Break the Gilded Cage Ch. 04byElenia26©
While his trip on Wilhelm took a full day to the next town, Julian's business in the next town took two. The last looks in Alania's eyes bothered him during this time, and worried him. Finally when his business was completed, he resolved to visit them and see how she was doing. He rode out the very next day, and arrived in her town late at night. Rather than bother them then, he decided to wait until morning.
The next day he got dressed very nicely, and purchased a small bouquet of spring flowers on his way to their house. Why he was making such an effort, even he wasn't sure, but he didn't ask.
He turned down their street, and once again rang the doorbell. The gate guard took one look at him, and said, "Thank the gods you're here, Lord Alexander."
"Why? What has happened?" The gate guard shook his head, mournfully. "It's not my place to tell, my Lord."
Suddenly worried, he hurried up the path. What had happened in only five days?
Samuel met him at the door again. "Lord Alexander. I think his Lordship would be happy to see you. Allow me to take your things, sir. Perhaps you could see yourself to his study?"
Julian nodded. "Very well, Samuel. What is the matter? How is A-her ladyship?" He had almost called her by her first name. But Samuel would only say, "I think you should speak to the master, sir."
Thoroughly puzzled now, he hurried to James' study and knocked. "Who is it?" came an aggrieved voice through the door.
Silence. Then, "Julian?" He heard the door unlatching, then it swung open. He was shocked at his friend's face in the door.
James looked haggard, worn, and terribly troubled. "James! Whatever is the matter? Your servants won't tell me. What's going on?"
In answer, James motioned him inside and shut the door. He looked at Julian mournfully. "It's quite simple, actually. She's gone."
Julian couldn't believe his ears. "She's what?"
"I'd better tell you from the beginning."
"Yes, I think you'd better."
James took a deep drink from a glass he had on the table, not seeming to care that it was only morning yet. He swallowed, and motioned Julian to a chair. He took one himself.
"The night you left her here, she didn't talk much. I just thought perhaps she was shy, and uncertain, so I gave her a room, fresh clothes, and dinner that night. She told me a very little about her life, but it was like pulling teeth.
"After dinner, she asked if we could speak in private. I was happy, for I thought she was opening up to me a little bit. I could not have been more wrong.
"We went into my study – this very study, and I sat down. I motioned her to sit, but she refused. I asked her what she wanted to talk about, and she looked hard at me with those green eyes, and she began.
"She started in a normal tone of voice. She began asking me about her mother. Very quickly she began asking me why I hadn't rescued her mother when she was pregnant.
"She blamed me, Julian. She told me all her sorrows stemmed from me, and asked me how I could have had the temerity to think she could ever love me. She slowly grew angrier and more clipped as she paced the room.
"She told me that in honor of her mother's memory, she would try to stifle the hate she felt for me. Yes, she said hate. But she said she could never love me, nor even like me, and she certainly didn't intend on remaining here.
"She wanted to leave?" Julian interjected. James nodded.
"When I asked her where she would go, what she would do, she seemed to even take offense at that. She said I shouldn't underestimate her, nor think that she must remain under my roof to eat. She said she was tired of obeying a man, and being practically a man's property, and she wasn't about to give up her new-found freedom to a man who had betrayed her mother.
"She hadn't unpacked any of her gear, it turned out. She showed me a sword and told me she knew how to use it. She claimed she was planning to adventure, to see the world.
"When I protested, when I said that a proper young woman of this family would never do such a thing, she blew up at me. She railed at me, asking what being a 'proper young lady' had done for her mother, exactly. She was furious, and I couldn't get a word in edgewise.
"When she calmed down, she issued an ultimatum. 'You have only two choices, Uncle. You can try to keep me here. In which case I promise you that not only will I make every conceivable attempt to escape, including notifying the authorities – and I know yours don't take kindly to kidnapping – but I will not cooperate with anything. I won't eat, I won't bathe. I won't live.'
'Your other alternative is to let me go peacefully. If you let me do so, I will send you periodic reports on my progress. I will not be the obedient daughter you expected. I am a shah's daughter, and I will no longer bow to no man. But I will let you know that I am all right.'
"Well, I was at a loss, of course. Something in her gaze convinced me she was telling the truth, however, I argued with her. She argued back, and we raised hell in the study, shouting at each other. I called her an irresponsible little girl, and she called me traitorous old man who couldn't even save his sister.
"In the end, it was the guilt which won me over. She was right, of course, I could have done more for my sister. I agreed to let her go – on the condition that she let me give her a gift. Suspicious, she agreed provided she approved the gift.
"Well, I couldn't bear to think of my sister's daughter walking all those miles, so as a gift I offered her the best horse from my stable. Her eyes actually brightened for a moment, so I knew she was pleased.
"And so she rode away that very night, Julian. And she hasn't returned since. I thought perhaps she would come back in a night, frightened, but she hasn't even written yet. And I find myself regretting my agreeing to let her go."
Julian's eyes were wide. "So she is wandering the land by herself?"
James nodded, utterly miserable. "I had to give her her freedom, I think, or she would have rebelled seriously."
Julian considered. "Would you like me to look for her for you? I could follow her and make sure she's all right without intruding. I've done such things before."
At the mention of the offer, James' eyes lit up, but then dropped again. "You've already done so much for this household, I couldn't ask you to do more."
Julian wasn't sure why he'd offered, except that he was worried about the girl. "It's no trouble, James. I'm concerned about her welfare as well, as I brought her here."
James wiped his eyes and held out his hand. "I cannot say no, Julian. My niece would be safe, I think, if you were to look out after her even for a little while."
Julian clasped his hand. "It is no trouble, old friend. And in that case I should leave straightaway as she has many days' lead on me. Wish me luck."
He was back out of town within the hour. It had been easy enough to guess which direction she had gone in. There were only two towns relatively close to this city, Esperanza, and Whitecliff, and he had gone to one of them, so he was fairly sure she would have gone to the other, so as not to take any chances of running into him. The other town was a days' journey to the west, and he made it easily on Wilhelm.
He rode into town and dismounted at the gates. Going over to the gate guards, he hailed them. "Hello, good friends!" They looked at him with that same laconic stare of guards everywhere.
"I was wondering, my friends, if you had seen a young, very pretty girl come through town a couple of days ago. She would have been alone, and riding a very fine horse."
One of them sneered. "We might've, governor, what's it to you?"
He very casually opened his pouch belt and removed a platinum coin. "Just curious, that's all." The guards' eyes followed his hand as he tossed the coin up in the air and caught it. "I seem to have an excess of a couple of these. I may be dropping them – or I might not be."
One of the guards spoke up. "Black hair? Green eyes?"
Julian nodded. "You've seen her, then have you?" The guard snickered. "No, I ain't but Tom has. Hey, Tom!" One of the guards turned, sporting the faint remnants of a black eye. "Tried to touch her, Tom did. She turned around and gave 'im a sock right in the nose. Hoity-toity, she was."
"You know where she went?" Inside, he realized he wanted to refresh the shiner on Tom's face.
"Yeah, once Tom had backed down, she got all polite-like again, and asked us for an inn. We told her the Prancing Pony, and as far as I know, that's where she was headed." Julian couldn't have asked for more, and in addition to the two platinum, dropped 2 gold as well. "Thanks. You've been most helpful." He whistled for Wilhelm, and continued on. Behind him he heard the argument beginning on how best to split up the money.
He lucked out at the Prancing Pony as well. She had obviously tried to blend, by taking a bed in the common room, but one of the other patrons had tried to accost her in the night. He was surprised and secretly pleased to hear she had kicked him in the face, and righteously stood her ground when the guards came. Guards were always suckers for a pretty lady, and hadn't doubted her story. He also got the information that she had been asking for directions to Newcastle, the next town inland.
He followed behind her for some days, slowly catching up. She wasn't difficult to follow. He found that rather than go by Alania, she had given her name as Marienne – her mother's name. She did not make much attempt to hide, rather, she hid fairly well behind her beauty – so while people remembered a beautiful girl, they didn't remember much else about her. And they didn't find it odd that what seemed to be a handsome knight should be following her. Some of them thought it romantic. He wondered if they would think it was quite so sweet if they knew the discrepancy in their ages.