

Balagtas changes to the actual news channel.

“King Leonel has released a frightened plea urging his daughter to come home,” says another reporter, this one standing outside the castle. “The king is reportedly willing to pay any ransom, or negotiate any deal following the culprits coming forward, in order to get his daughter back.”

For a few brief seconds, Astra feels a bit bad for the man— after all, he doesn't know the whereabouts of his only daughter— before he remembers that he'd probably feel a lot worse if she were actually dead, which she definitely would be if she hadn't been “kidnapped” when she was. Maybe it's for the best that she's not home right now.

“You're going to get in trouble if they find out I'm here,” realizes Nisha. “We need to act quickly.”

“We can't rush into things,” points out Balagtas. “We don't exactly have a plan.”

The irony that Balagtas of all people says such a thing is not lost on Astra. “We kind of do, actually,” she corrects him.

Two pairs of expectant eyes are trained on her, waiting, while the news channel cuts to an interview with a police officer. “Well, we met with Jorge today,” she begins, ignoring Balagtas’ immediate anticipating-a-terrible-plan groan (which, by now, is rather familiar to her). “He gave me something really nice in exchange for some extra and the usual.”

“And how are you paying for this week's estrogen?” he immediately inquires, knowing full well that the mild-mannered gangster is quite a bit of Astra's weekly income for hormones.

“Don't worry about that right now,” she says dismissively. “Anyway, so she's got a booster now— we can do some spying now, can't we, Nisha?”

The Princess nods. “I'll be able to funnel verbal information from further away straight to our ears, if what Miss Lang says about the tunnel system is accurate.”

“And of course it is,” says Astra smugly. “So we’ll do great. You're not going into work tomorrow, are you, Bee?”

Balagtas rolls his eyes. “Apparently not.”

“Then, we'll head underground first thing in the morning,” decides the ringleader-by-forfeit. “All we need to do is get to the kitchens— you can take us there, right?”

For a few seconds, Nisha is silent before she realizes Astra is talking to her. “Oh, me? Yes, of course. We only need to figure out who's poisoning my father's food. Only a few kitchen staff are allowed to touch the King's food, so it'll be easy.”

“Maybe don't jinx it,” suggests Balagtas. “But I guess it shouldn't be too difficult. Do you have any idea of who'd be working for the Duke?”

“The only real possibilities are the head cook or his sous-chef,” she replies. “It's supposed to be an honor to prepare the King's food so only those two are given it. They must be getting paid by my uncle or something.”

Balagtas stands up to begin fixing dinner, evidently preferring to leave the scheming to the schemer herself.

Said schemer frowns. “The Duke seems to be a powerful man,” she observes, “or at least influential.”

The Princess sighs. “He's very persuasive— he always has been. I think that might be why he wants the throne so badly. My father once told me that he doesn't understand why he wasn't able to convince the Council of his worthiness to rule.”

Something she says catches Astra's attention. “The Council?” she asks, ignoring the rest. It's hard to care about a guy who's slowly killing his brother.

“Ah, forgive me,” Nisha says. She clasps her hands together on her lap. “The Council is the foundation of Norbourne. Most citizens have never heard of it, but they decide disputes over the throne and other conflicts that can't be left up to the Crown.

“If my uncle's crimes were to be exposed, there would be something of a fake trial,” she explains. Astra leans in to listen, enraptured by this new information. “They would wait for the Council to decide, but the public trial would be them acting out a typical process and then coming to a judgment that just so happens to match up to what the Council decides.”

Balagtas, too, has momentarily stopped his work in the kitchen upon hearing this Council business.

A moment to process it. The TV has suddenly become very loud, the anchors having moved on to a story about people killed when a fire mage attacked a store.

“You're telling me there's someone we can actually bring these crimes to,” says Astra. She can hardly believe it.

“Not without proof, but maybe,” agrees Nisha. Astra doesn't need Balagtas’ talent to hear the doubt in her voice. “The Council won't meet until they’re sure the crime has been committed. Until then, they're just regular nobles.”

“But who decides it? We could find a Council member with enough clout to pressure the rest of them,” Astra says excitedly. “Not without proof, sure, but we'd only need a little.”

Nisha frowns slightly. “Are you suggesting that we threaten the highest power in this country?”

“Well, the other highest power is being threatened quite a bit,” she points out. “Like, his life. He's being poisoned. He'll die, if you know what I mean. It'd certainly be nice under better circumstances to take a more political approach, but as of now, we're a bit pressed for time. Besides, we don’t really have to threaten them. Just, y’know, look strong and scary.”

“I… suppose so,” the other girl says reluctantly. “Still, it'd be easier to call on a favor than it would to find blackmail material. I might know someone, if we can manage to find proof.”

Perfect. “So all we do is find a way into the kitchens through the tunnels, interrogate the head chef and his shoe chef, find some proof or testimony, and then take it to Lord Whatshisface on the Council, yeah?”

“That's sous-chef, Astra,” says Balagtas from the kitchen.

“Right, that's what I said. Anyway, am I right or what?”

“Pretty much,” admits Nisha. “It won't be all that simple, though.”

“Making things simple is my job,” Astra assures her. “My top priority, right after dealing drugs. This'll work out, I promise.”

Nisha is still frowning. “If you say so. I'll trust you at your word.”


***


Only a few hours have passed since Astra made her ridiculous impossible promise to Nisha, and she's already regretting it. Surprising, since it usually takes a few days at least.

“Still up, kid?”

She'd already heard his footsteps approaching. He always makes sure of it. “I'm just hungry,” she says defensively.

“Don't bother. It'll go fine,” he assures her.

“Probably.”

“Your stupid harebrained schemes have never failed before.” He's opening the fridge, taking out a couple of beers. “At least, I've never seen them fail.”

“Still,” she protests, taking the offered can and pushing aside her cream soda. “This is on a bit of a bigger scale. Like, this is kind of ridiculous how fast everything is happening. It'd be pretty crap movie pacing, and probably the sign of a director who only cares about the action.”

“I guess,” says Balagtas. “Wouldn't it be better if you didn't think of it on that scale?”

“Not really. More can go wrong this way. Can't really afford to forget about it.”

“When you put it that way, makes me think you should be asking for a job as a strategist,” he says with a smirk. “More stupid planning and schemes for you.”

Astra can't help but snicker at that. “I'm not exactly the material for that job. Maybe you should stick to tailoring clothes instead of my career.”

“Probably,” he agrees. “Still, try to relax. You really don't want to mess up because you were nervous.”

He has a point. “I'm trying.” A sip of beer, bitter and refreshing like a best friend’s too-honest reassurance. “You know when you're tired, but you can't sleep?”

Balagtas snickers too now, and Astra can tell he's Reading her. “I know. Watch some TV or something. The stove clock says it's midnight.”

Now Astra actually laughs for real, but immediately shushes herself in fear of waking Nisha up. “Watch a movie with me, then, Bee.”

“Only if it's a horror.”

Astra rolls her eyes. Horrors, especially the cheesy kind that Balagtas is so fond of, are too fake to scare her, but she’ll indulge him just this once. “Whatever, old man.”

The two of them settle on the couch, Balagtas turning the TV on and flicking to the on-demand movies. “Psychological or gore?” he asks. He's still Reading her— he knows she really doesn't care what they watch.

“Mm, don't care, they're all lame,” she mutters dismissively, already yawning.

She doesn't even notice when her head droops onto Balagtas’ shoulder.

“Sleep well, kid,” he murmurs, shifting himself to make her more comfortable. The sleeping mage barely even hears him.

Suddenly, Balagtas tenses up— he's sensed something from outside. His thumb moves instinctively to turn the TV off.

Astra's eyes snap open and she's forced back into consciousness just in time to hear Balagtas say, “Someone’s outside. And they're not happy.”

They both jump up from the couch, just in time to hear an angry, sharp pounding on the door.


~~~


Chapter 3

Being in the Dark Means Nobody Can See You Blushing




Astra jumps up from the couch, traces of sleepiness not-quite washed from her mind like questionable stains on motel bedsheets. The noise doesn't stop.

Well, shit. Again. Am I ever gonna get a break?

“We're leaving,” says Balagtas, commanding and certain.

She couldn't agree more even if she tried. At least the lights are off so they don't know we're home, she thinks, trying to look on the bright side and ignore the possibility of them having powers like Balagtas and sensing them inside.

“You make the place look empty,” Astra tells her best friend, making a run for the stairs. “I'm going to get the Princess out of here.”

“But what if it's not the police?” he calls up at her, even as he folds up Astra’s blanket and tosses out all the garbage the two of them left lying around.

“Oh, it's not,” she replies with absolute assurance, even though he probably can't hear her anymore.

“Your Highness!” Astra pounds on the door a few times before entering without permission. “We need to go. Now.”

Nisha slept in Astra's room last night, and apparently rather soundly. Something tells Astra that tonight, this is not the case, as Nisha is already out of her bed and holding out an open hand towards Astra.

For a moment, an unbearably high-pitched frequency echoes through Astra's head and the world spins in front of her— but then Nisha realizes who's entered the room.

“Oh,” she says, from a place that seems incredibly far away. “It's you, Miss Lang. Sorry about that. I heard voices outside the house.”

“I know,” replies Astra grimly, thinking about how nice it was two days ago when her home wasn't being attacked and sound mages weren’t blasting her precious ears with sonic frequencies. She scans the room for what she needs— her jacket and a satchel from under her bed. “We're leaving. We can't stay here.”

Astra folds up the blanket on the bed, laying everything out to make it seem like no one has slept there in days. Ugh, she thinks to herself as she stumbles around dizzily and rifles through the drawers for a couple pairs of pants and socks, I can't believe I have to think of everything.

Jacket on and satchel in hand, she leads Nisha downstairs and to the back door where Balagtas waits with a few bottles of water and their shoes in a neat row.

The pounding gets louder, more aggressive for a second— but then it's gone. There's no relief in the silence, only the moment of understanding between the finger moving on the trigger and the bullet leaving the chamber. The lock clicks a few times. Someone is picking it, Astra realizes in horror. They're going to get in.

Nope, says every fiber of Astra’s being. Fuck this.

No more waiting for some mysterious entity to get to her and eat her or whatever it is that dukes do when they get ahold of poor people. Without even bothering to put them on, Astra just grabs her shoes and makes a break out the back door toward the river. The five-foot drop down the side into the water, so intimidating when they'd first started exploring, is barely noticeable now.

Her bare feet leave the cool grass when she jumps, only to chill even further when she’s knee-deep in the river and holding onto the bar that juts out from the mud-covered rock. The rusty iron rod, a doorknob for the tunnel, spins a loud, creaky ninety degrees, and the circular door swings open. She hauls herself inside, breathing heavily.

Balance gone, Astra's wet feet slip on the smooth wet stone and she’s suddenly facing the ground on hands and knees. She could swear she hears an unsettling cracking sound in her kneecaps, but that's the least of her worries as her vision swims in front of her.

Nisha and Balagtas climb into the tunnel behind her, and the door creaks as he closes it. They're saying something, talking to each other, but Astra can't really listen to anything anymore. Even now, all that really strikes her is how pathetic her situation is, sitting in a heap in a dark nasty tunnel wearing only an old t-shirt, a worn varsity jacket, and a pair of boxers soaking with what she seriously hopes is river water.

Astra is just so tired. A few stray tears fall down her face, but she wipes them away before they reach her chin. She hasn't slept since last night and now there's a bunch of bastards in her house rifling through her fridge and drinking her cream soda, blocking her from getting much-needed beauty sleep. All of which, she thinks, are valid reasons to be angry.

Not to mention the Princess of fucking Norbourne is standing behind me, acting like the danger to my life isn't because of her and her damn rule-breaking or magic-having or whatever. And don't even get me started on that stupid asshole back there, with his “ooh, let's save this random stranger's life! There's no way that could turn out badly! We won't be attacked and/or executed for it!” How is anybody so stupid? I'll kill him when I get the chance, if those people rooting around our house don't get to him first—

“Miss Astra?” calls someone uncertainly. High and smooth like the sound of liquid gold, Nisha certainly has the voice of a princess. “Are you alright?”

“Obviously,” snaps Astra, but her vocal chords scraping together sound more akin to tectonic plates. “Just let me get dressed.”

Her shaking hands reach into the satchel for some of the pants she'd taken. It's a struggle to put them on with no light, but it'd be harder (and more embarrassing) with one hand occupied to make one. The socks and boots are easier once she's done groping around for them in the dark. Astra decides that she’s done sleeping in just her shirt and underwear from now on.

“Alright,” Astra says unsteadily. “Let's get moving.” She wipes her face off again, just in case.

“We need a light,” Balagtas reminds her.

“Right,” she replies, trying to sound as if she hasn't forgotten. A tiny whoosh sounds as she illuminates the tunnel.

The light flickers with her reluctance and uncertainty— the velvet darkness had been safety, soft and comfortable. Shadows whorl around the tunnel walls now as the tiny star floats in the palm of Astra's hand.

Balagtas’ hair shines in the light, loose and flowing nearly down to his waist. He sweeps it back over russet-colored shoulders into a loose, uneven braid as he walks. “They shouldn't follow us down here.”

“I saw red uniforms as we ran out,” recalls Nisha, sounding (frustratingly enough) not as shaken as Astra feels. “The Duke's personal guard, as long as he’s the heir.”

Astra tries to ignore the silhouettes snaking around the walls, lurking in the corners of her vision. “I thought that's who they'd be,” she mutters. The blinding light coming from her own hand hurts her eyes, and she's not sure what to look at.

“Do you think they tracked me down somehow?” frets the Princess.

The group's footsteps are making wet noises on the ground that irritate Astra immensely.

“Probably,” says Balagtas. It's more likely that they tracked Astra down, though, considering the lack of celestial mages in Norbourne.

Nisha sighs, one of her long, elegant strides faltering, and Astra glances over at her. “It's not like they can find us down here,” she assures the Princess. It occurs to her that she is no longer unsure of what to look at.

“I suppose,” admits Nisha, “but it's rather unsettling to think I was somehow tracked to your house out of all the places I could have been.”

“I guess I can understand that.” The glint of the light off of Nisha's cheeks reminds Astra of a swirling galaxy, millions of stars in the expanse of space. She is not nearly as unpleasant to look at as Astra's singular lantern. “But they might not come after you once we take down that asshole. They're only following orders.”

“I hope so,” she murmurs, her skin radiating the same warmth as the soft blackness of the unlit tunnel. “They might be loyal to him.” The galaxy spins with the star, swirling and twisting in a deep brown universe.

“Seems more likely,” comes Balagtas’ jarring voice, snapping Astra out of… something. What was she thinking about again? “No one does such dangerous, murderous things when just ‘following orders’.”

He's right, or at least Astra thinks so. It sounds logical.

She only just now becomes aware of that damned dripping noise again, annoying and unpredictable. A lot like herself, only harmless and largely innocent. “If he's revealed, then they'll probably be arrested with him for conspiring anyway if they're that loyal,” she points out. “We won't need to worry about them once we take care of—”

Wrong order. Get rid of the pawns to make the king vulnerable.

“Get rid of his guards,” Astra realizes, starting again after cutting herself off, “and he'll be more vulnerable. We should have fought them there.”

“We couldn't have,” argues Balagtas. “We need the element of surprise.”

“That's a very good idea, though, Miss Astra.” Nisha nods at her, catching her eye with a smile. Astra wonders if maybe she has developed some severe form of indigestion.

“But even if we're not allowed to use magic,” she continues, “our guards certainly are. I know a few, but we don't have much about what mages or Readers he has working for him— or how powerful they are.”

These two are so uncreative, Astra thinks, rolling her eyes. “We don't need much,” she says. “Just sabotage them, is all. Or take them out so they don't notice quick enough to attack.”

“Oh, right, your favorite strategy,” Balagtas reminds himself. “Cowardice.”

It might seem as if this comment is rude or uncalled for. And it is. That being said, though, nearly everyone, including Astra, knows how much Balagtas hates things like sabotage.

“All offense intended, but ‘cowardice’ is usually a little more effective than just charging into a room with no cover and vastly outnumbered.”

Balagtas clenches a fist, which crackles a bit when he reopens one of the scabs on his fingers. “You went in too.”

“To make sure you wouldn't die, yes.” Astra is not having his crap about honor right now— not after it got the both of them into this stupid situation. “What was I going to do, seal the tunnel and run away? Besides, that entrance isn't even usable anymore.”

“Are these the escape tunnels?” asks Nisha suddenly, cutting off whatever Balagtas was about to say. “Along the river?”

“Of course,” replies Astra.

“I can probably get around inside the castle using these,” she realizes. “They run all throughout the estate.”

A few more ideas emerge at this new information. “So we could do some real damage with these,” Astra says, grinning. “Or, alternatively, leave Norbourne altogether.”

“We could easily head to the next town over,” agrees Balagtas. “But that wouldn't help anyone.”

“I guess,” admits the celestial mage grudgingly. “Whatever. It doesn't matter now. Can we rest or something? It was two a.m. before we left.”

“The stove clock said it was just past midnight,” Nisha says, confused.

Balagtas snickers. Astra gives an embarrassed giggle. “That was me, actually. I tried to set it for daylight savings and I did it wrong so now it's two hours behind.”

“All the same, there's not a lot of time for us to be resting,” argues the Reader. “And someone would have to keep watch.”

“I don't mind,” volunteers Nisha. “I think I got the most rest, so you guys should sleep for a couple hours.”

“See, she knows how to keep a mage alive,” says Astra. “Besides, there’s not a lot we can really do at two or three a.m.. We’ll have to wait until the kitchen staff are actually at work.”

There’s no real reason for him not to give in now. “Fine.”

Astra rolls her eyes at him— he’s probably even more eager than she is to park his scrawny ass on the ground and take a nap. He’s just pretending to be tough, she thinks irritatedly.

The next side branch is collapsed a bit further down— Astra heads inside a few meters and sits down on the ground, leaning her back against the wall. Balagtas sits next to her, and Nisha finds a rock to sit down on by the collapse. “I’ll listen for any footsteps,” she assures them. “And I’ll wake you guys up in a couple hours to head to the castle.”

“Mm, thanks,” says Astra, though it’s mostly unintelligible through the yawn she’s letting out at the same time. Her head falls to Balagtas’ shoulder again, breathing slow.

She lets her light die out now, the tunnel fading to black. Her surroundings are so filled with soft, easy darkness that it barely makes a difference whether her eyes are open or closed.

“Night, kid,” mutters Balagtas.

“Night, Bee,” Astra murmurs.


***


The next entrance into the castle isn’t an entrance at all, notes Astra, rejuvenated from her nap, but a vent into the main hall of the castle along the floor measuring a foot wide and a couple inches tall. It’s still before daybreak and not many people are up, according to Nisha’s observations since she was the only one willing to put her face to the ground and check out the people milling around.

Even the few conversations that Nisha pulls the sound from so that the three of them can listen are nothing more than I wonder where the Princess is or idle gossip or both.

“Can’t use this one,” mutters Balagtas quietly.

“Yeah,” agrees Astra. “Better find something bigger than my big toe.”

Despite the window being far larger than her big toe, Astra has a point. Any of them could probably get their arms through, but that’s about it.

“Well,” says Nisha, scratching her head in deep thought, “if I remember correctly, there’s one that goes directly into the kitchens. We should be able to get to the kitchen staff that way.”

Convenient, Astra thinks, nodding. “Let’s see if we can use that one and have a word with the head chef.”

“There should be a branch leading downward somewhere around here.” She looks around. “Oh! I see it. Be careful; it’s really wet down there.”

Astra snickers as she heads towards the sharp downturn in the tunnel. Balagtas elbows her, giving her a stop being a twelve year old glare. The toothy grin she gives back to him is fluorescent in the cold white light bathing the tunnel.

The ground really is slippery, though, and an amusing but unpleasant wet squelch accompanies every step. Astra makes a face thinking about how long it’ll take to get the smell and the water out of her prized boots (which are the only pair of shoes she owns).

“Wait, do you hear that?” Balagtas stops in his tracks. “The entrance is around here somewhere.”

He’s not just talking about the farting noises their feet are making— voices have started to echo from somewhere along the left wall. Probably the hole that's been carved just around knee-height, measuring just under a meter.

It's dark on the other side. Nisha bends down and sticks an arm through, only to meet with something heavy made of paper.

“Here, let me,” says Balagtas, shoving his arm through much more forcefully. Whatever it was slides across the floor, leaving the space clear for Astra to crawl through after she puts out her light.

“Wait,” protests the Princess, “I don't know where it leads.”

“Well, someone's gotta find out,” replies Astra as she sticks her head through.

Just then, a crack of light appears across from Astra— someone is opening the door. An ugly cracking sound resounds through her head as she retracts it so as not to be seen.

“Quiet!” snaps Balagtas, as if anyone had been about to say anything in the first place. Astra is confused for a few moments as colors swirl around in her vision.

Someone, presumably a servant, has entered what seems to be a supply closet or some sort of cooler room. They're bending over, scooping some flour out of a sack, then leaving.

The momentary light shows that what had been blocking the entrance was a sack of potatoes, in the midst of a bunch of other vegetables stocked in the corner.

Just a storeroom.

The servant is gone now. Nisha whispers, “Let's wait for the head chef here and ambush him.”

“Good idea,” agrees Balagtas. Astra sits down in front of the entrance; Nisha settles herself next to her.

Astra moves away slightly, somewhat unsettled by the other girl's warmth and how calming it is. Just what right does she have to make me like sitting next to her?

“You'd, uh,” she says uncertainly, “better stay here. If he sees you, he might think we're kidnappers— well, I guess we are— and run to someone to tattle.” Or, much more likely, kill Nisha on the spot out of loyalty to the Duke.

“Okay,” she agrees surprisingly easily. “Let's just wait for now.”

A few servants come and go, wearing white cotton uniforms, and the three sit in silence patiently. Nisha fiddles around with the noises in the kitchen beyond the storeroom, but it’s only knives chopping or pass me that onion or are you using that entire cabbage? or this needs salt interspersing complete silence.

Man, Astra thinks with a quiet sigh, these people are putting me back to sleep. Nobody’s having an affair with the maids or secretly the mistress of some lord somewhere?

She wonders how best to get rid of the Duke's guard. Where to find a list of members, then break all their limbs in turn, or if breaking limbs would be enough. Then she wonders if they'll be able to. Or if they even need to. If this were a fantasy game, right about now something would be going horribly wrong.


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