Zaya stared up at the tower on unsteady feet as a few loose strands of her silver hair blew into her face. The moon glimmered against darkened skies just enough to see the top, although at the peak it was little more than a vague silhouette against the night sky. She had plenty of climbing experience, and the worn stones and cracked mortar gave plenty of footholds, but in her current state, just looking upwards made her feel sick.
Zaya hadn’t known that she was going to have to climb this tower until she had gotten to the city. A little snooping around was enough to know that her quarry was at the top of the tower, so a sensible plan would be take the time to come up with a plan, buy ropes and pitons and all the proper gear, then climb up the tower if it still seemed like the best entrance. Instead, she had decided to get a drink to settle her nerves at the first tavern she found, had too many, blabbed her intentions to kidnap a princess, then drunkenly wandered out of the bar with an entourage of fellow drunk people to the courtyard just below the tower, swearing to climb it that very night.
With a look back to her audience and some small rational part of her mind telling her that this was a terrible idea, Zaya cracked her knuckles and stretched her arms. Then she reached up and started climbing the tower. The night was warm, but the stone had cooled to the touch. It was rough and jagged, but that didn’t bother her.
Despite her drunken state, Zaya found that the climb was fairly easy. The stone blocks were frequent enough that she had no shortage of footholds. Down below, her audience was cheering loudly, having completely forgotten about the sneaking part of the mission.
At the top, all Zaya had left was getting over the railing. Despite the drunken skill of the climb, she managed to tangle herself on the railing and fall heavily onto the balcony. As the adrenaline faded, she was left with her body violently rebelling against her, and all the drunk-sickness coming back at once. She resisted heroically, managing to climb back to her feet, panting like a horse as she tried to control herself. She stumbled towards the door separating the balcony from the room. And stared shocked as she realized that there was someone standing there watching her.
The princess – Minali, stared at Zaya, a mixture of worry, curiosity, and sadness on her face. She didn’t say anything, just kept staring, with a sidelong glance at the railing, clearly thinking about the journey up here.
Zaya stared back at Minali with drunken shock, giving her best effort just to keep herself together. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing but stammering nonsense came out. Finally, her resistance gave out, and she almost simultaneously dropped to the ground from the dizziness, threw up, and passed out, the last thing she saw was the princess staring at her with a look of disgust.
Zaya woke with a whimpering, feeling like hell with her head pounding. She cracked open her eyes, and the sunlight coming in from the balcony quickly made her regret that decision. The events of the last day were a blurred mess, and she struggled with piecing them back together like a puzzle.
“Demonspit, Zaya! What’s wrong with you, you could have died!” a voice said, loud and angry.
The familiarity of that voice led Zaya to brave opening her eyes to find the source. The only person in that room was the princess, her hands on her hips, angrily staring at Zaya in the bed. Even in her current state, that was enough to set her heart pounding. But the sunlight was too much, so she shut her eyes once again. What she meant to be asking for quiet instead came out as a groan, but that was the best she could do right now.
The princess sighed loudly, extravagantly even. “You need to get up so I can yell at you!” She grabbed the covers and yanked on them. Zaya managed to put up a fight for a moment, but she was completely outmatched in her current state.
Zaya stared at Minali with pleading eyes, realizing how pathetic she must look at the moment.
Minali’s look of anger softened. She tossed the covers back, then walked around a corner of the room. After a minute, she returned with a crystal glass filled with a murky substance.
“I was going to let you suffer, but it wasn’t as fun as I thought. So, drink this. It should help with your… condition.”
Zaya glanced at the glass and frowned. Just looking at it made her want to gag.
“Oh, just drink the damned potion, Zaya! It will help, I promise you,” Minali said, then when Zaya responded with a shake of her head, she walked over, propped her up into a sitting position, then put it to Zaya’s lips.
Zaya briefly considered letting it spill all over her, but decided to behave. The drink tasted as foul as it looked, but she somehow managed to keep it down.
“Just let the stuff work. We can talk after you feel better,” Minali said, ever so gently patting the top of Zaya’s head.
“What happened to my clothes?” Zaya asked after she was feeling better. She knew that some time had passed, and suspecting she might have slept a little, because the light seemed to have shifted. She had made it to sitting up against the headboard on her own.
“You threw up all over yourself, and I wasn’t going to let that get in my bed. And I can’t exactly get my maids to clean your stuff, so I peeled you out of them and put you in one of my gowns. And – I promise you I didn’t do anything else.”
Zaya turned red with embarrassment despite her best efforts. “I – trust you. And I certainly brought it onto myself.”
Minali sat on the foot of the bed, cross-legged and facing Zaya. Her anger seemed to have faded. “Why are you here? After – Well, I never thought that I would see you again, to be honest.”
“I’ve felt bad about what happened ever since, so I came to apologize to you.”
Minali turned and glanced towards the balcony, then look back at Zaya. “There are so many easier ways to apologize to me than climbing a tower. And, well, I should be the one to apologize to you. Those two days at the jubilee where the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. And then I went and ruined it by kissing you. I shouldn’t have, and I’m sorry for that.”
Somehow, Zaya’s cheeks went even more red as she tried to ignore the sudden pounding in her heart. “I shouldn’t have ran away from you. We were both trapped then in our gilded cages. I ran away from mine because I could, but you never had that choice. I came to fix this, if you let me.”
Minali laughed sadly, looking back towards the balcony. “That is something even you can’t do. I can’t climb towers like you can. I’ve dreamed so long that I could, but I cannot.”
“That’s the thing. I didn’t come here just to talk to you. I came here to kidnap a princess. With your permission, of course.”
“I can’t guarantee you’ll find whatever you want outside. But I promise you that I will do everything in my power to keep you safe.”
“If I had a chance to run away with you, then of course. Yes. But that just isn’t going to be possible. Ever.”
“Admittedly I’ve made it more difficult, but I can get us out of here. But, is there any chance of me getting caught here before nightfall?”
“Not if I barricade myself up here. They treat me like a petulant child, so sometimes I act like one.”
“Then let’s do that.”
“Already did. How else was I going to hide having a guest up here?”
“Oh. The other thing is that I need you to tell me everything you know about the guard’s rotations down there, especially at night.”
The first door was easy for Zaya to open with a lockpick. She may have been woefully unprepared for this when she made the climb, but she never went anywhere without a set of lockpicks. Although today, they had acquired a smell from sitting in her clothes for most of the day. They crept down the stairs as slowly and quietly as could be. There was no patrol in the tower itself, but they didn’t want to make any noise in case it echoed throughout the keep.
At the bottom of the stairs was another door that Zaya also unlocked. She waited there for some time, listening carefully for any sign of a patrol through those halls. Once she was satisfied, she opened the door and they moved out, relying on Minali’s knowledge of the keep.
They continued their way through the keep, finding that the night guards were very bad at their jobs. They had to take cover once in a side room to avoid a guard on patrol, but the rest of them that they passed by where either snoring so loudly that it was a wonder that they didn’t get caught, or loudly gambling in the halls. But they managed to make it to the kitchen area where their exit was without being discovered.
The last door was much harder to unlock, but Zaya managed to get it eventually. She made a mental note to herself that she needed some more practice once they were out of here.
At the most dangerous part, Zaya took Minali’s hand and stared her in the eyes “Look, whatever happens here, don’t let go. But if they do catch us, then let them know who you are right away. I don’t want them to hurt you by accident.”
“I’m not letting go you,” Minali said with determination.
Zaya just nodded, then opened the door and they began walking outside. There was a large open space between the keep and the city that they had to cross. Zaya led the way, moving with purpose but not running.
As they neared the final stretch, a group of guards came around the corner. Minali froze with fright, but Zaya kept moving, forcing her to follow along. The guards reacted with confusion, not expecting people coming from the keep. Once they started shouting, Zaya took off in a dead sprint.
Zaya lead Minali through many twists and turns through the city, until the guards, still shouting wildly were further away, then took her back to the inn she had rented. The workers there were cleaning up from the night’s festivities, and Zaya tossed them a small bag of coins to them for extra discretion.
As soon as they got into their room, Minali wrapped her arms around Zaya in a crushing hug. “I don’t think that I’ve ever been this free before!”