Monday, 6 June 2016


For the first time, Imogen noticed my wounded arm. She gave a soft cry, then moved closer to get a better look. Without a word, she crouched down and lifted her dress just enough to grab the fabric of an underskirt. She tore off a length, and used it as a bandage to bind my arm.
“It’s not so bad,” I said as she wrapped the injury. “The blood makes it look worse than it is.”
“Who did this?” I hesitated, and she said, “Let me get the princess.”
Imogen’s eyes narrowed. “This is important. You have to talk to her.”
I’d talked to Amarinda plenty, with every polite phrase I’d ever learned, such as “That’s a nice dress,” and “This dinner tastes good.” But we’d both avoided any of the things that really needed to be said.
Imogen kept pushing. “Jaron, she’s your friend, and she’s concerned about you.”
“I’ve got nothing to say.”
“That’s not true.”
“I’ve got nothing to say to her!” An awkward silence fell, until I added, “Amarinda’s friends are already inside the chapel.” She courted friendships with the regents who disrespected me most. And she had laughed so much with the captain of my guard at supper last night that I finally went to my room so I wouldn’t be in their way. I wanted to trust her, but she had made that impossible.
After more silence, Imogen murmured, “Then talk to me.” She smiled shyly, and added, “I think I’m still closer to you than anyone else.”
She was, which was a tragedy. Because now that she’d put it into words, I realized someone else understood it too. Roden said he knew exactly whose death would hurt me most.
Imogen. If the pirates wanted to hurt me, they’d take Imogen.
I couldn’t imagine a day of my life without her there in some way. But if I failed to keep the pirates out of Carthya, then Roden would lead them straight to her. The thought of what might happen then was unbearable. A holeopened up inside me as I realized how dangerous it was for her to stay here. Allowing her to remain connected to me in any way was a potential death sentence.
As much as I hated the thought of it, I knew what must be done. Imogen had to leave the court. Worse still, she had to want to be as far from me as possible, so that nobody could ever suspect there was any benefit in harming her.
My stomach twisted, as if the lies I was about to tell were knives pulled from my gut. I slowly shook my head and said, “You’re wrong, Imogen. We’re not friends and never were. I only used your help to get back to the throne.”
She froze for a moment, unsure of whether she’d heard me correctly. “I don’t understand —”
“And you’re using me to stay here at the castle. Where you don’t belong.”
“That’s not true!” Imogen stepped away with a look of shock as if I’d slapped her. Once she recovered, she said, “When you were Sage —”
“I’m Jaron, not Sage.” My lip curled as I added the worst thing I could think to say. “Did you really believe I could ever truly care about someone like you?”
Imogen’s struggle to contain her emotions was clear. That tore at me, but I did not, could not, flinch. She bowed to excuse herself and said, “I’ll leave at dawn.”
“You’ll leave at once. A carriage will be prepared to take you home.”
Shaking her head, she said, “If there’s something you need to tell me —”
I turned away from her, so as not to betray my own feelings. “I don’t want you here. Gather your things and go.”
“I have nothing here,” Imogen said. “I will leave just as I came.”
“As you wish.”
She left without looking back at me and with her head held high. Watching her hide the pain I’d just caused was worse than if she’d let it show. I had never been so cruel to anyone, and I hated myself for it. She would hate me as well, and I’d never be able to explain that sending her away with such indifference, even hostility, would save her life.
A new sort of pain flared inside me, something different than I’d ever felt before. If there was ever someone I could one day give my heart to, I had just sent her from my life forever.
I wasn’t alone for long. Only minutes after Imogen left, King Vargan walked out of the chapel doors, holding his back as if in pain. He didn’t see me in the darkness behind him, so I had a moment to watch him. Vargan was tall and well built but slowly wilting. He had dark eyes and a graying face of deep lines. His hair was still long and thick but the color of coals on a dead fire.
As I watched him gaze over the courtyard with a hungry eye, my hands curled into fists. Here he stood, having played some role in the attempt on my life only an hour ago, and yet I was powerless to stop him. The pirates wanted my life, Vargan wanted my country, and my regents wanted to paint rainbows over reality and claim all was well.
Luckily, I was dry enough now that my appearance looked sloppy, but not soaking. I rotated my cloak to hide my bandaged arm, pushed my hair off my face, then stepped forward.
Vargan heard me coming and twisted around, startled, then grabbed his back again. “King Jaron, I didn’t realize you were out here. I had expected to see you inside.”
“It looked pretty crowded. I thought maybe nobody had saved me a seat.”
He smiled at the joke and said, “You could’ve had mine. Those chapel pews torture my spine. Forgive me for leaving your family’s funeral.”
“I’m not sure it is my family’s funeral. Other than their names, I don’t recognize the people they’re speaking about in there.”
Vargan laughed. “Such disrespect for the dead! I’d expect that of an Avenian, but I thought Carthyans were better than that.” His expression grew more serious and he added, “I’m told you passed yourself off as an Avenian over the past four years while you were missing.”
“I was never missing,” I said. “I always knew exactly where I was. But it is true that a lot of people believed I was Avenian.”
“I can do the accent.”
“Ah.” He put a finger to his face while he studied me. “You’re such a young king. I barely remember being your age.”
“Then clearly we’re talking about how old you are, not how young I am.”
His amused grin faded as he said, “You look more like your mother, I think.”
I had my father’s solid build, but I was far more my mother’s son. I had her thick brown hair that tended to curl at the ends and her leaf green eyes. More than appearances, however, I had her mischievous nature and sense of adventure.
Thinking about her made me uncomfortable, so instead I asked, “Are our countries friends, King Vargan?”

He shrugged. “It depends on what you mean by that.”
“I’m asking how concerned I should be about protecting my borders from an Avenian invasion.”
His forced laughter came out awkward and condescending. I didn’t even smile, and his laughter quickly died out. Then he said, “I’m sure you have much bigger problems tonight than worrying about my armies.”
“Oh? What problems are those?” Vargan probably didn’t know the attack on me had happened earlier than planned. Therefore, I used the same innocent tone that had always worked on my father when I gave excuses for missing my lessons. Although the stakes now were far higher than a reprimand to my backside.
Vargan’s mouth twitched, but the smiling was over. “If you’re as clever as they say, how can you fail to see the danger in front of you?”
“You’re in front of me. Should I be more concerned about you, or my old friends, the pirates?” I paused to let that sink in, then added, “Or is there no difference?”
Without a flicker in his voice, he said, “The pirates live within my borders, but govern themselves, even have their own king. On occasion we may work together, but only when it’s for our mutual purposes.”
Obviously in my case, it suited their purposes very well.
“Will you pass them a message for me?” I said. “Tell them I’ve heard rumors of war on my country, and that if such a thing is attempted I’ll destroy them.” Vargan stared blankly at me as I continued, “I won’t start the battle, but if it comes, I will finish it. Tell them that.”
Vargan chuckled, but it didn’t hide his irritation. “That sounds like a threat against me, young king.”
“It couldn’t have been, unless you’re threatening me.” I arched an eyebrow. “Correct?”
With that, his face relaxed. “There’s some courage in you, and I admire that. In my own youth I was just the same. I like you, Jaron, so I’ll forgive your arrogance . . . for now.”
That was good news, though I didn’t much like him. He had fish breath.
Vargan leaned closer to me. “In fact, I’ll make you an offer. Let’s begin with an easy agreement. Before his death, your father and I were negotiating for a small area of land on our borders, near Libeth. The Carthyan land has a spring that my farmers need for their crops. Carthya has other springs nearby, so you won’t miss it.”
“My father wouldn’t have missed it, but I would,” I said, with no actual idea of which spring he meant. “It happens to be my favorite water source in all of Carthya, and I won’t part with it.”
Vargan frowned. “This is a time for cooperation. Work with me, as your father did, and keep Carthya at peace.”
“What’s the point of gaining peace if it costs us our freedom? I won’t trade the one for the other.”
He took a step forward. “Listen to me, Jaron. I’m trying to warn you.”
“And I’m warning you. Do not bring war to my country. Either from your own forces or from pirates working in your stead!”
This time when I mentioned the pirates, I saw a flash in his eyes, something he wasn’t able to control.
He knew. I was sure of it.
“Your Majesty?” Gregor Breslan, captain of the Carthyan guard, emerged from the chapel and approached with caution. “Where have you been? Is everything all right?”
Gregor looked exactly as a captain of the guard should. He was tall and muscular, with dark hair and a stern face that communicated his serious nature. He also had a close-cut beard that I’d heard he grew to cover battle scarsfrom years ago. Gregor was highly competent and intelligent enough, but also a bit of a wart. We pretended to tolerate each other’s failings, and frankly, he was trying harder at it than I was. I completely blamed him for being so grating. But to be fair, it wasn’t his fault now for coming at exactly the wrong moment.
Still facing the Avenian king, I said, “It seems our privacy is at an end. I hope your back feels better, unless a sore back keeps you from invading me.”
Vargan laughed. “Give me no reason to invade, young king. Because if you do, a little back pain won’t stop me.”
We shook hands, then I gestured to Gregor and said, “Walk with me.”
He fell in step at my side as we crossed the expansive courtyard. “But the funeral —”
“Is nothing but good theater for nobles unable to love anything but their own reflections.”
“It’s not my business to tell the king how he should behave at his own father’s funeral, but —”
“You’re quite right, Gregor. It isn’t your business.”
Beside me, I could feel his temper boil, but in a carefully controlled voice he said, “What did Vargan mean about giving him no reason to invade?”
“He made me an offer. In exchange for a promise of peace, he wants some of our land.”
“A heavy request. But it always worked for your father.”
“It does not work for me. We will defend the borders of this country!”
“With what army? Your Majesty has sent nearly every man that could be spared down to Falstan Lake, for no other apparent reason but to take earth from one area and leave it in another. It’s a waste of manpower and an unnecessary decision.”
Actually, it was a tactical decision for a fallback plan if war did come to Carthya. I had wanted to share the plan with Gregor and my regents, but Kerwyn had cautioned me against it. The regents already questioned my competence as king. Kerwyn felt this would only reinforce their doubts.
“Bring the men back to Drylliad,” Gregor said. “I need them here.”
“Why? To shine their shoes and march in formation? What good is that to anyone?”
“Respectfully, sire, if we’re asking questions, then I might wonder why you’re wearing a vigil’s cloak, and why you’re hiding your arm.”
I stopped walking and faced him, but huffed extra loudly to be sure he heard me. Then, with some reluctance, I unfolded the cloak so he could see my bandaged arm. Most of my sleeve below the bandage was colored by blood that had soaked into the wet fabric.
At the sight of it, the muscles on Gregor’s face tightened. Still staring, he said, “You were attacked.”
Another brilliant deduction from the captain of my guard. Even through Imogen’s bandage, the wound’s exposureto air sharpened the sting, so I covered it again.
“Two pirates got inside the castle walls,” I explained. “Vargan must have helped them somehow.”
“Do you know this for a fact?”
“And you have proof?”
“Well . . . no.”
Only thinly concealing his disgust, he said, “Your Majesty, what if this whole idea of war is just in your head? Maybe Vargan isn’t behind tonight’s attack, but you see it that way because you’ve already decided he might invade.”
“He is going to invade!” Gregor shifted his eyes from me, but I continued anyway. “They want our land, our resources. They will take all that we have and destroy all that we are.”
“We’ve had years of peace, sire. Your return home shouldn’t change anything.”
insult. There are consequences for my coming to the throne, and we have to deal with them.”
Gregor had pursed his lips while I spoke, but now he answered, “If you were older, you could order the soldiers to war right now, and I would lead them. But until you’re of age, you must accept that there are some actions you cannot take without the support of the regents. And if you will forgive me for speaking so boldly, the decision to give you the throne last month, rather than considering a steward, was granted too quickly and only in theenthusiasm of the moment. They should have welcomed you home as a prince and then given you time to adjust before putting the whole weight of the kingdom on you.”
“But they did,” I said. “And with your help, I can defend this country.”
His eyes narrowed. “You do not yet have the hearts of your people, or your regents. Nobody will follow you into a war based on your instinct. You need proof. Were these assassins captured?”
“They were messengers, not assassins.” At least, not yet.
“What was the message?”
“I already told you. That war is coming.” I held out my injured arm. “And this is your proof.”
But Gregor saw it differently. “The pirates must be open to negotiation. Otherwise, they’d have just killed you when they had the chance.”
“It seems their king wants to handle that part personally.” I didn’t dare to think of what that might involve, but it probably wouldn’t end up being my best day ever.
Walking again, I angled toward a rear entrance of the castle, used mostly for the transport of prisoners, their visiting families, and dungeon vigils.
“Where are we going?” Gregor asked.
“I want to speak with Bevin Conner.”
Gregor’s eyes widened. “Right now? In your condition?”
“He’s seen me in worse shape.”
“What could you possibly want with him?”
“Does the king need his servant’s permission now?” I asked.
“Of course not. It’s just —”
Jaron, you destroyed everything that man wanted.” Gregor’s tone had softened now. “You know what he’ll do if you see him.”
I set my jaw forward. “After what I’ve been through tonight, do you really think he can hurt me any worse?”
“Oh yes,” Gregor said solemnly. “He can and he will. Tell me what you want from him. I’ll get it while you rest.”
The idea that I might find any rest tonight was becoming increasingly absurd. I asked Gregor, “Do you know why the pirates tried to kill me four years ago?”
“Conner confessed it all, sire. He hired them, hoping to force your father into a war to protect our borders.”
“Clearly, the pirates haven’t forgotten their agreement.”
Gregor clicked his tongue. “Then tonight wasn’t about war. They intend to kill you.”
I picked up the pace and muttered, “Everything started with Conner. And if there’s any hope of ending this, I need his help now.”
Since I’d had him arrested on the night I was crowned, I hadn’t seen Conner face-to-face, and I wasn’t looking forward to this reunion. Neither was he, apparently. For no matter how much I dreaded having to look at him again, at least I disguised my anxiety. Conner wasn’t even trying. He looked absolutely terrified when he saw me enter.
As it was, I had felt no sympathy when he was convicted for his crimes. After the trial he had been granted his request to be held separately from the other castle prisoners. Now, he remained in isolation in a locked tower room where I was told he spent most of his time looking out over the land through a small and filthy window.
Conner had a chain around his ankle and was thinner than when I last saw him, although I’d made sure he was fed and allowed the basics of hygiene. Yet his beard was ragged, and in the dim light of flickering torches, I was sure I could see gray hairs. I’d never noticed them when we were at Farthenwood.
Conner gave me a slight bow. “King Jaron. I’d ask if you are well, but frankly, I’ve seen you look better. And drier, for that matter.”
“I’m perfectly well, thanks for asking.”
“To what do I owe the honor of your visit?”
“It smells like a sewer in here so I’ll be brief.” Looking directly at him, I said, “Was King Vargan ever part of the plot to kill me four years ago?”
The fear melted away, leaving a wide sneer on his face. “No. The pirates didn’t want Avenia involved. They don’t like working with Vargan unless they have to, and they figured Avenia wouldn’t want a part of my plan anyway.”
Avenia was certainly involved now. According to Vargan, it suited their mutual purposes.
“Tell me again about the night you killed my family.”
With a weary sigh he said, “There’s nothing more than what I’ve confessed to a thousand times.”
“I’ve been reading about the dervanis oil. Did you know it takes over a hundred flowers to produce just one drop of the poison? That’s why it’s so rare, and so hard to acquire. I don’t think you got it here on your own.”
Gregor put a hand on his sword. “Jaron —”
I brushed him aside. “Where did you get it?”
Conner laughed, his arrogance on full display. “If you don’t ask the right questions, then coming here is only wasting my time and yours.”
“Do not insult the king!” Gregor said.
This time he drew his sword, but I motioned for him to put it away. Conner hadn’t intended to be insulting. He wanted a different question from me. But I didn’t know what.
Distracted, I used my boot to tap an empty plate on the floor with a napkin folded over it. “Where did this come from?”
Conner smiled. “The betrothed princess said you missed a meal with her this evening. So she brought me your portion.”
Amarinda had been here? I tried to look as if that didn’t bother me, but he knew it did. She’d have no reason to come here, unless . . . Suddenly, I didn’t want to be here anymore.
Gregor stepped forward. “She didn’t think you’d mind.”
“Don’t defend her actions!” I ordered. Of all her friendships, this one was unacceptable.
Silently, Gregor dipped his head and retreated against the wall, though his hand never left his sword.
I turned back to Conner, who was now standing tall with his arms folded, a quiet challenge to my authority. It hadn’t even been a month ago when I’d faced him with a similar look of defiance.
He said, “It’s about time you came to thank me.”
“Thank you?” He was lucky my thanks didn’t come in the form of a noose.
“You are king now, just as I promised,” he said. “Maybe you hate the things I did that got you here, but the fact is you would not be king without me.”
Something exploded inside of me. It was all I could do to hold my temper. When I finally spoke, my words reeked of bitterness. “After what you’ve done, you really expect my gratitude?”
countries that surround us would have swallowed Carthya whole. Darius was a risk as well. He was too close to your father to see him for who he was.”
“They were my family!”
“Your family rejected you. Not just once but twice. They made you a nobody, then gave you to the world. But I have given the world back to you. I made you king.”
Still angry, I cocked my head. “Now I have everything. Is that what you think?”
“With one exception.” Conner nodded at the empty plate Amarinda had brought.
I stared again at the dish on the floor. Did she really think I wouldn’t mind her coming here? Of anyone in this castle, she was supposed to be on my side. Conner was absolutely correct in his insinuation that Amarinda and I were not friends. Nor did I have any idea of how to fix things with her, if that was even possible.
Conner lowered his voice and continued, “I’ve paid for my crimes against you. Let me go free and I will serve you now.”
I grinned, feeling my edge again. “You might reconsider those terms. I just got a visit from the pirates. They want you.”
Conner gave me exactly the look of fear I’d expected. His eyes widened and something roughly the size of a boulder seemed to be lodged in his throat. “Don’t let them have me, Jaron. You know what they’d do.”
“Whatever it is, I’m sure it’d hurt,” I said coldly. “Maybe I will release you after all.”
I started to leave, then in a panic, Conner called, “Jaron!” Without waiting for my attention, he added, “I betrayed your family, that’s true, but I never betrayed Carthya. I still consider myself a patriot.”
I turned back to him. “How can that be? Do you have any idea what you started when you hired the pirates?”
Conner pressed his lips together, then nodded at my bandaged arm. “Oh. They want you, too.” The long lines of his face softened. “So it’s both our lives at stake.”
“All of Carthya is at stake,” I said. “You opened floodgates I might not be able to shut again.” Now I turned and stepped closer to him, so close that I could see the dilation of his pupils as he returned my stare. “I need the name of the pirate you hired to kill me. Tell me now, or you will go to them tonight.”
Defeated, Conner whispered, “His name was Devlin. He bragged that your death would give him a place of honor with the pirates. The fact that you’re alive will be humiliating to him.”
“And to you, too, I suppose.”
Conner wasn’t fazed. “The truth is that nobody cares about your life but me! I’m the only one here who’s worked with the pirates. You need me.”
I shook my head. “Carthya needs you the way we need the plague.”
His tone turned nasty. “And you think you’re more wanted by your people? Do you really believe anyone wants to fight for a boy who has caused them nothing but trouble? Did anyone want you back? No, Jaron, you are alone here.”
His words stung as if he’d slapped me. Conner must have sensed the emotion building inside me and chose to strike again.
“I remember your father’s announcement four years ago, that he couldn’t go to war because there was no proofof what had happened to you. It was a lie, of course, and no king wants to lie to his people. Wouldn’t things have been easier if you had died? Don’t you think in a way that your father wished you had?”
My knife was already in my hand. I lunged at him, my hands shaking with so much anger that the knife scratchedhis throat. “You destroyed everything!” I yelled.
Conner arched his head to gather a breath. “And I’m the only one who can save you now. The regents won’t help you. Think of how convenient it’d be for them if the pirates got to you.”
Unfortunately, he was right about that. From their perspective, my death would solve a lot of problems.
“Your people won’t help either,” he continued. “Listen to them. They’re laughing at you.”
Fixed on his eyes, I said, “Do you laugh at me?”
He was quiet for a moment and finally the tension drained from him. “No, Jaron,” he said darkly. “I curse you with every breath I exhale. But I do not laugh.”
Gregor had remained behind us, and it occurred to me that he wouldn’t object if I used my knife now. He’d never approved of my decision to imprison Conner rather than execute him. But then, he hadn’t agreed with most of my decisions so far. I released Conner, who fell to his knees, his hand massaging his throat.
I drew in some air until I’d calmed down, then said to him, “Where did you get the dervanis oil?”
“From the pirate Devlin,” Conner mumbled. “But knowing that won’t help you now. Only I can fix this. Let me help you save Carthya. Forgive me, my king, here and now.”
I clicked my tongue, then said, “I’ll forgive you once I get my family back. Good-bye, Conner.” He was still yelling my name as the dungeon door closed. Gregor silently followed me down the steps of the tower. I continued forward while he reinstated the vigil.
My hands were shaking as I entered the main passageway. Conner had unnerved me in a way I could never have expected. Even in chains, he knew my vulnerabilities.
Once Gregor had caught up with me, he asked if I was all right, but I gave him no answer. Then he said, “Conner denied any connection between Vargan and the pirates. Perhaps you are wrong.”
“I’m not. Tell me what I’m missing. Conner said I wasn’t asking the right questions.”
“He’s a manipulator, toying with your weaknesses. He’s not to be trusted.”
I stopped walking so that I could look at him. “Do you trust me, Gregor?”
“Should I?” He shifted his weight while he reconsidered his boldness. In a humbler tone, he continued, “After everything tonight, you must be exhausted. Get some rest, and know that I’m here to protect you.”
“As you protected me tonight?” I took a breath, then added, “Tell me this. If the pirates attack us, does Carthya have any chance of winning?”
His eyes widened. “You’re not suggesting —”
“I need to know.”
“Our numbers are greater,” he said. “But it would be like fighting a bear. Carthya may come out of it alive, but with terrible wounds. And once wounded, we’d be easy prey if Avenia chose to invade.”
Just as I had thought. “We’d survive only long enough to be destroyed,” I mumbled. Then I added, “What if we attacked the pirates first?”
Gregor shook his head. “The pirates are hidden inside Avenia. To get at them we’d have to attack all of Avenia. With both enemies against us, Carthya would be destroyed in a matter of weeks. Whatever aggression the pirates showed against you tonight, war cannot be an option.”
I hated the thought of war. Yet even more, I despised the fact that we were so unprepared to defend ourselves. Ever fearful of war, my father had treated his soldiers as parade decorations rather than as warriors. My mother had always understood the threats against us, but obviously even she couldn’t overcome his fear of battle. Worse than anything was the realization that had my father lived, he and I would never have come to a mutual understanding. We would always have found some way to disappoint each other.
I thanked Gregor, then told him I’d see my own way to my rooms and meet him again in the morning.
I walked away only until I found a quiet corner where I could back against the cool wall and breathe. Conner may have been right about one thing: I had never been more alone, and my situation never more desperate. Every minute of the night had pushed me another step closer to my death, and my options were narrowing. It was becoming clear what had to be done, but I was certain there was no hope that I could do it. One way or another, I would have to face the pirates.
Mott and Tobias were waiting at the doors to my chambers when I arrived there, and bowed when they saw me. I didn’t mind too much when staff at the castle bowed, but it was still uncomfortable for me when they did it.
Tobias was the last of the orphans Conner had taken. Mott was Conner’s former servant, and both he and Tobias had caused me no end of misery while at Farthenwood. Considering the odds against us there, it was an amazing thing now to call them both my friends. Over the past month, I had sent them throughout Carthya to find Roden. Now I realized what a foolish errand that had been.
Tobias was taller than I, had darker hair, and until my recent loss of appetite, he had been thinner too. Mott stood at least a head taller than Tobias. He was almost entirely bald, dark-skinned, and made of little else but muscle and disapproving frowns.
Mott’s eyes went immediately to my bandaged arm, and his brows pressed together in concern. “You’re wounded,” he said.
“Never mind that,” I said. “When did you get back?”
“Just now.” Mott’s gaze remained fixed on my arm. “The funeral for your family was ending as we arrived. Obviously, that’s not where you were.”
“They didn’t need me there. Everyone was mourning their own loss of power far too much to bother with grieving.” I turned to Tobias and noted the dark circles beneath his eyes. “You look exhausted. Haven’t you slept?”
“Not really.”
“Get some rest,” I said. “Mott can fill me in for now and we’ll talk more tomorrow.” I prodded him forward. “Go, Tobias.”
He bowed again. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
“I’m Jaron. You know me too well for anything else.”
“Thank you . . . Jaron.” Tobias excused himself and hurried off.
Mott frowned at me. “You shouldn’t scold him when he was only using your proper title.”
“If it is my proper title, then you shouldn’t scold me at all,” I said sharply.
“They warned me you were in a terrible mood, but I underestimated it.”
“A mood to match this day,” I said.
Both his tone and his face softened. “What’s happened?”
The servant who held my door open adopted the notable traits of a statue when my eyes passed over him, though he was clearly absorbing every syllable we uttered. I paused in the entrance and said to Mott, “Let’s talk where there are fewer ears to gather gossip.”
Mott followed me into the chamber. My nightshirt and robe were laid out in case I was ready for them. A part of me wished to crawl between the plush quilts of my bed and try to sleep off this horrid night. The other part wondered how I’d ever sleep again.
No sooner had the doors shut before Mott tore away the rest of my cut sleeve, then reached for the bandage on my arm. “Who did this?”
“It seems I have even fewer friends than I thought.”
Mott harrumphed while he finished untying the bandage and studied the cut. “This needs some alcohol.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“It’s bad enough. Fortunately, this isn’t your sword arm.”
“They’re both my sword arms.” I naturally preferred my left hand, but my father had forced me to train with my right. As a child, that had frustrated me, but the ability to fight with either hand had become a valuable skill as I grew older. “How is that relevant?”
“Because I’ve heard that the king spends every minute he can spare in the courtyard practicing with a sword. Why is that?”
“The girls enjoy watching me.” Mott scoffed, so I added, “It’s simple. I’ve been out of practice for the last four years. That’s all.”
“Except that nothing is ever simple with you.”
“Ow!” I yanked my arm away as he touched a sensitive area of the wound. “Whatever you’re doing, stop it!”
“I’m cleaning it. Next time you’re cut, try not to get dirt in it.”
“Next time I’ll get help from someone who doesn’t treat a wound like he’s scrubbing a chimney.”
Clearly annoyed, Mott said, “You should thank me for tolerating you. I had hoped that becoming a royal would cure your foul manners.”
“That’s interesting. My father had hoped that stripping me of royalty would do the same thing.” Then, more gently, I said, “Now tell me the news from your trip.”
He shrugged. “We traced Roden as far as Avenia soon after you were crowned. We think he’s back in Carthya now, but can’t be sure of that.”
I could be sure. Nodding at my arm, I said, “Roden just gave me that.”
“He was here?” Mott furrowed his thick eyebrows together. “Are you all right?”
“I already told you, the cut isn’t so bad.”
He shook his head. “That’s not what I asked. Jaron, are you all right?”
Such an easy question for an answer that turned my stomach to knots and choked off my air. Quietly I said, “It feels like a lifetime since this day began. And every time I think nothing more can go wrong, it does.”
“You got through Farthenwood. You’ll get past this too.”
I grunted at that, then said, “As horrible as it was, Farthenwood was a test of endurance. I always knew that I’d beat Conner, if only I could outlast him.” I looked at Mott. “But I can’t see the end of what must be done now. Or, I don’t want to.”
Silence fell while Mott continued to work on my arm. As he began wrapping it with a bandage, he asked, “Why did you send us off to find Roden? Why not just let him go?”
“Because I thought . . . we’d once been friends. It was Cregan who turned us against each other. I believed that.”
“And now?”
“It seems I was wrong. Everything we went through . . . none of it mattered. All I saw in his eyes tonight was hatred.”
As Mott finished tying off the new bandage, he said, “I’m worried about you.”
“Good. I didn’t want to be the only one.” I drew in a slow breath, then added, “If my only choice is between the unacceptable or the impossible, which should I do?”
“Which choice means you will live?” Mott asked.
We were interrupted by a knock at the door, and I was grateful for the distraction. He wouldn’t have liked my answer. Mott went to the door, then turned to me. “Lord Kerwyn asks to see you.”
I nodded, and when Kerwyn entered the room, Mott made an excuse about finding more alcohol and left. I thought he looked a little exasperated when he glanced back, but people often did when they talked with me so it was hardly worth noting.

“I know.”
“Gregor told me you were attacked. Praise the saints that it’s no worse.”
“It’ll get worse before this is over.” And I couldn’t think of any reason the saints would have an interest in me.
The creases in Kerwyn’s face deepened. I wondered how many of his wrinkles had been caused by me. More than my share, I suspected.
I said, “Will you call a meeting with the regents tomorrow morning? Gregor won’t support my position, so I’ll talk with them directly.”
Kerwyn frowned. “Actually, that’s one of the reasons I came. Gregor has just assembled the regents together. They’re meeting right now.”
“Without the king?” I muttered a string of curses, inventing a few new ones in the process. Then I stood and began unwrapping my damp tabard so that I could change clothes. The ache in my arm brought a grimace to my face, and Kerwyn stood to assist me.
“The regents will have to act now,” Kerwyn said. “While on the throne you’re a target.”
“As long as I’m Jaron I’ll be a target.” Then, in a stronger voice, I added, “Help me get dressed, Kerwyn. I have to be at that meeting.”
Minutes later I charged through the doors of the throne room. All eighteen of my regents were there, with Gregor in the seat once occupied by the snake Lord Veldergrath. I still hadn’t selected regents to replace either him or Conner, and probably wouldn’t for a while. At least not until those who wanted to be chosen stopped preening themselves every time I walked by. Whatever conversation there had been extinguished like a flame in water. In a somewhat disheveled fashion, everyone lowered themselves into bows or curtsies, no doubt also tainting theirnoble breaths muttering the devil’s vocabulary.
“Whoever forgot to invite me to this meeting should be beheaded,” I said as I slumped into the king’s chair. “So, which of you is that?”
Most of the regents became suddenly fascinated with the folds of their clothes. Either that, or they were avoiding looking at me. The silence didn’t bother me in the least. Lord Hentower was seated closest on my right. I stared coldly at him and rather enjoyed watching his growing discomfort.
Gregor chose to break the tension. “Your Highness, this was a hasty gathering, and no offense was meant. If we had known you wanted to attend —”
“I never want to attend,” I corrected him. “Yet here I am. So what are we discussing?”
Again, the regents took an interest in their clothing, or their hands, or the tiles on the floor. In anything, really, but answering me.
“Lady Orlaine,” I said, “can I assume we’re all here to discuss the mating rituals of the spotted owl?”
She faltered for a few words before finding her tongue, then sputtered, “There was an assassination attempt tonight, sire.”
“Yes, I know. I was there.” I focused on Gregor. At least he had the courage to look back at me. “How did pirates get inside my castle walls?”
“That question is being investigated as we speak,” he said.
“But not by you.” I glanced around. “Unless you suspect one of my regents.”
“No, of course not.” Gregor cleared his throat. “We’ll find the people who did this.”
“It was done by the pirates. And King Vargan helped sneak them inside.”
Gasps followed the accusation, then Lady Orlaine asked, “Can you prove this?”
“Proving things is his job,” I said, pointing at Gregor. “He may not have told you, but earlier tonight I spoke with Vargan. He warned me that we were going to be attacked.”
“Why would he do that?” Gregor asked.
“You know why. To intimidate me into handing over our land first.”
A fact that didn’t seem to bother Gregor nearly as much as it should have. “Are you sure he said ‘attack’?” he asked. “Perhaps he meant it in another context.”
“Ah, one of the cheery definitions of the word, then?” I asked. “Such as an attack of affection, or an attack of goodwill toward Carthya? I know what I heard, Gregor.”
“What you think you heard,” Master Westlebrook, a younger regent at the far side of the table, corrected. “We cannot make any accusation based on such thin reasoning.”
Gregor leaned forward, his hands clasped on the table. “Jaron, our greatest concern, of course, is your safety. I’ve explained to your regents the threat that was made against you, and we believe we have a plan.”
“Which is?” This should be good.
Lord Termouthe picked up there. “First, we’ve agreed to give them Bevin Conner. We must make some concessions if we hope to have peace between us.”
From across the table, Gregor continued, “And of course, sire, your life must be preserved. We decided that you cannot be turned over to the pirates.”
I grinned. “A decision that probably came only after a long debate.”
I had expected some smiles at that joke, but there wasn’t even one. I cocked my head at that, wondering if there had been a debate.
“The regents believe that until the immediate threat passes, you must go into hiding,” Gregor said. “However long it takes, we will keep you safe.”
“Until when?” I was nearly at the end of my patience now. “Another four years? Or shall it be forty this time?”
Without answering, he continued, “Finally, we have to remove the motive for the pirates wanting you.” Gregor took a deep breath before this part. “I’ve proposed to the regents that they install a steward until you’re of age. If you’re not on the throne, then the pirates gain nothing by killing you.” He looked at me to respond, then with my silence added, “You may not like that idea, but it will save your life, Your Majesty.”
At the mention of a steward, my heart had stopped cold in my chest. I didn’t know where to aim the anger that had so suddenly filled me. At Kerwyn, for failing to warn me this was coming? Or Gregor, for pretending to be the most loyal of servants even as he plotted to pull me off the throne? Or myself, for giving the regents reasons to trust Gregor more than me? I settled on Gregor, because I was already annoyed with him anyway.
Then Lord Termouthe said, “Jaron, will you support this plan?”
I rapped my fingers on the armrest. “No.”
“Which part do you object to?” Gregor asked.
“The part where you began speaking.” I stood and began walking the room. “To start, we must protect Conner until I understand everything about my family’s murder. He’s our only link to the truth. The dervanis oil —”
“Conner told you that was irrelevant,” Gregor said in a raised voice. “Why this obsession with chasing shadows when the real question is how to keep the pirates out of Carthya?”
“It’s the same question!” I shouted back. “Can’t you see that it’s all connected? Something is wrong with his story!” Already, my talk with Conner had begun nagging at me. Something had happened there that I should have noticed, perhaps a message coded in his words, or in the tone of his voice. And yet the clues remained hidden.

But he had meant it. And from one glance at my regents, I could tell he wasn’t alone in thinking it. Only Kerwyn, standing silently in the corner, seemed to be on my side.
I swallowed my emotions, then calmly said, “You misunderstand the reasons why the pirates want my life. Whether I’m hiding or not, whether I’m king or not, they intend to finish the job Conner hired them to do four years ago. They don’t want a treaty or a trade agreement. Nothing will satisfy them but my death. This is a threat that cannot be negotiated away.”
“Negotiations always worked for your father,” Mistress Orlaine said.
“My father was wrong!” Which was something I’d never spoken aloud, never really even dared to think. I straightened up and said, “When the other side only wants our destruction, what is left to negotiate? I’m asking you to follow me. Because if we don’t defend ourselves now, then after the pirates come, Avenia’s armies won’t be far behind.”
“Which is why we believe the solution is to remove the pirates’ motivation for coming in the first place.” Now Gregor stood, facing me directly. “Jaron, the regents will not support any act of war as a solution to this problem.”
I stared at them, aghast. “As of tonight, the pirates are already at war with us. Ignoring that reality doesn’t mean we’re at peace.” A few heads nodded back at me, but not enough.
“We’ll find a way to avoid war . . . without you.” Gregor’s voice was icy now.
My mind went to what Conner had said in the dungeon. Without me alive, Carthya probably could avoid war, a convenient option for everyone. Except me, of course.
I set my jaw forward. “Has there been a vote?”
He shook his head, then said, “Maybe we can’t force you to hide, but we can install a steward until you’re of age and ready to become king again. Don’t make this a fight, Jaron. You’re alone here.”
Also as Conner had said. “And will you be the steward?” I asked.
Gregor cleared his throat again. “In times of war I’m the logical choice. Besides, Amarinda will be queen of this country one day. She fully supports my leadership and I’m certain would give that endorsement to the regents.”
“She’s not queen yet,” I said.
Kerwyn stepped between us and addressed Gregor. “There are two vacancies amongst the regents right now. One is from the regent who would have killed Jaron if he’d found him at Farthenwood. The second is from the regent who did kill Jaron’s family. The king is young. But I still trust him above anyone in this room.”
“Hopefully one day we’ll learn to trust him, too.” Gregor turned back to me. “It’s just until you come of age, Jaron. And for your own good.”
I started to retort but Kerwyn put a hand on my arm, urging me not to continue the argument. He was right to stop me. I couldn’t win this battle.
They had left me with only one choice now, and my palms were already sweating at the thought of it. I felt as if I were standing deep inside my own grave, with the climb out beyond anything I could reach. And yet I must climb. My first step would begin right here with my regents.
Already anticipating the answer, I forced my hands to unclench and looked at Gregor. “When am I leaving, then?”
“At dawn. We’ll complete an investigation of what happened tonight, and then move forward with diplomatic efforts to solve this problem.”
I shook my head. “You must delay any vote for a steward until that investigation is complete. The pirates gave me ten days. You give me nine.”
Gregor hesitated, but Kerwyn said, “That’s acceptable. No investigation could be adequate any sooner than that.”
“And what about the princess?” I asked. “Her safety?”
“You were targeted tonight, not her. I’m certain that she’s safe here.” Then Gregor added, “You are right to support this plan, Your Majesty.”
I took that in with a slow nod. “Do you think I want to run?”
He only said, “You’ll return soon. And you’ll see, in the end, everything will be for the best.”
I left the throne room alone, too wound up for sleep and too exhausted for everything this night still required of me.
The last thing I needed was to come face-to-face with Amarinda, who had clearly been waiting in the passageway for the meeting to end. I offered her a curt nod of respect, then said, “Which of the regents are you waiting for? Or is Gregor the one you want most?”
Amarinda’s almond-colored eyes narrowed as her gaze descended on me. She was uncommonly pretty and had a way of unnerving me whenever I looked directly at her. So I rarely did.
“I came to speak with you.” Her tone was livid. “I heard what you did to Imogen. How dare you? She did nothing to deserve that!”
I turned on her with my own anger. “And tell me, what did Conner do to deserve such a fine meal, hand-delivered by you?”
“You were supposed to have eaten it tonight, at supper with me!” I couldn’t argue with her there. For the past week, I’d found something better to do at nearly every mealtime. Then her temper cooled. “I had hoped you’d be there, so we could talk.”
Something in her voice made me regret having so casually dismissed the time with her. “All right. Perhaps we should talk now.”
I held out my arm for her and we began walking down the corridor. Several seconds passed when I couldn’t think of anything to say, and she seemed equally uncomfortable. Finally, she said, “You want what’s best for Carthya and so do I. Why are we so far apart?”
Because she had brought food and comfort to a man who had tried to kill me. And confided in another man who was at that moment working to take my throne.
I replaced her question with one of my own. “How was the funeral? I only heard a small part of it.”
She pressed her lips together, then said, “It was lovely. Though I must say that even if you’re angry about what your family did to you, it was terribly disrespectful not to attend.”
“I’m not angry with them, and I didn’t want to miss it.”
“Then what could possibly have taken priority? Unless you were lying somewhere half-dead, you should have been there!”
I stopped and stared at her. She tilted her head as she realized what that meant. “Oh no. Forgive me for not knowing. What are we going to do?”
She said we, and that stopped me for a moment. Despite her loyalties to Gregor, was it possible she wanted a stronger partnership for us?
“Before anything else, will you help Imogen?” I asked. “See that she has whatever she needs to live in comfort . . . elsewhere.”
“Please let her stay. Whatever she did to offend you, she’s still my friend, and she has nowhere else to go.”
“She cannot stay here,” I mumbled. “That decision is final.”
“But why —” Then she caught herself, as if understanding the things I could not explain. “All right. I’ll help her.”
“Send word when that’s done, and we’ll finish talking.” If nothing else, I owed her total honesty about my plans.
It was rude not to offer her an escort to Imogen’s room, but I didn’t want to go anywhere near that part of the castle tonight. So with our exchanged bows, she left in one direction and I in the other. Only seconds later, I heard Gregor’s voice near the princess. “My lady, may I see you to where you’re going?”
Amarinda cooed in delight, then accepted his offer. And with that, any goodwill between her and me vanished. If she did not seek me out later tonight, I would not find her.
Before returning to my room I stopped in the library to find some books for the trip. The castle library wasn’t my favorite place. This was because in the center of the main wall was a large portrait of my family, painted a year ago. In it, my parents sat beside each other with my brother standing behind them. After I found the books I wanted, I stared at the painting for a moment, wondering if any of them had thought about me while they posed. As often as I tried, I could not sort out my feelings about what my father had done. Did he cost me the life I should have had, or did he save my life?
It was too much, and I left the room without looking back.
I returned to my chambers as quickly as I could, where Mott was anxiously waiting for news. His eyes went to the items in my hand. I attempted to cover the title of the top book but it was too late. “Pirate books?” he said. “What are those for?”
“No, Mott.”
“I remember you telling Conner that you’re not a great reader, unless the subject interests you.”
I pushed past him. “We leave at dawn. Tobias too. Make sure he knows.”
“Where —” Mott stopped when I turned to him, then said, “Jaron, are you ill? You don’t look good.”
I slowly shook my head as I backed into my room. “No questions. Just be ready by morning.”
Morning brought a cool drizzle that made everything look gray and dreary, as if even the sun was ashamed of this plan. Gregor had assembled a large number of vigils and several servants to accompany me away. The expressions on their faces ranged from pity at my leaving in such a cowardly way to poorly disguised contempt at my incompetence. Other than two vigils who would act as my drivers, I couldn’t dismiss them fast enough.
Gregor spat out a protest, but I said, “How will I hide with half the kingdom as my escort? Mott is all I need, and Tobias can help with things until he becomes too annoying.” I looked around. “Amarinda isn’t here?”
“I believe the princess was awake quite late helping Imogen prepare to leave.”
I wondered how Gregor could know this about Amarinda, while I did not. No doubt he was courting her endorsement of him as steward. Or maybe he was courting her for other reasons too. I really didn’t know.
Kerwyn pulled me aside as the last of the supplies were being loaded. “Please, Jaron, don’t go.”
Despite his pleas, I could only shake my head. “There’s no other choice now.”
“I thought a little sleep would change your mind.”
Placing my hand on Kerwyn’s shoulder, I said, “I had the same concern, so I kept myself awake.”
Kerwyn’s eyes moistened. “I’ve always loved you, Jaron, you know that. When you were lost four years ago, I lost a part of myself. And now we’ve had you back for only a few short weeks. You must promise to return.”
My attempt at a smile failed. “I promise this, that if I don’t return it’s because I wasn’t strong enough to be king. In which case, Carthya should have a steward.”
That did nothing to comfort him, and left me feeling hollow too, for that matter. He bowed low and said he would watch every day for news from me. I wished he wouldn’t have said that. I wouldn’t be sending any news, good or bad.
After I got into the carriage with Mott and Tobias, I directed the driver to take us to Farthenwood.
“Farthenwood?” Mott asked in surprise. “But Gregor had another place in mind.”
“Gregor doesn’t command me,” I snapped.
With a quick glance at Mott, Tobias said, “We have to talk.”
“Go ahead,” I said, slouching into my seat. “But do it quietly so I can sleep.”
“Talk with you,” Tobias clarified. But my eyes were already closed.
Once they thought I was asleep, I heard Tobias whisper to Mott, “He looks terrible.”
“I asked his door vigil this morning. They’re sure he was awake all night, and he might have snuck out of his room for who knows how long.”
I had. It had taken me all night to work through the books from the library. My hope was that Amarinda would send for me so that we could talk, but she never did. Once I gave up on her, I’d found Kerwyn and shared with him the details of my leaving, a plan that had been received with even less enthusiasm than I’d expected.
“You’re walking into the jaws of the beast that would devour you!” he had cried.
“I’m being devoured now!” was my response. “Kerwyn, this is the only chance I have. The only chance any of us has.”
Eventually, Kerwyn had given me his reluctant blessing. It wasn’t much to bring with me on this trip, but it was all I had.
Seated across from me now, Tobias whispered to Mott, “How’s his arm?”
“Not bad. It’ll need a few days, but it will heal.”
“And it was Roden who stabbed him? I knew Roden wanted the throne, but I never guessed he’d try something like this.”
“Don’t give Roden too much credit,” I murmured. “He cut me, not stabbed me.” Then I peeked at them and grinned. Neither Mott nor Tobias returned the smile.
So I closed my eyes again, and this time I allowed myself to sleep. It must have been a deep sleep, for when I awoke, the carriage was still and the sun was high in the sky. Mott and I were alone.
“We’re at Farthenwood?” I asked.
I yawned and pushed several stray hairs out of my face. “Where’s Tobias?”
“He went in to make arrangements for our stay. There was no advance word of our coming so nobody was prepared to receive you.”
“Dismiss anyone who’s still here. Tell them we’ll be gone in a few days and they can return. And I want you to find something in the hills for the vigils to protect, like a rock or a thornbush. I don’t want to see them around here.”
“Fine. But they’re nowhere around right now. We’re alone.” He licked his lips and added, “We must talk about Roden’s attack last night.”
I stared out the carriage window but saw nothing. “All right, talk.”
He leaned forward and clasped his hands. “Last night you told me your choice would come down to either the unacceptable or the impossible. So which did you choose?”
With little to offer him, I only shrugged. “Well, as I said, the unacceptable is . . . not acceptable.”
“Then the impossible clearly means you’re planning something with the pirates.”
“Don’t ask me about that right now.”
“Then you ask me!” Never before had I seen such an intense look of concern in Mott’s eyes. “Jaron, all you have to do is ask, and I would follow you into the devil’s lair.” After a beat he added, “Or even to the pirates.”
“I know that.” My words were barely a whisper.
“I can hear the fear in your voice. Let me help.”
I was afraid, and I really did want to talk about it. But I also couldn’t allow Mott to change my mind. If I gave him enough time to talk, he’d eventually succeed.
So I only said, “If you want to help, get rid of the vigils for me.”
Mott sighed, then reached for the handle and left the carriage. After he’d gone I left the carriage as well and wandered toward the back of Conner’s estate. It was strange to be here again with Farthenwood so unchanged, and yet my entire life once more turned upside down.
The memories of my time here remained fresh and raw. This was where I’d received two scars on my back asreminders of the price of returning to the throne. One was given to me by Tobias, and the deeper one came from Mott. They were now the two people I needed most in this world.
“We were looking for you.” Tobias was already bowing when I turned around.
“Stop that,” I said.
He rose up and smiled awkwardly as he ambled over to me. We stood beside each other, facing the back of Farthenwood. Directly in front of us was Conner’s room. Maybe they’d suggest I use it, since it was the nicest one. I wouldn’t be here tonight, but even if I were, under no circumstances would I sleep there.
“I heard Gregor wants to replace you with a steward,” Tobias said.
“That’s his plan.”
He kicked at the ground. “You never wanted to be king, so maybe it’s a good thing.”
“Is it? Should I celebrate that?” He apologized, and as we headed back to the house, I said, “Maybe I shouldappoint you as my steward.”
Tobias chuckled. “Definitely not! But I’d love to be a physician one day. Or maybe a teacher. I’d be a good one, I think.”
“Yes, you would.”
“The problem is, there’re no children at the castle to teach. Maybe one day you and Amarinda —”
“I wouldn’t count on that,” I said flatly.
“She still hates you?”
“I don’t know what she thinks about me. I don’t know what she thinks about anything, really.”
“Have you talked to her?”
I rolled my eyes. “Don’t you start too.”
“Sorry.” Then he added, “Jaron, why are we here? Does it have anything to do with those pirate books from last night?”
Barely able to contemplate it all, I only nodded and said, “Yes, Tobias. It has everything to do with them.”
Once inside Farthenwood, I made every attempt to avoid Mott and Tobias. I had nothing to offer for real conversation and too many thoughts filled my mind to leave room for idle chatter.
With nothing better to do, I took to wandering the halls, and inevitably found myself on the lower floor of Farthenwood, standing inside Conner’s dungeon. It wasn’t clear to me why I felt compelled to come here. Maybe it was just to be able to stand here as a free person, to know that I could choose to leave any time I wanted.
“I didn’t think you’d come down here.”
I turned to watch Mott walk down the stairs. He came to stand beside me and folded his arms.
“I didn’t think so either,” I said.
“You brought me to your side in this room, you know. Everything I had believed about Conner changed here.”
“How could you ever have worked for him, Mott?”
“It’s all I knew. And I swear that I never knew the worst of his crimes.”
“He never spoke of his plans?”
Mott thought for a moment, then said, “A week before he killed your family, Conner mentioned that your father had grown suspicious of the regents and had begun requiring searches upon their every entry into the castle. I never thought about it then, but in hindsight, I’m sure that complicated his plans. If I had known, I would’ve stopped him.”
I nodded, and kicked at the ground with the toe of my boot.
He was quiet a moment longer, then added, “Jaron, can you forgive me for what happened here?”
“You whipped Sage, not Jaron.” He shook his head, not understanding, so I said, “Do you want forgiveness now because I’m Jaron, because I’m king? Would you ask for it if I were only Sage?”
Now Mott understood. He turned away from me and it looked as if he was unbuttoning his shirt. “Do you remember when Tobias cut your back? You told me the wound was from a cut on a window.”
It had been an outright lie from me, which I still regretted having to do. But it was the only way to force Tobias to back down from trying to become the prince.
“All you got was the loss of a day’s meals, and Tobias got no punishment at all,” Mott continued. “When Conner found out I’d tried to keep that from him, he gave me this.” Mott lowered his shirt enough to reveal a whipping scar on his back, not as deep as the one he’d given me but certainly enough to have caused significant pain, and I ached to see it. As soon as he’d shown me he raised his shirt again. Still facing away from me, he said, “I took that for Sage, not Jaron.” He left before I had a chance to say a word, as if there were any words I could have spoken then.
I found him again at suppertime in Conner’s small dining room. Tobias was with the cook, arranging final details of the meal, so Mott and I were alone. He rose when I entered and we stood at angles, too uncomfortable to face each other directly.
After a brief silence, I said, “The only reason I’m alive today is because of what I’ve done wrong in my life. My crimes may have saved me, but I never meant for them to harm you.”
Sadness filled Mott’s eyes when he looked at me. “Jaron —”
“You will never again ask my forgiveness for what happened in the dungeon.” It hurt to speak the next part. “And you will let me ask forgiveness from you.”
“That’s not necessary.”
“Maybe not yet.” I glanced briefly at him. “But it will be.”
“I know you’ve got some heavy concerns,” Mott said. “But we are friends. You can tell me everything.”
I shook my head. “No, Mott. Not everything, because you’re my friend.”
At that, Tobias entered with a tray laden with three bowls of stew. If he sensed the awkwardness in the room, he didn’t acknowledge it. “There’s no bread because the cook didn’t have time for it,” Tobias explained, serving me the largest of the bowls.
“This is enough,” I said. “Sit down, both of you. Let’s eat as friends tonight, and nothing less.”
Even so, the time passed in an uncomfortable silence, until Tobias asked, “Was it a surprise to see Roden last night?”
“The kind of surprise that makes your heart stop for a beat,” I said. “When I saw him again, I had wanted it to be on my terms, not his.”
Tobias nodded. “You should have killed him the night you were crowned, when you two fought in the tunnels. Why did you let him go?”
After taking another bite, I said, “Until last night, I didn’t think it was in him to harm me. I suppose that’s changed now.”
“The only thing Roden wants is to matter, to be important,” Tobias said. “If he has to hurt you to get that, he will. Maybe Gregor is right and you should be in hiding.”
I glared back at him. “You think I’d ever be so cowardly?”
“Enough of this!” Frustrated with me, Mott threw his spoon down. “If you insist on us not bowing to your royalty, then I’ll treat you like the obstinate boy you are. Why are we here? I demand an answer.”
“Or else what?” I grinned and folded my arms. “I can beat you in a sword fight, and we all know what’ll happen if you lock me in my room.”
“Nothing so complicated as that.” Mott also folded his arms. “I’ll simply decide not to like you anymore.”
My smile widened. “That’s a serious threat.”
“It gets worse. I’ll call you only by your title and quietly roll my eyes when you give me orders, and I won’t make it fun for you to insult me ever again.”
“Well, we can’t have that.” I couldn’t help but laugh and even Mott broke into a smile. My eyes darted from him over to Tobias. “If we must discuss the truth, then I need something to drink. I noticed a half-finished bottle of cider in the buttery. Not much but it’ll do. Retrieve it, will you?”
Tobias leapt to his feet and scurried from the room.
I turned back to Mott. “What if you don’t like what I have to say?”
“I rarely like what you have to say. So I’ll expect the worst.”
“I promise not to disappoint you there.”
Mott shifted in his chair, but I barely moved while we waited for Tobias to return. He came in a few minutes later with the cider and three goblets. I held out my hand for them and poured the drinks myself.
“You should have the most,” Mott said when I handed him his goblet.
I shook my head, insisting he take the cup that was being offered to him. “I already know my news. Trust me, you’ll want enough to drown your anger.”
He frowned but toasted a cheer in my honor. They drank to my health and long life. The part about health never concerned me, but I hoped the devils heard the part about my long life and were inclined to grant it.
I remained silent until Mott cleared his throat, prompting me to begin. I looked at him and said, “If I don’t turn myself over to the pirates in nine days, they’ll attack Carthya. They’ll fight until either I’m dead, or all of them are.”
“War,” Tobias mumbled.
“The regents have made it clear that they won’t support a war.” I took a slow breath. “They believe the best way to avoid war is to let the pirates have me. That’s why we’re here, and not where the regents wanted me to hide.”
“Just because they want a steward doesn’t mean they want you dead,” Mott said.
“Maybe not. But what if you’re right and a steward is chosen? Do either of you really believe that puts me out of danger? I’ll be sent to the schoolroom, to watch those fools pretend that all is well while our armies crumble.”
“Then find a way to prevent them from naming a steward,” Tobias said.
“Until I’m of age, I can’t stop that vote.” I shrugged. “I’ve already lost it anyway.”
Mott’s eyebrows were pressed close together and his hand was wrapped so tightly around his goblet I thought he might crush it. “And you have a solution to all this?” he asked.
I sat forward with the intention of speaking directly to them, but in the end my courage failed and I lowered my eyes to talk. After a moment’s hesitation, I said, “I’m going to the pirates, alone. You two will return to the castle without me.”
There was a long silence while the news soaked in. Mott spoke first, surprisingly calm. “I don’t believe you’d give yourself up so easily.”
“I’m not surrendering. I’m joining them.”
“What?” Mott’s eyes widened. “Jaron, no. Please tell me you’re not that foolish.”
Foolishness was a trait I could never deny with much credibility, but my temper warmed anyway. Pounding a fist on the table, I said, “I’m out of options. Every solution leads either to my death or to the destruction of my country. This is all I have left.”
“So your plan is to walk into their camp? How does that accomplish anything but helping them kill you faster?”
“What if I could turn the pirates’ loyalty? Get them on my side. Then if Avenia attacked —”
That was as far as I got before Tobias snorted his contempt for the idea and Mott began staring at me as if I had blisters on my brain.
“Exactly how do you plan to turn these enemies into allies?” he asked.
“I don’t know! But it’s better than the alternative.”
“Which is?”
I huffed. “The pirate Conner hired four years ago to kill me is a man named Devlin. He also provided the poison that Conner used to murder my family, and he’ll be the one behind the attack on me last night as well. If I can’t turn his loyalty, then I’ll have to remove the threat.” Feeling the racing of my heart, I added, “I’ll have to kill him.”
Those words hung in the air for a moment before Mott said, “And you’ll do this alone?”
I nodded.
Mott shoved his chair behind him and stood, then began to pace angrily. “Nobody comes back from the pirates,” he muttered. “Ever.”
“I did, four years ago.”
Mott stopped right in front of me. “No, you escaped the ship before the pirates were anywhere near it. Luck saved you that day, nothing more.”
Tobias tried taking the rational route. “What if they recognize you?”
“Roden and the man who came with him will be at sea. The other pirates would know my name, but not my face.”
“You can’t do this,” Mott said, shaking his head. “I won’t allow it.”
That made me even angrier. “I’m not asking for your permission, Mott, or your approval! You asked me to tell you the truth about my plans and I have.”
“Your plans will get you killed!”
“Doing nothing will get me killed! Staying at the castle and pretending everything is fine — that will get me killed!”
Mott’s face was fiery red, and I think if I were anyone else I’d have found myself thrown against the wall to force me to my senses. But that was not an option for him, so after taking a deep breath, he sat back in his chair and clasped his hands.
“You’ve made your decision, then?” he asked.
“I have.”
“Then here’s mine.” Mott stared directly at me and spoke slowly so I wouldn’t miss a word. “I will not allow you to go, not alone.”
My hands folded into fists. “As king, that is my order.”
“Forgive me, but the king’s order is the most reckless thing he’s ever said, which we both know is quite an accomplishment. If you want to stop me from dragging you back to Drylliad, then you’ll have to kill me here.”
“I can’t do that,” I said. “Who’ll make sure Tobias gets back safely? He can hardly cross a road without endangering himself.”
“I can too,” Tobias said.
Mott barely reacted and kept his focus on me. “Jaron, listen to reason. You are my king, but you can’t expect me to accept such a foolish plan.”
There was heat in my glare at him. “Perhaps you also want a steward for me, then, a nursemaid for the crown.”
“Maybe you need one.” Mott sighed loudly as if that would make me change my mind. Even though it would have been unfair to leave without warning them, I almost wished I’d have done it so we could’ve enjoyed this evening instead.
Getting nothing further from me, Mott put his hand on my arm. I looked up at him as he said, “If you must leave, then you will have to figure out how to bring me along, because I will not leave you alone. Whatever reckless plan is in that foolish, royal head of yours, it will have to accommodate me.”
I pulled away and swiped my other arm through the air, knocking over the bottle of cider on the table. Mott jumped back to avoid the splatter as it ran onto the floor.
I cursed, then stood and ran my fingers through my hair. “Give me until morning, Mott. I have a foolish, royal headache and I’m too tired to think about changing plans tonight.”
Mott nodded and wished me a good night before I had time to change my mind. Which was completely unnecessary because I had no intention of changing any part of the plan. It was true that my head throbbed and even more true that I was tired. But whether I waited all night or all month, one thing would remain the same: I was going on alone.
Tobias was deeply asleep and didn’t hear me enter his room late that night. I hadn’t poured him much of the cider, but he still got some of the sleeping powder I’d found in Conner’s office.
When I shook his arm, his eyes opened and he awoke with a start. I put a finger to my lips to warn him to be silent. Yet his voice was still too loud as he whispered, “Jaron? What’s going on?”
“I’m going to talk and you will listen. Agreed?”
He nodded stiffly. I sat in the chair near his desk while he rolled out of bed. I could almost hear his heart pounding from here. Or was it mine?
Despite our agreement, Tobias spoke first. “You’re still leaving? You told Mott you’d change your plans.”
“No, I told Mott I was too tired to think about changing plans,” I corrected him. “Big difference.”
“But Mott was right before. Nobody comes back from the pirates. Maybe you’ll kill Devlin, but how will you escape all the others?”
I grimaced with a pang of worry at that question. The truth was, I had no answer for him. All I knew was that myodds of succeeding were no better in Carthya. At least this way, I faced the pirates on my own terms.
“Just wait a few days and think this over,” he said.
“I don’t have a few days. If I can’t fix everything before the regents’ vote on the steward, I will be powerless to fix it afterward.”
“There’s not enough time.”
“Then stop wasting it. Now hush, I need you to do something for me.”
“What is it?”
I removed the king’s ring from my finger and set it on the desk. I hadn’t taken it off since the night I was crowned and was surprised by the difference in weight of my hand. “I don’t want the regents to think I’m hiding — that only makes their vote against me that much easier. You and Mott must return to Drylliad in the morning.” I nodded toward a stack of my clothes on a chest in the room. “You will return as me. We look enough alike that with the ring and in the shadows of my carriage, you won’t have any trouble getting through the front gate. Be sure to arrive at night so that you can get to my quarters under the cover of darkness. Mott will help you avoid seeing anyone. Have him make up a story, that the king is ill or that the king is embarrassed and doesn’t want to see anybody. Tell anyone who asks that the king prefers to hide from the pirates in the comfort of his room.”
“Jaron, no,” Tobias whispered, shaking his head.
I continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “They might ask you a question at the gate. It’s a request for a password and the way for the vigil to verify that you’re Jaron. I changed the password myself this morning. The question will be what does the king want for dinner. The answer is that you know what the king wants and it has nothing to do with dinner.”
Tobias smiled, despite himself. “What does the king want, then?”
“He wants you to hush and pay attention. There’s a letter in the pocket of my clothes for Amarinda. Give it to her and answer any questions she may have, if you can. She’ll be angry, but I think she’ll help you maintain your cover.”
“Angry?” Tobias said. “She’ll be furious, and that’s if she believes us. What if she accuses us of trying to take over the kingdom?”
“The letter will explain things,” I said. “Amarinda is fully capable of making any necessary decisions, so all you need to do is remain in my apartments. I’ve spent so much time alone since I became king, nobody will question that.”
“Is that why —”
I sighed. “Don’t attempt to understand me, Tobias. I can’t even do that. Now, what do you suppose happened to our old clothes from when we were here?”
I already knew the answer to that. The nicer ones had been stolen away by the servants who had worked here. But my old clothes from when I was brought here as Sage were still in the drawer of my old wardrobe. Nobody wanted them.
I peeled off my royal clothing and tossed it onto the trunk, then put on Sage’s clothes: the worn trousers that had been too long on me when I first got them and were bordering on too small now; the shirt that one of Conner’s servants had mended, and even so, was riddled with several small tears; and my old boots that still fit fine, due to the fact that I’d only recently stolen them before Conner had taken me from the orphanage. They had a hole in the right toe, but that only bothered me during rainstorms.
It was as if everything about Sage returned to me once I stood again in his clothing. The instinct to trick when I could and lie when I must. The feeling that no matter how hard I tried, I would never be anything better than a sewer rat.
“I can’t do this,” Tobias said as I finished dressing.
“If you fail, then I will fail. Tobias, you must do this. Mott will want to follow me, but you can’t allow that. If he does, he’ll expose me, and then I really will be in danger.”
Slowly he nodded. “After you leave, if I don’t go running to Mott and tell him what’s happened, he’ll kill me. Literally.”
“There’s a solution to that, but you won’t like it.” I smiled, then reached for the sheet on Tobias’s bed. I ripped the fabric down its length and told him to put his arms behind his back. “I’ve got to make this tight. Mott will be suspicious if I don’t.”
“It’s all right,” Tobias said, holding out his arms. “Odd that I should be thanking you for this.”
I tied him to the bed, then gagged him, although I left that a little loose so his breathing wouldn’t be uncomfortable.
“Do not fail,” I said to Tobias when the knots were finished. “We will see each other again.”
Moments later I slipped quietly out of Farthenwood, and from the stables chose Mystic, one of the faster horses. Other than a white star on his forehead, Mystic was as black as tar and more loyal to his rider than any courser I’d ever before ridden. He was also well groomed, so anyone who saw him would assume I’d stolen the horse, which in a way, I had. When he was saddled, I climbed astride and in minutes had left Farthenwood behind.
At least for the rest of this night, I was free.
Riding alone through the Carthyan countryside was like emerging from a deep pool of water. Each breath brought me more alive, as I absorbed every moment of freedom I could. The cool wind caressed my face and greeted me with every change in the landscape on my journey. Even at night, Carthya was a beautiful place. Our trees grew firm and tall, while the winding rivers and streams kept our fields green and our farms fertile. It was no mystery why the countries on our borders looked to us with such greedy eyes.
Still, for all the happiness I felt, this was not a pleasure ride. Although I had a full moon to guide me, I also had towatch for irregularities on the road. I couldn’t afford an injury to Mystic, not here. And there was always the danger of thieves hiding in camps near wooded areas. Nobody would expect a traveler this late at night, which gave me an advantage. Then again, I wouldn’t know when to expect them, either. I wasn’t afraid, but I definitely was cautious. The last thing I needed was a distraction.
So I pushed Mystic as hard as he’d bear. Only four hours remained before dawn would creep over the horizon. I needed the cover of night to pass across the border into Avenia. My chances of making it in time were good. Mystic was both a fast and sturdy horse, and we traveled light. I only carried a sword strapped to my side, a knife at my waist, and a knapsack with some spare provisions and several handfuls of garlins I had taken with me from the castle treasury.
The stars gradually rotated in the sky as my distance from Farthenwood increased. I wondered how long Mott would sleep. Probably late into the morning. He’d feel the effects of the sleeping powder and instantly know he’d been tricked. Since I became king, no one had dared curse me to my face, but he’d undoubtedly use every word in the devil’s vocabulary tomorrow when he checked my room and found it empty. Then he’d find Tobias. I hoped Tobias would be able to persuade Mott to do what I’d asked. No, it was more than just hope. I needed Mott to obey me.
I was less than an hour from the border when I first heard the signs of trouble. The frenzied voices of men yelling and a woman screaming. Horses in random movement. The unsteady flicker of a torch in the distance. I withdrew my sword and turned Mystic in their direction.
The screaming stopped abruptly, and all the voices quieted for a moment, then a man cried, “There’s one more!”
I was close enough by then to have a good idea of what was going on. There were several men, all with Avenianaccents, and they were armed. One man saw me coming and left the group to charge for me. I easily blocked his sword with my own, then sliced deeply into his arm. With a scream he shrank into the shadows.
The other men seemed unsure of what to do, maybe from the surprise at being caught, or perhaps because I had bested the first man so quickly. However, there was no hesitation from me. I galloped forward and caught another man in the back with my blade.
That prompted a confusion of orders from the other horsemen, though they all seemed to agree that I could not be allowed to escape. It was their foolish miscalculation to think escape was anywhere in my plans. They rounded on me, which should have forced me back into the dense brush. Instead, I rode forward, aiming for the man holding the torch since he only had one hand to fight with. He had a jagged scar running down the side of his face and somehow became even uglier as I rode closer. He got in one good swipe at me, but I ignored the sting across my stomach and turned Mystic back at him. I hammered my sword down hard onto his, and both it and the torch fell into the dirt. I thrust at him again, not sure exactly where it landed, but the wound went deep. Another man rode up beside me and clashed his horse into Mystic, but Mystic was a far more powerful animal and the man’s horse stumbled. I swerved around and made a slice at his leg, and with a yelp he backed away from me, following his companions as they fled into the darkness.
A branch cracked behind me and I turned, sword ready. Silence filled the air again, but I wasn’t alone. I dismounted and led Mystic by the reins toward the bush. Then, in a sudden move, I dropped the reins, reached through the leaves, and yanked whoever was back there up to my blade.
“Please don’t hurt me!”
I stepped back, surprised. It was just a child, a young girl who couldn’t have been older than six or seven. She stood nearly to my chest with light blond hair that fell halfway down her back. She wore a plain cotton nightdress and had bare feet; she probably had been rushed from her bed in an attempt to escape.
I immediately lowered my sword and crouched down to her. “It’s all right; you’re safe now. But what are you doing out here?” It was too dark to know for certain, but she didn’t appear to be injured. “Are you all right?”
She took my hand and led me a little farther away to the base of a tall elm tree. A woman who must have been the girl’s mother was lying on the ground there. Her breathing was so shallow and forced I knew she had to be injured. She must have been the woman whose screams brought me this way.
I knelt beside her and felt near her abdomen for any sign of a wound. When she sensed my presence, sheopened her eyes and touched my arm. “Don’t bother,” she whispered. “It’s too much.” Her accent was Carthyan. She was one of my own people.
“Who did this?” I asked.
She closed her eyes for some time and I thought perhaps she wouldn’t answer. Then she opened them and mumbled, “You can’t be from this area and not know what happens here.”
“I’m not.”
She nodded. “Avenian thieves. They cross our borders at night to steal our cattle or frighten us from our homes.”
I shook my head. “Why doesn’t anyone in Drylliad know this? The king —”
“Eckbert’s dead. Haven’t you heard? Besides, he knew for months that this was happening.” She arched her back and gasped. I put my hand beneath her to help support her weight and felt the warmth of her blood. There was so much. Too much to survive. Her breathing was becoming more labored. “My husband . . . they killed him. Nila . . . take her to her grandfather’s . . . Libeth.”
Nila placed her small hand on my shoulder. Libeth was north of here and would set me back several hours. Besides that, I had planned to avoid all towns. There was too great a chance of someone recognizing me, or of leaving a trail in case Mott decided to follow me.
Nila’s mother rose again and used my arm to hold herself up. “Please,” she whispered.
“I’ll get her there, I promise.” Even if it meant going backward for me. As if my words gave her release, she finally relaxed, closed her eyes, and was gone.
Nila knelt beside me and touched her mother’s shoulder. “Is she dead?”
I nodded as a new anger surged inside me. Had my father known this was happening? Had Gregor, or Kerwyn? Why had no one told me about this?
“There’s a lilac bush near where I left my horse,” I told Nila. “Pick as many as you can for your mother.”
Without expression, Nila stood and walked back to Mystic while I dug with my hands and knife into the soft springtime earth for a grave. It took well over an hour to bury Nila’s mother, and after the flowers were laid on her grave, I put Nila behind me on Mystic and we headed for Libeth.
People were already awake and working in their fields when we reached the outskirts of the town. Libeth was a sleepy place that was protected from Avenia by marshlands that neither country particularly cared to claim. I’d never been anywhere near here before, but I liked the town.
Nila didn’t know where her grandfather lived, only that he had a big farm and that people paid him from their crops. I had audibly groaned when she told me. It meant he was probably a noble. One of the useless snobs I detested.
I wondered if he had been in attendance at my family’s funeral. If so, perhaps he was still in Drylliad. I wasn’t sure whether to hope for that or not. Because if he’d already returned to Libeth from the funeral, he was sure to recognize me. But if he was still in Drylliad, what was I supposed to do with Nila?
A couple of hours earlier, Nila had finally begun acting sleepy, so I put her in front of me where I could prop her with my arms. Now as we entered the small town square, she sat up and rubbed her eyes. “I remember this place,” she mumbled.
“Do you know where your grandfather lives?”
We stopped near a stall where a woman had a variety of meats on display. I glanced at a roast and couldn’t help but think of the time I had tried to steal one and nearly gotten myself killed by the butcher. It hadn’t been my best idea ever. Unfortunately, it hadn’t been my worst either.
“I am looking for this girl’s grandfather,” I said to the woman in the stall. “I think he’s a —”
“Nila?” The woman ran from behind her stall and held out her hands for the girl, who fell into her arms. “What are you doing here?” Then her eyes narrowed as she looked at me, covered in dirt and dried blood. “What happened?”
“Do you know her grandfather?” I asked.
The woman nodded and pointed to a home that was high up on a hill at the far end of town. “Master Rulon Harlowe is her grandfather.”
I slid off Mystic and held out my hand as an invitation for her to ride with Nila. “Will you take me there?”
Someone I hadn’t noticed took the woman’s place in the stall. Then with my help she lifted Nila back into the saddle and climbed up behind her.
I tried to get information from the woman as we walked, but she shushed me and gave her attention to Nila. So I listened as Nila described what had happened to her family. From what Nila said and the woman’s questions, I gathered that several younger families from Libeth had gone into the countryside to try to build their own farms, away from any nobles who might tax their lands. As their farms began to prosper, Avenians had started raiding. At first it was for simple thievery, of crops or cattle. When the farmers began fighting back, the raids turned violent. Things had quieted over the winter but with the melting snow the raids returned. Nila had seen her father shot by arrows while her mother raced her away. Her mother had been cut with a sword shortly before I arrived last night. It seemed that Nila had seen far too much death for someone her age.
“Do you know if King Eckbert knew about these troubles?” I asked.
The woman scoffed. “What did the king ever do for us? Master Harlowe was denied a meeting with him, but spoke to one of his regents.”
“Does it matter? The master was told that we needed to keep the peace with Avenia, and the farmers would just have to leave and move farther inland.”
I shook my head, hoping that what was happening here had never reached my father’s ears. Because if he knew and did nothing — no, I couldn’t think of that. The more I learned of my father’s reign, the less I felt that I had ever known him.
Harlowe’s estate was nothing compared to Farthenwood, but it was grand compared to the cottages we had passed on our way. It was a square-cut home of maybe fifteen or twenty rooms, and felt sturdy and commanding. Broad steps led to a wide porch and dark-stained double doors. I stared at them, torn between desperately wanting to ask Harlowe whether my father had known about the Avenian thieves, and knowing there was agreater need to continue on to Avenia. I opted for the latter.
The woman with Nila refused my offer to help her down, so after she dismounted I held out my arms for Nila to fall into. But the woman pushed past me. “I can manage with the child,” she said. I backed up and she added, “No offense to you because of what you did, but you’re clearly not someone —”
“Joss will carry my granddaughter,” a man behind me said. Harlowe obviously. He was as tall as Mott and probably in his early fifties, though with the strong build of a much younger man. He had a thick crop of hair that was more gray than black and eyes with long laugh lines at the corners. With him was the servant Joss, who stepped forward and took Nila off the horse. Harlowe tenderly brushed a hand across her dirty forehead, and for the first time I saw tears fall on Nila’s cheeks. Then, with a nod from his master, Joss took her inside.
“Now about you,” he said, turning my way.
My eyes shifted, but the woman who had brought me here spoke first. “Master Harlowe, as you can plainly see, this boy —”
“Looks exhausted.” He put a firm hand on my shoulder. “Can you tell me where Nila’s parents are?”
I searched for an answer, but by my hesitation, he knew. Large tears flooded his eyes. “I see. There’s no way I can ever thank you for bringing Nila. You . . . you . . .” He tried to say something more but choked on the words. Finally, he said, “Come with me.”
Instinctively, my knees locked against the pressure of his hand.
“It’s all right,” he said gently. “Please come. I know you’re hungry.”
Until he said so, I hadn’t realized that he was right. Suddenly, nothing sounded more desirable than a solid meal. So we entered his home, tastefully decorated but not overly ornate. We entered a hallway on the left and passed a small room that looked like his office. He led me from there to a modest dining room where a servant was already waiting with a platter of fresh-baked bread and a bottle of milk.
“We don’t eat fancy here, but you’re so thin I doubt you eat much at all,” Harlowe said.
“Not lately.” But the bread smelled good, and for the first time since I’d been made king, I was hungry.
“Forgive me for leaving you alone, but I must check on Nila,” Harlowe said. “I’ll be back before you’re finished.”
True to his word, Harlowe returned to the dining room as I was downing my third cup of milk. He smiled, obviously pleased that I had enjoyed the food, and then sat across the table from me. I slouched when he looked me over. Now was not the time to be impressive.
He studied me a moment before speaking. “Nila’s father — Mathis — was my son. Stubborn boy, always had to do things his own way, no matter how foolish. I loved him and begged him not to leave Libeth.” He pulled a gold pocket watch from his vest, bearing the marks of age and use, but no doubt invaluable to him. “When Mathis left two years ago, he gave this to me. He told me that where he was going, he’d know the time of day by the sun overhead.”
I had stopped eating while he spoke. There was so much sadness on his face, but in it was a resolution to carry forward. He looked the way I had felt when I found out about my family’s deaths. I said, “I’m sorry I couldn’t prevent your son’s death. I didn’t know what was happening here.”
He tilted his head, unsure of my full meaning, then said, “Forgive me for prying, but you’re obviously a stranger to these parts. What were you doing out there so late at night?”
“Just passing through.”
“Are you Avenian?”
“Are you a thief?” I hesitated, then he shook his head. “You’re not. Those clothes you wear suggest it, but your nails are too clean, your hair is trimmed, and if I may say, you don’t smell like a thief. You’ve bathed recently.”
The last thing I wanted was to make the conversation about me. “Is Nila all right?”
“She’s mourning, but with time and care I believe she’ll pull through.” His eyes moistened and he added, “You saved her life.” I started to shake my head but he said, “No, you did. She told me the whole story. You fought all those men off on your own.”
“They weren’t much for opponents,” I said, forcing an expression calmer than I felt. How was it possible to feel so at home and so uncomfortable at the same time? I set my napkin on the table and stood. “Thank you for the meal, but I really must go.”
“That’s fresh blood on your shirt.” Harlowe rose from his chair and called for a servant to enter. Then without even asking, he walked to me and lifted my shirt, revealing a long cut across my stomach. “You got this in that fight?”
I backed up and pulled the shirt down, which did little good since the shirt was also cut. “It’s only a scratch.”
“Scratches don’t bleed like that.”
The servant entered and Harlowe directed him to get a bandage and some alcohol. I groaned. Wherever they were, the devils must be laughing. In repayment for my good deed, I was yet again to be treated to far greaterpain than any wound could cause.
“Take him to the guest bedroom and bandage him up. He may rest there as long as he wishes, and then we’ll provide him with some more appropriate clothes.”
I objected, but it was pointless. Harlowe’s servant pulled me out of the room, and as exhausted as I was, there wasn’t enough in me to resist.
I insisted on removing my own shirt before the servant cleaned the wound, then lay on the bed so he couldn’t see the scars on my back. My preference would have been to keep the shirt on, but it was stained with my blood and the blood of Nila’s mother, so until it could be washed it was completely unusable.
In a vain attempt to distract myself, I tried to make conversation while the servant gently washed the cut with warm water.
“What kind of master is Rulon Harlowe?” I asked.
“The best. He’s kind and generous and sincere. Libeth couldn’t exist without him.”
“Does he have a wife?”
“She died a year ago . . . sir.” He nearly choked at having to address me with a respectable title.
“And does he have any children other than his son?”
“No. He lost another child many years ago due to a great tragedy. And forgive the observation, but you look a little like his son Mathis. He was older than you and there are differences of course, but anyone who knew Mathis would be able to see the resemblance.”
Maybe that was why Harlowe treated me so kindly. Perhaps I reminded him of what he’d lost. I started to ask more about that but the servant had moved on to patting the cut with an alcohol-soaked sponge. I howled andarched my back, then told him if he didn’t stop I’d hurt him. He removed the sponge and stared at it a moment, unsure of whether to finish tending the wound as he’d been ordered to do, or opt for self-preservation.
“Put the sponge down and wrap me up,” I said. “Enough alcohol soaked into this wound on my arm; it’ll find its way to this new injury just fine.”
The servant reached for a bandage. “Do you mind if I ask what happened there?”
“Yeah, I do.”
He finished up quickly, then offered me another sponge and a pan of warm water to wash myself. “I’ll let you have some privacy now,” he said, and left the room.
I sponged off until I was as clean as I cared to be, then wrapped myself in a robe the servant had left behind. I couldn’t explore Harlowe’s home in only a robe, so I lay on the bed to wait for the servant to return with some clothes. It had been my plan to stay awake, but when my eyes opened again, a thick blanket was spread across me. A clock on the bedside table indicated it was early afternoon, much longer than I’d ever wanted to sleep.
I tossed the blanket aside and quickly dressed in a set of clothes laid on the bed. A full-sleeved linen shirt went beneath a long, copper-colored vest trimmed in silver-plated buttons. The woolen pants were a little big on my waist, but then most pants were lately, and the leather boots fit perfectly. When I opened the door, another servant waiting for me said, “You’re awake, then? Master Harlowe has an afternoon meal ready for you, if you’ll join him.”
“Where are the clothes I had before?” I asked.
“They’ve been burnt, sir,” he said.
I groaned. The clothes I now wore were new, clean, and reeked of money. I couldn’t go into Avenia wearing them, and I should’ve been there already. Only a week remained until the regents met with Gregor.
“Apologize to Master Harlowe for me, but I must leave,” I said.
“Your horse is being groomed,” the servant said. “After the fight you got in, we thought you’d want him carefullychecked for any injuries. He should be ready at about the time you finish your meal.”
I relented. “Take me to your master, then.”
Harlowe’s table was spread with food by the time I arrived. Considering how much was there, I was surprised to see only three plates set for dinner. Nila was already sitting in her seat. She had also cleaned up, and though she was solemn, she looked better than before. Harlowe stood to greet me when I entered the dining room, then directed me to my seat.
Servants waiting in the room began offering food until it was impossible for me to accept any more. It all looked and smelled delicious, but there was simply no room left on my plate. When every dish on the table had been offered to us, Harlowe dismissed the servants and we were left alone. I decided to get through the meal as quickly as possible, and so set to work on my food.
“You never did tell us your name,” Harlowe said.
I spoke with a mouth full of warm bread. “No, sir, I didn’t.”
He smiled knowingly. “What matters with a name anyway? Perhaps you wish to hear a little about me first.” I glanced up and Harlowe said, “My family has lived in Libeth for generations. We take care of the people in this village, and they take care of us.”
“Are you a noble?”
He shrugged. “I suppose, but it’s only a title. Titles don’t matter here.”
“They matter in Drylliad. I thought all the nobles were there for King Eckbert’s funeral.”
“And what is that but a parade of egos?” His smile fell. “I keep myself as far from the king’s politics as possible. Besides, we have our own troubles here.”
“With the Avenians?”
“Many of them are very dangerous. I hope that wherever your travels lead, you will not meet them, son.”
Our eyes locked on that last word, though I quickly had to turn away. Nobody had called me “son” in years. My father might have at one time, but it was meaningless to me then. Now, the word had far more value.
I filled the awkward silence that followed by eating more of the supper. It was simpler than the food at either Drylliad or Farthenwood, and I liked it. Now that I had an appetite again, I felt ravenous.
Seated across from me, Nila barely touched her food, which wasn’t surprising considering the trauma she had endured. She had changed into a pastel yellow dress and had her hair tied back into braids. It was an odd contrast for how miserable she must be feeling inside. Although mourners in most surrounding countries wore dark colors, Carthyans rarely did. It was felt the life of the deceased could be better remembered through wearing colors that honored them. While I watched Nila, I became aware of Harlowe’s eyes on me. I let more of my hair spill over my face and made every effort not to betray my identity, by either my words or my manners.
“Will you stay the night?” Harlowe asked.
“I can’t.” Although for reasons I didn’t fully understand, I wished that I could. I suspected if I did, he’d convince me to stay yet another night, and then to finish out the week, and pretty soon the spare room would be offered as mine. Harlowe struck me as a man with that kind of persuasive ability. Or maybe I didn’t want to admit that the thought of staying was so tempting.
“Of course you can stay,” he insisted. “That cut on your stomach needs to heal, and I’m told there’s another bandage around your arm too.” He hesitated, then gently said, “What’s happened to you? You’re just a boy, too young to bear such wounds.”
And for the first time in weeks, I felt my age. Other boys my age were choosing apprenticeships for their careersand teasing pretty girls on their way to the market. They could still be found enjoying a game of Queen’s Cross in the streets or working an extra job to earn money for their first horse. Suddenly, I felt heartsick for a life I’d never known.
Harlowe frowned. “Son, where are your parents? Have you no family?”
I stood so quickly my chair nearly tipped over. “Will you call someone to get my horse? I need to leave. Now.”
“Did I say something wrong?” Harlowe stood as well. “Please, at least finish your meal. I owe you that, for what you did for Nila.”
“I’m glad I could help, but I really can’t stay a minute longer.”
Harlowe tenderly brushed a hand over Nila’s hair, then called a servant into the room. When he entered, Harlowe directed him to fetch my horse and to have a satchel packed with food for me.
“You’ve already given me enough,” I protested.
“It’s nothing compared to what you have given me,” Harlowe said.
When Nila stood, I crouched down to put myself at eye level with her. Like me, she was an orphan now, though I dared not explain that to her, not with her grandfather listening. All I could do was whisper, “This pain you feel inside, it will get better in time.”
Wordlessly, she patted my cheek with her small hand, then kissed my other cheek. I had to turn away for a moment while I straightened up, not trusting myself with the emotions surging through me.
Harlowe said, “I’d like to repay you. What can I do?”
My eyes darted to Nila, then back to Harlowe. “Will you keep me secret? If anyone comes to Libeth looking for me, no matter what they say, I need you to deny that I’ve been here.”
“And what would they say when they came looking?”
That I was a fool. That I was on the verge of losing everything. That I was going to get myself killed.
I shrugged. “If they come, you’ll know they’re speaking about me, whatever they say.”
Harlowe escorted me out of the dining room and toward the doors of his home. “We’ll keep you secret, but we will never forget you. You saved my granddaughter, and for that, you will always be a part of our lives.”
I stared at him for a moment, still fighting the urge to stay a little longer. Then a servant handed me the satchel of food, which was so heavy I had to sling it over my shoulder to carry it. Harlowe and Nila walked me out in front of his home, where Mystic was saddled and waiting.
“Son —” Harlowe put a hand on my shoulder. I turned and without knowing why, closed him into a hug, like a frightened child might give a beloved father. He hesitated only a moment before I felt his hands on my back.
My father wasn’t an openly affectionate man. I knew he loved me, but he was never one to speak the words, and if I’d ever tried a gesture like this, he would’ve become stiff as a board, uncertain of what to do. Thinking of him, I stepped back from Harlowe, embarrassed, but he didn’t seem to be. He only said, “Good luck in your travels. If you have a home, return there safely. And if you don’t, you’ll always have one here.”
Not trusting myself to speak, I only nodded. Then I tied the satchel over Mystic’s back, climbed on, and nodded again at Harlowe before I prodded Mystic forward and hurried away.
I had one job to do before leaving Libeth, which I accomplished in what appeared to be a poorer area of the town. I found a boy about my size walking down the road with a bundle of sticks in his arms. I called to him, then dismounted and untied the satchel of food as he came over to me.
“I have an offer for you,” I began. “Are you hungry?”
“Yes, sir.”
opened the satchel to show him the food inside. His face lit up, then he reined in his enthusiasm, suddenly suspicious. “What do you want?”
“I have this problem,” I said. “Perhaps I’ve grown recently because my clothes are too small and they’re uncomfortable for riding. I’d prefer the clothes you’re wearing.”
His face twisted in confusion. “Sir, my clothes are little better than rags. Yours are —”
“Too small. Didn’t I make that clear? If you will trade with me, I’ll give you all the food in this satchel.” I didn’t really want to part with the food, but it was obvious this boy needed it far more than I did.
The boy stared at me for a moment, still confused. Finally, I hoisted the satchel back over my shoulder. “Never mind. I’ll find someone else.”
“No, sir, please.” Spurred into action, the boy stripped off his shirt and held it out to me. “Take it.”
I grinned, lowered the satchel, and unbuttoned my shirt. Minutes later, I was back on Mystic, without food but in the proper clothing again. And I could hear the boy whistling a bright tune as he skipped down the street with the clothes of a noble and a heavy satchel of food. His bundle of sticks, long forgotten, remained in a pile at the side of the road.
A few short hours later, I crossed the border into Avenia. Considering all the effort it had taken me to get this far, it was a rather unremarkable moment. I’d come north of the swamplands and stayed away from any roads or trails, so the border was marked only by a nearby stake in the ground.
The closest town of any size was Dichell, a pigpen for humans and one of the rougher places in Avenia. But it was where I needed to begin.
I left Mystic in a dense thicket of woods outside Dichell. There was a risk that he’d be stolen from me here, but he’d definitely be stolen if I brought him into the town. I made sure he was near some grass and had a small spring for water. Then I traveled the rest of the way on foot.
Due to the street gangs that patrolled the darkness, nights in Dichell were fairly dangerous. But in the daytime the miscreants shrank into the shadows as the more honorable citizens took over. However, safety was never a guarantee at any time of day or night. Evening was approaching, but I was armed with both a knife and a sword. Hopefully, it would keep any trouble far from me. Besides, my destination was the church, which had always been left alone.
The church had played a significant role in my life four years ago. After I’d escaped the ship in Isel, it was here that the kind priest first suspected who I was. Eventually, my father came to see me and this is where we had agreed that I’d be stripped of my royal identity and become Sage the orphan. If I had returned to the castle with him, I’d probably be in the grave now with the rest of my family.
But when I approached, I was appalled at how much the church had fallen into disrepair. The rock steps I hadscrubbed for meals and shelter were cracked and pitted and thorny weeds grew between them. Windows of the church were broken out, and even the heavy wooden front door was off a hinge, so it didn’t close entirely.
Maybe the church hadn’t been left alone after all. I wondered about the priest who had taken me in before, and what he must think about this. I was eager to speak with him. Hopefully he’d remember me and would offer his help again. It would take some creativity on my part to convince him, but in the end, he’d tell me how to find the pirates.
“Who are you?” a boy asked. He was sitting on the steps, playing with a rat, which he placed on his shoulder as he stood to greet me. Like most Avenian children he was little more than skin and bones, but he had a bright smile and dark blond hair, closer to the color mine had been when I’d dyed it as Sage. He looked to be ten oreleven, and wore clothes that hung crookedly on his thin frame. I wasn’t sure whether he’d stolen them or if they had been handed down from an older sibling. Regardless, they weren’t made for his body. The only exception was his shoes, which were in good repair and the exact size they should be.
I replied in an Avenian accent. “Is the priest of this church still here?”
“No.” He squinted at me. “Never seen you before. You from out of town?”
“I’ve never seen you before either,” I said. “So maybe you’re the one from out of town.”
That amused him. “My name is Fink. Well, that’s not really my name, but it’s what everyone calls me.”
“What’s your name, then?”
“Dunno. Everyone just calls me Fink.”
“Don’t you have anywhere else to go?”
“Not really. Why d’you want the priest?”
“A doctrinal question. What punishment does the Book of Faith recommend for a kid who’s being too nosy?”
Fink missed the point and only said, “You can’t ask him that because he’s dead. Got himself killed about four years ago.”
Dead? The news hit me like a blow to the chest. My world blurred, and I had to stare forward in silence until I could speak. “Are you sure?”
“I saw it myself.” Fink pointed to a grassy area in front of the church. “Right there, a pirate cut him down.”
I didn’t dare ask, but the word escaped me in a breath. “Why?”
He shrugged. “How would I know? I was just a kid then.”
No explanation was necessary. Four years ago, the priest who had given me shelter sent word to my brother that the prince was here. The messenger undoubtedly told others of the rumor. The priest was eventually convinced I was only an orphan boy, but if the pirates thought there was any possibility I was Jaron, they would have come here. I’d already left, but the priest paid the penalty intended for me.
“You all right?” Fink asked.
I wasn’t. It was hard to breathe. Feelings of sadness and anger flooded me, choking me. “Who was the pirate?” I asked. “The one who killed him.”
Fink shook his head. “I’m not telling you that.”
I grabbed Fink’s collar and shoved him against the church wall. “What’s his name?”
Fink looked nervous, but Avenian boys are used to getting roughed up so he kept calm. “Why should I tell you?” he asked.
I reached into the satchel tied around my waist and withdrew a garlin, probably a month’s worth of money for him. “You’ll tell me because you’re hungry.”
He held out his hand. I put the coin on his palm, but pinched it firmly between my fingers. Fink glanced both directions before he leaned forward and whispered, “Devlin did it. But you won’t find him in these parts because he’s the pirate king now. You probably don’t want to find him at all, unless you want the same end as the priest.”
Devlin was their king? That explained why Avenia was willing to help with the assassination attempt. Because it wasn’t just about revenge on me for escaping the pirates four years ago. Together they were seeking the total destruction of my country.
I released the garlin, and as Fink’s fist tightened around it, I pulled him close to me again and muttered, “Now go away, or I’ll tell everyone where I heard that name.”
This time, Fink got the message. Without a second glance at me, he ran. I waited until he had gone, then left in the other direction.
I held my composure only until I found an alley where I could duck behind an old wagon that had been mutilated for spare parts, probably during the recent winter.
In the privacy of the alley, I pulled out my knife and stared at the blade, angry at Devlin for having killed an innocent man. No, angry at myself. Because I was the reason Devlin killed him. And because the priest died without even knowing I really was the boy he had initially thought me to be.
I first cut the bandage off my arm. The wound from Roden was tender but sealed. It was too soon to remove the bandage wrapped around my waist, but I tore it off anyway. I could not look cared for. A grim smile crept onto my face as I pictured what Mott would say if he saw me. Then it vanished. If Mott saw me now, he’d have nothing good to say.
Down on my knees, I grabbed a fistful of hair and sliced through it with the blade. There was enough hair in my grip that the blade cut unevenly, which is how I wanted it. The last person to cut it had been Errol, my manservant while I was at Farthenwood. He’d faint now if he saw what had just happened to the strands he had worked so carefully to trim.
The first cut had been in anger and felt to me like a rebellion, a rejection of the person everyone thought I should be. With the second cut I turned the anger inward, furious with myself that I didn’t think the way others did, and that my solutions to any single problem always created several new ones. With the third cut I found myself fighting back tears until it was pointless to pretend that any amount of resistance would matter. Devlin had killed a man whose only crime was to shelter a hungry and frightened boy. For reasons I didn’t understand, I wanted to know if anyone other than me had cried for the priest. Did he have a family? Anyone who would blame me for the part I had played in his death?
I had told Mott that I needed to kill Devlin, which was already an unbearable weight. But if Devlin was the pirate king, then the way out of this was so much harder, so much worse. I’d never get their loyalty, and if he controlled the pirates, Devlin would never give up wanting my life. The only way to make Carthya safe from them, and the only way I could survive this, was to destroy them all.
Mott was right. That was impossible. But it was my only choice now.
I drew in a long, steady breath to calm myself, then made a final cut of my hair, this one with resolve. I had to keep moving forward, and if the devils were willing, I could go home again.
What’s the matter with you?”
With a jump I turned, knife out, and saw Fink staring at me, his finger casually hooked around the rope that acted as his belt. The rat still sat on his shoulder, watching me cautiously. Rats weren’t my favorite companions. I’d experienced enough rodents in the orphanage to develop a healthy hatred of them.
Embarrassed, I wiped my eyes and stood, then replaced my knife in its sheath and continued walking down the alley away from him. He followed.
“So you’re telling me the name of that pirate is Devlin?” I said loudly. “You, Fink, are telling me the pirate’s name?”
“Stop it!” Fink said, running up to me. “Everyone can hear you.”
“Really, Fink? So everyone can hear that you told me the name of that pirate? Stay away from me or I’ll keep talking like this.”
He stopped walking. “Oh, I see. You don’t want me around.”
“But —”
I glanced back. “But what?”
He licked his lips, which were already cracked and dry. “I know you’ve got other coins, and I’m really hungry. I know you’re new here, and so if you need anything, I’ll help you find it.”
I walked back to him. Although I wasn’t particularly tall, I still seemed to tower over him. “What do you think I need?”
Glancing down at the ground, he mumbled, “Why’d you want the name of that pirate?”
“I’m making a collection of pirate poetry. Thought he’d be charming to write about.”
Fink made a face and started to turn away from me. I jangled the satchel of coins at my hip, getting his attention again.
“I asked you a question,” I said. “What do I need?”
“Well,” Fink said. “I think you need a place to stay tonight.”
“I can pay for anyplace I want.”
“No, I mean a place where someone like you belongs.” Fink’s eyes remained locked on the satchel.
“I belong with the pirates,” I said. “Where can I find them?”
Fink held out his hand. “They’ll kill me if I tell you. So information like that is pretty expensive.”
I untied the satchel and held it out for him, waiting for an answer.
While eyeing the coins, Fink lifted the fat rat off his shoulder and began stroking his back. A part of me felt bad for tempting him to talk to me, because I appreciated how dangerous it might be. But without the priest’s help, I didn’t have any other way to find Devlin.
Then I heard a faint thud behind me, movement. Fink’s expression didn’t betray a thing, which meant he wasn’t surprised at whoever was coming our way. The kid had set me up. Of course he would. Nobody survived alone in Avenia.
I turned around to see the half-dozen boys who had joined us. Fink was the youngest and smallest. Several of the boys were older and bigger than me, all of them unfriendly. Each was carrying a homemade weapon of some type: a club, or a whip, or a knife carved of bone. A few bounced large rocks in their hands. Even the ignorantcould use a rock.
One hand went to the handle of my sword, but I didn’t take it out. In that instant, a memory tugged at me, something vital to the mystery about my family’s murders, but I couldn’t think about it here. A fight was brewing, which was the last thing I wanted. I’d get some of them and some of them would get me, and to be honest, it was that second part which concerned me more.
I tossed the satchel to the ground, at Fink’s feet. “Take it, then. There’s plenty more coins where they came from.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You haven’t been on the streets long.”
“Why do you say that?”
“You’re never supposed to say that you’ve got more coins. That only attracts worse trouble later.”
I grinned. “Trouble from who? A kid like you could never steal everything I’ve got access to.”
Fink’s eyes widened while he contemplated that, then he nodded toward the belt at my waist. “If that’s true, then you can afford another sword and knife.”
“You said there’s somewhere I belong. Wherever that is, I’ll need my weapons.”
“If you stole the coins, then you stole these weapons too, so they’re no more yours than ours. Give ’em up and you’ll walk out of here. Try to fight us and you won’t.”
“Fighting would mess up my new haircut,” I said. “Tell me where you think I belong.”
“Give me your weapons.”
He replaced the rat on his shoulder and cocked his head at a mountain of a boy behind me. To keep him away, I tossed my knife and sword on the ground by Fink’s feet.
“There’s a tavern on the far edge of town from here,” Fink said. “Maybe you belong there. Ask for room eleven.”
Fink crouched to get the weapons and as soon as he looked down I kicked him in the head. He cried out and fell backward. He already had my sword but I retrieved my knife and ran. The other boys started to chase me but it was only a halfhearted effort. They knew as well as I did that there were plenty of hiding places in Dichell, carved out either by the street gangs waiting to ambush a traveler, or by a traveler hoping to save his life in the shadows. The problem was that I couldn’t hide. I had pirates to find.
I ducked into a bakery on the street where a rather pretty girl was just closing up her shop. I chatted politely with her and took a couple of sweet rolls to tuck beneath my shirt. She might have noticed, but she let me walk out anyway.
Much as I dreaded the idea of going to the tavern Fink had suggested, I knew that’s where I needed to be. And seeing it later that evening was worse than I’d anticipated. No degree of darkness could mask the fact that there were barns more hospitable to humans than this place. It was partially hidden by overgrown weeds and grassesand littered with whatever wreckage a customer didn’t feel like carrying with him. It had a few windows on the main and upper floors, but they were too covered in grime to let in much light. Most likely, there was nothing inside worth seeing anyway, so perhaps that was for the best.
I debated with myself for a long time before walking in. It wasn’t a good idea, but I seemed to be experiencing a shortage of better alternatives. When I set eyes on the owner, I decided he looked enough like a pig that it made sense why his tavern reminded me of a barn. Like most other taverns, this place was too dark and seemed unnaturally crowded with tables and chairs. A couple of scabby men sat behind cobwebs near the edge of one wall, but their interest seemed to be in nursing their drinks rather than caring who I might be. The corners of the room were filthy and I knew by the chewed chair legs that the tavern owner had rats.
“What do you want?” the owner asked.
My heart raced. Once I spoke, there’d be no turning back, not until my fight was finished, or I was dead. He cocked his head, impatient with my silence, and I said, “I want a room. Number eleven.”
If there were eleven rooms in this muck trap, they’d have to be the size of coffins. Obviously, I was giving him a code word.
He rubbed a hand over his jaw and surveyed me. “Show me your money.”
I smirked at him. “Can I pay you later?” If I was here in the morning, I could probably steal enough from his till to cover my debt.