Chapter 198 - Risking Treason

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Gaius’ first destination was the Prince’s bedroom.  If he wanted to save those girls in Petrus’ bedroom, then he’d need something of the Prince’s first.  Octavius often had trouble sleeping, so he kept strong Somnos Incense by his bed.  There were a few servants scurrying about, but Gaius was able to slip in undetected and take a few sticks.

Once the incense was in hand, it was off to Petrus’ small wing of the palace complex.  There, Gaius thought he would have a harder time moving around without challenge, as it was a place he had no business being.  However, there weren’t any servants in Petrus’ chambers, so a surprised Gaius found that he could move through those marble halls with greater ease than his squireship afforded in the Prince’s chambers.

Then again, the Earthshaker Paladin’s proclivities weren’t something he would want to broadcast, so it made a certain kind of sense that there weren’t any servants.  Gaius put that out of his mind and focused on the task at hand, quickly locating the door to Petrus’ training room while hoping the Paladin wasn’t using his magic sense.

Judging by the flow of magic he was able to sense from the hallway, he could tell that the Paladin was busy training within.  With a nervous smile, Gaius lit the incense and stuck the sticks under the door and anxiously waited.  If Petrus were to notice what was happening, the Paladin would burst out of the training room and capture him, and Gaius didn’t want to think about what Petrus would do to him with no one around to witness it.  Making matters worse, since the Paladin was training and was thus channeling his magic, he would be far more resistant to the incense.

But, despite all of his doubts and fears, Gaius had committed to what he was doing as soon as he lit the incense; even if he tried to run, he wouldn’t get far with a seventh-tier mage on his heels.  He could now only wait for whatever came next.

After several minutes, he thought he heard a dull thump from within the training room.  It took the young nobleman another minute to work up the courage to risk opening the door just a crack and take a peek inside.  The round training room wasn’t that big, but it was sparsely furnished giving it a spacious feel.  The only decoration in the room were several statues of naked women in a handful of alcoves, which Gaius found extremely tasteless.  In the center of the floor was a sandpit for physical training, and Gaius could see an unmoving figure within, slumped over.

Gaius stared at that figure, knowing that it was Petrus.  The Paladin didn’t move for several minutes, bringing a smile to Gaius’ lips.  Somnos Incense would keep the fifth-tier Octavius out for about ten hours, but Gaius would consider himself lucky if Petrus would be unconscious for even half as long, so he needed to move fast.

Springing up with the burning incense sticks in hand, Gaius took off toward Petrus’ bedroom while extinguishing the sticks; it wouldn’t do if he were to accidentally knock himself out, nor would it be ideal if the Earthshaker Paladin discovered them when he awoke.  The Paladin’s bedroom wasn’t far, and he found it unlocked, so he slipped in as carefully and quietly as he was able.  It was then that he saw the two young women shackled to the huge four-poster bed on a raised dais in the center of the room.  They were both awake and clearly in pain, and they shrunk away from the sound of the door opening and closing.  They were blindfolded and gagged, and so couldn’t do or say anything other than to whimper and futilely struggle against their restraints.

Worse than even that, however, were the bruises, welts, and cuts that covered their bodies.  They were naked, so Gaius could see exactly how badly Petrus had hurt them; there was hardly a single square inch of their bodies that wasn’t covered in bruises or cuts, and while it turned his stomach, the sight of what Petrus had done also hardened his resolve to see this through.

Gaius swiftly crossed the room.  Hearing his approach, the two young women struggled to get away and tried to scream.

“Shhh,” Gaius whispered, trying to calm them down.  “Sir Petrus has been knocked out, I’m here to get you out of this place!”

The ladies stopped struggling at his words, but they remained tense.  They only started to calm down when Gaius stepped forward to remove the blindfolds and gags, pausing only to grimace in disgust at the bloody rod and knife still on the bed.  Before he reached for the blindfolds, Gaius covered these implements with the bedsheets.

“Do you know where the key is for your chains?” Gaius asked the first girl, deciding not to waste time with explanations.

Still a little nervous as to Gaius’ intent, it took a moment for her to respond.  Eventually, though, she figured that her situation couldn’t get any worse even if she told him.

“He keeps it in his bedside table,” she answered, her deep blue eyes drifting toward the table in question.

Gaius almost ripped the drawer of the end table off in his haste to find the key.  Once he did, he opened the shackles as fast as he could.

The girls quickly crawled off the bed.  Gaius breathed a sigh of relief when it seemed that most of the damage Petrus had done to them was superficial, but he frowned a little when they turned back toward him and stared at him in suspicion.  The girl who appeared a little older even stepped out in front of the other, as if to shield her from him.

He could tell that they didn’t trust him, even if he had undone their restraints, but given the circumstances, he couldn’t really blame them.

“We should hurry,” he said, looking around for something the girls could wear.  “Do you two happen to know where Petrus put your clothes?”

The older one stared at him for a moment, then nodded slowly, much to Gaius’ surprise.

“Good, then get dressed as fast as you can, we need to leave quickly.”

“Why?” she asked.

“I knocked Petrus out with some Somnos Incense, but I don’t know how long he’ll be out.  We need to get you two out of here before he wakes up!”

“We won’t get far…” the older one stated with a look of dejection.

“When the Earthshaker Paladin finds us, he’s going to kill us!” the younger one cried out in fear.

“He won’t,” Gaius replied.  “Besides, the only thing that’s guaranteed is that staying here is a terrible idea, no?’

The ladies glanced back at the bed, then slowly nodded their agreement.

“Right, so we need to get you two out of here as soon as possible!  And then you can leave this place behind you forever!”

“And we’ll be fugitives in our own city,” the older girl said.

Gaius frowned, but in the few months since he’d arrived, he’d come to know the palace layout like the back of his hand; he knew where Petrus kept some of his emergency funds, and he didn’t think the Paladin truly needed all of what he had set aside.

“That’s not a problem…” he said, and he informed them of his idea.

“That…” the older one said with a thoughtful look.

“It’s only an option if we move quickly!” Gaius said, urging them onward.

Both girls glanced at each other, then to Gaius, and finally at the bed, still covered in blood stains.

“We’ll do it,” the older girl said.

“Then let’s get a move on,” Gaius said.

Fortunately, Petrus didn’t bother disposing of the girls’ maid uniforms when he dragged them back to his chambers, so the ladies found their clothes on the floor nearby and quickly dressed.  The three then made their way out of the bedroom and to the Paladin’s private vault, though Gaius had to slow himself down as the ladies didn’t have much strength to walk.  Petrus didn’t keep it locked, but Gaius wasn’t too surprised; the Paladin probably kept most of his valuable items in his soul realm and most of his wealth in a Heaven’s Eye vault; this was just a place to store some liquid assets in case of emergency.

That being said, Gaius and the girls still found a dozen gold bars and a crate of silver coins.  Each of the girls took a gold bar, hiding them in the folds and frills of their maid uniforms, and Gaius escorted them toward a seldom-used entrance to the palace.  With that much gold, they’d have more than enough money to leave the city in short order and live comfortably far away from Petrus and Valentia.

As the girls hurried through the secluded servant’s entrance and toward the distant crowds, Gaius couldn’t help but feel a little bit of dread for the consequences of what he’d just done.  Seeing the happy and relieved expressions of the ladies to have escaped the palace, he knew he had done the right thing, but now that they were gone he couldn’t help but worry about what might happen to him if his part in this was found out.  This could easily end with him on a one-way trip to the headsman’s block.

At the very least, though, he was confident that Petrus wouldn’t notice the theft of the gold bars for a while and that it would take a while for the Paladin to think of a socially acceptable excuse to send people after the girls, assuming he ever managed to do so.

Gaius turned back toward the palace and began walking back.  Whatever happened, he would face it with as much dignity and composure as he could, sure in the knowledge that what he’d done was right.

For now, though, he needed to find somewhere to be, somewhere that wasn’t just wandering around the palace alone.  And he knew just the place.

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“So, how are you doing, little brother?” Gratian asked Gaius as he pulled the younger man into a warm embrace.  “Father and I have been worried about you being here in the hands of Prince Octavius…”

“I’m doing just fine, brother,” Gaius said, even though he felt like the bit about his father’s worry was a lie.  “Although, if it’s all the same to you, I’ve been here for the past hour or so.”

“What…?” Gratian began, only to cut himself off from continuing.  Gaius had an uncharacteristic look on his face, with shame, anger, satisfaction, and anxiety all playing out before his eyes.  “Just tell me this, brother, have you been abused here?  Is there anything you need to speak with me about?”

“I appreciate your concern, Gratian, but truly, I’m fine.  Just sick of the Prince and House Duronius and their depravities,” Gaius answered, brushing aside his elder brother’s concerns.  “For now, just know that it’s for the best that our story is that I’ve been here since the Prince dismissed me, not stealing a few sticks of Somnos Incense and knocking out Sir Petrus, and certainly not freeing rape victims from Petrus’ bedchamber.”

Gratian stared at his younger brother, his mouth ajar; he had no idea how to respond.  Eventually, he simply gave up and wordlessly waved Gaius further into his guest quarters.  They sat in silence, eating and drinking whatever Gratian’s servants brought them.  It took a little while longer, but Gratian managed to get Gaius to explain what had just happened.

“Outrageous!” the soon-to-be-Duke exclaimed, barely managing to keep his voice under control.  “To be noble—to be royal—means to be better than the common man, and to be a man is to be better than an animal!  To act so lawlessly, to treat the commoners that we are supposed to rule so brutally, Sir Petrus deserves a death most painful!”

“Indeed he does,” Gaius said with a sigh, “but how much more can we do?  I’ve already freed the ladies he was keeping, and if he takes any more I’ll certainly do my best to free them too, but beyond that, we’re essentially helpless to take action.  Petrus’ little sister is the Queen, the mother of Prince Octavius!  His father is Duke Duronius, the richest noble in the Kingdom!  And more than that, he’s one of only six Paladins!  He’s essentially untouchable!”

‘I suppose I could’ve just killed him when he was unconscious,’ Gaius mused.  ‘No, that’s going a little too far.  To weaken the Kingdom by killing one of its seventh-tier mages would trigger a huge manhunt for the killer.  I can’t imagine that would go well for anyone…’

“Still, to be associated with a man like him turns my stomach!” Gratian growled.  “You know, there were rumors about that man years ago, rumors about how he treated women in the capital.  Rumors about how he treated captured citizens of the Talfar Kingdom when we last warred with them eighty years ago…  I never put stock in them, but now…  You need to be careful around him, little brother.”

“I understand,” Gaius replied.  “I’ll do my best not to take unnecessary risks, but I also have a responsibility to do what I can to mitigate the damage he does.”

“You should just resign your position and return with me to Lentia,” Gratian said with an incredibly concerned look on his face.

“I can’t do that, our family has already pledged our support to Prince Octavius.  Besides, call me paranoid but I think suddenly resigning after several girls Petrus was playing with escaped would seem mighty suspicious, no?”

“That doesn’t matter, you shouldn’t even be here!”

“And yet, I am.  And I must make the most of it,” Gaius said as he stared into his brother’s eyes.  Gratian could tell that Gaius was serious and wasn’t going to be talked out of this, but his own mind was racing to figure out what he and House Tullius should do, now that he had been informed by someone he trusted implicitly of the company the Prince kept.

“We’ve already pledged our support, so we can’t back out,” he said slowly, working through the problem out loud.  “If Father were to catch me sabotaging this alliance he made with the Prince, then he’d have me disinherited in a heartbeat… Still, I can’t have us getting too close to the Prince.  We will only provide as much support as honor dictates.  Beyond that… I will have to speak with Father…”

“I understand.  I’ll keep you as informed as I can about what’s going on here,” Gaius said.

“Thank you…”

Their conversation stopped there, as there wasn’t much else for them to say on the subject.  Eventually, Gaius had to return to Prince Octavius’ side and was surprised to find a sour and surly-looking Petrus.  Fortunately, no one leveled any accusations against him, or even brought up the subject of Petrus being knocked out, robbed, and deprived of the girls he was imprisoning.

By the end of the day, it was clear to Gaius that he’d gotten away with it, causing him to feel a swelling of pride in his chest he hadn’t felt in a long time.

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Chapter 199 - Princess Cristina

Chapter 197 - Octavius