Previously- Celeste learned the name of the man who rescued her from the bandits in the woods, and he's her contact. Joshua is surprised that a relatively petite girl would be the one King Damias chose to carry his important package, but Joshua leads her out of the inn so he can take them somewhere to talk without prying ears.
At least Joshua now knew why she had lied about “Uncle Randall.” The Korelians would pay gold for a courier from the king and torture her until they realized she knew nothing. Then they would have no more need of her. The girl should have come up with a better cover story, though. Apparently, she wasn’t a very good liar.
Joshua glanced behind him to make sure she was still there. She was, resolutely following him a few paces behind, a frown on her face. He looked forward again and shook his head, wondering why his brother would send a small girl, spirited though she was, to carry almost certainly the most important package in Forellia. Joshua had nearly been captured and killed when he sneaked across the border and liberated it from the Korelians. He didn’t yet know what he was going to do, but he was fairly sure he couldn’t trust this girl alone to safely get it back to Damias.
“Down here,” he said to her, as he turned down a narrow alley. The girl skeptically peered around the dark, dingy corner.
“Where are you taking me?”
“Just come on, trust me. It’s down here.” Against her better judgement, she took a breath and stepped into the alley.
About halfway through there were a few steps down and a door at the bottom. To Joshua, this was home. He walked down the steps, muttering, “careful on the third one,” and opened the door. Glancing back, he realized she was still at the top of the stairs, arms crossed.
“How do I know I can trust you?” she asked.
“What reason could I possibly have for lying to you? In the three years I’ve lived here, I’ve never brought anyone to my home. I’m trusting you a great deal more than you need to trust me.” She paused, her mouth forming a straight line as she peered down at him, then nodded.
Upon entering, Joshua lit a few candles and a lantern, creating a warm glow and cozy atmosphere. “Close the door behind you,” he said to the girl as she entered. “You’re letting out the heat.” He glanced around his small home: bookcases crowded with books and odds and ends; a sitting area by the fire; three bows on a rack on the wall with a quiver and a couple buckets filled with different arrows below it; a hallway through which he knew was his locked study with a small assortment of other weapons, his maps, notes and papers on his three years of crossing the border into Korelia, and, of course, the package. “It’s not much, but it’s comfortable and safe.” He murmured.
The girl nodded, “it’s nice.” Her arms were still crossed, and Joshua noticed there was a tremor running through her.
“You’re cold,” he realized, and knelt before the fireplace to relight the embers that had died down since this morning and add a few logs to it once it got going. “This should help.”
“Somebody rushed me out of the inn before I had time to grab my furs.”
“Yeah, sorry about that, but we couldn’t talk there. Look at the bright side,” he said, some of his swagger returning. “It gave me the chance to start a fire for you like a true gentleman. I bet you’ve never seen such superb etiquette.”
“You do know I came from Forellia, right? Where lords and ladies congregate and etiquette is the key to success?”
“Yes, but my etiquette is still better because, as opposed to those lords and ladies, I’m incredibly humble about it.” Satisfyingly, this got a laugh from her. She looked at him with those crystal blue eyes, curiosity etched into them, and again, Joshua was struck with a sense of familiarity. How did he know this girl? The fire popped behind him, and Joshua blinked, realizing he’d been staring at her for too long. He awkwardly cleared his throat. “Ok, I think I can trust you, but before I show you this, I have to make sure you’re who you say you are. Where’s your tattoo?”
Tattoos were given to all Forellian couriers for situations such as this so that important documents or items would not be given to a spy. Getting the tattoo was a somewhat painful experience, and it had to be watched to be sure it would not become infected. However, it was also a very proud day for all couriers, for it was done on the day before he finished his training and could begin his work.
Without a word the girl pulled the shoulder of her blouse down, revealing there in black ink a rolled scroll, bound by a ribbon, the mark of a Forellian courier.
Joshua leaned in close and brushed a finger over it to be sure it was genuine. Deciding it was, he nodded. “Alright then, this way.” Carrying the lantern, he led her to his study and unlocked the door with a key he wore around his neck. He stepped in, setting the lantern down on the desk covered in papers, and lit another lantern—candles were too dangerous in this room. The girl followed him, staring at the walls in wonder, seeing his hand-drawn maps covering them with notes written by his hand and documents with information on the Korelian army, landscape, and weapons. This room and the few coded letters he had sent to a trusted contact to take to his brother the king were the culmination of the three years he had spent here performing dangerous reconnaissance after reconnaissance. Joshua was the only person in all of Forellia to know so much about Korelia. It was actually very rewarding to finally get to show it to someone and to see her reaction.
Standing there watching her, Joshua realized that ‘the girl’ had learned his name, but he had never gotten hers. He opened his mouth to ask when, examining one of the maps he had made, she said, “this is Korelia. And this,” she pointed, “is the Korelian capital, isn’t it? And, what is this?” Tilting her head, she brushed her finger across markings he had drawn onto it. “Is that,” dismay entered her voice, “troop movements? Is Korelia finally preparing to attack?”
Solemnly, Joshua nodded. “They have been preparing for a long time, but based on what I’ve seen, it’s going to happen very soon now, any day actually. The Korelians are probably just waiting for an excuse. If one doesn’t present itself soon, they’ll surely invent one to attack. That’s why this package is so important and why it has to be delivered to Damias posthaste.”
She turned and looked at him. “What is it? I have to know what could be so vitally important.”
Searching her eyes for lies, all he saw was determination and a burning curiosity. Making a decision, he pulled the hidden catch in a drawer of his desk and, from the secret compartment it opened, withdrew the cloth wrapped item. The girl moving closer to see what it was as Joshua unwound the material from the round stone inside. Unlike any gem Celeste had seen before, it was an orb, perfectly smooth, and no bigger than a gold coin. Shimmering, it caught the lantern light, the smoky substance inside swirling and twisting in an array of dark blues and purples. Joshua had looked at it many times, but still, the vibrant colors took his breath away.
The girl exhaled, staring at it. With a whispered breath she asked, “What is it?”
“It’s called the Prophecy Stone.”
“It’s beautiful,” she said, raising a finger to touch it. “May I?” She asked. Joshua nodded. Fascinated by the stone, Joshua had touched the glassy surface of it many times himself. With one raised fingertip, the girl reached for the stone and delicately placed the pad of her finger upon it.
An explosion of light blinded Joshua, and he stumbled back in shock, dropping the hand that held the stone. The stone didn't fall, however. It hovered in the air, still pressed to the girl’s finger as she continued to scream as if in agony, still staring at it. Papers flew about the room again and again in shockwaves of energy emanating from the girl and the stone. Colors in the smoky orb shone and transformed into reds and yellows, swirling violently. Joshua leaped to his feet in confusion and horror, thinking to try to knock her away, to try to do something, anything!
Then the girl’s eyes rolled back in her skull, her scream died away, and she collapsed, the light from the orb immediately disappearing, plunging the room into utter blackness.