I had picked a side. But it didn’t mean I was willing to embrace it. I was still determined to stop my brother any way I could.
Even if it meant becoming a traitor myself.
If I find him proof, he can go back to Commander Nyx. And that was all I cared about. Because as long as he was in the palace, he was at risk. And some part of me really did want to believe what he said about King Lucius. Because after all the man had done to his sons, anything was possible.
On my three days off for each of the next two weeks, I scoured every inch of the old king’s rooms. Blayne hadn’t transitioned over to King Lucius’s chambers—after all, he was still in mourning—so nothing had yet been moved. The guards in the Crown hall only monitored its entrance, and since my chamber was a part of it, they never sought to check beyond.
I didn’t need a key. I broke the lock on the second try. Rusting the metal until it cracked with just the slightest casting necessary. No one would ever suspect a thing.
And they didn’t. Blayne was too busy in his war chambers, meeting with his board of advisors and Darren, whose counsel served to advise those in all of Combat with the other two Colored Robes following his lead. I didn’t even miss not being a part of it; it was like Derrick said, now that I had my own mission, the envy was gone. My time was too busy spent searching, silently thanking the gods for sparing my brother and me thus far.
And praying we found whatever it was we were searching for before they found us.
But I didn’t find a thing.
“The king would never keep the documents in his chambers!” Derrick admonished me one afternoon in the stables when I came to report my findings. “A man as underhanded as him? He probably burned them all.”
“Then why are you still searching?” I threw up my hands in frustration. “Why are you still here? Go back, Derrick. Go back to the keep before they catch you.” My voice broke, and I punched at the wall with my fist. “I can’t keep doing this.”
“No one is asking you to help,” was his cold reply.
I stormed off, hating my brother even more than before. When Darren came to sit beside me that evening I was too busy stabbing my venison to notice.
“Ryiah?” The prince’s hand slipped over my own. “What’s wrong? You haven’t touched your food in days.”
“Nothing.” I said the word bitterly, tearing off a forkful of roast and shoving it into my mouth.
“Did I do something to upset you?” The pain in his voice lanced at my heart. “I…” He lowered his voice so that his brother couldn’t hear us over the other advisors and Council at the table. “I had the servants deliver that potion, but I…” His neck tinged red. “If that’s w-what you are upset… I d-don’t expect… If you aren’t ready...”
My whole face flushed. “I-it’s not that.”
“Are you sure?” His eyes bore into mine until I was forced to look away, traitor that I was.
I fumbled for an excuse. “It’s Wren.” She was certainly a part of it. The lie flowed easily enough. “Every night your brother talks about Pythus, and I can’t help thinking of her.”
Darren’s gaze drew dark and his hand tightened on my own. “Soon, Ryiah, we will catch every last one of those rebels. Blayne has me scouring all Marius’s reports for something he might have missed. He was so thorough, but I’ve been talking with the other advisors, and I think he might have been going about everything wrong. What if they aren’t in the South?”
My breath caught in my throat as he continued: “We always thought that’s where they were. Because of all the attacks. But maybe that’s what they wanted us to think. Maybe their base is in the north.”
“YOUR MAJESTY, WE HAVE A TRAITOR IN OUR MIDST.”
I slammed back in my chair, wooden legs scraping against the floor.
Mage Mira barged into the dining hall, leading two of her favorite mages and Derrick. His head was hung and his arms were dripping blood, all of his weight shifted to one leg.
My heart slammed against my ribs so loud I couldn’t hear the next words she shouted. NO. GODS, NO.
King Blayne shot out of his chair, his brother a second later. Blayne’s eyes flitted to mine and then Mira’s, and then back again. An inscrutable expression.
Darren staggered back, mirroring my movements only a moment before.
“We caught this one in the war chamber.” Mira had her men jerk my brother forward, and I heard the whimper as he was thrown to his knees, a sickening crack as his bad leg slammed against the marble tile. DERRICK. “He was making a list. Looking at the books. Keeping a count of each city’s regiment. Writing names.” She spat the words and a drop of saliva hit my brother’s shirt. He made no move to wipe it away—he couldn’t, his hands were bound behind his back.
Lists? Numbers? My pulse stopped as the facts came into play. My brother had never been looking for proof. His whole story about King Lucius was a lie. He had been gathering information for the rebels on the Crown the entire time. And he had been using me to get it.
Betrayal cut across my chest like a knife. And what was worse? My heart still bled for him. Even when I knew the truth. Even when it was staring me in the face. “It has to be a mistake!”
“It’s not.” Mira’s eyes lobbed daggers at my own. “And for all we know you were helping him! He’s your brother, seems to me a traitor wouldn’t fly far from the nest.”
“If you ever accuse my betrothed of treachery again,” Darren’s voice rang out low and ominous without a second glance my way. His fists were white on the back of his chair. “You will be disrobed and tossed in a cell to rot. Do you understand, mage?” He didn’t even address her by her name.
A hot flush of shame threatened to drown me in air.
“That’s enough, Darren.” Blayne’s eyes were glued to my face. “Mira, have your men take him to the dungeons. Ryiah, Darren, you will come with Mage Mira and me. To the war chambers. Now. The rest of you, continue your meal. You breathe a word of the rebel’s presence to anyone, and I will have you thrown in a cell right along side.”
“Ryiah.” The king met my eyes, and his ice-cold gaze bore into my own. Even though he was a good deal younger, I could see his father staring right back. Lucius had trained his son well.
I could only hope it was still Blayne on the other side.
“Did you know your brother was a traitor to the Crown?”
Deep, slow breath. No sudden movements. Shock plastered on my lips. Terror in my eyes. Fury and betrayal burning in my lungs. “No, I-I didn’t.”
It’s not a lie. It’s not a lie. I thought he was a good rebel. I thought he cared about the kingdom. I didn’t know he was helping prepare the Caltothians for a war.
“I told you, brother!” Darren’s voice whipped out and struck his brother’s accusation in a rage. “Ryiah would never betray us!”
“If you can’t keep that temper in check, I will have you tossed out of this chamber!” Blayne snapped. “Gods all know your beautiful betrothed can do no wrong. Any fool can see the way you look at her. But I am not blinded by love, Darren, and I am asking her a question. As her king. It would do you well to remember your place.”
“It would do you well to remember she tried to save our father!” Darren shouted. “Ryiah tried to save Wren! She was attacked in Mahj! You tell me I am blinded by love, but she would be the last person in the world to betray the Crown, and it would do you well to remember I answer to you as your Black Mage, not a servant.”
“ONE MORE WORD, BROTHER.” Blayne’s voice boomed across the room. “ONE MORE WORD AND I WILL HAVE YOU THROWN IN THE DUNGEONS TOO. I AM YOUR KING, AND YOU WILL NOT SPEAK TO ME LIKE THAT AGAIN.”
Darren wrapped his arms around my waist. He didn’t say another word, but his stance was a statement of its own. I shivered in his arms and prayed the brothers’ fight had kept Blayne from noticing my lie.
“I say we string the rebel up like the lowborn scum he is—” Mira’s eyes made a not-so-obvious slant toward my own, daring me to counter her claim. “And then feed him hot coals. One at a time. It has been a while since the people saw a traitor choke on his own deceit. If I recall, the screams are something unlike any other. While they last.”
Darren’s arms and the look in Blayne’s eyes were all that kept me from tearing her apart, limb-by-limb. Fingernails dug into the palm of my hands, and I imagined it was her skin instead.
“Please,” my voice came out a croak. “Let me talk to Derrick first. You don’t know anything about the rebels. M-maybe he has information—”
“Which we will get after a couple hours of torture,” Mira drawled.
“How would you know?” I countered. She was so eager to get to my brother, and a part of me knew it was for the sins of my past. “All the other rebels have never succumbed to questioning, they chose death or found ways to take their life—”
“And maybe they haven’t been questioned by me.”
“Maybe it’s time to try something else.” I slipped out of Darren’s hold to fall to my knees in front of his brother.
“Ryiah—” Darren tried to protest but I shook my head.
If I had to beg, I would. “Please.” My head shot up to look at the king. Please don’t be your father. “H-he’s so young. Derrick didn’t know…If he confesses to his crime? I-if I can get him to tell you who they are, where they are…”
“If h-he does all that…Can you spare my little brother’s life?” I emphasized the term, hoping to draw on Blayne’s relationship to his own.
The king folded his arms, his steel gaze unwavering. “For you, Ryiah, three days. If you can get your brother to confess, if you can get him to give my men the information you claim, I will consider it payment for his life.”
“Thank you. Oh gods, thank—”
“But, Ryiah,” Blayne’s voice was sharp. “I give Mira permission to start her methods the second day.”
My heart hammered against my ribs, and Darren knelt down to help me stand, shooting a glower at his brother. “You don’t have to scare her,” he snapped. “Ryiah’s brother isn’t a bad person. Whatever fool decision he made, he’s young. She’ll get him to talk.”
“You’d be surprised what kind of villain can reside under a person’s skin.” Blayne’s tone was curt. “Or have you forgotten our father so soon?”
“Derrick is hardly—”
“Anybody is capable of anything.” The king’s gaze flitted to mine and then back to his brother. His expression was dark. “It would do the two of you well to remember that. Do not let your love for anyone blind you from the truth. Those are the ones we stand to lose the most, when they betray us.”
Mira and Darren led me through a series of halls, following a torch-lit corridor, passing stone stairs and rusted gates and all sorts of foul smells, before we finally reached the end. Through a narrow tunnel we came across a final set of doors bound by iron bars and a set of two guards in King’s Regiment garb.
The palace dungeons.
“She’s not going in alone!” Mira snarled. “She could be plotting his escape!”
“Do you not trust your own mages against one shackled soldier?” Darren gave the woman a hard look. “The rebels never responded to an inquisitor. Ryiah’s brother will be less willing to talk with anyone looming over their conversation.”
“It isn’t right—”
“Mira.” The prince swore. “I am not happy about finding a rebel in our midst, either, but there is nowhere that boy can escape. As your superior, and your prince, I am asking you to stand down.”
The mage shot me a sour look as she gave the two others a nod, indicating they should let me in. I swallowed as the men turned the heavy key into the door’s lock, praying the guilt wasn’t written all across my face. Did Mira see it?
The guilt was eating away at my lungs, but in that moment there was nothing to stop me from seeing my brother and convincing him to take Blayne’s deal. Nothing. I would see him live.
The door swung open, and the second it did the terrible scent of decay and fresh urine was so overpowering I had to fall back. My hand was covering my mouth and nose, but it didn’t make a difference. I felt as if I had inhaled a cloud of death and rot; the air was so thick I could feel the particles pressing against my skin.
Iron bars separated ten cells between the door and the wall. Manacles were secured to the bars inside. Blood stained the ground beneath, along with seeping buckets of what looked like old human waste.
Then I spotted my brother. The only prisoner, furthest from the door. His leg was sprawled out on the dirty floor, and he was clutching his ribs. Blood stained the rags that barely covered his form, nothing more than an old potato sack, threadbare and worn. Of course they would have made him change; they could never allow a prisoner to wear the uniform of a guard.
Not three feet from where I stood was an iron chair, covered in spikes on every inch of its surface—even the arm rests.
A whimper escaped my lips. The Prisoner’s Chair. I’d read about it in the history books at the Academy. It was a longstanding favorite of inquisitors. Criminals were strapped in and then straps were tightened. The pain was supposed to be terrible, but most wouldn’t die. They would writhe in agony, for hours holding their breath wishing the pain to end. And then they would be removed.
They would bleed to death in their cells. If they were lucky. If they survived there were other methods far worse. Mice trapped against the flesh that would eat a person out from the inside. Devices that would stretch and then rip the limbs out of their sockets. Mutilation. Fire. Hot metal poured onto screaming flesh.
The kings of Jerar had many ways to interrogate their criminals. Most methods were usually too complex to waste the time. A normal crime that warranted death was done by hanging. But most prisoners didn’t carry secrets that could reveal a large grouping of traitors to the Crown.
“Derrick!” I threw myself against the bars of his cell, trying to hold my breath against the stench.
“What are you doing here?” My brother’s cough was labored.
“What do you mean?” My fists clung to the iron rods. “I came here to convince you to turn them in.”
Derrick said nothing.
“DERRICK!” My arms rattled the bars. “YOU HAVE TO TURN THEM IN!”
“I’m not telling the Crown anything.” His voice was empty, toneless. “You know this, Ryiah.”
“How can you say that?” My hands hurt from how hard I was gripping the steel. “They are going to have you killed, Derrick!” Tears were stinging my eyes as I fell to the ground outside his cell. “You have to tell.”
“If I have to die, at least it won’t be their blood on my hands.”
“Their blood? What about Alex? Our parents? What about me, Derrick?” My voice raised wildly. “Do we mean nothing to you?”
“I would give my life just to keep the four of you safe.” He raised his gaze to mine, and his fists were clenched tight. “Just as I would for that of my comrades.”
“WHY?” My voice boomed across the chamber, and I didn’t care if Darren and Mira heard me. “WHY WOULD YOU PROTECT A GROUP OF TRAITORS? SELLING OUR COUNTRY’S SECRETS TO A CALTOTHIAN KING?”
“You lied to me!” My fingers dug into the hard metal bars. I inhaled sharply and the stench burned at my lungs. I made myself lower my voice so it didn’t carry across. “About everything. You were never even looking for proof, were you? You just told me what you thought I needed to hear—”
He shifted his leg, and I could see how hard he was fighting to keep the pain at bay. “I wasn’t lying. King Lucius—”
“You are still lying to me now!” I bit back a scream. “And you know what is worse? I don’t even care! I begged Blayne to spare your life, Derrick, because you are my brother and I love you.” The bars groaned as I shook them again and again. “I can’t lose you. I need you to beg the king’s forgiveness and tell him everything!”
“That man isn’t my king.” My brother’s words were bitter.
“They will torture you, Derrick. And then they will kill you. They will do it in the worst way, Derrick, because you are a traitor!”
“Many great men have died the same.”
“You are a bloody pawn!” I shrieked.
“And you are a bloody fool!” he spat. “I wasn’t lying! Everything I said was true!” He lowered his voice to an angry hiss. “I was searching for proof. I may have neglected to tell you the part about getting the lists for Nyx, but that was only because I knew you would try to stop me!”
“I don’t care. I don’t care. I DON’T CARE!” My fists were beating against the metal, jagged ridges drawing blood. I lowered my voice to a snarl. “You are going to tell them EVERYTHING.” My eyes flashed steel. “Or I will.”
“No, you won’t.” My brother’s gaze matched my own. Impenetrable walls of stone.
“Would you give up your life in the palace?” His words hit my chest like a thick slab of ice. “Would you give up your prince? Would you willingly sacrifice Ian? And Ray? And all those lives in the north?” His laugh was cold. “Just to save me you would be condemning yourself. The Crown would never trust you again if they found out you knew about the rebels—”
I was choking on air.
“They might spare your life, because of him… But you will be right here alongside me. To live out your life in the dungeons, a traitor.”
He was right. My fingers slipped from the bars, and I slumped to the floor. Waves of nausea threatened to attack my lungs.
“Maybe King Blayne would spare me, but I would rather die a traitor than give up the others’ lives just to live rotting in these cells.” His next sentence cut into me worse than any blade ever could. “And you and I, we are one in the same.”
“Derrick…” I was breaking. “Please, w-what about Alex?” My voice grew higher. “Mom? D-dad?” What about me?
“I’m so sorry.” A flush of shame covered his face, and for the first time I saw emotion in his eyes. Regret. “I love you, Ry.”
“But they’ll never know!” Shards of glass were ripping me apart. Our family. “Three days, Derrick, they won’t even know until I tell them!”
“Tell them I’m sorry.” He tossed the leather cord and the copper ring clinked against the floor.
“Derrick, no!” I beat at the bars and blood sprayed across the room. “DERRICK, PLEASE!” There has to be a way!
“GUARDS!” My brother raised his voice and it cracked. “Please take my sister away.”
“DERRICK, NO!” I reached into the cell and grabbed his arm. I saw him flinch. “PLEASE, DON’T DO THIS!”
A rough pair of hands dragged me back, hauling me away from his cell.
“No!” I clawed at my captor, fingernails tearing apart skin, and the hot liquid streaming down like tears.
“Ryiah!” Another pair of hands caught me and pulled me away from the first. Garnet flashed before my vision and tears burst out like a stream, clouding the room so that I could no longer see.
“I will bring you back tomorrow,” Darren whispered.
“He’s not going to tell!” My voice was hoarse from the screams. “He’s not going to tell!” And I couldn’t either. I was a liar. And a coward.
“We need to get her out of here.” The prince’s panic was a distant call as my body crumbled in his arms. Moments later my legs and waist were lifted and swung, my head falling against something soft. Pine and cloves muffled the stench of blood and rot, but they only made it worse.
I was struggling to breathe. Cool glass was pressed against my lips and someone was begging me to drink. I opened my mouth to protest and a bitter liquid hit my tongue. Derrick. A steady stream that forced me to swallow, again and again as pungent sweetness and herbs assaulted my lungs.
The deafening pounding of my pulse slowly gave way to a lull. The frantic struggle fell from my limbs.
A sense of calamity, and then… I never remembered the rest.