Heart in the Right Place
The slate-grey young canid shifted his punch-dagger in his hand, making sure for what must have been the hundredth time that he could quickly go from having the weapon palmed and nearly invisible in his hand to having it ready to be used. Even though he’d been assured the beasts kept in the palace were all ornamental, giving anyone a chance to sound the alarm before he’d downed his target would be a very bad thing indeed. A shiver ran through his dense, plush fur, and his large, pointed ears twitched. He’d always prided himself on fighting the good fight, doing the right thing, but freeing an entire country from a tyrant was an almost dizzying difference in scope from his past experiences.
Large white gryphons lay on either side of the palace entrance, their avian features patterned after mute swans, but as his contact had promised, they seemed to take no notice of a single foreign caravan guard strolling past them, the only thing betraying that the creatures were indeed alive being the slight heaving of their sides as they breathed. Another pair flanked the inside of the entrance to the throne room, their graceful bodies seeming to be cut out from the same timeless marble as the building. But they didn’t challenge him, didn’t make a single threatening move, remaining in place like the living works of art they were. It was hard to believe that king’s arrogance, sitting there on his throne with not a single guard in sight, only pretty pets.
The sleek, blue-grey-spotted felines sitting on either side of the throne showed more interest in the approaching stranger, but it still seemed like the interest of a pampered pet, not something worth taking notice of.
“How might we help you?” The king’s voice was pleasant, the smile on his musteline muzzle easily reaching his bright blue eyes.
If he hadn’t known better, the canid might have fallen for that deception, might have thought the king a benevolent ruler with nothing but the best of not just his people, but everyone who sought him out, at heart. Well, he did know better; he’d been told about the man’s underhanded affairs in great detail. Ears folding back, he sprung forward, flipped the punch-dagger around and pulled his arm back to drive it into the ruler’s chest. He started to throw the punch, conviction practically singing in his blood.
“No!” The king’s scream heightened his bloodlust further, his lips pulling back from his teeth more or less on their own accord.
A growling blur of white and grey knocked him aside. He could feel the dagger catch on something, then momentum bent his wrist back and he lost hold of it. A loud, snorting hiss came from somewhere behind him, suggesting that there were more enemies than just the one on him prepared to defend the king. Suddenly frightened, the canid fought to free himself of the weight of one of the pale, oversized cheetahs, snapped his jaws at it to keep its own jaws at bay. The cats were only supposed to be ornamental!
He kicked, and somehow had enough momentum to free himself from the large feline. Before even looking around for his dagger or the target of his failed assassination attempt, he scrambled to his feet. The pair of “ornamental” gryphons were advancing on him, paws whispering against the marble floor, wings mantled and beaks open to hiss at the intruder threatening their king. But they were still based on waterfowl, not birds of prey, and he couldn’t imagine they would be terribly dangerous. He was reasonably sure could still push past them and get another attempt at their master’s life before help could arrive.
Blood not his own stained his fur. Righteous wrath was still making him heady. He might have lost his weapon, but he still had his fangs, and he was unhurt, unlike one of the king’s protective pets. With a growl he rushed towards the gryphons, intent on reaching his goal just past them and sinking his teeth into the king’s throat. By his reckoning, the worst those swan-gryphons could accomplish without raking him with their claws – and he intended to avoid those – would be giving him some bruises. A small price to pay for freeing a country from opression.
Something large and white and covered in feathers hit him like a sledgehammer, knocking him off his feet and sending pain shooting through his body from at least one or two cracked ribs. Had that really been one of the gryphons’ wings? But how could it have been? Birds, after all, had hollow bones, and the gryphon seemed far too unharmed for his comfort where it leaned its neck over him and hissed practically in his face.
Somehow he got back onto his feet, stumbled toward the king. Another beat of the gryphon’s wings snapped both bones in his left forearm like dry twigs.
He fell to the floor and heard someone howl in pain before he realized that it was his own voice he heard. In pure desperation, he kicked towards the large white shape towering over him, hoping to get it to back off. In response it started beating its wings at him, and try as he might, he couldn’t muster up enough focus to attempt much more than squirm with the pain of a fractured shin bone added to the tally of his injuries.
“You!” barked the king, his voice holding every ounce of authority that hadn’t been present in his polite greeting, nor in his cry as the canid would-be assassin had lunged at him. “That knife, was it poisoned?”
The foreigner writhed on the floor, in pain and seized by a very base instinct to flee even when there was no way he would be able to stage an escape, not with his injuries. He could hear the king’s question, read into it confirmation that his intelligence had been accurate. Who, but a wicked ruler, would expect someone to attack him with a weapon coated in one of the many substances that would very nearly make a mere scratch into a sure, painful death?
“Answer me!” The ferret-like monarch’s tufted ears were flattened back against his skull as he crouched down and grasped the intruder by the scruff of his neck. “What of the knife?”
The canid didn’t know where his courage had come from, defiance spilling over his lips almost automatically. “If that beast had not taken it in your place, I would wish it had been! Know this: I may have been stopped, but no matter what tortures you inflict on me, someone else will come to free your people where I failed! Your reign of terror is nearing its end, and my spirit will laugh as you get your due! I know all about your plan, and I spit at you, false God! No longer will you opress and ravish the people of this land, or take the pleasures of their children at your whim!” And spit he did, though he produced little more than a string of saliva running down the side of his own muzzle.
The fingers grasping the scruff of his neck loosened, and surprisingly gentle hands eased the injured canid’s head back down to the hard marble floor. Then the king looked up at the gryphons towering over their captive, and spoke a single word. “Back.” His attention turned back to his broken attacker, then, a hint of a smile on his muzzle. “Please. Do tell me about this plan of mine, because I myself know nothing about it. Maybe this no doubt wicked plan will also bring to light why you call me a tyrant, a false God, a rapist, or an advocate of torture.”
The gryphons backed off at their master’s command, presumably returning to their posts by the door, though their prone captive couldn’t see that to be sure. Just having them out of his field of vision was a relief, though the king’s words puzzled him. He sounded so sincere; the canid desperately wanted to believe what the pale-furred mustelid had to say, even with his informant’s warning to trust no one in these lands echoing in the back of his head. “The azure roots. You would use your control of them to capitalize on my kind’s misfortune, rather than let them into the hands of just and fair traders.”
“Why would I do such a thing?” Everything about the king, from his expression to the horrified puzzlement in his voice, spoke of sincerity. “I have decreed that the distribution will be taken over by the Marked, that much is true, but it is with the best interests of your people at heart. We ask not much, merely enough to pay for the rations of our people and mounts for the travel. Word reached me that the roots were being sold at a price not everyone struck by sickness could afford to pay. I could do nothing else.” The king’s voice turned hard, his fur bristling for a moment. “I will not aid the merchants of your country in lining their own pockets at the expense of the diseased. Maybe it is one of them that has bent your ear?”
The captive shivered and growled when the monarch chuckled and tweaked one of his large ears, just to find the man clamping his jaws shut with a hand.
“Be still. It would be a pity if a broken rib pierced your lung and became the end of you. I’m sure your heart was in the right place.”
He wasn’t quite prepared to believe the king’s words, not yet. “Death would be preferable to the fate I’d suffer at your hands.”
The king rose. “Alright, then. I am not expecting anyone. If the fate of being tended to by my younger sister – a very talented healer, let me tell you – is so objectionable to you, I will not force you to accept it. Ask for my help, however, and I will treat you as I would any other guest, for you have convinced me that your actions were the consequence of misinformation, not malice.”
The ceiling of the palace was every bit as white as the walls and floors. It was also most of what the injured canid could see, afraid to turn his head to widen his field of vision. He heard footfalls on the marble floor, his ears panning towards the sound without his conscious direction. Far as he was able to judge, another two of the musteline natives of this land had arrived. This was confirmed as one of them – judging by the voice, a female – started speaking softly to the king. The other one stepped closer to him where he was lying on the floor, and he tensed, a low growl rising from his throat. It was a fairly toothless warning, as he was fairly certain he wouldn’t be able to defend himself anyway, but the thought of one of them touching him, of being at their mercy, frightened him.
“Leave him be,” the king said. “He said he’d rather die than suffer your treatment, and I promised him we’d honor his wish.”
“He’s the one who tried to kill you?” another female voice asked, and the sound of steps didn’t come closer, instead slowly circling him, frustratingly just out of his field of vision. How could she know? The king had been the only witness, and he hadn’t said anything. “You don’t think he’s a threat, then, Brother?”
“It was a close call, that I admit. But once the knife was out of his hand… I don’t think he expected me to be guarded.”
“Oh, dear,” the woman said, barely holding back laughter. “That would explain letting the cygni rough him up that bad.”
“I was told the beasts were all ornamental!” the canid snapped, starting to twist toward the woman’s voice and sinking back down when the movement multiplied the pain in his broken ribs manifold, his breath forced out of his lungs.
“Hush.” The woman’s voice was kinder now, and he could hear her walk closer in spite of his bared teeth. “You look to be in a lot of pain. And that floor can’t be very comfortable. Are you quite certain you wouldn’t rather be moved to a proper sick bed?”
He whimpered and shook his head, very carefully, jaws clenched tight. He didn’t want them to touch him, didn’t trust them, and even if he had, right now the thought of being moved by anyone sounded more than a little unappealing.
“Well, then, since my brother promised, we’ll be gone. Such a shame. If you change your mind, ask for Aliera. I will be fetched.”
Three pairs of feet did leave the room the same way the canid had entered, soon followed by two sets of four paws, one of them walking with irregular steps. He must have given that cheetah more than a superficial scratch. He spent some time in the silent throne room wondering about how he ought to feel about that. It had never been his attention to kill or hurt the beast, but it had gotten between him and the king. But with how opressed his informant had claimed the country’s population was… No, that didn’t matter. The cheetah was just an animal, after all, a beast trained to guard. Even the incapacitated would-be hero knew the animal’s color wasn’t the standard for the breed, so he assumed at the very least killing the thing would have hurt the king’s coffers. Yet, it was an animal. It didn’t know better. He could not, in good conscience, wish death upon it for protecting its master.
He could wish quite some harm on his informant for the flawed intelligence, however. Ornamental beasts, right. Deathtraps, the lot of them. Maybe he could have gotten past them if he’d known, but he’d made the mistake of assuming the man had known what he was talking about. He’d seemed so sure of his thing.
And now he was lying on his back on the cold stone floor of an empty throne room, incapacitated by broken bones, his only company the same beasts that had broken those bones in the first place. What could he do but think as time passed and his throat grew parched, the king apparently keeping his promise? He’d expected the king to kill him outright, or maybe throw him out to his traveling companions to care for, or at the very worst nurse him back to health to be tortured. But not to do nothing like this. Surely, someone from the trading caravan he’d come with would miss him?
Eventually, he stopped worrying, if only because he drifted off into an uneasy sleep.