The first order of business was to get the prince out of his royal attire. Brocade silk was too valuable, it invited attention. Theodore’s clothes fit Perceval poorly, he was not as tall or thin, but they would have to suffice.
“Thank you,” Perceval said. “You don’t know what your help means to me.”
Theodore unrolled a map. “You’ll want to keep your hood up. Any merchant from Laien will know your face. Once we get you to the trade roads, you’ll be on your own. You should be able to pay your way to whatever country you want. I don’t recommend Korveil, unless you like compulsory military service.”
The prince pulled his leather gloves back on, which he had refused to discard. “I was told to head to the Western border of the valley.”
“What?” Theodore planted his hand on the table. “Told by whom?
“The raven who helped me escape.” The prince said this like it was obvious. “…She visited me when father had me locked in the tower. She got all the guards to go away so I could run. Told me she’d get me out of the country. The Knight Detective killed her, but her friends are supposed to help me.”
Theodore raised an eyebrow. “Who was this bird? Why was she trying to help you?”
He was flustered by the questions. “She called herself Whisper. I think she was helping for the same reason you are. No one should have their life decided for them.”
Theodore felt uneasy. The details were too sketchy. Sneaking into the palace was a feat, let alone fooling the King’s Guard. Theodore suspected this strange bird and her ‘friends’ never had the prince’s best interests at heart.
“Well, this plan of theirs does not make any sense. There’s nothing to the West but the Farbend. A hundred miles of empty, cursed prairie land.” He traced his finger along the map. “If you want civilization you have to take the trade roads, North or South, or else risk going through the capital to take a ferry.”
“I can’t go back to the city.” The prince said, wringing his fingers. “They’ll be waiting and looking.”
“Then we’re going to the trade roads.” Theodore folded the map up and stuffed it into the supply bag. He thrust the bundle into the Perceval’s hands. “Better now than later.”
Wasting no time, Theodore led the prince and Oboe out the door and through the curling trails of the Whirlwood. The hike was long and at first silent. When the tension faded, the conversation drifted toward the subject of fathers.
“Does the king list off all the relatives you’re disappointing?” Theodore said.
“Yes!” Perceval said, exasperated. “It’s like he thinks my grandfather is going to pop out of his grave because I was caught slouching!”
Theodore laughed. “Right? Oh. But you know what’s worse? Is when they start a sentence with ‘No son of mine!”
The prince puffed out his chest. “My son? Too tired to study?” He huffed with mock bluster. “N-no! That’s not possible! No son of mine could be so weak!”
The impression was perfect. “Like we are supposed be mesmerized by every word of every lecture. Like we can’t we can’t be trusted to form an opinion about what interests us!”
“Of course not! Then all that work they put into planning our lives for us will have gone to waste!” The prince groaned into his hand with amusement. “I can’t believe Lance was just as bad!”
Oboe bolted out in front of them and stood straight. Her eyes were wide with alarm. “Shh! SHH!!” She flicked her doe ears. “Humans are coming!” She whispered, and hurried them back to take cover behind trees.
Theodore waited, and watched. “No one’s coming.”
“Keep quiet,” she said. “Can’t you hear them?”
Theodore saw them first, but only because he knew to look. Two military scouts crept through the wood in camouflage cloaks. Their gear was light, for mobility and stealth. They were members of the Knights of the Hunt. They stopped to survey the area with binoculars. Finding nothing, they moved on without a sound.
Once Theodore was sure they were alone again, he spoke. “I wasn’t expecting another search party so soon. We should hurry.”
They had a second close encounter before making it to the trade roads. Again, Oboe sensed the danger before they were spotted. Now Theodore knew how Oboe helped the prince elude Conrad for so long.
The trees cleared as they reached the edge of the Whirlwood. Theodore stopped dead in his tracks. The trade road was congested with merchant caravans coming and going, blocked by a checkpoint. The area was swarming with knights checking cargo and interrogating travelers. Even the railroad was halted for inspection.
“Damn,” Perceval said. “I’ll never get through without them finding me.”
“You’re right,” Theodore said. The Royal Order had outdone themselves. The best route of escape was cut off with surprising speed.
“What do we do now?” Oboe said.
“Maybe I should go to the Western edge after all,” Perceval said.
Theodore shook his head. “No. We’re not taking a risk like that. Let’s go back to the cottage and think this through.”