For the remainder of the afternoon and on into the night, Jaysh Denbauk sat on the floor of the old king’s anteroom and dreamed about escape. It was entirely too much dreaming for such a simple goal, but for the time being—while he was being comforted by this roomful of whining teary-eyed saps—dreaming was all he could do.
     He had already performed the necessary preparations for his escape—having made his clandestine visit to the good general’s bedchambers while pretending to relieving himself in the privy—so now the anticipation of his freedom was all but killing him. If only these gloomy masses would leave the anteroom for a moment, he could put his crafty machinations into action.
     Teach you, I reckon, said the voice of his woman-friend in his head, even though Jaysh could hear the voice of his real woman-friend talking to Iman on his right. Teach you to stand around peerin out winduhs an’ fearin fer your life when yeh ought be runnin fer the hills.
     And the woodsman, with his head sagging between his shoulders and his eyes locked on the floor, couldn’t have agreed more.
     He didn’t know if it was his lack of sleep or vine or nourishment—or a combination of all three—but he’d had another spell after closing the shutters to the old king’s chamber. He’d pressed the wooden edges flush against the sill, flicked the little brass latch back into place, and the next he knew he was lying on the hardwood floor of the chamber and wondering how he had gotten there.
     It didn’t seem like much time had passed—he could still remember everything before he’d fallen, and the lighting about the shuttered appeared the same—but the brevity of the spell did not make him feel any better. The fact was he’d fallen unconscious again and, in the process, lost any chance he had of escaping the castle.
     The part that really irked him was how close he’d been to landing on the old king’s bed. Because had he managed to cover the four paces to the bed and blackout on the old king’s mattress, the chubby chambermaid who’d peaked in on him at the sound of his collapse would have believed him asleep instead of unconscious.
     As it were, the hefty handmaid found him crumpled on the floor. At which point, she came in on the run, her plump face flushed and her flabby jowls agape. Jaysh remembered rolling over on his side at the sound of the door, peering up into the yawning cavity of the woman’s middle-aged mouth, and then wincing as she let loose with a wildcat yell that threatened to leave him deaf.
     “He’s down!” she’d screamed. “He’s—THE KING’S DOWN! He’s gone down again!
     After that, the whole of the castle had poured inside the chamber, servants and guards, advisers and acquaintances, certainly more people than could be easily evaded, or at least more people than could be evaded by a simple woodsman who was used to doing his evading before the predators arrived.
     That fat old woman, Jaysh thought, even though he knew it wasn’t entirely her fault. No one had made him collapsed on the floor. No one had held a crossbow on him and insisted that his knees go weak and his head go fuzzy. Ge’down, You! Jaysh heard the imaginary attacker barking in his ear. Ge’down on that floor an’ start quaverin like a sissy!
     Under normal circumstances, that ridiculous image would have brought a smile to his bearded lips. It was just the sort of ludicrous thing his dear friend Iman would have said back in the days of their youth when life had been ludicrous. But as it were, Jaysh was no longer young, and life, it seemed, was no longer ludicrous. Life—at least judging by the weepy-eyed faces gathered in his room—had become a very melancholy place, indeed.
     But not fer long, he thought, stroking his cat-thing that was curled on his lap. Y’all better soak up your mis’ry now, I tell yeh, cause come midnight, this here felluh’s gone.
     He shifted his gaze from the polished floor to the purring cat-thing. If not for Zeph, Jaysh wasn’t sure he’d have been able to bide his time. His head was down and his cheek was bulging—his back was pushed so far into the corner that the plaster was cracking around his shoulders—but even so, the muttering voices were there, scrabbling down his ears and needling at his brain.
     Jaysh’s only escape came from his yellow-eyed companion, from the steady purr of her sides against his gut and from the soft fluff of her fur against his palms. Jaysh didn’t know how she’d managed, but the nimble little minx had somehow escaped the trampling feet on the Hill and had somehow scaled the walls of the castle, sneaking in through the window where Jaysh had passed out and then slinking unseen to his lap.
     He supposed she could have used the chamber door with the rest of the overexcited horde—slipping in between their ankles as they came racing in to check their king—but Jaysh doubted it. The door to the hall had not opened once since the original horde entered the room, and Jaysh did not believe Zeph would have abstained from his lap for that duration of time.
     What was more, had the chamber door opened so much as a crack during that span of time, Jaysh would have known. He had his head down, purposefully directed away from the others, but he’d been listening for the sound of that rectangular exit all evening long, praying to any gods that might be listening to blast it wide on its hinges and loose him from this misery-loving mob. But in lieu of such a miraculous explosion, it seemed that the gods had sent Jaysh’s precious friend instead. If they could not control the minds of these moping visitors and risk violating the tenants of free will, they could at least send him the means to cope.
     And so Jaysh had coped, focusing on the tingle of the vine and the hum of his companion and biding his time until nightfall came. All around him, Jaysh could hear the sniffles and groans of the sorrowful room—Oh, just look at him, just look how hard he’s taking this, the poor fellow—but as he ran his fingers along the rumpled tissue of Zeph’s back, these noises did not plague him as they once had, and neither did the awful looks of pity which, to the woodsman, were the visual equivalent of a farrier’s file raked across his teeth.
     The advisers were the first to leave, departing the little room shortly after nightfall and ambling their way to the roundtable, the room in which they’d originally held council before the old king fell ill and could not leave his bed. Not that Jaysh cared, but apparently there’d been an incident at Westpost the day before the old king passed and the council could no longer ignore the consequences. Jaysh knew this because each adviser had come to him individually—save for the stooped man in the gray sleeping attire—and explained how they meant no disrespect to his father or his passing, but that the incident at Westpost was one which required their immediate attention.
     Jaysh was also forced to listen as each adviser made indelicate hints that it was the woodsman’s duty as king to be present at such council meetings and that they looked forward to serving with him just as soon as he recovered from his debilitating grief, which they hoped was soon (hint, hint).
    Jaysh nodded to each of them in turn, his hand ever-gliding over the cat-thing’s puckered scars, and he tried his absolute hardest to look as grief-struck and debilitated as possible.
     Next to go was his woman-friend, the person whom Jaysh thought would be the first to leave and, as it turned out, only missed by moments. It was almost like she knew she’d be the first as well and, therefore, was forced to stand around and make chit-chat with the good captain until someone else made the first move.
     In fact, thinking back on the moment, Jaysh was almost sure he could feel her eyes on him as the advisers gave their final condolences. He couldn’t be positive, but it seemed like the hall door hadn’t completely closed before she was skipping across the room and asking him how he was and what he needed.
     Like the night before, Jaysh told her that he was fine, just a little tired maybe. And like the night before, Gariel had studied him carefully and told him that he did look a little worn out and could probably do with some rest, especially after all the fainting spells.
     But yeh know I doan’ have to go out tonight, baby, she told him, finishing each of her statements with this endearing qualifier. To which Jaysh would nod that he knew—boy, did he ever—and then give her his blessing to go, watching as she scurried out the doors and made her way to the Wound, eager to drink the drinks that, by now, her body craved like water.
     Not long after that, Jaysh heard the voice of his little brother excusing himself from the room. It wasn’t clear, but Jaysh thought he caught the words appreciate and companionship in this farewell speech, then something about little brother needing a walk to clear his head, maybe a walk over to the nearest temple to pray for his father and the state of the kingdom.
     And when Iman—the only person left in the room at this point—informed little brother that the temples had lain empty for the past several ages and that Brine would likely be attacked by rats, Brine told them he’d heard about the rats and would be on guard.
     After that, little brother had wandered over to Jaysh and said something about repairing the past and shoring up relationships, but to be honest Jaysh really wasn’t paying attention and the part that had slipped through was Brine’s decision to stay on as adviser.
     Well, good luck with that, Jaysh thought, nodding to the man in the ponytail as his mouth said, “Ah’right then.” And when little brother said he’d try and find Jaysh in the morning so they could catch up, Jaysh had said, “Ah’right then,” and thought, Does he need som’un to walk im to the door?
     But as the second, ah’right then, lit the air, the disciple seemed satisfied with the exchange and, for the man who looked nothing like his brother, a personal escort to the hall did not prove necessary. For the other man in the room—the one who looked nothing like Jaysh’s friend—the woodsman thought an armed escort might be required.
     Jaysh could see the good captain closing in on him from the corner of one eye, the duplicitous imposter once again trying on those melancholy expressions which did not fit. He hadn’t begun trying his phony phrases yet—his lips still twisting in an uncharacteristic sneer—but how long could that last? How long could old big-mouth, even a look-a-like big-mouth, keep that big trap shut?
     Not long, Jaysh thought, scratching Zeph on the tattered folds of skin that had once been ears. Won’t be long now an’ ole big-mouth will get bored, ferget all about what happened today, an’ then start with that mouth’a his. An’ he’ll do it cause he’s the only one who ain’t got the sense to know I’m supposed to be to upset, the only one who doan’ know reg’ler people ain’t suppose to go out to the Wound an’ celebrate after the old king dies.
     And Jaysh wasn’t wrong. The good captain lasted until…oh, about the ten-count maybe, perhaps the fifteen count. It was hard to say after the ten-count since Jaysh struggled with numbers beyond the ten digits on his hands, but he knew he’d barely begun to dread the long-haired prowler before the man was standing over him, his soft-skinned boots toe-to-toe with Jaysh’s moccasins.
     Jaysh didn’t dare look up, not if he didn’t want to go crazy from staring into that unnatural look of remorse stretched on the good captain’s face. He kept his eyes on the man’s yellow-brown boots as he listened to Iman ask how he was feeling and what he was thinking and, of course, whether or not he felt like going out to Wound and having a good time.
     A good time…
     Jaysh lifted his eyes just long enough to glance at the door in the back of the room. He’d have rather been skinned alive and rolled in sea salt than to go back inside that room, but he gave the ornately-trimmed door a curt nod and told his dear old friend that he needed to catch up on some much needed shuteye.
     The stunned look on Iman’s face told him that the captain didn’t understand the concept of much needed shuteye. For a man who’d grown accustomed to long nights of drinking and catting around, Iman struggled to relate with anyone who didn’t catch a few winks in the Wound or the Nest or wherever it was they passed, and then have a powernap later that afternoon. He’d also learned to be skeptical of those who claimed to need more.
     Knowing this, Jaysh has kept his eyes on the carefully-brushed boots and told Iman to go on without him, claiming that he was upset over the old king’s passing and that he didn’t much feel like going out and being around people. And Iman—who’d watched Jaysh spend the last ten ages of his life avoiding his father like the plague and steering clear of the castle in general—had said, Really?
     It was then that Jaysh knew he was not going to be shed of this social parasite until he showed him the secret thing hidden in his shirt, the thing he had swiped from the general’s quarters when he had supposedly relieving himself in the outhouse behind the gardens.
     He knew that showing the secret item to ole big-mouth might make matters worse for him down the road, like when Iman started drinking and running his mouth and word of what Jaysh had stolen spread through the city like wildfire through a dry prairie. But by that time, Jaysh hoped to be so far gone from this nightmare landscape that the search parties they sent would never find him.
     And if’n I doan’ show him now, Jaysh thought, thinking about the thing in his shirt and how he had no idea how to read it, it’ll jus be som’un else latter, som’un in the next town over who yeh doan’ know an’ who might steer yeh wrong.
     At the worst possible time, the pedantic general’s prophecy regarding Jaysh’s neglected studies had finally come true. During the woodsman’s formative ages and on into adulthood, Serit Branmore was fond of warning Jaysh and Iman that skipping their lessons would one day impair the quantity and quality of their lives.
     Of course, after each of these long and boring lectures, Jaysh had assumed that Serit was simply upset he’d wasted his own life on books and was blowing off steam. But now, as Jaysh thought about the key to his freedom tucked inside his shirt, and the ability to read the key absent from his mind, it seemed that there might have been some truth to the old man’s warning.
     Jaysh remembered tearing the special item from his shirt as he hid in the privy—he didn’t really have to go, but he thought he better make a good show of it, and what better place to inspect his stolen cargo—only to realize the special item was covered in arcane symbols.
     Jaysh recognized the nine symbols of his name scrawled across the top of the carefully folded pages—referring not to the woodsman, but to the kingdom in which he lived—and then he saw the rest of the drawings and shapes littering the parchment.
     It wasn’t so much the drawings and shapes that threw him for a loop as it was the symbols explaining the drawings and shapes, symbols telling him what the drawings were and, more importantly, where the drawings were. To Jaysh, it looked as though a worm had wriggled itself in ink and then gone flailing across the page.
     But ole big-mouth’ll know, he thought, reaching a hand over the cat-thing and into his shirt. Ole big-mouth knows bout these things. Jaysh knew that, like himself, the captain had skipped just as many lessons from their elementary studies. But unlike himself, the captain had gone on to pursue a career where reading and writing were everyday tasks.
     Jaysh lifted his eyes to the captain and held the stolen goods at arm’s length. Iman frowned at the goods, but adventurous to the end, he took it in hand and unfolded it, raising it up until all Jaysh could see was the creased expanse of the secret item and the captain’s fingers gripping the sides, turning it one way and then the other.
     When the parchment and fingers finally ceased to move, Jaysh tensed for what was to come. He just knew that when the section of parchment was lowered, he’d see the man who did and did not look like his friend, the one who wore the same clothes and hair as his friend, but who acted nothing like him. And when the barrier of paper and scrawl finally did come down, Jaysh saw that he was right. The not-friend was there, staring at him, the same haunted look he’d seen in the forest.
     The not-friend asked where Jaysh had found the item and Jaysh told him, explaining how he’d assured the chambermaid he felt much better and would rather visit the privy on his own, and how she’d grudgingly said yes to his request, and how Jaysh had then bolted down three flights of stairs to the main floor. Once there, he’d remembered that he had no idea where Serit dormed and had to ask for directions from a hand servant washing the walls, but the hand servant had answered him, as any loyal subject would, and Jaysh had carried out his theft.
     After listening carefully to the tale, the not-friend glanced down at the parchment in his hands and stared at it like a dead rat he’d fished from the gutter. Then, after a time, he turned his dreadful gaze back to Jaysh and said, “Why are you showing me this?”
     Jaysh, who was starting to doubt that his dear old not-friend was going to sympathize, went ahead and confessed his plans, explaining that his only hindrance was interpreting the strange markings on the parchment. He needed someone he could trust to interpret them for him.
     The not-friend lowered his head to the parchment and Jaysh knew in that moment that this man who wore Iman’s clothes and hair was not going to help him, not while his dark brown eyes were darting from one end of the parchment to the other, frantic, disbelieving, looking for some form of escape. Jaysh swallowed hard and wished he hadn’t shown the not-friend the special item, wished very badly that he’d kept the special item in his shirt because now, it seemed, he would not get it back and, honestly, he had no idea where he’d find another.  
     The not-friend, without focusing his eyes or breaking his unsettling stare, began to fold the parchment into halves and fourths and then into fractions of which Jaysh knew very little. He handed it back to the woodsman, again without looking at him, and told him what the strange markings had said and, amazingly enough, how to read them the next time he was stuck.
     Jaysh slipped the secret thing back in his shirt and thanked the good captain, watching as the good captain nodded sluggishly and turned for the door, trudging into the shallow light of the corridor and vanishing to the right.
     Jaysh stared after him for a very long time, studying the empty doorway and vacant hall and wondering why he felt so poorly about disappointing someone who acted nothing like his real-friend. But understand it or not, he did feel poorly, very poorly, indeed.
     Oh well, he thought. I still got my Zeph.
     He lowered his head to see if he’d disturbed the cat-thing in his arms and found that he had not. Zeph remained coiled and prone and ceaselessly purring. Taking this as a sign, Jaysh slipped from the anteroom and made his way down the stairs. At the ground floor, he cut through the servant quarters and out the kitchen doors. Then, once in the gardens, he slipped to the shadows of the trees and made his way north.
     In his arms, the cat-thing slumbered, even as Jaysh paused at Harvestgate and worried over the first and only sentries he would meet along the way. They were standing on the inside of the wicket gate and surveying the torch lit areas to either side...or at least it looked like they were surveying the torch lit areas. After crawling in closer, Jaysh saw that the pair of watchmen were yawning and blinking and literally falling asleep on their feet. But with three-fourths of the castle watch deployed to Westpost and the remaining fourth worn down by endless shifts and countless duties, he guessed he wasn’t surprised.
     Zeph wasn’t surprised either…or awake.
     After slipping past the guards, Jaysh crept into the alleyways bordering Gillenmare street—which became Harvest Road on the north side of the city—and found his way completely obstructed by Jashian citizenry. At one shadowy mound, he heard a rat digging through the refuse, and in one of the cross-alleys a lone mongrel growled at him in warning, but otherwise his way was clear. The good people of Onador appeared to be recovering from the excitement of their earlier celebration.
     Seeing this, Jaysh wondered if maybe that was the cause of Zeph’s intense slumber, if maybe she were exhausted from the emotional strain of the day’s events. But regardless of the cause, the results were undeniable. The cat-thing remained inert for the whole of their transit, even as Jaysh came to the dirt path of Lake Road and veered west, and even as he met the trial in the weeds and followed it to the south. In his arms, the cat-thing slumbered on, undisturbed as Jaysh came to the slope of the Hill and ascended to its peak, unprovoked as he slipped between the fencing and went tripping across the headstones, and uninterrupted as he came to the tiny stone cherub along the interior path and laid himself down beneath her gaze.
     It was not until sometime in the middle of the night—when her perpetual purring vanish from his chest and when her flaccid body turn as rigid as a stone—that the woodsman’s pet came awake.
     Groggy and sore, Jaysh lifted his head.
     Zeph was staring at the archway to the east, both yellow eyes blazing with fury.