The thug smiled. Tact paid off, and the prince had started to buy into his ruse; all he needed now was to remove the guards and send that ransom note. The latter was simple enough—just tell any of the Royals’ goons to pass the message, possibly shake him up a smidgen before to make sure he complied, and let the money come pouring—but it required the success of the first. He followed the prince out of the building.
“Call me ‘Z’,” he said, voice returning to his regular baritone outside the cavernous echoes of the building. “Sorry, Prince, if you want my full name—most likely for that ‘Wanted’ notice you’ll be putting up at every street corner, pub wall and letterbox—I’m going to need my money first.”
He led the prince through the twists and turns of tight streets between congested terraces, left and right in successive alternation like navigating a labyrinth. Jogging ahead, he turned to face the prince and continued his backward trot. “Like I promised, you’re in for a real treat today: we’re touring the slums. This is where the poorest of the poor live, and disease and rats run rampant. Bet you haven’t even seen a rat where you’re from, am I right?” Steam shrieked as it escaped a nearby chimney, but the bevy of peasants dressed in multitudinous shades of soot-stained gray were unperturbed. He caught the look of unease that took the prince’s expression. “Don’t worry, we’re only here to pick up some supplies; we won’t be long.”
He wheeled to his left and entered the weapons shop, bringing both palms to the wooden table, arms stretched. “Miguel!” he called the blacksmith with familial amiability. “Ten throwing knives, one eight inch dagger—just the basics. Hit me up.”
“One day you will be your own death.” The blacksmith chuckled, voice aged and wheezy, as he stood up to retrieve the order. “Why don’t you give up this wild goose chase of yours, go home to mom and let the Empire handle the Fiends? You are powerless to stop them anyway.”
“Because I’m twenty-eight, too old to be living—“
“By Drite! Is that Prince Fylel you’re harboring? Boy, what have you gotten yourself into this time?”
“This guy?” Zayen turned and made a cursory gesture at the prince. “No, he’s just a distant cousin. One of The Joyful; they’re putting on a play soon. Pretty convincing, isn’t he? Got the sword and everything.” He tossed the money on the table, picked up the weapons, and exited the shop before the blacksmith could stop him. “Thanks, Mig. I’ll be seeing you.”
Turning now to face the prince, he said, “The lack of education in this area has left people in it bereft of sense; they’ll believe anything you tell them. And with ignorance comes danger. You’ve got to lie low here: some will kill you for being you, just for the fun of it; not everyone has my leniency.”
He ran ahead and pointed to stairs leading to the train station, a massive brick construction majestic in size and color, a rich terracotta against the stark tans of surrounding buildings. It towered over the run-down slums and threatened to engulf the neighborhood with its breadth. “Empire keeps the train stations far from the main city—trains are loud and disturb the rich folk, but apparently commoners are immune to noise.” They entered the hall, greeted by foreign smells of foreign places, foreign voices and foreign people; the Magnum Interchange burst with life and, with it, noise, both human and train. A mother held her daughter’s hand as she exited the station, smiling. “It’s ironic: the people who live around the station—most of them have not even been on one ride; they can’t afford it.” He grimaced as they strolled deeper into the station along the length of a nearby train.
“Prince!” a burly voice shouted from the opposite platform. Zayen whirled and faced the voice; the color drained from his face. Guard. Unflinching, he spun and rammed Fylel into the open carriage. Catching his weight on the upper rim of the door with both hands, he swung his body into the carriage and collapsed on his back beside the prince. The door slammed shut behind him as the train jerked forward.
This is a passenger announcement. A female voice emanated from near invisible speakers. Please ready your tickets, and ensure your seatbelt is securely fastened. Refreshments will be served shortly after all passengers have been confirmed. Enjoy your journey to Gasperade.