Callum & Quack & Riona
Callum managed to sneak unnoticed from the tea party and back inside the palace without an unwanted entourage. Not that it helped him shake that constant surveillance feeling any. He reminded himself that today, right now, was the best time for a secretive and dangerous meeting. Today, he was a lucky duck, the tea party had all gone better than he expected, and he was going to ride his luck out. He frequently checked his surroundings, never quite sure he wasn’t being followed. He heard his heartbeat thumping away and wondered if anyone else could hear it too.
Cal knew the palace, knew all the twisting and meandering routes to get to places he didn’t belong. Knew all quiet corridors and tucked away rooms where it was desolate enough to know when one was not alone. As he walked, he practiced his excuse for being down in the servant’s infirmary, just in case he got caught. I felt lightheaded and confused and went to the wrong doctor. That was believable, right?
Once he finally got to the servant’s infirmary, Cal paused just outside the door. Double-checked over his shoulder once more to make sure he was alone. Then he knocked on the door. Doctors always seemed busy and he didn’t want to interrupt if Quack was busy, but a quick peak through the narrow window built into the door suggested the doctor had some downtime. Was Quack trying on shoes? It wasn’t quite the sight Cal had been expecting and he awkwardly waved through the small window to try and get the man’s attention and an invite into the room.
After pacing around in what had once been Lordling Smithwood’s shoes, Quack plopped down on the bed and yanked them off his feet. “I’ll be takin’ these.”
Riona arched an eyebrow at the polished dress shoes. “And wear them where, exactly?”
“Ya ken? One of ’em fancy soirees. Can’t rightly show up wearin’ those,” he gestured flippantly at the only pair of shoes he owned, crusted with the remnants of his work—bodily fluids and cemetery soil alike—“can I?”
Riona fished the last pair from the sack and held them up to Quack. “Do you even own any fancy clothes to match?”
“Eh,” and a shrug was his answer. As soon as he saw the embroidered slip-on shoes, he wrinkled his nose in distaste and waved them away. “Even if I don’t ever wear ’em, quality shoes fetch a pretty coin.”
“If you’re selling, why not take them all?” She shoved the slip-ons back in the sack and cinched it.
“And wind up dancin’ at the end of a rope fer peddlin’ piles of shoes? I prefer my neck unstretched, thank ya very much.”
“I told you, they aren’t stolen. That sanctimonious a**-hat Smithwood wanted me to throw them out because they got ruined.”
Quack looked genuinely confused, even disgusted, that anyone would discard well-made footwear over superficial, nonexistent flaws. Then a thought lit up his features. “But they ain’t.”
“They aren’t. So, instead of wasting perfectly good shoes, I’m handing them out.”
He eyed the stuffed sack. “Let me guess. Staff ain’t too keen on takin’ ‘em off yer hands cause they’re scared of bein’ accused of pinch’ ’em off some rag-splawger?”
Riona nodded with a sigh. “I’ll drop them off at a sanctuary.”
The mention of a sanctuary reminded her of a friend who could really use one. “Have you seen or heard from Darryn?” At his head shake, her heart sank. Darryn vanished without a trace after that day. She feared the worst, but without any clues about his whereabouts or fate, she could only hope he was okay.
“Look, lass—” Quack’s voice pulled her mind away from Darryn. Before he could complete the thought, a rapid rapping sounded at the door. He jerked to his feet, glowering past her.
She followed his gaze to the door and saw Cal peeking through the window, waiting. He came! Excitedly, Riona rushed over to let him in. “What are you doing out here? Come in, stranger.”
Callum entered the infirmary with one last glance behind him. There was only the empty hallway, the door closed behind him, and he made sure to step out of view from the door’s window. “Oh, I didn’t want to intrude, if this was a private conversation.” He looked from Riona to the man he assumed was Quack. He tried to relax some, at least he had a friend here, which made this space feel a little less lonely.
The doctor not only looked unfriendly but outright annoyed by Callum’s presence; a familiar look on an unfamiliar face. A new problem arose; how was he supposed to address Quack? Because Quack felt the sort of nickname that was for friends, not for everyone, certainly not for people the doctor disliked. Was Doc too casual? Maybe he should let Riona handle most of the talking.
No, he could do this, he’d done mostly the same thing this morning. Be polite, smile, introduce yourself, and don’t sound stupid. If he could spend the morning convincing new people that he had a plan worth backing he could keep it going through the afternoon and try and convince Quack he was no dead duck, he could be helpful, useful.
“Physician Cryer, good afternoon, nice to officially meet you. I’m Callum.” A mostly automated, way too formal, greeting came out. At least he didn’t bow but he wasn’t sure if he smiled. So he looked at the only person in the room who was happy to see him, smiled from the warmth of that, and kept it as he looked at Quack once again.
Riona could tell Cal was nervous, a fine thread of tension weaved through every gesture and word. His eyes flickered with uncertainty, his attempt to smile contorted his lips into a rigid curve, and the subtle twitch in his fingertips hinted at a silent battle waged against his harshest critic: himself.
Just as she wondered if she should step in, his eyes settled on her. All at once, the knots of tension that tangled themselves into his facial muscles unraveled; the strained smile softened into something more genuine. She returned his smile, silently reassuring him, and felt a spark of joy knowing her presence brought him comfort.
“The best of the afternoon to ya, Prince Callum,” Quack bowed, bending low as protocol demanded for a man of his station. But there was no mistaking the shards of icy resentment when he regarded the son of the man responsible for ruining his sister’s life. “What brings the divine son of the exalted crown to a place like this?”
A cold chill blew through the less-than-sterile room with the doctor’s words. It wasn’t so much what Quack said but the way he said it, the way hate seeped into words like prince and crown, that just blew the need to put on an act away. This was a trial; his title would earn him no leeway, it had to be just Callum and whether he could be deemed worthy of Quack’s flock. Be bold, no one respects a coward. If he could convince Riona that he could be useful, he had a shot at convincing the doctor. Cal just hoped it wouldn’t involve any attempted strangling.
“Divine son?” He almost laughed at that one, but instead just shook his head. “I’d say you’ve got me confused with one of my brothers, but I think everyone here knows there is nothing divine about any Danrose. But I’m not here to talk blasphemy.” Callum approached Quack as he spoke, and once close enough that the other man would be able to hear a hushed voice, he continued.
“I’m here to talk treason. I want to see an end to crowns, titles, and everything else that serves the nobility and never the people. Heard a rumor we might be birds of a feather on that.” He kept his answer short and straight to the point, doctors generally liked direct answers, and no one liked listening to long speeches given by people they already disliked.
What followed happened in the span of a heartbeat, but felt like an eternity. The icy glare meant for Cal froze Quack instead, sapping the color from him before the primal instinct for survival ignited in full force. Riona didn’t think. She lunged forward and grabbed Cal, wrenching him out of reach just as Quack’s hands came crashing down. When he tried to grab for Cal again, she slipped herself between the two. Quack’s ferocity redirected itself to the obstacle in his way. He seized Riona, bringing their faces inches apart.
“Ya told him!?” he thundered, betrayal and fear underpinning the anger in his voice. If the Prince knew of the anarchists’ plot to overthrow the aristocracy, everything was in jeopardy. “Have ya lost yer bloody mind!?” His grip on her arms tightened further.
Riona flinched but held her ground while her heart hammered in her chest. “Sexton. Get a grip. Pay attention. Think. He wouldn’t be the one here if the Crowns knew.”
“Unless it’s a trap.”
“Then harming him now won’t improve the situation.”
Bold, was a mistake. Was Callum’s first thought as Quack went from ice cold to exploding forth with the fury of a drake. What was it about him that made people suddenly want to strangle him? That thought floated through his head as Riona flung him backward just out of Quack’s grip. Cal stumbled into a mayo stand, knocking it, and the few instruments on it, onto the floor with an echoing clatter. Shit, this much noise was going to draw attention. His eyes flickered to the door, praying it didn’t swing open, as Riona tried to calm the doctor down.
“If you’re going to kill me, at least do it quietly, or you’ll have bigger problems.” None of his pre-thought-out excuses for being down here would explain away what was going on now. He looked back at Riona and Quack, once he felt sure no one was coming through the door.
“I wouldn’t lift a finger, or waste a breath, to protect Edin. I’d give you my word, but I don’t think that would foot the bill here. But I can give you a secret, seems fair, I got one of yours, you should have one of mine. One that can ensure my death.” He offered, keeping his eyes locked on Quack as he spoke to him.
“All in or nothing right?” He looked at Riona for confirmation that he could say it. “It’s a big ask for him, even to trust me a little, gotta offer something big in return.” An equivalent sacrifice, a fundamental law of magic, it just made sense.
A weighted silence filled the room. No one moved; all caught in a standoff, waiting for someone else to break the stillness. Even the air seemed to be holding its breath. Finally, Quack released Riona and marched to the door, bolting it shut. He then slid the privacy cover into place to prevent anyone from looking through the vision panel. “Backroom, now. The both of ya,” Quack commanded. Without waiting for a reply, he disappeared into the backroom.
While rubbing the lingering ache in her arms, Riona gave Cal a quick once-over. “Are you okay?” He didn’t look hurt, but the question wasn’t limited to the physical.
“Are you?” Callum returned the question as Riona rubbed her arms.
She nodded, “Yeah.” She almost added that she’d had worse. Luckily, she was quick enough to stop herself. He didn't need to know that.
“Sorry. I messed that up. I think I’m bad at first impressions. Anyway, thank you. Again. Guess you’re stuck adding another tally to the Riona did a good deed board.” There wasn’t much else he could do besides try to make the situation a little lighter. But a darker thought slipped in. Maybe she doesn’t count this as a good deed. He didn’t like how much sense that thought made either. Was that why Riona seemed so convinced she was a bad person? Hanging around him, helping him, saving him; a Danrose, the enemy. Cal wouldn’t ask that, no, that thought was staying locked up in his head.
Instead, he answered her question, “I’m fine,” with a smile because it was true enough. He was just shaken up, and clammy, and his heart still raced. Petty complaints, there was nothing worth voicing there. The backroom Quack had disappeared into loomed up ahead and Callum couldn’t see into it. It just sounded ominous. “Am I fine?” And by that he meant is the backroom code for the place people get murdered? Or is the backroom more of an amicable meeting in a secret liar?
He glanced at the now locked door, then back toward the room Quack had disappeared through. He reached into his jacket pocket. “Guess I’m going either way.” He pulled out his flask and unscrewed the lid before taking a long drink. Just a sip. To wet his beak. He tipped it towards Riona, “for nerves?” He offered as he started to walk.
Riona accepted the flask and raised it as if to make a toast. “For luck,” she said, bringing the flask to her lips. The liquor burned as it slid down her throat, leaving a fiery trail that ended in her stomach. Lowering the flask, she let out a small breath, savoring the way it warmed her from the inside. With her nerves settled, she handed the flask back to its owner.
He glanced around the room, paused, and then struggled to hide a smirk. He glanced at her, “Are we about to get Quacked” He whispered as quietly as he could, and prayed to all the gods Quack lacked a hawk’s hearing. But he couldn’t, not say it.
Just as much as she couldn’t, not laugh. Riona did her best to stifle it and ended up snorting for her efforts. “Gods that’s so bad… Keep it up and he will,” she playfully jabbed his side. “Do you want your epitaph to say ‘Here lies Callum, he who told one too many duck puns and died quacking for it?’”
“That’s exactly what I want. How did you know?”