Chapter 14: That's Enough Beans
James wasn't sure how Clandestine fit into all of this, but for the first time in five years, things felt like they were falling into place like they never had before.
"Your coffin was taken deep beneath the palace, in the kingdom's secret archives," James continued soberly. "At the time, they didn't know what to do with it. But they were determined to translate the writing on the coffin and discover its significance if there was any. At that point, it was out of my hands... for a time."
He could hear the questions Clandestine left unsaid as she watched him, her eyes big and glossy. He could tell that she was trying to keep back tears and had been attempting to laugh it off this whole time. But he felt like he was looking into a window at a kind of pain and heartache he couldn't even measure. There were so many implications to what she'd said. Her trusted mentor sounded like a harsh woman who might've held Clandestine at a distance, and James could only assume that if Clandestine's mentor was her guardian, that her parents were out of the picture. She was either orphaned or abandoned, and both options were tragic.
He knew that she was still reeling from the realization that she'd been found by the Moonlight Kingdom and that somehow, she was inexplicably connected to his story. She would want to know what had happened to her, and how she'd ended up outside of King's Peak by the time she'd woken up. Obviously, her story didn't end there.
"There were many meetings after we returned," James said, feeling the weight of what he was going to say next grip him. He couldn't meet Clandestine's eyes.
"Verna's body was delivered to the king. And..."
He looked away.
"I didn't quit," James said, swallowing. "I got promoted."
The palace hall stretched out for what felt like miles.
James had never stepped foot into the inner courts, never mind had an audience with the king. For years, he'd served as a simple soldier, taking orders, and serving on the field. He'd devoted the greater part of his life towards it, ever since he was a young teenager.
When he'd first joined the army, he might've considered this too good to be true. For the eleven-year-old joining the military school that funneled him into the army, this would've been all he could ever dream of.
But now that it was real, it was like a nightmare.
The deep red carpet stretched out over the open floor, narrowing at the steps that reached up to the king's throne. The whole hall was needlessly spacious - the ceilings were high and vaulted, propped up by pillars with intricately carved illustrations spinning around them. Long windows let in the natural sunlight, and the beams stretched out across the carpet, reaching towards the shining, golden chair where the king sat, an attendant at either side and rows of guards at the base of the stairs.
When he'd finally been led to the feet of the king, the pit in his gut that the battle left behind somehow gouged out another piece of him, digging deeper.
The king's words took too long to register.
Hero. Promotion. You've been given the honor of joining the king's personal service: the palace guard.
It was the safest, cushiest job in the army.
Hardly anything ever happened in the palace. Guards had strict shifts, flowing in and out like clockwork.
It was boring. Uneventful. A dramatic change from being put on the front lines.
They were... pulling him out of it. He didn't know if it was a reward or a punishment. He didn't know how to feel. For a moment, he found himself compelled to take off his armor, right there. He was compelled to lay down his helmet, in front of the king, and beg for a full release.
He didn't want to serve in the army anymore. He didn't want to serve the king at all. He didn't want to kill anyone else. He didn't think he could bear--
James froze as the king stood, a few inches taller, even in his old age. He laid his hand on James's shoulder and met his eyes with a surprisingly gentle sternness, and he didn't quite know how to describe it. It was like a father, to a son.
But the king was a stranger.
"I want to take you under my wing," the king said, his words surreal, swirling in James's mind like a storm. "I think you have great potential. You're brave. Loyal. You love our kingdom, and our people, and your fellow soldiers and superiors couldn't speak any higher of you if they tried."
James froze under the king's stare. Stiff. Afraid.
What did that mean?
"Would you do an old man the honor of teaching you the ropes?" the king asked, a little more relaxed as he offered James a smile.
"The ropes to what?" he asked dumbly.
And the king burst into booming laughter, patting James's shoulder.
James took in a deep breath, glancing at Clandestine again, aware of how the night was dragging on and how tired she seemed. He was still worried that someone was going to discover them, like sitting ducks out in the middle of the valley. Clandestine needed rest, and they needed to get moving. Soon.
At this point, James was willing to discuss going separate ways later. He didn't know how their stories connected. He didn't know the implications of all of this.
"Maybe... we should continue this later," he said quietly.
Clandestine shot up, looking at him with a pout, her brows drawn into a line.
"Why?" she whispered with a mix of confusion and offense. "Is there something else? Something bad?"
James's expression softened.
"It's just that you look exhausted," he said.
Clandestine deflated, letting out a long sigh as she slumped forward, leaning against her knees once more.
"I am," she said. "But I won't be able to go to sleep until I know how this all connects. I feel like..."
She swallowed, taking in a deep breath and closing her eyes before she looked up at him again.
"You know, it's been five years since I've had any answers," she said. "Five years since I woke up in a graveyard, narrowly avoiding being buried alive, apparently for a second time. And I need to know. I don't know if you know why all of this happened but ever since I woke up and realized I'd been asleep for 100 years... you have no idea how this has felt for me. It's like I've been living a dream. None of it feels real. It does, but it doesn't. Everything I once knew is gone. Everything's so different now."
She turned her body to face him.
"So keep going. I was tucked away and you were promoted," Clandestine said. "But our paths crossed again after that. Didn't they?"
James took in a deep breath.
"Yes," he said. "They did."
Two years under the king's mentorship had led him to this moment. Finally, he'd been trusted to be brought into the King's Private wing, in the room where he met with his closest advisors.
James had been doing everything he could to prove himself. Ever since he returned from the war all he'd ever felt was the building pressure of everyone's expectations.
All he wanted to do was get away, but it felt like he kept digging himself deeper and deeper. He didn't know how to say no. Ever since he'd been in the army, he'd never been given a choice. There were no other options. There was no recourse. And somehow, in the midst of it all, he found himself gravitating closer and closer to the circle of power that influenced the whole of the kingdom. Somehow, he found himself seated at a table with King Blackfield and all of the kingdom's most trusted leaders. Across from him sat Carter Haddon's parents, the world-renowned leaders of the mage-hunting guilds, better known for their iron hand in enforcing anti-magic law.
A pool of dread pitted in James's gut.
Beside them were other guild leaders; each and everyone one of the murderers, just as much a piece of the ongoing slaughter of people as he'd been. Beside the king sat his daughter, Eliza, regal and polite, and deathly pale just like her father.
For the last two years, James found himself questioning everything.
Out of his mouth would come declarations of loyalty, but it was all deceit. In his heart, he had never strayed farther from the love of his country than he had since the end of the war. Since Verna. Since--
"With months of painstaking research and confirming our sources thrice over," Ruth Haddon announced. "We've finally been able to confidently and reliably translate the writing on the coffin discovered at BurningHead Guild."
James's mind snapped to attention, locking eyes with Carter's mother. The way she said it implied that, perhaps, this had been an ongoing conversation over months. This was an update to a story James was only now becoming a part of, but for him, the coffin had faded into irrelevance.
They were still worried about the coffin? It had been strange, and unusual, but James hadn't thought it to be important. Coffins were merely a resting place for the dead. What did they need from a dead body? What could they possibly gain?
"It reads: 'Upon the dragon's wake, the sleeping seal will break. Until the day her slumber ends, don't interfere, or pay amends,'" Ruth went on, reciting it clinically, from memory.
It was poetic. Instead of being an ode to a dead dragon or an epitaph, it was a rhyme, and at the same time, it was almost like it was meant to be a riddle.
Or maybe it wasn't a riddle at all.
Did they take it to be literal? Did they really believe...
"We believe that, somehow, the coffin holds a dragon inside of it. We have reason to suspect that it might be the former fire dragon's successor. It's possible it could be Svida, if she was miraculously spared or managed to survive in secret, but it's far more likely it's the dragon who took her place."
"But we have proof that her body was recovered, and she was confirmed to be dead," Eliza spoke up. "And the idea that a dragon's magic is passed on is still a theory, yet to be proven."
James found himself struggling to follow.
A dragon died during the war? Had it been brought on by the calamity, or was it the hunters who killed her? When had they been killed? How could they have even managed that? What were they hoping to gain from all of this?
This was new information. None of this was in the history books. None of this was public.
"We have been able to detect signs of life from within the coffin," Ruth said, sitting upright as she met the princess's eyes. "There's a heartbeat. Someone's actually in there. Alive."