One Small Child
One small child in a land of a thousand
One small dream of a savior tonight
Somewhere, at the bottom of the darkness that separated Solaris from the surface, Sigurd's family was dancing in the desert. It had taken him the better part of a day to work out the date exactly, but it only went to prove his intuition. There were midwinter stars spinning beneath his feet, and his mother's bloodfolk lighting bonfires through the darkest night of the year.
The others had known. Ramsus asked him twice at dinner if he was feeling ill, while Hyuga said nothing, in unusual, heavy silence, watching Sigurd toy with his utensils and stare at the lights of Etrenank glowing outside the window. Of them all Jesiah acted as though there was nothing amiss in the fourth element's manner, but his eyes betrayed him, shrewd and calculating as Sigurd gently pushed Billy's small hands away from his own, shrugged into his uniform jacket, and walked out the door.
It was well past curfew in the lower levels, but people were still milling in the city's neon-lit upper quarters, guards glancing only once at Sigurd's shoulder insignia before letting him pass unhindered. Sigurd walked to the sector seven observation deck and stood looking down at the dim pinpoints of light beneath his boots and the thick transparisteel bubble, trying to find the stars he knew.
"We're passing over Ignas, if that's what you're wondering." Jesiah Blanche's footsteps rattled the narrow walkway, the glow of his cigarette ember bright in the dim evening lights. "Our transitional orbit will carry us over most of the continent in the next two days."
"I know," Sigurd said, still looking down, lifting one hand to tuck his frost-colored hair behind his ear. "I can see the--" he hesitated, crushing the unspoken names of constellations under his tongue. "--Quadrant 337 Alpha."
Jesiah smiled around his cigarette. "That's the closest I've ever come to seeing you slip."
Sigurd did look up then, eyes wary. "Slip?"
"You can fool the others all you like, or pretend to." Jesiah crossed the walkway and leaned his elbows on the railing. "Your memory modification wore off years ago, if it ever took at all. It's a wonder you can even speak Solarian, with your synapses that tightly laced."
Sigurd's hand closed tightly on the railing, his dark knuckles paling. "How long have you known?"
"It wasn't me. Racquel knew right off the bat." Jesiah's grin was wry. "When she'd leave you watching Billy, you'd sing to him in Avehli."
Sigurd stared hard at the stars below them, his voice thick. "I did not expect to be routed by a five-year-old." The pause was pregnant. Sigurd straightened at last, and tugged on the hem of his uniform. "...Would you have me go to central command on my own, or would you prefer to file a report?"
Jesiah took a long pull off his cigarette, and Sigurd waited, his back stiff, his eyes hard. "The surface recon vessels go out twice a week." Jesiah glanced up at Sigurd, his smile hidden in his collar. "I've been watching them a long time, now. There's one tomorrow morning."
Sigurd stared. "You... you aren't going to report me?"
Jesiah snorted. "I don't know what made you think I ever would."
"But your position," Sigurd said. "Everyone knows you're being groomed for Gebler."
"Nobody asked me if I wanted it." Jesiah stood, grinding his cigarette out under his heel. "I know how you got here, Sigurd. I know how they took you, what would have happened to you if your ether rating hadn't gotten Kahr's attention. I don't know why you're going, but I expect it's more than just a desire to run away. Otherwise you would have left long ago, or died trying."
Sigurd was humbled, as he always was by unexpected kindness in this strange country. "I'm sorry I had not told you sooner. There is someone..." Sigurd began, his voice uncertain, "...someone I promised to protect. I can't leave him alone any longer. Every second I waste is a second his life is in danger. If I have stayed, it is only to gain the information only Solaris could give me, for his use."
Jesiah held up his hands. "Like I said. I know you have your reasons. This isn't your country, after all." Jesiah looked down at the stars of Ignas, passing slowly by below them. "But it is still mine. For now. I won't be following you just yet."
"It would not be my place to urge you to leave your country." Sigurd's hand traced the smooth metal surface of the railing, looking at the cuff of his uniform against his wrist. "But though you and Racquel have been kind to me, Solaris never has."
"Yeah," Jesiah murmured. "I saw your file." He sighed, raking a hand through his ash-colored hair. "Hyuga knows too, doesn't he. You can't slip a trick past him."
"I know." Sigurd felt, not for the first time, a trace of regret at leaving. "Our situations were too similar for him not to figure me out. We have discussed my leaving long before now. It is Kahr who will be difficult."
Jesiah hooked his thumbs in the back of his belt and nodded. "I know. Kahran Ramsus only understands black and white, and it's been worse since he took up with that girl."
Sigurd looked away. "I cannot concern myself with him now, as much as I wish I could take the time to make him understand. But I've waited too long already."
"So who is it?" Jesiah grinned. "You got a kid you ain't told us about?"
Sigurd shook his head, smiling for the first time that night. "No. And what he is to me is not as important as what he is to Aveh. But right now he is only a child two years older than Billy, and in the hands of his enemies."
"Leave Kahr to me," Jessie said, and looked away, blinking hard. "You've got enough to do." He turned, ready to walk back to the house.
"Thank you." Sigurd said. "I admit I was still trying to find the best way to leave."
Jesiah did not turn around, his shoulders lowering slightly. "Yeah," he said, roughly, "Well. It's always hard to leave home." Sigurd had no answer for that, and Jesiah waved, urging him on. "C'mon. I don't like the thought of that kid having to wait for you to show up."
In the lowest quarters of the royal palace of Bledavik, the heir to the throne was curled in a corner and trying to sleep. He had no solid knowledge of the time of year, although if reminded he might have found memories of bonfires and sugared nuts, the sound of his father's laughter. He had never thought to mark the time in his small cell, or note the difference in the stars that passed by the narrow slot of high window.
Bart stuffed his hands in his armpits and tried to keep them warm. In the daytime, the cool dungeon was welcoming, shade from the burning desert sun and cool stone to sit on. But when darkness came the cold came with it, and the only bedding of the prince was one threadbare blanket, the better parts of which were wrapped around his sleeping cousin.
She had dropped off instantly, too exhausted for the cold to keep her awake, her head pillowed in Bart's lap. Sleep was not so kind to Bart. Even though the rock wall was no kind of bed, it was a cool mercy on the burning sticky skin of his back. Outside, in the dark, he could hear the distant sounds of celebration and singing. The guard that had come earlier to bring their food was probably drunk, staggering over the keys, grabbing at Margie and knocking Bart away when he had intervened.
Bart didn't bother wondering what they were celebrating, he only wanted to sleep. He closed his eyes and fell into a fitful half-slumber, dreaming that his father came to rescue him, and struck the guards down with a pair of live serpents in his hands. He was rather irritated to be woken by a loud bang, wrapping one arm around Margie and thinking that the guards could at least get drunk somewhere else, when he wasn't having such a nice dream.
He opened his eyes all the way when the bolt slid back in the door of their cell, instantly awake, his heart hammering and fear closing around his stomach like an icy hand. It had not been often that the guards came this late at night, but all the same, Bart was not about to forget. His hands tightened on Margie, and he hoped that she would sleep through it, as she had before.
"This one," someone said, beyond the door. "There aren't any others."
Keys rattled, the door opened and Bart, crammed tightly in the corner of the room, saw the shape of the man standing there and forgot to breathe.
"Young master!" A shape more familiar detached itself from the shadows behind the stranger, and Bart blinked confusion at his father's old retainer.
"Thank all the kings of Aveh," Maison reached out to Bart. "We didn't even know if we'd find you alive, my dear boy."
The shadowy figure stepped into the square of moonlight and the mirage was broken. In shadow, he had looked like Bart's dream of his father, but the pale cold starlight shone on hair that was silver and not gold, and skin the color of polished amber. Bart shrank back slightly in his corner.
"Can you walk?" the stranger asked, and Bart nodded.
"Yeah, but Margie's too tired."
"I'll get her," Maison said, lifting the sleeping girl in his weathered hands. Margie whimpered once, but did not wake.
"You won't remember me, Your Highness." The stranger went down on one knee in front of Bart. "I was your father's squire many years ago."
Bart's gold brows furrowed, sorting through memories before fire and turmoil. "Sigurd?" He shook his head. "Everybody said you'd died."
Sigurd shook his head. "I was only delayed. I promised the king I would look after you."
"Sigurd," Maison was looking down the hall, nervous. "We must hurry. Your kinsmen fight as if they were three men each, but we must secure our escape."
"Quickly, Your Highness." Sigurd reached down to pull Bart up, but the prince cried out when Sigurd touched his back.
"Sorry," he said quickly, standing up on his own, using the wall for support. "It only hurts a little, really."
"Have they hurt you, young master?" Maison hovered in the doorway, worried.
Sigurd looked at the palm of his hand and the traces of Bart's blood on his fingertips. "They've whipped him like a common slave." Sigurd swore in a language Bart didn't understand, and shrugged out of his sleeveless red jacket. "Here," Sigurd said, and wrapped it around Bart's shoulders. It was too big by far, but lined in satin, mercifully soft on Bart's bare skin. "Forgive me, my prince, but I will have to carry you. We are running out of time."
Sigurd swept Bart up into his arms, and Bart bit his lip to not cry out, knowing Sigurd was being as careful as he could.
"They'll have sealed off the upper levels by now," Maison said. "What do you intend to do?"
"My uncle's people have their own escape routes. We only need to get to the hangar in the basement."
"Are you mad? There's no way out of there!" Maison protested, but he was following Sigurd, trying not to jostle Margie in his arms.
"Only the most obvious one," Sigurd's smile was small, hidden in the corners of his mouth and in his eyes, but it was there.
"The Yggdrasil?" Maison gasped, sensing Sigurd's intent as they climbed the steps out of the old dungeon, through a more modern corridor and into an elevator. He shook his head in what could only be admiration, and laughed. "You're as mad as your late--"
Sigurd shot him a sharp look and Maison fell silent. "I'm not leaving without it," He said, and lowered Bart for a moment as the elevator bore them down, swiftly and silently. "They will not expect us to come this way."
"You're going to steal Dad's ship?" Bart's eyes went wide. He was hanging onto the elevator rail, and trying to make it look like he didn't need to. "Coool!"
"Not your father's ship, Bartholomei." Sigurd smiled tensely, his eyes on the numbers counting down on the display. "Yours. As much of your kingdom as you can rule, for now."
Maison chuckled. "It can be a Midwinter present, Your Highness."
"...I didn't even know it was midwinter," Bart said, and his eyes fell on the pair of whips hanging at Sigurd's hip, the braided leather shining like snakeskin. "Father always said, dreams you dreamed at midwinter would come true."
The elevator hummed to a halt and Sigurd reached out to pick Bart up again, but the prince shook his head.
"I can walk," he said, letting go of the railing. "Really. It doesn't even hurt much anymore."
"Leaving on your own two feet, young master." Maison shook his white head. "Your father would be proud."
"I won't slow you down," Bart said, as Sigurd considered.
"No," Sigurd answered quietly, looking down at the small golden heir to the throne, in his borrowed Solarian Fire Element jacket, his tired dirty face, his eyes like an oasis. "No, I think I will be catching up to you from now on. This way," he said, running along the gangway to the hangar. "Stay with me, Bartholomei."
Bart ran with him, two small strides to Sigurd's long one, and they cleared the railing of the Yggdrasil side by side.