After a week of nervous sailing through Forstine, Samuel reported to Jason in his cabin. "You told me to tell you when we were near Laddis, Jason."
"And we are?" Jason asked, turning away from where Louis and Julian were talking to him on the bed.
"Less than a half a day by foot," Samuel nodded.
"Then it's time," Jason said hopping off the bed. Seeing the worried expressions on his friends' faces he gave them an encouraging smile. "Don't worry; I know what I'm doing. See them smile back at him weakly he went out to the main deck of the ship where Geoff was waiting for him.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" His bodyguard asked.
"This is something I have to do," Jason said as he wrapped a heavy cloak over his back, covering his wings. After Geoff had done the same the two of them were carried ashore in a long boat.
"We will meet you down river of Laddis as planned," Samuel said before his men began rowing back to the warship.
"We better get going. We need to reach Laddis by nightfall." Jason said as he headed towards the nearby road.
"What's going to happen by nightfall?" Geoff asked worriedly.
"Nothing, I just thought with so much chaos that the roads would be more dangerous at night. Jason said as he started walking down the dirt road, his silver staff leading the way.
"Oh," Geoff said somewhat relieved.
As it turned out the two of them reached Laddis two hours before sunset, passing the town's burned down gates to find the streets flooded by people left homeless by the civil war.
"How cheerful," Geoff said glumly.
"I know but there's nothing we can do for them. All we can do is what we came for and that is to save an innocent baby." Jason said as he led Geoff to a seedy looking tavern.
"Are you sure we want to stay here."
"Look at the town. Over half of it is already been burned down," Jason replied his eyes looking over the destruction. "Trust me we need to be here."
"I was afraid you'd say that," Geoff said reaching under his cloak to grab the handles of his two assassin blades.
"If the outside looked bad the inside was worse. The smoke filled tavern reek of urine and of the moldy straw that barely covered its dirt floor. The barman who greeted them was an ornery looking fellow with scars on his arms and an unkempt bushy brown and gray mustache taking up half his soot covered face. Taking out a cudgel the man slammed it on the bar. If you want to come in here it'll be five coppers from each of you for the warmth of my fire."
"You call that a fire?" Geoff said, stopping Jason from reaching for his pouch. In the fireplace was nothing but a pile of smoldering ashes.
"It's warm, isn't it?" The barkeeper replied.
"Nothing a little piss wouldn't change," Geoff retorted opening his cloak to reveal the two short blades and half dozen daggers on his belt. "From the smell in here, I'd say someone has already tried. I say you let us in for free and throw in the first round of drinks."
"A mercenary aye," The barkeeper grunted as he tried to measure Geoff's skill. "Fine, you can come in but don't expect any free handouts. There are enough beggars clogging the streets scaring away good honest paying customers."
"Fine," Geoff said flipping a silver mark toward the barkeeper. "Something not watered down for my friend and me."
The barkeeper caught the coin midair bringing it quickly to his mouth to bit it. Once he was satisfied the coin quickly disappeared from sight. "Very well, I think we have a bottle of wine in the cellar. I'm not promising Huronite Gold but it's the best we have."
"That will do," Geoff said as he led Jason to the back of the tavern.
"I could have paid him," Jason said after we sat down.
"And that would have been a mistake. Flash too much money in a place like this and people will try to rob you if not kill you. If that man is a real barkeeper then I'm really a canary. My guess is a band of ruffians came through here, burned half the town down but when it came time to move on our so called barkeeper decided to set up business for himself here."
"What happened to the real barkeeper?" Jason asked.
"What do you think? A real barkeeper knows exactly is in his cellar or at least he should." Geoff replied. When the barkeeper came around with the bottle of wine and a pair of wooden cups that looked like they were starting to rot Geoff took the bottle away from the barman but didn't take the cups.
"Want a drink?" Geoff asked Jason as he popped the cork off.
"No thanks," Jason replied.
"Good, cause neither do I," Geoff said the acrid smell of strong vinegar hitting his nose. "So now what?"
"So now you cause a distraction while I try to make my way upstairs."
"Shouldn't be too much of a problem so long as you don't mind a few dead bodies," Geoff replied glancing over the rowdy crowd
"Geoff," Jason said in a scolding tone as he stood up.
"Accidents happen. It's not my fault how a man falls on my blades," Geoff said defensively.
"No killing," Jason insisted.
"Very well," Geoff sighed as he picked up the rancid bottle of wine. Going to the barkeeper he proceeded to slam it down on the man's head. "You call this wine?" He shouted as an all out brawl began."
Quickly climbing up the tavern's rickety stairs Jason made for the last door on the right and braced himself before slamming against the half rotten door. Inside he found a frightened woman holding a small two year old child who let out a scream just before a chair came crashing down on Jason's head. Not even fazed by the blow, Jason made a sweep of the floor with his staff knocking down a ragged looking unshaven man to the floor.
"It's alright, I've come to save the child," Jason said calmly while the man groaned on the floor clenching his legs.
"Most rescuers usually knock," the woman said sharply.
"Oh I'm sure that would have worked," Jason said eyeing the open window. "Please you must, believe me, the prince can't stay here."
"Prince? How, how do you know that?" The woman demanded putting herself between Jason and the toddler.
"Does this help?" Jason said ripping off his cloak to reveal his wings.
"The King of Qul Tos," the nursemaid said before fainting to the floor.
"Well I guess that makes things easier," Jason sighed putting his cloak back on before picking up the child in his arms, hiding him under his cloak. "Now be very quiet Ben," Jason whispered to the toddler as he left the room. Looking down to the main room of the tavern he found the place littered with bodies, Geoff the only one left standing.
"I thought I said no killing," Jason said as he bounded down the stairs.
"None of them are dead," Geoff insisted. "They might have a bad limp and have to learn how to wield a sword with their other hand but they'll live."
"You're enjoying this too much," Jason said when he reached Geoff.
"I have to stay in practice somehow. We should do this again." Geoff laughed as the two exited the tavern.
"Now for the hard part," Jason grunted as he walked back towards the town gate.
"The hard part... you mean what I did in there wasn't it?"
"You haven't even broken a sweat," Jason said accusingly.
"Thanks for noticing but tell me more about this hard part," Geoff asked as they hurried along.
"That hard part," Jason said pointing to the Forstine warship that had docked while they had been in the tavern.
"Oh," Geoff said suddenly noticing the armored soldiers now in the streets, many of them carrying crossbows. "I wondered why you didn't just fly in here to rescue the prince."
"That would have attracted a little too much attention for my taste," Jason nodded. "We wouldn't be in danger but..." Jason said holding Ben closer to him.
"I understand. We also don't want a bunch of warships attacking our single boat."
"Yes," Jason said.
"How are we going to get past the guards at the gate? It looks like their searching everyone." Geoff asked.
"I was hoping you would have a good idea," Jason replied honestly.
"We could always run for it," Geoff said.
"Risky," Jason said.
"Just leave it to me but if you could can you fold your wings around your little passenger."
"Yes," Jason said, now appearing almost pear-shaped.
"Good, when I give the word run and don't stop for me. When you think you're safe fly. It's almost dark now so they won't be able to track you back to the ship."
"What about you."
"Relax as you said I'm enjoying this." Geoff chuckled. "You just better be back at the ship when I get there."
"I will," Jason promised.
"You better... I also hope you won't be too worn out." Geoff added.
"Because I can't think of a better way to top this than with a good ravishing," Geoff said giving Jason an evil grin. "Are you ready?" He asked when they were within ten feet of the gate.
"Yes," Jason replied.
"Good, now run," Geoff said as he drew out his pair of blades.
Running as fast as he could Jason pushed his way through the people waiting to be searched. Hearing shouts he felt a hand attempt to grab him but he easily shrugged it off. With the sound of clashing steel behind him Jason forced himself not to look back as he and a stampede of others ran out of the town. Only when he was at least five hundred yards past its walls did Jason risk looking back to see if he was being followed, seeing he wasn't he jumped, spreading out his wings wide, flying to safety. Looking down at Ben he saw the toddler's eyes were opened wide a wide smile on the prince's face as he flapped his arms about wildly. "Why am I the only one not enjoying this," Jason grunted bemusedly.
On reaching the ship he found Amanda waiting for him with a soft blanket in her hands. "Now give me the boy," she said eagerly.
"He's fine," Jason said the prince laughing in his arms.
"Give him to me Jason," Amanda demanded, shaking her blanket at him.
"You better do what she says," Louis chuckled as he approached them. "Sithian woman have a bad habit of not being able to let a baby pass them by without making a fuss.
"Hush you," Amanda said glaring at her brother.
"Would you like to go with this nice lady?" Jason asked holding Ben up so their eyes were even with each other.
"Taking a look at the overly sweet face Amanda was giving him Ben looked back at Jason stuck his tongue out and gave him a raspberry. He then reached out with his small arms to hug Jason's face. "Bird," he said happily.
"That's right," Jason laughed bringing the toddler closer to him, resting the boy's head on his shoulder.
"Fly?" the child asked hopefully.
"Not right now," Jason said bouncing Ben in his arms.
"Jason," Amanda said a hurt expression on her face as she clutched the blanket.
"Oh very well," Jason said passing Ben over to her.
"Bird," Ben protested reaching out back to Jason as Amanda wrapped him in her blanket.
"No, Angel," Amanda said pointing a finger at Jason.
"Bird," Ben insisted, pointing one of his own tiny fingers at his rescuer.
"It's okay Amanda; I probably do look like a bird to him." Jason laughed.
"You shouldn't be afraid to correct the child," Amanda replied still giving Ben a goofy smile. "Can you say Angel, AN-GEL." She stressed to Ben.
"BIRD," Ben said pointing up to the sky. Looking to where they pointed they saw Geoff flying toward them.
"I better wash up," Jason said. He didn't escape the tavern without picking up some soot and a few dirty smudges.
"I put fresh water in your room for you," Amanda said as she turned back toward her own cabin, Ben still in her arms.
"Why thank you," Jason said slightly surprised.
"Geoff told her too," Louis explained with a laugh. "It seems he planned ahead for his reward.
"I have some idea what he wants. My ‘impaler' wishes to be impaled." Jason chuckled.
"I wouldn't have guessed that," Louis smirked.
"He is a little strange about that but it is something he has always insisted on." Jason nodded.
"If you need me you know how to summon me," Louis said tapping his bald head.
"I know," Jason said going inside the ship to wash up.
After Geoff had been well and truly impaled he held Jason protectively close to him. "I really had fun today," he whispered. "We should do something like this regularly."
"I'm glad you enjoyed yourself but aren't you the one always telling me not to put my life at risk."
"That's what I realized today, you're not as defenseless and I assumed."
"I'm happy you know that now," Jason said kissing Geoff's left ear.
"I also realized today what a fool I've been," Geoff said rolling on top of his king. "How could I've been so blind Jason? Can you forgive me?"
"I don't understand?"
"I knew you've been sick of late but I didn't think you were so unhappy."
"Louis talked with you."
"Yes, and before you go screaming at him don't you think I have the right to know when you're in pain. I am your bodyguard after all."
"Does that mean you also guard my soul," Jason asked touching a lock of Geoff's blond hair.
"It is the most important part of you," Geoff said. "Remember what we promised each other, one day I would take you back to my home in Ingral and we would plant trees together?"
"Yes, and I did make you its lord."
"You did, but it seems neither of us has had the time for planting trees. Maybe it would be better if we did."
"What are you suggesting?"
"I could take you away from all this, if that is what you truly want."
Running his fingers down Geoff's spine Jason smiled at his bodyguard. "I thank you for your offer my Captain and a part of me even wishes I could accept it but you know I must say no. I have too many responsibilities to my people, to all the people of Ares for that matter, to set them all aside. If all happens as I pray it will, we will have time to do the things we promised to each other, maybe not in Ingral, but somewhere where we can find some peace."
"Then I will look forward to that day with great anticipation."
"I will ask that you do not tell anyone of my problems with Philip."
"They already know Jason." Gideon sighed.
"Who does," Jason said worriedly.
"All your Saints and many of the Demon Spawn. Louis and I are not as skilled as you in hiding our thoughts from each other."
"I see, what is done is done," Jason sighed.
"We are here for you Jason no matter what," Geoff said embracing Jason tightly.
"And I do need you all," Jason whispered as he felt every one of his Saints reach out in an attempt to ease his pain.
"That's better," Geoff said as he saw Jason's expression relax as both of them began to fall asleep. Soon the ship left the banks of the Qulos River, sailing into the blue waters of the Inner Sea.