Authors: Brigid Kemmerer
Spectators have filled the doorway to the storage yard. Journ, his face a mask of confusion. Worwick, his face a mask of anger. Tycho, his face a mask of anguish.
Worwick grips Tycho’s arm, though, holding him back.
I don’t take my eyes off Dustan, because his action is what will matter here.
“You’ll go down fighting, won’t you?” he says.
“Maybe not this hard.” He studies me as though he can’t figure me out. “The prince has been seeking you for months. We’ve long suspected you were dead.”
That would probably be easier. “I’ve committed no crime,” I say to him. “Call off your men.”
“I might have believed that before you ran.” He pauses. “Why?”
He’s not just asking about today. He’s asking
about all of it.
“For the good of Emberfall,” I say.
He must hear a note of truth in my voice, because he goes still. “Explain.”
I tighten my grip on my sword. “No.”
He turns his head. “Shoot his other leg.”
“No!” screams Tycho. He jerks free of Worwick and runs. “No!”
Dustan turns. The bowman turns.
“Stop!” I yell. I imagine an arrow flying, piercing the boy’s chest. I imagine his blood soaking into the dust. “Tycho, stop!”
He doesn’t stop. I wait for an arrow to snap off the string.
One doesn’t. Dustan steps forward and catches hold of Tycho’s shirt before he can get to me. Tycho swings around and tries to punch him, but Dustan holds fast, tightening his grip until the collar pulls tight and Tycho makes a choking sound.
“Enough,” I say. “He has nothing to do with this. Let him go.”
Dustan tightens his grip and lifts his arm. Tycho makes a panicked keening sound.
This is why I forswore family. This moment exactly.
“Please,” I say, and the word costs me something to say.
Dustan’s gaze never leaves mine. “Do you yield?”
“You’ll let him go?” I say, then realize this could mean an infinite number of ends for Tycho. “You’ll leave him unharmed?”
“If I leave him unharmed, you’ll surrender peacefully?”
“I swear it.”
“Then so do I.”
I drop my sword and my dagger, then raise my hands in surrender. He lets go. The boy falls to his knees, gasping for air.
Dustan takes my wrists and binds them with a stretch of leather.
From the dirt, Tycho looks up at me. I can’t meet his eyes.
“Go back to Worwick,” I tell him.
“No,” says Dustan. “Brandyn. Take the boy. Bind him.”
I freeze, struggling against the binding. “Dustan. You swore.”
Dustan gives me a shove between the shoulder blades. “He won’t be harmed. Walk.”
Behind me, Tycho screams. I can’t see around Dustan, but I don’t need to. I know Tycho is afraid of soldiers.
I whirl and put my shoulder into Dustan’s chest. He grabs hold of my armor and keeps me upright.
I open my mouth to swear at him. To beg of him. To censure him. I’m not sure which, but I don’t get the chance to find out. A gauntleted hand strikes me in the jaw.
I go down without much of a fight at all.
Sorra’s blood stains the panels of my robes. I have nothing else to wear, and I refuse to ask anything of the horrible man who’s taken me prisoner, so I bear it.
The streaks and splashes have dried to an ugly brown against the cream fabric. My own tears stain the neckline. Both are a fitting reminder of what I’ve lost.
What Parrish has lost.
He spared that girl in the forest, and in return, I led his love to her death.
Perhaps I’ve been wrong about all of it. Surely Mother and Nolla Verin are correct in their ruthless view of the world. Maybe my wish for peace between our countries is the true weakness. Maybe my wish to be heir was. We should have launched an assault on Emberfall—indeed, Mother’s adviser Clanna Sun was in favor of doing just that—and none of this would have happened.
Many more would have died.
The thought is unwelcome, and I shove it away.
The prince’s soldiers have confined me to a lavish room that looks out on the castle courtyard. Sleep will likely never find me again, so I spend the night staring down at the cobblestones below. When dawn breaks, the sunlight touches my tears and dries my cheeks.
I watch the horizon, waiting to see any sign of my people coming to rescue me. Surely Mother will not believe my letter after the prince was so defiant to her and my sister. Surely my sister will demand that I be allowed to return home, or to negotiate at my side.
I watch for hours, until the sun is fully in the sky. A lone rider appears at the edge of the woods, galloping at a steady pace. For the first time all night, hope blooms in my heart.
But then I see the gold and red of Emberfall’s colors.
I sink back to the cool marble floor.
I am such a fool. I cannot believe I trusted him.
I believe you trust your mother. Unfortunately, I do not
Rage burns through the sorrow in my chest. He’s right: I do trust my mother. I trust that she will burn this castle to the ground when she comes to rescue me. I trust that she will ensure Rhen never sits on a throne. I trust that she will break every bone in his body and rip every hair from his head and burn every fiber of his—
The door to my room opens, and I choke on my fury.
Prince Rhen stands there, outfitted in rich leather with gold stitching, looking regal and perfect and cold.
I’m on the floor in dirty robes, nearly vibrating with heat and rage. I want to launch myself at him.
Instead, I stand, adopting an air as regal as his. “You will regret the actions you have taken. My mother will double the forces she was already planning to send into your cursed country.”
“The forces she likely cannot afford?”
I set my jaw.
“I understand your fury,” he says.
“I understand a great deal.” His eyes narrow. “I understand that you came here in the middle of the night with questionable motives. I understand your mother blackmailed my father for
, and she tried to do the same to me. I understand that your mother and sister care nothing for my people and only care for the waterways that will allow a new way to barter for coins.” He takes a step closer to me, his eyes dark with his own fury. “I understand that thousands of my people have already been slaughtered because of it.
is what I understand.”
“I know many things as well.” My eyes hold his. “I know you have lied to your people.”
“I have not.”
” I spit the words at him. “I know you seek this heir because you fear his magic. I know you have imprisoned me because you fear my mother. Your actions reveal your weakness, Prince Rhen.”
“On the contrary. My actions reveal my strength.”
“Killing innocent people should
be seen as a strength.”
His eyebrows go up. “Is that not what your people do?”
killed my guard, after I approached you to discuss a means to peace.”
“My guards drew no weapon until yours did,” he says. “I said you would be unharmed, as you see. She would have been as well.”
“You deal in lies with your people, Prince Rhen.” My voice almost breaks, and I heave a breath to steady it. “I will believe nothing you say.”
He pulls a folded piece of parchment from his belt. “Would you believe your mother’s hand?”
My breath catches. The rider returned with Mother’s answer.
I rush forward and snatch it from his hand, half expecting him to hold fast, but he doesn’t. Guards hover behind him in the doorway, but I’ve already seen what they did to Sorra, and I am not stupid, despite my actions over the last day. I step back and hastily unfold the letter.
There are Mother’s words, and I’m so shocked to see them that it takes me a full moment to read at all.
In the common tongue of Emberfall, she has written:
I accept my daughter’s proposal. I will grant one month for negotiations.
Below that, in Syssalah, she adds:
Do not disappoint me, Lia Mara.
My eyes hold those words far longer than it takes me to read them.
Do not disappoint me.
I did that the instant I rode away from camp with Sorra and Parrish. There is no alliance to forge. I am his prisoner. Nothing more.
I look back at Prince Rhen.
“Your mother believed your letter,” he says.
“I wrote it in truth,” I hiss at him.
“I will have some clothing brought. Alert your guards if you have any needs.”
He pulls the door closed, then locks me inside.
I wake to a sky full of sun and a leg full of fire. A wagon rolls along underneath me, every bump proving that I’m lying on nothing more than wooden floorboards. I shift and try to roll, but my head isn’t clear. Metal rattles against wood when I move.
I inhale sharply, then force myself up on one elbow. Shackles trap my wrists and ankles. My head swims.
“Go slow. You’ve been out for hours.” A familiar man sits near the front of the wagon. Dark-brown skin, close-shorn hair. He’s heavier than he was when I met him in Washington, DC, but I won’t forget the man who saved my life once before.
“Healer,” I say in surprise, my voice a rough rasp. My jaw aches when I speak. I lift a hand to rub at my eyes, and the chains drag across my bare wrists.
“Most people just call me Noah,” he says.
They must have given me sleeping ether. My thoughts are having trouble falling into order. Six men on horseback follow the wagon,
but sunlight gleams on weapons and armor and makes my head pound. An unfamiliar guardsman drives the wagon. I wince and rub at my eyes again.
Without warning, memory punches me in the gut. My eyes flash back to Noah. “Where is Tycho?” I say. “What did they do with him?”
“He’s fine. He’s asleep.” He points. “Look.”
I shift and force myself to sitting. A tight bandage encircles my thigh, and ankle chains rattle against the floorboards as I move. Tycho is curled into a ball behind me under the bench along the opposite side of the wagon, tucked as tightly as he can be into the corner. From what I can tell, he seems unharmed.
Another voice calls out, “Is he awake?”
It’s the same voice that shouted from the side of the arena. Now, faced with Noah, I can place it. Jacob. Harper’s brother.
Jacob to everyone in Emberfall. Heir to the throne of the imaginary Disi. Heir to nothing in reality.
He did not have a high opinion of me during the few days we knew each other. It was quite mutual. I consider the chains trapping me here and doubt that has improved.
“He’s awake,” says Noah, his tone resigned.
Jacob rides his horse alongside the wagon. His dark hair is longer, and he sits a horse far better than I remember, but he’s still clearly Harper’s brother. “You said I couldn’t stab him while he was unconscious. Can I stab him now?”
“Come on.” His eyes are full of righteous anger. “Tell me all the places I can hit so he doesn’t die.”
I meet Jacob’s eyes. “You would stab a chained man?”
“Not usually, but for you I’d make an exception.”
“You bear such venom for me. I have never done anything to you.”
Noah snorts. Jacob’s voice is low and dangerous. “You
Ah. I did do that.
Jake rides until his horse is almost against the wagon. “Besides, I’m not the only one with ‘venom’ for you. No one knows where you’ve been. Rhen has been looking for you for months. Harper has been worried you’re dead. But no. You’re here, and you’re fine. Better than fine. Now all these guardsmen are wondering why you deserted. Why you
. Want to explain that? You tried to kill their commander in the arena.”
If I’d tried to kill him, he’d be dead, but the rest of Jacob’s words are true. I have no explanation to give. I look away.
“Talk,” says Jake. “Now.”
When I say nothing, he pulls a dagger. My head snaps around. My leg feels like I carry the weight of a forge-hot iron bar through my thigh, but even shackled, I could leap out of the wagon and get my chains around his neck before he could put that blade in me.
I have nothing to lose, and maybe he can sense it. Something in his gaze falters.
“Jake,” says Noah. His voice is resigned. “Just … put it away.”
Jacob swears and shoves the dagger back into its sheath.
His words sit heavy in my thoughts, though. In truth, I regret trapping him here. I regret abandoning my duties with the Royal Guard. I regret what I know about my birthright and where that leaves me with Prince Rhen.
I look up at the sky. The air is full of summer scents of cut hay and ripening fruit. We’ve moved far beyond Rillisk if we’re passing through farmland. I see little traffic on the road, so it must still be early. Worwick will be losing his mind to have me and Tycho taken away at the same time.
The wagon’s creaks and rattles echo in the quiet morning air. There should be a guardsman riding ahead as lookout, but I see no one in the distance. The guardsmen and horses look weary. “Have we been traveling all night?”
“Yes. We’re going back to Ironrose so you can take us home, and then Rhen can do whatever he wants with you.”
Those words settle in my chest and take up a death grip on my heart. “Ironrose is two days’ ride from Rillisk,” I say. “Do you intend to drive your guardsmen to exhaustion to save a matter of hours?”
He sets his jaw. “Dustan said we can make it back after sundown. I’m not driving anyone to exhaustion.”
“You’ve been riding all night and you intend to ride through the day.” I glance at the guardsmen trailing the wagon. “With men who’ve likely been at your service since daybreak yesterday?”
Indecision flickers in his eyes, but he scowls. “You’re not in charge anymore. I didn’t trust you before, and finding out you’ve been hiding all this time doesn’t make me trust you now. So sit there and shut up or I’ll have one of the guardsmen gag you.”
I shift to sit against the wagon railing and say nothing more.
Maybe he didn’t expect me to obey, because he looks suspicious as he rides ahead to be parallel to Noah. Their voices are low and barely carry over the wind, but I can tell they are discussing whether it would be more prudent to wait.
I don’t know, and I shouldn’t care.
We press on.
The sun eventually begins its crawl up from the horizon. When I catch sight of Dustan, his jaw is dark with bruising, and he does not meet my eyes. None of them do. When Tycho wakes, he stays huddled by the bench, but the guards leave him alone, too. The heat of the day bears down on us, and eventually one of the guards throws cheese and bread and a water skin onto the floorboards. Tycho and I divide it between us. His movements are small and quick, like a rabbit, his eyes watchful.
We stay quiet. I listen, hoping for information, but the guards are careful and no one says anything to me.
Near nightfall, a guard tumbles from his horse.
Noah examines the man, then ducks his head and wipes sweat from his brow. “Heat exhaustion. We’re going to have to camp for the night.”
“No,” says Jacob. He’s glaring at me.
I raise my eyebrows and say nothing. He scowls.
“Jake.” Noah sighs. “We’re still hours away. I’m exhausted. You’re exhausted. I want to go home as badly as you do, but we’ve been here for months so a few more days won’t matter. You think Harper is going to decide whether to go home at midnight? Come on.”
So we camp. A guardsman binds my chains to a tree, yanking at the shackles so hard he nearly pulls me off my feet. He’s spoiling for a fight, and I remember what boredom and fatigue can do to a guardsman’s temperament, so I don’t give him one. Tycho is unchained, but he clings to the gathering darkness, hovering near the tree. I’m torn between wishing he would look for an opportunity to run, if one presents itself, and worrying he’d get himself killed.
Darkness falls—and with it, Jacob, Noah, and the guardsmen drift into sleep. Only Dustan remains awake, standing guard at the back of the wagon.
His own exhaustion is obvious, but it makes me think well of him that he put his men first.
Eventually sleep claims Tycho as well, curled into the dry grass at the base of the tree beside me. Silence fills the space between me and Dustan, broken only by the occasional pop from the cooking fire that no one bothered to bank.
I say nothing to him, and he says nothing to me, but his eyelids begin to flicker, and he shifts against the back of the wagon. Despite everything, I understand his position. Possibly better than anyone. “Commander,” I say softly.
He’s instantly alert, his eyes narrowing. “What?”
“Do you have cards?”
“I will not be tricked into releasing you.”
I lift my shackled wrists. “I can hold cards. You need not release me.”
He hesitates, but he must realize the risk is low, because he straightens and moves across the campground to sit across from me. He’s cautious, staying just out of my reach, and he eyes me as he pulls a deck from a pouch on his belt.
Dustan shuffles quickly, dealing cards between us with practiced accuracy. I take up my hand, he takes up his, and we play in silence. He wins the first game, I, the second. By the time we begin the third, he’s relaxed into the rhythm of the game. He’s been keeping his eyes on his hands, on the shifting cards between us, but he gives me a rueful look when I lay down a prince card and capture one of his kings.
A crack of wood echoes from a copse of trees nearby, and we both snap our heads up. After a moment, a stag leaps from the foliage, then sprints off into the darkness.
We exchange a glance, then look back at our cards.
Dustan plays a four of swords. “That movement in the arena. With the armor. You asked who taught me.” His eyes flick up to meet mine. “You did.”
I play a nine of swords. “I know.”
“You could have killed me.”
I rub a hand across my jaw and sigh. “A man should not die over a bit of sport.”
“But you might have escaped,” he presses.
“Indeed, with a bounty on my head.” I glance up at him. “I bear you no ill will, Dustan.”
“That man Journ said you fought in his stead. Because he was injured.”
I nod and wait for him to lay down a card.
He’s watching me. “He said it was an act of kindness.”
I shrug. An act of foolishness, more likely.
Dustan continues, “He said he would have withdrawn if he’d seen me enter the arena, rather than risk harming a member of the Royal Guard.” He drops a card on the pile. “
could have withdrawn.”
I lay down a card. “It is not in me to withdraw.”
He considers that for a while as we play.
Eventually, he glances up. “Why did you leave?” When I say nothing, he continues, “I do not believe you’re a deserter. A deserter would not have faced me.”
I don’t meet his eyes. “Perhaps it is easiest to assume I am.”
“No. It’s not.” He pauses. “You said it was for the good of Emberfall. What does that mean?”
Those words were spoken when I believed he was going to put a sword through my chest. I already regret them. “I cannot tell you, Dustan. But I truly meant the words I said. I did not make my decision to leave lightly.”
He sighs and rubs at his eyes. I know he’s tired from the day, but true exhaustion sits behind it.
I carefully select a card from my hand and add it to the pile between us. A warm breeze makes the fire flicker. “How long have you been traveling with Prince Jacob?”
“Nearly two weeks.” He shrugs. “We are on a tour of goodwill, in the hopes the healer’s talents will endear Disi to the people of Emberfall.”
I keep my tone easy, like no time at all has passed, and we’re guardsmen sharing a fire and a game of cards. “I am surprised the crown prince would send you away.”
His expression darkens, and he tosses a card onto the pile. “It is not for me to question the prince’s orders.”
It is, actually, if he is guard commander, but I do not correct him. I toss a card on the pile.
Dustan glances at Tycho. “Who’s your shadow?”
“A stable boy.” I choose my words carefully, because I do not want to give Dustan any more control over me than he already has. “He was sworn to Worwick.”
“I thought he was going to throw himself on a sword to save you.”
“He saw the Grand Marshal’s enforcers execute a man in the tavern.” I pause. “He was worried you would do the same to me.”
Dustan’s eyebrows go up. “A man was executed?”
“Yes.” I pause and turn my cards over in my hands. “A man suspected of magic.”
“Ah.” He nods. “We’ve heard of such things in other towns.” He glances around and his voice drops conspiratorially. “At court, some people have mentioned the healer, but no one has dared to accuse him directly.”
“People are afraid.”
Dustan shrugs. “Or greedy. The instant the prince gave the order, people were lining up to collect the reward. That enchanted monster terrorized us all for so long. He is desperate to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” He pauses and adds a card to the pile. “It’s only a matter of time before people realize he’s not just searching for a magesmith. He’s searching for this missing heir.”
I clear my throat. “How do you know that?”
Dustan pauses with his hand on a card. “We were both in the Grand Hall when Karis Luran revealed what she knew.”
Back when I was a guardsman. Before I knew anything of my birthright. I’d forgotten. I run a hand across my jaw.
“That concerns you,” says Dustan. His eyes search my face.
I study my cards. I’ve said too much. So has he. Long nights and heavy darkness never keep secrets well.
“I bear you no ill will either, Grey,” he says. “In the arena—if you had not—if you had only said—” He breaks off and swears. “Silver hell. Why did you run?
“I would run again if I had the chance.”
He straightens in surprise.
I hold up my shackled wrists. “I am your prisoner, Dustan. I owe you nothing. You owe me nothing. Allow me to keep my secrets.”
For a moment he looks like he will challenge me, but either he’s too tired or too unwilling. He sighs. “For the good of Emberfall?”
I nod and flip a card onto the pile. “For the good of all.”