"How?" Aston looked at Nathaniel like he was delusional. When Nathaniel looked back the same way, Aston hit his forehead with a palm. "Right! Ouch! Damn!"
He had hit right on his wound, but he was too excited to care. "The key! The key for the black-market secret passage! Do you have it with you?"
Nathaniel raised his brow. "If it was the one you send me with an unreadable card, then no. Why would I bring something I don't know the purpose of?"
"Damn! It could have brought us at least through the second wall", Aston said, and cursed. "Then why are you looking at me like that?"
With a sigh Nathaniel also leaned against the wall and waited for a search troop to pass their hiding place. If it was Sam with him right now, he was sure the old man would have understood without saying. But how could he expect from anyone else to read his mind? Being a brother was troublesome. "The whole purpose of the ceremony today was to lure the enemy out of hiding, you remember?"
"So what?" Aston scratched his nose with irritation. "Everything went down the drain, so what does it have to do with us fleeing?"
"Pretty much everything", Nathaniel explained slowly. "We know most of their faces now and don't need to avoid startling the enemy anymore. Since before the ceremony, the meeting place to reunite with the rest of my soldiers is their headquarter. And because all the enemies are searching for us right now, there won't be much resistance. Remember their underground research center? One of the escape routes leads all the way outside the city. We can hit two birds with one stone."
Slowly, Aston's eyes went from a dark gloomy blue to a sparkling night sky. "Brilliant! Brother, you are the best!"
If not for Nathaniel's hand holding him away, he would have jumped the other and hugged him. Instead, he got pushed back. "Keep your excitement for later. The fight we have to face won't be an easy one. I don't know how many of my soldiers could escape alive of the palace. If we only have the ones in reverse, it might not be enough."
With that reminder, Aston calmed down, and thought for a few seconds. "The headquarter was below the Magic Association, right?"
"Yes. Hiding in broad daylight. The mages of the Association are the biggest threat, though half of them don't even know about the research center."
"Like unpaid watchdogs", Aston mumbled. "They will fight us if we invade their home as wanted persons. Alright, it might not be as hard as you think. Some of my friends work there."
Nathaniel gave him a sidelong glance. "You sure they are not on their side?"
"Even if they are, they will do everything for me! They love me, you know." Aston gave him a wink that made Nathaniel frown even more.
"Alright, let's first look for my people", he switched the topic. If it was possible in any way, he would prefer not taking the help of Aston's 'friends'. "Anyway, how did you even get your hands on the key for a black-market passage?"
Despite the blood, Aston's shrewd grin still looked stunning. "You know, there was this girl, long legs, and head full of red locks - "
"Okay, you don't need say any more", Nathaniel cut him off coldly.
A few seconds later, the search troops seemed to have left the area. The two young man came out of their hiding place and ran in the direction of the Magic Association.
Darkness had fallen, but the city was still bustling with noise. This was especially true for the entertainment institutions as well as pubs and associations. Of course, this included the Magic Association. Though it had calmed down compared to daytime, there were still many mages going in and out, since it was to same parts a working and a meeting place.
Today, however, the house to its right was also strangely bustling. Strangely, because there wasn't much sound. There were many suspicious people going in, but the house itself remained quiet like they just vanished after closing the door. Nobody came out again. If somebody counted, they would have noticed that around thirty people in groups of two or three entered the house. Some of them looked to be drunk because they moved strangely or leaned on their comrades. If somebody looked closely, they would see blood and cuts in their clothes.
However, since few people looked at the mainly empty street for long, nobody noticed the entirety of the strange activities.
Finally, two more noticeable men entered the street. Even though they hid their hair and face under thick-brimmed hats and wore simple clothes, the slender and tall bodies suggested stunning appearances. At the beginning of the street, they looked around, then strolled along the house walls.
Little later, a group of guards entered the street from the other side. The two men didn't seem to notice them as they quietly started talking among themselves.
Meanwhile, the guards had their eyes fixed on them, and walked straight in their direction. The two groups neared each other. When there were less than thirty meters between them, the two men suddenly switched direction and, still talking, entered the strange house.
"Hey, you!", a guard called after them. "You need to - "
The door fell close.
"Damn", the guard said. "Didn't they hear me?"
"Obviously not", another other guard slapped his shoulder lightly. "Whatever. I don't think they were the Princes. Did you see the servant uniforms? Besides the fled in the house of a General. So, if for chance we are wrong, they will be in worse trouble than with us."
"Yeah, you're right", the guard agreed. Calmed down, they continued their search.
Meanwhile, Aston behind the door let out a breath of relieve. "Damn, that was close. I swear, my heart is racing like the best horse in father's barn!"
Nathaniel didn't hear him anymore. His sharp eyes had already found the men sprawled on the floor and over the numerous couches in the living room they were standing in. He counted, and finally a grim smile formed on his face. "More than half. That is more than I expected. Everyone, you did a great job."
All as one, the men stood up when they heard his voice. A few younger faces showed traces of surprise. Obviously, not all were sure Nathaniel would make it alive out of the palace. However, they were joyful and glad that he did. Their hands went to their temples, and emotional voices rang through the hall. "Welcome back, commander."
Nathaniel nodded curtly. Then his eyes fell on an especially familiar face, and his brows knitted together. Pete, the giant with the thoughtful mind, was pale like death. Sweat drops ran down his forehead and what looked like standing upright at first glance, was in fact him leaning on the couch for balance.
A thick bandage was bound around his left thigh, but it was already soaked through with blood. He seemed to be unable to put weigh on the wounded leg.
However, when he met Nathaniel's gaze, there was steely determination in his eyes. In front of this, any question would be an insult. So, Nathaniel silently acknowledged it, before he went over to the next topic. "Is Jack back already?"
Pete slightly shook his head. Knowing what his master worried about the most, he said: "Lady Katherine is still missing. None of Jacks squad came back yet."