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The place wasn't exactly a "dungeon." The Citadel of the Holy Mother didn't have such a thing. What it had were around ten or twenty "Atonement Chambers" in the sub-basement corridor, where the faithful could pray, fast, and self-flagellate in peace. The doors didn't lock, because no one ever came here involuntarily.

The Knights Protector dropped me in the first chamber on the left, still wearing nothing but my soaking-wet jockeys. The troop commander indicated the rust-colored stains on the cobbles.

"The blood of the faithful," he said. "So much has been spilled right here, in communion with the Holy. Strange how much it resembles the blood of the heathen. Why, once could scarcely tell the difference. Even if they were spilled side by side."

I caught his meaning. I didn't try to leave. I didn't even try talking to the armored brute they left outside to babysit me. They'd send someone to talk when they were good and ready. All I could do was wait. I curled up in a ball, hugging my knees close to my chest to conserve body heat and ward off hypothermia.

They kept me there long enough to get hungry. When a young novice came around to deliver food to the other cells, he pointedly skipped mine. Hours later, at the next meal time, he skipped me again. I decided to sleep while I could.

I'm not sure when they finally woke me. All I know is a different Knight was babysitting me, and he was twice as big and twice as ugly as the last one.

"The Regent Protector is here to see you. Rise to your feet, and kneel when he enters."

I didn't argue. I did take too much time getting on my knees, though. His Knightliness decided to help me get there with a fist to the gut. In my defense, I had reasons. I knew the Regent Protector. Only the last time I saw him, he was anything but a holy man.

I guess staring like an idiot was against the rules, too, because my babysitter was getting ready to give me another one.

The Regent Protector intervened. "That will be enough, brother Ryne."

Brother Ryne said nothing. He fell back a few paces and stood at attention. I tried to get back some of the wind he'd knocked out of me.

The Regent Protector—better known as His Imperial Highness, Prince Ardan III—helped me to my feet. He was a handsome man, with chiseled features and a dancer's build. He moved with an almost lethargic lack of urgency, but I knew him well enough to know it was an act. The man was a born duelist. Put a blade in his hand, and he was faster than a mongoose.

He laid a comradely hand on my shoulder. "By the Mother! This is a face I didn't expect! What brings you here, Dillon?"

"I'd ask you the same thing, Highness."

"It's a long story, friend. One better told in more accommodating quarters. Come!"

The Regent Protector ordered the knights to bring my traveling bag. I was finally allowed to put on my "local" clothes: simple woolen hose, leather shoes, and a leather tunic. I was not permitted to have the dagger I'd brought.

Fair enough. No matter what they called him these days, Ardan was still a son of the Emperor. Armed men simply did not get close to the Imperial Person unless they'd taken the proper oaths.

After I dressed, they brought me to a simple dining hall. Ardan was already there, waiting for me with a generous portion of roasted lamb and wine. We talked while I ate.

"By the Mother, it's been ages, Dillon!"

"How long has it been?" It wasn't an idle question. Time was elastic between worlds. It had been a little over two years by my reckoning, but Ardan looked noticeably older.

The Prince poured himself some wine. "I haven't seen you since the Ascension. That's eight years, at least."

The Ascension he was referring to was the death of his grandmother, Empress Sarina II, and the coronation of his father, the current Emperor, Easchald VI. It was a nearly month-long period of celebration, remembrance, and debauchery. For more than twenty days, Loningel—the Imperial capital—felt like a cross between New Orleans at Mardi Gras, and Mexico City on Dia de Los Muertos.

Ardan had made an infamous name for himself at the time, blatantly courting the wives of several vassal-kings and visiting dignitaries. He fought and won over a dozen honor duels. The man was an unrepentant rake. I couldn't imagine how he ended up as the commander of a Holy Order.

I told him so, too. Tactfully.

I also prodded for details.

Ardan poured himself a glass of wine. "The same thing that always happens. My sword got me in trouble."

"How so?"

"You remember the Gili de Bertrac affair?"

I did. It was probably the most infamous of all the Ascension duels. After the first exchange, it turned into an all-out brawl. The seconds on both sides got involved. So did several bystanders. It wasn't pretty.

"I remember," I said. "Exciting times."

"Exciting indeed." Ardan tipped his glass, letting a splash of wine hit the floor. "To young men and foolish hearts. May they all see the error of their ways in time to become old."

I followed suit.

According to Ardan, the political fallout from the de Bertrac affair was the last straw. It was one thing to have a member of the Imperial family engaging in adultery and honor duels. It was another to have him brawling in the streets like a common peasant. It didn't help that de Bertrac—one of the Empire's most loyal servants—had gotten the worst of it.

Long story short, the Empire lost a brilliant general, and the lords and ladies the court wouldn't stop talking about the new Emperor's mad-dog, gutter-fighting son.

"Father decided something had to be done. And since I have enough older brothers to ensure a proper succession when the time comes, I was ordered to take vows and serve the Citadel."

The vows included both poverty and chastity. I had a hard time picturing Ardan living up to either ideal.

"And how is monastic life treating you?"

Ardan stared into his wine. "You know, I truly believed I would hate it. Giving up the wealth, the extravagance, and the women? I thought my father was giving me a fate worse than death. But serving something greater than myself? It's been life-changing. And humbling."

Maybe he really had changed. In another life, calling Prince Ardan "humble" would have been fighting words.

"But what about you, my friend? What brings you back to our lands?"

"I'm looking for another lost kid."

A slight twinkle lit Ardan's eye. For just a second, I caught a glimpse of the rakish adventurer I used to know. "Ah, like the last time! A young woman from your world has fallen into ours?"

"Not quite. This one's a young man." I gave him the details. "Anyone matching that description show up here recently?"

Ardan swirled his wine glass. "Not that I've seen or heard. But I can get you to the capital tomorrow. Perhaps you'll pick up his trail there?"

It sounded good to me. Even if Ardan had changed, a city like Loningel didn't. I still knew all the right places to start poking around.

We spent the rest of the night enjoying good wine and laughing about old times. When I finally went to sleep, I had a comfortable bed, a full stomach, and a strong buzz.

I decided to enjoy the feeling. Tomorrow was going to be a long day.

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BrainLeakage

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