Theia is counting the morning till when the Queen’s Guards come through the door. A neighboring store owner had sent word that the guardsmen were prowling. *Lawl,* she calls. *To the bar, please.*
She continues to count the money until one of them clears his throat and speaks. “Lady, we come on Queen’s business. Is the owner available?”
“I am the owner,” she says mildly, vanishing the money box and wiping her hands on her skirt. “How can I be of service to the Queen?” Her direct question startles them.
“We, uh, we are in search of the… thieves of Halesford.” When she says nothing, he mutters something under his breath and continues. “Do you know about the Queen’s stolen cargo?”
“I’ve heard about the incident,” she replies.
“And what did you hear?” There are two other guards behind this one, both shifting uncomfortably in the inn’s front hallway.
“That the cargo was stolen,” she says flatly. The attached fool is not voiced but understood.
A blush. “Er, yes.”
When the three start scrutinizing their surroundings, she sighs. “Why don’t you come over to the bar? Normally we aren’t open this early in the day, but I imagine that you three are tired for tromping up and down the streets.”
“Now who’s going to tell your superiors? I won’t speak a word of it.”
“Harl,” says one guard plaintively. “C’mon, accept the kind lady’s offer. My boots are pinching me!”
“You ordered the wrong size, you idiot!” the other hisses.
Theia snorts. Young ones—younger, perhaps, than her Whit. She imagines that her boy has more sense than the three of these young males combined. “One round on the house for your service to the Queen.”
They follow her like lost but eager puppies. Lawl is behind his bar, wiping down glasses that he’d already polished after closing hour last night.
“Three brews, Lawl.”
The Warlord nods silently and fills three mugs with dark ale. The guards slip into seats, one sighing with relief to be off of his feet. Theia leaves them to chat over their drinks.
She winds her way to Jakob’s room and calls softly *Jakob?*
No answer. He’s out, then. Getting into more trouble. She lingers by the door, taking a moment to collect herself.
Jakob doesn’t understand the position that he has put her in. None of them can afford to have divided loyalties, but with Whit hunting for the rogues and Jakob being the one hunted… it tears her heart in two. She doesn’t want to have to choose between them, is terrified that she might have to.
Theia loves them. Her boys.
How can she protect one without hurting the other?
Later, as she is directing the kitchen maid to properly knead the bread dough, Lawl opens the door and says gruffly, “They’re nice ‘n drunk. Time for ’em to go.”
That is a cue if she ever heard one. Lawl is man who keeps to himself. He doesn’t speak of family or where he is from, though she suspects it is out of some personal agenda rather than a need for privacy. No matter. He has served as her bartender for the past decade, and he is good at his job. If the Warlord doesn’t want to be bothered, well, she won’t bother him. So long as he does his work and makes no fuss. He fits well into the Rose & Thorn Inn, whether he’d believe her words or not.
She walks to the bar with a smile. “Enjoyed yourselves then?”
“Y-yesss, Ma’am,” a guard slurs as he attempts to stand still and not tilt. Another one is holding onto the bar for dear life. “Gooood stuff, your ale.”
“Mmhm,” she agrees. “Do you have any other questions for me before you resume your patrol?”
They look confused, as if they can’t remember asking questions at all. “Um, no. I d-don’t think we got any more of… those. Do we?” He looks at his companions who shake their heads, one immediately grabbing his face to undoubtedly stop the sloshing of his brain.
They march like a line of uncoordinated ducklings. She leads them to the door and bids them farewell, watching as the men stumble out into the sunlight and curse. Theia allows herself one laugh. Then she goes back to work.
“Well, we’ve tracked the wagon and its merchandise this far.”
“And we’re still stumbling in the dark,” Surreal clarifies to Rainier. “We won’t learn a damn thing more if the Steward fails to find the records of the missing cargo.” How convenient a mishap, she thinks sarcastically. Lord Reed is trying to prevent handing them evidence against Phaedra.
“Or if the people of Ciraea refuse our help.”
“Don’t remind me. I think my ears are still ringing from that old woman’s shouting. Who knew she’d be that sensitive over a few questions? You would think her granddaughter’s dress came straight from the Queen’s closet.”
Rainier snickers. “It’s the girl’s fault for flaunting herself down the street. I always knew witches were vain but—”
Surreal smacks his arm. “Watch it, Prince. I might take offense on behalf of my gender.”
The Warlord Prince grins at her unrepentantly. She is deciding on whether or not she can smack him again without having him tattle to Daemon, when Rainier points across the street. “Is that it?”
A sign hangs haphazardly across a front window, announcing Stella’s Thread Shop. “I doubt there is another Stella’s on this street, so I’d say it’s the place we want.” She puts a hand on his arm. “Why don’t you wait here?”
“Sugar, you aren’t Sadi. You can’t go into a female clothing store and have the owner not wonder why you are there.”
He frowns. “Plenty of males help females shop.”
Yeah, to carry their shopping bags and pay the bill. She doesn’t say that. It might hurt his ego.
“Let me do this my way.” She switches tactics. “Please, Rainier?”
Rainier sighs heavily. “Fine. But I’ll be watching.”
“No, first you’ll be going back to that bakery and purchase one of those pastries we saw in the window.”
“Yes, you will.”
He snorts and pivots to the way they came. Rainier hesitates before asking, “You’ll be careful?”
“Don’t you worry about me, sugar. I don’t plan on giving Lucivar any excuse for another training session in Ebon Rih.”
He shudders in understanding and walks away.
Surreal makes sure that her ears are hidden by her hair, crosses the street and strolls into the shop. After a cursory glance around, her eye picks out a familiar color. Along the back walls, there are stacks of gleaming gold material. She trots over to take a better look. Definitely the pattern that that girl had been wearing, decked out in a fashionable style that is popular among Aristo witches this season.
“Sale today, Lady. That’s fine material there. The best in town.” A witch is watching her.
“I can see that,” she says idly and fingers the gold-spun cloth. The material is fine indeed—much too fine to be selling for half of its actual value. When the shopkeeper comes over, she asks bluntly, “Where did you get it?”
“Amdarh. I had to haggle something fierce with my supplier to get this shipment. You’d better buy some now before I run out. There’s a limited quantity.”
Surreal turns to face her, green-gold eyes glittering. “Let’s cut the bullshit, shall we? Where—did—you—get—this?”
The smile drops off of the witch’s face. “It’s a gift from the Darkness,” she snarls.
“It’s stolen property,” Surreal counters. The cloth is snatched from her hands.
“I don’t steal, Lady, but I’m not stupid enough to look a gift-horse in the mouth either.”
Aristo items had ended up in on black market streets all the time in Terreille. Back then, Surreal was just one of the many whores who made use of the pirated goods to accommodate all the appetites likely to come through a Red Moon house. No one asked questions and everyone turned a blind eye.
This isn’t Terreille. And while she understands that even Kaeleer has its shady dealings, she cannot overlook any lead that might help her hunt for the rogues.
“Listen up, sugar. I don’t really care about confiscating your wares.” The woman continues to eye her with suspicion. “But I do want to know every last detail of how you got it. If not, I’ll be more than happy to let you explain yourself to the Warlord Prince of Dhemlan.” At the woman’s rapidly paling face, she leans forward and lowers her voice. “Who’s it going to be? Me or Sadi?”
“A friend of mine had heard that some… goods would be passing through the market area at dawn. Anyone who wanted a piece of what was being given away was welcome to show up. I did. And I didn’t talk to the people there—none of us spoke. We took our crates with gratitude.”
The woman’s voice changes to something closer to pleading. “You can’t understand, Lady! This was my mother’s mother’s shop. She started it on nothing but the talent of her fingers and a few pieces of wool’s skein. With the tithes these days, I can barely afford to keep the doors open. We’re simple folk here who want a nice dress or two when it’s time for the harvest festival. The Aristo shops don’t cater to our kind—and we can’t afford their prices.”
Surreal does understand, better than this woman will ever know. She asks, “Did you get a look at the men?”
A head shake. “They’re covered from head to toe. I wouldn’t have wanted to see their faces anyway.”
She doesn’t want to be responsible for identifying the rogues because she profits from the piracy. Oh yes, that much is very clear. Ignorance can be bliss—especially when given a choice between duty and morality.
“I don’t know.”
She calls in her stiletto and slices through the cloth held between the woman’s hands. The shopkeeper jumps back, a Yellow-Jeweled shield snapping into place. Surreal smiles grimly.
“I won’t ask again.”
“I don’t know! I—The wagon, it was painted red. Just plain red. And the first wheel rattled. I don’t know, don’t you understand! Ask someone, anyone else—”
She snarls, “Hell’s fire, get ahold of yourself!” The woman must expect her to jump over the stacks of cloth and slit her throat any minute; she won’t stop babbling and weeping. Surreal vanishes her stiletto with a roll of her eyes.
“How did your ‘friend’ know the load was coming to town?”
The witch stares at her, mouth trembling.
“Let me guess,” Surreal says snidely, “This friend is more like a lover and happens to know a rogue or two.”
“No!” The denial is hysterical. “No, Arny isn’t a rogue! And he don’t know any rogues!”
The shop bell rings and Surreal smiles. “How about I let my friend ask your Arny?”
“Ask Arny what?” Rainier approaches them swiftly, his eyes hard and fixed on the shopkeeper. The witch looks between them, no doubt realizing what serious trouble has just stepped into her shop.
“Oh, if he knows any rogues!” Surreal says cheerfully to her companion.
Rainier’s eyes are not quite glazed. Not yet. “I can handle that.”
“NO!” The shopkeeper is more shrill and vehement. “H-He only said someone had sent word from Green Point because the rogues had been passing through there giving away stuff! That’s how it works,” she sobs, using the material like an over-sized handkerchief.
Surreal grimaces. No one will buy ruined silk. “Green Point,” she tells Rainier who nods. She almost feels bad as they leave the shop and weeping woman. Then Rainier hands her a paper bag full of pastries and she nibbles on one as he arranges a ride to Green Point. Time to ruminate later; right now they are still on the hunt.
Surreal is bordering cranky and they are only two towns past Green Point. Rainier seriously contemplates finding a place to stay for the night and a dining hall in which to relax. “I’ll take this one,” he says wearily as he maneuvers their Coach next to a store.
She waves him on and he quickly scrambles out of the Coach and re-engages its locks.
Their search has allowed them to trace the wagon’s journey almost south to Halesford where the cargo was originally stolen. But the pieces of the puzzle are still scarce. At the moment the only coherent picture forming is of the wagon itself. People don’t know who was driving or who else was in the wagon; they know the direction it came from and its appearance.
“Red as my son’s hair.”
“Red with an odd black marking.”
“Mighta been red. Mighta had a symbol. Don’t rightly remember.”
It is the symbol that Rainier is interested in. One fellow had volunteered—after a threat or two, “It looked like one of those old merchant symbols. Er, here.” He’d drawn them a rough sketch of it, then said, “Try Lord Tarand off Hope Way. He’s the local records-keeper.”
Here they are, in a run-down business district at a building that looks like it could collapse at any minute. That the town has not cleared this area or attempted reconstruction tells him a great deal about the state of things. Halaway, where he lives with Surreal, is of a similar size and population. Sylvia, Halaway’s Queen, would have a fit if any part of Halaway wasted away in the throes of dereliction like this place.
He knocks on the door. A voice says shakily, “Come.”
“Excuse me, are you Lord Tarand?”
“Yes, Prince.” An old Warlord eases out from behind a desk stacked with papers and books. “Can I be of assistance?”
“I need some information about local merchant guilds. Perhaps all the guilds in Ciraea.”
“There are none now,” the Warlord says as he grabs the edge of a stack to steady himself. Rainier offers an arm and lets the man direct him over to a shelf. He talks as he pulls at bindings. “Merchants’ guilds were disbanded some centuries ago by Phaedra.”
His eyebrows shoot up. “Why?”
“Who knows why Phaedra does what she does.” A cloud of dust makes them both cough. “Here we are.”
He carefully cradles the book handed to him. “What is it?”
“A planner given to me by an old friend. Dead now. It might be useful to you.”
“I know that the merchant might have painted his symbol on his wagon.”
“Likely, son. The mark of the Guild was required on all transportation of merchandise.”
He opens the book and riffles a few pages. “Are the marks in here?”
The Warlord chuckles and slowly makes his way back to his desk. “Somewhere. Good luck.”
Rainier calls in the piece of paper with the hastily drawn symbol and takes a seat in a dusty chair. He sighs and starts with page one.
Hell’s fire. What’s taking Rainier so long?
Surreal knows that she is officially past grumpy—and bored on top of that. Just when she levers herself up, the door of the Coach opens. Rainier grunts and drags himself inside.
He tosses a piece of paper into her lap. She picks it up, stares at it. He has written a word across the bottom: the name of a town.
Surreal looks at Rainier. “Havenstry. Why am I not surprised?” Neither is he, if his look is anything to go by. How fitting that they circle back to the starting point.
An hour and one hot meal later, when they arrive at the Rose & Thorn Inn, the Mistress takes one look at them—their disheveled clothes and tired expressions—and welcomes them inside. “You’re back in town?” she asks politely.
“Looks like it, sugar,” Surreal answers.
Rainier clears his throat. “Do you have rooms available, Lady?”
“Yes,” she replies. “Right this way.”
If Havenstry is hiding a band of rogues, then their hostess is obviously unwilling to give the secret away. The witch leads them with a grave and business-like air to the second floor and rooms for the night.
Rainier steps into the shop to which he’d been directed, brushing off raindrops from his sleeves.
“Is there something I can help you with, Prince?”
A Prince, middle-aged by Dhemlan standards, wipes his hands on his trousers and leans against the shop counter. Rainier gives the place a quick glance, noting doors and potential weapons. An Opal-shield thrums against his skin, just under his clothes. It’s always best to be prepared. Yaslana had pounded that into his head on more than one occasion. His fingers automatically probe his side, searching for a bruise that has long since faded.
“I suppose so. I’m looking to borrow a wagon.”
“This is my Great Uncle’s business. I’m just minding things—the heavy rain always bothers his joints.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I am in a bit of a hurry. I’ve got some family antiques coming down river in another day and I need a way to transport them home.”
“Most folks use a Coach for that.” The Prince looks only mildly interested in his affairs. Rainier is aware of the suspicion which he is being weighed against.
He offers his humblest smile. “I can’t afford a Coach. Trust me, I wish I had that kind of money.”
That earns him a snort and a mutter of “Don’t we all?”
“The furniture isn’t going far, about three towns over.” He takes a wild shot in the dark. “Everybody in Havenstry said this was the place to go for a decent rate.”
The man sighs. “I’d have to speak with Uncle Tomas.”
“Can I at least see what you’ve got? I’d hate to make an arrangement only to find that all my things won’t fit under the canopy.”
The Prince laughs. “C’mon then. They’re around the back.”
The man locks the front door. Rainier follows him through a side exit of the store and they dash to a shelter behind a gate. The man tells him, motioning him forward, “We’ve got three available right now.” There are four wagons, two on each side of the large barn. One is missing an axle and a set of tools are scattered about it in the straw.
Rainier tosses a ball of witchlight into the air to proceed him as he walks around the wagons. “I can see that. What happened to the fourth?”
A hesitation. “It threw a wheel a few weeks back. Tomas insists on working on ’em himself, so when it’ll get fixed is anyone’s guess.”
He nods, strolling along. The musty smell of old hay rises to meet him. He gives a quick inspection to two wagons, satisfied to see the markings on the side. Meanwhile he chatters on about the unorthodox size of an old hall clock he recently inherited from a rich distant aunt—things that would bore any man. The Prince watches him silently.
Rainier is working his way to the far-side of the third wagon. Before he can get close enough to take a look at the fourth, to see the extent of the damage, the Prince interrupts his perusal. “The store can’t stay closed for long, Prince. Will these work?”
He places a hand on the third wagon and nods. “I believe so.”
“All right. Come back to the front and I’ll take down your information.”
Shit. Well, maybe he can slip into the barn later tonight. “Fine.”
As they walk out of the barn, Rainier tucks his hands into his jacket pockets. Yes, he definitely thinks that he has found a major clue. Now it is only a matter of collecting evidence.
The moon is full. Rainier’s thoughts stray as he waits, sight-shielded in the shadows. Surreal isn’t due for her moontime for another week and a half. Rainier wonders who will have to convince the snarly witch to give up the hunt—if it’s not completed by then. He suspects Daemon will be much more effective at that—and if not, then one quick note to the Warlord Prince of Ebon Rih shall suffice. He grins to himself at the thought of Surreal’s pissed look when Lucivar stomps in and tosses her over his shoulder. He would like a ring-side seat if the Eyrien plans to pitch her into the nearest body of water. But not too close, because Surreal’s aim with her stiletto is very accurate.
No one moves around the store or the structure at the back of the property. Rainier slips over to the barn and inside, dropping his sight shield. He approaches the half-leaning, dismantled wagon and uses the soft glow of witchlight to inspect the damage. Broken axle, definitely. It must have landed in a pothole, to skew so badly. He does a slow prowl. The witchlight causes something to glint. After a moment of locating the source, he crouches to fish out a piece of gold cloth from between two slats. It’s torn, heavy material similar to the kind Surreal had pointed out in Stella’s Thread Shop.
The barn door creaks. Rainier instantly goes still, senses alert and straining.
“You shouldn’t have come back,” a hard voice states roughly. “Trespassing on private property is an offense in this town.”
Rainier vanishes the piece of cloth and straightens. When he slowly and carefully walks into view, it is with an equally hard expression. “I wanted another look at these wagons.”
“I’m sure you did. But you are still trespassing… Prince.”
He bares his teeth in an unsympathetic smile. “You didn’t give me your name. I gave you mine this afternoon.”
The Prince shifts. “It wasn’t your real name. Everybody knows a Warlord Prince is staying at the Rose & Thorn.” A stranger and a threat—those words are left unsaid but understood.
“Then you also know who employs me.”
The man gives a short, sharp nod before saying, “Matters little, though. You’re on my property and you’re snooping. I don’t appreciate that, even if he thinks it’s his right.”
Rainier will do the Prince the favor of not repeating those ill-fated words to Sadi.
“I don’t doubt that you do, but the rogues are serious business.” The man goes still and that’s all the confirmation Rainier needs. He steps forward, acting on a gut instinct. “I’ve traced the thief in Halesford to these wagons,” he says quietly.
The other man remains silent.
“Now, we can do this the hard way… and that is a way that I don’t prefer. I have no desire to fight but I will.”
“I won’t fight you. I’d be stupid to.”
He nods. “So we’ll do this the easy way.” Rainier calls in a token and hands it to the man. “I am sure that you know who to pass this along to.” Then he slowly turns on his heel, walks out of the barn, sight-shielding again, and effectively disappears into the night.
Eyan turns the burnished gold token over in his hand. Each side is stamped with the initials S.D. He slips it into his jacket pocket, uneasy. He wonders if Jakob will understand what it means, almost certain that the Warlord Prince will.
The Prince decides to wait until morning to deliver the message.
The bartender grunts and points to the kitchen. The Prince indicates that he does not feel comfortable intruding on a witch’s territory. Lawl shrugs, wipes his hands on a towel and disappears behind a swinging door. Jakob comes out a moment later, covered in flour.
Eyan eyes him. “You drop a bag?”
“No,” the young man groans. “Don’t ask.”
He does not mince words. “We’ve got to talk—privately.”
Jakob nods and leads him out of an back exit of the Inn. They stop some distance down the alleyway. The sound of a bustling morning—people walking and talking, carriages riding past—filters to them from the street ahead.
Eyan takes a deep breath and starts at the beginning. When he finishes, the Warlord Prince is blank-faced and silent. He pulls out the token and hands it to Prince Jakob. He knows that fear is apparent on his face as he says, “This is the beginning, Jak. We’ve been found.”
Jakob clenches his fist around the token, shaking. Any fool would think that he is afraid. He isn’t.
Anger runs hot in his blood. Jakob feels the Warlord Prince in him coming to the forefront, acknowledging this… message for what it is.
A warning—and a subtle challenge.
He pushes away from the alley wall outside of the inn.
He ignores the frantic call, ignores everything but the need to face his opponent.
“Jakob, come back!”
Eyan catches his arm. His response is almost violent. The Prince backs away, watching him.
“Don’t stop me,” he warns with a growl. “Don’t get in my way.”
“You’re not thinking. You can’t—”
“I CAN!” he rages. It is difficult to push past the red clouding his vision in order to see Eyan clearly; he tries, though, to speak to his old friend with a measure of control. “The bastard wants to target somebody? Fine, then I’ll walk onto the field.”
“No, Jak, no. Sadi will kill you.”
“Do you want him to come after you—or Jyl? Your kids?”
Eyan swallows hard, face pale. “No.” The answer is rough.
“Then I’ll do this. Whether or not I end up dead, someone has to step up to the line. Phaedra can’t make us submit. And this Prince sure has Hell won’t scare us into submission either. I won’t let him.” He turns away. “Go home to your family, Eyan.”
“May the Darkness have mercy on you, Jakob.”
The Darkness hasn’t been kind to Jakob yet. He doubts that that the next few hours will make any difference.
*You have a visitor… from Ciraea.*
Not Surreal or Rainier then. And the butler would have announced a member of Phaedra’s Court—or the Queen herself—quite differently.
*Take a message. I am unavailable.*
There is a hesitation. *The Warlord Prince is quite insistent that he speak with you, Sir. He says that you’ve been expecting him.* Refuses to leave is implied in the butler’s agitated tone.
Daemon pauses, his pen poised over a letter. He straightens and vanishes the items off of his desk. *Send this Prince in then,* he croons. Sadi settles into his chair and steeples his fingers, gold eyes fixed on the door of his temporary study.
The young man leads with his temper, not bothering to knock. A puppy lacking manners. Daemon waits to see if the Warlord Prince will cross the line and initiate battle rather than a discussion. When the other male stops mere inches from the edge of his desk, jaw working, Daemon says nothing.
Gold eyes, black hair, tan skin. Typical coloring of the long-lived races—a native of Dhemlan, most likely. The fool cannot be more than a few centuries old, judging by his audacity to ignore caution.
“Daemon Sadi,” the man bites out.
That sneer pricks his temper. Balls-and-sass is one thing but… “Prince,” he answers, voice silky.
“Jakob.” A subtle pause. “Of Havenstry.”
“Very well. You seem to be under the impression that I wish to speak with you, Prince. Why is that?”
The man gives no reply. Daemon’s nostrils flare, the only sign of tension, when an object is tossed onto his desk. It rolls in a half-circle before falling flat. The SaDiablo token he’d given Rainier.
“You challenge, I answer,” snarls the Warlord Prince named Jakob.
A chilling rage builds in his veins. He barely manages to hold onto his control and not lash out. “How foolish of you then. Do you know what I am?” he asks too softly.
The young man’s face remains hard. “I know.” He adds just as softly, “And I also know that only a coward stays blind to the truth.”
The air is bitingly cold on both sides of the desk. Daemon’s temper strains at its leash. He is tempted to give this infant a taste of his true rage—knows that he cannot. Not yet.
Instead the silence stretches, currents of vicious male anger choking the room. Daemon slowly uncoils his hands, placing them flat against his blackwood desk, nails biting into its surface. It is a poor substitute for flesh.
That this Prince Jakob does not feel fear either speaks highly of his stupidity or a stupid carelessness that no warrior can afford. Is this man a warrior? He is a rogue—of that much Sadi is certain. A dark-Jeweled Warlord Prince, young and unleashed. Dangerous.
Finally, the young male takes a step back and the tension breaks. He informs the Black-Jeweled Warlord Prince, “I won’t waste another second of your valuable time. You will help Ciraea, or you won’t. Until then,” he snarls, “stay out of my territory!”
Daemon would be amused if he weren’t fighting the need to reduce this insolent brat to ashes. The puppy stakes a claim on his land. Ludicrous.
Yes, this Prince must be very stupid or have balls of gigantic proportions. No matter. Sadi’s are bigger and certainly more lethal.
The butler is standing by the open study door—as if on cue—to escort the uncouth guest away. Daemon lets Jakob go. The Warlord Prince has foolishly provided him with a face and name on which to prey.
A rogue among rogues.
Some minutes later, as Daemon is standing and slipping on his jacket, the butler re-appears, the Warlord’s psychic scent screaming pissed. Daemon wonders if this particular Warlord was selected and trained personally by Beale. He also idly wonders if the man tried to toss the Warlord Prince out on his ass, regrets that he won’t ask. He tells the Purple Dusk Warlord instead, “Contact Rainier and Surreal. Tell them to arrive at the Queen’s residence in two hours’ time.” By the look in the other man’s eyes, he understands that this visit to Phaedra will be unannounced.
Then the Warlord Prince of Dhemlan strides from his study, eyes hard chips of gold.
Jakob bursts through the Inn doors an hour past midnight. He reeks of strong drink; his clothes are askew, eyes wild. Theia grabs his arm as he passes by, but he snarls and twists away from her.
“Jakob?” Quiet, easy. Concerned.
The man shudders and jams a hand through his uncombed hair. His words are barely intelligible. “Got-gotta go.”
Her mouth stretches in a smile out of habit though Theia do not feel happy. “Bed’s a good idea, Jak,” she says softly. “You’ll have a headache come morning.”
“No,” Jakob replies shortly. He moves like an old man—or a man who has endured a beating. She reaches for him again, automatically. His shoulder twitches away. Theia’s hand drops back to her side.
“What’s the matter?”
The Warlord Prince leans against an arm braced on the hallway wall. “I need to leave the Inn.”
That painful lurch in her chest must be her heart. “What? Jakob, no—”
“So sorry, Theia. I’m so sorry.”
“Jak, it’s okay. Whatever it is…”
His soft confession is “I saw Sadi today.”
She swallows hard, mute. No. “Jakob.” It’s a whisper.
“I know” is his only damning reply. And he moves away, then, even farther—head bowed and resolute. She watches him go.
At dawn, she is holding a full, cold cup of tea between her hands, staring at nothing. The Inn creaks and groans into awareness for the new day. Few would notice but there is a conspicuous absence about the Rose & Thorn now. She feels that difference—that missing piece—in her very bones.
Jakob has left.
“Morning, ma’am!” greets the kitchen girl on her way to warm the ovens for early morning baking.
Theia closes her eyes.
He didn’t say goodbye.
“If you have a problem that you cannot handle, Lady, you come to me. That is the standing agreement between the Queens and the Warlord Prince of Dhemlan.”
Phaedra’s skin is pale though she gives no sign of nerves. Her Steward is sweating profusely, her current Consort conspicuously absent and the Master of the Guard out on Queen’s business.
Sadi is very still as he addresses Ciraea’s Queen. Surreal and Rainier are in the back of the room like idle spectators. They know when to let Prince Sadi deal with matters—quietly guarding his back, just in case. Surreal’s hand opens and closes, empty. The witch is clearly itching for a weapon.
“I know you are a busy man, Prince—and I still retain the right to defend my own people.” Phaedra’s voice is cool and unwavering. She never looks to her Steward or any of her guards.
Daemon lets the silence stretch until Lord Reed whimpers quietly from the corner. “You are the Queen of Ciraea, a province in my Territory. As of now, you will pull your men from the search for the rogues.”
“My males will be at your disposal, of course, should you require… assistance.”
He slides his hands from his trouser pockets, the Black Jewel ring on his hand catching the light. The jewel around Sadi’s neck glows, too, from a fire within. “I doubt that I will,” he croons. The other males in the room flinch. Then Sadi fixes his sleepy gaze on the Steward. “All fiscal accounts documenting the Queen’s reign for the last five decades will be delivered to the Keep at Ebon Askavi. Everything, Lord Reed. I don’t care if it’s a dining receipt. You have three days.”
“Yes, Prince,” the man stammers.
Daemon pivots and glides to the entrance of the main audience hall. Surreal and Rainier shadow him. He remarks, almost casually, “—And Phaedra? I wouldn’t suggest departing Ciraea anytime soon.” His eyes remain cold and glazed. “It would be my pleasure to add you to the hunt.”
Queen Phaedra sways but says nothing.
The Warlord Prince of Dhemlan exits.
Reed approaches his Queen on unsteady legs and slips a hand beneath her arm for support.
“To my room, Lord Reed.”
“Yes, Phae,” he answers quietly. They walk in brittle silence, the cold in the air from Sadi’s rage still lingering. He guides her to a plush loveseat, newly purchased, in her parlor.
Phaedra turns her eyes—no longer cool, now terrified—to him. “What has changed?” she asks him.
Everything, he doesn’t say. You. Me. What happened to Honor, Phae? he mourns silently.
“My Queen, an intelligence report arrived last night. Sadi has unearthed one of the rogues.”
“So the bastard is siding with the males?” Her voice is all bitterness.
“I do not presume to know what the Warlord Prince of Dhemlan plans.”
Phaedra turns her head from him at that. For a moment, she is quiet. He notices that her hands are clutched tightly in her lap. His own fingers ache in sympathy.
“Sadi will remove me from the people, Warlord,” she tells him in a hollow voice. “I might have had more years here.” Then she turns dark, angry eyes on him. He fights the urge to step back. “The rogues have caused this—gotten exactly what they connived at. I don’t care how you do it, but find out Sadi’s nameless rogue. I want his head.”
“Phaedra,” he tries to explain, heart pounding, “we’ve been ordered out of it, we can’t—”
“We WILL!” she hisses. “I will, if you won’t. Have Prince Nyx return immediately.”
“Phae, please, listen to me!”
“No other land will take me, after this. If I cannot be Queen,” she states, “then my gift is forfeit.”
He shakes his head, goes down on one knee though it hurts to do so. “Lady…”
Her face softens, and she touches his face with long, delicate fingers. “You have been loyal to me, Reed. You have served me well. For that I am grateful.” She tells him gently, “It matters not how the end comes now, my dear—only that it does. Grant me this one last wish.”
He drops his head under her hand, heart aching because he loves this woman. Always has, always will—whether or not she returns that love.
“Yes, my Queen,” he concedes. “It shall be so.”
- [BJT Big Bang] The Rogue of Ciraea (masterpost) – from March 5, 2011
- The Rogue of Ciraea – Preface – from March 3, 2011
- The Rogue of Ciraea – Epilogue – from January 29, 2011
- The Rogue of Ciraea – Chapter Six (2/2) – from January 23, 2011
- The Rogue of Ciraea – Chapter Six (1/2) – from January 18, 2011